He lay flat on his back, eyes still closed, wondering if he had finally woken from an awful dream. A dream populated with small, pink screaming monkeys that had somehow buried him alive, alive and alone. That dream had gone on and on and on, worse than the worst fright he had ever had because it wasn't as frightening as it was boring.
His knuckles ached. He remembered pounding them in the small, hard cave over and over, beating against the walls to escape.
He finally opened his eyes. There, above him, was the canopy of the forest. Not quite the canopy of home but a forest just the same. That was reassuring. The forest at home wasn't completely safe but at this point he didn't care. He was exhausted.
He remembered the lake. He was thirsty and he had already tested the lake. It should be safe. He rolled over.
Something like the lake monster at home raised its head and peered at him through enormous yellow eyes. It rose above him like a scaly black cliff.
He roared his loudest in bald terror, tore a tree out of the ground and hurled it at the lake monster. As the creature reared back, he raced away at top speed, weaving between the trees to put as much distance as possible between the monster and himself.
Sirens blared and red lights flashed. All the surveillance monitors were now set to follow motion and a few were tracking, poorly, the huge grey shadow barreling through the forest. A couple, however, were still showing the scene near the island's lake, unable to find a focus on the much larger moving signal there.
"Oh my God! He's running! Shit he's doing over 70 KPH! What spooked him? He just woke up, looked up and ran! What spooked him?"
"Telemetry." The morning shift surveillance officer was almost icily calm. "Tracking. Heading south toward the beach."
"Not for us, will the mainland be able to see him?"
"He's a lot taller than most things!"
"He isn't taller than the trees. You can't see this island from the mainland at all unless you're on top of something, and there's nothing really tall close to the coast."
Amazing. The creature had lain awake for a few moments - he had known it was awake by how its breathing had changed - then rolled over, spotted him and taken off at a tremendous pace. He couldn't catch it at all. He was not fast on land, himself. He wasn't especially fast in the water, orca and dolphins could outpace him without difficulty. That was part of what made catching and eating them so entertaining, the challenge of sneaking up on them.
But this creature had simply taken off. It tore a tree out of the ground, threw it at him and was gone.
The tree had surprised him. Not that the creature had thrown something at him, that wasn't different from other encounters, sometimes with pinks which he usually left alone, small though they were.
But the small pinks were somehow capable of throwing incredibly small things, so small he couldn't even see them, but which they nonetheless threw incredibly hard and fast. Sometimes the things they threw would sting and itch and leave him irritable while the little wounds healed.
No pink had ever thrown a tree. And as big as this creature was, the tree was even bigger. It was much stronger than he had imagined. He would have to be cautious. It was possible that this new creature, with its weird almost-but-not-quite-pink smell, could be dangerous.
He thundered through the forest, heart hammering. The lake monster had somehow followed him here. Had it been the lake monster that had buried him alive? No, that couldn't be right. He never slept anywhere near the lake at home, and it couldn't venture far out of the water at all. This monster, this Not Lake Monster, was a good distance away from water. And he knew that it couldn't possibly be from the little lake where he had been drinking. That lake was just too small. But he was running too fast to think more carefully on just where this Not Lake Monster must have come from.
The forest came to an abrupt end, leaving him hustling out of the tree line before he could contain his headlong flight. He was completely across the beach and knee-deep in the water before he came to a stop.
So much water! He looked around himself quickly, looking for the monster behind him. Was it chasing? Was it hungry? Could he lead it past something else, something big and slow that it might eat instead of himself?
Nothing there. Running had winded him. He was old and he knew it, he hadn't run like that in a long time, and the last time he had been much younger. It had made him thirsty again.
He tasted the water he was standing in. He expected it to taste like ocean, no good to drink. It was such a huge expanse of water, what else could it be? It must be ocean.
It wasn't. The water was clear and cool, not ocean at all. He drank greedily, noisily, knowing he was being incautious and drinking anyway. Clear and cool...and sweet...like the lake monster's lake!
He barked alarm and backed quickly out of the water, onto the beach.
Sweet water like the lake monster's lake. This new Not Lake Monster, even bigger than the lake monster, must have come from this water.
