For the most part, those who were left had been driven towards the sea. There were some villages and even the occasional small town in rural locations that had not been overrun, but they were in isolated places. Many of the population not killed in the first wave had fled to the south coast with the intention of trying to get to mainland Europe (some had even tried swimming the channel, with disastrous results). A few thousands had escaped via the Welsh coast amidst rumours of places offering sanctuary in southern Ireland but for those sheltering in the south-eastern counties, there was no chance of getting to Ireland. Even for the army large parts of the interior of mainland Britain were practically no go areas.
What remained of Porter’s regiment were deployed in Brighton and Hove. The fighting around both Shoreham Harbour and Brighton Marina, two of the few remaining available disembarkation points for small boats on the south coast, had been fierce. The Pavilion had been used as a temporary shelter for refugees but attacks on it had intensified and in the last, probably a hundred people had died. Instead, the regiment had been setting up a series of smaller safe houses amongst the coastal towns nearby and were escorting small groups of refugees along the coast from safe house to safe house, often at night, as they tried to inch their way towards escape.
Porter and Minkowski were not directly escorting refugees but providing sniper cover along the seafront. They’d been effective against small sorties when there were only three or four attackers, but when larger groups attacked the snipers quickly realised it was far more prudent simply to act as spotters and then lay low, not draw attention. Porter was in a residential block on King’s Road, whilst Minkowski was on the top floor of the Holiday Inn a couple of hundred metres along the seafront.
Porter and Minkowski were half of the original Bug Squad. They were at school together in March 2017 when the British Government triggered Article 50. A year later, as the rioting started, they met Djalili and Vernon at Aston University and the four became close friends. Djalili’s sister was killed in one of the first serious incidents of violence between Leavers and Remainers in 2019, when it seemed like the whole country had lost their mind. When the Brexit Troubles escalated and the University cancelled all courses so they could fortify the building, part of the so-called ‘War on Experts’, the four young men decided to enlist hoping that they could play some small part in restoring peace to the riven nation.
The nicknames were earned during their first tour of duty in Stoke-on-Trent, a Leaver stronghold. Large parts of the city centre were barricaded and became Whites Only areas. The Bug Squad were part of a larger group, providing sniper cover as ground troops fought fierce gun battles with Leavers. When they realised the Army had snipers in elevated positions, the Leavers started using RPGs to bring tall buildings down. Twice Minkowski crawled out a collapsed building. Vernon called him indestructible; Djalili laughed, yeah, like a cockroach, and the nickname stuck despite Minkowski’s many protestations. Minkowski, the human cockroach.
During the same skirmish Porter saw what was happening and changed his approach. If you’re under sniper fire, he reasoned, you’re going to look up. So, he took to finding LUPs below the sightline, under rubble and in bomb craters, lying on his belly in the dirt. MInkowski, trying to deflect the good natured banter directed at him, likened Porter to a worm, and that stuck too. It was only a matter of time for the other two and Djalili, who could climb up and along anything, was soon christened the Spider. Vernon proved harder to find a nickname for but eventually they settled on Ant, just because it was a shortened version of his first name, Anthony.
Porter’s scope was trained, as it had been for almost two days, on his old friend the Cockroach’s hideout.
There had been no movement for nearly three days, since the last attack. There had been fierce hand-to-hand fighting along the road, right up to the door of the tower. From Porter’s position he could not see if it had been breached. There had been no word or sign of life since the skirmish ended and the whole company was under strict orders to hold positions and maintain radio silence except for reporting an attack, and that had to be a short burst transmission. The attackers seemed to have a way of detecting radio waves.
Djalili the Spider died on their second tour. Even prior to the Troubles, many of the disillusioned and impoverished poor in the former mining towns and pit villages to the north and east of Sheffield had been British National Party supporters. The rise of Ukip just lent their snarling racism a veneer of fake respectability. As a dark skinned Muslim soldier he was always going to be singled out by Leavers, and an improvised landmine took out the insufficiently-armoured Land Rover he was in. He and three others were vapourised.
