The tall wide form lumbered down the dreary dark street as some shrunken giant from tales of old. A dwarf among his own kind but a giant here not that anyone single person would pay notice as the slick streets were empty. Only one in three street lights were illuminated to save energy. They glimmered a dim foul yellowish brown light as they struggled against the gloom of the thick moonless night. It had rained that day for those of an age that referred to it as such and it felt like it might drip again, but precipitation at night was far less dreadful. The brick and mortar buildings well over two centuries old slowly crumbled the blackened panes of glass staring out onto the street like great evil eyes watching the night. Only a rare establishment was open for the adventurous young their lighted interiors sending a muddy yellow cast out into the looming pitch.
His body was covered with a thick black duster. The sheen indicated a leather especially treated for the elements. His hands and head were fearlessly bare, his feet clad in heavy boots made of the same animal skin caked in a heavy layer of wax. He kept his attention on his feet. Each practiced step was carefully placed flat so as to encourage maximum traction. After all it had rained that day.
The dim street light’s weak rays reflected off the pavement like moonlight off a black sea. Ripples of grim yellow light flicker fluttering as under a slight breeze each traced but a side wise pattern of rainbow echos. It was his feet though, that he kept his eyes on as it was the promised bottle at the end of this trip that had encouraged him to take this unplanned journey. He shook the thing that hung from his left hand, something draped in a thick waxy oil cloth. The sound of metal rattling and the squeaking squeal of alarmed rodents where a sure sign that his cargo was okay. It wouldn’t do if what he had promised didn’t arrive alive.
He strode across the street without hesitation. The ancient traffic sentinel still kept it’s post from insulated cables all though these relics hadn’t fared so well. Rusty and skeletal the wind no longer stirred them instead blowing through with little resistance. Three of the four stop signs at the intersection had been long removed, not that it mattered for only the very young venture out after sunset anymore. His long legs keep a steady slow pace as though they wee mechanical. He didn’t have far to go.
He turned into a dark storefront. It’s great plate glass panes gritty reflected a grey translucent glow. The scarred brick worn front was well into it’s later years. The flaking mortar was much like the wrinkles of an ancient human face. This might have occurred to he that walked if he cared to see. He kept his eyes glued on the pavement. He was fully well aware how treacherous the world beneath his feet could be.
Two doors stood with thick stainless steel frames that held thick plate glass worn and gritty like the windows through which people once shopped. The one to the right lead into the dark and vacant business that was once. This small downtown around once a great city grew had seen far better days. Many of the spaces intended for retail had long been disused. Again his eyes stayed on the ground. His hand grasped the handle on the door to the left beyond which revealed a long flight of stairs. He took them nearly two at a time hoping for the shelter offered somewhere deep inside. Four long strides took his long frame across the second floor passed quiet apartment doors to second flight of stairs. These bent back upon themselves and covered almost the same deep distance as the first. His pace quickened. He was close to his goal.
It was at the top where he took a hard left turn down a long dark hall. It came to an end between two doors. One was an escape route once for fires but now for most any environmental emergency. The other a gateway into an apartment. This apartment held an old friend and a promised bottle. This bottle was in all probability the only thing that could have brought him out the night after a storm, other than work. His knuckles rapped hard on the hollow wood three times.
“Took you long enough,” Muttered a shadow revealed as the door swung silently open.
“I had to find them,” The taller replied in a huff, “It took time.”
The shorter shadow grunted stepping back and to the traveler’s right. He stepped into the dim apartment setting the object he had carried in his hand, still covered in thick wax oil cloth. The metal rattled and squeaked as it had to support its own weight.
“Close the door,” The shadow fading in the dim light to reveal the resident’s dark features.
“Bitch, bitch,” Muttered the traveler as he pulled the heavy leather duster from his shoulders. He shook it once with a hard snap drawing a hiss from the resident. He pulled his leather All Conditions boots from his feet revealing bread wrappers over stocking feet colored white to grimy grey.. The traveler wore a heavy pair of brown canvas overalls partially concealed under a white lab coat.
“May I?” The resident asked. He reached then thought better of it and instead pointed toward the cage covered under the heavy oil cloth. The cage squeaked. This was not a noise of metal but of rodent.
