The Watchmaker Wound

This week, a bit of dark fantasy that got a little bleaker than I intended. I guess I was working through some shit while I was writing this one?

The challenge, courtesy of Chuck Wendig’s blog, was to use a tweet from the magic realism bot to inspire the story. Details here.

I liked this one:

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 10.23.06 PM

So here we are.


The Watchmaker Wound

Tsst. Tsst. Lady.” A small, shabby man beckoned to me from a temporary alcove created by a parked delivery van. I knew I should ignore him, go home, maybe rouse Emery with soft hands and sweet whispers. The night market had not yielded any treasure and I was discomfited by the sweaty wad of bills folded in my pocket. I sometimes imagine now what life would be if my frustration and unease hadn’t dulled me to the possible danger of approaching a strange man in a dark alley in Bangkok, but he seemed harmless, more sad then menacing. He hissed through his teeth again, with wide eyes, jerking his head toward the darker layer of shadow. I could see the lights from the market glint off something in his hand, something that flashed different unreal colors, drawing me in despite myself.

“Looking for a prize, Lady? Very good price.”

He opened his palm flat to show me a glittering sculpture of opal. His slight fingers carefully pulled open the cover to show a clock face unlike anything I had seen before. Instead of numbers, the dial dipped and ebbed gently. There were not the typical two or three hands to rotate endlessly around, but eight, each set at a marginally different angle. The cover had parted from the face in a lopsided fashion, like petals bent in the rain. Its sparkle burned at me like a miniature star fallen from the heavens.

“This machine has been in my family for generations. There was a fire; this is what I could save. It doesn’t spin, but the stone has value. I saw you looking at the watches. Maybe you can fix it.”

“Why not sell to a dealer? Or take it to a jeweler?” I couldn’t take my eyes off it. My fingers twitched in his direction, itching to open it and find all its secrets.

“I couldn’t. It calls out. I saw you, it called. My family, we have nothing left. We need to eat. I will sell this to you for whatever you’ll give me.”

I have never wanted anything as I wanted that opal clockwork flashing in the night. I was utterly convinced I could coax it back into life. The small man protested feebly when I gave him every baht I was carrying, but I couldn’t hear him once he tipped the little machine into my hand.


When I returned to my little workshop, I prised the back cover off delicately, exposing the clockwork. The mechanics were like nothing I had run across yet. The first layer was impossibly thin gold filigree, daintily carved wings gracing the edges of the outermost gears. The next layer was a series of translucent horn discs, cupped to form tiny bowls. Once I had lifted those, I could only blink at the fractal shards of iridescent mother-of-pearl stacked in overlapping spirals and arcs. I picked the shell out carefully, piece by piece, keeping the pattern as I set each aside. When I at last had finished transferring those, I lifted the small bit of silk wedged in the casing, protecting the next level of works.

I felt this is where the issue lay, in these deeply set gears shimmering blue and green and red and white, paper-thin opal and ruby and sapphire. The teeth of each gear were so fine they seemed more cut with a breath than by hand. My bench was covered in this priceless confetti when I found the problem. The winding mechanism just spun and spun, the broken end of the spiral spring trailing round. I was surprised to see the spring seemed to be a hair, a black so deep it looked blue. I didn’t have anything appropriate on hand to replace the brittle spring, so with a shrug, I cut a strand of my own hair and wound it into the clockwork.


I folded the cover away from the face, the bent-petal panels fanning out. In the dark of my shop, I wound the opal clockwork with an antique winding key I’d had forever. The gears began to turn with a breathless shriek, the works clicking to life with a chittering hum. One hand jerked into movement, then another, and another, until they were all whirling. The undulations of the dial threw up little flashes of light, and I moved my lamp for more illumination. Suddenly there was a huge moving picture of fiery lights shining in the dust motes of the air in front of me.

I watched, transfixed, as hazy figures became more defined. The face of my mother emerged from the fog, smiling at a man who coalesced into my father. The scene sped along, showing him run after the hat that wind snatched from her head, her shouting soundlessly from the trolley for his name, then in a dizzying fashion I saw their courtship, their marriage, the birth of their child. As the gears ground to a halt, I wept, watching their last breaths.


