How long had the beast hunted that empty stretch of lonely highway? An alien monstrosity stalks the Australian outback. Can an average guy outwit it, or will he end up as prey?
“And police are still looking for anyone who might have information about the whereabouts of the Mackenzie family, who haven’t been seen for five days now. Police were alerted to the disappearance of the family of five when they failed to arrive at a family member’s rural property as part of a planned holiday. Anyone with information should call Crime Stoppers on-,”
Lyle drained the last lukewarm dregs from his Macca’s coffee cup as the news report wrapped up. He’d been driving since well before dawn and needed every drip of caffeine he could get. Squinting into the sunlight gleaming off his windshield, he didn’t see any other traffic on the freeway. Just bush and scrub and the occasional ridge of broken rock.
Australian Crawl came on after the news and Lyle turned the radio up. Faint and scratchy, the signal dipped in and out. He kept it on for company more so than anything else. He’d play music off his phone but he needed it for navigation. It lay on the passenger seat along with his wallet. Outside, lines of heat were already rising from the tarmac. His shitty car’s shitty air conditioner let out a constant, dull roar, fighting to keep the interior of the car at a livable temperature.
“In two kilometres, slight left to exit the freeway,” the voice of Lyle’s phone said.
Lyle roused slightly. “Since when?”
The phone’s GPS ran quietly in the background. Looking up, Lyle couldn’t even see any signs for an exit.
“In one kilometre, slight left. Turn left.”
A road curved away from the side of the freeway, unmarked. Lyle slowed the car but hesitated. No one was hurtling up behind him to force the decision. The GPS would know better than he would though, he thought. He pulled across and into the exit.
The road wound away from the freeway through bush and along the lip of a shallow gully. It was narrow but still of decent quality, newly paved, and Lyle kept driving at a steady speed.
This deep into the outback, it was easy to imagine he was the last person on earth. Lyle’s radio signal faded in and out and then died completely as he entered a small canyon. His mind wandered. He’d been following the road that had branched off the freeway for around half an hour when something glittered in the road ahead and his foot drifted off the gas pedal.
A carpet of broken safety glass twinkled across the asphalt. A silver hubcap lay off to the side of the road, propped against a tree. There must have been an accident there, Lyle thought. Suddenly, he spotted something else laying across the road and slammed on the brakes. A twisted arrangement of pipe, a bull bar that looked like it should have been mounted to the front of a work ute, lay across the road and blocked most of the lane. The bull bar was matte black so it had blended with the road until it was almost too late.
“What the fuck?”
Lyle hesitated for a few moments, the car idling. If he’d run over the bull bar it would have probably destroyed his front wheels, or got caught under the car and ruined his engine. He went to circle around it but then realised the same thing could happen to the next person to come through here. Annoyed, shaking his head, he switched on his warning lights and threw the door open. Hot air billowed into the car. He got out and walked to the bull bar, listening for other cars in case someone was about to come screaming down the road and smashing into him. Everything was silent, he couldn’t even hear any birdsong in the trees.
“How did they miss this?”
Lyle assumed one or two cars must have crashed here recently, leaving the random debris scattered across the road. The cars must have been removed but he couldn’t believe they’d left a whole bull bar laying in the middle of the road. Maybe they’d hooked the ute or whatever up to a tow truck and the bull bar fell off just as they were pulling away, without them noticing. It looked like the attachment had been ripped off with great force, however. The bar wasn’t just detached but kind of warped, like it had been taken from both ends and twisted.
Lyle picked up the bull bar and walked it to the side of the road. It wasn’t all that heavy. He dropped it in the leaves and it rolled against the base of a tree where it was out of the way but could still be seen if anyone came looking. Something sticky clung to his hands and he rubbed them together. Some kind of residue from the bull bar
With a gentle rumbling noise, several large rocks tumbled from the nearby canyon wall. Lyle spun on it, the sound enhanced by the silence that had settled over this section of bush. He had an uncomfortable feeling that he was being watched. Just for a second, he had a sense of something moving just beyond the lip of the canyon. Something big, too big to be real. He was tired and almost hitting the bull bar had taken him by surprise so he was imagining things.
Climbing back into the car, Lyle switched off the emergency lights and shoved the car back into gear. Tyres crackling over broken glass, he pulled past the debris and picked up speed. His eyes stayed open for any kangaroos that might come bounding into the road. Something like that could easily cause an accident like the one back there. You saw dead roos by the side of the road all the time on these lonely highways, creamed by trucks and turned to food for brave magpies. Hitting one could seriously damage an averagely sized sedan like Lyle’s car. Could one that was big enough screw up a bull bar as badly as the one he’d just moved off the road?
Coming out of the scrubby canyon, Lyle was still thinking it over when something filled the road ahead of him. Suddenly, massively, physically, undeniably there. A vast, greyish bulk. Lyle’s foot stomped the brake for the second time in less than five minutes, sending the car screaming sideways. His first thought, divorced from any logic, was that it was a beached whale. A beached whale somehow airlifted and flown hours from the nearest shore, dumped here in the middle of the road in the Australian outback.
The creature, however, was alive. That was obvious at a glance but undeniable as it turned to face him, supported by four powerful legs. Lyle’s car slammed to a stop, throwing him sideways in his seat. The animal, whatever it was, was easily as long as a semitrailer from nose to tail but had an impossibly sleek build for something of its size, akin to a giant jungle cat. Jaws like nothing Lyle had ever seen on earth peeled open. Three separate mandibles arranged in a kind of triangular pattern, opening like a flower. More importantly, the jaws were lined with teeth, lots and lots of teeth, nothing mistakable about them, fangs really, the size of hunting knives and all gleaming with spit. In spite of his previous exhaustion, Lyle now felt very, very awake. Adrenaline coursing through his veins, he felt like he could pick out and describe, sketch a perfect picture, of every single detail of the monster in his mind.
