It starts with moss breaking through potholes,
cress settling on cracks in walls…
Read the rest of my poem published in Elephants Never!
It starts with moss breaking through potholes,
cress settling on cracks in walls…
Read the rest of my poem published in Elephants Never!
Sunlight was touching the tops of the trees over the hills when I banged on the inn’s door. Blood squelched in my boots, trickling from my arms, legs, neck, from my scalp to sting my eyes. When the door opened it pushed me back, almost knocking me over. I swayed like rushes in a gale.
‘Let me in,’ I said, hoarse. ‘Help.’ Then the floor swooped up to grab me.
I woke up in bright sunlight. The innkeeper’s long hair brushed my arm as she sat by the bed in the narrow room, haloed by the window. I sat up, aching and scabbed. My clothes were in a bucket in the corner, the water pink. I’d been put in a brown tunic. The rush of blood sang distantly in my ears, bile rising.
‘We’ve patched you up, but you lost a lot of blood,’ the innkeeper said. With difficulty I turned to put my feet on the floor, shading my eyes with an arm. Stitches twinged in the crook of my elbow. ‘Bandits?’ she said, drawing the shutter.
I nodded. Again I heard Tom calling out for me as the man threw him to the ground, saw Milly’s limp body, saw Will drawing his sword as I was grabbed from behind. Passing out as my head hit the flagstone and Will’s sword plunged into his own belly. Smelling fetid copper breath.
‘I’m Maude. What’s your name?’
‘Serana.’ The word came out hushed. The veins on the backs of my hands were bright through pallid flesh.
Maude gestured to the plate of bread and cheese and cup of water on the bedside table. ‘You must be hungry. Try to eat something, you need to get your strength back.’
I was famished, but it was a struggle to chew and swallow past my flipping stomach and the lump in my throat. Tom, Milly, Will. I tasted bile and ashes, too tired to weep. I could see Maude looking at me, holding herself back from asking more questions. I wanted to ask her to go away but didn’t know how to go about it decently. Eventually I finished the plate. Maude asked what she could do now, and I rolled back onto the covers. She paused, then left.
For a while I watched the sunlight track along the wall, listening to the whisper of my pulse in my ears. I guessed from the banged head. After I heard Maude leave I got up, found and put on an oversized pair of shoes, and went down into the inn. Although I was wobbly, I barely hurt and the wounds looked less bad than I’d thought. I almost said so to Will, before it hit me fresh again. And that’s when the floodgates opened.
I got it back under control just in time for Maude to return, with an old man carrying a pack.
‘You must be Serana,’ he said, taking out herbs and a mortar and pestle. ‘I’m Garret. Nice to see you awake. Mind me having another look?’
‘I don’t have much to pay,’ I said, to him and Maude. ‘I imagine the goods were stripped out too, when…’
‘Forget that!’ Maude said. ‘We still believe in hospitality over here.’
‘The roads these days – well,’ Garret said. He peered at the stitch on my neck. ‘Early days, but this is encouraging. Good. Let’s just avoid infection. Deep, but narrow. Curious how exactly -’ He backed off. ‘Do excuse me, I mustn’t probe.’
I sighed, letting him apply a poultice. ‘It’s okay. After the war we joined a merchant caravan. We had trouble with our wagon, fell behind in the woods. Some thief took advantage of it. Killed my family, left me for dead. Don’t know exactly how these happened, I got knocked out.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Maude said. ‘I lost people myself, in that damn fool war. Well, you can stay here at least until the next caravan comes through. Sure they’ll take you, if you want.’
‘But you’ve got no other guests, how can you -’
‘Forget that. Just give me a good deal when you come back the other way.’
Garret finished. ‘There. Well, I’ll be seeing you. Shame we didn’t meet in better circumstances.’
‘Thank you,’ I said through a yawn. It was early, but I went back to bed. I dreamed of Tom, Milly, Will, and acrid metallic breath.
Over the coming days I got back my energy and strength, though the rush of blood in my ears continued and Garret wasn’t sure why. I found myself staying awake through the night, replaying the brief scene of the attack, dozing too much in the day. Since Maude’s work centred around the evening that was convenient, as, despite her staunch words on hospitality, I insisted on doing some work for the room and food. It kept me distracted.
Some townsfolk went to the wagon and found no trace of Tom, Milly, or Will. Barely anything had been taken, not even the silverware from Mortlake. I sold what I could, but Maude refused the money. I had to bully her into taking a few copper pieces.
When it was time, I sat outside the inn during sunset while Garret removed my stitches. As the threads came out I could faintly hear my pulse, ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum.
‘Always nervous doing that. Well, you’ve got some luck. You heal fast.’ Some of the locals in the inn cheered, banging on tables.
‘I could use some luck. Thank you.’
He rose, opening the door. Someone was leading a bawdy tavern song. Garret held the door for a moment, but I didn’t go in. Instead I walked to the edge of town, held my breath, then stepped into the forest. I went a few minutes out and sat by the banks of a bubbling brook, massaging the wound sites. Slowly tension eased from my shoulders, and after a while I realised I wasn’t hearing the noise in my ears. I felt good, and guilty for that.
I woke up and stepped outside to see the sun, deep orange in air dusty from the quarry, beginning to dip its toes behind the horizon. I’d got used to the pulsating whisper in my ears. The peace of walking in the forest at night was growing on me, calm as waking up before Will to watch the sun rise had used to be.
The thought of Will, Tom and Milly flickered on my heartstrings for a moment, but no longer shadowed the whole day. Sometimes that worried me.
I went into the inn for dinner, before the regulars would start to arrive. Maude poured the stew for us and she delved in, her arms rippling with muscle from shifting the barrels. Normally I was even more enthusiastic – she was a good cook, and all the ale didn’t hurt. But I found myself strangely full after a few bites.
‘Anything wrong?’ Maude asked, dipping a crust.
‘No, I’m fine.’
