Garth Daniels sat on his recliner, watching the end of the world. He was naked except for a baby blue bathrobe spread out on the recliner underneath him. Garth had made to drink a cold beer and dry off after his shower while watching mindless TV, but every station was tuned to the same newscaster. It must be some kind of national emergency.
“…population of this universe will be split into two, participants randomly selected to go to each dimension.” The newscaster read from the page in front of him, but something was strange about the person himself. The face that Garth had tuned into every day for five years seemed like it had been stretched tight over a mask of bone and a flicker of light could be seen from within. What was going on?
“From the survivors of each instance, candidates to join the Great War will be chosen.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Garth said with a scoff. “If they had the tech to hop between universes, they wouldn’t need foot soldiers, they’d have advanced AI and bombs that would destroy planets. Is this a media stunt like War of the Worlds?”
“Looks like we got a smartass here,” The announcer said in the exact same tone as before, his eyes staring directly into the camera. Directly at Garth.
“If we had the tech to hop between universes, we’d have enough to talk to each person individually, wouldn’t we…Garth?” the announcer said, checking his script.
Garth swallowed. Was he going insane?
“Cover up, I want to get through the rest of this script without losing my lunch.”
Garth folded the robe over himself, peering around for the hidden camera. This made no sense, it was a bit like the scene in The Game where the TV announcer had talked to that the main character, but Garth wasn’t rich. Hell, he didn’t know anyone who was. He just wasn’t important enough to spend this much money pranking him.
“Your universe is currently being assimilated with our own. It’s not as bad as it sounds, just that most of your technology will cease to work. In order to survive, you’ll each have to learn the new rules of nature.”
“That’s the good news.” The announcer said.
“The good news!?” Garth demanded.
“Don’t interrupt,” The man on the television said, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose and clearing his throat. “The bad news is that your universe is being added to the outer shell of The Sphere, and thereby will be at the frontline of the conflict for the next few hundred years, until a suitable replacement universe with intelligent life is found.”
“And before you get all pissy, Garth,” The announcer said, pointing the rolled up sheet at the camera. “The Kipling would have found your universe eventually and it would not have been pretty. Think of this as a backhanded favor. We’ve seen what happens to realities with your kind of physics. They die.”
Garth sat there, staring at the TV, his jaw dropped.
“Anyway,” The announcer said, looking back to his script “let’s see here…covered the split, the assimilation, new laws of nature…Ah, here it is. The transfer will be painless, and your universe will be assimilated in five, four, three, two,”
“Wait!” Garth shouted, standing up.
The world devolved into a kaleidoscope of colors, making Garth’s stomach feel like it was going to flip out of his body and onto the floor. He squeezed his eyes shut against the searing intensity and dropping to the ground, trying not to retch. The room seemed to spin around him, and closing his eyes did nothing to make it any less bright.
A second later, the spinning stopped, and he saw nothing behind his eyelids except the dark. Garth held his eyes closed for a moment longer before cautiously peering into the room. The room was the same as before. Garth had expected some alien scenery or distortion of what had already existed. Clocks melting on the walls, that sort of thing.
Everything seemed normal. The TV was dark and the lights were off, but everything seemed normal. Garth walked to the light switch and toggled it a few times. Power was out. That wasn’t the worst possible outcome.
Now the question was, was Garth losing his mind, or had the world been plunged into another universe? Usually it’s best to use Occam’s razor. Which was more simple, Garth was bat-shit crazy, or aliens from another universe had tacked his own onto theirs?
Garth walked to the window, his robe falling open as he peered through the blinds. Same Saturday morning sun, same sky. He pulled the blinds open for a better look, his gaze directed down the main street of his little town.
Same sleepy morning street.
A shriek that penetrated the walls of Garth’s crummy apartment building shot through the room, making Garth’s heart skip a beat before it began slamming in his chest like a ten pound hammer. In the street, people began fleeing from buildings at top speed. Garth saw a gaudily dressed woman in high heels jumping over cars like an Olympic hurdler, arms pumping at either side, her face focused.
In any other time, he would have found the sight amusing, but the thing that followed behind her…that wiped the smile from his face. A lean, pasty, naked man with a mouth as wide as Garth’s forearm and blood covering his chest staggered after her, quickly left behind by the professional sprinter.
Other people weren’t quite so quick, Garth watched a dumpy middle-aged woman with a turtleneck and large chunks of hematite around her neck get dragged screaming to the ground, another pasty naked…thing biting down at her neck. In a matter of seconds, the woman went still as it continued to feast.