I ran up the rickety staircase, breathing heavily in the humidity and the heat, in grief and elation. “Emery, Emery, wake up. I have to show you something!” He blinked slowly in the watery dawn.

“Sweetheart, what’s wrong?” He was groggy, and confused by my excitement. I grabbed his hand and tugged him downstairs to my workshop. I wound the clockwork again, holding the key steady for a moment.

“I bought this from a man at the night market, and I’ve been up fixing it since I got home. It…it shows my parents, Em.” He just looked at me in bleary bewilderment. I released the spring. “Watch.“

I felt him snap to attention as the lights danced in the dust. But it wasn’t my parents this time, it was us. It was our first date, a disaster of an evening that ended in what we both thought would be a one night stand. Emery clutched my hand, gaping at the sight. When the lights petered out, we sat perfectly still for a moment. “Sweetheart, I do not understand what the hell is going on. You bought this thing and fixed it?”

“It’s the most cunning bit of watchmaking I’ve ever seen, Em. But instead of telling the time, I think it tells…my time? I had to use a piece of my hair as the spiral spring.” Conflicting emotions flashed across his face, settling with a fierce looking pride. He pulled me to him roughly, and his lips were demanding against mine.


We were under a spell. Every night, we’d wind the opal clock, and watch enraptured. Some nights it showed us our own history, some nights, just me, a very few nights, Emery alone. Those nights revealed more of ourselves to each other, made us brighter and sharper in focus. Each night we reached for the other, wearing ourselves out in sybaritic worship. As the world felt as though it were growing unimaginably darker at a breakneck pace, we shone together.


I woke up one morning before dawn. I could feel the clockwork calling me like it did that first night. My feet were silent on the stairs as I padded down to my shop. My stomach twisted as I put the key in the opal and turned. The whirring of the gears sounded sour to me, discordant. And I gasped, unable to catch my breath at the horror.

The whole world is burning. Everywhere, everyone. I saw the cloud. I saw the shape of it. I know what is coming.

Emery found me crying in the booth. I had to tell him.

We wound the clock and watched again and again. Every time was the same, the sicking spectacle of our end. The cloud, the quiet, the fire.

We don’t fuck anymore, just lie in bed as close as our bodies will permit, night after night. Days, too, sometimes. The opal clockwork shows nothing new, no evidence of when this comes to pass. Though the waiting feels unendurable, I can’t bear the thought of ending it sooner than it will be. I feel the cost of every second now, each tick of the gear becomes the sound of coins falling from a purse.

I think about how quickly we’ll become piles of ash and carbon, and then eventually pressed into diamonds, the shining stars of our generation. I wonder if some new kind of human will emerge from the devastation and find us as diamonds, cut us into gears and wheels and sharp edges, and measure time with our bodies.


I wonder how many people before us watched the opal clockwork play their lives in incandescent review, shining in the dust.



Full Benefits

I’ve been playing around with InspiroBot for a few weeks now, so I just eased right into the latest flash fiction challenge here.

I thought about using a previous quote, but then today I happened upon this one, and, well, yeah. This happened.



Full Benefits

It’s a Wednesday or a Thursday, one of those days that seems like it should be the weekend already, and annoys you that it’s not. You are tired and a bit itchy. You definitely should be listening to your mother and drinking more water. As if your thoughts became manifest, there is a glass of water on your table, Rebecca must have left it for you before she went. She’s a sweet and tough girl you’re lucky to have. Maybe she’s left some lotion in the bathroom.

Oh darling Rebecca, coming through for you again. You shower off the grime of the day, and pat dry with your towel, pad out to the living room. The scent of lavender fills the air as you rub your legs and chest and neck and arms with the lotion, massaging it in. And then you feel the first seam.

