Captain Decker crouched near an abandoned car at the end of Vance Circle, listening for sounds of movement. Beside him, his brothers in arms Coleman and Holbrook sat on the cold roadway, running their fingers over their rifles, checking them for damage. A few feet away, a man and a young girl sat together, her in his arms, a cross dangling from her neck between them, strangers not two hours before.
“Have we checked this street?” asked Decker, eyeing the empty houses in the rapidly fading daylight.
Holbrook pulled himself up to one knee and put his goggles to his face, surveying the street in infrared, looking for heat signatures. “No bad guys, but there is a small signal coming from that house over there. Could be a small one, maybe?”
“Great, then we should go that way,” said Coleman, pointing in the opposite direction.
Decker grinned and looked at Coleman sideways, “Come on, it’s just a little one. The girl could take it out.” His eyes drifted to the young woman and she looked at him with worried eyes. “Just kidding, Miss, I wouldn’t ask you to do that.” He returned his eyes to the street. “I’m just saying you could, is all.”
“It’s moving,” said Holbrook. “Very slowly.”
“Could be human.” Decker toggled the safety on his rifle.
“Not likely anyone could survive this long,” said Coleman, “it’s been almost a week.”
“We survived,” said the girl, her face buried in the man’s chest.
“She’s got you there.” Decker stood up, leaned against the car. “Alright, let’s move out slowly, I want zero sound. Sir, Miss, just keep close to Coleman and do exactly as he says. Holbrook, you’re on point.”
The group moved as one, with individual pieces going this way and that, maneuvering through the debris in the street, keeping close to the shadows, pausing whenever the roars echoed in the coming darkness. The man and woman rushed hurriedly behind Coleman, unwilling to let him get too far ahead.
Holbrook was kneeling just to the right of the front door when Decker crept up the steps. He took a position opposite Holbrook and trained his weapon on the slightly open door.
“Unlocked,” said Holbrook, half asking.
Decker looked up, saw the splintered wood at the edge of the door, saw the dents along the front face. “Broken in is more like it. These marks are too big for a little one to make. It must be cleaning up.”
“Yeah,” said Holbrook, his voice going low, “but after what?”
“Let’s go find out.” Then as Coleman arrived on the porch, “In we go. Coleman, you keep them back and out of the line of fire. It’s only a small one, but you know how quick they are. I want you one room behind us at all times, got it?”
“Roger.” Coleman looked over his shoulder. “Should I arm them?”
“I don’t want a gun,” said the girl.
“You may change your mind someday,” said Decker. “But for right now, Coleman will carry the weapons. Coleman will fire the weapons. Cole…”
“Stop saying my name so many times. It’s bad luck.”
“I think we’re pretty much running on empty in the luck department,” said the man, “it hasn’t been a very fortunate week.”
Decker nodded, caught the man’s eyes and reassured him without words.
“It’s moving again,” said Holbrook, staring up through the door. “It might know we’re here.”
“Then let’s not keep it waiting.” Decker toggled his safety again and used the muzzle to open the door. It creaked loudly and he smirked at Holbrook, both men appreciating the cliché.
* * *
Loni flushed the small stainless steel toilet behind the bathroom partition of the safe room and returned to the small cot near a bank of monitors. There were eight screens, but four of the cameras were out and displaying nothing but static. Even so, she sometimes saw them in the snow, saw their forms moving around the house. She tapped on them with her fingers and the images disappeared.
She saw movement in camera six, in the stairwell. Two figures were moving slowly up the stairs. Her heart raced for a moment until she recognized the assault rifles in their hands, likely military, definitely human. The others didn’t use weapons. They used their hands, their claws, and their teeth. Loni closed her eyes tight for a moment, sinking under the weight of her memories. When she opened them, the two figures had gone and been replaced by a third. Behind it were two more, but no weapons.
Could they be, she wondered.
* * *
Decker entered the bedroom with his weapon raised to his shoulder, aiming into the darkness, looking for anything to shoot.
“The heat dissipates up here,” said Holbrook, “beyond that… wall.”
Both men stared at the blank wall, at the smooth crown molding and tan wallpaper.
“What in hell?” asked Decker, popping on the small flashlight on his weapon.
“Cap, the light,” reminded Holbrook.
“We can risk it for a moment. We still have some time.”
