They said it was nothing. A routine rescue op at a facility known as the Tantalus Site.
But that quickly proved untrue. Terribly, horrifically untrue.
The report said we’d be flying into the Baghlan Province of Northern Afghanistan where rugged mountains cut through a remote and arid wilderness. According to the dossier, we were responding to fragmented reports of a fallout of some biological toxin that made sarin and mustard gas look like helium. Its official name was HN-211.
The last contact was a month ago.
Whorls of air whipped at my face as I looked down at the dossier. The report flapped in my hand as our chopper tilted over the craggy hills which were rapidly turning into soaring, snow-touched mountains. The Hindu Kush had been the perfect place for our military to build the testing facility. Incredibly difficult terrain to navigate on land, a tiny population, thousands of valleys and cliffs and caves to conceal themselves in. It seemed ideal.
I work with an Aeromedical evacuation unit. We specialize in getting our wounded out of tight spots and treating life-threatening injuries under the worst conditions. Blood, bile, bullets, brains, bodies; it was fair to say I could hold my own in high-pressure scenarios.
But something about this op unnerved me. The photos of the facility we were heading to were ten years out of date and they showed nothing more than a giant, steel door cut into the overhang of a steep cliff. I could only wonder at the scale of the photos; the cost of building such a thing somewhere as isolated as this. The few photos showcasing the inside of the facility showed a cavern the size of a gymnasium filled with tables, vehicles, and tents.
Across from me, Connors yelled out over the roar of the rotors. His voice was further muffled by the plastic shield of his white Hazmat suit. “You see the last picture?”
I turned the report to the last page; bypassing photos of sterile labs, rows of tents, and smiling scientists and soldiers at their various stations, and ended on a grainy black-and-white image of a perfectly square hole cut directly into the stone. It sat at the end of a narrow tunnel and thick steel bars covered it. A sign on one side bore the familiar black and yellow warning signs of toxic chemicals. No information accompanied the photo.
I felt my unease grow.
Connors yelled again. “You hear what sort of shit they were making in there? I heard its effects were modeled after radiation poisoning.” He shook his head. “Makes you wonder what they tested it on!”
I couldn’t give him an answer. I thought about a man I’d rescued after a nuclear plant had been attacked. His entire body had been covered in layers of blistering reddened skin that came off in patches. His flesh was eaten away by lesions and boils, bone visible in the craters where his body degenerated on a cellular level. A slow, pointedly awful way to go.
Our supervising officer finally ended him with a bullet to the head.
Imagining our military developing something like that for warfare twisted my guts.
What exactly were we walking into?
Our chopper landed in front of the base an hour later. What few trees grew at this altitude whipped around in a frenzy as the pilot landed us. I hopped out and stared in awe at the steel door we’d seen in the photos. It measured fifty feet in height and was wide enough to drive two tanks through side by side. Years of exposure to the elements had turned its silver sheen to a ruddy brown.
Our commanding officer – a serious-looking woman named Keys – clambered out of the chopper and addressed the twelve members of our squad. “Intel says the last report from this base clocked in a month ago. All it said was, “We’re done.” Then they went silent. We aren’t sure whether they mean they’re done with their project or something else, but we’ve been tasked with going in to check. Given their silence, we’re anticipating a potential hazardous fallout from somewhere in the mountain. Our orders are to observe, report, and treat any potential survivors. Got it?”
Everyone nodded. We were used to this by now. Sometimes our operations had us combing through towns and villages littered with bodies; many in conditions that defied nature.
This should prove no different.
Keys approached the doors and opened a rusted metal cabinet that contained a simple keypad. She input the complex code our superiors had given us and the doors crept open for the first time in a month. The grinding of massive gears and hinges reminded me of a giant taking its first breath after eons of slumber. Little by little, sunlight poured into the depths beyond and we got our first glimpse of the Tantalus Site.
My eyes adjusted to the darkness beyond and immediately my throat closed up.
Connors took a step back, his hand going to the gun at his hip. “Oh, what the fuck?”
Within the recesses of the mountain sat the central cavern and operating center of the Tantalus Site. Rows of testing labs, comms sites, tables with equipment, tents, barracks, and vehicles filled the impressive space. But it looked like someone had bombarded it with a round of mortars. I could only imagine its original state from the pictures in the report.
Now it all lay in heaps of shattered glass, twisted metal, and scorched wood.
But what made Connors step back was the volume of blood and remains populating the decimated lab. Bodies hung limply from tables, limbs were strewn about like litter. The smell and taste were utterly horrendous. A miasma of rotting meat coupled with a strangely sweet chemical afterburn. Across the room, I spotted the torso of a man sitting keeled over one of the humvees, its head smashed against the steering wheel as though whoever it belonged to had been trying to escape and gotten ripped apart in the process. Along the inside of the giant metal door were gouges of blood where people had clawed to get out. Some of the bodies nearby bore fingers worn down to the bone.
Keys led the way forward. My boots squelched in the leftover remains and stuck fast to the floor as congealed pools of blood sucked greedily at my boots. Twenty feet or so to my right lay the body of a female scientist who looked strangely intact amidst all the carnage. Her face was contorted in a terrified scream but her arms and legs were still attached.
It was only when Connors accidentally bumped a rolling chair supporting her upper body that her lab coat folded open to reveal the cavity of her hollowed-out chest and stomach. Her face slid away from her skull and a perfectly degloved human face landed with a wet splat at my toes, not a scratch on it.
Who would take the time to do that?
A hundred feet in and we came to the back of the main cavern. Here, the massive room narrowed abruptly into a tunnel perhaps ten feet high and twenty wide. It stretched deeper into the mountain where I knew a natural system of caves resided.
The smell of meat grew stronger and I could taste the metallic sting of blood on my lips. Near the entrance of the tunnel sat a pile of limbs, organs, and bones. Beside them, several peeled skins were stretched between wall fixtures like animal hides. I shivered at the unsettling display of brutality and care.
But by far the worst thing we encountered was the trail of blood staining the floor of the tunnel. Obviously, something had stockpiled the meat and skin near the entrance with some level of intelligence. Then this red, ragged trail showed where it systematically dragged its fodder deeper into the mountain.
I looked at my companions, wondering if any of them might suggest we do the smart thing and get the fuck out of there, but no one did.
Keys reminded us of our mission and, though she looked pale with fear, we had our orders. Search, secure, and stabilize.
“Remember,” she added, “if anyone finds survivors, we bring them back to the chopper at all costs. Our superiors need to know what happened here. Whether it’s salvageable or,” she swallowed hard, “whether it needs to be destroyed.”
‘Destroy it,’ I thought. ‘Let them rain fire and brimstone down on this fucking place.’
But I nodded with everyone else.
“Now,” Keys said, “I need two of you to scout ahead. Go as far into the compound as you can. I want to get a comprehensive report on the rest of the facility while the rest of us search the main areas.”
‘And give a heads up for the rest of the team if we find whatever the fuck caused all this,’ I added silently.
To my surprise, Connors stepped forward. “I’ll go,” he said, his expression resolute. I didn’t doubt his courage for a moment, but he’d looked pretty unsteady when we first came in.
Without thinking, I stepped forward. “Me too.”
Keys looked immensely relieved that she didn’t have to pick.
