ALGOR MORTIS

Dead Meat PT. 1: Carcass

An illustration of a meat cleaver. On either side of it, there is puddled blood. On the top left, 'Carcass' is written in cursive.
CONTENT WARNINGS: gore & body horror, animal death, syringes, blood consumption, cannibalism (unintentional & posthumous), imprisonment & unethical treatment of a humanoid being, body control, corruption, transformation, gunshot wounds, graphic description of a gunshot wound to the head, graphic description of a shotgun wound to the knee


"Look, Bets," her father whispered.

"Yeah, yeah, I see it," she whispered back.

Betsy's breath trembled as she gazed down the iron sight at the buck.

Today was her fourteenth birthday. On this special occasion, she was allowed to use her father's prized pump-action shotgun. But if Betsy was being honest with herself, holding it didn't make her feel very special. Her father was vying for yet another gruesome trophy. A new rack of antlers to grace the foyer of his cabin.

Bracing herself for the recoil, she just about squeezed the trigger. The barrel swung slightly right and a thin tree nearby became little more than splinters.

The buck darted off.

"Dagummit," Murphy said, rising from a squat. "Girl, I know you had that in your sight!"

Betsy lowered the shotgun, staring at the leaf-littered forest floor.

"I got nervous," she mumbled.

Her father's expression softened and he rubbed at his bearded chin.

"Well, it is your first time actually holdin' that thing, after all," he said. "But you gotta get comfortable handlin' a gun. Your survival counts on it!"

"Yeah," she said.

She got to her feet and gingerly handed it to him. He slung it over his shoulder and trekked back to their campfire. He glanced over his shoulder at her when he noticed she wasn't following.

"You comin'?" he asked.

Betsy rubbed the back of her neck.

"Need to take a piss. I'll be back," she said.

Betsy wandered off without waiting for him to say anything. She didn't need to go, but she did need space from him. If she told him that, however, it'd sour the entire trip and that sourness would follow them all the way home and become her mother's problem.

Rubbing the remains of the tree she'd blasted to smithereens, Betsy wondered what the appeal was.

Her father was obsessed. Survival this, survival that, preparation is key - but if she thought too long on it, he was really just fixated on wanton cruelty for prideful displays.

"It's to use every part of the animal," her father had said, gesturing to the stuffed displays decorating his cabin.

Looking into the dozens of taxidermy eyes did nothing for her. It wasn't that she was squeamish. Betsy learned early how to field dress a carcass, from the smallest rabbits to the biggest does. She just hadn't killed anything herself yet. Even so, the weight of a pistol at her hip, another 'gift' just for her, reminded her of the inevitability.

A branch cracked.

Betsy glanced up.

Ahead of her was an enormous grizzly.

How she had missed it, she didn't know. But it was approaching, restlessly striking the ground.

She raised her arms and backed up. Her breath shook.

"Stand your ground and make yourself big as possible!" her father's voice said in her head. "Don't you run!"

The bear huffed.

"Don't you dare," his disapproving voice whispered again.

The bear charged. What her father said hit the back of her mind as she bolted.

There was a deafening explosion and the bear fell into a crumpled heap.

Betsy looked over her shoulder at the sound. Her breath rushed out of her as the front of her struck a tree. She fell backward into the dirt and found herself staring at the sky in a daze.

"Elizabeth Winters, what in the HELL did I tell you about runnin' from bears?" came her father's voice, very real and very loud this time.

Her father entered her field of vision, face beet red. Betsy averted her eyes as she tried to catch her breath. She could hear the bear vocalizing.

"Got nervous," she said. "Hey. It's- it's still-"

"Alive. Ya think I can't hear it, kid?" he asked.

Her father tutted and disappeared, leaving her to get to her feet on her own. There was another boom and the bear's crying ended. Betsy whirled around. Her father was prodding the carcass with the barrel of his shotgun and whistled approvingly.

"Ain't gonna get my rack of antlers today, but a bear meat chili sounds just as good to me," he said. He looked to her then with a grin. "Sound like a yummy birthday dinner?"

Betsy's stomach churned. The bear's lifeless eyes may as well have been glaring at her.

"Sure," she forced through the bile in her throat.

It would be the first and last time she would eat bear meat.

In fact, it'd be the last time she'd eat meat.


"Betsy, look, out there!" came a voice.

Betsy nearly dropped the rifle in her surprise. Dr. Herbert Sanderson scrambled up the ladder next to her, immediately shoving a pair of binoculars into her face. Betsy moved them aside with a sigh and looked down the rifle sight.

Out by the treeline, one of the researchers was looking over a red plant, still thriving despite the frost. Not much farther away, she spotted a black bear.

"That bear again," she said.

Betsy's breath caught as she realized the bear was getting closer to the researcher.

"Hey! Bear behind you!" Betsy called out.

Dr. Mina Barnes. a mousey little thing, stumbled to her feet, narrowly avoiding stepping on the plant she'd been taking notes on. She froze entirely, then waved her arms about, hootin' and hollerin' as she backed away. The bear hesitated.

"Good. Remembered what I told her," Betsy muttered to herself.

The bear charged. Betsy and Sanderson gasped in nearly perfect unison as Mina screamed, making a break for it toward camp. Betsy aimed for the shoulders.

BAM.

The bear stumbled. Mina slammed into the gate.

"Let me in, let me in!" she wailed.

Betsy fired again. The bear fell forward in the snow, tumbling. Mina flew in through the gate the second it was open, still crying her eyes out. Betsy and Sanderson exchanged a glance and ventured out to the carcass together.

"The animals have been weird up here this season but this is on a whole other level," Betsy said, nudging it with the rifle.

Sanderson dabbed at his forehead despite the chill in the air.

"Agreed," he said. "I've not heard of bears coming out of hibernation so aggressive. It's too early, either way. Do you suppose it's sick?"

Betsy furrowed her brows as she looked it over. The snow under the body was reddening.

"Hard to say. I'd hate for the meat and fur to go to waste, though," Betsy said. "A lot there, too. I can cook some up tonight and freeze the rest."

"Oh? How exciting! I've never had bear meat before!" Sanderson said.

"Yeah. Doc, go wake Milo up. I'm gonna need help hauling this," Betsy said.

Sanderson nodded and jogged across the yard. Mina sat on the cold ground just outside the mudroom, still catching her breath.

"My dear, are you quite all right?" he asked, chuckling lightly.

Mina only glared.

Nothing was off about the carcass once Betsy opened it up. Perfectly healthy as far as she could tell. Fattened up for hibernation, to boot. The camp ate like kings that night; heaping bowls of a spicy bear meat chili. Not wanting to miss out, Betsy prepared a separate portion for herself without meat.

Her decision would change everyone.


"Recording begins. November 29th. Following up on yesterday's entry regarding the bear our cook killed, and, well- certainly, at the time, it was no more than slabs of meat!

"But around midnight last night, an alarm sounded from the kitchen and we- we found the freezer open, the remains of the bear were watching us. IS watching us. It's larger than before, larger than what was put away. Most of our frozen reserves were missing, as well. Presumably consumed by it.

"For our safety, I've had it moved into one of the kennels. Will elaborate at a later date. Recording ends."

Dr. Herbert Sanderson put away his tape recorder and cupped a hand to his stomach. A hot, uncomfortable sensation had been brewing within for hours now.

It'd been a sleepless night even before their discovery; he'd only tossed and turned despite the gratuitous amount of antacids he'd downed alongside dinner. Betsy had never been shy about spicing a dish up. Divine as her chili had proven to be, he'd had to say uncle after the first bowl. It was too much for his delicate constitution.

In hindsight, perhaps that had been for the best.

He tapped his foot restlessly on the tile as he returned the gaze of the thing in the kennel. Milky white eyes stared out at him, sclera tinged red by burst blood vessels. A lopsided maw of powerful fangs slowly opened and closed in the center.

Sanderson slid a syringe into its mass. There was resistance as the needle entered flesh, a viscous fluid filling the barrel. It writhed and gnashed long after he closed the door.

"Easy, now. That wasn't so bad," Sanderson said, mostly to himself.

He tilted the syringe. Its blood was thick, jam-like.

As Sanderson stared at the syringe in his hand and the contents within, he felt strange.

Hungry.

A sigh escaped his lips as his appetite roared to life, mixing agonizingly with his nausea. Why was this making him hungry?! He wanted to test it, to examine it, not eat it! He wanted to yank that needle off and greedily suck the contents down!

No.

He-

Wanted to eat it all.

Sweat bloomed on his brow. He wiped it away on his sleeve, running a hand through his thinning hair.

Sanderson rushed to the other side of the room, dividing the sample among vials and storing them in the fridge. But he wondered and placed a single (nauseating) (tantalizing) drop on a microscope slide.

The cells looked entirely normal. But after a few moments of observation, pinpricks emerged from the cell walls, giving them a spiked appearance. And then they receded.

He wondered again.

Sanderson pricked his finger and added a drop of his own blood to the slide. Side by side, human and inhuman cells coexisted, before those spikes emerged and attached to his, consuming them.

Sanderson's eyes widened.

More and more were eaten up, and finally, the altered cells began to split.

Sanderson jerked his head back. Tainted blood bubbled on the stage and he threw the slide into the trash. The blood ran to the edge of the plastic liner and slid up the length of the can toward him. With a squeak, he dragged can and liner both outside and tossed them into the incinerator.

