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.
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 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.