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“There is more beauty and unity of design in this continual balancing of life to circumstance,
and greater conformity to those dispositions of nature which are manifest to us,
than in total destruction and new creation ...”
Patrick Matthew (letter to Gardeners' Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 7 April 1860)
In the early years of the third millennium the UK chose to reduce its commitment to the UN and NATO; more specifically to the UN’s multi-national peacekeeping force. Such a drastic decision came in the wake of atrocities that occurred against refugee crises in Darfur, Iraq, Ethiopia and the Crimea. The UK then announced the formation and implementation of PAX, a more cost-effective initiative, combining military and civilian components, its stated function to protect and aid those in need.
In the decade after its inception PAX achieved many notable successes, due in no small measure to the synergy existing between its otherwise disparate components.
Then the world lay down to die. PAX found itself with new priorities.
Somewhere a dog is howling. The sound is faint, but only because Stukeley is deafened by the hammer concussions of the FN2000. Peering around the pockmarked brickwork of the low stone wall that forms his meagre refuge he is rewarded with another shot. The dirt fountains by his elbow. He replies with a controlled burst; spent cartridges spinning away, flashing in the afternoon light.
Stukeley knows he must finish this quickly, before the firefight draws more unwanted attention. He has a mission. He won’t be deterred.
It had been a blustery April day when Stukeley found the downed PAX Aero-T, drawn to the site by a twisting thread of dark smoke. The transport had crashed heavily, one fan a smouldering mechanical tangle within its housing on the port wing. An atv rested snug in the belly hold, visible through the open rear ramp. The jumbled bodies of the crew and their assailants lay strewn about. One camouflage-wearing figure had crawled partway up the ramp, leaving a dark smear of blood upon the otherwise clean metal.
Among the dropped weaponry Stukeley found an expended one-shot, Chinese-made, laser-guided rpg launcher. Given a modicum of knowledge, a competent user could have brought down a low-flying transport. Wasting no more time speculating, Stukeley sprinted up the tail ramp, past the atv and into the belly cargo space.
Kinetics of the crash had thrown the cargo into disarray; nets and straps had failed, containers of various size and design rested haphazardly across the bay. A couple had opened, spilling smaller ammunition boxes. Several of those had subsequently burst, scattering loose cartridges under-foot.
Among the chaos Stukeley caught sight of something that stopped him cold.
He stared hard a jumbled pile of mid-sized containers, his mind struggling to remember the significance of the geometric symbols printed upon them. When their importance finally came clear Stukeley hurriedly began loading them onto the diesel-engined atv.
With his precious cargo loaded he spent a further few minutes replenishing both his ammunition and food supplies.
Journal entry: April 16th
It stills seems incomprehensible that this disaster was engineered and possibly non-terrestrial in origin. I’m still not sure I believe it. I’ve read the entire UR file several times over, though it’s incomplete and garbled in several sections. Fripp said the original file was corrupt and he can’t recover all the data. I don’t know if any genetics information was included initially, if it was it isn’t there now; just some chemical equations, most of which are at least partly corrupted. But it’s given me some direction at least. Our medical database filled in the blanks regarding E.coli and though microbiology was never my main discipline I can make sense of some of the content. I had Fripp send out a call for any chemists and geneticists among those survivors we’re sheltering, but haven’t had any responses so far. I’m not disheartened, not yet. Communications are less than perfect and any answer may be a long time in coming. I tried to get the information to the PAX Emergency Council, but, like central Government, they no longer seem to exist.
If this thing is artificial then we have a hope of finding a way of stopping it. I’m not sure we’ll cure it, so I’d settle for some method of preventing infection.
Of late the skies had been clear of flying machines, vapour trails had long since disappeared from between the clouds; PAX Aero-X and Aero-Ts had become infrequent visitors to the countryside, the wreck Stukeley’s first sighting in nearly a month. Others were equally curious.
Even as he’d revved the atv, pulling away from the crash site at speed, two battered cars and a motorcycle arrived to take his place. Glancing over his shoulder, it looked to Stukeley as if the bike was intent on pursuit, but figures emerging from the cars waved it back.
Disconnected images at the back of his mind slowly congealed, to provide Stukeley with a vague memory of where he needed to go – a squared-off concrete building, the washed-out, colourless walls pierced by a myriad of wide windows, its surroundings well-manicured lawns and flower-beds. White coats and green coveralls. He concentrated on the vision, drawing its location toward him, seeing the route in his mind’s eye.
Four-stroke engine thudding, the atv rumbled across untended farm-fields and along leafy lanes. But this was no longer the countryside of Stukeley’s youth – the uncultivated wheat crop looked more akin to members of the brassica family; stems thickened, seed head a mass of erupting purple-blue florets. Overgrown hedgerows were now beginning to choke the roads they once lined; blackthorn, hazel, dog rose, all succumbing to the corruption of the alien retrovirus running unchecked across the nations of the world. Mice and voles still skittered among the plant growth, but even they had begun to lose the shape and behaviour that once defined them.