As it burned, a putrid and cloyingly sweet odor rode into the air on that smoke. Sanderson breathed in heavily, nostrils flaring. He had to contact the department. He had to try it. He had to focus. He had to lick it up. He needed more to store and study. He needed more. Just a moment. Just a taste.

No. Focus!

Department.

Call the department.

Sanderson went back inside the lab and eyed the phone at his desk. He picked up the receiver with hands that shook badly. After a few rings, there was a buzz as someone picked up.

"Thank you for calling Hassen Research Department. How may I direct your call?" came the secretary's nasally voice.

Sanderson cleared his throat, eyes drifting to the thing in the kennel. It stared back at him. He turned away.

"Yes, this is Dr. Herbert Sanderson...I need to speak with Ms. Hassen urgently, if she is available..."


It was a person now.

A large, distressingly gaunt man curled as tightly into himself as he could manage in the kennel. The odor was indescribable. The room was silent aside from the droning of equipment as the team looked on. Dark hair had sprouted. Facial features emerged around the now red-ringed eyes that haunted them. Long fingers clenched. Feet, toes curled. Its gaze moved between whose eyes it could catch, chest rising and falling rapidly.

Whatever it was, it was developing. Quickly.

Among the gaping was Betsy Winters. Although no one admitted to adverse effects from consuming that meat, she was silently relieved she was a vegetarian and had not partaken.

"What the hell do we do now?" came a frantic whisper.

"We can't keep a person in there..." another said.

"But he was meat a few days ago!"

"Yeah, that we fucking ate!"

"Maybe he's a were-bear! Those have been spotted up here, I read about it!" said Milo Gaskins, a young and burly man decked out in a comically large headset.

Betsy rolled her eyes. Their security guard had thrown his conspiracy theory hat into the ring.

"No, idiot, it's an alien," another said. "Has to be. We should report this to the department head."

"Or the government!"

Dr. Mina Barnes groaned in exasperation.

"Report what!? That we're keeping a man here in a cage?!" she said. "Do you know how fast we'd be shut down and arrested?"

Their voices devolved into a chorus of panicked shouts. Betsy glanced at the kennel and startled. The man was staring directly at her.

Sanderson's cut through the chaos.

"All right, all right! Quiet down!" he said.

A rumble of mutters from the room, but quiet down they did.

"We approach this as we do any unknown. We study it. We're scientists, for God's sake," Sanderson said. Despite his calm, even tone, he was wiping a film of sweat from his brow.

Another peer around the room told Betsy the others thought Sanderson insane for the suggestion. Dr. Clive Reeves in particular regarded his colleague disapprovingly. He pushed glasses the size of dinner plates up his nose.

"Herbert, I respect the study as much as anybody else," Reeves said in his permanently trembling voice. "But we can't keep a man imprisoned. It's unethical."

Murmurs from the group. Sanderson placed a hand on the kennel, leaning against it. The man's breath quickened.

"Clive," Sanderson said. "What man springs fully formed from the carcass of an animal? I doubt we need to hand-wring about ethics in this situation!"

With a grunt, Betsy took a step forward, parting the crowd easily with her solid and sturdy body.

"Dr. Sanderson, you have an obligation to do what you do ethically," she said. "Yeah, we don't know what or WHY he is, but he's still a living thing that standards of care apply to. Even the bear he came from was treated better. 'Least it's not locked up in a tiny cage."

There were nods of agreement. Sanderson cleared his throat, patting his forehead gently with his sleeve.

"Ah, well, we can certainly look into alternative containment, but this is all we have on hand that will also protect us," he said. "I can't say I expected the butcher's cuts to turn into a man. You'll have to forgive my lack of foresight."

Mina let out a smug little snort next to her. Betsy's cheeks flushed, but she said nothing more. Sanderson turned to the others with a strained smile.

"Not to worry, everyone. I contacted the department head yesterday about it," Sanderson said. "With the snowstorm coming through, Ms. Hassen's said that, uh, out of an abundance of caution...it will take a little bit of time to send someone out here to take a look. A few days, at most!"

But he didn't look terribly confident about that. Anxious muttering rippled across the crowd. The air was heavy as they all looked into the kennel. It looked back.

The gawkers eventually returned to their work, leaving Reeves and Sanderson to mull over the unusual guest. Betsy remained as well, squatting a healthy distance from the kennel. Even so, the bizarre odor emanating off the man was enough to make her eyes water. She waved awkwardly.

"Hey, buddy. You hungry?" she asked.

No response, only that stare boring through her own. She hummed.

"If he can understand me, he's not up for chatting," she said.

Dr. Reeves came closer.

"What do you propose we do about meals for him, Ms. Winters?" he asked.

"Go with the bear's diet to be on the safe side. It was fat and healthy, so it was eating well despite its passenger," she said.

Betsy fetched thawed berries and portions of a salmon she'd cooked, tucking them neatly into lettuce leaves. She slid the food into a hatch at the bottom of the kennel. Sanderson and Reeves anxiously watched for any sudden movements from where they stood. The man's eyes darted between her and her offering rapidly. Betsy cocked her head and spoke over her shoulder, her eyes not budging from his.

"We gotta leave," she said.

"Absolutely not!" Sanderson huffed.

"Shut it, Herbert," Betsy said. "He doesn't wanna take his eyes off us. He might eat if we're not in here."

Betsy managed to shove the reluctant scientists out the door and keep them out.

Just as reluctantly, they let her return alone to deliver dinner; more of the same and more of it. The muscles around the man's stomach expanded and contracted, quivering more the closer she got. She noted with satisfaction that the food from earlier was gone.

In fact...

Betsy squinted. If she didn't know any better, it looked as if the man's emaciated figure had filled out ever so slightly. She couldn't think on it long when she finally had a moment in here alone. Betsy poked through Sanderson's desk and then through Reeves'. No coincidentally stray keys.

In the time she'd had her back turned, the food was gone without so much as a crumb or stain left, the man licking his lips. There was continuous motion in his abdominal muscles, visible through his skin.

Betsy nodded approvingly.

"So you've got an appetite, after all. Good to see," she said.


The lights flickered in Sanderson's quarters. He looked up in irritation from the book he was trying to distract himself with.

That damn generator again, he thought.

Why the department supplied them with such flimsy equipment was beyond him. Most likely to funnel more profits into their kennels, he figured. The thing was less a kennel, more a small scale prison cell.

Sanderson had questioned the department head on why they'd need something so heavy duty. They were wildlife researchers, not zookeepers, Sanderson had said. She was vague as ever in her response: "In case of emergencies!"

He put on tea. Even that was no comfort to him now. That odor permeated everything. Sanderson dumped the tea and rubbed at his temples. Leaving his quarters was becoming increasingly difficult. Everything and everyone around him smelled of it.

Everyone except Betsy.

After powering through sitting among the others for dinner, Sanderson went into the kitchen, where Betsy was washing dishes forcefully. After their spat earlier in the lab, she had been as stormy as it was outside. Betsy glanced over her shoulder at him. And glared. A plate was dried and put away loudly. Despite the tension, he was relieved to find he could keep a clear head around her.

"I wanted to apologize for this afternoon," he said.

"Yeah?" she replied.

The towel's rotations slowed across the next plate.

"This situation is unsettling, to say the least," he said. "I do wish there was a happy middle ground-"

Betsy put this plate away louder than the other, making Sanderson wince.

"I already felt like an idiot," she said without turning to him. "You had to make that snide little jab, anyway."

"I- You're right. It was unnecessary. This is all- I mean," he fumbled. "It's stressful enough for me. It must be worse for you."

Betsy turned away, continuing the washing up. She was at the last stretch of dishes when she finally spoke again.

"Never wanted to add preparation of human meat to my skillset," she said. "You've all had it now, except me. Doesn't feel good, Doc."

"There was no way you would have known this would happen! We were far more likely to contract parasites from that meat than it turn out to- to be a man," he said.

Betsy stared sullenly at the floor. The last plate was put away with her normal amount of force. Her anger had dissipated.

"What'd the department head have to say about all this?" she asked.

"She is positively elated," he said. "I believe this may be it, Betsy."

Betsy gave him an uneasy look. Sanderson pulled up a stool to the kitchen island and took a seat, lacing his fingers together. Betsy took a seat across from him.

"Ms. Hassen's never bothered to send anyone out to us before. Not even when we found that stream of inverted salmon," he said.

"That's been fine with me," she said bitterly. "I can't stand her, or her goons. ...Are you really gonna just hand him over to those bastards?"

"What choice do you think we have?" he asked.

She crossed her arms, leaning back on the stool.

"If you're actually asking. We cart that kennel outta the lab and turn him loose in the woods he came from," she said. "Then we shrug and say, 'Uh-oh! Whoops!' to the moron that shows up."

"And if he returns and attacks us again? We're still out here until March. I don't agree with his captivity, either, Betsy, but we don't know what he's capable of. For God's sake, he was meat in our bowls a day ago!" he spat.

Betsy averted her eyes.

"Yeah. I guess. What'd the department head have to say about our oh-so-wonderful bear meat chili dinner, anyway?" she asked.

"I only said we killed a bear. Nothing about the chili," Sanderson said.

Betsy looked at him in bewilderment then.

"Christ, Herbert," she said. "That people ate that meat is a pretty fuckin' important detail!"

"I didn't want any responsibility for this coming down on you! Honestly, Betsy, I doubt including that would have expedited anything with the storm coming through," he said. "So let's deal with this scenario. Has anyone been sick, to your knowledge?"

She shrugged.

