Tom Kane © 2019
Using his arms and legs for traction, the young man scrambled up the scree on the steep mountain slope. In his panic he needed to keep moving and to make his ascent as quickly as possible, but the scree had other ideas and the more he pushed forward the more the scree loosened, and he slipped backwards. Two scrambling steps forward and one back was the best he could manage, but he knew he needed to move faster, ever faster or they would catch him out in the open.
Time, the scree and the coming night were his enemy, but his nemesis was the invader of his world, the alien horde who had wiped out Earth’s human population with a virus. It had been so quick and within weeks millions had contracted a flu-like bug that quickly changed to something like Ebola and it was then that victims bled to death through every orifice. He had no doubt there were other survivors, but with the aliens now launching an air and ground offensive he doubted survivors, like himself, would be survivors for much longer.
A low hum from high up in the sky made him stop scrabbling and curl up into a ball. He hoped his camouflage jacket and pants would thwart the alien craft’s sensors. Suddenly, the scree ahead of him moved, stones loosened and then moved up to reveal a dark entrance. A hand appeared and a disembodied female voice whispered to him. “Quick, get inside before they spot you.”
It took less than a second for him to decide and he was soon scrambling into the hatchway, where two hands grabbed him by his arms and pulled him in roughly. A body pushed past him as he caught his breath and he heard the hatch slam shut behind him. A small beam of light played over him and he looked back. He couldn’t see his saviour but caught her sweaty scent as she pushed passed him again. “Follow me,” she said curtly.
With the meagre light from her pencil flashlight he could just make out he was on wooden steps going down at a steep angle.
“Who are you,” he whispered, involuntarily looking behind in case some bug-eyed alien was creeping up on him.
“Shhh,” was the reply.
He kept quiet and followed the flashlight when suddenly she stopped. He could just make out what looked like a wooden wall until he saw her pull the wood away to reveal a metal door. She quickly opened the door ushered him inside and as quickly followed him inside, pulling the false wooden wall back into place then closing the metal door. He heard a switch click and light flooded the room.
“Sit down, while I check topside,” she said to him, indicating a small wooden stool.
He sat and waited, grateful to be alive and not a pile of ash zapped by an alien weapon.
He could see little of the woman’s face, her hoodie covered her head and a scarf covered the lower half of her head, only a hint of her glistening eyes was visible. She moved to the other side of the room and pushed up on a long tube that had an eyepiece attached. It was only when she had the eyepiece at here eyeball height and looked into the eyepiece that he realised what it was. “A periscope,” he said with a broad grin. “That’s pretty cool.”
“Cool enough to save your ass,” she muttered. “Saw you coming up the scree and watched all the shit you sent tumbling back down the mountainside. You would have been dead in another five minutes.” She stood and pulled the scarf down from her mouth and pushed back the hood to reveal short matted brown hair and a grimy face.
“You look pretty young under all that mud,” he said smiling.
“Didn’t you hear what I said? I just saved your sorry ass.”
The young man blushed, “Sorry, I know and thanks. I guess I’m not the backwoodsman I thought I was.”
She stared at him, shook her head and then thrust her hand out. “Karen. Karen Bickers.”
He took the hand and gripped it firmly, as his long-gone dad always told him to do. “Carl Myers. Pleased to meet you.”
The pair laughed and the tense moment passed, until Karen stopped shaking Carl’s hand and cocked her head to one side. “You hear that?”
Carl shook his head. “No, I don… wait, a low hum… above… shit, they’ve found us.”
“No,” she said, squeezing his hand tighter. “They haven’t. This place is lead shielded. Unless we’re really unlucky we’re safe. Just stay cool. Fancy a beer?”
It was the nonchalant way she said it on letting go of his hand that made him laugh out loud, then slap his hand over his mouth, his eyes roaming upwards.
“Don’t worry, they can’t hear us either. I’ve only got Bud… sorry but it’s…”
“Yeah, I know, like making love in a boat.” Her expression told him she hadn’t heard the punchline. “Fucking close to water,” he said, blushing deeply. “Forgive my French.”