He heard a sound and whirled around, feeling the silver fur on his back rising, brows lowering, exposing his fangs.
The Not Lake Monster was there.
He roared at it, bashing at the shingle beach, scattering stones and turf. Maybe he could frighten it away. It was too big for him to fight by himself, he and his mate could not have taken this thing together, and she had been gone for a long time now so why even think of her. He would have liked to have had her here. He might be less frightened. Why think of her now?
The Not Lake Monster reared up a bit, alarming him further and he could feel his heart pounding. His head felt like it was on fire and it seemed his eyes were becoming bigger. He braced for it to lunge at him. He would go for its neck. Attacking the neck was usually the best approach. Certainly everything that had ever tried to eat him had tried to attack his neck. He had many scars on his neck. He had felt them, running black fingers along them, remembering nightmares.
He had more scars on his arms. He would thrust his arms past its gigantic mouth and grab its neck, grab and twist and squeeze until it either ran away or stopped moving. Then he would get away.
He reared up to get a better look at the creature. It was much, much larger than a pink. It was even bigger than an orca but it didn't smell good to eat like an orca. He was not interested in eating it. It smelled bad to eat.
It roared and thrashed. That looked a little dangerous, it was obviously powerful. Getting hit by the thrown tree had rattled him and delayed his pursuit. When it hammered on the ground, he felt the tremors in his own feet. It was very strong and clearly frightened, and frightened things could behave as if they were stronger, more dangerous than they really were.
Now, finally, in good light he could see it clearly. It was nowhere as big as himself, but it was much, much faster. It was also smart, he could see it glancing quickly all around to look for opportunities to escape.
That was unfortunate. The creature seemed to feel trapped. That didn't make sense, there was all that water behind it. It could simply leap in and swim away. If it could swim anything like it could run, it would outpace him easily and be safe...not that it was in any danger from him anyway.
Maybe not. It was shaped like a pink, and pinks swam badly. It might not swim well. It might still feel threatened. He backed up, cooing softly like a singing whale, hoping to calm its fears.
"WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING."
"Don't yell at me, I just got here myself."
"Jesu-...what is...where did it come from?"
All the screens suddenly went blank.
"Now what?" He tried the switches and got no results. Then he peered under the desk to see that the power strips supplying the monitors had gone dark. They heard a high-pitched tone sounding, an uninterruptible power supply had kicked in to power the systems downstream of the power strips but the monitors remained dark. The overhead lights in the surveillance room were normally kept off, but he tried the switch now. Nothing. "Sonuva...the power has gone out." He flipped the blinds open and brassy morning sunlight streamed into the room.
"Backup genny should have fired up already. You'd hear it."
"UPS is running the computers, why'd the screens go dark?"
"Power outage but the computer's still working. Are the cameras on uninterruptibles, too?"
"Ah, hell. I have no idea. But if their power crapped out that would explain why the screens are out but the system is still on, right?"
A sharp rap came at the door, the kind of rap heard delivered by movie policemen during a tense scene. The door opened before either of them could move to answer it.
"Gentlemen, this operation is scrubbed."
"Who the heck are you?"
"You'll get some answers during your debriefing."
"But who are you?"
"I'm the one scrubbing the mission. At this moment, that's all you need to know."
Angered and prone to rashness after a tense night and sudden frights, the first man approached with his fists clenched, but not raised...not quite. "I'm gonna find some stuff out right now."
The intruder drew a matte black pistol from a concealed holster, and like the first man didn't raise it...not quite. "Sir, respectfully, I must ask you to stand down. This mission is scrubbed."
The intruder watched while the first man struggled. He appeared to be weighing the threat of the gun against the frustration of his impotence. It was a curious tableau, and he did not envy the man's situation.
The first man's face worked, and the tension slowly eased from his shoulders. He wasn't a small man but not very big either. But his anger could have made him very dangerous. The intruder could see all these details and assessed them, deciding that if it came to it he would probably have to kill the first man. The second man was more passive, almost disinterested as he looked out the window.
The first man's fists unclenched. He worked his hands convulsively, finally shaking them. He gave the intruder an angry glare and started toward the door.
"Don't move. I can't let you leave."
