Hurricane Valencia emerged wildly abrupt, seemingly choreographed to a spirited tune of chaos. Its fury slammed down on the people with brutal indifference. And its eerily unexpected arrival triggered conspiracy speculation that ran rampant among the locals for years to come.
The young Helena Moss hustled through the lab’s grand corridor, searching for an entrance to the room. Even the lab’s secondary power source had been knocked out by the storm, leaving several doors unlocked, swaying and slamming open to close and back again. The double-doors which led outside at the end of the hall had been completely ripped from their hinges as salty floodwater rushed to fill spacious voids. A slew of monkeys and a myriad of crossbred critters scattered recklessly in fits of panic. Their screams breached spine-shredding pitch and bounced echoes of dread off the cold industrial interiors throughout the facility.
Sporadic gusts of wind smacked her in the face with a rainbow barrage of feathers, but the blinding inconvenience did little to thwart Helena’s determination as she located the room where she’d last seen the boy.
Silently in his cage he sat, though the cage door had been long blown wide open. Helena was pretty clever for a six-year-old girl back at this time, but she naturally only wielded the strength of a six-year-old, leaving her gravely vulnerable to what she was up against. Luckily, the young boy needed little coaxing. He took her hand as she wrapped her lavender flower-patterned sleeping bag around him. She proceeded to lead him through the disaster that pulsated throughout the complex. Hearing the men call for her as she reached the boat garage, she quickly located Ron’s boat and brought the boy below deck to a little cubby-fort she’d established for herself in the bay. She gave the boy an unripe banana, a packet of peach-flavored fruit snacks, and a half-empty bottle of water, and then locked him away in a utility closet on the boat.
The odd storm it was, it dissipated as quickly and unexpectedly as it had arrived. By the following day, after assessing damage to his primary headquarters off the coast of the Dominican, Helena’s stepdad, Dr. Lexington Moss, had a team of his men sent up to Chicken Island to check on the Gray Square project. Gray Square was fine, as was to be expected, everything else, not so much. And to many, Lexington Moss's display of arrogant nonchalance and lack of reaction to the storm’s disastrous effect was a clear tell of guilt; a tell of humorous proportion really, though the humor was lost on the people of the local communities via the hysteria it brought to their islands. Helena, under General Ron’s supervision, was allowed to tag along to Chicken Island so she could check on her uncle.
Buried beneath rubble and clutching the remnants of a shelter that no longer stood to offer much in the way of security or comfort, Uncle Jack was found, and alive. Over the course of the following days, Dr. Moss’s men reluctantly helped nurse her uncle back to sufficient health. Helena helped to gather his tools that had been scattered about by the storm and provided what few supplies she could squander together that might help him to rebuild his shack and get things back to sorts. On her last day there, Helena told her uncle she had a big surprise for him and asked if he’d like to take a walk with her up to the little beach on the northeast end of the island. It was a place where they’d spent a good majority of time together when she’d be allowed to visit, but more importantly in this instance, it was a place beyond a clear eyeshot of unwanted attention.
Up at the beach, standing in a foot of water about ten feet offshore, was a little boy, with all the physical attributes of this world, just not all entirely human.
Her uncle had at that moment been thrown the curviest curveball of his life.
Harmony was cut short by the uproar of the dogs, each attempting to out-volume one another. They barked at the approaching boats, their naturally built-in canine alarm systems alerting any an’ all on the island to get vigilant. Instinctively, Skin, the undocumented human occupant of Chicken Island, ditched the driftwood he’d collected and made a full body-pivot and dashed in the opposite direction of the commotion.
Uncle Jack stumbled out of his shack at the same time and gave Skin a blank half-glance out of the corner of his eye. Jack cautiously hiked down to the docks to greet Management.
Skin blamed a heavy northern breeze for him not hearing the low rumbling buzz of the boat engines approaching in the distance. Still, it didn’t excuse him from knowing better than to be so far south on the island in broad daylight. “Moss yachts,” he mumbled to himself. “Man if that ain’t some Déjà vu, ‘swear the Mossies were here just yesterday.” It was like clockwork; Management would make their deliveries and check-ins on Mondays, and rarely swayed from the routine.
