Birthday – Complete

From the Memoirs of Irwin Morrow

Part 1

I was born at the age of thirty-three, cold and alone on a soiled floor.  The wet of industrial grade amniotic fluid coated my body and pooled around my huddled form filling my nose and mouth with its semi-sweet taste.  My body convulsed and hacked up thick mucus in great globs until I laid supine, gulping down my first real breaths and shivering naked on the stained rubberized tile. 

Only after a calm fell upon my stormy breaths did my eyes pull themselves open for the very first time.  It was several long heart beats before they focused enough to decern anything distinct in my new illuminated existence.  A pale green light washed the world around me revealing the translucent leathery shell of the amniotic sack in which I had grown for the past thirty-three years.  A shiver rippled across my flesh leaving a wave of goosebumps in its wake.  It was so warm in there but out here is so brutally cold.

The sack was suspended from a tall cylindrical machine enameled in a smooth, if grimy, pastel green.  The source of the light turned out to be a monitor that stood out from the body of the incubator on an adjustable arm.  I know now that its glow was soft and subtle but then it had been a galling light as searing as the sun.  Afterall, it was the first light I had ever known.

I made the slow shaky climb to my feet with my muscles wobbling as they took my weight for the first time.  My frame was fully formed and fit, crafted to purpose.  After a handful of precarious steps, I felt the strength of my construction.  I was no superhuman, but I had grown well in the incubator and could handle my weight with ease.

With the awkwardness of virgin limbs finally sorted, the room about me took on new significance.  In the green gloom, deep shadows pooled around the walls and between the other darkened incubators.  There were two lines of them, one row against each wall, and each was a dead thing.  The amniotic sacks of most had burst and hung flaccid above irregular rings of curdled, yellow mold and softened human bone.  The few sacks that remained intact held stillborns suspended in clouded fluid.  Two were children, barely toddlers, and the third was a teenage girl.  My siblings.  My family…  I blinked at a stinging sensation in my eyes and touched two fingers to my cheek.  They came back wet.

With a rusted squeal, the door opened into a hall of smooth, jointed concrete.  Flickering, yellow emergency lighting shone through grime and cobwebs.  Mud had been smeared in patches and crumbled masonry had found its way into the corners.  Dripping sounded somewhere deeper down the corridor. 

From those depths came an inhuman scream.  It rattled up the hall with a sound like a gutted goat.  The hairs on the back of my neck rose and I reached mechanically to cover my nakedness.  The austerity of the corridor seemed to highlight my exposure and the pressure of fear pushed on my shoulders with the quickening of my pulse.

I followed the hall away from the scream toward an imprinted memory of a room that whispered inaudible murmurs of safety.  I had never trodden these halls or any halls before.  Yet, the way unfolded in my mind instinctually as a young goose knows the way south in winter. 

When I arrived, the door was a solid thing of scarred steel with runners of rust around the frame.  A long aluminum lever served as the handle.  My fingers rested on the metal for a moment before I remembered that the door was locked.  I have long wondered how I could remember a thing that I had never experienced or known.  Yet, there was the memory tucked away in my mind, the knowledge that this door would be locked.  There is a keypad.  Again, the memory of things that never were floated into my head and, as a reflex, my eyes turned to the wall next the frame.  There was an unobtrusive metal box built into the blast grade concrete and, underneath the cover, was a keypad with a tiny glowing red light.

My hand trembled and though a chill filled the corridor, a bead of sweat ran down my temple.  My index finger extended and pressed four numbers into the pad.  2-1-0-5.  There was a clang like a heavy metal rod sliding into place that reverberated inside the walls.  I steadied my hands with a deep slow breath and then gripped the long handle and pushed it upwards until I felt the catch slip clear of the frame. 

The door pushed inward to a dim bunkroom.  Lines of metal bunkbeds each flanked by gunmetal gray lockers trimmed the space.  In the center, two rusting picnic tables each coated with flaking thermoplastic covered a small pond’s worth of stinking, stagnant water.  A crack in the ceiling fed the pool with a constant dripping metronome.

I followed the bunks counterclockwise until I reached the far, left corner.  There my baby soft feet exhausted their muscle memory and deposited me in front of a dingy locker labeled “Morrow”.  A pale flame of recognition fluttered somewhere inside as shades of memory floated behind my eyes. 

I reached towards the dial of the combination lock.  Between my fingers it spun first clockwise, and then counter, and then clockwise again.  Two.  Ten.  Five.  The shackle released and with a sheet metal rumble like stage thunder the door swung open. 

Inside were fastidiously folded, olive fatigues next to undershirts and tube socks which had begun to yellow.  Black combat boots waited on the shelf above.  A thick field jacket hung next to a thin vest of body armor.  The glint of metal twirling on a thin chain caught my eye and I scooped it up into my palm.  It was a flimsy disk of cheap steel stamped with letters that resolved themselves into words. 

