As he marched down the corridors, tucking his shirt into his trousers, he was joined by another civil servant.
“This better be important,” Bolingbroke growled. “I was in the middle of a very important meeting.”
Cleves nodded. “Sorry, HoBo,” he said, struggling to keep pace with the older man. “But we’ve got a situation.”
“That’s an understatement, don’t you think?” Bolingbroke barked, glaring at Cleves.
“I meant a situation on top of the – err – crisis.”
Horace Bolingbroke continued to glower at his pasty-faced colleague. He almost felt a smattering of sympathy for the man. At least, he would have done if the man hadn’t used his abhorred nickname. “What is it then?”
Cleves loosened his collar. “It’s the Prime Minister . . .”
Finally, Bolingbroke paused. “What now?” he snarled.
“He’s locked himself in his cupboard,” Cleves said.
“Again?!” the older civil servant groaned. “Fine. Call his wife.”
“She’s not answering.”
“His girlfriend then,” Horace sighed.
“She out of the city.”
Cleves shook his head.
“What about the boy in Soho none of us are supposed to know about?”
“He’s trying to sell his story to The Sun.”
“Christ! They’re not buying it, are they?”
“At the moment they’re burying it,” Cleves said. “But only if we grant the editor a peerage.”
Bolingbroke rolled his eyes. “Another one?” he murmured. “Who’s it for this time?”
“His second-cousin’s husband.”
“Fine,” Bolingbroke said. “Get Peachy to sort it this afternoon.”
“And the Prime Minister, sir?”
The civil servant frowned. If sex wasn’t going to work . . . “Leave a plate of caviar on his desk,” he ordered. “That should tempt him out.”
Cleves gave a quick little nod, then scurried back down the corridor. Watching him go, Bolingbroke heaved an exhausted sigh. This was the last thing he wanted to wake up to after his nap. Horace had worked for stupid Prime Ministers in his time – helped elect a few of them, actually. There was nothing quite like an incompetent government for reminding the people how important civil servants were. But this current political leader had to be the worst of the sorry bunch. The man was a clown. Literally. He had worked in a circus for three years before being fired for dropping the juggling balls too many times.
This was not the time to have a quivering cretin in charge of government policies. Rubbing his temples, and quickly calculating just how many weeks he had left until his lucrative retirement, Bolingbroke marched towards the closest office. Inside he found the man he was looking for.
Frank ‘Peachy’ Clementine looked up from his desk. His famous chubby cheeks had lost their usual red tinge; now they were a haunted grey. “Oh, HoBo,” the man sighed. “It’s you.”
Bolingbroke bristled at hearing that odious name yet again. He objected to it on several principles. Firstly, he came from the seventeenth wealthiest family in the country. Unless you counted the new foreign money that had come into the nation recently, which he certainly did not. But, most importantly, most of the men around the office who used it were several decades his junior. He’d been skulking down the corridors of Parliament long before they’d even accomplished their gruelling Uni initiation trials. But, with one flippant use of a nickname, he was reduced to being their ‘peer’.
He patted down his greying hair, trying to muster up something he remembered being called a smile. “Peachy!” he barked. “I hear our Glorious Leader is commanding us from his usual seat of power?”
His colleague gave a beleaguered nod. “Things are going right up Shit Creek,” he moaned. “And someone threw the paddle overboard about six weeks ago.”
“Someone suggested a Press Conference.”
Bolingbroke rolled his eyes. When would these boys learn?
The old bureaucrat turned as a tall, bald-headed man stepped into the office. The pair exchanged brief nods. “Horace,” the man murmured.
“Fuzzy,” Bolingbroke said, grateful to see the wince this name elicited.
Peter ‘Fuzzy’ Euston, the only man who had served in the office for nearly as long as Bolingbroke, often thought his nickname had been conjured as an ironic jab towards his hair-loss. In reality, it was because, after a squash match, another colleague had noticed Euston had the hairiest arse he had ever seen. Bolingbroke was planning on telling this anecdote at Fuzzy’s retirement party.
