Chapter 5 (01111)

It wasn’t enough to strangle the guards purple; the tentacles constricted on their necks letting the friction tear away the skin till blood dripped down their collars and then a wave of it, all at once, as the artery popped and then the trachea and esophagus, and all that was left was bone, scarred. Rose tossed them against a wall. With the muscle gone, with the ligaments gone, the heads rolled off.


They died silent.


Damion did not.


His wail echoed long after Colby stopped spraying and had enough time to regret his choice. Not regret, but that icky feeling almost like it where there was no good choice. The doubt as he watched Rose.


Her arms were still goo. Tentacles dragging at her side as she turned on Colby.


Dooley had said this thing had one shot in it before reloading. But how did he reload? Colby’s hands flew at every knob and button and try as he might, when he aimed at Rose striding toward him, Roger hanging off her back in an attempt to anchor her from attacking their friend next, pulling the trigger did nothing.


He backed up.


Damion rolled against Colby’s leg and he whipped around to see the dying man’s skin bubble, burst and beneath, glistening strands that went white and crusty.


If he stopped now, soon he’d be in range of Rose.


Stepping away from his crime and from his executioner, Colby tripped over Quinn’s corpse. The cause of all this.


“Stay back!” Marwa screamed.


And Rose fell to her knees.


“We’ve never talked but I like you, Rose, I do. Quinn told me so much about you and you’ve got great hair but I’m not going to let you bring her back.”


“I know,” she replied. Her arms shrank to a normal length and the color returned to her pale skin tone.




Damion had finally stopped screaming. Maybe he was dead. Maybe he was almost dead. But he was definitely quiet and so was the room.


Rose got up. Her eyes were tearful.


She started toward Roger. He flinched and she stopped. She looked at Colby, who looked away. Marwa was taking a moment to pray.


In a whisper loud enough that everyone heard but quiet enough they could pretend they hadn’t, Rosie said, “Guess no one else needs a hug.”


She stayed away, near the guards that had killed Quinn under the Gunny’s orders.


With Lenka disappeared down that uninviting ramp made of sticky black goo, the roof looking like it might drip any second, Colby and Roger eyed each other unsure what to do next and neither wanted to break the silence with what they really wanted. Maybe if they argued for going after the Gunny who disappeared into the research base when Rose went wild, and after a rudimentary failed search, they could leave. But in admitting that, perhaps, the other might scream honest accusations, taking up Quinn’s role in the group. No one said anything. No one would have protested. However, Quinn would have and that lingering ghost of her kept them from chickening out.


“I’ll go… do something to him. I don’t know what but leave him to me,” Rose said.


No one joined in. More so, no one tried to stop her.


“That’s fine,” she said. “I’m already lost so if I can at least distract them long enough for you to run--just put up an urn for me somewhere.” She tried laughing at it. “Something bright. Fill it with cookies if you want.”


No one laughed with her.


“Thank you,” Colby said.


With permission like that, the choice was easy. He started for the door when Marwa grabbed the acid spraying backpack by the shoulder strap. It spun off Colby as she said, “I’m going with her so I think I’ll need this more than you boys.”


There was a brief clench and tug on the other shoulder strap from Colby. “What about us?”


“You’re free to go, but maybe run the other way this time. They’re all headed here, I’m guessing, so you should be fine.” Her small, lithe frame had the muscle definition of someone fit from fighting a desk job with veggie soups and long hikes and the occasional late night dancing in private and that backpack weighed a good bit--a third of her? More like half? But she swung it on like no problem then her fingers went to work on reloading it in a way that watching, Colby couldn’t understand. “Try to get out safely.”


She marched ahead of Rose down into the darkness, while Rose looked back at her friends leaving through the door. Roger peered over his shoulder one last time, their eyes meeting through the glass, and he couldn’t bear to look anymore. It looked like Rose now, but it couldn’t be. He left. When she was alone, she chased after Marwa. She seemed to know what she was doing.




Deep in the cave, Rose flinched at a familiar but unexpected threat echoing behind them. She remembered those early days traveling through Europe. Americans, especially white ones, don’t realize this because they’ve romanticized the motherland but a lot of Europe is a shithole with shithole cars that backfire. In countries where guns aren’t really a thing, locals don’t think to react. Rose did, though. Three months in, she’d reach for the phone to report a shooting like she was back in Memphis, the suburbs that crime  rarely crept into but it did enough that she’d been taught what to do.


Marwa stopped at the first sound, but now as they rang out in-sync with her footsteps, she ignored them. There were a lot to ignore until Rose asked, “Why do the monsters have guns now? They’ve got claws and regeneration and mind control and now they have guns?”


“But don’t you think that’s a bit less scary than without them?”


“I don’t know. I’m not bulletproof.”




“Is that why you’re so confident walking ahead?” Rose had noticed early in their journey down here, walking, now talking, killing the silence and fighting back dread, that Marwa hadn’t looked back once, no gawking, no suspicious eyes, and Rose liked her a lot from that little bit of trust. She wasn’t aligned with those military murderers either. “Don’t worry. It’s fine. Make sure this isn’t a suicide mission for you.”


For once, the good doctor looked back. “For you either.”


They continued on and the shots were so close now. But Marwa didn’t react still. Maybe she was right. It was a bit less scary to have goo beasts possessing their friends with assault rifles.


Or an assault rifle.


With it so close, Rose heard that it was a single gun that needed reloading every so often, a pause in the cacophony chasing after them. And she thought maybe it wasn’t a dead soldier with his hand stuck on the trigger, but someone else fighting back, and if there was another ally in this fight, she wanted to meet them.


Around the corner, Rose regretted that wish.


Her arms stretched to the floor as the rage in her triggered.


“Hold,” the Gunny commanded her two soldiers. Or maybe it was to Rose. She didn’t listen. Her black gooey tentacles expanding to the size of elephant feet slammed the Gunny into the wall. It hurt but once pinned, she showed no resistance. She stared down Rose, always in command, even now.


Rose’s arms were turning white.


It took little effort for the Gunny to break through the flaky web surrounding her. What had killed the soldiers, what had killed all of Rose’s friends but the two living and Quinn--the Gunny had done that--and now she walked out of it like it was nothing.


“What are you?” Rose said.


The Gunny replied, “Human. Unlike you. But this...” She held up with gloved hands her military rifle and fired into the wall. The wall, like Rose, had been black and was slowly crumbling where the bullets hit. “This is our last chance. It’s a special rifle whipped up in secret in case we had a severe outbreak like tonight. It’s certainly more effective than expected, but now that we’re in the heart of the mountain, nothing’s a secret so might as well.” She fired more. “It fires special acid rounds. But about what you’re wondering, it’s covered in that same acid. So sorry about your fingers.”  


“I’m our last chance at taking on these things!”


“You? You’re a sleeper agent. And that acid sprayer is for single-case containment. This thing here that I’m holding--this is our last chance and it’s not a good one.” The Gunny let out some frustration firing into the wall, turning the tunnel into this flaky crust that fell around them. She stepped away when the white spread near her feet. “But don’t worry. That much won’t kill you. Might sting. I’m not sure since I don’t know how human your nervous system still is.”


Rose reared up like she was about to knock the rifle away and strangle the woman.


“Stop, Rose!” One of the two grunts barked at her but the voice was--


“Roger?” When he took a few steps towards her but not enough to be near, she could finally see him in the dim of the tunnel, which meant the other one keeping even more distance was... “No! Why didn’t you escape?”


“Ran into her,” Colby said, refusing eye contact. “She asked us to come along.”


“Why?” Rose screamed, flaring up again with her elephant arms. White and crusty or not, enough force would smash that murderer. Not just Quinn but bringing these two along to march unarmed into a boss battle.


“I’ve got plenty of silver bullets. Enough for Lenka and his army and hell, I’ve been testing them on the walls. I will use one on you.”


Marwa answered from behind, “Distractions.”


Rose had to look, too. It was instinct. Someone talks, you look at them. She wasn’t a soldier taught to keep her eye on the enemy. She was human, whatever was inside; at the core she was human, curious, easily distracted. She looked. And behind her, Marwa was aiming that acid sprayer right at Rose.


“I always gave us the nicknames Spray & Pray, as a little joke. In times of danger, I go to the gun. You go to Allah,” the Gunny commented. “But I think, Dr. Ebeid, that nickname’s all yours now.”


There was no regret in Marwa’s eyes as she saw the emotions cycle through extremes in Rose, only to settle on fury, and when she did, Marwa should’ve felt comfort in making the correct assessment. She’d been right. Rose was a danger. But now, the decision felt wrong. As Rose prepared to retaliate, Marwa let the nozzle of the sprayer drop to the floor.


Given the choice between saving his new friend and letting his long-time friend do as she please, Roger reached behind him and the Gunny had to.


The old soldier fired into the back of Rose.


The bullet stopped inside to rot through her. It was quicker than what Damion got. The two women, the soldier and the doctor, saw each other through the opening in Rose’s chest. They saw the decision they hadn’t made on the other side and neither was sure of theirs, but it was done and there was nothing left to do about it but to go to the next.


