Colby had his master plan laid out mostly. To solve tonight’s mystery, he'd follow the Gunny and her troop of suspicious soldiers wielding ice weapons out in this already frozen hellscape and wherever they led him--
They caught him.
Trained military professionals versus Colby winging it. The only hope that existed for him was with his plan, solely within his imagination.
Wrists bound by nylon climbing cord, he marched between his captors, his ginger tent-mate in front, who turned back on occasion to shake his head. Colby imagined it was good-naturedly, a smile behind the face mask, and in the earliest hours of dawn before the sun rose even above a flat horizon, let alone their mountainous one, Colby could explain away the shadow on his furrowed brow. He shouldn’t have.
The radio on the Gunny's hip went loud with feedback.
"Hellooo?" the radio spoke with a chirpy feminine voice. "I never actually know how to tell if this is working but it's been charging all night so it should be. Why isn't there like a light or sound or something to let you know the call connected and that I'm not just talking to dead-air?"
The Gunny pressed her talk button, and the radio buzzed static.
It must've done the same on other line because the woman there said, "Sorry! Guess the call connected."
"You can call me Marwa, can't you? Or is it against regulations and all that official stuff?" The line went quiet for a second and the Gunny might've responded but then it was active again. "It probably is. Sorry!"
"Doctor." The word came out calm but somehow still encouraged her to get on with it lest there be violence.
"Right. So we've got some party guests here who had quite the night out in the woods and we offered them blankets and coffee and even a little tour of the Northern Hush.Ca Labs but now that you're in range, I thought I'd let you know in case you had any presents that maybe we should keep them contained for." A brief pause where the Gunny wanted to answer, but Dr. Ebeid kept on, "You know." And again, the smallest of pauses before she had to say something to clarify, "Bad presents."
And in the background, a woman Colby knew by that affectionately derisive tone said, "Not exactly a secret to us, Marwa."
Colby hoped it was more than just her who made it out safe, but he didn't dare ask and let on that he knew who was in the background because Colby caught the way the Gunny stopped upon hearing that there were guests. He caught how the soldiers around her looked concerned and the whole mood of the squad sharpened like a mission had started.
"How many?" the Gunny asked.
The doctor stopped talking for longer than ever before but she held an "Uhh" while she counted. "Three? Right? Dr. Quinn, biology woman. Danny."
"Damion," Quinn corrected gently.
"Oops! Damion. And Rrr--oh, don't tell me, it's on the tip of my tongue. R-r-r--"
Only three, Colby thought, and he maybe didn't hide it as well as the previous reaction. The ginger noticed.
"Roger! Roger, Roger? Nailed it. First try! Oh and you like dogs, right?"
The Gunny said, "I love the big ones."
"This one's a baby, but he's not yappy at all. A bit sullen from the night."
"I'm sure he's cute."
"His ears are so floppy."
"We'll be there shortly."
"Roger! Not you, just military talk for affirmative. Over and out."
"You don't have to say that," the Gunny said.
"I like saying it!"
The radio now holstered on her hip again, the Gunny asked, "Friends of yours?"
"No, but I’d like to get to know that doctor, am I right?" Colby laughed at himself. "Too bad about the dog though. I'm allergic, you know, to be bitten."
She stepped closer. He thought she might hit him, start some torture for answers, and he backed up but there was the ginger behind him blocking his movement. Colby was cornered by two buff, armed soldiers, and though there'd been no harm, that was enough.
"I know them. Quinn. Roger. Damion. Beagsley, the dog."
"Thank you for your cooperation," she said with zero gratitude in her voice.
"I better warn you though."
She turned back to Colby.
"Beagsley, the dog," Colby said getting real quiet so the Gunny had to stop the nearby soldiers marching through the snow to listen. "He's not a beagle."
His smile did not soothe her anger. He tried hiding so as not to be struck by her wrath, but he was proud and his toothy smile just kept coming up.