There was a sudden pang in his heart as he realised, just then, neither of them might make it to retirement.
“The situation’s bad,” Fuzzy murmured, never quite having the strength to raise his voice above a whisper.
“We know,” Peachy snapped. “He’s in the cupboard.”
Fuzzy frowned. “Who?”
“The PM,” Bolingbroke said.
“You didn’t know?”
“I’ve got a whole cesspool of journalists downstairs!” Fuzzy said, almost becoming an exclamation.
Peachy and Horace shared a horrified glance. “Who do we throw to them?” the younger asked.
“The Education Secretary?” Fuzzy suggested.
“Underqualified,” Bolingbroke said.
“The Health Secretary!” Peachy said.
“His mother sent in a note excusing him.”
“What about the Home Secretary?”
“No good,” Peachy groaned. “Last anyone saw of her, she was walking out the building carrying the AK-47 she had mounted to her wall.”
“What? The one with Citizenship Test stencilled onto the side?”
“That’s the one.”
“Well, who else is there?” Fuzzy cried.
“What do they want anyway?” Bolingbroke asked, throwing himself into one of the chairs in front of Peachy’s desk.
“Someone leaked the numbers,” Peachy explained, avoiding Horace’s eyes.
“What numbers?” the civil servant growled, leaning forward.
“The Death Toll.”
Silence landed in the room like a downed airplane. “What ‘Death Toll’?” Bolingbroke asked, trying out the novelty called patience.
Trembling slightly, Fuzzy opened the folder in his arms, plucked out a sheet of paper, then dropped it into Horace’s lap.
“Four-hundred-and-forty-seven?!” he roared, his eyes boggling at the figure. “Yesterday it was three!”
“It’s because of the Special Advisor incident,” Peachy admitted.
Bolingbroke’s rage silenced him. Damn that state-educated bastard, he thought. Things had been going well. All right, they had been going about as well as they could be with an incompetent walking, talking pustule in charge. But people were surviving. And, at the end of the day, that’s the least a country can expect from their government.
The Incident had begun seven weeks ago, on April 25th. It was a sunny Tuesday morning when the mysterious objects descended from the sky. Nine-foot high and steel-grey, these obelisk-shaped structures landed across the world. How many there were in total, it was impossible to tell. But in Britain alone there were hundreds of the things, and mainly in densely populated areas. The government response had been . . . well, eventually there was one. The Prime Minister had been wrestled in front of a camera to address the nation.
“Remain calm,” he had declared in a trembling voice. He had gone on to assure his people that everything was under control. Whose control, though, was a question no one had yet to answer. He had also lain out strict rules the populace was expected to follow; One rule, to be more precise. Do not approach or touch any of the Obelisks.
Amazingly, the response had been almost unanimous obedience. Of course, there had been a handful of people who had decided to ignore this rule, but they were the sort of folks who got their opinions off of Facebook. So, in Horace’s opinion, there wasn’t going to much mourning for their loss. But then along had come Ruben Littlecox. A man looking like something that had crawled out of the bottom of a pond and, after having the process of evolution explained to him, had decided it wasn’t for him. He glowered at the world from beneath his monolithic brow, certain that it had wronged him at some point in his life, and now he was determined to make it pay.
Ruben was the devil on the Prime Minister’s shoulder; the devil that had throttled the angel and was now making the most of having both ears. The man had uncharacteristically agreed to wait for the scientists to make their evaluation of the obelisks before whipping the PM into action. But that patience had dissolved quicker than a corpse in a bath of hydrofluoric acid once the report had finally been made. Littlecox was not the sort of man who liked to be told there was nothing to be done, and that was precisely what the experts had said. They had done any number of tests of the structures, but all they had discovered was the objects were not manmade, made of a material never before seen on Earth, and that they were extremely dangerous to touch.
