The guards’ faces had returned to a normal color as they gasped for breath on the tile floor.
The holes dripping life from Quinn’s body had sealed back up. She rose once more and shambled toward Damion, and everyone, including the gasping guards once again not breathing, watched her and in unison, everyone flinched when Damion grabbed her tight for a hug.
He held around her arms.
He said, “Thank you for coming back to me.”
He let go.
All gawked at the scene, except Colby who was fiddling with the acid sprayer, trying to reload, but unable to figure it out. Maybe there was no reload. The needle on the pressure gauge had fallen to the left. It was possible the thing was empty. If Quinn attacked, if Damion did, there was nothing to do but what they’d done all night--run from death till their minute was up.
Quinn stood behind her savior and waited.
No one wanted to break that silence.
But no one had wept for Rosie yet. It had not been quick for her. She had not melted like the Wicked Witch. She had only screamed and kept screaming and writhing until the skin fell away and beneath, where there should have been muscle and blood and connective tissue and all the things that let her move, there was porous black webbing, white spreading along it, turning crusty, flaking away until she went silent.
Roger was not. “You!” He charged at Colby.
Colby swung around the nozzle to defend himself like it was a gun but Roger, bereaved, took the acid-wet nozzle in the gut and it pressed forward so hard it hurt but he would not stop shoving Colby, yelling, “Why? Why her?”
“She was attacking those guards.”
“What do you even know? She had just seen Quinn get shot and maybe they’d do it to us next if not for her, but no, it was you! You did it to her!”
“It wasn’t her, man.” Colby tried shoving back but found his strength wanting.
Damion realized that Quinn would follow him wherever. Not so close that a sudden stop might make her bump into him. If he backed up, though, she didn’t understand that and they touched. If he put Roger between, she shuffled her way between the two boys so Roger was third in line. She was not forceful or fast but it was Quinn, following him.
“It’s still Damion, isn’t it?” Roger yelled. “Or do we have to listen to his death wail, too?”
Marwa interrupted. “One way or the other, she had to die.”
As Roger turned to look at her, Colby shoved him off and slipped away behind Marwa.
“And so does he.” She stared at Damion. “I’m sorry.”
Roger glanced at Colby, but seeing him holding that thing thinking he was some sort of Ghostbuster--Roger looked away and held onto those feelings.
“Reconsider!” Damion had no argument as to why she should other than he really didn’t want to die, not to his friends, not to that thing, not ever while there was so much left to do.
Marwa, normally talking so much she stumbled over her own words like an excited dog trying to take a corner, said nothing.
“Isn’t there a cure?”
His pleading eyes still held enough life in them that it really tore up Marwa inside.
"It’s possible but it’s not,” she said.
Colby whispered to Roger, “What’s that mean?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
Marwa pointed down the ramp Lenka had gone.
The two guards had fled. This was exactly what they’d been prepped for since being hired and yet, it was too much for them. They’d taken their guns and gone. What good were the guns, though? Safety blankets for children. These shadows were real and nothing but the acid seemed to do any real harm to them. Unfortunately, they were out of the good stuff. Colby swung off the humming backpack.
“Probably shouldn’t try fisticuffs with it. We’re going to need that,” Marwa told him.
“Sorry, it's all used up. The guy that gave it to me said there was only one shot and--” He caught sight of the flaky remains of his friend.
Marwa threw it on. It weighed something substantial, more than a kid a bit too grown but not too old for piggyback rides. And Marwa was not a sturdy woman. Her wide shoulders held little on them and her dark arms had the gentle tone of someone fighting the effects of a desk job. And still she threw it on.
Then, working her hands from muscle memory, she reloaded the pressure and the acid sprayer was once again deadly.
Colby stared. “I tried everything.”
“Lucky you didn’t melt your foot off. It doesn’t actually melt though. It just--”
He knew what it did. He’d seen.
“Well, you’ve got to press this one here and then get your fingers in there to flip this…” She trailed off as she reconsidered. “Wait, no, forget that. You press that one first then toggle the other to get the pump ready to then flip the choke or--Hmm. Is that right?” She was looking to Colby or the others for confirmation but what did they know? “I’m not great at explaining things.”
“She’s really not,” Roger confirmed.
Then they were ready to take off down the ramp made up of thick black webbing.
The others waited while Damion stared at Quinn, testing how it all worked with her and what she’d respond to, but he didn’t dare touch her, not with everyone around. He tried talking, though, and she said nothing and he was okay with that.
“You’re in front,” Marwa instructed Damion.
“I don’t know where we’re going. Why me?”
The group looked at Quinn following him.
“Why not her?” he asked.
“It,” Marwa corrected him. “I liked Dr. Quinn a lot. I really wanted her working here to beat these lonely nights with some toxic STEM idiot, but that’s not her anymore. And unless you’ve figured out what months of experiments failed at, what social insects with generations of honed instincts failed at, what species wired for hive-minds failed at, that body right there is not yours. Can you make it go first?”
Quinn followed him when he tried getting behind her, and the mindless one and the thoughtless one just went in circles.
It was dark down there.
As they walked, Damion tested his control over Quinn. It was like asking a friend for a favor. Asking her to go faster or slower, and admittedly, while the changes were difficult to measure, he could imagine it working. He felt the invisible string connecting them. He could practically see it.
After sometime, their eyes adjusted and they spotted the cracks of hallways to the side, the corners that led to long corridors and more ramps and the branching web of this underground lair, and further on, as they looked closer, as theirs pupils dilated and they could see, really see, they saw what had appeared to be imperfect doors blocking these halls were people.
People like Quinn. No longer really there.
Roger noticed first and said nothing. Colby, ahead of him, then noticed and stopped. He might have turned around and left, he tried to and would have, if not for Roger shoving him on and so instead, Colby tapped Marwa’s shoulder and pointed wordlessly. Maybe she’d agree and they’d back out. But she knew already. She knew more than either of them.
She pointed behind.
The many zombies they’d already passed over including the ones they hadn’t seen had fallen in line after them. Whereas Quinn shoved to get behind Damion directly, this crowd was content to be a wave of molasses oozing after them. If it was not within these many fleshy containers, perhaps it’d all meld together and come swifter than the limitations of the human body allowed. There was only onward.
More fell in line after them. One bumped Colby and he reached for his backpack, but Marwa had it. He was defenseless. “Are they yours?” Colby asked Damion.
“Does it really matter to you?” Roger replied.
“I’d like to know if we need to run.”
Damion smiled. Everyone was looking to him for his answer because they didn’t know. He had all the power. Where Marwa and Lenka and millions of test creatures had failed, he’d figured it out, thanks to Quinn. It was post-graduate work all over again. Applying for CERN. He’d done most of the work already: obviously the experiment and his CV, the curriculum vitae as the Europeans called it, and he just wasn’t certain for some reason, but during an email exchange, Quinn told him to stop being a wuss. She was always there. Mostly irritable and loud, but when it counted, when the situation called for it, in holiday cards, she could really express herself in lovely, loopy cursive, and she said the sweetest things to him. He’d fallen for her after his first birthday. “I’ve got everything, and everyone, under control.”
Quinn walked ahead of him.
What he didn’t know, though--what would’ve been obvious if he’d gotten out of his own head--Quinn was a woman balancing extremes. She was rarely middling or tepid, but one that got excited. Laughed hard. Yelled in arguments. Studied for hours. Dedicated herself to a life secluded in the woods to take care of the Orcas. She said these sweet things to him genuinely, but she said sweet things to everyone she loved as a friend.
With those she cared about in the way Damion wanted Quinn to care about him, like he expected her to, she was reserved, always afraid of losing another if she really let herself out. She had never gotten that with anyone.
Marwa shook her head and they pressed on until they reached the main chamber, deep below the lab: the heart of the mountain.
Beyond the woven archway of gooey branches, they spotted sunlight. Lenka was under a skylight stretching all the way to the peak of the mountain made of the same squishy mess as the rest of this place and the morning light danced through the leaves around the skylight, casting living shadows on the floor. Only Damion strode in.
Lenka had no patience.
Neither did the army behind him. They shuffled toward the crowd and though no one was touched or directly threatened, Roger felt the pressure to enter the room. The final room of this journey. Such a moment and he didn’t get the extra breath to prep for it.
Damion, already inside, did not see this. He did not feel this pressure. Only confidence.
“Why, Lenka? What good does this do anyone? Isn’t that what you always talked about? The good science could do?” Marwa asked.
Damion also did not see it coming when Quinn stabbed Marwa through the chest so hard her hand, or rather the black spear beneath, thunked against the humming backpack.
Quinn let Marwa fall then walked to the ring of the mindless corpses surround them.
“Give her back!” Damion raged, exerting the control he discovered on the journey here.
Quinn was not tall. She got lost in the masses.
“She was never yours,” Lenka said.
Damion had been wrong.
Colby was at Marwa’s side, his hand over the hole in her chest, but Quinn had such large hands and his so small and there was no stopping the blood.
Roger charged at Lenka. Maybe his army was tough but what was he? Just an old, scrawny bald man. He’d falter.
The floor sucked in Roger’s feet. He fell.
“Why are you upset about her? Dr. Ebeid knew what was going on, so she was first, and the teacher there will change in time regardless of what I do now. You other ones, you’re both on the list and there’s no special hurry.”
The skylight above casting shadows through swaying leaves, they were not leaves. They were more of these people at his command, shoving to get a view down but there were so many that there wasn’t room until they started crawling down the sides. One fell. It got back up. They started raining down. In the light, Colby could see clearly. These people, some of them anyway, he knew them.
Hunter by his killer, Margie.
The twins, Sunny and Glenn. That must have been Malia by their side but her skin had torn away and she was more monster than--they all were, but at least the others looked like them. A big white man in a gator with Hunter’s rifle strapped to his back. A park ranger. Soldiers including Dooley. Skiers, some in broken skis or at least the boots. The littlest one in this army hurt the most--Beagsley.
The room had gotten so much smaller.
“I guess the only question is which one first? You?” He looked at Colby. Then Roger. “Or you. Not that the choice matters.”
Roger, stuck in the floor, was doomed if he did not accept the hope in front of him. He didn’t want to, though. That hope had been Rosie’s undoing. Maybe all of theirs. Maybe she had saved them if not for Colby being trigger-happy, but at Marwa’s side, Colby had gotten hold of the acid sprayer.
“Me first,” Roger said. “But can you tell me what it’s like? To be one of them? Just ease me into a little?”
Lenka thought about it, scrunching up his face, furrowing his brow, rocking his head back and forth, or at least he was making it look like he was considering it. “Why?”
“I can,” Damion volunteered. He hadn’t caught onto the plan, but he was great at talking more than he needed to. “It’s like bathing in numbing cream. I thought it was nerve damage from the cold. Gangrene. But my feet were fine when we woke up and I get it now. It’s things inside me that are too big for whatever they’re crawling around in. They’re spreading my blood vessels wider and everything’s pushing up against each other, but there’s also a numbness to it. It’s me but it’s not.”
“Why are scientists so bad at explaining shit?” Roger asked.
“Maybe the lesser minds.” Lenka shrugged.
“The best ones I know are. Right, Colby?”
Colby pointed the acid-wet nozzle at the old scrawny bald man and fired.
Lenka had flaked away. Roger gave it a good stomping, like checking if the coals of a fire were really out. The cause of tonight, as far as they knew, spread across the room, only harming anyone that might cough from his ashes.
“Damion,” Colby said gently. No one had celebrated yet. “Is it you?”
“It’s always been me.”
“But is it really--are you numb?”
After doing it once, Colby had gotten the hang of reloading this thing. “Are you cured?”
“Why’s it always have to be me?”
The ring of the undead swayed and shuffled. They were not still like before. Freed from Lenka, they were returning to their instinct, to consume, to be fruitful and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the Earth.
“Only I can save you from them,” Damion said.
“Is that a threat?”
