Seth and co took us down a rugged route into the bush. It wasn’t designed even for four-wheel drive vehicles, and we bounced around, jostled and jolted. But it didn’t feel real. I felt as if I was watching it all from a distance. This was happening to somebody else, to a me that I dream about, a fantasy, but not the flesh.
Zara reached for my hand. She held it hard, but I could only just feel her fingers digging in around the bones.
We crested a hill, and it was as if a blanket frost had come down on the scrub that flowed down towards a ravine. Further down, I could see how it thickened, how the ropes and puffballs began blooming thicker and thicker, until at the foot of that hill there was a narrow, white-as-snow cloud bedded deep in the ground. There was a split second when I considered that this might be all in my head; but no, the others were seeing it too. Maybe not in the same way, exactly, I didn’t know how to reconcile my visions with what was real, and what anyone else could perceive.
Karen said, “it’s so beautiful.” Her voice was a whisper of wonder.
“What do you see?”
“It’s all on fire, silver fire, just beneath the surface, and all those shadows moving in the air. You can’t see them?”
“No. Just a big mass of gum.”
“They’re moving down there.”
“Down there. In the gully.”
“I don’t know how to see that.”
“Just look. That’s all.”
Just look. I didn’t even know how to try; I didn’t know what to look for. I wished I could see a landscape of burning silver, I felt as if I deserved that much.
Seth swung the truck around, and the other vehicles followed suit around him.
He jumped out onto the sticky mat, signalling to the others to get out too.
“There,” he said, “any doubters still left?”
Actually, yes, I have some big ones.
Such a shame the question was rhetorical.
The double doors to a rusty van swung open, revealing stacks of spay bottles and racks of weapons. Seth just had to wave a hand to get a group of guys up and distributing them. We were all to get a bottle – they were about 4kg each, and filled with some sort of foamy grey-pink substance apparently deadly to the gum and its denizens. I took the bottle in numb silence.
A few of Seth’s lot didn’t get bottles. All they were given were some serious looking ordinance – automatic weapons, and some fierce looking combat knives. These guys were the frontline, they were supposed to fight off the worst of the resistance while the rest of us sprayed poison. But we’d all be at risk of needing to defend ourselves, so weapons were handed to everyone. Seth himself put the pistol in my hand, hesitating, watching me to see what I’d do with it.
He smiled at the way Zara boldly held her hand out for hers.
“Not until after,” he said.
“After we’re done with all this, you and me can have any sort of reckoning you want.”
“No deal,” I said. “You let her go. All of them. You don’t hurt any of them.”
“I did make that deal, but if she tries to shoot me…”
“Take the bullet.”
He looked at me sideways. “That’s what you want?”
“I don’t know what I want. But you don’t do a damn thing to harm her.”
Tristan stepped up beside me, “I’ll shoot you myself if you do.” He held out a hand for his own gun.
I held mine in my hand, weighing it up, wondering if I did want to use it on Seth. There was the urge to do it, for sure. I had a decent well of hatred to draw on right now where he was concerned. But I couldn’t keep from seeing his perspective. God only knows I didn’t want to, but there it was.
I wished it could be over, and at the same time I wished time could stand still.
Zara caught my arms as Seth moved away from us. Her eyes were wet, and it made them sparkle like emeralds. The unreality of it all made her doubly beautiful. When she touched me, I felt as if she was the whole world. Her voice trembled, “this isn’t right, Nate. This isn’t meant to be like this.”
“I know. But…” what words for it? Nothing sufficed.
“I don’t know what to do, Nate.”
“Me either, and I’m meant to be saving the world.”
He face burst; she buried it in her hands, “Stop it!”
“This can’t be funny. It can’t be. I’m never going to see you again.”
“And I can’t stand it. It’s too much. It’s all wrong.”
I caught her hands, “These are probably the last things we’re going to say to each other, we can’t undo what’s going to happen next, let’s just make it count, okay?”
“I don’t know what to say, there’s nothing big enough.”
“Say something small.”
“I don’t want to laugh, okay?”
“I loved you right from the start, I loved you from the first moment. Just remember me like that. The guy who loved you.”
“I love you too.”
“And I was going to propose to you one day. So here it is. Would you have married me?”
“You know I would have.”
“You’ll be okay,” it was such a stupid thing to promise, but I really didn’t know what else to say. “Eventually, you will. I know you will.”
In the background Seth was lining everybody up, I could see him keeping tabs on us from the corner of his eye. You can wait a few more minutes, buddy. Give me a break a here.
It looked as if the hippies would get poison spray – and weapons for any who didn’t have them. It seemed they were as ready for this assault as Seth was, as if they’d been planning it too. Like they had inside info.
I looked at Karen, “Are you sure?”
She looked at me with a face less than half human. She looked like something so alien, her pink eye was rimmed with drops of shiny blood. “We’re kryptonite,” she said, “can’t you feel it?”
I shook my head. She didn’t belong here, doing this. I didn’t. None of us did.
Seth brought all of our attention to him with a sharp, carrying clap of his hands. “Okay, everybody, let’s do this.” No fancy speeches, no greater good, no patriotic rumblings: just ‘let’s do this.’
He was right though. There was nothing to say that would help anything. I stuffed the pistol into my waistband and picked the poison bottle up by its handle. “Stay close,” I said to Zara. If nothing else, Seth would need to keep me alive for a while – he could bloody well do the same for Zara.
