Word Count – 4,687
"You haven't changed," said the soft whisper of a female voice.
Leon opened his eyes and withdrew his side arm from the holster attached to his wetsuit. He pressed it against the woman's throat.
"Who are you?” he whispered back. He rose from the shallow water and adjusted his stance, balancing himself as the ocean waters jostled the room from outside its’ walls.
Before she had a chance to reply, Leon checked her for any weapons but found none. What he found was a petite, curvy body wrapped tightly in an orange wetsuit. She slowly lifted her hands and removed her orange hood revealing a wide-eyed, angelic face, full lips, and light brown, silken skin. She pushed wet, brown curls away from her face. A white surgical mask hung from her neck.
The two stared in silence. Leon took a few deep breaths, inhaling the scent of ocean water and the rubber of his suit. He paced his breathing, controlling his nerves the way he had been trained as a former Navy Seal.
"I said, who are you?" he demanded, gun now positioned center mass.
"My name is Dr. Latroya. Josele Latroya,” trembled the words with the trace of a Latin accent.
Leon's piercing stare was a sign he wanted more information.
"I'm one of the scientists here on Hydrus.”
"Don't move," he pointed at her while holstering his gun.
Leon looked the room over. The ceiling above him was caked with the blue foamy substance that had released the yellow gas, which caused his blackout.
He tried recollecting his memories: The six mercenaries lifted from an aircraft carrier, the chopper’s blades silently thumping against air. Then the drop into the black water onto a blacker raft. They followed the moons glow like a path to the water complex called Hydrus. The complex resembled a series of connected large square paper lanterns with a glowing orange aura. Leon recalled the silent infiltration through one of the exterior portals. The team split. Within minutes of the search, the team, maintaining communication via headset, confirmed that the complex was void of anyone, but something had happened. Water was almost knee deep, lukewarm against Leon’s wetsuit. And the strange material that lined the corners and covered the ceilings, only a couple of feet above him. There was the sound of popping then a puff, the taste of copper and lime as he breathed in the chemicals. Then darkness. In the darkness Leon heard the splashing of his weapon.
He got on his knees and searched the water. Books floated in his path, as did other items. Beneath a floating blanket he found his ASM Assault rifle. He checked the weapon, at times glancing at Dr. Latroya. Once everything looked functional, he relaxed. I'm whole again.
Leon placed the rifle onto a long thin object connected to the wall. A lone pillow sat on it. The room had various niches built into its walls where cups, pictures and other items were shelved. A small window looked out into the black emptiness of night.
Leon checked his black military wetsuit for any damage, then his face, broad chin rough and unshaven. He felt the scar running through his eyebrow. No damage. He then searched for his night vision goggles. They were near the corner of the room where he had fallen. He picked up the optical gear, looking through them. The water damage had been too severe, rendering the goggles useless. They splashed in the corner as he tossed them away. Cheap shit. Commander Stacks provided them with their accessories. The Commander preferred spending on weapons and not on extended items. “A true warrior needs only what God has given him, but when you got money, you buy the good stuff,” were his superior’s words.
"Have you seen any of the others in my unit?" He kept glancing up at the strange material. It looked thick as mud, pinpricks scattered about its surface.
"Others? No. There's no one left."
"No one? You haven’t seen anyone from my team?" Leon pulled back his black hood, and ran his hand through his short black hair. “And what of the twenty or so civilians working here?”
Josele shook her head.
Leon exhaled deeply. He tore a piece of the wet blanket and wrapped it around his neck. He adjusted it so it would work as a mask when necessary.
Josele stared at him. His face had both Caucasian and Indian features. His six-foot frame was lean in the wetsuit. Brown eyes reflected the orange glow of the cubicle.
"Why are you staring at me like that?"
"I'm sorry." She averted her eyes.
Leon pulled on the headset transceiver attached to his hood.
"Commander Stacks, Leon here. What’s your position?”
"Crater, Flip, you guys there?"
"Skelter, Hyena, do you---."
The static turned to male coughing. Then a panting voice yelled.
"Leon, man, it's me, Flip." The voice was high and fast, panicked.
