The monster breathed.
I stumbled backward and managed to turn away, crawling onto the hov. I chanced a look back; the monster stirred on the concrete, moving as wind soughed through trees.
The hov’s controls were standard. I held on for dear life and squeezed the accelerator.
Lurching, the hov shot forward through the back gate of the depot, rocketing across the prairie, leaving hundreds of meters between me and the monster.
Standard hovs, ones like these, could reach top speeds of 350 kilometers per hour. I wasn’t sure how fast the monster could run but I guessed maybe forty km/hr (judging from how fast it had run before).
It took me a second to remember where I was going. The shifter site. If the civilians had managed to collect their wits, they would be there.
I changed direction slightly, following the digital map that the hov projected from between the handles. The shifter site was about a hundred kilometers from here.
As I whipped across the prairie, I tried to think of some way to kill the monster. The thing wouldn’t die. Blunt force didn’t kill it. Was there any other way?
I nearly whizzed past the civilians, but I managed to slam on the brakes in time. A huddled group of maybe twenty of them stood right in the middle of the brown-grey prairie.
“What’s going on here?” I demanded, dismounting the hov. “You’re supposed to be at the shifter site.”
“We would never make it in time,” a young male voice raised over the hubbub of families and children. I looked into the wide eyes of several babies and the wrinkled faces of haggard elderly people. It was true.
He was maybe twenty years old, short but slim, with veined hands. He wore a simple grey engineer’s garment. As he stepped forward, I could tell he meant to have a word in private. We stepped a few feet away from the crowd.
“I’ve been thinking over ways to defeat that monster—buy us some time,” he said in a low voice, “if you will.” He punctuated his statement by staring knowingly into my eyes.
“Uh huh,” I muttered.
“Well, I think,” he began talking fast, “you just brought us the solution. That hov, I can make something out of it!” His eyes, intelligent but book-worn, glowed with excitement.
“Okay, okay, hang on brazen boy, you don’t know a thing about that creature. I fought with it. I wrestled in mud with it. I even sliced right through it. But let me tell you, that monster is about to show up in ten to twenty minutes roaring and ready to eat our brains out.” I lowered my voice and stared into his eyes, mimicking him. “It regenerates. And we don’t have time to pass a permit, for whatever crazy contraption you have in mind.“
“Wait!” He wasn’t to be daunted. “I can rig the hov as a weapon. Fast. Give me five minutes, tops, and I’ll get you a bomb.”
“An explody-thing?” I pondered it for a few seconds. “All right, you have yourself a deal. Tell me your name? If this works, you get a medal of honor.”
He made an odd little bow. “Henry, at your service.” He even shook my hand.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said, “I’m Ensign Max.”
The whole conversation wore me out. I could have dropped in the dirt then and there and slept the whole thing out. Honestly, there wasn’t much I could do when Henry was playing with the hov.
It wasn’t just that. My chest felt constricted and every breath I took was labored.
I dropped to my knees and knelt in the grass, catching my breath. My stomach felt odd too, like I’d swallowed a couple kilos of rocks. I closed my eyes.
I jerked them open when the screaming began. I rose to my feet, nearly tottering over onto my face.
I whipped my body around. “Did you say something? Did someone call my name?”
It is I who speaks to you, Ensign Max.
In the bright blandness of the landscape, a few meters in front of me, a lit rectangle delineated the air. The light that issued from it blinded me.
Do you understand me?
“Yes, yes, I do,” I began, then stopped short. There were willowy angels gliding through the rectangle of light. Their outlines were vague and shadowy, but they were beautiful, like dancers, or seaweed swaying with a current.
I could not see how many there were—there were millions, and there was one. It was as if their numbers did not matter, yet at the same time dicated their organization.
I understand you, I projected.
Communication came intuitively. I didn’t understand how—what—why—this was happening.
Ensign Max, you are my hope.
Hope? What do you mean? I don’t understand.
In time, you will understand, as you grow each passing minute.
The light-beings grazed my chest, fading gradually back into the rectangle. As they gave a farewell, they looked not at me, but at my chest, right under my sternum, where it was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe.
Warmth grew between the halves of my rib cage, pulsating softly.
Farewell. I am with you. I thank you for the hope you bring.
Strangely, it was as if the voice that spoke to me was inside me.
Max. Max. Max.
“Max!” a familiar voice screamed.
“Oh—hi—Henry,” I said, between short gasps for air.
His serious face hung over mine. “The bomb is ready. I have to deploy it now; the monster is within distance.”
I shut my eyes and let all the tension go out of my neck, resting against the cool dry ground. I mumbled something, but I’m not sure if he heard it.
The last thing I remembered before blacking out was an explosion, a pressure wave, and Henry’s scream.
And the Monster, expressionless, walking towards me.