's 2019 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by C. M. Kosemen (email)


For nearly fifty years he had worked at the Embassy, first as a guard, and then, as
an older man, as a fixer and custodian… The climate had kept him at first, then
his wife, then…

The country was young and hopeful, consisting of island chains scattered across the
borders of a vast oceanic chasm, the deepest on the world.

His country, a continental giant, ruled that world to the best of its ability –
sometimes with trade and influence, at others, through force and subterfuge.

Only in retirement had he realized how strange the visitors were – those anonymous walkers and idlers – mostly men,
and sometimes old women. He had first encountered them as they passed his
guard-post during humid, moth-and-gecko-infested nights.

He could not tell them apart from the locals at first. As time passed by, however,
little hints gave them away – the strange, loping gaits; that brief crackle in
their voices if they spoke; that faint delay in the reaction-time of their
eyes… He always found them staring towards the embassy, and shooed them on.
Obliging, they always walked away…

The timing of their appearance was also strange. He always saw them before the
violent tropical storms – but sometimes in their aftermath, too… He saw a
number of them after that awful earthquake that swept half of the capital away…
And, as he one day remembered in a moment of senile clarity, two days -or was
it a week- before that pale green flash over the ocean; that soundless
explosion which the Intelligence Chief had warned everyone not to talk too much
about… Whenever he saw them, they
were always staring towards the angular, concrete blocks of the Embassy,
unmoving until noticed, eyes blank and legs posed at those strange, subtle

Years passed. He met his wife – and one day he told her about them. The Islands had a rich, often macabre folkloric fauna of
pixies and dream folk; long-fingered men who could turn into toothed birds and
flap away; bat-winged hags and snake women; disembodied heads that flew off to
eat children; but nothing quite like them… They
were new in the land, and unlike the folk-tale phantoms, seemingly quite real.

“Some people in town say they are mainlanders, or vagrants from the Port Territory,” his
wife had said. Then, a few years later, she had told him how a friend’s brother
had seen three of them simply walking into the tide at worm-glow, calmly, and
without return. “Maybe they were spies?”
It was not impossible. Three other rival states had their eyes on the region –
and the Islands War, with all its ferocity and bloodshed, had been fought only
decades ago…


Yet even as they had mulled over these explanations, he knew that no spy agency
would be stupid enough to recruit agents of the same ethnic type – with that slightly
off complexion; that loping stride that strangely reminded him of mantids and
stick insects; and those idiot-savant stares they were directing towards the
Embassy Grounds, as if they could see through concrete.

Time wore on. New technologies developed and clawed their way around the world. It
was funny, he realized, how abruptly they
had stopped coming, just a few weeks after video cameras were installed around
the Embassy perimeter. They had been
filmed only once, and the Intelligence Chief had hastily confiscated the tapes
on the next day.

More years passed, and The Islands changed. He remembered the joint nuclear tests in
the oceanic trench, his country’s great-power reassurance and the local
protests; crowds, firebombs and shootings – the growing enmity that was unimaginable
back when he had first started working there.

Even he had to accept moving back to the Continent then, taking a large part of his
wife’s extended family with them… A narrow escape, a happy ending, and the
drudgery of retirement had set in.

He was watching his favourite documentary, a nature show, when the idea struck. The
researchers in the show were placing cameras in model animals, and placing them
near the actual beasts to film their behaviour in a manner that had never been
achieved before. The footage they captured was marvellous…

“What if,” – a sudden idea in his head said, “someone
– some thing, had made human-cameras, that people could not tell apart – not
any more than a hapless sea-bird could tell the fluff-covered decoy from its
own parents?”
It sounded preposterous at first. People, after all, were far
cleverer than seabirds or bear cubs had been.

Yet... even people had a threshold at which they accepted reality. It would only take a more sophisticated method
– which, by being human, he – or his wife, or the Intelligence Chief, or anyone
else - simply could not conceive

He remembered the way they seemed in the
bygone tropical night; silent and cryptic. He imagined walking into the sea –
into the surf and past the reefs, maintaining their strange, stick-insect walk
even while underwater - down, down into the kilometres-deep chasm…

He knew it was a large world, and an ancient planet. There was enough unknown
space to accommodate anything.

For once, he felt glad to know no more than he did, and turned back to his day in
its blissful banality. The cat left from the flap, he boiled an egg, his wife
would return with the groceries soon…