Robert Stevens tapped the last drops of oil onto his left arm. With any luck, he’d still be able to use it for a couple more days before it completely rusted over.
And if he couldn’t get the kill in a couple more days, then he didn’t deserve to.
He stretched out his arm, testing the creaking metal joints. It would have to do.
“Hey, kid,” he yelled, tossing the empty oil can into the dirt. “It’s time to get going.”
The eleven-year-old sat at the edge of the hill gazing at the lights of the domed city. “When can we go there?”
“I’ll get you there soon, I promise,” Robert said, unsure of whether or not he was telling a lie.
With a sigh, the kid stood. He turned around to face Robert. “It’s Hunter. Call me Hunter.”
“Okay, Hunter,” Robert said. The kid was a burden, but he had become Robert’s burden. “I hope you do that name well.”
Hunter didn’t respond. He glanced over his shoulder toward the city one last time before lowering his head and taking a step toward Robert.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Robert said after seeing the look of despair Hunter’s face. “It’s almost over.”
Robert caressed the clip on his plasma rifle. Even though he couldn’t see any of the creatures at the moment, he had to stay alert. They were quick. Much quicker than anything their size had any business being.
He wrapped his good arm around the kid’s shoulder. “Let’s go. While there’s still light.”
Hunter pulled away. “Fine.”
The city couldn’t have been more than ten kilometers away. The dome surrounding it reflected the red sky of the setting sun. Robert had never been this close to it before. He wondered if the people inside were fighters, cowards, or sympathizers. He assumed they were cowards. When they built the dome so many years ago, the sympathizers stayed on the outside, hoping to live in peace with the creatures. The others–people like Robert–stayed back to fight.
But any moral hopes of saving humanity died along with his wife. Now vengeance was all that mattered.
He tracked her killer for months, eventually stumbling onto the remains of a sympathizer camp. He wondered if they recognized the irony of their worldview while they were being torn to pieces by the monsters.
The kid was the only one left breathing in the camp.
He knew Hunter resented him. The boy was raised on pro-armistice propaganda, and probably even blamed humanity for the destruction of his home.
At first, he thought about leaving the kid to die. But Hunter was different than some of the other sympathizers Robert had run into. Hunter wanted to live. He wanted to make it to the city–to the other human survivors. Robert decided he’d take him there. First, though, he had to deal with his own business.
“It’s not far from here,” Robert assured him.
“And?” The kid added. He was a smart one.
“And we’re not going there until I get what I came for.”
Hunter sighed again, but didn’t say anything else.
Robert knew it was killing the kid–dragging him around the countryside looking for one specific monster. But it wouldn’t last much longer. It was close; he could feel it.
“We’ll set up camp at that redwood over there. You need rest.”
“So do you,” Hunter said.
They walked due east for another twenty minutes, until the dusk began fading into night.
Setting up camp near a tree was the safest bet for making it through the night. They’d take turns sleeping, while the one stood guard up in the branches.
“Can I ask you something?” Hunter asked, looking up at Robert from the tiny blanket on the ground serving as a bed.
“Yeah, anything,” Robert answered. Getting the kid to volunteer more than a few words was a challenge.
“They all look the same to me.”
Robert waited for a second before responding. “Yeah, me too. I won’t hold it against you.”
He shook his head. “That’s not what I mean…how do you know which one hurt you?”
“Not tonight. Get some rest. I’ll stand guard for an hour or so and then it’ll be your turn.”
“Okay,” the kid said. “Not all of them are bad, you know,” he added just before drifting off.
“Keep it to yourself, kid,” Robert said. He let Hunter sleep through the night.
He jumped down from the tree just as the sun began to rise.
A rustling. Something was near.
“Hunter,” Robert whispered to in the kid’s ear. “Get up. Quick.”
Hunter sat up, rubbing his eyes. “Is it already–”
Robert shushed him. “There’s one close. Take this.”
He readied a pistol and handed it to Hunter.
“I don’t know how–”
“Shut up. Stay low.”
