The old car rattling along the coast road is on its final journey. The driver is 35 year old Jack Smith. It is late, dark and a thick squall blows from the sea. Jack is on his way home from the power station where he has worked almost seven years. His work is monotonous and dirty. His hands are rough and pitted. His face is streaked in black dust and smears of grease that mingle with dried sweat and rain.

It's been a long shift. He is tired and keen to get home to his wife. On impulse, Jack swerves onto a short-cut: a minor road he hasn't taken for several weeks. There is a "Road Closed" sign, but he ignores it. The road has needed repair for months: it is uneven, potholed and narrow, crossing water-meadows and marshland. There are no buildings for miles; but it's more direct, halving the distance to his home at Cliff End.

The engine splutters and the car slows. Jack hesitates, then pumps the accelerator. The car jerks weakly forward again. He watches the illuminated patch ahead, slowing and steering around dips. Suddenly, through the drizzle, a faint glow begins to show, like floodlights reflecting on low cloud. Jack blinks and rubs his eyes.

The glow intensifies, and gradually, beyond the mist, the outline of a warehouse takes shape. It is colossal, like an aircraft hanger. This is something extraordinary - there was nothing but marshes just two weeks before. Now the road has become wide and smooth, and shimmers with a faint blue light. Jack leans forward in his seat and examines the huge structure.

The car barely crawling now, a garage forecourt looms into view. The lights are dazzling. There are no fuel pumps, only a line of curved spikes between the road and an attendant's shop. A sweeping arched roof that would dwarf a tennis court stretches over the area. It rises steeply and impressively to merge with the top of a huge glass showroom.

The car almost stationary now, Jack frantically jabs the accelerator. But this time the engine cuts and the car eases to a stop as he steers to the edge of the road.

Anyone might wonder that such a place should have been built at all in so unlikely a location, and so swiftly. But that it is open for service this late at night, on a road so small and isolated, practically a farm track, devoid of traffic… and officially closed… Jack just gazes, stupefied.

He sits there still and silent. Everything outside the car is strange and new. Soon, he gives a little sigh and peers round at the glitzy showroom. He raises his eyebrows and whistles silently. Noticing an attendant staring over at him, he turns away as though embarrassed and irritated. He tries starting the engine, but the battery is dead. The attendant is walking towards him now. Jack shakes his head, braces himself for imminent reproach, and gets out.

Now he can see more clearly into the display area with its row upon row of lustrous high-class cars stretching back inside and disappearing in a maze of coloured lights. The cars glitter like spangles at a laser show; their bizarre shapes, colours and sleek futuristic designs suggest they originate in the dreams and fantasies of someone with a wild though remarkable imagination. Several are lined up directly behind the glass as if ready for sale.

redA voice interrupts his thoughts, and he turns. It is a soft, gentle, smiling voice - the kind of voice that, if it was less precise, one might expect from a politician attempting to secure an unwary vote: 'Good evening sir. I do hope I can be of service. How may I help you?'

The attendant is dressed in a white jump-suit with a red name-tag: MAC. His hair and complexion are immaculate, as is his posture. And his face, like his voice, is the epitome of composure, though bearing an intimation of concern and sympathy.

'I'm er, sorry.' Jack begins, going round to the bonnet. 'I'll see if I can get it running again. I'll soon be on my way.' He opens the lid and peers impassively at the greasy black chaos inside, then looks forlornly up at Mac who now stands beside him with an expression of anguished pity.

'Here,' says Mac, taking Jack's arm, 'Forget about that. Come with me. I have something to show you…' he pauses, 'Do you have any belongings in your car?'

'Only an old hat.' says Jack, gazing up at the drizzle. He leans into his car and grabs it, then follows Mac under the great arched canopy towards the showroom. 'What you have here is incredible,' Jack proclaims, waving his hat across in front of him, 'but there's no point in you trying to sell me one of those. I'm flat broke - low pay, extravagant other half… there's no way I could afford even to hire anything.' He stops and raises his hands while Mac watches him blankly. 'But how come all this is here, miles from anywhere? And on what was marshland only a few weeks ago?'

'A few weeks ago?' queries Mac.

'It's unbelievable.' Jack goes on, 'That's some quick work. It would need deep piling and, and… I wonder the… the concrete's had time to set properly…' he glances down and stomps his right foot. 'This isn't concrete… more like rubber.' Jack frowns and raises his head again.

