Crouched in the gloom of his inner-city den, he raised his hand to eye level. Yesterday in the same half-light he’d seen lines on his palm, the blue traceries of veins along his wrist. Today there were no lines. No veins.
Now, he saw the crumbling paint on the wall behind his hand tattooed across his palm. Dissolution beckoned.
And he was hungry.
He stood. Shards of glass hung like raised knives from the window frame. Feet anchoring his frame to the rotting floorboards, he swayed until he glimpsed his reflection in one of the jags. He looked pale and nebulous as smoke. Watching himself, he willed into a semblance of sharpness the form humans expected of his kind. Yet with his hunger so vast, this form would convince only in the half-light, and even then only from a distance. Already, his black hat dripped tiny pearls of darkness from its shrinking rim, and his black suit and white shirt twisted and swirled at the hems, unraveling.
He dared look at his face. And cringed. He saw a bone-white mask, black pits for eyes, mouth a slash of feral red across it.
Outside his shattered window, a streetlight flung a brave yet futile glow at the night, dabbing the charcoals and umbers of the apartment blocks in burnt orange. Puddles of black oil and water congregated in potholes. The few humans willing to risk these streets by night hurried past, fists shoved into jacket pockets, chins tucked into chests against the cold.
He slid through the window to trail them.
None of the humans he spied carried the scent he sought. He trudged on, periodically lifting his head to sniff, sniff, craving always that sour-sweet stench that would lead him to satiation.
Through some of the city’s windows came the sounds of screeching bedsprings, the grunts and moans of lust. Through others, savage curses and the thuds of fists against flesh and the cracks of furniture breaking. He smelled stale perfume, urine and sweat. Stale cigarettes and wine-breath. But of the words and smells that would indicate prey — nothing.
For much of the night he walked. At times, when the effort of maintaining that motion grew too much, he surrendered to sliding, and let his black-shoed toes trail loosely over the potholes and puddles and through the noxious air.
And always, always, there was the ache of his hunger, an abyss without end inside him.
Near dawn, as he hovered to eavesdrop at an open bathroom window, he stiffened. He scented fear, wonder, dread...
A young, male voice spoke from somewhere inside. “The way that thing flew — I’ve never seen anything like it. It zipped from side to side, so fast, and then it just stopped. In mid-air!”
“Just some teenager playing around with a laser.” Another male voice, deeper, thick with whiskey and weariness.
“No. No… Whatever it was, it changed colors. Blue flashing lights along its length, then red, then green.”
A female voice: “You weren’t stoned again, were you, Nicky?”
“No.” Indignation in Nicky’s tone, tempered with regret, as if he wished he hadn’t told. “It was real. It was!”
“So. What happened then?” the whiskey drinker drawled. “Little green men come down and whisk you into outer space for an anal probe?”
“I know it sounds crazy.” Nicky again. “But I saw it. I know I did.”
He’d heard and smelled enough. Elated, he floated down from the window and looked around for a suitable hide. The trick now was to prepare this Nicky, to fatten him, as it were, before he went in for the kill.
On the other side of the road stood a door niche cloaked in shadows. He drifted into it and hung there until a trio emerged from the building. Two men hugged the woman farewell. The thinner male wore glasses. His companion was grizzled and overweight, his balance dubious from drink.
When the thin male was on the last step, and all his companion’s attention on his treacherous feet, the hunter slid out of his niche and into the frail orange light. The thin male — Nicky — looked up as he glimpsed the movement at the edge of his sight.
Nicky’s gasp reached him even across the other side of the street. His prey’s fingers tensed into claws by his thighs.
Thrilled, the hunter slid back into the shadows. He let his form dissipate until his shape was no thicker than the shadows, the whiteness of his face gone over to greys.
Voice trembling, Nicky muttered to his companion: “I thought I saw— No, no, I can’t even say it. It can’t be.”
“What? Another UFO?” The whiskey drinker’s voice all weary mockery.
Nicky said nothing.
The pair stumbled away down the dark street, both of them swaying and weaving. One from drink, one from terror.
And he knew his prey’s scent now. He’d be able to find Nicky wherever he went in the city. But he must not rush this — he knew that, too — not if he was to get his fill.
He floated back to the abandoned, fenced-off apartment block that was his lair.
In the room with the shattered window, he squatted in the corner. He would not sleep; he did not sleep. He only sat as the sun, hidden somewhere behind a concrete monolith, lightened the sky to an insipid grey. And all the while his hunger gnawed at every smoke-strand of his being.