On the fourth day since the attack, having seen only one small contact during that time, Porter thought he could discern movement in Minkowski’s hideout. He wasn’t sure, but he had no one to talk to or check with. He had tried to steel himself repeatedly in case of bad news and rationalise what he saw: it’s just a curtain blowing in the breeze, it’s just one of the few feral cats that had not been rounded up for food. He looked round his own hideout, checking that the door was still bolted and secured as he did every few minutes. The air was stale and the dust caught the sunlight through slits in the boards over the windows. If you watched it for a while it seemed like the air was shimmering, as the dust particles danced in the air. In the first few days of the posting it had unnerved Porter a few times. It often seemed like something was moving, just out of his peripheral vision, the way an insect scuttles across the floor, and eventually he corrected “shimmering” to “slithering”. It was now nine days since he had seen another person face to face. His supplies were dwindling and he was almost out of water, but he was supposed to stay holed up for another five days. His ammunition was good, though. There had not been as much fighting as recent weeks. Maybe they were beating the attackers back?
He took one small sip of water from the canteen and resolved that would be his last for the day. He dare not risk the tap water, if it was even running. He stretched, yawning silently. Rubbing his eyes, he lifted his weapon and set the scope against his face, fine-tuning the focus for his tired eyes and hoping against all sense that he was not the last surviving member of The Bug Squad.
Vernon was one of the first Army personnel to be killed by the attackers. Porter, Minkowski, Vernon and three others were patrolling in an APC on the western outskirts of Sheffield when a call came to say there was a situation, some sort of disturbance, in a remote post in the Dark Peak and Command wanted eyes on. Local police said there had been fighting but they were very vague. There were definitely people missing though, presumed killed by Leavers. It was late one Saturday night, probably the first hour of Sunday, just one week after Djalili died. Command wanted eyes on and Minkowski said they would do it.
Porter saw the ships first and he distinctly remembered thinking what a mess they looked. Later, he would laugh at the weird non sequitur of his own reaction. They were not the sleek flying weapons of Star Wars or the colossal floating cities of Star Trek. They reminded him of badly maintained, elderly trawlers and the further thought struck him: it looks like a refugee convoy. He was so struck by how ugly they were it took him precious seconds to even register that these were not human craft.
Minkowski reacted quicker. He threw the vehicle into a U-turn and killed the lights before heading back down the road. Veering onto a muddy track, Minkowski brought the APC to a stop behind some trees. Silently, and with efficiency brought about by relying thoughtlessly on their training, they disembarked. They checked their equipment and then at a sign from Minkowski they tabbed, double time, the mile or so back to the landing site.
At twelve days into his fourteen day post, and 36 hours since his water ran out, Porter became convinced someone in the Holiday Inn was alive. When the curtains moved, they didn’t move in parallel, as he thought they would if the wind was blowing them. He thought he saw a shape moving. He never saw lights, but Minkowski was too good, too professional, to be caught out like that. He was the best of The Bug Squad. The bravest, the most intelligent, a natural leader. If anyone could survive on their own for fourteen days it would be Minkowski, not Porter. He thought about trying the tap water again, but had heard all the stories about Leavers poisoning the supply. He almost licked his lips looking at the tap, but didn’t have the saliva. A minor breeze came in through a broken window and the air slithered again. Porter went back to his scope.
The attackers were milling around the ships as the six men crouched behind a rocky outcrop. Minkowski and Porter had infrared binoculars and watched in silence, the rest watched through scopes on their guns.This was not how the films made it look. There were no sleek robots in regimented rows, no phalanx of muscular and heavily-armed troops. What they saw was a rabble, a chaos of what Porter would later describe in his report as oversized insects. They did not quite look like earth insects, but somehow he just knew they were insects of a type. They tumbled out of the ships, some flying out, some climbing over others to get out. For a moment he thought they were not fighting, but they were not. They were massing around human bodies, naked human bodies. For minutes it seemed the soldiers held their breath, trying to stay composed, not panic.
On the thirteenth day Porter resolved to sneak over to the Holiday Inn and find Minkowski. He would wait til dusk. It was not safe enough to go out at night alone. At dusk, he could use the long shadows to mask his movements, whereas in the gloom of night the attackers would have the advantage. And besides, he only had a few hundred metres to go. He checked his water canteen again but still found no water. This was coming up to his second day with no water – or was it his third, or fourth, he couldn’t be sure – and he knew that he was at serious risk. It had rained, not much more than drizzle, for an hour that morning. Although he found a cup to set outside, he collected nothing except some a thin sheen of moisture which he tried to lick. The cup was covered in dust and all he licked up was a sticky dust solution which started him coughing, a hacking cough that he had to dampen by holding a pillow over his face. Dusk, he thought. Four more hours, then I’m making a run for the Holiday Inn. I’ll hole up with Minkowski, and then in the pre-dawn we’ll make our way back to base. In four more hours his world would stop being confined to a point between crosshairs.
