Author's note: This is my entry for Cornconic's Halloween 2021 story contest.
I used to be a research assistant in the local museum, and my main focus was palaeontology. The department in question dealt with any species which has since become extinct, from birds, mammals and reptiles to fish, insects, algae and plants. The museum housed about 200,000 exhibits, though, as in any museum, the bulk of these were retained in store-rooms. My job was to sort through the exhibits that were not on display and determine the importance, rarity or scientific interest of these specimens.
It was my dream job for the first few months—like pretty much every kid, I'd been fascinated by dinosaurs and other extinct animals. The day began with some basic tasks, such as the preparation of fossils—a complex process, mind, but one I never saw as being quite as important as physical analysis.
Once this was done, though, it was my job to finally catalogue the specimens. This was basically a matter of filling in the form and writing a brief description of the exhibit, as well as the age, date of collection and other relevant information. After this I would assign them a storage location—in filing cabinet, in a box, or in a random cupboard when the storage situation was dire.
I think things started to go downhill a couple of months ago, back in August. The museum was closed for obvious reasons, and it was only me and a few other staff members around. About an hour into my work, I was walking to the storerooms, my head buried in files on assorted bivalve fossils, when I bumped into the director of the department, Rachel. She was also busy reading through files, so we didn’t see each other at first.
She stopped short, almost making me walk into her, and peered up at me in surprise. ‘Oh, hi, I didn't realise you were here.’
I'd never actually met her before. I thought this was odd, but at the time I naively chalked it up to inexperience. I hadn't been here for long, after all.
I smiled. ‘Hey, I'm not exactly invisible, you know.’
‘No, but you haven't been here long,’ she remarked, looking more than a little amused. ‘I'm Rachel, by the way. Rachel Macbeth.’
We shook hands. ‘I'm James,’ I said. ‘James Prescott. I'm the new guy, I guess.’
‘It's been a while since we had any new staff. The position had been open for ages before your application. So, welcome to the palaeontology department.’
I smiled again. ‘You're too kind, Ms. Macbeth.’
She chuckled, a bit nervously. ‘Call me Rachel, please. No reason to be stand-offish with newbies, don’t you think?’
‘I guess not.’
She gestured to me to follow her, and we walked down the long hallway, until we reached a door at the end. She unlocked it and opened it, and I was greeted by her office.
It was an immaculately tidy space that was clearly reserved for her alone. There was a large mural on the wall, adorned with illustrations of extinct fish. They were covered in armour, with a pair of curved pectoral fins protruding from their sides. They didn't have a visible mouth, and their eyes were positioned on the tops of their heads. From the research I did while preparing for my job, I recognized them as placoderms of some sort.
‘They're antiarchs,’ Rachel said, realizing I was gazing at the mural. ‘Placoderm fish. They're not the impressive ones with big jaws, but I prefer them.’
‘You're interested in these antiarchs, huh?’ I said. ‘I mean, you've got an entire wall covered in them.’
‘They independently evolved the ability to crawl along the seabed, and some people think they could haul themselves up onto land. What's not to like?’
I shrugged. ‘I mean, they're not dinosaurs, but they still sound interesting.’
There was a brief moment of awkward silence. I think Rachel had actually forgotten why she'd brought me in here. She certainly seemed excited enough for that to be the case.
She suddenly got out of her chair and begin fumbling in the drawers of her desk. I was about to ask what she was doing, when she pulled out a large, black object. It was about a metre and a half long, covered in fine pits. There was a joint in the middle, and as Rachel moved it, the segmented structure fell limply.
‘Can you tell me what this is?’ she asks.
I walked over to inspect it more closely. Now that I could see it properly, its surface seemed to consist of a mish-mash of armour plates. It was obviously from an animal of some kind, but I had no clue what.
‘I haven't a clue,’ I said at last.
‘Well,’ Rachel said, ‘nobody does. I suspect that it's a heavily modified pectoral fin, adapted for terrestrial locomotion.’
I was confused. ‘What do you think it's from?’ I asked.
Rachel looked up at me for a moment. ‘Take a guess,’ she said, pointing at the mural again.
