WRITING BITE Hall of Fame

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Iwaku

Edgenoble
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SITE ACCOUNT
This thread shall hold record of all winners of the Biannual Iwaku Tale Event (BITE) for posterity and prestige. Manager's Pick winners were selected by the BITE managers; Community Pick winners were voted on by the members of Iwaku.

BITE #1: Night Bites
 
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Iwaku

Edgenoble
Original poster
SITE ACCOUNT
BITE #1: Night Bites

Announcement Thread
Voting Thread

Community Vote Winners:

Jays Jays with Legacy
Legacy

"Thank you so much for being here, Mr. Walker. I didn't know what else to do. It's been 4 months and nobody could help us. You are the last option we have left."
"Just Walker, please, John. It's not a name, it's a title." His voice was smooth as velvet and red wine.

The living room lay in disarray, uncared for, numerous items discarded and broken. Dusk's light streamed through the half-curtained windows, a single blade of amber splitting the scene of unlit sorrow and pain-stricken faces. John and Ingrid Howard sat in front of him on the opposite couch, huddled together without holding one another, an unspoken distance. Her eyes were bloodshot and glistening, reflecting distrust and beaten strength, a woman with repeatedly shattered hope. The ticking of clock crashed deafeningly, like bells tolling damnation.

"When did your father give you this number?"
"He never did, sir. He bought a locked box in '72 and put a list of phone numbers in it. Told us to open only in case of absolute emergency when every other options had already been exhausted. I've tried the other numbers and they were all out of service. You are the only person to answer."

Even in the depth of his pain John Howard held his head high and kept his back straight, as if his disheveled grey hair was still brown, and his drooping, sorrow-stricken features were still that of a man in control. The months of worry had not been kind to him. Who would one be if the only thing defining their life was stripped away?

"Imagine my surprise when it rang. That number hasn't been active in decades." Walker's tone was clear, neutral, his accent unplacable. "Your father was a very dear friend." He could see the doubt in their eyes, the mother's especially. After all, he barely looked 40.

"Lily. It's a lovely name." The girl looked up at him with joy in her smile. Pure, untroubled. She wore a golden summer dress, her playful eyes gleaming like sapphire, its color of the ocean's depth reflected by her earring. The photo fell damp in his hand, half crumpled. Smelled faintly of salt and bitterness. "How old is she?"

"14 this August." This time Ingrid spoke, her words steely hard, backed not by inner strength but the familiarity of repetition, each time a cut so deep she grew numb to the pain. "She was still choosing a high school. Was going to make a big reveal that Friday."

Her gaze caressed the image of her daughter between his fingers, longing, aching to hold that fragment of her memory so intensely it burned his hand like the midday sun. Gently, as if handling a fragile soul, he set Lily's picture on the table between them and rose.

"Show me."

John touched his wife's shoulder comfortingly before standing and leading him out of the room toward the stairs. Behind him he heard quiet sobbing, despair barely suppressed. She had no hope in him.

"The police had been through the house several times. Nothing was disturbed except her room." John's voice while hushed still echoed eerily through the empty home, an abandoned temple, its goddess stolen. "We've had complaints about the smell, but I didn't want to clean it up just yet. It could still be useful, and maybe someone will come along and..." His voice trailed off abruptly into awkward silence. He hadn't meant to phrase it that way, hadn't meant to betray his doubts. Still, Walker gave no sign that he had caught it. The veil of pretense hung between them the rest of the way, one neither men acknowledged.

The stench hit them first several feet away, a revolting metallic, rotting miasma clinging to the surfaces and walls of this floor like moisture. The closer they got the stronger the smell grew, debilitatingly overwhelming. Scented candles lined the hallway but did little more than slightly dampening the odor's edge, adding a sweet taste of lilac and rose, like the smell of new graves.

"It's unpleasant in there, sir." John handed him a cloth similar to the one covering his nose, which he declined with a shake of the head.

The door whined like a banshee's wail, trepidation manifested in its purist form. John's hand shook violently, and he had to clamp his other on top of it just to push a lifetime's weight aside to reveal a glimpse of the dreaded space beyond.

Blood splattered across every visible surface of Lily's room, drenched every inch, soaking through every single object and wall and bed sheet and memory. Dried blood flaked and fractured, blanketing the room with unnatural cracks, a red porcelain so fragile as to risk shattering with a single touch. The final light of the day set the scarlet curtain to smolder, the color of funeral roses.

Walker's white suit burned like pale flame in the tinted gloom, a phantom traversing a hell of crimson and shadow. He had half-expected to find the floor underneath him sticky and wet, but of course it wasn't. Behind him John audibly gagged and retched under his cloth, still incapable of getting used to the full force of the stench.

"We found this in the morning, and she was gone." Through the gagging and the overwhelming trauma of the memory, his words were barely intelligible. "They didn't find any sign of forced entry or struggle, or her leaving by herself. She just...vanished."

"What did they say about how the blood got here?" Walker ran his hand lightly over the caked surfaces, rubbing the red dust between his fingers. The flakes glimmered like tiny shards of ruby.

"Uhm...the police said the people who did this must have brought it in during the day when we were out and, hid in one of the vacant rooms on this floor." John' self-control was slipping but he clutched it like a man drowning in guilt and self-blame. "They must have been right here not 3 feet from us." Slow tears trickled down his face, the dam leaking, weathered down by the relentless waves. "I kissed her goodnight."

"It was not your fault, my friend."

"Wasn't it? I could have checked the rooms. I could have installed an alarm like Ingrid asked. I.."

"The blood was fresh."

A momentary pause. It hadn't been what the other man had expected.

"I'm sorry?"

"The blood was fresh." Walker's gaze traced the discoloring edges of each splatter, a painter examining a familiar canvas. "It was freshly drawn that night. Hours-old blood doesn't have the same texture or weight."

Slowly, confusion and a spark of light shone through John's eyes, the drowning man finding his straw suddenly sturdy. "So...how did they get it in here?"

"There are only 2 exits." Walker murmured, more to himself than the other man. He drew back the curtains to the glow of street lamps and the night sky. The day had died some minutes before, giving way for golden artificial light to cast the crimson room into washed-out melancholy. His eyes glimmered like emerald gems in the glow, impervious to time.

"No human could lug 70 pounds of blood through a window 5 feet off the ground or a narrow second floor hallway without waking the entire house." Though it was no answer, it was true.
"What about the blood itself?" The smell was inescapable, the sight pervasive. The crimson screamed to be heeded, a message to haunt one's dream for a lifetime.

"It wasn't hers. Mostly animals', pig, chicken. And...something similar to goat?"

"It's not goat." Walker's voice was barely a whisper, like strands of smoke dispersing in the wind.
"Now, I have enough to start."

John's face lifted in an obvious forced smile, too exhausted to bother hiding his despondence.

"My friend, I don't give promises lightly." Walker's hand on the father's shoulder was tender. Compassionate. "But I know what you are going through. I know what it's like to lose a child. So I promise you this,..." for the first time that night something other than steely confidence touched Walker's features, an intensity of absolute attention that bore into the other man's eyes, resolution burning like the sun, "...I will find her. And I will bring her home to you, safe and unharmed."

John Lenney returned the gaze, and what he saw fortified his own hope even if for those moments. He nodded slightly, the gesture conveying a trust given without reserve, father to father.

Lily's mother didn't see Walker out when he left, but he hadn't expected her to.

----

LA at night was a feverish dream, the metaphysical manifested. The glamorous Downtown burned eternally, a neon heaven of sins and ecstasy unbound by daytime conventions, thinly veiled under throbbing multicolored flares and deafening beats drowning out all consequences. The City of Angels nurtured her own demons, crafted a personal hell where the lawless were kings, and the hopeless gods. Where lives were merely the entry price, and blood a mark of dominion. So enticing she was, so alluring, so mysterious, like the perfect night one chases their whole lifetime but never finds.

Walker's search took him into the underbelly of the beast following a trail few could pursue, through a past he had left behind decades before. Nothing resembled what they had been; bigger, better versions of the same establishments lay atop where their predecessors used to be, the demons freeing themselves of their bindings chain by chain. The mask of legitimacy had lost its exclusive value; now every crook and ex-con could get one for a couple of grams and a blowjob.

The fever of LA welcomed him home with open arms and loving whispers. A hunch brought him across town to several butcher shops and underground Satanic suppliers, none of which yielded much progress. They had covered their track well, whoever he was hunting, at least their more conventional loose ends. The years away had made most of his contacts unusable, his options limited. But the game hand't changed, and just like cops knew to follow the money, in his world one need only follow the blood.

Five hours and several favors later found him outside a nightclub at the intersection of Venice and Griffith. The street was deserted and murky, street lamps few and far between. The silence stretched long as shadows, broken only by the occasional sound of cars passing by a few streets over. Walker's white suit seemed to glow against the backdrop of midnight, a lone specter wandering purgatory.

His watch hit 1:11 AM when a side door of the club banged open, letting ear-piercing stroke-inducing bass music into the night, and a figure emerged silhouetted by flashing strobe-lights. A woman of about 35 strode onto the street, lighting a smoke. She wore a hoodie and jeans, her hair slicked back covered in sweat, the amber fire of the smoke revealing tired eyes and weathered features that were still beautiful despite the years.

His approach out of the dark startled her, and he could see her hand dropping into her purse, no doubt for a readied pepper spray.

"Hello." He offered his most disarming smile, his voice light and clear. "My name is Adam. I'm looking for Miss Janet Bailey?"

Her alarmed gaze ran from his smile to his eyes, searching, assessing. What she saw slowly relaxed her posture, but her hand never fully withdrew from the purse. "Sorry honey, I'm off hour. Come back tomorrow." She pushed past him without letting him out of her sight, a level of wariness very much warranted in these parts of town.

"I'm not here for that. I want to talk to you about your brother, Dean." He made no move to follow her and she showed no sign of turning, or even appeared to have heard.

"I'm looking for a missing child." That stopped her, perhaps due to either the sincerity he was trying project or the words themselves. "Please."

"Dean never had anything to do with any missing child." She said over her shoulder, an obvious edge in her tone.

"It's not about him, it's about his past associates." Their voice rang through the crisp night air like echoes of dreams. "Please, miss, just...let me buy you a drink."

Finally she turned to regard him, her eyes reflective beads of glass gleaming in the faint light.

"Associates. Miss. Shit, no one talks like that. You a cop?" She paused to take in his appearance again and shook her head. "No, you don't look it. No cop goes out at night dressed like a spook in a thousand dollar suit."

"It's just a suit." His smile never wavered, only softened until it was little more than a lingering hint on the corner of his lips. "How about that drink, then?"

Janet drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Finally she nodded. A few moments passed of her looking at him expectantly, neither of them moving.

"I...uh, don't know the neighborhood very well." That prompted a raised eyebrow. He only managed to look sheepish and shrugged.

"This way."

The clicking of their boots disappeared into the night, devoured by the unseen road.

----

The bar Janet led him to was a reserved establishment, hidden in an alley away from the main streets. The wood paneling, furniture straight out of the 1980s and the lack of patrons during the prime partying hour made it seem more small-towned than something that would fit in the big city. The clock on the wall struck 1:30.

Janet headed straight for the bar, and the bartender, a young Hispanic man perhaps in his early 30s, fixed her a drink without prompt.

He started to speak the moment they settled in, but Janet's raised finger made him swallow whatever he was about to say. She threw back the Whiskey in one and slammed the glass on the counter, hard.

"What do you want?" She mumbled, her eyes still squinted shut from the alcohol.

Instead of answering, he called himself a glass of water. Both her and the bartender gave him odd looks.

"You spooks and your tight-ass rules. No drinking on the job sounds like a bullshit excuse to jack your price." She made a disgusted face, her stare drilling a hole into the shelves opposite. An unpleasant past experience.

"I'm...not a PI." He only smiled in return, his gaze lingering on the bottles behind the bar a moment too long. "I also don't drink. Not anymore."

"So what the hell are you then?"

"Just someone trying to help two grieving parents." He sipped his water like it was fine wine. "Sorely lacking these days, I think."

She sniffed hard, possibly more at him than what he said, and drank some more.

"From what I've heard, your brother was...special." He chose his words carefully, hesitantly testing the water.

"You can just say it, I don't really give a fuck. He was crazy, stupid, deranged. He thought he was a vampire." She didn't meet his eyes, staring deep into the bottom of her once-again empty glass as if it held all the answers in the world.

"Yes." He could sense more the see that the bluntness both hurt and relieved her, like ripping off a band-aid. "How much do you know about the other people in his weird circle?"

"Next to nothing other than their names. They were a secretive bunch. Not really like a cult, but more a bunch of crazy idiots enabling each other, you know? At first I thought they were just kids playing make-belief, or one of those emo groups that everybody hates but that's basically harmless." She downed another drink like chugging cold water. "And then one day I caught him drinking blood." She half-gagged at the memory, her face twisting into a mirror of past recollection.

"Human blood?" He kept his tone light and interested, prompting rather than interrogating.

"No, thank god for that. Cow blood. One of his buddies got it for him. Bed sick for 2 weeks straight after that. Stupid fucking bastard." A fleeting smile touched the corner of her lips and was gone.

"Hmm."


All the bar's lights were off but for the one above them. Somewhere between Janet's fourth and fifth drink the bartender had disappeared, leaving the bottle on the counter. The street outside was completely deserted, letting a complete silence creep in through the windows like a numbing muted scent. It felt as if the entire world had faded away, and they were on a lone island of color and sound drifting on the ocean of midnight.

"January 16th, 2015. There was a gathering of this group which was an acceleration of their normal pattern involving sacrificial rituals done with a very special and rare type of blood. Your brother was reported to have come into contact with it. What do you know about this?"

"Nothing about what you just describe. Though the date does strike a memory." Her voice was already slurring, her eyelids drooping. She had to struggle to stay awake.

"He came home late that night. I noticed he had a change of clothes, he was wearing things that weren't his. He smelled...metallic. Like blood, but...worse. Like sulphur. I asked him about it and he said he hung out at the library. He had...injuries. Self-inflicted, I think, on his arms and neck. He yelled at me for washing his favorite shirt with the wrong powder, so I knew he probably wasn't suicidal. I left him alone."

"Is that all?"

"All that I can remember, yeah."

"What about his friends, then? This...vampire group."

"What do you want to know?"

"Tell me everything you can recall."

So she did.

----

The ticking of clock thundered in the quiet space. 3:17 AM. The bottle was empty, the glass overturned. The only sounds were quiet snoring and the rhythmic tapping of his fingers on the hard wood of the bar. A scented candle burned on the opposite shelves, its sweet smell teasing up a memory he couldn't quite retrieve.

"Miss Bailey? Miss Bailey." He shook her shoulder lightly without a response.

"She's like that most nights these last few weeks." The bartender reappeared, collecting the bottle and glass. "I already called a cab. Here's her address."

"What happened a few weeks ago?" He looked up sharply catching the unspoken detail, but the other man was already gone again, leaving behind a note with the address on it. Walker's eyebrows furrowed, his gaze passing from the note to the back door swinging close. A quiet moan brought his attention back to Janet. Leaving a fifty on the counter, he rose and gently dragged her out of her seat. She reeked of the cheap stuff she was throwing back for the last hour.

"Come on. Let's get you home, alright?" He murmured, half supporting, half carrying her out the door.