A shot rang out in the house, then was repeated in a quick staccato, Coleman’s weapon on fully automatic. Screams echoed down the upstairs hallway and a moment later, the girl, terrified, came running through the door. She hid quickly behind Holbrook.
“Jesus!” screamed Coleman, his voice and muzzle flash getting closer, “Two biggies! Christ they got the guy! Decker! Hole!” Coleman backed in through the doorway and stopped just inside as his teammates joined him on both sides, shooting into the darkness of the hallway.
The rapidly firing weapons drowned out the sound of hydraulics moving in the walls, of the clicking of seventeen steel locks, and of the wall breaking away from itself into the room.
“In here,” screamed Loni, her voiced drowned out by the sound of gunfire. The girl heard her though and ran quickly past her into the safe room. Loni ventured out into her bedroom for the first time in a week, wondering how a simple walk across the familiar hardwood floors had become so dangerous. She tapped Decker on the shoulder and he looked back, surprised, but still firing. Loni motioned to the open wall and Decker understood.
“Go,” he said to her, lowering his weapon. He stepped back and stood behind Holbrook and Coleman. “We’re falling back.” He tugged at the back of their vests and the men slowly walked backwards, still firing.
“Falling back? To where?!” screamed Holbrook.
“Hurry!” cried Loni from just inside the wall.
Decker pulled a flash-bang from his belt and tossed it through the open doorway. “Popper!” he shouted, then to Loni and the girl, “Eyes and ears!”
The firing stopped and both muzzles rotated upwards as the men filed into the closing wall. As it came together, the grenade exploded in a terrific bang that Loni could hear through her hands. The light grabbed at the wall, but it closed too quickly and locked into place. Counterweights lowered, steel rods clicked, and the magnets charged up, holding the wall shut.
For a moment, no one spoke, distracted by the ringing in their ears. Coleman stood with his back to the wall, staring at the glowing muzzle a few inches from his face. He could feel the heat on his lips.
Holbrook ejected the clip from his gun and counted the remaining bullets. “Two left.” He tilted the clip at Decker so he could see it. “Can you believe that? Two!”
“Twenty-eight seconds,” said Decker, undoing the shoulder straps of his backpack.
“Twenty-eight seconds what?” asked Holbrook.
“That’s how long you can fire a fully loaded, fully automatic rifle before running out of ammo.”
“So then you knew exactly when to throw the grenade?” asked Coleman, blowing on his muzzle.
“No,” said Decker, turning to Loni, “that was just instinct.”
Loni smiled at him, found something comforting in the lines of his face. It helped push the adrenaline out of her system, helped her calm down enough to talk. But she couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Thank you,” said Decker, looking around the room again, “You didn’t have to risk your life for us.”
“It’s nothing,” said Loni, “I just opened a door. I would have closed it the second I saw anything… not human.”
“I don’t mean that.” Decker opened a cabinet and examined the canned foods and MREs stacked neatly in it. “Is this all you have?”
“Yes, enough for a month.”
“Alright!” said Coleman, leaning his weapon against the wall.
“For how many?” asked Decker.
“For one. Two weeks for two.” Loni counted the people quickly, “A few days for five…” She looked around the cramped room. “Where’s the guy that was with you?”
They all looked at Coleman, who looked at the floor in shame. “They came out of nowhere, no heat sig or nothing.”
“You think they were already inside the house?” Decker folded his arms.
“I don’t know, could be.”
Decker considered the information, caught eyes with Loni again. “Not to be crass, but that helps us a little. We might be able to hole up here a day or two, but not too long. We’ll eat as little as possible and be on our way before you know it.”
“Where are you going?”
“Hilden Air Base, about twenty miles north of here.”
“I know the place.” Loni pulled a water bottle from a battery-powered fridge and tossed one to the girl and one to Coleman. She sat down on the cot and twisted the top off of her own bottle. “Why there?”
Decker sat down on the floor, giving in to the gnawing pain in his lower back. As he did, the other men took their cue and allowed themselves to be at ease. “One of two things may happen,” said Decker. “One, there will be a military presence still at the base, still fighting. We haven’t been able to raise anyone on the radio, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still there, maybe bunkered down like you are.”
“And if they’re not?” asked Loni.