Leaping over newly planted raspberry bushes, Skin sprinted toward his cave as his sun-bleached braid bounced between his shoulder blades. Skin was fast not only for a twelve-year-old but for an any-year-old. He slowed down a hair for only a moment, thinking he’d maybe scramble up a palm tree to wait out the interruption with a bit of a view of the happenings. He quickly thought better of it though knowing he was cutting it way too close. Rubbish-chicken-squat-bullsh- is what this is, he thought in frustration, as he raced on.
He had a natural knack for blending into his environment and an instinct to remain unseen. He credited himself the stealthy type, but it would not be a stretch to suggest or suspect that knack and instinct of his be the result of genetic tampering. However, the forest on the island lacked density, making it just a little too risky to stop short and hide out on a particularly unexpected visit. Quickly the path would present him the choice to either head up the hill to the drop-in up top, or scurry toward the beach and into the water. The drop-in was at the peak of the island, and the boats were close enough to the docks by then that they’d be able to get a clear view with binoculars to the top of the hill if indeed their motivation was pursuing suspicions. He decided the beach was the wisest of his limited options.
The heavy breeze ended up working in Skin’s favor. It shuffled the brush and palms enough to dissuade Management from being privy to any movement they may have halfheartedly suspected. The second patrol can’t be near the northeast end just yet, he assured himself. They always sent at least two boats; one full of dudes there to get straight to business, and a second boat for recon, circling the perimeter of the island scanning for anything out of place.
Skin ran past the vegetation up the pounded-down trail, retracing the steps he’d taken thousands of times. He ran all the way to the end of the trail where the forest met the rocks at the water’s edge. The tiny beach sat just down beyond the rocks. The rocky wall formed a miniature grotto, adding a picturesque charm to Skin’s beach. This was his end of the island. He could clearly hear the second patrol’s engine as it made a turn for the bend. So like a hot knife on a warm pad of butter in a humid summer heat, Skin dove, slicing his way with ease into the restless waters.
⁕ ⁕ ⁕
He was in no mood for sea exploration as he swam around to the seafloor’s drop-off in front of the rocky northeast shore. He swam up from the beach and below the surface about ten feet. He disappeared under the water through a submerged tunnel beneath the rocks and into the pool of his subterranean dwelling. He was presumably safe at home, where he’d spent the past eight years of his life learning, growing, and dreaming of a world beyond the island.
There were only two ways one could enter his cave; hold their breath and hope to maneuver their way through the submerged tunnel before their time’s up, or plummet forty feet into the naturally preserved pool from the narrow circular opening above. The opening had been referred to as the drop-in and was at the roof of the cave. The cave was centrally located at the north end and hidden beneath and within Chicken Island.
Skin’s dwelling, his bedroom as it were, was the cave. Inside, the pool of open water was comparable in size to a small pond you might find adjoining several backyards in a suburban neighborhood. He stepped out of the water onto the soft white sand and over to the large rug he’d placed where the sand met the smooth stone floor. He thoroughly wiped his feet. Despite living in a tropical cave on an island, he was very particular about not getting sand all over his prized material possessions. Typically he’d have preferred to exit the water right where it met the edge of the stone floor, but he had moved several storage barrels there while rearranging his vast collection of sea-debris.
Skin took off his soaked khaki drawstring cutoffs and threw them aside, grabbing a dry towel before trading it in for sweatpants. His living space was far larger than any master bedroom. The cave could be best described as a small theater in size and layout, whereas the pool would be the audience seating, and his living area the stage. The ceiling of the cave sat quite high, naturally adding to the theatrical effect. He sat down on his makeshift bed which consisted of a base of various abandoned foam and flotation devices and anything with some squoosh to it, plus a heavy blanket and pillows arranged to his liking.
Skin paged through the latest sports page Helena had left and checked up on the players and teams he’d deemed his favorites. He pretty much chose his favorites based on logos and names he thought the coolest. He really had no home team to root for, though he was a bit of a homer for both the Dominican and Puerto Rican national teams due to geographical proximity. He took note of current stats and rankings and mentally cataloged the individual characters. He did the same mental cataloging with the sometimes-super superheroes from his comic books, the eccentric and sometimes talented celebrities from his Hollywood magazines, and the innovators and content creators from the tech and gaming world. He thoroughly enjoyed reading and learning about team activity, whether it be in sports, innovation, or avenues of creativity. The idea of working with a group or interacting with others fascinated him. Competition intrigued him as well. Skin had a competitive spirit and often fantasized about participating in all the activities that caught his interest. Like most kids, he could easily get lost in his imagination, envisioning himself soaring successfully high in whatever storyline was generating in his mind. In his soul, he believed he understood the passion it took to sway the energy of an event in the desired direction.
