CW: blood, military sadism, body horror, eye horror, decapitation, sexual innuendo, guns, artillery, animal death, animal captivity, sex, implied abuse, censorship, disaster, confinement, starvation, cosmic horror
Trucks capped with mounted speakers roved the neighbourhood. That night’s curfew would start early and be subject to strict enforcement. Animal Control special operations units would be active in the neighbourhood beginning at eight. News broadcasts joined, radio station and gibber bulletin and news crawl repeating the announcement. Wheeling out the trash to the dumpster, Essin looked up to a cloud-strangled sky. Eyes bleared and gritty in the corners from their sleepless night before. The parking lot cannon fired with a boom that thumped the back of their ribs and they didn’t wince. As dusk crawled up from the east, helicopters thrashed the air, "This is final notice. A special curfew is in effect." Essin imagined new cats swiveling their ears, dwelled on whether or not they parsed the words.
"Bring your bags?"
"Yep." The Cat Shits had assembled in a playground in that overgrown neighbourhood reach, the Moss Land, where Essin and Lacie had gone to their first Darling class. Tentative Halloween decorations were out— matte plastic pumpkins and cotton spiderwebbing stretched over brickwork. Grocery stores hadn’t been able to ship in pumpkins en mass as usual so the price was through the roof— no porch here had gourds, some had made pathetic turnip jack’o’lanterns. A controller tested their hatchet by splitting a park bench’s back, another inspected ammunitions.
Sunset crept down, tinting towards magenta, then its pink deepened towards red. A cage banged as it hit the pavement.
"Red sky at night, boys!" voice boomed monstrous through a mask.
"Blood night! Blood night!"
"Blood night?" 383 walked beside 425, they’d sidled up next to one another behind as the little regiment fanned across the street. 383 carried the cage, since they had no notches.
"Red sunsets mean good hunting," 425 said. Their hatchet bounced a little on their shoulder pad as they marched raggedly into the neighbourhood. "Blood night."
Gunshots scalded dusk. 383 half-jumped. A controller, the one with the sei tally, was firing into a house.
"You see one?"
"No," they said, "Some motherfucker was watching us." And pointed to a garage, which had acquired new holes. "Hope they didn’t have anything precious in there."
"So? Let 'em watch. Cat Shits are about to save their asses."
"I don’t like people watching."
"What, are you going to get fired from your day job?"
383 wasn’t clear where they were heading and so asked, "Where are we going?"
And 383 genuinely did not know why the other controllers carried bags— flimsy old fabric sacks from Dollarama and the grocery store— until a hatchet cracked the jewelry store case.
"Should we hit the electronics store up?"
"Can’t get too greedy. Tomorrow night maybe."
As they left a controller turned to flip off the security cameras.
It was blood night. 383 swapped the silver cage between hands when one became tired, and they thought that this reflected poorly on them and that a real soldier wouldn’t have this issue. New animals and animal controllers that sheer months earlier had bladed the dark gave them a wide berth and it grew wider as they snuffled through suburbia after new cats and loot.
425 didn’t participate in the debauchery except when new animals arrived and they were suddenly lithe with hungering cruelty. 383 heard their chuckles warped in their headphones as 425 pasted a new groundhog to a fence or went after a new fox with their machete.
The Cat Shits climbed roofs. When 383 nearly slipped someone yelled, "Careful you dumb bitch!" — and chuckled, and where the band met a fence they took their hatchets and cut it down. They roved. Set fires to trash cans. Gore paintings marked their course. The moon glowed pure: the night was cloudless and its crescent mimicked a hatchet’s edge. A controller tottered, a huge new rat head on their pike— the new animal didn’t need its head connected to its body to function so the head gibbered and wheezed while two other controllers punted the torso back and forth to one another as it scrambled blind to get somewhere it could curl up and grow a new head. It wouldn’t have the opportunity.
383 waited for the Cephalon to chatter at them, bleating that they should focus on their task, but if it cared it didn’t say anything. "All right!" a Cat Shit shouted aeons into the operation, "Party’s over. Let’s fuck some pussies."
To the edge, then: new cat territory, slipping quiet and careful through the shadows that pitted suburban night. Hatchets holstered, guns out— they stuck to cover and padded soft. Ghosts across the suburb, whispers shivering between their silence. New cats in a pack slunk near a sidewalk by the transitway— patrolling, 383 guessed— their strange eyes roving and surveying the streets around.
"Places people," muttered over the intercom. "And… Action."
And the controller who’d decapitated the new rat’s head and kept it for what Essin assumed was a trophy swung the pike. It flew off like it had been launched by a lacrosse stick and landed on the gray road with a hard whack and rolled. The new cats spooked, stood, still, their bristles on end and scrutinizing the twitching head, smelling meat. Five new cats, wary, padded onto the road and gathered around the head, sniffing at it and then scraping it with their beaks. One was old, wiry, calico, and 383 wasn’t sure but felt it must be the one they’d seen transform.