Mac moves forward to the threshold of the showroom just ahead, and turns to face Jack. 'You are one of our first customers, sir.' He declares in a burst of enthusiasm, 'It is a great privilege to serve you. May I recommend, to begin with, our Lush Model?' and he gestures Jack in and towards the nearest car. It resembles a wedge-shaped, bright metallic-purple sports coupé.

blackAs he enters the vast showroom, Jack laughs sarcastically, which Mac smiles kindly at, then says: 'Now, I can offer this model as a straight swap for your old one.'

'What?' cries Jack, poking the glass-wall of the showroom, 'This glass is weird… kind of soggy.'

'Or, if you prefer, five euros. It's on the windscreen.'

Jack moves round the car and gapes at the screen. 'Five euros?' he blurts, returning round the car, 'For that? Someone's forgotten to add four noughts, mate.'

Suddenly, the car door swings up vertically and Mac stands aside for Jack to enter, 'In view of the situation with your car, sir, may I suggest a straight swap?'

Jack eyes Mac suspiciously, then stares curiously into the car. He glances back at Mac who winks at him. Jack frowns disconcertedly then quickly redirects his attention to the car. He hesitates, then gets in. 'Well,' he muses, 'I'm not sure what kind of a trick this is, but I guess there's no harm in trying it out… Hell, what a beauty!' he cries exuberantly, settling into the seat, 'I've never known such a comfortable seat. It's like being weightless.'

Mac leans forward and presents a credit-card computer with a touch-pen. 'You need only sign this transfer document sir, and the deal is complete,'

'But does it GO?' says Jack, squinting at the panel.

'Go?' replies Mac, 'There's only one car in the world that can beat it. And that will de-nano in approximately 12 hours.'

'De… what?' says Jack.

'It goes.' Is all Mac replies, but with a big reassuring grin. Jack glances up at him briefly, then signs the little screen without hardly looking at it and passes it back. He is evidently too absorbed with what is before him to trouble much with prosaic trivialities like signing documents. Then Mac says, 'Lush.' And the dashboard bursts into life, puffing up and illuminating. Jack's eyes widen and a broad grin settles on his face. A screen in the centre shows an amber illuminated message: 'What would you like to do?'

Mac says, 'You have accelerator, brakes and steering like any vintage automatic, Mr Smith, though in this instance assisted by 360-degree 100-metre zonar surveillance. Everything else can be requested as normal - by speech. The car is now yours. Good evening, and pleasant driving.' He stands upright and steps back.

A faint high-pitched whine rises then falls to an almost inaudible hum, and the door swings down and closes. The huge glass front of the showroom slides to one side. Mac waves his arm in a beckoning motion.

Jack has entered another world: the deadened silence like an anechoic chamber; the unparalleled comfort like a maharaja's sofa; the futuristic dashboard like some space-odyssey flying saucer; the superb 180° visibility… He touches the accelerator and the car edges smoothly forward, not the slightest jolt. He presses more and it moves gently past Mac who is smiling again and making a little bow. He steers past where he left his old wreck, which is no longer there, and then silently, swiftly, dissolves into the hazy gloom.

The silence is too dead. Jack clears his throat to reassure himself. As he accelerates, the road seems to flow and race beneath him like water on a lake; so smooth, so silent. Suddenly he can see the junction with the main road. 'Already?' he whispers. At some indeterminate point, the road has become narrow again with its familiar bumps and craters; yet the car had not registered the unevenness, not the smallest jolt.

He turns onto the main road. Leaning to one side and then the other as it goes, the car sweeps along the lanes, taking bends and swerving around parked cars and other obstacles with frictionless ease, the steering moving effortlessly, the speed adjusting with extraordinary smoothness - and optimally too, or so it seems, for the gentlest possible ride.

Over and over, Jack shakes his head in disbelief. Within minutes he is at Cliff End. He turns onto the front parking space of the little two-bed terrace he shares with his wife Tara - and their obstinately unruffled moth-eaten cat, Zilch.

'How the hell do I get out?' Jack whispers, suddenly alarmed. Then: 'How do I switch-off the engine?' He stares at the display, which still reads: 'What would you like to do?' 'Is the engine even running?' he says quietly. He tries to concentrate, then says 'Lush.' and the door rises. He nods, grins and steps out. 'Close door - no wait - lights off.' Nothing happens. The drizzle is getting in. 'Lush.' he simply says, and the lights fade out, the door lowers into place, and the car assumes what appears to be its dormant state. He shrugs and goes into the house.

