Let's Just Call Them Monsters

They’re all human to begin with, but when does their humanity run out? Do they stop being human when their hearts stop beating, or when their minds stop thinking? Is it when their eyes turn white, or when their blood turns black, or when their brains rot in their skulls? He’s asked himself this question countless times, and he still doesn’t know the answer.
All he knows is that he sacrificed his own humanity to get here, and he’s not going to let theirs get in his way.

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3. The Blood-Red Horizon

George was awake to see the first shreds of dawn sneaking onto the horizon. This was the first time in years he’d managed to stay awake the entire night, and underneath the nauseating headache, crushing boredom and all-consuming tiredness, he couldn’t help feeling a little spark of pride.

For a change, George’s laptop and online poker were lying forgotten under the armchair. He was leaning against the windowsill to read a book he couldn’t remember the name of, letting the droplets of moonlight spilling through the open curtains do their best to light up the pages. It didn’t really matter whether he could actually see the words or not; he’d read the dull, formulaic story a thousand times before and sentence after sentence brushed past more passively than a light breeze. The characters felt even flatter and more tedious than him, the dialogue felt drier than the silence of his bedroom, and the plot felt, so far, less eventful than the whole of the night he’d just spent alone. Every inch of George’s body ached with exhaustion, but he couldn’t sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, all he saw was red.

With his gaze still lazily drifting along each black line of text, he finally noticed he’d finished the last chapter and was now reading the copyright information. Drowsiness had long since blurred every word, so he’d been finding it no less absorbing than the story itself. Sighing, he dropped his arm and let the book fall onto the carpet, pushing it under the bed with his foot to join the ever-growing piles of crumpled tissues and discarded pastimes. Standing up for the first time in six hours, he raggedly stretched his stiff muscles and blinked at the sound of a jolting CRACK from his spine. Leah murmured something illegible in her sleep, but for once, George found himself secretly hoping she might wake up. For these last few weeks, he’d been wishing for some company on his loneliest nights, and that night felt like the loneliest he’d had in years.

Another case of animal mutilation had been reported that day.

George had been on his lunch break, trying to keep up with yet another colleague’s dull discussion about the man in ward five, when the topic of interest had suddenly diverted back to those bloody sheep on the news. At least, George had assumed that was what they were talking about, until he’d mentioned cows. Cows in Yorkshire, of all places. That morning, the residents of one rural community had discovered that the slaughter had begun a little earlier than usual, and the lush green countryside had been drenched black overnight. Once someone had bothered to call the police, apparently, the owner of the farm had vanished off the face of the earth. George had made the mistake of researching the story further, and that meant he’d seen photos. Too many of them. Just like Leah, he wished he’d never asked about the story; there was a very good reason why he was a vegetarian and it had absolutely nothing to do with a love for animals. He’d whiled away the first few hours of that night reading news stories with way too much blood and gore for his taste, which was why now, at five-thirty in the morning, he was trying to scrub the disgusting images out of his mind by reading one of Leah’s ridiculous romance novels. At least, he had been reading. Now, he was staring blankly out at the street below him, watching his breaths condensing on the window and smudging the glow of the streetlamps.

He was waiting for the sky to turn red.

George’s neck slumped as his head started to feel heavier, but his eyes were smarting too much to stay closed for long. When a sudden glimmer of scarlet above the town finally startled him away, he realised he’d been almost asleep with his forehead stuck to the freezing glass. Blinking thickly to rid himself of the first tendrils of sleep sneaking into his mind, George didn’t realise at first that he could easily have been hallucinating. Clinging to the lingering sense of what could have been hope or morbid curiosity, he kept his ears trained on Leah and his eyes fixed firmly on the sky.

Then, he saw it again.

The pinprick of red light wove between the clouds in a perfectly parallel line to the ground, leaving a residual streak that stood out against the lilac horizon in a thin ribbon before fading away. George locked his knees and stumbled in his haste to stand up straight, but he managed to regain his balance before falling backwards onto the bed and waking up Leah. The nervous throb of his heart began to quicken, and ripples of nausea spread from his chest into the back of his throat and pit of his stomach.

Another light slashed the sky. And another. And another. The tiny sparks were identical in size and shape, standing out so cleanly against the night that they were like chunks of liquid copper. Each one of them appeared above the church on the right of the horizon, zipped at breakneck speed across the sky, and then vanished behind the house on the other side of the road, following the exact trajectory of the one before it. It was almost hypnotic.

As more and more sparks materialised to drag their shimmering trails along the treeline, George slowly became more and more mesmerised, but one part of his mind managed to stay alert enough to silently scream ‘What the HELL?!’ every time a new light appeared. Suddenly, the headache and the boredom and the exhaustion meant nothing.

Right to left, and the light was gone.

Right to left, but another one was already following it.

The lights began as defined horizontal droplets, appearing alone and disappearing alone. Then, the droplets became a steady trickle and the trickle became a flowing stream. As the rapidly fading trails were punctuated and distorted by the appearance of new lights, each and every scrap of red in the sky blurred together into a pulsating, glowing smear, outlining the horizon and dripping its blood onto the tops of the trees. The sky was straining to contain itself as, slowly, a rift of bleeding scarlet tore the dawn to shreds.

After a few minutes, George was snapped out of his stupor by something that wrecked the pattern. At the centre of the flickering streak of red light, a blaze flared up, distorting the line into an oval. The red droplet of fire separated from the rip in the sky and, as George watched in some sort of shocked daze, it started to plummet downwards. As soon as the two sources of light had separated, the horizontal seam sucked itself shut and vanished.

Other than the echoing thud of the blood in his ears, George couldn’t hear even a whisper of noise from inside the room or from the mess in the sky outside. The falling spark seemed to grow larger and redder as it got closer to the ground, but when it caught the dwindling rays of the moon, it blazed yellow like a mirror in the sun. It was still falling.

What the hell’s going on?

It didn’t slow down. Even though it had been impossible to work out a scale when it was miles up in the sky, now, George was sure the spark was at least the size of a football. It was heading straight for the garden of the run-down house opposite his. He knew that if it didn’t slow down soon, it’d crash.

It’ll burn up that garden if it crashes.

It flared even brighter, flooding the roof white.

Maybe it’ll blow up the whole street.

It still didn’t slow down.

What the hell am I doing? It’s going to crash. I should be on the phone to the police, or the fire brigade, or something. I should be doing something other than sitting here.

George didn’t move, and the light crashed.

Seconds before impact, it vanished directly behind George’s neighbour’s house. Then, a flare of orange light exploded outwards in a shimmering sphere that almost engulfed the entire building. The blast was blinding, even filtered through the branches of the trees behind the road and the raindrops on the window, and George blinked as a pang of agony electrified his vision and made it fizz. Every inch of the landscape crackled with bolts of crimson lightning and the walls of the bedroom quickly flooded with colour before receding back into darkness. Still, nothing made a sound and still, Leah didn’t wake up. She was in such a deep sleep that even the end of the world couldn’t have woken her.

When he looked back out of the window, George couldn’t see even a flicker of disturbance in his neighbour’s garden or in the sky. Everything was as dark as six o’clock was supposed to be, even though the explosion had burned a perfect circle of orange into his vision. He was convinced, even if it was just for one crazy second, that what he’d seen had been real, and he wanted to know what the hell it was.

Casting one last glance towards the bed, even as Leah rolled over and sighed as if on the verge of opening her eyes, George grabbed a broken pencil and a scrap of paper from the rubble-strewn dresser to scribble her a note.

GON JGGING. C U LTR X

It wasn’t unusual for Leah to wake up and find that George had gone jogging. What he didn’t tell her was that sometimes his jogs began at midnight, when he’d leave the house to walk off his insomnia and spend the entire night wandering aimlessly through the abandoned streets. Tonight wasn’t going to be one of those nights, though. Tonight, he knew where he was going, and tonight, he wasn’t going to bother changing out of his pyjamas.

He grabbed and pulled on the nearest pair of shoes before heading out of the bedroom as quietly as he could manage, closing the door behind him. He almost tripped several times on the stairs, blundering in the complete blackness of the night like a blind man, but managed to keep his footing steady and his mouth shut. Once he was safely downstairs, with no signs of life from Leah, he picked up his pace to match his heartbeat, snatched his jacket from the ground and bolted out of the house.

The empty road glittered orange in the damp glow of the streetlamps and each of his running footsteps turned into five as the sound echoed upwards in a percussive spiral. George had explored nearly every inch of Nabdale in six years of sleepless nights, but he’d never glanced twice at his neighbour’s house; in fact, he’d only ever caught a few glimpses of the occupant herself. She was a young woman with ridiculously messy hair and ridiculously ratty old clothes, and the exterior of the house seemed to perfectly match her. The garden, if you could even call it that without mortally offending the industry of gardening, was so overgrown that bits of grass were bleeding through the remaining fragments of fence and merging with plants in the field on the other side. Normally, George would stop at a metal gate with a PRIVATE PROPERTY sign on it and turn back home, but not tonight.

A few more streaks of light flashed red among the grey clouds, but George only glanced up at them fleetingly before carrying on. Watching the explosion from his bedroom window had petrified him but oddly, fear never once crossed his mind as he drew closer to the spot where he’d find the evidence. The gravel path softened into dirt beneath his feet, reminding him for the first time since leaving the house that he was wearing his slippers, and eventually the grass grew even taller and lankier than him and he had to hold it aside with both hands. He still didn’t slow down, keeping pace with the stabbing of the wind on his face.

In the lull of the black night, not a whisper could be heard from the sky as tendrils of scarlet carried on flashing over his head. Now, the silence was so deep that the distant sound of an owl seemed to shake the ground beneath his feet. The dizzying darkness made the field seem endless, and even looking up at the stars made his vision twist and lurch with what he hoped was just drowsiness. The claw of grass that pricked his throat when he lowered his head nearly shocked him into yelling, but he managed to shut himself up before so much as a whine got out. So far, none of the occupants of the house whose garden he was invading had been alerted to his presence.

He continued forwards, working his way tetchily through the swamp of undergrowth, until suddenly the wooden perimeter fence reared up in front of him and forced him to stop. At the edge of the field, the plants vanished and his foot connected with a bare patch of soggy mud.

“Shit!” George exclaimed through his teeth. He wasn’t just lamenting his ruined shoe, but also the fact that he’d reached the other side of the field without finding a thing. An explosion that massive should have left some kind of trace on the ground, unless, of course, he’d been imagining it.

George kept searching for at least another fifteen minutes, running sporadically between the unkempt weeds of his neighbour’s garden and the fraying woodland on the hillside, but he’d given up by the time the first rays of sunlight drifted over the trees.

I was just seeing things again, he decided, turning his back on the final red spark that zipped across the horizon behind him, but this time, I’ve taken it too bloody far.

He was lucky to get home in time to change out of his muddy slippers and pyjama trousers without Leah seeing him; in fact, it was a blessing that nobody had seen him out there. Anyone might have thought he’d escaped from an insane asylum. Then again, maybe, with all these crazy delusions, he really belonged in one.

He slipped into bed just as the first slivers of sunlight slipped through the gap in the curtains, drew the duvet up to his chin and closed his eyes. Leah would assume he was asleep, since only he had access to the confused tangle of chaos keeping sleep at bay in his head.

In all four years of their relationship, George had never kept any secrets from Leah. Well, no significant secrets, anyway. When he’d left the house that night, he’d promised himself he’d tell her everything when he got back. Technically, that promise hadn’t been broken. He wasn’t going to tell her anything, but to be fair, he hadn’t found anything.

He’d found no evidence of any kind of explosion; the fences and trees that should have been torn apart were unharmed, and the grass that should have been charred to cinders was no more mangled than it had always been. He’d found nothing that could have fallen from the sky; no toy planes, no burnt-out Chinese lanterns, no kites or balloons or fireworks, and not even an inkling of an alien spaceship. His body may have been laden with clumsy exhaustion, but his hyperactive imagination was still as much a curse as always.

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