Our attack was no ambush. The gum felt us, either our presence or our intentions, because it roused as we approached, gunmen first, then poisoners. I noted the ripple of the ground as we walked across it, and the way ropes of gum started to twitch, started to stand on end, getting ready to strike like whips. Humps of white thread thrust themselves up into the air, a light mist started to melt into the air, and that taste of heated metal formed on my tongue.
There were silver touches in the gum now, pools of almost-light, and shiny little droplets of polished silver. The same colours, mixed with reds and rusts pricked through the air like sparks. I could feel them dying against my skin.
Here goes nothing.
On Seth’s cue I joined the others in a phalanx of spraying.
The gum reacted. It bucked and twitched. Thread stood full height, hovering to attack.
I started to reach for the knife.
“Keep going.” Seth was behind me. “keep moving”
One of the threads – standing twice my height and the thickness of electrical cable – took a snap at me. I willed myself not to flinch. I half willed it to hit me. But Seth was there, sliding in front of me, slicing it in half.
“Keep moving,” he warned me. “Keep spraying.”
We moved into the thick of it. And now there were shapes moving back. This wasn’t the infection talking, it wasn’t a dream: spiders slid out from beneath the cloud of gum and scuttled towards us. They recognised war.
“I got it. Shit. I can use weedkiller.”
Gunfire rattled. There was shouting and movement. There were splashes of blood that was red and human.
I was standing at the foot of a wall of solid cloud. There were swirls of white and silver deeply embedded and constantly moving. I could hear something coming up behind me, but at the same time heard the footsteps as somebody moved to intercept it.
Keep moving. Keep spraying.
The weird, foamy poison clung to the gum, it fizzed on the surface of it, reacting in some sort of dark alchemy that left a black, tar-like residue. From behind me I saw the shadow as it came for me. I knew that I could let it take me, that I felt an unexpected calm, that the fear that had been eating me up for the last couple of weeks was all gone. Through these elasticated moments I wondered what was taking Seth so long to respond, and I wondered if Zara was still safe beside me, and how the others were doing. Then in the next instant I drew the pistol out of my waistband and slid it into both hands. I turned as the spider came sailing through the air at me and I squeezed the trigger. The sound of it was like music, I could see each bullet find its mark, and the creature’s trajectory shorten by the length of their impact. It came to rest at my feet, a limp sack, coated in a soft white fur.
I turned to look for Zara.
She was right beside me, she had a pistol in one hand, and knife in the other. The bottle had fallen to her side, we were being rushed, and there were coming in too thick and fast for Seth’s defenders to keep these things off us.
There were more of them now. More different kinds. There were some that were long and dark, some sort of snake-spider hybrids, and others that seemed taller, that were thicker around the shoulders. Some no bigger than hedgehogs; one that was the full size of a horse.
We’re dead anyway, I thought.
There were bullets flying, their sound seemed to be everywhere. I saw a couple of figures fall to friendly fire. The bullets ripped through them. Commune-folk, a man and woman; and the gunfire tore them down.
The great-grand-daddy of spiders surged towards our little group. There was me, Tristan, Zara, Seth, Karen and a guy whose name I think was Keith. And we contracted into a knot of bristling blades and gun barrels. I glanced at Zara, suddenly so turned on by the wildness in her eyes. “You’re so hot,” I mouthed at her.
“You know it.”
Seth had the biggest gun out of our little army, and he turned it on the spider like a fire-hose. The rest of us followed suit, emptying chambers, screaming what I suppose was a war cry of some sort. The bullets found armour to clatter off, but we were wielding military-grade weapons, and these, at the end of the day, were just insects. A spider collapsed on top of itself a couple of metres shy of touching us.
“We’re killing our own,” I warned Seth.
“Pick up a bottle, get to work.”
Go fuck yourself.
But the fact of the matter is that it was working. The gum was beginning to wither. It was retreating in on itself, blackening as if we were burning it. I grabbed the bottle from where I’d dropped it without really registering that I had.
“Spray the central part, cut it away, spray it some more. We want to get inside, get beneath it.”
“What’s there?” I asked.
“That’s where they begin. Where they’re born. Come on. We’re beating this thing.”
He was right. But the backlash was coming. I felt almost nothing. It was too inevitable. I heard that faint buzzing in the air, and saw the way the colours all changed. There was something more, there was something beyond the gully, it’s scrubby hills, the thistles and nettles and stunted little trees. There was something bathed in blue light, something smooth and supple, a landscape of soft, swiftly-drawn lines.
The air clawed at my skin. My mouth filled with iron filings.
“It’s now,” I warned.
Karen reached towards me and I grabbed her hand.
The pain swarmed us. I remembered it; it was a cousin of the weapon that had felled us at the garden centre. It was world-consuming, and it reached into every molecule, re-writing DNA. I could no longer feel my body, the pain wasn’t in it, it had multiplied beyond any flesh-case. So deep, so sharp, that a part of me almost didn’t feel it at all. It was the 1984 moment when two and two could become five.
Except. I could feel one thing. Karen’s hand still in mine.
And through her touch, I could feel the rest of them. Not our people, but theirs, the scratching of their minds on mine, the rustling of their tongues. And I felt their attention as soon as they had mine. Brightness washed all else away. Shadows limped just below it.
Are they all dead? I wondered, feeling no grief or shock or fear.
Air thickened, knives slid through pores, fire ignited inside bone marrow.
Hold on now, this thought wasn’t mine or Karen’s or any of theirs, it came from nowhere, Hold on now everybody, we’re going for a ride.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work