And the one who had forced her into acting sooner than anticipated, Roger, got the Gunny’s hand at his throat, the glove laced in acid that bit into his skin. It’d leave a mark. The top layer would fall off in time. It’d never feel right. It’d never look right. No one would ever see, though, since no one was making it out of here tonight.


When there was enough fear in him, she shoved him over. A puff of dust came off the crusty floor he fell onto. He scurried off it before it fell out from under him.


The Gunny stood over Rose in her final moments. “You were always part of the plan. We couldn’t march in there with you, waiting for you to turn. He’d give the command and you’d kill. The threats first, quickly, and if you weren’t dead yet, the boys, slowly, so Lenka could watch with quiet sadistic glee. And if it hadn’t been me, then the doctor. Maybe she wouldn’t defend herself but when you turned on me, when you turned on the boys, she would not hesitate. She knows better than that.”


“Touching,” an echo called out from the cave. It was like a loudspeaker, but better quality than any mechanical one. The South African accent was perfectly intact. “But whatever--”


Gunfire interrupted, poking holes in the wall. “You like that?” she screamed over the sound of her rifle emptying its magazine.


His sigh was audible. “You think I’m sentimental? Fire away. It will survive. I let you continue with your little secret because I knew it could, ultimately, do nothing for you as you are about to see.”


The Gunny fired more regardless. “You think you’re some mastermind but you didn’t plan for everything. Didn’t count on James and Elyse.”


“They weren’t worth the effort, and yet, their discovering my experiments ahead of schedule and fleeing only served me further. They’ve turned a failure of an experiment into a contingency plan.”


Having reloaded, she continued. The whole of the tunnel they stood in had gone white and crusty. There was no standing elsewhere, especially if the others didn’t want to cross her line of sight, but it seemed to be holding. She needed to reload once more.


“As I was saying, whatever glee you accuse me of has long run out. So here. Let me help.”


The black webbing that made up most of the tunnel dripped away and only the white shell the Gunny had made in venting her frustration was left suspended in the sunlight coming through the opening in the mountain peak above. And their platform started to crumble around them.


They watched the ceiling peel away to get a view of these creatures climbing down the opening of the mountain.


One fell.


It crushed a corner of their platform and continued the fifty feet to the heart of the mountain. Another fell, taking Rose’s shredded corpse with it. They thought a rain of bodies would break the floor out from under them, but the single leg supporting them crumbled first.




The floor had begun devouring Colby’s arm up to the elbow, his knees to the shin and mid-thigh, and only when it sucked down his lips and he had trouble breathing did Colby come to. He tried pulling away. His nose was still open but he’d always been a mouth-breather; there was comfort in it. Crusty blood-boogers dry-frozen all week were about as bad as the floor and he needed freedom, but his neck didn’t have the strength, the leverage, or the range of motion to tear off his lips.


Roger rolled onto his back. He was free. But his head hurt like a mother and he couldn’t see straight. Marwa had one leg sucked into the floor all the way to the butt but worse than that, the floor had eaten up half the nozzle of the acid sprayer.


The Gunny, though, was fine and on her feet, staring down a mob of zombies. Behind them, Lenka. Staring.


They both were.


Not shooting.


Not getting shot.


The acid-laced rifle had been swallowed up, leaving a tunnel of white leading to possibly the core of the Earth.


“Oops,” Lenka said. “Seems those fumblings you meant as your strategies have all failed.”


Then a few pellets rang out and the wall went white from where Roger had missed, but he only needed to hit once and Lenka’s dumb, bald head had been split like Rose’s heart.




When Colby and Roger had gotten permission to flee from the research base, they’d unexpectedly run into the Gunny. She had told them, “We need you. Both, even just one, if you’re willing.”


She handed them pistols with their own special ammo.


“Whatever you do, don’t pull these out until it’s time.”




It had been time. And Roger had done it. He was a shitty shot but he’d done it.


The mountain heaved like Tony the morning after a bender, ready to vomit it all up. The floor surged and the walls rattled around, dripping like the ceiling and when a zombie got pinned under the black goo, they all melded together.


“We did it,” he exclaimed breathlessly.


“The doctor did,” the Gunny said.


The entire time, Marwa had been pulling the trigger, reloading the pressure until she had pumped every remaining milliliter of acid directly into the heart of the mountain. White spread across the floor, under their feet, and it crumbled away when the remaining bodies that’d been climbing the skylight started raining down only to dissolve and slip through the weave. She pulled her leg out and at the ankle, where her skin had been exposed to the acid, she suffered a skin melting burn. Such a sacrifice was necessary.  


Colby, too, could finally break free, a slight tingle to his lips and legs, and upon being able to, he exercised them by running laps about the room looking for the exit but there was none.


The other three gathered at the center. They had accepted this was where it ended. Marwa and even the Gunny whispered quietly, “In shaa Allah” as the world melted around them. Whatever happened, this was it.


Their crusty raft had the melting mountain run off it into a black ocean that swept Colby away in the waves toward the horizon till that town a few miles over, but being at the center of it, the raft stayed motionless. It almost seemed safe here. Chaotic, loud, but maybe safe, Roger, ever hopeful, thought.


The dark waters went silent. They stopped moving. They’d run their course and had spread as far as they would.


Then beneath their feet, it started to gurgle like a drain.


The waters snapped back, dragging in trees and loose skis and people they’d never seen get swallowed by the drain beneath them and their raft kicked up and spun all around, making Marwa very sick, and then a pickup truck with stupid lifted suspensions so you had to climb in by a ladder came slamming into their raft, cracking it to pieces. The truck, the pieces of raft, and the three survivors went down, down, down.


The End

Chapter 5 (01110)

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 wept.


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?”


“I’m fine.”


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.”



Chapter 5 (02011)

The soft, pleading bark of her favorite fuzzball echoed on the webbed ramp. The journey was, as Malia imagined, like traipsing through a bloody crime scene and Mal was missing a shoe. The near-congealed floor soaked warmth into her sock while it suckled at the rubber boot sole till there was a film on each foot and every step was just returning home to recoat and overall it made the descent quiet. She tried not to look too closely at the walls narrowing on her, the ceiling sloping faster than the floors. She could feel it.


If there’d be any victory or pride tonight, it’d be saving Beagsley.


He’d been the highlight of this trip to the mountains. Everyone scoffing about bringing a pup to the frozen wilderness, but Tony assured them the little mascot would keep them safe and he had. Chasing away squirrels and snowflakes. The shadows. He’d done his damnedest. Now it was her turn.


The bark came again.


“I’m coming.”


She heard other noises, too. Rustling in the wall. The sound of liquid rushing through. Gulps. Shuffling footsteps behind her. But when she turned, there was no one and nowhere to hide. She had enough insecurities before tonight that she knew not to trust the lies in her mind.


When she came to an intersection, however, she paused to peek around. No one. And no sign post, written in ink or blood, leading her to her goal.


“Say something, boy,” she called quiet enough that if someone were there, they wouldn’t hear.


She heard them, though. Those gulps, again. Three directions to go and behind and it came from all of them, sticking in her mind the image of Sunny dislodging her jaw to swallow the dog whole, the skin of her cheeks tearing to reveal thick black connecting strands beneath the skin stretching till they were thin and Mal could see the fearful dog go down trembling. And afterwards, another gulp.


Another lie in her mind.


It had to be.


She assured herself it was when suddenly, Beagsley cried out in a prolonged panicked whimper and Mal froze till the dog went silent. It had come from the right.


It was dark down that hall. Ahead, behind, to the right, all dark.


To the left, light. A little. A child’s plug-in nightlight lighting the way. And the way echoes worked, it was possible… She convinced herself to go left.


The halls branched again. She saw two lit passages. She chose one. She hurried now. No more hesitant steps or peeking round the bend, but power-walking, and when at a corner Beagsley cried out again, this wild pained wailing coming from ahead, she ran the other way.


It was too late for him.


It wasn’t for her.




Faster she went. Running now. Not stopping to look at each intersection, just going for the quietest lit path and booking it.


She almost tripped over herself trying to stop.


Almost tripped over him.


Beagsley, lying on the floor, head between his paws, ears flopped on the sticky surface. Eyelids open except that third gross one dogs have when they’re sleeping. Dreaming.


The poor boy was having a nightmare. She almost abandoned him over a nightmare.


“I’m so glad I finally found you,” she whispered hugging him. He almost bit her. But the quiet scent of humanity on her, and the strong stench of fear, told him he could trust her and the bared teeth opened so he could lick her cheek.






She sprinted away. She left a trail of footprints in the floor and almost tripped at the corner but caught the wall with her shoulder. The Beags took the impact, too. There was no time to coo apologies to him. This wasn’t Christmas feast prep where he got treats after a crushed tail more often than the from clumsy fingers. This was a dead sprint out of here because if she stopped, Sunny would get her. Them.


