A Lesson in Resistance

J. P. Relph


When it started to rain, it brought a momentary relief. 

Then they all woke and we knew we were fucked. 


The summer before we changed the world, we had the most brutal weather in modern history. The temperature spiked first, hotter than ever recorded. Sun-hungry people revelled in it: storming beaches, crowding parks, and searing like buttered lobsters. The crushing heat prevailed through July and  August, then beyond. Into September, then October where the promise of crisp mornings was left unfulfilled. 

Autumn saw the humidity rise… and keep rising, taking sun-cooked air and saturating it with moisture that never refreshed or relieved. Being outside was like breathing through clinging, wet fabric. Lungs rebelled against what felt like drowning, and everyone coughed. Soon hospitals were filled with patients suffering heat exhaustion and hyperthermia. The country wasn’t prepared for the drastic climate shift, and many died. People simply dropping like sweat-soaked rags in the streets, in shops, at desks, and even at the beachers. In shop  carparks, fights break out over the last electric fans. It was a kind of madness, driven by heat intolerance and fear. To some, it probably felt like the end of the world. 


Ellie and I were familiar with high humidity from our work in exotic plant hothouses and biodomes, but even we were grateful for our air conditioned labs. So was the site’s tuxedo cat – a somewhat lazy mouser since Ellie tempted him away from his stray life with tins of fish. He was called Fleming after the scientist we most wished to emulate. 

We were part of a research venture studying flora-soil-microbe interactions. Hunting within for new bacteria with the potential for antibiotic development. Hunting in the most extreme environments on Earth, where the most badass bacteria – known as extremophiles – produce antimicrobial compounds to survive hostile conditions such as arctic ice, deep ocean and arid desert. Such compounds could be the source of new, effective antibiotics, antioxidants, and antivirals. New champions against resistance.Against the ever evolving novel pathogens, which were becoming all too common.

We focused on species from Earth’s most humid places. Had collected specimens from Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Alaska, Louisiana and swathes of Amazon rainforest. 

A few months before, a steamy, dark slice of Costa Rica yielded something promising. Several novel plants were harvested, transported to our UK site, and replanted in the fecund Costa Rican soil we collected to maintain optimum growth conditions. 

One species proved extraordinary – a sublime symbiotic relationship with the soil microbiome – the unique collection of microscopic organisms thriving there. While a formal classification was being considered, we affectionately, perhaps conceitedly, called it Panacea

A stubby bush, it had yellow veined, avocado-dark deltoid leaves connected to the main stem, in a way that created a natural hollow. This leaf-cup filled with water which proved irresistible to insects. Flies, aphids, moths and spiders were all drawn to the glimmer of the warm liquid. Panacea had vigorous roots – fine and pellucid as glass-noodles – which proved surprisingly strong; the glassy tips piercing plastic with ease. 


While the national news unfurled in red banners of increasing panic and fearmongering, we chose to remain oblivious. Lost in the extraction and study of the  microbes from the Costa Rican soil – by October we’d found several unknown species. Our excitement in those weeks was as unfettered as the sun outside. Our work stations buzzed with possibility; our pharmaceutical funder eagerly anticipated the hum of bioreactors. Fleming stayed inside, slept and ate, and enjoyed our almost constant presence. 

As the humidity outside claimed more lives, we worked secreted in laboratory chill, consumed by our microscopes. Panacea worked too, laboured unseen. Those tenacious roots pushed through the floor of the biodome, through fine cracks in concrete. Breached the native soil, and carried their unique microbiome into the cool darkness. There they found nourishment much different from their tropical home. A perfect microbial storm. Crashing through the earth beneath our sensible-shoed feet.

Across the whole site, veiled by swathes of common weeds neglected in the searing weeks of the heatwave, veiny shoots sprouted from microbially-altered earth. Panacea flourished in the intoxicating humidity, grew large and lush, leaf-cups sloshing pools thrumming with insects. 

By the time we learned of this breach, this invasion, it was already too late. 