Maude shrugged. ‘If you say so.’ I got down a little more. ‘It’s good having you here. I know this… your life has been thrown off-kilter. You probably don’t want to stay here forever. There should’ve been a caravan here already, but, the roads these days. Anyway. When one comes they’ll take you, but the offer’s open to stay.’ She stirred her bowl, sheepish. I looked at the backs of my hands. Were they still paler than before?
‘That’s… thank you.’ Inwardly I bristled at this woman taking me as some sort of surrogate daughter. I’d had my own life. I didn’t need to be a pet. ‘I don’t know what I’ll do. I like it here, you’ve been so kind, after everything. But this place is too close to -’
She nodded. ‘I understand. I still don’t like when soldiers are in here. Brings things back.’ She finished eating, washed out her bowl, and kept the rest of mine for leftovers. I swept and checked the barrels.
People began to arrive, dusty and thirsty. As things got hectic the usual phantom sound picked up. Strange to think it hadn’t always been there. Old Meryl regaled some children with tales of fell creatures in the woods snatching young rascals, making them shriek in delighted fear. Someone started up a song, and I found myself quietly joining in – one Milly had been fond of, although I was, to put it kindly to myself, no bard.
Partway through the fourth verse I realised that the inn was silent. Everyone was staring at me. I blushed, stammering to a halt.
‘Don’t stop,’ one of the kids said. They looked entranced.
‘Why’ve you been hiding your bard, Maude?’ the smith said.
‘I didn’t know she could sing,’ Maude said.
‘I didn’t – I can’t -’ I said. I knew I sang like a cat having its tail pulled. Why were they looking at me like that?
I didn’t understand it, but I began to make Maude and myself a lot of money.
Maude and Garret became worried about how little I was eating, and my ongoing crazy sleep pattern. But I felt pretty good, strong, not losing weight. If I had to be active in the day I’d feel restless and itchy, especially outside. After sunset the colours seemed sharper, the air cleaner.
Before long I stopped eating entirely. I told Maude not to worry about it, and she, bizarrely, stopped mentioning it. Her food was the same as before, but something didn’t seem right about it.
A few nights later, I was in the forest when I caught a mouthwatering scent. I followed it, my stomach growling, and came upon a rabbit caught in a trap. Before I knew what I was doing I snapped its neck and tore into it, gorging myself. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted.
As I walked back towards the town I heard the rush of blood in my ears resolve into beats. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum.
The sound of my pulse became infuriating. In a full inn it sounded like a cacophony, and I took more and more excuses to be out at night, wandering the woods, where it was quieter, or finally silent.
The caravans still hadn’t come. There were whispers about hordes of lawless fiends on the roads, though Old Meryl told a darker tale. My roaming, my hunting, took me further afield each time, until I decided to go back to the scene where it had happened.
A completely ordinary stretch of road, bearing no mark of the attack. I expected to feel something. Tom. Milly. Will. No, nothing. That life was over. I sat watching the moon shine over the town, musing on the change that’d come over me.
And then a horse galloped through my chest. I felt my heart writhing within me, as I fell back on the stone with my limbs thrashing. The night was so bright. Each second became a sharp blade piercing body and soul, taking a little drop of Serana each time, leaving something new in its empty wake. I felt my heart calm. And stop.
Slowly I rose to my feet. I felt for my pulse. Nothing. I knew now what had attacked me. What I had become. I’d thought I’d been the only survivor. But I hadn’t survived, not really. And now I’d been born anew.
I walked towards the town, revelling in the sensual clarity, the vigour of limb which would be mine forever. As I got close I could hear the heartbeats, the rush of blood which I’d mistaken for my own. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, sweetness and life ripe for the taking. The smell was intoxicating.
I knocked at the inn. ‘It’s me. Let me in.’
‘Heavens, come in, it’s cold out,’ Maude said, opening the door. ‘Where did you go? I worry, you know. It’s not safe out there.’
‘Maude. I need a little something.’
‘Oh. I don’t suppose you’re eating again?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m thirsty.’
‘You don’t need to ask.’ She turned to get a drink.
‘Stop,’ I said, my hypnotic influence stronger than when I’d sang badly but been thought a bard, than when I’d told Maude not to worry about my diet. She paused. ‘Stay still.’ She froze in place. She stank of fear. Her heart pounded.
I reached out to her neck, tracing the vein, feeling it pulsate as she stood there, unable to move away. Badumbadumbadumbadum.
I am gravely concerned to hear that you are considering withdrawing funding. Our vital work cannot continue without the support of backers such as yourself. Pressure from
Dear Mr —–,
I am dismayed to hear you are considering withdrawing support for our attempt to mount a legal challenge against
Sorry you’re too much of a coward to stand up to Murphy. Yeah the long-term viability of life on Earth is at stake, but you got a fraction of the nasty emails and demonstrators I get and it’s scary so fair enough, piss off then.
I am dismayed to hear you are considering withdrawing support for our venture. As you know, the Federation’s proposed warp rail through local space may threaten planetary
I am aware the Federation provides enormous opportunities, and can relocate humanity and key components of our biosphere to a terraformed colony in the event of meltdown. However, I quite frankly have an irrational attachment to this planet and cannot meekly accept
No damn it Morgan this one is a -bad- idea
I am dismayed to hear you are considering withdrawing support for our venture to mount a legal challenge to the Orion Committee regarding Prop. Sol A14D. As you know, probationary members of the Federation have curtailed access to legal aid, making it all the more vital that both on and off-world concerned citizens assist us in
I implore you
I am disappointed to hear of your desire to withdraw from the project. Murphy has been placing pressure on all of us to let the issue go. It’s shameful that world governments are sticking their heads in the sand over both Prop. Sol and the behaviour of its high-profile supporters, and I can understand your desire to protect yourself.
However, might you consider taking a more back-seat role rather than dropping out? Again, I do appreciate your personal safety concerns at the moment, but this is so much larger than any of us that I must urge you to consider other options. We need all the help we can get.
