He wakes up to thirst. Raw, searing thirst that tears at his tongue and throat. He coughs and half expects to spit out dust. His eyes are stuck closed, and it's too much effort to try and open them. He's vaguely aware of being upright, and of a vague soreness in his wrist, but all of it is pushed aside by the thirst.
He tries to talk, and cannot. All that comes out are pained croaking noises.
"Water," says someone.
Someone puts a glass to his lips and he drinks gratefully until all the water is gone.
"Alright, Alan. This isn't how I'dve liked to do things, but I'm afraid you really gave us no choice."
His Supervisor. He peels his eyes open.
"You," he says.
He tries to get up and finds he can't; he's been tied to the chair.
"Let me up."
"We need to have a talk." His Supervisor sits down across from him and folds his hands on the metal table between them.
"Let me up," he says again, trying to tug off the ropes.
"Alan, we're beginning to think you're not happy here at Iotech."
"Oh. My. God. You're not really doing this, are you?"
"What is it? Is it the pay? The house? The hours? Is your cubicle-?"
"Try the fucking monsters in the basement! The memory erasing, the experiments, the- the- the everything!"
"Please stop squirming like that. You're going to wind up hurting yourself."
He tries one more wriggle in defiance before stopping. "What do you want from me?"
"Nothing we haven't already been taking. Information, mostly."
"I don't know anything."
"You don't need to."
"Let me out!"
"Calm down, Alan, we're all friends here-"
"Friends? You're not my friend!" Heat flashes in his eyes and in his fists, and the lights in the room flicker. Several bulbs shatter.
If his Supervisor is concerned, he doesn't show it. "Of course I'm your friend, Alan. I've always been your friend."
"Liar! You've been lying to me the whole time! You - you cut me up. You let them hurt me and you took my memory. You've been spying on me."
"I've been looking out for you, as I always have."
"By dissecting me?"
"And making sure you had no recollection of the pain. Or do you want to remember that?" He straightened in his seat. "Do you want to remember the feeling of knives cutting into you? Of pissing yourself when you were afraid? Of crying for me to let them kill you? Do you want to remember how much it hurt? Because I can make that happen. I can give the memories back, Alan.
"Now," he continues, "normally by now I'dve had you shipped off to have your memory wiped, but I can tell things have changed and that might not cut it anymore. So I've decided to give you a little leeway in the matter. It's about time you and I have a heart to heart."
He leans back in his seat, clasping his hands. "So, go ahead. Ask me anything. I might even answer, though I expect answers in return."
He's silent for a second, struggling to think of something. His Supervisor waits.
"How long?" he says finally
"How long what?"
"How long has Iotech been watching me? How did you know to find me?"
His Supervisor is silent for a second, collecting his thoughts.
"We've known about you since you were six. You wandered away from home and bliped on our monitors. Normally it was used to find escaped void creatures, so you can imagine our surprise when we go out there to find, not a monster, but a sad little boy on the street. We returned you home and have been keeping tabs on you on and off since then."
"On and off?"
"You vanished after the death of your parents. You were sixteen and you walked away, and it took us six years to find you. We were both wrong, by the way. The other day? Records indicate you've been working here for four years, not two. Time flies."
"What have you done to me?"
"What," he says, "have you done to me?"
"I assure you, we've done nothing to you."
"Liar! Everything you say is a lie!" Questions tumble from his lips before he can stop them. "What are those things from the basement? What's down there? Why can I hear it? Why are there beetles in my house that eat people who try to hurt me? What's wrong with my eyes?"
His Supervisor just waits.
"What is wrong with my eyes?" he asks quietly. "How did you know about them? Are you the reason I'm like this?"
"No," his Supervisor says. "That I can tell you. We did not make you like this, nor did we create the creature in the basement- though I hesitate to use the word "creature" in reference to a sentient threshold rip. We merely had the good fortune to find you both. And it's no use giving me the evil eye, Alan. I've been dealing with the Void on a regular basis for years. Compared to it, you're nothing. You're a candle next to a forest fire."
