Gray tapped at his digital watch in vain as it flickered off. It was ironic, he thought, and perhaps a little cryptic that his trusty timepiece would die today of all days. He sighed, resting his chin on the butt of his shotgun as he returned his stare to the section of dome he’d been assigned to watch. It had been over six months since the domes—gelatinous-looking shadows which covered huge expanses of land—appeared. At first they did indeed resemble domes, enveloping entire cities and miles of earth in perfect circles. However, they had since expanded and conjoined into one large entity. Now, their little town of Walden stood like a lone island amid a swelling black sea, completely encircled by the dome. Walden was—so far as they knew in the absence of radio and electricity—the last bastion of human civilization.
“Everything normal here, Gray?”
Gray jumped slightly, turning just enough to recognize Stewart. “No rifts observed yet.”
“Copy,” said Stewart. “Mind if I rest here a minute? They have us rovers patrolling between these static posts almost non-stop.”
Gray shrugged, eyeing the descending sun through the transparent shadow. “Full moon tonight—the dome is gonna spread again. We could be blotted out by this time tomorrow. Might as well take some time for comfort while you can.”
Stewart plopped down beside Gray with a grunt, crossing his rifle over his legs. They both gazed into the dome.
“What do you think happens when you get blotted?” Stewart asked.
“Who knows?” Gray said, scanning the frozen silhouettes of people trapped far within the dome. “It looks like time just stops inside the dome. Anything that’s swallowed by or enters the shadow ceases to move. That’s really all we know. Nobody’s ever made it back out to tell us.”
“It can’t be that simple,” Stewart said, tracing circles in the sandy dirt.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you know. The monsters—the dome dwellers. Why can’t we see them from outside the dome? We know they’re there, but we can’t see them until a rift opens and they breach through. What we see might not be what’s really going on inside the dome—like outer space.”
Gray narrowed his brows. “Space?”
“Surely you’ve seen space documentaries.” Stewart scooped up a handful of dirt, loosing the grains between his fingers. “I’m no scientist, but I remember hearing something I can’t stop thinking about lately. When we see supernovas and distant galaxies, they say those things might not even be there anymore. Exploding suns, the light reflecting off planets—those things could have happened millions of years ago, but because of the vast distance and the speed of light we’re only seeing it now. Maybe the dome is similar? What we see from out here may not reflect the current state of things in there. Even though it’s right in front of us, maybe the dome is really far—light years—away.”
Gray rubbed his chin. “So the dome is a portal?”
“Maybe. A portal, a wormhole, something like that.”
A breeze swept through the grassy hills around them, carrying the gentle scent of blooming mountain flowers. Despite the impending doom literally looming over them, the two silently relished in the peace and calm of the moment.
“You sure you shouldn’t be in the research division?” Gray asked after a time. “Your portal theory makes a lot of sense.”
“Me? No, no.” Stewart laughed. “I said it before—I’m no scientist, just your standard scifi and video game nerd…. At least I was before the dome.”
“Not everyone who solved a mystery was a scientist.” Gray said, standing and plucking up a rock.
Stewart’s eyebrows raised in evident curiosity. Gray wound up and pitched the stone into the squirming shadow. It passed through with no visible resistance, stopping and appearing to hang in midair just on the other side.
Stewart scrambled back several feet in a panicked crab-walk-like movement. “Are you insane!?” he blurted. “What are you doing?”
“Science experiment.” Gray shrugged, picking up a stick to poke at the rock.
“Please don’t do that!” Stewart sputtered.
The stick passed through as if the rock weren’t there.
“See? You might be onto something. It went right through. As if it were a hologram.” Gray tried to pull the stick back out, but it wouldn’t budge. He let go. The dome swallowed the stick, which froze in place beside the rock.
“You’re gonna give me a heart attack.” Stewart exhaled harshly, holding his chest. “I hope you’re done.”
“I believe this experiment has run its course.” Gray snickered. “Still though, if the dome is a portal, where does it go?”
“Who knows?” Stewart pointed to the dimming sky. “Some distant point across the universe maybe? I suppose that would make the dome dwellers aliens of some kind.”