Tara is about to go to bed. She says when he enters,' Oh, you're early tonight. I was hoping to miss you.'

'Glad I caught you then.' He rejoins, 'In fact, I thought I'd never get here. The rust-cart finally gave out.'

'Well, it got you home, at any rate. You must have left early.'

'No. Got a new car.'

'You mean a NEW car?'

'Right. A NEW car.'

'What?' Tara screams, now staring wide-eyed at him, 'And plunged us into debt again for yonks? You big gormless prick. You know we're dead broke. All I have is a hopeless little mo-ped, and you throw away a fortune on a new car. Now what're we going to do? Take it back! That's what to do: take it back, OK?'

'If you listened you stupid bitch, you'd have heard me say: I "GOT" a new car, not I "BOUGHT" a new car.'

'Oh, so you filched it then, did you? Well, so now I'm to be stuck here on my own while you reside with all mod-cons in the nick for a few months. And how are the bills going to get paid then? Have you thought of that?'

'Hold on, hold on.' sighs Jack, 'Don't always jump to crazy conclusions. I had a stroke of luck, that's all. It happens to people now and then. Some win the lottery, some win on the horses; I won a car, that's all.'

Oh, you won it. OK. Then how come…?'

'It was supposed to be a surprise.'


'I was going to tell you first thing tomorrow.'


So they make-up, and enjoy the best night together for ages. And in the morning at around 10.15, before Jack is properly awake, Tara leans out of the bedroom window to take a look at the new car, bathed now in bright warm sunshine.

'What?' she shrieks, 'THAT…. Ours?'

'Yep, Honey,' murmurs Jack proudly from the bed, 'All ours.'

'I've never seen anything like it. It's…it's weird, it's crazy, bizarre. We can't have a car like that. What'll people think?'

'Who gives a sod what anyone thinks?' groans Jack, incredulous, 'It's none of anyone else's damn business what kind of car we have.'

'I like the colour though.'

'It's a horrible colour. The duffest colour possible.'

'Either way, I can't go around in a car like that.' says Tara.

'You'll love it!' exclaims Jack, sitting up, 'Just wait till you see inside, and what it's like to ride in. I tell you, you'll be so impressed you'll be… you'll be… you'll be…'

'I'll be what?'

'Speechless!' says Jack, 'No, not speechless. Not you. Amazed. That's what you'll be: amazed.'

'Speechless, amazed.' Says Tara, 'Make up your bloody mind. Anyhow, I'm going out there to take a closer look.'

Ten minutes later Jack is downstairs. Tara comes storming in. 'Those bloody kids! Six of them, gawping like owls; insolent little sods. See, it's already creating a problem.'

'You sure it's not you doing the creating?'

She flashes a dark frown, 'How the hell do you get in, anyway? I can't even see where the door is. And how come it's so clean after last night? The roads are all mud around here.'

They go outside. Jack stares at the car which glistens so brightly in the sun that its true colour is hardly discernable. Then he walks around it while Tara stands watching tight-lipped and folded arms. He strokes his hand where body and door had met. It is a continual smooth surface and soft like jelly, yet also firm like hard rubber when he presses. He turns his head and pulls a weird face at Tara.

'Get on with it, will you?' she snaps, 'Are you going to open it or not?'

'I don't know how come it's so clean.' he says, standing back and stroking his chin. 'Lush.' He adds loudly. Instantly a thin gap forms around where the door is and the door rises out of it.

'How did you do that?' exclaims Tara.

'Don't ask me.' says Jack, 'I'm just the owner. Get in while I lock the house, and we'll go for a spin.'

Once in the car Jack repeats the command 'Lush.'. The door closes and the dashboard perks-up like a living entity and shows the familiar message.

He touches the accelerator and they move off. 'It's bloody quiet in here.' complains Tara, 'I don't like it. Can you open the window?' She looks around frowning.

'What's the matter with you?' barks Jack, 'Always something wrong… Window, open.' Nothing happens.

'It doesn't bloody work, you dickhead.' she sneers, 'You've won a pup.'

