PRELUDE

Dirt crumbled and succumbed to the weight of a monstrous metal beast as it rolled forward, its long arm extended upward with a large steel box hooked at the end. The metal rig progressed toward a tree line bordered by thick alloy fencing. A row of men holding rifles stood by anxiously, all wearing face masks. Even though the sun had gone down, it was still a humid 80°F (26°C) outside. Frogs and cicadas could be heard chirping alongside the mechanical whirring of the crane.

Standing atop a Jeep, Dean Slater supervised the operation. He was tense, gripping his SPAS-12 shotgun securely. Sweat dripped out from under his protective headgear. He watched the box intently as it was moved through the air, cautious of its content. He knew what lay inside, the unique danger it posed if it got out—that's why he had everyone wearing masks to protect their exposed faces.

Two men motioned with their hands to the rig's operator, and the long arm began to descend into an opening in the fence. It lowered until the cage was sitting on the ground.

"Raise the gate!" Slater instructed.

The crane operator pressed a button on his dashboard. The barred panel at the front of the cage slowly slid upwards. There was no movement from inside the cage. No sound.

Slater found this unusual, as did the rest of the men on standby. They were expecting a burst of speed upon the sight of freedom, but there was nothing. Slater adjusted his grip on his shotgun, frowning. Now he had to order someone to investigate the cage, which defeated the entire purpose of using a crane.

"Smithers, Flanders, move in and see what's wrong with the damn thing," Slater said. "Owens, Dentry, back them up."

Four men squeezed between the cage and the alloy fencing, stepping into a flourishing jungle. Two of them took positions nearby, holding up modified tranquilizer rifles. The other two slowly flashed their lights into the cage. It was empty!

"It's not here!" Flanders said, utterly confused.

"What?" Slater questioned, hopping down from the Jeep. How could the animal have slipped out of the cage without anyone seeing or hearing it? It must've weighed half a ton. There's no way they wouldn't have heard it crashing into the jungle ahead.

The frogs and cicadas disappeared from the sound waves, replaced by a feint hooting sound, like an owl. All four men stood alert, shining their lights around the foliage. The hooting became louder, closer. They remained where they were, unsure of which direction the noises were originating from.

Hearing the sounds, Slater bolted toward the fence. He knew that hooting. To a normal person it sounded like the familiar barn owl, but to him it was something much more fearsome, and many times as big. He bellowed to his men, "Get out of there!"

The four slowly began to turn back. Three of them slipped through to the road. The last man, Flanders, had gotten halfway through when he heard the hooting again. He paused to find the source of the hooting, turning his face toward the jungle—

SPLAT! A chunky, tar-like gunk slammed into his mask, sending him off-balance. He tore the mask off to get his vision back, just in time to see a large shape lock its jaws onto his rifle arm, needle teeth tearing into his flesh. Flanders shrieked. Slater arrived, grabbing him by the other arm and keeping him from being yanked into the jungle. At this point, the others had caught onto what was happening, hurrying to their aid. Some climbed on top of the cage to get the high ground, others slid through the second opening opposite the one Flanders was caught in.

"Work her back in there!" ordered Slater, tugging on Flanders' arm and shoulder with all his strength, but the animal had a vice grip on his other arm, slowly pulling him into the enclosure.

Yellow and blue sparks spat from rifles as several of the men fired at the animal. One of the men atop the cage fired another round from his taser rifle, but was suddenly assaulted by a black substance that covered his entire mask. He fell in front of the cage, pulled his mask off, and frantically fired his weapon in all directions, unable to see in the dark. There was more hissing from nearby that was followed by a glob of the black gunk encasing his visage. Before he knew it, a pair of jaws had latched onto his neck, dragging him to the ground like a dog playing with a toy. Another animal began gnawing on his clavicle, blood streaming down over his suit as he howled in seething distress.

As the men fired more taser rounds into the darkness, strings of a black substance found their way onto the suits of several of the workers. There was more than one ahead of them now.

Slater realized he couldn't pull Flanders in on his own, not while the animal was still attacking. If only he could grab his gun and still maintain position. The spotlights finally moved forward, illuminating more of the immediate area. He got a fair look at Flanders' assailant, seeing an animal standing as tall as a full-grown man ripping into Flanders' arm. It had two thin crests on top of its skull that formed the shape of a V. In the light available, it looked like the animal was a feathery green with squiggly black stripes along its back and hind quarters.

Flanders cried out as the flesh on his arm was shredded. He couldn't see anything due to the black substance the animal had shot onto his eyes. His body was beginning to lock up, as if he'd been paralyzed. He couldn't fight back anymore.

Seeing this, Slater knew the operation had gone to shit. "Shoot her!"

His orders were heard and live ammunition began being fired now. Snarls and roars emitted from the animals. The one holding onto Flanders released its him and he fell back beside the opening, on the outside of the enclosure; Slater also fell back from the momentum. While Flanders was squirming on the ground in agony, one of the creatures emerged from the enclosure, snarling. It saw Flanders on the ground, looking like it was ready to finish the job, but it strangely turned away and shifted its attention to Slater, who was still on his butt. A second later, the creature's mane expanded in a dazzling display of bright colors, but its visceral hissing injected fear into the man. Slater cursed himself and began feeling around for his weapon. The creature opened its mouth, reared back, and then spat a glob of black disgustingness forward. Slater reflexively lifted his arm, blocking the substance, but he could already feel his skin beginning to burn. Believing its prey to be immobilized, the spitter pursued, running at him. Slater fell back to one elbow, grasping the closest object to him. He whipped it forward, realizing it was his shotgun, and pulled the trigger. The spitter flopped into the dirt beside him like a truckload of lumber, groaning painfully as blood gushed from its badly injured ribcage.