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Alex leans in to examine the wall closer. Alex and her partner, Rebecca, had been driving for the last four hours and Rebecca had a tendency to fill the silence with her trademark “stream of consciousness” chatter. As soon as Alex heard the final cough from her engine after she twisted the key and yanked it free, she eagerly escaped the confines of her temporary prison and began working.
“It really isn’t much to look at, kind of boring really.” Rebecca sighed, her earlier excitement deflating.
Alex rolls her eyes, “Yeah well I guess when your experiment is an entire town you want to keep costs down. Extravagance probably wasn’t something they were concerned with.” Rebecca had just spent four hours sharing her opinion and Alex was tired of listening.
When they first drove into Rogers town Alex was struck by how similar the buildings were. Each was the same dull beige color, roughly equal height and the same rectangular shape. They resembled rows of teeth protruding from the gaping mouth of an enormous giant waiting to swallow the town whole. In Alex’s opinion that would have been a better fate for the people of this town than reality, at least it would have been quick.
The familiar mechanical clicks from Rebecca’s camera accompany Alex’s thoughts. Glancing toward Rebecca, Alex sees her taking a picture of the center piece of the town square. A large gold-painted sphere the size of a small vehicle with JUPITER slanted across its surface. The ostentatious logo of the Jupiter Corporation placed tastelessly in the center of a town owned by the same company responsible for ruining its residents’ lives. A constant reminder to the inhabitants that Jupiter owned them and their families. The thought causes Alex’s teeth to grind.
Alex looks up to a sign with the words “Town Hall” gently creaking in breezy empty street. Sliding her hand down the wall’s façade she’s surprised at the smooth texture, nearing a mirror finish, despite its porous surface. Alex had to admit, begrudgingly, Jupiter developed an impressive technology.
“What’s this gunk?” Rebecca must have lost interest in the logo. Attention span of a rodent that one, Alex smirks. She catches Rebecca in time, reaching out a pale hand to touch some yellow goo on the far side of the wall. Earlier Alex had thought it was just a yellow stain from age but from this angle she notices it swelling from the wall.
“What is the matter with you?” Alex leaps the distance between them and grabs Rebecca’s hand before it could connect with the wall yanking it down. The motion causes Rebecca’s hand to strike her bare thigh making Rebecca cry out.
“Jeez, what the hell is the matter with YOU?” Rebecca rubs her sore thigh.
“You were about to touch a mysterious substance seeping from a wall whose materials were cooked up in a lab, in a town which has been abandoned for a little more than a decade. It could be toxic! It could make you sterile for all you know!” Alex yanks her jacket open, reaches inside and produces a small plastic bag. Using it as a glove, she plucks a piece of the substance, hesitating only a moment to pray that it isn’t caustic. She squeezes it between her fingers.
“What does it feel like?” Rebecca whispers in Alex’s ear.
“Like a booger.” She snaps, sealing the bag and replacing it in her jacket.
Rebecca’s face grows red, “Hey! I don’t understand your hostility right now. If you value me as a partner and a friend, let’s have some mutual respect. If you have a problem with me, you can address it to me directly.” Her eyes narrow slightly, daring Alex to take her challenge.
Alex is taken aback for a moment at Rebecca’s reproach. She stares back at Rebecca, a twig of a woman, young, still in her twenties, her red hair in a wild mess from the car ride and her usual bubbly attitude turned bitter.
They’d been partners for two years but Alex felt like they knew each other for decades. Rebecca annoyed Alex quite a bit, she was young, and still did childish things. In fact, she was the architect of the ridiculous couple name “Lex and Becks” circulating their office the last year. However, Rebecca had more integrity and honesty than any person Alex had ever known in her 38 years. Those qualities were shockingly hard to come by in the journalistic world and even more so within Alex’s circle of friends. Actually, Alex reflects, she might be my only friend.
A few seconds pass without either party speaking; Rebecca’s integrity might be overshadowed by her stubbornness Alex considers. After staring at her partner’s pouty face for another few seconds Alex finally concedes, “Fine, fine. You’re right. I’m old, cranky, and I have a short fuse. We were in that car for a long time and I just want to leave as soon as we have enough material for the story. I’m sorry.”
Rebecca’s face twists as if she’s eaten something sour then a smirk creeps along her cheeks, “Wow, a real apology. I thought you’d spontaneously combust if you ever said one!”