Morrow, Irwin

Private First Class

926-91-2105

O Neg

For a long moment, the world went black around the edges as my being shrunk into the shell of my flesh.  I fell into myself spinning like Alice down the rabbit hole and clinging to that steel revelation.  Then the chain, powered by impulse, slipped over my head so that the metal disk rested against my heart and I pressed it to me for a few long deep breaths.  My pulse had been pounding in my chest and in my ears while my mind spun with all the terrible unknowns.  I was a child in a man’s body, and, like a child, I clung to my talisman under the blinking fluorescent light praying to survive the monsters of this life.

Part 2

The rifle weighed in my hands with the palpable security of a child’s nightlight.  It felt a part of me, and my fingers crawled over it in a mindless way checking the release of the magazine, the movement of the charging handle, the set of the sights.  The symphony of oiled slides and small clicks sent satisfied tingles cascading down my spine.  The ritual complete, a warm ooze of catharsis trickled down from my shoulders as I loaded the weapon and slung it over my shoulder.

I had found the rifle mounted on a rack in the back of my locker after dressing.  A black coated pistol was mounted beside it, but the rifle had called to me somewhere from very base of my mind in a deep resonance that could have been the beat of my own heart.  Now that it was once again a part of me, I performed the same sacred rites upon the pistol, slid it into its belt, and wrapped it around my hips.

A relaxed breath poured from my lips and with it the tension that stretched from behind my eyes all the way down to my toes.  Standing in that wet, musty room, I was clothed and armed for the first time in my life.  Sudden lightness filled me.  I felt buoyed like a drowning man who finds a float and is no longer unaided in the merciless sea.

I closed the locker door, spun the lock, and turned to watch the water dripping from the ceiling.  The pool it formed was jaundice and acrid.  Unclean.  Unsafe.  Priorities:  Water first.  Then food.  The thought cut in, a clear bell in the night.  Another imprinted memory of training I had never received.

The clang of the opening door bounced a short way along the filthy corridor.  To say that a map of the complex filled my mind would be inaccurate, but a dowsing sense of direction was with me.  When I thought of a general need, a subconscious tug pulled me in one direction or another.  Water.  A tug to the left.  Food. The left again.  Escape.  To the right. 

Priorities, I reminded myself and turned left into the hallway, hoisting the rifle stock to my shoulder.  From somewhere ahead a distant primeval shriek tore the air.  It was followed by another, a scuffling sound, and then horrid silence.  I steadied my breathing, leveled the rifle, and continued forward.

Within a few steps, I had rounded the corner into the corridor that lead past the room of my birth.  The flickering emergency lights gave motion to the shadows that clung inside the frames of the other steel doors.  Naked in every sense of the word, I had not thought to peer inside any of them in my flight to the instinctive comfort of the barracks, but now my imprinted memory crackled as my eyes and rifle swept the corridor. 

The first door on the right was of steel construction like the barracks but marred by long deep claw marks.  A large dent as though something heavy had been thrown into it bowed the door slightly from the floor to about waist height.  Looking first left and then right, I punched the last four digits of my serial number into the keypad and pushed the aluminum lever to open the door.

I swept the derelict infirmary with my rifle.  Water stains spilled down the seafoam walls like a black mold tide with fetid beds for breakers.  Privacy curtains hung in tattered streamers.  Streaked with mildew, they danced like ghosts as the stale air exchanged with that of the hallway.  A gangrenous odor permeated the room and I followed it back past the rancid rows of sick beds to the far end. 

The cloying reek led me to the rotting body of a man.  He had propped himself up in a corner between two cabinets and spread an assortment of medical supplies around him.  Among them glinted a still sterling medical saw.  A long, deep gash had been sliced into his thigh and, above it, a red rag had been tied painfully tight.  I squatted down to inspect the wound more closely.  The putrefaction around the wound was more advanced than the rest of him.  I let my eyes wander up his corpse to look into his waxy shriveled faced.  His eyes were blue like mine. 

You were going to try to amputate your leg, weren’t you?  I stood up still gazing down at the body as the weight of this man’s final desperate moments settled upon me.  As I contemplated the horror that he must have felt dying from blood poisoning in a blighted hole, I was struck by his clothing.  They were all wrong.  They weren’t fatigues like mine or even a coverall.  They lacked the uniformity of this place where the doors and corridors were built the same, where people were grown in batches.  His clothing was too unique and too personalized by life.  The denim of his pants was worn and patched.  The leather of his jacket was water warped and stained.  His shirt was a color I had never seen before. 