Gunfire broke bushes: new cats burst like rotted pomegranates. Craters opened in the brush as their frantic eyes cut holes in the tree trunks. A lone maple collapsed, moaning, crashed into the street.
And 425 bolted out from the underbrush to the frantic new cats wailing and confused— sidestepped the holes erupting in the asphalt by their feet and grabbing the lone cat the bullets had spared by its scruff, pushed its face to the ground. It was the calico. It wriggled and shook. Holes opened where it looked and used its eye but controller Cat Shit 425 was steering its head so it couldn’t turn its killing gaze on them.
Kneeling with the calico pinned among guts, the new rat head still mouthing damp nothings, the controller reached into their satchel and pulled out the awl case— with their thumb as a wedge they popped the snap.
"Shh," 425 cooed, "Shh, shh." Voice rippled, deepened by monstrous electricity— in a way that left 383 shivering as the other controllers emerged from the bushes, someone far off yelling, "Yo bring the fucking cage dude!"— the new cat had dug a crater now wide enough to swallow a person in front of its face and as it fought and growled its eye hit a power line and street lights died.
"Hush, little one."
The new cat screeched. A wail that carried as the breeze, rippling over the collapsed tree in the road, tore loose leaves away so they tumbled and rasped across the pitted asphalt.
425 wiped the blood from the awl, left a dark slash on their kilt.
"Piece of cake," they said, dangling the creature by its scruff while it still kicked and howled, mourning for its own lost eye. 383 opened the cage and 425 lowered the new cat in.
"383 you’re on new cat duty. Keep the bait alive."
They were midway past midnight and returned to their fortress in the ground.
The next band of patrolling cats found the spilled pack. Their wails rode on the wind. As each new cat heard it they took up the wails and others heard those, and took them up too, until it reached the new lion who joined them with a roar. Sleepers woke and even those in the seniors’ campuses whose neural entropy crept towards total vegetation woke to lucidity, understanding the outer sadness that mirrored their own looming ends. They didn’t stop, the new cats, their sorrow. They filled the trees and by moonlight they mourned. (Only one person who’d disregarded curfew prowled along with the controllers, observed the extent of the new cats’ sorrow and made notes on the new animals’ intelligence.)
383’s locker room had acquired a sink, a supply of canned cat food and two metal bowls. Balm and bandages for the wounded eye. They patched it as best they could, daubing jelly from their finger and hoping the wound wasn’t too severe. The calico had stopped wailing and now warbled, peeping now and then like a wounded robin while 383 worked. They shucked their mask and suit, dumped them on the floor. As the light on the door handle turned green to say they could go out, Essin stretched their fingers through the cage bars, touched the new animal. A cat’s soft hair had been usurped by stiff oily bristles.
Essin thought the winter would be unkind to these new creatures, though perhaps they’d grow a second pelt for winter. But then shouldn’t it be growing that coat now? Uncertainty tasted them as they touched the new cat: was it leaning into their fingers? Or just responding to the touch by moving and, unable to move much in the cage, had moved into their touch?
They glanced at the mask that still bore no notches and turned into the dark hall to follow the green lights back to their bed. Lacie had curled herself into a pebble, hands folded as if to catch her breath.
Once 383 had assembled the plan in their mind they were dubious about whether or not the new cats were bonded enough for it to work. But it did. The Cat Shits put the blinded new cat in its cage in the open and waited on rooftops, until other new cats gathered. The first night they were on a sportsplex roof and looking down on a parking lot. New cats slipped from the brush to the pirrups and howls coming from the cage. Through the bars they took to cleaning the wiry calico, which shivered. 383 hadn’t seen their sophisticated tongues yet, shaped like fern fronds with many leaves, and with these soft blades they washed the injured cat.
"Cute," someone said, as they loosed their crossbow. As the new cats bolted to the brush one was snagged in the back and convulsed and tripped, rolling over and twitching on the ground. Guns got two more. One was hit by a pin-tipped tag and escaped. 383 hefted the cage: a bar was gone, as though one new cat had been carefully trying to erase it.
The skull-masked suburban SEALs consulted a radio tracker and followed the tagged new cat back to a den it had made under a backhoe with many other new cats. This was a situation for incendiaries.
On the way back to the mycelium the Cat Shits looted a gas station and a Denny’s, using their thermite on the safes and stuffing fabric grocery bags. They smashed the windows and threw in a new cat carcass and again flashed their middle fingers at the cameras.
Through Operation Violin, 383 remained the bait’s steward. The new cat didn’t understand its role and began its plaintive howling as soon as it was abandoned. Its cries grew worse each time 383 picked it up, an effective lure confused as to why its friends had gone away.
