The Enemy have teeth like wolves.
They have eyes the color of dying coals, and skin that can be any color it wants — flawless, chameleon camouflage.
And so, as Morgan makes his way down the steep hillside, he knows he won’t be able to see Them.
His breaths are harsh under the mask as he pushes through tall stalks of green. At the bottom of the hill, the valley stretches wide: a panorama of rippling foliage and vast, cloudless sky. Morgan cuts a path straight to the center, and turns a slow three-sixty. All he can see are wild grasses, all around, dipping and dancing in the wind. But he knows They are close. If he holds his breath, he can hear Them: panting, snuffling, restlessly shifting Their paws.
An entire pack of perfectly hidden predators. Powerful predators. Working together, the Enemy can easily take down a full-sized elephant. And They’ll just as happily devour anything else that moves and breathes: horses, cows, cats, dogs. Newborn babies and strong, sweaty construction workers.
Even eight-year-old boys.
Morgan’s face is hot under the mask. He bites his lip, listening hard, and guesses there are at least twenty Creatures gathered nearby, each painted invisible against the swaying field. Twenty. All close enough to rip the throbbing artery right out of his neck…
Morgan swallows, suddenly spit-less. His bare arms shake as he stretches them out wide, spreading his fingers, letting the wind carry his smell: Sweet scent of child, ripe with life.
The grass begins to part, moving unnaturally against the breeze, flattened down in a dozen new trails as more Beasts arrive, drawn by the delicious temptation of a little boy, all alone. Defenseless.
Morgan makes himself wait until the very last moment, until he can feel Their hot-wet breath on his skin. Then, he forces his voice to be steady and grown-up:
“Hey, idiot-brains! Want a snack?”
The restless, shifting movements amplify.
“Come on, you stupid lame-oids — I’m right here… Come on!”
A hundred pairs of glowing red eyes slit open all around him.
Morgan’s stomach does a roller-coaster drop. The Beasts have him completely, hopelessly surrounded… but They don’t know Morgan’s secret: He’s not alone. And he sure as hell isn’t defenseless.
A scratchy voice comes from the small speaker inside the mask: “You ready, kid?”
Morgan’s eyes narrow into slits, just like the Beasts’. “Do it.”
The air cracks with cannon-fire. Silver canisters begin to rain down, trailing smoky streaks the color of mustard, hissing and oozing toxic yellow. The Enemy start to make different noises: Gasping. Wheezing. Panicked yelps.
Morgan sees Them scrambling, thrashing, trampling each other. He can see Their bodies, now — skins morphing crazily from one hue to the next, brain signals gone haywire from the poison.
Morgan watches the Enemy start to fall. He spots ten, then twenty-five, then fifty of Them on the ground, twitching spastically, Their hides still flashing rainbows. Morgan can make out the grey of cement and the pink of old brickwork, the dusty brown of desert sand and the blue-green of the ocean, all living in Their skins.
The Enemy can survive almost anywhere. They can survive almost anything. And, even as most of Them are frothing and dying on the valley floor, a few Beasts struggle back up.
Genetics. Immunity. Survival of the fittest.
In all, ten Creatures totter to Their feet, somehow superior to the rest. They stumble over limp corpses, moving out, away from Morgan. The Enemy are dazed, but regrouping fast. They tighten ranks, unify, and begin heading up the hillside, toward the City.
Toward New Hope.
Morgan’s friends live in New Hope. His third grade teacher, Ms. McClary, lives there. His parents…
Morgan charges after the Beasts, yelling bathroom-wall swear words at Them. He draws his special gun, and blue laser beams sizzle the air as he fires, picking off the remaining Creatures with radioactive blasts, watching Them shriek and burn and fall… All except One.
The last Enemy turns slowly. Morgan can hear It growling. He can see white foam dripping from snapping jaws as It starts to come for him.
Morgan fires, again and again. The Beast’s hide is scorched black, smoking from the hits, and yet It keeps on coming.
The gun’s power fizzles, fades. “No, come on… Please…”
The Creature is nearly on top of him. Morgan drops the gun and stumbles backward, reaching frantically for his belt. The Enemy rears up and slams Its massive front paws into his chest, sending him sprawling. With one swipe, It tears the mask from his face. Chemical fumes burn Morgan’s throat as he stares up into slitted, ruby-fire eyes. Hot saliva drips on his cheek. The Beast leans down, baring Its wolf-teeth for the kill, and Morgan finds his knife at long last.
He buries the silver blade, hilt-deep, in his Enemy’s chest.
The Creature chokes. Morgan pulls the blade out, and drives it in again. And again. And again. “You don’t come on my land,” he snarls, between thrusts. “Not my land… Not my land…”
Warm life spills out over Morgan’s hands. White foam turns pink. The Beast wilts sideways, shudders, and goes still. Morgan sits up. His stomach is churning from the toxins. He shoves at the ground with red-painted hands and rises on wobbly legs.
Down below, the valley is a mass grave. Enemy bodies are scattered and strewn, frozen stiff in gruesome poses. Dead. Every Last One.
Morgan closes his eyes and smiles.
“Morgan?” comes the scratchy voice in his ear. “Kid, you with me?”
He opens his eyes and is almost blinded by fluorescent white. Nurse Peterson is standing over the bed. She carefully slips the IV needle from Morgan’s arm and tapes on a gauze pad.
“Well?” she asks, planting her hands on her hips.
Morgan manages a cocky head-tilt, even though the nausea is hitting harder. “Well, what?”
“Did you beat the Cancer again?”
Morgan’s smile melts into a full-fledged grin. “Kicked Its ass.”
Gretchen Bassier has a BA in Psychology from the University of Michigan. She works in healthcare, and her socks are often mismatched.