"Flip, where are you? Have you seen the others?"
"No man, I haven't. But something's wrong bro. This was a trap! We fell into a trap. There's blue shit everywhere, and --argh!" Flip howled in pain, deafening in the transceiver.
"Flip! What happened? Flip!"
The howl turned to a high pitched hissing sound, followed by what sounded like someone exhaling deeply, then growling and gurgling, followed by silence.
"Flip!" Realizing something horrible had occurred, Leon grabbed his rifle and Josele's arm. "What the hell is going on here?"
Josele winced in pain. "Let me go!"
She pulled from his grip. "There are things in the other rooms. Creatures. I don't know what they are." She rubbed her arm.
"I don't know." She crossed her arms, rubbing her shoulders.
Leon tried the transceiver again, but heard nothing.
"Okay, I've got to get to the raft. There are flares there. The chopper can-."
"No, the raft is destroyed. As are the eight on this complex.”
"Destroyed? How do you know?" Leon scowled.
"Because I tried to get to yours,” she replied, evading eye contact.
Leon punched the glowing wall. He took a deep breath. Think.
"Okay, I know through the briefing that there are thirty-six connected rooms that make up Hydrus. Two of them are radio and navigational rooms. They are both in the northern sector from this location. Can you take me there?"
Josele didn’t respond. Leon shouldered his rifle and stepped in front of her.
“Can you take me there,” he pressed.
She hesitated. “Yes.”
“The radio equipment, is it functional?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, let’s find out. Stay close behind me.” Josele kept her gaze down as he spoke to her. “Thank you.”
“For what?” Her voice sounded surprised.
“For saving me. I would’ve, should’ve drowned.” Leon gestured to the water.
“You’re welcome.” She grinned.
Leon nodded. “Let’s go.”
The two crept down two more corridors and through two civilian rooms. Leon led the way, navigated by Josele. Her body was inches from his, and his hand often brushed back, ensuring her close proximity. Leon inspected each room carefully, eyes drifting every few seconds to the blue foam that covered the ceilings. He muzzled his face during the trek, as did Josele. Water had flooded every room. He listened for any sounds of movement, but there was only the creaking of the complex as it rocked, bending the flexible corridor.
The overwhelming silence and disturbing reality of his situation struck Leon as they searched through the empty complex, floating miles from shore. He pulled the fabric from his mouth. “What happened here? What knocked me out?” He rolled his eyes up, “and what got Flip?”
Josele pulled down her mask.
“I don’t know. I hid,” she responded quickly.
Leon sensed deception. “Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m not.” She paused. “There was-.“
The faint sound of hissing resonated from down one of the corridors.
Leon aimed his rifle in the direction but heard nothing else.
He moved back, keeping Josele behind him. The room began to slowly dim, its orange glow fading.
“What’s going on? Is this place losing power?”
“Attenuation.” Josele replied.
“Loss of light. Hydrus is made of new material. It runs by photon-driven localization.” She sighed. “The absorption of light.”
“And it runs out at night?”
“It’s a work in progress, not yet perfected.”
“Shit.” Leon huffed. “Which way?”
Josele pointed to the corridor to the right. They moved carefully through the corridor. Leon suddenly stopped. He heard the sound of crunching ahead. Carefully, he turned and hushed Josele. She nodded.
He moved towards the sound silently. In the room ahead shadows jumped, stretching and reshaping into indistinguishable forms. Fabric tearing coupled with the crunching. The hissing and moaning bellowed as Leon inched closer. Leon turned the corner, gun aimed.
There, in the corner of the room was what Leon thought must have been a man sized statue until the shape moved, its crabs legs stretching out beneath a finned back, lobster arms clipping in motion. Its head turned.
Large black eyes goggled at Leon. Fins around its mouth separated and the creature hissed, howling loudly. With a yell Leon opened fire. The bullets tore at the fins. It raised it claw in protection, deflecting the bullets with the solid limb. It released a deafening cry before retreating with sudden speed into a side corridor, scurrying on eight crab legs.