“You promised…” The giant in hiding commented as he pulled his feet free from the bread wrappers. It was something of a struggle as the plastic was held tight to his calves by thick rubber bands. The resident watched the struggle only for a few brief moments. He smiled his lips cracking as if to laugh but no sound came into the world.
“Right,” He said finally disappearing around a corner and into the depths of the apartment. The longer tall man finally free of the pesky plastic bread wrappers stepped into the living room. The room was dimly light by a shaft of yellow light from the doorway to his left. The machine in the window muttered and hissed releasing a dribble of cool freshly filtered air in to the stuffy apartment. The air had a thick stale quality that caused one to work up a mouthful of spit and swallow.
“Why haven’t you replaced this?” He asked looking from the window unit over his shoulder into the room that was intended for dining.
“Thomas?” The traveler called out careful not to yell, “This thing isn’t up to code.”
“Yes, yes,” Muttered Thomas as he pressed a fresh bottle into his friends hand, “You say that every time.”
Thomas continued passed the taller man reaching towards the carefully concealed package hidden under the waxy oil cloth. The traveler made a warning sound causing Thomas to stop and look back with an expression that was almost hurt.
“I brought you the bottle, Did I not?”
He stood straight and looked up at the traveler. The taller jostled the smaller to the side as he reached for the oil cloth. A quick tug pulled it free to reveal a wire cage in which there where imprisoned four large rats. Three were a mangy grey while the fourth was a pristine white with bright eyes.
“You put Morris in with…” Thomas said slowly.
“There is a good chance for weather tonight,” Interrupted the traveler as he slipped the bottle unopened into the left pocket of his lab coat. It took him a moment to fish the pristine white rat from inside the cage while still keeping the others imprisoned. He left Morris free to climb up the right sleeve of his lab coat to find its familiar perch on his right shoulder.
“Yes, yes,” Clucked Thomas, “The weather.”
He held the cage up looking at the three that remained.
“Are these mutants?”
“Unlikely,” The traveler answered having freed the bottle. He studied the label while pursing his lips.
It was a bottle of Bushmil’s Irish Whiskey. This fact provoked a smile on the travelers face.
“Do you have a clean glass?” Asked the traveler staring at the bottle.
“You know where to look,” Answered Thomas holding the cage high so that he could clearly see the rodents with in. That answer meant “No.” They had known each other for many more years than either cared to admit. The shorter darker man walked into the next room still studying the cages nervous contents. He still held it high as he walked directly to the far corner. The taller paler followed watching his feet. The carpet that covered the floor from wall to wall was pearly white once long ago. This was apparent from the border around the room from a lonely couple of feet to a good yard in some places. The rest had turned a dark dirty grey over years of use and a general lack of care. The traveler paused by a large aquarium the top almost chest high that stood in the near center. He paused looking down into the glass enclosure cracking the seal on the bottle.
“So what is this about?” He asked taking a sip from the bottle a letting the heat warm his mouth before swallowing, “What did you find?”
“It is really quite strange,” Thomas answered leaving the metal wire cage on the top of a leaning stack of magazines and papers. The three sewer rats within stirred nervously.
“I was on my way back from Trey’s One Stop this morning,” Thomas began to explain as he rubbed his hands together the back of his left in the palm of his right. This was a nervous habit he had possessed since at least university.
“The sun hadn’t yet fully cooked away the black,” He explained. This was a statement about the time. It was much like saying late morning.
“When I saw this mass in the gutter,” Thomas’ voice had gotten to that quiet calm full of latent expectancy, “I spotted it immediately.”
“Uh-huh,” Grunted the taller paler man pulling a full swallow from the bottle before replacing the cap.