Hunter ducked down. He seemed more interested in the weapon than the impending danger.
Robert listened. The movement came from behind a patch of trees twenty yards away. He took a deep breath and aimed the rifle.
The noise stopped.
Robert refused to relax.
Minutes passed. Sweat rolled down his face, into his eyes. His robotic joint creaked ever so softly, and then–
The creature was on him before he even sensed the movement. Hunter screamed out, but thankfully didn’t shoot at the thing. It was too close and the plasma beam from the pistol surely would have taken Robert out along with the monster.
Just before it got its claws into Robert’s neck, he managed to lift his right arm enough to aim and pull the trigger. Its head exploded in a cloud of red dust mixed in with its furry scalp.
Robert rolled away and jumped to his feet. “Quiet,” he said, grabbing Hunter.
Hunter shook violently, but Robert trusted he’d keep from screaming. He let go of Hunter and dropped down to his knees directly about the remains of the fallen creature. He ran his fingers over its massive chest, combing through its thick fleece.
“What are you doing?” Hunter whispered.
“Shh,” Robert said. He eventually found what he was looking for. He tore the thin chain link necklace off its body. The creaking of his rusty arm was almost loud enough to drown out the sound of the tearing flesh. “Damn it.”
“What is that thing?”
“Some kind of tag the Grizzlies all have. They wear ’em like military dog tags. Sometimes they hang a trophy from their kills on it.” He tossed it to the ground. “It doesn’t matter. This one’s been tied up in its hair for a long time.”
“This isn’t the Grizzly that took my arm.” After seeing the blank look on Hunter’s face, he changed the subject. “Let’s get this camp packed up. It’ll be a long walk today.”
“We were fair to them when they landed here,” Robert said.
Hunter shrugged. “I don’t…I don’t remember.”
“Yeah, of course you don’t.” He held the rifle in his right hand, resting it over his shoulder. His left arm had gotten to the point where he could barely move it. If they had been attacked now instead of this morning, he wasn’t sure he’d even be able to aim the gun.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to kill as many of them as I can. And I’ll get you to the city on the way.”
“Why do you have to kill them? They’ve suffered so much,” Hunter said, barely audible.
Robert stopped walking and grabbed Hunter with his good arm. “See that’s the problem,” he said, raising his voice. “That’s the attitude that got them out of the settlements. We did so much for them. We relocated so many Americans. And none of it mattered. They multiplied. They turned aggressive. And then they took everything.”
“I just mean that–”
“And I thought you didn’t remember anything.” He let go of Hunter and started walking again.
“I remember a little bit of stuff. My mom–”
“Your mom was part of the problem. All of the sympathizers were.”
“What about you?”
What about me, indeed? Robert thought. As the population of the monsters got out of hand, he was one of the thousands to join the militia. They didn’t expect the severe retaliation. “Come on.”
“What is it that you want anyhow?” Hunter persisted. “They let you have the city. That should be enough.”
“How can you say that? The city? They took our planet. They took your parents.” He said too much. He shouldn’t throw Hunter’s parents back at him. The kid wasn’t responsible for their sins. “Forget it. Keep walking.”
Before long, Robert spotted a group of five creatures about a hundred yards away. “Stop,” he whispered to Hunter.
“What is it?”
“Just stay low.”
Robert forced his left arm to extend level to his shoulder. He balanced the rifle on it. With a perfect aim at the largest creature, he pulled the trigger. The other four rushed at him. He brought down the three remaining adults, leaving only a cub.
He dropped the rifle and grabbed his metallic arm with his right hand, pressing it back down to his side. It had finally rusted completely over, becoming virtually useless.
Without a word, he grabbed Hunter by the shoulder and dragged him toward the cub.
“What are you doing?” Hunter asked, trying to squirm away.
The cub threw itself on one of the larger one’s body, wailing.
Robert let go of Hunter and squatted over the first of the fallen monsters, checking its chain.
He checked the second, the third, and the fourth.
