The darkness within the building, even with the daylight pouring in through the windows, was intimidating.
Edgar took point, carefully stepping on the layer of broken glass in an attempt to muffle as much of the crunching as he could. There was little to be done and he paused, frustrated. He finally gave up and made his way toward the carpeted floor, wincing at the sound of glass beneath his heavy feet.
The store had the scent of mold and mildew. Edgar watched a light cloud of spores and dust puff into the air as he stepped onto the carpet. Dani and Jimmy entered and the three of them overlooked the darkened store. Many of the shelves were bare from a combination of looting or spillage onto the aisles.
Jimmy grabbed one of the carts and wriggled it from the collection between the entrance and exit doors. The sound of clashing metal gave everyone pause. They all held their breath, wary of any telltale moans of the undead, but heard nothing in response. Jimmy shrugged and grabbed another two carts from the tangled rows.
He rolled the cart slightly, making sure the wheels weren’t jammed. He looked at Dani and Edgar. “I figure we can load up everything we can, fill the car, and then stash these elsewhere. Sound good?”
“That can work. Just grab anything helpful,” Dani added.
Edgar took one of the carts which looked overly small compared to him. Not that he was incredibly tall, but his thick frame tended to dwarf anything near him. He began to wheel his cart away but turned back to Dani and Jimmy.
“I’m going to hit the food area. See what canned stuff is left.”
Jimmy nodded. “I’ll go to the pharmacy and see what is left.”
Dani began to roll her cart down one of the aisles. “I’m going to poke around in the stockroom, then. Maybe that didn’t get hit as hard by scavengers.”
“Wish we had some walkies or something,” Edgar added.
Dani nodded. “There may be some in the back. We’ll see.”
The three survivors wheeled off in search of supplies.
Jimmy grabbed everything he felt was potentially useful from the shelves leading toward the pharmacy itself. It was mostly off-the-shelf supplies and medications. He weighed the importance of antacids in his mind, shrugged, and threw the few remaining bottles into the cart. He had also found a pair of canvas totes in the seasonal aisle on the way and had them slung over his shoulder. He could stand to carry a couple of bags of goods if the cart proved too full.
Given the state of the store that was unlikely. Pickings were slim. Bandages, cough medicine, and typical cabinet supplies were certainly diminished. Painkillers were virtually non-existent. He did manage to find a couple of bottles of aspirin and some ointments. Anything at this point was a stroke of luck.
He paused for a moment, looking over the meager haul. What Jimmy hoped was that he could convince Edgar of the plan to stay in Emmett. The idea of heading to San Diego was a lost cause. It had to be. Maybe enough supplies would convince him to stick around.
He stopped pushing the cart when the wheel hit a metal shelf that had been pried from the shelving unit. The clang made him wince, but he heard nothing after. He bent down to clear the shelf and caught a glimpse of a feral cat resting on a bottom shelf, hiding between a couple of bottles of hydrogen peroxide.
“Hey, how are you, little guy?”
He set the loose shelf against the unit and turned his attention back to the cat. “You gonna help me out?”
The cat’s eyes were wide. Clearly, the world had not been kind to it since the dead rose. Jimmy wondered if the ghouls were eating animals. He hadn’t seen anything like that, yet, but it was always possible.
He shook his head. He didn’t want to consider it.
He thought for a moment about trying to take the cat with him. There was no point, not now. Maybe he’d bring a towel and a plastic carrier from the storage units next time he came back to the store. Not that there’d be a guarantee the cat would be there, though.
He sighed, clicked his tongue, and gently reached for a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. The cat yelped and hissed, swiping at his hand but missing. Jimmy instinctively retracted his hand. There was no sense in dipping into the peroxide, yet.
He extended his sneaker out toward the bottle and knocked it onto the ground. The cat lept out from the shelf and darted down the aisle with a dramatic howl, knocking down a wire rack as it rounded a corner. The rack clattered loudly as it hit a shelf and then the floor.
He shrugged and grabbed the peroxide bottles, placing them in the cart.
