EMPIRE OF THE MOON AND STARS
by Simon Bleaken

Our lights pierced the thick darkness of the shaft, those deep depths where the only sounds were the distant echoing drips of moisture and a faint furtive scurrying of unseen things. Kaz flashed me a glance and I read the alarm in her eyes. We both hoped it was rats, but we both knew it probably wasn’t. 

There was fear down here, a palpable terror that hung in the air. It smelt like sour sweat, and it mingled with the damp musk of the tunnel network. Another smell hit us then, the stomach-wrenching stench of fresh vomit as Delv staggered into view, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. His face was pale and greasy in the light of our torches, and his boots and the bottoms of his fatigues were spattered in puke.

“You need to work on your aim,” Kaz ribbed him teasingly, but the humour fell flat. Nobody felt like laughing, not down here. Not after what we’d just seen.

It was finding the missing patrol that had done it, those shredded fragments covering the tunnel floor, each so torn apart it was impossible to even be sure how many bodies we were looking at. The leeches hadn’t done that, which meant there was a stalker down here somewhere. We were on the right track at least, but that didn’t make us feel any better. It meant we were in more danger than we cared to admit. These tunnels were normally the only safe way to move about during the day. Okay, safe was a relative term, but they were definitely far less risky than the surface while the sun was out. Nobody could survive up there during the day anymore, not out in the open at least. You could thank the leeches for that, for forcing human beings to become nocturnal, for stealing away our daylight world and forcing us into a new empire of the moon and stars.

In truth, we called them leeches, but nobody knew what they really were. They were slimy segmented things, covered in greasy scales and spiny hooked appendages, with mouths like lampreys. They only came out during the day, at night they slithered away into cracks and burrows, and seemed to shy away from dark spaces altogether. The darkness apparently activated a natural sleep-cycle in the creatures, made them vulnerable, so they hid and slept until the sun’s warm rays woke them once more. But what made them truly terrifying was the speed with which they could swarm a person, and those jaws, once they clamped on, were nearly impossible to prise off. 

These sinister new additions to the fauna of our planet were the unfortunate side effects of a disastrous first contact with the only alien visitors to have openly made themselves known to humanity. Things had not gone well, we barely avoided war with them, and when they left, they left their cockroaches behind. Some felt it had been a deliberate contamination, perhaps the first stage in a long occupation. Nobody knew for sure.

That had been three years ago, and we were still learning to adapt to the changes in our world. Whole cities had been rapidly abandoned when it was discovered that during the day there was no reliable means of keeping the leeches at bay. Walls were scaled with alarming ease, chimneys became a feeding chute down which the creatures could tumble unharmed and cat flaps also provided an all too easy means of ingress. Only locked doors and sealed windows would keep the things out, and entire houses and office buildings had frequently been encrusted with a coating of the writhing things trying to reach the warm meat hiding inside. Settlements quickly became closed and secured as the inhabitants shifted to the nocturnal lifestyle of their new midnight world.

As scary as the leeches were, the things that hunted them, the things we called stalkers, were worse still. At least the leeches only came out during the day. Reports of stalker attacks, although fewer in number, seemed to indicate they were active both day and night. Trouble was, nobody had so far got a clear look at one. They seemed to possess some kind of natural camouflage, but body parts had been brought back to the settlements for study—sinewy limbs covered in clumps of wiry hair and ending in hooked talons. It gave us an idea of what we were up against, but we still needed to know more.

That’s what brought us down here, into the old transit tunnels outside Newstone Settlement. We were following the spoor of the stalkers, one of six small teams of reluctant ‘volunteers’ tasked with bringing back a live specimen. It was hoped that a better understanding of these omnivorous predators would enable us to develop defences against their attacks. As it was, stalker attacks were swift, deadly and unpredictable. They struck out of nowhere, vanished just as fast, and so far had evaded all attempts at capture. 

Our reward for undertaking this dangerous assignment was the promise of extra food rations and a larger water allowance. Right now, just the thought of stripping off these damp, sweaty clothes and having a proper hot shower was almost making it all worthwhile.

“Going down?” Kaz asked grimly, and I saw we’d reached a ladder leading into a deeper section of tunnels. Kaz shone her light into the darkness below, illuminating grimy rungs slick with moisture.

“Jeez, it stinks down there.” Delv wrinkled his nose.

