Folklore

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Chapter 3 - 07/09/2017

I think it's when we fall into routines that we slowly start to die.

Not immediately, of course. It's not like there's some time bomb countdown clock ticking down, waiting for the right moment. More like a restlessness. We become too familiar with our surroundings. We get too comfortable. We start to get bored. Then it sets in and you start wondering if maybe there isn't something you're missing out on.

It happens to everyone, I think. Doesn't matter if you climb mountains for a living or file taxes in some dark office. Eventually the routine of it gets to you. We started out as nomads, and the moment we deny that wanderlust for too long it just eats away at our spirit.

People start questioning who they are. They make dumb decisions. Buy fast cars. Take vacations to places they don't even care about. Maybe they'll cheat on a spouse or suddenly take up a hobby like converting the entire garage into a custom tool shed. Something they can spend thousands of dollars on just to give to their kid before they pass on. As if that will be the thing that really defines their existence.

We get so caught up in trying to complete our day-to-day tasks that the moment we realize what we're caught in, it's a scramble to try to escape. Some people wake up too late and wonder where it all went wrong. Others figure it out early and crash and burn anyway.

I'm not sure which happened to me, but that's only because I don't think I'm qualified to say I'm alive.

After that family burned to death I swore I'd find a way to make a difference. To turn this curse into a gift. I knew what I wanted to do, but had no clue where to start. So I did the next best thing: explored.

Like a ghost I haunted power lines and electrical grids across the country, stopping only to draw in energy when I felt my own reserves run low. I explored construction sites, office buildings, and abandoned homes for survivors. Every now and then I found what I was looking for.

I helped a man start a car he was desperately trying to get moving, sparking its battery to life with a delicate touch. I threw a neighborhood into pitch-black silence to help a young couple hide from some sort of gang. Maybe raiders. They hunted for hours in the dark before calling off the search.

It wasn't all bad. I found towns untouched by the chaos on more than one occasion. Settlements of order that banded together when everything else seemed to be so crazy. I tried to keep my distance. They worked so hard to maintain a sense of normalcy aside from the chaos my kind inflicted upon them. It seemed wrong to sneak within their ranks just to satisfy my need to reconnect with humanity.

So I opened myself to the ruins of the world in my search for a way to help.

Fort Derringer was the last stop for Federation troops before hitting the Canadian border. As a military outpost it was more or less a checkpoint for large shipments of weapons, building materials or aid supplies. Civilians were largely kept out and sent down side roads arcing wide around the facility. Fort Derringer wasn't built for siege or secrets, but to hold and distribute valuable cargo across the Federation's midwest.

The entire region was all flat land and farming community before the Reforestation Initiative kicked in. Then a man-made lake was built, complete with its own fancy bridge that traveled straight across the middle. Reinforced glass and thousands of lights lining the bottom of the bridge would make Faith's Highway a popular tourist trap only miles away from the military installation. Take a slow stroll across the near-invisible walkway and glance down at the crystal-clear water below. Or drive, if your car met the rigorously-monitored weight limit. It was a romantic spot. Popular with young couples.

Fort Derringer itself was largely self sufficient. Towering walls and a steel reinforced gate. Climbing in would have been an incredible challenge, but I was lucky to have my own little shortcut via the concrete enclosed power lines feeding into the military facility underground.

The fort was a mess, but one filled with possibilities I had never considered. Here, in a facility hard-wired for electronic control, I had more than just a small measure of influence. Light firearms, ammunition, and food supplies had been looted long ago, but no attempt had been made to remove or disable the automated weapon turrets that lined the exterior walls. Cameras throughout the entire facility let me explore my surroundings with remarkable precision. In this place, made to serve the immediate needs of the digital age, I felt like I could make myself right at home.

So I did. I locked both gates into the facility, and set cameras to watch the perimeter. Solar panels and wind turbines along the exterior helped provide me plenty of nourishment. Enough to even feel comfortable testing the limits of my new form. I used to believe I was confined to wiring or circuits, but with enough strength and focus I could do so much more.

I could power more than just simple appliances, but complex ones as well. Short jumps between electronics was possible, though it was far from a subtle process. Assembly-line robotic arms. Cars. Trucks. Even those smaller mobile weapons platforms. After a few days of practice I started to understand how to manipulate circuit boards. I could even type -- although it was slow and difficult. Even still, it felt good to emoji again. A small, human thing.

A small part of me was hoping there would be more. A secret weapon. Some sort of tank or robotic prototype that I could learn to navigate and use to reconnect with the world. Bring order, represent justice. That sort of thing. But the truth is there was nothing there. Nothing of real value. I spent three months, alone without purpose or a real plan. I stopped exploring. Stopped caring.

Then came Zachary Gilbert.

He wasn't really anybody important. A lone wanderer. Zach, as I would come to know him, was a street artist from Chicago. I found him through one of the perimeter cameras as he was exploring the outer walls, trying to find a way in. Once or twice he caught my cameras following his exploration, which only made him more determined.

I'm not sure what prompted me to let him in. Maybe it's because I forgot why I locked myself inside to begin with. All I know is that once he stepped through that main gate, I had to find a way to communicate.

He was a young man. Tall, dirty, and clearly thin from weeks without a full meal. Wearing hiking gear that was well worn I watched from a distance as he tried to make himself somewhat presentable. When no one came to greet him, he worked to find signs of inhabitants. The usual amount of yelling. A healthy amount of skeptical fear.

But it was curiosity that drew him further into the base, and I wondered what would be the best way to reach out. I wasn't a ghost, but I may as well have been. Sure I could start a car or close some blast doors, but what good would that do beyond scaring the hell out of him?

It took a few hours of wandering aimlessly about the facility, but it gave me time to think of the perfect way to catch his attention. When Zachary stepped into the main communications hub I finally made my move.

Hello.

I flashed my message on the monitor nearest to him. White letters on sitting in black space.

He paused for a moment, looking around to make sure he was truly alone. Then, unsure how to properly respond, he leaned forward and typed into the keyboard I was trying to manipulate.

"Hey there. Anyone home?"

Yes. And no.

"Is this like a hacker?"

No. I'm here.

"In the building?"

Yes.

"I don't want any trouble. I'm just looking for others. Maybe a group."

Just me.

"Oh."

If I had to be honest, I was scared. We both were. I could see him through a webcam at his terminal. Coiled tense, eyes darting for the door. He was ready to go at any moment, but I wasn't ready to let him leave. I had to do something. The words came slow.

There's some food. Shelter here. We can meet when you're more comfortable.

I could see the uncertainty on his face. He leaned in to type.

"Alright. What have you got?"

I unlocked ration stores in a sealed part of the Fort, and guided him with a subtle light show along the ground via the emergency evacuation guidance panels. He seemed to accept that I was just in a separate part of the facility. We talked via information terminals. I played the part of the helpful hacker. He, the confused but appreciative wanderer.

Together we explored Fort Derringer's looted remains. It took a few nights to review the place top to bottom. I told him I was working from the primary server room, working around firewalls and complex subroutines. Anything I could think of that sounded high tech. If he didn't believe me, he never said a word against it.

Our thorough inspection of the facility turned up some valuable supplies. More food, which was good for him. A portable generator, field radio system, and everything else you'd need to have a shitty family camping trip. Or, a few good weeks alone on the road.

We spent a few days planning the trip. He'd talk with me via computers across across the base. I'd watch him from security cameras, unlocking doors or providing light in rooms without windows. Like his personal flashlight, I guess.