The halted squad resumed their march but the Gunny gave instructions via hand signals and so when Colby's feet started onward like the others around him, the ginger soldier put a hand up. They were staying behind.
Once more, the Gunny faced Colby and left him with this final warning. "We'll do what we can to keep your friends safe. You can trust us."
The others marched onto the research lab, guns and ice sprayers ready.
"If we cooperate, they have no reason to harm us. Don’t say anything unless asked specifically about it. Keep calm until--something solves all this," Quinn said but her mistrust of authority doubled when that soldier in charge, the Gunny, used her gun to point at the hostages. To her, a convenient way to gesture to sit. To them, a threat that silenced even Damion's complaining at the time.
"Sorry," Marwa said in a low voice. Dr. Marwa Ebeid had dark brown skin and her hair covered, and though she knew the Gunny so deeply they'd toasted together in a supply closet when the Gunny's mother finally passed on from cancer, Marwa's glass with sparkling cider and the Gunny's cognac, during their time together having shared the occasional "In Sha Allah" when no other words would do, both at different points culturally and religiously in their Islamic backgrounds, Marwa, like Quinn, Damion, and Roger, was tied up in the library. Suddenly, her Batman T-shirt felt deeply inappropriate.
There were four captors: two guards, the Gunny, and Marwa's partner, this old white man from South Africa. He was bald. Despite being unarmed, he seemed in charge, even if the Gunny clearly held disdain for him.
"Why'd you save us, Lenka, if you were just going to turn us in?" Roger asked the old man.
Rubbing his gray beard, he ignored Roger to address the Gunny who was across the room giving orders to her soldiers. "Sergeant, you will not attempt any harm on these four. I've only agreed to this arrangement in order to protect my experiment."
"Experiment?" The word drew Marwa from her silence born out of guilt and fear, but it instilled a new, deeper fear in her. Her eyes darted to the others. Something in her look convinced the old doctor to lean down and check her bindings."Who?" she whispered.
"The teacher," Lenka said.
Roger and Quinn both looked to Damion, who only then understood that he was the indicated “teacher,” not at all accurate as he worked at a university and only to continue his research. He wriggled furiously in his ropes, trying to rise but didn't have the balance to do so without his hands. "I worked at CERN!"
To the Gunny, the outburst was just another from this whiner, not enough to draw her away from the discussion on the dog and what to do exactly. Last report was five minutes ago and at the time, it'd been contained, but with Lenka cooperating, they concluded to store it with the rest of the experiment.
Quinn nudged him with her shoulder. "Ion, don't yell at the ones with the guns."
"That one has nothing. And what kind of experiment did you run on me? I didn't sign a release."
Lenka cared only so much as to check on the Gunny. Had she caught on? No, and so he could ignore the teacher.
Marwa wasn't so easily ignored though. She had information on him that'd turn the Gunny against him. "And who else? Would you have gone through all of them if you'd had the time? Me? Is it in me too? This is why you wanted to check on the dog. You hate floppy ears!"
“Can you please calm down, Marwa?” Quinn asked seeing the agitated soldiers with their guns.
But rather than focus on the employees arguing, the Gunny thought on Quinn’s attitude during this all. She marched over. “Don’t.”
“Me?” Quinn didn’t understand the warning. “I’m not doing anything. Look, my hands are still tied. You can search me again, but I don’t have anything. I just don’t want anything happening to us or to you.”
The Gunny laughed. “To us? And what was that earlier about something saving all of you?”
“I--” Quinn didn’t know what to say. Had she given their only hope away?
“Don’t talk anymore.”
Quinn nodded. Even that seemed like too much.
The knot between Colby's hands seemed to tighten as he struggled with it. “Can't you…?”
“No can do, pal.” The ginger had found a fallen log that he cleared the snow off before sitting, then lying on, then sitting again. It was a hard log.
“That doesn’t work when my kid does it. Won’t with a grown man-child either.”
