Chapter 17

MARCH 31, 2015
9:33 P.M.
OUR LADY OF SORROWS

For the first time in years, she steps into the autopsy bay and feels out of place. Death hadn’t bothered her until she was faced with the task of keeping people alive. It used to be a puzzle, a mystery to be solved; now it’s the enemy.

The enemy is stronger than ever tonight.

“Hello?”

She’s here to follow up on the autopsy of her patient zero, but neither the morgue attendant nor the CDC liaison are here. Most of the hospital staff mysteriously disappeared after the quarantine went into effect. What’s more disturbing is that the CDC doesn’t seem to care. The lockdown is for show, leading her to wonder if Mulder was right after all.

They knew about the infection…

She opens her mouth to call out again, then thinks better of it. There’s no one here tonight. Instead, grabs a pair of latex gloves from a nearby shelf.

Do the autopsy yourself if you have to.

The lockers on the far wall are full, but Mrs. Dunner’s body is nowhere to be found. She’s begun to think the CDC might have taken the corpse when she opens the cold storage freezer.

Jesus.

Her back prickles with gooseflesh, and she has to lean against the doorway to gather herself. The bodies are stacked as much as seven high, lining the small enclosure like linen-wrapped firewood.

Some of them aren’t even wrapped…

A young woman’s arm hangs out from the pile in a state of rigor, blue and lifeless; the sight of her curled fingers make Scully’s otherwise iron stomach turn.

Some of them are so small…oh.

Her vision swims. There’s blood on the floor, black and shimmering in the fluorescent light.

Find her.

It takes all her strength to move the wrapped bundles, to unravel their cocoons of death one by one. Each time she’s greeted by empty eyes, the same gray-blue pallor, often flecks of dried blood. She steels herself as she unwraps each white sheet, but it’s not the physical manifestation of the virus that spooks her.

No one will return to claim these people. No one will mourn over them or bring flowers to their graves. No one will tell their stories to great grandchildren, because there will be no great grandchildren to tell.

Thinking of grandchildren reminds her of Isaac, and it becomes harder not to see the contours of his face beneath each shroud of death.

Too many years cultivating that bedside manner, your clinical detachment has gone to shit. Focus, Dana.

She finds her at the back of the room, third from the bottom. Scully’s hair sticks to her damp skin, a fine sheet of cold sweat across her brow as she lifts her from the pile. The woman’s body is light across her shoulder, and it slides easily onto the gurney.

Mrs. Dunner had been one of the first; the body is clean, all the blood has been wiped away, but it’s clear the virus continues its work in death. Her veins are black, rising outward from the skin, bulging along the woman’s neck. Scully reaches out to touch them, then withdraws her hand and grabs another glove, remembering her own words.

Double up. You can’t be too careful with this one.

She winces as she unwraps the sheet fully. The corpse’s abdomen is distended and bruised, while the rest of her skin is gray-white, almost translucent. It’s obvious no autopsy was performed, but the state of the body’s decay is too advanced to match the cause of death.

She finds a recorder on one of the counters, her voice trembling slightly until she finds a comfortable rhythm.

“Victim is female, eighty-three, weighing approximately…uh…one-hundred-twenty-two pounds. Initial external examination reveals what appears to be clotting or an obstruction in the carotid artery,” she pauses, gently pushing against the skin of the woman’s neck, surprised to find it firm under the waxy tip of a gloved finger. “It’s hard to the touch. There is what appears to be…a large contusion on the solar plexus, starting about three inches below the navel…up to the sternum. Swelling…possibly trapped gas, or a massive internal hemorrhage in the abdominal cavity…which is also hard to the touch,” she swallows thickly. “I’ll begin the internal exam here.”

Scully is running her gloved fingers along the surface of the bruise, ready to begin the Y-incision, when the skin arches up to meet her fingers. She jumps back with a startled shriek.

She’s in full rigor, there’s no way…

The skin just below the woman’s breastbone undulates, rippling and stretching taut, before settling back into place. It happens again, the movement more subtle but no less terrifying.

She fumbles and nearly drops the recorder, hits the red button with shaking fingers.

“It appears…there’s something…moving…under the breastbone,” she rasps, her mouth dry. “Possibly some kind of parasite or…or another organism. I’m going to cut into the body.”

