A Date With Death

He sat nervously at the table, checking his watch. He was new to this online dating thing. He’d never thought of himself as particularly handsome nor possessed of much of a personality. He was pretty much a boring fellow. The most exciting thing that had ever happened to him was missing a flight.

Even his “narrow brush with death” stories were dull. He had been booked to fly aboard Flight 392 to Cincinnati for an insurance conference when he got inexplicably but violently ill. He spent the next two hours in the bathroom, puking his guts out. He’d wound up missing the flight which was a good thing because one of its fuel lines had ruptured and soaked the engine with gasoline and the plane had exploded, killing everyone onboard.

Except for Milton, who was at first erroneously reported as one of the dead. Nobody had noticed, even those who knew he was supposed to be on that plane. That had been a few months ago, and things had pretty much settled back to normal, which for Milton was an epic shitfest of craptastic proportion.

Milton had always had trouble meeting girls. Not only was he not a looker he had the extra added attraction of being insanely shy. In his mid-30s, he hadn’t had a serious girlfriend ever nor had he ever been laid unless you count a hurried handjob that he’d gotten from a friend of his sister in high school in exchange for writing all of her term papers senior year.

Since the plane incident he’d been loath to leave his apartment. He felt as if he’d cheated death and death might have his eye on him. He felt this odd sensation as he walked around the apartment like something was watching him. He chalked it up to jitters and decided finally he needed to get out. On the spur of the moment, he signed up for an online dating service.

It was all kind of confusing and the questionnaire was rather personal. He debated as to whether to lie about his experiences and at last chose not to – Milton was honest if not experienced; he felt any date would know that he was inexperienced right away and best not to waste their time with false expectations

So imagine his surprise after a week of nothing he got a response. And not from just anyone but from a gorgeous blonde that would make Nicole Kidman look homely. She said she was interested and wanted to meet for dinner; Milton had chosen the bistro but pretty soon the nerves began to set in. It was all he could do to get himself ready and tying his tie had been a nightmare.

Still, he went out to the dinner optimistic. Maybe even a homely fellow like him could find happiness. So I showed up in a suit and tie, waiting patiently as she was fashionably late.

Then she showed, her golden hair offset by a jet black dress, elegant and yet sexy; off one shoulder, deep cleavage and short showing plenty of leg. Her eyes were full of merriment as she crossed the room, her eyes full of joy and delight. Milton rose and reverently took her hand and kissed it European-style. She looked a little surprised but pleased.

“So what’s good here,” she asked taking the menu. He was dumbstruck for a few minutes but found his voice. “I don’t know. I’ve never been here before” She laughed, a silvery sound and tossed her hair back, Rita Hayworth-style. “Then we’ll explore together.” She ordered a filet mignon rare, while Milton ordered a roast chicken dish which was about the limits of what he could afford.

They made small talk over salad; when the main course arrived, she dug in with great gusto while Milton picked at his chicken. She was way out of his league and he knew it but if she didn’t know it then he wasn’t about to tell her. Things were going so much better than he ever expected they would.

They began telling stories of their lives together; she talked about her job which took her all over the world and left little time for herself; she didn’t specify but it sounded like some sort of executive position, or at least something in acquisitions. He told her about his recent luck, which she listened to, eyes glued to him as if there had been Krazy Glue involved.

She asked a lot of questions about how he felt about surviving; good, he supposed but there was a lot of guilt. Why had so many died and he was spared? She shook her head sadly. “I don’t know,” she said, “It almost sounds like there was a mistake in accounting, don’t you think?” That took him a little bit aback but he shrugged, not wanting to disagree when things are going so well.

“Do you ever wonder what it would have been like if you’d made the flight?” she asked him. He was going to say no but something about her made him completely at ease, as if telling the truth was all right no matter how horrible. “Sometimes,” he admitted, “I imagine sitting in my seat, hearing the explosion and seeing the flames approaching. It all seems so real but then I wake up at home in my bed. There are days when I’m so lonely I wish I had made that flight.”

She gave him a sympathetic look. “You haven’t tried to kill yourself have you?” He shook his head vehemently. “Oh no, no, no, no, no. When I was younger, yeah but not really seriously. I took a bunch of pills but just threw them up. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.” She looked at him strangely but said “Yes Milton, for everything there is a time, including dying.”

Again, a strange answer but Milton found himself answering “I guess it just wasn’t my time yet.” She laughed, but there was an edge to it Milton didn’t like. He wondered if he liked where this conversation was going. She responded “And how would you know that it wasn’t?” She shook her head. “It’s not like you get an e-mail telling you that you’re going to die next Thursday. No phone calls saying death is going to visit between two and four pm the next day. Death comes when death comes and that’s all there is to it. But sometimes a few people fall through the cracks. They get a bit of extra time. Do you follow soccer Milton?” Milton couldn’t say that he did.

She went on, “In a soccer game after regulation time ends, time is added for all the stoppages – penalties, injuries, that sort of thing. The game doesn’t end until that extra time is over. That’s what it’s called Milton, extra time. It sounds to me that you’ve been living on extra time.” Milton shrugged. “I suppose so. Of course there’s no way to really know.”

She shook her head. “Oh but there is. Let me see….” She picked up her purse and started rummaging through it. Finally, she found what she was looking for. “Here it is! Take a look” and she handed Milton what looked like a computer printout.

On it there were some of the facts of his life; his date of birth, where he went to school, how old he was when he lost his virginity (that field was blank), where he worked, how much he made – his whole life reduced to a single sheet of paper. He shook his head ruefully…and then turned pale.

At the bottom it read “Date of Death: 07/22/12.” The date of the plane crash. He looked up at her quizzically. “I don’t understand.” Her eyes rolled. “For a smart guy Milton you can be pretty dense. It’s right there in black and white. You were meant to be on that flight. So were a bunch of teenagers returning home from space camp and I have to tell you, it’s been insane chasing them down.”

She got up and Milton took another bite of his chicken, swallowing the piece before he’d thoroughly chewed it. Abruptly he felt something scratchy going down his throat – and lodging there. He couldn’t breathe. He began to gag, trying to expel the object. “A chicken bone, Milton. Not the most glorious way to go – I’m sure you’d have gotten more sympathy from dying in the plane crash but I promise you, this is less painful.”

As he choked, he gasped out “H-help. Please. Hit my back…do someth….” he was losing air fast.  She shook her head sadly. “I have a tally to keep Milton. All must be accounted for but sometimes some slip through the cracks. I have to find them and I really don’t have the staff for it. It’s a big world, after all. But now, with you, the balance is restored. Everything is as it should be again.”

He tried to get up but Milton felt numb everywhere. He fell to the floor. She stood over him, sorrowfully. “It’s not like the movie Milton. I don’t make these elaborate, sophisticated accidents. It just causes too much attention. I find simple is better, don’t you?” The fields of his vision were turning black. She picked up her purse which he swore looked like a scythe, pausing thoughtfully to leave cash for the bill and a tip. She bid him a jaunty farewell as she walked away into the night. His last thoughts were to wonder why his dates always went so badly at the end.


A Walking Tour of Hell

At the side of the road, the Jeep sat, steam and smoke rising from the engine. Fuck. Double fuck. I didn’t have to pop the hood to know that my reliable Jeep had run its last mile. Fortunately, the road was clear as far as I could see in both directions but it wouldn’t stay that way. Night would fall.

I had my backpack and my canvas bag full of what I needed just in case the worst happened – and it just did. I had plenty of fire power and as much ammo as I could carry, as well as my trusty katana sword for when the ammo ran out. The sun was high but night would come. Night was when they hunted.

I began walking north, always north. The probe had fallen in the south, two and a half years ago. It had crashed in the jungles of Central Mexico. NASA had sent it into the Dickering-Piedmont comet to pick up samples from the comet halo for reasons nobody fucking cares about except some science geeks who’d never gotten laid and were compensating by bringing in some alien biological material that fucked things up big time on the guidance system of the probe, causing it to malfunction and land thousands of miles from where it was supposed to. And that same biological material began interacting with the flora and fauna of the rain forest of the high plains, mutating them into hideous monsters each more ravenous than the last. Soon most of Mexico was overrun as mankind moved down a notch on the food chain.

At first the 100 foot high steel wall on the American border kept all the monsters in Mexico but the aliens were clever adaptors. Wings were sprouted an aggressive intelligent plants sent tendrils slithering under the walls, toppling them in some cases or popping up on the other side in others. The Southwest was an alien stronghold in less than 30 days.

But there was a limit. Apparently the aliens thrived only in a narrow temperature range. The cities in higher elevations and northerly latitudes survived. Elsewhere….let’s just say that those that didn’t leave the cities got eaten.

Yes, that’s right. These completely alien life forms that managed to survive in a comet halo found a taste for human flesh. It took a lot of biologists by surprise too (although not as much as the inhabitants of central Mexico who wound up as brunch for broodmares and psychobabblers – the names these things got were facetious at best and disrespectful at worst – but nonetheless it didn’t matter if you died in the fangs of a Gibbering Idiot or at the claws of a Razorslash. Dead is dead.

I kept my eyes open and my gun cocked and loaded. Although the visibility was excellent here – it always is along the Roads – there are things that can charge at 100mph like a Hell’s Pegasus or a Demonspeed. There are things that hide and things that adopt the shapes and forms of other things, like the Lurker and the Chameleon Beast. There are a million ways to die in the Infested Zone and here I was 50 miles from the nearest border.

I’ve walked in the Zone before but only with armed columns of men armed with big time bang bang and aerial support. The common school of thought is that a lone person in the Zone won’t last 24 hours. I’ve never heard of someone who walked 50 miles alone through the Zone and lived  to tell about it. Inside, I was screaming in fear but that wouldn’t do me any good. The only slender chance I had at survival was to stay calm, stay along the road and hope for the best.

I hadn’t gone 500 yards before the sweat began to pour. It wasn’t just the sun but deep down I knew that the odds are that I wouldn’t be around too long after the sun went down – and there were plenty of beasts that would do me in during daylight hours as well. I felt the shakes coming on – I’d seen a lot of good men die horribly at the hands, claws, stingers, fangs, pincers and venom of these things. I gave my own face a hard slap. I couldn’t afford panic. Panic makes people dead in the Zone, even in the company of highly trained soldiers. It was a fact that no matter how large, how well-armed the party that went into the Zone was, there would always – and I mean always – be at least a 10% fatality rate. Some battalions went in and were never heard from again.

I kept going at as fast a clip as I thought was safe. Part of me wanted to panic and sprint and keep sprinting but that would be fatal. Sooner or later I’d tire out and when that happened I’d be easy prey. My best defense was to be alert and focused. I scanned the horizons, keeping a hundred count on my steps and on one hundred I’d check the horizon behind me to see if I was being stalked. I kept that vigilance going for at least six miles.

It paid off, too. About 15-20 minutes in I heard a tell tale “ting-ting-ting” sounds coming from my eight o’clock. I turned to my left and saw it flying low over the hill. It was close enough that I could hear the buzzing of its wings. The Ting Ting knew I was there long before I knew it was there. It resembled a dragonfly with a kind of Dr Seuss-looking head  that had a long protuberance (kind of like a lily stalk) with a bell-shaped chitinous mass growing out of its end. It was from here that the ting-ting sound emanated from. For some reason the acoustic properties of the mass were stupendous – you could hear it coming from a mile away. Literally.

Ting Tings are impressive flyers but not really fine hunters – they really can’t sneak up on things. Humans can easily evade them and I did. It made a lazy pass in my general direction and rather than dive to the ground (which will get you killed; once you’re on the ground for any creature you’re not getting up) I waited until the last moment and leaped aside, a game of Infested Chicken. It went buzzing off, the ting-ting-ting of its bell ringing in my ears – Edgar Allen Poe, eat your heart out!

In fact, that’s how it immobilizes its prey; the sonic wave that it produces can actually cause temporary paralysis on certain smaller animals. On a human it can cause temporary deafness if the animal is large enough. This one was more of an adolescent sized which explains why a single one of them would take on a human male. This one had about a six foot wingspan – I’ve seen Ting Tings with spans twice that. It was making another pass at me which wouldn’t do at all – I couldn’t waste all day with a teenaged monster while there were other things lurking nearby that wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of tired-out prey.

I pulled out my trusty 12-gauge shotgun and took aim. Either this creature was too stupid to realize it was in danger or it was incredibly desperate. In either case I waited until it came close enough for a can’t-miss shot. BLAM! Ichor everywhere. Dead Ting Ting. Keep moving.

I did pick up the pace a little. The noise and the stench of the dead monster would bring others, including some Mama and Papa Ting Tings and those were large enough to kill a human adult. If they came at me one at a time I could pick them off all day but a swarm of them would be more than I could handle. I kept moving.

The Jeep, like any vehicle that is permitted in the Infested Zone, had a GPS system that keeps track of the local infestations. As the sun began to move further and further west, I heard the voice activated system in my ear – I’d removed the GPS and put it in my pack, linking it to my Bluetooth receiver. “Entering Ainsworth, Nebraska zone. Bad Emmetts and Devil Walkers detected here.