Then the radio clicked on.
“Dooley, get the acid.” It was the Gunny. The panic in her voice transmitted despite any crackling. “Now.”
“On my way.” In that instant he leaped from his resting spot to sling on his pack. He checked the gauge as he started off toward the same dark trail the rest of his squad had disappeared on.
“Can I come?” Colby asked.
So ready for action, Dooley had forgotten his captive, but when he returned, after groans and sighs as he decided what to do with Colby, he pulled at the knot. But it didn’t come completely undone. Colby had his hands still up in the air, waiting to be released.
“Find a tree branch and pull down and the knot will release. Or bite it if you want,” Dooley said before heading back for that trail. “Then get out of here.”
“I know you’re going to help your friends, but if you see mine, could you do what you can for them?”
Dooley didn’t respond and then when his boot steps were too far to be heard, Colby wriggled with the rope and headed after the soldier.
The thick metal door muffled the sounds of skirmish echoing down the hall, but a scream like that--it pierced everything.
“Why the fuck is it so warm in here?” the Gunny screamed at Lenka. Her radio was squeezed tight in her hand.
Quinn, Roger, and Damion had been provided comfortable sweaters when they arrived, Lenka having promised in a rare move of humanity that he’d turn up the heat but it’d take a while. Quinn even got one from Marwa’s personal collection, a striped cardigan, that was a bit thin for how cold they kept this place, but stylish. Now she sweated in it. They all were.
“My men’s weapons make useless puddles in the halls because you wanted the guests to be comfortable?” The Gunny pointed her gun at Marwa then Lenka. A hard thump almost made her fire--it was close. “Which one of you was it?”
The furious swinging back and forth finally ended on Lenka.
His voice didn’t crack under the threat. He was calm as he said, “Ah, so you want it released in here as well?”
The halls had gone silent.
And they stayed that way for too long.
“They’re dying out there!” The Gunny tried her radio again but silence. “Dooley, get the acid.”
That thing knocked at the door.
“On my way,” he responded.
“If you two are untouchable,” she said to the scientists, “then one of you will have to do.” She pointed her gun at Damion.
By the look on his face, it was the first danger to his life. There was something visceral about staring at a gun. Something instilled in him from movies and the news. His strategy was to look away and if he didn’t see the danger, it didn’t exist. As he bowed his head, his eyes couldn’t help but peek and even when it was beyond the frame of his vision, in his mind, he saw it, saw the bullet inside, saw the finger ready to pull, saw what was next.
Then Lenka said, “Sergeant, you are full of bad decisions today.”
From the entrance, Dooley heard gunfire from the library then a man screamed.
This place he’d called home for over a year was lit red by the emergency lights and he didn’t know it anymore.
Colby found the entrance. It was a straight shot from where he’d been and the only real challenge was opening the door--with his hands still tied, tighter than ever.
Upon entering, though, he slipped on a puddle and did the splits so wide he thought he’d torn something. The puddle was red from the lights. It was warm in here. Not relative to outside but genuinely roasting. He stripped off layers and strewed them about as he stepped ever so tentatively, peeking around the first corner he came to.
There was nothing.
But ahead, a door was cracked.
And the room behind it dark.
But not silent. He heard the heavy breathing of a predator too eager to lunge and feast upon him that it couldn’t keep itself quiet.
Colby started to back up, but then it called out to him.
“Wait!” It panted then continued, “Is that you, pal?”
“Dooley?” Colby approached the room and as he opened it, the hallway emergency lights flooded over the puddle at the soldier’s side. It was a much deeper red than the ones he’d been stepping through.
“I think it got me, so it’s now your job to--” The ginger soldier looked at Colby as he came in. “Why are your hands still tied?”
