True North
By: Lallie Napier

He was the most adorable, ugly dog Emily had ever seen. Weighing no more than four pounds, Baxter was one of those mutts of dubious origins, with patchy hair and a tongue that was perpetually lolling out the side his mouth. He had been slated for destruction when she found him at the shelter years ago. One look at his vacant bug eyes and floppy ears, she was in love!

"Condos! How dare they!" Emily said one evening while watching the local news on her computer at the kitchen table. The reporter was standing beside one of those ugly orange fences talking about how the only downtown dog park had already been sold and was due to become a state of the art condo complex filled with boutiques no one could afford to shop in and restaurants catering only to a very select clientele.

Baxter offered his commonly occurring, adorable, squeaky, little sneeze in response. "I agree! Where am I going to take you for walks now baby?"

So many parks were too far for poor little Baxter to walk to without his breathing acting up, Emily wouldn't take him too far from home and the city transit system had a zero tolerance policy for pets, excluding service dogs of course. Baxter's breathing problem, that his vet said was allergies after a round of tests and asthma after the second round, had already exhausted Emily's savings. Thus far, his symptoms had involved a lot of sneezing. He would have honking fits when the temperature of his environment drastically changed, especially when he came in from a romp in the snow.

The local dog groups on Facebook were full of angry pet owners who were in the same position as she. After weeks of delays and protests City Council relented and earmarked a section of a nearby forest to be cleared for a new dog park. It was only twenty minutes round trip from Emily's apartment and council had approved a splash pad and activity center. Construction would start in the spring.

Summer passed quickly for Emily, but then it always did. She worked at a bank, part time, and spent time out with friends. She managed to score a full–time posting at a private school across the city from where she lived which caused issues trying to take Baxter out as often as she would have liked, walking to the closest dog park was taking its toll on him.

One cool day before the leaves hit the ground Emily decided to take Baxter to the forest where the city said they would build the new dog park in the spring. They walked down a well–worn path under glorious old trees. The wind was causing the branches to moan with pleasure while the leaves applauded its progress. Baxter caught a scent on the wind, he strained against the leash, whimpering at Emily to let him run. Caught up in the majesty of the forest Emily unlatched his lead, he never strayed very far. Baxter bolted off the trail and disappeared down a small embankment, which was fairly easy given his diminutive size. After a few moments lost in the grandeur of nature's subtle performance the chill in the wind reminded her to get Baxter inside. Her voice lifted above the din calling to Baxter, there was no response beyond the sound of the leaves' ovation. A terrifying yelp hit her ears, she called again, more urgently.

Silence.

The trees cheered her efforts to deafening levels as she left the path, descending the embankment to call for her baby with increasing worry. He was nowhere to be found! She hollered his name again and again, her voice was straining through the tightness in her throat; panic was barely held at bay. She slowly turned, straining to hear the slightest sound through the creak of the trees and the laudation of those fall leaves. Emily sat heavily in the dirt and cried, howling Baxter's name every time her defeated sorrow would allow her voice the strength. It was well past sundown before she finally gave up and returned home. Within moments of posting her entire ordeal on Facebook all of her local friends were calling and texting to help organize a search for the next day.

What Emily didn't know was a few meters from where she had sat in the dirt, Baxter was encapsulated in 8 long, milky, finger–like tendrils with a proboscis running down his little throat; while it did afford him the ability to survive, he was also being impregnated with a species alien to anything he had ever encountered. It was like something out of a horror movie. His poor little body was paralyzed while this crushing creature was completely hiding him from the light of day.

After what was the worst night of sleep since her college exams, Emily untangled herself from sweaty sheets, choked down a bowl of cereal that had no flavor and jogged all the way to the woods to start the search for Baxter. She could hear the other dogs before she arrived and was completely blown away. So many familiar faces from their profile pictures in the dog groups, whose names she did not know, and their dogs, had come out to help find her Baxter. She brought up the newest pictures of him up on her phone and started introducing Baxter, and herself to everyone there. She even remembered his spring jacket so the dogs could catch his scent. The plan was simple, they would search down the embankment where Baxter was last seen and hope for the best.