The ridge runs from your wrist to your elbow, along the bottom of your forearm. You know it is a seam, you can feel the edges overlap. When you bend your arm and skim your fingertips across it, your nails catch. It’s not difficult to prise open. There is a small ripping noise as you pull your skin back but no pain. Strangely there is no blood, no fluid or mess that falls to your lap. You watch your blood pulse through your arteries and back through your veins, feeling it inside and outside.

As you move to put the edge back together, you wonder. You wonder and you decide and you try a little something, you flap the edge up just a bit before settling it back. Your arm is most obviously more muscular than the other now. You get up and test both arms with the full jug of milk in the fridge; it’s real, actual muscle. Your body feels like the whole of yourself is humming. This is the greatest prize you’ve ever won.

Your fingers run frantically over your body, searching for the seams, and you pull and stretch and push and shake and shape and fold yourself into a new you, a better you, a you that is taller and stronger and better looking and you wonder what that bit will be if you just twist it a little to the

And you’ve flipped and now you’re me and I’m you, your future, your pal, bud. But the secret here, the secret is, I’m better. I’m the new and improved you, you’ll never remember how you used to be because now forever and ever you’re me. I can feel that bit of stiffness left here, you didn’t quite have the reach before you were me, your arms were just too short. I bend my left arm up and my right arm down and my fingers meet in the middle of my back, caressing my spine, trying to work away that bit you couldn’t quite take care of. It’s a good thing I’m me and not you any longer.

It isn’t laying quite right yet. It itches underneath my skin. I’ve got to get deeper to smooth that spot out. I’m going to go in from the top. Parting the hair just above the nape of my neck, I slide my fingertips under the seam edge and pull. That horrible velcro sound is even worse than you remember, you bastard. Why am I even still talking to you! Good riddance.

Oh god, what did I do there? All I can taste is pennies so strongly my teeth vibrate. My ears hurt. Oh god, I’ve got to open that back up. Try this again. Try this again. Again. Smooth out, damnit. I am floating in a calm oasis, I am a leaf on the wind. There’s the itch, it’s a lump you pushed up under the seam, like laying a rug in a spot to small for it to fit. The itching, the pennies, the infernal ringing in my ears, all gone as I press that bit into shape. I am outside on a clear icy morning for a split second, and then oh no oh god I’m spinning I’m spinning away what is that light my eyes I’m blind I can’t hold on I’m falling I’m flipping again

They broke apart with a gasp, a sweaty seething mass into a mob of dawning realization. “What’s good for one!” a man shouted, a man who was you and was me and now is a they and a we. The rest of them and of us shouted and cheered, arms hugged around our other necks, rough tousles to their hairs long and short and theirs and ours. We and they roared and squealed to hear the clamor of our voices, the many from one and I and you.

Who could have known that they and we and you and me could be so tremendous, could have this potential roiling through ourself. All fingers, inside and outside, felt within and without, pushed and pulled, finding seams and edges, reshaped what viscera was held in us and them and became more and less and better and more terrible.

Except then two hands, once idle, reached not for the closest seams only but out to other edges, to ours and theirs, and pulled and twisted, and were not content just to fold them together, but pierced needle sharp and tugging thread. We and they and us and them were gathered and sewn, many pieces to one quilt. I can feel you quiet, I can feel them quiet, I quiet, we quiet, and the light is slipping away and I and you and we surrender to the dark and sweet smell of lavender hanging in the

Susan stretched and shook out her long limbs. As she scooped up the lotion from the coffee table, Rebecca walked into the apartment. “Hello, dearest, it’s me.” she said, looking at Rebecca with love. “Of course it’s you, Suze, it always was. Come here and I’ll do your back for you.”

Rebecca massaged the lotion into Susan’s back, smoothing away a knot right in the middle. “You’re magnificent” she whispered, her voice soft and dark and sweet in Susan’s ear.





Back, again.


This week’s flash fiction, for the challenge found here.

This one came in just over a thousand words, 1,025. It feels pretty skint to me, tbh; I think I could have used another few hundred words.


Back, Again.


Lexi came to with a shuddering gasp, her body rocking forward, upright, painfully rigid.