“You ungrateful, loathsome child!” Alex exasperates.
“Old goat!” Shouts Rebecca, she breaks out into raucous laughter and Alex can barely contain the wide smile pulling at her lips.
“If you’re finished may we proceed?” Alex raises her eyebrows at her companion and places her hand on the doorknob.
Rebecca wipes an invisible tear from her eye, “Sure Lex, lead the way.” Alex faces the door in order to hide another eye roll from Rebecca’s sight at the use of that nickname. Twisting the knob Alex is surprised it isn’t locked. The door creaks from years of neglect as she pushes it open. She half expects dust to wheeze from the door filling her lungs but pleasantly there is none. Poking her head inside, she notices the faint outline of bleacher seats adorning either side of the room in the dim light provided by the late afternoon sunlight glancing off the milky floor. Entering into the hall with her partner close behind, Alex pulls a flashlight from her front pocket and turns it on to illuminate the rest of the darkness in the room. The Jupiter logo glints on the wall opposite the front door, yet another looming reminder of Jupiter’s dominance. Making her way toward the center of the room Alex bumps into a long plain wooden table with a handful of chairs scattered around it, some toppled over.
“Looks like they left in a hurry,” Alex passes her light over the chairs laying on the floor.
“Perhaps a coyote got in?” Rebecca offers over Alex’s shoulder.
“Into a room with a latched door and no visible windows? Unlikely.” Alex moves around the table to look through its drawers. “Now look for documents with the Jupiter letterhead. Preferably anything dated the last few years the town was operational so 2061 and on. Any local newspapers mentioning the Jupiter Corporation et cetera.”
“Hold on, first off my top priority is providing you with exquisite pictures for your terribly written articles. Most of my energies will go toward that, once again you’ve forgotten that I am not your lackey,” Alex sighs with exasperation. “Second,” Rebecca continues pretending not to notice Alex’s outburst, “what is with the emphasis on the Jupiter Corporation? Isn’t it our job to investigate Mid-west ghost towns? I fail to see how Jupiter Corp is relevant to the story.”
“As I’ve stated before, no you’re not my lackey I just need a second set of eyes, preferably young to notice things I don’t. To your question, no, I refuse to pursue that story. It’s a ridiculous puff piece, you know its true. And the only reason we were asked to do it was because our coward of a boss doesn’t want me sabotaging his chances for that shiny promotion with another politically charged article while the President is visiting the office.” Alex feels her anger begin to rise remembering her editor sitting on her desk and having the audacity to say he had the perfect story for her to write about.
“Well you did call the CEO of our competitor a ‘terrorist’ and said all his subordinates resembled ‘journalism’s jihadists.’ Nice alliteration by the way.” Rebecca looks at Alex sideways.
“And if our boss actually performed his duties as editor properly, that version of the story wouldn’t have made it to print. I wrote it to prove a point. He doesn’t deserve that promotion!” Anger heats her skin.
“You could have been fired, in fact I’m surprised you didn’t.”
“Whatever, I retracted that part of the story later and had I been fired he would have had to admit fault. Besides, I wouldn’t have cared. I plan on resigning once I hand this new story to print.” Alex sighs.
Rebecca visibly recoils, “you’re leaving? What will I do without you?”
Alex feels touched by the genuine concern in Rebecca’s voice. She smiles warmly, “you’ll be fine. You’ve always had a remarkable talent. It’s time I moved on. I’ve worked at the Detroit Daily for far too long.” Alex reflects on her time at the newspaper and realizes she never truly liked her job until Rebecca became her partner.
A slight hesitation, “what if I went with you?” The question hangs in the air untouched for a moment.
“Rebecca─” Alex pauses, about to tell her what a ridiculous idea it was but rethinks it. She wasn’t lying when she said Rebecca had talent. “Let’s talk about this later.”
Rebecca attempts to rush through her explanation, “but I could be a big asset to you. I could –“
“Becca!” Alex interrupts, “Later! It isn’t a ‘no’ but just not right now.”
“Fine! But know this, I want a raise!” Alex lets out a soft chuckle, she can hear the pout on her partner’s lips. “So,” Rebecca draws out the word, “about this new story. Why is the Jupiter Corporation the focus?”
“You know what the Jupiter Corporation is right?” Alex opens another drawer, empty.
