The day had taken more out of me than I realized, mentally as well as physically. I was out cold before I knew it, visions of six eyed babies swimming about under my eyelids. Perhaps because I needed the comfort, I again found myself having the birthday dream. Alone as before, except for my mother.
She stood at the stove in her floral print apron, back turned to me, stirring a steaming pot of something or other. I edged around to one side but couldn’t seem to glimpse her face, and pestering her provoked no response. So I gave up and headed for the window. Hoping, wishing, begging to see anything else. Feelings of foolishness blended seamlessly with despair as I surveyed the landscape.
It was so close now. Within a hundred feet. From there, extending in all directions to the horizon, having already engulfed everything else. Thrashing, boiling, folding over on itself continuously. The nearest patch of it extended a feeble pseudopod and groped around the edges of the window. “You can’t have this place!” I cried, striving to be heard through the thick weatherized glass. As if that would make it stop.
By this point, could I really object? I’d done nothing to save anybody elses home. Watching from a distance, emotionally detached, as the creeping black mass swallowed them up one by one. Now that it was my turn, I at last understood how they must’ve felt. The abstract nameless nothing which they’d ignored with such determination until then, finally arriving at their doorstep. At the one place they never believed it would reach.
Satisfied that it couldn’t penetrate the window, I turned to explore the rest of the house. Only to find it oozing in under the front door. Frantically I gathered towels from the bathroom and wedged them into that crack, for what little good it did. The sludge just kept coming. I rushed to the garage to fetch the mop and bucket. When I tried to fill the bucket from the spigot by the doorway, it wasn’t water that gushed forth.
I again bashed my head on the bunk above mine when I awoke. Swearing furiously, cradling my head in my hands as the new gash bled all over them. I wanted to scream, memories of the nightmare still fresh in my mind. To cry and writhe on the floor, but I’d already seen what becomes of those who seem unstable around here. It was the effort of nearly half an hour to put myself together enough that I felt I could talk to anybody cogently.
I emerged into chaos. The corridors and main chamber were lined everywhere with gurneys, most of them makeshift. On them lay bandaged, moaning soldiers. “Survivors of complex 320 and the farms” a nurse with deep, puffy bags under her eyes hastily explained as she dressed one of the soldiers’ wounds. I asked which farms she meant, and she stared at me like I was some sort of idiot.
“The last ones. We’re down to what’s stored here, on base. That goes for medicine too. There’s just not enough beds! There never were enough beds. Really, the merciful thing to do would be to burn ’em so they can’t be brought back. But we don’t have the facilities for that. Now either make yourself useful, or get out from underfoot.”
I did the latter. As I entered the main chamber, I felt a series of tremors. A sort of rapid “whump whump whump whump.” Then again. The teletank operators were nearly buried in wadded up data tape and cigarette butts, nonetheless continuing to smoke like a couple of chimneys. It hung thick in the air and I contemplated searching for a gas mask before deciding it wasn’t worth the trouble.
Save for a few which now showed only static, the monitors displayed what I slowly worked out was the same battlefield as seen from different angles. There, in fuzzy monochrome, I witnessed a pair of approaching zeppelins. The gas bags needlessly ornate for a vessel of war, printed to resemble decorative lace. Shiny black flying machines swarmed about the carriages slung from the underside. Only as they grew closer, it became clear that the flying machines were in fact winged grave mites.
Of course. Why did I expect anything different? It’s just one thing after another. They never stop. Never have before this, not sure why I thought they would now except that I couldn’t make myself contemplate the alternative. Worse still, as I watched a feed of teleoperated anti-aircraft guns blasting away at the incoming swarm, I noticed the series of shots matched up perfectly with the tremors I felt.
“Whump whump whump whump.” I’d assumed this was some distant battlefield. Hoped. Wishful thinking, as ever. Instead it was taking place right on top of us. I recognized two officers from the other day, still arguing with each other before the board with the map and lightbulbs. “Fuck the refugees. Fuck ’em. They’re slowing us down. We should be making preparations to retreat to colony 431.”
The other took him by the shoulders and shook him. “You’re not listening, Danny. They took colony 431 half an hour ago.” It was no help. He looked beyond reason, fidgety and drenched with sweat. “Then we’ll retreat to the shipyard southeast of here, from there we can-” The other fellow lost his patience. “I told you Danny. I told you. They took the shipyard yesterday. It’s all gone, Danny. All of it. There’s just nowhere left to go.”
I gazed up at the map and sure enough, all lights except for the red one were now unlit. The poor wretched fellow collapsed to the floor in a mania. “How can that be? There’s gotta be something left. How can there be nothing?” The other officer initially knelt as if to help him. But then he looked around, sighed, and wandered off. A single, much more intense tremor shook the room.
I looked to the monitors, about half of which now showed only static. The first impactor had landed. The cloudy grey sky in the background was full of ’em, like shooting stars. A second impact set the lights overhead to flickering, and showered the teletank operators with dust and debris. Not long now, I thought. Not long at all. I headed for the lab, rehearsing in my head on the way what I should say to get past Harriet.
No need. Inexplicably, both hatches hung open and the little windowed booth to one side was empty. Even the entrance to the lab was packed with gurneys. Most of the patients lay motionless, but one on the right wall writhed about, whimpering and muttering to himself. Night terrors? No, he was like the poor wretch from the trenches. Hard to imagine that wherever he was right now could be worse than this.
I called out for Dr. Fritz, but received no reply. I knew him to be an irritable man, and had expected the approaching front to have compounded his stress. But instead I was met only with eerie silence as I stepped through the doorway into his darkened lab. No hum, no clicks. They must’ve redirected power to keep the strict necessities online.
“Fritz? Are you in here? I’m just looking for a headset.” Still no response. The reason became clear soon enough. I spotted the pair of dim red lights at the far end of the room, carefully navigated through the incubators to reach it, then pulled it free from the stand it was on. Once strapped tightly to my face, all was revealed.
Stay Tuned for Part 10!