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