“Then we’ll do what we’ve been doing. Resupply and reassess. Then on to the next base.” Decker studied her eyes. “If we can’t find help, then we can at least try to help ourselves. You could come with us if you wanted to.”
Loni’s eyes dropped to the floor, looking at the bloodstains on Decker’s boots. Some of it caked and black. Some of it fresh and bright red.
“I’m sorry,” said Decker, “I should have wiped my feet.”
The joke was lost on Loni, who didn’t smile, but looked up at Decker again. “What was that man’s name? The one who died?”
“I don’t know.” Decker looked to his men, but got no help.
“It was Ben, Benjamin Franklin Wells,” said the girl, holding tightly to the cross around her neck. “His mother named him after the President. He was a banker, a loan officer. He had a wife named Cynthia, who worked as a teller in the same bank. His daughter was named Stacey or Tracey. Both of them were killed the day they came. He wasn’t home when it happened, but he found them in the kitchen. Found a scavenger… eating…”
“My God,” said Loni, “that’s horrible!”
Decker nodded, pulled a small flask from his chest pocket. “Here’s hoping Ben found a better place. And that we may all find ours as well.”
The girl yawned. “I want to lie down.”
Loni stood and lowered the wall cot above hers and helped the girl into it. To the guys, she said, “I have a sleeping bag, but only one. Sorry.”
“We’ve got our own,” said Decker, replacing his flask. “The floor will be just fine.” He turned to Coleman and Holbrook. “Let’s get some rest, we walk at first light.”
The men nodded and began removing their packs. Decker stretched out on the floor next to Loni’s cot. He looked up at her and said, “You’re in a safe room with three armed men between you and a steel door. I think you can rest easy tonight.”
Loni half smiled, resting her chin on the edge of the cot. “They can still get in,” she said, tapping the side of her head with her finger.
* * *
Dawn came much too early for Decker and if it hadn’t been for the nightmare, he would have wanted to stay sleeping for a little while longer. Holbrook and Coleman checked the house as Decker waited just outside the safe room so the women could change and use the restroom. The wall opened as Coleman called an all clear on the radio.
“We’re clear, are you sure you want to do this?” he asked Loni.
“I won’t be able to help myself much longer. I think it was about time that someone came along and helped me.”
Decker smiled as they filed out of the room and down the stairs.
* * *
They stopped at a small gazebo in the park for lunch, sat on the floor with their backs to the low, boarded walls so as not to be seen. Loni had brought all the MREs she could carry and took all but a can of fruit cocktail. Decker and company had been surviving on a sack of Power Bars stolen from a vending machine a few days before and they were happy for the change of menu.
“If this is ice cream, then I’m Mickey Mouse,” said Coleman, spitting a pink piece of freeze-dried ice cream over the wall behind him.
“Keep your head down, Sergeant,” warned Decker.
Loni crawled across the dirty concrete floor of the gazebo and pulled up next to Decker. She offered him her crackers.
“Too salty for me,” she said.
“Thanks,” said Decker, tearing the small plastic wrapper.
“So what’s your story? Are you guys angels or something? Sent to protect the innocent women?” She smiled slightly, lacking the energy to get behind her own joke.
“It’s not a pretty story,” said Decker, washing down the crackers with some water.
Loni remained silent, occasionally nibbling at a brown cube from her MRE. The girl had her head in Holbrook’s lap and was seemingly napping while Holbrook rested his eyes. Decker watched them closely, proud of his soldier and the way he opened his eyes with deliberate pattern. Closed for two seconds, open for one, closed for three, open for two, over and over again. No one was going to sneak up on him, nor would he let fatigue overcome his duty to the mission.
“We were stationed at Fort Brachear. There were four of us after it was all said and done. Four left standing out of six thousand soldiers. I don’t have to tell you, it was a massacre.” Decker sighed. “We had no time to respond. The calls came in and we mobilized, but we never even got out of the gate. We stepped out of the barracks and into hell. I watched strong men throw down their weapons and weep. I watched valiant men stand dead in their tracks, unable to wrap their minds around what they were seeing. And I’m not above that, I’ll admit. If it hadn’t been for Coleman, I would still be standing there, stuck, unable to do anything.
“The men that did fight, fought hard. We took down their first wave in a hail of bullets so thick you couldn’t even see what you were shooting at. We drove them back to the gates, we set up barricades, we dug in. And then we realized that the first ones had only been scouts, small little things not five feet high. When the dust settled, we were staring down the road at things I could never imagine. Big, nasty things.
