The screams were the hardest part. Standing on the dust-covered hill looking down to the container in the darkness, the cries rose up through the air like a sea of Chinese lanterns ready to be extinguished. They did not bring light; only grief.
For Larry, this was part of the job. He didn't have to like it, but He'd long since forgotten the guilt. Jessie, on the other hand, she was green. It usually took five or six times to settle into the job and accept the death-for-the-greater-good mantra, but Jessie was only 28 years old and two offerings in, and so her hands were shaking as she held the remote trigger overlooking the valley below.
"You want me to press it?" Larry said, his open palm upturned to the black sky above.
Jessie shook her head, her curled blond hair quivering with nerves. She still had a gleam in her eye, but Larry knew that would fade soon enough. You couldn't kill so easily with the fire of hope still burning.
"Suit yourself." Larry held a pair of black night vision goggles to his eyes to see if there was any sign, but there wasn't. He cut a grim figure up there waiting for the carnage to begin, his stern gaze comfortably at home against the vast of night.
"What's taking so long?" whispered Jessie.
"There's no need to whisper up here, Jess. They'll never hear you, not over the bait."
Was that what it had come to, referring to humans as bait? Larry wasn't sure when he'd stopped caring, but labelling them something other than people sure made the job go down easier.
Putting his hand into the right pocket of his black combat trousers, he pulled out a piece of chewing gum and threw it into his mouth. His jaw clicked with each bite, a result of having it broken during a bar fight when he was 18. Soon after, he'd found God. Now he was in his forties, often wondering what his younger self would think about the thousands of people he'd led to their deaths. Would Young Larry have understood? Probably not, but Older Larry satisfied these quandaries by telling himself that time shapes morality. And only God creates time. That was a seal of divine approval.
The night air was cool, but not cold. It was one of those autumn nights caught in the crack between summer and the falling the leaves. How Larry wished there were actual leaves to kick his feet through like he had done when he was a kid. But you needed trees for that. You needed life in order for it to perish. That was something that was short in supply.
"It didn't take this long before."
Larry could hear the impatience in Jessie's voice, and something else. Fear, perhaps. Some of the colleagues he'd worked with never quite got over that; the desire for the night to end. Bring out the living, let the talons of night come. Just hope that the sacrifice would be enough to see the dawn.
The dark blue container down in the valley was once used to ship goods from continent to continent when the world was whole. Now the container was merely a receptacle for what Larry's bosses called "The Greatest Gift". One of Larry's co-workers once joked that he and the others were like Santa, handing out just what the Bleak Ones wanted, except instead of every year it was every month, and there was much more at stake than the disappointment of not getting what you wanted in your stocking.
A flicker of red and yellow poked up from the bottom of the desolate valley. To the naked eye, this couldn't be seen, but in Larry and Jessie's standard-issue night vision goggles, the red-yellow hue was unmistakable against the pitch-black night.
No one could agree on why they gave off heat just before each feast. Some scientists speculated that they had a kind of spiritual metabolism that had to be fired up like a furnace before they ate the light. Others thought it was a form of ceremony, letting the ordained watchers know that the horror that was about to unfold, and that they were conspirators with the abyss.
Larry didn't care for any of that.
They were evil, no doubt, but as long as he kept them fed, things would stay as they were. That was all that mattered. He and the rest of the priesthood were holding the door of night closed. If they failed, only death and abomination would rule. He couldn't let that happen, even if the cost was so high. Young Larry would have railed against the injustice of it all. He would have taken oblivion any day over being part of the orderly offering-up of human life, but Older Larry had long since had that notion worn out of him. One day, he woke up and only cared about saving what was left, not any higher pursuit of morality or justice. Those were luxuries which a weary world could no longer afford.
Jessie and Larry both watched through their black goggles as the red shapes moved towards the large sealed shipping container in the valley; a sea of clambering horrors ready to devour the light of each soul.
From the outline of each, it was difficult to know exactly what they looked like or what shape they took. The impression from the heat signatures was of something that shifted from all fours to two and back again. Something neither beast nor human, but with an intelligence eclipsing both. There was the suggestion of large talons or claws, and perhaps a protrusion from the face, if it could be called one. But the truth was, no one knew what they looked like, only that they arrived ten years previous and began to consume the light of all who lived.