“Stop!” Cried Josele lunging at Leon, slamming him against the wall. Bullets punctured the sludge-covered ceiling. A gooey yellow substance seeped from the holes.
In a flash Leon recovered from the shove, grabbing Josele by the throat, pointing the gun into her face.
Leon released the hold on her. He glanced in the direction of where the creature had been. There was a shredded black wetsuit floating on the water. Leon picked it up and analyzed it. The knife was still sheathed, as was the gun. The suit was large, and could only fit two in his unit. Traces of blood bordered the torn edges.
“Oh god.” Leon rubbed his temples.
Josele continued rubbing her neck when he turned to her. He raised his gun, finger on the trigger.
“You don’t understand what’s happening here. It’s complicated,” She panted.
There was a long pause. Josele leaned her back against the wall, hands to her side. Leon looked back over his shoulder, but kept his rifle pointed at her.
“What is this place?” He asked as he lowered his weapon.
Josele closed her eyes.
“This place is a city on the sea. Free terrain to explore new forms of just about anything Mr. Pricehaven wants funded. Particularly a specific dormant organism that-”
Leon interrupted in disbelief. “The oil tycoon? He owns this?”
“-Yes.” Josele continued. “He had this structure built. For use in international, ungoverned waters.” Josele rubbed her neck again.
“What organism are you talking about? What did you do here?”
“It was discovered during an oil extraction from Mr. Pricehaven’s oil rig north of here. It was nothing more than crystallized specks until we reanimated it into that,” she pointed above.
Leon turned his gaze to the ceiling. The viscous goop dripped down in long strands. “That?” He pointed.
“Yes, that. We call that Medusa 177.”
The shrill of a creature farther away echoed. Leon readied his weapon.
“Finish. I want to know what I’m dealing with here.”
“It’s a very old sea organism, similar to Hydrozoa. But it was trapped deep beneath the ocean floor.”
“That,” Leon once again pointed to the blue foam, “turns to that?” He pointed to the corridor.
“And you awakened something that killed all these people and my team?”
Josele lowered her gaze.
The room shuddered, shaking the two.
“What now?” Sighed Leon. “Okay, lets move. The radio room. Now.”
They entered the recreational room. Water was near waist deep and the blue foam thicker. The room was larger, with an air hockey table in the corner. A flat and wide beam in its center had two Flat Screen televisions embedded on either side. The tips of four chairs peaked above the water. Other gaming paraphernalia floated or were embedded into the walls. There were four corridors leading into the room.
“Why aren’t there any doors in the rooms or hallways? You don’t mind people walking around, barely any privacy or security?”
“Mr. PriceHaven conducted extensive personality profiles and background checks. Privacy and security are a non issue.”
Water bubbled on the other side of the beam.
“Stay behind me,” he whispered.
Leon focused on the room as a whole, and listened to both he and Josele’s heartbeats and the sound of ocean water clapping on the outer walls.
The sound of a third heartbeat joined theirs. The darkness moved quickly towards him. Leon turned his weapon at the corridor to his left. His rifle met with a lobster claw that withdrew it from his grasp. The claw crushed the metal weapon as if it were a child’s toy. Its pincher arm grabbed Leon by the throat and slammed him against the wall, the course texture of the pincher rubbing his skin raw.
Leon tried prying the pinchers apart in vain. The creature lifted him till they were face to face. Leon struggled, curling his legs and propping them against its body. He pushed with no effect. Leon struggled until something familiar about the beast forced him to observe it.
Fins covered its mouth; large black eyes hovered over a flat wide nose. Its head was human in shape, but the scalp was covered in rows of fins, antennae sprouting from its forehead, skin a dark brown. The smell of ammonia leaked from its body. The black of its eyes flapped back, revealing very human eyes Leon recognized.
“Skelter?” choked Leon.
Leon gazed into the round brown eyes of his fellow mercenary. The mouth fins retracted back into skin where a lipless mouth opened.
“L-E-O-N.” Skelter’s words were deep and broken. His teeth resembled shards of thin glass.
