Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story. The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.
Noodle Ration Film Ration Game Ration
The ration arrived by drone, dropped in an unlabeled box upon their doorstep. There was a cat door, just wide enough for their arms to fit through, grab the box, and pull the ration inside. Once Jetty had it he slowly walked it away from the dark entrance and into the planetarium. They had a small portable stove set up in there so they could eat under the dim glow of all the fake stars.
Ms. Grey wasn’t sitting around the stove where he’d left her, so he just went about opening the box himself. She was probably off trying to figure out their low-power emergency toilet. He cut along the top with a box cutter and peeled the plain paper away. Last time they had to sit through an attack the rations had funny pictures on them: smiling helicopters dropping noodles and fruit leather across a clamoring cityscape. This time the labels were just pale green: Government issue noodles, vegetables, and chicken broth.
Jetty dropped a dry brick of noodles into the pot and poured in some water. He tried to rip open the vegetable and flavoring packet with his teeth, but ended up resorting to the box cutter once more. It only served to further his irritation, making him feel as if there was nothing he could do in the situation at all. He was little more than a houseplant that would wilt if the wrong sort of thing stuck its eye in the window and looked at him.
It was bad enough when he was trapped at home, but the observatory was where he did his community service, cleaning up after the planetarium shows, doing light clerical work for Ms. Grey, and occasionally staring off into a galaxy in the fake sky. Now it was just him and Ms. Grey, riding it out until the thing got bored and left the city.
He was going to sneak a larger portion of the noodles into his own cup, and was in the midst of pouring them, but Ms. Grey walked in, straightening her cardigan. She was nearing fifty, Jetty, who was just eighteen, could hear it in her cracking spine as she took one of the planetarium seats near the stove and held out her hand. Jetty gave her a cup with a perfect half-ration.
“How long do you think it’ll last this time?” he asked her. She blew on her noodles and sipped at them first, slurping one down noisily. He grimaced. Why couldn’t she act like all the other women her age? She needed to be liker his teachers, always droning on about something literary or scientific in a way that facilitated his day dreaming. Ms. Grey always demanded attention without being loud, through the use of strange sounds, threatening facial expressions, and a grumpy aura.
“It’ll stick around until it has had its fill,” she offered, wiping the broth off her lips with a hand.
“My dad says he only stays until he get bored.”
“Does your dad have the most powerful telescope in town?”
“Well we do,” she said. Delicately, more delicately than she did most things, Ms. Grey set her noodles down on the floor and stood. “Come on, I’ll show you what I mean.”
Giant Medical Larvae Giant Blind Amphibian Giant Alien Stargazer
There were many telescopes in the observatory, including the giant one they moved under that Jetty couldn’t help but stare up at every time, but Ms. Grey brought him into her office where she had a lovely antique one, circa 1997, with a brass casing. She popped her eye into it, moved it around until she settled on their target, and then stepped aside for Jetty to take a look.
He could smell her perfume, if that’s even what it was, it smelled like a tiger skin rug in need of vacuuming, on the lens. Thoughts of her faded the moment he actually saw the beast across the city, stalking between the buildings and examining the windows.
Stalking wasn’t the right word. Jetty wasn’t the best student, so he didn’t have the right word, but he compared it to the fat wobbling of an elephant seal across a beach. The monster, Grossias as the English-speaking world called it, had been a fact of life for nearly four years now. Jetty saw his first attack when he was fourteen. He angled the telescope up and waited for it to turn around. He wondered if he’d see something new on its face, something to suggest it was either growing and changing or diseased and dying.
When it did he saw the same thing as always: a face covered in chitin the color of popcorn hulls. It was an impenetrable shield, capable of deflecting tank shells without a scratch or crack. Its tiny eyes were protected by translucent covers of the same material. Its jaws were white pincers, sharp enough to poke through a hundred trampolines like a syringe through skin.
Grossius was a maggot, and behind its head shield it certainly looked the part, despite its lilac coloration. It moved like a sock full of cookie dough, waves passing through its flesh, a sight disturbing enough to even give some people seasickness. The boy watched as Grossius spotted a tiny light in one of the buildings. Fools. They knew not to turn anything on. The maggot stared, even after the light blinked out.
“I still can’t believe that thing is our fault,” he said; it was nearly a whisper even though Grossius was too far away to hear and responded more to light and vibrations anyway.
“Well it’s not my fault, or yours,” Ms. Grey said plainly. “He was one in ten thousand medical maggots and just happened to be the one munching on the wrong spot of necrotic tissue.” She brought a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket, pulled one halfway out, sighed, and stored them away again.
“I don’t care if you smoke,” Jetty said. “I used to smoke.”
“There’s two of us in here and we need to show each other respect,” she reasoned. “It’s your air too.” He wasn’t looking at her anymore. He was distracted, engrossed, by the swell of Grossius the medical anti-miracle in the distance.
