The Scourge from the North – Part 1

Hunter’s lips curved upwards slightly as he watched the water burbling gently over the rocks. The ravenous swarms blighting the land had spared several thickets of Purple Tympany and these stood defiantly at the water’s edge, propelling their tiny black seeds far and wide.  Near the curve of the river where a lone heron kept watch for that tell-tale flash of silver, a straggly bed of emerald reeds undulated slowly; their leaves whispering soothingly to the drunken nano bees roaming from flower to flower.  May had not yet arrived but there was a definite stillness to the air, a lull in the proceedings between spring and the onset of summer.  For Hunter the transformation of seasons was a welcome one as the winter before had been harsh.  

When the first sprinkling of snow had arrived, clinging to the hollows of the mighty fir trees on the hill, Hunter had stared in wonder at the starkness of its beauty.  The first dusting was merely a hint of what lay ahead and soon the week long blizzards obliterated not only the landscape but also any romantic notions he may have harboured concerning the aesthetic qualities of snow.  Further North conditions had been worse still, forcing the dreaded locust swarms to more southerly climes in search of any accessible sustenance.  In just a matter of weeks they decimated the local herds of deer and mountain goat which as it happened were Hunter’s main food source.  The flesh began to melt from his already meagre frame but there wasn’t a great deal he could do.  In order to stay alive he had to hide in the cave system behind his home as they went back and forth stripping the land bare.  There he lay in blackness hoping to avoid the dual enemies of starvation and detection.  Those times had been especially hard but summer was on its way now and he had already set about making up for his enforced fasting.

With a flick of his thumb nail he dislodged the hair fine fish bone that had gotten stuck between his teeth then casually tossed what was left of the golden finned talwan back into the river.  The river had provided his meal.  So it was only right that he sustain the cycle.   He crouched down low on creaky knees to wash the stickiness from his hands as the scraps from his dinner sank slowly downwards.   There they were carried along by the current until two triple clawed crayfish crept out from beneath the rocks to fight each other for the honour.

Hunter turned away thinking about the time before the war as he dried his hands absently on his tunic.  Back then very few of the species surrounding him had existed.  The golden finned talwan, the purple tympany, the reeds, crayfish and even the heron had all been tinkered with on a genetic level.  Mankind had taken it upon himself to fix God’s mistakes and in doing so had made even bigger ones.  

Hunter had come to believe that earth and all that inhabited it was never meant to be perfect.  He believed that there was a fine balance at work that was achieved by a meshing of various strengths and frailties’ across the species.  Life was a complex jigsaw puzzle with a multitude of dimensions.  Once one piece was changed it had seemingly limitless implications for the entire planet.  

Take for instance the golden finned talwan that he’d just eaten.  It had originally been a just a plain talwan; a notoriously difficult fish to catch because of its ability to perfectly camouflage itself and its refusal to take any kind of bait.  But scientists had created a new species by mixing its DNA with that of a trout and by making them all albino.  The trout component of its DNA caused it to snap at virtually anything lying on top of the water and the new albinistic qualities made them highly visible, especially as their long caudal fins now appeared golden.

So instead of being a rare delicacy that few fishermen were ever lucky enough to catch, the golden finned talwan became a high end stock fish for the lakes of the wealthy.  Unfortunately their albinism made them much more susceptible to skin cancer and various other mutations which were not always evident if the fish was in the early stages of the condition.  This introduced three new, particularly aggressive forms of communicable cancer into the human population so suddenly no one wanted the golden finned talwan.  A cull was ordered but for many owners it was far easier to release them into the wild by opening the gates between lakes, rivers and streams.  This further contaminated the food chain.

A year after the initial talwan incident a further complication was discovered once they began to migrate and breed in the wild.  The fish were so easy to catch that the population of their main predator – the North American estuary terrapin quadrupled in a matter of months.  This sudden imbalance in the food chain drew in another predator– one that rarely visited North American waters, let alone fresh water lakes and rivers.   This one had quite an appetite for terrapin – amongst other things…

In late autumn 2054, there was a flurry of supposed great white sightings in several of the major waterways of North America.  To everyone’s shock these were soon confirmed and an investigation was immediately launched.  It did not take long to ascertain that the sharks had developed a taste for the North American Estuary Terrapin and had naturally followed the rivers inland in search of this fine alternative to sea turtle.  This posed a major threat to people who lived, worked and played in the vicinity and not surprisingly the first shark attack occurred less than a week later. 

Even at that no one blamed the scientists or the governments and companies who funded their research.  It was to take a much greater loss of life before people would begin to question the level of genetic manipulation taking place rather than marvel at their apparent Godlike successes.