Before, there were constant four-way intersections; now, everything diverged into Ts then forks and then a straight, long, unending corridor and there were no more breadcrumbs to follow. The footprints she’d pounded into the floor had smoothed out. The lights only pointed behind her and to follow it would lead her into the dislocated jaws of that thing and thus she could only run the spectrum of darkness till there was no wall or floor visible and--god, please no more turns. Her nose could not take more crashes.




But she couldn’t slow down.


She could only go as fast as her feet took her.


She tried going faster.


And she tripped.


Beagsley flew out of her arms.


Mal stayed down catching her breath and feeling the floor cling to her cheek. It was warm. She could melt into it if she just let go and let sleep finally come. God knew she needed it after the normal nights awake till sunrise then everyone banging about for breakfast while she tried napping on the couch.




When her eyes popped open, though, she got up and fled faster than even before.


She ran back toward Sunny, because how long since she’d seen it in that form? She ran away from Glenn, who was right there, missing the skin on his hand. And with her arms unburdened, she could really go.


She came upon the intersections again. The forks. The Ts. The four-ways. And she didn’t remember which she’d taken to lose Sunny and so she guessed. The chances she’d guess the same as before had to be slim to none in this anthill labyrinth. She needed to find an outside wall. Going down would just lead her further and the lowest possible floor was hell, but there was a ceiling to this place. The mountain didn’t rise forever. If she went up, if she went straight, eventually she would find something to claw through.


Instead, she found another straight, long, unending corridor.


Instead, she found Beagsley, just lying there. The curly fur on his underbelly was stuck to the floor.


Lifting him, she felt her fingers sink into the goo clinging to him. There must have been a lot because, like earlier when she tripped, she could feel the possibility of melting. It was freaking her out enough that she stopped moving to wipe off a layer, but when she flipped him over, him an obedient boy in her hand that did nothing to resist being cradled, his fur was curly and clean. No sludge. No goo. Nothing on her fingers either.


She set him down.


And ran.


But in these winding halls, whether they split, whether she took the path untraveled, they led back to Beagsley. Off she’d go again. Three times. Four times. More. Knowing it was useless, she would not stop.


Until finally, he was done with this game.


Having run till her sweat soaked through her shirt and the back of hers hands were black with eyeliner, she saw him once again on the floor waiting for her but behind him was a wall and behind her was another.


He leaped into her arms. They could’ve melted into him giving him a belly rub, but instead, a tendril slipped out and dug very painlessly into her gut and wrapped itself around a rib. Nothing had ever touched her bones before. She did not know they could feel. But the rib it wrapped itself around and the one above and below that were glanced felt every sticky, pulsating sensation of that tendril.





She was ready.


After Beagsley steered her through the the corridors, after she saw them shift in front of her at his will, after many, many steps when they reached an outer wall that opened to the dazzling mid-afternoon sun glancing off the melting ice crystals, Malia was ready.


She stepped right up to that threshold between the light and darkness and took a deep breath. Then she yanked at the tendril inserted into her gut. It went a few inches before snagging on her rib but she pulled still even if it’d snap the bone out too. The hold she had on it went soft and it was soaked around her hands. The flesh on her palms tore off. The skin was so thin you could study physiology. But still she persisted. Beagsley hung at her knees, then dipped into the floor, then there was slack piling around him coil by coil and there was so much pain inside her, but Mal with a grunt ripped that final wriggling inch out. It came with a pump of blood and the blood kept oozing but slowly after that initial burst and Mal let it so it’d wash out every drop of that parasite.


With the dog at her feet, still in the dark where the overhead sun didn’t cut into, she walked out and it didn’t follow.


For whatever reason, she was free.




Blood loss made her dizzy weak. There was a trail leading right to her.


And the thing tracking her by it was so loud, this chopping, inhuman thing moving so fast that there would be no escape and so when she collapsed, she let them take her.




She woke up connected to an IV drip of blood. That chopping sound still suffocating her louder than ever. The light was dim. Her shirt had been cut away. The cold air of the high altitude stung her skin. And a man in a face mask and headset looming over her put a lot of pressure on her stomach.


She couldn’t move her neck, but she saw out the door the blades whirling about. She’d never been in a helicopter before.


Then blocking her view outside was Roger.


He was chattering furiously at her but she couldn’t understand most of it, still being woozy and also the loudness and he didn’t get it until the medic stitching her gut said something and Roger reached for the other guy’s headset but he shook him off and so he leaned real close and screamed at Mal and her head hurt but she was so glad. Even after Rosie, she was so glad.


He was asking about her side of the story and telling his about this doctor they’d met and these soldiers and he didn’t say anything about the others but she understood in the way his jubilance surged when he got to the part where they met.


Malia sat up. The medic didn’t want her to and she had to undo some straps but she did.


They were flying over the ski resort just a few peaks over. It was packed at this hour. Happy dots slaloming and tumbling and on their butts and just generally unaware of what was probably still coming for them. Every one of them, the bright dots to the dark ones, they were a threat. The medic was. The pilot was. Even Roger now that she could think about it was.


“And look,” he yelled. He opened the backpack. “Must be going deaf in this thing but don’t worry, buddy, we’ll land soon.”


Mal grabbed the backpack and jumped out. Her and Beagsley plummeted back to the mountain.


The End

Chapter 5 (01011)

At the front door, Rose fixed her eyes on the final barrier, painted white on this side and green on the other, not even a deadbolt engaged. Margie backed up until she bumped into her friend, who jumped with a squeak of panic, but the two said nothing and Margie watched the boy hold Quinn’s quivering hand for any sign that he might go back on his word.


Rose reached for the door.


They looked back.


She twisted the knob.


They looked back.


The door cracked open letting in winter’s wind.


They looked back.


Rose stepped outside.


Margie looked back and saw the boy pull Quinn toward his room, and she gave them a final smile, glad some of them were getting away.




After everything, they just walked away and they were fine. Physically.


Margie immediately moved out of her co-op and into an apartment but there were too many people she didn’t know.


“It’s only been a month,” Rose said as Margie packed up the essentials. The non-essentials were still in boxes.


Rose wasn’t much for chores, but she could order her friend pizzas in exchange for a place to stay.  The doorbell was the only reason Margie got up anymore. Never for a knock, though. The terms of their living arrangement went unspoken and some days it seemed like Margie wasn’t even aware of it. She threw her toothbrush into a box of unwashed dishes and taped it up.


There was no talking Margie down anymore so she found a place near a cornfield, flat open land that, for the season, she could see the “neighboring” suburb small on the horizon. A few days there and Rose could see Margie getting suspicious at the window. Beneath the guise of morning power-walking moms who had already thrown their kids on the bus, Margie knew what lurked.


After years of the life slowly killing her, she started trading stocks again, just for herself, getting into Bitcoin. The GPUs hummed as they heated the newly installed panic room. Margie lived in there. The electric buzz kept her thoughts from wandering.


Rose talked about it a lot in therapy. And a lot about what happened. In full detail. She’d been diagnosed and prescribed something she only fulfilled because her psychiatrist was going to refuse to see her otherwise but she never even looked at the bottle because it wasn’t true.


Therapy wasn’t helping yet. It might never.


But it was something to do.


She wanted so desperately for Margie to come in, once, to try. She refused. Margie was too busy. Too busy to sleep or clean up or even shower most days. She had abandoned all routine and when they talked, the few times they talked, sweet, gentle Margie had become angry. Quietly so.


A tornado came one night, nothing serious, the power didn’t even go out, but Rose hadn’t grown up with them and so she did what the news said. Go to the unfurnished basement and sit outside Margie’s panic room. It was too loud and stuffy in there for Rose.


“Did you hear that?” she asked listening to the news on her phone.


Margie hadn’t even heard Rose.


“We’re down here till 5 am.”


Margie tabbed to a spreadsheet and entered some red numbers after a transaction had processed. There wasn’t much to do between transactions but to wait, to refresh. She could’ve browsed the news or YouTube or listened to music to pass the time, but instead her eyes stayed dryly on the screen, watching the live update, not trusting them and refreshing anyway.


“I guess you’re always down here till then anyway.”


Upstairs, not that Margie ever saw, Rose had packed a bag. All her belongings. A few shirts that might’ve been Margie’s but she wasn’t sure and opted toward getting more use out of them than her friend. If not for the tornado, tonight she would’ve left.


The power cut out. The lights went. The whir of the GPUs slowed before silence. The basement was lit only by Rose’s phone that searched for a cell tower that wasn’t functioning.


Margie waited.


The power stayed off.


“Get the breaker.”


There was a threat in there but Rose didn’t want to find out what it was. She also didn’t want to ask where the breaker was, having never had a home or this problem come up, but she found it by the light of her screen and she flipped the big one and nothing happened so she switched all the small ones and nothing happened and she switched them all back and nothing happened and she was afraid to admit it.




The next day, Margie went out to buy a backup generator because overnight delivery would take too long but she never bought it. She never even got into the store or out of her own neighborhood.


Instead, she turned around and caught Rose about to leave for therapy, one last session before leaving.


“We have to go,” Margie said.


