The tricky thing with sharing something new each week is that I submit many of my short pieces to journals, magazines, and competitions. I send out a lot — I’m on track for 100 rejections this year (it’s not as dire as it sounds; more on that another time) — and editors tend to count anything on a personal blog as having been published.
This slightly-longer-than-usually-posted story is not under submission, and not likely to be, so I thought, ‘What the hey!’ That, plus I like it, and it aligns thematically with last week’s flash vignette.
Before you scroll down: there’s a trigger warning, for horror, but it’s not gory. It’s more implicit (and alien) than that. Still, I understand if you don’t want to read on…
Before your very eyes
They knew not to leave the compound but the sign drew them in. After all, who doesn’t want something for free? And a massage at that! Such an act of kindness was hard to refuse from a group of old women promising to alleviate suffering. Because that was what they were doing, wasn’t it? Alleviating suffering. That’s what we thought, at the time.
We’d been locked up for so long that friends and neighbours were turning on each other. There were fifty in a house meant for five, a hundred in a ten bedroom house, cardboard humpies and broken-door fires lining the streets. Thousands lived like squatters in houses that would’ve been considered mansions in their day, in this place. Hillarys, it used to be called. Now we know it as Maraville. The bitter place.
How long were we there? By that stage, thirteen weeks.
No, it’s not so long. Even by past time standards, when we locked up our own for seeking refuge.
Past time. Before the Terror. When the Earth was still stable on the surface, the fissures just beginning from the ozone layer down. Our ancestors couldn’t have known what the breaking of this invisible barrier signified at the time. When humans were burning through oil and coal and forests, we thought the fight was between natural order and corporations, and we slathered ourselves with creams. We couldn’t possibly have understood how critical this layer was for our way of life. For our lives.
Who could have guessed that destroying the ozone layer would mark the start of the proverbial alien invasion? We couldn’t, until they’d infiltrated our lives, our governments. We were such a tolerant, peaceable race by then that we were even debating vermin rights. Then came the Human Livestock Act.
Oye! Stick with me! This bit’s important. You’ll get why in a minute.
The bill was around cloned meat. The argument went that cloning human cells was just like growing cow flesh on a Petri dish, and humans had been eating that for years.
But this bill snapped our eyes open — and boy, did we have something to say about it. Human DNA not constituting humanity, indeed! There were placards and petitions and protest rallies, talk of revolution. While it amounted to naught, we couldn’t go back to the way things were.
What you need to understand is this: we couldn’t un-learn their intentions for us. By then, we’d discovered what it meant to go missing in a city by the tens and the hundreds, and to know the cause and to have that cause unheard. But with so many voices gathering momentum, the government couldn’t ignore us.
It didn’t end the way we wanted. Humans were allocated reserves — a dilapidated piece of suburb here, a sliver of a city boundary there — and herded in. Then the fences and razor wire went up. For our own protection, apparently. But there was no maintenance, no order, no means of sourcing supplies. They were starving us out, and they kept right on dangling the Human Livestock Act at us like our exit token. Our carrot.
Yes, we had running water, but we were low on sustenance. We had grown so accustomed to store-bought convenience that the hippies were the only ones growing food; the survivalist weirdos, the only ones who had stockpiled non-perishables. We were down to our last tins of baked beans and dog food when the crowd began to get tetchy. Okay, raucous. The in-fighting started.
That’s when we saw the sign, not a hundred metres from the compound entrance, hammered into the cracked bitumen next to a circus tent. An oasis in the desert. The sign pulled at some stronger than others, and the first few through the gate returned by day’s end overflowing with tales of how great it was.
‘You should try it!’ they said. ‘You’ll feel renewed!’
The strangest thing was that those first ones came back mellow, not wanting food or drink. They just seemed, well, sated. We cancelled the scheduled fights and watched them, soaking in their calm.
The next day, more volunteers joined the line-up.
The day after that, there were a scant dozen of us holding fort as the line snaked away from camp. The massage tent had expanded over each night like they’d expected the increased demand, and a legion of the old ladies stood ready and waiting — a grey militia, ready to stick our knotted sinews with arthritic knuckles.