“I think I’ll decide that for myself, thank you very much,” Ruben had announced, confident in his own superior intellect. An intellect that struggled to finish a crossword designed for the ages of 8-12. He hadn’t turned up to Downing Street the next day. He had, instead, made a trip to the closest Obelisk he could find and made his own investigation.
“People seem to think,” Fuzzy nervously explained, “that if he can do it, why can’t they?”
“But he got vaporised!” Horace barked.
“Doesn’t matter,” Peachy said. “The public just think it’s one rule for us, and another for them.”
Bolingbroke gave vent to a string of colourful expletives. Not for the first time in his long career, he decided that people should take an IQ test before being allowed to vote. If they could fight the temptation to eat the pen, there might be some hope for them. Of course, that disqualified anyone from the North. Horace grinned to himself. He’d have to remember that one; the boys at the club would love it.
“So, because some little prick couldn’t keep a few hundred deaths to himself,” Bolingbroke murmured darkly, “we’ve now got a bunch of journalists downstairs?”
“That is the current situation, yes,” Peachy said, grateful for the desk between himself and Old HoBo.
“What do they want from us? An explanation?! We’re the Government, for Christ’s sake!”
“I think they just want to be reassured that everything is under control,” Fuzzy said with quiet resignation.
“Our Prime Minister is currently cowering inside a cupboard,” Horace reminded him.
“Better than the time he hid under his desk,” Peachy said.
The civil servant ground his teeth together and tried to collect his tired thoughts. “We have no special advisor, a leader who needs his hand held twenty-four-seven, an AWOL cabinet, and a country being invaded by killer alien monoliths,” he listed. “How are our polling numbers?”
“Oh, we’re still ten points ahead,” Fuzzy said, glad to be delivering some good news at last.
Bolingbroke nodded. That meant they didn’t need to put too much effort into the lies this time. “Can’t we find one the scientists? Chuck them in front of the cesspool?” he suggested.
Peachy gave a grave shake of his head. “They’re all on site,” he murmured. “Besides, the public doesn’t want to hear from them. The scientists know more than they do, and they don’t like it.”
“Well,” Horace snarled, standing and wincing slightly as his knees cracked. “We need someone to speak to them!”
The two other men shared a brief, but meaningful glance. “We were wondering . . .” Peachy started.
“Whether you might speak to them?” Fuzzy finished, the top of his head burning red.
The senior civil servant stared agog at his colleagues. What the Hell were they suggesting? He didn’t address the Press! He wasn’t the face of the Government. He was one of the people who actually got stuff done! He . . . but what had he got done? Over the last few weeks nothing much at all, that was what! He continued to stare at them both, noticing how awkwardly they shuffled their feet and chewed on their lips. In their minds, he knew, they viewed him as the sacrificial lamb. The old timer who they could let take the fall for all the government’s mistakes; and the list was biblically long these days.
Well, he thought, he’d had a good run. “All . . . all right,” he said, surprised to hear the tremor in his voice. “I’ll . . . I’ll just give them the bare essentials, then I’ll get the Hell out of there!”
Peachy nodded eagerly. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, “that’s all they want!”
“Five minutes,” Fuzzy added, not quite able to meet Bolingbroke’s gaze, “that’s all it’ll be.”
“It had better,” Horace warned.
After another sheepish glance shared between the colleagues, the trio rose and made their way out of the office. They walked down the corridor in a subdued silence. Bolingbroke began to feel like a man on his way to the gallows. “Where are you going?” he asked Peachy. The man paused on the stairs.
“We’re not doing it in the conference room,” the younger man explained. “We’ve got them all in the garden.”
Horace frowned. “Why?”
“You know what journalists are like,” Fuzzy said. “The change of scenery should distract them from asking any difficult questions.”
Giving this point some consideration, Bolingbroke nodded. The only creatures known to have a shorter attention span than British journalists were toddlers. The three made their way down the stairs. The unnatural quiet in the building sent a shiver down Bolingbroke’s spine.