Rumbling came from deep in the creature’s throat like the precursor to a growl or roar. Instead though, it made a loud hacking sound and vomited some indefinable wad of brackish slime. The wad fired from the creature’s mouth like a cannonball and hit Lyle’s windshield, coating it and beginning to harden instantly.
“What the fuck? What the fuck!” Lyle screamed.
More terrified than he’d ever been in his life, Lyle hammered his gear stick into reverse and stomped the gas pedal again. The car wheeled backward, Lyle swerving blindly. He couldn’t see through the windshield, with the hardening slime it was like trying to see through several centimetres of mucus. He got glimpses of the beast as it lunged after the reversing car, however. Apart from being utterly enormous it was greyish-green, with mottled and reptilian skin, and a long tail.
Lyle’s car spun off the road and crashed backward into a shallow ditch. The boot was crushed and momentum flung Lyle against his seat. The crash wasn’t bad enough to disable the car but Lyle’s head was swimming. What was that thing? Where did it come from? It was like something from a monster movie but undeniably real. In movies, those things always struck at night too, to hide the seams of their costumes or the limits of their CGI. This horror was running around in the bright, baking sunshine.
The beast loomed over Lyle’s stalled car and roared. Its triplicate jaws parted revealing a whipping tongue and scores of fangs. Its roar went on forever, loud enough to deafen Lyle and rattle the frame of his car around him.
Lyle started crying, sucking air so hard that he started hiccoughing. “Oh, Jesus, no! Please! Leave me alone!”
Lyle’s passenger side window exploded. A second set of forward limbs, longer and more sinewy than the others, better suited for manipulating objects, were tucked under the beast’s chest. One of those greenish-grey hands stretched through the window frame after Lyle. The hand was disturbingly human in shape, although with three fingers instead of four, one thumb, and ten times the size of a human hand. It reached for Lyle as he pressed himself against the other door, screaming. After a moment the beast drew back and ripped the entire door off its hinges. The sheer power of the thing was astonishing. It tore through the screeching hinges like wet cardboard and tossed the door away behind it like a Frisbee.
Still screaming as the beast reached back inside, Lyle switched the gears into drive and hit the gas pedal. With a crunch his car’s boot pulled out of the ditch. Somehow the vehicle slipped through the giant monster’s grasp and went veering across the road again. In total panic, Lyle managed to pull the car straight but still couldn’t see through the slime-encrusted windshield.
With powerful haunches and back legs like a kangaroo the beast launched itself after Lyle. Its triplicate jaws parted and it bellowed hungrily. Lyle pressed his face against his driver’s side window, trying to see where he was going. He gained some distance on the beast but went swerving off the road again. His car slammed into a boulder surrounded by scrubby trees and the airbag erupted in Lyle’s face.
The monster gained on him, and Lyle was pinioned between the seat and the airbag. “Come on! Come on!” Lyle tried to batter the airbag into deflating.
As the airbag went down, Lyle struggled with his seatbelt as well. Without thinking, he tore his door open and threw himself out of the car. Lyle scrabbled to his feet as the beast’s strides shook the ground. It was seconds away. Lyle couldn’t fight, he could only run.
The truck-sized beast slammed into Lyle’s car hard enough to tip it onto its side. Climbing on top of the car, it began tearing pieces away from the vehicle with all four of its front limbs. Some of Lyle’s luggage spilled from the boot onto the side of the road. The creature’s tongue slipped from its mouth. Prehensile, its tip split into three foot-long sections. Like a hummingbird feeding from a flower, the beast darted its tongue into the car to search for Lyle.
Lyle ran hard right down the centre line of the road, feet pounding the asphalt. He’d never run so fast in his life. Already his heart burned in his chest. He tasted bile in the back of his throat. It wouldn’t be enough. No matter how fast he ran, he wasn’t going to be fast enough to escape that creature once it realised he wasn’t in the car.
What the hell was that thing? The beast seemed vaguely crocodilian. Its body was shaped like a kangaroo, with its thick tail and powerful haunches, but adapted to walking on four limbs. It was like a movie monster, a biological mash-up, but that didn’t and couldn’t happen in real life, could it? Maybe it was a genetically engineered killing machine. Between its size, its sleek but powerful build and its weaponised slime. The only explanation that made any sense to Lyle though was that the thing was from outer space. The beast was so unlike else on Earth it was clearly alien. Maybe it had crashed to earth in the middle of the Australian outback and was hunting people for food. Hunting him for food.
Snarling, the creature turned away from Lyle’s ravaged vehicle. Its big head swung in his direction. Lyle hadn’t even thought to try running into the trees to lose it. The beast started galloping, earth shaking, with its muscular body rippling. Trying to outrun it would be like trying to outrun a freight train.
The road crossed a parched streambed, filled with scrub instead of water during the dry season. Lyle’s sneakers slapped against the asphalt. He was breathing hard, too hard, and it wasn’t all from exertion. He was going to die, Lyle thought with detachment. He couldn’t outrun this fucking thing and there was no way he could fight it off.
“Oh, Jesus! Jesus, fuck!”
There was only one possible escape. He turned and leapt into the dry streambed. A couple of concrete drainage pipes were buried under the road to let the stream travel its original course when it rained. Each pipe was just wide enough for Lyle to crawl through. Lyle didn’t much care for small spaces but it beat the immediate alternative. He threw himself onto his hands and knees and wriggled into the mouth of a pipe.
It was hot as an oven and musty in the pipe, and Lyle caught a thick cobweb across his face as he crawled for his life. He couldn’t worry much about snakes and spiders as he heard the monster thundering overhead. Lyle saw the circle of light in front of him, the other end of the pipe, but he crawled to roughly the middle and stopped. He wiped the grime and webbing from his face, panting and sucking grit from the air. The cement walls were tight around his shoulders, suffocating, and his arms and back burned from propelling him forward in such a small space. If this worked how long would he have to stay here to outwait the beast. Hours? Days? Terror crippled Lyle’s breathing and he felt an almost overwhelming need to keep crawling into the daylight again, regardless of the consequences, but he stifled it.