“Thank you, gentlemen. You’ll search for half an hour then report back to me. Got it?”
We both nodded. Ahead of us, the tunnel marched on for what felt like an eternity. The blood made it resemble the throat of some giant monster.
I looked at Connors. “Ready?”
He lifted a severed hand and gave me a thumbs-up.
I shook my head. Gallows humor struck at strange times. “Fuck you. Let’s go.”
We continued into the darkness.
The vast bulk of the Tantalus Site consisted of a long tunnel winding its way into the depths of the Hindu Kush like a spine, and smaller tunnels would branch off at regular intervals like ribs. We encountered fewer remains down here; it looked as though the main bloodbath took place in the facility center. From time to time we spotted another body. Usually, it had been slashed or bashed into a pulp, but they were all stripped of their vitals with the same brutish intelligence. Crusted trails of blood led out from these smaller intersections and joined the carpet of red-brown sludge winding through the main tunnel.
Eventually, we reached the final off-shoot. The tunnel had grown narrower back here; maybe half a mile from the main cavern. The remains also thickened once again and that scent cloyed my nose. Stronger than ever.
Giving a nod to Connors, I rounded the corner. Rotting remains hung from every visible surface. Brown stains rusted the stone walls. Before me loomed a small opening in the concrete; perhaps five feet by five feet. The steel bars across it had been bashed inward.
I approached cautiously, the light of my flashlight danced around that black opening. The darkness beyond ate every speck of light that touched it.
I came up to its edge and slowly peered inside. My beam flickered weakly into a space that positively reeked with the overwhelming stench. It clung to me, burned me, and squirmed its way up my nose and down my throat like fumes of jet fuel. My heart hammered on and on.
Something reflected the light of my beam. Two eyes stared back at me through the darkness, blinked once, then disappeared.
“Anyone down there?” Connors called to me from the main tunnel.
“No,” I said as I turned around to leave. “No survivors down here.”
Connors knew the moment I turned back to face him that I was lying. He narrowed his eyes and took a step toward me.
“Bullshit, man. What’d you see?”
I held his gaze for a moment. “Eyes. Human ones.”
He grimaced. “Fuck.”
He was about to say something else but we were interrupted by a scrabbling sound coming from inside the stone opening. It reminded me oddly of my dog’s claws scrambling on our polished wooden floors back home. A dark shape flitted across the opening.
“Fuck,” Connors repeated, his hand going to his sidearm. “Fuck. We gotta go.”
The scrabbling grew louder and a chittering, clicking sound echoed out of the hole. A hand – slender jointed and covered in weeping sores – clutched the edge of the opening.
“Run,” I whispered. Together we took off at a dead sprint. The chittering turned into a feral squeal like a hog bellowing a threat at a predator. We heard the skittering grow louder and then the bone-chilling sound of something weighty slapping the concrete floor in rapid succession.
Neither of us dared to look back. Connors was ten feet ahead of me, his boots kicking up flecks of bone and blood in my face. Whatever the fuck was chasing us didn’t sound like something on two feet. I could hear its limbs hitting the ground in frenzied intervals, like a child running upstairs on all fours. Its chittering cut away for ragged breathing as it loped after us and that awful smell of rotting meat tainted with a chemical afterburn assaulted my sinuses yet again.
We bolted through the tunnel toward the main facility center and were intercepted by Keys and another man named Sheaf a hundred feet from the entrance. Sheaf held an M4A1 rifle to his cheek and had the barrel aimed in our direction.
“In here, both of you!” Keys shouted. She ordered Sheaf to fire the moment we ducked out of the way.
The big man pulled the trigger twice and the shots briefly deafened me in close quarters. I heard a loud squeal further up the hall followed by the sound of retreating footsteps. Hopefully whatever the fuck that thing was got the message.
As Keys hustled us further down the hallway, a ringing subsided in my ears. For a ridiculous moment, I worried about potentially getting tinnitus. Then I shook my head.
Of all the things to worry about, a ringing in my ear was nothing. It was certainly far better than whatever fate had been suffered by the poor bastard sitting a little further down the hallway. His skull had been shorn off at the mouth and, oddly, his tongue and teeth were missing. I carefully stepped over him and followed Keys through a large metal door which Sheaf quickly shut behind him.
I spent a minute regaining control of my heartbeat. Connors did the same. As we slowly recovered, we debriefed Keys on what we’d seen. Connors did most of the talking, though he left out the part where I’d initially lied. After what we just went through, I think he understood on some level why one might feel compelled to deny the existence of that thing.
Once I had my heart rate more or less back to normal, I looked around the room we’d been herded into. It was a lab. An unusually clean room for what we’d seen beyond that metal door. It was lined with white tiling and filled with shiny metal tables which held various canisters, tubes, and electronic equipment. While Sheaf sat on a low chair by the door to check his weapon, Keys went over to another table near the back of the room where the rest of our team stood. They were all crowded around something I couldn’t make out.
As I approached, I briefly nodded to Bronson and Sikes. Bronson was a slim, slightly older man with sandy blonde hair flecked in grey and stubble permanently shadowing his chin. Sikes was a slender woman who came up to my shoulder. Her dark hair was pulled back into a severe bun that accented a young, serious face. The two of them stood beside Larson, the final member of our team. He had a reedy build, fiery red hair, and thick-framed glasses. Long, slender hands that reminded me of the ones reaching through that grate carefully worked their way over something on the table. Something I instantly regretted looking at as soon as I joined them.
They stood over another man dressed in a lab coat who was laid back on the table. I was surprised to see he was alive, albeit unconscious. At least I prayed he was unconscious.
Larson had rolled the man’s right pant leg up to the thigh. The back of his calf from his knee to his Achilles tendon was nothing but gangrenous flesh eaten away to the bone. It looked like something had taken a large oval-shaped bite out of his leg and left the rest to fester into oblivion. I watched as Larson carefully sliced away the infected bits, cleaned the exposed muscle and tissue out with a nausea-inducing medicine, and then wrapped the entire thing up in a clean bandage. Out of all of us, he had the most experience with serious wounds in the field. He wrapped the man’s leg up tight and ordered Bronson and Sikes to make a pair of crutches for the scientist.
As they did that, Connors joined us and Larson explained how they’d found him.
“We were doing a more detailed sweep of the tunnels and we heard something clatter down the hallway. We saw this guy limping toward this lab like a bat out of hell. Made pretty good time for someone with only half his leg.” He shook his head. “I tried telling him we were friendly, but that didn’t do much. He screamed and fought us before we were able to sedate him.” Larson leaned back in his chair right as Bronson and Sikes returned with makeshift crutches made from chair legs and lengths of wire. “I want to amputate it,” Larson continued, “But these operating conditions aren’t exactly ideal.”
Sikes eyed us carefully. “What happened down at the other end of the tunnel? We heard you guys running and something chittering, then Sheaf’s gun going off.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know what it is, but it was fast and nasty.”
“What did it look like?” she pressed.
“We didn’t get a good look, but Sheaf shot at it.”
We all looked at the big man. His square jaw and crew cut would’ve made him at home in any combat unit. He simply shrugged. “It was human, naked, real skinny. Lots of wounds and cuts all over its body. Didn’t see much more than that before I fired.”
“How many of them were there?” Bronson asked.