“Yeah they’re the biggest green technologies developer and they built this town, as if they couldn’t make it more obvious.” She lazily gestured in the direction of the monument outside and to the insignia hidden by darkness above Alex’s head.
“Correct. In addition, they employed everyone who lived in this town as they were all jobless prior to getting hired.”
Alex shines her light on Rebecca’s face. Rebecca reflexively holds a hand over her eyes, “That’s a good thing isn’t it? Lower the light would you?”
Alex complies, “That really depends. Jupiter was responsible for causing all of the townsfolk to lose their jobs in the first place.” In the dim glow Alex saw Rebecca’s head tilt in confusion, “Ever heard of the material NeL15?”
“I’ve seen advertisements for building complexes made from it but that’s it.” Rebecca’s silhouette shrugs its shoulders.
“It premiered 20 something years ago, probably before you were born. Anyway, it’s a substance developed by Jupiter, originally for individual commercial buildings. Over a short period, they expanded their market to residential buildings even going so far as to build entire towns using the stuff. This town, as well as a few others, served as “proof of concept” to show investors that NeL15 could be used in larger applications for urban developments. Despite the town being abandoned 11 years ago the “experiment” proved to be a success and cost millions of people their jobs.”
“Wait a minute, how does one material do that much damage? What is so special about NeL15?”
“Well NeL15 is a material which builds and maintains itself. No need for human crews when your material can do the same job better and at low to no cost.” Alex shifts her light back to Rebecca’s face but her hand doesn’t shield her eyes, instead Rebecca’s eyes are wide staring through the light.
“How is that possible?” Her face tenses trying to rack her brain for an answer.
“Jupiter labs made quite the breakthrough in biotechnology all those years ago. The material is actually a living organism, a genetically modified flesh eating virus if you can believe it.” Alex pauses for dramatic effect and for the first time since meeting her, Rebecca is speechless.
Waiting a few seconds to allow her partner to process the information Alex continues, “Perhaps what I said earlier wasn’t entirely accurate. NeL15 constructs itself sure but it still needs some maintenance. It’s more of a catalyst added to base materials to initiate the assembly process. The people who lived in this town mined nearby limestone which was broken down by NeL15 and reformed into simple geometric structures like walls, ceilings, etc. On top of that, the buildings needed further human intervention in the form of electric lines and plumbing so Jupiter thought they could hire out the people they displaced cheaply making this a lucrative-”
“How did anyone agree to this? Surely politicians were against it!” Rebecca’s voice rises.
Her silence was short-lived; Alex thinks to herself. “How couldn’t they agree? Imagine what a perilous industry is construction. How many people are crippled or killed on the job? Who wants to debate when the topic is saving lives? So millions lost their jobs in a heartbeat and unable to find other work. And with the world’s population reaching, what, 9.5 billion now, their situation is made much worse.”
Rebecca releases a deep sigh, most likely trying to reconcile the cost of human life and the cost of living, “you seem to know a lot about this whole situation.”
“When NeL15 premiered it was big news. One of the biggest stories in history. It was my job to keep up with everything.” Alex responds, feeling a twinge of regret as she was only an observer rather than a participant in history those many years ago. Being fresh out of university she didn’t want to rock the boat attempting to cover one of the most influential events in human history.
Rebecca cuts into her thoughts, “then what’s left? It seems like everything was covered in the past. It’s been over a decade since this town closed, what leads are we hoping to find?” She asks almost pleading Alex for the answer.
“Picture it, Jupiter just released this revolutionary industry shaking product. There are press releases from the company, lawsuits from unions bombarding the front pages, update after update of the evolution of the product and political debates about the resulting jobless masses. You envision copious amounts of coverage correct?” Rebecca nods her head, “but then all of a sudden these towns shut down with a handful of news stories from obscure papers claiming the mines dried out. Is it not strange that the news was so enamored with Jupiter & NeL15 but completely ignore its failure? My theory is Jupiter tried to bury something and they went through a lot of trouble to keep everyone quiet. I guess I’m hoping someone left something behind. Some kind of clue which will point to Jupiter’s corruption.” Satisfied with catching up her colleague, Alex continues down the desk opening drawers, one after the other.
“Okay! Will you consider my work on this project as my application for our next move career-wise?”
“Becca! What did I just say?” Alex cries while slamming the fourth drawer shut in in part due to her frustration with Rebecca but also to finding nothing but a few penciles within.
