The hills swallowed the sun on the red desert and the last of the trucks came in a dusty wake to the shelter. Lavender faintly blanketed the crests of the black buttes many miles away, and the horizon was a distant line of flat teeth across the expansive flat land. The earth was cracked, and each crack was widened by the feeble groping roots of equally feeble flora. A single unpaved road shot away into cities beyond the planet's curvature.
As the mosquitoes woke to feed in the brief window of dusk, the people came alive to feed on hot dogs and potato chips. They gathered in a low quarry-like roofless room, like an unfilled pool, with the waking stars spread over them. A few watchmen stood about the adobe complex as if some silent criminal should stalk across the desert to rob the children in the night.
I descended the steps into the low area to join the feast and time slid merrily away. The last glow of sunlight vanished into deep blue-black, not illuminated by cities, nor fog, nor moon, and no clouds obscured the sky. The children finished eating eagerly and ascended onto the desert floor again to play in the dust, sending up plumes of copper with each stomp of their feet. The conversation was warm and soothing, a mix of murmurs and happy sighs. As I became drowsy a sharp, boyish yelp interrupted my thoughts. It wasn't the shout of play but an urgent bark for my immediate attention. I stood and left my plate behind as I joined the youths on the tire-scarred road, just behind the last of the trucks, its engine still settling with little hisses.
The boys pointed westward. I looked.
A most unnatural glow had begun where the sun had sunken, but it was not warm and bright. It was cold and clammy and distant and quiet. The still air rang only with a few crickets, and we watched the light in fascination. It soon coalesced into a beam, a teal-white pillar reaching into, or possibly from, the sky, and its highest and lowest points were invisible to us. A chill ran through me despite the warm air. We said nothing and daren't move or blink as the white beam shimmered and faded, and when it had gone it was as if nothing had shone in the night.
"Look!" one of the boys shouted, pointing again, but we were already facing in that direction.
Soundless, another beam of light had come, instantaneously. It was much nearer now, on this side of the line of buttes, but too far to see its touchdown point in the darkness around it. It crawled into the stars and flickering pricks of light like fireflies drifted down the shaft like dust dancing in front of a flashlight. A terrible awe shivered me again. The children took a few steps back even though a yard wouldn't make any difference added to a mile. I watched, unmoving, the light; it glimmered white and pale green and blue, seeming to shift and move in place slightly, but I couldn't be sure. And then, just as quickly as it had come, it went again; it vanished in no direction, not moving away, it was simply gone at once.
Before we could discuss this, another beam shone, a bit closer than the last. And then another. Another. They were sparking up in all places, moving across the desert towards us. We hadn't even the chance to move away when one struck frighteningly nearby, so close that if it were lightning the thunder would've already rattled our bones, but this was more horrible than lightning because the projections made no sound and stirred no wind; they only shone.
The pillar of light, I saw, had squared corners and the breadth of a building. And more amazingly, something formed in that split instant of its appearance, something sprouted from the ground, shot up like bamboo, filling the squared light perfectly and reaching up fifty feet at least. The light vanished, and a building had been left in its place.
It was a blacker-than-night building, wrought of iron and ink and obsidian, and each of its tiny mean windows gleamed with the same sickly green-white light of the beam that had birthed it. And flitting around it were the shapes of living things, things that almost resembled birds but with heads too large or wings too ungainly, tails not quite right, claws misplaced; things that almost resembled cats and dogs and people, but each of them misshapen and wrong, deeply, disturbingly wrong. They were unearthly mockeries of life. They were twisted, broken reflections of true things. And somehow malice oozed out of them, they breathed hate, and I knew if their eyes caught us they would try to kill us.
I began to herd the children back up the road to the shelter. No one had appeared outside yet, as the lights were completely silent that unless looking directly at them during their appearance, one would never know they were there at all.
A growling snort and the sound of footsteps dully thumping the dust made me freeze in place. I turned and saw, lumbering heavy-bodied in a tire track towards us, was one of the hideous beasts the color of sand -- it was almost like a crocodile and almost like a lion but so distantly far from both it was like nothing at all. It hadn't noticed us yet in the dark with its tiny eyes, but it would see us soon.
"Into the truck," I whispered urgently to the children. We climbed into the bed of the pickup truck and lay as flat as possible, faces pressed against the metal. One of the boys started to whimper in fear, his breaths rapid and whining. I tried to shush him as quietly as possible, to keep still his shivering, to calm his breathing; the monster was walking near us now, and though it couldn't see us with its low-slung head, it would easily hear if the boy kept up his noises.
"Be quiet!" I hissed, feeling panic rise in me as well. The other children had their heads covered, eyes squeezed tight. The creature paused to sniff the ground, snorting rudely into the dirt. The boy whimpered louder, beginning to cry in unadulterated fear. "Quiet!" I said, in as low a voice I could. But he couldn't, and then --
He jumped from the truck and ran.
I didn't move. The boys froze. We lay still against the truck bed with held breaths. He had jumped out behind the creature, as it had already passed us by. Perhaps it didn't see him, or hear him -- his footsteps were muffled and fleeting as he fled. Maybe he'd be safe, maybe it would be too slow to chase him, it was a rather portly beast...