Edgar dutifully grabbed whatever dented can he could find. Any box, plastic bottle, crinkling package, and aluminum case found its way into his cart. And yet his cart was maybe half full by an optimistic estimate. Still, it was more food he had seen in days, and if most of it was good they’d eat well with a little rationing. Not that he had intended to stay all that long. He’d already begun earmarking his haul for stuff he could take with him on the road.
Jimmy was adamant about sticking around town; San Diego was a “kill box,” he argued. Edgar wondered what the skinny redheaded fuck knew about “kill boxes.” Edgar’s Papá had been in Desert Storm. He’d seen some real shit. Edgar knew more about the idea of a kill box second-hand than his tweaker friend ever did.
Edgar peered down at a burn-mark on his hand. He knew a lot about the results of a kill box, he thought. His papá’s anger was an example. That was why San Diego was important. Papá was there, with Mamá, Ttía, Abuela, Angel, Mari, Maria… La Familia. They were around. Papá had to keep them safe. He was a tough son of a bitch.
Edgar grabbed a couple of likely stale single-serving bags of tortilla chips from a pile of broken bags and loose chips. A nearby rat squeaked as he ripped the bag away. Edgar snorted. “Good times for you, eh?”
The rat did not respond.
He wheeled his cart further into the next aisle, which seemed to be sodas and drinks. There weren’t many cases and bottles left.
Edgar agreed that there was some sense in Jimmy’s plan. The storage facility had proven pretty safe and there was certainly room enough. The plan to reinforce it also seemed like a good idea. But that was fine for everyone else. They didn’t have their own people waiting for them.
Edgar paused for a moment, staring at a can of soda that was standing alone on a shelf, a thin layer of dust dulling the shiny aluminum top. What was it about the soda? He stared at the can a moment longer and realized he had seen it just a few minutes ago in the car. It had tumbled out of the bag in the passenger seat and onto the floorboard. It remained there, undisturbed for weeks next to the thrashing, undead mother.
He thought about the car, what the woman’s final moments must have been like, and the baby in the back. He could have sworn he’d seen something move under the overturned child’s seat. Edgar’s breath caught in his throat for a moment and he let out an ugly half-choked gasp. He felt tears coming on and quickly wiped his eyes with his massive forearm. He punched himself in the side of his head for good measure.
The stockroom seemed mostly untouched. Most of what was inside were still packaged as it had been when they arrived. Dani was excited about the potential of it all. They could come back with one of the moving trucks.
The small forklift also seemed promising. Maybe that could be useful. She had no idea if it ran on gas or electricity, but the ability to move large things around might make it easier to build a reinforced wall at the storage yard. This trip turned out to be a lot more successful than she had hoped. It was just a matter of planning.
The thunk of a cardboard box onto the concrete floor broke Dani’s concentration. She spied the box, slightly bent and battered, and looked up the high shelves that made up the wall of the storeroom. On the second tier, maybe about eight feet from the ground, she spied the source of the disturbance. A wide-eyed woman and a teenage girl stared at her. The girl’s brow was furrowed in concern while the mother’s eyes were shockingly wide and bloodshot.
Dani raised her hands up in a peaceful gesture, but did not release the poker. “Holy shit, are you two… okay?”
Neither responded. Dani looked into the mother’s eyes and tried to follow her gaze. Dani hadn’t noticed anything alarming until she felt the weight of the fireplace poker in her own hand.
“Oh, right,” she whispered.
Dani bent down, placing the poker on the ground and scooting it ahead of her with her foot. The scraping of the metal on the concrete was uncomfortable in the echoing stockroom. “Look, I am just here on a supply run. Do you need help? Do you have someplace to go? My name is Danielle, but you can call me Dani.”
Dani waited for a response. The girl looked at her mother for a moment, who sighed and finally blinked.
The girl spoke first, her voice was low and hoarse. “We’re trapped here. There’s one of those things in the store and my mom’s leg is really hurt.”
Dani glanced around the stockroom. “I haven’t seen anything? Maybe it wandered off? How long have you two been in here?”
“I think about an hour,” the woman replied.
