by Jeremy Szal
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
At the sound of Fey’s voice, Sullivan spun around, looking at his line of sight. He spotted a small creature in the forest, looking directly at them with dark yellow eyes. Its skin was a dark caramel in colour with several black spots that covered its chubby, hunched body. It snapped its mandibles in a visceral fashion, crackling like a hyena.
Sullivan noticed that the creature had small bristles on the top of its head that stretched down its back. They were quivering, like a rattlesnake’s tail. Danger. Its claws curled up menacingly as it let off a small, soft growl. Sullivan noticed three similar ones behind it, yapping in distress. With one last snort, the creature turned around and trotted away with its group, their long faces bobbing up and down in unison.
‘What the hell was that?’ Fey spluttered. ‘
‘I don’t know,’ Sullivan said. Suddenly he felt ill. What’s wrong with me? He wanted to sit down and rest. He wanted to...
‘I can do a search,’ Amber suddenly said, derailing his train of thought. ‘I’ll need a DNA sample, though.’
‘Let’s get some then.’ Fey strode off in the direction of the forest in an almost hypnotized, mindless fashion. ‘Then let’s get out of out here.’
‘Wait!’ Sullivan commanded, his voice weak all off a sudden. His head was spinning, and he felt feverish. But Fey didn’t stop, he continued, now running into the forest.
With a curse, Sullivan jogged after the engineer with Morgan behind him, their boots crushing the leaves on the forest floor. He skidded to a halt beside Fey, who was standing next to a barren tree with twisted branches.
‘Why did you take off like that?’ Sullivan asked, out of breath from running.
Fey blinked heavily. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I wanted to get the samples, so I came in here.’
‘Your bio signatures are off the charts,’ Amber said, her voice urgent. ‘You need to get out of here.’
Sullivan was about to respond when he heard a hiss and a gasp of shock from Morgan. He snapped around just in time to see one of the alien creatures scramble off, its bird-like feet scratching frantically against rock as it escaped.
Suddenly Sullivan heard a small hustle from the bush and looked downwards into a small trench. It looked like a nest, likely built by the aliens. Dry grass, sticks, berries, and other unidentifiable items were placed haphazardly around the trench. Suddenly the rustle came again, and a small shape emerged from the nest, like an animal awakening after hibernation.
Sullivan felt his heart stop.
It was a human child. A boy.
His clothes were tattered and in rags. The bottom half of his body was raw and naked, his skin bruised and covered in scratches. His dark, disheveled hair looked as dry as straw. His eyes were glazed, like he was half-asleep. He looked sickly and unwell, his malnourished body exposing the bones underneath his pale skin. He made small sudden jerks and threw himself on his back, snuggling up to the grass.
‘Oh. My. God.’ Sullivan saw there were at least two other children in the nest, a boy and a girl. They were in a similar fashion, and all looked absolutely dead to the world.
‘Come on,’ Sullivan said, trudging through the muck and stepping into the nest. ‘Help me carry them.’ He picked the first boy up, ignoring his squeals of protest. He’s so light. Sullivan felt that if he dropped the boy his bones would shatter like glass. The boy kicked feebly in the air like a rabbit. Sullivan pressed him close to his chest and whispered comforting words softly in his ear, although he was just as scared as the boy was.
The short walk back to the market square was uneventful, save for the tiny whimpers and snorts from the children. Sullivan almost expected them to start growling and snapping at him. His head was spinning. What were they doing in the nests? Where are the parents? The man on the radio must have known.
But most of all, the alien creatures worried him. Xenobiologists had not released any reports of alien life in the galaxy — not so much as a different species of animal form. This was first contact.
‘The kid’s heart is beating like a rabbit’s,’ Amber said. ‘He’s ill. Very ill.’
I don’t feel so great either. Sweat slid down his back, and he wanted nothing more than a hot meal and a bed, but he forced himself to keep going. His team was counting on him. Looking back he noticed that they were also feverish and sickly, but they carried the children regardless.
Suddenly the child in his arms squealed angrily, struggling to get out of his grip. He made the mistake of loosening his grasp, and the child sprang free, falling to the floor. He stood up and shook himself like a dog, galloping towards the sheds.
Sullivan’s eyes widened when he saw that the boy was running just as he had seen the alien creature run — hunched over, legs in a digitigrade fashion with arms hanging loosely by his side. He was like an animal. No, he was the animal.
Sullivan ran over to the boy as he pushed open the door to the shed and charged inside. Sullivan followed him, but the sight made him stop dead in his tracks.
The entire building was filled with dozens and dozens of tall steel boxes with an endless web of cables and wires that interweaved together; hard-drives linked like a server. All the lights were off; half the cables were chewed through, and the inner wirings off the power generators had been violently ripped out, its electrical intestines spilling onto the dirty floor. He saw why.
There were dozens and dozens of humans here — all sizes, genders, and ages — who had made the generator room their home. The gutted wirings had been turned into nests; straw and grass covered the cables and overhead steel boxes mesh like a canopy.
The humans looked at him with glazed expressions. Sullivan noticed that they were all terribly thin and frail, their clothes almost ripped to shreds. He watched as the people seemed to burrow their way through the massive nest, snuggling up to others, using their long nails to scratch themselves viciously. One figure squatted in a large pile of what looked like brown hay and did his business.
God help me.... this can’t be happening. He felt like throwing up. Actually, he felt like slumping to the floor and dying. Through foggy vision he saw the boy from before, totter from one nest to the other. He grabbed him, somehow managing to tear his eyes away from the sight and stumble backwards into the courtyard with the squealing boy in tow.
‘What’s the matter?’ Fey asked as Sullivan sat down on the rough sand, dragging the boy with him. ‘You look like you saw a demon.’
