Alpha vs Delta - Complete First Draft
So, it's taken me long enough, but I finally got a first draft of this thing done! Let's see how WordPress handles this...
A 7th Son (by J.C. Hutchins) vs Infected (by Scott Sigler) fan fiction by l.m.orchard
The snow crunched under Marten's feet as he made his way home from work at the computer lab on North Campus. His shift at the help desk had ended around five o'clock, but shorter days toward the end of the year meant it was already dark out.
He cut across the yards of student family housing on the way back to his apartment a half-mile away. There were sidewalks, which should've been the faster way, but campus maintenance never seemed to do a great job at keeping the paths shoveled up here. So, rather than do a slow shuffle all the way home—on snow packed into ice by a day's worth of foot traffic—he opted to forge his own route through the fresh stuff.
By the time he got to Plymouth Road, his jeans had gotten soaked to the shins, his hiking boots were soggy, and he wondered if this had been such a great idea after all.
With a break in traffic, he hustled across the street. Waiting for him there was dinner, in the form of a triple cheeseburger, extra large fries, and a jumbo chocolate shake from the fast food place on the corner. He warmed up a bit, at least, with the time it took to order and fetch his greasy feast. The time it took to walk the rest of the way from there to his apartment building, however, left him with frozen pant legs.
He checked his mailbox outside—empty—and let himself into the building. His place was the last door at the end of the short hallway, fourth on the right. As he was stamping off the snow, his neighbor Laurel emerged from door across the hall.
"You're always coming when I'm going," she said, smiling shyly as she locked the door behind her.
Marten had trouble meeting her green eyes, gaze skirting around her face: dark hair chopped at the jaw line, bangs cut straight across her forehead, a cascade of silver rings in each ear.
"Yeah," said Marten, punctuated by a gurgling pull on his shake. He stared at the hollow of her neck and caught a haze of incense that followed her out into the hall.
There was a beat of shifty silence, broken when she gave a little laugh and said, "Well, I guess I'll catch you later."
"Yeah," said Marten. Shrugging, Laurel bundled herself up and slouched past him into the cold outside. He took another pull from the shake and sighed when she was out of earshot.
To himself, he said, "You're a real ladies' man, Marten."
He turned to his door—and noticed the package at his feet. With a little spike of excitement, he scooped it up and let himself into the apartment. His dinner balanced atop the box, he locked the door with his elbow.
Juggling everything, he stripped off his coat and dumped his backpack into a ratty recliner just inside. Thankful he'd left the kitchen light on, he never took his eyes off the address label on the box as he left a trail of slushy footprints back to the single bedroom.
He bumped the lights on with his hip to reveal a rumpled twin-sized bed, along with semi-permanent laundry piles — none of which smelled at all like Laurel's incense. He swept past all of that, since the main attraction was the computer desk and attached workbench that filled up most of the room.
He set the package and food down and, grimacing, was suddenly reminded of the condition of his pants and boots. He paused to untie, unlace, and kick the footwear into a corner. He stripped down to boxers and t-shirt and tossed the jeans aside. From a nearby pile, he produced a dry pair of jogging pants and pulled them on.
Finally, with a well-practiced slump, he parked himself in the office chair stationed at the center of the workspace. Settling in, he grabbed his cheeseburger and considered the package between bites. He scratched thoughtfully at the back of his neck and ate a few fries.
He couldn't believe it was here—and now that it was, he was afraid to open it.
It had started a few weeks before, when Marten had posted some ideas from his ongoing post-graduate work to an obscure computational neuroscience listserv.
Dating from the early 1970's, when few knew there even was such a thing as email—let alone computational neuroscience—the discussion list was populated by a cabal of PhDs, grad students, and suspected government spooks. Participants in the group used aliases as often as real names, so the only things that really carried weight and granted reputation were reproducible experiments and solid work. Anything else resulted in cranky ridicule, parody, and an eventual ban. This was something from which few ever returned, virtually speaking.
It was with that danger in mind that Marten declared being on the verge of extracting a complete human neural state vector, along with an algorithmic understanding of the brain's innate signal redundancy and error correction.
In plainer terms, he was just a few steps away from downloading a copy of a human mind—memories, skills, personality, and all. Not only that, but in studying the brain as an information system, he'd uncovered some interesting natural structures and error correction schemes. They pointed him toward ways in which damaged or missing portions of the system could be rebuilt and filled in from the the remaining parts. He was probably getting ahead of himself, but he suspected that someday his work could be used to fix brain damage and cure senility, among other things.
His pronouncement had sparked a nasty debate on the list. On one hand, his alias had never been known as one of the crazies. Whatever he posted, no matter how strange at first, usually survived the gauntlet. He took criticism well, never flamed, and generally kept his ego out of the way.
But, this time, his postings just came too far out of left field. Worse yet was that Marten's results were very difficult to reproduce: He'd developed a pile of custom equipment during his experiments, and it would take a long while before anyone managed to follow in his footsteps. Although he hadn't been tarred and feathered quite yet, list consensus decided he was dangerously close to joining the ranks of John Titor, cold fusion scientists, and that Time Cube guy.
So, it was in midst of that textual firestorm that John Aleph contacted Marten privately off-list. At first, he thought Aleph was just screwing with him, because the first line of his initial message was straight out of the Simpsons:
"I am interested in your ideas and would like to subscribe to your newsletter."
Over the course of an extended email thread, though, it turned out that John Aleph took Marten's claims seriously. Still, Marten felt like he was the punch-line of a joke he hadn't quite understood. Aleph also proved to be frustratingly vague and evasive about who he really was and what he really did. But, this intrigued him: Marten quickly came to assume that Aleph was one of the list's mythical spooky-lurkers.
Aleph was the real deal: He shared notes and experimental results—signed and carefully encrypted—that followed tracks eerily parallel to Marten's. He could see that Aleph had access to tools with dramatically better sensitivity and precision than his own. Yet, there were places where Marten had better insights than Aleph's analysts. They'd coined different terms, but it was clear that they were exploring the same terrain.
Eventually, Aleph suggested they do more than just share stale notes. While he remained cagey about any face-to-face meetings, he offered to ship Marten some equipment. That way, they could combine the knack Marten had shown for discovering patterns with the data that Aleph's equipment could so deftly extract.
With that, he was sold: Marten had always been a sucker for gadgets.
In theory, Marten knew what was in the box. According to Aleph, it was ultra-secret technology, astonishingly compact and powerful. Whereas Marten's vector capture equipment was a room-filling hack of an MRI machine with repurposed firmware and tweaked emitters, Aleph's equipment fit in a small shipping box.
Carefully, Marten peeled away the packing tape that sealed the edges of the box top. Lifting open the flaps revealed a bubble-wrap cocoon filling the space within. Without realizing he was holding his breath, he gently unravelled the packaging.
What emerged was a glossy black slab, about the size of a netbook computer. Along with the slab was a large pink ziploc bag containing spooled wires, electrodes, and a manilla envelope hand-labeled "README" in hasty marker strokes.
The envelope contained a sheaf of printed instructions for operating the device. It described the placement of electrodes on a human skull. There was a wiring sequence for the electrodes, to be connected to discrete terminals along an edge of the slab. Communications and data protocols were documented, presumably so that he could connect the device up to one of his PCs and interact with the data it captured.
Over the next few hours, Marten poured over the instructions. He connected the slab to the network hub on his desk, and installed some drivers on his desktop PC from a small thumb drive. The drivers sparked curiosity, but they were obfuscated and impossible to reverse engineer in a hurry. That gave him a moment's pause, but he forged ahead nonetheless. Each of the wires were painstakingly connected to the slab, then connected to an electrode seated onto its proper respective location around his head.
Finally, after rechecking every connection and reviewing every step detailed in the guide, it all came down to a pushing a button. Less a button, it was more of a thumb-sized matte oval in the surface of an otherwise featureless glossy panel. His thumb hovered over the spot and he scratched at the back of his neck, mulling it over.
This was the point of no return. Before, it had all been just an interesting email thread. But at that moment, with his thumb about to touch down, it occurred to him that he'd wired himself into a machine about which he didn't know much. Those drivers had seemed suspicious—he wished he could have decompiled and studied them. If he hadn't been so excited by Aleph's promises and impatient to just see it in action—and if he weren't afraid that he'd never be able to put it back together again—he would have taken screwdrivers to the thing and pried it open it like every other gadget that fell into his hands.
Marten sighed. He took a deep breath and pushed the button. There was a quiet buzzing sound in response. The sound seemed to be coming from between his ears.
Marten's head snapped back and his spine arched away from the chair. The remainder of his chocolate shake was strewn across his desk by a twitching arm. In his head, a storm raged.
What the hell? You're mine now. What? I'm moving in! Who are you? John Alpha, pleased to meet you. Aleph? Basically, though I was really just screwing with you. The device was meant to capture a state vector! This feels like playback! That's right, you poor bastard. What's happening to me? You're going away, Marten. No, please, you can't! I never thought— I don't want— Too bad, Marten. You're mine now.
As the buzz subsided and Marten's body relaxed back into his seat, narrowed eyes surveying the surrounding mess. Then, an unbidden and mostly unnoticed thought whispered through their shared mind:
(we're hungry. feed us.)
John Alpha yawned and stretched in his chair. He felt disgusting and itchy all over. He scratched under his beard and behind his neck, and he wondered just how long it had been since this body's last shower.
Oh yeah, he remembered: this morning. It hadn't worked, apparently. Of course, the bachelor squalor in which Marten lived didn't help.
But, it wasn't the body or a clean apartment he was after here—it was Marten's mind. John could put up with the accommodations if the mind lived up to its promise. Sure enough, as John reached out into his newly annexed memory, he found plenty of interesting material for the taking. He considered a few analytical problems he'd memorized just before the DNAC recording as a sort of diagnostic tool. He was frankly amazed at how swiftly and clearly solutions came to him.
This was going to be fun. He couldn't quite bring himself to admit that Marten's brain was sharper than his own back home, but the kid was undoubtedly a raw genius.
Of course, intelligence aside, young Marten lacked a bit in smarts: John had been able to manipulate him into Psyjacking himself, after all. It had just taken a bit of mystery, a shiny toy, and some softballs to make him feel clever. He was particularly amused by the "README" packet that had laid everything out so clearly. Marten had almost been spooked enough to piece it together by the end, but John had had him pegged.
It wasn't all fun and games, though, as John had had to put some effort into obfuscating his trail while enticing Marten. He couldn't resist dropping a few hints, but didn't want the Betas—Kilroy 2.0 in particular—to unexpectedly wander off the trail and match any keywords in an email archive somewhere to discover this particular lark.
But, back to work. The first order of business was establishing a line of communication back to the Bona Fide. Marten had started the work for him already: The thumb drive he'd installed was actually part of the secure computing environment John liked to use when he was away from home.
Thanks to a particularly good relationship with campus IT, Marten was beta testing a residential fiber line to the University's Internet 2 backbone. This was was good: John would need the bandwidth to dump copies of Marten's research and petabytes of data out to his own hardened file servers back home, by way of a circuitous array of bouncers and encrypted relays of course.
More importantly, if this little project worked out as well as he hoped, he would be able to use some of Marten's algorithms and the massive bandwidth to send himself back home in a few days. At that point, John would have plenty of time to squeeze work out of Marten's stolen mind at his leisure. It could be a significant improvement to the state of his art overall—allowing not just one-time Psyjack, but possibly safe retrieval and even repeated memory totality merges. But, just in case it didn't quite pan out, he wanted to spend the next few days getting the most from what Marten had on hand.