“Not sure,” I said. “We only saw the one but…”
“There’s no way only one of these things could kill an entire fucking base,” Connors finished.
We let that little revelation sink in.
Suddenly, I wanted very badly to get the fuck out of there. But Keys wanted more information out of our friend. What exactly happened here? Whether there might be more survivors deeper in the tunnels. I selfishly hoped there weren’t.
In the meantime, we remained locked behind that door. Apparently, it was sturdy enough to keep our new scientist friend safe.
We waited for a little while for the sedative to wear off. It took maybe twenty minutes.
When the scientist eventually stirred, Larson had Sheaf and Connors hold him down so he couldn’t hurt himself. The scientist opened his eyes slowly, regarded us, and immediately began thrashing.
“NOOOOO!” He howled, arching his back against the table and thrashing so hard Sheaf almost lost his grip. “YOU WON’T TAKE ANYMORE OF ME YOU FUCKING BASTARDS! LET ME GO OR FUCKING KILL ME!”
“HEY! HEY! HEY!” Keys shouted. She grabbed the man by his shoulders and looked him square in the eyes. “You’re not in any danger, okay? We’re part of a medical evac unit. We just found you and fixed your leg up. We’re gonna get you out of here, alright?”
The scientist seemed to calm down a little. He nodded slowly and Sheaf and Connors relaxed their grip. He tried sitting up and cried out when his leg clipped the table. Larson immediately reached around to support his shoulders while Sikes caught his leg and helped him swing it into a sitting position. I instinctively offered him my canteen which he accepted gratefully.
He drained nearly half of it before taking another breath. Wiping his mouth with a stained sleeve, he handed it back to me. “Thanks.”
Keys leaned in again. “Sir, could you tell me your name?”
“Ketterman. Doctor Joseph Ketterman.”
“Doctor,” Keys said slowly. “Would you be willing to tell us what happened here? What happened to those people out there? What did all this?”
Ketterman gazed back at her, his eyes pale as cold slate. For a moment, I swore I saw guilt cross his face, but it was quickly replaced by resignation.
“Give me a moment,” he sighed. “I feel as though I just returned from the dead.”
We nodded and Bronson offered him a cigarette. Ketterman smoked it in two greedy puffs, downed some more water, massaged his thigh muscle, and finally took a deep breath.
“We fucked up,” he said with no preamble. “Monumentally. More specifically, we created something monstrous. A weapon. A biological toxin in a gaseous form designed to degenerate a subject’s body on a cellular level. It would lead to massive organ failure, eat through skin and sinew, and break one’s body down at its most basic levels. The skin reddens with irritation, then blackens, the immune system fails, and the subject would essentially rot from within like a pumpkin. We meant for it to be an instrument of war. Something so ungodly, so horrific, that it would induce obedience into generations of whoever we were fighting at the time.”
He swallowed hard.
“Our… test subjects started small. Rodents, felines, canines, that sort of thing. All of them succumbed to the effects in a matter of minutes. We’d cut their bodies open and they’d be filled with tumors. Their bones broke apart like glass and their veins slithered out of the incisions. We knew the gas was effective because our subjects never stopped squealing from the pain. And we administered painkillers, believe me. They had no effect. Six months of trials showed complete success with our animal subjects, so our commanding officer flew in to review our progress. He was quite proud. When he left he…”
Ketterman paused to gulp some more water.
“He ordered us to begin human trials. We asked where we might get those and he mentioned that we had plenty of prisoners captured in the surrounding areas. We could use them.”
My insides squirmed at the way Ketterman recounted all of this. So matter-of-fact. No emotion in his voice. We all watched him with rapt attention, hanging onto his every word.
“We discovered that using the gas on humans had an unintended side effect. The cellular degeneration eroded their brains and turned them into regressive versions of themselves. They quickly lost the ability to speak, control basic impulses, and recognize one another. But their instincts didn’t devolve completely. They retained a primal intelligence, similar to early hominids. They could understand their pain and what they were being used for. Process their bodies slowly shutting down. The worst thing, though, was what they did to compensate for it.
“We had a pair of prisoners, a mother and son. The son was maybe seventeen years old. I don’t recall where they came from, but we tested the gas on the two of them together. Their bodies began to break down in minutes; the mother first, then the son. They degenerated quickly and struggled to recognize one another as their skin broke out into monstrous hives. The son was clawing at his abdomen. He managed to rip through his skin and pull his entrails out. They were blackened and calcified. We watched him disembowel himself while his mother tried to help him. She kept trying to cover up his wound with her hands, but it did nothing. Then the son turned on his mother. He attacked her and beat her to death. He started tearing at her body, removed her organs, and… tried sliding them back into his own. Eventually, he collapsed at the fifteen-minute mark. I swear we checked his vitals to make sure he was dead before we sent someone in to clean up the bodies. But when our man grabbed the son, he lunged at them and bit him in the neck. Tore his throat clean out. Then he ran for the door, leaped on the guard coming in to help, and killed him too.
“No one was prepared for how ferociously he attacked. He down the tunnel, looking for something. Eventually, he came to one of the rooms where we stored the gas canisters.” Ketterman shook his head. “I hadn’t realized he’d been smart enough to take the guard’s key card before he killed them. He took some of the canisters out and threw them down the tunnel. More guards were there by this point and they started shooting at him. Bullets met canisters and…” Ketterman mimicked an explosion with his hands. “The gas was dispersed through the main tunnel into the central room. Dozens of innocent men and women choked, convulsed, and collapsed where they stood. I only managed to avoid them because I was locked away in here. Gas couldn’t penetrate my lab. But everyone else… attacked one another. Ripped each other apart limb from limb. The son was their ring leader. The scariest part was how smart they were. He stopped them from doing too much damage to the bodies. I believe he was trying to harvest their organs to supplement the effects of the gas.”
Ketterman rubbed his chin.
“The main door was locked down from within. Manual override in case a leak just like this one transpired. I messed my leg up trying to fix it, but one of those bastards caught hold of me before I could get back in. I’ve been waiting for your team to come for weeks. And now here we are.”
I regarded Ketterman in silence. He looked eager to get out of here and I couldn’t blame him.
Keys said, “Are you positive there were no other survivors?”
“Just me,” Ketteman said.
Keys drew her pistol, leveled it at Ketterman’s head, and shot him. Everyone jumped back.
A spray of blood erupted from the back of the scientist’s skull as he flopped back on the table.
“JESUS FUCK!” Connors yelled, holding his hands over his ears. “What the fuck are you doing?”
I rubbed my ears. The tinnitus clanged against my eardrums like a train whistle.
Keys calmly slid her pistol back into its holster. “You think I’m gonna let an evil motherfucker like that back into the world?”
“I thought we were meant to be a passive rescue force,” Larson muttered. He eyed his handiwork which now meant nothing.
“There’s nothing passive about this Larson.” Keys laid a hand on his shoulder. “Look, I’m not sure who’s in charge of this place, but judging by what Mengele Junior just told us, it created something worse than we could ever imagine. We’re getting the fuck out of here and bringing this place down behind us. Got it?”
Larson met her gaze for a moment, then nodded. She looked at the rest of us. Bronson, Sikes, Sheaf, Connors, me. We looked from her to the limp body of Ketterman. Then Connors nodded slowly. “Whatever the fuck was in that tunnel wasn’t human. If it’s some emaciated demon spawn or something, it needs to die.” He shouldered his gun. “So let’s get the fuck out of here.”