The beast followed Lyle into the dry streambed with a crash. Lyle glanced back and saw its talons digging at the mouth of the pipe, doglike. Its heavy, torpedo-shaped head passed across the opening, fangs bared. The stink of its meaty breath, like roadkill left in the sun, began to fill the passage.
“Go away!” Lyle yelled. “Please, just go away!”
For a moment, the beast pulled away from the entrance. Lyle wished he could believe it had given up but he could feel the creature thinking. Straining his neck, he kept glancing over his shoulder. The beast’s head reappeared, three jaws parted. Its whiplike tongue shot from its mouth. Looking back, Lyle saw it probing greedily down the pipe.
“No, no! Leave me alone! Leave me alone!”
The tongue was prehensile and pink, as thick as Lyle’s arm and moving like a python. Its tip split into three foot-long sections that wriggled and flared as it tasted the air. Lyle started to crawl further down the pipe, faster, scraping his hands and elbows. The beast’s tongue touched Lyle’s foot and wrapped around his shin. He could feel slime from the appendage coating his skin. Lyle screamed and fought to grip the sides of the tunnel as the tongue reeled him backward. It was pure muscle, incredibly strong. Fighting it was almost hopeless. Lyle could imagine the gnashing fangs and crushing jaws getting hold of him as he clawed for purchase at the pipe.
Suddenly, the beast’s tongue unravelled from Lyle’s leg. Lyle scrambled forward, hand over hand. The tongue wrapped back into the creature’s mouth and it abandoned the pipe. Lyle crawled to roughly the middle of the pipe again and stopped, breathing hard. Tears streaked through the dirt on his face. Twisting around, he tried to figure out what had just happened.
The beast’s feet thundered and disappeared overhead, echoing through the narrow chamber. Lyle wondered whether it could be a trick, but then why trick him? The beast would have had him in just a few seconds more if it kept going.
Lyle didn’t want to spend any longer in the tight, musty space, waiting until the thing came back. He kept wriggling forward until he reached the other end of the pipe. He looked around very carefully before emerging, wondering if the beast was only toying with him, but he saw no sign of it. Straightening, Lyle didn’t bother to wipe off the dirt and leaves clinging to his body before fleeing into a thick strand of trees. If the beast came at him again, he hoped the trees would at least slow it down. Thanks to that long, prehensile tongue, their protection was no worse than the pipe had been.
On instinct, Lyle reached for his pockets. “Oh, no, no!”
His phone had been sitting on the passenger seat when he crashed, along with his wallet. He’d been using it for the GPS and left it on the seat. To find it, he’d have to go back. But there was no way he was going back now. Trying to reach the car he’d be completely exposed, open to attack. He had to get away first, to think.
Moving through the brush and across ground covered in fist-sized rocks, Lyle continued upward. As Lyle started to climb he realised why the beast had left him. At a distance he heard a car approaching, and from further up the hill he saw sunlight glinting off a distant windshield. The monster must have heard or sensed the vehicle coming as well. He had to flag them down, or warn them, but he couldn’t go back to the roadside so he kept on climbing to higher ground.
The vehicle materialised as a small truck pulling a doublewide horse trailer. It wound through the bush as Lyle stood on the spine of the ridge, stretching onto his toes and raising his hands in the air.
“Wait, wait, stop,” Lyle said, but his chest was so tight that even he could barely hear himself talk.
From where Lyle stood, he could see the wreckage of his car as well. It remained jammed against the boulder he’d hit but bits and pieces of the vehicles scattered across the road. He remembered the bull bar he’d moved off the road just a couple of minutes before he was attacked by the beast. That must have been another one of its victims. It had torn their car apart but it must have done something to remove the vehicle. When whoever was driving the truck saw the wreckage, they would stop to investigate. If he could get to them before the beast, he could tell them to drive for it and maybe they could both get away?
Before the truck got close enough to see Lyle’s wrecked car, however, the grey-green bulk of the beast moved through the trees and pounced, bounding into the road. Spotting the beast, the driver swerved madly with the horse trailer shimmying behind him. Lyle heard the scream of brakes. The beast choked up and fired off a wad of slime at the truck, as it had done to Lyle’s car. Slime coated the windshield. The truck hammered to a stop, the horse trailer slamming and sliding forward.
Without hesitation, the beast attacked the stalled truck. Lyle watched as the driver stumbled from the other side of the vehicle, dwarfed by the monster. The truck driver wasn’t as lucky as Lyle had been. The beast’s torpedo-shaped head followed him, triple mandibles parting, and it coughed out another cannonball of slime. The slime collected the man around the legs and sent him sprawling to the ground. The man screamed and tried to kick himself free, rolling on the asphalt. Lizardlike, the beast darted down the road and crushed the man underfoot. It picked up what was left in its weirdly delicate manipulator arms and fed him into its mouth.
Lyle dropped down against the ridge, still watching but realising how exposed he was. The beast turned on the truck, tearing off its entire roof with one powerful swipe. It pulled apart the interior, tearing through doors and seats.
After it had demolished the vehicle, the beast turned on the horse trailer. Inside the doublewide, two horses were going insane with fear. Their shrill whinnying carried all the way up to the ridge. The trailer rocked violently. With its talons, the beast tore through the side of the trailer like it was wrapping paper. It seized the closest horse in its tri-sided mouth and lifted it into the air, kicking its hooves and squirming. The beast bit down and Lyle heard the horse’s back break before the monster chewed and swallowed it whole. The second horse tried to kick its way out of the wreckage of the trailer but the beast leapt on its first, catching it in its mandibles as well. After it was finished, Lyle hoped the beast would at least be sated. The beast, however, looked somehow insatiable. It darted around the wreckage as if hunting for more.
“Where the hell did you come from, you fucking thing?” Lyle said.