”Holy shit!” Garth shouted, his stomach churning.
The screaming crowd of maybe two hundred people split around the bloody tableu in the center of the street, more and more people getting dragged down and eaten as Garth watched. One of the white things raised their head and began to scan the surroundings, mindless of the screaming crowd around it.
“Shit.” Garth muttered, dropping to the ground before the thing’s field of view caught him standing in the window, watching all this go down like an idiot.
“What the hell, what the hell?” Garth muttered as he crawled along the floor. Was he seeing things? He didn’t need Occam’s razor to tell him shit was going down. But the question was, was he going absolutely mad, or was he actually seeing what his eyes were telling him? Gotta think.
Garth crawled to his bedroom, where there was a beat-to shit bed with a divot in it where he had slept alone the last couple years, along with a wobbly pressboard end table and a pile of clothes on the floor. In a panicked rush, he slid his pants and shirt from the night before on: no time for underwear.
Everything had seemed to come from inside buildings: The people, the monsters. There were none of the pasty white things on the street before people began running for their lives. That meant the monsters appeared…near people? Or perhaps they had been people. In any case, that meant the chances were there were some of them in Garth’s apartment building. Possibly very close.
No sooner had he thought that than the door to his apartment began to crack as powerful claws ripped through it, sending a thrill of terror down Garth’s spine.
He had to defend himself, he had to live…Wait, what if I am crazy, won’t I just be beating on innocent people? Garth sent a glance toward the door where a couple white clawed fingers were gouging out the pressed wood of his door. He didn’t have a lot of time to think. Garth stood up and grabbed the antique coat rack his mom had forced on him, bashing the base against the wall and knocking it off, making a six foot bludgeon of thick oak. At least it was finally useful for something.
Okay, the end result is…If I’m crazy they’ll arrest me, maybe throw me in prison or a psyche ward. Not too bad. If I’m not crazy, then the thing on the other side of the door will eat me if I don’t kill it.
As the white fingers clawed away another panel, Garth could make out the feral snarl on the pale humanoid monster. Its black, half-dollar sized eyes locked with his, and its efforts redoubled, trying to crawl through the hole in the door. You can do this, just like the Vikings.
Garth gave a strangled cry and brought the broken coat stand down on the creature’s head, his muscles weak with terror. It wasn’t nearly enough, and the tight-skinned thing thrashed in mindless pain and rage as the coat stand bounced off its head.
It pawed above its head, catching the weapon with one of its claws, beginning a brief struggling match over the wood. Adrenaline singing through his veins, Garth gave a twist with everything he had, and the branch of the coat stand snapped off in the creature’s hand. It stared dumbly at the wood for a second before it threw it down and once again began pulling its way through the door.
It pulled itself forward, worming into his room through the hole in the door. Once it got both arms were through the door, Garth knew he was dead meat. This time, he pulled the stand as far back as he could and brought it forward again with every ounce of force he could muster, tensing his stomach and back, hitting the creature’s head like a hammer game at the fair.
The creature’s hand was crushed flat to its head, and the wood kept going, denting its head and driving its neck to the side. There was a vacant stare in its bulging eyes, like a fish that had been beaten to death with a tree branch. The white creature flopped in its death throes, half in and half out of his door.
“OOH!” Garth groaned as all the power fled his body, sending him stumbling backward onto the floor. That was more intense than he’d expected, he felt like he wouldn’t be able to move in another few minutes. Adrenaline came in handy in short bursts, but people rarely could last more than a handful of seconds in a fight, and Garth had already spent his.
Damn, what do I do now? He thought, looking down into the street. In the minute it had taken him to dispatch the monster outside his door, the street had largely emptied, the people capable of running fast got away and everyone else... the creatures were making a meal of the sick and lame, as nature intended.
“’hell with that,” Garth said, dropping below the windowsill and crawling to his closet. He wasn’t sick, but he’d been described as lame before. As an electrical engineer, he had a few tools that could be more useful as weapons than a large wooden stick. Maybe he could find something to make a distraction. He needed to think.
Garth opened the closet and pawed through his work bag, looking for something sharp, but the most dangerous thing he could find was a rubber mallet and a bottle of spray paint for marking hazardous lines. His circuit testers were right out. He’d have more luck finding something dangerous or distracting under the sink.
Setting aside the bag, he picked up his cordless drill, the weight reassuring in his hand. Maybe if he put his biggest bit on it, he could use it to coup de grace the monsters…Except the blocky yellow cordless seemed to be out of batteries. That was weird. He could have sworn he’d charged it the night before, after work.
