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Chapter 4 - 05/10/2017

It had been an unusual month for Zachary Gilbert. A week in the woods quickly taught him how ill prepared he was for travel. After nearly breaking his ankle climbing downhill it was only through dumb luck that he stumbled across a small cabin. The place was already looted save for a few sparse cans of food, but it gave him shelter and some time to make a plan.

He wasn't cut out for the life of a wilderness explorer, but if he could find a car, or friendly town, Zachary was sure he could prove his worth in other ways. So he traveled west. Slowly and carefully, taking no unnecessary risks until he had finally reached his destination: Fort Derringer.

"I think we've got enough space to pack a movie or two, if you want. Rec room had a few good ones."

Zachary turned his attention to a nearby screen. Maybe once it had been a source of information for soldiers and military personnel passing through the halls. Now it was just a blank canvas. Pitch back, save for white letters that would crackle to life in the center.

No thanks.

"Suit yourself." he chuckled, hauling a tightly-packed bag over his shoulder with a grunt.

A part of him still wondered if he was going crazy. It wasn't the first time he had seen something he couldn't explain, but unless he had stumbled into the world's most elaborate prank show Zachary was pretty well convinced he had made friends with a ghost. Or, at the very least, they were on relatively friendly terms.

The two made an unusual pair, but after weeks of travelling alone Zachary was glad to have someone to talk to. He never brought up the ghost's history, or how it may have died. It seemed like that would have been a rude question to ask. Not like he really wanted to talk about his past either. Instead he just took to calling the ghost a more suitable name. Bee. Because it always made this annoying buzzing sound before taking control of an electronic.

It had taken a while to figure out a way for Bee to travel with him. At first they thought Bee could power a car and drive, but it proved to be a little too difficult for the spirit to manage. They considered everything from a generator to batteries, but nothing really seemed to fit. Sure, Bee could literally fit inside any of those things. It just wasn't right. There was an agreement that the pair would be travelling companions. Companions needed a way to talk.

That's when they stumbled upon their solution.

Zachary stepped out into the daylight, bag in tow. Loading the stuffed duffel into an equally packed jeep he took one last moment to appreciate his surroundings. Fort Derringer wasn't quite home, but it had been damn close over the last week. He was certainly going to miss it.

He heard the crackle of electricity nearby as Bee found its way from an outdoor electrical socket to a nearby scrolling electronic sign. Ready any time. The letters scrolled from right to left across the information board, looping from one side to the other.

Thick clouds had begun to roll in overhead. Sooner than either expected. They had debated waiting for any potential storm to pass but decided against it. There would be a dozen reasons to postpone their trip. Better to start the journey now than spend another day waiting for the perfect time to travel.

"Well then, let's get going." Zachary said, fondly patting the jeep before taking out a cell phone from his jacket pocket.

Their solution seemed perfect. Something portable that could show text, with a camera to boot. Federation-assigned phones were durable, held a charge for days, and were relatively water resistant. The phone couldn't run any games or third party apps, so hardly anyone had one for personal use. It was no surprise when they uncovered an entire stockpile unopened. Unexpected good fortune in the dark of an abandoned place.

Zachary could feel the tug of static in the air. It was startling at first; watching Bee make a leap into a physical object. A flash of light, sometimes even the sizzle or pop of loose wiring. Like witnessing a miniature lightning strike. Zachary turned to look away, not wanting to be blinded by the light, but looked back when the familiar flash never came.

Instead he heard an unfamiliar rumble in the distance, from beyond the southern gate. It sounded like cars at first. Maybe a group of trucks, or something bigger. A loud clanking noise, like metal scraping against concrete, until it all came to a sudden halt. The solid metal barricades of the southern gate made it impossible to see beyond, but it was no doubt they had visitors.

Confused, Zachary turned back to the scrolling sign to see a new message scroll across the board.