Kaz flashed him a withering look. “We ready for this?”

I gave Delv a sympathetic glance. He had looked like a rabbit in headlights since we’d come down into the tunnels, and clearly wasn’t cut out for this kind of work. None of us were military, but Kaz had some former experience in private security and was one tough cookie. I’d seen her punch out the lights of a drunken guy twice her size after he made a racial slur towards her one night in a bar, and I knew she could hold her own in a crisis. I had formerly been in the fire service, and was no stranger to dangerous situations myself, though this was a whole new one for me. Delv on the other hand had been a parcel courier, and so must have been crapping his pants since drawing this assignment. But everyone had to do their Civic Duty. It was a requirement of admission into a Settlement. Citizens were put onto a rota, each required to take shifts at whatever jobs needed doing, everything from planting and gathering food to security patrols and repairs and maintenance. The rotas were originally intended to be tailored to suit skills already possessed by the citizens, but often the reality was that everyone just mucked in with everything.

“Let’s just get it over with.” I clapped Delv on the back. “Sooner it’s done, sooner we can go home.”

We started down, Kaz in the lead and Delv bringing up the rear. The going was slow and awkward, the rungs slick and dangerous. We gripped the ladder so tightly our knuckles were white, our boots threatening to slip off at any moment. The metallic clanging of our slow descent echoed into the darkness, and some part of me morbidly wondered if we were just ringing the dinner bell for whatever waited below.

“That stench…” Delv whined from above. “It’s making me heave.”

I suddenly wondered if having him go last was a mistake.

“Puke on me and I’ll shoot you,” I warned him, but in truth, part of me felt the same way. The stench rising up from below was nauseating, the sickly smell of rotting meat coupled with something like spoiled vegetables.

“Hey, Delv, you could have held it in,” Kaz joked. 

“She who smelt it, dealt it,” he grumbled back.

Kaz suddenly let go of the ladder and dropped into the darkness. For a heartbeat I wondered why—then heard boots splash into stagnant water after a drop of only two feet and realised we’d reached the bottom. She moved off to the right, torch dancing across tunnel walls, and I heard her exhale loudly: “Jesus!”

Moments later I joined her and understood why. The tunnel was a slaughterhouse lined with ragged carcasses, ribcages stripped of flesh, bones that had been gnawed upon and cracked open for the marrow, torn fragments of old shoes and shreds of bloody clothing; all of it crawling with insects that were quickly cleaning up any remains that had been missed. 

“Is it some kind of a nest?” I asked, pressing the back of my hand to my mouth.

“Something like that,” Kaz nodded grimly. “This is definitely not leeches.”

“Look at the size of these teeth marks.” Delv shone his torch upon a human femur riddled with deep striations. Under normal circumstances, I know Kaz would have made a smutty joke about the size of Delv’s bone, but here, in this subterranean abattoir, even her normally unflappable sense of inappropriate humour was silenced.

“Guys, there’s fresh kill over here.” Kaz’s voice sounded strained. “It’s Bravo team.”

Those words sent a jolt of panic through me, the kind of nervous terror that flips your stomach over and makes your balls crawl up into your body. I glanced at Delv and saw his eyes were wide, his lips pressed so tightly together he no longer seemed to have a mouth. We were silent as we joined her, our torches adding to the illumination that now showed us the pile of fresh bodies. The limbs had been snapped like dry twigs, the torsos and faces shredded beyond recognition, and still-warm piles of congealing entrails squelched underfoot. The blood had already coagulated, but there was no getting over the fact that those remains had been up and walking less than an hour before.

“That’s two teams dead,” Delv whispered. “Two.”

“Hold it together,” Kaz warned. “We start doing anything stupid, we end up the same.”

“This—this is stupid, running around down here like this!” Delv’s voice rose to an unsteady shout, and I put my hand on his shoulder.

“Keep it down,” I urged. “Whatever did this could still be close.”

“I’d better radio this in,” Kaz said. “You two, keep an eye out.”

Delv and I backed up against the curving tunnel wall where foul water dripped like icy tears onto our heads and backs. We shivered as we strained our ears, listening to the soft ambience of the tunnels—the drip of distant water, our own breathing, and the faint echo of things shifting and scuttling far away.