His scream cracked the night air like a gunshot tearing through tissue paper. Voracious snarls and pained shrieks blended and pierced our skulls and put lead weights in our hearts and stomachs. One of the other children gave a whimper and shoved his hands hard over his mouth in an effort to silence it. "Quiet," I repeated softly, numbly. Obediently, the screams died away and the growls faded. The creature moved on in its new direction, back the way it came.
Long minutes went by before I decided it was safe for us to return to the shelter. Surely, someone would be coming to us now? Surely someone there had heard the screams and noises, or seen the lights? I raised my head cautiously to peer over the wall of the truckbed and saw that more of the dark buildings had appeared, forming an instant explosion of metropolis. But no more of the creatures living in them were on the road. It would be safe to run for safety. I hopped quietly out of the truck and helped the children clamber down and then we scurried along the road for the shelter. And even then with all the new evil buildings and evil beings and the constant flashes of sickly light was there so little noise that if I closed my eyes I could imagine the desert the same way it was only minutes before.
A huge beam of light struck from the heavens without warning and nearly knocked us off our feet in repulsion as a skyscraper sprung up precisely where the shelter had stood. There was no more human building. There were no more humans. And there was nowhere to run.
The last nerves of the boys broke and they scattered like blown seeds in the wind. I stood in place for a long moment, gazing in mixed terror and awe up at the dark structure before me, its cold walls and cold windows teeming with life that wanted to undo life. And then my time for paralyzation ended and I ran towards the nearest boy in an attempt to herd them up again.
A shape dropped like an osprey on the boy seconds before my hands reached him. The thing was winged to be sure but in no way a bird, nor pterosaur, nor bat or dragon or anything else earthly and normal. It was almost an animal and almost a person and distinctly, definitely neither. Its huge maw split wide with teeth and screams cackled out of its gullet, full of mal-intent. It grasped the struggling boy and swung him up into the air, rising high with its evil laughter trailing behind it, making a game of his fear. I stumbled to a stop and watched them helplessly, praying against hope that he would not be harmed.
The demon flew straight at the building with the speed of a striking cobra and I thought a bone-crushing collision was imminent. But the thing ghosted itself and the boy through the wall like water, phasing in and out the other side, popping in and out of the building. The child writhed in full-blown terror, wailing piteously. The monster continued to cackle and then again, flew directly into a wall, passing through easily, and then -- the boy did not. The beast reappeared in the night air while the boy's bisected body hung stuck in the wall, his torso cemented into it, his legs hanging limp and twitching five stories up. Sickness flooded over me and I turned to find the other children, but more of the flying creatures -- each different, with no unified species behind them -- had made their appearance and were attacking and detaching the boys with wanton glee and hubris. All around me rang their dying screams. The air was aflutter with chaos and movement and blood and pain. There remained nothing to do, and I ran, pounding down the road toward the city as quickly as possible.
I knew I couldn't hope to run the length of the desert and survive, so I yanked open the truck door and leaped into the driver's seat, saying a prayer of thanks that the keys were still in the ignition. I started the engine and the monsters hardly noticed its roar among their own. I turned the truck sharply around and roared down the road, fleeing the horrible city of death growing in the valley east of the black buttes.
I raced into the city, left the truck haphazardly parked in the dorm lot, and dashed into the building to tell the others what I'd seen. But a worried flurry of activity told me that they already knew.
Sarah went by with a pale face and two suitcases in arm. She brushed by me without a second glance on her way to the exit.
"What are you doing?"
"Getting out of here. Haven't you heard? They're getting closer, the lights. Getting right up to the city. Getting out of here," she said and was out the door.
"She's an idiot," grunted Thom. "Where's she gunna go? Out in the open? No way. Not for me. I'm staying here, mannin' the fort. I have a gun. I'll fight them off if I have to." And then he, too, was gone; off to barricade his dorm.
All around me people were going by, some evacuating, some trying to find friends, some with cell phones trying to get reception, some just pacing in a panic. Thom reappeared with a shotgun, loading it. "So what about you? Going or staying?"
"Are they here, in the city?"
"No. Not yet."
"Where are they?"
"Everywhere else. All over the desert. They filled up the valley, I can't believe it! Just those lights, and they make a building, just like that! Whole valley's full!" The shotgun chik-chikked.
"They have the city surrounded," said a dour Dolores. "All the highways are blocked, and I think they're getting the other cities too. There's nowhere to go."
Thom nodded to her. "Yeah. So we might as well just wait it out. Wait for the military or somethin'. Come on." He walked towards his dorm again, and Dolores followed. I could see she was wielding a small pistol clenched tightly in one hand, hanging by her side. Her jaw was set; her eyes were stony. I considered following, but I hardly knew them, and I wanted to be in the comfort of my own room, unprotected as it might be. It didn't seem as if a well-fortified building could fare well against the imposing constructions of the lights, anyway.
I went into my room, empty in the wake of a dorm-mate who had fled before I arrived. I shut and locked the door, then the windows, then pulled down the curtains, then plopped down on my bed with my laptop on my lap. The homepage was aflood with the headlines, storming with news stories from every input about the otherworldly incursion. No one knew anything.
