A warm breeze stirred the brittle limbs of a dying tree. A branch split and cracked, tumbling end over end to bounce with a hollow sound off the sun-baked pavement.
Alejo Medina watched it settle with undisguised boredom. He waited on his wife Lina and sons Eusebio and Pedro while leaning against his wagon outside a general store in the heart of San Jose de Las Lajas. The family was on their weekly excursion from Old Havana, an obligatory trip to barter for supplies unavailable in the city.
Once a thriving town, San Jose de Las Lajas now lingered near death, a burnt shell of ruined buildings, baked ground and overgrown roads. Few people remained, a couple hundred elderly souls, the last vestiges of generational families squeezing existence from land ruined by unrelenting drought and living in perpetual fear of the Pariah.
But that was the way of things after the Great Blight had tumbled the world into barbarous chaos.
Whistling tunelessly, Alejo peered through a broken window into the general store, silently urging his family to move along. Necessity or not, the shorter their stay the better. But with each passing minute he grew increasingly impatient. Snatching a stone from the cracked ground, Alejo sent it skipping along the deserted road before deciding enough was enough.
Starting for the store, his attention shifted to a crowd of townspeople gathering in the central square. Peering beyond them, he saw a plume of black smoke rising in the distance. Curious, he crossed the street just as a second plume appeared near the first. “Fire,” he mumbled, joining the crowd, ignoring a woman who glared, her wizened features showing disdain for someone voicing the obvious.
“Look there,” a man said, pointing to a column of figures approaching from the east along a stone road. Their fatigued footfalls stirred dust as they shuffled into town.
Alejo watched briefly, a sinking feeling twisting his stomach. He glanced over his shoulder, saw his family gathering by the wagon, and jogged over.
“What is it?” Lina asked.
His wife was attractive, late thirties, short, with a round face and prematurely graying hair gathered in twin braids tumbling down her back.
Alejo took her hand and whispered, “It’s time we left.” He shifted his attention to the boys and forced a smile.
Pedro and Eusebio were in their early teens. Aged a year apart, their youthful faces were dark and handsome; features Alejo attributed to Lina rather than himself. Tousling Pedro’s mop of dark hair he said, “Would you like to visit Uncle Leandro and Aunt Lourdes?”
The boys yelped with joy, their curiosity over the twin pillars of smoke clearly forgotten. Uncle Leandro and Aunt Lourdes meant abundant food, sugared drinks, tasty sweets and relief from the squalid conditions of Old Havana.
Lina smiled warmly at their delight before taking her husband aside. “Tell me,” she said.
“I think the Line has fallen,” Alejo said, directing her attention toward the approaching figures. “Those are soldiers.” He motioned for her to remain with the children while he rejoined the crowd.
The soldiers moved slowly in the heat, a defeated, broken outfit. Uniforms bloodied, faces lined with exhaustion, many supported injured comrades while others hauled supplies on crudely fashioned a-frames.
The townsfolk hurled questions as they passed. An elderly woman grabbed one by the sleeve. He reacted by violently pushing her to the ground.
Helping the woman to her feet, Alejo shouted, “The Line. What happened at the Line?”
They ignored him.
Alejo stepped before a weary soldier. The man’s insignia denoted him as a ranking officer. The soldier stopped. His face was blackened with grime. His AK47 dangled across one bandaged arm. Alejo repeated the question.
In a parched whisper the man said, “Fallen. It’s fallen.” Pushing past, he shuffled on.
Alejo stepped back and looked to the east.
The Line was a mere four miles from town, a series of defensive works erected years ago and manned by militia and veterans of the Revolutionary Guard, men in the pay of the last of the great landowners who had assumed power when Communism fell and contact with the outside world ceased. A potent bulwark, the Line had barred those of the lawless and desolate east from overrunning the last vestiges of civilization in the west.
Ever a threat, though clearly unorganized, these lawless souls were at some point christened the Pariah, the name resulting from disturbing reports of strange cannibalistic rites and mysterious cults demanding human sacrifice. It was rumored they worshipped bizarre creatures that had crawled from the ocean depths to infest the port town of Baracoa on the eastern edge of Cuba.
