Olivia was having a dream. No. It was more more like a nightmare.
She was running through the woods as strange and terrifying creatures gave chase. They had no legs, but their bodies undulated and squirmed to give them motility. She rushed left and right, up and down, but the creatures never let up no matter where she went.
The woods slowly morphed into metal hallways, then that too changed to a massive open area not unlike the lower levels. Above her, the world looked like it was ending. The ceiling of the massive area was crumbling, and she could hear screaming in the distance.
Behind her, the terrifying creatures had vanished, but now something far worse was approaching. Darkness. Pitch black that was slowly crawling toward her, consuming everything in its path.
“Olivia!” she heard a faint voice call to her. “This way, Olivia!”
She turned and saw someone, a silhouette not far away. They stood with an outstretched hand.
“I’m here!” she heard herself yell.
“Hurry,” the figure called. “We don’t have much time. The doors are sealing.”
“What about the others?” she asked, her question not her own.
“It’s all over. The power is gone. It’s all shutting down. We have to get out.”
The figure grabbed her hand. She felt herself being pulled by them. “Not much time…”
A large piece of debris came crashing down. She felt her footing give out as the ledge she was on collapsed. She began to fall into the darkness and she screamed aloud. Terror ripped through her body, and the dream came crashing to an end as she physically rolled out of bed, flailing wildly.
Sweat dripped down her forehead, and her nightgown was soaked.
She took a moment to slow her breathing and calm her racing heart. The images in her mind were already starting to fade. Most of it felt like a jumbled mess, but some of it had been so real and visceral. It felt more like a memory than a dream.
She pulled a journal from her nightstand and quickly starting drawing a picture of the animal that she had seen. The long slender body with no arms or legs. The sinister looking eyes and the tongue that lashed out at the air…
She needed to know more about it, and she knew exactly who she needed to see.
The town, when it was first discovered, had many buildings that were never practical for needs of the citizens. The local pet shop had been one of those places. At first it had been converted to housing, but then one day, a dog had wandered into town, walking right down main street. Soon, the same happened with a few cats.
A veterinarian had arrived in town shortly after that.
When he had been asked to write his name, he had quickly scribbled “Dr. Julio Jones” on his piece of paper. They had assumed, at the time, that he was a medical doctor like Caleb Vann. He had attempted to help Caleb with his work, but quickly discovered he knew nothing of human health.
He discovered his skills soon after, though, when a citizen brought a frog into town, having discovered it beyond the main street. The citizen had boldly claimed to have a poisonous animal and threatened someone with the creature, but Julio took one look and knew immediately it was no more than a simple bullfrog.
From that time on, he had become the source of truth when it came to animal questions, be it about reptiles or rabbits. His mind was littered with knowledge on wildlife, the perfect person to take ownership of the pet store.
He had been around a long time. He was number thirteen to arrive in town.
He kept to himself and his animals, happily taking in any samples brought to him while tending to the needs of the various pets that the townspeople had started to adopt.
Julio had just unlocked the back door to his shop for the morning and walked out his trash from the prior evening when he heard someone approaching nearby. He turned to see Olivia Sun. She was one of the main six, a celebrity of the town, and someone that he had just dealt with in the recent past.
“Good morning, Olivia,” he said, offering her an excited greeting. “Whatever has drawn you to my little space in this wonderful town? Here to deliver any more babies?”
“I need your help,” she said, her voice not unwelcoming, but not entirely friendly.
“Absolutely,” he said, taking her hint and dropping his humor. “How can I help?”
“I am curious about a type of animal,” she continued. “I’ve never seen it before, but I thought you might know what it is.”
“I know a fair number of animals, to be sure,” he replied. “Do you have a reference of some kind? Maybe a picture?”
“A drawing,” Olivia said, fetching some paper from her pocket. “Not a good one, unfortunately.”
Julio took the crumpled drawing and looked it over for a few moments. The memory of the creature flooded into his mind instantly, like opening a file and being rewarded with months of research in an instant.
“Ah yes,” he said, handing the drawing back to her. “That’s called a snake.”
“They’re a reptilian creature,” he explained. “They’re vertebrates, but they don’t have any legs. They use their entire body to generate motion.”
“Are they dangerous?”
“It all depends on the snake. Some are poisonous and some are not. They’re generally considered foreboding creatures. Not very popular among the masses. I suspect it’s the part about not having legs that makes them seem a bit strange. They’re fine, though.”
“That’s insightful,” Olivia said. “Have you seen any since your arrival?”