'Lush, window.' shouts Jack, irritably. A small vertical strip on either side of the car illuminates with a "ding". Tara screws-up her nose and presses the lower passenger side with her thumb. The acute silence is suddenly broken by a muffled roar as an oval opening appears in the all-round screen beside her and expands till she lets go.

'That's better.' she says. 'But so weird.' Then, pouting ostentatiously as they pass a line of people, 'See those nosy buggers, see them? Imagine! Staring like that!' She turns to watch them. 'Look at them, all stopping to watch us… I'm not having this.' She swings her head back to face Jack, 'Why couldn't you have got a normal car? Only you could have landed something mad and extreme like this.'

'Forget the voyeurs.' soothes Jack, 'Just feel the comfort. Have you EVER sat in such a sumptuous seat?'

'No.' she snaps back, 'And I don't give a sod about comfortable seats. What's the fix? That's what I'd like to know.'

'None. Really! And well, I guess you've got your own cushion, built in.'

'You shut-up.' She twists around and grabs Jack by the throat.

'Yow!!! You bitch!' he yells, releasing the wheel and clutching her arms. The car meanders slightly but stays on the road while he pushes her back and re-composes himself. 'Hell… we nearly crashed then, you stupid tart.'

'No we didn't. The car followed the road almost perfectly, even took a bend and swerved round a dustbin.'

'Did it?' A look of profound astonishment and awe settles on Jack's face.

Within seconds they're charging through the lanes. There is no jarring or swaying or sideways forces at all. Both are so staggered by the sensations - or lack of them - that they actually are speechless. They just look and wonder. Jack slows the car and accelerates at junctions and whooshes along the main road beside the sea defences. Soon he's gazing over towards the little short-cut road across the marshes, and Tara noticing this follows his stare. With the morning air fresh and clear it is easy to see the far side of the marshes, but as ever before, not a single building exists there.

‘What are you looking at?'

'Nothing.' he replies.

'Where are we going?'

'That's odd.' he says, slowing.

'You're telling me.' says Tara, 'I don't like it one bit, but I agree it's definitely sensational. I reckon we should flog it before you crunch it up. It might fetch a small fortune.'

'I mean,' says Jack, 'It's odd that the place where I got it isn't there any more. And you should have seen it. Like… massive!'

'We should take it to an auction.' persists Tara. 'It could fetch enough to keep us going for years, and buy a new Jag as well, probably.'

'I don't understand.' says Jack.

'Simple.' replies Tara, 'We take it to a car auction and sell it to the highest bidder. OK? And if we don't get offered enough we go to a bigger auction in London.'

'I'm not selling this.' says Jack, emphatically, 'It's unique. You don't pick one of these up every day. It's a one-off.'

'Which means it'll fetch a fortune. What would you rather have: this or a fortune?'

'Well, a fortune I suppose.' says Jack, stopping the car in the entrance to the little short-cut road across the marshes he took the evening before.

'Good,' says Tara, conclusively, 'We'll go back and get some lunch, then see about an auction.'

'Now wait a while.' cries Jack, 'Let's think about this. Anyhow, I have to be at work at two o'clock.'

'What?' shrieks Tara, 'Work at that place again in all that grime and radioactive dust when you're sitting on - in - a fortune? You're bonkers.'

'Calm down.' says Jack, 'OK, I'll take the day off, and OK, we'll go to an auction… if you insist.'

'I bloody do.'

'But I'm not saying I'm selling. Besides, we haven't decided how much we want for it yet; and who knows what it's worth? Then there's the little detail of the paperwork; they didn't give me any; it was all on a card computer thing the guy had. I'm not even sure it's legal…'

'If someone loaded decides they like it,' says Tara, 'Then they'll fix the paperwork. We don't need to worry about that… Why have we stopped? Don't say we've run out of petrol.'

'Now that's a point.' says Jack, 'I wonder where the fuel gauge is?'

'Just let's go.' says Tara.

'There's no sign.' says Jack.

'Sign? Sign for what? What do you need a sign for?'

'Last night there was a "Road Closed" sign here, but now it's gone.'

'Course it's gone,' says Tara, 'Someone's collected it because the road's been opened - or maybe they just chucked it in a dyke. Now are we going to get moving or do I have to get out and walk?'

'OK, OK.' Jack touches the accelerator and the car moves off along the little narrow short-cut, and in a moment is significantly exceeding the national speed limit.