“Fine! Doesn’t hurt to ask, you old goat!” She flashes her camera in Alex’s direction temporarily blinding her in the dim light.
Rebecca continues clicking away and after a few moments of erasing thoughts of strangling her companion, Alex continues excavating drawers. While moving along the table one of chairs bars her path. As she bends to move the obstruction she notices the corner of a lone piece of paper beneath a neighboring downed chair. Another flash illuminates the white sheet briefly as Alex snatches it from its hiding place. As she brings it closer to her eyes for scrutiny she can’t help but think it odd that this is the only document left behind. Perhaps there was a struggle and someone cleaned everything up? But if that were the case then why leave all the chairs overturned? She reasons.
Her attention is brought back to the sheet in her hand by the words, “Town Meeting Agenda” dated around the time the town was evacuated. The topics discussed included; ‘population retention policies & ideas, union proposal, forming clean-up crews for the Ooze.’
“Apparently the gunk on the walls has been around for a while. The townspeople called it ‘the Ooze.'” Alex draws out the last word with vibrato to fake a ghostly moan only to find absolute silence from her partner. “Rebecca?” Alex puts a spotlight over where her partner stood, finding the space empty.
“Rebecca?” She repeats louder with a little more urgency in her voice. She feels a hand grab onto her shoulder. She spins around too quickly and loses her balance knocking against the table, “Christ! Don’t do that! You know I have a bum ticker!” Alex says clutching her racing chest.
“Calm down, I want to show you something.” Rebecca holds the camera so Alex can peer over her shoulder. It takes a moment for her eyes to adjust to the bright screen but what’s revealed causes her to pull the camera from Rebecca’s grasp gently strangling the owner with the strap.
Hands; amorphous but still distinguishable and dozens of them, desperately reaching out from one of the walls, “what the hell?”
“My reaction exactly. They’re over there.” Rebecca points a finger to the wall left of the entrance. It was mostly in shadow but Alex could discern numerous objects protruding from its surface. She absentmindedly drops the camera and shuffles cautiously to the wall so as not to stumble. Reaching out she feels the frigid smooth palm of one of the hands.
“I think it’s made from the same building material.” She runs her hand along the forearm, “strange, there was never any mention that NeL15 could create complex shapes like these.”
“As fascinating as that may be can we go? Despite the depressing welcoming committee here,” Rebecca gestures to the wall, “I don’t feel like we belong in here.”
“We haven’t looked in the back yet. Don’t chicken out now.” Alex turns back to the direction of the council table and to the door behind it. After crossing the room again, more confidently this time, she calls over her shoulder, “are you coming?”
“My captain, my captain, I may already regret my promise to follow you anywhere.” Rebecca sighs and trails after her friend.
They spend the next hour investigating every corner of the offices in the town hall. Fortunately, these rooms had windows so there was no need to rely on flashlights. Each room was the same at first glance, no papers, no books, zero documentation, but the desks were still full of keepsakes and miscellaneous things one would keep on a desk such as office supplies and photographs.
Alex points out the commonality in the offices, “isn’t it odd that they wouldn’t take photographs?”
“Hmm?” Rebecca is preoccupied rifling through trinkets in another drawer.
“Don’t you take photos of family and friends wherever you go? If you leave, never to return, why would you leave those behind?”
Rebecca pauses in her search, ” you said it was an evacuation right? Perhaps they were suddenly frightened away?”
“If that were the case wouldn’t we see useless crap left like garbage? Why wouldn’t they leave all that behind too?” Alex furrows her brow, “this is beginning to look like someone came in to ‘clean house’ after everyone left.”
Rebecca purses her lips, “that still doesn’t explain the pictures being here if the townspeople left of their own free will.” She looks into Alex’s eyes, realization finally hitting her. Something happened to the people of Rogers Town and Jupiter was most likely responsible.
Alex takes a final look into the drawer then hurries outside, Rebecca clumsily following after her. With Alex leading the way they walk along the main artery of the town passing by the local grocery store, library, elementary school quickly investigating each but finding nothing. Frustration prickles Alex’s nerves, ‘the cleaners’ were thorough. With nothing turning up no one would listen to her empty claims when she returned to the office.