I found myself nodding again. We could bring back some real firepower. Keep these things trapped here, then bring the mountain down on them. More than anything I wanted to get out.
Sheaf went to open the door but stopped a moment before he unlocked it.
“Do you guys hear that?”
We froze and strained our ears. Beyond the metal door, we heard a skittering sound. Multiple skittering sounds. Chitters and chuffs like wild boars communicating with one another filtered into the lab. We listened as the creatures scooted into the facility center and realized what they were doing a moment before it happened.
My heart pulsed as the grinding of the doors closing rumbled the mountain. The creatures knew how to shut the door. Most likely from observing one of the staff members trying to open it up during the initial outbreak.
And Ketterman had just so very helpfully pointed out the way to open it from within was busted.
We were trapped.
Horror settled over the group like a fog. I felt blood rush past my ears.
Locked in an isolated location. Only a few people knew where we were. Three feet of steel and rock shutting us off from the world. No other potential ways out.
And a pack of intelligent, feral humanoids painfully aware of our presence here.
“Well, what do we do now?” Bronson asked softly.
Everyone started sharing their opinions all at once. Fight, call for help, bed down. The usual.
Keys eventually got control of things. Her cropped blonde hair gleamed dirtily in the flickering light of the lab. The slow drip of Ketterman’s brains oozing onto the floor punctuated the silence.
“Let’s go over what we know and take it from there,” she said. “Now Ketterman told us he was injured trying to fix the controls that opened the door which means that not only is there a way to open the fucking things from inside, but they’re close enough to this lab for an injured middle-aged man to stagger back too with those things on his heels. Beyond that, we know these creatures can be hurt. The one Sheaf shot at retreated immediately. We also know we can still get a comms signal out, weakened or not, because Doctor Fuckface was patching through requests for help to us.” She pointed toward the door.
“I say we go out there quietly, weapons primed, and head for the control center. We’ll find the door controls and have a team work on fixing that while another two work on comms. The rest will provide cover. Any questions?”
No one said a word.
“Good. Sheaf, Sikes, you two will work on the door. Larson and I will work on the comms.” She nodded to Bronson, Connors, and myself. “You three will stand guard.” She had Sheaf hand his rifle over to me. Not everyone in our unit came armed to the gills. We had three rifles between us, the rest had pistols, and all of us carried standard army knives. This was the first time I ever regretted not having a heavier-duty gun. Sheaf’s M4A1 felt heavy in my hands, but the weight was reassuring. I checked to ensure a round was already chambered and the safety on before doing the same with my pistol. I also loosened my knife in its scabbard. You could never be too careful.
“Also, no firing indiscriminately,” Keys mentioned. “Two round taps only. Oh, and try to keep in mind that we’re in a place where almost every surface is stone, metal, or concrete. So physics is not our friend. Be mindful of ricochets.”
Another obstacle to add to our growing list.
Together, we waited and listened. We could hear the creatures skittering around the compound, squealing and clicking at one another. I began to realize the sounds were less random than they seemed. A form of communication these things created to replace their voices. Did the gas rot their vocal cords away too? It seemed likely.
For some reason that saddened me more than scared me. Unwilling human experiments suffering a dark hell in the bowels of some remote mountain facility. Their bodies shutting down on them like cancerous tumors. No one deserved that.
I shook my head and returned to the present. Beyond the door, we heard the creatures recede into the darkness back to their lair. Keys made us wait for fifteen minutes to pass in perfect silence before she cracked open the door and had Connors stalk forward a pace or two with his gun. I came right after him, then the others with their pistols drawn and Bronson in the back to cover our tail.
“Remember,” Keys ordered softly, “as quiet as possible.”
As one, we crept out into the main tunnel, guns bristling in both directions, and made our way toward the center.
Immediately, I could feel a difference in the air. A staleness that came with a lack of airflow through the mountain. The smells of human remains and chemically tainted flesh were more prevalent. I squeezed the handgrip on Sheaf’s weapon so tight it whitened my knuckles. Double taps to preserve ammo, Keys had said. The cool metal of the rifle rubbed against my cheek as I imagined firing at one of those things. As we trekked toward the front, I gently nudged Sheaf.
“How hard was it to hit that thing?” I asked softly.
“Hard,” the larger man replied. “It was fast and agile and ugly as a motherfucker. But it ain’t invincible.”
“Might sound silly,” he added as we closed in on the facility center, “but just imagine you’re back home plugging cans with a .22. Relax, aim, squeeze, fire. That’s how I was when your ass came booking it back up here like your nuts were on fire.”
“Copy that,” I said with a quiet laugh. After a moment, I did as he recommended and relaxed my stance and grip. My hands stopped shaking and my heart rate slowed.
Behind me, Sikes called out quietly: “Found it.”
I didn’t turn to see what she’d found. Connors and I kept our barrels trained on the graveyard of lab equipment and bodies in the main cavern, roving for the slightest movement. We let Sheaf tap us and tug us back into a glass-windowed room elevated five feet above the cave floor. Within, a bank of dusty controls, computers, and other equipment sat cracked and stained in blood. A hand severed at the elbow still clung to one of the monitors, the flesh blackened around the tips. Larson carefully removed it before Sheaf and Sikes set to work figuring out where the controls for the door were. Larson and Keys headed for a battered radio station ten feet further down. I took point by the door with Connors beside me and Bronson situated himself beside a shattered window between our two groups.
At first, things went surprisingly well. Larson and Keys had the most success. They managed to open up the radio and patch things up enough to comb the waves for a signal. The low whine of static seemed deafening to me, but I supposed the risk was worth it.
Sheaf and Sikes faced a more difficult situation. The controls for the entrance were simple enough, but the lever designed to open and close the massive door was jammed by a bloody shin bone. I wondered if it had been rammed in there on purpose. It looked as though someone, probably Ketterman, had hacked away at it. Splinters of meat and gristle glistened amid the gears so Keys had Sikes carefully work the matter free with her knife. Sheaf oversaw the electronics. Despite the damage to the surrounding equipment, the controls had clearly been built to withstand the corrosive environment of a cave. Blood matted most surfaces, but underneath the damage was mostly superficial. What worried Keys the most was the potential of wrecking the lever’s inner controls even further as the shin bone got removed. Sikes seemed painfully aware of this as she continued to slice away slivers of it in microscopic amounts.
Connors and I remained completely focused on our surroundings. He kept his sight on the tunnel and the stairs leading up to the control room, I swept the depths of the control center. I did my best to keep Sheaf’s advice in mind.
Bronson stood by the shattered window, equally alert while Keys rotated the radio dial through different stations. A sudden crackle got everyone’s attention as she broke through into the outside world. “….Base… 74-…. This is…. -oral… Lancing with… hear me?” It sounded so good to hear someone else’s voice in here that I almost laughed.
Keys maintained her composure as she spoke, though the relief on her face was evident. “We can hear you, Corporal Lancing. This is Captain Keys Jameson with the 112th Aeromedical Unit out of Camp Hartwell Marine Base. We were tasked with securing the Tantalus Site. Coordinates are three-three point…” She listed off the coordinates and then spent the next few minutes bouncing back and forth with the man on the other line. We weren’t sure how much information went through, but just the idea that someone beyond our initial contacts knew about us sent a wave of relief through my body.
