Parasite - Chapter 22 - Aalligade (2024)

Chapter Text

Thanksgiving ends up arriving sooner rather than later. I guess time really does fly when you’re counting down the days towards the potential end of the universe as you know it.

The weather somehow continues to grow colder, although today has already started out miserably with pelting rain. It’s just slightly too warm for the precipitation to freeze into snowfall, so everything is damp and gross but I refuse to let that ruin the mood. Thanksgiving falls out of fashion some time into the future, so this is probably the only time Drifter will be able to experience it.

Speaking of him.

I had to break the news that since this will be a semi-formal occasion, his Godzilla shirt just won’t cut it. He needs to wear something a little nicer if he’s going to meet Aoi’s parents without embarrassing her. Of course, he tries to argue, saying that if it’s really that important, why am I completely naked?

It’s a decent enough point, even though I’ll never verbally give it to him, so I say that I’ll wear something nice as well. That doesn’t seem to be the answer he was looking for, but too bad. He wants to come along, so he has to suck it up and wear the sweater I found at the back of the dresser.

I really don’t understand why he’s complaining about it. The sweater looks good on him— better than it ever did on me, to be sure. He’s about two sizes too big for it, which is the case with pretty much all of my clothes. The material stretches almost obscenely over his chest, highlighting his build.

It’s plain, black, and made entirely from wool. The collar is snug against his neck, ending just below his jawline and helpfully covering up the scars marking the skin there. He could be a model if he wanted— god knows he already has the ego to match.

The sensuality of the look is diminished, somewhat, by the fact that he keeps picking at the space between his pecs and complaining about how itchy he is. If I plug my ears, he’s unbelievably hot.

Because he’d bitch if I didn’t uphold my end of the deal, I’m dressed in one of my nicer pullovers and dress pants. It’s the only set of clothing I own that actually fits me as I am currently, and I only wear it during situations in which my typical nakedness would be just a little too casual.

Dressing up makes me feel even more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but I want to show Aoi that I can be trusted to show up somewhere looking presentable.

Gwen already has plans of her own, because of course she does, so Drifter and I end up going to Aoi’s apartment on our own. Not without gifts, of course. Gwen got some sort of “ancient” sourdough starter from a friend as a gift, which she then went crazy with and used to bake way too many loaves of bread. Some are still sitting on our kitchen counter, while the rest have been divvied into gift baskets for friends.

She gave us three whole loaves in order to bring with us, saying that they’ll help her be there in spirit, even if she can’t be there in body. I’m not sure I understand the thought process, but I won’t question it.

Aoi’s apartment is a thirty minute walk from mine. Despite its relative nearness, I rarely ever visit. We see each other practically every day, and when we need to talk outside of work hours, we almost always meet up over food. She doesn’t like to host, and thinks that my apartment is more hospitable, anyways.

Primarily, it’s an excuse to not have to clean her place and make it look presentable. Most if not all of her things are kept in a state of messy abandon.

She claims to know where everything is— that she has a system in place and it only looks like a hurricane blew through her apartment. She never bothered cleaning up when she knew I was coming over, which never really bothered me, but her parents are an entirely different story.

If they find so much as a hair out of place, she’ll never hear the end of it. She’s the one that invited them over, though. So I guess she sort of brought this upon herself.

The streets are packed with people rushing to their destinations. A man speed-walks past us, a frozen turkey cradled in his arms like a small child. He looks messy and disheveled, like he had to fight off a wave of attackers in order to secure his prize.

Maybe that's exactly what happened. It must be a constant of the universe— people waiting until the absolute last minute to buy the stuff they need. Drifter once told me about the time he pulled a gun on some poor relay worker that was standing between him and the last Acceltra Solstice skin they had in stock.

I’m not sure the two situations are really comparable, but the gist is sort of the same. When I asked him if he, at the very least, apologized to the worker after the altercation, he stared at me with a blank expression that really said everything I needed to know.

Alas, every man must have his flaws. But I’ll do my best to imbue him with a deep and lasting respect for service workers. I can forgive the terrorism and outright murder— it’s more difficult for me to accept him being a rude customer. They’re the people that make the world work, and I’ll be damned if I just stand idly by while he continues on a rampage. (He did seem to be in total awe of the Blockbuster cashier, but I think that has more to do with him seeing the store as a near- mythical place.)

Aoi’s apartment building is nicer than mine. Not high-end by any means, but in a respectable part of town with nicely-sized rooms with great views. I don’t know how she manages to afford it— especially considering that she doesn’t have a roommate and I know for a fact our paychecks aren’t anywhere near generous.

I’d be tempted to think that her parents are helping her pay, but she’s too stubborn and prideful for something like that. Maybe she has a second job that I just don’t know about. I wouldn’t be surprised if she delivers pizzas in her free time. God knows her car always smells like takeout food.

Drifter and I step into the elevator, squeezing in alongside the other riders. It’s a tight fit and someone’s elbow is stabbing me in the side, but it’s better than taking the stairs and we’re dangerously close to being late already. In fact– I pull my phone out of my pocket and check the time. 11:30. sh*t. We were supposed to get here at 10 to help set stuff up. We would have been on time if someone hadn’t thrown a fit over wearing a sweater for a few hours.

The woman standing next to Drifter is holding a tinfoil-covered serving plate in her hands, and I watch as he cranes his neck over to try and get a better look. (At what, I’m not certain. As I said, it’s completely covered.)

The elevator jerks as it begins to ascend, and the utter silence of the tiny, enclosed space is unbearably awk—

“What’s that?”

I can’t help the long, tired sigh that escapes my mouth. Of course he decides that now is the time to engage in conversation with a completely random person that he’s never met before. Right now— while she has no choice but to humor him, considering we’re literally locked in a small, inescapable cage.

The woman looks to the side, towards the people standing next to her, like she’s trying to see if she’s actually the one he’s talking to. I tug in his sleeve, trying to get him to drop the subject without making a scene.

He ignores me. Because of course he does.

When it becomes clear that she is, in fact, the person his question is directed towards, she clears her throat and subtly leans away. (Does she think he’s about to snatch the tray from her hands? Where would he even go once he’s grabbed it?) “It’s… ah, corn pudding. I’m visiting my sister in law.”

He hums and nods, slowly leaning towards me in order to whisper— “What’s corn?”

The elevator is otherwise silent, so his quiet request for clarification might as well have been screamed. A few people glance sidelong in his direction, all wearing disbelieving expressions on their faces.

“It’s a kind of vegetable,” I mutter.

“Ah.” He stands up straight, nodding slightly as he considers this information. “Why would you put a vegetable into pudding? That sounds weird.”

The woman is saved from Drifter’s incessant needling as the elevator comes to a stop. She bolts the moment the doors open, followed by a few others as they either reach their destination or decide that taking the stairs is a preferable choice. Drifter seems disappointed by the fact that she doesn’t want to argue with him over the gross factor of corn pudding,

Our stop is the eleventh floor, which is only a few levels down from the top. Aoi’s told me before that she’s convinced her upstairs neighbor has it out for her. Why else would he be tap dancing (she doesn’t know that’s what he’s actually doing, only that it’s what it sounds like) at three in the morning?

She’s never actually spoken to him, so I’m not sure why he’d have some sort of vendetta against her, but she’s certain it’s personal. There’s a very simple and easy way of solving this situation, but I’m certain she’ll never go through with it.

She has a real talent for making quick and decisive choices during high-stress situations. Normally, I have unending trust in her judgment. That goes out the window when it comes to solving issues diplomatically. She’s less… I don’t want to say trustworthy, exactly, but…

I’ll put it this way: Diplomacy is not a potential career path for her. There’s no shame in admitting that she tends to assume intent where there is none and doubling down whenever possible.

We stop in front of the door to her apartment. I can hear the sound of laughter and conversation on the other side, but pause before letting them know we’ve arrived. “You’ll be on your best behavior, right?” I ask, glancing over at him. “Aoi’ll decapitate you if you embarrass her in front of her parents.”

“I can hold a conversation without humiliating myself,” He says, sounding only slightly offended. Placing one hand over his chest, he regards me with an overly dismayed look. “You can trust me, Arthur. I know how to talk to people.”

“Do you?” I ask, raising an eyebrow. “Do you really?” He frowns in return, but doesn’t argue. “Just— keep it to small talk, okay? Easy. Simple.”

Drifter’s mouth twists to the side as he stares at me. A silent continuation passes between us, where he asks if I really think he’ll embarrass himself and I answer that things are different in 1999. There are all sorts of conversational landmines that he’ll inevitably manage to stumble into, and I really can’t fault him for that fact. He’s a fish out of water when it comes to interacting with normal people and there’s no shame in acknowledging that fact.

“You’ll be fine,” I say, reaching over and placing a hand on his arm. “You’ve met Aoi’s parents before. Kinda. They’re nice people. No need to start stressing over any of this, yeah? We’ll only be here for a couple hours at most and then we’ll go home and watch that weird Japanese cartoon you keep talking about.”

“Serial Experiments Lain isn’t a cartoon. It’s an anime.” There’s a hint of defensiveness in his voice, and he breaks eye contact with me in order to look towards the door in front of us. I’m not sure what the difference is, but I guess that there’s some sort of important distinction between the two. He pulls in a deep breath, holds it, then sighs. “Right. Yeah. I’m normal. I can talk to other normal people. I got this.”

“You got this,” I repeat, giving him what I hope is a reassuring smile. He returns a tight-lipped mimicry of the expression, and I squeeze his arm gently before letting go. I raise my hand and tap my knuckles against the wooden door. Rap rap tap.

Aoi opens the door, grinning widely and pulling me into a tight hug. She smells like the perfume she ended up buying from the mall. “You made it!” She laughs as she pats me on the back, giving me another squeeze before letting go. The blue of her Sword-steel has been replaced with warm oranges and browns, although most of it is covered by a modest yet fitting dress. She squints at me, pantomiming suspicion. “It isn’t like you to be so un-fashionably late.”

“Traffic was bad,” I say with a shrug, and she snorts in response. I hold out the loaf of bread I was holding, and point at the two in Drifter’s grasp with my thumb. “These are from Gwen. She felt bad since she couldn’t make it.”

Aoi fawns over the gifts, gathering them in her arms before stepping back to let us inside. Her apartment smells of spices and herbs, a nice change from the typical “just spray air freshener and hope for the best.” As we walk in, I spot a few different dishes placed on the countertop. I can’t say I recognize any of them by sight alone— her family doesn’t really follow the traditional thanksgiving menu.

Maybe I’ll remember having eaten some of them before when she tells me their names. This is the first Thanksgiving I’ve spent with them, but Aoi was bringing in leftovers for at least a week afterwards when we first started talking.