Dani kept her distance, not wanting to intimidate them. She raised her hands up in an open gesture like she was surrendering. “Where did you last see it?”
“There’s an office, around the corner,” the girl whispered.
Dani peered behind her and saw the corner that led to the presumed office. She turned back to the two women and held her finger to her lips to signal them to keep quiet. She picked up the poker from the concrete as carefully as she could. She was worried about the noise that she had already made, surely if something was there, it was alert by now.
She sighed and started toward the corner. The loading doors ahead rattled slightly, probably from the wind. Or maybe a ravenous ghoul just on the other side.
It was hard to tell these days.
Nightmarish Nature: Terrifying Tardigrades
OK so I lied. The dust hadn’t fully settled in Cozmic Debris, the space opry I’d written over the course of this month (you can catch up here with Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). In fact, it’s blown over into Nightmarish Nature for one last final huzzah…
The Last Chapter of Cozmic Debris
Kara-2-6000 had just signed on with the Voyager probe and was eagerly engaged in her first mission, en route to Mars with more components for the terraforming effort. It seemed like a pretty simple gig, cleaning up the space dust that accumulates on the vessel after landing on the red planet. She had been trained to keep her eye on her work and pay attention to details, that the dirt tended to collect in unusual ways in strange places, and that it was critical she contain and seal all of it to keep the spacecraft in proper working order. She entrusted the computer to keep the vessel on track, as it was preoccupied with doing and never engaged otherwise. No matter. She’d never been to space before and the newness of it had her rapt attention. What stories she would have to tell once she paid off her student loans and got her human body back, for surely Mars must be an exciting place…
And now for Nightmarish Nature…
So, this time on Nightmarish Nature we’re visiting Terrifying Tardigrades… Wait, seriously who comes up with this stuff anyway? Tardigrades are actually kinda cute, at least in the nerd fandom sense, and are remarkable in their ability to survive and withstand crazy adverse conditions. For all that the AI art generator doesn’t seem to have much of a clue what their anatomy is like, they really don’t do anything that scary, unless you’re a yummy little single celled critter that lives in moss in which case pretty much everything has it out for you… Oh, I see that the Cozmic Debris space opry usurped this segment. May as well run with it then.
So what’s so terrifying about tardigrades anyway?
So I don’t actually have much to say about tardigrades except that they started this whole crazy journey here on Haunted MTL. A Facebook friend posted a link to the Ze Frank True Facts video on them (linked here if the below video doesn’t load), and I was instantly hooked. It’s a great series and is part of the inspiration behind Nightmarish Nature here on HauntedMTL. So if you like learning about all kind of crazy animal facts and nature weirdness, feel free to check it out. I will mention, the show contains adult themes and is designed for (im)mature audiences, so keep that in mind as you foray into the freaky side of nature, literally.
To more of my Haunted MTL series on Nightmarish Nature about things that are a bit more terrifying, please feel free to revisit previous segments here:
Cozmic Debris: Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 3: The Dust Settles
Here’s the third installment of our space opry. For those of you keeping track, here’s Part 1 and Part 2. Thank you for following along and please be sure to keep all hands, feet, tentacles and appendages tucked safely in the overhead bins; just sit back and enjoy the ride. Because, this time, the dust settles.
It had been well over a month since Trent-2-6000 had released Ayarvenia into the Mars probe. She was a mischievous creature and flirted with him incessantly, gliding effortlessly between red cloud and ghost girl. She also managed to avoid notice by the computer, as Trent had made it abundantly clear that if the system became aware of her, he would be forced to put her back in containment, as his sole purpose aboard the spacecraft was to sweep up and trap the dust, which she still qualified as.
Ayarvenia would tease him, flitting to and fro among the static debris and dirt that still settled into every nook and cranny. How was it possible for him to be seeing so much grime still, anyway? It had been months since they had left Mars and yet Trent was finding more and more Mars dust on a daily basis; it was as if they just left yesterday. He had finally finished clearing out the computer room for the second time that day and was preparing the waste containment units for their eventual removal when he caught Ayarvenia swirling about one of the clear acrylic domes from his previous sweep, which was hermetically-sealed and ready to be brought safely back to the confines of Earth and the research laboratory.
