Pete scanned the atrium for a vacant seat. The hospital had recently invested in wider, squashier, blue ones: more comfortable. He had an hour to wait before the host-human’s annual physical; time to slow, then stop his second and third hearts. Human physiology has a certain lag to it. Best to adjust with caution rather than lose consciousness and have someone groping around with a stethoscope before one was ready.
The next thing he did was a mistake. He sat down next to a bag lady – a female human who either chose not to wash or lacked the opportunity to, and therefore stank to high heaven. She was old and obese, wearing layer upon layer of clothing, including a frayed, overlarge woollen item. Elastic bands above her wrists kept the garment from dangling over her hands. As he watched, she lifted her skirt to scratch her knee. It was grossly swollen.
“I saw a doctor about it,” she said. “He didn’t do nothing.”
Too late, Pete realised he had allowed her a conversational opening. The smell coming from her would have been rank, even to a genuine human. To Pete, whose olfactory nerves were ten or twelve times more efficient, it was unbearable. He switched focus from heart-slowing to the gag reflex, suppressing it, fast
“I was nanny to the stars, you know,” the old woman confided. All them Carry On chaps – I nursed all their kids…!
Force of habit, Pete accessed the supplementary database lodged just behind his pituitary gland. The names she was continuing to reel off were those of once-famous British stars but one of them, at least, had been gay. No record of progeny. If she was lying about him she was probably lying – or deluded – about all the rest. Not that it mattered. He was still sat next to her, with no alternative seating, and she was obviously planning to run through every single star of sixties comedy and tell him how affectionate they had felt towards her and how much they had admired her childcare technique. The next worst thing to a human stinker is a human bore.
“I see things,” she said, suddenly, half an hour later. He would have suppressed his hearing, but he would need it to hear his name called by the Receptionist.
“Yes?” Why had he said yes? A single word was encouragement to a human bore.
“Shall I tell you one of my visions?”
No, he thought. “What sort of visions?” his treacherous human host-mind was asking.
She leant in towards him. He suppressed the give-away nose-wrinkle of disgust. “I seed the world ending.”
“In exactly three days and fifty-four minutes. We’ll all be blown to smithereens, my dearie.” Something about the way she said it alerted something in the alien part of his brain.
“Where did you see it?”
“In a dream, dearie.”
“But aren’t you frightened?”
“No,” she said. Something like sanity crept into her eyes. “If you were me, would you be averse to dying?”
Out of curiosity, he accessed his database again, instructing it to run on ‘future’ rather than ‘past’. To his horror, the human brain showed him image after image of fire and destruction. He saw buildings falling and people screaming, in their millions. Now that he had directed his attention to it he clearly felt the build up of forces deep within the earth’s crust.
He supposed, if he had been an actor in one of those films of the sixties – the sci-fi kind where asteroids headed towards the planet, monsters rose from the deep or killer vegetation took root and started to chomp their way through the population – he would at this point have been deciding to call the Prime Minister, or even standing up in this crowded atrium and shouting “You’re all about to die, and there’s nowhere for you to go. Your race, backward as yet, possesses neither star-ships nor space-charts, and even if you did you lack the ability to comprehend disaster and act fast enough to evacuate.
The bag lady was asleep, having slid down her blue plastic chair. The fat, grubby arms on the wooden rests were the only thing that stopped her from landing on the floor. An ancient mobile phone fell out of her pocket and landed on the floor between her feet with a clatter, cracking the glass. Human politeness dictated that he should pick it up and hand it to her, germs and all.
Instead, he reactivated both his supplementary hearts, diverted power to his ante-pituitary database, magnified power to paltry human muscle-tissue. His craft was concealed 25.7 miles from here, in an old factory on waste ground. He had a car, in the hospital car park, but he would leave it where it was.
It would be quicker, now, to run.