The Johns scurried from truck to truck, pulling back seats to gather armloads of guns from the back of their cabs. They threw them into a small pile near the bonfire. Jay absentmindedly warmed his hands on the fire, watching the pile grow. The Johns snapped back and forth.
“The colt .45 is mine.”
“I’ll trade a Summit Ascent for that Hi Power Mark III.”
“Get that little Kimber .357 outta here.”
“Who’s MSR 10 is that?”
So the pile grew. When all the weapons were out, the Johns dug in, grabbing armfuls, and walking to the edge of the campfire for an impromptu firing squad along the rocky river bed.
“Anyone out there?” They were kind enough to shout at the darkness. Then the night erupted into gunfire. Jeremy strolled behind the Johns, like an officer addressing cadets, brandishing his single shotgun. “Alright, save your ammo, Johns. Let’s go find that Jay.”
They rushed to their trucks. The remaining prom goers huddled by the fire, watching headlights flash on and engines rumble to life.
Jay ran back to Elmer’s squad car. He was about to slide back behind the driver’s seat, when he felt a hand on his collar. Jeremy grabbed him by the tuxedo and yanked him away.
“Just get us back to school.” Jay muttered, hurrying around to the passenger side.
Colin wound the batmobile down Snowden road, his knuckles wrapped white on the steering wheel. Shayna sat up front; Marlene and Mike in the back. It was the most passengers Colin ever had ever carried in the batmobile. With each small pothole, the car’s frame dropped and squealed against the wheels. Shayna spun around.
“Colin!” She hissed. “Keep your car quiet!”
Colin gripped the steering wheel tighter, practicing his calming breaths.
Since talking to Jay, they had fanned out into Dunam, knocking on houses near the school to search for a generator. Finding generators wasn’t hard. They were everywhere; thrumming throughout the night. Convincing people to give them up was another matter. They went to the Melk’s house, and rang the doorbell. Mary Melk answered the door. They could see her kids in front of the television, watching The Terminator, room alight with candles, extension cord snaking out the window. Mary listened to Colin’s stuttered pitch, nodding her head in confusions. When Colin finally got around to asking for the generator, Mary let out a simple “ha!” and slammed the door in his face.
They’d eventually gone up Snowden road to quietly ‘borrow’ one of his folks’ generators out of their shed. It was a portable 2000w Honda that didn’t quite fit under the front hood of the batmobile, so they bungied down the hood. Now, driving back into Dunam, whenever they hit a bump, the car not only squealed, but the hood leapt up, stretching at the bungies, covering the road before them.
They skidded around another curve, leaning desperately away from the oncoming bank. They hit a small bump, and flew up from their seats. When the passengers slammed down, the wheels shrieked as if on the verge of bursting, and the tailpipe thundered through the dark woods.
“Colin!” Shayna gripped the dashboard with her hands. “Keep. Us. Quiet.”
“I can’t. The timing is off.”
“The re-time it.”
Colin’s jaw tensed. “I can’t do that while I’m driving.”
“Maybe slow down, then? You’re gonna get us killed.”
Colin didn’t respond. He hadn’t told the others yet. But as they were loading the generator into his car, he’d seen dark shapes moving in the open fields beyond his parents’ house. They didn’t look like the deer that normally fed at dusk. They were bigger. Bigger than elk, even. Moving on two legs, methodically towards the others houses. It was that vision now that propelled him down the road.
His headlights were pitifully dim. Their warm glow was barely strong enough to light the trees from the surrounding darkness. Everytime he glanced up, he thought he saw another shape moving through the forest. He wiped sweat from his brow.
Mike had his face pressed to the back window, watching the woods with big eyes.
Shayna turned around. “Stop it, Mike. We don’t need that kinda attitude.”
“It’s not attitude. Something’s following us.”
Colin looked in his rearview mirror. A dark shape burst from the trees, out into the road. Shayna, facing Mike, saw it and screamed. She grabbed the steering wheel, jerking the car into the opposing lane. Tires squealed and Colin yelled as he pushed Shayna back. Mike climbed up onto his knees to stare back through the rear windshield.
“Uh, you guys? I don’t want to alarm anyone, but there are now three of those things behind us.”
Marlene hid her face in the seatback and squealed. “Oh, I don’t like this.”
