James Burt

The April Editor's Pick Writer is James Burt

Feel free to email James at: james@orbific.com


by James Burt

The disease was first spotted in a Buenos Aires hospital, its existence confirmed world-wide hours later.

It starts like eczema, the skin roughening. The victim’s joints then tire and tighten. Within days, weary, they retire to bed, sleeping much of the time but never dreaming. I watched the TV footage, showing final stage patients in a quiet hospital, nurses walking past the smiling victims. There are worse ways to die.

The final, fatal stage comes during sleep: the patient vanishes. Left in their place is a book filled with tiny text in a script no-one can translate.

There was too much evidence for it to be a hoax but at first it seemed entertaining rather than worrying. Everyone tuned into the press conferences where scientists stammered as they tried to explain. No vector could be found for the condition, with nurses not contracting it from prolonged exposure to patients.

Shelves were erected in morgues to collect the books. Electron microscopes examined the strange paper, which carbon dating reported to be several hundred years old. The text promised mystery and wisdom, if only it could be translated. Linguists, archaeologists, cryptographers and physicists joined the search.

That summer was longer, hotter and calmer than any I could remember. A sense of peace settled as people became too curious to worry much about fighting or work. I wish that summer could have lasted forever.

I remember the first time I saw one of those volumes, a colleague bringing their sister into the office in a shoebox lined with fabric. Nobody crowded the colleague but during the day we all went to her desk. I took my turn in the late afternoon, when most people had already left.

I opened my colleague’s sister and traced alien text with my fingers. The letters sometimes repeated and other times differed from one another like ideograms. Most people felt the same certainty on seeing one of these books: if they tried hard enough, they could translate the script that had baffled the world’s experts.

What surprised me most was the volume's weight. It was not unnaturally heavy but it was denser than I’d expected. I’d heard tree experts were investigating the paper’s composition. The cells in the pulp were like nothing seen before, but the DNA was that of the original person, with the same genetic information appearing in the leather cover.

We kept going to work because that was what we did. With the books as a distraction, it was better than it had been. Nobody squabbled, and no-one minded when you took the day off to go to the beach. People relaxed on the shore, some of them reading loved ones, others paddling and eating ice-cream. We only went to the office to catch up with colleagues.

My favorite thing about those books: no matter how cold the day, the books felt warm.


Nobody could record the moment of transformation.

People keeping vigil on a relative fell asleep and woke to find them gone. Some speculated it was part of the condition, a sedative pheromone released by terminal sufferers. Indeed, nurses could only manage a couple of hours on a shift before retiring to rest. Researchers set up equipment to record the condition’s last moments but power-cuts or tape faults always intervened.

A famous singer announced at a press conference that she had contracted the disease. We were skeptical at first, suspecting a promotional stunt for the new album, but I was convinced when the singer nodded off in front of the flashbulbs. The singer had told us she was determined to beat the sickness. She wouldn’t suffer those final stages: her spine turning rigid as she slept all day.

This singer arranged for teams of watchers, three at a time, someone new every twenty minutes. She’d been through rehab, she would come through this. Every news bulletin bore updates: a week after the announcement, a record for survival had been set. A day shy of a fortnight a mistake was made, the watchers fell asleep, and that was that. An icon was replaced by an indecipherable book.

The news broadcasts returned to their mix of expert comment and stories about those left behind. The only difference now was that the singer's new album played as background music in the montages.


Nobody went to work now unless their job actually mattered. I'd pop by the office sometimes to see who was around but most people spent their days visiting friends. The weather was good and it was little trouble to find a barbecue.

People stood around swapping the latest rumors. Nobody really believed the stories, but it was more interesting than watching the same information repeating on Sky or CNN. You’d listen to theories. then make up some of your own. If you weren’t in the mood for conversation, you could retreat indoors and play Scrabble. There was a lot of Scrabble that summer.

The condition was still rare enough that it was interesting to hear when a friend of a friend or a colleague contracted it. Whenever someone turned up with a book, they’d pass it around and people would take turns reading. The books made no sense but you couldn't help turning the pages anyway.

Occasionally people suggested this might be the end of the world. Like most people, I figured the disease would peter out, just as the black death had ended with a hard winter. The end never really comes, no matter how much you anticipate it.

And then, in September, just before the schools reopened, the disease mutated and became faster.

There was little time for planning or preparation once it claimed you. Barbecues became less common. I continued to be healthy and traveled house to house, visiting friends. Sometimes they answered, other times I let myself in and found their books sitting in the bed. If I particularly liked the person, I’d take the volume home with me.

I’d seen so many movies about the end of the world. I always expected the end, if it came, to be like Independence Day, a million 9-11s worldwide.

It wasn’t supposed to be so quiet: there were better ways the world could have ended. What was wrong with global warming? Or nuclear war? Even zombies would have been better—you could measure yourself against catastrophes like that. Why did it have to be so odd?