There was yelling outside. He couldn't really understand about what, and was straining hard to hear when a loud scraping bang began to ring against the gate. Four feet of reinforced steel began to buckle inward. Large, noticeable dents that slowly began to twist and push the gate inward with each violent pounding.

"Man, we've got to go! Come on, come on!" Zachary held his phone out to the scrolling screen again only to find it blank, lifeless.

All across the southern wall of Fort Derringer things began to move. Automated weapons Zachary had never even given a second thought sprung to life, twisting and uncoiling like serpents. There was another bang at the gate, men shouting, then the overwhelming hum of weapons fire filled the air with a single, mighty roar.

As the fort's defenses sprung to life above, something behind the southern gate redoubled its efforts to break into their makeshift sanctum. The banging intensified not just in tempo, but also with force. Huge panels of the gate had already begun to twist away. Something large was working hard to widen the growing breach, warping and manipulating the metal from the other side. For a moment Zachary could have sworn he saw someone dressed as a firefighter try to crawl through the hole.

Something beyond the southern gate violently exploded, spouting a gout of flame through the breach that caused Zachary to stumble back in fear. Screams of agony burst from the hole, clear as day. Within a cloud of smoke and flame the invaders began to move. Another slam and the hole grew wider. Another, and the hydraulics holding the metal in place began to buckle.

Covering his ears to block out the turret's deafening assault, Zachary sprinted for the driver's side of the jeep. Bee was buying him precious time to escape whatever was beyond the wall. He couldn't waste it.

It was impossible to hear the car start over the roar of weapons fire. Zachary prayed this would be to his advantage as he slammed down on the accelerator, making his way for the northern gate. As if expecting his escape the gate immediately began to open, thick steel reinforced doors slowly swinging outward. A sigh of relief escaped his lips the moment he passed through, speeding into open road.

Tearing through Fort Derringer's unmanned checkpoint he risked slowing down for a moment to look behind him. The gate doors were already starting to close. A tremendous boom sounded off in the distance. Black smoke, then suddenly the sound of automated whirr of weapons fire became more pronounced as the northern wall's weapons sprung to life.

"Come on Bee...come on..." Zachary slowed the jeep more, swerving around abandoned cars while keeping a close eye on his rear view mirror. "We can go. Just go!"

A flash of light and the high-pitched whistle were the only warnings given before a series of explosions rocked the top of the northern wall. Chunks of concrete and metal were flung far in every direction. A second round of explosions rocked weapon emplacements, creating thick black pillars of smoke.

Crawling from the blend of dust and debris was an arachnid shape, heavily armored in metal plating. Clamps at the base of each leg acted as stabilizers to keep the machine balanced; gripping hard into Fort Derringer's walls as it scaled down the northern gate. Flat-backed like a tarantula, the armaments laid across the walking tank seemed to bristle at a distance. Weapons designed to cut through flesh or pulp apart metal with relentless precision.

It turned, body swaying to track Zachary's jeep as it rolled down the highway.

He hit the gas hard, focusing his attention on getting as far away from the fort as quickly as the loaded jeep would take him. Amid the cloud of dust and debris in his rear view mirror the walking tank was just beginning to make its way down the wall. Ahead, miles of clear highway stretched toward the Canadian border. If the tank was planning on crawling its way in pursuit, Zachary hoped that was as fast as it could go.

A loud KA-CHOON was the only warning given before an explosion nearly tossed the jeep into a headlong spin. It was through sheer luck that the momentum of the blast tossed the vehicle into a steel lane divider. Metal ground loudly against metal as Zachary fought to regain control, mind racing with what to do next. Dark storm clouds above thundered ominously. Or at least, Zachary prayed that's what he heard.

He looked at the road signs ahead, searching for one that would guide him to safety. Water had already begun to fall. Hard drops ringing on the roof. Slowly turning the highway's flat grey into patches of slick wetness.

Floodlights in front of an upcoming exit suddenly sprung to life. Faith's Highway. Bold white reflective letters suddenly tossed into illumination. The sudden flood of light startled Zachary, who nearly swerved off road the moment they flashed on. Highway lights ahead began to flicker, pulsing one after another in a rhythmic pattern.

