EPILOGUE & AFTER-IMAGE
Alec and I sat quietly for a time, our eyes gazing toward the ceiling, up at dust motes caught red-handed in mid twirling freefall by rays from an afternoon sun, blasting in through the study window. Their easy, almost calculated pirouettes seemed innocuously intelligent for what they were; minute cast-offs of human skin.
The reminiscence-that-became-an-interview-then-a-confession had reached its natural end, and, for now at least, it seemed, there was nothing better for us to do than let the events Alec had related settle in silence upon and between us, much like an accumulated drift of snow. That contrast of heat and cold seemed appropriate, I mused at the time; the sun’s warmth offset the chill melancholy I felt now within… an emotional cold so much worse than any I’d stomped my feet against that morning.
At last, Alec reached for a glass on his desk and took a small, savoured sip from the finger of Scotch he’d poured himself sometime during our dialogue. A single malt (‘A gift from one of the island distilleries,’ he’d explained); he’d popped the stopper on it soon after noon, and even now the surprise of its peaty aroma returned to mind each time I set eyes on it. I’d declined his offer – reluctantly – pleading professional duty, and had stuck with refills of tea throughout. As it turned out, here we were, three-thirty in the afternoon now, and once again my requirement on set had failed to materialise, with an advisory texted from the 2nd A.D. I’d unlikely be needed the rest of the day now, but to stay on stand by, “Just in case”. Screw it, I thought, and motioned over the second glass Alec had brought out. He nodded an understanding assent and slid it across. Now more than ever it felt criminal to keep the tumbler empty, especially as this was a bottle of pre-war Quarter Cask.
I let the liquid amber burn a pleasant course down my throat, and smiled approval. Still, the chill of Alec’s last words wasn’t dispelled by its warmth.
‘It may never happen,’ he said before imbibing another golden sip. His voice was cheery, his smile genuine, but only up to where it reached his eyes. They said something different. Hope was still in them, yes; a believer’s yearning for it to be true. But the eyes of a realist, only too used to the materialization of life’s worst scenarios, also gazed out at me, sending me an expression that spoke, Hope all you want, my friend. But the clock is ticking. The realist’s eyes I believed more; they belonged to one of the Giant Killers after all, and if anyone knew the lay of the land in this, our brave knew undead world, it would be him.
Our time together ended soon after that, as if Alec knew the Jenga tower of camaraderie our conversation had constructed those past hours couldn’t rise again from the knockdown, first of his confession, and now this, his last revelation; the pieces having been scattered and lost from the shockwaves which had toppled it. As ever, he seemed to understand, letting me slide away with tactful inanities about going back to check up on things on set, the need to work out the kinks in my back with a soothing hot bath (luxury!) back at the hotel, the ubiquitous jokes about what our next rationed meal held.
Alec followed me, still limping. There was no energy in his gait now; they were the small steps made by a weary man. He shook my hand on the threshold, reminding me that if I just heeded his words I’d be fine. I recall staring at him, lost over which of his hours’ worth of words he meant. ‘About Josh,’ he prompted.
I blustered a smiled, ‘Of course,’ relief plain that he hadn’t meant the nightmare and – what his gaze had said of it – its ugly promise. I gave my farewell and headed out the front door, hearing the gentle click of it closing behind me. To my back also and, shielded by the terrace of cottages of Beeston that I filed past, was the lowering sun. Walking in their shadow, again I felt the truth of the season, which otherwise lied blithely to me with its brightness and birdsong.
I found a seat on the unit bus, and – my mood making me unwilling to speak with anyone else about the day – pulled out a pair of ear buds and my phone, and plugged myself in. Accessing the Dictaphone app, I searched for the last few minutes of our conversation, and replayed it.
My speculations of the possibility Alec had described made me shrink to silence in my seat, unchecked by the bus heater, the close cold of a winter snow scape never leaving me. Later I lay on my hotel room bed that night, gazing – motionless, sleepless – into space and wondering, What if? What if Alec is right?
You’re right to ask yourself, Right about what?
You see, it wasn’t Alec’s story which had left me shuddering under a shadow of melancholy, not his description of Josh’s brutal end – a life which, like the rest of the Haven’s Fallen, was so tragically, so stupidly, cut short. Not after he explained his rationale for going back up the hill, not even his admission of foreknowledge about the disabled Fire Fence. It’s what Alec had revealed after.
See, it’s not every day you learn what haunts a giant among the Giant Killers, what makes them afraid to close their eyes at night. It understandably makes you think that, if what makes an expert in Amalgam Homunculi scared to sleep, then it should make you scared too.
I was very afraid to close my eyes that night as well.
Below is the transcript of the last portion of Alec Mitchell’s and my conversation, continuing on immediately from where the previous section ended, when he had made his confession. To my knowledge this is the first and only time Alec Mitchell has disclosed this information. It still chills me even now, writing as I am in the heat of high summer, to think that, though the tale of the Beeston Haven is over, we may not have heard the last of the Beeston Phenomena itself.
And there’ll be no happy ending at all.
JB: [changing the subject] Do your nightmares motivate you any?
JB: You’ve mentioned your nightmares about Beeston a few times now. It just occurred to me whether another of your reasons for it [being a guide at the Castle] is to… I dunno… exorcise them.
