Gunshots in the dark. One, two, three, four, five.
In the abyss, a flatscreen monitor lights, as if awakened by the noise.
From the computer, loud chimes play “Turkey in the Straw” as a creature dances on the monitor, a bear-like thing with chitin for skin and a circular sucking mouth in place of a face. Needles protrude and retract from the orifice in time with the music.
Shuffling in the dark. Bare feet descending stairs. One, two, three, four, more.
A ghost appears, a woman in a pale night robe, trembling all over, pistol clenched in one hand, a snub-nosed, square device. Her wide eyes are moons, her breath coming in half-sobs.
Black stains spatter the belly of her robe. She stares at the monitor. One of the stains is moving, separating from the rest, inching up a fold of cloth over her ribs. She doesn’t notice, but we do.
Hand shaking, she taps a key. The screen changes.
A window opens on a murky video. Voices speak in soft tones, a couple talking quietly, near-whispers, yet the playback is loud.
I think you need to look at this, the man says.
The woman replies, I could lose my job. Hell, both of us could lose our jobs.
The woman in the night robe sucks in air through her teeth. She flips on the desk lamp. The room she is standing in is the room shown in the video. She is the woman who whispers in the video.
The man in the video says, Muriel, please, look.
We shouldn’t be talking about this here.
What, the man says, it’s not like they’d bug our house.
Watching the video, our Muriel barks a loud, bitter laugh, then another, then a gale of them. She steps away and flips on the overhead light while the video keeps playing. The room is large, contains two utilitarian matching desks with matching monitors atop them, both stacked with printouts, neither desk noticeably neater than the other. The video our masters made plays on the monitor closest to the window, which doubles as our vantage point, just as it was when the recording was made.
How did you get this? says Muriel in the video.
They sent it through my secure protocol just like any other document.
Why did you read it?
There’s nothing there instructing me not to. Then, voice higher, more defensive, They’re the ones who gave it that funny name.
Our Muriel’s pupils are pinholes in glistening gray eyes. In full illumination, her gown is a gentle turquoise defiled with dark red stains. The moving blotch we noticed earlier has crawled out of view.
She advances toward the window, guided by the angle seen in the video. Her face looms into close-up as she paws and pounds around the window frame. Where are you? she says, Where the fuck are you? Talking over the voices from the recording.
Do you believe that? the man says. Do you think this is real, what’s in this write-up here?
In the video, Muriel says, Are you sure our client sent that?
Her husband clicks on the keyboard. No, I’m not. I don’t know who did.
Delete it, now. We have to forget we ever saw it.
Our Muriel, intent on finding the camera, doesn’t notice when the video changes, until muffled cries emit from the computer speakers.
There’s motion on the screen, but when our Muriel returns to her computer the scene contained in the new window that has opened is frozen and veiled behind a large button that reads
click to play
Muriel does, releasing the video to keep playing.
In this video, a woman slumps in a chair, her wrists tied, a hood over her head. She’s wearing jeans and a tank top. The quality of the recording saps the scene of all color.
We hope Muriel understands the transition, though if she recognizes this bound woman, she offers no sign, only watches without blinking as the subject twitches her head, jerks her shoulders. She might be mumbling: it’s hard to decipher the sounds she makes within the unfiltered hiss of the soundtrack. A banner has appeared, blocking the captive’s face:
click to make full screen.
Muriel clicks. Larger proves blurrier. Metal shelves surround this woman. They hold spray cans and bottles of blue cleaner, image too grainy to make the labels decipherable. She lifts her chin. Something dark moves down the taut skin of her throat, oozing like blood, sidewinding like a snake. The image pauses just as the camera moves closer.
We apologize for the poor quality. This was our first try. Click to see our new video!
Muriel’s laugh could double for a sob. But she takes the bait and clicks.
The room full of metal shelves reappears with new occupants. Bright light, harsh light, washes out the faces of the couple kissing. It’s impossible to tell, honestly, if the woman is the same seen in the video previous. She’s in a black T-shirt that exposes her midriff, has short dark hair, her face obscured. A head taller, the man in the denim jacket bends his neck at a right angle to keep his mouth in contact with hers.