As I was about to logon to my chatting program and see which of my friends were alive and online, a sudden pain seized my gut. I shoved the laptop off of me and curled into a ball, holding my agonized insides with both arms. The pain continued, wave after wave of it, nauseating and dizzying me, until the room spun and I felt I may faint. I didn't understand what it could be, but I had a sneaking suspicion it was related to being in such proximity to the creatures. They were so malicious I wouldn't doubt their presence as causing pain.
I crawled to my desk and fished out my bottle of painkillers, popping two, then two more a minute later. The pain finally ebbed away, leaving only a mild discomfit and soreness. I slid back onto my bed and pulled the laptop onto me again and logged in.
The chatroom was filling to the brink. Everyone from every country, every friend and their friends and friends' friends and so on and so forth was logging in, a huge interconnected network of frightened lonely people, sitting in their homes in their cities, their only connection to the outside world, the only haven where they could feel safe and surrounded, was the chatroom. Dozens of people, many of whom I'd never met, and a few only in passing, with a select handful I actually knew very well, were online. There was a flurry of words rushing down the screen. Everyone was excited and terrified.
It's only a huge government conspiracy, typed one. They knew about it all along.
No, everyone's in the dark. You're wrong, retorted another.
I think the president knew. He's just hiding it, chimed yet one more. And they still poured in.
My town's still got a highway open. Those things haven't gotten too close. The military and the cops will protect us.
Hah! The military's a JOKE. They don't know what the hell to do.
Hear, hear. The cops are so useless. You know they're forcing them to stay on duty here? Half of them quit on the spot, and the chiefs aren't letting them leave.
All the cops are gone here. It's almost over here. There's riots, fires, panic in the streets. I can hear gunfire...but no sirens...
Then someone posted a keyboard-mashing string of gibberish. They never entered another post.
I was feeling only sicker talking, but I couldn't leave because then I would be alone. I had to hold their hands across the oceans and hug them at a distance, if it was the last thing I did. I had to just hold on to someone. I couldn't die alone.
I stood for a moment and fell to dizziness, my mind swimming and spinning still, half from the painful symptoms and half from taking too many painkillers. I shuffled weakly to the window and peered out the curtains.
All the city was gone but a few remnants. The dark city had replaced it almost entirely. Everywhere rose the inky spires and the small windows glaring out from all sides, and the cold air swarmed with the beasts. I dropped away in and instant, my heart thudding hard in my chest, stomach churning again. I only hoped they hadn't seen me.
I settled with forced calmness and slowness back onto the bed, leaning back, covered with a quilt and with a pile of pillows behind me. I was more comfortable than I had ever been before. I did not take out any religious items, no holy books, no silver symbols. I uttered one small prayer. One private whisper, half plea for mercy and half farewell, was all I sent into the still room. I realized how deathly quiet it was. There was no traffic, no screaming, no gunshots, no sirens, not even the snarls and shrieks of the demons. I couldn't even hear muttering or crying from other rooms. Nothing. No struggles. I hoped that when they took our building, it was in the quick replacement with their own. I didn't want to fight and I didn't want to be slaughtered. If only I could vanish quietly into the night, I would be content with my death.
I pulled the laptop onto me again. Many of them had gone silent. There were only a few people still on. I guessed that the end was most certainly nigh. The fever in the room had gone down and now it was into the little whimpering prayers and good-byes with a few keeping vigilant updates on the rapidly degenerating states of their own cities.
I glanced at the pill bottle and picked it up contemplatively. I could send myself into a very deep sleep and wake when, or if, this nightmare ended. And if I did not sleep, then at least I would not feel. I finally typed my first message.
Would you be angry if I took the rest of my painkillers?
I heard something plip nearby. I glanced over the side of the bed and saw on the carpet a fat drop of wet redness, too pale and too thick to be blood. It sizzled away at the flooring like a slow acid.
Another drop fell. I very, very slowly tipped my head up.
There, clinging to the ceiling, was a malformed, vaguely humanoid demonic creature, making soft hissing noises to itself. Its black-scaled body was far too small for its large hands and feet, and its hands and feet were much too big to be carried by its very tiny arms and legs. And worst of all was its head, a nearly spherical black orb slashed with bright patterns of red and yellow as if it had absorbed the essence of birds into its face. A line of glowing white eyes devoid of pupils made a ring around the center of its head like a belt. It swivelled its head about, and I saw its face nearly split off in half by its wide gaping mouth, dripping red ooze, lines of sharp white teeth glinting on both jaws. But it continued to move curiously around the ceiling, away and towards me at times, having not noticed me yet. Often it paused, frozen like a statue, head cocked as if listening, and I realized it must be blind and reliant on sound. But soon enough it would find me, or something else would. I had no time. I was going to die. The slightest motion or breath of mine would alert it to my presence, and I knew its wicked teeth and claws would make my death a terrible one. Memories of the children flashed painfully through my mind and I pushed them aside. My hands still poised on the keyboard, I rushed to type my last message.
The demon hissed and sputtered, and I only stared numbly as it skittered over the ceiling and leaped directly at my face.