“Do we have any resources?” Natalya paced back and forth.
“No.” Adele rubbed the back of her neck.
“Do we have anyplace nearby we can get resources?”
“No.” Greg leaned into the couch, letting his head fall back.
“Is there anyone we could call that could get us resources?”
“No.” Adele shook her head.
“Is there anyone we could call that would even believe us?”
“No.” Greg stared up at the ceiling.
“Right.” Natalya continued pacing. “Okay, so, hurdle number one. Getting into where the creature is without being caught.” She ticked off points on her fingers. “Hurdle number two: convincing the creature to come with us quietly and quickly, without alerting anyone.”
“What are the odds that collar doesn’t have some kind of tracking device in it?” Greg sat up.
“Pretty much non-existent.” Adele sighed.
“Hurdle number three…” Natalya glared at them. “Finding a vehicle we can transport the creature and Adele in —”
“We steal that van.” Adele reached into her pocket and held up a set of keys. “I mean, that’s not what I intended when I asked for these, but in retrospect…”
“Hurdle number four…” Natalya took a deep breath. “We are in Nebraska.”
“In retrospect him putting this facility in Nebraska was rather clever of him.” Adele sighed.
“Right.” Greg sat up and looked at Natalya. “What’s the plan, then?”
Natalya blinked. She glanced at Adele, who was also looking at her expectantly. “Uh…” She swallowed. “Why am I the mastermind here?”
“You’re in charge?” Adele shrugged.
“Greg’s older.” She pointed at him.
“Nat, do you remember about seven years ago you told me I should stop buying Nestle brand chocolate because they were anti-environmentalist and exploited children?”
“Do you remember what I said?”
“Something about prying your kit-kat bars from your cold dead fingers?” She frowned.
“How’d that work out for me?” Greg raised an eyebrow.
“I…” Natalya stared at him for a moment, then shrugged. “Poorly.”
Xue looked over the samples Natalya was sending for testing. He frowned, then removed the sample that included the creature’s blood. “Go ahead and send the rest. If it does use pheromones to communicate, they could also be used to lure others.”
“Yes, sir.” Genna began securing the box. Then she glanced up at him. “I had dinner and some beer with Greg.”
“I know.” He smiled. “But I am pleased you told me.” He shrugged. “How did it go?”
“He’s sweet.” She twitched a shoulder as she went to the printer to get the shipping label. “Adele has only been in that chair for about six years. She was crippled on the same boating trip where Natalya’s brother was killed.”
“That…” Xue frowned. “I knew Adele hadn’t always been in the chair but I didn’t realize it was the same incident.” He folded his arms. “Greg was driving the boat?”
“He feels really responsible for those girls.” She put the shipping label on the box, then looked up at him. “As long as the girls are invested in the project, he’ll stay.”
That was something of a relief. He’d been slightly concerned about the empathy the young man seemed to be developing with the creature. The girls, however, were much more professional and scientific in their approach. “Good.” He nodded. “Just to be safe though, did you…”
“He has some friends from his time in the Navy, but aside from the girls there doesn’t appear to be anyone he is close to. A couple ex-girlfriends…” She glanced down at the document on her desk. “And two ex-boyfriends, interestingly enough.”
“Huh.” Xue shook his head. “Would not have thought he was a poof.”
“Me either.” Genna made a show of fluffing her blouse like she was trying to cool down.
“You’re not…” He raised an eyebrow.
Genna just rolled her eyes. “He’s something sporty you take off the lot and test drive the shit out of…” She shook her head. “But not something you drive home.”
“I love you honey, but we’re going to need to move fast, and that means…” Natalya gave her an apologetic look.
“No, I get it.” Adele sighed. “I really do.”
“And since Nat is going to be with you in the van…” Greg looked up from where he was tucking a swiss army knife into his vest.
“Wait…” Natalya turned toward him. “What?”
“Ha.” Adele pointed at her.
“I am not —”
“Nat.” Greg stood. “We don’t want to draw attention, and you kind of draw the attention of those guys. We also don’t have time to introduce him to you, so we stand a lot better chance of getting him to come with if it’s just me. Plus, someone is going to have to drive the van.”
“I…” Natalya held up her hand. Then she narrowed her eyes. “Shit.”
“Dammit, Greg…” Adele sighed. “I wanted to point out that flaw in her plan.”
“It’s otherwise a good plan.” Greg patted Natalya’s arm in a reassuring gesture, then ducked when she took a swing at him.
“Alright, let’s get moving.” Natalya sighed.
“Greg…” Adele gestured at him. When he approached, she reached up, grabbed the front of his shirt, and yanked him down so their faces were level. “Do not, under any circumstances, get yourself captured, injured, or killed, because if you do, so help me, I will murderlize you.”
“Understood.” He nodded.
He felt the light vibration and heard the sound that someone was tapping the water above. Yalathanil tilted his head. The collar hadn’t beeped, and they’d only put him back in the tank a short while ago. He hesitated, then swam to the hatch. The fringed creature, Greg, was there. Cautiously, Yalathanil surfaced. The creature was alone. Had it understood?
“Hey…” Greg stepped back a little, and his voice was very soft. “Look, I need you to trust me now. Put your legs on, and come with me. Quiet and fast, alright?” The creature stood. “Do you under —”
The creature cut off as Yalathanil launched himself out of the water. He shifted as he did, and landed on legs. He stared at Greg for a moment, then turned to look at the door. “Right.” Greg walked over to a small bundle, then handed Yalathanil a pair of black leg-coverings and some kind of chest covering with a part designed to go over his head. “Put these on, alright? Please?”
