They came in the night, wandering into the towns and cities with only the clothes on their backs. Their faces were utterly foreign, long and angular with piercing eyes. As they walked, they began to sing: a strange, ethereal sound that was unintelligible. The Enoch, they were called. The Others.
Seated atop my family’s apartment, the city crumbles below me.
Over the past thirteen years I’ve seen the organised streets give way to slums. Buildings and houses destroyed and replaced with teetering structures that seem to defy the basic laws of gravity. It is to cities such as this that humanity fled to sit knock-kneed and trembling, avidly repeating the mantra plastered on the walls of every block. The Enoch are out there.
Sighing, I lie back against the sun-warmed cement, no longer wanting to see the wreckage or the jagged patchwork metal wall that confines it all.
‘Viv, you up there?’
Without waiting for a response, she pulls herself up to join me. Briar. For all its connotations, her name suits her. She’s as tough as they come, all prickle and no rose. Most of her family died in an influenza outbreak a couple of years ago, but so far she’s managed to stop the housing commissioners seizing her family’s apartment below ours.
She stretches out beside me, basking in the sun.
‘So,’ she says after a moment.
‘But I haven’t even told you yet!’
‘It doesn’t matter, I know you. I’m not going to risk the limited freedom I have for whatever crazy scheme you’ve concocted.’
Propping herself up on an elbow she looks intently at me, a kind of manic excitement lighting her face.
‘But I scored us a couple of tickets to the Pit.’
The Pit. Otherwise known as the Underworld, a network of caves branching off the old underground train lines. They sprang up years ago, when fear started to give way to anger. The Government looks the other way because, honestly, the mob has to be abated. The Pit targets the hate, sharpening it into a weapon of revenge, despite the laws for peace within the city walls. As the blood pours the weapon dulls, and the mob quietens. It’s not exactly the most exclusive of rebel organisation; as long as you’ve got tickets they ask no questions. The tickets are hard to come by though, because every person who isn’t still shell-shocked with fear wants to see an Enoch die.
My worn boots slip against the mildewy steps descending down to the abandoned platform. Ahead, Briar walks confidently, her mop of thick auburn curls bouncing with each step. There’s a growing rumble of voices, screams and laughter ringing through the tunnel entrances. Together, we jump down onto the tracks, the gravel crunching painfully beneath my feet.
‘You girls got tickets?’
Two men have stepped forward from the shadows, each guarding an opposite side of the curtained passage. Lights flicker through the fabric, revealing the crimson red that had almost faded into nothingness.
‘Sure thing,’ Briar says with a broad grin, handing over two large silver coins.
Even before the Appearance, physical currency had been disbanded, all money exchanges occurring online. The government called for a mass turn-in of all notes and coins, but there’s still some floating around, usually used for these kinds of back-alley deals.
Slipping them into his pocket, the guard pulls back the curtain. Stepping through, we are immediately caught up in the tide of people. Hands linked, Briar and I move through the mob, dodging flailing elbows and sleazy leers. Those I can handle easily if necessary. I’m short, but a knee to the crotch never fails.
The anticipation of the crowd is as palpable as the stench, a nasty mixture of blood and sweat. People spill over one another, trying to move further into the room, trampling those who fall to the ground. Through the press I catch a glimpse of the arena, a snatch of rusted metal and cropped blond hair. Excitement rises up in my chest, the infectious atmosphere of the room settling over me. Pressed between these writhing bodies there is no room for fear, and as each person joins the crowd there is a growing sense of power. Here, at least, we are in control. I flash a smile over my shoulder at Briar, her eyes lit with the same kind of manic spark as those around us, her skin flushed and streaked with dirt. I pull her forward, pushing through the mob until we’re pinned against the railing circling the rink.
Standing in the arena of dirt, sand and blood stains are two figures. Closest to Briar and me is a thick-set man, tall and muscled with a thatch of short blond hair. From his clothes, a motley ensemble of material covered in grease, I’m guessing he’s a factory worker. As I take in these details, I’m drawn to the crowd’s focus, the other figure. The one that is distinctly not human.
My breath seizes, a painful mixture of terror, curiosity and anger swirling through my gut and piercing into my bloodstream. It burns through my thoughts, leaving behind only the single coherent message the crowd is roaring: you are not one of us.
There’s no denying it, there’s something about them that screams otherworldliness. The minor differences in an otherwise identical structure. Staring at him now, taking in his sharp face half-hidden behind his hair, I realise they’re partly so terrifying because they are so similar to us. Just more … evolved.
With their large numbers, sudden arrival and unnerving resemblance, humanity reacted like our predator had arrived, burrowing down and seeking safety in numbers.
His body is just as angular as his face, his shoulders jutting out harshly from his torso. His clothes, or what’s left of them, are ripped and stained, revealing a pattern of bruises and scrapes across his abdomen. I gasp, the fire in my chest abating slightly. You could play the xylophone on those ribs. In that instant, he raises his head, and through blood-matted dark hair, our eyes meet. Black to green. His filled with the hostility and the despair of eons, mine a single question: Who are you?
‘Are you all ready?’ A voice breaks through, demolishing that microsecond of contact. The anticipation of the crowd swallows me once more. We yell back, a fierce affirmative.
A harsh laugh. ‘That’s what I thought.’
I trace the voice back to an oily-haired woman sitting astride the arena railing opposite me, holding a battered megaphone.
‘And lookie here, we’ve got a freshly caught specimen for you, straight from the Ghost Zone!’
We all scream and hoot back at her, the noise reverberating around the cavern, gaining velocity with each echo. I’ve been swept up, that spark of resentment that’s lived in my chest since we were forced to abandon our lives, our homes, stoked to flame.