As a group they fanned out along the trail and started down the embankment, calling for Baxter as they went. As Emily walked down the same slope toward the spot she sat the night before, when she heard the most beautiful noise; a tiny, squeaky sneeze! Baxter was curled up in the exact spot she had occupied to call for him.

"Baxter!" she cried crouching to gently pick him up. He was shaking and looked a little worse for wear. His fur was matted down by some slimy, viscous fluid. The call went out to the volunteers that he had been found. They raised a cheer and took turns petting Baxter while Emily expressed her thanks. While she carried Baxter home she called the vet and made an appointment for the following day. They advised her to make sure he was warm, comfortable and had plenty of water and food. They also warned of potential vomiting as he was out all night and may have eaten anything.

Emily settled Baxter in his bed by the fridge with a big bowl of fresh water and overfilled his food dish. She spent the entire day watching him sleep and eat, and sleep, and eat, and EAT! What an appetite he had! You would think he'd not eaten in a week. One last check on Baxter before bed found him lying on his back, paws in the air, tongue lolling out and twitching. Confident her dog was happy and comfortable Emily was quickly asleep.

"Baxter?" Emily mumbled sitting up in bed. It was after three in the morning, there was a faint skittering noise coming from the kitchen, she was about to get up when she heard Baxter's sneeze and smiled. Reassured, she went back to sleep.

The unwelcome being dived out into the world as soon as the hole in the wall got big enough.

Emily's horrified scream woke her neighbors the next morning. She had gone into the kitchen to check on Baxter, his little body was belly up in his bed with a gaping hole in the center of his chest. Blood was splattered everywhere, like his heart had exploded! His little tongue was still lolling out of his mouth. It was all Emily could do not to throw up while she ran for her phone, failing to notice the small hole burned through her kitchen wall.

It found a cozy corner of a utility room in the sewers. It was warm, dry and full of rats for food. Having already doubled in size and still growing, food was a priority. It emerged from its incubation the size of a small Spaniel, 30Lbs of black armored killing machine, with only one goal…North. Its mind was pulling it north so it ran. A tireless creature, it stopped only to feed. Following its instinctual needs without flaw or fail.

It ran through the day, the night, over rock, over snow, through rain, through ice, it ran north.

——–

She raised her head and looked to the south. Clanking chains restricted her movements bringing a howl of desperate rage. She could feel it getting ever closer. The speed of its approach pleased her. She would soon be out of this frozen prison.

——–

"This has to be the shittiest job I've ever had!" Mitch thought to himself firing up the blowtorch once again. There were only so many ways into the Arctic Reticent Mining Station, or ARMS (Mitch still thought this was a stupid name) this was the least inconvenient. He started heating the edges of the frozen metal hatch.

"Just another half hour and I'll be in," he snarled sarcastically, "What a job. Who would have thought I'd have to torch my way into my office own just to pee?" He had been told the horror stories when he first arrived about the miners who had not heeded the warnings and tried to relieve themselves outside. In this cold? Penile glaciation with a side of frosticles was not a thing he wished to experience. Mitch kept at it forcing his thoughts to anything other than the growing insistence of his bladder; Frank, the head of security had been prancing through the mess last night toting his new baby. His repeated requests had been answered making head office send an upgrade of weaponry along with the last supply shipment. He must have made it sound as if they were about to be over–run with rabid polar bears to get his new toy. The pressure had grown to near painful levels forcing Mitch to speak his thoughts aloud in an effort to hold on a little longer.

"He called it Thumper. It is an Atchisson Assault Shotgun, or AA 12. Fully automatic, drum fed, it fires five 12 gauge shotgun shells per second." Hissing with the effort to keep control Mitch continued, "There was also explosive rounds of ammo, FRAG 12s, each one a small fragmentation grenade accurate to 175 meters."

