HAM0101092019-06-16T14:24:26+00:00

01.01.09

“Where the fuck are they?” Anya growled and nearly crushed her phone in her hand. Carl jumped in surprise across from her and a few pedestrians nearby paused to stare. She’d forgotten where she was and let her voice go up. She blushed and leaned in towards Carl.

“Are you hearing this?” she whispered and pointed at her phone. “About the enemy aliens?”

“Yeah,” Carl nodded. His handsome face was drawn tight, eyes wide, mouth tense. “Ivy says they’re here to kill us? Right, Ivy?” Carl pressed his finger to his ear and looked up as his AI spoke to him. He went a shade paler as he listened and nodded again.

“Fucking hell,” Anya said. “What the fuck is happening Felix? Where are they?”

“The scan showed them just as they entered the atmosphere, scattered across the planet. Some of them are over the initial known locations of hosts, but many are not,” Felix replied. “One of them did appear over Manhattan.”

“So it targeted this area?” Anya asked. “How did it know to do that? And how come you can sense them anyways? I thought you couldn’t access stuff?”

“I can’t access outside systems or send any information aside from our location, but I can receive information super good! I can’t say why, but their initial signal upon entering the atmosphere was very similar to the menu’s own, except a lot more powerful. Not exactly the same, but enough for the menu to automatically try and ‘connect,’ like it did with Carl. I have a record of the menus’ initial planetfall up until the microsecond they integrated with hosts, but there is no record of the enemy aliens after their initial appearance in the upper atmosphere.”

“My menu tried to connect with enemy aliens? Can you shut that shit off please?” Anya hissed.

“Sure thing! Great idea, by the way!”

“And you have no idea where they really landed?” Anya asked.

“Nope. Sorry,” Felix said and Anya could almost hear them wincing as they were unable to answer her question.

“Are they actual aliens or just other types of menu systems?” Anya asked. Carl was muttering his own hurried questions to his AI, but keeping his voice too low for Anya to hear.

“I don’t know that either!” Felix said.

“I need to go,” Carl said and stood up from the table fast enough to knock his chair over with a bang. He spun and hurried outside. Anya stared after him for a moment before she got up, righted his chair, muttered an apology to the other customers and the staff, and bolted after him.

It was fully night now, but the road was awash with the glaring brilliance from the headlights of passing cars and glowing signs. Carl stood on the edge of the sidewalk and craned his neck out to look up the street. His foot beat an impatient tattoo as he leaned out further to try and see around the traffic.

“Hey!” Anya snapped as she followed him. “What are you doing? We need to figure out what the fuck is going on.”

“I’m gonna get out of here,” Carl said. “Ivy said one of those things landed around here probably. So I’m going somewhere outside of New York.”

“There are hundreds of those things, and a lot of them were scattered all over America. Pretty sure I saw a few south, north, and west of New York. And kind of just all over the place.”

Something sleek and black gleamed up the street and Carl waved at it.

“Did you just have your poor driver circling the block while we talked?” Anya asked.

“They’re just an android,” Carl said as he stepped into the street. Mention of a personal android chauffeur would’ve given Anya pause a few days ago, but there were much bigger concerns now.

The Rolls pulled up to the curb and Carl stepped inside. Anya shoved him into the car and forced her way inside behind him.

“Hey!” Carl snapped. “What the hell?”

“It’d be stupid as hell to split up now when something is hunting us,” Anya said and slammed the door behind her.

“You could’ve asked,” Carl said, “but whatever. Fine. Shelly, take us back to Long Island.”

“Of course, sir,” a pleasant but monotone voice said from the driver’s seat. Anya studied the driver and frowned. Shelly the android chauffeur wore an old-fashioned driver’s uniform, complete with cap and white gloves. She was short, but buxom, blond, and very pretty. Her pale skin looked a little too smooth, and her movements were a little too precise and mechanical. Her eyes met Anya’s in the rear view mirror and Anya thought they looked glassy, like what you might see on a stuffed animal.

