*Author's Note: This story is a prequel to Nuclear Horses.
By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire, and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that we were all fucking doomed.
My wonderous little laboratory was tucked away in the middle of that tinderbox. Within the confines of its reinforced walls, I worked happily for many years as I attempted to rid the world of cancer with a series of radical experiments, the only issue was the other experimentation that I was forced to perform in order to secure my funding for the former. The ethical quandaries posed by the facility had caused many scientists before me to forgo their involvement in the project, however, after losing my son to a rare form of cancer, I’d lost such restrictions, much to the delight of my patron.
The facility itself was state-of-the-art, but you couldn’t tell that by just looking at it. On its surface it was very plain, which was the point. It was designed to look like a simple concrete building, and was surrounded on all sides by fencing coated with cruel looking barbed wire. Just next to the building was a tattered American flag posted on a nearby flagpole, along with a prominent ‘TRESSPASSERS WILL TASTE MY FREEDOM’ sign with a picture of an AK-47 underneath to better cloak the location from ‘Proud Boys’ or other snoops.
There was no security on the premises, the head honcho over at Lightbringer Industries believed that this would only serve to draw more attention to the lab, so we settled on remote surveillance instead, with an armed guard stationed at a local hotel in a nearby town. “Nearby” was subjective, of course. The town itself, ‘Deliliah’, if I’m not mistaken, was about an hour west of our location in North Carolina, just outside of the dense canopy of trees that surrounded me. The only clearing was the dirt trail that led to another small service road which weaved throughout the forest and would eventually get you back on the main road that led into town.
I never minded the isolation during my time there. To be honest, I found the setting rather tranquil. The absence of humanity allowed me to focus all of my attention on my work—but that night was anything but tranquil. I often think back on it, that eve of destruction, but not by choice. I’m haunted by it, both in my dreams and in what’s left of the waking world.
I am shaken awake by what feels like an explosion somewhere close by. In a panic, I quickly snatch up my phone from the nightstand by my bed and see that it’s already ringing. It's Lightbringer's monitor tech. That’s definitely not a good sign.
The nasally female voice on the other end of the line informs me that multiple insurgents have breached the perimeter and have successfully penetrated the wall of my lab’s secure holding area.
“Not to worry though, Terry has been dispatched and is on the way.” the woman says in a calming tone. I am not calmed.
I feel my heart skip a beat as I start to grasp the ramifications of what I’m being told. After throwing on my clothes and snatching a dusty pistol I keep hidden inside the drawer of my nightstand, I emerge from my spartan living quarters and proceed down the dimly lit hallway.
I feel a chill spread over my face as sweat pours down my temples. The hallway feels endless, but it’s more me being out of shape than it being incredibly long. I struggle to regulate my breathing as I fumble with the ammo clip in an admittedly sad attempt to load the small pistol. You would think after 5 years I would’ve at least test-fired the damn thing at some point, but you’d be wrong.
I receive another call, this time from Lightbringer Intelligence, a thankfully-less anxious sounding woman, who's name I'm not able to catch, reports that based on facial scans using uncompromised feeds, that most of the group are members of one of Lightbringer’s rival companies, who have apparently decided to speed up their R&D by stealing my latest generation of cancer-targeting nanotechnology.
I quickly tell her that they’ve infiltrated the wrong section of the lab to achieve their goal, that instead they’ve essentially opened the floodgates to the company's blacklisted experiments. After a brief silence that feels like ages, she finally replies.
“Oh, well that’s a different kind of problem. Standby for further instructions. Also, Terry is inbound.”
“A fleet of fucking Terrys isn’t going to make a difference, lady! The experiments that were released were the pyroids, the psychokinetic pyromancers!”
“Um, excuse me?”
“The pyros shoot fire out of their face and their queen can melt your goddamned brain with a thought!”
“Sir, we can assure you that Lightbringer Industries will handle the situation. Contact us with an update of the situation, then lock down what you can and get to the basement. Thank you for calling Lightbringer Industries, have a good night.”