Julio shook his head. “Nope. No samples like that. Mostly dogs and cats, to be honest, but now that people are spreading out of town I am started to get more interesting creatures. I got this weird looking bird just the other day…”
“Thank you very much for your time,” Olivia said, cutting in while the doctor seemed to drift off thinking about his bird. “I would ask, though, that if you do see or hear about a snake, that you might let me know?”
“Of course,” Julio said with a smile. “Of course, since I have you here, I wonder if you might be able to offer me some insight as well?”
“I can try,” she said. “What’s up?”
“My friend, Nima Patel, has been filling in for Caleb Vann in his absence, and honestly, I was just curious about that whole situation. Where is Caleb?”
“Caleb is fine,” Olivia replied, giving him a smile. “He’s just making some rounds outside of town to the citizens that are living out there. Nothing to worry about.”
“Well, you know, I’ve become quite dependent on Jonathan Davis’ newsletters,” Julio continued. “I know I’m not alone. It’s like we’ve lost communication with the leadership, you know? Then, couple that with what happened to Explorer One and it just feels like we’re being left out of some bigger picture. The voices have gone silent.”
“John is on an explorer mission as we speak,” Olivia explained. “I’m sure he’ll write all about it once he gets back home. I’m confident that John, Caleb, and everything else around here will be back to normal before you know it.”
“That’s comforting to hear, coming from you.”
“Coming from me?”
“Yes,” Julio said, sounding surprised. “You’re the rock of truth in this town. Our mayor gives us fluff and stuff, but Olivia tells it like it is. You must know that’s your persona?”
“I… have been told I am grounded, yes.”
“Can you tell me, is it true then? Are Flynn and David… gone?”
Olivia frowned. Julio didn’t understand how difficult that question was to answer with any level of honestly. “From what we understand,” she started, “we believe the vehicle was lost. We cannot confirm, with any accuracy, the status of our brave explorers.”
“Are you saying they might still be alive?”
“I suppose I’m saying I don’t know.”
“Right,” Julio said. “Thank you for the frank response.”
“I wish I could be more helpful, doctor,” she said, her mind drifting. “If you’ll excuse me, I really must be going.”
A few hours later, Julio made his way down to the end of main street where William Everett had invited him to see the latest updates for the new animal hospital that would be on the second floor of the vehicle repair center. He had been included in the whole process from day one, and he was eager to have a proper place to work instead of an old converted pet shop.
“Have you thought about what you’ll do with the old shop?” he asked as he approached William and shook his hand. “Once I’m gone, I mean?”
“I suspect it will be revamped into housing. We have no shortage of citizens looking for a place to call their own, especially here in town.”
“And you’re sure you wouldn’t rather just build housing into the new building?”
“You get most of your new samples from people living outside of town. We might as well move you as close to the edge as we can. It’s all part of my plan to use the end of main street as a kind of gateway to the frontier.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Julio asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I mean, if you are separating the populous, those that live here and those that don’t, the citizens will interact with one another less and less over time. It could inadvertently lead to the two population groups becoming judgemental of how the other side lives.”
“Surely we’re past such silly arguments?” William asked.
Julio shrugged. “Are we?”
William took a pause and appeared to really contemplate what Julio was saying. He didn’t waste too much time on the thought, however, before he scrunched his face and seemingly dismissed the idea. “Those of us outside of town will still need to come in for food, supplies, and any other social activities. It’s clear that we can’t all live in town, so the rural option is a solid option for many. I think building more options in town that are welcoming can help draw citizens back more often.”
“Well, far be it from me to tell a city planner how it works,” Julio said. “I’ll take the shiny new office and keep on keeping on.”
William was about to say something when someone pulled up in a vehicle and leapt out. Julio and William turned to a man with a concerned look on his face.
“Hello, there. Is everything okay?” Julio asked.
The man shook his head. “No. I, uh, I am glad I found you, actually. You’re the one I need.”
“What is it?”
“Come and see…”
The man led them over to his vehicle and lifted the trunk for them to see.
Julio gasped. Slithering in the back of the man’s vehicle was a snake. “Well,” he said aloud. “This is certainly… concerning.”
“How so?” William asked.
“Two reasons. The first is that Olivia just asked me about these creatures this morning. The second is that, upon explaining them to her, I realized I was deadly terrified by the creatures.”
“So, what do we do with this one?” William asked.
“I have an aquarium inside… someone will need to carry it. Someone that is not me.”