Those in the line — strangers, neighbours, my wife — taunted those of us who stayed. They said we were deviants, that we attracted the alien troubles. They flung stones and flaming matches through the wire when they realised we were too far for their spittle to reach. It was freakish, especially when we were the ones holding their babies.
Why didn’t I join them? Now that’s a question! I thought about following because I loved my wife, because what sort of life would it be without her? But something didn’t sit right. The old biddies were unnaturally tall, and I didn’t like the way they ogled us and smacked their chops.
Those of us who stayed tried to warn them but it was like they couldn’t hear our words. Like their ears were closed over, with wax or hope or drugs.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, ‘But it was just a massage.’ But you didn’t see them, with their– their eyes! Their crazy faces. It was not of this world, trust me. There are times you don’t want your gut to be right.
No one returned from the massage that day. The biggest humanocide we’d seen to that point, and it had happened before our very eyes. The Remainder, as we came to be known, gaped through wire diamonds as our friends and families were killed and packed up. Sent under, as it turned out.
How do I know? As soon as the last of that line-up disappeared into the tent, the whole scene shimmered in front of us like a waking dream. I don’t know why they unhid themselves in the end. Maybe it was too draining to keep up the ruse.
Lordy! The tent was a full-blown mobile abattoir. The free massage on offer was a tenderisation process, in a human meat processing plant. Those sated individuals who’d been returned to us on the Day One were decoys, high on something inhuman, designed to reel the rest of us in.
Until the veil was lifted, we couldn’t have known. There were no screams or cries, as you’d expect. All we heard to that point was a reassuring whir that we took to be the distant sea; after, it was more gruesome than that. No voices. No screams. Just moments of splintering of bone on metal as they finished the job.
We couldn’t do a thing about it.
Why do you think? The old biddies were nothing of the sort. When their cover had fallen away, their true form was revealed. When we peered through that compound fence, I think that must have been the first time a human had ever seen the aliens as they really were.
What did they look like? I’m not going to build it up for you, and I won’t sugarcoat it either. They were tall as two human men, end on end, but they had no skin, no covering. All ruddy muscle, blackened at the tips of their appendages. I could hardly call them hands or feet, those things. Their feet — and they had two — were clawed like an eagle’s. Their hands were more like multilayered shears than anything biological, and they dripped with the red of our relatives and friends.
Their backs were hunched with overbuilt brawn. They each had one mouth, in the gut. Locked open. Teeth like a lamprey’s.
Vampire fish. Its teeth are small and sharp, layered back into its head.
I doubt they had anything like a nose, else they had grown used to the fleshy stench that the sea breeze blew in our faces, causing us to turn away. And each had one giant segmented eye, compartmentalised like an insect’s, a ball on a pole that constantly turned. We knew they could see us. How could they not?
In my mind, two things that saved us that day. First, our brains seemed to work differently to the others. Maybe we were more cynical, or maybe we were more evolved. Second, the aliens seemed to respect lawful boundaries. Not once did they cross into the reserve, before then.
When they finished, the slaughter shed was sucked into the ground along with the boundary fence. They went. Everything went — everything except for a rectangle of stained earth. And us, standing there like dehydrated chickens, taking in flies.
After the reserve boundary disappeared, we had no choice but to run.
We’re all running now. Every human. We’re being hunted. This very moment, we’re under surveillance, I guarantee it. Why do you think I said no to the campfire? Too risky. We should probably head back. Even talking like this, away from the others at night. Everything’s a risk.
You still with me? Look, I’m not saying this to scare you. You’re fresh off a reserve and I don’t want you getting a shock when you’re face-to-face with one of them. Because you can’t hesitate. They can take any form, and they’ve made alliances with life forms that are quicker than you. I’m telling you this so you understand how it all started, why I spend my days sharpening old tools and bits of rock, what triggered this all-out war. I want you to get why we fight.
But, hey, you’re old enough to choose. If you don’t want to stick with the Remainder, that’s your prerogative, but you’ll be on your own against an enemy that can take any shape, that’s more equipped for killing than anything you’ve come across, that will hit you when you least expect–