The thing known as “Dissona” had gone by many names throughout the ages. The Lurker in the Dark, Khythos Raparian, Yictaagner…she’d even been mistaken for Randall Flagg by a slack-jawed farmer, right before she’d cracked him open and feasted on his marrow. (It had tasted disgusting—like damp earth and fresh dew—but she’d been gnawingly ravenous, so it had been better than nothing.)
Now, she faced a new challenge: the Timekeeper had stripped her of her power. Not all of it, but enough to prevent her from consuming this reality.
The last time they’d fought, she’d locked him in a nightmare and reigned supreme over a cold, dead multiverse. Eons had passed, and she’d lapsed into a forgetful slumber. While she’d dozed, some fuckwit had restarted linearity. As a result, the age-old trifecta of rancid bullshit (love, laughter and dreams) had reared its ugly head. And just like always, it gave birth to smaller annoyances like hope, beauty, and altruism. As soon as the teens had woken her up, she’d smelled the possibility, the untrammeled novelty.
It was utterly sickening.
The Timekeeper had deployed a Theosophic emetic, which, in addition to reducing her power, trapped her inside a physical body. Human form was a blessing and a curse; it curbed her hunger, but she couldn’t spend long in her black-mist form or her appetite would take hold and she would begin to cannibalize herself. She had to accept her new limitations; she was now a teenage girl with a smattering of parlor tricks. It would take a few months to rebuild her strength, but until then…
Enter Dee Sonay: Dissona’s human incarnation.
ANOS had constructed a network of pipes that funneled unwanted sludge into an out-of-the-way pond, bordered by foothills on all sides. In between the yellow-grassed slopes, a pair of sentries patrolled the muck.
People rarely came out to Depot 58 (or as it was called by the staff: Slime Reservoir). The guards killed time by bitching about management, talking football, or reminiscing about the Good Old Days. The pay was good, but the job was ridiculous. Who the fuck hired kitted-out gunslingers to guard a dirty pool of sludge? That’s what Ricky Lashley, who’d done four deployments as a Marine Corps door-kicker, contemplated on the daily as he walked the perimeter around Slime Rez. His partner, Gonzo (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. Their fingers and faces were uncomfortably cold—not frigid, but that annoyingly distinct chill that came with long hours spent in the field. “Fuck,” Gonzo grumbled. “Sick of this bullshit. 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.”
“At least we’d be warm,” Gonzo said, “instead of out here, freezing our nuts off.”
“Ah, it’s not that bad.”
Which was God’s honest truth. They’d both spent plenty of nights beneath a poncho liner, trying to grab a few hours of fitful sleep. Slime Rez was annoying as hell, but 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 go on patrol in a third-world hellhole.
But therein lied the problem. Working for ANOS wasn’t hard, but it didn’t provide Ricky with any sense of purpose. Of meaning. On more than one occasion, he’d heard Marines wish they could stay overseas for the rest of their enlistment. Back then he’d thought they were stupid, but now—as he walked clockwise, clockwise, always clockwise—he could see their point.
Fuck. He dipped his chin and chuckled softy.
“The fuck’s so funny?” Gonzo asked.
“Ever miss it?”
Gonzo snorted. “You would trade six figures and an eight-hour workday for alla that bullshit we used to put up with? Come on.”
Ricky continued walking. “This sucks too, though, doesn’t it? Back then, we had a mission.”
“You’re not thinking of re-enlisting, are you? Don’t—you’ll fucking regret it.”
Ricky lit a cigarette and fit it to his lips. ANOS allowed him to smoke on duty, which was a big no-no back in the military. Part of him was disgusted by how little they cared, but a stronger part told him to capitalize on it. If the boss was being generous, you took what you could and you kept your mouth shut, because things would tighten up soon enough. It was The Way of Things.
“It’s funny…” He blew a funnel of gray, eyes creasing as he studied the dimming horizon. “Back in the Corps, I would’ve loved this. Regular hours, a real bed, hot meals…but now, it feels like all I’m doing is standing still.” He took another drag and tapped ash off his cigarette. “You feel me?”
“Standing still?” Gonzo spread his arms to either side, letting his rifle hang from its sling. “Bro, we get paid to walk in a circle. The fuck are you talking about, ‘standing still?’ ”
Ricky looked annoyed. “You know what I mean. Stop twisting words so you can sound sm—”
“Quiet.” Gonzo turned to the reservoir. “The hell is that?”
In the middle of the sludge was a six-foot oval. It looked like it was made from cratered, rotting flesh. The muck around it was bubbling and hissing.
Ricky ground his cigarette beneath his boot. He shouldered his rifle. “What the…”
Gonzo sighted down his weapon. “Bro…it looks like an egg…”
Ricky’s non-firing hand rose to his chest, clicking the key on his inter-squad radio. “Overwatch, this is Groundside.”
Hank, their watch chief, sounded bored as hell. “Groundside, you’re checking in ten minutes early. I swear to Christ, if you interrupted Adventure Time because of a coyote or a squirrel, I’m gonna—”
“There’s something in the pond. Some kind of…egg. Six feet in height.”
The bottom curve was still submerged, but the majority of it was visible. Sickly green mist, faintly aglow with hazy swamp-light, was pouring off it. Its core was pulsing with emerald luminescence.
