The Melting World

‘Did God who made the lamb make thee?’— William Blake.

Mikey’s an awful long time. Hope the kids are safe. “Don’t fret, Sally. I’ll go straight there, straight back, I promise.” But that was six hours ago. Outside, the rain is hissing down on scorched earth. A dog howls in agony. Poor thing. Didn’t reach the door in time. Not sure if I trust this oilskin. Only needs a small hole and then — a painful, sleepless night at the very least. Should have asked Mikey to get some morphine, just in case.

He ought to be back by now. What if we can’t get seats on the next helicopter? What if there are no more helicopters?

I’m checking my cape for breaks in the stitching, and scrapes and tears that need sewing and patching. It’s already covered with little squares and strips of plumber’s tape because the stitches are weak points in themselves. The Droners came twice, yesterday. The atmospheric changes have speeded up and, chances are they will increase their attacks now it’s more to their taste.

We all used to worry about acid rain when we were the only ones poisoning the air. The clean air acts and other initiatives put that worry onto the back burner. Now global pollution’s back with a vengeance. And this time — Not. Our. Fault.

Mikey says, it turns out life is rare in our universe. And for any voracious scavenging species — like us — it follows that food is scarce too. And now we know we’re not the only greedy bastards in the galaxy. The Competition has arrived.

Back in the 70s, we suspected that we were not alone. So, what did we have to go and do? Only send out Space Probes with little, engraved gold discs on board — like Egon Roney five star marks. They must have looked at that plaque on Pioneer 2 and said, “Yum yum!” — or whatever you call that noise they make when they see something they like: “Drmnnn Drmnnn”; something like that.

Mikey said that rain of theirs isn’t really rain: just some kind of organic secretion they release high in the atmosphere that reduces everything living to a pink goo. Then they swoop down and suck it up. I shuddered when he explained it; how he and his unit had done a reccy — and what they found there. I’d just as soon not know. He made it sound so hopeless. Last year the buzz had been about going to the stars. This year, the stars came to us. The final humiliation is how they came…

A Droner is battering against the window. The ‘rain’ must have stopped if they are about. They don’t risk getting pissed on by their own kind. The Droner’s wings are threshing against the glass with cold determination. Better do something about the little fiend before it dissolves the glass and gets inside. Not that I couldn’t shred it with my twelve bore or splat it with my baseball bat if it did. It’s just it’ll lay eggs; they always do. No other reason for it to come in here. Once inside, it would find itself a little chink in the woodwork and shoot a gooey clutch of eggs inside before I had the time to kill it. And, I’d have to keep out of the way of its long, prehensile ovipositor — I wouldn’t want to go that way. Christ! Stuff of nightmares. Mikey said the Droners resembled ichneumon wasps in that respect. Being a biologist, he knew all about ichneumon wasps. Oh yes. I remember his description of their life cycle when I first met him, ten years ago. He’d said it was the main reason he couldn’t believe in a benevolent creator. Lions and tigers and bears were one thing, but parasites whose babies ate their host alive from the inside out. Ugh! I told him I didn’t want to hear any more. But I’ll never forget his final words on that: “We’re parasites too. We’re just more hypocritical about it.” I remember his final word on ichneumon too: “You have to admire its purity.”

You can tell his favourite movie is ‘Alien’, can’t you? Or rather was. I doubt it is now. They banned movies like that when the Droners first appeared. And sales of insecticide went through several roofs. Some morons even went on a rampage, burning beehives; didn’t even know the difference between bees and wasps, let along that earth insects are about as close to the Droners genetically as they are to palm trees or French poodles. I doubt Mikey admires anything about the Droners, these days, either.

It’s not showing any signs of leaving the window alone, so better just stick my gun round the door and cream the bastard before it gets inside. I’ll be safe, as long as I keep moving. They don’t risk snapping their six foot, microfine ovipositor off inside you. It’s the sting you’ve got to really watch out for. Paralyse the shit out of you and then the ovipositor… Oh Christ!

I did it. A little pink explosion and it’s gone.

Christ, there are others out here, feeding. Most stomach turning sight in all human history. Sucking up that grey-pink slime. Wonder how many of us have gone that way now? A hundred million? A billion? Ten billion? No way of knowing. Nothing on the radio for days; just the endlessly repeating emergency bulletins. Since that last one about the helicopter pickup points, there’s been nothing new. If only I’d gone with him. “No, you go and check that it’s going to happen, then come back for me,” I said. He protested, said it might be our last chance. I insisted I was safer in the house; though really, I was angry with him for taking the kids to stay with his folks. Angry with myself, too — for not going with them when I had the chance. “OK. We’ll go on the next helicopter,” he said. I thought it was for the best. The Droner attacks were less frequent then.

The military tried a counterattack with drones, fitted with lasers. Yes, drones versus Droners. Made great headlines. It worked as well, at first. They mass produced them by the million and they burned Droners by the million. But the Droners were ultrafast breeders and natural selection was on their side. They adapted. Their organic acid changed so that it would dissolve the drones in mid flight, and soon we were all collateral damage, and we had to give up on that one. The last big drone versus Droner exchange took place over New York and ended in a firestorm. No more Manhatten. So, back to the rapidly shrinking drawing board.

