"We need to pull back!" Paul Heinlein yelled.
Damn, was there no end to them?
Physically the twitchers weren't that intimidating. They were slightly shorter than the average man and not much faster or stronger. They only possessed a rudimentary intelligence, enough to wield simple blades or clubs. In the days since the town of Carmel had been pulled into hell-space Heinlein had gunned down dozens of them.
What was terrifying about the twitchers was their ferocity and complete lack of self-preservation. They kept coming. It didn't matter what you did.
You could blow the head off the first twitcher and splatter his brain matter over the ones behind them. They didn't stop. They didn't pause to look at their fallen comrade. They didn't blink as bits of brain and blood splashed their faces. They didn't even flinch as the next shot took off their arm.
They. Just. Kept. Coming.
The survivors of the overlay had inflicted horrendous casualties on the marauding twitchers, but there didn't seem to be any end to their numbers. Every night the people of Carmel heard the screams as more of their fellows were dragged off into the darkness. Every morning Heinlein saw fewer grimy faces at role call.
They had to give up the supermarket and pull back to a more defensible position. The men of Carmel had the advantage of guns, but unlike Heinlein they weren't trained soldiers. A lot of their shots were wide and their nerve was fragile. What should have been a morale boost became a source of horror as the men shot down the enemy by the dozen only to see the remaining twitchers bound over the bodies and keep charging.
They were going to be overrun.
"Pull back!" Heinlein yelled.
"But the food," Verhoeven called back.
"Doesn't matter if we're dead!" Heinlein responded.
Out on the flank a twitcher broke through the line and smashed off a man's jaw in a spray of blood and teeth. The two men standing next to it stood frozen in horror. Their pause gave the horror chance to turn and smash its club into the face of the next man. The other man finally broke his paralysis, but then panicked and emptied an entire clip into the twitcher. They didn't have the ammunition to spare for that kind of overkill.
Out on the other flank Heinlein heard screams for help. A ginger-haired man scrabbled at the ground with bloodied arms as two twitchers grabbed a leg each and dragged him away into the darkness.
Heinlein didn't even know his name. Heinlein's military career had ended in Iraq when a piece of shrapnel had ripped half his face off. It had left him with a disfiguring scar on his left cheek. The townsfolk were polite about it, but he knew his appearance intimidated them. They kept their distance.
"Pull back to the plaza!" Heinlein yelled. It was the small shopping centre where they'd been sheltering the injured and children. It had a large central space and a few easily defensible entrances. "Two man teams, cover each other's back."
They had to hold their nerve.
On his right a twitcher dropped down from a pile of crates. One of the retreating men stared at it in horror, before turning tail and running in terror. The man in front of him was left exposed.
"No! Cover each other!" Heinlein yelled.
He shot the twitcher, spraying its blood across the crates. The retreat was in danger of becoming a rout and if that happened they were going to get slaughtered.
The front man looked back and three twitchers jumped over his cover. Heinlein shot one, but couldn't stop the man vanishing beneath a hail of lashing arms.
"Heinlein!" Verhoeven yelled.
Heinlein turned to see a twitcher crouched on a pile of boxes in front of him. Mad glittering black eyes stared back at him. Like all the twitchers it had a small wrinkled black face. There was no nose, only the flat slits of nostrils in the centre of its pushed in face. Drool ran from a mouth filled with uneven little pointed teeth. The face looked like it belonged to a demented little monkey.
The head twitched, vibrating in that sharp twisting motion that had given the twitchers their name. The movement looked more insect than animal.
Heinlein absorbed all this in a second before lifting up his shotgun and firing. The twitcher's head exploded like a ripe melon.
Movement flashed behind him.
Heinlein turned, but a fraction too slowly. A blunt object crashed into the back of his head and the world went dark.
"It's still me. I'm still the same person inside."
"I'm sorry, I know, I know. But I can't. I'm sorry Paul. I can't. Forgive me."
"It's still me."
