An alarm screams, echoing down the endless corridors. The compound has become a hive of activity, guards and workers all travelling to their appropriate positioning. Some run up an eastern stairwell, others run down the southern. Many make their way calmly out the front door. None share more than a glance as they pass, but that is all that’s needed to communicate. Some consider the alarm a fire drill, others know better. This alarm can only mean one thing.
A cage is open.
Two hundred feet below the entrance level of the compound, the bodies begin to pile as they fall. Every few steps gives way to another unconscious form, some barely clinging to life as they land, though each man that falls will surely survive the battle. Many have wounds which have already begun to heal, more than one nose self-corrects a recent slant. One guard remains barely conscious, so concussed that the world around him feels more like a fever dream than reality. He attempts to stand, unable to perceive that he is not alone. His effort is met with a swift blow to the abdomen, delivered by a force he will never remember. The form continues its onslaught, a dashing blur of red and white on the cameras that track its path.
Only yards away, as the guard falls fully into unconsciousness, another man’s world comes back to life. His joints feel stiff and his vision is blurred. No single smell stands out to him. His world is a mess of noise and static. The restraints around his hands and feet loosen and disengage, a primal urge to run threatening to overtake him.
His throat hoarse from inactivity, his vocal cords struggle almost more than his mind to come together. The sound coming through them feels like sandpaper on his insides. Unsure if he’ll even be heard above the noise, he manages to address the grizzled figure setting him free. The man opening his restraints is old, salt and red pepper hair on his head and face.
“Where…am I?” speaks the teenage man.
“There’s no time for that now!” The old man says, almost gleefully. “We have to get you out of here.”
The last strap comes free of the waking man’s ankle and he stumbles forward, unsure if he remembers how to walk. The pair exit the cage into a corridor filled with fluorescent lighting, scattered bulbs flickering in spite of their guaranteed lifespan. Somehow, the alarm manages to become even louder as the sound reflects off the walls of the hallway, so narrow is the passage. Thirty feet away, at the end of the hallway, two more guards enter through double doors, stepping over their seemingly sleeping companions. Long hairs threaten to break through from under the guards’ uniforms, their hands imperceptibly turning to claws. Their nails grow and become natural razors.
Still groggy, the young man’s instincts take over. He does not notice the gray hairs now sprouting from the hand of the man in front of him. He’s unsure what’s happening as his muscles come fully to life and his awareness of his surroundings becomes acute. The incessant pulsing of the alarm slows nearly to a crawl, and he finds himself bounding towards the guards. Seeing there isn’t enough room to easily run past his new companion, it feels natural as his feet make their way up the wall. His form becomes completely horizontal, then vertical once more as he runs across the ceiling. Coming near to the guards, he simply stops running, instead flying towards the furthest opponent. His body turns naturally in the air as he looks forward, back towards his companion. His arms reach themselves outward as he flies behind the farthest guard, his body positioned like a spear with his legs straight out behind him. His hands grab onto the hairy man’s shoulders, the inertia from his flight throwing the guard on his back. As they land, the guard’s head bounces off the tile like an overly compressed basketball. The young man is back on his feet as quickly as the guard enters his concussion.
The older man screams as the world comes back to full speed. His legs again propelling him forward, the younger man reaches out to grab the remaining guard by the sides of his shoulders, lifting the man’s robust frame almost completely from the floor. The guard is slammed twice into the nearest wall before his legs crumple and he slides down into a sitting position. His head falls lightly onto his own chest, which appears less hairy with each breath under his uniform. As he turns, the young man sees his now wounded companion sitting in a similar fashion, his head back against the wall. The man’s breathing is labored.
“That’s it for me,” he says, a blood-filled cough soon stealing the momentum of his words. “Bastard got me good out of nowhere. Here, take this. Whatever you do, just keep going. We’ll find you.”
The man seems even older than before, the features on his face becoming softer as he hands the young man a keycard with the word LYRACORP across the front in bold, green lettering. As the card passes from one to the other their hands brush up against each other and the wound on the older man’s chest looks noticeably smaller. They share a meaningful look, albeit brief, before the old man pushes him away.
Placing the keycard in his pocket, the young man is through the double doors in an instant. A glance back shows no sign of his would be savior. In a flash a solitary guard turns the corner at the end of the hall, stepping directly underneath a flickering light. With one step, the young man is in his own area of light and dark fifty feet in front of the guard. With the next, he is behind him as his form is released from the shadows. His arm reaches back as he palms the guard’s head, turning and rolling the man’s skull in his hand as the guard stumbles and is turned from the force. The young man continues the motion, bringing the guard’s back against his chest, planting two powerful blows onto each of the guard’s temples simultaneously. Gravity is unable to finish pulling the guard to the floor before the young man is moving again.