I cursed. Bad Emmetts were bad enough but easily avoidable; they hung out in trees and liked to drop down on their prey. They made little nests about the size of coconuts and secreted an acid out of their mouths that melted the bottom when they detected prey coming. They’d drop down onto their prey and burrow into them. They lay their eggs and as they do they secrete another liquid, this time causing full paralysis in the victim. Three days later their eggs hatch and a thousand Bad Emmetts eat their way out of the victim who is alive and fully conscious while it happens. It’s a real awful way to go and while I’m not exactly sure why it got the name, they are bad news indeed.

A Devil Walker is worse news. They are like a centipede on radioactive steroids. A Devil Walker is about a mile long and is all legs and teeth. They walk like a centipede but each segment has a mouth with mandibles that are sharp enough to cut through a tree trunk. Once spotted by a Devil Walker, a lone human is toast. They are far too big and far too fast to get away from and killing them is a waste of time; they can be killed but you have to kill every segment, not just the head and for full-grown adults it takes a rocket launcher to kill a single segments and an adult can have anywhere from 75-450 segments.

Needless to say, I’m not eager to run into one of those. The one advantage that I have over a Devil Walker is that they’re so big I can see them from far enough away to avoid them, but if I miss one and it crosses the road in front of me or behind me and it’s smell receptors (located just above their mouths) will detect me and I’ll be spending eternity being digested.

With the sun going down I had to be careful. In the dark Devil Walkers are much harder to spot. Still, keeping to the road would be the only way I could survive this and if I could keep to the road, I might live through the night. The problem is that there is no lights on the road – lights attract critters. For the same reason I couldn’t use a flashlight or a torch; for many of the creatures that’s just like ringing the dinner bell. I do have night vision goggles but they aren’t always helpful with far-off objects. Indeed, I’ll just have to keep my wits about me and hope I can walk the 50 miles before dusk of the second day.

Much of why patrols are still sent out is to pick up human stragglers like me and to make periodic “herd” thinning inroads so that the population didn’t get so large that the food supply would dwindle, forcing them to come north where the remaining people are. They don’t like the cold but it doesn’t kill them. At least, not as far as we know.

It was with a lot of relief I saw the river in the distance and realized I was approaching the Platte. I hadn’t seen any Bad Emmetts and only one Devil Walker but it was behind me, moving away thankfully. I hadn’t seen any up close and I wouldn’t mind keeping it that way.

The smugly emotionless voice of the GPS intoned. “Exiting Ainsworth, Nebraska zone. Now entering Platte-Keller Zone. Killfish, Deathshead Wolves, Yellow Terror, Lobstermen and Decapitators all detected here.” I swore quietly to myself. All of those were night feeders and it was well past dark.  I didn’t dare stay where I was – I was on flat prairie land and there was really no way to know if a Devil Walker was approaching.

But there was more forested land here. Trees. Places for things to hide. However I’d rather take on a thousand Lobstermen than one Devil Walker. However, my odds for survival in both cases were almost Nil. With a sigh I started my way into the Zone.

My hair was standing on end. I felt an unreasoning fear. I knew I was going to die and I was a sitting duck out on that road. Maybe if I got in amongst those trees I’d have a chance. They’ll offer some cover and…

I whirled around and started firing my rail gun into the trees. They exploded with a fiery bang and a shrieking Yellow Terror flew out and ambled away from the road. The monstrous creature had shaggy yellow fur and a half-formed face with large saucer-like black eyes, It had appendages but no recognizable hand or feet.

Yellow terrors aren’t physical specimens but they have powerful psychic abilities. They can project fear and curiosity and all sorts of emotions designed to get their victims to come to them. They really aren’t physical specimens but once their victims are near enough they have a spike like appendage in one and sometimes both arms that they stab their victim with which contains a toxin that stops the heart of their prey. They then drag their victim back to their lair and consume them at their leisure. They are easily frightened off.

I heard a bone-chilling howl and picked up the pace. Deathshead Wolves are the most dangerous predators that aren’t 50 feet tall. Like North American wolves, they hunt in packs. But Deathshead Wolves are far more vicious and deadly. Their skulls have no skin or fur – only gone with sunken eyes that are protected with a strong membrane that allows them to see much farther than terrestrial wolves.

They have razor sharp teeth that can tear chunks of flesh and entire limbs from their victims. They have powerful legs with sharp claws which they rarely use in an offensive capacity. No, they prefer to attack with their tails which have giant scorpion-like stingers which can be used as a sword and go clean through an adult body, or as a toxin which causes an agonizing feeling of pain that simply incapacitates their victims before being eaten of course. All these damned things eat us.

The woods were beginning to get closer and closer to the roads. Forested areas are far more dangerous than the plains. The trees can shelter and hide; things can attack without warning and the element of surprise can finish  you off. I looked at them nervously, dreading an explosion of fur and fang charging from the woods. I’m a pretty accurate shot but at night it is far more dicey to hit a charging animal than it is during the day.

Nothing came charging out though and I continued to move at a steady pace. Fatigue would be setting in; I took brief 5 minute breaks and sometimes slowed the pace a bit when there was more distance from the treeline. I had a long distance sniper rifle loaded with phosphorous tipped tracer bullets. Those were pretty lethal to anything that lived in this hellhole.

When I got to the Platte River it was nearly 2am and I was cold even in the warm clothes and armor I was wearing. I could see Killfish wriggling in the river from the bridge. I kept in the middle of the bridge – Killfish could leap high enough to grab someone from the side of the bridge and pull them down into the river. Also Lobstermen liked to hide under bridges and attack. I thought I could hear the clicking sound of their claws but so far none o those horrors had made their way out onto the bridge.

Crossing the Platte was nerve-wracking and twice I saw movement which led to shots being fired. I knew there were all sorts of things just under the bridge, but the sound of gunfire made them a bit more wary. However, near the end of the bridge I saw three of them emerging from under the side of the bridge. They were bipedal with large claws, two additional arms, a red carapace and a flat head with eye stalks protruding from the top. They were close so I pulled out my 12 gauge and blew off the heads of the first two. The third was on me before I could reload and was far too fast to outrun so I dropped the shotgun and pulled out the katana. The creature didn’t feint but came straight at me as most of these monsters always did.

I swung head on and severed one of it’s secondary arms. It shrieked, an unearthly sound but I’d been trained to ignore their noises. It came after me again and lost a claw for its troubles. When I took one of its eyestalks as well it decided to cut its losses and ran off but I knew its cousins would be making an appearance soon. Fortunately, I was close to the end of the bridge and crossed without further incident. When I looked back I saw a swarm of creatures including lobstermen feeding on the corpses that I’d created. Better them than me.

Daylight broke as I was passing from the Platte area and the terrain reverted to prairie. It would be a scorcher for sure. I began to think that I had a shot. After the bridge I’d seen a couple of Decapitators gibbering and lurching along like they usually do but I knew enough not to approach them. They lull their prey into thinking they weren’t a serious threat but once the victim came close enough they’d pounce and pull off their heads with terrifyingly lethal speed. They didn’t come any closer and I continued on my way.

The border was within reach. My feet ached and I was bone weary; I’d been walking for nearly 24 hours straight and I was conserving energy as much as possible. I was OK on supplies – my 12 gauge was gone but most of my other weapons were available, but that bag was getting heavy. I might have to lighten my load soon.

This was some of the more dangerous territory. Unkels roam this territory – ant-like creatures the size of a grizzly bear with a caustic acid that secretes from their mandibles. Not that hard to kill one at a time but they hunt in groups of hundreds and thousands.. You run out of ammo sooner or later and once that happens, they take you down to the nest and let the queen digest you. While you’re still alive from what I understand although how they figured that out I have no idea.

Some of the bigger monsters were out here, 50, 100 feet tall some of them. So tall they barely took notice of us humans but they could still crush us like a bug without even noticing. Many of my compadres have ended up a squashed bug on the bottom of their feet. And there were a few of the big ones who could be counted to take on a human battalion just for shits and giggles.

The day wore on and I was running low on water. I’d seen a few Pickle Groovers, little green buggers that love to find unprotected skin and burrow in. Get enough of them in you and that’s all she wrote but thus far none of them have been able to find a spot on me (thank God for head-to-toe body armor) and I was dripping sweat. I knew dehydration could be an issue but there was hope; on the horizon I could see the wall. I set my locator beacon on and hoped that someone was listening. Maybe they’d send a car out to pick me up. I started walking faster.

That’s when I heard it. The sounds of a thundering herd except it was no buffalo I was hearing. It was Unkels and from what I could see there were thousands of them. Heading my way, too. I said a few words that my mother were she still alive wouldn’t have approved of and started off at a gallop. I knew it wasn’t going to save me but there was a little rise a few hundred yards off. I could make my last stand there.

I wondered if the bastards watching this were enjoying the show. I figured there’d be no aid from the fuckers on the wall. I hope my horrible death would give them some entertainment.

I made it to the rise and ran up it, turning to watch the tide of Unkels heading towards me like a living carpet. I took out my Laws Rocket and clipped it into the shoulder launcher. I’d get only one of these before the herd reached me. I aimed it carefully and fired. A moment later fire and dirt and Unkel parts rained down from the sky. Calmly I dropped the launcher and pulled out my AK-47s, two of them and started firing. This was going to be some last stand. I didn’t let up and the pile of Unkel corpses had to be daunting for the Unkels although who knew if they thought anyway.

They were getting closer. 300 yards. 150. 100. 75. 50. I could smell the acid and I was down to my last clips on both the AK-47s. Then something amazing happened. The bastards turned tail and ran. I was so surprised I didn’t fire into the backs of the departing horde. I started to laugh. Maniacally. I was going to live. I was going to live! Then the earth shook and  I turned around and there was a Sentinel behind me, 150 feet high with a scythe like tail that was swinging for my head. Oh Shi–

Caught on Tape

The newsgathering industry has been as dead as Bela Lugosi for a long time. Decades. It just didn’t realize it was among the walking dead until the bitter end.

I’m a vid operator. Sort of a cross between the paparazzi of old and the video journalists of even older. Vids are digital; they are available through any device that is capable of showing a moving image. My grandfather remembers YouTube but that was the difference between the Wright Brothers plane and the moon rocket. The one on Virgin Spaceways.

Cameras are everywhere. Privacy is a thing of the past; you are constantly recorded either on security cameras, traffic cameras, personal cameras or vids. People dress better now than they used to and they take better care of themselves. After all, you never know when you’re going to be on the Brother – remember when they used to call it the Internet? – now it’s called Big Brother. After some obscure book from like 100 years ago. Nobody really knows. Nobody really cares.

Everything must be documented. Everything. It’s, like, the law. To make sure everyone obeys the law tiny eye-cams are implanted in our blinkers at birth. Receptors are planted in our brains, giving us instant and complete access to all the knowledge in the world. That means there are no more stupid people, you cog? No crime either – only a Gary would be crazy enough to attempt one when everything is recorded.

There are the professionals like me, out looking for things to record. We have state-of-the-art equipment, much better resolution and less graininess than the older model eye-cams. Because everything is uploaded instantly, events unfold from around the globe and into the off-planet colonies with only minor delays. Government censors review the footage of everything to make sure there isn’t anything sensitive. If an airship crashes, nobody wants to see some kid smashed into a million pieces. Just the hero who saved half the flight with his quick thinking. Nobody wants to be reminded about the other half of the flight.

I seek stories people might want to tune into. Brother doesn’t only watch, you cog? Brother shows truth. Brother has raw footage but nobody’s allowed to see it. Only the censors see the raw-raw. And the vid ops who filmed it of course, but we’re licensed employees of the gov. We violate the agreement we all sign, we disappear. For good, like. You can trust a vid op to toe the line baby.

Most of what vid ops get is celebrity shit. Actors at parties. Sports stars at restaurant openings. Politicians at community events. Criminal executions although those are mostly for sedition. Nobody, like steals anything. Why bother when you can get whatever you want with a thought – taking what isn’t yours, that’s a Gary thing.

Not everything is roses and rainbows. There is an underground anti-gov movement that periodically has demonstrations and basically pisses everybody off because traffic gets, like wrecked when they do anything. Still, it isn’t technically treason to say there’s room for improvement. It’s just not a good idea. Mostly, people just disappear. Some come back though. What’s left of them.

It was a riot that I was covering. It was supposed to be a demonstration. Peaceful. Lots of granolaheads making the happy-happy talk about peace, love and Justin Bieber. Hey, I know who he is – I listen to classical music too!  Anyway, some granolahead took exception to one of the copbots getting too close and there I can’t blame them. Copbots are always going ballistic and unleashing Chryon lasers and  mini-nukes on the wrong people. Best to stay well clear of the things.

Well, apparently someone didn’t and he smashed it with a trash can. Must have been some trash can because within ten minutes Epping Square was filled with amateur Vid Ops all keeping their eyes on the granolaheads and the copbots fighting it out for control of the square. Brilliant fucking strategy but what would you expect of a Granolahead? They’re all severely whacked out on drugs and alcohol. They all smoke that wacky weed.

