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.
Thank you for reading.
"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.
The glossy panel door of flat cedar with dark knots to add depth was identical to the other, the one hiding the son, and behind it, in darkness, was a doberman.
"Go ahead," Elyse encouraged Quinn.
With every deep, slow breath Margie took, she groaned through gritted teeth. Her eyes were on Elyse's hands, the rifle, planning how to get it back, but until then she needed Quinn and the others to be smart. On her side. "Don't listen to her."
"It's just a door. It's just a dog."
Their own, Beagsley, was on the couch between Rosie and James. Rosie had hidden under the covers in her current state and James had coaxed Beagsley into rolling over. The big man genuinely smiled when he found that paddle point by a mole on the Beags' belly.
Quinn touched the handle.
There was silence beyond the dark of the door.
"We just want you to root around until you feel safe with us," Elyse said. "Maybe we can get to the bottom of what's got you all so spooked."
Quinn started to twist.
But Margie yelled, "If there's a dog in there, why haven't we heard a sound from him?"
"To be what?" Damion asked.
"A guard dog."
Margie stumbled to her feet. "Shouldn't it be out here then?"
"You folks aren't the danger."
"Did you forget he tackled me?" Damion pointed at James who now cradled Beagsley. His tongue flopped out--the dog's then the man's.
"He's not well-trained."
James gasped playfully and the two shot glances at each other, the glances of a loving couple, and Quinn saw that all, but that instinct she'd had since she was a kid told her not yet. Don't believe them yet. Elyse had that eternal patience of a pediatrician or a kid's favorite teacher, the kind of patience saints aspired to, and even holding the rifle, Quinn felt dissonance.
Elyse said, "I don't know why you all barged in. Why you have a gun. Why there's only one bullet left. But I'd like to know all that you're willing to tell me and maybe help if we can. This gun is useless without that bullet."
Maybe the night had her unfairly on edge and not because of these people. With a deep breath that quelled her nerves, Quinn said, "If I open this, will he attack?" She took that joking tone but it was a real concern.
"She," the doctor said. "Bailey."
"YES!" Margie screamed leaning on the counter. Her forehead banged a cabinet and her raspy breaths filled the room.
Elyse shook her head.
Putting her hand back on the doorknob, Quinn told herself, it was just a dog, Bailey. She knew the danger animals could pose and she knew how to handle them and with Damion and Margie and Rosie and even these strangers, one dog wouldn't kill her. If she could just bring herself to open the door.
Elyse walked over, setting the gun down on the table by the briefcase. "Here." She grabbed the doorknob.
But a childlike whisper stopped her.
"Beagsley, don't you want a friend?" Rosie asked from under the covers. Just a bloodshot eye peeked out.
"Hey, yeah," Damion said getting up as his suspicions did. "Dogs are beasts without restraint."
"Come on now," James said taking that insult for himself.
"Why isn't he sniffing the door? That's what dogs do, right? He's not well-trained."
"See?" Margie shouted, laughing so hard it might've been crying. "See? You don't know what she wants to sic on you. Rose and I know. We've seen it."
Quinn tried to get between the woman and her door, but she had already twisted the knob and flung it open.
Braced for a lunge of fur and fangs, Quinn whirled toward the dark room.
A block of light coming from the main area illuminated the bedroom. In the rectangle, a muscular dog stood. Unlike most doberman, this one was a pale color like a latte. It had a pink nose. White markings. Even its eyes were a pale, icy blue. It stared out. The tail stump did not wag.
"She's a good girl," Elyse said.
At all times, Quinn wanted an eye on the dog. She stepped forward, offering a hand to sniff, but that light pink nose didn't twitch. Its eyes stayed fixed on something out the room. If she wanted to see what had its attention, Quinn would have to look away and she wasn't going to do that.
Elyse reached in to fumble for the lights. They popped on, and most dogs, being used to the gradual reveal of sunrise, might still look at the instant illumination like magic, but this dog had no reaction.