The beast shoved the wreckage of the truck and trailer to the side of the road and Lyle wondered what it would do next. He tucked himself lower as the beast took off down the road and passed under him. Lyle still didn’t see any eyes, he couldn’t say how the beast tracked its prey and was terrified some small thing would give him away. As it seemed to have forgotten him for the moment though, he watched to see where it went.
The beast returned to where Lyle’s car had come to rest. With a combination of its four powerful forelimbs, the beast began to drag Lyle’s car away from the road and into the bush. He needed his phone from the car but he could hardly get to it now.
“What are you doing?”
The creature disappeared into the trees with Lyle’s car and Lyle could hear it dragging it further and further away, watching the tops of the trees bend and shake to track its path. Presumably his phone was still inside but maybe it had fallen out and was lying amidst the broken glass and debris where he’d crashed. Or maybe he’d find a phone or a radio handset in the truck below. He didn’t want to move from his hiding place when it seemed like the beast had forgotten about him but he couldn’t stay up there all day. He had to move before the beast returned or another vehicle drew it back.
Lyle descended quickly down the ridge and jogged to where the truck and trailer had been left behind. He combed through the wreckage of the truck’s cabin but couldn’t find a phone. It had probably been in the driver’s pocket when he was swallowed by the creature. Blood splattered the trailer attached to the back of the truck, and stained the road where the monster had stomped the driver into the ground. Lyle left it and ran to where his car had been, wary and listening for the beast’s movements in the trees.
Pieces of Lyle’s car vehicle and some of his luggage carpeted the side of the road. He looked through it but couldn’t find his phone. It was probably still in the car, trapped in the footwell or under the seats. Nothing else of any use to him was amongst the debris. He wanted to cry and scream in frustration but was terrified the noise would attract the beast. Instead, he stuffed the side of his fist into his mouth and bit down hard enough to draw blood from his knuckle.
“Okay, okay, two options,” Lyle said to himself, once he’d recovered enough to think. “Stay here, find a hiding place somewhere near the road, and wait for another car. Maybe, if I wait, someone else will come along and I can get to them before that thing comes back. Or, I can follow the fucking thing to wherever it takes the car and find my phone, right? Then I can call for help.”
Against his better judgement Lyle decided to follow the creature. He might not get another chance to safely track it. Partly it was curiosity, he wanted to know where the beast was going and what it was doing. Lyle also wanted to keep tabs on it, rather than have it disappear and reappear on him again.
Fortunately, the semitrailer-sized beast wasn’t difficult to follow. Lyle tracked it into the trees and sought higher ground so he could watch it from a distance. After about ten minutes following the noise it made, he spotted it. The beast pulled Lyle’s sedan through broken trees until it got to a sandy clearing. All four of the car’s tyres were ruptured and ripped to shreds so the beast had to walk backward, dragging the vehicle. However, as it reached the end of the clearing the beast left the car for a moment and doubled back. Lyle was stunned as it returned the way it had come, sweeping its thick tail across the dirt. The beast was literally covering its tracks, removing the car from the roadside now that it was temporarily sated to avoid tipping off its prey.
“Just how smart is this thing?”
Lyle kept following the beast for around half an hour, the land sloping downward into thick scrub. Eventually it came to another small ridge, like the lip of some ancient crater. Lyle watched as the beast shoved and tipped his dark blue car over the edge of the cliff. With a series of loud crashes, the vehicle rolled end over end down the steep slope until it came to rest on its roof at the bottom of the hill. Lyle circled through the bush and gasped. In a large but shadowy enclave at the bottom of the cliff at least two dozen vehicles were heaped in various states of disrepair.
How long had the beast hunted that empty stretch of lonely highway? Picking its way down the sheer surface like a lizard, the beast followed Lyle’s car. It dragged the wreck into place amongst the other cars and began hacking up slime to glue it there. The creature was building itself some kind of giant nest. When it was done, it spent some time circling the nest before climbing the slope and disappearing into the rustling bush again.
“It’s going back for the other car and trailer,” Lyle said to himself. “We’re-, we’ve got enough time, you could get down there.”
Beyond the ridge, blasted and blighted desert covered in patchy scrub spread to the distant hills. From where he’d observed the beast, Lyle had to carefully climb down the hill. His hands were soon chapped and grazed. Lyle’s head started to swim from the stress put on his body, growing sunburn, and the lack of water. He could take off across the desert, he thought, but it would kill him just as surely as the beast would.
Cautiously, Lyle approached the nest as if every step could set off an alarm. As Lyle got closer he started seeing bones, hundreds and hundreds of them. They surrounded and filled the lair, suspended in the hardened slime coating the cars. Some skeletons were recognisably human thanks to the skulls and rags of clothing wrapped around them. There were also hundreds of animal bones, what appeared to be dozens of kangaroo skeletons. The beast must have decimated the animal population in the area. Several looked like the bones of wild camels and even parts of a massive crocodile, all coated in slime and with bits of rotting flesh and fur and scales stuck to them.
Lyle entered the nest, the earth rough and torn under his feet, and walked to his car. The slime was still fresh, dripping off the edges of the wreck in thick, ropey strands. Avoiding the goop, Lyle crawled into the overturned car. Broken glass filled the interior, crushed, dull safety glass fortunately that ground under Lyle’s hands and knees without cutting him. Lyle searched the ceiling and then the footwells of the overturned car. He could hardly believe his relief when he found the mobile phone jammed in the passenger’s side footwell, and found it was still working.
“Oh, thank God, thank you, God!”
The phone had plenty of battery but no signal, and Lyle immediately felt cheated and angry again, like some greater force was mocking him. It was like something else out of a bad horror movie, but then again understandable. He was in the middle of nowhere, and if he got higher he’d stand a better chance. He put the phone in his pocket and crawled out of the car.
He should leave straight away, Lyle thought, but he was thirsty and getting desperate, and after following it for half an hour he thought he had a vague idea of how long the creature would take to fetch the truck. Lyle went to check out the other vehicles forming the beast’s nest. Roughly circular in shape, the nest followed the walls of the enclave like a fort. Although the beast had amassed more than twenty different vehicles none of them looked like they had been exposed to the elements for more than a couple of weeks.