“You called me, you asshole!” I say, but she has already hung up. It still felt good to say. With the surrounding surveillance cameras compromised, I need to check outside myself to get eyes on the type of damage being produced so that this Terry dude isn’t coming into this situation completely blind, though I still have no earthly idea why he’s bothering to come at all unless he’s got some sort of secret Power Ranger suit that’ll keep him from ending up as kindling for the pyroids. Who knows though? Until I started here I had no ideal about the existence of the pyros or all of the other genetic mutations these damn companies have developed.
Since I need to take a peek without alerting the saboteurs, who are likely still skulking around out there somewhere, I jog across to another passageway that leads me to a secret entrance to the lab. The antechamber that accesses the side entrance is much like the rest of the lab’s interior, matte white with black accents. Along the outside of the doorway on a small touchscreen panel, I activate the hard camera that is connected directly above the door, only to see that it’s dead like all of the others.
“Fine,” I grumble as I wrap my sweaty palms around the steel door handle. “I guess I’ll die, then.”
I pull back on the handle, causing the airlock to exude a quiet hiss as the door retracts flush into the side of the building.
As I pass the threshold of my lab’s secret side entrance, I am transfixed by the horrific beauty all around me. The trees around my lab burn a bright orange, their brilliant light illuminates the carnage that is hidden by the otherwise pitch-black night. The mutilated corpses of a pair of the would-be thieves lay scattered in several pieces around the area.
The air is hot as hell, and the overwhelming smell of smoke permeates my senses. Screams echo out in the distance, but were being silenced as quickly as they’d begin. I tore my eyes away from the gore and instantly saw that the worst possible scenario was unfolding.
Sneaking alongside the building, I use the camera on my cellphone to take a series of photos from around the corner so I can remain unnoticed. I quickly pull my arm back around and begin to retreat back to the safety of the side door. As I do, I flip through the photo gallery to make sure that I have enough intel so that I can keep my happy ass inside.
From the looks of things, the entirety of the holding area has been completely breached, along with the secondary area which housed the more deviant experiments. Thanks to the florescent lighting that's still activate in the lab, I'm able to get a clear picture of the scene.
The scorch marks along the gaping hole in the metal make it seem like they were trying to burrow their way into the wall in order to bypass the reinforced steel doors. I zoom in and notice the inner section seems intact, but the walls are bent outward, as if the creatures had somehow detonated inside, which would be a first.
While the pyros are certainly aggressive little bastards, I’m still not sure how they managed to do this. Then I notice the smoldering carcass of a rather large pyro lying on the ground nearest the demolished wall. Its globular head is half-melted off of its body and just like that, I know exactly what happened.
These fools accidentally burrowed straight into the fucking pyroid `queen when they were breaking in and effectively turned her into a mini-warhead. I scroll over further and see the outlines of the perpetrators burnt onto the wall of the lab. The rest of the dumb bastards are other the mounds of flesh and fecal matter scattered around the rest of the grounds, it serves them right.
This also explains why the forest is on fire. Once these pyros get aggroed, there’s no stopping them, even after they’ve neutralized whatever threat upset them. I have several lab assistants that would attest to this, were they still able to speak. One of them might be able to 'sign' it...well no, scratch that. I forgot about her fingers getting melted off too...maybe a thumbs up?
I pocket my phone before slinking back to the open side-entrance. As I move, I get goosebumps all along my body, causing the hair on the back of my neck to stand on end. I know they’re onto me, I don’t even need to turn around to see it.
I bound for the doorway like a man possessed, and that’s when I hear it, that telltale hissing sound I know far too well. It precedes the activation of the creatures’ pyrothorax. Essentially, it’s the ‘boiler room’ of the pyros, what actually ignites the stream that it ejects from glands hidden beneath its long forked tongue. That noise is a thousand times more terrifying than the rattle of any freaking snake.