The constant itch that flows across Stukeley’s dry skin and down into his bones has faded to faint irritation. There had been a time when he could only lay and scratch, as the sensations from his misfiring nerves sent him into an ever-deeper spiral of Pavlovian reaction. Areas of his abused dermis have now hardened into scales, initially along his spine and across his shoulders. A similar change is thickening the skin of his scrawny chest, armouring his forearms and thighs. It hasn’t affected his co-ordination as yet, nor slowed his movements; if anything he’s sensing and reacting faster to threats. His current dilemma had more to do with the human emotions still reverberating within his skull – the mission lodged within the fragmenting remnants of his mind, directing his erratic path.
Human need and unfettered violence stopped him in his tracks.
Journal entry: April 21st
Some of the information in the file relates to astronomical data, which I don’t understand and we have no astronomers here. I’ve asked Fripp to see if we can contact someone with the skills just to translate some of this into plain English. I’m not sure it’ll help, but equally it can’t hurt to have a bigger picture.
I’ve heard of the Oort Cloud, but can’t claim to know any more than that’s where some comets originate. The summary accompanying the astronomical data mentions the Cloud as being the likely origin of the pods, though it could be interpreted as that’s where whatever is sending the pods resides, not necessarily their point of origin. They’re writing of possible alien lifeforms using the Eta Aquarid meteor shower as a ‘delivery path’.
This goes so far beyond anything I’ve ever imagined that I get lost trying to accept the scale of such an undertaking. I need to stay with the practicalities of fighting the infection.
When the first shot shattered one of the quad bike’s headlights, Stukeley swerved the machine behind a low stone wall and threw himself into cover. As further shots struck the still exposed vehicle, he risked dragging its precious cargo to safety. Many of the bullets went wide, only a few came close enough to threaten him. For some seconds Stukeley lay there, staring at the assault rifle, remembering its function and how he used it.
Switching the selector to single shot, he began exchanging fire with his assailants.
Journal entry: September 6th
I found myself standing outside the bioscience section once again. I’m not sure what draws me there each time. I just wander the base and find myself outside that door. I can’t get in, they welded the locking mechanism closed to prevent anyone accidentally opening it. To be honest I think those in charge were more afraid of someone opening the door on purpose and releasing the spores. Several soldiers have just walked out the main airlock and disappeared into the new forest that now surrounds the base. The new ‘trees’ look like child’s drawings. Their trunks are near vertical, striated, with a ‘canopy’ consisting of a mushroom-like head surrounded by hanging fronds. There are things shrieking and calling among the trees that no-one has seen, as yet. Sometimes it’s like a troop of howler monkeys, other times like children.
Stukeley’s first target was a figure partially obscured by a doorway into the low building whose function he cannot recall. A fixed canopy covers a stained, concrete-floored area sub-divided by three raised kerbs on which stand upright, rectangular boxes made of painted metal. Some of the boxes are damaged already; rusted, small glass panels cracked. An abandoned car sits off to one side. Another attacker fires from there.
Eyes on the door, Stukeley waits for his opportunity. It comes when the figure leans into position to fire. Stukeley fires first. The shot hits high in the torso, punching through the clothes to send the corpse back out of sight. Feminine screams come from within the doorway. Swinging slightly to his right, Stukeley aligns his sights on the discarded vehicle.
Journal entry: November 4th
We lost more people, including Dr Edwards. Some science staff accompanied a group of soldiers on a flight to the base near Cambridge. We lost radio contact some days ago and Major Brennan – he’s now our leader by virtue of being the highest-ranking, surviving military officer in the base – decided we need to re-establish contact. It’s not just reassurance that we aren’t all that’s left, we also need to re-supply. Water is OK, we have several wells sunk down into the rock below the base and the filtration and sterilisation systems should take care of any microbes, but food could become a problem. We’ve been shut-up in here over two-and-a-half years and we’ve had no formal resupply in six months. Brennan’s worried.
Filaments of light reflect from shards of glass that lie scattered beside the car. The car is blue in colour and has an elongated rear section. A word floats through Stukeley’s conscious mind – estate – but he can’t link the word to the vehicle. Blue. He knows the colour and understands the concept of naming things. His assault rifle has a model number and manufacturers name engraved upon it. The inscribed letters once had a meaning; now they’re as cryptic as hieroglyphs and as worthless as money. Aphasia has already robbed Stukeley of speech; the retrovirus is redrawing connections deep within his brain, stripping away words as it rampages through his neural structures. But assault – that states a function, is not just a descriptor…
Gunfire; the breath of a round passing close to his face. Stukeley reacts. Selector to semi-automatic he unleashes burst after burst into the blue vehicle; releasing the trigger when the magazine empties. Mechanically he reloads the weapon. Though his eyes haven’t left the car he cannot recall if he hit the person hiding behind it.