Except there was no pain. She knew it should hurt, she knew her eyes were dry and her throat scratchy, but there wasn’t any pain. The details were just a catalogue of this and that. Her head felt like it was wrapped in layers of cloud and cotton. She chased thoughts slowly, like one last vegetable in a bowl of thick cream soup.

“Alexis Broadmore?” The man smelled nice, like cold lemons on a hot day. He bent his head to meet her eyes. She was confused for a moment at his expectant look, then realized what he was waiting for. Lexi nodded. Alexis. Yes. Alexis. “Welcome to the Department of Re-appropriation. I’m Agent One-Oh-Two-Five. I’ll be taking care of your transition today.”

Lexi watched him shuffle papers from one pile to another, efficiently chattering at her at a speed she couldn’t quite catch hold of. She curled her fingers into fists and then flattened them rhythmically. The movement felt familiar. She bent each finger purposefully, slowly. Wasn’t there a noise to go with that? Her eyes wandered up again. “—there are so many more bodies to fill now, so you may feel a bit out of sorts at first; we can goose it a little to help but you’ll probably always feel like something is missing. Should balance out with an undefinable sense of purpose, though, so it could be—“ One-Oh-Two-Five broke off as he finally looked at her again.

She blinked at him. Slowly. He heaved a huge sigh. “Heroes. Goddamnit. Here, lean forward.” He put his hand out, middle finger held by his thumb, and flicked her hard in the middle of her forehead.

A lifetime came back to her in an instant, thumping into her with a roll of thunder. She was four, gently hugging a kitten that would spend the next two decades sleeping at her feet, so full of love it hurt. Lexi was nine, standing forlornly as her so-called best friend laughed as her homework blew across the school parking lot. She was in her teens, always alone, too weird for friends. She was at college, now with too many friends to count, going to the parties and lunches and lazy afternoons she dreamed of. She cried too many tears in her twenties over too many doors slamming in too many different ways. It was worse later, when she had run out of tears. And then that empty space filled with purpose and charities and causes and things felt ok again. She remembered shaking off the vague weariness from the feeling of a hundred lives lived.

Lexi remembered her last day.

She was on the sidewalk outside the Sparrows, coffee in hand. She was tired. Exhausted. Spent down to nothing. There was a man arguing with a woman who was trying to ignore him. She sidled around them, trying to tune out the anger in his voice. She remembered thinking she shouldn’t care, but when she saw the knife, she threw her body in front of it without a thought. It was shorter and faster than she expected.

“Yep. That all did happen.”

Startled, she looked up. “What? I know it happened, it was my life. Where the hell am I?” Everything was too bright and loud now. Somehow she saw beyond the walls of the small white office to see thousands more like it stretching out in all directions, each filled with two flickering lights. “Why does my body feel so weird?”

“Again. I am Agent One-Oh-Two-Five, this is the Department of Re-appropriation. You are here because you died, and now we are going to reallocate your biological energy to another body. Your body feels weird because it doesn’t actually exist, it’s just a corporeal construct to make your transition less disorienting.” He muttered to himself as he pulled a few papers from a stack he set aside earlier. “Honestly, why the fuck do heroic actions fritz up the system, it’s beyond me, tens of thousands of years and not a single fix, third one this week…”

“Uh, no, thank you. I’m done. I did my time. I don’t particularly want to go back. I’m ok with what I managed.” He gave her a long look and slumped back in his chair.

“Look, we understand why you did what you did. Heroics are about half and half true heroism and suicidal lack of bodily preservation. We don’t care. Energy is a limited resource, and humans are producing more bodies at a constant rate. You don’t get a choice.”

Lexi felt her mouth fall open, aghast. “Ok look, maybe it was a little bit of each. Couldn’t you just, like, balance my books? Take out your scale and see that I lived a decent life. You could just let me be. Go on, talk to the Big Man. I’ve got all the time in the world.” She leaned back in her chair. Her life wasn’t great, but she lived it. Besides the world was just getting worse all the time. Who would want to do that again? That’s where Hell actually was, a life lived over and over and over.