"Bee! Hell yeah, where ya been?" Zachary shouted while steering around scattered debris, following the trail of lights to the exit sign.

Scrambling for the cell phone in his pocket he slowed the Jeep just enough to make the sharp right turn off the main highway. The road curved back around and into a tunnel that cut underneath the main road. As the jeep rolled into the pitch darkness of the underpass, another KA-CHOON sounded off in the distance. An explosion shook the earth from somewhere above just as the Federation-issued cell phone sprung to life.

You have to keep going.

Words scrolled into the device's notepad app. Zachary couldn't help but smile. He was far from safe, but at the very least he was in good company.

"Can you hear me? I'm not supposed to text and drive." he said, trying hard to keep the jeep steady while navigating the underpass.

Get to the bridge. The tank is too heavy to cross.

"Roger that!"

Speeding out of the underpass into a sheet of rain the pair tried to ignore the thumping slam of heavy metal somewhere behind them. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Neither could tell if it were lightning or an explosion sounding off in response to the tank's main gun. Zachary was too busy trying to swerve around parked cars and loose debris to give it much thought either way.

Faith's Highway was a tourist trap, and true to the title many of those who had come to visit the wondrous glass bridge never left. Cars were abandoned along the main road, while others had become stuck in the grass trying to find an alternate route to their destination. At some point a plow must have come to cut through the traffic, flipping smaller vehicles while pushing aside others to form a clear path. A plow, or something as strong as one.

Whatever had cleared the main road had mercifully cleared Faith's Highway as well. Streaks of damage marred the floor of the glass bridge, ruining the illusion of its travelers floating effortlessly on air. Some cracks across the large panes made Zachary feel a little nervous, and he took extra care to guide the jeep's weight around any pane of glass that could give way.

KA-CHOON. Zachary's eyes settled in the rear view mirror at the sound of the noise. There was barely time to register the spider-tank looming in the distance before his attention was suddenly torn in half.

Ahead, the ground detonated in front of him. Thick shards of reinforced glass were thrown in every direction. A gaping hole quickly surrounded by a spiderweb of cracks was left in the aftermath. Zachary gripped hard on the steering wheel, cutting wide to avoid the growing chasm, only to find the jeep's tires had tore free of the ground. With no grip to purchase on the glass road, momentum and gravity easily tossed the vehicle onto its side and into a roll.

Zachary tried hard not to panic. He fought to keep his bearings as his world spun wildly. Loose baggage in the back of the jeep danced freely through the cabin, and something struck him in the arm with enough force he was afraid a bone had broken. Somewhere in the back of his mind he could picture that damn tank, crawling forward, spitting superheated death wherever it roamed.

The cell phone began to ring. A spark activated its alarm timer. GET UP GET UP scrolled across the screen alongside a pair of tiny bells, dancing back and forth.

Bee. Zachary undid his seatbelt. Every inch of his body hurt, but something inside him screamed that he was in danger. Danger that was getting closer. Bee knew what was best. He dragged himself out of the shattered front window and into the pouring rain, trying hard to avoid cutting himself on jagged glass or twisted metal.

Pulling himself from the wreckage he could see just how close he was to the end of the bridge. Fifty yards at the very least. A loud crack behind the wrecked jeep reminded him of the growing web of glass beneath his feet. In the distance, the spider. It was shockingly fast, maneuvering over uneven terrain and abandoned cars with the crushing force of its metal legs.

KA-CHOON. Zachary was just gathering his courage when the sound made him freeze in terror. He waited agonizing seconds, expecting to die at any moment when the mainland exploded into a cloud of dust and fire. It was trying to seal off his escape.

Risking a glance back at the tank he was just in time to see it reach the bridge, gently testing the weight of a metal leg against the first reinforce glass pane. It seemed to hesitate. The rain made it hard to see, which only grew worse with each passing second. Thunder rolled overhead, causing Zachary's heart to reflexively seize with fear.

