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Lisa Criss Griffin
Cindy Edwards covered her daughter’s ears as the nightly screaming began. The horrific, guttural shrieks piercing the desert air caused her to shudder in spite of herself. She could only imagine what those monstrous, so called scientists were doing to the poor creature imprisoned in the laboratory at the far end of the FEMA camp.
She and her daughter, Kaylee, arrived two months ago, having been discovered by a roving patrol of Federal thugs hired to hunt down hybrids still in hiding. Her husband Rance found a good hiding place for their family outside the city in the desert after the pandemic vaccine caused their abominable transformation into lizard/human hybrids. The secluded rocky overhang covered a deep alcove barely visible to the naked eye. A tiny, underground spring slowly dripped in the back corner of their hideaway. They ate insects, plants and other smaller reptiles to survive.
Her son Grayson was out on a hunt when they were discovered. It was Cindy’s fervent prayer he escaped notice. She hoped he had sought out his father, who made the dangerous trek across the desert over eighteen months ago to the lab he shared with his fellow scientist Wes. They were both genetic research scientists. If anyone could help Rance find a cure for this diabolical travesty, it would be Wes. Rance had promised he would return for them, cure or no cure.
Cindy was hopeful Rance and Wes were having some success when he didn’t return right away. But as the months rolled beyond a year, Cindy secretly began to lose hope. It was possible her husband never even made it to the lab. Her despair deepened when a patrol of Hybrid Hunters discovered their alcove. The Hunters unceremoniously prodded her and Kaylee into the back of a military transport vehicle and dumped them off at this nightmare of a FEMA camp.
The smooth adobe wall of the hut they shared with nine other hybrids was cool against the iridescent green scales covering Cindy’s body. She gazed down at her reptilian hands covering the sides of Kaylee’s shimmering head. Their flowing, gorgeous hair was long gone. She wondered if their beautiful tresses were still lying in elongated clumps on the bathroom floor in their former home in the city. At least their eyes were still human.
Fingers of light from a full moon crept through the open, barred window of the hut, illuminating an olla resting in a recessed shelf. A Camp Enforcer filled several ollas in the hut with drinking water every morning, along with a platter of food for the day. The Enforcers appeared to be fully human, but something was off. It had taken Cindy several weeks of covert study to put her finger on it.
The Enforcers had no emotional reaction to anything. In fact, their behavior seemed programmed and predictable. Their responses to questions or requests were made with intelligent, but concise replies. And their eyes. Something about the eyes of the Enforcers was highly disconcerting. Their gazes seemed void and empty, with only an occasional flicker of humanity. Cindy harbored a suspicion the Enforcers were also victims of scientific tinkering, much like the hybrids. Only they had been retrofitted with some form of artificial intelligence, rendering them useful and completely obedient to their programmers.
The horrific shrieking from the laboratory on the other end of the camp ended abruptly. The poor soul. At least he was out of his misery now. His name was Shawn. He had been taken from their hut a couple of days earlier, picked at random by an Enforcer. It always took the scientists a couple of days to finish their findings before they sent an Enforcer for another hybrid.
Cindy cradled Kaylee, who was trembling in her arms. She had racked her brain for two months trying to come up with a plan to escape this place. But, escape attempts were not tolerated. She had seen too many hybrids murdered outright as they tried various methods of escape. To her knowledge, no one had been successful. The Enforcers were well programmed and armed with tasers and guns. Cindy sighed, allowing herself to relax against the smooth adobe wall, knowing she would need some sleep for the gardening work she and Kaylee were assigned to perform during the daylight hours.
The oasis in the middle of the compound was a thing of beauty. Large fruit trees offered enough shade to allow flowers interspersed with vegetables to grow successfully as long as the clusters of sunken ollas were refilled with water every day. Every bit of the oasis, including the fertile soil, had been brought in and constructed as not only a food source, but a well manicured, flowering landscape. It struck Cindy as odd that the unemotional Enforcers and the callous scientists seemed so taken by the lush greenery and colorful flowers. For that very reason, she and Kaylee made sure every plant they cared for thrived.
A strong thunderstorm blew in unexpectedly the next day, catching Cindy, Kaylee and an Enforcer out in the oasis. Large drops of rain pelted them. Thunder boomed and seemed to shake the ground. Lightning flashed and crackled in the atmosphere. Cindy could almost feel the electrical charges skittering across her scales. The Enforcer prodded them out of the oasis towards their adobe hut. There was a blinding flash of lightning, followed by a groan and a thud behind them.