Staring at it, the word “purple” bubbled up out of my mind and over my lips.  The sound of my own voice startled me.  It shattered the silence and a moment passed before I fully awaked to the knowledge that I had made that sound.  That hoarse gravel sound bent into a bubbly word was my voice; that was what I sounded like.  The gravity of it knitted my brow.  I had never spoken before.  And now I had said “purple”.  My first word was “purple”.

With the vague sense that I had made some kind of personal progress still glowing in my chest, I turned my attention back to the corpse.  He didn’t come from here.  So, he came from somewhere else.  Somewhere outside.  The idea of “outside” gave me a feeling of being underground, of something brilliant and dangerous above.  A nagging instinct told me that eventually The Above is where I must go, to the great unknown with all the hazards it held.  I swallowed hard as if to reabsorb the percolating fear in my gut.

Focus.  The future may be uncertain, but the present is in my control.  I repeated the thought over in my mind like a mantra of a kind as I unconsciously touched the identity tag to my heart.  “I am in control of the present,” I said in a hard whisper with a dry throat. 

When my pulse had sufficiently slowed, I slung the rifle and walked the room collecting the cleanest linens I could scrounge.  I returned to the dead man and, gripping his boots, pulled him supine on the tile floor before covering him with the scavenged sheets.  “Rest well,” I murmured as I slid the cover over his face.  It was a paltry funeral but the best I could come up with.  To this day, I pray he understood that.

Now exposed, the corner between the cabinets revealed the man had propped himself up with a backpack of worn but quality leather.  I lifted the pack and undid the buckle.  Inside the man had stuffed a hunting knife, a small tinder box, a course quilted blanket, a dented metal canteen, and a coil of rope.  I pulled the canteen free and gave it a shake, but the lack of slosh told me it was dry.  Worth a try, I thought a little crest fallen. 

I replaced the canteen and set to work digging into the cabinets to recover what few first aid items were still fit for use.  A minimal assortment of sealed bandages, a roll of tape, and one missed bottle of antibiotics were all that remained.  I stuffed them into a tight tin, packed that away in the leather backpack, and then slid it onto my back.  With a few soft words of appreciation to the dead, I lifted the rifle once more and stalked back into gloom of the corridor. 

Part 3

Shrill and sharp as a scalpel, an inhuman scream sliced through the corridor from a torn steel door at the far end.  The door shook in the flickering shadows as though something heavy had been thrown against it from the other side.  There was another shriek in reply and again the door trembled so violently that I feared it might be knocked free from its hinges.

Keeping low, I skirted the edge of the hall and stepped into the first available doorway.  Pressing my ear against the cool metal, I listened for movement inside before punching my code and then, slipped into the darkened room beyond.  A dozen luminous meters, dials, and small monitors adorned shelves and stands above a desk at the far end.  Their wan turquoise light flowed out over the flat of the desk and picked out the cabinet edges and equipment corners that filled the closet-like closeness.

A simple glance spoke to the safety of this room as the quarters would have been made horribly cramped by more than four or five people.  Another muffled monstrous cry cut in from the hall as if to underscore the relative security and to remind me that I would not be leaving this room until the commotion outside died down. 

With some time to spend, I drifted toward the desk and the gentle glow of the lighted panels.  Small rectangular screens rested above knobbed dials on the face of boxy metal machines arranged around a darkened monitor and keyboard.  My eyes drifted over the amalgamation trying to make sense of the whole from the parts.  They worked their way down from the top, eventually coming to rest on the cleared desktop itself. 

It had been topped with a transparent layer of hard plastic beneath which was spread a broad sheet covered in whirls and loops of blue ink.  I cocked my head trying to make sense of the pattern before the image resolved itself into the topography of a map.  I glanced back at the door, looking for gaps in the frame, before reaching out and clicking on the desk lamp.  A harsh, sour cream light lanced out upon the desk forcing me to cringe and squint while my pupils adjusted to the glare.

When the light was no longer painful, I leaned in to pour over the details of the map.  Several points spread across the breadth of the described area had been annotated with block print letters.  In the center, near the top of a mountain ridge was the letter “A” while the letters “B” through “H” spiraled outward spreading across hundreds of miles.  I traced my fingers along the smooth plexiglass protector until they came to rest on the A marker.  Is this where I am?  Does this mean there are others?

A jumble of colliding questions rattling in my head as I turned my attention to the desk drawers.  Though fitted with locks, they pulled open easily.  The side drawers were mostly bare and contained only a few small boxes of office supplies.  From these I added two gridded notebooks and a handful of pens and pencils to my pack.

The center hutch, however, contained something of greater importance.  I squeaked it open last and withdrew the sole item contained within: a hardbound memo book embossed “Ark Alpha”.  I spread the book open under the desk light, thumbing through the pages.