The cell phone's alarm went off again, buzzing as its vibrate feature hummed to life.

Get to land.

"I don't think I can make it. That thing's waiting for me."

Zachary turned to look again. It moved, but seemed to be searching for something. Three figures were approaching. It was difficult to see through the thick curtain of rain, but their flashlights clearly marked them as three dangerous blips on the road.

You've got to run. I can't help if you stay on the glass.

"They have guns Bee. If they start shooting--" Zachary was interrupted by the phone's sudden vibration. He could feel Bee's electric impatience tickling through the device.

I won't let them get you. I can do this. Trust me.

Zachary only had a moment to read before the screen flashed a bright white, then suddenly cut to black. He knew Bee had left him. There was no time to argue. He was afraid to look around the corner and see how close the figures were now. So he didn't. Instead, he ran.

Pushing away from the jeep's wreckage Zachary tried his best to keep hidden in the shadow of the overturned vehicle. He felt his boots struggle to find traction against the surface of the bridge. It was hard to walk, harder to run, but somewhere between he found a balance.

Thirty yards. Light flickered from behind, focused on him. Men were yelling, but he couldn't understand what they were saying over the roar of his heart pounding in his ears. Each wet slap of his boot against the ground felt more unsteady than the last.

Twenty yards. Gunfire. Someone behind him was firing single rounds. A bullet ricocheted nearby. Another struck the glass floor with a wet tink. After the third he felt his leg give way suddenly, as though it couldn't hold the weight of his body any longer. Zachary hit the ground hard, sliding forward across a slick pane of glass.

Ten yards. Looking down through the glass bridge he could see the lake below, calm and untouched by rainfall. It was dark blue and seemed so pure. Unlike the rainwater that pooled around him, clouded in blood. He tried to crawl but could find no grip. His right leg could move, but the hole just above the ankle told a primal part of his brain that he wouldn't be running anywhere. Somewhere in the distance, a tremendous boom cracked through the sky.

The sky flashed brilliantly. Zachary had never seen anything like it before. Streaks of white jetting through the clouds. It reminded him of those science shows he used to watch before everything had become so damn hard. The synapses of a mind, lighting up. Memories. Motion. The human will at work.

Stubbornly, he forced himself to his hands and knees. The pain was immense. He could hear footsteps splashing nearby in the water. Three men, their attire an ironic mix of weapons and Federation EMT attire. Ammunition bandoleers slung over the protective cross that once signified help. First responders of violence.

"You think you're pretty fuckin clever, don't ya?" said one, stepping ahead of the others with machete in hand. "Where's the rest of your group?"

Zachary was about to answer when he felt it. The pull of static across his arm. The others must have noticed the feeling as well, as they paused to turn to each other in confusion.

A single white bolt of lightning tore from the sky. The first man was struck with enough force to rip him from the bridge. Ammunition kept across his body violently exploded into bursts of shrapnel, pulping his corpse into a cloud of red. Then, like a wave, the light ripped across the bridge.

Jagged arcs of lightning sunk into the other two raiders like the teeth of a predator, scorching their bodies while fusing their flesh and cloth into a blackened coal. Glass panels cracked or shattered as strands of light streaked across the bridge, rising like a chorus into a single crackling scream.

The bolt of lightning ricocheted across Faith's Highway until reaching its destination. At the far end of the bridge the tank twitched for a moment, metal plated armor turning white with heat before sinking to the ground unceremoniously.

Zachary blinked. It had only taken a second. It felt like an eternity had passed.

Using the knife at his side he cut a strip of cloth from his jacket, tying a hard knot around his leg wound. He crawled to the edge of the bridge. Slow agonizing movements that made him want to cry.

"Bee! Coulda used some warning there, buddy!"

He called out into the dark. Ears ringing, eyes still trying to blink away the white glare of light that had undoubtedly saved his life, his hand finally found a grip on pavement. The glass floor came to a sudden end.

