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The Containment Team (Chapters 1-17)

The Containment Team

DAN DECKER

Text Copyright © 2016 Dan Decker

Cover Image © 2016 Dan Decker

All rights reserved.

Published by Xander Revolutions LC

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Dedication

For my Grandfather Decker.

Contents

The Containment Team

Dedication

Contents

Your Free Book is Waiting

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Get the rest of the novel

Your Free Book is Waiting

Author’s Note

Books by Dan Decker

About the Author

Blood of the Redd Guard – Sample Chapters

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Blood of the Redd Guard

Your Free Book is Waiting

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Chapter 1

The door to my dorm room burst open and Pete Sanders dove in, slamming it shut behind him as he cursed at the top of his lungs. I looked up just in time to see him sever a couple of gray fingers from somebody on the other side when the door was forced to a close. The dismembered appendages fell to the floor and bounced as they rolled to a stop. He looked down at the body parts in surprise as if he hadn’t noticed the fingers that had been clawing at the door when he’d swung it shut.

I stood up, knocking my chair over, stubbing the toe of my bare foot in the process. “What’s going on? Who was that? They need help.”

The door was solid wood and the jamb was made from metal. I would never have thought it could be used to cut flesh and bone, but Pete was a big man and had swung it hard and fast. The football team had tried to recruit him multiple times but he’d always refused. It was a reflection of how poor of a team we had that when they saw a big dude on campus they couldn’t leave him alone.

A scream came from outside, it sounded like the howl of a wild animal, more of a roar than anything else. It was followed by several loud bangs as if somebody with a bat was beating at the door from the other side.

“It couldn’t have been a long incubation period,” Pete muttered as he locked the door and stepped away. “There wasn’t anything wrong with them yesterday.” He shook his head. “Why did I have to go in tonight? I could have just stayed away for the night.” The last part was said quietly to himself. In truth, I wondered if he’d forgotten I was with him in our room.

“Who’s out there?” I asked again, forcing my voice to be calm.

“What, not who, would be a little more accurate.”

“What did you do?” I stared at the fingers. They looked feminine. He didn’t have the best track record with women. “They’re going to need help!”

“They’re no longer human.” The break in his demeanor from before when he’d slammed the door was gone and even though he was still panting, his voice was calm and matter of fact, as if he was a professor addressing a class.

He did teach a couple of undergrad level courses, but I’d known him for a long time and he’d always had that air about him, well before he started teaching. Behind his back, we called him Professor Pete. To his face, we all just called him Slammer.

Pete adjusted the heavy glasses on the end of his nose, his forearm muscles bulging as he did. “They’re no longer people. Trust me, you’d much prefer that they stay on the other side. They’re—” He looked me right in the eye. “—trying to eat me.” He smiled as if just realizing something, he chuckled to himself as if he were thinking of a joke. “You’re here too. Us, they’re trying to eat us.” He looked relieved that he had somebody to share his burden with.

I didn’t want to be somebody’s dinner, but if what he was saying was true, they could have Pete. I would have open the door and thrown him out and offered help to the woman on the other side if the number of bashing sounds hadn’t just doubled. Whatever was out there had been joined by another.

I was all of the sudden a little uncertain that this was just a spat between Pete and one of his many ex-girlfriends. I didn’t know what to think.

The severed appendages looked human but the skin color [_was _]gray. The shrieking from the other side could hardly be classified as coming from humans.

What had he said when he’d first come in? Something about an incubation period? Did this have something to do with the lab where he worked?

“What did you do?” I was getting tired of asking the question and not getting an answer so I pushed on his chest until his back was against the bulging door. He had fifty pounds and six inches on me, but I knew I could take him. Pete might be brawny but I was wirey. “I swear Slammer, if I fail my midterm tomorrow because I have to spend all night—”

“School? You’re worried about school? Forget about it man, we’re in a dump load of trouble. Not just you and me. Everybody in this city. Maybe even the state.” He muttered something under his breath that sounded a lot like “the whole U.S. is in trouble if this gets too far.”

I growled to cover my shock when the fingers wiggled and moved around on the floor, even in their detached state they managed to make their way over to us. Pete saw it too, swore, and pushed me out of the way so that he could stomp them with his oversized cowboy boots. The smashed fingers continued to squirm, but he had done enough damage that they weren’t able to move any further.

If there had been any doubt in my mind about what Pete had been telling me, the reanimated fingers were enough to know we had a strong interest in keeping them on the other side.

“Nasty,” Pete said, “just nasty! I was afraid that would happen. I kept telling Bridger—” The hinges of the door buckled. The door might have been solid enough but the hinges were on their last legs. Our dorm building was over a hundred years old. “Where’s your shotgun, Buckshot? We’re going to need it.”

I was already on it, bending down on my knees and sorting through everything I had stored under by bed. Pushing aside a camping stove, sleeping bag, and several large knives, I whipped out a large black plastic case. My shotgun wasn’t my only weapon, but it was the best suited for this situation. There was a pause in the thumping at the door just as I set the case on my bed and opened it up.

My Benelli SuperNova lay inside. I was glad to see that the last time I’d taken it skeet shooting I had remembered to swap out my thirty-inch barrel for the eighteen and a half inch. That was my usual practice, preferring to have it ready with the short barrel for home protection. I’d been tempted a number of times to shorten the barrel even further but had decided against it. It was bad enough that I had my guns with me in the dorms. I didn’t need to add a felony to the list as well.

When Pete had learned what I like to do for fun, he’d thought I was crazy and hadn’t even made an effort to hide his disdain for my weapons or me. I had simply nodded as he’d ranted on about gun control and the like, preferring to not engage in what he clearly wanted to be a vigorous debate. That had changed a little the first time I’d taken him shooting and he’d had a blast learning to blow clay pigeons out of the sky. He hadn’t changed his beliefs all that much, but he at least acknowledged now that it was fun to go shooting.

One of these days when I had the extra money, I was going to buy him a shotgun for his birthday. I couldn’t wait to see the conflict on his face as he decided whether to keep the gift.

When he’d discovered that I kept my shotgun magazine tube loaded with buckshot, he had said I was paranoid and started calling me Buckshot. The name had spread among my circle of friends and stuck.

I wouldn’t have minded so much if Pete wouldn’t have felt the need to explain where the name had come from anytime somebody asked. There was such a thing as need-to-know when it came to who I wanted knowing about my expensive hobby.

“I bet you’re glad now you got me for a roommate.” I pumped a shell into the chamber, comforted by the sound it made. Whatever was on the other side of the door would have to make it past my double-aught to get to me. “I notice the first place you came was here. Isn’t that always the case? Everybody wants to take away my Second Amendment rights until the trouble hits the fan and here they are beating down my door. Go figure.”

“Get off your soapbox. Now’s not the time.” Pete rolled his eyes, not able to help himself. “That’s right, I needed your protection, Buckshot.” He brought his arms up and put a blank stare on his face as if he was helpless. “Please. Please. Please, sir. I need your—”

He was interrupted by the door crashing to the floor. If he wouldn’t have stepped forward in his mocking impression of me, it would have taken him with it.

Two hideous monsters burst in from the other side. I supposed that at one point they might have been human as Pete claimed, but now their gray faces were covered with red mucus and their hair was falling off. The jaws of the creatures jutted out, reminding me of tigers or some other large feline beast. Bloodshot eyes locked onto me as bloodcurdling high-pitched roars sent shivers down my spine.

I repressed a shudder when it was answered by one from down the hallway.

Great, there were three of the suckers to deal with.

The first lunged at Pete, hands out as if they were claws. I noticed several missing fingers as I blasted a hole the size of a melon into the chest of the monster while Pete dove out of the way.

My first instinct was to think that I had killed it, but then I remembered how the fingers had continued to move after they’d been cut off by the door.

I pumped in a new shell and fired a shot into the other monster as it came at me. The buckshot knocked that one back against the wall. It attempted to howl, but all that came out was a patchy cough, it probably didn’t have much left in the way of lungs. It would have been a relief to cut off the shrieking, but the monster kept coming. The roar was now a forceful hissing sound, its jaws gaping open as it came for me. I could see where Pete had got the idea that these things wanted to eat him.

Pete picked up the first monster and swung it into the doorjamb. Breaking bones accompanied the sound of a screech that had a lot less oomph to it than it had before.

I put a shot right into the head of the one advancing on me. Blood and brain tissue splattered the wall behind the monster as its head disappeared in a sickly fog of dark purple.

Purple blood?

Wanting to empty the contents of my stomach, I instead locked my sights onto the monster that Pete fought while waiting for an opening to remove that creature’s head as well. I kept checking on the one I had put down, not trusting that it would stay put. For the moment, it wasn’t moving.

Pete swung the monster around by the legs as it struggled to reach him. The monster was half his size and it was like watching a kid playing with a doll. I felt a stab of sympathy for the monster, but then it swerved in midair, lashing out to claw at me while it passed as Pete swung it around the room.

I jumped back. “Slam him on the ground. I’ll put a shot into his head.”

“Behind you!”

I spun just in time to shoot the headless monster, knocking it back to the floor.

“How are we supposed to kill these things if they keep getting up?”

Pete growled. “Now!”

I looked back in time to see Pete slam his monster on the thin carpet, I fired a shot towards its head but it squirmed at the last moment and most the buckshot ricocheted off the skimpy carpeted floor and hit the wall. A few pellets came back on me after hitting the ceiling, but the pain was negligible considering the fight that we were in. They didn’t even draw any blood. Pete slung his monster into the closet and then picked up what was left of mine and did the same. Afterward, he shut the door and pushed a chair up under the doorknob.

“What is going on? What are these things.”

Pete smiled. “Don’t you recognize our dates for tomorrow night?” Sweat poured down his face as he gasped for breath. He had flecks of the purple blood on him. How could the blithering idiot smile and joke around at a time like this?

I opened my mouth to speak but the words died on my lips.

The blood and flesh that had been splattered onto the wall by my buckshot were moving. I had originally thought that some of it was red, but that must have just been my imagination filling in pieces of its own accord. I could see now that all the blood was purple. It was all sliding together into a ball that oozed its way down the wall. The same thing happened all around us, wherever blood and flesh had fallen.

Pete followed my eyes.

I growled. “What’s going on now? Why is the blood balling up and rolling towards us?”

“Look again, Sherlock. That isn’t blood.”

Chapter 2

The monsters in the closet thumped on the door as I processed Pete’s claims that the creatures we’d captured where our dates for the next night and that the stuff moving on the floor in front of me wasn’t blood. Even though his voice had a joking edge to it, I knew him well enough to know that he really believed what he’d said.

I took a deep breath and the smell in the room made me gag. It also didn’t help when my stomach churned at the thought of firing buckshot into Veronica’s head. After a couple of deep breaths, I was able to keep the microwave chimichangas that I’d had just an hour ago from coming up. I tried to remember the face that had been on the other side of that red mucus, but I couldn’t do it, I’d been too caught up in the moment to pay any attention to something like that.

That was for the best, all things considered. It was going to be hard enough to live with if it did turn out to be her, I didn’t need a clear memory of her wretched face on the other side of the mucus as well.

“Jen and Veronica, huh.” My voice wavered as I spoke, despite my efforts to keep it calm as I remembered that blonde hair had been shedding from one of the creatures. Veronica did have blonde hair. I shook my head, wanting to punch Pete for bringing all this home with him.

The balls of purple blood moved towards each other. The movement was slow enough that I didn’t feel like there was any immediate danger but I lowered my shotgun until it was pointing in their general direction, just in case.

“You didn’t think it strange that the monster attacking you wore a miniskirt? That was Veronica. You blew off her head.” His voice held no remorse, but the slight jovial tone that he’d had before was gone.

Growling, I muttered a few choice words that weren’t intended for him to hear. I didn’t want to believe him but he was right about the dress. I’d been so focused on trying to kill the things that I hadn’t paid much attention to anything else about them, but now that I thought about it, I did vaguely remember what the monster had been wearing.

That hideous red face could not have been the same woman that I’d been flirting with two nights ago at The Whistle.

It had taken me all night to work up the courage to approach Veronica. All the while, Pete had slowly nursed his beer and threatened to do it for me. When we finally made the approach, I had frozen, unable to speak. Pete had opened his mouth and I’d thought that he was just about to blow it for me when Jen had joined Veronica. Pete recognized Jen from the lab.

The thumping on the closet door reminded me that I needed to reload my shotgun now, while I had a chance. The pounding wasn’t nearly as strong as it had been before I’d shot them all up and while the closet door seemed to be holding, it was best to reload while I had a chance. I moved to my bed while stepping around one of the balls of blood, careful to keep the barrel of my shotgun hovering just above it. Our carpet didn’t have any padding between it and the concrete so I kept my finger off the trigger, for now, not wanting to fire at it unless I absolutely had too. Between the barely carpeted concrete floors and the cinder block walls, our dorm room was basically a concrete box. I didn’t need a bunch of ricocheting buckshot to complicate things if I tripped and accidentally fired the gun. Pete and I had been lucky so far, there was no need to increase our risk.

“Didn’t Jen convince Veronica to join a test group at your lab?” I slid out a container of kerosene that went to my backpacking stove so I could pull out a large plastic tote from under my bed. I had a bandolier inside that was ready to go with ammo, every shell was loaded with buckshot. I slung it over my shoulder as I grabbed a box of shells—making sure it too was buckshot—and slid the ammunition into the magazine tube. “So this does have something to do with your lab.” I scowled at him. “Care to tell me what’s going on here?”

He shook his head. “Look, this is all top secret. Need-to-know and all that.”

“We’re well past that. Two women have become monsters.” I still didn’t believe it but I said it for the sake of the argument. “Our dorm room is covered in blood and gore, never mind the fact that the purple blood appears to be alive.” It took every ounce of effort I had to keep my voice calm while I wondered if Pete had lost his mind. His lack of concern for Jen and Veronica bothered me. The casual way he talked about them becoming monsters was unnerving.

I could see in my mind Veronica’s face superimposed on the head of the creature I had shot, I sure hoped he was wrong.

“I told you before, it isn’t blood.”

“Yes, but you refuse to tell me what it is.”

Pete was too calm and that, combined with the professor’s tone was beginning to grate on my nerves. Did he also have the purple goo running through his veins? What happened after the incubation period Pete had mentioned? Did they turn into monsters? Or did they turn into something else?

I stared at Pete, looking for anything abnormal. He didn’t reply to my statement, but instead stared at the purple blood, transfixed by what he was seeing, as if this was the first time he’d been able to get this close to it.

It was hard to tell if there was something to be concerned about in regard to Pete’s actions because he could be detached when it came to dealing with normal human emotions. He hadn’t been the slightest bit squeamish in our anatomy lab when one of the students had recognized the cadaver was her dead aunt.

I’d once heard him tell a mother to shut up her screaming baby or he’d do it for her. The poor woman had had two other children in tow competing for her attention and had burst into tears. There’d been no heat in his voice, he’d just been focused on his phone and was having a hard time concentrating because of the crying. He had been surprised by the woman’s response but hadn’t apologized. If anything, he’d looked confused. I’d offered an apology in his stead and whacked him upside the head.

He was probably just fine.

“If it is not blood, what is it? And why is it moving?” I held my breath, waiting to see if he was going to give me all that top-secret nonsense again. He appeared to be considering it, but then he shook his head.

“To be honest, we’re not really sure what it is. It is a class all its own. What you see before you, we call the larva form.”

“If it isn’t purple blood, what happened to all their [_normal _]blood?”

“It consumed the real blood.” Pete gave me a long look but shrugged in the end. “It won’t be purple for long. Right at the top of the balls, you can see a dark spot forming.” Pete pointed. “In a few minutes it will be black, but I’m not going to say anymore. I’ve already said way too much. You’re going to have to cover for me if the containment team asks you any questions.”

I didn’t freaking care what color the balls were, I certainly wasn’t going to lie for him, but I bit my tongue until I could speak rationally. “Look, I get that you’re trying to abide by your confidentiality agreements and all that. Can you at least tell me how we stop them?”

My skin crawled as the balls slid along the carpet, not leaving behind a trace of their passing. Two of the balls merged into a bigger ball. Now that it was larger, I could see that Pete was right, it was changing from purple to black.

“At this point, they’re pretty much harmless. They need to find a host to be of any real danger.”

“So I could pick it up and play with it? Nothing would happen?” I remembered the way Veronica had tucked some of her hair behind her ears and shuddered. It had been a month since my last girlfriend had dumped me and I’d finally decided to get back out there on the dating scene. It really sucked that my first prospect was now locked in my closet with her head missing because I’d shot it off.

No, Pete was wrong about the women, there had to be another explanation for what was happening here.

Pete and I had drifted apart in recent months. He’d been busy with his graduate work and I’d been preparing for finals. Perhaps Pete had gotten into drugs and slipped some to me, causing this massive hallucination.

The big ball of the darkening-in-color blood picked up the others and concentrated into one mass the size of a soccer ball. It slowly rolled towards Pete.

“We’re only in danger if there is some sort of wound for it to shift into,” Pete said.

“Shift?”

Pete hesitated, it was clear he felt as if he’d slipped up and said too much, but then he went on. His desire to share what he knew at war with the agreements he’d signed. “Yeah, they need an entry point, that sort of thing. In fact, some of us back at the lab have theorized this…” it was obvious that he was censoring what he’d been about to say, “…creature is how the stories about vampires got started.”

I didn’t know what to make of that. “Hold on. You’re saying that these monsters are vampires? They hardly look the part.”

“A fully developed host has some of the same properties of what one might call a vampire, but no, these are not your typical pointy teeth creatures.” He snorted. “Not sure where that part of the legend came from anyway. In our experiments, we allowed an infected rat to bite another. The wounded rat never became infected, even when the wound bled.” He shrugged. “You can’t shift through saliva.”

“Infected? So is this a virus or some kind of bacteria?”

“No. It doesn’t work like that. I misspoke. Think of that,” he pointed at the ball, “as a parasite, only it completely kills the host by devouring the blood and then turns the body to its own purposes.”

Nothing he said made any kind of sense in the framework of my understanding how the world worked, but I was finally getting some information out of him. I was about to ask him how to kill it, again, when the mass came to a stop several feet in front of us. I pointed my shotgun at the creature, wanting nothing more than to blast it into pieces, but suspected that my buckshot would do little to hurt it.

The top of it quivered and I got the impression it was sniffing the air.

Pete flashed a smile. “See? What did I tell you? Harmless.”

I raised my eyebrow when there was a large round of thumping from the closet.

“Well,” he amended, “mostly.”

“Is it sniffing?”

“It’s looking for fresh blood. It needs a wound to shift into.” The ball slowly backed away from us, the quivering on top expanded, looking like waves across the top of a pond. “It’s determined we’re not good candidates and now it’s going in search of better ones.”

“How do we stop it?”

Pete shrugged. “A mass that size won’t survive much longer than an hour or two without a host.”

“How do we kill it?”

He eyed my weapon. “Your shotgun won’t do the job if that’s what you’re thinking. We could torch the sucker, but why bother? It will die soon enough without a host. We can just wait it out while the containment team arrives.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket.

I strode to the fallen door, picked it up, and slammed it into place on the doorframe. I pulled Pete’s chair over from his desk to keep it from tipping over.

“That’s not going to do any good,” Pete said. “It has many of the same properties as a liquid, it will eventually just slide under or around the side.”

I pointed my shotgun at the ball again, there could be no doubt about the color change now. It looked like a big round piece of charcoal.

Pete looked up from his phone and paled. “Freeze! You have some on your shirt, it’s almost to your neck.”

Chapter 3

My pulse raced and my hands turned sweaty as I looked down at my shirt and saw that he was right. A black ball of goo was slowly crawling up my chest and just inches away from touching my skin. I went to reach for it, intending to flick it away, when Pete grabbed my arm.

“Don’t touch it!”

“You just said it was safe.”

“In theory! Nobody has actually touched it yet.”

Grabbing the closest thing at hand—a textbook from Pete’s desk—I scraped it off of me and chucked it away. The book flattened the blob against the wall before it fell to the floor, leaving a slick of the stuff on the cinderblocks.

“Ah man, couldn’t you have used something else?”

I saw belatedly that it was one of his expensive philosophy textbooks. I felt bad but refused to apologize. As far as I was concerned, this was all his fault.

The ball must have been able to sense the residue on the wall because it rolled over towards it and when it was close, they merged into one ball.

I turned around. “Did I get it all? Is there any more of the stuff on me?”

“All gone. Check me.” Pete spun in a circle and I spotted a very small ball working its way up his pant leg.

“Hold on,” I said, grabbing a pencil from his desk. “There’s a little bit on you.”

Pete cursed and I had to hide a wicked grin at his discomfort. It was about time that he showed a little human emotion. His cold detachedness was getting old. Using the pencil, I scooped off the ball and held it up for him to see.

After I checked to make sure I’d gotten it all, I figured I’d save a step and tossed the pencil towards the ball. The little blob was immediately absorbed as the pencil fell to the side. It was probably best to have it all in one place anyway.

“You’re clear,” I said.

Silence fell between us as I scoured the room, looking for something I could use to set fire to the blob. Our room had felt like a prison when I’d first moved in but now I was glad that I didn’t have to worry about the possibility of burning down the building if the fire got out of hand. Even if everything in our room turned to ash, the flames would go no further. If we found a way to safely transport the blob outside, we’d do that, but I wasn’t going to hesitate if I needed to burn it in here.

“So where is this from again?” I asked, not expecting to get a straightforward answer.

Kerosene! I had a jug of the stuff for my backpacking stove under the bed. I moved as if to get it but stopped before taking more than a step. How could I do this without burning down our room?

Pete shook his head.“I’ve already said too much. When the containment team comes to clean this up they may detain you for several days.”

“You said that the whole city was in danger. Are you sure you know what you’re talking about with this stuff? One moment you’re claiming it’s safe and I can pick it up. The next, you panic when you find out that you have the tiniest amount on you.”

“I overreacted. I’ll get a team out here and get this cleaned up.”

“The cover is blown when a top secret project breaks loose and kills people.”

Pete shook his head as he pulled out his cell phone and dialed. “It’s not too late to contain this. I’m sorry you were dragged into it. You were right, I thought of you and your guns when they started to chase me.” He paused. “They’re going to want to bring you in for questioning. I expect that you’ll have to sign a non-disclosure agreement of some sort before they’ll be willing to set you free again.”

I snorted. “We’ll see about that.”

I walked around the ball, the pattern of waves across the top had become smaller but increased in frequency. Shaking my head, I took a step closer and went to a knee. There were different striations of color throughout the ball now. From this distance, it almost had the look of a ball of yarn with the main difference that the colors were constantly changing.

A long tendril shot out from it and tried to latch onto my arm. I jumped back. The slow rolling around the room had been deceptive. It had moved as fast as a pouncing cat.

Pete hung up his phone. “No answer.”

A chill crept up my back. “Has the whole facility been taken over?”

“Probably not.” He looked at his watch. “It’s almost midnight. There’s just the one guard outside and another inside. He’s probably in the bathroom or walking the corridors.”

“Two guards to protect some crazy thing like this?”

“We do research. We’re not building nukes.”

“Call somebody else.”

“I don’t have any other numbers.”

“You’ve been working there for a year and don’t—” I paused to collect my thoughts. “Okay, send them an email.”

“It’s not that simple, it’s a secure facility. We can’t access email outside of it.”

“So the only choice we have is to go to your lab.”

“Only I can get in, but yes, that’s the only option we have at this point.”

“Screw it,” I pulled out my phone. “We’re calling the police. You can sort this out with them.”

Pete made a move for me and I stepped back.

“Buckshot, I need you to trust me.”

“You’re not giving me answers and people have died. What else should I do?”

Pete nodded. “A fair point. My job is also at risk here.”

“Your job? People are dead.” I looked at the closet where the pounding was continuing unabated. “Or at least they would be if they stopped moving. Life trumps everything, Slammer.”

A sudden thought occurred to me on how to know if Pete was telling the truth. Veronica had a rose tattoo on her ankle. During the fight, I’d been too busy to notice. I wasn’t about to open the door to check on it now, though.

“Okay give them a call. You know that they’re going to take everything.” He motioned to my shotgun. “That’s evidence.” He frowned as if something had just occurred to him. “Are you sure you’re allowed to have those on campus? I know this is Texas, but…” He didn’t finish the sentence.

I gripped my phone thinking of everything I had in here that was prohibited. He was right, of course. I wasn’t supposed to have anything like kerosene or my weapon collection in our room. I had never worried about it because we lived in a midsized town in Texas. People tended to be a little bit more relaxed about things like this. It was part of the reason why I’d come here for school over someplace else in California like my mom had wanted.

“Give me an hour. If they break out again before that, you call the cops.”

There had been a pause in the pounding coming from the closet but it started up again, this time, stronger than it had been before.

“How do I put them down if they get free?” The thought of Veronica’s toothy smile came to mind and I pushed it away. Whatever was in that closet wasn’t her. I’d blown off its head and it had still kept coming. I knew that, logically I did, but Pete’s words had shaken me to my core.

“With wounds like that, they’ll die on their own, just like the ball.” A look of guilt swept across Pete’s face. That was the most sorrow he’d shown since he got here.

Did I even know my friend at all? In a normal situation, I would have given him the benefit of the doubt. I wasn’t so sure now if that was a good thing to do.

Any decent person would feel terrible about what had happened to Jen and Veronica. I hoped he did as well. Hopefully, the guilt I’d seen was a latent manifestation of that, not him feeling bad about telling me too much about his secret work project.

“How long before that happens? Ten minutes? A week?”

“You know, I’ve talked too much.” Pete chewed on his lip for a long minute. “I want you to swear an oath before I tell you anything more. Consider it a precursor to the non-disclosure that the Containment Team will have you sign.”

“You can’t be serious. We’re too far down the rabbit hole for something like that.”

“Stop being a fool. Give me this.”

“I’m tired of your stonewalling—”

“An oath! That’s all I want.”

It was getting harder to not club him with my gun, somebody needed to beat some sense into the man. A scream from out in the hall grabbed both of our attention and Pete ran for the door.

We’d both forgotten about the roar we’d heard earlier from the third creature.

Growling, I got to the door first, careful to not go anywhere near the ball. Pushing my shoulder up against the door, I blocked Pete’s way.

“We have to take care of this first,” I said.

“If there are more on the loose—”

“There will be if this thing gets out. Just hang on.”

I pulled out the container of kerosene from underneath my bed. My moment of indecision was gone, if there were more of these things running around, we didn’t have time to waste.

“What are you doing?” Pete looked concerned. I felt a small twinge of satisfaction from doing something that got to him. It was about time the tables were turned.

He cursed when I took off the top and poured it around the ball. “You’re not thinking this through.”

I tossed him a large knife I had grabbed from under my bed, I had just sharpened it the other day. “It’s just carpet, no padding. Cut a big circle around us and pull back slices of the other carpet so it doesn’t catch.”

The ball quivered again, the movement was much more erratic than before I’d poured the kerosene. It rolled forward until it touched the liquid and recoiled when it did. As it rolled back it left behind a trail of the flammable liquid.

“You better hurry,” I said.

“This is crazy! You’re insane.” Pete pushed the knife into the carpet at an angle, tilting the blade until was almost parallel to the floor, easily slicing into the carpet. “I don’t know why I stick with you.” Despite his words, he cut a big arc around the ball. He probably figured that at this point there was no stopping me so he might as well keep our stuff from catching fire. “I should never have come here in the first place. Your guns are pretty much useless anyway.” Pete finished cutting around it and was now making cuts away from the circle. He completed several and folded back the carpet, exposing concrete underneath. It was splotched with dried red paint.

A smile split my lips as I pulled out a lighter from a drawer of my desk and ignited a flame. I don’t know what it is about fire and me. I’ve always liked it. Perhaps I would have been prone to arson if my parents wouldn’t have done a solid job of instilling in me a moral compass.

A high-pitched scream came from the mass. Surprised, both Pete and I stared. The mass was no longer a ball but instead, it was a blur of motion, waves of energy moved through the black mass. It reminded me of a tornado, only it was on the floor of my bedroom and it could turn people into monsters.

When I touched the flame to the floor, the kerosene lit up and fire engulfed the mass. “Get back, Slammer.” I swung up the kerosene container, preparing to bathe the black ball in the stuff.

“You’re mad!” He dove out of the way, landing right in front of the closet. “It’s going to come back on you.”

As a kid, I’d played with rubbing alcohol and had frequently dumped it out on a cement patio behind our home just so I could set it on fire to watch it burn. One day a large tarantula had gotten into our house and was cruising around in the kitchen. Mom had been off shopping and dad had been at work.

I’d been scared out of my mind.

I had made as if to run until I’d remembered the bottle of alcohol I had in my hand. I had affixed a nozzle at the top so that I was able to squirt it out. I sprayed a puddle onto the tile floor and lit it. I’d been in the process of spraying from the flames to the spider when my mother had walked in and shrieked. My foe scampered off as mom ripped the bottle away with one hand and swatted my rear with the other. I had been forced to attend therapy for months after that.

I sometimes still dreamed of that day.

The kerosene slid out as I held the bottle high and chucked it down beside the ball into the circle of fire. The can exploded as I covered my ears and ducked behind my desk, the fire engulfing the ball and filling our room with a black putrid smelling smoke.

I felt a brief moment of closure. The rational part of me knew that the tarantula wouldn’t have harmed me but it still felt good to incinerate the blob. By the time I figured it was safe to look up, there wasn’t much of the ball left. There was a little bit of residue that burned, but most of it had been destroyed.

I cursed when I remembered the sprinklers. We only had one sprinkler head on the ceiling in our room. As I waited for the water to burst out, I looked around for something to cover the burning mass. I wasn’t about to take any chances that some of this might survive. I wanted the flames to continue until everything that was left had burned.

Our desks! I was halfway to Pete’s desk—it was his fault, why not burn his stuff—when Pete swore.

“You’re certified, Buckshot. You know that right?” Pete was on his feet, he flung open the door, letting it crash to the floor. I could still hear the screams coming from down the hallway.

“Slammer, you need a weapon!” I choked on the smoke and my voice trailed off as I finished the statement. When I turned around Pete was already gone. Holding my breath, I pulled the desk over to the fire. As I did, I looked up at the sprinkler and was glad that it hadn’t gone off yet.

If the fool had waited, I’d have loaned him one of my other rifles or pistols. Ducking underneath the smoke and gasping for air, I pulled out a box from underneath my bed, undid my belt, and slid on a holstered SigSauer P250 that shot .40. After closing the blade, I pushed my pocketknife into my pants. Shortly after that, I found myself charging out into the hall after him, hoping to keep him from getting killed.

Or even worse. Turned into one of these monsters with purple sludge running through their veins.

     

Chapter 4

THE HALL OUTSIDE our dorm room was long and the screams came from down on the other side. Pete ran in that direction, his big lumbering frame reminding me of a football linebacker. I couldn’t tell for sure at this distance, but it sounded like the screams were coming from the women’s bathroom.