A taxi screeched to a halt outside just as they made it to the curve. Gently, he set her onto the back seat and handed the note to the cab driver before walking off back the way they had come. But he hadn't gone 5 feet before being called back.

"I can't take her like this, man!" The short stocky middle-aged man yelled, a sour expression on his face. "She's out cold. I can't be responsible for this!"

Walker paused between the pitch black road, indecisive. His watch showed 2:24. Half way 'til morning.

Another second of contemplation, then he turned and walked back, getting into the passenger seat. The cab roared to life, a beast declaring dominion over abandoned roads. Its light vanished into the pit of the fevered city.

----

Janet's apartment stank of midnights' exhaustion and woeful disregard. The entrance was littered with empty fast-food boxes, discarded clothes and days-old trash bags. The air felt stuffy, suffocating, like a sealed tomb over a bubbling swamp.

He flicked the light switch only to find the single bulb in the living room shattered, pieces of glass scattering acrossr the floor like shards of broken memories crunching under his shoes. Letting out a long sign, he deposited the mess of hair, cheap alcohol and sweat on the couch and walked to the bathroom, turning its light on. A cold white glare cut through the disarray, brushing expertly a painting of loneliness and abandonment on a canvas bleached by unkind years and rocky paths.

A softness touched his eyes, nearly tender. Here was the full turmoil of a life presented before him in all of its sorrow and heartbreak. A memory tugged at him, begging to resurface.

A sudden groan snapped him back to reality.

"Where the hell..." Her words were almost intelligible.

"Your place. Is there anything I can get for you, Miss? An aspirin, maybe?" He turned her eyelids and checked her pulse. It was only normal intoxication. The amount she had got him worried, she had clearly had more than a few at the nightclub before they met.

"Cupboard..." She slurred breathlessly. The headache was catching up.

He came back a few moments later with 2 pills and a glass of water, which she chugged like the booze from before.

"I have to go." He absently murmured, beginning to rise. A damp hand grabbing his own made him pause.

"Stay." She whispered, her eyes downcast. "Stay. You're already here. Stay a bit longer." Her voice was clearer but still sluggish.

"I...can't, Miss. I'm sorry." His brows furrowed sadly, almost compassionate. "I have work to do."

"Quit the fucking charade!" The sudden outburst caught him completely off-guard, so much he didn't react to move in time when she shoved hard at his chest only to bounce off back onto the couch.

"Isn't this what you have planned the entire night, fucker? Getting me back here all drunk and easy?" Her voice rose to a shrill scream. "You can drop the fucking gentleman act now! You think you're so clever, don't you, preparing all these fucking questions, acting all mysterious and shit. News flash, you dumb fuck, no normal human being shows up in the middle of the night to interrogate people about their dead brother!"

She shoved him again, and this time he retreated a step.

"You want me to beg, you sick fuck? Is that it? Taking advantage of people in distress isn't enough for you? You want to see them grovel at your feet like dogs?" She swung wildly at him but missed, her legs wobbling and throwing her onto the floor. He sprung forward and caught her before she hit, only to have her scratch, claw and tug at him like a feral animal, pushing him away.

"Miss Bailey, I..." And then he saw it. Her eyes were wet with tears, make-up running down her face like rivers of ink and blood.

"You are grieving." He said quietly. A statement rather than a question.

The screaming seemed to have drained everything out of her, and she curled herself up on the floor and cried.

The silence between them stretched long, broken only by heartbreaking sobs wracking her small frame like autumn leaves in the wind. He sat a distance from her, feeling her pain and anguish radiating like smells, a palpable bitter scent he could almost taste or see. He made no move to come closer or try to comfort her, only sat with her in the cold, dark solitude. Offering his presence, and nothing more.

Eventually her sob subsided and the stillness took hold for a while longer.

"I want to take a bath." She said it so quietly he almost didn't catch it. "Help me."

Without a word, he pushed himself off the floor, removing his jacket and rolling his shirt sleeves up. Gently, tenderly, like taking care of a child, he undressed her, peeling off clothes drenched in sweat and reeked of booze, and carried her into the bathroom.


A haze hung in the air, the steam drifting lazily like a mist. The water was near boiling but she didn't make a sound. The tile at his back cooled his drenched shirt, sending shudders down his spine.

"Aren't you going to ask?" The veil of moisture distorted her voice, twisting regret into melancholy.

"Ask what?" He was only being curt. He knew what she meant.

"Who I was grieving."

"Should I?"

A moment of silence.

"My husband died last month. Car accident." The steam muted her pain, giving her words an eerie air. "He promised he would be back before lunch." Numbness radiated with each syllable.

"That's...the thing with promises, isn't it?" His chuckle was dry, humorless. "Each broken one is a tragedy. Makes you wonder, why make any at all?"

They shared a small laugh that trailed into more heavy silence.

"I notice you have a ring."

That drew his eyes down to the band of gold on his left hand. It was cool to the touch when his thumb pressed against its damp surface. Through the layer of condensation, he could almost see the reflection of a familiar form.

"Yeah." He murmured. "Sometimes I forget it's there."

"I'm sorry." She offered. It wasn't for him. It was for both of them.

"So am I." He breathed, his gaze far away. Absently he twisted the ring around his finger, slowly. Round and round and round.
"Do you have any kid?"

"Yeah. A boy." He could hear her smile. "He's at grandma's now." A pause.
"He's the only thing I have left." It was a sad smile, courageous, but beaten.

"I had a little boy as well." His was a wide, unrestrained smile, bright, happy. Sorrowful. "I had a little boy. He was the light of my life."

She seemed to sense his sadness.

"I'm sorry." This time it was for him.

"Thank you." was all he could manage.


The room was quiet except for her slow breathing. He checked his watch. 3:47. Only a few hours until dawn. Gently, he pulled the blanket tight around her and exited, closing the door softly behind him.

----

The crash resounded throughout the building, the crack of wood splintering and metal contraption ripping apart deafening in the narrow hallway. Any other part of the city there would have been shouting and at least five 911 calls. Here, however, the denizens were more than used to signs of violence and loud noises. Walker dusted wood fragments off his shoulder and entered the shabby apartment. The single bulb swung lightly from the vibration of heavy footsteps of the floor above, casting unnatural, trembling shadows across the room.

The curtains were fully drawn, furniture almost non-existent except for a couch, a TV mounted on the wall and a half-crumbling kitchen table. Personal touches were few and far between, little indicating that the person living here thought of the place as home. His boots clicked against the bare unfurnished floor past the living room toward the other doors. The bedroom was in much the same condition, as was the bathroom. The place looked like it hadn't been lived in for weeks.

In the bedroom closet he found a cardboard box, carelessly discarded. The contents were marked as belonging to one Lincoln Holmes, who also happened to be a member of Dean Bailey's old vampire group. Inside were several notebooks and files containing lists of contacts, maps, disturbing drawings of satanic symbols.

And at the bottom of the box, a single ocean-blue earring.


The line rang 3 times before it was picked up.

"Howard. Who's this?" Exhaustion bled through like audible noise.

"It's me. I didn't wake you, did I?"

"I hardly sleep these days, sir." There was no conviction behind John's chuckle. "How can I help you?"

"I found a lead."

The line went quiet for several seconds.

"How...how promising?" His voice was shaking, a man struggling to hold back his fear, not daring to hope.

"Could lead us straight to her if we're lucky." Walker's tone was hesitant, unsure. Afraid to over-promise. He could hear the other man swallowing, hard.

"Take me with you."

"It could be dangerous..."

"Take me with you." There was no room for argument in John Howard's voice, only steely determination. A father's resolution.

"Very well." answered Walker. He understood.

----

The warehouse was deep inside an industrial area where every building looked the same and endless crates formed a maze of steel and rot that led nowhere. A heavy chain held shut the chain-link gate, and he snapped it with a loud crack which resounded through the night like a gunshot.

"What time is it?"

"A quarter past 5." said John, holding a flashlight and looking like he had just crawled out of a grave.

The warehouse was half-crumbling, lacking maintenance for at least a decade. Grass sprouted from the cracks in the cement as high as their knees, blanketing the yard in front of the building.

"Are you sure this is the place?" John was having to fight to stay awake.

"This is the one." Walker said calmly. "She may not be here at all."

"I know." The words seemed to drain him, the possibility despairing even to acknowledge.

The warehouse's metal door groaned open on rusty hinges, letting out a blast of stale, moldy air. The flashlight beam ran over rows upon rows of empty shelves, broken and abandoned, unburied corpses of someone's past unremembered. Miraculously, when they snapped the light switch on. some overhead bulbs still worked, illuminating disconnecting patches of the floor. The carpet of sawdust crunched under their shoes as they moved through the space, searching for a sign, any sign. But half an hour went by and nothing noteworthy was discovered.

"We must have missed something." said John, his brows furrowed in worry. "There's nothing here."

Walker's hazel eyes seemed to glow in the gloomy half-light, scanning the ceiling and floor with patient care, casting his mind back to review each lead that had brought him here, each tiny detail. What had he missed?

A sound broke him out of his thoughts, a strange echoing noise under John's shoes wholly uncharacteristic of solid cement. The other man also caught it a moment later, and they exchanged a look of amazement. Together they knelt down and tested the ground again until they found the section of floor from before. Brushing aside the layer of sawdust revealed a wooden hatch.

"Is this what we're looking for?" Excitement bubbled uncontrollably through John's voice, the thrill of discovery temporarily distracting him from his tragedy.

"I believe so." Walker was more controlled, calm and leveled. They hadn't succeeded, not yet.

The hatch crashed open with a heavy boom, uncovering a seemingly depthless space, like the maw of some unspeakable beast patiently awaiting its next prey's foolish descend. John lost his breath at the sight, his gaze boring into the darkness as if his daughter would materialize out of the opening any second.

The wooden rungs creaked worryingly beneath them but held together. Only half a dozen steps took them to the bottom, the space underneath more wide than deep. Bare brick walls surrounded the claustrophobic basement, covered by a multitude of messy crawling Satanic symbols sprayed in red. The flashlight beam swept across numerous badly drawn depiction of sacrificial rituals and 3D-styled slogan proclaiming the End of Days, and finally came to rest upon a small frame in one corner.

John's body started to shake the moment he spotted the figure, his face frozen in shock and frightened hope. His eyes went to Walker, seeking reassurance, or affirmation. Walker didn't meet the other man's pleading gaze, his own fixed unblinkingly on the tiny body not 10 feet from them, gradually closing the distance while surveying every visible detail. Could it be?

It was a child, he could see that much, lying face down. There was no indication that they had been there long, the clothes - hoodie and jeans, which provided no further detail of any kind- were still at first glance clean and new. The child's hair was hidden under the grey hood. There was no sign of injury. Walker found the hand he was extending shaking when he touched the child's shoulder and rolled them over.

A little boy of maybe 10 years old looked up at him groggily, squinting against the glare of the flashlight. Behind him, he heard a sobbing gasp, the sound betraying more dismay and pain than a thousand screams.

"Hello." He breathed, brows furrowed gravely but his smile stayed friendly regardless.

"Hello." The boy replied with a tiny voice and his own hesitant smile, rubbing his eyes sleepily.

"I'm Adam. What's your name?" Walker said, one hand diverting the flashlight hand behind him away from the kid.

"Noel?" He said it shyly, like a question.

Walker pulled Noel into a sitting position and carefully dusted the front of his clothes off. "Do you know where you are, Noel?"

"No..." His voice grew even tinier, as if he was expecting to be punished for not knowing the answer.

"No, no it's okay. It's alright. You're not in trouble. You're just far from home is all. Where are your parents?"

"I don't know..." It was clear that Noel wasn't going to be of much help.

"Let's just get you out of here first, and then we'll find a way to get you home, okay?" Noel nodded dumbly, still not fully awake. Walker took the boy's hand in his own and turned toward the ladder.

He found John sitting on the floor with his head in his hand. Fear and devastation radiated off him like palpable heat.

"I don't know if I can keep doing this." His voice quavered, teetering on an unseen edge. "I don't know how much more of this I can handle." His form was slumped, drained by warring emotions.

Gently, projecting all the strength he could muster through the touch, Walker set his hand on the other man's shoulder as he had done in Lily's room only hours before. "I have given you a promise that I will bring her home. And so I will." The smooth velvet in his tone was gone, replaced by granite. "But I cannot do everything by myself, John. Your daughter needs you." His eyes pierced into the tear-filled gaze of the frightened father in front of him. "Lily needs you." He hissed those last words, a violent reminder. They stayed that way for a long minute, until John finally pulled himself back together and took Walker's offered hand to be pulled to his feet.

"Thank you." He whispered quietly, a thousand more things left unsaid but understood all the same.

"It's my duty." Walker replied softly.


The half-light of the warehouse above was liberating compared to the claustrophobic hovel below.
"Now what?" said John, seemingly not expecting answer.

Walker was about to answer when a noise snapped his head toward a dark corner. His blazing emerald gaze narrowed, then widened in recognition. Slowly, his expression changed into something sad, aching, almost...regretful.

"I'm sorry, my friend."

"What is it?" John asked, but then he saw it.

Eyes in the murky black, glowing crimson like blood moons, radiating gleeful malice. Ten, twenty, forty, he lost count afterwards. Low grumbles from countless throats shook the very floor beneath their feet.

"What is that?" The terror John showed only fueled the eyes, and they began to circle, keeping to the shadow. Round and round and round. Walker signed to his companion to stay where he was, his stare fixed on a particular patch of shadow.

A figure entered one of the pockets of light, a middle-aged man with blond hair and dark complexion, wearing a black suit. He was grinning ear to ear.

"Our guest of the night is here." He proclaimed, the presenter of the circus introducing freaks.

"Powell." He said plainly, without surprise or accusation. "I take it this is a trap, then."

That only earned him a smirk. "Very perceptive of you, Walker. We've come to do our duty as hosts." Deliberately, no doubt savoring the show, two of Powell's front teeth began to lengthen, growing into grotesquely pointed fangs like that of a feral predator, twisting his already savage expression into that of an inhuman beast. "All 7 clans of LA are here to welcome you home."

And the eyes began to mutter, mocking, scorning.
"Look, look, here comes the great Walker of Ruins. All kneel before his Majesty and tremble."
"He hates us. Look how he despises us. We are ants under his boots. We are so afraid, terrified, quivering on our feet."
"Such compassion, such kindness. He shits rainbows and vomits sparkle. Everywhere he goes becomes utopia. We're so glad he's here."

And they laughed their petty, ugly laughs, a hundred nails grating on chalkboard, a thousand teeth grinding on stone.

"I've never hated any of you." Walker's voice was even, and everywhere he looked the eyes averted their gaze. "You are nothing more than junkies with bells and whistles. I don't hate you. I pity what you've become."

"Very generous, very noble." Powell said, his unnatural grin unwavering. "Now, you must have question."

"A few." He allowed. "I must admit I am quite puzzled as to how you crafted such intricate trap. None of you is clever enough for something this complicated. How did you know I'd recognize demon blood? How did you know I would be able track down a 2-years-old trail? Every crumb was placed so neatly exactly where I'd look. It's as if..."

"...the plan was made by someone who knows you intimately."

The voice stopped Walker dead in his track, his face frozen in absolute shock. The eyes quieted and a heavy silence devoured the warehouse.