“Oh god. I think he’s going to eat those people. We need to do something.” He pulled away from the telescope and looked around.
Flash a Light Call the Authorities Panic and get Restrained
Jetty spotted a handheld spotlight nearby. He rushed over to it, lifted the heavy, yellow, plastic thing, and aimed it out the window. He had depressed the switch five or six times, flashing the light in the distant eye of Grossius, before Ms. Grey got to him and wrenched the device from his hands. She tossed it across the room, its face cracking when it hit the wall.
“What are you doing you little shit?” she hissed. “I just said we have to respect each and you go and do that?” She shoved him away and looked through the telescope. Grossius had turned their way. Slowly the maggot undulated in their direction. Its white mandibles clicked against each other and dripped a rope of slime thicker than those holding down parade balloons.
“We had to save them,” Jetty said in his defense. “Come on. We’ll hide in the planetarium where there are no windows. He’ll get bored as soon as he gets here. We’ll be fine.”
“And if we’re not?” she asked. “Maybe he’ll just crawl on top of the building and crush the ceiling. Maybe he’ll destroy this whole place and I’ll be out of a job. Did you think about that?”
“You’re just wasting time,” he said, “Let’s go before he sees you.” Jetty walked off, hoping her fear would cool her off a little. He returned to their little stove and their half-eaten noodles, now too cool to be enjoyable, and sat on the floor with crossed legs. It would be fine. Grossius had been outside his family’s house once before. They’d heard it outside, breathing through its skin, a sound like weeds stuck in a pool drain, but nothing had come of it. If it didn’t see any movement or light it would move on.
Jetty felt like he knew the creature. It was practically their city’s mascot because it was born there, in one of their hospitals, in one of their wings for strange infectious diseases. Little Grossius, a nameless larvae in a huge brood, had eaten something very strange out of an unexplained wound and grown uncontrollably.
He was still something recognizable: a creature of habit. He traveled the world, swimming the oceans and invading various cities, but he always returned home. He always forced everyone to turn out their lights, sit still in the darkness, and let the government drones send them rations of food and medicine until he left once more.
Jetty knew him. He could never leave home either, even though he only caused trouble most of the time. Grossius ate away at the decay, and he couldn’t change the way he saw the world. He was just a hungry little thing in an endless open wound and he saw everybody else as dead tissue. It was a tempting viewpoint. Jetty thought someone as bitter as Ms. Grey would understand him as well, but she looked more frightened than he’d ever seen when she sat down next to the stove.
They waited in silence. Eventually they heard the unmistakable sound of the maggot drawing closer. Trees fell under its weight, slowly cracking around their stumps. A car’s windshield shattered. The sound if its breathing was in the parking lot. Next to the planetarium. It hadn’t gone to the window where the light had flashed. Could it smell them? Jetty only second-guessed his decision halfway through a gulp of cold slimy noodles.
Roof Cracks Pupate Grey needs a Cig
They half-expected to hear the groan of Grossius leaning against the building, to see the wall bend in, but instead they were treated to a sound they had never heard before, that no news camera or scientific microphone had heard either.
Jetty stood. Grey warned him to stay put, to stay quiet, but if she wanted to make him do anything she’d have to literally chase him. He moved to the wall, to the emergency exit door, and stuck his ear against it. He was almost worried. Grossius didn’t sound healthy. The breathing was slow and stiff. There was another sound, like wax paper being stretched near the point of ripping.
He pressed the handle and opened the door one inch. Cold air flooded in from the night outside. It started to drizzle. The air hit Ms. Grey and convinced her to stand. She stood behind Jetty as he poked his head out. On any other day, opening the emergency door would’ve sounded the alarm, but they’d shut off all power to the building, even the emergency supply, in preparation for Grossius’s return. She couldn’t help but remember the last time she’d opened it and gotten an earful for setting off the alarm just for a smoke break.
The boy leaned further out, but didn’t let go of the door. He saw the tail end of something, a swell of quivering flesh. Its color slowly changed from that familiar lilac to a caramel color. The tip of the monster’s tail lifted weakly into the air and then hardened in place. The sound of its breathing ceased. Jetty threw open the door and ran outside.
He gasped, letting some of the rain into his mouth. A moment later Ms. Grey was at his side, crossing her arms to keep warm. She looked at the swollen hardened thing for a moment and then conceded; she pulled out her cigarettes and lit one.
Grossius was moving on with its life. It had pupated and was rapidly changing under its hardened shell. They could only see it as vague swirlings under the surface. Jetty moved closer while Grey smoked circles around its perimeter. She tried to spot its eyes, but its head was lost in the swirling fluid.
Jetty put his hands up against it, but couldn’t feel much. He didn’t even know if maggots had a heart. He only figuratively knew what Grossius had under its hide: a love of home, a frustration with home, a deep hunger, and all the stuffing of all the plush toys made out of him, often in bad taste.