Lyle was drawn to a boxy Jeep that looked well-supplied. Most of the vehicle’s front section was torn open and half a wrecked Harley motorcycle had been dumped on the front seats. Lyle pulled open the rear section and saw a jumbled mess of outback camping supplies, a case of tools, and several large metal canisters. The first canister Lyle opened contained petrol, the smell immediately hitting him in the face, and he left it sitting open on the ground beside the Jeep. The second metal canister was filled with water and Lyle popped the cap and guzzled deeply. The metal and water were hot from sitting out in the sun and burnt his lips.
After drinking his fill, Lyle set the water down and quickly tossed the rest of the camping stuff. He took some survival gear that was sitting in a small satchel, a canteen, a lighter and matches, some food, and a shiny emergency blanket folded into a tight square. He opened the tool case as well and found a heavy blue crowbar. He could use it as a weapon, Lyle thought. It was better than nothing, in the sense that maybe a pointy stick or squirtgun might be better than nothing, but it wasn’t much.
Lyle left the creature’s disgusting boneyard and climbed back to the top of the ridge, skinning his hands and knees even further. Desperately, Lyle removed the phone from his pocket and started to walk over the top of the spine of ground, holding his phone aloft. Reaching a high spot almost directly above the beast’s nest, Lyle found an invisible hotspot where he received a weak couple of bars. Immediately he dialled triple zero and held the phone to his ear.
“Hello, triple zero, do you require police, ambulance or fire services?”
“Hello? Hello, you’ve got to help me!” Lyle said.
“Do you require police, ambulance or fire rescue, sir?”
“My car crashed, police! Police, I guess.”
“Transferring you now.” Immediately the phone transferred.
“Police emergency services, what is your location and the nature of your emergency?” the operator, an almost identical female voice, said.
Lyle suddenly wondered what to say. If he told them exactly what was happening they would think he was crazy or playing some kind of prank. He’d always scoffed when characters in horror or science fiction movies described their insane stories in exact detail when calling for help only to get hung up on.
“I crashed my car, I’m out in the middle of nowhere! And there’s some kind of animal hunting me!”
“An animal, sir?”
“Yes! An animal, some kind of animal! My location! My location, hold on.”
Putting the phone on speaker, Lyle lowered the phone and searched for the GPS app. It was still open on his phone but the actual marker was lost, it didn’t have enough signal. Thinking fast, Lyle rattled off some directions that he thought best described where he’d ended up.
“I’m about half an hour away from the road right now, in the middle of the bush near where it lives!”
“Okay, sir, we’ll have someone out to you soon,” the operator said, her voice getting fainter. “Can you stay on the line, please?”
“Yes, but please hurry! I don’t think I can stay in this place much longer and there’s not much reception!”
Only moments later Lyle heard a crashing in the trees and dropped his arm to his side. “Sir? Sir, can you describe this animal hunting you?” the operator’s tinny voice floated up to him.
“Oh, Jesus,” Lyle said.
A car-sized object wafted out of the trees and arced through the air toward him. The doublewide trailer that had been carrying the two horses the beast ate. Startled, Lyle raced to one side to avoid getting caught underneath it. The horse trailer came down with a crash about five metres from where Lyle had originally been standing, its warped sides flattening from the impact. Further thrashing came from the bush, the beast dragging the broken truck as it had done with Lyle’s car. Lyle tripped and fell, still holding his phone and the blue crowbar, and stared in horror at the beast’s approach.
Lyle went to hang up the phone so the operator’s voice wouldn’t give him away but the call had already dropped out. Stuffing the phone into his pocket, Lyle picked himself up and looked for someplace to run. The only spot he wouldn’t be exposed was back down, into the creature’s nest. Lyle scrabbled over the ridge and half-slid, half-fell the rest of the way, tearing open his leg and shorts, and the palms of his hands. Lyle hissed in pain as he reached the bottom, covered in dust, but none of the wounds were too bad or too bloody. He crawled around the wrecked cars and piles of skeletons, heart jackhammering in his chest like it was trying to chew through his ribs.
Lyle had a plan, or kind of a plan if he was discovered, but his first thought was to hide. The horse trailer flung itself over the lip of the ridge and came bashing down the hill, into the nest. Lyle looked up but luckily didn’t see the beast looming down on him. He returned to the Jeep and yanked off his shirt, wrapping it around the hooked head of the crowbar. He picked up the heavy container of petrol that he’d left there and poured some over the shirt. Satchel around his waist, Lyle carried the unlit, makeshift torch and the canister of fuel away with him.
With a final shove, the truck the beast had attacked rolled over the top of the ridge and came rumbling straight down the steep slope on what remained of its tyres. Lyle pitched himself out of the way as the wreck crashed its way into the nest. He took cover in the back of a mostly intact white van tipped onto its side. Putting the gas can down, Lyle searched the satchel he’d taken earlier for the lighter he’d seen inside it. The beast crested the ridge and scuttled down into the lair.
Lyle squatted in the darkness as he watched the beast’s enormously powerful bulk move around its nest. His heart pounded so loudly that he was afraid the creature might hear it, and his eyes stung from the stink of petrol. The beast began shifting the horse trailer and wrecked vehicle around. It seemed to sense something was wrong, however, and kept circling the nest like a dog looking for a place to lie down. Its alienesque mandibles parted and the beast growled.
After a few minutes of dragging and shifting that fortunately kept the beast over on the other side of the lair it seemed to have the truck and trailer where it wanted them. The beast’s body rippled and it retched. Fanged mandibles parted and it vomited up the skeleton of one of the horses it had swallowed. The horse’s remains already looked decayed and dissolved, eaten away by stomach acid but still dressed in the ragged remains of its pelt. They were covered in that brackish slime. The beast’s lunch coated the ruin of the truck, the newest addition to the nest. It kept hacking until it vomited a jumble of the second horse and their human driver’s bones as well. Lyle bit into the back of his hand in an effort not to scream or throw up.