No wonder why Pete was in such a hurry to get there. He considered himself something of a ladies’ man. Not many ladies agreed.

As I left our room, I Iooked back at the burning blob and was surprised to note that what little remained was still moving. I would have expected it to be dead but it was still writhing around, even while engulfed in flames. The sprinkler in our room hadn’t gone off yet and I wondered if it would, for the first time I noticed that it looked rusty. Perhaps my fear had been unnecessary.

I had sat under that sprinkler almost every day for over a year and I have never once thought to see if it looked operational. It is funny how a situation changes your perspective on something. If I would have known an hour ago that the sprinkler wasn’t working, I might have been alarmed, now I was just relieved.

The desk I’d pulled over to cover the flames didn’t look like it was in danger of catching. The ball of flame below should be burned out long before anything like that could happen.

The movement stopped, hopefully, it wouldn’t come back. I glanced back down the hallway, Pete was almost to the women’s bathroom where the screaming had increased in volume and frequency.

The person’s terror tugged at my heartstrings but I hesitated to leave the burning blob alone and lowered my shotgun, wanting again to blast it apart regardless of what Pete had said.

Wasn’t it better just to leave it burning and to hope that it completely died? I released a breath that I hadn’t known I was holding and slowly let it out.

My momentary trigger-happy instincts suppressed, I moved back into the room and opened Pete’s philosophy book and set it over the burning mass like a teepee. It seemed as though the creature—and not just the kerosene—was burning, but just in case I was wrong, I figured it was best to add fuel to the flames. Pete wasn’t likely to fail his class anyway and I was still feeling a little spiteful.

Shattered wood flew from the closet as the two creatures burst out. The wounds had sealed off, the purple sludge had stopped seeping out, and a purple bulge had formed on the top of the neck of the headless one. It looked as though it was trying to grow a new head.

The other monster made a high-pitched sound. Was it my imagination or was there the force of air behind it? I remembered how it had been unable to roar once I’d shot it in the chest and shredded its lungs.

I let out a string of swear words as I stepped backward, knocking the desk, but avoiding the burning glob. I was glad my mother wasn’t around to hear it. She’d never liked that I’d picked up the habit from my father.

Even as an adult, she still shot me a glare whenever I forgot where I was and let my mouth run. My father usually smiled broadly, as if he was winning some sort of long fought battle.

I shot the closest one in the chest again—the one with a head—and sprinted towards the door. I had initially doubted Pete’s claim that it was Jen and Veronica, but I no longer did.

Even through the mucus-covered face, I’d been able to make out Jen’s features as I’d pulled the trigger.

While I ran, I felt a wave of guilt that was swept away when the Jen creature let out a roar and chased after me. I glanced back in time to see the headless one run into the wall outside the door. It was both sickening and heartening. I noticed the tattoo on the creature’s ankle that I recognized as belonging to Veronica, but I was also glad to see that creature had some limitations without a head.

Cursing again in a fit to make my mother red in the face, I increased my speed until my heart throbbed and my knees felt as though they were going to rip apart. My bare feet slapped on the tile floor and I wished that I had stopped to put on shoes instead of move a desk. Up ahead, I saw Pete run from the women’s bathroom with another of the creatures hot on his heels.

A hand snaked out and grabbed my leg from behind, sending me into the wall. The creature slammed into me, floundering to grab my head, its mouth open. The gray mottled skin was slimy and the creature’s breath rancid. I caught the barest whiff of garlic as I pushed off the wall, grabbed the monster by the head, and yanked, hurling the creature headfirst into the cinder blocks. The resulting sound was a satisfying thwack.

Jen had had blue eyes, I remembered thinking that they were pretty. These were dark orange with a red pupil, slitted like a cat.

Snatching up my shotgun from where it had fallen to the floor, I fired a shot into the creature that used to be Veronica. It had been coming on all fours, like an animal, and I aimed for the front arm. As I did, I prayed that Veronica really was dead, as Pete had claimed. It was irrational to think she was still alive as her head was gone, but it was difficult to think some part of her wasn’t still in there as her body moved towards me.

The other creature was getting up by that time but it still had its back turned towards me. It shook its head as if trying to get its bearings. I put the barrel of my shotgun inches away from one knee and fired. The creature screamed, flung out its arms on the wall to steady itself but slipped and fell.

I ran, trying doors as I did, hoping I could fling the creatures in and shut the door, they seemed to have trouble with doorknobs. The monsters on the other side had only tried to get through with the use of brute force.

Unsurprisingly, every door I tried was locked. There are some people that will run towards the screaming, but most turn a deaf ear to it, figuring that somebody else will take care of it. I knew that the floor wasn’t empty. My guess was that everybody had locked their doors when the trouble had started.

I’d always thought of myself as a man that would move to help during a time of emergency, but as I galloped down the hall, I couldn’t help but think there was something to the other approach. I couldn’t deny the cold hard logic of putting your head down and waiting for the danger to pass.

Based on all the commotion heading towards me from behind, both monsters were in pursuit, so I sped up, giving up on any of the others doors and headed instead towards the one I’d seen Pete duck into.

A weak scream of fury from behind was joined by a roar from the front as a creature was thrown out into the hallway right before I got to the place where I’d seen Pete disappear.

It landed on all fours, looked up at me and hissed just as I blew off its head. By the size and shape, this one had been a man. I thought that the face on the other side of the red goo looked familiar as I squeezed the trigger, but in the next moment it was obliterated and the feeling was gone.

“Perfect timing.” Pete stood in the doorway, his sides heaving as sweat trickled down his neck.

“I should have figured it was you when I heard all the shooting.” The voice came from behind so I turned back to the bathroom door to see the blue eye of a blonde haired woman peeking out at me. She fully opened the door as she spoke. “What is it with men and their guns?”

“Madelyn?” I stepped into the bathroom as Pete followed and slammed the door shut. Moments later the creatures were outside beating on it. I repressed a sigh. Not only were we in the same position we had been when this had all started, I was now trapped with my ex-girlfriend and there were now [_three _]of the monsters on the other side.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

She only wore a robe and the look on her face had gone from scared to red. After a pause, she took control of her emotions and managed to plaster a calm look on her face.

“It’s not what you think.” She paused. “Besides, should it matter to you if it was?” The challenging look was enough to make other men shirk, but not me.

I was too familiar with her ways.

After I’d called her out on it, Madelyn had admitted she spent hours in the mirror practicing various types of looks. From infectious smiles to seductive poses. After the admission, I’d reviewed our relationship and recognized the amount of influence she’d been able to exercise over me just by the way she would smile or raise an eyebrow.

Some of us men are suckers for a pretty face, especially for that of a woman who knows the right configurations to draw attention. After her admission, I’d made an effort to remain vigilant to her tactics. Don’t get me wrong, she could still get stuck in my head. It irked me she had that kind of influence over me.

Ever since our break up, anytime I’d noticed a woman eyeing me, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was that she wanted. The thought she may have been flirting was usually the furthest thing from my mind. Madelyn hadn’t turned me off to women, she’d just made me wary.

That was usually a good approach with Madelyn too.

The pounding increased and I snorted when I remembered that the remnants of Veronica were on the other side. Wary indeed. Talk about my love life coming back to haunt me.

“Not even a month later,” I said. A shard of glass poked the bottom of my foot as I took another step into the bathroom. I bit off a yelp of pain and looking down, glad to see that it hadn’t drawn any blood. I was paranoid now that I knew the goo needed a fresh wound to shift into.

Whatever that meant.

Pete must have noticed the startled look on my face because he bent over to examine my foot.

“You got lucky, Buckshot. No blood.”

I looked around. The bathroom was a mess. A mirror by one of the sinks had shattered and was the source of the glass that had nearly cut into my foot. I looked at Madelyn. “Where is he?”

“Not that it matters, he’s back in his—” She pointed at my shoulder while keeping one hand around her robe. “What the frick is that?”

I glanced towards an unbroken mirror. Balls of purple blood were moving towards my neck. Without thinking, I tried using my hand to brush them off but they clung to my skin. When I saw where they were now, I panicked and flicked my hand. They went flying off and stuck to the tile wall where they splattered like gelatin and quivered. My heart thundered in my chest as I looked down at my hand, carefully inspecting for any residue of the parasite. It looked clean, but just to be sure, I scooted carefully around the broken glass and washed my hands.

“Is that their blood?” Madelyn approached the wall and stopped inches away, careful to keep the robe covering her as she did. “Is it alive?”

I opened my mouth to answer but something slamming into the door stole all of our attention. The creatures were no longer just beating at it with whatever appendages they had left, they were full on throwing their bodies into the door.

Pete continued to brace it with his shoulder, but it was three on one.

“We need to find a way out of here,” he said.

Madelyn, looked back at the goo, not seeming to be the slightest bit worried about the creatures trying to get at us from the other side of the door. “What is this?”

“I don’t know. Ask Slammer. Maybe you’ll get more of an answer from him than I could.” Was it just her curiosity overcoming her fear or was she actively fighting down the terror? Wasn’t it her who had been screaming until Pete had come to her rescue?

She spun around. “What’s he talking about?”

Pete looked away uncomfortably as one of the creatures on the other side slammed against the door. The hinges were about the same quality as those that had been on our bedroom door, luckily, it looked as though Pete was doing a better job at keeping them from taking the door down.

Despite the gravity of our situation, I couldn’t help smiling. It was unusual to see Pete so disconcerted and there was a sick part of me that relished the moment.

“That’s right Slammer. What am I talking about?” I really can be twisted at times. I shook my head to try and dislodge the feeling, knowing that I was not helping the situation. All of our focus needed to be on surviving.

“We thought at first that it was an ancient virus but as you can see it’s much more than that.” He shook his head. “Truth is, we have no idea what it is. We only know some of what it can do.”

I ground my teeth. I didn’t buy his story. “This is what you’ve been spending all your time researching, right? Look man, you gotta let go of this whole attitude. You are past the point of keeping this thing contained.”

“We [_were _]limited as to what kinds of experiments we could perform.”

“So these ‘limited’ activities were keeping you busy for a full year?” I asked.

“I signed papers on penalty of treason!”

The door bulged.

“The time for discretion has passed.”

Pete took a step towards me and the door jounced with vibration as several bodies hit it at once. Were they coordinating their attack? I counted five heartbeats before the next one came. The three distinct sounds were almost in unison. How was that even possible? Two of the creatures didn’t have brains. How were they able to think, much less plan an attack or communicate?

“Where did this come from?” Madelyn asked, a look of excitement on her face, oblivious to the tension between Pete and me. “How was it found?”

I shook my head. “Same old Mad. Here you are practically naked, with monsters beating down the door, and your curiosity is getting the best of you.” When she got a question in her head, it was hard for her to let it go. It was as endearing as it was annoying.

“Can I help it the most interesting thing I’ve ever encountered came with you attached? Small wonder that they’re trying to kill us with the way you’ve been shooting at them.”

I bit my tongue and took a deep breath. I shouldn’t have egged her on in the first place. “Get dressed so we can get out of here.” I looked at Pete. “We’re up to three. How many were chasing you when you left the lab?”

Pete hesitated.

I knew that look. “What is it? Spit it out. These aren’t the only ones, are they? Please don’t tell me that we now have a herd of these things running amok through the town. When we captured the first two, you pretended as though it could all be contained. If there are more out there, shifting into others, how long will it take before the whole town is overrun?”

“It’s not like all those horror movies you’ve seen. The shifting process isn’t quick. Once—” He stopped and glared at me. “A friend would help me keep my oaths.”

“A true friend wouldn’t have brought this madness home with him!”

Madelyn spoke up, tearing her attention away from the goo on the walls. “Pete, it’s okay, nobody’s blaming you.”

I snorted but stopped short of disagreeing when Madelyn gave me a look that paralyzed me for the briefest of seconds. A small look of triumph—really, it was not more than a glint in her eye—crossed her face. I could almost hear her think that she still had what it took.

I ground my teeth, it had been awhile since she’d been able to get something she wanted from me with just a look. I grabbed shells from my bandolier and replaced those I’d used in the hallway.

“You guys have to understand,” Pete said, “it wasn’t my fault. It was like that when I went in there.”

I turned my attention to Pete. “Nobody’s accusing you of anything…yet. But keep stonewalling and I’m going to begin to wonder just exactly how involved you are.”

Pete opened his mouth but the door burst open, slamming him into the wall. The creature who I’d shot in the kneecap fell into the doorway, snarling. The other two headless ones sprung over the first, knocking it to the floor.

Chapter 5

I intercepted the monster that had been a man as it charged after Madelyn, aiming my shotgun for an elbow while trying to ignore the remnants of its head that were still partially attached to the neck. The wound on the neck had healed in the few minutes that had passed since I’d first shot him, and a red mucus had formed over the scarred tissue.

Some of the buckshot hit the monster in the arm but most of it missed. The tile on the floor and wall shattered, throwing dust into the air. I covered my eyes with an elbow as some of the shrapnel blew back on me.

Growling as I stepped backward, I lowered my arm and brought up my shotgun.

The monster kept coming, barely pausing to deal with the wound. I was beginning to suspect that these creatures didn’t feel pain. The monster’s elbow still functioned, though some of the skin was now missing. The goo dripped down his arm and onto the floor where it formed into balls and rolled forward.

It had been a long time since I’d made as poor of a shot as that and I felt my face redden, glad that my father and uncle weren’t around to have witnessed it.

Sliding backward while pumping, I brushed up against Madelyn and caught a whiff of her perfume. It was a present I’d given her for Valentine’s Day. She was wearing [_that _]while visiting another man?

I clamped down my teeth as I took aim at the damaged elbow. My shot removed the arm this time and sent the headless monster into the wall. I sprung forward, kicking the legs out from underneath the creature and pushing it to the floor as I pumped another shell into the chamber.

Using my foot to keep it steady, I shot the thing in the back of a knee. Bits of tile, purple blood, and flesh flew up but it hadn’t done the trick. It took two more shells and some kicking to sever the lower leg.

There had to be a better way to put these things down. It still squirmed after Madelyn, almost oblivious to the harm that I had inflicted upon it. It had barely reacted to any of the last shots.

Pete held the creature that had once been Veronica and was slamming one arm down on the sink. It looked like he’d already broken her other arm as it was hanging at an awkward angle. Or had I been the one to do that? I couldn’t remember.

The one that had been Jen was crawling toward Pete, her one leg dragging behind her. When she got close, Pete stepped forward and kicked her back.

The one I’d been shooting spun around and sat up, swinging up what was left of its head, almost as if it had been trying to bite me.

The neck collided with my thigh and I used the butt of my shotgun to send it back to the floor. I kicked it and stood on the creature’s chest with one leg. Had it just barely realized that I was there? Had it been oblivious when I’d shot off its lower leg?

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Madelyn run into one of the shower stalls with a bag in tow.

“There isn’t time to dress, just leave!”

“You’d like it if I were to run out of here wearing only a robe, wouldn’t you?”

I didn’t answer as I took in the scene, trying to decide what to do next. The monster under my foot was squirming, but because it was missing a leg and an arm, it was unable to get enough leverage to get out from underneath me.

By my count, I only had a shell left in my shotgun and I was torn about what to do. I could try to remove the other knee of the creature beneath me but that wouldn’t stop it from coming. Both the leg and the arm that I severed were making their way towards me, flopping around on the floor. The wounds on those appendages looked as though they had already healed as well. A new layer of purple skin had formed on the arm, red mucus was already covering part of it.

The arm flopped forward and for the barest of moments was able to balance on the fingers before toppling over. The movement reminded me of a time I’d once seen a chicken with its head cut off doing almost the same thing. That had been at my Uncle Billy’s farm when I was a kid. My mom had been freaked out that he’d let me help with the slaughter. When my dad had learned about it, he had defended the action, saying it was time for me to learn where meat came from.

Taking a deep breath, I let it out and tried to calm my nerves. Pete had succeeded in breaking the Veronica monster’s other arm and was now switching back and forth between kicking the two of them off balance.

A movement caught me off guard as the monster below me threw his severed arm and I stepped back involuntarily to keep it from hitting me in the head.

It was unbelievable, both the body and the severed arm had become two distinct beings with the ability to not only plan but also maybe even communicate. While I’d been trying to take my bearing of the situation, the severed arm had rolled over into position for the non-severed arm to pick up and once again toss my way.

Yep. They were communicating.

I almost opened my mouth to ask Pete if my conclusion was accurate but didn’t voice the question. It wouldn’t have done any good. He wouldn’t have heard me in the middle of his fighting and if he had, he would have probably just told me another lie or invoked his oath of secrecy.

The monster sat up again, so I kicked it over, careful to steer clear of the loose arm and leg. I almost preferred it when they hadn’t been severed.

Almost.

It tried grabbing at me with its good hand but I blasted it if off with my last shell, careful of the angle to make sure that none of the shrapnel from buckshot hitting the tile would head towards any of the living. On instinct, I pulled shells out from my bandolier and reloaded. It was frustrating that I was only able to push in five shells. Wishing that I’d made the investment in a longer magazine tube, I assessed our options. There were eight stalls, four showers, and another door on the far side of the room.

Not a lot of places to go. Perhaps we could hack them into small enough pieces that we could flush them down the toilet, but who was to say that the things could drown? They seemed to defy almost every other natural law. I shuddered involuntarily at the thought of unwittingly creating a bunch of dismembered body parts that would come up out of the toilets so that they could shift into unwitting victims. Franklin Hospital was several blocks over and that would be a great place for them to find wounded to shift into.

No, that wouldn’t do. We could run again but these things just kept coming. They needed to be contained here.

In frustration, I stepped back to let the monster sit up, just so I could knock it down again. I noticed as I did so that the skin had taken on a deeper shade of gray. It almost looked green. Also, the skin behind the red mucus over the wound on the neck was now a lighter shade of gray.

I eyed the shower stall Madelyn had gone into, telling myself that I was checking to make sure she was okay and not for any other reason. She’d pulled the shower curtain shut but I could see her moving on the other side as she brushed up against it.

Pete was now working on breaking a leg of the Veronica creature and the Jen one was clinging to his back legs.

Grabbing the creature below me by the leg, I pulled it over towards Pete. I held out my shotgun, intending to take the shot one-handed but I stopped short of doing so.

Shaking my head ruefully, I was glad that I’d caught myself in time. It would have been a mistake to shoot one handed. I’d been watching too many bad action movies.

Instead, I slung my shotgun onto my shoulder and tossed the male creature over into the corner, before sprinting back to Pete. I ripped the monster off his legs and aimed at the creature’s arm before firing.

I was both sickened and grateful that I was able to remove it with just the one shot. I swung that creature over onto the one I’d just moved into the corner and pummeled them with buckshot until my magazine tube was empty. I reloaded and was about to do it again when I was distracted by a screech from behind and spun to find that Pete had really done a number on his monster.

Its leg was broken, its chest caved in, and both arms hung limply. Despite all that, it was still thrashing about and Pete was bashing the other leg against the sink.

It was getting more and more difficult to keep down the microwave chimichangas I’d had for my late dinner. I was surprised that I hadn’t already heaved up the contents of my stomach several times over.

I started when I realized that this was the Veronica monster. It no longer had a head. Where had the screech come from?

If it could regrow skin, why not a mouth?

Approaching cautiously, I looked at the wounded neck and spotted two lips forming in the middle of the skin on the new head, there was also one orange eye that looked at me, the pupil slit narrowing as it did so.

“We’re not going to get anywhere with this, Slammer,” I said. “The things keep healing and every piece we hack off just becomes another monster to fight. There has to be a better way.” I hoped that a full monster wouldn’t be able to regrow from just an arm.

A shard of glass scraped on the tile behind me and I turned to see that both of the monsters I’d just pummeled with buckshot were coming at me yet again. The severed appendages were all headed my way as well. I pulled a shell off my bandolier and loaded it into the magazine tube.

“You boys should see yourselves.” Madelyn appeared from the shower fully dressed. She bent down to lace her shoe, looking like she’d just shown up and that we hadn’t found her being terrorized by a monster while she’d been showering. She’d even managed to put on a little bit of makeup. My heart fluttered as I took her in, but I quickly stamped it down. I’d been down that road once before, I didn’t need to be burned twice to learn my lesson.

“You went on a date dressed like that?” I asked. She wore jeans and a t-shirt. I’d only ever seen her dressed like that once during the entire six months that we had dated. She normally wore a flirty skirt and high heels. Just more tools in her tool chest to get men to do what she wanted. “What were you really doing here?”

She gave me an impish smile that I couldn’t help but return on instinct. I stopped my lips from forming a full smile and tried to turn it into a snarl. It made her beam, even more, when she saw the conflict on my face.

“Seriously,” she said, “look at yourself in the mirror. They’re swarming all over.”

Loading another shell into my shotgun as I ran, I went to the mirror and saw that she was right. Beads of the dark purple creature were everywhere. The balls were creeping along. Some joined into a larger mass while I watched. I moved my hand as if to brush them from me but stopped before touching them. There were so many that there was no point in risking the contact with my skin. I had to find another way to remove them.

I ground my teeth. “If only we had more kerosene.” I wouldn’t be above shucking my clothes and burning them. Madelyn would have to leave the room, of course.

“Kerosene?” Madelyn asked as if she was unfamiliar with what it was.

I studied the door at the back of the bathroom. In all the confusion, I’d somehow thought that it was another way out, but I now realized that was incorrect. Wasn’t that where the water heater was? I seemed to remember watching a janitor open the counterpart door in the men’s room, but I couldn’t be certain. It made sense that there would be a water heater for each bathroom. I’d never once had anything less than a scalding hot shower. Most of the time I couldn’t turn up the heat more than halfway. Even at that temperature I usually came out redder than a lobster.

I was also sure that the water heater ran on gas. I crossed the room and tried the door. It didn’t turn.

“Any of you know how to pick a lock?” I wasn’t expecting anything so I was surprised when Madelyn answered in the affirmative.

“Why do you want to get in?” she asked.

A look of comprehension crossed Pete’s face. “The gas line? You can’t be serious. You’ll kill us too, probably take out the whole building!”

“It’s the only way to stop them,” I said. “Fire is the only thing that will destroy them.”

“And us with them.”

“Actually,” I said, “it won’t go past this room. The walls are cinder block on the inside and tile on the outside.”

Madelyn folded her arms. “Forget about it, I’m not going to open it for you.”

I shrugged, doubting that she really had the ability. I pounded on the utility room door and determined that it was as thick as the wooden door to our room. I wasn’t going to be able to blast my way through that with buckshot. I’d been hoping for a hollow door.

A ball about the size of a marble had formed on my right pant leg, I sent it flying with a flick of my finger. It landed on top of the hand dryer.

Crossing quickly, I punched the button and held my arm underneath. The heat from the dryer had the same effect as the fire but to a lesser degree. The little balls begin to vibrate, similar to what they’d done when I’d lit the kerosene on the large ball in my room.

“Heat! These things don’t like heat. Why didn’t you say something about that, Slammer?”

Pete was too busy kicking the monsters to hear me. Madelyn raised an eyebrow but failed to share my enthusiasm.

Praying that it would work, I went to the sink, turned on the hot water, and thrust my arm underneath it. It was scalding and difficult to keep my arm underneath for fear of getting burned, but the little balls of goo were washed away.

“It works! The heat killed them. Quick, the showers. Throw them in the showers. The water is boiling hot.”

Madelyn was already running towards the stalls, turning on the water in the first before moving on to the next. I grabbed the closest monster and hurled it in, ripping down the shower curtain in the process.

It was difficult to describe what happened next. The whole body began to vibrate. The new mouth at the top of the neck screamed out but it was more than just that. It was as if all of the little balls of goo cried out at once, sounding like a swarm of bees. The goo moved quick as if energized by the water. Most of the balls disappeared, but not all.

A large ball formed at the base and even though some of it washed away as it moved out of the water, a sizable portion of it still remained by the time it got to end of the shower. It was the size of a basketball and had gone from purple to black much faster than the one in our room.

This time, I didn’t hesitate to put a blast of buckshot into it. A grin the size of a banana split my face as it was blown back in. Another ball formed but this one was small enough that I merely kicked it back in with the toe of my shoe.

The other monsters had overcome Pete and pinned him to the floor, but he was still struggling. I ripped one from him and threw it into the shower. By the time I returned, Pete had just thrown the other off of him. I scooped it up and threw it into the shower as well.

“No!” Pete yelled.

I turned to see what had upset Pete as he rushed past me. He stopped short of plunging into the shower himself and pushed Madelyn out of the way with enough force that she almost lost her footing and had to grab onto me for support.

“Watch it,” she said, letting go as soon as she was stable. We shared an awkward glance. The last time she had touched me had been a pat on the arm after she’d “let me down gently.” As our eyes connected, I remembered the hurt look on her face after I’d accused her of breaking up with me because she’d lost her ability to influence me as she once had. She had said something about me not really knowing her at all.

She darted past Pete and kicked a ball of goo back into the shower, bringing me back to the present. Her tennis shoe came away wet, but the goo was gone.

“The showers shouldn’t have worked,” I said. “It was too easy.”

“ You fool!” Pete turned, his hands balled into fists. “Do you realize what you have done? you remember how I said we needed a torch to kill them? Heat is a catalyst unless it burns hot enough to catch fire. You just supercharged a bunch of blutom and sent it down into the sewers.”

I wanted to punch him. “You’re the one that refused to tell us anything about this—blutom.” The word felt strange in my mouth, but it was nice to finally know what the lab’s name for it was. “This is on you.”

“Rats!” Pete continued. “The blutom will take the bodies of rats first. There won’t be any waiting period once they shift because you just sent the blutom into level ten. In an hour, they will have taken one hundred rats, this time tomorrow, it will be all of them. Every. Single. Last. One.”

I took off my shirt and flung it into the bottom of the empty shower, blocking the drain. The water was still running, steam forming at the top. I handed my shotgun off to Madelyn and as I did so I remembered that I had slung a holstered pistol over my neck along with the bandolier, I gave these to her as well. I’d completely forgotten about the pistol in the heat of everything that had happened. I took a step forward, but Pete grabbed my arm.

“Didn’t you hear me?”

“I did but I want this stuff off of me.” I pointed to the bottom of the shower. It will collect there. I shrugged his hand away and stepped inside. “Clean yourself off. We can’t go running around with this crud crawling all over us.”

Chapter 6

Madelyn carried my shotgun and pistol back to our room as I was sopping wet. It was quiet now, but my gut said that something was going to come bounding at me from around the corner. I kept looking around and had to stop myself several times from taking back my weaponry. It would still work if it got wet but as long as there wasn’t an immediate need, I was better off letting her carry it.

We had gathered all of the blutom we could find in the bathroom and coaxed it into forming a ball before wrapping it in my sodden shirt. Pete had a cooler back in our room where we would keep it in until we got back to the lab.

“So Pete,” Madelyn asked, “what’s the scoop on these things? Blutom. Is that what you call it?”

Water dripped off Pete’s hands as it ran down from the sleeves of his shirt. He’d showered too.

Pete didn’t answer for several moments. He’d calmed down while in the shower and had even made a statement of apology about not being more forthcoming. We’d both accepted it, Madelyn more gracious about it than me, I still wanted to pound his face.

“Yeah, that’s what we call it. Don’t ask me about the name. I think it’s stupid.” He sighed and shook his head as if he was surrendering. You can’t repeat anything I’m about to tell you.”

“Who am I going to tell?” I asked.

“No posts on the internet, Facebook, Twitter, nothing. Got it?”

Madelyn looked at me and I rolled my eyes. Pete saw it and threw me a glare. “I’m serious, Buckshot. I’m committing treason right now. Just you knowing the name is probably enough for them to hang me.”

I bit my tongue. I very much doubted that his breach of confidentiality would be classified as treason, but it sounded like I was finally going to get some answers. An ill-conceived phrase might change all of that and I had the making of at least three on the tip of my tongue.

“Ok, whatever.”

Pete looked back and forth between the two of us. He sighed again. “The creature takes over human bodies. It kills the host but keeps the body alive. How? We don’t know.”

“Tell us something w—” I bit my tongue. “Please go on.”

“How was the government researching this?” Madelyn asked. “Were they experimenting with human subjects?”

“Of course not. Most of the experiments were done with rodents. Mice, rabbits, rats. That sort of thing. One time we used a monkey, but that got ugly fast, so we went back to the vermin.”

“If heat is a catalyst,” I asked, “will the cold slow it down?”

“We wondered that as well, but no, it doesn’t. Cold doesn’t appear to have any effect on its ability to move but it will prolong its life and slow it down. At room temperature, a marble-sized amount will die in a matter of minutes. Less than half an hour for sure. In a freezer, it can live indefinitely.”

“The larger the mass, the longer it can live?” I asked.

“Correct.”

“Why did you insist that we pick up every remaining scrap we could find?” Madelyn asked. “It will all die anyway.”

“Besides the fact that they tend to form into balls, at the end of their life they go into a hyper stage, we call it level ten. The blutom can shift into a host even without a wound when it’s at level ten. We’re not exactly sure what allows it to do that.”

“Is that what happened to the people that chased you home from the lab?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I doubt it. We were working with a few level ten balls of blutom yesterday, but after we were done, we sent them to the incinerator. We never ever send a level ten ball back into the freezer, it’s too volatile. We have suspected for some time that there are other properties and abilities that develop at that stage that we aren’t yet aware of.”

“So we just supercharged the stuff and sent a bunch of it into the sewers.” I thought earlier about how I’d wanted to hack the monsters into pieces and flush them. That had seemed like it was the worst possible idea at the time. It was depressing that what I’d ended up doing instead had been worse. When I glanced at Pete, my hand formed into a fist of its own accord but I released it and took a calming breath. It was his fault, but it was also mine. I’d jumped to the conclusion that heat was just as damaging to them as fire and acted without trying to confirm it with Pete.

“That’s what happened. If you’re looking for me to apologize again—”

“We’re not,” Madelyn said, glaring at me in a way that said she thought I’d been trying to make him feel bad on purpose. I shrugged. I hadn’t been trying to remind him of his guilt, I’d just been thinking through the situation. Next time I went to the store, I was going to stock up on kerosene and anything else that was flammable.

I swallowed. Hopefully, there would still be stores after all this was said and done.

“Are there any weaknesses we can exploit?” I asked.

Pete shook his head. “There are a lot of nuances to blutom, but other than the fact that it can be killed with fire, I don’t know that there is anything else that qualifies as a clear weakness.” He looked down at the ball we’d wrapped in my shirt. “Watch out, it’s already oozing through. In another couple of minutes, it will be free.”

I brought it up to eye level. It was purple sludge no longer, at least everything that was seeping through had changed to a dark charcoal. The black stuff oozed out from all sides, it was as though my shirt was being absorbed into it. I held it further away from me and increased my speed, water splashing off of me as I did. Pete had done his best to dry off with Madelyn’s robe but I’d refused, for a reason that had seemed to make sense at the time. It probably had something to do with the fact that it belonged to Madelyn.