“Ms. Broadmore, there isn’t god, not like you may have been taught. There is us. We are the end and the beginning, a constant to manage a limited resource. Your memory of this life, and the others less immediately previous, will fade, but you can’t just opt out.” Lexi willed tears to her eyes, surely this was a time to cry if nothing else, groped for some righteous anger, anything, but her feelings were a dull buzz. Fucking corporeal construct.

“You can live recklessly, you can kill yourself quickly or slowly, you can live a long and full life with a satisfying and comfortable end fading away one night tucked in your bed. But you will eventually end up here.” He tented his fingers, looking at her steadily. “And then you’ll go back, again. I’m very sorry, Ms. Broadmore, but there is no exit.”

A Gentle Glow

Another for the flash fiction challenge here. 


Here’s a rough take on invasive species in an urban fantasy/horror style. Just under 1600 words, and another first draft. When I go back into this one, I think I’ll probably up the body horror bits.

A Gentle Glow


She squeaked as I yanked her through the doorway. I clamped a hand over her mouth. “Don’t freak out, I don’t want anyone to hear this.”

She glared at me until I moved my hand, then hissed “What the hell is your problem?”

I tilted my phone in so she could see the screen. She squinted at the photo, a view of my living room picture window, zoomed to show a thin glowing green line around the corner of the frame. I watched her face change the second she caught it, and my stomach sank with the confirmation.

“Liz. Liz. That’s—is that fey moss?” I looked at her, my neck cracking with stress as I nodded. “Shit shit shit shit. When did you find it? Did you touch it? Oh, Liz.”

“Of course I didn’t fucking touch it, I’m not a total moron. I saw it this morning, maybe an hour ago?”

Allison inched away anyways. Fey moss. Geosiphon maledictis.  The common name is a little misleading; it’s actually a lichen, not a moss. I guess doom lichen isn’t as snappy a phrase. Whatever you call it, it’s a potentially life-ending problem.


Four years ago, a handful of physicists at the Credence Coalition think tank got suuuuper high on some synthetic hallucinogen the chemistry division provided, and managed to open a Seelie gate, which they then proceeded to enter like complete idiots. Humanity was lucky that they did not run into any of the fair folk directly and that the gate was sealed permanently very shortly after their return. The lot of them swore to never speak of what they saw, or smelled, or heard, and thought their misadventures would be forever unnoticed.

One teeny, tiny, microscopic spore clinging to the lab coat of one righteously fucked up physicist said otherwise.

This spore dropped from the sleeve of the aforementioned lab coat onto the handle of the main door into the building. It found an abundance in our land of milk and honey, and thrived. We hadn’t ever seen a new species grow so rapidly, but since it didn’t seem to be harming any plants or animals, it was left alone. Plus it was pretty; a bright, glowing, blue-green moss that spread in swirls and spirals up walls and around windows. We thought it was a blessing.

Three years ago, the first case of fairy pox showed up. Sadly patient zero was not one of the idiot physicists that began our little glimpse into the past, but a paralegal from Compliance. She treated the itchy patches on her skin at home, not going to a doctor until the iridescent scales covered most of her limbs. She was quarantined immediately, and as soon as each new case emerged, the patient was whisked away, never heard from again. When the photos of the infected leaked, the news channels called it fairy pox simply because the scales were shimmery and otherworldly. They all still are unaware of how close to the truth they are.

A year ago, the lab I work for was contracted to study the effects of human consumption of scale dust. By the time it got to us, the moss and subsequent pox scales had been confirmed as fae. The doctors treating these patients had hinted at some inexplicable side effects. Our research uncovered its true value.


“Liz, you’ve got to take care of that now. I’ll cover for you here. I can get you a box of iron fillings.”

I ran after her out into the hall. “Al, I can’t burn down my fucking house. Where am I going to live?” She stopped abruptly, and I bumped into her back. She wouldn’t meet my eyes as she slid her jacket off, careful not to touch the material I had grazed. She handed it to me.

“I know a guy, a friend from college. He has an apartment over his garage. I’ll call him later when we hear about the fire.”

