Keira reached down and flicked off her flashlight, plunging their little alcove back into shadow. She waited a few minutes as the elusive sound continued to prowl around the room. The sounds continued, echoing across the room before fading away to a hungry silence. Slowly the pitch black lightened to dim shapes and spaces as her eyes adjusted. She looked around warily, but she couldn't see anything. Whatever it was, it was gone for now.
She leaned close to Ghost, covering her mouth with her hand to reduce the noise and murmured: "Fire exit, north wall."
His yellow eyes bobbed up and down in a nod and slowly she rose to her feet. Making her way by the mental compass in her head, she turned right and headed down the aisle, walking slowly and softly to avoid making noise.
They reached the end of the aisle without incident and took a left. The lurid red glow of the exit sign was Stoke's North Star. Each time they made a turn she made sure to fix that landmark in her mind before moving on. The last thing she wanted to do was get turned around in the dark. Especially not with whatever was lurking out there. Her mind conjured up images of unseen predators circling like sharks in the ocean of darkness around her. Any second now she'd see a flash of white teeth, a flicker of movement, or ice-cold claws grabbing her from behind-
Stop it Stokes, now you're just psyching yourself out, focus on just getting out of here.
But there was a danger in just focusing on getting out. When you worried about big things, like a creepy nightmare hospital packed with enough explosives to create a small crater in the moon, or a couple hundred hostile private security who had no compunction against gunning down defenseless men and women…the little things slipped by. So you had to keep a balance, the big and little, because sometimes the little things were just as important.
Little things like a faint scuff of movement, past a row of blood smeared shelves. A ringing echo as something metal clattered in the dark-and was quickly muffled.
And the more obvious signs: the light at the end of the row that flickered as something dashed past it.
She felt Ghost lightly touch her shoulder, and the Delta Force soldier nodded in return. She didn't need his enhanced hearing or vision to know what the prickling hairs on her neck, and the twisted knot in her gut was telling her.
Still, she kept her slow, cautious pace. If the things in the dark didn't know where the two survivors were, a panicked run would only let them know where to go to find dinner. If they were being hunted, running would only provoke them into attacking sooner.
And then the captured radio, the one that had been quietly clipped to her belt, suddenly gave an ear-splitting shriek of static feedback. Her fingers fumbled frantically and mashed the volume down. For a moment she froze, thumping heart swallowed in a throat too small.
And then, from out of the shadows right next to her, something stirred softly.
There were times to fight, and there were times when all you could do was just run like hell and hope you'd be fast enough. This was one of the latter situations.
The darkness around them erupted with snarls and gnashing teeth and the tempo of hardened claws striking on wood, tiles, concrete walls and metal shelves. The hellish sounds echoed and rebounded, growing louder and louder like a chorus of franticly pulsing drums. Something burst out of a gap between the shelves ahead of them. Keira got a glimpse of a nightmare face with too many teeth. Before she could react, or even think about shooting, the thing disappeared in a flash of sharp steel. Ghost wiped his blade clean with a flick of his wrist and kept running.
They turned the corner and the exit sign was suddenly there and gone as they smashed through the doors and hit the stairs at a dead run. Stokes took the gray slab steps three at a time. Below her the basement doors crashed open. She looked back, risking a quick glance.
Then she turned and pumped even more energy into her trembling legs, a split-second glance showing only scuttling man-sized nightmares. Sickly white, parchment-thin flesh rippling over lean muscles. Mouths bleeding wet red, too small to contain the jagged splinters of teeth caked with dried black blood and fingers whittled down to bone claws, click-clacking on the cold tile floors.
She reached the door first, slamming past it, into a lobby.
Ghost sailed through a heartbeat later, just a shimmer on the wind as his momentum carried him deeper into the room.
Stokes scrambled back on her heels, reversing direction so fast there were probably tire squeals. She threw her weight against the door and her hand scrambled for a lock to slide shut, just as something from the other side cannon balled into it.
Stokes was tougher than most people, but even Delta Force training and a stubborn as hell attitude couldn't change the fact that she was only a hundred and fifty pounds of flesh and equipment, and leverage could only do so much.
Physics was a bitch like that.