Static replaced the television channels one by one, then the electricity became unreliable. You were forced to learn new rumors by walking around until you smelled a barbecue. The people at the gatherings were mostly strangers to one another. Nothing much in common, we’d ponder why the disease had missed us.

In end-of-the-world movies, survivors were a danger to one another. In reality, people were just glad of someone to talk to.


I’d lost almost everyone I knew and the streets were deserted. Without TV or radio, I couldn’t learn what things were like elsewhere. With no Internet, I couldn’t investigate methods of filtering water or foraging for food. I had to break into into supermarkets for snacks and mineral water.

Other people became less common. You stopped to chat, asked how they were doing. The conversations were all casual, as if we weren’t at the end of the world .I’d share something from my stash of chocolate bars and we’d wish each other well, saying we hoped to bump into one another again soon.

Without street-lights or traffic, the streets felt eerie. Office blocks, once lit up all night, were now dark cliffs. I wondered what things were like in the countryside.

Before the TV disappeared. I saw a news report saying that cats and dogs were disappearing too, leaving behind small piles of twigs. I wondered what else had vanished and what else was being left behind—perhaps dolphins were turning into air bubbles or strands of sea-weed? I hadn’t seen a bird in weeks. Maybe every living thing was being packed away.

I couldn’t handle the lonely city anymore. I gathered some supplies and set off into the country. I wanted to see a herd of something, of anything.

I wanted to see something living.

I found an old bicycle and rode a few towns up the railway line. I saw no animals, but I did find a pub, the Rose and Crown. In daytime I’d have missed it but, passing at dusk, I saw candles flickering in the windows.

Inside were three men, for all I knew the largest crowd left in the world. They said hello and one went behind the bar to serve me. I took out my wallet but the man said not to worry.

“Why do we need money now?” he asked.

We talked a bit, swapping stories of our lives before and after. One talked about a cure, saying they’d heard talk of a big announcement, due just before the media vanished. But people always passed on rumors of cures: it was an easy way to make friends.

One of the men was transcribing the text from a book, trying to tease out meaning. The world’s greatest scientists had failed, but he kept trying—he used to do crosswords, he told me—
Surely it was worth a try?

“You got any idea what it says yet?” asked the barman.

The man dropped his pen and gulped down his beer as if trying to put out a fire. “I think…” he said, calm again.“I think it’s a history.”

Nobody spoke. The disease had taught us about quiet. A candle guttered and died. The third man came over with a replacement. “It's aliens, isn’t it?” he said.

This man was shocked when I didn’t agree.

“What else makes sense?” he asked. “This ain’t natural. They’re going to take over once they’ve got rid of us, you wait and see.”

“Wouldn’t they do something simpler?” I asked. “Couldn’t they simply poison us, or blow us up? Or keep us around as slaves?”

“But they’re aliens. Why presume to understand how anything alien would behave? Maybe this is simple to them.”


I kept going. I mostly traveled at night, hoping to spot more people from their lights. I found the librarian on the outskirts of London, her building lit up so bright I could see it for miles. She quizzed me at the door before letting me in; even then she kept her shotgun close. “If you mean any harm to this place, I’ll shoot you. I’m authorized to do so.”

The books, the paper books from before, had all been stacked outside and long ago turned to mulch. Inside, shelves were filled with yards of volumes that had once been people. Mesas of them stood on the floor. “What is this place?”

“The last of the research stations. We were planning a response.”

“There are other stations?”

“Used to be. They all went quiet when the condition went exponential.”

She led me to her inner sanctum, an area screened off by dust sheets. She had a cot, cooking equipment and a pile of old books, the only ones saved when the library was cleared to make space. As she cooked, the librarian told me about the research project, how vans would turn up daily with new volumes and she’d catalogue them with her colleagues. Now everyone else was gone, and she kept the library as a memorial.

After the food she excused herself. For the next two hours she sat at a radio, trying to contact the other stations. I watched from an upper floor, amazed at her fortitude, impressed she kept searching.

Her work done, she told me she was going to bed. “You have to leave, I'm afraid. Civilians aren't allowed here overnight.”

I thanked the woman for her hospitality and left.

The next morning, out early, I saw a contrail dragged across the sky, the jet tiny, so high it was barely a dot.

Seeing planes always made me wonder where they were going. Did they know I was watching them? If there was a plane then there would be other survivors, enough to maintain a runway. Maybe, somewhere, the world was still going. Would search parties find me if I waited long enough?

I traveled to the Peak District and stayed a week, walking in the hills. There were worse things than the end of the world. With no television, background music or crowds, I felt that I was getting to know myself for the first time. I stayed in an old guest-house, going out for walks and returning in the evening to read people by the fireside.

One night I walked too far and couldn’t make it back that night. Looking for somewhere to spend the night, I found a small chapel above a steep valley. The door was padlocked but the key had been left hanging from a nail.