As soon as I recognize it, I shove my feet onto their sides and baseball slide the remaining distance through the doorway and onto the cool linoleum tiles inside the facility. Still lying on the floor, I look up and just over my head is a jet of fire is spewing out just a couple of inches from my face. I can smell my hair being scorched by the intense heat produced by the attack, and am thankful that's all that was burned.
I roll sideways out of the fire's pathway and leap up, slamming my fist onto the large red ‘emergency lockdown’ button jutting out from wall by the doorway, before falling back to my stomach and covering my head and neck. With a loud groan, the doors begin sealing shut. I risk a glance at my attacker, and see another wave of flame head directly for me.
Just as they are about to engulf my body, the doors slam shut, diverting the attack in its entirety. I hear a muffled groan of disapproval from the predatory pyro, then its heavy footsteps plodding away from the door.
I pull my phone from my pocket to let Lightbringer know what’s in store for whoever they were sending. Did they say Jerry? Or is it Gary? I don't remember, but as I go to put in my password I find that the 'shatterproof' screen is, in fact, shattered to bits. Not just cracked, completely shattered. God, if I still believed you existed, I'd tell you that you're a real fucking dickhead.
All that risk, and for what? A haircut? I start to chuck the piece of shit at the wall, but manage to restrain myself and angrily pocket the phone instead. A sudden jolt of fear fills my entire being as I realize that Morningstar is going to level this place and fast if I don't find a way to contact them. The only safe space that might survive the onslaught is the bomb shelter in the basement. That's where they told me to go anyway, so I might as well go head while there's still time.
Standing up on wobbly legs, I begin stumbling forward towards the service elevator. I end up ping-ponging off of the corridor walls like some idiot in a horror movie as I rush ahead, using the momentum to keep me moving until I manage to finally reach the elevator. Huffing like a smoker who just ran a marathon, I tap the call button, which glows a dull blue and wait. I look up in fear as I hear the muffled sounds of claws clacking on metal roof above me. It’s only a matter of time before they get in.
Eventually the silver doors part ways and I scramble inside before the elevator even has the chance to chime. I slap the ‘B’ button on the control panel with an open palm and the second the doors close back, the elevator plummets downward in what feels like is a freefall. I grasp onto the handrails with both hands as I struggle to stay on the ground, but I can still feel myself being lifted off of my feet by the sheer velocity from the descent.
The stop is just as sudden, and when the doors cheerfully open once more, I’m lying in the floor, a tangled mess of limbs and bruises. I drag myself up with the help of the handrail and proceed along into the basement. In contrast to the lab, the basement level was pure slabs of concrete and steel, devoid of anything other than a single vault door that was covered in rivets, and a small backlit keypad just beside of it.
Entering my code in quickly, the armored door swings open, granting me access inside. I push past the hefty door aside and pass through into the bunker, then watch intently to insure it seals behind me. With the luck I've had so far, I feel encouraged to make sure at least one thing goes off without a hitch.
Once I’m satisfied, I look around and take in my new surroundings. It’s no Hilton, but it’s better than a coffin. The bunker itself is not much bigger than the average living room. The walls are a soft yellow, and are decorated with eye-pleasing paintings of various nature scenes. The smell isn’t as sterile as the rest of the facility. Instead, the scent is calming, yet inviting. It might be lavender. The furniture looks sturdy, and upon further inspection appears to fold away into hidden panels in the walls, maximizing the space.
Over by the little office area on the other side of the room, I find a landline and small Morningstar reference book with severa`l phone numbers. After a couple of botched attempts, I’m able to get through to the Director over my particular project, who I quickly recognize as voice #2 from earlier today.
“Director Randolf speaking.” she says. Her voice sounds flat and distant.
“Hi Director, Eddie Halle here. Apologies for being unable to contact you sooner, it’s been a day.” I say.
“Ah, yes. We're glad you’re alright. Has Terry arrived yet?”
“Um, no. No Terry as of yet. I went outside and took a peek at the scene as requested, I was attacked but I survived, obviously. I just broke my damn phone in the process. I think I know what happened though.”
“Do tell, Mr. Halle,” she says unenthusiastically.