Damion exerted control through that imaginary string except this time it was real. There was no authority above his and so as Colby aimed, Quinn stepped between. “Go ahead. How many shots do you think you have left? Not enough by my calculations.”
“Schtawfp!” Rosie tried to yell at her little friend but the way Malia wormed onto her tongue, her elbows on those lower teeth--it was like eating a bug. She wasn't Margie but gross.
It was just instinct.
She shut her mouth hard.
Malia was chomped in two.
The walls moved.
In the day, outdoors, Margie might pass it off as a trick of the light, some sheen sparking the horror planted in her imagination by the night, but there was no light. It was darkness and yet she could see, though there was nothing to see but these walls painted with the black. The ceiling painted with the black. The soft floor painted with the black and all of it moved, pulsated, like blood vessels and they were heading to the heart.
The heart was deep and the slope steep. Margie, dragging her twisted ankle, stumbled most of it. Her own pace would have been slow, plodding, careful, but the boy holding her good hand and Quinn’s, too, pulled them at the quickest walk the little legs allowed and Margie struggled to keep up.
Quinn caught this in glances. She also caught how Margie still had an open wound on her arm that she held away from the wall. Even injured, even now, while there was no hope and no plan, Margie had some survival instinct and she wouldn’t be infected.
Through the cabin window, the light of the still hidden sun outlined the clouds, bathing in blue, silver.
Rosie had not gone home.
She had stayed on the couch, peeking out under the blanket, holding Beagsley, looking at Damion’s shredded neck.
James and Elyse watched his body as well. It did not move.
Quinn took a special interest in the corners, not just the ones the boy led them around, but the ones they passed, the ones ahead, the hallways and the ramps, and none ever seemed to dead-end.
“Where are we going?” Quinn asked.
The boy pulled them around a corner in silence.
He pulled them further down a slope.
“It’d be really comforting if you said no.”
“No,” he answered finally, but he did not stop pulling and yet he maintained that loose grip of a child holding a parent’s hand.
Maybe Margie didn’t have a plan...
Quinn bolted down a hall.
Elyse opened the door to the boy’s room for Rosie, who had wanted to buck off her blanket but Elyse made her wear it like a cape and beneath, Rosie held a canister covered in scientific warning stickers.
The floor swelled beneath Quinn’s feet. It sent panic through her, thinking any second a tentacle of goop would spring forth and drag her down or tear through her neck or force its way inside till she was gone. In truth, something Quinn recognized, the swelling was no different than earlier. Each pulse was the heart pumping. Slow. Forceful. A consistent rhythm. She recognized nothing had changed and yet it scared her still.
It had seemed amazing before that the boy had known where to go, but on her own, she almost admired whatever hive mind led him so perfectly through this maze. If the boy chased Quinn, that’d leave Margie to run her own way, and if not, she was free.
If this was the chance Margie had been limping through the night for, she’d take it.
The boy didn’t move from the spot. He held Margie’s hand as loose as he had Quinn’s.
After it’d been long enough, Quinn stopped running. Her lungs were fine. Her legs, too. But her footsteps squished the floor and walking provided more stealth.
At each corner, she listened for the splish-splash of the boy’s steps. It was quiet. At the next ramp, she did the same before continuing up. At a four-way intersection, she waited in the center and spun around looking for any challenger only to come up empty. Even behind her, there was nothing. No one chased her.
Still, when she approached every darkened corner, she paused to listen.
She’d gone so far up that she had to be near the surface.
After ascending the dozenth slope, a particularly steep one, she came upon a corner. Silence around it. She peeked around.
Resigned, she strolled ahead.
The boy held out his hand and she took it.
The path for Rosie was down. Straight and down. There were no spiraling halls or branching ways. There were no corners. There was only down and she went, her blanket dragging behind.
They had finally arrived at the heart of the mountain. The vessels in the walls had separated to extremes. There were a few meaty ones that fed big gulps through but also stringy venules that wrapped around the final room leading to the pedestal in the middle holding a tangled mess of capillaries that was made of material by all rights that should have melded together. They fed the floor. A single pump of the heart lifted the trio softly then lowered them just the same.
The boy stared at it.
Margie looked around. Was now the time? Was this the final chance and if it were, what was she to do?
“You went home,” the boy said.
Margie had not looked behind them. She had not seen Rosie walk up still draped in her blanket. It was over her head, clenched at her chest from the inside by a single hand.
Out the window, James watched the sun’s rays ignite the clouds and cut through the cold to begin melting the fresh snow. A big powdery pile slid off the roof. It would be a warm day.
“No,” Rosie said.
“Then become us.”
The floor around her shot black up to yank her by the neck down. Her grip on her blanket released as her hands got stuck in the sticky quicksand goop dragging her deeper and like a parachute, the blanket drifted above her, landing fully spread, covering her body, but the little movement of struggle beneath it stopped and when Margie investigated, lifting the blanket, Rosie was gone. There was no light in the room, but she could see clearly under the blanket. She smiled. She held her fallen friend’s blanket in a ball.
Beneath it, the lid was still on. Rosie hadn’t had time.
“You,” the boy said, looking up at the woman still holding his hand: Quinn, who had felt just the slightest of hope when Rose arrived but did nothing because she’d known that that hope was a lie. Tonight had beaten her. “You can join us or become us.”
The final choice of the night. What had any of the others accomplished but to muddle it all, branch the misery into different forms? It all led here where there was nothing. This was a false choice. Another one. They all were. It was not join or become us. It was not join or die. It was not A or B. It was die believing they could’ve changed it or die seeing through it all.
“How are they any different?” Quinn called out with her final spirit of defiance. It died. “Do whatever you want.”
“No,” Margie said. She was standing right on a fat vein that led to the heart. “Do it the same to me you did to Rosie.”
“Okay,” the boy said.
“Now!” she screamed at him.
The vein opened up and dragged her down and she flung a metal disc at Quinn, who caught it on instinct. Margie went down, never to be seen again, holding the open canister of acid, injecting it into the heart.
The cabin shook as the ground beneath it became unstable. The snow melted. The ice melted. The bedrock that the cabin rested on melted. The heart of the mountain had dried up and so everything it had replaced on this mountain--the people, the animals, the trees, the very cabin they were in--melted.
The cabin walls started to go. James and Elyse’s feet were heavy. Then the cabinets dripped into puddles and the plates crashed to the floor, but the shards of ceramic lost their form, joining the puddle of floor and cabinets, and the food they’d brought up was swallowed into the goop.
James held Beagsley in one arm. Elyse held his other hand.
The doorway to the boy’s room melted and soon the couple knew they’d be drowned in this, but fighting through the heavy mess of what was once a bed, Quinn emerged, just a hand pleading to be pulled free.
When the two hoisted her from the depths, she gasped for a big raspy breath and then needed several more as they wiped her eyes and nose and mouth clean, but there was no time.
James handed her Beagsley.
“Go,” Elyse said.
And Quinn raced down the melting mountain, the trees and the slopes fading away, until she was running on surface tension like a water glider and the waves carried her faster then broke and lapped back, tripping her up as the goop diluted to this watery filth that she could no longer stand on, only swim through, and she almost dropped the poor kicking pup, but she held on, hugging him as the volume of the mountain flattened toward the horizon.
She sank below the surface.
Beagsley kicked her trying to get back to where there was air. She could not see down there. She flung a hand out, to swim back up but the water was so heavy and she was so tired and there was nothing left in her but to hold onto whatever solid form she’d found by dumb luck.
The mountain expanded till something unclogged the drain. Faster than the tide of the mountain had gone out, it was sucked down.
Quinn held on for dear life to whatever handhold she had found and held on even tighter to Beagsley.
He had stopped kicking.
Her grip was failing.
The riptide took them and she sank deeper down with no more energy left to struggle.
But as the water receded, Quinn hit a solid vertical surface that held her from being sucked down and when the current stopped, she stared at a brick wall ahead of her. Behind her, another wall. She’d fallen into an alleyway between a pizzeria and the local car insurance provider of the town they’d driven through before getting to the mountain.
Cars had been lifted and sucked away, some left toppled, some moved until they crashed through a storefront window. Many still had drivers and passengers. The pedestrians had not been so fortunate. They’d been pulled down the drain with the mailboxes and the pets playing outside.
When it was safe, calm once more, the townsfolk looked around, all befuddled. None were aware that Quinn knew the most among them, but if she ever tried to explain where the mountain had gone, she’d stammer just the same as any of them.
She looked to her arms, trembling from exhaustion.
And she felt guilty for smiling, but at least Beagsley had survived.
Beagsley had liked lying on that chest by the window so he could keep watch. The sink had dishes Quinn swore she’d get to tomorrow, what was then tomorrow, now today, and the dishes still weren’t done, just like old Quinn. Was that Rosie’s bra on the shower rod? Damion held a group meeting the first night about cleanliness and shared spaces. He was so offended over some B cups.
How long since Colby had been here? 12 hours, if even?
Margie had shot out a front window and the shards scattered across the hardwood, some tinkled down to the snow in front. The couch was jammed against the front door, but even Colby could push through that barricade. There were no pads on the legs and it arced four scratches into the floor, two blending into two, and there were more leading to its former position.
12 hours, but really, forever.
Where were the coats? Without them, this whole place felt lifeless. The hooks by the door held only the car keys. Two sets. Sunny and Glenn had taken the others.
Colby had to pee. It’d been forever since that, too. Since Margie had been trapped in here by a--what was it? Cockroach? Spider? Some black bug that he wondered about now. Since everything had settled, he could finally release but with the door open so he could watch out.
And good thing. There was a figure heading straight for the smashed window.
Before they were too close, he shut the door fast until the last inch then he twisted the handle and ever so slowly guided it close without a sound but the creaking hinges. Then that button lock.
That lock wouldn’t hold but if that thing out there didn’t know to bust in, Colby would be fine. He just had to be quiet. And prepared for his next step.
He heard the step over the threshold, their heels loud on the wood floor.
That backpack had been a haul out here and the pressure gauge hadn’t recharged on its own, but if he could get it working again, he really would be fine. He’d get off this mountain no problem. He’d tell the press. He’d send help. If anyone was still alive, he’d do everything he could for them as soon as he was off the mountain.
And if not, he’d tell this story till someone believed him.
The sound rang off the mirror and died in the drain.
He threw open the door. His ears, his hopeful heart had not deceived him. He went for another hug.
But she still had her ax, cocked at the ready till he spoke.
“Sunny, it's really me!”
She didn’t relax her weapon just yet but when he hugged her, she didn’t pummel him. It hurt. The wound in her arm was still raw, but wrapped, hidden.
“Where’s Glenn?” he asked.
Her grip tightened and the ax handle dropped with a little knock against Colby’s humming backpack.
Colby let go of the hug. “No…”
“We split up,” she said.
“So he’s still--”
“He’s on his way.” Her eyes were fixed on Colby.
He looked beyond her. “We need to get off this mountain. It’s daylight. I didn’t see a thing on my way down. Did you?”
“Not since the ranger’s station.”
“Good. If Glenn’s smart and…” He walked past Sunny to peek out the window for the forest he’d gotten lost in at the start. With Hunter. Margie. Colby was having trouble breathing normal. “If he can, he’ll do the same as us. All of you had the right idea from the start. We should’ve listened. I wanted to listen, if you’ll remember.”
“It didn’t work for us.”
“You didn’t know what we were up against.”
“Do we now?” she asked.
“How long were we here and saw nothing? Chances are we’ll be totally fine now that there’s daylight. We just caught it up and about during a hibernation period or something.” He was at the door. Waiting for Sunny to join him.
“Let me just grab something from my room.”
In her bag, she had brought a first aid kit with gauze, medical adhesives, hydrogen peroxide, and most importantly, pills. The same Xanax she’d given Rosie. Hopefully, Sunny thought, they helped her meet her end peacefully.
