A scream, and a bright light shining in his eyes drag him up from sleep. There's a spider in the bed.
His eyes take time to adjust, and through blurred vision he sees a dark shape scuttling under white sheets; while Natashya stands up and throws pillows at it. In his half-conscious state he forgets that he too isn't supposed to be scared of arachnids and, pulse rising, also leaps out of bed. The sudden rush of blood from his brain makes him dizzy and he crashes over the bedside table, almost sprawling himself upon the floor.
His brain needs time to restart, to gather his far-flung thoughts and make sense of where he is, but she is screaming at him to "Get it out, get it out! For god's sake get it out!"
Eventually, he regains enough of his senses to throw the duvet aside. Underneath, the spider is crouched down, its legs drawn in, almost as scared as she is. He scoops it up into his hand and stumbles into the bathroom. Now fully awake, he flings the window open, ready to throw the spider out. Then he stops, having completely forgotten what he was about to do; for the stars are out there, looking in at him.
This is not the first time he has seen them, of course, but tonight they look different; somehow closer, more substantial. As he gazes up into the heavens he remembers his childhood, and his dreams of one day travelling to those distant worlds of the firmament.
In a daze he walks downstairs and into the garden. Only in his head it is not his hallway he is traversing, but rather the deserts of Mars, or the beautiful desolation of the Lunar maria.
Outside, it is the first night of summer, and the warm air brings promises of distant lands; the faint smell of heat and citrus evoking the mysteries of the east. Above, the stars shine down, bathing him in a twinkling silver light. For hours he stares back up at them, oblivious to all else around, until a tickling sensation in his hand reminds him of the spider, and he releases it to scurry off into the night.
Eventually she comes down to find him, apologies spilling off her tongue for waking him so; "but it was so horrible, no? Scuttling all over my legs like that."
She leads him back upstairs and into bed; but he hardly feels her, for his mind is still out amongst the stars.
The next week brings rain. By the time he has walked to the station he is already soaked to the skin. He squeezes in through the turn styles and his heart sinks as he sees Larry. He tries to hide amongst the crowd of other commuters, but the salesman spots him and immediately breaks into a spiel of anecdotes about all the other companies he has tricked into buying their products.
The train journey passes in much the same manner. Larry cornering him at a table and doing his best to live up to his nickname of motor-mouth. Eventually he manages to switch off, to bury his resentment long enough to watch the sodden fields go by, as the suit continues to spew about conversions and bounce-rates next to him.
When they finally reach the client he is dead inside. Larry's pitch is almost identical to the one on the train, only this time the client is the winner and their customers are the mindless fools who deserve to be tricked of their money. While Larry talks he just shuts up and looks out of the window, at the people with their coats and umbrellas in the street, only contributing to the conversation when a technical matter arises.
The meeting drags on, and by the time it has finished it is dark outside; the rain over, but the sky still overcast. He and Larry part ways. The top performing salesman in the company is booked into a four-star hotel in the centre of town, whereas he has a pod at the local travelodge; something to do with a screwup at the booking agents, apparently.
Despite his employers' thinly veiled disregard for the people who actually make their products he is happy, at least he doesn't have to listen to any more marketing speak.
When he reaches his hotel the blue-haired receptionist gently informs him that his employers also haven't booked him into somewhere with a gluten free menu; so he sloshes back out into the street in search of food that won't kill him.
The rain has left the road slick with water, and puddles reflect the bright signs of bars and restaurants; a neon counterpoint to the jet black of the asphalt. It's a Friday night, and everywhere seems fully-booked, so he wanders like a ghost in some bizarre, consumerist purgatory; hovering for a time outside the little pockets of warmth, before turning back out into the void. Eventually he finds a place, but by the time his food has come he is so tired he barely manages a few mouthfuls.
The journey back to the hotel seems more like the climb up Everest, but he finally hauls himself up the stairs and collapses on the bed.
He sleeps fitfully, and awakes from a nightmare of falling into the abyss at about three in the morning. Outside, the sky has cleared and the full moon streams in the window. He rolls over to try and get back to sleep, but the silver light seems to penetrate through the pillow. The world sounds strangely quiet, a sharp contrast to the noise of the revellers earlier.
Suddenly the room feels claustrophobic, the ceiling pressing down on him. He needs to get out, to see the sky above his head, and to smell air not polluted by the tang of petrochemicals. He remembers the hotel is not far from a park and, pausing only long enough to pull on some clothes, he is up and out the doors; a sleepy night-watchmen staring after him.
The park is small and streetlights line its perimeter, but none dare to venture within, as if they are somehow afraid of the organic. As he stands on the threshold a cloud covers the moon, and the lamps become suddenly threatening; tall giants hunched over to stare at him, like the overseers at an interrogation.