“So the fact that your android looks like a super model with huge tits is just part of her basic design?”” Anya asked and then leaned back in the plush leather seat. Carl blushed but ignored her as he took out a crystal decanter of some sort of amber booze from a panel nearby.

“I need a drink. You?” he asked and offered her a crystal glass. Anya shook her head and Carl poured himself a double. “All right, so we stick together for now. What next?”

Anya frowned as she thought. She could just call the cops.

That’s what she would do in a normal situation. If somebody was looking for her with the intent of hurting her, she’d just call 911 and get a baseball bat for defense until the cops showed up. But she couldn’t call the cops on an alien, especially since she didn’t know where it was. They’d never believe her.

Unless they saw it for themselves.

“Maybe. We could just call the cops on it,” Anya said. Carl laughed and then stared at her as Anya frowned.

“You’re serious? Just call the NYPD on an alien invader?” he asked.

“You have almost zero combat abilities, right?” Anya asked. Carl sighed and nodded.

“I have a few points left I could use. You still have most of yours though, don’t you?”

“Yeah. But look, this is bigger than just us, and now there’s fucking aliens in New York somewhere, with millions of people around. We need to let the authorities know. I was kind of hesitant to do it earlier, but now I think we have to.”

“True,” Carl sighed and swirled his drink around in his glass. “Dammit. Fine, we call the cops on an alien. Why would they even believe us?”

“We have to find it first,” Anya replied. “Felix?”

“Yes?” they replied as they appeared beside her.

“Can you show me where the enemy alien entered the atmosphere?”

“Sure thing!” her menu sprang up in front of her now that she wasn’t in public and displayed all of Manhattan and the outer boroughs. The baleful red dot appeared above the lower east side.

She checked Twitter, Reddit, and the news sites for any signs of disturbance in the area, but didn’t find anything. She checked the news on TV, and still nothing. She would have thought a murderous enemy alien would have been on a rampage, but as far as the city was concerned, it was a normal night.

“It must have landed by now. But nobody’s noticed anything?”

“Not yet,” Carl said. “I think something landing in Manhattan would be on the news within a few seconds of it happening. Maybe it’s trying to hide? That’s good, right?”

“For now. I’d also rather not wait for the alien to start running amok in the city,” Anya said. They drove in silence for several blocks as Anya thought. Outside, the city continued on as always. None of the pedestrians or other drivers or the masses in the subway below had any idea their city had just gained a new, murderous visitor from above. Just like she’d had no idea about Carl until he all but ran into her.

“Felix?” Anya said as an idea came to her. “If you turn on that thing that tries to connect again, will we be able to find the alien?”

“Possibly,” Felix said, “but that means they would be able to find us too.”

“Shit,” Anya said. She jumped when her ear beeped. “Oh god, what now?”

“You have your first primary objective!” Felix said and the menu changed to show her.

“DEFEAT THE ENEMY ALIEN,” glowed in bold letters on her screen. Unlike her side objectives, this had additional information in smaller type below it: “Locate and destroy the enemy alien. 2 Levels, 75,000 RAC.”

“Wait, is that my reward? I get that much?” Anya asked and pointed at the screen. “Damn.”

“We get rewards for killing the alien?” Carl said beside her and brought his own menu up. It was lime green, but otherwise identical to Anya’s. “Ivy, for real?”

A hologram that looked a lot like Felix appeared on Carl’s knee. It wasn’t exactly the same: it was green, and its head was a heart-shaped leaf of some kind. Its face was minimalist and dull compared to Felix’s animated, expressive one. Its eyes were little more than horizontal lines and its mouth with a drooping bow.

“Uh, yeah,” the AI, Ivy, said in a sleepy voice. “You get…that.” It waved at Carl’s menu.

“Hell yes!” Carl said and grinned.

Anya raised an eyebrow at Carl. “Now you’re all gung-ho to kill the alien?”

“Look, I’m almost entirely out of RAC and I could always use more skill points. Especially since I know we’re being hunted now. We can still call the cops but maybe we just use them as back-up, or we let them distract the alien while we take it out.”