Greg had to help him a little with the top layer. He could hear the creature’s heart beating rapidly, and smell a change in it’s scent. Greg was scared. He reached out and gently stroked Greg’s fringe. Greg gave him a startled look, then one of the peculiar grimaces that seemed to signify pleasure on the part of humans. “Okay. Let’s go.”
Yalathanil pointed to his collar, and saw Greg nod. “I know. It’s probably got some kind of tracking device in it, but if I take it off now it will set off an alarm that —” Yalathanil touched his arm, then pointed at the door. Greg’s eyes widened. “It’ll set off an alarm if you go through the…” Greg made a series of growling noises, then went to the door. “Okay, hold on…” He looked over something on the door, then pulled a small tool out of a pouch in his outer covering. “Okay. Now.” Greg gestured to him. “Got to hurry, but that will slow the response.”
This creature was in as much danger as he was. He would have to trust Greg. Yalathanil nodded, and followed. The collar failed to activate as he went through the door. Yalathanil had to stop himself from making a gleeful sound. He reached out and stroked Greg’s fringe again, nodding to him.
Together they headed down the hallway.
“Sir…” Xue looked up as Edward barged past Genna into the office. “Sir, we have a situation.”
“What is —”
“The creature isn’t in its tank.”
“And someone sabotaged the alarms.”
Xue stood. “Locate our guests. Get the creature on GPS and —”
“Got it.” Genna was already working on her computer. She pointed at the screen. On one of the security cameras two figures were moving toward a van. The handicapped accessible van he’d provided for his guests. “Sir, they are already outside the fence.”
“Get them. I want the creature back alive.” Xue glared at Edward.
Greg examined the collar. “Okay, I’ve disabled the remote, I think…” He glanced at the girls. “But there is probably a GPS in this somewhere and I’m going to need more than a set of wire-cutters to get it off him.”
Adele was still staring at the creature, a huge smile on her face. The creature was staring back, head tilted curiously. He’d been slightly startled to find Adele and Natalya in the van, but as soon as Greg had identified them the creature had calmed and gotten into the van. He was showing no signs of hostility toward the girls, though he had been utterly fascinated by Adele’s hat. Adele had offered it to him, and he was currently wearing it. The sight was rather comical. “I’m Adele.” She pointed at herself.
“He definitely understands us.” Natalya glanced in the rear-view mirror as she drove.
“That’s clear.” Adele nodded, then pointed at Natalya. “That’s Natalya. And you’ve already met Greg.” She pointed at Greg. “Alright. We are heading south now. Straight shot down to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s uh, tropical, so if you need colder water or…” She frowned, then grabbed her tablet and pulled up a map of the world. “Okay, what part of the ocean do you live in?”
The creature peered at the map curiously, but gave no response. “What are the odds he can even answer that question?” Natalya kept driving. “I mean, he hasn’t exactly seen the world from above, has he?”
“Oh.” Adele sighed. “Okay, well, we stick with the plan. Get him to Greg’s boat, and then he can dive in whenever it suits him.”
“Drive faster, Nat.” Greg sat back. “They’ll be coming after us soon, if they aren’t already.”
“I thought you disabled their security?” Natalya shook her head.
“I disabled a couple sensor points and alarms, all of which will raise red flags in a properly designed system. Plus, like I said…” He pointed at the collar. “Probably has a GPS.” He sighed. “I’ll need a dremel or something to get that off without hurting him.” He reached under the seat and grabbed one of the bottles of water, then offered it to the creature. “We don’t have a mister or humidifier, but you’re wearing sweat pants. You can get them wet if you need to, that should help.”
After a moment of the creature turning the bottle over and staring at it blankly, Greg winced. Then he took it back, opened it and demonstrated the lid, then offered it to the creature again. The creature played with the lid a few moments before taking a drink. “Do you think he’s related to bull sharks?” Natalya guided the van around a turn. “I mean, they can handle fresh and salt water, and so can he.”
“I’m still not a hundred percent convinced he originated on planet Earth.” Adele shook her head.
“They are heading south on highway 7.” Genna pointed.
“Alright. Get people there.” Xue sighed. This could turn into a disaster. If anyone saw the creature…
“We’ve got people heading…” Genna suddenly let out a few curses, making Xue blink.
“Sir, the van has one of those electronic remote security systems. It’s to unlock it but…” She turned toward him. “It can also turn the van off.”
“Genna, give yourself a 5% raise on your next paycheck.” He grinned. “And disable that van.”
Natalya started to turn the wheel as the road curved, and then all the electronics on the front suddenly went dead. The engine shut off. The vehicle itself continued to coast, but she couldn’t get it to turn back on. “Oh. Shit.”
“Nat?” Adele turned in her chair.
“They remotely killed the van.” She stared at the steering wheel. “Oh shit, they remotely killed the van.” She turned back toward her friends. “I didn’t plan for that, I…” She saw the farmhouse in the distance. “Okay. Farm. Farms have trucks. Farms have shitty trucks not worth stealing so they tend to leave keys in them because it takes a mechanic to start one but Greg is an engineer so…” She pointed. “That way.”
Greg immediately moved to open the door. “Shit. Lift won’t work with the vehicle —” He glanced at the creature. “Give me a hand here.”
To her surprise, she saw the creature move to assist Greg with the chair, maneuvering Adele out of the vehicle. “Guys, they’ll be coming and we can’t leave a trail.”
“Fuck.” Greg shook his head. “New plan. Put her on my back.” He gestured toward the creature. The creature blinked at him, but lifted Adele out of the chair effortlessly. Adele swallowed as the creature put her on Greg’s back.
“Into the corn.” She pointed, then started toward the farmhouse. Her companions followed.