“Your favorite concert in town or something?” Rose asked.


In the bedroom, Rose found her packing a bag. There wasn’t much in it other than her wallet, pants, and a coat.




Rose’s heart sank. She went over to Margie to hug her but got shoved off. “Hey, I see her too sometimes. All of them. But it’s been months, Marge. My therapist says--”


“Fuck your therapist.”


“Then the panic room! That’s what it’s there for, right?”


“I shouldn’t have wasted time coming here.”


Rose grabbed the key from the counter. The look in Margie’s eye as she strode toward Rose with a silent demand terrified her enough to bolt for the panic room herself.


Using the spare key, Margie drove away.




On I-72, going about a hundred in silence because there was no traffic in the Midwest and even the cops she passed expected this behavior on empty roads. It was the end of the month. They’d met their quota already. They didn’t stop Margie. Nothing could.


The bluetooth kicked on as a call rang in. She wasn’t going to turn around and there was no reason to answer if Rose was going to grovel or lecture or whatever she wanted, but when the third call came, each immediately following rejection, Margie accepted and screamed, “WHAT?”


There was deep breathing and a familiar whir of GPUs in the panic room. “Why didn’t we stay?


Through the receiver, Margie heard a knock.


“Why didn’t we do something?”


A knock.


Margie said, “We did all we could--we ran.”


A knock then mechanisms of a vault lock clicking through and the hinges of a door opening. The call ended. There was silence in the car again.



Chapter 5 (01010)

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.


He waited.




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.


Quinn stared.


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.




“Go home.”


“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.



Chapter 5 (01101)

This dinky lock wouldn’t hold. It was the same kind Glenn and Sunny’s parents had when they were kids and during their many fights when Glenn locked himself in his room, Sunny could barge through without a bruise other than the ones she gave her brother for how he treated her books. Sunny loved pristine spines. Glenn cracked them so the covers touched. If a pre-teen book nerd could get through the lock, there was no safety here.


Blood dripped from the soaked bandage running to the crotch between Glenn’s fingers. The pungent iron liquid soaked into their pant legs. It wasn’t a big puddle, but any puddle of his sister’s blood was too much and he pressed more firmly on the ax wound and she winced. She needed a new bandage, not more pressure.


Colby reached for her mouth till she shot him a look. He put his hand down.


The man wandering about the porch had come inside.


And yet there were still footsteps outside. More than a pair. Too many to count. All of them flooding into this ranger’s station and if the three locked in the bedroom could smell the blood--Sunny had accepted their fate.


There it was.


The knock.


Colby and Glenn held their breath. They hadn’t had time to barricade themselves and stay stealthed.


That knock, though, a light headbutt--it wanted a reaction. If they threw their backs to the door now, it’d hear their swishy coats. It’d hear their backs slam the other side of the wooden door. It’d know.


It knocked again.


It knew.


Hiding place blown, the three rushed to the door. Sunny and Colby sat against it, letting their weight and legs be the brace, but Glenn worked out. Maybe he’d put on a few pounds but in his tennis days, he’d go to the gym with all the football bros to hit the squat rack and after they all got in good together, a few of them even in his French Lit classes, sometimes they’d go drinking and it’d get wild and they’d have these toxically masculine competitions--in those days, Glenn could push a truck. Maybe not now, but he was still strong. He’d hold that door, however many of them came at the other side and he could feel it when they joined up, he could hear the dinky lock pop out the jamb, but still he’d hold that door.


Till his foot slipped in Sunny’s blood.


He stepped out of it and the door inched open but when he got his feet right, it slammed one of those things’ finger. It fell. Colby chucked it in the corner.


However, Glenn’s boot sole was slicked now.


The hoard outside shoved. They were pushing the three back. More fingers came through the crack.


Any second now, the door would be open.


But the pushing stopped. The fingers disappeared out the crack. Even the finger Colby had thrown into the corner inched past them like a worm with business and disappeared underneath the door.


The door slammed back into position and the three took no time to wonder as they skidded the bookcase, the bed, and the computer desk with all its wires stretched to their limits and the router getting dragged off the shelf. They pressed themselves up against the furniture wherever they could. Round 2 was coming. They had to be ready.




They were as ready as they could be. Sunny’s arm had stopped bleeding and been wrapped up. Glenn had his ax. Colby hadn’t figured out how to reload the pressure on the ice sprayer but maybe it could be an intimidation tactic.


They weren’t ready for nothing, however.


After long enough, Colby started pulling the furniture away till Glenn opened his mouth to protest but they’d sworn silence and he could only gesture wildly, his nylon coat screaming for him.  


“Let him,” Sunny said. If they were doomed, she’d rather know than die waiting.


“It could be a trick.”


“Little brother, they’re mindless goo. If they could trick us, they deserve the win.”


Glenn let his ax drop and Colby continued moving away the barricade. Doing it solo, so slow, made it more agonizing for Glenn. After each book was pulled from the case so Colby could handle it alone, Glenn expected the creatures outside would renew their assault and he clenched after each like it was a countdown and he never knew when zero was, and when the bookcase finally scraped the floors, wobbling corner-to-corner, Glenn still couldn’t breathe with the door closed. They were on the other side. He knew it. They had to be.


Colby looked to him one last time.


He shook his head.


Outside their room, it was empty.




The break of day over the mountain shined long shadows through the room that Colby crept through, peeking over the counter of knocked over safety brochures.


It really was as empty as it sounded.


Glenn stayed back. He didn’t trust it.


The footsteps outside held so much trepidation in how they creaked, trying to sneak but the floorboards groaning at the extra weight Colby placed on them crouched over. But in time, confidence came. He walked around like normal. Normal footsteps. Walking upright. None of that dragging the boot those things did.


The twins argued as Sunny tried to go have a look. She used words. He shook his head and widened his eyes and held her hand pleadingly.


When all of the sudden, Colby’s steps stopped.


Glenn went even quieter, even shushing his sister, determined not to go out there. They waited for a signal.


There wasn’t one for a long time, then they heard the floorboards outside, not in the station, but outside on the porch creak again like when Colby had been crouched over.


It was a trap, Glenn knew it, and when Colby yelled in, “You have to see this,” Glenn almost didn’t go.


He had his phone out. He had his phone on. Colby was taking photos with low battery.


The snowy mountain was speckled and the specks were moving. An army of soldiers marched up the mountain. An army of skiers, many with one or even two, sometimes broken skis, had joined them. Morning hikers. Animals. There seemed too many of them and they all marched up the mountain on an impossibly steep path and they’d climb and they’d tumble back and take a few down with them but they’d start up again and keep going, right under the station’s porch even.


Maybe they weren’t the prey currently, but what were they to do? Wander into the parade and hope those things stayed so single-minded? There was still no escape.


Sunny asked, “Doesn’t the mountain look different? The peek never looked like that.”


The top had collapsed, gone flat, almost concave like there was a hole in it.


Before they could discuss it, a horror that demanded attention tore up the sky with its spinning blades but the masses marching on the mountain paid it no mind. Only the three looked up. A rope dropped down and a soldier yelled but it became noise under the helicopter.


Colby took the rope first and the wench reeled him upward and once up there, the soldier from the tent, Dooley, said it was good to see he’d made it and Colby could’ve responded telling the crew about Sunny’s arm and how it’d be difficult to hold on but he didn’t think of it and when the rope lowered, she held onto her brother who had his arm around her as well and they clung to the rope together. Dooley helped the twins into the main body of the chopper, first her, then him, and then he had that stunned moment of seeing something off but not knowing what before he realized she needed actual first aid, not a rag tied to her arm. He prepped everything but ultimately, the doctor did it herself.


“Where’s the Gunny?” Colby asked.


The helicopter passed over a peak but the peak fell away. The pilot checked the altitude. They weren’t climbing. The peak went black. The whole mountain did. Wet and viscous but less so every second as it flattened and then like a flood, it stretched far through the lands.


“Doing that,” Dooley answered.


The sea of black receded to its source, crashing at the drain.



It was an election year. The mountain disappearing got lost in that. No cover up. No conspiracy. Just the news. New scandals everyday and the mountain never said anything racist or sexist or anything so after a week of discussion on Reddit, Twitter, the very memory of the mountain disappeared as the actual mountain had. There wasn’t even a Wikipedia page for it.


Sunny started physical therapy come spring and since it was at the hospital, just a different floor, she started working again, too. Stuck with giving check-ups. Charts were digital. She carried around a tablet that slid into docks with keyboards around the hospital and she’d always been a hunt & peck kind of gal. The few handwritten tasks left, she used her left hand, non-dominant, and while it was a slow, considered act to write that way, nurses and pharmacists commented on how much more legible it was.


Her first patient of the day was a gray-haired woman with a sore throat and self-described “goldenrod sputum.” She knew all the nurses. The receptionist already had April’s appointment on the schedule, the 23rd, exactly four weeks away. Her wild weekend plans. She was quite old and maybe quite lonely.


Sunny took a look. It’d take a minute to listen, another to check it out, a third to suggest something over the counter. Sunny spent a full fifteen with her instead, talking before examining anything.