Loading up a jeep with food and fuel we could make our way along the Canadian border, keeping to farmland and small communities until we found a group we could trust. He even volunteered to siphon gas from a few other cars that were left behind. Fewer stops meant fewer risks.

It was nice pretending. I mean, it was nice helping him too, but it had been so long since I'd had a chance to be normal. I knew as our planning came to an end that I'd have to try and find a way to tell him I wouldn't be going. I never needed to. He brought it up in conversation one day. Just mentioned it while packing a duffel bag, instead of typing.

"You know, I've been all across the base twice over. Never found a room I couldn't get into."

A silence settled between us. I didn't know what to say. He kept talking while my mind raced to find some sort of means to excuse my behavior.

"I've seen some shit out there. Bad stuff, but stuff I could explain. Desperate people doing desperate things to survive." Zachary spoke softly, his hands kept busy folding supplies methodically. "One thing will really stick out in my mind though. Few weeks ago I was hiking. Thought I might have some luck finding friendly folk out of the cities. Climbed up this big ass hill, nearly broke my ankle."

"Anyway, I get to the top and I look down across this valley and that's when I see this wolf. Only, I know it wasn't a wolf. It was green. Made of leaves and vines, all wrapped up. Even had these little lilies blooming on it. I know shit like that doesn't exist. But there it was. Some kind of forest creature looked right at me, then ran away like I was in a fucking fairy tale."

He zipped up the bag calmly, then looked around the room. There was a weariness in his expression I never noticed before. Maybe I had been just too busy playing pretend.

"I'm not gonna pretend I'm well traveled, but that shit is clearly unnatural. And about as weird as talking to a mystery hacker in the middle of an abandoned Federation whatever-this-is. So, straight up then. Are you real?"

Was I real? If there was any time to be honest with who I really was, this was it. I flickered the screen so he would know where to look.

Yes.

"Are you a ghost?"

Yes.

So much for being honest. But was it really that far from the truth?

"Did you die here?"

No. Someplace else.

"Can you come with me?"

I thought about that question long and hard. There were limits to what I could do and where I could go. I would never be whole again, but a lifetime ago I signed up to join the Federation because I wanted to be more than what I was. I wanted to be a hero.

That's why I'm leaving this log. Once I leave this station the power will shut down for good, but maybe in a few years places like this will be back online. You should know I'm one of the lucky ones. If you find others like me, if there are others like me, I hope they're still trying to stay connected with this world. We can still make a difference.

I have to go now. The truck is packed. I'm nervous, but I think this is for the best.

Wish us luck.

-Kenneth Howard, a.k.a. Discharge

Chapter 3 - 23/10/2017

Stalking through the cornfield Jane had deduced the footprints belonged to two people: One who she believed to be Lynn Kline, and the other who was likely was her kidnapper. Complete sneaker treads were rarely left in the earth. She had been dragged, kicking, struggling, for at least several dozen feet into the cornfield before finally going limp.

Her attacker was strong. Strong enough to drag a young woman without any signs of difficulty. The footprints in the earth were unwavering. Never a slow in step or stride. Most likely a man. Maybe 6 feet tall. Possibly over 200 pounds. Hopefully unarmed, but Jane knew better than to assume the best case scenario.

Jane recited these facts to herself while following the trail. Blindly following the footprints made it impossible to know what direction she was going. The sun still hung overhead, giving her a clear sign of the attacker’s unpredictable tracks, but the rows of corn made it difficult to see much further than an arm’s length ahead. She kept herself moving low and slow, ready to spring aside at the first hint of danger.

Crops had begun to thin and Jane saw she was approaching the farmhouse somewhere between the backyard and the eastern side of the home. At a glance everything looked normal. Patio furniture, a swing set, and an abundance of toys made Jane wary someone would be inside. Families didn’t stray far from safety these days, and few places were safer than an armed farmhouse.

The drag marks left the cornfield, then continued on in the dirt for about a foot before disappearing into a healthy, green lawn. Stepping out into the open would be a sure way to expose her presence, but she knew her options were running low. If the killer was here she wanted every advantage possible.

She crouched, hidden, waiting to see if there was anyone home. Exploring the perimeter from the safety of the cornfield she searched for signs of movement. A light, a shifting curtain, a shadow -- anything.

It was the cellar that caught her eye. Its two wooden doors were faded red from years of sun exposure, but a chain sitting in the grass seemed out of place. At a glance she thought the lock was still on the chain. She paused, weighing her options until she noticed the lock was smashed. Crushed, like it was hit with a rock or hammer.

With no one in sight, Jane risked moving from the safety of the cornfield. Dashing across the lawn she pressed herself close against the backyard wall. Pressing an ear to the cellar door she listened for any sound of a disturbance below. Leaning with her body craned against the wood her eye took note of the dried blood smearing the door’s handle.

Slowly, carefully, she pulled the cellar open with one hand. She grimaced through the low pitched whine its hinges made, keeping her revolver raised and ready. Something inside smelled of heat and decay, and she turned her head reflexively to keep from gagging. Thumbing back the weapon’s hammer she paused a moment to gather her courage before peeking downstairs.

Dirt and dried mud caked the basement floor, marking a clear trail of footsteps where Lynn had likely been dragged. The stairs down were steep slabs of uneven pavement. Without a source of light it was impossible to see too far below. After a quick scan of her surroundings Jane reached for the keyring in her back pocket. Unclipping a miniature flashlight she gave it a quick click into her palm to make sure the battery was still strong.

Praying she hadn’t already given her arrival away Jane stepped down the stairs, guiding her approach with a thin beam of light. Ducking her head to avoid the low ceiling she performed a quick scan, facing her back to the nearest wall the moment she felt it was safe. The pitch darkness of the basement made it difficult to take in her surroundings. She relied heavily on the flashlight while adjusting to the dark, resisting the urge to pull the lamp light chain she spotted nearby.

The basement was dusty, but normal for all intents and purposes. Her back was to a very well organized toolbench that stretched across the entire far wall. Basements weren’t common around these parts, and she guessed the home must had been built within the last year or so. There was only a single wooden staircase leading up, obscured by several metal shelves. It seemed completely ordinary, so long as your gaze never settled on the floor.

Following the drag marks along the ground she could see where the footsteps became muddled and impossible to read. The concrete floor was stained in layers of dark red. A lack of blood splatter meant whatever happened had been without a struggle. At first Jane thought there had been a stabbing or puncture resulting in massive blood loss. Bringing her flashlight’s beam across the ground she realized it was clearly beyond her expertise.

Chunks of flesh had been left pulped so thoroughly into the ground she wasn’t sure where the meat had come from. Small bundles of paper and cloth lay strewn about the floor as though someone had made an effort to clean. It only added to the confusion, making it difficult to tell what was definitively human and what was simply stained with gore.

Any doubt of Lynn Kline’s fate was silenced by the clear remnants of a once-yellow dress. Now torn apart and left unceremoniously on the ground, its lace pattern looked more like a bloodied doily than clothing. Questions bubbled through Jane’s mind.

Where was the body? Where were the bones? Organs? If all she could see was pulped meat and shredded skin she had to wonder where the rest of Lynn had gone.

Footsteps sounded off above her. Jane heard it after the heavy slam of the farmhouse front door. A single pair, moving about the house. They walked directly above her, then moved elsewhere before finally settling with a hard thump.

