A Sense Of Scale
I step out for a smoke, two guards in tow, taking their place on either side of me.
This is the way it always has to be, now – as part of humanity’s last hope, I must be protected at all costs. Luckily, it isn’t in their remit to save me from myself, and as yet their orders don’t include forcing me to surrender my cigarettes at gunpoint.
It’s a small mercy. On the few occasions that I can take a break – like now, as a sample percolates and processes upstairs – I’m still allowed to sneak out here to this empty, filthy alleyway, and take what small pleasure I can from the little nicotine parcels of joy, content that I won’t survive long enough for cancer to get me.
I’ve had the extra security on me for nearly two weeks, since the guy in the cafe.
Taking a rare break for lunch, I’d walked down to a nearby sandwich place that is favoured by the hospital staff. The place was normally packed, but like most streets and stores for the last few months, it was almost empty there – the waiting staff, previously famed for their exuberance, were reduced to one sallow looking girl who couldn’t meet my eye.
Even though it was only a fortnight ago, it’s amazing how different it was, then from now – there was still a little hope in the air, and so I could still appreciate the novelty of there being empty spaces in that place that I was so used to seeing heave with hungry doctors, nurses, patients and suits from nearby offices. A window booth looked particularly attractive to me, and I settled into the plush seating with my sub.
As I ate, I watched a gaggle of girls, school uniforms customised in as many different ways as there were pairs of bare legs in the group. Summer had hit, and of course there would have been fewer adults at the schools – discipline was clearly the first casualty.
It could have seemed like any other summer, except that every one of them was wearing a surgical mask, like the ones that everyone wore during the SARS outbreak of 02/03. Sitting there, picking a green piece of tomato out of my BLT, I had the urge to cross the road to them and explain that there was no evidence that the masks would help, that no-one yet knew what it actually was that had killed so many people, and was killing so many more. And I should know.
I chose to leave them to their futile security. From here, I could barely make out hand-drawn colours and lines on the masks, matching up with the ideograms and doodles on their school bags and the jackets rolled over their arms.
I wasn’t aware that I had been distracted, trying to see the designs more clearly, until the man slumped noisily in the seat opposite me.
Aside from a little social discomfort, I didn’t think much of the man at first, despite him choosing a seat at my table in an otherwise near-deserted place. After all, these times breed the strangest interactions. At first, he sat there, muttering under his month-old beard, and refused to look at me. I continued chewing my sandwich, hoping not to show my middle-class nervousness.
But then, he slowly raised his head, looked straight at me, and called me by name.
“I’m sorry, do I know you?” I said, trying not to read too much into it. In response to my question, he just started bellowing, angry and loud and constant, about creatures that spoke to him in his dreams. He called them ‘Old Ones’.
“I’ve heard the stories,” I said, “Cthulhu, all that, right? Lovecraft?”
“They aren’t stories,” spat he, “they speak to me. They hang there, in the red-dark, massive and beautiful. They tell me things.”
“Oh, right, things.” I said, by this point a little less amused then irritated. “These floating monsters come into your bedroom and say what?”
“They aren’t monsters,” He said, his eyes flashing brighter, “they are gods. Beautiful, tentacled, vast gods, not constrained by the walls of my room, but across the whole of the sky.”
He started around the table at me suddenly, impossibly fast.
“And they tell me that you have to die, for them to rule again.”
I found out later that he had had a knife – a small Stanley with a retractable blade – and that he had intended to use it on me. I didn’t know this, of course. I had collapsed after his first punch, and two men waiting in line at the counter – one waiting for a Ploughmans on granary, the other after a takeaway coffee – had seen the assault, and subdued the man. If they’d known about the knife, they might not have bothered.
Of course now, they might have left him to it. Another two million dead, and no real reported breakthroughs – well, let’s put it this way, I wouldn’t have begrudged them letting me die.
And that’s why I am now no longer allowed to go anywhere alone – that one man, whose name I never learned, and who is probably dead by now anyway – is the reason that even when I go to the toilet, a large man with an only fractionally less large gun has to stand right outside the door. And it’s not like they’re allowed to make conversation, or help you if the toilet paper runs out, either.
As I inhale smoke, I remember what the crazy man said. It was only one among hundreds of lunatic notions and theories and conspiracies that the human race is inventing as it frantically tries to find a reason or meaning for it’s imminent extinction.
Fucking Old Gods indeed. We still didn’t know what exactly was happening, but I was fairly certain that it was nature that was killing us, not supernature. The specific catalyst is harder to isolate because we aren’t dealing with just one disease. From the wide-range of symptoms and cause-of-death recorded so far, you’d think that people were suddenly being killed by every disease and ailment that we never got around to curing, if it wasn’t for the timing.
It looks like a classic frog-boil – like every bug or infection we ever had has been becoming more virulent by increments, and it’s been happening too slowly for us to notice. I refuse to believe that it’s just coincidence that this is happening across the board, in this one six-month period, though. Unlike most of the other doctors and scientists working the problem – and by now, this must be the only thing that anyone is working on – my research is based on finding the commonality, the base denominator – the catalyst that is making this happen.
Of course, everyone must have realised by now that it doesn’t make any difference – the human race is over – and even if we find some magic bullet cure tomorrow, it’s already too late to fix this. But we’re inquisitive by nature. So I keep fidgetting with the data, while Rome burns.
I drop the finished cigarette, and grind it out with the toe of my shoe. As one guard hauls wide the propped open fire-door, the other coughs into his fist, trying to mask the sound with the lazy creak of metal. He obviously doesn’t know that I’ve already seen the wadded up and bloody tissue in their workroom’s trash. It’s a major transgression of quarantine policy, but I figure, what’s the difference? I’m used to the guy, now – seems a shame to swap him out with some stranger.
Back in the lab, one of the techs has already mounted the results of the test that I was running – another attempt to distill samples of a broad selection of virii and identify a pattern where the revised structures of the different pathogens match up. At the beginning of our search, everything was organised and methodical, but as time ran out, and results failed to shed any light on the situation, our working conditions have become a little more desperate, and I’m ashamed to say that as sleep deprived as I am, I can’t even remember what conditions and subjects we used to get the swab squeezed onto the slide under my scope right now.
But I do know, enough that I blink and rub my eyes and have to look again, that what I’m seeing at this magnification shouldn’t be possible. Because under the lens, there swim hideous creatures, smaller then virus or blood cells, and each has tentacles trailing, at a size where those appendages could have no function, nor even exist.
On each of these tiny monsters there is an eye, embedded at the stem of the tentacles. And as I feel my sense of the things around me subside, I swear that every single one of those atomic orbs, blank and dead and under glass, at a scale a hundred thousand times removed from me and the world around me, swings round and stares in my direction. And I know that these things, that can’t possibly exist, both hate and pity me, and soon they will own this planet.
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