Authors: Michelle Bryan
"I still don't know how you managed to sneak the fact that you had mutating humans past Donaldson's nose. You said the people you brought back looked normal, so why did the ones we see look like that?" Luke, the bulldog that he is, refuses to give up on this train of thought. "And why did you not warn everyone? How could you have let this happen?"
The old doc flaps his lips nervously but no words come out. Instead, he drops his head and starts to blubber like a baby. The Roger guy clamps a hand on his shoulder reassuringly, but all that does is make him cry even harder.
"We didn't mean for any of this to happen. The people we brought in did look normal. And they were in complete stasis. We—I considered them harmless." He closes his eyes briefly for a moment. "This was the opportunity of a life time. A chance to study this alien life form and possibly find a weakness. A chance to try and eliminate it. We tried to help the people we brought in. To rid them of the parasite inside of them. We thought we could bring them back. The methods we tried only seemed to have the adverse effect, however. Instead of killing the parasite, our intervening seemed to accelerate an entirely different change. The parasite responded in a way we could never have predicted. Within days of raising their body temps, the bodies started to mutate. By the time we realized what was causing the change, it was too late. The alteration was drastic and irreversible. Almost like the alien DNA reacted with a defensive mechanism to our intrusion. And we certainly didn't realize they had the ability to infect others again, else we would have ceased all research. We didn't know what to do. We lowered their body temps again, tried to put them back in stasis. We thought it had worked..." He trails off, clears his throat. "We were scared to go to Donaldson about the transformations. Scared he would blame us for allowing this threat to stay in St. Josephs. Scared he would kick us out for our ignorance." His dark eyes turn to us beseechingly, like begging us to understand. When none of us respond, he continues on. "The day of our meeting...the day it all happened, we were actually discussing to come clean to Donaldson about our discoveries. To tell him everything and to ask for his help in killing off our test subjects. But we were too late. They reanimated and reacted. I don't know how they did it, possibly an airborne spore of some sort, similar to the mist from eight years ago. Maybe from physical contact, we aren’t sure. But they infected the two guards we had watching them. They in turn, set them free. You know the rest."
The horror of what he’s saying finally dawns on me.
those things?" My question comes out more as a whisper. They can't possibly be saying what I think they are saying, can they? It can't get any worse.
"No, not created exactly. Helped birth would be the better analogy. We believe that the infected humans we found would have evolved eventually, over time. Maybe not quite like the creatures we saw, but they were still changing. We just accelerated the process. Maybe the catalyst was extracting them from their protective pod, raising their body temperature, or the absence of their blood feedings, we’re not sure. But the change was inevitable. Although we did intervene some in the evolutionary process, in our best opinion the alien life forms would have developed on their own into queen leeches. Beings stronger than us, just as intelligent and have the ability to regenerate quickly from wounds that would be fatal to us humans. And along with this new species comes the undeniable fact that we will no longer be the dominant species of this planet known as Earth."
I'm wrong. It is
"So, it's a good thing we killed those things then, eh?" Dom interjects softly, and I catch myself nodding in agreement. The pregnant pause that follows his remark unnerves me more so than our agreeing.
"We killed those few, yes." White haired Doc stares at us all with his red rimmed eyes. I resist the urge to put my hands over my ears and hum to myself to drown out his next words, just like I used to do as a kid when my parents were fighting. "But we only brought a handful back to St. Joseph's. That warehouse had possibly two hundred or more pods still left there. Two hundred or more 'queen leeches' waiting to be born."
Yup, definitely should have covered my ears for that one.
arrival back at the Grand is certainly no welcome home party. Showing up bloody, injured and a bunch of new people in tow—it causes a lot of questions. And a lot of panic-stricken civilians.
Cookie acts fast, I give her that. We’re no sooner in the door before she strides out of her kitchen and starts ushering us past the gaping mouths and frightened stares. Cal and Badger are hustled off to the infirmary, but the rest of us are whisked away to the 'Bullshit' room faster than a toupee in a hurricane. There’s no time to eat, clean up or even rest our exhausted asses. Not where Cookie is concerned. She's all heart like that.
At least we’re given a few minutes to catch our breath before Cooper and the council members arrive. I sprawl out across the tattered leather sofa along the back wall and close my eyes, wishing desperately it was my bed. I hope the debriefing doesn't take all night. Though deep down, I know its wishful thinking. What we’re about to divulge isn’t going to be received well.
It doesn't take long for the room to start filling up. The St. Joseph's people huddle together in the corner, as one by one the council members file in and eyeball the new comers like they're plague carriers. I suppose, in the council's eyes they truly are undesirables. Having them here is a sign of bad things. I kind of actually feel sorry for them as Cookie stares them down with her usual malevolent glare, muttering under her breath like she’s trying to ward off some evil curse.
Gordon meanders my way and bumps my legs with his knee. I sit up straighter, making room for him on the couch. He falls into the soft pillows with an audible groan.
"You think this is gonna take long, Bix?"