Jane turned her light away, glad to finally have something else to take her mind off the scene on the ground. Giving the murder scene a wide berth she kept her weapon trained on the stairway. Placing a foot at the base of the stairs she tested her weight on it, wincing slightly as it give a slight creak under the pressure of her foot.

Somewhere above footsteps began again. She aimed her weapon at the door, working hard to steady her breathing as someone walked past. A faucet turned on somewhere above, rattling pipes with the squeak of water pressure. Jane took the opportunity to move up the stairs, turning off her flashlight so she could take hold of the doorknob.

With a twist and push she slowly stepped into the farmhouse hallway to find herself poised somewhere between the front door, den, and kitchen. Family portraits hung on cream colored walls; a collection of the farm’s workers over the years. The furniture looked like hand carved wood, save for a cloth sectional couch which dominated the living room. It looked ordinary. A family home.

She took a step. Weapon raised, Jane carefully took a peek around the corner into the kitchen. A single dining room table. A long row of cabinets stretching across the wall. A double sink, and modern-looking island burner. Rinsing his hands in the sink was a heavy-set man in his late forties. Black hair that sat straight down to his shoulders and darker complexion gave away his heritage. He was dressed as though he spent a day in the field, but Jane didn’t recognize him in the slightest. Not like that meant much. He could have been anything from someone’s distant cousin to a representative from another tribe.

Jane eyed the boots at the door, covered in mud. Maybe it was a coincidence, but it was one she couldn’t afford to take.

“Hands up!” Jane yelled with authority, revolver pointed at the man while she used the corner of the wall for partial cover.

Startled, the man turned, wide eyed with his hands still in the sink. He seemed frightened at first. Then, narrowing his eyes down at Jane his fear turned to anger.

“You breakin in, bitch? Here to steal from my family?” his voice sounded hoarse. Scratched from too many years of smoking and yelling.

“My name’s Jane Pilton. I’m the law around here.” she spoke clearly, and with authority. “Now I’m not gonna hurt you unless you give me cause. Understand?”

The man blinked for a moment, considering her words, then nodded.

“What’s your name?”

“Tom.”

“You got a last name, Tom?”

“Yazzie. Tom Yazzie.”

“Alright. Tom, I’m going to need you to step away from the sink now. Hands up. Nice and slow.”

“And then what?” Tom asked, turning his body slightly to get a better look at Jane.

“We take a step outside and have a conversation.” her voice was steady, calm.

Neither made a move. Tom’s hands still soaking in the sink. Jane steadily training her weapon on him. It seemed like he was ready to speak again when a heavy slam made them both jump in shock. Jane turned to see the wind had caught the screen door, suddenly pushing it shut. When she looked back at Tom it was just in time to duck against the wall as something round and metal was tossed her way.

Raising her weapon she fired once in a clumsy flinch. A miss. Tom Yazzie was much faster than she had anticipated. Kitchen knife in one hand he swung at her revolver with a dinner plate in the other. She fired a second shot, but was off balance, stepping back to try and put distance between her and her attacker. Again her bullet flew too wide. The plate exploded into ceramic shards, but only after the gun was knocked from her grasp and across the hall into the living room.

“You wanna steal from me? Thief!” Tom screamed in defiance, bearing down on her.

Tom twisted the knife in his hand, getting a better grip to stab down at Jane’s smaller figure. Knowing that another step would put her closer to the basement Jane kicked out, catching the man square in the gut. Doubling over with a spray of coughing spit he stumbled backwards. It was all the opening she needed.

Pulling a picture frame from the wall with two hands she swung hard at her attacker, catching him across the jaw. Wood and glass cracked violently sending him reeling backwards. The knife dropped to the floor as he fought to keep his balance. Face bloodied and only somewhat aware of his surroundings Tom stumbled backwards down the hall.

“Help!” Tom yelled as loud as he could. His voice cracked with pain as he held his jaw in one hand. “Stop! Please!”

Jane tossed the ruined picture frame aside, boots crunching on glass as she walked over to him, triumphant.

“Oh so now you want to fucking talk? I’ll bet.” Jane fought hard to control her adrenaline, wringing her hands together to keep them from shaking.

The front door kicked open without warning, startling Jane for the second time while almost clipping the back of Tom’s head. She recognized the leather jacket before she saw the face. Ben Yazzie knelt down without hesitation, trying to help Tom up before Jane could protest.

“Don’t you touch him!” she scanned around the room for her revolver, unsure where it landed.

“I...I heard gunshot! I came as fast as I--” Ben started explain, raising his hands in self defense.

“--She’s fucking crazy! This bitch tried to kill me!” Tom yelled, his voice labored from trying to sit up. “She’s trying to rob us!”

“T-the sheriff?” Ben gestured to Jane. “What?”

“Either of you boys move another finger and I swear on my mother I will beat you so far into the ground they won’t need to bother digging a grave.” Jane said, her eye finally catching the glint of metal underneath the couch. “You’re both under arrest. Or whatever we’re calling it.”

“Arrest? For what?” Tom spat. “I didn’t do shit.”

“I ain’t even begun to start--” Jane had started to step towards the living room when Ben lurched back.

“--HURGPH...” Ben tried to speak but only a rolling wave of blood burst from his mouth. Jutting from his chest, puncturing his jacket and out his shirt, was a sleek sharpened point of bone stained a deep red.

Standing behind Ben was a figure that made Jane’s blood run cold.

It stood tall despite a severe hunch, but looked thin and frail. Like a man wasted away from months of starvation. Ragged jeans hung loose around stilted legs, stuffed into oversized boots. A thick brown raincoat, worn down with holes from the passage of time, made the creature almost look human. Despite its lopsided appearance, it may have even of passed as a man from behind. Facing it directly the illusion was completely shattered.

As the creature continued to lift Ben off the ground Tom scrambled on all fours, partly covered in Ben’s blood. Underneath the brown raincoat was a mess of human parts. Kidneys, lungs, and a single liver were all twisted and tied together into a slick, wet mass, held in place by a wrap of intestine. A beating heart pumped a sludge-like blood through the semi-transparent organs. The stress and force of each beat sent what looked like wet mud out from ventricles that were no longer connected to a human circulatory system.

It reminded her of a scarecrow, and Jane immediately knew what she had to do.

Jane didn’t watch what happened next. She couldn’t see the scarecrow’s face under its hood; a human skull, stripped of all but a few tattered strips of flesh, opened its mouth wide. There was only a single eye in its left socket that seemed to hang in place, as though suspended from something within. The scarecrow slipped Ben onto the ground, pushing from its left arm which had no hand. Insead the bone was sharpened at the wrist to create a spear of bone. Jane had dove under the couch and was reaching for her weapon.

The flow of blood from Ben’s mouth became a panicked gargle as the teenager went into shock. Mismatched fingers on a skeletal hand reached down with delicate precision. This time it was Tom’s turn to look away. Scrambling to his feet, he ran to the back of the house while the scarecrow slowly plucked a right eye from a screaming, struggling teenager.

With four shots left Jane knew she had to make each one count. She watched the scarecrow struggle to fit the eye into its empty socket, gently lowering it into the socket while holding back its hood with its arm-spear. Ben Yazzie lay still on the ground, a growing pool of blood spreading out from around his form.

Not waiting for the scarecrow to finish its task, she took aim and fired once. It staggered, head snapping back as her shot connected. An eruption of black sludge splashed across the wall. Then it tilted its attention to Jane, skull locked in a skeletal grin. Its newly installed eye rolled in its head, sagging within the socket like it had yet to be properly assimilated. A reddish black sludge crept out the bullet hole, slowly flowing down its face.