I’ve tried to return the favor, but I’m a notoriously terrible cook. Anything more complicated than instant ramen or cereal is well beyond my abilities. After my first attempt at creating something homemade and heartfelt, which ended up being burnt beyond recognition and completely inedible, we both agreed to call it even if I picked up the tab when we ate out.

As I enter her apartment, I’m momentarily stunned by the fact that she bothered decorating the place at all. The band and movie posters that typically cover the walls have been taken down, replaced with either painfully quaint landscape paintings or temporary cornucopia stickers. The kitchen counter has been covered with a plain white cloth, matching the one placed over the dining table, which I’m certain is just one of those plastic fold-out tables you can buy for fifteen bucks. There aren’t any random piles of empty cans or clothes strewn about, and she even has candles set up to provide ambient lighting.

Her curtains have been drawn wide open, giving an excellent view of her balcony and a passing balloon. It’s definitely less depressing than it usually is, and I’d probably make a comment about how it feels like I walked into a complete stranger’s house if we weren’t surrounded by her family.

The rest of the Sato family have already begun celebrating, and are very obviously a few drinks in. Mr. Sato grabs onto my hand with both of his and gives an exaggerated shake in greeting. Mrs. Sato clasps my face between her hands and kisses me on the cheek.

Aki has a healthy flush to his skin, and cheers loudly when he sees me, like I’m some sort of celebrity he’s been dying to see. His girlfriend— who seems to be in possession of an eternal “deer caught in headlights” expression— clutches a wine glass to her chest like it’s some sort of lifeline. She gives me a small, timid wave, before taking a sip of her drink and looking around like she’s waiting to be ambushed or something.

“Who’s thiiiiiis?” Aki asks, sliding an arm over my shoulders. I’m sure the two of us look ridiculous, seeing as I have a good height advantage over him. He stumbles a bit as he angles me bodily towards Drifter, who’s currently surrounded by Mr. and Mrs. Sato and almost certainly being interrogated by them. “I didn’t know you were bringing a…” He pauses and swallows, which definitely makes me nervous. “A friend!”

“This is Beck,” I say as I subtly slip out of his hold. “You probably haven’t met him before. He’s a, uh… a coworker.”

Aoi’s attention snaps to me, and I instantly know from the way her eyes narrow that she isn’t going to let that slide. “A coworker?” She parrots, resting one hand on her hip and regarding me with a skeptical look. “Huh. Is that really what the two of you are to each other? Maybe I’m just making assumptions, but it seems kind of strange to bring a coworker as your plus one.”

Aki blinks slowly, and I’m sure he’s too far gone to really know what’s going on, but her questioning is enough to make me sweat. “He isn’t— you’re the one that invited him! You’re making it sound like this is a— a wedding, or something.”

“I never said anything about weddings.”

A muscle in my jaw clenches, and I try to subtly wipe my palms off on my pants. She notices, and raises a single eyebrow. “I just don’t like labeling things that don’t need to be. I figure that you of all people should understand that. Considering some of our talks.”

“And I figured you wouldn’t be this much of an indecisive coward.”


She never holds her punches. I’ve known her long enough to understand that she doesn’t like beating around the bush, and will often cut straight to the point with no care for how harsh her words are. I can appreciate her brutal honesty when it's pointed at anyone other than myself. She’s right, both of us know that, but it still stings to hear it said aloud.

“Things are difficult,” I say, lowering my voice to a mutter. “Not everyone is as accepting as you are. I’m not– ugh. You know I’m not trying to say that your parents are bigots, but…” I pause and lick at the scar on my lip. “I don’t know. You were right and I’m in over my head, so at this point I’m just… settling for damage control. I’m not going to call this something it isn’t.” It’s cruel and callous and almost entirely a lie, but it needs to be said. Him and I are nothing more than friends that occasionally f*ck each other. No romance involved.

Aoi stares at me for a moment longer, an array of emotions crossing over her face in rapid succession. Eventually, she settles on something tired and almost sad. “You aren’t that type of person, Arthur,” She says with a somber shake of her head. “You get attached too quickly.”

A flash of annoyance washes over me. “What, so you want me to just disregard the advice that you gave me? I’m trying to keep things simple between us, but you’re making it seem like I should… try to get serious with him, or something. That kind of thing would never work out and I recognize that. It’s too late to stop myself from getting involved at all, but I’m trying to be smarter about it now.”

(Sure, I let him suck my dick and stick his finger up my butt a few days ago, but that’s completely unrelated to the conversation at hand. There were no feelings involved that night. I had wanted physical comfort after what happened with that thing and he was available and willing.)

A familiar chime rings out, and I glance over to see Drifter fishing his phone out of his pocket. He mutters something to himself, then says that it’s a work call that he has to take. He steps out into the hallway, and when the door closes behind him, it feels like it has the same sense of finality as a coffin lid slamming shut.


I huff, crossing my arms. “Just… trust me on this, Aoi. I’m a grown adult. I can handle the situation on my own.”

“What’re we talking about..?” Aki slurs, reminding me of the fact that we’re not, in fact, currently alone.

“Nothing,” Aoi sighs heavily, reaching up to pinch at the bridge of her nose. There’s no way she’s considering this topic of conversation over, but I’ll have to be content waiting for when she inevitably decides to start poking at this particular wound again.

When Drifter re-enters from the hallway, Aoi tells us that the parade is still going, which I take as a not-so-subtle sign telling me to leave her alone for a minute before she makes this into a thing. I take the escape opportunity graciously, and Drifter follows after me.

The air is humid and cold as we all step out onto Aoi’s balcony. Cheering and yelling comes from the street below as massive parade floats and balloons make their way past us. It’s definitely a great view— better than what we would’ve seen on the tiny tv in my apartment.

We’re a bit late, so we’re only catching the tail end of the parade. Actually— if I lean forward and crane my neck, I can see the final float slowly approaching in the distance.

Drifter leans down in order to rest his elbows on the railing, staring up with wide, excited eyes. The dog from blues clues floats past, almost seeming to wave a hand in our direction. “Wow,” He mutters, like he’s witnessing some incredible feat of engineering or one of the wonders of the world instead of a big blue dog.

“You should’ve seen 1997’s parade,” I say, leaning my hip against the railing next to him. “The winds were insane that year. A bunch of the balloons got damaged. I think one of them fell in the crowd and injured a bunch of people. It was a total mess.”

“Reminds me of the celebrations they had before the Zariman was launched,” He muses. His fingers tap against the metal beneath him, a quick and steady beat. “I was too young to really remember any of it, but I’ve seen the pictures. The Orokin wanted to make the people not chosen for the project jealous of those who had.”

My mouth twists into a frown, and I look away from him, out into the crowd of people standing in the street below. “Sounds like a recipe for disaster. Intentionally pitting people against each other. What could they have gained from that?”

Scoffing, he shakes his head. “After a while, you stop trying to decipher the sh*t they pulled. Everything was always about optics for them. How stuff made them look. Always had to make sure they were stepping on someone, no matter the situation. Making your subjects angry at each other means they’re too busy to be angry at you. Most of their little parties were like that.”

I hum in response. I can’t say I ever noticed a penchant for stunning acts of cruelty in Entrati, but I’d be a liar if I said I really spent a lot of time around him. Most of our interactions were brief and decidedly formal– no small talk or anything like that. Everything was alway straight to the point with him. At the time, I had admired that. Now, I wonder if it was because of our rapidly-approaching deadline. The big aardvark (I still don’t think he actually looks like one, but that’s apparently what he’s supposed to be) from that one kids show floats by. “His name’s Arthur too,” I comment, pointing at the balloon.

Drifter squints at the cartoon character, tilting his head side to side as if to get a better look. “I can see the resemblance,” He eventually says, giving me a sh*t-eating grin. When I shove at his arm, he laughs.

He shifts his weight, leaning in closer so that we’re touching each other. Shamefully, I glance back towards the door to make sure that no one is watching us. No— everyone else is too busy getting everything set up for the main course. I don’t move away from him, even though the urge is tempting.

“I wish I could’ve seen it,” He says softly, almost mournfully. “The night of the Naga drums.”

Something about the name seems familiar. The small but vocal part of my brain that sounds a lot like Drifter clarifies; a celebration to mark the end of The Old War that turned into a bloodbath when the Tenno rebelled against their Orokin masters. The end of an empire that made way for something entirely new.

“Kaz was there, wasn’t he.” I don’t bother to phrase it as a question, because it really isn’t one. We both know the answer.

“Was standing right next to an Executor when the signal went out. Jesus, I’d give up everything I own to be there when it happened.” He raises his thumb to his mouth and begins to chew on the Void-steel fingernail. “They bled red. For all their talk about how superior they were, they were still people at the end of the day.”

“I still can’t believe they were actually blue,” I huff, fiddling with a loose string in the sleeve of his sweater. “I just… why blue? It’s such a bizarre color choice. The long arm freaks me out, too.”

“It’s symbolic,” He says, looking out towards the tail end of the parade. His voice is full of mock reverence, and he stares up at me like this should be obvious. “Meant to represent their generosity. Outstretched hands providing their citizens with bountiful goods, and all that. No idea why they were blue, though. Just another way of setting them apart from the masses, if I had to guess.”

“Hm. Y’know, I’m really trying my best to imagine Entrati, but with blue skin. I’m struggling a bit.”

He opens his mouth to respond, but whatever he was going to say is cut off as he suddenly stands up straight, nearly raising up onto his tiptoes as he cranes his neck to get a better look at something. “What the hell is that thing?” He asks, something like worry in his voice.

A flash of fear runs through me, and for a moment I’m terrified that I missed the appearance of another Infested monstrosity. I lean over the edge of the railing, searching through the mass of people for what elicited Drifter’s reaction.

“What is it?” I ask, the metal railing creaking under the force of my grip. He points, and I struggle to figure out what, exactly, he’s looking at.

“That! The big orange thing!”

My eyebrows furrow, and the rush of adrenaline is almost instantaneously replaced with annoyance. “The Garfield balloon? It’s— he’s just a cat, dude, why’d you make it sound like something was actually happening?”

“I swear to god I’ve seen him before,” Drifter mutters, tapping a nervous rhythm against the railing. A slight sheen of sweat has appeared on his forehead. Wow. Why the hell is he so worked up over Garfield, of all things? “I just… ugh. I don’t know. It’s stupid. Pretend I didn’t say anything. I should— I should tell you about what Albrecht wanted, shouldn’t I?”

“I mean… if you think it’s important.”

He chews on his lip for a moment before nodding. “Yeah. I think it is.”

The location Entrati wants us to examine is three and a half hours outside of city limits, something which Aoi is not at all happy about. Since she’s the only one of us with a driver’s license, she’s forced to drive the entire time, all while complaining about how Entrati didn’t even give her gas money for the trip.