A chill went down his spine. No way.
Garth spotted his phone on the end table beside his recliner, and crawled to it, staying out of sight of the window. He’d checked his phone right before he’d gone to take a shower. The screen was black and unresponsive.
“No electricity?” he muttered. It was possible. But it was also possible that this ‘assimilation’ had simply emptied batteries, or redefined how electricity moved such that copper was no longer a conductor.
Garth grabbed the unfinished DIY robot arm beside his silent computer and tore a motor out of it, sending little pieces of plastic everywhere. He took the positive and negative ends of the motor’s wires and put them against his tongue, spinning the head between his fingers. Nothing. Not even the mildest tang or tingle of electricity.
Garth chuckled as a sinking feeling took hold in his stomach. His entire livelihood up until this point had been understanding electricity, and now it was completely useless. The laws of physics had actually changed.
“SSHAAR!” came a hiss from outside the window, making him freeze. After a breathless moment, he realized they weren’t coming after him, and he crawled to the window to get another look.
Out in the street, the pale things --Garth decided to call them Ghouls—were patrolling the street, no less than a dozen of them, wandering from building to building, testing the air with their hideous, flat noses that opened wide as they took in the air.
It wouldn’t be long before one found him and raised an alarm. This time, there wouldn’t be the screams of hundreds of other people to mask it, either.
“Crap.” He muttered quietly, looking around for a solution. He needed a distraction, an exit strategy, and a way to prevent them from following him. Wait a second. Did fire still work? Garth crept to his kitchen and turned on the stove before turning it back off a moment later.
Oh right, electric spark lighters. Garth turned to the drawers on the other side of the kitchen and slid them open, until he came face to face with the cheap lighter he used when the power was out. For a tense moment, Garth thought it might not work, leaving him shit out of luck. But the little lighter was flint-based, and it flared to life with the same little sparkles it always had.
Garth let out a gasp of satisfaction, staring at the little flame in his hand. Fire was human’s most basic technology, and it still did the trick. Garth put the lighter in his pocket and got to work on his plan to escape the apartment.
On the way out of the kitchen, Garth spotted a large kitchen knife in the wooden block and armed himself, nearly wanting to facepalm for seriously considering current testers. He was more than a little frazzled.
He folded his bath robe and stuffed it in the top of his tool bag. Garth’ coat had caught on fire in his last job, and it was going to be cold outside. His plan was to make it outside of town and just keep going. The fluffy robe should come in handy.
Garth took his bedsheet and twisted it a couple times before tying one corner to the frame of his heavy recliner. He took a gallon of paint thinner and three gallons of kerosene out of his closet and dipped a rag wrapped around a shitty geode paperweight in it. His mother had forced it on him after one of her garage-saling trips, and it was finally going to come in handy. After that, he sprinkled a little kerosene on the back of the couch, filling the room with the smell of volatile chemicals.
This was where things got dangerous. One screw up, and he’d be a crisp. Garth grabbed a chisel from his work bag and punctured the gas line behind the stove, letting the apartment begin to fill with whatever flammable gas remained in the pipes. He quietly opened the door, slipping past the corpse nearly blocking the exit, and lined the entire hallway with kerosene and paint thinner.
The smell in the house was beginning to make Garth dizzy, and he knew the ghouls would smell it too. As he finished spreading the kerosene in the hall, he heard noises like burbling water come from the creatures outside, coming closer.
Garth glanced back toward his apartment. It was now or never. There was no way he could hide in his room now, not with gas filling it.
“Hey, you pasty pieces of bird shit! I’ve got a whole roomful of tasty treats waiting for you!” Garth called down the hall at the top of his lungs, his voice wavering, pitched much higher than he intended. His voice carried down the hall, down the staircase, and out the door.
Garth heard hisses of hunger from the ghouls, then the clomping of feet on the staircase. In a matter of moments, he saw one of them reach the top of the stairs, looking at him, eyes wild with hunger.
Garth swallowed. He didn’t bother to say something clever. In truth, he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t simply scream in terror and fall to the ground. He turned and grabbed his door handle and pushed on it, aiming to dart into the house.
The door slammed into his forehead as the ghoul halfway through the wood cought on the frame and stopped him from opening the door all the way, its arm catching at the exact worst spot. Garth hadn’t thought that would be a problem. The screaming, pale monster with shark like teeth and overlong limbs was already halfway through the hallway, approaching him at a sprint. It seemed like they’d shaken off their lethargy since they’d gotten something to eat. It was much faster than he’d seen on the street.