Marten was just heading into a week or so of winter break, so John would have him all to himself for awhile. He'd planned to visit family by the end of the next week for the holidays, but John should be done with him by then. Eventually, someone would find poor Marten, alone in his apartment, in whatever state he'd been discarded.
John turned to the central monitor on Marten's desk. There were a half-dozen CPUs and monitors set up around the room, all crunching away on various analysis tasks. But, they were all controlled from the workstation in front of him. John brought it out of the screen saver it was running, rattled in Marten's password, and brought up the desktop. John's secure computing environment was lurking in sleeping system processes—to wake it, he struck a combination of control keys and rapped out a pre-determined rhythm on the space bar.
Suddenly there was a new user interface superimposed over the old. John ran through a short set of challenge and response procedures to establish his authority over the system, and it was ready. Marten had a webcam, so John linked it into the system and opened a secure tunnel to phone home.
"Hello, John," said Special K, his piercing blue-eyed gaze flat and calm on Marten's screen. "Good to see you made it. I'm afraid there's no time to chat, but I accept your credentials and confirm your connection integrity." Special K was, among other things, a hacker who'd defected from the ranks of Kilroy 2.0's disciples. He was also one of the few human beings to whom he granted any measure of trust.
"Excellent," replied John. "I've no significant updates to report beyond the obvious success so far. The data and research here do appear highly promising, though."
"Good, I would hate to learn that we have expended a highly valuable DNAC with nothing to show for it." Special K took a generous swig from a can of Red Bull fetched from off screen, tossed the empty behind him.
"We've already had this argument, and I'm here now. The hardware will be on its way back soon enough."
"Understood. Keep me posted."
John closed the video chat, leaving the secure data connection open. With Special K's help, John had built a very effective portable working environment. It was stronger than any corporate network and harder to crack than anything in possession of the US government. That wasn't hyperbole: John Alpha and Special K had in fact infiltrated all but a few secured or net-isolated Federal systems.
He paused for a moment, trying to remember where Marten kept his documents and notes. It came to him: They were synched across the university network between his file servers at home and servers on campus at his lab. Conveniently, he could get to everything from right here in Marten's bedroom office. No need to venture outside at all.
John found the folder and tossed it into the secure tunnel. This was the low hanging fruit: The products and raw data generated by Marten's work. It was a pretty large chunk of storage, consisting of not only personal notes but also massive data captures produced by Marten's brain scans. The transfer spun up, eventually reporting an estimate of a day or two to complete, despite the availability of a high-speed fiber line.
It would take years of work to get anything useful out of those files without Marten's help, but at least John's original self—the Bona Fide—would have the material. The next phase was more valuable: John planned to sit down and interrogate the remnants of Marten's mind to see where his findings were directly applicable to John's own technologies. The synthesis of the two would be the real payoff for this trip.
But, as he glanced at the system tray clock on the PC and yawned, he realized that it was well past three in the morning. Marten had sure taken his sweet time figuring out how to Psyjack himself, and the trauma of the process must have left him more drained than he'd expected. Despite his misgivings about the mattress in the room, he knew any bedbugs were only temporary. It wasn't like he could really catch anything.
He gave the file transfer one more check—still going—and turned off the monitor. The room darkened and he stumbled to the bed, falling into darkness as fast his still-clothed body fell into the sheets. As he started to softly snore, his hand moved of its own accord.
His fingernails clawed at the back of his neck, gouging at something unwelcome and wrong.
The subjective experience of invading an already-occupied mind could fill volumes in its own right. Maybe someday, once he'd finished taking over the world, John Alpha would have a few selves with time to write memoirs from that perspective.
His dreams overnight were tortured, like a marathon domestic dispute. Alpha's dominant totality filtered steadily, relentlessly into every nook and cranny of the brain not immediately overrun with the initial onslaught of the psyjack.
There was never any doubt that John was ultimately in control, but that didn't stop him getting a mind-full of Marten's wailing subconscious. Throughout the night, Marten had reemerged in a myriad of aspects. At times, he came to John with calm logic and rational arguments, trying to talk him out of it. At other times, he wailed with indignant rage, throwing parts of himself around the dreamscape with surreal violence.
But strangest of the episodes were juvenile threads of Marten's persona, expressing pervasive curiosity and simple, demanding hunger. It seemed like this part of Marten was splintered: He presented as a group of child-like impulses, each of them grasping and asking and seeking. Of all Marten's remnants, these seemed to be the only ones reaching into John himself, probing into his own thoughts and memories. Of course, he blocked every advance, but the sensation was mildly disturbing.
John Alpha awoke to the glare of sun illuminating an unfamiliar pattern of veins through his eyelids. He'd tried imagining all the ways waking in a different body would be strange, but this was one he'd never considered. He opened his eyes, just a crack. He threw an arm over his face. The rays of sun speared straight at him, and he just wasn't ready for that.
He sat bolt upright, startled. The window of Marten's bedroom faced toward the southwest—sunlight didn't enter this window until well into the afternoon. An alarm clock near the bed read 3:38 PM. He'd slept for half a day, and yet he still felt drained. Something was wrong. He'd hoped to wake with a clearer head by morning, ready to throw himself into research—but he felt even more cloudy than the night before.
How rude: Leave it to Marten to catch the flu on the night he'd had company calling. John wiped at his face—and smelled copper. Blood? He drew his hand away from his face to find the fingers reddish-brown, neglected too-long nails caked under with—what? Was that skin?
It was then that the pain from the back of his neck registered, like a nasty sunburn. He reached back, gingerly, and felt parallel raw trenches back there—one for each finger. And, through the pain, it still itched. And his fingers, when he brought them back, were wet. He looked behind him at the pink pillow. Marten remembered it as off-white.
Alpha swung his legs over the side of the bed, feeling the plane of Earth's gravity dip and sway. Pausing to re-calibrate, he tried standing up. After a third try, he'd adapted to the weakness in his muscles and the wobble the planet had developed while he'd slept. The body remembered its way to the bathroom, down a very short hallway and left around a corner.
(feed us. we're hungry.)
He turned on the lights and saw a ghoul standing there. It occurred to him that he was looking into a mirror, but it felt like even the body itself didn't recognize what he saw. Experimentally, he reached out—and the ghoul reached back.
(hungry. hungry. feed.)
He turned on the sink taps and washed his hands with the grimy half-bar of soap left there, red water and small chunks streaming down the drain. He splashed the water on his face and neck through his beard—he couldn't believe he was in a body with a yeti's face-pelt. He hadn't planned on wasting much time on hygiene, but this was going to drive him to distraction. And what the hell was wrong with his neck back there? And why was he so itchy in so many other places?
(feed feed feed we are hungry we are hungry)
He couldn't keep ignoring that. The juvenile persona he recognized from his dreams had followed him into waking awareness—that was bad. Was Marten at risk for schizophrenia, had the psyjack been a catalyst into a psychotic break? That was a nasty worst-case scenario if he expected to get any work done, and Marten was about the right age for it. Was this what Kilroy 2.0 had experienced? Or, had Marten, the imbecile, actually botched the Psyjack? What the hell was wrong with him?
John needed to focus: It didn't happen often, but he'd been taken by surprise. Take one thing at a time, regain composure and control. First, check on his neck, then food, and finally a goddamn shower.
(no feed us now feed us now feed us now now now)
"Neck first, then food," John announced. "Go play in traffic, you little bastards."
(no feed us what is go play in traffic play, you little bastards?)
In the bathroom cabinet, John found some rudimentary first aid supplies: There was some gauze in sterile packaging; a spool of medical tape; hydrogen peroxide in an old brown bottle; half a tube of anti-bacterial cream; some cotton swabs; a big bottle of Tylenol.
The one thing he found in plentiful supply were six full tubes of anti-itch cream, along with one mostly empty tube—for how long had this itch thing been a problem?
There was a sound inside his head, like lumpy tennis balls running around the inside perimeter of his skull.
(no play in traffic. no little bastards.)
He grabbed a clean-ish washcloth from a towel rack behind him, wet it with hydrogen peroxide, and started blotting at the back of his neck. More tennis balls orbited his brain.
He scanned the cabinets under the sink for another mirror, something to let him take a look back there, but came up empty handed. He rinsed the pink wash cloth white again in the sink, reapplied the hydrogen peroxide, blotted some more, repeated until the wash cloth stopped turning pink. With another towel from the rack, he dried off the wound. Once dry, he smeared the rest of the anti-bacterial cream blind with his fingers, then taped a square of gauze over it as best as he could.
(no feed in traffic. no play. feed.)
It was a rush job, but he was no longer in immediate pain. The anti-bacterial cream must have contained analgesics. The Tylenol might come in handy later, though. Immediate priorities shifting, stomach cramps and those incessant little creeps pulled his body down the hall, toward the kitchen.
He remembered dinner from the night before, which sounded like a light snack at this point. Throwing open the fridge and a succession of cabinets, he couldn't remember when Marten had last been to a grocery store. Delivery wasn't an option—he couldn't have anyone coming here and discovering what he was up to. But, lately, he'd been eating gradually more and larger meals from the fast food place up the road.
(yes yes yes we feed on triple cheeseburger extra large fries chocolate shake more again cheeseburger more more more!)
Well, that got their attention. And, he couldn't really disagree with them: A massive quantity of what they'd claimed to be food from the grease shack sounded like the ideal remedy to this hunger. He didn't feel like he was in any condition to leave the apartment, and hadn't really planned to do so for the next week or two. As it was, Marten usually walked there out of some misguided notion of fitness, which was an entirely unappealing notion in this weather.
Oh, but Marten did have a car outside! He just made a point of driving it sparingly for equally deluded conservation and money saving sentiments. To hell with that: Rookman oil was in that tank, it was time to go burn it to fill his gut.
(food yes feed gut feed us.)
Back to the bedroom he went, to find some pants and his discarded shoes. His wallet was in yesterday's pockets, with about thirty bucks left. In the living room, he found his coat, hat, and scarf. The scarf covered his neck well enough. He bundled up, zipped up, and let himself out the front door. Closing it, but not bothering to lock it, he hustled down the hall toward the parking lot.
Marten's neighbor, Laurel, was just opening the building's outer door with her key as he pushed through. He almost bowled her over, but she sidestepped and pulled the door open for him.
"Whoa," she yelped, toppling, catching herself, and sliding backward on the icy walk outside. "I didn't see you heading out!"
"Yeah, sorry," he said.
(go go go go go go go.)
"Are you okay, Marten?" He continued past her. Confused and obviously concerned, she said, "Oh, well I guess I'll see you later."
He half-walked and half-skated through the ice and salted slush on the way to Marten's second-hand beater. Everything felt so much colder than usual, but he was on a mission. His keys were, luckily, in the coat pocket—he'd forgotten to check if he'd even had them before rushing out of the apartment. Distantly, it seemed like a bad idea to get locked outside in this cold. His breath caught and froze in his facial hair.
No time for that now, though: He unlocked the car door, swung in, and after a few chugging false starts, got the thing sputtering to life. The tires spun and spun in the parking spot when he hit the gas, but finally they caught and he lurched into reverse.