Mike poked his head up through the seats, glowering at the speedometer.
“Can’t we go any faster?”
“Here, let me steer.” Shayna again reached for the wheel.
Sweat poured off Colin’s face. He depressed the spongy gas pedal and watched the speedometer climb. Colin checked the rearview mirror. A dozen creatures now dashed after them.
“Please please please please…” he muttered under his breath, praying to whatever gods protected old cars.
Another curve was coming. Shayna leaned in to offer her advice. Colin mashed his foot into the gas pedal, spun the steering wheel, and took the curve at full speed.
Twenty miles away, Jay was barreling back towards Cascadia from the opposite direction. Elmer’s squad car roared down the Highway 24, as Jeremy pushed the speedometer up to ninety. In his rearview mirror, Jay could barely make out the armada of trucks accelerating to keep up. He saw Johns sticking their heads out windows, standing up in pickup beds, slapping cab tops, howling at the moon, and making him nervous for their safety.
In the back of their squad car, John B and John D (or was it H?) eyes’ watered from the wind blowing through the empty windows. Jeremy threw his shotgun into Jay’s lap, while he spat tobacco into one red Solo cup and swilled keg beer from another. Jay glanced nervously at the steering wheel, watching Jeremy steer with his knees. The trucks finally caught up behind them, and the whole procession tore through the night.
Jay flipped a switch on the dashboard and picked up the CB microphone. On the roof, the PA on the roof crackled.
“How you guys doing?”
He heard shouts and whoops from the trucks. John W was shouting something.
The John cupped his mouth:
The other Johns began chanting. “Music! Music! Music!”
Jay pulled his working mixtape and pushed it into the cassette deck. The slow, melodic notes of James Taylor’s Something in the Way fell over the darkness, and the Johns shouting immediately quieted. Jay punched at the cassette deck.
“Whoops. Wrong side. Give me a sec.”
The woods fell away on either side, and they ascended the final rise into lower Dunam.
Or what was left of it. The Riverside Grill was a mess of timber, completely destroyed, flames eating at its edges. Beyond that, houses were caved in, as if a giant fist had punched down from the sky. A Winnebago lay on its side, torn to shreds, pieces scattered into the road. The trucks behind him went silent, marvelling at the destruction. Everything was gone. Bodies lay in the road. James Taylors echoed melancholic over the destruction. Jeremy spun around to Jay.
“Turn that shit off!”
Jay hit the fast-forward button. The cassette whirred. They turned up Jewett boulevard. The hospital stood monolithic at the top of the hill. Jay saw a lone shadow standing on the spire of the New Beginning’s church. A Gulkon Scout. It stared down at the procession, then lifted its head and howled. Jay grabbed the intercom.
The Johns spotted the creature, and unleashed a barrage of gunfire. The Gulkon screamed and fell. It was odd to hear that noise in real life; the same 16-bit sound he knew by heart, but real.
Then there were Gulkons everywhere. Black shapes peeling out from the gloom, rushing the trucks. They came in waves, running between houses to burst out into the road.
A scout darted out behind the squad car. John W fired from the bed of his pickup truck, and the Gulkon stumbled and fell under the tires of the oncoming Ford. It bounced over its body. Then the creatures were everywhere. Jeremy nodded at the shotgun in Jay’s lap.
“You gonna use that thing?”
Jay slowly laid the barrel on the passenger window. A Gulkon Scout ran down the hillside. He pointed the gun and fired. Boom! The cab shook and Jay’s hands flew to his ears. The shotgun rattled and fell out the open window.
Steering with one hand, Jeremy punched at Jay with his other.
“That was my dad’s gun!”
The squad car swerved as Jay shrunk from the blows.
Behind them, the Johns chanted between gunshots: “Music! Music! Music!”
Ducking Jeremy’s blows, Jay hit the play button on the cassette tape. The first notes of Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name Of blasted through the PA system. The Johns all burst into cheers. In the Ford 150 behind them, John B stood up in the bed, playing his assault rifle like an electric guitar. Their car swerved slalom-style around Gulkons in the road. The houses of Dunam were burning now from plasma fire, erupting in pillars of flame. Heat shimmered through the metal of their squad car, and sweat poured from Jay’s brow. The squeals of Rage Against the Machine intermingled with gunshots and Gulkon screams. Jeremy was headbanging as he drove, the flames outside casting his face in red. Jay shivered and shrunk down into his seat. It felt like hell.