"See?" the doctor said. She stayed by the door but made no concessions to the dog. The usual stuff of scratching behind its ears or squatting down to its level for slobbery kisses some found controversial. No baby talk. "Nothing but the dog. Check the drawers. Under the mattress."
James got up, carefully setting Beagsley on a pillow and giving his ears a good toss. The boy waited for more. But the man was heading for the door as Quinn walked in.
Margie shrieked at him in warning.
The doberman did nothing.
The alarm sent Quinn spinning to see James had stopped, holding his hands up in surrender, trying to explain, "I just don't want the dog getting out. You know how it is. Close the door just a crack."
"Nuh-uh," Quinn said. "You can stand there and catch her if she runs for it, but I'm not getting locked in here."
He sat back down, his eyes and anxieties on the dog.
Margie's alarm had almost drawn enough attention to her for someone to notice she had slid along the wall, ever closer to the kitchen table. Where the briefcase was. Where the rifle was.
As Quinn looked around, giving the dog a wide berth and at least one eye at all times, she noticed the two large beds were untouched. The bedspread was as smooth as an employee might make it when hurrying to do his least favorite part of the job. The four pillows were at the top of the bed. The other bed was the same. And if the son slept in the other room, maybe his parents did, too, but why waste this room on a well-trained dog? Why didn't the dog use the bed if they were available? James's behavior with Beagsley indicated that he was fine with animals on the furniture.
She pulled open the drawers to find nothing in each. The bedside tables had nothing and as far as she could tell, nothing was hidden in any crevasse or secret compartment. She even looked under the mattress as Elyse suggested. No rifle cartridges.
Which was reasonable.
But nothing? Nothing but the pale doberman?
Quinn came out and shrugged. "I think we're safe."
Margie wanted to insist on the other room, but she was closer still to the kitchen table, and another word from her, even another heavy breath, might tip off Elyse.
"Can you close the door?" James asked.
"Light on or off?"
"Doesn't matter," he said hurriedly, just trying to get it closed. "Off is fine."
"Does she like the dark?"
"For sleeping, yeah. But if you think on is better, whatever. Just, please? The door?"
A kitchen chair clattered against the hardwood. Everyone's attention spun on the sound except for James's, never leaving the dog, and they saw Margie's silence had paid off. She had the rifle once more. Damion backed away and Quinn went to block her path, but Elyse shrugged.
She said, "I told you. That thing's useless without the bullet."
"It'd make a pretty good club," Margie said. But her arm was still too weak to lift it, let alone aim, let alone swing, and just as that injury had led to a clumsy grab tipping off the entire house, setting it down, still in her clutches, she knocked over the briefcase. It fell on its side and the flap came undone. A clear plastic container, like the kind you pee in the first week on the job, rolled out and inside was a cicada.
It was so still it might've been dead. It stayed glue to the floor of the container as it spun until the jar stopped.
Quinn slapped her hand on the rifle and Margie was too weak to really do anything about it. She tried. She struggled and the gun shifted around on the table, but Quinn had it pinned until Margie gave up. Margie slumped back over in her corner. Elyse collected the container and stuffed it back in the briefcase, checking the latches to be sure they locked.
"Will someone close the dog in?" James yelled after the commotion settled.
Damion was nearest. He reached in for the handle when a solid rapping at the front door turned his attention. It caught everyone's.
Elyse looked to James; his eyes still waited on Quinn. Neither knew who it could be.
"Police," an authoritative voice shouted through. "We just have some questions maybe y'all can answer for us."
Everyone waited for someone to get the door, or to give that look that said they weren't getting the door, but no one gave the look and no one moved despite the police seeing the lights on through the window and probably hearing the voices talking right until the knock. The sudden silence was suspicious, but maybe not any more suspicious than what they were used to. Police gave most people that reaction, guilty or not.
The police opened the door on their own.
Elyse made an effort with long confident strides to appear like she'd been just about to head to the door when it opened, and she had that cordial smile as she asked, "What can we do for you?"
"Looks like a bit of a party in here," the uninvited man said. He had a ski mask covering his lower face and a hat. His eyes immediately found Margie. "Maybe a bit of a wild one."