She held it shut for two shuddering impacts before the freaks discovered the push bar on their side of the door. The door started swinging open; boney hands and snapping jaws crowded at the opening. Her boots fought for traction on the slick tiles, but there was nothing to gain leverage with. A pale veined hand clawed through the widening gap. The bone points shredded through her vest and drew three slashes of bright red blood against her skin. Stokes hissed with pain, instinctively jerking back-
-and in this situation it was the worst thing she could have done.
She was knocked to the floor as the door slammed back on its hinges. Stokes took the brunt of the impact on her shoulders and rump, but her head still smacked painfully against the ground, dazing her for a few seconds. Seconds she didn't have.
The first crawler leaped, an explosive propulsion of muscles contracting together, carrying it high into the air, jagged claws extend out for a pounce-
-and he was promptly introduced to the uncomfortable tread of Ghost's combat boots as the assassin launched himself through the air. Like Keira, Ghost didn't weigh much and however acrobatic he was, a mid-air kick like that really didn't have a whole lot of speed going for it-nothing to brace against. However, his boots were pressed close together and his legs locked, and all that force was concentrated on the relatively small target that was the abomination's skull. In other words he hit with a hell of a lot more force than a 120 pound person should have normally.
Again, physics was a bitch like that.
The impact traveled up Ghost's legs, but his synthetic bones were a lot stronger and more flexible than the twisted man-freak's simple flesh and blood. The crawler was knocked back with a sickening crack. Ghost's own landing was rather graceless, landing flat on his ass right in front of the open door leading to the stairwell that was crammed with crawlers all eager to enjoy the two person buffet.
And then Stokes, still on her back, angled the Andra up and jammed the trigger down.
White muzzle flashes and deafening snaps drowned out the darkness. In the enclosed space the hollow point rounds scooped chunks of flesh out of the two crawlers closest to the door. They collapsed back lashing out in blind pain, and hitting only each other, sowing further chaos down the line.
The gunfire died away abruptly, the fifty round clip running dry in less than ten seconds, and all she had to show for it was two dead crawlers and a stairwell full of very pissed off mutant freaks. But again, Ghost was there to meet them. This time there was no fancy kick. One black gloved hand snatched the next crawler by the throat, the other hand opened said throat from one artery to the other, almost severing the head before tossing the body aside and grabbing the next with a simple economy of movement.
Stokes finished reloading, working the slide with a satisfying clack and Ghost ducked back out of her line of fire. This time there was no wild splurge of ammo. The Andra coughed as Stokes fell into a crouched stance and fired short, controlled bursts into the stairwell. Three more crawlers dropped convulsing. Then an adrupt silence fell.
Keira rose to her feet and kept the gun pointed at the murky shadows of the stairwell for several tense seconds, but the receding sounds of bone claws clacking on concrete and animal squeals told her what her racing heart refused to believe.
They were actually retreating.
Apparently even the mentally destroyed minds of the crawlers still had enough animal intellect to not throw themselves blindly into certain death. Still, Keira waited until the last click of bone on metal had faded away before she approached the door to shut it. It was only after she made sure the fire escape door would stay shut that the lieutenant looked back.
They were at the bottom of another lobby…and another massacre. However, unlike the basement, these bodies weren't ATC, they were clad in the remnants of nursing scrubs, doctor's coats, blue patient shifts. She'd seen dead civvies before, years ago on an extraction mission in a war-torn city. But never this many, never here, not so close to home. She wanted to look away, but the bodies were everywhere. In twos and threes, in big clusters and individual clumps. She started to count. She gave up after twenty.
An old patient slumped over in a wheelchair, leaking cold blood from a dozen wounds. A big man in a janitor's coveralls, beefy long arms still outstretched in a shielding embrace over two blood drenched women in nurse's scrubs. A small ring of corpses, hands clutched together, desperate for human contact, desperate not to die alone.
Her foot knocked against something, and Stokes looked down to see the matte black finish of a combat shotgun. The orange sights had been knocked askew, the grip was slick with bloody handprints. It wasn't until Ghost made a cautious little burst of static that she realized she was shaking. Not from fear though, or exhaustion. Because the dead men, the dead women, the dead doctors and patients and nurses…
Crawlers hadn't killed them. Crawlers hadn't lined them up, forced them to their knees. Hadn't placed those neat little holes, precise pellets of lead. Crawlers at least had the fucking excuse of being rabid. Innocent casualties were a tarnished fact about war. Sometimes a soldier reacted quickly to a potential hostile situation; sometimes it was a case of bad intel.
