Thomas Brown is a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Southampton, where he studied horror and the sublime as part of his thesis. His short stories have been published by a dozen independent presses. In 2010, he won the University of Southampton’s Flash Fiction Competition. In 2014, he won the Almond Press Short Story Competition for “Broken Worlds.” In the same year, his first novel Lynwood was a finalist for The People’s Book Prize. He writes dark, surreal fiction.


by Thomas Brown


In the four years she has worked at the tower transmitter, she rarely ventures an hour from her station. She is not sure what called her outside this evening.

In her imagination she hears a voice carried on the wind, braving the empty air waves, the background rustle of a million wings, droning with tidal force against the concrete walls of the tower. That alone is worth investigating, she tells herself as she suited up. Nothing else survives the airwaves or the swarm that fills them. So she steps from the tower onto the old dirt track that runs through the fields and walks.

She leaves the compound and does not stop until she arrives here.

The warehouse is vast. Around her, stacks of crates are piled high like building blocks. Much of the wood is rotten, green with growth. By the strip-bulb hanging on chains from the ceiling she can see the fungi and molds that have made canvases of the old crates. She wonders if it is the sickly light that gives the flecks of mould their lurid yellowness. More likely the toxins in the air.

Far above, in the darkness behind the hanging lights, the shadows shift, filled with gently swaying things. Chains rattle like rusted dream-catchers in the wind.

As she moves between the crumbling crates, she considers turning back. It is not too late. Like the chains above her, the warehouse doors are swaying, as though reminding her of the way out. She could retrace her steps and in seconds be back in the fields, barren wasteland either side of her, the bones of a dozen cities standing in the distance.

Temptation almost overcomes her. She has seen the warehouse once before, during her first year stationed in the tower. A road runs through the fields to the east and inclement weather drove her to take the alternate route when she happened upon it.

But there are still two horses here that need attention. Once a week she braves her fear and makes her way to the dilapidated building.

There is no anticipating the swarm, or the dust clouds that sometimes follow; swathes of dry earth turning the sky red. She remembers thinking herself fortunate there was another road in the first place. So many of the old highways have fallen into disuse.

Perhaps the warehouse was part of a military project at one time. With its broad walls and hazard signs, she has no doubt it was once safe from the swarm outside.

It is not safe now.

Some wildlife flourishes here; the vines and various molds that dissolve the crates, but it is not much. The structure is compromised, stripped of its flesh as readily as she would be, were she to climb from her suit, reduced to the concrete skeleton inside which she now walks. There is nothing capable of speech that she can see, or anything through which a voice might be transmitted. If the message that she heard came from here, it is silent now. This is not a place where men or women have drawn breath for a long time.

The feeling envelops her like a clammy veil until she feels nothing except the sigh of the wind and the stretch of the sky, pressing heavily against the shattered window panes. Her boots scuff the ground. Plants have grown through the plaster, grapevine and bittersweet finding old furrows in the stone.

From the same chains that support the lights dangle a dozen other things, obscure in the darkness. She is reminded of the carcasses suspended in slaughterhouses, feet first so that their blood might drain better from their throats.

Wind sings through the windows, slamming the doors open and closed, and she finds herself running from the warehouse. Overhead the hanging chains continue to dance. Her breaths cloud the inside of her suit as she mutters prayers to the Ether Gods. If they are listening, they give no sign, except for the faint crackle of static in her ears.


Her name is Alice Roach. Once, that might have meant something. A family name, history; blood-heritage remembered by no one if not for the titles they denoted. Carpenters were so-called for the work they did with wood. The Foggetts came from Foggia, in what used to be Italy. The world was built from the diligence of Smiths.

Then the swarm rose and everything changed. It stripped the forests away, and the carpenters with them. Perhaps some Foggetts survived, but their homeland did not; matchstick ruins crumbling alongside ancient ones. If Smiths built the old world, they did not do so to withstand what came.

Her boots kick up dust trails but she knows she must keep going. To rest is to risk being caught out. Her suit is strong, designed to withstand dust clouds and rain, but accidents happen.

The tower cuts a broken shape against the skyline. Steel and concrete constitute most of it, interspersed with thick sheets of industrial glass. Windows line every floor. They have always seemed strange to her: fish-bowls through which she might stare out into the wastelands. Perhaps the outside world held fascination, once, when the tower was first built. Now it is only a barren reminder of what once was.

But the tower has the control panels and the extra supplies.