"Up yours. I need to pee. I either do it in the bathroom or I piss on your shoes or you shoot me and it leaks out all over the floor."
The second man snorted quietly.
The intruder thought about it for a moment and lowered his gun. "Okay, go." He turned to watch the first man stomp out of the surveillance room toward the main room, toward the bathroom, when he felt the arm snake around his neck.
Even as the pressure from the arm increased to what felt like the entire world wrapped in an uncomfortably hot, tight collar and the room was becoming tiny and dark, he had just enough time to wonder if he had been very skillfully played, or if the second man was simply taking an opportunity that he had foolishly left open. When he was carelessly dropped to the floor, he didn't feel a thing.
The Not Lake Monster had retreated slightly. That was a bit better but sometimes monsters backed up before charging. At least he would have a little more time to respond to its charge.
Whatever it did, when it did charge it wouldn't be fast. The Not Lake Monster, now that he had had a chance to observe it, was heavy. It had thick, black scales on an equally thick hide. It was clumsy on land, slow. The lake monster at home was clumsy on land, almost immobile. This Not Lake Monster was much more capable than that, but he could outrun it. He wouldn't even have to go as fast as he had gone before, he could get away from it easily.
That made Not Lake Monster a lot less frightening. If he could get away from it, that meant that if he needed to kill it to keep himself safe, it could not get away from him.
That was even better. But he did wonder if he could kill it. It was enormous, much larger than himself. He probably couldn't. But he could run away, he was confident of that.
They observed each other.
"Tell me your name."
The intruder blinked. He had been hogtied, his hands behind his back and lashed via an extension to his ankles. His legs were bent backwards. The second man, the one who had seemed so dispassionate at his entry, had his weapon in his hands and was rapping it, firmly, against the intruder's forehead. Not hard, but not too gently either.
"You must have had a terrible time in school, saddled with a name like that. No, we both know that isn't your name. Tell me your name."
"I'll shoot off one of your toes."
"Don't get too casual with that gun, you're more likely to blow your own balls off."
"I'm not the one that had a concealed carry holster tucked down his pants. I have no intention of putting this thing away, I'm going to keep it out where it's handy."
"You don't even know how to fire it."
"Glock 26, 33 round extended magazine fully loaded, pretty straightforward actually. Point and click, right?"
The man's demeanor was still unaffected. He was entirely too calm. The intruder decided the second man needed to be rattled out of his groove.
"If you hurt me the agency I work for will make you disappear."
"I'm one of the keepers of an eight-meter-high mountain gorilla. Something just literally scared the shit out of that gorilla and has chased it completely out of camera range. Right now your agency is one of the lesser concerns I have going through my head and in a moment I'm going to decide I'm not sufficiently curious about you to continue bothering with you. I don't need your full name, I just want you to tell me what your anonymous friends call you around the unmarked black water cooler. So, one last time: what's your name?"
The intruder glared silently, his teeth clenched. He flexed carefully in his bindings, trying to feel what had been used to secure him. If these idiots had used zip ties he would be able to free himself pretty quickly.
The second man thumbed off the safety of the pistol with a soft click. "There are enough rounds that I can ask lots of questions, as many questions as you have fingers and toes. And there will be a few rounds left over for follow ups."
He felt his balls crawl, a sickening feeling. He had been trained for this kind of situation but never actually experienced it. "Jim."
"Okay, good. We're getting somewhere. Hi, Jim. I'm Ted. You might know that already but I don't know if you had dossiers to study or anything like that."
"I think ours must be a little incomplete on you."
"Well, maybe. Live and learn."
Amused in spite of himself, Jim chuckled a little. "Yeah."
"I see you're testing the ropes. They're real ropes, not zip ties. I took the knife out of your ankle scabbard and your holdout weapon so don't strain yourself trying to get to them. I patted you down looking for ID and found, interestingly, nothing. No dogtags, not even a fake driver's license. And also interestingly, no keys for a vehicle of your own. That suggests you were dropped at the shore and somehow hired or stole a boat, were dropped on the island by an agency boat, or were dropped from orbit. I'm guessing that last is probably not the case but it's a weird day for everyone so I'm not taking it off the table."
