By Leah Tanzy
He wasn’t supposed to be here today.
Calvin drew his knees up to his chest, trying to make himself as small as possible, wedged in the corner and under the table in the break-room. The stark white walls and sterile glow of the fluorescent lights should have had a calming effect, but they didn’t. If this had been a movie, the lights would’ve gone out, or at least been flickering ominously. But this wasn’t a movie, this was just VentroPharm Labs, and VentroPharm Labs had an excellent custodial staff.
Had, as in past-tense.
He hugged his shins and quieted his breathing enough to listen over the Muzak for sounds that the worst was over, or maybe that security had arrived, the SWAT team, the god-damned National Guard. But after a few seconds of quasi-silence, only another muffled scream broke through, and another thud rattled the abandoned can of Diet Coke on the table above. He jammed his eyes shut and once again started hyperventilating, rocking involuntarily in his terrible hiding place.
This wasn’t even his shift.
It was the great injustice Calvin was clinging to. He didn’t work Thursdays because that was when he was supposed to be going on raids with his guild, but Mr. Clifton had called and asked him to pick up an extra shift, Tabitha had to take her kid to the doctor’s, and hadn’t he been complaining about his hours lately? Tabitha should’ve been the one cowering under the break room table, listening to the inoffensive hits of yesterday and today in between the horrible shrieking, wondering if Phil Collins was going to provide the soundtrack to her grisly death. Her kid probably wasn’t even sick.
Again the sound of heavy, loping footfalls made their way down the hall outside and he froze, holding his breath and wondering if he should clamp a hand over his mouth. People were always betrayed by their fear in movies and TV shows, crying out when they should stay silent and prompting screams of outrage from the audience, but he couldn’t even imagine making a sound right now. It was unthinkable.
But as quickly as the sound came, it was gone again, off to terrorize some other part of the building. Calvin swallowed, considering his options; it was headed towards the east wing, and he’d been inside the VentroPharm Labs enough to know that there would be a security door in the way. If the thing hit the door and got turned around, it would just come straight back to him, but if it got through-
On cue, the sound of something heavy slamming into something solid repeatedly assaulted his ears, until the groaning of twisting metal finally indicated the surrender of the door to the onslaught of the thing. Whatever it was. The thing from the ice in Siberia that had been such a big deal. Imagine that, something surviving in the permafrost for thirty thousand years, a bacteria or a virus or something, and everyone patting each other on the back because they’d brought it back to life to eat amoebas, how interesting. It was like they’d never read a comic book or sci-fi novel in their lives. Calvin had.
Tabitha was probably sitting on her couch watching Maury and nursing a hangover.
Another crash as the door was broken through brought him to his senses. It would be in the east wing, now, and it was someone else’s problem. He scampered forward on hands and knees until he was clear of the table, then pushed to his feet and hurried through the doorway. For a brief second, he wondered if he was the only one alive because he was wearing cargo-shorts and a t-shirt. Would more people have survived if it was casual Friday, and they weren’t tripping over their dress slacks and high heels?
The hall was empty, save for the slick, oddly-spaced crimson footprints that disappeared to the east. It went against every fiber of his mind to follow after the thing, but that was the direction of the lobby as well, and judging by the way the prints got thicker in the other direction, he didn’t want to see what’d been left behind.
His pulse quickened as he moved quietly down the hall, every faint sound making him freeze in place until the ensuing silence allowed him to move again. Past Accounting would be HR, and from there would be the junction that led you to the mail room and the lobby beyond. He made this trip at least twice a week and it’d never taken him more than five minutes total inside, including signing for packages and chatting up Rachel in Accounts Payable (it couldn’t be workplace harassment if he didn’t actually work there, right?), but now the Human Resources cubicle farm was the deadliest jungle, threatening to swallow him up like a modern-day Percy Fawcett. Or maybe more like Fawcett’s son; he’d probably been dragged along.
As he crept past the communal mini-fridge, another set of footsteps heralded the arrival of the overweight security guard who always mad-dogged him about signing in when he was dropping off, running towards him from the mail room. Calvin met his wild eyes, set in the pudgy red face, as he hissed “Run!”
