Jim Dalton gaped down into an alien face. 'This has to stop,’ he said. ‘People are talking. They think I'm insane.’

The small, wrinkled creature returned his gaze. Its eyes, like great pea-green marbles, snatched briefly back inside its oversized head as it blinked at Jim.

'Calm yourself, Jim. I can help you.'


'You? Help me?’ said Jim with a nervous laugh. ‘I wouldn't be in this mess now if you hadn't come along.'


He glanced around the classroom wildly, sweat beading on his skin as he pulled a tiny instrument from his torn pocket. With shaking fingers, he punched some numbers into it and held it to his ear.


'Hello? Chrissy? If you're there, pick up the phone... Oh God, pick up the phone.'


'A communications device,' the little creature observed as it scampered closer. 'May I see it?'


It stretched out an unusually long arm, twelve fingers reaching forward expectantly, the chalky skin luminescent in the harsh electric light. Jim stepped away, thrusting the cell phone in his pocket as his back pressed against the door. His shirt was cold against his skin, saturated with perspiration as he stared at the alien thing with its groping arm. The door clicked shut as Jim dug his heels into the floor.


'You're in my mind... You're in my mind.' Jim squeezed his eyes shut and began to tremble. Then, as if the thought of not seeing the creature scared him even more, his eyes snapped open.


'I know you're in my mind, Teb. Aliens aren't real.'


'Then how is it you know my name, Jim?'


'I dreamed you up after the accident in the tech lab.’ Jim nodded to himself. ‘Yes. It's the only rational explanation.'


'Is that what you really believe, Jim? That I am a mere phantom constructed by the delirium of a fear-filled mind?'


Jim's breathing relaxed slightly. He straightened up and adjusted his tie that had loosened considerably after ten minutes of frenzied sprinting.


'That's exactly what I believe,' he said, wiping his brow with his sleeve. 'Now, all I have to do is take a few deep breaths, get my head together and go see Chrissy. She'll help me sort this out.'


'Chrissy can help you more than me?'


'Damn straight! She's real - you aren't.'


Teb's grey lips twisted downward into a frown. 'But Chrissy isn't here. I am. I can help.'


'Okay. Okay, you want to do this? We can do this.'


Jim looked around the office again. The black panelled walls with their multi-coloured lights and shiny surfaces made the room look a lot larger than it actually was, but it didn't take long for Jim to find what he was looking for. A low table with two plastic chairs either side stood at the end of the room.


'Sit,' Jim said. 'We're going to settle this once and for all.'


Teb shuffled over to one of the chairs and climbed into it, its strange mouth now grinning and revealing a row of clay-like cubes that could be teeth. Jim pulled back the other chair and sat down too.


'Now, they'll be here any minute, so if you've got something useful to do or say, you'd better tell me now. I'm in a heap of trouble because of your... advice so far.'


'Trouble? You didn't think that when we first met.'


'That was before I realised what you really are.'


'A phantom? A mind trick? A temporary blip in your neurones?' Teb pulled a mocking face.


'Yes.'


Without warning, Teb leapt from the chair and onto the table, but before Jim had an inkling of the danger he might be in, the little alien's fingers flicked outward, to reveal a set of talons which promptly sunk into his left arm. Jim yelled out in pain as Teb jumped back into the chair, grinning. Crimson droplets trickled to the floor and he stared at the creature, open-mouthed.


'Can a phantom of the mind do that to you?' Teb asked.


'Whatever you are, wherever you're from,' whispered Jim menacingly, the tension obvious in his voice, 'I want you gone.'


'Come, come! I wish you no harm, but you did invite me. Perhaps you should think back to the first day we met.'


Jim shook his head, clasping his arm, covering the wound. 'Do you have poison in those claws?'


Teb gurgled a laugh. 'Of course not, Jim. But perhaps you should not concern yourself with your injury. It will heal. But if the others find you... If they find us -'


The thud of a door slamming against a wall in a nearby corridor interrupted them. They both froze, staring at each other, stifling their breath. There was a momentary shuffling outside the door and a silhouette darkened the frosted window.


'Jim?' an urgent female voice whispered.


He made a rush for the door, yanked it open, and grabbed the startled girl's arm. With a finger held to his lips he dragged her inside the room and pushed the door shut.


'Jim, what the hell-'


'Quiet, Chrissy!' Jim grimaced. 'They could be outside. Were you followed?'


'Jim, I-'


'Wait a minute,’ Jim said. ‘How did you get here so quickly? I tried to call you but you must have already been on your way.'


Jim was panicking again, his eyes flicking from side to side as if he were processing a thousand thoughts at once. But those thoughts were violently blasted apart as Chrissy screamed and clapped her hands to her cheeks. Her gaze had settled on the small humanoid waddling towards her. Swallowing back another scream, she grabbed Jim's shirt as though the thin material would somehow shield her from harm.


'What is that? Is it -'


'An alien, yes... look, I'll explain everything later, that scream of yours is going to bring in the whole police force. We need to get away.'


Teb had stopped in its tracks, studying their dialogue with interest.


'An alien? A real honest to God alien?' Chrissy's wide eyes were as firmly fixed on Teb as her hands were to Dalton's sleeve.


'Wait!’ said Jim. ‘You can see him too?'


'Creepy little guy with white wrinkled skin and big bug eyes? Whatever gave you that idea?'


'Then I'm not insane.'


'I told you,' Teb interrupted.


'Quiet!' spat Jim.


'It talks? It speaks our language?' Chrissy had finally let go of his arm.