Of course, I don’t buy that last part. Hell even I go wrong sometimes. Occasionally I smoke a roller packed with my favorite variety, Rain Forest Red, with hints of Macintosh apples in the blend. Officially it’s illegal but it’s one of those things the gov turns a blind eye to. Smokers are generally more relaxed and happy. The gov used to burn down weed farms but their everywhere now and the gov collects taxes on the stuff. It’s not technically legal but it’s legal enough. The gov gets paid, the copbots leave the supply alone and everyone’s happy-happy.

Well, someone’s nipple got twisted and suddenly copbots were being smashed into paces and people were shouting and pumping their fists in the air. “We rule the streets!” one granolahead screamed, oblivious to the ten thousand copbots that were entering the streets right then. The bots in blue quickly emptied out the square of GeeCees (good citizens, you cog?) and a few granolaheads were cracked in the nog with…oh, I mean the noggin – I love your oldspeak, it’s so quaint.

That wasn’t even the good part, or the bad part if you prefer. While vidding a bunch of dumbass Granolaheads some enthusiastic muncher, high on something, went careening through the crowd like a pinball. I didn’t see him coming – usually I have a sense about these things – and he crashed into me and down we both went.

He got up and ran off, giggling maniacally. I was a little moofed at first; I’d hit my nog hard on the pavement. But when the rot cleared, I saw to my horror my camera was toast. These things are as you might expect expensive. I would probably be charged for this one. Shit, how was I going to make a living? I had the party downtown to cover, the technogeek one. Without a pro-cam, I’m just like everybody else – and I’m not getting into the party. My boss would fucking kill me. No really – that’s legal now. Employers have the right to summarily execute their employees for gross negligence of duty. This would qualify.

I knew a guy though. Sten Ten. No, we don’t have stupid ass names like that like they have in old sci-fi books. We’re not  idiots. Sten Ten is short for Austen Tennenbaum. Good Jewish boy. Great with tech. Absolutely the best at getting black market equipment for reasonable rates. I helped him by sending him shutdown codes for localized sec-cams. He in turn gave me discounts on shit I needed – and I’d never needed shit like his before.

I was in a hysterical fit when I got to his flat. “I need a pro-cam Sten. I have to have it today or I’ll be in violation. I can’t afford one from the company store.” I was babbling. Sten let me ramble on before holding up his hands. “Chill mighty Tark.” Now my name isn’t Tark either, it’s Terrence Clark. We do a lot o that kind of thing with our names. We’re the clever generation.

Sten was smiling that laconic, easygoing grin that was both annoying but in this particular instance, the face that launched a thousand hydro-transports. OR something like that. “We just happened to get in a pro-cam this morning. Pris con.” I must have looked at him funny. “Pristine condition, man. What are you, a thousand years old?”

The relief was tinged with suspicion. Like everyone who worked for a living, Sten wasn’t above stretching the truth a bit to get an edge. I didn’t blame him but I didn’t trust him either. “Show me the merch baby” I said with a bit more confidence than I felt. Entering into negotiations with an expert obtainer of rare things as Sten was could be the worst kind of ego check. Fortunately, Sten owed me a few so I could reasonably expect a courtesy discount. Maybe.

He went into the back of his flat and brought out a cam that was certainly in much better shape than mine. I looked at it critically and didn’t recognize the model. Sten shrugged. “It works. It vids. It uploads. What do you want from me?” I knew the playing dumb thing was a ploy. I knew how much I had to spend. I didn’t dare give him that figure. I’d be leaving without a pro-cam and I had to have one. “Two hundred.” I said, which was about half what I had to spend. Most brand new pro-cams run about eight grand.

He looked at me quizzically then came back with “Four fifty.” I shook my head, frowning. It was all an act, asking my desperation. He scowled as I replied “Two twenty five.” I heard him mutter “No black mozzie’s gonna make a chump out o’ me.” The paparazzi were sometimes referred to as Black Mosquitoes both for their black leather jackets and the sounds their cameras made. Plus, I suppose due to the annoying nature of their jobs.

He frowned again.  He said “You do know that’s less than I paid for it.” I was getting desperate. “Half now, half later?” Sten looked at me and frowned. Sten’s a tall, skinny guy  with a curly mop of hair. A hundred years ago he might have worn glasses. He’s no threat; if anything, I could kick his ass up once side of the room and down the other but that would be the end of my preferred customer status and I needed his acquisitional skills from time to time.

However as I was weighing my options I had no doubt that Sten was as well. He knew full well that I could out-physical him. With my gov connections I gave him access to material and clients he couldn’t get ordinarily and besides, I used him a good deal to get upgrades for my system that helped give me an edge on the competition. He made the decision. “Four fifty; half now, half in 30 days?” I nodded that was reasonable. He picked up the pro-cam and handed it to me.

I was surprised at how light it was, even though it looked to be about the same size as my old one. I checked the features menu and saw that it was pretty standard, although it had a couple of effects buttons that I was unfamiliar with. I took a little test footage and was please at the clarity and depth o the image. All in all, a nice upgrade.

I went to the party that night, confident that my vids would be better than ever and so they were. There were plenty of celebs at the do and I got some pretty intense pictures. My bosses were pleased with what they got, so much so that I got a pretty hefty raise and promotion. I also got a couple of calls from publicists who told me their clients were thrilled at how they’d been captured.

Things were all up from there. I got plum assignments, got some amazing vids and soon was in demand for a number of vid vendors. My bank account soared and my prospects looked endless. I was even getting laid regularly. I had everything I’d always dreamed of. It never occurred to me that there was a price to be paid.

It was a year to the day and I was covering a major art gallery opening at the Goog – the Guggenheim, you cog? I was taking vid of the rich and shameless in New York lording it over the masses – you know, another Wednesday night in Manhattan. I was taking a vid of an installation, a kind of white window-looking thing on the floor when I noticed a similar looking green window on the wall behind it. I hadn’t noticed it there before and the green was shimmering, as if underwater.

I don’t do this often but for some reason I pulled away from the viewfinder and was started. The wall behind was blank. But when I looked through the viewfinder again, there was that green underwater window. And there were things coming through it.

I fell backwards in shock. What was that? How could it possibly be there? And what were those things coming through? One of the security guards saw me fall and came over, looking concerned. “Are you all right sir?” he said with the practiced obsequiousness of someone trained in the art of pretending to care. “I’m fine,” I said somewhat warily. I looked through the viewfinder again – and everything was gone. Just the art that had been there all along. I rewound. Still nothing.

I finished the shoot and went home, very disturbed. Had I imagined everything? I’d rewound the footage but saw nothing. I couldn’t understand it. I knew it had been there. I’d seen those things – I’d only gotten a glimpse of them but they were like nightmares; faces like the creature of the black lagoon, tentacles for arms, dorsal fins on the back of their necks, hideous and deformed.  They had mottled skin and webbed feet. They were horrors straight out of Lovecraft.

I chalked it up to an overeager imagination and too many free cocktails. I went home and didn’t think about it until I saw the news the next morning that the Chairman of the Guggenheim, one Bao Ling, had passed away unexpectedly. Chairman Bao was only 54 and had died taking a shower.  A heart attack where was no previous heart condition.

People don’t just die for no reason in the 22nd century.  There’s always a cause but when someone that high-profile pushes up daisies like that questions get asked. Especially when your vid is the last thing the victim watched before croaking

So I got a call from the copbots, ya cog? And they weren’t all that polite. It was three hours in the hole with the ‘bots but there was nothing even remotely suggesting that the cause of death was my vid. Death by vid! *snort* Right. I suppose killer underwear might be their next theory. I know having copbots is better than having humans in law enforcement because they can’t be bought but death by vid?

I went home in a silly mood and decided to shoot some man in the street vid outside my high rise. I pulled aside an elderly gentleman for an interview named Camden LaShame.  I asked the usual assortment of fluff questions about celebrities and current events. He was a good sport, giving a lot of joke answers but also some thought-provoking ones. It turned out he had been a paranormal scientist, a scientific discipline that had been the rage in the late 21st century when certain phenomenon were studied scientifically. He really was the kind of man on the street vid ops lived for.

I was wrapping things up but on the spur of the moment I was suddenly struck by the memory of that strange green window and asked on kind of the spur of the moment if he believed in extra-dimensional windows. The jovial man’s expression changed. Hardened a bit. Then he told me a very strange tale.

Apparently LaShame had been working for Pennsylvania Tech University in Pittsburgh, which at one time had been called Miskatonic University. They had been working on a kind of camera that could capture extra-dimensional windows and hold them open so that probes might be sent in to explore.

They couldn’t get the technology to work but had built several prototypes, one of which had been retro-converted into a pro-cam. And that’s when the dots were connected and my knees went week.

For directly in the back of LaShame I could see one of those creatures hovering in the air, a vicious grin on its face. And I knew what happened and what became of the vid op who’d owned it before. I hit stop play and tried to stop the footage from being released but it was no go. It was all over Big Brother before I could even dial the number.

Billions of people with instant access saw the footage and every one of them died in an instant. Worse still, it turned out that the creatures in the footage found ways to migrate to other vids as well. Within 16 hours 90% of the human population was dead.

Big Brother was shut down. People went back to being stupid again. Nobody knew how to do anything because all our knowledge was on Big Brother. The books had all been scanned in and stored somewhere, forgotten. We still haven’t found them. We’re having to rebuild civilization on our own without any help. We’re fucking doomed.

So be careful what you watch. That window that was opened to my knowledge has never been closed. Who knows, these things could make it to the printed page. Wouldn’t that take the cake me lovelies?

The Dead Survive

One foot in front of the other. Heavy, heavy feet in heavy, heavy shoes. Dust covers me. Dirt. The dirt of the grave. The dirt of death. I’m dead. Gone. Kaput. But the dead survive. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t care. I’m just…tired. Each step is agony. I want to lie down and go to sleep but my body doesn’t know how.

Once I was living. Once I slept. Ate. Fucked. I had friends. I was happy. Content. But that’s all faded away to nothing. There is nothing but hunger and the need to keep moving. One foot in front of the other. I can’t help myself.

I know that I have changed. A part of me mourns, the part of me that still feels but that shrinks by the day, a small light of humanity that has dimmed and almost gone out. I know this is Hell. It must be. Where else but Hell  could there be such cruelty, such torture? Hungry all the time but nothing to eat. Forced to move, to walk when all I want to do is sleep. Sleep is denied me. Oblivion is denied me. If I had tears, I might weep.

This isn’t what it was supposed to be. I thought that when we died, we’d sleep. We’d go to heaven. We’d be reincarnated. Not this. Not this agony of walking and hungering. I’ve walked…hundreds, maybe thousands of miles. My brain can no longer comprehend numbers and distance. It’s been years since I died. Years since I began walking.

Food was plentiful once. The living were everywhere, like ants. One small child was a meal, a small adult a feast. Their blood and brains gave us sustenance. Their still living tissue was sweet. But like everything else we did, we over-harvested the food supply. Like the fish in the ocean, the food grew less plentiful. We tried eating other living things – dogs, cats, squirrels, rabbits but it wouldn’t do. They walk with us now, no longer in fear although our scent disturbs them. They are not our food.

I haven’t seen a living human in a long, long time. They have gotten adept at hiding, maybe. Or maybe they’re all gone. This might be a dead planet with the reanimated corpses of the dead all that remains. How long can we live without food? Can we die, at last? Will our rest finally come when we all simply drop, too tired to walk,  no food to sate our hunger?

I no longer have the ability to answer such questions. I no longer have the ability to ask them. It is a thought, quick as lightning that passes through what was once my cortex and is gone. I shuffle my feet. One step. Another. Another. Moving forward, ever forward. Others of my kind are nearby but nothing living. Nothing human. We all walk, aimlessly. We are pointed in one direction and will walk until we can’t. What will happen when I reach the ocean? I have no need of breath; I will doubtlessly walk beneath the waves until I come to another beach, somewhere else.

It doesn’t matter. I’m merely a reanimated piece of meat, going nowhere and accomplishing nothing. My mind is flickering out and soon even these brief flashes of thought will cease. I don’t remember my name. I don’t remember my life, only a vague recollection that I was happy once. Now I don’t feel anything – not even pain. All is compulsion; compulsion to walk, compulsion to eat.

The dead don’t have lives. The idea is contradictory. We merely survive, one day into another and on and on it goes into infinity. The road stretches out before me. Grass grows through the pavement. The sun shines and butterflies flit across the landscape. Birds sing in the trees and a soft cool breeze rustles the leaves. It’s a beautiful day but I don’t notice it.

I must keep moving. One step. Another. Another. Walking, always walking. Never running. Never stopping either. Just an aimless, ceaseless journey on an empty stomach that has no meaning and no value. Reduced to bare functionality, sheer instinct the only motivation. I shuffle my feet. I stumble. I fall. I get up. My legs don’t work very well. My arm is broken but I don’t know it. I wouldn’t care if I did. The dead feel no pain. Only compulsion.

Hell. This is hell. One step. Another. Another. No bed at journey’s end. No soft pillow to lay my head on. No sheets to cover me in the night. No rest. No redemption. Just one step. Another. Another. My stomach growls. It doesn’t matter. I will walk until this planet is no more. I will walk until the end of time. I am dead and death is eternal. Death is walking. Hell is walking. One step. Another. Another. Another. Another.