The wound was on her dominant arm. Even forgetting that, one-handed treatment was tricky. She fumbled the tape and it got stuck on itself.
“Let me help,” Colby said rushing in impatiently and closing the door behind them. “We need to get out of here fast.”
“Not without Glenn.”
“If he’s still--him even.”
“He’s on his way,” she said.
Colby took the bandage from her. It was soaked with the disinfectant. So were her jeans. Her shirt, half-off, was soaked, too, but with blood. The wound was bad but the cold did a lot to slow the bleeding. He eased the gauze onto it but no matter how careful he was, the disinfectant had a lot to sting. There was no escaping it: his help hurt.
Her arm tensed up. Her jaw had been tense since she arrived. However, she made no noise.
And so, whoever had stepped beyond the threshold this time, their foot dragging along, didn’t know to come for their closed door.
Colby reached for the doorknob. What if it was Glenn, really him? Then the scars of the night had hit him and he caught her eyes.
They said nothing.
He motioned his head toward the window, then mouthed it to be sure she understood. She stayed on the bed, holding her arm, until Colby urged her to go first. “It’s not your brother anymore.”
She grabbed her ax and crawled out the window.
Glenn knocked at the door.
There was no stealth on the snow and so they dashed down the hill, the sprayer in its holster banging against the backpack. As they hurried down the switchbacks, Colby looked up the hill they’d just come and down the next hill and he never seemed to focus on what was ahead. Sunny only watched him.
Sunny was faster, even wounded, but she lagged behind Colby. Whenever he slowed down, she did, too. When he slowed down to a full walk, she did, too. A shadow trailing him as they ran for the last shred of hope. He had slowed down, not to rest, but to get a better look over the edge and when he stopped completely, she did, too.
They hadn’t gotten away.
“We can’t be taking these switchbacks anymore,” Colby said. The trail was a direct path to them and what did this thing care about properly marked trails? It’d cut through the trees and down the hills and even if it tumbled to get there, it’d catch them soon. “We have to go down.”
Sunny peered down the steep slope peppered by trees. The end blended in with the white of the rest of the hill. “We’ll die just getting down.”
“Think of it like sledding.”
Even Sunny had started to balk at this idea. The night had drilled common sense into her, not out of, but holding the ax, she thought through the plan.
“I’ve done it a hundred times. This is the best spot for it that I can find.”
She didn’t like how he smiled as he tried to convince her. He was not someone to be trusted anymore, but neither was she. “Okay.”
She sat on the edge. “Don’t push,” she said. A root beside her was like a handle at a waterslide and as gravitated tempted her toes to tip over and go, she clutched that root tight. With one hand.
“You have to put the ax down. Axes aren’t good for hugging at high speeds.”
Her grip on it didn’t waver.
“I’ll throw it right after you, okay?”
Hesitantly, she released her hold on it and when she did, he shoved her down the slide so violently that her grip on the root almost went, too, but she stared up at him in wild confusion before it all clicked.
“You knew,” he said.
On the hills above them, the snow crunched as Glenn slithered down on his belly. Branches tearing off the shell of his face.
“Get back here,” Sunny screamed.
Colby looked once more at Glenn and once more at his sister. “You knew.”
The cars were in sight. Every window frosted and a snow drift closing the driver-side door of Hunter’s 20-year-old “classic” junk Jeep that didn’t even have passenger airbags. With three vehicles, Sunny’s CR-V sandwiched in someone’s minivan, but he couldn’t quite remember who and he wondered if it was someone dead or someone that’d soon be. At a distance, he hit the car-start button to get the windshield defrosted ASAP, but as it roared to life, he flinched.
No one was around.
It was an open lot. A truck with more snow under than on. Neighboring sedans buried. But if that thing were coming, either of it, or really any of it, he’d see.
Till he got between the cars.
Always a tad short, a bit hobbit-ish he'd say on dating profiles, between the cars that came in at five-five and five-six, his hair poked over but not his eyes. He was visible but he could not see. He tried to hurry.
A hard covering of snow froze the door and even after scraping the handle clear with his gloves, he pulled until it felt the plastic might rip off.
He stood up on his tiptoes.
When it dove on him, he broke off Sunny’s side mirror before smashing his head into a footprint. He fought back, kicking and shoving, but with the backpack, it was like a turtle trying to bench press. No leverage.
With its hair in his face, hair that was not its, stolen hair, it had him pinned.
Then it got off.
To grab the ax.
Colby couldn’t catch his breath. “I did what I had to,” he said.
The engine hummed. In the corner of the driver-side window, a wet circle had started forming.
She raised the ax.
What does she do?
Bailey’s toenails scraped the hardwood as she drew up each paw till she arrived at the boy’s closed door. If it swung open even the slightest, just as there’d be no stopping the light, there was the sense that she’d barge through, but as it were now, closed, she stood outside without motion. Not a tail wag. Not an ear twitch. Not even a head tilt. Somehow oblivious to the rest of the room.
“You can go ahead and try,” Elyse said waiting against the counter on the far side of the room by Margie. She’d put on a pot of coffee for the officer to be polite. “But she’s a bit ornery with newcomers. Harmless, but stubborn.”
“Fair enough.” Jimmy looked around the room for a volunteer. Bedraggled people uncomfortable with even eye contact in the presence of his authority, but only one still awkwardly held a coat, a coat that by coloring and size was not made for a man, even such a scrawny one. “Dane, right?”
“Damion.” It’d been a decade but the physicist still held venom from their second meeting, when Jimmy had also forgotten, and their third, and just about every other time, even days apart. The buddies, the champs, the pals, the sports, the Ds because with his name and in class that was all Jimmy could get right, the vocative case left hanging.
“Sorry, it’s been a minute. Hop to it.”
Jimmy kicked his head toward the other door and Damion wasn’t sure what he meant for a second, then it clicked in that rigorous STEM brain.
Stammering, he asked, “The dog? Me? Why me?”
“C’mon, champ. I’m deputizing you for this. I’ll watch your six.”
After a look around the room, Damion found zero support for his resistance, even though it’d affect his allergies if the dog hadn’t bathed within the last 48 hours and it probably hadn’t and Quinn knew this if she hadn’t forgotten (she had), but without anyone else volunteering, with his lot drawn, he relented. At arm’s length, he tried nudging the dog’s muscular hindquarters with two fingers, careful to avoid potentially poopy areas.
Bailey didn’t move.
So he gave it the whole hand just above the tail and ruffled the fine fur like grating the dog’s spine, but at least it led him toward the collar. He pulled.
Bailey leaned but stayed.
Damion looked to the owners for support: tips, a command, something, but they were both across the room, Elyse watching the coffee and James with his hand on shivering Beagsley’s head, and they each moved as much as their dog--not at all.
“Can we speed this up, D?” Jimmy asked, still near the door so he had a full view of the room and its people during this encounter. “Show him you’re the alpha.”
“Her,” James corrected the police officer.
“Even easier then.”
Damion clenched the collar like he did those pull-up bars every night and just like he’d show anyone that doubted him, he was going to show the dog that nerds could be strong, too. He yanked.
Bailey stumbled and, as quiet as ever, looked at Damion.
Elyse had just shut the cabinets after pulling out the half-gone container of Entenmann's crumb-topped donuts, meant to be tomorrow’s breakfast but readied now, again to be polite toward the officer, but seeing Damion struggle so much, she opened the cabinets once more. “Maybe I can convince her with a treat.”
She pulled cans off the shelves to get to the full box of treats in back and Damion, with all the eyes on him especially Jimmy’s, started feeling pressure. He yanked at the collar again. Then hit the girl, muttering, “Let’s go.”
The dog would not go.
Meanwhile, attention off of her, Margie crept toward the table with the rifle. Jimmy saw her move but gave it a glance and after their eyes met, nothing more.
“I know you’re not used to bedside manner, Damion,” Sunny said, ready to step in if he did it again. “But you really should be gentler with other people’s dogs.”
“It wouldn’t move!” His voice got whiny with a defensive laugh like every other time he got called out.
“That’s not how you treat a dog.”
Jimmy interrupted, “Yes, it is,” and Sunny went quiet. “Maybe not your precious midget corgis, but this dog is a workhorse. It’s been bred for this treatment and they only respond to superior force.”
Even without her special connection to animals, Quinn knew that was a load of-- “Bullshit. It just makes her see you as a threat.”
He kept his eyes fixed on that dog. On Damion. “A threat to be submitted to.”
“You’re whittling away the trust.”
James put the Beags down on the couch. “Maybe I can…”
Bailey looked at him.
“Maybe it’ll be okay to leave her out.”
With a shrug, Jimmy said, “You sure? Okay, Deputy, if you’ll open the door.”
Silence filled the room as everyone waited for Damion to realize he’d been drafted. “Me? Again?” There was a long groan that garnered little sympathy for the monumental task of essentially opening a door. The dog stayed in the way. And as Damion reached for the knob--
The dog flew onto his chest. Damion was pinned, flailing, then limp.
Rushing to pull off the dog, what Quinn saw dripping from its teeth made her recoil away but she’d already gotten too close and Bailey lashed out at her, too. In a few breaths, both were dead, chunks of their necks missing, and the dog returned to its post.
Rosie pulled herself under the blanket. James and Elyse and even Jimmy didn’t react but like maybe they weren’t shocked. Only Sunny tried to move till Margie yelled not to.
“There’s no helping them now, and look at it,” Margie said, calmer in the excitement than she’d been before. Bailey had returned to her spot outside the boy’s door with bodies on either side of her. “It’s not attacking anyone. It’s defending. Against a threat.” Her eyes traced from Damion to Jimmy.
Elyse put the box of dog treats down. “You should leave.”
Jimmy slung off his bag. “I don’t think Hush.Ca would appreciate leaving its experiments on the loose.”
The two residents of the cabin clenched.
He continued, pulling out a metal container covered in hazardous warning stickers, “When the Gunny reported this, I honestly didn’t know why I had to be so prepared for two brainiacs but I brought the gun. I brought the acid. Do you want me to use it?”
There was only silence from either end of the room and from the closed door with the dog in front. The little noise filling the cabin was from the main party twisting their necks and their coat collars rubbing up.
Jimmy pulled out a radio.
But before he could contact the Gunny, James dove on him. That canister went for a roll along the hardwood and the two wrestled on the ground till a crack of fire shot from the wall. Margie held the rifle. Jimmy threw off James’s body, the head torn open.
Turning toward Elyse, Margie said, “I might be out of bullets but I can swing this thing like hell still so don’t move.”
Elyse put the dog treats down.
Sunny had been watching the dog during the scuffle, but it too stayed still. “What’s behind the door?” she mumbled to herself.
But this was the victory for tonight. It wasn’t perfect or pretty, but it was what they got. They’d won. They had the evil doctor cornered and Jimmy had all the answers. He’d protect them.
“I don’t like this.”
Everyone, even Rose peeking out from her blankets, looked at Margie.
“Why?” Sunny asked.
Elyse, still as that statue dog, had her eyes on Damion and Quinn. It wasn’t regret in her eyes.
The plastic casing around the radio had dented but it worked fine. Jimmy called into the receiver, “Gunny, you up? Whoever’s monitoring this channel, put me on with the Gunny. We found your defectors and their little dog, too.”
“You should leave,” Elyse said.
The room’s attention turned toward the doctor now, but Rose, from under her blanket, followed her gaze to the bodies.
Jimmy shook off the doctor’s warning. “We’re not going anywhere till the Gunny gets here.”
Then the radio kicked on. “Good work, Jimmy. If it starts moving, use the acid.”
“The dog seems like he’ll behave for now.”
“Not the dog, Jimmy.”
Elyse said again, “You should leave.”
“The bodies, Jimmy. If they…”
He let the radio clatter onto the table as he fumbled for the acid. Damion and Quinn were on their feet. He began unscrewing the lid but those corpses were quick and they were on him and like the radio, the acid canister went tumbling.