As she reaches for a scalpel, intent on revealing the disruption beneath the woman’s pale gray skin, something clicks into place. The steel blade clatters to the floor.

She turns back to the freezer, back to the bodies stacked along the walls. Hesitating over the first one, her hands tremble as they unwrap the gauzy fabric, except this time she starts from the middle.

Each one has the same telltale bruising at the abdomen, some darker and larger than others. The skin of the third victim ripples as she lifts the sheet, and her heart hammers in time with the movement. She’s seen enough to know what’s happening, though her logical mind doesn’t want to accept it.

This is how it begins, she thinks with swooning horror. So many bodies, so many dead…but they’re not dead, not quite.

In this new world, death begets life.

They’re gestating.

#

Once again, she finds herself standing over the body of Mrs. Dunner with a scalpel poised at the edge of the sternum.

Do you really want to see the future, Dana?

This future is black, oily. This future has claws.

Steeling herself, she cuts through the flesh and into the bruise with one swift, steady motion. The blade slices through tissue, meeting bone and some hard thing, a force that moves and writhes even as an inky black substance flows from the wound. She cuts downward, flinching when she meets resistance, the creature beneath shifting wildly under the sharp tip.

You’ll kill it…

I have to see. I have to know.

…but you’ve always known…

“You’ve been busy, Agent Scully.”

She whirls around at the man’s voice. She hasn’t heard the word “agent” before her surname in years, and never from the man who stands before her now.

“Excuse me?”

Director Ybarra is watching from just outside the laboratory door. Backlit against the emergency lights, he looks like a shadow, the cutout of a man. She has to squint to make out his features, and something about the way he’s standing makes the hair on the back of her neck stand up.

“You heard me,” he murmurs, stepping into the dull light. His face is deeply lined, almost grotesque, and his eyes have gone a filmy shade of black. “What are you doing?”

She swallows her guilt. “I’m checking on the autopsy results I ordered,” she fibs, backing against the gurney, guarding Mrs. Dunner’s bruised and violated body. Behind her, the corpse writhes at the midsection, angry at the intrusion.

“This wouldn’t have anything to do with the anonymous call to the CDC placed yesterday evening, would it? How convenient, that they showed up after you came to my office on a rampage.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The man regards her coldly. “There’s only so much anonymity a small hospital can afford. In any case, it’s no use. You won’t stop this now.“

She narrows her eyes, heart thudding dully in her chest. She suddenly wishes the scalpel were larger, more solid. The shears, heavier and just as sharp, are out of reach.

He’s moving closer as his voice drops to a threatening whisper. “There is no cure, Agent Scully,” he continues, eyes flashing red to black.

My God he’s not…

“Human? No, I guess you could say I’m not,” he says, finishing her thought, making her blood run cold.

“Your son. Where is he?”

Her eyes widen, mind racing, falling back on a weak bluff. “I don’t have a son.”

The director studies her. “You’re lying. No matter, we’ll find him. He’s fragile now, isn’t he? Yes…” the man pauses, looking almost serene, a faint smile plays across his lips. “Yes, he’s weak. I can feel it. I can feel him.”

“You…I…I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says, but her shaking voice betrays her.

“Oh, I think you do. He’s everything, you see. Everything and nothing.”

She backs away, eyes shifting, looking for an escape.

“We’ll find him, Agent Scully. You’re only prolonging the inevitable.”

Her spine straightens, her voice rough, a whispered warning. “I haven’t been an FBI agent for a long time.”

The man’s face drops all pretense of humanity, and for a moment she sees his true form, an empty mass just beneath the skin, his next command slippery and hollow.

“He cannot survive if the plan is to continue. You will not interfere.”

She takes another step back, the gurney pressing hard into her spine. There’s an emergency exit at the end of the hall outside, but he’s blocking the door.

Distract him.

He’s advancing with cold, calculated movements, watching her. If she doesn’t move soon she’ll lose her nerve.

She reaches back, grabbing for the shears, feels the cool metal slide into her palm. She sends them flying with a desperate cry, and the razor-sharp edge whizzes by his face, missing by only an inch.

Fuck!

The attack slows his approach by a fraction of a second, allowing her just enough time to dodge to the side and run. His hand grazes the back of her head, knotting his fingers in her hair. There’s a painful tug as each strand separates from her scalp, tears sting her eyes, but she’s still moving forward.

