The Third Time (1/2)
I sit beside a bare fireplace, staring at the ash, shivering in my clothes, aware of the firewood in the corner but unwilling to strike up a flame. I have eaten the day-old bread, stewed cabbage and turnip from my plate, but left the slices of pork that my pitying neighbour presented this morning. My soul cannot find comfort or pleasure in this bleakness. It would seem an affront to my wife and daughters, all three taken lifeless and consigned to the plague pit within the past two days. There is nothing for me but to sit in wretched solitude and contemplate my loss.
For an hour, maybe two, I remain in a state of lethargy, waiting for an hour when it would feel right to crawl under the blanket on my bed. But there is a stirring in my stomach, the little food I have eaten in recent days having digested and begun to press upon my bowels. It would cause discomfort during the night, and even in my depression I’m repelled at the thought of sleeping in a room with my own stink. It means stepping outside and tramping the two hundred feet to the wooden privy upon the edge of the river. As I stand I feel an ache in my knees and hips and a mild dizziness that quickly subsides. I leave the house, pulling my coat against my neck and chest, adjusting my eyes to the near dark and scouring the ground ahead for potholes and horse mess. I walk, noticing lights in windows, hearing the snort of a pig and the wail of a woman in another bereaved home. Nearing the river I catch its breeze in my nostrils, a small relief from the mild stench behind, and hear what I think are voices. They cause me to stop and look behind, seeing nothing but a trace of smoke from an unseen fire. I pause, wondering if some blackguard intends me harm, then continue. I hear the sound again, whispers but no words that I can understand, stoop and take a heavy piece of a tree branch from the ground. I may be miserable but do not wish to be defenceless. A foul odour tells me I am close to the privy, finding the ground planks that lead to the edge of the river then the row of three closets suspended above its bank. Each is empty, people being reluctant to approach this spot at night, and I enter the first to pull down my breeches and spread my buttocks upon the opening. The movement comes quickly, the stool is firm and I feel a moment of mild relief as I had neglected to grab some straw to wipe myself. Then I hear the whispers again, straighten my back and squeeze the branch in my hand. A moment of silence, another sound and the door swings towards me. I raise the branch, anticipating an attack – and see nothing but strands of smoke. I stare, for a moment almost laughing at the tricks of the night, but then see the smoke curl and stretch into the form of two bodies. Suddenly I am confronted by fleshless demons, inhuman faces pressed side to side and staring into the privy as my bowels release the remnants of the stool. I feel a moment of terror, afraid these creatures wish to drag me to hell, then realise that their gaze has set between my knees where my tackle hangs loose. I raise the twisted wood.
“Begone!” I yell. “Back to Satan!”
I throw the branch at them. The bodies twist and evaporate, quickly disappearing into the darkness. I look at nothing, suspended between fear and anger, then begin to laugh. The demons were afraid of me. If Satan had sent these creatures then there is little to fear. The laughter holds me briefly, then I think of returning to home, bend to pull up my breeches and feel a twinge in my groin. I hold still, move my hand inside and feel a lump. Then I look down, realising that the skin has swollen into a pale ball, one touch indicating the presence puss beneath the flesh. I have a bubo. Then I feel the pain at the joints and a fresh sense of lethargy within. The plague has claimed me. I take seconds to contemplate the knowledge that I have little time, maybe a couple of days, and feel a twist of fear. But it subsides; I realise that I will soon be reunited with my wife and daughters. I pull up my breeches, step painfully into the night, and make my way home to die.
Ground teams returned from exploration points around Planet Ʊ28 with assessments confirming findings of initial sound wave probes. Dominant species has developed pre-industrial technologies that show it be on progress towards a significant generation of quantumonic energy that would make it a useful source for harvest in the future. Rudimentary transfer of energy sources, notably heat and some liquid, have been developed but so far minimal levels of quantonomic output that could not feasibly be spiralled across galactic expanse to Tanaka and colony planets. Requires further growth. Assessments against historical data on other pre-civilisations indicates that generation will reach optimum levels in between 41 and 107 Tanakan schuz cycles. Within parameters of regular reconnaissance vessel departing with recommendation that next expedition investigates at 45-50 schuz cycles – equivalent to approximately 300 lunar cycles of Planet Ʊ28.
Cautionary note. Disabling agent was dispersed across planet in excessive quantities causing widespread terminations among dominant species. This could slow down development of technologies and subsequent generation of quantonomic, so advise lower density of dispersal next time.
I curse the King. Dusk is falling as the boat reaches the outskirts of London, and I silently growl at the knowledge that he remains in the safety of his castle at Windsor while I am assigned to penetrate the plague-ridden city in search of his floozy. As if she will appreciate the gesture. No doubt she was distraught at being left behind when he fled, not given a discreet place within one of the rear carriages but left to fester in the house by the Fleet. Maybe she thought herself first or second among his trollops, when in fact she would be fourth of fifth. I anticipate tears, pleading and a foul tongue when I find her – if she is alive. But His Majesty wishes me to present her with a silk scarf and a velvet purse of silver coins, ‘reminding her of the King’s affection’ as he said to me; ‘ensuring that she does not sell herself to another man’ as I understood.