“I don’t want you to change,” he whispered to the pupa once he was sure Grey was out of earshot. “My house was one of the first ones you passed. I can always count on you to scare all these uptight pricks. They know there’s something big and fat out there, something more important than them, even though they’re disgusted by it. You have to stay. Don’t go growing wings on me and flying away.”
“You should back up,” Ms. Grey shouted to him from the head. “We don’t know how long it’s going to be in there.”
Wings Emerge Pupa Explodes Grossius Shrinks
As if in response, the shell cracked, though they couldn’t spy it along the the top. A piece of the shell was squeezed out, flew into the air, and landed next to Jetty like a shredded umbrella after a tornado. Another flew into the air. Another. In under a minute it was a fountain of foul-smelling caramel-colored chips. Grey grabbed the boy by the shoulders and pulled him back toward the exit door. She tried to open it since they’d forgotten to prop it open, but it had automatically locked.
Jetty just stared as something else poked out from the top. He asked it to stop, but this distorted nature was taking its course whether he approved or not. It was his worst fear, even worse than being snapped up and reborn as an obituary: wings. Transparent flaps rose out of the shell, their wrinkled structure slowly inflating.
As Grey continued to battle the door, even burning it with her cigarette as if it could feel it, Jetty walked closer to the shredding shell. Six legs emerged, busting out of the sides like ship cannons through their own hull. Grossius’s new limbs were long and colorful, but still pale from their freshness. They were spiked like a king crab’s, and they tore up chunks of the parking lot as they scrambled for purchase. Jetty walked closer, inserting himself between them.
“You idiot,” Grey screamed, “Your parents will kill me if that thing digests you! Get back here!” He didn’t listen. The shell cracked down the middle, revealing the expanding wing casings of Grossius the beetle. She grabbed Jetty, but he shook her off and ran to the monster’s side. Its wings beat once, tossing his hair with their gust. It nearly knocked Ms. Grey over.
A horn emerged from the front of the shell, obliterating the rest of it around Grossius’s head. Grey stared at it in horror. She used to be a substitute teacher for some of the weaselly biology guys at the local high school. She’d seen all the entomology texts. That was not a normal horn. Grossius had changed so much that it likely wasn’t a member of its original species any longer.
The horn was tipped in a pincer-like circle, with hundreds of extrusions that made it resemble a crown of thorns. Ms. Grey muttered something to herself about the beetle pretending to be Jesus. It had to be killed to be properly reborn. Whatever flashy new form it held wouldn’t impress her. All she wanted now was to get the damn kid off its back, but Jetty stood on the joints of one of its legs and held on tight.
“Get down!” she cried again, jabbing her finger toward the torn concrete.
“I’m going with him, if he’s leaving,” Jetty shouted back. “I’m as sick of this place as he is. It’s been real Ms. Grey. Try to quit those things, they’ll kill you.”
“I’ll kill you if you don’t get back down here!” He saluted the horrified woman. The last of Grossius’s shell fell away and the beetle scuttled around the parking lot, its hardening limbs tearing through car roofs like tissue paper.
They Fly Off Fend off Attack Storm Worsens
Grossius’s wings beat faster and faster. The creature moved through the parking lot like a runway, taking off at the end. Jetty could barely hold onto some of the hair-like structures at the base of its legs, though he could rest on them once they were folded under the creature in flight.
His breath came in panicked but excited gasps. They were leaving. No more teachers. No more officers. No more parents. No more people who arbitrarily decided Jetty and the bug were out of control. Jetty wondered if there was an island of monsters somewhere, a place Grossius couldn’t quite swim to, that it was now able to reach with its fresh wings.
It was too good to be true though. They didn’t want Jetty to escape, or Grossius. They needed the monster; it was all that made their city interesting. A missile flew in and struck Grossius’s horn, but there was no damage to the beast. Some of the super-heated debris struck Jetty’s arm and burned him. He hugged the underside of Grossius closer.
They would say they were simply startled into action by the monster’s new form, but Jetty knew better. He also knew the beetle would not succumb. It dived the line of launchers and tanks on the hill outside the city. Its horn shredded them and the ground alike, snagging one vehicle in its crown of thorns, carrying it high into the sky, and turning upside down to dump it.
Jetty didn’t want anyone to die, he had saved someone that night after all, but he also needed Grossius to succeed. The world needed a lesson. People needed a true authority figure: a bloated thing not pretending it was more noble than it was, a thing to put them and their rules in their place.
Here was his community service, whispering targets to Grossius so he could wipe them off the map. The beetle couldn’t hear him, it didn’t even know he was there, but it carried him off nonetheless. They left the city behind. There were others to raid, others with easier prey. The transformation had taken much from Grossius, and it needed food.
It would touch down again and begin consuming countless innocents in four days’ time. Jetty would come to wish he had brought his cold noodles.