After reaching the edge of town Alex spins on her heels and with a huff stomps her way back to the car. Rebecca, accustomed to her partner’s temper, simply spins with her and plods along behind Alex. Briefly interrupting her strides to take more photos of the depressing landscape.
Alex barrels toward the cigarettes she keeps in her glove box to calm her down when she notices a sign across the street from the Town Hall which reads, “Physician.” She stops suddenly. Rebecca, who had been following closely, navigates the momentum in her body to the side in order to avoid a painful collision with Alex. Instead she loses her balance and has a painful collision with the road.
“God dammit Alex, warn a girl first! I’ve got $500 hanging on my neck!” Rebecca sits up, one hand rubbing her elbow the other inspecting her camera.
“Sorry,” Alex replies absentmindedly helping her fallen friend. “We should check this place out.”
Rebecca follows her gaze to the Physician’s office, “come on Alex we’ve been searching for hours and found squat! Whoever cleaned up did an impeccable job. Let’s just go, we’ll lick our wounds at the nearest bar, my treat. Then we can look at other leads.”
“Just one more and then we’ll leave.” Alex says halfheartedly to her partner. Without waiting for agreement Alex proceeds forward and barges through the front door. She enters the waiting room; it sports the same bleak walls made only bleaker by a single lonely chair. She glances to her right to peer behind the receptionist window only to be greeted by the same bare surfaces. Sighing she presses ahead to a narrow corridor leading from the waiting room. The white walls are perforated with a few doorways and a widening crack cuts along the floor. She couldn’t help following it with her eyes as it comes to an end in tendrils before a door at the end of the hallway.
“Step on a crack, break your mother’s back,” Alex whispers to herself weaving her steps on either side of the fissure. She peeks through the open doors while she passes. Each is an empty observation room save for the sad stock photo images of puppies and wildlife pasted on the walls, the only “living” things left.
She reaches the door at the end of the hallway reading, “office of Abel Carmichael M.D.” on the frosted glass window. She places her hand on the knob and turns. Marveling at Jupiter’s poor security against vandals, Alex passes through the threshold. She stands before a large captain’s desk surrounded by barren bookshelves along the walls. She notices the same yellow ooze from outside behind the desk, sliding down the walls in the corner of the room forming a coagulated puddle on the floor.
Upon first glance she thinks this room will be fruitless like all the others; however, she pushes her thoughts aside, lets out a sigh, and begins inspecting the bookshelves. She slides her hand across the top shelves in hopes of finding scraps of paper left behind but the only thing she finds is empty space. She moves to the desk and focuses her attention to the rug turning the corners back but again finds nothing. She feels her temper rising again and a familiar heat fills her extremities. Alex moves around the desk but when she stubs her toe she loses any composure. She grabs onto the wooden chair behind the desk and hurls it toward the wall leaving behind a deep gash.
Distantly Rebecca’s voice calls out to her, “I don’t even need to call out for you. I just need to listen for the destruction of private property!”
Ignoring her partner and the throb in her foot, Alex yanks each drawer open rattling their contents. Sifting through the drawers and finding the same office junk she’s about to finally give up when she notices scratches worn at the bottom corner of one of the drawers. Eagerly she tugs the drawer from the desk and dumps the trinkets contained within onto the floor scattering them in every direction. In addition, the false bottom of the drawer slides out and a small leather book falls after it.
“Bingo!” Alex says aloud, her eyes fixed on what she assumes is the Doctor’s private journal. The cleaners weren’t thorough enough; she smirks triumphantly to herself.
“Seriously, the ‘bull in china shop’ thing needs to stop.” Rebecca’s voice reverberates from the hallway. Appearing in the doorway she asks, “and what do you have there?”
“Check it out. I think it’s a private journal.” Excitedly and without further explanation she begins to read through her finding. She flips to one of the most recent entries and reads:
February 16th, 2065
As the only medical examiner in the town I was certain to have job security. However, now with the quarry running dry many of the laborers are beginning to pack up and leave. Not much use for a Doctor in a place with no people. I worry about how the town will survive now that its major income has vanished. Jupiter deems importing limestone to be too expensive. This whole venture was for them to illustrate how effective their product was; they didn’t give a shit about creating jobs. It was just a smoke screen to give politicians the excuse to support the project. I’m afraid I may have to leave also.