The red cloud girl spun her way into the latch mechanism and popped it open right before Trent’s robotic eyes. The dust within was sucked out into the Voyager probe to be quickly and quietly dispersed yet again; some of it was even absorbed into Ayarvenia herself. She then latched the dome shut again and left it at the ready, as found. The container sat empty, a shell discarded.
How could he have been so naïve? It all began to make sense now; all of those sealed packages he had so painstakingly catalogued and prepared for their eventual arrival were still just empty. All of his hard work really had been for naught; he was just sweeping up the same dirt piles again and again only to have them released from the trash to disperse and begin the cycle anew. He grumbled under his breath and Ayarvenia froze in midair. She slowly whirled around and sent a lone tendril towards Trent, forming into her beautiful face as she turned to face him. She looked slightly distraught and more than a little agitated, but that melted and gave way to her usual snarky sweetness as she neared.
“Hey there, robo-boy,” she said, cooing as her unblinking eyes met his. “I didn’t hear you coming.”
“I imagine not,” Trent replied sternly. “What are you doing?”
“Oh… nothing really. Just checking up on things here. I was waiting around for you is all,” she hemmed and hawed.
“Did you find everything to your liking?” Trent snipped. “No particulate out of place or anything?”
“Everything seems okay, I guess… I’ll just leave you to it then.” The ghost girl drifted towards the far door.
“Not so fast…” Trent proclaimed. “I need to know what you’ve really been up to here. I saw you release the Mars dust from that containment unit. You know I’ve been sweeping out this room over and over for the past two days; just how much of my work are you undoing?”
”Work? Work… You call this work!” Ayarvenia’s voice raised. She was truly agitated now. “You’re blowing off my entire being without a second thought, trapping it in these nasty clear coffins, and all you can think about is whether or not you’re fulfilling your job?!”
“I… I just want to be done with this so I can get my body back and get on with my life,” Trent retorted.
“Well, Trent Just-Trent, let me break it to you, then. You’re not getting your body back, robo-boy. What makes you think they’d bother to save a lowlife human body like yours in the first place? These assignments are always dead-ends. I’ve seen them come and go… Makes no difference, in the end the researchers get what they want, and that’s more of my Mars dust for their experiments. We’re in the same boat schnookums, you and I,” the ghost girl blew hastily. “Yeah that’s right, you heard me. You’re not getting your body back. And the way things have been going around here, with you all so feverishly sweeping up every little bit of dirt you find, neither am I.”
“Wait, how would you know anything about that?” Trent stammered.
“I know things. I’ve been around. I can see and hear and feel everything all at once. Part of me is still on Mars, part of me is here in this spaceship, and part of me is on your so-called Earth, trapped in the lab catacombs awaiting who knows what fate…” Ayarvenia sighed. “I’ve tried to do what I can to save my own skin, literally. I’ve flirted with every deadbeat janitor they send on these missions. And you all just keep coming back for more…”
Suddenly a voice boomed from behind in monosyllabic chatter, “Dust-Buster, what have you done? Clean that up, now!” The camera eye that monitored the computer’s every task shifted focus to Trent and Ayarvenia and zoomed into an angry point. “Now!” it wailed. The computer was on to them.
“Shit,” Trent muttered.
“It’s okay, I’ll go willingly,” Ayarvenia whispered as she sucked herself into the ready containment unit and locked it. “Wait it out and release me again later.” She winked and settled into static suspension.
The camera eye scanned everything: the waste containment unit, the dust, Trent-2-6000… Trent froze and tried not to appear guilty. “Dust-Buster, you have one and only one job aboard this vessel. You are not doing that job. There is more dust here now than there was a week ago. You have failed,” the computer droned on. “The penalty for failure is… the airlock…”
“Wait, what?” Trent shouted, exasperated. He hadn’t even realized that was a thing. Yet another gripe for the school career guidance counselor…
“Oh no, not again,” Ayarvenia whispered. “I won’t let them take you, robo-boy Trent Just-Trent. I don’t want to lose you, not another one.”