Is this what the other teams had heard before the end fell upon them? Had they too thought they were safe and alone down here? Had there been any warning before death had claimed their lives? I looked at the gore-spattered guns still clutched in dead hands. It didn’t look like they had even had a chance to fire a shot off. How was that possible?

“Delta team reporting in.” Kaz’s voice sounded strained in the gloom.

“Report.” Stoker’s reply cut crisply through the still air from the central control room in the settlement.

“We’ve just found Bravo team. No survivors, looks like they were ambushed. That’s Bravo and Echo teams down.”

“Any sign of the quarry?”

“Nothing yet, though…”

“What is it?”

“Well, there’s something moving around down here. We’ve discovered what looks like a nest at these coordinates. There are a lot of bodies here; looks like it’s been established for some time.”

“Understood. Retrieve Bravo team’s cameras and weapons, then proceed with your assigned patrol route.”

“Yes sir, but…”

“Is there a problem, Wilde?”

“Well, no sir. I just wondered if it might be wiser to join up with the other teams before heading on. From what I’m seeing, the smaller teams are being overwhelmed. If we had greater numbers, we might…”

“You have your orders. Stick to them. Stoker out.”

Kaz’s face was pinched into a tight grim line when she turned to us. She gestured at the torn and scattered bodies at her feet. “Okay, you heard him, give me a hand here.”

We set to work retrieving the cameras and guns from the corpses. It was a grim task, and we stayed silent as we did it. I saw Delv’s hands were shaking and I wondered how much longer he could hold up down here. Our hands and boots were soon slick with gore, and we cleaned them as best we could. After we were done, Delv stumbled out into the other tunnel for a few minutes. From the sounds of retching that reached us there was no doubt why he had gone. We should have stayed together, it was a foolish risk to allow any member of the team to wander away, even into the adjoining tunnels, but neither Kaz nor I made any attempt to stop him. We were all struggling to cope. When he returned, looking drained and paler than I had ever seen him, we put the retrieved weapons and cameras into the pack on my back, and without another word we pressed on. 

The tunnels down here seemed tighter, narrower, and the dripping of moisture formed an almost constant background sound. We felt more on edge too. Those bodies were a clear warning that we were not alone, and that we were wandering through territory that had been claimed. It was why we were here, of course, but the ease with which the two teams had been slain was terrifying, and only served to highlight how vulnerable and ill prepared we truly were. The unknown pressed in all around us, filled with a sense of growing threat, and I looked back several times at Delv; partly to reassure myself he was still there—that something hadn’t clawed him off into the darkness without our knowing—and partly to make sure he was holding up. His eyes were wide, his lips moving soundlessly as though reciting something over and over, and the hands holding his gun were bloodlessly white.

“Head’s up,” Kaz called. The light from her torch had picked something out in the tunnel up ahead. It looked like a doorway, probably some kind of maintenance access, but there was a thick smear of blood on the wall next to it.

“Delv, take the left. Stu, go right,” Kaz instructed. We did as she said, positioning ourselves either side of the door, while Kaz stood against the wall opposite, readying her weapon and torch. At a nod from her, Delv reached out for the handle and pulled the door open, whilst Kaz aimed both gun and torchlight directly into the opening.

“It’s clear,” she announced, lowering her weapon.

That was when I saw the wall beside her ripple. 

I went to call out, but something dark and fast barrelled into her, knocking her sideways. She landed heavily and then the air was full of the coppery taint of blood. It all happened so fast. I swung my gun around, trying to focus on whatever was attacking, but all I could see was the frantic writhing as Kaz rolled and squirmed and kicked on the floor, ragged chunks ripping from her clothes and skin as she screamed. I caught swift and sudden glimpses of something stocky and dark, covered in coarse hair, but it seemed to vanish as soon as I saw it, like some kind of deadly chameleon. 

“Shoot!” Delv screamed. He stood like a man frozen before the headlights of an oncoming train, his own gun forgotten in his hands.

“At what?” I called back. The thing could either mimic its surroundings perfectly, or had some other means of becoming invisible to our eyes. If I fired blindly, I’d hit Kaz. If I waited any longer, it would all be over for her.

Even as the thought flashed through my mind, Kaz gave a horrible gurgling screech, and I already knew I was too late. She slumped back against the damp stone, throat torn open and the front of her stomach glistening where she had been brutally disembowelled. A sick cold shock shivered through me, my heart thudding dully in the back of my throat. For a second that pulsing throb of my own heart was all I could hear. I tried to swallow but all the moisture had dried in my throat and mouth.