Lacie quaked in her sleep and Essin remembered the strangeness they felt the first time anyone had kissed them and they’d slipped their hand up his shirt and felt muscles sliding under their palm: how like touching a dog or a cat, and how much this had surprised them. Their fucking was expedient, sleepy, without her ferocity or their supplication.
"How are things at the book store?"
Fire rose over the street lights. Pumpkins came in at last, prices falling, and jack’o’lanterns decked out the porches and sat on hay bales supervised by scarecrows and plastic skeletons. New cats knotted to the carnage and charged attacks with electric violence agitating their hides.
Whatever intelligence was blossoming in them it wasn’t enough to stop falling for the trick and falling for the trick was becoming less necessary as the Cat Shits learned the new cats’ limitations and habits and began to hunt them down. Their heads decorated fences and their skins bled on bike path pavement like discarded grocery store flyers in rain. Dead leaves gathered around them. New rabbits sniffling from the bushes gnawed on their bared and bullet-snapped sinews. Something in 383 contorted away from the cruelty but in contorting away the tension it generated made it more violent when they eventually caved and it wasn’t long before the first tiny, tidy, serried notches decorated their skeletal cheeks. (They would long remember this had happened, but the moment itself would be lost.)
Their locker was well stocked with canned cat food and Lacie’s fingers felt over-gentle brushing their chest.
All viciousness ended when the Cat Shits spotted the new lion on their thermals— they rushed away. In her anger she evaporated houses. Cars disintegrated, their leaking fluids tainted the air. What was intact had so many small holes in it that building or mattress or body all looked as though they’d been used for shelter against a besieging army. But the controllers had fled, her rage had no satisfying vector, Lacie’s kisses were slow, a gradual play where her tongue slid on theirs and for a few moments sensation numbed the booming night.
"It would be nice to talk to you sometime."
And their landlord shrieked upstairs, "Just go the fuck away!"— as a chair cracked against a wall.
Regular controllers now joined the extermination effort. They were taught methods for sneaking up on new cats, how to distract their attention, frighten them, trap them. They laced the neighbourhood with steel jaws in low bushes that caught the new cats and on hearing their howls’ pitch a computer chip triggered an explosive charge. Craters turned soccer fields and playgrounds to tiny Sommes. Water mains burst, the new lion roared, children stumbled schoolward blinking off their interminable and sleepless night, escorted by diurnal controllers.
383 didn’t name their new cat because they were afraid of what naming it would mean. Its wound had by then scabbed over, blood turning a vivid lilac colour as it dried, and they were certain now that the new cat leaned into their fingers when they reached through its cage bars. Smoke threaded over the neighbourhood— with the dawn shadows fell from them like shivering sundials. Coolness settled in and people griped about how Halloween wasn’t going to happen this year with the special operation monopolizing night. Jeweled necklaces and gold garnished the Cat Shits, among their grisly trophies glistering in the street lamps and they shot and looted and the range around the new cats closed. In desperation the new lion rampaged, blocks vanished and houses thrashed and banded controllers were forced to scatter, but wherever she wasn’t the Cat Shits were, hounding her brood to extinction.
And at last they were nearly extinguished, all domestic controllers were involved in the special operations and even surviving citizens militias spread out at the dusk with the Cephalon’s tacit approval, grim-faced with improvised weapons and hunting gear, wild-eyed from the protracted sleepless weeks.
(And they, too, hardly noticed the shaking ground.)
They were closing on the new lion who’d claimed their neighbourhood its own. And regret was almost tangible when report spread that the new lion had vanished as in this small corner of the world its new cat charges were expunged. The senior’s homes were free and people left their apartment blocks without terror. Helicopters flew overhead and trucks announced that the state of special operations had ended. Happy parents bum-rushed the supermarket and looted its candy aisles. Halloween would happen after all. The neighbourhood erupted in splendid decorations almost overnight, parents going wild, jack’o’lanterns multiplying on porchsteps and electronic skeletons spouting spooky noises and the dollar stores emptying of plastic weapons and masks and costumes and creepy-crawlies on elastic strings, lights garlanding eavestroughs.
The ground shook. Shells arced to the webbed craters and trenches in tilled soil where the siege still rolled, status unknown.
383 kept the new cat in its cage in their locker and they had expected at some point it would disappear. Nobody had taken it or come to kill it, however its food was not being replenished any more and the stocked cans were dwindling. It mewled. They smelled the suit for another change but it was still rainstorms and rotting flowers as they slipped in and when they were wearing everything but the mask they stuck their gloved fingers in the cage. "I’ll figure out something to do with you, buddy," they said. "You can’t harm anyone."
And to their astonishment, through the glove, through the mesentery, they felt the new cat: it purred. (Cephalon chatter in their headset said something about a new special assignment.)
It wasn’t the same as an old cat’s purr and Essin’d assumed the creature had lost the capacity: it was more like a stick dragged across ribbed wood. But something in them disintegrated. They’d hardly had to touch it, this time. They weren’t even moving their fingers, and though they knew old cats purred when they were in pain as much as when they were relaxed or joyful they knew from the quickly-healing wound on the calico’s face that it was contentment animating the cartilage in its throat.
