Until Death
rating: +83+x

She didn't hear it. Not at first.

At this time of night, the labs were deserted. The whole of Site-120 was practically empty: corridors dim and silent, offices shut, experimental apparatus crouched in shadowy chambers. There were no anomalies contained on site, so the only people left in the compound were a couple of security staff. And a sixty-three-year-old researcher, hunched over a bench full of notes and textbooks, a single desk lamp bright against the lab's enveloping darkness.

She had always been wrapped up in her work, her colleagues said. There was no-one to go home to. She had been with the Foundation for many years, many late nights like this, engrossed in the calculations and correlations spread in front of her. And so she didn't hear the noise, not when it started.

A soft, crackling hiss from the far corner of the lab, a sound like wet leaves in a fire. Like whispers from a dried-up throat, just at the edge of hearing. It wasn't until she breathed in the smell - faint but thick with rot - that she started from her work, turned, and noticed the sound.

The researcher pulled herself down from her lab stool, that familiar stiffness in her hips an unwelcome reminder of the hours and years she had been in the lab. Absently she pushed her glasses back up and peered across the darkened room. The noise was still there. A few seconds of listening failed to resolve it into anything readily explainable. She had taken four steps across the lab when the lamp behind her blinked out.

Swallowed in darkness, she froze. The noise had gone. Her breathing had grown rapid and shallow, and she forced two deeper breaths before taking out her phone and switching on the torch. After a moment's hesitation, she turned back to the workbench to see what had happened to the light.

As the torch beam swung, the first thing she registered was that there was something different on her pile of work. Something foreign. Dark. Wet. Bloody. Her brain caught up: it was a human kidney, complete with ureter and a tangle of blood vessels. It glistened in the torchlight, a crimson stain seeping into the paper beneath it. Her throat grew tight.

The noise started again. It was thicker, somehow. Moist. She looked over her shoulder, indecisive. Her brain was blank, reacting without thinking - a thousand other choices pushed out by the sheer impossibility of that noise, this mangled organ in front of her. Stay here or go there? Almost before she realised, she was walking cautiously across the shadowed room towards the source of the sound.

The torch lit up the back wall of the lab, a corner behind the mass spectrometer. A black smear had spread across it, the paint and plaster bubbling and flaking in a slow roil. The whispering sizzle was louder, and the air was heavy with an oily stink of decay. Close to, she could see the surface of the wall had softened, sagging in wet bulges. She hesitated.

The hand shot out of the wall faster than thought. Its fingers were broad and grey, sticky with black mucus, grabbing her forearm. Instantly her lab-coat started to melt, and as she yanked her arm away the sleeve tore off, disintegrating. The fingers snatched at her again, and she dropped her phone. As she stumbled backwards, the torch shone up from the floor, lighting the figure that pushed its way through the mottled, fleshy wall.

It looked like an old man, decrepit and rotten. It was naked, its skin slick and shiny as pitch. Its flesh was withered and decomposing, with missing toes and misshapen feet. A distended gut protruded obscenely from beneath a narrow chest, arms spread wide in a mockery of greeting. Above a ruined throat, she saw a too-wide mouth locked in a rictus grin, and eyes - oh god, those eyes. The thing emerging from the wall before her looked like a man, but its eyes were grey and flat as a shark's.

The researcher took another two steps back, reaching behind her for something, anything solid to hold. Her breath caught in her throat. The old man stood still, dripping black foulness onto the floor as the tiles began liquefying beneath him. Her phone sank beneath the surface; the torch flickered out. In darkness, she ran.

She was panting by the time she reached the lab doors, ruing her age, the extra weight she carried, every exercise session postponed. As she turned to close the doors behind her she could see that hideous figure pacing deliberately across the room. Something about its lack of hurry unnerved her deeply. She forced herself to keep running down the corridor, calling for the night-guard, hoping he was close.

"Frank! Frank!"

After the second turn she saw him, halfway from the guard station, gun in his hand.

"What's wrong?" Frank jogged up to her, and she doubled over, spots in her vision.

"Frank, thank god. It's -" Her chest was heaving, and she could hardly speak. How could she describe what she had just seen.

"Slow down, ay. Take a second to -" Frank tailed off, and she looked up to see his gaze fixed on the end of the dim corridor. She knew what he had seen.