“It went to the east wing!” he whispered in response, but he guard blew right by him.
“THERE’S MORE THAN ONE!”
With inhuman quickness, an inky-black form snaked out into the hallway, and Calvin didn’t wait to see anymore before turning and charging back the other direction. His slender, athletic legs easily carried him past the security guard and into a storage closet, because at least that had a door, though he graciously refrained from slamming it shut until after the guard had come through. The door shuddered as it was hammered from the other side, and Calvin was quick to note this one wasn’t made of reinforced metal. It wouldn’t last the twenty seconds the security door did.
The security guard was one step ahead of him, desperately pulling over the heavy rack stacked with personnel files and contracts. Calvin had the absurd thought that he was going to be in big trouble for the clerical nightmare he was creating, just before grabbing the other end. The two men shoved the steel racking in place, wedging it longways between the door and the wall as best they could. Calvin winced as slam after slam began to bend the metal frame, but then it stopped entirely, replaced by what he could only describe as a sniffing sound, if an elephant was doing the sniffing. And then it was gone, exiting with the same bounding gait as the one before it.
The guard stepped back, sucking in air like a dying fish, and they both stared at the door, as if it would betray them at any moment.
“You’re the bike messenger,” he observed in between wheezes.
“Courier,” Calvin corrected automatically. Even with his superior conditioning, he struggled to keep his breathing under control.
“Calvin, right?” It shouldn’t have been a surprise, after all, the man had forced him to write his name down every time he was working the desk, but Calvin was used to flying under the radar, and going unnoticed. Even Rachel didn’t know his name. He joked about being a ninja with his friends, but there was a difference between being invisible and ignored. “I’m Bruce.”
“How long have you been here?”
Calvin sat down on the rack. “I think since it started.” An entire sub-department’s careers were scattered at his feet, and he idly wondered who was still alive. “I was dropping off a sample form Pimcotec, you know, over by the Presidio? Then it was all breaking glass and screams, and…” And the splattered remains of Nestor and Ysidro in the supply room. “…you know.”
Bruce nodded, the red starting to drain from his face. “Yeah. I was at the desk, and I went to go see what was happening.” His expression turned haunted. “I shoulda run right out the door.”
“You said there’s two?”
“At least, I dunno.” The guard leaned over, bracing his hands on his knees. “I was with the ladies from payroll in Mr. Kenzer’s office, and we could see the one across the atrium, I think it was…” The rest of the color drained from his face. “I think it was eating Ganjar. And then something got Judy.” It was then that Calvin noticed the blood spattered across Bruce’s back.
“This is so fucked up.” He rubbed his face. “What are they? I mean, I know it’s something from the ice, but how did this happen?”
“I heard one of the guys from room 704 say that it jumped.” Bruce unbuttoned his collar.
“Transferred, from a sample to a person. It wasn’t dangerous at first, but they fed it something it liked, and it just went from there.”
“Like, infecting people?” Calvin’s eyes widened.
Bruce shook his head. “Man, I dunno, something like that. They don’t explain anything to me, all I do is work the desk and then walk the building after lock-down.”
“After five-thirty, the front doors lock automatically, and you have to have a key-card to get in.” The way the guard explained it, this was the height of sophisticated security. As if this wasn’t a feature of every office building Calvin had delivered to. “It’s called lock-down.”
“Is it called lock-down, or do you call it lock-down?”
Calvin was having a difficult time keeping calm. “It’s kind of important, Bruce, do the doors just lock people out, or do they lock people in, too??”
“No, no, they just lock people out, you couldn’t-” He broke off with a small frown. “Okay, I call it lock-down. But I dunno if you could lock them the other way, I never tried.”
“Fuck, we gotta get outta here.”
The guard finally had his breathing settled. “This room connects to the mail room through the back.” He pointed to where the closet extended and turned a corner. Calvin hadn’t noticed there was more to it past the row of shelving. “We could try that way.”
He turned to look, and nodded. At least Bruce the Rent-a-Cop knew the building. They might just make it out. “Yeah, let’s go. If we stay, it’s just gonna kill us. Did you call the cops?”
“I left my phone at the front desk.” His expression turned defensive at the look Calvin was giving him. “It’s company policy! What about you?”