They had come at night, slithering upwards from the void that hid out of sight between the cracks of reality. Governments tried to end them by scorching the Earth's crust, but that did nothing except make them more at home. No weapon of humankind could defeat the darkness. They were not composed of matter. They came from a place where ideas reign, and they themselves were forged from the Fallen One who was banished there; who had whispered with its last breath an idea so abhorrent and so unnatural, that it had slowly bred a festering mass of unthinkable anti-life feeding on the immortal light which resides in us all. At least, that was what the Church had taught. Some of it was a tough sell for Larry at first, but over time he had come to rely on his faith as the only anchor he had left. And so he gave himself up to it, heart and soul.
As each pocket of humanity had fled into deep caverns underground, it was only a matter of time before the Bleak Ones sniffed them out, too. That was until some twisted bright-spark realised that they could be temporarily sated. And the cost? 86 human souls each and every month. Young Larry would have ran down there to help those people, pull them out of the container and hope that somehow they would make it out alive. But Older Larry… No… He couldn’t take the risk. Age had brought with it a cold distance from humanity, and an even colder insistence on believing every word his superiors said.
Things were now moving at pace in the valley below.
As the sharpened blobs of red and yellow writhed on the dark-green display of Larry's night vision goggles, the stampeding mass reached the sealed door of the container. There was then a rumble from the valley. Not an audible one, but the feeling of one's insides vibrating. Larry could feel his intestines, liver, and heart shake violently. He hated this part, it felt like his organs would be sucked out of his mouth if the sensation were allowed to escalate. And indeed they would have been, but the vibration wouldn't be allowed to grow. Not on Larry’s watch.
That was what the bait was for.
"Jessie, hit it..."
The vibration within continued to increase. Now, Larry could feel his windpipe rattling in his throat. He tensed up. The door to the container was still closed.
Larry turned to his young associate and saw the look in her eyes, wide and afraid. Something was very wrong.
"Jessie... Press it!"
But Jessie didn't respond. She just held her throat as the vibration began to choke her. Unlike Larry, she wasn't fighting it. They had been taught to tense their bodies like old fighter pilots used to when resisting G-force. This was a fight to stay awake, and alive. It would buy you a little time, but Jessie wasn't trying, she was letting the vibration scramble her insides.
Reaching out, Larry grabbed the trigger from Jessie's shaking hands. He released the yellow safety catch and flicked the golden switch underneath. Nothing... Only the vibration and now the escalating screams of those stuck inside the unopened container.
Larry flipped the switch again back and forward. The door remained tightly sealed.
"I'm sorry, Larry," Jessie whispered.
A cold chill fingered its way up Larry's spine.
"Dear God..." he said out loud, not caring for the blaspheme.
Jessie let out a gasp as her body convulsed. As she fell to the ground, Larry caught her in his arms. She looked up at him and smiled.
"Jessie! How do I fix this!?"
Again, she smiled.
Larry moved his hand towards the radio handset attached to his hip, but Jessie shook her head.
"No, Larry. The back-up team are in on it, too."
"Why? God dammit! Why!?"
"I joined the priesthood to protect people, not throw them to the dark. And so did you..." She coughed up blood that spilt out over her bottom lip and down her chin.
"If they don't get their sacrifice, then what!?" Larry squeezed his muscles, resisting the increasing pain of the vibration.
"Then," Jessie coughed again, "if there is a God, he'll receive us happily for our refusal to throw his children to the darkness like garbage."
"Jessie! There must be another way!" Larry began shaking her violently.
She smiled yet again, and this time the smile stuck. Jessie's last conscious action was to reach out and grab Larry's white priest collar, tearing it from around his neck.
Her body then shook violently as the vibration took her.
Larry scrambled away and looked back in horror as the vibration twisted Jessie's bones and insides. Her body snapped in the middle and began folding in on itself. Her head, neck, and arms were then pulled inward until she was no more than a garbled collection of human parts, thrust together like she had been in a trash compactor.