"One of us had an accident. Fell down the mountain. It's been a whole night."
After the man came in and pulled down his mask, revealing a beard, his partner came in and Quinn, Damion, and Beagsley especially reacted--his favorite lady with all the treats. Sunny.
"What are all of you doing here?" Sunny asked as stunned as they were and more so when she saw Marge all beaten to hell, slumped over and wild-eyed. "And what the hell happened?"
Her reaction seemed to them alien because they'd been simmering in this all night and she'd only ever gotten the Rose Reports back when everyone thought it was craziness, so unless she'd seen, an explanation would be more craziness.
"Where's Glenn? Malia?" Quinn asked.
"Probably at the car by now. We ran into Jimmy on the way up and split up so they could call for more cops and emergency services."
"Jimmy?" Quinn couldn't believe that. He was in the initial planning but no one wanted him there. Maybe Hunter or Damion had let it slip. And yeah, he recommended the place, but when he couldn't come there was a collective unclenching in the group. Mostly from the women. Most of all, from Sunny.
"How's it going, Q?" Jimmy asked with that stupid grin.
But if he was a cop, he had a gun and that was some protection. "Fine. So questions?"
"Our contact with the ranger's station got cut off."
James interrupted. "Maybe the storm."
"Could be. Could be," Jimmy said.
James was no longer comfortable with Beagsley on the couch, living out dog dad fantasies, but he was up and near the officer at all times. He offered a seat at the kitchen table to the man but in doing so, he had to move the briefcase to the counter, just to give more space to the cop.
"Been firing this?" Jimmy asked, talking about the rifle. "You know it's not hunting season. Or a hunting-designated area. Not even sure there's much up here to hunt."
Quinn came in with the answer. "It was target practice. That was when she got hurt."
"Still illegal. Do any of you have a license for this?"
"Back at our lodge," Sunny said. "Hunter probably has it."
That drew silence in the room as the party focused on that secret tragedy, but Jimmy heard something else in that statement. "This isn't your place?"
"All of us crammed into one another mile up. This must be their place." Sunny motioned to Elyse and James.
"You're not with them?"
"We just met," Elyse answered. "To tend to Maggie's wounds."
"Margie," Damion corrected her.
Jimmy paused. He'd been listening intently. He had to with everything going on, and he made notes in his head as he connected the stories for a good picture of the situation as he saw it. He had that key piece though that really made everything clear. "Mind if I have a look around?" he asked.
"Go ahead," James said. "Nothing to hide." With the group, Elyse had been helpful. Now it was James. "First we should lock the dog up."
Jimmy looked to Beagsley. "Seems harmless."
"The other--" James looked at the open door with the lights still on. It was empty. Pale little Bailey had stepped into the main room.
"Oh! A big girl," Jimmy said and Sunny cooed, too, asking if she was friendly.
There were no more lines about being well-trained. Just James and Elyse watching it step toward the other door and stare.
"She seems curious about what's behind door number two."
"Our son," Elyse said slowly. "He's sleeping."
"Just turned seven."
"Is everything okay between the boy and the dog?" Jimmy caught onto the anxiety, but not the severity of it. "Any reason to put the old girl away?"
Elyse tried to stay composed. "You know dogs. Don't know their own strength. Still thinks she's a lap dog."
"Sure, sure. What do you want me to do?"
Nestled against a glossy pea green wall under one of the seven blankets she started with while the other six with six different designs like plaid and spotted and two-tone reversible were kicked into a mound against the wall because the heater had been turned up and yet, despite the stuffy air, Rosie pinned the blanket over her head.
In all the times they'd come in to check if she was awake or alive, they couldn't get it off. She would, still deep in sleep, curl up tighter. The hole that made visible her face would cinch to give only her nose access to outside.
Rosie opened her eyes.
The hallway light reflected like the sun off the moon from the hall and lit inside the blanket. Just barely.
And the bleariness that always comes after too little sleep.
And the last moments of a dream shaping reality.
