The thing called “Dissona” had gone by many names throughout the ages. The Lurker in the Dark, Khythos Raparian, Yictaagner…she was even mistaken for Randall Flagg by a slack-jawed farmer, just 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 was better than nothing.)
Now, she faced a new challenge: the Timekeeper had stripped her of power. Not all of it, but enough to prevent her from consuming this reality.
When they’d last fought, she’d locked him in a nightmare and reigned supreme over a cold, deadened multiverse. As the eons passed, she’d lapsed into a forgetful slumber. Then while she dozed, linearity rebooted itself. The old trifecta (love, laughter and dreams) had reared its ugly head, giving 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 used 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 appetite, but she couldn’t linger in her black-mist form or she would self-cannibalize (it took tons of energy to stay disembodied). She had to accept her new limitations: she was now a teenager, armed with some parlor tricks. It would take a few months to rebuild her strength, but until then…
Enter Dee Sonay: Dissona’s human incarnation.
ANOS owned a network of pipes that led from its headquarters into an out-of-the-way pond, bordered by foothills on all sides. The pipes funneled unwanted sludge into the pond. A pair of sentries patrolled the muck. Officially, the location was called Depot 58, but to the staff, it was 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 gunfighters to guard a dirty pool of sludge? That’s what Ricky Lashley, who’d done four tours as a Marine Corps door-kicker, contemplated 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) walked 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 the annoyingly distinct chill that came with long hours spent in the field.
“Fuck,” Gonzo grumbled. “Sick a’ 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, Gonz.”
“Least it’s warm,” Gonzo argued.
“Ah, this isn’t that bad.”
Which was God’s honest truth. They’d both spent countless nights beneath a smelly 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 wake up in a shambling daze and take a boatload of stimulants, so you could lock yourself on and patrol through the streets of a third-world hellhole.
But therein lied the problem. Working for ANOS wasn’t hard, per se, but it didn’t provide Ricky with any sense of purpose. Of meaning. On more than one occasion, he’d heard Marines wishing 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. “Seriously? You would trade a six-figure salary and an eight-hour workday for alla that bullshit we used to put up with? Come on.”
“Yeah, but we had a mission. Now we don’t.”
“You’re not 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 guard duty, which was a big no-no back in the military. Part of him was disgusted by their lack of caring, but a stronger part of him said shut up and go with it. If the boss was generous, you took what you could and kept quiet, because things would tighten up soon enough. It was The Way of Things.
“It’s funny…” He blew a funnel of gray, studying the dimming horizon with creased eyes. “Back in the Corps, I would’ve killed for this. Regular hours, a real bed, hot meals…but now, it feels like all I’m doing is standing still.” He tapped an ember of ash off the end of his cigarette. “You feel me?”
“Standing still?” Gonzo spread his arms in an incredulous gesture, 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 twitched toward the reservoir. “The hell is that?”
Rising from the sludge was a six-foot oval. It looked like it was made from cratered, rotting flesh. Sickly green mist, faintly aglow with hazy swamp-light, poured off its sides. Its core pulsed with emerald light.
Ricky ground his cig beneath his boot. “What the…”
Gonzo sighted down his weapon. “It…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.”
There was a long, hanging silence. Ricky knew what Hank was thinking. They were both ground pounders, and they both enjoyed solid reputations. Unless Ricky had lost his shit (which was definitely possible—gather 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 call Special Response Unit, or…” Hank lost his radio etiquette; he let the rest of his statement trail off.
Ricky thought about it. “Wait one.”
Ricky turned to Gonzo. “SRU?”
Gonzo’s eyes stayed locked on the egg. “I dunno man…”
Ricky looked at the pulsing oval, then decided fuck it—why not? This wasn’t Iraq or Afghanistan; this was like the start of a cheesy horror movie.
“Send it, Groundside.”
“Stand by.” After a few seconds (it seemed like forever; Ricky’s nerves were abuzz with tension) Hank said, “They’re on their way.”
The Special Response Unit was based ten miles east of ANOS’s headquarters. If something occurred inside ANOS, SRU had a secure location where they could assess the threat and deploy a response. They were supposed to protect the central compound—Slime Rez, an out-of-the-way containment facility, wasn’t a concern.
Which meant SRU would drive fifty miles south before they arrived. Ricky knew this, and it only served to increase his anxiety. That goddamn egg had gotten brighter; it was glowing like a Christmas lawn ornament.
“Forty minutes,” Hank replied.
The top of the egg opened and split, wilting into a quartet of slime-coated petals. Each one was meaty and thick, speckled with lesions and festering boils. There was something inside; it looked vaguely human.
“Ricky,” Gonzo called. “The fucking egg.”
“I see it.” Ricky clicked back on. “Air assault? Are they available?”
“Negative, they’re all on stand-down. Goddamn budgeting chiefs—couldn’t coordinate a simple maintenance rotation. Our only assets are the guys en route.”
“Then 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.”
“This thing is giving birth. They need to get here right now.”
The egg had blossomed fully open, revealing a female figure. 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. Snot-like gunk gushed from her palm, enveloping Gonzo in a torrent of mucus. He let out a scream and cut loose with his rifle.
Ricky instinctively yelled at his idiot partner—aim your fucking shots, motherfucker—but then he looked over at Gonzo and his eyes widened.
He was coated in slime…and also in worms.
“Help me!” He stopped firing and swatted at the worms. “HELP ME!” The creatures bored through his gear and into his skin. Chunk-speckled blood poured from his wounds.
“Fuck!” Ricky screamed. “FUCK!” He sighted on Gonzo, but his trigger-finger froze—friendly fire was a cardinal sin.
Gonzo spasmed and seized, thrashing in place like an electrified whip. As blood leaked through his clothes and gear, a fountain of red jetted from his mouth.
That broke the spell—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. Each one had a gaping mouth—big-ass circles filled with teeth.
Ricky turned and ran like hell.
“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 get to the car and—
Something thick and muscled wrapped his ankles, yanking him violently off his feet.
His jaw clacked shut as his chin hit the ground. His mouth filled with the taste of copper, and he realized he’d bitten off half 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 on top of it; the weight of his torso was pinning it beneath him. He tried to flip over but he was being dragged backward 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 at his hungry attacker. The first shot tore through his foot. The second skated across his shin, 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 (his missing tongue was missing; it came out as NUH!). “No no no NO—”
Then Dee Sonay pulled him underwater.