He swore blind she was still smiling.
Pulling himself to his feet, Larry could now feel the vibration reaching his eyes. The fluid inside was sloshing around and he could feel the pressure increasing. Even with his training, he couldn't survive this as long as the vibration continued.
There was no other option for him or for humanity. He had to satisfy the Bleak Ones or they would come for what little remained. Larry rushed down the hillside, stumbling, clambering, almost an inhuman mess himself. At times it was as though he were on all fours, a beast insatiable with one desire. The manual release... he thought as blood vessels in his face began to weep through the skin.
He'd never been so close to the Bleak Ones before, to the talons of night. They were writhing around on top of each other, their red-yellow forms pulsating and shifting in Larry's goggles. With each step, he neared them, and they grew larger. Larry didn't know if this was because he was getting closer or because they were surging from the vibration, contorting and shifting in size.
Something cracked in the back of Larry's skull. He felt the sensation of warm blood trickling down inside his neck. And yet he continued running, continued moving towards the container with every inch of will he had left within him.
The Bleak Ones now moved off from the sealed container and were no longer paying the bait any attention. They were distracted by the grey-bloodied figure of a dishevelled priest finally making it to the flat of the valley, charging towards them.
Larry felt a tear in his abdomen. Something was leaking inside, it felt like being shot in the guts, and he imagined that his intestines were now cut open, spewing forth their poison and waste throughout his body.
And yet he continued. Young Larry would have been proud.
The Bleak Ones moved towards him, but they did not tear or bite. Instead, they emitted a strange sound, as though they were laughing at this pathetic morsel of humanity. This pathetic man of a religion that had abandoned him and the world itself.
Larry's Achilles tendon ruptured, and he felt the tendon rattle up the inside of his right leg like a snapped piece of tensed elastic. He fell to the ground and then dragged himself along the cold dust that had once been grass. The Bleak Ones surrounded him, but just as he thought they were about to tear his skin from him, they parted, leaving a channel of escape directly to the shipping container. He looked around carefully at the silence, now only inches from the talons of night - sharp and curved, ready to disembowel but not moving. The great vibration still tearing his innards apart.
They want the sacrifice, he thought.
Reaching out, Larry’s hand touched the cold metal of the shipping container, and he pulled himself up onto his one working leg. The vibration continued, and it was then that his left eye burst open.
He would have screamed if his tongue hadn't now swollen to such a size that it almost blocked his airway. In all the pain, in that well of agony, Larry the priest reached up and felt the manual release level at the door of the container. With all the strength that was left in him, he pulled it, and then, the door opened.
It pulled back to reveal 86 cowering people, mostly the old and infirm. They were gaunt and frightened, and they looked at Larry's bleeding face with the hope that he would help them. They begged for mercy, their wide eyes haunting and utterly desperate.
Larry had never seen the bait in all the years he had been offering them up as a sacrifice. They had always been loaded in before he turned up for his shift. That had always made it easier, to not see those pleading faces, to not see their agony. Out of sight, out of mind, and with such distance Larry had been able to remove their humanity somehow from his guilt.
But now that illusion was banished.
In those expressions, those wild cries for mercy, something stirred in Larry. Something that he had abandoned in himself for many years. A fragment of that 18 year old kid who had his jaw broken long ago in a bar fight. The man who wouldn't take anything the world gave lying down. The one who relished fighting back against a world coming undone. He would give the world a bloody nose and let it know it’d been in a fight, even if it meant nothingness.
As the Bleak Ones readied themselves to feed, their furnaces inside firing up once more, Larry the Priest pushed the lever up. The doors of the container closed once more, sealing the people inside away from the monstrosities which surrounded them.
Larry then turned and said something before feeling his very soul being torn from his body, one vein at a time.
If anyone had been there to bear witness, if any greater power was indeed watching from upon high, they would not have been able to make the words out from between Larry's now shattering teeth.
Whatever he said, it was filled with defiance. Against God, against the Bleak Ones, against it all. And in that moment, humanity showed its worth.