"Bee. You did it." Zachary didn't try hold back the relief in his voice. "That's it. It's over."

The town ahead was dark, and no doubt looted. But maybe something had been left behind. He had been lucky in the past. There was a long crawl ahead, but it was one he didn't have to make alone. Already the rainstorm had begun to subside. Clouds above had slowly begun to disperse.

Zachary checked his phone. The black screen stared back at him quietly. Raindrops ran across its surface. Unpredictable streams of water, flowing down into his hand.


He held the phone up to the night sky as long as he could. Cold and shivering in the dark, Zachary began the slow crawl into the abandoned town, stopping only to check his phone for a sign of his friend.

Chapter 4 - 27/09/2018

Father spoke for a while longer, but Matt could barely register what the man was saying. Something about a schedule. Maybe details about food and water. They stood in front of the exhibition until it was suddenly time to leave. From there he was guided out of the cave and toward the sanctuary’s on-site apartments.

If Matt wasn’t so distressed he would have been impressed. The apartment block was like a small hotel only fifteen minutes from the core of Kingdom Animalia. Along the way there were other exhibits -- sunken enclosures, and large decorative pens designed for the maximum comfort of its former inhabitants. Most were empty, but on occasion Matt thought he spotted something else lurking within.

His apartment wasn’t quite the penthouse, but it was certainly a fancy accomodation given the circumstances of his captivity. There was power, just as Kane had promised, but after spending so much time in the dark it seemed strange to use it now. They were kind enough to leave a few items in his fridge, including some bottled drinks and snacks. Kane let him know he’d have a guard outside, in case there was anything else he needed. It wasn’t a comforting thought.

Much like the rest of the accomodations his bedroom was clean and likely hadn’t been touched in months. It was there Matt found his backpack, largely empty save for a single flashlight. All of the batteries he had found were gone, as well as the solar-powered lamp.

Underneath the deflated canvas bag was the copy of Dawnblade. It was in good condition, still sealed with the store’s plastic wrap. He sat on the bed and picked it up as gently as he could. It felt heavy. He wondered what the others were doing. Would they go looking for him? Should they?

He had only been gone a day, but it felt like an eternity had passed. Staring out of the window of his unfamiliar bedroom he realized there was a reason why they had picked this to be his room. Up so high you could see almost half the sanctuary. It was a gorgeous view of the zoo’s grounds, almost like looking down at a map.

Up this high there was no chance for escape. His door was most certainly being guarded. Climbing down wasn’t an option. There was nowhere to run and nothing to do but enjoy the stunning view of his new prison.


The next three days were spent in constant observation. Kane was assigned as Matt’s personal guard, a task the man seemed reluctant to take on. Each morning they would travel to the diner for breakfast then help with tasks around the park. Cleaning dishes, gathering firewood, and occasionally moving supplies were part of their regular duties.

Despite requiring Kane as a constant companion Matt found there were frequent moments in his day when he could keep to himself. He ate alone, preferring silence rather than to talk amongst the soldiers that held him captive. Cleaning was often done when others had left to perform their own tasks; and ferrying around supplies at least made him feel somewhat helpful to Cecilia, who was always appreciative with an extra hand at the medical station.

Afternoons and evenings were filled with chores of a different nature. Each day they would patrol Kingdom Animalia and observe its new inhabitants. The flame-spewing captive in the lion’s pen was always the first stop. Not every enclosure was occupied, but many were, and Matt tried his best to observe them for as long as possible before Kane decided they should move onto the next.

They visited a woman, half naked and afflicted with several bruises, wounds, and cuts. She huddled to herself, bawling while surrounded by exotic and dense flora. Her prison was an outdoor glass enclosure shielded from the sun that once held a display of birds. She seemed so fragile, but Kane was quick to point out a flaw in her image. She was a shapeshifter, both a lure and maw projected by the real creature hidden nearby. Three men had been killed trying to save her. It wasn’t until two soldiers described seeing different women at the same time that they figured out the ruse.