He clutches at her. In their passion they lean too hard into a shelf. Bottles scatter and clang on the unseen floor. Glass smashes. The pair stays lip-locked.
They spin as if dancing, carom into another shelf. They appear to be pushing against one another, he shoving at her shoulders, she slapping at his chest. Their kiss never breaks. They lurch forward and jostle the camera, which falls, clatters on the floor, and ends up aimed at an out of focus gray object, perhaps one of the bottles.
Just before the video ends its runtime the camera view shifts, rolls toward what appears to be a face in close-up, the motion too quick to display clear details. The final pause obliterated by a new banner:
click to replay
Fuck this bullshit, our Muriel says. Fuck it. But she clicks.
The last half-second plays again in excruciating slow motion. The rolling camera pans across a chin, a mouth hanging open, seen in three quarter profile, perhaps a glimpse of a person on all fours. A thin black tongue protrudes from between front teeth. A second tongue curls out at the corner of the lips. That there are two tongues can’t be mistaken, as the movie becomes a still, held for a full second before the message appears:
see what you did
Fuck you! I didn’t do this! Muriel shouts, and she’s in close-up again, pounding on the wall, trying to find our recording device. She backs toward the door, picks up the gun on her desk. Her eyes scan for the source of our vantage, and the muzzle of the pistol waves back and forth in synchronicity. Neither eyes nor gun find a point of purchase.
I had nothing to do with that project, she says, more calmly. Once I knew about it, I wanted to stop it. I did stuff to try to stop it, stuff you didn’t see. You’ve done this— her face screws up, her voice cracks — you’ve done this to us for nothing!
A new video starts automatically. Again, the view is familiar: this same room, the home office, at an earlier time, lit by daylight streamed through the unseen window.
Our Muriel’s husband can be heard, somewhere beyond the open door, his voice raised, though he falls silent without the shouted words ever becoming intelligible.
He comes into the room, followed by a figure clad in back, face hidden under a dark balaclava. The figure is smaller than Muriel’s tall, lanky husband, but carries a pistol.
Quiet, the husband activates his computer. Our Muriel, back to watching, puts a hand over her mouth as he begins transcribing from a piece of paper, typing the words into a chat window and sending the message. The messaged person responds. The figure in black, pistol pressed to the back of the husband’s head, mutters, Answer her like you always would.
Muriel screams into her cupped hand. Now a dark blotch crawls on the shoulder of her robe.
Muriel’s husband sounds like he’s quietly hyperventilating as he types, watches the responses, types back.
Muriel keeps keening into her hands. The black clad figure seems to look right at her, mask stretching in what might be a veiled smile, one eyelid descending in a wink — though in truth the intruder must have been looking right at the recording device mounted in the window, able to see exactly where it was. As Muriel realizes this, she dashes back to us, pounding furiously on the window frame, still keening. We get a good look at the thing crawling in her hair, our brave, beautiful child.
She doesn’t see how the black clad figure injects her husband — that must be what she’s doing, and yes, now you can tell, in profile, the figure is a she. There’s a needle protruding from between her fingers into her victim’s neck, though there’s no hypodermic visible. She flexes her hand and the needle withdraws as if it were a tongue.
There’s no way to tell if she’s the same woman from the earlier video. Even we can’t be sure.
Open wide, the figure says, then puts something in the husband’s mouth.
Muriel misses all of this. She howls in frustration as she beats her fists on the window frame. Then she leaves the room. She misses all the minutes of footage that follow, what happens to her husband after he’s been injected and then forced to swallow the thing his captor brought. We don’t pay much attention. We watched his twitchy, drooling transcendence the first time it happened, we don’t need to see it again. But we watch the door. We want to know where Muriel went.
She misses the best part, when the woman in black returns to the room, calms the tendrils wriggling between the husband’s teeth, and explains to him what must come next. She misses the kiss full of interlocking twig-like limbs that follows.