'In any other car this speed would be breakneck on this road,' he says, 'yet somehow it feels totally safe.'

The car eats three miles in under two minutes, then Jack slows it to walking pace and stops - in the middle of nowhere. 'This is about where it was.' he says, looking around.

'Where what was?' says Tara, also looking around, 'And what's that funny smell?'

'Ammonia?' replies Jack, sniffing.

'I don't like it here.' says Tara, gazing back, 'And what's that coming up behind? Surely not another wacky car… but what else could have kept up with us just now?'

Jack turns his head. 'Hell… Lush, open!'

He leaps out as the hurtling, glittering, pelican-red, car-sized water droplet eases rapidly to a stop beside him. The impression is of a polystyrene Frisbee, solid yet feather-light. The roof swings up from the front and out steps a lanky guy with a mass of flowing blond hair. He's about 30, and is wearing a brilliant yellow jacket.

'Ya got one too then.' the guy announces, loping towards Jack and nodding at the coupé.

'Sure.' replies Jack, passing him and going over to the red bubble. He touches the surface, then turns to face its driver, 'I'm Jack Smith.' he says and points at his own car, 'I picked up my little gem from somewhere here around midnight last night. It's the weirdest thing, but there was a whole set of buildings. I reckon I must have been dreaming - or am now…'

'Starfreke.' says the blond guy, 'Blip Starfreke. You're not dreamin' Jack, an' ya weren't dreamin' last night. Everythin' ya witnessed happened. If it's any comfort, it happened to me three hours before ya.'

'Comfort?' says Jack.

'Don't know what ya traded for what ya refer to as ya little gem,' replies Blip, 'but I lost a Bentley Classic, which is why I'm here now. Was worth a few grand… You used reverse?'

'What?' says Jack, 'Oh, haven't even tried.'

'Don't - unless ya want…'

'Is that another car coming?' shouts Tara, now standing outside and staring up the road.

Jack and Blip follow her gaze.

'Ya got damn good sight to see that, Sweetheart.' says Blip, 'An' it looks like my Bentley.' The car soon closes in, and Blip goes to meet it.

The Bentley trundles up and stops a few metres back. Blip marches smartly over and begins shouting at the driver who is getting out. He's a very ordinary looking man, about 40, thick dark hair, wearing a light anorak. He seems to be ignoring Blip who now follows him, still shouting, as he wanders slowly past Jack and Tara and stops, apparently, to survey the lie of the land.

'Who are you?' asks Jack.

The man doesn't respond straight away, but then he turns and says, 'If the Bentley is his,' he nods towards Blip, 'then the old wreck must be yours.'

'I guess so.' Jack replies.

'Then I must apologise and return it to you.' says the man.

'No need, ta.' says Jack, waving at the coupé. I've got that now, and I don't intend parting with it.'

'I'm sorry,' says the man, 'but it's not real.'

'What? says Blip, 'How 'bout mine?'

'I'm afraid that too.' says the man, in a tone of remorse, 'Believe me, they're strictly identical. And they're not quite real at all.'

'Not real?' blurts Tara, coming forward, 'What's that supposed to mean? Of course they're real; how else did we all get here?'

'Notice that smell?' says the man, glancing ahead and standing on tiptoe.

'Ammonia.' says Jack.

The man nods, 'And that over there?' He starts walking quickly away along the verge. Jack follows anxiously, and Blip behind with Tara running after them.

While the man is beyond earshot, Blip says: 'You heard of a geezer called Zoot?'

'Nope.' says Jack

'I have.' calls Tara, hurrying to catch them up, 'MAD Zoot. Some crazed maverick professor who invents all kinds of weird dangerous gadgets. Has several lawsuits pending for killing people. I've seen it all in the Observer. Only lives up the road at Peasmarsh…. Don't say that's him?'

'I'd say you got it Sweetheart.' says Blip

'Shhhh.' says Jack, 'He'll hear us.'

The man has stopped, and is gazing around.

'What's that funny noise?' shouts Tara, suddenly alarmed.

The man points along the verge, 'Look there.' he says, then pivots round and points across the field, 'And there.'

Blip, on tiptoe, scans the scene. 'That's where ya funny noise is comin' from, sweetheart… and ya smell. That maniac Zoot is behind this. I'd stake me left portal on it.'

'Your what?' queries Tara.

But the man turns abruptly as if to reply, his face red, but then appears to check himself.