Past her enclosure was another sunken environment designed to hold a bear. It’s inhabitant sat in a pool of water trying hard to submerge itself under a layer of green algae. Like a chitinous spider its legs fidgeted under the surface as it sensed their approach, openly shivering when they came into view. They watched it from above each morning to ensure it hadn’t moved.

“Killed two of our own with a spear on its underside. It’s loaded with toxin. Made em vomit blood till they passed out.” Kane remarked in passing. “I still think we should just shoot it.”

One afflicted reminded Matt of a harpy. A body twisted and blended between two species. A man with wings for arms, talons, and a wicked looking beak. Near the man-harpy’s habitat was another afflicted that sang like a wind chime despite its heart being pierced with a glowing green crystal. At first it seemed like the creature was someone caught within a transformation, but Kane assured otherwise. The threat wasn’t the man, but the gemstone. Upon closer inspection Matt could see where the skin cracked and seemed to give way to a growing infestation of crystal underneath. Its host wandered aimlessly, mouth agape. A ringing chime sounded loudly from within its pierced and corrupted lungs.

Of all the afflicted they visited only one was given special attention. An emaciated shell of a man who seemed barely able to support himself enough to crawl. They kept him isolated in a pen on the far side of Kingdom Animalia. Matt watched as Kane pulled a protein bar from his pocket. Taking great care to remove it from the wrapper Kane broke off a small piece no larger than a sugar cube and tossed it into the enclosure.

The crumb landed in the concrete pen, barely noticeable at a distance. Immediately the frail body began to move itself toward the treat. Whatever strength it had seemed focused in only a single area. Legs dragging behind, its arms did most of the work in pulling the body forward. More than once its strength seemed to give out completely, forcing an exhausted rest before the man could renew its crawl toward the meal.

Eventually it reached the scrap of food, grasping its morsel of the protein bar with a skeletally-thin hand. They watched it strain to chew. It seemed to savor the act for as long as possible, and with every second that passed Matt witnessed vitality began to course though its veins. Musculature pumped into its body, hiding away a bony frame under proper layers of fat and tendon. It reminded Matt of a balloon inflating.

Within seconds the emaciated man looked completely normal. Matt locked eyes with him for a brief moment before he turned and walked away, finding a shaded and isolated part of the enclosure to tuck himself under.

It was a ritual of sorts. Kane had said he was to be fed only once a day. Before and after each feeding they would do a round of his perimeter to check several live rodent traps. There weren’t enough insects in his enclosure for them to worry about, but a single rat caught unaware could prove disastrous.

After they patrolled the grounds Matt spent the most time becoming familiar with the subject of his assignment. Kane would stand or sit nearby and read a book while Matt quietly panicked over the task at hand in the darkness of the artificial cave. For hours he stared at the rippling wet skin of the ooze, hoping that with enough time he could divine some kind of secret weakness. Unlike the others kept in the sanctuary it seemed relatively active. He would watch it slowly glide from one end of the reptile enclosure to another, as if patrolling its territory.

Determining the best way to kill it felt like an impossible task at a distance -- not that he wanted to be any closer. Hoping to motivate some level of creativity he wrote down each idea in a journal picked up from the sanctuary gift shop. After three days of consideration he had come up with a list he was embarrassed to have spent any amount of time on:

Crush it with a rock (can it be crushed?)
Convince it to eat a grenade (does it eat?)
Lure it into a hole?
Rocket launcher?
Cut off a

He had stopped before the last idea had manifested itself into uncertain scrawling. One of Father’s conditions was that he perform the act himself, and the idea of getting close enough to cut any part of it seemed daunting. Of the two times he had seen the ooze move, only one had been a slow and labored action. When it struck out at Father it was with incredible speed. Matt couldn’t hope to match such a supernatural force.