Ted was uncomfortably astute, and Jim was rearranging his assessments of the personnel he had encountered thus far. He was himself a clandestine operative trying to shut down another agency's clandestine operation, why had he gone into this treating them as if they were mere civilians?
And of course "mere" civilians could harbor dangerous skills and information. He had been recklessly sloppy. If he died here, that would be just desserts for ridiculously lax practice.
The first man came into Jim's field of view. "Get anything from him yet?"
"Not yet, but he did give me a name to call him by."
"Well, that's something. 'Hey Asshole' isn't specific enough."
"Anybody might answer."
Jim chuckled again. "How in the hell did you get this job?"
The first man answered. "We're non-linear thinkers."
"That's for damn sure. Can you tell me what agency you're from?"
"Well, Jim. You won't tell us anything and now you want to ask questions. We're not quite as secretive as you appear to be but I think there should still be a measure of reciprocity, don't you? I can tell by your accent you're American, native to the southeast, probably Tennessee or southwestern Virginia. You're about forty years old, good condition, skilled in firearms but not with that knife. I don't think you're military or law enforcement or else I wouldn't have been able to get such an easy jump on you. You lost control of the scenario almost immediately. So what shadowy arm of which legitimate department sent you?"
"I asked you first."
"And you're hogtied and I have the gun."
"Movement south by southwest two hundred meters." The first man, still unable to get anything from the dead computers, was watching through the windows with an enormous pair of binoculars. "Human."
The huge not-pink had calmed somewhat. That was good. Chasing after it had made him hot, wriggling carefully through all those trees. He didn't care to be out in the sun like this, especially not when the water beckoned just beyond the not-pink. He could cool off so soon and think more clearly, but the not-pink, small as it was, was between him and the water. It was fast and strong. It probably couldn't do him terrible damage, not like some of the nightmares he had had to contend with in the past, but it was much more agile than they had ever been. And the not-pink appeared to be smarter, too. It might not do terrible damage, but he knew that intelligence was a threat far more subtle than teeth and claws, a subtlety he couldn't comprehend. The not-pink was observing, thinking. He understood smashing, crushing, biting very well, but observing and considering were unnerving. He knew what they were, but he didn't understand them very well.
His curiosity continued to seeth and bubble in his brain, and he felt even hotter. This was intolerable. The water was right there.
He backed up, hoping to show himself not a threat. He knew he was bigger than almost anything else, that virtually everything else he ever met considered him a threat. But distance made things look small, so he put some distance between himself and the not-pink. Then, choosing a new path that took him to one side of the creature on the beach, he eased slowly past it and into the water.
This was so much better. Staggering about on land was laborious, tiring. Every step heated him up a little more until he raged at his own discomfort and lashed out, bashing through everything until he got back to the water. There had been terrible dreams of blundering about on land, desperate for nothing more than to get back to the water, harassed by the tiny pinks and strange screaming birds that never flapped their wings, dreams that never seemed to end and when he did wake from them, he itched and ached where the birds and pinks had somehow stung him. But in the water was cool, quiet. He could feel the seeping heat ebbing away. This was better.
He raised his head again, keeping most of his body in the water but raising his head completely. The not-pink was still there, watching him. When his head came out the not-pink barked and backed away from the water's edge a little further. He snorted at the not-pink, submerged and swam away to wonder at what he had seen.
The Not Lake Monster had retreated into the water. First it had confronted him and though he had roared defiance at it, it had not retreated until he had stopped roaring. And even then it hadn't retreated very far. It just watched him. That was so strange he had had to stop roaring just to think about what it was doing. It didn't behave anything like the lake monster, a nightmare of teeth and neck and flippers. This was nothing like that, but it was disquieting enough.
Then it had retreated a little bit further, and then advanced past him, enormous but silent as fog, and slid into the water. Stranger still. It hadn't tried to eat anything. It certainly hadn't tried to eat him, which was perhaps the strangest thing he had ever seen. At home everything was trying to eat everything else, with himself as the only exception. He ate plants, quietly stripping leaves off trees, munching handfuls of coconuts when he could find them. It was only other animals that ate other animals, and far too many of those wanted to eat him. He had killed several in terrifying, violent encounters but that didn't seem to dissuade any of the other animals from coming after him.