"Besides some lost appetites, no one seems for wear. Hell, Milo's hungrier than ever. Weird ass kid," she said, with perturbed affection. "What about you, Doc?"

Sanderson bit his lip. Craving the taste of blood was hardly no worse for wear. But what would she think of him, to admit to that?

"Have you spoken to your mother recently?" he asked suddenly.

Betsy's brow rose at the abrupt change in subject.

"Yeah? Last week, when I was pickin' up supplies in High Bridge," she said. "Marty down at Cuddy's lets me use his phone for a quarter."

Sanderson looked at her with confusion.

"We have phones on site, Betsy, you needn't do that," he said. "High Bridge is hours out from here, for God's sake."

"Yeah, I know that. It's not exactly gas mileage friendly, but there's this weird buzzing whenever I pick up the phones here," she said. "Call me paranoid, but I don't trust your boss lady to not be tappin' the lines."

"I see," he said, though he wasn't sure he did. "How is your mother, then?"

"She's doin' okay," she said. "So is Annie, if that's why you're asking."

"Oh, good. Good to hear," he said.

Betsy was watching him carefully.

"You're sweating an awful lot right now. You feelin' okay, Doc?" she asked.

"Admittedly..." he said.

Admittedly, he felt horrible! Admittedly, he felt like a wild animal among men! Blood welled under his nostrils. He had bit his lip too hard. He held his sleeve to his mouth.

"I'm only anxious what with everything that's happened," he said.

Betsy worried anyway, he could see it on her face. But she left it at that.

"You start feeling funny, you let me know," she said.

Sanderson bid her goodbye without leaving her so much as a chance to get a word in edgewise. He returned to his quarters and licked his lips.

Hungry.

He'd eaten only an hour ago! Yet desperation clawed at him, a pathetic and whining thing that could eat and eat and never be full.

Want it. NEED it.

Sanderson tried tea again. It smelled of rot. He dumped it out and went to bed.

Sanderson dreamt of a man with the antlers of a stag, gnarled and twisting. They shed velvet and grew toward the expanse, reaching ever outward. Division upon division, they become the branches of a great tree. The nervous system of the cosmos. Looking upon this, he doesn't feel awe and he doesn't feel fear.

After all, that was him once.

His tossing and turning continued for the remainder of the night, a cold sweat coating his feverish body.

Come morning, Sanderson dragged himself into the cafeteria for breakfast. Everyone reeked. Sanderson chewed on his toast. Even that tasted of it. A few tables away, Mina picked at her plate of eggs, inspecting every last morsel as if sure that meat somehow found its way back onto her plate.

Little is eaten this morning.

It's then that Milo Gaskins ran screaming into the cafeteria, headset dragging behind him, still anchored to the CD player in his pocket.

"You guys gotta come see this!" he panted. "Oh, shit, oh, fuck, on the camera, I saw it- it's big, this is HUGE-"

Betsy stood and grabbed his shoulder hard, bringing him back from his panicked fervor.

"Chill out," Betsy said. "You piss off another bear?"

"No, it's not a fucking bear!" Milo said. "There's two of them now! I saw it happen, on the camera! Another guy came right out of his back!"

The cafeteria filled with muttering voices. Milo spun a yarn as fantastical as a were-bear. The man in the kennel had begun to spasm around midnight. An arm emerged from his back and with hardly any ceremony, a twin wriggled out and off, the whole event remarkably smooth and bloodless.

This spurred another group meeting in the lab, everyone braving the swirling snow that had moved in. Betsy burst into the lab first and immediately froze, Milo slamming into her back, nearly bouncing off.

There were indeed two of them now, cramped back to back in the kennel. They were identical, wild-eyed with cascades of thick, dark hair. Sanderson fidgeted, restless as ever. The sight and smell of them was going to drive him into a frenzy before long.

"Oh, yes. This is extraordinary. Extraordinary, indeed," Reeves mumbled.

"Well, shit. What am I gonna do about feeding them?" Betsy asked. "There gonna be three of them tomorrow?"

"Four, if they both make copies?!" Milo chimed in.

"THAT'S what you guys are concerned about?!" Mina asked.

"How many of them can that thing even hold?" came another panicked voice.

The chorus rose again. The one at the back of the kennel only stared. But the twin met Betsy's eyes and grinned. Her jaw dropped.

"Hey, he's-" she started.

Betsy didn't have a chance to finish. Reeves and Sanderson ushered everyone out of the lab with a surprising forcefulness.

"Everyone, this situation is now an emergency," Sanderson announced at the entryway. "No one comes into the lab without me or Dr. Reeves knowing about it, and from here on, it is NOT to be fed!"

Reeves nodded along beside him.

"What, now you're gonna starve them?" Betsy asked. "Keeping them locked up to send to a fraudster lab wasn't enough for you?!"

Sanderson blew his top then, leaning even closer to her.

"BETSY! Don't you understand?! Every time it eats, it changes, or gets bigger, or- or it does this! Whatever this is!" he spat, face reddening.

Betsy only stepped back, looking at him cooly. His face softened and he averted his eyes, shocked by his outburst of anger.

"I'm sorry, Betsy," he sputtered.

The lab door slammed in her face, the lock clunking into place, cutting any rebuttal off. Betsy struck it with her fist. Milo gripped her shoulder.

"Give it up, Bets," Milo said. "This is way bigger than us now."

Betsy shrugged his hand off and turned to the others. She gestured to the lab.

"Surely someone else here also thinks this is all so fucked up," she said.

Murmurs of agreement came.

"We can't keep them locked up! We can't just twiddle our thumbs and surrender them to the department for God knows what kind of testing, either!" Betsy said.

The crowd's faces grew unfamiliar and hostile within seconds. Mina in particular was furious.

"As opposed to what?" Mina asked. "We can't just let them out! If they can make copies of themselves, who knows what else they're capable of?!"

"You don't even know if they're dangerous or not!" Betsy said.

"Neither do you! That's exactly why they should stay locked up! God, you're fucking stupid!" Mina said.

Mina shrank away under Betsy's glare.

Without another word, everyone solemnly filed back the way they came, Betsy following behind the pack. Eyeing the keys jingling at Milo's hip, she began to prepare.


Sanderson paced restlessly around the lab.

He'd attempted to acquire a sample from the twin mere moments ago. But muscles had tensed, the needle snapping. The twin's lip curled in pronounced irritation as the tip of the needle vanished into his arm. Sanderson's shoulders slumped.

No more samples.

Nothing fresh.

Reeves put down the handset with a sigh. Nothing but that incessant buzzing.

"I'm afraid I'm having no luck reaching headquarters," he said. "Nothing in or out during the storm. All we can do from here is be patient."

Sanderson let out an exasperated sigh. Reeves rummaged around in a drawer and approached the kennel. Sanderson leaned to and fro, trying to see what he had.

"Clive? What are you doing?" Sanderson asked.

Reeves flicked his wrist. A scalpel was embedded in one of the hands clutching the bars. The creature hissed and bared terrible teeth. The one behind began to growl. Sanderson clapped a hand over his mouth and nose, both in shock and to block out the smell of blood. The scalpel was sucked into his flesh and the deep wound filled in, the skin left smooth and unblemished. A dribble of blood remain on the bars, sluggishly trailing downward.

"Good God," Sanderson whispered nasally.

"Oh, yes," Reeves said to the creatures in the cage. "I know what you are now, beyond a shadow of a doubt."

He smiled strangely over his shoulder at Sanderson.

"Do we have a blowtorch in here?" he asked.

"What on Earth for?"

"We should observe their behavior under duress!"

Sanderson's jaw dropped.

"ABSOLUTELY not! What's gotten into you?!" he asked.

"Hm? I thought you said we needn't wring our hands about being ethical, Herbert," Reeves said. "There's research to be done before we hand them over!"

"Yes, I did, over keeping them in containment, for OUR safety! It wasn't a go ahead to inflict harm on them!"

Reeves nodded along with him.

"Oh, yes, that's right, isn't it?" he asked.

Sanderson sank down at his desk, not taking his eyes off of Reeves.

"Clive. You should get some rest. You seem out of sorts," Sanderson said.

"Do I? I feel better than ever!" Reeves said. "Come now, Herbert. You haven't abandoned your love of the study, have you?"

Sanderson finally averted his eyes, only for them to land on that tiny yet enticing drop of blood upon the bars. His pulse pounded harder than ever. That smell.

That pathetic, whining thing inside of him clamored for more.


It would be another hungerless breakfast the morning after the twin appeared.

It was then Sanderson announced over intercom that Dr. Reeves had been let go following a confrontation in the lab. No fanfare, no goodbyes. No one had seen him leave camp.

Dr. Reeves had vanished into the oncoming storm.

Betsy scanned the listless crowd in the cafeteria. Hardly anyone was eating now. Mina was paler and shivering more than ever. Milo wasn't present at all. Nothing out of the ordinary at the time. A night owl, his breakfast was their lunch.

When Betsy delivered Sanderson's breakfast to him, he refused to open the door.

"I've caught something," he said in a hoarse voice. "I don't want anyone else getting sick."

Betsy grimaced.

"Fair enough. You sound awful," she said. "What the hell happened between you and Reeves last night?"

"We had an argument. I let him go," he said. "That's it."

Betsy frowned and thought of the deepening snow with how frail Reeves was on a good day. Betsy set his breakfast tray aside his door and walked off, the gears turning in her head. Unease would be her companion all day.

Milo's absence was at last felt when he never turned up for lunch. Or dinner.

