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 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 single-mindedly ravenous, so it was better than nothing.
Now, she faced a new challenge: the fucking Timekeeper had stripped her of 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.
As eons passed, she’d grown increasingly content, until she’d lapsed into a forgetful slumber. Then, while she’d been dozing, some fuckwit had restarted linearity. As a result, the typical 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. As soon as the teens had woken her up, she’d smelled the possibility, the untrammeled novelty.
It was utterly sickening.
The Timekeeper had hit her with a Theosophic emetic, which, in addition to reducing her power, had confined her to a physical body. She now had to deal with breathing, eating, and all the horseshit that went hand-in-hand with being mortal. Human form was both a blessing and a curse. It decreased her hunger, but as soon as she shifted into her black-mist form, her appetite took hold and she started eating 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 built 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, while their fingers and faces were uncomfortably cold—not frigid, but that annoyingly distinct chill that came from 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 from what we’re doing right now.”
“At least we’d be warm,” Gonzo retorted, “instead of out here, freezing our nuts off.”
“Ah, it’s not that bad.”
Which was God’s honest truth. They’d both spent their share of teeth-chattering nights huddled beneath a poncho liner, pressed against a smelly Marine (or soldier, in Gonzo’s case), trying to grab an hour or two 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, just so you could go out on patrol.
But therein lied the problem—working for ANOS wasn’t physically hard, but unlike the Corps, 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 and keep fighting 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 is so funny?” Gonzo grumbled.
“Ever miss your time in the service?”
Gonzo snorted. “You’d trade a fat paycheck 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 purpose.”
“You’re not thinking of re-enlisting, are you? Don’t—you’ll regret the fuck out of it.”
Ricky lit a cigarette and fit it to his lips. ANOS allowed him to smoke on patrol, which was a big no-no back in the military. Part of him was disgusted by how little they cared, but a stronger part had decided to capitalize on it. If the boss was being generous, you got 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 they studied the dimming horizon. “Back when I was in, I would’ve loved this shit. 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 some ash off his cigarette. “You feel me?”
“Standing still?” Gonzo spread his arms to either side, letting his rifle hang from its tactical 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 held up a loose-fingered hand and turned toward the reservoir. “The hell is that?”
Ricky followed his gaze. 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, shouldered his rifle and planted his feet. “What the…”
Gonzo was sighting 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 have ten more minutes before your check-in. 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…some kind of egg. Six feet in height.”
Its bottom curve was still submerged, but most of it was visible. Sickly green mist, faintly aglow with hazy swamp-light, was pouring down its sides. Its core was pulsing with emerald luminescence.
There was a long, hanging silence.
Ricky knew what Hank was thinking. They’d both served as ground pounders, and they both enjoyed solid reputations. Unless Ricky had lost his shit (which wasn’t out of the question—get enough grunts together and you’d lose a few 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, Overwatch: 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 flicked back to 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 just like the start of a cheesy horror movie.
“Stand by.” After a few seconds (it seemed like forever; Ricky’s nerves were thrumming like livewires) Hank said, “They’re on their way.”
SRU was based ten miles west of ANOS’s central facility, inside 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, however, had never been 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 hadn’t been assigned its own response unit.
Which meant SRU was going to drive fifty miles before they arrived on-site. Ricky knew this, and it only served to increase his anxiety. The goddamn egg had gotten brighter; it now resembled a Christmas lawn ornament.
“ETA?” He tried not to grind his teeth.
“Forty-five minutes,” Hank replied. “I’ll tell them to step on it.”
The egg began splitting 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 you are. Stay calm—help’s on the way.”
Ricky’s voice trembled with fear. “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 body, 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. Rounds sparked and plinked off the girl. 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, spilling down his legs like gory vomit. Gonzo’s eyes rolled back in his head. Blood 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.
He knew it was right. But he couldn’t do it.
Gonzo began to spasm and seize. A fountain of blood jetted from his mouth. 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 brow.
Gonzo collapsed. The worms bounced upward 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 get out of here! Now!”
“Got 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—the upper half was lying on the ground a few feet away. The moon reflected off its shiny-slick surface, bringing its ruined edge into clear relief.
“Nnnn…” He fumbled with his rifle but he’d landed on top of it; the weight of his torso was keeping it pinned. 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 in the direction of 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 his amped up state, 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 offf like a Thanksgiving wishbone.
“No!” he wailed. “No no no NO—”
Dee Sonay dragged him underwater.