The lake monster had come after him in a painful rush but after it had lunged a few body lengths out of the lake, it had given up. It had no chance at him and snapped, equally fruitlessly, at a few birds before humping back into the lake.
The Not Lake Monster had almost no neck. Certainly nothing like the lake monster's. It was short and thick. The head looked too small for its body. It had big jagged scales on its back, large muscular hind legs and a stout tail. It didn't look quite like anything he had ever seen. It resembled some things in certain ways, but he wasn't fooled. It didn't look quite like those other animals, and didn't behave like them either. This was a new thing and he would have to consider it carefully.
It lifted its head clear of the water and snorted at him. It wasn't a snort of defiance, he couldn't discern any meaning in it. It wasn't even very loud. He barked at it, also without heat. The head submerged again and he was unable to watch it further.
Ted was finally, finally rattled. "You can't be serious. Fish and Wildlife? For real?"
"For real. You have to know what an ecological disaster it is, bringing that thing here. Why couldn't you leave it alone? Why bring it here?"
Ted dithered. The first man spoke up. "At ease."
Jim allowed his surprise to show. The man's casual delivery of those two simple words radically changed his perception of the relationships in the room.
"You can call me Lieutenant Commander. If that's too much of a mouthful, leave it at LC. I won't take offense."
"Sir, can we read this guy in? He's a civvie."
"We can't tell him everything. But we seem to be on the same side. I want to know, though, Jim, how did you even know to come here?"
"We've been tracking your ship ever since it entered the St. Lawrence Seaway. We backtracked its course all the way to the Andaman Sea via satellite images. Why did you bring that thing here?"
"The island where we found the creature isn't on many maps. It doesn't usually show up on satellite..."
"...its climate is a little weird. It's pretty cloudy there all the time. But the island has been geologically unstable since the earthquake that caused the tsunami in Indonesia in '04. We're afraid the island may collapse and sink into the ocean."
"Collapse? Can an entire island even do that?"
"Well, the eggheads in charge tell me there's a couple of little ones that were completely above water just twenty years ago and aren't anymore, so it isn't something they've never heard of. But they're saying the island in question is actually the top of a pretty steep underwater mountain, and it's been getting more unstable since the quake. They say it could slump at any time, and pretty much any new earthquake that hits within five hundred miles will likely be enough to collapse it completely."
"So now you're telling me a mountain can collapse."
"Look, sir, I'm not the scientist. I'm a Navy specialist. There was something the guy said, black smokers, lave columns, angles of repose. It all sort of made sense when he said it and it still does, but I don't understand it well enough to repeat it and get it all right. But the point was that if we wanted to collect anything off that island, later might be too late and if we wanted anything then it should be a target of high value. Kong is high value."
"That's what the natives called him. Treated him like a god figure. They even wanted to sacrifice one of our scientists to it!"
"Holy crap. How did that turn out?"
"Badly. She's a judo black belt and put him on his ass. The other locals got violent, shots were fired but it wasn't a full engagement. Nobody was shooting for effect. It was pretty tense there for a few hours. We held them off with smoke grenades and tear gas. That worked pretty well."
"Yeah. Not a lot of wind. Tear gas hung around and was super effective. Kind of weird for an island. I'm not complaining."
"Okay. 'Kong' is high value. What makes him...it is a him?"
"Oh, yes sir. He's a him. Make no mistake."
"What makes him high value?"
"The island is a tropical cesspool of infectious elements. There's jungle rot like you wouldn't believe. More biting bugs than Michigan and New Hampshire combined in a land mass no bigger than Manhattan, and none of the bugs brush or floss. Fungus that rots your clothes to threads in a week. We took a raft of vaccinations before setting out and had to have boosters while in country."
"And nobody thought of testing the natives for their resistance?"
"Like I said, they didn't like us. And we couldn't just snatch them."
"No?" Jim's eyebrows had gone right up into his hair.
"No, sir! They might be cavemen technologically, but they're people. We can't go kidnapping people. That's just wrong."
"But snatching an eight-meter mountain gorilla wasn't wrong?"
"I don't see how."
"Dian Fossey's lesson is completely lost on you."