Emerging from an alley, Cale moved toward Terach’s high-rise apartments with his gun ready, staring up its multitude of sightless eyes. The entire structure had gone dark, shattered windows stretching its height. He’d tried to contact his friend, his partner, but his calls had gone unanswered. Even the other hives hadn’t seen him. With the chaos of the city pressing down on them, he knew that something had to be wrong.
Cale approached the gated entrance, trying to buzz in as a force of habit. Something scuffled against the pavement, but he only saw paper blowing down the abandoned block. After a few distracted moments, he tried the gate. It swung open with a drawn out creak as it came to rest against the building.
He took a deep breath, continued inside.
The familiar scent of pine covered the decay. Even the fires of Sandhyanen couldn’t overpower that musk. He took a deep breath, regretting it as it hit his tongue and the staleness flooded his senses.
He passed the elevator, entered the stairwell. As the door latched, a loud click announced his entry. In the darkness, the sound seemed to amplify, filling the space with its glee. Cale chided himself as he ascended the steps. The only relief he had in his slow climb was from the single pane windows at every other landing. Each time, he halted to check that things hadn’t gotten worse since he’d entered. The outside burned, only growing more dismal with each passing floor. He glanced through open doors, finding only disheveled halls, clothes strewn about. His shoes scraped against concrete. Hushed whispers trailed after him.
Ducking into Terach’s hall, he adjusted his grip. Soot covered the windows lining the opposite wall, sending dirty images of the fires outside playing against the doors. Distant shouts came from behind him. Cale spun around, met only dancing silhouettes. He listened harder, but heard phantom laughter playing in his head. He slowed as he approached Terach’s door.
He grasped the doorknob.
Gunshots slammed into the wood, breaking through, striking the windows. Glass exploded out into the city, flooding the hallway with a cloying heat.
Cale raised his head, checked his body, shouted, “Really, Terach?!”
There was no response from the other side of the door.
Pulling himself flush against the wall, he held his weapon tight. Sweating, he reached up, tugged on the door. It flung open, striking the wall with a thud. Another hail of gunfire exploded through the open space.
Cale covered himself, then heard the repeated click of an empty chamber.
His breath came out thin, his head swam with the adrenaline. He rose to his feet, checking himself, catching a final look out of the windows. That clicking persisted from inside.
Cale inched his way into the pitch darkness, staring into the unfaltering void. The steady thrum of the squeezing trigger set him on edge, dreading the scene.
“Terach,” he called, taking an uneasy step past the threshold.
The stench of bodily fluids, the tinge of blood, assaulted him. Covering his mouth, he squinted, only able to make out the foreign shapes of overturned furniture. “It’s Cale. Are you—” his voice faltered, “okay?”
As he crossed the edge of a room, he caught a single ray of light sneaking in through a slit in the blinds, revealing a fraction of the chaos. Severed bodies lay about, blood soaking the beige carpet. Cale edged past them into the comforting dark, approached the sound of the click. He placed a calming hand on the slick revolver. The shooter let it go without a fight, though his eyes paced without ceasing.
“Terach?” Cale abandoned the empty gun. It struck the ground, hitting with a glop. He absently wiped his fingers on his leg.
“Don’t go,” Terach whispered. His voice came out strained, wet.
“Everyone’s lost their fucking minds,” Terach replied. “These were my neighbors. Maybe it’s because I’m an Officer, but I don’t think that was it. I heard others . . .”
Cale turned back to the thin line of light, which had already moved on from their dismal scene, but he caught the face of one of the corpses, recognizing them now.
Terach continued, “They’re fighting amongst themselves. They’re on other floors. I don’t know why they haven’t come down to finish me.” His voice faltered. “Maybe they thought the others—”
Terach’s gaze darted to the open doorway.
Cale turned his head, straining to hear something. There was nothing there. “I need to get you out of here.”
“No. They’ll be coming soon. Y—you need to leave.”
Cale chuckled despite himself. “You must’ve lost your damn mind. I can’t leave you in this mess.” He leaned into the indistinguishable mass, gripping hold of Terach’s outstretched arm. He tried to examine him, but the darkness smothered him. Even though it went against all his training, he felt the pressure, the impending sense that something was coming for them and if they didn’t move now that they were done for. “It’s either both of us or nothing.”
“You hard-headed piece of shit.”
“If anything, I’m stubborn.”
“That’s what I said,” Terach groaned.
Cale released him, stopping cold. “What did they do to you?”
