8: An End to Every Season
There is something in the air which Captain Long just can’t put a word to. It clings to the trees as harsh as the evergreen bark. It rises from the ground like autumn fog. It runs through the debris-clogged gutters. It stains the rubble and ruins, and seems to stick to his stiff fabric of his uniform. It feels greasy on his skin and tastes bitter on his lips.
Captain Long was one the first helicopter flying over St. Jim’s after the plethora of emergency calls reported from the area. Even with under an hour and a half of fly-time they were too late, and treated to a view of the small town as she burnt to the ground. He saw the corpses of giant grasshoppers littering the destroyed town. He watched the dying grasshoppers creep through the ruins of the smoldering town, to the forest where they buried themselves in the soil. He did his best to make quick mental notes of them when he saw them, linking them with landmarks he would be able to find from the ground because he knew he would have to hunt the big bastards down.
The rescue mission was a failure, as no one was saved. Early estimates of 385 dead or missing, with those numbers expected to rise. No full corpses, only pieces-small gnawed pieces. Carnage unlike anything Captain Long has ever seen. A media circus unlike anything Captain Long has ever seen. Insects unlike anything Captain Long has ever seen.
Thousands of grasshopper corpses littered the town’s gore-streaked streets. Many looked the standard size, shape, and coloration of the common regional grasshoppers; though most were swollen with human flesh or even had tiny scraps hanging from their minuscule maws. And the black ones, the ones with the oily sheen in the deep black of their chitinous exoskeleton, the ones they are calling ‘alien-in-nature’…they were everywhere and they were the ones Captain Long saw burying themselves in ash-covered ground of the forest surrounding St. Jim’s. These strange, ‘alien-in-nature’ grasshoppers, so sleeks and smooth, are from the size of a large late-season male (roughly three inches long) to about the size of a one-ton-pickup (roughly fifteen to twenty feet long). The scientists would have a heyday with the mutants, hell they already were.
Captain Long’s men have spent their time acting as babysitters to the scientists and their crews charged with loading up the giants up on flatbed trucks, covering them securely with tarps and carting them off to be picked apart in a warehouse-sized lab established just for this specific catastrophe. The thousands of smaller samples are being gathered, in what seems to Captain Long to be a mind-numbing process, and each stickered with identifying labels scrawled with tiny excited gibberish.
Captain Long’s men have spent their time keeping the growing number of increasingly vocal reporters at bay. Families of the missing are camping out on the borders of town, which the Captain had no choice but to station armed men along. He is confident his superiors are spinning a half-believable yarn to explain the town’s utter destruction, but the scope of the disaster is quickly growing quite larger than first expected and the much needed reinforcements should be arriving within the next hour or so. Hopefully, the next group of damage control specialists will have people with them trained to deal with the media so his men could get back to the other tasks they are charged with.
Captain Long’s men are working with independent contractors to clean up the worst of the town’s destruction before the camera crews get through the guarded barriers. More importantly than that, Captain Long’s men are working with independent contractors to hunt down and destroy the buried grasshoppers before the media circus closes in any tighter. His men are working with CDC agents, and escorting them over the hillside to aid in the hunt and study of the mutants. His men, trained and experienced killers all, are slipping in the mud with men in white storm suits and good-old boys in jeans and plaid; the scene stirs memories of bad jokes playing on social class or race. Captain Long has stood on countless battlefields but the ominous feeling in the air is completely different, it almost hollows him out with every breath.
Now, Captain Long is walking the charred corpse of a forest service mountain road while his best men scamper about hunting the burrowed monsters. Ash still floats lazily in the air and smoke still puffs persistently from small piles of debris. The charred skeletons of trees still stand all around him, blackened and stripped by the raging inferno. The uncountable gallons of water dumped on the town and surrounding forest turned the dirt to thick ash-colored mud. As violent and bloody as the carnage was back in town it makes much more sense to Captain Long, it doesn’t hollow him out like the scorched apocalyptic forest landscape. Blood he has seen, and tasted, and bathed in but the burnt out groves and blackened mountainsides carry a fearful primal heaviness. His feet slurping and slapping in the mud like his casual stroll violates the soiled mountain road with every step.
Although he hasn’t said it out loud the blood has a much stronger sense of finality. He knows the killer grasshoppers are still there, just hidden under the sludgy muck and mud.
Captain Long walks the forest road with his hands behind his back and staring straight in front of himself, yet he still catches all the grays and blacks of the devastated forest around him with his highly tuned peripherals. Far behind him on the road a transport truck rumbles up the steep grade. The captain hears a voice shouting behind him, but in front of the supply truck. Captain Long doesn’t slow his step.