To most the calendar no longer has a purpose – days pass, the seasons progress. A fourth wave of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower shepherds its pods to the surface; once again falling on all the ecospheres – the oceans, mountains, deserts, grasslands, forests; temperate, tropical, frigid. Wherever they come to rest mutations accelerate; species deviate and realign.
Sound. Movement. From the far side of the building two figures emerge from the cover provided by the building to sprint across to the blue car. Watching them run, Stukeley remembers why he too was moving. His mission. To take his cargo to the other place and see who needed his help.
One of the runners goes directly to the injured man, probably to render whatever assistance he can; the second tries to engage Stukeley by firing across the bonnet… second? A number. A moment of time. A flicker through the mind’s eye bringing instinct into play, where once rational thought mediated response to situation, leading to… Reaction. Violence. Smooth shift of muscles and tendons; eye directing thought, resulting in… Stukeley shot the defender dead with one burst, then targeted the injured man and his rescuer as they tried to cross back to the building. Three more crumpled bodies. Blood flowing sluggishly. Crying and screaming from within the darkened structure.
There are sharks’ teeth of broken glass lining three large windows across the face of the low building, but Stukeley can see no movement. He needs a better position.
Journal entry: May 21st
There’s been the first conflict over our remaining supplies. Rationing, apart from water, has been in force since the emergency arose and you get used to the situation quite quickly. Now Major Brennan has enforced a strict calorie ration. Understandable, but with soldiers drawing more calories than the science staff a face-off was inevitable. Though I understand the need, this has just strained relationships throughout the base.
...5.56mm NATO cartridge...gas-operated...rotating bolt...850 rounds per minute at a muzzle velocity of 900 metres per second with an effective firing range of 500 metres... As the spent cartridges eject, Stukeley tries to recall why his finger is clenched upon the trigger. For just a brief heartbeat he can hear his Staff Sergeant commending his accuracy with his rifle, while still criticising his technique. Surely, that you kill someone is less important than how it was done? The voice fades before he can remember why it was once important. Another magazine is empty.
Journal entry: May 31st
The secondary airlock – what the soldiers now call the traitor’s gate as most of the deserters have left that way – is now out of bounds. Someone noticed fungal growth around the inner hatch, so they’ve sealed it and the next inner door. By my calculation we’ve now lost about a third of the base. By far the biggest chunk was the vehicle garage. Someone botched the decontamination process. Flamethrowers beat the stuff back, but if even one spore survives the stuff just regrows. I doubt sealing the airlock and welding the inner doors will be effective. Eventually we’d have to seal ourselves in.
Walking slowly toward the three dead men, a failing part of Stukeley wonders who they were. One corpse is dressed in army fatigues in the same pattern as his; one wears a set of unremarkable grey coveralls; the third is much smaller than the rest, dressed in a mismatch of heavy fabric trousers and a threadbare woollen jumper. Teenager? Wasn’t that the word for children who were not yet adults?
Stukeley stood quietly, the rifle loose in his hands. Adult? Child? Man? Woman? What did they mean now? Male and female meant more; once abstract labels that began to take on an importance as identity slowly ebbed.
Journal entry: June 22nd
Fripp’s dead. I spoke to him about a week ago and he seemed fine. He got hold of a pistol and shot himself. That makes three suicides so far this month. There are now eight science staff, two civilian auxiliaries and forty-seven soldiers left in the base.
Some question how so few of us can hold back an alien attack. I don't think it is an attack, not in the manner they think. I begin to doubt that the aliens even know we're here. I've begun to believe that some alien civilisation is modifying our world to better suit they're needs. The infection has killed a great many people, but why would it alter the plants and surviving animals? For what reason? I think they're establishing an ecosystem that suits them better than our unmodified world would. If you can accept that, then it's also credible that, like us, they looked at the stars and could detect signs indicating a useful planet. Unlike us, they possess the skill and ability to make use of their discoveries.
Thickened skin on knuckles; darker, denser nails. Stukeley stared at his hands, holding one before his face, turning it to-and-fro. Calloused palms. In his other hand he grips the weapon. Though the assault rifle isn’t part of him, he can still feel its function and power.
Journal entry: July 4th
I guess it was inevitable, but spores have seeded within the base. At first the flamethrower teams were everywhere, but when their fuel ran out they hadn’t cleared them all. It’s likely everyone is infected. Some are wearing respirators as if that will make a difference, but it’s too little, too late. When the news broke, Fredericks vanished. I think he walked outside.