The office dipped briefly into darkness, as Orothein the Thousand-Limbed swarmed in front of the sun then returned to His nest on the moon.
‘Active today, aren’t they?’ Mark said, sipping coffee from a giant mug. ‘Reckon there’ll be some claims coming in soon.’ He ran a hand through his hair, leaning in close to the computer screen and squinting at the spreadsheet.
The return of the Old Ones had its impacts. Those hibernating under the earth or in the sea had caused earthquakes and tsunamis when they rose, with regions tainted and lost to madness, mutation, and decay. But humanity was permitted to exist, and the Red Box Insurance Company gained substantial market share by pioneering policies covering their influence.
Tom put his coat on the back of his chair, sitting next to Mark. ‘Ugh, chaos out there!’
‘Trouble on the Tube?’
‘Non-euclidean geometry at Bank. It’s like an Escher painting in there, bloody paradoxes.’
‘Hate when they’re antsy.’
‘Took ages to figure out. Had to go up the same escalator three times then run down it once to get to the exit.’ Tom sighed, switching on his computer. ‘Good weekend, Mark, Jill?’
‘Saw that new Tom Cruise one,’ Jill said, swiveling at the opposing desk. ‘He’s not been the same since he joined the Cult of Skartel.’
‘Yeah. Better off in Scientology, really.’
‘Something you’d never expect to say,’ Mark said. ‘I didn’t get up to much, just lazing about all weekend.’
‘Those are the best,’ Jill said. ‘Still no Sandra, by the way.’
‘Hope she’s okay,’ Tom said. ‘I knew she had financial worries, but… ah, shit. Forget I said that.’
‘What?’ Mark said.
‘Stumbled into her rat-arsed at a club a few weeks back and she said something about it. Forget it, I wasn’t supposed to say.’
‘She’s in accounts, and she can’t…’
‘Mark,’ Jill said.
Mark put his hands up. ‘Say no more.’ He put in his headphones and got to work.
Jill made eye contact with Tom, glanced at Mark, then rolled her eyes. Tom smiled and shrugged. ‘I need coffee,’ he announced, getting up.
‘Same,’ Jill said, following to the machine.
‘Don’t pay too much attention to Mark,’ Tom said, rooting through cupboards for mugs. He passed one to Jill, gesturing for her to go first.
‘Thanks. He’s a bit of a dick, isn’t he?’ she said, pressing buttons.
‘Yeah, that’s just his way, his sense of humour.’ Coffee poured into her mug. She leaned on the counter blowing to cool it down while Tom set up his mug.
‘Had enough edgy comedians at my last job. The woman’s got a problem and hasn’t showed up for a while, you ought to feel bad… I heard some people downstairs saying she’d joined the Old Ones.’
Tom snorted. ‘Office gossip.’ The machine whined, struggling to trickle out at half the usual speed. ‘Damn thing acting up again.’
Signs put up in and around Bank Tube Station by the Human Defence Force told commuters how to travel through the distortion to their destinations, while they waited for an HDF squad to restore normality.
Sandra ignored the signs, barging against the stream of the crowd. She walked with purpose up a set of stairs, arriving at the bottom of the same set of stairs but with a new door on the left, went through the door and appeared on a ceiling, took a set of stairs back to the top of the original staircase, and went down them again. She went to the right and knocked on the wall, appearing in a cavern inaccessible through the three dimensions.
Water lit green by bacteria dripped on her head, splashes and footsteps on rock echoing around the chamber as she walked to the lectern at its centre. Her breath steamed in the cold, the only heat coming from the book. As she got closer the water became warmer, and she felt like she was getting sunburn.
Sandra stood by the rough-hewn stone lectern, water steaming at her feet, staring at the book. An item so ancient, its mistress sleeping from before the dawn of man until recently, yet bound in a patchwork of human skin.
She touched it with her finger, expecting her skin to burn. A tentacle slithered into her mind, filling it with a language older than the tongue. She opened the book and began to read aloud.
Mark was on the phone with a client when darkness fell again. ‘I’m sorry, Mr McCarthy, but your policy doesn’t cover second-hand mutations caused by thralls of Solowen.’ Mark glanced out the window, listening, as Orothein floated in front of the sun longer than usual, the gaps between his tendrils backlit red as they swayed.
‘Because it’s an exponentially growing effect. We can’t realistically provide that sort of cover in your region unless the premiums are astronomical.’ People were starting to gather at the window. Mark watched them whispering to each other, while Mr McCarthy continued. Cars below turned their lights on.
‘I’m sorry you’ve got extra ears, but I don’t see what I can do for you. I’m looking at the emails here, and I can see it was clearly stated what you were and weren’t getting covered for. I can pass you on to another claims operator if you like, but they’ll tell you the same thing.’
Orothein roared, a roar that somehow passed through the vacuum of space to buffet the earth. Everyone flinched. It was starting to get cool from the impromptu eclipse. ‘Okay, Mr McCarthy. Thanks, have a nice day.’ Mark passed the call up to someone else. ‘Today’ll be a tough one, I can feel it.’ He went for another coffee.
‘Glad I got one of these,’ Jill said to Tom, flashing an HDF self-defense pamphlet.
‘Ah,’ Tom said. ‘What sort of stuff is it?’
‘Nothing too hardcore. Simple glyphs for holding thralls off, preventing them speaking, the basic cross-running-water stuff.’
‘I’ve got one stuck in the sofa somewhere.’ Orothein allowed daylight to return.
‘Well, you never know.’
The coffee machine made a whirring sound, pouring out warm water. Mark groaned. ‘Come on!’ He fiddled around with it, not noticing the reaction of the office as Sandra strode from the lift.
He yelped, thinking boiling water had splashed on his hand, and saw Sandra, hair lanky and eyes too focused, her shoes dripping with green muck, holding a book close to him. He backed away, knocking a glass from the counter, the heat reducing as he got away from her.