He hurriedly steps out of the light, and immediately his head begins to clear. From somewhere off in the dark he hears a stream trickling and the flitting of bats. A path meanders through the grass and benches line it, the only clue to their presence the black on black of their shadows in the gloom. Up ahead there is a snoring, a tramp asleep on one of the seats.
The air here is sweet and relaxing, each measured step he takes helping the anxiety to drain from him. Aside from the poor homeless soul on the bench, he can see no-one else, and yet he feels less isolated than he did amongst the houses; no more a single individual amongst uncounted strangers.
As he walks deeper the feeling of companionship grows stronger. A sense of others beside him where there are none. The sensation of belonging is intoxicating, and he has to sit down, just to let it wash over him. The moon begins to shine through the cloud that obscured it and illuminates the ripples on the stream; drops of molten silver against the dark.
His senses are afire. The smells; the sounds; everything is alive! No more is he an automata trapped within the artificial world of man, but instead a tiny mote of life, one amongst billions. The trees whisper to him, the stream laughs, the birds even seem to be warbling in their dreams.
Then, for a split second, the clouds part and the moon illuminates all the people around him. Like him they look up, adoration in their faces as they bathe in the light of the stars. For an instant they are together as one; a single living, breathing being. Then the cloud rolls back and he is alone again, careening back to the hotel, heart thundering at what he has just seen.
His suit itches, and the tie seems to be trying to throttle him; he has to grit his teeth and stare at the words of the hymn just to keep from fidgeting. The church is a sea of black clothes and pale faces awash with tears; a cauldron of grief that feels as if it will bubble over at any moment.
Then the coffin is past and he is swept out with the crowd, head down, hoping no one will see his dry eyes. All funerals are grim events, but those for people you resented in life seem all the harder.
Afterwards there is the usual stream of faces, of pleasantries, and of reminiscences with those who you have not seen for years. There are cups of tea and drams of whisky, and short bursts of laughter that are quickly silenced. All the time he wears an idiot smile plastered on his face, an eye of aversion against the aliens that seem to be wearing the skin of his relatives.
An uncle corners him and starts reeling off a list of an ancient politicians' indiscretions. He nods and shakes his head at the pauses, while his eyes roam the room for a means of escape.
Eventually, he manages to extract himself and head for the toilets; behind him the uncle continuing his narration to the wall. The gents stink of urine and of cheap cleaner; but at least they are quiet. He hankers down in a cubicle, hiding from the hubbub of the hall. There is broken glass in the window frame, an old nest on the cistern, and with hands pressed to head he tries to quiet the shaking.
Later a fiddle begins to tune-up and, with everyone distracted by the dance, he makes his escape.
The road is empty and his feet crunch on bits of loose gravel. A wind has come up with the sunset and whips between the hedges; playing with his collar and blowing leaves into eddies. Ahead is a footpath sign and he scrambles over stile and into field. A few sleepy sheep watch him as he cuts across to the next hedgerow, unconcerned by the stranger in their midst. To the west a range of hills reach up towards the sky and, as he watches the sun boils down behind them, he begins to relax.
A gentle rise greets him over the next gate, stubby grass shivering in the wind where it clings to the chalk. At the top a circle of stones jut up from the earth like broken teeth, standing like sentinels watching the onrush of night.
Once again he feels alive. The wind seems to flow down into his lungs; he can taste the chalk on his tongue. Rushing to the top he shouts in delight, for here his vision is not obscured by the industry of man.
As the light fails he moves to each stone in turn, greeting them and enquiring after their health. The waystones of his ancestors never reply, but their silence is warm; so unlike that of the strangers he sees everyday in the street.
After he has completed his circuit of the circle he collapses to the ground, revelling in the feel of the earth beneath him. Somewhere in the woods to the east a pair of owls twit-twoo to one another across the twilight.
Before long the first of the stars have come out. He lies on his back and gazes upwards. Out here in the country they seem so much clearer, so much more alive. The milky way stretches out from horizon to horizon and he could almost be hanging above it, like an astronaut floating above the earth.
He opens his senses and he can almost hear them singing to him; a timeless paen of fiery creation amongst the dark of the cosmos. They shine down on him and the dark of night is transformed into argent fire under their gaze.
Shortly he becomes aware of the others, but feels no malice from them, only a silent companionship. He can not see them, but he can feel them all around; filling the circle and gazing up to the heavens. Together they crowd this ancient observatory, bearing witness to a ritual that is as old as humanity; one enacted every clear night.
For a moment his thoughts flash back to those he has left in the hall; probably far too gone now to notice his absence, but also engaged in their own ritual. Back there is pain and sadness, a new cult to an arbitrary and morbid god. Here in the fields is peace and contentment, warmth in the bosom of the world beneath the chaos of the stars.
He'd seen it. He'd seen it, and now he couldn't unsee it.
Larry had been selling their customer's personal data to online advertisers, monetising their innermost secrets without their consent. He'd pushed it up to management the moment he'd made his discovery, but according to them it was all in-line with company policy, all covered in the terms and conditions.