Astor Dinnesdale

            Astor Dinnesdale sat primly at his dining room table, eating his frozen dinner that he had microwaved.  He sipped slowly from a glass of chardonnay, a California vintage that had been on sale at the grocery store. His cloth napkin was folded precisely in his lap. He chewed his food without a single wasted motion. He wore a pair of pleated grey dress slacks, the pleat sharp and definitive. His work shirt was free of even the suggestion of a wrinkle and white as snow. The red bow tie made him look a little scholarly.

            He was slight of frame and small of stature. When he shook hands, his grip was not terribly firm and his hands were soft and scrubbed. There were whispers in town that he was a *gasp* homosexual as he had no wife, no girlfriend and was clearly in middle age.

            His hair was thin and reddish blonde graying at the temples and he wore a pair of wire-rimmed glasses that he always referred to as “spectacles.” He was odd that way, using unwieldy words where simple ones might do. Instead of going for a walk, he would “take a constitutional.” When women walked by with their baby strollers, he referred to them as “perambulators.” Most of the people who lived in his small Massachusetts town of Milton with him thought him an odd duck. Would that they knew what his after-dinner plans were.

            He owned a small bookstore that he had inherited from his father, the late Roger Dinnesdale who had been far more effeminate than his son who was downright butch compared to the old man. In a town mostly made up of blue collar workers whose life depended on the cable factory that manufactured cables of all varieties from steel to fiber optic. The town relied on that factory and most of the people who lived there were employed either directly or indirectly by it.

            For the most part, the men of the town went to one of two bars after work – Shanahan’s, as Irish as a Dubliner drinking a Guinness in a field of shamrocks, and Bulldog, which catered to the Poles. Those who didn’t fall into either category tended to drink at home. Astor, as far as anyone could tell, didn’t drink at all. However, one of the oddest things about the man was that he was also an executioner.

            The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a non-capital punishment state; Astor had to drive or fly to states that allowed it. He was given a per diem for this and put up in a hotel room overnight for his trouble. Most States (other than Texas) do not employ professional executioners and Astor is one of the few who knows how to operate the lethal injection process. The people of Milton found it amusing that Astor, perhaps the most non-violent man in Massachusetts, was responsible for the deaths of so many hardened criminals, but he had a way of calming prisoners down before strapping them on the gurney for their last few moments of life. He was also an efficient and methodical technician; not one execution had been botched on his watch ever.

            Some said that he needed the money but the truth was the Dinnesdale family had a tradition of working in that field; Dinnesdales in France and England had been headsmen as far back as records showed. Many wondered at how the prissy Astor coped with the realities of taking life.

            The truth as that Astor reveled in it. He put up with his co-workers in the various penitentiaries he plied his trade in referring to him as “Din” or “Dinny,” both of which he abhorred. He liked the power of life and death; he loved watching the fear in the eyes of his victims turn to acceptance as the light faded away. He particularly loved it when he got to execute women. That would get Astor’s wood right hard.

            You see, Astor’s mom was shall we say none too picky about whom she slept with. She had a marriage with Roger in name only; it was likely that Roger never consummated his marriage. Whoever Astor’s biological daddy was, well, it could have been one of any number of guys. As was previously mentioned, Astor’s mom wasn’t very picky. However, strangely enough Astor wound up resembling Roger not only in demeanor – Roger more or less raised him after Mommy got bored with her life in Milton and skedaddled for the bright lights and big city that was Providence – but also physically somewhat. Astor had the same spare frame as Roger and the same somewhat soft flesh.

            The resemblance ended there though. Facially, the two were nothing alike. Roger had brown hair where Astor’s was reddish blonde. Roger had green eyes, Astor’s were blue. Roger had a prominent nose whereas Astor’s nose was hardly there at all. Most telling, Roger had an almost triangular face while Astor’s was oval.

            One other thing that Astor possessed which Roger didn’t have was desire for women. His mother, the raging whore that she was, left Astor with all sorts of mommy issues. Whereas Roger was more or less asexual, having neither girlfriend nor boyfriend after mommy dearest shuffled off, Astor was very interested in girls.

            The trouble was, girls wanted nothing to do with Astor. Astor wasn’t much of a physical specimen and that’s the kind of guys the young ladies of Milton were interested in. What most of the women of his local town didn’t realize was that Astor was much stronger and more rugged than they realized. He had a weight set in his basement that he worked out with regularly.

            As Astor figured out that he wanted more from girls than they were willing to give, he also knew that if he wanted to take what he wanted he’d have to be much stronger than they, so he bulked up just enough to be able to hide his strength which he did effectively.

            Astor was also plenty intelligent enough; he knew that if he was going to be successful he would have to find prey much further afield than town so he would tell people he was going on execution business when in reality he was going hunting. He would pick towns at random, He stayed away from cities because he knew the rules for successful hunting there were completely different than in small towns.

            The first one he’d chosen was a woman named Jenny Marx. She lived in a small New Hampshire town called Weare and worked at the local pizzeria as a waitress. He didn’t know her name at the time and had stumbled on her quite fortuitously as her car had overheated. She was walking down the side of the road to a local 24 hour gas station when he’d managed to convince her to get in his car (he didn’t look a threat) and then chloroformed her, driving her to a secluded spot by a quarry.

            The moon was full that night and as she breathed, drugged into unconsciousness, she was beautiful, her lips parted and her blonde hair askew over her face (her ponytail had come undone in the struggle). She wore a short black skirt, dark leggings, a blouse with the pizzeria’s name over her heart and a pair of black flat shoes.

            He moved her into the back seat and gently unbuttoned her blouse. He rubbed the silky material of her bra, never having touched a woman’s undergarment before. He was surprised when her nipple perked up. He wanted to see so he took the bra off and she woke up then. She fought hard; up until then he hadn’t been sure if he was going to rape her or not. He just wanted to see her naked but she was having none of it. She was hitting him and scratching and biting and finally he put his hands around her neck and squeezed and squeezed and squeezed and soon she stopped fighting and the look of rage was replaced by fear.

            She was co-operative after that. He had sex for the first time in his life with the woman with the “Jenny” nametag. He liked it a lot. He liked putting his thing in her mouth too – he’d seen that in a pornographic picture he’d seen online. He made her touch herself and he liked the sound she made when she climaxed. Then he kissed her and threatened to hurt her if she didn’t kiss him back and he liked it most of all when she did as she was told.

            But he didn’t know what to do with her now. If he let her go, she might tell someone about what happened. He might get caught. He might go to jail. So Astor put his thing in her again and as he raped her he put his hands around her throat and squeezed harder than he ever had. At first she struggled wildly and that made the sex even more enjoyable for him; she was moving much more vigorously than she had before. He watched the light leave her eyes and it was only after she died that he ejaculated, and he should have been more careful but he did so inside her.

            He’d read several forensic handbooks that a former criminal justice student at the University had brought for resale and realized that if she was discovered they’d have his DNA. He couldn’t have that; the feeling of power and sex was so appealing he knew he must do it again. He knew what he had to do.

            There was a place only a few locals in Milton knew about where the factory (and a few other factories for a fee) dumped all their toxic materials. They did it illegally into a pond which was now mostly acid and all sorts of other corrosives. The pond wasn’t connected to the system that supplied the town it’s water so for the most part it was safe there but nobody was allowed in there because it was dangerously toxic.

            That suited Astor just fine. He stuffed Jenny Marx’s body in the trunk of his car and drove her back to Milton. It was nearly four in the morning when he arrived at the toxic pond. The fence that surrounded the pond was partially up against Astor’s property and he simply cut the fence there and carried Jenny’s corpse to the toxic pond and threw it in. He watched the corrosives start to do their work almost immediately as her dead flesh began to bubble and slide off her skull. Any DNA he deposited in her would never be recovered now.

            He trotted back home and got undressed for bed, but he was too wound up to go to sleep. He masturbated furiously several times, seeing the dead girl’s face in front of him. He wished he’d taken pictures. The next day he bought himself a little digital camera and batteries for it, as well as a sim card and bided his time. He read about the disappearance of Jenny Marx and when he saw her picture in the papers he knew that he was responsible for that. He was famous even if nobody knew who he was.

            After that he went out regularly although not often. He tried to space out his hunting trips erratically, trying to avoid patterns in order to keep from being noticed. He found the Internet useful in helping him stalk victims. He drove all over the Northeast and into the Southeast and Midwest, garnering an impressive list of victims over the years; Katherine Madden in Hyattsville, Maryland; Tasha Martinez in Holden, Massachusetts; Sandy Pritchard in Marengo, Ohio; Marilyn Kane in Willimantic, Maine.

            He had pictures of all of them in his digital camera; dressed and alive; nude and dead. He could recall them all by name – Cassie Dawson in Danbury, Connecticut; Krystal Lisoh in Whitesboro, New York; Sara Forbes in Manchester, NH; Angel Black in Orchard Park, NY; Bella Fateh in Middlesborough, MA; Carolyn Owens-Castle in Middletown, CT. His victims ranged in age and life status; some were as young as 16; others as old as 54. Some were students; some were mothers. Some were blue collar, some were professionals. All of them died at his hand.

             They died in different ways. He preferred strangling them with his bare hands but he also liked to experiment. Some he smothered, others he pushed their heads underwater until they stopped struggling. He stabbed one and injected an air bubble into another. He gave another the same drugs he injected into convicts. All of them died.

            Some begged and pleaded. Others fought until the very end. Some co-operated and did as he asked like the first one. Those he respected; those got easier deaths. Those that didn’t co-operate….well, he knew how to inflict pain. He raped most of them while they were alive. He raped all of them after they were dead.

            He got pictures of all his victims. Night after night he would relive his triumphs, savoring each moment of the agony, despair and terror of his victims. He replayed the violations in his mind and he supplied embellishments – his victims praising his sexual prowess, swearing that they loved him, promising him years of ecstasy (which some did actually do to be fair) in exchange for their lives. He spared no one.

             Years went by and because there was no discernable pattern, no reason for police to link one crime with the other – in fact, because he disposed of all of the bodies in the toxic pond there was no sense that crimes had been committed at all. However what Astor didn’t plan on was a state mandate that the toxic site be cleaned up. In the pond were discovered several bodies, not yet fully dissolved. Some had usable DNA and were identified.

            Even then Astor might never have been caught except he got sloppy. Following his microwaved meal, he drove down to New Jersey to hunt.  His favorite body disposal site no longer available to him, he chose a deepwater pond and brought a body weighted down by stones, the body of one Kate Foote who was visiting her sister in Ocean City, NJ. He’d raped her and beaten her to death, but the exertion of the struggle had for once left him too tired to rape her corpse. Instead he’d tied the rocks to her body and threw her into the water, turned and walked back to the car. He drove away without looking back.

            If he had, he might have noticed that Kate Foote wasn’t dead. Far from it. Instead, the mother of two was unconscious and raised to wakefulness by the shock of her body being thrown in the cold waters that came with February killings. He had nonchalantly tied the rocks to her but he hadn’t actually tied her up and she was able to free herself and swim back to the surface. She crawled back to the road where a passing motorist found her. She gave police a good description and even had a name; Astor Dinnesdale; Astor had foolishly shown her his business card and boasted about being an executioner.

            Even more foolishly he’d bragged to Kate Foote that he’d murdered more than fifty women. This revelation and the fact that his property abutted the pond where more than 35 bodies had been discovered was enough to warrant his arrest and helped persuade twelve jurors good and true that Astor Dinnesdale was a raping, murdering monster.

            Because his crimes took him over so many state lines, his case was tried in a federal court which was unfortunate for Astor; while Massachusetts didn’t have the death penalty, federal courts had the option of condemning a prison to death. Considering the magnitude and gravity of the crimes, he knew that he wouldn’t escape the fate that he’d seen through on so many different men.

            Years later when Astor was nearly 65 and all his appeals were exhausted, the sentence was finally carried out. Astor could barely walk anymore and his kidneys were failing. His rheumy eyes were filled with tears and he begged for mercy, mercy that he didn’t deserve and wouldn’t receive. As the needles went into his skin and the first drugs hit his veins, his last words were “No you’re doing it wrong. You turn the blue valve first otherwise I’ll be awake and conscious for the….”


            The chum floated on the surface of the water, lovely red in a sea of grey-green. The salty smell of the fish blood and chunks of flesh excited the senses of the predator swimming in the cool green depths. His senses so acute, he could taste the blood in the water from nearly a mile away. With powerful thrusts of his tail and flukes, he moved through the water like a rocket, intent on his prey.

            Tara tied her bikini top and adjusted it. Her pink nipples and aureole peered out. It wouldn’t do to have those in public view, although she’d been known to allow an occasional nip slip from time to time to keep the boys firmly in the palm of her hand. Tara was a bit of a closet exhibitionist in some ways.

            She was also a total beach babe. Her blonde hair and blue eyes gave her an almost Nordic cast, but the tan of her skin was pure California. Even though it was overcast and grey out, she wanted to take a nice swim. It was part of her regimen; keeping fit was important and a daily three mile swim in the nearby waters were part of keeping her fit and trim. She enjoyed the attention of boys more than most.

