A Righteous Harvest

Summary: Matthew Murphy and Jada Jackson are fugitive vigilantes battling the forces of Hell. Their search lands them at an abandoned agricultural research facility. Inside is a truly infernal crop.

Two months ago, I was a construction worker in Pittsburgh. Since I met Jada, I've been a one-man demolition crew, with her as my most dangerous charge. Strange characters in Amharic appeared on my arms one day, and I met her soon afterwards. We're both hunter and prey, avoiding the authorities as we engage an extradimensional threat.

Hell is real, or at least something like it. There's a malignant, intelligent dimension that thrives on human agony, and it's eager to consume all of us. It draws the worst human scum to serve it, corrupting all that it touches. Jada and I have made it our mission to cut out this corruption, one tumor at a time.

Our cybersecurity consultant friend, Kendo, sent us an address to check out. A supernatural serial killer was communicating with someone at a particular address. We had to go check it out, and to shut them down. I hoped it would be some soulless office drone, perhaps a corrupt corporate executive or dirty government official. I was wrong on both counts, but I was hardly disappointed. Perhaps it was divine duty, but something wanted a worthy challenge.

Boy, did I get one.

Since then, Jada and I traveled through Ohio, staying at motels along the way. I knew that this lifestyle was going to be one for us, and only us, I considered a vasectomy. Jada and I used protection and pills, but those were pretty finite, especially at the rate we burnt through them. This was not a lifestyle that could support families of any kind, only troops. Armies had camp followers to meet their needs, and a single defeat spelt doom for them. By traveling and fighting alone, we ran a tighter, and more lethal, ship. Better barren soil than scorched earth.

I'd concur with that sentiment by the end of it.

It was early in the morning we left Fort Wayne. We headed southwest, driving through seemingly endless fields. For a moment, I felt as though we were in the middle of the 'amber waves of grain' from America the Beautiful. The ride was long and boring, so I worked on my podcast and audiobook backlog.

I played a podcast reviewing the productions of an old animation studio, called Eibon Animation. Interestingly, they produced a Christian-themed cartoon called Farm Fables, about animated, anthropomorphized crops learning religious lessons. Despite the seemingly lame premise, it was fairly well received, inside and outside of its target demographic. I remembered seeing ads for it, with a smiling carrot and rotund potato. I felt my arms twitch for a second, and I looked down.

Supernatural characters glowed along my arms, a luminesce only Jada and fellow Marked could behold. I saw my forearms read, "Close," in Amharic. It strobed as I made a left turn past an overgrown corn field, driving over a bucolic sea of fallowed pastures and riotous weeds. Life returned to cleared land, as though domestication was no more than a passing fad. For most of our prehistory, that was probably the case. When a fight started, I acted on instincts I'd ignored most of my life.

The paved road gave way to a dirt one, causing our car to bounce like a washing machine. I acclimated to it, and we continued down for another few miles. The road was largely straight, but the path had clearly wandered from its years of disuse. There were no other tracks, leading me to suspect no one else made it out here for a long time.

I wondered if the address was a shell, just a way of hiding a front corporation or false name. A strange feeling churned in my stomach told me otherwise. It was a nausea like riding a roller coaster, after that first hill. Jada suddenly leaned up in her seat, instinctively reaching for a weapon. It meant that something hellish or demonic was nearby, something I had to destroy. I slowed the car when I saw it.

I saw a building in the middle of an overgrown field. It sat like the leaf of Venus flytrap, waiting for some hapless insect to blunder in. It was easily the size of a warehouse, with shipping docks lining either side of it. A rusty chain-link fence, topped by barbed wire, surrounded it. There was a single gate that blocked off access to the road, but the chain was caked with rust. I parked the car and withdrew my bolt cutters.

"You feeling what I'm feeling?" I asked.

"It's that mode again." she said, slapping my rear end. "More screwing. At least of something evil."

