Chapter 38 – Don't Forget to Breathe

Immediately, a weight pressed against the other side of the door pushed it open, causing Mike to stumble backward and into Lara. Electric agony seized her still-oozing wound, and she nearly toppled to the floor. Mike braced himself, dropping the bag on the floor and setting his wet feet against the floor. With a grunt, he shoved the door closed again, and on the other side, they could hear a scuffling and a pair of different, hungry moans.

"Sounds like two," Lara panted, digging her nails into her grimy palms to distract herself from her various other aches. The gun, clutched so tight in her fingers that she wondered for a moment if it had become part of her hand, wavered in her grasp. Mike eyed her, skeptical.

"You mean two that we know of. There could be any number beyond that, hanging out right behind those two fuckers. It's almost never that easy. They tend to travel in packs, y'know?" Mike leaned his back against the door, rubbing at his face and sighing. Finally, Lara noticed just how tired he looked. His face had become so grimy that she almost couldn't tell how pale his face was beneath, or how sunken and hollow and empty his eyes had begun to look. Almost. His stubble had begun to take over, too, further burying him within himself. He had a great poker face, but she recognized the fear in his features because she could see it in her own every time she caught a glimpse of herself reflected in some (now useless) piece of equipment. All this fancy stuff everywhere, and not a damn bit of good it was doing them.

Her heart sunk a little further as Subject T roared again, this time, perhaps a little closer now. She couldn't tell if it was her terrified mind creating the illusion of him having begun to climb to his freedom, but she knew that they should not tempt fate and wait until he eventually emerged wet and hurt and furious from the dark mouth of the tunnel. Lara decided that she had become too familiar with the sound Subject T's claws made when they entered flesh, and that she did not need to know the sound they'd make when they tore into her own. Even so, she wondered how much more they could take. She was in bad shape, and she felt the exhaustion always now; creeping behind her eyes and in her joints. Even her gun seemed to have gained weight, and it felt swollen and heavy in her hands. She knew she had to keep hope, but she also decided that perhaps it was time to be realistic.

Soon, they would need to eat, and then rest. Otherwise, she feared, they'd wander aimlessly down here until they were too hungry and tired to continue to seek a way out. They'd die down here just like everyone else, only they'd make for easier prey because there would be nothing left. With a shudder, Lara quietly addressed Mike.

"We have to go. We can't stay here any longer. We have to take care of whatever is on the other side of that door, and we have to put as much distance between ourselves and Subject T as we can. That's step one. And it has to start right now."

Mike peered through his fingers, slowly nodding. "Fuckin', a, we do. So. Get yourself ready. We're going to throw open the door and go out guns blazing, because we're fucking idiots. It's never the most ideal plan. So, naturally, I'll go first."

"I'll try not to slow you down," Lara murmured, noting that Mike met her gaze coolly, but did not say anything. Reaching down, he swept up the bag and began to paw around inside it, fishing until he had untangled from a length of rope a rusty, dented, paint-splattered length of pipe. Mike slung the bag over his shoulder, readied the pipe above his head, and glanced once more over his shoulder at Lara. Mustering a weak little smile, she raised her weapon, thumbing at the safety and taking a deep breath and holding it in as Mike reached again for the doorknob.

This time, he did not hesitate. Instead, he swung through the doorway with the pipe in a downward arc, and though the hallway was still dim and he couldn't see anything but muted shapes in the flickering darkness, the pipe hit home and met meat with a wet smack. Something crumbled to the ground at his feet, and a second zombie pitched forward out of the darkness and tumbled into the room, tripping over his suddenly downed brethren. Mike managed to step aside, avoiding being caught and pulled down with the hungry creature, and it landed unceremoniously at Lara's feet. Clawing desperately at the floor, it reached for Lara's boots and drooled blackness all down its tattered neck and chest. Its lower jaw was mysteriously absent, and so its tongue thrashed around eagerly beneath its sunken, bloody face. It wrapped its fingers around one of her boots, and Mike started forward towards her, ready to strike it down.

With a grimace, Lara took a small step backwards, set her feet, and brought the butt of her pistol down with an unprecedented viciousness on the crown of the dead man's head. It caved in beneath the force of her blow, and she uttered a little groan as his eyeballs and what remained of his face dribbled around her fists and feet in foul, watery chunks. Shaking her head, she straightened, and found Mike standing over her, slowly lowering the pipe he'd been about to strike the zombie with. Little splatters of gore covered her face again, but now, they seemed more to Mike like war paint than mess. She was suddenly fierce, and more than a little tenacious. Mike was afraid, for a moment. He didn't know why, but when he saw her there like that, covered to her elbows in drying blood and with such furious determination burning in her ashen face, he was afraid of what she might do to survive. After all, she'd already (however temporarily) befriended a man-eating, soulless beast. What else could she pull out of her ass, when it was on the line?