He continues to glare anyway.
"Why'd you give me another eye? That was you, wasn't it?"
"Yes. We wanted to see if the process could be duplicated. Unfortunately, this eye doesn't seem to have the violent void reactions the others do. All our tests indicate it's just a regular eye. Sorry about that."
"Watch our language, young man. I will admit, there's been more than just a few unforeseen side effects of the experimentation. Your height, for instance."
"You're the reason I'm short?!"
His Supervisor looks like he's trying hard not to smile. "Yes, it would seem so."
"Well fuck you very much!"
"It's not as though you remember anything. I really don't understand why you're so upset about this."
The man with the terrible eyes stares. "Oh my God," he says. "You really don't, do you? Oh my God. How fucked in the head do you have to be to- just- God." He takes a deep breath. "Just because I don't remember doesn't mean it didn't happen. It doesn't make it okay."
"Shut up! Fuck you! Just shut up! Let me go."
"Let me go!"
"Alan this isn't going to get us anywhere-"
"Let me go let me go letmego lemmego lemmegolemmegolemmego-"
"Forget it," his Supervisor says, getting to his feet. "It's no use talking to you when you're like this."
"Where are you going?"
"I have work to do. Maybe letting you stew in here for a while will do you some good."
His Supervisor exits the room.
* * * * *
After what the wall clock tells him is only a half-hour, but feels like ages, the door opens and a woman enters the room. She's upper middle age, has dark skin and darker hair that curls around her like a halo, and glasses with pointy frames. She wears a business suit that's almost black, but isn't, and carries a manilla folder.
"Joanne?" he says.
She smiles. "Hello, Alan."
"Who are you?" he says. "Why do I know your name?"
She sits across from him. She's still smiling, but her eyes are sad. "Because whatever is going on in your head as a result of the consecutive memory erasures and replacements is kicking up things that should've been left lying." He is silent, so she goes on. "Simon sent me to talk to you. He thinks you'll listen to me. We do have a history, after all."
"History of what? Who are you? Joanne I- I'm afraid."
Wait. Why did he say that?
Why did he want to say more?
"I know you are Alan. And I'm sorry it has to be this way. As for who I am-"
She opens the folder and pushes it across the table so he can see. There are pictures of her with a little kid. It takes a second for him to recognize the kid as himself. There's one of her helping him off the playground at his old elementary school, one of her talking to his mother and father at what appears to be parent teacher night, one of them smiling into the camera in an office painted blue and full of toys. How did he know it was an office? There were no indicators in the photo. But it was her office, he knew.
"I was your therapist. I was your babysitter. I was your tutor when you needed help in math. I sat in with you your entire second grade, back when you still had tantrums and your mother couldn't be there. I was also one of the people Simon called when we first found you. I have known you for a very long time, Alan."
"I don't remember any of that."
"It wasn't necessary for you to remember." She turns the page and there are more pictures. They're at the library; he's around six and sitting on her lap while she reads to him. They're at the park, playing in the sandbox. They're eating ice cream.
"Who took the pictures?"
She's silent for a while before saying, "Simon took some. Anton took the others."
"Anton? Anton." The name rings with both murky familiarity, but also with a more recent clarity. "Not the big guy in the suit-"
"Yes. Anton's official role is Simon's bodyguard, but that wasn't always so. The three of us were very deeply involved with your case."
"Why are you telling me all this?"
"Because you have to understand. We need you to understand why we did what we did and why we're doing what we're doing. We wanted to understand the void and how it worked, and you have helped make that possible. The way it reacts to you and you to it, the potential you have and the effect on the creatures- it's amazing. We never meant you any harm, ever. That's why we took those memories, so you'd never know the pain and never know the danger. We were keeping you safe. Believe it or not, we really do care about you. We always have."
He stares at her.
