by Aeryn Rudel
I watch the sun sink below the trees to the west and curse silently. I have no chance of reaching Delta Base before nightfall. Winter night comes quickly in the Northwest, and I’ll be traveling in complete darkness for the last few miles. I stop walking and set my pack on the crumbling asphalt of what used to be State Route 20. I dig through its meager contents: a change of clothes, food, shells for the 12-gauge, and four candles and a lighter.
I rise and shove the candles and lighter into my pockets, then stuff everything back into the pack and throw it over my shoulder. I sling the shotgun. It had been quite useful against the bandits a few miles back, but it won’t be worth a damn after sunset. The bandits’ attack failed, but they may have killed me just the same: they delayed me so I can’t avoid the night, and they broke my gas lantern. There had been three, two men and a woman, and I’d seen their clumsy ambush from a football-field away. I’d shot two of them as they broke cover but missed the last, and she’d knocked me down. I’d finished her off with my knife, but not before my Coleman had been reduced to glass shards and bent metal.
I think about stopping and building a fire—the dry forest floor offers no end of kindling—but one glance at the rainclouds gathering to the east and I dismiss the idea. I begin walking. The sun is now only a yellowish glow on the horizon, and the shadows cast by the trees spread long dark talons across the road. The four candles might last long enough to get me to Delta Base, where they will have built bonfires to hold back the darkness . . . and the lurkers within it.
Only fire and sunlight keeps the lurkers away. Light generated by any other source—be it a flashlight or a 1,000-candle-strength searchlight—won’t stop them. When they first arrived—from God knows where—it took us too long to make that connection. Now the few starving groups of humans left work at survival during the day and huddle around roaring fires at night, just as our ancestors did tens of thousands of years ago.
Already the shadows beneath the trees have taken on a disturbing liquid state that heralds the lurkers’ approach. Minutes pass, and the road ahead grows dim and hazy in the onrushing dark. I debate for a moment whether or not to light a candle. A sudden shriek from the west makes the decision for me. I pull out one of the short, tallow candles and the lighter. I flick the lighter with shaking hands and light the wick. It catches instantly, surrounding me in soft illumination.
I began walking again, slower now. If I move too fast, I could blow out the candle. The forest on either side of the road is alive with howls and shrieks—the lurkers waking from their daylight slumber. They’ll see my light, and although it will keep their shadowy talons from my flesh, it won’t save me from having to see them. Looking at a lurker is like looking into the end of the world. Into death itself.
Ebon forms now flit between the trees, leaping in frantic spurts of motion and leaving faint trails of black mist in their wakes. I keep walking, watching the road and watching the tiny lick of flame slowly devour the candle in my right hand.
The lurkers are all around me now, dozens of spectral shapes brushing against the invisible barrier of my light, whispering their hunger into my ears and filling me with a dread. I push on, lighting my second candle with the first and tossing the still-burning nub behind me. I manage a smile as the lurkers in my wake scatter, shrieking as the light burns their wispy bodies.
I keep walking, and I light the third and then the fourth candle as the miles pass. I’m still over a mile from Delta Base, and I know I’m not going to make it. I stop, and the lurkers sense my despair, sense they may soon feed. They stream around me, their tortured screeching filling the night. I feel sudden numbing cold against the back of my neck, followed by an ear-shattering howl. One of the lurkers has tried to reach through the barrier of illumination and grab me. My candle light—feeble as it is—burned it.
I look up, and although the sky is dark with rainclouds, I haven’t felt a single drop. My last candle is almost gone, and I have maybe five minutes of light. The towering trees beside the road sway with the passing of hundreds of lurkers, and their shrieks are an unending chorus of misery and death. I move quickly to the edge of the road and then off it. The ground is a matt of dried pine needles; they crunch beneath my feet. One chance. I close my eyes and drop the candle.
I wait for cold talons to tear through my flesh, but instead I feel warmth at my feet. I open my eyes and see a small blaze growing in the dried forest detritus. It spreads quickly—tendrils of flame lancing through the forest floor, sending lurkers screeching away from the rivulets of light.
One of the tall spruces nearby catches fire with huge whooshing noise, becoming a giant candle. Dozens of lurkers are instantly snuffed out by the explosion of fiery illumination. Now the heat hits me, and I stumble away from the conflagration I have created. I find the road again, and I run. As I pound down the cracked asphalt toward Delta Base, hounded by the shrieks of dying lurkers and the withering heat of the blazing forest behind me, I take some comfort.
Even if I don’t make it, I’ll die in the light.