He watched as they took blood from the creature. It never cooperated for this. At least four handlers were required to strap it down to the operating table for the procedure. Xue wasn’t sure why it fought this harder than it did the handlers taking turns with it. “Punish it after this.” He looked over at Edward. “Make it clear to the creature that any and all refusals to cooperate will result in reprisal.”
“Understood, boss.” Edward grinned.
The ear piece felt weird, but it would enable the girls to talk to him. He watched the creature swimming in the tank, back and forth furiously. Xue had given him a remote that he claimed activated the collar, which notified the creature when it was too surface. Greg set it on the small table, then unlocked the hatch. The handlers were keeping their distance, as he’d asked. Greg took a deep breath and patted the water three times in a steady rhythm. “He heard.” Adele’s voice came over the earpiece. “His swimming pattern altered when you touched the water.”
“Right.” He nodded, then repeated the motion. Water was lapping up around the hatch from the waves created by the creature’s motion, but he didn’t have a good view of what was happening beneath him.
He gave it sixty seconds before repeating the motion again. “Greg, look ou—” Adele’s voice came just as the creature’s hand shot out of the water and grabbed his wrist. For a moment, he thought the creature was going to pull him in. He didn’t pull his wrist back, just stayed where he was. “Greg, do not even think of getting into the water.”
“I’m not.” Greg stared down. The creature was staring back. “Rude to go in someone’s house without an invitation anyway.” He stayed still a moment longer.
Then the creature surfaced. In what he took to be its natural form, it was incredible. The face was still humanish, abet missing a nose. Its eyes were almost iridescent in this form rather than the unrelenting black of the amphibious form. “Hi.” Greg nodded to him. “Remember me?” He moved back just a little. “Feel like coming out and talking?” The creature came up out of the water a little more. The collar was blinking yellow. Greg realized the creature was looking at his hands, as though it was looking… The creature was looking for the remote. Xue had another of the remotes, and he had a hunch the collar probably did a little more than just give signals. And now the creature knew he didn’t have one. He held his breath.
With a splash of water the creature came out of the tank, shifting as he did so into the amphibious form. He landed gracefully next to Greg, then used the hold he still had on Greg’s wrist to yank Greg to his own feet. The handlers started to move forward again and Greg glared at them. “If I need help I will ask.” He tried keeping his voice soft so as not to startle the creature standing only a couple feet from him.
A grunt escaped him as the creature caught his hair and sniffed it again. Then it extended a tongue and actually nibbled a little at the end before making an expression that was recognizable as dislike. “Yeah, that’s not food. But uh, I brought some stuff for you to try, if you like?” He gestured toward the other room, then resignedly stood still as the creature began touching his beard again.
“Told you to shave.” Adele’s voice sounded amused.
“I didn’t want to risk him…” He saw the creature tilting his head. Then it caught hold of his chin and turned his head to the side. It took him a second to realize. “Adele, I think he heard you.”
“Through the earpiece?” Her voice sounded incredulous. It became even more so when the creature extended a finger to touch the earpiece. “Holy shit.”
Yalathanil stared at the small device in the creature’s ear. There was a voice in it he could just barely make out. A signaling unit, like… He tilted his head, then started to reach a hand up to touch the collar before stopping himself. Was this creature also a prisoner here? It would explain why its behavior and outer covering was different from the others. It must have been a prisoner far longer, enough that there was some cooperation between it and the handlers. He couldn’t help but feel a small pang of sympathy.
This prisoner had spoken on his behalf, in concern about his comfort. It snapped a little at the handlers, meaning it was not completely broken. Perhaps… It was hard not to feel just a trace of hope. Perhaps if he could establish a way to communicate with this creature that the handlers could not detect, it could help him escape. Two stood a greater chance than one, and this creature was native to the dry land.
The creature indicated again that it wanted Yalathanil to follow it into the next room. He squeezed the creature’s arm slightly before heading in that direction, and did not release his grip. Now he just had to figure out some way to make the creature understand.
Natalya examined the slightly red part of Greg’s arm, then ran a swab over it. “Describe the sensation?”
“Ever put your tongue on a nine-volt battery?”
“Ow.” Natalya wrinkled her nose.
“Only not quite as much.” Greg looked down at his own arm.
“He kept constant contact…” Adele frowned as she looked back at the video. “Did you notice —”
“Yeah, there were patterns.” Greg grinned. “A few different ones. Didn’t want to say anything in front of the handlers, cause uh…”
“Those guys are dicks.” Natalya rolled her eyes. “That one actually seems to think I don’t know what he is doing whenever he ‘accidentally’ brushes against me.” When Greg started to turn toward her, she shook her head. “Cage the caveman, Greg. Let’s focus on the more important stuff and I’ll slip some ex-lax into his coffee later.” She sat down. “What did you notice?”
“First thing was he’d squeeze my arm sometimes, almost always in response to a question. If he ignored the question or didn’t do what I suggested, no squeeze.”
“You’re saying he squeezed your arm whenever he was giving some kind of affirmative response?” Adele leaned forward, eyes wide.
“Yes. The other times, however…” Greg took a deep breath. “He did it every time I had to make the handlers settle down or back off. I think…” He gave a thoughtful nod. “I think he might have been telling me it was okay, that I didn’t need them, that he wasn’t going to hurt me.”
