Authors: Nathan Kuzack
a novel by
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Nathan Kuzack.
Copyright © 2014 by Nathan Kuzack.
The right of Nathan Kuzack to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
The sin against the body – it was for that they wept in chief; the centuries of wrong against the muscles and the nerves, and those five portals by which we can alone apprehend – glozing it over with talk of evolution, until the body was white pap, the home of ideas as colourless, last sloshy stirrings of a spirit that had grasped the stars.
The Machine Stops
When he got to the church the age-old sound that had brought him here was still in a regular rhythm. Streets away the bell had sounded like a distant, half-imagined memory, but here it was music: a proud and joyous and irresistible reveille – a paean to order even now. It was no ordinary chiming of a church bell. It was a signal. A beacon. Issued by a fellow survivor. Rising above the rain like a clarion above a battlefield.
It was hope.
He ran past the railings, letting his hand brush along them and grinning like a child, breathless with expectation as much as the exertion of his dash through the empty, rain-lashed streets.
The church door was open. Despite his excitement, he approached it with caution, breathing heavily, his grin gone. Inside it was dark and cold and lifeless. High above the wind was whistling through the rafters, causing the timbers to creak and groan in protest, a disturbingly eerie sound despite the more dominant clanging of the bell. The unwelcoming, foreboding feel of the place engulfed him. This was not a house of God any more. There was no sanctuary here, no comfort, no incentive to praise the Lord’s name. His senses screamed at him to turn back, to turn on his heel and run back the way he’d come while he still had the chance, but the beacon the bell formed compelled him to keep going.
He went left, towards the rear of the church and the bell tower. As he passed the rows of pews something brightly coloured standing out against the dark varnished oak it was resting on caught his eye: a child’s soft toy lying on one of the pews. He picked it up. The toy was some cartoon character clad in a silver spacesuit, its eyes lifelike and bright above a huge, open-mouthed smile, its hand giving a thumbs up sign. He kept hold of the toy, pressing it against his chest.
The doors leading to the bell tower were inlaid with stained glass panels depicting the Resurrection, their detail partially obscured by the subdued daylight coming through them. Beyond had to be the bell-ringer. The tapper-out of the beacon, who had used campanology in place of radio out of necessity, all technological avenues having been closed off.
One of the doors was slightly ajar. His hand trembled as it reached for the handle, moving as if in slow motion, seemingly detached from his own body. Gently he pulled the door towards him, making the hinges creak; he winced, but the ringing continued unabated.
At first he saw only bare stone wall, but, as his eyeline crept around the stationary door, there followed a window, bell ropes, and then…
He stared for much longer than was necessary, transfixed by such a freakish sight, his overburdened heart aching as the bell kept tapping out its pointless two-note melody. The bell was not a beacon. It was not a signal from a fellow survivor. It held no meaning at all. It was nothing more than yet another random act of madness.
Taking great care, he closed the door and backed away, just as shifting clouds outside caused more sunlight to come streaming through the stained glass panels, illuminating them. His eyes saw them as if for the first time, noting the way the light percolated through each coloured pane, taking in every nuance of the flawless workmanship, every scrap of beauty contained in every single inch of gleaming glass, and the sadness of this once hallowed place slipped around him like a shroud. There was no fellow survivor here. No solace. No sure and certain hope of resurrection. No hope at all.
He turned, and the sight that greeted him made him inhale so sharply the sound of it reverberated through the still air. The church doorway and the aisle he’d trodden were black – literally
, like a landscape stained with oil – with the silhouettes and shadows of a horde of slowly moving figures. The congregation had arrived, and the truth hit him as surely as the adrenal rush of fear that flooded through his veins. The bell was not a beacon; it was a death knell.
death knell. It tolled for him and him alone; a trap, with he its only possible victim.
Stumbling to the central aisle, he made his way down the nave, but already he knew it was no use. There were too many of them. Far too many. They were the wretched. The lost. The consumers of life. They were murderous and merciless. They would never stop – could never stop. They flowed through the door as a single, shape-shifting mass, a horrifying tide of death from which there could be no escape.
He shuffled towards the chancel, hardly daring to look at them head-on, only stopping when he reached the altar, where he stood and looked down at the child’s toy. There was no holding back the tears that rolled down his face at the sight of it. The bright eyes, the gaping smile, the thumbs up – in themselves they were too much to bear, but the real coup de grâce was the spacesuit; had it not been dressed as an astronaut he probably would not have wept.