The drip from the dog’s fangs were not the blood of its victims, but the same black goo that had infected Tony.
Margie grabbed Sunny to pull her toward the front door, hoping Rose would rise to the occasion and do the same for Beagsley but the couch occupants only jumped as the boy’s door creaked open, and hand on the knob, Margie wasn’t going back for them.
The cold air hit the fleeing women. Margie closed her eyes. She was without a coat but the warmth of adrenaline would get her down this mountain; it had to.
But as she rushed out blind, she ran into two bodies under the lit porch lamps.
Malia and Glenn had returned from the cars.
“We have to go,” Sunny said, pushing her brother and lover the other way but they pushed back in unison. They pushed Sunny and Margie back into the cabin with equal strength though Glenn was a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than his partner. Their eyes were the same, glazed over, deadened.
“Glenn, stop!” Sunny didn’t know. She didn’t know her brother wasn’t inside there. This was her first encounter and in that moment, she couldn’t reconcile what was happening.
But Margie could. Finally, after everything tonight, the fight in Margie died.
Damion and Quinn were at the dog’s side, and with their prisoners, Mal and Glenn marched that way too. The light of the main room did nothing to penetrate the blackness beyond the door but before the veil, Margie saw death and she saw what was after.
At the counter, Elyse had a cup of coffee like she was fueling up for work and with a sip, she said, “Sorry.”
The dim light given off by the photosensitive bubbles did not penetrate the black cloud floating around Rosie, but the way it backlit her hair, she radiated.
Knee-deep in the polluted water, Lenka stared at his new follower. Such ugly pink hair. He’d change that first. Something appropriate. The other two had escaped. Locked him in the hatch, but soon they’d be back. Time ticked down until he had a squadron that’d decimate the Gunny’s upon her return, but even if she dropped in a bit early, there was little she could do against even this one.
“Get up already,” he muttered, grabbing that filthy shimmering hair.
Rosie opened her eyes. The pool around her once again had a refractive index of 1.3. Completely clear. She spit out water and Lenka let go.
He had assumed her submission too soon. “No matter. I’ll speed it along.” He pushed forward the blade of his utility knife. He steadied her in the water. “You will be mine. One of many and many more to come.”
When the blade, dull and old with remnants of the dried canvas-like flesh of the old white man’s last unknowing experiment hanging from it, sliced into Rosie’s skin, she shrieked.
But there was no pain.
It opened her neck up. It tore through the many holes like the ones she’d seen on her palm under the blanket back when she wasn’t sure if she was still dreaming. And from her, oozed black goo that beaded and rolled off as Lenka sliced past it.
Her shriek faded as she imagined death nearing.
Lenka thought her silence was victory.
The many beads in the water pooled around him, sticking to his clothes by many spindly legs that started to crawl upward. He did not notice these. He did not notice the added weight, they were so small. He waited for Rosie to rise once more and be his to command but until then he held tight to her collar--and so that was how he noticed the holes in his hands.
He knew them well on his subjects but to be on him! In the clear water, his reflected face was full of these little tunnels and those beads, those bugs, climbed inside him. There were so many.
He released Rosie.
He did not know how his previous results had failed.
He’d never get to.
She bobbed in the water and when she surfaced, the tunnels were gone. The cut sealed. The ooze clear from her shirt.
Lenka loomed but he did not move. The knife had dropped. There was only her breaths, which she wasn’t even sure were real. She stared up Lenka’s nose, a little bloody booger too similar to the bugs that maybe it was one lingering. He stood in front of the ladder. Her vision traced his shape to the ladder and naturally to the door where Quinn and Damion had escaped to.
With no movement from her or Lenka to stir more waves into the water, the waves rocked her, lulled her, carried her, but did not move further, and in the silence, she heard banging.
A slow rhythm she knew.
Tony. His face against the door. Against the window. And now it was back like a siren’s song drawing her up the long ladder, though she knew what, if not who, to expect.
Every rung required a new breath of courage.
That motivation came easier than it should’ve for Rose.
The knocking rhythm tuned to that of her feet on the ladder.
That rhythm called for something deep inside her to swing her arms for the next.
But it was not her the song called to.
She reached the top and without her legs moving, there was silence ahead and the rhythm behind. She hadn’t noticed. It’d been so in-sync and she’d been so entranced that Lenka following her was a surprise. She waited. He reached the top.
Behind the door, there had been one of those things, wearing one of her friends, beating away, and though it had fallen silent ahead and silent behind, it was still there.
To stay here was to be forever trapped into starvation.
Perhaps she could throw Lenka to it. Let them fight. She’d sneak by.
She’d just peek in the door and see--
Roger was there. Waiting. Staring. His face bruised and leaking with a big chunk missing over his eyes. He stepped through and she backed away, right to the railing, almost tipping back in panic, till he fell in line with Lenka.
There was little room for the three of them on the platform, but Lenka stayed near Rose and Roger behind him, and they entered the door as such and through the computer room as such and saw the emergency beacon lighting the room red. The door was unsealed with little pieces of Roger stuck to it. A patch of skin with eyebrow that Rose could probably smooth back onto his face.
She opened the door to the locker room. Where was that cacophony of insects?
She needed out of this eerie lab. She needed to see Quinn and Damion and Marwa and please, she needed Beagsley to be okay. They’d run away. They’d lock Roger and Lenka behind a metal door and just run. Rose would carry that good boy all the way down the mountain.
The door opened to that glass hallway, lit red by its own lights and by those in the forest exhibits, except the one on the left. It was the one they hadn’t entered. Now a million patterns overlapped one another on the glass till it was opaque. There were no colors, but a mesh of brown and black, and it did not move.
Rose didn’t give it much thought. She couldn’t. At the other end of the hall, creeping towards her in their own two person line: Damion. Quinn.
There was no choice. The bug room. The one with the clear window. Let the fiends figure out the door. Let them brain themselves on the glass. She’d be okay. She’d made it this far. She had to tell herself that or her legs would not move. They shouldn’t have listened, but really, there were no good choices.
Between those protective metal doors, waiting for them to grate along their track, the red light dispersed till there was no light. She fumbled for the handle and then hefted--they’d catch her at this rate. These two idiots behind her did nothing to help, not even now that they heard the footsteps in the halls, and there was no time to close the doors behind her so she could only push ahead and maybe close that final gate after slipping through like the light did now, red and glorious. She was inside. She was alone. Even Lenka and Roger had gotten trapped on the other side.
And now that she was in, she heard the sounds of movement. Maybe no violin legs. No whistling sacs. But movement in the leaves. A lot of it.
It was some comfort. Fear, but the icky sort she’d always had. A normal fear. A fear she could convince herself to get over like when she smashed roaches with a shoe or trapped them in a cup and let them starve for a week before dealing with their flaky bodies. It was familiar and that let her settle.
Till it was the leaves directly ahead and she saw the shadow behind it.
“Please say something.”
“Anything at all.”
“I’m sorry, Rose. Or maybe, it’ll be okay. Or I know what to do, science.”
But the plants rustled. Through the knee-level flora, Beagsley emerged and Marwa, much like Lenka and Roger, followed him.
Outside the glass, in the hall, Roger, Damion, Quinn, and Lenka lined up like ants to be as close to Marwa as possible. Rose’s followers had turned sides. And she felt that call inside her tell her this was it.
She fell in line. She fell inside herself until she was just an echo in the void.
“Save her?” asked the Gunny, an older disciplined woman, too covered in cold weather gear to see much but the skin around her eyes was a dark brown. “Did I hear you right, soldier?”
A grunt in black pulled Glenn away but his desperation to see Mal was stronger, at least in spurts, than they could handle one-handed. Glenn kneeled by her. He wanted to crack into that icicle around her, even if it’d ruin that beautiful final memory he had.
But a second soldier dragged him away.
“You are not to go near that body.” The Gunny’s voice commanded an authority even Glenn snapped to attention for. His eyes, though, and his mind wandered to escape plans. Heists.
“Why not?” Jimmy asked.
Her eyes darted to the hole in the ice, already frozen over. "You know why. Dooley, Vicente, drag that thing back to the lab while we track down the main body.” She pulled a radio from her belt. “Report.”
“Obviously you know what’s been happening here, but explain it to us.”
“It’s nearly contained.”
“When you called me last night, you said two rogue scientists and a small outbreak, but of what?” Jimmy got in front of her. He didn’t dare touch her or get near her, but at least he had her attention.
“I also told you to bring backup canisters of acid. Where are they?”
“My bag, but it’s further down the mountain.”
“You don’t have any at the lab?”
“That’s the problem with traitors.” Her eyes fixed on Jimmy then. “And incompetence.”
“You didn’t see how that thing sprung up on us. What the hell was it?”
“It’s classified.” Their eyes locked and finally she put down her radio. In a voice hushed so Glenn wouldn’t hear the following human moment, she admitted, "Even I don’t understand it. We were told it’s a fungal parasite, contained by ice and susceptible to acid. Liked smaller hosts: bugs and shit. But six months ago, it started to show new preferences and then, some samples disappeared. Went quiet till this weekend a scientist and an investor disappeared with their son, but who knows who else is in on it? I’ve been authorized to deal with the others at my discretion and there will be a lengthy debriefing when we get the main body back. I’m only telling you because you’ve seen too much already.”
“Thank you, Gunny.”
“I’m sorry about your friends.”
The trees this morning went blue from the rising light reflecting off the mountain. The lake was quiet, the ice whole again but the air released. No more alien whistles.
The Gunny with her squad headed up the snowy path and the soldiers with Mal went down it, where the forest thickened. Glenn and Jimmy were stuck in the middle. Jimmy would have assisted the Gunny or gone back for the acid, but felt some pity for Glenn. How much had he lost tonight? Without someone to push him on, he’d just stay on his back in the snow till he froze.
Jimmy grabbed his coat around the zipper track to pull him to his feet, but Glenn’s limp body just flopped into the snow. “I’m giving you two chances to get your ass moving before I leave it,” Jimmy yelled.
“She’s not dead,” Glenn mumbled.
“That was one.”
After being hoisted up again, this time Glenn actually got to his feet, supporting himself, even walking, then sprinting after the two soldiers. Like Jimmy, the soldiers were too surprised to do anything. Glenn grabbed Mal between them but, small as she was, human bodies are heavy. He didn’t have the balance to carry her on the slope. Then, when Jimmy caught up to him suddenly, it was like a tackle and the three bodies went rolling down the gentle slope. The living boys caught trees. Mal, frozen, probably dead, could not. She banged against them like a game of plinko then the steep angle kept giving her momentum. Her cocoon just thickened.
Jimmy rose ready to thrash that idiot when he saw the soldiers had drawn their weapons. Not the make-shift weed sprayers, but rifles.
He yanked Glenn along the path Mal had scratched into the mountain snow. The trees thinned. The slope worsened. They both rolled, with all the control Mal had, and it was a long, painful ride till they were at the bottom.
Staring from his crater, Jimmy expected the soldiers to pop over the edge and laser sights to train on him, but they were looking for the safe way down.
The shell around Mal had cracked on impact. When Glenn peeled the pieces off, some stuck to her skin, like a kid in a movie licking a metal pole, the skin stretching till it ripped, but she didn’t bleed. She didn’t wake up. It was too cold. And her heart wasn’t beating. She wasn’t breathing. Sunny had taught him CPR for a lot of situations, but probably not this one exactly.
When Jimmy got up, Glenn was already bouncing on her chest.
“Knock it off. Hey, I said stop.”
Glenn lifted her chin to breathe in.
“You’re not even doing it right! You’re gonna pop a lung.”
Glenn stopped breathing for her and was sweating, looking at Jimmy like he might say something back, but then went back to chest compressions. Hand over hand. Two inches deep. 100 per minute.
“It only works like 10 percent of the time and that’s for people that can get to hospitals. If by some miracle she wakes up--”
With that set finished, Glenn went back to the rescue breathing. In through his nose, into her mouth.
