The Lorelei Signal
Written by J.S. Watts / Artwork by Marge Simon
Looking back, things started much earlier and were a lot longer coming than we realised, but then you rarely get to see the whole pattern until things have run their course and come to some sort of an end. Then again, we were used to living with the changes. We spent our lives studying them, so you might think we’d have noticed sooner, or at least wondered why it seemed to be just wolves. It’s not as if we had much else to distract us in the snow-bound outpost we had made our home.
Survivors of the First Great Cataclysm had found the place, dug in and somehow flourished. The colony grew as mankind’s feeble footprint in the rest of the world became smaller. With the bio-kit they brought with them, the first colonists devoted themselves to studying the changes and therefore, following in their footsteps, so did we. We remained apart, sat back, watched and objectively researched as the world tore itself apart, pandemic after pandemic, and then re-adjusted around us. Not totally around us, though. The were-wolves were amongst us; were us, in many instances. So, given this proximity to the changes, why did we think it was only wolves? Perhaps because we saw so many of them?
A snarling of fur and claws, sharp teeth, hot sour breath and sad, expectant eyes.
Hungry, always hungry. I used to wonder for what?
“Have you put the food and water out today for the wolves, Hope?”
“And have you taken your pills?”
“Good girl. We’ll be needing to unlock the houses later. Will you be okay with helping?”
As a child growing up in the colony, caring for the dual-specied was a routine part of day-to-day life. We automatically left food and water out for the wolves and, on full-moon nights, went round all the empty houses in the colony, unlocking the front doors so the dual-specied could get back in. Once a month, for those three nights and their following three days, the were-wolves reverted to their human form. It was on those three days we shunned them because they were at their most contagious as far as single-specied humans were concerned. The rest of the time, in wolf form, they were a risk to the single-specied wolves, who also shunned them in their turn. It’s not a happy way to live.
In their wolf form, we befriended them, fed them, studied them and eventually learned how to postpone the change, providing the infection was identified in time, but we never learned how to reverse it. I felt sorry for them, empathy even, but my mother didn’t approve.
“No, Hope, you can’t keep one as a pet. What a suggestion. What with everything, it really wouldn’t be right. Wouldn’t you rather have a kitten instead?”
A flurry of fur and claws, sharp strong teeth, bright knowing hungry eyes, powerful legs that could keep going for miles, the wide world beyond the colony opening up before them.
I’d really rather have had a wolf to run wild with, but a kitten was entrusted to my care. I liked it right enough and when it disappeared I was upset, but not for too long; there were other cats. We had a lot of cats in the colony. They kept the rats under control.
What we didn’t have a lot of in our small colony were boys and as my body started going through its natural female changes, I became more and more aware of this. The awareness grew sharper as more and more of my friends paired up.
I found myself pinning my hopes on Harry. Not that he was that wonderful to look at, but he had a winning smile. Plus, he was one of my best friends, as was Amy.
“Hiya, Amy. Want to come up to Tor’s Peak with me this afternoon?”
“Sorry, Hope. I’m a bit busy right now. Tomorrow, maybe?”
“Yeah. No problems. I just wanted to make the most of this sunshine. It’s too nice to stay in. I’ll probably go ask Harry.”
Amy turned as pink as an anemone bud.
“Umm… I’m kinda busy with Harry.”
I hiked up to Tor’s Peak on my own, kicking out at rocks on the way, wondering why life was so unfair, why it had to be Harry and why so few boys were born in the colony? I put the latter query to my mother, but got short shrift.
“And why should we need more boys? You and I do all right on our own. The colony does all right. It grows our food, hunts, carries out the studies. What do we need more boys for? Girls are far more sensible than boys. Though, my dear Hope, with all your wild ways you’re a lot like a boy yourself. Perhaps you could try being a little less… feral? You won’t find yourself a boy until you prove yourself more…ladylike.”
I didn’t find myself a boy and my mother went on calling me her dear Hope, whilst the pauses in her sentences when discussing my…wildness grew more and more marked.
There were a lot of such pauses when I asked about my father.
“My dear Hope, what do you want to know about him for? He’s…disappeared. It happens. He’s not the only one. Life changes. Life has to go on. There’s no point in asking questions there’s no answer to. It risks drawing attention to….things.”