Heinlein was surprised when he woke up. When the world had gone black he'd thought that was it, game over, the end.
He was outside Carmel. He stared down at a barren ground covered in veins of rock and dust. Sometimes the veins would pulse as if they were alive. Heinlein would have put it down to a trick of his imagination, but this was hell-space, minor weirdness like this happened all the time.
Heinlein was moving. Two twitchers had an arm each and were dragging him. His head was slumped forward and his ankles dragged limply along the floor. His hair fell across his face and felt matted, probably with his own blood.
Heinlein had spent most of his life as a professional soldier and despite his injury was still close to peak physical condition. The twitchers were a little shorter than an average man and while they possessed a wiry strength, they still only had a slight build. Heinlein thought there was a chance he could overpower the two of them.
But not just yet ... His head still felt woozy. He might have a concussion. No point trying to fight them in this condition. He'd only fall over and look ridiculous.
He had to pause, assess his injuries and gather his strength. He had to try and work out how many twitchers were around him. Were there just the two carrying him or were there others?
Did they know he was still alive? Was he a prisoner or was his body just food to be dragged off to some larder?
Should he bide his time and wait to see where they were taking him? If he waited too long he might find escape become impossible as the twitchers took him into the heart of their stronghold.
He wondered what had happened to the others. They must have lost the supermarket. He hoped Verhoeven had managed to shepherd enough of the men back to the plaza. Verhoeven wasn't military, but he'd worked in Carmel's fire service before the catastrophe and had a solid head on his shoulders.
It was still grim. Grim enough for Heinlein to gamble on biding his time until the twitchers took him to wherever they were going. Maybe he could inflict real damage at the heart of their lair.
The twitchers continued to drag Heinlein across the barren terrain.
It was day, or at least whatever passed for day in hell-space. The sky never got brighter than a deep brownish-red.
"You were lucky to get discharged when you did," Robert Cameron said one night. He was on leave and had come over to share a few beers with Heinlein.
Heinlein said nothing. He was fairly certain being left with a face like the Frankenstein's monster's ugly kid brother in no way qualified as 'lucky'.
"They're finding whole new levels of shit-hole to post the grunts now," Cameron continued.
Fucking politicians, Heinlein thought. Always getting others killed to clear up their messes.
"Where?" he asked. "Africa?"
"Further," Cameron replied. "Much further." He looked down at his beer. "Look I'm not supposed to say anything but..."
At first Heinlein thought Cameron was yanking his chain when he started telling crazy stories about scientists figuring out how to open a doorway into a dimension adjacent to ours, but then he saw the expression on his friend's face. He was sane, serious and the experience had scarred him deeply.
"Makes Iraq look like paradise," Cameron replied, taking a long chug from his can. "They tell you it's just unusual predators, their equivalent of lions and bears, but I ain't ever seen a lion or bear show as much relish in taking a man to pieces as these horrors.
"I've seen men, good men, deliberately mutilate themselves in order to avoid being sent back."
"Jesus," Heinlein whistled.
"The scientists don't know what this place is. Some think it's a parallel universe, others think it's some kind of manifestation of the collective human psyche. Personally I think they found a way to open a door right into hell itself."
Was that what had happed to Carmel? Had some egghead pressed the wrong button somewhere and sucked the whole town into hell. One morning the inhabitants of Carmel had woken up and found themselves in hell-space. He wondered if the same fate had befallen the entire world.
Heinlein didn't know. The twitchers had begun attacking soon after and all his energies had been devoted to trying to keep himself and the other survivors alive.
The ground started to lean downwards and Heinlein stared ahead through the bloodied strands of his hair. The twitchers were taking him downwards into some kind of cave or giant burrow.
Was this their lair?
The twitchers stopped and talked to each other in a series of glottal grunts and clicking sounds. They looked humanoid and had the faces of crazed little monkeys, but their movements — all stop-start twitches — put Heinlein in mind of insects.
.... There is more of this story ...