As terrible as his hunger was, he far preferred it to the time Before he had been hungry. Because Before the humans’ fears had sucked him into this city, there had been nothing. Only him, engulfed in a blackness deeper than any this world could paint — an endless, smothering blackness in which he bobbed alone, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, smelling nothing. Being, yet being amidst nothing. And so he loved and hated his hunger in equal amounts, just as he loved this city in which he fed. He loved its tiny, pathetic lights and its smoggy days, its sudden violences and its aimless, anguished inhabitants.
When the sun disappeared in a bloody spill and the streetlights roused themselves, he did likewise and slid back out into the street. He followed Nicky’s scent until he found the young male again on the city’s outskirts. Here, the apartment blocks stood half-buried in the murk. No neon jewels lit these buildings. The rusting carcasses of stripped cars edged the street.
That night, he stood below Nicky’s fourth floor window and waited until his prey appeared, sensed and saw him, swayed and blanched… And then, smiling, he slid away.
For days, he followed Nicky. Sometimes he appeared to him from the shadows. Sometimes he trailed him in an old black sedan he conjured up. Sometimes he stalked Nicky with a camera or binoculars. And all the while the hunter engaged his prey in this delicate dance, the young male grew riper and riper, and the hunter’s hunger ripped and shredded at him, made his hat drip black tears and his clothes unravel and his thoughts blow away like dandelion seeds on the wind...
Until finally, he could bear no further delay.
In his lair, he stood and sniffed. His prey was alone. And terrified. And suddenly the hunger flared up so savagely it made his entire form roil and churn like stormwater sucking down a drain.
He struggled to still himself, to solidify.
Eons later, it seemed, he retrieved a semblance of humanity. He wiled into existence a black hat, black suit, white shirt, black shades.
He sped to his prey.
Outside Nicky’s door, he again heaved in his faltering form. He knocked once, twice, three times on the door.
“Wh—who is it?” Nicky’s voice, thin and hoarse.
He had no name. If asked under different circumstances, he might have dubbed himself The Starving One.
“I’m Jack Fortes.” His voice, so rarely used, sounded stiff and unnatural. As inhuman as he was. “I’m from the FBI.”
He used a fragment of his remaining energy to conjure an ID card.
The door creaked open. Nicky left the chain on. He extended the card through the gap.
Nicky stared at it, eyes wide behind his glasses. The hunter saw his own reflection there: red mouth slashed across a bone-white face, eyes hidden by black shades. He gazed back at his prey, letting his high strangeness work its glamour on Nicky. Fighting to hold together for long enough to eat.
“Sir, I need to speak to you,” he said. “I won’t take much of your time.”
Nodding like an automaton, Nicky let him in, gripped by the petrified submission his glamour wrought. Nicky whispered to him to take a seat on the threadbare couch. Cigarette butts crowded an ashtray on the coffee table. Cold, blue streetlights shone through chinks in the blinds.
For a moment, the hunter said nothing. Simply let Nicky’s terror build, so that his prey might sate him all the more.
“Sir, I understand you recently witnessed what folk commonly refer to as an Unidentified Flying Object.”
Nicky nodded, dumbly. Teeth bared in a smile that was really a rictus of terror.
“I understand you’ve spoken to several acquaintances about this.”
The hunger made it difficult for him to form sentences. The lightless abyss was beckoning. His voice winding down, he managed, “That… was a bad move. The consequences for your friends… and you… will be very… serious.”
If Nicky realized his true insubstantiality, his real powerlessness now, he would have no hold over his prey. And, hungry as he was, he would surely cease this place.
“Wh—what are you going to do to me?” Nicky asked.
Surely the thumping of Nicky’s terror was at its height. Surely he could not be any riper.
He leaned forward and pressed his smoky face against and into his prey’s.
Terror and dread flowed from Nicky in delicious waves seasoned with the salt and sourness of his sweat. The hunter opened himself to it, felt Nicky’s fear flowing over and through him, pouring into the abyss… Filling him.
He milked his prey dry of all his delicious emotion and left Nicky a comatose husk on the cigarette-scarred carpet of his home.
When next he tried to sniff out Nicky, he was gone. Presumably to the same place he himself had been Before. The hunter cursed. He should have been less greedy, should have squirrelled away some leftovers for another day.
But it was too late for regrets. Now, he’d have to search out new prey.
And already, hunger raked its claws through him again…
Karen Maric is an Australian writer who resides in the nation’s beautiful capital city, Canberra. Her work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies including Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Aurealis, Bloodstones, Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy Vol. 5 and The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2012, and has also been shortlisted in the Aurealis Awards. Karen’s novel, When With Wolves, is currently under consideration by a major publisher. Visit to learn more.