“What the hell was that?”
On the street in Abernathy, Carthage had made his way to Siobhan’s side. They crouched beside the stairs to a brownstone walkup, and peered in either direction down the road. The mysterious sound hadn’t repeated in a few minutes, and the town was back to the eerie silence that had greeted them upon arrival.
“I have no idea,” replied Carthage, “but it sounds angry.”
“What do we do?”
“We need to get to higher ground, fast. That bell tower will have a good view.”
Siobhan nodded, and they headed for the church, mercifully only a block away. The beefy double doors in front were locked, so Carthage led them around the side to a flimsier door. He threw a swift front kick without hesitation, and the jamb splintered into dust. Rushing inside, they quickly located a heavy cabinet and dragged it in front of the door. The shuttered window for the room cast little light, so he pulled out a small flashlight and looked around. Siobhan pushed on the cabinet to make sure it was as secure as possible.
They were in the kitchen. At first glance, nothing seemed out of place, and there was a layer of dust on everything. The cupboards were bare except for some old ant traps and a can of oven cleaner. Carthage opened a couple of drawers but found nothing of interest. Siobhan noted a calendar on the wall from five years ago.
“Looks like they cleaned this place out,” she said.
“Yup. Let’s keep moving.”
The next room was the chapel. Ample light streamed in through the stained glass windows, so Carthage put away his flashlight. They walked past rows of mahogany pews toward the front of the room, and immediately noticed something behind the altar. The crucifix was lying on the floor, and in its place on the wall, someone had hastily written a message in red paint: DUN RINGILL HAS BETRAYED US.
Carthage grunted. “That’s disconcerting.”
Siobhan’s heart sunk even further. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
“You didn’t already? Come on, let’s find the stairs to the steeple.”
They found the vestibule and poked around for a minute. Carthage found a thick document and picked it up.
“Check this out,” he began, “it’s an evacuation order. It lists the town hall and the church as rallying points, and has the names of residents assigned to ships. The people who came here had surnames that began with A through M, and it looks like most of them have been checked off. Whatever drove them out, they had time to organize pretty well.”
“I saw a second calendar back there, it seems certain this all went down five years ago. I suppose I should be grateful that… do you hear that?”
He nodded, and stuffed the document into his rucksack. They could hear sounds resembling a crow’s call, but distorted and varying in pitch. The sounds seemed to be getting closer.
The stairs to the tower were off the vestibule, and they ascended to the set of large, cast iron bells. They had a great view of the town, and blinked in the bright daylight.
“I’ve got movement to the west,” he said, and peered through his rifle scope.
“Same, to the south. I can’t make it out yet.”
Before too long, they were able to distinguish objects moving through the streets. Even as the things got closer, the pair couldn’t get a good look at them. They were spherical in shape, moving lightly like tumbleweeds, and were both blurry and shimmering. As the objects drew to within a few blocks, they could make out vaguely defined physical features, but it was difficult to be sure exactly what they were seeing. They couldn’t be sure how many, but there were lots of them.
“Are you seeing this?” asked Siobhan, her voice wavering. “Tentacles, jaws like a shark, um… many, many eyes?”
“Yup,” replied Carthage cooly. “Can’t be sure, they’re out of focus, like they’re here but not really here. I’m going to venture a guess that they’re not indigenous.”
She smiled weakly. “I think somebody would have mentioned it by now.”
He motioned for the two of them to duck down as the things approached. About half a dozen of them rolled around the base of the church, chirping oddly to each other. Siobhan remembered to check her PDA, but it wasn’t indicating anything. She found herself holding her breath, hoping the things would move on.
“No such luck,” said Carthage, as if reading her mind. “Get your pistol out!”
She looked over the side and her adrenaline hit her like a truck. The things were climbing the tower. She could clearly see tentacles attaching themselves to the walls, although the center part of them was still blurry. They rolled upward with frightening speed, another tentacle appearing from their opposite side long enough to vault up a few feet, before disappearing underneath. She glanced at Carthage; the man had told her to switch to her pistol because they would need a spare hand to hang on to the windowsill, which is what he was doing. A fraction of a second later he let loose a round, the sharp report ringing in her ears.
Siobhan didn’t wait for him to relay the results of the shot. She drew her own pistol and grasped the edge of the window with her left hand. She drew a bead on the closest creature, now only ten feet away, and squeezed the trigger. She couldn’t tell if she’d hit it, but a moment later it fell back, dissolved into white ash, and blew away in the breeze.
Carthage said, “We can kill them! Take them out!”
She was more than happy to oblige. The loss of one of their own didn’t deter these things, and they kept climbing. She tried to keep her shots well-aimed, but she quickly realized her caution would result in her and Carthage getting overwhelmed. As she fired, many more creatures congregated at the base of the church, forming a shimmering, swirling mass. Carthage’s own pace with his pistol quickened, and she wondered if they hadn’t just made a huge mistake. She took out about ten of the things before the slide locked back on her pistol.
“Reloading,” the pair said simultaneously.
The next sixty seconds were a blur. The humans created a staccato of deafening gunfire, and both reloaded twice more. Silky ash rained down from the tower like a blizzard. Siobhan was getting ready to figure out how to use her rifle at such an awkward angle when the creatures backed off.
“I think they got the hint,” he said.
“I’m down to my last mag here.”
“Give it a couple of minutes, let’s see if they reorganize.”
The remaining creatures lazily rolled off in all four directions and disappeared from sight. Carthage holstered his pistol and unzipped his rucksack. He grabbed his spare pistol and three magazines, and handed them off. He tossed his empty mags inside and pulled out two more that were full. She holstered her own pistol and put the spare mags in her jacket pocket before collecting her empty mags from the floor.