When Drifter asks about the current cost per gallon, she answers that it’s recently skyrocketed to $1.25, which is absolutely ridiculous. He goes silent for a minute, then starts laughing so hard I think he might pass out.

“Wow,” He gasps, pretending to wipe a tear from his eye. “You can’t even look at a fuel station for that much in the future.”

She glares at him through the mirror, and mutters that it isn’t a competition. The sky gradually darkens as we get further and further away from the city, but we left early enough that it still isn’t pitch black. This late in the year, anything after six pm is impossible to differentiate from twelve am.

We’re meant to search through an abandoned car manufacturing plant that went out of business sometime in the late sixties. It’s been condemned for years, but no one’s bothered paying to have it torn down.

Now, it serves mainly as a source of ghost stories and a place for dumb kids to hang out without their parents knowing. There’s a small town not far away, which is the primary reason why Entrati wants us to look into the disturbance recorded by his tech. If whatever’s in there manages to spread, it could cause a lot of damage.

It’d be nice if we knew what we’re looking for, but Entrati admitted that even he isn’t sure. The readings showed a heightened level of ambient Void energy, but that could be caused by a million different things. Anything from a rip in the space-time continuum to faulty sensors.

Better safe than sorry. Although I’m still kind of pissed that Drifter managed to talk us into this. It’s… strange. He doesn’t like Entrati— has made it very clear that if given the chance, he’d skin him and make him into a rug. But he’s willing to complete tasks for him at a moment's notice? Something doesn’t quite add up. How did the Orokin manage to convince him to help within a ten-minute phone call?

Maybe it comes with the territory of being a mercenary? You’re always on the lookout for your next job, your next payout. You’ll take work wherever you can get it, no matter who’s offering.

I mean, his lifestyle is paid for in blood. His kill count is rapidly approaching a million and that fact doesn’t seem to concern him in the slightest. He’s bound to have done plenty of questionable jobs for shady figures. Maybe I should be more surprised that he hasn't led us headfirst into something like this until now.

After all, this is the same guy that convinced me to jump across a bottomless pit and nearly fall to my death. I shouldn’t act like he hasn’t been dragging me along behind him for a while now. Or, more accurately, that I haven’t been right at his heel. Wherever he goes, I’m bound to follow.

The paved roads slowly turn to gravel, then to dirt. We end up passing through the town Entrati mentioned. It’s tiny, with a population of less than a hundred if I had to guess. There’s a tiny gas station that we stop at in order to refuel Aoi’s car. There are a few other people there– mainly standing around the nearby 7-11 as they unabashedly stare at us. Drifter gets out of the car as Aoi grabs the gas pump, and I hear the muffled sound of her yelling at him through the passenger-side window.

When I glance up at him, I very quickly figure out that he was about to light a cigarette. In one hand he’s holding his lighter, thumb precariously positioned over the spark wheel. An unlit cigarette hangs between his lips, and he stares at her like he doesn’t really understand why she’s upset. He says something in response, but I can’t exactly make out what. She waves him away, and he trudges dejectedly towards the edge of the nearby parking lot.

He reminds me of a kicked puppy as he lights his cigarette. Every now and then he glances back towards the car, making a show out of sighing and shivering and rubbing his arms like he’s about to freeze to death.

Underneath his sweats, he’s got on his full Tenno regalia, so I know he isn’t actually cold. He claimed it was a necessary precaution, seeing as we have no idea what to expect. His twin blades lay in the back seat, haphazardly covered with a bath towel Aoi had in her car for some reason.

(She claimed that survival guides say to keep a spare blanket in your trunk in case you get stuck in a blizzard. Yeah, I replied. Blankets, not towels. After we argued over semantics, she shrugged and admitted that she didn’t even know where it came from in the first place.)

What he plans on doing with his swords, I have no clue. Unless there’s something physical we’ll need to fight, they’ll just act as dead weight. I doubt I’d be able to convince him to leave them in the car, so I didn’t bother to try. Besides, Aoi and I have our guns locked away in the trunk, so it’d just be hypocritical of me to say that he can’t have his swords. I don’t intend on tempting fate– there’s a non-zero chance this’ll wind up being another Lephantis situation.

That was a complete sh*t show. Upper command wanted detailed reports as to how we killed it and why we had initially split up from the rest of the squad. I had to come up with some half-assed explanation for the perfectly clear-cut hole drilled through its center, as well as the strange, charred skin surrounding the wound.

Believe me– if I could’ve gotten away with saying it was caused by Void magic, that’s what I would’ve written. That’s another reason why I’m glad to not get the military involved in this. I don’t have to worry about finishing the corresponding mountain of paperwork afterwards. (Really, who would’ve anticipated that becoming a living weapon both doesn’t pay well and involves a sinful amount of busywork?)

A part of me still feels guilty about the soldiers that were consumed by the Lephantis. Drifter really couldn’t care less, which does still worry me. Sure, those guys were dicks and f*ck the military and all that, but they were still people.

Maybe I’ll be able to convince Drifter to respect retail employees, but I genuinely think it’d be impossible to make him even torate military personnel. To him, they’re in a similar category to Grineer grunts and Corpus foot soldiers. Cannon fodder not worth the space they take up.

He already has a low enough view on the seriousness of taking a life. I doubt he’s giving their deaths a second thought. Hell, I doubt he gave their deaths any thought in the first place.

Bloodshed means very little to him. That’s a fact that’s been repeatedly repeated and reinforced. When you experience it non-stop from a young age, it starts to lose any sense of meaning and turns into just another part of life. He’s been removed from the natural order of things. Of course he no longer has any fear of death.

(I’m still kind of surprised that he’s scared of horror movies, though. I figured he and Gwen would have similar taste. There’s always the chance he was just lying because he thought it’d be funny, but I’m not willing to put my furniture on the line in order to find out for sure.)

My comm device buzzes, and I pull it out of my tac-gear pocket to see what Khaz has sent me.

“WORST DAY OF MY LIFE 😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡” The text reads, and I can’t help but think that, surely, he’s being a little bit over dramatic. “Stupid Adonis and his giant freak of nature Kubrow BROKE my GAME CONSOLE. I told him to not let her get close but he doesn’t listen. That horrible white demon 🧍🏼🧍🏼🧍🏼🧍🏼🧍🏼🧍🏼I don’t know HOW I’m related to him. 😡😡😡😡😡😡”

Before I have the chance to write out a response, another message pops up. “Don’t tell Drifter I called Adonis that he gets really mad lol.”

I’m not exactly sure why he’s telling me this, so I default to trying to be sympathetic. “Aw man that must stink :( I remember you mentioned it and how expensive it was. Is there any chance of fixing it?”

“Don’t know I haven’t bothered taking it into a relay to see if someone knows how to make it work again. I threw it at him which probably didn’t help lol. Anyways, how are things with you❓❓❓❓❓❓ I’ll be honest I had a dream 💭💭💭💤💤 where there was a third protoframe who was just Aoi but white. You were there too but you had a different haircut. To be honest it looked better on you than the one you have now. Anyways. It was weird.”

Again, I’m not sure how he’s expecting me to react. I decide to forgo even attempting, and just move on. “We’re on our way to check out some weird Void readings right now. No clue what we’ll find, but I’ll keep you posted if it’s anything interesting.”

“Lol he must be bored 🥱🥱🥱🥱out of his mind if he’s already willing to do recon missions for Albrecht Entrati of all people. He told me you guys watched Back To The Future. That sounds neat. All of the movies he usually wants to watch suck total farts 💨. I know he’s me but I don’t get how being executed every day for like a million years would make me actually enjoy Beneath Lua’s Light.”

I almost send a message saying that I’ve never heard of that film before, but quickly realize that’s obvious. “Sounds interesting. What’s it about?”

“These two soulmates that are fated to be together or something. They keep managing to miss each other, so they’re constantly reincarnated. First they’re both Ostrons, then Grineer, and they only end up meeting after like a hundred different lives when they’re a Kubrow and a Kavat. It’s like three hours long and he always cries like a baby at the end.”

Huh. That sounds… surprisingly heartfelt and emotional. Certainly not the kind of movie I’d expect him to watch of his own accord. Although, I can’t say I really know what kind of stuff I expected him to like. I know he isn’t the type to only watch gorey action movies, even though that’s what I’d initially think. His attention was held completely by Back To The Future, but I wouldn’t expect that to really mean anything.

I’ve never met anyone that hated Back To The Future, so why would he be any different? And even if he hated the movie itself, it’s newness and exclusivity would’ve made him interested regardless.

The fact that he doesn’t spend every waking moment surrounding himself with violence isn’t surprising. Everyone has their limits and even though his are considerably higher than the average person’s, they’re still there. He doesn’t enjoy gore-filled horror movies, but if you told me that he’s an honest-to-god fan of romance films, I’d laugh in your face.

Seems like he’s constantly finding ways to surprise me.

The back door opens, and the car bounces as Drifter sits down. I can smell the smoke lingering on him, sharp and acrid. “Can you believe it? She made me stand by myself, in the dark, out in the open. What if someone kidnapped me?”

I snort. “I’d be extremely impressed if anyone managed to pull that off. Don’t quote me on this, but I’m fairly certain that six-foot-plus, 200 pound, fully grown men aren’t the usual targets for abduction.”

He mutters about how it’s still a possibility, crossing his arms over his chest and scowling at me. I tell him that if anyone ever manages to kidnap him, I’d feel terrible and go to the ends of the earth trying to hunt them down. That seems to smooth his ruffled feathers.

We’re back on the road promptly, with Aoi singing along to the radio as she drives. She’s slightly off-tune, but that just makes it more fun to join in. Out of all the songs that come on, the only one Drufter recognizes is, for some reason, Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads. That makes her laugh, and in turn sing even louder.

Neither of them are about to be scouted by a talent agency, but that doesn’t bother them. I don’t belt out the words alongside them, keeping my own voice just above a mutter.

She keeps slapping at my arm and chest clumsily, trying to get me to stop being such a stick in the mud. I don’t give in, and she lets out an over exaggerated groan of annoyance. “You’re no fun,” She pouts, and I roll my eyes in response. The rest of the drive follows a similar pattern, with her continuously trying to get me to sing while I refuse to give in.

Eventually, the radio signal starts to go fuzzy, then shuts itself off completely. We aren’t so far out that the signals aren’t able to reach us— it must be because of the Void energy.

Aoi’s car shuts off with a click that has a weird sense of finality to it. The manufacturing plant looms above us as we step out. Beneath our feet, the ground is soft and muddy from the previous day’s rain. There are clouds on the horizon promising more terrible weather.

I see a flash of lightning, which makes me pause briefly. Thunderstorms are rare this time of year, and yet here one is, rapidly approaching.