"That's a load of shit," he says eventually. "'Oh boo hoo we knew you when you were little and cute. Now you're big and sorta monster-y so it's okay if we cut you up and pump you full of drugs and- and make eyeballs grow all over you, just-just so long as we erase your memory so you don't know it happened.' Is- is that it? Is that your best excuse?"
"No. Shut up. I don't care. That's not an excuse. I don't care what you all were when I was a kid. You could've been my fairy-fucking-godmother and I wouldn't give a shit. I don't remember any of it- and whose fault is that?- and it doesn't give you the right to fuck with my life the way you're doing now!"
The light is gathering around the edges of his vision, and he feels his face growing hot. Joanne's eyes widen, and he briefly wonders why.
"Let me out," he says.
"Alan, calm down."
"No! I will not be calm! You're insane, all of you. Let me out!"
"Stop, you'll hurt yourself!"
What? Hurt himself? He's not doing anything.
"No, I'll hurt you" he says. "Let me out!"
Light. Pain. The room is too bright. He closes his eyes immediately, but the light doesn't stop.
"Alan? Alan! Snap out of it!"
"Alan! Alan turn it off!" His Supervisor's voice joins Joanne's shouts.
"Alan stop it-"
What the hell are they talking about? Why is it so hot? And will somebody please turn off the light-
Somebody does. One second, there is heat and pain and light. The next, he is sitting hunched over in a chair, the ropes still holding him upright, thoroughly soaked and very much awake. The sprinklers on the ceiling rain water down on him and the entire room. He looks up, and sees his Supervisor watching him from across the metal table. There's no sign of Joanne.
"What?" he says.
"You were on fire," his Supervisor says.
"Oh." He coughs and straightens up.
"Did you mean for that to happen?"
"You need us."
"What we did was for your own good because of things like this. You need us, Alan. You need us to monitor you, to keep you in check. We can help you control it. Look at yourself," he says. "Looks what it's doing to you."
He glances down and sees that his skin is splitting. His arms are cracked and bleeding, and from the cracks comes a golden light that sparks and surges. "I don't care."
"It will kill you."
"No it won't. I can handle it."
"Listen to me, Alan. You. Will. Die. This will kill you unless you get it under control-"
"I have it under control!" Tendrils of electricity dance around his fists and creep up his arms. Sparks are flying from his hands, but he barely notices.
Simon looks at him and he glares back. For a moment, the room is silent but for the sound and sparking, sizzling, and electric humming. Eventually, Simon sighs and presses a button on his phone, keeping his eyes still on Alan's. He doesn't say anything, but a second later Anton and Markus enter the room, each carrying a large bucket. They look to Simon, who nods at them. Without a word, the both empty their buckets over Alan's head.
It's full of water. Alan sputters and the last bit of electricity in him goes out. His skin restitches itself, looking perhaps a little redder than usual, but otherwise fine.
"S-stop that!" he says, teeth chattering. The water had been cold.
"Uncomfortable?" says his Supervisor. "Good. Maybe that'll smarten you up."
"Shut up," he says. "You're not my real dad."
"Give a man minor control over electricity and suddenly he turns into a snotty teenager. When did you get mouthy?"
"You were never so rude before."
"Well," his Supervisor sighs, "I can't say I didn't try reason. We'll just wipe your mind of all this and hope for the best. Joanne won't like it, but it's become clear it's the best option."
He gets out of his seat and walks around to Alan's side of the table. "You're not a child anymore, you're a wild animal, and you need to be drugged in order to protect both yourself and those around you. Mind wipes aren't the ideal solution but they're the best we have."
He does not see it, but he feels his supervisor lightly tough his hair. "I'm really sorry it had to be this way. I wish you'd seen reason. We all do. But, I suppose while we're here. . . Anton? Markus?"
There's a struggle, but it doesn't last long, and it ends with them holding him down, face to the table, wrists bound behind him. He curses and fights, but it makes no difference. He tries to call the electricity, but it's too far out of reach; the water short-circuited him, and while it might work again later, later wasn't soon enough.