“Fuck!” Garth slammed his shoulder into the door, slamming it open with a crack of splintering bone, ducking into the room and slamming the door shut just as a handful of oversized white claws slammed through the thin plywood of the cheap apartment door.
Garth backed away from the door, and the clawing stopped momentarily, but what he saw next put chills in his heart. The dead ghoul in the doorway was drawn out, and through the head-sized hole he saw at least six ghouls tear the body apart and feast on it.
Garth peered out the window and saw the last of the ghouls on the street entering his apartment building. Good. Garth didn’t know what he would have done if they decided to climb the building. He’d probably just die.
“Okay, we can do this,” Garth said, quietly sliding the window open, and pulling the recliner closer, grabbing his workbag full of supplies and tossing it out the window. Garth glanced around one more time. It looked like the bag didn’t draw any ghouls, so he was still good to go. Not like he had any other choice at this point.
Garth got the last things ready, dousing the rest of the room in flammables and using the window to breathe. He was interrupted by the sound of claws tearing apart the door. The ghouls had only slowed down a bit, eating one of their own. One was already crawling through the door while the others tore away at the wood, widening the entrance.
Garth put his recliner between himself and the thing crawling through the door. In seconds, the monster was through, and his door gave way with a final crack, Allowing the pale monsters to flood into his apartment.
“Bye,” Garth said, putting his legs outside the window and shimmying out, his hands on the bedsheet tied to the recliner.
The ghouls lunged forward, trying to slash at him over the furniture, but the wobbly thing bucked it off as it began sliding backward, pulled toward the window by the sheet-rope. Garth slid down five feet below the window before the drop jerked to a halt as the kerosene-soaked recliner jammed up against the window, sealing the ghouls in the room full of flammables.
Garth grabbed the kerosene dipped paperweight/rag combo and fished the lighter out of the pocket of his bathrobe.
“Here goes nothing.” He said, putting the flame under the rag, catching it on fire instantly. With a twirl, Garth sent the flaming paperweight up, knocking against the recliner. Catch, catch, catch! He chanted silently as the flaming rag drew an arc to his window.
The rag bounced off the upholstry, and the recliner burst into flames. Garth put his hands in the air in celebration, remembering not to shout.
He had to be quiet. He’d seen a hell of a lot more than a dozen ghouls out there. No need to make nois-
A deafening explosion rocked the street as Garth’s apartment exploded, sending shards of glass and bits of flaming polyester raining down on the jackass who didn’t run while he had the chance.
Garth stifled a scream of pain and covered his face with his left hand, grabbing his survival gear and running, taking one last look at the fire spreading to other buildings before getting as much distance between himself and the flaming buildings as he could. It looked like it wouldn’t end with just his apartment building.
A hiss caught Garth’s attention, and he saw one of the Ghouls who hadn’t quite made it all the way into the apartment building, but hadn’t been visible from the second story. It lunged at him, claws spread wide and mouth open to catch him whether he went left, right or backward.
Garth bit down a yelp and barely managed to put the knife between him and the ghoul. By some act of god, the knife slid home in its skull, making the creature go limp. Its momentum carried it into him, knocking him to the ground and snapping off the handle of the knife.
Goddamn, this is not according to plan! He thought as he struggled, pushing the limp monster off of him. Out of the corner of his eye, Garth saw something green crawling toward him. it looked a bit like a caterpillar, except it had a human face, it’s front limbs had the vestiges of human fingers, and it had some kind of tube extending from its mouth.
Nope, not happening, Garth thought, putting all his effort into flinging away the dead ghoul. The caterpillar looking thing convulsed, and a squirt of greenish liquid hit the dead ghoul square in the chest. Smoke began to rise from the ghoul’s body, but most horrifying of all were the tiny black worms that seemed to be burrowing into the ghoul’s flesh.
Garth stood, and the crawling thing shifted its attention to him. It began to convulse, with rhythmic, I’m-about-to-puke motions.
Garth dove out of the way, but a spattering of the green goo hit his legs and feet.
“Shit!” Garth shouted, and faster than he thought was possible, except maybe with his ex, he tore off his pants and shoes, wiping away the worms trying to burrow into his skin with his shirt.