“Ok,” I said, “so we need to get some fuel and burn those bodies back in the shower as well.”

Pete had promptly turned off the water in the other showers as soon as I’d started to clean off. It had resulted in my shower increasing in temperature and scalding my back before I could get out. As I’d been pretty sure he’d done it to me on purpose, I’d made sure to not let even a small yelp escape my mouth as I adjusted the knob and stepped back in once I was able to tolerate it. After that, Pete had done his best to gather up the other blutom and merge it all into a single ball.

“No,” Pete shook his head. “You don’t do anything more. I’m going back to work. We have a containment team whose job it is to handle this sort of thing.”

“A containment team?” Madelyn asked. “How many times has the blutom escaped?”

“We’re going with you,” I said. “We can’t have any more of this stuff escaping.”

“I don’t know if the containment team has ever been called in, all I know is that we have one and that protocols were put in place to handle a situation like this. You can’t come back with me, security will never let you through.”

I slammed Pete up against the wall with one hand, careful to keep the ball of blutom from touching either one of us as I did so. “It’s non-negotiable. You brought this down on our heads. We’re in this as much as you are. We’re not sending you back with a cooler of the stuff by yourself. End of discussion.”

Pete wrapped his arms around mine but made no move to push me off. He stared down at me and then gave a quick nod of his head. I released him.

“Was it only the three?” Madelyn asked as we moved again. “Are you sure?”

“Tell us exactly what happened,” I said. “You entered work. What happened then?”

I stopped when movement up ahead caught my attention. Several balls of blutom rolled towards us, they were far smaller than the remnant of the ball that I’d left burning.

A few months ago, I’d seen an advertisement for a flamethrower and I remembered thinking that it looked fun but I’d never have any practical use for such a thing. Now I wished that I’d given into impulse and had made the purchase. My shotgun was a nice weapon, but I’d learned today that there were things out there that buckshot couldn’t stop.

“I’ll go back for my robe. We’ll wrap them in that.” Madelyn disappeared.

“Just drop them in on the other ball in your shirt,” Pete said.

I looked at my shirt and then at Pete. A full centimeter was now on the outside. “How do you discern the level? Does the color have something to do with it?”

“It’s more the amount of activity but at some levels, color is an indicator. You’ll know when it’s level ten. It’ll be as bright as the sun.”

“I’m not convinced that it’s only at level ten that they no longer need an open wound. The last one I flung off of me had been heading up my neck. I also can’t forget how you screamed like a little girl when we found that one on my shirt.”

“I’m telling you,” Pete said through clenched teeth, “it’s fine. I just overreacted a little. That’s all.”

If you’re so certain,” I said, “you ought to be the one to do it.

“Fine. I’ll pick it up.” He reached for my shirt, which I was glad to hand off to him.

“Hang on,” I said. “Mad, I want my shotgun back!”

I followed her back into the bathroom while doing my best to shake my hands dry. Water flung off me and left streaks on the floor.

It was strange, the women’s bathroom was a little bit cleaner than it had been right after we’d thrown the monsters into the shower. I suppose it was because all the blood had actually been blutom and had tried to come at us.

When I walked in, Madelyn was heading towards me. Her towel in one hand, my shotgun in the other.

“My shotgun?” I held out my hands but she didn’t hand it over.

“It’s good to see you, Morty.”

I was taken aback. “It has been awhile.” The words escaped before I had a chance to think of something better. I cringed but she just nodded her head as if that was the response she was expecting. I didn’t know what else to say.

“It has.”

She all of the sudden looked flustered. “Here. Take it.”

I gingerly took the weapon, unhappy that I had to pick it up with damp hands. Once this was all over, I would do a thorough job of cleaning it anyway. Too many of my shots had been fired at point blank range and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there was blutom or worse on the inside of my muzzle.

“Out of the way.” She pushed past me and back into the hallway. I didn’t immediately follow her. It had been difficult to get over her. I didn’t want her to think that I was trying to get back together with her. I didn’t doubt that she could tell I was still interested. It was fine if she thought that, I just didn’t want her to think I was desperate.

I went to the stall where we’d left the remnants of the monsters. The flesh was still gray, but it wasn’t as mottled as it had been before. Pete had been surprised that the hot water had the effect of putting down the monsters until he’d examined the bodies more closely and realized just how many wounds they had from all the buckshot I’d shot into them. He’d guessed that the wounds had weakened them to the point that the blutom hadn’t been able to retain control of the host bodies while the hot water poured over them. He’d also said that the bodies would turn back to the original color. I was hoping they didn’t, I wanted there to be evidence that something unusual had happened.

Bending down, I examined the body of the one that had developed a mouth and an eye over the opening of the neck and was glad to see that hadn’t changed. If the police were to show up, I didn’t want them to think that we’d murdered three people and had hacked them to pieces. I had to admit, that is very much what the situation would have looked like from the outside if all signs of the blutom were to suddenly disappear.

A scream came from outside the bathroom, and I was struck by the fact that it was lower in tone than Madelyn’s had been.

Madelyn pulled open the bathroom door. “Morty, come quick! It’s Pete.”

I ran out into the hallway to find Pete walking towards us, holding the ball of blutom out in front of him as if were about to explode. My shirt dangled at the bottom as if the ball had crawled up and seized his hand. The blutom constantly shifted in form and was vibrating.

It was also blindingly white.

Chapter 7

I raised my shotgun, my right-hand tense on the stock as my forefinger curled around the trigger guard. I didn’t put my finger on the trigger, but I thought of the warning Pete had given us.

“Quick,” Pete yelled, “turn a shower back on!”

“That’s not a good idea,” I said, “there has to be an—” If it could shift into him when it was level ten without a wound, I didn’t want to know what putting level ten blutom into a scalding hot shower would do.

“You fool, Buckshot. Just do it!”

Grumbling under my breath but not knowing what else to do, I ducked back into the bathroom and did what he wanted. I braced myself as we were about to learn firsthand what effect the hot water would have on the already blindingly bright blutom.

I stepped away from the stall as Pete approached the stream of water. The blutom’s vibrations increased and it slid up Pete’s arm, covering it as if he had just dipped it in a vat of paint and pulled it out. Cursing, Pete shoved his arm into the shower but it was already moving up his shoulder and neck.

I jumped forward and used the butt of my shotgun to push him all the way in just as it was about to reach his mouth. When he didn’t immediately put his head into the shower, I grabbed his hair and pushed his face under the steaming water. In moments, the mass had washed off of him but had taken on a greater luminescence at the bottom of the shower. When I was sure it was all off of him, I yanked him from the shower.

Stepping back myself, I raised up my shotgun, hesitating with my finger on the trigger. The glow had fully enveloped the stall but the amount of blutom at the bottom was decreasing by the second as it was washed down the drain. My finger itched to squeeze the trigger, but as long as it continued to go down, I wasn’t going to do anything to interrupt that.

When he first tried to stand, Pete slipped and had to latch onto the wall for support. His face and arms were red from being burned by the scalding water and the way he stood made him look like he was drunk.

What had the blutom done to him?

“You okay?” I asked. When he didn’t respond I repeated the question.

He looked down at me, his eyes squinting. “It…” He swallowed. “It was taking control of me. I could feel myself being pushed out.”

“Did you swallow any?”

He shook his head. “If you wouldn’t have pushed me the rest of the way in, I wouldn’t have made it. I knew I needed to go in but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

“How quick does the level ten blutom work on the rats?” Madelyn asked as she inspected Pete for any remaining goo. Both of them were oblivious to the blutom in the shower.

“Mad, back away. You too Slammer. I don’t like the looks of what’s going on in there.”

While some of it had disappeared down the drain, I wasn’t certain that we were safe. Because the ball was also inching its way out of the shower. I lowered my shotgun.

Pete grabbed my arm. “No!” He ran forward and kicked it back into the shower. It clung to his boot, so he stuck his leg in up to his thigh.

When he didn’t come back right away, I pushed my shotgun into Madelyn’s hands and ran forward, intent on pulling him out of the shower.

The blutom was no longer on his boot and despite the water, it was still working its way up his leg. The vibrations at the top of the ball seemed to form some sort of a protective barrier to the water streaming down from above, no wonder why it had been able to survive.

“Dang it, Slammer. You should have just let me shoot the thing.”

His eyes were glazed over, and I wasn’t certain if it was just mirroring the reflection of the white blazing blutom or if he’d actually been taken over. I took out my pocket knife and opened it one-handed, glad for all the time I’d taken throughout the years to practice that particular skill. I winced as I did so because I’d forgotten to take it out of my pocket when I’d showered.

“Curse you for making me do this.” I pushed him to the floor, slit his belt and then cut into either side of his pants. It was a mark of just how far gone he was that he didn’t notice or try to stop me.

I slit all the way down on the pant leg that was blutom free before I slit as far as I dared on the other. With one last look at his transfixed eyes, I ripped off his pants and threw him into the shower.

Dragging him back across the tile floor, I called out to Madelyn. “My gun, quick!”

Pete’s head made a thwacking sound when I dropped him but I was moving too quickly to stop and check. The blutom came out of the shower and the protective shield over the top of it was absorbed back into the vibrating ball. It reminded me of an atom or a solar system, only the rings were appearing and disappearing as quickly as I could perceive them.

The brightness of the ball itself was leaving an afterimage, so I squinted as I leveled my shotgun at the ball and pulled the trigger.

The blutom was blown back into the shower. Pieces of the tile flew out and slid on the floor. I covered my eyes with my arm as I pumped another shell into the chamber.

When I looked again the blutom was gone. After several seconds had passed, I blinked and made sure to look around the room as well as the shower to ensure it hadn’t just gone somewhere else.

As I approached the shower, steam rose into the air and partially obscured the view. When I was certain there wasn’t anything left, I turned off the water and surveyed the damage.

The tile on the back wall had been destroyed. Much of it had been blown off but there were still quite a few pieces that clung to the wall.

I was surprised to see that there wasn’t a hole until I realized that there had been cinder blocks behind the tile.

The blutom was gone. I hoped that it had been at the end of its life cycle and been destroyed by the shotgun blast, but I doubted we’d be so lucky. The thought of level ten blutom flushing into the sewer and shifting into whatever was alive down there made me shiver.

Pete was up on one hand, looking at the remains of the shower. With the other, he rubbed the back of his neck. “I felt them, inside of me. A few more moments…” He swallowed.

Hefting my shotgun over my shoulder with one hand, I used the other to pull him to his feet.

“We don’t have time to waste,” I said. “Let’s get into dry clothes and get you down to the lab.”

Pete shook his head. “I keep telling you, I can’t let you guys in.”

“Like it or not, we’re coming.” I didn’t give him a chance to respond. I headed back to our room with Madelyn close on my heels. We were at my bedroom before Pete had left the bathroom. He staggered and I felt a pang of guilt for leaving him to come back by himself. He had taken quite a knock to the head when I’d dropped him to the floor.

Any concern I had about Pete fled when I walked into our room. The fire was still burning and had spread to the carpet, despite our precautions. Pete’s philosophy book was all but gone and it looked like that was the cause of the fire spreading outside of the circle Pete had cut out of the carpet.

Madelyn coughed as I ripped a blanket from my bed and covered the flames. Smoke filled the air as I extinguished the fire. I was concerned the sprinkler might turn on until I looked overhead and remembered that it was covered in rust.

“Love what you’ve done with the place.” Madelyn flashed an impish smile. It was one her favorites. One late night I’d got her to admit that it was her standby. That wily grin of hers combined with a flick of the head was her main way of influencing men. She’d claimed it worked seven out of ten times.

It had worked all of the time until I’d learned the truth. Now, it made bile rise in the back of my throat.

She gave me a level look as if she could tell what I was thinking so I smiled wickedly back at her. “Help me scour for any more of the stuff.”

Madelyn nodded.

I was pulling my belongings out from under my bed and setting them on top when Pete finally walked into the room. His face was pale and I instinctively reached to where I’d set my shotgun on the floor as I closely examined it for the red mucus the other blutom monsters had developed. It was clear.

For now.

Along the side of my old statistics book, I found a small ball of the blutom. It had been sticking to the spine and I’d accidently touched it when pulling it out from under the bed. When it was discovered it headed in the opposite direction, elongating itself out like a snake but moving forward without any side to side movement. Somehow it now knew that we were a threat to it.

“Found some!” Madelyn picked up one of my running shoes and turned it towards the back so we could see a quarter sized amount of goo. At first, I thought it was gum but then I saw the mass quiver as if smelling.

Rummaging around, I pulled out a plastic box from under my desk and thrust the book inside. Originally, I’d planned on using the cooler, but as there was just a little bit, the box made more sense. I grabbed my running shoe and used a pencil to scrape off the blutom which I also tossed inside. After careful inspection of the rest of my shoe, I sealed the top of the container and handed it to Madelyn.

“Here hold onto this.” She raised her eyes but didn’t hold out her hands. I shrugged and shooed her towards the door. Once she was outside, I set the container on the floor. “Just keep watch while we dress.”

She opened her mouth as if to argue but I put the door back in place before I could hear what she was going to say.

I was fully dressed before I noticed that Pete hadn’t made a move to change.

“Get moving.” I grabbed my heavy army surplus boots and laced them up. I had toyed with the idea of wearing my running shoes but decided at the last moment to go with the boots. I could still run in them, though, not as easily, and they might provide additional protection against the blutom. Even though Pete had assured us it wasn’t dangerous to the touch until it went to level ten, I thought it best to take all the precautions I could.

Pete stirred. “I’m not sure going back to the lab is the right move.”

“Did some of that stuff get into your system? You’re the one that’s been insistent this whole time we need to get back there.” Was he afraid he was going to get into trouble for letting their little project escape? Was there something more that he wasn’t telling me? Or was this just another attempt to ditch Madelyn and me?

“I know, I know. But I left in quite the hurry.” He finally stood and dressed. “What if that was just the tip of the iceberg? They could all be like that. Every last employee. We may find a hundred more like them.”

“What else would you rather do?” I grabbed by workman gloves and rummaged through the contents of the trunk in front of my bed, hoping to find another can of kerosene. After a few minutes, it became obvious I’d only had the one. I picked up the blackened can and shook it to make sure it was empty. In my haste, I hadn’t been concerned about trying to conserve more for later.

“I don’t know.” Pete pulled on a shirt.

“We’ll start at the lab and go from there.” I pulled out my backpack and loaded it with ammo for both my pistol and shotgun. I made sure to grab shells loaded with slugs along with the buckshot, no trap shot. For my pistol, I only loaded hollow points. If the bullets weren’t going to kill the monsters, they at least needed to remove large chunks and knock them down.

“If the place is overrun, do you know of anybody you can call?” I noticed that I already had my hatchet in the bag, along with some other camping supplies. I was about to take them all out but stopped. The supplies weren’t what would weigh down the backpack–it was all the ammo–and a hatchet might be a nice thing to have along, just in case.

“There’s a list of numbers back at work, but I never bothered to copy any of them down. Jen might have known somebody.”

“Well, she finally stopped moving, so we can’t ask her.” It just slipped out of my mouth and I felt bad as soon as I said it.

Pete chuckled. After hesitating, I did as well. It felt good to have a slight release in the tension, small and morbid as it was.

I hefted my bag to make sure it wasn’t too heavy. I wanted enough ammo to feel secure but not so much that I’d have trouble maneuvering if I needed to run. As we were about to go out in public, I’d intentionally picked my overnight backpack so I could keep my shotgun in there as well. I might get some strange looks, but that was better than causing a panic, or even worse, not having my shotgun.

Pete was pulling on his shoes when Madelyn gave the door a quick knock before opening it. Her face was pale. She kicked the plastic container back into the room.

“It’s going crazy.”

The blutom was spinning, like a miniature tornado.

“What level is this?” I asked.

“I should have mentioned they don’t like plastic,” Pete said. “It doesn’t kill them any faster, it just torments them while they die. It will settle down, once it does, it will find a way out.

I pulled out a roll of duct tape and began taping the sides.

“That’s a waste of time. It’ll find a way past that as well.” I ripped off a length of tape and strapped it to the box anyway.

Madelyn frowned at Pete. “What was it like when they tried to enter your mind?”

He looked up from his shoe. “Like a thousand pin pricks in my head, from the inside.”

Turning the box, I ripped off another piece and taped the next side. As I tore off more tape I checked Pete’s face for a sign of the red mucus. It was still clear and the color had returned as well. Perhaps I was worried about nothing.

“That’s strange, it was attached to your leg at the last. Did you feel pain anywhere else?”

Pete shook his head.

“Maybe it already had partial influence over you,” I said.

“Look,” Pete licked his lips, “I’d rather not talk about this anymore.”

“That’s becoming a theme for you tonight.” Madelyn straightened. “Maybe when I come back you’ll decide to start telling the truth so we can figure out what’s going on.”

“Hold on,” I said, “we need to leave. Where you going?”

“I forgot my phone back in the bathroom.” She gave me her standby grin. “Don’t worry, I’ll hurry.” I hesitated to let her go by herself but we’d made certain that all of the blutom had gone before we’d left the bathroom. She’d be fine.

Besides, why did I care?

By the time I was done taping the sides of the plastic container the blutom’s excitement level had dropped and it looked as though it was searching for a way out.

“How much time do we have before it escapes?”

Pete frowned. “Not as much as we’ll need.”

Chapter 8

The hallway was quiet as we made our way out of our dorm room. I shifted the straps of my backpack, wondering how many other people were on our floor hiding behind locked doors. I was surprised that the cops hadn’t shown up by now. With all the shooting and screaming that had been going on I would have expected them to have been here long ago.

I pulled out my phone to check the time and saw that it was well past midnight. I couldn’t remember what time it had been when Pete had burst into my room. I knew it had been after ten because that was when I had stopped studying to take a break and eat some microwave chimichangas. Everything that had happened could have taken a couple hours or less than twenty minutes, it was hard to say.

Several rooms down, a door opened and somebody looked out. I wasn’t exactly the most sociable guy and hadn’t bothered to learn the names of my neighbors, but I thought I recognized the red-haired woman who I’d been scoping out during the course of the last term. Her eyes hesitated on me before the door shut with a bang. I didn’t blame her. I still had my shotgun out and had it ready.

She probably thought I was a terrorist or something. That wasn’t going to help my chances of getting her to go on a date with me. Hopefully, she didn’t ask about the last woman I tried to take out.

“Hurry!” Pete hissed, pushing past me and shouldering Madelyn out of the way so that he could get to the stairwell. “This stuff is getting more unstable by the minute. We don’t have long.”

I checked to see if the blutom was glowing as he passed and was glad to see that it hadn’t yet progressed to that point. My guess was that we’d end up stopping off at a gas station and lighting the sucker up. I didn’t relish the thought of having to undo all the tape, so maybe we’d just burn the whole box.

Pete was already down a floor before Madelyn and I made it to the door.

She had stopped awkwardly before it as if waiting for me to open it. With a broad smile, I sat back on my heels. When we’d first started dating I hadn’t been big on doing things that were typically expected. She had pounded it into me that I needed to be opening doors for her and paying for our meals, among other things. I must admit that a part of me had been about to do it on instinct alone, but impish smile or not, I was through letting her manipulate me.

After she opened it herself and walked through, I couldn’t help but continue to smile as I followed her into the stairwell.

“What part of hurry don’t you two understand?” Pete called up from below.

I snorted. “First, he doesn’t want us to go, now he’s saying we’re slowing him down. Wish he’d make up his mind.”

“You aren’t going to go traipsing around town with your gun in the open like that are you?”

“Why not? We’re in Texas, after all.”

“What is it with you and your guns? I swear, I always felt a little jealous when you talked about your weaponry. I didn’t see how I could compete against that.”

“You can’t.”

“That’s why I left you.”

It wasn’t and we both knew it, but I decided not to call her on it. She had created a world for herself that depended on getting men to do things through manipulation. When I had broken into that world and shattered it, she’d been left with the choice of either accepting the change or kicking me to the curb.

We descended the stairs in silence until we got to the exit on the first floor. I hesitated, not wanting to let Madelyn feel like she’d managed to score a point, but also knowing that it would be pure foolishness for me to not hide my shotgun in my pack. This [_was _]the reason I’d opted for my larger backpack.

Ignoring Madelyn’s smug look, I shoved my shotgun into the bag. She was probably glad that it was night so that there would be fewer people that would see me with such a large bag. If it had been daytime she might have tried to convince me to leave it behind. I noticed her lips tighten as she took me in.

I’d put on an old leather jacket I knew she’d hated to cover up the shoulder holster of my SigSauer pistol. That, combined with my combat boots probably was working as a reminder about some of the things I did that she hadn’t liked. It might have been petty of me, but I hadn’t completely forgiven her for dumping me yet. I enjoyed reminding her that she didn’t have as much say in these things as she used to.

Madelyn pushed ahead and out into the lobby as I cinched up the drawstrings at the top of my pack. When I left the stairwell I’d expected Pete and her to be halfway to the door.

They’d stopped just short of the stairs. A crowd of students had gathered around a television in the lobby—despite the late hour—that was tuned to the news.

“Come on, we gotta go.” I grabbed them each by an arm and pulled them towards the door.

Pete shook off my hand. “Things are worse than I feared.” He pointed at the screen.

A dark haired woman had heard his comment and was now looking us over. She examined the box Pete held before sniffing and looking away. She would have stepped away from us if she’d have known what we were carrying.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

At least the woman hadn’t been alarmed by the blutom. It was still vibrating, but it was now much more subdued. She had probably just mistaken it for an old black sock. Or maybe a sick hamster.

“We can’t be sure it’s the same thing,” Madelyn said.

Words trailed across the bottom of the television screen faster than I could read. I must have been more tired than I thought. I caught something about New York and gathered that there had been a terrorist attack. We were looking at camera footage, but I had come in on the tail end of it and not seen what it had all been about. What I did see was blurry and I could only make out the back of a person running away.

A talking head came back on. “That was happening all over Times Square tonight.” He paused. “More footage has just come in, be advised it is graphic.”

Madelyn gasped. She covered her mouth and grabbed my hand.

It was a man covered in red mucus, his head shedding hair as he ran, just like it had with Veronica. He leaped up onto another man, sending the first sprawling to the ground.

As he roared and bent down to bite the neck, a dozen more piled on as the footage ended. It was unclear what had happened to the person recording the video.

Chills ran up my arms and through my neck. I had just assumed we were dealing with a problem that was relatively contained. If the blutom had made its way to New York, there was no telling where it might turn up next.

“They didn’t.”

l almost missed Pete’s whisper in the cacophony that followed as the others in the room reacted. Half a dozen separate conversations started as people tried to digest what it was that they had just seen.

I grabbed his arm. “What?”

Pete looked around the room. “Not here.”

“You’re little lab project has spread faster than we thought,” Madelyn said, whispering so that only we could here. I glanced at the dark haired woman and hoped she wasn’t still paying attention to what we were saying. Her back was turned to us and she appeared to be listening to a couple of other women.

The reporters on television had continued to talk and I hadn’t heard anything yet about blutom. If—

No, when that happened, I didn’t want to be standing here with a box of the stuff on hand. There was no telling how our fellow students would react to such a situation.

“Not here!” Pete pushed through the crowd, earning several frowns as he jostled people out of the way. He didn’t cause more than a momentary stir as they returned to their conversations.

“There’s more going on here than Slammer’s told us about,” I said.

“You think?” Madelyn pushed after Pete.

I didn’t respond as I followed after the both of them, careful to not jostle anybody as I did. Most people thought twice before saying something when somebody Pete’s size passed their way.

I didn’t have the luxury. At just two inches under six feet, I was average at best.

It was cool outside, but not cold. It rarely ever went below fifty-five at night. I pegged the temperature to be somewhere a little above sixty.

Pete was twenty feet ahead of us on the sidewalk, heading to campus as if he was going to walk the whole way to the lab. It would take us twenty minutes to get that far and I didn’t think the blutom would last that long. Not to mention the possibility that there might be others about. Pete had never given me a straight answer about the number of monsters that had chased him out of the lab.

“I can drive,” I called out, waving for Pete to come back.

Out of habit, I moved to open the door for Madelyn until I realized what I was doing and walked around towards the trunk of my car. Once my backpack was inside, I slammed it shut and saw that Madelyn was watching me closely.

I could tell by the way she flashed that cursed impish grin of hers that I hadn’t fooled her in the slightest. Her smile was infuriating. I didn’t say anything as I got in the car and started the engine. When we were all inside, I took off, careful to keep from going too fast. I was anxious to get that blutom out of my car and back to the lab but we didn’t need to be pulled over for speeding. The last thing we needed was a cop interrogating us about the weird looking stuff in the box.

“How close is it to escaping?” I asked. “Or moving to a higher level?”

“We might make it,” Pete said.

I cleared my throat, knowing that Pete was likely going to stonewall me but also knowing that I was liable to beat him if he didn’t finally start to give us answers.

“You didn’t seem as surprised as you should have been to see that blutom was loose in Times Square. Care to tell us what’s going on?”

Through my rearview mirror, I saw Pete lick his lips. When he didn’t answer I continued to push.

“Why was the government spending all this time and money researching blutom? Is there a practical application for the stuff?”

Pete still didn’t answer and was looking more uncomfortable by the minute.

Madelyn looked back at Pete. “Is there a military application?”

She asked what I’d been thinking. I hadn’t wanted to come out and accuse Pete of it but even in the dark car and could see the look of guilt on his face.

It was all I needed.

“Sheesh, man!” I said. “What are you hoping to accomplish by militarizing the stuff? Has a terrorist gotten hold of the blutom or is this attack in Times Square the government using New York City as a Petri dish?”

“It’s not what you think. After rats are taken over by the blutom, they develop useful attributes. Increased strength, intelligence, ability to move faster, that sort of thing. We were trying to find a way to isolate what caused the increase so that we could use it to enhance human abilities.”

“What were you going to do?” I asked. “Reanimate the dead or ask for volunteers to commit suicide?

“Do you realized how insane this all sounds?” Madelyn spoke at the same time as me. “You were going to kill people to see if you could somehow harness the powers these monsters have when they come back from the dead.”

Pete gritted his teeth. “We were hoping to find a way to isolate what the blutom was doing without killing the host. The trials were in their infancy. This wasn’t something we were hoping to accomplish in a year or even in five years.”

“This is all interesting,” I said, a pit forming in my stomach as I thought about New York. The monsters that I’d seen so far hadn’t demonstrated any increased intelligence, it had been just the opposite. “We’ll have to save all this for later. We need to know what we’re facing tonight. How does their intelligence increase, Slammer? What happens to the rats that have time to let the blutom settle in?”

“They have the ability to think at a human level.”

“They become self-aware?” I gripped the steering wheel. “Things aren’t adding up, what aren’t you telling us? Other than a relentless ability to stop coming, those monsters are as dumb as a doorknob.”

“That’s a temporary condition, eventually, they come out of their cocoon.”

“I can’t believe I’m asking this,” Madelyn said. “But were you able to establish communication with these rats? It is possible this is an alien life form and the blutom is their method of reproducing?”

“None of the rats survived long enough to even begin to form a dialogue.”

“Killed them before you got that far, eh?”

“No. Please keep in mind, that it wasn’t the rats that became self-aware, it was the blutom itself. At a certain point, all of the rats we shifted were abandoned, the blutom left the host body, leaving behind a shriveled shell.”

“The blutom knew it would be limited with the body of a rat and went off looking for a better host.” Madelyn’s voice was low. “They risked death to avoid sticking with an inferior body.”

“We don’t know for sure, but that was a working theory.”

“I may be going out on a limb here, but I’m assuming—or at least want to believe—that you had nothing to do with that attack we just saw on the television.”

I stopped as I looked in my rearview mirror, but I was unable to make out Pete’s expression.

“Thanks for the benefit of a doubt, Buckshot.” Pete’s words were clipped, the way he always was when he wanted to be sarcastic. “If you would have given me time to explain, instead of playing twenty questions and jumping to conclusions that are in no way supported by any evidence that you might have or suppose, I would have told you that some of the blutom was stolen from the lab eight months ago.”

I rubbed my head as Madelyn groaned.

“I believe that it was the thief,” Pete said, “not the people I work for that set the blutom loose in New York City.”

“You could have just come out and said that in the first place,” I said.

“Really? Look, I know that this isn’t going to mean much to the two of you, but I gave my word. And now I’ve let you two bully me into committing treason. Forgive me if I try to lessen the damage.”

“You yellow-bellied coward!” Madelyn was red in the face. “That’s a bunch of bull and you know it. When people are dying, there is such a thing as extenuating circumstances. Just imagine how things might have played out differently had you been forthcoming about the blutom, its properties, and the fact that any heat short of flame acts as a catalyst? How long until we have a mob of rats and other vermin coming up from the sewer grates looking for better hosts? Are you going to take comfort in the fact that it happened because you were trying to keep us in the dark? If you weren’t so obtuse we wouldn’t have just created a worse problem—”

A man ran out into the street in front of me and I swerved to miss him. I didn’t see the other man until it was too late.

I slammed on my breaks just as the car collided with him.

Chapter 9

The man went flying, screaming as he went. My gut wrenched as I grasped the steering wheel and slammed on the brakes, the car swerving to the right. He landed and went skidding out of the headlights and into the dark.

A hundred different thoughts ran through my mind as I tried to process what had just happened. I growled and clenched my teeth, afraid I’d just killed whoever it was that I had hit. How ironic would that be? After all the shooting I’d done tonight, not killing an actual living person until I ran into somebody with a car?

I looked to the side, expecting to see that the other man had stopped, but he was gone. Prying my hands off the steering wheel, I killed the engine, my key feeling like the bite of a viper. I didn’t touch the key any longer than I needed to get the job done.

Even considering all the mayhem and carnage that I’d seen back at our dorm, it wasn’t surprising to me to have this reaction. As much as I love my guns and shooting, the thought of actually killing another human being has always been repugnant to me.

When I’d been a teenager we’d had somebody break into our home. My parents had been out for the night and I’d been playing a video game. I’d thought that the breaking glass had been part of the game at first until I heard the intruder bump into a chair at a quiet moment. At that point I’d quietly gone into my father’s room, pulled out his shotgun, and sat on the bed, waiting to see if the burglar was going to head my way.

He’d entered the room and frozen when I’d pumped a shell into the chamber. To this day, his look of fear as his face had paled still causes me to come awake in a panic. In my dreams, I always end up pulling the trigger. After the haze of the dream passes I am always relieved when I remember that I hadn’t actually killed the man. I had no way of knowing what it was that had made him get to that point in his life. He’d been a little older than me but he’d reminded me of me. He was about my height and had blond hair as well. If our circumstances in life had been reversed, might it not have been me in his shoes?