All along the edge of the road just ahead and across the adjacent field is a shrinking - yet still vast - undulating, pulsating film of what looks like grey boiling tar. There is no smoke or heat, just a sort of sticky noise not unlike the sound of a car driving slowly over tarmac on a very hot summer day, or of boiling home-made marmalade.

'But what the hell is it?' cries Jack, looking sick.

'I must first explain,' says the man, uneasily, 'that I am professor Zoot's assistant. And over there,' he continues, waving his arm at the polluted field, 'is what's left of the buildings that were here yesterday… everything… the lot… and is what your super-fabulous ultra-futuristic cars will turn into at any moment. Which is why I had to find you both fast. And what good fortune you both decided to return to the scene of the…'

'Crime?' Says Tara.

The man blushes again. Jack turns to Tara, who looks even sicker than him, 'So much for your small fortune, you daft bag!' he groans.

'MY fortune?' she snaps back, 'That's right, blame me!' She clenches her fists, then relaxes and shakes her head, 'Everything you do is a failure, a big fat oversized letdown. You're nothing but a great gormless prat.'

'Go easy, Sweetheart.' interjects Blip, 'I was took-in too. But don't fret. This ain't the end of it. I aim to get compensation from this joker.'

The man is about to speak when a gut-wrenching sucking noise comes from behind them. They swivel to see what it is. Blip's car is imploding and shrinking. It is melting, contorting and congealing into a formless blob of dirty jelly. It sinks towards the ground as little bubbles form and burst all over its rippling surface with the familiar noise.

'So much for that!' says Blip, with philosophic bluntness.

'You'll both be compensated.' says the man, 'You have my word. We'll go to my office and settle it now if you like.'

'I'd like to meet that bloke in the white boiler-suit who did the swap.' says Jack, 'Mac, weren't it?'

The man frowns, 'He'll be down there in that field with the rest of it.' he mutters, waving behind him.

'What?' yelps Jack, 'That's terrible. Poor sod. What a way to go. I sort of liked the guy… But how can you know that?'

The man smiles, 'Don't concern yourself. Mac was part of the experiment. Like everything else, he was no more real than the big glass show-hall, or this fella's car there.' He gestures to Blip, and they stare at the seething grey mush that was Blip's car and that's now shrunk to the size of a suitcase, and roughly resembles an oversized cow-pat teeming with flies.

'Mac?' cries Jack, 'A plastic robot?'

'Well,' says the man, 'I wouldn't put it quite like that.'

'I'm lost.' says Tara to the man, 'Who's Mac? And why don't you just tell us what the hell's going on?

'Very well,' he says, 'It's simple enough. The professor does experiments. That's his function in life as I see it. The latest project involved nanotechnology. Heard of it? Of course you have. He thought he'd unravelled the secret of how to copy the molecular structural-plan for any object he nano-holographed into a nano-seed generator. And by mingling that generated seed with a sprinkling of essential elements he could turn even a tank of sewage into a working replica of that chosen object. An ambitious project, true. And risky - as we've seen. But certainly worth the effort, wouldn't you say?'

The three of them look at one another, then at the man, who clears his throat and continues.

'It was designed to decompose as a failsafe. It's biodegradable too. But no one else was supposed to stumble on it. The programmes are incomplete. It was a preliminary test. He doesn't always bungle things as the press likes to imply; though I admit, he usually does. A genius though, all the same. And a fine employer. Well, anyhow,' he adds, turning to Blip, 'if you can be good enough to take us back to my office in the Bentley, we can see about your compensation.'

'I'll do that.' says Blip, 'But tell me, what's the aim of this project. You're not intending to set up places like that on a permanent basis, are you?'

'I can't say what the ultimate aim is.' the man replies, 'It's not my prerogative. As I said, I'm only an assistant. And this is merely one of a number of projects in progress. But I trust it's understood that the level of compensation for the inconvenience you've suffered reflects also the fact that none of you will go blabbing to any authorities. Now, shall we get in the Bentley and go to my office?'

All except Jack get in the Bentley, Blip in the driver's seat, with the man beside him and Tara in the back with the door open waiting for Jack.

'I can't leave my coupé!' shouts Jack, now standing beside it. 'It's the best car in the world.'

'Don't be a nerd.' Tara shouts back, 'It's going to melt into a dollop of sticky goo any minute like Blip's. Come on. Get in, will you?'