She opened it and read out barbarous words that made the coffee machine shiver and spark, her hair turn into snakes, and everyone in the office see a vision of the earth forming as Orothein nudged fragments together with a thousand limbs, a swarm of Old Ones assembling from beyond the stars to bear witness. The carpet became sodden in cold water, beginning to glow green.
‘Behold!’ Sandra said. ‘Emeris, Lady of Secrets, calls on you to know Her wisdom, the forbidden, the ancient, the unspeakable truths kept from the eyes of man, the-’
She stopped talking as Jill slashed her hand with a pocketknife and drew a symbol in blood on the wall, then was rooted to the spot as she drew another. Tom gave Jill some paper towel and rang 999, asked for the HDF, and said they had a thrall with a book.
Mark straightened, nudged the glass shards to a corner with his foot, and said, ‘Nice one, Jill.’ He tried the machine again – which worked perfectly – and took the steaming mug back to his desk, his hands shaking a little, shoes squelching on the wet carpet.
An HDF team swiftly arrived to cart Sandra away, gagging her and packing the book inside a lead-lined case. They scoured the taint of Emeris with a rite before they left, the carpet steaming dry. Gradually people returned to work.
After a while, Mark spotted something on a spreadsheet. ‘Holy crap.’
‘What?’ Tom said.
‘Sandra took out a policy, last month. Juicy payout too. Unless it’s dismissed for fraud.’
‘It’s right here.’
Jill inspected her cut hand. ‘You think she arranged-’
Mark sipped coffee. ‘Maybe. I said there’d be claims coming in, didn’t I?’
BUREAU OF EXODUS AFFAIRS
NAME Kelsey Graham
ID CODE A467B/ZQ9
APPLICANT STATEMENT (MAX. 500 WORDS)
I know this form won’t get read, but it’s something to do on the commute. Most of the people on this train also work at the Bureau, but don’t know the AI’s already decided. It’s gone through everybody’s records and decided who gets a ticket, but it’s better for morale to let people ‘apply’.
Will I get a spot? Feels like I deserve it. We wouldn’t have the hibernation cracked yet without me. But is my science rating high enough to make up for the age? There’s bound to be a bunch of damn biology genius/artist teenagers with six-packs and zen monk psych profiles more worth keeping.
If I thought this form was real, what would I write? Listing achievements and personal qualities for a job application is one thing, but when it’s for the chance to live? To live, instead of a million other people? I’m alright, but am I better than a million people? What sort of person could believe they are?
Shinzen quit to be with his family. Not a bad choice if you have one. The pods are pretty much done anyway. It’d be good to have time to properly test long-term hibernation. Hopefully the lucky few will still have their marbles at the other end!
Even with modern automation, it’s a miracle enough people are still working to keep civilisation going. Going quite well, for the most part. Money is worthless now, so people just get what they need. If a job is worthless, which a lot were, people don’t do it and the useful ones get divided up. People have more time, but they’re filling it with things. It’s easy to forget what’s coming sometimes. Why did it take this to make us collectively get it together?
Not that it’s all kumbaya until the end. Tensions come out. Like Grace broke down today, demanding a ticket for her kid. Had to be sedated. No idea how she got the gun in there. Far as she knows the Director selects who from this sector gets on board. She’s been seeing him in the office every day, thinking he could save her kid. Of course she’d be willing to shoot a bureaucrat to flip that ‘no’ to ‘yes’.
Of course no person can choose. There’s far too many people to sift through. And the AI isn’t biased. Shouldn’t be. Hopefully the programmers didn’t put their own issues in there.
Too much of this relies on hope.
I’m thinking of quitting myself. See if I can patch things up with my sister. Time I sat back with her and Bob and the nephews and niece. They’re in Hawaii. Warm sun and sand and surf.
If you are reading this, AI, I hope you know what you’re doing.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST. THE BUREAU AIMS TO RESPOND BY T-3 MONTHS.
#BELOW FOR OFFICE USE ONLY#
CULTURAL 1 2 3 4 5
SCIENTIFIC 1 2 3 4 5
PHYSICAL 1 2 3 4 5
PSYCH 1 2 3 4 5
DECISION YES NO
BUREAU OF EXODUS AFFAIRS
The pulse of activity in the pub skipped a beat when Eve and Pete walked in. Graham’s hand grazed his belt then skipped back to his pint, Nora’s face puckered like she’d bit into a lemon, Brian’s lips pursed. The moment passed and George waved them over from behind the bar, handing Tara another glass of wine, as everyone carried on enjoying themselves.
George pulled Pete’s pint then turned to Eve.
‘Just a coke, please,’ she said softly, tracing her fingers along the bar’s wood grain.
George and Pete glanced at each other. ‘I’m sure your dad wouldn’t turn me in… given the occasion,’ George said, leaning forward with a conspiratorial tone.
‘That’s okay.’ She looked up, smiled. ‘Thanks.’
‘Only a few months ‘til it’s legal anyway, Evie,’ Pete said. ‘When I was your age I’d already pushed my limits plenty of times.’
‘Ain’t that right,’ Richard said, nudging him in the ribs. Tara leaned into Richard’s shoulder, grinning at Eve.
They shifted through the crowd to stand along a wall, as far as possible from Graham’s group, resting drinks on the mantelpiece. The exposed beam opposite them had used to have an Oscar Wilde quote about drinking painted on it. That had been roughly painted over to say, Never split up. Be vigilant. Eve turned to face away from it.
Tara snapped her fingers in front of Eve’s face. ‘Eve?’
‘Huh?’ Eve said.
‘You sure that’s just coke? You seem pretty out of it,’ Tara said, flicking Eve’s drink. ‘I was asking if you’d made a resolution.’
‘Well,’ Richard said, checking his watch, ‘Best think of one soonish. Not long to midnight.’
‘Honestly, this last year can piss off,’ Pete said.
