The Si­lence

Sci­en­tists ex­plor­ing a cave sys­tem have re­leased a horde of blind, car­niv­o­rous crea­tures that hunt by sound.

SFX - - Promotion - by Tim Leb­bon

Deaf teenager Ally and her fam­ily are flee­ing to the coun­try, hop­ing that iso­la­tion from other hu­mans – and the noise they make – will save them…

Vesps,” I whis­pered. “Mum, Dad… vesps!” I pointed across the hill­side in the di­rec­tion of the dis­tant, traf­fic- clogged road. Smoke still rose from sev­eral burning ve­hi­cles, and the mil­i­tary road­block re­mained in place. I squinted, won­der­ing if I was wrong and had sim­ply imag­ined the worst when I saw a cloud of specks in the sky. But then I saw move­ment on the ground, start­ing at the top of the slope where the road ap­peared over the hill­side.

Peo­ple were run­ning. They flowed down­hill past parked ve­hi­cles and the hedges lining the road. Maybe they’re scream­ing, I thought, hop­ing against hope that they were not.

In the air above and around them the pale shapes flew. They flit­ted and swirled, spi­ralling above the road, drop­ping and ris­ing again. Peo­ple tripped and were im­me­di­ately smoth­ered in vesps. Some fled into the fields, leav­ing their cars and loved ones be­hind. The crea­tures darted af­ter them, swerv­ing back and forth be­fore closing in and land­ing on their tar­gets.

The flicker of gun­fire— muzzle flashes, cough­ing smoke— erupted from among the mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles, and a cloud of crea­tures quickly con­verged on the road­block. I’m see­ing peo­ple die, I thought. I sensed move­ment be­side me and in­stinc­tively ducked, glanc­ing that way with a hand held up to ward off dan­ger. Dad was reach­ing for me. He held my hand and pulled me gen­tly to­wards the Jeep.

Mum, Jude and Lynne were al­ready in­side. As Dad climbed in be­hind them, I checked for Otis.

He was stand­ing half­way be­tween the Jeep and the rolled Land Rover, star­ing up­hill past the Jeep with his hack­les bristling, teeth bared. “Otis!” I whis­pered, and the dog leaped past me into the Jeep. Then we turned as one and looked back at the Land Rover. It was dif­fi­cult to see Glenn from this an­gle. I could just see his head and arm, the stark, dark shape of the shot­gun ly­ing be­side him, and the pud­dle of blood be­neath him on the up­turned ceil­ing. He was mo­tion­less. I hoped be­cause he knew what was hap­pen­ing.

Still look­ing out­side, I reached over and grabbed some­one’s hand. I wasn’t sure whose it was. Mum and Dad were in the front seats; me, Jude and Lynne were in the back, and Otis had jumped over into the boot, al­ready used to trav­el­ling there.

The vesps came. There were not as many as I had ex­pected. Sev­eral flew by on the left a cou­ple of me­tres above the ground, cir­cling the Jeep and Land Rover and then mov­ing on.

They must have echolo­ca­tion, like bats, I thought, and it had never oc­curred to me be­fore. If they were blind and hunted by sound, they must also have a means to nav­i­gate, feel where they were go­ing.

And they were hor­ri­ble. The size of large kit­tens, leath­ery wings per­haps twice as long as their bod­ies, skins or hides a pale, sickly, slick yel­low, flow­ing tails like sev­eral split ten­ta­cles, the nubs of legs on their lower bod­ies, and teeth. I saw the teeth even as they flew by, be­cause they were bared. Small but glint­ing, their lips were drawn back like folds of skin, mouths ex­posed and ready to attack, eat. And what was worst about them was their un­nat­u­ral­ness. They sim­ply were not meant to be. They were like a child’s drawing of a mon­ster given life, all whimsy stripped away, only hor­ror and ug­li­ness left be­hind. They re­minded me of deep- sea fish, blind and ugly. I had al­ways ap­pre­ci­ated na­ture for what it re­ally was. But th­ese things… They had shat­tered the nat­u­ral bal­ance. A mu­ta­tion. A plague. A vesp whis­pered along the side of the Jeep, larger than the

oth­ers. Per­haps the first few I’d seen had been in­fants, but this was clearly an adult. Its trail­ing wing left a moist smear across the win­dows, and Otis bared his teeth.

I touched his head and whis­pered, very softly, “Otis, no.” I could feel the rum­ble of a growl be­neath my hand, and I glanced around at the oth­ers.