I hadn’t said a word, there’d been no need. The sound of my dad’s shotgun loading was all the argument I needed. We both stood there frozen. I could plainly see that he was shaking as bad as me. After several minutes passed without me doing anything more, he licked his lips and opened his mouth as if he was about to speak. His mouth moved but no sound came out. I’d been planning to call the cops but I found now that I didn’t want to.

“Go,” I said. “Just get your life together and don’t try to pull this kind of crap again.” There’d been a brief hesitation, relief poured through his face before he’d turned to run. I had been expecting my father would be upset I’d let the thief get away. He had only been relieved that I was all right. When I asked him if I’d done the right thing, his answer had surprised me. “There’s no shame in mercy.” He’d put his hand on his shoulder and repeated the sentiment. “There is never any shame in mercy.”

I’d often thought about that day, glad that I hadn’t even touched the trigger. I didn’t want something like that on my conscience. I would never have been able to live with myself.

It was one thing to kill a monster that had once been a human, it was quite another somebody that was still alive. As my eyes followed the victim I figured that there wasn’t much chance that the man had survived without serious injury. He might even be dead.

My mouth went dry at the thought and my hand shook as I reached for the handle of the car door. Pete grabbed my shoulder from behind.

“Don’t go out. Wait.” Perhaps all the violence of the last hour had desensitized him because his voice didn’t carry the slightest bit of concern for the victim.

“We have to see if he’s still alive,” I said, my voice barely above a whisper. It was as if all those night terrors I’d had as a kid had found me all at once, combining into one single terrible storm. Only this time I wasn’t in a dream that I could just wake up from and find that everything was okay.

“Why didn’t the other guy stop?” Madelyn asked, her voice also devoid of emotion for the well-being of the man. I growled. Was nobody but me concerned for the man?

“Because the one I hit was chasing him,” I said.

Madelyn gave me this look that said I was missing something obvious. I didn’t see what she meant. Sweat poured down my forehead. This time, there was no waking up. My brain tried to figure out what it was that Madelyn was trying to get at but it had stopped working as well as it normally did. It was as though I was trying to swim through quick drying concrete, I could feel the gears in my mind grinding to a halt.

Pete’s hand tightened on my shoulder. “Think it through. You’re in shock.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Madelyn said, looking like she had to keep from smacking me. “It could be one of the blutom monsters.”

I blinked, as the thought took its time to sink in. Now that she had finally said what they’d both been thinking, I came out of the daze I’d been in and my mind started to function a little better but not yet at full capacity.

What if they were right? If this was true my worst fears hadn’t been realized.

A bunch of other possibilities came to mind as we waited, watching as the figure crawled back into my headlights. His face was covered in shadow so I was unable to see if it was covered in red mucus, but he was clearly in a bad way. My hands clenched the steering wheel as he struggled to get to his feet. Was his leg broken? I was unable to tell. His face was still down, so I had no idea if he was a monster or not, but as he stumbled and almost toppled over, I couldn’t take it any longer.

I opened the door and had one foot on the ground when Madelyn cried out.

“It’s one of them!”

By that time I was already out of the car.

As I twisted to see the broken man, another figure lunged from the dark, smashing me between the door and the car.

The once human face was ripped to shreds. I couldn’t tell if it was red mucus, purple blutom on the verge of turning black, or just blood that covered his nose. All I knew is that his teeth were chomping at me.

The snapping incisors had the effect that Pete and Madelyn had not. It was as if all of the concrete I’d been trying to slog my way through the moment before had disappeared and I had a fire burning my rear.

I kicked the car door out, bashing the creature in the head with my elbow as I un-holstered my Sig Sauer and rammed back the slide. It had been a foolish mistake to not have a round ready to go. Luckily, even in the heat of the moment, I had remembered that I did not have a bullet chambered and had not wasted time trying to shoot when there was nothing to fire. I was glad my mind was working again. It’s a wonder what gnashing teeth inches away from your nose will do. Way better than forty-four ounces of Mountain Dew.

The creature jumped up off the ground just as I leveled the pistol on its chest and pulled the trigger. The force of the bullet sent it skidding back to the asphalt and I could see gore go out the other side and land in street. The bullet was not enough to keep it from coming.

“Morty! In front of you!” Madelyn’s voice came the same time as a thump on the hood of the car. I spun around, lining up a shot and firing at the same time. The creature I’d hit with the car leaped forward, almost as if trying to counterbalance the force of my .40 caliber bullet. It managed to maintain its balance and not skid off the roof, doing all this despite the apparent broken leg it had suffered during the accident. Blutom and flesh went all over the hood.

A couple more shots sent the monster off the edge of the car. By that time the one to the side was coming again, but I was already in my seat, slamming the door shut while pushing down the clutch and turning the key.

The engine roared to life. I thrust my car into first gear and barreled into the monster in front of us. It had been back on its feet, trying to get its broken leg up onto the car by using the car hood to stabilize itself. The action reminded me of a toddler learning to climb for the first time. As I moved forward it either leaped onto the hood of the car or was forced up there by my actions, I couldn’t tell which.

Red mucus covered its twisted face as it howled out. Blutom dripped down onto the windshield as it beat down with its bare hands. The windshield cracked as I hit the gas and then right away hit the brakes, sending the creature flying off onto the road.

I was putting the car in reverse when my side window broke, safety glass flying into my face. A hand reached for my neck, brushing it with broken fingernails as I pushed down the gas pedal and accelerated in reverse.

The monster howled out and I smiled in satisfaction as it was slammed against the broken window of my car before having its arm ripped out the window.

My success was short lived. We were brought to a sharp halt as I rear-ended a parked van. Sparing a glance for the damage I’d done, I thrust the transmission back into first and the car lurched forward. Both of the monsters were on their feet again, one limped towards us while the other ran. I flipped the car around and drove off in the other direction.

Once we had escaped, I let out a breath that I hadn’t been aware I was holding.

“Are they still chasing after us?” I asked.

Madelyn looked back, her face pale. It was Pete that answered.

“No, they’re gone.”

“Still, think this thing can be contained?” I asked.

Pete didn’t answer, but he shook his head, the frustration evident on his face.

“Do you agree that we are well past the point of recovering this situation?” I asked.

Madelyn turned when Pete didn’t respond. “What else aren’t you telling us?”

“You’re furious,” Pete said, his voice a forced calm. “I get that, but there isn’t much I haven’t told you.”

I gripped the steering wheel. It was a lie, we all knew it. “Tell us more about the theft.”

He shrugged. “Some of it just disappeared.”

“How do you know that it was stolen and that it didn’t escape?” Madelyn asked. “Maybe some got loose and it shifted into a lab worker.”

“Impossible. We have safety protocols in place to keep that from happening. Everybody is scanned on a regular basis. It’s just not gonna happen. We know it was a theft, and that it was an inside job because the security footage was destroyed on the night in question.”

“For just the room with the blutom or—?”

Pete cut me off. “No, it was the entire building. The whole night was gone as if it had never happened. I know what you’re thinking and you’re wrong. We would have noticed somebody being out for the amount of time it would take somebody to shift. The rats took a minimum of three days before they were no longer covered with the blood film. A person would probably take more.”

“Blood film?” Madelyn asked.

“You’ve both seen it, the monsters we fought back at the dorm were covered in it.”

“Ah,” I said, “you mean the red mucus that was on their face.”

“Yes, only it covers their whole body. The blutom pushes out residue as it replaces the blood. The blood film is usually gone after three days, a week tops.”

“Was there anybody who was sick right after—”

“Look, Buckshot, I work in a lab where the majority of people have graduate degrees and a higher IQ than you. Most want to be called doctor. All the questions you’re asking now are the issues we investigated right after the blutom went missing. We were thorough. Not only did nobody call in sick the day after, for the rest of the month there weren’t any unplanned absences. The planned absences had been scheduled months in advance and each one of those were confirmed to be as they were represented. We didn’t have any employees hiding out for a week so they could fully shift. It just didn’t happen.”

“So, if that is true,” Madelyn said, “the only logical conclusion is that somebody stole it.”

“Correct.”

“The question is whether that’s true,” she said.

Pete growled.

I shifted in my seat, not wanting to question Pete any further on the issue, but also not wanting to rule it out as a possibility either. In my experience, the smartest people had significant gaps in understanding and practical experience.

They might have investigated all of the regular employees, but a facility that size was bound to have other personnel that might have been overlooked. Janitors and contractor technicians came to mind, but as we’d only just got Pete talking again, I didn’t want to risk insulting his intelligence any more than I already had.

He was talking again, after all.

I made eye contact with Madelyn and gave her a slight shake of my head. Her frown said she disagreed with me, but she backed off him as well.

I could envision half a dozen other possibilities to explain away why they hadn’t detected somebody shifting. I focused on the most obvious one. It was likely that this wasn’t the first instance of blutom going rogue. What if somebody had shifted a long time ago and was covering up for others as they shifted? My guess was that Pete had very limited firsthand knowledge about the investigation and he was relying on information he’d learned from others.

Pete hadn’t said as much, but I also figured it didn’t really matter how much blutom got into someone’s bloodstream through an open wound. Any amount would start the shifting process. Because the blutom fed on the blood and replicated using the materials gathered from the bloodstream, all it took was a pin sized amount to get the process going.

I was tempted to continue to press Pete but decided against doing so because I wasn’t sure what difference it would have made anyway. Stolen or not, it was undeniable that the blutom had gotten loose. Deciding what to do about it was what we needed to deal with now.

I checked our rearview mirror, a part of me irrationally expecting that the monsters would have been able to keep up with our car. Pete had mentioned greater strength, but it hadn’t sounded like he meant superhuman strength.

The street behind us was clear, but I didn’t loosen my grip on the steering wheel or lessen my vigilance at keeping an eye on things outside the car.

I cleared my throat. “I suppose then that our working theory ought to be that whoever is behind the attack in New York set the blutom loose here as well. Were you able to change the blutom so it could be spread through the air? Are the blood vessels in the nose exposed enough that they could shift that way?”

“I don’t know,” Pete said. “A lot of things might be possible. Rats didn’t seem susceptible to shifting via airborne blutom. Yes, we did try aerosolizing it. And no, we weren’t trying to build a weapon, we were just experimenting with its properties.”

“How about monkeys?” Madelyn asked. “Pigs, dogs, any other animals?”

“Just rats, rabbits, and mice so far. Primates weren’t on the schedule for at least another six months.”

When I turned a corner I was surprised to see that several blocks down a fire had engulfed a home. There were fire engines out front but the firemen were nowhere to be seen. In fact, there wasn’t anybody in sight. The flames cast the street in shadow and made everything seem as if it were moving.

A chill ran down my back. Could this night get any worse?

Chapter 10

I slowed to a stop, hesitant to go any further down the street. Other than the missing people, there was something else about the scene that was disconcerting but I wasn’t immediately able to put my finger on it. The moon came out from behind a cloud and bathed the scene in eery light. I shivered as the wind whistled past the shattered remains of my driver’s side window, goose bumps forming on my arms.

“Why you slowing down?” Pete asked. “The street isn’t blocked. You can get past.”

“Something’s not right here,” I said, bringing the car to a complete stop.

“Obviously,” Madelyn said. “There’s a fire.”

“That’s not what he means,” Pete said, comprehension dawning on him. “Where are all the people? There should be firefighters everywhere.”

It felt like a trap.

“It’s not just that,” I said more to myself than to anybody else. I couldn’t place what it was. Perhaps it was the fact that the whole scene was so strange and my mind was working overtime, filling me with extra paranoia for something that didn’t exist.

Flipping the car around, I returned the way we had come and took another side street to go around the fire. I didn’t realize what it was that had been bothering me about the scene until we had put the fire well behind us.

“Did anybody else think it strange that there weren’t any police cars? With a fire that big, the police should have been out in force to make sure that things were under control.”

Pete picked up immediately on what I was thinking. “The police couldn’t respond because they had something else to do.”

“What have you got us into, Slammer?” I asked, flipping on my radio and trying to find a local channel. I’d thought it was mere chance that we’d run into a couple more blutom monsters. Pete had probably been chased out of the lab by more than actually ended up following him back the full way.

I had assumed that Pete hadn’t told us that there had been more. This was why I hadn’t asked him any questions about the blutom monster I’d hit with the car and his companion that had tried to rip out my throat with his bare hand.

“How many more monsters were back at the lab?” I asked quietly. “A dozen? Two dozen?”

“How should I know?” Pete asked. “I only saw the ones that were chasing me. There might have been more than the three, I don’t really know because I was too busy running for my life.”

His words felt like a lie, again.

I was beginning to wonder if something more was going on. I had assumed that the epicenter was Pete’s place of work and that the attack in Times Square was related, but what if I was wrong?

Was the attack happening on a much grander scale?

Madelyn peered out her window. “It’s comforting that the radio stations all seem to be still be working. If there had been a major attack, some of them would have gone offline by now, right?”

I didn’t answer as I stopped on a station with talk, only to find that they were reporting on the attack in Times Square. It didn’t sound like there was anything that we didn’t already know, so I continued past after a few seconds. Once I got to the end of the FM stations, I flipped over to the AM and went all the way through those as well and came up with nothing.

If there was something of significance going on in town, none of the local stations had picked up on it yet.

“It’s late, Buckshot,” Pete said when I expressed my thoughts aloud. “Most of the stations probably have the recording done ahead of time and have left a computer in control of the broadcast.”

It was probably a safe assumption, but I wondered if that was how radio stations really worked. I didn’t know enough about it to challenge Pete’s assertion.

“Madelyn,” I asked, “could you check WSL?” It was one of our local news stations. Everybody in town relied on their website to keep up to date with what was going on in town.

“What do you think I’m doing?”

I looked over and realized that she had her phone out. She held it close to her face as she navigated. I’d forgotten about her habit of doing that. When we were dating I’d always teased her about it, saying that she needed glasses. She always insisted she did not.

“Nothing,” she said. “The major attack in Times Square hasn’t even been mentioned.” She bit her lower lip and chewed on it. “I’d have thought that they’d have at least a person, if not a team, monitoring the nightly news, but Wilks is a small town.

I cornered and sped up, only to find that there was a group of people in the middle of the street headed in the same direction that we were going. Tingles ran down my spine as it reminded me of something out of a horror movie.

The people were not moving normally. It wasn’t the slow plodding shuffle of zombies, they were actually moving along at a healthy speed, but I was reminded again of toddlers. This time, the toddlers were learning to use their legs for the first time. All the other blutom monsters I’d encountered had been so focused on attacking us I hadn’t the time to notice any nuances in the way that they moved.

Madelyn muttered a swear word. At any other time, it might have made me smile because she’d always gotten on my case about my language, but the group held our attention.

“Think, Slammer!” I said. “Are you sure you didn’t see any other monsters back at the lab?”

Perhaps seeing the marching monsters would give him the comfort he needed to start spilling his guts.

“Far fewer than we can account for here,” he said at length, his voice disturbed by the number that he was seeing.

One of them looked our way. The blood film was evident on its face, even from where we were a block or so back. If there had been any doubt remaining in any of our minds, that removed it. Baring its teeth, it howled out, the sound quite audible through the broken window of the driver side door.

I looked over my shoulder, intending to back up, but saw a group of people stepping onto the street behind us. I didn’t need to see their faces to know that they would be covered with the blood film as well. They all had the same gait as the others.

Where had they all come from? Light from the moon flashed off something on one of their chests. Had that been a policeman’s badge? Despite the tension of the situation, the conspicuous absence of the cops made me do a double take. The more I looked the more certain I became. This monster had formerly been a cop.

Had the police responded to an inciting incident and then been shifted as soon as they’d shown up?

“Are you going to do something?” Madelyn asked. Her voice was quiet but laden with enough angst that I looked over at her. A street light lit her face, showing a mix of resignation and fear.

The monsters behind us sprinted forward.

There are times when it’s important to take a second to plan out what you’re going to do next. I’d always been a believer in having a plan to handle difficult situations. Sometimes, though, you just have to move on instinct.

I hit that gas, the wheels of my old Honda squealing in protest as we lurched forward. “Everybody hold on.”

“What are you doing, Buckshot? Just turn around.”

The question barely registered with me because the others in the group in front of us had turned to look our way now, the cursed blood film covering all of their faces. I could see several shorter figures in the crowd and assumed that they were children who had shifted. My anxiety to get out of the situation unscathed overcame my horror of seeing young ones taken by the horrible blutom.

They all looked on as I approached I wondered if they wouldn’t even react as we sped by. At the last second, they ran towards us too.

One of the faster ones ran directly in front of our car and I had to swerve onto the sidewalk to avoid it. My headlights shined briefly onto the face of the monster. It might have been a teenage child or short person before shifting. All of its hair was missing and it roared at us, distorting its face and making it impossible to tell what it had been previously.

I continued to dodge the monster on instinct, fearing it had once been an adolescent, but managing to slam into several others. One rolled up onto the roof and down the back of the car. The other grasped onto the hood.

It had previously been a middle aged man that had probably been bald before shifting because the top of his head was covered with sunspots. He looked up and roared, saliva dripping onto my windshield.

Pete had claimed a person was unlikely to shift through saliva, but I couldn’t help but remember how he’d insisted we not touch the blutom after saying it was safe enough to touch.

Some of the spit landed on a small ball of blutom that had been making its way up the windshield from the last blutom monster we’d had straddled on the hood of my car. Time seemed to slow as I focused on the hood of my car.

The stuff was everywhere. I truly hoped that Pete was right about it dying off if it didn’t get into a host in time because we’d be leaving a trail of the stuff behind us.

I tore the car back onto the street and put the gas pedal to the floor, worried more about escaping from the mob than the monster on the car. It continued to howl at us but it wasn’t able to do anything more than hang on. For the moment, I could tolerate that.

The mob dwindled behind us.

“Everybody ready?” I asked. “I’m about to slam on the brakes.”

Madelyn grabbed the handle above the door and braced her other arm on the dash. I heard a clicking sound as Pete fastened his belt buckle. He also put an arm on to the back of my seat to brace himself.

I hit the brakes and the monster continued on, hitting the asphalt with a sickening crunch that we could hear from inside the car. Wincing with sympathy, I reminded myself that he was no longer a man and punched the gas again, swerving so that I wouldn’t run over the monster as we sped on by.

Pete swore. “What possessed you to do that, why didn’t you just turn the car around?”

“You didn’t see all the ones behind us?” I asked, flipping on the windshield wipers and spraying fluid to clean off the saliva and blutom balls. It took multiple attempts, before everything was clean. A single ball stuck to the top of one of the wipers so I increased the speed of the wipers until it was flung off.

There were several other balls of blutom on the hood of the car, but they were staying in place for now.

Both Pete and Madelyn checked our rear when I’d mentioned the other group. I didn’t. I knew what I’d seen and didn’t feel like it was necessary to look any further. When neither of them said anything more, I assumed that they’d both seen the second group or just didn’t want to push the point.

We drove in silence for several minutes. Each of us lost in our own thoughts. Was this happening all across the United States tonight? The problem was clearly bigger than any of us had previously thought an hour ago.

“Does your lab have a containment plan for an outbreak at the national level?” I asked. We had gone half a dozen blocks without seeing any other sign of a monster so I finally slowed down. I was beginning to hope that we’d left them all behind and that we would be able to make it to the lab without another incident.

“I don’t know. I doubt they ever saw the need, even after the theft. All of our experiments showed that after a rat had fully shifted it took a few weeks before it had enough blutom in its system that it would start to look outside the host for another expansion point. We never expected it to move as fast as it is.”

“Well,” Madelyn said, “there is clearly something wrong with your data if our little town could be overrun over the course of one night.”

“So it would seem.”

I spotted a gas station ahead and slowed down.

“We’re almost there,” Pete said. “Surely you have enough gas to make it the rest of the way.”

“How’s our buddy doing back there?” I asked. “Has he reached level ten yet?”

I could tell by the silence that all the commotion had caused Pete to forget about our deadly passenger.

“It’s still there,” Pete said after he’d pulled up the plastic container and waited for a passing street light to illuminate it. The relief in his voice mirrored my own. I didn’t like the thought of the stuff getting loose in my car. What were the odds that at least one of us had a wound small enough to escape our attention but large enough for some blutom to use as it shifted into us?

“Think it can wait for the lab,” I asked, “or should we pour some gas in the container and light it up now?”

“Man, Buckshot,” Pete said. “You’re certifiable, you know that? Would you settle down?” He shook his head. “You’re too eager.”

“What else do you want me to be?” I looked him in the eye and he looked away uncomfortably. “That thing could escape and kill any one of us.”

“Can we at least drive away from the gas station before we light the fire?”

“What are you so worried about? Somebody will see us? The only people we’ve seen have been shifted into monsters. With all them about, it would be better if we minimized the risk by staying under the well-lit station and just got it done.”

“What are people going to think if we just pull up, spray some gas on a plastic box and then light it on fire?”

“The only people we’ve seen are blutom monsters,” I said, “odds are good they won’t be thinking at all.”

“The town is still here,” Pete said. “We’ll get past this, you fools. We shouldn’t call attention to ourselves.”

I was getting tired of his insults but I bit my tongue because Madelyn was glaring at me, apparently thinking that I was antagonizing Pete. Perhaps they were both still a little shaken up from the close call we had with the mob. I would have thought that given the horde of shifted people, they would have been amenable to taking a few more risks. It was time to talk about something else while I gave them both time to gather their wits.

“It’s safe to assume that the lab has been overrun as well,” I said. “At the very least, we need to be prepared to fight off more of these. Unless you know something different,” I refrained from accusing Pete of withholding on us again, “the only success we’ve had at putting down these monsters has been to apply flames in a very liberal fashion. I’m fresh out of stuff to burn. We could also pick up some containers of gas if we stopped.”

Pete rubbed his forehead. “I’m not sure that’s the wisest plan. Every minute we waste is another that makes it that much more difficult for us to get ahead of this thing. We should go directly to the lab so I can make a few calls.”

“We don’t know enough about what’s going on at the lab to not have some sort of backup plan,” I said. “My vote would be to get gas and then go. Mad?”

“Morty’s right, Pete. There’s only so much damage that we’re going to be able to do with a shotgun and a pistol. Given what we’ve seen on the streets tonight it makes the most sense to load up on gas.”

Pete growled. “Let’s be quick about it. But don’t try to light the blutom on fire. We don’t have time for that.”

Chapter 11

THE AIR SMELLED of gasoline as I got out of the car. The night was silent, or at least it seemed to be at first. The longer I stood listening, the more convinced I became that I could hear screams somewhere out in the darkness. I wondered if it wasn’t just my mind playing tricks on me.

“We’ll be okay until the lab.” Pete handed me the plastic box with the blutom. “Here, see for yourself.”

The blutom quivered as the box changed hands. The top of it vibrated, reminding me of a dog sniffing the air. It was still solid black. I studied it, letting several seconds pass, wondering if it would start to glow as I did.

“What level is it?”

Pete bit his lip and looked as though he didn’t want to respond. “Eight, but that’s not as bad as it sounds. There will be a lot of time between nine and ten. It’s at level seven when it’s purple.” When he saw my surprised look that it was already so advanced, he elaborated further. “Most of the levels describe different states while it is in a host. The moment it leaves, it’s usually a level seven.”

I fixed him with a dubious frown and took a deep breath. He had made it sound earlier as if the blutom was at a low level and that we had plenty of time before it became the great glowing ball of goo that we’d fought back in the women’s bathroom of my dorm.

“Ok,” I said. “We’ll wait until the lab. In the meantime, if it starts to glow—”

“I’ll pour the gas and light it myself.” Pete took the box back and shut it up in the back of the car.

“You two going to just stand and gossip all night or are we going to get moving?” The wind tussled her hair, blowing it back from her shoulders. Her skin glowed under the lights of the gas station from the sheen of sweat and she favored me with her half smile that showed a few teeth. As I took her in I couldn’t help but feel hope that maybe we’d be able to repair our broken relationship. She must have picked up on the fact that her tactics were working on me again because she flipped her head, causing her hair to flick out.

After raising an eyebrow and looking between the two of us, Pete headed for the door. After a look in my direction, Madelyn followed him.

I shook my head and sighed. She was a difficult woman in the best of times, and we were going through the worst. What was I thinking, hoping that we might get back together?

Maybe I really was beginning to lose it.

After they’d both gone in, I followed after them, partially zipping up my jacket as I went so that I could keep my pistol concealed.

I felt naked and exposed without my shotgun, but I could hardly take it with me into the gas station without causing alarm. I straightened my collar and hoped we wouldn’t have to deal with any of the creatures while we stopped for gas. My pistol was better than nothing and had some stopping power, but I would feel better once we were back in the car.

The gas station was empty save for the clerk behind the counter. He was a freckled kid with red hair that didn’t look old enough to be out alone at this time of night, let alone manning a gas station. I walked along the aisles, hoping to find a row of camping supplies, but wasn’t surprised when the only things I found were snacks, pop, and beer. I wasn’t going to be able to buy any more cans of kerosene here.

I went into a section that had containers for gasoline. It was better than I could have hoped for because they had more for sale than we’d be able to carry in the car. I bent over and started pulling them out when I heard the slide of a shotgun send a shell into the chamber. I turned towards the noise to find that the freckled kid had a gun pointed my direction.

“Were you hoping I’d be distracted by the pretty lady? Shows what you know.” Madelyn was in front of the counter and the kid waved her back. “I’m not letting you take anything, you hear?”

I held out my hands and slowly moved them up. I didn’t like the way he held his finger on the trigger. It looked as though it was already partially depressed. If he were to slip, I would have a wound in my chest the size of a bowling ball.

“We can pay for what we need,” I said. “Just put the gun down.”

The kid sneered, his freckled mouth showing crooked teeth. “If you can pay, why’d you come in here with a gun?” He motioned at the bulge in my jacket. “The three of you look as nervous as a stripper in church. I’ve been doing this long enough to know when something’s up. There’s something about you three that’s wrong, just plain wrong.”

I motioned to a television behind him on the counter. “You get the news on that thing?”

“Take out your gun and toss it over here,” he said, motioning to the aisle in front of him.

“There’re things going on tonight that you don’t understand,” I said. “If you don’t believe me, turn on the news.”

He shook his head. “Just so one of you can whack me on the back of the head when I turn away? Forget it.”

“We’ll just leave,” I said. “Okay?”

“No, it’s not okay. You’re going to wait here for the police to arrive.”

“Go ahead, give them a call. I’d be surprised if you can get one to respond.” I thought about mentioning the fact that he’d pulled a gun on us, and not the other way around, but I decided against doing so. If everything was as we suspected the police had far more important things to deal with tonight.

“Shows you. They’re already on their way here.”

“We don’t have time for this.” Pete took a step forward from where he stood near the entrance of the store and the kid whipped his gun around. I was impressed at how steady he held the shotgun, despite the pressure of the situation. That was no small feat. The kid either didn’t get riled up much or he had a lot of experience with guns in stressful situations.

“Stay where you are,” he said. “Put your hands where I can see them.” He nodded his head toward Madelyn. “That goes for you too. I’m not one of those chivalrous types that believe women can’t do no harm. Try anything and I won’t hesitate to send a slug right through you, got it?”

Madelyn gave him one of her I looks that had more than a hint of seduction wrapped into it. I’d seen it many times before but it took the kid by surprise and he lowered his shotgun an inch before yanking it back up. I was beginning to get worried that he was going to shoot one of us by accident. He hadn’t taken his finger off the trigger once and it looked as though he was now increasing pressure on it again as he fought his embarrassment for having stared at her smile.

“Look, kid,” I said, “I’m just a gun nut. I have a concealed weapon permit. I can show you my card. Let us go. No harm, no foul.”

“Let’s see it then.”

I lowered my hand to reach for my wallet.

“What are you doing?” The clerk screamed, all pretense of calm now gone as he swung the gun back at me. It took every last ounce of self-control I had to keep my head up. His finger was too cozy with the trigger. I had to be within a hairsbreadth of having my head blown off. “Get your hands up!”

“How do you expect me to get my permit?” I asked, straining to keep my voice calm.

“You moved without asking permission.”

I snorted. “Didn’t you ask to see it?” Madelyn threw me a glare but I ignored it. “Look you snively freckle-nosed little nerd. I’ll slowly pull out my pistol and set it on the ground. After that, I’ll kick it away. Then I will get out my wallet and show you the permit. Okay?”

The clerk shook his head. “What kind of fool do you take me for? You pull that pistol out, next thing I know I’ll be on my back bleeding to death.”

“I’m running out of patience,” I said. “Come take my wallet yourself then.”

The clerk shook his head as Pete stepped forward, his mouth open. Whatever he was going to say, his words were lost in shattering glass. I thought I saw flashing lights outside and I was filled with hope that it might be a cop. I never thought I’d be so glad to see one.

I spun around in time to see several monsters enter the store through the broken glass of the front door. There wasn’t a cop car in sight, it must have just been my imagination.

“Move, Slammer!” I called.

The clerk fired, completely missing the monsters and almost taking Pete out in the process. Luckily, Pete had been diving for the floor just as I’d shouted and had barely missed the blast from the shotgun. The slug shattered the window and disappeared into the night. Based on the angle I hoped that it had missed my car, but I wouldn’t know until we got back out to it.

“Aim for a leg!” I called out to the clerk. “Even a direct headshot isn’t going to stop them from coming.” Pete was on his feet and plowed into the monster that I had in my sights. I whipped my gun up as I took my finger off the trigger. That had been close, half a second later and Pete would have been lying on the floor, with a large chunk of his back covering the wall behind him.

Another resounding boom filled the confines of the small convenience store and the head of one of the monsters disappeared. From my peripheral vision, I saw the clerk smile just before the monster hopped up onto the counter and circled its hands around his neck, not bothered in the slightest by its missing head. The monster must have already had a hold of the counter because it hadn’t toppled over when its head had been blown off.

The idiot clerk was going to get himself killed.

Or worse, turned into a monster himself.

As I covered the distance between me and the kid, Madelyn picked up the shotgun the clerk had dropped. She racked in another shell, put it up to her shoulder, and fired at a monster that had been approaching her. The monster’s foot was blown off and it stumbled, latching onto a shelf of hostess treats to steady itself. After a pause, it toppled to the floor pulling the treats after it.

I holstered my pistol before grabbing a monster who was strangling the clerk. Tearing its hand free from the boy’s neck, I yanked it from the counter and threw it into a rack of chips.

“Get down.” I took out my pistol, aimed for the monster’s thigh, and pulled the trigger. When I looked back at the kid, I saw that blutom was already forming in balls and heading toward the boy. I nodded at it. “Don’t let any of that stuff touch you. It will turn you into one of them.” Not exactly the truth, but I didn’t have time to walk him through all the nuances. “Are the police really on their way?”

The look on his face was enough to know that it had been a lie. I fired another shot into the same place as I’d fired the first. I didn’t severe the monster’s leg, but I doubted that it would be able to use it to walk for a bit. “What are you waiting for? Call it in.”