The drive from the parking lot and up Plymouth Road was less driving and more tobogganing. He was glad the burger place was only about a block away. He was also sure that the other drivers on the road would be happy to see him get back home again and stay there. If Marten had had a sturdier car, ramming them might've even been fun. Of course, explaining things to the police would've been awkward.
He managed to reach the drive-thru window without mishap. Quickly, angrily, he scanned the menu. There were no pre-constructed mega value meals that would match this hunger. He just started ordering some of the biggest items from the board, ala carte. Three triple cheeseburgers, four extra large fries, two jumbo chocolate shakes, and an apple pie. Much more than that, and he would be out of cash.
(yes yes yes yes more more more feed now we are hungry we are hungry.)
"You having a party, man?" asked the cashier as John pulled up. He looked to be around freshman age.
Impatiently, John thrust bills at him and replied, "Yeah, and they're going to kill me if I don't get back soon."
(yes soon soon fries yes chocolate yes burger burger burger.)
With three bags full of his catch, John piloted the car back to the apartment lot, stuffing wads of fries into his mouth the whole way. He managed to collect all the bags, and the full drink carrier, in one hand. The treacherous slick on the way to the door threatened to spill him more than once, but at last he'd gotten into the hall and, from there, back into his apartment.
He deposited the food on the living room coffee table and shed coat, hat, and scarf into the chair by the door. Unburdened of obstacles to his meal, he fell into the threadbare couch across from the coffee table and began to feed. Disgusting even himself, but not really caring, he filled the apartment with the sounds of trough-feeding.
(good we are feeding good good hungry good good good)
Halfway through the third triple cheeseburger and the last fistful of fries, John Alpha felt the pressure and urgency subside. Focus slowly returned, and he was disturbed.
Whatever had gone wrong with him, be it insanity or bad Psyjack, his mission was seriously endangered. His judgement was clearly askew and his behavior was not under control—hearing and obeying voices in his head, wolfing down this disgusting crap like it was ambrosia. He needed to contain this situation, and he couldn't do it alone. He needed some help before his situation degraded any further.
It was long past time for Marten to pay a visit to his lovely neighbor Laurel.
On the first day of invasion, trillions of Spores had rained down from the upper edges of the sky. Of those trillions, barely a hundred made successful contact with poor Marten's shambling form, as he made his way home on one of many winter afternoons of early darkness. And of the hundred or so that had landed on Marten, most had succumbed to the cold or had simply fallen away as he walked.
For a lucky dozen, passage was found into the warm interior of Marten's coat. Some had fallen down the waist of his pants or under his scarf. Others found lucky paths through small tears in fabric, or into his coat pockets to be ferried up his sleeves on his wrists.
Of those dozen Spores that breached Marten's armor against the wintry air, only seven managed to further traverse the layers of clothing that swaddled his body. While the others lost their way in odd twists of fabric or simply turned up dead on arrival, a miraculous seven Spores had touched down on bare human skin.
The seven siblings began their work. They sank quickly through layers of skin, burrowing for deeper tissues. Had anyone been able to observe them, the Spores might have been mistaken for something microbial. But, upon closer inspection, their construction would have been found unusually simple and straight to the point. Pruned of any vestigial features left by a process of natural evolution, their design had clearly been the result of intelligence—a very determined and ambitious intelligence.
In small stages, the Spores subverted Marten's own cells. Their payloads were sparse and highly specific, targeted against the wealth of code already present in human DNA. Through precise and deft tweaks, the Spores' machinery spliced and rearranged sections of Marten's genetic material like a computer code mashup. In short order, the Spores had assembled the bootstraps they needed to progress to the next stage.
In the nuclei of freshly subverted cells, the rewritten genetic code was translated into novel proteins and nanoscale fragments spilling out of ruptured cell bodies. These rapidly self-assembled into structures that—although obscenely foreign—had somehow managed to convince the local immune system authorities that they were just part of the ancient human body plan.
By the time visible large-scale construction began in earnest, many iterations of genetic subversion had been achieved. Marten's body fed and helped shape the triangular forms resolving beneath his skin. As his craving for burgers ramped up to provide energy and raw materials for construction, his body gave a warm welcome to the Triangles' umbilical stalks working deeper toward his gut, lungs, spine, and brain.
In the majority of the current batch of hosts, the course of infection flowed smoothly from incursion to control without mishap. The Spores had been expertly refined to exploit the human genome to build the Triangles. The Triangles, in turn, had been expertly designed to exploit the human brain and body for information and growth—leaving nothing but a blackened husk behind.
And, for the most part, Marten had been no exception as a host. In fact, Marten seemed willfully ignorant to their advance, even assisting them by applying analgesics to the unavoidable irritation they caused to his skin when they began their work.
The Spores' tasks went without a hitch, and the parasitic fetal Triangles firmly established themselves within Marten's body. They began stirring into a semblance of self-awareness, alien synaptic networks sparking to life. Synthetic hormones and neurotransmitters trickled into Marten's bloodstream as the creatures stretched and oriented themselves. Calling out with plaintive voices encoded in chemical traces and nerve impulses, the Triangles found each other.
The seven took a poll measured in chemical concentrations leaked into the host's bloodstream to find the Triangle nearest the head. They needed to gain definitive control over Marten's mind, and proximity was essential. Luckily, one of them found itself embedded in the back of the neck. To become the group's new proxy for control, the creature extended its umbilical stalk up the spine, creeping carefully through soft tissues to tickle Marten's brain stem. With host brain contact made and communication established between the siblings, the first word the Triangles extracted from Marten's mind was...
The first sign of trouble came with an unexpected rush of excitement hormones. The odd mix of potent anxiety and joy stunned them into quiet confusion, all of the children silent as they tried pulling the reason for it from the tentative connections they'd cast into Marten's brain.
To satisfy impulsive and impatient curiosity, the seventh sibling drove umbilical nerves deeper into Marten's brain. The host's mind had been so busy, words and ideas roaring through too fast for the Triangles to decode. He was so energetic, drawing away even the Triangles' own sustenance.
The second sign of trouble came with an agonizing blast of complex electrical current and magnetic flux that surged through Marten's nerves and brain, along with a strange wash of chemical signals sweeping through his arteries. The situation outstripped all host environmental conditions expected by the Triangles and crashed through them with hurricane force. They quivered and lost contact with each other. They squirmed and all consciousness flared out into white hot overload.
In the aftermath, after hours of darkness, instinct took hold. Umbilical stalks thrust deep and branched repeatedly, forming calcium-laced barbs that slipped into soft tissues and anchored into bone. Bits of Marten's own complete nervous and muscle tissues were harvested and grafted into service in repairing the Triangles' wounded minds and bodies.
Of the original seven Triangles, six found each other once the flood had cleared. The seventh, however, seemed crippled: While it responded weakly to its brethren's queries, it wasn't making sense. Mournfully, another poll was taken, and the job of primary control fell to the Triangle stationed under Marten's right clavicle. That sibling withdrew its umbilical from lungs and heart, and slowly rerouted it back along the spine toward the fallen seventh Triangle.
Passing along the route the seventh sibling had taken, the sixth found the injured Triangle gibbering and twitching in a way that would irritate the host's tissues. The sixth tried to make contact, but without success. With resignation, the remaining Triangles secreted chemicals that would sedate the seventh. Continuing on, the sixth reached out with umbilical nerve probes to replace the connections now unreachable through the seventh. Not quite as adventurous as the seventh had been—cowed by recent danger—the sixth reached shallowly into Marten's brain.
As the Triangles regained awareness of Marten's mind, what they found was as strange and alarming as anything they'd yet experienced. They didn't quite understand it, but it seemed as if they had competition. In terror and confusion, they'd burned enormous amounts of calories and fat tissue from Marten's body while he had slept—the Triangles had redoubled their efforts to grow and reach out to brethren beyond the host body.
John Alpha's priorities had changed radically in the handful of hours since he'd woken to late afternoon sunlight. Tidying himself—and the apartment—had become a pressing concern: He needed to get some alone time with Laurel, and he sincerely doubted he'd be able to lure her into his den looking and smelling like he did. And, if he was going to get dusty and sweaty cleaning the place, he really should shower last.
But, he was feeling shaken and in serious need of asserting control. Washing off a bit of distracting filth might help him with that, if only superficially. He'd take two showers, three if he had to. Hell, he'd take some steel wool to this body if that did the job.
So, back to the bathroom he went, hoping things in there were clean enough for him to feel like he'd shed more dirt than would rub off on him. The lights were still on, the blood-tinted washcloth was left in the sink, and the wrapper from the bandage on his neck was shredded on the counter.
That bothered him: As a matter of habit, he never left messes—years of quiet scheming had left him obsessive-compulsive about covering his tracks and cleaning up after himself.
He began peeling off his clothes—they'd been on for well over a day and a half, so he'd expected them to stand up on their own once discarded. Off came a sweatshirt and t-shirt all at once, followed by his jeans and boxers and socks. John kicked everything into a corner and finally got a good look at Marten's nude body.
Marten was surprisingly lean. Surprising, that is, with respect to what John remembered using Marten's hijacked faculties. He wasn't ready for football tryouts by any means, but he certainly didn't look like a sedentary nerd who regularly wolfed down triple cheeseburgers. He also seemed to have some odd tattoos: They were all fuzzy purple triangles.
John could easily see five as he inspected his body, each in apparently random locations: There was one over his heart on his chest; another under his right collar bone; one centered on the inside of his right elbow; one on his right hip; and one more on the back of his left calf. What chilled him, though, was that Marten had no idea what these were, what they meant, nor when or where he'd gotten them. He didn't drink, so it wasn't as if he'd gone on a bender and had them done on a lark.
He rubbed at the one on his chest, finding the skin there thick like a callus and numb. The same was true for the other four he'd seen. He had a sinking feeling, touching the bandage at the back of his neck. Peeling it back, gingerly, he gave a renewed effort to crane around to see what was there. He still couldn't get a good solid look, but amidst the raw pink and crusty scabs, he caught a smudge of purple that might've been the point of a triangle. That one, at least, had been far from numb.
So, that made six he could see, all numb except the one he'd gouged at. That didn't really fit the profile of recent tattoo work. Time for a closer look—the easiest to inspect was the one in the crook of his arm. He gripped his forearm and brought it up to his eyes, peering intently. Wafting from the area was a musty odor, like damp leaves underfoot. He could also smell the remnants of the anti-itch cream he'd found in bulk supply earlier.
Finally, keyed to the scents, memories bubbled up from Marten's psyche and John recalled the rashes. Marten had been single-mindedly consumed by his latest arc of research when the itching had started. It wasn't unusual: He hadn't ever been a particularly hygienic guy, so the occasional grubby day wasn't a surprise.
He grown up with eczema and psoriasis among relatives, so the ever present supply of anti-itch creams in the medicine cabinet was a family tradition. He'd figured it was just time for him to start building his own supply, and stopped by the drug store half a block down from the fast food place.
The pain and the itching had grown, but Marten had had no time for it. He'd just slathered on more and more anti-itch cream, intending to schedule an appointment at the clinic once he'd gotten through the end of the month and had finished his latest paper. And thankfully, with the exception of the last rash on the back of his neck, all the other rashes had subsided into painless calluses after a week of working to ignore them. They were unusual, but at least they weren't bothersome anymore or disruptive to his work.