“There were hundreds and we only dropped six by the time they breached the gate. It was then that I realized we had no chance. No chance at all.”
“But they can be killed, right?” asked Loni. “You said you killed a whole wave of them.”
“They’re biological, if that’s what you’re asking. And yes, if you separate enough of it from itself, it will die. But these things were so massive. And they killed instantly. With a single touch. The death touch. I watched the entire front line fall down dead. And then when they couldn’t get past our turrets, they began throwing the bodies of their dead at us.
“One of them landed a few feet away from me, killed eight men on the spot. Dropped them like flies. Coleman, Holbrook, and a man named Diaz were able to escape with me. I’m not proud about leaving my post. But if I get you two to safety, if I can help take down a few more of those things, then maybe, just maybe, God will forgive me.”
“I think God is pretty much out of the picture,” said Coleman. “These things aren’t natural, Decker. Things like this don’t suddenly appear out of the sky. They’re a punishment!” He smiled. “For our wicked ways. And this powdered roast beef is the topper.” He spit a brown lump over the wall behind him but before he could come back down, a dark black forearm reached over and grabbed his face, sinking long claws into the sides of his head, sending showers of blood in all directions.
Loni screamed. Holbrook pushed the girl off his lap and rolled to the center of the gazebo. When he came up, his gun was firing into the wooden wall, sending splinters flying. The arm pulled at Coleman’s head, lifting his body and dragging it over the wall. Holbrook stood and fired and was joined quickly by Decker.
The thing stretched out six feet from the gazebo and was the color of oil and dirt. It writhed on the ground as bullets dug into its body. But still it pulled at Coleman. Decker tried to hold Coleman’s belt and fire at the same time, but the thing’s pull was too strong. The body went over the side of the gazebo and landed on the thing’s body. Coleman no longer struggled and Decker knew that he was dead on impact. It had the death touch.
“Move out!” yelled Decker, picking Loni up and ushering her out of the gazebo. Holbrook followed after him, dragging the girl behind him and still popping off the occasional shot at the oil slug.
As the gunshots died down, they heard the unmistakable roar, and nearly stumbled. The horizon behind them shimmered with activity, as a thousand beasts stampeded towards them.
“The food,” cried Loni, “I forgot the food.”
“No time!” said Decker. “Quick, get around that building!” A tall silver spire rose in front of them as they crossed out of the park and into the street. They ran around it and followed Decker into an open emergency exit. The building was dark and Decker’s flashlight provided little help as they climbed the stairs.
Finally, they rested in a small office on the eleventh floor, exhausted from the quick climb. Holbrook practically dragged the girl up the last two flights and twisted his ankle halfway up. Now he was leaning against the wall, breathing heavily, and trying to get his boot off of his swollen foot.
“We’ll rest here. If we’re lucky, they weren’t able to follow us,” said Decker between breaths.
“And if they were?” asked Loni.
Decker didn’t reply and instead, slowly pulled his reserve pistol from the holster and handed it to her.
* * *
“Hey, hey wake up!”
Decker felt someone shaking him and immediately reached for his weapon. When he opened his eyes, he saw Loni’s face near his, with worry written across it.
“She’s gone!” said Loni, pointing to the empty space where the girl had been sleeping next to Holbrook.
“Did you see her?”
“No, I woke up and looked over and she was gone. I never even heard her leave.”
Holbrook mumbled something and woke up. “Yeah?”
“Your girl is missing.”
Holbrook sat up, felt around on the floor next to him even though he could see the empty space in the darkness.
“Dammit!” said Decker, standing up and grabbing his gun. “I’ll go look for her, you stay here. Have your weapon at the ready.”
“Maybe she had to use the bathroom,” said Loni.
“I’ll check those first. Don’t leave this room.”
Decker slipped quickly out of the office and into the dark hall. Loni fingered her pistol and looked over at Holbrook, whose face was starting to show a hint of anguish.
“I’m sure she’s fine,” said Loni, trying to reassure him.
Holbrook didn’t even look in her direction.
