Raising Tom Chambers
The world had become a gray and wet place in the years after the dieback. The bloated oceans consumed the coastlines; the flu contagions bloated the people. H1N1 had been the warning shot. R16B had taxed the global community’s response efforts. VX9 was the knock-out blow, a pandemic wildfire that plunged the world into savagery and suffering—into chaos and barbarism.
VX9 had eliminated, for all intents and purposes, the Earth’s human population. In the dying months—roughly a dozen weeks in early autumn of 2019—the last epidemiologist to run the numbers (please hit the lights on the way out, thank you very much) had predicted a 99.999999982% global dieback.
But there were people left, and Penelope Crump was one of them. She survived while every other person she had ever known suffocated in the misery of a cruel, wet flu.
She was a small woman, stooped slightly from the toll of what had been a hard life. At fifty-eight years of age, she wore her gray hair in a long braid down the center of her curved back. She had bright, furtive blue eyes and she enjoyed singing, though until she had picked up Tom Chambers, her days had been very quiet indeed.
Earth had moved on and, in the span of ten short years, it had begun to reclaim itself. Time, weather and a flourishing wildlife population had scrubbed the landscape of corpses. The air was clean and clear, the seasons returning and more clearly defined.
There were still scores of the dead indoors, of course, but Penny rarely went inside anymore. The reminders were too visceral—the decay too complete.
In the first years after the dieback, Penny Crump had wandered, searching for others; she only found two. Hank Ridley had died of a heart attack shortly after she’d encountered him; he was much older than she was and had heart disease. Sarah, on the other hand, had stolen away in the middle of the night. An empty place remained in Penny’s heart, and it ached when she thought about the girl whose surname she had never learned.
Penny wandered, looking for others and trying to stay a step ahead of the Astras. Even back then, the Astras were rare. Extra-terrestrial hitchhikers, the creatures had caught a ride back with the astronauts on the second-to-last manned space expedition to Mars, back in 2013. The government had quarantined afflicted hosts in the three years between the creatures’ arrival and the onset of the flu epidemics, but a sizable population of the strange parasites had evaded eradication. There had been speculation that the Astras were responsible for spreading VX9, but that didn’t make much sense. They were parasites, after all, and they needed human hosts to survive. Live hosts.
No, when it was all said and done, VX9 had pretty much spelled the end of the Astras as well.
They were small. Tom Chambers never grew to more than nine inches in length, even in his happiest years. They resembled insects, but they had some human characteristics as well. Ten toes. Ten fingers. An ability to reason—a knack for finding hosts.
Picture a plastic Ken doll with a taupe exoskeleton and a bullet-shaped head used to burrow into the folds of human flesh. They lacked eyes, instead intuiting their way toward heat, before adhering themselves to the ribcage, clamping on with their pincer-like mandibles and sucking nutrients from within.
But, not unlike Penelope Crump, some of the creatures did manage to survive. One damp morning, Penny had been making eggs for breakfast in the kitchen when there was a tremendous crash against the window. It had been an Astra—one solitary Astra. The creature eventually went away, but soon there were others. They began congregating around Crump’s compound, a fully automated luxury home that ran on solar energy.