Tuesday, 9 May 2017

In the Night of the Comet (2017)

In the Night of the Comet

A Sequel to H. G. Wells’s In the Days of the Comet

1. How I Came to the Greenhouse

How I came to the Greenhouse is less of a mystery than how, or why, and whether advertently or not, I shut the Greenhouse door behind me after entering. That I did so is fortunate, no doubt—though it seems almost blasphemous to speak of good fortune in these latter days. All good fortune has vanished into the last night of humankind, and the only luck that remains us us poisoned. Still: here I am.

It has taken me several days to piece back together the torn-up fragments of my human mind, and several days more to resolve to write down what I can remember. For whom? I know not. But it is better to be occupied, most especially at night, when I interleave writing (by the light of the lavatory) with peering through the glass at the darkness without.

I do not intend to waste the little paper I possess on a detailed account of my early existence. My father, who recalled the years before the coming of the comet—before, that is, the coming of the first comet—spoke of the dark ages as dreadful but interesting, and contrasted them with the world remade into which I was born and in which I grew to manhood: a place of endless possibilities, sane and healthy and clean in ways that had never been true before in the whole history of humanity—yet, uninteresting, at least to a storyteller. The old stories, which the people of my generation read as historical curios, are full of incident, and drama, and conflict; and after the comet came all that dissolved away, and people lived together in harmony.

No longer.

More relevant to this story are my immediate memories of the coming of the second comet, and here I fear I shall disappoint, for it is hard for me to recall, and what I can recall is too horrific to be speakable. Suffice to say: I was a composer, among other things (as all our people distributed their energies into many things) and was overseeing the performance of an oratorio in the Great City of the Midlands. The second comet had been seen in the skies for many weeks, of course, and its arrival greatly anticipated. If the first comet had produced such miraculous changes in the ways of human society, then what might the second bring? I knew people who anticipated actual transcendence with the second comet: that our souls would sublime out of their mortal sheathes, that we should become as gods, or move to inhabit a purely spiritual dimension. Most took a more pragmatic line: there was no chance this second comet would pass as close to the Earth as the first, they said—the odds against a second close-approach, give the randomness of cosmic gravitational physics, were so vast as to be beneath notice. No: the consensus was that this second comet would miss the Earth by a wide space, and pass away on through the shoreless infinite.

Of course, we were wrong. It passed by as close as the first comet, and, as with that first comet, its tail mingled its gases with our atmosphere. The effect of this second encounter on the world, though, was quite different to the first. Whatever the ingredient that the first comet’s tail added to our collective atmosphere, this second comet brought something new, and it altered us all in quite another manner.

I cannot guess how long I was like the others. I think back to that time only with difficulty, and to do so requires me to overcome a profound sense of revulsion at what I did—at what I became. Perhaps it was a week: my clothes, though certainly torn and defiled with dirt, are not so decayed as would perhaps have been the case had the time-period been longer. I can recall a confused sense of purely animal drive—a bestial fear of the city, a bestial hunger for human flesh. My memory is a bewildering succession of stimuli that present themselves to me as having happened all at once, but must have involved chronological development. Fleeing the city with a dread deep in my stomach at that place—fleeing along with the thousands of human beings, leaving its electric lights and clean streets empty. Human beings? No, no. Human beings no longer. Dispersing, as all of humanity did, into the countryside—to copses and the shrubland, to woods and the deep forest. And here the chaos of memory is even hard to sort into logical succession: I was hunted by others, and fled in terror, prompted by an atavistic sense of self-preservation. I hunted others, and pursued them with a doggedness bred of a deeper sort of hunger than any I had felt before. In my mind as I think of it now, the two experiences are somehow the same experience—though of course they must have happened at different periods. I recall grappling with a larger individual, male or female I could not say, grappling for my very life, and escaping with gashes to my arm and neck that are still visible to me as I write. I recall hiding, panting, in shadow-tangled undergrowth beneath an indifferent moon. I recall tearing with my nails and biting with my teeth, chewing living human flesh with a terrible avidity. I recall how sweet it felt to have those juices wet my face, and how the screams of the victim added piquancy to the meal.

