When it came to the end of the day, Ethan Beck packed up his belongings and fashioned one last email to his colleagues, wishing them all the best, promising to keep in touch.
Truth be told, he couldn't be completely sure if their paths would ever cross again, now that he was moving halfway across the country to the small town of Herring, and he felt a brief sense of melancholy as he pushed in his chair and powered down his monitor and stepped out into the parking lot where his Toyota rattled noisily to life, not at all discouraged by the mountain of clutter that now filled the backseat and boot.
A month or so ago, Ethan's fiancée had received a promotion at work, something that required her to spend more time at the company headquarters. And, sitting just fifteen minutes from Polly's new office, the quiet and picturesque town of Herring seemed like the obvious place to relocate to.
Ethan's desire to start his own business and finally move on from the tiny cubicle he occupied at Reid's Paper Supplies further solidified the move, and before long, they purchased a cosy cottage by the lake.
Inevitably, Ethan had been asked to honour his notice period, and while Polly settled into their new home, Ethan stayed behind with their giant German Shepherd, Hal, counting down the days until they were all reunited.
To Ethan's joy, that day was today and by nine o'clock tonight, he'd be pulling up to their cottage, ready to start a brand-new chapter.
But first, he needed to stop off at the pet store.
That morning, following a long walk along the harbour and, clearly unsatisfied with the substantial amount of chow he'd wolfed down for breakfast, Hal had decided to chew through his lead, near enough tearing it in two.
But, after perusing the aisles, Ethan realised the pet store was out of leads, and he retreated hastily back across the lot with a bag of dog treats and his jacket held over his head, desperately trying to outrun the rain.
Never mind, he thought, getting back into the car, the lead was bound to have one or two more walks left in it, anyway.
Ethan called Polly and told her he was on his way to pick up Hal from the apartment and after she wished him a safe journey, he set off again, thwacking away the rain as it gathered on his windshield.
Back at the apartment, Ethan keyed open the front door and called out for his friend, Finn, who dog-sat for them from time to time.
It was Hal however, who greeted him first, bounding into the corridor with a bark, his huge frame skidding to a halt at Ethan's feet.
Sniffing out the treats from the pet store, Hal swiftly abandoned his need to be stroked and instead, chose to follow Ethan along the corridor, jumping up and thumping his giant paws on the hardwood floor.
Finn appeared at the end of the corridor.
"You've got to see this," he said, smiling.
With Hal at his heels, Ethan followed Finn into the living room. It was strange to see the place so empty.
Aside from a pull-out couch, a makeshift bed for Hal, a desk to work at and an old television set, everything else had already made the trip up to Herring with Polly.
"Check this out", Finn said, taking a seat at the desk.
"Hal", Finn called, "come here, Hal".
It took a few seconds before Hal gave up on the possibility of receiving a treat, but he soon turned to Finn and padded over to the desk, sitting.
With one hand in the air, Finn made a strange pinching motion with his finger and thumb, almost like a pincer.
"Hal," he said, "fetch me the remote".
Hal tilted his head, looked at Ethan, and then back at Finn.
"Where's the remote, Hal?"
Across the room, Ethan could see the remote, sitting on the floor in plain sight.
For a second, it looked as though Hal was going to turn towards the remote but instead, he let out a playful bark and flopped clumsily to the ground, rolling over on his back, his tongue lolling to one side.
It was clear to Ethan that his dog had no idea what Finn was saying.
Finn sat back in his chair, defeated.
"You're wasting your time," Ethan said with a smirk, "I've known this dog for six years and I've never once seen him fetch so much as a stick, let alone a TV remote".
As far as Ethan was concerned, Hal had no interest in learning tricks. They had tried to teach him when he was a puppy, but tennis balls would remain where they landed, often chewed to pieces. Frisbees suffered a similar fate.
Hide and seek, on the other hand, was a completely different story. Hal had a unique skill when it came to hiding. That being said, there were only so many places a great big dog could hide in a two-bedroom apartment, and even though he was often lured away from his hiding place by the rustle of his favourite treats, you couldn't knock his effort.
"I swear to you, Ethan, that dog is intentionally hiding his genius. He's been fetching that remote all day!"
"I'll have to take your word for it", Ethan chuckled, setting the bag down on the kitchen counter, "how's the app coming along?"
Finn, still shaking his head, turned to his laptop, tapping at the keyboard until the screen fizzed
"I'm glad you asked," he said, clicking at the mouse, "because, as of this very moment, Route Raptor is officially available to download on the App Store!"
Ethan rushed over and slapped Finn on the back.
"That's awesome!" he said, "Congratulations, man. We should celebrate!"
Ethan jogged back over to the kitchen and started rummaging through the cupboards.
Fearful he was missing out on something, Hal followed, back and forth, barking constantly until he received a quick scratch under the chin.