She follows decontamination protocol. In the foyer, she is blasted with steam, gases; sterilizing chemicals she could not begin to name but which make outdoor travel possible.

They will run out of chemicals soon, and probably everything else. Once a year, technicians used to visit for system maintenance. She would watch for them eagerly from the tower, monitoring their vehicle’s tiny dust trail as it drifted closer.

In the beginning, many towers were lost to improper security. Other times it was the carelessness of operators that was to blame. Not that blame served any purpose, by the time the towers went dark. Eventually, a diligent operator would be discovered sitting at his or her control panel. Whether they were still recognizable as human anymore depended entirely on how long the swarm had lingered. Flesh and bone are no match for that appetite.

Her shadow follows her as she climbs the winding stairs. There is a lift but she rarely uses this. It is nice to be able to turn and see a face staring back at her from the glass windows. At the control panel, she retracts the automatic message informing any would-be incomings that she has left her station. There has been no contact. She brushes the knots from her hair, pulls up some news pages on the central console, then visits the bathroom.

It has been almost four years since she lost the baby. Continents burned, countries collapsed in on themselves, but her most painful loss was that of motherhood. Still she bleeds, every month; phantom blood.

Some say ghosts are emotions, moments trapped in time doomed to repeat themselves over and over. She doesn't believe in ghosts but she understands the sentiments. How something—someone—can be trapped in a never-ending cycle. The pain isn’t physical but it is real enough. She feels it no less when it comes around each month.

Afterwards, she wanders to the central window. Her view is red; red soil, red clouds, red dusk on the horizon broken by flashes of light; the glimmer of dusk on uncountable wings. She looks at the compound across the way.

The world bleeds, and she with it. If the technicians served any role on their annual visit besides their system checks, it was that for a few hours she was reminded that she was not alone. There are no technicians now.

The whole world is cold and quiet.


She wakes gradually to the hum of the automated lighting. Its morning activation might be a nod to the rest of the tower, which seems to shine brighter, bearing down on her and the shadows in which she lies. The darkness scatters from around her. Alone, she drowns in light.

She washes first; a lifelong habit drilled into her from childhood by her mother. Standing under the shower head, her eyes scrunched shut, she loses track of time, urgency sluicing with the recycled water down the mesh grill beneath her feet. The warmth of the water fills the cubicle, until there is only heat and the feel of the pressurized spray on the back of her neck.

She breakfasts on a cereal bar from the stockroom. The bar is soft between her teeth and incredibly sweet. She chews slowly, savoring the sucrose tang of the dried fruits and the syrup that binds them. The content of each bar is perfectly balanced for the beginning of the day, the number of bars perfectly rationed to last the year. When she finishes it, she goes back for a second. She has been eating two bars most mornings, recently, and knows that she will run out before the year is through. This doesn’t seem to matter as much as it used to.

She’s returning from the stockroom when she first smells it: smoke. Her initial thought is that a circuit has blown in the turret. Such fires are rare but there have been incidents before.

She hurries back to her control panel but there is no warning buzzer of a fire. The smell intensifies, the chemical tang of solvent filling her throat. She works her way progressively down the tower, investigating each level for smoke or flames.

When she is certain that there is no danger, she is drawn back to the turret. It is then, as she moves towards the window, that she sees a distant glow. Her chest tightens, but she does not move. She can do nothing except stare, transfixed, at the uncertain orange as it dances across the compound below.

She has seen many things over the last four years, standing at the window, but never this.

Even as she watches, the flames scatter higher, the tips of their tongues licking the saccharine sky. The same chemical that fills her nose and mouth gives off a dense black smoke, through which even the sunlight cannot shine. The smoke makes monstrous clouds across the sky.

From the cool, bright confines of the turret, she might be watching a digital monitor, or peering through space into a different place where there is no glass, no pale spotlights, no operational handbooks or processed food bars, only blackness and heat and the savage light that comes when these two things collide. The compound walls lose definition, sagging on their frames, slumping softly, cracking and becoming black before drifting hotly on the wind; new stars, made for a blacker, more noxious night.

The wild sounds stir her to movement, her hand sliding to the lock on the window frame. For the briefest second she hesitates. Then she pushes, the hinged frame swinging outwards. Unfiltered air floods the turret.

The wind is strong against her face. She watches it as it toys with the flames. The smoke in her mouth tastes poisonous, the breeze hot against her skin. All around her, alarms are ringing.