This was just one of the many incidents that happened but each time something went wrong rather than admit their mistake scientists tried to fix it by further tinkering with the species.  Things began to snowball and eventually what would later be termed ‘the Lab War’ erupted.

It all started when a group of geneticists from Germany tried to fix a problem with a species of genetically modified wheat commissioned by a huge agricultural conglomerate in Israel.  They had made the wheat nematode resistant by splicing it’s genes with those of a certain tomato plant that was known to be resistant.  The natural properties of the tomato plant contained an immune receptor that deflected attacks from both nematode and fungus agents.

Initially the Israeli company was thrilled with the new two per cent crop failure ratio as opposed to the traditional twenty three per cent.  But after about a year and a half some desk bound analysts noted that the birth rate had plummeted for some areas- particularly those surrounding the growing fields.  Tests were carried out and it was noted that women who had consumed the product on a weekly basis were unable to progress beyond the very earliest stages of pregnancy.  Women who had excessively consumed the wheat were experiencing changes in the way their immune system worked.  Instead of nurturing the foetus their bodies were now identifying the embryonic tissue as a threat and were dealing with it accordingly in just the same way that the wheat was programmed to respond to the nematode.  The changes were irreversible.

For a while there was some confusion as to why this hadn’t been uncovered during trials and then the second bombshell hit.  Four of the twelve scientists that had developed the super wheat were members of a far right group called The Pure Bloods.  Israel immediately demanded that all twelve of the group should be handed over for crimes against the Israeli State but Germany refused insisting that they would launch their own investigation first.

Outraged at the delay tactics, unidentified factions within Israel developed a strain of beer hops solely for the German market that possessed some of the hallucinogenic qualities of the minute fungus ergot.  In small quantities beer made with the crop was harmless but in large quantities it was a very different story.  The mixture of alcohol and the powerful LSD-like hallucinogenic caused psychosis.    The violence that took hold of the country was unprecedented.  In a matter of days 16,153 people were murdered as a direct result including 23 children who were slain whilst attending their first day of primary school.  

In retaliation Germany developed a swarm of locusts that had been crossed with piranha DNA and sent them into the farming regions of Israel.  In just five days they had stripped the land and had killed 73,000 head of cattle and sheep.  At that point the locusts had been programmed to die but the intense feeding program had strengthened their make-up.  Despite efforts to stop their advance a large number of locusts made their way into the cities where they killed thousands of people and subsequently bred.  The mayhem that followed became known as the Lab War.

For the millionth time since then Hunter wished he’d had the courage to voice his doubts about the wheat during the initial stages of development.  Back then he was the youngest of the twelve geneticists whose task it was to design the super wheat and as such he hadn’t the confidence in his own theories to speak up.  The men and women he worked with had many decades of combined experience.  Surely they would know far more than him about how the different gene strands would interact?  

In the aftermath of it all he felt that hindsight was a beautiful thing.  He had come to this conclusion the hard way, after reflecting on what striving for perfection had accomplished.  The mass species overhaul had taken mankind to the brink of ruin.  Playing God was not for infants, he mused skimming a stone across the river.  Compared to how he had been the last few months, his present mood was positively exuberant.

Still, foraging remained a protracted affair even though the snows had melted and the locusts had apparently lost interest in the area.  Today Hunter had scoured a four mile area on foot and the only thing he could find to eat were an undersized fish and a few berries.  Tiredness was beginning to gnaw at him so he began to make his way back to the strange makeshift shelter at the foot of Flacon Cliffs. 

The shelter was a primitive construct; even he knew that – consisting of nothing more than branches coated in a combination of dried mud and straw arranged in a semi- circle around a cleft in the rock face.  The door (if you could call it that) was the cured skin of a stag which he’d fastened securely to the branches with flexawire – one of the few concessions he was willing to make to the twenty-first century.  As for the path, there was none, for the simple reason that he was determined to avoid discovery.  That was his sole objective in life – to avoid human contact at all costs.  In fact he’d sooner die than speak to another soul.  He’d proved that for eight years.

Once inside his ‘castle’ as he liked to call it he sat down heavily on his straw bed and marked off yet another line on the wall.  There were eight chalk lines in total now.  He counted them off one by one running his finger down their length as though reliving the years they represented.  Afterwards he lay back on the bed with his hands interlaced beneath his head wondering what the place would look like if he ever managed to cover the walls with his childlike tallies.  How long could he last, he wondered before the deprivation of winter or one of the genetically engineered super species left over from the Lab War took him?  How much of the walls would he cover before he lost the struggle?  Some might think his speculation cold but to him it was an inescapable fact – all things come to an end.