Each of the hallways looks the same as the one before it, white and covered in plaster. Smells have begun to return to the young man’s adrenaline-filled body. The scents sting his nose, a mess of cleaning products and strong sweat.
With his senses now more fully within his control, he tunes out the blaring of the alarm, the sound of his breath now louder than anything else. Each exhale is another ten feet. Every gasp for air is a firmer grasp on his freedom. He comes to the end of another hallway after having wound around two more, facing two possible directions to choose from. He stops for just a moment, unsure of which way to go. The air comes in sharply through his teeth. His sense of urgency is telling him there is no time for such deliberation. The decision is made for him as the scent of daffodils and fresh air slips onto his tongue and into his nose. For reasons of which he is unsure, he trusts his sense of smell on the matter, and he continues on once again. The daffodils break the taste of ammonia in his mouth so beautifully, he feels like only a fool would avoid them.
The man comes to a plated-glass door, a unit on the right waiting for a swipe of his keycard. For a moment he cannot figure out what he is meant to do, keycard still clutched in his left hand. Eyeing the slot designed for the swipe of the card, he brings his hand forward and thrusts the card down through the reader. As the light next to the door turns green and the glass slides to let him through, the smell of the outside becomes magnified. Navigating his way through the rest of the compound is done without so much as another thought, his nose guiding him to an emergency staircase. He takes the steps three at a time, his feet landing so lightly he seems to have wings as he propels towards the surface. As comes through the final door, he is greeted by the snow’s sobering coldness. His feet press down on top of the fresh powder, deep holes marking clearly his path as he takes it. He can see a wall many yards away, the barrier he knows to be between him and freedom. Several stories above him, the barrel of a rifle pokes through an open window. Another guard in a much darker uniform holds his breath as he steadies his shot. A practiced finger squeezes a familiar trigger just as the young man approaches the wall at the edge of the compound. The bullet enters through the back of his right shoulder, exiting through the front under his collarbone. The pain calls forth an angry cry as he propels himself over the wall’s twenty foot height. He stumbles as the lands on the other side, spotting the tip of the daffodils that led him to the outside world just across the road, covered almost completely by the falling snow. For the first time in longer than he knows, he remembers how to smile, standing like an idiot in the middle of a poorly lit stretch of road.
The car screeches as it tries to stop, the icy path it travels preventing the anti-lock brakes from properly halting its metal form. The woman inside manages a muffled curse before the young man’s body is forcefully struck by her bumpers. She wasn’t driving that fast. She never drives that fast in the snow. Oh god, please be okay, she thinks. She steps out of her car to see the smile still spread across her victim’s face. More than anything else, he looks peaceful. She knows better than to move the body, but there isn’t any blood. An ambulance would likely mean police. The city isn’t so big, she remembers her husband saying. She would probably know the officer that showed up. That’s just how it had been since they moved here. For all of the people, it wasn’t hard to seem like you knew everybody.
She could handle going to jail. It was an accident and the road was icy. But in a city like this, her husband might lose his job. And when LyraCorp put you on their blacklist, you might as well try to find work on another planet. If only it hadn’t been snowing, she could blame the car’s guidance system. But the log would show it was being operated manually.
As her morals wrestled with her reasoning, the young man’s eyes opened. She got a better look at him, then. His hair was matted, like it hadn’t been washed in years. Parts of it had begun to dread. He looked to be well-built, his shoulders the most prominent feature on his body. She could see immediately that his shirt was stained with blood, a hole in his clothing staring her right in the face, though no wound was behind the tear. The young man blinks, her signal to come back to reality.
“Oh my god,” she says. “Are you okay?”
The man rubs his shoulder. “I…think so. But I-“ His voice cuts off, his eyelids suddenly feeling as if they’re strapped to weights. He rubs his face to stay awake. “Please. Get me out of here.” The young man immediately tries to stand, though he wobbles a great deal, nearly falling. The woman barely manages to both catch him and support his weight as she does. The boy doesn’t look like he could possibly be so heavy, but her legs nearly buckle, as if she were trying to hold up her car.
“I don’t live far,” she grunts. “Do you want me to take you to a hospital?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Please, I have to go. I can’t be here. You have to…you have to help me.”