A rhythmic clicking echoed in the hushed space like the inevitable tolling of death's door, and a second man stepped out of the shadow. He was perhaps in his 80s, though his back was still straight and his hair dyed a youthful brown. He wore a spotless white suit, nearly a matching version of Walker's. His tie was a brilliant scarlet the color of blood in the rain, and his piercing blue eyes projected frigid resolve. He leaned on an unornate walking cane just a little, as if fully utilizing it was a shameful weakness.

The stillness stretched, an eternity in a single moment. Finally the old man shattered the fragile atmosphere, his voice, a cultured, high-class English dialect, held a quiver of old age mostly suppressed by pure will power.

"You look the same."

Walker's face was slack, a hundred emotions passing through his features, numbness, fear, love. But none stayed. Eventually, a pervasive, debilitating sorrow settled, one that could never be hoped to redeem.

"Hey, Albert."

"Hey, dad." The old man replied simply.

"You look...well." His eyes were tender. Longing.

"I look old, dad." Albert sighed. "I'm dying soon. Stage 4 cancer." He said it like it was an inconsequential inconvinience.

"I'm...sorry."

"I know." Albert said lightly. "Your promise to mom and all. I understand, I do."

"She only wanted you to have a normal life. A full life." Untroubled by my mistake, my world.

"And I did." Fond recollections twitched the corner of his lips.

"But my time is short, and before I'm gone..." He made a gesture to the blackness behind him, "...I needed to see you one last time. To do one last thing, for you." Two pairs of glowing crimson orbs approached, and the familiarity of the forms they dragged behind made Walker's heart stop.

The first was a young girl of about 15, her blond hair dishevel and face twisted in fear. Her left earring was missing. Lily Howard.

At the sight of his daughter, all of John's fear and confusion and terror seemed to dissipate. Howling, fueled by a father's desperation, he sprinted forward with a speed uncanny for a man of his age, but Powell, impossibly fast, appeared between them. A slight shove of his palm threw John backward crashing into the floor coughing blood.

"Papa!" The girl's wails broke Walker's heart into a million pieces but drew roaring laughter from the circling hoard.
"It's okay honey." Even through the agony John still managed to smile, struggling to his feet. "Papa's here. It's alright now."

A moment later a young Hispanic man - the bartender he had met only hours before - dragged Janet Bailey screaming and kicking to Albert's side. Her face was bruised, bloodied. It was clear she had fought with everything she had.

"What are you doing, Albert?" Panic boiled in his chest like lava, threatening to drown him from the inside out.

Janet's head snapped up at his voice and her gaze found his, confused and pleading. But then her eyes dropped to his waist, and her form went still.

"Mommy?" He heard a tiny, fragile sound beside him, and his blood went cold.

"Noel?" Janet slurred through her broken lips. "Are you alright, baby? Did they hurt you?" Tears streamed down her face freely. Helplessness and fear drained whatever fight she had left out of her.

"Albert. Please. You are better than this." Was he? Walker didn't know this cruel man standing in front of him, resembling in no detail the angry little boy he had last seen.

Albert didn't meet his father's disbelieving eyes, looking instead down at the woman at his feet.

"Everyone who knows my dad said he was a good man, a decent man." His was magnetic, full of charm. "When you met him, you offered yourself to him like a whore, yes?"

Janet spat in his face. The bartender's fist connected with hers a second later, breaking her nose in a fountain of blood. Calmly, Albert withdrew a handkerchief and wiped away the bloody speck on his cheek, continuing unfazed and gesturing for the other man to hold the dazed woman up by her hair. Walker's nails dug deep into his palm, his entire frame shaking, his fury battling his shock and indecision.

"I expected you to. And he refused you, I'm sure, even if it was a kind gesture to comfort a grieving woman. You see, my father is an honourable fool, an idiot, in your crude language. He feels that he has a sense of duty, to lead by example, to be the best humanity could be. To show us junkies, in his own word, that we could be something better." Now he raised his eyes and challenged Walker's stare with his own. "So he lives by his words. His promises. Even at the expense of his loved ones. Even if it meant robbing his only child of the one thing that gives their life meaning."

For the first time Walker looked away, numb with pain and regret. How many times had he offer his remorse to the people he had hurt? How many more time will he have to utter those same exact words before he could begin to atone for his sins? Would he ever be able to?

"So today, before my time runs out, I want to do one final test. To prove my father wrong, once and for all. It's quite simple in execution, really. It's the set up that proved challenging." From his pocket Albert produce 2 knives.

Walker's eyes widened, and he took a step forward. That was his final mistake. In the blink of an eye monstrous forms bounded from the darkness in ranks of dozens, short, abominable, hunched-over shapes with claws and fanged drooling maws for faces, and surrounded him. Another small group encircled John and Noel, cutting them off from him, forcing them into each other. The little boy clutched the middle-aged man's arm whose eyes never left the crying form of his daughter.

"The rules are quite simple." Albert let one knife drop to the floor at his feet. "You kill the child next to you..." the second knife was tossed through the air to clatter in front of John, "...and I let you and your child walk out of here alive." The beasts holding Lily and Janet released their hold throwing them to the ground, and the monstrous throng around John and Noel retreated a step.

Walker felt something unseen grabbing hold of his heart and squeezed, suffocating him. Bile rose to his throat, the urge to vomit almost unstoppable. How many decades had it been since he had felt nauseous? He had thought he was no longer capable of it.

"Albert! Please." The tremble in his voice only seem to amuse the old man.

"Is that fear I hear from you, dad? Don't be sad. I'm doing this for you, don't you see?" He opened his arms wide to encompass the entirety of the terror-filled warehouse, like a circus master owning the stage, "I will show you that not only human are cruel little creatures, but that their only redeeming quality is their ability to sacrifice everything for their children." He hissed the words, accusing, venomous.

"I've always wanted to step out of your shadow. I hated being known as "Walker's boy". But look,..." Albert waved toward the mass of creatures surrounding them, and they answered him with bellowing laughter, "...look how much power your mere reputation holds. I need only uttered your name, and an army gathered at my feet. They're all here for you, dad."

Hesitantly, almost in a trance with his face a mask of numbness, John knelt and scooped up the knife at his feet. In a sudden blur of movement Janet sprung forward, grabbing the knife and dashed toward the girl.

"No!" Both Walker and John cried out, John's blade reflexive pressing against Noel's face.

Janet's knife hovered inches from tender flesh, trembling hard. They could see her struggling with herself, willing the blade to sink it. Still it did not move, still she couldn't bring herself to just murder a child in cold blood. Even to save her own.

Albert clicked his tongue in disappointment. "Very well. It'd appear that you need some motivation. I will give you one minute." He pressed a button on his watch, setting a timer. "Then none of you walks out of here."

"Please. Don't do it. Please." John could barely speak through the fear suffocating him. "Honey, look at me." He caught his daughter's gaze and held it. "I need you to be brave, okay? I need you to be strong. It's going to be fine. You're going to be fine." Lily's eyes were swollen from crying, but she looked at her father and tried her best to smile.

Janet didn't speak. She bit her lips hard enough to draw blood, her gaze fixing unblinking on the form of her son. The boy wasn't crying, but covering his ears and scrunching his eyes shut as hard as he could. Pretending the monsters weren't there, maybe they'd go away.

"Powell. Please. We had a deal, an agreement. You gave me your word!"

"And?" Powell's grin returned, baring his fangs. Walker's face fell, disbelief and helplessness wracking his body like poison.

Time ticked by, each grain of sand a mountain's weight. John's knife was slack in his hand, seemingly forgotten. He talked to his daughter quietly, comforting her, giving her the strength he pretended to have. Janet's face was a purple mess of bruises and pain, unreadable, but her blade hadn't moved from where she held it first. Noel was singing to himself, each syllable of his childish voice another scorching brand on Walker's soul.

"Time's nearly up." Albert checked his watch. "Last chance." And he started to count.

"10."

John and Janet's eyes widened. They both looked at Walker at the same time, hoping, pleading that he held the answers. They could see that he had none.

"9."

Janet's hand shook, but her knife inched closer to Lily's neck.

"8."

Tears streamed down John's face, and his grip on the knife hardening. "You promised me, Walker. You promised." John's voice was a razor blade grinding in his chest.

"7."

Walker screamed and surged forward, hurling himself at the mass of monsters. His eyes started to grow, his fang and claw extending.

"6."

The hunched beasts raked their talon into his body splitting flesh open, but he barreled through their ranks with sheer determination. Suddenly Powell appeared in front of him howling with glee, delivering a devastating punch that rocked him backward.

"5."

Lily's wail impaled John's soul like a spear. "It's okay honey." He muttered over and over, the words becoming a hypnotic chant. "It's going to be alright." His head swam, and his knife drifted toward the boy like wading through dreamy water.

"4."

Claws slashed into Walker's legs, crashing him to the ground. More monsters climbed on his back, using their weights to pin him down. Powell stood over him, breathing heavily at the carnage. The scene of suffering gave him a raging hard-on.

"3."

Janet's knife made contact, drawing a single drop of blood.

"2."

Noel opened an eye just as the cold steel touched his skin.

"1."

"NO!" Walker screamed, the sound buried under a mountain of monster flesh. John and Janet both howled and plunged their knives downward.

Blood flew through the air.

The watch's shrill alarm blared its tolling of finality, cutting out all sounds.


Noel lay on the ground with his arm around his head. Unharmed, crying. Crimson splattered to the floor from where John had driven his knife into his own palm. Janet's blade was on the ground, clattered there at the last second. She held Lily tight to her chest, cradling the girl's head on her shoulder.

"Well,..." the bemusement was gone from Albert's tone, "...that was quite anti-climatic."

In one single motion he drew a gun and fired twice. John Howard dropped to the floor, an expression of surprise permanently frozen on his face. The body of Noel Bailey jerked once.

Walker's inhuman bellow devoured every other sound, the desperation in it piercing the sky like a lone wolf's cry at full moon. Between one moment and the next his body morphed, spikes sprouting from his back and arm, talons replacing claws. His hand shot out in a blur, grabbing Powell's crotch and ripped his cock off along with most of his intestine and midsection. They splashed to the bloodied dust like trash.

Albert turned his gun to the figures next to him and pulled the trigger again. Two shots rang clear enclosed space. Janet Bailey slumped, two smoking holes in her back. She had turned to cover Lily's body with her own at the last moment.

Albert frowned and raised his gun again, but before he could snap another shot a scaled fist crashed into his chest. Oddly, the last look on his face was that of relief.

The horde of the 7 clans descended upon Walker. He punched through one's chest and ripped out its spine, smashing another's head to a pulp with his other hand. He wrenched the bartender's head from its shoulders and beat the next monster to death with it. The spikes on his back moved like sentient whips, lashing out and impaling one beast after another. He tore apart each and every single Nosfe that came within his reach, and still they came without relent, waves upon waves, driven frenzy by blood and the massacre. His soul was in tatters, his mind fractured like a discarded mirror, reflecting distorted, magnified sins. The bodies of the people he was meant to protect glared at him unblinkingly from where they lay, silent judgment in their murders, demanding payment.

So for the first time in a century, he surrendered himself to the madness, and opened the cage.

----

Tap. Tap. Tap. The crimson trickled, each drop slower than the last. Walker clutched Lily's body in his chest, his shoulders trembling with each sob.

The ugly chuckle echoed above the carnage like a phantom's final haunting.

"You should...thank me, dad." Albert wheezed, blood bubbling through his lips at each word. "I freed...you. Snapped your...chain. First promise is...broken. The beast...is loose." The old man laughed until the internal bleeding filled his lungs and he drowned in his own blood.

Lily's blood pooled in his laps. The first light of dawn set the horizon ablaze.

One of her eyes fluttered dreamily open. Her left hand weakly lifted and wiped a tear from his cheek.

"Mister, don't cry." Her voice was tiny, like the lingering ghost left by a faded impression of something someone wished they had said.

"It's all going to be fine."

"It's all going to be alright."

"I promise."

HerziQuerzi HerziQuerzi with A Night at Aprilside High
Tracy carefully balanced on one foot as the chunk of cement beneath her feet shifted. Tepid mud began to pool around its edges, pushed agonizingly up into the sun by Tracy’s weight. Grimacing, she hopped to the next stable-ish looking chunk before the muck could reach her shoes. When it showed no signs of sinking, she stopped to take stock of her progress.

It wasn’t impressive.

Around her, the cement of the street and sidewalk was cracked and uneven, entire segments submerged beneath the encroaching marsh. The lawns lining them were even worse off, with the grass long since drowned, and cattails and lily pads sprouting up in their place. The houses they belonged to listed at crooked angles, panelling dark with dirt and rot. From it all rose the overpowering stench of fresh life and fresher rot.

All in all, it was slow going. Up ahead, Fabiana and Grace pulled ever further away. The former forward thinking enough to bring knee high boots, and the other simply failing to care in sneakers and shorts. With a sigh, Tracy picked up her pace, convincing herself she didn’t mind if the occasional splash of mud caught her shoes and pants. Even if mud was gross enough on its own, let alone mud pushing up from beneath the street. Where sewers are kept. She didn’t mind. She did not. Mind.

“Slow down!” She called out after her friends.

“Fast up!” Grace shot back.

“Yeah,” Fabiana said, peering this way and that into the ever lengthening evening shadows. “That.”

Tracy grumbled herself and once more picked up her pace, continuing to fail at ignoring the spreading mud splatters.

A few years back -- recent enough that Tracy could still remember when she had lived here -- this neighbourhood had been just another part of the small town of Aprilside. Idyllically placed next to both a lake and a small mountain. Or glorified hill, as the residents were prone to chuckling to each other during brisk March barbeques.

Then the government decided to build a dam at the mouth of the river that drained from the lake. Aprilside protested, and some heated rallies even took place -- quite out of character for the town -- but the government insisted that the lake wouldn’t flood its banks. And to their credit, they were right.

The surrounding marshlands, however, tripled in size. Leaving entire neighbourhoods abandoned to rot and drown, while the Mayor tried to pretend they didn't exist. Neighbourhoods like the one Tracy and her friends were currently trudging through.

As an entire chunk of street twisted and disappeared under the mud beneath Tracy’s weight, submerging her foot completely, Tracy let out a muted, frustrated scream. “How much farther?” she snapped.

“Around this corner, I think.” Tall and caramel-skinned, Fabiana was a practical and reliable girl. “There’s extra socks in my bag; you can switch when we get there?”

Tracy gave a resigned nod as she took advantage of their pause to catch up. “You wouldn’t happen to have snacks in there as well, would you?”

She did. Tracy dug into a fruit’n’veggie bar as Grace impatiently hopped from foot to foot. “Can we go, then?” she asked, apparently unbothered by the mud speckling her face and caught in her blonde curls. Fabiana nodded, and the trio took off once more.

Turning the corner Fabiana had indicated, her guess was proven right as the street stretched only another few hundred metres before stopping at the entrance of an old school. As corrupted as the rest of the area, it was a sight to behold. The field was fully underwater, with only sparser patches of cattails to mark where the track had once been. Patches of the school walls were beginning to peel back from the damp, revealing the structural skeleton underneath.

Vines snaked in and out of these wounds, clinging to cracked windows and supporting doors long since busted off their hinges by previous groups of adventurous students. What stood out most of all, however, was the western wing of the school, which had sunk several feet deeper than the rest of the building. Through the cracks between the two segments, hints of classrooms and hallways could be seen, tattered wires and insulation forming an imperfect screen against Tracy’s prying eyes.