Once he tried probing Kane for answers, but the soldier had given him very little to work with. They had stumbled across it in a construction yard. After breaking someone’s leg with its malformed limbs it slunk away -- but not before they fired several rounds into it. If bullets had any effect they weren’t sure. It didn’t seem to bleed, but must have been hampered in some way. Its trail had become easier to follow over time, until they found it in the mall. The sedation darts they fired were simply absorbed into its skin, but still seemed to do the trick.

It wasn’t until the fourth day that Matt had made a proper breakthrough in his investigation of the creature. They had just finished their rounds of the other afflicted, and Kane had stopped outside the entrance to Cavernous Crawlies to place a hand on Matt’s shoulder.

“We’ve got another hunt coming up. I’ve got to keep an eye on you so I won’t be going, but there are some details I need to clear up with the group. Maybe an hour or two at most.”

“What are you hunting?”

“No idea. They may not find anything, but we don’t want to cover areas we’ve already gone through. Anyway, I’m leaving you here to do your research. I’ll come pick you up when I’m done.” Kane paused, letting the weight of his words hang. They trusted him, but not enough to keep from using subtle threats. Kane’s other hand sat comfortably on his holstered pistol.

Matt hardly felt he needed a reminder. As his jailer left to attend to other business Matt wandered into Cavernous Crawlies, notebook in hand, ready to come up with new ways to end a life.

Without Kane by his side the cave didn’t feel quite so oppressive. Most of the inhabitants had been cleared out, but some of the smaller exhibitions had been left intact. There were several incredible displays on the way toward the ooze’s prison and he spent some time admiring them for a change. Many of the displays existed within their own isolated ecosystem, and its insect inhabitants had yet to notice the absence of human contact.

Matt took the time to read each enclosure’s data panel. He would have explored more had he not come across a scene of jagged rocky outcroppings. According to a nearby plaque it was designed for the Arizona Bark Scorpion. Something about the arachnid made his heart feel uneasy.

He wondered when it was last fed. He wondered if it would survive the year.

The ooze didn’t seem any different from the day before. It was still sulking around the enclosure, making an occasional pause as it seemed to notice something before moving on. Matt pulled a chair closer to the glass. Maybe he would find something new if he just sat a little closer.

“Another day huh?” Matt said, opening his journal to a fresh page. “It’s just you and me today, so if you have any crippling weak points or severe allergies I’d really appreciate you just letting me know. Peanuts, bee stings. You know.”

The ooze continued to move, squelching throughout its enclosure. Matt watched it quietly. He considered sketching it but decided not to. It probably wouldn’t look like much, and if Kane or anyone else saw him shading uneven circles instead of actually working toward a solution they would likely just feed him to the creature sooner than later.

On its first pass around the enclosure Matt noticed a few things worth jotting down. When it came closer to the glass noticed its skin was always rippling. It reminded him of the way water droplets moved near loud music or a heavy bass. He wondered if perhaps that was how it moved; via some kind of humming from within that rolled it forward.

The second time it approached the glass Matt tried a closer inspection. Pressing against the barrier he tried to spot more details within its flesh, but ultimately gave up the endeavor. It was like trying to see though muddy skin-toned water. There was something beyond it, but what? The arm? Organs?

Matt pressed a hand to the glass as it drew closer, curious to see if it was emanating any kind of heat. As he waited to determine a difference in temperature the ooze suddenly came to a halt. He braced himself for it to lash out like it did at Father. Instead it sat inert and unreadable.

“Can you see me?” Matt leaned closer, searching for some kind of reaction.

A ripple pulsed across its liquid flesh. He watched as fingertips slowly pierced the veil of its unnatural skin. The hand that emerged was still malformed and elongated but seemed more definitively human than the last. The wrist and arm were raw by comparison. Pink like the flesh of a newborn. It pressed its palm against the glass where Matt kept his. Even through the thickness of the reinforced glass he could feel its warmth.

“Can you hear me?” Matt whispered. Remembering the barrier between them he spoke again, loudly. “Can you hear me?”