Blip leans out of the window, 'I'll sell ya somethin' to take its place Jack when we gets our compensation. I got a little Ferrari that'd just suit ya nice, an' I'll let it go for a song. How 'bout it?'

Jack's mouth curves down at the edges. He hesitates, then wanders slowly over to them. 'Oh, all right then.' he says, and gets in.

The man navigates to his office which in fact is in a big period thatched house surrounded by garden. Leaving the Bentley on the main drive, the man leads them to an annex, the door of which opens on their approach.

A man in a pale-green jump suit emerges, 'Good morning, Grem.' he says brightly, 'I see you have visitors today.'

'Oh, yes, Arto.' replies Grem, then adds, 'Actually, it's afternoon. Perhaps you could go and wait in the house - and adjust your clock.'

Arto gives a little bow, and starts walking onto the drive.

'MAC!' yells Jack, stopping in front of him, 'Mac, am I glad to see YOU. I thought you were dead….'

Arto stops and smiles at Jack. 'Sir?' he inquires.

'Leave him.' calls Grem, 'That's not Mac. It's just a clone from the same programme… different qualities but similar appearance. Saves time, you see?'

Jack steps aside and watches with a look of perplexity as Arto augments his familiar warm smile with another minuscule bow then continues towards the house.

They walk to the office as Grem holds the door. 'I wouldn't mind one of those.' Jack murmurs to Blip, flicking his eyes back, 'Preferably a female version. With big…'

'Shut-up you!' shouts Tara, 'Maniac. Just get in there!' and she shoves him into the office and pulls the door shut behind them.

Fifteen minutes later they emerge. Jack and Blip have a cheque each for €2-million, and are beaming like kids at a jelly-fight. Blip gives Jack and Tara a lift home, and Jack tells Blip he's no longer interested in cheapo Ferraris. When they enter the house, Jack cries, 'Yippee.' as loud as he can, and stands staring out of the window at the sky. And Tara says to Zilch, 'OK, Buddha, now we can ALL afford to take a laid-back attitude to life.'

Zilch just purrs and somehow manages to whistle softly at the same time.

'Let's see that cheque again.' says Tara, flouncing across the room and landing with a heavy ominous "boing" on the sofa.

Jack puts his hand in his pocket. 'Oh!' he cries, 'There's something sticky. Here, come and look.'

Tara leaps up and digs into the pocket. 'It's that sodding bloody stinking ooze, you great stupid pillock. We've been HAD. Do you realise that? We've been HAD. Who'd have believed all that anyway? Only a couple of no-hopers like us! What a bloody farce!'

Jack almost snarls. 'I'm going back to that house and I'm going to strangle that little bastard. What was his name, Grem? I'll tear his damn guts out...'

'Go easy.' says Tara, 'We don't want to get into trouble with the law.'

'That's it! I'll tell the cops.'

'Even if they believed you, what could they do?'

'Oh bugger!' groans Jack, 'OK. But I've got to know what's really going on. I'm going back there now. Can I use your mo-ped?'

'That's fine, Darling. Just remember, it's not that important. It was too good to be true anyway. And I expect it was all biodegradable plastic. What else with stupid names like Blip and Grem? They both sound to me like duff sections of a programme.'

An hour passes and then another. At about half-past three Tara hears the door open and sees Jack standing there looking wrecked.

'You're drunk.' she says.

'Yep, Honey,' he replies, 'And I damn well needed it.'

'What happened?'

'When I got there,' he says, still astonished, 'There was just a field. The big thatched house was completely gone, and the garden. All that was left was that grey mush and a little post box which had "Mail for: Mad-Zoot's Automatonic Cars (MAC)" and no driveway or anything.'

'You sure you got the right place?' she replies.

'Poditive.' he slurs.

Tara says, 'You need a new car, Darling.'

He nods and lumps down on the sofa, which crashes flat to the floor splaying its legs out sideways.

'An' you need a new sofa.' says Jack.

Then they giggle a bit, and soon they begin to laugh, and then they're laughing so much they can hardly breathe… while Zilch looks coolly on - bemused perhaps, but decidedly unperturbed.

-------------------- / / ------------------------

Zilch, calmly weighing a persistent inquisitor



Friend of Zilch, Supakool Ginge, deftly avoiding a freak wave on Cliff-End beach