The woman, Barbara, was worried her dog gave her this cold. This little dachshund. She had pictures on her phone. Chubby thing.


“You know how we call them wiener dogs?” On a rolling, swiveling stool, Sunny went from one end of the room to the other by pushing off the cabinets. “Across the pond, the Brits call them ‘sausage dogs.’ Crazy, isn’t it?”


“There was a time,” Barbara interrupted herself with laughing then coughing. “Right after university, when I could afford to go to Great Britain or buy a new red sports car.”


“Please tell me you traveled.”


“I did. From the highlands in Scotland in this city called Inverness to this town in the south of England, Salisbury. You’re thinking the steak, right? But it’s actually famous for being quite near Stonehenge.”


“I’m so glad you went.”


“From the north to the south of the British Isle, in my new red sports car.”


Sunny had a great laugh at that and the woman before her had a much younger smile as she played out that roadtrip in her mind.


“Stonehenge, very overrated, if you ask me. Look it up on the internet nowadays and it’s good as making the trip yourself.”


“I actually saw it before. I did a year in France--I agree. Overrated.” The conversation seemed to get to a lull and Sunny reminded herself there was a schedule to stick to, patients in the waiting room, and Barbara had a good girl to get home to. “How about we take a look at what’s bothering you?”


Barbara opened up.


It was dark in her mouth. Even angling her chin toward the light, it was dark. When Sunny shined the flashlight inside, the muscles around her old silver-capped teeth twitched and writhed and lept out at Sunny. She fell off the stool.


Barbara apologized, “I swear I brushed this morning.”


“Just lost my balance,” Sunny said. She laughed it off. “It’s this arm. Skiing accident--involving an ax. Ugly business.”




She took lunch at 10 am. Her phone went off from a text while picking through her salad for the chicken. It was Glenn.


“How about this weekend?” he asked.


Glenn probably thought she was typing up a novel of plans as he watched the dots, but what killed her about this arm wasn’t writing with pens or typing on keyboards or even putting in her stethoscope, but texting. Autocorrect couldn’t save her. “Already,” Getting to that question mark was an impossible task.


His reply came immediately. Show off. “We said more often.”


“Knlyy been a mknth,” she sent after several worse tries.


Glenn called. “How sad is your life that a month is often?”


She crunched the salad already in her mouth right in his ear. Then put the phone down and on speaker so she could keep eating. “Think Colby would want to join us? I didn’t realize till--I didn’t realize he lived in New York.”


“Maybe we can surprise him.”


“That’s probably the only way we’re dragging him out. He’s been dodging my calls.”


“You call him and not your own brother?”




When they hung up, Glenn noticed the new part-timer he hired had been waiting quietly at the door. She’d been there most of the call, lingering but not wanting to interrupt. Swathy went to SHG, the parochial school a town over, about 45 minutes on the bus, despite being Hindu because they had the best education in the area. She always showed up to the Inn in her uniform, khakis and a purple polo shirt (vaguely their school colors). The customers really liked her at the front desk, as a personality, but there were an increased number of calls about overcharging after they were sure they got a discount and one couple had stayed a week but only got charged for a night, and Glenn dealt with the problems if the person left a message stating what it was and who it was. The regulars kept asking when he’d be back at work.


From the doorway, she stammered, “Could you--if you’re done, that is, could you show me how to do the vacation-time request again?”


“You’re taking time off?”


“Just a day. In three months. That’s enough advance notice, right? For my mom’s birthday, she wants to go to Disney so if I get the Friday off, I’m not scheduled for that weekend, or well, that schedule’s not out but I don’t work on the weekend, so--she’s paying! So…” Swathy was great with customers, but a bit nervous with Glenn either because he was an authority figure or because he had skulked around in back since hiring her. She hadn’t even interviewed. He put out that he needed help at the front desk and she was the first application he saw. When they first met, she had finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird and so Boo Radley was already on her mind. “That’s okay, right?”


“Of course,” he said. “Anytime you need it. I know company policy says you only get a couple weeks of vacation time, but since I’m the one enforcing that policy, there’s a lot of wiggle room if you need it. Just ask.”




“I’ll be back here if you need me.” He opened In Search of Lost Time, a novel he was assigned in college and gotten an A on his term paper about it and he had opened it many times but never finished.


Swathy opened her mouth but if it meant interrupting his reading, she couldn’t bring herself to remind him that she needed help with the vacation request form on the computer. She was a smart girl. She’d figure it out herself.




The twins found Colby’s place in the suburbs. It never struck them that he’d have a place here. The big adventurer came home to two-stories, working streetlights, and trash collection Tuesdays. All his neighbors had fences and so did he. They almost suspected he had secreted away a family in there.


They knocked.


Sunny stepped back to get a look while they waited. A light on the second floor cut out.


Any second now, he’d be down.


Maybe he was naked and that was what took so long.


It was getting awkward waiting this long with the hairy neighbor dad mowing shirtless.


Glenn tried the bell.


Sunny tried her phone.


There was no answer and no explanation.




Colby had locked himself in the closet. This wasn’t the first time. It was routine. Whenever a package came or Jehovah’s Witnesses or some company that scammed kids into selling their shit for shitty prizes, he compulsively checked the reddit threads about the mountain, some of which he started, cross-posting with pictures and insider information and a lot of silence from others. There were no new comments. He tried Twitter. Instagram had several notifications.


It’d been a month since he posted and sometimes the notifications were likes or even comments from someone on another site reposting his NatGeo stuff and actually linking his profile. That used to be a rare bit of good luck.


Now he hated it.


The followers, the likes, even the comments--


It had made the news that Russia and Macedonia were peddling fake news via Facebook and Twitter, spamming social media with bots. They exploited both sides. One was more susceptible. There were whole threads of bots responding to one another like a stupid, but believably so conversation. Even on Reddit, a guy posted a link to a thread he started years ago that made r/all so he remembered the attention from it quite well and even snippets of that momentary internet fame. He linked that thread again, several years later, because recently on r/all someone else posted the exact same topic with the exact same title, which happens. People love fake internet points. But the top level comments were also identical to the ones on his old thread and even conversations within those comment threads were identical but with different usernames. It was all bots recreating his old post for...for… why?


So when he saw these new likes, new comments, new followers on Instagram, which was full of bots that nobody seemed to care about, just as Google Play Store was, just as Yelp was, he didn’t know if they were real people.


Eventually, Sunny and Glenn gave up and left.




With that half of the day a bust, the twins went back to their hometown.


“Let’s hit up Luke’s!” Sunny suggested. It was the best diner coffee in their town of 500. They loved it as kids and during university breaks, it was like a ritual for them. They even knew the owner back then. The regulars, the friendly ones at least, would get up off their stools to hug the two, ask them about what they were studying, Sunny’s lacrosse team, dating, their majors, their futures, if Glenn was going to be a teacher--“No,” he’d always answer firmly.


When had Sunny last been? Too long.


When had Glenn? Even before coming back from the mountain, he hadn’t had time.


None of the several customers got off their stools when the door jingled closed behind the twins.  


Sunny got really excited, though, seeing a server bringing someone a plate of fries with a burger buried beneath. “Is that Cassie Dan--” She cleared her throat. She had read the woman’s name tag, Jessica. It wasn’t the high school buddy she had thought.


The woman Sunny had mistaken as a friend caught them standing at the entrance looking around. “It’s seat yourself! I’ll bring you menus in a minute.”


The more Sunny stared, the more it looked like Cass. She almost had to ask if Cassie, or rather Jessica was going by her middle name now or something, she was that sure of it. Sunny sat down.


Part of the old ritual, for Sunny anyway, was ordering breakfast food for lunch or dinner and burgers for breakfast. The Lumberjack Special. It was an item not on the menu, but part of the secret menu. She’d get a short stack, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, toast just dripping, hash browns and she didn’t like half the food, which was good because it was a lot of food, so she’d dump half on Glenn’s plate and he’d eat anything then she’d pick at whatever he’d ordered. He mixed it up more than she did.


“Know what you want?” the server asked, pouring complementary coffee.


They used to never have to ask Sunny. It’d been a while, though. Even Glenn had to look at the menus. They had reprinted them and all the old doodles were gone. He’d made a few of them as a teen and a lot during college.


“We’ll need a minute,” Glenn said.


Looking around, Glenn didn’t recognize anyone. He lived in this tiny town. He worked in it. And no one was familiar.


“See something you like?” Sunny said with a wink. Maybe she’d see her brother work that old charm today and pick up a sexy local that hadn’t gotten wise to his bullshit yet.


Glenn shook his head. “No.”


He kept looking around and Sunny did, too. She really didn’t know anyone. She thought she did with a few, like Cass--Jessica, but when they caught her staring, they didn’t say anything. They stared back.


“You?” he returned the question to her.


She was one of the few black people in this town and they had forgotten her? That couldn’t be right. The population of this town was so incestuous, generations and generations living here. They wouldn’t be forgotten so easily..