Cradling the toy as if it were an infant, he lay down, face up, on the altar. They encircled him silently, their faces hidden from view, their talon-like hands reaching for him. If only he hadn’t hoped. It was hope that had brought him here, and it would be hope that would kill him.
As they closed around him, piled deep row on row, swarming like insects, his back arched and his head craned back, prefiguring the throes of the agonising death that was to come, inverting his field of vision, and his final sight of them was as dark, hazy gods reaching down from the heavens through a veil of tears. And in that moment the final horror became visible: their faces – they were the faces of everyone he had ever known and ever loved, each one clearly recognisable despite a uniform disfigurement, a distortion caused by the presence of an impostor and a look of rabid vengefulness, a horrifying alienness the familiarity of their features could do nothing to dispel.
They moved in for the kill – for the
– as the bell finally stopped, leaving in its wake only the wind and the rain and the creaking of the rafters, and he let the toy astronaut slip from his chest and fall to the floor.
Then he closed his eyes and screamed the last scream.
From the living room window David Lawney scanned the square and the streets beyond it three storeys below. There was no sign of movement. Good. No sign of the bastard Varley. Even better. A whitish mist in the air though, one that seemed to grow thicker the more he tried to peer through it. Not so good. He switched his glasses to infrared and looked around, just to be sure, even though half the time they barely showed up on infrared at all, appearing as little more than ghostly wisps of blue all too easily lost in the static-filled background. He was dressed in his “combat” – or outdoor – gear, with a baseball cap on his head and a large holdall strapped to his back. In an inside pocket of his coat, ready to be grabbed at a moment’s notice, was a heavy antique rolling pin made of marble; trial and error had revealed it to be the best instrument for breaking bones he’d yet come across. It was just as well the cook whose pin it had once been couldn’t know the dreadful way their instrument had been perverted: from food-preparer to bone-breaker – in the normal world such a thing would have been unconscionable. But a whole host of previously unconscionable things were everyday occurrences now; the forbidden had become the acceptable, the outrageous the norm.
He checked and double-checked everything was in its place, before saying to the cat, “Wish me luck.”
The cat – a ginger tom so huge it was almost leonine – sniffed the air, indignation evident in its bearing if you knew what to look for; it was outraged it hadn’t been fed yet.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he groaned. “If you weren’t so fussy I could’ve stayed indoors this morning, you know that?”
The cat yawned.
“You cocksure little shit. You’re gonna get groomed when I get back.”
It took him almost a minute to release all the locks on the door to his flat, and that was only the start of the process of extricating himself from the building. There were three more locked doors and two barricades to go. God help him if a fire ever took hold on one of the lower floors. The doors and barricades would prevent a speedy escape, and the barricades could easily end up acting as fuel for the fire. If it ever happened he’d already decided he might as well jump, be done with it and let gravity do the rest.
His flat was on the topmost floor of a complex dominated by the number three: three blocks, three floors per block, three flats per floor; hence its name, Trinity Court. The blocks of flats were arranged in the shape of a U, within which nestled a square patch of garden. Long ago the square had been a playground, back when there had been enough children around to warrant such a thing; now it was just bare grass lined with bushes and low-rising trees. He checked the area again from the third-floor landing. All clear, as far as he could see. He set to work making the first barricade, which was comprised mainly of furniture from the other two top-floor flats, passable.
Seven minutes later he was standing in front of the main door on the ground floor. Its mottled glass was splattered with dried blood and criss-crossed with blooms of cobweb-like cracks, indicators of where it had been struck several times in the past. Despite the battering it had received, the door was still fully functional. It was a good door, built to last, a fact he gave silent thanks for every time he laid eyes on it. There was no telling when one of their number would find a way to remove it from its hinges, a compromise in security he had no idea how he would overcome. Cautiously, moving slowly and breathing shallowly so as to make as little noise as possible, he opened the door and stepped outside.
It was an overcast day, not warm but not cold either. The mist looked thicker on ground level than it had from upstairs. Not the best day to be venturing out, but what could he do? He stood motionless, listening, for a while. Birds. Trees. A piece of litter blowing in the wind. Nothing else. Even after all these months the silence of the city outdoors still managed to surprise him. It was the
of it; like a biological antenna, some kind of sixth sense picked up on the lack of sound waves propagating through the vast halls of air surrounding the city streets, sending shock-filled warning signals up and down his spine whether he wanted them or not. Years ago he’d always worn earphones whenever he’d gone outside, trying to block out all the noise, not the silence. But that was
; to do such a thing now would have been tantamount to suicide.