The old man walked towards them, trailing a viscid ooze. When Frank trained the torch on him, his eyes shone avid and empty. Twenty feet from them.

"Hey! Stop, now!" Frank shouted. "I will shoot you!"

The grinning cadaver kept coming. Fifteen feet. Twelve.

Frank fired, three shots. Two hits to the chest.

The old man stopped, gradually crumpling forward. The researcher let out a breath. The glistening corpse sank into the floor, swallowed by the slime it had generated. She felt sick with shock.

"What the fuck was that?" Frank started towards the blackened floor, but she held his sleeve.

"Wait! It's - I think it's some kind of acid." Her voice was hushed, her throat felt raw. "We need to call someone."

Frank pulled out his radio, but paused, his thumb over the button. "Not until I know what to report."

Suddenly she didn't want him to move away, not even a few feet. "Please," she said, stepping into Frank's path, "there's nothing like this on the database, there's nothing! We need an MTF."

"Ay, don't tell me my job." said Frank, sounding piqued. "First, I need to -"

"No!" She was gripping his sleeves. "Frank, I know dimensional anomalies, and this was from one. I saw it step out of a wall!"

Frank tried to shrug her off, but pushed too hard. She fell awkwardly, a wrench of pain from her ankle. Tears sprang to her eyes, and Frank was instantly regretful.

"Oh god, I'm sorry. I didn't mean -"

He cut off, as a glob of black mucus landed on his radio, setting it fizzing. Frank dropped it like he had been stung, and glanced upwards. The next drop landed in his right eye.

The researcher scrambled backwards as Frank roared and clutched his face. She could hear the hiss as the corrosion ate at his eye socket from the inside. Then she saw that grinning face emerge from the dark patch on the ceiling, and the old man dropped onto Frank's back. One hand slid into the muscles of his shoulder like it was dough, and Frank's roar became a scream. As he crashed into the wall of the corridor, she saw the other hand sink into Frank's throat and tear, and the scream was abruptly cut off. Frank started to collapse into the wall as it darkened around him. The last thing she saw was those eyes, locked on hers as they sank back into the blackness. Empty eyes, but somehow full of promise.

Her heart pounded, and the taste of bile was in her throat. She tried to stand, but she was lightheaded and her ankle was throbbing. She had to run. She had to run - every second not running was death. Dragging herself up on a cabinet, she tried to think, eyes flicking between the ruined radio and the puckered bruises on the wall and floor. Run. Where? Guard's office. The alarm.

She forced herself forward, gasping at the pain in her foot. Her lungs burned. Every shadow in the half-lit hallway loomed like a threat. Not much further now. Don't look behind. Each step was a battle: trying to move faster, to stop her leg from buckling. Forward momentum was the only thing keeping her upright. She rounded the last corner, saw the guard station at the end of the hall. It looked empty. She could make it. With a grunt of effort she pushed herself to a final run, closing the final yards and crashing through the guard-room doors.

Her first step inside sank shin-deep into the frothing muck that used to be the floor. She fell and her hands were caught too, skin burning as they were sucked deeper into the ground. Looking up, she could see the console with the alarm button, just out of reach, and she wailed in sick despair. It was the last sound she made before the world was consumed by night.

Death did not come. She was submerged in a lake of pitch, but somehow the researcher could still breathe, could still think. Was she still falling? She couldn't tell. All feeling had vanished, her skin no longer stinging, although the blood still pounded in her ankle. She stayed there suspended for minutes, unsure of the passing of time, of what this meant. Then the gloom lightened, blurred, and resolved into a tiled floor.

The grey light showed her a room she didn't recognise, but which was somehow familiar. Dust, dead leaves and scraps of metal were strewn across the floor, and one of the walls had buckled in on itself. She pulled herself over to the door and looked out into a dilapidated hallway, mould and rust covering the ceiling, and the floor contorted like a writhing snake. There were no lights, but the hall was lit by a grey-green glow, a sickly aurora undulating sluggishly across every surface.

She'd been right: it was a dimensional anomaly. Probably controlled by that thing. The researcher felt desperate. Probably it had made this place or had lived here for years, so it would know every inch. But if she had fallen into it, that meant there was a way out. She just had to keep moving, and she would find it.