Watching patiently from a nearby ice shelf it lay with its tail curled around its side, head up attentively watching this figure trying to open the door. Its little secondary jaws were lolling out of its mouth, randomly chomping at the wind. It needed to get inside this structure. It did not know why, only that it was necessary. Its instincts were driving him down…deep into the ice.

The door popped open "About damned time!" Mitch said feeling the discomfort of his bladder surpassing dangerous levels. He ducked inside with the torch and started to pull the door closed behind him. As sometimes happened, usually when he was in a hurry to get inside, the damned hatch caught on an ice spur and swung wide. Ripping from his hand and scaring him half to death.

"Fuck, again? Of all the stupid…" A flicker of movement, a shadow on the wind passed the periphery of his vision. Flattening himself against the wall Mitch peered down the dim hallway "Now I'm seeing things" he mumbled and returned to wrestling with the door, cursing this company that sent him to the edge of frozen hell for some stupid rocks.

It worked its way through the maze of passageways, honeycombed under the frozen surface. It sensed it was approaching a point of descent. Rounding the last a corner it discovered a dead end between it and its goal. It opened its jaws to roar in frustration but all that came out was a strangled honking. It threw itself against the wall but no amount of clawing and biting would let it through. It tried to roar again, only to be interrupted by a sneezing fit. Acid spewed repeatedly from its mouth, showering the offending wall with its caustic presence.

Phillip was standing guard at the top of the complex' descent shaft. There were ropes, pulleys, metal platforms, a crazy collection of a dozen different machines all designed to get people and supplies down and get the minerals up. No one was scheduled to descend for another hour so Phillip was taking full advantage of the down time with his chair tilted back until his head rested against the wall, reading a book and fighting the gentle heartbeat of ARMS' machinery which was trying to lull him to sleep. His eyes drifted closed, he could swear he heard hissing like freshly poured soda. Thousands of teeny tiny bubbles dancing just out of sight. It had been so long since he had anything with those delightful tickling bubbles. Lost in memories of cold beer he failed to notice the back of his head feeling warmth emanating from the wall behind him, it was rapidly getting too warm.

"What the hell?" He said as the first drops of acid ate their way through the wall onto the back of his head. Phillip screamed in pain as the back of his head was slowly eaten away. He tried to wipe it away with his hands but more acid was spewed through the now sizable hole, which caused his fingers to blister and burn. Hot! He thought bolting for the nearest exit screaming and cursing the entire way.

Mitch heard the commotion and stepped out into the hallway. Phillip came wildly careening toward him screaming about burning and water! What the hell was wrong with this guy? Maybe it was the psychosis they had been warned about, thought Mitch, being confined so far from civilization with no internet and only a CB radio, sometimes Mitch felt himself slip a little. Phillip turned the corner heading outside when Mitch tackled him

"You're gonna kill yourself going outside without gear Phil!" but Phillip didn't hear, couldn't hear. It was so hot and hurt so much! The screaming stopped as the acid dived hungrily into his brain. Phillip died before he hit the floor.

Mitch stood over Phillip's body. He fought to catch his breath and calm the adrenaline pulsing through his veins. All he did was tackle the guy and he was dead! That made no sense! He checked for vital signs, there were none. He searched the body for possible cause of death. Phillips hands showed chemical burns, Mitch knew they didn't have anything in ARMS that could cause them. Then he reached Phillip's head, he discovered a cavern where the back of his head should have been.

"What the fuck?" Mitch didn't know what to make of it. He ran back to his office and called the staff doctor before checking where Phillip had been working that day. Making a quick stop at the level's supply room to grab a gun and walkie talkie, he continued to the top of the lift to find Phillip's chair on its side and a gaping hole melted through the wall. A closer look revealed that a substance had indeed eaten through 5 inches of industrial steel. "What the hell did this?" He searched around the platform and saw some scratches and small burns. The trail led him directly to the descent shaft.

It clung to the bottom of the elevator platform, its little secondary jaws lolling out the side of its mouth.