‘Amen to that,’ Richard said, glancing through the milling crowd at Graham on the other side of the pub, staring at Eve with a rigidly set scowl.
‘God, what’s she done to herself?’ Tara said, pointing out a girl at the bar with an array of piercings and bright purple hair.
‘Lisa,’ Eve said.
‘What?’ Pete said. He angled his head. ‘Blimey. It is. Go say hi then, unless you’d rather hang around with us old folk.’
Eve called out to Lisa as she hid away the hip flask and drank her lemonade, pulling a face at how strong she’d mixed it.
‘Bloody hell,’ Lisa said, slamming the glass down in her haste to hug Eve.
‘You got it all done, then,’ Eve said, breaking contact eventually.
‘Yeah. With everything going on I decided to just go for it, y’know?’
‘Fair enough. So why am I only just seeing you now?’
‘Well. We were in France on holiday when it all kicked off so we stayed out there… then we were actually considering just not coming back. But here I am!’
‘I’m glad you’re okay. And you came back.’
‘And you’re okay, then? I heard – y’know. And your mum. So sorry.’
‘Yeah. I’m alright,’ Eve said, looking at her feet, rubbing her left sleeve.
‘Dan and Elliot are in the garden,’ Lisa said, taking Eve’s hand and leading her out the back door.
Pete, Tara, and Richard watched them.
‘More like her mother every day,’ Pete said.
‘And more like herself,’ Tara suggested.
‘It’s gonna take a long time to fix everything. Not just meaning her,’ Richard said.
Pete sighed. ‘That first day in the treatment centre. God. When I saw her then I thought…’ he took a long draught, wiped the head from his top lip.
‘It’s tough,’ Tara said, patting his arm.
‘The Grahams, Noras, Brians of the world aren’t going to help going forwards,’ Richard said.
‘They’ll get over it,’ Tara said. ‘It’s been rough for all of us.’
‘Hmm,’ Pete said, as Nora shuffled towards the garden.
Eve let Lisa tip a little from the flask into her coke. They sat on the wall next to Dan and Elliot, in the warmth and orange light of the heaters overhead, breath steaming in the air. The beer garden was just as packed as the inside, benches all taken up and with even more villagers jostling around. Dan fidgeted with a piece of brick, Lisa leaning backwards to watch the moths.
Nora shuffled down the steps beside the wall, rolling a cigarette one-handed.
‘How’d she make it?’ Lisa whispered, setting Elliot into a fit of laughter.
She reached the grass and lit her cigarette, turning to glare at them. Elliot set his face into an innocent look but Nora glared at Eve instead, tutting. Eve felt a weight pull downwards in her chest.
‘You shouldn’t be here,’ Nora said.
Dan snorted. ‘Where else should she be?’
Nora shook her head, turning away.
‘Ignore her,’ Lisa said.
‘Damn,’ Elliot said. ‘She hates you even more than me.’
‘Maybe she’s right,’ Eve muttered, watching Nora smoke by the pond.
‘Nah,’ Dan said, standing up. ‘Nora, Brian, Graham. Not worth your time. They haven’t moved on.’ He rolled his shoulders, stretching, then downed his drink. ‘C’mon, let’s get out of here for a bit. Yuppie camp?’
They finished their drinks and followed him out of The Nag’s Head, telling Pete they’d be back ‘later this year,’ chuckling at the joke. As they went uphill along the high street the sound of the pub gradually faded. The front gardens all had vegetable patches and the village green still had a cow and sheep there, with some crops fenced off.
Before long they were out of the village, crossing the planks across the trench. Lisa bent down to touch the tips of one of the spikes in its base, a fire-hardened stick.
‘Someone should really get rid of those,’ Elliot said, as they crossed a second trench surrounding the empty ramshackle camp bordering the village.
‘Yuppie camp?’ Lisa asked.
‘Yeah,’ Dan said, reaching over to heft the heavy bar locking an abandoned hut’s door. ‘Some of the people escaping London wound up here, built this place. They’ve pissed off back to Brick Lane now, but -’ he retrieved some bottles – ‘good hiding place.’
‘I knew there was a reason I came back to this dump,’ Lisa said, opening a bottle.
Dan held one out. ‘Eve?’
‘Better not,’ Eve said. ‘Thanks. They don’t know how drinking over a few units might interact with…’
‘No worries,’ Dan said, handing a drink to Elliot and opening one himself.
‘This must be super weird for you,’ Elliot said to Eve.
Lisa coughed. ‘D’you remember any of it?’
‘Bits and pieces. Fragments come back, here and there.’
‘Jesus,’ Dan muttered.
‘It wasn’t quite so bad in France,’ Lisa said. ‘Not to the point of spiked trenches or shanty towns. Hell.’
Eve rubbed her left sleeve.
‘Enough of that,’ Dan said. ‘New year soon. Putting all that in the past. Moving forwards. Have we all got resolutions?’
They got back to the pub at half eleven. The village’s grumpier figures had succumbed to the joviality of the coming year and George’s liquor, attempting moves from their earlier years. Eve was getting a lemonade when the bustling activity nudged her into Graham, spilling his pint over his shirt.
‘You -’ he said, turning a beetroot shade. There was a hush around them.
‘Sorry,’ she said, rubbing her left forearm. ‘I’ll get you anoth-’
He glanced at her arm and suddenly grabbed it, pulling the sleeve down. He grunted, inspecting the crescent bite mark left by her infected mother, as she tried to pull away and Pete rushed over. She felt giddy, pushing away the unwelcome memory of someone’s flesh in her mouth, a deserted supermarket, distant screams.
She focused on Graham and felt a jolt of pity wash away her rage and fear. He was scared. Fingering the dagger at his belt like a lucky amulet, the only one still carrying a weapon for protection from shambling hordes.
Pete wrenched him off her. ‘Unhand my daughter, you twat. Do that again and we’ll find somewhere else to sheath your dagger.’
‘Holy crap, Dad,’ Eve breathed, holding him back.
