I sit beside a bare fireplace, staring at the ash, shivering in my clothes, aware of the firewood in the corner but unwilling to strike up a flame. I have eaten the day-old bread, stewed cabbage and turnip from my plate, but left the slices of pork that my pitying neighbour presented this morning. My soul cannot find comfort or pleasure in this bleakness. It would seem an affront to my wife and daughters, all three taken lifeless and consigned to the plague pit within the past two days. There is nothing for me but to sit in wretched solitude and contemplate my loss.
For an hour, maybe two, I remain in a state of lethargy, waiting for an hour when it would feel right to crawl under the blanket on my bed. But there is a stirring in my stomach, the little food I have eaten in recent days having digested and begun to press upon my bowels. It would cause discomfort during the night, and even in my depression I’m repelled at the thought of sleeping in a room with my own stink. It means stepping outside and tramping the two hundred feet to the wooden privy upon the edge of the river. As I stand I feel an ache in my knees and hips and a mild dizziness that quickly subsides. I leave the house, pulling my coat against my neck and chest, adjusting my eyes to the near dark and scouring the ground ahead for potholes and horse mess. I walk, noticing lights in windows, hearing the snort of a pig and the wail of a woman in another bereaved home. Nearing the river I catch its breeze in my nostrils, a small relief from the mild stench behind, and hear what I think are voices. They cause me to stop and look behind, seeing nothing but a trace of smoke from an unseen fire. I pause, wondering if some blackguard intends me harm, then continue. I hear the sound again, whispers but no words that I can understand, stoop and take a heavy piece of a tree branch from the ground. I may be miserable but do not wish to be defenceless. A foul odour tells me I am close to the privy, finding the ground planks that lead to the edge of the river then the row of three closets suspended above its bank. Each is empty, people being reluctant to approach this spot at night, and I enter the first to pull down my breeches and spread my buttocks upon the opening. The movement comes quickly, the stool is firm and I feel a moment of mild relief as I had neglected to grab some straw to wipe myself. Then I hear the whispers again, straighten my back and squeeze the branch in my hand. A moment of silence, another sound and the door swings towards me. I raise the branch, anticipating an attack – and see nothing but strands of smoke. I stare, for a moment almost laughing at the tricks of the night, but then see the smoke curl and stretch into the form of two bodies. Suddenly I am confronted by fleshless demons, inhuman faces pressed side to side and staring into the privy as my bowels release the remnants of the stool. I feel a moment of terror, afraid these creatures wish to drag me to hell, then realise that their gaze has set between my knees where my tackle hangs loose. I raise the twisted wood.
“Begone!” I yell. “Back to Satan!”
I throw the branch at them. The bodies twist and evaporate, quickly disappearing into the darkness. I look at nothing, suspended between fear and anger, then begin to laugh. The demons were afraid of me. If Satan had sent these creatures then there is little to fear. The laughter holds me briefly, then I think of returning to home, bend to pull up my breeches and feel a twinge in my groin. I hold still, move my hand inside and feel a lump. Then I look down, realising that the skin has swollen into a pale ball, one touch indicating the presence puss beneath the flesh. I have a bubo. Then I feel the pain at the joints and a fresh sense of lethargy within. The plague has claimed me. I take seconds to contemplate the knowledge that I have little time, maybe a couple of days, and feel a twist of fear. But it subsides; I realise that I will soon be reunited with my wife and daughters. I pull up my breeches, step painfully into the night, and make my way home to die.
Ground teams returned from exploration points around Planet Ʊ28 with assessments confirming findings of initial sound wave probes. Dominant species has developed pre-industrial technologies that show it be on progress towards a significant generation of quantumonic energy that would make it a useful source for harvest in the future. Rudimentary transfer of energy sources, notably heat and some liquid, have been developed but so far minimal levels of quantonomic output that could not feasibly be spiralled across galactic expanse to Tanaka and colony planets. Requires further growth. Assessments against historical data on other pre-civilisations indicates that generation will reach optimum levels in between 41 and 107 Tanakan schuz cycles. Within parameters of regular reconnaissance vessel departing with recommendation that next expedition investigates at 45-50 schuz cycles – equivalent to approximately 300 lunar cycles of Planet Ʊ28.
Cautionary note. Disabling agent was dispersed across planet in excessive quantities causing widespread terminations among dominant species. This could slow down development of technologies and subsequent generation of quantonomic, so advise lower density of dispersal next time.
I curse the King. Dusk is falling as the boat reaches the outskirts of London, and I silently growl at the knowledge that he remains in the safety of his castle at Windsor while I am assigned to penetrate the plague-ridden city in search of his floozy. As if she will appreciate the gesture. No doubt she was distraught at being left behind when he fled, not given a discreet place within one of the rear carriages but left to fester in the house by the Fleet. Maybe she thought herself first or second among his trollops, when in fact she would be fourth of fifth. I anticipate tears, pleading and a foul tongue when I find her – if she is alive. But His Majesty wishes me to present her with a silk scarf and a velvet purse of silver coins, ‘reminding her of the King’s affection’ as he said to me; ‘ensuring that she does not sell herself to another man’ as I understood.