I was still smiling when Bronson had his throat ripped out.
The creature must’ve waited in the shadows of the ceiling above us. It attacked so quickly that Bronson didn’t even have time to scream. He still had his gun leveled toward the broken window when a pair of greasy, gangly arms sliced out of the gloom, wrapped their claws around his neck and face and yanked him over the control bank with an incredible amount of force.
Bronson’s gun went off, firing bullets indiscriminately as two fingers sank into the flesh under his chin and exploded out of his mouth. Blood and teeth poured onto the equipment array while the creature used his lower jaw to drag him forward into the cavern. I caught a fleeting, horrid glimpse of the thing’s face. It reminded me of cadavers we’d operated on when we removed the skin from the muscle to study facial anatomy. Only this thing’s face was covered in weeping yellow sores, blackened flesh, and pitted fissures. Strands of hair clung to its scalp and dangled in front of bugged-out eyes. It lacked lips and a nose, bearing a ragged hole in place of both, and its teeth were reed-thin, the color of rotted blood. Those teeth sank into Bronson’s face as he was yanked onto the cavern floor below, his screams coming out in pitiful gargles.
Without thinking, I ran and threw myself through the window after them and came crashing down on the humanoid’s legs.
It screamed and ripped its jaws away from Bronson’s face, taking most of his cheek and ear with it. I tried squeezing off a shot from my rifle, but couldn’t make enough room. Instead, I ripped my knife out of my belt, and plunged it blindly into the thing’s chest and stomach. The blade drove in like a nail through rotted wood. The creature screamed and scrabbled under me, cutting at my fatigues with its ragged claws. Flesh sloughed off its body, falling away around the knife and I kept cutting. I barely registered the needle-sharp talons raking across my body. Shallow grooves sliced into my arms, chest, and abdomen, blood saturated my hands as I shoved them into the creature’s guts, letting fury propel me as I disemboweled its rotting insides.
The creature let out a horrendous wail and bashed my head back against the concrete. I couldn’t register the pain. Too much adrenaline. My eyesight went fuzzy, tarry entrails squelched in my hands, blood seeped out of places it shouldn’t, and the stench of death swirled out of the thing’s awful mouth.
The creature’s face caved in on itself as high-powered bullets ripped its head apart. Blackened tissue and pieces of skull oozed down onto my face and into my mouth. The taste of expired meat seeped between my gums. I coughed and spat and shoved the fucking thing off me.
Hands slid under my armpits and hauled me up. Connors supported me while Sheaf grabbed Bronson’s limp body and slung him over one shoulder. Keys grabbed my gun and ordered us to get back to the lab.
We were about to head out before I yelled for them to stop, lurched back around, raised by boot, and brought it down squarely on the creature’s head, crushing it into a mass of black and red pulp.
“Rot in hell, you bloodthirsty fuck!”
I stomped again. I didn’t want it coming back. This was insurance.
“Come on!” Connors hauled me back the way we came. Keys shouted some more. Bronson stained Sheaf’s shoulders with dark blood. Larson and Sikes became our lookouts.
From the bowels of the facility came a swelling wail as if in answer to the one given by the creature I’d killed. The tunnel came alive with the sounds of chitters and squeals as we lugged ourselves back into the lab.
Only when Sikes slammed the door did I finally feel the adrenaline abate. Sheaf dumped Bronson on one of the lab tables and Connors lowered me into a chair.
Larson tried to inspect me, but I waved him to Bronson. “Him first, man!”
A strange look crossed over Larson’s face. A mixture of sadness and guilt.
“Bronson’s dead.” He said it matter-of-factly. I shook my head, my vision sloshing in my skull.
“Like fuck he is! Check his pulse! Staunch his wounds! Fucking do something!”
Larson lowered himself to my eye level and slowly tilted my head to where Bronson lay. Even in my frenzied state, I could see he was gone. Most of his throat and lower face were gone. A gaping hole was all that was left, stained with slimy remains. My eyes tracked over him to the next table and something chilled me to my bones.
“Where the fuck’s Ketterman?”
“Where the fuck is he?” I repeated. The table where his lifeless corpse had laid was now empty save for a circle of blood at one end.
Everyone went back on high alert as the lab was searched but no trace of his body was found. Then Sheaf pointed to a thin, almost invisible trail of blood leading from the table to the door of the lab.
“Those things took him.” It wasn’t a question.
“They took him while we were figuring out the controls,” Connors muttered. “Jesus.”
“Fuck,” I grunted, then hissed when Larson peeled away my fatigues to reveal a long laceration down my right bicep. “Fuck you too.”
“Hey now,” he leveled his spectacles at me like a disappointed father. “No cursing out your doctor.”
I watched as his nimble fingers began probing my flesh around the various cuts I’d received from the creature. Two on my right arm, one down my jaw along the neck and collarbone, and two more over my sternum. None were too deep, but they did burn like a motherfucker. Larson had to pour a stinging chemical over all of them which led to another round of curses. Then he closed them with a binding agent that would allow the wounds to stretch and flex without too much risk of splitting open.
As he worked on me, Keys, Sikes, and Sheaf all stood vigil over Bronson. They cleaned the blood from his neck and face, cut away any residual filth from his clothes, and closed his eyes. Keys looked guilty when she ordered his non-personals to be rationed out. His tags and personal effects were zipped away to be returned to his family when we got out of here.
After what felt like an appropriate amount of time, Keys had Connors drape a large sheet over his body.
“I know how hard this is for all of you,” she said slowly. “We’re not a combat unit, we’re a rescue team. But sometimes shit goes sideways and we have to adapt. Bronson was an excellent member of our team. We’re going to get the fuck out of here no matter what happens, okay?”
The rest of us nodded, even as the bigger question lingers above our heads like a mounting storm.
Did our message make it out?
In the meantime, Keys assumed the role of the delegator. She had us strip ourselves of our MREs, weapons, tools, and medical supplies. The point of this, she said, was to get an idea of how long we might last down here if rescue took a while to come.
Judging by our rations and water, we could stretch things for three days. Perhaps four.
Weapons-wise, we still had most of our ammo save for the clip Bronson sprayed when he got grabbed.
Larson kept himself busy by tending to my wounds more often than necessary, but I let him do whatever he needed because I think taking care of someone kept his mind off Bronson and, to some extent, Ketterman. Evil as the man was, Larson had still taken a vow to care for everyone to the best of his ability.
Personally, I felt for him. But also knew killing the scientist had been the right thing. I felt similarly about crushing the skull of that creature. In the heat of the moment, it felt so incredibly vindicating to slaughter Bronson’s killer. But now I could only imagine the mother and son from that experiment. They didn’t ask for any of this. The gas corrupted them beyond all human recognition, destabilizing their minds until they were only driven by the most primal urges. They were forced to skitter through the facility as cannibalistic byproducts of our newest weapon. To either subside on the gutted flesh of those they’d once been or to suffer death by devolving into a living husk of their former selves.
Not much of a choice.
I watched as Larson’s hands swept over the angry ridges in my flesh.
“It’s a fucked situation,” I said quietly.
He grunted. In the harsh light, his coppery hair looked like blood.