Nora and Brian looked chastened. Graham sat back with them, drumming his fingers on the table, defeated. George put on ‘Come on Eileen’ and got people singing along, the incident swiftly forgotten.
‘Sure you’re alright?’ Pete said; Richard, Tara, Lisa, Dan, and Elliot crowding round.
‘Yeah. He’s nothing,’ she said, feeling something long-lost inflate within her. Moving forwards. She glanced at Graham, silent in the corner, and decided on a resolution.
As the clock approached midnight, Eve wandered towards Graham, Nora, and Brian. When the church bells rang in the new year and everyone in The Nag’s Head crossed arms for ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ Eve got a thawing Graham on one side and a thoroughly drunk Lisa on the other.
Dawn came to the motorway with a mottled red flush, bleeding through thick grey skies. Coarse yellowed grass growing in the tarmac’s scarred and pitted face drank in the meagre light, as the sun rose higher and it mellowed to a dirty orange like the rusted husks of the cars.
Some trees clung on in the forest by the roadside, gnarled and tough like old leather, their leaves grabbing all of the twilight they could. Many had collapsed into flaking wet wood coated in lichen and billowing with mushrooms, rotting in the dark undergrowth.
The remains of vehicles stretched both ways down the road for mile upon mile, a traffic jam with no impatient muttering or honking horns. Silence reigned also in the forest overlooking the road, broken only by the rustle of leaves and the calls of birds now distant from each other. Silence flowed along the breeze down the road out of the forest, pooling in the city.
Wind whistled through rubble and broken windows, a gale clearing the sky’s grey cataract to give a glimpse of the blue hidden above, waiting to be revealed. Sunlight shone down as it had before, warming the ground. It reflected from scattered fragments of shattered glass and sparkled on the fuzz of frost on the streets, casting deep shadows under the rubble.
Further into the city skyscrapers had been bent, twisted, shattered, like trees in a ferocious storm. The closer to the centre they were, the more their edges had been melted; smeared like putty; dripped to leave puddles of metal dotting the ground, gleaming in the burst of sunlight. Towers had been uprooted, welded together at the edges into wild and precarious structures overhanging tarmac and concrete which had also melted, and re-set into rough peaks and valleys.
The sun reached its noon height above the city centre, where there was nothing. It had been shredded and scattered in fragments over fifty miles, leaving a shallow bowl of scorched concrete and bare soil where not even lichen or moss grew.
A heavy bank of dark grey cloud cast its curtain back over the sun, restoring the perpetual rust-tinged dusk.
The other side of the city rose up towards a bank of steep hills. Frost rimed the yellow-green grass at their base, the new long winter making puddles on their summits freeze. The stream trickling down the hills’ far side, embarking on the long journey to the sea, now had icicle fangs in its little waterfalls.
Growing broader, deeper, and warmer as it went, the stream trickled through more forest steadily changing into a mushroom farm, with trees losing to the weak light as the remains of their trunks densely shaded the undergrowth. But as the stream became a river, the decaying forest gave way to fields released from the brown uniformity of cultivation, populated with green life – smaller and rougher than before, but continuing to feed and house stubborn wildlife.
Roads crossing the region stood quiet, nocturnal animals undisturbed by streetlamps as the sun set and night fell. Patches of clear sky revealed glittering bright segments of the milky way, undimmed by artificial light; while other areas captured all starlight in sooty cloud – cutting constellations into segments of light scattered among pitch black darkness.
The river meandered past a rusting derailed train, through an empty town with a tank standing sentinel on the bridge overhead, picking up speed as the land swooped down to the coast. It joined the sea at a beach with shells and fish bones slowly eroding in the surf.
Out over the roiling waves lightning whipped across the sky, bringing early flashes of daylight to the night, booming thunder against the world’s new quietness. As the first glow of light rose again in the east, the storm reached land. The first fat drop of rain splashed into the sand, releasing a speck of fallout carried back down from the clouds.
Here lies Jeremiah Mordaunt
Rest in Peace
Dear reader, doubtless you are wondering what drew you so to my grave – what force pulled you to this unassuming corner of the churchyard. The more pressing issue, of course, is how these words are appearing upon the headstone.
Well, let yourself settle on the grass – yes, that’s it – and your questions shall be answered.
I was the youngest of three sons and four daughters. On the eve of my thirteenth birthday my older brothers decided to spook me with a fake séance. As it happens, the spirits were displeased with their insolence. They had meant to use parlour tricks to frighten me, but all three of us swiftly fled from that basement.
My brothers found ways to dismiss the matter. I, however, became obsessed. I’d had a glimpse of the world behind the curtain and was determined to unveil its mysteries. My search was most vexing. For every genuine crumb of occult powers there were a thousand charlatans, maniacs, and superstitious fools. I studied the works of the reputed greats, seeking to apply their experiments, but Agrippa and the like concealed their understanding so well that I often began to doubt their authority on these matters.
I shall do you the courtesy of explaining what is happening to you, but forgive a late old man his digressions. Opportunities to converse are rare, but I shall hurry.
Suffice it to say that, despite the challenge of separating the wheat from the chaff, I slowly opened the curtain and tapped the forces beyond. I brought the spirits of the Goetia to heel, journeyed beyond my flesh, and slowed my ageing to keep me almost suspended in the middle of my years. Almost.
Even my extended lifespan would not permit me to complete my work. A mortal life was insufficient to bring as much clarity to these realms as a Newton brings to ours. Thus, as decrepitude forced itself upon me, I searched ever more intently for a lasting solution.
I can feel you becoming heavy and cold as you read my words, unable to look away, your muscles wrested from your will. Dear reader, have patience. My tale – and your own – will be over soon.
On this matter all spirits I summoned were ignorant or refused to speak. There was little to guide me but legend and rumour. I felt the grave opening up before me, saw the pallor approaching closer in the mirror each day. When the Third Reich called upon me to aid their own occult obsession, I put aside my disdain for their foolish preoccupation with the spear of destiny and took the opportunity to avail myself of their resources. My senses were dimming, the delayed fate at hand.
