Excerpt


“Snakehead? I suppose it is as good as any other, as names go,” the supermassive fish growled. “Since you insist on remaining out of my reach, I must wonder what business you have with me.”

Anur, Rana, and Bufo croaked quietly a moment before responding. “We wish you to go,” Rana said. “Take your leave of our pond and trouble us no longer.”

“Ha!” Snakehead said. “Bold words indeed. A fish, leaving a pond? You might as well ask a spider to swim.”

“We’ve seen you go out of the water. It’s how you got here.” Bufo’s voice was low, as menacing as he could make it. “You pretend to have a weakness that you don’t really have.”

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The experiment had been a success.

By careful distillation and even more careful dehydration, Hudson had been able to reduce most common domestic animals into a simple emulsion for easy transport and storage. There had been some early problems with bovines becoming too diluted into a thin and useless ‘aqua moo,’ and even more problems with thermal expansion–an ‘aqua moo bulge’–but Hudson had finally worked everything out.

The contract had already been signed: a test batch of 100 cats in a single beaker to help eradicate a rodent problem on a distant island where transportation costs were a major factor. Everything was read to go…

…until Hudson elbowed over the very beaker he was about to ship, spilling the concentrated cat-emulsion into a bucket of water. With the one hundred cats suddenly reconstituted–and diluted–it was safe to say that the cats became very abundant indeed, and Hudson’s priorities very quickly shifted from profit to survival.

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“We’re a bit…worried…that your research funding may have been spent on some frivolous developments,” said Flodden.

“What is frivolous, really?” Dr. Imanishi said. “Research is research. Knowledge is knowledge.”

“Well, there is this substance here that your research notes ‘causes fur to regrow on bald patches if splashed but only if splashed.’”

“We need to run more tests on shaved rhesus monkeys,” Dr. Imanishi said. “It could prove to be a revolutionary new baldness cure.”

“But your grant was to study amino acids in luminescent bacteria,” Flodden said.

“Wait until phase two of those trials when the monkeys grow glowing fur.”

“I’m sorry, Dr. Imanishi, but all I’m seeing here is frivolity,” Flodden replied.

Imanishi gasped audibly, and a moment later the gasp was echoed by the baby dinosaur under a bedsheet in the laboratory corner. “You wound me with your accusations!”

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“That’s my boss!” hissed Charlotte. “That’s my boss over there! What if she sees me? She’ll know I skipped out on work!”

“Ignore her and play it cool,” said Mimi. “Who comes to a conference near a freakin’ Mediterranean beach and doesn’t take some time off?”

“No, no, no, no, no!” said Charlotte. “I need you to make me a boss decoy, a diversion, so I can slip away before she notices.”

“Absolutely not,” Mimi said. “Forget it.”

“Drinks are on me tonight if you do.”

Mimi stood up straight and saluted. “Aye-aye, sir. One boss decoy coming right up!”

Charlotte stayed on her beach chair, trying to hide behind her magazine, as Mimi scampered off. A few minutes later, she looked up and was shocked to see that the beach was now covered by a Greek shepherd’s flock. Mimi had knocked down a fence and flooded the resort with ruminants; their shepherd and his dog had followed. The flock had taken to their new environment almost instantly, quickly becoming ornery beach sheep and refusing to be moved while they rifled through peoples’ snacks or cooled their hooves in the ocean. With a grateful smile, Charlotte slipped away in the confusion.

Across the beach, her boss looked up from a magazine. “Finally, she’s gone. I hope she didn’t see me skipping the conference out here.”

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They see it out there, on moonlit nights, hopping between the low peaks of the Cullis Hills with a long scarf trailing behind. Old folk blame some parkouring kids, but those young enough to still believe in the unexpected hold out for something different, a shadow in human shape for whom the scarf is the last thing binding it to this world, the place it once roamed. Some versions of the legend even have the mysterious scarved shadow as a forlorn lover, hopping between peaks in search of its lost sweetheart.

But everyone–or at least everyone who doesn’t dismiss the shadow as some punk kid in need of a good drubbing–agrees on one point. If you see the scarf, do not take it.

Do not touch it.

Or whatever lonely shadow inhabits that place will take yours, and you will be cursed to wander until such time as you can divest yourself of the infernal scarf for another fool to take up.

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Still more ants flowed out of the rubber, which had begun to sag in places. What had once passed for a person was revealed to be just a husk, a trojan horse, as waves of insects took over the office.

“WE ARE BUG IN HUMAN SHAPE.” The individual chittering of each ant, almost imperceptible on their own, merged into a horrifying mass vocalization, a grotesque parody of speech. “WE HAVE COME TO ENVELOP YOU IN LEGS AND JAWS.”

The exterminator screamed, but he was already swollen from a hundred welts on every exposed surface, and his own immune system was busily killing him from the inside out.

“LEGGIER. JAWWIER.”

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“The fuzzy crystal?” Saffron said. “I’ve never heard it called such a thing.”

“Well, well, I suppose it’ll come as new to you that what mice haven’t heard can fill a library, hmm?” Vermilion said.

He scurried across his lab on all fours, leaving the uranium glass where it lay. Saffron craned to see what he was doing, but couldn’t quite see around the rat’s bulk. When he turned back around, he held a small crystal that was a vibrant purple. It rested on a bit of old newspaper and was, for lack of a better word, fuzzy. Little threads came off of it at both ends, like an unraveling piece of cloth.

“I suppose it is fuzzy,” Saffron said.

“Yes, and dangerous too,” Vermilion said. “The raw materials are fatal enough that they can kill even a human in small quantities. But it is relatively safe and stable thanks to my emulsion.”

“Will it really do as they say?” Saffron whispered, her eyes reflecting the intense indigo glow. “Let one of us go among the humans without fear of death?”

“If you want empty promises, go speak to a salesman,” said Vermilion. “It should work, but the mechanism of action has varied quite a bit in my experience. It might make you invisible. A mouse vapor, completely insubstantial. Could make you hyper large, even. I’ve seen them all happen, which is why you’re not to do anything with the crystal in this laboratory, you hear?”

“Y-yes,” said Saffron. “Is there anything else I should know?”

“Likely a great deal, as you’re probably as ignorant as all your kind,” Vermilion said. “But about the crystal, particularly? I’ve noticed an unusual side effect in all my tests. The eyes always stay the same. So whether you’re a puff of mousevapor or whatever, those lovely red albino eyes of yours will be ready to give you away. I’d be prepared for that.”

“All right,” Saffron said. She took the crystal from Vermilion, wrapping it in the newspaper carefully and heeding his warnings not to touch it in his laboratory. He wrung his paws in glee when Saffron told him about the antique store rubbish bin, and barely seemed to notice when she thanked him and turned to leave.

Then, just as she was almost out into the tunnel to the surface: “Out of morbid curiosity, why do you need to pass undetected among humans?” Vermilion asked. “Surely you know that they value your kind, albinos, and if the mood strikes them they will keep you in food and luxury for all of your days.”

“That is what happened to my dear love,” Saffron replied. “I am going to rescue him.”

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