“Aprilside High,” Grace declared proudly, taking the whole scene in with outstretched arms like a of carnival ringleader. “Come on, we’re losing the last of the light.”



Inside, slits of light cut through the dirt and vegetation that choked the windows. Flashlights were pulled from bags and switched on, their waving movements casting epileptic shadows across the walls and ceiling. The stench of life and rot faded away, replaced by a more tolerable, musty atmosphere.

Alongside her flashlight, Fabiana also produced a map of the school, dug up from a website that had yet to get the memo that its subject was little more than a corpse. After a few moments of study, she points off towards the western wing. “The science room should be that way.”

Tracy shuffled her feet. “Do we have to do this part?”

“You don’t, if you’re scared,” Grace stated, not unkindly.

“It’s not-!” Tracy sighed. “I’m not afraid, I just... don’t think it’s very respectful.”

“Paying our respects isn’t respectful?” Grace joked, already bounding off down the hall. “What a cruel world we live in.”

Fabiana put a hand on Tracy’s hesitating shoulder, gently pushing her in the direction of the departing blonde curls. “Come on, you shouldn’t stay in here alone to fall in a hole or something.”

Tracy nodded and let herself be led along. Soon their lights found Grace once more, hopping from foot to foot as she waited for them. Behind her was the split, as the hallway was horizontally divided in two by the ceiling beyond. Peering underneath, Tracy saw a short drop into brackish waters, a bleary eyed frog blinking back at her.

“Please tell me we’re going up,” she muttered, then breathed a sigh of relief when Fabiana nodded.

“Boost me,” Grace demanded, slinging her bag up into the second floor hallway. Tracy complied, linking her hands and squatting down to give Grace a step up. “Three, two, one, hup!” Tracy grunted as she hefted the other girl up.

“Okay, now pull me up,” Tracy held her hand out for Grace as Fabiana leveraged her height to climb up unassisted. More grunting and straining followed as Tracy clambered up with Grace’s help, careful not to get caught on the rebar or wooden beams jutting out of the wrecked ceiling.

Dusting themselves and each other off, the trio gathered their breath -- Grace the only one of the three who could lay claim to a healthy exercise routine -- before continuing onwards. By this time, the slits of light had been reduced to whispers, and even those fading fast. The darker it grew, the harsher their flashlights seemed in comparison.

Fabiana peered intently at each door they passed, muttering the room numbers to herself until finally holding up a hand to draw everyone to a halt. A quick confirming look down at her map -- followed by a longer, more deliberate one -- before nodding and turning to the others. “This is it?” Fabiana said, the statement coming out as a question.

Tracy and Grace, used to the pervasive uptick at the end of their friend’s sentences, took it for the fact that it was and followed her inside. Desks covered in dusty beakers considered too cheap to pack up when the school was abandoned lined the back wall, all shoved together away from the door. In one corner, their combined weight alongside the marshland’s rotting influence had caused part of the floor to collapse, the desks forming a haphazard pile down to the flooded classroom below.

Tracy took it in with hallowed reverence, this classroom that on its surface looked no different than the rest of the building. Than the rest of the neighbourhood. Quaint suburban familiarity, warped by the jealous mildew of nature. But here was the destination, the entire point of their trip.

The three tiptoed through the room for a minute, looking around and trying to disrupt as little of the dust and dirt as possible, until Fabiana pulled them over with a wave and hushed exclamation. “Here it is,” she said, shining her flashlight down at a patch of the floor near the hole.

“How do you know?” Grace asked, the atmosphere dampening down even her voice to a low whisper.

“Less dust?”

“It might’ve been from one of us.” Tracy pointed out.

Fabiana shook her head. “None of us stepped here? I was watching.” She began shining her light at other places on the floor. “Lots of dust; untouched. No dust, from us. Some dust?”

“Jacob,” Tracy whispered. “This is where he died.” Fabiana nodded, and Grace gave a low whistle. They stood there for a moment, arrayed in a half-circle around the patch of floor, before Tracy sighed. “Let’s do this, then.”

Together, they crouched down and unslung their bags. From within, they started to remove a variety of candles, photos, notes, and other miscellaneous items. A watch, a few pencils, a locked diary, all set aside in a pile. The candles were placed in a loose circle, then the photos in the center of that. There were five of them, two depicting a young boy, two more a girl, and the fifth both of them together, arms around each others shoulders and grinning wide at the camera. Jacob and Chantelle.

The two had been classmates of the girls, and a couple for nearly a year -- an impressive length for that age. Up until a few weeks ago, when both had suddenly gone missing. The town has searched fruitlessly for days, until Jacob’s body -- or what was left of it after the scavengers had had their way -- was found in the husk of Aprilside High. In the very room Tracy and her friends now stood. Chantelle’s body had yet to be found.

Looking at the picture of the girl Tracy held in her hand, she felt another pang of guilt and remorse that she had never gotten to know either of the two very well. She knew it was stupid to blame herself for their deaths, the police having confirmed it was a suspected accident rather than some tortured cry for help. But the thought of their deaths left her feeling sick, and she’d always been taught that if she felt bad about something, it was because she knew deep inside that she’d done something wrong.

She only wished she knew what she had done -- or not done -- to cause her to feel this twisted up inside. She wondered bitterly if perhaps it was using the death of two classmates as an excuse for self-pity; turning their tragedy into something about her.

The way Grace was, she realized as she tuned back in to the world around her. “- can’t wait to see their faces,” her friend was saying excitedly, fiddling with the candles, “because you know they didn’t think we’d actually have the guts to-"

“Let’s finish getting this ready,” Tracy cut in.

A hint of sullen defiance entered Grace’s eyes before she shrugged it off. “I am. Hey Fabiana, your phone has a low light camera, right? They’ll want proof-"

“Stop making this about us!” Tracy snapped, far more harshly than she intended. Seeing the surprised hurt on Grace’s face only added another pang of guilt to the pile, which in turn fueled her frustration. “This is why I didn’t want to do this! Because it’d make it about us! And not- not about them!”

Grace muttered something under her breath that Tracy couldn’t quite catch -- but that sounded something similar to ‘high and mighty’ -- before standing up. “Fine,” she said, voice tight. “You and Fab can finish up. I’ll get out of your way.”

“Grace?” Fabiana hesitantly offered a comforting hand, only to lower it when Grace turned and stomped off towards the hole, the floorboards offering a creaking question mark in answer to the exclamation points of Grace’s footfalls.

Quietly, Tracy and Fabiana began to gather the other items -- possessions of the dead, or offerings from other classmates -- and place them inside the circle of candles surrounding the photos. Tracy pulled a lighter from her pocket and solemnly lit the candles one by one. It wasn’t much, but perhaps it was better than nothing.

After a moment, Fabiana spoke up. “We should take a picture though, since not everyone will be able to see it in person?”

“Yeah,” Tracy said with a small sigh, “you’re rig-”

A scream ripped through the air.

Grabbing her flashlight, Tracy scrambled to the hole where the scream had originated, Fabiana hot on her heels, both too surprised to even take the time to stand. Shadows that had danced indecipherably in the flashlights’ wake before now shredded Tracy’s view to pieces as the lights were clutched tight in shaking hands. Eventually she was able to make out the form of Grace below, huddled on the lowest desk before the water, scratching thoroughly at her shadowed legs.

“Get them off, get them off,” Grace sobbed, and even as Tracy continued to struggle with her light, the shadows on Grace’s legs seemed to writhe out of sync with the others around them.

Fabiana clambered down into the hole, leaving her own flashlight at the lip so that she could grab Grace under the arms with both hands and drag her to her stumbling feet and back up into the science room. Tracy leaned down to help as they drew closer to the top, and together the two of them got Grace up and over the lip of the hole. When Grace continued to scratch at her legs, Tracy leaned in for a closer look before jerking back, knocking Fabiana’s flashlight over the edge in her panic.

It hadn’t been shadows coating Grace’s legs. It had been leeches. Dozens of them, ranching in size from a little finger to several inches in length. Glistening and fat, they clung to Grace save where they had already been clawed off, leaving only marred skin behind.

Fabiana quickly grabbed Grace’s arms and forced them away from the leeches. “Stop! Stop. You’re only making it worse.” With deliberate movements Fabiana released Grace and went to work on the leeches, slowly sliding her nails underneath the mouths of the leeches so they slipped off instead of simply tearing them off. After a few shaky breaths Grace mimicked her, and within minutes the last of the leeches were removed and unceremoniously kicked back into the hole.

Fabiana fell back into a sitting position and studied Grace’s legs. “We should get you to the clinic? So they can clean the bites.”

“You want to head back in the dark?” Tracy asked, baffled.

Grace slapped an angry hand against the floor, her usual energy starting to smother the shock of the leeches. “Well I’m not spending the night here!”

Tracy hesitated for a moment, tempted to point out that the leeches were only a problem if they went into the water. That as long as they stayed where it was dry, it was as safe as could be. But the truth was she was shaken as wel, the walls and rot seeming to press in on her and choke her. And all she had done was watch; she couldn’t imagine how sickening it had to have been for Grace. So she nodded, and as Fabiana acted as physical support for the unsteady Grace, gathered everything up that hadn’t been made a part of the shrine and shoved it in her bag.

Together they retraced their way back through the school, down the hall and clambering through the displaced wreckage between the west wing and the rest of the building. But when Tracy went to open the door they came in through, it only shifted an inch before getting caught on something. With a confused frown she pushed at it again to no avail.

“It’s… stuck.”

What?” Grace pulled free of Fabiana and gave the door a few angry kicks, to much the same effect as Tracy’s shoving. “Of course it is.” She gave the door another hearty kick before following up with the middle finger.

“What other exits are there?” Tracy asked, turning to Fabiana.

Fabiana thought for a second, head tilted back and hands tapping at her legs. “Main door, blocked. East wing door is below grade, so it will be completely underwater? Which leaves the west wing door?”

Grace shied back instinctively. “I can’t go through there.”

Fabiana lifted her leg up awkwardly into the beam of the flashlight, her heavy boots made to look even heavier by the harsh light. “I can? It’s only a couple feet deep. My boots are tall enough.”

“And you’ll unblock this door for us?” Tracy asked, almost as hesitant to enter the submerged west wing as Grace. Fabiana nodded, and after taking Grace’s flashlight headed off with a small wave.

After her departure, Grace sank down against the lockers opposite the door with a groan. Eyes closed and head resting back against the wall, her hands clenched and unclenched as she resisted the urge to scratch at her legs. Legs that Tracy made a point of keeping the light well away from, not wanting to see it reflect off the red blood that marked where the leeches had latched on. Instead she used it to look around at their narrow length of hall, too nervous to wander. At the fluorescent lights lining the ceiling, still home to the carcasses of bugs fried years ago. The textured ceiling tiles who’s semi-regular holes begged to be counted, but were just chaotic enough to make doing so a fool’s errand. At the checkerboard floor, and the thin green lockers from which sprouts of the ever expanding vegetation could be seen poking their heads.

But there was only so much to look at in their immediate vicinity, and quickly the two girls were reduced to waiting in silence. Which is why both immediately heard the sound of wet footsteps approaching from the west wing. Tracy’s heart sank as she realized Fabiana must have failed in finding another way out. But as the footsteps came closer, the silhouette that appeared at the edges of the flashlight’s reach was too short to be Fabiana, the hair too long and curly. And their footsteps were the telltale squeak of wet sneakers, rather than the heavy plodding of thick boots.

Tracy edged closer to Grace as the person came further into the light, heart beating hard. Because even with half of her face shrouded in the shadows cast by her hair, it was undeniable who was walking the halls of Aprilside High. “Chantelle,” Tracy whispered.

The only response she gave was a wan smile as she continued forward. Water dripped from her clothes, formed puddles behind her. Algae patches clung to her, hung from her hair and shoulders in a tattered green shawl.

Grace rose to her feet with a groan as the apparition of a girl weeks dead -- the body had never been found but the idea of her hiding and living in this school was impossible -- continued to walk mutely towards them. “Chantelle,” Tracy tried again, voice cracking, “are you okay?”

With that, the girl stopped only a few yards away. The shadows began to retreat from her face as she straightened, revealing skin as damp and sodden as her clothes. But no sign of leeches; no writhing black shapes or pockmarks to be seen anywhere on her skin, despite appearing to just have climbed out of the same water that had been so thoroughly infested only a few minutes ago. The shadows drew further back, revealing more and more of Chantelle’s face. And while there were no leeches, there was still something wrong. Something off about the shadows. Sitting too dark where it should have been light, obscuring-

A loud noise cut through the tension, all three heads whipping around toward the front doors of the school. The sound of metal being cruelly dragged across rough concrete echoed out in short bursts. Fabiana’s voice came through between, tight with strain. “I’m here - erg - there’s a locker - hrmg - out here. - grmph - Must have been leaning? - hrrg - and fallen when we-”

“Get us out!” Grace shouted, running to the door and banging on it. “Hurry!”

As if Grace’s movement was a catalyst, Chantelle also burst into action, breaking into a sprint straight for Grace. Time began to slow for Tracy, each of Chantelle’s footsteps echoing for minutes at a time. Grace began to turn ever so slowly towards the charge, her injured legs buckling instead of fleeing. She was still shaken from the leeches, and wouldn’t be able to get out of the way in time.

So Tracy got in the way instead.

She wasn’t even aware that she had moved, at first. That she had been moving even before Chantelle had. But as time began to regain its footing and resume its frantic pace, Tracy found herself between the two, hands outstretched to grab Chantelle and bring her to a stop. The two collided, Tracy’s hands slipping on the muck that coated Chantelle. The flashlight tumbled from Tracy’s grasp as they both fell to the floor, and Tracy felt something sharp dig into her skin as Chantelle grabbed her wrist.

Above, she was dimly aware of Grace still trying to force the door open, ramming it again and again with her shoulder. But the bulk of her attention was focused on holding off the dead girl on top of her, whose skin felt smoother and slimier than the muck should’ve accounted for.

A few feet away, the flashlight rolled to a stop with its beam resting upon the two struggling girls, illuminating Chantelle to Tracy’s horror. Her skin was blotched, marked with rubbery black patches. Her flesh seemed to shift constantly, not sitting quite right on her body. And her eyes were simply gone. Not even empty sockets to mark where they would have normally been, only the black rubbery flesh in its place. And as Chantelle grinned down at Tracy, her lips peeled back to reveal rows upon concentric rows of hooked teeth, stretching as far back down her throat as Tracy could see.

Screaming, Tracy managed to roll the creature off of her. As she wrenched her arm free from Chantelle’s grasp, she felt something come away with her. When she looked down she could see leeches, pitch black and glistening against her wrist where Chantelle had been holding her.

Overwhelmed and sickened to her core, Tracy’s body refused to move, refused to act even as every part of her shouted to move -- to run -- as Chantelle got back onto her hands and knees and began advancing on her again. Began reaching out, her hand reforming to compensate for its lost mass even as it drew closer and closer to Tracy’s face.

So thorough was her body’s betrayal that she couldn’t even close her eyes, to at least spare her this final horrific sight. So it was with perfect clarity that she saw the hand explode into countless black shapes as Grace brought the full weight of a rusted baseball bat and six years softball experience to bear against Chantelle’s grasping arm.

