Gloved hands invaded the cage. Little
creatures squeaked, squealed, sprinted. The cacophony coupled with clanking
drowned out the humming of machinery. A wail escaped a pink mouth as a gloved
hand clenched the tiny body. Fear shined in the eyes of the other furry
prisoners. They sensed the impending doom, the coming transformation.
The hands lifted the mouse into a canister, then placed it into a box. Pink
paws danced frantically on transparent glass. Squeals intensified. The man in
the bloodied lab coat and gloves snickered. He peered into the box, its glass
wall magnifying his only eyeball. (A black patch covered the hollow where the
other one used to be.) From the perspective of the mouse, he resembled a
gigantic cyclops. He was, in fact, a monster.
He grabbed two more mice from the cage.
Again, squeaks and squeals loudened. A torrent of hate spilled from his angular
face. He told them that they would never whine as much once they became
The first human-rat Hybrids had appeared
six years ago. They grew to be the size of Golden Retrievers but walked
upright. Block 9—their prison—sprawled only three yards from the mice cage. The
lab stretched 360 feet. Block 9, however, comprised thirty percent of the
space. The inside consisted of 4 floors, 55 rooms, an artificial yard, and 5
hallways. Thick walls surrounded the structure. A grilled gate in the Yard—a
twenty-foot outside enclosure of rubber plants and artificial grass—provided
the view of the outside: a bleak world of machinery, lab coats, and vials.
In the depths of night, when overhead
lights died and nothing remained but the starlike glow of control panels, Conor
used to think the seemingly infinite space around Block 9 was the universe
itself. But the warmth of his wife Sophia’s skin against his own as well as his
deep appreciation of fatherhood reassured him that a larger, freer world
existed beyond. He sensed it but could not feel it, could not touch what
was both far and near.
He had lived in this prison for three
years, after spending six months in the mice cage. Friends came and went, taken
by the gloved hands of death. Nobody stayed long. Remaining a community proved
challenging because attachment meant heartache.
Conor, strolling the Yard, observed the
toothless grin directed at Block 9. He went back inside to alert the others.
When he found his wife, she was reading a book to their three-month-old son
Little Elmore. In purely human years, he was six years old. The Hybrids’ maturity
developed at an exponential rate, showing promise in experimental psychiatric
medicine. Once a month, a scientist removed a snippet of hybrid brain matter.
The same test subject had been used the last several months. William now moved
jerkily, most of his cranium empty. Some prisoners envied the fact he no longer
knew where he was. Every month, three of them fell to dismemberment.
The cycloptic man slid a plastic card into
a slot under the Yard’s gate, which unlocked the prison. Chaos bounced off
walls; squills and squeaks echoed through halls. Hybrids huddled together in
circles of five, six, and seven. Conor’s huddle—made of his wife, his son, and
himself—was the smallest. Sophia remained strong. Fortitude was a quality she
and Conor shared. But Little Elmore shook to his bones. His teeth clattered the
same as they had last month.
Cruel laughter cackled above. One huddle
erupted into pandemonium.
The blood-splattered scientist opened the
gate and the front door. Immediately reaching inside, he grabbed William the
Hybrid. The rest fancied escaping but knew the scientists would have been
alerted. Besides, the madman’s presence was already an ambient deterrent.
William squirmed. A black stun baton
loomed above. The torturer aimed, sending an electric blue volt through his
victim. After a shriek, William the Hybrid became rigid and silent. He regained
consciousness once the hands threw him into a steel box belted in barbwire.
Plexiglass covered the front, giving William a clear view of Block 9. The
one-eyed monster leaned forward, waved to the prison, and promised to take the
other victims tomorrow.
For the next few hours, sounds of torture
played like music forged in hell.