Cindy turned, curious as to what had happened to their Enforcer. He was lying flat on his back on the ground, a surprised expression playing across his face. She leaned over him, drawn by the expression in his eyes.
“What am I doing here? And…what, are you?”
“My name is Cindy. Do you know where you are?
“No, not really. Am I supposed to take care of you? Is this a zoo?”
“In a manner of speaking. What is your name?”
“Ummmm…I’m not…sure. Tom? Yes, that sounds right. My name is Tom.”
Tom’s face turned white with a hint of green. He rolled his head towards Cindy and vomited, his body jerking uncontrollably.
“I don’t…understand. Cindy. I…don’t…understand….”
The life faded from Tom’s eyes. The strange, vacant stare returned, but it appeared dead too. Cindy had a sudden revelation in the brunt of the storm. She snatched Tom’s taser and dropped it into an empty olla. She tucked the olla under her arm before she and Kaylee made their way through the driving rain back to their hut. She hid the olla under the blanket she and Kaylee shared, taking care that their hybrid roommates streaming into the hut behind them were none the wiser.
Cindy stood by the barred window, watching the Enforcers. They seemed to be walking about erratically in the rain. Nobody appeared to notice Tom, who was lying motionless in the mud. Electricity crackled through the atmosphere as thunder boomed overhead. An Enforcer walked straight into the side of an adobe hut and fell down. Cindy turned towards her fellow hybrids huddled against the far wall.
“Something is wrong with the Enforcers! One just walked into a wall and fell down. Kaylee and I are getting out of here. Who wants to go with us?”
Hope flared briefly in the hybrids’ eyes, before their collective fear of the Enforcers killed it. No one wanted to take the chance on being gunned down or bludgeoned to a pulp, left to rot in the hot sun for a few days as a reminder to all the inmates. There was no escape.
Cindy grabbed Kaylee’s arm, the olla and stepped out of the hut into the driving rain. As they passed Tom, she thought she heard him call her name. Cindy froze and looked at the Enforcer lying in the mud. He blinked, and reached a shaking hand up towards her.
“I remember. I remember, Cindy! Help me, and I can help you get out of this hellhole! What the hell have these monsters done to us?”
Tom struggled to his feet, his eyes fully human…and angry. Kaylee stepped behind her mother, her scaly fingers palming the taser from the olla.
“We are getting the hell out of here. You can try to stop us, or if you want out, you can join us. Just to be clear, if you attempt to impede our leaving in any way Tom, I will have to hurt you.”
“No, no, you don’t understand. I want out too! I am remembering things now. I am just as desperate to leave as you are! I can help. I have access to the trucks outside the camp. Okay? Please! They will reprogram me if they find out the electrical storm fried my AI implant!”
The raw emotion in Tom’s eyes convinced Cindy his plea was genuine.
“Okay, Tom. Let’s get going.”
The Enforcer escorted the two hybrids across the compound to a hidden side door behind one of the adobe huts. He entered a code. The door unlatched. The three of them slipped through the door into a covered walkway adjacent to a parking lot. A thick fog bank was forming, cutting visibility dramatically. A variety of military vehicles were parked there, although the pounding rain made it even more difficult to distinguish differences. Tom selected a smaller transport with a covered bed in the back, open to the cab on the inside.
Cindy and Kaylee climbed into the back of the truck Tom selected, still terrified he would turn them in. Tom crawled into the driver’s seat, the stress of being partially electrocuted causing his hands to shake. The three of them sighed in relief as the motor turned over and purred with power. Tom pulled the vehicle out of the lot, straining to see where he was going through the fog, rain and lightning. The last thing he wanted was to drive into the sand and get stuck.
The military truck pulled onto the road, the FEMA camp eerily disappearing into the swirling fog behind them. Thirty minutes later, they reached a T intersection.
“Well, ladies. Which way do we go? Left or right?”
“Do you know where the city is?”
“I’d say it is about three hours from here, if we go left. No offense, but it would be crazy to go there, Cindy.”
“No, my husband’s lab is about an hour out of the city. Rance is a genetic researcher. He is working on a cure for this…this horrible hybridization with his lab partner, Wes. We would be safe with him, or at least have a chance to reverse this horrendous curse!”
“Mmmkay. Left it is. Cindy, keep an eye on me. I’m feeling strange, but I think I can get us to where you want to go.”
It was almost dusk when they reached the turn off to the laboratory. They were a couple of miles down the road to the lab when Tom hit the brakes. The truck skidded to a halt. He turned around, his eyes blank and unemotional.
“We must return. We are not allowed to leave the camp.”