The first page was filled by an intricate circular seal of an eagle soaring above the bow of a great wooden ship.  I stared at the image, straining with mental constipation.  This seal had meaning to me.  Of that much, I was certain.  However, that meaning refused to bubble up from the deep black waters of my memory.

In the end, I gave up and flipped to the next page.  The date had been left blank, but the page was titled “Call Signs and Acknowledgements”.  Below were printed entries for Arks Alpha through Hotel.  Each matched an ark’s name with a call sign and coded radio acknowledgement.

Ark Alpha

Call Sign: Rooster

Acknowledge: Hammer

Ark Bravo

Call Sign: Howl

Acknowledge: Bonnet

Ark Charlie

Call Sign: Wendigo

Acknowledge: Trident

“I’m not alone,” I said to myself barely believing the words even as they formed on my tongue.  A warm spread of hope seeped from my chest into my limbs filling them with new energy and strength.  “I’m not alone,” I repeated with hushed exaltation. 

The following pages held a second list titled “Channels and Frequencies” and I stopped midway through the first page, filled with epiphany.  My gaze drifted up and away from the memo book to once again behold the stacks of gauge faced metal boxes and their softly glowing turquoise light.  It’s a radio!  The realization hit with a slap and filled me with a kind of mania.  At the end of a frantic search, I found the power switch to one of the boxes which I believed to be a transceiver and toggled it on.

The needle bounced as the machine hissed to life before settling on a high frequency channel.  Static crackled from the speakers.  In the stillness, the white noise sounded as a torrential rain.  I froze, even holding my breath, as I listened beyond the static to the hall waiting to hear the approach of whatever fiendish thing laired here.  No clue or sound came from the corridor and, after a long pause, my muscles uncoiled. 

I turned a trembling hand to the transceiver and tuned the dial to the frequency marked for Ark Bravo.  The static dimmed to near silence.  I picked up the microphone and swallowed hard before depressing the bar with my thumb.  “Rooster to Howl.  Rooster to Howl.  Please respond,” I said heart thumping in my chest.

Silence.

I tried again but received nothing more than empty air in response.  Holding the memo book open on the desktop with one hand, I twisted the dial to the next frequency.  This was the one for Ark Charlie and I gripped the microphone ready to call out the indicated hail as soon as the needle finished its journey across the airwaves.  Again, static fell to near silence but as I opened my mouth to speak another voice flowed from the transceiver. 

“Papa.  Tango.  Hotel,” read a monotone male voice.  “Charlie.  Whiskey.  Foxtrot.” A static hiss cut into the message and then it repeated from the start.  The looped recording filled the room as I turned it over in my mind.  What does it mean?  I flipped through the memo book and grasped at straws.  Papa.  Tango.  Hotel.  P-T-H.  Charlie.  Whiskey.  Foxtrot.  C-W-F.  When no significance to these letters surfaced, I scribbled them next to the entry for Ark Charlie in the memo book.

Time was running short and the scratching in the back of my throat reminded me of my priorities.  With reluctance, I closed the memo book and tucked it carefully into my pack.  I toggled off the transceiver and the voice went silent leaving only the leaden weight of loss in my chest.  “I am not alone,” I reminded myself as I pulled the map from beneath the clear plastic.  My eyes made a final scan of the room and came to rest upon a line of handheld radios on a shelf.  I pulled one free, checked the solar cell for function, and then added it to my growing kit.  There was a strange solace in that, like packing a letter from home.

My legs moved with the weight of mountains as I turned away from this safe, comforting lifeline out of my solitude and toward the abhorrent certainty that each step would inevitably lead closer to The Above.  My head spun with the vertigo of the infinite void that was my knowledge of that vacuous place and it was with no small amount of resolve that I pulled myself from the mental mire to continue the journey towards the rest of my life.

Part 4

Hissing and chittering droned through the tatters of the steel door at the far end of the corridor.  The solid metal had been torn and splayed outward into a jagged fluted edge.  A pungent, rotten egg odor seeped from the darkness beyond.  I clung to the concrete of the wall where the shadows were thickest and made my approach low and slow.  The supplies I sought would not be found in that room.  I knew that deep in my instinctual memory.  The way to the storeroom took me passed the ruptured door and whatever hid within.

Something large darted past the opening.  I froze not even daring to breath for a few eternal seconds while I waited to see if the thing would show itself again.  When it did not reappear, I continued padding my way forward.  Rivulets of sweat ran down my face and into my eyes forcing me to blink away the stinging salt.  The hallway seemed to stretch on for leagues.