Within a matter of moments he hears deep breathing and footfalls punctuated by splashes in the puddles filling the ruts in the road as the voice catches up to him. “Captain Long, sir, wait up.”
Captain Long continues his determined steps around a bend in the road and stands facing a clear-cut ridge which remains largely untouched by the flames which ravaged everything around it. His chest burns at the cruel mockery of a breath-stealing view. If the surrounding trees weren’t charred and smoking and the underbrush reduced to shifting ash piles it would be a true lovely site as the mountain cuts back on itself in a sharp, extended fold of rock and earth and trees. The Captain’s keen eyes spot a battered yellow pick-up parked half-way down the clear-cut. Without slowing his step, Captain Long adjusts his path in the direction of the abandoned pickup truck. He steps off the gravel road and his heavy boots sink in the mud. Captain Long takes advantage of the mud, by leaning back on his heels and controlling his slide down the mountainside, shifting his body weight and leaning slightly side to side as he descends.
Sergeant Brown rounds the same corner the Captain had seconds before. Brown’s eyes go wide, scanning the deserted road for his superior officer until he sees him sliding down the ridge-side in the mud. Sergeant Brown rolls his eyes at the back of his stoic leader and stomps across the road to the slippery path Captain Long created down to the crashed pickup. The Sergeant steps on the path, but doesn’t lean back or take the time to adjust his balance. He hits his ass into slick mud and slides down the mud path bellowing Captain Long’s name the entire way down.
Captain Long reaches the crashed vehicle first, and stands with his arms folded across his chest as he examines it. It is a small Ford Ranger, most likely from the late 1980’s and painted a Forest Service yellow with a Hoo-Doo County Forest Services logo emblazoned on the driver’s door. The truck is impaled on a sizable stump. Every window shattered, the roof dented in as if it rolled a few times. The wreckage is covered in a fine layer of ash, in some places the ash is darker, and through experience the Captain knows the ash stuck to slowly drying blood. Sergeant Brown’s slide comes to an end near the rear of the truck, where Captain Long helps him to his feet. The two men lean against the truck’s tailgate while Captain Long allows the Sergeant to catch his breath.
After a few moments, Sergeant Brown taps a cigarette out of a dented softpack and offers one to his Captain. Captain Long stares at the smoke for a moment before taking it and placing it between his tight lips. Sergeant Brown smiles a goofy smile, knowing the Captain isn’t normally one to smoke the devil cigarettes, as he holds his flickering flame first to his leader’s smoke and then his own. As both men take slow, deep, drags off their cigarettes Sergeant Brown remembers why he chased down his Captain.
“Two things, sir.”
Captain Long raises a questioning eyebrow.
“Do you think it smells like Christmas or camping?”
“You know, because of the fire and all.”
Captain Long says nothing, his questioning eyebrow still arched.
“Me a-a-and the other fellas were, you know, joking about-”
“About the slaughter of an entire town?”
“Uhhh.” Sergeant Brown’s smile dissolves into a shameful grimace.
“Stop being an asshole, Sergeant.”
“Sir?” Sergeant Brown asks thinking perhaps his apology was lacking something still.
“You said ‘two things’, if your foul attempt at humor was one, what is the second?” Captain Long snuffs out his smoke in the mud at his feet and then tucks the soiled butt into his chest pocket. As soon as he is finished, Sergeant Brown sheepishly offers him another cigarette. Captain Long takes half as long to consider the offered smoke, and light for it.
“The second thing, sir, is Major Bollock has found an abandoned camp site. I believe at the bottom of this very ridge even.”
“No, sir. He has indicated there are victims though. Several.” Sergeant Brown responds, his head refocused on the terrible business around them.
“Any giant fucking grasshoppers?”
“Yes, sir. Biggest buried one yet.” The Sergeant beams proudly. “Heat readings show it to be at least as big as the three we hauled away on flatbeds. They just need your permission to blast the bastard. Uh, I mean target, sir.”
“Oh, it’s a bastard, Sergeant. But, let’s start there next time and keep your shitty jokes to yourself, huh?”
“Yes, sir.” Sergeant Brown bows like a scolded child.
“Well, tell ‘em to sink the bomb and kill the bastard, Sergeant!”
“Yes, sir!” Sergeant Brown snaps to attention, his cigarette still gripped tight between two fingers, before speaking into the com-unit on his shoulder to pass the order along to Major Bollock at the bottom of the ridge.