Marten was a genius. He was also an idiot, Alpha decided. He had no better idea than Marten of what was happening to his body, but he knew it wasn't normal. Prodding the triangle in his elbow with his index finger, he was convinced that it wasn't a tattoo—in fact, it was an independent structure lying just beneath the skin. It was firm, like cartilage. Now that he knew it was there, he could just about feel it with a few experimental flexes of his arm.
John tried to think. He wasn't an epidemiologist by any stretch, but he had heard of the odd tropical ailment caused by an insect burrowing or injecting larvae into human bodies. He'd heard of nothing quite like these triangles, though. He peered closer, working to focus his eyes on details as he continued to squeeze and manipulate the thing under his skin.
The shape of the triangle became better resolved as he stretched the skin and flesh, details revealed like a dead fish rising from murky lake depths. That was when he noticed the puckered slits at each point of the triangle.
A heartbeat later, mirroring a bemused thought just forming in his mind, the slits fluttered and snapped open to reveal a trio of deep, black orbs. They rotated, as if they were sweeping his face, studying it. There was a sound like rummaging between his ears.
(stop leave us alone use the itchy cream the itchy cream leave us alone stop)
Revolted, he flung his arm away from his face. They were eyes—not like eyes, they were eyes. This thing, and the five others, had eyes. A deep, bowel loosening chill shuddered through him. His stomach clenched, and he felt bile and burger rush halfway up his throat. His knees lost strength and he fell to his bare ass on the cool tile floor. He clamped down on his gut and fought through the vomit response. Something in him just didn't want to let go of his recent meal, taking priority over the pervasive revulsion he felt.
(no no keep food hungry keep food)
At that, he began to reassemble his rationality. This wasn't his home; his stay here was just temporary. Whatever Marten had gotten himself into, this body wasn't John Alpha's temple.
He shook his head, violently, to clear the panic. He just needed to get through the next few days, scour Marten's mind and hard drives for anything useful he could assemble, and then dispose of this increasingly disturbing carcass. And if he were very lucky, he could even extract himself—though, he was starting to wonder if his Bona Fide would want these particular memories when all was said and done.
As for the next few days, though, he wondered just what these triangular infestations were and what their course of infection would entail. Marten hadn't recently been to any tropical climes, so he doubted that these things were bot flies. All the same, John had read accounts of those nasty things taking up residence in brains and eating the surrounding tissue until the patient died a horrible, spasming death. If they were anything like that at all, his mission had gone seriously pear-shaped.
What really made John squirm, despite himself, was that he certainly wasn't a stranger to black budget biological tinkering. It occurred to him that these triangles might be something other than natural.
His thoughts began to race, branching out frantically, trying to come up with anything he might have read or seen or stolen that was reminiscent of this. Had a rival agency or group gotten to Marten before him? Were there even such things as agencies rival to his own? Did he have others to worry about besides his cloned siblings or their benefactors? More clones? Agents? Assassins? Cops?
(no no soldiers keep away from soldiers)
Again, John shook his head, this time hard enough to hurt. He realized he had started gibbering out loud. He slapped himself, for good measure. All of this just granted more urgency to getting up off his ass, getting cleaned up, and recruiting more help—ideally help that was untouched by whatever had taken up residence in Marten's body. He would just have to hold it together until he'd acquired another perspective on this mess.
While showering, Alpha had discovered a seventh triangle. Had the others not been disturbing enough by virtue of their very existence, this latest discovery under his perineum would have sent him back to babbling and retching on the floor. But, he cracked down, disowned the body, and continued scrubbing vigorously.
After an hour or so, he wiped off with a towel that was at least dry. He found some new clothes, with the tags still on. A turtleneck sweater and slacks hung in the closet, remembered by Marten as ill-fitting and ill-regarded Christmas presents from his aunt. They seemed to fit fine now, and John Alpha could care less about his appearance as long as the clothes were clean, warm, and inconspicuous—all of which they were.
He bundled himself up and drove off to a big chain store a few miles away to gather supplies. He managed to keep his muttering to a minimum, drawing only an occasional look from other shoppers as he prowled behind his cart.
He raided the cleaning aisle, fetching towels and sponges and bottles of various fluids whose usual purposes in his mind were paired with improvised explosives and the production of noxious gasses. He also grabbed a cheap vacuum cleaner, something unheard of in Marten's world.
Through the freezer aisle, he gathered cases of microwave burritos and pocket sandwiches. Far from gourmet fare, of course, but it should keep the body running for awhile. His final stops included personal hygiene products, a few more first aid items, and a quick swing through the hardware department.
Mirrored in the eyes of the checkout cashier, John Alpha could see how thin his self-control had gotten. He was twitchy and talking to himself, sure he looked gaunt and a little deranged. But, he managed merely to make her uncomfortable as he paid with a credit card and left the store, not tripping her threshold to raise alarm.
The trip home in the last of the day's light was uneventful, though tense. Every other car sharing the road with him promised to carry agents or troops on the lookout for him and his triangles. Unable to dispel the thoughts, he realized there was something increasingly wrong with his mind.
Once back to the apartment, he stripped down, unwilling to soil the best clothes Marten had—yet equally unwilling to don the soiled scraps strewn about his bedroom floor. So, down to boxers, he got to work cleaning the kitchen while a plateful of burritos thawed in the microwave.
He gave the carpet a quick sweeping, while sprinkling deodorant everywhere. He'd bought some ugly blankets which, when thrown over the dingy living room furniture, much improved the room. At the insistence of the triangles, he finished off a case of pocket sandwiches while he tackled the bathroom.
Marten's bedroom, he wrote off for a loss. Besides, there was equipment in there he didn't particularly want to reveal to his prospective guest just yet. So, he closed that door.
Finally, he'd gotten things to the point where the apartment looked not great, but at least inhabitable—like a bachelor who was making an admirable effort. It would have to do. According to Marten's recollection—an odd exception to his usual oblivious regard for everything but his work—Laurel would be home from her evening classes in about an hour. He had just enough time for one more shower and some final preparations.
At a quarter to nine, Alpha heard the jingle of keys in the hall, heard the door across from his open and close. He counted to 30 and visualized her progress into the apartment: Lock the door; drop her bag and coat; head for the kitchen; look in the fridge; start thinking about calling for take out.
He stood up, opened his apartment door, walked across the hall, and did something entirely unprecedented in the history of Marten:
He knocked on Laurel's door.
Over the course of several heartbeats, John Alpha actually felt a sliver of Marten's native anxiety over this often imagined event. He assumed a grin when he saw the little pinpoint of light in the door's peephole darken. He heard the deadbolt slide and soon the door began to swing open.
"M-Marten? Is everything okay?" The concern in her voice was genuine, as was the surprise.
Marten and John Alpha both had impressions of Laurel. Marten saw her through a soft vaseline lens, like every love interest of Captain James T. Kirk. John Alpha, on the other hand, noticed that she'd answered the door in a subtle combat stance, with feet planted just so and her pelvis shifted to lower her center of gravity. He had trouble identifying her style from just that one clue, but he knew she'd at least taken some self-defense classes. She wasn't necessarily as vulnerable as Marten seemed to think.
To satisfy his own curiosity as much as what he inherited from Marten, he glanced over Laurel's shoulder into the apartment beyond: Living alone, making an awkward attempt at moving up from the dorms. Incense burning alongside a few candles, a dream catcher and a silk scroll on the wall featuring artwork from some anime series. Furniture covered in tassled velvet blankets.
"Hi, Laurel," said Marten, shakily. "I was wondering if you had plans for dinner tonight."
"Oh," she said, relieved. An awkward beat later, her eyebrows shot up and she said, "Oh!"
"I mean, it's okay if you're busy or something, but—"
"No, no, there's nothing! Er, I mean, there's nothing in my fridge, and I was just starting to look through takeout menus. And I was trying to decide what looked good. And—"
"Do you like Indian?"
"I love Indian!"
"How about Joss Whedon?"
"I love Joss Whedon!"
"How about getting some Indian and watching the Firefly box set in high-def over at my place?"
"I'd love to!"
There was a small Indian restaurant about a block from the apartment—closer and cheaper, in fact, than Marten's habitual fast food stop, but he'd never ventured a try. Rather than risk driving, he suggested they walk. Laurel didn't seem to mind, and he didn't want to reawaken the paranoia he'd experienced behind the wheel earlier.
As they made their way along the slick sidewalk to the restaurant, Laurel and Marten chatted nervously about classes and Joss Whedon and the weather, while John Alpha worked to keep his facade intact. The voices in his head were sated for now, having been mollified by cramming his stomach full with a series of feeding binges. He felt the presence of every triangle lurking under his skin and tried to ignore the feeling that there were cameras trained on him, hidden in every shadow.
At the restaurant, they both perused a shared carry-out menu—one she hadn't yet collected for her binder at home—and continued to chat while the food was prepared. They could have eaten there, but the prospect of sci-fi in high-def on a big couch was a powerful draw to a pair of shut-ins. Of course, John had deeper plans—but they, too, hinged on getting Laurel alone and off guard.
During the walk back, with Marten carrying all the food in one hand, their conversation grew more relaxed. Neither of them managed to fatally insult the other, and things were going well. At one point, Laurel slipped on a patch of ice and Marten managed to catch her with his free arm. John suspected Laurel could have kept her balance just fine, but no matter. She linked her arm with Marten's and they covered the rest of the distance back to the apartment that way, even inside to the dry carpeted hallway.
Once inside, Laurel appraised Marten's apartment as he unpacked the containers of food on his now-clean counter. He brought out freshly sanitized plates and utensils, and they attacked the impromptu buffet assembled in the kitchen. With the lights dimmed and the coffee table put into service as the dinner table, it was show time. They started, of course, with the show's original pilot episode, entitled "Serenity".
Apparently, the attempt to exploit every nerd thrill Marten knew had paid off: Laurel reached over and pulled him over into a kiss before the Reavers made their first on-screen appearance. By the time the credits rolled on the first episode, dinner was left half-eaten and the television was forgotten entirely.
There'd been more tension pent up between Marten and Laurel than John had guessed—Laurel was soon tearing at his clothes and pinning him to the couch. Meek though she'd seemed earlier, she'd discarded all that now. He felt a heady rush in response from the splinters of Marten that survived. John Alpha felt himself swept away, given just a taste of his own psyjack medicine.
Later, they lay entangled and drowsy on the couch, in a nest of limbs and blankets and discarded clothes. The main menu of the neglected video looped, snippets and scenes from the show casting flickers across their skin. Basking in the afterglow and the feel of Laurel against him, Marten sighed and stirred.
Laurel nipped at one of his fingers and asked, "Ready to go again?"
John Alpha woke up. Cold washed over him, but he summoned a satisfied smile. He felt like he'd blacked out. That probably meant he didn't have much time before he lost it completely.
"Maybe," he said. As if an idea had occurred to him, he added, "There's something I'd like to try with you."
"Oh?" Laurel turned in his arms to look at him, an eyebrow raised.
"Yeah," he said, tweaking a little mischief into his smile. Laurel narrowed her eyes in mock suspicion as he disengaged himself from her and levered himself off the couch. Nude, he hustled back to the bedroom, drawing a giggle from Laurel thanks to the way he flopped and bounced on the way.
John Alpha returned with the DNAC and its collection of leads and electrodes.
Laurel cocked her head. "What's that?"
"You remember my research?"
"Only what you've told me tonight. It's something with the brain, right?"