With each step closer, the din from the creatures beyond grew from a buzz to a great reverberating rumble that I felt in the roots of my molars.  With all my self-control, I was forcing my breathing into slow, steady respiration.  The edges, resisting all smoothing, remained ragged at the demand of a booming heart.  The sweat poured faster, and my feet moved slower.  Despite all, my rifle remained steadfast and poised to erupt should the slightest thing move through that blackened gap.

I reached the corner and pressed myself flat against the wall.  With a glacial revolution, I bent an eye around the edge to peer down the dim corridor beyond. The muddy tracks were thicker here forming a knot of smears but, through the wavering light, I saw the storeroom door remained sealed.

An odd mix of relief and terror washed over me as I pulled myself in tighter to the wall.  On the one hand, the sealed door hinted that resources within remained unclaimed.  On the other, it also meant that I could not turn back now.  The void of any imprinted memory or instinctive knowledge of the world above rattled me.  Here in this dark warren, there were dangers, but my unknown creators had left the secrets of this place etched on my mind.  I found that foundation reassuring.  It gave me soil in which to grow.  The Above held only emptiness as far as I knew, and that primal terror of the unknown shook me harder than the fear of whatever beasts lurked in the gloom of this vault.

Deep down I knew I would have to leave.  In collecting supplies, I was preparing to leave without really thinking about it.  My people were stillborn.  There was nothing to keep me buried in the Ark.  Yet there, crouched against the wall at the intersection of survival and death, I was not willing to contemplate the horrifying uncertainty of The Above.  Over the years since, I have often wondered if that unwillingness to face the inevitable was cowardice.  Perhaps it was but I had been born only earlier that day, so maybe I can be forgiven a craven moment.

I breathed myself up and cut around the corner with a purposeful stride.  The barrel of the rifle scanned the passageway ahead while my head swiveled between front and back.  I arrived at the door and jabbed at the keypad with my finger while my eyes continued their sweep.

The keypad buzzed twice shattering the silence and I looked down to see the red light above the keys flashing.  I gushed sweat, leaving my forearm slick as I wiped my brow.  My pulse pounded against my ear drums.  A slight tremor rippled through my hand as I pressed my code into the keypad once more.  2-1-0-5.  Come on!  Come on!  Come on!  I was screaming in my head as my eyes bulged out as if to open the portal by will alone.  Then after a pause of a dozen manic heartbeats, the light turned green and the bolt slide clear with a heavy, flat conk.  I did not wait to find out if the sound had drawn the attention of the creatures next door and dove into the syrupy dark. 

Inside, there were no flickering emergency lights.  Only the strobing yellow light that spilled in from the hall eroded the murky black.  A hand light had been mounted on the wall next to the door and I jerked it free, cupping the beam in my hand to make sure it was still working.  Light in hand, my thoughts turned to the open door.  Shutting it would give me a layer of safety if those creatures came sniffing around.  Yet, these doors did not open quietly.  Is it worth the risk?

No.  It isn’t.  That other door didn’t hold them back and neither will this one.  Resolute in my decision, I stowed my rifle and drew my pistol.  My programmed training told me I wouldn’t be able to both hold the hand light and fire the rifle accurately.  The extra punch won’t do a damn bit of good if I can’t shoot straight.  I slowed my breathing, focusing on survival and the clarity that came with it.  Pistol and light in hand, I stalked into the gloom. 

Whoever my creators had been, they were organized.  Rows of warehouse shelves towered around me in neat lines.  Each row was labeled with a letter and each shelf section with two numbers separated by a dash.  For the second time, my imprinted memories failed me.  The code meant nothing to me.  I guess I wasn’t meant to be the quartermaster. 

Time stretched by as I wound my way through the aisles.  Water was found with relative speed.  It was kept on the bottom shelves in massive, milk-white tanks reinforced by aluminum cages.  I unscrewed the top of one and filled the canteen from my pack.  I chugged that first liter in great gasping gulps, sloshing nearly as much water down my front as down my throat.  A cardboard box of soft plastic reservoirs sat on the self above the water.  I tore one out and filled it along with my canteen before slipping both back into the pack.

Food proved harder to find.  I wandered up and down the rows scanning each shelf with my light to no avail.  In the meantime, my pack began to sag with additional plundered items found along the way.  All told, I added a mess kit, a compass, and several boxes of ammunition for both the rifle and the pistol to my growing hoard. 

Then, just as I was beginning to wonder if I was pressing my luck, I saw it.  Way up on the top of the shelves in the far back corner was a pallet labelled as rations.  It was easily twenty feet off the ground.  I cast a wild glance around the immediate area hoping for a ladder or anything to help me to the top.  In the corner near a backdoor squatted a forklift.  I chuckled to myself at the irony.  Of course.  The one thing I can’t use.