It did not bother him in the least that this is what he’d been reduced to.  He welcomed the simple ways of his existence – the knowledge that little would change unless he wanted it to.  Once he’d taken people out of the equation his life had become bearable.  That was the payoff to hermit hood. 

Gradually slumber stilled his thoughts and slackened his jaw, the fragrant berries he’d collected long forgotten.  They lay on a platter deteriorating in the heat, their juices oozing from them in tiny syrupy droplets.  Briefly a blue bottle came to rest on his forehead perhaps thinking him already departed.  It buzzed and danced for a little while then finally lost all interest and flew off in search of better and quite possibly even smellier things.  Hunter, blissfully unaware of the creature’s disappointment in him, slept on and on, his bated fish breath falling in contented sighs that rippled through the hairs of his grizzly beard.  All was peaceful inside Castle Hunter.  He was the king and the sole subject of his kingdom.

Then, twenty minutes into his nap a loud cry and a sickening thud jolted him awake.  Perhaps it was a vivid dream? Fear constricted his chest as he listened intently.  Blearily he looked around his shelter wondering what to do.  There really were only two options open to him, he decided.  Go and investigate or go back to sleep.  He latched on to the latter, after a brief struggle, unwilling to genuinely consider the alternative.

Yet, strangely even though the decision was made his body did not wish to cooperate.  Having turned his back to the deer skin door he discovered he was unable to drift off to sleep again. It was not a happy state of affairs to say the least.  As if to add to his torment the fly returned from its travels and began buzzing around his head again.  He swatted it away with a limp hand deciding that it was time to put to rest this ridiculous and unfounded dread. There couldn’t possibly be anyone out there.

He ignored the nausea building in his stomach and peeled back the mangy pelt that served as a door.  Within two seconds he’d come to a conclusion.  For the first time in eight years it appeared that he had a visitor.

A child lay motionless five or six feet away from his door; arm twisted and legs askew.  Rather than touch her, he walked gingerly round her, looking up at the rock face from which she had fallen.  He couldn’t see anyone else up there but that didn’t mean there wasn’t anyone.  What was she doing in such a remote place, he wondered?

He looked down, sleepily noting the puce coloured blood flowing from beneath her long raven hair.  Raven hair.  He squeezed his eyes shut as a memory flashed before him both painful and sweet.  Unwilling to let it take over, he banished it to the furthest reaches of his mind and gently turned her over.

She didn’t move and she emitted no sound.  He knew that that was bad.  What was he supposed to do?  He needed time to think.  But this was not the place, as she could wake at any moment.  Then his secret hideaway would no longer be secret.

The swarms must have returned! realised Hunter upon examining her wounds.  How had she survived?

Her clothes were pretty ragged and she was losing quite a lot of blood from numerous bites.  These took the form of diamond shaped gouges two centimetres in diameter that spanned the entirety of her torso, left arm and hip then stopped at the right as though it had been purposefully spared.  He decided to take her to the river where he carefully washed the filth from her wounds using a torn off sleeve from his tunic.  The largest was not so easily dealt with.  It was actually a gash spanning half the width of her forehead that gaped open like the mouth of a gossip, cascading blood down her face.  He decided to leave it alone as water would most likely prevent it from clotting.  Instead he pressed down with his hands hoping that the bleeding would stop – which it did after fifteen minutes of compression.

Once he had done all he could with what he had at his disposal, he examined the results of his ministrations.  Before long the sight of her dredged up a memory from long ago…

“Hunter, you cannot expect me to believe you!” said the woman with the raven hair.  Her eyes were as hard as flint as she held him in her steady gaze.  “You must have known what was going on; that the others were creating a weapon.”

“I promise you I didn’t Korah!  I thought what I was doing would benefit the people of Israel and eventually the whole world.  We talked about this many times.”

“Well I’m afraid I don’t believe you anymore,” she said coolly.  Her normally olive toned Israeli skin was ashen with grief after learning that her entire family had been killed by one of the locust swarms let loose on the agricultural areas of Hebron.  She was brave –  Hunter was willing to give her that.  But rational she was not.

“Just listen to yourself, Korah.  We have been married for six years!  Have I ever uttered a racist slur in your presence or made you or your family feel slighted?”

Suddenly there was a loud crash as someone kicked the front door inwards.  The two of them ignored it.

“You and your family?” she said bitterly.  “I have no family now Hunter.  You and your far right friends have seen to that and now you must be brought to justice.”

“He’s in here!” she shouted, as five men burst into the room, their weapons at the ready.