Route Raptor, Finn's new satellite navigation app, wasn't too dissimilar from other satellite navigation apps. The only difference was that instead of being accompanied on their journey by the customary car icon, users would follow a velociraptor to their destination. A velociraptor that would sometimes recommend restaurants and point out gas stations and nearby parking spaces.
"I wish I could," Finn said, checking the time on his watch, "but I've got to scoot. And you guys need to hit the road".
Reaching down for the remote, Finn's eyes suddenly lit up.
"Hey! Why don't you use Route Raptor for your journey up to Herring? You can be the first one to test it out!"
Ethan looked up.
"I'd be honoured," he said, raising the only coffee mug left in the apartment.
"Awesome," Finn said, flipping the remote in his palm, "now, hopefully not, but there might be some bugs along the way, something I've missed. If anything out of the ordinary happens…"
Ethan walked over to him and prodded at his phone, turning it towards Finn. On the screen, Route Raptor was already downloading.
"Finn, it's going to be insane. Stop worrying. I've seen every patch, every version of this thing. It was great a month ago, and it's going to be great now".
Finn nodded and smiled, stooping down to Hal.
"Going to miss you, buddy," he said, holding up the TV remote, "we'll keep this trick our little secret, eh?"
Finn packed up his laptop and headed out into the rain.
"Give my love to Polly!" he shouted from the bottom step, "I'll come and visit you guys soon. Let me know how you get on with the app!"
Ethan waved from the porch, squinting up at the dark sky. It looked as though a storm was brewing.
Half an hour later, Ethan had packed everything into the car and after one last lap of the apartment, he posted the keys to the front door through the letter box and with Hal curled up on the passenger seat beside him, they set off for Herring, following the velociraptor icon as it hopped away from the city.
The freeway was quiet for a Friday evening, and Ethan hummed along to the radio while Hal slept, his legs twitching as he dreamt.
Suddenly, a notification popped up on Ethan's phone. It was the Route Raptor, telling him he could save thirty minutes on the journey if he took the next exit.
Ethan had made the journey up to Herring more times than he could count, and even though he'd never left the freeway this early, the thought of getting there ahead of schedule was just too appealing, and he snapped on the blinker without hesitation.
Before long, the road got narrow, cornfields sitting on either side, stretching off into the dark. With a tremendous yawn, Hal stretched out across the seat and sat up, pawing at Ethan's arm. Ethan knew what he was asking and a minute or so later, he pulled over and clipped on Hal's lead, hoping it would hold, pocketing the treats just in case.
The evening air was strangely warm and as they walked along the roadside, Hal sniffing at whatever he could find, Ethan sent a text to Polly, telling her they were about an hour away from Herring.
It was then, in the corner of his eye, that Ethan saw something in the sky. Something falling. He stopped walking and frowned as a high-pitched whistle broke into the atmosphere.
Whatever it was, it looked as though it was travelling at an incredible speed and now it was closer, Hal too had stopped in his tracks and was looking up, his head titled, ears pricked.
There was an almighty boom, and a few seconds later, a wave of dust met them at the roadside, nearly knocking Ethan over.
Way down the road, the alarm on his car began to sound and Hal started to bark, pulling on the lead, harder and harder until it snapped. Ethan fell to the ground, shouting at Hal to come back as he scurried off into the cornfield, vanishing.
With his phone pressed against his ear, Ethan dialled 911 and followed Hal into the dark, thrashing aside stalks as he went, shaking the bag of treats, but to no avail.
"911, what's your emergency?"
"Yes, hello, my name is Ethan Beck and I've just witnessed a crash, some kind of aircraft, I think".
"What is your location, Sir?"
Ethan called out for Hal.
Over the stalks, he could see the shadow of something enormous, hissing in the distance.
Ethan spun back towards the roadside, just for a moment, desperately trying to recall the name of the road they had been travelling on. Then he remembered Route Raptor.
"Eldon's Grove," Ethan huffed, checking the app, "Eldon's Grove, just off the I-94".
"Thank you, Sir," the responder started, "now, can you…"
Her speech was suddenly broken and fragmented and as Ethan asked her to repeat what she had said, his phone went dead. When he went to dial the number again, the screen refused to cooperate, and he slipped his phone into his pocket, calling out for Hal once more. But he was nowhere to be seen.
A few steps further, Ethan broke into a clearing, his eyes growing wide.
In front of him, half buried in the dirt, was an aircraft. There was no doubting that. But it was unlike anything he had ever seen; bronze in colour, with jagged wings, spiny almost. There didn't appear to be any windows, but a door had opened up towards the back, a bright light spewing out from within.
"Hal", Ethan hissed at the doorway, "Hal!"
