The thing I remember the strongest is the smell.
It was a new take on a familiar rank: a slightly twisted version of rotting meat. An altered edition of roadkill, with the subtle hint of blood, shit, antiseptic, and fear mixed in. Before we're even inside, we can smell it, and we know it'll be bad, but we have to go in anyways because, dammit, someone has to clean up the mess They left behind.
There are six of us who enter the half-buried, half-hidden building, and I don't know about the others, but I was hoping that all six of us made it out.
The first room is clear, as is the second. The place is a maze of clinically clean hallways, the only light coming from overly bright fluorescent strips. By the third room, I'm getting stupid and hopeful.
Maybe there's nothing here, I think.
The smell says otherwise- the God awful, stomach churning smell- but it doesn't hurt to hope.
The first dead are found in the fourth room.
The walls are lined with tanks and the tables are lined with cages and the trays with needles. The sink has still-drying blood in the drain.
We go through, inspecting.
Everything here is dead. The rats in the larger tanks, the mice in the small- all stark white with sunken pink holes where their eyes used to be. The cages hold corpses of albino rabbits and, at the far end, a dead monkey.
We finish our rounds-
Observe. Touch nothing. Take nothing. You don't know where it's been.
Heartless as it is, I find myself relieved. All life might be precious, but animals are easier to deal with. Animals didn't have families to track down or special clean up arrangements to make.
* * * *
The only light in the next room over is emanating from the cylindrical, floor-to-ceiling tanks lining the walls. Each tank is nestled between heaps of machinery and hooked up to tubes and are all filled with murky, dust-polluted water. Some, but not all, have chunks of half-deteriorated waterlogged chunks of meat floating inside of them.
We assume that there's nothing alive until Verricker gets too close to one of the tanks and the chunk wakes up. The thing inside the tank starts wriggling and thumping against the glass and makes a noise that's half of a hum and half of a muffled shout. That sets all the others off and then the whole room is filled with humming and thumping and the not-screaming of meat hunks.
There's nothing we can do for them. They're just globs of meat- there's no way the can survive outside the tanks. They shouldn't have been able to survive inside the tanks.
One of them, slightly more put-together than the others, manages a groan despite the distinct lack of mouth.
We don't hesitate. All six of us draw our weapons and shoot out the tanks. The liquid flows out through the broken glass, as do parts of the meat globs. They're in worse shape than I'd thought.
A few of them continue to writhe on the floor for a bit. It can't be more than a few seconds, but it's the longest few seconds of my life.
"They're dead now," Nemo says.
I don't ask how he knows. I want to believe him, but how can he know? We thought they were dead in the tanks, didn't we? What if they're still alive? What if they're just in so much pain they can't even-
Jameson is apparently thinking the same thing I am. He takes another few shots, this time at the chunks themselves. When he's finished, there's nearly nothing left.
"We all good?" he says, holstering his gun.
We all nod, though none of us are.
We press on. We can't waste time: there's an entire facility to go through.
* * * * *
One by one, we search the rooms, looking for survivors. Hall by hall, we comb the building. Most of what we find is dead, either from having life support shut off or starvation. The men who'd been running the facility had known we were coming: they'd packed up and shut down, leaving anything they couldn't carry behind. The only reason we have light is because the tech wiz' made it so.
We find the first one in a padded cell.
He is thin and pale and small and frail and, above all, terrified. He's shivering alone in his corner, huddled up and silent save for the occasional whimper.
We enter the cell, guns drawn but pointed down. He doesn't look up as we come in. He just keeps staring in horror at a vague spot on the ceiling.
Nemo kneels down in front of him.
"It's okay. We're here to help."
If he notices, the man doesn't show. He can't be persuaded to stand on his own, not without slumping back to the ground in the fetal position.
Mathias is the biggest out of the six of us, roughly the size and consistency of a brick wall. He lifts the man up as though he weighs nothing at all- which might very well be the case.
It's almost obscene how infantile the man looks: he'd curled up, wrists held together, tucked in front of his chest. He continues to stare at the spot on the ceiling. I can see the electrical burns on the side of his head, right on the temples.
We don't bother securing him; he's harmless.