“What do we do now?” She asked, her hands shaking around her borrowed Beretta.
“Take some deep breaths. We’ll wait and see if they come back. I counted nine left on my side, how about you?”
“I have no idea, Carthage. I think I killed about thirty though.”
He wiped his brow. “Same here. Good work. I just wish we knew what the hell these things were. I’ve never encountered anything like them. Fortunately they’re gracious enough to die when they’re shot.”
She took a swig from her canteen, spilling most of it on herself. “How long do you think we can hold out? If they come back with reinforcements then we’re going to run out of ammo.”
“The noises are retreating. If it’s quiet for long enough, we can displace. The townsfolk made it out of here somehow, I wonder if it was overwhelming firepower or another strategy.”
“Maybe they only come out during daylight.”
Carthage grumbled. “We could only be so lucky. But it would make sense, based on what we’ve seen. We still need to find a more defensible position soon. If we can move under cover of night, we may stand a chance.”
“And then what?”
“Then we get the fuck out of Dodge.”
The basement of the town hall wasn’t a five star hotel, but for Carthage and Siobhan, it might as well have been a palace. After a tense hour of waiting in the church tower, and a terrifying walk to the town hall (at least for Siobhan), they were glad to be in a secure location. Both ways into the basement were easily locked or barred, and there was even an oil lamp left behind to illuminate what would have otherwise been an inky black space. The disadvantage was that they couldn’t see or hear anything outside the building, so even though they hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the strange creatures since the initial attack, they couldn’t be sure they were gone.
Carthage had resigned himself to poking his head out to the first floor every so often, though it was a quick trip back to their Alamo. The location of the town hall had been helpfully marked on the document he found, and he also found more documents of interest before they had retreated into the basement. He sat in an old folding chair by the oil lamp, reading the papers, and occasionally glancing at his PDA. Siobhan lay on a dusty couch nearby with her eyes closed, though it was not an attempt to sleep, just calm herself down.
After some time, Carthage piped up. “I’ve got some good news, Siobhan.”
“That would be a nice change of pace.”
“All of these documents are dated five years ago, as we already could have guessed. There isn’t a single account of what happened, but it’s pretty easy to piece it together. These things first appeared three weeks before the evacuation order was given, heralded every day by the blood-chilling scream we heard. It happened every morning with the coming of the sun, and occurred sporadically throughout the day. So the good news is that when the sun goes down tonight, we can get the hell out of here.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“Yup. So, the townsfolk fought these things every morning for weeks, before running low on ammo. Both the farmers and the fishermen were falling behind on their efforts, and food was running out as well. Attempts to send for help were unsuccessful, as envoys to either Romanby or Perth never returned. Though that would not bode well for the evacuation, the decision was made to travel to Perth. Most people were set to travel on ships, and the rest were either going to drive or walk up the coastal highway. I take it Perth is north of here?”
She opened her eyes and sat up. “Yes. Does it say how many people died at the, um, appendages of those monsters?”
“I don’t see any casualty listing here. They don’t seem too hard to kill, I imagine the town took most of its casualties in the first few days before an effective defense was organized.”
“I’m just going to sit here and imagine that nobody died, and they all made it to Perth safely and built cute little houses and had stunningly intelligent babies together.”
“I certainly hope some of them made it to Perth. It’s our next logical destination.”
Siobhan passed her Beretta from one hand to the other. “What do you think we’re dealing with here, Carthage? Aliens? Demons? An indigenous species we somehow missed for four decades?”
“I don’t know. It could have something to do with the Wave, though Abernathy was safe for twenty years after that.” He glanced at his PDA. “Oh, the decryption program is done. Give me some time to see if there’s anything interesting on here.”
“Okay. I’m going to use the bathroom. I apologize in advance that I can’t flush.”
“Better in there than out here, I guess.”
She shrugged, and disappeared into a small room in the corner of the basement. He quickly discovered there was only one document in the encrypted folder, and it took him two seconds to read it. He let out a long, slow breath, and leaned back in his chair.
“Well, fuck me.”
Siobhan could easily see that Carthage was disturbed when she returned, though for him that meant a slightly furrowed brow. She sat on the couch and began to retie her ponytail.
“Done already?” she asked.
“Other than some encryption keys, there was only one file there. It was an outgoing transmission upon our arrival at Skye; he must have deleted it from the ship’s record as soon as he sent it. I’ll read it to you. ‘Condition of planet confirmed negative. Initiating failsafe’.”
“Holy shit. So he was under orders to kill you if the planet had gone dark? Who did he send the message to?”
“I don’t recognize the frequency channel, other than it has the prefix code for Mars. That narrows it down.”
“Who on Mars might have received it?”
He sighed. “That was an attempt at sarcasm. Mars is home to the PU’s Space Expeditionary Force. It could have been anyone in the Combined Space Fleet. Damn it.”
She gazed at the floor. “But that confirms that somebody there already knew about the disaster, to some degree.”
“Yes. All of our prior speculation on that point still applies, though. I was hoping for some firm information. Still, it doesn’t change anything. I have to discover the truth about Dun Ringill.”
She smiled. “Jealously guarded truths. More than just Holland and a gaggle of nasty monsters may stand in our way.”
“Indeed. With your help, I’m going to need to try to recruit some allies. I’m beginning to suspect you and I may not be enough to save the world.”
“Is that what we’re doing? I thought we were stumbling around blindly, trying not to fall over and break our necks.”
Carthage smirked. “Sure seems that way, doesn’t it?”