The dim light given off by the photosensitive bubbles did not penetrate the black cloud floating around Rosie, but the way it backlit her hair, she radiated.
Knee-deep in the polluted water, Lenka stared at his new follower. Such ugly pink hair. He’d change that first. Something appropriate. The other two had escaped. Locked him in the hatch, but soon they’d be back. Time ticked down until he had a squadron that’d decimate the Gunny’s upon her return, but even if she dropped in a bit early, there was little she could do against even this one.
“Get up already,” he muttered, grabbing that filthy shimmering hair.
Rosie opened her eyes. The pool around her once again had a refractive index of 1.3. Completely clear. She spit out water and Lenka let go.
He had assumed her submission too soon. “No matter. I’ll speed it along.” He pushed forward the blade of his utility knife. He steadied her in the water. “You will be mine. One of many and many more to come.”
When the blade, dull and old with remnants of the dried canvas-like flesh of the old white man’s last unknowing experiment hanging from it, sliced into Rosie’s skin, she shrieked.
But there was no pain.
It opened her neck up. It tore through the many holes like the ones she’d seen on her palm under the blanket back when she wasn’t sure if she was still dreaming. And from her, oozed black goo that beaded and rolled off as Lenka sliced past it.
Her shriek faded as she imagined death nearing.
Lenka thought her silence was victory.
The many beads in the water pooled around him, sticking to his clothes by many spindly legs that started to crawl upward. He did not notice these. He did not notice the added weight, they were so small. He waited for Rosie to rise once more and be his to command but until then he held tight to her collar--and so that was how he noticed the holes in his hands.
He knew them well on his subjects but to be on him! In the clear water, his reflected face was full of these little tunnels and those beads, those bugs, climbed inside him. There were so many.
He released Rosie.
He did not know how his previous results had failed.
He’d never get to.
She bobbed in the water and when she surfaced, the tunnels were gone. The cut sealed. The ooze clear from her shirt.
Lenka loomed but he did not move. The knife had dropped. There was only her breaths, which she wasn’t even sure were real. She stared up Lenka’s nose, a little bloody booger too similar to the bugs that maybe it was one lingering. He stood in front of the ladder. Her vision traced his shape to the ladder and naturally to the door where Quinn and Damion had escaped to.
With no movement from her or Lenka to stir more waves into the water, the waves rocked her, lulled her, carried her, but did not move further, and in the silence, she heard banging.
A slow rhythm she knew.
Tony. His face against the door. Against the window. And now it was back like a siren’s song drawing her up the long ladder, though she knew what, if not who, to expect.
Every rung required a new breath of courage.
That motivation came easier than it should’ve for Rose.
The knocking rhythm tuned to that of her feet on the ladder.
That rhythm called for something deep inside her to swing her arms for the next.
But it was not her the song called to.
She reached the top and without her legs moving, there was silence ahead and the rhythm behind. She hadn’t noticed. It’d been so in-sync and she’d been so entranced that Lenka following her was a surprise. She waited. He reached the top.
Behind the door, there had been one of those things, wearing one of her friends, beating away, and though it had fallen silent ahead and silent behind, it was still there.
To stay here was to be forever trapped into starvation.
Perhaps she could throw Lenka to it. Let them fight. She’d sneak by.
She’d just peek in the door and see--
Roger was there. Waiting. Staring. His face bruised and leaking with a big chunk missing over his eyes. He stepped through and she backed away, right to the railing, almost tipping back in panic, till he fell in line with Lenka.
There was little room for the three of them on the platform, but Lenka stayed near Rose and Roger behind him, and they entered the door as such and through the computer room as such and saw the emergency beacon lighting the room red. The door was unsealed with little pieces of Roger stuck to it. A patch of skin with eyebrow that Rose could probably smooth back onto his face.
She opened the door to the locker room. Where was that cacophony of insects?
She needed out of this eerie lab. She needed to see Quinn and Damion and Marwa and please, she needed Beagsley to be okay. They’d run away. They’d lock Roger and Lenka behind a metal door and just run. Rose would carry that good boy all the way down the mountain.
The door opened to that glass hallway, lit red by its own lights and by those in the forest exhibits, except the one on the left. It was the one they hadn’t entered. Now a million patterns overlapped one another on the glass till it was opaque. There were no colors, but a mesh of brown and black, and it did not move.
Rose didn’t give it much thought. She couldn’t. At the other end of the hall, creeping towards her in their own two person line: Damion. Quinn.
There was no choice. The bug room. The one with the clear window. Let the fiends figure out the door. Let them brain themselves on the glass. She’d be okay. She’d made it this far. She had to tell herself that or her legs would not move. They shouldn’t have listened, but really, there were no good choices.
Between those protective metal doors, waiting for them to grate along their track, the red light dispersed till there was no light. She fumbled for the handle and then hefted--they’d catch her at this rate. These two idiots behind her did nothing to help, not even now that they heard the footsteps in the halls, and there was no time to close the doors behind her so she could only push ahead and maybe close that final gate after slipping through like the light did now, red and glorious. She was inside. She was alone. Even Lenka and Roger had gotten trapped on the other side.
And now that she was in, she heard the sounds of movement. Maybe no violin legs. No whistling sacs. But movement in the leaves. A lot of it.
It was some comfort. Fear, but the icky sort she’d always had. A normal fear. A fear she could convince herself to get over like when she smashed roaches with a shoe or trapped them in a cup and let them starve for a week before dealing with their flaky bodies. It was familiar and that let her settle.
Till it was the leaves directly ahead and she saw the shadow behind it.
“Please say something.”
“Anything at all.”
“I’m sorry, Rose. Or maybe, it’ll be okay. Or I know what to do, science.”
But the plants rustled. Through the knee-level flora, Beagsley emerged and Marwa, much like Lenka and Roger, followed him.
Outside the glass, in the hall, Roger, Damion, Quinn, and Lenka lined up like ants to be as close to Marwa as possible. Rose’s followers had turned sides. And she felt that call inside her tell her this was it.
She fell in line. She fell inside herself until she was just an echo in the void.