Madelyn’s monster was hobbling towards her but she hadn’t taken a shot because I was in her line of fire. In all the excitement I hadn’t recognized that she’d been trying to get my attention.

I moved and she fired, blowing a hole in the chest of the monster that came out the back. The blutom and flesh covered a rack of candy bars.

Pete had just thrown his monster out the shattered glass door when I got an idea. I grabbed the one I’d been shooting by the leg and hauled him towards the door, pausing only to fire a few rounds into its chest to send it back to the floor. Flesh, bone, and blutom blew out the back as I did.

Chapter 12

GLASS FROM THE broken door tore on my coat and scratched the top of my head as I stepped through. I hesitated before holstering my pistol so that I could have both hands to pull the monster through the door. It hissed at me but didn’t try to sit up, as if I’d done it enough damage to keep it from being able to do so. I was surprised to see that the teeth on this one were pointed, but didn’t dwell on the fact. Hadn’t Pete compared them to vampires? Were the teeth of the monster changing or had it been somebody who had had cosmetic work done to produce that effect? I’d heard of such things, but I’d never seen it firsthand.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered that Pete had specifically said that it didn’t have anything to do with their teeth. So it must have been either cosmetic or genetic.

It sprung forward and I kicked it back, the chest of the creature making a sickening crunching sound when my foot made contact. I didn’t know if I had just broken a bunch of ribs or if I was just furthering the damage that I’d already caused when I’d shot it full of holes earlier.

I didn’t want to know.

Grabbing the foot it still had control over, I yanked it through the broken door—it’s head bouncing on the jagged glass as I did—and pulled it towards the closest gas pump. Pete’s fight wasn’t going as well. The monster, though a foot shorter than he, tackled him to the ground. In Pete’s defense, the monster had been a thick man.

“Slammer, drag it over to me.” Not waiting to see if he heard me, I continued on my way. I stopped ten feet from the pump and put another couple rounds into the monster’s other hip and one into each of the shoulders. Hoping that it would hold it long enough, I turned my attention to the gas pump and grabbed the handle of the nozzle. I spun, intending to spray a stream onto the creature but realized that I’d forgotten to slide a credit card through the payment slot first.

Cursing, I fired another shot into the monster when it moved forward. Even though I’d done a substantial amount of damage to most of its joints, it looked like it had one arm that was still functional. My bullet took it in the chest but that didn’t stop it from coming at me.

I ran forward and kicked it back, blutom and flesh flying everywhere as I did. Some of the blutom stuck to my foot. Ripping out my wallet, I grabbed a credit card and slid it into the pump. I picked up the nozzle and pressed the trigger. Nothing happened.

Looking back at the pump, I realized that I’d forgotten to select a grade, I punched one, muttering a string of expletives so bad that my mother might have fainted if she’d been around to hear them. It was bad enough that even my dad might have thought to give me a warning look.

The monster was coming my way again, but I still hadn’t seen a message to began fueling. It now told me that I’d won a free car wash and gave me the option to upgrade. I punched no, swearing up a storm again. The readout asked if I wanted a receipt.

I punched no, again.

When it finally said to begin fueling, the monster grabbed my ankle. I kicked down hard with my other foot, but it retained its hold. I took a step out and dragged it away from the pump, trying to shake it loose as I did. It hissed, but as it was now on its stomach, its wasn’t in much of a position to do—

It lunged forward, snapping at my leg. I clocked it in the head with the nozzle and tore my pistol out of its holster. Not bothering to aim because it was so close, I fired a shot into its head and then another into its arm.

Now that I was finally free of its grasp, I picked up the nozzle and sprayed the sucker down with gas, careful to soak it as thoroughly as possible. Once I lit it on fire, there would be no adding fuel to the flame, at least not by spraying gasoline from the nozzle. I’d learned that one the hard way the first time I’d barbecued on my own and tried to spray lighter fluid on an already burning set of coals. The flames had come back on me and burned off all the hair on my arms. I’d been lucky that it had only licked the tops of my eyebrows.

The creature screamed when the gasoline hit it, similar to how the blutom had reacted when I’d doused it in kerosene. The monster that Pete was wrestling with looked up and I could also see that it had drawn the attention of the other that was back in the store. Both of them echoed the cry and somewhere in the distance another creature answered it as well. Seconds passed as still others joined from much further away.

“Slammer,” I said, “get yours over here, we’re only going to have one shot at this.”

Pete was already on his way. I could have sworn that he muttered the word ‘pyromaniac’ as he tossed his monster under the spout of gasoline.

Seriously? Now, of all the times?

Cutting off the stream, I dropped the nozzle. Pete’s creature as moving too much to risk dowsing it any further, we’d have to hope that—

Pete’s creature charged and I fired into its chest, sending it down on top of the other. I fumbled in my pocket for the lighter. My hands were numb and the first several times I couldn’t get it to work. The skin of my thumb stung from the wheel.

I took a breath. Flicked my thumb to the top and brought it down. Sparks. Flame.

Everything seemed to slow as the creature charged me while I bent over to a stream of gas that was coming from the puddle I’d made around the monsters. Careful to keep my distance, I stretched my arm out and touched the flame down to the puddle.

Flames spread with a roar, engulfing the charging creature and the one on the ground. Dropping the lighter, I pulled out my pistol and sent three rounds into charging creature’s chest. I stepped back as it dropped, a horrendous scream escaping its mouth. It was the most human sound that a blutom monster had made all night.

All of the sudden the night felt very cold.

Pete had claimed that the blutom monsters took over and killed the human inside but what if he was wrong about that too? What if the person inside was still alive until something more drastic happened.

Like a person shooting them in the chest or blowing off their head.

If that turned out to be the case, I had killed Veronica, Jen, and all the others that we’d fought off tonight. The thought caused my mind to swirl with emotion. Gritting my teeth, I forced it away, every last drop of emotion and unanswered question. I had done what needed to be done. There was nothing to regret. Maybe I would try to sort through everything once it was all over—assuming I got out alive—but now wasn’t the time to be overcome with something for which I had no answers.

I thought of the answering scream we’d heard earlier and shivered. I looked around into the night, expecting other monsters to come surging out of the darkness at any moment. Other than the screams from the dying monsters, the evening was still and quiet. There wasn’t even a breeze to rustle the leaves of the nearby trees.

Sound would travel for quite a way on such a night.

I jumped when something hit the flames but my panic evaporated when I realized that it had come from Pete. He was throwing on firewood. I ran to the pile beside the door of the station just as Madelyn and the clerk came through.

The monster inside was moving towards them, but not at a quick pace. It was on the ground, crawling forward. One of its legs had almost been entirely severed and it was missing a hand.

“See you lit something else on fire,” Madelyn said with a teasing grin. “This really is becoming a thing for you isn’t it.”

I repressed a dark chuckle, just glad to see that she was still alive. There didn’t appear to be a scratch on her. Her hair was a bit tousled and some of her makeup had smudged—she’d taken the time to check it during our car ride earlier—but she had never looked better to me.

Perhaps it was just the emotion of it all. My heart pounded as adrenaline coursed through my veins.

The clerk’s face was pale, but that was to be expected. Every single one of us had probably looked much the same the first time we’d interacted with these creatures. I looked him over closely and was glad to see that he too hadn’t suffered a wound. Considering how much physical contact each of us had had with the monsters, that was nothing other than dumb luck. All it would have taken was a deep scratch from one of their fingernails and we would have been in danger of shifting.

“You’re going to have to shoot me,” the clerk said. “I’ve been infected.”

“Where did it touch you?” I asked, remembering that I hadn’t stopped to explain to him the finer points of how the blutom took over new victims.

He pointed to his arm. I pulled him under the light and examined it.

“Where did it go?”

“I scraped it off on the counter.”

“Unless it touched a cut or some other open wound, you’re fine.”

His face turned red. “You said that if it touched me I’d become one of them!”

“Yeah, about that, it’s a little more complicated. It has to touch an open wound.”

“I thought I was going to—” He looked relieved and pissed at the same time.

I chuckled. “You still got a ways to go, kid.”

“Can we get going?” Pete had continued to throw additional wood on the fire and it was now quite big. “Not that I’m not curious about what might happen with a burning flame in the middle of a bunch of gas pumps, I’d just rather not be right on top of it if something happens.”

“Point taken,” I said.

The monster from inside the door howled and it was joined by several others that were entirely too close. I’d been thinking of destroying the last monster as well, but the answering cries put an end to that thought. It was time to go. We had a fire burning in a middle of a bunch of gas pumps with more monsters coming towards us.

It was way past time to go.

All of us headed to the car except for the clerk. He’d gone pale again and was looking around in fear. The remaining monster arrived at the broken door and was trying to crawl out. It was stuck on the broken glass and I thought it might not make it over. It lifted its head and looked at us, the cat-like eyes glowing in the night. Putting what was left of its hands on the ground outside, it braced itself and pulled its chest over onto the jagged edges of the broken glass. It rested on the glass, oblivious to any discomfort that a normal human might have experienced in such a circumstance. Then it crawled the rest of the way over and headed towards us at a slow crawl.

“Hey, kid,” I said. “Your shift is over. It’s time for you to get going as well.”

He said something I didn’t hear. I about shrugged it off and got into my car but when I saw he was trembling, I ran back to him.

“What was that?”

“I was dropped off.” The poor guy was now shaking with fear. “I don’t have a way back until morning.” Pete and Madelyn were both yelling at me to hurry up.

There was another scream in the darkness, it was closer than before. I wish I knew if it had come from one of the monsters we’d heard earlier or if it was a different one, answering the call of the others. Regardless, there were too many heading our way. Goosebumps formed on my arms when I thought of what Pete had said about the rats developing human intelligence. Was it possible that the screams were communicating more than just position?

The monster shimmying its way forward on the ground answered with a low growl. Was it my imagination or did the force of the reply sound stronger than the last sound it had made?

I grabbed the kid by the arm. “You’re coming with us.”

He pulled his arm free, shaking his head. “Not likely. You showed up with guns and then the store was attacked. It looks to me like these things are coming after you. If you leave, I should be safe. Right?” His voice trembled and much as I hated to still be standing in the middle of all this, I tried to see things from his perspective.

I wasn’t able to.

“You thick in the head or just plain stupid? These things don’t have the brains to discriminate between any of us, let alone just chase after one of us. All they see is a meal. Stay here, you’ll become one of them. Come with us, and you can help us find a way to stop all of them.”

I continued back to the car. “Choice is yours, kid.”

He was in the backseat before I’d sat down.

“Call me Ron,” he said, “I’m Ron Whicker.”

“Nice to meet you, Ron.” Madelyn gave him one of her usual smiles. If she wasn’t careful, he was going to get the wrong idea.

I put the key into the ignition, revved the car. The engine started and then sputtered away to nothing. I spotted movement in the dark beyond the lights of the gas station, but it was cast in shadow and I was unable to determine what it was. I envisioned the mob of blutom monsters that we’d passed earlier coming out of the dark and swarming us.

Cursing, I hit the steering wheel and turned the key again. It refused to start.

“I told you to get that looked at,” Pete said. “Should have done it.”

“You’re so helpful in times of crisis,” I said, starting to count to sixty under my breath. I’d found that waiting in between ignition attempts tended to help the car start. “We may have to make a run for it.”

Madelyn was scouring the area surrounding the car. Pete was leaning forward, his head between the seats as he intently studied the shadows ahead of us. “I think it’s just a cat.”

I looked in the direction he was staring, my fingers itching to turn the ignition but knowing that every second I waited increased the chances of the car starting. I didn’t know for sure if that was true, but when this happened I always eventually got the car to start if I was patient. It was just a matter of time.

“They’re coming!” Madelyn pointed behind us, back in the direction we’d come from earlier. “And they’re coming fast.”

The mob came around the corner, looking like some sick marathon of the damned. I continued to count, sweat pouring down my face.

“What are you waiting for?” Ron asked. “Let’s get out of here.”

I ignored him as I stared at the mob. My guess was that we had about thirty seconds before they arrived at the gas station. They hadn’t been running earlier. What had caused the urgency? Had it been a reaction to our plowing through some of them. Or had they heard the cries of distress from the monsters that we’d been fighting?

Pete pounded on my seat. “You’re cutting it too close!”

I waited a bit longer. Mercifully, the engine started this time without a problem. I pulled forward just as the monsters swarmed into the gas station parking lot. I swung the car around and plowed forward, not bothering to find the exit and driving straight over a patch of grass and out onto the road.

One of the monsters sprung onto the hood of the car, reminding me of a cat as it landed and placed a hand down to brace itself. I gunned the gas as another of the monsters slammed into the driver side door head first. It bounced off and was left behind.

The monster on the hood grabbed hold of the windshield wipers as I increased the speed and slammed on the brakes, hoping to send him flying off like I had the last one. The wipers twisted and were almost ripped free but the monster managed to hold on. Its feet were braced on the hood with a stance that reminded me of a person riding a snowboard.

It roared, its face contorted into an inhuman expression of rage and malevolence.

Not knowing what else to do, I punched the gas. I was willing to bet that the wipers wouldn’t withstand much more abuse.

“Watch where you’re—”

I shifted the wheel to avoid a car coming from the opposite direction. My whole focus had been on the monster, so I hadn’t noticed it approaching. The car whizzed by, its horn blaring as it did. In my rearview mirror, I saw brake lights as the oncoming horde of blutom monsters surged towards it.

The monster on the hood roared again, looking down at us with a look I could only describe as hunger. Its teeth flashed in the light of a passing streetlight. The monster didn’t have a tuft of hair left. The blood film was there, but it wasn’t as prevalent as it had been on the others, so I wondered how far along in the shifting process it was.

I slammed on the brakes again, gently turning the wheel so that he was caught off balance as well. The monster lost his footing, right after that the windshield wipers gave way and he toppled off the hood of the car. I sped away before the creature could get to its feet.

“Did the other car get away?” I asked, turning the corner without looking back to see what was happening behind us.

“He was backing up without turning around,” Pete said. “He’ll have a tough time if they catch him, but might get away if he doesn’t stop.”

A part of me wanted to return and help whoever was in the car, but I doubted that anybody else shared the same sentiments. My guilt was starting to weigh me down and just as I opened my mouth to say something, I saw headlights in the rearview mirror. The car followed us for a block before veering off to the right.

Assuming that it had been the car that had passed us, I let out a sigh and relaxed a tiny bit, glad that they had gotten away.

It was quiet in my car for several blocks.

“Look,” Ron said, “about pulling a gun on ya’ll earlier, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Pete said, clapping me on the shoulder. “We weren’t that worried. Seems like we all have nine lives today.”

I didn’t respond. We still didn’t have anything we could use to kill any monsters we found at Pete’s lab.

A monster came running out of the shadows and stopped to stare at our approaching headlights, his blood film clearly visible. I couldn’t say for certain, but it reminded me of the monster that had just been surfing on the hood of our car.

It had to have been my imagination because nobody else commented on it as I slammed down the gas pedal and left him in the dust.

Chapter 13

THE NEXT GAS station we stopped at wasn’t infested by monsters or homicidal clerks that were itching to put a bullet in anybody that looked slightly suspicious. It was dirty, and smelled of cigarette smoke and unwashed bodies, but given everything else we’d been through, it was downright hospitable. After perusing through the drinks, we purchased a bunch of soda pop in glass bottles.

I had attempted to buy beer first because those were the most readily available glass bottles. I had been on my way to the cashier before Ron had pointed out it was against city ordinance to sell alcohol after midnight.

That was when I had checked my watch for the first time in hours and realized it was two-thirty in the morning. The beer had gone back to where I had got it and we’d searched until we found some soda in glass bottles. A few four packs of Coke and one of something called Dew Shine. I wasn’t familiar with the drink, but it had the Mountain Dew logo on the top. I figured I’d take a swig of the stuff before we emptied it all out and replaced it with gasoline.

We also purchased all of the gas containers that the store carried. The clerk raised his eyes when he saw how many we were buying, but he didn’t make any comment.

He glanced back at the security camera as if to check to make sure that it was still working. He no doubt thought that we were up to no good, buying glass bottles and containers for gas. I was a bit surprised that the station was still open, given everything that was happening tonight, but maybe we’d driven far enough out of the way to put the madness behind us for now.

The clerk was an older man, probably pushing seventy. His full head of greasy hair was all gray and it didn’t look as though he had combed it anytime in the last decade. His smell made Madelyn wrinkle her nose and take a step backward.

She tried asking him for any news, but he only grunted. Even after giving him one of her most ingratiating smiles, she hadn’t been able to get more that a word or two out of him, though, I did see him checking out her backside when she walked away.

It made me smile. There was nothing quite like a dirty old man.

“There is trouble in the town tonight,” I said to the clerk. “You may want to close down the store.”

He lifted part of his upper lip. “What you saying, boy? That a threat?”

I held up my hands placatingly. “No, no. Nothing like it. You been watching the news?” I motioned to the television behind him.

He scowled, his eyes becoming slits. Given the trouble we had with Ron at the last one, I shut up and pulled out my debit card. Despite the proffered payment, the tension didn’t ease.

There wasn’t much else I could do. He looked like the sort of man that would have had trouble getting worked up about anything outside his store, much less some rumor coming from a bunch of college students.

Pete, Madelyn, and Ron were already heading for the door as I finished paying. When I followed after them, the clerk’s eyes practically burned holes in my back.

While Pete and I filled up the gas containers, Ron and Madelyn sat inside the car. The wind was still blowing hard and I thought that I detected a hint of smoke in the air which wouldn’t have been a surprise if the wind had been coming from the east, back towards the direction of the fire we’d encountered earlier. The wind was coming from the west, from the center of town. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something had happened there that we weren’t yet aware of.

As we pulled out of the gas station, I rolled down the window, listening for any other howls or screams from the monsters. It was silent.

“I think we left them all behind,” Pete said. I didn’t like the relief that I heard in his voice, afraid that the others in the car might start to think that we were safe as well.

I shook my head. “We have to assume the city has been infested until we know otherwise.”

“At the very least,” Madelyn said, her face in her phone again, checking the news, “I think it’s safe to assume that with every minute we get closer to the lab we are also getting closer to ground zero. Or patient zero. Or whatever it is that you want to call it.”

“We never asked how you made it all the way across campus without being overtaken by the monsters.” I tried to speak with as little emotion as I possibly could, but Pete picked up on my tone. I wasn’t sure if I’d just done a bad job of hiding it or if it was because he was already sensitive to the idea because there was more that he was hiding.

“Are you suggesting that I brought them back with me so I release them on all the unsuspecting people in our dorm?” The edge in his voice could have cut a steak.

“No, that’s not what I’m suggesting at all,” I said. Pete’s anger seemed to be genuine but I had to be sure. If Pete was involved in this in a different way than we suspected, there were now two others beside myself whose lives were at stake as we made our little joyride through hell. Sure, one was an ex-girlfriend and the other had held me at gunpoint not more than thirty minutes ago, but I still felt obligated to do what I could to look out for them. “Perhaps I should have phrased it a little better. These things attack anything that moves. You can’t have been the only person on campus tonight, even if it was the middle of the night.”

“I don’t like your tone. I ran like the fiery hosts of hell were on my tail, because, point of fact, they were.”

I’d known Pete a long time and this seemed to be the real him speaking. I decided to let up a little bit and take it a slightly different direction.

“You said it yourself,” I said. “When these blutom creatures are in their infancy, they don’t have half the brains they’ll have when they’re fully developed. No, something more is going on here. Think this through with me, Slammer. They followed you all the way across campus and up four flights of stairs without once peeling off. Were they coordinating their attack? Or did they have orders to follow after you?”

“You’re making too much of this.” I could see Pete in the rearview mirror shaking his head. “There’s also a flaw in your brilliant deduction, Sherlock. You’re ignoring one salient point. What about the one that attacked Madelyn. If they were working together or following orders, why didn’t he stay with me?”

“That’s a good point,” I said, shrugging. Why would that monster have come all this way only to be distracted by Madelyn?

“I may have an answer for that.” Madelyn twisted uncomfortably in her chair. “I think I knew the man.”

“How?” I asked.

My question was met with silence.

I looked at her and she shrugged. “I may have gone out with him once or twice. When I ended things, he didn’t take it very well.”

“That was something you could have mentioned sooner,” I said. When I noticed that she’d gone red in the face, I did the best I could to hide the satisfaction in my voice at seeing her off her guard. It was such a rare thing that I can hardly describe the pleasure I felt at seeing her so uncomfortable. Even when we’d found her in the bathroom, she’d been more composed than she was right now. It made me wonder exactly what had gone down between her and the man. “I suppose, though, it didn’t become relevant until just now.”

Madelyn gave me a grateful look, so I must have been successful at hiding my true feelings about the fact that she was squirming. It galled me that my heart thudded in my chest with the accompanying smile that she gave me.

I was too predictable when it came to women, especially when I was dealing with her. I needed to be better about that.

“Okay.” I cleared my throat and looked away. “Assuming then that this guy noticed Madelyn and decided to go after her instead—maybe he smelled her perfume or something—that still doesn’t answer the question of why they all followed you back across campus. There had to have been other distractions on the way. There are only two possible conclusions. One, they were communicating among themselves and were chasing after you to keep you from spreading the word. Or two, they were under orders from another more fully developed blutom monster.” There was silence. “Time to poke some holes in my theories.”

“Actually,” Ron said, “that really is more of a hypothesis.”

I rolled my eyes but kept my mouth shut. I was beginning to regret inviting the kid to come along. Well, I suppose that isn’t exactly the truth. I wouldn’t have left him back at the station, he would have been captured and shifted by the monsters for sure.

Since that time we’d learned that despite his appearance, Ron was, in fact, twenty years old and attending the same university as us. He normally had his roommate pick him up from work. I’d offered to drop him off at some place along the way but he’d insisted on coming with us. Madelyn had shrugged and Pete had looked annoyed, primarily because it was yet another person that we’d be taking back to his precious top secret lab.

Ron had been staring at Madelyn when he’d said that he wanted to stay so it wasn’t too hard to figure out what exactly it was that kept him in the car with us. We were heading into unknown but certain peril, and the kid here wanted to hit on my ex. Well, all the more power to him. I wasn’t going to feel bad if he got himself killed along the way.

Maybe I’d feel a little bad.

Ron cleared his throat. “While it is unlikely that Pete could have made it to your dorm without anything else distracting the monsters, it isn’t impossible, so we shouldn’t just rule that out automatically. We also shouldn’t ignore the possibility that there was some other reason that drew the monsters to Pete. Perhaps they were attracted by the soap he used, or there is something about a six-foot five-inch man that they find irresistible. Perhaps you tall boys taste better.” Ron was a good four inches shorter than me. He was looking at Madelyn again, but from where she sat in the front of the car she didn’t notice.

I could practically see the fantasy playing across his face of the monsters being distracted by Pete and me, allowing him to play the hero and save the day. I might have knocked the little twerp upside the head if a cop car wouldn’t have just come zooming around the corner, lights on and siren blaring. It was closely followed by several more.

Once they had passed, I watched in my rearview mirror expecting them to head in the direction of the first gas station, but they took another turn and went a different way. They were all headed towards the center of the city. The smoke on the wind coming from that direction, couldn’t have just been my imagination.

Why were they heading to the city center? If the epicenter of the monsters was the lab, shouldn’t that be the place where we find a bunch of police, perhaps a bunch of government men in dark suits?

“It’s a good hypothesis, Morty,” Madelyn said, “but Freckles back there is right. There could be any number of reasons.”

Ron made a face at the name, but in the dark, I was unable to tell if he was pleased or perturbed. My guess was the latter and I refrained from grinning. Madelyn only gave nicknames to men that she had absolutely no interest in. It was her way of subtly putting them down. It usually had the opposite effect of what she intended and they wanted her all the more.

I shook my head, that was exactly what she wanted. It was easier to control things when the men around her were smitten.

“We don’t have enough information to say one way or another,” Pete said, “but I don’t think we can discount anything at this point. We should assume that if there are this many blutom monsters, there will be some that are advanced beyond what we’ve seen.”

“What did the rats that had fully converted look like?” Madelyn asked as she wrapped her arms around her chest.

“They looked like any of the other rats. Given time, the fur grew back.”

I shifted in my seat. “Will there be a way for us to tell the difference between a blutom human or a normal human?”

“I don’t know. The rat fur didn’t change but their skin might have been paler. It’s hard to say for sure because nobody actually shaved the critters to find out.”

“What makes you say that these things are at the core of the myths about vampires?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “they like to bite for one.”

“Really,” Ron said. “I hadn’t noticed.”

I snorted. “That’s just because you shot off the head of the one that attacked you.”

“That’s not what I meant—”

“Relax, I get sarcasm.” Kid. Relax kid. I added in my mind but didn’t say out loud. I didn’t need to entirely alienate Ron. I was only having a bit of fun with him.

“Did the nature of the rat teeth change at all?” I asked. “One of the monsters I fought had fangs.”

“They didn’t, but rat teeth are already fang-like. It may be that the human variety does need to develop sharpened teeth. I don’t know. That would be one more similarity, if true.”

Madelyn didn’t look up from her phone. “In your research, did you ever try killing them with a stake through the heart or anything like that?”

“There was one man, Ted Samson, who was obsessed with the possibility that this was where the legends came from and he spent a bunch of time researching into the ancient folklore as well as performing experiments. It was he that discovered that heat was a catalyst but that flame would kill the blutom. His experiments on the rats didn’t involve dismemberment or anything like that. There was one thing that might prove useful, but it won’t help us for hours yet. The blutom monsters don’t like sunlight. It doesn’t do anything like what you see happens to vampires on television. They just prefer the dark of night and tend to avoid it.”

I looked at my watch. “Perhaps we should wait a few hours, dawn isn’t too far away.”

“We can’t afford to, it’s worse than we thought.” Madelyn looked up from her phone. “WSL has an update, finally. Apparently, the Hotel Karrow has been overrun with the creatures. Eyewitness accounts put the number of monsters at over several hundred.” The Karrow was the only four-star hotel in our town and was located smack dab in the middle.

“That was where those police were headed,” Ron said. “This is a clusterf—” He stopped and cleared his throat, looking at Madelyn. “This is a bloody mess. We should be heading out of town, not going to Pete’s work.”

“Makes sense, I guess.” I scratched my chin. “If I wanted to launch an invasion of blutom into the city, I would pick the center of town and the place with the most people. Is there anything more on what’s happening in Times Square. Are there reports of breakouts in other cities?”

“Hold on.” Madelyn looked up to glare at me. “One question at a time.” We waited in silence as I made a turn. We were now a block away from the lab. “Nothing new about New York, but there are reports coming in from D.C., Atlanta, San Francisco, and Chicago. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Reports are coming from all over the country and the world. The monsters are everywhere. Law enforcement is out in force with orders to shoot. California has activated the National Guard.”

“That’s not good,” Pete said. “They don’t know how to fight the monsters. The soldiers will come back shifted. This time tomorrow the streets of the world will be swimming in blutom. Next week, there won’t be a populated place on earth without the monsters.”

I pulled up to the front of the lab. “I hope your containment team has some good protocols because we’re going to need them. Fast.”

Chapter 14

I’D NEVER BEEN inside Pete’s lab before, but I had dropped him off at work. All of those times had been during the day and I’d been in a hurry, so I had never appreciated just how much the lab resembled a prison. At night, it was impossible to miss the connection.

It was a four-story building with a fence around the outer perimeter that had razor wire coiled around the top. The windows were all barred and the lights surrounding the building kept it well lit. The only things missing were the guards with guns and roving dogs.

The ominous nature of the place filled me with a dark foreboding. Was it just my imagination or had I seen this building in some horror movie? The music that usually accompanied such scenes danced around my mind as I thought about what waited for us inside, the uncertainty about what we would find made me want to turn around and find a place deep in the woods to hide.

The entrance had a guard station so I’d never been into the compound before. I’d always pulled off to the side and let Pete through the pedestrian checkpoint. At Pete’s direction, we pulled up to the guardhouse. There was a more than a hint of resignation in his voice, but I ignored it as I slowed my car to a halt.

The goal from the beginning had been to come here and every time we had turned around something else had gotten in the way. I almost laughed out loud when I saw the guard inside the booth. It would almost be too easy.

He was slumped in his chair, with his mouth open and drool coming down the side. Judging by how wet the top of his shirt was, he had been that way for quite some time. There were four televisions in front of him that rotated between views from various security cameras. The remains of a sandwich rested on his lap, he shifted and it briefly looked as though they would go toppling to the floor. At the last moment, he brought his leg up and the trash stayed where it was.

As I rolled down the window and leaned out I noticed that the guard appeared to have one eye half open. I waved hoping to get his attention but he didn’t respond. Because we were at the lab and I was concerned what might be looking out from the windows of the building, I didn’t immediately try to wake him up by saying something; instead, I closely examined his face, looking for the blood film. Wouldn’t it be just my luck to wake him up only to have him lunge at us? Did blutom monsters need sleep? I pushed the thought away, wanting to ask Pete, but doubting that he would answer.

The guard’s face appeared to be clear of any blood film, but he was light enough skinned that he already had a pinker than normal complexion.

Had the guard been asleep when Pete had been chased away by the monsters? That seemed a little improbable, given the lack of finesse in the monster’s movements and the way that they tended to roar when they charged.

There were too many things about Pete’s story that weren’t adding up and it didn’t help my trust of him that he continued to stonewall our questions, giving as little up as he possibly could. I tried to envision Pete ducking under the red striped barrier with the monsters hot on his tail and this man sleeping through the whole of it.

It was difficult to see even though I had to admit that the guard did look to be pretty out of it. Perhaps, Pete and the monsters had run right past him without disturbing his slumber, but I doubted it.

A hand clawed into my shoulder. “What are you doing?” Pete whispered as he twisted the handle silently and stepped out of the car. “Are you trying to wake him up? Don’t say anything.” He took a card out of his wallet and swiped it against the reader at the side of the guardhouse. The barrier in front of us buzzed as it opened and Pete waved me through with one hand while putting a finger of the other up to his lips.

Pete should have mentioned that he had a card as we pulled up, his actions continued to highlight his desire to try and keep things from us. A time or two more and that would be the last straw.

I ground my teeth as I pulled forward through the gate, glancing at the guard one last time. I was a little surprised to see that he still hadn’t moved. Perhaps he’d had a few beers with his sandwich. Maybe he was dead. Whatever the reason, we passed without causing him to stir.

Once we were in I was planning to drive right up to the building and park in a loading lane, but Pete pointed me to the parking lot off of the right.

“No sense calling any more attention to ourselves than necessary, right?”

“I think they have a bit more to deal with than cars parked in the wrong place.”

“Just find a spot, Buckshot.” Pete’s irritated voice grated on my nerves but I let it pass.

Nobody else said anything as I selected a spot numbered twenty-seven and pulled in.