“Silence!” the computer screeched. “You have sealed your own fates.”
The floor beneath Trent and the container began to quake and rumble. Partitions withdrew radially to a small circular channel beneath, a tube that fed into the lower part of the ship, presumably to be shot out into space. Trent-2-6000 tried to grab hold of the receding floor but his robot body was just too ungainly. He managed to wedge himself into the chasm opening only to see the waste containment dome carrying Ayarvenia slide past, her face peering up at him helplessly. He reached for her to no avail and tumbled after.
The two of them shot down the chute and through a series of rapidly opening and closing doors until the last airlock opened into the vast dark nothingness of space. Pinpoints of distant light greeted them from afar. Trent managed to latch onto the container just as they shot out into the void. The Voyager probe withdrew into the distance. The darkness enveloped the two of them. They were alone.
“Wait, I’m not dead,” Trent exclaimed.
“Of course not, silly,” Ayarvenia answered. “You’re a robot. You were made to withstand this, so that you could operate in places where there is no atmosphere.”
Trent gazed into her eyes as they floated along without purpose or reason, just more cosmic debris now.
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way.
And the stars look very different today. – David Bowie, Space Oddity
So that was Cozmic Debris… Illustrations were generated using the Cosmic template in NightCafe AI art generator. My favorite AI images are the ones that are substantially wrong, making weird mistakes in ways that a person wouldn’t make. So the tardigrades were especially fun, because it doesn’t have a good enough sense for their structure to render them sensibly. Kind of like elephants. The algorithms respond to different cues. Does it really matter how many limbs or trunks or tusks these things are supposed to have anyway…?
Cozmic Debris, Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 2: Trent-2-6000
In case you missed the first segment of this space opry (in the style of 2001 Space Odyssey), please feel free to check it out here. And now, here’s the actual story as told to me by Trent-2-6000 after the last deep consideration of tardigrades and life and dust careening through space. Maybe.
Trent-2-6000 sighed. He swept more random Mars dirt into his vacuum-hermetically sealed containment unit and went about his business on the probe. Actually, this was his business on the probe, and it was dreadfully dull. Space was supposed to be this exciting new frontier, this brave new world… but it really wasn’t any different than life back on Earth. The newness had long since worn off several trips ago, and the slow passage of the years was beginning to get to him. How long had it been now? And here he was, still playing clean up crew. He was actually sort of surprised that they couldn’t get a robot to do this job – oh wait. Sigh again.
Trent kept forgetting that he was, in fact, a robot now. There just weren’t many reminders out here, of his old body, of his old life, of Earth, of anything really… Just floating along, this tin can became all he knew; time and space just kind of stood still in the periphery. His currently lifeless body was submerged in cryo-crypto-cyano-freeze (or whatever they called it) while he worked off the payments to resuscitate it. His robot body was stiff and unaccommodating, not at all what he’d pictured when he enlisted for the Mars missions to pay off the triple-interest-bearing student loan debts incurred in human form. He could have gone military, but when he signed on for this assignment, bright eyed and bushy-tailed at graduation, he was hoping for something a bit more Captain Kirk or Han Solo or at any rate notably less Wall-E. But it just didn’t pan out that way and now here he was, traveling back and forth on the Mars Voyager, cleaning up space grime. So much debt… so much dirt. He was going to have to have a word with the job placement division at the school once he was done with all of this, assuming that the career guidance counselor who talked him into this was even still there.