I’m sad that I couldn’t do more, didn’t find a cure or at least a way of mitigating some of the effects. The last few people I studied clearly showed what the successive waves of infection have achieved.
Mentally they’re animals and the physical change is gathering pace. The last specimen bought in before the squads refused to go out again was the most regressed I’ve seen. It’s still male, but the man is more ape-like than human. He’s shrugged off about a million years of evolution, walking on his knuckles rather than upright.
Pointing the rifle at the three bodies Stukeley pulls the trigger repeatedly. Nothing happens – no sound, no recoil. The empty weapon is now little more than an artefact, a symbol of something already ebbing from memory. The last few connections are beginning to fail.
Journal entry: August 6th
I don’t feel well. I don’t know why, but I’ll try and regularly record how I feel. The last vestiges of being a scientist I assume.
Darkness pervaded the interior, but it’s only the brief blindness of adjusting eyes.
Dropping the empty weapon to the littered, dirty floor, Stukeley advanced upon the recumbent, whimpering woman. Laying across her chest, still attached by its wet, dark umbilicus, a pink-skinned, fluid-smeared form suckled at one distended breast. The tiny creature’s snout-like face clearly belied its simian heritage. Dropping down beside the female he proffered her one of the packages he’d so diligently protected. The geometric symbol on the parcel – the red cross on a circular white background – no longer held any meaning for the infected woman. She tore at the wrapping with her teeth until the carton gave way and its contents spilled out. Out-of-date eyewash would be of no use in relieving either her pain or the bleeding. Drawn from her by the discomfort, her moans haunt the building. There is no answer, Stukeley has already vacated the artificial construction, with its dead or dying occupants. Alone the woman faded slowly, her gasps winding down into silence. Robbed of its mother, carried negligently in the arms of a once-man, the infant succumbed a short while later.
Journal entry: August 15th
Just remembered my diary. It’s getting difficult to concentrate for long periods. I have a permanent headache, my skin itches and we’ve long since run out of any medication. base is quiet. Most people just shuffle around aimlessly or sit in dark corners looking blank. If the powerplant weren’t automatic I think we’d be sitting in the dark. There have been blackouts in some remaining sections, so people just abandon them. The hangar is now a communal dormitory. We’re not a community though. I look at those around me and can no longer feel an association.
Journal entry: Undated
Tought i’d written more entrys. Guess thay were in my head. Dreams confused and begining to fined it difficlut to sort dreem from reality. Fingrs and toes hurt. Back hurts. Headach gone. Stil ich.
Journal entry: Undated
havent writen anything for a whil. not thout of anythin to sa. Base is almos mpte now soldjers an others gon. been on me own. hungry. hurt al ovr. sometims i remmber, can see things. Vry hungry so i ate plnts. Don tast gud but stop bely hurting
In an empty room, deep in the stilled heart of a military base, a hand-written journal lays amongst the refuse and detritus left behind by its final occupants. All the words it contains are now rendered meaningless by the passing of the race who once valued their ability to capture truth, lies, abstract expression, emotion. Language has faded; communication has returned to a more fundamental form.
…end of phase II…
Epilogue – Phase III - Inheritance
Smells of fear; chittering of small mammals hiding within a stand of large-leafed, purple ferns. An armoured quadruped, Thing-that-had-been-Stukeley sniffs toward the hidden animals, only to be repelled by the dense tangle of sharp thorns covering the plants’ woody stems. He pushes against the thicket, the scratching branches resist his strength. Yowling in frustration the Stukeley-thing scampers on all fours toward more open ground.
Subtle signals, senses react. Thing-that-had-been-Stukeley halts in its search for grubs among the moss-like carpet. Sensory hairs prickle along the length of its spine; between the keratinous plates the mane of hair about its head stands erect, reacting to a change it can’t quite understand.
From the dark skies above a cluster of lights fall earth-ward; sounds of their passage through the upper atmosphere announce their arrival – sonic booms roll across the surrounding hills. Stukeley-that-was scrambles unimpeded across a wide glade, to hide among stems of mushroom-like trees, eyes roaming his surroundings. Myriad animal noises fade into silence.
Strobing illumination resolves into light-sources surmounting insect-like flying machines slowing as they approach the verdant ground. Hissing of equalising pressure the machines settle.
Many eyes watch, many ears listen, as the Earth’s new masters step forth to survey their handiwork.
Crouched quietly, unmoving, perceiving new shapes and smells, Thing-that-had-been-Stukeley considers whether the upright creatures might be threat or sustenance.
© John Henson Webb 2017
micheledutcher - I loved this story about mankind's final battle - and the ending was unexpected, but made sense. I thought it was one of the best stories I've read recently. Thanks for letting us read it! Michele Dutcher
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