Now it was Calvin’s turn to look sheepish. “My battery’s out.”
Bruce rolled his eyes. “Somebody has to have called.”
“Doesn’t matter, let’s go.”
They climbed over the mess they’d made, and Bruce swiped his badge to unlock the back door into the mail room. It was, of course, devoid of life, everyone having either fled or been eaten elsewhere, Calvin assumed. But between the packaging stations, stacks of supplies, and rows of cubbyholes, the way through was winding. For the first time since he picked up this route, he wished Bruce was the kind of security guard with a gun.
Just through this room, out the doorway, and straight through to the lobby. It was even easier now than before, when he was in the cubicle farm, but knowing there were two of the creatures, or even more, and that they were completely unaccounted for made each step towards the doorway agonizingly slow. He expected to turn the corner and see a black shape lurking in the hall, but when he finally rounded a row of boxes, there was nothing. He breathed a sigh of relief and kept moving.
Bruce did not. “Oh, fuck, Calvin…” He was looking to the far corner of the room, where they kept the postage meter. “Oh, fuck, Calvin!”
He shouldn’t have looked. He should’ve run right out the door, like the security guard had said. Maybe that was why everyone died awfully in the movies, we just can’t help it. The creature slowly unfolded from its niche in the corner of the ceiling and crawled towards them, at once bipedal and quadrupedal. Rubbery black flesh covered its corded form, and where a face should be was a mass of tubes that pulsated, undulating like tentacles. He heard that sniffing sound again as it prowled closer on elongated, three-clawed feet.
Tabitha definitely would’ve screamed. Not because she was a girl, but because she was Tabitha. She’d screamed when they found the mouse at dispatch. Not that it wouldn’t have been a perfectly understandable time to scream right now, it just wouldn’t have been helpful.
Calvin was faster, would always be faster than the pudgy security guard who sat behind the desk and mad-dogged everyone who came in the building. That was just how the dice had been rolled. It wasn’t either of their faults that he was the first one through the door when the creature lunged, knocking Bruce to the floor. Calvin was already in the lobby when he idly remember the saying, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.” The sun shone through the double glass doors in front of him, beckoning like the gates of heaven.
Bruce shrieked behind him, trying to crawl under one of the shipping tables. He should’ve run right out the door, but the stupidest thought crossed his mind. The pudgy security guard was the only one in the whole building who knew his name.
Calvin turned and screamed something unintelligible, reversing course. He ripped the likely-expired fire extinguisher off the wall as he returned to the mail room, heart pounding in his chest. It would’ve been the perfect moment to discover a weakness, to find out these things were highly allergic to potassium bicarbonate, or something, but he wouldn’t have known how to use the damn thing, anyways. It was heavy, so it was a weapon, and in a moment of blind rage, he swung the bright red cannister over his head, bringing it down on the tentacled head bearing down on the man under the table.
Impossibly, the thing reeled from his attack, and he swung again. And again. Each time he hit, he felt the slick, rubbery form give, as if there were no bones underneath, just a fleshy mass stretched over organs. Perhaps that was efficient for allowing it to move like it did, but as he continued to brain the thing, it did little to protect it from damage. Bruce was already crawling to safety, though leaving a trail of blood in his wake, but that wasn’t even the point anymore, because this wasn’t Calvin’s shift. He was supposed to be home, sitting in front of his computer, playing video games and jacking off. It was Thursday. This was Tabitha’s mother-fucking shift.
The screams coming from his mouth were completely unintelligible at this point.
“Calvin, let’s go!” Bruce pleaded, trying stand, but struggling to get his legs underneath him.
He turned, nodded, and dropped the fire extinguisher, plodding with sudden exhaustion towards the man on the floor. “Yeah, man. Bruce.” He leaned down and pulled the guard’s arm over his shoulders, red blood smearing the black ichor now splattered across his chest. He didn’t so much wear it proudly as he did spitefully. As they lumbered towards the doors, the afternoon sun shining unrestrained through the tinted windows, Calvin knew that Tabitha would never have been able to pull this off. She was terrible with confrontation.
Did she even have a kid?