I do not recall why I came to the Greenhouse, but I daresay I was drawn by its illumination. The bright lights of the city repelled me—I know not why—as did the hideous solidity of the buildings, the artificial cañons of the streets, spires reaching up to prick the sky itself. All that filled me with a nameless terror, and I fled, as did we all. But there was something about the gleam of the lights from the Greenhouse, out on the edge of the woodland, that drew me. It was night, I think. The glass shone with a green-tinted glow that made me think not of the horrors of artificiality but of a new daylight. At any rate, like a moth I came, and smacked against the glass, and somehow found the door, and not only came through it but (mirabile!) closed it behind me. And here my human memories begin, like unto waking from a troubled sleep.

For a long time I lay. Eventually I was able to sit up. I tried to piece together where I was, and what my surroundings meant. I saw the ranks and ranks of growing plants and a tremor of the old terror passed through me, for these reminded me of city streets. I saw the tendrils of the tomato plants and the great globed scarlet fruit that depended from them, and—just for an instant—I saw giant skeleton fingers dropping vast droplets of blood. And then my sight adjusted, and I saw the dimensions of my sanctuary, and the blameless food being grown therein.

I tried to calm my breathing—to gather myself. But how widely scattered had been the pieces that once construed my consciousness and memory, my morals and humanity! It took a while. The hammering of my blood through my inner ear settled to a rhythmic slush, my heart caught hold of its gallop and slowed to a trot. The distinct hum, as the automatic machinery soothed me. The lights overhead fizzed faintly.

Out of the chaos of recent memory came a sense of myself as a person again—a man. A young man. The recollection of music returned to me, and the faces of my family, and with them a sense, as of a mode of memorious neuralgia, of the savagery I had been recently committing. Was the whole of humanity reduced abruptly to the level of unthinking cannibal brutes? Had the second comet truly affected such a change? It was nightmare to imagine it, and worse than nightmare to return to it in memory.

2. Life in the Greenhouse

After a while I returned enough to myself to be able to explore the facility. It was clean, and efficiently laid out, powered by one of the newer deigns of generators that our recent age of Utopian harmony had developed:—lit through the night to double the productive capacity. Automatic trimmers shaved overgrowth from the rims of the various tubs and beds, and a system of overhead rails indicated where the the automated punnets would run to effect the harvest. There were, nonetheless, signs everywhere of neglect—places where the lack of the hand of a human gardener was manifest, the want of this, the irregular presence of that, various spots of disease or other absence. How long had it been since a human being had walked these aisles? Weeks? Or months?

I found a toilet facility and examined my face in the mirror—filthy, chin blood-caked, hair a wild array—before washing and tending to my clothing as best I could. Exploring further disclosed the power plant, the chemical tanks that dosed the greenhouse air with this or that additive, and the filters. It was these latter, I assumed, that maintained the air inside at the same quality as the air before the coming of the second comet; or perhaps, I pondered (and I had a long time to ponder) some combination of filter, and the cancelling effect of some other chemicals, or combination thereof. I do not know.

What I do know is that when I tried to leave, I instantly felt the difference. Other greenhouses were visible through the wide glass, shining in the sunlight, and it did not take many days of habitation in my greenhouse for me to conceive the desire to explore them as well. My house grew tomatoes and peppers, and there were grasses and tubers growing in the soil to fertilise it that also were edible. But I began to crave variety, and wondered what other plants were in the other buildings. And so, like a fool, I went to the main door, and opened it, and peered across the distance from greenhouse to greenhouse as if I might sprint it. But at once I felt the difference in the air. I did not draw a lungful of the stuff—I only sniffed at it, as a dog might. But instantly I felt my core humanity dissolve, like a cube of sugar held between the fingers and dipped into the scalding circle of liquid at the tea-cup’s lip. It was as I imagine drunkenness must have been, in the days before the first comet came and cured humanity of such vices. The beast inside expanded, flowed down into my arms and legs, swelled my heart with a craving for raw flesh—with a hatred of the geometric shapes of the city and a yearning to roam the wildness and seek out my kind. My inner Grendel took possession of me, and I do believe that, had I not stumbled slightly as I held the door open, leaning inadvertently against it such that it swung smartly closed, I would have abandoned myself to that monster life again—gone out again into the world like a wolf to slay until I was slain.