“There are three hypotheses about them,” Mikey had said. That was just after the Droners put in their first appearance. They weren’t even called Droners back then. They had some unpronounceable Latin name that didn’t stick with the public. ‘Droners’ was what the news media and press called them.

“You mean you don’t know what they are?” I said. “The Mail seems to think they are from Africa.”

“That was the first hypothesis: that they are a new species, from an evolutionary hot spot in a tropical rain forest. Although not Africa; that’s just the Mail’s prejudice. The main candidates were South America, or Malaysia.”

“But you don’t think so?”

“No. Can’t be, because if we pinpoint all the locations they were first sighted and trace them back with a computer simulation, they originated somewhere near Poland. That’s just not a likely place for them to evolve.”

“The Mail also mentioned biological warfare.”

“Yes. That was the second hypothesis. Someone spliced the genes of an Ichneumon wasp with a giant hornet from Japan, thereby producing a large insect, one that combined the traits of the wasp, with hornet’s flesh-melting venom. It was superficially plausible; after all wasps and hornets are related species. But the Droners were just too big. We really wanted it to turn out to be something like that because we stood a chance of developing an anti-venom or encouraging natural enemies — like bees — to attack them. Of course, then those fucking idiots started burning beehives. In the end, we had to reject that hypothesis because they showed too many alien traits. Which left us with hypothesis three.”

“That they are an alien species.”

“Yes. I’m afraid so. They don’t look anything like insects when you are close to.”

“How come? What’s different?”

“Well, the biggest difference is that they have seven legs instead of six. All earth arthropods — all earth creatures — have an even number of arms and legs. Droners have a seventh limb. Apparently, bilateral symmetry is unique to earth — as far as we know. Although we aren’t entirely bilateral; we have a single digestive tract, one head, one centralised set of genitals. Unless you count snakes with their two penises!?” He sounded so full of hope back then; laughing and joking. Months later, he said it was odd, but the Droners showed no sign of intelligence; despite everyone’s assumption they came here because of the Pioneer space probe. Hawking had warned us about that — said we ought to be ready for them. Then his warning backfired when the first Droners arrived and Christian and Islamist fanatics started lynching scientists left right and centre. Mikey only narrowly escaped when the mob attacked the helicopter airlifting his team from Royal Holloway. I just can’t fathom people; always looking for someone to blame. That’s another thing. We always thought that an external threat would unify us; give us a ‘super ordinate goal’. That turned out to be bollocks! People actually thought the scientists — all scientists! — had brought the fuckers here, firing off space probes. Scientists were the only people who could have saved us, and the crazy fools killed them. See what I just did? I said, ‘were’ and not ‘are’. Mustn’t give up. Mikey reckons they have a chance if they can sequence the Droners’ DNA, and look for a kink in their armour. That’s if the Droners DNA can be sequenced. No. That’s if they have DNA. He did say all in the exobiology team were baffled when they first looked. And Droners don’t fucking reproduce like us, with sex. They’re more like viruses. They just reprogram their hosts, and turn them into Droner nymph factories — nasty bastards; eating their way out. Mikey thought, at first, they must have something like our DNA to be able to do that. But so far, nobody’s found it. And the anti-science brigade hasn’t helped. Some pundits thought the Droners fixed things — rewired our brains — just like that protozoan that affects mice, and cats, and humans. So we’d kill the scientists, and leave ourselves wide open to the Droners. Some even claimed global warming and the attendant ‘climate scepticism’ was caused by the Droners, to get our climate more like one they’re used to. But then again, what everyone called ‘the Droner’s space ship’ turned out to be nothing of the kind. More like a big wasps’ nest: secreted; not manufactured — made of spit. Mikey told me how the current theory was that when they’d totally consumed a planet, they crawled inside their nests and let the planet break up, and finally blow itself apart. The nests would drift off into space while inside, the Droners slept for millions of years until they drifted into a planet’s gravitational field.

And that, said Mikey, is apparently why we haven’t found any intelligent life in the galaxy. The Droners have spread everywhere, moving outwards from planet to planet. And nothing — so far — has stopped them. I asked him what the evidence was and he said it was, a matter of probabilities. They’d run computer simulations, and in every one the Droners always won. That is, they spread through the galaxy, ineluctably.

Whatever. The Droners are here, whether driven by brains or viruses. And now it’s their turn to destroy our planet; taking out centres of population first — as if they know we won’t bomb cities. Or maybe it’s just some quirk of statistics. And when we try evacuation, people daren’t leave their houses because of the rain. They’d rather starve indoors — the ones who didn’t manage to stockpile food, that is. Anyway, I doubt anyone has the means to fire off missiles or drop bombs anymore. That acid — or whatever you call it — dissolves wood, metal glass, even concrete. Old-fashioned oil-skin’s about the only thing that really resists it; that and linoleum. I’ve covered most of the house with oil-skin and linoleum and I’m pretty safe for now. But it’ll get through that, eventually.