A second breath.
“SHUT UP!” Glenn screamed back.
“You don’t want her to wake up!”
“Excuse me?” came a soft voice from the woods. “I was out walking my dog when I heard something fall. Did you say you’re giving someone CPR?”
“She fell in a lake,” Glenn said in grunts as he continued compressions. His stamina waned. And he could feel something rattle around in the back of his head.
“And down a mountain.”
“Maybe I can help.” The blonde white woman stepped out from the trees. Her husband was with her, holding a well-trained doberman that didn’t need its leash. “I’m a doctor.”
“I’m sure you’re both great doctors, but--”
She cut Jimmy off. “He’s not a doctor.”
“Just the husband. James. Elyse is the doctor.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Jimmy said. “She’s dead. Don’t give my buddy any false hope, all right?”
Elyse explained, “Sometimes the signs of death are a little off out here. The cold slows blood pressure down so you can hardly feel a heartbeat without a monitor. We use similar tactics in the operating room.”
“Listen, lady, I know it’s a hard, sad truth, but sometimes people are beyond a chance and a prayer and--”
“I’ll be back. Our place is just around the bend.” She disappeared into the trees, leaving James behind holding the dog.
The dog didn’t sit. It didn’t pant. It didn’t sniff or even look at the body.
“You can probably stop,” James told Glenn, who had returned to compressions and breaths. James was a large white man, maybe even paler than his wife, but very fit. His bright blue eyes and little dimples on forever smooth cheeks gave him this youthful appearance but the top of his head had thinned hair. Jimmy thought he could take him if this went wrong somehow, but he offered a hand to test him just a little. James refused with a smile. Jimmy was sure now. Only the dog complicated things.
Glenn ignored him. And the dog, as much as he could.
Jimmy commented, “Her ribs are probably bone meal by now.”
But nothing could convince him to stop till the doctor returned with her medical bag.
She reappeared, her hand holding not a medical bag, but a child’s hand. She wasn’t especially tall which only made the young boy even shorter by comparison.
“Hey, champ, playing nurse today?” Jimmy squatted down, trying to get him to turn from the dead body.
The boy had those same bright blue eyes as James. He might have had the same dimples, too, but his face stayed blank.
“Okay.” Jimmy felt the silence turn awkward. "Well, can you let your mommy take care of my friend for a minute? She needs her sleep right now. She’s very tired.”
The boy stared at her, paying zero attention to Jimmy.
“How about we go over there?” James said, but he wasn’t talking to his son. Instead to the two squeamish about seeing their friend about to be operated on. The boy stayed, actually stepping closer to be right over the corpse while his mom stood a ways back and then James turned them around and pulled them away for their own check-ups, a more informal sort. “How are you both doing? Seems like maybe you’ve had a similarly rough night to your friend.”
But Glenn couldn’t stay pointed that way, and so, he was the first to see.
Mal sat up.
Like she really had been sleeping.
Glenn let out an exasperated, disbelieving, “What?”
And like at the lake, he rushed for her, to tackle her, to hug her, but Jimmy caught him this time. “Hey, stop it,” Jimmy yelled. “Don’t touch her. We don’t even know if we’ve got another Sunny situation so until she says something, you stay back. How did you do that?”
He had a tight grip on Glenn’s wrist and even after Glenn shook him off, they both stayed back. Jimmy was right.
“How?” he demanded.
No one answered.
Mal was the first to speak. Wide-eyed. On her feet. Touching her body like she’d been long away from it. “Why did you bring me back?”
It was Mal, all right. Her voice uncanny from the hell she was just pulled from but hope made them blind.
Jimmy was the first toward her.
“Why?” she repeated.
Before he reached her, though, he stopped.
She opened her mouth to cry it again but she stopped. Or was stopped. Black dripped from her lips.
She wiped it away but not before Jimmy saw and then the light in her eyes faded. That voice in her throat was no longer hers. It melted away into this distorted imitation of a human, of something puppeting her vocal cords. “cAn i gET a HUG?” she cried.
Again, Jimmy pulled Glenn into a run as they fled from that thing inhabiting their friend. Through the forest, straight on, under branches, following a steep rock wall, then a sharp left and on, hurrying, until they dared to breathe. They looked back. Waited.
She wasn’t there. She hadn’t chased them. Perhaps her legs weren’t operable yet.
Some branches blocked the path and Jimmy reached for them but they pushed toward him, and through them, Mal emerged.
Back they went and when they got to that steep rock wall, they kept around it, not daring to head toward Elyse and James and that creepy kid of theirs and then the two bolted down a hill, Glenn tripping in the snow, feeling now his ankle had twisting that every step complicated, but it didn’t stop him. Only his burning lungs did. Jimmy felt it just the same, but his horror pushed him on an extra bend around the corner, into Mal.
So a third time they went running and Glenn, despite his ankle, despite his lungs, would have gone until his foot snapped, but Jimmy yanked him toward the twisted roots of a tree in a pile of snow that they shimmied in until it covered even the darkest parts of their coats. Only their breathing might give them away and Jimmy’s hand had clamped over Glenn’s face so tight that that was less of a risk than suffocating, but perhaps a death such as that was preferable.
It was quiet. They wouldn’t for a million dollars peek out from their cover, but Mal was nowhere to be heard. That family of freaks hadn’t tracked them here. Hiding worked.
They’d stay like this until the next sundown if need-be. Jimmy had let up from Glenn’s mouth.
However, their weight was too much for the snow. They began to sink further into it, which they discovered slowly.
After so long putting pressure on his arms, so long in one position, Jimmy needed to adjust. Get the blood flowing again. But as he attempted to raise an elbow, he realized he was suctioned in something and it took serious leverage to pull an arm up.
Glenn, seeing, hearing, feeling the other man scramble, panicked too and came to the same realization.
Something sucked them down.
With their arms freed, Jimmy pulled at a branch while Glenn brushed away the snow to see what had them.
The black goo that’d yanked Sunny from them, that had dripped from Mal’s lips, like tar, it stuck to them as gravity worked, and Glenn grabbed the same branch as Jimmy, which snapped under their combined weights and Jimmy fell backwards, almost unable to right himself from the stickiness. At that moment, he made his decision.
When apprehending a suspect, police training taught an effective grapple called the sleeper hold, made famous by the WWE.
The armpit goes atop the person’s shoulder. Wrap that arm around their neck. The palm of the other hand presses inward against the wrist. It takes three to ten seconds to put someone to sleep.
Glenn took five.
As his friend sunk deeper into the pit, Jimmy made headway on his solo escape. One leg was free. He stepped up onto the root for extra leverage, but it was soft from rot, he thought, so he mostly just pulled himself free with the tree branch.
What’s brown and sticky?
In his hands, the stick mushed like gum and when he tried to let go, it would not. Brown and sticky. His foot sank into the root. The tree, this solid pine tree, bent at the trunk under his weight. The safe land he’d been working toward betrayed him. The mountain had opened up, determined to swallow him.
He fought to the end. His chin up to breathe a few extra minutes. But eventually, it was just his nose, like a dorsal fin breaking the surface of the water, and the black squirmed inside.
The snow melted on Glenn. The drips found the creases of his face. With dawn here, warmth slowly convinced branches to dump their burdens. Every pour sent Glenn jumping but the soldiers kept calm and carried on.
"How do you track something like that?" Jimmy asked the Gunny as they marched on their target.
The Gunny was constantly on the radio affirming she'd gotten the latest news and Glenn and Jimmy only heard the other side when she repeated it to another team. It was a lot of military babble and Jimmy nodded along like he knew, so Glenn did as well. She said, "You should know that on this mountain, that's impossible."
"Why?" Glenn asked.
Gunny had a radio to answer. Jimmy either didn't know or wouldn't say. Then when she was off it, it was like his question had gone with the wind.
It'd been like that all night. Ever since Jimmy met the Gunny, Glenn had no input into the conversation that they valued even if his questions were the same as Jimmy's. So Glenn got in front and asked, "Seriously, why's it so hard to track that thing? Aren't there bio-metric scanners or something for that thing?"
But they brushed past him like he was another tree to avoid. He stood with his shoes sunken into the snow.
"I'm a part of this team, too," he yelled after.
Jimmy turned to address him. "This isn't some pick-up game. Leave it to the professionals."
"You're a fucking cop! A bad one."
The Gunny sensed this question wouldn't die like the rest and it was already festering dissent between the two. She wouldn't care much but they tagged along on a mission that needed the most basic of stealth--no crying. In a tough whisper, she explained, "Right now, your sister's a toddler. Not exactly full control of her body. We're tracking her like we would anyone, like how we found you on the lake. Footprints, broken branches," she said then a call interrupted her. "And we've just found her."
"What's the plan?" Jimmy asked. "How are we going to approach her?"
"It." Glenn hated hearing that thing inside Sunny's body referred to as her.
The Gunny drew the plan out in the snow. "She's in a field, seemingly resting. The goal is to draw out the main body so we'll have two rings. The first around the woman. The second wider one to hopefully catch the main body. We won't be able to kill it with these water sprayers, but its core temperature will drop enough to cause long-term hibernation. Only acid strong enough to melt through the mountain will kill it. Maybe."
Thinking it over, Jimmy saw the flaw. "What if it bolts again?"
"We'll just need a few minutes to get everyone into position before it drags her away."
"I'll do it," Glenn volunteered. He stepped on the snow map. The only way they'd even see him tonight was if he got in the way and so he did. "I can talk to it. Tempt it. Be bait."
"That worked so great for Malia."
"I'm not some random chick," he said. "They maybe had a long history together but my sister went from loving to hating her Monday to Tuesday. I'm her brother. If anyone's going to stir up something, it'll be me."
“You’re going to die out there,” Jimmy said.
“I know. Just give me a knife or something.”
"I'm not stopping you, but there's nothing left of her," the Gunny told him.
"Okay, you're the bait."
Jimmy looked like he wanted to say something but Glenn had every right to choose so stupidly. If the Gunny said it was okay, he had to let him.
They saw it from a distance, standing amidst a field, and it had a child next to it. That fishing line had detached and left a lump that clung to Sunny’s leg. Maybe it was a child or maybe more like an ankle bracelet.
Growing up, Glenn liked the woods. Little hikes for exercise or to find that great photo, even before Instagram and maxing the saturation in photoshop, and when he got older, to go in secret with girls and older still, with boys, and he even had favorite spots and great memories and could identify deer tracks and poison ivy, but he wasn’t a woodsmen. He stepped through the brush with a giraffe’s stealth.
Sunny didn’t flee. Didn’t charge. Didn’t even look at him.
He gripped the knife tighter anyway.
Her usual dark skin was so pale in the cold.
“Give her back!” he screamed at it. “Do you even know anything about her? That she had a scholarship and loans but worked about fifty hours a week anyway to pay for housing. Or that she unironically loves Spice World. That she collects little spoons from all over the world but she hates that people know that and gift them to her because she hasn’t been to those places but she can’t be rude and throw them out. Do you know anything? Or did you just take her like you would anyone else?”
It blinked. Glenn hadn’t seen it do that before; even if he had been looking, he wouldn’t have. It worked the eyelids slowly then settled into a consistent, if unnaturally meticulous, pace.
“Give her back, you stupid fungus. Take me instead. Take everyone hiding out in the woods.” The fury, at it and himself and everyone, had run out, and he started to plead. “Just please let her go.”
“Wouldn’t that be cruel?” It came from Sunny’s mouth, but it wasn’t her voice. Or even a voice impersonating her. More like Sunny doing a bad impression of… a human? It was so shocking and also a little garbled. The puppeteer working her vocal cords didn’t know that, to appear really human, it should repeat itself to fill the silence. Glenn almost missed its meaning.