Down at the bottom of the ridge, standing next to a babbling little creek obscured by bright green ferns misted with fine dots of blood, stands Major Bollock supervising his rag-tag crew. He has been tasked with hunting down the grasshoppers which buried themselves, and the hastily constructed squad consists of Bollock himself, his longtime teammate Major Avado, two full bodysuit wearing CDC officials, and four good-old-boy-local-contractors to help with the drilling through the Earth and the subsequent bombing of the hideous insects. The com-unit on Major Bollock’s shoulder squeals, and he effortlessly shifts his M-16 to his other arm to answer it.
“Major Bollock here.” He speaks into the small plastic square while watching the four civilians place the tri-pod over the indicated giant. He knows the call is going to be giving the order to sink and destroy. He wants to be ready.
“This is Sergeant Brown, Major. Have you located the target?”
“Yes, sir. Target acquired and mapped through use of the heat-sensors. Tri-pod in place and ready for drilling, sir.”
“The Captain has given the order, Major. Sink and destroy.” Sergeant Brown’s voice crackles over the static and what sounds like an approaching vehicle in the distant background.
“Sir, yes, sir!” Major Bollock barks into his com-unit. He slings his M-16 over his shoulder and helps Major Avado open the wooden crate containing the small specialized bombs they are using for the extermination. Though the small missiles are only a foot long and an odd spiraled oval shape they pack enough of a wallop to shake the ground when they do their thing. Each missile in the crate weighs close to a hundred pounds and it tasks both Majors to hustle it site to site.
“Drill it, boys.” Major Bollock grunts to the civilians crowded around the tri-pod as he and Major Avado shuffle towards them with the crate of bombs.
A heavyset man named Clark gives the straining Majors thumbs-up as he flicks the switch on the tri-pod. The drill roars to life, the sound of a chainsaw eating a lawnmower, and massive 12’ diameter titanium bit slams towards the ground. Dirt and rocks cloud the air and pelt the men as the drill eats into Earth chomping at the beast buried beneath. The drill comes to a sudden, whining, stop as the hillside rumbles underfoot.
“Shit!” Major Avado yells while rushing the tri-pod, “pull it back before-”
The second Major means for his civilian counterparts to reverse the sinking drill before it can snap the bit, but rather than the bit breaking the entire drill shaft begins to bend and warp from the pressure it is encountering underground. The drill bit gives before the shaft, and when it snaps the ground rumbles with such force to tip the tri-pod over. Major Avado dives forward and yanks the broken bit from the ground with his bare hands. The jagged metal instantly shreds his gloves, slashing at the tender flesh of his hands and smearing his blood all over the broken bit and the ground he frees it from. Three of the civilians struggle to get the tri-pod back in place, while the forth, Clark, assists Major Bollock in removing the first ground missile from the crate. The two CDC officials accompanying them stare at the unfolding scene through their clear faceplates but make no effort to help.
Major Avado bellows as he tosses the broken drill tip away and helps the three men get the tri-pod back into position. The second it is in place Major Bollock and Clark fit the missile into the top of the tri-pod’s secondary shaft even as it slams down into the beginnings of the hole the drill made.
“Sink it!” Major Bollock yells.
His order is instantly followed, and the missile is shot into the ground to detonate. The hillside heaves and rumbles, the men all swaying to catch their balance even as Major Bollock screams, “Sink another!”
The time has come. The new eyes, the human eyes, open.
The ground next to her exploded, the giant burrowed grasshopper taking the brunt of the explosion and sparing her to spread the Pulse to the other humans. The humans have machines to find the grasshoppers with their body heat, but the human is cold and dead. The Pulse reads the remnants of decaying thought, and it knows her name was Elizabeth and she died full of sorrow. Her brain is almost too destroyed for the Pulse to control, but the cosmic parasite has its filthy soiled tendrils twitching to hold it all together. The Pulse might not be able to control her flailing limbs once she is free of her earthen tomb, but it can control her snapping mouth. It doesn’t have to last long, just long enough to pass the Pulse on to another human. From there begins the great feasting, the Pulse will taste the flesh as they taste the flesh but only the Pulse will consume the souls.
The dirt shifts. Rainbow eyes shine. The new season begins.