"I think," said 383. "I’ll name you Mabel."
Thunder rolled through the mycelium halls.
And as it echoed 383 knew they were wrong about reason for the new cat’s purr.
They’d had nothing to do with its happiness.
It was happy about what was coming. Thunder cracked again, the tunnels moaning as though they’d been heated suddenly by a blast from the sun. 383 wrestled their mask on and without thinking grabbed the new cat’s cage, spilling its water bowls as the green light blinked on the doorknob.
"All controllers, this is Cephalon. Faunal incursion is currently underway." A roar, ragged throat turning air to concrete. (Carrying through the labyrinth and sounding on tympani deep in the soil.) "All nonessential personnel exsanguinate mycelium network. Cat Shits prepare to conclude mission."
"All right," it was a controller voice, low. "383— we’re pretty sure the boss bitch is heading for you. We’ll mark a path for you the usual wa—"
383 was in the hall when the voice cut out and something rocked the walls. A blast boomed that they heard more in their external microphones than felt: the hall ahead had been shattered diagonally, holes corroding a course down and to the right. The roar followed.
"This is Tertiary Cephalon." The Cephalon’s usual voice was usurped by someone with a thick qeb accent, harried and deep-voiced with shrieks in the background. "Primary and Secondary Cephalons have been denatured by faunal incursion."
"Fuck!" someone yelled from the background, "Just euthanize the samples and get out of here! No I don’t care about fucking procedure, just do it."
"Portal control center is offline," Tertiary Cephalon continued, level voice wobbling. "Releasing all doors. Requesting assistance from nearby districts." The lights on the doors winked.
And then it struck their skull like a hydraulic bolt, the lights on the doors were off.
"Please attempt to exsanguinate or seek shelter until the situation is under—"
Thunder cracked through the fortplex underground labyrinth, walls shattering as two bolts bored holes through the ground after the first and the Cephalon fell silent. A door fell open, hinges scooped away by the new lion’s eye and inside a person was half-missing, their mask bisected and the precise erasure of half their head leaving the brain not even time to bleed.
"383? 383 you still alive?"
"Yes," said 383. "I am."
"This is 425. We’re buds, right?"
"Okay, listen to me close. We’re working with the army guys. I’m pretty sure she’s after the cat. We need you to get to the exit behind the grocery store next to the Starbucks. Do you know the one? Someone drew a dick on it."
"Yeah," said 383. "I know the one."
"Okay, you’re going to tell us when you’re a few seconds away from the exit. When you get out, bolt right and run like hell."
Something was crumbling down the holes in the ruins: pebbles skittering and dust.
"Do you know how to get there?" 425 said.
"No. Do you?"
"No. Without the Cephalon I can’t guide you. Can you figure it out?"
Pebbles and rubble were falling now in torrent. Piling on the ground through the diagonal bore the new lion had made.
"Yeah," 383 said. "I think I can."
"Okay, don’t drop the new cat, whatever you do. She’s after the little shit and this is probably going to be our best chance to kill her."
383 had taken the halls long enough that though they were doubtful they might have had a shot at finding their way back— but exception raised its face: the new lion’s shot crossed the way they’d come, to walk into the path meant risking she was looking down, that their limbs and organs would swiftly be expunged, and she was close enough they could hear the new lion’s furnace breath.
They turned. Bolted for the door they’d taken enough times now to know it lead to a stairwell down.
The door swung shut and, as two flights down they leapt the last four steps, it blew from its hinges with a nauseating thud and gonged behind them on the stairs. They didn’t have time to reach the familiar hall, just picked the door on the first landing they reached and went through. Behind them the new lion’s eye shredded the air— the fortplex duplicating its throat and the wide manufactories the bellows of its lungs and suburbia’s bedrock became its tilted diaphragm: a roar duplicated through the wide mycelium that spread across the city and infested the lungs of everyone twined by that concrete web so their guts and bones vibrated together.
383’s visual lenses jolted, blinked, reset. Settings scrabbled through reboot diagnostics. And since this happened as 383 passed through the door they couldn’t tell quite what it was that they saw, infrareds turned to a blue-green spectrum setting that shifted to sonar visualization that oozed across their vision with swirling sonic fronts. They went by touch. They flew forward blind. A setting displayed eddies in the air as pink swirls, a magenta plunging a pinlike pain into their hindbrain. Wild flows coursed around them, swirls making miniature singularities, suggesting violence. The tears were obvious when the new lion fired her eyes again: all the air bolted to fill the vacuums in wounded space. Their mask reached true colour: they were on a catwalk: the catwalk overlooked an expanse where grotesquely massive centipedes, thick as arms, roiled over each other and—
383’s sight was knifed by white light.