Leon’s eyes scrolled down. A solid maroon shell armored Skelter's chest, thinning down towards his torso, merging with the crab legs. His short neck propped on armored shoulders. Large lobster claws extended from behind his back. Human arms exposed from beneath his plated chest. Skelter's arms were still large; his physical strength had been amplified in his new form. Skelter raised a spiny covered hand and extended a sharp finger.
Leon battled the thought that his once fellow mercenary had been turned to this monstrosity. “Skelter, please.”
With a swipe Skelter cut Leon’s forehead.
“Argh!” With a roar Leon raised his right leg, grabbed his pup knife and rotated his arm up and over the claw and plunged the knife into Skelter’s neck. Clear fluid mixed with dark crimson squirted as Leon plucked the blade before striking down again.
Skelter screeched, tossing Leon across the room. Leon struck the wall hard, flashes of white dancing in the darkness of his vision. He fell in the water, thrashing to remain conscious.
Josele went to his aid but Leon resisted. He rose angrily out of the water, rubbing his throat and withdrawing his pistol. He aimed it at the young scientist.
“You bitch, you lying bitch.” Blood streamed from the gash on his forehead, down through the grooved scar on his brow till it painted his gritted teeth.
She held her face, sobbing in the near darkness.
“I should have known from the beginning. You trapped us here. I remember the words. You haven’t changed.” Leon wiped the blood from his face, but the blood continued. He waded closer to her, gun aimed. “You brought us here. To become monsters. To become your experiments.”
“No!” Josele shouted through sobs. “No, we all wanted to change. You must understand we aren’t monsters! We are better now, they are better now!” She continued to cry, grasping her shoulders.
“And You? You are fine!”
“You don’t understand. I’m not fine. Not yet.” Her gentle cries trailed. She sniffed, exhausted from the onslaught of emotions.
Leon removed the rag from his neck and wrapped it around his head, tightening it with one hand.
The room violently shook. The sound of tearing plastic came from all directions. In the darkened passageways were three hulking creatures. Their claws tore at the corridor, slicing it like scissors through paper. Only the single extended corridor leading through to the laboratory rooms remained.
“No!” Leon opened fire at the beasts, the gun’s pulsing flashes lighting the room like photo snapshot, the popping sounds married to the image. But the shaking of the room displaced his shots.
The creatures separated the corridors and pushed the rest of the complex away. One of them stared at Leon as it floated away. It was smaller than Skelter but identical in form, with lobster limbs and crab legs, a chest plate. Its skin was lighter in tone. Something glinted on its chest. Leon barely made out the dog tags that hung around its neck. He only knew one person who still wore them: Hyena. Hyena hissed. From his back burst long spiny fins, erect and taut like a boat’s sails. Hyena dove into the water, its back fins gliding above and through the water before disappearing beneath Leon and the dismembered section of the complex.
“No…” Dribbled the word. Leon huffed in exhaustion, licking the metallic taste of blood from his lips.
Josele inched her way towards him, placing her hand gently on his slumped shoulder.
“Please listen to me. Nothing is over. Nothing is wrong. You are special. That is why this is all happening. They need you. They need a leader.” Her words were maternal, soothing and carefully spoken.
Leon sighed. “This isn’t real, this can’t be real.”
Josele circled to face him, cupping her hands to his face.
“Come with me.” She took his free hand and led him through the water into the darkness of the corridor. He held the pistol tight in his other, barrel pointed down.
Leon and Josele entered the core of Hydrus, the laboratories. The outer walls remained but the interior walls, connecting corridors, ceiling and floor were torn out, making one big room. The cloudless sky allowed the moon to spotlight the scene. Beneath where the abysmal Pacific waters should have been was a cauldron of thick blue liquid, similar in color and texture to the foamy substance that had coagulated on the complex’s ceilings. Steam rose from its surface. Leon stood at the edge. The familiar smell of copper and lime sickened him, reminding him of the gaseous assault that had triggered the nautical nightmare in this labyrinth, far from any shore or land. From the remaining corridors emerged the creatures, and what had once been Leon’s comrades. They hissed as they stood at the corridor entrances. To Leon’s left was the smallest creature.