February 21st, 2065
Limestone additions to the buildings ceased a few weeks ago and some kind of sludge is appearing on the walls. There must be some correlation. I’m definitely not qualified to analyze it but my attempts to contact Jupiter for information on the sludge were fruitless. The company is refusing to answer our questions so I’m resorting to taking samples myself and trying to figure out what it could be. I’m afraid the bacteria might be reacting to something in the environment due to lack of limestone supply. I worry the buildings may become unstable. Hopefully I’ll know more after a few tests.
Rebecca casually walks through the office and right up to yellow mess in the corner behind Alex. Leaning closer she squints at the wall, “Oh that gives me the heeby jeebies. It looks like there is a face in the wall.” Alex notices her friend exaggerate a shiver from the corner of her eye as Rebecca walks back to the open doorway, “can we please leave?”
Without looking up Alex hushes her and continues:
February 24th, 2065
It’s the strangest thing. After looking at the samples under the microscope they have a familiar cluster structure. After a few tests I’ve concluded that the Ooze is triglycerides. Somehow fat is being expelled from the buildings. It’s quite the phenomenon. I’ve sent my findings to the company to see if they’ve seen similar cases in other towns, they tell me they will be in touch soon, my eye.
March 1st, 2065
More people have left town. Every day there are fewer and fewer people. In fact, my assistant Dominic didn’t come in these last few days. No notice at all. I don’t blame him. I’m looking for work elsewhere. There’s no way the town can be salvaged but that doesn’t stop the town council from wishing to try. They’ve scheduled a mandatory town meeting for next week. I doubt there will be anyone left to go. Even if I’m still here by then I don’t think I’ll attend.
Alex begins reading the final entry of the journal. Her eyes widen and her hands begin to perspire smearing some of the incoherent words on the page. Her anxiety rockets and the elation she felt only moments ago vanishes as a new feeling fills the vacuum; fear.
The journal explains everything; the evacuated town, the cover-up, Jupiter’s involvement. The journal is extremely incriminating but Alex knew, more importantly, it meant they were in immediate danger. “Rebecca, we have to leave, NOW! I was right, Jupiter–” she lifts her eyes from the page and her voice catches in a hitch from fear in her throat.
“What?” Rebecca asks nervously. Alarmed she stands straight from leaning against the doorway but nearly loses balance. She looks down and the same fear in Alex’s eyes is mirrored in Rebecca’s.
March 10th, 2065
Town hall meeting, massacred
There were children
Oh God, their screams
NeL15 needs Calcium & Carbon
Bacteria is looking for new supply
Elements are in our bones, skin, organs
It’s human fat
Bacteria can’t process fat
Don’t trust them
JUPITER LIES, they knew
If journal found, reveal these monsters
Rebecca shrieks looking at her feet. A hand. Dozens of hands. The same blobby appendages they saw earlier reaching for her. Both women stand frozen in fear, Rebecca still shrieking as the hands completely envelope her feet; she’s sinking. “Alex! HELP ME! IT’S BURNING!” Rebecca begins to cry out from pain as well as fear while struggling to pull her feet from the muck.
Alex snaps from her trance. She shoves the journal into her jacket and hurries to her friend. Peering behind her partner she feels ill. The entire hallways is traversed by grasping hands, all along the crack in the floor. She grabs hold of Rebecca’s thigh, careful not to touch the goo herself and yanks. Another shrill shriek from Rebecca as her foot comes free but not attached to her body. Alex holds back the sudden urge to vomit. Her grip loosens on her friend’s leg and it’s enough for Rebecca to lose balance on her one leg and fall backwards. Alex reaches for her terrified friend but is helpless as Rebecca falls into the embrace of the sloshing hands.
“Alex! ALEX! HELP! HELP ME PLEASE!” Rebecca pleads pathetically. The hands close around her arms, her torso, and grab at the newly formed stump of her leg. Rebecca’s screams intensify cutting through Alex’s now fragile senses. She slumps to the ground looking in horror as her friend continues struggling but to no avail, still sinking into the floor, dissolving slowly.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!” Alex weeps and closes the door to the office not wanting to witness her friend disappear forever.
“Alex please! Don’t abandon me! ALEX!” Her screams continue to pierce through the door until they come to a gurgling stop a few moments later. She isn’t sure for how long but Alex stays on the floor crying over her lost friend and cursing herself for getting Rebecca involved. The girl had been one of Alex’s only friend and she would carry the weight of her death forever. Alex knew she would never forgive herself after this was over.