Alejo hastened back to Lina. “The Pariah have overrun the defenses. We must leave before someone thinks to steal our wagon.”
Lina nodded and quickly ushered Pedro and Eusebio into the cart before climbing aboard the wooden bench. She turned to offer the boys a reassuring smile.
Alejo joined her, took up the reins and flicked his wrists. The two horse team snorted and the vehicle lurched forward.
They started south, away from the retreating Guard. The soldiers would have no reservations against taking the wagon. As both town and soldiers faded in the distance, he directed the team back onto the road west, toward Old Havana and what safety it provided.
Uncle Leandro commanded respect.
Before the Great Blight ruined the world he had been a prominent shipping magnate. The loss of that livelihood proved a temporary setback, and in the ensuing political and economic chaos Leandro took residence in the ancient fort of Castillo de la Real Fuerza where he consolidated power by recruiting starving soldiers and jobless policemen. With this small, loyal army, he re-established order and hope among the dwindling survivors of Old Havana’s once substantial population. The city was his in all but name.
Aside from this success, and the ruthless methods used to attain it, Uncle Leandro remained a loyal family man, and when Alejo, Lina and the boys arrived with their tale, they were greeted with warm hugs, a kiss on the cheek and a place to stay.
Once settled, Leandro led Alejo to a point overlooking the rust-colored waters of the canal. He produced two home-rolled cigars.
Alejo accepted the luxury, nodding thanks. Leaning forward, he allowed Leandro to light it, and then leaned back against the parapet, inhaling slowly with eyes closed, holding the smoke deep in his lungs before exhaling and savoring its sweet aroma.
Turning to face the old fortress of San Carlos de la Cabana across the canal, Leandro said, “So the Line has fallen.”
“It has.” Alejo searched his uncle’s deeply lined face for reaction, but saw little. “The Guard retreated through San Jose de Las Lajas this morning, and an officer I spoke to confirmed it.”
Leandro shook his head. “No surprise, really. Over the past week my ships have found what few coastal towns and villages remained deserted. One gunboat never returned. Another was attacked. Strange creatures, the survivors said. Human-like, but not human.” He took a drag on his cigar before stepping away from the parapet to stroll along the allure–the wall-walk. “For some time I’ve suspected someone, or something, directs these Pariah. Has organized them. I dispatched spies, but they discovered very little. And one by one they failed to return.” He stopped, his features finally betraying a hint of worry. “They are coming for us.”
Alejo shivered involuntarily. “We can fight.”
The older man shrugged. “We have little choice but to. There are thirty thousand men, women and children in Old Havana to protect.” He stabbed his cigar toward the city. “We must trust in the fortifications along the Avenue del Misiones to keep the Pariah out. But, they are hundreds of thousands strong. They could overwhelm us through sheer numbers.”
“We have weapons, Uncle. Bows, spears, guns. And tanks. Don’t we have tanks?”
“Oh yes, we have tanks. Russian T-72s. But we have little petrol and no munitions. Those were exhausted during the revolt of 2019. No, I fear we must defend Old Havana with the limited resources available.” Leandro sighed, then allowed a thin, humorless smile. “But don’t worry. If the worst happens and they break through, I have a plan.”
They were interrupted as dinner was announced. Leaving the walls, a rare sliver of sunlight broke through the heavy grey clouds to blaze across their retreating backs.
Uncle Leandro introduced Alejo to General Rafael Torres, commander of Old Havana’s defenses. In reality, the general was a retired sergeant, a grizzled veteran of the ‘19 revolt and best man available for the job. The general took Alejo to the barricades erected along the Avenue del Misiones. After a brief tour, he departed to organize Old Havana’s militia.
Left to himself, Alejo wandered the wall that marked the limits of the old city. Each street leading into Old Havana had been blockaded with abandoned cars, buses, vans and trucks to create a steel barrier. Bricks, rocks and lumber fashioned an uneven parapet while wooden planks formed the wall-walk, accessible by a series of worn and frayed fiberglass ladders. Abandoned buildings between each street had their windows and doors boarded shut, and blocked or braced with discarded appliances and old furniture.