The climb was quick and uncomfortable.  The regular reinforcements along the end of the shelving made for an easy ascent, but they were thin and bit into my palms with each pulling grasp.  To top it off, the light had been too bulky to hold in my teeth and so I had been forced to holster both pistol and hand light.  The dark made it impossible to gauge my progress. 

When I arrived at the top, I knew it by feel.  The air moved more freely up here in the same way that it does around the tops of standing trees.  It dried my sweat, leaving my flesh chilled and hoary with goosebumps.  The pallet held an expanse of brick sized packets which had been neatly stacked and then the lot had been wrapped in a thick plastic wrap.  At least, that was what my fingers told me as I groped in the dark.  I clambered on top of the pallet for stability and pulled as many of the packaged ration bricks free as I could fit into the pack’s remaining space. 

Satisfied that I had met my immediate needs, I had nearly lowered myself onto the top rung when an ominous clicking skipped in from the hall.  With all the stealth I could manage, I bear crawled across the pallets towards the front end where I was able to look down on the doorway to the hall.  My breath caught in my chest.  A long menacing shadow was silhouetted in the flickering yellow light.  With a slow chittering, one of the creatures stepped in through the door.

Part 5

My mind exploded and my sweat flash froze.  Every muscle in my body contracted at once and I went rigid for an eternity just listening to its sonorous hiss and watching its dripping reptilian tongue taste the air.  A voice in my mind screamed something, something important, but it was too distant, too muffled underneath my booming pulse.  Molasses stiff muscles pulled the rifle from my back and, with effort, trained the muzzle on the monstrous thing.  The voice in my mind wailed a distant banshee’s call but my head was full of static and pounding blood.  A finger found the saddle of the trigger and tunneled vision arranged the sights.  A squeeze started in my palm.

And then a razor shriek scythed the moment from beyond the concrete wall between this room and the next.  My heart skipped and, in the silence, I heard the screaming voice in my head clear as a noonday bell.  DON’T SHOOT!  The words hit like a bat and my terror narrowed senses burst their bonds.  I remembered.  The others.  The sound of the shot will bring the others.

My finger relaxed away from the trigger and an inaudible exhale crawled from my lungs.  I rolled over onto my back, obscured by the pallets at this elevation, and hugged the rifle to my chest.  Below the creature’s claws tapped an asymmetric rhythm on the concrete floor.

Escape.  The command slipped into my thoughts focused and formed.  This was not a fight I could win.  This complex belonged to these creatures.  My only hope was to retreat to The Above.  The Above.  My greatest fear.  The terrible unknown.  The thought of it had chilled me to the very core only an hour ago and now I felt a strange numbness about it.  Fear is a funny fluid.  A sip will keep you sharp.  A gulp will rob you of your rest.  Chugging it will drown you.  But if you bath in it, let it soak into you, it will carry away all pain, all stress, and leave only a cold certainty of what must be done.

Crawling back along the pallets, I arrived at the far end closest to the back door and slipped my arms through the straps of my pack.  I left the hand light stowed safely in a pocket and closed my eyes, listening to the clicking of claws on concrete.  They moved slowly but with confidence, the way I have seen mountain cats stalk their prey in the years since.  It knows I’m here, I thought, my mind putting what my senses already knew into words.

It was farther off and to the left.  There was no way to be certain how far, but I guessed at least a couple of aisles over.  I forced my limbs to begin the climb slowly and quietly down the end of the shelving row.  The clicking grew closer and the adrenaline made my muscles twitch.  Still, I exerted control and kept my progress steady and stealthy.  By the sound of it, the creature was stalking up and down the rows.  The organized pattern suggested an uncomfortable level of intelligence but also that it had not yet located me.  All I needed to do was keep quiet and keep an aisle between me and it.  Then I could slip out the way I came and make a run for it.  Easy day.

Somewhere while I was basking in my own cunning, the shelving’s reinforcement strut gave out.  The thin metal burst beneath my feet with a clang and left me swinging in the pitch dark from a rapidly bowing rung.  I swung my leg out to try to find purchase on a shelf and prevent myself from falling the last ten feet to the unforgiving concrete below.  My boot heel found solid shelf but in the doing swiped clear a heavy box that smashed into the floor below.  It must have been full of pots or pans or spanners or cymbals with all the noise from the impact and the clamor was a beacon through the gloom.

Stealth spent, I scrambled down the last ten feet as fast as my limbs could carry me.  Over the din I heard the scuttling of crab-like claws dashing across the smooth cement.  I could smell the musk of the thing like a rolling wave as it hurried down the aisle on the other side of the shelves.  I tossed myself flat against the wall next to the back door, my mind rolling and pitching like a boat in a squall.  Through the door I could hear the predatory chittering of dozens of creatures stalking closer and closer to the portal. 