There was a long, hanging silence. Ricky knew what Hank was thinking. They’d both been ground pounders, and they both enjoyed solid reputations. Unless Ricky had lost his shit (which was a definite possibility—assemble enough grunts and you’d inevitably lose some to the Batshit Crazies) he was telling the truth.
Hank’s voice came back on. “There’s a six-foot egg in the middle of the pond?”
Ricky stifled a surge of annoyance. “I say again: I’m looking at a six-foot egg that’s risen from the water.”
“Uh…ok. Should I scramble Special Response Unit, or…” Hank lost his radio etiquette and let his statement trail off.
Ricky thought about it. “Wait one.”
Ricky turned to Gonzo. “Should we scramble SRU?”
Gonzo’s eyes were locked on the egg. “I dunno man…”
Ricky eyed the steaming, pulsing oval, then decided fuck it—why not? This wasn’t Iraq or Afghanistan; this was like the start of some cheesy horror movie.
“Stand by.” After a few seconds (it seemed like forever; Ricky’s nerves were thrumming with tension) Hank said, “They’re on their way.”
SRU was based ten miles west of ANOS’s central facility, within a fortified bunker. If something happened inside ANOS, SRU had a secure location where they could assess the threat and deploy a response. Slime Rez, an out-of-the-way containment facility, wasn’t a concern. Even if it had been, ANOS was pretty damn lazy about minding its Ps and Qs when it came to security. Consequently, the reservoir lacked its own response unit.
Which meant SRU was going to drive fifty miles south before they arrived on-site. Ricky knew this, and it increased his anxiety by orders of magnitude. That goddamn egg had gotten brighter; it was glowing like a Christmas lawn ornament.
“ETA?” He tried not to grind his teeth.
“Forty-five minutes,” Hank replied. “I’ll tell ’em to step on it.”
The egg split open, wilting into a quartet of slime-coated petals. Each one was meaty and thick, speckled with lesions and festering boils. Something was emerging; it looked vaguely human.
“Ricky,” Gonzo called. “The fucking egg.”
“I know man—I see it.” Ricky clicked back on. “Air assault division? Are they available?”
“Negative. They’re on stand down. Budgeting chiefs couldn’t get their act together and rotate the maintenance. Our only assets are the guys en route.”
“Well tell them to hurry the fuck up!” Ricky lost his cool and swore over the net.
Hank’s reply was fast and heated: “I’m a hundred yards away, Ricky; I’m in the same spot as you. Stay calm—help’s on the way.”
“This thing is giving birth. They need to get here right now.”
The egg had blossomed fully open. Its wattled flaps floated listlessly atop the surface of the muck. The creature inside was definitely female. Green light was pouring off her, concealing her features and blurring her outline.
“Yo!” Gonzo called. “Ricky, I think it’s a girl! Yo, man, it’s a fucking teenage gi—”
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 scream and cut loose with his rifle. Ricky yelled at Gonzo to aim his damn shots, but when he looked over at his partner, his eyes widened.
Gonzo was coated in dripping slime…and also in worms.
“Help me!” Gonzo stopped firing and swatted at the worms. “Fucking HELP ME!” The creatures bored through his uniform, opening bracelet-sized holes all across his body. Chunk-speckled blood poured from his wounds and spilled down his legs. Thin red streams flowed freely from his lips.
“Fuck!” Ricky screamed. “FUCK!” He sighted on Gonzo, but couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger—friendly fire was a cardinal sin.
Gonzo began to spasm and seize. A fountain of blood jetted from his mouth. That broke the spell—he wasn’t human; he was a convulsing piece of meat.
Ricky fired, drilling a neat red hole into his partner’s brow.
Gonzo collapsed. The worms bounced up from the sudden impact. Then, in perfect unison, they rose onto their back segments and faced Ricky. Now he could see how they’d tunneled into Gonzo; each one had a gaping mouth. Big-ass circles filled with needle-like teeth.
Ricky turned and ran.
“Overwatch,” he gasped. “Start the Suburban! We need to leave! Now!”
“On it,” Hank answered.
Ricky felt a surge of hope. Just might make it, he thought. If we can get to the car and—
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. His mouth filled with the cloying taste of copper, and he suddenly realized he’d bitten off his tongue—it was lying on the ground a few feet away, the moon reflecting off its ruined edge.
“Nnnn…” He fumbled with his rifle but he’d landed right on top of it; the weight of his torso was keeping it pinned. He tried to flip over but he was being dragged too damn fast.
It’s gonna eat me, he thought wildly. Holy Mary Mother of CHRIST IT’S GONNA EAT ME!
He slapped his right arm down and drew his pistol, aiming it down his leg toward his assailant. His first shot tore through his foot. His second shot skated across his shin, and the third punched through the meat of his calf (despite the adrenaline, that one hurt). He kept firing, determined to keep going until—
“Shit!” Ricky screamed. “Shit shit SHIT!”
There was a slick, sucking pop. He glimpsed his leg flying away, torn off like a Thanksgiving wishbone.
“No!” he wailed (due to his missing tongue, it came out as NUH!). “No no no NO—”
Then Dee Sonay dragged him underwater.