I looked up at the mural again, then down at the limb. While it wasn't immediately obvious, there were definitely some similarities between them. They were both covered in armour plates, both had fine pits dotting their surface, and they were both segmented in roughly the same place. But that didn't make sense.
‘I don't understand,’ I said at last. ‘Placoderms have been extinct for, what, three hundred and fifty million years?’
‘That's the current consensus,’ Rachel said, ‘but if I'm right, that's just been turned on its head. This,’ she said, pointing again, ‘may come from an extant member of the lineage. But it's no longer in the fossil record. This means there's a ghost lineage of about 359 million years—which, might I add, seems long enough for a species of antiarch to evolve terrestriality.’
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Rachel was suggesting that a group of fish that had been extinct since the Devonian was not only alive, but had somehow managed to conquer the land at around the same time as our distant ancestors.
‘This really isn't possible,’ I said.
‘That's what I thought,’ Rachel said, ‘before I had it sent in for genetic analysis. The divergence time was recovered at about 463 million years ago—that's roughly the same time jawed vertebrates first appeared. Now, I still have more tests to do,’ she said, looking more excited than ever, ‘but I think we've got something here.’
We chatted some more after that, and the conversation slowly drifted from the new specimen to work in general. After about half an hour, we said our goodbyes and parted ways. I didn’t exactly know what to think of what she’d shown me, but I highly doubted anything like that could be faked. That, and she seemed like too much of a respectable woman to fake it.
Honestly, I was excited to meet her again and see the specimen once more, along with any data she might have collected. But that’s when things started to get strange.
I didn’t hear from Rachel again for another few weeks.
I wasn’t sure where she went, but almost two months had passed since our last conversation and I hadn’t seen her, or heard anything about her. I called the university to see what was going on, and they told me they’d had no word of her either. Not only that, but the rest of my research project came to a halt. All the funding that came with it dried up as soon as she went off the radar.
Things weren’t going well for me at the time. I was in a pretty bad state of mind, for obvious reasons. I needed something, anything, to occupy my weary mind, and so I changed my viewpoint slightly. I started to think of this as nothing more than a problem to be worked out. It might not have been healthy to think of a potential missing person’s case like that, but for whatever reason, it worked for me.
Last week, almost a month after our last chat, the lab technician sent me a message saying that someone had arrived, looking to speak with me. That person had seen Rachel on the grounds, and that they’d been talking to her. Apparently, she’d told them about a behind-the-scenes project she was working on.
Now I was worried. If she’d been working on something directly involving the museum, surely she would have mentioned it, let alone set foot in the building. This is where, I think, I made my biggest mistake. I decided to take matters into my own hands. After asking around, I found out where Rachel lived. I set off this afternoon—incidentally, it’s Halloween.
The drive to her house was probably more than an hour, and I was in no state to do anything like that. I didn’t even have a cell phone to call for help if anything happened. But I decided it was worth the risk. Maybe something was wrong.
As soon as my shift ended, I got into my car and made my way to the address listed. It was dark by the time I got there. I pulled up onto the gravel driveway and stared at the house. 23 Buxton Street—yes, this was the right house. Unlike the other houses on the street, there were no Halloween decorations, no lights, nothing.
The next step was to get out of the car. I was exhausted. I’m not sure why, but my pulse was racing. I was also feeling a bit nervous. What if something was wrong? I hadn’t actually considered what I’d do.
But once I’d got out of the car, I suddenly realised that I didn’t have a damn thing prepared. I wasn’t going to knock on the door. After what had happened earlier today, it was out of the question.
So, I just stood there, not really knowing what to do. My options were pretty limited. I could either walk away and wait for Rachel to return to her house, or I could start knocking insistently on the door in the vain hope she was inside. I opted for the latter. It was probably stupid, but I couldn’t help it. I started banging on the door.
It was getting darker and colder. The wind was picking up. I was pretty sure I heard thunder. It was getting late. I heard footsteps and then a female voice.
‘Who is it?’
The door creaked open. It was Rachel. She looked scared. ‘What are you doing here?’ she mumbled.
‘I need to talk to you.’
‘Okay.’ She led the way inside, closing the door behind us.