Sweat raining down my face, I stabbed a trembling hand into my jacket pocket and pulled out the torch light.  With the other hand, I jabbed my code into the door’s keypad.  The light flicked green just as the hunting creature rounded the end of the shelves.  With all the speed and strength I could summon, I heaved on the door throwing it open against the wail of the hinges.  Just as the stench of hundreds poured in from the other side, I flicked on the hand torch and chucked it through the door.

In the frozen moment while the hand light tumbled through the air, it lit up the horrors beyond.  In that fractionated second, I saw a colossal hive of these creatures built of waxy spoor around a honeycomb of hundreds of amniotic sacks.  Settlers.  The epiphany was cutting shards of shattered glass across my psyche.  They were my purpose in being and, while I had assumed them dead, this fate was somehow worse.  I had been grown a soldier to protect those who would be born after.  I felt this single truth in the very pit of my being just in time to see this brood of demons feeding off the unborn bodies of my people.  The knowledge seared in my chest.

The wind of the creature’s speed rippled my hair as it chased the light and slammed into the others.  A cacophony of horrible otherworldly shrieks and the sound of rending flesh splashed the musk thick air.  I wasted not a moment of my precious distraction and forced all thoughts but survival from my mind.  I ran.  I ran towards the paltry light of the hall with all the haste that blinding adrenaline could provide.

There was nothing I could have done for them.  They were all dead.  I know that now but even still, on cold lonely nights around the ghostly embers of a fire, I feel shame for choosing to live instead of dying with my brothers and sisters.  I doubt that feeling will ever completely leave me.  In the moment though, those thoughts of guilt had not yet caught up with my flight.  Only the echo of my pounding boots dogged my steps then.

Part 6

I was about halfway down the hall when the remainder of the hive’s steel door was crushed under the charging swarm.  A dissonant chorus of needle-like shrieks stabbed down the corridor as the creatures clawed their way forward.  They were packed so tightly that they filled the flickering gloom like a demonic wave.

I spun round, snapped up the rifle, and sprayed the corridor with bullets.  Steaming orange blood spattered the concrete walls as the front line squealed in agony.  Those wounded on the flanks were swept aside by the fury of the horde while those that stumbled were simply trampled by the unstoppable throng.

The burst had brought me less time than I had hoped.  My boots propelled me forward in long surging strides down the remaining length of the passageway slapping their rubber soles against the concrete.  Ahead was the guard shack and a hard-right turn before the airlock.  Please still work!  My mind screamed the prayer into the void as my lungs clawed ragged gulps of air to fuel the furnaces that were my legs.

At the bend, I squeezed the rifle trigger in a long violent burst that torn gushing holes into the very maw of the swarming tide.  More fell to the gunfire this time than before.  As their hive mates scuttled over the fallen like a raging rapid over boulders, I flung myself around the corner.  The interior airlock portal was a huge blast door of thick interlocking alloy slabs.  The debris that littered the corridor did not gather at the base of this portal giving it the look of having seen reasonably recent use.  The man in the purple shirt.  Of course.  This must be how he got in. 

The shrieks were growing louder into a lethal din.  I fell on the door’s keypad with ravenous urgency pounding my combination into the supple rubber keys.  The clicking of the scores of claws filled the corridor as driving hail split by peels of otherworldly shrieking.  The echoes of it reverberated in my chest so that I could feel my ribs tremble with the sound.  The airlock’s inner door began to pull itself open sliding into the concrete walls with an agonizing grinding.

I turned my back to it in time to snap off a few shots at the first creatures who extended their reptilian heads around the corner.  As they fell, my rifle clicked dry.  I shouldered it and drew my pistol.  The airlock door was wide enough to step through by then and I began backing into it just as the main body of the swarm rounded the corner, a murderous wave of teeth and talons. 

Their screams were so vehement that I could not even hear the pop of my pistol as I squeezed off rounds into the horde.  Inside the airlock, I slammed my fist into the activator button and the door reversed course.  The creatures had reached the split in the doors and pressed against them in a thick chaotic mass of snapping jaws and swiping claws.  I pressed my back to the far door with my pistol held out in both hands firing round after round into the pressing mob.

In their own ravenous hunger, their tangled swarm had clotted the gap between the two closing steel doors, but the progression of the airlock seal was not to be halted.  The doors squeezed in on the mass of scaly, writhing bodies crushing them inches at a time.  All the while, I fired producing spouts of fiery blood until my pistol clicked empty.

The doors were nearly sealed and several of the creatures were caught halfway between the mash of the slabs.  They squealed gruesomely in their agony as bones popped and splintered.   While they wailed their haunting death rattle, I jammed my hand into my bag to fish out a fresh magazine for my rifle.  As I rooted around in the disorder of my bag, I glanced up to see one of the beasts still wriggling forward.  As I watched it pulled the front half of its carapaced bulk through the mash.  Afraid to take my eyes off it, my hand continued to grope blind around the bottom of my pack.  Just before the doors sealed shut, the creature managed to wriggle free and was birthed into the airlock with me.  The door finally sealed trapping the two of us inside.

