2.3

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Sam

“Hey.” Sam turned to the man sitting next to him. “Did you hear that?”

The man shrugged.

“It sounded like a woman screaming for help.”

“It’s probably nothing.” The man didn’t look up from his laptop. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“I don’t know.” Sam stood up and closed the laptop he’d just opened. “I’m going to go see what’s going on.”

The man grunted and shrugged again.

Sam left the office area and headed into the hallway in the direction from which the screaming had come. He’d been walking for less than half a minute when something bright red on the floor caught his eye.

It was a metal lunch box with a cherry pattern on it. Chelsea’s.

The lunch box lay on the floor beside a purse. The purse had tipped onto its side, and a lipstick tube and a few coins had rolled out onto the floor. The purse and lunch box sat beside a door that was slightly ajar.

The door had a key card lock, and was surrounded by red and yellow signs warning ‘Danger’ and ‘Authorized Personnel Only’, which Sam elected to ignore.

The door led into a narrow hallway with another door with a key card lock at the end. A brown-haired woman in a lab coat emerged, and Sam waved to her.

“Can you hold that, please?” he said.

She held the door for him, and he continued through, ignoring still more warning signs.

The room he entered looked like any other lab in the engineering building, except for the large chamber in the center surrounded by walls of thick glass. Inside was a loop-shaped machine that was so tall, Sam couldn’t see the top of it. More warning signs were plastered on the glass walls.

“Chelsea?” he called.

There was no response–no sign of anyone else in the room.

Sam peered into the glass chamber. A key card lay on the floor beside the machine. He walked around the chamber until he found a door, then entered and picked up the badge.

Chelsea Brown, ID # 003568.

“Chelsea?” he called again. “You there?”

Still no response.

“Chelsea? Hello?” He looked around the room. “You really shouldn’t be in here. It’s not safe.”

There was an electrical hum behind him as the machine whirred to life, then an ear-splitting sound, as though the earth was ripping in half beneath him.

A dark green fog filled the lab around him, swimming in his eyes and distorting everything around him. A wave of nausea wracked his body, and he reached out to steady himself against the glass wall. The glass dissolved beneath his hand as though it was sand washed away by an invisible tide.

The last thing he saw before the fog swallowed up his vision was a sign stuck to the glass wall.

DANGER! No strong magnets allowed. Authorized personnel only.’

<><

Chelsea

Chelsea ran for her life.

She didn’t have time to wonder where she was, or what the snarling, crashing thing behind her was. She tore through door after door, not daring to look behind her and see how close the creature was.

She’d caught glimpses of its shadow. Whatever it was, it wasn’t human or animal.

She stumbled through a door and found a room with a gaping hole torn in the ceiling. She dug her hands and feet into the deep gouges in the wall and climbed.

She found herself on top of a vast concrete expanse and kept running, not stopping until she was certain she didn’t hear the thing behind her.

She collapsed onto her knees, gasping for breath. As she tried to steady her breath, she looked around, trying to make sense of what she saw.

Rough concrete extended on either side of her as far as she could see, disappearing into the dark green sky. Somewhere off to her right, an airplane sat on the ground in the distance. In front of her, she saw outlines of small buildings beyond the concrete.

She glanced behind her one more time to make sure she wasn’t being followed, then headed toward the buildings.

She let out a deep exhale, and her breath fogged up in the air. She realized it was a bit cold–too cold to be North Carolina in the summer. So where was she?

She reached a short wall at the end of the concrete and pulled herself over it. The drop was a little longer than she’d anticipated, and she stumbled on the landing, falling forward onto her knees and scraping her hands on a brick path.

There was no light source she could find, no lit windows or streetlights, but a faint dim glow lit up her surroundings just enough for her to see.

She was on a winding street lined with pastel-colored stucco shops and houses. It would have been charming had it not been so dark, quiet, and empty. It was easy to picture the sun shining overhead, children playing in the brick and stone streets, bicycles whizzing past, and shops and cafes bustling with activity.

That fact that it was almost normal made the eerie green-black sky and cold still air feel all the more wrong.

“Hello?” she called out. “Is anyone there?”

The town wasn’t just quiet, she realized. There were no birds or insects chirping, no crinkling leaves, no distant cars passing. No sound at all.

“Hello?” she called again.

A high-pitched shriek from somewhere behind her pierced the silence.

She turned around and felt a wave of relief as she saw someone sprinting toward her.

“Excuse me!” she called. “Can you please help me? I’m not sure where I am!”