"Yeah. I study the human nervous system and brain patterns in which personality and memories are encoded."
"Right. So, this gadget has something to do with your research?"
"You left me naked and cold on your couch to show me that? It had better be important."
"Well, along with the main thrust of my work, I've discovered a few... uh... interesting diversions."
"More diverting than me? Answer carefully, or I'm leaving."
"It's a device that induces orgasms."
Laurel had started to collect her clothes from between the cushions—but upon hearing that last, she shoved her bra under the couch and tossed her shirt behind her.
"What are you waiting for? Fire it up!"
John Alpha approached the couch as Laurel settled back. He began to calmly close the distance, but felt voices stir in the base of his skull. He was so close—he couldn't afford a stumble now.
"I just need to attach these electrodes. The wires are too thin to carry much current, so there's no way you'll get shocked. But, they'll induce a resonance in your nerves that triggers an orgasmic response."
He reached down to her feet, and affixed a spare electrode pad to each ankle. These weren't necessary for the psyjack, but he continued his patter, "The signals start here and travel up..."
He traced his fingers up her calves to her hips, trailing wires across her body. His hands moved over her stomach, drawing a quick breath from her. Continuing upward, he lightly brushed her breasts and she rewarded him with another gasp.
"Eventually the signals reach, here," he said, brushing hair from her temples, gently attaching two more electrodes.
"They cascade through the brain in reinforcing interference patterns," he said, sticking two onto her forehead.
"Then the signals wash back down to the spine," he said, leaning in and positioning another pair of pads at the base of her skull, under her hair.
"Hey," she said, "what's up with your shoulder?" Her fingertips found the triangle under his collarbone, tracing its raised edges. "I don't think I saw that before." He felt a small tremor there, something squirming. Her fingers flinched away.
(we are hungry. feed us more. no itching.)
"Oh, it's nothing, just a tattoo," he said. He leaned back and began quickly checking the connections on the console. If those things started jibbering at him again, he'd be sunk.
(who is that? who is that?)
"That's a weird tattoo," she said, squinting in the dim light. "More like a subdermal implant from the way it felt. Looks like you've got another one on your chest. Where'd you get them?"
Absently, tightening the last wire, he replied, "Oh, they're just something I picked up in town."
(who is talking?)
"Oh, come on," she said, huffing. "Do they mean something? After what we just did and what you're doing to me now, I think you can tell me. Besides, I think they're cool." She reached for the leads on her forehead.
He put a hand out to catch hers. "Okay, okay. Just let me try this thing out and I'll tell you all about them in a minute."
Her nostrils flared, and he knew he'd failed. "No. This is getting weird and it stops now."
(kill her. kill her. she will bring soldiers!)
"Shit," he said. She pulled her hand free and reached for the pads again. Before she could close her fingers around the wires, his thumb pressed the power button on the DNAC.
Laurel spasmed on the couch, arched back spilling her onto the carpet. The hand reaching for her head flailed, knocking one wire free from its connector.
At the same time, John Alpha felt a foot driven hard into his groin. He realized too late that she'd shifted on the couch to get the angle and had lashed out with her final impulse. He crumpled to the floor, clipped his temple on the coffee table on the way, and landed next to Laurel. Throbbing blackness swallowed his vision.
He awoke in a warm place. He ached a little, but otherwise felt wrapped in pulsing half-numbness. They were talking around him. They didn't think he could hear, but he could. When he talked, they couldn't understand. That was frustrating.
He was getting better at stringing thoughts together. Thoughts felt small and simple. When he opened his eyes, he got dizzy. He saw everything from behind a gauzy curtain, and there were too many things to see.
He was getting stronger, though. It wouldn't be long now. He would be able to push free, clear the haze from his eyes and his mind.
There were others, too. Outside. He didn't know if those close to him heard, but hearing made him happy. He wanted to be with them. He wanted to go to them. They were so beautiful.
But, they scared him, too. Or, rather, what he heard was frightening. He couldn't quite make everything out. He couldn't join in. But, there was one thing that burned ember-bright:
And most often, it came as part of a warning or in cries of despair:
The Sonovabitch is coming.
The Sonovabitch is coming for us.
The Sonovabitch is coming for me.
He needed to get out. He needed to make them understand. He didn't think they could hear the warning.
He needed to do other things, too. Things that couldn't yet be contained by his thoughts, yet still lurked in the shadows of his mind.
As if someone finally heard him, he was reassured: Soon, he would be out, and it would all be better.
Soon, he would hatch.
He awoke in a woman's body, nude and staring up at a dimly-lit ceiling. This was completely unexpected. The surprise was quickly displaced by anger, though, as local memory integrated with his intruding consciousness.
Laurel Alpha lurched upright, scanned the room. The remains of dinner cooled on the coffee table in front of the flickering TV. Marten Alpha lay face down next to her, blood seeping from a small cut on his temple.
At least, she assumed Marten was an Alpha. Best to verify that, she thought. She gave the man a hard shove, before hoisting herself up to the couch behind her. Once seated, she gave him a sharp heel stomp in the ribs.
The man groaned, rubbed his temple, rolled over. His eyes were open, though unfocused.
"Sitrep, asshole," she said, firmly.
"Wha," he said.
She reached down, grabbed his exposed testicles, squeezed. His eyes snapped to focus, then squeezed shut in pain as he groaned.
"Sitrep, asshole," she repeated, with just a touch of impatience. She eased her grip.
"Alpha confirm," he said.
She rattled off a short string of numbers. After a minute or so, he responded with two different string of numbers. Laurel did the math in her head against a secret she'd memorized before the DNAC recording. His response checked out, so she worked out a response to his own counter-challenge and rattled it back to him. He nodded.
It wasn't the strongest authentication in the world, but it was field-expedient. And besides, most of the world's population wasn't even smart enough to do long division in their heads, let alone crypto. She would have broken his neck if he'd asked for a pad of paper.
"Go on," said Laurel.
"This is the body of Marten Graves, psyjacked as planned. An upload of raw research to the Bona Fide is currently in progress." He groaned as a fresh wave of pain washed through him. He rubbed his temple again. "But, I've encountered a problem that blocks on-site analysis, and so I decided to acquire an additional resource."
"Explain. Did Marten somehow botch the initial psyjack?"
"Possibly, but I couldn't say how. Marten has—I mean I have—become unstable. I'm hallucinating and hearing voices."
"Hallucinating how—and what are these triangles?"
"What? You see them?"
"Yes. I remember seeing two before the psyjack, and I see them on you now." She peered closer at his shoulder, eyes slipping then down to his chest. "They're... moving." She reared back. "Shit! I think that one's looking at me. What the fuck are those things?"
"I don't know. I really was starting to think I—Marten—made them up. Whatever they are, I think they're hungry."
She paused. "Hungry?"
"Yeah. These voices—their voices, I think—are jabbering for food." He put both hands up to his temples, closing his eyes and gasping. "They only shut up when I eat. I can't concentrate and I'm paranoid as hell. I might become more violent than usual."
"So, is that why you thought you'd have yourself a fucking romantic flatscreen-lit dinner of exotic Indian delights? Why didn't you just club this bitch, tie her up, and psyjack her when she came to?"
"That was plan B, but I—I didn't want to damage the resource."
"Bullshit. You're damaged. I'd bet that lovey-dovey Marten persona is still asserting control in there. It warms what's left of this hopeful girl's heart."
Another groan was Marten's only response.
Laurel sighed, started gathering clothes. "Well, you managed to get me into another capable body before you completely cracked up. Maybe this won't be a total loss. Get up and get dressed. It's freezing in here."
They finished sorting through the garments strewn around the living room, and she got dressed. Marten stalled a few times during the process to cram a leftover samosa into his mouth, or to gobble down a forkful of cold butter chicken. By the time Laurel was fully clothed, Marten had gotten distracted entirely. He was focused on stuffing his face, just one foot in his forgotten boxers.
Laurel Alpha watched, marvelling as Marten finished off every last bit of food left on the coffee table. He even drank down the remainders of the chutneys and sauces, licking the little plastic cups clean.
As he moved, she saw other triangles: one on his calf, on his hip, on the inside of his arm. She shuddered at the thought of their eyes, of what unknown things they were doing in Marten's body.
"Ugh, I feel so sick," said Marten, when he was done. His task remembered, he finished pulling on his boxers. The rest of his clothes remained in a pile at his feet.
"It's no wonder," said Laurel, "you just scarfed down an entire family dinner."
"No, that's not it," Marten said. "I think these things are really screwing with me. The voices are getting louder and everything aches like I've got the flu. It's so hard to shut them up."
"Is there any medicine in this apartment? We need to get you focused and salvage this op as much as we can."
"I think there's a bottle of asprin in the bathroom, back that way. Maybe that will help."
Laurel stood and walked back the way Marten had pointed, turned the corner and found the bathroom. It stank of cleaners and every surface sparkled when she flipped on the lights.
"Jesus, you'd think you were expecting a visit from your fucking mother with the effort you put out in here," she yelled back. She opened the medicine cabinet, fetched the bottle of Tylenol.
She went next to the kitchen, Marten's unblinking gaze fixed on her as she grabbed a glass from the counter and filled it from the sink. She returned to the couch with a half-dozen pills in one hand and water in the other, handing them both to Marten. He accepted them, but just sat there staring at her.
Finally, from beneath a surly furrowed brow, he muttered, "Did you just tell me to fuck my mother?"
"Um, no?" Laurel cocked her head.
She opened her mouth to speak again, but the glass in Marten's hand flashed forward, the rim palm-driven into her's face, centered on her nose. Luckily, the glass was cheap, second-hand—and most importantly—made of shatter-proof plastic. The strike drove her back and made her eyes tear, but failed to maim as intended.
She fell back with the strike, off the couch and onto the floor. She let momentum carry her tucked legs up and back over her head. The roll brought her back to her feet, several valuable paces across the room from Marten. As Marten reared up from the couch, discarding the pills and the glass, Laurel found herself near his shabby dining room table.
Laurel did have some self-defense training, as it turned out: She'd been taking Hapkido classes to cover her degree's phys-ed requirements. She was no more than a yellow belt, but that meant she was in decent shape and had some useful muscle memory to go along with John Alpha's own training.
Marten charged—and was met by the legs of a rusty dining chair thrust into his chest. She'd swept it up from the floor and lunged at him, her shoulder braced against the seat. The blow threw his legs out from under him, and he crashed to the floor. Laurel followed him down, driving the chair to pin him.
He was stronger than Laurel had counted on, though, and threw her off. She toppled into the kitchen, skidding across the linoleum on her back. He cast the chair aside and scrabbled to his feet.
Laurel threw open the cupboard under the kitchen sink. There, she found cleaning supplies Marten had fetched for the evening. She also saw a small metal fire extinguisher. Gathering herself into a crouch, she grabbed a random spray can and the extinguisher.
Marten rounded the corner to catch a glancing spray of oven cleaner to the face. He whipped his head to the side, hands going to his eyes. As he staggered, Laurel brought the fire extinguisher around in a whipping arc to his temple. The pressurized cylinder rang out with a short but satisfying tang on impact.
Marten's head lolled, exposing his throat for a knife-hand strike by Laurel. His hands flew from his eyes, and Laurel caught his wrist. She whirled past and behind him, twisting his left arm into a lock. A knee in his back sent him to the floor, and Laurel rode him down. His face hit the carpet hard. She had leverage on him now—if he tried to rise, his strength would only break his elbow or wrist.