After this small misadventure it took a half hour, by the greenhouse clock, for me fully to recover my humanity. It proved to me that I could not leave my sanctuary.

I cannot call it a prison. The design of the place included no overnight facilities for staff, but I was happy enough sleeping on a bed of folded tarpaulin. I was not cold, and indeed during the day the space grew tropical in its heat and I went naked. During the day the lights turned themselves off, and after two nights of uneasy sleep beneath the brightness of the night lights I sought out the control panel and turned them off at night as well.

It occurred to me that if I, in my former bestial state, had been drawn through the darkness by this gleaming arborial illumination then others of my kind might come afterwards, and for days I debated with myself concerning this possibility. Company would be most desirable, for I was soon acutely lonely; but would I survive the hour (let us say) it would take for an outside monster to be transformed, by breathing unadulterated air, into a companionable human being? On balance I decided not: the creature would kill and devour me before it could become again a man or woman.

Greenery curtained the windows on every side. I would part this and wipe the condensation from the glass to peer out. Indeed I spent long hours doing this, although I saw very little. The edge of the forest; the other greenhouses blazing through the night and sitting implacably during the day. Sometimes I saw animals—antelope, foxes, many birds—and twice I saw other humans, if the wraiths I saw could be so described. Ragged, bestial, one running using the heels of his hands as a gorilla might, the other pursuing on his hind legs. Through the glass I watched them, and over the hum of the machinery, I could clearly hear their howls and yelps, though they passed two hundred yards away. The denouement of this chase was, mercifully, obscured from me by bushes and undergrowth, although the rising intensity of howling, the shrieking and rending noises, suggested that the hunter had been successful.

I thought long and miserably about cosmic cruelty—the hideous arbitrariness of events, the monstrous injustice, the incalculable waste of human potential and beauty. Mankind had struggled through imperfect social structures for thousands of years, painstakingly raising itself from savagery, and erecting at last a pyramid, rotten, mostly crushing and oppressive, inefficient and often cruel. And then the first comet had come, and in an instant everything had changed—humanity had, for the first time, lost its selfish and competitive sickness, and had come together. Out of the ramshackle edifices and unplanned cities of the past we remade glorious and enduring monuments, glorious conurbations, drawn on the untapped potential of the species to advance science and technology. And now this second comet had come, and all that was cast onto the waste-heap of posterity, blasted and destroyed. How could it be? How was it fair?

But this was childish of me: for no obligation is laid upon the universe at large to be fair. Such was not the logic by which the planets orbit a star, or galaxies spin their millennial wheels. Had I believed in a God, as humanity did in the dark ages before, I might have railed against Him for His capriciousness. But all such superstition had passed from the world after the first comet came. There was no meaning to it. The dice of Reality had rolled and come up doubled-six, and now had rolled again—snake eyes I believe the phrase to be.

At night I would lie and listen. Beyond the hum of the machinery I could sometimes hear: rain stroking its million particles of freshness across the roof like unceasing applause. The hoots and moans of birds. From time to time the shrieking and howling of human beings—of what had once been human beings, bellowing like wolves. The French word loup is much more evocative of this sound than the English one. Long leashes of sound.

When I first came to the greenhouse I heard these ghastly sounds often; but the longer I stayed the less frequent they became.

Man preyed on man. Say (and as a musician I had, of course, been trained in mathematics) the population halved each night: all men Grendels chasing down and murdering their fellows, but out of each fighting pair only one survivor. Some hunts would be unsuccessful which would reduce the fraction below a half—but then again, I thought, some hunts would lead to fights in which both parties died, and that would bring the numbers back up. So: estimate a one half reduction each night. How many nights before the billions of human beings that populated our globe shrank to a mere handful? And, as I remembered from my own experience: without the intellect to care for themselves, and craving no food except other human flesh, those few left over by the cull would soon starve.