Something’s up. I don’t like this.

The plant extends into the distance— spanning multiple acres with buildings that used to house the machinery and offices. It's multiple stories high, and made out of brick and concrete.

There are still a few ancient patches of asphalt, but they’re few and far between. Huge swaths of dirt separate them, filled with sticky bushes and dead, brown plants that grew during the summer then withered when it got too cold out. Broken beer bottles litter the ground, just waiting for some poor unsuspecting bastard to step on them.

There’s a used condom hanging from one of the bare-branched trees near us. Classy.

I pull in a deep breath, and promptly notice the smell of weed coloring the air. Underneath it, the subtle smell of the Void. Great.

“Eugh. What the hell is that?” Drifter complains, waving a hand in front of his face as he scrunches his nose and looks around. “Smells like a goddamn flattened Pobber that’s been rotting in the sun for a week.”

“Devil’s lettuce,” Aoi laughs as she raises her fingers to her mouth, miming smoking a blunt. She walks forward a few steps, kicking an empty beer can out of her way. “Weed. Marijuana. Either means there are a bunch of sh*tty kids here, or recently there were a bunch of sh*tty kids here.”

I sigh, popping open the trunk and unlocking our gun case. “Just what we need. Civilians. I don't like this. There are already too many unknowns and if there are regular people—“

“Then we’ll deal with them accordingly,” She cuts me off. “They won’t be stupid enough to stick around if a bunch of armed adults tell them to get lost.” I guess she has a point, even if the entire situation stinks to high hell both literally and figuratively. When she reaches towards me, I hand over her gun without further complaint.

Drifter pulls his sweatshirt up and over his head, revealing the gleaming gold and silver of his armor. It’s a strange and almost comical contradiction to the boring, filthy scenery behind him. He catches my eye and grins. “Brings back memories, doesn’t it?” Sighing wistfully, he puts on his mask and loops his scarf into a makeshift shawl.

(It feels like seeing a ghost. I’d gotten used to the face hiding behind the mask, so for a second, the blank, white visage sends a bolt of fear down my spine. Now the skeletal covering has more history behind it– both literally and figuratively.)

I huff out a laugh. “Terrible ones. Why the mask? Don’t tell me you’re worried about being recognized.”

“No, I’m worried about catching some sort of horrible disease from this place.” He attaches his swords to his hips, checking and rechecking the straps holding them in place. “The walls’re probably made out of pure asbestos or some sh*t. I’m not taking any chances. My lungs are terrible enough as is.”

Aoi slings her shotgun over her shoulder, adjusting the holster that crosses her chest. “Don’t tell me that lung diseases are the Tenno’s secret weakness? A bullet to the brain is no biggie, but mesothelioma will put you down for good?”

“It wouldn’t kill me, but it’d be a pain to deal with.” He laces his fingers together, making sure his gloves are fitted properly. Nonchalantly, he takes a few ambling steps closer to the plant, staring up into its dark, empty windows. After a moment, he points to one located on the top floor. “Someone just walked past. We’ve got company.”

I sigh heavily, slipping my sword into its sheath. “Who decides that an abandoned car factory is the place they want to be the day after thanksgiving?”

“School’s still out on break, so all the kids are looking for places to hang out away from their parents,” Aoi says with a shrug. She begins walking towards the main entrance, Drifter and I following after her. “Let’s get them out of here first, then we can start looking for whatever’s messing with Dr. Entrati’s stuff.”

The skunk-stench of weed only gets worse as we step through the entryway, which has been plastered with posters signaling its condemnation and health hazards. Dust clogs my nose, causing me to sneeze and my eyes to water.

Everything that was worth anything has long since been scavenged, so the interior of the factory is almost entirely empty. The bare support beams littering the greeting area remind me almost of ribs— skeletal in their nakedness and off-white color.

The floor is covered in a thick layer of dirt and grime, but there are spots where it’s been disturbed. A number of footprints litter the ground, crossing over each other and making it difficult to tell how many people we’re dealing with. More than three, if I had to guess. Though I’m literally just tossing out a random number.

Graffiti covers the walls, the bright colors of the paint standing out against the monotone gray of the concrete walls. Most of it is what I’d expect— expletives mixed with drawings of dicks and tags from artists. Some have obviously been here for a while, with others being more recent and fresh. Seems like this is a fairly popular spot for people to meet up and hang out. Which is just fantastic news for us.

But something seems… off.

I can’t notice anything weird at first, and I almost dismiss the feeling as a side effect of the mold spores I’m certain are in the air. But there— a relatively small piece of writing near the far end of the wall.

It’s composed of a jumbled mess of seemingly random letters. The messily-written message states, “Akfr oua dpq.”

But the writing is scrambled, and there’s a lot of ambiguity to the lettering. If you read it as a message written in the current dialect, it’s complete nonsense. But, if you assume the writer is in a similar situation to Drifter, an actual meaning can be gleaned— “f*ck the Dax.” Which is strange for obvious reasons and instills a sense of worry deep within my stomach.

My eyebrows furrow. “That’s… Drifter, am I seeing things?” I ask as I point to the graffiti.

He walks over, then leans in to take a closer look. “Huh. Either whoever wrote this is extremely ahead of the curve, or we’ve got a time-slip on our hands.”

Aoi and I just stare at him, so he continues. “Strands of Khra crossing over each other. Pieces of one reality managing to make their way into others. It happens a lot more often than you’d think.” He takes a step back, looking through the mess of graffiti, presumably for any other anomalies. “Usually they just manifest as a sense of, uh… sh*t, what’s the term? Deja-vu! Y’know, feeling like you’ve done something before.”

His explanation doesn’t make me feel any better.

“Do you think there’s more of…” Aoi gestures vaguely towards the wall. “This? Maybe it’s what Dr. Entrati picked up?”

“It’s likely. This is already a pretty substantial case. Physical things managing to slip through is never a good sign.” Resting one hand on the hilt of his sword, he looks up to the ceiling. Through the near-empty halls, I can just barely make out the sound of distant conversations. “We’d better get them out of here. Who knows what else is in here.”

As we trek through the plant, Drifter’s concern becomes more and more warranted. The graffiti from the future seems to spread until it’s the only thing covering the walls. Some of it is familiar– threats written in Grineer, Corpus advertisem*nts, and someone named Keena saying they lost their virginity here. The messages quickly lose any meaning, turning into hurried drawings.

My heart sinks when I realize that I recognize some of them. The scribbled charts and graphs, the diagrams of hands with severed fingers… These were on the walls of Entrati’s personal laboratories.

Of all the places in the Origin System, of course that’s the place that slips through. It couldn’t have been something nice and safe and plausibly deniable. Christ, there’s half of a Void-flame sconce sticking out of the wall. How are we supposed to convince a bunch of teenagers that absolutely nothing interesting is going on here?

Drifter’s shoulders are tense, and he walks through the building with single-minded purpose. This both assures and worries me. He knows better than to treat this like a game, but the lack of any attempts to lighten the mood is frightening.

This is serious. I don’t like when Drifter gets serious.

As we ascend into the building, the architecture becomes increasingly nonsensical. Random hallways leading to nowhere, doors that open directly to the exterior, bits and pieces of Entrati’s labs mixed into the brutalist design.

I can hear the sound of laughter growing steadily closer, but it doesn’t sound like the sort that belongs to The Man In The Wall. It isn’t needling and cruel enough. This sounds like people having fun instead of laughing at the misery of others. More than three, from the sound of it. Probably closer to four or five.

Footsteps echo behind us, but when I look back, there’s no one there. I get the sensation of eyes burning into my skin, and I silently curse myself for letting Drifter talk me into this.

(I let him stick his finger in my ass and then follow him wherever he goes. Is that how this works?)

“Feels like we’re in a haunted house or something,” Aoi mutters, her eyes narrowing as she glances around. It’s an astute observation, and I can’t help but agree. “Like… something’s been set up just for us to walk into.”

“I’m just waiting for someone in a rubber mask to jump out and yell at us,” I say. There’s a pause as the three of us hold our breaths, like we’re all waiting for something to actually happen. But it turns out that I’m not able to see the future, and nothing lurches out of the darkness surrounding us. “Ugh. Let’s just get these kids out of here.”

We hike up another flight of stairs, turning a corner and entering onto the top floor. Blankets and tarps have been hung across the support beams, creating a(n honestly kind of scary) maze. On the opposite end, I can see the beaming, waving lights of multiple flashlights peeking through the obstructions.

Wow. I know that this is a popular enough spot for kids to get their first taste of trespassing, but I had no idea they’d turned it into some kind of fortress.

I can only hope that the time-slips are only a recent occurrence. God help us if some stupid sixteen year old managed to stumble across… I don’t know, part of a vessel or something. Or, even worse, one of the many weapons Entrati held in storage for his Chosen Operator.

Because the last thing I want to do is sneak up on a bunch of kids, I figure the best course of action is to make ourselves known. “Hello?” I call out, holding one hand up to my mouth. A sudden, high-pitched shriek comes from the direction of the light, followed by laughter. “You aren’t supposed to be here, this is a condemned building!”

Silence, and for a second I think that maybe they just didn’t hear me, but then— “f*ck off, pig!” Someone yells back.

I frown as both Drifter and Aoi burst into hushed giggling, turning to level them with a glare. This is a serious situation and warrants being treated as such. “I don’t sound like a pig,” I huff. “Just for the record.”

“Right, right,” He responds, clearly placating. Ducking under one of the low-hanging strips of fabric, he begins the arduous journey through the tent-maze. The ground is littered with empty beer cans and assorted pieces of trash, so our approach is anything but silent.

It seems like every time we get close, they start laughing and running in a different direction. Like we’re in an annoying game of cat and mouse, the three of us stumble near-blindly through the upper floor.

They always seem to somehow be one step ahead of us— moving quickly and confidently through the dark room while keeping just out of reach. Drifter and Aoi are rapidly losing their patience, and keep glancing towards me like they’re waiting for permission to do something more drastic. If we were dealing with anyone other than literal children, maybe I’d allow it. As it is, I’d prefer to keep this little encounter as calm and violence-free as possible. We can convince a bunch of teens to go somewhere else. That’s not something that’s out of our capacity.

Obviously, these kids know this place better than we do, and are using that knowledge to their full advantage.

From behind cover, they launch taunts and empty beer cans in our direction. Aoi barely manages to dodge one aimed directly at her head, catching the flimsy metal with her magnetism abilities. With a flick of her wrist, the can is crushed into a tiny metal ball that is then hurled directly upwards. There’s a sharp crack as a hole is punched clean through the ceiling. The blue-green light emanating from Aoi’s hand lights up the interior, shining through the material surrounding us.