I moved towards the gate, but I hesitated when I brought the bolt cutters up. I ran a gloved hand across the fence, and I saw the characters glow. I saw Jada sprinting after me, and I felt myself leave my body. I just froze there, as time and space melted around me. It was like my older brother's old videogame console, when the game froze. Derealization separated me from reality.

A different sort of hyperrealism returned it. I saw the construction crews excavate the foundation of this structure, decades ago. I saw trucks pouring concrete that would form the foundation. I saw steel girders being put into place. I saw the wood and brick finishing. I saw a strange device in the center of the building, which all the wires were connected to. Most peculiarly, I noticed the plumbing and roof. Translucent plastic and glass were put atop the roof, not unlike a greenhouse. Deep in the bowels of the building were sprinklers more suited for irrigation. I did not know how I knew that, but the structure seemed purpose built for something.

I blinked, and I found myself back in the present. Jada wrapped her arms around me, and she set me down beside the fence. I looked back and saw something I'd missed earlier, due to the angle of our approach. There was a triangular line that paralleled the structure's roof, an elongated skylight better suited to being a skylight. I thought I saw green inside, as something had grown in the period between its construction and the present.

"What happened?" I asked. I looked at my hands. The Amharic characters now read, "Builder."

"Your arm started glowing, and you almost collapsed," Jada said.

"I had a vision of the building's construction," I said, relaying what I saw to her.

"Perhaps you have gifts relating to your skills at building and invention?" she asked.

"Eh. Makes sense," I said. "But when we go in, we're going in armed."

Jada asked about security, but I did not think that would be an issue. There might be a security system here, but given the state of the building, it might not be far advance beyond a burglar alarm. I did not see any cameras around the building, but I presumed there might be other security measures inside. There was something festering inside, and I felt compelled to pop it like my first zit. Even if it ended with me all bloodied up.

I kitted out Jada and myself with homemade body armor, starting with ceramic plates and Kevlar vests. I had both of us wear headlamps, protective goggles, and respirator masks, in case the air inside was foul. I grabbed my homemade double barrel shotgun, Barbara, my suppressed HDM, a claw hammer, and a bandoleer of custom shells. Jada took the Crucifer, a nailgun I'd modified for lethality, her sword, and her small Walther PPK. Not the heaviest weapons, but hopefully enough to deal with whatever took root within.

I approached the rusted front door, and I saw a small plaque on it: "Horticultural Research Center." There was no information beyond that. Quickly, I checked my watch. I wanted to complete our business here before dark. The time was 3:18 PM, or 1518 in military time. For some reason, I thought of James 3:18: "Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness."

Even if there was security we'd overlooked, they'd eventually send someone by. However, the cost and isolation of this facility, plus its apparent abandonment, did not bode well for us. I loaded a breaching slug into my shotgun and pulled the trigger. The door flew opened, and adrenaline narrowed my sights.

A cool gust of air blew past my shoulder. I involuntarily shivered, as though I'd stumbled from a hot summer day into the dead of winter. I felt the chill penetrate through my body armor and protective gear. I heard Jada shiver, like the time I left the air conditioner in my room. I followed the beam of my headlamp, seeking any signs of activity or movement. I swept the barrel of the weapon around like I was slicing a pie, Jada doing the same.

We saw nothing but a long-abandoned reception area. There was a desk that rotted in the moisture, as well as moldy furniture from at least a decade ago. It was a miracle this place was still intact. Although, not the sort of miracle I'd hoped for. The floor was covered in wet linoleum tiles, which lead to a pair of restrooms and a door leading deeper in. Above the desk, where a receptionist might've sat, was a sign reading "Bronze Bow Horticultural Research Center: Ensuring our food security."

That was a name I recognized from the podcasts I'd listened to. Bronze Bow was a defense contractor, one that had been around for decades. They got the name from Psalm 18:34, "He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze." They were always foisting obsolete, clunky equipment onto the military, Cold War relics seeking to justify their extravagant costs and existence. But I'd never heard of this food security stuff.