I was standing in the living room hallway, taking in her state. She looked like she hadn’t slept properly in days. Her brunette hair was dishevelled—actually, Rachel herself was dishevelled. She was wearing tracksuit bottoms and a dirty white crop top, but they did little to disguise her physical state. She was thin and pale, and her stomach was slightly distended. She looked malnourished, completely different from the enthusiastic, upbeat woman I’d talked to just a couple of weeks before. She gestured vaguely towards a big, greying sofa, and I sat down.
‘What is it you want to talk about?’ she asked. Her voice sounded tired.
‘Where have you been?’
‘Where have I been?’
‘Yes.’ I stared at her, trying to get a read on her.
‘I’ve been here. Where else do you think I’ve been?’
‘I don’t know. It’s just … you’ve not been to work for ages. Why haven’t you come back?’
She sighed and slumped down onto the sofa next to me. Now I could see her better. Her eyes had a blank, vacant look. ‘I can’t live like this,’ she said at last. ‘Constantly peering over my shoulder, waiting to see if I’m being watched, looking out of windows, expecting to see ... It’s not safe. I have to leave, and soon.’
‘I’m thinking about going to Portugal,’ she said. ‘It’s a very beautiful country. I went there with my ex-boyfriend once. I should have enough money to live there for a year or two. It’s a perfect place for me to begin my new life. I can start afresh.’
I had no idea what she was talking about. We both sat there in silence. I drew in a sharp breath and spoke. ‘What happened to you?’ I asked her at last.
She sighed, glancing furtively to the window. ‘The specimen,’ she said, ‘isn’t the only one. There are more of those things out there, and they are alive. They’re predators. And I think ...’ She paused. ‘I think they’re intelligent.’
I didn’t believe what I was hearing for a second. It just sounded … insane. Yes, that must have been it. She had to have had a mental breakdown.
Rachel frowned, blue eyes narrowing in frustration. She’d sussed out that I didn’t believe what she was saying. ‘Just look out the window,’ she said.
I glanced at her, then at the window. Cautiously, I got off the sofa, and made my way towards the window. The window looked out over the front garden, and I could see the silhouette of my muddy Nissan. In my indecision, I’d left the headlights on. I saw a couple of glowing lights in the darkness, and then they started moving. Not like a pair of headlights, though.
As I watched, a gaunt creature strode out of the darkness, illuminated by my car’s headlights. The thing walked on two armoured legs, each tipped with three stout claws, and—no, that’s wrong. Its tail was a leg too. The thing’s head was short, covered in bony plates, and there were no discernible jaws. A pair of round eyes gazed, unmoving and unblinking, into the darkness. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Except, that is, for the specimen in the museum.
The legs were about the right size, they were jointed in the right place. The colour was wrong, but I subconsciously attributed it to decomposition. There was no mistaking it. It was some kinda placoderm. A land placoderm.
‘How ... intelligent are they?’ I finally asked, eyes fixed on the thing.
‘Well,’ Rachel started, ‘as soon as I saw them other day, I could tell that they were very aware of me. They’d watched me, following me as I walked along the street the last time I went out. I don’t know if they could understand what I was saying to you outside, but they definitely reacted to it.’
As we both stared at the thing, it suddenly turned around. It was glaring right at us, its shining eyes transfixed on us. Rachel’s hand reached up to grab hold of my arm. The glow of the creature’s eyes seemed to fade a bit, and then a cacophony of ear-splitting, high-pitched wailing came from the thing.
‘What’s it doing?’ I asked her. I didn’t think she’d know, but she did.
‘It’s …’ she started, ‘it’s calling for its pack.’
My heart sank as she said that. ‘Pack?’ I asked. ‘You mean, these things live in groups?’
‘Yes,’ she replied. She seemed kind of out of it, and I’m not even sure if she was paying attention.
Either way, I was at a complete loss. I’d never seen anything like antiarch before. The creature started wailing again.
‘Why haven’t you called the police?’ I asked Rachel, still fixated on the thing outside.
‘The hell are they gonna do?’ she said. ‘If I told them there was a living antiarch outside and it’s wanted to eat me alive for the past few weeks, they’d think it was a prank call. If I told them someone was in my house, I doubt they’d show up with machine guns.’