Why were there holes in her hand?
A honeycomb of dried flesh.
A weevil, like the kind that flourished in rice left open in a humid cabinet, peeked out with its horn then turned and crawled back inside and the dream crashed away as she could feel every step inside her and how the passage narrowed as it got deeper, how using its chitinous shell it squeezed open a valve to get inside her veins for transport to construct more holes throughout her body. There wasn't just the one. But too many, all with so many legs, chittering.
Roger, after a three-course meal of Funions from the vending machines, returned to Rosie. Sat by her. Waited. Got impatient and, with one hand on her shoulder, sent her into a frenzy as she flung off the cover, banged her head on the top bunk, rose and danced, shrieking as she slapped her hand against every part of her trying to squish what was inside until Roger caught her.
"Stop! Hey! Rose," he called, yelling to be heard over her rising voice, holding her too tight for her to hurt herself further. "It's okay now. Just a dream. Just a terrible, awful, stupid dream. You're okay."
Breathless and in shock, she looked at him till the wishy-washy dreamscope she'd been seeing faded and he stayed. "Roger."
He loosened his hold then let her free completely but she leaned against him.
Her hand was whole. No holes. No dents.
"You okay now?"
"It was so realistic."
"Hate those dreams. What was it?"
She could still feel the march of an army through her, but without the holes, without the weevil, with the knowledge she was awake now, she knew it had to be imagined. "I don't know how to explain exactly. Holes in my skin. Bugs. I had a dozen fucking nightmares that kept waking me up but I can't even remember them after that last one."
"We'll get you some coffee." Roger hugged her, gently this time, and she took some deep breaths. "You can forget all about them now you're in the waking world."
"Yeah, probably won't sleep until we leave tomorrow. Or today, I guess," Rosie said. Then she looked around. At the bunk beds. The pea green walls. The long tiled hallway outside. No wood to be seen. No cramped cabin loaded up with people and decorated by suitcases. "Where are we?"
Groaning as he attempted to explain, Roger said, "You know that large kaleidoscope thingy in Europe that can see black holes or something? It's a research station like that, I guess. Like where Damion worked. Sciency stuff. The lady explained it but I was in over my head so I let the doctors sift through it. Did you know Damion and Quinn are doctors? Technically."
She sat back down on the bed. Tony and all that. That hadn't been part of the nightmares.
She could've cried.
Instead she swore. "Fuck."
But her group had made it through the cold. Damion. Quinn. Roger. Her.
"Where's Beagsley?" she asked.
A soft echo in the hall caught her attention. A jingle.
"Oh, the Beags?"
Again, that jingle jangle. He had to be responding to his name. Shaking his head in the other room to get himself out of sleepy little boyo mode.
Then a door swung open so hard the backside hit the doorstop. He must be excitedly running in, she thought. He's going to leap onto my lap any second.
But the door closed.
And the jingle jangle of what was now obviously keys again sounded and the familiar thunk of a deadbolt and steps and there were Quinn and Damion and a dark skinned woman in a distressed Batman T-shirt and a grape red hijab. She held the deceptive keys.
Rose's sour expression of concern didn't register as Quinn rushed in for the hug.
But Rose needed an answer. "Where is he?" she practically yelled, finding her breath gone without warning.
Quinn let go. "Who?"
"He made it, didn't he?"
Roger shot in. "Yeah! Sorry, oh god, sorry. There was a lot going on. He's fine."
"You idiot." Quinn backhanded his chest. "He's way down the hall, sleeping. With Marwa's... gecko?"
The woman in the Batman shirt spoke up. "Similar. He's an Ackie. A dwarf monitor. Little spotted dragon but he's pretty permanently hibernating so your dog's fine. No fire breathing or anything." She laughed a little, letting it trail off, then clearing her throat and closed-mouth smiling with her cheeks. "How are you feeling?"
"She hit her head pretty hard on the top bunk," Roger said.
"Oooh!" Marwa winced. "I still do that all the time and I know it's there. No blood, right?"
