An excerpt from

The Suffering Of The Hens

Nick Oefinger

None of this should be happening.

Stray thoughts were bullying their way abruptly to the front of Ancika's mind, only to be quickly dismissed as unhelpful – but that didn't stop them from forcefully trying to break through the woman's focused concentration. The young researcher's breath came in short gasps, staggered and disrupted by the steady impact of her bare feet on the cold ground. The paved surface of the industrial complex's parking lot was badly in need of attention, and was cracked and uneven in places; more than once, Ancika had stumbled, twisting an ankle in an unexpected depression. Twice, she had struck one foot or the other against a chunk of dislodged pavement, either time with bone-jarring force. From there she could only limp onward until recovering sufficiently from the pain to start running again. This she did, either time, while digging the fingernails of one hand into the skin around her mouth. The added effort was necessary to help hold it shut, against the screams that threatened to tear itself free from her lips.

A sharp cry of pain, a terrified wail; each yearned for its freedom, but either would bring attention – of the wrong sort, the worst sort. And that happened to be the only kind which was currently available. The Centrum pro Umělé Vnímání was South Bohemia's premier research institute for artificial perception, representing a highly innovative branch of AI at the forefront of the Czech Republic's high technology industry. At a quarter to four in the morning, however, the entire campus should have been virtually deserted.

Only a single security guard, armed with nothing more than a sturdy flashlight, should have been on duty. Ancika herself should not have been present – she lacked the necessary permissions to engage in solo projects; much of the institute itself was completely inaccessible to her, outside of the company of those with higher-level security clearance. There were a lot of “should haves” on this unseasonably cool September morning, and the young woman's covert infiltration wasn't the only violation of the natural order of things to take place.

Nor had it gone exactly as she had planned.

I should have left... When I found the body, I should have... Oh, God, help me..!

Panic was rising again, in the form of a solid lump within her throat. Ancika could feel her dark brown eyes widening from the strain of holding it in, of doing anything other than standing in the middle of the lot and screaming with the horror of what she had just witnessed. It felt like a piece of food that refused to go all the way down. The junior CUV researcher swallowed, knowing that it wouldn't help, and did the best she could to force that imaginary lump down regardless.

She had actually almost succeeded, but in doing so forgot to pay attention to her footing. The concrete barrier at the end of a parking space played the part of her final undoing with a cruel sort of efficiency. It sent her to her knees with a loud, startled cry of pain, before she lost her balance altogether; the next few moments saw her tumbling, head over heels, down a small embankment at the edge of the parking lot.

She was still more than a hundred yards away from her own vehicle.

Ancika wound up lying dazed and bleeding in a thicket, on the edge of the wooded terrain within which the CUV campus was so cozily nestled. Her right foot was half-submerged within a cheerily babbling stream, which – despite how pleasant it sounded – was as icy-cold as death itself. At the very least, as her faculties slowly returned to her, Ancika found that the freezing water was numbing her pain.

Probably broken a toe... just one, if I'm goddamn lucky; oh, fuck me...

And, without thinking beyond the moment, she found herself groaning some select vocabulary out loud.

Her first reaction was an oddly disconnected smile, accompanying the wry thought that she had her American counterparts to blame for this; before they joined the project, I never used so much as a –

That was when she first heard it: a dry, cracking sort of a sound, sharp and quiet – but very close by.

The young woman froze, willing every muscle in her body to stiffen, not even daring to remove her foot from the icy stream. As the water's chill passed from simply being cold, to numbness, and on into that unique sort of cold burn which no other medium could convey quite so efficiently, she set her jaw against the throbbing pain and listened. The sound could have been any number of things; she was on the edge of a small forest, after all. It could have been something nocturnal – or some pebbles shifting by the edge of the stream. Or, it might have been a heavy footfall on a twig, someplace nearby – coming from someone who wasn't putting any particular care into keeping their presence a secret.

Several minutes of absolute silence went by before Ancika finally dared to stand up again. She grimaced, rubbing at her raw, scraped knees, and let out a small whimper at the sight of her right middle toe – it was dislocated, and it certainly felt broken, as did the fourth on that same foot. “Fuck...” There was little thought given to hiding now, as the steady accumulation of throbbing aches from her flight across the parking lot finally started to catch up with her. “Of all the possible... why me?

She was beginning to truly regret her late-night escapades – all for the sake of the theft of a single thumb drive. One hundred gigabytes of data storage potential, holding little more than a few megabytes of information – proof of certain allegations, or so Ancika hoped. Evidence, at the very least, that some of the projects being conducted at the CUV were anything but what they were reported as being. She had, at least, managed to acquire her target; she even managed to confirm that it was still present, nestled comfortably in the left front pocket of her pre-torn designer jeans. The irony of her choice of fashion didn't escape her; she was still smiling when her curiosity got the better of her, and she pulled the drive out to have a look at it.

She held it up to the illumination of the flashlight to get a better look. Wait, flashlight?

The night guard was standing not fifteen feet away. He was still, and with the flashlight held before him, his face was lost in the shadows. That strange feeling of detachment returned again, as Ancika studied the shape of his silhouette, and noted the way his mouth hung slack and open – which wasn't surprising, given how much of his face had somehow been melted away when she last saw him. When she had stumbled upon his body, while trying to find her way to the CUV's mainframe. He had been very, very evidently dead then.

He was no less obviously so now, as his strange, jerking motions betrayed; the flashlight was dropped as he stumbled forward. His shambling gate was a thing which had evoked countless hours of laughter, when Ancika found herself persuaded to indulge in old Hollywood monster films by her American colleagues. The same colleagues who had started to disappear, all of them mysteriously returning home – or so the story went – within months of their arrival. Seeing the way the security officer struggled to place one foot in front of the other in person brought the full impact of far too many light-night horror films crashing down around the young woman's head.

“You... I, I saw you. You were, you're... the... the Hell?!”

The guard stepped into the light of his fallen flashlight. One eye was dangling out of a socket that had very recently been gnawed upon... and now, finally, Ancika allowed herself to scream. She screamed as his ruined jaw descended, as something resembling a twisted smile crossed features belonging to a hideous thing that still remembered how to move, how to smile, and how to carry a flashlight.

It also, as it turned out, remembered how to eat. Ancika's bloody, broken foot put her at no great advantage over the unquiet corpse as it moved forward, and grabbed at her legs with a lunge that left it prone. The woman's icy foot was grasped by the ankle, knocking her back to the ground. The thumb drive splashed into the icy cold stream, and Ancika had her final moment of strange, exhausted disconnection as she wondered how quickly the icy water would render its data useless. By then, her frozen foot had warmed up enough to feel the first greedy embrace of the creature's teeth.

Her screams echoed among the trees, flowing like liquid agony across the parking lot for several minutes. Her final, gurgling breath was lost in the babbling brook, where the creature left her partially eaten body. It picked up its discarded flashlight once more, but then gave it a look that might once have been confusion, and dropped it back into the grass by the side of the stream. Then, it turned its steps back towards the main hall of the CUV campus, from which it had recently emerged in pursuit of the unfortunate researcher.