“That’s the question. I—”
A wild, chilling laughter echoed. Too close for a comfortable escape. Terach’s hand seized Cale’s jacket, not strong enough to grip, but it caught him off guard. He recoiled.
Terach descended into a fit of violent, wracking coughs. He managed a strained, “Go.”
“I can’t.” Cale stared at the door, gun ready.
“They’re coming. They’re not the type who’ll just let you leave.” This time Terach’s broken words came out strong. “This isn’t how I thought things would end.”
“Me either,” Cale admitted. The laughter spilled again, this time closer, an imminent threat. “I’m sorry.”
Terach began to cough, wet, heaving.
Cale turned his head away, then he squeezed the trigger. Once, twice. The gunshots echoed in the enclosed space. Whoops and hollers rang out in celebration, far away but getting closer. Cale had to press down the scream in his throat. Now was not the time. He wiped fresh tears from his face, muttering a sincere, but completely wasted apology to his friend’s corpse. The thought nearly made him lose it, but with approaching feral chorus, he needed to say focused, alert.
He placed a hand on Terach’s, then stood.
His eyes had not adjusted to the darkness and, for once, he was thankful for that reprieve. He focused on the door, the square of dull light that promised all sorts of fresh horrors. He stumbled, used his free hand to catch himself. His palm sank into the soaked carpet and he forced down the urge to vomit. This was not the place. He righted himself, trying not to think about what now coated his hand. Leaving the chaos of that black room, he paused, resting against the door frame. His breath came out sharp.
The first scream hit the air. It came out feral, reverberating along the empty halls with all the jubilation of a serial killer stalking his prey in a darkened alley. His arm came up, trained on the passage that led to the stairs. He caught a movement in the path and released a quick burst into the empty space. He chided himself after a minute, approached the space slowly.
He stepped into the stairwell, feeling cold and empty. Looking over the railing, he couldn’t see anything in the gap between flights. The darkness seemed stronger, resilient with his offering. Rubbing his jaw, he froze when he recognized the sickening wetness. He turned the hand over and scrubbed the blood away. He kept scraping at his skin until it began to ache, sting at his touch.
A choked sob escaped his throat. It travelled up and down the stairwell in quick, jerky bursts, distorting into a mocking laugh.
In the following silence, a chorus of mimicries came from all sides. The raw sounds cascaded over one another, turning sinister, relentless.
He made it down to the next landing, the varied catcalls closer. Looking back, he saw more than a dozen figures move, descend the stairs. There was something wrong, inhuman in the way their bodies contorted, but—
Cale stumbled, caught himself on the railing. For a moment it seemed to hold, then it ripped from its struts and swung out into the space between. He held on for a second too long, plummeting to the next flight. He hit the steps, tumbled down them. He lost his grip on his gun and he heard it tumble away, but he couldn’t be sure where. Then he heard it strike the ground below.
The laughter stopped.
Tremors ripped through the building.
Cale forced himself to his feet. His leg seized as he tried to put his weight on it. He pressed down any emotion, any fear, and straightened. He leaned into the suspect railing as he hopped from step to step. Frantic footsteps descended.
Cale realized something was off. A low moan filled the shaft, then a low growl as metal twisted and screamed. What followed was a slow, entirely unreal moment where the ground began to pitch and waver underneath him. The building leaned to its right, ever so slowly, as Cale hopped to the next step and then rolled his ankle. This time, he screamed and, almost as if in response, the building was wracked by tremors, ripping at the walls, throwing him off center.
Another shockwave tore into the area.
The stairwell lurched. Cale toppled to the next stairwell, his body screaming in response as his arm was pinned underneath his body. He bounced, struck the window with his shoulder. It splintered, but held, separating into a dozen scattered images. He let out a low groan as other shouts cascaded down toward him from upper floors. He rolled, wedged himself into the window’s frame, his screaming arm giving him support. The building continued to buckle, throwing Cale’s weight back into the window once more. The window crackled as it held him.
Flames flickered, distorting as a black column jutted through the concrete just a few blocks away. A plume of smoke exploded from its foundations, covering the area in seconds. The building jolted, pitched to the side. It struck another building and held. The seconds ticked away as Cale, his thoughts scattered but semi-coherent, wondered what would be next. He heard the crackle of glass, then the window buckled, spraying Cale and throwing him out into the dust-filled air. He turned over in the congested day, not sure which way was up and then struck the ground and screamed.