Ellie was in one of the hothouses, collecting samples, when she yelled into her radio. I rushed from white-cold lab air into oppressive, slithering heat. Fleming on my heels, always drawn to Ellie’s voice. I lifted him into the Land Rover and we zigzagged across site, blasting AC, to where Ellie was working. 

We found her squatting before a row of mature Panacea, her eyes stretched wide, breath juddering. Seeing me, she grinned, pointed down at the plants. Nestled in the now dry leaf-cups, a cluster of strange orbs, big as crab apples. Satiny grey-white-pearl, they resembled eggs. 

‘Some kind of fruit?’ Ellie snapped photos with her phone. 

‘Must’ve been too early in Costa Rica.’ I replied, gently moving the big leaves to better expose the orbs. As the leaves brushed them, something shifted, rustled. Inside. The greyness we assumed was part of the surface was rippling: the shadow of a resident. Fleming stared with huge orange eyes, tail fluffing, twitching. Ellie soothed him with long strokes. 

‘Something got inside the fruit?’ Her phone wobbled. 

I shook my head, flinging sweat onto the plants, ‘Not fruits, El. They look more like eggs.’

Ellie swiped through the photos, her fingers enlarging some. ‘I’ve never seen anything close to that size deposited on a plant.’ 

I took her hand in mine, squeezed, ‘You’re right, there’s nothing here could have laid eggs like that.’ I looked at the silky shells across from us; under a microscope I imagined I would see connecting fibres. ‘I think they might be cocoons, Ells.’  

‘Cocoons for what?’ Ellie shut off her phone, shook her head. ‘What exactly did we bring back from Costa Rica?’ 

I looked at the oddly seductive liquid glimmering in the plant’s leaf-cups, thought of how it had drawn so many insects. We had kept the origin soil, but we had changed so many other things that could alter the composition: the water, the air. The insectlife. 

Ellie turned to me, her mind reaching the same conclusion. ‘Oh god, Aaron, all those bugs!’

‘We made a new microbial stock, Ellie.’

‘And it cooked the bugs into something new.’

The cocoons shifted like Rorschach blots, we scuttled back on our buttocks, into the glass wall, alarmed at the writhing, coiling things inside. At the urgent scraping sounds they were making. Alarmed, but fascinated. Our scientific minds spun like centrifuges. This was our Panacea. Our cocoons.. 

Our things.

Then the automated sprinklers above whooshed and drenched us with tepid water. Fleming flew through the door beside us into the dry corridor. He liked to lap the water as it pooled; hated getting his fur wet. 

Water coursed down the veined leaves, fell onto the cocoons in sun-jewelled rivulets that encircled each like glossy fingers. Theymaraca-rattled, pale surfaces crazing like fine china. We crept forward, needing to see. Fleming grumbled a warning.  

The rattling grew rowdy as the hundreds of Panacea surrounding us shimmied in the deluge – announcing a waking. We crouched in the artificial rainfall, unable to tear our eyes from the cocoons as their fine cracks became fissures. Fleming hissed, his fur spiking. 

When several legs – jointed, blistered-red, claw-footed – slid from the fissures, Ellie screamed. When the heads emerged, like tumescent tongues through chapped lips – glistening compound eyes, slashing mouthparts – I screamed. 

‘We should move.’ Ellie’s voice was husky with shock. We kept our eyes on the slowly birthing things, sliding our bodies up the wet glass, shoes slipping in the deepening puddles. I could see Fleming beyond the door, as if through a veil of rain, his tail scything. 

‘Slowly, yeah?’ I stepped to the side, Ellie following, her hand a claw on my forearm. The door seemed a mile away; we focussed on the black and white blur of the cat. My foot skidded over wet algae and I dropped hard on my knees. Ellie gripped the back of my t-shirt, pulled. 

‘Aaron, come on.’

 Suddenly, all the demonic-insectile-arachnid things scuttled from every plant’s sweating heart, caution abandoned. Theyscreeched, advanced on us withbladed mouths scissor snapping; raggy-cobweb wings emerging wetly, lifting some above our heads to circle like chitinous vultures. 

‘What the fuck,’ I yelled, scrabbling to my feet. 