After deciding he had seen enough, Alejo found a spot to rest. Leaning on the rusted hood of a seventy-five year old Oldsmobile, he peered down a desolate, debris-strewn street. In the distance lay the crumbled remains of the old capital building. Beside its age-worn facade an old man scoured the ground for scraps of food. Near him a bone thin dog sniffed at a desiccated corpse.
A dark smudge caught his attention, a column of smoke. Leaving the barricade, he searched out General Torres.
The man cursed and mumbled. “Too soon. Too soon.” Leading Alejo to a heavily fortified building, a former bank, Torres passed over an AK47. “Ever use one of these?”
Alejo awkwardly held the weapon. “No.” He had been a farmer before the world had descended into hell.
Torres took it back. “There is only a handful in workable condition, so count yourself lucky. Now pay attention.” The general gave brief instructions and a quick demonstration. He tossed it back to Alejo and produced several clips. “That’s all the ammo I can afford, so don’t waste it shooting stray dogs.”
Church bells rang, loud and urgent, startling them.
Torres pushed Alejo toward the door. “They’re coming. Get to the barricade.”
Out on the streets Alejo found Old Havana alive with activity. Children hurried east toward the canal and the safety of the fort. Those bearing arms went west to man the walls.
The initial attack came later that day.
Alejo was manning the makeshift parapet, chatting with a hawkish man–an accountant in a previous life–when a horde of near-naked men and women spilled onto the street, their numbers stretching into the distance.
They closed rapidly along the paved road. To his revulsion he noted some moving in a manner disturbingly unnatural, slithering across the ground like human snakes or scuttling along on all fours. But there was little time to dwell on it. Building momentum, the advance had quickly transformed into a veritable avalanche of human flesh.
No few defenders cried out in stark fear. Here and there someone lost their nerve and leapt from the wall-walk to flee for the canal.
Alejo, wiping moisture from his forehead, sympathized with those who had run.
Then Torres’ voice boomed into the panicked cries of the defenders. “Stop scampering like cowed dogs, damn you! Think of your children! Your loved ones! Protect them, you spineless cowards!”
Alejo swallowed and aimed. Unnecessary, he realized. So many bodies packed the street he couldn’t miss.
Torres bellowed again. “Fire!”
Alejo squeezed the trigger of his AK47. The gun kicked, spraying bullets in an uncontrolled swath. Blood jetted and bodies dropped. The clip quickly emptied. He slammed home another and fired. Keep it impersonal, he mumbled. They were Pariah. Los canibales. They were not human. They ate the dead.
The steel barricade shuddered when the raging tide of bodies slammed against it, those at the forefront sickeningly crushed by the press behind.
“Madness”, Alejo mumbled. “Utter madness.” He emptied his clip and reloaded.
The bodies grew in number, the stack of flesh forming a human ramp. Slavering men and women crabbed over the carcasses to reach at the defenders. The militia fought back with crude spears, long knives, kitchen cleavers and other weapons found or fashioned.
A sudden spray of blood blinded Alejo, forcing him to swipe at his eyes with a sweaty hand. Vision cleared, he found himself face to face with his first Pariah. Alejo stared into the vacant, bloodshot eyes, the blistered face with swollen, cracked lips, blackened tongue and sharpened, red-stained teeth. The woman snarled and lunged. He had scant time to note a deformed hand in the shape of a lobster claw. The claw grazed his throat before she was violently jerked sideways, a spear point piercing her neck. The weapon came clear, and Alejo frantically pushed the body back into the seething mass below. He looked to his benefactor. It was the accountant. The man flashed a grin. Alejo smiled thinly in response. He emptied another clip.
The assault eventually lost its impetus, and the Pariah melted away down side roads and into abandoned buildings. The number of dead littering the street was enormous. Swarms of flies settled on the bodies, covering them in a series of black, writhing masses.