Mitch searched the antechamber looking for any sign of the chemical spill. When he found none he moved deeper into the complex, his shadow moving behind him ever so slowly. The slow stalking search continued until Mitch was secure in the knowledge that nothing had come through this portion of the complex before him. He figured he should probably do a full sweep, just in case. There had been some weird deaths since he started here but most were macho idiots with less experience than brains. Every spring they had a 'culling' of the new staff, the few that made it were usually great additions to the ARMS family. Mitch called security and told them what had happened. "We talked to Doc, Mitch. We've got a party ready to join you down there."

Mitch smiled to himself, "Bring 'em down, Frank. We're doing a full sweep."

The security team was split into pairs and sent off to the different veins of minerals to check nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Mitch and Frank took the deepest tunnels as they had been at ARMS the longest. They headed down to the secondary lift and began the slow descent.

It knew it had to get down there too. It climbed down the shaft, slowly behind the elevator. Silent as death.

As the elevator jerked to a halt Mitch started with surprise.

"A little jumpy, eh Mitch?" Frank said checking his gear which included Thumper and a bag of drums for reloading. "If you had seen what I saw Frank, you would be too." The seriousness of his tone immediately calmed Frank's normally cavalier attitude. They were in trouble here, they just had to figure it out before it got any worse. The men set out through the only passage that far down, it ran due east. Slowly checking every side passage and room as they went.

It was stuck in the shaft. It did not like being confined. It searched the top of the elevator for a weakness, there was none. It roared in frustration…

"What the fuck was that?" Frank said, turning back toward the elevator and taking the safety off his shotgun in one motion.

…It clawed and bit at the metal cage to no avail.

Mitch looked to Frank to take the lead, but Frank wasn't moving! It was as though his feet had frozen to the floor. Its shrieking keen was putting Mitch's teeth on edge! One step at a time he edged back toward the lift.

…Another unearthly howl of disappointment echoed through the lower levels of ARMS. It was so close to its goal, it could feel her…

As they approached the door to the elevator Frank regained his senses and took the point position. Mitch was relieved he no longer had to go first toward whatever was making that noise! The doors opened.

…Suddenly, a miracle, it sneezed. Acid foam spewed from his mouth over the top of the cage.

Frank took the bulk of the spray in his face and on his chest. He screamed as he fell to the ground. Rolling with his hands on his face, trying in vain to put out the fire that was consuming his face. Mitch fell on top of him and started taking off his clothes before the acid made it through.

…It jumped down through the hole it had made. It looked at Mitch, with its secondary jaws lolling out the side of its mouth, then ran down the passage.

Frank took his hands from his unrecognizable face, which was blackened and melted. "Thumper…" he whispered then died.

Mitch picked up Frank's gun and started after the creature stopping before making it 20 metres down the passage. What the hell am I doing? He asked himself. Backing slowly toward the elevator shaft Mitch's heart was pounding so loudly in his ears he couldn't hear anything else.

It ran with abandon through the newest tunnels until it found its goal. There she was. Its queen. Several tons of muscle and bone, with an exoskeleton blacker than a moonless night. There were eggs full of face–huggers all around her. She roared in recognition of its arrival, it was a beautiful sound. It came before her and sat with its skeletal tail wagging and its little secondary jaws lolling out the side of its mouth. Her giant head descended to look it over. She was not impressed. Her razor talons made short work of its tiny body. Nothing so imperfect could be permitted life.

Mitch made it to the elevator and heard a much more powerful roar coming from the direction that creature had gone. Oh, yes…right choice. He fired Thumper at the supports of the tunnel. The explosive rounds thumped the supports into oblivion, collapsing the passage and belching ice and dust all over him. The elevator simply could not move fast enough for Mitch who was obsessively checking the shaft for any sign of pursuit. Upon reaching the top of the shaft he again put Thumper to work making sure it was impossible for anything to escape from the lower level.

Deep in a hole, far to the north, she stirred.

-

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