“Still gotta find it first,” Anya said. “Felix, can you just sporadically ping the area while we move around until we get a signal, and then stop?”

“I can absolutely do that!” Felix said. “Want me to go ahead and start now?”

“Carl?” Anya asked.

“Yeah! Shelly can just drive us around until we find it, call the cops, then boom, we get the kill,” he said. Anya hoped it would be that easy. “I’m gonna go ahead and drop the last of my points in something useful I was looking at earlier. You might want to spend all those points you’ve been saving too. Shelly, forget going to Long Island. Circle along the outer edge of Manhattan, starting with the Lower East Side.”

“Of course sir!” Shelly said. Anya rolled her eyes and then turned her attention to her menu. She’d spent the last few days agonizing over all the choices. She didn’t have to spend all her points now, but she needed to do something.

Seeing the finger appear at the tip of her finger had been amazing, and she decided that since she already had one point in the skill, a few more couldn’t hurt. She put nine points into flame dominion, bringing it up to ten. She felt a surge of heat in her chest. That warm center ignited for a moment and she gasped as its heat shot through her before subsiding again.

Her right ear beeped again.

“Skill update!” Felix said. Congratulations on hitting skill level 10 with flame dominion!”

“What’s that mean?” Anya asked as she pulled the skill up on her menu. Her list of skills now showed her progress at regular intervals:

LEVEL 1: INHERENT FLAME ATTUNEMENT AND SUN’S HEART. FEEBLE FIRE CONJURATION. FEEBLE HEAT SENSE.
LEVEL 5: BASIC FIRE CONJURATION AND MANIPULATION. BASIC HEAT SENSE. BASIC HEAT ABSORPTION.
LEVEL 10: NOVICE FIRE CONJURATION AND MANIPULATION. NOVICE HEAT SENSE. NOVICE HEAT ABSORPTION.
FLAME-ATTUNED WEAPONRY UNLOCKED IN RAC STORE- 1 FREE WEAPON AVAILABLE
SUN’S HEART UPGRADE

“Ow, Anya said and rubbed the right side of her chest, next to her sternum. The burning sensation lingered just below the surface of her skin. It didn’t hurt, but she could feel the warm, secondary heart inside her——the Sun’s Heart, as the menu called it——had changed. It wasn’t bigger, but it was hotter and more active. It had kept time with her normal heart before she had increased flame dominion, but now it was beating away at least twice as fast.
It really is like a sun, making its own fire, sustaining itself, she thought, and me, I guess.

Just like last time, she was also aware of the heat sources around her, but much further away now and with much more clarity. She could sense them only in her building before, and only as vague impressions. Now, she could sense the people outside and a few in buildings across the street, car engines on the road, and birds in a small nest outside.

There was something else entirely new that drew her attention away from her improved skill.

HEAT ABSORPTION.

Before she could just sense the sources of heat around her. Now she felt that she could tug on them a little, coax them to her. She blinked and looked at the moving heat signatures within and outside of the car. There was Carl, the heat of the engine, other drivers, pedestrians, small animals in the trees, dogs out for walks, all of them bright glowing points of light and heat.

She knew she could pull all of that heat to her if she wanted. She knew it as if she’d studied heat absorption techniques for years. The fewer barriers between her and her target, the better. The closer the proximity, even better than that, with touch being the best way. She wouldn’t get one hundred percent of a target’s heat, but she’d get a fair amount. And if she kept tugging, kept absorbing, and her target was a living thing…

“Holy shit,” Anya shuddered. Being gifted with such a flood of information at once was overwhelming enough. To have that knowledge also tell her she could act like some kind of thermal vampire was more than a little unsettling. Would it work on an alien though? What if it was cold-blooded? Or made of metal or some other material that didn’t require heat to function?

“What’s up?” Carl asked her. Anya took a single dollar bill out of her pocket and held it away from her. She looked at it, and her eyes glowed a dull orange. The bill caught fire and Carl shrugged. “Kinda cool.”