'Yes, but forget that, we're in real danger, Chrissy. We have to -'


The sound of shattering glass from another room cut him short. The disturbance was followed by the scuffling of boots and the clacking of weaponry being armed.


'The laboratory,' hissed Teb. 'Get us there quickly and all will be resolved.'


Jim stared at the creature, a cocktail of anger, fear and frustration bubbling beneath his fragile expression. He nodded reluctantly. Teb scampered to the door, reached for the handle, and as if it was as fragile as tissue paper, he pulled the door open and peered cautiously into the corridor. A second later he waved at Jim and Chrissy to follow, then scuttled out. Wherever the soldiers were, it was apparent they were holding position for the moment, and the three fugitives took great advantage of the opportunity. In less than two minutes they had made it to the school laboratory and Jim collapsed into a nervous heap after pushing the door shut behind them.


'This is C-lab, am I right?' said Chrissy, resting her hands on her knees as she caught her breath.


'Yes,' Jim shuffled backwards to rest against the wall. 'It's almost identical to B-lab where my class first started the experiment.'


'Excellent, a few simple modifications is all that's needed,' said Teb, moving towards the centre of the room to examine a tangle of copper-coloured pipes and black cables that cocooned a luminous cylinder. A soft golden light pulsated from its heart, painting bizarre shapes on the polished walls.


'We're safe in here for a while.' Jim attempted a smile. 'These doors are double-bolted from the inside. It'll take them some time to get in.'


'Good, because there's something important you should know, Jim.' Chrissy was biting her lip nervously.


Jim squinted back, suspicion in his expression. 'What?'


She paused, then glanced at the alien as it busily tampered with the strange device.


'The military sent me in here to try to reason with you. They'd rather you come out voluntarily than have to storm in here and take you by force.'


'You're going to turn us in? D'you know what they'll do?'


'It's not like that, Jim.'


'Then what is it like? People died today, Chrissy.'


'Did... Did that thing kill them?' she said, shooting another glance at Teb.


'No.' Jim sighed, staring down at the floor. 'There was an accident, a freak power surge. One minute we were looking through the viewer at the aliens, then the next minute there was a bright flash and all the meters went off the scale. Dexter tried to compensate but the whole console just blew up in his face... I couldn't do a thing about it... I-'


He fell silent for a moment, wrestling with remorse. Chrissy rested a hand on his shoulder to comfort him.


'It was an accident, Jim.'


'It was horrible, Chrissy,' he finally met her sympathetic gaze. 'All my friends were killed in that blast apart from me. I was in shock and then I saw... I saw him... Teb. I thought he was a figment of my imagination brought on by the stress of it all, but he must have been transported here through the power surge. We'd been communicating with these aliens for some time and I told them I hoped we would one day meet in person... Looks like they took me up on my invitation.'


'What happened then?'


'Well, I panicked and ran out of the building, that's when security called the military - they think that I did this. They think I'm a murderer.'


'And then you came here?'


'I was heading for the authorities to try and explain everything, but Teb followed me and persuaded me to come here. He's hoping to reverse the process and send himself back with our backup device.'


A crackle of electricity came from Teb's direction and a chemical odour soured the air. Amber light pulsed outward from the machine causing Jim to shield his eyes; Teb had finished his modifications. At the same moment that the alien stepped back from the machine, a low voice echoed through the intercom system.


'This is the E.R.T. You have thirty seconds to vacate C-lab. Failure to co-operate will result in the termination of your power supply and forcible entry.'


'I'm ready,' said Teb.


'Thirty seconds. Is there time?' Chrissy asked.


'What about me?' Jim said, panicking. 'Without you I have no evidence to prove that I didn't kill the other technicians.'


The precious seconds slipped away as they looked questioningly at each other and suddenly the voice spoke again.


'Teb, open the door. We want to help you.'


'They know your name.' Jim’s jaw dropped in shock. 'They aren't interested in me. They want you!'


With a sudden and terrifying series of thuds, equipment and display panels began to shut down until finally the lights flickered off. Teb squealed at the horror of Jim's terrible revelation and the inky dark. Withdrawing into the far corner of the lab and closing his eyes, Teb curled up into a tight ball.


'Stand back from the door,' said the intercom.


A series of faint clicking and buzzing noises came from the door until finally, it swung open. A soft white light flooded in from the corridor outside and Teb looked around to see where Jim and Chrissy were.


They had gone!


Teb looked back to the door and groaned as the E.R.T officers entered the room. There were five of them in all, scampering towards Teb, and searching the room with their large green eyes. The front one reached out a long white limb, palm upwards in a greeting of peace.


'Teb, we are so pleased you haven't hurt yourself. When the accident happened we feared the worst. Why did you run?'


'I was... Where is Jim...'


'Jim?'


'Yes, and Chrissy. They were here a moment ago.'


'No, Teb. You are confused; probably disorientated from the blast,' said one of the others. 'We've been watching the activities of two humans by the name of Jim Dalton and Chrissy Connolly for some time now, but we have never been able to communicate with them.'


'But I was with them, on Earth.'


'Only in your mind, Teb. You were the only survivor of the blast. You've projected your own feelings of survivor guilt on to two imaginary humans. It's a common occurrence after such a trauma, it will soon pass.'


'Come with us,' said the first one. 'We'll take you where you can be properly treated.'


Teb looked back at the machine in the centre of the room and as the heart-wrenching memories began to resurface with merciless clarity, he sighed and followed the others out of the lab. Today's insanity was finally over, but the scars would no doubt remain.


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