The boat reaches the banks of Blackfriars and turns towards the jetty at the point where the Fleet streams into the Thames. As it docks I tell the boatman to stay still, that I intend to return within the half hour, and gesture to my guard to follow. We go ashore and move quickly through narrow streets, avoiding the mess of horses and dogs on the cobbles and closing our ears to quiet cries of grief. We are in a street of modest houses and I search for a carving of a rose above each of the doors, finding it at the fourth and knowing I have reached her dwelling. I instruct the guard to stand back, confident that his armour and pike would deter any blackguards, and knock on the door. There is no answer but it is unlocked, so I step inside, adjusting my eyes to the dark of the hallway, eased only by a dull light from within another room. I had expected to find a maid but there is none in sight, and I hear a pained moan from within the lit room. It picks at a trepidation within me, but I know that I cannot return to the King without having set eyes upon the woman, so I move forward and push at the half open door. I can see nothing, but hear another moan from a hidden corner, take a further step and feel my foot clutter an object. A stench hits my nose and I realise I have stumbled on an awkwardly placed piss pot. I turn towards the corner and see a female figure on the bed, a skirt ruffled at its waist and bare legs splayed into a state of indecency. I stare at the woman and speak quietly.
“You are Elizabeth?”
She shivers and raises her head, staring back at me through bleary eyes then squirming in the manner of leg cramps. I curse, realising that I am in the presence of one who has been infected, decide that I will perform the minimum requirement of my duty and take the purse and scarf from inside by waistcoat.
“I come from the King. He wishes me to convey his affections and present you with these.”
I glance around the room and see a stool in a corner, a few feet and hopefully far enough from the woman to be beyond infection, and move carefully to place the scarf and purse upon it.
“This will make you comfortable until the King returns to London.”
I am angry at my own words but know there is nothing I can to do to provide genuine comfort.
“Is there anyone else within this house?”
She pushes herself up to rest upon a crooked arm, moans and shakes her head. I wonder if I should look for a priest, then recall the reports that they have ceased to visit the dying. She coughs into her chest, wriggles on the bed but seems too weak to stand. I wait for a moment, listening for the sound of another in the house and hearing nothing. Her eyes meet mine. I hope they show pity but my intent is unyielding, that I will leave her to die.
One step backwards, a turn towards the door and my foot knocks the edge of the piss pot. Its stink tickles my nose, then I see twisting lines of white smoke creep around the edge of the door. For a moment I wait with a vague expectation of a man with a pipe; but then the lines stretch downwards and take on a shimmering form. An approximation of two large eyes set themselves on mine and for a moment I feel an intense fear. The figure remains on its spot but its contours ripple and a protrusion emerges into the shape of an arm, then another, then another. I gasp, stagger, try to back away but realise I am trapped in the room, the apparition blocking my escape. My eyes shoot to every corner then down and I see the pot at my feet. Quickly I bend forward and in a single movement take it in one hand and throw the piss into the figure’s face.
“Back to hell with you!”
There is a moment in which the figure just stares at me, then its smoky outline collapses and flies out of the door. Good God! The piss scared it away! I stand shaking, bemused at what I have done, unsure if it there is another horror beyond the door. Then I feel a hand on my shoulder and breath upon my neck. I turn and see the woman’s plague drawn face almost pressing against mine.
“Please!” She tries to grab the collar of my waistcoat. “Take me with you.”
Then she coughs and I feel the horrific touch of her spittle upon my face.
“Away from me!”
I slap her so she falls and rolls away towards the bed. I do not wait to see her face again but leave the room, oblivious to whether the apparition has remained, then stumble into the street. The guard is waiting. He sees my alarm and I force myself to stand straight and search for authority in my stutter.
“It-it’s done!” I say. “N-now we can go! Im-m-mediately.”
For a moment he stares. I fear that if he guesses that I had been so close to a plague victim he will desert me.
“Come!” I say. “The King’s business is done!”
I stride past him, quickly back towards the river, and hear his footsteps behind me. My heart beats wildly, assaulted by two horrors only one of which I understand.
Assessment of Planet Ʊ28 has been disappointing, with quantunomic generation well below level anticipated by previous reconnaissance. Possibility that excessive use of disabling agent at that time caused depletion of major species to the extent that slowed development. Energy sources here still pre-industrial, predominantly heat and liquid, and still unfeasible for spiral transmission to Tanaka. Suggest further reconnaissance on similar schedule: approximately 45 Tankan schuz cycles or 300 lunar cycles of planet.
Also suggest that use of disabling agent unnecessary next time. Ground party has mastered techniques of controlling constituent elements so that dominant species can rarely perceive our presence – in such small numbers that they cannot process – and fleet guidelines indicate it is better not to deplete species and thereby maintain maximum quantumonic generation. Hopefully next mission will discover conditions right for feasible transmission.
Image by Centophobia from flickr, CC BY 2.0