“Well, I think when those assholes were breaking into the place, they accidentally killed the Pyroid Queen in the process, which sent the other pyros into a total frenzy. The problem was all of the intruders were killed rather quickly, half in the so they just decided to burn everything, forest and all. Those are some evil little fuckers, I’m telling you.”
“That’s actually informative, thank you Mr. Halle.” she says, slightly more upbeat than before.
“No problem, and sorry if I was a douche earlier, that wasn’t my intention.”
“Of course, think nothing of it.” she says.
“By the way, I wasn’t able to call Terry or whoever before my phone was destroyed, would you happen to have a number so I can reach him?”
The Director was quiet for a moment, then began to laugh quietly.
“You can't call Terry, this isn't like the security agents you’ve had in the past.
“How so?” I say.
“Well, what time is it there?”
I glance over at the analog clock that’s hanging on the wall across from the desk, it’s a quarter to 10pm.
“It’s almost 10 at night.” I say.
“Ah, very good. Well, if that’s the case, he should be there in a few moments.” she says.
“Um, okay. So, does he have a code to–”
Suddenly, the lights begin to flicker, then turn out completely as the room rumbles incessantly. I stumble forwards and end up catching the edge of the desk with my inner thigh.
“Dammit!” I say.
The rumbling quickly abates, and the lights dimly return to about half of their previous brightness.
“I see Terry arrived, right on time. Now head on up and start collecting the remains of the experiments. We can’t afford to let this get out.” Director Randolf says.
I want to laugh, but I’m too stunned. Too. Fucking. Stunned.
“Say, uh, Randolf...you didn’t happen to drop a shit load of explosives onto my lab just now, did you?” I say, my nervousness evident in my voice.
“I did what needed to be done, Mr. Halle.”
“You-- you never read a single one of my reports, did you?” I say, I felt rage building up in my chest.
“What do you mean?” she says, playing coy.
“Well Director, if you’d read my report, you’d have realized that explosions, save for maybe nuclear, don’t hurt the pyroids. In fact, fire in general seem to inhibit a special neurological trigger that allows for the formation of more queens and rapid reproduction of the drone pyros. In other words, please stop with the bombs, mam! Your just helping them!” I say.
“Oh.” she says, sounding dumbfounded.
“How many did you fire?” I say.
“I don’t know, 3 rockets maybe?”
“Is there something wrong with that?” she says.
“Oh, not at all, unless you want to, I don’t know, be fucking alive in the next few months.”
“So, what are your recommendations?” she asked.
I sigh hard and cradle my head in my hands. This is some real bullshit.
“No more explosive or incendiary devices, it doesn’t hurt them.”
“But you said nukes...”
“That you listened to?! Yes, theoretically, the nuclear blast would disintegrate them entirely, leaving nothing to regenerate, but that’s just a theory. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I haven’t had the resources to actually put it to the test, and I didn’t figure you’d drop a Nuclear Bomb on North Carolina.”
“Trust me, I’d much rather it be Alabama, but I’m left with no other option.”
“Maybe an ice weapon of some type? Some kind of freeze ray? The experiments I’ve been running involving the cold have been quite promising, surely you can come up with something--”
“You have 10 minutes to go up and survey the damage. If I don’t hear from you, there is going to be a tragic accident involving a warhead that’ll make the one in Goldsboro seem like a wet dream. For what it’s worth, I hope you live, Eddie. Call me back.” *click*
“She sure does enjoy hanging up on me,” I say as I slam the receiver back on its cradle.
I make careful note of the time, set an alarm on my wristwatch for 5 minutes, then head back up to my lab. I start to make my way to my quarters, but the path is cut off where a direct hit from one of the missiles must've took out the ceiling. After a few failed attempts, I manage to scale the rubble and scramble up onto what's left of the stairwell that leads up to the roof. As I open the door, I spot a single tree in the distance that remains untouched. For whatever reason, it gives me a strange sense of hope.
By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire, and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that we were all fucking doomed.