Knocking on the door to his quarters yielded no answer. None of the meals she'd left had been touched. Betsy made a pitstop into her own quarters. There, from under her mattress, she retrieved a revolver she had squirreled away. Something slipped out then, fluttering to the floor. Betsy glanced at it. It was a photo of her, her mother and Annie, outside their home. A neighbor had taken it last summer. Annie's freckled cheeks and huge grin thawed her. Betsy nodded to herself.

Whatever happened tonight, she had to make it back home.

Come nightfall, Betsy crossed the yard to the security booth.

"Milo! Open up, I need to talk to you!" Betsy said.

She rapped on the door again, pulling her hood as far up as she could against the cold.

"Milo!"

No answer. She tried to look through the frosty window into the booth. Pitch black. Not even the flickers of the camera feeds switching. She stepped inside.

Sure enough, Milo wasn't there. But he had been. There were dozens of crumpled bags of chips, overflowing the trash. Milo's headset rested on the console. The monitors were dark, the whole room unusually silent.

Betsy tried turning them on.

Nothing. She took out her flashlight and shone it around the back of the desk.

There was the mass of cords to the monitors. The plugs were missing entirely, the wires frayed.

Further back, a glint caught her eye.

Wedged within that mass, in this tiny gap between the wall and the console, was Milo's keyring. That, much like his headset, he was never without.

It took Betsy a few tries and a lot of squeezing to drag it out from behind the heavy equipment. She thumbed through the keys. Milo had copies of every key to the camp's facilities. If he saw anything worth checking out on the feeds, he could access any building or gate. There were even keys to everyone's individual quarters for emergencies.

Betsy took the spare to the lab, tucking the rest into her back pocket.


The inner door to the lab was slightly ajar. Beyond, all was dark and silent. Betsy gathered herself and eased her way through the gap. The lights came on with a fluorescent buzz, wavering in their burden on their single generator.

Betsy's heart jumped into her throat.

Desks had been knocked out of place. Shards of glass were scattered across the floor. Papers and files joined them, having fallen from a cabinet that had been struck. Betsy took out her flashlight. There was more glass under the desks. She followed the trail to a fire extinguisher, laying on the floor near Sanderson's desk. Not far from it, lay his tea kettle and an overturned container of long forgotten food from the other night. Outlines of dried puddles remained. She shined the light at the corner of the room at the dented container the extinguisher had been in. Probably where a lot of that glass had come from, though she also noted what seemed to be smaller, differently colored shards mixed in with them.

Her eyes drifted to the kennel. Her gaze was met in return with wide, unblinking eyes. Beyond a few bars dented out of place, the two remained locked up tight.

Betsy managed an awkward wave. For some reason.

Her cheeks flushing, she continued on with her investigation, if only to have any reason to not keep looking at them. How stupid was that? Just casually wave hello to the prisoners, why don't you?

THUD.

Betsy jolted. She whirled around, brandishing the flashlight.

A palm was pressed against the kennel door. The twin was looking her up and down, lips parted slightly. She blinked and so did he. Hesitantly, she waved again. His palm smeared awkwardly around, pulled away and properly returned the wave.

Betsy went to speak.

"...He-" she started.

"Hello!"

She jolted again. The twin's parted lips were now a smile.

"Hello..." Betsy replied, bewildered.

The twin gently pat the door.

"Come, come!" he said.

"Nah. This is as close as I get," Betsy said.

"Betsy has been close to these ones before," he said.

Betsy's head spun. He knew her name. What did this mean. So many things-

"Betsy looks many lands beyond this one," the twin said.

The phrase confused her enough that she came back to herself.

"Huh?"

"Betsy had a 'far away look'. Betsy must return and remember before."

"I don't know what you mean by that," she said.

"Before this," he said. He gestured to himself and the perimeter of the kennel. "This one was another. Before. Dead meat."

"Oh," she said, once again relieved she had not eaten that meat.

This past hour had been an avalanche of information.

"Does Dr. Sanderson know you can speak?" she asked.

"This one will only speak to Betsy," he said. "You are the only one who has been kind to these ones."

Betsy swallowed an uncomfortable lump in her throat, but she found she was relaxing just enough to return the flashlight to her hip.

"Okay. All right. Then I reckon it's only courteous I get your name, too," she said.

The twin's smile grew wider, brows rising with interest.

"This one is called Ankhanum," he said.

Betsy strained to understand what she'd heard.

"Ankhanum," she echoed. "Does your companion there have a name? Does he also speak?"

"That one is also called Ankhanum," he said. "But he has nothing to say from in here."

To the point. Betsy shifted her weight, looking the kennel over from the distance she was at. The kennel itself was closer to a prison cell for humans than fit for standard flora and fauna research. She glanced to the security camera up on the wall and her stomach churned. If nothing else, Milo's disappearance worked in her favor.

"I'll get you out," she said.

Ankhanum smiled widely.

"These ones would like that," he said.

Betsy pulled a bobby pin free from her hair and kneeled carefully in front of the kennel door. She squinted at the lock, trying the pin with no luck. Shining her light into it revealed multiple layers of iridescent mechanisms she'd never seen before. She searched the drawers and cabinets. No key. Any tools she tried to improvise with broke off inside or came out warped. She slammed a fist against the bars.

"The fuck is this lock made of?!" she growled.

"Betsy needs the key. Sanderson has it," Ankhanum whispered.

Betsy glanced up. Under her fist, his palm pressed against it on the other side. She drew her hand back and put an elbow on her knee. She scanned the overturned room. The thought of confronting Sanderson suddenly seemed daunting.

"What the hell happened in here?" she asked. "You know Dr. Reeves? Old, scrawny guy with huge glasses? In here a lot with Sanderson?"

Ankhanum's expression became grim.

"These ones knew of Reeves, yes," he said. "Reeves was here a lot yesterday."

"Sanderson said he and Reeves got in a fight last night and fired him on the spot. But no one's seen him leave camp and it's a mess in here," she said.

Ankhanum gripped the bars and leaned closer.

"Reeves is dead," he said.

Betsy grabbed the bars herself then, their faces inches apart.

"How?" she hissed.

"Hit his head."

"Where's the body?"

"Gone. Sanderson ate it, as he eats from these ones."

Betsy felt a chill creep up her back.

"He what?!"

"It is how it sounds."

"Sanderson-"

"These ones' blood entices Sanderson. Kept it in the cooler."

Betsy got to wobbling feet and opened the cooler. Multiple vials were missing. In the trash next to it, discarded vials, dried and molding blood resting at the bottom of the liner. She slammed the cooler closed and looked to the Ankhanum. Her heart pounded. They stared back silently.

"I am going to get you out of there," she said. And then, half seriously, "And y'know what? I might just be goin' along with you guys."

Ankhanum brightened.

"This one would like that. Would Betsy also bring wears for the elements and food to eat? These ones have been eaten, yet have had little to eat," he said.

"Fuckin' Herbert," she groaned. "I'll be back."

Ankhanum grinned.

"Return to us soon," he said.

Betsy looked at the other on the way out. Nothing but a cold stare.

Bracing herself for the freezing night air, Betsy left the lab.


Betsy made her pitstops; she gathered gear from the mudroom and stopped into the pantry for provisions. Shelf stable, non-perishable food items, canteens of water, can opener, and perhaps most important, matches. Done. She would drop by her room again for her backpack, meticulously prepacked with her travel necessities.

Now she stood outside Sanderson's quarters.

The revolver was tucked out of sight, her flashlight at her hip. It was hefty and sturdy. An improvised bludgeon. As a last resort, she slid a knife into her boot. Preparation was key.

Sanderson was a squat, pudgy man who struggled to open the heavy lab door. There was no question that the Ankhanum being trapped was the only way he could've done them any harm. Betsy could even buy him managing to take down Dr. Reeves. Reeves was pushing 70 and not in the best health to begin with.

Milo was nothing like that.

After Betsy had taken down the bear, it was Milo that helped her transport the carcass. While she had no proof that Sanderson was responsible for Milo's disappearance, the coincidences were not negligible.

Betsy let herself into Sanderson's room with Milo's keyring, easing the door closed behind her. The lights were on, flickering at regular intervals. Betsy heard the soft sound of snoring in the room over. There was a beaten up recliner. Books lined up neatly on a shelf in the back. There was a desk. On it, the day's empty meal trays, an electric kettle, a mug and tins of tea leaves.

Next to the door, Sanderson's jacket and personal key ring on a hook, all neatly labeled and color coded, his key to the lab and all. Though it appeared the key to the kennel was not on it, because of course it couldn't be that easy, she thought bitterly, it could still come in handy. She didn't need him following her into the lab.

Betsy stepped further in, peeking around the corner into the bedroom and froze. Whatever the hell was sleeping on the bed, it couldn't have been Sanderson. It shouldn't have been. He lay on the bed on his back, a hand with long claws draped over a swollen gut that bulged around the strained waist of his slacks. She couldn't see the rest of him very well in the faint illumination the lights provided.

She wouldn't have to wait long to see more. Sanderson breathed in heavily and then snorted, muttering in a voice that was patently his. The bed squeaked. Betsy darted across the room to the desk. There was enough room under it to tuck herself there. The bathroom door opened not even a moment later. He'd have his back to her in there.

Betsy pulled the revolver from her jacket and ducked out.

She was met with wild red eyes, inches from hers. She jumped back, readying a shot. It took her a moment to realize it was indeed Sanderson staring at her. Sanderson got a good look at her and then the revolver. His eyes widened and he too jumped back, holding up his hands.