Simon removes the band-aid from the back of his neck. He closes his front-eyes and sees his Supervisor through the third eye, and watches as the man idly runs his hand over it..
"Can you see out of it?" he says. "Can you feel it?" He pokes the eye. Alan yells and thrashes. "I take that as a yes, then. Interesting. We weren't sure if it would actually work, you know. The growth didn't occur until after the estimated time allotment. We thought the procedure had failed again. You were never supposed to be aware of it."
An orderly enters the room wheeling a little tray. All Alan can see is a gloved hand handing Simon a thing that looks like a scalpel, but with a slight curve to it. His Supervisor examines it, then nods.
"Don't worry, Alan," he says. "It will be over soon."
"Wait, what are you- no, don't!"
He tries to get up, but they smash his head against the table.
"Gentlemen!" his supervisor says. "Gently. We still need this one."
"You said it was worthless! You said it was a normal eye!"
"Nothing about you is worthless. Did you think I was lying when I called you a valuable asset to the company? You are the most expensive thing in this building. If we were to sell you- and we almost have a couple of times- the bidding would start at twenty."
His heart almost stops. "Thousand?"
The room goes very warm and his skin suddenly feels very hot and his head very light.
"Oh," he says, forgetting for a split second where he is. "Wow. That's a lot."
It's more money than he's ever hoped to see in his entire life all put together.
"Not really, in the grand scheme of things. Facebook bought instagram for a billion dollars. You have the capacity to be infinitely more useful. The military, for instance, has been hounding us for Void and Void offshoots- that would be you- for some time, as have less friendly quarters. But don't worry! We're not going to sell you any time soon. There's still a lot we don't know, a lot you're teaching us, whether you remember it or not."
His supervisor dabs the area around the eye with a damp cotton swab, and suddenly Alan remembers where he is.
"Don't," he says.
"Don't worry." Simon holds open the eyelid and places the scalpel near the sclera. "It's sterilized. You won't remember the pain later. Or maybe you will. We haven't decided what memory reconstruction we're going with this time, and you've been a pain in the ass lately. But the important thing is, you won't remember I'm the one holding the knife."
There's no electricity inside him, and he's too weak to drain it out of the walls. He casts out, desperate, and finds some inside of Anton and Markus. The sparks inside of them are delicate and weak, but accessible; they're touching his skin, and it takes little to no effort for him to take them. He does.
They fall. He can't see them, but he feels them suddenly drop heavily onto the table, then slide to the ground. Simon drops the scalpel in surprise.
Alan shoots up and experiences the odd sensation of aiming-by-eye a kick directed behind him. His foot catches Simon in the shin and again in the knee. Simon staggers backwards and trips over Anton's body. Alan wastes no time and runs out of the room, hands still bound behind him.
Instinctively, he knows he is underground. Though all Iotech hallways look the same in his experience, there is something about the oppressive air, the lights that are too bright but still leave shadows in the corners that tell him he is underground.
He runs and as he runs he stretches and strains his wrists. He's lucky; the binding is some kind of duct tape. If it had been anything else, he might not have gotten out, but the tape stretches enough for him to wriggle one hand out. Immediately he touches the nearest wall, hoping to draw out the electricity. It doesn't work. The walls are humming with power-- he can feel it in the wires-- but he can't take any of it. All the same, as he runs, he keeps one hand on the wall.
He doesn't know where he is going and doesn't realize he's being drawn there until, at the end of one dark hallway out of many, he finds an elevator. He steps inside without wondering if he should and sees a familiar set of buttons:
Sub basement A.
Sub basement B.
Sub sub sub sub basement Q.
As well as several lower floors with aged masking tape covering their numbers and a floor simply labeled V.
He has an overwhelming impulse to press the "V" button. He knows it must be where the void is. The impulse grows stronger. It made him, didn’t it? Or maybe it didn’t, but they were connected. The void has a hold on him, an undeniable connection, and— here a foreign hint of thought crawls oily into place— it wants to meet him. It calls to him, slinking along the edges of his mind, and before he knows it, his hand is reaching out.