“Thank you for fixing me up. I wish… I wish I’d been quicker to get to Bronson. I could’ve done more.” A hollow chord caught in my throat.
Larson stopped massaging my wounds and looked me square in the eye. Then he pinched one of my cuts.
I gasped from the pain. “The fuck are you doing, asshole?”
He smiled and released. “Just making sure you aren’t turning into a self-pitying twat. Bronson was not your fault and you did more than anyone else to try and save him. So every time you say something stupid, I’m going to pinch one of your cuts.”
“I was trying to be heartfelt!”
“You were trying to wallow in your grief. Cut it out.”
I glared at him. “You are one miserable fucking bastard, you know that?”
Larson straightened himself up proudly. “I do as a matter of fact.”
“Fine.” Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t help smiling. “I hope we get out of here.”
“If you keep moaning on and on, probably not.”
“You know what? I think the creature nicked one of the arteries high up on my thigh. Why don’t I pull down my pants so you can get on your knees and kiss my hairy, white a-”
“Everyone?” Keys’ voice cut through the lab. “Could you gather around?”
She got us all circled around the table that held our weapons, food, and other supplies.
“From here on out, we’re going to be going on half-rations. Obviously it’s not ideal, but what we have will only be good for three to four days. In the interim, we’ll keep an ear out for that door and for the creatures. There’s really not much else to do. Keep yourselves fit, play card games, talk, sleep, everything you’ve been taught to do to avoid letting your mind wander. Any questions?”
No one said anything for a moment. Then Sikes raised her hand. “What happens if we hit that three to four-day mark and no one’s come?”
Keys lifted one of the pistols lying on the table. “Then we armor up and raid the canteen.”
The next several days proved difficult to put it mildly. With no natural light to mark the passage of time, we depended mostly on our watches and internal clocks. But adrenaline, fear, and the admittedly unpleasant aroma of Bronson’s corpse beginning to rot made it hard.
We employed every trick in the book to alleviate our boredom. Slept, played cards, tried mind games, discussed our pasts and plans for the future, taught one another knife tricks, and exchanged advice about working in the field. My wounds closed nicely, the flesh beginning to bind into neat lines. There would always be scars, but Larson said there were no signs of infection.
But in the end, no one could ignore the edge of anxiety creeping into the lab, weaving its way into every conversation, game, and thought we attempted to distract ourselves with. We were trapped somewhere cold, dangerous, and remote. Creatures stronger than us prowled the darkness, waiting us out. The days ticked by on my watch, slow as molasses and far too quickly at the same time. Our rations dwindled and thinned, we lost valuable weight, and Keys finally called it on the morning of the fourth day.
“We haven’t heard anything,” she said. “I’m not going to draw this out with some grandiose speech. This is survival and those things out there can get fucked. We need food and water.” She pointed at Larson and me to come with her. Sheaf, Connors, and Sikes would stay back to watch over Bronson’s body and to also ensure none of the creatures snuck in for another ambush.
No one argued.
This time I armed myself with my pistol and knife and left the rifles to Larson and Keys. I figured they’d serve me better in close quarters given how fast those bastards were.
We took a moment to gear up. Then, after giving the others a brief nod, we slid back out into the sprawling tunnels of the Tantalus Site.
I kept my ears pricked and my pistol in front of me. Keys and Larson took point and rear. I came up the middle. Crusted blood and dried entrails crunched softly underfoot as we entered the murky gloom of the devastated center. I tried not to look at the blood staining the window of the comms station.
Keys led the way to the canteen which sat thirty feet from the tunnel entrance. She ducked into a long tent lined with low wooden benches. A metal table near the front marked where food would be served and she immediately swept around it toward the kitchen in the back. Within the confines of the tent, Keys risked a little light to illuminate the tiny area.
“Jackpot,” she whispered as her beam fell upon shelf after shelf of nonperishable goods – cans, dried meats, sacks of sugar and flour, powdered milk. She grinned at us. “We’ll fill our packs with as much as we can carry then hightail it back, got it?”
We all nodded.
Keys was reaching up to grab a can when she looked over my shoulder and went pale.
“Down!” The word was a rushed whisper as she grabbed me and Larson and yanked us to the ground. We all went prone in the shadows of the serving tables.
The scent of putrid, rotting meat invaded my nose and all the hairs stiffened along my neck.
One of the humanoids appeared at the entrance of the canteen. Its withered body glistened wetly in the dim light. The thing was swiveling its head around from side to side, teeth chattering as it searched. Flecks of mucus bubbled from the pits around its nose as it tested the air.
I realized then that these things were blind. What tactical advantages that afforded me at the moment I didn’t know. I could only focus on the way the thing crawled and swayed around like a giant spider, sensing its surroundings and clutching the table beneath it with impossibly long fingers. It remained crouched where it was for a minute.
My gaze drifted down to Larson, who stared back at me, full of dread. He held my gaze for a long moment then looked down at something beneath us. I looked down and my heart skipped.
One of the cans we’d stuffed in our packs teetered precariously, threatening to drop onto the ground.
I slowly reached down, moving as carefully as I could manage. The can trembled and the creature leaped from the table to the ground mere feet from us. Its feet dug into the stone floor. Gooey tar-like saliva slipped from its mouth and landed inches from Larson’s face.
He flinched and the can tumbled onto the floor with a clang.
The creature squealed with rage and lunged at him. I raised my pistol and fired.
My first bullet caught it square in the jaw, splintering its teeth like rotted planks. The second came a moment later and struck it in the neck, where a fountain of thick blood oozed out. But the monster still managed to land a powerful swipe that dug deep into Larson’s shoulders and sliced down his spine. The man screamed while Keys scrambled to her feet and fired more shots at the creature until it went down in a jerking heap.
Larson bucked and gargled blood, but we had no time to help him as three more humanoids crashed their way through the roof of the canteen tent and launched themselves at us.
One went for Keys, two at me and Larson. Just my fucking luck. I fired indiscriminately at the closest one, cutting through its slimy organs with satisfying THWOCKS. One shattered its shoulder blade and it spun off balance, but it still landed a brutal swipe to my side. Fortunately, it only caught me with its forearm rather than its claws or else my guts would’ve been splashing over a still-bucking Larson.
The other creature came at me full force and rammed its spindly shoulder square into my sternum, launching me across the kitchen into the wall of food.
I groaned and slid to the floor as cans rained down around me.
Keys screamed bloody murder as she tore at her attacker with her knife. She raked her blade over its skull, throat, and back like a deranged leopard, opening up deep, seeping gashes everywhere. I almost felt sorry for the creature until I saw it hiss and sink its claws into her shoulder, puncturing her upper arm. She called it a “cave-dwelling rock fucker” and stuck her knife into its ear, all the way up to the hilt.
The humanoid released her just in time for me to refocus on the one who’d rammed me into the pantry. It approached slowly and sniffed around. I realized the clanging of the cans had obscured my specific whereabouts. It took another step forward and found Larson. In a flash, it had its claws in his back, peeling his uniform and flesh away to reveal the stark nakedness of his muscles and ribs.
Larson screamed again and the creature bared its teeth, giving me time to palm a can of Chef Boyardee’s and hurl it with as much force as I could muster.