Sometimes, it was deliberate.
"Bastards." The word was flat, exhausted, weak. "God-damned motherfucking, shit-eating…bastards." Her voice trailed off because there wasn't any way to describe it. No name, no curse in any language, that was vile enough to describe the men who'd done this.
He felt like he had to understand, like he was missing something, or merely inadequate. He stared at the room, studied the bodies intently, trying to understand why after killing so many people, the Lieutenant was so distressed about these bodies. Ghost knelt next to one, an older female in a pink scrub. He stared at her face, the slack, slightly surprised look, eyes widened in death, jaw still slack, muscles still pliable. He turned his head this way and that, walked around the body, knelt by it, poked and prodded it, looking for physical clues that could shed light on the answer.
Nope, still nothing.
Maybe it was a defect in the Lieutenant's genes – but Ghost strongly hoped it wasn't.
He didn't want her to be defective.
Something echoed in the room, strangely muffled like it came behind the walls. It was so faint that Ghost barely heard it. Judging from the Lieutenant's morose face, she hadn't heard it at all. It might have just been a rat in the vent, but it didn't matter. They'd already stayed here too long.
Ghost started to turn, and then he heard a wet cough. The assassin paused and studied the area with his visor. In a dark, recessed corner by the foot of the stairs, he spotted a man, hunched over in obvious pain. Intrigued, the assassin drifted over, until he stood above the wounded man.
"Help me." The man rasped. His face wasn't too remarkable, a little pale from blood lose but otherwise average, even a little baby-faced. He wore a white polo shirt, military cap, black slacks, and the tattered remnants of a Kevlar vest. A Rakow AT-14 nine millimeter was clasped in one hand, but the slide was locked back, empty of ammo.
Not the most challenging target but it was the thought that counted. Ghost ejected his wrist-blade and knelt over the man.
Ghost sighed, a breezy gust of spitting static. The wrist-blade retracted. The Lieutenant walked past him and knelt down next to the wounded man. He seemed not to have noticed how close he'd come to dying, or dying quicker.
"…you a medic?" He asked, "…I think I've been shot."
She studied his face intently, as if, like Ghost, she too, might be able to find the answers she sought. "Who are you?"
"Me?" the pallid face wrinkled, brows furrowing in confusion, "…Bryan. Bryan…ah, Flass. Security."
"Well Bryan, I'm here to help, but first, you need to tell me what happened."
Bryan nodded slowly, head bobbing with fatigue. "Evacuation alarms started ringing. Men with guns showed up…ATC guys, like me. Said…we had to get everybody…everybody to the lobbies…for the evacuations, you know?" He coughed, blood flecking the stained surface of his shirt. "We went door to door…and the soldier guys, they were real nice, real polite."
"Go on." A pit started to form in Keira's stomach.
"They helped round up the doctors, and the patients…one of them even helped…my friend Rachel, sweet girl, you know? He helped her wheel a gurney down here. Everybody…lined up, by the elevators…everything was going smooth…no trouble at all. Rachel…joked about someone pulling…a, a fire alarm, like a…prank, you know?" The man shook his head, "We were fine…I don't know why it happened."
"What happened?" She asked.
"Someone started shooting." He shook his head, "It wasn't like…the movies. Sounded almost like little poppers, snapping off. People started screaming, and, and I didn't know what to do, you know? So I…I hid. I stumbled behind the stairs…and I…I just watched." His voice caught, eyes squeezing shut, something wet dripping beneath them. "They shot the ones closest to the elevators first. Some people just dropped, squirming on the ground, screaming, God-damned awful screaming."
Ghost could sympathize with the man. The screamers were the worst, so loud. He got distracted by a faint rustle. The assassin cocked his head, only half-listening to the conversation.
"Anyway…I was back here. And, and I see Rachel. S-she's on her belly, and she's just scooting her way through all this blood on the floor, keeping low, so they don't see her." The words came faster, spilling out, "She had…had one of the patients with her…and she was making for the fire escapes. Then this g-guy with a shotgun comes strolling down the line. He puts a boot on the patient's back and he just…blows his brains out and Rache s-she looks up, and she sees me and here I am, fucking Security, a-and I'm doing shit." He sucked in a rattling gasp, blood seeping from his tattered vest.