The rest of that particular memory was just too painful to relive.  Not only had Korah turned him in to the authorities, she had gone on to reject anything even remotely connected to science.  In fact most of humanity had in the years that followed the Lab War.

For eight long years he had suppressed that memory but now it had fought its way up to the surface as fresh as the day it had been formed.  So had his emotions.  His thoughts were in chaos again, all because of her.  He looked at the girl with the hair as black as Korah’s and decided that she could not stay.  It wasn’t safe for either of them.

Above his head a couple of birds were heading home to roost but he would not let the lateness of the hour deter him.  She must be returned and soon.  He briefly went back to his shelter to gather up the things that he needed – the most important of them being a torch.  The torch was vital, as the closest village was six miles away and darkness was bound to have fallen by the time he reached it.  

If he was to carry her and the torch he was going to have to come up with something innovative.  He looked around his humble home for a solution until his eyes fell upon a strip of old leather which he cut to size and knotted, fashioning a holder for the torch that he could strap to his back.  He would light the torch only when it became impossible to see, that way it would probably last.  Time was limited so he scooped her up in his arms and set off in the direction of the village praying that the locusts would stay away.

With every step he fought to quell the growing rebellion of his mind.  The thought of entering the village and being surrounded on every side distressed him.  People would ask questions.  They would want to know his business.  It was possible someone may even recognise him.  Then there would be trouble.

But there was nothing he could do.  If he was to sustain his life in seclusion he must make sure the girl was returned to civilization.  He resigned himself to what lay ahead and pressed onward.

His legs were already burning after only a mile and a bit.  The girl was either heavier than she looked or he was out of shape.   Still, he could not rest yet because the sky was darkening fast.  The sun was a rapidly plummeting orb that had slipped from its pedestal; a burning eye of orange gazing out across the land.  He promised himself that he would definitely stop half way.  There, he would light the torch and maybe eat a few of the raspberries to keep his strength up.  Until then he must ignore the pain and focus on just the very basics.   He was good at that.

Disappointingly the light failed before he reached half way.  So fumbling in the darkness, he lit the torch and sat munching the pulped fruit from his pocket.  They had gotten squashed on the way but they still tasted good.  Sweet with a tart after bite.

As he wiped his mouth he stared at the child uneasily, relieved that she had thus far remained unconscious.  Maybe it was a madness of his mind but in the flickering torch light she bore a striking resemblance to Korah.  For much of the journey he’d been looking at her face.  Now he was tired of it.  So he turned his back on her and managed to convince himself he was alone in the night, innocently searching for the Belt of Orion or some other Grecian constellation.  

After his rest he managed much better and in just over two hours he saw the lights of the village twinkling up ahead.  Other travellers may have welcomed such a sight but not Hunter.  What sort of reception would he receive in Headley?  Perhaps he would be better off leaving her on the outskirts?  No.  That wouldn’t do.  He needed to ensure her safety.

He stumbled into the village, bypassing the electrified glass houses filled with all manner of crops.  Beyond tired and bone weary his knees gave way as he reached the outskirts.  His cries of pain angered the dogs in a nearby house.  They stood baying at the front window, their breath clouding up the pane.  Suddenly they disappeared then a second or two later they shot out of the front door.  A man followed, dressed in the traditional coveralls of a labourer.  He strolled over scowling beneath his flat cap, drawing on a hokum pipe that hung from the corner of his mouth.

“What’s going on here then?” he said, noting the young child that had fallen from Hunter’s arms.

“I found her out in Paddock woods.  I reckon she must have fallen down a ravine.  Do you know of her sir?”

The man took a closer look and his expression suddenly altered.

“May chance preserve us!” he exclaimed. “It’s Mrs Manrara’s girl!  She went missing this morning.  She has half the village out looking for her as we speak.”

“Well, they can stop now.  Would you take her and return her to her mother for me?  I don’t know her and I’m not exactly dressed for company.”

“Not at all lad!” exclaimed the man.  “Korah’s not that kind of woman.  She won’t hold it against you.  She’ll just be glad to get her daughter back.  Come.  I’ll take you to her.”

Hunter recoiled in horror.

“Korah, you say?”

“Yes.  Do you know her?”

“I’m not sure.  The Korah I know of lived in Preston thirty miles from here.”

“Then it can’t be any other.  Korah moved here from Preston with her daughter Holly two years after the death of her husband.”

The urge to turn and run engulfed Hunter but the sight of Holly’s head gushing blood again restrained him.

“Take me to her.  The girl needs tended,” he said.

“This way,” nodded the man.  He whistled his dogs and they set off towards the main street.

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