“I tell you Robert, I don’t know how I recognized it. I just did. I poked it with my mail box key and I swear it responded…like…”
No two men in this lost small coastal town were more different. Thomas was mostly unemployed. It was something in his nature that caused him to shy away from bosses though he did have a skill set. He was well educated, astute and he worked here or there mostly in the underground economy. The people there didn’t ask questions. They wanted their business kept private and they made it worth Thomas’ while. Robert on the other hand worked in both the city and the county’s infrastructure department. He was a trouble shooter. This meant that every day one, the other or both gave him a crisis list and otherwise he was his own boss. It would be hard for an outsider to understand their relationship. There was something about Thomas that reminded Robert of his days back at the University. That was when the excitement of learning and discovery over took both of them. That was before the catastrophe when Climate Change was still the greatest threat. In essence their relationship and these once and a while weird nightly projects evoked a sense of nostalgia that Robert enjoyed like a potent drug.
“Well let’s see the thing,” Robert prompted. He unscrewed the cap on the liquor bottle and drew a shot letting it lay on his tongue. The stinging warm from the first drought had been replaced by a strong sweet grain flavor. The machine in the window whispered and squeaked. Thomas had walked out of the room to Roberts left. Robert though keep his attention focused on the interior of the empty aquarium. His expression was peaceful and expectant.
“I wasn’t sure what to do with the thing,” Stated Thomas as he walked back into the room holding and ancient green plastic Tupperware bowl. It had lost its lid long ago. The crisis had caused all commercial plastic production to cease. Plastic had become to important for production for profit. His voice drew Robert’s attention as he replaced the capped bottle back into his right coat pocket. He glanced into the plastic container as Thomas approached the empty aquarium.
Inside, at the bottom, was a bit of black oily sludge about the size of his palm. It was frosty and when the light struck it just so it produced a flashing rainbow.
“You froze it?”
“I know what you are going to say,” Thomas clucked, “But I needed to clean out the old experiment from the test tank.”
He nodded at the empty aquarium as he squeezed the Green Tupperware bowl between his palms.
“Believe me, Robert. This thing is nearly indestructible.”
Robert simply shook his head slowly from side to side.
“You, my friend are a maniac,” He stated finally. An ancient memory flashed in his mind of an old stasis project Thomas had undertaken in college. It involved a white rat, a freezer and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. It was a strange and sweet memory. The involved shenanigans flashed through Robert”s mind’s eye bring a slight smile to his features. Thomas rapped his knuckles on the side of the green plastic as he turned it upside down over the open aquarium. The palm sized bit of black sludge shaped like the bottom of the bowl fell free and landed with a sharp tingling thump on the glass bottom of the aquarium.
“It is still frozen,” Robert observed.
“Patience,” Thomas’ voice had a breathy quality. He was excited. There was the possibility of a new fundamental discovery. This is why he went to college in the first place. He craved the academic cutting edge. It was close.
Robert shrugged putting the bottle to his lips. He was trying to just sip but the spirits effect was starting to take hold. The bottle had paused at just about the half way point to His lips. He stared at the smooth chunk of what could only be described as coagulated axle grease. Soft rainbows fluttered across its surface like the same colors on a slick of oil. Robert had the distinct feeling or discontent in his stomach.
“I don’t think that thing is alive,” Robert said finally pressing the mouth of the bottle to his lips. Thomas poked at it with his finger. Robert swallowed hard. That last sip might have been a mistake as that intense queasy feeling intensified in his stomach.
“It seems stunned,” Thomas said thoughtfully, “Or a bit sluggish.”
“That’s a mild understatement,” Robert said sarcastically as he twisted the cap back on the bottle of liquor and replaced it back in his coat pocket. Thomas looked thoughtful and finally pulled the wire cage from the tottering stack of papers and magazines. He pushed open the door and tipped the cage roughly shaking the three sewer rats from within to with out. The rats quickly fell from the cage. If they hadn’t wanted to be on the outside of that metal wire prison the task would have been nigh impossible. They tumbled an twisted the short distance hitting the glass at the bottom of the aquarium. Two of the three mangy sewer rats had landed entirely on their feet. The third had landed on its side. It bounced the highest and landed the nearest the black oily glob of coagulated axle grease. There was sudden scramble after which three grey tattered sewer rats paced back and forth near the farther end of the aquarium.
Thomas seemed displeased. He poked the blob from the gutter with his extended right index finger. It was still frozen. Robert’s stomach tingled and flipped a bit as he watched Thomas poke the thing with his bare outstretched finger.
“You ought to be more careful,” Robert said softly, “The thing could be dangerous.”
