The house was just a front.
Beneath the old, dilapidated building was a massive, state-of-the-art lab. I don’t mean like clear walls, white coats type lab. I mean like a factory, a self sustaining factory, or lab, or whatever!
There were tanks, clear and see through with what seemed like artificial flesh being…cooked inside of them. Eyeballs, hair, teeth, everything. All of it being threaded together and cooked. It was, I don’t know, sick.
The cement walls and dim green glow of the lamps above made it all fell so claustrophobic, as if the walls were closing in on us. It all looked like a fucking torture chamber, where the only ones who would be in pain were the ones having to see it.
We all seemed to be drawn to different areas of the room. I was pulled toward the rear, where a partly fleshed humanoid machine hung completely still. I kept my distance at first, expecting the damn thing to wake up and slit my throat, but after a moment of listening to Torrance repeat “Fuck is all this? Fuck is going on?” I began to inch closer until I was sure it was either non-functional, or dormant.
The top part of the head, as well as some of its chest and shoulders, had been fleshed together. The rest of it had tubes running over the surface of the metal like roots. Even though the face of the machine was incomplete, I could see the similarities of who it would eventually become.
Near where his ear was going to be was a tiny port.I would never have noticed it if the arm of a separate machine that was assembling this monster had not been frozen in place next to it. On the end of the mechanical claw was a tiny chip that looked nearly identical to the memory chips I’d seen the guys buy for their phones. It was ready to be inserted within the port before it was stopped.
I reached out with shaky hands, convinced that the last thing we would want is for whatever was inside of that chip to end up in the port. My fingers gripped the chip as gently as my trembling hands would allow but it would not budge. I was scared that if I pulled too hard and my hand even grazed the half assembled demon it would wake. I had no idea how these things worked. Hell, I had no idea what they even were.
“Yo, E!” yelled Benny from what sounded like another room.
My hand jerked and cause me to pull hard enough to pry the chip loose, but also smack the back of my hand into that thing.
“Benny, shut the fuck up,” hissed what sounded like Jackson.
I watched the half-fleshed monster, my eyes wide and heart racing as I slowly backed away. I was expecting this thing to wake up any second.
“This the starfish y’all was on about?” yelled Benny again.
The thing never came to life, but I held the chip firm within my fist until I was out of its reach. I turned around and saw Jackson go through a sliding door. I looked around and became aware that I was the only one left in the room, yet I didn’t feel alone.
You ever turn off the lights of a hall where you know there’s nothing there and walk through it in the darkness only to feel that there’s something breathing on your neck? Where you pick up your pace because you know if you slow down, whatever is there will reach out from the void and tear you apart in ways we dream of but never like to admit.
Most people agree that its just our imagination. Our primitive nature makes us fear what we can’t see but ultimately there’s nothing ever there.
For most of us that’s true, but not all of us.
They’re always in the shadows. They’re always there, breathing down your neck. They control everything.
I…I don’t know.
I hurried into the other room and heard AP tell Benny, “Get away from that.”
As I came in, I found Benny holding one of those distorted octopus-like machines, dangling it around as if it were a stuffed animal he had just been gifted.The tendrils flopped about like dreaded hair being shaken. The moment he should be shitting bricks and Benny was acting like we were inside a fucking full touch museum.
To him it may have looked like a joke, but to me it looked like the devil grinning as it waited for me to see what it would do to us.
“What? This shit is out,” said Benny as he pointed at the gun in his other hand and grinned.”Besides!”
I admit, I was a little happy that there was no way they could doubt us now. They could never ignore it, not with this level of evidence, and neither could I.
“Put it down,” I said in a tone that none of us had expected.
“Easy! Shit…” said Benny as he put the tendrilled machine down. “What the fuck is all this?” he walked toward us and pointed off to his right. “Y’all see that over there?”
At the end of the room was a big glass container that had a thick layer of mist trying to occult your eyes from what it stored inside. It was like a walk-in freezer that keeps the carcasses from spoiling, except there were no dead animals here. Only rows and rows of small, smooth, golden bricks.
