Alright, well. I think it’s official. This is the fourth door in a row to reject my key card.

I’m completely lost.

I stare down again at the map drawn on a scrap of paper I was given on intake, trying to retrace my steps. Maybe I should just… call them? The guys I’m supposed to be meeting have apparently been here for at least a decade already. They should be able to track my inept ass down and show me where the enclosure is, right?

I pull the yellow flip phone out of my pocket only to stare at it, and then pocket it again. One more door, I tell myself, and I’ll suck it up and call.

The halls of this facility are long and sprawling, and lined with doors. I’m not even completely sure all of these doors actually go somewhere; this is a government black site, after all. I guess it would make sense that they’d want to confuse someone who doesn’t belong.

Funny, considering this is supposed to be my first day working here.

Maybe Lori was right.

I turn down another hallway, and approach a pair of double doors. I swipe.

Beep.

It’s a miracle.

I push my way through only to be greeted by another hallway, but at least this is progress? I think?

Just as I was beginning to feel confident, I felt something vibrating in my pocket.

I unsheathe my phone.

Dammit.

“H-Hello, this is–”

“Eric Collins, right?”

I wince a bit at my legal name.

“Yup, th-that’s me. Is this Robert Dieter?”

“It’s pronounced ‘Deeter’. Where are you? You’re late.”

“I’m… a little lost–”

“Were you not given a map?”

I sigh, feeling stupid. “Yes, but–”

“Where are you right now?”

“Um.” I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to describe a place that for the most part all looked the same. “I’m by a pair of double doors?”

“Stay there, I’ll come get you.”

Click.

I stare apprehensively at my phone before placing it back in my pocket. I hadn’t even met the man yet and I already felt that he didn’t like me. With a sigh, I sit down on the floor, waiting. Wouldn’t that be something if I got fired on my first day? Over my poor sense of direction, of all things?

Just thinking about it puts a pit in my stomach.

I’d have to go back. I’d have to face Lori, and listen to her I-Told-You-So’s and belittlement. On the way to the airport yesterday, she wouldn’t stop telling me all the ways I’m not ready for true independence, how I’m going to crash and burn on my own. That people like me don’t last long in real jobs.

A large part of me believes her.

But on the other hand, would they really have hired me to do something as hush-hush as… whatever this is going to be if they didn’t see something they liked?

I hear footsteps approaching, and I quickly get to my feet.

A tall, thin, and much older man comes around the corner. He’s wearing tan slacks and a light blue dress shirt, with a black tie. His hair is gray and styled in a combover to poorly hide his balding head, and his eyes are a piercing green.

He pauses, looking me over, as if confused.

“Collins?” he asks. His voice matches the one I’d heard over the phone.

“Y-Yes, sir.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” he spits. “How old are you?”

I swallow. I know I look young for my age, and the braces probably don’t help. “Twenty-four?”

He mumbles something irately to himself before turning his attention on me again. “Well, come on then.”

I quietly follow him through the hall, my stomach in knots.

“Forgive me,” he says, a bit more gentle now. “I was expecting someone in at least his 30s. And maybe a bit… larger.”

“Ah, I’m… sorry.”

“Don’t be. You can’t do much about your height, but if you are to work here, I expect you to put a little meat on your bones.”

I’m five foot two and maybe about 90 pounds. I know that’s not great, but it’s never been a problem at any of my internships. “Why?”

“Because our specimen will break you in half.”

“E-excuse me?”

He smirks a bit as he swipes his card and opens a door to a staircase. “After you,” he says with a gesture.

Nervously, I climb the stairs, and turn the corner at the top to find myself in a rectangular room with wide windows parallel to each other on the longest walls. The window to my left peers into what seems to be a big, white room, while the other overlooks the outdoors and numerous coniferous trees covered in a light dusting of snow.

At the far end of the room sits another man, younger than Dieter but older than me, in a rolling chair, casually throwing a ball against the wall and catching it again. He spins in the chair to face me and Dieter after catching the ball one more time.

“Oh, hey, I didn’t know we hired teenagers,” he says with a half laugh.

“Allegedly, he’s 24,” replies Dieter.

The man in the chair stands and approaches me, arm outstretched for a handshake. His lab coat sleeves are rolled up, and I couldn’t help but notice a severe amount of scarring on his left. It looks like a shark bite. “I’m Dale. You’re Eric, right?”

“Y-yeah,” I stammer out, gripping his hand tightly the way I was taught and then quickly letting go. “I p-prefer to go by Ejay though, if that’s okay.”

“No trouble at all,” says Dale. “You’re not gonna be seeing much of me after today anyway.”

“Oh?”

“He’s abandoning me,” sneers Dieter.