Karen’s smile broadened as she saw Carl’s face go a deeper crimson. She pulled the tops of two bottles and handed one to Carl then sat down on the dirt floor.
“So, what’s your story, Carl?”
“Same as everyone else, I guess. Family, neighbours and friends all dead. Everything and everyone gone. You?”
“Same. School was the worst. Each day a couple more go missing, then the teachers dropping like flies. My mom told me to keep away from large gatherings and wear a surgical mask. Then she died.”
“No point, in the mask I mean. Surgical masks are meant to stop your bugs getting out and onto the patient, not the other way around.”
“You a med student?”
“Yeah, well, sorta. I was going in that direction. You?”
“Still at school, got another year.”
“Not much point in school now, I guess.” Carl shrugged and sipped his beer. “This your place?”
Karen shook her head. “No, found it. Well, I knew about it by overhearing some red-neck say he was building a shelter for when the shit hit the fan. Even boasted the hows, whys and wheres of the place. Bit stupid if you don’t want a horde of infected people at your door.
“So, after all my family and friends died I just came up and spent a few days looking until I found it. Boy was I starving when I finally found the entrance. Lucky the guy had managed to stock up with food and water.”
Carl sipped his beer and Karen watched his frown grow steadily deeper.
“What are you thinking?” Karen asked.
“Well, like, what do we do now? Wait it out until the military show up?”
Karen gave him a scornful look. “What military? I haven’t heard shit for nigh on a week. No aircraft except theirs and certainly not seen any vehicles. I guess we still have subs under the sea but what can they do? Nah, we are in deep shit, man, and nobody but us are getting us out of it.”
“Looks planned then? All this infection was planted on us from space and when that was done, they invaded. Neat way to do things.”
Karen nodded and the two stared at nothing, deep in their own thoughts, sipping on their beer. A small insect buzzed between them and Karen took a swipe at it. “Damned flies get everywhere,” she hissed, swiping at it again.
“Yeah,” Carl agreed, swatting at the buzzing insect.
“Well, not sure how we’re going to sleep but it must be dusk about now and we have to be up early in the morning.”
Carl reached to pull his sleeve back, then realised his watch had stopped weeks ago.
“I stopped wearing mine weeks back,” Karen said pointing to Carl’s digital timepiece. “They must have used some sort of EMP to knock out all the electronics too.”
“EMP?” Carl asked.
“Yeah, like when a nuke goes off. It sends out an Electronic Magnetic Pulse and that knocks out phones, TVs watches, cars… well, pretty much everything that uses electronics.”
“Oh,” Carl muttered. “Should have known that, I guess.”
Karen shook her head. “Why would you? In our brave new world whoever needs to know stuff logs on and looks it up on Wikipedia or some such shit.”
“Yeah,” Carl nodded in agreement. “I guess we’re back to the fields then.”
“Which is why we have to get up early.”
“Foraging, man. We have two mouths to feed now.”
~ * * * ~
Sleep was not easy to come by in the cramped room. Karen had shown Carl the one other room she had, her bedroom, and told him, with a grin, to sleep in the lounge as best he could. So, with a heavy heart, but with some hope since he realised he wasn’t alone, he lay on the floor and covered himself with a large piece of old tarp, swatting away at the damn fly that buzzed him, before he eventually fell asleep.
It was dark when he woke and was startled to hear something scraping above, on the outside. Karen was at the periscope, frantically searching and muttering under her breath about it being ‘too damned dark to see’ when the scraping stopped.
“What is…” Carl hissed, but Karen held up a hand for quiet.
“Something’s up there,” she whispered after a while, “but I can’t see what it…”
The explosion was small but powerful and the concussion knocked both Karen and Carl backwards, both crashing into the rear wall and hitting the floor at the same time.
Carl groaned and reached out for Karen, but strong hands, bony hands, gripped his arm and yanked him toward where the entrance to the shelter had been. Carl could vaguely make out Karen being similarly manhandled as a fly swept passed his head and he lost consciousness.
~ * * * ~
Karen’s headache was intense, worse than the time she had drunk three tequilas at a friend’s party a year back and had thrown up over her dad’s car.