Silence follows– deafening in its entirety. The stakes have been raised, and she looks at me with a narrow-eyed and unamused, tight-lipped scowl. Her intention is obvious– the next one isn’t going to miss. No more cans are thrown, but the game of keep-away continues. Drifter disappeared not long after it began, and I have no clue what he’s got running through his head. I can only hope it isn’t something monumentally stupid.

Eventually, I catch sight of one ducking behind a tarp, and manage to leap forward quickly enough to grab onto them. It’s a young boy, probably around sixteen, with a face covered in acne scars and long, greasy hair. He squeals when my hand wraps around his arm, and for a second I’m terrified that I accidentally broke the bone in my haste.

“Please don’t take me to jail, my mom’ll kill me!” He shrieks loudly, his voice cracking in the middle of his plea. He holds his other arm up in the air like he’s surrendering, and I get slapped in the face with teenage body odor.

I gag loudly, which I feel horrible about because the boy’s face immediately turns red as mortification replaces simple fear. “You can’t be in here,” I manage to say, only retching once but still keeping my food down. “Please put your arm down. I’m not a cop and I’m not going to arrest you. If you’ll just leave–”

“If you aren’t cops, why do you have guns?” Someone shouts.

“You idiot, they’re military! That makes them even bigger pigs!” Another hisses. “I saw ‘em on TV bumping nasties with the goddamn boot brigade! And if the military’s here, that means–”

“We aren’t here with the military!” Aoi snaps, aggravated by the sound of mid-pubescent voices accusing us of being bootlickers. She reaches towards the nearest drape, tearing it down with a satisfyingly loud rip. There’s no one standing behind it, so she pulls down another. Then, when she realizes that things aren’t going quickly enough for her liking, her hand flashes with light and the nails holding up the tarps are near-instantly amassed into a small ball of metal.

The fabric falls down in unison, like the curtain being lowered at the end of a play, and two other teenagers are revealed. One of them releases a strangled yelp, wrapping her arms around herself like she’s afraid the nails will be launched in her direction. The other– a young boy that’s maybe slightly older than the first– startles at the abrupt lack of cover.

“Oh christ!” The young girl groans, grabbing onto the hem of her jacket and fiddling with it anxiously. “This is bad– Cecil this is really bad. If they sent in these guys, that means–”

“That means nothing! There’s no hive around here and we all know that!” The other, who I assume is the Cecil in question, snarls in return. It’s the same voice that accused us of being military, and his appearance matches what I was expecting almost exactly. Dirty-looking black jeans that match a somehow even filthier-looking denim jacket. Said jacket is covered in patches for a number of different bands. A backpack filled to the brim with stuff is slung across his back. “And if there’s no hive, that means they’re here for something else!”

When he moves, I can hear the sound of glass bumping against itself and metal clinking. The distinctive and recognizable smell of dead skunk hangs in the air, and it’s strong enough to give me an annoyingly painful sinus headache. Ugh. Out of all the teens in the area, of course we had to run into the mini-anarchist that has a chip on his shoulder the size of a mountain.

“Something that doesn’t concern you,” Aoi says, an annoyed expression on her face. She relaxes her hand, and the bundle of nails drops to the floor. “Now get out of here before I-“

“Before you what?” Cecil interrupts her, crossing his arms over his chest and leveling her with an unimpressed glare. I have to give him credit for his sheer bravery. Not many people would be willing to argue with her over something so stupid and inconsequential. Ugh. I can’t even ope that the other two will be able to talk him out of this half-assed standoff. Clearly, he’s this little group’s leader, and I have the impression that he’s going to make this exchange as painful and frustrating as possible.

A muscle near her eye twitches. “If you had kept your mouth shut, I would’ve told you,” She says, slowly and carefully like she’s talking to a toddler. “If you won’t leave on your own accord, we’ll drag your sorry asses back to town and make you explain to your parents that you’ve been hanging out in condemned buildings smoking weed and underage drinking.”

The boy whose arm I’m holding whimpers, like the mere thought is horrifying to him. “Please don’t! We’ll leave! It’s— it’s getting late already and they’re probably wondering where we are!”

Cecil snarls. “Stop being such a puss*, Marcus! They’re just bluffing, and if you actually believe they’re telling the truth, that makes you—“ His rant is cut off by a strangled yelp as he is abruptly lifted a good foot or so above the floor by his backpack. Kicking his legs uselessly, he attempts to reach back and grab at whatever’s holding him up.

His flashlight falls to the ground, rolling across the concrete floor in a wide half-arc. The light sputters for a moment, before shutting off.

The girl covers her mouth with her hands, and the other stares with a horrified, wide-eyed expression.

“You know— we don’t have to ask nicely,” Drifter’s voice cuts through the silence. His form seems to materialize from thin air, briefly lighting the space around him with bright blue energy. One hand is gripping onto the top handle on Cecil’s backpack, while the other rests on his own hip. “Could always just take matters into our own hands.”

“f*cking put me down!” Cecil growls from behind gritted teeth, trying to worm his way out of Drifter’s grasp. “You goddamn— pig f*cking bastard!”

I sigh, then tell Drifter to drop him, like he’s some sort of unruly dog that’s got a shoe in his mouth. He stares at me for a moment, as if to make sure that I’m being serious, before letting go and allowing Cecil to brush himself off. The kid then turns around and flips him off– a gesture that Drifter glady reciprocates.

“How’d he do that?” The girl asks, pointing a trembling finger in Drifter’s direction. “Is he— oh my god, the military is employing dark wizards to torture its citizens!”

“I’m not a wizard!” He snaps in return, as if what she’s saying is worth reacting to at all, much less with a sense of offense and indignation. “And I’m not part of the military! I don’t need some goddamn commander telling me who to kill— I can decide all on my own.”

Her eyes dart downwards, landing on the swords at his sides. Somehow, her face seems to grow even paler, and she takes a step back. “Are you going to kill us?”

“… Huh?” He glances towards her, sounding genuinely baffled at the suggestion. (Which is a good thing, because now is the absolute worst time to joke about murder. He does have some sense stored in that giant body of his.) “What? No, of course not.”

Cecil, seemingly a habitual contrarian and pessimist, can’t let this assurance go unchallenged. “He’s lying! We’ve seen too much and now they’re going to bring us back to their government dungeon and do experiments on us!”

For a second, I assume that there’s no way the other three will believe him. It's just such a ridiculous claim that only an absolute idiot would believe—

“Please don’t!” Marcus suddenly whips around to face me and grabs onto my wrist, squeezing as tightly as he can manage. (Which isn’t much, to be completely honest.) His legs give out from under him, and he nearly drags me to the floor next to him as he practically weeps. “I don’t want to diiiieee!”

“f*ck off and we won’t!” Drifter shouts, pointing towards the floor’s exit. “If you’re so convinced we want to run f*ckin’ tests on you, get the hell away from us!”

The two kids look towards Cecil, who’s red in the face with seething, boiling anger and has his fists clenched at his sides. He grits his teeth loudly enough for me to hear the sound from twenty feet away, then snorts out his nose like a bull. “Fine. Whatever. You old f*cks win. Is that what you want to hear?”

Aoi rolls her eyes. “No. What I want to hear is your footsteps getting further and further away. Beat it, before we decide we don’t want to be nice anymore.”

With one last glare for good measure, Cecil stomps out of the room, quickly tailed by his little group of friends. The silence that follows is practically music to my ears, and I could weep with joy from the sudden lack of hormonal body odor.

I sigh heavily, closing my eyes and rubbing at my temples. There’s a headache coming on— I can feel the beginning of it already, and I just want to get this mess over with.

After a moment of waiting, just to make sure the kids actually left and didn’t just move to a different part of the building, we resume our exploration. We have to make our way down seven flights of stairs just to reach ground level, and then Drifter has to ram through a metal door just so that we can access the basem*nt floors. Aoi easily could’ve done it, but I think he just wanted to show off.

(Show off what? I’m still not sure. I already know that he has a thick skull and enjoys taking the difficult route whenever he can. Still, I won’t act like I didn’t enjoy watching him.)

The lower levels are completely enclosed, so the stench of mold and mildew is nearly overwhelming. He graciously allows Aoi and I to wrap his scarf around our lower faces, just to keep some of the floating debris from getting into our lungs.

We look ridiculous— connected by a long strip of fabric as we navigate through the darkness. It reminds me, distantly, of that childhood game where you have to race with your foot tied to another person’s. If something were to start chasing us, there’d be a good chance one of us would trip and doom ourselves to a bloody and violent end. No, I shouldn’t let myself get caught up in worst-case scenarios. Drifter’s with us, and I know that he’ll at least try to help before running away to save himself.

Still, using his scarf is a preferable alternative to contracting some sort of disease. I don’t want to test the extent of the Helminth’s healing abilities in the face of mold exposure and possible carbon monoxide leaks.

The only source of light comes from the flashlight attachment on my rifle, which really doesn’t do anything to dispel the haunted house atmosphere. Aoi forgot to put new batteries in hers, and it died some five minutes after first turning it on. I feel like we’re cluelessly walking into the start of a horror movie, and that we’re only seconds away from meeting our grisly end.

This is the sort of place that Gwen would hang out in when she was younger. Or— she’d probably still come here if she thought it’d be a good spot for a seance. She always says that consulting with spirits is dangerous, but that doesn’t stop her from doing it. I’m not knowledgeable enough to say for certain if this discrepancy makes her a hypocrite or not. Maybe it’s a matter of expertise. I don’t know, and I won’t pretend like I understand in the slightest.

I’ve caught glimpses of what I think is the other side. Teal light swirling like ink in water, forming into abstract shapes that seem almost familiar if you squint your eyes. Concrete and granite and outstretched hands, beckoning and grasping at the same time.

There are… things there. That’s a certainty in my mind. The Void isn’t empty, despite what the name would suggest. But I don’t think the beings in it are strictly human.

If her seances actually reach something, instead of just being smoke and mirror shows, it’s far older and far less knowable than anyone can comprehend. Though, she rarely partakes in “serious” rituals. The sort that actually channel the Void in a meaningful way, to be exact. Those are more Palladino’s specialty.

We still need to talk to her, now that I think about it. She might not have the same sort of one-on-one experience with The Man In The Wall that Drifter has, but her input could still be useful. Drifter’s told me about some of the stuff that he’s read in Entrati’s journals. About how there’s a distinctly spiritual side of this equation that can’t be ignored. I’ve figured out that much on my own– we can’t rely solely on equations and machinery to solve the issue at hand.

But I can’t help but wonder just how deep that spiritual aspect runs. Will his plan work because he expects it to? Will his sheer belief be enough to manifest an actual result?