Pete met us as we got out of the car. “This is the last chance for any of you to turn around. The crime I’m committing is treason, I can’t imagine they’ll charge you with anything less than trespassing and it could be a great deal more.

“Trespassing? Treason?” Ron swallowed and I resisted the urge to give him a wicked grin. Not so brave now that you know the consequences of what you’re risking, eh? How many men had met their doom because they’d been chasing after a pretty face? The laughter died on my lips when Madelyn frowned at me as if she could read my mind.

“Come on.” She pushed past Pete. “We’re wasting time. The way things are looking there won’t be much of a government around after all this. Whatever there is won’t be able to charge us with running a red light, much less treason.”

Ron was pale as I clapped him on the shoulder. “Can’t back out now.” I went around to the trunk and pulled out my pack. I swapped out the nearly spent magazine in my Sig Sauer pistol and holstered it. Ron gave me a strange look when I opened the top of the bag and checked to make sure that my shotgun was fully loaded before closing it up again. We didn’t know who or what was inside and I thought it best to continue to keep a low profile, at least for now.

“You didn’t think you were the only one with a shotgun, did you?” I couldn’t resist. “I have enough firepower in here that we could have taken your little convenience store.” I smiled. “Lucky for you that wasn’t our plan.”

“I should have stayed at the station and locked myself in the office.”

“You’d be one of them by now.” I tossed him a lighter from a package that we had purchased with the gasoline and soda pop. I stuffed a bunch into my pocket as well, just in case. “Hang on to that, you’re going to need it.” Afterward, I hauled out several containers of gas and set them on the ground. Then I pulled out the soda and emptied the contents. It made me a little sad to just dump out all the coke, but we didn’t have time to drink it and we needed to put gasoline in the glass bottles. I did take a few swigs from each as I went about the process, no sense in it all going to waste. Also, I wasn’t going to get any sleep tonight so the caffeine would be welcome in my system.

Pete snagged one of the bottles and downed the whole thing as if it had been water. I couldn’t have done a quarter of that without choking. I just didn’t drink the stuff enough, all the carbonation would make me gag. When I got to the Dew Shine, I tried a bit and decided that I liked Mountain Dew better.

Madelyn had begun filling the empty bottles while Ron watched, not trying to hide the look of desire on his face. She didn’t notice, but if she had, she probably would have batted her eyes a bit at him or given him a smile. Always keeping her options open. It was amazing how much she could manipulate a man into doing before he figured out she had no interest in him.

I was better off without her.

Even in my mind, the words had a hollow ring to them. I hated how much she got under my skin.

“Ron,” Pete said, “stop standing around and help her fill them.”

His face red, Ron yanked up one of the gas canisters. The spout hadn’t been secured and it slipped off, gas sloshing out onto his hand. Pete snickered. Even the tips of the kid’s ears were red now.

Shaking my head, I opened a couple more bottles. I tried the Dew Shine again. Nope, Mountain Dew was better. No question.

“What were you planning to use for a fuse?” Madelyn asked. She already had half a dozen bottles full.

“Old shirts.” I pulled out a box of some clothes that I’d been planning to drop off at the Salvation Army.

“Figures,” she said when she opened the box. “Did you plan to keep any of the shirts I bought for you? Some of them were expensive.”

I shrugged. “Wasn’t really my style. I just wore them for you.”

She mumbled something that I didn’t hear, but given the frown on her face, I knew enough. I hadn’t planned on using my old clothes to bother her. In fact, I hadn’t given any thought to where we’d get rags for the tops of the bottles until she’d asked. It was just a happy coincidence that it had turned into something I could use to needle her.

Pulling out a shirt, I flipped open my pocket knife and ripped it to shreds. I felt a little bad as I did so when I’d remembered how excited she’d been to see me wear it. When I glanced her way, her face was taut as if she was trying to avoid showing any emotion. My insides churned as I finished shredding it and reached for another.

I stopped before I put my blade into the next shirt. The plaid shirt had been a birthday gift from her and I’d been wearing it the first time she’d told me that she loved me. My blade hovered an inch above it as I debated what to do. Even though my back was to her I could feel her eyes boring into me.

Pete had already taken the other shredded shirt and had divvied it out among the others. Madelyn walked up beside me, holding the torn pieces of my shirt to the side.

She stared down at the shirt I held.

“How’d this one get in there?” My voice was quiet as I put it to the side and pulled out another. It was a random t-shirt that she’d given to me on a whim. Luckily, there was no emotional baggage attached to it.

I tore into it with my knife without making eye contact with her. It was strange that she’d cared so much still about the shirt, but it didn’t mean anything. It couldn’t. I knew where I stood with her. Emotions can be fickle things at times. Just because she’d been concerned about me damaging the plaid shirt, it didn’t mean that she wanted to get back together or that her issues with me had been magically solved.

When I was finished cutting the t-shirt to shreds, I figured that we probably had enough and stopped. The others were all hunched over on the ground trying to stuff the wads into the tops of the bottles. Ron was red in the face. I couldn’t tell if it was still from his earlier embarrassment or just exertion. He didn’t strike me as the sort that liked to jog or workout. He was using his pinkie finger to cram the rag into the bottle and it wasn’t working very well. It kept coming out. Pete wasn’t doing much better. Of the three, Madelyn was having the most success. She was twisting an end into a spiral before pushing it into a bottle. Even hers looked like the rags were about to fall out.

Whenever I’d seen a molotov cocktail on television, I’d always assumed that it was easy to just stuff a rag down into the bottle. As we made our own, I realized that my assumption was wrong. I also wanted to make sure the rags were secured well enough that they didn’t come off if we had to run. At some point we’d want to throw these, it wouldn’t work very well if the burning fabric came off before it landed.

I had a sudden vision of the gasoline coming back to burn me because the top had come off.

“We’re not going to get very far with these,” she said.

Wishing that I’d thought to grab some duct tape back at my place, I rummaged around the trunk of my car hoping that I had something I could use to fasten the fabric onto the lip of the bottle.

I pulled out a wad of rope that had been in the back of my car so long that I couldn’t remember what it was doing there. It looked to be made from nylon, but I had no way of knowing. That might have made a better wick because I could have sliced off a bunch of pieces and easily dropped them into the bottles. Even if I’d done that I still had the problem of fastening them in. I also had an old tarp, a battered pair of running shoes, and a box of tools, nothing that was going to solve our present problem.

I was toying with the idea of trying to melt the nylon rope and use that as a way to secure the ripped pieces of the shirt when I spied Pete’s workout bag in the back of my car. My blood pressure started to rise. How many times had I told him to not leave it? The one thing I could not abide was my car smelling like sweaty gym clothes.

Then I remembered how he liked to wrap his hands with athletic tape. I opened the door and pulled out the bag.

“Hey, Buckshot, look I’m sorry about that.”

I unzipped the top and was greeted with the nasty smell of sour sweat and body odor. Not wanting to put my hand in the bag to fish out the tape, I dumped out the contents.

“What did you do that for? I said I was sor—”

I help up the athletic tape, silencing him. “Problem solved.”

Leaving Pete to pick up his nasty gym clothes, I ripped off lengths of tape and handed them to Ron and Madelyn. In a few minutes, we had secured all of the rags atop the bottles and were ready to go.

I put a number of the Molotov cocktails into the side pockets of my pack, careful to make sure they were tightened down. Gas was already seeping up the rag, but I was willing to deal with a little gasoline on my bag so that I could have my hands free to carry several of the gas cans.

Pete pocketed a couple of lighters and stuffed several of the cocktails into his pockets before pulling out a couple of gasoline containers for himself as well. He had picked up his gym bag and put it back in the car. If he was mad about my method of getting to the tape, he didn’t make any further comment and his face was devoid of any anger.

“I hope that guard doesn’t wake up,” Ron said. “If he sees what we have he isn’t going to stop to ask questions before calling the cops.”

“The police won’t come. They have worse problems to worry about.” I slammed the trunk shut and snatched up several gas containers. I would have preferred to rely only on my shotgun, but it was best I had something that could kill the miserable creatures.

Chapter 15

MADELYN WAS ALREADY at the entrance with Ron waiting at her side. Both of them had Molotov cocktails poking out at various places. Her front jean pockets weren’t big enough to carry a bottle, but she did have one bursting out a back pocket and several that were precariously stuffed into her jacket, her arm bracing one so that it didn’t fall. She was more pale than normal but seemed to be handling the stress of the situation as well as could be expected.

Ron kept looking around as if he expected blutom monsters to charge out of the shadows at any minute, which was a real possibility considering we were at the place where they were made. His cocktails were stuffed into the front and back pockets of his jeans and there were several more in his jacket. While he waited for us to catch up, he set down the gas canister he’d been carrying and maneuvered his shotgun until it was covered in the shadows as he warily stared back at the guard station.

I couldn’t help but check that out as well. I didn’t have a view of the guard from where we were, but at least he wasn’t emerging from the station while shouting at us and pointing a gun, something I was half expecting to happen at any moment. After several prolonged seconds during which everything was quiet, I released my breath. What kind of gun did the guard have? A pistol, rifle, or a shotgun?

I just hoped we moved quietly enough that we didn’t find out.

It was colder now than it had been before, but my light jacket was still doing the job. The moon was higher, allowing me to see more easily. Unfortunately, the added moonlight didn’t do anything to ease my impression of the place being a prison. It also increased the number of shadows in which things could be hiding. When I realized that I was looking over my shoulder for the second time in under a minute, I chided myself silently. I couldn’t get rid of my anxiety, but I didn’t have to let it control me.

Taking a deep breath, I let the anxiety stay and tried to channel the nervous energy into action. I would normally try to argue with my anxiety by pointing out anything that was irrational about it. That wasn’t going to work in this situation because my sense of reality had slipped away several hours earlier. The monsters were real and could come at us at any time. There was no arguing with that.

Pete set down his containers so that he could pull out his key card.

I handed one of my containers to Madelyn while we waited. After she took it, I fished out a lighter from my pocket and gave her that as well. “Remember to not throw gas onto a fire, it will come back at you. Dump all the gas out first and then light it. Carefully.”

Pete chuckled darkly. “Wish you two could have been there when Buckshot learned that one the hard way. It was months before he had back all his arm hair. Remember when that hot brunette asked if you waxed your arms? You turned all red and choked.”

“Get going,” I said through clenched teeth.

The door buzzed when Pete slid his card through the reader. He swung it open and waited for us to enter.

“No turning back now,” he said glibly, “you’re all officially trespassing.” His voice was louder than I liked and triggered a final look from me back to the guard house. Madelyn pushed past me, she was closely followed by Ron. I cringed when his canister clanged against the door.

Muttering something that was half an expletive and half an apology, he disappeared inside.

Maybe the guard had died of a heart attack or was deaf. Wondering whether it would turn out to be good luck or bad that the guard hadn’t caught on to our presence, I followed the others inside. The ominous feeling almost overcoming me as we walked into the dark shadows.

Pete let the door slam on its own instead of easing it back into place. When he saw my alarmed look, he shrugged.

“That bozo clanging the canister against the door didn’t wake the guard, why should that?”

I could feel my blood pressure rising. “Sound carries when it’s quiet. Let’s not push our luck.”

My heart rate decreased slightly when I saw that the guard was where we had left him. He was even further slumped down in his chair. I looked closely but wasn’t able to see what was keeping him propped up. Everything that I saw indicated that he should have fallen out of his chair by now. As I watched, he woke up with a start, straightened in the chair and then promptly fell back asleep.

If what Pete had said earlier was accurate, there weren’t any other guards on site and we would have free reign of the building. I couldn’t believe that the thing that was wreaking havoc outside was so poorly guarded. No wonder why it had been able to escape.

The front lobby was nicer than I’d been expecting. It was decorated was expensive sofas and art. The receptionist desk had several monitors that were swapping between camera views.

“Over here.” Pete stood at the side wall, swiping his card against another reader. “Try not to get separated as we go. There’s at least one of these on every floor and most rooms require this for access as well. You get lost in here, you might not be found until morning when everybody comes in.”

I stifled a snort and didn’t say what I’d been thinking. By the look that Madelyn and I exchanged, I supposed that she’d had the same thought. Who would come in after all that had happened tonight?

We followed Pete into a stairwell and up several flights of stairs where he once again had to use the card to get onto the third floor. I was taken aback to see wall to wall cubicles. I had been expecting microscopes and petri dishes.

Pete passed several rows before he stopped in front of one station. It was a four-foot square area that had just enough room for a laptop and a chair. He flipped up the top and powered on the computer. I noticed a directory of numbers tacked to the wall.

“Does that have anybody’s home or cell number?” I asked.

“If it did, would I be turning this on?”

I bit my tongue to keep from saying something insulting. It was bothersome that he continued to pretend to be upset about the fact that we’d insisted on coming. Couldn’t he see that we were in this together? It made sense to stay in a group for support in case we were attacked by more monsters.

“So, where’s the lab?” Madelyn asked.

“It’s up on the next floor.”

“Shouldn’t we go check on things there? For all we know, the place could be overrun with blutom.”

Pete shook his head. “It’s bad enough that I’ve brought you here. You bullied me into coming this far, this is where it stops. I can’t imagine my superiors aren’t already aware of the situation. The containment team may have already been deployed, I’m just getting the number to humor all of you so we can find a safe place and hunker down.”

“And where would that be?” Ron asked. Nobody answered his question. For my part, I didn’t have a clue where we could go. I supposed we could try to get out of town. My parents would be happy to see me and wouldn’t be bothered if I brought anybody back with me. They had met Madelyn while we’d still been together and I’d told them about the breakup, so that would be a little awkward.

“It’s a mistake to not look in on the lab,” I said. “It could be the epicenter. We should at least check and make sure that it’s quiet up there.”

Pete didn’t answer as he sat at his computer and checked his email. When he noticed all of us looking over his shoulder, he turned. “A little space would be nice. There are many things I’m required to keep secret. Perhaps if I minimize the damage I’ll just go to prison for life instead of getting the electric chair.”

I walked away, hefting the straps of my backpack as we did. It was bad enough that the town was being torn apart by the blutom monsters, but now we had to deal with Pete stonewalling again.

Again? Had he ever really stopped? Couldn’t he see that things had changed and it was doubtful anybody would be around to prosecute his oathbreaking? It was as if being onsite at work had strengthened his resolve to keep the oaths that he’d made.

The far side of the floor had a row of offices and there was an emergency exit. I did a lap around the room, looking for anything that might strike me as unusual. My hackles went up when I noticed a blue rubber like substance on one of the desks until I realized that it was just a funky eraser.

I continued past as my heartbeat thudded in my ears. When I was out of Pete’s line of site, I stopped at a cubicle.

It was the same size as Pete’s but had been decorated with cat pictures. Judging by all the pink and flowers I assumed that it belonged to a female employee. I was wondering if it had belonged to either Veronica or Jen when I spotted a picture of a middle-aged woman with a child.

Other than the decorations, there wasn’t a single shred of paperwork. After checking to make sure that Pete wasn’t on to me, I opened the drawers underneath her desk and found nothing there as well.

Not sure what else to do, I moved her mouse and her computer screen came to life. It was of course password protected. I toyed with the idea of trying to guess a password but decided to move on to the offices. The first office was locked but there was a glass window beside the door. I could make out stacks of paperwork on the desk but little else. The light was off and the only light came through the window on the door. I could have sworn that I saw movement in the shadows but as I focused on the spot, everything was still.

Taking a deep breath, I smelled the unmistakable stench of a dog that was in need of a bath. It seemed to come from behind me but as I whipped around I didn’t see anything. Pete hadn’t said anything about there being guard dogs on site, but in my mind that only seemed to increase the chances. He probably felt that telling us about them would be another act of treason.

Grinding my teeth as I refrained from punching the wall, I moved along, testing the air as I went. The whiff of the dog was gone, but it hadn’t just been my imagination, I was certain of that.

I wasn’t sure what I was looking for but doing something—anything—was better than waiting around while the city fell apart under the attacks. The next several offices were dark as well but when I got to the last one in the row I was surprised to see that the light was on and that there was somebody inside. He had his back to the door, but his hand looked normal. No blood film there.

He shifted in his seat and I could see that he was on the phone. Had this man come in as well because of the attack? Was he coordinating a response with the containment team? He spun around and I ducked back out of view, my heart pounding in my chest. What were the chances that he hadn’t seen me? I tried to replay the scene in my mind but it was all a blur. I hoped and prayed that he hadn’t spotted my head peering into his room.

After waiting several seconds without anything happening, I decided that it was safe and backed away from the door until I was certain I was out of the view of the man inside. After that, I decided to not push my luck any further and headed back to Pete’s cubicle. I walked up on an argument between him and Madelyn.

“What if your test rats have escaped and that’s why the blutom is currently loose in the city. Don’t you want to know?”

Pete shook his head. “We’re at least five miles from the Karrow hotel. No way would the rats travel that far in just one night. No, what’s happening outside was caused by something different. Besides, even if it is the rats—and I’m not saying it is—what difference does it make? It’s out already. We need to contain it. That should be our first focus.”

“We must find the source of the leak—”

“Hey guys,” I interjected. “We’re not alone on the floor.”

“What?” Pete hissed as he paled. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him. How could the man still be so worried about his job when it was the safety of the city and the nation he ought to be concerned about. “Who’s here? Where did you see them?”

I pointed at the office and Pete’s face paled even further, if that was possible.

“Director Pratt is here? You guys have to get out of here. He isn’t going to be—”

“Pleased to find that you brought a bunch of friends to work with you?”

We all turned. Pratt was a tall man with glasses. His lanky arms and bony shoulders gave the impression that he had very little muscle. His frown deepened when he took in the box Madelyn held.

“Mr. Sanders, is that blutom?” Pratt asked in a tight, clipped voice. “What is it doing outside of the lab?”

Pete stood up. The two of them were about the same height, but Pete looked like he would be able to break the other man in half.

It was Pete that was cowering, though. “It’s not what you think. We were bringing it back.”

“Why did you take it out in the first place?” Pratt’s eyes narrowed as Pete broke out in a sweat. “You do realize this is treason.” His mouth seemed to stumble around the word as if he wasn’t sure on the exact pronunciation of it. I studied Pratt, trying to decide where he got his accent. It didn’t sound exactly Russian, but it couldn’t be far off. Perhaps he was from one of the neighboring countries. He motioned with his hand towards us. “All of you are in violation of federal law.”

“It shifted into some people and they escaped,” Pete said, “chasing me all the way to my dorm.”

“Impossible.” Pratt’s face was devoid of emotion, but his eyes were burning.

“It’s true,” I said, trying to not cower as he turned his gaze on me. “We helped him kill the monsters.”

Director Pratt’s eyebrows rose until they disappeared into his gray hair. “Sanders. Explain. Now.”

“I had just come from the lab.”

“What were you doing there in the first place? Who let you in.”

Pete’s forehead was drenched now and he was studiously avoiding eye contact with any of us. “I was checking the green samples. Alicia—Er, I mean Doctor Garbet was with me as well. I was helping her. After Doctor Garbet went down to the bullpen, I came here to catch up on some work when I was attacked in the stairwell. They had the blood film and were howling. I am surprised that you didn’t hear it. It was quite loud.”

Pete paused as if to give Pratt a chance to explain why he had missed the commotion but the director stared until Pete continued on.

“Well, they chased me and I ran. They followed me all the way back to my dorm where they attacked us.”

“And you expect me to believe that is all the blutom left after you liberated it from the bodies?” Pratt nodded toward the box. “Did you burn the rest of it? What happened to the corpses? Why didn’t you call in the containment team?”

Pete gulped. “I didn’t have the number.”

Pratt shook his head. “And in your haste to resolve the situation you decided to come back here with your friends. Do you realize you’ve broken half a dozen federal laws tonight? Not to mention violated a dozen other company policies.”

I was beginning to feel bad for Pete. We had insisted on coming with him and had refused to take no for an answer. All of the sudden his stonewalling took on a different light. There was some culpability on our parts in all of this as well. I was about to speak up but Madelyn must have figured out what I was planning to do. She grabbed my hand. When I looked at her, she shook her head and gave me a squeeze.

What was I missing?

“My actions are defensible.” Pete was turning red now. “Every single one of them. Our nation is under attack tonight and they came with me to ensure I could make it in here and get the number for the containment team.”

“Something you should already have had on hand. Three specimens escaping hardly qualifies as a threat to our nation—”

Hold on, did he say specimens? That implied that they were undertaking human experimentation. Had Pete lied about that?

I cleared my throat. It had a jarring effect on Pratt, who seemed to have forgotten about the rest of us as he’d focused in on his castigation of Pete.

“Uh,” I said, “haven’t you been watching the news? Times Square?”

“Pete,” Pratt said, “what have you done?”

“This isn’t my fault. It has to be that burglary. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.”

“Or it could be we haven’t been stringent enough in our hiring processes. Get out of here, all of you.”

Pete opened his mouth, clearly intending to say something more to Pratt but then he thought better of it and spoke to us instead. “Come on guys, it’s time to go. This is Director Pratt’s mess now.”

Pratt folded his arms and looked at us each in turn. “If I ever see any of you here again there are going to be consequences. For this time only, I will let it slide. Sanders, I’ll deal with you on Monday. Pray that I don’t decide to bring the authorities in on this.”

I didn’t move. “What assurances do we have you are going to be able to handle this situation? People are dying.”

Pratt’s eyebrows rose up into his hair again. “You question me?” His eyes were on fire again but his face didn’t show a hint of emotion.

“Come on, Buckshot,” Pete said. “Let’s go. It’s okay. He knows who to call.”

“Has this containment team of yours ever fought against a blutom monster?” I asked. “We have hands on experience. It’s in your best interest to not send us away but to use what we know to your benefit. Give me ten minutes with your containment team and they’ll be able to avoid a bunch of blunders. It might even save their lives.”

“Go now. My patience is dwindling and I’m a heartbeat away from calling the police.”

I snorted. “They’re too busy trying to save the town.” A large hand grabbed me from behind and I reached for the pistol hid under my coat until I realized that it was Pete.

“It’s going to be fine, Buckshot. This is on him.”

I’d known Pete for a long time and I could always tell when there was something more going on than he was letting on. It was part of the reason why I had been so persistent with him earlier. I’d known he was holding back. He still was, despite everything that we’d already learned. Something in the tone of his voice set my skin crawling as his fingers dug into my arm.

As I let him pull me away, I looked back but Pratt had already gone.

Pete sped up as we walked. “That wasn’t Director Pratt. It was a really good imitation of him.” He shook his head, swearing. “But he knew my name and clearance level. This is not good. And it also explains a lot.”

“He’s been shifted,” I said.

“Yep, and it’s been that way for months, possibly years. He conducted the investigation after the blutom was stolen. No wonder why we never found it.” That wasn’t everything, there was something more. I didn’t doubt it. It was as if a question he’d long sought the answer for had just been found.

“Didn’t you say that nobody took a vacation right afterward?”

“That’s exactly my point.” Pete was avoiding eye contact. “He was the one that told us that. There were days when he didn’t come out of his office. The rumor went around that he’d been sleeping here, stressed about finding the missing blutom.” Pete chuckled mirthlessly to himself. “That whole time he could have been shifting, right under our noses. It was that or he was protecting somebody else.”

Chapter 16

THE DOOR TO the stairwell slammed shut behind us before Pete finally let go of the death grip he had on my arm. His hair was slick with sweat and he looked more scared than he had all day. He hadn’t been afraid when fighting all the blutom monsters. During the course of the evening, it was Madelyn and me that had bothered him the most. If anything, he’d almost seemed to enjoy the hand-to-hand combat with the monsters.

“What makes you so certain he’s shifted?” I asked.

Pete gulped down a breath. “It was his eyes, they’ve changed color to black. The same thing happened in the rats.”

“Don’t rats already have black eyes?” I asked.

“Some do,” Pete admitted, “but after shifting every rat had black eyes.”

“Other than being pissed at you, he seemed normal enough to me.” Madelyn folded her arms. “Perhaps you imagined it.”

“The rat eyes always changed color once the process of shifting was done.” He paused for emphasis. “Always. Pratt’s eyes were blue before.”

“I don’t know, Slammer,” I said. “I have to agree with Mad on this one. He didn’t appear to have above normal human intelligence.”

“That was the effect in rats. We don’t know what happens with humans. Rats have inherent physical limitations that kept us from fully testing their capabilities.”

“I thought you said they were self-aware?”

“They are. Or at least that is the theory. But it’s not as if rats have a tongue or lips that are going to allow them—we’re going off track. Pratt has shifted.”

“The guy seemed off to me.” We all looked at Ron. “What, can’t I have an opinion too? I was holding a shotgun. He didn’t seem alarmed or bothered. Any normal person would have freaked at an armed man. He barely gave me a second look.”

We all continued to stare at him. He was right, of course. Pratt not being bothered by the shotgun was a big deal.

“He might not have seen it,” Madelyn said. “You weren’t pointing it at him and he was focused on Pete.”

Ron looked to the side and muttered. “It wasn’t normal.”

“Ron’s got a point,” I said, looking at each of us with fresh eyes. All of us had at least one gas can. Anyplace we could stuff a Molotov cocktail had been used. My pack was another oddity and I had cocktails stuffed in every possible crevice. Pratt should have noticed all of this and been alarmed. He hadn’t even looked at any of our armaments. “That’s a solid point. Assuming then that Pratt—”

“This is unbelievable,” Pete said, shaking his head. “It’s the squirt that tried to kill us an hour ago that you believe.”

“Do you really want to get into questions of credibility?” Madelyn growled. “This coming from the man who can’t decide if he’s going to tell the truth or lie from minute to minute. Leave him alone. We’re convinced. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? Besides, his argument is based on an observation that we all saw, not your wily tongue. I can’t decide if you’re still trying to hold things back because of your contract or if you’re actively trying to deceive us for your own reasons. Don’t think I forgot about the fact that you pretended you didn’t want to go to the lab instead of telling us that you didn’t have access.”

“Why am I—”

“Stop it,” I said, “both of you. Focus on what’s important. If Pratt has shifted, he’s not going to be calling in the containment team. We have got to get that moving. Is there another way to get the contact information? Do you have access to another computer somewhere else where you can obtain it?”

Pete licked his lips and looked at Madelyn. “The only floor I have access to is this one.”

“Would your login credentials work on another computer or does it have to be the one at your desk?”

Pete thought about it. “I’m not sure. My guess is that the only place my password works is at my computer. I know what you’re thinking, let’s try and find our way onto another floor.” He shook his head. “It won’t work. I’m positive now. My first day I watched the tech guy set up my account. The only place I have access is my computer.”

“Was the information printed out anywhere?” Madelyn asked. “Maybe in a break room or at a receptionist desk?”

“No.”

“You had a bunch of numbers on your wall,” Ron said. “What’s that all about?” He was mimicking Madelyn’s tone of contempt, perhaps he felt like Pete was his competition. I wondered what Ron would think when he learned that she and I used to go out.

“Those are the interoffice numbers. The numbers we need come from a different list.”

“You don’t have the contact information for anybody else from work?” Madelyn asked. “There wasn’t a girl you dated? A guy you went for drinks with? Nothing?”

“Nope. Sorry. The people I knew outside of work are all in pieces back in the dorm bathroom. Our only options are to go back through that door or come up with another plan.” He looked at me. “The news of Times Square has gone national. The team is probably already active.”

I held up my hand and ticked off three fingers. “It’s the early hours of the morning. We just learned one of your directors has shifted. And there are monsters loose in town. Do you really want to just hope everything is going to be okay?

“What’s so special about this containment team, anyway?” Ron asked. “As Morty said, we have the practical hands-on experience.”

I growled at his use of Madelyn’s nickname for me. She gave me an apologetic look while Pete beamed at the awkwardness of Ron calling me by her pet name. Whenever I introduced myself it was always as my middle name, Arnold. While we’d been dating, I had tolerated Madelyn’s use of her version of my first name, but I wasn’t about to let this pipsqueak adopt it as his. I opened my mouth but Pete cut me off.

“The team should have already thought through the scenarios,” Pete said. “They might have developed another method of fighting the blutom monsters that doesn’t risk burning everything to the ground.”

I set down my pack, pulled out my shotgun and racked a shell into the chamber. It felt good to have it in my hands again. If Ron called me Morty again…

No, I couldn’t even pretend I wanted to shoot him after all the monsters I’d shot today. There had already been too much carnage and mayhem.

“Let’s get going,” I said. “Mad and Ron, you stay here with the pack and the extra gas cans. Have a few Molotov cocktails ready just in case.” I grabbed one of the containers of gas. As I hefted it, I wondered again at Pratt’s lack of suspicion towards us. It was amazing he’d even approached us, considering everything we’d had. Each of us has been carrying at least one container of gas. To a normal person, we must have looked like we were planning to torch the place.

Pratt hadn’t commented on Ron’s gun or the gas or the cocktails. He’d also taken the opportunity to dress down Pete. Not the actions of a normal person who would have taken one look at what we were carrying and called the police.

“How would the monster know things about you that only Pratt would have known?” I asked. “When they take over the body do they have access to the memories of their host as well?”

“We don’t think so. We did a bunch of research on whether or not the shifted rats maintained their memories and it was conclusive that they didn’t.”

“But if the rats are self-aware,” Madelyn said, “they might have hidden what they know.”

Pete shook his head. “It’s possible but I don’t think that is the case. You should see what the blutom does to their brains, it basically turns it to mush. No, there’s probably another explanation. Every single thing Pratt mentioned can be found in the employee files, the operations manual, or company handbook.” He frowned. “Now that I think about it I don’t know that Director Pratt—the real one—has ever called me by name before. Guys, I’m certain. He’s shifted.”

“I hope you’re right.” I held a jug of gas out to Pete. “If he finds us again, I’ll wait for you to drench him first.”

“The shifted rats are not nearly as aggressive. Let’s hope it works the same way in humans.” Pete still took the jug I offered him and picked another up off the floor.

I knelt and opened the door. “Stay below the cubicles.” With a look that said he wasn’t stupid, Pete went through at a crouch, I followed after I warned the others to be careful. Madelyn rolled her eyes as I disappeared. They both probably thought I was stating the obvious, but as we had so little room for error, I would prefer to annoy them then have something happen because of a stupid mistake.

I eased the door shut after me, careful to hold the handle as the latch clicked back into place. The sound seemed to reverberate through the air and I clenched my teeth as I brought up my shotgun and looked around.

The floor was silent.

Chapter 17

I WAS TEMPTED to look above the cubicles to see if Pratt was in his office, but refrained from doing so. I imagined him standing at the window, having just seen the door open and shut without anybody entering the room.

He could be heading our way now.

My heartbeat thudded in my ears and I could smell the sweat coming off Pete from where he crouched several steps away.

“I’ll go around the corner,” I said, “make sure it’s clear, and then you go to your desk.” I looked at the bright red gasoline containers. “Leave one with me, just in case. You’ll also move faster that way.”