The human-faced caterpillar on the other hand, simply watched Garth, dry heaved a few times, then turned and crawled on top of the ghoul, which seemed to dissolve beneath it. As a matter of fact, the caterpillar thing had left a smooth trail of eaten matter behind it. It seemed to even have wiped out a three inch layer of pavement.
If there were enough of those things, There might not be any evidence people had ever existed in a few years
“Shaa!” hisses came from the doorways, and ghouls emerged from the buildings on either side of the street, along with a second wave of people who’d taken the explosion as a signal to make a run for it. Where they were planning on going, that was anyone’s guess.
Garth grabbed his bag, put his head down and started sprinting, copying the fancily dressed Olympian, his bare feet slapping against the pavement as his mind churned furiously. He had to find somewhere safe. The buildings weren’t safe, there hadn’t been enough time for the ghouls to congregate. The ghouls had come from anywhere there had been people. Garth had to find somewhere without any people.
Garth hissed as something punctured his right foot, causing his sprint to turn into a lurching limp-run. He didn’t have time to spot and look at it, and there were hundreds of Ghouls flooding out onto the streets, picking off anyone too slow or too stupid to make a break for the woods. He also needed some shoes.
Garth kept hopping down the street, putting weight on the heel of his wounded foot as other people sprinted past him, heading for the highway and the woods beyond. Crap. It wasn’t looking good. You don’t have to be faster than the flesh eating monster, just faster than the guy next to you. Right now Garth was that guy.
He looked behind, and instantly regretted it. Among the wailing people being eaten, hisses of ghouls feasting, there were half a dozen more chasing after him, their eyes fixed on Garth’s bright blue bathrobe. They were gaining on him.
“Fuck!” Garth faced forward and limped like the hounds of hell were after him. In a sense, it was true. In a matter of seconds he developed an arrhythmic run that involved putting twice as much stress on his left leg, using his left heel almost like a peg leg.
Garth brought out everything he had, his legs burning as he made his way to the highway. He could hear the ghouls behind him, slowly gaining ground, and every nerve in his body seemed to be on fire, urging him to go faster.
By the time he hit the road, Garth knew he was going to die, torn apart by those shark-like teeth. He was slowing down, and they were speeding up. He could hear their deep, animalistic breaths whistling past their teeth, as if all they had to do to whisper in his ear would be to lean forward just a little closer.
“Aagh!” Garth let out a cry of effort and pain as he lunged forward, trying to make it to the guard rail. Maybe it would slow them down enough for him to get away…Garth knew it was pointless, but he kept going anyway.
Garth tumbled forward, past the guard rail, down into the ditch, his work bag flying with him. As he was churning through the air, Garth realized he could have dropped his bag and gone just a little bit faster, but it probably wouldn’t have made a big difference.
Garth hit the close-cropped saplings and patchy dirt, rolling down into the little stream that meandered through the ditch, the water from last night’s rain.
Garth put his hands under him and got up almost before he stopped falling, like a kid in a soccer game, too busy to notice skinned knees. It was fast, and it might have been fast enough, but Garth forgot about the wound on his foot. The shock of pain dropped him to the ground again, and Garth knew he was screwed.
He pushed himself up onto his hands again, turning onto his back to see his oncoming doom. Maybe he could catch one of them in the eye with the drill bit in his bag, and buy enough time to get away. Garth’s right hand reached for his bag as his gaze searched for the ghouls. They were less than a foot away. Staring at his feet.
Garth let out a shout and pushed away, but they didn’t follow him, staring at the ground where his feet had been. In a matter of seconds, the six creatures began to hiss and pace back and forth, looking between him and the wrist-sized stream of drainwater.
Garth kept backing away as he let out a shuddering breath, watching the ghouls follow the path of the stream, their gaze locked on their prey.
“Is it the water?” he muttered to himself. Were the creatures afraid of water? Garth had to test that later. That seemed like one of those things to be filed under Important Shit To Know. Garth pushed himself to his feet and began limping up the ditch as quickly as he could, the six ghouls exploring the range of the stream.
It wouldn’t take them forever to find where the stream sank into the ground, or an overpass above the stream, and then they would double back and be on his ass in a matter of minutes. He’d gotten lucky and bought some time, and now he needed to get out of here before they come back.
Garth took a moment to study the thing in his foot. It was a shard of glass, about the size of his pinky, and it was the only thing stopping his foot from bleeding profusely and making a convenient blood trail for the monsters to follow. He couldn’t take it out just yet. With a scowl, he let go of his foot and began limping through the grass toward the forest outside the city, hauling his bag with him. He still needed it.