Fuck. I’ll get the box from you on my way out.” Her eyes were sympathetic, and pitying.


When I got home, I zipped into the disposable coveralls I stole from the lab. The fey moss had spread along the window sill, covering the entire length in dizzying patterns. The thick layer of iron fillings I poured on barely obscured the glow.

Researchers at the USDA found the only way to contain the spread of the moss is to cover it in an unbroken layer of iron and to burn all surfaces around the affected area with wood from a mountain ash. I taped rowan branches to the wall under my window in a pristine row, and wove strips of newspaper through the smaller twigs for the fire to catch. A line of very flammable books wound around the room. I stripped fully right there, and put Allison’s jacket on the pile.

In the shower, I took inventory. My homeowner’s insurance was fully paid, and I was pretty sure I had itemized all my stuff last spring when I was thinking about moving out west. All my important paperwork was in the cloud.  I had clean clothes in the dryer, and it was nice enough to take a “nap” on the deck while the fire got too far out of control to save the house. Son of a bitch. I’d mourn my art and my books, but I wouldn’t have them if I got quarantined anyways so I guess it’s a wash.


“Allison? My house burnt down. Everything is gone, Al.” I was so tired. My skin felt dry and itchy and tight; my eyes ached too much to open fully.

“Oh, Liz, I’m so sorry. I’ll find you a place to stay, don’t worry about that.” I didn’t hear anything but concern in her voice. “I’ll call my friend Bryant. He has an apartment over his garage that he doesn’t use. And I’ll tell management what happened, maybe get you a few days off to take care of things.”

I thanked her, and then collapsed into my car, watching the fire department spray what was left of my house into a smoldering ruin. One tiny blue-green line of doom, and my whole life was up in smoke. It didn’t seem real. My head fell back, and I shut my eyes, trying not to think about any of it.


The thing that was really bothering me, though, was how it got in my house in the first place. I had verbena and St John’s wort around my thresholds like everyone else, treated my window screens with marigold oil, washed my walls with a solution of yarrow every few months. Like every person at the lab, I was scrupulously careful with the decontamination protocols. We knew what happened if you caught fairy pox.

When we started looking at uses of the scale dust, we weren’t aware of the original supply chain. Our first contract was nearly over when we figured out the first batch of test subjects lived two hundred percent longer than expected. That got us a renewal and a request to push even further with our experimentation. The discovery that it could be weaponized won us reassurances that our stock of the dust would never run out, that we had the support from the very highest levels of our country’s leadership. Only once we got to the extra-sensory perception did we learn the truth about the camps.

Patient Zero hadn’t died, nor did any of the rest of the infected. If we hadn’t found out for ourselves we certainly would never have been told. There was no cure, no way to extricate the hyphae from healthy human cells. Instead, they were kept in government-run sanitariums, where their scales were scraped weekly and ground into dust. Most of the patients were kept on life-support, heavily sedated. The excruciating pain of your skin mutating bit by bit into something from another realm was too much stress for anyone’s body to handle. The scales don’t grow if the hosts aren’t alive. No scales, no dust. No dust, no extraordinarily powered super spies to ensure our interests ahead of the rest of the world, or any others that are out there. No undetectable weapons to keep us at the top of the heap.


One thing that has been a surprise, a discovery I’ve made during these weeks in Bryant’s garage apartment, is the way the pox scales glow. They woke me up one night, a luminous pink light pulsating in time with my heart.

It takes about two weeks for the ESP to start. I think I inhale the dust when I scratch at the patches.

Allison comes by every few days, bringing me dinner or brownies or a stack of magazines. Part of her does it because we were friends, but I know now that she is just counting the days until the pox shows up. In her eyes, it’s a win either way—if I get the pox, the lab will have an in-house source of scale dust. If I don’t, the lab will have a fully immune subject to study for a possible vaccine. Hiding it is getting increasingly difficult. I know she was just doing her job. I just wish she hadn’t been quite so good at it.

My insurance check should be arriving any day now. I’ve always thought Greenland looked beautiful. Or maybe I’ll go see the blue ice of Lake Baikal. I guess it doesn’t matter as long as it’s cold enough for long sleeves.

