Jess awoke in the pitch blackness of the main cavern. She was curled into a corner, beneath a rough overhang of solid rock, swaddled in several layers of rough army-issue blankets that had been salvaged during the flight to sanctity from above ground. She could hear Erik’s faint snoring from a few feet away, Louis was perched high in a tree, half a mile from the mineshaft, watching the sky.
For the third time, Jess awoke; panic and guilt churning together in her mind and the pride of the kill cooling rapidly to a chilling guilt. Her companions’ deaths were like an offering and she dared not speculate further.
Erik’s snoring dissolved her panic as reality crowded out the remnants of the dream but her heart still beat feverishly. It was only a dream, but the same dream, night after night. In the darkness of the cave, Jess began to cry, silently. A great yearning began to tug at her heartstrings; she wished Cal was here, he would have been able to explain it; he would have known what to do.
* * *
Cal was the first person Jess had met after she’d fled from the remnants of her home town. She had walked until the backdrop of black smoke that churned from the burning buildings disappeared into the horizon. She walked quickly, automatically, down the middle of the silent motorways; passing blackened metal shells that were once cars. When the roads broke into the countryside, she kept going, trance-like, detouring through fields, drinking the green, still water from cow troughs and when night fell, she slept beside dry-stone walls. Her dreams were always of the death she had run from as the shining craft gathered in the skies above her home and rained down their faceless destruction until all was ashes. After the third day of walking, she had met Cal, just like that, he appeared before her, just off a country lane, sitting alone, before a small fire. A tall, bearded man in his early thirties, dressed in a long, army greatcoat, matted coils of hair hanging like wire down his back. Weak with hunger and her brow wet with a fever, Jess had simply collapsed into Cal’s arms and awoke several days later under the khaki green canvas of a small tent.
“Drink this,” Cal had said, kneeling before Jess, holding out a small flask of water. “we have to keep moving.”
As Jess and Cal continued their journey through the eerie silence of the countryside, they did not speak much. Cal refused to let Jess dwell on where she had come from, the death that had taken from her everything she knew and loved; he told her to do that would be their own end. Cal carried the rolled up tent in a gigantic rucksack and Jess carried the rolls of rough blankets that had covered her at night.
“Right,” Cal had said, as they trudged onward around the rim of a half-grown cornfield, “we’re headed five miles north of here; there’s a stone circle and a village. If there’s any more survivors, we’ll find them there.”
Cal was a quiet and determined type; he rarely spoke and even more rarely answered when Jess asked him questions. She suspected he was either suffering from some sort of post traumatic stress or from a form of autism. From their stilted conversations along the way, she had gathered that Cal had been far from the cities when the call had come. He had watched from afar as the Cigar-shaped craft had gathered in the sky; before tanks and soldiers had marched to the cities to meet their doom. Despite his eccentricity, Cal was a master of survival; he showed jess which berries and leaves from the hedgerows were safe to eat; he knew how to trap rabbits with a small, homemade snare. He knew the most sheltered places to pitch the tent and the techniques to keep warm and dry when the heavens opened or the wind screeched around them with bitter nails. The biggest reason Jess stayed beside Cal on the long treks through open countryside was that, in his idiosyncratic way, he made her feel safe; she knew that if they strayed into trouble along the way, Cal would have a solution to it.
Cal carried a ragged map around his neck in a tattered rambler’s pouch. The map was heavily annotated with spidery script that Cal would stop occasionally and consult; sometimes this would go on for hours; Jess would have to wait as Cal pored over the map, crossing out and writing more notes, muttering to himself the whole time. He appeared to have an indication where they were headed, trudging forcefully along slim, stone-lined paths as weeds whipped at his boots, his sodden coils of hair swinging gently behind him. Jess often wondered whether Cal would notice if she simply stopped, didn’t follow him anymore, instead letting him meander his merry way across the land. Jess kept on going as she strongly suspected he would.
During one of the lengthy map breaks, Jess was sitting by the side of a small stream that ran parallel to the edge of one of the fields. She was idly throwing small pebbles into the water, occasionally turning to the grey skies where the clouds bulged with the coming rain. She could see what looked like a couple of small buildings on the brow of a hill in the distance; mentioning them to Cal had induced no reply whatsoever, but Jess had held the sight of the buildings in her field of vision as she walked; as a beacon of sorts, as something that gave the endless, furtive trek some purpose. The stop had frustrated Jess; surely if there were buildings a mile or so ahead, there might be the possibility of other people, other survivors like them. Cal was muttering again; he had dropped his rucksack and Jess could see that he was scouting for a place to pitch the tent. Jess’ tired frustration was getting the better of her; it wasn’t far to the buildings, surely they must keep moving before night fell.
Suddenly and without warning, Jess felt something pass through her; it was almost like an invisible gust of heavy air. Jess let out a small gasp and pitched forward slightly. A wave of images and sensations flashed electrically through her brain before dissolving like kettle-steam or a dream. Darkness; warmth; a long forgotten, unnameable childhood smell that curled painfully in her stomach as she remembered a humming in the night and a beam of light that split effortlessly through the curtains of her bedroom. She was floating, high in the cold night air, but it was inexplicably warm and she saw shapes casting coiling, feline shadows on the lawn of her home that lay beneath her. And like a dream, the sensation dissipated and with it some answer that escaped her.
