by Eric S. Brown

Jeremiah loved his job. Sure, it was dangerous and a lot of folks would pause before doing it, but the way he saw it, he got paid to blow things up. What could be more fun than that? And the pay. . .only the foreman himself made more than he did. Jeremiah finished placing the dynamite in the correct spots along the rock face and ran back towards where the detonator awaited him. Claude was waiting on him there was along with a small crowd of workers eager for him to finish up so they could get back to their jobs. As soon as the smoke cleared, they would be up there in the debris with their pick axes, clearing out the area so that the track could be laid. The massive rock slab was impossible to move and far too large to bust up by manual labor in any reasonable amount of time. Or so said the railroad system investors.

“You ready?” Claude grumbled as Jeremiah reached the detonator.

“You know it, boss man.” He grinned at Claude as he placed his hands on the plunger that would send the electrical impulses along the cables into the TNT. Once it was pressed:  WHAMMO! No more rock. Jeremiah shoved the plunger toward the earth. The explosion seemed to shake the very ground beneath his feet. He watched as jagged bits of rock soared into the air.

“That’d do it,” he said, turning to Claude.

“It had better,” Claude warned him. “I’m behind schedule as it is. I sure don’t have the time for you to calculate out and place another round.”

Something stirred inside the cloud of dirt and dust where the rock had been.

“Who in the devil is that?” Claude asked.

Jeremiah shrugged. He couldn’t see into the dust any better than his boss could. Squinting, he could see the outline of something that looked like a man moving about among the debris.

“You made sure the area was clear, right?” Claude challenged him.

Jeremiah flinched as if Claude had slapped him across the cheek. “Of course I did,” he answered, trying to hide his anger at such an insulting question. He was a professional, not some idiot who’d just toss a lit stick of dynamite at a target and run away screaming for folks to get clear.

“Oh sweet Lord have mercy on us!” one of the nearby workers cried out. Panic erupted all around as the crowd of lookie-loos tried to scramble away from the site, shoving and pushing at one another in their desperation to get away. Jeremiah saw Claude, frozen in place, his mouth hanging open in apparent disbelief, as he stared towards where the rock had been. Slowly, Jeremiah turned his head to take a look himself. A thing—there was no better word for it— stood at least ten feet tall. It came swaggering out of the cloud settling dust. It had a head, two arms, and walked upright like a man but the resemblance ended there. Its very skin looked to be bleeding. Drops of red wetness rolled off its body from head to toe. Exposed, thick muscle could be seen under the light of the midday sun as it calmly strolled toward the workers.

Its sunken eyes glowed like twin orbs of blue fire above a mouth that appeared to be made of metal.

“You,” the thing rasped in perfect English, pointing at Jeremiah and Claude. “You have released me. Why?”  It dragged out the words in a sort of constant growl.

Jeremiah didn’t have the slightest idea how to answer the thing. Claude, unbelievably, stepped forward to meet it. Despite its size, maybe Claude thought it was a man injured by the blast, or perhaps he had simply lost his marbles.

“It’s okay,” Claude assured the thing. “We’ll get you to a doctor. We got one at the main camp. You’re gonna be just fine.”

Jeremiah realized with a start that all the other workers were long gone, leaving him and Claude alone with. . . whatever it was. The creature reached out with one of its massive hands, grabbing a hold of Claude, its fingers atop his skull and thumb below his chin. It squeezed until Claude’s head folded up with the sound of crunching bone. Jeremiah let out a yelp of terror as Claude’s blood splattered onto him. He felt his bowels release. There was nothing in the world he wanted to do more than run but he couldn’t. He was too scared to move. Jeremiah stood there shaking as the creature dropped Claude’s body and moved up in front of him. It bent over, a hideously long tongue flopping out from between its jaws to lick at his cheek. The tongue was cold as ice and scraped against his flesh like a piece of jagged stone, leaving small cuts and nicks in its wake.

“Do you know who I am?” The creature’s booming words sounded like thunder in a darkened sky.

Jeremiah couldn’t speak. He managed to shake his head in the negative. The creature reared back in laughter for what seemed like an eternity.  Jeremiah’s whole body was shaking with deep, primordial fear by the time the laughing subsided. The creature towered over him and Jeremiah waited to die.

“Little man,” it told him, “You have loosed a plague upon your world like none you can imagine.”

The creature looked away from him in the direction of the railroad crew’s main camp and sniffed the air. “For now, you may live as you’ve brought about my freedom. Enjoy your last days as they shall be short.” It walked on towards the camp, leaving him completely alone except for Claude’s corpse. As soon as the thing was out of his sight, Jeremiah slumped to his knees, weeping, tears rolling openly over his cheeks. Something deep inside of him told him that he had just murdered the world. An hour later, he was still there, his skin burning in the harsh rays of the sun, long after the distant screams from the camp had ended.