Morris shuffled nervously on his right shoulder. Its whiskers fluttering in alarm.
“Yes, yes,” Thomas clucked, his mind distant, “I think I must thaw this thing out…let’s see.”
He muttered as he walked slowly back into a dark room just of to Roberts left. Thomas didn’t bother to turn on a light. Robert’s attention refocused on the thing that lay in the bottom of the aquarium. His stomach flipped and he began to swallow. He felt as though he might get sick. He could feel Morris shuffling on his shoulder. Thomas reappeared in the studio turned laboratory with startling speed. He carried, among other things, a car battery and a pair of jumper cables. He set the car battery down on the dirty carpet next to his feet. He shuffled through several pairs of long metal probes carefully taking a few minutes to read the resistor at the base of each. It took him only a minute or two to make up his mind. Finally having decided which long metal probes he wanted to use and affixing them to the end of the jumper cables. They had been adapted for a new purpose. The thick layers of black electrical tape wrapped around each of the Jerry rigged ends attested to this fact.
Robert had seen this device before. He shook his head from side to side but remained quiet. Thomas pulled a thick black rubber glove over each hand before connecting the thick copper clips to the heavy duty car battery. He touched the probes together producing a thick snapping spark.
“You’re going to start a fire,” Robert warned.
“You say that every time.”
Robert remained quiet. The point wasn’t worth arguing. Instead he watched as the largest of the dirty grey sewer rats moved cautiously towards the frozen blob of axle grease. Its nose worked overtime trying to get some sense of the thing that it and its companions shared the tank with. The aquarium was nearly as high as Thomas’ shoulders but that did not dissuade the intellectual adventurer. He moved the probes down towards the blob keeping them a safe distance apart. The older bolder rat paid the probes no attention. It’s focus was on the blob of black still icy and still sitting. The long metal probes closed each on the opposite side of the thing that Thomas had found in the gutter. They had nearly made contact with the surface of the thing when a loud snapping crack sounded accompanied by a bright flash of bluish white light. Thomas pulled the probes apart reflexively and waited a moment.
“Notice it conducts electricity,” He said thoughtfully.
Robert said nothing. His mind was focused on fighting off the intense feeling of nausea. He swallowed several times in a row. The electricity snapped again accompanied by another flash of blue white light. The flash briefly illuminated the room. The light cast everything in blue adding a ghoulish flare. Robert felt his body begin to normalize, His gaze now was fixed on that bold older rat that had not strayed away from it’s study of the foreign thing. It was bolder than I, Robert thought as his friend pulled the probes away and set them carefully on the top of the cage that swayed itself a top the stack of papers and magazines. He reached down into the aquarium and pressed a single rubber clad finger against the apparent blob of coagulated decayed petroleum.
“Damn,” Thomas muttered, “Its still frozen.”
Morris the white reformed lab rat shuffled nervously on Robert’s shoulder. Robert felt the top of the imported bottle with the tip of his fingers Thomas huffed and walked back into the darkened room through a door way to Robert’s left. Robert turned his head glancing hoping to see Morris. They had been companions for several years and the calm friendly white rat had offered the man a great deal of comfort over that time. It was less than a minute by Robert’s reckoning before Thomas reappeared carrying a boxy metallic object and another pair of jumper cables. The cables this time were untampered with and it should have struck Robert as odd that Thomas owned two pair of these objects. They were rare and expensive. Copper had become quite valuable since the incident.
Robert forced his attention back to the largest of the trapped sewer rats. It had gotten so close to the black greasy blob from the gutter that it could have pressed its nose against it’s frozen surface. This evoked yet another round of nausea. It had been some number of months since Robert had strong drink. He had concluded quietly to himself that this was the cause of his gastric complaining.
“To many amps,” Thomas muttered half to the air and half to Robert, “Let’s try higher voltage.”
Robert still said nothing and watched the older bolder rat as it inspected the thing from the gutter. Robert would have as on other occasions made some sideways comment about the safety of the home brewed transformer but he remained silent. His attention on the rat as the probes again neared the thing from the gutter. Blue light flashed illuminating the clutter of the room in a ghoulish cast. This normally would have been more than entertaining for Robert. It was the tangle of electric that danced across the glimmering thing and the startled jump of the nervous rat that held him. He stared in eerie fascination as the rat found the spot in the aquarium most distant from the tangle of electric claws and the thing that flashed oily rainbows.