Out out get out he’s coming

She doesn’t look back but she can feel him. He’s taking his time, waiting for her to make a mistake. Her hands reach out, catching air. It’s dim in this part of the basement, beyond the glow of the emergency lights. She risks a glance over her shoulder, and she can see his shadow already closing over hers, a fatal eclipse.

She ducks into an alcove, finding a shelf full of paint cans and discarded equipment. She grabs at it, using all her strength to pull it down in hopes of putting a barrier between them, giving herself precious seconds.

What if it’s bolted to the floor?

It begins to rock, then to tip, and with one final grunt she feels gravity win over, its contents sliding and crashing to the floor before the entire structure comes down in front of Ybarra.

She runs along the perimeter, taking a right, relief bubbling up at the sight of the glowing EXIT sign. She hits the door at a full run; it rattles in its frame, but doesn’t budge.

Shit!

Panic flutters wildly within her, her heart is a captured animal, and she is trapped.

open, the door won’t open, why won’t it open get out get

Her hands fumble uselessly, pounding against it, and she feels her resolve giving way, sliding out from beneath her like an avalanche. She can hear him coming for her, he’s close now, making it harder to focus.

Then she remembers.

The lock!

In the old part of the hospital, they added deadbolts as a security measure to prevent entry from the outside. Her fingers slide up, up, following the line of the door, and there it is, the metal hinge in its mother clasp. She pushes at it.

That’s it, this is—

His hands close around her throat and breath evades her. One moment she’s taking air and the next, her mouth opens and closes but no sound comes out. She’s lost the ability to cry for help, though she’s dimly aware there’s no one around to hear even if she could. Her vision fades in and out like a strobe light, until the world goes black and stays that way.

Her hand is still reaching for the deadbolt, fumbling as she gasps and chokes. His fingers are a lock around her neck, but she’s fighting for consciousness when she feels the bar slide out of its clasp.

GO

She shoves her body backwards, hoping to throw off his balance, and it works. His grip loosens just enough for her to lunge forward into the door with an exhausted grunt, and it gives way against their combined weight. They hit the ground as she takes her first breath.

The air is cold, slicing at her raw, aching throat. Her ribs are screaming, but it’s so, so good to breathe. Adrenaline gives her strength, and she turns, fingers reaching out to find his face, scratching and clawing, gouging his eyes.

“Ahhhhhhhh!”

He screams as her fingernails dig, deeper and deeper into the sockets, burrowing into the tender flesh. His grip slackens, but his hands remain cold around her neck.

It’s horrifying and satisfying, the feeling of his blood running down her hands, her arms. The meager contents of her stomach rocket upward, stinging the back of her tongue with bile. She stays with her hands in a death grip around the man’s skull, thrashing back and forth with strangled cries.

She doesn’t release him until he’s convulsing in pain, and Scully scrambles to her feet, breathing hard, reorienting herself.

She’s at the back of the hospital; the parking lot with her car is on the other side of the building. She reaches into her pocket, but comes away empty handed.

Oh no no no, they’re not here

Her car keys are still in her office. The director is groaning, still clutching at his face, but soon he’ll heal.

And then he’ll come for her.

I won’t be so lucky again…

She bolts, pounding along the wet grass at the side of the building.

Run don’t look back just run RUN

She rounds the corner, flying toward the office. The doors swing open, inviting her in, but the halls are dark. The emergency lights in this building are dead, shoddy maintenance on a shoestring budget, and she curses the hospital’s tight pockets.

She stops short, lungs burning with each laden breath. Her neck aches from where his fingers were coiled only minutes before. Her fingers graze the swollen hollow of her throat, and she feels herself swoon with fear, the sweat on her back like a fine sheen of ice.

Move it, Doc. He’ll get to Isaac. You need to get the hell out of here now.

She finds her strength, sliding along the wall to her right until she finds the door. She’s been through this building hundreds of times, but tonight the stairwell is pitch black and deep. One small step forward might send her tumbling down the rabbit hole.

A rasping sound at her shoulder startles her and she wheels around, trembling, before realizing it’s just the echo of her own breath.

Calm down. Get the keys. Get out.

Her imagination toys with her cruelly as she stumbles up the stairs. Instinct tells her to run, but she can’t see more than a foot in front of her face. Every step echoes in the tiny space and she fears he’ll hear her gasping and coughing, the metallic clunk of her footsteps on the treads.