I loaded Barb with two buckshot shells as I approached the inner door. Despite the reception area, I doubted it was ever used for its intended purpose. Given the remote location of this facility, the staff might've lived here, or taken a shuttle. There was no parking lot or nearby buildings, so this was probably a self-contained facility. I wondered what they had done as I pressed open the door with my gun barrel. The rusted hinge creaked opened, right before I heard it.

"Help!" came a cry from deeper in the facility.

It was in a young voice, like that of a frightened girl. Had I encountered that cry under any other circumstances, I would have gone running. Jada looked ready to sprint in, but she similarly hesitated. There was too much about it that did not add up. This building looked sealed for years, with no signs of entry. My earlier nausea returned, as though something evil worked its way up from my stomach. I wished I had a bigger lunch.

I stepped forward, and my stomach turned itself into a Gordian knot. The sanest place to be in this building, I felt, was behind a trigger. I heard a hiss somewhere in the distance, a cloud of steam momentarily filling a narrow hallway. My eyes tracked the burst to its source, a vine-covered latticework of piping that filled the ceiling. I ran my hand along a corroded wall, feeling the water running like a pulse of bile. This building was alive with something, and nothing beneficial.

"Help!" I heard the call again, directly in front of me.

Jada stepped forwards with her blade drawn. I knew that was no little girl, but an ambush with our names on it. Something disgusting was eager to snuff us out, likely sensing us as prey. That was only partially true, for we were also the hunter. My arms glowed with anticipation, but something was wrong. Jada slowly lifted her blade above her head. I heard something soft cause gentle reverberations to echo down the length of the pipe. It moved.

It plunged down from the ceiling above. It was as tall as a child, but as ravenous as a demon. Its forearms were claws of sharpened bone, wrapped with bundles of vine and roots replacing sinew. It screamed like an agonized child, as vines erupted from where its lower jaw once was. Its empty eye sockets turned at me as bundles of vine and sharpened bone shot towards my neck. Worse, it was not alone.

I answered their challenge with Barbara, emptying body barrels into the thing's chest and neck. Bits of bone, wet bundles of vine, and wet ichor sprayed across the empty lobby. The skeletal body, too small to be an adult, collapsed to a heap of bones on the floor. Three more of those hellspawn filled the gaps, rushing at us like a torrent of green water. Footfalls echoed down the hallway, and I knew this was not a fight we could win.

Jada finished off her first of the green children, cleaving its head off with her blade. She unloaded the Crucifer, but the salvo of nails did nothing but annoy them as I pulled her towards the front door. A dagger of sharpened bone plunged towards her torso, but bounced off her armor. She sprinted beside me before they could come try again. They pursued us towards the front door, but we did not look back. I moved with a frantic celerity, one born of confused fear.

Once we entered sunlight, the interior was motionless once more. There was no sign of the ambuscade that undoubtedly awaited if we entered once more. The things vanished seamlessly into the holes in the wall, the overgrowth on the pipes, and the dark corners of the room. I had little doubt they could wait a long time, years perhaps, for something to blunder by. Or someone. I slammed the door shut, bracing myself against it.

"What are they?" Jada asked.

"They were probably children," I replied, recalling small skeletons. "Before something infected them."

"And now, we can only give them rest," Jada said, reloading the Crucifer.

I reloaded Barbara. I loaded a breaching slug in the top barrel and a light-gas shell in the lower one, which would pulverize anything it struck. I didn't have any heavy weapons or explosives, so I had to think creatively. Directly entering through the front was suicide, since that's where they probably anticipated prey. Such frontal assaults had worked for us in the past, but not in this case. I looked over the outside of the building, and I thought.

Jada came to the same conclusion I did, pointing to one of the truck loading doors on the side of the building. There was one on either side of the building, likely used during construction, and likely abandoned with the rest of this place. Those, I assumed, would be less guarded. All I had to do was to force an entry. However, there was still the far larger problem: a whole building of those creatures.