“Watch,” Anya said. She felt the heat of the flame consuming the bill, and the minuscule amount of energy lighting it up had cost her. She drew the heat back into her, and the flame went out with a hiss. She felt most of the energy return to her as her sun’s heart absorbed it.

“You can light fires and put them out? Neat?” Carl shrugged again. Anya explained the heat absorption to him and he nodded, then his eyes widened. “Wait, does that apply to people?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Uhhh,” Carl frowned and scooted away from her.

“Relax, I’m not gonna do it,” Anya said and went back to studying her menu. Calling the cops on the alien once they found it was a decent plan, but it wasn’t enough. She needed to make sure she could survive, defend herself, and get away safely if the worst-case scenario came up.

She decided she would stick to the basics: she had a magic-type skill that could be used at range, so she wanted something for up close. She also had that free weapon from hitting level 10 in flame dominion. She settled on the physical skill “POLE ARMS,” since it would give her a back-up, but still let her keep her distance from anything nasty. After she put ten points into the skill, she received several notifications that the skill had given her bonuses similar to flame dominion, in addition to “1 FREE POLE ARM AVAILABLE,” at level 10.

Next, she put ten points into the “BATTLEFIELD TACTICS” mental skill, so she would have a better idea of how to react in a fight. She’d never been even close to a real life-or-death struggle before, and while she figured the cops would be handling things once she called them, it was a relief to have a back-up.

Heaven forbid I got hurt, but just in case, she thought. She asked Felix to find any sort of healing or protection skills. Lots of armor and shield and defensive maneuvering skills in the physical category, but Anya didn’t relish running around in full plate armor, and the more technologically advanced armor was way too expensive.

It’d also just make me a bigger target, she thought.

The other skill section had magic healing spells, but they required incantations, expensive wands, or excessive time to activate. She wanted something that would nullify or negate any harm that came to her on its own.

“How about these?” Felix asked and brought up a short list of twenty-five options. Two of them immediately jumped out at Anya: dermal manipulation and regeneration. The first would allow her to harden her skin at will, essentially turning it into organic armor. The second would automatically repair any damage done at varying rates of speed.

Anya considered the two skills. The dermal skill would prevent damage, supposedly, but since she had no idea what kind of damage the alien could do to her, it was a gamble. The regeneration skill would still see her getting hurt, but whatever the damage was, it would repair, according to the basic description.

She decided on regeneration, but prayed she wouldn’t need it. She raised it to level 10 which she decided was enough to let her escape in a worst-case scenario, and confirmed the changes.

Another wave of pain washed over her as her body changed, and her head felt like it was stuck in an ever-tightening clamp. She groaned and clenched her fists and did her best to bear the agony for the few seconds it took for the menu to alter her mind and body, then fell over with a gasp when it was done.

“God, I hate that shit,” Anya breathed.

“May I make a suggestion?” Felix said as he floated over her.

“Shoot.”

“I have no guns, sorry.”

“Felix…”

“What? Oh! Still getting used to those idioms, sorry. Now that you have some new skills, it would be a good idea to adjust your stats to match, and maybe take advantage of the free weapon tokens you have in the RAC store.”

“Yeah,” Anya nodded and studied her stats. Her flame, pole arms, and regeneration skills all needed fortitude, so she bumped that up to ten. Her pole arms skill needed brawn as well, so she put in one more point so it matched her fortitude. Tactics relied primarily on awareness, so she raised that to ten too. She raised each of her remaining stats to five (intelligence was already at a seven naturally, which she felt a bit proud of), and was left with eight points. She took another deep breath and confirmed the changes once more.

When the pain had passed, she felt more different than ever. She noticed more of the tiny details of the Rolls and the city outside. She heard how the different car engines sounded around her, and saw how Carl’s eyes dilated and told her he was nervous but focused. She was more aware of Shelly’s robotic movements, and how her eyes dilated like a camera lens and less like a human.