"Betsy?! Whoa, hold it!" he said.

Sanderson was nearly as tall as her now. His hairline had nearly grown back in, long uneven trails of dark hair framing his eternally sweaty forehead. He was fatter than ever, his checked sweater vest barely hanging onto his torso. Through his grimace, Betsy could see rows of shark-like teeth.

He looked like them. The Ankhanum.

His eyes darted between her and the revolver. Sanderson chewed at his lip, drawing blood immediately.

"Come now. This doesn't need to resort to violence. Please put the gun down," he said, practically whining. "Let's just chat."

Betsy lurched past the desk, toward him.

"What happened between you and Reeves?" she asked. "Where's Milo?"

Sanderson attempted a step forward.

"Betsy, listen-"

"Come any closer and I blow your brains out," she said.

Sanderson grew quiet and stepped back, further this time.

"Good. Thanks. Now," she said. "Let's just chat, then."

Betsy walked Sanderson back into the bedroom and turned on the light. Clothes rack, mirror. Bed, nightstand, lamp. Nothing weird. Sanderson slowly sat down on the foot of his bed, hands still up.

"First," Betsy said. "What happened to you."

Sanderson looked almost bashful at the question, stealing a glance at the mirror.

"It seems our research yielded interesting results," he said.

"'Research' is a very flattering way to describe drinking blood samples," she said.

Sanderson's face froze.

"Quite an accusation," he said.

"Milo told me he saw you do it!"

A lie, but it worked. Sanderson panicked.

"Wh- But he-! I thought-! Milo only watched the feeds at night! Didn't he? He couldn't have possibly seen-"

"Yeah, he does," Betsy said. "Say, you're sweating an awful lot, Doc."

Sanderson gazed shamefully at the floor, realizing he'd given himself away.

"Yes. I did. I drew some of their blood," he said. "The smell of it- I don't know what spurred it, I-"

A thin line of drool escaped the corner of his lips. Betsy grimaced.

"I had to taste it. And then, ahh," Sanderson said, starting to fidget. "Ahhh, even now I can't get it out of my head!"

Betsy gestured with the revolver, getting his attention back.

"What did you do to Dr. Reeves?" she asked.

"Betsy, Reeves attacked me first, I swear," Sanderson said, choked up.

"What about Milo?"

Sanderson began to weep. Betsy's cheeks grew hot. This was embarrassing.

"God, Herbert, just fucking tell me what happened," she said.

Sanderson snorted in loudly, breath shaking.

"Well, um, it was after dinner that day. The day after the copy appeared. We'd spent pretty much the entire day in the lab and-"


The samples he'd taken the other day were as brilliantly red as he remembered them.

A buzzer sounded overhead.

Someone was coming into the lab.

Sanderson froze, still looming over the vials of the creature's blood. Many were missing. Maybe if he didn't think about where they had gone, it couldn't be true. He wiped the corner of his mouth. Wind whistled through the entryway, making him shiver as he slid the samples back into the cooler.

"Oh, close the damn door already!" Sanderson barked.

He heard Reeves chuckling in the entryway as it mercifully shut. He tromped into the room, still in his snow-covered boots.

"Clive, what on Earth are you doing back here so late?" Sanderson asked.

"Late? Bah. I'm not that slow an eater," he said. "I wanted to see if you'd made any headway on contacting the boss lady."

Sanderson shook his head. He'd certainly been preoccupied. Only not with that. Reeves' jovial demeanor faltered as he passed the kennel but he quickly picked the mood back up as he squeaked across the tile to Sanderson's desk, dropping a plastic container full of food on top. Sanderson looked at the wet trail Reeves was leaving and clucked his tongue.

"First you try to make me catch my death of cold, and now look what you've done. That there's a falling hazard," Sanderson said.

"Oh, do relax. It'll dry by the time we leave here tonight, though it is getting close to your usual bedtime, is it not?" Reeves said, glancing at the clock adorning the wall. He chuckled. "Here, I brought you some dinner, courtesy of Ms. Winters."

"As much as I'd like to get some shuteye, I think it's necessary to keep vigil. Knowing our luck, we'll have triplets before long," he said. He clapped his hands together. "But, thank you, Clive! A bite to eat with my evening tea does sound lovely. Perhaps I'll go with a black tea. Burn the midnight oil."

"You know, that does sound nice about now. I'll take one too. Herbal, of course, heh," Reeves said.

There was a portable burner at the back of the lab, for experiments and occasions like these. Sanderson put the kettle on, browsing through the assortment of tea bags he had stashed. Reeves' eyes drifted to the kennel in the meantime.

His ear twitched.

"Herbert, you say something?" he asked.

Sanderson looked back at him with a confused smile. Reeves hadn't taken his eyes off of the kennel.

"Hm? No, I didn't say anything."

"Ah, I see. Tea time is a poor time for me to be going senile, heh."

Sanderson went back to looking through tea.

Reeves frowned.

He stood.

"Earl Grey would be perfect for a night like this," Sanderson said. "What would you like, Clive? I have chamomile and lemon-ginger."

Sanderson turned.

Reeves was right on top of him, reaching for him. Sanderson backed into the counter.

The kettle began to whistle.

Reeves blinked hard.

"Oh. Yes. Chamomile does sound nice, yes it does," he said.

Sanderson eyed him while he steeped the teas. He looked away long enough to check the cupboard for sugar. Reeves grabbed the kettle and swung. Sanderson yelled out as boiling water and hot metal seared his back.

"Clive, what the fuck are you doing!?" he cried.

Reeves raised the kettle again. Sanderson managed to duck, nearly losing his balance. Another forceful gust of air past his head. Papers and files fell to the floor as the kettle smashed into a cabinet. Reeves followed him.

Another swing. The kettle crashed into the emergency compartment on the wall. Glass went everywhere. Sanderson fell back onto the floor. He screamed as pain shot up his blistered back as the shards became embedded into his skin.

Reeves threw the kettle. Sanderson rolled. It bounced and struck Sanderson's desk and fell to the floor, water spilling all over. Reeves went for the fire extinguisher. He lifted it over his head with a strength Sanderson had never thought him capable. Sanderson scrambled backwards.

"Clive! Stop! Please!" he cried.

Sanderson saw it then.

Reeves' eyes were red. Thick, crimson tears streaked down his face. It was beginning to drip from his mouth, staining his teeth. The fire extinguisher came down hard on Sanderson's stomach. A rib broke. He exhaled hard. Reeves searched him. Out of his back pocket came the key to the kennel. Reeves stepped over him. Sanderson struggled to get up. It was agony.

No.

They couldn't be let out. He needed them.

Needed MORE.

"NO!" Sanderson bellowed.

He tackled Reeves. They skidded in the puddle on the floor.

Reeves fell.

His head struck the corner of Sanderson's desk and he hit the ground. Sanderson gasped for air as he lay on Reeves. He propped himself up, trying to look the man over. Blood mixed with the water on the floor.

"Clive? Oh my God..." Sanderson cupped a hand over his mouth.

Reeves stared up at the ceiling, unmoving. Sanderson backed away, tears brimming in his eyes. He hiccupped and started sobbing.

Oh, the smell. The smell. His nostrils flared. The blood from Reeves' skull smelled like the syringe, smelled like theirs. His body even smelled of them.

Sanderson sobbed harder. After the samples had become impossible to get, after how disappointing they'd been cold, he'd swore he'd never try it again. While it had grown warm in his stomach, he knew nothing could compare to it fresh. Never, ever again.

That smell.

He licked his lips.

Maybe just a taste.

He leaned close to the floor, close to Reeves' cheek. He lapped at the bloodied water. Then he began to suck on the freely bleeding wounds on Reeves' head, tongue grazing the skin. He bit into a cheek. Sanderson shivered. Bit into the shoulder. Bit the ear. Bite by bite, he felt better. The burn didn't hurt anymore. The glass had been pushed out of his skin.

The pathetic and whining thing that had pestered him for days was growing. Greedy. Demanding. More. MORE.

EAT IT ALL. EAT IT WHOLE.

Something dark fell into his field of vision.

Sanderson looked at his reflection in the murky water. Dark hair, the length of which he hadn't had in years. Eyes red as the sun. Like them. He reared back. Sanderson looked into the kennel. The creatures stared back, faces twisted into frustration. Sanderson finally looked back down at Reeves' body. His head and torso had been ravaged, glasses hanging askew on what remained of his temple. How had he managed to eat all that?

Everything smelled of them. He smelled of them. The only pain he was in now was from hunger. More. He lifted Reeves' still clenched hand and chewed the fingers. The key. He pocketed it.

No, no. They couldn't go, not yet...

Sanderson went in for another bite.

There was a buzz overhead.

Someone was coming into the lab.

Sanderson sat up. He was covered in blood. The floor was covered in blood. He had killed and eaten someone.

"Dr. Sanderson! You need help?! You okay?! Doc- OH FUCK!"

Sanderson locked eyes with Milo.

Oh fuck, indeed.

He was still so hungry and here was a witness.

"Holy shit, one of them got out. Oh SHIT, oh fuck!" Milo said. He reached for his pistol.

One of them.

Sanderson had seconds.

He growled and leapt at Milo, baring monstrously sharp teeth and not even knowing it.


"...Must've seen Reeves attack me and jumped into action," Sanderson said. "All he had on him was a gun and his keys."

Sanderson rose a brow at her.

"Though I see you found where I tucked them," he said. "Should've known you wouldn't be content to leave well enough alone."

Betsy was trying to take all this in. She would have to unpack it another time.