“Aliens?” Gray scoffed. “Doubtful.”
“And why not?” Stewart pushed himself up.
“If anything more than monsters, they’re demons,” said Gray. “Just think. Almost nothing harms them, but what have we found their weaknesses to be? Holy water. Silver bullets. Shotgun shells packed with shrapnel from metal crosses. I’ll bet if anyone that spoke Latin were still alive we could rid ourselves of them with an exorcism.”
“You think so?”
“I don’t know, man.” Gray grinned. “You’re no scientist; I’m no priest.”
The two laughed heartily.
Stewart wiped a tear from his eye. “Well, I’d best get back to it before command has my hide. Same time tomorrow?”
“Provided I don’t wake up in a UFO or lake of fire.” Gray winked.
Stewart chuckled. “Well, whatever the grand conclusion is—no spoilers eh?”
Gray nodded. “No spoilers.”
“Stay safe, Gray.” Stewart waved and started back up the hilly path.
Gray resumed watching the intangible black gelatin, smile fading as he thought. Demons…. What if the dome was a portal to Hell? Had he doomed himself by never being much of a churchgoer? He quickly discarded that idea. The dome had blotted all form of holy men and churches. If they weren’t spared, what difference would his being more devout have made? Still, the aversion dwellers had to holy water and crosses made him wonder. Could this—indirectly—be evidence that some divine entity existed? If so, where were they now?
The full moon had begun its ascent into the sunset-red rendered sky. The dome’s expansion would begin soon. He’d be called back to Walden where he’d join the other survivors in hiding—unable to do anything but hope that they wouldn’t be blotted this cycle.
Suddenly, the dome rumbled. Cracks of jagged light webbed across its rippling surface.
Gray gripped his shotgun tightly and backed away. The light intensified, spreading as a rift opened. The arms of a dweller reached out toward him. Gray snatched his flare gun from its holster, shot a signal flare overhead, then dropped it. He cocked his shotgun.
Dwellers came in innumerable forms. This one was burly and marred, eyeless with a cluster of root-like tendrils for a mouth. Releasing a gurgling roar, it thundered out of the dome—charging Gray.
Gray pulled the trigger and the dweller slammed to the ground, flesh steaming and hissing as cross shrapnel and silver powder burned into it. He drew a modified children’s squirt gun from another holster. Stepping over the dweller, he aimed the lethal toy at the beast.
“Sorry,” Gray said, “but if you’re going to play rough, you should know I’m a bit of a squirter.” He smirked—he loved his one-liners.
He pulled the plastic trigger repeatedly, coating the dweller in holy water. It shrieked, squirming violently as it reduced to a melting pile.
A cacophonous screeching announced the arrival of more dwellers as they poured out from the rift. Gray raised his shotgun, unleashing more fire as he backed up the path. Stewart—and several other guards—scurried over the hilltops from multiple directions, shouting orders as they joined the fight.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
Dwellers dropped left and right as Gray and his allies unloaded, but a harrowing truth set in as the monsters continued flooding through; they wouldn’t win this fight without casualties. Preoccupied with the enemies bearing down on him, Gray could offer no help as less-fortunate comrades were ripped into gruesome red ribbons.
They grouped together in the middle of the pathway, maintaining defensive fire as they fell back from the rift. Flashes lit up the sky around the dome’s perimeter—more signal flares. Then came the siren; it was time to abandon post and make a full retreat.
The sun had long since set by the time Gray, Stewart, and their group finally managed to return to Walden. They barricaded the walls and merged with the remaining guardian ranks to organize the defense. Priests, researchers, and survivors who couldn’t fight were herded into basements and shelters within the clustered buildings. The full moon always brought a fight, but this was another level of chaos.
“Gray! What the hell is going on out there?” a silver-haired man with a well-groomed mustache barked.
“Commander Roscoe, sir!” Gray saluted. “Multiple rifts have opened all around the dome. Dwellers are flooding in in numbers we’ve never seen before.”