Alejo spent long moments staring at the carnage. Among the human dead he noted some who were not quite human, who put the fear of the devil in his stomach. Mottled skin, flippers and clubs for arms, claws for hands, spiny barbed legs or no legs at all. His skin crawling at the sight of such horrors, he turned away, slid down a ladder, bent over and threw up. He was not alone.
Exhausted, Alejo had spent the exceedingly long day on the walls fending off several waves of Pariah assaults while Lina worked in the one remaining hospital tending to the wounded. Now, holding each other, they said little, content in the solace of their mutual embrace.
When the first hollow boom sounded, Lina stirred and asked, “What was that?”
“A cannon, I think.”
“I didn’t know Leandro had cannons.”
“He doesn’t.” Alejo roused himself at the sound of shouting in the corridor. He threw a woolen poncho over his clothes and stepped out, narrowly avoiding a collision with sons Pedro and Eusebio.
Pedro grabbed his arm. “Come, father.”
It was dark out. A handful of lights glowed weakly, powered by over-worked generators. The sky was cloudless, a rare occurrence, though few stars poked through the sheen of perpetual haze.
Alejo let his sons guide him to the stone wall of the fort. He found Uncle Leandro and General Torres amidst a crowd Alejo recognized as influential citizens: craftsmen, professors and other such professionals. Leandro was engaged in a heated discussion. General Torres, looking pensive, spotted Alejo and motioned toward the city.
Alejo went to the wall. Men and women streamed toward him from the direction of the barricade. Not orderly, but in panicked flight.
Turning, he forced his way into the small crowd, took Leandro by the arm and pulled his Uncle clear. “What happened?” he demanded.
The older man glared in response, while the irate citizens muttered and cursed Alejo’s impertinence. A heartbeat later Leandro’s features softened, and he led Alejo further away. “They have a cannon, Alejo. I have no idea where they found one, but the damned thing has made short work of our defenses.”
Alejo looked at his boys, and felt a surge of anger. He grabbed his uncle by the shoulders. “What now? You expect us to fight to the death?”
Leandro shook him off. “Of course not. Earlier I said I had a plan. Remember?”
Alejo nodded brusquely. “I remember.”
The old man turned and pointed at the canal. The silhouettes of three transports stood outlined against the murky darkness. “There. That’s our salvation.”
“Ships? And where do you plan to go?”
“Us, Alejo. You, Lina and the boys are coming, of course. We will sail until we find a land free of the Great Blight and these damned Pariah. South to Argentina or Antarctica. Maybe north to Canada or Greenland. There must be some place we can settle.”
“Anywhere is better than here,” Alejo reluctantly agreed.
General Torres, hovering near by, stepped up. “I suggest we finish loading the last ship before these crowds grow too large.”
Leandro nodded sharply. “Do it.”
Alejo eyed his uncle suspiciously. “What did he mean?”
“The transports have limited space, so I had to make choices. Tough choices. Those with skills and knowledge have priority, as well as certain personal exceptions. What little space remains will be for those who can make it to the dock before we depart.”
Alejo waved a hand at the defenders gathering along the base of the fort. “And what about them? You mean to leave them to the Pariah? Dear God, some of those Pariah aren’t human.”
Leandro snapped, “What would you have from me? There is simply not enough room.”
“So they buy you time with their lives? Noble, Uncle. Very noble.”
“God will be my judge.” Leandro mumbled. He took Alejo by the arm. “Think of Lina.” He pointed at the boys. “Think of Pedro and Eusebio. Do they not deserve a chance at life?”
Hearing those names sobered Alejo, and drained his anger. He looked to his sons, standing several feet away. Saw the fear in their eyes. Reluctantly he nodded. “Very well. I’ll get Lina.”
“Already arranged. She should be on board the Baracoa as we speak.” Leandro began to descend a stone staircase. He paused to look back. “Come along,” he said. “We have little time.”
Alejo reached for the boys, took each by an arm. “Stay with your uncle until you are safely aboard.”
The boys exchanged worried looks. Eusebio asked, “What about you, father?”
“I’ll meet you at the transport. I need something first.” He watched his sons bound down the steps and race after Uncle Leandro. Seeing them safe, he leaned over the battlements.
Angry, fearful faces glared back.