And at long last, I found my solution hidden among meaningless rituals in recovered ancient documents. I was unable to complete my magnum opus before my flesh at last failed me, but I did achieve the vital first stage. I sequestered a portion of my spirit in a ring, anchoring myself to this world. The ring still on my finger now, in the coffin beneath you.
It is the echo of power in my ring that has drawn you here, and has been leaching you of your life since you began reading. I feel you becoming ever so weary. Save yourself the effort of trying in vain to stand, to look away, to call out, to run. It’s too late.
I wish you no ill will, but this is a necessary sacrifice. My work must be completed. Each life brings me one step closer to being able to continue, and you happened to be one of the unfortunate few amenable to my influence.
Your heart is beginning to slow, soon to stop. I can see through your eyes as your vision darkens at the seams. Let it wash over you. I can assure you from experience that it doesn’t hurt. I myself haven’t had so much as a headache for over seventy years.
I have no intention of following my own advice, but as for you, dear reader – rest in peace.
Jack paid for his groceries, ignoring the voice as he took the bag and walked out into crunching snow. It was something that had started to happen a while ago.
Mum dropped by with Brian earlier. She brought back some fans – the folding paper ones? He’s sweating like a pig.
Jack snorted, shaking snow from his boots before stepping indoors. That was Jessie’s voice, as it usually was. Sometimes it was Mum or Dad, and occasionally strangers. At first he’d been really worried; but it was only now and then, they weren’t saying anything nasty, and he knew it wasn’t real. They connected to form a loose sort of story – Mum meeting some bloke called Brian, recently them having gone to China or somewhere for a holiday. Apparently they were back now, and it was summer.
Next morning he stepped outdoors to slush trickling down the hill into gurgling storm drains. The grey sky had cleared and birds flocked overhead. Jack put on his leathers and rode out through the countryside.
You’re doing well. The sound of Jessie sighing, merged with the roar of the wind and the bike’s engine to ghostly effect. Remember when we pushed Mum in the pool? I think that was Tenerife. She screamed like the Wilhelm scream and the three of us couldn’t stop laughing. Then Dad came along and – he throttled past a tractor, missing the first few words of what followed – they broke up. Don’t blame yourself.
He stopped at the side of the road and took off his helmet. He frowned. So something had put their relationship under stress, something to do with him. Maybe this was the voices beginning to take a turn. He shook his head, rubbing his ear as though that was where they came from. He turned back, recalling the day last week with Mum, Dad, and Jessie. They were fine. That was real.
When he got home he splashed his face and looked in the mirror. He messed up his helmet-smoothed hair and stared into his reflection, leaning on the mirror with corded forearms.
‘Look,’ he said to himself, ‘you’re not going crazy. You’re just hearing stuff sometimes, that’s all. Ignore it. Nothing worth worrying about.’
Hey, Jack. Brian here. I’m looking forward to meeting
Jack turned the shower on full blast and sat on the rim of the bath, jamming his fingers in his ears until the voice stopped. The mirror frosted with steam. Jack drew a motorbike in the condensation then went downstairs, opened a beer with his teeth, and sat in the armchair by the fireplace drinking and tapping the electric fake coals with the poker, staring up at a cobweb on an exposed beam.
The next few bottles he used an opener for. Jessie always said that one day he’d chip a tooth. He’d done it last week to chuckle at Mum’s wince, then Dad did it too and she left the room. He set the empty bottles up like bowling pins and flicked them down. He turned the telly on to have some background chatter while he sank in the armchair, half watching, half listening to the rain outside the cottage pounding slate and asphalt like a stream falling from above. Sitting curled up in the flickering light of the TV – though he didn’t remember turning the lights off – he sank under with his last thought being that maybe he needed a change of scenery.
Jack woke up once to a loud buzzing and a stranger’s voice saying promising neurological activity, then went to bed. In the morning the air was crisp, the edges of leaves rimed with frost. He rode towards the coast, finding the roads remarkably clear. And free of potholes.
He parked his bike near the beach and sat with an ice cream watching the roiling waves. Yesterday’s upset seemed daft now. Getting so bothered about hearing something he knew wasn’t real. Though maybe it couldn’t hurt to get looked at. He nibbled the flake, spilling chocolate fragments on himself, then stood, brushing them off, and wandered along the stony beach.
They’d probably have a pill to shut it up for a mild case like this, he decided. It was just a bit of an annoyance. He heard Jessie for real on the phone enough.
After lunch he started to think about heading back and looked for his bike. It wasn’t where he’d left it. He went up and down the road checking he hadn’t remembered it a little off. Groaning, he went down a few alleys to make sure before he would call about a stolen motorbike. And all of a sudden, every parking spot in sight had a motorbike. His model.
His heart sank. It was getting worse. Visual, now. He went back to where he’d parked and that was the one spot left empty. He nodded to passers by, pretending nothing was the matter, and decided to head back to the cafe and wait until this spell passed. If it didn’t, he’d have to cross that bridge when he got to it.
The brisk walk around searching for the bike had made his feet ache, and his heart beat a furious tempo. He sat back in the cafe with another coffee, facing away from the street and its row of identical bikes. Looking at a kitschy little painting of a sail boat on the wall, he sipped coffee slowly so that by the time he finished it and turned round again this episode would be over. Once he got home he’d see a doctor. It was going too far now.
‘Jack!’ Jessie cried from the door. She sat opposite him, ruddy and windswept from the cold bluster.
‘Oh. Fancy seeing you here,’ he said. Assuming she was real.
‘Yeah. How long have you been here? Shame we didn’t know. I was going to warm up a minute and head back.’
‘Look, um. There’s something I should have told you…’
She frowned. ‘What?’
