"Come on! Light, goddammit!"
Ray fought with the matches, striking one after another. He was nestled in a dark corner of a beekeeper's honey house, surrounded by the smell of dusty wax and dead bees. He pulled his safety hazmat suit down around his waist.
Another match fizzled out and the smell of burnt sulphur curled around him like a noose.
He dug into the pack. Only three left. He didn't want to lose another. He swiped it across the side of the box, and it flared and ignited.
He sighed and dropped it into a metal pail filled with bits of newspaper, cardboard, and broken honey frames. It blazed, and the wax and honey sizzled and popped before the flames rose and lit the area around him.
The whole building was in disrepair. The room sagged from water damage, and mice had gnawed holes through the insulation and flimsy panel boards that covered the walls. Large barrels lay on their side, piled on each other, rusted and stinking of fermentation.
In the center of the room, mouldy tarps covered old equipment used for extracting honey from their frames. A long metal chute hulked between four large metal drums. Behind all of it were the gutted remains of an old forklift. At the far end was a room with a large rolling door that was closed off at the end and sealed with plastic.
Ray had never been in a room like it and was only grateful that the door had been slightly ajar that he was able to wedge his way inside.
Shit! The door.
He glanced towards it, studying it from afar. He didn't dare go near it, in case... In case whatever he saw outside was nearby.
What the hell was that thing?
This whole area had been cleared by survey teams weeks ago. The air showed no signs of contamination and very little wildlife. They'd only reported a few settlers living in the northeast quadrant of the sector.
Still, Ray wasn't one to take risks and travelled with his hazmat suit and a rifle—and this time, he was thankful he had.
He'd shot that thing two times, and it had kept coming. Before he even hit it, it shuffled along with a hunch and a limp. Even worse, it tried to call out to him, but all that came out was a gurgle.
Ray wanted to hole up until it was safe to travel, but he needed a better place to lay low with the door cracked open and his safety vulnerable. He grabbed a scrap of wire from the floor, wrapped it around the handle of the pail, and moved cautiously to the rolling door.
The plastic crinkled as he pulled it back, and he had to give the door a heavy tug to slide it open.
It was dark inside the room and reeked of mould. Ray gagged on the smell and tasted it on his tongue. He stepped back and spat before he pulled his hazmat suit back over his head.
Turning the tap on his regulator, he breathed the compressed oxygen. Although it was hot inside the suit and his vision was restricted, he was happy not to have whatever was inside this room inside his lungs. Besides, the fresh oxygen always made him feel light-headed and giddy.
He set the pail beside the door and lit the LED on his visor. He proceeded inside.
The room was a graveyard of beehives. There had to be thousands of honey supers in here, heaped onto pallets and stacked to the roof. Between the rows were millions of dead bees, waist-deep, dead from the mutant air that had poisoned this land decades ago.
Pushing his way through them was like plowing through snowdrifts, and he'd only moved a few feet before he decided to climb up the sides of the hives toward the ceiling. At the top was a clearance of three feet, just enough to move comfortably.
Even up here, though, he still felt exposed. It wouldn't take long for the creature to find its way inside the building and even less for it to discover him here.
Ray crawled to the back corner, hoping he could sleep the night before travelling tomorrow morning.
As he moved, he saw the deep trench carved through the dead bees below. Something had been in here. Then he noticed the hint of moonlight shining along the wall in front of him. Was it an unnoticed window? Or something else?
He continued forward quietly. He wanted to know what sort of breach he had to deal with.
It was worse than he could imagine. A large section of the wall had been torn open. The edges were rough and hewn. Maybe an axe had cut it, or perhaps teeth. It was hard to tell. But at its base, he saw the rough outline of what he could only imagine was a nest. Something had placed insulation and cloth amongst the dead bees and had been living here.
This building wasn't safe. Ray crawled quietly backwards, but not carefully enough. He caught the edge of a beehive with his boot and yanked it sideways with a loud scrape.
A long mournful gurgle cried out from somewhere deep within the room.