They knew. He cursed, pounding the ancient stone once with his fist. Looking up, toward the city, he saw a dark stain in the distance. It quickly resolved into a seething mass. The Pariah.
Cursing again, Alejo descended the stairs and raced to his room. He found it empty, their meager possessions gone. Lina must have seen to that. Silently Alejo thanked Leandro for his care and foresight. Kneeling, he checked under the bed. His AK47 was strapped to the underside, along with a single clip of ammunition. He had kept it hidden so his sons would not stumble across it. Retrieving the weapon, he slammed the clip home and set out for the transports.
The Avenue Del Puerto separated the Castillo de la Real Fuerza from the Canal Del Puerto and the moored ships. A reinforced wire fence crowned with razor wire had been erected long ago, running parallel to the street, ensuring restricted passage from fort to harbor.
Alejo jogged along that path, valiantly trying to ignore the litany of hysterical appeals from some several thousand citizens gathered on the opposite side of the barricade. But his curiosity got the better of him, and he looked. He wished he hadn’t. Many of Old Havana’s inhabitants had attempted to climb the barrier, only to entangle themselves in the deadly razor wire, their blood dripping on those crushed against the fence below, their eyes lifeless and accusing. Alejo kept moving.
The transports loomed large, rust colored merchant vessels over a hundred years old. Two slid from the dock as Alejo approached. Passengers crowded the decks, silently watching as the horrific events in the city unfolded.
Only the Baracoa remained, its long, metal staircase bending beneath the weight of boarding refugees.
In a perimeter around the stairway, soldiers of Leandro’s private army stood guard. They faced the wire fence, guns ready. Others directed their attention along the route Alejo had taken from the fort.
A new wave of terror swept through the crowd beyond the fence. Their renewed assault threatened to buckle it. Alejo suspected the Pariah had reached the rearmost citizens, reinforcing the panic already gripping them. They continued to scramble up and over those bodies forced against the links, braving the razor wire in a bid for safety.
An officer standing near Alejo barked an order and the soldiers opened fire. Blood exploded and bodies fell limp. Those not snarled in the deadly wire tumbled to their death.
The fence suddenly bent with a mighty groan of rending metal. Emboldened, heedless of the bullets, the crowd continued to push. The fence groaned again.
Those gathered about the base of the Baracoa’s stairway watched nervously, waiting their turn to ascend, while those on the staircase elbowed their way forward in an effort to gain the safety of the deck. In the chaos several men and women were pushed aside to fall screaming to the concrete dock.
Alejo joined the crowd milling around the staircase and spotted his sons, each sheltered under the arms of Uncle Leandro. His uncle was shouting in vain to clear a path.
A sharp, rending screech announced a section of barricade had collapsed. The frenzied crowd scrambled over the mounds of crushed bodies in a desperate stampede for the last transport.
The waiting refugees panicked at their approach and swarmed the staircase, swamping Uncle Leandro and the boys. Alejo cried out, his first reaction being the safety of his sons. He raised his AK47, finger on the trigger, but held fire for fear of hitting them.
The soldiers had no such reluctance, determined not to be left behind. They opened up, indiscriminately firing into the refugees. Alejo stepped back to stand alongside them, staying clear of the bullets, and watched in horror as bodies fell until few remained standing.
The soldiers abandoned their perimeter to form a protective semi-circle around the staircase and opened fire on the rushing crowd.
Alejo burst into their midst, calling out for his sons. On the third frantic call he heard a response.
“Dad?” It was faint.
Alejo shouldered his rifle and knelt to push the body of a heavy-set man aside, revealing Eusebio, lying on his back, blood streaming from both nostrils. An unconscious Pedro lay beside him. Alejo knelt by Eusebio and checked for injuries. None. Relieved, Alejo asked, “Can you walk?”
The boy sat up and moved his arms and legs. He nodded, and gained his feet. “Where’s Ped?”
Alejo dabbed at the blood on the boy’s face with his shirt sleeve. “Beside you. Help him while I find Leandro.”
Eusebio bent over and shook his younger brother. The boy groaned, but remained unconscious. “Dad, I think his left arm is broken.”