Cindy gasped in horror. Somehow, Tom’s AI implant had been reactivated. Unbelievable! Kaylee stealthily slipped the taser into her mother’s reptilian hand. Cindy leaned forward into the cab.
“What do you mean, Tom?”
“No, not Tom. I am Enforcer Unit 6751. I have my instructions.”
“So do we. I’m sorry.”
Cindy tased Tom. He stiffened, thrashed about for what seemed like a very long time and finally went limp. Cindy and Kaylee caught a whiff of something that smelled like electrical circuitry burning.
“Did you kill him, Mom?”
“I don’t know. I thought he was dead after the lightning got him in camp.”
“What are we going to do? They will kill us if they find us, Mom!!!”
“First, we need to neutralize Tom. See if you can find some of those awful zip ties they used on us, or rope or something. Next, we will go back and run the truck off the main road…away from this turnoff. Then we walk to the lab and hope to heaven your father or Wes can help us.”
Cindy and Kaylee pulled Tom into the back of the truck. Kaylee located a package of zip ties in the glovebox and watched, almost nauseous as her mother tightened several of them around Tom’s wrists and ankles. They threw a blanket over him so they didn’t have to look at the vacant stare on his pallid face.
The hybrids climbed into the cab, hoping one of them would have enough dexterity to drive the vehicle. They were afraid to turn on the lights, even though it was dark outside. Cindy had the truck turned sideways in the road when lights appeared in the distance.
“Hurry Mom! Someone is coming!”
Cindy yanked the wheel and backed the truck up. The lights were much closer now. Panicking, she cranked the steering wheel the other way and hit the gas, not realizing she was still in reverse. The truck careened backward, running off the road and into a sand bank. The engine sputtered and died. Cindy and Kaylee fumbled with the door handles, their reptilian hands clumsy in their haste. The door latches finally released.
“Go Kaylee! Go to the lab! Don’t wait on me. Go!”
A set of bright lights unexpectedly lit up the truck and the area surrounding it. Kaylee shuffled out of the light and fled into the desert. Cindy was right behind her.
“Stop! We see you! Stop right there!”
Something was familiar about that voice. Kaylee grabbed her mother’s arm.
“Mom, that sounds like Dad, you know, before the transformation.”
“Stop! We won’t hurt you! We can help!”
Cindy and Kaylee looked at each other in amazement, unable to believe their ears. It WAS Rance. Oh God, it had to be Rance! The two of them watched the familiar figure silhouetted in the headlights walking towards them. They were either saved, or dead.
“It is okay. We can help you!”
“Daddy? Is that you?”
The figure stopped in surprise.
The two hybrids shuffled back through the thick sand, tears of relief running down their iridescent faces as they reached Rance. Rance…who looked completely human again! He folded them both into his arms, a sob of relief escaping from his throat.
“We have been trying to find you two for almost two months! Thank God. Thank God! Grayson saw the Hybrid Hunters take you away. We have been hacking FEMA camp records trying to find you both! And, here you are! How did you escape? Wait. You can tell me later. We need to get you to our new lab and start your treatment right away. It is not really safe here. Come on girls!”
“How is Grayson? Did he find you?”
“He is doing very well. Yes, he came to the lab after you were discovered. Come on, we need to get going.”
“Wait, Rance. There is somebody in the back of the truck we want you to try to help. His name is Tom…sometimes. When his AI implant is working, he is Enforcer Unit 6751. He helped us escape, but somehow his implant reactivated. I had to tase him, then we zip tied him. Can you help him too?
“I don’t know. I would have to clear that with The Guardian.”
“Oh please, Dad! We could never have gotten out if Tom hadn’t helped us! They were using us for horrible science experiments! The screaming of those poor souls…Dad…it was unbearable! We have to help him. We have to try!”
“Alright. You two get in my vehicle. I’ll make the phone call.”
The two hybrids crawled into Rance’s vehicle, still in disbelief over their rescue. Cindy watched as Rance had an animated discussion with someone over the phone. He nodded, hung up and gazed pensively at the stars twinkling like diamonds in the clear, night sky.
None of them would ever be able to repay the kindness of The Guardian. They could only pay it forward. Guardian medics were on their way to transport Enforcer Unit 6751 to a secret location in an attempt to free him from his bondage. Rance took a deep breath, blinking back tears. He sincerely looked forward to thanking Tom for saving his wife and daughter. Now that The Guardian had direct insider information regarding the horrors of the inherently evil science camps, perhaps they could put a stop to them. He hoped so. With every fiber of his being, Rance sincerely hoped so!
Copyright ©️ 2021 Lisa Criss Griffin
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