Metal on bone rang through the tent. A large gouge opened in the creature’s face, its nose and teeth pulping into a mash of slimy tissue. The creature wailed and stumbled back, clutching its face. I rose and hurled another can at it. Then another and another. Each one punched into its emaciated body like meteors stabbing into a new planet. They tore craters in its guts, face, and chest. I took one final bloodied can and brought it crashing down on the thing’s head, parting its brains with a sickening squelch. The thing flopped on the ground and lay silent.
Wheeling around, I caught a quick glimpse of the one Keys had stabbed through the ear making swipes at her. She grabbed its ear and the hilt of her knife and rammed her knee into the point of its chin. Its face exploded like a rotting pumpkin.
We stared panting at each other, caught in the overwhelming fervor of the brief, but bloody battle.
A dark shape moved in the corner of my eye and I whirled around to see the one I’d shot lunging toward me, injured but still very much alive.
Larson’s knife punched into its neck in a perfectly timed throw. He swooned from his position on his knees. The creature collapsed wailing on the ground where it thrashed until Keys’ boot found its head.
As she ensured the others were all well and truly dead, I knelt over Larson to look at his wounds. It was painfully evident he wouldn’t be making it, but he didn’t need to know. Instead, I simply held him and muttered thank you for everything he’d done until he drifted away.
Eventually, Keys put her hand on my shoulder and began to say something, but a scream ripped through the cavern from the direction of the lab.
A heartbeat later, we were sprinting down the tunnel. We heard footsteps coming toward us from the direction of the creatures’ lair and raised our guns, but it was only Connors. He looked wild. Part of his scalp hung bleeding against the side of his face and his fatigues were stained in blood and slime. I was relieved that he wasn’t seriously injured, but the expression on his face stopped me cold.
“Sikes,” he panted. “They dragged Sikes into that fucking hole.”
“Fuck! Where’s Sheaf?” Keys demanded, trying to get things in order as best she could. The question might have seemed callous, but it was the only way we could figure things out without wasting time.
Connors managed to grow even paler. “He’s… I don’t know man… he’s in a bad way.” Without another word, he led us to the lab where Sheaf sat at one of the tables.
At first, I thought he was dead. His barrel-shaped chest had been bisected diagonally by a creature and his guts spilled out into his lap. A giant purpling bruise colored the flesh around his temple and his body was lacerated with deep, agonizing lacerations. Around his feet lay the pulverized remains of at least three more creatures.
Then he sucked a breath in through his nose and lifted his head toward us. I could see his lungs expand and contract through his ragged fatigues.
“K-….eeeeys.” His voice was nothing more than a whisper.
Keys knelt beside him. She didn’t bother with bandages or reassurances. He was gone and she saved his last moments for his final words.
As he passed her his personal things, Connors told me what had happened in brief shaky breaths. A couple of minutes after we were ambushed out in the canteen, someone started pounding on the door to the lab. There were cries to be let in and Sikes thought it had to be one of us since the creatures couldn’t talk. But when she opened the door she found Ketterman.
“He was this… this thing, man. Naked like the others, but not as rotten. His face was peeled off and he was laughing. Things were wriggling in his skin. He had this awful smirk when Sikes opened the door and smacked her aside. Another one of those fuckers knocked the shit out of me and I was out for like a minute. When I woke back up, three of these things were dead, Sikes wrestling with the other one, and Sheaf was fighting with that Ketterman thing.” He shook his head. “Then Ketterman swiped his hand across Sheaf’s chest and opened him up from hip to shoulder like it was nothing. He grabbed Sikes by the hair and dragged her out of here. I tried to run after them, but one of those fucks tackled me and gave him enough time to take her back in that fucking place.”
Connors was close to hyperventilating at this point. I pulled him into a bear hug. “Larson’s gone too.”
We let go of each other just as Sheaf released a sigh. He tilted to one side and slumped across the bench.
Keys added his possessions to Larson’s.
Her jaw was set in a hard line, and the muscles along her neck flexed with fury.
Lifting Sheaf’s rifle in her hands, she looked back at us. “I’m going after Sikes.”
We both nodded without hesitation. We didn’t know if rescue would come or not. Just that we might be able to rescue our friend and grind Ketterman into a bloody pulp. That was enough.
When we arrived at the hole at the end of the tunnel, I no longer found it terrifying. The rusted bars bent inward like jagged teeth, exhaling a rotting stench that I didn’t even register anymore.
Flicking on our flashlights and headlamps, Keys stepped into the darkness first. Then Connors. Then me.
Darkness consumed us as we slid into the den of monsters.
Stepping into the nest was like stepping into the throat of a giant, dormant monster. The air was hot with meat-tainted breath. I turned my light through the engulfing gloom of the cavern. I couldn’t see anything move, but skittering sounds echoed off the walls.
We kept ourselves tightly packed near the center of the cave. Behind us, the grate glowed like a doorway to another dimension. It shrank with each step we took.
“Sikes?” Connors whispered over the metal of his rifle.
Keys nudged him and shook her head. I understood what she was thinking. We needed to find her silently.
Moving as one, we crept toward the rear of a cavern easily the size of the one at the front of the facility. My light revealed strange structures tucked up against the walls. We drew closer and my throat filled with bile.
They were small lean-tos: simple shelters normally made from stretched canvas and wooden supports. But these huts had been bound with bone gut for the supports and flayed human skin for the canvas. All different shades, crusted with blood, sliced and broken in some places.
I was almost grateful when I heard Sikes moan from somewhere deeper in the cavern. Beside me, I could feel Connors tensing, ready to run for her but I caught him this time.
“Ketterman,” I mouthed silently. We already knew he could vocalize human sounds. What was to stop him from mimicking Sikes’ groaning to bait us into a trap?
“Forward together,” Keys whispered.
It was a good plan. We covered our angles well and our lights gave us at least twenty feet of visibility.
Then Ketterman started taunting us.
“Yoooooou let me take her, Cooonnnnoooors,” he sang. Well, “sang” wasn’t exactly the right word. It was more of a hiss punctuated by wet giggles. Like someone fighting for air. “She begged and screamed. Maybe I should just slice her open nooooooooow.”
Sikes gave a choking gasp of pain.
I gripped Connors’ arm iron tight. We couldn’t lose him right now.
“I’m gonna kill him…” Connors growled through his teeth.
“Keeeeeeeeeeeys.” Ketterman’s voice pierced my ears again. “So many dead. Sikes will be soon. You failed. Faaaaaaaailed.”
Like Connors, Keys stiffened but held strong. We could hear Sikes’ labored breathing from somewhere beyond our lights. The cavern grew narrower toward the rear. For a flicker of a moment, I thought I detected something moving in the shadows.
My name rasped out of Ketterman’s throat. “Larson fixed you,” he sang. “Heeeeeealed you. And you let him die in the dark. Cut open like a piiiiiiiiiig.”
It was my turn to tremble. Ketterman’s words cut me to the bone. Something about his voice dredged up my worst memories. My guiltiest fears. I wanted to rush at him through the darkness and bash his brains in. A hand slithered under my arm and squeezed my bicep.
Connors held my gaze and nodded toward the darkest part of the cavern. I squinted. Someone was there. A tall, gangly figure standing over another kneeling one.
Connors rushed at him. Keys and I followed, not even bothering to shout.