Most of all, she felt the burning heart inside of her swell. It didn’t really grow in physical size, but she could tell there was more in there, more of that white-hot energy that coursed its way through her. She was tempted to just dump all of the rest of her points in flame dominion and fortitude and max it out as much as she could, to see how much larger that pool would grow.

That feeling made her nervous.

She wondered if it was even hers, or if it was something related to the skill itself, or maybe the menu.

Anya shook her head and closed her menu. It was enough for now. She had points in reserve, and she didn’t even plan on fighting anyway. She just needed to defend herself long enough to escape any danger.

“Ready as I’m gonna get,” Anya said.

“Good,” Felix said, “because I found the alien!” Felix brought up Anya’s map centered on Brooklyn, then pointed at a large red circle that surrounded Prospect Park. “The enemy alien is somewhere in there! I’m not able to pinpoint its precise location, but the menu is picking up some kind of signal in that circle.”

“Can it pinpoint us?” Anya asked.

“I’m not certain,” Felix replied and shrugged. “I would guess it probably can though, if we’re pinging it.”

“Okay, turn our broadcast signal or whatever it is off,” Anya said.

“Sorry Shelly, new change of plans,” Carl said. “Can you take us to Prospect Park?”

“Of course, sir,” Shelly replied and swung the Rolls Royce around a corner and drove towards Brooklyn.

“What do you think it’ll look like? The alien, I mean,” Carl said.

“Not sure. Not even sure it’s an alien. It might just be another type of menu system that latched onto somebody,” Anya replied.

“Another human? Do we still have to kill them then?”

“I don’t care what we ‘have’ to do, I’m not killing another human being. If it’s some freaky alien thing, then yeah, probably. But if it’s just a person like us that got hit with another menu out of nowhere, then no, I’m not going to hurt them.”

Anya paused and looked up from her menu at Carl.

“And you aren’t either,” she said.

“I definitely do not want to kill any people,” Carl said and put his hands up. “Even if they gave me a million RAC. Not worth it.”

Anya nodded, relieved. “Glad to hear it.”

“I did get a pretty neat gun though,” Carl said. He held up a sleek, chrome pistol that he must have gotten off the RAC store while she had been allocating her points. Carl flicked a switch on the side of the weapon and it hummed to life. Anya instantly felt a tremendous source of heat in the handle of the gun and raised her eyebrows.

“What kinda Men in Black shit is that?” she asked.

“Plasma pistol,” Carl said. “I put my last few points into the plasma armaments skill and had juuuust enough RAC to buy this baby. The core superheats tiny shards of tungsten from the clip and fires them out. The core should last a year, and the menu said the tungsten clip has about a thousand shots worth so I’m good for ammo. You got anything besides your fire magic?”

Anya explained her pole arm and regeneration and battle tactics choices. Carl nodded and looked impressed.

“You got a spear or something yet?” he asked.

“Wasn’t sure if it would fit inside your car. I’ll get one once we’re in the park,” Anya replied. “And just so we’re clear, I’m not planning on fighting. This is just to make sure that I can take care of myself enough to get away and regroup.”

“Cool,” Carl said as he ran a hand through his shampoo-commercial-quality hair. “That’s my plan too.”

“We’re here,” Anya said as the Rolls pulled to a stop along Flatbush Avenue. The alien was somewhere in the large circle that encompassed everything on Anya’s map from that entrance almost to the dog beach. They could be searching for a while, but Anya doubted it. The thing was supposed to be hunting them as well.

Anya stepped out of the Rolls and onto the sidewalk. The Flatbush entrance to Prospect Park was a wide open square of patched asphalt and broken concrete tiles that surrendered to the winter-ravaged skeletons of trees beyond. In the spring and summer, it was a lush spread of emerald, in fall, it was a riot of botanical flames, red and yellow and orange that burned themselves out over the slow autumn months.

But in winter, and especially this late at night, the trees resembled nothing but bony fingers clutching at the dark shroud of the overcast sky. The meager light of lamps within the park only served to further outline the macabre display.

