Cascadia had a revolving list of party spots, updating as Elmer worked methodically to discover them. There were currently eight spots, and each of them had a number, rather than name, to keep them secret. Spot one was behind the fire house up Snowden road. Spot two was a clear cut six miles up the Skookullom. And spot seven was twenty miles south of town.
It was a river bend on the Little Salmon, a tributary of the Skookullom. Highway 24 veered away from the river here, heading out of sight around a bend. A dusty road, barely visible from the highway, peeled off the paved road and disappeared into cedars. Boulders and potholes played defense against all but the mightiest trucks. The road wound down to a little beach on the Skookullom, a spit of dirt and gravel that flooded in winter, and uncovered in Spring. Currently, trucks lined either side of the road. Boys and girls hiked in loafers and heels through an inch of powdered chalk, towards the bonfire.
High school parties of rural towns are perhaps similar to parties everywhere, except more stupid, and more dangerous. The shotguns were out, now. On the bonfire’s edge, seniors held one another’s beers, blasting an old washing machine that Chard Arkin had lugged from his folks’ garage. Every few minutes, their firing squad shattered the calm country air, startling the freshmen who stood nervously at the fringes.
Chris Hargrove had a cord of firewood in his pickup, with was backed up against the bonfire. The tarp was off, and Johns tossed log after log onto the open flames. John B poured a can of gasoline, and the fire roared up into the sky as students shrieked with delight. The bonfire devolved into a firewalking competition. Boys and girls swigged everclear, then walked, ran, or leapt across the giant flames. To increase the danger, Buddy Blaine and James Kessich maneuvered a couch over the fire, watching the polyester melt.
Jeremy sat in an overstuffed easy chair, in the bed of John D’s pickup. From this throne, he nursed his pride and a Rainier beer. He was feeling slightly better. At prom, he’d suffered a momentary indignation. He’d picked a fight with Jay, and Jay had won. Getting picked up by that little pipsqueak had been infuriating, and he’d arrived to the party in a sour mood. Order, he was glad to see, was slowly being restored. The Johns looked up from their fire walking, anxious for his approval.
Jay had given good blows, but he’d also been arrested, and that was not nothing. And the fight provided good gossip. It fed the night’s spirits, as partiers re-lived its details. Jeremy was ready to call the night a draw.
John D looked up at Jeremy, testing. “Can’t say you didn’t have it coming. After the shit you gave that kid?”
Jeremy sipped his Rainier and gave an appreciative smile. He was wondering how he would fully vanquish Jay and reclaim his superiority when someone cleared their throat. Jeremy realized the shotgun blasts and firewalking had all stopped. The party was silent, except for the blare of Garth Brooks and the crackle of fire.
Jay Banksman stepped from the rim of the surrounding cedars, making his way towards the party. His wet prom tuxedo clung to his thin frame as he strode with purpose towards the bonfire.
All eyes turned to Jeremy. Jeremy felt fury rise in his chest. Jay had destroyed his house. Humiliated him before the school. He shook, fighting the urge to pound Jay.
“What do you want?”
John B. and John D. stood beneath Jeremy’s throne and handed him a shotgun. Jeremy took it, but there was no threat in his movements. Not yet. Jeremy looked past Jay up the dirt road. Elmer’s squad car was parked in the middle of the lane, at a slight angle. The four windows were gone, and chunks of the frame were missing, where plasma had melted through metal. A group of partiers were gathered around, peering inside.
Jeremy dropped out the pickup bed.
“You kill him?”
“Of course not. I tried to warn you at prom. Do you believe me yet?”
Jeremy cocked his shotgun and pointed it at Jay’s chest. Jay raised his hands.
Jay turned to the other students. “I’m the good guy. You all saw it. There are two of me, right?”
“We’ll see.” Jeremy motioned to the Johns. “Hold him.”
Jay felt the Johns hands on him. “Listen, asshole: Dunam is being destroyed this very moment. I can’t stop them alone.”
John B sneered. “Destroyed by what?’”
A peel of nervous laughter broke. John W grabbed a fist of Jay’s jacket.
“Monsters?” He sneered. “Is this a fucking joke?”
John D. laughed. “You really think we’d believe that shit?”
“You don’t have to believe me. They followed me here.”
A shrill howl punctured the night. The students shifted around the bonfire, staring uneasily into the darkness, eyes wide. The howl was answered by another, closer. Jay had driven fast to party spot seven. But not so fast as to lose two of the creatures following him.
