The Cockatrice BoysJoan Aiken
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To Charles Schlessiger
Nobody seemed to know where the dreadful things came from. Some people said one thing, some said another.
But experts mostly agree as to the day when the evil invasion of the British Isles first began.
It was on a wretched rainy Sunday in the month of September. Recently the winters had all been bitterly cold and snowy, while the summers were shorter and windier and wetter. On this September Sunday people were coming home from their holidays, flying in from Sardinia and Spain and Sicily. For most of them, wherever they had been, the weather was so nasty that they hardly felt they had been away.
Tired, disgruntled passengers disembarked from their planes at the big airport outside Manchester. They scurried through streaming rain to the airport building, then filed slowly through Passport Control, and began waiting in the baggage claim hall for their luggage to arrive. Soon they hoped to see it come sliding up a moving ramp, tip over the top, and come slithering down on to a travelling circular platform. All the passengers squeezed as close to this platform as possible, hoping to be the first to grab their own bags and hurry off to customs.
But a whole lot of time passed by. People waited and waited. They grumbled more and more loudly as they gazed at the luggage belt, which kept sliding by with nothing on it.
“Only twenty metres walk from our plane,” said one woman. “A one-legged rheumatic snail with athlete’s foot could have fetched the luggage faster than those handlers are doing it.”
“Snails don’t have rheumatism,” snarled her husband. “And I told you, Brenda, only to bring carry-on luggage for a weekend in Brittany.”
“It wasn’t a weekend, it was five days.”
“I can see something coming,” said a small pigtailed girl who was with her aunt. She had red hair and looked thin and sad. Oddly enough, from where she stood it wouldn’t have been possible to see anything coming up the ramp. But she turned rather pale and her mouth opened in a silent gasp of fright. And then, in a moment, something did come rolling over the summit of the ramp and toppled down the other side.
“That’s not proper luggage,” said the woman called Brenda.
It certainly wasn’t. It was an enormously large, lumpy, shapeless sack, tied at the neck with thick rope. It seemed to have some object inside about the size of a sofa but not at all the shape of a sofa; this thing, whatever it was, must have had as many corners, dimples, bulges, dents, points, swellings, creases and gibbosities as a seven-ended pineapple. The sack which contained it was uncommonly thick and stout, rather grimy, as if it had travelled half across the world, covered with tags and labels and scribbles, and coloured in wide stripes of orange and purple.
Almost at once it was followed by another sack of a similar kind and quite as large, but a different shape; this one was long, about the length of two beds put end to end, but lumpy, with a fitted bit of the sack covering a kind of prong that stuck up at one end.
“Maybe there’s a camel inside it lying down,” guessed the pigtailed girl.
“Don’t be silly, Sauna,” snapped her aunt. “People don’t send camels in parcels. Oh my stars, I wish our luggage would come. I want to get home. I want my tea.”
Everybody wanted to get home and have their tea. Still the luggage did not come. Instead, more and more and more of the large mysterious sacks came trundling up the ramp and tumbling out on to the moving circular beltway, until the whole circle was covered with them, gliding along, one after the other, like a lot of purple and orange ghosts.
“What the dickens can they be?” people were saying. “Who do they belong to?” “Why doesn’t somebody claim them?” “It’s not right! There’s no room for our luggage with all those things out there.”
“Maybe they are musical instruments,” said the woman called Brenda. “Maybe they belong to one of those pop groups.”
“Oh, sure!” snarled her husband, whose name was Ron Glomax. “And what stage in the whole world do you think is big enough to hold all those outsize objects? And what do you think they are? Superpianos? Alphorns?”
“Matterhorns, more like,” somebody said. “Anyway if they are instruments, where’s the group they belong to?”
“P’raps they come from Mars and are stuck at immigration.”
“I’m going to complain,” said Ron Glomax.
The moving belt was now completely packed with the big shapeless bags, wedged tight as dominoes in a box and all shiny with wet.
“One of them moved!” cried the pigtailed girl.
“Nonsense!” said the aunt. “Stop fidgeting around, Sauna. You stay close by me and behave yourself.”
At the end of its track the moving belt travelled through a hole in the wall beyond which was the outside area where the handlers stacked the baggage. This hole was screened by a curtain of swinging leather straps. Beside it was a door marked NO EXIT FOR PASSENGERS. Ron Glomax opened this door and put his head out. But the rain outside was coming down in blinding sheets, so he pulled his head back in again, grumbling that it was all quite disgraceful.
But now, strangely, the number of sacks began to decrease. Gaps appeared between them. Then the gaps became wider. Nobody was seen to take a bag off the belt, yet there were fewer and fewer, until at last there were hardly any at all.
“They go out under the curtain, and they don’t come in again,” said the girl called Sauna. Then she gave a whimper of horror, her eyes grew enormous and she cried, “Oh, I can see something huge—”
“Quiet, will you, for goodness’ sake,” said her aunt. “Thank heavens, there comes our blue case at last. You hold my handbag while I reach for it—”
But Sauna stood trembling uncontrollably for several minutes before she was able to obey her aunt’s order.