Ethan had no idea what this thing was. He was sure, however, that Hal's curiosity had led him inside and, armed only with a bag of treats, his dog's half-chewed lead, a set of car keys and a mobile phone which no longer worked, Ethan stepped onboard.
What was he going to do, he thought, walking along the corridor, wait for the police to show up? He wasn't even sure if they'd heard him when he told them where he was.
The corridor was dimly lit, and Ethan etched along the vented flooring, careful not to make too much noise. Sparks flashed over his head, and the pipes along the walls hissed and groaned. Up ahead, a malfunctioning door slid back and forth, whirring.
"Hal?" Ethan whispered again, "you in here, boy?"
The room behind the door was small, and Ethan noticed an odd smell as he crept inside.
In the centre of the room, there was a control panel with strange-looking buttons, and they lit up and bleeped as Ethan passed by.
Past the panel, Ethan noticed a gap in the wall, carved out like a doorway. Broken shards of light hovered around the edges, flickering like his old TV set when it struggled to settle on a channel.
Beyond it, there was a room, enormous and hot, with fire rising from all directions. A staircase led down to the lower levels, zig zagging between a swell of bellowing smoke.
And then he saw them. Giant, bug-like creatures, scurrying between the flames, hundreds of them, shrieking, desperate to put out the fires as they roared. Some of them flew, carried by rust-coloured wings.
Ethan stepped back, trying to make sense of the chaos below. He had to find Hal and get out of there. Turning back towards the doorway, he felt a sudden pain in his nose, and he hit the ground with a thump.
Through blurry eyes, Ethan watched as a pair of thin, bluish legs clicked towards him.
And then everything went dark.
When Ethan woke, he was in some sort of cell. The bars, if that's what you could call them, fizzed with the same kind of energy Ethan had seen on the edges of the doorway, only they didn't flicker as much and weren't as transparent.
Beyond the bars, two of the bug-like creatures were speaking in a strange language, the large pincers on their face snapping together ferociously.
One of them was holding half of Hal's lead.
Ethan sat up against the wall and listened. They're arguing, he thought. Not that Ethan had any idea what they were saying, but the bug holding Hal's lead seemed to be getting more and more agitated with each moment that passed and when it saw that Ethan had awoken, it scuttled over to the bars and clicked at the remote clutched in its other claw, forcing the cell to evaporate.
Ethan pushed up against the wall and writhed as the bug, standing well over seven feet tall, held Hal's lead in front of him, clashing its pincers together once more.
It sounded like it was demanding an answer to something, repeating it louder when Ethan failed to speak. But he was lost for words, and he could only stare at his reflection, simmering within the bug's giant eyes, antennae twitching restlessly over Ethan's head.
Tired of waiting, the bug let out a grunt and rose, striding away from the cell. Ethan noted that the bug conducting the interrogation was wearing a sleek set of armour, the chest plate laden with symbols and what appeared to be accolades of some sort. Whereas the other wore something much less intricate.
With an audible click, the bars around the cell reignited and after one final snarl, the bug-like creature thrust the remote at a nearby locker and took flight, vanishing through a passage in the ceiling, taking the remains of Hal's lead with it. The other bug regarded Ethan for a moment, looked at the remote on the ground, and then left the same way.
Ethan stood, his legs trembling. All around him, the aircraft shook with distant explosions. Where was Hal, he thought, hoping his dog had managed to get out and make a run for it.
Ethan took out his phone, sighing at the blank screen. His fingers clenched around it in frustration. In his jacket pocket, he found Hal's treats. He smiled, shaking them in his palm.
"I hope you're out there, boy", he said quietly.
There was a noise from across the room, a sort of bump, then another. Something was inside one of the lockers, trying to get out.
Ethan stepped back, watching it intently and after one final prod, a snout appeared, nudging open the locker door.
It was Hal!
Ethan raced right up to the bars, feeling the warmth on his face.
"Hal!?" he whispered, "Hal, come here boy!"
Hal, his tail wagging excitedly, padded over to the cell and stretched, letting out an enormous yawn. Ethan couldn't believe it. The king of hide and seek, in all his glory. He had to get him out of here. He needed that remote. But how?
And then it hit him. Finn's trick. Sure, it was a long shot, but it was the only thing Ethan could think of.
"Hal," Ethan whispered, sitting as close to the bars as he could, pinching together finger and thumb, hoping he was remembering it right, "fetch the remote Hal, come on boy!"
Hal stared at him, his tail swishing at the ground.
"Come on Hal," Ethan said, rustling the bag of treats and pointing at the remote, "just like Uncle Finn showed you".
Turning towards the remote, Hal looked as though he was about to trot over but instead, he spun and sat, scratching at his collar. Ethan sat back and let his head fall. His mind was racing, trying to think. But he could only ponder the horror that would inevitably become of them if they stayed.