They stared, wide- eyed and ter­ri­fied. Jude was cry­ing. Mum held the shot­gun point­ing up­wards.

Dad was look­ing past me at the dog, and when he caught my eye he mouthed, “Keep him quiet!”

I reached over into the boot and gen­tly, slowly, hugged Otis to me. He re­sisted at first, then leaned into my em­brace. I felt the growl rum­bling deep within him, but his teeth were no longer bared.

Some­thing hit the Jeep. I felt the im­pact and glanced up in time to see the slick smears on the back win­dow. Three or four more vesps landed there, those strange ten­ta­cles on their ab­domens squirm­ing for pur­chase against the glass. Then they fell and flew away.

It was like the be­gin­ning of a snow­storm. Across the hill­side the vesps drifted down from up­hill, glid­ing back and forth, dodg­ing rocky out­crop­pings and trees. I saw some catch­ing birds in flight, sud­denly mim­ick­ing the singing birds’ flight pat­terns be­fore pluck­ing them from the air.

One of them drifted close and gen­tly struck the win­dow close to Otis’s nose.

The dog started bark­ing. “Otis, no, Otis, no!” I whis­pered, but it was too late, and it was as if Otis had be­come sense­less to ev­ery­thing but the vesps. He nudged for­ward be­tween barks, butting the glass and the crea­ture that clung to the other side. Its wings flapped rapidly, ten­ta­cles slick­ing down the win­dow be­fore find­ing some pur­chase be­low. Then its body seemed to tighten and flex as mus­cles held it taut, and the an­i­mal’s teeth scratched at the glass, scor­ing it deeply. Other vesps came.

Dad grabbed my shoul­der and pulled me around. “Make him stop!” he said, and I saw how scared ev­ery­one was. Jude had crawled into Mum’s front seat, and Lynne sat back with her hands to her mouth. Be­hind her, three vesps struck her win­dow and started scrap­ing.

I pulled Otis to­wards me and leaned into the back seat, press­ing my mouth to his ear and say­ing, “Otis, no!” I in­jected as much com­mand as I could into my voice.

The dog pulled away and jumped at the rear win­dow where sev­eral vesps were now at­tached. I could just see past the crea­tures as­sault­ing the Jeep, and across the hill­side oth­ers were streak­ing to­wards us. They must re­lease a sig­nal, like bees, I thought.

“Otis, please!” I said. But the dog was both ex­cited and ter­ri­fied. His hack­les were raised, his eyes di­lated, and he leaped at the win­dows where vesps were at­tached. They scraped and scored with their ugly teeth, and in sev­eral places the glass was ob­scured by deep scratches. I could not imag­ine any­thing chew­ing their way into a car. It was im­pos­si­ble, wasn’t it?

It de­pended on how long they stayed. And how long they would re­mem­ber the noise, when and if I even­tu­ally made Otis stop.

Some­thing hap­pened. I felt the ten­sion in the Jeep shift. Ev­ery­one turned their heads as one to look down­hill at the Land Rover, and sev­eral vesps dropped from the win­dows and darted that way. The glass was smeared with their se­cre­tions and clouded where they’d been scratch­ing with their teeth, but it was clear that the Land Rover had now be­come a newer, more at­trac­tive tar­get.

“What hap­pened?” I whis­pered. There were only a few vesps left on the Jeep now, and Otis stood pant­ing, no longer bark­ing. “Glenn,” Lynne mouthed to me, and then I knew. “Oh, no,” I whis­pered. Mum and Dad were pressed to the wind­screen. Past them, I could see vesps con­verg­ing on the Land Rover from all di­rec­tions. Many of them landed on the up­turned chas­sis and crawled across it, their move­ments awk­ward. It seemed they only had grace in the air. Oth­ers dropped to the ground close by and hob­bled for­wards, while some flew straight into the ve­hi­cle’s in­te­rior through the smashed win­dows.

The shat­tered driver’s win­dow faced up­hill, and in mo­ments it was a squirm­ing, pale yel­low mass of vesps.

A mess of blood­ied parts and smoke blasted out­ward, smok­ing flesh pat­ter­ing across the grass. But the gap made in the crowd of vesps soon filled again. “What did he do?” I whis­pered. “Shot­gun,” Mum signed. “Now he’s shout­ing.” “Still?” But no one an­swered that. Lynne at­tempted to reach for­ward and cover Jude’s eyes, but he shook her off and she did not try again. To find out what hap­pens next, pick up The Si­lence, out now from Ti­tan Books ( RRP £ 7.99). Ebook also avail­able. www.ti­tan­

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