The boat reaches the banks of Blackfriars and turns towards the jetty at the point where the Fleet streams into the Thames. As it docks I tell the boatman to stay still, that I intend to return within the half hour, and gesture to my guard to follow. We go ashore and move quickly through narrow streets, avoiding the mess of horses and dogs on the cobbles and closing our ears to quiet cries of grief. We are in a street of modest houses and I search for a carving of a rose above each of the doors, finding it at the fourth and knowing I have reached her dwelling. I instruct the guard to stand back, confident that his armour and pike would deter any blackguards, and knock on the door. There is no answer but it is unlocked, so I step inside, adjusting my eyes to the dark of the hallway, eased only by a dull light from within another room. I had expected to find a maid but there is none in sight, and I hear a pained moan from within the lit room. It picks at a trepidation within me, but I know that I cannot return to the King without having set eyes upon the woman, so I move forward and push at the half open door. I can see nothing, but hear another moan from a hidden corner, take a further step and feel my foot clutter an object. A stench hits my nose and I realise I have stumbled on an awkwardly placed piss pot. I turn towards the corner and see a female figure on the bed, a skirt ruffled at its waist and bare legs splayed into a state of indecency. I stare at the woman and speak quietly.
“You are Elizabeth?”
She shivers and raises her head, staring back at me through bleary eyes then squirming in the manner of leg cramps. I curse, realising that I am in the presence of one who has been infected, decide that I will perform the minimum requirement of my duty and take the purse and scarf from inside by waistcoat.
“I come from the King. He wishes me to convey his affections and present you with these.”
I glance around the room and see a stool in a corner, a few feet and hopefully far enough from the woman to be beyond infection, and move carefully to place the scarf and purse upon it.
“This will make you comfortable until the King returns to London.”
I am angry at my own words but know there is nothing I can to do to provide genuine comfort.
“Is there anyone else within this house?”
She pushes herself up to rest upon a crooked arm, moans and shakes her head. I wonder if I should look for a priest, then recall the reports that they have ceased to visit the dying. She coughs into her chest, wriggles on the bed but seems too weak to stand. I wait for a moment, listening for the sound of another in the house and hearing nothing. Her eyes meet mine. I hope they show pity but my intent is unyielding, that I will leave her to die.
One step backwards, a turn towards the door and my foot knocks the edge of the piss pot. Its stink tickles my nose, then I see twisting lines of white smoke creep around the edge of the door. For a moment I wait with a vague expectation of a man with a pipe; but then the lines stretch downwards and take on a shimmering form. An approximation of two large eyes set themselves on mine and for a moment I feel an intense fear. The figure remains on its spot but its contours ripple and a protrusion emerges into the shape of an arm, then another, then another. I gasp, stagger, try to back away but realise I am trapped in the room, the apparition blocking my escape. My eyes shoot to every corner then down and I see the pot at my feet. Quickly I bend forward and in a single movement take it in one hand and throw the piss into the figure’s face.
“Back to hell with you!”
There is a moment in which the figure just stares at me, then its smoky outline collapses and flies out of the door. Good God! The piss scared it away! I stand shaking, bemused at what I have done, unsure if it there is another horror beyond the door. Then I feel a hand on my shoulder and breath upon my neck. I turn and see the woman’s plague drawn face almost pressing against mine.
“Please!” She tries to grab the collar of my waistcoat. “Take me with you.”
Then she coughs and I feel the horrific touch of her spittle upon my face.
“Away from me!”
I slap her so she falls and rolls away towards the bed. I do not wait to see her face again but leave the room, oblivious to whether the apparition has remained, then stumble into the street. The guard is waiting. He sees my alarm and I force myself to stand straight and search for authority in my stutter.
“It-it’s done!” I say. “N-now we can go! Im-m-mediately.”
For a moment he stares. I fear that if he guesses that I had been so close to a plague victim he will desert me.
“Come!” I say. “The King’s business is done!”
I stride past him, quickly back towards the river, and hear his footsteps behind me. My heart beats wildly, assaulted by two horrors only one of which I understand.
Assessment of Planet Ʊ28 has been disappointing, with quantunomic generation well below level anticipated by previous reconnaissance. Possibility that excessive use of disabling agent at that time caused depletion of major species to the extent that slowed development. Energy sources here still pre-industrial, predominantly heat and liquid, and still unfeasible for spiral transmission to Tanaka. Suggest further reconnaissance on similar schedule: approximately 45 Tankan schuz cycles or 300 lunar cycles of planet.
Also suggest that use of disabling agent unnecessary next time. Ground party has mastered techniques of controlling constituent elements so that dominant species can rarely perceive our presence – in such small numbers that they cannot process – and fleet guidelines indicate it is better not to deplete species and thereby maintain maximum quantumonic generation. Hopefully next mission will discover conditions right for feasible transmission.