Twenty minutes later, Decker walked slowly back into the room, knocking twice on the door before doing so. His weapon was lowered and his shoulders hung low, exhausted. In his hand, he carried a silver cross by the chain, stained in red, broken at the clasp. He sat on the ground with his back to the door and didn’t speak for several minutes. Holbrook lowered his head and almost cried.
“The people that used to work here. I think they tried to hide in the bathrooms,” said Decker, breaking the silence. “Dozens of them, packed in there. Then they came, killed them all. And afterwards, the scavengers picked them to the bone. They must have still been there when…” He looked over at Holbrook, but couldn’t catch his eyes. “It was an ambush. She never had a chance.”
Decker released his gun strap and put the weapon on the floor. “Are you still for this world, Sergeant?”
Holbrook sniffled, looked up, showed his dry face to Decker and said, “She has Coleman and Diaz to protect her now.” He activated the safety on his rifle. “You protect me, I’ll protect her.” He motioned to Loni. “And God will protect all of us. Protect us from these things.”
Decker tossed the cross to Holbrook, who cradled it in his hands for a moment, then deposited it in his chest pocket.
“I just hate it, you know?” Holbrook hit the floor with his fist. “I just hate not knowing what these things are. Where they came from. Why they’re here.” He looked at Decker. “And even if we kill every last one of them, we’ll never know.”
“When this all began, there was a lot of talk on the radio about seventy-eighth street,” said Loni. “People were calling in and saying that there was a big hole right in the middle between Abecker and Puente. I wasn’t paying much attention to it, so I kind of spaced out. When I heard them say that things were coming out of it, I turned it off, thinking it was some kind of prank. An hour later, I found out that it wasn’t. I hadn’t even thought about the connection until now.”
“How far are we from seventy-eighth?” asked Holbrook.
“Too far for you to walk,” said Decker absently, “that’s almost fifty blocks on a bad ankle.” He looked up, cocked his head. “Why? You want to go there?”
Holbrook shrugged. “Face it, Cap, we’re not going to last much longer. I’m not going to last much longer. As soon as the shit gets heavy, I’m going to slow you down. And I can’t do that to you.”
“If I have to carry you, I will,” said Decker.
“I’ll help,” said Loni.
“We can’t keep running.” Holbrook pulled a sling of C4 from his pack. “If you ask me, we should walk right up to that hole and blow it back to hell.”
Loni smiled, “Hellhole.”
Decker chuckled and smiled back at her, “You in for this?”
“We probably won’t survive it.”
“It’ll be worth it,” said Holbrook. “I’d rather die tonight and know the truth, than die next week and be none the wiser.”
Decker stood up, shook the dirt from his pants. “I’ll tell you what, we’ll take a little trip down there, drop in some C4, and blow it away. And then we’ll go to Hilden. Agreed?”
“Aye aye, Captain,” said Loni.
“Settled then, I’ll be back in a bit.”
“Where are you going?” asked Loni.
“To find us a BMW. It’s a long way to seventy-eighth, we may as well travel in style.”
* * *
Transportation turned out to be an aging Velini, a white four-door monster with rusted out sockets where the headlights used to be. Decker drove it quickly but carefully down the parking lot that was once Abecker Avenue. Holbrook sat in the back seat with his rifle pointed out the back window. Loni held her pistol out in front of her, resting it on the dashboard.
“Tighten up!” said Decker, gunning the engine. The car plowed through a stack of boxes on the sidewalk, sending paper and packing material flying everywhere.
“Two on our tail!” yelled Holbrook, squeezing off two shots, producing a deafening bang in the cabin.
“There, on the right,” said Loni, as two large black-as-night creatures stepped out from behind two cars.
All around them, the things came out of their hiding places, running after the car, jumping out in front of it. Creature after creature bounced off the rattling fender, sending a mixture of blood and black onto the windshield.
“Five more blocks,” said Loni, firing randomly out the window.
“Save it,” said Decker, looking down the street at the oncoming mob.
A loud crash came from the back of the car as a creature landed on the trunk and shattered the rear window. It reached into the cab with silver claws, grabbing for Holbrook and missing. Holbrook pulled his knife from his chest and sliced at the claws, severing them from the fingers. They clinked against each other as they fell to the seat. The creature roared and pulled its bleeding hand back, falling off the trunk and onto the road.
Holbrook laughed and shouted an obscenity at the thing.
“Tighten!” cried Decker again.
