The thing known as “Dissona” had gone by many names throughout the ages. Some of them included: The Lurker in the Dark, Khythos Raparian, Yictaagner…she’d even been mistaken for Randall Flagg by a slack-jawed yokel, just before she’d broken him open and drunk his marrow. It had tasted disgusting—like damp earth and fresh dew—but she had been ravenous, so it had been better than nothing.
Now, she faced a new challenge: the fucking Timekeeper had stripped her of her power. Not all of it, but enough to prevent her from consuming this reality in less than a second. The last time she’d fought him, she’d managed to lock him in a nightmare and deprive the world of his Klythe-damned righteousness. She’d reigned supreme over a cold, dead multiverse, and as the eons passed and hope was forgotten, she’d grown increasingly content, until she’d lapsed into a forgetful slumber. Then, while she’d been dozing peacefully, some fuckwit had restarted linearity. As a result, the typical old rancid bullshit—love, laughter and dreams—had reared its ugly head. And just like always, those gave birth to smaller annoyances like hope, beauty, and altruism.
She’d known immediately, as soon as she’d woken up—she could smell the possibility, the untrammeled novelty. It was absolutely sickening.
The Timekeeper had restrained her with a Theosophic emetic, but she wasn’t sure—that was her best guess. It had stripped away her world-devouring powers and confined her into a human form. He’d paid for it—she’d managed to sever three aetheric meridians, forcing him to retreat into a psychogenic cocoon—but now she was stuck in an infuriatingly weak, unstable piece of meat. She had to deal with stuff like breathing, eating, and all the horseshit that went along with having a body.
Being human was a blessing and a curse. It toned down her hunger—her belly was nagged by a dull ache instead of her entire being roaring with an all-consuming lust—but it came with serious disadvantages. She couldn’t adopt her black-mist form for longer than a minute. As soon as she shifted, her appetite took hold and she began to cannibalize herself.
So she couldn’t rely on it to see her through; she would have to get by on minor magics. Courtesy of the Timekeeper, she was now a teenage girl with a smattering of parlor tricks up her sleeve. It would take a few months to rebuild her power, but until then…
Enter Dee Sonay: Dissona’s human incarnation.
ANOS had constructed a network of pipes—it ran for dozens of miles beneath the Bay Area—that funneled their sludge into an out-of-the-way location bordered by looming foothills from all sides. In between these yellow-grassed slopes, a pair of sentries patrolled the muck, assault rifles at the ready.
People rarely came out to Depot 58 (or as it was colloquially known: the Slime Reservoir, a nickname used by the rotating staff of disgruntled guards). When someone showed up, it wasn’t anyone serious—maybe a drunk hiker, or a bunch of stoned teenagers. The guards passed the time by bitching about management, talking football, or reminiscing about the Good Old Days. The pay was good, but this was ridiculous. Who the fuck hired kitted-out gunslingers to guard a murky pool of dirty sludge?
That’s what Ricky Lashley, who’d done four deployments as a door-kicker in the Marines, was thinking as he walked the perimeter around Slime Rez. His partner, Gonzo (real name Jose Gonzalez; he’d gotten his trigger time as an Army doggie in the 101st) was walking beside him, tracing the same, circular route they always took. Clockwise, clockwise…always clockwise. Their shoulders burned from the weight of their gear, and their fingers and faces were uncomfortably cold—not frigid, but that annoyingly distinct chill that came with long, uneventful hours spent in the field.
“Fuck,” Gonzo grumbled. “Sick of this bullshit. I Can’t wait to get promoted so I can—”
“Sit in the guard shack and try to stay awake?” Ricky laughed. “Yeah—that’s a real step up from what we’re doing right now.”
“At least we’d be warm,” Gonzo said, “instead of out here, freezing our nuts off.”
“This isn’t that bad,” Ricky said.
Which was true; they’d both spent their fair share of teeth-chattering nights beneath a poncho liner, snuggled next to another smelly Marine (or soldier, in Gonzo’s case), trying to get warm enough to grab a few minutes of uneasy sleep. Slime Rez was annoying as hell, but it wasn’t excruciating. It didn’t grind you down day after day, hour after hour. You didn’t have to wake in a shambling daze, and lock yourself on with a boatload of stimulants so you could pay attention while you were manning a checkpoint or going on patrol.
But that was the problem—working for ANOS wasn’t physically hard, but it didn’t provide Ricky with a sense of purpose. Of meaning. The Corps had done that for him. Maybe not in the States (where he’d seriously considered suicide due to the amount of cleaning he was either doing or supervising), but he’d loved the deployments. Sure, they were miserable, but meaning transcended misery.
On more than one occasion, he’d heard Marines say they wished they could stay overseas forever. Back then he thought they were brain-damaged—who the fuck would want to live on MREs and not be able to count on a hot shower or a warm pussy—but now, as he was walking clockwise, clockwise, endlessly clockwise, he found himself agreeing.
Who would’ve thought he would miss the Marine Corps? He dipped his chin and chuckled softy.
“The fuck are you laughing at?” Gonzo asked.