But almost is almost. Sunny had lost her parents, then in the recovery period, Glenn, when he pulled away to deal in quiet nighttime fits and then she fled for New York. As much as the twins had always loved the city, meeting people there was hard with her schedule, and it meant abandoning everyone else. With people like Jimmy, as much as she swore everything with them was a gray area and not a dark stain, it was good to get away, but with Malia, as much as Glenn wanted it to be good to break away, maybe it wasn’t the best. Then tonight. Upon finally reuniting after years of talking about her nostalgically, to actually lose Mal. To be the cause, willing or not. And Tony and the others--whatever was happening with them. Maybe it was better that no one survived tonight or they’d slowly die to the eternal torment of the psyche.
“What?” He snapped back to reality.
“A third of her liver.”
Glenn didn’t want to understand.
“I could tally the functioning organs quicker than the ones that are me. I am her blood. I have found her heart and I will keep that one piece. But even should I let her go, it will be agony in the snow until she dies. It will be quick but it will not feel it. Even now she squirms.”
Glenn finally noticed what was so uncanny about this body. Not the eyes working so slow. Not the voice that was almost hers. Her hair was white. The snow didn’t melt on her.
The soldiers were close enough to hear that thing speak, but they didn’t get the details, and still it froze them, but they had thawed and were ready to move. The Gunny confirmed positions on the radio, but there was silence on channel two.
It was too late.
The fishing line whipped around and caught a soldier aiming its way only to thrash her around until she crashed into another. The Gunny lit up the radio calling in backup but they’d already been taken care of. They’d already been taken. Jimmy grabbed the pack off a dead soldier nearby, but before he could spray at random, the Gunny was in the air screaming as she crashed into Jimmy. Their heads broke against one another, but she came down with another crack. Her leg popped out of the pelvis socket. The knee could now bend in every direction and in the arc, it often found them all. And Jimmy lay there being pulped by her body till they both stopped screaming. Till there was silence.
And even in the silence, Glenn only stared at his sister’s body.
The deformed soldiers slowly knit their wounds back together. Joints popped back together. Fractures healed. And the recently dead rose up and walked away from Glenn.
“Do you want to hug him?” it said, pushing toward Glenn that dark vaguely human lump clinging to her leg. It was like a child but with the skin peeled away and evil inside.
Glenn didn’t know what to say but polite instinct took over. “Okay.”
And the thing walked toward him and still holding that knife, the knife that’d been useless among this all, he hugged the sticky kid thing.
“Thank you,” Sunny said. Her voice was thicker than before like something was caught inside.
The kid melted away and like the remnant soldiers, moved away without care for Glenn.
Then bubbling from Sunny’s throat, black ooze seeped out. But it wasn’t leaving fast enough so it fell from her ears and nose and even tears of it. Dripping off her clothes. Strands of it sliding through the snow in every direction. Finally, it sweated from her pores till Sunny’s dark skin was covered in black and when it washed away, leaving not a trail, not a drop, she fell to the snow and writhed. She seized in pain, wanting to scream but unable to draw in enough breath so her cries escaped in mewling whimpers.
He put her hands on her. “Come back!” he screamed in the early morning light. “Come back and take her. Put her out of her misery,” but what he wanted more was for it to put him out of his misery.
Colby had his master plan laid out mostly. To solve tonight’s mystery, he'd follow the Gunny and her troop of suspicious soldiers wielding ice weapons out in this already frozen hellscape and wherever they led him--
They caught him.
Trained military professionals versus Colby winging it. The only hope that existed for him was with his plan, solely within his imagination.
Wrists bound by nylon climbing cord, he marched between his captors, his ginger tent-mate in front, who turned back on occasion to shake his head. Colby imagined it was good-naturedly, a smile behind the face mask, and in the earliest hours of dawn before the sun rose even above a flat horizon, let alone their mountainous one, Colby could explain away the shadow on his furrowed brow. He shouldn’t have.
The radio on the Gunny's hip went loud with feedback.
"Hellooo?" the radio spoke with a chirpy feminine voice. "I never actually know how to tell if this is working but it's been charging all night so it should be. Why isn't there like a light or sound or something to let you know the call connected and that I'm not just talking to dead-air?"
The Gunny pressed her talk button, and the radio buzzed static.
It must've done the same on other line because the woman there said, "Sorry! Guess the call connected."
"You can call me Marwa, can't you? Or is it against regulations and all that official stuff?" The line went quiet for a second and the Gunny might've responded but then it was active again. "It probably is. Sorry!"
"Doctor." The word came out calm but somehow still encouraged her to get on with it lest there be violence.
"Right. So we've got some party guests here who had quite the night out in the woods and we offered them blankets and coffee and even a little tour of the Northern Hush.Ca Labs but now that you're in range, I thought I'd let you know in case you had any presents that maybe we should keep them contained for." A brief pause where the Gunny wanted to answer, but Dr. Ebeid kept on, "You know." And again, the smallest of pauses before she had to say something to clarify, "Bad presents."
And in the background, a woman Colby knew by that affectionately derisive tone said, "Not exactly a secret to us, Marwa."
Colby hoped it was more than just her who made it out safe, but he didn't dare ask and let on that he knew who was in the background because Colby caught the way the Gunny stopped upon hearing that there were guests. He caught how the soldiers around her looked concerned and the whole mood of the squad sharpened like a mission had started.
"How many?" the Gunny asked.
The doctor stopped talking for longer than ever before but she held an "Uhh" while she counted. "Three? Right? Dr. Quinn, biology woman. Danny."
"Damion," Quinn corrected gently.
"Oops! Damion. And Rrr--oh, don't tell me, it's on the tip of my tongue. R-r-r--"
Only three, Colby thought, and he maybe didn't hide it as well as the previous reaction. The ginger noticed.
"Roger! Roger, Roger? Nailed it. First try! Oh and you like dogs, right?"
The Gunny said, "I love the big ones."
"This one's a baby, but he's not yappy at all. A bit sullen from the night."
"I'm sure he's cute."
"His ears are so floppy."
"We'll be there shortly."
"Roger! Not you, just military talk for affirmative. Over and out."
"You don't have to say that," the Gunny said.
"I like saying it!"
The radio now holstered on her hip again, the Gunny asked, "Friends of yours?"
"No, but I’d like to get to know that doctor, am I right?" Colby laughed at himself. "Too bad about the dog though. I'm allergic, you know, to be bitten."
She stepped closer. He thought she might hit him, start some torture for answers, and he backed up but there was the ginger behind him blocking his movement. Colby was cornered by two buff, armed soldiers, and though there'd been no harm, that was enough.
"I know them. Quinn. Roger. Damion. Beagsley, the dog."
"Thank you for your cooperation," she said with zero gratitude in her voice.
"I better warn you though."
She turned back to Colby.
"Beagsley, the dog," Colby said getting real quiet so the Gunny had to stop the nearby soldiers marching through the snow to listen. "He's not a beagle."
His smile did not soothe her anger. He tried hiding so as not to be struck by her wrath, but he was proud and his toothy smile just kept coming up.
The halted squad resumed their march but the Gunny gave instructions via hand signals and so when Colby's feet started onward like the others around him, the ginger soldier put a hand up. They were staying behind.
Once more, the Gunny faced Colby and left him with this final warning. "We'll do what we can to keep your friends safe. You can trust us."
The others marched onto the research lab, guns and ice sprayers ready.
"If we cooperate, they have no reason to harm us. Don’t say anything unless asked specifically about it. Keep calm until--something solves all this," Quinn said but her mistrust of authority doubled when that soldier in charge, the Gunny, used her gun to point at the hostages. To her, a convenient way to gesture to sit. To them, a threat that silenced even Damion's complaining at the time.
"Sorry," Marwa said in a low voice. Dr. Marwa Ebeid had dark brown skin and her hair covered, and though she knew the Gunny so deeply they'd toasted together in a supply closet when the Gunny's mother finally passed on from cancer, Marwa's glass with sparkling cider and the Gunny's cognac, during their time together having shared the occasional "In Sha Allah" when no other words would do, both at different points culturally and religiously in their Islamic backgrounds, Marwa, like Quinn, Damion, and Roger, was tied up in the library. Suddenly, her Batman T-shirt felt deeply inappropriate.
There were four captors: two guards, the Gunny, and Marwa's partner, this old white man from South Africa. He was bald. Despite being unarmed, he seemed in charge, even if the Gunny clearly held disdain for him.
"Why'd you save us, Lenka, if you were just going to turn us in?" Roger asked the old man.
Rubbing his gray beard, he ignored Roger to address the Gunny who was across the room giving orders to her soldiers. "Sergeant, you will not attempt any harm on these four. I've only agreed to this arrangement in order to protect my experiment."
"Experiment?" The word drew Marwa from her silence born out of guilt and fear, but it instilled a new, deeper fear in her. Her eyes darted to the others. Something in her look convinced the old doctor to lean down and check her bindings."Who?" she whispered.
"The teacher," Lenka said.
Roger and Quinn both looked to Damion, who only then understood that he was the indicated “teacher,” not at all accurate as he worked at a university and only to continue his research. He wriggled furiously in his ropes, trying to rise but didn't have the balance to do so without his hands. "I worked at CERN!"
To the Gunny, the outburst was just another from this whiner, not enough to draw her away from the discussion on the dog and what to do exactly. Last report was five minutes ago and at the time, it'd been contained, but with Lenka cooperating, they concluded to store it with the rest of the experiment.
Quinn nudged him with her shoulder. "Ion, don't yell at the ones with the guns."
"That one has nothing. And what kind of experiment did you run on me? I didn't sign a release."
Lenka cared only so much as to check on the Gunny. Had she caught on? No, and so he could ignore the teacher.
Marwa wasn't so easily ignored though. She had information on him that'd turn the Gunny against him. "And who else? Would you have gone through all of them if you'd had the time? Me? Is it in me too? This is why you wanted to check on the dog. You hate floppy ears!"
“Can you please calm down, Marwa?” Quinn asked seeing the agitated soldiers with their guns.
But rather than focus on the employees arguing, the Gunny thought on Quinn’s attitude during this all. She marched over. “Don’t.”
“Me?” Quinn didn’t understand the warning. “I’m not doing anything. Look, my hands are still tied. You can search me again, but I don’t have anything. I just don’t want anything happening to us or to you.”
The Gunny laughed. “To us? And what was that earlier about something saving all of you?”
“I--” Quinn didn’t know what to say. Had she given their only hope away?
“Don’t talk anymore.”
Quinn nodded. Even that seemed like too much.
The knot between Colby's hands seemed to tighten as he struggled with it. “Can't you…?”
“No can do, pal.” The ginger had found a fallen log that he cleared the snow off before sitting, then lying on, then sitting again. It was a hard log.
“That doesn’t work when my kid does it. Won’t with a grown man-child either.”
Then the radio clicked on.
“Dooley, get the acid.” It was the Gunny. The panic in her voice transmitted despite any crackling. “Now.”
“On my way.” In that instant he leaped from his resting spot to sling on his pack. He checked the gauge as he started off toward the same dark trail the rest of his squad had disappeared on.
“Can I come?” Colby asked.
So ready for action, Dooley had forgotten his captive, but when he returned, after groans and sighs as he decided what to do with Colby, he pulled at the knot. But it didn’t come completely undone. Colby had his hands still up in the air, waiting to be released.
“Find a tree branch and pull down and the knot will release. Or bite it if you want,” Dooley said before heading back for that trail. “Then get out of here.”
“I know you’re going to help your friends, but if you see mine, could you do what you can for them?”
Dooley didn’t respond and then when his boot steps were too far to be heard, Colby wriggled with the rope and headed after the soldier.
The thick metal door muffled the sounds of skirmish echoing down the hall, but a scream like that--it pierced everything.
“Why the fuck is it so warm in here?” the Gunny screamed at Lenka. Her radio was squeezed tight in her hand.