"Good." There was a silence as Marwa waited for someone else to talk but everyone was looking at her and she wasn't great about that and so though it'd only been a few seconds, she said, "Awkward silence." It then became awkward.
Quinn stepped in. "She's the one that saved us."
"Oh, no. No, not me. I mean I brought some hot coffee for whenever you guys woke up but by the time you actually woke up, it'd gotten cold so I threw it out. There's more brewing. If you want some. Do you like coffee? But no, really it was Lenka, the other guy on shift this month. You'll probably see him around. Old South African guy. He's got the accent. White. A bit shy. Sometimes awkward." She threw out a lot for Rose to process and before there could be a response, just a few seconds unbearable for her, she said, "Anyway. Want a tour? I was just showing..." Marwa hesitated with the names and Rose saw the distress on her face, thinking that her shoddy memory insulted the guests. Then she snapped her fingers. "Dr. Quinn, biology woman."
Quinn's smile eased Marwa--a bit.
"And Dan--" she mumbled the second syllable.
"Damion," Quinn corrected her gently.
"I'm so sorry. Damion, Damion, Damion."
Roger leaned over to Rose to whisper, "She's great, isn't she?"
"Can I see Beagsley first?" Rosie requested. The relief let her tears come and Quinn resumed that welcoming hug once again.
"Of course. This way."
Marwa led Quinn and Rosie to the room with a window in the door where Rose stopped at the sight of the pup. Its belly was on a throne of pillows and snoot between its paws, eyes closed, and a fuzzy blanket covering from tail to collar. Honestly, it had to be the most comfortable bed this whole week. Tony always let the good boy sleep with him, but Tony had that restless leg syndrome. He kicked. He turned over. He pulled the blankets up then threw them off. He was under them then on them then flipping them over to sleep on the other side. Whenever the current up of his pillow got too warm, he rotated for the cold side, and Beagsley, smart little boyo that he was, had learned the floor was better.
"I just need a minute then we can look around," Rose said.
When she crept inside, the dog stayed down in its dreams. She scratched behind the floppy ear, in her fervor of smoothing the skin folds to the neck where they piled up, she turned the ear inside out. It had that corn chip smell. Before she turned it back over, the shadow over his ear canal shrank but it wasn't with the light. Rosie didn't notice. The fur was so coarse, not soft, but good for combing her fingers through.
Through it all, the dog opened its eyes, sniffed, then went back.
A little disappointing.
But the boy had survived so much tonight. She didn't need the dog to be his usual loving, barky self. He'd wake up tomorrow and do just that.
Marwa and Quinn stayed outside the room to chat more about the experiments here. They were both biologists. On Orcas, Quinn was the warden of nature, watching it blossom, tasked with preserving it for but also against visitors, and Marwa's experiments sounded the same on a smaller, artificial scale.
"Are you looking for a new job?" Marwa asked. "Wish I could guarantee anything if you apply, if you want, but we're recently in need of two new lab assistant. Pay's pretty good but basically living up here a month at a time."
"After this week, I probably won't be coming back. And I'm not an entomologist. Thanks though."
"Oh, me neither. You might be better suited for expansions here. I'm sure upper-management would be interested in studying the effects on marine life just as much. I mean I specialized in parasites, but here I am."
Just then Rosie walked out and Damion and Roger walked up, Roger with his fourth bag of Funions.
"So!" Marwa announced. "Ready for the tour? This is my first real tour so sorry if it's a bit all over the place." Though it was impromptu, ever since they arrived and woke up just fine, she'd been preparing. She had notes on her tablet.
The line started with her and when they got through this heavy sliding door that Marwa waited for everyone to get through before she sealed and locked, now in a hallway with inches thick glass walls, she walked backward to address Quinn and Damion, the most interested, while Rosie and Roger lagged and lingered looking through the glass on either side of them to the trees with large fronds of complex leaves, curled at the ends, the bark and branches covered in moss. The tall grass. The thick, woody vines. Meters of real dirt that the plant-life had rooted into. The heat and humidity of it seeped out. It even smelled differently in this hall.