I had to agree with her. The thing seemed to just stare at us for a while, and then it slowly turned around and started walking away, its eerie cries drifting along in the still air behind it. I just stared after it, expecting another one to appear from among the Halloween decorations lining the streets. I wasn’t too confident about our chances against them, even if we had weapons. Rachel didn’t seem too worried, though, and I didn’t see any point in bothering her any further. She was too tired to try and rationalize what we were seeing, and she just seemed to have accepted it.
‘What’s your plan?’ I asked, trying to sound calm. I was anything but. What if it comes back with its pack? I fretted to myself. What chance would we stand then?
‘Maybe we should get going,’ Rachel said. ‘I don’t know if there’s any point in trying, though.’
She was right. We didn’t know how many of the things were out there, and if they were as dangerous as she made them sound, I doubted we could get to my car quickly enough.
I was jolted back to reality by a deafening crash from the direction of the kitchen. Rachel suddenly bolted upright, crying out in alarm.
‘Jesus Christ!’ she exclaimed. I saw her face flush with panic as I got up off the sofa. Then, I heard an indistinct sound. Two heavy thuds, followed by a third. It almost sounded like a three-legged person walking. And then the realization came to me. It was one of the creatures.
It was inside the house.
‘There’s no time. We need to go upstairs,’ Rachel told me, and I heard her breath catch. I felt like I was going to faint. More thuds from the kitchen, and I realized that there were more of the things. As we turned to run, the kitchen door burst open, and one of the things stood in front of us. A horrid stench of decay overtook my nostrils, and I retched as the animal stood, blinking in the harsh light of the living room.
The thing started to approach, and a faint whistling sound emitted from what I can only assume was a pair of nostrils. ‘Rachel,’ I whispered, ‘Go. I’ll keep it distracted.’
‘But—’ she started, eyes wide and fixed on the beast, but I cut her off.
‘Go. I’ll find a way out myself.’
That was probably the worst mistake I made, as I’d forgotten one key aspect of predator behaviour. They always go for the one which runs away.
That was when the thing made its move. It was like a blur of black and red, moving in on Rachel. It slammed her to the floor, pinning her down with its front limbs, precariously balanced on its tail. In a single swift motion, its huge claws tore into her bare stomach, tearing flesh and sending a fine mist of blood spurting into the air.
As Rachel opened her mouth to scream, the thing’s jaws sprang open, like those of a fucking Bobbit worm, and then they closed around her throat with such speed and force that it nearly decapitated her. Then, mercifully, it brought its powerful right forelimb down on her skull. I think—no, hope—that she died instantly.
I just stared for a few moments, shocked into inaction. Eventually I tore myself away from my own fear, and ran towards the door. I just had time to turn the handle before another of the things lunged at me from the kitchen. I pulled the door open, and hurled myself into the hallway. I pretty much launched myself through the nearest door, slammed it behind me, locked it—and that was when I found out my dumb ass had just locked myself in a broom cupboard.
That’s where I’ve been ever since. I haven't seen either of the things for about an hour by this point—that's how long it's been since I locked myself in the broom cupboard.
One of the antiarchs is in the corridor outside. It moves in jerks, its joints clicking and grinding with each movement. I can hear the faint clacking of its strange jaws as they grind together in anticipation of its next meal. There’s probably nothing left of Rachel now. The antiarch’s getting closer now. I know I should stay in here and hope I survive, but I'm not convinced that I can. That, and I don't feel like dying in a desolate corner of the building, stuck in a broom cupboard.
I don’t actually know why I’m writing this. I don’t actually know why I’m writing this. I could be calling the emergency services, or at least trying to escape, but something tells me neither of those options would be any use at this point. I suppose it’s just a way of getting things off my chest. I doubt anyone will ever know this happened, save for whoever eventually busts in and finds this.
I think I’m going to go outside now. It’s no use cowering, waiting for my inevitable death. I always wanted to go down in a blaze of glory, for my final act to be one of courage—plus, it's Halloween, so why the hell not?—so that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to do my best to go down fighting. I have no illusions about the outcome, but screw that.
I’m not going down that easily.
Written by Palaeontologica