John D lifted a shotgun and scanned the horizon. The only sound was the crooning of Garth Brooks. Everyone stared at the woods. The fire crackled and the river murmured. Boys and girls stood, Solo cups frozen in hand. A branch snapped. John D swivelled around. Then a dark figure broke from the treeline, galloping towards the bonfire. Kids screamed and scattered.
John D pumped his shotgun, firing round after round. The figure turned, hurtling towards the Johns. John fired again, then the creature stumbled. A second creature ran up the river bank. In a flash it leapt thirty feet, landing in the middle of the party. It reared to its full height, long thin arms dangling claws across the fire, needle teeth gleaming in the light. Like a nightmare. Jeremy swung his shotgun and fired. The creature flew back, tumbling down the riverbank.
“Whoo hoo! We got it!”
The Johns screamed, running after it, firing again and again. It twitched, dying, and then lay still.
“Save your ammo!” Jay called futilely after them.
The Johns huddled around the creatures, staring. John W poked one with a stick. Johns ran to the edge of the firelight, searching for more. Jay approached one of the creatures. He marvelled at the intricate pattern of its scales, the lean muscles under its skin. Its long, fierce claws. He recognized it immediately, of course. Somewhere back home, his Krave III manual was tucked in the front pocket of his bookbag. On page 12, under the enemies section, and there was an illustration of this exact creature. A Gulkon Scout.
Strengths: Speed, intelligence.
Weaknesses: Low hit points.
Abilities: Can call other Gulkons with its howl.
Jay shivered. Can call other Gulkons. Jay thought back to the creatures he’d seen on the cliff outside Dunam. So they were Gulkons, left over from Krave Prime, that Hal had swept off the map. And now, apparently, brought back in.
He was staring at the creature when Jeremy tackled him from the side. Jay tumbled over, coming to rest alongside the dead Gulkon. Jeremy’s weight was atop him, pressing Jay’s small body into the river stones. Jeremy’s hands fumbled to grasp on Jay’s tuxedo jacket. His face was a mask of rage. Jay felt his own fury rise.
“What are you doing?!” He pointed at the dead Gulkon. “These things will kill us!”
“You brought them here.”
“Are you kidding me!?” Jay shouted back. “You brought them, you ignorant prick. You made that version of me, don’t you understand? Or is your code so simple, all you can think of is—”
Then Jeremy’s hands were around his neck, choking him. The Johns ran up. They weren’t laughing anymore. They looked between the dead Gulkon and Jay. Jay saw the confusion in their eyes and, for the first time, doubt. John W grabbed Jeremy’s shoulder.
“Jeremy, man, these things are real. Maybe we hear what Jay has to say?”
Jeremy shrugged off John’s hand. His face was red with fury, his eyes glazed over. He was past the point of listening. Jay felt his panic rise as he fought Jeremy’s grip. There was no escape now. He saw in Jeremy’s face that Jeremy meant to do him in. Was there no getting through? Was Jeremy impervious to reason? And then, even in the panic, some small part of Jay’s brain spoke calmly. He looked up Jeremy. You’ve always wanted to hurt me. You probably don’t even understand why. But that’s okay. I do.
The blood was pooling in his face. There were spots before his eyes. The Johns were trying to pull Jeremy off now, but Jeremy was like a rock. He’s programmed to hate you. Nothing you can do will change that. But you can use it. With all the last of his voice, Jay squeaked:
“Jay Banksman… is a little… bitch.”
Jay felt Jeremy’s hands loosen around his neck. He sucked in air, coughing. Jeremy stared down, dull.
Jay struggled to speak, coughing.
“I said... Jay Banksman... is a bitch. He thinks... trucks are stupid. He hates ...baseball. He’s probably... on your field... taking a dump… right now.”
Jeremy’s hands left Jay’s neck. He stared out into the night. Jay could see his anger gathering, but no longer at him. The Johns looked confused. Jay coughed into the ground.
“Have the Cascadia Vandals... ever lost?”
“No.” Jeremy whispered.
“What’s your record?”
Jeremy’s eyes glazed over. “Undefeated.”
“Are you gonna let Jay break that record?”
“What’d you say?”
Jeremy cocked his shotgun. “I said ‘Hell no!’”
“Then let’s kick his scrawny ass!”
Jeremy charged off into the night, toward John W’s truck. The Johns watched, bewildered, slowly grabbing their guns to follow. Jay lay back down, breathing deeply. Now, finally, they had a chance.