As the runner drew closer, Chelsea’s relief turned to terror.

The figure was shaped almost like a woman, but the proportions were wrong. Her limbs were too long and didn’t bend in quite the right places, and her hands were unnaturally large and misshapen. As she drew closer, Chelsea could hear her laughing–a harsh, distorted crowing sound.

Chelsea heard the shriek again, louder this time, and realized it wasn’t coming from the figure.

Something small fluttered past her head, then careened through the air toward one of the stucco houses. It flapped its thin bat-like wings, banking clumsily in time to narrowly escape colliding with a window, and tumbled toward Chelsea.

She felt the flying thing collide with her chest, gripping the front of her blouse with tiny claws. It stared up at her through large, frightened eyes and spoke.

“Aiutami! Per favore aiutami!”

The inhuman figure stalked toward them, a smirk on her face.

Chelsea felt her heart leap into her throat as she realized the monstrous figure had the same face as the woman who had attacked her in Naomi’s apartment and at work.

Chelsea braced herself to be thrown against a wall or have the air sucked from her lungs, but it didn’t happen.

“Hey!” said the figure. Her voice was as harsh and unnatural as her laugh. “That’s my snack. Get your own.”

“Aiuto,” the tiny creature pleaded.

Chelsea could feel the poor creature trembling as it clung to her.

“Shh.” Chelsea stroked the creature’s head. “It’s alright. Um… vava bene. Ti… aiuto.

Chelsea wasn’t sure if her Italian was correct–she only knew what few words Angelina had taught her–but she felt the creature relax a little, nestling into her chest.

“Grazie,” squeaked the bat-creature. “Grazie mille, signorina.”

“Aw, isn’t that sweet?” The monster woman lurched forward. “Isn’t that just adorable?”

For a moment, Chelsea considered running away. She couldn’t very well leave the bat-creature to this monster, but it barely weighed anything and wouldn’t slow her down if it hitched a ride clinging to her shirt.

She looked at the steep road ahead of her, winding downward into complete darkness, and immediately rejected the idea of running.

“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” Chelsea picked up a broom that was leaning against a house wall, brandishing it handle-first at the monster-woman.

“Pick on someone your own size?” The monster-woman laughed her horrible, cawing laugh again. “Seriously? That’s such a cliche line. Oh, my god.”

The monster-woman whipped one of her long, strangely bent arms toward Chelsea, grasping for the creature clinging to her shirt, and Chelsea realized why her hands looked so misshapen.

They were halfway between hands and grotesque saurian heads, with the thumb and pinkie fused to form the lower jaw. Needle-like teeth lined the insides of the fingers.

Chelsea thrust the broom outward, and the needle-teeth bit into the wooden handle. She tugged on the handle, pulling it free, then swung the broom at the monster-woman.

Chelsea flinched as the handle collided with the monster-woman’s face with a sickening crack, but the monster hardly seemed to notice. She reached for Chelsea again, her arm distorting as she stretched her lizard-hand forward.

Chelsea blocked her again with the broom handle, then swung it again, striking the monster across her chest. Again, no reaction. She may as well have been striking one of the candy-colored stucco walls behind them.

The monster laughed, reaching out again. Chelsea shoved the broom handle out again, but she wasn’t quick enough this time. The limb wrapped around her neck, bending in ways an arm shouldn’t be able to.

“It’s my lucky day!” The monster-woman’s chipper tone was jarring combined with her warped, inhuman voice. “I wanted a snack, and now I get a snack and dinner. Yay!”

The other arm’s lizard-hand gnashed its teeth as it reached for the trembling creature clinging to Chelsea’s chest.

Chelsea thought back to when the woman–if she’d been a woman at all–had attacked her in Naomi’s apartment. She hadn’t flinched when Falcon had thrown a metal table at her with enough force to crack a wall, but Chelsea’s desperate kick had been enough to phase her.

‘She can’t feel pain,’ Chelsea realized, ‘but she can be winded.’

Chelsea thrust the broom with all the force she could muster, aiming just below the monster’s rib cage.

The limb released Chelsea’s neck, and the monster doubled over, gasping for breath through all three of her mouths.

Chelsea jabbed the monster with the broom again, aiming for the same spot. The monster fell to the ground, still gulping for air. Chelsea hit her with the broom one more time to be sure she was incapacitated, feeling a bit guilty in spite of herself for hitting something that was already down.

Correre! said the bat-creature. “Correre! Fretta!

Chelsea ran.

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