"Where's the key to the kennel?" she asked.

"What? Why?" Sanderson asked, incredulous.

"I'm letting them out."

"What? You're insane."

They stared at each other. Betsy pursed her lips.

"You. Have been EATING people. And YOU. Are calling me insane," she hissed.

Sanderson grimaced, those teeth glistening.

"Because it is insane! Why in the hell would you want to do that?! Look at me! Look what they've done to me!" he said.

Betsy was still as stone. Sanderson faltered.

"Did you somehow miss the part where I said they made Reeves attack me?!" he cried.

"Still doesn't make it fine to imprison them! Or starve them!"

Sanderson's jaw dropped.

"They ate the other day! I can't believe this. You'd damn the world at large to share our fates for a self-serving pat on the back?!" he spat.

Sanderson studied her eyes and squinted.

"You're not like Reeves was. Why is that?" he asked.

"I don't know. Was Reeves fucking eating the samples too?" she asked.

"No! At least, I don't think he was," he said. Realization dawned on his face. "Oh. That's right. You're a vegetarian."

"I don't see what that has to do with anything," she said.

"It has everything to do with this! You never ate that tainted bear meat. Yet you actually, honest-to-God want to release them of your own volition," he said. "Hmph. You want the key?"

He took it from his back pocket, holding it up, dangling it from its ring. It was the same array of colors as the lock it went to.

"Thiiiis key?" Sanderson said with a grin.

Betsy glared. There was no sign of how meek he'd been earlier despite still looking down the barrel of a gun. In fact, Sanderson seemed infuriatingly relaxed. Betsy went to take it. Sanderson uncurled a massive tongue, far too big to have fit in his mouth, wrapping it around the key. He swallowed.

"Uh-oh, whoops!" Sanderson said coyly. "Looks like I've eaten that too."

He wiped a trickle of drool from the corner of his lip, eyeing her with the same look he'd had when he'd spoken of Ankhanum's blood.

A hungry look.

He lunged for her, quick as a flash, those wicked teeth sinking into her arm. Betsy screamed. She jammed the revolver under his chin and fired. A chunk of his head disintegrated from the force, the ceiling painted in red. His jaw went slack and Sanderson stumbled backwards onto the bed. Betsy smoothed her hair back with hands that trembled badly between her terror and the recoil, her bitten arm aching all the while. Her own blood spotted the fabric of her jacket. Sanderson's remaining eye was glassy at he stared up at the ceiling, unmoving. She looked his changed form over then, a wave of guilt creeping up on her.

"Sorry, Doc," she said.

Tucking the revolver back into her jacket, Betsy would slide the knife from her boot and plunge it into his swollen gut, carving through the flesh. She emptied the contents of his stomach out onto the bedsheets, now saturated with juices.

There, coated in his bodily fluids, was the key to the kennel.

Betsy would stare at it for some time before she would finally pocket it.

Sanderson sat up with a gasp, brain matter coming out in chunks on the bed behind him.

They locked bewildered eyes.

"You killed me," he said.

Betsy said nothing. Sanderson licked his lips, her blood smearing across his teeth.

"Oh. You taste delightful, too," he said. "Smells good. More... I want more."

Betsy booked it.

"HEY! Stay right there, don't you go, Betsy!" Sanderson hollered behind her. "I'LL EAT YOU WHOLE!"

Something heavy hit the floor behind her.

BAM.

The backs of her knees were struck hard, something sharp slicing the skin through her longjohns. Betsy screamed as she fell, only having enough time to cover her head. She came down roughly, elbows exploding with pain. She tried to roll over, only to be tugged backwards. Latched onto her ankle was a long, blade-like tail, cutting into her.

From here, Betsy could see under the bed. Time seemed to freeze. There was Milo, compacted into that tiny space, still plenty fresh enough to be recognized. His throat had been ripped open, mouth hanging open in a silent scream.

Betsy grunted and grabbed onto the doorway, throwing her weight against one side, trying to pull herself around it. There was a leathery rip as Sanderson's flayed stomach opened further to reveal a gaping maw with gnashing teeth and a tongue that beckoned. Sanderson gasped, experiencing a very human moment of clarity as he looked down at himself. Then the red in his remaining eye trembled and expanded. Horror was replaced by a gleeful toothy grin.

Betsy let go of the doorframe. She curled in on herself, reaching into her boot. Sanderson hardly had time to register what she had before she slammed the knife into his tail, carving upward through the mass. Sanderson shrieked. The flesh hardened, holding fast onto the knife; but the tail flexed enough to release her.

Betsy pulled herself into the other room. She got to her feet and threw herself against the door, opening it, nearly falling into the hallway. She got what she came here for. Back to the lab.

Sanderson grunted, tugging at the blade caught in his tail. His body wouldn't let it go. He forced it the rest of the way through and whimpered as his tail split clean in half. Tears brimmed at the corners of his eye as he threw the knife aside in his rage.

A thought occurred to him, then.

Help. He needed help!

And he knew how to get it.

Sanderson grabbed his jacket with enough force to rip the hook out of the wall and emerged from his room. Though Betsy was already out of sight, he could smell her blood on the air. He grinned madly.

The hunt was on!


Betsy limped down the silent hall to the cafeteria. Despite the commotion in Sanderson's quarters and its proximity to several other rooms, all had been still. The lack of curious faces poking out of rooms was unnerving. A strange whistling drifted on the air.

Was this still worth it? Where would she go from here if it wasn't?

Betsy forced herself to push on.

Was Sanderson on equal footing with the Ankhanum in the lab, or was he a pale imitation? What was she going to be letting out into the world?

She faltered.

Betsy looked over her shoulder. No sign of Sanderson. Another nagging thought followed her. There was another way outside from the back hall of the quarters, if one opened the cargo bay in the kitchen.

BOOM.

Suddenly, Betsy was in total darkness. She stopped in place and hung her head, trying to reorient herself. The generator didn't kick back on. She pulled the flashlight free from her belt. Though it'd make her a beacon in the night, its weight in her hand was a comfort.

Betsy reached the mudroom.

There. The door to the yard.

She ran for it. It burst open from outside the moment she put her hands on it, shoving her backwards. The weight of her bag was too much; she pinwheeled her arms and fell back onto it. The flashlight dropped from her hand, striking the ground. Betsy scrambled to get back up, grabbing for the light. Something lashed and knocked it further away. She was struck and knocked forward. She twisted herself around and rolled over to the flashlight.

Sanderson's pupil shrank as she shined the light on him. He stood between her and the way out, tail whipping behind him. His nostrils were flaring, not taking his eye off her.

"Doc. Get out of my way," she said.

Sanderson lunged. Betsy swung her flashlight at what was left of his head. His jaw grew, splitting open, catching the flashlight in his teeth. A few of them cracked from the force of him locking onto it. Chatting was officially off the table. Betsy strained against him. He growled around the light. She slammed her other arm up against his throat, pushing him back. The mouth on his stomach snapped at her.

"Doctor. SANDERSON. Get OUT of my WAY," Betsy hissed.

He scratched at her arms. She twisted the light. A few more teeth cracked. Sanderson whined. His tail beat against her legs. The wall. If she got him against the wall-

Massive padded feet tore his boots to shreds and dug into the floor, holding him steady.

Betsy blew her top.

"HERBERT!" Betsy screamed.

She kneed him in the stomach. Both mouths wheezed. She struck his exposed grey matter with the butt of her light until he went limp. Betsy let him fall to the floor. If blowing half his head off wasn't enough to keep him down before, she didn't have long.

She ran out the door.

The yard was almost completely dark, save for the eerie, ambient light of the cloud-reddened sky. She ran past the generator. It hadn't been knocked out; it had been destroyed, an axe embedded in it. A shivering scientist in little more than boxers and a tank top was trying to tug it from the battered metal.

Beyond the curtain of snow Betsy could see the shape of the lab. She was so close. She had to make it out of this alive. She had to make it home.

Behind her, Sanderson was wailing. From out of the corner of her eye, she saw them. More of the scientists, pouring out of the cargo bay. She flashed her light across them. Red eyes. Red dribbling from their mouths. Hardly any of them dressed for the elements, as if roused suddenly in the night.

Sanderson kept wailing, the sound like an air raid siren.

They ran at her, shrieking and stumbling through the snow. She quickened her pace. A gun went off. A bullet ricocheted off the side of the lab, not far from her head. Betsy hit the door, scrambling with the lock a few seconds too long for her comfort as their screams grew louder. She flung herself into the lab and slammed her full weight against the door, battling whipping wind and grabbing hands.

"NO!" came Sanderson's voice, high and terrified in the distance.

The last light of the sky outside vanished as the door closed and locked with a heavy clunk. Betsy found herself swallowed by the dark inside. No power in here, either. She panted and wobbled as she pushed herself off the door, navigating the pitch black entryway with her light. She tossed her bag toward the kennel and sat on the floor, wiping the tears from her eyes.

"Betsy has returned," came the twin's voice.

Behind her, the others yelled and hit the walls with their fists. Before her, the Ankhanum, staring her down, waiting. Betsy had a strange feeling come over her then, that this was all so much bigger than her. Gradually, the noise outside subsided. Betsy took the kennel key from her pocket and held it up. The twin's smile grew.

"Do me a favor and don't try to kill me when I let you out," Betsy said. "I've had a real rough night."

"These ones only want out of here," Ankhanum said.

"Good. Me, too. Guess I better come with, after all," she said.

His grin grew wider.