Marwa had to talk loudly.
The cicadas had come alive. A cacophony of grating chirps that modulated as the butt of these creatures vibrated. It seemed ever present, but as they took a few steps, it softened. It wasn't a blessing of timing, but of science. Using CRISPR, they had engineered cicadas as often awake as a regular cricket.
Quinn knew the sound. Some species were annual but these weren't. These were the ones she knew, the 17-year Brood X cicadas. Thousands, maybe even millions, all singing together. She'd only been in high school then. The first day of it had been beautiful.
The fifth week, however, she was glad they'd be dead of old age soon.
Now, she was all smiles. For the natural beauty and the science providing it.
The singing drowned out the tour for the two in back. Roger's Funions bag had part of the aluminum inner lining torn but the yellow wrapping held its shape. It was translucent. Could see his fingers reaching in and the prize it pulled out.
When he offered a nibble to Rose, she saw a shadow move. It had antennae.
She hesitated, aghast like any normal person at the sight of a cockroach or anything vaguely shaped like a cockroach, but that long wait only confused Roger so he shook the bag to urge her to take one, shuffling the interior, and the shadow disappeared.
She peered inside.
And the abyss behind the Funions, what they might be hiding inside their greasy depths, she feared it might be one of those international cockroaches that regularly flew and of course it'd fly right into her mouth.
The wait went long enough that she was sure the sounds of the rainforest around her had colored her imagination.
She reached in.
Her fingers were safe. She ate the Funion then took the whole bag from him.
But she felt the weight of something scurry out and buzz toward her ear. She had to drop the bag to defensively windmill her hands and she scratched at her hair, though she felt nothing. Stopped.
The commotion had caught the entire groups attention over the singing. She looked at Roger, who'd been holding the bag yet saw nothing. Then to Quinn and Damion, and finally Marwa. That was the embarrassing one.
"Everything okay?" Marwa asked.
Rosie looked at the walls. If she could find it, she could point and absolve herself of these blushing sins but it wasn't anywhere. And she hadn't seen anything. Nor had Roger. She just had a sound and the sounds were everywhere already. She admitted, "I thought I saw a cockroach."
"I'll make sure to spray. We obviously have to keep traps everywhere but usually our prison's a tough one for them to get out. And they like it there. There's not a lot for them out here so usually they just wander back. But hey, if you don't want to join us inside, totally fine."
Rosie immediately, without processing the offer, said, "No, I'm good."
Then as they went into a locker room and Marwa handed white denim suits with a transparent plexiglass head cages to Quinn, then Damion, even Roger, Rose realized the offer. She was too embarrassed to refuse now.
In their suits, everyone looked identical. The plexiglass masks were transparent but tinted.
After the locker room was a wash station, then through that next heavy sliding door was a buffer zone that lit up red whenever either door was open, and finally, with the door behind closed, Marwa opened the last door to a blast of forest sounds. Red lights above shined throughout. The peaty smell from the hall was stronger than ever. The acid almost burned Damion's first breath. This was not like any lab he'd been in. The creepy crawlies all around disturbed him and when one flew by he backed up, but there was no retreat. The door was sealed.
Marwa twisted a deadbolt. "Don't worry. It's just so the door doesn't accidentally slide open. There are locks on both sides." The red lights turned off. "There are some buddies in here with stingers and pincers and too many legs, but nothing outright dangerous. Last time I was in here, I saw a mama giant centipede curled around her hundred 100-legged babies and it was super gross and I wanted to smash them all to hell, but it was kind of sweet, too. So just try to keep that in mind before squishing anything. There's a trail I always take but it's not as big as it seems so you shouldn't have any problem with finding your way back. If we get separated, find a wall and just follow it around."
Quinn stayed pretty close to Marwa asking questions. "There's nothing but insects, right?"
"Some arachnids. Spiders and ticks. But no mammals, no birds, no lizards. In nature you always have checks and balances till you get to the top of the food chain, but our apex predators are much lower so they tend to overeat and we have to artificially inflate certain species. Otherwise, they'd go extinct."