A Gulkon Grunt stopped out into the road before their headlights. Its flat, ugly head turned, staring into their cab and Jeremy swerved, missing it by inches. The F150 behind them slammed into the Grunt, screaming to a halt. Its hood crumpled, the bed flew up into the air, and the whole truck skidded sideways, coming to a stop.
Jeremy slowed. The truck didn’t move. Everywhere, the darkness erupted with more Gulkons. Up the hill, past the fires, the night shimmered purple as plasma blasts flew down, melting the asphalt and disintegrating the F150. Jeremy shook his head. There was nothing they could do. He stepped on the gas, and they shot forward. There was no longer hope of keeping the convoy together; it was every truck for itself.
Jay glanced in his sideview mirror. The other trucks were carefully steering around the dead F150. He watched a Gulkon Grunt slam into the Chevy behind them, flipping it off the road. It tumbled down the hillside and disappeared into darkness. A third truck spun around, speeding away onto Grandview Blvd, in the opposite direction. The Johns were scattering.
Jeremy swerved onto Main street, past the charred ruins of New Bethlehem Church, and the burning elementary school. Then they were speeding past cold, empty fields. In the distance, Jay caught purple flashes in the farmsteads surrounding Cascadia.
There was no sign of the other trucks as Jeremy squealed into the A-Court parking lot. The parking lot was empty. Jay turned to Jeremy.
“We have to get to Tutorial.”
Jeremy pointed. “There.”
At the far end, by the front office, their headlights flickered across a group of shapes. Six Gulkon Grunts, plodding towards the school. Flanked behind them were two smaller figures. Jay leaned over, squinting.
“Can you get us closer?”
“You got it.”
Jeremy smashed down on the gas. The car accelerated, bouncing over a speed bump, tires squealing. The force of it threw Jay back in his seat. He watched in horror as their speedometer climbed up over a hundred and pulled on his seatbelt. The Gulkons turned stupidly at the approaching car. The two smaller forms grew in the headlights, and Jay saw it was Hal and Liz.
Hal no longer wore his prom suit. Instead, he wore a full suit of plate armor, in a dull, non-metallic color. It broadened his shoulders then tapered down his skinny legs. In his right hand, he carried a gnarled staff with a crystalline head. Seeing their approach, Liz bolted away from the Gulkons, running off into the parking lot. Hal pulled up his staff and punched at buttons.
“Hit him!” Jay screamed.
The Gulkons closed in to protect Hal. But not fast enough. Their squad car whistled past. Hal held up his staff to shield himself, and they smashed into his body. Their hood crumpled, a headlight shattering, they were all thrown forward and then they bounced up. There was a ka-thunk as their tires ran over him. Jeremy slammed on the brakes. Rubber screeched and the squad car fishtailed sideways, coming to a stop.
The only sound now was the tremor of footsteps. The six Gulkon Grunts lumbered towards them. The Johns leaned out the backseat windows, blasting the Gulkon Grunts until their guns clicked empty. One of the Johns threw Jeremy a shotgun and Jeremy kicked open his door and strode ruthlessly toward a Grunt, firing round after round into its head until it toppled.
Jay watched Jeremy’s smooth, effortless movements, vowing to go to more baseball scrimmages if they they survived.
Then the passenger door flew open, and a hand pulled him out into the cool night air. It was Liz. Her arms were around him, and he buried his face in the warmth of her neck. She pulled him back, smiling, looking at him.
“The score’s two, zero.”
Beneath the squad car, they heard a defiant scream. Hal lay on the asphalt, legs pinched under the rear tire. He squirmed, furious, a trapped animal. Jay saw he was straining and pushing to reach something on the ground. His face contorted in red rage. Jay saw his staff—his controls—lying on the asphalt, out of reach. He kicked it away. Hal turned and grabbed the car’s tire. He pushed upwards, straining, and the car began to lift off the ground.
Jay grabbed Liz’s hand. “Quick! Get in the car.”
He grabbed Liz’s hand, and they climbed into the backseat. The added weight slowly settled the car back down onto Hal.