Pete shook his head, glaring at me. “Don’t be cavalier with the gas. This isn’t like the cement box we call home. A fire in here will do a lot of damage. I’ll want the data we have here if things really are going to hell. All I need is a minute. My computer is booted up, I just have to log in and get the information. Use your shotgun to hold Pratt at bay. That gas is only a last resort.”

I didn’t reply as I poked my head around the corner because I didn’t like his tone. I wanted to point out there were sprinklers on the ceiling and the greater danger was they could keep us from being able to kill Pratt, but it wasn’t time for an argument.

Pete was right, we just needed to get the contact information and go.

The way was clear so I waved Pete forward.

“Remember, gas is the last resort.” His whisper was barely audible and when I didn’t respond he looked like he was on the verge of repeating himself. I nodded and motioned for him to go. I’d heard him the first time. Just because I’d burned that ball of blutom back in our dorm, he now assumed that I was some kind of sick pyro. I didn’t appreciate his assumption but tried to push away my annoyance.

Pete moved like a three-legged dog, holding the gas with one hand and using the other to crawl forward. I hadn’t noticed before that the floor was carpeted, but I was glad to see that it was dampening Pete’s movements. I could still hear him as he slid across the carpet, but I doubted anybody further than ten or fifteen feet away would hear anything.

Just before Pete got to his desk a dog howled from inside the room. Its bloodcurdling cry was answered by two others. Figuring that our moment of surprise had passed, I sprung to my feet as Pete quickly closed the distance to his desk.

I thought about the smell I’d noticed earlier and wished I’d thought to mention it to Pete. Still, I couldn’t help but feel irritated Pete hadn’t been forthcoming about the fact that there were guard dogs on the premises. Intentional or not, what else had he not told us?

I spun around in place, trying to pinpoint the direction the dogs would come from. The cubicles, combined with the enclosed space of the office, made it very difficult to get a bead on them. Pratt was looking through the window of his office as I climbed up onto the nearest cubicle desk in hopes of seeing our new attackers before they got to us.

From my peripheral vision, I saw Pratt open his door but go no further. A brief glance didn’t tell me much other than that he was watching me through slitted eyes. It would have been enough to make my blood run cold if my heart wouldn’t have been beating more than a hundred times a minute.

Even though I assumed Pratt knew Pete was here as well, I decided I wouldn’t call out to Pete unless it was necessary to save his life. If Pratt knew what Pete was up to, he might approach and we’d have to deal with him as well as the dogs.

A dog whipped around the corner of the next row of cubicles and a cold sweat immediately covered my forehead.

This wasn’t just a guard dog.

It was in the process of losing its fur. Most of what was on its head had fallen off and the blood film gave it a garish cast.

There was no hesitation on my part as I fired off a shot, aiming for the legs and leading just ahead of it in the way I did when I shot clay pigeons at the range. Even though it was loud and my ears rang afterward, the concussion from my weapon was a comforting sound. The front right leg and shoulder of the dog turned to a twisted mess of blutom, sinew, and bone. The dog rolled but then was back on its feet and continued to come on three legs.

I pumped back on the shotgun, ejecting a shell, and then loaded another as I aimed for the body. I’d become used to fighting the larger boned human variety of the monster and hadn’t taken into consideration the smaller body of the dog. I squeezed the trigger—

“Slammer! Behind you.”

Cursing and letting up on the trigger, I spun around as another dog rounded the corner of the cubicle and jumped up onto the desk with me. Lashing out with my foot, I caught it in the jaw and sent it sprawling onto the floor. As it came back up, I lined up my shotgun and fired. The head and front part of the dog was ripped up as if I’d sent it through a blender. The back legs were still in decent enough shape that the monster twisted around and came at me tail first. As it sprang up, I kicked it back.

In my hurry to find high ground I’d left the container of gas on the floor and I regretted not bringing it up with me. Another shot into the rear hindquarters of what was left didn’t stop it from wiggling around but did put an end to its ability to jump. By that time the three-legged dog had joined it.

I was surprised to note the marked difference between the two dogs. The one I’d blown apart had been a smaller dog. Perhaps my assumption these animals had been guard dogs was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t another example of Pete holding something back after all.

Howls filled the air and echoed around the enclosed room, causing the hair on the back of my neck to stand on end. How many of the cursed animals were there?

“There’s two more coming from behind.” Pete stood on the desk of the next cubicle over. With everything else going on I hadn’t noticed his approach. I hoped he’d had enough time to get the phone number of the containment team because I doubted we were going to have another chance at getting to his computer.

“You got your gas?”

Pete shook his head ruefully as he held it up. “Looks like the only way out is going to be setting the place on fire anyway.” He said it in such a way that implied he expected me to be happy to burn something else.

“Light up what’s left of the dogs on the floor below us.” I sprung off my desk to one across the way so that I wouldn’t have Pete directly in my line of fire. The first of the two newcomers howled and I almost laughed at the site. It was a little chihuahua. The one beside it might have been a German shepherd before it had shifted, but it was hard to tell with all the fur gone.

I had two more shells before I would be empty. Trusting that Pete could deal with what was left of those on the floor beneath us. I took a deep breath to calm my nerves and inhaled the ghastly smell of carnage. Trying to not let the gagging get to me, I rested my front hand on the cubicle wall to steady my arm and fired, aiming square for the chest of the shepherd.

It was satisfying to see the front of it shred into dozens of pieces. The head was badly mangled and both eyes were now missing. One of the legs was ripped clean off, but the other was left largely untouched. The Chihuahua lunged forward as the shepherd took a dive. It arrived below me and leaped, but didn’t make it even halfway up the length of the desk.

Keeping my eye on the shepherd, I aimed for its back legs and fired. I missed, the buckshot ripping to shreds the cubicle wall that had been the backstop for my shot. A large hole appeared in the padded wall.

Cursing, I slung my shotgun over my shoulder and switched to my pistol, firing without aiming. The force of the shot sent it careening under the desk of the closest cubicle. Bits of blutom, flesh, and bone flew back and covered the cubicle.

I felt the hot barrel of my shotgun resting against by back. Why hadn’t I opted to get the extended magazine tube? I couldn’t remember, but it seemed now to have been one of my stupider decisions. If I got out of this alive, that was going to become a top priority. I also wished I’d thought to pull my bandolier over my head, but it was back in my bag. I hadn’t thought that getting the phone number would be so involved.

“Fire in the hole.” Pete had made a wad of paper from a pad of sticky notes he’d pilfered from the cubicle and had lit it on fire. I recognized the smell of gas and saw Pete’s empty canister as the burning wad fell to the floor. It had been there for the last minute or so but I’d been too preoccupied to notice. The floor was covered with paper, books, and even a blanket that Pete had managed to wrangle up from somewhere.

Pete covered his eyes as flames sprang to life on the mangled moving remnants of the dogs below us on the floor. The Chihuahua howled as it was engulfed as well. Call me sick or cold blooded, but the little runt’s cry was music to my ears.

My joy was short lived. It wasn’t as sharp as it should have been.

I’d been on the fence as to whether or not these monsters felt pain but as I watched the last remaining fur on the small dog burn away and its flesh turn to blackened char, it looked a lot like the dog was howling in alarm. It wasn’t shrill enough to reflect pain.

When the Chihuahua’s howl was answered by a chorus, I let out a long string of curse words. I’d been hoping we were almost done with what Pratt had to throw at us.

Pete flashed a smile, which looked strange on his soot stained face. “Man, Buckshot, I haven’t ever heard you curse like that. I think I learned a few new ones.”

“I’m out of shells.” I looked down at my pistol. I didn’t know how many rounds were Ieft in the magazine, but I had another full magazine in my pocket. I would have felt a great deal better with a fully loaded shotgun. “I wasn’t expecting this to turn into rise of the dog zombies. A minute, indeed. You get what you needed?”

“Yep, I got the number and a couple of others. I was hoping to get more but…” He shrugged and looked around, not needing to finish the thought.

Pratt’s office was empty.

“You see where Pratt went?” I asked.

Pete shook his head.

I sighed. The dogs weren’t too us yet, but it wouldn’t be long before they came into view. All of the animals had come from over by the executive suite. I wondered if there had a been a kennel in one of the offices and that is what I’d smelled earlier.

A pack of dogs turned the corner and it was Pete’s turn to swear. There were five animals and they were all the size of Great Danes. I echoed his sentiments but I was busy lining up my sights on the first dog, aiming for a shoulder. My shot did significant damage, ripping out large chunks of flesh, but the beast kept coming.

“Run!” I jumped down from the cubicle, intentionally landing on the yapping blackened charred Chihuahua. There was something satisfying about the way all the bones in the body snapped as I landed. I doubted it would be getting up again anytime soon. We were thirty feet away from the door but we were out of options and I didn’t know what else to do. Pete vaulted over the wall of his cubicle into the row on the other side.

I scooped up the gas container I’d abandoned earlier. Holding my pistol with my thumb and forefingers I used the rest of my fingers to unscrew the top. The liquid sloshed up onto me as I ran, I cringed when some of it got onto my pistol.

Things just kept getting worse. I didn’t dare fire my pistol while it was covered in gas. It shouldn’t be longer than a few minutes before most of it had evaporated, but we could be dead by that time. Knowing I could do nothing else with it, I holstered my pistol and fished out my lighter.

We were halfway to the door when the pack came around the corner. I emptied the gas on the floor while flicking the lighter to life. I was careful to hold it away from me and prayed that fumes from my hand weren’t bad enough to catch fire.

The dogs were five feet away when I stepped back and reached out to light the gas. The hounds pulled to a stop as flames roared to life. Not knowing how long it would stop them, I ran towards the door.

Pete was already there and had snatched away Ron’s shotgun from the lad. He was pointing it my direction.

“Don’t shoot!” I cried, but it was already too late. Two pellets tore into the flesh of my arm and shoulder. Another grazed my cheek. The next moment, I was on Pete, ripping the weapon out of his hands and shoving him through the door as I followed.

I yanked it shut. Seconds later the dogs were barking on the other side.

“What’s wrong with you?” I shouted. “You could have taken an eye!”

Pete stood his ground as he pulled out his phone. “They were right behind you. That little trick of yours with the gas didn’t do a thing to stop them.”

I about slammed him into the wall, but he held up his hand and pointed to his phone.

“I need to call the containment team.”

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Books by Dan Decker

Science Fiction & Fantasy

War of the Fathers Universe

[_Prequel: Blood of the Redd Guard _]

Volume One: War of the Fathers

Volume Two: Lord of the Inferno

Other Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Containment Team

Thrillers

[+Jake Ramsey Thrillers +]

Black Brick

Dark Spectrum (Coming Soon)

About the Author

Dan Decker lives in Utah with his family. He has a law degree and spends as much time as he can outdoors. You can learn more about upcoming novels at dandeckerbooks.com.

Blood of the Redd Guard – Sample Chapters

Adar Rahid has only been a general for two months, but his problems are already multiplying. He has his hands full with a father who wants to kill him and Helam Morgol, another general who is secretly laying plans to take over the Rarbon city government.

 

When Adar encounters a gang of bandits brazenly robbing and murdering merchants in his territory he suspects that there is more going on than just a simple robbery. His fears are quickly confirmed when a murder perpetrated by a hidden organization known as the Kopal pulls him into a conflict with Helam where the future of the city is at stake.

 

While events unfold Adar Rahid struggles to find a distinction between his methods and those employed by Helam Morgol as both take drastic actions to gain the upper hand.

 

Readers are taken on an adventure between dueling generals in this tale of epic fantasy and science fiction. This action packed story is based in the War of the Fathers universe and happens twenty three years before the events in War of the Fathers. Read the first three chapters below!

Chapter 1

1,169 Years Since the Severing

Adar Rahid squinted through the early evening light as the wind blew dust into his face that had been kicked up by his horse. He stared at the remains of the ship while a hundred questions ran through his mind. The metal behemoth was rust covered and half buried in the ground. It was too large to move and too large to ignore.

How did they get those things up in the air? It wasn’t his first time seeing the ship and it wouldn’t be the last time unanswerable questions assailed him.

A scream broke his concentration and he looked at the road ahead and was surprised to see a caravan of merchants. He’d been so engrossed in studying the ship that he’d forgotten to pay attention to the road. Sweat dripped into his eyes while he tried to make out the commotion and he blinked through the stinging sensation.

A grunt from behind caught his attention as another rider came to a stop beside him.

“A robbery in progress?” Maual asked. There was a hint of a challenge in the older man’s tone that Adar had become accustomed to in the last couple of weeks. Adar still wasn’t certain if this was on purpose, or if it was just how the man was. That, combined with the way Maual kept his graying hair tied back in a ponytail, and the woman’s silver ruby necklace he wore about his neck, made him a bit of a puzzle. He wasn’t the only oddity in the army of men Adar had been commissioned to lead, but he was among the most intriguing.

There was a story about the necklace, Adar was certain, but he hadn’t yet tried to learn it. The lengthy hair would have been a bigger problem if Maual were a new draftee just filling his term, but he had taken the oaths and it had been customary to give the oath takers a bit more leeway.

“Probably,” Adar said. When Maual nodded in agreement, Adar picked up a hint of something that he couldn’t place. Had Maual been testing his read of the situation?

Pushing his concerns about the man away, Adar turned his attention back to the scene ahead where there was a flurry of activity inside a grove of trees that he couldn’t quite make out. Several wagons were pulled off the road and one had tipped over. He focused on the overturned wagon, trying to determine the cause. The horse team stood nearby in the brush. Had it been run off the road? Broken a wheel?

He frowned when what sounded like screaming and yelling made it to his ears. In between the trees he could make out flashes of running men. It was a bit closer to Rarbon than the other reported attacks had been. The thieves were becoming far more brazen. Even though the Rarbon city walls were still more than a couple of miles away, they loomed high enough in the dusky skyline that it was a formidable sight. That alone should have struck fear in the heart of anybody daring to make the roads a dangerous place.

It wasn’t too long ago when the thought of highway robbery this close to Rarbon would have been unthinkable, but times had changed. The Radim armies weren’t as respected as they once had been.

A sudden piercing scream removed any remaining doubt from his mind. He made a swirling motion with two fingers in the air that the men closest to him mimicked so that the others would see. With that sign, he communicated to his men that the first and second squads would go ahead while the third would follow behind after a few minutes. Normally, he would have sent a squad around the side to come from the other direction but this close to the wall there wasn’t a need. Whoever was doing this would know that the guards at the gate would never let them through with a Radim patrol hot on their tail.

It had been a long several days of travel and even though Adar had been moving his men fast to ensure their arrival at Rarbon before evening, they looked ready and alert. Tomorrow was the first day that the Rarbon Council would meet since Adar had made his claim to become Ghar. The first task could be assigned at that time. There was also the matter of the ball as well. Adar hated social gatherings, but he didn’t have many opportunities for socializing and it would be a good thing for him to make an appearance at his father’s party. Perhaps he might even hear a rumor about what the Council would have him do.

It galled him to be beholden to the Council for the challenges he would have to face to assert his birthright. Growling to himself, he tried to push the thought away but was unable to do so.

While it was unlikely that the assignment would be made the next day, he didn’t want to waste a moment’s time in fulfilling it. Rarbon had been too long without a Ghar and he was determined to be the first Rahid set apart as Ghar in living memory.

The world was about to change—Adar could feel it coming every time he looked up into the sky—and he would need to be Ghar if they were going to have half a chance. If Semal was to be believed, the time of the Hunwei’s foretold return was at hand and they weren’t prepared. The best shot they had at defeating their enemy was getting into the Rarbon Portal, which was something he could do once he was made Ghar.

“Bandits or more fake Radim, General?” asked a low voice from beside him on the left.

Adar looked over as Tere Heul rode up on his black and white horse; he was the default leader of the first squad. While Tere was shorter than Adar, he was still of about average height. The muscular man had been at Adar’s side since they’d both enlisted in the Radim at age fifteen. The dirty blonde hair that had framed his face as a boy was now kept short and wasn’t much longer than the few days growth of stubble on his face. Tere’s dull green uniform was older but still managed to look as crisp as the new one that Adar had donned before setting out on the patrol. The patch with a red horned toad on Tere’s shoulder that signified Napael Army was a match for the red cord he had wrapped around the hilt of his Radim sword that peeked over his shoulder.

In answer to Tere’s question, Adar shook his head while bringing up his hand forming a fist. Adar hadn’t witnessed the Radim imposters first hand but he didn’t doubt that the stories were true. He clenched his hand tighter at the thought of the deception. In order to restore the Radim to the glory of old, his first order of business would be to eradicate these men claiming to be Radim. No one doing such damage could be allowed to remain unchecked.

These attacks had been going on for the last month, starting right after Adar had been made General. The first one had been a grisly affair, with a merchant family of six dead, their goods pilfered and their wagons burned. Since that time, there had been half a dozen more. While some of the marauders had clashed with the Radim, none of the bands had been eradicated though the altercations had left men dead on either side. The captured bandits hadn’t survived for longer than a day in Rarbon. So far there had been three captives and each had died before they could be brought before the Rarbon Council. The first had been found poisoned in his cell, the second had died from a wound he’d taken during his capture, and the third had taken an arrow through the neck as he was being transported before the Council.

The fact that the attacks coincided with Adar’s assent and that the captives were ending up dead made him suspicious that this was somehow related to his commission.

He frowned as he watched his men prepare to attack the bandits. His original plan had been to return tomorrow, but he’d had an uneasy feeling for the last couple of weeks that there was a spy close to him. So he’d decided to return today, curious to see if anything interesting would turn up. It was an added bonus that he was back in time for the ball tonight and would be on hand if the Council reached a decision. Perhaps the spy would be surprised to see Adar back so soon and make a mistake that would give him away.

If the attack they were about to interfere with was by the same men pretending to be Radim, this would be the second attack this week. The first group of bandits had escaped unscathed, even though General Smeth of Korew army had sent her best after them.

That wouldn’t be the case today, even if Adar and his men had to spend the next week chasing after them. Tere brought his hand forward to a fist as he kicked his horse into a gallop. The other men in the first and second squads formed a column of four abreast behind Tere as they bore down on the grove of trees.

The men from the remaining groups spread out. After a moment’s hesitation, Adar spoke to Colonel Lucas Brandesutter who waited several feet away. The tall lanky balding man didn’t speak much. He was the sort that preferred his actions to do the talking for him. Adar wondered if the Redd Guard had ever tried to recruit him. He’d fit into their ranks perfectly. The Redd Guard were known for their silence and the sense of intrigue they went to great lengths to cultivate. In many ways, Lucas reminded him of the aloof organization and Adar was afraid that the man would be recruited while Adar wasn’t watching.

“I’m going ahead with the others,” Adar said to Lucas, “if they make a break for it, capture as many as you can but kill them rather than let them escape.” Lucas raised an eyebrow at the last part of the command but didn’t open his mouth as he nodded.

Adar kicked his stallion—Slasher—into a gallop. Like Tere’s animal, Slasher was black covered in white spots. Several of the spots along Slasher’s side had reminded Adar of long crooked daggers when he’d chosen the name.

Slasher quickly covered the distance and closed the gap between Adar and the men he’d sent ahead. As he neared the grove of trees he had a better view of where the merchant’s wagons had left the road, tossing their contents when they’d done so.

There were several bodies in the grass to the side that hadn’t been visible before, a man and a woman. By the look of their dress they were more likely to be merchants than thieves. Gripping Slasher’s reins, he kicked the horse ahead and didn’t look down as he passed the bodies.

In a short amount of time Adar’s men had managed to take control of the scene. Several of the thieves were trying to put up a fight, but Adar could tell that they weren’t used to dealing with people that fought back.

Maual was fighting a tall broad shouldered man that had almost a foot on him. Adar gritted his teeth when he noticed that the big man was wearing a Radim uniform. He’d already known that the rumors were true, but it was one thing to have heard about it and quite another to witness it firsthand. Did these men know that the penalty for this crime was death? Adar doubted they did. That, combined with the bodies they’d left on the road would leave Adar with few options. He hoped that others would learn from the example he’d make of these men.

The big man dueling with Maual had a shaved head and even from this distance, Adar could make out an earring that looked like a fish hook that was skewering a small dead bird. The hook went in at the tail feathers and out the mouth. The entire piece looked to be made from copper. He’d seen it’s like before in a coastal city that he couldn’t remember the name of. If his memory was correct it was a symbol of a gang known for its fondness of initiation rituals that left two out of three dead. He spent several seconds, trying to remember their name, but it wouldn’t come to him.

Judging by the big guy’s unique fighting style, Adar figured he’d stolen the earring. Whoever he was, he wasn’t a Radim and he probably didn’t belong to the coastal gang. If Rarbon had been closer to the coast the man would have been too afraid to wear the earring.

Anybody who had ever been to Rarbon would have known that the Radim weren’t allowed jewelry, not even the female soldiers were allowed such things. At that moment, Maual’s necklace glinted in a ray of sunlight that made its way through the trees. Well, nobody that hadn’t taken the oaths.

Maual looked like he had the situation in hand, so Adar left him to it and instead focused on several merchants that were beginning to get their bearings. Two men and one woman. One of the men looked like a guard and he was bleeding from the side of his head. The others looked like the merchant and his wife. The merchant was pudgy and his wife was more than a head shorter than him. Both were tan and their black hair looked as though the sun had bleached it on top. Their wagon had tipped over and the contents were spilled out into the long patchy grass. Adar could make out small red peppers among the produce and stifled a groan. The traders were from Karchack. Even if his men had arrived in time to prevent the attack, this would still have been a delicate situation.

As it was, it looked like they’d arrived on the tail end of the bandit’s efforts. The contents of the other wagon had been tossed to the ground where more produce and bolts of cloth littered the sparse grass. Adar doubted the thieves had been happy when they discovered they’d hijacked a bunch of fabric, peppers, potatoes and cabbages.

Tere was already off his horse and had several of the bandits standing to one side while the other men were continuing to secure the scene. Some of the thieves were lying face down with arrows sticking out their backs but, most were alive.

“Attacked by Radim and then saved by Radim,” said the short merchant’s wife. Her husband and their guard were examining the overturned wagon to see if they could right it. She was crouched down doing her best to gather up the peppers. Now that he was closer he could make out slashes of gray in her black hair, but she still had a youthful appearance. As a younger woman, she would have turned heads. Even now she still did, Adar noticed that several of his men were glancing her way a bit too often. She looked up at Adar. “Your hospitality leaves much to be desired.”

It was strange that neither she nor her husband were grieving over their dead traveling companions, perhaps they were still stunned by what had happened. If she was looking for an apology, she’d been saved by the wrong man. Adar wasn’t about to apologize for something done by others.

“Your assailants stole our uniforms,” Adar said while getting off Slasher, doing his best to keep the heat out of his voice. Upon a moment’s reflection, he decided that his tone had sounded too much like a sneer. It wasn’t her fault that she’d been attacked, but he suspected she’d been to Rarbon enough to know these men weren’t soldiers. He turned to his nearest men, Petor and Regory. “Get that wagon up and help them with their wares.”

The woman muttered a thank you that was barely audible and the merchant nodded his head as Adar walked over to Tere, leaving Slasher to graze on the dry grass.

A woman shrieked, drawing Adar’s attention. The merchant’s wife was pointing down the road. Her husband encircled her in his arms as she buried her head into his chest. Adar’s lips became taut as her cry pierced him.

By that time, Maual had managed to disarm the big fellow. The others had been subdued as well and brought to stand before Tere.

Adar walked up to the big man and pointed at the spot where the patch would have been signifying his army.

“What army?” When the man didn’t respond, Adar unsheathed his sword and brought it to the neck of the man. “The penalty for impersonating a Radim is death.”

“Korew.” It came out as grunt; the man was still trying to catch his breath.

A round of grim laughter broke out among Adar’s men, but Adar didn’t smile. The man had sealed his own death sentence. “The only people allowed into Korew army wear dresses off duty.”

The man panicked, his eyes growing wide. If he didn’t know enough about the Radim to know which armies enlisted women, there was no need to carry on the interview to determine his guilt. Adar did want to know more about who was behind all this, but that could wait until he’d dealt with the situation.

“Should we bind them?” Tere asked. The normal custom would have been to bring these men before the Rarbon Council where they would be put on trial.

Adar hesitated and surveyed the ragged bunch of men. There had been eleven total, three of whom lay dead on the ground. Of the other eight, one was wounded and would die if he didn’t receive medical attention soon. If he took these men back to Rarbon, they would be under the Council’s jurisdiction and it would be a lengthy process of trials before they were hung. The outcome was certain with this many witnesses.

But, during that time, the problem would continue and Adar and the other generals would have to fight off these imposters. On top of everything else, the Council had been on the cusp of finishing a treaty negotiation with Karchack, it wouldn’t do if that was delayed because of what these merchants had been through today.

Technically speaking, this matter was his jurisdiction even though it was against custom for him to handle something like this so close to Rarbon.

The law was in line with what he wanted to do.

Looking back at the merchants, Adar shook his head. “Bring some rope. We’ll hang them here, all except that one.” He pointed at the man with the earring who’d claimed Korew army. “Once we’ve had a chance to talk with him, we’ll turn him over to the Council. Search him for poison or any other weapons, see that he has an armed escort of ten men at all times. When we get back to Rarbon, anytime he is transferred, he better be covered in armor from head to toe, and twenty men go before him to clear the rooftops. This one is going to make it before the Council alive.”

There were murmurs among Adar’s men and panicked sounds from the captives. Tere looked surprised and stepped closer, lowering his voice. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

Before Adar could respond, Lucas rode up with a prisoner laid across the horse before him. The rest of Adar’s men were behind him.

“Good work,” Adar said to Lucas as the man nodded while handing off his captive to several soldiers.

Tere took Adar by the arm and pulled him to the side. “This just isn’t done, especially this close to Rarbon.”

“It’s within my authority. I don’t like the thought of it any better than you, but there needs to be swift retribution for those that steal Radim uniforms and harass merchants.”

“There is more to it than that.” Tere gave Adar a knowing look.

Melyah. Adar thought. The man knew him too well. Adar had never spoken of his distrust for the Council, but Tere had picked up on it still the same. It also wasn’t common knowledge that there was a fracture between Adar and his father Abel, but somehow Tere had managed to ferret that out as well.

But this wasn’t about Adar thumbing his nose at the Council or trying to find a way to mend fences with his father, there was far more at stake than that. It was time that the Radim began to act in a fashion that demanded respect.

He knew full well that this would mean that the Council would give him as challenging of a task as the law would allow, but that was fine by him. When he was made Ghar he didn’t want it to be said that he’d walked through the trials with ease. No, he wanted people to know that he’d earned the right.

Adar grunted. “Two birds with a stone. Maybe three if I can manage it.” Maual approached carrying a rope and was tying the noose as he walked.

“Whatever trial the Council was going to give to you, when they learn about this you can expect them to scrap it and come back with something impossible.”

“I expect nothing less.”

Tere spat. “And what about me? I always end up bailing you out.”

Despite the grim situation and what they were about to do, Adar cracked a grin. “I’m more than sure you’re up for the job. Besides I take issue with your use of the word always. It’s been less than a handful of times.”

“More than it should have been to be sure. If you’d be patient a little more often, you wouldn’t need me.”

Stingeel! Adar thought, that’s the name of the gang. He studied the man with the Stingeel earring who had a distant look on his face that contrasted with those of the others who knew their deaths were imminent.

Steeling himself for what lay ahead, Adar didn’t respond to Tere as he took the rope from Maual. He wouldn’t let it be said of him that he was afraid to get his hands dirty. As distasteful as the task that lay before him was, he refused to make others do something that he wasn’t willing to do.

Chapter 2

It was almost sunset by the time they approached Rarbon and the burst of energy Adar had experienced right before they had dealt with the bandits had long since been spent.

His head hurt and he was covered with the remains of sweat from the heat and actions of the day. If he sniffed right, he could smell his own body odor. Perhaps a hot bath would be what he needed to take his mind off things. That was still a ways out though; there was much he needed to get done tonight. A question had struck him earlier; originally, he’d dismissed the timing of the attack as coincidence, but the thought kept coming back.

Why had the attack on the merchants happened in Napael territory today when he was out of town?

His decision to go on patrol had been made on the spur of the moment several days ago in the middle of the night. As he’d left, he’d given specific orders to anybody that had known about it that this trip was supposed to be kept confidential.

If somebody within Rarbon was behind the attacks, the best time to do something like this in the Napael territory was when he was gone.

“Bloody business, that,” Tere said, breaking into his thoughts. Tere was riding to the left of Adar and they were bringing up the rear of the patrol. “You gonna to tell the Council?”

“I’ll send a report when I turn him over.” Adar motioned to their captive who walked near the front of the group. His hands were bound and a noose was tied around his neck; the other end was held by Lucas.

After the first execution, Adar hadn’t said a word to the man, but he’d given him a look that had made the man swallow. Hopefully, the man was thinking that those who’d been executed were the lucky ones. After all the executions had been carried out, Adar had the man stripped and searched to ensure that he didn’t have any hidden weapons or vials of poison. Adar didn’t want the man committing suicide before he had a chance to interrogate him.

The prisoner’s head was bowed, he’d stumbled several times, and tears had streaked his face earlier; for the deaths of his friends or his own circumstances, Adar hadn’t been able to tell. It wouldn’t be long before Adar would pry out all the information they could before handing him over to the Rarbon Council guards. But first Adar had to get the man into the right state of mind. He had found that sleep and food deprivation along with keeping a man on his feet all night did wonders for loosening lips.

“You need to be careful,” Tere said. “You’re going to get a reputation of disregarding custom that will be hard to change. We need the council to work with you and you’re pushing them away. I don’t know the last time a general carried out his own orders, particularly executions, but they’re going to think you’re losing it.”

After leading the first several, Adar had handed the task off to other men. He didn’t regret the choice, no matter what Tere said, he would not give an order that he wasn’t willing to do himself. “Some will no doubt see it that way, but that won’t be everybody. These men know the truth.”

“It won’t be enough that the men support you. You won’t get anywhere without the Council.”

Adar sighed, there was truth in what Tere said, but it seemed such a small thing compared to the events of the day. How could the political wrangling of the Council even compare to this?

Some of the condemned had cried out, speaking of their wives and children or lovers or what could have been. One thin man with a frown broken by missing teeth had whimpered for his mother.

Others had maintained their composure right up until the end. The final man had spat on Maual as he hung the noose around the man’s neck. While Adar might have expected Maual to retaliate for the spittle, he had instead wiped it off with the back of his hand and continued the task without anger, treating the man with respect and dignity.

Afterward, when Adar’s eyes had made contact with Maual’s, they hadn’t spoken but had exchanged silent nods. The challenging look that Maual had so often worn wasn’t there and Adar was left to wonder whether something had changed or if the event had left Maual tired as well.