I remembered that strange vision earlier, and what I saw in the front door. There was a network of piping, with those eerie clouds of steam. The building was likely isolated from the regular sewer system and power grid, but something was heating up that steam. My mind feverishly thought of possibilities. Perhaps there was some solar steam system, which used mirrors to heat collected rainwater or well water. Perhaps there was a geothermal generator of some sort, which drew heat and water from deep underground. I doubted there was a nuclear reactor though, as it would require a lot more care and automation than I saw.

That thought gave me a second idea. Where there was steam, there was heat. Where there was heat, there was pressure. Where there was pressure, there was something that could potentially explode. There was probably a central steam boiler, somewhere in the building's belly. I'd just need to find it, overpressure it, and explode it. Modern boilers had redundant parts inside, but corrosion probably took its tool. Even water heaters could explode like rockets, under the right circumstances.

I knew I could generate those circumstances, and my arms glowed in sympathy with that urge. I just knew Jada and I would need to run fast. Good thing we'd trained cardio.

We approached the side door, which resembled the loading dock I recall from a summer job in a supermarket. I imagined myself as an awkward teenager, trying to avoid the ire of my chain-smoking, perpetually cranky, middle aged boss. On this time, my survival would depend on whether I could clear out the loading dock, instead of my short-lived career as a supermarket worker. Jada was getting pumped, with her sword in one hand and Crucifer in the other.

I blew the door lock, and all hell broke loose. A shriek echoed from within as the rusted door flew opened. I heard the skittering of small feet, as though I'd intruded upon some infernal nursery. I heard the things from the front running towards us, likely surprised at our side entry. We had a few moments to prepare for their arrival, which I took advantage of to reload. We moved further into the building, towards a defensible hallway.

Looking around with my flashlight, I felt my heart sink. The beam illuminated a nearby room, with a faded label reading "Lab 2." The room's interior was painted in vivid colors, now faded and chipped. Nevertheless, I saw what they once were: Clowns, cartoon characters, and other bright, childish things. There was a certain familiarity I could not place, as my mind tried to identify those characters. Another detail in the room was far more ominous.

The lab was full of rusted steel cages, despite the apparently jovial and juvenile d├ęcor. At the bottom of each cage was a small rusted bucket, filled with condensation and worse things. Beside them were skeletons, too small to be adults. Withered, dried vines wrapped around their bodies, similar to the aberrations that greeted us at the front door. I did not have time to process that realization before they struck.

A dozen screaming hellions descended on us, claws raised for the kill. I unleashed my light gas shell, modeled after the physics apparatus of the same name. The projectile struck the heart of the mass, evaporating the skeletal creature and the things closest to it. A rain of jagged bone and viscous vines slashed through the mob like a shrapnel blast. The mob continued onwards, and I unleashed the second barrel.

My arms glowed as the second shell blasted through the air. A small projectile accelerated to the speed of a meteorite, and it exploded in the heart of the remaining creatures. These green children were grass before a lawn mower, chaff before a reaping scythe. A shockwave cut them down like the first one, causing them to squeal like burning pigs. Jada stepped in with a salvo of nails, with her sword cutting off heads with the ease of a farmer cutting weeds.

A second later, the hallway was quiet. The only sounds were Jada and my frantic breathing, dripping water, and the hissing of steam from unseen pipes. I turned my headlamp back towards Lab 2. My mind shifted back to the dark places it had been, taking in the full implications of what we saw. Whatever research transpired in Lab 2, children died there. Probably the same children whose remains were converted into those arboreal undead abominations. That was all I needed to see to desire to seal my desire to blow the place.

We followed the piping deeper into the heart of the place, a machine room resembling an industrial hell. Long forgotten machine tools rusted in the corner, staffed only by cobwebs. The floor of the room was a damp, corroded concrete, with cracks showing where it yielded long ago. Around the edges of the room, walls, and ceiling, a latticework of vine-wrapped pipes feed into a central hub. The machine exuded an evil energy from it, like the heartbeat of a feral beast. I surveyed it from a safe distance, clutching Barbara.