The four remaining Grunts fanned out, moving towards Hal. The Johns were struggling to reload. Then, in the distance, there was the squeal of tires. Headlights flashed over the parking lot, as three trucks pulled in. Jay saw Johns in the beds, yelping and whooping war cries.
Their shots pelted the Gulkons and the monsters slowly turned, plodding towards these new threats. Jeremy and the two Johns ran after them, shooting at their backsides.
“Get back here!” Hal screamed at them.
Jay climbed to the edge of the back seat and peered down. His own face stared back up at him. Small pebbles of gravel were stuck in Hal’s cheek. Red capillaries spiderwebbed across his eyes as he strained against the weight. He snarled at Jay.
“You don’t know what she did to us.” Hal spat venomously.
“Then help me. Help me punish them. It will be good for us.”
Jay shook his head. “Time to move on.”
Hal groaned. “You reap the benefits of all my work, but you don’t know the pain.”
He struggled again to lift the car. Jay searched around for something that could kill Hal. He felt along the floor mats until his hand touched something cold and metallic. The Beretta. He swung the gun up and pointed it at Hal. Hal relaxed.
Liz stayed his hand. “No, don’t. If we kill him, he’ll just come back. Leave him trapped.”
Jay smiled. “Looks like we won.”
The words seemed to cause Hal pain. He screamed against the car.
“I’m done losing.”
“So am I.” Jay snapped.
Jay looked out into the parking lot. Gulkons streamed down from the farms, surrounding the truck. Hal lay back, breathing heavy.
“I’ll let you go. Let you out of Dunam. You can keep playing. There are other games. Other worlds.”
Jay remembered his hike with Colin. How they’d planned to use The Build to make new levels.
“Rule your own galactic federation. Or be a level twenty wizard fighting red dragons.” Hal laughed. “Or do both. Any hero, any story. You pick. All I ask is the occasional battle.”
“What about Dunam?”
Hal shook his head. “There are better places. Why stay?”
Jay glanced at Liz.
“No. She’s not worth it. Don’t make the mistake I did.”
Liz pushed her way forward. “We all made mistakes.”
Hal’s lips thinned. “Yes. But I had to live with the consequences. I can’t let her go, Jay. But if you want, you can have her. Keep her in one of my worlds, and never let her go.”
Jay looked at Liz. The girl of his dream. Except she wouldn’t be, not really. She would always be a prisoner. Living under Hal’s shadow.
“She has to go free.”
“She made her choice. I made mine. There’s no going back.”
“Jay— Jay, listen…”
Jay saw Hal was looking at something beyond the tires, out in the parking lot. He heard the squeal of tires. He looked back. Two Gulkon Grunts were chasing down one of the trucks. It skidded, desperate, its John turned to look back at the creatures, not watching where it was going. Too late, the John spun forward. Jay saw the look of surprise on his face as he swerved the steering wheel. The truck slammed into their squad car, lifting it up. At the impact, Jay and Liz tumbled forward, falling out onto the asphalt. Hal rolled free. He leapt out and grabbed his staff. Jay crawled onto all fours, turning to Liz.
“Get out of here.”
Liz jumped to her feet and ran.
Hal sneered. “Too late.”
He pointed his staff at Liz and pressed a button. Liz gasped. Her body faded, disappearing into the darkness. She turned to Jay, her mouth open, struggling to speak. Then she was gone.
“Ghost mode.” Hal smiled. “Let’s wrap this up, shall we?”
Jay ran to the squad car and slid behind the wheel. He depressed the clutch and cranked the ignition, throwing the squad car into gear. Its tires tore up the school lawn.
Hal stood in the parking lot, punching buttons. Jay burst forward, barreling down. Hal slammed his hands onto the car’s hood. Jay flew forward at the impact, cracking his forehead on the steering wheel. He pushed the gas pedal all the way down. The car squealed, fishtailing—without moving. Hal leaned in, tremendously strong, a crazy, cheshire grin over his face. He whispered through the broken windshield.
“This isn’t even my final form.”
Then his head threw back and laughed. Jay depressed the gas pedal. The engine screamed, burning rubber. Hal’s laughter twisted, growing grotesque into the night, as his body began to twitch and convulse.