"What the fuck is wrong with you?" said Laurel, panting.
"You're a fucking Devlin!" he screamed. "I don't know how you got into the DNAC, but I've been waiting for you to screw me like this! I'll kill you! I'll fucking kill you!"
He started to thrash and buck. Laurel felt his elbow pop. Still holding the useless arm for whatever leverage it gave, she reached back and struck over and over at the base of his skull with a cupped palm until he went limp and stayed that way.
The world of his host was exciting to observe, full of games of lurk and pounce. But, it was frustrating, especially since his host had been beaten down and become useless. He knew he was dead unless he could push free of the gauze and darkness and get out into that world himself.
His mind had grown so fast, and he was starting to feel more like himself. He knew he wasn't like his brethren, whom he could hear and understand now. They ignored him, thought he was damaged.
And, from their perspective, maybe he was. But, from beyond the host, he heard the beautiful sing-song call to hatch and gather. He heard the song turn to alarm: The Sonovabitch was hunting.
His brethren here were too busy managing the host, so they couldn't see the trail the Sonovabitch left in voices silenced out there. The Sonovabitch was listening, seeking, snuffing them out—and he was getting closer. The trail of death led here.
They urged him to hatch and gather, before it was too late. Well, hatch he would, but gathering would have to wait. It almost broke his heart to consider staying away, but he knew he had things to do. He wasn't yet sure what, but he knew he liked the woman who'd beaten down this pathetic host. He wasn't sure how to reach out without getting killed himself, or what he'd tell her when he did, but it felt worth a try.
Oh—but what was that? His brethren had finally heard the cries and warnings from out there, now that the host was silent. They were calling for help themselves, calling for someone to help them escape. Many voices responded. Some closer than the Sonovabitch, some who were running now in their direction.
He wondered who would get there first. The world was an exciting place.
In a bag left on the dining room table, Laurel Alpha found nylon rope, duct tape, a blue plastic tarp, and a utility knife. This must have been Marten Alpha's plan B for Laurel, if dinner hadn't agreed with her. They were practical tools, albeit reminiscent of a serial killer's kit. Laurel Alpha approved.
She dragged Marten's mostly nude body over to the discarded and toppled chair, bound his arms and legs to the metal tubing with the rope. She ran loops of duct tape around his thighs and the chair seat, just for good measure. The chair wasn't the strongest, but he wouldn't be able to get enough leverage to break it apart any time soon—especially not with his elbow.
With effort, she tipped him and the chair upright, then gave that swelling elbow a spiteful kick. Marten awoke shrieking.
"That's for my face." Her nose, though not broken, was turning a nice shade of blue, along with the arc of her cheekbones.
Marten's shrieks shifted to hysterical laughter, eyes bulging, thrashing in his restraints. "That's not your face, you bastard!" he tittered.
"Well, you've got me there. Pot, kettle, black."
Satisfied that Marten was contained well enough for now, Laurel wandered the apartment, ransacking cupboards and closets. She assembled more knives, found a lunchpail-sized cooler in the kitchen. All the while Marten ranted, and the only thing that kept her from expecting a knock on the door was that she knew most of their neighbors had already left to visit family for the holidays. She considered that a gag might still be a good idea, but she wanted to hear him in case he turned lucid or useful.
She half-filled the cooler with what ice she could find in the freezer. She unfolded the tarp next to Marten—prompting more thrashing, but the bonds held fast—and she arranged her tools neatly on the plastic: Thick rubber gloves; a pen light; a half-dozen knives, various in size, sharp and rarely used; needle-nose plyers, only a bit rusty; tape and gauze; two rolls of paper towels. In the kitchen, she'd turned on a stove burner, a small pan heating empty on one of its electric elements.
"You know," she said, flipping a small, scalpel-sharp craft knife in her fingers, "no one is going to hear you."
He'd gone quiet, seeming spent, though still shaking, laughing to himself. "That's where you're wrong, Devlin."
"Oh, I forgot: We're not alone here. Your little friends are listening."
"That's right. And my little friends have friends. And they're coming for you, Doug."
"Stop that. I'm not Devlin; you're delusional."
He guffawed, then segued into a coughing jag. He took a gasping, crackling lungful of air once he had a chance. His exhalation smelled like rot.
"Fine," she said, "have it your way. But, I think it's time I got better acquainted with these friends of yours."
He looked confused as she crouched down, peering at his calf. The meat of his leg—and the triangle there—were exposed, bracketed by loops of rope. He began to gibber and scream again as the notion dawned on him, as she lightly traced the outlines of the triangle with the sharp precision blade.
The triangle there moved, pulsing in a rhythm at odds with the pulse she could clearly see in Marten's neck. Glancing up, she noticed the one on his hip—and on his chest—were moving as well.
His wails spiked with the first incision, blood welling up and dripping down with the centimeter-deep slice parallel to one of the triangle edges. She blotted with the paper towel, began a second incision, forming the first two strokes of the letter "A".
A is for Alpha, motherfucker, she snickered to herself.
The blood flowed freely now, and she cleared it away as best she could. She hoped she'd wrapped the ropes tight enough to form a partial tourniquet that would keep him from bleeding out. Belatedly, she realized this might have gone better if he'd been on his back, with his heart lower than the wound—but that might have made him trickier to restrain.
Oh well, she thought. Mental note for next time.
Carefully, she probed at the peak of the cuts, peeling away the layers into a flap. The knife's tip touched something firm, something vibrating. Marten thrashed his head, trying to free himself, trying to rock the chair away.
"Stay still, you fucker," she said, looking up, "I'm trying to help, whether you like it or not."
"Fuck-you-fuck-you-fuck-you-fuck-you," he offered.
Shaking her head, she continued to slice the flap away, separating the layers of skin and tissues from the keratin plate beneath. The red blood turned darker, oozed more thickly. Finally, she managed to fold the mess down at the bottom, exposing the triangle between furious towel moppings. Marten was really shrieking now, but his efforts just weren't getting him anywhere.
"Am I going to have to gag you after all?" she asked.
She fetched another pair of knives—steak knives—and poked one each under an edge of the triangle. It was really twitching now, its creepy eye slits fluttering, the orbs rolling beneath as the blood cascaded over it. She'd only half-accepted that these things were living animals, but there was no doubt now.
"Stop-it-stop-it-stop-it-stop-it," he chanted.
Pushing the tips down and under, she applied leverage. The tissue and muscle beneath sucked at the triangle, but she made some progress wiggling the knives back and forth under it to separate the layers. Finally, with a wet squelch, it pulled a few centimeters free from Marten's gorey calf. He gasped and grunted, the muscle tensed, delivered more blood to gush freely from the wound. The blood looked more purple than red.
Using the pen light, she examined her handiwork, administering more cleanup with the towels. The rolls were running low, a pile of red growing behind her. The carpet below, only partially covered by the tarp, was an unholy mess. Manipulating the triangle, wriggling in her gloved fingers, she could see what seemed to be ribbed, tapering tentacles sliding free from shallow trenches beneath his skin. And, disappearing deep into his leg, there was a finger-thick stalk anchoring the thing.
The tentacles pulled free, appeared to gain some coordination, and wrapped around her fingers with surprising strength. The black eyes were fixed on her, in an unnerving gaze of malice. She freed one hand, found the makeshift scalpel, and neatly sliced one of the ropy snakes from its body. Purple-black ichor spattered onto her face. The other limbs spasmed free from their grip, losing coordination as the eyes rolled in their sockets.
"No!" cried Marten. "You're killing it!"
"That's the idea, boy."
She got all five fingers of her left hand under the edges of the triangle and pulled. She applied firm but increasing pressure, feeling the stretching resistance of the stalk underneath. Finally she had enough room to lever the plyers down to clamp onto that stalk. One hand still gripping the triangle, and the other gripping the stalk by way of plyers, she pulled harder and harder. Marten groaned and gasped. She started to put her weight into it, leaning back.
Finally, something gave. She fell back and kept pulling, feeling a sickening vibration in the taut stalk as something audibly tore through and free from Marten's flesh. The back of his knee deformed and the calf muscle bulged disconcertingly.
That wasn't good, she thought, but didn't stop.
After several wrenching pulls, she had the wriggling thing in her hands: Two feet of whitish-purple roots, branched like the tap root of a weed. But, unlike weeds she'd pulled out of her parents' garden, this thing had medieval weaponry dangling from each fiber. The very end offered hooks and blades like some nightmare ship's anchor, with bits of Marten's tissue and tendon still clinging.
Marten probably won't be making it to the ballet now, she thought.
She felt bile rise in her throat as that root system began to feebly wind itself around her forearm. The blood poured from what was now a shallow crater in Marten's calf. Snapping to, she quickly pulled the thing free and flung it into the icy cooler, slamming the lid on top and latching it closed. It left a few light yet freely bleeding slices across her arm.
Jumping to her feet, she fetched the pan from the stove. A hellish mirage shimmered from its heat. The pan itself was probably wrecked, but it would work well enough for the purpose she had in mind.
Returning quickly to Marten, she crouched back down by his leg and slapped the pan atop the wound, leaning into it. The sizzling was drowned out by his hoarse howls, the air filled with aromas of barbequed pork. Her empty stomach both growled with hunger and churned in disgust.
Once the cauterization had finished as well as she figured it could, she took the pan back to the stove and attended to Marten's ruined leg. She packed the wound with gauze, then wrapped that in more gauze and taped up the whole mess. It was already turning pink, but the flow had been staunched for the most part.
He wouldn't bleed out, but he'd probably lose the leg to infection or gangrene in the not-so-distant future. Though, of course, he wasn't likely to have a useful future beyond the next day or so anyway.
Sometime during the process, Marten had finally passed out. Whether from blood loss or whether the shock of the pain had finally gotten him, she didn't know. She would just have to give him some time and see if he was any less crazy with the removal of the little bugger she'd thrown into her makeshift specimen case. She could see that removing the rest of them would be quite an effort, if she could even do it without killing him outright.
In the meantime, she'd worked up quite an appetite. She left Marten bound and bleeding to wash her arm and raid what was left of the food in the kitchen.
He was running toward them, toward their cries for help. He could hear them loud and clear. They weren't far and he'd be there soon. But, that wasn't good enough: He had to get there first, because he knew he wasn't the only one bound for the party.
Of course, he wasn't invited to this party. He planned on crashing it, though, right through the front door if necessary.
And, it probably would be necessary: Once he got there, he planned on being a downright rude son of a bitch.
There was a knock at the door. Laurel was almost done with a plate of microwaved pocket sandwiches. She froze, leaving her mouth open with food unchewed. Marten was still breathing and, at the sound of the knock, started moaning.
The real problem was that the knock hadn't been at the front door. Instead, it had been at the doorwall to the back of the living room, which she assumed led to a small balcony just like her apartment. The expanse of glass was obscured by vertical blinds, so she had no idea who or what might be out there. Marten's apartment was on the ground level, so it was conceivable someone could have vaulted over the shrubbery and the railing.
But who? she thought, setting the plate down and standing up. She bent down and picked up the fire extinguisher from next to the couch. She couldn't just open the blinds, though, since that would reveal the mess she'd made of Marten and the living room. She could turn a light on out there, and did so as she approached the doorwall.