When her throat catches and her stomach turns, she closes the window. The sight below is much different now. The fire has almost exhausted itself, but there’s still a glow, a smoldering blackness. She imagines it is the fire’s pulse, beating low, almost spent as it licks its lips and yawns and succumbs to sleep.

She turns sharply from the window, her hands shaking where they grip a metal railing. Flakes of white paint rub from the balustrade, floating slowly to the ground. Above her, ventilation systems whir as the tower’s decontamination protocol initiates. She can only imagine the sight she must make; a solitary figure, small, barely a speck in a window, even the tower tiny against the enormity of outside. She focuses on the flakes of paint and their delicate descent until her grip on the railings relaxes.

The air tastes thinner as it is sucked out for cleansing. Outside, the smoke looks thinner too. She can see the sky again, bleeding through the blackness. Ash still winks at her as it drifts skyward, forming smoldering shapes in the air, and she imagines she sees horses, many horses, some skeletal, others plump and round-bellied, rising through the clouds, manes and tails and thundering hooves alight and glorious.

Stepping away from the window, she pours herself a glass of water. Taking a long sip, she up-ends the rest over her face and shoulders before descending through the tower to enact her own decontamination protocols.


The trilling storm alarm jolts her from sleep. Stumbling from her bed, she potters into the control room and quickly reviews the situation.

Red colors the observation window, where light rain has begun to fall. Saturated with dust, the rain assumes pinkish qualities as it runs down the pane of glass, reminding her of the energy drinks stored in the chiller. In the distance, lightning glimmers. The storm, at least, has not yet hit in earnest. The alarms are sensitive, and she has woken in good time.

After the initial awakening, or perhaps because of it, her morning slows to a sluggish pace. She showers, washes and dresses into fresh clothes before sitting down to eat. Breakfast today is tinned fruit and a carton of long-life milk. She savors the not-quite-creaminess of the sterilized liquid, knowing full well that there aren’t many sachets left.

She almost misses the message. The console flickers with light, miraculous and intricate. If They made the first man and woman in Their image, then this technology is surely the offspring of the Ether Gods; a radiant dashboard through which bodiless voices crackle and hiss.

She scans the programs before doing a double-take. Sure enough, the inbox pulses intermittently. Sinking into her chair, she wheels closer and slips on her headset. Her heart thunders, a pulmonary piston, as she punches in a code. Then, thinking the better of it, she removes the headset again and unplugs the chord. The message reverberates around the turret.

Hello? Is anyone there? I’m here. I’m waiting.

Outside, forked lightning wrinkles through red clouds. The redness of the observatory window deepens as the rain grows heavier, like a butcher’s visor at slaughter.

She plays the message again, then again.

When she has played it three times, she places an empty fruit bowl on top of the button so that the message repeats ceaselessly. She cannot smell the rain from inside the turret but she imagines its earthiness, rich and vivifying. The smell saturates her nose and sets her mouth watering.

It has been years since she received a message. And yet, here one is.

Not a travel order, not a status update, current affairs or a public warning. She listens to it again, then again, over and over, the voice, which she is so sure she has heard before but cannot evidence, whispering wirelessly through the chitinous static.

Hello? Is anyone there? I’m here. I’m waiting.

She knows she shouldn’t leave the station, even as she knows that she must. She might make it to the warehouse before the storm hits, but she has seen the ruin that place has become and knows it will offer her no shelter from the elements.

Her suit will keep the worst of the weather off but it will not save her from the swarm. She might die out there, in the cold, in the dark, her face obscured except for that which fungal phosphorescence can pick out. Standing here, alone, surrounded by steel and light, it does not seem such a bad thing.

Her hazard suit is where she left it, in one of the ground-floor lockers. It's impossible not to see a part of herself in the suit, even before she has crawled into it, both of them limp forms strung up, heads bowed, long arms hanging loosely by their sides. She crawls inside. It might not save her, but it will get her where she needs to go.

Where she was always meant to be.

The warehouse fills her head again and she knows with absolute certainty that this is her destination. Pink rain dashing her visor, she steps down to the dirt track and walks.


The warehouse glowers back at her beneath the rolling skies. Approaching the entrance, she climbs cracked steps to the old doors. The weather has done terrible things to the architecture, which has suffered, bled marble blood, beneath electric storms and acid rain. It is still more beautiful than anything in the surrounding wasteland or the ruined cities.

She appreciates it because she must. Because otherwise she means nothing, and the sad, sorry world has won. Approaching the rusted doors, she slips inside.