AM: No, they keep my narratives up on the hill fresh.
JB: There isn’t one of your nightmares you’d want shot of? Not one?
AM: [quiet a moment, then] No. [weighs something, then] Actually, that’s not true – hell, in for a penny.
There is one; one that began about a year on from Beeston. By that stage I was well established with Jen among the “Egg Heads” at SCAhRE. One of the questions posed us had been just how big could such beasts get? You may not know this, but the answers varied considerably if you took into account the many factors which helped shaped a Homunculus, particularly round the condition of its zeb components and how often they were replaced with fresh cadavers. There were physical limits, but the general conclusion was “pretty frickin’ big”, bigger even than the Beeston Homunculus.
I don’t know why, but the question I asked at the time was, “And… then what?” Would such monsters be enough for the goop? If the pathogen powering it forbade death and dismemberment as being obstacles to its propagation, then why would it… “allow” (for want of a better term) that barrier of scale? It would have a solution. It would adapt.
My peers dismissed this as unimportant to the immediate problem.
JB: I don’t see how this relates…
AM: I’m coming to it. Apart from our officially revealed achievements (and the government loves trumpeting those doesn’t it?) any disclosure of much of my time at SCAhRE is blocked by Official Secrets. This – what I’m about to tell you now – isn’t, simply as it was never addressed.
The answer I got to my question came from own subconscious, and I believe – strongly – that it’s right. All it needs is time, and a chance to look in the right place to confirm it. See, we’re focused – rightly, don’t get me wrong – on re-building here in the UK and elsewhere. And so strapped are we for resources like functioning spy satellites, many that we lost through lack of people, time and maintenance during the Endemic Days, that we haven’t looked well or long enough in those continents still dark to us, lying un-reclaimed outside the walls of those pockets of civilization still on the coasts. But if we did – when we finally do…
In my dream – the dream I wish could vanish forever – I’m back on the Cheshire plain. It’s dusk. There are no trees or grass there, it’s barren now, there’s only dust – a layer of grey, oily bonfire ash. I hear distant whumps of great footfalls, and, looking west, I see, silhouetted by a band of fading scarlet on the post-sunset horizon, multiple misshapen giants, lumbering across the landscape. Judging by the far away screams I hear, they are harvesting the few remaining humans left.
Those left outside the castle walls that is. The fortress rises up in the near distance to the north; the girth and height of its battlements sketched in chiaroscuro by the dying light. By its size and shape, it is obviously not Beeston, more like… Windsor or Caernarfon Castles. Out of sight below the walls, within the battlements, lights wink on, their castings giving me intermittent glimpses of roving silhouettes; guards, blotting out the gaps in the parapets they pace. From within the haven comes a low, cautious hum; the collective conversation of a human populace confident they are safe behind their defences – as they should be. The castle walls are high, at regular intervals the parapets are dotted with cryo-cannon, fire carpets burn on the ashen plain below, and where they end, the web of the Cheese Wire reaches up into the night, stretching left and right, forming with the fire and the walls a complete ring of protection. Nothing can get through. Nothing.
The massive crump of crushed ash behind me makes me jump, and the ground trembles. Whirling about, I look up, up… into the great twisted face of the Beeston Homunculus, its face made lurid scarlet in the dusking light. Either I’m smaller now, or it’s far taller than I remember. Behind it, standing at each shoulder, are two others at least as big. The only feature that distinguishes these from their leader is that one arm on each of them is grossly bloated. The monsters stand before me, vast in scale, breathing and shuddering in that unnatural way they have, and I realise I have no weapons on me, no walls, no means of attack or defence. I wait for the inevitable.
The Beeston Homunculus however doesn’t screech in triumph, doesn’t reach down and take me. It only leers at me, as if waiting for something.
“Now what?” I yell up at it.
The monster’s leer only deepens, and then my answer comes, the answer I believe the goop has for the latest barrier to its dominance. An answer I’m afraid one day will stride out from the shadows of those darkened continents to assault our castle walls once more.
As if from an unspoken signal, the trio of giants turn to face the castle defences. In tandem, the two goliaths either side of the Beeston monster reach up with their good arms, and tear loose those ghastly bloated limbs from their bodies. The severed arms immediately begin to pulse, the pulse quickening visibly, as if the bodies within are expressing an excited countdown. Then with great swings, the giants launch the detached limbs free. They sail up, up… clear of the Cheese Wire fence that would shred them, over the flames that would burn them. The missiles execute slow horizontal spins as they go, only to – seconds before they pass over the Haven’s high walls – abruptly blast apart, blooming into two ever-widening nets of extended limbs, stretched ropes of goop; a network of zebs, parachuting into the safe haven. The nets fall out of sight behind the walls, and the next moment, the confident human hubbub collapses into screams of surprise and terror… and then pain.
But the monsters are not done yet. They turn back to me and, before my very eyes, limbs, trunks, whole bodies along the middle vertical of each monster – tail to tip – unravel then separate.
The three giants sub-divide… become six.
The goliaths wait a moment before – screaming, triumphant – they chase me into the darkness.
[Silence for ten seconds.]
JB: So… what… You’re saying the nightmare’s not over?
AM: That’s right, Mister Boam. I don’t believe it is.
© 20-- Jay M. Boam