After a moment, her stony expression faltered, and she moved to wipe her face with the back of her arm, and Mike stopped her, catching her arm with his shaking hand. He knew, then, that he wasn't afraid of her, exactly.

"Leave it. Makes you look like an Amazon princess. Might help the mojo," he said quietly, leaning towards the door frame to listen for anything that might still be in the hallway, but not yet ready to turn his back to her.

A smile, then. A real smile, not the fake, crazy-person smile he'd seen ten thousand times from others. This was warmth. He was taken aback for a moment, baffled by the ghost of a Christmas-morning smile glowing on her face; there and then gone, lost to the red smeared all over it.

No, he wasn't afraid of her. He was afraid for whoever stood between her and getting out of this nightmare. He didn't know that anything could really stand in her way, now. She wasn't just lucky. She was smart, and she knew how to survive. He knew that though part of every Umbrella employee's primary training involved at least some minor combat and survival training, this was extreme. She'd been beaten to hell, and God knew what else before they'd found her, and she was still kicking.

A pang of pain, at thinking of "they". The Doc was gone, now. He thought about the doctor's petite, kind wife's face. He thought about the pictures of the doc's kids, lovingly framed and plastered all over his office. They probably needed him now, more than ever, and he was slowly filling with water, dead, bloating, and forgotten somewhere in the dark below this hellhole. They deserved to know what had happened, if nothing else. There wasn't anyone waiting for Mike on the outside. Sure, his mom would miss him. Maybe his cat. There wasn't much waiting for him but a fridge full of beer and a somewhat impressive selection of video games. He had to think bigger than that. Obviously she was. She had something to do. Something left, out there, waiting for her.

"She must have some unfinished business," he thought to himself, and exited into the hallway, clutching the pipe tightly. Lara followed, trusting her leg not to buckle beneath her. Before them, the hallway lay empty, but for the bodies they'd left behind before. No more shuffling greeted them. No more moaning echoed closely around them. The smell of death and the beginning of decay clung to everything like an incense, and it hung heavily in the air here near the littering of bodies. They slowly wound their way around the oozing messes, Mike stopping to peer around every corner before they skittered around them. It felt as though someone had wound her up too tightly, and though if something didn't happen she would just snap anyway from the pressure. The waiting was the worst part. She knew they were still here somewhere, lurking, hungry, in the darkness.

Mike stopped, leaning back to whisper to her, "Medical quarters. Next floor up. Here's hoping," without looking back. Lara pondered briefly, then hissed back, "That list. Did you happen to see how many people were working in the facility at the time of the incident?"

Confused, Mike shrugged, frowning and glancing back at her as they continued onward.

"What the fuck does that have to do with anything?!"

Lara sighed. "Everything. It matters, the number of probable bodies between us and getting the fuck out of here. It matters."

Shaking his head, Mike crept toward the dimly illuminated staircase sign, poking with one boot at the limp arm of a zombie sprawled half in and half out of the ladies' restroom. It looked as though someone had ripped its arms off and tossed them away, the jagged holes gleaming wetly in the buzzing red glow of the emergency bathroom light. One ragged arm lay balanced on the edge of the drinking fountain, caught by the torn shirt on the spout, slowly forming a dark puddle beneath. The other was nowhere in sight. Its head appeared as though crushed in a vice; destroyed and spread across the stark white tile in an arcing spray of stinking meat. Mike felt a crawling sensation near the base of his spine and looked away, instead choosing to advance toward the stairs. They were so close, now. It almost felt too easy.

The fire door to the stairs hung ajar, propped open by another body obscured by darkness. Mike fumbled, finally, for his pocket flashlight, but did not turn it on. They stopped, stood in the doorway, and leaned against each other, listening to the stale darkness in the stairwell for what felt like an eternity.

At first, there was nothing. Mike stepped forward without turning on his flashlight, and from above them came a clicking, rustling sound. Lara groped for the back of Mike's shirt, and pulled him back toward her. They both froze, holding their breath and trying to listen again over the deafening protest of their pounding hearts.

Again, the clicking came, more like a click-growl; nearly a purr, except it was too rough and eerie. This time, it came closer. With it came the warped sound of quiet, bubbling laughter. It sounded as though it came through a can of worms; twisted, hollow, and crawling. Lara had no trouble hearing it. Suddenly she felt her heart had stopped, no longer drowning the world out. She could hear every sound around her. Mike's ragged breathing. The demented chortles and the whisper of approaching flesh. The click-growl grew more fervent; more excited.