Jaws dripping, the beast circled its lair. Go, just go, Lyle silently prayed. Leave and hunt down somebody else so I can get out of here. The creature stopped, so much more vast and monstrous than any living thing Lyle had ever seen, just outside Lyle’s van. Its eyeless head tilted. Lyle couldn’t tell if it might be sniffing or listening or what. It snarled, that prehensile tongue flicking out to clean around the corners of its mouth. It knows, Lyle’s head screamed. It knows I’m here!
The creature backed up and parted its jaws in a deafening roar that must have filled the blasted desert for miles. Curved fangs glistened, dozens and dozens of them, with its tongue whipping around its mouth. Lyle held his petrol-soaked torch and desperately snapped the lighter underneath it. After several strikes, the flint caught and the fumes clinging to Lyle’s balled t-shirt went up with a whoosh. Lyle pocketed the lighter and picked up the gas can before the beast could crush the van around him. He had no real basis for what he was about to do besides figuring no living thing, even a giant alien, liked having a flaming torch shoved in its face.
“Yah! Yah!” Lyle jousted the flaming crowbar at what passed for the beast’s face.
The mammoth creature circled for a moment as if not quite sure of what to make of him. Those skinny manipulator limbs emerged from under its chest and snatched at the torch.
“Yah!” Lyle screamed stupidly, mind racing for his next move. Where could he go? There was no escape for miles out in the desert beyond the nest.
The three fanged mandibles parted and the creature hacked one of its enormous loogies. Slime splattered the torch, putting it out instantly. The force of the impact tore the crowbar out of Lyle’s hand and sent it spinning across the nest. Lyle could only stare at his empty hand for a few seconds. Rather than lunge at him the monster dismissively turned its back on Lyle. Its tail came around and collected Lyle around the body. It literally felt like he had been hit by a truck as the blow picked him up and sailed him across the lair. Lyle landed jarringly on his back and rolled over and over before coming to rest.
For a few more moments Lyle could do nothing more than lie on the ground, aching. His head spun and he couldn’t even remember where he was or why. It felt like somebody had taken a sledgehammer to his ribs and one of his hips. A stabbing pain told him his right arm was probably broken. By some miracle, he’d managed to keep clutching the gasoline canister in his left hand. The beast circled the nest, growling. Toying with him like a cat with a broken bird.
“Get up, get up, you asshole.” Lyle forced himself to roll over and sit up.
Petrol from the canister was already spilling until Lyle righted it. The truck he’d landed beside was upright and large enough that he had room to crawl beneath its undercarriage. Lyle got on his stomach and, pushing the petrol can ahead of him, shimmied under the truck. The monster saw what Lyle was doing and crossed the nest in pounding leaps. Beating its massive head against the truck, it rocked the vehicle hard enough to crush Lyle against the ground for a moment. Lyle kept crawling and reached the other side then hurled the gas can back behind him. The hefty canister landed on its side with petrol spewing out the top. Still kicking, Lyle pulled the lighter out of his pocket. He sparked it several times until he created a flame.
The monster loomed above the truck and began to climb gingerly over the wrecked vehicle toward Lyle. Standing, Lyle tossed the lighter under the truck where it landed in the growing puddle of petrol. He turned and started to run. Ignoring the pains of his battered body, Lyle tried to put as much distance between himself and the truck as possible.
Living flame whooshed across the pool of petrol. The canister burst, rupturing into an orange fireball that consumed the truck. The beast bellowed in anger and confusion as the flames surrounded it on all sides. Seconds later, a much larger second explosion thundered as the fuel in the gas tank of the truck went up as well. The beast was still standing on top of the crushed vehicle as it exploded, and disappeared in a ball of flame and smoke and shrapnel. The earth shook, a shockwave rolling into the desert. Lyle was thrown into the dirt. Whistling, red hot pieces of twisted metal streaked overhead like meteors, narrowly missing him. Lyle glanced back and saw only a ragged gap wreathed in flame and billowing oily smoke where the truck and the beast had been.
Lyle picked himself up and kept moving, limping and cradling his broken arm. It seemed the creature’s dried slime must have been highly flammable as flames crackled over the surrounding vehicles. Lyle circled to the rocky slope he’d climbed down and picked his way back to the top of the ridge without thinking. By the time Lyle reached the top the whole nest of wrecked cars was burning. No sign showed of the beast amongst the flaming wreckage.
Lyle struggled up the ridge. Bruises and bloody scratches covered his body, and he remained shirtless, but he still had the satchel he’d taken from the Jeep slung to his waist. He reached inside and unfolded the emergency blanket he’d seen in there earlier, wrapping it around his shoulders. As the adrenaline left his body he seemed to catch a chill in spite of the desert heart. Reaching into his pocket with his left hand, Lyle checked his phone but the screen was shattered and the device wouldn’t turn on.
Police would be on their way to find him. Smoke from the bonfire should be enough of a signal for them but Lyle couldn’t stand to wait. He started back toward the road, stumbling over sandy soil.
The sound of a helicopter appeared and began to grow in strength as Lyle neared the road. He looked through the trees but couldn’t see the aircraft yet. Lyle kept going until he could see the road in front of him. Two men climbed out of a four-wheel-drive with police livery. They’d parked right behind the debris and luggage from Lyle’s car that the beast had left behind. Both highway officers were tall and well built men, one flushed with sunburn, the other more tan with dark hair and a moustache. They spotted Lyle as he approached, looking slightly startled.
“Hey, mate! Did you call us? Jesus, are you alright?” one of the cops asked.
“Yes, that was me.” Lyle staggered out of the trees, nursing his broken arm.
The two police officers rushed to assist him, taking Lyle and guiding him with surprising gentleness toward their vehicle. One opened the back door and let Lyle sit on the edge of the seat. They kept the emergency blanket tucked around his naked shoulders.