Gwen says that’s a thing. Manifestation. Wanting something so badly that it ends up coming to fruition. She also says that it’s far more complicated than just thinking about something for long periods of time and it magically working out. There are affirmations, mindset alterations, energy alignments… all sorts of stuff you have to do before it even has the chance to work. I won’t even pretend like I grasp the concept. Most of her magic stuff goes right over my head.

I can admit that parts of it are real— that there’s at least some truth behind divination and the belief in something greater than ourselves. But I still don’t believe in ghosts. This place isn’t haunted. There’s a much scarier reason as to why everything feels off.

The time-slips are becoming more common and more severe. An entire wall has been replaced with the steel siding of a Grineer galleon, and half of the support beams are decorated with Corpus livery and (thankfully) non-functional tech. Any idiot would be able to tell that something weird’s going on.

Void energy is thick in the air, clogging my nose and lining the inside of my throat with its sickening sweetness. A part of me feels like I’ve returned to the Zariman, with its ghostly whispers and bitingly cold, stagnant air. I can feel paranoia teasing at the edges of my mind, whispering about how easy it would be to just turn tail and run out of this horrible place.

If Entrati thinks that two protoframes and a Tenno are enough to handle the issue, that must mean it isn’t that big of a deal, right? What can we do that the Military couldn’t? Sure, he said that they’d try to look into things afterwards, but it’s not like they’d ever actually figure out what’s happening, right?

They’d never figure out, much less believe, that all of this is caused by the strands of eternalism crossing over each other. Their best explanation would be that it’s some weird unauthorized art piece.

I shake my head to clear away the now-familiar feeling of Void meddling.

We end up taking a right into a long, dark hallway. Puddles of stagnant water cover the concrete floor, and the dark, muddy color of them makes me feel like I could catch something just by looking at them for too long. When I shine my flashlight over the water, the surface reflects a shimmering rainbow.

I watch as a massive spider runs across the floor, crossing over Drifter’s foot before disappearing underneath a nearby door. It doesn’t seem like he noticed it, so I keep my mouth shut as we continue forward. He’s completely fine with Marina the Maggot, who I understand isn’t technically a bug but still looks extremely similar to one, but hates regular insects. He thinks they’re too small and easily missable. There’s absolutely no way to miss a Carnis, but you could be living with a bunch of spiders in your house without ever realizing.

I argued that if he can shake off a bullet to the head, there’s no way a tiny spider could ever harm him in any meaningful way. Apparently, the fear of bodily injury isn’t the core reason behind his fear. He just doesn’t like how many legs they have and how quickly they move. Something about the combination unnerves him.

Marina is an exception because she both isn’t technically an insect, and makes cute noises when she’s sleeping. I think he and I have different definitions of cute.

The walls are covered in long, sprawling cracks that definitely don’t make me feel like the entire building is about to collapse on top of us. Down here, the graffiti is less common and more spread out, like fewer people are willing to make the journey into the plant’s depths.

I don’t blame them. The only reason I’m here at all is because I’ve been dragged along by someone who loves having a task to do more than his own safety. I feel the need to repeat myself: If it wasn’t for Entrati, I’d more than likely still be in my bed sleeping off a food coma. Just another reason for me to hate the bastard.

“Do you hear that?” Aoi mutters, grabbing onto my arm and coming to a stop. Drifter and I glance back at her, keeping silent and straining our ears for whatever it is she’s talking about. There– low, continuous rumbling, undercut by whispering Void-tongue. I remember hearing a similar ambience in the Sanctum, where the line between our world and the Void is razor-thin. The sound seems to originate from behind one of the many doors lining the hallway.

One in particular catches my attention. A small pile of sand has accumulated in front of it, having blown through the gap underneath it. Faint light streams through the openings in the doorway, but I can’t say it really illuminates anything around it.

Drifter huffs, kicking at an especially large sand pile as he approaches the door. “This just keeps getting better and better. Why can’t anything ever be easy?” He places his hand on the handle, twists it, and pulls the door open. The light abruptly cuts out, and all three of us jolt as a shrill scream pierces the air.

“Jesus Christ!” He gasps out, clutching at his chest as he turns away. “Ugh, you scared the sh*t out of me!”

“You’re the one that’s following us, pig!” Cecil— because of course he didn’t actually listen to us— shouts back. The room behind the door turns out to (thankfully) be completely normal. That means it’s covered in black mold spots and half-collapsed, but at least it isn’t some sort of portal to the Sanctum.

My relief only extends so far, and I feel my migraine return full-force. We told them to leave. They reluctantly agreed, but here they are. Decidedly still in the building and still our problem to deal with.

Drifter presses the heel of his palm against the front of his mask, sighing heavily as all four of the teens exit the room. Cecil looks no less angry than he did earlier, and the rest still look one bad fright away from passing out. The air is tense as both groups stare at each other, waiting to see who will make the first move.

This, of course, ends up being Aoi. “You said you were going to leave.” She crosses her arms over her chest, leveling the teens with a scrutinizing look.

“We did!” The girl cries out. Her eyes shine in the dim light, and her tears have caused streaks of mascara to trail down her cheeks. “I mean– we tried to, but– but all the exits are gone! We re-traced our steps exactly, but everything’s all different! We–” She looks around, wringing her hands together and licking at her lips nervously. “Every time we think we’ve found the exit, it just keeps leading further into this place! I– please don’t arrest us…”

Aoi raises an eyebrow, then looks towards Drifter.

There’s a tenseness to his posture that both worries and confuses me. The line of his back is ramrod straight, like he’s a soldier being called to attention by a commanding officer. “Give me one of your beer cans,” He says, turning towards Cecil and holding out one of his hands. “I can hear them in your backpack. No point in trying to pretend you don’t have them.”

A pause.

“Are you being serious right now?” Aoi says, sounding appropriately baffled. Her hands drop to her sides, and her eyebrows furrow as she stares at him. “Please tell me you aren’t asking for alcohol from a bunch of children.

Cecil glances towards us, but when we don’t physically intervene and Drifter doesn’t back down, he swings his backpack to his front and begins to rummage through it. “Here,” He huffs, placing a beer can in Drifter’s outstretched hand. We watch as he turns his back to us, facing the dark hallway that stretches out ahead. It’s impossible to see the end of it– when I aim my flashlight, the pitch black seems to swallow up the (admittedly meager) light source.

(How long were we walking down this singular hallway? Now that I think about it, I’m sure that there’s no way it could actually fit within the scope of the factory. It’s too long, even considering the size of the compound. I feel like we’ve been walking for days– weeks, even. But that can’t be right. Thanksgiving was yesterday, wasn’t it? We left for the factory early last month. No, sh*t, we left yesterday. No. Why are my thoughts so messy? Did a different Arthur leave yesterday? Last week? Last month?)

(Those Arthurs never met Drifter. They don’t have someone to guide them through what a time-slip is or to break it that they’re quite literally wearing someone else’s skin. Do I pity those versions of me? I guess I do. In a vague and ambiguous way.)

(They’re doomed to succumb. Bitterness rises in my throat at the thought. What have I done that makes me so special? Why do I deserve to live while they don’t? The Man In The Wall is protecting me out of some misplaced and dangerous sense of duty. Or out of a desire to be seen as helpful. I can’t just ask it to go along the strands of eternalism, ensuring that the infinite other Arthurs don’t go insane, can I?)

(… can I?)

Drifter bends down slightly, lifting the beer can back like it’s a bowling ball. He swings his arm, releasing the can and standing up straight as it rolls down the hall and into the darkness. The sound of aluminum scraping against concrete echoes, slowly growing fainter and fainter. Aoi starts to say something, more than likely a snide comment about how informative that was, but Drifter holds up a hand and cuts her off with a muttered wait.

There’s a faint, almost imperceptible knocking, but I have no idea if it’s being caused by it or it’s merely a result of the building’s age. But there– steadily growing louder and sending a chill up my spine– is the sound of the can continuing to roll.

I glance back over my shoulder, watching with held breath as the can re-emerges from the shadows surrounding us. It bumps against my foot, finally coming to a rest.

“Huh,” Drifter says, propping his fists against his hips. “Recursive geometry. That’s not good.”

“We’re going to die here, aren’t we?” Marcus whimpers, covering his face with his hands as his shoulders begin to shake. “I knew this was a bad idea but I let you talk me into it…”

My mouth curls into a frown, and I’d try to comfort him if I didn’t already know it would end horribly. “This isn’t anything serious,” I sigh, glancing towards Drifter and Aoi. They look at each other, but know better than to correct me. “It’s just a… minor case of time travel, is all. Nothing to be worried about.”

Both Cecil and the girl narrow their eyes at us, obviously and understandably skeptical of my assurances. “A minor case of time travel?” He parrots back, tilting his head to the side.

“It’s a bit more complicated than that, but we don’t have time to explain.” Drifter’s dismissal makes both of them scowl, but I’m assuming they’re still too scared of him to argue back. (How come I’m not scary enough to prevent back talking?) “Just stick close and don’t touch anything, alright? All we have to do is figure out the root cause and destroy it. Simple as that.”

“Right,” I huff as he continues down the darkened hallway. “Simple as that.”

While we wander, seemingly aimlessly, through the lower floors of the production plant, I very quickly come to the realization that the kids aren’t scared of Drifter as much as they’re intrigued by him. Cecil, Marcus, and Brynn (the girl, who only introduced herself after some gentle budging from Aoi) have a million different questions that they just can’t wait to ask.

Brynn wants to know how he was able to make himself invisible if he isn’t some sort of wizard. She says that she’s heard about books containing ancient rituals and instructions on how to make pacts with demons.

I can’t help but wonder— how do I keep meeting people that dabble in the occult? Am I just a magnet for weirdos and social outcasts? It’s really starting to look that way.

Drifter is adamant about the fact that he isn’t a wizard, but he did, technically, make a deal with an ancient entity in exchange for his powers. Not a demon in the literal red horns and pitchfork sense, but one could certainly argue that it counts as one. Brynn seems to find the idea of getting into a poorly discussed contract with a Void-entity incredibly interesting.

Even Cecil seems to think it’s at least more interesting than just staring at the floor while silently walking. He asks— if you aren’t some sort of pig or boot, why do you kill people?

That leads into a very informative discussion about mercenaries and blood money. Turns out, according to Cecil, killing people for money is marginally more respectable than killing them in the name of peacekeeping. I should know better than to expect ideological consistency.

None of them really believe that he’s from the future, which I don’t blame them for in the slightest. I’m actually kind of grateful that they don’t believe him— that means they’re less likely to spread word that the prestigious and mysterious Dr. Entrati is currently employing a terrorist from the future in order to fight an evil Void god. Not that Drifter’s told them all of that, of course, but I can’t be certain he won’t let something like that slip.