"Yup," I answer, emphasizing the 'p.' "The council is going to freak out when they hear this shit story."
"Greaaaattt," he drawls. "Well, at least that'll give us some entertainment, watching them freak out. May as well get comfy." He stretches his legs out in front of him, crossing his ankles and folding his arms. "All we need now is some popcorn. Hey, did you know popcorn originated back in…"
I hear Cooper's cane tapping rhythmically on the tile floor as he enters the room, thankfully shutting the boy up. I glance up at Coop’s approach. I can see the relief in his eyes that we're back in one piece, but he doesn't say anything. Instead, he taps his cane impatiently against the bottom of Gordon's boots, plainly telling the kid his feet are in the way. Gordon mutters a 'Sorry, Sir,' and pulls his lanky legs back. Cooper files past us to his desk, lowering himself slowly down onto the chair. Over steepled hands his gaze encompasses the room, studying the survivors of St. Joseph's and our own state of distress.
"So," he says finally, his deep baritone echoing throughout the silent room, "Tell us everything. And leave nothing out."
debriefing goes as expected. Luke and Kingsley do most of the talking; following up with Doc Roger reiterating everything he had already told us. Every few minutes someone chimes in with a question or two, but the story is retold mostly uninterrupted. We watch the council's mood shift in waves. Disbelief. Fear. Anger. Then back to disbelief as the story continues. The panic and doubt in the room becomes a tangible thing. I get it. I really do. I lived through most of this whole narration being outlined right now, and I still find it hard to believe. It's a drawn out, tiring, mentally exhausting process. And once it's over, well I truly do get the meaning of the phrase 'You could hear a pin drop.'
"What do we do now?" The question comes from the back of the room, breaking the pregnant silence. It’s one of the council members, Alex. The question unfortunately opens up a floodgate.
"How do we protect ourselves from these creatures?"
"Can they get into the Grand?"
"How could you have let this happen?"
"It wasn't us..."
"We need to kill these things!"
"You people did this!"
"We didn't know..."
"You made these things..."
"Calm down." Cooper tries to intervene in the mayhem, but no one seems to want to listen. The voices simply rise in pitch as the accusations and denials fly. Cookie approaches the St. Joseph's people like some deranged protestor, her finger waggling in the face of Doc Roger.
"You caused this. You put your own people at risk...and now you bring it here? How dare you."
"I said calm down! Cookie, back off or else I will have you removed from the room."
Whoa. Cooper's voice demands silence—and it is given. I've never heard him speak to Cookie like that. I've never heard
speak to Cookie like that. Gordon starts snorting beside me, and I elbow him in the ribs, smothering my own grin. We sure as hell don't need her anger directed our way.
Cookie stares daggers at Coop, but surprisingly listens. They all listen. Cooper waits until the room falls quiet before he speaks again.
"Obviously this information is a bit unsettling, to say the least. But it sure as hell doesn't help anything to point fingers or lay blame. We need to focus on what to do next. At least we now know what we're up against, yes? I'm assuming it's safe to say we're all in agreement about not wanting these new leeches getting anywhere near the Grand?"
He gets a chorus of murmured affirmatives and head nods in response.
"Then our course is quite simple. We do the same to the warehouse as we did to St. Joseph's. The building and everything inside has to be destroyed. Kingsley, get together a fresh group of troops. Cookie, get them outfitted with supplies. Alex, how is our supply of C4..."
"Whoa now," I interrupt and get to my feet. "What do you mean fresh troops? What’s wrong with the old troops?"
Cooper glances my way. "Besides the fact that you all look like death warmed over? Every one of you is covered in bloody injuries and bruises. And you all look as if you’ve been sleep deprived for a year. Shall I go on?"
"Nothing a good night’s sleep won't fix," I argue. "Besides, we already know what we’re up against. We've seen these bastards in action. We know the drill."
There's no way in hell I'm not seeing this through to the end. I have to do this. I need to see this warehouse for myself. Ever since Doc Roger mentioned it and the people inside, the need to go there has been eating at me. Even if the whole idea terrifies me at the same time.
To my surprise, Kingsley backs me up. "She's right. No point in switching up the team now. Besides, you're looking at the most experienced field member’s right here. No sense taking the greener recruits from the wall. Truth be told, we can't afford to take any guards from the wall. I even suggest you increase the watch and equip them with as much fire power as you can. Better to be safe than sorry."
"Yup, have to agree with Bix and Kingsley, both," Luke chimes in. "We're seeing this through to the end."
Cooper looks around the room and sighs deeply. "Very well, looks like I'm out voted. Alex and Beth, stay. We need to work out some numbers on our weapon supplies. Tony and Jeff, you two see about increasing the watch on the wall, ASAP. Cookie and Dan, can I trust you to see that these poor people get fed and accommodated properly?" He gestures to the St. Joseph's group. Cookie nods sullenly at his question. "Good. The remainder of you, rest up. You move out at first light."
know I told Cooper that all I needed was sleep, but sleep is the furthest thing from my mind right now. I had gone back to my room and tried, after Nurse Cheryl stitched up my back. I really did. But my body is too wound up and my mind refuses to shut down. All I can think about is that stupid warehouse and what we just might find there.