The suit’s pleasant, airport lady automated voice system jabbered in their ear.
"Caution! Pluto-Class Information Hazard detected! You do not have permission to witness this activity. Please leave the vicinity and report to a knowledge auditor immediately."
They looked away and the suit’s eyes switched to thermals, which they knew at least would be somewhat useful as they groped towards a door. (New cat purr on the cage bars vibrating their knuckles.) A ludicrous hissing filled the room and the new lion growled and whipcracks from her eye carving air walloped 383’s shoulders. They turned in time for a steam blast from whatever it was in the pit below them: broken arthropod bodies blowing hot wet clouds as the new lion opened them.
At last again the lenses switched to infrared. 383 was through another door. Bald lights dangled from the ceiling over skeletons on beds. Petals. A lone eye. Another new cat? No, a new deer was in the room, relaxed on a raised bed looking at the broken yellowed human bones on cots arrayed before her and nonplussed, which meant only that she knew she was safe from whatever was coming.
A crack deafened 383’s right ear. Holes ahead and holes cutting a gouge along the wall to their right. She’d missed by inches. The new cat rowled, its purrs shook the cage walls. The easiest way back was to find the first blasts she’d made— take the diagonal back up and then follow the hallways they knew. They opened a door. A locker room. Another. A third— two controllers huddled inside, one jerking off the other while they nuzzled their masks together, indifferent to the carnage. A fourth, concrete barrenness wallpapered with new animal skins stitched together: bristle, chitin, scale. Her claws raked dismembered doorways and gouged the concrete floors and her huge haunches burst lightbulbs in sparks and booms that joined her footfalls in the hunt. A fifth door lead to a narrow antechamber. They had to squeeze sideways through the narrow door at its other end hoping that it wasn’t a closet.
It was a jungle. Mists coiled around 383 and trees absurd and ancient reached for a concrete sky, painted with still stippled clouds.
"383, you still with us?"
"Yeah. Why the fuck is there a jungle down here?"
"A jungle? You probably shouldn’t be seeing that."
"The info hazard warning isn’t going off."
"Whatever. Do you have an ETA?"
"I’m just trying to stall it so I can get back up."
They pushed through the brush, thuds behind them as the new lion’s eyes picked apart the narrow entryway. An electronic voice boomed across leaves as long as 383 was tall.
"CONTAMINATION DETECTED. CONTAMINATION DETECTED. CONTAMINATION DETECTED."
And broke through the brush. A ladder lead up to an observation deck, 383 ambled up with the new cat cage held only with their ring and pinkie finger and were up on the deck, into a room that was empty except for a table with two still-steaming cups of coffee. Trees burst and splintered as the wall broke and the new lion stamped in, her pelt glowing gold and just visible through her wreckage but thankfully still without a sightline to Essin. They dived. Turned. Legs wobbling. Their skinniness was attributable only to that they worked on their feet. Their breath was ragged and their nethers were chaffed and damp and uncomfortably cold from the mesentery’s temperature system.
And they saw it, then, light trickling slantwise down the hall. They’d found it, another vertex in the new lion’s attack on the Cephalon.
It was a strange tunnel, difficult to gain a purchase on: its sides were like a chipped obsidian arrowhead from the spherical scoops the new lion took from matter and its flats were under a loose scree formed from uneven fragments that Essin had to shove aside to gain purchase. They heaved themselves up, the blind new cat rowling in protest at being jostled in the cage, 383 leaping gaps and gaining footholds on wall-thick fragments until they’d gained the four stories they’d dropped. They recognized the hall. The floors were scrawled with gashes from the new lion’s claws like those left by figure skaters on ice. A low, frustrated growl rolled from the building’s bowels below. And they climbed, they trusted their gut and their awareness and the weeks they’d spent following the green lights, knowing which doors to hit, knowing which handles would break free, which stairwells to climb, familiar with the sloping ramps. They were 383. 383 would guide them up against the thundering one-new-animal stampede behind them.
And it was 383 that knew the last stretch, the last long hall before the dip into the interminable mycelium network that Animal Control had carved in the ground. A second last roar 383 would know in that place and the last from the lion as 425 said, "Are behind the grocery store?"
"Yes!" shrieked 383. "I’m in the hall! I’ll be out the door in like ten seconds!"
"You have five."
And the hall tore open behind them. She stood in the dim lights. Her eye glowed green as it had in the valley jungle that was by then nothing more in her mind than the coolness a passing shadow leaves on a brick wall in summer— the place where she squinted through the night at insurgents in the underbrush, before transformations had addled and altered her link to the matrix of chemicals and experience and instinct that bred all recollections, in human animals and nonhuman ones. She was an alien to herself but she was a protector of her regiment and she gazed at the jittering thing in its skeleton mask that shielded itself with the cage containing her charge so that she couldn’t use the danger in her own radiant eye. She slobbered. Outrage electric coursed in sinew and muscle and bone loud enough that her vibrations were audible— the walls rattled, the light bulbs popped and left her silhouetted in shadow, a lens on the face of the strange half-living thing before her cracked and she knew it would die as all those who’d hurt her so far had died.
