My fingertips slapped against pipes, barely slowing my fall and my legs were struck by more of them, ricocheting off of armor and sending sparks to illuminate the inky darkness, and I hit the floor below with a clatter of limbs. Air gushed out of my open mouth, bringing foam with it, and frantically I moved the air back inside, trying to keep oxygen flowing, to stop the black circles from eating up anymore of my vision. For a brief moment, it seemed salient, stable, but it was cold steel and through the flurry of movements in the inky blackness I got the sense that I was suspended in some great web hanging from the ceiling. and then I started sliding off of it as the entire floor shifted with a eerie screech of aging iron.
As I slid down my feet caught along the railing and I last out, my roughened gloves catching along the railing of the cat walk, and then I hurled myself up, eyes tightly closed.
It was a mess of things down here, but none of them had anything to do with active air movement. The place was designed to be air tight at will, and while it wasn’t as good as my eyes, I knew that the tilting cat walk only had a few more feet until safety. My arms and legs burned, battling against the sheer madness of scaling the shifting cat walk as it swung into the darkness, but I hauled myself up just in time for the entire thing to jolt, hitting the floor far below and sending up a flurry of maddening sparks that briefly illuminated the entire complex.
Wall to wall computers, ancient things, punchcard driven, partially mechanical, and beaks and tubes. More modern aparati decorated the floor, and then the detail was gone and I was flat on my stomach, pressed against the still shaking catwalk, ears ringing.
“GALE!?” Hands’s voice was faint, heavily distorted from the mask.
With a shuddering sigh and a hand touching my ribs to see how sore they were, I plucked my Com off of my belt and switched it over to Hands’s frequency.
“Coms, right,” Hands rumbled back, far away and muffled. “You’re not dead, that’s good.”
“Right,” I said, struggling to my feet. Scuffed armor, but I’d gone in my heaviest set we’d found in the entirety of Mobile. No need to tempt fate much more than that. “I think we’ll find the medical supplies down here.”
“Down there?” Hands pointed a flashlight down the hole. The beam turned into a dim arc on the ground far below. “Holy hell Gale, how’d you live through that fall?”
“There’s a catwalk,” I muttered. “Swing the beam around, you’ll find it.”
Look up and watch the beam around the hole, I could see how far away the catwalk stretched. Agonizingly across the entire facility. I could also see numerous cells studded in place along the ground, where the sparks hadn’t illuminated.
“It’s the prison ward,” Hands whispered. “Gale, we need to get you out of there.”
“Research facility. Going to need to turn you off for a second so I can hear.”
I turned off the Com and hauled myself up to a sitting position, and breathed, lazily, in and out. Eyes closed, tightly, so that I wouldn’t blind myself when the flashlight swung over my position. The ground was covered in thick dust. Strange. It hadn’t been that long. The com buzzed and I picked it up again.
I didn’t hear anything else in the darkness.
“They’re all dead,” I said, a hysteric note in my voice. “They… the fuckers must’ve come down here and killed them too.”
“Or they just ran out of water,” Hands said. “Power’s been out for a while, and there’s no lights on down there.”
“Or that,” I said, slightly calmer, staggering to my feet. “Look for a way out up there, I’ll see if I can limp my way to an exit, alright?”
“Got it. Should we tell the others?” Hands asked.
I paused. “Yes, for fuck’s sake, tell them I’m down here, I do not want them to do anything to drop the top floor on me.”
“Got it. Keep your com on hand so we can keep contact.”
“It’s not like I’m going to drop it, Hands,” I said, pulling myself up. The cat-walk let out another agonizing squeal, and I chanced a lookup as another piece of ceiling fell down.
Then I decided to keep moving to the other end of the road, hobbling as quickly as I could before the lot of it decided to fall down as well. I stumbled at the end and almost face planted against the door before scrabbling with the handle long enough to open it.
Eyes closed, I fumbled around, all of the angles and surfaces in the room barely represented in the darkness, and found a light switch.
I flicked it on, and heard the rumble of an ancient generator kicking on, and the distant crackle of the lights.
The room was illuminated and seared my eyes, and then, while my eyes were adjusting, one by one, the cracked lights exploded and decorated the room far below with pointed glass, until only one remained, dark, covered in char, at the very center of the room.
No, I’d been right.
They’d fire bombed the basement especially.
With all of the things falling to the ground, I could smell charred flesh in the air, and I could smell boiled bones, even through the mask.