Not far from it. ‘Go and see yourself.’ Sullivan knew they wouldn’t believe him unless they themselves saw it. They stumbled forward, the children squirming in their arms. Judging from their expressions of horror, Sullivan knew they were as shocked as he was.
‘What do we do now?’ Morgan asked, the naked boy trying to wrestle out of her arms.
‘We do what we were asked to do,’ Sullivan replied. ‘We take these kids home.’
‘Doesn’t look like much,’ Fey said, staring upwards at the dominating skyscraper.
‘We’re not here for the sights,’ Morgan responded, ‘we’re here to return these kids.’
‘I don’t think it’ll be as simple as that,’ Sullivan replied, pressing the button of an old-fashioned intercom. It made an ominous buzz for a split-second before a voice crackled over the coms.
‘You guys from before?’ the voice asked.
‘Pretty much,’ Sullivan responded. He was starting to lose patience with the nameless man. ‘And we have the children.’ The rest of the sentence died on his dry and crackled lips.
‘Good.’ A moment later the steel door slid open, the rails screeching against rusted metal. ‘We’re on the top floor. I’ve opened the elevator for you.’
‘Wait,’ Morgan said as the coms went dead. ‘Did he say “we”?’
* * *
The elevator was small and cramped and, judging from the groans of complaint it gave, it was going to give way at the slight pressure. But somehow they reached the top floor in one piece.
At least the kids weren’t as savage anymore. They seemed to be less and less eager to run off now. The little girl in Fey’s arms even went to sleep, kicking her legs as if running away in a dream.
Unlike almost everything else on the planet, the top of the building was actually clean. The red leather pillow-shaped walls and carpet were both spotless, and the large windows had not a hint of dirt or grime. Sullivan found it hard to believe he was on the same planet.
A door at the end of the hallway snapped open and a man came out. His thin black hair and fragile figure gave the impression that he had been seriously malnourished and was slowly recovering. His blood-shot eyes moved from Sullivan to his crew suspiciously as he stepped forward, closing the door behind him. His eyes darted to the children in their arms and his weary face lit up.
‘You have them,’ he croaked. Sullivan recognized the man from the coms. ‘Where did you find them?’
‘In a nest,’ Sullivan said, watching the man’s expression carefully.
The man’s face registered shock. ‘You saw the shed?’ Sullivan nodded.
‘Enough of the lies,’ Fey spluttered. ‘What the hell’s going on here?’
The man blinked heavily as he approached them. ‘I’m one of the few who haven’t been taken over yet. Not completely. This building is home to just over a hundred other survivors.’
‘Survivors of what?’ Sullivan asked.
‘The aliens,’ he whispered, as if he was afraid of being heard. ‘They just appeared in the forest one day. They make people sick. Very sick. You saw what they did to people in the shed.’
‘And why aren’t you like that as well?’ Morgan demanded.
‘I got out in time,’ he whispered. ‘I escaped the hivemind’s corruption. The further away you are, the less sick you become. Those people...’ — he paused and shuddered — ‘those things that used to be people are too far gone. There’s no saving them.’
‘What about the children?’ Sullivan asked, trying to focus his mind. His head was spinning around like it was on a spring. He had to force himself to get the words out. ‘What will happen to them?’
‘They’ll get better,’ the man replied softly. ‘Look.’ He walked over to them, taking the child from Fey’s arms. He didn’t resist. The man walked back to the door and opened it slightly ajar, calling to someone inside.
A moment later a thin woman with scraggy hair stepped into the hallway. Her thin face lit up when she saw the little boy, scooping him up in her bony arms. The boy seemed to recognize the woman, resting his head on her bosom gently and making nuzzling sounds.
Sullivan felt a lump in his throat as the man turned back to him with a grim expression. ‘You see? This is the only thing we could do.’
‘You didn’t tell us about the aliens,’ Sullivan hissed. ‘You didn’t mention any of this. Did you want us to get killed?’
‘If we had said anything, what would you have done?’ the man asked. The woman walked back inside the room, cradling her child. Sullivan could see dozens of people inside. Most of them looked as if they had been raised from the dead. ‘You would have called it in. You would have gotten an extraction team here.’
‘What makes you think we won’t?’ Morgan demanded.
The man blinked heavily. ‘What will it achieve?’ he asked. ‘There is nothing that can be done here. Most of us are dead already. Nothing can be done. They’ll come here with their guns and tear the city apart.’ He looked at Sullivan directly in the eye. ‘Leave us be. Tell them you saw nothing. No one was here. It’s been abandoned. Let us live out our days in peace.’
He’s scared of people. He’s scared of going outside. He’s scared of everything. Whatever the aliens had done to him, it wasn’t gone completely. It might never be. These people were fragile, scared beings that just wanted to live and die in peace and quiet. Do I have the heart to put them through hell again?
He didn’t even want to think about what they had gone through, and what they might still go through. But Sullivan knew that getting hundreds of trigger-happy armed men and hyperactive scientists would do no good. No good at all. Better to leave it all alone, he thought, and never come back.
‘I’m prepare to erase all data from the journey,’ Amber said. ‘Just say the word.’
Sullivan turned to the rest of his squad. ‘What do you think? Do we go by our orders or not?’
Fey’s expression told him everything he needed to know, and seeing tears stream down Morgan’s face for the first time carved his decision in stone.
Sullivan turned back to the man and nodded. He didn’t need to say anything. There was nothing to say. Every cell in his body was screaming at him, decades of training commanding him to do what he was expected to do.
Sullivan ignored them all as he strode away, his feet as heavy as lead. If disobeying his orders meant giving these people peace, then it was worth it. Yes, it was definitely worth it.
Copyright © 2014 by Jeremy Szal