It eased out through the door.
She heard it sprinting to the right as quick as it could. Bunched her hind-legs. And sprang.
This all happened within four seconds.
As that fourth second cleared the cannon in the Starbucks parking lot fired.
In a shrapnel typhoon. Shredded by canned beans and GMO tuna and pineapples gathered by slaves in distant countries and lentils grown on the prairies and rotisserie chickens who’d gently tenderized in their own juices since they’d first been skewered on their spit that morning. Surrounded by lettuce chopped to fragments by linoleum and concrete and shopping cart steel and plastic red baskets, sardines and breakfast cereals all the colours of candy and puffed wheat. Extra virgin olive oil turned to napalm and phosphorus, boiling bagged milk inadequate balm and cheeses melting to absurd reeking slag. Halloween candy at baffling speeds rupturing bodily integrity, bright packaging becoming razors as their contents were pulverized and turned to toxic glue.
"You still with us, 383?"
They’d been picked up by the blast and deposited with a thud in parking lot thorn bushes, face-first.
The new cat they’d almost named Mabel shrilled and howled in outrage.
"Yeah," they said. "I’m still with you."
"Great work," said 425. "We’re going to confirm she’s fucking dead and then mop up in the base. You take it easy."
"Understood," 383 said.
"And I’ll take care of the little one."
A woman stood over them in the dusky light.
She wore long sleeves, fleece in forest green, and she’d cut her rattail. A tattoo’s vertex peeked from the cuffs. She was pointing a gun at them, a huge pistol that looked ridiculous in her little hand though 383 knew she’d have no trouble using it.
And all Essin thought to say on seeing her again was, "You won’t dissect it?"
She lowered the pistol. Grabbed the cage from the bushes.
"Hm? You’re one of mine? No," Amelia said. "I’d very much like to but my body’s guests want to form a symbiotic bond with it. They think it's had enough misery for one life. Anyway, I gotta run."
"Wait!" Essin scrambled upright, stood, lifted their hands to their mask.
"No waiting. Can’t you feel it? In your feet."
"The grootslangs. Did you forget? They’ve been burrowing up. The ones in the countryside— those ones were taking the quickest way here but a bunch were underground, sleeping. They probably heard the new lion passing through their territory when it went after you guys. Now that they know where you are, they’ll be coming here. If you have anyone you’d like to live, you’d better find them."
A chorus of car alarms heralded their arrival, the rattle of coordinated artillery so low overhead that the air pressure lifted 383 off their feet and dropped them on their ass on the pavement. Raucous gulls swarmed above, fleeing the city.
And grootslangs breeched the earth, through tarmac and box stores, night shoppers spilling out into the parking lots as hulks split outlet roofs. From Walmart, and Staples, and Sport-Check, and Future Shop, they burst, boxes of electronics and shoes and stationary and pens and beach balls and budget groceries and garbage bins and televisions tumbling down those sloping forms as concentrated shell fire began hammering on hills of fat and bone and cartilage and new meat rose higher than all the rooftops in suburbia.
They were heads.
Enormous, ambulatory heads.
Jabbering, moaning, human heads.
Yes, they were a ragged quilt of fur and scales and feathers and chitin, fins by the thousand pulsed on their sides and antennae swiveled by the million at their crowns, but a pair of massive eyes peeked from each round body, a triangular nose, a familiar expressive mouth in the familiar placement above a chin opened wide on sets of blunt, enormous bicuspids. Their bellows sounded above the shrieking crowds as they shrugged into the neighbourhood, teeth grinding into the detritus their arrival had created and slouching through cracking houses to the fortplex.
Lacie was at home. Or had she said she was working tonight?
They ran. In their suit, they ran.
Controllers ran from the grootslangs, like fleeing graveyard spirits, others with blunderbusses and bazookas hitched to their backs, taking no heed of those who ran, found positions and fired. Essin wondered briefly if they ought to report for duty then dismissed thought.
It seemed, as they grew closer to home, to Lacie, that all sorts of new animals moved at the grootslangs’ feet, or perched on their horned magmatic scutes: new pronghorns striding with unbelievable quickness on their two legs, yodeling, new cranes with hundreds of beaks wrapped deep in computation, new raccoons with their tails on their mouths, tumbling down streets like tumbleweeds bouncing off car-roofs, some grabbing the tails of others to form chained raccoon-hoops, new mallard ducks, two-headed animals the size of elephants, waddling, shaving treetops into their gullets. It was as though this new fauna were denizens of living hills, like the terrain itself was becoming a new animal on which other new animals lived. It gushed now into the neighbourhood. And it may have been an illusion, something brought on in the flurry of the moment Essin witnessed that Boschean zoology at the feet of those clambering hulks, brain filling in its hazy impressions with what it understood, not what was there— but it seemed as though the animals flickered in between their newness and oldness, their present shapes and their originals— new shapes and old shapes frolicking together amid the thundering incoherent speech that boomed from those tremendous heads in an expansive, incoherent sermon.