"S-s-so when the man stops to pump the slide. I come up behind him, and I just start shooting." He laughed at that, a gargled retch of blood and air, "D-didn't e-e-even, aim…just...point and shoot. Think I winged him or something, 'cause he went down...something hit me like a…like a hammer s-so I crawled back here…to catch my breath."
He looked at her, and something must have sunk through the fatigue and blood loss. "You're not a medic."
"No" she agreed quietly.
The security guard nodded slowly, "That's alright. D-don't think I need o-one." He looked up and some childish fear filled his eyes, "y-you gonna…go l-like the other l-lady?"
"What other lady?"
Bryan shrugged, "s-some o-older lady…in a b-brown suit."
Keira froze, "Aristide? Genevieve Aristide? "
"The president? Shit," he snorted, "…didn't even r-recognize my fucking boss...that's…that's funny." His voice trailed off, his head slumped against his chest.
"When did you see her?" Keira grabbed his shoulders and shook him, "Hey! Can you hear me?"
The guard didn't stir. Stoke's intent face eased with a reluctant sigh. She wiped her hand over his face, closing his eyes. Ghost watched this ritual with fascination. His eyes lingered on the guard's dead face, wondering what possible meaning could have been behind that. The Lieutenant stared past him-and then her eyes widened with shock.
"Son of a bitch!"
Ghost's head whipped up.
"Did you see that?"
He frowned. See what? The top of the stairs was deserted.
"Aristide! She was just there!" The Lieutenant surged to her feet, filled with a sudden, almost manic energy. "C'mon Ghost!"
Ghost shrugged and followed her, feeling confused. How had he not noticed Aristide? They reached the top of the stairs and turned the corridor. Again, there was nothing to meet his gaze, the corridor was deserted, save for the elevator at the end of the hall.
The Lieutenant swore in anger, "she must have taken the elevator!"
Ghost tilted his head, considering it before giving another shrug. After all it was certainly possible and as long as they were moving again, he didn't care. The two hustled quickly down the glass walled walkway that snaked around the second floor. The Lieutenant had one hand to her ear, talking quickly to another soldier, a Beckett, about Aristide. Ghost jogged easily beside her, keeping his attention focused on their surroundings.
Even so, he almost didn't hear the skittering in time.
Ghost hesitated, making a questioning warble.
"Ghost?" Keira started to turn towards him-
-and then Ghost's foot lashed out, sweeping her feet out from under her. He had exactly two seconds to note the look of surprised betrayal on her face. The ceiling panel in front of them smacked the floor as a crawler dropped through. At the same time, a second crawler burst through the crawlspace running behind the wall.
Ghost caught the first crawler and checked its forward charge with a snap of its neck. He dropped the corpse but even as he raised his hands, the second Crawler slammed into him. Unprepared, the impact drove Ghost onto his back. The crawler gibbered crazily at him, bone claws scrambling over his slick suit while his hands grappled with the crawler, trying to keep those same claws from gaining purchase and puncturing the suit.
The crawlers had been repelled in the lobby entrance, but they'd learned the painful lesson about narrow chokepoints and soldiers with guns. After a few minutes of licking their wounds, the crawlers had worked their way stealthily through the crawlspaces and ceiling panels of the room. They'd moved so slowly, so quietly, that even Ghost hadn't been aware.
And when they struck, they all struck at once. Holes were punched through the walls, ceiling panels smacked to the ground, floor vents erupted up as Abominations poured through them.
Keira unholstered her Seegert as two more crawlers dropped out of the ceiling crawlspace. Unlike her first encounter, she didn't hesitate, pumping the trigger and emptying the clip into their pale flesh-starved bodies until they dropped with dying convulsions. She looked down the stairs and saw the flood of crawlers on the first floor. She reached the elevator and slapped the call-button. Unlike last time, the doors slid open almost immediately and she stepped through. "Ghost!" she snapped, "Come on!"
Ghost finally got his hands wrapped around the crawler's skull. He twisted the head sharply to the right and dropped the corpse. As he passed a large hole in the glass wall, crawler hand shot out. It latched onto his ankle. Off-balanced, the assassin was knocked off his feet. He landed on the floor and snapped his arms out, grabbing the sides of the hole as the crawlers tried to tug him through.
His yellow eyes looked at her. He nudged his head at the elevator as if to say go
And then he let go.