Soon, I calculated, I would be the only human left alive.

Then again, if I had stumbled into a sanctuary, then surely some others would too. But what could we do? To leave the greenhouse would be tantamount to putting a noose round my neck and leaping into the void. I spent a few days examining the machinery that maintained the greenhouse, to see if I might construct a radio and search the aether for other survivors: but I did not possess the necessary components, and was wary of tinkering too profoundly for fear of upsetting the automation that was preserving my life. And what good would it have done? A few scattered survivors, bleating their loneliness at one another across the waste and unforgiving curvature of a depopulation world? Better, surely, to stay as I was. Better perhaps just to die.

3. I Explore the Other Greenhouses

I subsisted on tomatoes and peppers, growing swiftly sick of them and craving something more proteinous—I chewed some of the green peaks of the grassier weeds, hoping they would be in some degree or another akin to wheat, though they were little alike. It was little enough, and played havoc with my digestion, turning my stool to slurry, but there was no helping it. There were some few insects in the Greenhouse with me (although not many, for my Utopian society had succeeded in growing plants naturally resistant to predation by the all insects and most segmentata) and there were, of course, worms to be dug out of the soil. For a long time I held out against the idea of eating such abject food, but eventually, my body craving something that my diet was not providing, I did. It was hardly pleasant, and that prompted me to think again of essaying some bold voyage of discovery to the other Greenhouses. Perhaps they had in them crops of potatoes!—how my mouth watered at the thought of such fare. Perhaps carrots! Cabbages, who knew?

The sounds of human depravity and cannibal savagery had so far diminished during my nights that I began to think the human world had by now deleted itself from the pages of all history—falling each upon each other’s necks, mauling and killing.

I resolved to do it. It was evident that covering the fifty yards between my greenhouse and its nearest neighbour could only be effected if I took not the merest sniff of the general global air. I did not think, as in retrospect I clearly should have done, what would have been the case had I arrived to find the second Greenhouse’s air filtration faulty. At any rate I prepared for my dash by practising holding my breath, hyperventilating to fill my blood with air (and marveling at how quickly I grew dizzy, and how long my held-breath lasted, in that oxygen-rich environment) and then sprinting up and down the aisles of my domicile. When I felt confident in my ability to cover ground without drawing breath, as per the game of kabaddhi poplar in my youth, I filled my lungs as deep as possible, clamped hand over mouth and stepped outside.

I took pains to close the door behind me, lest I needed to return, and then ran in a steady lope over the intervening ground to the next greenhouse. I was inside before I felt any urgent need to breathe again, and congratulated myself on what I had achieved. Alas, the crop in this new building was all tomatoes and red peppers too, and with the flush of success still on me I resolved immediately to run to the next Greenhouse.

This was also tomatoes and peppers, and so was the next one along, and I had almost decided to give up this game of chasing and scrambling from door to door if the next house were the same again when I noticed some new heavy fruit dangling down on a long creeper at the far end of the building in which I had just arrived. Intrigued I went down the aisle, approaching the strange and pendulous object. So little did I expect what I found that it was only when I came within the last few feet that I realised what it was.

The body of a man, hanging by its neck, its arms at its side. Its tongue was out, huge and dark, like an untucked shirt-tail, and its eyes were black as asphalt.

I started back, my terror less rational than it was superstitious and instinctual. And now that I understood what I was seeing I could smell the sickly odour of his flesh beginning to turn to putrefaction. I stepped back again, stumbled into the side of the aisle and fell backwards onto the tomato beds.

There was something hanging from the hanging man, a fold of paper tied with thread and attached to his tunic by a fastener. I picked myself up, stepped forward, took hold of this and retrieved it. Call me fool, or child, but I could not read this missive standing close beside the hanging corpse: I retreated to the furthest distant point the Greenhouse permitted me, sat on the ground, and read.

4. What the Letter Said

I know not, the letter said, who might read this; nor do I have hopes that any will. But suicide according to the old pre-Comet customs—so long superseded and done away with—called, the surviving literature from that time suggest, for a note, and having no other pressing duties to prevent me writing something, I am content to produce one,

When the second comet came and reversed all the goodness that had been worked by the first, there were three of us in this Greenhouse, having worked our way along from site to site. Our duties completed, and all unwitting of the change that had been effected without, Gaston and Hetheridge went before me to walk on to the next facility, I staying behind upon some trifling matter of maintenance. This being completed, I walked to the exit door, and was stopped by hearing a strange noise of scuffle and distress, a bestial commotion of raised voices. Looking through the glass walls I saw, with a horror and disgust I cannot put into words, Hetheridge murdering Gaston, tearing chunks of flesh from his still living body in a spray of blood and loud dissonant howls of pain—and all the time, Gaston struggling and biting at his adversary, attempting to do the same to him. When Hetheridge had finished his hideous, Bosch-like and infernal assault, and Gaston lay lifeless on the ground, he turned, saw my face through the glass and ran directly at me as a rabid dog might—wholly unrealising, it seemed, that a transparent barrier stood between us. He collided against the glass wall with tremendous force, and fell back temporarily stunned. And now the worst portion of the entire horrifying episode—for Gaston was not dead, only mauled and dismembered in the most distressing way. Heedless of his terrible injury, he dragged himself over the turf until he reached the fallen body of Hetheridge and—I shudder to write the words—tore the supine body’s throat out with his bare teeth like a wolf. He feasted for a short time, but his own wounds were too extreme, and eventually he too lay still.

I shrank from the window, hid in the lavatory as the only place of refuge that occurred to me. I was shaking with terror and with a kind of profound revulsion. I knew immediately that something dire had happened—I knew this was more than merely a sudden and coincidental psychotic aberration. I gathered myself to test my knowledge, for such is the essence of the scientist—but opening the front door of the greenhouse by the merest crack, and sniffing the air outside only a little, all but collapsed my mind into bestial savagery. The first comet had altered our atmosphere, and made us better people. This second comet had evidently altered it again and made us much, much worse.

And you, whoever you are, reading my final testimony—there is one thing it is most important you understand: my partner, and the love of my life, is as astronomer. She monitored the coming of the first comet (although in those bad old days the fact that she was a women excluded her from the best equipment and professional astronomical positions). She has monitored the coming of this second one. She told me many times that the prodigious benignity of that original comet’s arrival rendered us curiously incurious about its provenance. Why interrogate such a question, when its coming had proved so beneficial to us all? Or, she whispered to me, was that one avenue of incuriousness
also part of the admixture of chemicals, the neurological or genetic defabrictors, or whatever the agent was that so changed the world? She grew suspicious. “We must not call it comet”, she said to me. “Comets, we now know, are balls of dirty ice, their tails the blasting of sublimed water vapour under the pressure emitted by the solar wind—blowing those tails back like windsocks. The comet that changed our world was a much more gaseous nebula, and it possessed two tails, a fact of which many are unaware since neither could be seen, because both were foreshortened as we looked up at the phenomenon: one was trailing directly towards us, and the other trailing directly away. But as my partner says, no comet ever observed has manifested such a thing.

I said to her: and what does this tell you about the comet—the comet that you say I should not call comet?

And she replied: that these tails are not being blown back by the solar wind, but rather emitted from the object itself.

And I said: but what does
that mean?

And she said: only that the object is being
steered towards us. The jet projected from the far side of the object is its propellant, and its orientation must mean that the object has been directly aimed at us. The jet angled towards us is an equal but opposite jet-force, designed to slow the object during its final approach.