The helicopter thundered closer, Lyle could see it over the ridge. Black smoke drifted into the air in the distance and the chopper appeared to head toward it. One of the cops spoke into a shoulder-mounted microphone.
“Search helicopter, we have him. We’ve got the subject here at the roadside, over.”
“Acknowledged, going to have a look what the go is with this fire, over,” a reply crackled through the radio.
The other officer looked at Lyle’s arm, and the bruises and scratches covering his chest. “Bloody hell, mate, you’ve been in the wars, haven’t you?”
“Did you tell the operator something about an animal chasing you?”
Suddenly, both men’s radios crackled and a panicked voice came through the feedback. “Jesus, what the hell is that? Heading your way, what the hell is that?”
Both police officers straightened, looking around in confusion. Lyle shot upright as well. They could see the helicopter hovering in the distance above the trees. It banked away, rotors spinning.
“We’ve got to go! We’ve got to go now!” Lyle said.
A greyish wad of material shot like a cannonball from somewhere hidden by the trees. If Lyle hadn’t seen one before it would have been impossible to know what he was looking at but it was obviously one of the creature’s giant spitballs. Missing the helicopter’s canopy, the slime hit its rotors instead and splattered, fanning out from the blades in a weird mist. The chopper dipped and lost altitude.
One of the cops keyed the mic attached to his shoulder. “Say again, search chopper, what’s heading this way?”
A huge and eyeless head crested the treetops like a shark. Smoke wafted off the creature, still alive. As the helicopter banked in their direction the beast’s prehensile tongue shot out like a whip, wrapping itself around one of its struts. The beast disappeared from view again, its mass dragging the chopper from the air. Going into a steep dive, the helicopter plunged into the trees. Moments later, a bloated orange fireball blossomed. Branches rippled and a hot wind cut through the bush, blasting them in the face from hundreds and hundreds of metres away. Pieces of broken rotors speared into the air, flinging themselves higher and higher before losing momentum and tumbling back to earth.
“What the fuck was that?”
“We’ve got to get out of here!” Lyle said.
“We have to go help them,” the sunburned cop said.
“You can’t, it will kill us all!”
The two officers were hesitant, but started toward the trees. Hands drifted between their radios and the gun belts on their hips. Fire raged over the treetops, quickly gaining strength, but they couldn’t see the creature. Lyle tried to grab one of the cops by the shoulder.
“We have to go! That’s what was chasing me, I thought I’d killed it but I didn’t! You can’t stop it!”
“Stay back!” The cop shoved Lyle back toward the open back door of their 4WD, trying to hide his fear and overcompensating.
Broken and uprooted trees catapulted ahead of a giant, greyish-green hump that tunnelled through the bush. Bursting from the treeline, saurian jaws yawned open in three directions and let out an elephantine roar. A burnt, acrid smell washed off the beast. The creature had been wounded, there was no doubt about that. Its scales were scorched and large gashes wept dark blood down its sides, it just hadn’t been enough.
One of the cops drew his gun while the other struggled with his holster. With nowhere else to go, Lyle backed up into the body of the police 4WD. Loud, flat bangs, gunshots, echoed through the open doorway. The cop with the moustache unloaded into the beast’s open mouth, hitting the inner lining of its jaws and the side of its head. The shots made no apparent difference. The beast’s tongue lashed out, catching the police officer and flinging him sideways. He landed on the road behind the car, gun skittering out of his outstretched hand.
The second cop wrestled the gun out of his holster. Before he could fire, the beast rounded on him. Crocodilian jaws snapped shut on the officer’s upper body. Wrenching him into the air, the beast shook him around like a dog toy. Blood splattered the windshield of the police 4WD. The cop’s lower body, flailing from the end of the beast’s mouth, clipped the back door of the vehicle and caused it to slam shut on Lyle.
With a couple of loud crunches, the beast tipped its head back, chewed, and swallowed the police officer. Blood again splattered the windows on that side of the police 4WD as Lyle watched in horror. The creature turned on the cop it had knocked to the road. Brushing against the 4WD as it moved, it violently rocked the vehicle and threw Lyle against the backseat. It seized the second cop with one of its long manipulator limbs, the man looking like a squirming toy in its enormous fist. It shook him around for a few moments then shoved the man whole into its mouth.
Lyle seized on one of the door handles. Maybe the police had left the keys in the ignition and he could at least attempt to escape by driving away while it was distracted. The door wouldn’t open. Lyle flung himself across the backseat and tried the second door, but it wouldn’t open either. Of course, he was in the back of a police vehicle. Presumably they had some kind of locking system in place, like a child lock, to keep people from escaping. A metal grid separated the back of the vehicle from the front seats. Lyle was trapped.
“No! No, no, this isn’t fair! This isn’t fair!”
Lyle kicked at the door, his sneakers rebounding harmlessly off the surface. A shadow fell across the rear windows of the vehicle. The beast, having made quick work of the two police officers, loomed over the 4WD. Lyle cringed away from the door, trapped and helpless.
Hooked fangs, stained with blood, lined the creature’s jaws as they came level with the side windows of the vehicle. It had no eyes but it knew Lyle was inside. One of its larger forelimbs snatched at the back of the 4WD and caused it to bounce, jostling Lyle.
“Please, no, just go away,” Lyle said.
Sweat poured down Lyle’s face. He realised with growing confusion that the heat seemed to have risen considerably in the back of the vehicle since he had gotten trapped inside. Looking past the monstrous form in the windows, Lyle saw the fire from the downed helicopter had rapidly raged out of control. Instead of an isolated firestorm, a wall of flame now descended quickly through the bush toward the roadside. Lyle had seen news stories in the past, during other Australian bushfire seasons, about how fast a fire could move in dry conditions. It too was like a living thing, a monstrous, hungry, furious living thing.
