A dozen steps took me into a cave-like hollow, the cellar of a decimated house or shop. The source of the light was a lamp set on top of a large box. In front of this was a small man who leant wearily on a red-handled umbrella. He was clean, well-dressed – an apparition that did not belong in my ruined, dying world. He turned to me, and in the dim, intermittent light I saw a great sadness in his eyes.
‘I am sorry,’ he said, ‘I cannot help you. I have come too late again.’
He brushed past me to the foot of the stairs and stood there listening to the confusion above: the relentless, merciless slaughter of humanity.
‘I arrived too late at New Persia and Landfall and I am too late now,’ he murmured. ‘I must go. I must go on.’
But he remained standing and listening. I crept up to him, impressed by his stillness, his lack of fear. I leant against him, my head just reaching his shoulder. So we stood for what seemed an age to me who had been running so long, but which in truth was perhaps no more than fifteen minutes, until all fell silent. Then the stranger ascended the stairs and I followed him.
The ground now was littered with corpses: skeletons pinkly veneered with blood and cocooned in clothing.
‘Too late, too late,’ the stranger repeated, and then he turned to me. ‘Have you ever seen your enemy? The Thlaarx? These creatures you call the Hooded Ones?’
I shook my head.
‘They are invertebrates,’ he said, ‘bulbous, bloated beings, composed mainly of mouth and stomach. Each person who lies here now was devoured by a Thlaarx in seconds; their flesh sucked off, their innards slurped down and the refuse discarded in the same unfeeling way you might consume an oyster.’
He stepped a few feet further into the field of desolation, picking his way between the skeletons. He gazed into the distance, muttering to himself.
‘I know it is in their nature to feed like this,’ I heard him say. ‘I know they are constantly, ravenously hungry and scavengers now their world is gone. But to feed on intelligent life, to destroy civilizations…’
To me he said: ‘Well, my young survivor, you had better come with me. Indeed, you must. Whatever the cost, the Thlaarx must be stopped and I realise now there is only one way it can be done.’
The stranger hunched himself over, his hands resting on his umbrella, and he peered intently into my eyes.
‘I need you to look around you,’ he said. ‘Yes, at all this horror. I need you to take it all in and not forget it.’
Taking me by the shoulders, he turned me about. I could not avoid the empty eye sockets of the fallen. I saw the twisted flailing of stick-like limbs, crumpled clothing over fleshless forms, strands of hair clinging to clots of blood on skulls. I heard the chirping and pecking of birds as they picked over bones. Disgusted and furious, I shook myself free of the stranger’s grip and kicked out at a corpse near my feet. Its lower jaw fell open and it seemed to laugh at me.
‘Come on,’ said the stranger, and he descended the stairs again. I followed. Back in the safe semi-darkness, I found my voice at last.
‘Who are you?’ I stammered.
‘I’m sorry, I’m forgetting my manners.’
The stranger raised a short-brimmed hat and gave a little bow.
‘I am the Doctor,’ he said.
‘The Doctor,’ I repeated. I raised a bleeding knee for his inspection and showed him the scrapes and scratches on my arms.
‘I’m not really that kind of doctor,’ he smiled. ‘But I’ll put something on those abrasions to help them heal. And what is your name?’
I told him.
‘Well, come along with me, Zeris,’ he said. ‘Come inside. This is my home.’
He unlocked the door of the flashing box and ushered me inside.