Before Major Bollock’s squad can fire the second missile the ground below then sinks and rolls, uprooting and tipping several hundred foot pine trees surrounding them and tossing them into chaos. Without warning Clark’s heavyset form sinks waist deep into the fractured ground so quickly none of the others have time to react before he is screaming at the top of his lungs. The three men struggling to hold the tri-pod steady abandon their post to help their trapped friend. The two CDC officials remain shock-faced and still. Major Avado, left alone to balance the heavy metal tri-pod yells over his shoulder at them as the tri-pod thrashes in his straining arms.
“This shell is live, you assholes!”
As if to punctuate his statement the tri-pod’s shaft warps until it detonates the missile stuck halfway down it. Major Avado’s legs disappear in a cloud of blood and dirt that sears away most of his facial features as it chokes the camp. The civilian nearest Avado suffers the same fate, his death quick and bright as the explosion consumes him.
The explosion allows the other two men to tug a babbling, gagging Clark from the ground. They drag him several feet away, and both have to hold down vomit when they see the severe jagged wound bisecting Clark’s meaty thigh. Finally one of the CDC officials unfreezes as his training kicks in and he dashes forward to stem the flow of blood drenching the ground under Clark.
“Hey!” Major Bollock yells over the rumble of earth and panicked screams around him.
All eyes turn to him, each set bloodshot with fear. “We need to sink another.”
The two civilians remaining shake their heads at him, silently begging not to. Next to them, the CDC official gives up on applying pressure to Clark’s wound as the flow goes weak and thin. He looks up and shakes his head sadly at Major Bollock though Clark’s friends don’t see the gesture.
“The hole is lost, no damn way we are getting it back as shook up and unstable the ground is now, and the fucking tri-pod is ruined!” The civilian in blue plaid nearly screams in Major Bollock’s face.
Major Bollock raises his M-16, points it at the man’s forehead, and tells him, “Our friends gave their lives to kill this thing, now help me sink another.”
The other worker dives for the destroyed tri-pod, since his friend has a machine gun inches from his face, but he slips face-first into the mud and knocks the heavy tri-pod completely off the mound and into the invisible creek.
Major Bollock growls in frustration as he spins away from the man down the end of his barrel to the fallen man. Bollock grabs the clumsy one by the scruff of his neck and jerks him up from the mud. The man’s face comes free with a slurping sound which gives way to his pained screams. The Major rolls the man over and sees his face has been chewed off. His head snaps back to where he jerked the man free and he sees a gray-faced girl rising from the muck. Her eyes glow a terrible rainbow of colors which almost convinces the seasoned Major to swallow his rifle. Above her glowing eyes, a bullet wound crusted around the edges with tiny neon worms poking out. Major Bollock looks back and forth between the man he just pulled free, now as dead as Clark behind him, and the girl as she stumbles awkwardly towards him with one hand making circles at her side, the fingers on that hand twisting and bending each other uncontrollably.
His heart pounding in his ears, his face flushing red with a dread unfamiliar to him, Major Bollock narrowly avoids her snapping mouth when she throws her body at him. He tucks forward, somersaulting through the mud to pop back up behind her. He is much quicker than her and has her in his sights before she spins back around to face him. As she does spin, Major Bollock catches a glimpse of Clark attacking the CDC official and his sole remaining friend behind her. His finger a feather on the trigger he hesitates when he notices the mud dripping slowly from the tip of the gun barrel.
The rainbow-eyed girl lunges at him again, this time one arm slashing wildly as she charges. He dives to the opposite side of her, rolling past and swiveling back. He raises his weapon as he rises, swinging it like a baseball bat at the back of her head. Her skull caves in and her face explodes as brain is forced out on to the forest floor in front of her, though the sound is far less satisfying than Major Bollock expects it to be. It lacked the solid crunch of bone he had expected, and the butt of his weapon has a strange black slime covering it, but he doesn’t have time to ponder it all because he hears the growling behind him.
Major Bollock faces the threatening sounds behind him and sees Clark, his two buddies- now faceless twins, and one CDC official snarling at him with bared teeth and glowing rainbow eyes. Behind them the other CDC man struggles up the steep muddy ridge-side his helmet still on and clipboard still clutched tight in his hand. Bollock readies to swing his rifle at the men, but they all dart forward in exact unison. Their movements far more sharp and coordinated than that of the dead girl they surround Bollock and rip the gun from his hands before he has a chance to put it to task. He fights for all he is worth but his fists and kicks don’t faze the dead men, or slow them despite hearing him hearing their bones break from the force of his strikes. Clark slashes him across the face with jagged fingernails and Major Bollock feels it. He feels the Pulse, warm and neon and hungry, and he falls into the waiting jaws surrounding him.