We ran then, slip-sliding across the sodden concrete.The first rank reached us as we grabbed the door handle. The things climbed up  our legs, dropped onto our shoulders,  and we felt the hot-needle envenomation of their clawed feet

We found we had no voices left to scream.


Wedragged ourselves through the hothouse door, swatting at the monstrosities aiming for our faces, in hot agony from the stabbing. Behind us, the vast glasshouse crawled with thousands of the things. Massing above, they concealed the roof of glass, pulled a vile curtain over the sun. Plunged us into sweating darkness before we made it into the corridor where Fleming crouched and spat. Slamming the door, we crushed a few that followed us. Unthwarted, they screeched, moved misshapen bodies, mouthparts like chainsaws. Ellie battered one with her heel, her sobs becoming animalistic cries. I stomped on others, over and over, until viscous black-red guts spattered my punctured legs. Fleming sprung into the air, shredding wings with his sickle claws and, as the downed beast crawled towards Ellie with its mouth dripping, the cat ripped its head off. Spat the masticated mess on the blood-washed floor. 

We huddled together while the onslaught against the door continued like a storm building, threatening to destroy us. Fleming growled deep in his chest, his chin covered in gore, and climbed into Ellie’s lap. She wept into his warm fur. Finally, we staggered to our feet, to the Land Rover. Raced to the labs where the ordinarily welcome chill made us shiver to our bones. We drank bottle after bottle of water, settled Fleming in his bed, and made the calls. 


It seemed like every acronymed authority sent someone to the site, but it was the army that burned the hothouse out, incendiary devices sending molten fans across hundreds of plants. Even as the inferno blackened, then cracked the glass, we feared it wouldn’t kill them. Not all of them.

Outside the charred hothouse, sticky and shaky, we leaned against a HAZMAT vehicle. Reeling from the horror we’d escaped. Reeling from the chemical-bright, crackling flames that now engulfed it all – the strange, almost pitiful cries that haunted the site for long minutes. Before the burn, a number of ventilated cases were carried in and out of the hothouse. Snatches of camouflage-fabric beneath orange biohazard suits. We were too tired, too horrified to protest. 

We’d been stripped, swabbed, scrubbed. Handed white cover-suits. Our flesh burned from hundreds of deep punctures, itched from the stinking paste medics had slathered on the inflamed skin. We hadn’t mentioned Fleming’s presence in the hothouse – we didn’t think they’d be particularly kind to a cat – we’d left him cleaning himself almost violently in the lab and drove back to the hothouse to await the cavalry.

 Ellie’s eyes were bloodshot and dull; I was sure mine were the same. I feared it was a fever: an internal heat unrelated to the crushing atmosphere, the ever-angry sun. 


The sky had clouded in the last hour though and, finally, fat drops of rain plinked off metal, bounced off arid paths. Far from cooling, but the petrichor covered some of the scorched flora stench. The downpour purged, saturated the abundant flagging plantlife all around us, releasing bright green smells. We breathed it in until Ellie gasped,

‘Oh god, no.’

An overgrown patch of weeds outside the greenhouse had started to shiver-shake. I moved closer, Ellie pulling on my sleeve. Already dreading what the native stems concealed: soaked avocado-dark leaves veined yellow, clusters of cocoons rattling. 

We looked out across the rain-battered site. Wide green ribbons choked with nettles, willowherb and ground elder threaded between all the site’s buildings. Stretched to the boundary fences where they met woodland and field. Completely unremarkable, of little import to a site devoted to exotic plants, left to proliferate unchecked in the cloying heat. Just a load of weeds. 

Now frantic with cracking, snapping movement. Crawling with Panacea’s waking gift. Or lesson. I grabbed Ellie’s hand, slick with grey paste, and we ran for the Land Rover. 

‘We need to get the fuck off the site,’ I shouted.

Ellie scrambled into the passenger seat, her voice scream-ragged, ‘After the labs.’

I frowned at her, could she really be thinking about saving our research? Then I realised, grinned. ‘For the cat.’