And then he heard a clatter, and the remote was in the cell. Looking up, he saw Hal sitting in front of the bars, his nose sniffing at the air, his eyes darting from Ethan to the treats. Ethan stifled a celebratory roar and snatched at the remote, looking down upon rows of random characters.
"Well done boy," Ethan said, "now let's get us out of here".
He pressed one of the buttons and a panel opened on the wall beside the cell, revealing a suit of armour, just like the one worn by the bug that had taken Hal's lead.
"Not that one", he said, trying another. Next to the locker, another panel slid open, and Ethan could see an assortment of futuristic-looking weaponry, stacked in neat rows.
When Ethan punched the next button, the bars vanished, and he made sure they were gone before rushing over to Hal and giving him a hug.
"You did it, Hal!" Ethan said, trying to keep his voice low, "here you go, you've earned them".
Ethan offered Hal the treats and scratched behind his ears. Hal ate them within seconds, sniffing at the floor once they were all gone.
Looking around, Ethan moved over to the set of armour. Another explosion shook the ground, and he palmed at the wall for balance. Hal came to his side. They couldn't wait here for help. Nor could they wait around for those things to return. There was only one way out.
Ethan grabbed the chest plate and set it over his shoulders, gauntlets too, clicking each set against his arms. The greaves were too long, so he left those behind.
Across the room, Ethan unhooked a rifle from the wall. Upon inspection, there didn't appear to be a trigger, and he wondered how he would ever use it. He hoped he wouldn't have to. Below the rifles, there was a belt, heavy with silver orbs. Ethan figured they were grenades of some sort, so he took those too.
With Hal behind him, he snuck into the corridor, ducking as sparks continued to fly. Alarms were sounding, and a voice boomed through the speaker system overhead. It sounded angry.
Rounding a corner, Ethan saw a swarm of them, marching in another direction, rifles aloft. They didn't spot him, but Ethan crouched down beside Hal, nonetheless, hoping he wouldn't bark or snarl.
They went on, and soon enough, they arrived at the main room, where a great fire continued to surge. Bugs hovered around it, dowsing the flames with tiny devices that resembled extinguishers. Ethan looked up, and through the smog, he spotted the staircase that led up to the broken doorway. If he could get up there, the main door would be just a few feet away. He was sure of it.
He just hoped they hadn't taken off while he was unconscious, headed for some unknown planet.
Ethan shook the thought and led Hal by the collar, sticking close to the wall. The bugs hardly noticed him, too occupied with the fires. What was so special about this room, Ethan thought, holding the rifle out in front of him, just in case.
He found the staircase, and with Hal leading the way, Ethan ascended. As they climbed, Hal began to whine, his eyes fixed on the smog above.
"It's OK, boy," he whispered, "we're nearly there. Just a few more steps..."
Ethan's voice trailed off, and as he broke through the fumes, he finally saw what was spooking Hal, and why the bugs were so desperate to put out the fires. On the ceiling, high within the arc of the rafters, were eggs. Thousands of them.
Ethan kept on, not wanting to stop, not even for a second. He couldn't. Not if he wanted to see Polly again. When he got to the top of the stairwell, Ethan ushered Hal into the room and glanced back up at the eggs, thinking. He didn't know why they were here, or what they wanted. But it couldn't be good.
Ethan shrugged off the orb belt and, with all his might, thrust it down into the fire. There was a boom, then another, and by the time Ethan and Hal reached the ramp, fire lapped at their heels.
From the cornfield, Ethan watched the aircraft quake, slumping deeper into the ground as flames burst through the fuselage.
It was just after nine when Ethan got back to his car.
He climbed inside, and Hal curled up on the seat beside him, closing his eyes.
"Rest up, boy," Ethan said, ruffling his fur.
A beep sounded from his pocket, and he was relieved to see that his phone was slowly coming back to life. Polly would be wondering where they were. Ethan tried to imagine how he would even begin to describe what he had seen tonight.
He set the rifle down on the dashboard, slumping back against the headrest. One heck of a souvenir, he thought.
He switched on the ignition and the radio began to buzz, spilling out a scramble of rushed and panicked words. Something about an invasion. London. Madrid. Maybe Berlin, too. He thumbed at the volume, listening intently as the broadcaster recited the same lines, over and over.
Stay inside. Keep away from the swarms. Do not engage.
Ethan prodded at his phone, willing it to work, worrying about Polly. Beyond the passenger side window, far in the distance, he watched the fire rise from the cornfield, smoke swishing recklessly in the wind.
Static began to drown out the words from the radio, and before long, Ethan was sitting in silence, his heart racing. The smoke seemed to be getting closer, filling the night sky.
Just then, there was an almighty thump and through the windshield, Ethan could see that something had landed on the hood of his car.
The tattered remains of Hal's old lead.