We came upon a horrific scene. Ketterman stood in front of another skin-hut with Sikes’ skull clasped in his inhumanly long claws. His fingertips burrowed into her temple and lines of blood leaked down the side of her face like melting candle wax. His tallowed flesh looked almost transparent; rotting organs pressed against the sides of his abdomen, oozing blackened blood as they struggled to function. Sores the size of my hand crusted his face, neck, chest, and torso. Malice burned in his lidless eyes which were pointed straight at Keys. His lips peeled back in a cruel smile as he sank his claws deeper into Sikes’ skull.
She cried out again.
Connors lifted his gun, but Keys stopped him. On either side of Ketterman lurked more creatures. They tilted their heads as they tried to pinpoint where we stood.
“Ahhhh, Keys,” Ketterman rasped. “The one responsible for my personal hell. Do you know what these things did to me when they took me from the lab?” He slid his long fingers around the neat bullet hole in his forehead. Then he pushed inside it, withdrew a sliver of brain matter pulped with maggots, and ate it. Sikes looked glassy-eyed as she hung from his grasping hand. “They cut me open,” he hissed. “Packed my innards with the organs of my colleagues.” He trailed a finger down the side of his face. “Then they sprayed me with that infernal fucking gas. I cannot tell you how incredible the pain was. My body felt like it was liquifying in acid, slowly eating away but never dissolving. Burning for eternity.” He spat tar-colored bile on the ground.
Keys tilted her head ever so slightly. “It’s no more than you deserve,” she said, “you fucking monster.”
Ketterman bared his disgusting teeth. “Very well.”
He lifted his hand up to slice Sikes open, but Connors charged at him.
One of the creatures leaped on him, sinking its teeth into the nape of his neck and tearing out a bloody chunk of flesh. Connors collapsed, Keys and I yelled, and Ketterman laughed up to the moment Sikes rammed a sharpened femur into his ragged groin.
Hell unleashed itself.
Sheaf’s words came back to me as two creatures launched themselves my way. Relax, breathe, squeeze, fire. I did so, but I kept squeezing and the bullets exploded out at an incredible rate, ripping through both monsters. They screamed and collapsed on the ground next to a gaping Connors whose neck gurgled blood down his shoulder and face. He still didn’t hesitate in taking out his knife and stabbing the creature closest to him over and over.
Keys was half a moment slower than me getting her weapon up. She dumped half her magazine into the third monster, but got taken out by the fourth. The two of them rolled away with her knife flashing as it drove into the thing’s scabby back and its teeth gnashing at her chest and shoulders.
Sikes had managed to roll away from Ketterman whose seething, strangled outline collapsed against the wall, fingers scrambling at the bone shard between his legs. I took a step towards him when fire lanced my calf. The creature Connors hadn’t stabbed sank its teeth into my leg, opening up flesh and muscle. Roaring in pain, I tried crushing its head with a well-aimed stomp, but it lashed out and knocked me off balance, pulling me to the floor and wrapping its hands around my hips to drag itself toward my neck. I thrashed for all I was worth. The grip these creatures possessed was otherworldly. It crushed my thighs between its arms as I scrambled for my knife but found it had gone flying toward Sikes in the melee.
The creature dragged itself closer, those claws digging like molten pincers into my ribs. Saliva flecked its jagged teeth and a wave of nauseatingly hot breath washed over me. Out of sheer desperation, I made a fist and rammed it down the creature’s throat. Decaying flesh engulfed my knuckles and wrist up to the elbow and the creature choked. Squeezing my eyes closed, I twisted my arm and wrenched upwards, ripping the monster’s head away from its neck in a gout of blackened blood.
Free once more, I rolled to my knees and immediately vomited.
Nearby, Keys continued wrestling with her humanoid, though it was now bleeding from multiple mortal wounds.
Across from me, Ketterman finally wrenched the bone free and turned toward Sikes who was crawling toward my knife. He stalked after her, the bone shard gripped in his long claws. He raised it above his head when something slammed into him from the side.
Connors had somehow lumbered to his feet and tackled the ex-scientist into the skin hut. The structure collapsed under them as my best friend started bashing Ketterman’s face in with his bare fists.
“Fuck you!” he yelled. “Fuck you and this whole goddamned fucking nightmare!”
Ketterman didn’t stand a chance. His body, weakened from everything it had gone through, collapsed like paper mache under Connors’ fists. His face caved in, his teeth disintegrated, and his eyes burst when the bleeding man atop him gouged his sockets.
Connors tore the doctor’s head in two and he went still. The bloodied man swayed atop the creature before collapsing on his back.
Behind me, Keys yelled as she drove her knife deep into the point of the final humanoid’s chin. A moment later, it was silent.
I staggered to my feet and limped over to help Sikes up. She looked battered, but not broken.
The same could not be said for Connors.
His breathing came in ragged, watery gasps. Each one flecked the deep wound in his neck with bubbles of blood. He grinned up at me and we clasped gore-soaked hands one final time.
Sikes knelt beside him and smiled shakily.
“S-Safe?” he whispered.
Connors smiled, finally content. I watched as his eyes settled on the darkness above where they became unfocused. He was gone.
Keys watched respectfully. She cradled her injured arm and winced when she helped Sikes to her feet. Both of them pulled me up and the three of us surveyed the carnage.
We were alive. Wounded to various degrees, but alive.
We spent the next hour constructing a litter for Connors to drag his body out of that place. If there was one thing we could do for him, it was that.
I almost cried when we dragged ourselves back to the hole. The light shining through it felt almost blinding and the fresh air never tasted sweeter.
It took a long time to get Connors back up to the main center. Our wounds slowed us down considerably. The bite in my leg had bled quite a bit before Keys wrapped it up in a tight bandage. I was worried about potential infection, but that would have to wait.
Presently, we made sure to bring everyone out into the cavern where they could be laid to rest side by side. We owed them that much.
As we worked, another worry ate at us. Would help be coming?
Keys checked the radio again but found it smashed to bits. Most likely Ketterman’s work while we were holed up in the lab. She shrugged and looked at Sikes and me.
“It’s out of our hands now.”
So we waited. We treated one another’s wounds as best we could. Keys had to cut away a considerable amount of loose flesh from my calf and clean it out. The ligaments in her right shoulder were permanently injured and we had to set it after discovering it had been dislocated. Sikes experienced trouble with blurry vision in her right eye from where Ketterman cut her with a claw. She also had nerve damage in her right hand from where the bone shard cut into some tendons. We also displayed plenty of minor cuts and bruises that we fixed up with our dwindling supplies.
All in all, we were a sorry bunch of bastards. Bloodied, broken, fear shifting around in our guts like broken glass. But there was nothing left to do now.
I ate cans of cold soup, slept on a stained cot, and made small talk with Keys and Sikes when they were in the mood.
The bodies of our comrades lay cold under sheets in a neat row near the doors. If rescue did come, we wanted them to be the first ones to enjoy it.
Time became shapeless in that cavern.
Then, one day (or night for all I knew), I awoke to a faint rumbling. I staggered out of my cot, finding Sikes and Keys already on their feet, looking equally confused.
We stared at the doors as they began to vibrate and grind inward. We eyed one another breathlessly.
Rust shivered off the cold metal doors, lab equipment trembled around us, and a beautiful ray of winter light spilled over my face.
Credit: Hayden Dalby
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