If you awoke to find that humankind had been annihilated, could you survive?
John’s dreams have crumbled. A global corporation, CRYO, kidnapped him, froze him and sent him to the future, only to fade into history as he slept. Now, John and his podmates are in a new and strange world that’s far from anything they’ve ever known.
With a strange creature having cut their already dwindled numbers, the fight for survival has begun. There’s already discontent amongst the small group of survivors. And, as John heads out into the unknown with a small splinter group, there’s just one question; what will he find?
New Beginnings (Chapter 1)
“Out the way,” Tone gasped as he pushed his way past where John and Anne were sitting and disappeared into the forest behind them. The small agouti that Viktor had finally managed to catch, seemed to have been left a little too long in the sun for some stomachs. They’d roasted the thing well or, as Franz had jovially put, “Burned the bugger to a crisp.” John’s iron gut had easily dealt with its first taste of real meat in decades. Others, however, including Tone, Natalia, Nathan and Viktor, hadn’t fared quite as well, and the group had no choice but to make camp for the night whilst the foursome took turns finding new patches in the jungle to soil.
“Thank God we’re okay,” John said ruefully towards Anne, not wanting to revel in others discomfort but truly happy he wasn’t in their condition. Toilet paper had always been a luxury in their post-CRYO world, but for the group of adventurers who only had a couple of rolls stashed amongst their limited cargo, there certainly wasn’t enough for Tone and the others to have a limitless supply.
Anne sighed happily at John’s side, and he looked down to where her feet hung off the side of the riverbank into the cool water beneath. It was more of a shallow stream than a river, the undulating stony bed creating pools as deep to the waist. In other areas, the slow current of water barely covered their ankles. It was crystal clear, and John watched as a small shoal of fish, each individual about the size of a finger, twisted and turned as if they were one. They’d come to Anne’s feet and nibble at her toes for a few minutes, before being caught in the current and heading upstream. But within moments they’d be back, gnawing and sucking at her skin.
“Is that safe?”
“They’re fish, John,” Anne smiled as if she was looking upon the world with new eyes. Out of all of them, it was she who truly seemed to thrive amongst this changed land. “You should try; it’s great, and quite soothing. I can feel little mouths munching on the decay of my old skin.” Her eyes grew wide and she pushed her gaze back to her feet as if she were a schoolgirl in complete awe of a new toy.
John slipped off his shoes and dropped his legs over the side of the bank, taking a relaxed breath as he felt the water cool his clammy, hot feet. The movement caused a ripple on the surface, and the shoal of fish flicked away across the stream, frightened off by this sudden new addition to their world. But soon they were back, nibbling at John’s feet too, now that they were dangling into the underwater realm. It was an odd feeling, but Anne was right; extremely relaxing.
“We’re out of wipes,” Tone said with a sense of dread as he emerged through the thick vegetation at the stream side. The shrubbery was greener and denser here than deeper in the jungle where less light penetrated. “If I ever have the urge to eat rodent again, stop me. Please.” His face was pale, tired by the lack of sleep, drawn by the effects of bad food upon his body. He sank down beside John heavily and pulled a rehydration mineral block from his pocket, tore the packaging off and nibbled cautiously on the end. “Ain’t got many of these left either,” he muttered, increasing his bite so that a small pink lump cracked into his mouth. “You know that some virus was spread back at the beginning of last century by doing that?” He nodded towards where the shoal of fish were increasingly picking at John’s pale pink toes. John quickly withdrew his feet to the surface.
“Ignore him,” Anne said as she rolled her eyes. “Tone likes to see the darkest side of this wonderful world. It’s beyond me why he ever emerged from his pod at all.” There was the hint of a grin at the corner of her mouth. “Always the pessimist, Tone,” she added without looking back.
“Realistic and aware, more like. I was right about CRYO, wasn’t I? For all the good it did us.”