Two hundred percent of 78.9 years is a long time.

Brand New

So, after a very goddamned long time, I am writing fiction again. I threw this together so I’d have some place to post my piece for Chuck’s flash fiction challenge as my social media presence is basically only twitter. Linky link here.

My random numbers were 12 (vampire) and 18 (medical thriller). I ended up at 1500 words precisely, and didn’t have time to do much editing. God, I hope this isn’t completely terrible.

Life Sentence

Jessica Warren buttoned her jacket as she stood to greet the stuffed suit tricked into begging her to work for—shit, where was she today? Velis Corp? Proxima Labs? She caught a glimpse of the suit’s key card—Catalyst Biological Systems. Right, youth regeneration drugs. Her list of possibilities was growing smaller at an alarming rate.

“Ms. Warren, we are so glad you accepted our invitation. We could use a mind of your caliber here…” As the suit droned on, Jessica let his voice fade into white noise. This introductory pablum was never informative, just a perfunctory performance to sweeten her view of the firm or the lab or the job. Her eyes swept from open door to open door, silently cataloguing what she could see and filing notice of what she could not.

She stuttered a step as her companion stopped to gesture her through another open door. He pretended not to have noticed, keeping up constant conversation as he crossed to the far side of the room to pour two glasses of water, dropping a wedge of lemon precisely in each, solicitous to a fault. Jessica forced herself to focus. Jessica Warren was a scientist. Jessica Warren specialized in synthetic bacteria. Jessica Warren was here to press any goddamn opening she could find to get to the information she was optimistically sent here to collect.

The suit began his interview like all the others, with the same tired questions. Jessica responded with the same rote answers she memorized long ago. She had been so engaged at the genesis of her appointment to the Trust, but now she was just sliding through. Months of chasing rumors and half truths whispered in the back rows of conference presentations and grasping at barely plausible hints in journal articles saw her desperate to get her hands on a concrete lead. Or hell, any indication at all this wasn’t a never-ending wild goose chase. Maybe she should call the office tomorrow and get a few days off; these endless meetings were blurring into a muddy nothingness.

A cautious note crept into the suit’s voice, and Jessica snapped back to attention. This was the first time in one of these interviews she had heard palpable hesitancy. She leaned forward slightly and tried to project an air of ethical curiosity.

“Essentially, we need a new perspective on our particular…issue. Your work for the CDC  combating biological accelerants was of specific interest to our board.” He cleared his throat, squared the corners of the stack of paper on the table with his fingertips. Jessica didn’t miss the slight tremor of his hands. “Rejuvestine has been an absolute success, Catalyst’s flagship, it has made certain people significantly wealthy, but we are seeing a troubling increase in outbreaks of black and whites.”

“Black and whites?” She arched a brow, not exactly feigning a professional interest. He stared quietly at the tabletop, and gave a tiny sigh of resolution. Pressing his lips together, he met her eyes for a long moment.

“I should wait until you sign the NDA, but frankly we’re desperate.” He stood abruptly and strode to the door without pushing his chair under the table. “Please come with me. I want to show you the extent of what we’re facing.”

Jessica followed him down the hallway then through a door, and then another long hallway with a door he used his card to open, which lead to yet another nondescript hallway. They passed through door after door with increasingly invasive locks until the suit signaled her to stop. “This lock is a bit more robust.” He pointed as he spoke. “Retinal scanner, weight pad, retinal scanner, DNA confirmation. Wait until I’ve crossed before you start.”

She watched him clear each step, willing herself to not show her discomfort when the security guard handed him a bandaid for his bleeding fingertip as he crossed the marker. He straightened his suit, now slightly less crisp, and motioned her forward. It’s nothing, Jessica Warren, she said to herself. They can’t possibly have your DNA on file. Calm down, you idiot. Still, her joints felt a little wobbly when the guard asked for her details to put in his register.

“I’m sorry for all the cloak and dagger, but this cannot get out. Jesus Christ, it would be chaos.”