Shit, the creature was in here with him.
Ray was no longer cautious and lurched towards the sliding door. The creature shuffled below, sweeping aside the dead bees like leaves on a cold fall night.
A nail caught Ray's suit and yanked him back. "Dammit," he shouted and struggled to pull his leg free. The jagged piece of metal ripped the fabric and gouged his skin, but he ignored the pain. He swivelled his other foot against the hive and kicked it away.
"Ma brrghhs...," the creature howled.
It was right below him. He probably hit it with the wooden supers and frames.
Ray had to get out of there.
He righted himself and shuffled across the tops of the pile until he reached the rolling door. He was only a few feet from the outside door. He dropped down, fearful the creature would grab him at any second.
He pushed through the door's crack and swept away the plastic. The exit was only eight feet away. He could make it—
The creature grabbed him from behind, and Ray toppled backwards. It held the cloth of his suit and dragged him towards the crack. Ray's arms flailed, and his arm struck the burning pail. Wax splashed over his hand, scalding him, but he didn't care. The shock woke him from his terror.
I can use it on the creature.
He grabbed at the rolling door long enough to hook his injured hand around the wire attached to the pail.
He was plunged into darkness, and his arms banged against the edges of pallets and hives. He quickly lost hold of the bucket as the creature wrenched him between the stacks of hives. He could no longer see anything in the pitch-black room, but as he was jerked and pulled, he slammed hard against the wood. He could feel his shoulder ripped from its socket and ribs shattered.
He wasn't going to survive.
And then it stopped. But the pain continued.
His body felt separate from him. He was only a floating head in an ocean of suffering.
Dead bees pressed against the visor of his suit, his waning LED light illuminating them. He had to be buried somewhere beneath them all.
Then his visor cleared, and the creature was on top of him.
But now, this close, it wasn't a creature. It was the remnants of a man, deformed by years of living in this mutant air.
"Ma brrghhs," it said, but this time, without the frantic shouts as it raced towards Ray. It scooped up a handful of the dead bees.
Despite the agony throughout his body, Ray understood. This place had been the man's honey farm long ago—when he was still a man, and his bees were still alive.
But none of this mattered because, past the man, flames licked their way up the far wall.
His burning pail must've found itself a home. This place would quickly become an inferno with this much dry wood and wax.
"They're dead," Ray answered.
The creature looked confused.
Ray reached with one good arm—the other was indeed dislocated—and pulled the hood of his suit off.
The creature stared and leaned in close. It recognized a vague sense of itself in Ray's face.
Ray moved his arm slowly to the regulator of his oxygen tank. He twisted its setting, adjusting to dangerous levels. It hissed, and he immediately felt light-headed.
"I said they're dead." He strived to focus.
The flames grew behind them.
Ray struggled to breathe. So did the creature.
As his tunnel vision closed in and the flames engulfed the room, Ray reached up and gently pulled the creature close.
"They're dead, just like us."
Ray's head swam, and he couldn't tell if he was still holding the creature, but he was confident it was close—just like the flames.
The two men stood outside the burnt-down building. The metal skeleton of extracting equipment and a forklift were all that remained.
"You think Ray did this?"
"It was along his coordinates. He would've passed close to here at some point."
"But why? What would've possessed him to burn this place down?"
"Maybe he found an infestation. Something the surveys didn't notice."
The taller man stared, unable to make sense of it.
"This must've been a beekeeper's farm at one time," the shorter one said. He pointed, "See all that machinery? They used that to pull the honey out of the beehives."
The taller man shook his head, "Hasn't been a bee around here for over a decade."
"I know, right? And beekeepers went extinct right before that."
"They were a dying breed."
"Ain't that the truth." The shorter man patted his companion on the back. "Nothing we can do here. If Ray ever shows up, we'll ask him to tell us the story."
The taller man shrugged, knowing this to be true. They left the area building and headed northeast. Neither of them noticed the charred skeleton amongst the smouldering remains.