Strangely, it is not the cold that she first notices, or the dark, but the sounds.

Around her the warehouse groans, old but immovable. Her boots scrape against smooth stone. Inside, it is darker than she remembers. Dappled light winks through holes in the ceiling and across her visor.

Taking a sharp breath, she adjusts her weight, shifting from the ball of one foot to the other, then lifts a hand to her helmet. Her fingers work quickly. The click of the first latch securing her helmet fills her ears. The second click carries through the dark, met by the flash of lightning. There is a third, a fourth; sharp sounds that might come from insect mouths or the snapping of deadwood underfoot.

The moment of release is imperceptible. One second she is safe, contained inside her suit. The next, she is not.

Her tongue darts to the dryness of her lips as she lifts the helmet from her head. Cold air fills her lungs. She tastes cherry lip balm, the greasy tang of oil and something else, at once subtle and instantly apparent; the aroma of rotting vegetation, like old wine left uncorked and grown sour, fruity, in her mouth.

The clicking is eager now; sounding again, again as she undoes her clasps, like broods of roiling roaches in her head. Catching sight of a real beetle near her foot, she drops to her knees. It is a fat, well-nourished thing, strangely beautiful where the light hits its shell. Legs like fine hairs bear it swiftly away.

Arching her back, she turns her head towards the fractured ceiling and the patches of visible sky. Lightning makes monsters of the stacked crates. Hanging chains swing like spinal cords brought to life, and underneath them another sound, quiet but growing louder with each passing second, an insistent whining in the air.

Rain from the ceiling strikes her eye. She feels the bloody tear on her cheek as she sits cross-legged among the debris.

This is what she wanted, she reminds herself. This is what she wants, what she has waited for since the radio went dead. Perhaps she has always wanted this, even before then; a genetic wish, a product of their primeval origins.

In her mind she sees men and women at their control panels once again; those who resisted in the early days when the fail-safes were not quite so; unrecognizable as human beings except for the blood at their feet and the badges on their shirts.

She forces her mind back to the present.

The first she notices of it is the flutter of shadows overhead. Nearby, the clicking from her helmet quickens, except she knows that she disconnected it minutes earlier. The clicking becomes louder, more disjointed, a brittle sound, and amid the hive of roaches and cracking twigs she pictures snapping bone. Far above, the pink, shadowy ceiling seems to spin.

The clicks grow more feverish. She realizes she has been holding her breath. It shudders from her lips.

The ceiling canopy continues to rearrange itself, concrete flowing into the places where the storm leaks through so that the sky seems to vanish like earth beneath spilled oil. A blackness weighs down on her, and she understands it is fear pressing against the curve of her back.

Then she really is pressing into the ground. Agony finds the small of her spine and rushes upwards, driving her face into the earth. Stones scratch her cheeks. Mold brushes her cherry lips. The stone is cold against her breasts.

Reaching out, her hands find one of the crates. Grasping the wooden slats, she uses them to drag herself across the ground. The floor is wetter now, slimier, and she wonders if this is a new kind of mold or if her skin has begun to slough from her bones.

Leaves slide against her and stay there, adhered by rain, tears, the wet breath of the mulch against her flesh. She imagines herself swimming through a lush sea, of the sort that doesn’t exist anymore except in her dreams.

The clicking is all around her now. She isn’t sure if the sound is beetles erupting from the ground, roots winding through the rock, or breaking bones as her arms and legs and slender ribs reform like flowers opening at dawn. Light flickers overhead as faces swim before it and she imagines the evening sun, speeding law through the sky, its dappled light fractured by the ceiling.

In this moment she is one with the swarm, made whole by its beating hearts, its desperate breaths; its endless hunger. Blackness consumes her in a cascade of rotten leaves and chitin shells. For what feels like forever it is all she knows.

She does not recognize hand from arm or foot from leg. She stirs, and the warehouse stirs with her. Air fills her lungs, and when she exhales it is the wind through the rotten timbers in the ceiling.

She opens her eyes and finds her world changed. It is still bright, but there is darkness too. With her new awareness she sees everything, from a pink skyline through the roof, to fields of iridescent glass, to a tiny beetle feasting on a cold piece of cherry lip and the face below it, smiling up through the swinging chains into the darkness above.

Outside, it begins to rain again. Red channels find their way through the roof, trickling to the floor of the warehouse. She hears footsteps sloshing over the wet boards of the warehouse.

And then she realizes she is not alone. The sender of the message has come for her.