Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

“We all call it ‘safe space’. The inventors of the concept called it ‘social distancing’. It was only two metres back then. They used it, along with increased ventilation and personal masking, to slow some respiratory epidemics. Sociologists still argue about the long-term effects on everything except health.
“But I digress. Which is something you’ll get used to it if you choose to enrol in this course.”
The scruffy woman standing by the lectern looks out at the packed hall. Standing room only. Every person verified to be in good health by the scanners at the entrance to the venue. She knows more than half of the attendees are here simply because it’s an authorised proximity gathering. They just want to feel a crowd about them.
“So, here you all are, crammed in like venues used to able to do all the time. No screens, no grids, just a mob and a speaker. I know many of you don’t really care about what I have to say.”
She sees rapid movement. The security team is pushing through the crowd towards the front. With a swift double blink she drops monitoring lenses over her eyes.
There! Third row back, next to the aisle. A seated body is already at ambient temperature.
“Okay, folks. We have a little situation and I need you to do what I say. This is a Compliance Directive for the entire Grantham Hall Complex.”
That gets their attention. CDs are instant emergency laws, applicable for no more than four hours, and only for clearly delineated areas.
“Everybody standing, please stay where you are. I know it’s going to be difficult, but please do so with a minimum of moving about.”
Liaden, the security lead, reaches the figure. He quickly checks the body, then looks her way and nods.
“Your attention, please. Looks like we’ve had a narcodeath. Please follow the instructions of our security personnel and you’ll be on your way in no time. Tonight’s presentation will be rescheduled.”
She sees accepting shrugs and resigned looks. Overdoses and poisonings from self-medication with black market pharmaceuticals are on the rise. You only get advice for free from the NHS, and dealers are always ready to peddle cheap remedies.
It’s a bitter irony. NHS sites and lines are always busy. Medical personnel in other countries contact them when they need accurate recommendations. Treatment advice that often results in deaths here frequently saves lives abroad.
Tonight, the drugs are actually beneficial. A useful cover, because a body gone cold that fast has been drained.
Pholmor have lived among human populations for millennia. After learning how to restrict their energy stealing so they didn’t grow to outlandish sizes, they just blended in, faded from history, and then from mythology.
They are the precursors of vampires, succubi, incubi, and every other legendary thing that steals life from humans. An energy transfer that only needs skin to skin contact. They can consume everything we do, but their rudimentary digestive systems extract no nutrients. They sustain themselves by bleeding energy from us. The authorities keep their existence secret, because the toll of erroneous killings that would occur should they ever be revealed is hideous to even contemplate.
For anyone weakened by illness or another condition, an unexpected loss of vitality can kill: like tonight.
A scuffle breaks out. There’s the crackle of a suppressor, followed by an inhuman scream that makes heads turn. Another Pholmor for the fenced valley below the research centre in the Scottish Highlands.
“Please stay calm and co-operate, folks. There’s no reason to get excited.”
Not tonight, anyway.