Sophia and Conor read Elmore a bedtime
story written by the late Hybrid author Nathaniel Kingman, a founder of Xylhum,
the official language of Hybrids. They understood human languages but preferred
using their own. Little Elmore drifted into dreamland as soon as the final word
The lovers sat in their bedroom. Sophia
stared into her pocket mirror. Disproportionately long arms, a furry beard
impossible to shave away, and gray whiskers stared back at her. She touched her
Then she chewed her lip, contemplated, and
lamented about their curse of ugliness. Conor told her that she was beautiful
in his eyes. She touched his face. Her finger rubbed his nose, a triangle
carpeted in gray and black trapezoids. He caressed her shoulders thinly layered
in furry carpet that matched his nose. Her hands drifted to his skinny tall
ears. They embraced.
She mentioned reading a book about
termites falling in love. She was puzzled.
How could creatures as ugly as termites
fall in love?
Because love went deeper than any surface.
This was what he knew. This was what he told her.
Conor went to the Yard and looked out,
repulsion flooding him. William’s body had been reduced to chunks of sizzled
meat and piles of bones. The air smelled of copper and gasoline. The monster in
white grinned at the fresh blood on his lab coat. Conor’s stomach churned as he
walked away briskly.
A thud of footsteps reverberated outside. A
timer started counting down. It rattled for a few minutes, before beeping. The
The monstrosity of a man laughed his cruel
laugh and swiped the flat square through the slot. Unseen mechanisms came to
life. The prison was opening. Human-like limbs shivered harder.
The terrorizer was seeking occupants on
the second floor. Using a remote control, he sent two silver machines into the
block. They were roughly the size of adult Hybrids, possessed laser eyes, and
used rolling tracks as locomotion. Their claws clanked up to the second floor.
Conor’s wife and son cowered in a corner
of a spacious room where a sign read Lounge. A bronze statue of a rat
and a human holding the double helix of DNA rose in the middle. (The spiraling
ladders representing the chemical building blocks of Hybrids were made of nucleotides
slightly different than those of the human chains.)
Sophia stood in front of Little Elmore;
Conor stood in front of her. The machine buzzed forward. Claws clenched Conor.
He wondered if they were simply cold metal or the hands of death. She cried and
he hissed. The machine—speechless, heartless—threw him across the room. He hit
the floor, breaking his left hand. The second silver orderly snatched a
tearfully frightened Little Elmore.
Conor attacked the robotic invader—all in
vain as a claw pinched his broken hand, slicing off the tip of his index
finger. The machine’s other arm, making a fist, punched him in the ribs. Conor
collapsed. A painful world of changing colors flashed and spun. Everything went
blurry, hopelessness taking hold. The cruel laugh outside pounded at his ears.
Then Conor fell unconscious.
He awoke in the lounge. Dried crimson
coated his left hand. (Hybrid blood congealed quicker than human blood.) A knot
swelled on his head. The broken hand pulsated. But his vision returned to
normalcy; his consciousness operated normally…as normally as anything
could have operated in a world of bleak experimentation where death awaited. His
hybrid neurons swam, remembrance revving. Robots on rolling tracks. Crabby
hands. Clicking, clicking, clicking. Tears on a metallic floor. Shaking.
Screaming. A machine dragging Sophia and Little Elmore.
Cracking bones. Blood.
He wished the memory had never risen. The
resurrection of earlier visuals was like a corpse interred only to become the
He clenched his fist, ground his teeth.
Although his hand swelled, he tightened both fists, anger permeating in his
bloodstream, reddening his face.
Other emotions arrived. Apprehension nibbled
at his legs. Anxiety stiffened his neck. Fear dilated his pupils. His head
rumbled. His knees buckled. But love—domineering, controlling the
reins—steered him to the Yard to observe the nightmarish situation.
Conor stood amid the fake grass,
unconcerned that the scientists might see him. If he were captured, at least he
might be put into the same cage and able to hold his wife’s hand, to kiss her
cheery lips, to hug his son, to laugh as a happy trio—all one last time. What
was the use in living alone? The prisoners looked out for themselves, wishing for
the machines to take anyone else…a secret always wished but never
His heart ached, bled, its strings
severed. His family was in the cage William had died in. The meaty chunks were
gone, but a blood stain remained.