Unfortunately, the unexpected visit that day was a slap-in-the-face reminder of his cornered situation, granting him no mellowing of the mind to enjoy a good daydream about things he couldn’t be a part of. He stirred with internal restlessness wondering what lie on his life’s horizon.
About an hour and a half passed when a Theerrumpping bubble bellowed up through the pool’s surface. A dark shadow popped its head up and emerged from the pool. It was slick, jet-black, and glistening. The creature had arrived . . .
“Brutes!” Skin shouted. “Thank God! What’s up ma’ boy? I was goin’ bat cave crazy buddy . . . Ay, you know the drill Bru’, shake it off ‘n wipe.”
Brutes was the king canine of Chicken Island. He was a beautiful Rottweiler with markings of a prize-winning show dog. He was the oldest and arguably smartest of the three dogs on the island. Brutes arrived to the island a couple years after Skin. He was only a few weeks old and full of puppy-dog playfulness when the two of them quickly formed a bond.
When Management would leave, Brutes, the loyal companion, would race over to the cave to let Skin know the coast was clear. Skin used to have to carry Brutes through the tunnel himself and hope he didn’t accidentally drown him in the process. Fortunately, Skin was an exceptionally fast swimmer and Brutes trusted him. Over time Brutes learned the route and gained the confidence to go it alone. Brutes’s swim-time through the submerged tunnel was an extremely consistent sixty-eight seconds. Skin was able to naturally pinpoint the moment Brutes hit the outside waters en route to alert him, whether he was listening for it or not. Uncle Jack had always suspected Skin’s senses were slightly elevated, so Skin came up with little challenges for himself, testing Jack’s theory out. His ego was intrigued as well as to if he was advanced in some way. He hadn’t any real way of gauging what the bar was set at in comparison to other humans his age though, so his tests were not much more than little games he’d make up to pass the time. Regardless, Skin’s awareness of the elemental details around him was sharp.
“Yeah, there you go Bru’, good boy! You let them know we’re all set on kibble an’ bison bones for the week, right, and then sent ‘em on their way?” he asked, wrestling around with Brutes. Brutes gave a soft bark, answering as if he understood Skin’s inquisition, but more so in appreciation for the affection. Skin grabbed a knotted up piece of rope which triggered a big old dog smile and then balanced himself in preparation for a little tug-o-war with the big beasty Brutes.
A pebble plopped in the pool from the drop-in above. They both hoped it had only been Uncle Jack who tossed it. Neither Skin nor Brutes’s intuition alarms went off, so it was safe to assume it was safe. When Uncle Jack wanted to talk to Skin, he’d throw a pebble or small stone down the drop-in as a signal to meet him out on the beach.
“C’mon Bru’, let’s go take our scolding and get to the bottom of the day’s nonsensical interruption.” He threw his partially dry cutoffs back on and he and Brutes dove back into the water.
⁕ ⁕ ⁕
Out on the beach, Uncle Jack sat with his forearms resting on his kneecaps as he gazed blankly eastward to the ocean. With a permanent look of exhaustion on his face, Jack’s thoughts always seemed to be elsewhere.
Standing a few inches over six feet tall, Jack was a rock of a man. He was in his mid-forties but had a weathered grit to his look due to sun exposure, the stress of captivity, and the lack of a walk-in shower or central AC. He wore his worn-out baseball caps over his shaggy dark and graying hair. His face was always a little scruffy. The uncle to Helena Moss, he was the lone occupant of the island as far as anybody knew. He worked for her stepfather, Dr. Lexington Moss. He was to watch over Chicken Island and look after the livestock. Lexington Moss referred to it as employment to appease and deflect any bothersome backtalk from Helena, but it was in no way voluntary; it was merely the term Dr. Moss used for the arrangement. The importance of the livestock on the island was really of no importance at all to Moss, it was hardly even an afterthought. The true purpose of the island was Gray Square, and what lie beyond its reinforced steel concrete exterior.