There was a moment of hesitation before the hand slowly turned into a fist. Then, very slowly, its thumb unfurled and raised into an unmistakable sign.

“Holy shit. Ok, wait. Wait.” Matt quickly flipped his notebook to a blank page, clicked his pen, then paused. The ooze’s malformed hand firmly held a thumbs up with grotesque enthusiasm.

“You’ve been listening this whole time. So you know what I’m trying to do?”

The fist unclenched and hung the air. The ooze pressed its palm flat against the glass, then tapped a finger along the surface.

“Right. So you can’t talk. But you can hear me.” Matt paused, scanning the room quick to make sure they were still alone. “One tap for yes. Two for no. Uh, three for ‘I don’t want to answer’. Ok?”


“Did you understand Father, when he brought me here?”


“So you know I’m a prisoner too.”


“When they caught us, you were reaching out to me. Were you trying to hurt me?”

Tap. Tap.

“What were you trying to do? No, sorry. How am I supposed to believe you? You’re an afflicted, so you had powers. Were you Federation?”


Matt frowned. “I guess you’d say that, though. I want to believe it. These guys seemed alright too. Some of what they’re doing is good, yanno?”

Tap. Tap.

“Don’t say that. Look, you used to be human, right? I’ve seen the shit they’ve captured out there. It’s like a nightmare zoo. What would you do if you ran into a woman who was actually some kind of deadly mouth? Or a swamp spider made of bones?”

There was no reply. Matt looked away. He told himself he needed to keep an eye on the door for Kane’s return, but it was also easier to pretend this way. That he was talking to a person.

“Sorry. That wasn’t fair. I know you didn’t ask for this. But, whatever you are now, you know the world is dangerous. How can I trust you?”

There was a pause. The hand twitched. It pulled away from the glass and settled on the ground. Matt’s heart sank as he realized he must have offended it, then watched in fascination as the ooze began to convulse. Another hand slowly broke the layer of rippling skin. Then another, and another. Each one was like a mockery of human form. Fingers that were too large, or arms with far too many joints. Several had palms wider than should have been, forcing its fingers to spread unnaturally.

They broke the surface of its form one after another, a blossom of limbs extended from every inch of its body. As each hand emerged it bent and twisted to reach the ground underneath. Palms outstretched, elbows bent, they worked in unison to lift the ooze off the ground. Surprisingly, it held form. A sphere of liquid flesh that was now much thinner than it seemed before.

Beyond the layer of semi-transparent skin its insides pulsed rhythmically. Matt tried his best to understand what he was looking at. A stomach? Veins? Tendons? The entirety of its being seemed to unfurl within. Its insides moved and twisted. A curtain of gore was drawn apart. In the center of its mass beyond the tangle of unnatural organs Matt could see without question the unmistakable pump a beating heart.

“That’s how to kill you. You have a heart.” Matt watched in awe.

Dozens of hands moved in tandem.Tap.

The display of its weakness was impressive, but it clearly caused a strain to the ooze. Its arms began to tremble before it was forced to release some of the pressure. Organs tumbled back into place, hiding the heart behind a layer of thrumming meat. One after another arms folded back into its body. Each made dark ripples flow across its flesh as it slipped under the skin. There were dozens of arms supporting its weight, but after several had folded back under the surface its skin returned to a glistening opaque norm.

“Alright. I get it.” Matt nodded. “That was really gross, but I get it.”

Folding all but one of its hands back underneath the ooze slowly approached the glass. It raised a hand to rest on the surface. A gentle act done with a careful, if macabre, grace. Matt hesitated for a moment before slowly raising his palm to meet it.

Even through the glass it felt warm. This was a living being.

“We can’t stay here. You’re just a monster to them, and I’m only alive so they can figure out what makes you tick without putting themselves in danger. They’ll kill me if I don’t try to kill you, which means we don’t have long. We need a plan to escape.”


“Alright. We’ll do it. Together.”