Using her sleeve, she wipes the tears and snot from her face. She gathers herself together, knowing she can mourn later, and looks up at the door reluctantly as an exit option. She stands up and reaches for the door knob and hesitates, not wanting to see what became of Rebecca. Slowly she turns the knob and opens the door a crack. There’s no sign of Rebecca left but the hands are still flailing in the hallway. There’s no way out, except- she spins around, remembering a window behind the desk but her heart sinks as she sees the wall bubble beneath it from the damage she inflicted on the wall earlier with the chair. Fear turns to panic as she realizes all of her escapes are cut off. This time as she whimpers it’s for her own situation.
After another few minutes pass she realizes darkness is quickly approaching and sitting around feeling sorry for herself and her lost friend won’t save her from this place. Looking around the room for ideas to help her escape she glances at the rug. With renewed determination, she rushes over and moves the desk off it. After rolling it up she drags the textile to the doorway. She breathes in heavily and breathes out knowing she’ll see those squirming hands again. She opens the door and the hallway is barely lit as the sun is close to setting. Alex questions if maybe she should stay till morning but she can’t bear to stay any longer. She can still see shifting space, definitely the hands moving around. She also sees the same yellow secretion discharging from the floor at the foot of the door. She feels like someone punched her in the stomach thinking about Rebecca again. Ignoring the tears in her eyes she heaves the rug as far as she can which is about halfway out the door. It lands with a big plop. She pushes it farther into the hallway, but the hands prevent it from moving completely out the door.
The rug isn’t long enough to reach the end of the hallway. There’s about eight or so feet left between the edge of the rug and freedom and to her horror the rug is sinking. Frantically she looks around, with time running out she fixes on the chair. Running over to grab the chair Alex turns back to the hallway. She takes a quick breath and dashes toward the door.
In three long strides she crosses her makeshift bridge and plants the chair another two feet away. She hops onto it, briefly remembering her time as a kid when all the children played “the floor is lava” and she estimates the distance she needs to leap. Rearing back, she hurdles herself forward with as much force as she can muster. She panics as her landing is short about two strides. Immediately her feet adhere to the floor and the hands close in.
Her anxiety explodes and she’s in a full panic while she fumbles to pull her shoe laces free. She can’t really see the hands very well but she can sense them grabbing for her, coming closer, anxious to pull her down to the depths of nowhere. With hands only seconds from catching her she frees her feet and jumps again, over the squirming shadows and into the safety of the waiting room. She spins around looking at her accomplishment, clutching the journal to her chest. She closes her eyes for a moment letting her panic settle a bit. “The old girl’s still got it.” She smiles to herself. She opens her eyes to take one last look at Rebecca’s final resting place. Gripping the journal tight she swears to herself that she’ll make Jupiter pay for their crimes.
In a swift jaunt she passes through the waiting room, exits the building and launches herself into her car. Without taking much pause Alex jabs the key into the ignition and turns; nothing happens. A few more twists before Alex slams her hands against the steering wheel and shouts as many expletives as her vocabulary allowed. Her only wish was to escape this town as fast as she could and as the night finally settled over the secluded town she wanted to expedite the process. Popping the trunk, Alex hops out of the car to inspect the vehicle. She yanks the hood open and instantly she recognizes the problem. Her battery has been disconnected. One heartbeat later and she hears the cocking of a gun next to her. Pivoting to face her assailant she meets the gaze of woman dressed in a suit. The stranger says nothing and neither does Alex. Even in the darkness Alex can see cold detachment in the woman’s eyes and before Alex can move the woman pulls the trigger. Alex dies instantly.
**Three days later**
Elizabeth waits patiently as the elevator finishes its ascent to the top floor of the office building. A sharp ding signals her stop and she steps out onto the red plush carpet. Silently she approaches the large double doors and knocks only once. A muffled voice responds, “Come in.” She turns the handle and enters. Her heels clack on the hardwood of the office as she strides gracefully toward the CEO’s desk, an unwelcome sound after the silence of the lobby. Behind the desk is a wall composed completely of windows creating a dizzying view of Chicago below, a view Elizabeth always admires while in her boss’s office.