Clicking its teeth in a chatter the scarecrow shambled toward Jane, off balance but ready to strike. She fired another shot into its face that cracked the skull along the right side, sending a flood of black paste down onto the wood floor. It took another staggered step and she fired the third into its heart. The organ squelched, leaking black pus, but it stood undeterred.

Jane hesitated, unsure where to place her last shot. Nothing seemed to have any real effect. Missing most of its head and with no discernible weakness in its vitals she knew there was only one option left.

She broke into a sprint, trying to dash past the scarecrow only to find a horrific pain tear through her arm. The creature had lunged faster than she had anticipated, impaling her bicep with its bone-spear. Body twisted mid-run she turned frantically, trying to pull herself free while it quietly began to drag her back. She screamed in pain and fear and anger. It sounded like an explosion of force sounded off somewhere nearby, then suddenly she was on the ground, free.

“You killed him, you son of a bitch!” Tom pumped the shotgun in his hand and fired again.

While Tom sprayed the scarecrow with another shell Jane staggered to her feet, her right arm limp at her side. Each new round of pellets shredded away more of the scarecrow’s clothing, revealing its hanging organs tied loosely to its skeletal frame. One lung was deflated, leaking a sickly-looking goo. It only had a small collection of ribs that were in no discernable order. There were too many vertebrae on the spine.

“It’s just...parts.” Jane said quietly. She took her last shot at the scarecrow’s exposed kneecap, watching it tumble over. “It’s just parts!” she screamed at Tom, who nodded in recognition.

Sticking its bone-spear into the wood floor the scarecrow immediately began to drag itself, weathering another round of Tom’s shotgun to make a clattering scramble toward Jane. Afraid she was too slow to run, Jane dove into the kitchen. The THUNK of sharpened bone sounded behind her as the scarecrow moved closer. Her good hand managed to grab hold of the pan Tom had thrown earlier. A desperate swing managed to knock aside the spear’s next jab.

A mismatched collection of skeletal fingers gripped down on her leg, and Jane swung her pan down on the scarecrow’s wrist in response. She felt the pressure from its grip immediately cease as the joint snapped. Jane knew she had made a fatal mistake.

The scarecrow lurched up on its spear. One leg crippled, its arm severed, leaving a trail of tattered organs and chipped bone along the hall, it pushed off the ground for a single downward swing. With her good arm crippled there was no way to move in time to escape.

Cracking bone and a hollow thud rang through the home. Tom, using the shotgun as a bat, swung as hard as he could at the scarecrow’s head. Its jaw shattered, teeth scattering across the room. The force of the blow was enough to roll the creature’s lopsided body over and away from Jane. Gripping her pan Jane dragged herself up while Tom swung down.

Together they did everything they could to break it apart, piece by piece. They crushed its arms, splintering bone and removing its only remaining weapon. And yet it moved, so Jane pulverized its skull with her pan. Tom’s shotgun broke apart after its sixth swing, which shattered the discs in its spine. And yet it moved, so they continued to rip at its organs until only a thin slippery paste slipped through their fingers.

The pair stepped away from it, exhausted, in agony. Tom had cuts all over his body from the struggle in melee. There was a terrible cut across his chest where it must have raked him with a bony limb. Jane’s arm felt dead at her side.

“Did you see that?” Tom whispered, eyes wide, staring at the piled remains of the creature. “Did it move?

Jane watched, waited, before she finally spoke.

“Let’s burn it.”

“What? The monster?”

“No.” Jane shook her head. “Everything.”

The fire that consumed the farm attracted attention for miles. When help had arrived to control the blaze they came across Jane and Tom, covered in blood and gore. Both had decided it was best to leave Ben inside when they set the fire. Tom had taken the young man’s leather jacket to pass on to his immediate family. It was a small gesture, but one that provided a little closure to Ben’s violent end.

Neither took their eyes off the flames. Their wounds were treated as they watched the farmhouse burn to the ground. Jane fell asleep watching the heat bubble and pop away any trace of horror from the waking world.

She woke up in her home, surrounded by the locals of Beryl Lake, community leaders from Elk’s Rest, and Open Sky Reservation’s tribal council. Dawn was there with a box of her favorite cereal as a gift. Tom Yazzie was waiting in her living room. Strangely, she found his presence especially comforting.

Word spread fast. It took some time to come to terms with what she had to report. The creature, its nature, and the fate of both Lynn Kline and Ben Yazzie were hard to describe. There was skepticism when she was done, but Tom’s testimony and their injuries helped to lend some weight to the truth. Something had hidden itself within their community. No one knew how many other travellers had gone missing during its stay.

Jane would recover over the next few months with assistance from Dawn, who was happy to visit and break the monotony of bedrest. Every now and then rumors would circulate within Beryl Lake of something gone wrong at a local farm, or of someone acting unusually at the reservation. More supplies than normal. Strange weather. Selfish behavior. To their credit the Klines spoke up against such accusations, whenever they arouse. They never forgot it was thanks to ‘those people’ that their daughter’s killer was brought to justice.

It was only once that Jane saw everyone band together as equals to a common cause.

Despite her certainty that the creature was slain, a rally was held to help reassure everyone that their land was safe from similar threats. Hundreds of men and women gathered from every corner of their community. They moved from farm to farm in small groups, investigating every home, barn, and bale of hay. Each had their own method of searching for monsters, but there was one precaution that was unanimously agreed upon:

They burned every scarecrow on every farm, without hesitation.

Chapter 3 - 30/08/2018

It took more time get to the top of the second flight of stairs than she expected. Laying so flat and so tense against the concrete stair had caused the pain in her hip flare up terribly. Standing hurt, as did every step she took to reach the top.

Maria didn’t notice how much had changed right away. Pulling up her backpack of supplies wasted precious moments. Resting against a nearby wall she spotted an electric wheelchair sitting quietly in the center of the hallway. She wasted no time taking a seat. Despite its almost tarp-like fabric she found the chair comfortable, and it’s very slight recline made her sigh in relief.

She checked the small navigational stick on the arm rest. A slight tap forward jolted it to life. Still some power, but for how long?

The mall was in complete disarray. She was so worried about the chair that she never realized how bad it all looked. The floor was a carpet of shattered glass, and a cloudy grey sunlight filtered in from above. With no protection from the elements dust and dirt had already begun to settle. Without power and illuminated by only natural light the mall looked as though it had aged several years in just a day.

With her bag of supplies resting safely in her lap Maria guided the motorized chair down the hall. Driving over the broken glass created an uncomfortable crunching noise, and she did her best to stay close to the walls to avoid as much debris as possible. Her goal was the front parking lot, where she could find her car and hopefully some sign of what had left her stranded underground.

Along the way she took note of clues. Hints of what may have happened, with no definitive explanation.

Stores were empty and completely unlooted. There were signs of distress everywhere that made her think of a mass panic. Signs and tables overturned, doors broken, bags and various items thrown about. It was difficult to tell what direction everyone may have ran toward. The earthquake had lasted quite a while. It was easy to imagine everyone scrambling for safety.

A left turn brought her through the food court. A right turn, past a collection of clothing stores. Another left would bring her to the Mall’s entrance where she remembered parking. With power disabled she would need to get up and manually open the main doors, but that was just fine. She would do whatever it took to leave this place.