Ricky shot him a sideways glance. “You ever miss your time in service?”
Gonzo snorted. “You’ve forgotten all the stupid shit, man. You’d seriously trade a six-figure paycheck and an eight-hour workday for all that bullshit we used to put up with? Come on.”
Ricky faced front and continued walking. “This sucks too, though, doesn’t it? Back then, we had a purpose. And having something to that you actually believe in—whether it’s legit or not—that makes life worth living.”
Gonzo was silent for a few seconds. Then he said, “Knowing what you know now, would you willingly go back to all that?” He stopped walking. “You’re not thinking of re-enlisting, are you? Dude, let me be the first to say that you do not want to—”
Ricky lit a cigarette and fit it to his lips. One of the perks of working for ANOS was that they allowed him to smoke during his patrol, a big no-no back in the military. Part of him was disgusted by how little they cared, but a stronger part of him was willing to take advantage of it. When the boss loosened up, you got what you could and you kept your mouth shut, because things would tighten back up soon enough.
“I don’t know, man.” He blew a funnel of gray, his eyes creasing as he stared at the dimming, twilight horizon. “It’s funny…back when I was in, I would’ve killed for a gig like this. Regular work hours, a real bed and hot meals…but now, it feels like all I’m doing is standing still.” He took another drag, causing the end of his cigarette to glow bright red, then tapped some ash off and looked at Gonzo. “You feel me?”
“Standing still?” Gonzo spread his arms wide, letting his rifle hang down from its tactical sling. “Bro we get paid to walk in a circle. The fuck d’you mean—‘standing still?’ ”
Ricky shot him an annoyed glance. “You know what I’m talking about. Stop twisting words so you can sound sm—”
“Quiet.” Gonzo held up a loose-fingered hand and looked at the reservoir. “The hell is that?”
Ricky followed his gaze. In the middle of the sludge was a six-foot oval which looked like it was made out of cratered, rotting flesh. The muck around it was bubbling and hissing.
Ricky dropped his cigarette, ground it beneath his boot, and pointes his rifle at the pond.
“What the…is that…”
Gonzo was sighting down his weapon, his body squared up. “Bro…it’s some kind of egg…”
Ricky’s non-firing hand rose to his chest, double-clicking the key on his inter-squad radio. “Overwatch, this is Groundside.”
Hank Slake, their watch chief, spoke back into Ricky’s earpiece. He sounded bored and resigned. “Groundside, you have ten more minutes before your next check-in; you know that right? I swear to Christ, if you tore me away from Adventure Time because you spotted a coyote or squirrel, I’m gonna—”
“There’s something in the pond. Some kind of…egg. Six feet in height.”
As Ricky was talking, the egg had risen, and had almost cleared the muck; its bottom curve was still a few inches in, but the rest of it was visible. Sickly green mist—faintly aglow with hazy swamp-light—was pouring down its sides and settling across the surface of the reservoir. Its core was pulsing with emerald luminescence.
There was a long, hanging silence. Ricky knew what Hank was thinking; they were both cut from the same cloth—they’d both served as ground pounders and had solid reputations—so unless Ricky had lost his fucking marbles (which wasn’t out of the question—get enough grunts together and you would start losing some to the Batshit Crazies) he was telling the truth.
Hank asked Ricky to repeat what he’d said.
“Did you just say there’s a six-foot egg in the middle of the reservoir? Verify your last.”
Ricky stifled a surge of annoyance. “I say again, Overwatch: I’m looking at a six-foot egg that’s risen from the reservoir.”
Another hanging silence. Then: “Uh…ok. So should I scramble the Special Response Unit, or…” Hank lost his radio etiquette and let his statement trail off. Ricky couldn’t blame him; one of his guards had just reported that a giant fucking egg had appeared out of nowhere.
Ricky briefly thought about it, then said, “Wait one,” into the mic.
Ricky turned to Gonzo. “Should we scramble SRU?”
Gonzo’s eyes flicked back to the egg. “I dunno man…”
Ricky didn’t know either. He eyed the steaming, pulsating oval in the middle of the muck, then decided fuck it—why not? This wasn’t Iraq or Afghanistan; this was like the beginning of a cheesy eighties horror movie.
“Call ’em in.”
“Roger. Stand by.” After a few seconds (it seemed like forever; Ricky’s nerves were jumping and thrumming) Hank said, “They’re on their way.”
SRU was based ten miles west of ANOS’s central facility. That was so if something happened inside ANOS, SRU would have a secure location where they could assess the threat and deploy a measured response.
Slime Rez had never been a concern, and even if it had been, ANOS was pretty damn lazy about minding its Ps and Qs when it came to security. Consequently, the reservoir hadn’t been apportioned its own response unit. All of which meant that SRU was going to have to drive fifty miles before to get on-site. Ricky knew this, and it only served to increase his anxiety. That goddamn egg was glowing brighter. It looked like a Christmas lawn ornament.
“ETA?” He tried not to grind his teeth.
“Forty five minutes,” Hank replied.