John had to admit that if there was one thing Tone was right about, it was that. During John’s first night at the CRYO’s headquarters, he’d been locked into his room because of some unseen incident. Most of the cryonics candidates had been completely ignorant of what was going on, but outside John’s door, he’d heard Tone running along the corridor and heard the man crying out that the corporation was up to something. Of course, John hadn’t found out exactly what they were up to until he’d been on the brink of leaving the program, at which point he’d been drugged, cryonically frozen against his will and then awoken in his new world. The CRYO facility where they’d awoken, The Phoenix Station, was abandoned. An entire room of their pod-mates were dead; the power to their tubes having shut down, allowing then to slowly thaw and experience a horrendous death. And then Agnes, his nemesis and a power-hungry bitch, had seized complete control over the few souls left. She was the reason he’d left the facility behind and was now adventuring into the wilderness without any idea of what they’d find.
“It seems so long ago now,” John said, thinking back to when the world around him had been a bright, technologically driven one. An Earth where as long as everything was glossy, and wonderful, and clean, there was no mention of the planet’s ongoing decay and imminent death.
“It is a long time ago. God knows how long,” Tone said, picking up a stone and throwing it into the water with a plop so that the fish around Anne’s toes dashed off to the other side of the stream once again. “Whatever world we once knew is long gone.”
“You really think that?”
John looked around and saw that the harsh Russian voice came from Natalia, the youngest of the group. There was a sad look upon her face that said all he needed to know, and John got to his feet and put his hand gently on her shoulder.
“Cheer up. We don’t know anything yet, not until we’ve ventured a little farther. Though, I think it’s safe to say that whatever is waiting, it isn’t what most of us were once expecting. We’ve certainly travelled well past the fifty years we were supposed to.”
“Yeah,” she said glumly, letting her head rest against John’s side.
“God your hair grows quick.” John was looking down at the top of Natalia’s head, and he realised that the girl’s baldness had practically disappeared beneath a mop of blonde hair.
“You should see yourself,” she replied, and John put a hand to where his own head had been even more hairless than on the day he’d been born. She was right; where once his post-cryonics baldness had stripped his individuality, stubble was now thick under his fingers. The metallic plug in the back of his head where the machine cables had retracted was still there, but that was something he’d become used to now. He looked around to Tone and Anne and realised that they too were transforming from the pale, hairless pod creatures back into humans. He hadn’t known them before the freeze and John realised that he had no idea what either of them looked like with a full head of hair. He thought of Evie’s long and violently red locks, and about how she’d been almost unrecognisable when they’d slithered out of their pods. It had only been a couple of days since they’d left Phoenix Station, since they’d set out on their own, but he already missed her. How he wished she’d come with them and left the ties of Agnes behind. “There’s no future for you”. Those had been her words to him as he’d stepped into the lift and whooshed towards the surface. A last plea for him to stay. But John truly believed there was no future locked in that station either, not in the long-term.
“We ought to make a move soon,” Tone said as he lethargically hauled himself upright. “We’ve barely made it beyond the perimeter of our previous trails. If we’re really going to do this and venture into the unknown, we need to keep going.” He leant an arm to Anne as she reached out, and helped her pull away from the water leaving the fish in search of something new to nibble.
“He’s right. I want to discover more about this place. There’s something about these trees that fill my spirit. I’ve never felt so invigorated.”
“Lucky for some. I was thinking more about the limited supplies we have.”
“Pshhh,” Anne replied to Tone’s concern. “There’s more than enough in this forest to keep us alive as long as you know where to look for it. Though, perhaps agouti’s off the menu for a while.” She nudged Tone’s arm gently. “I’ll go and see if Viktor’s ready. Say, about twenty minutes?”
The group nodded to one another, and John left Natalia and Tone by the stream as he pushed his way through a thorny bush and immersed himself in the forest again. It was alive with life, far more than he’d ever imagined. He’d grown up in a place of towering skyscrapers, disinfected buildings, hydroponically grown food and the odd chirping from a carefully controlled skydome bird population. Here, amongst a completely wild forest, there was more of an abundance of life than John had ever thought possible. Above him the familiar whistling of a very distinctive bird sounded, and he looked up, scanning the canopy for signs of movement. Despite the plethora of creatures around him, everything seemed extremely well adapt at camouflage. Anne saw things everywhere; caught the fleeting whir of hummingbird wings, or noticed the rustle of something small underfoot. John was always far too late, or blind. Though he’d heard this bird on a daily basis, he had yet to spy the winged creature from which the melody came from.