The elevator rumbles to life, and he snaps out of it and hastily presses a different button at random. He does not want to meet the void. Absolutely nothing good can come of it.
The elevator spits him out into another Iotech hallway, but this one has only one door at the end of the hall. It’s entirely dark save for a faint green glow coming from the closed outline of the door. He ought to leave, but the void is still present in his mind, gone from trying to be sneaky to straight clawing at him, and he’s afraid if he goes into the elevator again just now, her won’t be able to resist. He goes to the door.
It’s unlocked, and there are no alarms, but the second he enters, his ears fill with humming.
The room is dim and lit not by true lights, but by the sickly green glow emanating from a series of large glass tubes along the wall. Each one is over seven feet tall, with metal bases and tops plugged in with metal wires and plastic tubes. The tubes are plugged into some kind of filter and the wires into several towering generators by the walls. The liquid inside the nearest tubes is murky; the green is discolored and dirty looking, and he sees that someone has unscrewed the plastic filtration tubes from the base. Inside, he can see a lump of something vaguely humanoid, but it's missing limbs on one side and has too many on the other. It has no neck, just a mound sprouting from the chest, and he has to look away. The next one is very much the same, except the lump is smaller.
He goes to the one after and it takes a moment for him to process what he's seeing. The next one is clean, and the liquid, though colored and glowing green by some means he doesn't see or understand, is clear, and the filter is pumping away cheerfully. The lump inside this one is not a lump at all, but unmistakably a person. The person is small, a child, with pasty skin tinted by the green and black hair that hovers weightlessly around its head like a halo. The child's eyes are closed, as though sleeping, and the fact that it is submerged entirely under fluid seems not to impair his-- he can't help but notice that the child is a he-- breathing.
His throat goes very dry, and he taps on the glass. "Can you hear me?" He croaks.
The boy ignores him. He turns to the next tube and finds another child there, identical to the first, except this one’s left arm is solid black. A multitude of black veins sprout where the shoulder neets the arm, making the skin there look like cracked pottery, and the arm and ends in a hand that has claws instead of fingers. It gleams like obsidian in the weak light. When Alan nears the tank, the arm twitches. When he touches the glass, the arm shoots out, as though trying to grab him, and hits the glass with a hollow thunk. The boy remains asleep.
Alan hastily backs away and goes to the last lit tank. The one inside this tank is an older boy-- maybe a teenager. His body is a patchwork of black and white, and there is a patch of black over the side of his face. When Alan knocks on the tank, the eye on the black side opens, and a brilliant white light pours out.
The boy does nothing else— he still looks asleep, but the eye remains open.
He steps back, his thoughts whirling.
He shouldn't be surprised. Iotech isn't above human experimentation. But did Iotech create them, or were they kidnapped? What were they? Why were they here? He looks at the murky tanks and shudders. Whatever these were, they were apparently the only successful ones so far.
How do I get them out?
He hadn't realize he'd decided on releasing them, but now the thought was thought and he was certain there was no way he was leaving a bunch of kids here.
If I pull out the wires then they might just die inside the tanks. What if it's keeping them alive? I could break the glass-- but what if they can't breathe air? I don't see any gills, but they're doing fine in the water-
"I was wondering if you'd find them"
He turns on his heel and sees Simon in the doorway, leaning against the frame.
"What is this?" Alan says.
"Little side project of mine. I wouldn't worry too much about it."
"Let them out."
"No, not yet.” Simon patted the nearest tank fondly. “They’re not ripe yet.”
“Ripe?” He says. He’s trying desperately to drain the electricity from the walls, but he still can’t manage.
“They age faster in the tanks. Soon as we let them out, the growth agent will stop working, and we want them to be big and strong.”
“Did you make them or steal them?”
“You really can’t tell, can you?”
Simon smiles. “Guess.”
An icy pit opens up in his stomach and sends tendrils of cold up to his chest. “No."
“Yes. Sort of. You were a fine starting point, but we thought we could do better.”