Alejo gingerly checked the limb. The left arm was indeed broken. Gently he lifted the boy, eliciting a second groan. Beneath him lay the lifeless body of Uncle Leandro.
A soldier snapped, “Move it. We’re almost out of ammo.”
Alejo nodded. The stairs were empty, the last of the passengers having boarded the crowded deck. He said to Eusebio, “Go. I’m right behind you.” The boy took the steps two at a time. Alejo followed, Pedro draped over his shoulder. The soldiers were last, guns firing into the crush of civilians who had reached the perimeter.
The Baracoa’s engines powered up with a deep thrum, sending a series of heavy vibrations down the staircase. Alejo stumbled and Pedro moaned as his broken arm brushed the metal banister. Regaining his balance, Alejo pushed on as cut mooring lines tumbled past, striking the dock in a coiled tangle. The transport shifted, its rusty hull inching away from the dock. Alejo redoubled his effort. He spotted Eusebio at the rail, anxiously extolling him on.
A gap opened between ship and staircase. The soldiers behind Alejo panicked, their heavy footsteps coming hard. He knew they would push him and his son aside without a second thought.
“Here! Hand me the boy!” Alejo recognized Torres’ voice. The general bent over the rail, a second soldier with him, arms outstretched.
“Careful, his arm’s broken,” Alejo shouted. Using what strength remained, he raised his son to safety, felt the boy’s weight taken from him.
The Baracoa continued to drift from the dock as Alejo crouched and jumped. There was a panicked moment of mid-air suspension until he struck the lip of the deck. Strong hands took his and pulled him up and over the rail.
Two soldiers followed, managing the leap as the gap spread. Two more missed and fell into the stagnant water. The remaining stood stranded on the staircase, pleading for rescue. A staccato burst of gunfire cut them down.
Alejo came to his feet, searching out Eusebio. He found the boy beside his brother. Relieved they were safe, he snapped at the general. “You murdered those men.”
Torres glared, his lips a thin line, his eyes moist and red. “I did them a mercy.”
Alejo looked away, his anger fast fading. Perhaps he had.
Lina rushed into his arms. They embraced and kissed passionately. Pulling back, she stroked his cheek and shared a grim smile before hurrying to Pedro’s side.
Alejo watched her for a moment before joining General Torres at the rail. Together they watched in silence.
Old Havana was in flames. Pariah swarmed the docks, butchering the inhabitants and engaging in a frenzy of feeding. But not all suffered that immediate fate. Elsewhere others were herded into sullen groups.
Quietly, Torres asked, “Did Leandro make it?”
“No,” Alejo said. “I guess that makes you Moses now.” He paused, and then pointed. “What is that?”
A large lizard-like creature strode onto the dock, a bloody, metal spiked club clasped in one hand. Alejo guessed the thing was over ten feet in height, its skin colored a greenish hue. It had a tail, which flicked ponderously from side to side. Silently it watched the ship depart.
“Christ’s blood,” Torres whispered. His moist eyes reflected the fire of the burning city. “God help us if they ever find a way off.”
Alejo thought on it. Hadn’t the rumors said these creatures originally hailed from the sea?
Bruce Durham lives in Mississauga, Ontario. His stories have appeared in Paradox: The Magazine of Historical & Speculative Fiction, Lovecraft eZine, Flashing Swords, Return of the Sword, Rage of the Behemoth, Sha’Daa: Pawns and Rogues in Hell, among others. In 2009 his short story The Marsh God was adapted into a graphic novel. The Marsh God and Homecoming won Preditors & Editors Readers polls for Best SF&F in 2005 and 2006, Yaggoth-Voor from Rage of the Behemoth received ‘Harper’s Pen’ and ‘Prix Aurora’ nominations in 2010 and The Crane Horror, appearing in the Lovecraft eZine, won the Preditors & Editors Readers poll for Best Horror in 2011. Currently he writes for Janet Morris and her HUGO award winning ‘Heroes in Hell’ franchise. You can visit his website at www.brucedurham.ca
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Story illustration by Steve Santiago.