As if jealous of losing Lyle’s attention for a brief moment, the beast crashed into the 4WD. Lyle screamed as the vehicle was lifted and tipped sideways, flinging him against one of the doors. It picked the 4WD up using its mouth and massive forelimbs, and then suddenly pitched the whole thing sideways. Crashing into the trees, thankfully on the side opposite the raging bushfire, the vehicle rolled and rolled, snapping branches and creating fractures in the reinforced windows.
Lyle screamed as pain radiated from his broken arm. “Fuck! Shit! No, please!”
The world turned upside down and Lyle crashed to the ceiling of the 4WD. The vehicle wound up on its roof. Dirt and little bits of debris rained on him from the floor. With an almighty smash, the beast hit the tail end of the 4WD again. It went spinning, rocks scraping against the roof below Lyle, bouncing off and breaking down trees. Sliding down a rocky slope, the 4WD smashed into the wide but shallow bed of a dry stream. The same stream attached to the pipe he’d hidden in earlier that day. Patches of hardy scrub clung to the cratered streambed but mostly it was lifeless as it stretched away in front of and behind the vehicle.
Groaning, Lyle pulled himself upright. The windows remained intact, as did the metal grate that separated the front and back of the vehicle’s interior. Not that climbing into the front would have helped now with the 4WD upside down. Like a giant cat, the beast circled the vehicle. It bit one of the tyres, the pressurised air inside the rubber exploding with a flat bang. Ripping the wheel loose, the creature spat it another dozen metres down the dry stream. Its mandibles attacked the undercarriage of the inverted vehicle.
“Fine, just do it! I’m in here, you piece of shit! I’m in here, just kill me already!” Lyle yelled.
The beast punched through one of the 4WD doors, shattering the glass and warping the metal. It gripped the frame and ripped the door loose from its hinges, tossing it into the bush. Unfortunately for it, it had chosen one of the front doors and not the back. Reaching inside, it groped at the front seats and the steering column, smacking against the metal grid between the front and back of the vehicle, without finding Lyle. Frustrated, it let out a roar of confusion and hit the 4WD again.
Smoke clouded the area outside the vehicle. The bushfire was catching up with the two of them, Lyle and the beast. A wall of flame cut them off from the road, having jumped the asphalt from the other side. Bits of burning orange rained from the sky. Embers started new fires amongst the dry material surrounding the parched stream bed wherever they landed. A tree beside the stream went up suddenly like a bomb had hit it. The speed at which the bushfire spread was extraordinary in such dry conditions, Lyle had never seen anything like it.
The beast’s elephantine head swung back and forth as flames grew on both sides of the dry stream. Its prehensile tongue tasted the air. It had survived the fire at its nest but not uninjured, burns scarred both sides of its body. Looking down, it suddenly seemed to decide Lyle wasn’t worth it. Giving the 4WD one more dismissive whack with its tail, the creature took off down the dry stream. Lyle watched through the windshield as its giant feet tore rocks loose from the streambed and disappeared into an unburned section of bush.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire, perhaps as literally as that term had ever been used. Lyle felt a wave of relief as the fires scared the monster away but flames grew on both sides of the stream. Smoke inhalation seemed a better way to go than being chewed up and swallowed by the creature but burning to death did not. Thinking that the roll downhill might have damaged something, Lyle tried both handles on the back doors again but they wouldn’t open. He wasn’t sure where he would go even if they did. At the rate the bushfire was spreading, he couldn’t outrun it. Smoke darkened the sky. Heat inside the 4WD rapidly climbed.
“Fuck this, it isn’t fair, it isn’t fair!”
Gathering the emergency blanket he’d taken from the beast’s nest, Lyle pulled it awkwardly around his shoulders. Like a turtle, he balled himself up beneath the blanket on the ceiling of the upsidedown 4WD. Smoke stung his eyes and tickled his throat. There was nothing immediately surrounding the vehicle that could burn but heat inside the vehicle might still rise to lethal levels. If gasoline had spilled from a broken gas tank or line, the fire might spread into the vehicle or heat might cause the gas tank to spontaneously ignite. Lyle could do nothing about any of those possibilities. He hunkered beneath the blanket and did his best to pray.
Merciless, the bushfire consumed every morsel of fuel before moving on. Scorched by unimaginable heat, a landscape of blackened trees and ash remained behind, the devastation stretched over several kilometres. Smoke blanketed the sky. The sun was nothing but an angry, red dot.
In the dry streambed, the upended police 4WD remained intact. Its gas tank hadn’t blown but its paint had bubbled in the heat and its windows were blackened, the metal still hot.
With a thump, something struck the blackened back window of the police vehicle from the inside. It took several more blows but the glass had been weakened by the heat and finally it collapsed into several large sections. Cradling his arm, Lyle crawled from the wreckage. He avoided the hot, ticking metal and dragged the silvery emergency blanket with him. Sweat pasted his hair to his forehead. Desperately thirsty and weak with exhaustion and heat, but alive, Lyle collapsed on top of the ash. He wasn’t sure how long he lay there until a distant roar split the air, snapping his eyes open.
Sean: This is an older story I released years ago on Amazon, when releasing short stories on Amazon was still relatively novel. I wouldn’t do it that way again, I think there’s too much glut on Amazon because of people self-publishing so many incomplete works. The story has been considerably shortened and edited since then. It was one of those that I kept ‘in reserve’ last year, if I had a week where I wasn’t going to have a short story to release, but to be honest pushing through the edit on this one actually felt more difficult than most of the stories I’ve been creating from scratch!
The original ending for Prey, in case you’re curious, didn’t work out so well for Lyle. It also explained a bit more about the creature’s origins. But as I’ve said before, I enjoy things happening to people for little to no reason. And maybe he gets a little bit more of a break this time.
I’ve been on a bit of a short story tear the last few weeks. Some will be coming up shortly on the website, some of them have been submitted to different publications – but if they don’t get accepted, my loss is your gain and I’ll be posting them straight to the site as well. Keep your eyes on the website for those, as well as on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit!