(tell us who you are macready)
Christ, it’s cold. Outside, the wind’s eerie soughing wail sounds like something alive. It rattles at the window frame while MacReady claws his way up out of sleep, and lies for a moment with his face crushed into the pillow. The bed seems to be spinning beneath him, his own personal carousel in the shittiest fair in the world. The body beside him, its leg carelessly thrown over his, is the only source of warmth except for his own, and still it feels too close, too claustrophobic.
(we want to know you macready)
A knot of nausea tightens in his stomach. His gut cramps with a sharp piercing pain that feels like a six inch spike impaled in his side. It pulses with every beat of his heart, expands and contracts with every breath. The pain is so bad it’s almost enough to make him forget the ache in his skull and the bone-deep cold.
The damn cold. He swore, didn’t he, when he escaped from the Antarctic, that he’d never be cold again. He’d live out the rest of his days somewhere hot – give helicopter tours of Hawaii or the Grand Canyon if that was what it took; he’s never going back.
So why the hell is it so cold?
Saliva floods the back of his throat. He presses his hands against the damp sheet, breathes slow and hard, waiting for the nausea to pass, to ease. Eventually it does, a little, and when he feels like he can breathe normally again, he turns his head and squints at Childs lying too close beside him.
Not so pretty any more. Frostbite’s eaten away part of his nose, his earlobes, the tips of most of his fingers and toes, one of his hands. MacReady’s in no great shape either.
But they’re alive and what’s left of them is human. He figures that's got to count for something.
He rolls onto his back, feeling like a man twenty years older. Childs stirs, groaning, feels him in the bed, and goes still. MacReady risks a glance, finds Childs eyeing him warily.
“Aw, shit,” Childs says the moment their eyes meet. He looks away, brings the arm that lost a hand down over his eyes. “Knew I shouldn’t have drunk so damned much.”
MacReady’s stomach gives another painful spasm, this time so bad it stops his breathing. He gasps and sits up, swinging his legs out over the side of the bed. He clenches his hands on the edge of the bed, breathes hard to quell the sickness, but this time it doesn’t help. He presses his hand to his belly, to the stabbing pain that seems to be moving, shifting from one side of his guts to the other.
Appendicitis? Well, maybe, but given he had his appendix out when he was twelve, that seems unlikely.
“I feel like shit,” he says.
“You look worse.”
MacReady runs his tongue around his mouth. The dull watery light of dawn seeps in through the half-closed curtains, leaving a silver bar of light slanting across the threadbare carpet. It looks like it’s coming for him. He concentrates on the hazy memories of the night before, the bottle of whisky, the remains of the abandoned chess game on the desk. Childs was winning. He had to have been; they’d have finished the game otherwise.
The next lurch of nausea has him on his feet and moving toward the bathroom, Childs calling something behind him. Here the air is even colder, his breath billowing in a cloud as he falls against the vanity unit, grips the edge of the sink, and retches.
Nothing comes up except a scant mouthful of foul-tasting bile, but something’s squirming in his belly, working its way up his gullet. He can feel it lodged like a fish bone in the back of his throat. He chokes it up one bit at a time, feels something slither against the back of his tongue.
He catches sight of his reflection in the mirror, opens his mouth and squints inside. At the back of his throat – oh christ oh christ oh christ – a writhing mass of slick-wet-shiny tendrils.
He reaches up, gagging, unable to breathe, and the barbs dig into the palm of his hand as he closes his fist around it. It twists in his grip, a bundle of muscle and sinews, slippery from his blood and stomach juices. It’s shockingly strong.
It fights him, hooked barbs prickling into the inside of his cheeks as it tries to worm its way back inside him like a tapeworm. To root itself deeper. He’d put money on those barbs anchoring it inside him all along its length, and maybe it’ll rip him up enough to kill him. Not that he gives a shit about that right now.
He hears it screaming inside his skull, a shrill scream that no animal on earth ever made, a wordless howl of hatred and fear and fury; dog and man and all things in between. It makes his ears buzz and the pain in his head drill deeper. Blood and saliva and stomach fluids drip over his knuckles, his eyes blurred and stinging with tears of pain and horror and disgust, until it finally tears free, the last tendrils thrashing for purchase against the back of his tongue.