He'd felt sick. He'd never believed in their product, the salesmen and marketers always setting his teeth on edge; but at least he'd believed that what they were doing was legitimate. Now, of course, all that pseudo-scientifical marketing speak was revealed to be a thin cover for corporate surveillance.
Now he was sat on the bus home, talking to the information commissioner's office. They were already aware, they said, but technically no laws had been breached; the product was designed well enough that customers must have given their consent to use it, even if what they'd been agreeing to was heavily buried in reams of ambiguous legalese. Not illegal, perhaps, but immoral and deliberately misleading.
He hung up. All around him the other passengers were on their phones, browsing websites, happily trading their personal data in exchange for free services. He wanted to scream at them to stop, but the hooks were already in. Most people were only too glad to sell their identities on the alter of convenience.
When they finally arrived at his stop he looked to the skies for comfort, but the firmament was gone, covered by a heavy sheet of dark autumn cloud.
He couldn't sleep. His brain would not stop thinking. He knew in his heart of hearts that he could not continue working, now that he knew how his life was being funded. He tossed and turned in bed, rolling himself up in the sheets until claustrophobia made him throw them off again. Beside him Natashya grunted in annoyance, but didn't say anything, understanding what it was that was eating him from the inside.
In the small hours he got up and, his head pounding from lack of sleep, typed out a resignation letter to the company. When it was sent he relaxed a bit; times would be hard yes, but at least he would be able to look himself in the eye.
He couldn't find another job.
It turned out there was something illegal in the company's operations after all; something that the deeper investigation triggered by his call to the data watchdogs had brought to light. They'd been fined 10% of their annual revenue, and several of the higher management had been given prison sentences. Any fraction of respect that their customers might have had for them had evaporated and sales suddenly dried up.
Two months after their misdemeanours had come to light the company had filed for bankruptcy.
They'd sent him a final gift though; a parting shot via the corporate old boys' network; a message to anyone else who might consider employing him: "he's the one who goes poking around in areas that don't concern him".
Every position he'd applied for had been filled by candidates "better suited to the role". After being turned down again and again, even for junior positions well below his previous salary and experience, he was starting to despair.
It was mid-December and he'd decided to sign on to get him over the end of the year. They'd insisted on seeing him in person, of course, and he'd got the bus back into town, dressed in his best suit. The job centre was just as bad as he remembered it from his youth; full of broken people a few steps from the edge and dour-faced security guards treating everyone as if they were convicted criminals.
The careers adviser was no better, looking down her nose at him as she explained that, as he'd left his position voluntarily, he wouldn't get his first unemployment payments for almost two months. He could take them now, she said, but it would be as a secured loan from the government.
He felt the anger rising, but through sheer force of will managed to force it down and reply through gritted teeth:
"I left because my employers were breaking the law, selling their customer's data without consent. Not because I just didn't fancy working anymore"
"Nevertheless, Mr Hutchinson, you had a steady job and you chose to leave it, of your own volition".
At that he exploded. He couldn't quite remember what he said, but next thing he knew two security guards were hauling him out and dumping him onto the pavement.
The woods were dark in the twilight, but even if it had been midday he would have seen no better. His thoughts were a whirl, twisted round in the confines of his brain, unable to coalesce into a form for long before collapsing in again under their own weight.
The world made no sense. It was populated by ghosts who wore the faces of people, but through their actions showed themselves to be merely puppets to some dark showman pulling the strings of the west. Companies were its real citizens, feigning lifelessness while they fed off the blood of the ghosts.
In this world he was meant to feel safe, to find a sense of purpose and fulfilment; but all it did was fill him with dread. He could not face it. All he wanted to do was hide, but he could still see the lights of the city and hear the noises of the cars.
He started to run. The trees were packed dense, yet they did not claw at him; instead seeming to bend aside at his passage. Through the branches emanated a faint glow, cool to the harsh warmth of the metropolis. He ran towards it, each step casting aside more of his fears.
Then he was through the trees and into a clearing. Above him the sky swam with stars; more than he had ever seen before, and so close that they almost brushed the ground. The air was alive with their noise, a keening of a thousand different pitches, the stately music of the spheres as they circled round in their never-ending dance. Brightest of all shone old man Saturn, a wise sage looking down benevolently upon his children.
Below him were the others. Glass skinned vessels that drank themselves full of the silver starlight pouring to earth. They turned and looked at him; a myriad of faces with smiles of welcome. From every age they seemed to have come : Roman Centurions standing shoulder to shoulder with wigged clerks, and veiled ladies of the Persian Seraglio whispering to Mayan Priestesses.
He stepped forward and a huge Cro-Magnon took one hand, a Russian cosmonaut the other. He paused a moment to breathe in the heady perfume of the air, and all of his fears and worries flowed from him with the exhalation. Then together they started forwards, and went to join the wild host.