As she said
aimed the whole truth of the matter came clattering home to me. This first comet, as we called it, was sent by intelligences—doubtless intelligences greater than ours, though surely as mortal, and alien—implacably other and alien. My love and I discussed often why these mysterious extramundials should have been moved to act as such notable benefactors to humanity. It was her good nature that spoke in her theory, that superior evolutionary advancement must lead to superior ethical wisdom and kindness. She monitored the coming of the second comet and speculated what new virtue it would bring to humankind.

And now we see the truth.

I have pondered long, in my lonely sojourn here, as to their motivations—those They, faceless and mysterious creatures of the outer cosmic wastes. This is my conclusion: that they sent the first comet (for so I still call it) to alter us so that we should cleanse the world, and improve it. So that we should tear down our shanties and slums and rebuild gleaming cities of light and splendour. So that we should mop up our pollutions and beautify again the wild spaces of the planet. And when we had done all these things, and rendered our planet a paradise—why, then they sent the second comet, and again altered us, such that in a short space we should retreat to the woodlands and tear ourselves, literally, bloodily, to pieces. And afterwards they will come and take possession of the beautiful homes and fine facilities, and walk the levelly and cleanly paved streets, and breath the sweet air, and enjoy this world as theirs, that we have prepared for them.

Infinitely less laborious for them, such a stratagem, than fitting-out our world themselves. By tweaking out minds with a carefully prepared cocktail of neurological activators, they handle us—as a beekeeper handles bees to steal their honey. And now They want us out of the way, disposed of, removed, such that they can come here and occupy the world they covet, unmolested by its aboriginal population.

As for me—I have spent the last few days watching furtively through the windows of this Greenhouse, and seeing, from time to time, what humanity has been reduced to: feral monsters tearing one at another with their very teeth. I have seen this carnage happen, in among the trees and on the edge of the forest, with my own eyes. And the worst of it is I know that my beloved is now such a beast—if, indeed, she still lives, which is unlikely. And
that is the knowledge, more than anything, that propels me to this action. If another human being reads this, then I beg you: pity me. And if one of the Others discovers and deciphers it, makes some sense from what must be, to Them, alien sigils and hieroglyphs, then I only say: the people whose brains you poisoned, first to make them build a better world, and then to make them murder one another and leave it blank for your coming—those creatures were living and feeling and thinking beings, each one a whole universe of love and hope, and you have annihilated them with remote and cruel wickedness. I only pray that Cosmic Providence bring some Karma upon—but I lack even the energy to write a sentence motivated by resentment and despair, and grounded in no truth. It is enough, Or too much. Goodbye.

3. They Come

I could not stay in that corpse-hung place. I fled, holding my breath, to the next greenhouse along, and sat, the sight and stench of where I had come from lingering with me. And the strangest thing of all is that—for a time—I felt a sensation akin to relief. I can hardly explain it, except that perhaps it speaks to the sense that what I had taken to be mere random cosmic ill-luck was revealed as having purpose behind it, and that human beings are so constituted as to find purpose, even an evil purpose, more bearable than pure randomness.

But despair soon threatened me again. I took the dead man’s stylo and, now, in this place, I have found some paper and over the last few days I have written this brief account of my time. And all the while the image of his motionless dangling body has hovered before me, urging me like the Nightmare Life-in-Death, to imitate his desperate action and end my life.

I shall never leave this place.

At night I put out the lights, no longer because I fear I might attract the attention of feral humanity, for surely now all human beings on the planet are dead; but so as to allow me to see more clearly through the glass. I watch the skies, night after night. When I began, in my fit-and-start manner, to write this account there was little enough to see, but clouds, and the moon, and the immemorial spread of bright stardots against the velvet cold. But latterly there have been motions in the firmament. Three days ago I would have called these motions meteors, or aurorae, or perhaps some magnetic atmospheric manifestation. Tonight, though, as I sit in the lavatory, writing these words by the light of this room, it is clear what these lights are. I watched moments ago, and as I watched they coalesced into structures, and those structures sank through the darkness towards the Earth. I saw a great palace of brightness, coloured white and shining green with an undertint of glowing deep blue—saw it descend and settle onto the ground over behind the wood.

They are here—and—