God, if that thing had got inside, and laid its eggs!

With a bit of luck, and for what it’s worth, when they’ve finished feeding on the poor bastards caught outside, they’ll move on.

Not much droning outside. I think they’re going. It smells awful — even in here. Outside, I can see a little way through the mist.

The smell makes me retch as I open the door.

The ground’s like brimstone and burnt treacle, it smells like hell and sticks to my shoes. Most of the pink slurry has gone. Only the odd glob remains, with grey arms and legs sticking out, melted and fused together; like a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Hell.

A young woman — no more than a girl — comes staggering out of what’s left of a pub. She had the best idea. She has a Droner covering her face and she dances like a puppet, which is all she is, now. The second the sting entered her neck, she was dead; her brain melted. The droner doesn’t need her brain for what it’s doing to her. She falls to the ground, the Droner still clinging to her head. I have to be quick. I give the Droner both barrels, which shatters it and also removes what’s left of the poor girl’s head. She would have had a boyfriend, and dreams and hopes and ambitions. Now she is just a smear on the pavement. But at least the Droner is dead, and its eggs won’t live. I kick the droner away to make sure. It hasn’t had the chance to position its ovipositor. If only I’d been seconds earlier, I might have saved her. And this fucking isolation is driving me crazy. And we need all the humans we can get. Even so, what are we to live on? There’s nothing left. All the Embankment has gone. It’s just a pile of black, twisted metal and shattered concrete where the Barbican used to be. Probably still safer to stay in London — what’s left of it — now the Droners have moved on, to Surrey and Buckinghamshire, if we can believe the last bulletin. Not much shelter left, though.

Yes, I still think we might be safer here; if we could get the kids back. If Mikey doesn’t get back today, I might try the underground, tomorrow. We’d be OK there. I bet there are people down there already. When Mikey comes back, I’ll put it to him.

I did hope to find a phone shop with the phones still intact. But it looks like all that kind of shit is fucked up for good. And even if I could get a phone working, I doubt any network still works — not round here. If not the Underground, then maybe we could find a ship. But then there’s that story survivors told about what happened on that cruise ship. When the Droners hatched out below deck during a dinner dance; all those people flailing around in a panic while the vicious beasts dive-bombed them again and again, Christ! Herding them into a corner before their final descent.

I’m getting red blotches on my arms, and this dreadful itch. Just nerves, though, I think.

I hope Mikey comes back soon. I hope he brings others with him — like the cavalry in old Westerns. I heard some shooting two or three days ago. And of course, there was that last message on steam radio, telling everyone to meet up at Marble Arch. Only I don’t think there is a Marble Arch now. I passed it yesterday. Of course, I was in too big a hurry to look close. But it was all fizzling and crackling after the morning downpour. It reminded me of that chemistry experiment back in school; a piece of chalk fizzing and dissolving in sulphuric acid. Of course, their acid isn’t like sulphuric; it’s a million times worse.

I’ve already been out too long. Time to head back.

I pass what had once been gleaming Porsches, Aston Martins, even Rolls-Royces. Now they are windowless hulks with smoking, crumbling bodywork. I daren’t get too close to them; afraid of what I might see. As it is, if I close my eyes, I see a floating image of that poor girl. I’ll never get rid of that image. Not as long as I live.

I thought I saw someone just then. Nearer, I see it is a tall, black, smoking object. I stare at it for several seconds before recognising — a post box. One of the last standing objects in this gooey wasteland. The red paint has all gone, of course. But the cylindrical shell is still there, just. Those things were certainly built to last!

The house looks no different. Safe and defiant in a row of skeletal, smoking semis.

I open the door and slip back inside. Safe. For now.

Better get something to eat. Maybe open a can of Spam or Irish stew. Luxury. Not that there’s anything to celebrate.

What’s that?

Someone!

Mikey’s back; moving about upstairs! “Mikey!”

No answer.

That him coming down?

The door opens. “Mikey! Oh Mikey!” I’m hungry for a hug.

But it isn’t Mikey. I can tell by the way he’s walking, jerky and uncoordinated. His eyes are empty. Mikey doesn’t live there anymore. I try not to look as I shoot him full in the face. The Droner had stung him in the back of the neck. That’s a new one. That’s intelligence, that is. Now I have a nightmare vision of hundreds of Droners, squatting on the backs of scores of human necks, riding the last survivors like horses. Droning away as they herd us all like  cattle. God, no. Not that.

My eyes fill with tears. Why did it have to be like this? The droning grows louder, as it comes nearer.

No. Not just the nearness. More of them. Many, many more.

Too many.

Soon be in here.

And only one cartridge left.

Oh dear God, no. I used that last one on Mikey!

It’s true.

They don’t look like insects close to.

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About Zoe Nightingale

I am a writer of short stories, novels, poetry and non fiction.
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