It was no mundane boiler. It resembled a greenhouse, with a column of reflected light highlighting the thing inside. It might have been a plant, but any semblance to terrestrial vegetation seemed purely vestigial. Instead of bark, it had flesh. The central body were two vaguely human forms, still identifiable as such. The first was a tall redheaded man, clad in the remnants of lab-coat. The second was a shorter, fatter man with tan skin, although much of his bulk was subsumed by a mass of roots. They still breathed, temporarily steaming the translucent plastic. Their two heads turned towards us in unison, and Jada took their picture.

"Never know if we'll need to identify them," she said. "Before we put them out of their misery."

I nodded. I saw the valves connecting the generator to the strange, translucent tube. A collection system fed water into the bottom of the tube, and the creature's body heat turned it into steam, which was propagated through the facility. The thing in the center, thus, was not merely the steam generator, but also the thing controlling the creatures we'd encountered. Quite a diabolically simple system, pun intended. Whatever they were, they were no longer human.

I began closing off the steam valves, hoping to boil them in their own exhalations. It was then my Amharic tattoos glowed once more. I saw the things that had once been human, as two separate, middle-aged men. They lead children out of the loading docks, and into the laboratories. They cut into their young lab rats' flesh, inserting vine like tissue. However, they exposed themselves to the vines, hoping to control their Guinea pigs like meat puppets. It worked too well, and they ended up fused with the central stalk of the creature, isolated in the center of the facility. Those two scientists, as evil as they were, ended up becoming the inspirations for the Farm Fables characters: Carrot and Potato.

This place needed to burn. I saw Jada finish closing off the last valve, and I gestured towards the rear door. It would take time for this thing to overheat like a giant pressure cooker, and the thing in the middle would fry. We'd sealed off the release valves, and the heated steam would have no place to go. As a physics podcast I listened to reminded me, a pressure vessel with no release for newly added heat was called a 'bomb.'

My physics demonstration ended before it began. heard steel bend above us. I heard something shatter. The vines that clasped the walls, piping, and ceiling lurched and twitched like raw nerves. Given their connection with the thing in the tank, that was exactly what they were. They shook and pulled, the structure swaying like it was a straw hut in a hurricane. Jada and I were sprinting for the exit, but it beat us there.

I am not quite sure how it managed it, but the bulk of the creature was unseen and strangely malleable. It was something originating in hell's gardens, a plant tainted by unearthly energies. This garden of weeds was all it had, before whomever made it abandoned it. The two former humans, the mad doctors merged into a mushy pile, oozed towards us from the loading dock they'd once escorted victims in. It moved with alarming alacrity, plunging down from a gap in the ceiling. This time, I did not run.

They started at us, their vine-like tendrils coming at us from all directions. Jada held my hand. I held hers. She turned her sword into a shield of swings, cutting off those ivy-like tendrils like a human weedwhacker. The expressions on the thing's faces were of dull surprise, but I had nothing new to offer them. Since they escaped my earlier physics demonstration, I offered an alternative.

With her free hand, Jada caressed my right arm. Our Amharic characters glowed in a now familiar unison, and I gave it both barrels. The thing stopped for a moment, as if mesmerized by our Marked sigils. At that instant, the two hypervelocity projectiles slammed into it simultaneously. It vanished into a cloud of fluid too green to be human blood. Behind us, the structure collapsed.

Jada and I sprinted the last few feet to the outside. Behind us, a chunk of ceiling stood where we'd stood a moment earlier. I pulled her away from the collapsing building, as a cloud of dust arose behind us. I presumed the creature had integrated itself with the building's key support members, so its demise caused the rotten thing to collapse. Like all works of evil, it was a hollow, pathetic thing.

Jada and I made a decision that following morning. The monsters who made it used children as living test subjects. That would be the fate of any offspring we might've had, ones who'd be taken after we'd likely die against a hail of gunfire or teeth of a monster. That was why I had a vasectomy, and she had tubal ligation. We were parents to none but death, exterminators of evil in an infested world. It was our mission to reap a righteous harvest.

We were off to a good start.