“Want to get out of here?”


They left without taking their coffee cups to the front like they were supposed to.



Chapter 5 (01100)

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?


And yet…


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.




It knew.


The sound rang off the mirror and died in the drain.


He waited.




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.”


“Feet first.”


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.


“Me too.”


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?


1. Crack his sternum with it

2. Get in the car and drive away, together

Chapter 5 (01001)

Bailey strolled into the boy’s dark room without a look to Damion, who’d been nominated to open the door despite his protests. Her steps were slow and measured and a bit tentative. She stopped at the threshold of where the overhead light extended. Everyone stared, transfixed, awaiting her next step or a noise or anything.  


Jimmy unzipped his backpack.


A bit nervous to scooch toward the kitchen table with the rifle, Margie kept her eye on Elyse but the doctor had too much focus on a specific cabinet to notice. Her focus was, in fact, distracting to Margie, and to James, who watched from the couch. He had set down Beagsley next to Rose, still peeking out under her blanket.


A boy, about 7, with shaggy hair full of static, stepped out from the darkness, dragging Bailey by a two-armed headlock-hug till they were outside the door. Bailey bowed her head as the boy plopped on the ground and used the pup as a pillow with fine, ticklish fur that bristled against him as he rubbed his face letting her warm scent send him back to sleep.


“Why all the secrecy?” Margie snapped.


“What secrecy?” Elyse said with a laugh at the absurd accusation. “Am I being secretive about the secrecy now? We just wanted him to sleep and you never know with kids, if they’ll see a dog and think pillow or playground.” At the cabinet she’d been so intent on, she pulled out a tin canister to put a pot of coffee on for the officer. “How do you take it?”


“More sugar than beans,” Jimmy said warmly, but then his demeanor changed as he looked at the kid. “Elyse, is this really how you want to do this?”


“I could put on tea instead.”


He shook his head, then approached the boy. “Howdy, pardner,” he said in an exaggerated drawl. “Sawry to wake ya, but mind if I have a little lookie-loo around yer room?” He tried handing the boy his sheriff’s badge, not a star but shiny enough.


The kid didn’t let off the dog. His arms were absorbed in the fur.


“How about a super jump, pal?” Back to his normal voice, Jimmy offered both hands, ready to fling the kid toward the ceiling. He wanted the dog and the boy to separate, if they even still could. “Bet you could smash a light if we try hard enough.”


“Maybe don’t get him riled up,” Elyse said.


“Not like he has school in the morning.”


The boy stared down Jimmy.


“He could be cranky.”


Jimmy’s hand was in his bag when a black tentacle wrapped around his arm, constricting at the elbow till it broke and it dragged the empty hand out of the bag letting something heavy drop to the bottom and before he could use his other hand, not that there was much risk of that with the paralysis of pain, another tentacle shot out and stretched his arms around, trying to touch his wrists together behind his back. First his joints, then his muscles under shirt buttons popped. A scream roiled in his throat.




It let loose only once a third tentacle speared him from behind, striking a kidney, working its way deeper inside till its imprint was visible on his belly. It did not rip that flesh open. Instead it tore through farther north and using his clavicle as a hold, it dragged him back to the darkness. The door slammed shut. The dog stayed on guard.


Margie, close but too injured, dove for the bag and landed at the feet of the one who swiped it away at her fingertips--Elyse. She grabbed her about the knee and it threw off her balance and both were on the floor, the rifle bullet clattering out of her pocket, and the wrestling went on till one accidentally well-aimed kick to Margie’s bruised hip released her clutch on Elyse. The doctor scrambled away, gripping the bag.


Beagsley, riled by action that didn’t terrify him to the core, barked nonstop.


“The hell are you two doing?” Quinn yelled.


Bark, bark.


“You wouldn’t understand,” the boy’s mother said.


Bark, bark.


“Even if that were your kid, you wouldn’t let him steal Skittles at the impulse aisle and you’re doing nothing after he kills people?”


Bark, bark.


“SHUT UP!” Margie screamed at the dog.


The wall standing tall between Sunny and Damion and the fight was James. To take him on, a much bigger man who’d already tackled Damion upon entering, meant turning their backs to the dog and the door and they wanted a watchful eye for when that thing emerged.


Quinn took up the fight against Elyse, two doctors battling it out, shoving one another up against the kitchen cabinets so hard the plates inside jangled as they jostled, a chair getting rocked by a stray knee, and ultimately ending with tug-of-war on the bag--Quinn holding a strap trying to tear it open so the contents popped out and Elyse wanting the bag sealed.


It only ended there because Margie had loaded the rifle with the final bullet that had tumbled out of Elyse’s pocket in their scuffle and now the barrel aimed at the doctor.


James was finally ready to act. “Give them the bag.”




The door popped open to everyone’s surprise, so much so that Margie’s finger almost pulled an end to Elyse’s life. Damion, being so close to the door, got yanked by an ankle inward then Rose stood up suddenly and attracted attention her way. Her blanket still drifted to the couch, over Beagsley, who had shut up again, by the time she was disappeared. The dark of the room lifted enough that when the three were visible again, they were lined up like action figures arranged by heights against the wall. And the boy, just a boy, strolled out but around him crawling along the floor were tentacles looking for more things to play with.


Elyse ripped the bag from Quinn.


“You’ll hurt yourself,” she whispered but then she set the canister covered in warning labels on the counter as she opened the coffee tin and pulled out two syringes.


James took one and the dog apparently remembered it somewhere in what remained of her mind because it started to backup toward the boy, who hugged it, perhaps for comfort, his or the dog’s, but the effect was that of a vet tech keeping it still for the scary shot.


The couple injected their two loves, the boy and the dog, who went limp on the floor.


They were a puddle of limbs and fur.


Then that puddle darkened and melded together and spread along the wood and ran into the cracks and the wood, too, lost its solid shape and color and then it wasn’t just the two and around the two but everything around the surviving party. The walls went wet. The ceiling dripped.


A cabinet trickled onto the canister from Jimmy’s backpack and James reached into the goo to free it, in the process ripping off patches of skin on his knuckles that the goo desperately wanted. The cabinets had no bottoms and their contents, plates and a box of donuts, clattered to the ground. Ceramic shards and coffee crumb-top bits everywhere. But those, too, melted into the black.


Quinn grabbed Margie before rushing out the door, right behind Sunny and the Beags, and it closed from above behind them as the whole cabin was lost, running down the mountain slope.


They breathed deep taking in the night around them. It was dark. A dry spot in the snow where the cabin had once been and a trail showed the path of where it’d gone.


No one knew what had happened and so they didn’t know what to say or do now.


Then rising from the trees, a giant fist the size of the living room came slamming down giving Quinn just enough time to shove Margie out of its path. Quinn had no such savior. She was crushed, and when the fist lifted, her corpse was stuck to the bottom, slowly receding inside.


Sunny retreated for the treeline slightly uphill. Margie wanted to run and hide, too, but the wounds from the mountain slide had opened up and there just wasn’t anything left inside her. No energy. No hope.


Then the hand reached through the trees, snapping them off, adding leafy, splintered spears to its sticky mass and as its fingers curled around Sunny, they pierced her dead before she too was absorbed into its biomass.


The monstrous thing planted both hands down on either side to lift the rest of its body from the depths. Its head emerged for the first time. A cloak of snow and trees surrounded the twisted but vaguely dog-like face. It leaned over, looming, getting closer, opening wide its corkscrew snout so there was no light around Margie. The wind stopped. Every sound but her own sobbing stopped. The stuffy, too warm air inside its beak had her clawing at her skin, letting chipped fingernails dig into open wounds to relieve the itch.


All she had was this useless rifle and one bullet.


It was useless but she tried anyway.


She aimed at where it’s uvula might’ve been.


Then a wheezing squeal sent a hurricane gust around her and the monster reeled back only to come pounding down on Margie. The butt of the gun dislocated her last good shoulder.


She was squashed beneath the behemoth.


But as it melted away, the puddle flushing down the slope, leaving a trail of undigested friends, in the shade of a crusty white shell of its form that then collapsed.


Margie was alive, but dying.


In its death rattle, it had thrown James and Elyse into the trees. She was killed by the fall, the sudden snap of her neck against the ground, and he was impaled on so many branches that were not instant nor painless. He’d drip to death.


He deserved a quick death. They had killed it.


Using the canister of sulfuric acid from Jimmy’s bag, they had killed that amalgamation of their two loves, their greatest fears, and an experiment done without permission gone wrong that they did not have the resources or the time to fix. They had been complicit as it spread its death through the mountain and as he dangled there dying, James hoped that was enough to get at least her into a peaceful rest. It wasn’t her fault.


Margie saw him hanging up there and, aiming the rifle, she gave him the merciful quickness he deserved. .


Beagsley ran over. He was untouched through it all. He stopped at Sunny’s corpse then Quinn then came at the pained sound of Margie. He stepped in her blood.


“You did it, boy,” she whispered.


Her eyelids fluttered closed.


Nestled in her lap, Beagsley kept her awake a moment longer.