            She smiled to herself as she looked around her apartment at the wreckage from last night. She’d picked him up in a local bar, an English lad who said football when he meant soccer and that was his passion. She’d taken him home and found him pleasantly aggressive in the bed – not that they’d limited their passions to the bedroom. No, he’d had her on the couch, on the living room floor, in the bathroom as well as in the bed. Truth be told, she was sore down there today – a pleasant, lovely throbbing ache that reminded her of the pleasures of last night.

            He had left shortly before dawn, giving her one last fuck before heading back to his house. He promised to call her later and she kind of hoped he would; she hadn’t had sex that good for awhile and Tara liked sex even when it wasn’t good. As she brushed her hair and tied it in a ponytail behind her, she saw in the reflection of her mirror the bed, stained and rumpled from last night’s activities. She felt a pleasant shiver in between her legs as she remembered the feelings of her lad inside her. She couldn’t stop smiling.

            She pulled out a pair of cutoff jeans and a t-shirt, then sat on the bed and fished out her flip flops. She could still smell him on the pillows. Her grin widened. Life was damn good when you’re hot, blonde and strong.

            She grabbed a clean beach towel and stuffed it in her beach bag, along with her sun screen, a tube of Chapstick, a bottle of water and the book she was reading, something by John Grisham. She grabbed her keys and a couple of granola bars in case she wanted to snack while she was sunning and threw them in the bag; as she walked out she remembered one last thing and grabbed it, throwing it in the bag before heading out the door.

            In her little Jetta convertible, she grabbed her sunglasses from the glove compartment and put them on even though it was cloudy. Starting her car, she grabbed a CD of pop tunes and stuck it in the player before roaring out of the apartment parking lot. She drove with the top down and the CD player blaring high energy rock tunes with which she sang loudly. It was early on a Sunday morning and there were few people about which suited Tara just fine. She liked to get her swim in before the beach got too crowded; when there were guys about, she wanted to be tanning, not out in the water concentrating on her swim.

            The beach was only a ten minute drive from her apartment and the parking lot was empty as she pulled in to her usual spot. She was still humming the tune she’d been singing as she shut the engine off and grabbed her things. Locking the car door behind her, she walked towards her favorite spot on the beach, near the lifeguard station, close to the water but not so close that she didn’t get the benefit of traffic. Even though it was overcast and a bit chilly for this time of year, it was supposed to warm up later on in the morning. Perfect.

            She set down her bag and pulled out her towel, laying it down on the sand and using her sandals to anchor it down. She felt the sea breeze hitting her legs and as it always did, it felt glorious. She quickly stripped off her t-shirt and cutoffs and dropped them in her beach bag. Her drying towel was in there; she made a mental note that she needed to do laundry today when she got home, as she was running low on towels but then going to the beach nearly every day will do that to you.

            She took off the sunglasses and tossed them in the beach bag. She spent a few moments stretching, limbering up for her morning swim. She was an impressive sight in her blue bikini, her body fit and tan. She would have turned a few heads were there any around to turn. Even the lifeguards hadn’t gotten in yet which was fine; the one that had been here lately was a douchebag. He just stared at her with eyes that were predatory; she was sure he would rape her if he got her in a dark alley. Not that she was above having sex with a lifeguard – she’d had a steamy little affair with Justin, the guy who had worked here most of the summer but Eric, the new guy, he wasn’t nearly as cute as Justin so it would have to be rape if he wanted to get into her panties.

            She giggled at herself. What a strange thought. Maybe she was off the market anyway. Jamie, her English lad, had a lot of possibilities. Maybe he would be the one who finally made an honest woman of her. If the sex continued to be like it was last night, he might be the only man on Earth able to satisfy her. She chuckled to herself. When did I become such a slut? she thought to herself, smiling. She was one of those women who enjoyed sex and didn’t care if people thought she was a slut for it. If we weren’t supposed to have sex, she told her girlfriends at the bar just last night, why did it feel so goddamn good?

            She finished stretching and trotted towards the water. The water was cold in the morning but she didn’t mind; it was invigorating not to mention refreshing. Her nipples immediately hardened, a pleasant sensation. She splashed out into the water until she was thigh deep and then started her swim.

            She liked the solitude of her morning swim. It gave her a chance to clear her head and just enjoy the physical sensations of her exertions. She could easily go to the gym (and when the weather was bad, that’s what she did) but she disliked the crowds and guys hitting on her when she was trying to work out. Here, nobody bothered her – this particular beach was almost always deserted until about 10am, two hours from now. Her swim usually took her about an hour as she would go out to the buoy and back, then repeat. Justin had told her that the buoy was about three quarters of a mile out, so two laps would take her three miles which was plenty of workout for her.

            She swam with slow, easy strokes, not in any particular hurry. Tara wasn’t about speed; she just wanted to enjoy her swim. She had powerful legs; years of dancing and rollerblading had given her that. She kicked strongly and as she looked back she saw the beach moving further and further away in her view. The current was a little strong but nothing she couldn’t handle.

            The predator had a sense of things and he knew that the other thing floating in the water by the chum was danger. He saw the other predators in the area feeding on the blood and sensed them suddenly thrash in pain and fear as they were attacked from above. He moved well away from the trap until he sensed something else; something in the water splashing not far away. Instantly he turned and swam away.

            She saw the buoy and realized she was a little off course. She righted herself and swam towards it, grabbing hold of it for a moment, catching her breath before shoving off of it and heading back to the beach. She continued to cut through the water, feeling the cool waters envelop her. She felt a little like the mermaid she longed to be as a little girl. She smiled inwardly; she wondered what Ariel would have thought of her activities last night. She giggled to herself as she soon reached the shore. Again she paused, catching her breath yet again before setting off on her final lap towards the buoy.

            Before she was even halfway there she realized it was a mistake. The current had grown much stronger now, and it was difficult going. She was kicking harder, paddling to near-exhaustion just to stay more or less in the same place. She realized that she was being pulled out to sea. She reached out for the buoy but the current had already pulled her past it. She screamed for help, hopelessly; she knew even as she did there was nobody to hear her.

            She hadn’t been in a rip current before but she knew the worst thing she could do was panic. She took a deep breath. She tried to organize her thoughts. What to do…if she continued to fight the current she’d be exhausted in a matter of minutes, then she’d be in real trouble. Tara had no illusions that help would come for her. She knew she had to get out of this situation herself.

            Then she remembered. Swim parallel to the shore until she escaped the current. She began to do that. Elsinore Beach was just a bit up the coast and there were surfers there…lifeguards. She began paddling in that direction. She was making some progress but she was already tired and she found she was splashing much more than usual. She had to keep her focus!

            The predator was much closer now and realized that the splashing thing was not a seal or a fish. It was something else entirely. If it had been able to smile, it would have; it recognized the scent of panic and the scent of blood. It was like a marine missile, aimed straight at the splashing entity. It recognized the smell of it in the water. It had eaten meat like this before.

            Tara’s muscles hurt and she felt like there were weights tied to her wrists and ankles. She felt tears leaking from her eyes but she gave herself a mental kick in the ass. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, she thought, Just keep your head and you’ll get out of this. Doggedly, she started swimming harder, knowing that sooner or later she’d get past this rip current and be able to swim safely ashore.

            She was a good mile and a half offshore when she felt the resistance of the current lessen. Relief flooded through Tara as she began to aim back towards the shore. Hope renewed her strength and she began swimming harder. It would all be over soon.

            She felt something bump up against her and wondered if some inquisitive fish had checked her out. She smiled at that. Must have been a boy fish. She could see the shore getting closer and closer and she thought she could make out some human figures on it.

            The pain shot through her like nothing she’d ever experienced. She screamed at the top of her lungs, agony coursing through her. The water turned red around her. “What…what’s….what’s happening?” she stammered. She looked around wildly for some clue as to what happened but she couldn’t see a thing. She began swimming again for shore but for some reason she couldn’t move her legs.

            It erupted out of the water, the predator and grabbed Tara by her abdomen. Her wails of fear and pain were the last sounds she’d ever make as she was dragged under the water by the shark that the authorities up and down the coast were chasing after having attacked four other swimmers in the past month. She struggled to escape the jaws of the predator but it was too strong and Tara too weak from both the swim and the loss of blood to put up much of a fight. The blood clouded the water as darkness took her.


             Eric walked towards the lifeguard station carrying a cooler with his lunch and a couple of beers. Might as well enjoy himself if he had to hang out all day in this shithole of a beach. He noticed a towel, beach bag and some clothes strewn on the sand near his station. He looked up and down the beach but there was nobody on the sand and nobody in the water. He looked back to the parking lot and saw a small convertible parked there not far from his own Mustang.

            Stupid chick must have gone home and fucked some guy and forgotten her stuff. Well, he’d put it in the station on the off chance she’d return. She’d left her car there after all. Still, wouldn’t hurt to check the bag to see if there was some cash in there. He can always say someone else must have stolen it.

            Sunscreen. A book. Keys. Granola bars. A plastic water bottle. Another towel. And a tampon. Ewwwww! Eric chucked the tampon back into the bag. Stupid slut. No cash. He tossed the bag in a corner of the lifeguard station and forgot about it even before it landed with a thud that sounded to his ears final.

            He put up the rip current flag and made sure the sign was up warning people out of the water, then settled back in his chair and waited for the crowds to come. Lots of babes in bikinis, all of them thrilled out of their minds to talk with a stud lifeguard like him. Life is damned good when you’re young, hot and strong.



           At first, we thought we’d won. They had come from another dimension through a portal that we thought we ourselves had opened but as it turned out had been opened by them. We called them Demons because of their vicious homicidal nature and because of the resemblance of some of them to the demons of movies and video games.

            Two wars wiped out nearly the entire human race. We bred certain humans as Guardians, warriors with amazing abilities trained to protect the human race from the demon onslaught. One of the bravest of these, Jeremiah Black, had managed to close the dimensional portal at the cost of his own life. The war was won, but eradicating those demons that remained and reclaiming the Earth as our own went on for years.

            Then came the discovery of Sangre the Silent that the remaining demons were evolving into humans and other animals. It was he who led the great Unification, allowing both races to come together, survive together. We repopulated our planet. Generations came and went. The Guardians – now called Hunters – had become the elite force of warrior knights. They were thought to be obsolete and archaic. Their numbers became few.

            Once again we were victims of our own complacency. It had been a hundred years since the last Demon War. Civilization had built up again; the old cities were habited again. The world had caught up more or less to where it had been before all this began. Only the Hunters, their numbers augmented by former Demons converted to human, sounded any sort of warning knell that the portal that had once been opened could be opened again. These were disregarded as the ramblings of old men and paranoids.

            We knew that when their numbers became to great in their home dimension they would come here again. The portal opened in the dead of winter in the Sangre de Christi Mountains. Instead of the animals coming through, it was all Deathknights but mutated. They were still humanoid but they were bigger (about seven and a half feet tall), stronger and even more vicious.

            The Demon Army wiped out most of North America before we even knew they were here. The conventional armies were overwhelmed by the weapons of the new Demons, which were powerful indeed, capable of vaporizing matter and energy alike. The losses were terrible.

            The Hunters, once reviled and ridiculed, became the last hope of mankind. My father had been one; I had just joined, one of their few new recruits when the Demon Army appeared. Now the Third Demon War was in full swing and somehow, we knew it would be the last.

            My name is Moloch and I am a Hunter. I lead a cadre of ten Hunters, all new recruits. We, like most of the Hunters, had chosen a small town on the Yucatan Peninsula to make a stand, to turn the tide of the war. The name of the place was Ixamal.

            Like many towns on the Yucatan, it was surrounded by jungle and somewhat compact in nature. Unlike many towns, it had largely escaped the ravages of the previous Demon Wars because of its remote location. That would not be true this time. When the Hunterelder Agamemnon sent out a psychic call for all the Hunters to gather there, we came; some by conventional means but most by a new technique we had learned since the last Demon War, the ability to fold space and arrive in a new location instantaneously. There were well over a thousand Hunters in Ixamal, lethal killers all. We got suspicious looks from the locals that bordered on outright hatred. That didn’t bother any of us; without a doubt we would earn that hatred soon. Our very presence guaranteed that.

            We were soon made well aware as to why we had been summoned. The Demon Army, numbering well over 500,000 gibbering ravening demons, dripping foul-smelling pus and drool, were on their way. Why they had chosen this spot was occupying much of the Elders’ time; there seemed to be no real reason why the Demons should want to go to Ixamal or even the Yucatan Peninsula, but here they were.

            I had a group of ten Hunters who were my charges. We called ourselves the Orphans because we had divorced ourselves from our pasts, our parents; we’d cut all our ties with anything human because we knew that we would not survive this war. Dead men make formidable warriors; they have nothing to lose. I sat on the doorstep of a dusty cantina and looked at my charges; youngsters one and all. Part of me thought they should all be in school, learning useless information and trying to get laid.