Prospect Park didn’t have quite as rough a reputation as Central Park at night, but still, Anya wouldn’t have dared to go there before her change, even with somebody else. Even with her new height, strength, and powers, the park still gave her an uneasy feeling beyond the fact that there was an alien somewhere in there. It was a place that was supposed to be full of people walking dogs, taking pictures, playing baseball, hiking along the pathways, and making it a bustling hub of activity.

But it was still.

And it was silent.

And something was in there.

“Fuck,” Anya said, and the word left her mouth in a huff of steam.

“What’s that?” Carl asked as he stepped out after muttering something to Shelly the android.

“Nothing,” Anya replied. “Just wanna get this over with. Felix?” the AI had disappeared from view as soon as she left the Rolls, but he responded within her ear right away.

“How can I help?”

“Let me know if anything changes. If there’s any signal of the alien on the menu or anything else related to it. Okay?”

“You got it!”

Anya brought up her menu and scanned the pole arms available, now that she was out of the car. Too many options, too many choices. She just picked a basic metal-hafted spear. It was only 250 RAC, so she kept her free token. It appeared in the air beside her and she caught it before it clanged to the ground. It was almost as tall as she was, and its sharp tip gleamed under the streetlights.

“Ready?” she asked Carl. When he nodded, they both and strode into the park. He had his hand up, near his side holster, but hadn’t withdrawn the plasma pistol yet. Anya felt the heat of its core next to Carl’s chest, inches away from his own heart.

“Hang on,” Anya said. “I’m gonna try to sense the alien thing now that we might be close enough.”

“With your menu?” Carl asked. Anya shook her head.

“No. Heat sense. It’s a flame dominion thing. Gimme a sec.” Anya didn’t need to close her eyes to use her heat sense, but she found it helped her focus. The points she put into her Awareness stat must have helped her with that as well, because she found it much easier to differentiate and pinpoint areas of heat, even small ones. She reached out and felt…

Birds in a tree nearby, and hundreds more farther away, fading as the range of her sense tapered out. They were all tiny candles in the cold darkness, bright but flickering and fragile.

A small animal——a squirrel?——inside a knothole, its light stable but dim.

A collection of signatures great and small all close together. That would be the Prospect Park Zoo.

The hundreds of human heat sources at her back, scattered throughout the buildings along Flatbush Avenue and beyond.

But there were no people in the park within her range, and nothing that she would consider “alien,” at all.

“I don’t——” Anya started to say and then stopped. A group of birds almost at the edge of her range shot up into the sky like cinders flaring up from a furnace. Something had startled them, but there was nothing else nearby.

“What is it?” Carl asked.

“Maybe nothing, just wait,” Anya said.

Another flock of nesting birds took flight to the right of where the first flock had flown away. A moment later, a third group of birds also took wing, and to the right of the second group.

“Something is scaring the birds, and it’s moving in that direction, towards the Picnic House,” Anya said and pointed. She and Tori had stopped there a few times when they had taken a day to get out and wander around.

“So? Could be a stray cat,” Carl said.

“Whatever is scaring them is invisible to my heat sense, meaning it doesn’t give off heat.”

“Meaning that since it’s winter, it should be dead if it’s cold-blooded,” Carl said.

“Yeah,” Anya nodded. “Or something else that doesn’t give off heat.”

“Call the cops?” Carl said and took out his phone. Anya bit her lip. Phoning the cops and going back home was tempting. She didn’t know what to tell them, though. She didn’t have enough information to make sure they would find the alien. Besides, she still wasn’t certain it was an alien, based on what Felix had told her. It could be a person like her with alien tech in their body that they never asked for.

But then why doesn’t it have a heat signature? She thought. Maybe because they changed their body like you, or maybe because heat sense can’t pick them up for another reason.

“Not yet,” Anya said. “Once we see it. Or them. Or whatever.”

“Okay,” Carl shrugged. “But I’m outta here and calling them up if shit goes down.”