“We’ll go to my place.” The woman staggers with the young man, taking them both over to her car, placing him as gently as possible into her passenger seat. She notices the man makes no move to buckle his seatbelt, though she imagines it’s because he’s just been hit by a car. She runs as quickly as she can to the driver’s side, cranking up the heat as she sits down. The man’s skin was so cold. She reaches for a blanket, telling him not to fall asleep as she steps on the gas. “Whatever you do,” she says, “Just stay awake.”
In the darkness of the forest to her left, a pack of wolves travels with preternatural speed towards her location. They exit the field of trees as a single-minded unit, with tactical grace and precision. The leader of the small pack saunters into the middle of the road, sniffing the ground and the air. He eyes the tire tracks angrily, an intelligence behind his eyes far beyond that of any natural canine.
The car is already gone.
A phone rings, the only audible sound to be heard in a corner office in spite of the facility’s blaring alarm, which is at that moment being shut down. The man who answers is angry. He wants to hear good news. His suit is still freshly pressed, though he’s been wearing it all day. For the right amount of money, it’s an easy thing to have suits that never wrinkle. The man is large. The clothes he wears could easily fit two average-sized forms inside of them, though they fit his own form so snugly they stretch. Giant forearms flex, oversized teeth dig into each other in his large mouth as he listens to the news.
One of the residents of Level 9 has escaped. A young man is gone.
“Unacceptable,” he says into the mouthpiece. His voice is low. The anger falls through his lips and down his chin in waves of heated breath, the smell of his last meal permeating around his office space. He has become not unlike a hot iron, so seething is his rage. The features on his face grow narrower as he listens. “Has the team been dispatched?” He growls as he’s given his answer, the hair growing underneath his clothes as black as his dilated pupils. It is not often the large man becomes so angry that he takes on his altered form. A white stripe begins to appear in the middle of his head of hair, continuing down along his back. He feels more anger now than he has for some time. Somehow, his large form becomes even larger.
“Send the others.” The words come now through fully sharpened teeth. “Release the hunters. Find him. Right now. I don’t care how long it takes.” The giant wolf turns to look at his reflection in the window beside him. His suit has torn from the strain of his over-sized form, the pieces perfectly straight as they lay on the floor.
The wolf stands from his office chair, his feet beginning a centuries familiar act, as he paces back and forth. So used to the confines of previous quarters is the wolf that he does not pace the full length of his office, which is as oversized as he is, but only strikes six feet one way before turning to walk six feet the other. His claws dig through his expensive shoes, scratching the carpet beneath his feet. Men will come in soon with new clothes. They’ll come in with new carpet, as well. As he thinks of this, his rage intensifies, knowing it is unlikely the same men will come with the young man.
He had always been leader, though his surroundings had not always been lavish. He considers the varying levels of trouble the breakout may cause him, searching in his mind through the groups and singular individuals who might have even known there was anything in the building worth risking coming here to take with them. The usual names come to him, hatred dripping off of the letters now inscribed in his mind’s eye. The names are then placed neatly, side by side in his mind, a technique he learned long ago from a man who knew how to manage his enemies. He thought fondly of how he destroyed that man when he used the tactic. It helped to keep his thoughts even, and remind him that no foe was too great. He was, and is, the greatest.
He begins to formulate a plan for each such individual or group as he paces. He will be satisfied only when he has all of his moves figured out, like playing multiple games of chess at once in his head. He doesn’t sit again until he’s finished. In life, as in chess, you must wait for your opponent to make their move again after you’ve made yours. Even though he did not start this match first, he will sit and play to see where it goes. He is secure, his own plans unaltered in spite of the young man’s escape. It matters not in that moment who has come to try and take him down. He would wait for their next move before reacting.
There were so many other games he was playing. Moves he’d been making in the shadows of the world for centuries, and those could not be stopped.
The building was nearly completely empty. A few tall, lanky forms made their way not towards the stairs, but instead to the closest maintenance closet. The forms wobbled somewhat as they walked, their quick steps occasionally giving way to small hops as well. The tallest of them hunched over so as not to hit their head on the doorframe. Entrance ajar, the room looked much too small to fit so many of the tall people, their skin so fair it acted in sharp contrast to the darkness of the closet. Piling in like clowns to a car, the last body closed the door behind them quickly, the tiny space managing not to explode from the impossibly added mass.
Each of the long people’s pupils dilated so wide their irises disappeared as they began to step down onto a staircase inside of the wall of the closet. A thin membrane slid over their eyes. The membrane acted both as protection against dust and as a lens for focusing the little to no light environment they were obviously made for. The staircase descended for several feet before the walls opened up, the group finally making their way underneath the ground level. Before long, they passed underneath the foundation of the building, the staircase unwinding into straight steps before coming to a straight piece of ground, the rock above them now far enough away even the tallest of them could walk comfortably.