Clenching a cigar between his teeth and seemingly unfazed by this grim update, Commander Roscoe simply smiled. “Alright boys! Get your asses atop these walls. Group around the main gates, but watch the perimeter. Keep your soak-a-matics at the ready! I hope y’all brought your raincoats, we’ve got a hell of a water balloon fight on our hands!”
Although severely casual considering the circumstances, Roscoe’s words weren’t inaccurate. Pairs of guards hauled huge buckets of balloons filled with holy water to the tops of the walls where Gray and the others proceeded to pelt them down at the gathering enemies.
Gray couldn’t help but find it a little funny. A year ago this seemed like something he would have seen in a comic book or some nostalgic-themed TV show. Aside from watching good friends and comrades die, it was fun—in a morbid sort of way. The others appeared to be of similar mind, grinning widely as they tossed balloons and rained down on the dwellers with their squirt guns.
Despite the effectiveness of their strategy, the dweller numbers were growing rapidly. The rifts were still open; they’d never stayed open this long. Then Gray saw something curious—another flash at one of the rifts. A large dweller with crustacean-like armor emerged clutching some sort of stake adorned with a fleshy, pulsating crystal. The dome stretched toward the crystal in strings, following it as the dweller sprinted inland before slamming the stake into the ground. The crystal glowed and the stretching dome wrapped around it, engulfing the new area. Gray understood; that’s how the dome spread.
More armored dwellers burst from each of the rifts, all clutching similar stakes. Maybe they could destroy those crystals, Gray thought. Perhaps that could stop—or even reverse—the dome’s expansion.
Gray turned. “Commander Ros—”
Something struck Gray in the back of the head and he fell from the wall, losing consciousness.
“Gray!” Stewart’s voice called. “Gray!”
A splitting pain radiated through Gray’s head as he roused, opening his eyes.
“Oh thank god, Gray.” Stewart’s shoulders dropped in relief. “Can you walk?”
“I think so,” Gray said, trying to push himself to his feet. He stumbled.
“Let me help,” Stewart said, pulling Gray’s arm over his shoulder and helping him walk. “I’m glad you’re okay, but maybe that’s selfish. It might have been better if you’d stayed unconscious.”
Gray blinked, still slightly dazed. “Why?”
“The dwellers came over the walls. One of them hit you pretty good—I saw you fall,” Stewart explained. “We retreated to the central square, but they followed. They tore into the shelters and killed everyone. It was just me and the commander left. Then for some reason they retreated at the last moment. We didn’t see you get completely gored so Roscoe insisted I check on you while he looks for survivors.”
“Well I’ll be,” Commander Roscoe shouted enthusiastically as they limped into the bloodied wreckage of the central square. He clapped a hand on Gray’s shoulder. “You’re a hell of a soldier, Gray. I knew you’d make it!”
Gray rubbed his temples. “Nobody else survived?”
Roscoe pursed his lips. “Sorry, my ugly mug is about all you’re gonna have to look at for what time we’ve got left—however long that is.” He sighed. Wiping his brow, he eyed the dome bubbling over the tops of the city walls. “You ever think about self-fulfilling prophecies?”
Gray cocked his head to the side.
“It’s funny isn’t it?” Roscoe continued. “The last stronghold of mankind, and we named it Walden. Now, with the dome pressing in on us from all sides… we’re walled-in. Talk about a jinx…”
Gray’s eyes lit up—the crystals! “Commander! I saw something that may be of interes—”
Before Gray could continue, a gargantuan dweller—crystal stake in hand—thundered into the square with a monstrous snarl. Commander Roscoe jumped in front of Gray and Stewart, raising his fists.
“You two run, get all the holy water you can get your hands on and buy yourselves some time,” he barked, then smiled at the dweller. “Big boy, huh? Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Assuming a bouncing stance, Roscoe hummed a tune from a famous boxing film. Stewart dragged Gray away by the arm before he could object. Commander Roscoe landed a few skillful—but ineffective—punches before Stewart pulled Gray around a corner and out of view. Roscoe’s screams chased after them as they fled. Gray’s heart dropped in the dismal silence that followed.