“I’ll be right behind you,” Anya said as she walked past the entrance and into the park itself. She followed the path past the carousel. It was housed inside a squat brick building, its shutters closed to protect the ride from vandalism and weather. Anya was grateful, as she didn’t want to be confronted with a frozen stampede of shadowy horses. The park was creepy enough already.

She kept using her heat sense, just like her ears or her eyes, trying to stay aware of any changes in the animal life around the park as they passed the carousel. The trees became denser as they left the main pathway and stepped onto one of the smaller, branching trails that wound their way toward the Ravine and the Picnic House beyond. It was almost possible to forget she was in Brooklyn now, and not in some faraway forest. The trees, even absent their leaves, created a crooked cage of shadows that blotted out the light from the city and left her almost blind.

It would be easy enough to make a fire and illuminate the whole area…and give their position away at once. She hoped Carl wasn’t foolish enough to use his phone flashlight or anything else. He didn’t, and he was just as quiet as she was.

Anya sensed a few squirrels about thirty yards ahead of her, and watched as they both bolted up a tree and startled several birds. She froze and put a hand out to stop Carl. He froze behind her and pulled out his plasma pistol and his phone.

There was a whisper of dry leaves, the crunch of a snapping twig, and then a voice. It was a high, childish voice, full of sugary sweetness and innocence.

“I know my ABCs, do you?” the voice said.

Anya squinted at the voice, confusion replacing the growing surge of terror inside of her.

“What the hell?” Carl whispered behind her.

“Sharing is caring,” the voice said a minute later. It had moved farther away from them, towards the edge of the trees and a lamp post. Anya squinted and saw a squat, cartoonish figure walk into the circle of light with an awkward gait.

“Is that…a puppet?” Anya asked.

The thing that emerged into the light of the lamp post looked like it had stepped off the set of a children’s educational program. It was only about three feet tall, with long and wiggly limbs attached to a fat, ovoid torso that was topped with an oblong head that had tiny circular ears on either side. It was covered in shaggy purple fur and even though it faced away from Anya, she could see the edge of a bulbous felt yellow nose when it tilted its head to the side.

“I love you!” it said as it paced to one side and then the other.

“Is this a joke?” Carl asked. Anya used her heat sense and couldn’t detect anything from the walking, talking puppet. It was just as cold and lifeless as the rocks around it. It really did just look like a puppet had walked off some kids show for a late-night stroll through the park, muttering catch phrases to itself.

Then it turned to face them and Anya’s stomach clenched.

Its eyes were wrong.

Everything else about the puppet made it look like any other cuddly, educational mascot, except for the eyes on top of its head.

Those were real. They were glistening, wet, veined orbs that glared out with inhuman intensity and awareness. They had red irises and horizontal, goatish pupils. They scanned the dark trees and the park beyond as the puppet turned in a slow circle.

“Holy shit,” Carl breathed. “That is weird.”

“Shh,” Anya hissed. No question about it now. That was definitely the alien. Anya wondered why the hell an alien from another world looked like a puppet from a kid’s show, but decided she could ponder the whys and hows later. She had a plan and she needed to stick to it.  “All right, I’m calling the cops. Tell them where it is, then I’m going back to the entrance to meet them.”

“What, why?” Carl whispered. “It’s a creepy puppet. No weapons, no claws, no nothing. I’ll shoot it and bam, level-up city.”

Anya glared at Carl. “You cannot be that dumb,” she said. “I don’t have any weapons either and I can summon fire. That thing could do the same, or worse.”
“I’m not dumb. My intelligence is probably higher than yours,” he said. Anya rolled her eyes as she took out her phone. Her hand froze over the number pad as she heard another branch snap and looked up.

The puppet alien was looking in their direction again, but it wasn’t just scanning the trees this time. It was glaring right at them.

“Shit,” Anya said. “It heard us.”

“No choice then,” Carl said and whipped out his pistol. Anya started to dial 911, but Carl fired off a shot before she could hit send. She winced at the noise, a hissing shriek of heat and what sounded like compressed air, followed by a metallic whining sound. A bolt of yellow light shot from the pistol and slammed into the fat torso of the puppet alien, right in its center mass.