Uncle Jack had been a prisoner to Chicken Island for thirteen years since the passing of his sister. Helena was the only visitor allowed to the island, and any unidentified boats were restricted to steer several miles clear of the island’s shore. The rule was enforced by force, brutal and violent force. Word of mouth put the unwritten law into absolute effect.
“What’s up Jack?” Skin casually asked.
“Look, Skin,” Jack paused. “I know we weren’t expecting any visitors today, and I appreciate you droppin’ off some wood, but,” with a slight look of irritation on his face, “that was close man, that was too close, and . . . I just can’t imagine how I woulda’ went about explainin’ a twelve-year-old lizard-kid stockin’ up my woodpile.”
“Well did they say somethin’? I mean, no worries, right? Besides, I think they woulda’ done some quick math. You wouldn’t’ve been explainin’ for long Jack,” Skin cautiously chuckled.
“Nope, didn’t say nothin’, Skin,” Jack replied. “You’re gettin’ older man. I know you see things on your TV you got down there, and you read things . . . Look, you hear those boats five minutes before the dogs ever do. I promised Helena I’d look out for you, but come on,” Jack’s tone escalated slightly. “Are you tryin’ to get caught? I mean, I get that you’re restless . . . obviously I get it, but it’s my tail too Skin, it’s my tail too. You’re not the only one with an itch to get on.”
“Jack, Jack c’mon, it’s windy out here. I swear I didn’t hear ‘em comin’. The wind was blowin’ in every which way. I was prolly hearin’ tankers from China, er who knows where,” he paused. “I mean . . . maybe I was daydreamin’ pretty hard I’ll admit it, but . . .” he said, trying to lighten the mood. “What’d they want anyway?” Skin finally asked.
“Well, they sure don’t find it necessary to explain themselves to me, but they were askin’ what I’d seen for large vessels camped out on the horizon. They loaded up a crate or somethin’ outta Gray Square and were pretty much off. So . . . who knows,” he sighed.
Skin was not a lizard. From a DNA percentage’d standpoint, Skin was mostly not a lizard. Anybody looking him square in the face would see nothing more than a healthy-looking twelve-year-old boy developing favorable bone structure. Skin’s skin did however have a leathery grittiness covering the entirety of his body to varying degrees, starting just below the jawline but leaving his face alone. The leathery grit crept up on the sides just a hair above his ears and up to the base of the skull’s occipital bone in back, giving him a mildly natural undercut hairline; the hairline sitting a bit higher on the sides and back. Skin’s skin tone ran the human color spectrum. He could be paler than a Celtic ghost one minute, to richer than the darkest chocolate moments later. It all depended on circumstances, mood, and necessity. His base tone sat at a tan medium, with slight hues of green, blue, and silver, compliments of his non-human DNA. For all intents and purposes, Skin was fully human-passing, but he could draw attention. Helena joked that he came from the ultimate melting pot of ingredients if the chef had run a pet store on the side.
Also, he had a tail.
“Hmm, golden honey-dipped sugar cubes maybe, and chocolate-coated rock candy, Uncle Jack. A rare confectionery collection of sweets from beneath the Egyptian pyramids and he’s afraid dem sneakies are out to get it.”
“Is Doc Moss secretly Willy Wonka?” Skin asked, chuckling stupidly. “Or maybe it’s just alien eggs . . . good old fashioned fuzzy purple alien eggs! Hybrids, I’m sure of it!”
“Whaddya mean by hybrids?” Jack laughed.
“I don’t know.”
“Ah . . . my guess would be on the alien eggs,” Jack replied, partaking in the what’s-in-Gray-Square nonsense. “I’ll bet Moss hasn’t had a piece of candy in fifty years. He suffers from sugar deprivation . . . Ain’t nothin’ sweet in that man’s veins.”
“We should probably break in there and rescue them alien eggs. We’ll harvest the aliens, raise ‘em to be supreme and extreme. We’ll start our own hockey team with ’em er somethin’,” Skin said, half-serious.