She turned her motorized chair around the last corner, only to find there was no mall left to travel. Several steps ahead the smooth tiled floor of the mall cracked away into empty air. The stores, the front steps, the parking lot, all of it had crumbled down into some kind of sinkhole.

Maria put her chair in reverse while she tried to comprehend what she was seeing. It was no sinkhole. It was a crater. Miles long, and miles deep. Tremendous devastation where a city once stood. Sewers and underground pipes along the outer rim of the crater trickled water into down toward the center. There were no jutting beams of metal. No massive asteroid or fallen meteor at the center of the pit. Despite the tremendous, unmistakable damage to the city the entire event seemed so precisely crafted. Almost surgical.

So taken in by the size of the catastrophe that Maria had to rub at her eyes to make sure she hadn’t been hallucinating. Hovering over the crater, high above the epicenter, was a black sphere. At least, she thought it was a sphere. It seemed impossibly dark. A void that allowed no light pass to through it, several stories in diameter, hanging in the air.

The longer she observed the orb, the more she realized was wrong. There was a silence hanging in the air. No noise. No blaring downtown traffic or buzz of surrounding conversations. At its most quiet moments a city was still a place of noise. Electricity pulsing through thousands of homes. Construction blaring in the distance. People. With a disaster like this she expected to see relief aid or Federation soldiers assisting evacuation efforts. A single helicopter at the minimum.

There was nothing but the pulse of silence. She wondered if it was the void’s work. She wanted to make a noise, to call out and break the silence, but instincts warned her otherwise.

Without knowing how much of the earth beneath the mall had been compromised she was afraid of getting any closer. It was a lost cause anyway. With the front parking lot completely vanished into the crater Maria imagined her car’s odds of survival were very slim. She couldn’t help but smile while wondering if her insurance would cover the ‘damage’.

Her cell phone was low on power, and offering few solutions. Still no service. Perhaps a side effect of the void in the sky? There were only a few more hours of solid daylight. Who knew what the darkness would bring.

She needed to think. She needed a plan.

There were no answers to be found at the edge of the crater, and with some reluctance Maria turned her chair away from the void and back into the depths of the mall. Her chair wheeled over shards of broken glass with a loud crunch. There was no need to hide anymore.

Maria wandered the mall aimlessly for a time, pondering the empty displays and broken racks. I could leave through the other lot. Take the handicap ramp to the indoor parking. One of the mall’s kiosks had been completely overturned to spill a rack of watches across the floor. I could find a car. Drive home. A toy store gripped by a moment of panic had aisles littered with colorful boxes. Or I could find a radio. See if maybe there’s been an emergency broadcast. Everyone could have been evacuated while some kind of special emergency unit moved in.

It wasn’t long before she found herself in the food court for a second time. The skylights above all led to this place, a central hub for any good mallgoer. Normally it just let in a fair amount of natural light. Now, devoid of anyone else, it gave the room a haunted feeling. Like an empty cathedral. A place of worship, vacated.

Maria shook the notion from her head, instead exploring her meal options. The goal was to find anything but granola that could still be safely eaten after a day. It became a game. Most places froze their food beforehand, so burger and chicken joints were quickly ruled out. She found some fruit at a ‘smoothie bar’, and with a bit of effort discovered a half-burned pepperoni pizza in the oven of a phoney italian place.

Bringing her scavenged findings to the center of the court, Maria stepped out of her chair to stretch. She made herself a comfortable dining area on the center of a square table. After cutting herself a slice of pizza she ate standing. It was burned, but she’d eaten worse. Her hip still ached. Standing was tiring -- likely just a side effect from the tumble she had taken yesterday, but she didn’t want to grow too accustomed to sitting down. She would be resting plenty soon enough.

Another bite into her slice brought her too close to a charred lump of bread crust, and she tossed the piece aside to get another. Stretching herself out she moved to cut a new slice when the light caught her eye. Bright red, glinting off the reflection of her tool.

It moved so slowly she never noticed it. The beam of red light. It had just reached the edge of the food court. Close. Too close, but it wasn’t fast. The pain at her hip reminded her she could never outrun it. She wouldn’t need to.

Maria scrambled into her chair, clicking the arm rest’s joystick into a frantic turn. The motorized seat rotated with a labored whurrrrrrr in reply. The turn was slow. Too slow for her liking, and she clicked the controls into place once more only to receive a small burst of movement. Again, and it hardly moved at all.

There was no time to play with it any further. Stepping out of the chair she frantically looked for a place to hide. Deep in her heart she knew the light couldn’t touch her. It was responsible for whatever happened here. It and the void were connected somehow.

It was too far get behind one of the food court eateries. Between the tables, potted plants and scattered garbage she had no doubt that race was a lost cause. Even if she could run, where would she hide? Every store had a glass front. There was no bathroom in sight, and even if she wanted to throw herself back down the stairs to Dollartown the light would soon block off that path to freedom.

Even still, she tried to run. Flashes of pain in her side quickly forced her stride into an uneven hobble. Her hands grasped at nearby tables in an attempt to row herself forward. Each time they wobbled unevenly, threatening to tip under her unsteady weight. The entire room was painted in its crimson glow. It was impossible to tell how close it was. Maybe only a few dozen feet away.

Ten meters. Use proper measurements. Her husband’s voice corrected her with a laugh. One last chiding remark. She wanted to punch him.

Pain snapped her thoughts back to reality. She had placed her hand on the thin space between two tables and felt it pinch her fingers. Maria paused. There wasn’t much time left.

She grabbed a nearby table, dragging over to the two beside her. Pulling another into place she formed a larger square. Her hip screamed with pain, and she used each table for balance and leverage as much as she forced them into position. Even with the tables as closely touching as possible there was no way the seams could ever be perfect -- so she grabbed a stack of colorful serving trays and spread them out along the top.

It was impossible to know if her patchwork cover would be good enough. The light was seconds from reaching her. She scrambled underneath the barrier of tables and food trays on her hands and knees. There was just enough room for her to stay on all fours underneath, but it was a tight fit.

Her heart sank as she felt her foot slip against one of the table legs. There was a creak. Only a slight push out of alignment. She closed her eyes and prayed the trays were still in place.

The red light passed overhead and Maria’s entire world was bathed in a crimson glow. Hiding in the stairwell she had found it hard to see, but now that she was directly in its path the red light impossible to ignore. Even through her closed eyelids it was absolutely blinding. There were no other colors. It was like diving underwater. An oppressive pressure surrounded her world. It sought to crush her.

There was no way to tell how much more she had to endure. Eyes closed, struggling to stay on all fours under the tables, Maria waited until the blinding red light began to fade from her sight. Tears streamed down her face from the pain. Her arms were shaking but she swore at them to hold. She just needed to hold until the next moment.

Slowly the red light began to fade. Maria waited until she could only see the black darkness of her eyelids. When there was no trace of red left in her sight, she opened her eyes.

The mall food court seemed no different than before. Ahead of her, the red light was working through the hallway. She knew it was attached to some kind of maligned intelligence. The way it scanned through the mall, the way the light seemed to move. It had to be more than just a strange beacon.

Climbing up from under the food court tables Maria heaved a sigh of relief. She survived again, but how long was it till red light made its next pass? How much time did she have to scavenge here?

She made a mental list of the things she needed. Supplies that would see her through till the end. Using the tables for leverage she pushed herself as quick as possible away from the food court. Once she located a second working powered wheelchair her final lap around the mall was decisive.