He stared at the cub for a few seconds. It looked up from its fallen companion, its mother, perhaps. Its wide, blank–alien–eyes pleaded for mercy.
Robert, however, felt none. He instead felt the ghost pain of his left arm. He didn’t see the cub’s eyes; he saw his wife’s, as one of them tore her head from her body. He saw it eat the raw flesh of his left arm. He watched it spit out his wedding ring, and then tie it to the chain around its neck.
Without another thought, he stuck his pistol into the cub’s temple and pulled the trigger.
“No!” Hunter shouted, rushing toward Robert.
“Shut up.” Robert pushed Hunter away from him and placed the pistol back into its sheath.
“It was a baby.”
“It was a monster.”
Robert leaned over the cub. He tore the small chain from its neck. “They’re not the only ones to keep souvenirs.” The cub wasn’t much smaller than Robert. Its chain fit around his neck perfectly. “The city is only a few kilometers away. I’ll get you there in one piece.”
Hunter stayed several paces behind Robert after they returned to the path. He didn’t say another word, and looked away whenever Robert tried to say anything to him.
Robert knew he was a dead man. He killed a cub. It didn’t matter what the Grizzlies did to his family, his people, his planet. It didn’t matter if he and his wife considered themselves heroes, hoping to rescue their planet from foreign invaders. It didn’t matter that he was left for dead after watching one of the monsters eat his flesh. To them, he was just an abandoned piece property from the previous owners of the planet.
And the irony of it all was that when they catch up to him for killing one of their cubs, they’ll kill both him and the human cub that he was trying to protect.
“Robert,” Hunter reached out and grabbed his elbow. “Can you hear it?”
“Yeah,” Robert said. He could hear it–and feel it. It was the sound of hundreds of Grizzlies, approaching from the east, beating their chests. They could smell the blood on his hands. And they were getting closer. He bent down and picked up the rifle.
“The city’s still about a kilometer away, Hunter. Do you think you can run that far?”
“I think so.”
Robert took Hunter’s hand. He placed the plasma pistol into Hunter’s palm and closed his fingers around it. “Do you know how to use this?”
“No.” He shook his head and studied it. “I just pull the trigger?”
“Yes. Just pull the trigger. When I give you the signal, I want to you take off running toward the city. It might take you ten minutes, so don’t go too fast. Pace yourself, ya know. I’ll cover you as best as I can from up here.”
Tears were streaming from Hunter’s eyes. “I can’t shoot them…”
“The gun’s not for them. If they catch you, I want you to use it on yourself.”
With the city so close, Robert could only hope they’d come for him first. If the mob split into two groups, they’d reach Hunter half-way.
“I can’t. I’m scar–” Hunter went down.
Robert dropped down next to him. Whatever hit Hunter didn’t come from the group approaching from the east; it came from behind them.
He rolled away from Hunter’s unconscious body and looked up.
A smaller group of monsters closed in around him. Cursing himself for not sensing their trap, he raised his rifle with his good hand, but it was too late.
Hunter opened his eyes. He tried to sit up, but was too dizzy. He stayed down for a moment, hoping to gain some balance.
He felt his forehead. The bandages wrapped around his wound were wet, leaving blood on his fingers.
He blinked a few times and decided to try sitting up again. The pistol Robert had given him was gone–
Robert? Where was Robert?
Robert was gone. So were the monsters.
The dizziness had passed enough to allow him to stand. He nearly fainted again as he realized where he was standing.
He heard human voices coming from inside the city gates as an opening in the protective dome began to form.
It was at that moment he noticed the rusty chain hanging from his neck. He clenched the ring dangling on it, ready to bring the olive branch he was offered into the city.
Jason Bougger grew up in Brainard, Nebraska and currently lives in Omaha with his wife and kids. His fiction has appeared in over a dozen places in print and online, including Under the Bed, Voluted Tales, Alternate Hilarities, and Night to Dawn Magazine. He blogs about writing and other stuff at his website http://www.jasonbougger.com.