Another swing carved a chasm into the side of Chantelle’s torso, leeches dripping from the hole to land on the ground. But even as they did, more gathered themselves together from where they had already fallen and swarmed back to Chantelle, disappearing beneath her pant legs, her arm growing back to its full length. The chasm steadily closing.

A third swing to the leg sent Chantelle to the ground, even as Tracy felt Fabiana’s hands grab her under her arms and hoist her to feet. Usher her towards the door. Regaining some measure of control with the help, Tracy began to stumble forwards, the sounds of metal against meat still ringing out behind her.

Outside, a rusted green locker lay sprawled across the walkway before the door, an assortment of sports equipment spilling out from its broken door. around its base Tracy could see drag marks not only leading to where it had been blocking the door, but also stretching back through the doorway and into the school itself. Littered around its base were even more leeches, a half dozen of them, crawling amidst baseball gloves and tennis racquets.

After a few seconds, Grace bolted out after them, quickly turning to push the doors closed. The bat was slid in through the door handles to bar the way before she stumbled back to join the other two. They stood there expectantly, terrified that at any second Chantelle would come after them; somehow break down the doors, or slither out through gaps in the wall before coming together. Terrified, but not as terrified as they were of turning their backs.

Nothing happened.

They held their breath, Fabiana shining the only remaining flashlight across the front of the building, eyes straining to see any signs of movement.

And still nothing happened.

Until finally, the faint sound of footsteps could be heard -- the telltale squeak of wet sneakers -- retreating back into the building. Heading west, towards the submerged wing. And the three girls finally let themselves release the breath they had been holding. Let themselves lean against each other, and breath in the sickly sweet smell of the marsh, and quietly, silently, begin the trip back home.

Managers' Pick Winner:

Doctor Jax Doctor Jax with Encantè
“God, they left such a mess.”

A single oar batted a plastic cup bobbing in the river, it’s owner – Izabel - chucking her braided black hair over her shoulder. She crinkled a petite nose at the refuse dumped into the Amazon from the reverie as she stood atop her paddleboard. Another boarder, Luiza, squinted at the massive dock where the night’s last gig was playing on an ad-hoc stage, young diehards dancing to bad rock music.

“Man, this line up bites,” Luiza sniffed, scratching sun-tanned skin with black-lacquered nails. “That gig last week was to die for. And their drummer was so fine--

“Luiza, all of this is going to drift toward my place,” Izabel complained, gesturing with the oar at the trash.

“Hey, shake that thing at the event manager, not me,” Luiza suggested as she began to paddle away, leaving Izabel to lightly steam. As a last parting snub, Izabel swatted some trash back towards the party.

Izabel rejoined Luiza with some chagrin as she saw her friend’s blasé expression.

“Hey, sorry, if I killed the mood. I was… annoyed,” Izabel said after a few minutes of quiet paddling.

“Hm? Oh, no worries. You didn’t kill the mood – that band did. Though I figure you didn’t listen to them, what with your environmentalist worries,” Luiza joked, and Izabel tutted at her.

“Oh, Missie, yes I did. I think a baboon could keep better time than their drummer. And their singer sounded like a strangled cat,” Izabel conceded, headed towards a light in the distance, and Luiza grinned.

“Maybe better luck next time. Not like we wasted any money, anyhow…”

A house with a thatched roof on stilts began to take shape in the dark, marked by lights inside the windows as well as a dock lantern. Guitar music skipped across the water, and Izabel’s face lit up. In contrast, Luiza frowned.

“You got someone over?” the taller girl asked, and Izabel nodded.

“Uh, yeah, Manny. From last week’s show?”

“Hold on, last week? Has he been here the whole time?”

Izabel pursed her lips in annoyance. It wasn’t as if she was some kid. It was her house.

“No, not the whole time. He gets off around seven or eight, so he comes over, and we… chat,” Izabel said with a slightly lecherous twist of the mouth, and Luiza coughed out a laugh.

“Oh, you chat. Vigorously?”

“I like lively conversation.”

“You know what they say about bringing strange men home,” Luiza said with a grin.

Izabel gave Luiza a long-suffering look.

“We’re not in the Dark Ages anymore, Mami,” Izabel teased. “And just to ease your mind - I got a brand spanking new IUD. So I’m covered.”

She flung a hand towards the heavenly series of chords wafting in their direction.

And he plays like he was born with a guitar in his hand. Do you hear that?”

Luiza put up her hands in defeat, shaking her head.

“Look, I just don’t want to have to punch no heartbreakers in the face, okay?” she joked, shadow-boxing, and Izabel laughed.

Once in earshot of the dock, Izabel shouted, “Manny, you over there?”

“Yeah! One second.”

The chords stopped, and he stepped forward into the light. A young man with a ball cap, white tank top, and white shorts stepped into view, and he smiled winningly as he helped the two ladies approaching the sloped dock. The murky water had slowed somewhat, but the area around the dock was almost a bit tumultuous, and Izabel fought the current.

“I think I might just jump it this time,” Izabel muttered.

“I dunno, that’s a ways,” Manny warned.

“Your fault if you get soaked,” Luiza stated drily, rolling her eyes at Izabel’s antics.

“Nah, I think I can make it,” Izabel professed, though half a mind was already focused being sopping wet in a T-shirt and shorts in front of the guitarist on the dock. She’d at least make a good faith effort at landing the jump.

One foot left the board as she jumped, but she was just a foot too short of the dock, and into the Amazon she disappeared, Luiza flinching away from the splash. Izabel surfaced with a cough, wiping her eyes as Manny quickly reached down to take one of her arms and help her onto the dock.

“Jesus!” Manny laughed as Izabel sputtered.

“Okay, so maybe I couldn’t make it. Luiza, can you get my board?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Hey, hold on, you got something stuck to you,” Manny said as he hauled her closer. His hand was warm and dry around her forearm, his grip strong, as the other hand pointed to something wrapped around her forearm.

“Hm? It’s probably the trash those idiots tossed into the river upstream,” Izabel chided as she hauled herself gracelessly onto the dock.

Luiza was less convinced as she watched Izabel walk towards the light to peel it off.

“Izabel, that’s not trash.”

The young woman froze as she stared at what she had thought was a plastic bag. Instead, upon closer inspection, it was hair, with something heavy dangling off one end. Izabel swallowed as she got a better look, whispering, “Oh, God.”

It was a blond strand, still attached to a piece of scalp.

***​

“Hm? No, I haven’t gotten an answer back. You know how they are, Lulu,” Izabel said as she pressed a phone between her ear and shoulder. Her hands were preoccupied with brush and pallet, a canvas in front of her.

”Damn pigs. People die every day, right? No big deal,” Luiza shot back, and Izabel sighed.

“It’s only been two weeks,” Izabel reasoned.

”Yeah, but have you been listening to the radio? Girls have been missing since storm season started.”
Izabel had heard. It was hard to stomach.

“Maybe somebody fell in at one of the concerts.”

”Just…be careful up there. You ever need me, call me. And hey – so I got this boat after Constanza and I broke up, and I was thinkin’-“

“Hey, what’s this?”

Izabel jumped as she dropped the phone, glancing behind. Her heart tapped a frantic tattoo, Manny pulling back and away in surprise at her flinch. She smiled as soon as she registered his presence, glancing at the windows. Damn! Had she been painting that long? It was nighttime!

“Oh, I didn’t hear you walk in. Sorry,” Izabel huffed as she tried to catch her breath..

“I didn’t mean to scare you. I should have knocked. I saw the door was open…” Manny stated, readjusting his cap, and Izabel shrugged.

“It’s okay, I wanted to feel the breeze, though it looks like it might rain…”

“So you paint? What’s that?” Manny asked, pointing a stocky finger at her work.

On the canvas, a dancer dressed in a colorful frock pressed close to a skeleton in a matching suit. Around her and her partner, a half-finished crowd gleefully clapped or cheered, some dancing as well. Yet, the woman had a fearful expression as the skeleton’s cheek pressed to hers.

“It’s a Death and the Maiden,” Izabel explained as she picked up her phone. “Death is infatuated with her, but she wants nothing to do with him. But she has to dance with him anyways because that’s just what’s expected.”

She gestured with the brush to the crowd.

Manny peered at the painting over her shoulder. She could feel the warmth radiating off his pale skin, surrounded by a faint musk that drew her towards him. He glanced at her, eyes twinkling, as he said, “You’re really good. I love the rendering, very vivid. And the expression on her face…”

“Thank you.”

“And… what if they were alone?” he asked, gesturing to Death and the dancer. “What would she do then?”

His breath tickled the shell of her ear, and a shiver danced down her shoulder blades.

“I don’t know. Death is not very handsome, so probably not much,” Izabel chuckled, eying Manny.

The guitarist smiled wide.

“You think the same about me, eh?”

“Oh… definitely not,” she professed as he gently kissed her neck.

***​

The world was an unformed mass, her eyes adjusting to her room. Her mind was fuzzy with dreams as she stared up at a figure beside her bed. All she could see was a tall, dark silhouette, broad-shouldered with no neck, as if she were staring at a seven foot tall hunchback. Heavy breathing came from behind the figure as if it were facing away from her, wet and wheezing, a primordial sound that summoned revulsion.

A bad dream, she thought, closing her eyes as sleep pulled her close like a lover.

And when her eyes opened again, she was standing at the edge of her dock.

With a flinch, she backed away from the water, the early dawn sun barely delineating wood from river. Her stomach seemed to fall to her feet as she glanced around, looking back to the house, where the door was left open. She held herself as she tried to make sense of how she came to be at the water’s edge. She had never been a sleepwalker, not even as a girl.

“Izabel?”

She looked back up the dock as she heard her name, seeing Manny stare with concern at her.

“What’re you doing out here so early? Are you okay?”

Izabel glanced at the river momentarily before waving him off.

“Yeah, I’m...fine.”

***​

“Sounds like sleep paralysis!” Luiza yelled as she boated them back towards the house. She did, indeed, have a nice boat she gifted herself after she and Constanza split. Izabel had ogled it as soon as Luiza came to pick her up from the resort, appreciating the silver hull, though she imagined it put a dent in Luiza’s now-halved funds.

“What’s that?” Izabel asked, leaning forward to hear better.

“Sleep paralysis! You hallucinate while you’re half-asleep that there’s something standing in your room! You
probably dreamed Mr. Aquel!”

A smile spread across Izabel’s face. The overweight gorilla constantly breathed down the bartenders’ necks, his unibrow often doing a tango with itself as he huffed. Everyone, customers included, breathed a sigh of relief when the oaf found someone else to harass. She’d been blowing off steam by doodling a rather unflattering caricature of him that the other girls loved…

“What about the sleepwalking?” Izabel asked.

“Same thing! It’s tourist season!” Luiza shouted back.

Luiza cut the motor, coasting across the wide river in the direction of the house. The trees loomed overhead, and the sky began to darken. Izabel rubbed her arms, feeling the change in the air.

“If you need me to, I can booby trap the house,” Luiza offered, and Izabel guffawed.

“Go ahead, install a net!”

“Hey, sleepwalking is no joke. You almost fell in, didn’t you? Though who knows, maybe you would have gone for a swim,” Luiza joked, though she paused before saying, “Seriously, I think you need to put something in the doorway like cans so you’ll wake up if you knock them over. Even good swimmers drown out here.”

“Thanks for showing me the bright side,” Izabel jabbed as she stared at the house, straightening up as she heard the sound of a guitar. “Oh, Manny’s back.”

“This loser again?” Luiza muttered under her breath, making a face. “Izabel, you haven’t been feeding him, have you? They’re like cats. Now he won’t ever leave.”

“Look, just because you’re single and bitter now –“

“Hey, fresh wound! Not fair!”

The willowy young woman grinned and strode atop the dock.

Luiza shouted after her, “Cans! By the door! Or just chain yourself to the bed, he’ll like that right?”

Izabel gave Luiza a certain finger as she walked back to her house and the sound of Spanish guitar. On the horizon, storm clouds began to threaten the sky.

***​

Her eyes opened to the river lit by a dawning sun, toes dangling off the edge of the dock. With a jerk, she fell back, landing hard on her side. She sucked in air as if she had been drowning, and her stomach bucked in panic. She swallowed, her mouth wet, and each breath entered with a shudder.

This was the fourth time, and every time it was the same. The figure by the bed, the heavy and labored breathing, and a feeling of dread. Then, she would wake up here, at the edge of the dock, her feet halfway into the water.

It had to be the stress. After all, there was plenty to be stressed out about now.

She stood up, looking back towards the house, and something turned in her stomach. She was sore, but not in the typical way. Manny had come by the week before, and the evening had been a warm blur of music, candlelight, and his cooking. Yet, her mind had been elsewhere then, despite the spread she’d come home to. No, there were other parts of her that were sore, things that had never hurt before. The two of them had gotten to be so comfortable with each other, and she hadn’t wanted to ruin that…

She was late. By three weeks.

***​

“Sometimes the cycle becomes irregular the first few weeks of use, so maybe -- …oh.”

The office was warm, the walls painted a bright pink. Small, cartoon animals were stickered near the baseboard as the tech ran the ultrasound along the curve of Izabel’s stomach. Black and white patterns bloomed in incomprehensible masses on the screen.

“Are you sure you got an IUD?” the tech asked, concerned.

“Yes! You can ask Doctor Debahktuni. I came in a couple of months ago,” Izabel snapped with frustration, rubbing her forehead.

The tech did some fiddling with the computer and frowned heavily. He shook his head.

“Must be a clerical error. It says you got one, but you definitely don’t have one. I can’t find it. And on top of that…”

The tech grimaced a bit, putting the instrument to her abdomen again, the gel chilly against her skin. He pointed to a speck about as big as a peanut on the monitor.

“This is a fetus… and it’s about ten weeks old.”

***​

“Do you want me to kill him? I can,” Luiza stated matter-of-factly.

Izabel sat in Luiza’s boat with her head in her hands, trying to process all the information given to her. 10 weeks. It made no sense. She got the IUD well before that, and her first encounter had been only a month ago, with Manny. How could a fetus be ten weeks if she had only missed her last cycle three weeks ago?

“Iz.”

Izabel looked up as Luiza patted the other’s knee.

“It’ll be okay, you know,” Luiza assured, the trolling motor on low to both give Izabel time to think as well as cut down on the noise.

“I just don’t know if I should tell him, or if I should maybe call Mami first. God, she’ll kill me…” Izabel moaned into her hands.

“Whoa, whoa, we don’t care about what Mami thinks right now, alright? We’re gonna take care of you first,” Luiza urged gently, before looking back on the shore to view their progress. “Hey… there’s someone at the house.”

Izabel’s head shot up, but the urge to flee subsided as she spied a slight man in a windbreaker, with a thick mustache and a hat. As they drew up to the dock, he began to walk towards them.

“You are Izabel Camarero? I am Detective Ignacio with Iquitos Police Department. I tried to call but you were probably out,” the detective said.

“Oh – I think someone said something about you coming by,” Izabel stated, gesturing for him to come into the house. Luiza motioned that she was going to leave, and Izabel waved listlessly as she began going through the motions of entertaining her guest. Oblivious to her surroundings, she was suddenly aware that they were sitting on the porch with bottles of cold Inca Kola from the fridge.

“I’m sorry, is this a bad time?” Detective Ignacio asked, setting down a worn hat, and Izabel shook her head.

“No, no. What is it that you wanted to know?”

Detective Ignacio dug around in his pocket and produced a photograph, handing it to Izabel.