But I carried on asking my questions and eventually came to my own conclusions, though, with the benefit of hindsight, I was probably sniffing out the wrong theory.
Life changes. Life goes on. Amy had her first baby at fifteen and her second at seventeen. By the time I had reached nineteen, with no chance of being pregnant, I had resigned myself, with more than a little irony, to being a lone wolf.
First and foremost, I was a biotech: a way of life as much as a vocation. I focussed on my work within the colony. We all knew the right meds to be taken to postpone the wolf-change. What I wanted to find was a permanent cure for those in-waiting and for those already changed. My research was progressing. I came to understand the postponement process better than anybody, but a cure was still beyond my outstretched reach. Then my research became distracted by an increase in the disappearances and by the arrival of Markal.
Markal—tall, slim, beautiful, with ice-blue eyes and curly blond hair: twenty–one and with all the allure of being young, male and unknown, as well as new to the colony and its history. He had trekked to us from a distant human enclave. His ways weren’t ours. Others of my colony were stand-offish, but I circled in swiftly. Things happened fast and I had lost my virginity and become pregnant before either of us really knew one another: our histories, or our secrets.
The feel of soft and firm flesh pressed tightly together. The scent of warm, salty skin. A hunger finally satiated.
“Ssshhh, we have one another now. I love you as you are. You love me as I am. That’s all we need to know.”
Markal’s secrets, when he revealed them, didn’t initially seem that disturbing. Pneumonic plague had all but wiped out the colony he was living in. One of the few not to contract the disease, he had gone in search of help to neighbouring settlements, but had been shunned as a potential carrier. That was tough enough, but when disappearances started to occur in his wake he was attacked. He killed a man in self-defence. To me that seemed only the natural way of things, but it had left him guilty and confused. He’d come to us because we were isolated, were unlikely to have heard what had happened and had a reputation as powerful bio-technicians who could cure people of most afflictions.
Our reputation was invariably greater than our actual ability, but we had bio-kit other struggling colonies could only dream of and, as a result, we were able to determine Markal was free of the plague and not a carrier. That, in itself, was a major relief and he was free to settle down with us and with me, in particular. We became official as a couple and the colony became Markal’s home. He appeared to accept the wolves and found the presence of so many cats comforting. Keeping down the rats, they reduced his ingrained fear of plague.
I was four months into the pregnancy before I told him my secrets. His reaction was more equivocal than mine had been to his.
“You’re a were-wolf?”
“No. Not really. I was infected as a child. I carry the possibility, but I take bio-engineered wolf-bane regularly. Three tablets taken routinely throughout the day keep the changes on hold. Provided I religiously keep taking the meds, I won’t change, ever.”
“But the baby. What about our baby?”
“She’s fine. She’ll be born single-specied. As long as I keep taking my meds I’m single-specied and so will she be.”
“But if you stop?”
“I’m not going to.”
“Of course I promise.”
The promise was genuine. I had no intention of becoming a wolf. What I didn’t tell him, though, was that if I stopped, not only would I change very quickly, but I’d lose our baby.
Were-wolves can’t bear children of whatever species. The pregnancy can’t survive the stress of the transformation. I took the line of what he didn’t know couldn’t hurt him. I wanted to comfort him for all the bad things he had been through. He was looking for stability and a reasonable level of peace. He was happy to take it when given and I so wanted to give it to him. Or perhaps I was scared I’d lose him if he knew everything. If I told him all there was to know, he wouldn’t need to ask me. I was painfully aware there were more than enough fertile young women in the colony who could have his child without the added complications I carried. I had fallen in love and it was a fierce new experience I was determined to hang on to.
“Ssshhh, we have one another now. I love you as you are. You love me as I am, don’t you? That’s all we need.”
I may have come late to love and sex, but I was willing to make up for lost time. The outside world faded into insignificance while I focussed on Markal, his strong, hard, beautiful body and the changes he brought to my life.
The minutiae of our personal life dominated my thoughts. The golden hairs clustering on Markal’s forearms and sprinkled lightly across his chest. The smell of his body after we had made love. The way his pale lashes fluttered when he was sleeping. I wondered if our baby would have the same delicate lashes. I was so besotted with these importantly tiny things, I don’t even remember noticing the disturbances amongst the cats or the sudden acceleration in the frequency of disappearances.