A proper backpack and a change of clothing. More bottled water, fruit, some bags of chips and the leftovers from her Dollartown belongings. A durable wrist watch she knew would last. A sturdy black walking stick she noticed in the display of some wilderness store. A pair of men’s leather gloves. A couple of those Japanese toys she found so difficult to understand, let alone pronounce. A bag of candy.

The mall’s security office was left wide open, and she had no trouble gathering the last of her most precious supplies. Batteries, a proper heavy duty flashlight, and keys to the mall’s official on-site vehicle.

Mercifully, the car was parked nearby in its designated spot. After traveling down the short ramp into the indoor parking she left her wheelchair behind. It would be the last time she needed to sit in one of those damn things if she could ever help it again. Loading up the car with her scavenged belongings she felt confident this was the right choice.

Placing her walking stick in the passenger side she took a moment to adjust the seat to her liking. The parking lot was just as empty as the inside of the mall. A few cars were left sitting in center lanes. One had clearly drifted into a wall without a driver, but it was nothing she couldn’t navigate around.

It felt ridiculous using her turn signal when pulling out of the lot. Maria contemplated driving on the other side of the road in defiance, but then realized she couldn’t bring herself to. There were still laws in this world. Others had survived here. Her family was still out there. She needed to know they were safe.

The city streets were devoid of life. Empty cars sat parked in the middle of the road. Local businesses kept their doors open to darkened storefronts. In the rearview mirror she saw the mall rapidly shrink away from her sight. Somewhere beyond it all was the crater. A massive hole in the heart of the city.

Looming above was the void, a dominating sphere of influence hanging over the empty city. Somewhere at its peak a red light shimmered like a beacon. A searchlight, for those lost in the urban silence.

Chapter 3 - 19/09/2018

Matt woke up to the feeling of disorientation. His body was shaking. A panic flooded him remembering where he was last, and he opened his eyes to find the harsh white light of a glaring lamp nearly blind him.

“Oh no! Oh God, I’m so sorry!” beside him a woman quickly placed a hand on his shoulder. She reached to turn the lantern away. “No, no you have to lay down a moment. I didn’t mean to knock into your bed, ugh! Stupid!”

With the glaring light gone Matt could get a better measure of where he was. His bed was a simple cot in the far corner of some kind of tent. A makeshift hospital if he had to guess. Nearby a tray on wheels held several medical tools, and all around similar were storage drawers and tables waiting to be pushed into use. A strong wind caused the entire tent to shift and lean, though its several metal support beams seemed to hold fast.

The woman beside him swore again, shaking her head while she rolled her eyes. Her voice and accent were unmistakably local, but the dark tone of her umber skin and braided hair made her background difficult to pin. Matt moved to sit up a second time and she eased him back.

“Hey, sorry but give me another moment. I know this is kinda weird but I just have to make sure they didn’t rough you up too badly.” she pulled a stethoscope from the table, affixing it to her ears.

“I’m sorry, where am I?” Matt did his best to sit still, keeping an eye on the exit.

“You are at what the boys call Staging Ground One. Or, the S.G.O.” she lifted his shirt up with one hand to better hear his heartbeat with the other. “Do you know where the Filheart Sanctuary is?”

Matt nodded in a silent, cautious reply. Back when the Federation was ramping up its public works efforts, several projects were put into place to immediately improve its citizens quality of life. Major overhauls that required massive governmental cooperation between its labor force and the Federation’s own superhumans. The intercontinental superhighways were one such project, as was the Reforestation Initiative. Both were incredible efforts designed to help integrate Federation personas into less combat-focused positions.

The Sanctuary Initiative was one of the last programs set into place, but it was by far one of the best received. A complete overhaul of every qualifying academic facility that handled environmental education and awareness. Everything from public zoos to butterfly gardens were given teams to help properly modify their facilities to meet more modern standards.

Renamed from its previous identity, the Filheart Sanctuary was everything you could want from a zoo and more. Large enclosures with impressive multi-angle cameras that displayed to live feed monitors around each exhibit. Regularly scheduled featurettes on various flora and fauna throughout the facility. Residential areas for staff, interns, and potential school attendees. An automated shuttle system to help guests move from venue to venue. Staffing overhauls and improved facilities to help with the care, relocation, treatment, and potential medical triage for all their inhabitants -- human or otherwise.

The significant upgrade had come with a few costs, and not just financial ones. Acres of land across country were claimed by the initiative to help facilitate the relocation of certain buildings. Matt had heard that those moved were fairly compensated by the government, but who really knew the truth of these things. Even still, the Sanctuary Initiative was a hit with very little opposition. Filheart Sanctuary was no exception.

“We’re in the zoo?”

“Welcome to Kingdom Plantae! Though I guess it’s hard to tell.” the woman smiled, setting her stethoscope aside to offer him a hand. “Cecilia Cross. I patch people up around here.”

“Uh, Matt.” he said as they shook hands.

“Well Matt, the good news is that aside from a bit of fatigue you’re doing great. That’s just a side effect of the tranquilizer. Your neck will probably feel a little sore for a day too. You’ll have to blame that one on Kane.”

A man entered the tent carrying a large box as if on cue, smiling warmly to the pair before setting it on a nearby table with a grunt. The combination of his posture, black fatigue pants, grey sleeveless shirt, and obvious sidearm set him apart from being a normal civilian. Cecilia turned in her chair to give the man a friendly wave. He returned the favor, and walked over to shake hands.

“Hey, you must be the new guy! Kane. Sorry about the whole neck thing.” said Kane, looking somewhat embarrassed. “We weren’t sure if you were one of the afflicted or just caught in its path.”

Matt’s memory came back in a flash. The ooze-looking creature from the game store. Its weird arm growth.

“Wait, that was you?” Matt sat up, this time with some assistance from Cecilia as she pushed back her chair to give him more room.

“Well, me and a few others. We’ve been hunting that critter for that past few days now. It’s slow, but can more pretty fast when it feels inclined. We weren’t sure the sedative we had would work but it seemed to go inert after a few rounds.”

“I’m sorry, this is a lot.” Matt shook his head. “So you tranquilized the ooze-thing, and then you sedated me? How long have I been here?”

“Just a day.” Cecilia placed a hand on his arm gently. “They weren’t sure if you had been attacked or not and didn’t want to just leave you there.”

“Yeah, sorry man.” Kane sighed. “We’re pretty sure this guy wasn’t wandering alone, and leaving you back there seemed shitty after what we did to ya. I hope there’s no hard feelings.”

Matt frowned. It was a lot to take in all at once. If these monster hunters made their base at Filheart Sanctuary he was a couple hour drive away from the rest of his group. Not ideal, but at the very least he was glad to be safe.

“No, it’s fine. Thanks. I think it was trying to get me. You said you knocked it out? Did you kill it?”

“Wanna see?”

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Once outside the medical tent there was certainly no questioning Cecilia’s claim. They had erected the tent in the center of a botanical garden. It was a massive greenhouse that made Matt feel as though he was stepping out into a well-maintained jungle. Fans blowing around the facility simulated a swaying wind. Kane led the way out and of the building into open park.

Little had changed since the Dust had fallen. Whatever power supply the park had seemed largely disabled, but as much of the facility was environmentally friendly there were still signs electrical life all around. Solar powered shuttles still moved on their automated tracks, pausing at intervals to let would-be passengers on. Vending machines, fountains, and certain lights seemed to be functioning off the same technology.