He drops it in the sink and gasps for air, the coppery taste of blood in the back of his throat. The thing thrashes about like a landed fish, smearing black fluids across the porcelain. It’s slick as an eel. In another surge of nausea, he vomits up the rest of what’s in his guts, the whisky and the burger and yet more fragments of the fucking thing that’s been living in his insides.
(too late too late you’re ours now)
Too much to hope that’s the last of it.
He stares at the mass writhing in the sink. It finishes exploring the confines of its inadequate prison, tendrils drawing back, readying themselves in a defensive position around the slab of veined livery flesh at its centre. It quivers, then opens up, glistening petals peeling back to reveal a fringe of pink tendrils that ripple with peristaltic waves around a single human eyeball. A fragile lid flickers open, and the eye swivels to look at him. The iris is blue. His eye colour. His own fucking eye , twisting in a puckered socket.
Another clench of his gut, and he presses the back of his hand to his mouth, backs towards the door.
It can’t be. It can’t be. He’s not one of them. He’s human . He knows he’s human.
How long’s it been living inside him? Digesting him from the inside out. Figuring out what he is, what makes him tick. Maybe it’s in Childs too. And it occurs to him that in escaping, they might just have doomed the world.
“Childs–” he croaks.
The whisky, he thinks. Something that’ll burn. Set fire to the fucking thing. Christ, he’ll burn the whole motel down if he needs to. He can see the thing reaching out over the edge. Reaching for him. It’s growing, although Christ knows how it can do that without living flesh to assimilate, but still it’s already doubled in size, filling the sink to overflowing,
“Childs, the whisky –”
A hand closes on his shoulder. He knows, even before he turns. He can feel that howling scream vibrating in the grip that holds him fast. He turns.
Childs is grinning at him, lips parted, eyes shining in the frostbitten ruin of his face, and his lips open wider and wider.
His grip on MacReady’s skin is so cold it burns, and in the depths of his mouth something writhes, clawing out of the tunnel of his throat. It’s wet and muscular with the look of a tongue, a central tendril surrounded by countless smaller ones that twitch and squirm against each other, fighting for position. Beads of blood form on Childs’s lips where the fine needle-like barbs on the pink fronds dig into the flesh. In the midst of the mass of pink, the central tendril shines wet with saliva, oozing black fluid.
(this will be easier if you let us)
It sings as it draws him closer. The squirming tentacles flick against his jaw, his lips, his nose. They squirm against him, and he can feel them shrilling inside his head, an endless song of joy, of hunger, of desire. It’s awful and repulsive, but worst of all is the echoing song he senses in his own gut, his own heart. An answering echo, a call-and-response that makes him feel physically sick because he knows what it means – that he’s as much a thing as Childs. He’s infected too.
He can smell the stale whisky and cigarettes on Childs’s breath. The thick tendril is slow and careful where the pink fronds thrash about. He clenches his jaw, trying to wrench free from Childs’s grip, but the man’s too strong, those stunted stubs of fingers biting into his jaw, his other hand on the back of MacReady’s head, and it doesn’t matter how he fights, he can’t stop Childs’s open mouth from descending over his own tight-clenched lips, the pink fronds fluttering butterfly kisses on his skin, and the thicker tendril probing at his lips, forcing them apart. Worming its way inside.
Childs’s fingers bury themselves in his hair as the tendril snakes past his teeth, over his tongue, and down. He tries to bite it, but there’s a meaty crunch and it’s like biting his own fucking tongue and he tastes blood and it hurts .
(don’t fight it don’t fight us we don’t want to hurt you)
“ Mac .”
(but we will if necessary)
“Damnit, Mac, wake the fuck up.”
He jolts. Childs’s voice. Childs’s fingers biting into his jaw. The intrusive presence in his mouth his throat his gullet is gone, but the pain and the taste of blood remains. He bucks, twisting away from Childs, a hand raised in warning, and Christ, he wishes he had a fucking weapon right now.
They stand for a moment, staring at each other.
Childs is normal, no gaping mouth, no pink fronds – just a frostbitten wreck of a man, same as MacReady. He’s naked and breathing hard, staring at MacReady with that by now familiar wary look, and his lip is bleeding where MacReady must have struck him.
“You done?” Childs asks.
Mac stays frozen a moment, then wipes his mouth on the back of his hand. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m done.”
“You always have dreams that bad?”
“Don’t you?” It’s almost physically painful to turn his back on Childs, but he manages it, keeping him in view in the mirror on the wall behind the desk. Childs is silent for once, watching him, as he casts his gaze over the scattered chess pieces, wondering when the hell Childs got so good at chess. Wasting time. Putting off what he needs to do next.
He hesitates at the threshold of the bathroom, and it’s not until Childs says his name that he steps inside.
The sink’s empty, the plug hole gaping black like an eye. He leans on the sink, runs the faucet, and scrubs his face with a handful of water. He scratches at his scalp and jaw, and when he straightens up, he stares at his reflection. His eyes are bloodshot and sunken, heavily shadowed.
Back in the bedroom, Childs is pulling on underpants with one hand and the stump of the other. There’s a dull greyish tinge to his skin, and he’s lost weight, the hollows between his ribs clearly defined. An image returns to MacReady, not from the nightmare, but from before: Childs twisting in his grip, thighs damp with sweat, a drunken fumbling lovemaking that hadn’t had much of love about it, but had still been a sharp keen note of pleasure in a life that had otherwise more or less turned completely to shit.
“I better go.”
“Wait, Childs...” He’s hoarse, his throat raw and painful, and he swallows, not sure what he’s going to say, whether he’s going to apologise or beg the other man to stay. It’s not like Puntas Arenas, the stop before they’d headed on to Antarctica and where they first met. Neither of them knows anyone here; there’s no one they need to hide from left, no need to keep whatever the hell this is on the down low.
He uncaps the whisky, and glances at Childs, who’s not making a move to put on the rest of his clothes, just watching him, face impassive. MacReady knocks back the glass of whisky, lets the burn hit his throat. Tries to think of it like fire, cleansing him on his way down. He knows that’s bullshit, but there’s comfort in it. Comfort and courage.
“Don’t go.” It makes him feel like being strangled, reminds him of the parasitic mass he’d dragged out of his throat in the dream. He’s staring at the grimy wall, but he can still see Childs’s reflection in the mirror in the corner of his eye. He flicks his gaze towards it, not looking at the man’s face but at his body, and he doesn’t find what he’s looking for. There’s nothing inhuman about it, no writhing growths, or shining wet masses, nothing aside from the damage extreme cold can do to a man’s body.
Christ , he thinks, how did we survive? How did we ever make it out of there?
“You need to see someone, Mac. You’re a crazy motherfucker. And you drink too much.”
He turns, deliberately, pours another glass of whisky and tilts it towards Childs in a mocking salute. “Chin chin,” he says, in a faux-English accent.
Childs touches the corner of his split lip. “ And you’re still an asshole.”
He proffers the whisky again and this time Childs doesn’t refuse. He shrugs, accepts a glass, and sinks down on the bed, his foreshortened fingers clamped around the tumbler. “You gonna tell me what you dreamed about?”
“You really want to know?”
Childs shrugs. There’s a flatness about his eyes, a tension to his shoulders. A tendon in his neck stands out, like he’s bracing himself for what’s coming.
MacReady swallows. Relishes the burn. “You were one of them,” he says, and Childs doesn’t look up. Just nods as if he’d known. Of course he’d known. Why else would MacReady fight him? What else would MacReady be having nightmares about?
He moves to the window. Outside it’s snowing, the motel’s neon sign illuminating the snowflakes with a hazy red glow. Beyond the sky is hazy as static, the colour of dishwater. The motel parking lot is a flat expanse of snow, a few tracks in the snow left by vehicles. Another swallow. Another burn. “But that’s not the worst part.”
“I dreamed I was too. That it was...” He stops, searching for the words, hooks his hand into a claw and sets his fingers against his solar plexus. “...Inside me somewhere. Growing.”
( learning )
“It’s not,” Childs says quietly.
“I know it’s not–”
“Whatever it was, whoever it became, it didn’t get us.”
“I know that.”
“We did the test. Before we left what was left of the base. We checked each other’s blood. We both passed–”
“Goddamnit, I know! ” He swings around, raising his voice, then meets Childs’s gaze and holds up his hand in apology. “I know that,” he says softer, more to himself than to Childs. “But what if we didn’t? What if we’re wrong?” And then he shivers. “Jesus. Why’s it so fucking cold in here?”
“What do you mean?”
At the window, a flicker of movement in the shadows catches his eye. Just the whirling snowflakes, caught in the wind. Still he stares out at the parking lot, at the dull red flickering light, until Childs speaks again.
“What do you mean , Mac?”
He’s not sure what he means. Slowly the words form. “I keep thinking about the blood. If it knew there was a test, knew what form it would take… Maybe it didn’t want to destroy the blood–”
“Maybe it wanted to steal it.”
Childs is silent. Mac staring back out at the parking lot. There’s a shadow near the foot of the motel sign, a shape in the snow, motionless, unmoving.
“You see it, don’t you?” MacReady says, his voice low and quiet, “The damn thing grew teeth in its belly. How hard would it be to keep a sac of blood just beneath the skin, so that when we drew blood they got the human stuff instead? It’d pass the test, and we’d never know. We’d go on thinking it was human.”
“Mac.” Childs is on his feet, coming over. MacReady’s turns, tensing, ready for… well, he’s not sure what he’s ready for. “Listen to yourself. I always knew you were a crazy asshole, but this… you’re losing your damn mind, Mac. You want to know what I think?”
MacReady exhales. He doesn’t say yes, doesn’t nod, just waits.
“I don’t think there was an alien. I think we lost our minds and turned on each other. Maybe it was all Blair. Maybe he killed them all.”
“And we imagined the rest? The thing in Dogtown, Palmer, Norris ...”
“It happens. People go stir-crazy. You were already halfway there.”
( do you hope he is right macready are we nothing but a figment )
“Too much dope?” MacReady says, and Childs huffs a laugh.
( of your sickened mind )
“You believe it?”
“It’s an easy lie to believe.” And damn it he wants to believe it. It has the ring of truth to it, Occam’s fucking Razor, slicing through the bullshit. Because what’s easier to believe? That a bunch of mismatched men succumbed to hatred and madness in an isolated research centre, or that they were picked off one by one by an alien lifeform that had been frozen in the ice for at least a hundred thousand years? Not exactly a tough call.
( if it makes it easier macready believe whatever you wish )
Not like MacReady went to the Antarctic to make friends. Or enemies either, for that matter. He’d holed himself up in his shack, avoiding any overtures of friendship. He hadn’t disliked Childs, or any of them, had no feelings one way or the other, just an amorphous bitterness at the desolate frozen wasteland he’d found himself stuck in. It was himself he was angry at – he couldn’t blame the others for his own bad decisions – but maybe his resentment came creeping out anyway.
Would events have been different if they’d all been closer? If he hadn’t been such an outsider?
Maybe. Or maybe they would have been worse.
The thing had been clever, opening up hairline fractures between them, sowing the seeds of distrust and suspicion, even between friends. Even now, he can’t quite shake off his doubt about Childs.
They’ve got more in common than differences now. They both saw too many friends die in Vietnam, and reacted to it differently. MacReady retreating inward into brooding silence, learning the art of keeping his own counsel, Childs into quietly restrained rage. But they both have the same haunted light in their eyes, the relief at the possibility that maybe it wasn’t true; that maybe they’d both imagined it, constructed an elaborate fantasy of horrors to hide from the truth: one of their number losing his mind and butchering the others.
And okay, sure, it’s bullshit, but it’s nice while it lasts, the lie. It helps. Kind of.
It makes it easier to forget about the motionless shape outside and the shadow that spills across the snow, a dark smudge against the ceaseless white. Just coincidence, he thinks, that it’s about the size and shape of a dog.
Childs doesn’t go. MacReady knew he wouldn’t.
It’s different, fucking while sober; it makes it harder to forget that he and Childs’ll never be friends, that this is down to little more than their shared experiences shackling them together. Lots of guys went through Vietnam, but Outpost 31? Yeah, not so many of them. It stings more than a little, knowing that they need each other; that each is the other’s proof that they aren’t both insane – that something did happen out in that frozen wasteland, even if it wasn’t exactly what they’d thought it had been. Some shared mass delusion, like ergotism or the water supply spiked with LSD. Okay, so they’d lost their minds temporarily, but they were fine now, nothing to see here.
They barely even look at each other, because if they do it’s too obvious how much each hungers for answers that neither has the power to give. They both try to take the lead, so that at times it feels more like a violent tussle than sex, but eventually, they find their rhythm, each making their own concessions, a kind of wary truce.
Childs tries to kiss him, but the dream surfaces, the memory of those wet pink tendrils still too strong, and repulsed, he jerks his face away, Childs’s eyes harden. In something that’s not quite an apology, MacReady closes his hand around Childs’s cock, and Childs’s eyes close, biting at his lower lip.
They negotiate a ceasefire.
Childs is on his front, MacReady’s first two fingers slick with petroleum jelly. He runs his palm over Childs’s back, taking in the imperfections, of which he has many – the body parts missing to frostbite, the stale sweat, the dry flaking skin at his elbows – but they’re human imperfections, and he pauses to remind himself of that before he presses his finger inside Childs.
Childs twists onto his side, making sure not to look directly at MacReady. There’s a grim determination about this expression, like he wants to be somewhere else, with someone else, anyone but here. Like he’s gritting his teeth to get through an encounter that must be endured to chase away the ghosts, but there’s a hunger to it too, a need that can’t be expressed in words.
His cock is dark and swollen, pressing urgently against his stomach as MacReady works another finger inside him and reaches down to grip his erection. Childs bucks back against him, breathing hard, eyes glazing. His teeth bite deep into his lower lip, and MacReady remembers a flash of the dream which he reels away from, shuddering as he pulls his fingers free.
It takes him a moment to recover, his composure, eyes closed, hands on Childs’s buttocks, spreading them, fingers biting into the meat, and it’s the sensation of muscle and skin beneath his touch, the smells of sweat and arousal, whisky and cigarettes and smoke, that remind him that this is real, this is human. That creature, whatever it was, could have no understanding of this act, and it’s almost as if there’s more comfort in that knowledge than there is in the act itself. It’s only in moments like this – whisky, flying, fucking (not that he gets to do much of the last two these days) – that he’s able to forget.
He feels a momentary twist of regret that there isn’t more to it, that they aren’t more than two men who can barely stand each other thrown together as a result of all the shit they went through.
Childs rests his weight on his elbows, raises himself from the bed.
“Do it,” he says, his voice flat and hard and grating.
More lube, and the head of his cock positioned at Childs’s entrance. He eases inside and the moment of resistance, he stills, forces himself to slow at Childs’s deep groan. Childs’s skin glows with sweat, but they’re both shivering, the room suddenly darker. The light shifts with the churning snow. MacReady feels feverish, light-headed.
( show us macready yes show us yes )
It’s Childs who moves first, pushing back, and MacReady bites back a groan, and begins to move, going deeper, slower. Skin slaps on skin and Childs rises up to meet him. The bedding tangles around his legs, the fingers of Childs’s remaining hand digging into the sheets as MacReady drops his head, panting, runs his hand up Childs’s spine, and Christ it’s the best feeling. He’s missed this, the heat and tightness, the press of warm skin, the surging pleasure.
He reaches around to grip Childs’s cock, movements frantic and hungry, as he drops down, thrusting harder as he brings his mouth to Childs’s shoulder. Teeth scrape against skin. He tastes salt, feels the bumps and hollows of Childs’s spine, and Childs is spitting curses into the pillow. There’s sticky precome on MacReady’s hand, the cock hard and responsive in his grip. His other hand is on Childs’ waist, kneading at the flesh, fingers flexing as he thrusts, no longer gentle.
Childs screams out his pleasure into the pillow, a sound that’s more pent-up rage than ecstasy, and his cock jerks in MacReady’s hand, spilling semen across his fingers, across the sheets.
MacReady groans, driving harder, hunger blossoming in his chest, an urgent driving need that’s like nothing he’s ever felt before, and it’s singing in his head ( yes yes yes show us we want to see we want to know you macready ), as his fingers bite deeper into Childs’s waist, the flesh pliant and waxy.
They bite deep enough to break through the skin and slip into the hot wet mess beneath, and it’s like clawing through softened wax, and he wants to stop, oh Christ he wants to stop, but he’s coming, the hunger blossoming into a surging river of pleasure, and the light that floods his vision is as searing as the sun returning after an Antarctic winter.
He falls forward, clawing at Childs with both hands now. His nails catch against the bones of the rib cage, and he sinks them deeper, buried up to the knuckles in Childs’ chest. The orgasm hasn’t stopped, the pleasure still streaming through him, and it’s glorious. His jaw widens, unhinging like a snake’s, and he uses his weight to pin Childs against the bed as tendrils surge up his throat.
Childs wrenches and bucks beneath him but his screams are cut silent, because MacReady is kissing him, and the thing is ramming past Childs’s lips and down his throat. MacReady knows the moment Childs hears the voice of the thing singing in joy in his heart, because he stops fighting and begins to kiss MacReady back. It echoes in their ears, rising to a crescendo, an endless piercing scream that rises and rises until it blots out the world and there’s nothing of MacReady left.
MacReady jerks awake.
The first thing he sees is Childs’s face, inches from his own, and his first thought is that he’s still trapped in the dream within a dream. It lingers; he can still feel Childs bucking beneath him, can still feel the wet slick heat between his fingers where they’re buried in Childs’s torso right up to the damn knuckles. He shudders, wrenches away so violently he almost falls off the bunk, and instead wriggles right to the edge so at least they’re not touching, resisting the urge to twitch up the blankets to check Childs’s chest is intact.
Every blanket he could find in the compound is piled on the bed, except for the one pinned up at the window – which he said was to block out the cold, but which they both knew was really to block out faces from staring in. By the time they struggled inside his shack, they were too weak to do anything else other than light a camping stove, strip off their clothes, and crawl shivering beneath the pile of blankets. No way to tell how much time they have: the fuel won’t last forever. They’re both naked beneath the piled up blankets, but the heat from the camping stove is already dissipating, and his teeth are chattering. Childs’s are too, and what’s left of his fingers hook numbly on the edge of the top-most blanket, trying to tug it close again.
At another time MacReady might have imagined his heart would sink with the realisation that his vision of escaping the Antarctic was just the last desperate dream of a dying man, but part of his mind is still locked in the horror, remembering the sensation of the living tissue clotting his throat, writhing in his belly and beneath his skin. It’s almost a relief to be free of that.
He was dreaming. He’s still human. Dying, sure, but there’s worse things than death. He figured that out a while back.
At least he’s not cold any more. He’s dying and whatever happens next won’t be his problem. Hasn’t he done everything he could? Kept fighting even when the others would have left him out in the storm to freeze to death? He used up his last reserves of strength to keep them alive, to stop the monster from winning. He’s done. It’s over. Checkmate or stalemate – fucked if he knows. And whether he’s won or not, well, that’s not his problem any more.
A numbed calm settles over him. Childs is shaking, teeth chattering, but MacReady isn’t cold any more. He feels the urge to slip out from besides Childs and walk barefoot out into the snow, out into the twilight.
There’s a hollow sensation in the pit of his stomach, an awful desolate emptiness. Almost feverish, he sends a thought inside himself, not expecting an answer: Are you there?
It’s madness, he thinks, and half-closes his eyes, staring up at the smoke-stained ceiling through the slits of his lids. He wants to cough; there’s a rough sensation in his throat that he thinks – hopes – is just from inhaling the smoke.
Childs moves closer to him, seeking warmth. Nice to be wanted, MacReady thinks, and so far Childs hasn’t grown tendrils or tried to eat him, so he doesn’t pull away. He’s almost forgotten that brief moment of madness, his attempt to communicate with the thing that he knows isn’t inside him, and then in a whisper, like the breath of a gentle wind, it comes:
( macready )
His gut clenches. And, No, oh Christ no, he thinks. But his despair is a distant thing, not nearly as all-encompassing as it ought to be.
He coughs, bares his teeth up at the ceiling. “I’m dying, you son of a bitch. You lost.”
( no death macready we remain )
“What the hell does that mean?”
( we are old macready we are many ) A pause, and he has the sense that it’s been learning from him all this time, systematically figuring him out, rifling through his memories, even his childhood, a boyhood spent in Sunday School. ( we... are legion )
There’s a tug at his solar plexus, hunger maybe. He hopes. He can’t remember the last time he ate, the last time he felt like eating. Even eating out of freshly opened cans, it’s hard to shake the fear of ingesting it without knowing. It’s the memory of the thing in the dim, half-lit kennel, the screams of the dogs, and what light there was playing on sinewy flesh splitting to reveal the wet and shining meat beneath, and it , that hulking bloodied thing, part-dog and part-man and Christ knew what else, a thousand half-remembered shapes, and the smell as it burned, that acrid reeking stench of singed fur and flesh.
He didn’t feel much like eating after that.
There’s a clenching fist of pain and loss in his solar plexus, and he’s not feeling quite so numb any more. Whatever this is, it’s pierced the soporific veil of being close to death and hauled him unceremoniously back.
“What have you done to me?”