Then my mother became one of the disappeared.
At first I wouldn’t accept it. My mother had always been there. She couldn’t now not be. Not just like that. Not the way my father, of all people, had gone. She must have gone out with no one noticing and found something worthy of researching. She’d be back. Then, as reality sank its teeth in, I wanted to cry and howl, like the baby I had once been, but I could never be my Mama’s little girl again. All I had left was her memory and that said to me, in her sternest tones,
“Life changes. Life always goes on. It has to. You have Markal and the baby to think of.”
I swallowed my grief and focussed on the facts. I was a bio-tech. That’s what I was. That’s what I did. That’s what Mama would have wanted.
And disappearances were not unknown. Over the years there had always been the odd disappearance; my father, for example. People attributed them to natural accidents, wander lust, were-wolf infection gone wrong or a newly changed were-wolf unable to cope with being dual-specied in close proximity to his or her old life. Some suggested that, in my father’s case, it was shame at my infection that drove him away, though my Mama was having none of that.
“My husband has…accepted Hope’s changed situation. He loves me. He…loves her. He would not leave us for that reason.”
I was having none of that old gossip in relation to my mother, but that didn’t make my mother any less gone, along with an increasing number of others from the colony, and no one knew why. The disturbances amongst the cats were barely noticed with all this taking place. People were focussed on the missing and me? What was I really focussed on? Holding in my grief? Keeping hold of Markal? Ignoring the little voice that said, hadn’t Markal been associated with deaths and possibly disappearances in other colonies? I wouldn’t allow myself to believe it had anything to do with him. He was so beautiful. I loved him. He was the father of our-soon to-be child. I focussed on my work, looking for answers. Then the rabid cats started appearing. Lots of cats, but then we had a lot of cats in the colony.
In some ways the sick cats were sad and sorry things: mangy, bedraggled and foaming at the mouth. They died a slow, agony-fuelled death, but part way through the process, the agony gave way to temporary, limitless aggression: fierce, hate-filled and deadly. Even a domestic cat in this state could kill a child or maim an adult. As small as they were individually, a pack of them could take down a grown man.
We made sure we moved round the colony in pairs, both fully armed. Markal was especially worried about me, given my condition, and only left my side when we went to our respective work. He would have liked me to stay home, but no man, even one I loved as much as I loved Markal, was going to dictate or limit my life. Moreover, the work I was now doing was too important to abandon. He understood this, I thought. He got on with his maintenance and hunting tasks and I got on with the new studies.
Our research into the dead cats was unearthing worrying possibilities. A mutation of the changes seemed to be affecting the animals. It drove them mad and killed them, but during the process they were infectious to both other felines and humans. Even a slight scratch could pass on the infection. An infected cat became rabid and died unpleasantly. An infected human became dual-specied, a were-cat, but there were horrific complications, as we rapidly discovered, though for a while we were in denial and tried to downplay things.
The change from human to wolf is relatively simple—the body mass of both creatures is broadly the same, just re-arranged. Re-arrangement hurts, but it’s bearable pain. Human to cat involves considerable shrinkage of mass with no real place for the excess mass to go. So much compression has to be agonizing—enough to drive you mad. So the newly changed were-cats out-did their infected, single-specied, feline cousins in madness and ferocity. They lashed out, attacked, killed or infected others before dying in agony hours later. A shorter, but even more miserable life than the wolves and the infection was spreading rapidly. We had an awful lot of cats in the colony.
I was one of the research team trying to find a cure for the cat infection, or at least a way of postponing the changes in the same way wolf-bane held off were-wolf syndrome. It turned out Markal wasn’t happy with my work. He thought it exposed me and the baby to additional risk, but I knew the importance of what I was doing. Perhaps also, having already been infected by the wolves, I was a little more blasé than was prudent. Who now knows?
“I’m a bio-tech. It’s what I am, Markal. I’ll be fine. It’s not like I’m out there hunting the cats like you are. That’s really not safe, but I don’t try to order you to stay at home. I’m safer inside the walls of the lab than you are outdoors.”
“But I’m not pregnant with our child.”