They took turns sharing the binoculars in near silence. Each man tried to be professional and treat it like they would any potential enemy incursion, but there was nothing in basic training that prepared them for this. Minkowski watched them, fascinated, for six or seven minutes. After each man had had a chance to assess what they were facing, Minkowski lowered his binoculars and held a whispered conference. Minkowski wanted to send back an immediate sitrep, but Vernon wanted to sneak closer and get a better look inside the largest ship, which had opened its doors but nothing had come out. The creatures just seemed to be milling around it in haphazard manner and Vernon argued that it was safe to get closer. The other five were set against it, but at the last minute Minkowski relented. He would call in an interim report and when Vernon returned, he would call in again. Spreading out along the ridge, they trained their sights on the ships to give Vernon cover.
As the others covered Vernon, Minkowski watched the creatures. Whilst they looked like insects, it was more accurate to say they looked like several insects, like some mad doctor had sewn together pieces from many insects to make one. Some had wings like a fly but the mandibles of a beetle. Some had the spider-like legs, but only four of them, and the antennae of a grasshopper. Others had the body of a slug with a row of pathetic, underdeveloped legs sticking out of each flank as if a slug and a centipede had tried to occupy the same space at once. In the nightmarish pallette of the infrared binoculars, every creature was dark but tinged with a sickening green. In size they ranged from the equivalent of an alsatian at one end to at least the size of an elephant. A couple of millipede-like creatures were easily twenty metres long.
Porter had failed to take into account how long it would take him to get out of the bolthole he’d sealed himself into, an error which was compounded by the need to clamber down the rubble in the staircase in silence. Half of the building had been taken out by some explosion, the half facing inland. Like something took a bit out of it, Porter grimaced. He looked out at the street. It was now darker than he would have liked and that worried him, but there was nothing he could do. He spent ten minutes surveilling the vista at street level and saw no movement anywhere, so he eased through a broken window. It felt good to be outside, to breathe different air. To be no longer confined.
Minkowski watched Vernon scuttle quickly to a small copse due north of their original position. They’d approached the craft from the east and could only see the largest ship’s port side. Vernon was right, of course, and Minkowski knew that Vernon knew he knew that; there was obviously something important inside it and the first question after completing the sitrep would be, what’s inside? Scanning forwards along Vernon’s trajectory, Minkowski could see another rock formation that he could take cover behind. That would give him good cover. All Vernon had to do was make it the 50 or 60 metres across flat, open ground. It might have been dark but there was no cover, not even vegetation, and Vernon could not risk a sprint. Any of the creatures could have seen him had he risked it. Instead, he would have to crawl the distance. It was risky, but it was all there was.
Relying on training, Porter covered the ground quickly. He dodged from the ruins of buildings to the wreckages of vehicles, at one point disturbing a host of flies that had settled on the partially-burned corpse of a young woman in the back of a car. Nothing else moved at the noise and the flies quickly overcame their annoyance at being disturbed. Porter sprinted the last few metres; now he was in front of the Holiday Inn. With dismay, he realised that the revolving door was gone and the other doors were wide open.
Vernon made the long, squirming crawl towards the rock formation easily and without incident. Don’t get cocky, Minkowski mentally admonished him. Just get into position and call it in. He continued to watch his friend through binoculars as the others kept their sights trained on the creatures, waiting for the radio to hiss into life. Eventually Vernon seemed to find a good LUP, the majority of his body hidden behind the rocks. Minkowski saw him lie his rifle down in front of him and pick up the binoculars. Soon, they would know.
Porter watched the hotel entrance intently. There was no movement, so he scuttled up the steps and into the foyer. Although there were more human bodies, there was also a fair few of the large insect carcasses too. He’d not seen many of this type before. They had massive compound eyes, like a fly, on either side of the head of something akin to a stag beetle the size of a shopping trolley. He hadn’t expected resistance, and he encountered none. The stairs were at the back of the foyer. It was fourteen floors to Minkowski’s position, but they were relatively free of debris and he saw the bodies of neither humans nor attackers. That encouraged Porter. Maybe the fighting hadn’t spread inside the building. Maybe Minkowski was live after all? There was a good chance that Porter would get a bollocking for breaking cover and leaving his post, but it was worth it. It would be worth it if his friend was alive.