He hurried her into a protective coverall, giving her cheap sneakers to wear instead of her heels, helping her snap the hood into the collar. The practiced motions he used to get into his own coveralls gave her pause. Certainly he had spent not an insignificant amount of time changing into protective gear. Her pulse ticked up a bit.

The airlock opened into a large dim laboratory with many smaller rooms opening off the three other walls, each door flanked with large glass panels for observation. These rooms were all dark. “Ms. Warren, how much do you know about Rejuvestine?”

She bent her knees to get a better look at some of the equipment littering the lab table nearest her. “I know what’s in your official literature, and maybe a little more than that through word of mouth. I understand it works by flooding the skin’s lipid layer with moisture and stimulating cell development.”

“That’s more or less it, though clearly a bit more complicated. Unfortunately, some patients displayed an adverse reaction, an aggressive leaching of moisture from the skin that results in restricted blood flow.” Jessica straightened, alert. “This has resulted in necrosis of the mucous membranes and the surrounding skin, usually in a linear pattern. It also appears to affect melanocytes, hence: black and whites.”

The suit walked to a panel of switches on the wall. “The afflicted are particularly sensitive to light, since their eyelids are essentially gone. We’ve observed they sleep only in micro-naps. The current hypothesis is the lack of sleep and dehydration are fueling their delusional states.” He looked at her then, hand resting on the light switches. “We found them mostly at hospitals in the area, barely coherent, ranting that only more blood would help them recover, that only blood could cure their thirst. They deteriorated rapidly after the onset of delirium.”

“So they’re severely dehydrated and delusional? Not actually ill?” She felt a pang of disappointment. Looking at the pile of research on the counter, she started mentally cataloguing the few places she had left to try.

“Rejuvestine is not a drug exactly. It’s a benign self-replicating synthetic bacteria suspended in a gelling agent.”

Jessica’s breath went in a whoosh, and she sank heavily on a stool. “Oh, god. Is it communicable?” She snatched her hand away from an uncovered petri dish full of goo, and rubbed it against her leg, feeling unclean.

“It seems to transmit through bodily fluids, a lot like HIV.” She looked at him wide-eyed, a little lightheaded from the rush of being this close to her goal, and a little afraid of what would come next. “I’m going to show you what the afflicted look like now. It’s…well, not pretty.”

The lights flickered on in three of the rooms, and suddenly leering faces pressed close to the glass. They weren’t not pretty so much as utterly inhuman. All the pigment had leeched from their skin, and necrotic tissue sketched lines across their faces, black slashes where their eyes and nose and mouth had been. Their eyeballs had shrunk, the sclera no longer visible, pupils stretching to become nearly the entire eye. The worst of it was the way their lips had been eaten away, leaving teeth exposed in a rictus grin, shriveled tongues darting out as they hissed for Jessica to come closer.

Ignoring the bile rising in her throat, she peered at the afflicted in horrified fascination. “How do you keep them alive? Can they eat? Do they drink?”

The suit radiated palpable hesitation again. “The only thing they seem to tolerate is blood. And we can’t actually kill them. The bacteria replicate faster than we can eradicate it, and rebuild whatever structure it’s replaced in them. We cut them apart, poison them, burn them, nothing works. The means we have aren’t working. Which is why we’ve brought you here.”

She closed her eyes, gripping the table edge. Was this actually it? She breathed deeply. Jessica Warren was a scientist. Jessica Warren specialized in synthetic bacteria. Jessica Warren stretched her hand back for the baton. “So, if I am understanding you correctly, you want to hire me to develop an antibiotic for…vampirism?”

“Yes. And very, very quickly.”

She pulled out her phone. “I’ll call my boss and give notice. I can start immediately, if you’re amenable.”

The suit looked relieved. Grateful. “Let’s get you set up.”

Jessica Warren pulled the sword from the goddamn stone, the grail from the grave. Jessica Warren completed the quest. Jessica Warren was not her real name.

Jessica Warren was a covert agent of the Trust. Jessica Warren called her boss, and gave her notice.