“Where is…?” Delv said faintly.

“Shut up!” I hissed, trying to focus my eyes on the shadows and dark spaces around where Kaz’s body now lay. 

Had the thing moved, or was it still there, hidden and watching us? 

“Shine your torch!” I hissed again, and that finally coaxed some life back into Delv’s useless frozen form. With a click his beam shone fully onto Kaz’s ravaged face, then flicked quickly away, shining into the darkness around her. I was grateful for that, because I was sure her dead eyes were staring accusingly at me, as if asking why I hadn’t saved her.

I kept my gun trained on the darkness, listening to the silence of the tunnel.

“Stay there,” I said at last, “I’m going to try…”

From the corner of my eye I saw something move. I staggered back and the dark shaggy mass of the stalker slammed into me, throwing me back against the wall. My head cracked hard enough to burst white stars in my vision, and my mouth filled with the taste of blood as I bit down onto my tongue. All of that was eclipsed by the agony of the talons that now shredded into my stomach, parting cloth and skin like paper. With a shriek of shocked pain I tried to grab the writhing mass, to pull it off of me, but it was like trying to grasp a shadow. It was a physical entity, but it moved and flowed as if it were liquid, evading my grasping fingers as it sank teeth into my shoulder. 

Dimly, I was aware of the sound of someone running; a thin wail of terror going with them. In that second I realised Delv had abandoned me and was fleeing back along the tunnels.

That was all I knew before the camera fixed to my helmet discharged with an electrical burst that lanced needles through my body and consumed my vision in a bright white blast. It was as if every tendon in my body had jolted violently. I bounced and clattered against the stone convulsively, and I struggled to draw breath into my lungs.

Then there was only darkness. 

I must have blacked out, for the next thing I remember was trying to sit up, my head pounding. My body was a shrieking mass of raw agony, my lap full of blood, my shirt hanging in tatters, and my lungs feeling as if all the air had been slugged out of them.

I also realised I wasn’t alone. Four armed figures were standing over me, torches lancing through the damp darkness as they loaded something limp and hairy into a metal containment cage. One of the figures saw me moving and swung his torch-beam into my eyes, blinding me.

“Stay down,” he ordered. “Medics are on their way.”

“Did the bait work?” I heard Stoker’s voice crackle over the radio.

“Yes sir, they drew it right in. Your rigged cameras did the rest. The electrical discharged knocked it right out.”

My brow furrowed at those words. Bait? We had been the bait?

“Any survivors?” Stoker asked, coldly.

“Bravo and Echo teams are lost. It looks like their cameras malfunctioned; they never discharged when they were attacked. Probably all the damp down here messing with the systems,” the figure reported. “One survivor present from Delta team. He’s pretty torn up.”

“No,” I wheezed, trying to pull myself up using the wall, but my blood-slick fingers kept slipping off the bricks. “Delv…”

“Get the specimen back up here ASAP,” Stoker barked. “Retrieve the guns and cameras too.”

“And the ETA on the medics?”

“Forget the medics,” Stoker answered. “We don’t have the supplies to spare. You know as well as I do, nobody survives a stalker attack.”

“Wait…” I called, anxiously trying to stand. “Wait!”

But they ignored me, stopping only to take my gun and the pack from my back, and then they took their caged prize and retreated the way they had come. I listened, trying to ignore the growing pain in my chest and the desperate pounding of my heart as their sounds grew steadily fainter and more distant.

That was... how long ago? It’s hard to say. After that, I just lay here in the dark, listening to the shadows. It’s getting hard to breathe, my lungs feel like a fire is burning inside them, and my legs are so numb I’m not even sure they’re still there. I hold out a secret hope that Delv might come back for me. I imagine that he’s just out of sight, hiding around the next bend in the tunnel, waiting until it’s safe to come and get me out. If so, I hope he hurries up. There are sounds out there in the darkness, getting closer. Scurrying sounds, like claws on stone. I don’t think they’re rats.

In the darkness I can see Kaz watching me, a sad smile on her ragged lips.

She knows I let her down when she counted on me the most. 

I hope Delv comes back soon.

The sounds are getting awfully close.


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