“And I am and I promise to take care of both of us. I am safer within the skin of the lab than I am at home. Mama was supposedly at home when she disappeared, remember?”
“No buts. I’m safe. What more do you want?”
He wanted me to give up my research, but I wasn’t prepared to. It was our first proper row. We never had another one.
I went to the lab, safe behind my walls. He went outside the colony with the team of trappers.
Proof that it could be disturbingly unsafe at home arrived within the second hour of my shift. I was at a crucial stage in my current research when Amy was brought into the lab. She had been at home when the family cat had turned on her. She had managed to kill it, but in the process had been scratched and bitten. She hadn’t been badly hurt, but she had been infected. She was already showing signs of a raised temperature.
“Why do I need to go into quarantine, Hope?”
“Because you’re not well.”
“But my temperature’s barely up.”
“It’s going to get a whole lot higher.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“Then in twelve hours you can come out of quarantine,” I said, but I already knew she wouldn’t be coming out.
“Why can’t I just hang around with you for those twelve hours? I feel like some sort of specimen in this transparent cage.”
“In case of what, Hope? Joe Burness got scratched just last week and he never got ill.”
“No he didn’t, but he stopped taking his wolf meds and became a wolf.”
“Okay, but he didn’t become a cat, despite the scratch, and he didn’t become rabid and he didn’t die. He’s out in the woods now, at the back of his old house.”
“We’re working on what happened to Joe, but, as you’re not on wolf-bane to begin with, I hardly think it’s material.”
“So does making the change to wolf combat the cat infection?”
“We’re working on that. Now I’ve got to go, another casualty is being brought in. Someone will keep an eye on you and I’ll be back later myself. Be patient.” Like patience was going to cure her.
It was more than one other casualty; many times more than one. In the unexpected flurry I stopped worrying about Amy for a while. By the time I had managed to cast another frantic glance down the microscope at my work in progress and had checked in on her again, her temperature was well up and the cramps had started. She was already on serious strength painkillers, but there was no alleviating the pain. There was never any way to alleviate the pain. None of our painkillers worked in the end. Euthanasia was the only way to stop the agony, but we needed all the biodata we could get. As bio-techs we had sworn to observe, not intervene: emotional disengagement for the greater good. It was our way.
Amy was sweating profusely and moaning.
“Stop it, Hope. Please. Just stop the pain.”
“I’ll up your meds, but you won’t feel any immediate improvement.”
I pretended to up the dosage of painkiller via the intravenous line attached to her arm and snaking out of the quarantine capsule. From the other side of the quarantine screen, she watched me do it and sighed in belief that it was all going to get better somehow. For a while the placebo effect worked, but then she started moaning again, followed by wailing. She started to writhe and, in the process, pulled the IV tube from her arm. She was on her own now.
I stayed with her. I needed the biodata if I was going to fight this thing and protect the rest of us, but it was more than that. For the sake of my humanity, I had to believe it was more than that.
At least she wouldn’t die totally alone. I liked to think my presence might provide her with some form of comfort, even if it gave me none. More than once, as I sat with her, I contemplated abandoning my sworn non-intervention, but how could we stop this happening to others if we didn’t know all there was to know about the condition? So I sat and watched and read the monitors. Then she got to the screaming stage.
Once the screaming started it was only a matter of minutes. It was as if Amy was collapsing in on herself, her body sucked at and dragged inwards, with what was left starting to sprout growths which then became fur. The process accelerated and soon a screeching, spitting, feline fury had replaced her. The cat was clearly in agony, but, for a small, mangy creature it took a very long time dying. Five hours, I timed every drawn-out second of it, during which time it yowled and screeched, bounced off walls, damaged itself and bled. Copiously. It was surprising that so small an animal had so much blood in it. Eventually, though, its small frame couldn’t take any more punishment and it, Amy, died, screaming, spitting, still trying to claw her way out of the quarantine area to the very end. The clear, normally damage-resistant screen was so badly scored it needed replacing.
I had just started to arrange this when my messenger-comm went off and a noise like the third apocalypse began on the outside of the lab. Markal’s message read: cat attac bad luv u. I realised, with a sense of the inevitable, the noise I could hear meant we were also under attack.