She took in the surroundings, finding comfort in the dead staying dead.


The pup hopped off her lap. He’d survive. A skier, a hiker, the police, someone would find him as he wandered down the mountain. She heard his little paws crunch the snow.


Then while clinging to that final thought, she heard dragging footsteps follow the dog.



Chapter 5 (01000)

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.”



Chapter 5 (00001)

The alarm bell rang behind sealed metal doors, a single extended klaxon that faded to the background till it was overtaken by a soft, slow, beating rhythm.


Coming through the glass to the Amazon on either side, red lights whirled in time with Roger’s face-flattening tempo to light the eerily silent halls. He’d never get through that door and if he did, there was another to beat through, but he’d try. The cicadas’ swelling from before had broken against the glass, doing nothing to break the glass, and with the energy dispersed, had they given up? Gone silent? Back into hibernation at the sound of the bell? Had the flies and the bees landed, letting their buzzing wings rest? Had the itch of the long-horned beetle finally been satiated that it no longer grated against the bark? Where was the imperceptible march of ants? They hadn’t heard it before, no one had, but they knew it was gone. Where was the noise that filled this hall? Why was it only Roger?


Quinn slammed Marwa against the glass. “WHAT DO YOU DO HERE?”


And the tiny, chirpy voice that Marwa could not stop no matter her emotional state said, “I live here.”


“Your cutesy shit’s not working on me anymore.”


The parasitologist’s eyes darted to the hyperventilating yet somehow still calmer Damion then to the empty trail behind them. “Lenka,” she whispered then grabbed at Quinn’s sleeves, who shoved her against the glass when Marwa yelled out, “Let me see your hand!”


After bringing the four friends and their dog out of the blizzard, they’d given them fluids via an IV. Damion held up his hand. There was no bruise. No needle mark. Damion didn’t know about the IV. He thought his perfectly fine hand was good news.


“Explain,” Quinn demanded.




During her early days in the lab when it was still summer, Marwa was examining seven tarantulas. There was something amusing about that number to her. Seven spiders, eight legs. Amusingly almost in her mind. Her subjects were easy to find and easy to catch in their own silk-laden burrows and they had a lot of legs that splayed out to the size of a dinner plate, so for her task, as unsavory as she found the hairy demons, the tarantula was perfect. She severed a leg.


It crunched unexpectedly beneath the scalpel.


The thing flailed in its pen, throwing needle-like hairs, and she yanked her arm out and somewhere in the scuffle, the terrarium clattered to the ground, the lid popping off. It didn’t run. It didn’t limp. The fall had killed it. She moved on.


She had a few mishaps where she’d let the barbed hairs catch her. There’d be a rash in the morning, but she probably deserved that for testing them only to fail. By the seventh, she’d gotten use to the crunch. No more dead tarantulas, but they’d all be terminated now.


There’d be no cruelty in throwing them back into the experiment, each with a missing leg and a bald spot on its belly--the hairs and the legs would regenerate as if by magic when they molted next and these were young, healthy specimens, but their numbers had to be culled.


She had a lot of least favorite parts in this experiment: the sudden defensive posture when she prepped the tarantula with a pen, the glistening eyes that seemed like bubbles about to pop as they watched everything, the bristly hairs as they petted her hand tenderly--each part somehow worse than the last and yet all occupied the bottom ranking in her mind, but in truth, they were tied for second from the bottom and the true bottom was throwing them in the chipper.


It liquefied them.


Supposedly, it was instant and humane, but while she waited, while the machine hummed to life, she could hear the six scream and their pleas and she didn’t want them to live but she also didn’t want to kill them.


Till this job she had never juiced an orange, but now she was a connoisseur of recently ambulatory juice. This smoothie didn’t have the same texture to it as usual. None of the same lumps and hairs sticking out. It was smooth. It was dark. It moved on its own.


She left it sealed in the juicer with a smile.


With the six hosts dead, she returned to the remaining whole tarantula, the first, the dead from the fall. Its terrarium lid was still popped off and set on the counter and the cloudy plastic container was empty.


She took in the room, the floor, the walls trying to find this thing. Perhaps under the cart she had pushed the seven terrariums on. It had three shelves and she flipped it over to check, prepared for it to leap out at her in revenge, but it wasn’t there and the noise of the metal cart clanging on the tile did not draw it out. Perhaps behind a jar on the counter or perhaps it had pulled a cabinet door ajar. Perhaps even on her lab coat that, when she thought of the improbable possibility, she whipped off.


The door was closed and there was no escape that way, not even for this thing, though paranoia got her imagination on how a MacGyver-enough monster might be able to pull it off with just the tools in this room--there were a few loose paper clips after all.


But no.


The hairy thing had crawled along the crown molding till it was at the clock, testing it with one of its eight legs.


She pulled the alarm. The door locked tight. Only a trained professional with the proper code could open it now. She’d have to wait for the Gunny with her equipment. The alarm panicked the spider so it tried attaching itself to the clock, letting there be multiple minute hands but instead, with no grip on the smooth glass cover, it fell from a height that should have killed it again, but it was fine. It scurried to a corner using only two of its legs. It was still getting use to this body.


The bright red lights whirling around, sounding so viciously, were all the applause Marwa needed.




“You’re infected,” Marwa said. “Lenka must have done it. Or maybe you came in this way, but if we don’t get you a cure soon, it’s going to take hold.”


Quinn softened her hold of the doctor against the glass.


“What happens then?” Damion asked.


“I don’t want to have to do that.” She put her hand on Quinn’s cheek then let it drop. “Follow me.”


She led them to an office where they snatched a ring of twenty keys out of a desk, itself locked but Marwa had that key on her, and then they were back in the locker room before the rainforest. She slid off a slew of keys that fell to the bench bolted to the floor. Each had been taped with a number in sharpie corresponding to a locker.


“Start opening them.”


In the distance, Roger pounded away. The squishiness of his knocks, of his face against the metal, had changed, and Quinn didn’t want to imagine that, but the sound was drowned out when Quinn and Damion each grabbed a handful of shaped, jingling nickel silver and jammed up the handle to open each locker. The aluminum door banged and rang against the neighbor. The first locker Quinn opened had sweat-stewed gym clothes including boxer-briefs wadded up.


Damion’s was full of journals and notes. He started flipping through when Quinn knocked it away. “What are we even looking for?”


“It should be in a--a--I think she kept it in a blue gym bag.” The doctor spun open locks by combination, as if she’d memorized them all one lonely night. “There’s this metal canister of acid and like an old CD case with syringes inside.”


There was a black bag in one of Quinn’s. She checked knowing Marwa might be wrong about the color, but no.


With each failed locker, a key was chucked to the corner. After several more, Quinn felt the countdown. She felt that thing that’d taken Tony in her veins. She felt any second could be the moment her vision went far and out and she was locked in a cage behind her own eyes, watching horrible things her body would do to Damion, to Marwa, to people she wouldn’t know. “Where is it?” she screamed.


Marwa said, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s on the other side.”




Marwa ran out the room. She didn’t need the keys. They heard the metal door to the other locker room slide--then close.


Quinn turned around.


It wasn’t the door to the other locker room, but the one to theirs. It’d been so close and there was so much interference--Roger, the lockers, the panic--she hadn’t noticed.


Marwa had locked them inside.


“Hey!” Quinn ran to the door to pound on it, though there was no amount of fury that’d summon the strength to knock it over, while Damion continued with the lockers. In his mind, it didn’t matter if Marwa had taken precautions so long as they found the cure.


“Locker 66,” she said through the door.


It was blue while the rest were beige. It’d been on Marwa’s side. Quinn had the key. She opened it.


“I’m sorry.”


Inside, there was a series of canisters with the same warning labels.


Fuming sulfuric acid




Oxidizing Agent


There was no blue bag. No syringes. There was no cure.




“I’m not infected,” Damion yelled again.


They’d been in there for half an hour but to them it felt so much longer. Every heartbeat seemed a minute. Quinn’s face had gotten swollen from crying after she finally let go of whatever hope this place and Marwa had given her.


He kept yelling. “How can I prove it to you? There’s not a mark on me. I’ll stay in here a week and you’ll have definitive proof. You’ll owe me an apology!”


“When you arrived...” Marwa’s voice was raspy from tears too. She didn’t like this any more than them. “When you arrived, Lenka put an IV on you to replenish your fluids. You’d have a bruise, but you don’t even have a bandage.”


“So that’s your proof? Lack of proof is not proof! Maybe he lied. Maybe he said he was giving us the IV but didn’t.”


“I saw you hooked up to it, Damion.” 


Quinn sprung up from the floor.  “I have a bruise!” Not on her hand or the crotch of her elbow. She was tugging up her pant-leg from where she wanged her shin on a bed corner last week.


“Show me,” Marwa asked, getting as hopeful, as excited. “In the forest. Through the glass. Show me and I swear I’ll owe you everything in apology.”


Which leg was it? She couldn’t remember. Not the left.


Not the right.


“It’s faded already.”