We move on.
* * * * *
The next was the only thing alive in a room full of pens and dead hybrids. Chain-link pens, eight by eight. The others, it seemed, had all starved out, but he had managed to drag in parts of a neighbor that had died too close. He'd picked and picked and now only about half of his neighbor's corpse remained.
He isn't human, but he's close enough for discomfort.
His hands are more like opposable paws and his face is distinctly catlike. Instead of hair, he has a haphazard mess of matted fur and feathers that would definitely need to be cropped once we were topside. The two wings sprouting from his back would probably have to be amputated; they look atrophied. His face is smeared with old blood.
He hisses at us as we approach. His wings are fanned out as well as they can be in such a small space.
"Easy," says Nemo. "We're here to help."
The thing starts to curse at us and call us liars. It soon lapses into a series of growls and bird-like shrieks, and Jameson has enough. He pulls out the tranq gun and fires.
It takes an entire five minutes of angry animal noises before the creature goes down. We get him out and, without a word, Mathias one-handedly heaves it over his shoulder, apparently unbothered by the wings, fur, and feathers.
Marcos smiles wanly.
"We're going to need a trolley soon if this keeps up."
We all smile, but there's no joy in it.
* * * * *
There are two rows of bassinets in this room, twelve of them total. At the head of each is a machine hooked up to the infant inside. All the machines are quiet.
"Oh, God," someone says. Someone else, I think it's Verricker but I can't be sure, turns around and vomits.
The babies are dead. Obviously, undeniable dead.
My head is light as we walk through, routinely checking to make sure- make damn well sure- that there isn't anything left to save.
"Hey," says Marcos. "I've got a live one."
We all gather 'round back. Tucked in the corner, behind some boxes, is another bassinet. This one's life support is still on, humming gently and pumping fresh air into the glass-covered bed and nutrients into the small body inside. The baby inside is older than the others- about two, maybe two and a half months old. The others couldn't have been anything but premies. His eyes are open and wide and the prettiest shade of brown I've ever seen on a baby. His head seems unusually large.
Verricker comes over and unhooks the machine and baby. He's the only one allowed to do so: he's the one with the know-how.
The baby is picked up and cooed at and told everything will be fine, and ever so discreetly given a full check to make sure he's okay. He is. Then (because I'm the only woman on the team), he is given to me. I tuck him into a cloth wrap-around and secure him to my back. Through the entire ordeal, he is silent, watching us with eyes that seem a little too intelligent for a baby.
It doesn't occur to me until later to wonder just how his machine was powering itself: all the power in the room had been shut off.
* * * * *
We find her in a sub-basement level, in a room surrounded by steel walls several feet thick. There wasn't any lock on the door: presumably it was just too heavy for her to move.
She's just a dinky thing. Masses of black hair and a button-nosed face that reminds me strongly of my little cousins back home. She can't be older than eight. A scrawny eight, at that.
She eyes us suspiciously, but stands her ground. Her hands are tucked in the pocket of her smock: I can tell by the set of the cloth that she's got her hands balled into fists.
Nemo kneels down so he's eye-level with her and tells her how we're here to help. He asks her for her name.
She doesn't answer him. In fact, for the next few minutes, the only words out of her mouth are,
We believe her.
Nemo takes her hand and we leave.
* * * * *
The girl is the last straw: we have to split up. Mathias and Nemo are sent back with the survivors in tow. She doesn't need to be sedated, but someone better get some food into her quickly.
The rest of us wander around, systematically searching the building unencumbered. For the longest time, we find nothing of interest. At least, to us. Spliced plants might be interesting to someone, and the papers around the place will probably turn up in court later, but for a brief moment, I start to hope again. The stupid little hope that we're almost done, that we can get out of this cramped, death-stained hell hole.
Soon, there's only one room left for us.
Like the girl's room, this one is sub-basement. Like the girl's, this one has walls and doors made of thick steel. Unlike the girl's room, this one had a metal bar locking it, and unlike any of the other rooms we've seen, this one has a nameplate. Whatever's inside has a name: Dane.