“Franz, we’re on the move,” John said as he added to the cacophony of sounds around him. He stepped over a large fallen log and spied the enormous roots of the towering tree ahead against which he’d left the slumbering trio of Franz, Amity and Nathan. His friend and companion looked up from where he was slumped against the tree and sweating profusely.
“Almost ready. Help me up, would you? Nathan’s making me a staff. I won’t hold you up, don’t you worry.”
“I never said that,” John replied as he helped Franz to his feet and looked across to where Nathan had a sturdy branch in his hands. He was using a portable laser saw to strip the extra twigs, the buzzing growing intense each time it severed material from the main stem. “Where did you get that?”
“Evie smuggled it out to us,” Nathan replied without looking up from his work. “Agnes was stockpiling anything she deemed a weapon. There were a few of these in the lab next to the biodome and Evie doctored the stock inventory. She got us all sorts.”
“I’ll say,” Franz said secretively, reminding John of the fact that she’d also secretively passed Franz some digitally integrated contact lenses to prevent him stumbling around like a blind idiot. John looked back to Nathan and saw the tool glide straight through one of the thicker side-shoots on the branch. The saw looked like a hacksaw, though where the serrated edge of a blade should be there was a thin red line instead. It made easy work of the branch, as if Nathan was slicing butter with a warm knife, and within moments he passed the staff across to Franz. Franz tested it carefully, leaning his weight against it and taking a few paces. Seemingly happy that the branch wasn’t going to bend and snap under his bulk, he smiled thankfully and reached down to hoist a rucksack onto his back.
“Oh no, you don’t,” a soft French voice spoke from behind the tree. Amity appeared with a stern look upon her face and Franz immediately uncurled his fingers from the pack’s handle as if he were a guilty schoolchild caught by the headmistress. “You ‘ave to take more care, Franz,” she said as she scrambled over a root towards him. “If you pull those stitches out, the skin grid complex will not stay in place.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Franz replied. “I just want to be helpful. Don’t forget, I worked in the medical field, remember?”
“Franz,” Amity said in her continued strict tone, “You were in drug distribution. I hardly think that qualifies you to be making healthcare decisions. You’re more helpful staying alive than ripping those stitches and lettin’ your guts spill to the ground.”
“Quite right,” John agreed as he hoisted the backpack onto his shoulders. “I’ll take this and you just concentrate on walking.”
He knew Franz was putting on a brave face for the sake of the group. As if matters hadn’t been difficult enough, several weeks ago a strange, alien creature had ventured into their camp and wounded Franz with an explosive dart. He’d been one of the lucky ones, though. Several others had been killed as the innocent looking weapons had torn through their flesh. Following the incident, Franz had been too weak, and too vulnerable to join them on their journey. And, much to John’s disappointment, they’d had to leave without him. Or so he’d thought; in Franz’s attempt to follow them, he’d alerted Agnes and the others to their plight and as a result, the group almost hadn’t gotten away. If there was one thing John knew about Franz, it was that he was still feeling extremely guilty. Even if he was in a great deal of pain, he’d never reveal his burdens to the rest of them.
“Deal,” Franz muttered as the group turned back to the stream. John saw relief on his face, followed by a grimace as he stepped forwards and bore as much weight on the cane as possible. If scrabbling through the rainforest was tough for them, it seemed it was like climbing a mountain for Franz.
Back at the stream, Viktor had joined the group so that all eight members of the rogue CRYO candidates were accounted for. They were an odd crew; five men, three women, all thin and pale. Even the colour of Nathan’s darker skin seemed anaemic. But compared to when they’d first slid out of their watery cryonics tubes, they were far more muscular and fit. Back then, no one would have thought the emaciated, weak and hairless creatures they’d been would have ever survived.
John put a hand up to scratch his head and felt the hard circular metal plug in his skull where the cryonic tube hoses had been pulled away. It was a constant reminder to each and every one of them that they weren’t from this world. That they’d been unceremoniously ripped from their former lives. It had all seemed like such fun back then, the chance to live a dream. Reality was starkly different.