            They were tough and they were hard; we’d seen a lot of battle and none of it was pretty. They’d seen their friends die horribly, ripped into shreds by demonic claws or barbecued by demonic breath. Of course, many had been vaporized by the new demonic weapon that we had yet to find a way to counter. These, so far, had escaped all of those fates, although many had scars to show their worth in battle. They sat around me now, boys pretending to be men, myself a man trying to pretend I didn’t envy them their youth. The things we had seen together…would continue to see.

            One among them stood out. His name was Despiadado and he was my right hand. Taciturn but brilliant in his own way, he was native to this area and he knew the topography well. His counsel had served us well a week past when we ran into a scouting party for the main Army while out scouting ourselves. We manage to herd them into a cenote that he knew about, where we simply used our psychokinesis to push them over the edge into the bottomless pools, where they might have drowned had not their skin been sensitive to water which acted like acid and dissolved them, screaming, into vapor.

            He was calm under pressure and a killing machine in battle. He had a better grasp of his gifts than did most of the boys, and no compunction about using them. While the others showed a whole lot of bravado, Despiadado had more of a quiet confidence in his abilities. He would make a tremendous Hunter, maybe even one of the best ever – if he lived through the night.

            The others waited, like all of us. We had been assigned as reserves, mostly due to our age and inexperience. Haaken was telling a joke to El Verdugo, while Sorrow, Refsingar and Pala gambled quietly in the corner, throwing dice against the wall. I wondered idly if any of us would survive.

            The Demon Army was finally upon us. We awaited our orders as we knew that we would be used to fill in where Hunters had fallen, or where the Army had exploited our weaknesses. Agamemnon was in charge of the Hunters, although Pelennor and Socorro both had equal say by law, Agamemnon was deferred to because of his experience.

            The villagers were escorted to basements and whatever hiding places could be found though if we were overrun they would afford them no shelter. Many of the villagers had fled already and of those, the vast majority would already be dead, killed by Demon scouting parties. Agamemnon, who was descended from Demon stock (some say from Lady Venema herself) had warned against it but as usual, the villagers ignored the experience of the Hunters and had given way to fear. If we had been listened to in the first place, we might have been better prepared.

            Spilt milk, that. What’s done is done and now the Hunters are the hunted. We awaited the first assault in the village, some looking forward to battle with bloodlust, others preparing to do their duty. None look forward to death but all accepted that death would take most or all of us that day. That was as may be, but if we could stop the Demons from whatever goal was theirs, we would die content.

            When the first assault finally came all of the chatter and horseplay in my cadre stopped. We all felt the pain and suffering of those on the front line, and when a Hunter died, a part of our souls died with them. Our expressions were grim. I knew it wouldn’t be long before we were called to the front line, to suffer and die with our brothers.

            Our losses were terrible. We were only a thousand to begin with and we were down to half that number within the first ten minutes. I felt Agamemnon’s call and we were summoned to a barricade on the southern part of town. We relieved a group of more veteran Hunters who were going to the North, where the attack was concentrated.

            Despiadado sidled up to me. “Their attack is well-coordinated but there’s something strange,” he said in a soft voice. “I am not feeling the psychic emanations from the Demons that I do from us, except for one. He is in the rear of the Army and whenever their disintegration weapon is used, I feel the psychic energy coming from him.” I nodded and relayed the information to Agamemnon. I got a very irritated “We’re well aware of that but we can’t pinpoint the single Demon controlling their weapon. We’ve attacked that area several times but we can’t get anyone close enough. Await your orders.”

            Despiadado had picked up the message. He looked at me with clear brown eyes. “I can,” he said softly, “I can kill the demon that’s directing their weapon.” I looked at him critically. “What makes you think so?” I knew he was more sensitive psychically than most. If he said he could pinpoint which Demon was directing the weapon, I believed him. But I would imagine that the Demons would protect the weapon director quite heavily. If we had 10,000 men we probably couldn’t get close.

            “I know the terrain. I could travel almost right next to him.” I shook my head. Transporting right next to a target, taking them out and then returning was difficult at best. Transporting left even the best of us disoriented for several moments, long enough for guards to raise the alarm and even kill the Hunter before he had regained his senses. This didn’t seem like a viable option and I said so, explaining why.

            Despiadado smiled and said “That would be true, but if I had a psychic link with you, the effects could be lessened. You would be the disoriented one, leaving me time enough to kill the bastard and get back.” I considered it. The plan could work, although there were a number of pitfalls. If Despiadado were killed, I would also die. The psychic backlash would fry my brain. Despiadado would also be nearly useless for several hours, too exhausted to fight.

            However, the opportunity was too much to pass. I communicated my intentions to Agamemnon and he sent back a terse “Do it.” From his standpoint, it wasn’t much of a risk – the worst case scenario was that Despiadado and I would die and that was a mere two Hunters. However, if we were successful, that could turn the tide of battle. I nodded to Despiadado and he smiled, closed his eyes and disappeared.

            I could see through his eyes, feel what he felt. He/I arrived in the Demons camp, which was strange and organic looking. There were Squidgens everywhere but they were of no concern. A pair of Deathknights and a Krueger stood in front of tent-like structure that appeared to be made of flesh and bone. Through Despiadado I could feel the psychic presence of the Demon controlling the weapon. I could also feel the disorientation that came from Travelling and I fought it.

            Despiadado didn’t feel it. His sword came out and sang and the Krueger’s head flew off, it’s razor-sharp blade-ended fingers twitching as black blood fountained from its corpse. The Deathknights hesitated a moment and began to draw their own weapons but it was too late. One was stabbed through the heart by Despiadado’s blade and the other took a psychic blast, causing the blood vessels in its brain and heart to explode. It collapsed where it stood.

            There were literally hundreds of other Demons nearby and at the death of the Krueger they began running to the Pavilion. Despiadado didn’t hesitate; he ran inside and there sat the Demon he had come for.

            It was huge, gigantic, maybe 450 pounds of fat, bulbous flesh. It pulsated on the floor, it’s eyes a sickly yellow and there were several hundred of them scattered on the sticky purple flesh of the Demon. A large spiked tail protruded from its anus but other than that it was just a blob. It had no visible means of locomotion nor did it have a mouth.

            And yet it made a loud squealing noise, and it let loose a psychic blast of its own. Despiadado got his defenses up only just barely in time and the pain of the impact of the blast on his shields chilled me to the bone. I sent all my own strength to augment his and he drew his blade and began slicing the animal, for the Demon before him was little more than that.

            The skin was remarkably tough but our blades are sharper than razors. After a few hacks, Despiadado pierced the hide and into the soft tissue below and once that was done it was all over. He continued to parry psychic blasts as the tail swished through the air and the thing’s death screams filled his mind. At last, blood flowing from dozens of wounds, it slumped to the ground, dead. Why hadn’t it just vaporized him? I didn’t have time to answer my own thoughts as Despiadado closed his eyes and Travelled back to the camp, collapsing to the ground. He was covered in the Demon’s foul-smelling blood and his own sweat. He had made it out just in time; the first of the guards had reached the door by the time he had Travelled out.

            I collapsed alongside him, spent. We sat there for several moments, trying to get our bearings. Amontillado and Pala ran up to us. “What the hell? Are you all right?” I nodded, and then smiled. “We’re going to be okay boys.” And I was right. When the creature had died, most of the Demon army was in psychic contact with it. The psychic backlash of its death had killed a good part of their army and our Hunters did the rest.

            We were called heroes for our deeds, although I have to admit I’m uncomfortable with it. There’s no time to celebrate killing a single Demon and winning a single battle. This war is just beginning and it is going to get worse before it gets better but you have to take your victories where you can get them.

            Despiadado was given command of my cadre and I was sent to Ecuador to train new recruits. There are lots of them these days – those who survived the initial onslaught would all be pressed into service. In order to survive, the human race will all have to become Hunters. Perhaps that is for the best, but a part of me mourns. What are we going to give up in order to preserve life? The cost will be high indeed.

Six Days of Darkness

The third annual Halloween event, Six Days of Darkness, commences tomorrow here on Cinema365 and we’re proud to present our annual tribute to scary movies to you. Each day we’ll be presenting a review of a horror movie or thriller for you. So what, you might sneer, every movie blogsite in creation does scary movies this time of year. Ahhh but we also add the bonus of horror fiction inspired by the movie we’re reviewing. It’s no trick and whether or not it’s a treat is totally up to your taste in fiction.

Halloween is the kick-off to the American holiday season, with Thanksgiving following a month later and Christmas a month after that. It signals the beginning of the end of the calendar year. It is a day that we can cast off our own selves for a little while and be what we are not, or what we long to be. We can be sexy little schoolgirls, or hulking barbarians, or seductive vampires or disgusting zombies. All it takes is a little imagination.

So do have fun in whatever way you choose, whether it be handing out candy to children ringing your doorbell, sitting back for a marathon of George A. Romero classics or getting your freak on at a costume party. We hope you spend part of your Halloween season right here with us. Thanks again and Happy Halloween!



            Halloween in New York City can be a little wild for the uninitiated. In all respects, Andrew Woodhouse would be considered anything but wild, but he always had a soft spot in his heart for the holiday.

            You would never know it. Woodhouse was CEO of the Woodhouse Group, number three in the Fortune 500 and the biggest privately held company on Earth. Andrew, “Woody” to his close friends, had everything you could imagine; mansions in the Hamptons, Nassau, Cannes and Fiji, a massive apartment on Central Park, yachts, limousines, private jets, everything you would expect a man whose net worth was nearly half a trillion dollars to own.

            He had been born into celebrity; his father was Guy Woodhouse, the movie star. In the 70s and 80s Guy was as big as Burt Reynolds and had done equally well on television, Broadway and the movies. Oddly, Andrew didn’t inherit the matinee idol looks of his father; some said he favored his late mother who has committed suicide when Andrew was only five years old.

            His life had been charmed all along. Private school education followed by a degree at Columbia and an MBA at Yale. He’d worked at Haliburton and Goldman Sachs where he’d risen to the position of Executive Vice President at the relatively young age of 31. After that, he’d branched out on his own with a venture capital company that owned sizable chunks of such companies as Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Dell, Microsoft and Wal-Mart. Nearly everything Andrew touched turned to profit as glowing articles in the Wall Street Journal and Fortune had opined. Forbes magazine had even proclaimed him “the face of 21st century capitalism.”

            Now, in his 40s, he regularly hobnobbed with presidents and CEOs. He was married to a former Miss Georgia who still had the figure of a woman half her age and regularly wore her bikini just to remind him she could. There are those who would say Andrew Woodhouse was blessed.

            There are just as many people who would say Andrew Woodhouse was cursed. He always seemed to profit at the expense of others. Bill Gates called him “the biggest son of a bitch in America” while others had nicknames that were less complimentary than that. The Woodhouse Group had spearheaded the subprime mortgage market but had gotten out just before it nosedived. Lawrence O’Donnell likened the company to “a schoolyard bully who was smart enough never to throw the first punch so some other kid gets blamed for their disturbances.”

            Andrew’s chief advisor and right hand man was Woodhouse Group CFO David Sapirstein, an older man who was said to resemble actor Ralph Bellamy. Sapirstein’s father had delivered Andrew; their families had been close for years. In fact, David’s dad had introduced Andrew’s father to his second wife after the suicide of his first.

            Things just seemed to happen in Andrew’s favor. When an opportunity came to make money, Andrew always seemed to be around it. If he had a rival for that opportunity, something would happen to take the rival out of the running. When a politician, crusading journalist or law enforcement official made noises about looking into Andrew’s financial empire, something would happen to the offending person. Sometimes it was a scandal of their own; sometimes it was a tragic accident. No matter what it was, Andrew always came out smelling like a rose.

            Andrew’s personal life seemed beyond reproach. His publicists proclaimed that he neither smoked nor drank alcoholic beverages stronger than an occasional glass of wine, nor had he experimented with drugs – ever. He’d had his share of romantic entanglements in college, they said, but what young man hadn’t? Unlike some of his contemporaries, there were no illegitimate children, at least that anybody knew about.

            Andrew’s reputation had been taking a beating lately, though. The economic meltdown had made people less well-disposed towards CEOs, particularly ones that were as wealthy as Andrew Woodhouse. MSNBC had named Andrew one of the architects of the economic meltdown, mainly for his support of sub-prime mortgage lending which his company had profited greatly from.

            However, no congressional investigation would find any evidence of wrongdoing. As one investigator commented in an official report, “While you can certainly accuse the Woodhouse Group of being unethical and of showing questionable moral judgment, they cannot be accused of doing anything illegal. They are experts at exploiting loopholes in the law for their own advantage.”

            He arose every morning to virtually the same routine. He was customarily awake just before dawn. He would brush his teeth, put on his gym clothes, and go for a run, either in his own private running track in the Woodhouse Building in Manhattan or at his Hamptons estate if he were staying there. He would usually do two to five miles depending on how busy his day was, then would always return for a simple breakfast of orange juice, dry toast and a single hard-boiled egg which he ate while reading the financial news, often with CNN, MSNBC or Fox News on a nearby plasma screen television. He would then shower, dress and head to work at about 7am.    