Betsy's arms and knees protested as she lifted herself from the floor. She grabbed a broom from the wall. Searched the cabinets. Roll of tape. She pulled a few desks together, flipping them onto their sides and positioning herself behind. Ankhanum was watching her curiously all the while. She strung the kennel key as tightly to the end of the broom with the duct tape as she could. It took her a few tries to position the broom correctly from behind her makeshift barrier of desks but she managed to slide the key into the lock and turn it.

A perfect fit.

There was immense pressure as the door burst open. The broom was jerked from her grasp, driving her forward into the edge of a desk. Betsy wheezed as the breath was knocked out of her. She slid down, holding her stomach. Long fingers crept over the top. Her breath caught in her throat again. An Ankhanum peered down at her. And smiled.

"Betsy did it! Betsy set these ones free," the Twin crooned. "A lot of work to go through to unlock a door."

Betsy coughed.

"Maintaining distance is safer when releasing anything from containment," she said weakly.

He extended a hand to her. Betsy ignored the offer, shifting onto her knees.

"You're out," Betsy said. "What now?"

The Other came into view over the desk, still with that contemptuous stare.

"Garments and sustenance," he said.

It was the first time he'd spoken. Her surprise must have been apparent as he tilted his head at her, a smug half smile curling his lip. She gestured to her bag with her head.

"In there," she said.

Betsy slowly got to her feet. They were so close now, with no bars in between. She could see their muscular system in the harsh beam of her flashlight; they were living anatomical models. Rows of teeth lined the muscles of their abdomen, thinly veiled by their skin. Inside, tucked against their internal oblique were appendages she couldn't identify. Their odor was overpowering. They moved away from the barrier toward her bag, finally giving her room to breathe. They padded across the floor on their toes, making no sound. The Twin moved the clothes aside, sticking his face into the bag and sniffing.

"Nothing?" the Twin Ankhanum said.

"It's canned, stupid," the Other Ankhanum said.

Ankhanum growled and snapped at him with large fangs.

"Dark in here, can't see it good! That one must be stupid, if this one came from!"

The Other dug claws into Ankhanum's hair.

"Child-like insults. You can see."

"Ooh, just angry that this one's plan worked, and that one's did not! HAAA!"

More growling and snapping from the Ankhanum. Betsy stared. She wondered if this had been wise.

"...If you're both Ankhanum," Betsy said. "Doesn't that get confusing?"

"For you," the Other said. "In our old tongue, we are called what we do. If it assists, I am open to a name."

The Other looked to Dr. Reeves' desk in the corner as he slid on a black turtleneck.

"I will be Clive."

Betsy grimaced.

"Bit dark, don't you think?" she asked.

"I think nothing of it," Ankhanum-now-Clive said. "Reeves will not be using it any longer."

A teasing smile, as he pointed to Ankhanum.

"That one can be Herbert," he said.

Ankhanum stuck his tongue out.

"Agh. No! This one will choose a name!" he said. He looked to Betsy, then. "What does a Betsy do?"

"Er. Betsy's just a nickname-"

"Focus," Clive said, with a chuckle. "Garments."

They went through the gear and suited up. Clive adjusted himself, scooping his hair out from inside the sweater. Ankhanum pulled at his sleeves and shirt hem, grunting. Jackets lay aside until it was go time.

"This one feels like a sausage," Ankhanum said. "Been a while since clothed."

"Better than freezing," Clive said, sitting down to lace up his boots.

Betsy watched them curiously from where she stood. Now that they weren't fighting like dogs, they seemed normal enough. Ankhanum picked through her bag for a meal. He held a can of spinach up, wiggling his brows at her.

"Betsy! Check this out!" he said.

Under the shirt, his chest and arm rippled. His hand swelled, the skin splitting, exposing the muscle, his fingers peeling backwards to expose massive boney claws. They punctured the can. It bulged and exploded open. Spinach went everywhere. He cackled. Clive sighed, wiping mushy greens off his face with a thumb.

"You're making a mess," he said.

Betsy sank down behind her barrier. Thought too soon. Ankhanum used those claws to cut the metal off the top of the can and threw back the remainder into his mouth. Betsy finally realized she was hungry. She hadn't eaten in hours and Sanderson's tales of cannibalism hadn't done her appetite any good. Cautiously, she stepped out from behind the desks, settling down near them. Ankhanum looked delighted.

"I'd put something nicer together if I had the equipment," Betsy said. "All Sanderson ever stashed in here was his tea stuff."

"Food is food. It is energy we need," Clive said, picking at a can of mushrooms.

"Is Betsy a good cook?" Ankhanum asked.

"That's what I'm here for. I cook, I clean, I make sure the academics don't die in the woods," she said. "Hunt, too, when I have to."

Ankhanum leaned toward her with interest.

"Hunting?" he asked. "This one loves to hunt."

She was in arms reach of those claws. Betsy held her position.

"Yeah. Kill 'em. Skin 'em," she said. "If I got people who eat meat with me, I cook it up. I can't stand waste."

Betsy reached forward, right in the midst of them, grabbing the straps of her bag and pulling it up to her lap. Cold green beans it was. Popped it open and dug in.

"Is Betsy so afraid of us?" Ankhanum asked.

She met his gaze.

"Be serious. This," she said, rolling up her sleeve, showing off the rows of punctures in her arm. "Is Dr. Sanderson's doing. Fucker bit me."

The Ankhanum ceased their chewing as they leaned closer to inspect the wound, nostrils flaring. Ankhanum reached for Betsy's arm. She breathed in sharply, hand searching for her revolver.

"Hands to yourself," she warned.

"Betsy needs to disinfect that," Ankhanum said, withdrawing his arm.

"There's first aid supplies in here. I'll clean it up before we leave," she said, rolling down her sleeve again. "Speakin' of the Doc, he's bound to be stakin' out the lab right now. Everyone else here's going along with him, too, for some reason, even though they're only in their pajamas. I got the only keys that I know of, so we're safe in here for now. But the department's on their way. I don't want any of us to be here when they show up."

"I see. Is there civilization close to camp?" Clive asked.

"There's a town a few hours from here. By vehicle. Road's buried in snow. Can't drive us there," Betsy said. "I know the trail though, and I got a map to boot. Couple days on foot in ideal conditions, I'd wager closer to a week in this."

"We travel on foot and orient ourselves once we reach 'town', then," Clive said. "We must depart swiftly. We can't give Sanderson and his puppets time to set up an ambush." He looked to Ankhanum. "How best to deal with them?"

Ankhanum waved that clawed hand dismissively.

"Not concerned. They are no match for these ones," he said.

Betsy leaned into the midst of them.

"Hey. So. I didn't want them keeping you locked up, but I don't want you hurting anybody, either," Betsy said.

Clive and Ankhanum looked to her.

"This all happened because of you. That they're coming after me, that Milo and Reeves are dead, that Herbert-" Betsy said, trailing off, tears beginning to burn her eyes. She cleared her throat. "If you can put forth the effort to do this as non-violently as possible, it'd be greatly fuckin' appreciated."

"I was not asking you," Clive said. He looked back to Ankhanum. "Let us be on our way."

Betsy glared as he slid on a jacket and walked to the entryway.

"Bastard," she muttered, and finished her last bite of beans.

Betsy tossed the can aside and stood. She tended to her wounds and seethed in silence. When she collected herself and her things and went to leave, she realized Ankhanum sat cross-legged on the floor still.

"What are you sitting there in the dark for?" she asked.

"This one is waiting for you," he said.

"Your friend there doesn't seem keen on how I wanna do this so we're goin' our separate ways," she said. "Enjoy civilization, whenever you get to it."

He waved that bone-armored hand with a strangely regal air.

"'Clive' does not speak for this one," he said. "If Betsy is coming along as she said she may, then we will do things Betsy's way."

"Really?" Betsy asked, squinting.

Ankhanum stood, putting on a coat of his own, buttoning and buckling it. His hand reduced in size enough to slide on a pair of gloves. He held a hand out to Betsy.

"Is Betsy coming with these ones?" he asked.

"Yeah, sure," she said.

Betsy walked past him into the entryway, keeping a wide berth. She didn't feel like finding out what other parts of their body could bite her.

Clive stood at the door, arms crossed. He glanced to Betsy and back to Ankhanum with a raised brow.

"She is not coming with us," Clive said, flatly.

Ankhanum spread his arms.

"She is. So this one proposes we try this Betsy's way," he said.

"No," Clive said. "We have things to attend to. Her way will hold us back."

"Betsy survived one of us. You may be the one to hold her back," Ankhanum said with a cackle.

Betsy put herself in between them.

"I'm comin' whether you like it or not," she said. "I also have things to attend to, thank you very much. There's strength in numbers, anyway."

Ankhanum's grin grew. Clive scoffed, but a strange little smile parted his lips then.

"As you wish," he said, bowing deeply. "What way is Betsy's way, then?"

Betsy blinked in surprise.

"Well. Uh. I wanna try to talk to them. Tell them about you guys," she said. "Maybe they'll stand down. Let us leave."

He was entirely silent for a few moments.

"As you wish," he said, more reluctantly this time.

Betsy elbowed Clive aside, carefully cracking open the lab door. Crisp winter air crept in. All was dark but she could hear Sanderson yelling in the distance.

"They're not on top of the door anymore but I can't see anything else," Betsy said.

Clive peered out over her.

"Sanderson has gathered everyone around a machine with an axe in it," he said.

"The generator? Man. The hell did they wreck it for? ...Wait, you can see that out there?" Betsy asked.