“Is that?” said Torrance.
“Looks like the shit you niggas planted in AP’s room to me,” said Benny.
Thousands of bricks of Butter so neatly placed together. It was beautiful. So methodical, so organized. It made it all look so harmless, but I knew better.
As they walked over to the container, I opened my hand and stared at the chip in it. I wasn’t sure it was going to work, but it was worth a shot.
I searched my pocket for Ty’s phone but realized that I must have dropped it somewhere along the way. “Could I see one of your phones?” I said.
“Holy shit! You right, we should be live streaming this shit,” said Benny as he pulled out his phone. “Damnit, I got no signal.”
“We should at least record it all as evidence,” said Torrance.
“No. I need your phone,” I said. I turned to Benny since he was closest to me. “Benny.”
“What happened to my brother’s phone?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” said Benny. “Nigga, do you know how much that shit cost?”
“I found this in the other room,” I said, raising the chip for them to see.
“What is that?” said Jackson.
“Some kind of memory chip,” I said.
“So you lose my brother’s phone and now you wanna fuck mine up by putting that shit in it?” said Benny.
“Here,” said Torrance, extending his own phone out to me. I walked to him and took it. When he saw me fumbling with the back cover he placed his rifle against the container of butter. He snatched it back and quickly undid it, taking the chip as well and inserting it in.
All of us watched the phone booting up over Torrance’s shoulders. The logo of the phone appeared first followed by a black screen. Moments later, a series of numbers, letters, and symbols quickly scrolled down the screen.
“What’s happening?” said Torrance.
“I think it’s like code or something,” said Benny.
“Well is it or not?”
“Fuck should I know nigga?” said Benny. “Do I look like a nerd to you?”
Torrance tapped the screen randomly until Jackson told him to stop. It seemed as if they were about to start arguing when the phone suddenly finished booting and we were all welcomed by the home screen.
“Seems you ain’t got a signal either,” mumbled AP after the thick words ‘Network Offline’ displayed on the screen.
“Anything look off?” said Jackson.
“No, it all looks the same,” said Torrance.
“Of course it does. No one else would have that gay ass background wallpaper,” said Benny.
“Check the files on the external memory,” said Jackson. “Let’s see if we can look at what’s on the chip.”
Torrance handed him the phone and he began pressing the screen until he came across a single unnamed folder on the chip. When he opened it, thousands of folders appeared, all of them with seemingly gibberish names. He pressed one only to be led through a rabbit hole of folders after folders. He began to press them at random, trying to reach the end of the hole until he finally did and we were met by a single file the phone had no idea how to open.
“This is useless,” said Torrance, picking up his shotgun.
“Let me see it,” said Benny, snatching the phone from Jackson.
I looked up and watched Torrance shift around the room. I wanted to tell him to stay close by, but he was a grown man. He could make his own decisions.
Benny eventually found a folder that led to a list of files with names. Not like the gibberish names of the folders before, I mean like people’s names. Like our names.
Not all of ours. Benny and Jackson’s names weren’t. AP’s, Torrance’s, and mine were. My aunt and uncle, Sugar, his mom, Juice, plus some other people they all recognized among thousands more they didn’t.
Benny hovered over AP’s name as if he needed AP’s permission to open it. AP reached over him and tapped the file. Multiple prompts popped up asking to access different parts of the phone as if it wasn’t sure what would open the file properly.
“I don’t know if we should be looking at this,” said Benny.
“Why? It ain’t your name on here.” said AP.
We all got it. His name wasn’t on there, but he was scared it would be.
The word ‘Booting’ replaced ‘Network Offline’ at the top. It was subtle enough that I think I was the only one to notice.
A map popped up on the screen and gave a location. It hovered over the police station until the application crashed and was replaced by a distorted picture of AP. It crashed again and that day’s date and time when we had been at the station appeared. Different applications would pop up with more information about AP kept appearing and crashing until we were taken back to the list of files.
“What’s happening?” said Jackson.