Mike shined the flashlight up into the stairwell, and illuminated the upside-down, bloodless and grey face of Richard Ashford. His lips were pulled taut in a joker's grin, as though he found it very amusing that he was reduced to a face protruding from a misshapen blob of and lumpy torso attached to a giant, black scorpion-like claw where one of his arms should have been. Where his human legs had once been, instead jutting from his bloody waist were now six long, spindly and segmented new legs that carried him briskly and effortlessly along the ceiling and down the wall in a jerky, unsettling jaunt. The Ashford-thing opened its mouth further and produced both the click-growl and the twisted, barking laugh at the same time, lurching forward and dropping to the landing on the flight of stairs they meant to ascend.

Mike and Lara slowly began to back away from the doorway, and from the beast. It rose up to its full height, and what remained of its wild hair brushed the top of the door frame as it emerged from the stairwell, leering down at Mike and Lara through a mouthful of row after row of sharp, needle-like teeth. It reached out with its one still-human hand, pointing at Lara and clicking its bloodstained claw, gurgling a laugh through a mouthful of dark blood. Mike groaned lowly, terror filling him like icy water in his veins. He felt the pipe slip out of his fingers, and heard it clatter to the floor and roll away into the darkness, behind the armored, spider-like legs that carried the monster slowly closer. It opened its mouth again, and this time, it formed words carefully through its mouthful of new teeth

"Hongree... Tassshhty... Come to me...Come now... Let me tassshhhte... Jussssst a tassshhhte! Sssshe sssssaid 'd ….be hungry but... 'M... FUCKINNNG... SHHHHTARVING!" Each word was spoken as though through a mouthful of wet gravel, and when it finished, it barked another laugh, spewing a wet glob of flesh and black goop onto the floor at Mike's feet. Its claw shot forward, snapping together just inches short of Mike's belly, and he screamed and leaped backward , nearly bowling Lara over.

"What's Plan B, Mike?!" Lara leveled her gun at what had become of Richard Ashford, and the monster roared at her, spraying them both with a hot gust of bloody black spittle even from several feet away. It took another step closer, waving its clicking claw menacingly, eagerly shuffling its many feet. Mike's jaw worked soundlessly, his mind a blank. Every time he thought he couldn't be surprised by what was down here, he found something even more fucked than before. His stomach lurched as it drew close again. It smelled worse than the others, somehow, as though it had eaten its fill from dumpster and its swollen middle was perhaps full of rotten refuse. As they retreated past the restroom, Mike finally noticed that there were strange, wide bite marks here and there on the corpse in the doorway, and he understood. This thing didn't discriminate between live and dead. It just ate whatever it could get in its mouth.

As if reading his mind, the Ashford-thing reached down and plucked the arm from atop the drinking fountain, dangling it above his head, tilting his head back and opening his jaw slowly like a snake. He chomped down around the meaty upper arm, chewing and sucking on it greedily like a pork rib until the meat came loose above the elbow and fell into his mouth. It quickly disappeared down its gurgling throat, and he took to gnawing on the forearm, finding no trouble in the pins and screws inside it from old surgeries. They, too, disappeared into the dark gullet of the beast with a thick rush of black, sticky saliva. Lara watched in horror and fascination as a watch upon the wrist fell away and was easily crushed by the gnashing rows of teeth inside the gaping maw.

"S-Sssso... hungry... Notttt... enough... More... More!"

Mike shoved Lara back a few steps, and then down a different hallway. Lara's leg protested, but her fear seemed better than any salve she might find on the outside. It would keep the pain at bay until they could get to safety. It would HAVE to. They couldn't go back the way they'd come. They had to find another way, or they had to trick the fucker into letting them past and up the stairs behind him. Mike dragged Lara faster and faster, until the two were nearly sprinting. Behind them, they heard the slow, deliberate clicking of claws on tile, peppered here and there with maniacal, tortured laughter. It was after them, but it seemed to feel no need to hurry. Around downed tables (and downed staff, as they were), through piles of unidentifiable muck and horror, and finally, they turned out of the dimly lit staff hallway and their pounding steps were silenced by dingy, blood-spattered carpet.

"We'll lose him in the cubicles. Hide. We'll swing back. We have to try."

They stared at each other for a long moment, then each chose a direction and crawled into the maze of darkened cubicles, terror heavy in their guts as they sought suitable cover. The gurgling titter drew nearer. They were running out of time.

DUN DUN DUN. There you are.