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 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?”
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.”