“I told y’all before. I ain’t a fuckin’ nerd,” said Benny. “But it look like the phone ain’t equipped to open the file proper.”
“Click on mine,” I said.
He did and moments later my uncle’s house appeared followed by my picture and today’s date. It was the only thing we could make sense of, everything else that popped up after was mostly symbols and a bunch of applications that were unable to fully boot before crashing.
“Press someone else,” said AP.
Torrance came back to join us as we pressed name after name, each one following the same trajectory, except the locations and dates. Some were way off in the future and past, while others not far off. All the places shown were surrounding Juniper, within an hour radius or so, and all off in the worst areas within those cities.
The pictures of the people, although distorted and pixelated, were still recognizable. Mostly all young, black or hispanic males that looked a little rough. We must have checked over a hundred names and nearly every single one was the same. Aside from myself, I think I saw maybe two or three other white guys, and they didn’t look like the type you’d want to run into in a dark alley. Maybe five women, some asians, you know. It was predominantly black and hispanic males and not a single one you’d expect to ever see in a suit and tie.
“I was right,” whispered Jackson, his voice trembling. “I was…”
-I’m sorry, but. Are you saying?
I’m not saying anything.
But I’ve also had a long fucking time to think about it and I think Jackson may have had a point.
-A racist organization keeping the black man down?
No. But one keeping their idea of order in place. Juniper wasn’t the only place to get hit by the Butter epidemic. It trickled everywhere. Our entire country was infested with it, and it didn’t stop there did it?
Everywhere. Every country, every government. Everyone had an ongoing war with it. Think about how many people died because of it.
-That’s usually what happens with drugs Eric.
I…I understand that that’s how drug trends flow, but this was different. Or maybe it wasn’t. All of this may have been happening for years. Hundreds, maybe even thousands. I don’t know! But I’m telling you what I saw.
That list. We were being picked off. People died, people I recognized from that list. All of them from supposed ‘Butter’ induced episodes. That doesn’t seem weird to you?
-If you were on that list, why are you still alive?
I don’t know. But I get the feeling that it was to prove a point.
-What point is that?
They’re in charge.
I noticed the network sign begin to flash, this time we all did, and then it read ‘online.’
“Screen record this shit nigga,” said Benny as he tried pulling his own phone to check the signal. “Live stream everything!”
We heard a whirling followed by a constant ticking. We stopped looking at the phone, our attention now glued to the room surrounding us. The room we were in began to come to life.
The stationary machines assembling everything began clicking and swooshing as they continued the work they had frozen in place from. Rods on the walls began to push down, belts began turning and my bladder nearly lost all control. I wasn’t the only one either as Benny dropped both phones. If these things were on, it meant the others would be too.
“We need to go,” I whispered.
No one protested. Torrance stepped up to lead and raised the shotgun. I may have been the only one to notice that Benny had made no effort to pick up the phones so I snatched them up and was left in the back of the line.
As we quietly shuffled our way back to the way we had entered, I noticed a bright flash of red to my left. The tentacled machine that Benny had toyed with slithered its tendrils over the bin it had been dumped in. I heard someone scream and before I knew it, I was hearing a loud ringing in my ears as Benny unloaded his entire clip at the thing.
He managed to hit everything but the creature, which continued to slither toward us slowly and clunky in comparison to the one that had come after AP and I at Sugar’s place. It looked incomplete, but the red orbs still shone through, which meant it could be feeding our image to ones that were whole.
Some of the bullets must have hit something that was flammable. A cloud of some type of gas erupted that was quickly turned into a massive torch of fire.
Torrance pushed Benny behind him and aimed the shotgun at the thing. I kept repeating in my head, Shoot. Shoot. Shoot the fucking gun already! As the thing inched forward. A louder burst pierced my ears and I watched the tentacles flail through the air and smash agasint the wall.
Torrance shimmied us through toward the door, his attention focused on the creature. I pressed his shoulder as I passed him to give him a heads up we were all through and he was quick to follow. As the door slid open, I heard him curse to himself and I turned to watch the walls slide sections out.
