I was going through some of the older files we have saved for the line and came across a folder with a few short narrative pieces that I don’t believe have been shown before. I thought I’d give them a bit of a spruce up and share them out for you all. I’ll probably space these out and make it another occasional series to keep up the variety.
“Something’s wrong, sir. Something’s not right at all.”
That was certainly the truth. Even at this distance, the patrol should have started hearing the sounds of the settlement ahead quite some time ago. Steam lorries carrying goods, hawkers crying news and advertisements, not to mention the cacophony of noise that the mine should be producing.
The sergeant wiped grit from the binoculars, peered through again then handed them back to the lieutenant.
“I don’t see no movement. Nothing.”
No vehicles in motion. No horses or foot traffic, and the dust cloud that such movement should kick up was absent. Not so much as a bird in flight around the entire place.
The officer re-focused and scanned the settlement below. Nothing seemed especially out of place, but everything was so quiet…
“Those were my thoughts precisely. The gates seem secure, but the watch tower appears deserted. Damn bad form. Damn bad.”
“Do we take a butcher’s, sir?” the sergeant scratched his cropped scalp and dropped his helmet back in place. “Maybe they’re all just out of sight behind the walls.”
“Take six of the men and check the gate.” The lieutenant peered through his binoculars. “The rest will cover you from up here.”
The seven men spaced out in a line, rifles ready, and descended the shallow, scrubby slope towards the main gate. The settlement backed onto a steep, rocky hillside, its other edges all protected by a ten foot wall. There wasn’t likely to be much danger out here, but safety first was the official order for all these places. Unless it interfered with business.
“Gate’s locked, sir.” The trooper gave it a hearty shove.
“Hello inside! Queen’s patrol, open up!”
Silence. More silence.
“Jenkins. Get a grappling hook, at the double!”
Jenkins scrambled back up the slope and returned accompanied by the lieutenant and the remainder of the patrol.
“No response from the tower sir. Up and over?”
“Carry on, sergeant. Corporal, take a detachment and watch the rear. Don’t want any unpleasant surprises.”
Jenkins threw the hook, which snagged nicely on the sign above the gate. The sign read ‘New Wigan’ and below, the motto ‘Forever Loyal’.
A trooper shinned up the rope and pulled himself onto the wall. “No one’s home. Don’t look like it, any rate.”
The lieutenant flipped the cover on his holster. “Drop down man, open the gate.”
The soldier vanished from sight. There were bangings and scrapings, and then the gate swung inwards.
“Damnably odd, surely someone must have heard us.”
The patrol passed through into the flagged square. A loaded steam lorry was parked to one side, abandoned and no longer running, the fire having damped down when it ran out of fuel.
“Spread out, start checking the buildings, but easy mind!” ordered the sergeant. “I don’t want none of you getting itchy on me and shooting some poor bugger!”
The mine at New Wigan was shallow draft, a gentle slope into the hillside, none of those vertiginous lift shafts so common in its parent borough back in Lancashire.
“Sir, quick, looks like something’s been going on here.”
The yard at the mine entrance was a mess. Coal trucks were overturned and one side of the sheet metal roof over the sorting area had collapsed.
Two more troopers ran up. “Sir, the guns have gone, racks are all empty, and the cartridge boxes.”
All settlements had their own defense force, a town militia. This world was too new for complacency, and all men were drilled to a supposedly competent level with the Martini Henry. The weapons were securely locked away for emergencies; drunken fist or clog fights were one thing but nobody needed a shooting. It was up to the local police officer to issue weapons if worse came to worst.
“Here’s a cartridge case, sir!” Proclaimed one soldier, pointing. “And another! And more over there!”
They were dotted all around the mine entrance, mostly around rocks and equipment that would have provided cover. A trail of them lead down a side street to the church. As the soldiers approached they could see that the doors were smashed in.
“Eyes peeled lads, and watch your backs!”
The women and children had clearly taken refuge in the church. A sensible move, as it was one of the most sturdily built buildings in the settlement; cut stone foundation, tightly mortared, and heavy timber framing and construction on all walls. The doors were solid, single slabs of wood at least four inches thick, with heavy cast iron hinges and reinforcing bars.
It hadn’t been enough.
Just inside the shattered doorway was a dead, reddish brown insect. It was an insect, that much was obvious, but it was larger than a man.
“God in heaven!” The sergeant poked at it with his rifle. “Are you seeing this? Are you really seeing this? Mary mother of God, it’s like the Devil himself!”
The creature was peppered with bullet holes, and one leg had been chopped off.
“Looks like this took some killing, it’s skin is like armor!”
From inside the church, a young soldier cried out, “Sir, they’re all dead!” Panic showed in his voice as he shouted. He quickly tried to recompose himself, but despite his quieter tone, the fear was still evident. “They’re all dead. Everyone’s dead.”
There were bodies all over the church, mutilated beyond recognition, and apparently drained of blood. Despite the carnage, not a drop of blood was found on any surface. Even some of the victims’ clothing showed signs of having been gnawed on where blood might have been.
“Looks like the last of the miners made their stand here. It was a massacre, they may just as well have swatted with those rifles as fired them. I think we can assume there are more of these things, so look sharp! We need to search for the rest of the men, most of them must be elsewhere.”
Suddenly, a shot rang out from a short distance away, followed by three more in quick succession. And then a blood curdling scream.
“That’s Jenkins, he’s at the mine!”
The lieutenant ran from the church. “Fix bayonets! If there are more of these things, we’ll need to chop them up!” The patrol took positions behind the churchyard wall. “Get as many shots into them as you can, then hack away!”
With a rumble and a crash of rocks and equipment being swatted aside, two of the giant insects appeared from the direction of the mine. They were soon followed by a third, and then a fourth. Suddenly there were dozens and dozens of them.
“Dear God – they look like fleas, I’ve seen them on our cat through a glass. And I know how far they can jump…”
Instantly the churchyard was full of the insects. The air filled with the sound of gunshots, followed quickly by shouts of orders and battle cries, and then by screams and curses.
Then there was silence once more.