“We pulled DNA from the hair you gave us. Her name was Ingrid Statler, a German tourist, and she was last seen at a guitar bar. Do you recognize the name?”

Izabel let her gaze linger on the woman. She was thin, tall, with laugh lines and dirty blonde hair, the very same which had wrapped around her arm a month ago. Knowing she was the last person to touch this woman chilled her skin.

“No, I haven’t,” Izabel answered, handing back the photo.

“What about Eliza Murdoch? Tanya Albanito? Octavia Gonzalez? No?”

“My friend Luiza worked with an Octavia Gonzalez, but she left to work as a roadie for a while. The pay was better,” Izabel recalled softly, the wheels turning. “Yeah… she’d come here for a drink sometimes with Lulu. Don’t know if that’s the same one… Anyway, you could ask her tonight if you need to. She just lives about three houses upstream.”

“Oh, wonderful. I may just do that. She could know something,” Ignacio said, looking up the river. “Oh! Would you look at that? Botos.”

Ignacio pointed out at the pale pink backs of river dolphins leaving gentle wakes behind them. Mist drifted from their blowholes, as they came up for air.

“My mother used to tell me all kinds of stories about them,” he recounted.

“Oh, you too?” Izabel asked.

Ignacio nodded sagely, getting up for a better view. He leaned against the railing.

“She said, ‘Be careful, or else the encantado will get you. Don’t look them in the eye, and don’t go near the river at dark, especially with your little sister.’ You know, to scare us into behaving,” Ignacio chuckled as he watched the placid water waver under the dying eye of the sun. “And beware of men who always wear hats. You can tell I'm not one because I brandish this thing...”

He pointed to the bald spot on his head with a resigned shrug of the shoulders. Izabel smiled, recalling how her father joked that he himself was an Encantado because he constantly wore a straw hat to hide his blowhole. Her mother’s stories had been geared towards cautionary tales – to not trust strange men, lest an encantado impregnate and kidnap her.

The last thought struck a chord, and her stomach knotted.

“Well, I won’t keep you,” Ignacio said, putting on his hat. “That bit about Octavia is very helpful, though. It is odd, though… Seems our murderer loves music and single women.”

***​

Ignacio’s words haunted her.

"Seems our murderer loves music and single women."

She washed the dishes absentmindedly, hands going in listless circles. Like old ghost stories, the tales her father would tell surfaced in her mind, of creatures that loved light and music and carnival – and women.

”Would you look at that? Botos.”

Her mother had told her they only ever came out of the water at night. That they could compel you to do whatever they wanted. They were charming, sometimes even extravagant.

”I’m not one because I brandish this thing…”

And that they always wore a hat. Always.

”’Be careful, or else the Encantado will get you.”

“Hey.”

Izabel jumped as a pair of arms wound around her waist, Manny settling his chin into her the hollow between neck and shoulder. She swallowed hard as she kept her eyes down, scrubbing a spotless dish. Manny’s ever-present baseball cap lingered in her peripheral vision, his cologne addictive. She glanced out the window ahead, the rain pouring down the window.

“You look stressed out. What’s up?” he asked tenderly, and a spear of doubt struck her.

Stupid. He takes his hat off in the bedroom. Stop scaring yourself with fairytales.

“I…have some news for you,” Izabel said, slowly turning around in Manny’s arms, looking into a pair of liquid brown eyes that seemed to engulf her, and…

…where was she?

Lightning illuminated the world around her for a moment. She flailed in the water, rudely aware that she was in the middle of the river, with no recollection of how she got there. It was dark, and the typically sluggish water was now ferocious. Izabel wiped wet hair out of her eyes as she searched for anything familiar in the dark, the storm obscuring all landmarks as the water moved her further and further downstream.

I have to do something… I’ll be pulled out to sea, Izabel thought frantically, and she swam with the current towards a rotting tree that seemed halfway familiar. She got hold of a limb, hanging on, as she looked back up the river.

How did she get here? She remembered nothing after turning to Manny. It was as if the world had faded into cotton, without form or definition, only softness.

Lightning flashed again, and this time, she saw the figure of a man standing atop the river’s surface, and Izabel stared, eyes wide and dripping. The lightning continued to flash, and the man sank into the river without a splash, and Izabel flung herself into the current, trying to swim for a shore line, any shore line. She sobbed as she frantically pulled, unable to see for rain and tears and river water, coughing as it filled her mouth. Looking behind her, she thought she saw a wet, gaping mouth in the middle of a thick, pink back breath out mist.

Something warm, gentle, and long brushed against her leg, and she jerked away from it, only to have iron pegs driven into her ankle.

Izabel disappeared under the water with a yank, unable to snatch a breath before she was totally submerged beneath the murk. She kicked out with her foot, and it seemed to do little good as a pair of hands – no, not hands, they were too long and spindly and smooth to be hands – gripped her hips. A thin row of teeth raked her middle as it nibbled. She struggled against it, reaching her hands down to find its face and digging a nail into something the consistency of a soft-boiled egg –

The encantado shoved her away with a high trill, and she fought to the surface, gasping air and treading water with only one good leg. Her body shuddered in shock as her eyes were drawn to a light, and with an explosion of hope realized it was somebody’s boat. She raced towards it with flailing limbs.

“Izabel? Izabel!” a familiar voice shouted over the roar of thunder and rain, and Izabel shrieked, “Luiza!”

“Izabel! Where is he?” yelled another voice, this one the detective, as Izabel reached the boat.

His answer came shortly. Izabel was jerked beneath the water, Ignacio grabbing a flailing wrist and elbow.

Luiza and Ignacio fought to keep a hold of the woman, but the thing in the water was strong, easily threatening to capsize the boat. As they played a cruel game of tug of war, Luiza caught glimpses of something pink and glistening flail in the water, now and again revealing a muscular back sporting a humanoid, lipless mouth along its spine. It had the shape of a man, but it was too long by four or five feet, too broad and fleshy. Once she thought she saw a neckless head, a baleful human eye staring at her before disappearing. A too-many-jointed tail splashed them with a bucket’s worth of water, and Luiza realized Izabel was no longer fighting to hold on.

“She’s drowning!” Luiza shouted.

Ignacio readjusted his grip and reached down to grab a boat hook from the boat’s floor, jabbing the blunt end down into the water.

“Aim for the blowhole!” Luiza ordered as she tried to haul back on Izabel, and Ignacio wildly stabbed down as the encantado was pulled up.

He whacked it over the back, hitting it square on the hole, and Izabel suddenly went limp as the creature fled deeper under the water. Aware that the respite would be short, the two drug Izabel into the boat, and the girl retched. Ignacio pulled his gun from its holster as he kept watch, the rain drenching them all as it stormed. After several minutes, the downpour began to abate, and nothing else accosted them.

“Let’s get her to the hospital,” Ignacio suggested, and Luiza nodded, pulling the cord on the motor.

***​

“…And did you ever get a last name?”

“No, I didn’t. I don’t think they have them,” Izabel chuckled darkly. “We were… friends with benefits, I guess. Convenient.”

She fell silent as Ignacio sat across from her hospital bed. There was a noticeable bump across her midsection now, which served as a shelf for the pad of paper Izabel drew on. Ignacio had noted the rapid growth in the past month, and even the hospital staff was stumped.

“What I want to know is, why do this to me?” Izabel finally said, throwing the pad down on the bed and pointing angrily towards her pregnant body. “Were the others…?”

She didn’t bother to finish. Ignacio sighed, tapping his pen against his leg.

“We do not know. So far, there are no bodies to find, though one woman, Tanya, did buy a pregnancy test ten days before she disappeared,” Ignacio sighed, staring into his lap. “There are stories, of course, but they’re…”

He paused, and Izabel stared. Were these just stories? Could they say that any longer?

“My mother used to tell me that the encantado love to be with humans, that we are their favorite creature on this Earth, and so they kidnap us to be with them in their city underground,” Ignacio said.

Izabel laughed with little humor.

“I don’t think he meant to take me home to his parents,” she said, rubbing her stomach.

“The stories also say that they come back for the children they father,” Ignacio slowly added, “to be encantados themselves.”

Izabel was quiet, her gaze resting on the drawing she had been working on, of a young naked woman strangling a skeleton. Her heart hammered in her chest, something kicking her from within.

“Let him come, then. See what he finds.”
 

Kitti

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BITE #2: Summer Bytes

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HerziQuerzi HerziQuerzi with A Day Too Early and Six Million Too Late
In the time it took Chief Navigator George Hanson to wipe the sweat from his brow, three more error messages popped up. Crowded for attention across the array of monitors laid out before him. Two more bulkhead breaches, one more fire. Vector projections, various timers, and fuel gauges all shifted to compensate for the new information, and another eruption of frenzied chatter came through his headset.

Hanson only spared the notifications a quick glance before closing them, making note of how many bulkheads and compartments sat between him and the nearest breach. Enough. The room was safe for now. His room, though there were no personal items to show it; only a cryogenic pod, the station with its monitors, and the chair to which he was currently strapped.

Another bulkhead buckled, causing Hanson to curse. A cryogenic pod compartment this time according to the computer, with nearly a hundred occupied pods torn loose by the explosive decompression and jettisoned into space. “Jules!” he barked, “why haven’t you diverted the pressure yet?”

His voice cut through the overlapping chatter, sharp and authoritarian. In the ensuing moment of relative quiet, a voice responded. “System’s saying the controls were taken out. We’ve got engineers on the way to check it out.”

Hanson cursed again. The situation presented to him, piecemeal across dozens of digital windows and gauges and warnings was simultaneously impossibly complex and devastatingly simple. The Noah 1 had collided with bits of rock and ice while traveling at its maximum velocity of three hundred and sixty thousand metres per second. The hull had been designed to withstand collisions with clouds of space dust - even in the vast emptiness of space, such particles were common enough to be a near certainty across a large enough distance - but even that had stretched the limits of mankind's technological might. At the speeds necessary for interstellar travel, even colliding with a small pebble would yield the destructive energy of half a ton of TNT.

And the computer said they had struck an entire cloud of them.

First the hull of the ark ship had been struck, over and over. Alarms had been sounded, and the pods of emergency response crew such as Hanson had begun the process of releasing their occupants. And as he and the others scrambled to their positions - to their chairs for those working from their room, or into suits for the engineers working more hands on repairs - the onslaught would have continued as holes began to appear in the outer hull. Itself not an immediate threat; beneath the outer shell of the Noah 1 was a hollow city, empty and left in a vacuum for the duration of the journey.

But the rocks and ice had continued through the holes in the hull, battered the empty city, and began punching into the pod rooms and various compartments beneath. Places that were kept pressurized with basic atmosphere, so the crew could work when needed. And it was those compartments whose walls were now weakened, ravaged by fires and giving way to explosive decompression.

Hanson’s eyes flickered over the screens as he tried to parse a hundred people’s problems and current tasks. “Call back the engineers,” he eventually ordered.

“What?”

“We’re cascading. There’s no way we can outpace this.”

“We can’t just give-”

Hanson cut him off. “The southern hemisphere is untouched. We pull everyone back, then open all the bulkhead doors in the northern hemisphere and jettison the atmosphere. No oxygen left for the fires, and the damage stops spreading.”

He winced at the cacophony of protest that rose up from dozens of crew members over the headset. A sea of noise that lasted for several seconds before being abruptly cut off. “Hanson,” a woman’s voice said, crystal clear in the silenced call.

“Captain.”

“The pods aren’t made to handle a vacuum. We’d be dooming fifty thousand people to die. I recommend you keep to-”

“Twenty three thousand,” Hanson cut in.

“What?” The captain asked, affronted at being interrupted.

“We’ve already lost more than half the northern pods. Only twenty three thousand remain.”

Only-? The bulkhead doors stay closed, and the engineers continue with their tasks. That’s final. Do your job, and focus on keeping us on track.” Her voice cut out, and the overlapping chatter resumed. Grumbling, Hanson shifted in his seat and began the process of rerouting fuel away from encroaching fires. Warnings and notifications continued to pile up as more compartments on the map of the Noah 1 turned red.

Too quickly. The fuel tanks could only be emptied so quickly, and the fires were drawing closer to both them and to the very lines that were emptying them. With a sigh, Hanson leaned back, closed his eyes, and started silently counting. Absently listened to the chatter and the digital dings that accompanied each new popup on the monitors. Tracked how the blinking lights of the monitor could ever so faintly be seen through his eyelids.

When he reached twenty three, everything cut out, black and silent.



“Do you think it would have worked?”

The voice startled Hanson from his thoughts. He looked up from the cafeteria food he’d been idly poking at to see a middle aged woman placing her own tray of food down across from him. Her skin was weathered, her brown hair faded from sun exposure where it wasn’t naturally graying. The green eyes that locked onto his were similarly dull. A trait that often left people assuming she was unfocused or inattentive, putting too much stock into adages of bright eyed inquisitiveness. A stupid notion in Hanson’s opinion, that eye colour would be linked to intelligence.

He knew that right now, those green eyes were anything but unfocused. Tracking his facial expression, picking up on the nuances of his appearance. Bags under his eyes, perhaps, or hairs out of place. Sarah had always been a detail oriented person. Relying on observation and pattern recognition to make up for a lack of natural social awareness. Hanson couldn’t help but smile as he imagined the neural processes kicking into action, likely plotting potential responses, and how she could in turn could respond to those, repeated over and over. The two of them familiar enough with each other to predict the course of a conversation before it had even begun.

“Of course.” Despite the smile, the tone leaned towards the curt. His own social failing. “I wouldn’t have suggested it if I didn’t.”

Sarah made an acknowledging sound as she began to bite into her sandwich. Leaving the air clear for Hanson to continue.

“It wasn’t a perfect solution, obviously. High casualty rate. But with that severe a scenario, there was no better option.”

Sarah nodded slowly. “And better to test risks in a simulation rather than up there.”

Exactly.” He gave a frustrated sigh. As extreme weather continued to delay the boarding of the Noah arks, the crew members remaining planetside where growing increasingly obsessed with the idea of perfecting their training. Running ever more extreme scenarios, again and again. They were restless. Nervous.

Hanson wasn’t oblivious enough to think he was immune to the same, but at least he was aware of it. Enough to keep himself from undermining his own training by attempting to iron out every last wrinkle of risk. He acknowledged that when it came to settling the stars, risk was unavoidable.

Sarah made another noncommittal sound, glancing down at her watch.

“Somewhere to be?” Hanson asked, brow furrowed. He felt a note of disappointment at the idea. As the delays had stretched on, and the moment of departure continued to remain an inevitable but unpredictable threshold before him, he had begun to dwell upon what it meant to leave. On what would be lost to him, and how he had spent his time on Earth.

He didn’t feel regret, or an urge to try and back out. What he was doing, what the Noah arks represented, was important. A massive step forward for the human race, a chance to start fresh. To move beyond the limits of their own solar system. To apply advances made towards sustainable practices and clean energy that had perhaps come too late for Earth itself. It was truly the final frontier, and Hanson would be one of those lucky enough to first break through it.

But the finality of it did bring up questions of what he would be leaving behind. Things like his friendship to Sarah. The simple pleasure of good food. How those two things could be combined. “Because I was hoping-”

Sarah held up a finger. “Seventeen seconds.”

“Until?” Hanson prompted, after a few seconds of waiting failed to yield any elaboration.