“It looks empty,” The radio hissed at Minkowski. He asked for confirmation and after a moment it came. “There’s nothing inside it at any rate. No creatures, no people, no vehicle, no… wait. There are… there’s something on the walls.” Minkowski needed to know, but Vernon complained that it was very dark and he needed a minute. There were markings on the wall. “No, not markings… they’re all rectangular. About the size of a TV. I can see down inside it and it’s just a room. I don’t get it. Give me a minute.”
The ship was around a hundred metres long, maybe a little more but certainly double the length of most of the others. It was vaguely rectangular although it tapered down slightly to what he assumed was the front, if he was looking in the back. At the rear the ship was around 30 metres wide, but the opening was only five or six metres wide. Inside the entrance the walls were straight and went back as far as he could see. It struck him how much more ordered the inside looked when compared to the vehicle’s exterior. Whilst the exterior seemed to be covered with boxes and channels and pipes and thick cable trunking, the floor of the interior looked to be smooth. He could discern smaller square shapes on the floor when he zoomed in, but to his mind they looked like tiles. Some sort of floor covering. The rectangles on the wall were much more pronounced, in fact they protruded out from the wall by an inch or two, it seemed. It looked like there was a small panel to the side of each one. Row after row and column after column they went back into the belly of the ship, looking not alien but vaguely, strangely, familiar. He concentrated hard on the pattern, feeling sure that it reminded him of something. Something that he had seen recently. He heard the radio crackle and knew Minkowski was talking, but he wasn’t paying attention. And then just as Minkowski hissed his name again, Vernon realised what it reminded him of. It was something he’d seen recently. Something he’d seen a week ago, in fact. He snatched up the radio.
“It looks like a morgue inside, Minkowski,” he replied calmly. “It looks like a giant, flying morgue.”
It took Porter longer than he expected to climb 14 floors. He barely eaten and not drunk at all in the last few days and felt weaker than he realised. As he arrived at the top floor he almost called out for his friend, but caught himself just in time. Quietly, very quietly, he began a slow reconnaissance of each of the sea view rooms of the the top floor.
There was nothing and no one immediately visible. It was almost dark, and what little remained of the sunset was not shining on the seafront rooms. The gloom was oppressive and Porter’s joy at no longer being confined was evaporating quickly. Had he swapped one shadowy hole for another? Just as his spirits were sinking he thought he heard something from another room, the one he’d checked first. He crept down the corridor towards it and as he passed the middle room his world went black.
“What do you mean, ‘a morgue’?” Minkowski growled.
“I’m just telling you what I see. Rows and rows and rows of what look like small doors set into the wall, both sides, from floor to ceiling, as far as I can see.”
“Anything else? Can you see-” Minkowski was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder.
“Something’s up, boss,” whispered Rooihemp, the Afrikaner radio operator. “I think they’re on the move.”
Something was happening. There were a number of creatures with long antennae who had moved to the edge of the landing area and were looked out. Their antennae, previously laid back over their bodies, now stood upright. Were they preparing to move out or something else?
“What do you want me to do, boss?” the radio crackled. The creatures snapped quickly, looking straight at Vernon’s position. “It looks like they’re up to something… shit, what’s going on here…”
Minkowski understood immediately. He grabbed the radio and snapped the switch to off. They’d been so quiet, he was quite sure that they hadn’t been heard but somehow, God knows how, the creatures could detect the radio transmission. Through his binoculars he could see Vernon shouting silently into his radio and looking over at them. The creatures were moving towards his position and it was clear they knew where he was. The flying creatures were upon him quickly and Vernon barely had time to drop the radio and get off a shot before they were on him. Minkowski watched intently as they descended upon him.
“Boss! We should-” Minkowski silenced him with a gesture.
“No. It would give our position away. And we have to get away to make a report.” He went back to watching.
* * *
Porter groaned as he came round, his head spinning. His eyes were having trouble adjusting to the dark and everything seemed foggy, but after a few minutes there was a tiny improvement. He tried to rub his eyes but realised, with slowly rising panic, that he couldn’t move his arms. A low level buzzing – no, not buzzing, his ears were as bad as his eyes – a quiet hissing made him worry that he wasn’t alone. He held his breath, and the hissing stopped quickly. After a moment, it was replaced by a quiet, arrhythmical clicking, like the sound of a dog’s claws on a tiled floor. The clicking approached him, but he couldn’t see well enough to work out what was there. It stopped, and Porter strained to hear, trying not to breathe lest it mask a noise. He closed his eyes to concentrate. Then, from the gloom, a voice.