Alan stares at the patchwork boy, then the others. “You used the void.”
“We spliced them with void product, yes. Took us a while to get it right. At least a hundred tries before we got anything viable—“
“A hundred clones? A hundred of my clones?” He looks at the dead meat floating in a murky tank. It had to have been alive, once, or else why would it be there?
“I assure you, most of them died quickly with minimal amounts of pain. The unfortunate ones here are our most recent failures. Someone should've been by to clean these tanks out yesterday, but we had a little trouble when the building caught fire.” Simon looks at him accusingly, but he doesn’t notice.
The cold he felt is being rapidly replaced with searing heat.His face must be red; he feels like he is burning up. He wants to strike Simon down, but he cannot; there’s no electricity left in his veins, and though he can feel the electricity in the walls more strongly than ever, he can’t reach any of it.
“Enough of this,” Simon says. “We both know you’re out of juice. Come with me to the lab, and we’ll go back to the way things were before.”
“You experimenting on me?”
“You remaining blissfully unaware of it.”
Simon smiles. It’s a despicable, toothless smile that screams, “I win”, and Alan aches with the desire to smash his fist into that stupid smile, but he’s too far away, so he lunges at Simon instead. He tackles him to the ground and the two roll on the floor, exchanging awkward punches and kicks, each trying to get the upper hand before being slammed against a wall or piece of machinery. Simon is stronger and larger, but he’s older— a hundred years older, according to Iotech files. Alan is smaller, but he’s faster, and for a moment, he’s on top and about to break Simon’s nose when Simon shoves him backwards into one of the generators.
Alan hits the metal face-first and feels his nose gush with blood, but that feeling is immediately overshadowed by several thousand volts of electricity finally responding to his desperate call and pouring into his veins.
He doesn’t know what happens next, save for a brilliant flash of light. Then, he is left alone standing in the middle of the room. The tubes are all shattered, and the floor is soaked and strewn with broken glass and pieces of metal. Simon is curled on the ground by the wall; he’d apparently been thrown back and hit hard enough to daze himself. There’s no electricity left in the walls or machines, and so the room is truly silent for the first time.
The three clones are on the ground, and none of them are moving. The two smaller ones are bleeding from the glass.The light in the older one’s eyes has gone out.
He feels a sharp pain in his chest and looks away, only to see the other, already-dead lumps. Now that there’s no murky water, he can see that they did have human faces, but faces that were stretched and warped, with mouths that couldn’t close.
I’m sorry, he thinks. All of you, I’m so sorry.
Simon coughs and he turns his attention away from the corpses gratefully.
"Alan," Simon says. His voice is weak. He holds out a hand. "Don't go."
He clenches his fist and lightning flickers through his fingers. He steps towards Simon.
Simon doesn't realize the threat, or if he does, he doesn't show it. He smiles weakly. "Good," he says, struggling to sit up. "You'll see. Things will be different."
Sure they will.
"No more memory wipes. I promise. You'll be a partner. You can help us understand the void creatures- be a translator, maybe. 'Void Technician.' You can have a name tag."
He takes Simon's still-reaching hand, but doesn't help him up. Instead, he squeezes it, sending bolts of electricity down Simon's arm. Simon tries to pull away, but his muscles are tensed, paralyzed, and he can't let go.
Alan bends down and looks him straight in the eye. "I quit. I quit Iotech. I quit the void. I quit it all. I'm leaving."
End it now! some raw, primal voice inside is screaming. Kill him!
He almost does. Almost. But he can't. The blood of one of the boys is oozing along the floor, into view, and he wants to vomit. So he says,
"Don't follow me. Don't send anyone after me. Don't look for me, or I will kill you all."
Kill him anyway! Now now now now now-
He lets go and walks briskly out of the room.
* * * * *
Nobody stops him. Nobody is around. There’s still yellow Do Not Cross tape strung around the place, and the lobby still smells like smoke. He passes on.