While those two walked beyond a tree, Roger went on his own, like a kid again fascinated by the little things that also gave him the willies, and Damion disappeared after him, not wanting to be alone, and in doing so, he left Rosie at the entrance.
That dream still bothered her. She could feel everything inside riding her like the subway and it took a lot of mental force to quell those imaginary sensations. They weren't real. They weren't.
But even so, bugs weren't her thing. Who the fuck liked bugs?
She'd wait here, leaning against the door then she realized something might crawl down it and she stepped away.
And it looked like Damion was already back.
"Not your thing either?" she asked.
He was silent. His steps were dragging. There was a low hanging branch and he walked into it letting it press against his head cage until he was beyond and it whipped back shaking a few hornets from it. They landed upon him but maybe with the suit he didn't notice because there was no reaction.
"Damion?" It was him, right? Rose couldn't see beyond the tint of the plexiglass.
He kept coming toward her.
She backed into that door and sure enough her previous worries of something creeping down it were right but right now, she didn't care that a spider was on her shoulder looking for an opening into her suit. She only cared that Damion had been taken. This wasn't him. It was that thing. The thing that wasn't a nightmare. The thing that took Tony.
And she was trapped in here with it.
Fumbling at the door, her gloved hand slipped on the locking mechanism trying to twist the deadbolt but that thing was already behind her. The lock thunked open. Her world went red.
He whispered, "Which one are you?"
The gruff voice had an accent, familiarly Euro-influenced but long ago in its separated and mixed. The humanity in its timbre let her relax. She took her hand off the door.
"Rosie," she mumbled.
"Louder!" he commanded.
"Rosie!" Over the cicada songs, it was hard to be heard.
Marwa with Quinn came running over to see why the door had been unlocked; the red lights had signaled her. "Do you need to leave? Are you feeling ill? A bathroom break?"
"I startled this one," the man said. His voice carried in a way Rose's didn't and he didn't have to shout.
Till the voice, Marwa had only seen two figures. Easily could've been Rosie and Roger or Rosie and Damion. She hadn't expected a sixth in the forest. Her usually chirpy voice sank into polite suspicion. "Why are you in here, Lenka?"
"To relax. But too many now."
The whole group of white denim suits had gathered around Rosie and him. An audience of faceless figures closing in with their backs to the door. She was trapped in her embarrassment.
"How about we move on? Maybe Lenka can show you his area," Marwa said.
She slid the door open for everyone. Lenka went through first and though he was meant to wait for her to close the door before unsealing the next, the room lit up red, the forest's own red light filtering in still. He was in charge of the lab and did not care much for the rigor of safety protocols. He already had his helmet off. His beard was gray and his head bald. Marwa just hurriedly closed her own door without complaint.
In the next wash room, everyone except Lenka took a shower in the bug suits to get off any buddies that were too attached. The itsy bitsy spider looking for a home on Rosie was washed out and never seen again after he fell into the pipe.
As Damion took his suit to hang up and dry next to the others, Roger stopped him. He reached for Damion's eye like he had a stray eyelash or something, but then Roger said, "How'd you not notice this thing?"
"What is it?" Damion asked.
Rosie saw it was a round lump. A fly had been caught in his eye and squished. She stifled her sound of being grossed out, which distracted Roger, and when he turned back, Damion's eye was clear.
It must have fallen.
Been washed down the drain, like the spider.
Except no one was running the water.
Only Rosie paid it any attention, looking for the pellet under their boot soles, finding nothing before everyone left.
The main locker room was a four way intersection. The north door went to that glass hallway. The east door went to the forest they'd just been in so it was logical to assume the west went to the other forested area.
"What's different about that side?" Quinn asked.
Quinn could still hear the sounds through their door, but the west side seemed quieter. Silent actually. Maybe that was the difference.
Lenka went through the south door.
"Hey, would you want to show them your lab? We stopped the filtration process for a reason, right?"
"It was your idea."
"Yeah, sure, of course, but I'm not really up to date on my neutrino... anything."