The voice was quiet and sounded strangely aerated, like the speaker was making an effort to breathe out whilst speaking. And there was something wrong with the pronunciation; the T was an affricate, sounding more like the ts in cats. Portser. Despite the strange pronunciation, slower speech and lower pitch, that the voice was unmistakably Minkowski’s. Porter tried to speak, but struggled.
“Shhhhhhhh,” Minkowski breathed. There was another long silence and Porter tried to find the energy and coordination to speak. It was as though Porter had lost the feeling in his mouth, his face generally. Again he tried to move his arms to check, but couldn’t.
He took stock of the situation. His eyesight was improving. He could certainly distinguish blocks of light and shadow, but that confused him. It should have been dark, but clearly the large blocks of light were windows. It must be daytime. How long had he been out? He couldn’t hear anything, but had heard Minkowski’s voice well enough to distinguish him. His skin felt chilled, as though it were moist. He couldn’t move his arms and when he tried, he couldn’t move his legs either. He could wriggle his torso, but that didn’t seem to help and he lay still.
He tried speaking again. He was sure his mouth was moving, but couldn’t tell why he wasn’t making a sound. With welcome surprise he realise that his mouth no longer felt sandy and parched and instantly felt better. That must have been Minkowski’s doing, he rationalised. He must have had an accident, Porter thought – maybe there was an explosion – and Minkowski has been looking after me. He realised I was dehydrated and gave me fluids. He relaxed a little.
As for the rest of his diagnostic check, there was just a dull ache, a throbbing, from his gut. But that too made sense. That could be explained as part of the accident or explosion scenario. Didn’t help explain why Minkowski wasn’t talking. Porter tried to clear his throat to talk again.
“Porter,” Minkowski said. There was a low, hissing, clicking noise which might have been Minkowski clearing his throat, but shouldn’t have been. “Porter,” the voice tried again and this time it sounded much more like Minkowski.
“How are you doing there, Porter.” It wasn’t a question and it didn’t sound like there was much regard in the voice. Then there was the clicking again. The voice wasn’t making the clicking noise. Porter strained to listen, and he realised the clicking wasn’t stationary. So; the clicking was footsteps.
After a few more minutes Porter’s vision had cleared enough for him to make out shapes. It was indeed daylight, so he must have been out for at least twelve hours given the time that he entered the building. The room itself was still quite shadowy, because one pair of thick curtains was still pulled close, but not quite together. He still could not see Minkowski.
“Do you remember Vernon?” Minkowski said, with a little more natural intonation in his voice. Porter was glad that he sounded more human than before. Of course I remember Vernon, he wanted to say. Of course I remember him because he was one of my best friends, he wanted to say but couldn’t.
“I watched him die, did I ever tell you that?” Porter wanted to nod. He’d heard the story two or three times.
“I turned the radio off. I never told you that, did I? Vernon was trying to talk to me, to ask for help probably. I just – I suddenly thought that the creatures could detect radio waves. I didn’t want them to get me. I turned the radio off so they wouldn’t detect our position but I watched Vernon pleading with me through the binoculars. The creatures piled onto him and I ordered the other guys back to the truck for their safety. But I kept watching. I never told the lieutenant that. I said that they attacked him and carried him off, that much is true. But they didn’t kill him. They carried him back to the morgue ship.”
Clicking. He was on the move again, towards the window. A shape passed in front of it but Porter’s eyes couldn’t focus quickly enough. He winced at the effort. His stomach was starting to hurt again and he felt nauseous.
“Have you ever wondered why we haven’t seen more ships land, Porter? I thought I’d worked it out. But I wasn’t sure. I needed to test my hypothesis.” Porter was confused. What did this have to do with Vernon? “I was sort of right. I was completely right, actually, to a point. But my theory didn’t go far enough.”
“Well, they took Vernon, and Djalili was dead. That just left you and me. I wanted to know what happened to Vernon. During the last attack, I left the foyer door open. Set a trap. I thought, if I could get one of them inside maybe I could trap it, observe it. Learn more about it.”