Near the door is a nice car. He doesn't know anything about cars, but he can tell this one is shiny and, while it isn't too overblown looking and obvious, it's expensive. He immediately pegs it as Simon's car and fries open the lock. The alarm starts whooping as soon as the door is open, but he short-circuits it and gets in.
He drives away.
* * * * *
The car is summarily abandoned a few blocks away, and he takes the bus home, but not before rifling through the car's compartments and lifting all of the cash Simon had seen fit to leave in there-- a little over a couple hundred dollars, most of which is in fifty-dollar notes. It’s not until he’s already home that he realizes he has nothing hiding his third eye, and he’s surprised to find that he doesn’t much care.
At home, he runs up the porch steps and the door flies open before he touches the knob. He is unsure if he caused it to open, or if the house itself is trying to convenience him. The fact that both scenarios are equally likely makes him want to both laugh and weep, but he does neither and instead goes to the bedroom.
Dog appears, melting out of the shadows.
"I'm leaving," he tells it. He drags a battered duffel bag from the closet. "I'm getting the hell out of here- far away as possible." He places the duffel on the bed and starts tossing all the clothes he can find into it. "Not much time- they're probably on the way here to stop me right now." He shoves a few shirts into the bag and then holds his hand out to the dog. "You coming?"
The dog wags its tail, once, and nuzzles his hand.
He smiles and gives it a quick pat on the head, then resumes packing. When he's done, the duffel is still only half-full. He goes to the living room and stands in front of the sofa.
"Okay, guys. This is it. I'm leaving- for good this time."
Chitinous clicking emanates from the sofa.
"No," he says firmly. "I mean it. Don't bring me back- I know it was you all doing that. I have to go for reals this time."
The beetles skitter out of the shadow beneath the couch and swarm over him, making agitated clicking noises. He stands still and lets them.
"I know, I know, I like you guys, too. But I've gotta. But if you want, come track me down at my new place, okay? Dog's coming with me, but I can't fit you all into my bag. In a few weeks, when I'm settled, look me up."
The bugs leave him and gather around his feet, watching. Only one remains on him, resting on his hand. He lifts it to his face so he can see better.
"Well?" he says.
The beetle makes a short bowing motion that he takes for a nod.
He lowers it to the ground and, as one, the beetles retreat back under the couch, out of sight.
He sighs, relieved, and grabs Dog's leash from the wall.
"Come on, bud," he says, holding the door open. Dog trots out, and he follows behind. He closes the door behind them, but doesn't bother locking it.
* * * * *
Now he's on the bus, leaning against the window. The duffel is at his feet, the dog is on his left, head resting on his lap. He looks idly out the window and watches the city pass by. There’s a band-aid covering his extra eye, and when he peeks into his duffel, he doesn’t see the things he packed, but a bag full of shiny black beetles. When he closes the bag and reopens it, his clothes are back. He smiles.
He's on the bus because he doesn't trust his car. He took it to the edge of town, left it unlocked, keys on the seat, and walked the two miles to the nearest bus depot. They almost didn't let Dog on.
"I need him," he'd said. "My eyes are bad."
And he had peered over the top of his glasses and looked at the man at the desk. The man's face had gone sickly pale. They let Dog in.
Now he wonders what he will do. No family, no money, no car, nothing to show for the years at Iotech except some odd friends, an extra eye, and a little superpower— nothing he could put on an application. He doesn’t even have a valid ID. And he’d never got the chance to learn his social security number. . .
But he shrugs it off and looks out the window. The sun is starting to set, and though they’ve only been on the road for a half hour, the city is already breaking up into pockets of suburbia, and suburbia into countryside. He smiles again; he hasn’t actually left the city in living memory, and he’s never been to the country before. It’s something to look forward to.
So he shifts a little, getting comfortable, and watches the last bit of sun spread over the tops of the trees. He feels Dog’s heartbeat and steady breathing, and feels the beetles crawling through the bag, and thinks that despite all the crap that came before, things might turn out alright after all.
End of Act 1