Just saying that he’s from the future is enough for now. They clearly think he’s lying straight to their faces, but they must be getting some amount of entertainment from his answers, because they won’t stop asking him things.

Yes, the swords are real. No, they aren’t like the cheap ones your cool older cousin bought from the mall. These ones can actually hurt you without immediately shattering into a million tiny pieces. Marcus asks, with obvious reluctance, if he can hold one of them. Drifter doesn’t entertain the request.

He does let Marcus hold his amp, though. Mainly because it’s quite literally useless in the hands of anyone besides a Tenno. It channels their Void energy into a more easily utilized form, concentrating it enough that it can be weaponized without harmful side effects.

Tenno can use their innate Void beams as weapons, but I’ve been told that doing so usually causes more trouble than it’s worth.

When he explained all of this, Drifter used Kazuhira as an example. His hands show extensive scarring from using his Void powers without an amp. His fingers are almost entirely made of Void steel, with ends sharpened into claws capable of tearing through Sword-steel and regular steel alike.

I’ve been told that he uses said claws to both climb up things he’s not supposed to and attack his brother. There’s no method of reversing the Void damage, which Drifter knows because he’s extremely unfond of the fact that Kaz has built-in weaponry.

There’s no proven method to fixing the root issue, though. You can make the affected areas look normal, but only for short periods of time, and it’s only ever a mask. And no matter how many times you file down the claw tips (because that’s something Drifter has to do. File down Kaz’s claws like he’s his pet cat) they always grow back just as sharp.

It’s just easier to use amps and avoid the problem altogether. But, again, the tech does absolutely nothing if anyone that isn’t gifted with Void magic handles it.

The fact that Marcus keeps aiming it at people still makes me nervous, though. I released the breath I didn’t know I was holding when Drifter snatched it from his hand, grumbling about common sense and safety.

“So,” Brynn says after a long moment of silence. “What’s it like being… y’know. Like that?” She waves a hand in my and Aoi’s general direction. There’s a look of genuine curiosity on her face, so I give her the benefit of the doubt and don’t assume any sort of malicious intent behind her question. “Was it painful at first? It looks like it was painful.”

I huff, reaching up to scratch at a spot on my neck. “Truth be told, I don’t remember most of it. They kept me on enough sedatives to kill a horse. Afterwards, it was, uh… definitely a lot to get used to.”

She hums and nods, turning her attention back in the direction we’re going. “It’s kind of weird that you’re technically naked, but I guess I can respect it. A lot of authors say clothes are a prison—“

“I’m not talking about stuff like that with a teenager.”

Her mouth closed with an audible click. “Oh. Right. Different subject, then. How come he’s never on TV with you guys?” She points at Drifter. “He’s, like, part of your little squad or something, isn’t he? Is he meant to replace that other guy that disappeared a while ago? What happened to him, anyways? Did he retire?”

“He’s not a replacement for Adrian,” I answer, my voice tight and slightly more snappy than appropriate. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Drifter glance back at me, but I ignore him. “And you haven’t seen him during any official events because he’s not officially associated with us.”

“I’m something of an independent contractor. They only call me in when they feel like they’re in over their heads.” There’s a lilting, amused quality to his tone. “And the government doesn’t want the public to know that they employ dark wizards.

“I wouldn’t say that, but… yeah. He’s a temporary addition to the team.” Pausing, I kick at the scar on my lip. “And Adrian didn’t retire. He died.”

Her face falls, the curious expression giving way to something more somber and pensive. She opens her mouth to speak, but gets cut off by Cecil. “What happened? None of the news channels ever gave a specific reason. It was all just he-said she-said crap. The official statement was a load of bullsh*t too.”

Yeah. It was. An entire speech about heroically dying in the line of duty, giving his life in order to protect others. A noble sacrifice that’ll never be forgotten. The entire charade left a bad taste in my mouth that only alcohol could wash away.

“It’s… complicated,” I say, leaving it at that.

They clearly want me to keep going, but I’m not about to spill private information on the death of a dear friend to a bunch of ungrateful, aggravating teenagers. I keep my mouth shut, and they eventually get the hint.

The hallway continues to stretch on in front of us, and for a second I think Drifter’s f*cking with us when all he does is walk in a straight line. I’m certain that we’ve already confirmed this is an infinite hallway. No amount of walking will ever lead us to its end. There’s a dead co*ckroach on the floor that we’ve passed no fewer than ten times.

But, the moment I’m about to say something, he takes a sharp right into one of the adjoining rooms. As he opens its door, light spills into the hallway, pale and cold and horribly familiar.

“Holy sh*t…” Cecil mutters as we step into a half-formed study, the architecture of which has quite literally been taken straight from Entrati’s personal labs. The ceiling rises at least twenty feet above our heads, with a small balcony tucked against the side closest to us. Past the giant floor-to-ceiling windows, lighting flickers and briefly bathes everything in a strange purple light.

The atmosphere is thick with energy and electricity, and I can feel it buzzing faintly against my skin. Wind howls behind the windows, churning and rattling the panes loudly. I can’t help but wonder how much of it is just an illusion. If I broke the glass, would I be able to step outside onto Deimos? I want to ask, but I also know better than to give a bunch of temperamental and stubborn kids any ideas. There’s absolutely no way they’d be able to keep their mouths shut if they knew they technically stepped foot on a different planet. The last thing I want to do is keep an eye on them to ensure they don’t start telling other people about all of this. Limiting what they’re allowed to see and what we explain is vital.

While a majority of the room is the same as what you’d expect to see on Deimos, there are a few small differences. Twisted pieces of rusty metal and old rebar stick out from the walls, and patches of the floor are composed of old concrete. Modern graffiti covers the walls, partially blocking out the glowing notes carved into the material. Entrati’s labs always smelled faintly like ozone and oil, but now the only thing I can detect is mold and waterlogged asbestos. Truly a great combination.

“Don’t touch anything,” Drifter says as he walks in, pointing at the kids with an accusatory finger. His footsteps echo against the tall, vaulted walls, cutting through the droning ambiance. “This stuff is dangerous and the last thing I want to do is explain to your parents why their kid got turned into a pile of dust.”

Cecil mutters something under his breath, but I don’t care enough to try and decipher it. The temperature inside the bureau is at least fifteen degrees colder than outside, but the humidity of the factory has managed to persevere. Along one of the walls is a large bookshelf filled to the brim with novels and pamphlets and magazines. When I walk over to get a closer look, I see that a majority of the texts are instruction manuals for car production and maintenance. Only one stands out from the rest– a sizable book that has future-dialect scrawled across its spine.

I carefully pull it out of the bookshelf, surprised by how heavy it is for its size. With one hand, I wipe the dust off of its front cover. “The Palimpsest of Spacetime,” I read aloud, drawing Drifter’s attention. “Written by A. and E. Entrati.”

He moves to stand next to me, peering over my shoulder at the novel in my hands. When he reaches over, I let him take it from me. “Huh… as far as I know, they never released a physical version… the Orokin preserved almost everything digitally. Stuff like this was seen as old-fashioned. I know that Albrecht Entrati and Loid kept a lot of ink-and-paper books, but…” He opens it, flipping to a random page.

We are greeted by a veritable wall of text, cut only by a near-indecipherable graph in the center. A majority of the words, I don’t recognize and can just barely translate. There are mentions of the resonant frequencies of Seriglass and how said frequencies react to both ambient and condensed Void energy. Drifter switches to another page, this one significantly less daunting in both language and subject matter. Eternalism is something that I’m still not sure I entirely understand, but I figure I have the gist of it.

Infinite choices branching out into infinite possibilities. He said he was condensed— that while there are an endless number of Arthurs, there’s only two of him. Did the others just… disappear? Die? Get written out of existence entirely?

The page states that even if past events are rewritten, traces of the original will still exist. What does that entail? What kind of hints are left behind when an entire person just… stops existing? If every version of him was joined into two, does that mean he has their memories?

I shouldn’t be asking these kinds of questions. Their answers are above my pay grade and I doubt they’d give me any sort of closure.

“Loid might like having something like this,” Drifter continues, closing the book and turning it over in his hands. It’s in pretty decent condition, all things considered. A little dusty and dirty, sure, but now falling apart at the seams. “He’s already got physical copies of this one, but having one that’s the product of a time-slip would be pretty neat. Sort of a collector’s edition, I guess.”

“Are these books from the future?” Brynn calls from the other side of the room, obscured by one of the bureau’s support columns. There’s another sound, hidden just below her voice. Continuous, quiet, angry-sounding whispering.

A pit opens in my chest. Something isn’t right. Well, something other than the obvious.

Drifter tucks the book under his arm, turning to glance back over his shoulder. “Uh… some of them are. Why’re you asking?”

“This one’s floating!”

Abruptly, his shoulders tense and the book falls from his hold. He turns around quickly, lunging towards where the three kids are standing but he just isn’t fast enough.

Almost in slow motion, I watch as Brynn reaches towards a floating, glowing book hovering about chest-level above the ground. Strange energy emanates from it, and as her finger comes in contact with its rough, textured surface, all hell breaks loose.

A wave of Void energy tears through the small room, nearly knocking me off of my feet and throwing all three of the kids to the ground. I watch in horror as a figure emerges from a coiling, rolling cloud of smoke.

It’s Brynn. Except it isn’t.

Her mouth is pulled into a wide, sneering grin, and her eyes are a cloudy black. There are too many teeth crammed into her mouth, and her hands have the wrong number of fingers and one eye is higher up than the other and everything about this mimic is wrong. It laughs at us– a horrible, grating, piercing sound that sends shivers down my spine.

“f*ck me!” Drifter shouts as concentrated Void energy erupts from the thing’s hands, carving through the air, only narrowly missing us. The parts of the ground hit full-force by the attack sizzle and bubble from the intense heat before silvery curls of Void-steel begin to sprout from the charred material. “Of course it’s a f*cking whisper! God damn it!” The whisper starts to aim another attack, this time directed towards Marcus, but Drifter manages to grab onto the kid’s arm and pull him out of the way.

Marcus wails loudly, clutching onto Drifter for dear life as the two of them land hard. Cecil and Brynn both scramble to put distance between them and the whisper, who laughs and laughs until its attention turns towards me and then suddenly, all of this isn’t funny anymore.

Its smile drops as it stares, and for a second I swear it looks almost confused. But its pause is short lived, and I can do nothing but watch as its form ripples and changes. There’s a brief flash of pale Void un-light, and suddenly the whisper is mimicking my appearance. Granted, it’s a poor imitation; half my face is replaced with the smooth mask of an Excalibur, and I’m certain my nose isn’t that crooked.

But there are more important things to worry about than the fact that a creepy Void-being isn’t very good at replicating my appearance. Like the fact that it has an exalted blade in its hand, and is raising said blade above its head.