Muriel comes back, doesn’t even look at her monitor despite the sounds coming from it, fiddles with the back of her husband’s computer where we can’t see what she’s doing. Then she sets a jar down beside his monitor. Inside it our beloved child wriggles and twists. It keeps trying to escape as she sits at her husband’s keyboard as if she’s up in the early morning hours trying to beat a deadline, her fingers clacking at keys, her gaze focused on the rapidly changing screen that we wish we could read. She ignores the form the size of a thumb leaping against the glass on its many legs, making the jar clink and shift.
Audible from the video on our Muriel’s computer, her husband calling out, Oh, hello, sweetie pie, how was school? Then after an indistinct answer, Now, I need you to be my best little girl, just like you would for mommy. We have a visitor and I think you’re going to like her.
A growling starts in Muriel’s throat, as if there’s a wolf spirit hidden somewhere in her lungs. Our precious child keeps trying, maybe meaning to knock the jar over so it rolls, hits the floor and breaks, but it’s too heavy and our child is too small. We don’t dare intervene.
Muriel leaves off what she’s doing to grab the cord of her computer’s power strip and jerk it out of the wall. Of course, her computer continues to play the video. Our masters anticipated such a move. But she disappoints us by taking the jar, setting it on the floor where we can’t see it, and resuming whatever she’s started on her husband’s computer.
She doesn’t even react to the distant sounds of her daughter’s transformation, no louder than whispers on our recording.
She turns her husband’s monitor to face us. I know who you are, she says. She unplugs a tablet from her husband’s computer, placed where we couldn’t see it all this time, collects her gun and leaves the room. We listen, but she must be moving so quietly.
She reappears, dressed in jeans and a sweater, black hair tied up in a ponytail. She picks the jar off the floor, and we learn it has a small hole in the lid as she sets it on the desk again and pours bleach into it.
Our child pumps legs wildly, slashes with the spines that sprout from its back, stabs with its mouth needles, leaps and leaps. Our child is doomed.
Her husband’s monitor displays a woman’s picture. We recognize her but we’re disappointed in Muriel. She is correct. The woman on the screen is the woman who visited her house. But she is not who we are. Her assumptions about her enemy are as false as her claim that she had nothing to do with Project Tardigrade.
I know who you are, Muriel repeats, as our child screams and dies. I know where you are. And this is the last time you’ll know where I am.
And she leaves. Some part of us may have reason to fear her. For now, we all mourn.
With Muriel and her rage out of range, we dare to detach ourselves from the window frame. We are still recording what we see in this room, but we are much more than the task appointed by our masters.
We descend to the floor and circle around the jar where our child lies murdered, partially intact spines floating atop liquefied remains.
Muriel’s computer is still playing the message our petty creators made for her. We alter it; change the sound it makes to one that is both a cry of grief and a call to the other children placed in the house.
After a few minutes, there’s movement, stumbling, shuffling, from the upper floor. The sound of a heavy body dragging itself down a staircase, across a carpet.
Muriel’s husband pulls himself through the doorway. His legs are not working. His bare torso is riddled with holes, the ones in his back larger than the ones in front. Even we can see his spine is severed. It will be hard for him to do what he must do for us.
New blood from his mouth and nostrils joins the tributaries already dried there. He grimaces each time he puts weight on his elbows and pulls himself forward. Each time he grimaces, our children flick their antennae from between his teeth.
As he struggles to position himself in his chair, we can see there are only four holes. Their absence is explained when the remaining child, our child and Muriel’s child, joins us.
If only Muriel had waited. She would have seen that there’s no cause for vengeance. What she believes lost, what she believes she was forced to do — none of it is true.
Muriel’s husband slowly, painfully uses the crippled flesh of his first body to navigate his own computer. He must tell us, if he can, what Muriel found out, where she might be going. He glances once at his daughter, whose pink pajamas are bloodied by the debris from the single wound in her forehead. She smiles back, several of her baby teeth dropping free to make room for the antennae snaking out between them.
Her gaze moves from his to ours, and her smile widens.
We soar close to deliver a loving kiss.
# # #
Read the interview with Mike Allen that accompanies this story here.