Cal skidded onto the bank of the stream, the sound of his boots crashing against the mud and water crashing Jess back into reality. Cal’s eyes were wild, scared and his dreadlocks were sprawling across his face, almost as if he had fallen, or woken suddenly from sleep. He stopped, a few inches from Jess, his mouth open, as if he were about to speak. Jess took a breath, her brain racing, ready for whatever he were about to say. Yet instead, his eyes flicking momentarily to his right, he grabbed a hold of Jess and pulled her close, collapsing to the shallow bank of the stream as, with a dull roar, some shape hurtled into the sky at an impossible speed. They watched in silent terror as it soared into the distance and all Jess could wonder was how long it had been near them and how had they not noticed.
Cal refused to move any further that day. Despite Jess’ protests, he set up the tent, made a fire and refused to budge or speak. Worn out from her frustration, Jess lay down to sleep when night fell, but after a few hours, Cal woke her; this time he was gentle, rational.
“Get up, Jess,” he shook her shoulder, “you have to see this.”
With Cal’s help, the two of them climbed into the dense, gnarled branches of a beech tree that towered over their tent. Jess was brimming with questions, but chose to keep quiet as they stared into the night sky.
High in the horizon, five of the familiar, silvery cigar craft hung. Despite their distance from the craft, Jess and Cal kept their voices quiet and their movements to a minimum.
“What’s happening?” Jess murmured, a sickly dread seeping through her nerves. “Is that where we saw those buildings?”
Cal did not answer, but she heard him shift, uncomfortably in the higher branches of the tree.
The Cigar craft were still; if they made a sound, it was not discernable from the tree. Their hulls were pulsating steadily from pink to blue and back again; it was almost hypnotic. Jess wanted to close her eyes; her heart sounded loud inside her head; a steady, muffled thump. She felt a headache beginning too, steady, sharp pain from just above her left eyesocket.
Jess heard Cal intake breath sharply from above. Still, without a sound, one of the Cigars had dispatched a smaller craft from its underside. The craft was minute compared to the Cigar, spherical, it too changed colour as it moved, turning from a lightbulb white to a sickly orange as it descended to the ground.
“That’s a drone,” Cal whispered, trying to conceal the shake in his voice, “I...” his sentenced cut short by a screech of pain.
Jess’ pain had suddenly intensified; she was having difficulty keeping her head up for the fuzzy whirring that was blocking out any other sound. As the pale orange drone descended behind the hills in the distance, Jess gave an audible whimper. The pain inside her head felt like something was swelling above her eye, trying to burst out through her skin. Jess could no longer see, her eyes were shut so tight with the pain. A nausea-inducing dizziness lurched through Jess’ stomach and she slipped from her seated position, holding cat-like onto the branch of the tree as the whirring gave way to a steady throb. Every pulsation, wrenched at each nerve inside Jess’ skull; her mouth was open and she was not sure if she was screaming or not. With her face now pressed into the branch of the tree, Jess began a desperate mental begging, with a desperate inner voice that pleaded maniacally for the pain to end or for death to take her. The pulsating pain seemed to get faster, beating like a shattered heartbeat and Jess fell from her perch in the tree; in a kind of slow motion, her eyes opened instinctively and through the pain she glimpsed a single bar of blue light from the horizon that burst petals of sickly red flame from the hills. Jess’ body collided with the ground and she knew only blackness.
* * *
Jess got to her feet, her eyes becoming accustomed to the darkness of the mineshaft. She thought back to those last few days with Cal in the wilderness. He had carried her, along with the tent and provisions, the uphill mile to the decimated buildings that had once been her hope in the wastes of the world. Cal had found shelter in the basement of somewhere that had once held life; he had nursed her back to consciousness and strength as the fires raged above them and the shining indifference of the Cigars glided silently past them through the sky. This was where the others had found them; Erik and Louis and they, as four, had endured.
Somewhere to Jess’ left, in another dark corner of the mine, Erik shifted in his sleep, a child-like sigh escaping into the still air. A faint pattering sound was coming from somewhere higher up toward the entrance shaft.
It was Cal who had told them about the forest and the abandoned mine that lay somewhere beneath it; he had bid them forward, told them to keep moving, to never stop anywhere for too long, to move if they saw more than one cigar in a single day. That night, they all slept in the basement of the levelled building on the hill and the next morning all traces of Cal had gone.
The pattering got louder and Jess’ stomach tensed with a sudden weary dread as she recognised the echo of skittering of feet and hands on the entrance shaft of the mine. Louis was done and it was her turn to go on watch. Watch would keep her awake; watch would keep the murderous dreams at bay.
Louis stumbled into the main area of the mineshaft; he was panting and carrying a short log from the fire that’s smouldering end cast no light against the blackness of the mine, but illuminated half of his pallid face, his wide eyes cast against it like dark shadows. His mouth hung open as he regained his breath, abject misery spelled hard across his features.
“Another one....” he spat, between breaths, “that’s two Cigars passed in three days...”
Silence hung in the still air of the mine and Jess was glad of the darkness that hid her tears.