“You don’t have to keep me company,” Franz said apologetically as the group moved off and began to trace the stream through the landscape. It seemed the obvious choice; follow the current and see where it flowed. It also helped that, when coming across obstacles on the bank, they could simply slide into the water and wade their way past whatever was in their way.
“I want to,” John said as the group of eight gradually spread out, Tone and Amity taking the lead, content in their silence. “I feel horrible that we left you, that I left you.”
“You didn’t have a choice. I understand, honestly…now that we’re out here, more than ever. I just couldn’t bear to be left with trotters. She hated me.”
“Only by association,” John acknowledged as he watched Anne ahead. She’d seen something in the undergrowth, and with one arm affectionately thrown around Viktor’s waist, she was pointing towards a clump of foliage. She smiled and laughed excitedly, before moving off, and when it came time for John and Franz to pass the spot, he saw that the leaves she’d been gazing at were covered in dozens of brightly coloured caterpillars. They were munching through the foliage with speed, rushing towards a finish line that would thrust them into airborne life.
“Franz, let’s be honest. She hated me, not you. As soon as I was gone she’d have probably lured you into her fold along with everyone else.”
“You think I’m that easily led…”
“You’re out here aren’t you?”
Franz chuckled, a knowing smile passing over this face. “Well, better to be led by a leader than a power-hungry bitch with her eyes firmly on authoritarian rule.”
“You got that right. What do you think of them?” John nodded his head towards where Anne and Viktor were still entwined. She was almost twice his age, yet he didn’t seem to care.
“Now, now, John. Just because we’re at the back doesn’t mean we have the right to gossip. Still, it does pass the time. I think it’s nice. Makes you think, though, doesn’t it? About those left behind.”
“Yeah,” John said sadly, remembering Kath’s face. The one true friend who’d pulled him from the grief of his wife’s death. The incredibly beautiful best friend who’d bedded him after a drunken night. The woman his mother hated, and who, he’d found out in CRYO’s post-cryonics recordings, was – had been – carrying his child. “You think they’re still out there somewhere?” He caught himself echoing Natalia’s previous thoughts, despite already knowing the answer. Everyone was already gone; he was almost certain. But, there was hope for Kath. She’d said she was looking into an alternate cryonics program. Was she still out there somewhere in a tube, blissfully unaware of what was happening?
“I hope they’re out there,” Franz said, gasping momentarily as he stumbled over a root. John reached out and grabbed him before he fell, ensuring that he was okay before they continued. “But in all honesty, I don’t think they are. I mean, look at the state of the station. And the fact that Kilean, the head of the CRYO program, was in there…dead. I mean, it’s one thing for a facility to be long forgotten, but for someone as wealthy and powerful as she was, to be mummified down there? It doesn’t make sense. And then there’s all of this….” He looked around at the forest they were walking through. “This is supposed to be the Nevada Desert for God’s sake.”John fell silent, keenly aware that Franz’s concerns were correct. They hadn’t journeyed only fifty years into the future; of that he was sure. The forest around them, when taking the size and scale of the trees, was hundreds of years at a minimum. Despite the technologically advanced CRYO station, nothing had worked such was the length of time it had been out of use. They were extremely lucky to be alive at all given the decrepit state of the environment they’d woken too. There were no satellite, Internet or phone signals to be found even once they had got a few pieces of old equipment working. Equipment that, when John was first thrust into his frozen chamber, had been at the cutting edge of technological advancement. This group, his group, were right to leave the compounds of that station. To think of it as secure, as home, was naïve. With few rations, no communication, desperately scant resources, not to mention the sorrowful band of humans who had no idea what they were doing, there could be no hope for those who remained there.
Then there was the creature, the one thing that no one spoke of. It had been a small figure, only around four and a half feet in height. But it had come into their camp and killed seven of them within minutes using only darts. Explosive darts, but darts nonetheless. Seven of only 39 humans left alive on the planet. It had disappeared as quickly as it had come, and as far as he knew, it hadn’t reappeared. It wasn’t human; not unless mankind had devolved, shrunk and lost two fingers on each hand. It was something new to their planet, an invader. Dare he even think it; an alien.