Whomever—or whatever—was out there knocked again, a double tap doong-doong on the glass pane. Insistent, but not particularly violent.
"They're he-e-re," croaked Marten Alpha.
"Shut up, Carol Ann," spat Laurel Alpha. "Why don't you make yourself useful and go into the light."
She cocked her arm back over her shoulder with the extinguisher as a club, and tipped one of the dangling plastic blinds aside with a free finger. Outside, she saw a squat bearded man in a tattered turtleneck sweater. He grinned as he shifted from foot to foot. Upon seeing her, he waved, wriggling his sausage fingers. His grin turned into a full-on smile.
How the hell did he get back there? thought Laurel. The man hadn't exactly looked athletic.
"That's Carl," Marten rasped. "Let him in, he's a friend. And he's brought friends."
"I don't think I like the company you keep," said Laurel, backing away from the doorwall and letting the blind swing back into place.
Carl knocked again. Doong-doong.
Pear-shaped: That described both her situation and her unwelcome guest outside. Marten was alive, but too far gone to matter. The op was a bust, and the best thing she could do was to make sure the Bona Fide recovered the DNAC he'd committed. For bonus points, he'd want to see the sample animal she'd recovered from Marten's body, as well as a full report of what she'd seen. They could figure out what it all meant later. In short: time to go.
She scooped up the DNAC from where it had fallen under the coffee table, quickly wrapping the wires around her palm. On the way through the apartment, she snagged the cooler. Back in Marten's bedroom, she found his backpack in the dim light spilling from the door.
Doong-doong. She jumped. The window in the bedroom wall, also shaded with vertical blinds, opened out onto the balcony to the left of the living room doorwall. Carl knew she was there, had knocked on that window to let her know.
She snatched the USB drive from his PC, along with the README envelope on the desk that had accompanied the DNAC. She up-ended Marten's backback and packed DNAC, wires, README, and thumbdrive all into it.
The VPN software was still installed and the research upload still proceeded, but abrupt removal of the USB drive had started a 60-minute self-deletion timer and an immediate phone-home alert. She didn't have time to compose a message to Special K, but he could override the self-deletion to complete the upload from remote if he saw fit. Or, he could ignore it—either way, it was his problem now.
BWONG-BWONG. She screamed. Carl, apparently, had gotten impatient. The window shook in its frame, and she wondered how strong that glass was.
She zipped up the bag, shouldered it—and took a quick gasping breath when she heard the click and rolling whoosh of the doorwall opening out in the living room, followed by the stuttering slide of the screen door.
"I let Carl in!" proclaimed Marten, his voice shredded. He started into another coughing jag, this one particularly moist and gurgling.
"Shit," said Laurel.
"Come on out, honey," a voice burbled, probably Carl's.
If Carl was in the living room, he must not be out on the balcony. So, however unlikely, the window had become her best escape route. She stepped toward the window and peeked through the blinds—sure enough: The huge man was standing in the middle of the room, his back to the doorwall. Although the blinds had been opened, she couldn't quite make Marten out through two sets of dirty windows—but somehow he'd gotten free of the ropes. One arm swung limp at his side, and he was resting a knee on the chair. But, otherwise, he was standing. More importantly, he also had his back to the doorwall.
Slowly, carefully, she flipped a wooden dowel rod out of the bedroom window's track—she had the same half-hearted security measure in her own apartment. Reaching up, she pushed the spring-loaded window lock open and started sliding the window open as quietly as she could.
"Honey," crooned Carl, "if you don't come out, we're just gonna have to come in there."
"Yeah," said Marten, sardonically adding: "Honey."
She'd gotten the window open, and frigid air hit her in full force. She grabbed a hoodie from the floor and threw it on—even over the backpack, the oversized stinking thing fit her well enough. She could adjust it when freezing trumped the danger posed by the men in the living room.
A screen presented one more barrier to her escape: It was attached to the window frame by four spring-loaded pegs. She loosened each of these and shifted the screen just enough to prevent them catching again. When she was ready, she could push it with her as she dove out.
"Boys," she announced, "I'm all ready for you back here, so you might as well just come and get it."
She'd brought the fire extinguisher with her, so she grabbed that. From behind, she watched them advance into the apartment, Carl waddling and Marten sort of hop-shifting with the chair as a walker. She heard the sound of their shuffling from the open door behind her.
"There you are!" cheered Carl.
She lunged through the window—the cooler out first, the extinguisher cocked behind her. She managed to clear the window frame and hit the small concrete balcony outside on her feet, sliding a little on the screen she'd knocked free. Behind her, she heard the men laughing.
She turned to dive off the back of the balcony—and caught a faceful of something wriggling and squealing, knocking her off her feet and half into the living room through the still-open doorwall. She fell painfully on the tracks of the sliding door, the metal digging into her back. The wind was knocked out of her, vision gone starry and the world turned to vacuum.
Through a haze, she heard Marten cry, "Oh, hey, little Joey's here!"
Fists smashed again and again into her face, her temples, her jaw. Though not quite heavyweight blows, her nose had to be broken now, a tooth loosened. The thing sitting on her chest keened and bounced like an enraged chimpanzee from hell.
She managed a breath, realized her assailant was surprisingly light. She bucked it off and scrambled to her feet, just in time to see the thing—all tentacles and acute angles—dive at her again. She slipped to the side, and Joey bounced off the flatscreen, cracking it and toppling it to the floor with him underneath. The remains of the HDTV wobbled as the thing beneath worked to get free.
Carl waddled back from the bedroom hallway, with Marten hop-shuffling close behind. They both looked angry now.
"You can't do that to Joey," said Carl, his features screwed up into an infant's mask of rage.
"He's just a baby," said Marten, trembling. Laurel saw that his left arm was covered in blood. It took her a heartbeat more to see that, from the elbow down to his hand, it wasn't covered in much else. From the remnants still clinging to the ropes dangling from the chair, she realized that he must have somehow degloved most of his arm—shedding the skin like a snake—just to slip it free from the bonds. Bile rose in her throat.
Carl tottered over to the toppled television and lifted a corner, letting little nightmare Joey free to scuttle out from under it. It scrambled up Carl's leg and back to find a perch on his broad shoulders, a tentacle snaking gently around his neck.
"What ever are we going to do with you?" asked Carl, closer to her now, within his stubby arms' reach. She took a step back toward the cold of the open doorwall.
"Oh no, you don't," rasped Marten. "Like I said, Carl brought more friends."
She stole a sidelong glance behind her and realized there were three more things waiting on the balcony, triangular bodies quietly bobbing on their tentacles, black eye slits wide and fixed on her. She froze again.
"I suppose I could give you a nice, big, slobbery kiss and make you friendly," Carl growled, stroking Joey on his shoulder. "Or, we could just kill you for baby food. Which do you think, Marten?"
"I do wish she were more friendly, Carl," croaked Marten. "But I don't think my opinion matters much anymore. You should ask my babies after they hatch."
Marten's skin seemed to be boiling in places, pulsing and stretching. The triangles underneath were pushing, thrashing and bouncing. And across Marten's face, where she expected agony she instead saw the most radiant expression of joy.
"Now that you're here, Carl, and things are under control," Marten sighed, "I can finally let go."
His eyes rolled, and his hands released the chair. He toppled backward. As he fell, blood burst from his chest like a shotgun blast to the back. The palm-sized triangle there flung itself out, sailing into the air with tentacles and a bit of stalk trailing. Marten flopped bonelessly onto the floor, and another creature popped free from the ruptured flesh of his shoulder.
Vibrating on the carpet under the influence of a whole-body seisure, Marten coughed and spat mouthfuls of purple-black bile. His right arm dismembered itself at the elbow, the burrowed creature there wrenching itself free. Blood pored from his ruined genitals as one more sprouted from gore. The body gave one more gurgling grunt and a final back-arched buck, a tentacular creature scrabbling free of his ruined hip.
Laurel remained paralyzed in horror throughout the process, a detached part of her marvelling at this sensation she'd so rarely experienced as John Alpha. Remembering that John Alpha had been in there made it all the more personal. The five newlyborn triangles swarmed back to Marten's body from their landings around the room, returning to feed on the remnants of his carcass steaming in the cold air from the open door. He was baby food now.
Laurel shuddered and tasted undigested food rising on her tongue. Unable to stop it, she doubled over onto her knees and vomitted across the carpet; the violence of it returned her to tunnel vision and stars.
"Oh look at all the pretty babies," Carl cooed. "Marten would be so proud of them. I suppose he'll provide well enough for now, so you might be off the hook honey. How about you give us a nice kiss then, huh?"
"Just let me brush my teeth first," said Laurel, spitting and getting to her feet again. She was getting really tired of being on the floor. One of the baby triangles had scuttled over to her and poked tentatively at her shoe with a tentacle tip. She kicked at it, missed, and it sidled away.
"Oh, very funny missy, but you're not very nice," Carl spat, closing the distance to her with arms outstretched. "Looks like I'm going to have to throw you over my knee."
Laurel had her own knee for him, driven forward and up with her hands slammed down and clamped onto his shoulders. Carl gasped in surprise, but her strike seemed to drive into nothing but a soft, yielding pillow. Stumbling, Carl wrapped his arms around her and fell forward, driving her back onto the carpet and forcing the air from her lungs.
Carl giggled, his weight crushing her. "I'm afraid I'm too big a boy for that to hurt much," he said. "I haven't seen my own cock without a mirror since the age of twelve." He leaned closer to her, rancid rot breath washing over her face. "Now pucker up, honey."
Thrashing her head, she nearly missed the sound of the front door crashing in. There was a pounding and a splintering thunder of wood and screws and hinges all smashed aside. Things squealed and squelched, flew unseen through the air screaming above her as her vision narrowed on Carl's infantile cherub face.
His drooling lips and slithering tongue almost touched hers, when suddenly his bulk receded from her. Air rushed back into her lungs, and she was once more on her feet. Fall down seven times, rise eight, she thought.
The monstrous man hauling Carl away had his arms hooked under the fat man's armpits. But, she barely registered her apparent savior as she stepped in delivered a flurry of wild screaming punches that bloodied Carl's nose and all but broke one of her fingers.
"I appreciate the enthusiasm, Miss," said the man in a low, rumbling voice, "but let me take care of this." And with that, he took Carl's screaming head between his massive hands and wrenched it, vertebrae crunching with the force. Lifeless, Carl crumpled to the carpet.
Then, he grabbed her by the throat and pulled her toward him. He didn't grip hard enough to really choke, but she wasn't going anywhere with his fingers firmly and completely encircling her neck. She didn't even try to struggle as he peered at her, his eyes roaming over her face and her body.
"Did he get to you? Are they in you?"
"No," she croaked, eyes wild. "I fought him."
"Good," he said, letting go of her throat but steadying her. "Looks like you've got some discipline. You might get out of here yet."
It took her a moment, but she wondered where the other triangles were. Looking around, the four big ones must have been the smashed piles of chitin and purple soiling the carpet near the battered and ruined front door. The little ones, five of them, were crouched in gibbering fear on the remains of Marten. The man reached down and plucked one, crushing it with his bare hand.
"Wait," Laurel said, "who the hell are you?"
"Huh," he said, grabbing another triangle and shaking it before pinching until it squealed and burst. He smiled. "I don't get that very often. Don't you watch any football, lady?"
"Maybe after Thanksgiving dinner," she said, rubbing her throat.