They went in through the back yard, wrestled free from their uniform, left it in a pile on the ground around the house’s corner though its scent tagged behind them. If it was found they would deal with the consequences.
Essin kicked in the basement door, not even closing it behind them. Lacie was there, she was sweating and panting and turned.
"Yeah I fucking know," shouted Lacie.
"Fuck. Look. They’ll kill us if we don’t get out of here," Essin said, plucking at her shirt, "Come on."
And they saw the creatures framed in the entryway at the top of the stairs.
"You didn’t close the fucking door?"
Essin saw their shapes, the Darling’s organ pulsing on their back as they sniffed around the open door, long ears prickling over their eyeless heads, to spot them.
"The bathroom," said Lacie.
Smells like rain and body odour. Slammed the door shut. Lacie closed the bathroom blinds when a new hornet hive came loping to snoop at the sunken window. (It wouldn’t hurt them, but it would have drawn attention to the house if it started studying the couple.)
The new rabbits scratched at the door. Essin and Lacie huddled in the shower stall and hoped that it was far enough away. Essin smelled her breath and touched her stomach— she stood stiffly. A vexed glance told Essin just how both confused and angry she was that they’d forgotten to close the door.
They stuck to the far corner. Around them, through the walls and the ceiling, they could hear the howls and cacaphony, the tremendous thrum and rumble, houses imploding under grootslang feet, bombs blowing yards to smithereens.
By nightfall hungry worms tunneled in their gut. Each hour brought more new rabbits. Their scratching at the door grew incessant. Now and then they collectively activated their Darling's organs. The doorknob grew hot. The paint turned to pimples that ruptured in smoke-puffs, reeking burnt chemicals made Essin’s throat clench and itch. The shower curtain quavered and melted a little but if they pressed to the wall the radiation couldn’t reach them. The door held. The new rabbits would exhaust themselves, rest for a short while, and Essin thought that maybe they’d given up. Crashing and cannon fire sounded outside and they weren’t sure whether time ticked towards a shell or a set of gigantic teeth shattering the ceiling. The new rabbits scrabbled, claws nicking the door-bottom.
As night fell, the adrenaline wore off. Essin hit the light switch but the power had failed. They peeked between the tinny curtains and over the houses opposite soot wrote slurs in blurred cursive on the sunset. The street lights had surrendered their vigil. There was nothing to do but sleep. They took turns, one sitting on the floor while the other stood and watched the roasting door.
Far-off, houses splintered. Titanic heartbeats shook the foundation and shrieks flew through the night like explosive bats.
Against the noise they tried burying their faces in a towel, but it felt like the thunder in the outer night was twisted into their DNA. Noise wouldn’t end. Violence’s choir wouldn’t falter and between the missed meals and the adrenaline their very bones seemed to shiver. It was enough, finally, for Essin to drift through short dreamt islets that arrived so softly they were hard to separate from reality.
Light cut thin through the blinds and the new rabbits were still scratching. The door’s paint had burnt away in a black corona and linoleum tile had melted in a patch shaped as though charredness oozed under the door. The skittering and gnawing came from points almost as high as the ceiling. New rabbits, Essin guessed, piling on top of each other. They were famished. The only thing in their gut was water and the shit they’d been holding in, to put off stinking up the room. They peeked out the blinds.
A thick frost had fallen that night, a sudden dip in temperature: silver dust coated the lawns and the trees and the rooftops, shone faintly in the shadows. It was quiet. The stampede had passed. Essin thought they spotted a new coyote slipping sheetlike over a fence, but it could have been something else. They didn't know if the grootslangs were gone or if they’d just passed through the neighbourhood on the way to the city. They could see a diagonal gash one had cut through the street— the trail of rubble, two houses flattened and two adjacent held up by each other’s leaning over their mutual missing halves. Sourceless meat smoked in chunks on the asphalt, a bomb crater in a neighbour's front yard. Lacie and Essin curled against the wall, saying nothing to each other, hearing nothing but the persistent new rabbit claws and the quiet air roaring outside, the high winds over the silent roads, all furnaces silenced when the power lines fell under the grootslangs’ cheeklike shanks.
At last Lacie spoke, "When you weren’t at work I was scared they’d got you coming home."
"You stopped by work?" Essin said.
"Yeah, I was nearby," she said. "Just coming home."
Why couldn’t the rabbits disperse into that carnage? Wasn’t there easier meat somewhere outside, something immobile for their proboscii? If the new rabbits didn’t finally burn or burrow through the door (their transformation had denied them the gnawing teeth that would have made easy work of it) and kill them, it seemed probable that they were going to starve to death, waiting for rescue to break into what Essin was certain must be their totally entrapped neighbourhood.