I close my eyes before the radial blind goes off, but I hear both Aoi and Drifter shout in pain as they’re temporarily blinded. Cracking open one eye, I unholster my rifle and take aim at the whisper. The first shot hits it square in the chest, causing it to lurch backwards from the force. The sound rings through the enclosed space, and as he slips a hand beneath his mask, desperately rubbing at his eyes, Drifter yells at me to keep shooting that f*cking thing.

I don’t need to be told twice.

My bullets tear through the mimic, punching evenly-sized holes into its facade. It doesn’t bleed or give any indication that it’s in pain— the only sign that I’m actually doing anything to it is the Void energy drifting out of its wounds and the slight sloppiness of its movements.

Marcus falls to the ground, army-crawling towards the door while crying. It’s kind of pathetic, but I can at least respect his ability to multitask. Cecil and Brynn suck behind one of the columns, shaking and wide-eyed and clearly terrified.

Drifter quickly recovers, and takes the whisper’s brief moment of distraction to attack. One of his swords curves through the air, catching on the mimic’s skin and tearing through it.

More and more Void energy leaks out of it, turning the air thick and oppressive. It laughs with my face but Brynn’s voice as Drifter rolls out of the way of its reciprocal attack. Flashes of blue energy illuminate the bureau, and if we don’t get rid of this thing as soon as possible, we’ll have to explain to a bunch of grieving parents how their precious kids were cut in half by a ghost.

Aoi’s hands light up as the room’s metal decorations are torn from the wall and utilized as makeshift spears. Twisted lances of gold pierce through the whisper, pinning it against the wall.

Like a balloon, its outer shell shreds away as concentrated Void energy explodes from within it. Not-Brynn reappears, her laughter ringing through the inside of my skull as she floats into the air. Beneath her, the book rapidly flips through its pages, producing a sound that reminds me almost of chattering teeth.

“The grimoire!” Drifter shouts, grabbing Cecil and Brynn by the back of their shirts and pulling them towards the door. “Shoot the book! That’s the only way to kill it!”

Right. sh*t. Okay.

I reload, adjusting my aim and emptying my clip into the book. Pieces of not-paper tear apart and are sent flying, while the grimoire itself begins to make a hissing, churning sound. I narrowly dodge another Void blast, feeling the blazing heat as the beam nearly grazes my skin. Another round of bullets– the whisper’s appearance flickers and the movement of the book becomes erratic. One more– the book’s outer shell shatters, and the whispers desperately claws at the air as it’s pulled feet-first back into its bound prison.

The grimoire snaps shut before disappearing in a puff of smoke, and a small metal object falls to the ground beneath. Silence ensues, and all of us turn to look at each other.

“I brought a bomb with me,” Drifter eventually says, and I close my eyes and nod.

We stand by Aoi’s car, watching silently as flames slowly consume the abandoned manufacturing plant. Pitch-black, roiling smoke rises into the sky, blocking out our view of the rising sun. The stench of burning oil fills the air and clogs my nostrils, but when Drifter wordlessly offers me a cigarette, I accept it.

A pleasant buzz runs through my body as nicotine enters my lungs. Eventually, either because she’s feeling left out or nostalgic for her troublemaking days, Aoi bumps Drifter’s arm and asks for a smoke. Cecil tries his luck, but isn’t successful.

The sound of birdsong reaches my ears, and every now and then I catch a whiff of fresh air. My phone says we were in there for 12 hours. I don’t know if I feel like it was longer or shorter. The entire sh*tshow is still a blur in my mind. I’ll be happy to put all of it behind me and pretend like it never happened. Hopefully the kids will be able to do the same.

“You know you can’t tell anyone about this, right?” I ask, glancing down at where they’re all sitting on the ground. “We can’t have people snooping around, trying to dig stuff up.”

Marcus and Brynn both nod, but Cecil looks like he wants to argue. He makes faces and twists his mouth side to side as he stares out into the distance. “But what was that thing? Why did it look like Brynn? Why did it look like you? I just…” He sighs heavily. “I want to understand.”

“There’s nothing to understand,” Aoi huffs, tapping the end of her cigarette to knock off some of the ash that’s accumulated. “It was all a bad dream. The sooner you internalize that, the-“

“Whispers are bad thoughts given form,” Drifter interrupts her, ignoring the glare she shoots him. “Conceptual embodiments of every terrible thing running through your brain. One Albrecht Entrati managed to seal them up years ago, so by the time some chump comes along and lets them out, they’re finally able to give all their anger an outlet.”

He brings the cigarette to his mouth and pulls in a deep breath, holding it in his chest for a moment longer before exhaling. I won’t admit it out loud, both because his ego’s already massive and there are strangers with us, but he looks good. Like the idealized version of a bad boy thought up by a lonely, desperate writer. “Hopefully, that’s the only one that managed to worm its way into this timeline.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Brynn says, sticking a finger in her ear and twisting it like she thinks she misheard him. “You’re saying Albrecht Entrati— the guy that created that cure that saved a bunch of people— is responsible for that… floating book thing? How?”

“Magic,” He answers with a wide, boyish smile. Her eyes dart to his exposed mouth— to the fangs gleaming in the early morning light.

None of them argue. They’ve seen too much to be able to say with certainty that he’s lying. Then; a loud rumble, originating from deep underground. Drifter’s grin widens, and we watch as an explosion sends chunks of concrete flying into the air. My ears ring as the aftershock passes over us, and if we weren’t already a safe distance away, I’d probably yell at him for putting a bunch of teenagers in danger.

As it is, I’m content to sit and watch as the day's previous events go up in a pillar of flame. Sure, this’ll inevitably end up in the news and bring in even more attention, but I’m too tired to care right now. We’ll let Entrati deal with the consequences of this little mission. He’ll probably be able to pull some invisible strings and ensure no one even remembers there was a factory here in the first place.

“So, uh… I don’t suppose you’d be willing to give us a ride back to town?”

Parasite - Chapter 22 - Aalligade (2024)


What are the parasites in alligators? ›

One species of pentastome (Sebekia oxycephala), two species of nematodes (Dujardinascaris waltoni and Multicaecum tenuicolle), four species of trematodes (Polycotyle ornata, Acanthostomum coronarium, Archaeodiplostomum acetabulatum and Pseudocrocodilicola americaniense) and one species of hemogregarine (Haemogregarina ...

How big can an alligator get? ›

Female alligators rarely exceed 10 feet in length, but males can grow much larger. The Florida state record for length is a 14 foot 3-1/2 inch male from Lake Washington in Brevard County. The Florida record for weight is a 1,043 pound (13 feet 10-1/2 inches long) male from Orange Lake in Alachua County.

What is the taxonomy of the American alligator? ›

American alligator
American alligator Temporal range:
Species:A. mississippiensis
19 more rows

Where do alligators live in the United States? ›

Native Habitat

The American alligator is found in the United States from North Carolina to the Rio Grande in Texas. Alligators are usually found in freshwater, slow-moving rivers. They also live in swamps, marshes and lakes. They can only tolerate salt water for brief periods because they do not have salt glands.

What are the deadliest parasites in the world? ›

This is definitely true.
  • Grab on to a list of some of the most dangerous parasites on Earth:
  • Brain-eating amoeba, Naegleria fowleri. ...
  • Castrator of Crabs, Sacculina. ...
  • Tissue eating Parasite, Cochliomyia. ...
  • Lung worm, Cryptostrongylus pulmonic. ...
  • Eye dwelling parasite, Loa loa. ...
  • Spirometra erinaceieuropae. ...
  • Dragon worm, Dracunculus.
Sep 16, 2015

What are the 3 most common parasites? ›

There are three types of human parasites:
  • Protozoa: Protozoa are single-celled organisms that can multiply in humans. ...
  • Helminths: Helminths are parasitic worms that often root in a person's digestive tract. ...
  • Ectoparasites: Ectoparasites are small organisms that live on the outside of the body.
Mar 22, 2022

Can alligators live to 200? ›

In the wild on a average American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) Can live up to 30 – 50 years. In captivity however It's been proven they can live even longer from 70 years Or older.

What is the largest alligator ever found? ›

The largest alligator on record measured 5.8 meters (19 feet 2 inches) and the heaviest, taken in recent times near Gainesville, Florida, weighed 473 kilograms (1,043 lbs). However, such large and heavy animals are quite uncommon.

Do alligators live to be 100? ›

The record alligator taken in Louisiana was 19 feet 2 inches. Alligators live about as long as humans and average 70 years, but can be 100 years old, if they can survive a difficult life which starts with biting and fighting that never ends.

What state has the most alligators? ›

Louisiana and Florida have the largest alligator populations—there are more than one million wild alligators in each state. Although alligators can be found in ponds, lakes, canals, rivers, swamps, and bayous in Louisiana, they are most common in our coastal marshes.

How old is a 1 foot alligator? ›

The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) grows about 1 foot per year for the first 4-6 years. Then a gator's growth slows down and stops at about 20 years old. They can live up to 50 years.

What are the 3 types of alligators? ›

The two extant species are the American alligator (A. mississippiensis) and the Chinese alligator (A. sinensis). Additionally, several extinct species of alligator are known from fossil remains.

What is the farthest north an alligator has been found? ›

American alligators can be found in the coastal wetlands of the U.S. Southeast, as far north as North Carolina and as far west as eastern Texas.

What do alligators do at night? ›

Alligators primarily hunt at dusk or during the night. They lie motionless in wait for prey. Their prey selection seems to be determined primarily by size.

Can alligators climb trees? ›

Both Crocodiles and Alligators can climb trees and they've both been spotted perched on tree branches as high up as 30 feet. And they're so good at climbing that NASA had to start installing special Alligator proof chain link fences.

What are the 4 parasites that cause diarrhea? ›

Amebiasis is the principal cause of acute diarrhea. The other intestinal parasites cause chronic diarrhea, including in temperate countries; these include Giardia, Cryptosporidium, and Microsporidium species in immunocompromised patients.

Does alligator meat have parasites? ›

So you would risk getting sick as you would from eating undercooked chicken. Not to mention, alligators often live in swamps or other stagnant/slow moving water ways, and like all animals they are susceptible to parasites, some of which could be transferable to humans.

What are the parasites in crocodiles? ›

Paratrichosma spp. are capillarid worms that parasitize the abdominal skin of crocodiles. They are likely not a threat to crocodiles' health, but they affect the skins' commercial value.

What diseases do alligators carry? ›

Table 2 Bacteria Reported from Crocodilians
USA l/ (alligators)Germany 2/ (alligators)Zimbabwe 3/ (Nile crocodile)
G - PasturellaAeromonasSalmonella arizona
AeromonasSalmonellaSalmonella (other types)

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