“’Course,” Fuzzy said, his voice even lower than normal. “They’ll probably ask about the EU.”
Peachy rolled his eyes. “Why?” he snapped.
“You didn’t hear?” Fuzzy said. “The EU have managed to make contact with the Obelisks’ creators!”
Both civil servants glared at him. “Really?” Bolingbroke snapped. “How?”
“I did ask,” Fuzzy said. “But they said ‘you’re on your own, buddy’. That is just a rough translation,” he went on. “They were laughing as they said it.”
“All right,” Peachy said, pausing at the back door. He poked his head out, then instantly pulled it back in. “They’ve been waiting for around twenty minutes now.”
Bolingbroke glanced at his watch. “Give it another five then,” he growled. He slowly began rubbing his chest. Just what was this feeling? Anxiety? No, he wasn’t a Millennial. It was . . . Christ, he thought, is this regret? Am I feeling regret? When was the last time he felt that? Probably when he went skinny dipping at Loch Awe in the eighties. Doctors at the time said he was lucky both baubles survived. But what could have caused this unfamiliar sensation?
He glanced over at the haggard, defeated expression on Fuzzy – no, on Peter’s face. Bloody Hell, the man was two years younger than Bolingbroke, but currently looked like he was ninety. Then Bolingbroke looked down at his hands. His wrinkled, liver-spotted hands. Where had the time gone? And, more importantly, what had he done with it?
He remembered his first days in Whitehall. Oh, the ambitions he had held. He had been going to change things. He hadn’t been like the fusty old relics that had preceded him. Sure, he had gone to Harrow, and then Oxford, and belonged to all the right clubs, and had friends in the right places, but he was different. He had planned to change the country, for the better.
And had he? He decided to avoid too much scrutiny on that question.
But who was to say he still couldn’t? Peachy and Fuzzy, they both thought they were throwing him to the wolves, but maybe they were giving him his chance. Horace Bolingbroke could finally make his move. Yes, that’s what he would do. He would step up to that podium and he would take control of the wheel. He would guide this floundering ship to calmer seas, and be the leader they needed. Sure, the public hadn’t voted for him, but maybe that was for the best. After all, look what they’d done with the gift of democracy. They’d voted in the political equivalent of a burning mattress, and all because they’d had a catchy slogan. Feeling his chest swell with newfound purpose, Bolingbroke felt his lips crease into a smile, and hoped his colleagues remembered what efficient leadership felt like.
Suddenly, just as he was ready to step over the threshold, Cleves came running up to the trio. “It worked, HoBo, it worked!” he exclaimed breathlessly. “The PM’s out of the cupboard, and he’s going to do the press conference!”
And, with that, the milk of human kindness within Bolingbroke soured.
“That’s great news!” Peachy said with visible relief. “Do you know what he’s going to say?”
“No,” Cleves admitted. “But he had his Latin phrasebook out when I went to speak to him.”
Then the man himself waddled into view. Yes, Horace thought, that’s the man best suited to lead the country this has become. He had the charisma of a bowling ball, and the body shape of a bag of custard. The general public had made their bed, and now they could never have a decent night’s sleep again. What did Bolingbroke care? He had a holiday home in the Maldives and a German passport, he was sorted.
As the Prime Minister stumbled his way up to the podium, gifting a grin that could make a teetotaller reach for the gin, an under-secretary sprinted up to the group at the door.
“What is it?” Cleves asked the newcomer.
“It’s – it’s the Obelisks,” the woman panted. “One of them in Manchester has sprouted legs and is destroying the city!”
The civil servants shared horror-struck glances. “Have any started attacking London?” Peachy asked.
“No – not yet,” the under-secretary stammered.
“Then it’s not an emergency yet,” Bolingbroke growled, pushing his way past the dumbfounded young woman. “I’ve got an important meeting to attend,” he announced, climbing the stairs. “And don’t any of you bastards wake me this time.”