People were so happy to find their luggage that they soon forgot about the big lumpy bags; nobody wasted any more time wondering who had sent them or who picked them up, or where they had gone to on that streaming wet Sunday in late September.
* * *
A couple of months went by before the first of the Cockatrices—for that was what they came to be called—made its appearance.
On a dark freezing December evening a truck driver called Sam Dwindle burst into his foreman’s office looking very upset. He was white and sweating, and he shivered badly despite the thick jacket he wore.
“Yeah, yeah, I just know what you’re going to say,” he told the boss. “But listen to this: an hour ago when I was coming up the A3 from Portsmouth, on that new bit of bypass, I see this Thing, with big three-cornered flaps along its back and a tail the length of a tennis court and round ears that swivelled about like radar shields, and it was running along beside the motorway on its
four fat legs. Running as fast as I was driving! And I was doing seventy—”
“Then you didn’t ought to of been,” said his boss, “not with a load of wineglasses. I suppose you’d put in a couple of hours at the George in Milford?”
“No, I hadn’t, then,” said the driver, injured. “I knew you wouldn’t believe me. And if you don’t, I’m sure I don’t care. But I’m telling you, if that Thing had taken a fancy to cross the A3, instead of going off Dorking way, your truck would have been as flat as a Brillo pad and me with it.
“It had a tassel on its tail,” he added. “And flaps there too.”
“And a bow of pink ribbon on its head, I suppose,” said his boss.
“OK, OK! You can give me my cards. If there’s going to be things like that around, I’m going back to window-cleaning.”
* * *
The next of the Cockatrices was sighted by a school botany class, who were out on the moor near the town of Appleby-under-Scar, two hundred miles to the north of the first occurrence. They were hunting for rabbit and deer tracks in the snow.
Two boys, Fred and Colin, had run on ahead of the rest, but they came racing back to the main group as fast as their legs would carry them.
“Miss! Come and see! There’s a dinosaur in Hawes Dell.”
“Now what moonshine have you got in your heads?” remarked the teacher, Miss Frobisher. But the whole class hurried up to the lip of the dell and looked down into it.
“Gracious me! Somebody must be making a film,” said Miss Frobisher. “But that’s not an ordinary dinosaur, Colin. It’s a, it’s, um, Tyrannosaurus Rex. You can tell that from its teeth and claws. The claws are at least eight inches long, and the teeth—”
“Will it bite us?” nervously asked a girl called Lily.
“No, dear. It’s only a model, a very clever one indeed. I wonder where the cameramen are, and the film technicians. Dear me, what a lot it must have cost to make a model that size.”
“It’s coming this way,” said Fred.
“Coo, it doesn’t half stink,” said Colin. “Like a whole truckload of rotting seaweed. Are you sure it’s only a model, Miss?”
“Now, Colin! Use your intelligence! You know there aren’t dinosaurs about any more. They lived millions of years ago.”
“Look at its tracks in the snow,” said Lily. “Aren’t they huge? Listen to it pant. Miss, I’m scared. I want to go home.”
“Don’t be a baby, Lily,” said the teacher. “Just when you’ve got a chance to study this very clever model, which must be radio-controlled. Now you can see what it would have been like to live millions of years ago—”
Those were her last words.
The newspapers carried the story of the mysterious disappearance of Miss Frobisher and her class. “Their tracks were traced as far as the top of Hawes Dell,” reported the Appleby Herald, “but heavy snow falling soon after prevented the police from discovering where they had gone after that. A local farmer, James Robson, claims to have seen what he described as a ‘mammoth footprint’ in the snow, but there has been no confirmation of his suggestion that some large beast was responsible for the strange fatality. Mr. Adrian Mardle, Chief Constable of West Humberland, is in charge of the case.”
* * *
The next sighting was by an old lady, Mrs. Ada Backit, who lived in a high-rise apartment block in Glasgow, two hundred miles north-east of Appleby.
“Eh, Hannah,” she said to her daughter, who had come in to cook her supper, “there’s a face at the window looking in!”
“Och, come on, Ma, be your age,” said Hannah, from the kitchenette where she was cooking fish fingers. “How can there be a face at the window when we’re thirty floors up? Unless it’s an angel wanting to watch Neighbours?”
“There’s a face,” repeated the old lady obstinately. “I can see its two big sad eyes the size o’ porridge plates. I’m going to—”
Then there was silence. Hannah, walking in next minute with the dish of fish fingers, found nobody in the room.
“It was quite a shock to me,” she reported that evening on local television, “because there is no other way out of the room. So where could Mum have gone? The window was shut and locked, and the flat is thirty storeys up.”
QUEER DISAPPEARANCE OF GREAT-GRANDMOTHER, the newspapers called it.
* * *
Then there was the business of the Christmas tree at Chiddinglea.