Intensity of misery and totality of
hopelessness hammered at Conor’s sanity. Suicide seemed the easiest solution.
Lights out, game over. But his heart was not dead yet, and he listened to its
words: Save them. Nothing left to lose. Everything to gain. But how?
Conor looked at Sophia and Elmore as they
looked back, their hands pressed against plexiglass. His fingers strangled the
bars. Streams of tears coursed his cheeks. The one-eyed monster dressed in
blood-splatter and white stooped in front of Conor, mockingly making a sad
The tall monster-man told Conor that his
family, come tomorrow night, would endure a fate worse than that of William the
Hybrid. He elaborated on the brutal intricacies of the torturous practices he
had planned. Conor’s fur bristled.
The sadist left for his lunch break. Conor
shook as he watched him disappear through metallic double doors that swung
wildly before clanging shut.
Timing was everything, he realized. The
routine schedules of the scientists and the torturer—something he had unraveled
months earlier—was paramount for an escape. Outside, a rectangular clock
protruded from a steel wall. When its enormous red digits read 1:30 PM, all
white coats floated out the doors except for the cycloptic man, not to return
until 2:10 PM…a narrow window of time for Conor to slip through.
Sitting in his room, he wrestled a storm
of thoughts and images. Sophia and he had been intimate since his first week in
Block 9. Over two years later, Little Elmore had been conceived. Sophia and
Conor grew closer, the pillars of love prevailing.
How could creatures as ugly as termites
fall in love?
Because love went deeper than any
Having a family was the meaning of his life; and saving it
and the others was his destiny.
Iron determination lifted him out of bed.
After shuffling through sleep fog, he
exited the door. The scientists slept for the night, but life stirred in Block
9. Conor visited the square room of injured Hybrids dreaming of better lives. Here
lay Isabella, a friend of the family until the white coats had deemed her an
“obstructive influence,” amputating her legs and lobotomizing her brain. Here
lay Hector, a young adult Hybrid condemned to a tongueless, eyeless existence
because he had given the scientists and silver machines the venom of his
serpentine tongue and the death-stare of his vengeful eyes. Here lay Marvin, an
elderly Hybrid born with extra hands in his back, their claws dug into his
nerves. Why did they remain alive? Solely for research purposes.
The clock in the room struck 10:00 PM, the
time when the surveillance computers slept for half an hour. Conor gingerly woke
the most familiar Hybrids and promised to avenge their sufferings, before
leaving as quickly as he had entered.
He returned to his room, fetched a
knapsack from under his bedding, and then hurried to the Lounge. The voices of
his wife and son flowed in his head like untouchable rivers of gold. The loving
and the longing, the fear and the fright, the separation and the solitude. His
adrenaline-crazed blood rushed.
Ava, Lucas, and Noah sat playing dominos
when Conor entered. He explained his intention to escape and requested their
help. When they asked for the plan, he explained as thoroughly as possible:
tomorrow, they would stage fits of hysteria, causing silver machines to appear.
Finally, they would overwhelm the machines and escape. Whispers of Block 9 had indicated
that access codes were printed on the rolling tracks of the silver orderlies. The
plan might lead to death—or worse. But when had freedom ever been free?
The trio was eager to help. Gazing in the
mirror framed with engravings of rats and humans, Ava complained about the
mandated medium-length hairstyle for females. She wanted longer hair. Noah protested
the mandated short hairstyle for males. He, like Ava, wanted longer, feminine
hair. Lucas added various complaints about the lives they were forced to
live. Conor remained virtually silent, as if not listening.
The entire world seemed to rest in his
hands. Dizziness crept close. He felt heated, hounded, hollowed, almost
swooning. But the images of Sophia and Little Elmore rejuvenated him like a
splash of cool water to a melting face.
On an empty stomach but full heart, he
navigated Block 9’s interconnecting halls and rooms, at last reaching the Yard.