At that moment, the egg began splitting open, unfurling from the top in wilting, slime-coated petals. They were meaty and thick; each rind was speckled with boils and bubbling lesions. Something was emerging…Ricky couldn’t see exactly what it was, due to the bright green flashes pouring from the blossoming spore, but it looked vaguely human.
“Ricky,” Gonzo called. “The fucking egg.”
“I know man—I see it.” Ricky clicked back on. “Overwatch, the egg is open, and something’s coming out. What about ANOS’s air assault division? Are they available?”
“Negative. They’re on maintenance stand down. Budgeting chiefs couldn’t get their act together, so the logistics guys couldn’t schedule a proper rotation between their aircrews. The only asset we’ve got are the guys en route.”
“Well tell them to hurry the fuck up!” Ricky burst out, losing his etiquette and swearing over the net. “It’s coming out now!”
Hank’s reply was fast and heated. “I’m a hundred yards away, in case you forgot. I’m in the same spot as you, okay? Just stay calm and keep cool. Help’s on the way.”
“You’re not seeing this, Hank.” Ricky’s voice trembled with fear. The egg had blossomed fully open. Its wattled petals were saggy flaps, set afloat on the surface of the muck. The creature inside was definitely human, definitely female, but Ricky couldn’t pick out any of her features due to the wash of green light pouring off her body.
“Yo!” Gonzo called. “Ricky, I think it’s a girl! Yo, man, it’s a fucking teenage gi—”
And then she raised a hand, and spread her fingers. A torrent of snot-like gunk shot from her palm and enveloped Gonzo. He let out a revolted scream and cut loose with his rifle. Rounds sparked and plinked off the girl. Ricky was about to remind Gonzo to aim his damn shots, but when he looked over at his slime-coated partner, his eyes widened in horror. Gonzo was coated in slime…and also in worms. They were each about six inches long, and flailing around like fish out of water.
“Help me Ricky!” Gonzo stopped firing and swatted at the worms. “Fucking HELP ME!” The worms began burrowing into Gonzalez’s skin, boring through his uniform and gear, opening bracelet-sized holes all across his body. Chunk-speckled blood poured from his wounds, spilling down his uniform like gory vomit.
“Fuck!” Ricky screamed. “FUCK! I can’t…I can’t…” His finger was on the trigger, but he couldn’t put Gonzo out of his misery. Friendly fire was a cardinal sin.
He knew it was right, but he couldn’t do it.
Gonzo began spasming and seizing, making spine-chilling ULK ULK ULK noises as his eyes rolled back up into his skull. He threw his head back, and a fountain of blood jetted up from his mouth. And then he emitted a bone-chilling noise: halfway between a gulp and a choke.
That broke the spell—Gonzo wasn’t human; he was a convulsing piece of meat.
Ricky squeezed the trigger, drilling a neat red hole into his partner’s temple.
Gonzo collapsed. The worms dropped with him, bouncing upward from the sudden impact. Then, in perfect unison, they rose up on their back segments and squared up with Ricky. Now he could see how they’d tunneled into Gonzo; they each had a moth. Tiny circles filled with needle-like teeth.
Ricky turned and ran.
“Overwatch,” he gasped into his mic. “Fire up the Suburban! We need to get out of here! Now!”
“Got it,” Hank answered, and Ricky felt an overwhelming surge of desperate hope. I just might make it, he thought. If we can get to the car and—
Then something thick and muscled coiled around his ankles, cinching them together and yanking him off his feet. His jaw clacked shut as his chin hit the ground, and a bright flash of pain crashed through the nerves of his broken teeth. His mouth filled with the cloying taste of liquid copper, and a second later he realized he’d bitten off the end of his tongue—it was lying on the ground a foot away. The moon reflected off its slick, shiny surface, bringing its ruined end into clear relief.
“Nnnn…” He fumbled with his rifle, but he’d landed on top of it, and the weight of his torso was keeping it pinned. He tried to flip over but couldn’t do it; he was being dragged backward too damn fast; every time he tried to rotate, the friction between the ground and his body straightened him out.
I’m going to be eaten, he thought wildly. I’m going to be eaten and there’s nothing I can do! Holy Mary Mother of CHRIST IT’S GONNA EAT ME!
Without thinking, he slapped his right arm down and crimped his right hip up, so he could draw his pistol and aim it at his feet, in the direction of his hungry assailant. His first shot tore through his foot but he didn’t feel it. His heart was beating so damn hard he could hear its rhythm—could actually feel it—in both ears and on the edges of his skull. The second shot skated across the front of his shin, the third punched through the meat of his calf (despite his amped up state, that one hurt—the muscle behind his tibia knotted into a singing ball of agony), but he kept firing, determined to keep going until—
“Shit!” Ricky screamed. “Shit shit SHIT!”
There was a slick, sucking pop, and he felt his left femur pop out of his hip. In the dim, smoky swamp, he caught a glimpse of his severed leg flying away from his body, torn off like a Thanksgiving wishbone.
“No!” he wailed. “No no no NO—”
And then Dee Sonay dragged him underwater.