“I thought, the next batch of refugees that come through, if there’s a weak one I’m going to take them. Maybe even a Leaver. That would be even better. No one would miss a Leaver.” There was a chilling hissing sound from Minkowski. “And it worked. To a point. I trapped one in the kitchen, locked it in the walk-in fridge. Power’s not on, so nothing happened to it. It’s like a flea but about the size of a spaniel. Fought like a bitch though, and I didn’t want to use the gun. I needed it alive. Managed to take it out with a flashbang and then beat it with a fire extinguisher.”
“I watched it through the little porthole in the door for hours. I thought it would be violent. I thought it might attack the door, or the window. It saw me watching it. It was… it seemed to sit on its hind, facing the door. The only way I can describe it is like a scared puppy. It actually looked sad. I swear its eyes looked so human… I had to leave it. I honestly thought it was trying to bewitch me.”
“I left it for a whole day. I thought that would weaken it. Make it docile. I discovered that if I banged hard on the fridge doors it would get scared, especially with something else metal, it would hide at the back. I kept looking out for someone to put in with it so that I could observe. I would know what happened to Vernon. But no one came. It looked like it was starting to suffer, like it hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for days. I didn’t want that. I was starting to panic. Then you came along.”
“I took you out, carried you downstairs. The plan was to put you in with it. I knew you would want to know what happened to Vernon too. I had it planned. Beat the door, scare it back, put you in, sit back. Observe.”
“But it played me. It wasn’t weak at all. It was cowering at the back and I had to put you down, open the door, turn round and pick you up again. The moment I looked away to pick you up, it was on me.”
“I’ve been reading about insects, earth insects. Trying to get a handle on what we’re up against. Fleas do have a mouth, but not teeth as such, did you know that? They pierce the skin with the mouth and suck blood. That’s what I thought I was up against. Keep the mouth away from me and I should have been safe. But this one was different. Like a fly, it had a proboscis. It threw up some sort of goo – flies throw up the contents of their stomach, and the digestive acids break down food. While I was trying to get it out of my eyes and mouth, the proboscis went straight down my throat. I couldn’t fight it off. What it vomited on me was some kind of muscle relaxant. I wanted to fight back but I couldn’t. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t feel, I could barely see, although the sight comes back in time. Colours first, then you start to be able to distinguish blocks of light and shade, then I guess it changes depending on what you become.”
“I felt the proboscis in my gullet, but I couldn’t gag. I had no reflexes left in my muscles. I could feel it filling me inside, excreting this warm, thick liquid inside me. This wasn’t like the muscle relaxant goop, which was thin and watery. This was thick. Sticky. As it withdrew its proboscis, it dripped some onto my face. It felt like – it felt like slug slime.”
“It took several hours to wear off. By then I could already feel myself changing. My eyesight – it was crazy at first, but now… yeah, it’s a little blurry at the edges but now I have almost 360 vision. It’s the compound lenses. I imagine you can feel it too. My best guess is that there’s something in our individual psychology or physiology that facilitates the change. Anyway, the creature flew off after it left me. Maybe it thought you were dead, maybe there’s a period before they can impregnate again. I didn’t know that part yet.”
“I was able to carry you back upstairs, although it took some time. I was weak, I was still having the pains in my stomach. They wear off, by the way. At first I assumed it was something hatching, but it’s not like that. It’s not eggs, you see. That’s not how it reproduces.”
“It’s like there’s a… a mass consciousness, almost. A collective memory. It’s not quite a hive mind, we don’t think as one, but I think that behaviour will come. Humans would call it instinct. But as we change, it’s as though the latent memory of the species becomes accessible. I say species; it’s a virus, Porter. That’s the easiest way to describe it in our terms. It’s the oldest thing there is, apart from the universe itself, and it has seen everything. The things I can see now, the memories that are coming to me! I can see the birth of every star, every planet, every galaxy. I have seen what the gods can only imagine.”
“As it finds a new host – a new planet – the virus spreads and finds the life forms that are most adapted to survive on that planet. The creatures that we see now, the ones we’ve spent so long futilely fighting against – they were not the ones that landed here. They came from a long way away, a very long way. The creatures that piloted the ships here died very quickly after entering our atmosphere and the ships landed on autopilot. Remember when the report came in? We assumed that they’d only just landed? They’d been here a few weeks, just picking off individual people and changing them. The incident we investigated was just the first time they’d been discovered by locals. There were too many to stay hidden at that point, that’s all.”