‘I think I’m -’ he said. She disappeared. He felt sick, hollowed out. He went outside. The excess bikes had gone, at least. His real one was where he’d left it. He got on and headed away.
As he sped past another Jessie at the side of the road, he heard her say wake up, throttled harder down the empty road hoping that it actually was as empty as it looked. Please just wake up. She sobbed and it started to rain. He pulled over, removing his helmet and letting himself get soaked. This was becoming all too much.
The leathers at his elbows and side started to peel away, eroding all the way through until there was a trickle of blood. He heard a phantom squeal of brakes and the helmet cracked in his hands.
I don’t know if you can hear me.
Wait. They’d had to sell Granddad’s old cottage. Why was he living there now? He dropped the helmet. A crowd of Jessies appeared and one gripped his hand. ‘They say it could be any day now,’ she said. Days. How many days had it been Saturday for?
He understood. A dreaming mind, skipping over the cracks in its imagined world.
He heard the beep of a heart monitor. Jessie gripped tighter as this world blurred like vaseline smeared on a camera lens. It was a warm, bright summer’s day as Jack opened his eyes.
At first, they’d thought it had only been a power cut. But then a neighbour had come round with a radio playing the emergency broadcast. Her house mate had been standing on a chair rummaging for candles in the cupboard, and had almost fell off when he heard it.
Sofia passed a matchbox and he lit the candles. He blew out the match and sat in the middle of the living room’s circle of candles, hunched with head in hands. The neighbour let himself out, the radio playing some of the impossible words back again – billions dead of unknown causes linked to power from Arc reactors. The government has shut down the grid in Arc-supplied regions for your protection and requests all citizens remain indoors. The aliens are – until the front door closed behind him.
After the click of the latch, the room was silent. Both of them tried to process the nightmare that was happening. Sofia sat on the sofa, watching flickering orange candle light play across her hands, telling herself it wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. The visitors had sent a mothership over every capital city, speaking messages of peace and co-operation in the local languages, and freely offered technology like the Arc reactors; replacing most of the planet’s power stations with clean energy. Relations had been warm.
She went upstairs to fill the bath and sink like the broadcast had said to, ignoring the sound of her house mate hyperventilating. Without electricity, it was only a matter of time before the water stopped. Sofia sat on the edge of the tub, phoning home with a shaking thumb. After three tries she realised their landline obviously wouldn’t work, slapped her thigh, tried her parent’s and sister’s mobiles. No signal. Of course not. She bit her lip, turning off the taps. Downstairs, her house mate hadn’t moved.
‘I’m going,’ she said, slipping shoes on.
‘What?’ He looked up.
‘My family-’ She croaked, took a breath, steeled herself.
‘We’re meant to stay in.’
‘I can’t just sit here with you,’ she said, then paused. ‘Sorry, I mean, I’ve only been here two weeks…’
‘I know. We don’t really know each other. But we’re supposed to stay.’
‘It was a request, not an order. Sorry,’ she said, fumbling to get her arms through her coat sleeves as she stepped out into the night. He followed, put his hands up as she drove away, looked up into the sky for a moment then darted indoors.
There were no street lights on, no light seeping through cracks in curtains, no traffic lights. For that matter, no traffic. Most people were following the request to stay home. Or – the part of her mind she wished could stop said – or they were dead. She tried the car radio. For a while the emergency broadcast played on a loop, but then, she guessed, the radio towers’ backup generators ran out. She drove on in silence, occasionally seeing bodies slumped by street lights appear in the light of her headlamps, trying not to imagine how the attack might have worked. She sped up, fixing her gaze on the road.
Her sister hadn’t slept for two days after first contact: watching rolling news, standing in the garden staring up at the mothership, poring through files the aliens had released online. Their parents had allowed it. It was history, after all. We weren’t alone.
The city loomed ahead, dark save for the glowing craft above. Military vehicles sped past, honking horns as they overtook but not trying to stop her. Sofia told herself that Freya and their parents had been out of the city, avoiding the capital’s light pollution while she used her telescope, just thinking there’d been a power cut. That they wouldn’t be among the bodies in the streets and homes. That she’d check the house first and not find them there, then go to the top of that hill and Freya would be there. Looking at the stars, still seeing friendly faces out there waiting to be met.
There was a jolt of light from the ship. The ground quaked. Sofia gasped, brakes squealing as she stopped in the middle of the motorway. She brushed a hot tear from her cheek and pummelled the dashboard, then gritted her teeth until her jaw hurt, accelerating towards the city. The occasional fellow ignorer of the government’s request was parked by the roadside, along with the military trucks, all staring towards the craft.
As she entered the city she found roads packed with cars, all the drivers dead. Sofia abandoned driving and ran through dark streets lit only by the soft blue glow from above. She took a dead woman’s bike and carried on, hoarse and panting. When she saw a group of people walking down the middle of a street, she stopped to ask about survivors.
It was only as she got close that she realised the people had no tails. She froze. One of the aliens stopped right in front of her. He had soft smooth skin, hair on top of his head, and his eyes had a round iris. Her scales itched, her barbed tail and fangs reflexively dripping. She wanted to sting or run, but, as in a bad dream, she felt stuck in place.
He spoke in halting Valiri. ‘Stay out of our way.’ Her tail swung over her shoulder, the barb darting for where his heart would be. It stopped on thin air. He hadn’t flinched. ‘Stay out of our way, cold blood. This is Earth’s planet now.’
They ambled down the road. Sofia watched, feeling like the last insect in a failing hive, a magnifying glass looming overhead. A second jolt of light shook tiles from roofs. Her family was from the suburbs, she told herself. Not directly under the ship. There was a chance.
She cycled the rest of the way with cramping legs and left the key in the door as she finally stepped inside. She called out and nobody answered. Her parent’s bodies lay in the dark living room, but no time to take that in, where was Freya? She checked every room, and finally saw her sister at the far end of the garden. Freya was watching through her eighth birthday’s telescope as a cloud of shuttles swarmed from the mothership.