Karen heard Carl’s voice and managed to squeeze her eyes together to see a blurred vision of him slumped in a wooden chair, tied roughly to the back of the chair with some sort of cord.
“Namer!” The voice was louder now and very weird.
“What are you saying?” Carl asked, his speech slightly slurred.
Karen was likewise bound to a chair her head forward, but straining to sit upright.
“Chou namer,” the voice said.
Karen looked toward a figure sat in a chair similar to Carl’s, but looking decidedly not right, somehow.
“You namer.” The voice was now lower and Karen could suddenly see why it sounded and looked odd. It wasn’t human, even remotely human. It had two legs, okay sort of going to the same plan as a human design, even a body and a head. But it was the four arms, the jet-black figure had, that made the bile in Karen’s stomach boil and she involuntarily retched. The dark figure swivelled in its chair.
“You,” it said, with a gurgle, “namer.”
“Name, you freak,” Karen said, retching once more.
The creature seemed to think this over, gave out what Karen took to be a chuckle and then swiped her face, hard, with one of its extra bony hands.
“Fuck, man,” Karen swore, “that hurt.” She felt something warm trickling down here cheek and licked at it, concerned she was bleeding. She was and she swore at the creature again.
The black face, so dark it was hard to distinguish features, looked at her without flinching, then reached out and touched Karen’s left temple.
“Blooods,” the alien said to someone, some thing, behind Karen that she couldn’t see.
“Blood,” Karen muttered, “I’m bleeding, man… thing! My name is Karen. He’s Carl,” she said nodding in the direction of Carl, still slumped in the chair. “Now we’re on first name terms, how about you let us go and we’ll not bother you while we still live. Okay?”
“Liff,” the alien said with a, sush, sush, sush sound, which Karen took for the meanest chuckle she had ever heard. “No liff, you,” it added, pointing toward Karen.
That statement could not have been mistaken even if the execution of the English was somewhat in doubt.
A buzz in Karen’s ear made her shake her head. “Damn these insects, they get everywhere.”
It was a definite question, Karen thought. “Yeah, insects. Fly, you know, swat them. Kill them because they spread disease. You know black thing with…” It was at the point that she was about to say wings that Karen noticed the black alien had very small translucent wings on its back. “Vestigial wings,” Karen muttered, somewhat alarmed.
The creature touched its chest. “Inzek, me,” and he gave the sush, sush, sush chuckle once more. It leaned toward Karen. “Kills me, you? Sush, sush, sush.”
A fly buzzed into vision and then hovered at her eye level.
“Zentinelz.” The dark alien said and nodded. “See hoomanz. We wait.”
“Zentinelz?” Karen had already guessed what he was saying, just by watching the fly hover. It was a house fly, but it hovered and it watched her intently. “Insects… you use them to watch us? Sentinels? They’re here to watch? Watch what? Us, the cows in the field?”
“Zentinelz watch all, earts.”
“Earts? Earth? All Earth’s people?”
The alien shook his glistening black head. “No watch chou, watch all. Clean bad.”
“They’re here to clean the parasites. The vermin,” Carl said.
Karen swung her head toward Carl. He was still slumped forward but had come around enough to understand what the alien was trying to tell Karen.
“Clean the vermin? What vermin?” Karen’s voice had raised a notch in sheer terror at what the answer was going to be.
“Chou,” the alien said, pointing at Carl and Karen.
“Us?” Karen said.
“We’re the vermin, the insects are the sentinels and these guys… these guys are the gardeners.”
Karen shook her head, trying to keep the thought out of her head. “They’re gardeners? The earth is a garden?”
Carl laughed a bitter laugh. “Yes, and they’re here to tidy up, to clean the mess up the vermin have made and rid the garden of the vermin… us.”
The alien stood, and Carl and Karen could see for the first time it was obviously related to insects. The black body, bulbous head, small antenna, large multifaceted red eyes, vestigial wings and six limbs all said house-fly. “Eartsmun, chou dice. Chou dice zoon, sush, sush, sush.”
Tom Kane © 2018
If you want to read more of this story, then let me know in the comments on Twitter or Facebook. If I get a big enough audience I’ll write more.
Tom Kane June 2019
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