Thomas pressed on and held the probes letting the suspected new life form absorb the energy in reckless abandon. It was after several long seconds that the thing had suddenly relaxed . It took on the appearance of a blob of commercially produced grease. It was no longer frozen. Thomas left the probes near the thing, let the electric dance until Robert was about to scream at him. Then, as if reading His friends mind, Thomas pulled the probes away. The room flashed dark again. The sound of the cracking electric ceased. The thing throbbed as if taking a breath.
Thomas stood still. A single long metal probe held in each casual rubber encased hand and well apart. His teeth shown through a wicked smile. His eyes were fixed on the thing. Robert’s eyes were driven wide by disbelief. The thing slowly expanded and contracted it’s form relaxing so that it looked like a chunk of soft pudding. The heating planet and the thick pitch colored pollution that rained down from the sky now most every day had created that thing. Was such a phenomena even possible? Could this be something else?
“Could the electricity have produced some vibration?” Robert asked no one in particular.
Morris the rescued white lab rat shifted nervously from side to side on his shoulder. The black blob glimmered a greasy flashing dark rainbow as it slowly rose and fell with what one could only imagine was something like breathing. The three grey sewer rats paced back and forth across the far side climbing over one another to avoid closing the distance towards the thing.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Thomas said defensively.
He set the probes so that they hung from both sides of the teetering stack of papers and magazines only half paying attention. His excitement was visible. Robert was turning a pale grey as the reality of the thing settled into his mind. He pulled his hand away from the bottle in the pocket of his lab coat. The thing moved sliding a thin pseudo-pod towards the far side of the aquarium and then pulling its blob like black pudding form towards the trapped rats.
“I discovered it so I get to name it, right?” Thomas asked clasping his hands together through thick black rubber gloves.
Robert said nothing swallowing the bile that hung about the back of his throat. The feeling of the need to vomit grew yet he could not take his eyes off of the thing as it again pulled its black greasy glimmering body yet closer to the trapped sewer rats.
“Finally,” Said Thomas his toothy wicked smile hardening, “Vindication.”
He leaned forward hesitantly reaching a hand into the aquarium. The nameless thing had closed more than half of the distance towards the three sewer rats. They reacted by trying to bolt around it towards the side of the aquarium nearest Robert. The largest rat followed by one of the smaller dashed like a grey shadow around the long side to the corner by Robert’s right hand. The other lone rat moved to the left hand side.
How could something that moved that slow hope to survive in this petroleum tainted world? It leapt. A long finger of oily pitch leapt towards the lone rat. It screamed as the thing caught it. Robert jumped. Morris crouched low on his shoulder only his whiskered nose moved. Robert’s eyes widened to an impossible width. The thing pulled its body over the rat, flesh bubbling under its oozing body. The flesh liquefied leaving just bones. The extended index finger of Thomas’ right hand, still encased in black rubber, pushed through the air towards the thing.
“I don’t know if…” Robert stated to say.
“Come, come Robert.” Thomas responded his eyes unblinking as his wide toothy smile began to press hard exaggerated lines into his face, “It knows me. I rescued it. I have fed it.”
Robert snapped his mouth shut looking to the two remaining rats that huddled in the corner just to his right side. He touched the thing with the tip of his right index finger making a petting motion. Thomas’ face had frozen in a image somewhere between joy and absolute madness. The thing paid Thomas no obvious attention. It instead began to pull it’s oozing black slimy body towards the remaining rats.
“How does it know?” Robert asked the air, “How does it sense the world?”
The thing pulled away from the slowly liquefying bones of the first victim and was now determined to find the two that remained. The two rats remaining had begun to panic trying desperately to find some way of scaling the glass walls of the fish tank. The thing had grown in size.
“My discovery,” Thomas muttered pulling his hands from the inside of the aquarium, “My pet. It is perfection.”