So I head down to the gym instead, in the frigid bowels of the Grand's basement. Even though there’s never any heat wasted down here, I don't feel the cold. Not anymore. My body is covered in a film of sweat as I snap punches at the heavy bag, wishing I could snap the crazy thoughts just as easily out of my head. My flow is nice and steady as I walk around the bag, letting my punches naturally bounce off and come back to me. Pain slices through my shoulder with every blow, but I relish in it. It reminds me I’m still alive, while poor Taylor is not. I concentrate on the pain. It helps distract from my other thoughts.
I'm so focused on the flow—so in the zone, that I don't even hear anyone enter the room until she's almost on top of me.
"Bixby," she yells in my ear and I fall into the bag with my punch.
"Jesus Christ," I yell as I swivel around. "What the fu...oh sorry, Mrs. D. Didn't hear you come in."
"Of course you didn't, dear," she says through her pursed lips. "You were too focused on that hangy bag thing. But now that I'm here, please refrain from the language, okay?"
"Yes, Ma'am," I say, wiping my nose with my glove. She stares at me, tsking in disapproval as she scrutinizes my array of bruises and bandages. My sleeveless tank does nothing to hide what the last couple of days have done to my body.
"You look like you've literally been beaten with a bag of bricks," she says bluntly.
I nod. "Yeah, I've had better days. Something I can do for you, Mrs. D?" I'm curious why she would seek me out. I’ve never seen her come down to the basement before.
"Well yes, dear. There is,” she says as she pulls her sweater tight around her thin frame and crosses her arms. “The council is walking around here like they all have sticks shoved up their butts. There's this bunch of strangers being paraded through the halls that no one is allowed to have any contact with. And you and Luke look like you've both just barely made it back from death's door. What the heck is going on?"
Ah, she was simply being a nosey Nancy. Typical. Must be driving her mad not knowing all the details.
"You saw Luke? Why didn't you ask him?"
She gives a dry little laugh. "I did. But his lips were tighter than a gnat's arse. Seriously, I hope he loosens up more when you two are being intimate."
I almost choke on my own damn spit.
She rolls her eyes at my look of shocked horror. "Oh please. I was young once too, you know. I know what's going on between the two of you. Everyone knows. Not like you two can hide it. And there's nothing wrong with that. Life is too short to not be enjoying the things that make you happy. Now, what would make me happy right now is to know what's going on. Something bad is happening and we have the right to know. We all live here as well."
She's right. They did deserve to know. Besides, no one made us promise
I peel my gloves off, tossing them to the side. Grabbing my T shirt from the concrete floor, I use it to wipe the sweat from my face, mulling over how I should put this. How much do I tell her? How much can she handle?
"Alright. Basically, Mrs. D, we’re up shit creek. St. Joseph's was wiped out by a new breed of leech. Those people you saw, the only survivors. These new leeches are smarter, stronger, and damn well uglier than what we're used to. We took out the ones at the hospital but they were only the tip of the iceberg. Apparently there's a warehouse outside the city holding about two hundred more of these creatures just waiting to be born. Our task is to blow up this warehouse and hopefully everything inside before they hatch, or whatever the fuck it is they do, and find their way here. Because if they find us, we’re as good as dead. Our walls won't keep them out. And that's pretty much it in a nutshell."
If the information dump wasn't so damn dismal, I would have laughed at the look on her face. First time I've seen Mrs. D speechless...ever. She stares at me, her face drained of color and her mouth hanging slack. I almost feel bad about being so brutally honest. She isn't about to take a heart attack or anything, is she? But then she closes her mouth with an audible
"Well, that fucking sucks assholes," she says, and it's my turn to be utterly speechless. Did that really just come out of her mouth? It sounds so wrong on so many levels, that I can't help myself. I start laughing. Uncontrollable, maniacal, laughter. I laugh so hard my stomach cramps and my legs go weak. Gasping for air, I stumble to one of the wooden benches lining the wall. I plop down hard, bending over and resting my elbows on my knees. I stay that way for a while, snorting my fool head off.
"I'm sorry Mrs. D," I gasp out, in between chuckles and wiping the tears out of the corner of my eyes. “But that was fucking hilarious.” Another fit of giggling kicks in, kind of negating the apology. She joins me on the bench, the wrinkles in her cheeks only magnified by her huge grin.
"Don't be, dear. I should be the one apologizing but that really threw me for a loop. Not something I was expecting to hear. No wonder Cookie is walking around looking like she sucked on more sour lemons than usual."
"Stop it, you're killing me," I groan, rubbing my sore cheeks. She can't help but laugh along with me. Don't know why I found it all so hilarious. A side effect of sleep deprivation, maybe?
Our laughter slowly subsides, tapering off to a couple of quiet chuckles. I lean back against the wall, resting my head against the cold surface, totally wiped.