The group traveled onward much slower now, their feet taking relaxed strides. Conversation had begun between them. This was their home, after all. They were away from the alarm. No one, nothing, would follow them down here on purpose. The group had gone far enough that electricity was an impossibility, though a dim glow continued to permeate along the walls, brought on by naturally occurring lichen. Bioluminescent plant life was not common in the natural parts of this city, of course. The tall people brought it with them wherever they set up residence.
Soon the ground came to an end. The group stood at the precipice of a sharp decline, a few hundred feet into the earth. The woman at the front of the group stepped first over the edge, followed quickly by the rest of the group. Large wings materialized along the backs of each slender figure, catching the air easily and slowing their descent.
As they landed, the wings simply disappeared.
Bren pulled into her garage as her husband opened the door, ready for her arrival. She had held onto her fear of calling the police, a sentiment her husband thanked her for having. He said he’d be there to help her when she got home, and he was. It was the first time he’d done something he said he would since they had moved to the city, and all it took was a literal emergency to make it happen. But what can you do, I guess, she thought. The way their relationship has been lately, she couldn’t tell if she was more relieved he kept his word, or surprised. Before Bren finished exiting her car, her husband was already unbuckling the young man’s seatbelt. The man’s eyes shot open as he stood up and showed completely black before appearing regular once more. As they walked inside, the young man’s eyes began to glow, becoming purple, then green, settling ultimately on his natural color for the final time. The cold air of the garage felt nice as he was carried inside. His face had been resting directly in front of the air vent in the car, his driver unknowingly cooking his cheeks to a soft pink color. His legs are heavy, but he wills them to move. Bren’s husband seems much less burdened by the young man’s weight, though does not appear to be having a much easier time than she was. She makes a note to herself mentally to say something to her husband about how impossibly heavy the boy obviously is.
“It’s going to be okay,” Bren’s husband says. “What’s your name?”
The boy searches his mind for the first name he can think of. “Trajen. I think my name is Trajen.”
“I’m Garrett, and this is my wife, Bren. You’re going to be alright.” Garrett walks Trajen over to their couch. “Sit down and don’t fall asleep. I don’t want you staying that way in case you have a concussion.”
The boy’s stomach growled intensely as the leftover adrenaline in his body finally subsided. “I won’t. I…am very hungry.” Trajen’s stomach roared and gurgled audibly then, as if to accentuate his point to the room. His skin flushed again from the hunger, and his eyes again felt very heavy, a slight ache creeping into his head as his blood sugar dropped. Trajen looked at the couple, attempting to take his mind briefly off of how hungry he felt. They were both attractive, he thought. Bren’s hair went down below her shoulders, straight the whole way, looking heavy and thick. Her thighs and arms were plump, and jiggled slightly as she walked. Her skin showed very few blemishes. Garrett’s body was the opposite. His hair was short and cut close to his head, his face was rugged and full of the shadow of the hour. Garrett’s body was lean, as well. He had a runner’s body, though Trajen wasn’t sure how he knew that.
“I’ll get you some food,” Bren said. “Honey, can you come help me in the kitchen?”
“Sure, dear.” Garrett said. “Remember, kid. No sleeping.”
Trajen sat on Bren and Garrett’s couch, his head tilted back, eyes on the ceiling. He was surprised he remembered his name. He couldn’t remember much of anything else. He felt taxed to the point of drunkenness as he looked around the room. Part of him worried about being unable to run away if he needed to, but seeing the pictures above the mantle, with the dancing flames of a fresh fire in the hearth, he knew he was safe. Somewhere behind him an air freshener sprayed, the scent of cinnamon and apples meandering throughout the room. The smell was oddly comforting, even though he knew it was a manufactured scent and not the actual aerosolized form of any real apples or cinnamon.
Bren brought him stew. The meat was tender, its juices flowed delicately over the dryness in his throat. With each potato and carrot he swallowed, his body began to mend itself. He felt a rib painlessly crack back into place, the bone mending with a tingling sensation. One of his shoulders popped itself back into socket. He’d had no idea it had fallen out. Trajen began to lose himself in the food, it tasted so good. He was sure as he finished the bowl that it’d been much too long since the last time he’d eaten. When he finally looked up, Bren was taking the bowl and Garrett was handing him some clothes, directing him to the bathroom so he could change. It took him longer than it ought to as he tried to figure out how to disrobe his current garments. There was a zipper running along the back of his clothing, which was one piece in design. There was a zipper around his waist, as well, which would not undo itself until the zipper on the back had come down at least halfway. Trajen tried to shimmy out of the jumpsuit without undoing the zipper around his waist, but found the fit to be too tight. Unable to figure out the clothing he wore, he tore at the fabric, wripping it free of the zipper entirely. As it came away, the zipper unfurled itself, falling away in two separate pieces.