After the execution of all but the man with the Stingeel earring, Adar had left several soldiers behind to bury the bodies and erect a post describing the crimes and punishment of the dead. Before each man had died, they’d taken down his name if he’d been willing to give it, which would also be carved into the post.

Adar repressed a shudder when he thought of the man that he had hung first. After sliding the noose onto the man’s neck, Adar had asked him if he had any last words. The man had remained silent, his eyes never betraying a hint of guilt or remorse. He’d rarely encountered such a hardened criminal.

“I appreciate the reminder,” Adar said at length. “You are correct, this might bother some of the Council. I’ll think it over, but I don’t intend to change my plans.” The wind rustled through the forest and it felt good against his face. The twin light of the moons lit the walls of Rarbon and cast the pine trees on either side of the road in shadow.

A sense of loss had filled Adar during the execution. In addition to the lost lives of the executed men, there were also the innocent that would be affected by the justice he’d handed out. Surely some of those men had families who had fallen on hard times; they had been doing what they thought they needed to do to survive.

Even so, Adar couldn’t tolerate it. And while it was important that there be a warning for any that would murder or claim to be a Radim in Adar’s territory again, he still couldn’t help but feel regret for those lives that had ended today.

Tere shook his head and lowered his voice. “I know that you want to change things. Melyah! I even agree with you on the need. Anybody can see the nine Radim armies are becoming complacent, but executions this close to Rarbon? You’re not just playing with fire; you’re dancing over a pit of molten rock with nothing between you and the lava but a bit of rope that’s already burning from both ends. As it was, you were lucky to get your commission as General with your own father working against you. Can’t you be more careful?”

“Do we have the time for care?” Adar asked, his voice quiet but his tone sharp. “Semal has been telling us for three years that the Hunwei should be here within eight. Need I remind you that we don’t have ships, metalmen, or any of the weapons of our fathers? What chance will we have at winning a war that we almost lost once, when our weapons aren’t even half as good as those of our fathers? At a time when the Radim armies have lost their edge and need to be sharpened? No, we must be bold. It is time to do all we can to get everybody ready.”

“They might strip you of your rank. What will you do then?”

Adar didn’t answer. That was a real possibility, but there had to be some on the Council that recognized he was trying to instill a change in the way the Radim armies operated. He hoped that they would welcome the progress.

Up ahead, he could just make out the firebreak. It was now one of the cleanest stretches of ground maintained by any of the nine Radim armies. That had been the first thing he’d done upon his promotion to General. Before he and his men had done the work, there had been saplings that were more than a decade old in some places. There wasn’t a blade of grass growing anywhere now on the several hundred foot expanse between the wall and the tree line.

When Adar had given the order and required several thousand of his Radim soldiers from Napael army to help, there had been no small amount of grumbling among his assigned subordinates. Rather than call out the murmurs and complaints, Adar had surrounded himself with Tere and several others and they’d begun to work. He’d never been more grateful for Tere who had walked among his men pointing out that Adar was working with them.

Tere was correct, carrying out their own orders wasn’t something Radim generals did, but it was time that changed.

“I agree that your efforts are helping you to bond with the men. It just shouldn’t come at the expense of relationships with the Council.”

“Point taken.” Over the course of the last several weeks, Adar had made time to train the new recruits and practice with the veterans. It wasn’t enough for them to have heard how hard he worked, he wanted as many as possible to witness it firsthand. Granted, Napael army was over twenty thousand strong, with more than half at the outposts, so the number of individuals he could interact with in person was limited. “I’ll give what you said some thought. Perhaps I can tone down my methods, at least until I see how the Council responds to what I’ve done so far.”

“That won’t take long.” Tere sighed. “You can bet they’ll hear about today long before you turn over the prisoner.”

Adar nodded as they left the woods and walked out into the firebreak; it still smelled of burned wood, leaves, and grass. The stench brought a smile to Adar’s face. At the end of that day, the grumbling had disappeared and since that time he’d even heard his men bragging to others that their firebreak was the cleanest of the city. Not only had the discontent about his promotion among those of Napael Army dissipated, other generals had followed suit. Jakop Marel, the General of Arelo Army, had ordered his men to do the same thing.

Arelo’s firebreak hadn’t been as overgrown an Napael’s had been, in fact, it had been one of the better maintained, but now, just like Napael’s, almost every leaf or blade of green had been removed or burned to ash. Marel hadn’t worked in the field as Adar had, but the man had held his position for over thirty years and had long since cemented his authority with his men.

The fact that one of the oldest Radim generals had not wanted to be outdone had been a victory for Adar; a small one, but a triumph nonetheless. It was only the beginning of the influence Adar intended to have before this was all over and done with, but it was a start.

Adar growled at Tere. “How will the sword get sharpened if there isn’t a stone to draw it against? How will the armies reclaim their power if there isn’t one to lead the way? Even if the Council does their worst, I haven’t given them grounds to dismiss me. Not yet anyway.”

“Your arrogance is the biggest threat to our cause. And they’ve done more to other generals for less.”

“But never to a Rahid. I have a unique opportunity others don’t have. I won’t squander it.” Adar nodded ahead to the walls. “Our biggest threat—aside from a Hunwei invasion—comes from within. Too many are complacent, they need to be awoken.” What Tere considered arrogance, Adar thought of as ignoring tact because of time constraints. “Not to mention those that work against us.”

Adar refrained from glancing ahead to the captive and wondered what stories he would hear once they got the man to talk. Was it possible one of the other Radim generals was behind the attack? How else could Adar explain the Radim uniforms that the bandits had been wearing?

He reined his horse to a halt and motioned for Tere to do the same. He spoke once the others were out of earshot. “The timing of today’s attack is not a coincidence.”

Tere nodded. “The thought has crossed my mind too. There may be something to your theory about Gardison.”

“You think the two are connected.” Much as Adar had appreciated the commission, he had wondered if someone had something to do with the untimely demise of Adar’s predecessor, General Gardison.

The general had been found dead at breakfast while eating in his barrack rooms. There had been an investigation by the city guard who had determined his death had been natural.

As time had gone on and Adar had settled into his new role, he had wondered about Gardison’s death because he’d learned that Gardison had been a fanatic about taking care of himself and keeping in shape. Gardison had participated with the new recruits in some of the more grueling aspects of their training. He had frequently lead the morning and evening runs that went up the Inner Wall steps, across the connecting wall, and came down the Outer Wall steps. Many new recruits had emptied their stomachs on the way up while trying to keep pace with Gardison. Why would a man in that kind of shape keel over and die while eating a bowl of oats and berries? It didn’t make sense.

“I don’t buy your theory that it’s General Morgol,” Tere said. “I doubt it’s any of the generals. My money would be on one of the Council.”

Adar’s name had been considered by the Rarbon Council along with that of Molach Morgol, General Helam Morgol’s son.

There had been contention among the council about Adar’s appointment and it had come down to one vote at the end. Before the announcement, Adar had noticed a peculiar look on Molach’s face; he had looked as though he had been reviewing the speech he’d been expecting to give. Even Abel, who had devoted much of his time behind doors to campaigning against Adar, had seemed assured that Molach would be the council’s pick.

The shock on the faces of those in the room when Adar’s name had been announced was nothing compared to that of Helam. During the announcement, Adar’s eyes had sought out Helam to gauge his reaction, and he hadn’t taken it well. His face had been made of stone, but his eyes had been heated enough to burn somebody. After the meeting was over, he’d stormed out of the Rarbon council meeting hall without talking to anybody. Most hadn’t noticed him because he’d been standing near the back.

“I admit I’m prone to think of Helam.” Adar’s chest itched and he reached for it, stopping his hand just before it got there. It was a habit that he was trying to break. The wound was five years old and should have stopped itching long ago, but it continued to bother him. It brought with it the pride he’d felt for his victory when he’d beat Helam in the tournament and the betrayal that haunted him from later that night when Helam had caught Adar drunk and taken advantage of the moment to give him the scar. The wound had become infected and he’d almost died. “But don’t be so quick to discount him. Helam is ambitious and a planner.” At times, Adar had wondered if Helam had lost the tournament on purpose. If that had been the case, what was Helam’s angle? Adar had rolled all sorts of different possibilities around his mind but had never been able to settle on a satisfying explanation.

The Rarbon city guard had asked him many questions about the attack after Abel had reported it, but Adar had maintained that he didn’t remember much of it. He’d known that his drunken accusation against Helam wouldn’t have done him any good. Most of the citizens would have believed that he’d been imagining things.

But that wasn’t the thing that brought Helam to Adar’s mind.

“If Helam was capable of killing General Gardison, it isn’t much beyond that to hire mercenaries to harass and kill merchants.”

“I get that you hate the man, but he isn’t a bad guy. He’s as worried about the Hunwei as you are. You don’t want to tell me what happened that night, fine. He’d be a better ally than a foe.” Tere hesitated. “The two of you have more in common than you think.”

Adar snorted. “Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because our passions align that our methods do as well.” He growled under his breath, he hated the distraction this all posed. Wasn’t it bad enough that they had the coming return of the Hunwei to deal with? Why did he have to get involved in political battles and turf wars with the likes of Helam as well? “Helam isn’t guided by principle.”

“Sometimes you aren’t either.”

“Yes, but his are intentional. Mine are mistakes, which I take great pains to rectify when I recognize them.”

If there was anybody else that could have prepared Rarbon for the return of the Hunwei, Adar would have gladly stepped aside. His father was the man that should have been leading them, but instead he was wrapping himself in political struggles that were as frivolous as they were petty. Helam’s methods were brutal and Adar couldn’t be certain of the man’s intentions.

Tere stared ahead at the walls and Adar couldn’t decide if he was either giving up on the argument or working on attacking it from a different way.

Adar sighed, and let the silence remain unbroken as he stared at the city as well. The walls of Rarbon were the tallest that Adar had seen during his travels, the next closest being the shining walls of Parout which didn’t even reach half the height of Rarbon’s Outer Wall. From a distance, it was easy to mistake Rarbon for a small mountain with the tiered steps of the Outer Wall, the taller Inner Wall, and the even taller Rarbon Palace which itself had the look of a mountain range with five towering peaks. The middle palace tower, at more than one hundred and fifty stories high, made it hard for many newcomers to pay attention to where they were going when traversing through the city.

For Adar, seeing the palace towers filled him with a bittersweet feeling. As a youth, he’d run around those halls, exploring as high into the towers and as low into the city catacombs as he’d dared. There were hidden rooms that had yet to be discovered and as many tales about the Palace as people in the city.

A few years ago, in one of those rooms, he and his father had witnessed the slow agonizing death of his mother, while an illness had ravaged her body for eleven months. By the end, the tension between his father and Adar that had always been there when he was growing up had escalated to something a few steps below a fully fledged war.

To Adar’s knowledge, Abel hadn’t yet tried to take his life, but his father had done almost everything else. When Adar’s mother had passed away, the last remaining line of civility between him and his father had gone with her. Tere had been through it all with Adar, providing him someone to talk to and spar with, both of which did wonders for working out his tensions. It was Tere that always reminded Adar that the world wasn’t as cut and dry as he sometimes viewed it.

“We need to get back, Tere. Give it some thought. You may be right about Helam not being our guy and we should consider other candidates.”

“Agreed.”

As they crossed the firebreak and approached the south Rarbon gate, the guard door to the side of the gate had already opened to meet the patrol and a dozen guards had filed out. The gate had closed at sunset and now the only people allowed in or out would have to be a Radim soldier on duty or have a compelling reason to gain admittance.

On a normal day, Adar liked to admire the gates and try to puzzle out what they were made of, but he wasn’t in the mood. Unlike other city’s gates which were made from reinforced wood, all of the Rarbon gates were made from a material that appeared to be a mixture between metal and ceramic. The present day city architects were at a loss on how to replicate it.

During the day, the gate was left open and most could come and go once the guards had made a record of their name and purpose, the exception to that being if somebody on the wanted posters turned up. Most of the guard kept the posters committed to memory to keep people moving through the gate.

Adar jumped off Slasher. Even though the side door was tall and wide enough to allow a man on a horse, the portcullis at the top of the inside ramp was left half down to keep people from riding through the wall to the other side.

When he noticed that Keen Carlsen was the captain on duty, he grimaced. Keen was another lifer like Maual, but his dark hair was cut short and he wasn’t breaking out of uniform by wearing jewelry.

Waving Keen over, Adar pointed at the man with the Stingeel earring. “Recognize him?” Keen was known for his ability to commit to memory the wanted posters. In the short time that Adar had known the man, he’d been impressed by his mental acuity and dedication to duty but little else.

Keen looked the man up and down, muttering under his breath, a habit that Adar had picked up on the first time he’d met Keen. It was said that Keen had been a thief and had been caught carrying away gold from the Napael army treasury. As the story went, it was his muttering that had given him away.

General Gardison had given the man the normal options of either going to the city dungeons or taking the oath for life. If the rumor about him was true, it made Adar wonder how he’d ever been entrusted with guard duty, let alone made the captain of the guard. While it was true that men could change, in Adar’s experience it was a rare occurrence, especially when forced into a decision with a choice like that.

He searched Keen’s face as he approached; wondering if this was his spy. Keen had a half smile on his face and looked a little distracted but did not appear to be anxious. If Adar was hoping to pick up on a reason to suspect the man further, he was disappointed.

Whatever Keen’s story was, he had a good memory and Adar did trust him to know who was on the wanted posters. If Adar’s captive was wanted by somebody else, they might have first claim and Adar would have to turn him over to the other party. Adar would have one day before he had to give notice. He wouldn’t be able to afford the luxury to take his time with the interrogation and it would have to start right away. He grunted, that wasn’t how he preferred to handle these things.

Keen stopped before the captive and took him in from head to toe, Keen’s eyes hovered on the Stingeel earring, but he had a look of curiosity not recognition.

“If he’s wanted,” Keen said, “he’s not on any of the posters I’ve seen.”

Adar nodded. “Lucas, take him back to the dungeon. No food, but give him a little water, enough to keep his tongue wet. Keep him on his feet and walking around. Switch out fresh guards every couple of hours. I’ll be by in the morning for a conversation with him.”

Lucas nodded, handed his horse off to another and called for several to accompany him before heading off.

“What news has there been in our absence?” Tere asked of Keen. Adar paid attention long enough to learn that nothing noteworthy had happened and strolled into the Outer Wall door, leading Slasher behind him.

Chapter 3

General Helam Morgol looked through the tall Rarbon Palace windows of the central tower as the sun made its way down the western sky and kept his hands behind his back so that he wouldn’t wring the neck of the man standing beside him. Helam could have done without the interruption and he could have done without the extra attention Lieutenant Vaen Briggs had drawn to him when he had burst into the room. It was no longer a good idea for Helam to remain here in the Palace archives hoping for a conversation with Janathan Charr, the master archivist.

It was supposed to have been an innocuous meeting, but the disturbance now removed that as a possibility because of all the people that had now taken notice of Helam’s presence here.

He grasped his hands as he imagined throttling Briggs; he would now have to find another way to get a report on who his wife Elaire had been meeting with while browsing the shelves of the archives. She never met with the same person and Helam had been able to develop quite the list over the last several years.

He should have been more cautious and not told Briggs where to find him. He had felt a sense of impending doom throughout the day. That feeling had been at odds with the clear blue sky of the morning and afternoon but was now coming more into harmony as the sunset turned it a bloody red.

Expelling a breath, he took another, all the while not bothering to look at Briggs who stood to the side and was doing his best to cover up his anxiety. Sweat covered Briggs’ angular face and Helam was certain the man had run through the palace corridors to get to him. How many people had noticed? Was there anybody in the Palace that didn’t know where Helam was at the moment?

He clenched his fists. Elaire had been on her way out of the Palace earlier; hopefully she hadn’t seen Briggs running like a Hunwei was chasing after him. If she had, she was bound to ask Helam some uncomfortable questions when he saw her later in the evening.

The last thing Helam needed right now was for her to have another reason to suspect that he was keeping tabs on who she was talking to. It would have been far better if Briggs had taken his time, or better yet not come at all and handled the situation himself. Helam would talk with him about his mistake, but it would have to wait.

“How long ago did this happen?” Helam asked, focusing on the news that Briggs had brought with him.

“No more than an hour, they had just finished when I left.” Briggs swallowed. “Adar did the first one himself.”

Helam repressed a sigh. Not only had the man rushed through the palace, he had to have killed a horse to get here in so little time.

It was the little things like this that made Helam wish that he had somebody more unflappable than Briggs to depend on. The man was loyal, but he didn’t take the time to think through his actions.

Briggs was also too impressed by Adar and there was an element of respect for Adar in his tone that wasn’t healthy, but Helam didn’t know what he could do about it. He found that a lot of his trusted men held Adar in similar regard.

“It’s customary for the one in charge to handle the first execution,” Helam said, Briggs didn’t know enough to challenge his assertion. When Briggs nodded, Helam stifled another sigh. All of Helam’s other Lieutenant Generals would have taken issue with the statement but not Briggs. Why was it that the only man Helam could trust couldn’t think for himself?

If Helam had been able to trust Weker Stonne with this plan, that would have been useful indeed. Stonne wouldn’t have even bothered to bring this issue to Helam and would have handled the clean up required and sought out Helam once everything had been taken care of.

Helam glanced at Briggs and narrowed his eyes. It was a shame that Helam couldn’t be certain about trusting his own son Molach with this, anybody would have been better than the uncertain pudgy man that stood before him.

Briggs had caught up to him and his four guards while he had been waiting for the master archivist. When Briggs had burst into the room and seen Helam, he had started to talk without regard to the other occupants. Helam had looked up from the book that he’d been pretending to read while he was reviewing his list of suspected Kopal members. He had cut Briggs off, motioning to where Semal Bray sat several tables away with a faraway look on his face. The old professor hadn’t noticed the intrusion, but his scribe who was walking among the bookshelves had looked up when Briggs had entered.

She’d stared at them while Helam had led Briggs over behind a bookcase on the other side of the large room so they would be out of earshot. The scribe had the look about her of a woman that would pester you with questions until she got the answers she wanted to know. Briggs sudden appearance and outburst had no doubt sowed a question in her mind; Helam didn’t need her overhearing something that would cause that seed to sprout and take hold.

He made a mental note to keep an eye on her. An inquisitive person like that would be a good addition to his own group of scribes and he’d be able to pay her more than Semal could afford. With the future of their world at stake, it made sense to recruit the best and pay them well.

“You’re certain you weren’t seen?” [_Except for those who witnessed your mad dash here, _]he thought but didn’t say.

Briggs nodded. “Positive. I watched it all unfold through a telescope.”

“There is that to be grateful for I suppose.” The report that Briggs had whispered to Helam had been disconcerting. It was almost as if Adar knew what Helam was planning and had taken steps to interfere. Could it be possible that Adar had a spy planted close to him?

His first inclination was to dismiss the thought because Adar had just come back from an assignment that had kept him away from Rarbon for the better part of a year. Shortly after that Adar had been made the general of Napael army. He had quite enough to do that it seemed unlikely he would have been able to recruit a spy at the same time. It was possible that someone had been turned before Adar had left. Helam would have to give that further thought; he resolved to be more careful and create tests for his closest confidantes.

“What are your orders?” Briggs asked. “Do we need Birgemat back or can we just kill him?”

Helam didn’t answer as he stared down at the gardens many flights below and frowned. Once again Adar was forcing him to react.

Adar’s first task after he’d been made general had been to clean up Napael’s base and the firebreak. His actions had motivated the other generals to do the same.

Even Helam had been forced to relent and give orders to his men to clear out the worst of the overgrown foliage in Paroke’s firebreak. It galled him, not because it was cleaner, but because he’d felt like Adar had manipulated him into doing something he hadn’t been inclined to do.

There was talk among some of the other generals that Adar would be the first Rahid in five hundred years to pass the test and become Ghar. They’d been excited at the prospect and Helam had played his part of a dutiful anxious supporter because it was best to avoid suspicion.

Several new beads of sweat were rolling down Brigg’s pale face when Helam glanced over at him. Melyah. If Adar was having this effect on men sworn to Helam; before too long, people would start thinking of Adar as a great hero. If Helam didn’t act swiftly, he was going to lose his window of opportunity.

“How many men were captured?”

“I don’t remember for sure, fourteen or fifteen, no more than that. We have enough to continue.”

“You speak of the dead as if they’re easy to replace. We have too few that I trust and even fewer that are competent.” It was all enough to make a man grind his teeth and Helam locked his jaw to keep from doing it.

A man in haste made mistakes but there was little else for him to do as he watched the setting sun and pushed aside his growing frustration at yet another day passing without him being one step closer to obtaining entrance into the Rarbon Portal or learning what his traitorous wife was up to.

Helam could feel the Portal calling to him from its location in the catacombs below the Rarbon Palace central tower. It was a temptation for him to go down to have a look at the guarded doors, but he knew the Redd Guard took note of people that made frequent visits.

His last visit had been a year and a half ago. The double metal doors that stood behind the row of ten guards had taunted him and he’d thought about what it would take to force his way in. Even ten of the famous Redd Guard would fall if they had too many soldiers to fight.

Ten men. That was all that had stood between him and the weapons his people needed to fight the Hunwei when they returned. Once he’d cut down those men, he could hold the Portal and deal with the other Redd Guard as they came at him.

He’d have to ramp up his recruiting. There were less than fifty men that Helam would trust to that particular task today. He’d want at least two hundred. As near as he could figure there were about one hundred in the Redd Guard. Two hundred would give him the ability to swarm them.

Recruiting that many men was a tall order. Each man had to be vetted and tried. He had considered more than four hundred men to get to the ones he’d already recruited and sworn to his cause. If he waited for Adar Rahid to pass the Rarbon Council’s ridiculous tests in order to become Ghar and finally gain access, it would be too late.

“Sir, there’s something else. I had to lock up a guard.”

This caught Helam’s attention. “Why?”

Briggs looked away. “Your wife. The guard overheard her…” He trailed off and Helam didn’t need to hear the rest. Elaire seemed to think it was funny sometimes to talk about the Kopal as if they weren’t a hidden conspiracy. “You must do something about her. If word of who she is gets around… Bloody Melyah! I don’t like to think about it.”

“I manage my personal affairs. I don’t need help.” If the brash actions of Helam’s wife were any indication, the Kopal believed that the Hunwei were close to returning. His wife wasn’t alone in the uptick of her activity; other people for whom Helam knew with a certainty were Kopal had become far more active in the last year. Sometimes at night, Helam would lay awake, fear keeping him from sleeping. What if he didn’t get into the Rarbon Portal in time? What if his wife killed him in his sleep because an order had come down from one of her superiors? It had been years since they’d shared a room but Elaire refused to allow any of his personal guards into the house and Helam had been reluctant to argue the point.

As much as he hated to admit it, there was a certain benefit to having discovered that his wife was a member of the Kopal. He would never know what it was that had caused her to join a group that believed the Hunwei would bring with them salvation. She hadn’t revealed much about them and was becoming bolder in her threats. Several months back he had considered having his wife followed, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He had focused on the master archivist instead, but was beginning to rethink that decision.

While things had never been worse between him and his wife, the high level of tension in their marriage combined with her increasing unexplained disappearances made him see something in the shadows wherever he turned. He had wondered on multiple occasions if the Kopal had some way of knowing that the Hunwei were about to return.

If the Hunwei were close, then he might have to move sooner than he’d planned. The Rarbon Portal, even though Helam and his scribes hadn’t been able to pinpoint what was inside, was the best hope they had of being able to defend themselves against the Hunwei and their formidable technology when they came.

It was the utter height of insanity that the council hadn’t already let a Rahid open the portal, but since they hadn’t and it didn’t look like it would happen soon—the challenges Adar was up against would take years for him to pass—Helam had long ago made plans to go around the system.

Most of his plans were still in motion, but their outcomes were becoming less certain with every meddlesome act of Adar. Helam was confident that if his original master plan had played out that he would have been on track to rid Rarbon of Abel Rahid and his son Adar, along with the hegemony associated with them. With them out of the way, Helam’s own path into the Portal would have been all but assured.

But things were changing far faster than he’d anticipated.

Adar shouldn’t have been made a general so soon. It bothered Helam that the Rarbon Council had chosen Adar over his son Molach who was the better-qualified candidate, of a more senior rank than Adar, and had proven himself time after time. Adar’s selection for the open position had taken everybody else by surprise as well.

Even Adar had worn a shocked look on his face for a partial moment before covering it up.

Helam’s spies on the council hadn’t been able or were refusing to yield any useful explanations. His best guess was that Abel had done something to get Adar the position, which didn’t make sense given that Abel had scorned his son in public on several occasions; Helam believed Abel to have been behind countless incidents of sabotage that had undermined Adar’s advancement.

Why would Abel all of the sudden be supporting the efforts of his son to become Ghar when by all accounts he was jealous of Adar’s successes? Helam would have to give that some thought. Perhaps there was an angle here that he was somehow missing.

When Helam had learned that Adar was out on patrol and wasn’t due back until tomorrow, he’d sent Birgemat and his mercenaries to lie in wait for merchant trains approaching from the south hoping to show that the venerable Adar Rahid wasn’t immune to such attacks.

That was just the beginning of the trap, Helam planned to make it look like Adar was behind the attacks and had his own territory attacked while he was away to cast blame somewhere else.

Lieutenant Briggs cleared his throat, but Helam didn’t look his way.

The news that Briggs had hurried back with was disturbing yet foreseeable. This was why Helam had sent Briggs to spy on Birgemat and his brigands in the first place. Adar had a tendency to break from the script and today was no exception because he’d come back earlier than planned. There had to be a way for Helam to turn Adar’s sudden changes in the plan against him; yet another thing for Helam to mull over.

“You’re sure that Birgemat is the one Adar took captive?” Helam asked.

Briggs nodded. “That stupid earring of his makes him unmistakable.”

Helam thought it over and grimaced. “How fast can you get a warrant to Jarren?”

“Within the hour, well before they return.”

Perhaps Briggs’ fear of Adar would give Helam a way out of this mess. It was a blow to Helam’s designs that Adar had not only captured his brigands but executed them there on the spot.

It was a move of questionable legality, but chances were high that the other generals would be sympathetic to Adar and follow his example. This bold action would further expand the tension between the Radim armies and the Rarbon Council. It would also mean that the Rarbon Council would give Adar a harder first task on his path to becoming Ghar. Adar had known that when he’d decided to hold the execution in the field and probably hadn’t given it a second thought.

If Helam had been in Adar’s position, he wouldn’t have done anything to make the council assign more difficult tasks. If Helam was reading things correctly, they were running out of time.

But what’s done was done and it was further evidence of why Rarbon’s fate couldn’t be left in the hands of the Rahids.

In fact, Helam decided he would exacerbate the schism by being one of the first to follow suit and execute some brigands in his own territory. Not only would it further his overall goal of strengthening the position of the Radim generals, it would serve to make the Council even more wary of Adar and the effect he was having in Rarbon. That would guarantee Adar an almost impossible task if Helam acted within the next few days.

If Adar were to fail on his own before Helam’s machinations were complete, then it would be a matter of ending the Rahids altogether to ensure the hegemony was abolished.

Biting his lip in thought, Helam made a mental note to set up the execution and returned his focus to the problem at hand. Somehow Adar had decided to take Birgemat as his captive; he was the sole man on the team that could tie the brigands back to Helam. A coincidence to be sure, but still a concerning one in light of Helam’s concerns about having a spy in his ranks.

If Adar had any actionable information on Helam, he would have long ago done something about it. He wasn’t much for patience. Another thing that Helam should be able to turn against him given the proper preparation.

“Who will be the one issuing the warrant?” Helam asked.

“I will.”

Helam looked at Briggs appraisingly. “You sure you’re up for that?” Adar’s full attention would be turned to Briggs once the warrant came to light and by association, Helam as well. Given more time, Helam and Briggs would have been able to lay the groundwork for something more elaborate that would lead back to somebody who didn’t report to Helam, but that wasn’t an option.

There wasn’t much Helam could do to keep Adar from being suspicious of him anyway, that ship had sailed when Helam had taken advantage of Adar while he’d been drunk after his victory.

What a stupid mistake that had been. Not only did it mean that Adar was keeping an eye on him, Helam had it on good authority that Adar hadn’t touched alcohol since. Helam would have been able to do a lot more damage if Adar still had an over-fondness for wine. The information Helam had learned from Adar that night had come with a high cost and he wasn’t certain that it had been worth it.

Birgemat would talk eventually, if he didn’t spit out what he knew right away to save his own skin; either way it would be a matter of time. If Birgemat wasn’t dealt with, Helam would have to move his own plans up, perhaps even resorting to his final fallback plan.

If they moved fast though, they could plant a warrant for Birgemat’s arrest. That would connect Birgemat to one of Helam’s men but avoid giving Adar actual evidence.

“Do it. If our guy isn’t able to plant it in time, give him orders to kill Birgemat.” Helam looked at Briggs. “In that eventuality make Jarren’s death look like the work of thieves.”

“Sir?”

“How many times have I told you? You have an opinion? Spit it out.”

“We could skip the warrant altogether,” Briggs said with a stutter, he was still unused to the way that Helam did things, but he’d get over his hesitation with time. Many people in authority didn’t like their subordinates to speak their minds, but Helam had found that to be a terrible waste. He even let his men go so far to call his own ideas stupid as long as their tone and manner didn’t undermine his authority. “There would be less risk with that.”

The thought had also occurred to Helam, but he’d discarded it. His spy was too well placed to throw him away for something like this; it would be a shame to lose his inside source of information on Adar.

No, Briggs could handle the questions that would come with the warrant and so could Helam if it came to that. Helam would be taken by Melyah before he’d trust their fate to the hands of a Rahid.

“A good thought, but too dire. You have your orders.”

Blood of the Redd Guard

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The Containment Team (Chapters 1-17)

Morty Donaldson is studying when his roommate Pete bursts into his dorm room chased by undead zombie-like monsters. Barefoot and armed with his shotgun, Morty fights the creatures but quickly learns they cannot be easily killed. As they subdue the monsters and force them into a closet, it becomes apparent Pete knows more than he’s saying. Morty struggles to get Pete to tell the truth while searching for a way to defeat the monsters as they spread through town and the United States. It becomes apparent that if the monsters are zombies, they have little in common with the B-movie variety and are more similar to vampires. But that designation is not quite right either. To make matters worse, Morty stumbles into his ex-girlfriend, a woman who doesn’t hesitate to manipulate him to get what she wants. Morty is put to the test in this tale of mayhem and destruction while he struggles with an enemy that cannot be defeated through conventional means. This book contains the first seventeen chapters of the novel. Get it for free today!

  • ISBN: 9781370759965
  • Author: Dan Decker
  • Published: 2016-08-12 01:35:19
  • Words: 58045
The Containment Team (Chapters 1-17) The Containment Team (Chapters 1-17)