Smoke and tar hung from the walls, coating screens and print outs. Bottles were covered, not in dust as I’d thought, but hot ash. A crater sat in the middle of the floor where the incendiary had gone off, and raw slag had burnt it down into the tile.
There wasn’t a chance that anything in here living was able to be saved.
But I’d need to walk through it anyway, just to see if I could find it. Slowly, I stood back up and looked around the office. Somewhat of an airlock to the lower floors, a decaying corpse sat in the chair, two hot blooms of mold emerging from a collapsing skin chest. The windows out of the room were scarred black, half melted.
This far down there weren’t any bugs to eat them, just bacteria. I could almost see the expression on her face.
Looking up from her name tag to the door to the lower floors, I laughed.
Three bullet holes through the lock.
They’d killed her before she’d given them the password to the lower floors.
Could I do that again? Resist like that, with a gun in my face?
I searched for answers in the corpse’s face, and plucked her name tag off of her, the safety clasp breaking on the back. I stuffed it into a pocket that hadn’t been destroyed and toed open the door to the lower stairs. Cut into the wall, and held there by welds and support beams, it held my weight far better than the catwalk had.
If another situation, I would’ve questioned exactly why the room was set up the way it was; winding passages, a single obvious way out, but it made perfect sense if this was a prison located far and under everything else.
All they had to do to stop people from escaping would be to restrict their movement. The restricted paths would just make their prison wider, and in a pinch, could be blown out to prevent anyone from getting in or out.
Staring up at the light pouring down from the ceiling, I made my way down the stairs. The floor kicked up clouds of ash with each step, unfathomably deep, obscuring my vision, but I kept walking by the light pouring overhead, and Hands keeping a firm grip on her flash light in front of me.
The cages gleamed like rib cages,, sending of pale beams of twinkling light off lines of steel and hardened glass; exotic compounds designed to stop everything up to a tank blast and I stopped by the first one to peer inside. A human skeleton lay half poking out of a corpse draped over a bed that was lined with fleshy nodules, half eaten away by decay. Multiple eyes drooped unnaturally down, attached to a skull that was too human to accept the formation. I squinted at it, and it only made less sense; how did the muscles anchor to the bones? How did the skin attach to a frame that small?
Then I remembered the lost boy and I recoiled, taking a few steps back. What on earth were they doing here?
Being studied, the more analytical part of my brain answered. Rebecca had been studying them.
Firebombs to kill creatures of the flesh. Right. Then my eyes adjusted to the gloom and I looked around the room to see numerous things in cages. Dead, one by one, ill moving, human skeletons.
Neutralized without being able to break free.
Judging by the destroyed beds, they’d been sedated. Perhaps that prevented them from healing from the fire?
The Cuban Patrol had done a good job preventing Dauphin island from becoming a monster nest, at least. I wouldn’t have to worry about that.
The monitors attached to each cage were fried, destroyed, crisped, but I ran my gloved over the touch screens regardless, tapping on their powers one by one. If the lights were running… well, the one light was still working, then the computers should be working as well.
None of them turned on, but one still had a flash drive attached, so I snagged it and plugged it into my com. It snarled out a haphazard security error, and I scowled, slipping it into a pocket, but looking over the top of the com I recognized a cross over a door.
I swept to the side between the cages and burnt out IV lines and wires and cracked into the room. It was locked, but the door had been weakened by the blast, so a firm hit jostled the hinges off, and another broke enough of the lock out of the splinted plastic to get me inside.
I had been forced to do many things since occupying Mobile, but I still wasn’t a doctor.
But the inside of the room had boxes of medicines, labelled in medical babble. I recognized some words as painkillers, and others as antibiotics, and still others were things I had never heard of.
But more importantly than even that was a map illuminated by a crackling strip of lights hung from the ceiling. The entire complex outlined at once. I traced my fingers over it, scraping off a layer of dust.
“Alright,” I whispered. “I’m in the medical and shift closet… so…”
The principle exit was closed from the bridge being out, so I crossed that out, fingers dragging long elegant lines through the dust. Even without the char in the room it was pretty clear that the emergency medical supply closet was under utilized.
Which just left the alternate exit, the emergency elevator, located far and away into the darkness, spiralling off.
Low power, check.
Flickering lights, check.
Death tomb of an elevator being my only way out capable of dropping at any moment, with few chances of escape?
Still not as bad as the graveyard.
I stepped out of the supply closet and shot a look up at the crack in the ceiling far above, then pulled out my Com.
“Hands, you there?”
“I’m still here, but I think we’re getting company.”