Trajen surveyed himself in the mirror, studying his form as is for the first time. His face was familiar to him, which he thought was surely a good sign. He examined his teeth, white and straight, and looked inside and behind his ears; they were clean. He flexed his nose and raised his eyebrows, turning his head every which way in the mirror. After a moment, he looked at the clothes Garrett had given him, hoping they would be easier to put on that the previous garment he had been wearing.
Garrett’s clothes fit him a bit snug, but they were comfortable enough to make Trajen realize how uncomfortable his previous clothing had been.
Trajen walked back out to greet Bren and Garrett once again, who were standing only a few feet away from the bathroom door.
“Oh good,” Garrett said. “We were worried you’d fallen asleep. I was only going to give you another minute before I came in there.”
“I’m fine now,” Trajen replied. “I am feeling much better. These clothes feel nice on my body. Thank you for giving them to me.” Trajen smiled.
“Oh. No…uh…no problem.” Garrett said. “It’s good that you’re feeling okay. Come on, let’s go sit down. We can to know each other by the fireplace.”
The three of them stayed up talking into the night, Trajen full of questions. Bren was too shaken up most of the night to wonder too much why Trajen seemed to know so much about one thing, and absolutely nothing about the next. More than once, she found herself staring at the young man, as well. It was impossible for her to tell Trajen’s age. Sometimes the boy would make a face, and she would swear to herself he was only a child. Maybe seventeen, if that. In the next moment, Trajen looked well into his twenties, maybe even thirties. The three of them managed to have a great time getting to know each other. At one point, Garrett even made a joke that it took his wife hitting someone with a car for him to finally make a new friend in town. Bren’s eyes nearly filled with tears as it her husband seemed to acknowledge so casually how alone they had both become, even from each other, in their new home. Eventually, Bren and Garrett felt sure that Trajen was without concussion and safe to shut his eyes. Bren was a nurse by vocation. While she might not have let an average patient go to sleep just yet, Trajen showed absolutely no signs that there was any real damage done. He wasn’t even bruised or scratched from being hit. She looked at him again, laying on their couch, as she walked up the stairs. He looked so comfortable, she couldn’t imagine him being gone in the morning. The boy just looked like he was where he belonged. She tried for a moment to rationalize the thought, knowing it to be beyond crazy, but Trajen had said more than once he wasn’t sure if he even had any family. There was nowhere to take him when the sun came back up. Why not keep him?
Trajen turned over, the smile once again returning to his lips. The feeling of safety lingered as the fire cracked nearby, a fresh log fueling the flame. Garrett moved some of the coals around with a poker before following Bren up the stairs. The room was warm and comforting.
For the first time since they had moved into that house, Bren and Garrett fell asleep in each other’s arms.
The alarm had long since been shut off. The lower levels of the compound were filled once more with only the whirring sound of air conditioning, which continued to pump warm air from the vents above. The smell of sweat had dissipated, only the ammonia remaining. On one side of the hall, a cage’s door remained open. Bodies no longer littered the floor, each of the guards now awake and accepting their punishment for their failure. The sprays of blood had already been cleaned from the walls, many of the men now receiving fresh wounds for allowing their prey to escape.
Directly across from the open cage was another, though its door was still locked. Inside the cage, as if sleeping, is a young woman. She is strapped upright, the manacles around her wrists and ankles fused shut and made of something stronger than platinum.
Her next inhale is much slower than any that came before it. Her eyes open for the first time in centuries. The girl is smart. She knows she’s been asleep for too long, she can feel her need for a proper meal and, her eyes lowered, takes stock of her surroundings. Her first instinct is to break off the manacles from her wrist, though her curiosity stays her hands. She focuses her hearing on the sounds around her, searching for the nearest bodies. She can see the cage in front of hers broken open, and can hear that no one is nearby. Deftly, one swift motion all she needs, she forces her way out of her bindings. The girl takes one cautious step after another, her balance somewhat slow to return to her. She breathes in, getting her first good smell of the place. The scents around her sting her nose, the cleaning products doing nothing to keep the recently cleared blood from her nostrils. She decides it’s time to leave, her instincts telling her, compelling her, where to go.
As she bends the bars of her cage, the alarm sounds once again.
She can already smell the dandelions.