She limped into the corridor, clambering over collapsed furniture and wiping plaster dust from her hands. The familiarity of the place snatched at her thoughts, but she tried to ignore them. Keep going forward. Look for an exit. Don't think about what might be behind you. Don't think about Frank. Don't think about that grin, those eyes.

A metallic buzzing grew louder, and she realised that it had been there since she arrived in this place. She tried to move faster. A gust of wind blew around her, fetid. Her heart was racing again. This place was familiar, but how? She needed to stop, just for a moment. She grabbed at a door handle, relief flooding her when it opened.

She walked into her old apartment, and spun in confusion. This was impossible. The disarray of the halls was gone, everything here was in its proper place. But nothing about this place was proper - she had left this apartment 20 years ago, the building had been torn down.

The researcher sped across the room, the need to rest forgotten. Everything here was hers: her books, her furniture. The window showed the same view, an incongruously bright day. How? She raced to the bedroom, her bed made, everything neatly put away. She opened the closet, and the corpses fell out on to her.

It was a mountain of decomposing limbs and organs, limp and slick. They slithered down at her under the weight of the pile, trailing gore. She retched at the deep, foul smell of putrescence, flailing wildly to pull herself free. A bloated hand pawed at her leg as it fell, and she felt something slippery and soft under her feet as she stood.

This assemblage would have taken dozens of bodies, she thought, still gagging. As it slumped further, it exposed a face she recognised. Frank. A deep hole where his eye had been, and his neck was torn open, black jelly dripping from the flesh. Her eyes scanned the line of his body and saw his leg twisted viciously upwards, exposed bone protruding where the foot had been ripped off. She was trying to hold in a scream when she heard movement from the back of the closet.

Without thinking, she ran. Behind her, the sounds of sinewly limbs pulling themselves clear of the corroded wall. She bolted for the door to her apartment, ankle screaming at her. She could feel the old man enter the room, only a few steps back. The metallic buzz constricted around her as she emerged.

Staggering down the hallway, realisation overwhelmed her. This wasn't some old hospital or school. Her apartment had given her the answer. It was twisted, corrupted, but this was Site-120. She couldn't think about why that was. What it meant right now, was that she might know a way out.

She took another left turn, skidding on the wet floor and crashing her head on the opposite wall. Her ears rang. The footsteps behind her were louder, closer. She dragged herself onwards, her breath a whimper from the pain in her foot. One more corridor and she should be back to the guard room. She hoped like hell that the dimensional parallels held up. The footsteps grew closer. She could hear the drip of ichor.

Her vision grew dark. The hall telescoped in front of her. A hand clutched at her back, her lab coat melting to tatters. The guard room was just ahead. She was exhausted. She couldn't make it. The floor beneath her started to bubble.

With a yell, she crashed through the guard room doors again, pushing through the oily puddle behind them and surfacing in the real Site-120. The ghoul was still behind her. She fell hard on the console and slammed her hand down on the alarm. Klaxons blared, and the emergency light flashed. She turned, pushing herself as far as she could into the corner of the console, but the old man had halted in the middle of the room. It was staring at the light.

She heard a new noise, like a deep growl. Suddenly she realised that the corpse before her had a lump of new flesh in its throat, bloody and ragged. Frank's throat, she realised, and her stomach dropped. She looked again at the old man, seeing its misshapen carcass, patched and scarred.

The old man was still transfixed by the light. Its growl built in intensity. "Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrred."

Her mouth went dry.

The thing looked at her with its dead eyes. "Aaaaanna," it said, like a sigh. "Anna."

She made no sound. Her mind was screaming.

The old man took a step towards her. Another step.

Five years, eleven months, twenty-one days. And twenty-five more years after that. Falling apart, rebuilding itself, rebuilding its world. For her.

It held up its left hand. She could see the mark where the ring had been.

She couldn't move. Couldn't breathe. Couldn't think.

The old man reached towards her, tenderly holding her cheek. Her skin puckered and liquefied, flesh dripping from her face. It brought its grinning mouth to hers and kissed her, and her teeth became hot wax, fusing and corroding.

She screamed then. The old man pressed his kiss harder into her open mouth, his swollen grey tongue melting hers and filling her throat with molten muscle and caustic jelly. The last thing she felt was the weight of the two of them, sinking into the floor, locked in a final, burning embrace.

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