It rained. I remember that much, even though most of my memories from that time have been mercifully removed. I take my eyes from the television and ease myself out of my chair.
“Stop muttering, you old fart,” Jimmy shouts out from across the room. He’s not really called Jimmy, of course, just as I’m not really Frankie. Code names. I’m a sleeper agent, probably. Jimmy’s mostly asleep, except when he’s yelling at me to switch over to EastEnders.
Jimmy’s been at Dreamlands for nearly as long as I have: five years and counting. Jimmy’s eighty three and looks closer to death than any man has a right to and still be alive. He’s a survivor, is our Jimmy. Held together with gristle, meanness and sheer bloody mindedness. He used to be a train driver, and part of him still thinks he is. He probably thinks he’s on some sort of endless strike and he’s picketing a run-down nursing home in Margate. All the others turn down their hearing aids when he rambles on about decades old incidences of minor rudeness from his long suffering passengers, but I listen. I’m listening now, because the wheezing sound coming from poor old Jimmy doesn’t sound entirely natural, and I’m beginning to develop a theory about that.
Plenty have come and gone since I got here and I can tell by the slightly worried look on the faces of the staff that it’s less of a miracle and more of a bloody inconvenience that I haven’t followed them out of the door.
But I’m one step ahead. I’d been in a month when it occurred to me that people in here were sick. Not the normal sick of people who’d lived too long and were ready to go but the kind of sick you get when someone’s messing with your medication. So I stopped taking mine and started watching.
Five years, twenty four deaths, two survivors. Jimmy never sees me swap his pills for smarties every morning at breakfast, and I reckon that’s why he’s still here. I make sure the staff never clock the swap, though I doubt if all of them are in on the conspiracy.
But Jimmy’s wheezing is a concern. That’s how the others started, one by one. I didn’t mind at first. A steady stream of funerals gets you up and about and the cakes at the crematorium are certainly worth the trip. And every time someone in a better room than mine died I got to move up. After a while, though, there’s nowhere to move up to; only out.
Young Chrissy. She’s the ringleader. I’ve seen the look in her eye as she scopes out her next victim. Jimmy’s the latest, then it’ll be me. They must know about the medication by now.
I surprise her in the kitchen as she prepares a cup of tea for Jimmy. I bet that’s how she’s doing it now. Tea so strong he’ll never notice it’s laced with rat poison.
“I’m on to you, you know.”
She turns and smiles. She might be pretty if she didn’t have an evil glint in her eye. That, or too much mascara. “Hello, Freddie. Want a cuppa?”
No one human has ever said ‘cuppa’. And that’s how I know for sure.
“You’re not from round here, are you?”
She pours another cupful of the tea. I don’t see her slip the poison in but my eyesight’s not what it was. “No, love. I’m from Middlesbrough.”
Further than that, if I’m not mistaken. Much further than that.
“And what are your plans, Chrissy from Middlesbrough?”
“Me? Always wanted to be by the seaside. And I met this bloke…”
I cut her off. “Your real plans. Don’t forget I’m on to you.”
Her mask slips and I see the shrewd interior. “Ah you mean the plans for world domination? Clever. You found me out.”
My collar starts to feel tight. I’ve overplayed. She’d only be this honest if she was about to kill me. Let the victim know the full horror of his defeat.
“Where are you actually from?”
“Midd… oh hell. Why not. I’m from a planet circling a star you call 61 Cygni, about ten light years from here.”
“I knew it!”
“And we thought the best place to start our quest for world domination would be a retirement home in South East England. Sugar?”
I’m not in the mood to be distracted. “I bet by now you’ve infiltrated the government; got your hands on those nuclear codes.”
She gives me a long appraising look, as if marvelling at my perception. “Well, you know the new leader of Thanet District Council…” She leaves the implication hanging.
He’d come from nowhere. Could he…?
“Nah, just joshing. I really am from Teeside. Digestive?”
I shuffle back over to Jimmy, who’s fast asleep even though the television’s on at full volume. I turn it off and suck on my biscuit.
Rain. Something to do with the rain.
Jimmy’s funeral takes place two weeks later. For some reason the old fart had left a will, and it specified a proper burial. That means standing outside while a bunch of old railwaymen lower his slowly rotting carcass into the ground. And, being England in June the skies are grey and even with my umbrella I’m soaked. I realise it’s the first time since I entered Dreamlands that I’ve felt the rain.
Memories. Rain washed them away, rain sweeps them back, like a trigger. I’d read that sleeper agents usually come awake with a code word or a flashing image, but I can testify that a drop of water in the right place works just as well.
I’m not really supposed to be in the nursing home, I know that now. And I’m not really a sleeper agent; just an agent who because of the vagaries of the British weather found himself inexplicably asleep for five years.
Why did I think the staff were killing the residents? The hints were there. My aversion to their dreadful food and ridiculous TV isn’t anything to do with old age; it’s because I don’t belong here. And I have no access to smarties: I was swapping Jimmy’s pills with my own.
I’m the alien. I need to get on a train to London as soon as I can.
Chrissie intercepts me as I fumble for change at the ticket counter. She leans a hand on mine, and that’s when I realise we’re the same, her and me.
“Frankie. Time we went home.” I start to object but she cuts me off. “And none of that nonsense about taking over the world. You’re retired from all that, remember?”
Now that Jimmy’s gone we can watch the sci-fi channel. And I truly believe that Chrissie really does come from Middlesbrough, just like I do.
Because that’s where we landed, all those years ago.
Mark always wanted to be an astronaut but left it a bit late, so he writes fiction instead. His work can be found dotted around the internet. He has work upcoming in On The Premises, The Colored Lens, Digital Science Fiction and Storyteller.