The phone woke me. I closed my eyes tighter, trying to block it out. It was no use.
Ring. Ring. The shrillness was obnoxious. I had to make it stop. I shifted in the stiff, uncomfortable bed and reached out to answer it.
“Hello?” I said, my voice rough with interrupted sleep.
“This is your wakeup call, Mr. McAllister. It’s five—” The pleasant voice paused. “—p.m.,” she clarified.
“Yes. Thank you.” I hung up, not needing the details. I knew how crazy it was to get a wakeup call in the evening.
I sat on the edge of the lumpy mattress and blinked while I tried to remember where I was. I made my way to the room’s wobbly table and picked up the file.
I was in Louisiana. Amite, Louisiana to be more exact. I was investigating reports of a young boy sneaking around a butcher shop at night.
I opened the thick curtain and looked out into the parking lot. Trucks were passing by on the interstate. The Bob Evans across the street was filling up with the early dinner crowd.
The pavement was wet. It had rained at some point. The last of the day’s sun glimmered in the puddles as I closed the curtains.
I dragged myself to the bathroom and turned on the shower as I scanned my face in the mirror. I needed a shave, but I just didn’t feel like it. Instead, I slapped my cheeks lightly and took off my shorts before stepping under the intense stream of water.
It felt like a pressure washer. I adjusted the nozzle so the water wouldn’t shred my skin, and began washing myself.
As I looked up at the ceiling tiles, darkened from past water damage, I thought of how routine this moment was, when only a year ago it seemed life would never be this way again.
Last March, They came.
It bordered on cliché the way they arrived. Just like every space alien movie ever written.
Their immense, matte black ships appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the afternoon. They hovered like large mechanical jellyfish above the most populated centers on earth. Their long tentacles lit randomly, pulsing. Silent.
They sat there for hours. No movement. No activity in the sky, while down here on Earth everyone went into a panic.
It was all the things you would expect to see when the end of the world seemed inevitable—looting, suicide, mass religious gatherings. Then the military got involved. Hoards of tanks, missiles and soldiers were deployed to protect us from the unknown invaders.
Just seeing their ships on TV told me we were goners. They had the ability to suspend a city-sized craft in the air for hours with no sound and no emissions. That in itself confirmed they were far more advanced than us.
Technologically speaking, of course.
I knew a thing or two about technology. On a rudimentary level anyway. I was a mechanic. Vehicle restoration and repair. Or at least I had been until that day.
When night fell, the ships finally moved.
Closer to Earth, they opened the tentacles and unleashed wave after wave of what we now refer to as “Bugs”, regardless of what Latin-based foot long word the scientists gave them. But these weren’t like any insects we had on Earth.
They stood on four long legs, taller than a human. Their other two legs—more like arms—were used to grip onto their human prey and pull them into their waiting fangs.
These things were everything your darkest imagination could conjure up. Shiny black scales covered their exterior, healing over immediately when shot. Even if the soldiers had a chance to shoot past a human victim—which they always seemed to have in their grasp—the insect was left unharmed.
Their fangs penetrated the jugular veins and drank the human, while two pincers in their abdomen held them in place.
They disposed of the drained carcasses into shallow holes they punched into the ground, or cement or pavement—whatever they happened to be standing on. Their back feet could cut through almost any surface effortlessly.
Their red eyes were constantly in motion, searching out their next victim.
It didn’t take long to realize we didn’t stand a chance.
And we weren’t really surprised. Hadn’t we always suspected such a thing? Even the skeptics had to admit they had at least thought about this possibility. We couldn’t be so arrogant as to think we were the only living things in the universe, or that we were superior. We were hugely flawed.
Then, near dawn, something strange happened.
Right before the sun came up, the Bugs went back to their ships. The war had ended. For the moment.
They didn’t leave. Their crafts hovered motionless again, just as they’d done after their arrival. Though now our cities were in shambles. In one night the appendages of their vast ships had knocked down buildings and power lines as they scarred the surface of our planet.
For the humans in these areas still alive, the panic had subdued. We were numb. There was no more of the worry about what was going to happen. We knew.
Others weren’t ready to give up. The military stepped up their tactics. Depleted uranium, naval rail guns, even bunker busters failed to make a dent. At last they tried nuclear weapons, which only killed more humans and left no mark on the ships.
This was still on Day One.
The scientific community came alive, spouting ideas of hope with chemical, bacterial and even genetic warfare.
The regular people, people like me, folks who lived in a small town and were only seeing this on the news, had no choice but to hope these people could stop the attack before it reached us.
The next night, the ships moved to a different area and opened up again. Bringing the expected horror to the places the humans had converged the closest. The refugee zones. The new largest populations.
Again, they buried the dead for us, taking even this small gesture of humanity away. Like the night before, the attack subsided moments before the sun rose.
Seven days. That’s how long it took people like me to learn why.
Seven days, and millions of deaths later, we had a plan. We had a chance.
When the vile beasts came out again, the military was armed with a new weapon. Anything that could move was mounted with a UV projector—soldiers, jeeps, tanks, and every helicopter they had still flying.
For whatever reason, their scales couldn’t heal from their injuries under the harsh light. For once, we were actually able to kill them. They had a weakness, and we had a chance to take back our world.
A joint strike force managed to board one of their ships, swarming it like carpenter ants, cleaning it from the inside out. In the end, it had crashed into the ocean, and whatever the survivors learned about the invaders in that battle was still a closely guarded government secret.
After that, the invaders had left as quickly as they had come. We’d shown them we could defend ourselves, and they knew they would be exterminated if they tried again. At least, that’s what we told ourselves during the celebrations.