The road was covered in scavengers, crawling on their stomachs towards the oncoming lunch. The Velini’s wheels scraped over their hard backs, slipping more and more as they became coated in blood. As they passed seventy-seventh, a scavenger got stuck in the wheel base, lifting half of the car into the air. For a few precious seconds, Decker drove on two wheels, until at last the balance failed and the car came crashing down on its hood. It flipped several times before coming to rest upside down.
“Hole?” asked Decker, trying to spit without the blood going up his nose.
Loni was on the ground, badly cut, but awake and whimpering. She turned to the back of the car. “He’s gone.” Then added quickly, “Dead, I mean.”
Decker released his safety belt and came down hard on his shoulder. The steering wheel banged against his legs and he knew immediately that one was broken. He propped himself up on his elbow to look at Holbrook, who lay with a smile in the back, with his knife embedded deep in his throat.
“Look,” said Loni, pointing over Decker.
He turned and saw the hole, the black hole in the middle of the street, tinged with red at the edges, glowing and pulsing. “We don’t have much time. Bring the C4, hurry.” He dragged himself out of the broken window and was greeted by the roar of a crowd. They stood all around him, clacking their jaws in unison.
At the edge of the hole, they stared in together, saw nothing but a dark void staring back at them. Loni put her hand out, pressed down into the black. Her hand disappeared.
She pulled back and stared at her hand and then at Decker. Without words, he grabbed at the waist of her jeans, and motioned for her to do it.
Loni smiled, put her hands on the edge of the hole, and stuck her head inside.
* * *
Red. Everything in red. But strangely familiar. Forms, shapes, rectangles. Buildings, large and small. Vehicles, left carelessly in what looked like roads. Strange barren trees that stretched high in the sky. Oceans, rivers, mountains. Fires burning, bones charring. A world, an entire world. Destroyed. Overrun. Long dead for eons. And everywhere, the creatures. Giants on the shoulders of giants, climbing a chain of flesh towards the sky. Towards her.
* * *
Loni pulled her head out of the hole and wept into her own arms. A warmth grew throughout her body, concentrated in her head, as a new awareness took hold. The roar of the crowd brought her back and she looked over at Decker, who after attaching the detonator to the C4, had simply fallen over, exhausted, dying. She stole a look at the monsters around her and moved her head slowly to Decker’s ear.
“It’s not hell, Decker. It’s another world. Just like ours. What’s happening to us happened to them a long time ago. These things, they just move from world to world, eating up everything. They overpopulate and then expand. I don’t know how I know, but I do.”
Decker stirred, coughed once, but didn’t open his eyes. “It’s happened before?”
“Yes,” said Loni, her voice a whisper.
“It’s not over, is it?”
“No, there are more coming, at this very moment.”
“Not that,” Decker coughed again, spitting up blood. “I mean, they’ll keep doing this, to world after world.”
Loni paused, frowned. “Yes. When their population gets big enough, they’ll spread.”
“Unless we stop them here.” Decker nodded to the C4. “We have to do it, Loni. If we destroy the hole, we might give people a chance to fight back. We can’t allow reinforcements to come through.”
Loni placed her hand on Decker’s, over the trigger.
“No,” he said, pushing her hand away. “If you helped, it would be suicide, and you wouldn’t get into heaven.” Decker managed a weak smile.
“But then you’ll go to hell?” she asked, feeling the hot breath of the monsters on her neck.
“It couldn’t be much worse than this.” He coughed again and pulled the C4 closer. “Do me a favor though?”
“Sure,” said Loni, crying again, watching Decker’s face bend and curve on the drops of water in her eyes.
“When you get to heaven, you tell God something.” Decker lifted the trigger safety. “You tell Him that when the demons came, not all of us ran. Some of us stood and fought. Some of us gave our lives to stop the evil. Tell Him…”
“I will,” said Loni, feeling the sharp claw points on her back.
“Tell Him we were worthy of His help.”
Loni felt the claws dig into her flesh. The scream barely escaped her lips before the whole world faded in a massive explosion. The darkness became white. The roar became silence.
* * *
White. Everything in white. Familiar shapes of buildings, large and small. And a warmth that permeated every inch of the world. A light hidden behind frosted glass. A song that carried in the soft wind. A world, an entire world of light. And everywhere, the sweet smell of home.
Finally, a place where they cannot follow.