“Flip?” Leon questioned with a whisper. He recognized the Filipino tribal tattoo on its right arm, faint beneath the transformed glossy skin.
The beast in the corridor across from Leon was the largest one. It outsized Skelter by nearly a quarter mass. It was Crater, his fellow mercenary and ex-Marine. The Samoan was a monster even before the transformation. Dark round spots dotted his chest plate and left claw. Bullet marks.
Skelter glared at Leon from the corridor to the right. He rubbed the wound on his neck. It looked nearly healed.
From the liquid pool rose the spiny fins of Hyena. The blue liquid oozed off his fins and down his spiny back, down his eight legs. He crawled out and stood between Crater and Skelter.
Leon turned to Josele. She continued to stare at him. Her eyes begged his to follow hers as they turned to the pool below.
Two glowing objects rose to the surface. Leon initially thought they were two sacks of jellyfish, but as they continued rising, he saw what they really were. The bell-shaped heads were attached to thin upper torsos. Jellyfish-like tentacles fell from their heads and shoulders, draping down into the liquid. Other tentacles bobbed up and out of the water, extending towards Leon. Their skin was transparent, human brain visible beneath, pulsing with an electric glow. Round human eyeballs connected to nerve endings, which then connected to the brains. The glowing spinal cords consisted mainly of nerves; electricity coursing up and down, extending into arms and hands attached to the torsos. Glowing hearts slowly pumped, connected to tubes and translucent looking lungs with slices in them, similar to gills. The mouths had lesser nerves connected to it. Mouths moved wordlessly.
Leon retreated, back against the wall.
“What, what is this?” He stared at the alien masses.
Josele stepped to him, touching his arm. “Two of the twenty of us here on Hydrus.”
“They’re not human,” the words filtered through clenched teeth.
“No, they are better. As are your friends. That is what the Medusa 177 organism does, Leon. It changes any form of life into a bundle, an amalgamation, of one-hundred and seventy seven sea organisms which makes up the Medusa 177.”
“How?” He gestured to the glowing organisms with his gun. “They don’t look better!” Leon rubbed his temple. “Why would you do this? Why would a man like PriceHaven do this?”
“PriceHaven doesn’t know about what happened here. He is unaware that the Medusa is alive and active. He only knows that his multi-million dollar investment has vanished, and that’s why he contacted your company and commander. But we,” she pointed to the two creatures, “had other plans. This is a chance for us to create a new civilization.” Her voice for the first time sounded confident and excited. “Free from greed and corruption.”
Leon looked her up and down. “Why haven’t you changed then?”
“I wasn’t gifted yet. I needed to stay like this,” she patted her chest, “so I can call for more people.”
“Gifted or infected?” Leon looked at his team. “Is your whole group down there? Warped like,” with fingers spread he gestured to the others in the room, “them?”
Josele nodded, a slight smile on her face. “Yes. They are all below. Waiting.”
“For you Leon to become the new army’s leader.”
“Army of what? Monsters?”
“They are not monsters!” Josele clasped her hands together. “An army to protect us while me and my colleagues build new cities and create new life below. But we need someone to lead our warriors through the depths.” Josele closed her eyes. “Eventually others will find out about us and the Medusa 177, and we will have to protect our new world.”
Leon violently shook his head in disgust. “I’m not going to become one. I’d rather die.”
Josele sighed. She turned her hands upwards toward Leon.
“You are already infected. That’s why I led you here. It’s in your blood. You breathed it in. But your body is strong, stronger than the others.” She placed her hands on his shoulders. “You are very special, and you will change into something powerful.”
Leon shoved her back. The mutated mercenaries hissed, lobster limbs pinching the air aggressively. The two glowing jelly’s slightly submerged. Josele waved her hand passively. The creatures silenced again.
“I understand your anger. But there is nothing left but this for you. Eventually you will change, whether it is here or on the streets back home. Either way you will become something else. Something better.” Her words were strict and strong, contrasted from her previous fragile state.
“I can’t become a monster if I’m dead.”
Leon put the gun against his temple.