His wrinkles deepened. He relented. "Fine."
He walked through the door without them and Marwa excused him, saying, "He's shy."
With one tour guide gone and their replacement less friendly, they entered to the south. Equipment lined the walls with metrics and read-outs and a computer with four screens: center, sides, and one above in portrait mode.
He pressed a button labeled down by the door on the far side.
Machinery cranked to life and a cog turned. He waited for silence from the machine, then opened it and went through.
He did it all wordlessly. By "shy," Marwa had maybe meant "an asshole."
The group followed, missing Marwa, even Roger and Rosie who hadn't understood the purpose of this place. And in the new room, Lenka was gone. But they heard him shout, "Are all of you capable of climbing a ladder?" It was coming from a hatch in the floor and he was already down a few dozen rungs.
It led to a dim room as large as it was deep, a hundred feet across and another hundred down, empty but for bubbles on the cylindrical wall, even the ceiling and floor. They glowed faintly. These photosensitive tubes were underground and below a mountain to shield them from radiation. Only what came from the sun and supernovas was allowed in, but evidence of those particles was rare. It took this multi-hundred million-dollar chamber and years of monitoring for one instance.
A caged ladder reached down to the floor.
Only Damion knew what this was. "A neutrino detector? Here? When? How?"
The delight was such that he wanted to skip Roger and Rosie. If they would not hurry, he might kick them off. He urged Rosie with sharp impatient words and a body that vibrated in excitement, giving Quinn that little panic that someone might fall. Quinn was struggling with the ladder. The height. The way it swayed. The metallic echoes of their footsteps. How much more was there?
But Rosie made it fine and felt for the floor with her foot. Her foot got wet.
The last few feet of the chamber were flooded with purified water.
Roger said, "I think you got a leak."
Damion explained since their guide would not. "Normally the whole chamber is filled with water. Must be 40,000 tons. 50 maybe? Clear, pure water. It has a refractive index of 1.3. Lets light particles go farther than air."
Lenka was in an inflatable raft, maybe big enough for the group, but he was too far to let anyone in. "A teacher. Great."
"I worked at CERN," Damion said in a huff. "But looks like your purifier's broken."
The water was dark, but only in one spot, and it wasn't from the dark behind the plastic bubbles. It wasn't a shadow. It wasn't pollution. It was solid.
And it was moving.
Quinn had the best view of it from so high up. She saw it snaking toward them and she took off, her foot slipping as she hurried but that only spurred her faster. She screamed, "Back up!"
The ooze came for them.
They were too slow up the ladder. Rosie had to wait for so many people. She was doomed.
It reached the first rung.
Damion was screaming, "Go!" Quinn stepped on his fingers and he caught himself on the outer cage.
Like a plant growing up a lattice, it weaved through the rungs and the cage and it was going faster than them and only Rosie had a view of it now.
It was just below
At her feet.
Without question, it'd take her like it took Tony. With no hope, she let go. It'd catch her, but she'd be off the ladder. And the rest would get that much more time.
Her head wanged the cage on the fall and when she hit the water blood spilled out. Everything went black.
The thing had passed her.
Quinn could only look up as she went, yelling as she heard the splash, but no one responded so she had to look through the bars in the cage.
Damion didn't look. He only knew Quinn was ahead and going too slow, getting distracted, getting them all caught, and Roger was below punching the shoes the lab had given Damion. But this time, when Roger reached up for the next rung, he instead grabbed Damion's ankle.
"Let go!" Damion screamed.
They were the last words of Roger that were his and he yelled them again but Damion knew what was next. The light went out from Roger's eyes and he let go of Damion's ankle. Damion didn't question it. He kicked Roger's face. Broke his nose. Crunched his fingers. Let him fall into the water as well.
That thing could go after Rosie. Damion had saved Quinn.
Whose final journey do you follow?
When Tony knocked on the door, what did the group do?
Margie and Colby ran off after encountering Tony. Who did you follow?
Who went to help Sunny after she slid down the mountain?