Her employer, Beatrice Alvarez, is an older woman, her hair long since went gray and frown lines carved deep into her face. Despite her short stature she has an imposing presence which keeps Elizabeth rooted and quiet, waiting patiently for Beatrice to finish reading and signing a document on her desk.
When finished Beatrice simply flicks her almond eyes up to peek under her brow. Keeping her head down she asks, “Do you have it?”
“Right here ma’am.” Elizabeth opens her briefcase and pulls a small leather bound book from within, moving to Beatrice’s side she hands it to her. Beatrice stands and stretches her hand out to take it. When in her grasp she flips through the pages rapidly, barely glancing at the details within.
“You’ve done excellently Beth. Had this gotten into the wrong hands, our initiative could have been set back decades.” Gripping it tightly, Beatrice waddles passed Elizabeth to her crackling fireplace, and tosses the book into its depths. She watches the pages blacken from the heat. Satisfied she turns to face her subordinate, “That was a shrewd decision to continue keeping surveillance on the towns,” she looks at Elizabeth with cold approval, her eyes, like dark black pits. “We shall continue to do so to prevent other evidence of this nature from emerging.” Marching her tiny frame back to her desk she asks, “And what is the status of the reporter?”
“She was assimilated with the NeL15 compound. According to protocol I’ve abandoned her car in the woods outside of a 100-mile radius from the town and slashed a tire. Anyone coming across it will think the owner had car trouble and got out to walk. She can’t be tied to us.” Elizabeth recited in an indifferent tone. How many times had she given this report over the years? She never expected “clean-up crew” would be part of her job description.
“Very good.” She glances down and picks up the only photo she keeps on her desk. Without looking, Elizabeth already knew it was a group photo shot outside on a cloudless day with Beatrice sitting in the middle, a wide grin on her face and her very large extended family, numbering around three dozen, crowds around her. Elizabeth didn’t know what was the occasion for the family. She never inquired and Beatrice never offered the information. Only seeing Beatrice’s profile, Elizabeth notices a soft smile tug at the visible edge of her boss’s mouth. Her eyes crinkle with a distant memory, however; that look is swiftly replaced by something dark. Beatrice plants the photo precariously on the edge of her desk. She wheels around to gaze out her window down on the vast cement jungle below, “The next phase of this operation is going to be delicate.”
Elizabeth clasps her hands behind her back as if awaiting orders from her Sergeant, old habits. Beatrice continues while still observing the streets below, “We’re going to move ahead with our new marketing plan. I want the compound to reach international markets. It should do well in most developing nations as well as those with burgeoning impoverished populations, primarily China, India, and parts of Central Africa.” Beatrice looks up now as if envisioning the future.
“We’ve taken great strides to get the majority of both houses of congress on our side,” Elizabeth interjected. “However, there are some like that Senator from Massachusetts, who can’t be bought. Unfortunately, she’s known to get a lot of support. She could pull together a very loud opposition which could hinder the rest of our efforts.”
“That’s a minor concern. With overpopulation becoming an ever increasing problem and the people having to support more and more of the unemployed population, their constituents are demanding answers. We will need to do little convincing to prove our product is exactly what the doctor ordered,” Beatrice snorts to herself glancing over her shoulder briefly to look at the smoldering remains of the journal behind her.
“We must ensure the infrastructure for our Conscious Mending Material Acquisitions unit is fully operational before we expand to the global market. We’ve done great work in the suburbs, now we need to begin trials in the populated areas. I want to test the acquisition teams within the month to gather material. Each team is to gather 20 subjects or so from ten major cities. Let’s start cleaning up the streets. But remember discretion is key right now so make sure they have no family and won’t be missed. Until Jupiter labs comes up with a more permanent solution for the repair problem we can’t risk the lives of our clients so this is top priority.
“Now those who are a drain on society, who contribute absolutely nothing toward improving our society, can finally make a noble sacrifice to help repair our crumbling infrastructure. They can die with dignity rather than purposeless in the gutters.” Her lip curls in disgust at the thought.
Beatrice now stares emotionless at the people scurrying like insects on the streets below. “Besides Beth, humans are a renewable resource; it would be irresponsible for a sustainable technologies firm not to exploit it.” She leans against her desk causing the picture frame to tumble over. Elizabeth ignores the familiar sound of tinkling broken glass is heard, watching her boss intently. Beatrice Alvarez didn’t flinch at the sound; she didn’t even turn around to rescue the frame from the floor.