            Once there he would get on his computer and look at whatever e-mails his staff had deemed worthy of his attention. Usually at about 8 or 8:30 he’d call a meaning of his executive team, which David would normally run. While Andrew participated, he tended to listen to whatever others said, and then would weigh in with an opinion after both opposing sides had made their cases. Andrew’s opinion was law at the Woodhouse Group.

            Most of Andrew’s day was conference calls, board meetings and signing off on whatever program his advisors thought would be profitable. Sometimes Andrew would veto a project without explanation; he simply had a sense about such things. His employees had learned to trust it, although they didn’t always like it.

            He would have a light lunch at about 11:30, followed by more meetings until three. Then he would leave the office, head over to a private club for a few drinks and some appetizers, then home. Normally he would have dinner at home, although he and his wife Marcy would go out to some of New York’s finest restaurants.

            After dinner, it would be home where he would do a little work until 10pm, at which time he would usually retire although not always. Andrew didn’t need a lot of sleep to be at the top of his game; he had been that way ever since he was a kid. Sometimes he went days without it, and you’d never know it by looking at him. Sleep is something he did when he was bored and Andrew was easily bored.

            The thing was, his whole carefully ordered life was a façade. The mask of a responsible conservative businessman was the cover of a true monster. Not only were his publicist’s assertions that he never smoked, drank or did drugs a complete fabrication, there were plenty of other things he did that were far worse.

            Andrew had started by raping a few co-eds in college, usually getting them drunk first. If they raised a stink, he or one of his father’s associates would pay off the girl. If she didn’t want to be paid off, normally they’d meet up with a horrifying accident. He used people for pleasure; his own pleasures were perverse and often grotesque. He’d gone through a long string of women from the famous to the unknown, most of them for a single sexual encounter. He’d had the wives of diplomats, the daughters of tow truck drivers, the girlfriends of his best friends and single girls of all shapes and sizes. In another stroke of amazing luck, he’d never contracted a disease and never gotten anybody pregnant.

            The marriage to his wife was more or less for show. She had peccadilloes of her own, but he did fuck her from time to time. He was particularly brutal with her, and she lived in fear of those occasions where he would decide to be with her. Marcy was his second wife; his first, Katherine, had burned alive in her bedroom when her bed sheets caught fire when she fell asleep while smoking in bed. Andrew had been conveniently out of town when the tragedy occurred but there were still whispers, mainly due to the fact that most of the people closest to his dead wife were completely unaware that she smoked.

            Andrew had a lot of parties, some in private hotels, and others at his various homes. Most of the time, Marcy wasn’t around when he had them. There were usually a lot of women, high priced call girls most of them. Andrew had a great cruel streak in him, one that turned vicious upon occasion. A lot of these parties had ended up with dead hookers and a whole team of employees who specialized in deflecting any scrutiny that might come Andrew’s way.

            David, as well as most of Andrew’s closest advisors, disapproved of his lifestyle but allowed it to continue since it took place behind closed doors. David had at one time been a regular at Andrew’s parties but he was an old man these days, and had his fill of banging hookers long, long ago. He would sometimes lecture Andrew about the dangers of having his true nature exposed, but Andrew would just stare at him with a curiously flat expression and David knew enough not to push it. Andrew had a dangerous temper and a genuine willingness to do violence upon whosoever angered him.

            The world was more or less Andrew’s oyster, but that had been the intention from the beginning. You see, Guy Woodhouse wasn’t really Andrew’s father; his father came from someplace far different. Guy had merely raised Andrew, as much as anybody could.

            Andrew was, in fact, the son of Satan, the anti-Christ. There was none of his mother in him, other than the little bit he had eaten when he had discovered her body. She had supposedly slit her wrists in her bathtub, but the wounds were actually inflicted by her five-year-old son who had eaten some of her flesh after she bled out. The Castevets, the closest friends to the family, had discovered her body with little Andrew calmly taking bites out of her flesh. They had called Dr. Sapirstein who had made sure that the medical examiner would never see the cannibalism that had been performed upon poor Rosemary’s body.

            All was for the protection of Andrew who grew up arrogantly thinking he was untouchable. The problem was, he was essentially right. The network of people protecting him was powerful and far-reaching. There were none who even suspected who Andrew really was. An obstetrician, a Dr. Hill, had heard from Andrew’s mom that the Castevets were part of a coven but he had died when a bus hit him while crossing 7th Avenue when Andrew was less than a year old. People who had any shot at putting two and two together usually didn’t survive very long.

            Andrew knew the plan was really coming together, but the ultimate goal was in plain sight. Soon he would run for president; 2012 had always been his goal for that.The world needed to be in utter turmoil before he became president; it was necessary for him to usher in his father’s dominion on Earth.

            Time was ticking down and Andrew knew his era was coming, he could feel it in his bones. Soon the world would be his; hell, it always had been. It would just become official. The funny thing was that the ancient Mayans had figured it out long before he was born. December 21, 2012 was when the world would end, according to the Mayan calendar.

            Andrew didn’t know for certain if that would be the date – he was rather more partial to June 6 but that was up to his father, not him. Still, Andrew liked the family business; he stood to inherit quite a bit from it.

            His one quirk was that he never appeared in public without his sunglasses, or without special contact lenses. Nobody other than the Castevets and Dr. Sapirstein, not even David, had seen his naked eyes. It was said he had his father’s eyes, and Andrew believed it. He had seen so much with those eyes, and they were truly windows to his soul. As such they were portals to the ugliest side of human nature. They were the best indication of his true nature. The world truly was his oyster, and he meant to consume all of it.

Inner Demons

            The wasteland has its own beauty for those willing to look. Frankly, most people aren’t – they’re too busy getting the hell out of it before they run into something really nasty.

            Ever since the last war, the wasteland has been where the demons held sway. Most of us know from the tales of our grandparents (who heard the same tale from their grandparents who witnessed it firsthand) of the time when the portal to the dimension we call Hell was opened and the demons swarmed through.

            There’s nothing supernatural about it, by the way. Take it from me – I know. We ascribe these things to the Devil and to Hell, but these are flesh and blood creatures. Some of them are resistant to flame, others to cold, most of them are abysmally hard to kill but they can be killed, they can bleed and they can kill. The killing part you know about.

            Nobody knows precisely how the portal was opened. Some say it was magic, a sorcerer making an incantation from forbidden scrolls. Others say it was science, a government experiment to find proof of other dimensions that got more than the scientists bargained for. That’s the explanation I tend to believe; hubris with a lab coat.

            In any case, once the portal was opened, the floodgates turned loose and homicidal creatures of every sort came into our dimension by the thousands, then the millions. Some of them had wings and could fly; some of them had gills and could breathe underwater. Most of them had fangs and talons and venom. All of them had a penchant for killing anything that wasn’t a demon. We began calling them demons because they resembled the Hollywood version of demons in a physical sense but later on, because the more religious of what was left of humanity assigned a spiritual explanation to them. Whatever the case may be, I have yet to see an angel but I’ve seen plenty of demons.

            The war took its toll on humanity, a heavy one. In the space of three years our population decreased by 75%; three out of every four humans were killed in the space of three years, either directly at the hands of the demons or through disease and the starvation that followed the war. Still, the war went on for ten bloody years but we managed at last to prevail. We survive, although I wouldn’t call it thriving.

            Most of the great cities are deserted, empty husks that were once thriving and full of vitality. They stand quiet, sentinels in the night, lifeless monuments to a civilization that no longer exists. From time to time, my travels take me through one of them; as hardened as I am to the world around me, I find myself in tears sometimes as I think about what once was.

            The demons were contained and humans learned to protect themselves better. We designed weapons that were more effective against the demon horde than bullets, rockets and even nuclear devices. We designed warriors to wield them that were more murderous than any that had existed before.

            But what we didn’t count on was the adaptability of the demons. Some of them have been able to alter their own appearance by using the DNA of human prisoners to create doppelgangers, demons in human form. Those did tremendous damage in the second Demon War, but soon we figured out a way to sniff them out.

            Now humanity exists in small enclaves, fortress-like castle-cities that are almost feudal in nature. These enclaves are protected by the Hunters, those who patrol the land and destroy whatever demons we can find. I am one of these. I had a human name once but now I’m just called Sangre.

            The second Demon War ended when a Hunter by the name of Jeremiah found a way to permanently close the open portal. This heroic act cost Jeremiah his life and there is no human more revered than he, and for good reason. We have hope for the first time in decades that we may actually survive as a species. Once upon a time the Hunters had a very different role, protecting the human communities against demon assault. We were called Guardians back then – Jeremiah was actually a Guardian all his life, although we regard him as the first Hunter.

            Now we have left the fortresses and go out looking for demons to kill. Most demons are mindless, ravening animals but there are demons that have intelligence and self-awareness. There were once armies of this sort of demon – the doppelgangers were part of this demonic strain. Now, we aim to commit utter genocide against these bastards. It is the mission of the Hunters to eradicate their presence completely from our world and reclaim it not only for the humans, but for the plants and animals that existed before the demon incursion.

            We have managed to save many of the plant and animal species – some as embryos and seeds only. When the demons are gone, the wasteland will be reseeded and inhabitable once again. It has been 20 years since Jeremiah made his sacrifice and the end of the mission is in sight.

            In fact, some of the demon wastelands in various parts of the world have been rendered completely free of their presence and the reclamation of those areas have already begun. One of these, in what used to be called California, has been successful. These days we call it Eden.

            But there is still work to be done, and it is my calling to do it. My brothers Espada and Dolor lead Hunter teams into one of the largest remaining demon wastelands in North America, located in a part of the region that stretched out over New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. They are attacking in an organized fashion, with dozens of men and women at their disposal.

            I prefer to work alone. Not quite alone; I have a dog, a Doberman mix who is my only companion. He doesn’t require a lot of attention which is why I don’t mind him, but he is also invaluable and sniffing out demons which is why I keep him. I used to just call him Dog, but my brother Dolor pointed out that all creatures need a name; it’s what separates us from the demons, so I named him Escatar, after my other brother who was killed by demons as a boy.

            The reason I like Escatar so much is because he doesn’t talk much. I’m really not one for conversation; most of my thinking is about demons, how to kill them and how to survive killing them. Like most Hunters, I’m not what you’d call a good looking man. I’m gaunt from years of foraging in the wasteland, with long stringy black hair and an unkempt beard that is beginning to turn grey. Half of my left ear is missing and there’s a long scar on that side of my face from when a Green Hornback made a snack of the lower part of my ear over in Mesquite territory.

            There are all sorts of smaller scars, scratches, dents and bruises from other battles. My nose has been broken so many times I’ve lost count; it’s left my nose looking more or less like a mashed potato on the center of my face. I broke my hip fighting a Ruiner in the ruins that used to be Phoenix and it never set right so I walk with a decided limp. My skin is like leather from living out in the sun. I don’t even notice sunburns anymore and I have all sorts of moles and cysts on my skin from exposure to the sun. Like I said, a real looker.

             While my brothers are marching through the wasteland from the East, I’m headed for the center of it. There are still lots of demons there, too many. Demons can reproduce, but not quickly except for the little Squidgens but they are more pests then demon. However, with the portal closed, the population of demons should be decreasing rapidly and everywhere else, they have. Only here there hasn’t been a decrease, there’s an increase. Nobody talks about it, nobody wants to admit it, but I will voice what nobody wants to say. There’s another portal, and it’s open. Here.

            So I go into Hell, into the center of the wasteland to find it. Me, my dog, my sword and my balls. That’s all I need. So I’m walking through the wasteland and it’s not like a walk through anywhere else you’ve ever been. Most of the plant and animal life that lived here before has withered or been killed. New species have established themselves here, most of them deadly in one way or another, like the Scorpion Ghost which is actually a plant. It’s tendrils hide beneath the surface and are alerted by the vibrations of footfalls, which cause the plant to suddenly erupt through the surface to wrap themselves around the foot of whatever it is that’s walking. Tiny little injectors pump venom into the body of the victim, rendering him paralyzed. The vines then drag the living carcass to the maw of the plant, where the victim is slowly digested for several days.

            Then there are the Leviathans, monsters that are ten stories tall and nearly a mile long, looking not unlike a horseshoe crab only with a slimy, rubbery skin that is covered with a toxin that attacks anything fleshy, dissolving it in a matter of minutes. It’s large and ungainly but it can be avoided and can be killed by pouring ordinary rock salt on it. The real danger is the carrion eater that follows behind it, the Yellowclaw. These are nightmarish crosses between spiders, crabs and crocodiles, with eight sets of claws and pincers, retracting eyestalks and a long, deadly tail with a club-like appendage that if it hits you can knock you woozy, at which point it attacks with a surprisingly fast ferocity, tearing you to pieces and eating your remains.

            There are Whistlers and Gigglers and Dirtclouds; Gatorbirds and Stretchers and Incubi. Chokers and Spearwings and Spiketails, Chargers and Wink Devils and Ironjaws. I’ve run into all of them and dozens more over the past few weeks, and killed every one of them. I haven’t seen any Dops or Deathknights so far, but I’ve seen Hellhounds and when you see one of them, the others can’t be far away.