Robert instinctively shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He then shuffled his feet. Something about this movement, some arcane sorcery, snapped him back into his right mind. He stepped back from the aquarium. The thing moved with startling speed leaping outstretched like a webbed hand. The larger rat was lucky. The smaller was not. It left a piercing high pitched scream as the thing from the gutter caught it. It’s flesh turning to a thick grey red syrup as the alien product from a polluted environment greedily a sucked it up. Robert took a step back. The remaining rat darted to the far corner putting space between it and the predator.
Thomas pulled his hands free from the thick black rubber gloves. He began to reach his bare right hand towards the thing as it greedily consumed it’s meal.
“Thomas,” Robert said his gaze glued on the hand it’s fingers pressed together as if he were about to stroke a beloved pet.
Thomas made no response.
“Thomas?” Robert repeated the question watching as the hand closed the distance. The thing had grown noticeably. It was undeniable. He pulled his gaze to his friends face. There he saw what could only be described as insane glee and love. The moment had been too much for his old friend.
“THOMAS?!” Robert’s voice broke into the air in a loud high pitch.
“It knows me,” Said the wanna be scientist, “I saved it.”
The thing left the second set of steaming bones as they slowly began to turn to jelly.
Robert took another step back increasing the distance between his body and the aquarium. He pulled his gaze to the face of his companion. Thomas had always been a bit strange. Now it appeared that he was gripped by sudden dark irrationality.
Robert gently scrapped Morris from his shoulder and dropped him into the left hand pocket of his lab coat.
Thomas softly pressed the tips of the fingers of his closed hand to the oozing black mass and stroked it once. The thing leapt on to him grasping his hand.. Thomas’s expression changed to confused fright. The flesh of his fingers melted and the thing grew climbing up his arm. He took a clumsy step backwards half stumbling into the tottering stack of papers and magazines. The stack had been the most unstable and the sudden collision was too much. It tumbled, the two metal probes still connected to their power sources went as well. The probes must have connect as there was a loud crack of electric and a sudden burst of flame. The thing had climbed to his elbow. Thomas flapped his arm like a great bird and screamed. The sound was close to hysteria.
That was it. Robert was done. He bolted.
His urge to flee was so strong that he forgot his bread wrappers. He remembered his boots though and hesitated at the bottom of the steps to put them on his feet. He didn’t bother to close his coat as he found his way into the outside. A second ear piercing shriek sent shivers up his spine as he began his journey back home through the dark slick streets. His feet moved quickly as his legs took long strides under the moonless night sky. He worked to force the mental images of the thing and the sounds of the inhuman scream to the back of this mind. It was in this region that he could forget. Robert quickly covered three blocks before pausing and turning around to face the direction in which the apartment building stood. He stood silently staring waiting for the flames of the fire sparked by the panicking Thomas to burst through the roof or out through a window. What he saw after a score of minutes passed was nothing. He did not perceive even a whiff of smoke. He shivered fighting to maintain something that resembles sanity.
Robert turned away pulling the right side of the heavy leather coat open and glancing down towards the pocket on the same side of his lab coat. There he spot the familiar whiskered face of Morris. The sight of the rodent, whiskers wiggling to take in the scents of the world around him always made Robert feel better. the atmosphere would have worried him any other time. His feet inside damp boots would have drawn serious concern. This was also true of the open oily treated over coat. Tonight though this was far from his mind. The thing that Thomas had discovered had reconfigured Robert’s priorities.
“I think we are moving,” He spoke in a regular speaking voice to Morris.
“I can find a job anywhere with my skill set,” He continued not leaving much time for the rat to reply.
“Have you ever seen an or the ocean?” He asked the rat. The Rat simply looked back. Her was comfortable in the pocket of the lab coat.
“I see,” Robert sounded concerned, “Well I have a cousin that lives outside Seattle.”
He nodded and smiled as his feet took long rhythmic strides out of the down town. The thick darkness grew as there were no street lights out in the small city outside of the archaic downtown.
“I think I’ll put my two weeks notice in,” Robert stated still watching his small friend, “What do you think about that?”
Morris said nothing, not even a squeak.
“Good,” Robert sounded pleased, “I’m glad you agree.”
It would be shortly after that that Robert’s long tall form would be swallowed by the dark night.