They failed to notice that no heartbeat rumbled in the ground.
Around noon the high-pitched cartoonish sob of AC sirens whined through the neighbourhood. The new rabbits, hearing this too, scattered from the door. Essin watched out the window, new rabbits scrambling through the backyard just as Animal Controllers arrived and leaped from a personnel carrier with flamethrowers— until they recognized one wore a mask totally unlike the others, a blackened, ruined leathery thing. One flap from his shirt was one untucked.
He looked at them. Gave a thumbs up with a mauled hand. Followed the others after the new rabbits. Paused to gather a crumpled AC uniform.
They at last cracked the door. Lacie pushed outside. A grootslang sloped over the house. A mortar was buried in its brain, its chin crushed the back fence and frozen streams of congealed blood ran from its nose to pool in the grass. The Controllers didn’t even talk to them, just put up a screen over the back window, and with amazing speed covered the grootslang’s body with a tarp. By mid-afternoon, heavy logging machinery arrived to disassemble it, its chunks taken away in the backs of unmarked white trucks.
The new rabbits had destroyed the kitchen radio so they had to wait for the internet to come back online to check the news. Grootslangs were in full retreat, hunching their way back out to the countryside, vanishing into the mouths of their enormous burrows. The news said Animal Control had driven them back, but it seemed clear to Essin that it was the frost that sent the grootslangs back into the earth.
When 383 returned to the mycelium, they found their uniform hanging as it had been, though the mask was tilted on its hook. They ran their fingers across the mesentery membrane, sniffed it: the rain was fully winter now, salt-seasoned, crisp. They slipped into their clothes. And without the Cephalon, they were free to direct their own patrols, and so went looking for underground literature while they protected the neighbourhood from new animals.
The next pamphlet they found was in a birdhouse on a tree: a picture taken from a helicopter of a lady standing on a grootslang’s back, scribbling in a notebook. A caption reporting that, when AC swept in to arrest her, she rappelled down the new animal’s side, onto a new caribou, and dashed off into the countryside at half the speed of sound, clutching a cage with some unidentified small creature in it.
The basement was full of leaves blown in by grootslangs, bombs, and wind. It felt like they spent weeks sweeping up half-crushed and crinkled brown leaves. They seemed to multiply in the corners, fragments or stems whose ends reminded Essin of a frog’s webbed feet. Lacie twirled them in her fingers.
Their landlord had not been killed in the debacle, and said he’d fix the bathroom door, eventually.
Children in masks trick-or-treated through the ruins, passed through the stunted shadows of crushed AC fortplexes. Through the force of cultural coagulation or coincidence, all adults had the same idea, and dressed as devils, and fistfuls of candy rustled in pillow cases and fabric bags.
from Darling, Charles. DOG’S NEW MINISTRY! A PRIMER ON OUR PRESENT ERA. (2XXX) Abyssal Press. HAZARD: MARTIAN: final classification pending. NEPTUNE-candidate— REVIEW ANNOTATION BEFORE ACCESSING.
WARNING: IDEOLOGICAL HAZARD (IH). UNCLASSIFIED IH ITEMS SHOULD ONLY BE VIEWED BY INFORMATION CONTROL TAXONOMY BOARD MEMBERS. IF YOU ARE VIEWING OR HAVE VIEWED THIS DOCUMENT AND ARE NOT A DESIGNATED BOARD ARCHIVIST, REPORT TO A KNOWLEDGE AUDITOR IMMEDIATELY. ALL ACCESS SESSIONS OPENED TO THIS DOCUMENT ARE LOGGED AND REVIEWED. OPTICAL MOVEMENTS ARE BEING TRACED.
And it’s no coincidence that the grootslang comes from under ground. A pure expression of the heart of the matter! We don’t need to see them. All the other facts (their hybridity, their violence, their incredible strength) will misdirect you from the essential is-ness of the grootslang. They come from the earth because that’s where the earth archives its atrocities.
This is why time has not stopped accelerating since the industrial revolution. (Some past theorists thought history stopped, the future ended— they mistook for stagnation the motor’s cyclical explosive roar as it careened with increasing speed at a wall.) Between coal and oil there’s time and all that time contains. Predation. Fragmentation. Death itself, extinction, strata on strata, compressed, fermented, brooding, breeding, mutating, transmuting into hydrocarbons purified until all taint of the living system that sustains us is gone. Becoming something else. All that biological kinesis and chemistry locked away in a planetary sarcophagus, purified and parceled safely in stone.
Then some dipshit Prometheus figured out we could burn it. And his necrocratic sons have been at it for two hundred years.
The long miraculous murder-fest that carved all living things. Those idiots burned it.
And what you burn, you breathe.
Dog help us all.