The residents had, as usual, erected a twenty-metre tree in the middle of the village green and decorated it with lights, tinsel, and coloured fruit. On Christmas Eve a party was always held on the green organized by the chairman of the Tree Committee, Colonel Clandon. Carols were sung, the lights were lit, and the whole village danced hand-in-hand round the tree.
“Hey!” called the boy named Michael, pausing to stare up at the star-filled sky. “Hey, look! There’s something up there!”
Three or four people heard him and gazed up likewise. They saw that the stars were being blotted out by what seemed like a huge inky cloud. From this cloud something hung down which swept in circles with a faint whistling sound. And, from the very centre of the blackness, two great pale luminous eyes glared down at the revellers. Suddenly, with a loud sucking snap, the Christmas tree was uprooted from its fastenings; it flew upwards like a pin raised by a magnet.
Gasps and yells of indignation and fright rose among the dancers.
“Hey! What’s going on?” “Put back our tree!” “What kind of joke is this?”
“If it’s that aerial club from Wormfleet with their helicopter—” began Colonel Clandon, but he said no more.
The carol singers at Chiddinglea, like the schoolchildren of Appleby, vanished for ever, sucked upwards into the dark like spilt sugar into a vacuum cleaner.
* * *
Very soon the population of the British Isles had become noticeably smaller.
Cars stood around without drivers. Houses appeared to be empty. Bus queues were very much shorter. Babies’ prams had no occupants. High streets of towns were empty and silent at midday.
In five years, half the country had become a desert. Buildings had fallen, or been knocked flat. The whole of London had gone underground. People didn’t dare venture out in daylight any more. Shops were hidden in cellars. Parliament sat in a dungeon under the Tower of London. Schools were held in crypts. Even the Royal Family lived in the basement, which was all that remained of Buckingham Palace.
“Things can’t go on like this much longer, Harold,” said Lord Ealing, the Prime Minister, to General Grugg-Pennington, the Minister of Defence.
“No, they won’t,” agreed the defence minister. “Soon there won’t be anybody left at all.”
The two men were sitting on deckchairs on the Piccadilly Line, westbound, in Leicester Square tube station. Nobody else was there.
“I wonder where the monsters all come from in the first place?” mused Lord Ealing. “None of our scientists seem to agree about that. Do you suppose they can all have grown up from some nasty bacillus? Or mutated…?”
“Oh, who cares where they came from? The point is that very soon they will have the whole country to themselves. The Snarks are the worst,” said General Grugg-Pennington with a shiver.
“How can you tell? You’ve never seen a Snark.”
“Of course I haven’t! Everybody knows that if you see a Snark you vanish.”
“I’d rather vanish than be munched up by a Flying Hammerhead.”
“Remember that football match between Ipswich and Nottingham Forest?”
“Hammerhead got the goalie just as he was going to make a beautiful save,” sighed the prime minister. “That was the last match played above ground.”
The two men sat in silence for a while. Then Lord Ealing said, “Harold, I want you to set up a Cockatrice Corps.”
People had fallen into the habit of calling all the creatures Cockatrices. There were too many kinds to remember their individual names: Kelpies, Telepods, Bycorns and
Gorgons, Footmonsters, Brontotheres, Shovel-tuskers, Glyptodonts, Bonnacons, Cocodrills, Peridexions, Basilisks, Manticores, Hydras, Trolls, Sphynxes, and Chichivaches. And, worst of all, the deadly Mirkindole.
The country was completed infested with monsters. They had grown and multiplied, interbred and increased as fast as tadpoles in a pond.
So far as could be ascertained, the British Isles seemed to be the only territory at present affected by this disaster. Strict quarantine regulations, hastily put into effect, had up to now protected European, African, transatlantic countries, and the Antipodes.
Various attempts to end the siege of the infested islands by means of long-range missiles had proved wholly ineffective. The missiles simply melted before arriving at their targets.
The situation seemed hopeless.
“A Cockatrice Corps?” repeated the defence minister doubtfully. “But what about transport? How would they get about the country?”
“Underground? I do not think that would be feasible.”
“No, we shall construct a special armour-plated train capable of running above ground.”
“But what fuel will it use?”
Stocks of oil, coal, and gas had long ago been exhausted. People had to manage without.
“The train will run on wind power. Or maybe solar energy. Or stellar energy. There’s plenty of that.”
“Better than solar,” said the general. “The monsters raise too much dust by day.”
This was true. Monsters flying in swarms over the dry bare ground raised such thick clouds of dust that the sun was hardly ever seen and, even before fuel had run out, aircraft had to stop flying; the dust got into their compressor blades and the engines caught fire.
“And wind power,” said Lord Ealing. “There’s plenty of that. Or diesel bricks.”
“Hmn, a wind-powered, armour-plated train. That might be a possibility…”
“All the old tracks are still there, so far as we know,” pointed out Lord Ealing.
“Gregory Clipspeak would be a good man to put in charge of the corps. But it would be a most dangerous mission. We’d have to call for volunteers.”