In the weeks that followed, the world was one.
We were triumphant and determined to clean up, rebuild, and move forward. We had memorial services to honor the dead. The skies were constantly monitored to make sure the invaders wouldn’t return, while UV weapons were installed in every city, just in case.
But none of us were prepared for what happened next. The ambush that would destroy humanity even more than the actual attacks. The event that would turn our now united world against one another.
You see, they hadn’t left because we’d found a way to beat them. They left because our substandard bodies couldn’t handle what they really wanted us for. They had been trying to convert us into some kind of slave labor, but it hadn’t worked.
It wasn’t our strength that saved us, it was our weakness.
And it had unexpected consequences.
“Checking out, sir?” the freckled clerk asked as I stood in front of her, yanked from my thoughts.
“Uh. Yes.” I handed her the key card and looked out the window at the sun moving closer to the horizon. A half hour until sunset.
The clerk looked at me suspiciously as she tapped the keys on her computer. I understood it was odd for someone to be checking out in the evening. Most people stayed in hotels for the night, not the day.
She glanced out the window at my black van with the blacked out windows.
“Are you a…?” She couldn’t say it. I didn’t blame her. I couldn’t say it either. It was a stupid name. Hunter.
Had I known I would have become one I would have offered a better title, not something that came out of a bad TV show.
“Do we have one here? An infected person? In Amite?” She instantly became alarmed.
I put up my hand in annoyance. This was how they all reacted.
“Relax. I’m just passing through,” I lied to get the drama over with quickly.
She did as I asked, and handed me my receipt.
“You know they can’t hurt you, right?” I felt the need to point out the stupidity. “They can’t contaminate you or anything.” I shook my head in disgust at her reaction.
“I heard a gang of them attacked an old lady near Phoenix. People say they’re starting to move in packs.”
I waved my hand and walked out on her ridiculous claim.
“Just rumors!” I shouted back. I drove to the street where the butcher shop was located. Parking three blocks away, I took position behind a dumpster so I could have a clear view of the back door.
I was still irritated by the clerk’s response. This was the problem. Fear.
When humans don’t understand something they instinctively fear it, then fear turns into hate and hate turns into eradication. Hadn’t we destroyed lives for convenience’s sake enough to know what we were capable of? Didn’t we know enough about ourselves to see it happening again?
When the humans who had been buried in the ground by the Bugs began digging themselves out one night a week after they left, we as a society were ecstatic.
Creeped out, certainly, but ecstatic nonetheless.
Not everyone who was buried survived. Some who were shoved into tight crevices when their respiratory systems began working again suffocated. Some had been dug up and reburied elsewhere deeper, too deep to crawl out of. Some had been exhumed for post mortem tests before they even had a chance, while many others had been cremated. But some emerged. And some soon became thousands.
You’d think this would have unfolded like a zombie movie, with terrified people firing on the recently deceased, and that did happen in a few places. But word spread quick that those who’d come back were more or less normal, and online the hopeful outweighed the paranoid. The world chose to embrace those that had returned.
The reporters were there, catching the heartwarming scenes of husbands reunited with their wives. Mothers with children. It was wonderful. The government was cautiously optimistic, of course, but for the rest of us it was a miracle we didn’t think we’d deserved.
And then, the sun came up, and we found out they weren’t normal at all.
The altered humans began to burn and melt in the sun. They weren’t just weakened by UV like the invaders had been. They were destroyed by it.
Of course these were our neighbors, our loved ones, our children. We brought them inside and covered our windows.
When the sun set and it was safe again, many were brought to hospitals, though they had healed from their burns already.
The official report came out a few days later, along with a fancy acronym. Human/Alien Neutral Transition Syndrome, or HANTS. Everyone began calling them Haunts, which seemed more accurate since it was truly terrifying.
We began to see the invasion in a new light. The abdominal pincers which had pierced into the human’s back were not just used to hold the person still or incapacitate them. They’d also injected a fluid into the human.
Scientists had at first believed it was an efficient way to flush the blood out as quickly as possible so they could move on to the next victim—perhaps even a way of removing their own waste product. All we’d known for sure was the Haunts had been drained of blood and in its place was now a black, icky goo.
Okay, that wasn’t exactly what the official report said, but that’s what it was. Alien foreign substance—whatever. It was black, icky goo. Thicker than regular blood, it labored their hearts, causing them to tire quickly.
With no real blood, and this fluid poorly mimicking its functions, the anemia made them look pale and ill. Their disturbing eyes, which after the first few days became solid black marbles, studied their predicament with alarm—at least until they fell into a comatose state during the day, another strange effect that only began a few days after their return.
They hadn’t been transformed, they were still transforming.
It wasn’t much of a shock when the more reactionary folks took one look at what was happening and decided they weren’t human anymore. But hope and reason still won out with most of the world. The survivors were fully aware of themselves, just as puzzled and even more terrified of what was going on. But by now compassion was being tempered with suspicion.
Their sleep schedule was a mysterious inconvenience. They woke up about fifteen minutes after the sun set, and were able to stay awake for roughly ten hours, give or take. But sooner or later they slipped back, most around sunrise. They called it “winding down” because they could feel it coming.
Once they were asleep there was no way to wake them up again. They were completely vulnerable until their sleep cycle was over.
The Haunts condition was tragic, and I believe if this had been the extent of their transformation we would have gotten past these differences. We’d have taken care of them and gone back to our lives as normal. We would have found a way for them to fit into society.
But the worst was yet to come.