A soft whimper escapes her as she reaches the second floor landing, but there’s no time for relief. She stops, listening, ears straining against the night for any sign of him, but there’s only the haunting creak of the building around her.

Her office is a welcome sanctuary; the familiar warmth of the knob turns smoothly in her hand. The keys will be in her jacket pocket, and if she remembers—

Oh fuck!

She trips on something on the floor, probably her briefcase, and her chin slams into the desk. Pinpoints of light flare at the back of her lids and pain washes over her, wave after wave, until she’s forced to sit with her back against the desk and close her eyes.

You’re wasting time, he’s coming for you.

And he is, she can feel it. The hair on the back of her neck prickles against her collar, and she reaches out weakly, grasping for the jacket on the back of her chair, feeling the comforting weight of the car keys in the pocket.

Yes!

Closing her fingers around the keys, she struggles to her feet on protesting legs. She heads for the stairwell at the opposite end of the hall, hoping to put more distance between herself and the main entrance. This stairwell is also dark, but her eyes have had time to adjust, and she makes her way swiftly down, down, and out the back exit.

Almost there, Dana, keep going.

Something flickers in her peripheral vision.

Oh God it’s him

He’s standing at the side of the building, waiting. A half-turn and he’ll see her, the sound of the door closing behind her will alert him. She fights the instinct to retreat, to duck back into the building and hide.

Go! Now!

She dodges to the left and around the corner, just in time to hear the door groan shut on its hydraulic hinge. It’s the faintest of clicks, but she immediately feels his eyes on her, raking down her back. She’ll have to double back to get to her car and now it’s a footrace for her life. Her lungs scream and her legs ache, but she can’t stop. He’s faster, stronger, he’ll close the distance in seconds.

She can see the parking lot up ahead as she crosses the mall, can see the tail end of her Prius shining under the lights. Her muscles protest as she increases speed, remembering a time when such a run might not have winded her this much; a time before her ribs were scarred, a time when she’d trained for situations like this every other day at a cushy government gym. Hell, she hadn’t needed to train; running these races—for her life, for Mulder’s—had been part of the job.

Tears prick at the corners of her eyes, they burn as her breath rushes in, out, in, out. She’s almost to her car, and she fumbles the key fob in her hand, searching for the unlock button, mashing the keys until the headlights flash. The car alarm sounds as she hits the side, yanking on the door handle, then she’s in, with a second to spare.

He hits the car at a run, and the force of the impact sends the Prius shuddering sideways on its tires. The driver’s side door caves to his weight, and she screams as the window cracks, threatening to buckle. She manages to get the key in the ignition and the car roars to life, just as he rears back to finish off the window.

No!

Her foot hits the accelerator and she slams into reverse, tearing out of the parking spot. The attack lands a sizable dent above her left front tire. There’s the thud of rubber against metal as she draws the car back, back, back, and he turns on her, meeting her gaze. She hesitates for a split second before shifting into drive and pressing the accelerator to the floor.

Can’t kill it, but I can make it want to die.

She gasps when the car makes contact, when his body slides under her tires without so much as a sigh. She can hear the meaty crack of his bones under the wheel. She stifles a cry, stopping only when she’s yards away and the monster-thing’s crumpled form lays lifeless in her rearview.

She turns, pulse thrumming at her battered throat, watching the body through the rear window for any sign of movement. She’s frozen with her foot on the pedal, prepared to render his inhuman form a bloody pulp beneath her wheels.

Don’t just sit there, Dana, MOVE

She’s barely conscious as she navigates out of the parking lot, the tires leaving streaks of black on the pavement behind her. Suddenly she can think of nothing but putting as much distance between herself and Our Lady of Sorrows as possible.

When she finally pulls over, she’s on the highway, miles from the hospital and well past her intended exit. Her forehead meets the smooth plastic coating of the steering wheel, allowing herself ten breaths, in and out. Ten breaths to still the shaking of her bloodstained hands, to calm the rushing of her heart.

One, two.

Get to Isaac.

Three, four, five.

They’re going to hatch. Fuck, they’re going to hatch.

Six, seven, eight nine ten.

She grips the wheel, grateful for its solid form as she navigates barren streets. She’s traveled them so many times, but tonight they are too quiet to be familiar.

They won’t stop until he’s dead…until we’re all dead.

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