Coming to a godforsaken place near you….
Worry lines creased the man’s weathered face as he gasped in another lungful of frosty air. Nearing exhaustion, he realized the burden he was carrying was heavier than he’d bargained for.
He heaved the cooler up into his arms again and struggled along the zigzag maze hacked into the Florida swampland. Palmetto leaves sawed at his hands like jagged blades, forcing expletives from his lips—one for every extra step the switchbacks added to his journey.
But the man’s curses fell upon his own head. He alone had woven the erratic trail in the forest—to avoid detection—by them.
The crack of a nearby branch stopped him in his tracks. His eyes darted wildly from pines to palmettos to clumps of gray moss draped on scrawny oak branches.
He picked up his pace.
Night always fell fastest in November.
As the final rays of sunlight faded to ash, the man spotted the dilapidated cabin. Wincing and grunting, he climbed the rickety wooden steps and shoved the cooler onto the small porch. He dared not wait for the pain in his side to subside—not with safety mere inches from his grasp.
He jabbed a hand inside his jacket, searching for the key. His fingers, numb and bleeding, lost their grip. The keys landed on the ammo box stacked atop the cooler, sending a metallic clang echoing into the forest.
He snatched up the keys and shoved one into the lock. Warped by the weather, the cheap panel door protested his intrusion. The man rammed it with his shoulder. It didn’t budge. The hard kick of a leather work boot caved in the bottom. A second strike sent the door banging against the inner wall.
Making a beeline for an electric box above a peeling laminate countertop, the man crossed the one-room cabin in four strides. He pried the box open and flipped on a breaker. A fluorescent light blinked on, sending thumb-sized cockroaches, too many to count, skittering away into cracks in the chinking between the logs.
The cooler scraped on the wooden floor as he dragged it and the ammo box inside. He secured the broken door with a chain, then pulled away a blue tarp, revealing a desk stacked with electronic equipment. He plugged a surge protector into a socket. Lights on the equipment began to glow. Radio static sizzled in the dank air.
He fiddled clumsily with the knobs on the equipment until the frequency he sought crackled to life. He barked into the microphone.
“Whiskey Four Hotel Oscar Lima. Come in. Kilo Four Tango Papa Romeo.”
“Hi hi. Wifey trouble. What’d you do this time?”
“Not over the radio.”
“Beers at Blarney’s?”
“Be there in a few.”
The man clicked off the microphone and opened the scuffed cooler. He pulled out a sleeve of saltine crackers and a tin of sardines. He set them on the makeshift desk in front of him, then pulled the metal tab on the sardine tin. His fingers, stiff from the cold, tried feebly to peel back the tin’s top.
Come on, you piece of shit!
He grabbed the oily lid with his fingers and rocked it back and forth, trying to release it. The sharp edge sliced his index finger to the bone.
He flung the tin against the wall. Fish oil and blood splattered everywhere, permeating the cabin with a metallic, aquatic stench.
“Damn you, Arlene! Why can’t you just buy the easy-open kind?”
He grabbed a T-shirt hanging on a nail and dabbed at the oily, reddish flecks speckling the front of his shirt, the radio equipment, and the face of a space alien staring back at him from a well-thumbed issue of True UFO Encounters.
Spying a sardine on the floor, he picked it up, laid it across a cracker, and crammed it into his mouth.
The feel of the tender fish bones as they crushed between his teeth reminded the man of his rightful dominion over the lesser animals. An almost sinister smile of superiority crept across his lips.
As he reached to turn off the short-wave radio receiver, he bumped the tuning knob. A man’s voice crackled over an open channel.
“Don't know what to think. The metal casing is definitely extraterrestrial … static … the earth's atmosphere usually tears holes in a meteorite. This thing is smooth … static … cylindrical shape.”
The man bolted upright in his chair. A different, more panicked voice broke in on the channel.
“Something's happening ... static … end of the thing is beginning to … static ….”
Another man’s voice screamed, “She's moving … static … keep back, there! Keep back, I tell … static … it's red hot, they'll burn to a cinder! Keep back there. Keep those idiots back!”
The frequency deteriorated to static. The man feverishly adjusted the controls until he found the signal again. A gong-like sound came over the radio, as if a huge chunk of metal hit the ground. The voice resumed. What it said next made the man nearly choke on his sardine and cracker.
“Someone's crawling out of the hollow top. Someone or … something.”
The man swallowed hard as a cacophony of screams overwhelmed the frequency. He grabbed his microphone and was about to break in on the line to see if he could help, but his gut knotted in fear.
Then they would know where I am.
He sat, finger frozen on the microphone button, trying to decipher the man’s voice above the screams.
“Something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray ... static.”
An electric surge of adrenaline sent the man bolting to his feet. “Grays! It’s the damned Grays! They’re here!”
The radio signal cut out again. The man frantically tweaked the controls, trying to recover it.
They’ve killed them! Alien bastards! Where are they? Here?
Unearthly shrieks shot from the radio. The man jerked back as if he’d been shot. The sound of rapid gunfire rattled from the frequency. Wild-eyed, the man reached for his ammo box. He yanked out a bullet-studded belt and slung it over his shoulder.
“Let’s do this, alien scum!”
He crept over to the only window in the cabin, drew back the curtain, and took a cautious peek out the filthy glass. His heart thumped double-time.
Something was staring back at him.
His mind raced through an inventory of the animals he’d hunted over the past four decades. But the creature was unlike anything he’d ever seen before.
He grabbed his AK-47, aimed at the window, and fired.
The pane exploded into a cloud of glistening shards.
The gun’s recoil sent the man reeling. He slipped on the oily floorboards, dropping his gun as he fell to his knees. He scrambled for the weapon, but his nemesis was faster. In an instant, the alien creature was inside the cabin, towering over him.
The man lunged for his radio equipment, twirling the dial for an open frequency.
“Break! Break!” he gasped over the microphone.
“What is your call sign?” a man’s voice crackled over the frequency.
“They’re here! They’re here!”
“Who’s here? Repeat. Who. Is. Here?”
But the man in the cabin didn’t reply. He couldn’t.
An ungodly pressure—as if the Earth’s gravity had suddenly quadrupled—paralyzed him. Unable to move, his ears began to thrum. His face turned scarlet. And his eyes, feeling oddly too big for their sockets, stared, mesmerized, into the cold eyes of his attacker.
As a strange, dark wetness enveloped him, the last thing the man heard was the crunch of his own collar bones as they fractured, then caved into his chest.