A massive sign made of rolling metal leaves and blossoming flowers welcomed them both to the Kingdom Plantae. Matt could see clearly that they had just left a structure labeled Deciduous Delights -- one of several literal branch paths that forked from the main entrance. The paved road was designed to look like a tree and offered other routes that explorers young and old could take.

“You ever been here before?” asked Kane, his eyes scanning the area like a watchful hound.

“Not since they finished renovations. How far in are we?” Matt was guided over to a nearby shuttle that had just parked to let on new passengers.

“On foot we’re a pretty decent hike to the main entrance. Residential units aren’t far from here so we keep this plant-whatever area as our primary medical hub.” Kane gestured ahead of the road as the shuttle began to move. “All these roads feed back to the main gate. From there we can hop over to any other spot in the park.”

“These things just run all day?”

“Pretty much. We’re ready for the day they break down, but they’re built to last. Plus there’s a garage with a ton of replacement parts.”

“How many are in your group?”

“You scoutin us out?”

Kane flashed a playful smile that made Matt suddenly feel uncomfortable. He was so taken in by their surroundings he had completely forgotten the circumstance. He was an outsider, and one that they may not even trust despite having brought him here.

“Sorry, that was rude. I didn’t mean--”

“Our group’s a bit slimmer these days. Got about thirty bodies in total.” Kane waved off the apology. “Not all here though. We rotate out, going on expeditions. Hunts, if you wanna call em that.”

The shuttle was a smooth ride across a paved road. Sprawling across both sides of the lane were rows of trees and shrubbery, with an arc of vines crossing above to provide some extra shade. It made the trip feel rather enchanting while serving a dual purpose of preventing guests from seeing what took place behind the scenes. Even with natural weathering it would take a long time for these roads to break down and become unusable.

It was only a ten minute ride to the central hub, and the pair spent it mostly in silence. Matt wasn’t sure what questions were safe to ask and Kane seemed happy enough to keep to himself. Now and then the pair looked to each other, then smiled awkwardly before looking aside. Mercifully, their arrival in the park’s main gate gave them something to talk about.

The Filheart Sanctuary’s entrance was originally designed to be a tourist checkpoint between each major branch. There were gift shops, restaurants, and a visitors center for answering questions and checking baggage. Signs of the original Sanctuary’s designs were still there, but many changes had been made to repurpose the hub to the needs of its new residents.

Several cars and trucks were parked in the square, filled with various supplies. Soldiers moved about, some busy rearranging cargo while others kept guard or made idle chatter. The entrance to the park wasn’t far off from the highway, so tension was understandable. Kane gestured at notable areas as their shuttle began to slow down to a complete stop.

“This is the main entrance. We keep most of our vehicles here, with exception to a few that patrol the sanctuary grounds. The diner over there still works. One of the few places that used gas but we rigged it with some solar panels so we can make hot food year round. The apartment block has power too. Running water and everything.” Kane smiled proudly.

A group of soldiers waved and said hello as the pair left their shuttle. Another had just arrived and Kane seemed eager to reach it. Matt waved back politely while they jogged over, cracking a smile as one soldier made a choking gesture and laughed. Kane waved it off.

“Fuckin comedian. Anyway, the visitors center is our social area. We’ve got games and everything. Some arcade machines, movie nights, puzzles, you name it. There’s also a secondary first aid station in the back behind the diner. We’ve got one at each hub, just in case.” Kane tapped Matt on the shoulder to bring his attention to their next destination.

They passed under a large arching metal sign that read Kingdom Animalia. There were no rows of twisting plants or trees to line the road here. Instead there were carvings. Animals of all shapes and sizes, flowing with each other in a single stampede. Care was taken to fit as many creatures of various sizes as possible, so that the eye needed to travel with the natural movement of the carvings until the destination was finally reached.

The journey to Kingdom Animalia felt longer than the ride from Kingdom Plantae. Matt would have asked how long it would take, but needling Kane with questions seemed like a quick way to irritate the man. So instead they sat in silence. Matt watched the stampede sculpture as they rode, trying to name each one as they drove by. Kane stared off into the distance ahead. When the soldier finally spoke, it almost startled Matt from his seat in the shuttle.

“Looks like you get to meet Father a little early.”

“Who?” Matt craned his head to look past the shuttle interior at their destination.

Five men stood at the entrance to the park, speaking casually to each other. Their attire and weapons marked them as soldiers cut from the same cloth as Kane, but one in particular stood apart from the rest.four

The man was tall, dressed for travel, and wore a metal leg brace that seemed to require a cane for him to use. The way the other four men looked to him it was clear he was the leader, at least in terms of their conversation. An unruly beard, shaved head, and very slight gut reminded Matt of a backwater survivor. Someone more comfortable hunting ducks in a swamp than giving orders to organized paramilitary forces.

“The one with the bum leg. That’s Father.” Kane leaned back in his seat as their shuttle slowly approached. “He’s an American. Was special ops or something like that back in the day. So he says. I don’t pretend to know the whole story. Don’t really care either. What you should know is that when one of those creatures came charging down on me and my men, it was the Father over there that stabbed that motherfucker with a homemade spear.”

“By himself?”

“All alone. Said he’d be hunting it for days. Told us there were more. Asked if we wanted to help.” Kane spoke quietly, shifting in his seat. “Everyone here is working together to make things right again.”

“So he’s in charge around here then?” Matt paid close attention to Father as they drew closer, trying to capture whatever details he could.

“More or less. Without his expertise I can’t say I’d still be standing here today. There’s a reason this all works so well. This guy gets it. If you want some helpful advice, he’s probably going to ask you a question or two. Just be honest, alright?”

Matt gave a respectful nod in reply. His mouth was a thin line of concern. How far away was he from the entrance now? Were they going to let him leave, or was this all some kind of a test? Why should he care about any of this?

Their shuttle pulled into its designated temporary parking area, catching the attention of all five men standing at the entrance. Quietly the group concluded a low-speaking conversation while Matt and Kane stepped from their shuttle. A round of laughter echoed from them before the Father eventually stepped forward with his stiff leg. It was an act that took a while to perform, requiring a considerable number of smaller steps just to properly turn.

“It appears our young guest is awake.” Father’s voice had a warm and undeniably southern accent to it, though Matt couldn’t place from where. It was like listening to an old cowboy, or at least someone’s idea of one. “Calvin Barrow, but folks around here just call me Father. Pleased to meet you.”

Matt shook Father’s hand, expecting the other men to introduce themselves only to watch them turn and walk away. “Uh, nice to meet you. I’m Matt. Thanks for helping me out. And, I guess, taking me here?”

“Oh it’s no problem. It looks like Cecilia has been treating you well. Did my associate here tell you anything about me?”

“He says you’re the one in charge.” Matt followed slowly as Father began to guide them deeper into the sanctuary, cane tapping rhythmically on the ground as they went.

Here the sanctuary felt more like a proper zoo. A few shops and a visitors center dotted the surroundings before pathways representing various animal classifications branched away from the main street. You didn’t need to walk far before reaching the first few viewing areas, though each exhibition was given ample space to shine on its own

“You could say that.” Father’s leg creaked as they walked. “I prefer to see myself as more of a guiding hand than a...leading one? I don’t do analogies. Still, someone needs to keep things organized. I leave decisions in the field to the boys. Here, within the sanctuary? I keep the order.”