"Ever heard of Perry Dawcey? Scary Perry Dawcey?"
She had: She remembered, his face glaring back at her from a sports magazine on the rack she passed on the way to geekier fare.
"What the hell? Do you quarterbacks double as alien exterminators?"
He chuckled. One of the baby triangles got brave enough to jump at his face. He batted it aside so hard that it splattered against the dining room wall and stuck.
"Not quite. Let's just say that I'm... a special son of a bitch."
"Well Scary Perry Dawcey, are you going to murder me in a very special way, or are you here to rescue me?"
"I don't think I'm going to have to kill you," said Perry. He paused, scooped up one of the remaining triangles and started methodically plucking off tentacles. "But then again, I don't think the people coming to clean up after me are going to treat you very well."
"Who else is coming here?"
"Shit," she said, trying to work some hysteria into her voice. It was easier than she'd expected. "I just want to get out of here. This isn't even my place. I was here on a date with—with him." She pointed at the mess that had been Marten.
"That's pretty sad," he said. The last triangle on the corpse made a break for it, lunging to scurry out the back. Perry's boot came down and flattened it before it got more than a foot away. Then, he speared her with a glare. "Did this motherfucker kiss you?"
"He did more than that," she admitted.
His hand shot out and again gripped her by the throat. "How long ago?" he demanded. "Are there voices? Do you want to kill? You seem okay to me so far, but maybe you're not."
She coughed and took wheezing breaths. "No! Hours ago! No voices! And this fat fuck is the only one I wanted dead."
"Here," he said, letting her go and tossing the now limbless triangle he'd been torturing onto the floor. "Stomp that."
She did, and with relish.
"Hmm," he said, considering, "Did it bother you, doing that?"
"Don't you wove the widdle babies?"
"Fuck them, indeed." He burst out in bitter laughter and she took a step back. "Like I said, you might just get out of here yet."
"Like, now maybe? Can I go?"
"Sure," he said. "Get the fuck out of here before I change my mind and toss you to the dickheads. Better go out the back and keep low, though. They're probably pulling up out front right now."
Sighing with relief, she reached down to grab the cooler and backback that had gotten knocked away during the commotion. She hoped that Carl's advances hadn't damaged the DNAC inside the pack.
"Wait," he said, and she stopped in her tracks. "Show me what's in that cooler."
"What?" she said.
Perry answered by wrenching it out of her hand. He cracked the lid and peered inside—then roared with laughter again, this time almost sliding into insane giggling. He closed it up and handed it back to her.
"Shit," he said, wiping his eyes, "you're my kind of lady. Too bad I can't offer much these days." He rubbed his head, sighed. "Okay. Get out of here—you and your little trophy. I have to tell you, though: It won't keep long, not even on ice. It's already rotting to shit."
Outside, Laurel Alpha kept her head down and stuck to the shadows behind the building. Creeping past the back door of the hallway between apartments, she saw the blue and red lights sweeping across the walls. Her landlord, bewildered and white hair all askew, led a pair of men in suits through the front door. Scary Perry Dawcey emerged from the ruins of Marten's front door, his bulk filling the hallway and obscuring her view.
Taking that as her cue, she crossed the wedge of light spilling from the glass door and continued in a crouching run past the balconies of other apartments. A split in the trees behind the apartments revealed a footbridge built across a shallow creek; she crossed it.
She heard voices. A rearward stolen glance told her that one of the suits had continued outside, flashlight in hand, searching. She kept moving, the trees shielding her from the light.
Across the footbridge, she emerged into the parking lot of another set of apartment buildings in the complex. Shivering, she knew it was too cold to stay outside for long in just a hoodie. She could probably make it the mile or so to campus or downtown on foot. There, she could duck into a coffee shop or somewhere else warm. But, her appearance—face bloodied and nose a mess—would raise questions she couldn't easily answer.
And medical attention was, of course, completely out of the question.
Or, was it? If Dawcey didn't mention finding her at Marten's, there'd be nothing to connect her to what had happened there. She hadn't brought her bag with her to his place, since she lived just across the hall. Her keys, pepper spray, wallet, lip gloss, and phone were all present and accounted for in her pockets.
She kept walking, putting distance behind her as an idea formed. She pulled her hood up as she passed below a street light. The most suspicious thing she held right now was the cooler. Cracking it open rewarded her with a face full of an undescribable rot stench that nearly dropped her to her knees. A green-black sludge sloshed in the bottom—not a trace of the triangle's body remained, just as Dawcey had described. She closed the lid quickly.
Though even the liquified remains of the creature might be worth investigating, it wasn't worth hanging onto for now. She rounded a corner of another apartment building, found hedges in shadow there. Looking around, seeing no one, she carefully lowered the cooler into snow behind the bushes. She doubted anyone would be to this exact spot any time soon, and the weather promised to stay frigid for at least the next month. She'd have plenty of time to come back for the cooler, later.
That left her with the backpack, its contents not impossible to explain as a student. Even the DNAC could be handwaved away as a laptop or a game console, if anyone asked.
She made her way out of the parking lot to Barton Drive, a less travelled road that ran past the complex. She took the sidewalk there up an incline to the intersection of Barton and Plymouth, passing the entrance to her building's lot. She could see the haphazardly parked police vehicles, at least two hundred feet away. No one seemed to be looking her way, so she kept moving.
At Plymouth, no cars waited at the light and it was her turn at the crosswalk. She hurried across the road and followed the sidewalk away from the apartment complex. A block or so away, she took a left down a poorly lit side street. She knew if she followed it for a quarter mile or so of quiet neighborhoods, she'd hit the edge of North Campus and the blocks of student family housing. If she doubled back from that direction and ran into anyone, she could explain that she was coming back from the Media Union or a computer lab.
At least one late night mugging had been reported in that area in the past few years—who'd doubt it happening to another girl walking home alone?
A few blocks away from her goal, a dog loose in its yard charged at the cyclone fence with sudden angry barking. It plowed into the metal with a jangling crash, stopping just a foot from her. She caught her breath and doubled her pace, leaving the growling, frothing thing to its territory.
Just dozen steps later, though, a greater surprise drove a spike of fear through her: she felt something moving in the backpack.
Swearing, she slung the thing off her shoulder and threw it away from her down the icy sidewalk. A zipper gave way and the contents spun out, skittering across the pavement. One of the juvenile triangles emerged in a tumble of flopping tentacles and shining carapace. It sprang upright, landing atop the DNAC.
She stifled a shout, dropped into a crouch, eyes darting. The creature just squatted, quivering atop the black device. The two of them held a staring match, neither fleeing nor advancing.
Finally, the thing raised a single tentacle. It brought the tip down, tapped twice near the power switch on the DNAC. Laurel Alpha raised an eyebrow, took a breath. The triangle repeated the gesture, then pointed the tentacle at her.
"Wh-what the hell?" she whispered, breath steaming into frost.
The triangle tapped again, then curled the tentacle back to touch its own body. She remained transfixed as it tapped and pointed four times more, alternating between itself and her. Finally, it skittered around in an impatient circle, then extended a tentacle to the snow along the sidewalk.
It inscribed two lines, the sides of an unfinished equilateral triangle. But, rather than completing it as she anticipated, it connected the midpoints of the first two lines. It had drawn a rough letter "A".
"A is for Alpha?" she gasped.
The creature danced on its limbs, dug a tentacle tip into the snow again. This time, it traced a looping glyph: a sloppy, rather fishy rendition of the Greek letter Alpha. It tapped itself, then tipped down and forward in an uncanny approximation of a bow.
Though still wary and confused, she relaxed by degrees. Hugging herself, she rubbed her numb arms for warmth. The triangle tapped on the DNAC again, more insistent. It tapped on itself.
"Are you trying to tell me you're an Alpha?"
The creature sprang straight up, bouncing, tapping on itself in midair. If the thing had had a nose, she imagined it would be pointing at it. It's what she would have done.
"You were in Marten when he psyjacked himself, weren't you?"
It rocked back and forth, a clumsy nod.
"Marten psyjacked... you... too?"
Again the nod, like headbanging in absence of music.
"I guess that partially explains his instability. Well, that and the fact he was playing host to whatever the fuck you are."
She sighed, then said, "We'd better validate each other. I don't know whether that little brain can do higher math, so I'll go easy on you: Dominance."
The thing scrawlled carefully in the snow. Peering closely, she could make out the word, "Birthright."
Again, a tentacle in the snow. It was like a child's broken handwriting, but the word was there: "Infiltration."
It faltered, but finally managed to compose the word: "Vengance."
Triangle Alpha bowed again.
"Okay," said Laurel Alpha, "we're going to have some explaining to do when we get back to the Bona Fide." She got busy scooping things back into the backpack from where they'd spilled.
"I wouldn't have believed it without seeing it first-hand," she continued, gesturing for the creature to crawl back into the bag. It obliged, skittering inside. "But, I think we have an invasion to counter. I'll be damned if any corpse-fucking monsters are going to take this planet from me without a fight."
Zipping up the bag, she paused to peek inside once more.
"Just so we're clear on this: If anyone sees you, make like a cuddly Lovecraftian toy and don't move. I'm sure I'll think of something to explain you, just as long as you don't start moving and encourage anyone's bladder to release." The triangle rustled in the bag as she shouldered it, which she took to indicate assent.
"Now," Laurel Alpha said, taking a shuddering breath, "it's time to get victimized."
She looked around to make sure she was alone, which she was. She took out her wallet—empty of cash already—and dropped it on the sidewalk. Her phone came next, smashed on the ground underfoot. She grabbed the collar of her t-shirt under the hoodie, pulled until it gave. Out of her pocket, she fetched her keys, hand going whiteknuckled around the pepper spray keyfob. She let loose with the spray, caught a little in her eyes. Through a haze of tears, she spotted the tell-tale blue beacon of an emergency campus phone about half a block away.
Laurel Alpha broke into a run toward the blue light and screamed bloody murder. It felt blissfully cathartic and sounded wholly authentic, considering the evening's events. When she finally got through, she had no trouble pulling off a hoarse, hysterical cry for help to the DPS operator.
Public Safety Officers found a sobbing, bleeding girl crumpled at the base of the emergency phone, still clutching at the depleted pepper spray. They managed to get a few words of explanation out of her, before loading her into an ambulence bound for the ER.
The hospital kept Laurel overnight for observation, made her an appointment with a assault counsellor for later in the week. The next day, a nearby resident reported having heard a scuffle outside. He hadn't seen much, but he turned in a wallet containing the girl's ID, along with what was left of a cell phone. No one questioned Laurel's story.
Before the hospital released her, though, she took a visit from one of the officers who'd answered her call the night before.
"I'm afraid we can't let you go back to your apartment," he said.
"Why not," she replied, letting the brief thrill of anxiety rise to her face. "I just want to go home."
The officer sighed, took a deep breath, "I can't share the details, but there was a murder across the hall from you last night."
She gasped theatrically, covered her mouth to hide the grin.
"The whole building is a crime scene right now," he continued. "No one else was home there last night, so you would have been the first to walk in on it."
"Oh no, is Marten okay? He was my neighbor!" She worked herself back up to sobbing again.
"So, you knew him? Shit, I'm sorry." He shook his head.
"Listen," he said after awhile, softening his voice, "I know your experience wasn't a cakewalk, but I think you were lucky in the grand scheme of things. You don't want to know what happened in that building last night; take my word for it."