Dale grins. “Yup. You’re my replacement, kid.”

Dale is at least three times my weight, a full foot and some inches taller than I am, and, as friendly as he seems to be, deeply intimidating. If that matters as much as I’ve been lead to believe, then yeah, I can really understand why Dieter would be disappointed to see me standing there instead of anybody else.

“Have you told him what he’s in for yet?” Dale asks, an eyebrow raised.

Dieter looks me over again, and then moves toward the window that looks down into the room. “C’mere,” he says to me.

I follow him. He points down into the room at something curled up in the corner. I squint, not entirely sure what I’m looking at. It’s covered head to toe with gray fur and has a short tail and pointed ears, but it’s… wearing a medical gown, and seems to be anatomically closer to an ape than to a cat or a dog.

I tilt my head, confused, and look toward Dieter, who’s studying my reaction.

“What… is that?” I ask hesitantly.

“That,” he begins, “is X. lux number X042a, the first of its kind, and what we will be working with for the next fifteen years.”

“Provided it survives that long,” Dale adds.

“Ah, yes,” mumbles Dieter, with a frown.

He knocks at the window, waking the creature up. It turns its head to look up at us, and I see that it has orange eyes and orange skin in its ears. Its nose is almost too large for its face and black. It stares for a moment, then turns away again to go back to sleep.

“You wanna meet him, Ejay?” Dale asks.

Dieter looks over at his soon-to-be ex-coworker, his eyes a bit wide, as if afraid. “You think that’s a good idea?”

“I mean. He may as well meet the thing while it’s sleepy.”

“…I suppose.”

Dale gestures at me. “C’mon, follow me down.”

I do as I’m told, and we head down another flight of stairs. At the base of the stairs is another room with lockers and lab coats hanging on the wall. Dale points the coats out specifically.

“Grab one of them and put it on. It’ll protect you if the thing decides to, ah… act up.” Dale himself grabs what looks to be a cattle prod.

Nervously, I grab a coat, and put it on. It’s a little big on me, but that’s to be expected, given my size. We head through another door, and into the enclosure itself. Immediately upon our entering, the creature is up and staring at us from all fours. It hisses softly, showing a mouthful of triangular, jagged teeth.

“Ah, shit,” says Dale. He puts out a hand to prevent me from moving any further. “I was hoping it’d let us get a little closer than just through the door.”

Suddenly it snarls and its eyes light up with a fiery orange glow as it lunges towards us.

Quickly, Dale pushes me back into the room we’d just come from, quickly locking the door and leaning heavily against it. I hear a series of loud thumps, before all is quiet once more.

I can feel my heart thumping in my chest as I swallow hard. I’m panicking internally, but I’m doing my best to hide it. “What the hell kind of animal is that!?”

Dale laughs nervously. “That’s not too out of the ordinary these days.” He holds up his arm with the scarring. “He did this to me a few months back. Been incredibly aggressive since his cage mate died.”

“That… th-that doesn’t answer my question.”

Dale hesitates. “…A little of this, a little of that,” he says, almost sheepishly. “Honestly, we weren’t told too much. Just that we’re to study its behavior.” He stands up straight again and puts his cattle prod back on its hook. “Go ahead and take that lab coat off, we’re heading back up.”

Back upstairs, Dale sits down once again in his rolling chair. Dieter immediately turns his attention to me. “I saw what happened down there. Are you alright? You look pale.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. I’d only ever worked with mice and rats before this; never something that could apparently fire lasers or… whatever that was. No animal on earth can do what that creature just did, so what was it? An alien? Some kind of biomechanical hybrid? Something else?

“Ejay?” prompted Dieter. “If you’d like to go home for the day, I’d understand.”

“I…” I stammered, “I-I think… I think I would like that, actually.”

Oh, no.

“Can you find your way back on your own?”

Oh, no.

“I-I should be able to, yeah.”

Stop it.

“Alright. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”

Before I knew it, I found myself back in the labyrinth of hallways. As I reached the double doors, I stopped for a moment, leaning with my forearms against the wall, trying to hold back tears.

I can’t lose this job.

I can only imagine what they’re saying about me now that I’ve left. I bet Dieter’s already contacting our higher ups and telling them I’m not cut out for the job. He and Dale are obviously friends; I bet Dale’s having second thoughts about leaving. I would be if I were him–if I had any friends, I certainly wouldn’t want to leave them alone with that… thing. That little monster.

I’m going to be fired because I’m a coward.

I hesitate a moment longer. It would probably look strange if I head back to the enclosure now, so I force myself through the double doors, back through security, and onto the shuttle. I’ll come back tomorrow, and apologize for leaving. I’m not going to let that little demon scare me off from this opportunity to escape my old home for good.