Josele raised her hands. “Don’t do that, please.”
“Leon!” A crackled voice came from the corridor behind Josele. It was a familiar sound, deep and hoarse.
A partly mutated form exited the corridor near the two, walking/crawling laboriously towards them. It stopped behind Josele.
“Put the gun down soldier!”
Leon did as Commander Stacks ordered. He stared at the half nude African American team leader. His mouth was still human, as was his right eye, right ear, and part of his torso. One leg remained, the other replaced by a crab leg, as other legs extended from behind him. A lobster arm rounded from his back, pointing downwards. The top of his scalp grew multi colored spines. “Commander?” Leon stared.
“Listen, I ain’t got much time boy.” Com. Stacks grimaced in pain. “It hurts in spurts but after the pain, comes the power. I feel thirty years younger, but even better than that. Like bein’ born and knowin’ bout it.”
“Commander, this is crazy.”
“No boy, it ain’t. It’s like I told you before,” Stacks winced in pain again, his face puffing, curling in change, “We are the weapons, and I feel like I’m becomin’ a much more powerful weapon, and soldier.” The commander’s face contorted, fins sprouting, covering his mouth. Skin bubbled and morphed, legs popped with a tearing sound of flesh. Bones cracked and twisted. Commander Stacks slumped on his newly acquired legs. He twisted his body slightly, and Leon saw gills where a ribcage would be located. The commander’s black eye covers squished back, human eyes on Leon. One of the black lids winked at him.
Josele slowly took hold of the gun. “You won’t need this anymore.” She held his hand. “Just so you know, it wouldn’t have killed you. With Medusa in you now, you would regenerate.” Josele shoved him gently. “Go to them now.”
The two creatures in the pool once again extended their tentacles, eyes watching, mouths gaping.
Leon walked towards them. He spoke without turning. “Will I remember anything?”
”Yes. The Medusa just changes you physically, changing your shape to better suit you in the environment below. But you’ll live for a long time, so you’ll have time to remember new things Leon.”
The tentacles scanned and caressed him. They were soft, warm to the touch.
“It’s time, Leon.”
Leon looked at his peers. They watched, waiting patiently. He sat at the edge before submerging fully into the blue liquid. The two creatures wrapped their tentacles around him, holding Leon beneath the surface. He struggled, thrashing as he became fully submerged from head to toe. He gulped the blue liquid, choking on it. More of the jellyfish-like humanoids rose, forming a circle around Leon.
Josele watched from a distance. Leon’s body rose out of the water, back arched on a bed of tentacles. His skin changed to a bluish gray tone, thick and smooth. His eyes split, separating, forming into a face like a hammerhead shark. Three spikes rose from his balding scalp. His body tightened, muscles flexed. Teeth fell out, replaced with sharp thin fangs. His body trembled as the wetsuit tore, thighs bulged and bubbled, mutating into long gray-brown octopus-like tentacles. His fingers extended, long and sharp at their tips. He hadn’t made a sound throughout the whole transformation.
One of Josele’s gelatinous colleagues gestured her to the corridor behind Crater. Josele nodded, and made her way carefully to the room. The thrashing sounds from the other room continued as she turned on the radio controls, clicked a few buttons, and talked into a microphone. She looked back as the thrashing began to die down.
“May-day, May-day, this is Hydrus. Please, anyone, May-day.”
“May-day, anyone, Do you copy? Over.”
The static amplified before a voice came on.
“This is the USS Chryton. What’s the situation. Over.”
Josele forced fake tears.
“Please! Pirates, they’re attacking us. You’ve got to help us, please! I’m Dr. Josele LaTroya of project Hydrus. We’ve been attacked. Send troops, as many as you can!”
“We’re zeroing in on your location. Remain calm. Help will be there shortly.”
“Please,” Josele turned back again towards the corridor. She watched as the new Leon stared back through morphed eyes. The other Jelly’s bobbed around him.
She smiled. “As many soldiers as you can.”
Leon descended into the water. Josele turned off the radio. She removed the mask from her neck, tossing it aside. With a continued smile she walked back into the laboratory room.