“Daily weather report. No point in being interrupted mid conversation.”

“Ah.” Hanson settled in, and the two waited expectantly for the cafeteria intercom to crackle to life. The noon weather reports had become a regular part of life in the base, as the year crawled forward into the fall and winter storm season. A few decades ago, this base had been built to take advantage of the mild local weather, ensuring as few interruptions to launch missions as possible. Now, as temperatures had risen and weather had grown more erratic, ‘mild’ was relative. In the summer, whether any given day would be clear was a coin flip. In the fall, thunder- and windstorms meant you often had at most one usable day in any given week. A frustrating hindrance at the best of times, multiplied a hundredfold when attempting to ferry a fifth of a million people into orbit.

The boarding process had been underway for nearly a year, with most civilians on board and in cryostasis. Only a few thousand remained, as well as most crew members.

The sound of the intercom cut through the quiet rumble of other conversations throughout the cafeteria. “May I have your attention please.” Hanson and Sarah glanced at each other, anticipatory, before looking off towards the speaker. “The last of the storm clouds are expected to clear within four hours, and remain clear for thirteen hours afterwards. Shuttles will be launched throughout this window.”

Another shared glance. This was it, after a year of waiting, and more of training. “Noah 1 boarding groups G-Three, H-Three, T-Four, and U-Four alongside Noah 2 boarding groups A-Four, B-Four, M-Four, and N-Four please pack any belongings according to standard regulations and be ready by sixteen-thirty. That is all.” The intercom fell silent. The room remained still for several seconds, drawn tight like an elastic band as everyone present moved through the same realizations. The same understanding that in a few scant hours, they would take their last steps on Earth.

Then the tensions snapped, and conversation erupted to new heights. Hanson’s face tightened at the onslaught of noise, but even he was feeling the sudden rush of excitement. Sarah, too, seemed caught up in it as she immediately rose to her feet, picking up her tray. She offered a smile. One stiff and tight lipped from lack of practice, but genuine all the same. “I should pack. Good luck aboard the Noah 1.”

“And you, on the Noah 2.” For once his voice managed to convey warmth, but as the words left his mouth he felt his mood briefly slip. Felt a pang of disappointment, as he thought of good food and good friends. The smile faded into something more melancholy.

A shift that went unnoticed, Sarah already turning to leave.



As the shuttle began its approach towards Noah 1, Hanson got his first unfiltered look at the ark ship that would become his new home. A dark grey sphere orbiting the planet, lights made infinitesimal in comparison to the whole dotting its surface like a reflection of the star filled space beyond. The size of it was hard to comprehend, made harder by the lack of anything tangible to compare it to. Logically, he knew it was twenty kilometres across. Knew the thickness of the hull, the fifty thousand nuclear powered ion thrusters that would propel it through deep space, and the more conventional propellant engines located deep within that would be responsible for their eventual landing.

But to be confronted with its size, to see it gradually fill his entire field of view, was something else entirely. To come face to face with the end result of decades of ceaseless construction. A project so vast in conception that it had warped the landscape of industry worldwide for Hanson’s entire adult life. Mankind’s most ambitious achievement.

He leaned forward as its shadow fell over the shuttle, gripped by equal parts awe and pride. He had been a part of this. Was a part of it. It was his calculations that sat within the ship’s navigational computers. Beyond the hull would be stores of fuel that he had helped measure and account for.

He thought about what that meant as the shuttle finished docking, its passengers herded towards and onto the Noah 1’s internal monorail. A few hundred passengers of what would be a full hundred thousand when all was said and done. An entire city’s worth of people caught up in this endeavour. Witnesses more than active participants, when compared to Hanson and the rest of the crew members.

He thought of the vastness of the journey ahead, as the monorail travelled through the empty city of the northern hemisphere. A city with a near identical counterpart in the southern hemisphere. A city that would go unused for the entire eighteen thousand years of their journey, emptied of atmosphere so as to avoid oxidation wearing away at vital systems over the millenium. Instead, the people would all be stored below in cryogenic pods packed a hundred to a room. Only once the ark ship arrived at its destination, and the two hemispheres separated before their final landing approach, would the city be put into use. Acting as a vast, ready made, and self sustaining domed habitat.

Finally, as he floated through the pod rooms, pulling himself along metal railings set into the walls and floors, he thought about the tribulations of society that would await them at the other end. Crew members with zero-g training helped passengers into their designated pods, and Hanson wondered how suited these people were for rebuilding government and society once the habitat was in use. The captain was intended to remain in charge for the first year, before democratic elections went underway, but there would be no pre-existing structure to uphold it. Only the mutual trust and obedience the people provided.

And as Hanson found himself into his own room, with its array of monitors and its single pod, he found that uncertainty comforting instead of worrying. The challenge before them is what made it worth doing. What would justify the sense of accomplishment he already felt.

Smiling, Hanson settled into his pod. Made himself comfortable as the lid drew shut above him, and closed his eyes as the coolant began to fill the pod. Not pooling due to the lack of gravity, but floating in an ever increasing density. He held his breath as he had been trained when it began to reach his head. Within ten seconds, the pod was filled with more coolant than air. Within fifteen, Hanson couldn’t feel any patches of air against his skin. There was a faint tingle as an electric current was run through the coolant to trigger it, a brief but intense feeling of cold, and then the coolant began to empty.

Where it had taken a little over twenty seconds to fill, a powerful burst of vacuum cleared the coolant within seconds and replaced it with air, and Hanson opened his eyes. Wondering if there had been an error, he opened the pod and stepped out, clothes slightly damp from trace remnants of the coolant.

A quick inspection of the control panel showed only green lights. Then he saw the date listed. 20,177.

The journey was already over.

He staggered back, mind struggling to come to terms with the discrepancy. He had been told the cryogenic procedure would be smooth, but had failed to anticipate what that meant.

A few seconds of awareness, virtually uninterrupted from his perspective, and over eighteen thousand years had passed. More time now separated him from that morning as had separated that morning from the previous ice age. Everyone he had known on Earth, gone. Every where he had known most likely gone. Cities would sit in many of the same places, but names had likely changed, and no individual building would still be standing.

The threshold he had been anticipating had been crossed, the way through erased behind. Too quickly and too thoroughly to possibly adjust. To come to terms with in this moment. Hanson found his hands shaking, his breath growing ragged. Attempts to will himself still and frustrated reminders to himself that this was what had been expected failed to help.

A polite cough from the doorway, however, did. Resetting his mental feedback loop like a defibrillator resetting a heart. Hanson whipped his head around, taking advantage of his once more working mind to puzzle through the situation. Assuming everything had gone to plan, his pod waking him meant the Noah 1 was beginning its final approach to its destination. He would be one of the first crew members to wake, in order to double check their current trajectory and make any necessary adjustments to put them into orbit around Ross 128 b. There definitely shouldn’t have someone else in his room.

The doorway was open, the lights beyond on at full brightness compared to the gentle, dim lightning of Hanson’s own room. The contrast rendered the figure in the doorway little more than a silhouette, close to seven feet tall and slender. It raised a hand in greeting. “English?” The voice was breathy and invigorated. One word somehow evoking feelings of someone that had just rolled down a hill, and now found themself trying to talk, laugh, and catch their breath all at once.

“Who are you?” Hanson brusquely demanded.

A pleasant laugh, light and songlike. “Yes, then. Can I come in?” The figure stepped forward and to the side, so the light wasn’t directly behind them. Hanson mirrored with a wary step of his own.

Then froze. He wasn’t supposed to be taking steps. Coasting through deep space, the ark ship should have been experiencing zero-g, and yet he and this stranger were standing and walking normally. Baffled, he glanced down at his feet, then at the stranger.

In their new position, they were easier to make out. Though it didn’t prove to be of much help, as the stranger was covered head to toe in a nearly skin tight suit. The helmet was featureless, the front a matte bronze colour that hid even faint impressions of what the strangers face might’ve looked like.

“What’s going on?” Hanson asked, confusion and tension making his voice even more curt than usual. “Why is there gravity?”

“Oh,” the stranger said casually. “We took the initiative and landed your ship for you.” A laugh. “Didn’t want you blundering into anything and causing an accident.”

Hanson once again found his thoughts skipping, now through sheer confusion. Landed the ship? Had his pod mechanism malfunctioned, and the rest of the crew had been forced to do his job for him? Except the way the stranger talked, they presented the ship as something separate from them. And blunder into something?

“Are you an alien?”

The stranger laughed for a third time. “I’m not the one who came careening out of space quite unexpectedly. But no. I’m human.” There was a brief pause that managed to convey intense personal amusement, despite Hanson not being able to make out the stranger’s expression. “At least, parts of me are. Name’s Kevy Mart. Nice to meet you, George Hanson.”

“How do you know my name?”

“Ship files.” They hooked a thumb over their shoulder. “Also it’s on the door. Now put this on.” They held out a metal mask like the one they were wearing.

“Why?” Hanson asked, wary.

“Quarantine measure. The medical types want to be sure your weird old bacteria won’t cause a plague.”

“What, like War of the Worlds?” Hanson asked derisively. “The common cold will wipe you out?”

Kevy paused before answering, going unnaturally still for a moment just short enough that Hanson wasn’t sure if it had even happened. “Exactly,” they said, in the same breathless voice as before. “And that’d be rude.”

Unsettled, Hanson carefully took the mask and inspected it. He didn’t see any straps or ways to seal it, but did note with curiosity that while the exterior was an impenetrable matte bronze, the inside provided a view as clear as glass. He cautiously slid it into place, awkwardly holding it for a moment until he felt it begin to change shape beneath his fingers. Startled, he let go, but instead of falling he felt it quickly extend to wrap around his head. Then a gentle tickling sensation around his neck as bits of thread spooled out from the base and weaved their way across his body within seconds.

“Tadah!” Kevy proclaimed before fiddling with their own mask, causing it to contract as rapidly as Hanson’s had unfurled. The result only sent Hanson further off balance. Despite their earlier claim of being human, Kevy looked anything but. Their skin was a grey blue, with a texture similar to a diving suit, and their eyes glowed with electric light, the colour shifting from second to second. They were entirely hairless, leaving nothing to distract from the near flawless elegance of their face.

But perhaps the most unexpected part of Kevy’s appearance was that, despite their unearthly appearance, their clothes were anything but. Sneaker, jeans, a cotton shirt whose design had likely come straight from an album cover, and a cardigan over top. Hanson even thought he caught a glimpse of a Levi’s logo on the jeans as Kevy shifted position.

Kevy noticed his stare and grinned. “Nice, right? After the information from your ship’s databanks hit the net, everyone’s been trying to catch up. You lot managed to redefine what’s in without even being conscious. Now that’s influence. And hey, makes things more familiar for you as well. It’s a win all the way down.”

Hanson decided to keep to himself how, if anything, the contrast made everything feel even more alien. Like an increasingly intrusive fever dream. Shaking his head, he took a step back. “Okay, stop. Tell me what’s going on.”

Kevy spread his arms like a ringmaster. “I mean, nothing complicated. You spent-” another brief, unnatural pause, “-eighteen thousand, one hundred and one years travelling through the cosmos. Which gave us a lot of free time to figure out faster than light travel in your absence. Plus one or two other things.

“Welcome to the future, George.”



The future proved alien to Hanson at every turn.

Technologically and societally, humanity had come a long way in nearly twenty thousand years. Kevy had walked Hanson through door frames that contained wormholes, depositing them hundred of light years away with a single step. Showed him vast orbital cities that encircled planets and even suns like Saturn’s ring. Taught him how to use machines that created whatever you wanted from a nearly endless database at a moments notice. Offered to take him somewhere for body modifications or to have nanobots installed into his brain, both of which were curtly refused. Took him on tours of peoples’ own personal planets, terraformed and ecologically engineered however they desired.

Nearly endless resources, used to create an entire society of ease and luxury. If people deigned to work, it was because it was simple something that interested them. Or to create something of value.

As Hanson and the other Noah 1 residents were quick to learn, when any and every luxury good was immediately available, familiar concepts of supply and demand, of labour and currency, were defunct. Value instead was found in one of the few things that couldn’t be endlessly replicated. Status. Works of art could be recreated, but there would only be one original. Delicious dishes required only the press of a button, but there were only so many seats in a well regarded restaurant.

It was an economy of popularity. Of either artistic endeavours or magnetic personalities. Neither of which were things Hanson had ever had any aptitude for. Not that that itself mattered much to him, as comfort and luxury beyond anything he had ever experienced were guaranteed regardless.

No, it was the luxury itself that left Hanson feeling listless. Years of his life had been devoted to the Noah project. To the idea of helping humanity take its next step. To excel in practical skills where he fell short in social ones. He had been a man driven by purpose, by his ability to overcome. Now, there was nothing left [/i]to[/i] overcome. The journey had been made, only for the final step to be finished millennia before he arrived. There were no more advancements to be made, no more frontiers to expand, horizons to cross.

At first, the Noah 1 habitat cities served their original purpose, acting as a hub and home as the passengers came to grips with this new society. But most adapted quickly, and began filtering out to explore the near endless array of worlds available. Within a few weeks, more than half the passengers had left. And in the vacuum left behind, others began to move in, captivated by the living relic. Before long the habitat felt less like a refuge to Hanson and more like a tourist exhibit.

It wasn’t long before his thoughts turned back to the same feelings of loss and regret he had had in the days leading up to the launch. Things he had come to terms with thanks to the weight of what he could accomplish. But with that accomplishment ripped out from under him, there was nothing left to keep that loss at bay.

At first, Kevy’s invitations served as a distraction. Often irritating and uncomfortable, as he was carried through the middle of their expansive social network. A network that Kevy deftly managed as a skilled investor would manage a trust fund. But over time, distractions turned to reminders. The rare treat of eating hand cooked food made from hand grown ingredients brought to mind his stillborn plan of good food with an old friend.

Suddenly fed up, Hanson nearly threw his fork down onto his plate. The resulting clatter shut up the dozen or so other influencers Kevy had brought Hanson out to meet.

“...Hanson?” Kevy asked, tense. For once their voice betraying something other than breathless friendliness.

“Can you get me a spaceship?”

Instantly curious, Kevy leaned forward. “Oh I most definitely can.” They went still for a moment, which Hanson had come to learn meant they were accessing the net through their neural implants. “It’s en route. Can I ask what for?”

Hanson got to his feet and started heading for the door. “Finding the Noah 2.”

Kevy quickly followed, their friends exchanging glances before throwing the food in take-out boxes that emerged seamlessly from the table and doing the same. “Trying to feed that blue balled adventurous spirit?”

Hanson gave Kevy a mildly surprised look, caught off guard by the apparent attention paid to his moods. Though on further thought, it made sense. Kevy did seem to make a career out of getting along with people, as much as careers as a concept worked in this world. With a small shake of his head, Hanson continued on. “I have a friend on board.”

A few of the other influencers exchanged interested looks at that, and a brief exchange of words in a language Hanson didn’t know. Their neural implants let them understand fluent English, but unless they made a conscious effort to speak it as Kevy did, Hanson was left in the dark as to what they were saying.

At the front of the restaurant were a pair of doorways. One normal one that led outside, and another that was simply an empty metal frame sitting flush against the wall. Kevy stepped forward, and with a brief moment of distortion, the wall was replaced by the interior of a small ship’s bridge.

Everyone filed in, with Hanson and Kevy taking the main two seats. “I assume this thing can travel through wormholes?” Hanson asked.