She nodded; her eyes clearer, resolute. ‘We get Fleming and then get the fuck off the site.’


I drove the Land Rover hard over baked grass and weeds, the first of the things hitting the windscreen like huge, deformed flies. It didn’t stop them. Ellie crushed Fleming to her chest, the steel of her jaw threatening anything that dared to harm him. I slammed the accelerator down as we careened through the main gate, tyres smoking on the sudden tarmac. Ellie turned to look through the rear window; I dared a glance in the mirror. Fleming kept his head tucked into Ellie’s neck, purring softly. 

Behind us, the yellowing fields, leaf-littered woodland floor and every swathe of weeds fell still. Erupted. Belched so many things the sun was blocked from its relentless reign and the hot-wet sky turned black and full of blades. 



We made it through a winter where it rained every day and the humidity never relented. We lived in the Land Rover, in cheap hotels and B & Bs in rural towns and villages, staying ahead of the plague. Speeding away at dawn, knowing what was coming. 

Panacea had spread out from the site in all directions, its roots penetrating a huge variety of soils, finding a plethora of new microbes to employ. Wherever the plants erupted; the things were soon to follow. They were ever-changing, mutating at alarming speed depending on the soil encountered and the insect species lured to their sticky deaths. What never changed was their lethality. Everyone at the site had been killed – either instantly by the sheer number of slashing wounds, or days later due to the infection. It was the first news story to slam the weather from the headlines. It was already too late. 

Ellie and I had spent thirty-six torturous hours fighting the fever gifted to us through puncture wounds. A new pathogen that likely would have ended us had we not escaped the onslaught. We’d holed up in a grubby hotel, soaking through the sheets and weeping under cold showers. Fleming stayed on the bed, watching a muted TV and eating the chopped up hamburger a kind housekeeper brought him. Once we’d stopped vomiting and shivering, we got back on the road. Dishevelled and weak but determined to outrun the new storm that was sweeping North. 

We made it through a Christmas nobody celebrated. By then, the country was smothered by Panacea plants. The sweating skies bristling with the things. They’d emerge from sheets of silvered rain like Hell’s corpse flies. Their bladed mouths and feet carving up all the countryside, every cityscape, painting it all red. 


We’re heading North, where remote pockets of Scotland escaped the heatwave. The land preserved in salty cold by the wild seas. Only the hardiest fauna survives there. If the climate doesn’t stop Panacea entirely in its yellow-veined tracks, we hope the relentless spread will at least slow. Hope the monstrous Hell-bugs are discouraged. So humanity can catch up. 

When we first see coastline through the road dirt, we grab each other’s hands, cheer. I wind my window down an inch and we smell the sea. Briny and brutal, cold fingers scratching inside our noses. It’s wonderful. We open both windows fully. Fleming sneezes, unimpressed. Ellie laughs; a beautiful sound I’ve missed. The Land Rover powers around the curves and climbs of coastal roads. The rain sluicing the grime of our arduous journey is cool; Ellie catches it in her palm so Fleming can lap it. The sea stays with us, iron-grey and cleansing, racing us like a maelstrom of white-tailed horses. 

We made it to a new year and a New World. We escaped the thing we made. Our plan now is to find a holiday cottage on the shingle, gather supplies and our strength. Introduce our fussy cat to fresh fish, keep him safe. We’ll survive like plants uprooted and moved to new shores. Then, when it’s time, we’ll fight back. If there’s one thing we know, it’s pathogens and the microbes that combat them. We’ll fight this battle under microscopes, spin our weapons in centrifuges. Two scientists and one tuxedo cat against them all. Teaching them a lesson in resistance.

JP Relph is a working-class Cumbrian writer mostly hindered by four cats and aided by copious tea. She volunteers in a charity shop where they let her dress mannequins and source haunted objects. A forensic science degree and passion for microbes, insects and botany often influence her words. JP writes about apocalypses quite a lot (but hasn’t the knees for one) and her short fiction collection was published by in June 2023. Other words can be found in The Ghastling, New Flash Fiction Review, Molotov Cocktail and more.