Rows upon rows of those tentacled machine creatures dropped out of opened walls like overflowing ants climbing a peak.
He fired his rifle as he stepped backwards, mostly causing more flames to ignite. I gripped his shirt and led him backwards. As we crossed into the other room, my attention shifted toward the incomplete Juice.
I watched as one of the tentacled machines dropped from the wall and crawled inside of the humanoid, its tendrils lashing about from within its new cage. I watched the two eyes glow red and then more of those things entered it, flailing aimlessly like sped up maggots. The assembly machine seemed to be trying to complete its work when the thing pulled one leg from the clamp that held it down.
Just like a human, the completed flesh around its ankle tore. The metal broke and blood, or whatever fucking fluid they were pumping through its tubes, gushed out over the floor. The other ankle followed and then the final clamp over its head was broken, taking the entire top half of the head with it and leaving instead one of the most horrifying sights I’ve never forgotten.
It all happened so fast. While I hesitated and stared, Torrance shoved me on and shot at it as the other machines spread themselves over the torn ankles to provide stable ground. At the distance we were, the shots did nothing but push the thing back.
A tentacled machine leapt at us and Torrance managed to fire at it in mid air. Some of the spray hit one of the clear chambers, causing it to shatter and explode the cooked flesh and a gel liquid that held it all together. The thing got covered in the goo and as it tried to slither back toward us, it struggled to pull its tendrils from the goo. It was stuck.
I didn’t wait to see if the rest could react the same, I just assumed so. I yelled to Torrance, “Shoot the containers!”
Luckily he understood and didn’t hesitate. He began to fire directly at them, shattering the clear vats and causing the goo to spread everywhere. A strong stench of gasoline filled my nose. It was overwhelming, almost immediately making me feel nauseous but I idn’t care because the satisfaction of watching those things get stuck in the goo was so much more powerful.
The sliding door we had come through opened and tons of those things poured through. They charged at us only to get stuck in the same mess.
“Fuck!” I heard Benny yell as he began climbing the ladder. “My phone. I dropped my phone!”
I entered the hall, ready to tell him I had it and climb up after them when I heard something clatter against the wall. I looked down and realized that I had kicked the small lighter I had seen Benny carry around everywhere.
I picked it up just as Torrance shot the last vat and slapped my hands over my ears as the man began to shriek. I watched as spots of his face melted off. Holes spread over his cheek, bubbling over and then bursting only to reveal his teeth and gums beneath. The cartilage under his nose sizzled away into a bloody goop.
I watched in horror as the man dropped his rifle and desperately swatted at his face, only to have it spread to his hand and tear away the skin over his fingers. I’ve never felt so bad for someone in my life, especially because I could do nothing to help ease his pain.
He tried to turn and pull himself out of the goo only to cleanly shred the skin and bones at his feet, just like the humanoid machine had. He fell toward me, his eyelids bubbling, his eyeballs trying to focus on mine as they melted after, begging for me to help.
I jumped back.
I couldn’t help him. I was afraid that stuff would get on me as he hit the ground and splatter it everywhere. He kept on screaming, louder than I ever thought humanly possible. He tried to push himself up but the rest of the skin and muscle on his hands dripped off, adding to the goo. All of the skin that had made contact was slowly becoming one with the substance that was eating away at it.
I heard someone behind me wretch out everything in their stomach. A sickening mixture of decomposed vomit and gasoline filled my nostrils and I felt my own body preparing itself to puke as well. I turned just enough to see Jackson wiping his mouth and I screamed at him to go, only to realize that Torrance had stopped shrieking. I don’t know if he was dead or had just passed out from the shock. I hoped he was dead. The way he died. No one deserves that.
I watched the things inching closer, slowly progressing through the goo and I did the only thing I felt I could.
I sparked the flame into existence and hoped to god that I was right.
He’s been on my side my entire life, clearly not in ways most would expect, but he’s kept me safe. He’s kept me alive.