I stopped moving and paused, squinting up at the light until my eyes burned. “Company?”
“Colton and Excelsior have met up with someone, they left their channel open, I have myself muted so I can listen in.”
My heart thumped in my chest.
“Alright, keep me informed.”
“Keep me informed you mean,” Hands said. “Have you found a way out?”
“There might be a working elevator on the other side of the lab, I’m going to try and find it. Place is a prison, they kept the exits easy to disable,” I reported.
Hands’s voice came a bit shrill. “We’ll figure out how to get you out of there, alright?”
“You better, I found all of the meds to run the hospital for another week, Rebecca’s going to be jealous,” I joked.
Then my mind snapped back to the fact that Rebecca had worked in this very lab. How many times had she stared at the slumbering forms of great beasts, fed drugs through IVs? What had she learned?
I reached down and nudged the flash drive in one of my pockets and wondered what it contained. Encrypted, yes…
But now I had an opportunity to return to Rebecca her research. What could she do with it? What great things?
Flicking my gaze back to the ash strewn cave, to the bizarre punch card machines gracing the walls, that I still had no idea what they were meant for, I wondered exactly what they’d been studying, and for how long.
What great and horrible things?
“Over,” Hands said, and the channel cut off.
Then I stepped into the inky darkness, lit by the flickering light choked in ash overhead, and set off.
The lab wasn’t a continual lab, it was demarcated by what had once been thick paper dividers. Not thick enough to block off the thick vents on the ground, but thick enough to give an illusion of shelter. The remnants hung like thick charred curtains on the ground, a skeletal arm half turned to ash underneath of the nearest. Taking a slow breath and remembering Colton’s desire to bury as many as possible, I walked over to the curtain and flipped it up.
Half burnt body. The smell rasped through the gas mask, the air thick with asbestos, building dust, and human smoke. I reached down and very gently pried a half melted ID card off of the man’s chest.
He deserved better than that, but I’d bury the ID card with the others in the graveyard.
Doctor Edwards. Geneticist, Normality team.
The embedded RFID wasn’t too badly damaged. It might be a saving grace if his clearance was high enough. If not, well…
Dying among doctorates wasn’t the worst burial place.
My left hand twinged awfully and I grabbed it with my right and rubbed at it as the nerves twitched across the flesh. My teeth grit in my mouth, but I kept walking forward.
Then I heard it distantly in the darkness. The beam of dim light from above had subsided, casting longer and longer shadows until I was peering ahead solely by the light of the Com. The internal battery was still high, I was nothing if not fastidious about keeping it charged.
But I could the distant click of claws against the burnt tile floor.
I snapped the Com shut and looked around. Then closed my eyes to feel the room’s air. Long swaths of open spaces made it difficult to track anything, contrary to my hopes.
My sensor range was a sphere of air only a meter or two in diameter. I could move it about, sense other areas, but it did nothing when the room was massive like this.
When the click of claws was moving rapidly.
My eyes snapped open again, and I tugged the wind sense farther ahead. Farther ahead than I could see, where I could desperately try to feel out the distant elevator.
It passed through curtains not yet disturbed, but heavily charred. It past through labs destroyed. It passed through a single place only lightly singed.
Then it hit a wall. I shuffled the wind sense along it, my eyes not looking at anything in particular, ears perked.
I found the void in the wall that could only be an elevator at the same time I heard the swift movement of scrabbling claws.
Which was impossible because everything in the room was utterly dead, and I could not more hear the beating of a distant heart over the sound of my own, and I couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from, only that it was nearby and scuffling across stone.
I opened up the Com to report in and froze as the light illuminated the area around me. The cage ahead of me was missing a section of glass and metal. Like a hole had been dug and chewed out, a perfect circle.
But my sense were limited. It wasn’t around me as far as I could see.
Which just left…
I swallowed and brought the Com up to my lips. Pressed the button on the side to reconnect to the previous line.
“Hands,” I said, softly.
“Gale? What’s wrong?”
“I need you to flash your light again. Before you go.”
“Where?” Hands asked.
“Use your arm to flash it on the ceiling over top of me. Just do it, I don’t need you to try anything else and end up with me in here.”
Hands paused, and then more light flooded the room, arcing out of the beam of the powerful electric torch.
Then very slowly I looked over top of myself, my wind sense travelling with each arc my eyes followed.
Then I stared at a thing with too many eyes, wild, wide, sightless.
But what really took me was the four jaws and the inky black fabric of fur that coated every visible inch apart from teeth like ivory.
Something had survived after all.