“I told you find a tree--”
“I thought I could wiggle--”
“We’re all dead,” Dooley concluded as he tried to get up to untie Colby, but he couldn’t and Colby had to come closer. He could smell the blood. Then using a lot of strength he probably didn’t have, Dooley swung off his water sprayer. “You’re going to need this. Someone turned up the heat so you’ve got no chance of freezing these things inside, but if you go down the hall you’ll come to this big sliding door. Keep going, you’ll find a locker room. Locker 66 has a container of sulfuric acid. H2SO4. You know it?”
“My last chem class was high school.”
“It doesn’t eat through you like in the movies, but still don’t let even a drop touch you. My orientation, they showed us just how dangerous it is with a diluted drop on our thumbs.” He bit off his glove to show Colby this textureless bit of skin that felt rougher than it looked. The skin around it wonderfully moisturized. “It burned a bit and I washed it off, but after a few days, the skin turned yellow and eventually sloughed off. It had completely removed the hydrogen and hydroxide ions and no amount of lotion this last year has brought back any softness to it. You’ve only got one shot with this stuff before you have to reload, too.”
“So be careful, got it.”
As Colby hefted the humming backpack on, feeling the weight of it as he strapped the waist buckle, he peeked at the guy. He’d probably have a good chance of making it if not for that thing, and yet, whatever injury it’d done (visible was only the blood and a wet spot on his shirt by his hip) hampered his movement. Colby had to ask, “Is there anything I can do to… ease the pain?”
“I wish, bud, I do, but faster I’m gone, the sooner you’ve got something else on your ass.”
Colby stood in the doorway but left without saying goodbye. It was easier that way, at least in the moment, but as he booked it down the hall, it nagged at him. Maybe on the way back, he thought, then thought better of it.
The large sliding metal door screeched and scraped across the track as Colby heaved it to the side. It was so loud, he knew something had to be attracted his way, but to close it meant more sound and more time wasted; he had to leave that way and the silence of the war zone already creeped him out.
But not as much as the hall beyond.
On either side, glass walls showed the Amazon. A rainforest with plant diversity that couldn’t survive in this climate or even this continent, assuming you counted North and South America as separate. The whole enclosure felt out of place, but within it, what really felt wrong was the dog sitting at the sliding door waiting for it to open. It was a dog he knew instantly. He stared and looked for a way in and that's when he saw swarming on the doors out of there, insects: cicadas, beetles, fuzzy caterpillars and their butterflies, hornets, giant centipedes, even the arachnids had joined up. Solitary creatures, separate species, huddled together on the door, silent except the way the wall of metal screeched, slowly opening. And all they needed was a crack to get through.
Colby hurried to the locker room. Locker 66. On the end. It was blue and the rest beige. All with spin locks.
He didn’t have the combination.
In a flurry, he tried the door just in case he could force it--but for small victory tonight, it was unlocked.
It had a series of canisters with warnings on them. They were all the same. All the same labels.
Fuming sulfuric acid
He didn’t have time to worry about all that. After unscrewing the lid, he slotted it in the backpack where Dooley had showed him then threw it back on and checked the gauge. It was finally time to fight back.
When Colby burst into the library, Quinn was dead.
Two guards dangled in the air, their faces too purple to scream, as black tentacles strangled them. It wouldn’t give them a slow release though. It squeezed tighter. It was trying to snap their necks as vengeance. For Quinn.
Colby was about to spray when he saw the base that had sprouted the tentacles. Pink hair. Rosie.
She’d made it--but was it even really her?
Roger shook her, pleading with her not to do this, that she wasn’t a killer, and while she didn’t listen to him, she also wasn’t attacking him. Or Colby or Marwa or Damion. She seemed to have some control over it all.
And yet, Marwa, the doctor from the radio that Colby recognized by her voice, was pleading with Damion. “Get away from the body,” she cried.
He wouldn’t. He insisted, “I can bring her back. It’s telling me I can bring her back.” Damion leaned over Quinn, his lips getting ever so closer, and this black droplet hanging.
The two possessed were on opposite sides of the room. Colby could only shoot one.