I tossed the lighter into the goo and watched the flame spread through the entire lab in an instant. Everything the goo touched was scorched. Even Torrance.
I wanted to stay and watch it all burn. Watch them pay for everything they had done, but I could feel the heat beginning to lick my face. Torrance didn’t deserve to be left there. He may not have been the greatest to me, but I knew he was a good man. Even if I would have pulled him out alive, though, and somehow he survived, would that really have been a way to live?
I nearly slid on the vomit as I took hold of the ladder. I could hear the other vats start to explode as I climbed and when I neared the top, I glanced down to see the sapphire flames engulfing the base of the ladder. It was pushing itself further up, chasing us like the accomplice to the machines.
I looked up and found AP looking down, arm outstretched. I took his hand and he pulled me up. He looked at me and said one word, “Torrance?”
I had no idea what to say so I just stared at him, feeling like somehow I had let him down. I saw a flash of anger then sorrow as he tried to process it but his stoic nature quickly took over. I still wonder if AP secretly blamed me, but I guess it doesn’t really matter now.
We took one more look down the shoot and saw a grip of those creatures slowly creeping up the walls, the flames providing them a sort of camouflage that only their differing movements gave away. AP pulled me back and he began to sprint through the tunnel.
“Hurry, hurry, hurry!” I heard Benny’s voice faintly echo through the tunnel. Up ahead, the floor was sliding back together, threatening to trap us in and share the same fate with Torrance.
I took off faster than I had ever ran. Professional ball type speeds. As I shot through the opening and slipped over the tar that covered the room, I looked back to see AP coming fast, but not fast enough.
Jackson and Benny held their arms out to him, screaming at him to run faster. He stumbled over the steps but they grabbed his forearms tight and pulled him, barely fitting his thick frame through the closing gap. I grabbed him by the shirt and ripped him up and was about to let myself smile when I heard the screaming.
I blinked repeatedly, not understanding what had happened, trying to process why AP was in so much pain. It wasn’t until I aimed the light near his legs that I noticed half of his left foot was still on the other side.
“Open this thing back up!” said Jackson to me as Benny cursed to himself.
“No!” shrieked AP in tears. “We can’t. Just get me out of here.”
Jackson stared at me as if requesting permission. I wasn’t ready to lose someone else.
I took hold of the arm Benny was holding and said, “On three. One-.”
“Wait,” pleaded AP. I looked him straight in the eyes and shook my head a single time. He gulped and tried to blink away his fear until he nodded his head uncontrollably.
“Two,” I said.
“Wait, no. What the fuck are we doing?” said Benny. “We can’t do this. There’s gotta be ano-.”
“Three!” I yelled. Jackson didn’t hesitate. We both yanked as hard as we could, expecting the foot to come clean off. It’s never as easy as we think it’s going to be.
AP shrieked to high hell and Benny joined him in horror as hifs friend’s foot held tight.
“Benny!” I screamed, loud enough to stop his own. I shot him a glare that told him a true horror awaited him if he didn’t help. He took hold of AP’s arm and helped pull, gagging as we heard bones breaking and flesh tearing. It was all we needed to get the last stretch. He came free and landed on top of us, his shrieking had turn to sobs.
“Come on,” I said as I slid out from under him. “We gotta go. Help me get him up.”
Benny stood back in disbelief, cursing and watching as Jackson and I picked him up and placed him over our shoulders. We could hear scratching on the other side of the floor and fire rumbling as it threatened to burst through.
“We could really use a joke right about now,” I said to Benny.
He shot me the most horrified look and said, “There’s a time and place for jokes.” He gagged as he glanced at AP’s foot, or what was left of it. “There’s nothing funny about this.”
Maybe it wasn’t, and I probably came off like a psychopath to them, but I couldn’t help but laugh.
We exited through the hole we had made and I took AP firmly over my own shoulder. The doll taunted me one last time, its neck ripped and eye gauged, leaving its moldy stuffing sprawled around it, letting me know that there was nothing I could do. I would continue to spread itself everywhere and there was nothing I could do.
I would never win.