"Better low-light vision than you," Clive replied.

"Works for me," Betsy said. "Okay, boys. I'm gonna head out first, try to butter them up- hm, no. Wait, hold on a sec."

From her bag she pulled the colorful knitted hats she'd stashed, complete with ear flaps. Betsy had to jump to shove them down on their heads.

"There. Y'all had everything on but hats," she said.

Clive and Ankhanum exchanged a glance.

"This one likes Betsy," Ankhanum said, smiling.

Clive scoffed again.


"Eugene...when I told you to disrupt the generator, I didn't mean TAKE A FUCKING AXE TO IT," Sanderson yelled.

"Sorry, Doc," came the man's sheepish reply.

Sanderson rubbed at his in tact temple. It was a mercy the snowfall had stopped, but it wasn't getting any warmer and this absolute GENIUS here had completely misunderstood him and cut the power around camp. Sanderson took the axe. It wiggled out with a squeal. He slung it over his shoulder and turned to his colleagues. The red had since dissipated from their eyes. They looked upon his changed form with various degrees of fear and confusion, shivering and gripping whatever they'd managed to put on when Sanderson had summoned them. Mina held something close to her chest as she shook like a leaf in the cold, her face ashen and fearful. Sanderson's expression softened.

"Everyone, head inside! With the generator down, we'll have to shelter together until the department shows up," he said. "I'll get supplies-"

Sanderson heard a sound from the direction of the lab and startled. He turned on his heel and whipped the axe through the air.

CLANG.

It became embedded in the outer wall of the lab, inches from the side of Betsy's head. She inhaled sharply when the axe took the split ends of her ponytail with it. Sanderson's eye widened and he looked to the lab entrance. Nothing had followed her.

"Betsy! You're alive!" Sanderson yelled. "Where are they?!"

"No thanks to you, I was almost not alive just now! Y'know, I don't take kindly to axes being thrown at me!" she yelled back.

"And I don't take kindly to being shot in the head, OR beaten within an inch of my life, BUT WE'VE ALL HAD TO DEAL WITH THINGS TONIGHT WE DON'T LIKE, HAVEN'T WE?!"

Sanderson's voice was a roar. Betsy winced with a grin. She put her hands up and approached.

"Okay, okay, relax, Doc," Betsy said. "They're not gonna hurt anyone, they're gonna come on out-"

"You actually let them out?!" Mina cried out.

Panicked whispers spread. Sanderson shushed them with a growl. Even in this cold, he was managing to sweat.

"Continue," Sanderson said, looking anxiously beyond her.

"They aren't mindless animals. They can talk. Like me and you," Betsy said.

A light, then, in Sanderson's eyes; a spark of the scientist he used to be.

"They're capable of speech?!" Sanderson exclaimed. His face fell again in a hurry. "Betsy, they- they can't go, why, they could have told you anything you wanted to hear to get out! Their word is hardly a guarantee!"

"And what have they done that's any worse than you?" she asked. "Gonna keep 'em all to yourself so you can keep drinking their blood?"

Sanderson paled visibly. The scientists fell back behind him, faces clouded with terror.

"I- ah-" he sputtered, quickly turning to hissing.

The red in his eye wobbled and started to grow. Sanderson bared his teeth. The hefty metal of Betsy's flashlight crashed into his mouth. He grabbed his face.

"Betsy, that hurt!" Sanderson whined, eye watering.

The red in it had shrunk again. Betsy heaved a sigh of relief, wiping a stray tear from her eye.

"God, you have NO idea how happy I am to see you're a weenie again," Betsy said and she held a hand out to him. "They're out, Doc. Let's deal with that scenario. Truce?"

Sanderson huffed, gingerly rubbing his mouth. He didn't get a chance to reply. A powerful gunshot rang out. His knee splintered. Sanderson's eye widened and he collapsed into the snow. Betsy's jaw dropped. Mina stepped forward in little more than a coat and nightgown, now splattered by Sanderson's blood. She didn't carry a shotgun very confidently, but carry one she did.

"Are you fucking stupid?!" Mina said. "Did they say 'pretty please' nicely enough?!"

Sanderson struggled to prop himself up on what remained of his ruined leg. Guns emerged from holsters, coats and pockets. Betsy held her hands up.

"Why, Betsy?" Mina asked.

Betsy shook her head.

"Imprisoning and starving a living thing is cruel," Betsy said. "And you won't change my mind, whether you point a gun at me or not."

Guns were readied. Betsy inhaled.

"Hey!" came Ankhanum's voice.

Everyone turned to the lab. Betsy's flashlight illuminated Ankhanum in the doorway, his pupils glimmering an eerie green. The scientists whispered among themselves as they backed away.

"Betsy wanted to do things her way. So sad it isn't working!" Ankhanum said.

Ankhanum stepped forward. The scientists raised their weapons again. Betsy dropped to the ground on top of Sanderson. Bullets flew. Alarmed murmurs in the crowd became shouts. Betsy looked over her shoulder, Sanderson lifting his head to see around her.

Despite his body being riddled with gaping holes, Ankhanum still stood. Red coated the outer wall of the lab, spilling into the entryway.

"Not very welcoming, AGAIN," he said. "This one's way now."

Ankhanum lifted his arms. The scientists lifted theirs. They looked around at each other with wet, bloody eyes. Ankhanum's wrists snapped with a crunch, tendons exposed, the backs of his hands meeting his arms. He swayed. Screams filled the air. Guns fell to the ground every which way. Still, they held their broken wrists up, swaying with him.

"Everybody put your hands in the air! I can bend your arms all the way back," Ankhanum jeered. "All the way now! All the way! Ha HA!"

Ankhanum's arms jerked, the bones in his shoulders shattering, arms falling against his back. There was terrified shrieking. But nothing happened.

Stunned silence followed as their arms dropped, hands dangling uselessly. Ankhanum's arms swung around, reassembling in their proper place. He held his hands up with unbroken wrists.

"Psych!" he said. "Now fuck off!"

They scattered like roaches, abandoning the firearms in the snow. Ankhanum's body shifted. The holes began to close, leaving behind frayed edges of sweater. His face grew more gaunt, shirt no longer fitting as tightly. The smile dropped off his face as he approached. Clive carefully stepped out after, avoiding the puddling blood to saunter over alongside him.

"This one couldn't keep it non-violent. Apologies," Ankhanum said.

Betsy lowered her head.

"Neither could they," Betsy said.

Ankhanum extended a hand to Betsy. Reluctantly, she took it. It was a perfectly normal hand with an intact wrist. Ankhanum helped her up. She stood there for a moment, still holding it. Betsy met his eyes.

"What are you?" she asked.

"These ones are Ankhanum," he said.

Betsy blinked, baffled. Ankhanum gave her hand a squeeze and released her.

Sanderson looked between Clive and Ankhanum in a dazed awe.

"Ankhanum...?" Sanderson asked. "Is that what this one is called?"

Betsy tried to grab hold of Sanderson to help him up, but he wasn't helping her any, starting to go limp.

"I think he's in shock. Help me get him into the lab," Betsy said to the two.

"I refuse to assist that man," Clive said.

Betsy looked to Ankhanum.

"Please," she said.

Ankhanum hesitated, then kneeled to take the other side of Sanderson. He wobbled unsteadily between them.

"Mina shot me...I can't believe it..." Sanderson whined.

There was a thump. Betsy looked down. His leg had given up trying to stay together. Blood saturated the snow as Ankhanum retrieved the limb. Sanderson sniffed the air.

"Ahhh, even now that it's mine, that smell, still drives me mad," he said, eye slipping closed.


They maneuvered Sanderson onto an exam table in the lab. Betsy shined the light over him. What was left of his knee was a knotted mass of bone and sinew. Betsy grabbed a spare lab coat and shredded it, wrapping it tight at the end of his thigh; a makeshift tourniquet.

Ankhanum eyed the open cavity that used to be the left side of Sanderson's head, lifted his lips, pulled Sanderson's shirt up. A massive bruise bloomed above the lolling tongue of his second mouth. Ankhanum nonchalantly tossed the remains of Sanderson's leg next to him.

"Only this is a new injury. Betsy gave Sanderson a beating. This one is impressed!" Ankhanum said.

Betsy crossed her arms.

"I can't leave him here," she said.

"I can," Clive said. "In fact, I propose we put him in the cage."

"Didn't ask you, did I?" Betsy said. "He's been in touch with our boss about you two, trying to get her to send someone out here. They could show up any time now."

"Which means he will be rescued. What of it?" Clive said.

"I don't know what they're gonna do to him," Betsy said. "I didn't want the department showing up while you were still here for the same reason I'm worried about him. He wouldn't even be able to get away like this."

Ankhanum smiled at her, though he seemed confused.

"Betsy has a big heart. Much concern for a man who's attacked her," Ankhanum said.

Betsy rubbed the back of her neck.

"...I feel responsible," she said. "I shouldn't. How would I know killing some bear would lead to all this. But I keep feelin' that way, anyway. I wasn't too sure about using the meat 'cause it was acting weird."

Betsy glanced aside to them.

"Because you were in it," she said.

"These ones knew people were here and wandered close to your camp often. We wished to find a way inside," Ankhanum said.

Sanderson stirred. The tail he'd grown quivered. They certainly had. Though the flesh around the wound remained ragged, the bleeding had stopped. Betsy clenched her fists and breathed out. Hastily, she gathered something for him to wake to.

In the entryway, Betsy looked back at him once more. And she closed the door.


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