The last CDC official miraculously reaches the tree line before Major Bollock rises from the dead with his own neon eyes, but unfortunately he slips in the mud and slides back down the hillside a good twenty feet. He had watched them all fall, had counted on them to still be chewing on Major Bollock, so he doesn’t risk a look back down at the carnage. He fights he way through the slick mud, grabbing on tree trunks and underbrush to work his way back to the tree line. He finally makes it, and sees Captain Long and Sergeant Brown a few hundred feet above him leaning against a pickup and smoking cigarettes. He screams for their help, and then realizes they can’t hear him through his helmet. He clicks the release button on the side of the helmet, but as the face shield whooshes back he is grabbed from behind and dragged back into the trees to the waiting jaws of the dead which quickly tear him to shreds.
The rumble of the transport truck on the dirt road above echoes through the clear cut Captain Long and Sergeant Brown are standing in even though the truck still has a few turns before it reaches them. Captain Long crumples the cigarette he is smoking and tucks the butt into his chest pocket. Sergeant Brown wordlessly offers the Captain another, but it is declined. The Sergeant notices the distant look in the Captain’s eyes.
“Have you heard anything from town, sir?”
“Yeah. The flesh-eating insects may be gone, but the new scourge at the gate is twice as venomous.”
“The press, sir?”
“Yeah, ‘the press’.” Captain Long says the word the way some people say ‘nazi’.
“I tell you, sir, for something labeled TOP SECRET there are more people on this mountain than there was before the massacre.”
“You speak the truth, Sergeant. A bunch of goddamned vultures and fools.”
The rumble of the huge transport truck rumbling into view above covers the sound of the five dead men scampering up the hillside behind Captain Long and Sergeant Brown. Before he knows he won’t be heard above the roar of the truck the Sergeant shouts his final words, “At least it is the end of grasshopper season, sir!”
The dead men overtake the Captain and his Sergeant but the running truck covers the sounds of the scuffle and their subsequent demises. Captain Long manages a few hard palm strikes before a dead man in a blood-stained CDC jumpsuit ducks below his arms and sinks its teeth into the meat of his crotch. The Sergeant fares no better as Major Bollock knocks him off his feet by clubbing him in the face with his fists, allowing Clark and his faceless friends to fall on him. The truck rumbles and groans to a stop uphill from the slaughtered soldiers.
Captain Long stands back up, missing his left ear, most of his right cheek and a mouthful of pecker meat. His eyes shine a rainbow of hideous neon colors in stark contrast to the dismal scorched forest around them, the strange colors pulse in the same rhythm as those around him as they all look up hill at the truck and the driver shouting down to them.
In a small shack not two miles from the ridge something malevolent stirs.
The dead run towards the truck and the Pulse in the Dark sees through their eyes.
The Corn Eater returns to the shack, changed and hollowed, and the Pulse in the Dark sees through his eyes as well. The crimson bearded hermit sulks around the shack, he isn’t needed to lead the new swarm as the Pulse can lead them all from where it coils, but other tasks are necessary for his fragile human hands. The Corn Eater tears a plank away from the wall of the shack and tosses it over his hunched shoulder.
On the dirt road at Tree Horn Ridge, the dead men with the rainbow eyes reach the truck. Captain Long and Major Bollock tear the driver’s side door away at the exact same moment the Corn Eater tears away his first plank. The driver is yanked screaming from the cab and eviscerated the instant he hits the ground. The men in the back of the truck begin shuffling out but Sergeant Brown leads his dead troops up and into the canopy covered cargo area slaughtering the dozen confused soldiers riding back there before any have the chance to fire a single bullet.
The dead men feast on the flesh of the fallen, and the Corn Eater tastes the blood as he jerks away another plank. The Corn Eater tastes the blood, but only the Pulse in the Dark tastes the souls. Another plank, and the shack slumps in on itself. The Corn Eater smiles as he tastes the flesh and the blood, he knows there will be more, so much more. The dead will swallow the world and the Pulse will grow fat with its gluttony. As more dead men begin to rise with their rainbow eyes, the Corn Eater shoves the weakened shack away from the cosmic parasite it has sheltered. The Corn Eater drops to his knees and begins clawing at the dirt surround the smooth glowing coils of the Pulse. Fingertips bleed as earthed prison is removed fistful by fistful.
The Pulse will soon shine too bright for the shack.
It will light up the forest, and then it will light up the world.
All will rejoice in the warm glow of the Pulse in the Dark.
THANK YOU FOR READING
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