The puppet fell back without a sound as the bolt of plasma energy left a charred hole through its gut and a smoking pit in the ground behind it. It twitched and Carl fired at it again two, three more times and left more smoking holes in the creature.

It didn’t move.

“Yeah!” Carl said and pumped his fist into the air. He twirled the pistol around his finger and blew smoke off the barrel but didn’t holster it. He took a step towards the fallen alien, Gun still trained on it.

“No way,” Anya said and squinted at the smoking ruin of the puppet. “That was it?”

“I guess,” Carl said and took another wary step toward the puppet. He was still about ten yards away from it, gun trained on its body.

“Don’t get any closer,” Anya said.

“Not planning on it,” Carl said. “Ivy? Did I get the reward for killing it?”

The green AI materialized beside Carl with an indifferent shrug. “I dunno,” it said. “Menu doesn’t have anything different.”

Carl shot the puppet again and one of its arms flew off. The puppet remained a smoking, motionless lump of shaggy purple felt.

“Well maybe we gotta burn it or something,” Carl said. “Good thing you——”

Carl smiled at Anya but he trailed off when he dropped his plasma pistol. Anya saw it fall and hit the ground with a heavy thud. Its chrome-plated surface glinted under the nearby lamp posts, and Anya could sense the heat within its power core. Something was attached to the grip of the pistol though, and it emitted its own source of rapidly fading heat.

“Huh?” Carl asked and looked down.

It was his hand.

Carl’s right hand still gripped the pistol, finger near the trigger. It had been lopped off clean and straight from his wrist, and Anya stood in shock as she saw and sensed a gout of his hot blood gush from the stump at the end of his right arm.

“What? What?” Carl asked and took a step back, two, tripped and fell back as he held his bleeding stump in front of him. Anya saw two white circles of bone amidst the red oval of exposed muscle and tissue and she almost vomited.

It’s not dead, she thought and shot her wide, terrified eyes to the prostrate form of the puppet alien.

It had changed. Its arm had returned along with two others from the hole in its chest. One of its chest arms was more visceral than the other two. It was still covered in purple felt, but now red, glistening sinew could be seen beneath it, along with barbs of white bone-like thorns on a gore-soaked vine.

“I’ll teach you how to count to ten,” the puppet said as it rose up. Its living eyes throbbed with malice as it glared at Carl, then at Anya.

“Fuck,” Carl said. “Anya, my hand, my hand, it, it-it-it-it——” Carl’s voice wavered as he stared at his stump and tried to scramble to his feet.

Grab him and run, call the cops, some distant, rational part of her mind said. It was a whisper in the middle of the panicked maelstrom of a thousand other thoughts.

Leave him.

Blast the thing.

Blast them both.

Shouldn’t have come here.

Gonna die.

Gonna die.

Gonna die.

Grab him and RUN! The rational whisper became a stern shout and Anya lunged toward Carl as he finally got his feet under him.

“An——” he said and then there was a blur of purple movement that turned his head into a smear and the air around him into a firework of blood, bone, and brain. One second and Carl was looking at her with naked animal panic, and the next, everything above his neck was gone, and the trees and ground around him were soaked. His blood looked like oil in the dark, but Anya could sense the heat of it before the winter night sapped it.

“Whoa,” Ivy said. “Bummer,” and then the green AI faded from existence.

Anya threw herself back, away from the horror of Carl’s headless body as it collapsed to the cold ground. One of the puppet alien’s hands was soaked in what remained of Carl’s head, and Anya saw a couple of his teeth stuck on the fluffy fingers. Its arm had stretched nearly ten yards, exposing more wet sinew and bone thorns beneath the felt. The arm retracted to its original size as the puppet alien drew the arm back, then turned to face her.

“Let’s be best friends,” it said and took a step forward.

The rational whisper, the chorus of adrenaline-fueled screams in her head, all agreed there was only one choice now. Anya leapt to her feet, and with all the new strength she had gained, she fled.

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