“Aggh . . . It’s best to pay no mind to what them Mossies is up to. A waste of brainpower is about what it is,” said Jack. “You go ahead and use that brain of yours to figure out how yer gonna harvest them eggs, raise the alien babies, build an ice rink here in the tropics, Skin, and then teach ‘em to skate and puck handle. You tackle that task my friend and you’ll be givin’ ol’ Doc Moss a run for his rubies fer sure. Maybe take his job if you figure that one out. Then I can call you boss,” Jack said, his mood lightening back to its easy-going base. “Just remodel the office, that’s all I ask. Come to think of it, I’m gonna need an executive director too, Skin. Yup, definitely gonna need me a nice little boss. I do not even care what color hair she has.”
“You got it, Uncle Jack,” Skin responded, not fully certain where Jack was going with that last part, but still.
Skin, Uncle Jack, and Brutes sat on the beach in silence and peered out at the ocean in quiet thought. Brutes’s thoughts were focused on a strong desire for bacon, but as for Skin and Uncle Jack, freedom was often on their mind.
“Well, I suppose . . . ,” Jack said, interrupting the silence. “I’m gonna head back up. I reckon I’ll burn some wood tonight if you wanna stop by.”
“Generator still workin’ alright?” Jack asked.
“Still keepin’ things dry in there?”
“I think so,” said Skin. “Stop in sometime. I’ll show ya that game I was talkin’ about.”
“As soon as you get a front door, Skin, as soon as you get a front door,” Jack replied. “Hey but seriously, maybe lay low for a while. If somebody is watching, we don’t want them seein’ anything interesting. Know what I mean?”
“What? Like an old man playing with chickens?” Skin laughed.
“More like deep-fried lizard on a stick, kiddo,” he answered back with a smirk.
And with that, Uncle Jack headed back down the trail to his shack on the southern end of the island. Skin stayed out on the beach and took in the late afternoon rays of sun on his back and shoulders. Brutes stuck around and kept his buddy company. Skin lackadaisically chucked the knotted-up rope out into the water here an’ there, keeping the dog entertained while he let his thoughts wander. His curious mind kept creeping back to that building up there. He wondered what was so important inside that thing.
⁕ ⁕ ⁕
Gray Square sat a few yards adjacent to Uncle Jack’s shack. It was a solid gray concrete chunk, roughly the size of a high school gymnasium. Two heavy iron industrial-strength doors kept the mystery on the inside. The electronic lockbox with the plethora of encrypted security settings also had a hand in keeping the mystery on the inside. The content behind the concrete walls, unknown to Skin and Uncle Jack, was of extreme importance to Dr. Moss and LMFuture Corp., also known as the LMFC. Management, Dr. Moss’s foot soldiers, whom Skin referred to as Mossies, were instructed to check on Gray Square every Monday, with an occasional random visit or overnighter.
LMFuture Corp. was the corporation that grew from the ashes of several previous companies, partnerships, and think tanks that Lexington Moss had been a member, sometimes founder, of. A core group of eight brilliant minds in the fields of science, technology, and innovation, they aligned with one another way back in their youthful collegiate days. Together they accumulated mass wealth through various chemical and medicinal patents, engineering breakthroughs, and computer applications. Though as it tends to go, greed and a lust for absolute power followed the prosperity they’d attained through their successful ventures. An extreme example of this was the case for a particular eighth of their members: Lexington Moss. Over time, all but Dr. Moss moved on to less lucrative career paths, or rather, were forced to move on. In a few cases, the whereabouts of certain members seemed to remain a permanent unknown, status presumed eternally non-applicable. Once attaining control from a legal standpoint, though not always through legal means, Dr. Moss was quick to build up a militant barricade around the new operation. He narcissistically named this new all-encompassing megaforce company Lexington Moss Future Corporation.
An objective and ambition of Moss’s had always been to trim down Earth’s human population, thinning the herd as it were, by significant quantities. His desire, to limit the population to people that satisfied his perceived notion of elite, but also keep enough dummy worker-bees to perform the less than desirable yet necessary tasks. A utopian ideal shared by many a tyrant. Having an abundance of scientific know-how, and plenty to offer the like-minded in high positions, his power expanded exponentially. Public perception wavered drastically, many proclaiming LMFC a terrorist organization or rogue corporate dictatorship, towering over and manipulating economies, politicians, and already struggling countries. The majority however became addicted to the comforts and luxuries that LMFC provided.
Power satiated Lexington’s appetite, but meddling with mad science was the piston that pumped his dark heart.