The thing stared at me with a guttural hiss and circled the rim of the small room on scythe-like legs.  My fingers found the hilt of the hunting knife and I pulled it free, abandoning the bag to the floor.  I took up the same slow circling keeping as much distance between us as possible.  In the low light, my knife looked an inadequate thing compared to the six long talons that formed the creature’s legs.  A thick trail of glistening saliva dripped from its scaly lips as they curled back to reveal hundreds of needle-like teeth.  I tried to swallow but my throat was a desert.

Whooshing jets of a decontaminating gas erupted from myriad jets that dotted the walls at all angles.  The room was swallowed up in blasting fog.  The creature screamed and lashed blindly through the jets.  I danced to the side only avoiding the slash by a pale margin. 

The jets stopped and suddenly the air between us cleared.  We were close together, much too close, and it took every ounce of my speed to avoid those swinging scythes as the creature pressed the attack.  Despite the great effort, I marveled in a disconnected sort of way that I had even managed to avoid death this long.  This creature was like a living weapon built of nothing but sharp edges and powerful muscle.  Why aren’t I dead already?

I dodged right to avoid another cut from the creature’s talons and found my answer.  One of its hind legs had been crushed in the sealing airlock door.  The dead appendage dragged behind, slowing the creature down and throwing it off balance on one side.

Gas jets erupted again as the airlock began its second cycle.  Once more the room became shrouded in a forceful fog and the creature attacked.  This time, instead of moving back and away to put distance between us, I stepped closer between the back legs of the side without the injury.  They were not cutting at the air but rather were firmly pressed to the ground to keep the creature’s body stable while the other legs searched for a target. 

With the momentum of my movement, I stabbed with my knife.  The blade buried into scaled flesh and I felt hot blood spill onto my hands as I withdrew the cutting edge.  The creature howled and spun towards me.  I moved with its rotation keeping myself close to the supporting legs.  As we moved, I stabbed, frenzied, severing muscle and nerve to another hind leg.

With an unexpected twist of its carapace, the creature whirled away from me just as the gas jets cut out.  A wild swing caught me in the side with the back of one of its talons knocking me prone.  The creature tried to spring atop me but with two dead legs, it could only lurch forward.  Still, I was on my back on the ground scuttling away as fast as I could.

The creature was on of me in an instant.  Its four remaining scythe legs caging me in on all sides.  It howled revealing a maw bristling with rows of glistening teeth.  Its breath was rank with the smell of rancid flesh.  I grabbed its front claws with my hands and held on tight despite the cutting pain of the bone blades slicing my palms.  Then I kicked up with my boots pressing hard against its chest to keep its vile jaws as far away from me as possible.

Bucking and thrashing, it tried to dislodge me and catch my legs with its jaws, but I held on.  I rode the flailing abomination while blood ran hot and thick from my palms.  Still the creature was heavy.  Its weight crushed down on me sapping the strength from my legs an inch at a time.  Those terrible jaws grew closer and closer to my face as my legs began to tremble under the strain.  I felt the sultry, putrid breath on my face.  A long prehensile tongue, tacky with drool, unfurled from the maw and traced a slow trail up my cheek.  I screamed.  I roared.  I fought back with all my life and soul as my legs began to buckle at the knees.

Jets erupted again for a third and final cycle obscuring all.  In that briefest pause, that second’s reprieve, I released one of the taloned legs, scooped my knife, and drove it hard and deep into the creature’s neck.  There was a great rushing of air as it tried to shriek, and coppery blood splashed my face.  It bucked and pulled away into the mist heralded by the slipping, sliding sound of its claws struggling on gore slick concrete.  When finally the jets cut out and the fog cleared, the creature lay dead in a slowly growing pool of lurid orange. 

I wiped the blood from my face and sat panting on the ground.  After long minutes of the airlock whirring and hissing, a seam of golden light formed on the outer door.  It slowly widened and I climbed to my feet.  I collected my scattered equipment and went to stand by the growing brilliance.  Warm, soothing light of citrus orange rimmed in petal pink spilled across my cheeks.

When the door had opened wide enough, I took my first steps out in The Above to bathe in the beauty of the dawn light.  This isn’t so bad, I thought staring out into the majesty of the great unknown.  Looking upon The Above for the first time, no instinct nor imprinted memory bubbled up to guide me but, in that moment, my first living dawn, I did not fear.  “The world was far too beautiful a place for fear,” I whispered as I stood in the glow of the dawn that marked my first day’s end.

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