Marwa was already at the glass and hadn’t heard. After waiting for the shower room door to spin unlock, click, and slide open which had to be done manually in this state of emergency, then waiting for the next door to the buffer zone, then the final door to the jungle, Quinn had to admit it again.


“It’s not there.”


“It’s the light! The red is making it all blend together,” Marwa offered. “Look harder.”


But even pressing on it, Quinn felt nothing but despair.


Marwa put up a hand to the glass. She wanted to reach out. To let Quinn know she wasn’t alone in this and that at the end, she wouldn’t be alone.


Quinn left with Marwa’s hand lingering.


Back in the locker room, Damion had set the acid canisters on the bench before him. And he’d found a purple tube in someone’s locker. It had the cap off. A fountain pen. “You want to see a bruise--” He pricked his fingertip.


In the jungle, at the glass, he drew in blood a smiley of victory.


But Marwa’s face didn’t change. “A minor wound will take some time. Much less than an ordinary person’s but still, hours. That was why we were even researching all of this till it got out of hand.” She went quiet as she took a breath, leading up to this next part, feeling it heavy inside her. “I didn’t want to say this, but if you have all the information, it’s your choice to decide.”


Another breath as Damion waited behind his bloody smiley.


“A serious wound could--would trigger it. Something life threatening.”


The pen still in hand, he looked to it, then to his empty hand, then he slammed the two together and the pen struck his wrist.


Marwa had expected some discussion. Hesitation. Thought. But he just did it and the window was smeared red as he stumbled from queasiness. He vomited on a flower.


Hearing the scream, Quinn came running. “What did you--”


“See? Still human.”


“Let us out now so you can wrap him up!”


Marwa shrank where she stood.


“Hurry! He’s going to bleed out!”


“We don’t know that you’re…”


They both looked at the pen Damion had drug out of his arm to let the blood gush. He hadn’t hit an artery, but that was the only good news. The pen tip had flattened, maybe against a bone. It hadn’t been that sharp to start. Quinn stared. It was her turn.


And she couldn’t.




Damion was in that realm between consciousness He mumbled but he was almost certainly in shock. Ashen, clammy skin. Easily agitated to the point that Quinn had moved away after tying his shirt about his wrist. He was too weak to rise, but he had swung his arms wildly at her.


And the more Quinn looked at him, the more she couldn’t do that to herself. She’d always hated blood.


If she was being honest, part of her distaste for hunting had less to do with the moral high ground and love for animals than it did with her squeamishness. She still ate meat, often, even relishing what hunter friends such as Hunter had brought her from their trips; just so long as she didn’t have to see them die, she was fine.


“I can’t.”


And the longer she waited, the harder it got. The tears had stopped. Now that she was less emotional, her state of mind was solid. Unchanging. She sat with her back to the glass. On the other side Marwa sat, too.


“I’m not… I’m me. But I can’t do it.”


“I’ll do…” Damion couldn’t complete his resolution aloud, stopping for breaths, to repeat himself, to take a second of a nap where his eyes fluttered before popping open. It took a few attempts. “I’ll do it. For you, I’ll do. It.”


But he didn’t have the strength to say it. There was no way he could do it.


“I can’t,” Quinn repeated, feeling the tears come once more.


Something inside her was stopping her.


She was beginning to think it was that thing.


She grabbed the pen, knowing she’d stab herself with the blunted tip and no blood would flow and Marwa would never open that door.


Even so, even knowing this would be it, she raised it up. Closed her eyes. Counted to two--


Damion jumped on her.




After tossing Damion’s scrawny frame aside, Quinn yelled, “The hell are you doing?”


Marwa banged on the glass, screaming.


Till she saw the blood on her hand, making her shirt wet, Quinn hadn’t felt the pain. Because of his interference, she hadn’t hit her hand as intended, but her gut.


“The acid!” Marwa yelled.


Damion had stumbled to his feet. They dragged with each step and his arms hung limp--the shirt had come untied. The blood had stopped. The wound had healed.


Bolting to the door, Quinn tried closing it but the force required was more than her injury allowed with her shoes slicked in blood and she kept going through hoping Marwa had unlocked the main door. She hadn’t.


The acid canister was on the bench still. If she could get it, if she could douse Damion, if it even stopped him--maybe the doctor would let her free.


But as she ran for it, on the concrete painted floors, her slicked shoes slipped and she was in the air diving horizontal toward the bench. Her head cracked against it. She wasn’t out cold but her vision had rainbow dots that lost their colors at the edges and the field of view seemed ever shrinking till she steadied her mind. This wasn’t her first concussion. Just get the acid, she repeated.


Damion was at the showers.


The lid of the canister had ridges carved in, but her bloody wet hand had no grip to unscrew it. It just kept sliding around. Sliding off. And with every failure, Damion was closer. Looming over. Ready to infect her if she wasn’t already. The acid slipped from her hands.


But Damion was slow. That thing not used to his body. Even Damion had never gotten his coordination down and he had decades of practice.


Leaving the canister behind, Quinn outran him into the jungle where she hoped to lose him.


Instead, she was losing consciousness.


The blood spilling out. The head wound. The thing inside her.


At the glass, too weak to continue, ready to just give in, she saw beyond her reflection to Marwa. Quinn glared.




Minutes passed between weary blinks.


First she saw Marwa dragging her to the hall between the glass, then run with her shoes echoing.


On her side, she could see into the forest between smudged glass where Damion flailed.


Then the hall was dark, not red, but dark. Black. That thing swallowing up the whole building. It went in a wave around her but left her intact. She had this perfectly viable wound to flood into but everything passed her over and she thought maybe it was in her mind.


A few blinks later, there was Beagsley opening the door himself. She didn’t know where he went after the next blink.


But someone, Lenka or Damion probably, was there now. Walking toward her. Just a dark figure in the red light.




Such a shitty guide. What had he even been studying?




It was nice to see him again. One last time.




The adrenaline surged through her as she remembered he wasn’t him anymore. He was Roger. He was Tony. He was that thing and he wanted her and everyone to be part of him. Part of it. To spread worldwide till the planet dripped its ooze.


She tried sitting up but the figure held her down, pinning her, snarling.


Then a few blinks more and she heard the words through the panic. “Just stay down. It’ll be okay.” Marwa. With a first aid kit.


Quinn went limp to the floor.


“Stay awake though! No more sleepy time naps because that’s bad for a concussion, right?” Marwa rambled like she had before, like nothing had happened since then, like her Batman tee wasn’t stained in blood. “I don’t know. I’m a doctor, but not a doctor-doctor. Can you imagine that? Three of us, all doctors and not an ounce of medical knowledge so if this hurts, just don’t hold it against me.”


Marwa wrapped up the pen. It was still sticking out. Quinn hadn’t noticed till now. It was in deep. Past the seam that unscrewed to put in new ink cartridges. What was it writing on her intestines? An expiry?


The treatment helped her mind clear a little. She looked over again at Damion. His skin had popped in so many places. It tore off on the woodland floor as he rolled but the burning would not stop. His black innards shriveled. They went white. Finally, he died. It was the first person she’d seen die tonight. Really die. Not already dead, but watch them move and then stop and then start again with that thing inside and then now, finally, stop for good.


Marwa was looking in the box.

Marwa had been the one to trap them inside that room.

Marwa was why Rose and Roger were down in that neutron detection well with Lenka.

Marwa was why she had this pen in her stomach.

Marwa wasn’t watching Quinn.

Quinn pulled out the pen and in the neck, where it’d be quick, stabbed Marwa.


“Why the fuck should we go alone?”




She cried into the bloody floor, waiting for her turn.


Her gut was really spewing blood now. Nothing to clog the flow.


The tip-tap of toenails on the floor alerted her. It was Beagsley and around him, the noise that’d been missing all this time.


What little strength was left in her arms she used to drag her body leaving a slime trail behind her. “Marwa, is there any more acid?”


Quinn made it to the doorway of the locker room, still hearing Roger’s squishy head bang in time.


“Just stay with me one more minute, Marwa. Just tell me where the acid is.”


The dog stepped toward the dead doctor.


“Marwa!” Quinn screamed.



Chapter 5 (00000)

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.


From where?


From when?


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.

The next.

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.”




Marwa stopped.


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.



Chapter 4 (0211)

“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.”


She glowered.


“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.


“She’s gone.”


A second breath.


“She’s dead!”


“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?


A stick.


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.



Chapter 4 (0210)

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.


“I know.”


"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.


“One lung.”


“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.



Chapter 4 (0111)

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."


"Dr. Ebeid?"


"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?”


“You never--”


“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.”


“Spray downwind.”


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




Oxidizing Agent


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.


1. Rosie

2. Damion


Chapter 4 (0110)

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.

2. Barricade yourself in the bedroom with the others.



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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Thank you for reading.

Chapter 4 (0201)

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, though.


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.”


“Open up!”


“I can't.”


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.


1. Climb inside Rosie's mouth.

2. Follow the ramp down to Beagsley.

Chapter 4 (0200)

"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.


No answer.


"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.