So I go to the spot by the bushes alongside the foot tunnel, where there’s a bit of light so I can see what I’m doing but not enough for people to see me easy unless they’re looking. Someone’s dumped one of them masks so it dangles on a branch and whatever shit has come out of the nose can float into the air. I think about chucking it deeper into the bush but realises that means touching and God knows what type of shit will get on my fingers, and they’s going near my mouth with what I’m going to do. So I just shift myself a little so I can’t see it, cough a couple of times, then take the plastic bag from my pocket. More than double the usual price and Melvyn talked like he was doing me a bleeding favour to sell it at that, giving all that talk about how it’s got ten times harder to get since the lockdown started and there are laws of supply and demand and he don’t care that I haven’t had a smoke for over a week. Fuck him! I’ll find someone else next time. So I take some of the weed from the bag – not as much as usual as I’ve got to make this last and I’m not sharing – and roll it into the paper, lick and press it down. It looks a bit pathetic, but Melvn promised it’s primo, none of your cabbage or rope, and it would take my head wherever I wanted it to go.
“Trust me man, you’ll forget about this coronafuckup for a good few hours.”
Yeah, that’s what I want, something strong enough to take my mind off being lockdowned with my mum and sisters and all the shouting and squealing when we haven’t even got decent Wi-Fi in the flat. I cough again and pull out my lighter, put the flame to the spliff and take the first drag. Ten seconds later I know that Melvyn was telling the truth, it’s proper primo and the shit falls out of my head and suddenly I feel good. That is the business. I roll the spliff between my fingers, know there’s only a few drags in it but reckon that’ll be enough. I don’t want to get so out of it that I can’t find my way home easy. I shuffle into the corner of the bush where I can lean against the concrete corner of the tunnel and relax. Yeah, just let that nice feeling roll around my head and forget about all this lockdown bollocks for a couple of hours. I can think of a couple of the crew who’d be seriously pissed off that I didn’t make a phone call to share, but as things stand anyone not buying ain’t sharing. It needs another cough before the next drag but that goes easy and I soothe a little more, not worrying about anything and smiling at those funny whispers in my head. There’s some lines of smoke in front of me, and I think they’re from the spliff even though I’ve never seen them like that before, and I look down and laugh a little without really knowing why.
My eyes are closed for a bit and I take another drag before opening them and see something standing in front of me.
“What the fuck!”
I don’t what they is but they ain’t people, just lines of smoke in a shape that makes a body and loads of arms and a mouth and big eyes that are staring right at me. I don’t move and they don’t move but the way they look tells me that they ain’t seen anything like me before either. I realise I’m shaking and not knowing if I should run, or fight, or ….. Now I see one of them is looking down towards my hand with the spliff in it, and I wonder if that’s why they’ve come looking here, then what is all this shit in my head? But maybe? I raise my hand with the spliff, reckoning they might take it as a sign of peace, and for a moment one of half a dozen hands stretches towards it. Then my throat catches and I splurt a big angry cough, then another and another, right into the faces and their eyes get bigger and their mouths twist and they back off. For a second they go all shimmery then the lines of smoke start swirling and fly away and they’re gone.
I’ve dropped the spliff, scared silly and thinking what’s that bloody weed done to my head. That wasn’t primo and it wasn’t cabbage or rope, but some evil shit that twists your head into knots then splices into some crazy CGI effect. I pick up the spliff, hold it close to my nose but I’m too scared to breathe it in. Yeah I watch that special effects stuff in movies but I don’t want it in my head. So I shuffle along the path to the nearest drain and – this is crazy – drop the spliff through the grill. Then I take the bag from my pocket, open it up and tip the rest of the weed after it. For a moment I think about how much money I’ve just chucked down the drain – like, literally – but think fuck it who needs all that in their head?
For a moment I look around, wondering if them smoke creatures are just down the path, and realise I don’t even know which way they’ve gone. Then I think I just want to get home and start walking, and decide maybe this has been some weird warning. I ain’t doing this stuff no more!
Terminal log entry. Mission abort. Risk factor of Planet Ʊ28 has risen exponentially since last recon. Ground party was able to report previously undetected viral presence gestating within host species. Little evidence of its nature but any contact inflicts rapid infection of our internal matter, compounded by dematerialisation for swift movement. This was detected only when ground party synchronised at landing point, leading to high speed transmission among its members. Most lost life agents and dematerialised on the planet surface. A few were able to transition back to vessel, but efforts to regenerate affected matter were unsuccessful and quickly infected other members of crew. Most have now dematerialised. Only three of us remain alive and all have shown early signs of internal dematerialisation. We have little time left.
In accordance with protocol we are directing the vessel away from this solar system and into dark space, with a programme to close all systems then compress itself minimum dimensions.
Advise no further reconnaissance of Planet Ʊ28; virus within resident species makes it inherently toxic. Excessive risk factor in any further efforts to extract its quantumonics.
That’s it. We’re dying and the ship will be turned into space junk. Stay away from that planet!
Image by Centophobia, CC BY 2.0