‘Let’s do this then! Fighting for humanity: we’ve got Aaron Wells, versus the alien spawn. You all know the rules, folks. No weapons, no interference, and victor takes all. This is a fight to the death people, so if you’re gonna vomit, do it in the corner.’ She pauses as raucous laughter spills from the crowd, ‘Now let’s see if this alien bleeds red!’ With that, she throws a black cloth into the pit, and the fight begins.
Wells lunges forward, his fist arching around and striking the Enoch’s jaw, sending him stumbling back, spitting up blood. We’re all cheering and egging Wells on, our voices drowning out the woman’s commentary.
‘Come on!’ Wells shouts at the Enoch, who’s smeared the blood across his face. ‘Fight me, you invading scum.’
The Enoch’s silence only seems to enrage Wells further, so he attacks again, this time tackling him to the ground and hammering him across the face and chest. All his compressed anger and spite is unleashed in a tirade of unskilled violence.
We’re watching the scene avidly. Waiting, just waiting for the death blow. Someone has begun beating against the railing, a rhythmic drumming that’s caught up by the rest of the audience, our feet banging against the packed-down earth like a pulse. We’re counting the seconds, it’s about to happen, justice served. The Enoch isn’t even fighting back, he’s just taking the beating without a struggle.
That thought breaks through the burning haze, my heart slowing; the beat staggering.
‘Why isn’t he fighting?’ My voice is barely audible, and even Briar, wild-eyed and cheering right next to me, doesn’t hear.
The Enoch has curled up on himself, eyes crushed shut, scarlet blood masking half his face.
My voice is a bare whisper now, the words lost the second they leave my lips. ‘Why don’t you fight back?’
His stoic surrender collapses, a wrenched cry escaping him. Then, in a seamless pattern of movements he extricates himself from beneath Wells’ bulk, swinging around to grasp him in a headlock.
The crowd chokes on their own voices, frozen comically mid-beat. The Enoch’s arms tighten, his knuckles turning white as Wells’ eyes roll back into his head, his body slumping into unconsciousness. Releasing him, the Enoch walks to the railing and climbs over. His movements are staggered, one leg almost crumbling beneath him as he steps down. Fear outweighing shock, people scatter, falling over one another in their urgency to get away from him. For a moment he pauses, his body half turned in on itself protectively. Then he straightens, his battered face rising, and begins to walk forward. Walks as they did when they first came, his piercing eyes daring any to stop him. Instead the crowd spills away from him automatically, as water against rock, creating his path. There is silence, only the memory of their ethereal song hanging in the air.
We all just watch as he disappears into the depths of the tunnels, the darkness swallowing him.
‘I can’t believe that just happened,’ Briar repeats for the hundredth time, her face still caught in the hectic expression despite the fact that the Enoch won. ‘I mean, can you believe we just saw that? And then they just let him leave! – If I’d been over there I would have finished the job myself!’
I roll my eyes. ‘Briar, while I don’t doubt your penchant for physical violence in any other setting, I doubt even you would stand a chance in the Pit.’
Up ahead a door is thrown open, light and laughter spilling out onto the road, along with several drunks. Briar and I duck into a side alley, dingy and dripping with god-knows-what. In the distance, bells begin to toll: a dozen blows that clamber through the streets.
Briar swears, ‘I didn’t realise how late it is – I gotta get to work.’ Flashing me an apologetic smile she runs off down the alley, her feet splashing through the muck. ‘Stay safe, Viv!’ she yells when she gets to the corner, before disappearing out of sight.
Alone, I hug the shadows of the alley wall, my mind whirling over the events of the Pit. I’m so deep in my thoughts that I don’t even notice the kneeling figure until my foot hits their side and I come crashing painfully to the ground beside them.
‘I’ve got a knife,’ I say, panic shuddering through me as I fumble for it.
The figure unravels slowly at my words, an abandoned drop-sheet falling away to reveal a skinny frame. But it’s the dark eyes that warn me first, peering at me through a mess of blood and hair.
I scramble backwards, my fingers barely clutching the knife.
He doesn’t speak, but continues staring at me. Tear tracks cut through the bloody mask across his face, his eyelashes glistening inky black.
‘What … what do you want?’
My panic levels are rising. I can see why Wells got so aggravated now. Fear is coursing through me, a rushing tide pushing me to the edge.
He inches toward me, his whole body quivering. A hand reaches out.
‘What do you want?’ The scream shatters down the alley.
When he finally speaks his voice is soft, yet gravelly with bitter desolation.
Tears have welled up in his eyes, breaking over and coursing down the harsh planes of his face.
‘Kill me,’ he repeats, an agonised plea.
‘I … I don’t thi –’
‘There is no escape,’ he whispers, ‘There is no returning – they will hunt me. You cannot begin to understand –’ He breaks off abruptly, his gaze locking with mine, and the world disappears.
Images flash through my mind. A burning village, flames tearing through the houses. A countryside stripped bare. People falling to ground, screaming. Women clutching the broken bodies of their children. A desperate escape, the hope of refuge. Arriving with their mourning songs still fresh on their lips. Pain, grief, despair; they cut through me in searing flashes of light. It builds steadily, memories of hatred and anguish crashing over me. Until finally with a strangled sob, I break free, thrusting the knife still clenched in my fist forward, burying it in his chest.
A gentle sigh escapes him. Blood begins to blossom through his clothes, creeping scarlet vines. Then with a final shudder, he collapses back against the pavement, his dark eyes lost in the night sky, snatches of starlight reflecting in their depth.
‘You’re free now.’
The words linger in the air long after I’ve staggered out of the alley, a last testament to his suffering. Around me, the city slumbers, entirely unaware – still safe amongst their fear and anger.
For them, this changes nothing.
Amelia is an introvert with strong nostalgic tendencies. Don't question it.