He peered up at the misery beyond the bars. Elmore’s wet sadness, Sophia’s
worry-wrinkles—they lay awake but not awake, there but not there. He waited a
minute to see if they turned. They did. Their eyes collided, eyes of different hues
but of tears falling and shining the same.
He clenched the bars and shook, feeling the
The following morning, he awoke with a
throbbing heart. Every second of the past had led to today. He walked to the
Yard to observe the current situation. His family was still awake, their heads
drooping. They were losing their will to live, Conor concluded. The cycloptic
menace sat at his computer desk, pressing buttons in spasmodic flurries. Pew,
pew, pew! Pow, pow, pow!
After thirty minutes of shooting bad guys
on the screen, he bolted upright and grabbed the baton, sending blue
electricity into Elmore, who shook violently. The evil white coat giggled and
clapped, then left for breakfast. The rest of the scientists pressed a few keys
at their stations and rose for the same occasion.
Sophia, sniffling, caressed her son.
A hairy, impish white coat ambled to the
Yard and glanced inside. He spotted Conor. They tilted their heads at each
other. The man bent lower, lower, lower. A tiny red and white square as flat as
a pancake fell out of his shirt pocket and seesawed to the ground. The man,
never noticing, stood upright and left.
Conor edged up to the bars and extended
his arms, touching hard plastic. The square was more than a square. It was a
key to his destiny: an access card with codes for in and out of Block 9 as well
as for exiting the double doors.
He whizzed to the Lounge. Ava, Lucas, and
Noah had resumed their game of dominos.
Conor informed them of his discovery. They
would wait until all scientists except the cyclops left. When the evilest one was
alone, Conor would slide the card into the appropriate slot, freeing the others
and himself, and finally freeing his family. Intent on preserving culture, he
stuffed his knapsack full of books written by Hybrids.
The hour of reckoning seemed to arrive
after an eternity. The interval was a crucible in which Conor’s courage molded
as hard as a rock. It was also when the trio whispered the plans to the rest of
Every scientist except the cyclopic evil
left. He sneered and taunted Block 9, yelling obscenities and threats toward
prisoners. The last line of the tirade promised death beyond comprehension for
Sophia and Little Elmore.
Conor and the trio stealthily approached
the Yard. The madman, busily gaming, had his back turned. Conor, extending his
arms painfully far, slid the card through the slot. Mechanisms wiggled, rolled,
clanged. The gate and the front entry opened. The cyclops paused, shifted,
slowly cocked his head, his singular eye expanding.
Hybrids poured out into the smells of
chemicals, charcoal, and death. Some came with pointed canes; others wielded
shanks. They threw the doctor of evil to the floor. Clawing, biting, hitting,
stabbing. Conor gouged out the eyeball that had sent fear into his comrades. Limbs
tore off. Intestines unraveled. The monster’s screams increased, decreased,
increased, evened out, then drowned in blood.
Conor unlocked the cage next to the desk.
Sophia and Little Elmore cried tears of joy. He hugged them both, struggling to
The Hybrids exited the double doors and
climbed a ladder leading to a metal circle. Opening the hatch, they breathed aromas
of pine, cinnamon, and lavender. Giants of green leaves and barky bodies
greeted them. Through canopies they noticed an azure sea of fluffy pillows. A
million petals of multiple colors waved. The forest welcomed them.
The Hybrids hollowed out turf. And after a
week, an underground complex consisting of 7 floors and 100 rooms was livable.
Conor stayed busy. When not lecturing on the evil humans had committed against
their kind, including mice and rats, he spent the hours with Sophia and Little
Sometimes, when night blanketed the sky, he
ventured out to the edges of the wilderness, where he observed city lights not
much different than the starlike glows of the control panels. He smiled,
waiting…waiting patiently for the time to strike.
Lee served as a columnist for a newspaper. His short story "Something's
Out There" was published in Goats Milk Magazine. Writing speculative
fiction has been his passion for more than a decade. Robert Bloch's Psycho and
Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are his favorite