Cats were hurling themselves at the walls of the unit. As for why, I guess we’ll never know, but the damage they were doing was increasingly evident. Screaming, spitting and scratching, their claws were gouging the wall-skin of the unit, carving out bloody ribbons of outer skin and steadily eroding our protection. Eventually they would slice through into the unit itself. It might take a while, but there were enough of them out there. In the meantime we were trapped in the lab and Markal was out there, under attack, and without even the protection of the unit’s bio-dome. There were no further messages from him.
Ignoring the casualties who had been brought in, there were four of us in the unit that shift: Jarek, Sarah, Marcella and me. We spread out around the lab to monitor the damage, all of us trying to work out what exactly was happening and what we could do to stop it.
This attack seemed co-ordinated, not the random lashing out of individual, agonized, panic-stricken and dying cats. The casualties inside the unit were shrieking out in tandem with the attackers and we were caught in the middle of the ear-shredding chaos.
They made it inside far quicker than we anticipated, gnawing their way in through the base of the end wall. They brought down Jarek before he knew what was happening and then launched themselves at Sarah. Marcella and I ran for the storage cupboards. Then they leapt on Marcella. I carried on running and locked myself in one of the back, inner cupboards.
For a moment I thought the baby and I were safe. Then I saw the eyes staring at me from an upper shelf. A pair of cats had got there before me and were waiting. They were quick. I was quicker and I had an autopsy scalpel in my hand. I killed them both. With a sense of relief and a trace of victor’s superiority, I wiped their blood off my hands only to find some of it was my own. I had been scratched. Not deep, but odds were, I had been infected instantly.
I had twelve hours left at the outside, nine of those in agony. I took the pill container out of my lab overalls and looked at my meds. I was due a dose of wolf-bane. I put the pills back in my pocket without taking one and opened the cupboard door. The cats had gone. Jarek was dead. Sarah soon would be. Marcella would have longer to wait, but I could do nothing for her. I went in search of Markal.
I eventually found him in the back of a hide we used to observe the were-wolves in their wolf phase when we wanted to be unobtrusive. The skin on the hide was a lot thinner than that on the bio-dome. Markal hadn’t stood a chance. The cats had made a mess of him, but they hadn’t killed him. It might have been better if they had. The infection had already taken hold. All I could do was watch him as I had Amy.
As I sat with him, I pulled the wolf-bane pills out of my pocket once more. It hadn’t been proved beyond a doubt that the wolf change overrode the cat infection, but what I had seen in the microscope indicated it probably would. It would also kill my baby and leave me an outcast in my own home, what was left of it.
Markal screamed out in pain and across the colony a cacophony of cat yowls answered him back. The entire settlement was surrounded, overrun. I threw the pills out of the hide and waited. I sensed I wouldn’t have that long to wait. Indeed, I was counting on it.
Markal’s condition grew worse. He was deteriorating faster than Amy. However, my changes started before Markal’s did. At least I knew how long mine would take. I also knew with a first-time change, human consciousness is retained for some time after the physical transformation. The brain takes longer to let go of its human imprint than the rest of the body. For a while I would be both wolf and human, free but controlled.
I ignored my own pain. My world grew darker as Markal started screaming, but I sat and waited, resisting the instincts calling to me.
Markal’s once beautiful body imploded, becoming a bleeding bedraggled cat. I was ready. This time I wouldn’t just watch. I opened my jaws, took the cat’s small head in my mouth and bit down hard. I felt the crunch and spurt of life that gifted Markal peace. I opened my mouth and howled then, letting the wolf take hold.
J.S.Watts is a British poet and novelist. Her poetry, short stories and non-fiction appear in a wide variety of publications in Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the States including Popshot, Envoi, Mslexia and New Myths and have been broadcast on BBC and Independent Radio.
J.S. has been Poetry Reviews Editor for Open Wide Magazine and Poetry Editor for Ethereal Tales. She has published four collections of poetry: Cats and Other Myths, Years Ago You Coloured Me, Songs of Steelyard Sue and The Submerged Sea. Her three novels, A Darker Moon - dark literary fantasy, Witchlight and Old Light - paranormal, are published in the US and UK by Vagabondage Press.
Her new novel, Elderlight, is due out later in 2021.
For further details see: www.jswatts.co.uk