They plopped down against a wall to rest. Gray leaned his head back, staring at the moon. Even in all this ugliness it still shined beautifully—mockingly perhaps. Suddenly, tendrils of shadow crept over the wall, stretching toward the central square. Gray’s head dropped hopelessly. This was it. The final expansion.
Then something caught his eye. Sparkling beneath the moonlight; a puddle of water surrounded a fallen bucket of balloons. Gray shot to his feet urgently, scooping up balloons and stuffing what he could into his pockets. He had an idea.
“What are you doing? We can’t go fight that thing!” Steward said.
“No time to explain!” Gray shouted, running off.
Gray strolled into the square, repeatedly tossing up and catching a water balloon in casual fashion. The dweller stepped between him and the crystal-bearing stake, growling.
“Hey crabby! You seem a little hot-headed,” he said, approaching the beast. “Why don’t you cool off?”
Gray threw the balloon at the dweller’s face. Shrieking, it charged at him in an agitated rage. Gray circled around the square throwing more balloons, but the dweller was quicker. Catching up to him, it reared back to deliver a lethal blow.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Silver bullets bounced off the dweller’s armor and rattled to the bricks. The dweller stopped, swiveling around to face the new threat—Stewart—who stood, shaking, at the edge of the square.
“Stewart!” Gray shouted as the dweller walked with slow quaking steps toward his only remaining friend.
Stewart regarded the looming monster in abject horror, frozen with fear.
“Stewart! You have to move!”
The walls of the dome surged toward them, passing over buildings and wreckage as they swelled to the outskirts of the square. More strings of black reached out, wrapping around the crystal; these were the final moments.
Desperate, Gray ran to the stake and ripped it out of the ground. The dome’s tendrils withered and retracted. It was heavy, comprised of a foreign bone-like material. He gripped the macabre otherworldly device in both hands. The dweller raised a clawed arm, ready to strike down Stewart.
Sprinting, Gray lifted the stake high overhead. He jumped onto the dweller’s back and stabbed the pointed end into the nape of its neck, shattering its armor and sinking into flesh. It howled, reeling back in evident agony. Stewart snapped out of his daze, finally moving out of the way as the dweller crashed to its knees.
Gray clung to a large spike in the dweller’s armor and retrieved another water balloon from his pocket. As he drew back his arm his digital watch suddenly kicked back to life, announcing itself with an electronic beeping—an alarm. 7:10 AM; sunrise.
“Looks like you’re out of time.” Gray sneered. He ripped out the stake, smashed the balloon into the open wound, and jumped back.
The dweller squealed. Flesh melting, the beast turned its glare to him and spoke. “If not from without, then from within. The shadow will swallow you as it has us all.”
“I’ll just have to trigger its gag reflex then.” Gray winked, cramming one last water balloon into the dweller’s open mouth. He drove the stake between its teeth, piercing through the balloon and out the back of its skull.
The dweller’s jaw crumbled and it released a long gurgling shudder as it broke down into a twitching—but finally dead—mass of gore.
“Thanks, Gray,” Stewart said, chest heaving.
“Don’t mention it.”
Gray looked to the dome, now haunting the square’s edge. Gripping the stake intently, he approached the wriggling shadow. Fractures of light shot across the black as a new rift opened in apparent response to the stake. On a gut feeling, he smashed the crystal into the bricks; it shattered. The entire dome seemed to screech and its jiggling walls began to recoil from the square. The rift flickered.
Gray understood what he must do. He bent down, prying a squirt gun from the grip of a severed hand buried in rubble. As the morning sun crept over the mountains, he stood tall before the rift and took a deep breath.
Stewart eyed him, concerned. “What are you doing, Gray?”
Gray smiled. “No spoilers.”
Gray stepped into the bright light. All went dark as the rift closed and the dome sealed behind him.
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Love the creativity of this one! Ive heard dome type stories before, but none that have demon-like creatures that emerge out of it. The crystal was a nice touch to give a bit of a satisfying explanation. We leave on a cliffhanger but still don't feel totally lost as to where we are heading in the end. Great work here!