Quinn, Roger, and Damion had been provided comfortable sweaters when they arrived, Lenka having promised in a rare move of humanity that he’d turn up the heat but it’d take a while. Quinn even got one from Marwa’s personal collection, a striped cardigan, that was a bit thin for how cold they kept this place, but stylish. Now she sweated in it. They all were.
“My men’s weapons make useless puddles in the halls because you wanted the guests to be comfortable?” The Gunny pointed her gun at Marwa then Lenka. A hard thump almost made her fire--it was close. “Which one of you was it?”
The furious swinging back and forth finally ended on Lenka.
His voice didn’t crack under the threat. He was calm as he said, “Ah, so you want it released in here as well?”
The halls had gone silent.
And they stayed that way for too long.
“They’re dying out there!” The Gunny tried her radio again but silence. “Dooley, get the acid.”
That thing knocked at the door.
“On my way,” he responded.
“If you two are untouchable,” she said to the scientists, “then one of you will have to do.” She pointed her gun at Damion.
By the look on his face, it was the first danger to his life. There was something visceral about staring at a gun. Something instilled in him from movies and the news. His strategy was to look away and if he didn’t see the danger, it didn’t exist. As he bowed his head, his eyes couldn’t help but peek and even when it was beyond the frame of his vision, in his mind, he saw it, saw the bullet inside, saw the finger ready to pull, saw what was next.
Then Lenka said, “Sergeant, you are full of bad decisions today.”
From the entrance, Dooley heard gunfire from the library then a man screamed.
This place he’d called home for over a year was lit red by the emergency lights and he didn’t know it anymore.
Colby found the entrance. It was a straight shot from where he’d been and the only real challenge was opening the door--with his hands still tied, tighter than ever.
Upon entering, though, he slipped on a puddle and did the splits so wide he thought he’d torn something. The puddle was red from the lights. It was warm in here. Not relative to outside but genuinely roasting. He stripped off layers and strewed them about as he stepped ever so tentatively, peeking around the first corner he came to.
There was nothing.
But ahead, a door was cracked.
And the room behind it dark.
But not silent. He heard the heavy breathing of a predator too eager to lunge and feast upon him that it couldn’t keep itself quiet.
Colby started to back up, but then it called out to him.
“Wait!” It panted then continued, “Is that you, pal?”
“Dooley?” Colby approached the room and as he opened it, the hallway emergency lights flooded over the puddle at the soldier’s side. It was a much deeper red than the ones he’d been stepping through.
“I think it got me, so it’s now your job to--” The ginger soldier looked at Colby as he came in. “Why are your hands still tied?”
“I told you find a tree--”
“I thought I could wiggle--”
“We’re all dead,” Dooley concluded as he tried to get up to untie Colby, but he couldn’t and Colby had to come closer. He could smell the blood. Then using a lot of strength he probably didn’t have, Dooley swung off his water sprayer. “You’re going to need this. Someone turned up the heat so you’ve got no chance of freezing these things inside, but if you go down the hall you’ll come to this big sliding door. Keep going, you’ll find a locker room. Locker 66 has a container of sulfuric acid. H2SO4. You know it?”
“My last chem class was high school.”
“It doesn’t eat through you like in the movies, but still don’t let even a drop touch you. My orientation, they showed us just how dangerous it is with a diluted drop on our thumbs.” He bit off his glove to show Colby this textureless bit of skin that felt rougher than it looked. The skin around it wonderfully moisturized. “It burned a bit and I washed it off, but after a few days, the skin turned yellow and eventually sloughed off. It had completely removed the hydrogen and hydroxide ions and no amount of lotion this last year has brought back any softness to it. You’ve only got one shot with this stuff before you have to reload, too.”
“So be careful, got it.”
As Colby hefted the humming backpack on, feeling the weight of it as he strapped the waist buckle, he peeked at the guy. He’d probably have a good chance of making it if not for that thing, and yet, whatever injury it’d done (visible was only the blood and a wet spot on his shirt by his hip) hampered his movement. Colby had to ask, “Is there anything I can do to… ease the pain?”
“I wish, bud, I do, but faster I’m gone, the sooner you’ve got something else on your ass.”
Colby stood in the doorway but left without saying goodbye. It was easier that way, at least in the moment, but as he booked it down the hall, it nagged at him. Maybe on the way back, he thought, then thought better of it.
The large sliding metal door screeched and scraped across the track as Colby heaved it to the side. It was so loud, he knew something had to be attracted his way, but to close it meant more sound and more time wasted; he had to leave that way and the silence of the war zone already creeped him out.
But not as much as the hall beyond.
On either side, glass walls showed the Amazon. A rainforest with plant diversity that couldn’t survive in this climate or even this continent, assuming you counted North and South America as separate. The whole enclosure felt out of place, but within it, what really felt wrong was the dog sitting at the sliding door waiting for it to open. It was a dog he knew instantly. He stared and looked for a way in and that's when he saw swarming on the doors out of there, insects: cicadas, beetles, fuzzy caterpillars and their butterflies, hornets, giant centipedes, even the arachnids had joined up. Solitary creatures, separate species, huddled together on the door, silent except the way the wall of metal screeched, slowly opening. And all they needed was a crack to get through.
Colby hurried to the locker room. Locker 66. On the end. It was blue and the rest beige. All with spin locks.
He didn’t have the combination.
In a flurry, he tried the door just in case he could force it--but for small victory tonight, it was unlocked.
It had a series of canisters with warnings on them. They were all the same. All the same labels.
Fuming sulfuric acid
He didn’t have time to worry about all that. After unscrewing the lid, he slotted it in the backpack where Dooley had showed him then threw it back on and checked the gauge. It was finally time to fight back.
When Colby burst into the library, Quinn was dead.
Two guards dangled in the air, their faces too purple to scream, as black tentacles strangled them. It wouldn’t give them a slow release though. It squeezed tighter. It was trying to snap their necks as vengeance. For Quinn.
Colby was about to spray when he saw the base that had sprouted the tentacles. Pink hair. Rosie.
She’d made it--but was it even really her?
Roger shook her, pleading with her not to do this, that she wasn’t a killer, and while she didn’t listen to him, she also wasn’t attacking him. Or Colby or Marwa or Damion. She seemed to have some control over it all.
And yet, Marwa, the doctor from the radio that Colby recognized by her voice, was pleading with Damion. “Get away from the body,” she cried.
He wouldn’t. He insisted, “I can bring her back. It’s telling me I can bring her back.” Damion leaned over Quinn, his lips getting ever so closer, and this black droplet hanging.
The two possessed were on opposite sides of the room. Colby could only shoot one.
The morning light flooded through the cracks of the eastern door of the ranger's station as the party on the other side throttled the handle, jamming on it with all their weight, but the deadbolt would hold. It would not bend. It would not break. It'd take a day to blowtorch through.
However, the jamb holding the deadbolt was half an inch of soggy wood. And the only question was, would the eastern door bust first or the western one?
Colby could only hold one.
He didn't know who could be behind him, but here at the east, his military escort had turned on him upon arrival. The two guards were armed, even if just with one hypothermia gun, but they were trained. The other assailants might be too weak to ever get through the door. Soon, he'd see.
Two beefy soldiers, unsurprisingly, overpowered Colby and he went flat on his stomach as they rushed in. He clawed his way to two feet, only to be grabbed. There were hands everywhere. His struggle against their grapple was useless. There was so much yelling. Voices he might've known but in the chaos, it was overwhelming.
Then with a wet thunk, he was thrown to the side with a lot of force but little follow-through.
A woodcutter's ax had sunk its silver sharpened edge into one of the guard's neck. Then Sunny pulled the ax out to threaten the other, who started on her, then saw Glenn pointing the rifle his way and the guard backed up too far into the railing outside and went over backwards. If the fall didn't kill him, the tumble down the mountain did.
Glenn hesitated to help Colby up, so he rose on his own and asked, "Where did you two come from?"
"Hell," Glenn said.
Sunny slapped his back. "Shut up with the poetics."
Looking around, Colby noticed the cabin felt a bit empty. "Is Malia outside?" Then he realized maybe he knew the answer and shouldn't have asked. "Sorry."
"Margie, too," Sunny said.
"Hunter. Tony,” Colby listed them off with that tone people use at reunions, but usually it’s reserved for the long gone. “I don't think a hug's going to help this."
"Nope," Glenn said. “Who were those guys?”
“It’s been a whole night. Military? Paramilitary? Militia? One of those and there’s a whole camp of them. They were perfectly fine until... There’s something crazy going on and if you don’t already know something about it--I don’t even know how to get you to believe me.”
“We know,” Glenn said as if it were the final word on the matter.
Sunny continued, “We saw Margie shoot Mal dead. Right through the eye and not a second hesitating, but it was dark and I didn’t want it to be true so when Mal got back up… I was glad she got Marge, but I just wished it’d really been Mal.”
Out in the field, Colby’s uncontrollable imagination had helped him come up with the perfect photo while waiting for his subject and he’d keep snapping until he got one with the same feel, but now, it was too much for him. “Can we please hug now?”
They did but Glenn and Sunny had paranoia beaten into them by the night and clenched their weapons and so they each offered a single awkward arm for the hug. Maybe that was why it didn’t help anything. Maybe it was because they were hugging over a corpse with a humming backpack and a gaping neck wound and their shoes were all stained red. Maybe because that corpse rose up during the hug and wanted in on it.
They darted off but that thing lunged for Colby. With the momentum of panic, Colby swung the corpse out the door toward the railing. It hung on by Colby’s hood, the twisted nylon too sturdy to break when they needed it too. The humming backpack’s strap caught on the railing as well.
Sunny cleaved that ax deep into his arm, just below the shoulder. As a doctor, she knew where it’d be easiest to sever.
But that thing inside it was tough. After several swings, it finally lopped off and the arm fell to the deck and the soldier fell to the mountain.
Glenn threw his head back against the lodge and sank to the floorboards. “Were they infected, too?”
“Isn’t everyone?” Sunny gave the arm a little kick. It flopped over. Then righted itself then thrust at Sunny’s ankle and she kicked but its fingers were too strong for mere momentum to throw it off. She hefted the ax overhead and swung it down, crushing the elbow. Its assault stopped.
The hand continued at Sunny’s leg. The gloves ripped off as black tendrils came through. Not just the fabric but the fingertips peeled back. The blackness wrapped around her. She almost swung the ax once more, but Colby had grabbed that humming backpack from the railing and he’d been fiddling with the buttons, pumping the trigger, flipping switches to get the safety off until finally it blasted a spray of icy water on the hand.
It froze. Sunny peeled off the tentacles wrapped around her pant-leg. It stayed down this time. “The hell is that?” Sunny asked.
“At the camp, they used it on my clothes, I guess to blast off any remnants of that thing. Glad it actually worked.”
Her pants were iced over as well. “I need inside or my leg’s going to go dead.”
“Guys!” Glenn said, too panicked to get out more than the alert.
The upper section of the arm had begun to wriggle. At both wounds, the elbow and the shoulder, the black oozed out until it had shed the fleshy sleeve and the black snake came for them.
Colby blasted it again with the ice sprayer.
The twins stared at the frozen arms waiting for them to move again, but Colby was examining the ice sprayer still. Its pressure gauge seemed to have a third left but he wasn’t sure how to recharge it. Maybe it was time dependent. Or there was some pump or button. He couldn’t find it in the dim of daybreak.
He didn’t tell the others.
Finally Glenn got up from the deck. “Can we get out of here before they thaw?”
Sunny was already rounding the corner when she bumped into the soldier that had fallen off, the one with arms still. Before she could raise the ax, he was on her, gurgling at the mouth with black liquid ready to infect them all. It’d force itself down her throat. In her ears. Even seep into her pores if it had to, but it needed to devour what was inside them and replicate itself so it could spread far and wide from this mountain.
“Shoot it!” Glenn yelled at Colby.
Colby looked over the railing and at the pressure gauge. “It’s out.”
“I’m trying but it’s not doing anything. It must be empty.”