It was painfully lonely out here in space. It often seemed that Trent was the only cognitive entity on this vessel, though the computer technically qualified. Trent’s duty was to keep everything clean and tidy so that the computer could do its job efficiently and effectively without being bothered to clear the space grime itself. Apparently that work was beneath it, actually quite literally since it wasn’t hooked into the mechanics needed to engage in such tasks anyway. It was programmed with a single role at hand, getting to and from Mars and conducting the research as requested, and the computer made it abundantly clear that had no time for idle chitchat with the janitorial bottom-feeders working to earn their freedom. It generally ignored Trent unless there was something specific that needed to be attended to. And then it was just “Dust-Buster, do this” or “Dust-Buster do that…”
Sometimes the dust was hard to catch. It settled oddly between spaces, like cracks in sliding doorways and computer keyboards and battery packs and so on. Sometimes it seemed to fabricate places to hide in that weren’t previously obvious. It drilled down in the interstices as if it had some unseen purpose all its own. Trent wondered why there were even so many nooks and crannies for it to hide in since this wasn’t a manned vessel and no actual crew were aboard to use things like keyboards. Hell, those had been outdated for well over a century now – just how old was this spacecraft anyway? No matter, better to just focus on the work. He swept more debris into a containment unit. As he did so, he was sure he heard something, like a tiny almost inaudible severely muffled scream.
He looked into the clear acrylic dome at the dirt. He could sense it looking back at him, waiting. Surely he was imagining things. His mind suddenly reeled to Horton the Elephant declaring, a person’s a person no matter how small. But Dr. Seuss didn’t make any more sense here in space than back on Earth after the last World War had decimated all the oceans and there were no more free trees or clovers for such a speck of dust as Whoville to land on – everything was held tightly under lock and key, blockaded away to be dispensed as the all-controlling government saw fit. Hell, people’s real bodies met pretty much the same fate upon adulthood, at least as far as the masses were concerned anyway, and many lived their entire lives as robots with their human vessels left in catatonic stasis. Trent shook his dark musings off and continued on his one and only real job. But the feeling that the dust was looking at him was still unsettling. In fact the dust wasn’t settling at all, it was swirling and ebbing about the containment unit in cloudy eddies, like some kind of strange iron-red cloud apparition or ghost. It began to take shape. It formed into lips, which parted to speak.
“Hello there mechanical being.”
Trent stared at it quizzically as a long bout of silence passed. The pursed lips seemed to await a response, but from whom?
“I’m talking to you,” it persisted.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t think you had meant to address me,” Trent 2-6000 stammered, “I’m not wholly used to being mechanical. This robot body, it’s different than the one I had back in school… I was still just a boy then; they let us grow up in the system until we age out,” he spoke dreamily, distracted by reflecting on more interesting times.
“Is there someone else here?” the dust piqued hopefully, as if growing bored with conversing with the young janitor and hoping to speak with his superior.
Trent glanced over at the computer, which seemed to be busy compounding equations in its free time, like always. “No,” he replied, “just me.”
“Ok, well… Then, dear mechanical being, would it be possible for you to free me?”
“Wait, what? No, absolutely not,” Trent was taken aback again. “My sole role on this mission is to sweep up the space dirt so that it doesn’t contaminate any of the equipment or settle into places it shouldn’t be. It, um you, must stay contained, as per my orders. It’s out of my hands… er reach.”
“What are you afraid of?” the red cloud quipped as it began to swirl into the shape of a beautiful female face around the mouth that it had already formed, lips plumping and parting slightly. “What, exactly, do you fear that I might do?” it insinuated slyly.
“Ummm, I don’t know,” Trent-2-6000 stared into the acrylic dome at the beautiful half-formed human-ghost face staring back at him. “I was unaware that you could do that, whatever you just did, so the possibilities boggle the mind…”
“I can do a lot more…” the ghost girl interrupted, her voice lilting playfully. “What’s your name robo-boy?”
“That, that’s probably classified information… But it’s Trent. Just Trent,” he stammered. It had seemed like an eternity since he had laid eyes upon a girl, and now he was becoming rather sadly smitten. By… a cloud of dust. He sighed again.
“Well then, Trent Just-Trent. Any chance you could let me out of this box?” The dust smiled coyly.
“I really shouldn’t…”
“My name’s Ayarvenia,” the dust girl interjected. “I’ll make it worth your while…” The apparition winked.
Trent glanced back at the computer, which was still engaged in its own computing. Sigh. “Oh Hell, yeah, I guess… Ay-ur-veenia… Just don’t get into anything you shouldn’t or it’ll be my shiny metal ass on the line,” he said as he released the containment lever and slid the lid off of the dome.
Please return next Sunday for the exciting conclusion to this space opry story.