The church was in good order, as if the caretaker had only just left. In the flashlight beam, I found a series of questions written on the walls behind the choir stalls.

The handwriting became smaller as it descended, as if running out of space, even though the other walls were empty. I read and re-read until the light’s batteries wore down. The text rambled about the rapture and the ‘seven books,’ but made little sense.

And, again and again, the same question appeared in the babble: “Has anyone inquired on the victim’s moral qualities?”

I left the church, not knowing any answers.

The nights drew in but the clocks didn’t go back—I preferred bright evenings to bright mornings and it was my choice. I planned to keep moving and explore the country but, as the weather grew worse, I decided to settle in for the winter.

I cycled back to the Rose and Crown. I had some trouble finding the pub and it was late before I dropped the bicycle in the car park. Since I’d last been there, someone had clumsily painted over the old sign, renaming it All Our Yesterdays.

The front door was locked but I found an open window and let myself in. It smelt musty and I saw no trace of the three men I’d seen before. A few piles of the volumes sat on chairs in one corner, and then I saw the three books which lay together on the bar. I put them in my bag and sat at a table drinking whiskey.

I wintered at All Our Yesterdays, occasionally breaking into houses nearby to look for signs of all the disappeared people. I imagined myself a detective, hunting missing persons. I became used to the creepy-crawlies colonizing the houses, the mould and mushrooms breaking down the carpets.

That winter was so cold and boring that I was glad to see spring. By then, I’d not spoken to another human for months.

I might be the only person left in England.

From time to time I saw planes but had no idea where they had come from. On the last occasion, I saw two aircraft traveling in opposite directions, their contrails making an X against the pale blue sky.

I walked everywhere, living off snacks taken from news agents. My dreams were haunted by ghosts and survivors. When it rained I got soaked, but it didn't matter—my whole life felt like a holiday.

I took to following highways. The long, thin wildernesses were being colonized by weeds. I remembered science fiction movies where roads remained as a memorial to humanity centuries after people disappeared. In reality, everything was turning green. Traces of our species might survive, but passing aliens would most likely miss them.

Walking widdershins around the M25, I spotted smoke rising from an old house: maybe someone had built a fire. I had wondered what to do when I next found traces of someone: should I speak to them or keep walking, leaving us to our own solitude? But I had to speak to them in case they knew where the planes came from.


She’d lived in the house since she was a girl and wasn’t prepared to give it up. As servants and groundskeepers succumbed, she surrendered rooms until she lived between the kitchen and a drawing room. Struggling to maintain the house kept her busy; as good an activity as any, she told me.

With someone else to help, she wanted to tackle the garden. I spent a couple of days tidying the maze, cutting back unruly hedges. The young woman spoke little. At night, we paced the corridors with candles, sometimes glimpsing each other’s light. When we encountered one another head-on, we stopped and talked.

“Don’t you find something erotic about all this?” she asked me one night. “Doesn’t it turn you on that everyone became a book?”

“Not really,” I replied.

She lifted her hand from my arm and continued her patrol.

When tired enough, we slept side-by-side in a four-poster bed. I woke alone one morning and found a tiny book lying beside me.

There hadn’t been any symptoms, one night her skin was soft, the next she was replaced by the book. Maybe the disease had changed.

I flicked through the book, hoping for answers. What if it suddenly made sense, I wondered? Without someone to corroborate it, how would I know I’d not simply imagined I could read them?

Someone had to be the last human and it seemed to be me. I didn’t feel lucky, just lonely and desolate. I wished the disease would claim me, too. It wouldn’t be a bad way to go. I’d seen friends waste away from other conditions, or take years before surrendering to mental torments. Turning into a book seemed neater and cleaner—it had none of the pain associated with, say, cancer.

I didn’t leave the house for a few days, and carried her book with me everywhere. I wondered what to do next. Should I keep traveling or stay here? Should I seek out other survivors?

I wanted to find a refuge, a last hold-out for humanity. Maybe I could return to the library and see if the librarian still scanned her radio channels? Or maybe she had been rescued, and had left a message behind for other survivors.

A few nights later I went into the garden. The lawn was becoming a meadow, the grass growing tall, weeds taking residence. I supposed they’d cease to be weeds once there were no people left to make the distinction.

I looked up at the stars and wondered, if this was an invasion, when would the aliens would arrive? I hoped they weren’t waiting for every last person to be gone, because I wanted a chance to see them. If they spoke English I would ask them for an explanation.

I stood in the cold, coat wrapped around me, and it happened:

The stars were moving.

James Burt lives in Brighton, England, where he works as a computer programmer. For almost a decade he has run the Not for the Faint-Hearted writing workshop. He enjoys giving talks and recent topics include “The History of the Vindaloo Curry” and “How to Escape from a WW2 POW Camp.” Despite obvious downsides, James looks forward to the apocalypse because of the resulting time off work.