Sunny had dropped the ax, but she wouldn’t stop struggling. She kicked its knees and even its balls. Maybe it wouldn’t feel the grapes get crushed but she had good leverage so maybe, just maybe, and in a struggle, it was all instinct told her to do. Instinct wasn’t helping.
Maybe if Glenn could get an arm off, she could get free but that thing so tightly held her that--
“DO IT!” Sunny screamed.
He swung the ax at his sister. There was blood and a yelp but also a solid thud on the floor as an arm fell and floundered at their feet, but with Sunny flailing and Glenn pulling and that thing reeling, Sunny managed some freedom.
“Over here,” Colby yelled to lead them into the ranger’s station. Both doors had been busted down. The locks were useless. But in the moment, the twins listened.
The soldier missing one arm appeared at the door. He was missing his right. The one Glenn had just chopped off was the soldier’s left.
Thank god, Colby thought.
At the other door appeared the second one-armed soldier. They converged on the three hiding in the ranger’s bedroom. The soldiers were both squeezing through the door when Colby aimed the nozzle at them and sprayed them down till there wasn’t enough pressure and the tip froze shut.
But it’d been enough.
The two soldiers had stopped and when Colby gave them a little shove, the ice at their boots broke and they toppled over. The outer shell shattered but their internal temperature had dropped enough that even without the restrictive coating, they were dead. Whatever was inside them was dead.
He looked back at the others with a smile. Finally a victory.
But Sunny was bleeding and Glenn in a rage. “Not working, my ass!” he yelled at Colby, ready to shove that thing down his throat.
Glenn wouldn’t listen.
“Some help?” Sunny asked. She had to instruct these two squabblers on first aid for an ax wound, but she was already light-headed from the blood loss. “Find a clean cloth. Make sure there’s no black shit on it and put as much pressure as possible on me.” She had her arm raised. Without peeling off her coat, something hard to do one handed, she couldn’t see how deep the ax had cut but it felt like it might’ve taken a chunk from the bone. Maybe that was her imagination.
Colby went for the cloth, but called out, “I had to wait. The thing looked like it only had one shot left.”
They didn’t reply.
He muttered to himself, “I was right, too.” The gauge was completely empty with no signs of movement.
But still they kept silent.
Out the window, they’d seen the ranger with a dog bite taken out of his neck up and walking around. The soldiers had seen him thrown off the deck earlier and that was when they turned on Colby, but Colby hadn’t seen the corpse or else he’d have known there was a countdown till it rose up like the others.
And now Colby had seen.
1. Leave alone.
You've reached the end. An end. Did you get them all killed? Did any live? Were some never heard from again? This story changes dramatically across the many paths and sometimes different choices lead to the same end but a different perspective. If you want to know what happened to the other characters or in different timelines, start again.
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Whoever the hell that was stalking the deck until he came upon the doorway, Mal didn't know his stocky form. It wasn't Jimmy. It sure wasn't Damion, and she had no clue who it could have been but he had a… A weed sprayer? The kind she remembered the groundskeepers at university carrying but no one in Arizona ever used those unless they were rich and had grass. She had never been rich. She had never had grass. She'd had rocks for a yard. And yet, that was the only possibility, in her mind, on what that humming suped-up thing could have been only a few steps away.
He was looking outside.
Mal backed up, peeking over her shoulder for the other door, not wanting to take her eyes off him for too long; she kicked an empty box of cocoa mix.
It wasn’t loud. Just a bump. Maybe he wouldn't…
He whipped her way.
Below the counter with silhouettes of the coffee maker and some mugs drip drying (one with an icicle), she stayed hidden. But he was coming through the door.
His steps slow.
His weed sprayer ready.
Malia searched for cover to dart to.
The bedroom was too far.
To get to the other exit would cross his line of sight. But staying another step meant getting caught.
“What the hell?” Jimmy cried from outside.
The man creeping her way stopped, did an about face, and went with that same plodding pace toward Jimmy, and suddenly, Jimmy be damned, she wanted the intruder to hurry.
With him around the doorway, she turned away to avoid the cocoa box or other bumps and then when Jimmy yelled as the two men met, fought, a bullet ringing through the skies, Mal fled out the back door.
When someone grabbed her. Their bare hand instantly over her mouth.
She bit them
They say biting through a finger is like biting through a carrot but Mal’s teeth just caught fleshy, unwashed palm.
“Jesus, Mal,” a familiar voice whisper-yelled.
A cold spray of spittle hit Malia’s cheeks as she turned to see a pained but friendly face. Rosie! She must've been freezing in that T-shirt and jeans, but God, Mal had missed that pink hair.
Rosie, probably realizing the situation hadn't changed and danger was just peeking out the door, looked less relieved. “I've met these guys. They come in pairs so we're going now. Careful but quick.”
There was no path and it was still dark but Rosie knew the way to a cave that went far enough in and around that the wind died whistling at the entrance. The way Malia’s little phone lit the whole place was extraordinary. They had tracked snow in. What did it matter? Safety. Relief. Mal sat down. When they'd last seen each other, Rose was a sobbing mess in wet dinosaur pajamas and now she looked forged by fire; a calm surface with the occasional tick revealing such great fortitude didn't come peacefully. There'd been sacrifice. Hellfire. Of course she had some scorch marks.
Her old friend went to check if they'd been followed.
Mal always put out that vibe, that she was tough, hard. Yeah, hard like an ice cube. And when the fire of tonight came, she melted to an embarrassed mess on the floor.
It was really good to see Rose again.
“I'm really sorry,” Rosie said.
Oh God, was I that obvious? Mal thought. Sure, she was alone. She hadn't started alone but she was now and Rose was smart enough to put the story together. Whatever had happened to her half of the group--she’d seen enough to fill in what had happened in the hours since they'd last seen each other. Malia mumbled, “Thank you,” even now putting on that act so Rose wouldn't see her cry, but hoping a hug was next.
The wind died.
Then Rose said it again. “I'm really, really, really sorry.” But she sounded muffled.
Where was she?
Where was the whistling?
Where was the entrance?
When Malia shined the light over where it had been, it glistened like black ice over asphalt. Or like whatever had grabbed Sunny. Then the sheen dulled and the color changed and if she hadn't known there should be a gaping hole in the wall it'd look like any other.
Still she pounded at it. It was softer than rock should be and grippy. Sticky? But she kept hitting and soon it hurt. Was solid. Scraped up her forearms.
There was no point.
She stepped away. There had to be another exit. Or a weak spot. She couldn't be trapped, not after coming so far, not by Rosie.
Then again the wall changed. It swelled. Morphed. The color a pale peachy sort. And Malia was again looking at her friend, or a giant version of her head sticking out the wall, but without the hair it was uncanny and her cheeks had these deep tunnels drilled into them, large enough for a finger.
“Open the door, Rosie!”
“I didn't do that.”
Malia threw a shoe at the face. What else was there to throw?
“You were always cute when you were mad. I know you hate hearing that but nothing I say is going to make you feel good about what's next.”
Mal said in the voice of a melted ice cube with more empty despair than rage left, “Please let me go.”
“I have to listen. It's inside of me and it hurts so much when I don't listen. It hurt just telling you I was sorry.”
“Should've saved yourself the pain for the fat lot of good it did me.”
“Every wall in this cave. This mountain. The trees. Everything, even me, is part of it. And it wants more. It wants everything.”
A wall behind Malia transformed into a ramp down that went far beyond where the light fell. Maybe it went all the way down. To the heart of this all. From the wet depths, Mal heard an echo. A hollow reverb of someone that had always softened her thin exterior. She'd even talked cute to him, for the brief period they'd been comfortable with one another. Again, bouncing around that rocky corridor came a familiar little bark. Beagsley. Somehow though, it chilled her.
However, another gaping hole probably led to the same fate--Rosie's bullshit-spewing mouth.
"Sunny?" Malia called in a voice stifled by one too many dashed hopes. She knew it couldn't be her. This woman in the shadows, dark skinned, dark haired, had both her hands. Sunny didn't. Not anymore. She'd lost one. She'd lost everything.
Mal needed it to be her.
Needed her to be okay.
Needed that one moment of hope to not let her fall forever.
The woman stumbled forward, not the steps of someone in control. Malia thought maybe she was dealing with frozen feet or too much alcohol, but the woman stepped forward into the light. She had on a batman tee. Sunny hated Batman. So overrated, she used to rant. He's more invulnerable than Superman. When Malia and her had first been snuggly together, the new movies were coming out and everyone saw them but not Sunny. Even on DVD. Glenn put it on once in their apartment and Sunny took Mal to the bedroom even though Mal kind of wanted to see it. This wasn't Sunny. Sunny wouldn't wear that ever.
And as she stepped into the cabin, the whole illusion faded. The skin tone was completely wrong. The features too. Everything was wrong but the most wrong was that shirt, and the way she walked. Like maybe she was hurt.
"You okay?" Mal asked.
"I'm not the ranger or anything. We're actually looking for him, if you've seen him."
The woman was across the room coming for Mal.
"Fuck." Then she screamed, "JIMMY!"
This woman's steps had zero humanity in them, just the animalistic push of instinct, of hunger, of needing to reproduce, of its territory invaded by its next meal and next host.
"JIMMY!" Malia sounded again. Her voice didn't carry well but there had to be something in it that'd reach him despite the wind.
And he did hear something, enough to turn him, then when he heard again to slide his gloves back on and trek back up that slope toward the dark figure on the porch. "Find something?" he asked. His voice carried. Lucky bastard.
But the figure on the porch wasn't Malia. He was a man in shorts, the kind people sleep in, and those legs could've done with a few more squats every night. He had these blue eyes that in the right light might've been charming enough, but tonight, there was nothing behind them. And he came for Jimmy as ferociously as the woman went for Malia, that is to say, not very, just a staggering step as the parasite tried to figure out its new bodies, but Jimmy was a cop. He reacted to it as a threat against his life. His arm was immediately around the man's neck, trying to crumple him to the floor, but the other man stood tall. Kicking the knees, slipping out his foot, applying pressure to sensitive points, and nothing that usually worked on suspects worked now.
He released the man and bolted into the lodge, where Malia was running out. They collided.
As they rose from their tumbled mess, they saw they were surrounded. The batman woman. The gym shorts man. Another blonde woman. Hunter. Tony.
Jimmy fled out the window, the glass cracking around him and its shards slicing deep through his winter layers into his skin. If these things didn't get him, blood loss would. He applied pressure to his neck as he ran and Malia was quick behind him, then ahead because she wasn't woozy from pain, just fueled by adrenaline.
Mal stopped to stare at a light over the ridge accompanied by this screeching, whirling constant chop. The flood light hit them. They had to look through fingers and caught flashes of the helicopter on the edge of the blinding light. A large bucket dangled from it. The light passed by and they waved and yelled, trying to flag it down, but it couldn't hear them. It couldn't see them. Its beam focused solely on the horde behind them. They had to keep running.
Once stopped, Jimmy found it hard to move his legs. Malia dragged him on, but he was too heavy and too sluggish, and she let go.
She didn't make it far.
A figure ahead stopped her.
And just as before when she mistook the Batman woman, she murmured, "Sunny?"
Jimmy stumbled into Malia.
He saw her too. In the dark, missing that hand, it was definitely Sunny and yet, it wasn't.
It crept toward them.
They had to run, but Jimmy couldn't and Malia wouldn't.
Even when Jimmy tried, screaming but getting drowned out by the sound so he might as well have been just stretching his jaw, behind them was the horde. Ahead Sunny. And coming from the trees, Glenn. They could dive off the edge of the mountain and hope to survive in whatever snowball they rolled into.
The chopper passed over head. They didn't think the sound could get louder, but it did. The chop, chop, chop combined with a waterfall as the aerial firefighter dumped its content and then circled around to see it missed Glenn and Sunny and they were still moving.
No one else was.