            I’ve been living in the wasteland for almost fifteen years now, either here or in the northwest and I’ve seen acid storms and razorwind but never before have I had this gut feeling that something very, very bad was going on the way I do now and so I trudge forward, one foot in front of the other, killing anything that gets in my way.

            This morning, I was in the middle of dispatching a Bramble Lion, a large cat-like creature that instead of fur has spiky, sticky thistle-like growths that stick to your skin and are melted by body heat. Once the outer shell melts, a particularly virulent acid is released that acts a lot like napalm except it only burns flesh. I had just finished cutting off its head when I saw her, a beautiful woman with long, black hair and cobalt blue skin. A Deathknight, the most intelligent and cunning of the demons and the masterminds of the demon civilization, assuming they have one.

            With the Bramble Lion’s ichor dripping from my sword, I sauntered towards her. She regarded me with some amusement; clearly she had no fear of me, despite the fact my brotherhood had been dispatching her brethren with ruthless efficiency. She gave me an ironic bow and applauded. “Oh well done, Hunter, dispatching a Bramble Lion so bravely. You are indeed worthy of your calling. Tell me, which of the brothers do I have the pleasure of addressing? Dolor? Sangre? Espada? Escatar?”

            I straightened up and looked at her dead in the eyes, saying nothing. She was obviously trying to get a rise out of me by mentioning my dead brother. My brothers and I are certainly well-known among Deathknights. We have been responsible for sending a lot of them on to the next life after all. I wouldn’t speak directly, just staring at her patiently. I reached out my senses and after a moment ascertained that there were dozens of demons within striking distance. Next to me Escatar was growling.

            The Deathknight laughed. “Ah, you must be Sangre the Silent. I should have known from the scar on the side of your face, given you by a mere Green Hornback. That must have been embarrassing.” I grunted and begin to advance on her, warily, knowing that the attack from her attendants would be from the back, but I couldn’t allow the Deathknight to report my position back to her friends. If the demons knew I was this close to the center of the wasteland they might send a whole army after me, which might disrupt my plans a little bit.

            Suddenly behind the Deathknight stood a line of Kruegers, vaguely human-shaped demons with long sharp blades where their fingers should be. They also spit venom and are surprisingly fast and agile. I could take on one or two of them at once, but there had to be twenty of them there, far more than I could handle alone, or even with Escatar. Still, better to go down fighting if I must die. I raised my sword and prepared to do battle.

            The Deathknight laughed. “Stay your sword, Hunter, sheathe your weapon. I mean you no harm, at least not now. If I wanted you dead, I have many minions at my disposal; I could have had you killed while you were busy fighting the Bramble Lion. Even if you could kill all my Kruegers, I have a Master Maggot not a hundred feet away.” I felt the presence of the maggot, one of the largest and most feared demons there were; one Master Maggot could easily take on an army of Hunters without much trouble.

            At last I spoke to her. “What would you have of me?” I asked. The sound of my voice seemed to startle her, which brought me some satisfaction. “So it’s true, Sangre the Silent carries the Spectral Voice. How very interesting.”

            She was sitting in a chair that one of her minions had brought out. There was an empty chair beside her and she motioned at me to sit. I saw no other alternative but to oblige her, which I did. She smiled again. “I am Venema of the Legion, and I speak for my people. We wish to parlay with your kind.” I had been trained by the Elderhunters not to betray any emotions, but I very nearly did. Since they had arrived, we had always believed the Deathknights and those they command take no prisoners, show no mercy, never compromise. The only thing they wanted was to exterminate all existing life on our world so they could make it their own. They had very nearly succeeded. So now that they were on the verge of being wiped out themselves, they wanted to talk?

            “There is nothing to discuss,” I said. “You came to destroy us. Instead, it is you who will be destroyed. We have wiped out your kind all over the world, and here is where the last of you will die. What more is there to talk about?” For a moment, the mask of arrogance vanished and she frowned. She said “I admit, we did mean to annihilate your race, but we needed your world. Our own world was no longer able to support our numbers. When you opened the portal to your dimension, we discovered a means to our salvation. Your world is an ugly and inhospitable place, but it had potential. We came through the portal by the millions until the Unspeakable shut that door for eternity.” I assume by “the Unspeakable” she meant Jeremiah.

            “Now we are stuck here and cannot get back. Enough of us came through that those who remained in our dimension can survive, at least for several centuries but all the Deathknights are here, in this world. As you can see, we are intelligent and self-aware as you are; you mean to commit genocide against us, yet you accuse us of being monsters.”

            I looked at her, glowering. “I do not recall you being particularly concerned about the ramifications of wiping out the human race. We have a saying among my people; That which you do as you live, thus will you die. You have brought this end on yourselves. We had the right to defend ourselves and we won. Even if you kill me, inevitably you will all die. You cannot reproduce fast enough and we will kill every last one of you and restore this planet the way it was.”

            She smiled again and I got that peculiar feeling that something wasn’t right. “I cannot fault you for defending yourself, Hunter. It is part of the Ka of every living thing to desire its own survival. You merely follow your instinct that was bred within you. We have the same Ka; in this regard we are the same, loathe as I am to admit there is anything about us that is the same.” At last, something we both could agree on.

            “So what are we talking about, Deathknight? You wish me to go to my brothers and beg them to take their armies back home and let you survive long enough to build your numbers back up again so that you might swarm and finish the job your kind started? It is you or us; both cannot survive here. There is nothing more to say.”      

            I stood up to end the conversation but she grabbed my arm. “If I take you to the center of our land to our city and show you a reason to allow us to survive, what then?” I shook her arm off with a vigorous motion. The touch of her was strangely unsettling. “And what if I do not think your reason worthy? I will be as good as dead. Better to die here in that case.”

            She stood too and did something that amazed me. She unsheathed her own sword, knelt at my feet and offered it up to me. “I am told you know the nature of my kind better than any living Pinkbelly. Our sword is our soul; in it is our honor, our being, all that we are. I give you my sword for you to safeguard. If what I reveal to you in our city does not convince you, you will be escorted back here to this spot without harm and given three days where none will harm you. Leave my sword where it can be found and you will get another three days. That is my oath to you; on my sword I swear it.”

            She was right about me knowing the Deathknights. Deathknights whose swords were broken would take their own lives. If I felt threatened at any time, I could break her sword and she knew it. Deathknights were not fond of self-sacrifice; I didn’t think she would give her life away so freely when she could have taken mine without endangering her own. However, I needed a little more assurance.

            “Send away the maggot, and let me communicate with my brothers. Let no harm come to them as well while I am in your city and I will see what you have to show me.” She smiled and stood up. She bowed her head for a moment and then looked up. “I have sent away the maggot. Sense for yourself.” I reached out with my senses and felt the maggot’s presence moving off. I also noticed it was moving away from where my brothers were supposed to be. I nodded in satisfaction. “You may communicate with your brothers now.”

            I reached out with my mind. Part of the training of the Hunters involves our psi-senses, giving us the ability to speak over great distances with our minds. That bond is stronger within blood relatives. I often spoke to my brothers this way; we rarely meet in person because of our mission. I felt the familiar and reassuring presence of their minds in my own. “Brothers, I am in the presence of Venema, a Deathknight who wishes to show me a reason for us to spare their kind. I am going to their city to see this. I have been given assurances for safe conduct that I do not trust. Keep in contact with my mind; it will lead you to their city if I am betrayed and will at last give you the means of wiping them out for good.”

            As Hunters must be, they were unsentimental. I was saying goodbye to them; I did not expect to survive this journey, but the information I gathered might well be important and useful in our mission to exterminate the demons. I deemed it a sacrifice well worth making. I felt their acknowledgement but no regret. They knew what I did, and expected no less as I would with them. I looked up. “We go, then.” She smiled. “We go” was all she said.

            It was somewhat surreal. I had been living in this wasteland or others like it my entire adult life and every step of the journey was always filled with danger; a Hunter must be alert every second of every day or that Hunter would die, and nothing was of less use than a dead Hunter. However, I felt strangely calm. Venema steered us around every place dangerous to humans and often sent her minions out to clear the way of dangerous plants and animals in our path. I knew she wanted me in the city for a reason, so I would be safe enough until then.

            Escatar followed along, somewhat uncertainly. Occasionally he would let loose a whimper or a growl, and clearly he didn’t like having so many enemies so close at hand but he was a loyal and noble creature and stayed right by my side where he might defend me if the need arose. I had never been touched by any living thing before, but I was touched by his loyalty.

            It took us more than a week to arrive there, but we reached the demon city and I had to admit I was a bit surprised at its strange beauty. It was built of materials both familiar and strange to me and rose almost like a fairy tale in the wasteland. Elegant cone-like spires, tapered at the bottom, reached hundreds of meters into the sky. There was a gracefulness to the city I hadn’t expected; I didn’t expect there to be art or beauty among the demons. Venema seemed amused at my reaction. “You Pinkbellies believe the worst of us, do you not? We have no art, no culture, nothing of value, and nothing of beauty…and yet you see differently.”

            I looked at her coolly. “Is this what I was meant to see? That you have an aesthetic sense? Anthills have that as well, and I have no issues stepping on one.” She laughed, a strange sound indeed. “Sangre the Silent, I would have never thought you to be one to jest. No, there is much more for you to see before we come to what I came to show you.”

            As we walked through the city, I felt ill at ease. I was surrounded by the enemy and I could feel their stares. Some made no secret of their hatred and their desire to kill me, but everywhere we went Venema had an escort for us who made sure that no trouble would arise and none did.

            In many respects it was similar to a human city; there were clearly divides of class and status, with some living in what appeared to be poorer quarters, while others seemed to have more living space. There were sword makers and markets that sold what appeared to be food, although none looked edible to me. There were plants and animals that humans could consume, and Venema had provided them throughout our journey. We passed what appeared to be auditoriums of some kind; places where hundreds of Deathknights gathered. I asked Venema if these were places of worship and she looked at me strangely and thoughtfully then said that they were.

            I had been right about one thing; there were many, many more Deathknights than we thought there were. I sent that information to my brothers. They had literally thousands of Hunters between them, but they would need double what they had to take this city. Dolor assured me he was communicating that information to the Hunterelders who would send reinforcements.

            We came to a large building near the center of the city. While many of the buildings we had passed were adorned with symbols and decoration, this one was not. There was a sinister feel to it, like some great evil existed within it. We stopped at the doors to the building. The entire building was a very dark grey, nearly black. The double doors were tall, about twenty meters, and unadorned. Venema turned to me. “This is what I brought you to see.” For a moment, I almost felt sympathy for her. She had been pleasant company this past week, and had lived up to her word but I knew before I would die I would see her dead first.

            I looked at her and decided to go for broke. “Is this where the portal is that you have re-established to your world?” Her eyes widened and at first I thought I had the right of it, but then she smiled and there was wistfulness to her expression. “Would that it was, Hunter, would that it was.” She went to the door handles which were iron, then twisted them clockwise and pulled. Slowly, ponderously the door opened.

            It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the darkness – I hadn’t been inside a building in years. Then I saw. It was not what I expected. I took several steps back, my mouth open in shock. I had been trained not to reveal what I felt, but all my training could not have prepared me for what I saw. I quickly established contact with my brothers. Espada, my elder brother, picked up on my emotions and asked me what was wrong. “Turn your men around Espada. You too, Dolor. Send the reinforcements back where they came. We have no need to come here. We have no need at all.”            I sensed their confusion. Dolor spoke. “What do you see, brother? Tell us.” I felt myself weeping. I could sense Venema’s presence next to me. “Now you understand,” she said and I nodded. Oh heaven above, at last I did.

            There were thousands of demons in the room of all shapes and sizes, plants, animals and Deathknights alike and every one of them was changing, becoming something different. Strangletrees were turning into Eucalyptus trees. Leaping mold was becoming lichen.

            Animals were no different. Chargers were turning into terriers, Hellhounds into stallions, and Deathknights…they were becoming humans. “Your world is changing us. We are adapting to it, unexpectedly so. In a generation we will have changed completely. Your world will be yours. It will be ours as it turns out…unless you wipe us out, but you would be killing your own kind.”

            She was right. There was no need to kill the demons; our own world was doing that for us, and in a gentle, natural way. All we had to do was let nature take its course and our world would heal itself and as long as we did no further harm, it would remain that way. The wonder of our planet, our home was there before my very eyes. I hadn’t realized just how wonderful it all was. The world inside this grey building was the world as it once was…and would be again. We had been given a second chance by the demons, although that was never their intention.

            Some time later, as I walked with Venema out towards where my brother Espada’s army was camped, I asked her what she thought of all this. She looked at me thoughtfully, and then said “Our world was dying, and we had done that to ourselves with overpopulation, pollution and neglect. The millions who came here gave our old world a chance to regenerate itself. I never imagined that once the portal closed we’d be able to survive here. Now, there’s hope for us, a second chance.”

            I nodded. “For us as well,” I said. We walked on in silence and I ruminated on the irony that mankind’s best hope had come when we exorcised our own inner demons, and the demons accessed their inner human. Hope is a strange creature, is it not?