“So now you understand what I meant when I said, ‘have you ever wondered why we haven’t seen more ships’. There were only ever the few that landed in Yorkshire. They didn’t need any more. Each human that they change can go on spreading the virus until it dies. It’s rewriting our DNA, our structure, inside each cell. It rebuilds us from the inside out into a form that it thinks is best adapted for long life on the planet. In our case, it’s reconstructing us as insects. Mix and match insects, picking a part here and a part there, according to what forms and functions will be needed for long life once the virus is the only non-plant life on the planet.”
“I can already feel my thoughts changing. I don’t think my human mind has long left. These will probably be my last words, Porter, the last chance I have to converse with another human. I’m sorry that you can’t respond, Porter. I hope you can see that what I’ve done has made you better.”
“I sent Rooihemp and the others back to the APC, told them to get out of there and warn everyone that we were being invaded. I said I would make my own way back, but I didn’t. I wanted to see what they had done with Vernon. I stayed to watch. He was wrong about it being a morgue ship. They were not bodies behind the doors, not dead ones anyway. The tube behind each door was an incubator. They helped the change come faster.”
“They took Vernon out of his incubator after only a few hours. At first I couldn’t see what was happening as so many creatures were around him. I could see his head, his torso. He was naked, but apart from being dirty he looked unharmed. They’re called urticating hairs, Porter, did you know that? He wasn’t dirty, the hairs were already growing through his skin. They brought him out to feed him, I think. Vomited something into his face, which certainly seemed to revive him. I think at that point, with the accelerated change, his mind had probably gone. His human mind. His arms had started to stretch out to become legs. He rolled over onto his front and propped himself up. It took him hours to master, Porter, but eventually he became very proficient, very mobile. His back legs were always stronger.”
“I wanted him back. When Djalili died there was nothing I could do. If I could get Vernon back, maybe I could get it reversed. Of course I didn’t know what I was dealing with then, none of us did. I didn’t know much about spiders back then but I knew they didn’t eat plant food, and there was nothing on the flat grassland, so I waited for him to head for the woods. I was going to corner him.”
“It took me a while to find him. He was crouching over a toad, or a frog, something like that. I was trying to creep close while he was preoccupied and I managed to sneak round the front of him while he was crouched over. I’d only just got into my hiding place when he leaned back and vomited over it in preparation for eating it.”
“I don’t know what noise of revulsion I made, but it was loud enough. He looked up, straight at me. His head was receding back into what had once been his chest and he had no neck. He’d already started growing the second row of postero-lateral eyes, coming out of what would have been his cheekbones. He took a few steps and sprang at me. That’s how hunting spiders catch their prey, Porter. Not all spiders weave webs. I didn’t know that then either.”
“He pinned me down and I tried to hold him off. I couldn’t quite reach my rifle but I had my bayonet in my calf pocket and I managed to get that out. I struggled to hold him off. I managed to cut him, just a gash on the side of the head, but the impact knocked the knife out of my hand. He recoiled and paused, and that gave me just enough time to grab the knife and drive it at his face. I was already swinging the knife when he said my name.”
Porter was struggling to process all he’d heard and his insides were in flux. It was a long time before Porter heard Minkowski click-click-click towards the window.
There was a bright light, and Porter realised Minkowski was pulling open the remaining curtains. For the first time, Porter was able to see around the room. He was in the bedroom, on the floor, facing the window with the bed to one side and a row of mirrored wardrobe doors down the other wall. To help him see better, Minkowski pulled back the other curtain using the powerful mandibles that his cheekbones had elongated into. His spine was curved, fusing into the back of his head, and his arms were the becoming wiry, hinged forelegs typical of the cockroach. His ears were gone, leaving just scarred holes on either side of his head above which pubescent antennae were growing. When he spoke, his mandibles opened and closed wordlessly.
“I wanted to share it with you, Porter. This gift.” As best he could, Minkowski motioned towards the full length mirrors with his not yet fully formed forelegs.
Porter hadn’t yet worked out why he couldn’t move his arms and legs, but at the bidding of his old friend he tried again to move. He quickly discovered that each segment of his body had groups of bristles and, by anchoring them into the carpet, he could flex his muscles and drag himself round very effectively until he was facing the mirrors. As he looked over his glistening, cylindrical new body, he was already dreaming of the stars.