“Okay, the cautious researcher part of me is going to point out that could be a really dangerous assumption to make…” Natalya couldn’t stop herself from dancing just a bit in her seat. “But the four-year-old in me really wants to squeal with glee.”
“And the electrical-like impulses?” Adele grabbed her laptop.
“It was some sort of biofeedback, and seemed…” Greg sighed. “I’m not sure. I don’t think I have the proper sensory organs to pick up the distinct patterns, but there were definitely some differences in the sensations.”
She processed the words, turning them over and over in her head. “Greg…” When he looked up at her, she exhaled. “Greg, he’s trying to communicate with you, but he’s trying to do it subtly, so they don’t notice.” She took a deep breath. “The implications of that are twofold.”
“He’s intelligent…” Adele set the laptop back down.
“And he knows he’s a prisoner.” Natalya nodded. “Clearly he’s picked up enough from his surroundings to figure out you are different from the handlers and that means…” She swallowed.
“Definitely intelligent.” Adele leaned back in her chair. “And they’ve mentioned incidents of hostility so…”
“Oh, I am not liking those implications.” Natalya shook her head.
Placing bugs made her a bit nervous, but she was the logical person to do it. The bugs were easy to conceal in the wheelchair, and nobody liked searching a paraplegic. Plus, nobody ever seemed to expect the paraplegic to do something like bug an office. Adele smiled up at Genna. The secretary was a beautiful young woman, but also clearly very competent. “How long have you worked for Mr. Xue?”
“About five years now.” Genna returned the smile. “At first I was just a receptionist, but I substituted for his old secretary while she was out and…” She laughed. “A couple days later he called me back and asked if I was interested in being his admin. Since it came with triple my previous pay…” She spread her hands.
“Easiest decision you ever made.” Adele laughed.
“Pretty much.” Genna nodded. She leaned on her desk. “What about you? How did you get into this work?”
“My mother and Natalya’s mother were roommates and sorority sisters in their college days, then ended up neighbors.” Adele chuckled. “Natalya and I grew up together.”
“Ah, and your other friend…” Genna glanced at the door, then lowered her voice just a little. “Is he, like, I mean are you and he or him and Natalya like…” She blushed.
“Greg’s dad was a gardener. He worked for our parents, and Greg and Natalya’s older brother Viktor ended up becoming friends.” She sighed. “After Viktor, uh…” She looked down at her hands. “Greg was always kind of a big brother to us, and he stepped up after Viktor…” She shook her head. “No. We aren’t involved. He’s family.”
“He sounds so sweet.” Genna put a hand over her mouth. “Does he…” She hesitated again. “Does he like coffee?”
“He prefers a mud-like burned substance he calls coffee.” She considered a moment. Genna was a good source of information. “Good beer on the other hand…”
“You want me to what?” Greg stared at Adele.
“Oh, come on…” Natalya laughed. “It is so not the worst thing we’ve ever asked you to do.” She pointed. “Remember that time you had to climb into the septic —”
“No.” Greg shook his head. “I repressed that memory.”
“Take her out for drinks and get her talking.” Adele rolled her chair back so she could grab the remote for the television. “We need to know how Xue acquired the creature in the first place.”
Natalya stood up, and put her hand on Greg’s shoulder. “Okay, in all fairness, Greg, I know we are asking a lot.” She squeezed his shoulder. Greg really was a sweet guy. “We aren’t suggesting you take her to bed or anything. Just some drinks and talking.”
He stood at the tank, watching. The creature was a pale green today. He suspected the colors were tied to the creature’s moods, but it was also clear the creature had some conscious control. Xue touched the tank’s side, running his fingers along it gently. Then he pushed the button on the remote. The collar turned yellow. The creature went still a moment.
Then, instead of rising to the hatch, it dove to the bottom of the tank. He frowned, and pushed the button again. It was time to harvest it, and the creature knew that. It didn’t rise. Xue made a growling sound and pushed the other button.
The collar turned red, and a moment later so did the creature as it writhed and shrieked.
Greg entered the facility. Genna had been decent enough company, and under other circumstances he probably would have enjoyed himself. She’d let slip a few things, but only a few. She’d also slipped her hand into his pants a couple times, but reluctantly agreed that they should proceed with some caution due to their business relationship. Neither of them, after all, wanted to incur Mr. Xue’s wrath.
It took him a moment to realize he was slightly turned around in the building, having come in a different door than usual. He sighed, then turned around. A sound drew his attention, and he moved in to find an observation point. The creature was…
His fists clenched as he watched one of the handlers strike the creature across the face as two others held its arms. He started to fumble for his phone, then realized Xue was present, watching. Xue was watching the handlers torture the…
He swallowed, then felt his stomach twist with the urge to vomit as the creature was dragged over to some kind of pillory. It made an inhuman shrieking sound, and Greg turned away when he realized what the handlers were intending to do. It took him a moment to realize he was heading down to stop them when he caught himself.
If he went in there, he’d just get himself tazed and probably killed, and that wouldn’t do the creature any good. He needed a plan. Which meant…
After a couple deep breaths, he turned to go find the girls.