Kevy nodded. “Once we’re away from any cities, yeah. And get permission.” Hanson stiffened, but Kevy flapped a reassuring hand. “It’s not much of a process. Takes about two seconds for the systems to make sure you’re not about to crash into another ship or place one wormhole endpoint inside another.”

To prove their point, once the ship was a few hundred metres above any nearby buildings, a ring unfurled from the front of the ship and snapped into place directly in front of them. Another brief moment of distortion, and Hanson was greeted with a view of empty space. Air was pulled forward into the vacuum, bringing the ship with it.

Hanson began using the ship’s control panel to pull up the Noah 2’s known navigation info that had been extracted from the Noah 1’s database.

“You have a rough starting point for me?” Kevy asked.

“About…” Hanson typed into the control panel, “four thousand and thirty seven astronomical units out from Luyten’s Star. The projected trajectory should be ready in the ship.”

“Yah-huh, seeing it. Let me get the permissions, and… presto.” Another ring unfurled from the front of the ship, revealing a different set of constellations as the ship gently flew through. The wormhole shut behind them, and the metal door frame in the back of the cabin flickered to life to reveal some nondescript server room, the portable wormhole letting the ship form an instant connection to the net even light-years away from any planet.

The ship began scanning for unusually high traces of xenon that would have been left behind by the ion thrusters as the Noah 2 went through its nine thousand year deceleration phase, then compared that to the numbers pulled from the database, and began plotting further jumps. Kevy relaxed as the pattern became all but automatic, requiring only an occasional button press from them to get wormhole permissions.

Hanson, by contrast, couldn’t find it in him to relax, and continued looking intently through the ship’s windows in search of the Noah 2. Until at last it appeared, blotting out the stars beyond. They had appeared in its wake, on the far side from the ion thrusters in the laborious ordeal of slowing down the eight billion ton mass. The dispersion of the electrically charged xenon caused formed an iridescent halo around the massive ark ship.

There was a slight jolt of g-force as the ship accelerated to match pace with the Noah 2, though not nearly intense as it should’ve been considering the relative speeds. Another result of new technology Hanson wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to properly grasp.

Kevy brought the ship up alongside the Noah 2 before getting to their feet and stretching. “Hang tight,” they said, grabbing one of the bronze masks from a wall, “I’m going to do something vaguely illegal so we can speed this up a little.”

Before Hanson could ask what they meant, Kevy activated the mask, the full body suit covering them in seconds, and stepped into the airlock. They grabbed a folded up metal frame from the wall inside while waiting for the airlock to depressurize, then stepped out into space. Looking out through the ship window, Hanson watched as Kevy unfurled the metal frame and a wave of distortion settled into a view of the hemisphere city inside the ark ship. Kevy propelled themself through, and the frame shut down and collapsed behind them.

A few tense minutes passed, Hanson wondering what Kevy was doing, before the wormhole frame in the back of the bridge flickered. The server room disappeared, replaced by one of the pod compartments inside the Noah 2. An unmasked Kevy stood triumphantly inside. “Let’s get your show on the road,” they said jovially.

Kevy led the way, navigating the various compartments through the map fed directly into their head. Though Hanson found the professional socialite often grating, he appreciated their continued silence. That they were willing to help him do this, without encroaching on what was ultimately a very personal endeavour.

While Kavy’s ship had had artificial gravity, the now ancient ark ship was still gripped by zero-g. Hand over hand, Hanson gently pulled himself along by the railings, while the others set to opening the passengers’s pods. Hanson felt himself form a small, wry smile as he remembered his reaction to be woken up. As he thought about another hundred thousand people going through the same thing over the next few days.

Ahead, Kevy came to a stop ahead of a pod indistinguishable from the rest. Orienting himself, Hanson pushed off towards the pod, too impatient to follow the railing the whole way. He grabbed Kevy’s arm to halt his momentum before transferring his hold to the pod itself. Inside, Hanson could see Sarah floating in coolant. The sun bleached brown hair and encroaching strands of grey. The skin that looked weathered even through the coolant. The pod gently began to vibrate beneath Hanson’s hands as the coolant started to empty. With a nod and a thumbs up, Kevy began floating away to give him some privacy.

“Thank you,” Hanson said.

‘No problem,’ Kevy mouthed, as the pod began to open.

Hanson let himself drift off to the side to give Sarah some more space as she sat up, hands and feet planted against the sides of the pod to keep herself from drifting. “Hanson?” she said, giving him a confused look as her eyes focused. “What are you- did something go wrong?” She looked around, confused, and her eyes fell on Kevy.

Hanson smiled. “Welcome to the future, Sarah.”
Managers' Pick Winner:

noodle with Remembrance
"Baby we don't need lights,
Because dreams show the way,
Even if you send me down,
I'll-"

The melancholy sound cuts off when the speaker in elevator C-5 is reduced to a useless, smoking hunk of metal. The click of a safety going back into place breaks the blissful silence only seconds later as the blaster drops back to Unknown-Female-30's side. Two more people, Unknown-Female-22 and Unknown-Male-45 chuckle softly, their breaths hissing and crackling through their internal comms. Outside, there is only silence.

"I swear, every derelict space station we come across has some kind of problem with their speakers." Unknown-Female-30 speaks, rolling her eyes in exasperation as the elevator's doors slowly grind open, whining with the effort, filling the once oxygen-filled elevator with deadly lack of atmosphere.

Energy level: 33%

I am not...what I was before.

Unknown-Female-30 removes a device from her belt, holding it in her hands as she scans Cafeteria C-5. Red dots flicker to life on the screen- negatives, but for what I am not in a position to tell.

I should know. I should be able to tell.

Memory Load Failed

Energy level: 31%

I cannot.

"You remember that one that just had that infinite loop of someone laughing?" Unknown-Male-45 shudders, kicking idly at a floating bit of glass and sending it drifting gently away. The magnets on his boots quiver, pulling his foot back down as they near the station floor.

Unknown-Female-30 scoffs. "At least that one had oxygen that wasn't confined to just the elevators."

"Sam." Unknown-Female-22's voice is soft as she beckons Unknown-Female-30...Sam...over.

Sam walks over, footsteps silent in the oxygen deprived atmosphere. Her hair is flat inside her helmet, and I cannot help but wonder how the blue tresses would look floating in zero gravity. "What is it, Kal?" Her voice is the opposite of soft- it is rough, damaged, no-nonsense. Her gait is heavy. Tired.

Unknown-Female-22, Kal, points a shaky, gloved finger to the corner of the room, face drawn and pale. "Something's wrong."

A floating cadaver- Damien Smith-Head Chef-56- spins softly in the corner, no opposing force there to stop him from moving. His white hair floats in all directions, red droplets surrounding his frozen body, spilling from his chest.

Curses fall from Sam's lips, crackling over their comms. Unknown-Male-45 turns to see, his suit's breastplate scratched and stained, marking years of use. Where a name tag should be has been scratched out, and under the husk is written a new moniker. "Icarus".

It is fitting.

Icarus grimaces. "Poor sap. He must not have gotten on the escape pods fast enough." He gestures to a knife, one of many from the destroyed kitchen, near Damien's body. "Decided to end himself when he realized he wasn't getting off this thing."

Kal shudders, averting her eyes and scampering off in the opposite direction. Sam frowns at her, but still does not look too closely at the body. Instead, she elects to run her tests again, or perhaps a different one altogether. Red across the board. "That's the problem, Icarus. None of the escape pods are gone."

"So you're saying...."

"No one got off." Sam nods once, solemn, shuffling to the kitchen. She attempts to flick on a light, and for a brief, hopeful moment, it flickers, before falling dim again.

Energy Level: 25%

I trawl my networks, searching for anything that is not necessary. My eyes and ears have been gouged willingly, and I allow myself to use just one at a time. My hands have been cut off, removed from my reach. My memory is all but gone, only records of the crew remain. I switch off the electricity nodes for every room, every elevator, every outlet I can access but my hub and Cafeteria C-5 for now.

I do not wish to lose any more of myself.

They have begun speaking again, this group of unknown intruders. If I was myself I would have attacked them. Flushed them as soon as they set foot inside me, sent every resource at my disposal to make them leave or dispose of them for good. Now, there is nothing to protect but myself.

"I'm saying, we don't know what the hell happened here." Kal's voice is soft even as she argues with her companions. "If the pods are still attached, what do you think that means?" She jabs a shaking finger toward Damien's body, still endlessly spinning. "There's more of them. Maybe hundreds. This is not worth our lives, too."

Sam scoffs, turning away. "Whatever killed them is bound to be gone now. No witnesses makes it easier. We can take what they have before anyone even figures out this place has been....whatever happened."

"No, Sam." Kal hisses, the first tones of anger entering her voice. "I have a bad feeling about this place."

"You had doubts about the last job, too." Icarus stares her down skeptically, arms folded across his chest. He towers over her. "We walked away with about a million Denns. You're just scared cause you saw a body."

Kal whirls on him, insult written on her face. "This isn't a doubt. This is...it's something else, it's in my gut. I'm telling you, this place is trouble."

"Every job is trouble." Sam's voice is terse, annoyed. "Unless you want to go wait in the ship, shut up and follow."

Kal pauses, debating with herself on what the best course of action is.

I know.

But I cannot tell them. My voice has been taken, the speakers gone and the lack of atmosphere making anything I could say impossible to hear, anyway.

Kal chooses. All I can do is follow. I cut off my connection to the Cafeteria and follow, flitting from eye to eye in a desperate attempt to watch.

Energy Level: 23%

All three walk, leaving behind Cafeteria C-5 and entering the maze of hallways that is Corridor Network Cr-5a. Kal's hand is always on her blaster, wide brown eyes roving the dark halls. She brushes a stray deck of cards away from her, sending it spinning, spilling, along the metal walls. Cards fan into the air, and I am distracted by the gracefulness in which they turn and dance before I remember.

I am following.

For what, I do not know. It may simply be that I do not want them to die alone and unremembered.

Like I will.

I?

Can I die?

I think, therefore I am.

Energy Level: 20%

My eye flickers, going black for a startling second as I switch my consciousness to another. My charges move into view, their steps eerily silent in the void of the broken station. "What are we even looking for?" Kal sounds frustrated, her voice ringing in a tone of exasperated fear. Paranoia.

Icarus cuts her a sidelong glance, one massive hand moving to scratch himself in an unmentionable place. "Sam?"

"Research." The word is curt, gruff as the woman stares down at her screen with a confused frown.

Kal sighs heavily, rolling her eyes. Her breath whitens the visor of her suit and recedes. "Care to elaborate?"

"Opulence was a research station, placed in the orbit of Falk-327 for fifteen years to monitor the primitive species and determine if contact would be beneficial, and if the resources on it are worth the expense to mine. Recovering the results and selling them to the Opulence's employers would set us up for years." Sam glances behind her to note her companions' reactions, not noticing the brief green flicker that comes to life on her handheld console.

But I do.

I desperately reach for my hands, trying to drag life back into them.

Energy Level: 17%

One door shudders, sealing shut for a moment before resisting my effort and popping back open. The lights along the corridor flicker.

"Power's surging," Icarus observes, glancing up to the ceiling even as I claw for both the control I'd given up and the control that was wrenched from me. The scars in my server-room ache, torn wires and destroyed stacks of computers aiding in the difficulty- no, the impossibility- of gaining what once was second nature.

Kal jumps as another light flickers, blaster held in front of her and muscles tense. Sam sighs as she looks at her. "Listen. Go back to the ship. You're not cut out for this."

"No." For all her timidness, Kal seems stubbornly bold when her pride on the line. She shoves her blaster back into its holster with a scowl aimed in Sam's direction. "I can handle it."

Sam grunts in response, clearly disinterested in arguing further, and turns her attention back to her console. "All negative on life readings," she reports. Perhaps as a comfort. Kal just mumbles something even my ears cannot reach, and darts quickly through the door that had closed after her companions, as if afraid it would close and trap her.

Energy Level: 15%

"Let's lighten the mood." Icarus grins casually, easily, glancing to Kal first. "So, a blind man walks into a bar-"

The handheld console flickers and Sam clenches her fist above her head with a sharp hiss. The joke ends, the punchline dangling untied.

Green. On. Off. On. And it stays.

"Something else is here."

Kal is mute, already pale face a mask of ashen white. She quivers, pulling her blaster and aiming it into the dark corners nearest her. Icarus is suddenly serious, his rifle up to his shoulder and dark eyes narrowed. Lips in a thin line. Sam unclips a grenade from her belt, thumb maneuvering under the flick-off pin in readiness.

I grasp my own broken hands and piece a finger back together.

Power Level: 10%

The lights come back to life in Corridor Cr-5a-7. They flicker, struggling, but they are on.

"What the hell is that?" The scream is sharp, horrified, and entirely too loud over their comms. Kal shoots. Misses.

The creature before them is an amalgamation. Different skin tones, blended together in a patchwork quilt of human flesh and thick black sludge, hide the horrific parasite underneath. Long, sinewy arms stretch out in front, and a mouth bigger than even the giant Icarus unfolds. Drool, blood, and mucus pop from its teeth, floating into zero-grav. Six more arms lay in wait, some decorated with skin, some not, long fingers grasping the railings on the sides of the corridor. Two powerful legs keep it tethered to the floor.

Icarus does not miss. Patchwork skin tears and burns, and the creature widens its mouth in what would be a scream, if only there was sound. Black sludge oozes from the cut. It glistens in the light.

"Kal, on me!"

"Are those human fingers?"

"Shoot it again!"

The group is in chaos, and I am powerless to stop it.

The creature shambles, consuming shot after shot with flinches and silent snarls, but persists. A trail of floating skin and ooze spins behind it.

Power level: 6%

"Just run!" Icarus shoots again before turning and shoving Kal, prompting her to move.

It springs, jaw unhinging as it catches Icarus in its teeth. He screams before his suit is pierced, body freezing up and breath leaving. His leg twitches, then falls still and limp as it is removed from his body. His blood beads and floats away in a kaleidoscope of red. The creature pauses, shuffles with his limp form, and then surges forward after the fleeing Sam and Kal. Icarus' dark skin is brought up to one of its wounds with a tendril of black ooze, and stuck there like a bit of armor.

Or a prize.

I reach once more for the door. It does not respond.

Energy Level: 3%

The creature stalks its prey, eight arms and two legs sending it scrambling after the women in a flurry of sadistic motion. Sam goes down, and Kal pauses for only a moment to see her demise before continuing to sprint, panic fueling her.

I wonder if, perhaps, she can make it.

If she can be the one I have saved.

I grasp at broken strings, tugging at each one to see what it is connected to.

A red light flashes in Corridor Cr-5a-9, and the creature pauses, but not for long enough.

Kal stumbles, shoving still-spinning cards from her vision.

One gets stuck on the bicep of one of the creature's arms as it passes.

It reaches out a hand. Kal kicks it away.

Energy Level: 1%

My vision flickers. The lights turn off. Kal screams, sobs, cries as she pulls herself wildly around the wrong corner. Her blaster slips from her fingers and her knees buckle at the blow they receive from the monster in pursuit.

Needle-thin teeth pierce her ankle.

Blood spirals into the dark.

Perfect beads of red.

In another lonesome elevator, a speaker crackles to life as both Kal and I slip into nothing.

"-always remember you."

Energy Level: 0%
 
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