Father turned to look at Matt as they slowly approached what appeared to be a viewing arena. A nearby sign displayed colorful facts about lions, lionesses, and their natural habitats. They paused in front of it, just short of the enclosure, and Matt felt as though he was on some kind of an automated tour.

“We prefer to keep to ourselves but now and then they bring in someone like you. I know you’ve got questions. I’ll answer as many as I can but if you’d humor me a moment, perhaps I can answer a few of your more pressing concerns.” Father waited for Matt’s response, then continued to speak, leaning heavily on his cane. He sounded practiced, like an old storyteller recalling their favorite tale.

“I’m no local. Came here with my daughter. We were on vacation, staying in the city, being tourists. This was just another stop on the journey. One of the reasons I planned it actually. War hadn’t reached the north yet. Federation controlled. It was supposed to be safe.

“Then those red flakes fell from the heavens and all hell broke loose. You’re a local, so I know you’ve seen some of it. According to the military this is likely a side effect of that shit they put in the sky. The Dust. It was supposed to make the extraordinary just ordinary again. Instead we got this. Half the lake burning under some crazy ass purple fire. A fucking whirlpool floods downtown, flushing the population into God-knows-where.

“That ain’t what killed my little girl though. She got run through by a monster. Some bone demon crashed through a window while we were trying to get out of town. Maybe it was a person once. Maybe Federation, maybe a Separatist. Maybe one of those gifted that slipped through the cracks in the system. Doesn’t matter. Whatever it was before, I watched it tear my little girl apart like a wild animal. Just shredded her, and ran. There wasn’t a piece left I could hold.

“So I did the only thing left I could. I hunted that piece of shit down, and I killed it with my own two goddamn hands.”

Matt wanted to speak but he knew the story wasn’t over yet. He had expected the man to go on. Instead Father gestured they follow, guiding them ahead. All three stopped just shy of the lion enclosure, where a thick glass barrier separated them from a quick drop into the concrete pit.

It was built to look like the edge of an oasis. A pool of water sat along the edge of a muddy bank, natural earth rolling up into several small hills. There were trees that could provide shade, a large tire that appeared to be some kind of a toy, and in the far rear of the enclosure were several avenues that the inhabitants could retreat from view entirely. Matt remembered hearing somewhere that every enclosure had an area closed off from public access.

The lions had long gone. In their place, standing at the top of the tallest hill, was a chittering mass of flesh and bones. Two legs stood to support a blossom of gore that used to be a man’s rib cage. Sharp bones had burst through the chest and interlocked with strips of muscle woven between. Even at a distance it was easy to notice heat emanating from within. Blackened skin surrounded the core of the flesh furnace. Its chest was arched backward while its body contorted to give the crest of protruding interlocked bone a full display. Like a volcano of sinew ready to erupt.

Matt was fascinated. Transfixed. He searched for a sign of humanity within the creature. It’s head and face were charred and twisted to become unrecognizable from the rest of its bone-punctured chest. There were too many splinters shearing the flesh along the curve of the neck. Too many ribs entirely. Its arms sagged at its side, held in place by limp shoulders.

Father cleared his throat before speaking, as if to make sure that Matt was really listening to what he had to say.

“We found this guy wandering the sewers like a walking landmine. Up until Mr. Pompeii here we’d been just killing em under controlled circumstances. Lure em into a trap then light em up. But this thing? Just stood there. Only time it moved was to spit out some nasty looking fire anytime something came close.

“That’s when I realized we were doing things all wrong. Just wandering out into the world, hoping to stumble across afflicted freaks. No idea what we were ever walking into. If this is a war then we need to learn about our new enemy.”

“Did you know that one percent of the world was alleged to be superhuman?” Kane said, peering down into the enclosure. “There were over two million people in this city. Let’s say the Dust was ninety-nine percent effective. What’s that left?”

“A few hundred?” Matt struggled to do the math in his head, still looking down at the monster below.

“A couple hundred.” Father corrected, tapping his cane against the protective glass. “A couple hundred of that. Creatures that explode when you go near em, turn into weapons, spit acid, whatever. That’s not even including the ones that killed themselves transforming into wildfires the size of football stadiums.”

Matt watched as the twisted remnants of a person vented a small pillar of flame from its chest. The way it bulged made him think of a pipe releasing excess heat or pressure. “So what, do you just wrangle them in here?”

Father tapped his cane on the glass again before gesturing that they continue onward. Matt kept his eyes on the afflicted for as long as he could as they walked away. It shuddered and spit another gout of flame. Father continued on. His words felt accented with every click of his cane and creak of his leg brace, as though he was reciting lines to an slow, sad beat.

“I don’t. I leave that work to Kane and his boys. Some you just can’t catch. Too weird, too dangerous. If that’s the case they put em down where they can find em. But the ones we can get a hold on? We bring em back here, and study our enemy as best we can.”

Ahead was a large cave, or at the very least a building designed to look like one. It wouldn’t have surprised Matt to learn that some Federation-registered geomancer constructed a building made of rock just for a bit of extra show. A sign above the cave’s mouth read Cavernous Crawlies.

There was power in this part of the sanctuary. The cave was dark, but atmospherically so as dim lights above gave just enough illumination so that visitors could see their way. Wall mounted tablets flickered small details about inhabitants. Snakes, lizards, spiders, scorpions, and all manner of insect called this part of sanctuary home.

Moving through a winding tunnel Matt listened to Father speak loudly. His voice echoed in the fake cave, which left an uncomfortable feeling in Matt’s chest. Inside, in the simulated dark, it was hard to force back the natural urge to be still and silent. They way prey kept safe from a predator.

“It doesn’t matter if they can spit fire or shit lava. These creatures have rules, Matt. They were human once. Their power was great but it had limitations then. Same rules apply here. We know bullets can kill most of em. Hell, a good knife would do the trick if you get close enough. But how do you get close to these monsters? Tell me how to sneak up on something that can just grow eyes out of its back. Or arms.”

They stopped in front of a large enclosure built into the cave wall. Thick glass separated their group from the scene of a bamboo garden at night. A light in the upper corner of the display imitated a full moon shining above. Information panels all around suggested this was a home for some kind of snake, but at the center was a sight familiar to Matt. A mound of flesh with skin that rippled like water. It sat in isolation, unaware or unable to recognize their approach to its enclosure.

“You got picked up nearby this thing right?” Father tapped the glass gently with his cane, trying to prompt its attention. The mass of flesh didn’t budge.

“Yeah. It snuck up on me.”

“Well then, you can understand just how dangerous these things are.” Father put his hand on Matt’s shoulder. “I won’t ask if you’ve got people out there waiting for you. I can see it in your eyes. Eager to leave. Happy to go. But if we’re going to survive as a race we need to work together.”

Father put his hand to the glass. In the blink of an eye the flesh across the ooze convulsed and rippled as several hands violently exploded out from within its mass. Stretched fingers and wide palms grasped against the glass to frantically bring Father into grip. They slapped wet against the glass harmlessly, then slowly reeled back into the ooze. Elongated arms clicked their multiple elbows, bending and snapping their way back under the surface of liquid flesh.

“You’re going to stay here and help us Matt. We could use the extra body, and you owe us your life. You’ll work around the sanctuary with Kane here until you’ve earned the right to leave.”

“Earn the right? How am I supposed to do that?” Matt looked between Father and the afflicted, suddenly aware of how close Kane was behind him.

“Knowledge is the only currency that matters anymore, kid. Figure out the secret to killing this abomination. Teach my men. Prove it works. Then we let you go.”