The door opens, revealing a young man leaning casually against he back wall with his arms crossed. His clothes hang loosely, and he's got the tell-tale scruff of someone who's usually clean shaven, but other than that, he appears to be in perfect health.
He waves at us cheerfully and gives us a lopsided grin.
* * * * *
We're back at the base, now. Our base.
We are seated in a small room bare of any furniture save the chairs were on and the table we're seated at. It's just the four of us: Dane, Jameson, Mathias and I.
It's almost insulting how calm he is. He smirks at us from across the table .
"You've been having trouble with Leon," he says.
Jameson nods. Yes, he's been attacking people. We gave him a big room with a high ceiling to fly around in, but he just holes himself up in the makeshift roost near the ceiling. He's not eating.
Dane closes his eyes and, after a moment, nods. "He's scared. He's worried. He feels useless and helpless. Put him with Twitch."
Twitch? we ask.
He waves a hand. "The little nervous guy. Leon needs something to make him feel like he's doing something, not just an animal in a cage. Twitch will give him something to protect and feel useful about."
What is wrong with Twitch?
"He can see the future. Years and years and years from now." Dane smiles crookedly. "Whatever he sees, he doesn't like."
What does he know about the baby? we ask.
He grins. It bothers us all, that grin. It's almost as bad as the smirk.
"He's a smart kid. Keep an eye on him, he'll be a handful."
And the girl?
He frowns. It's the first flash of uncertainty we've seen.
Yes, the girl. The dark haired one, maybe eight years old. About this tall?
The change is astonishing. All the blood drains from his face- even his lips go pale and thin.
"She's here? I mean, she's alive?"
Yes. Out of all of them, she's in the best shape.
He starts to shake ever so slightly.
"Is she secure? Have you got her locked up?"
Minimally, yes. She's not a flight risk, so-
"Get all your people away from her. T- tell them not to go anywhere near her." He runs a hand nervously through his hair. "Do. . . do a head count. All of your staff- everyone who's shown up for work today." He gets up. "I have to see her."
He slams his fists onto the table. "Because I have to, okay? I'm the only one that can." The lights begin to flicker. He watches us with eyes nearly as wild as Leon's had been.
A long moment of silence passes before Jameson nods. Once.
Fine, Jameson says.
* * * * *
We're in the observation area right outside the girls room. Someone's done a head count. Three people are missing: two female lab assistants and an older member of the custodial staff.
When he hears the news, Dane closes his eyes and slumps.
"You won't find them," he says miserably. "Check your security footage." He gestures vaguely to the cameras. "They went in. They didn't come out."
How? we ask.
He looks at the girl through the observation window. She's sitting slumped against the back wall, staring vacantly into space. There's an unnatural bulge in her stomach.
"It's what she does."
Then it's dangerous for him to go, isn't it?
He doesn't take his eyes off the girl.
"No. She won't take me."
Without another word, he opens the door and steps inside.
The girl looks up. Her eyes are barely focused; she has to blink a few times before she can see properly.
"Dane?" she says.
He nods stiffly.
"Yes," he croaks. He winces and clears his throat. "Yes, it's me."
She gets to her feet. He kneels and opens his arms, and she throws herself into them.
"Dane!" She buries her face into his shoulder.
"Erica," he says. Even through the sub-par speakers, we can hear him choking.
"I'm hungry," she whimpers.
"I know," he says shakily. "Oh God, I know. But you can't do that anymore."
She starts to cry.
"But it hurts. It hurts so much."
"I know it does." He's crying now, too. "But you've got to stop. You can't do that to people anymore. You can't."
And for a long time, it goes on.
She cries from guilt and shame she doesn't understand and from the hunger she knows all too well, and he cries for reasons I can only catch glimpses of. I see in a flash- they shape of their faces, the way they speak to one another- that they're siblings, maybe even twins, and that whatever They did to the girl has tainted her, altered her, and now she's not really a little girl anymore, and he knows it, and maybe that's why he's crying too.
I watch them and suddenly regret resenting the smug smirk he's had earlier because I would take that smirk over this in a heartbeat, and I know the men around me would agree because right now, there's nothing we can do to help. There's nothing we can do to stop them, and maybe they'll never stop.