In response a memory flickers through his mind, an image that might be nothing more than a hallucination served up by a febrile mind: Palmer, shambling along a corridor like something out of a Romero flick. None of the others are around, and it’s shed its mimicry of humanity. What’s left is blank faced and empty eyed. He knows what he’s going to see as it closes its hand, Palmer’s hand, around the neck of MacReady’s whisky bottle. A sound comes from deep in its chest, like the Palmer-thing is coughing up phlegm, and it opens its mouth, a black substance oozing between its lips, clinging to the flesh like it’s got a mind of its own. The substance sends out filaments, fine as cobwebs, reaching out for the neck of the whisky bottle, and he can feel its sorrow at being parted from the rest of the mass, and its joy at the possibility of finding a new home, a new friend.
His belly spasms. He tears his gaze away, squeezes his eyes shut, but the image is still projected on the backs of his eyelids. He can still see every detail: the grime beneath Palmer’s fingernails, the black droplets crawling down the inside of the bottle towards the whisky, and he knows that when they reach the surface, they’ll disperse like ink dropped in water, and wait for the moment he picks up the bottle to drink.
He wrenches away and sits up, feeling at a remove the chill of the air against his skin.
“Fuck you. I’m not–” He breathes hard, fighting the urge to retch, because he’s fairly sure that if he’s sick he won’t want to see what he brings up. Maybe his literal guts. “I’m still human, asshole.”
No answer. Just a hollow echoing sorrow. It feels sorry for him, and this is the worst thing yet. It fills him with a dreadful black rage.
When it’s eased, he presses the back of his hand to his mouth, and thinks. It’s hard – his numbed brain is shutting down – but he forces himself to return to the image of Palmer and sees at once what’s wrong.
“It wasn’t real. It wasn’t a memory. Palmer was alone–” Beside him Childs stirs, murmuring something through slack lips, and MacReady puts his hand on his arm to silence him. He bares his teeth, knowing he must look like a madman talking to himself but past caring, snarling, “Palmer was alone, so if it was real, who was watching?” into the darkened gloom of the room.
( perhaps we are just fucking with you macready ) There’s a tentative flatness to this, as if it’s testing out a phrase its not familiar with.
“What about Childs?”
No answer, and he thinks he knows why. Childs is human. He’s not one of them, nor infected in the slow creeping way MacReady thinks he himself is.
Childs is human, and he’s dying.
He doesn’t have to die . He can’t tell if this is his own thought or that of the internal stranger that he still isn’t certain isn’t actually part of him. The mad part. The dying part. Not if he survives. You could try to fix the radio. Childs might be able to fix it. You know how good he is with his hands–
– Call for help. It might not be too late.
“ No !”
He lurches out of bed, putting as much distance between him and Childs as he can.
It was Childs who brought the broken radio back with him from their salvaging trip, and its insides lie scattered across the table beside the half-finished game of chess, which still awaits their next move.
MacReady’s naked, not shivering, not cold, just… numb. Distant. Watching himself the same way he watched Palmer, until he realises that they’re not alone.
Fuchs is in the doorway.
There’s something unnatural about his posture, something wrong. He shambles forward, moving as though his bones don’t fit together properly. His face is a frozen death-mask, his parka ragged and torn, and there’s a series of deep bloodless gashes in his chest, edged with frost. They’re so deep MacReady can see his ribs. Fuchs’s eyes are unseeing; he moves awkwardly, bumping into the door frame, and his head hangs at an angle, his mouth a gaping empty hole. He came back wrong.
Chitinous limbs like spider legs twine out from inside those gashes, grasping blindly at the air. As Fuchs staggers over the threshold MacReady stumbles back, his hip hitting the edge of the desk. The limbs twitch in his direction. Fuchs’s body turns stiffly a few seconds later.
MacReady’s sick and weak, naked and vulnerable, and there isn’t a damn thing he can do as it comes closer, so close he can feel the waves of cold rolling off it, so close he can see the fine bristles on the chitinous legs shivering in the air currents and the razor-sharp pincers that barb each leg.
But it’s slow and it’s clumsy. It isn’t like the others, all-but-perfect facsimiles of people, right up until the moment that they’re not. Fuchs is dead flesh.
The thing hasn’t assimilated him. It’s wearing his carcass like a glove puppet.
Manipulating his movements from within.
MacReady glances at the axe, leaning against the wall. He starts to edge towards it, and the Fuchs-thing swings around, a tendril whipping out towards him, It stops less than an inch from his face, the end blossoming open like a flower, and inside fine blue-grey fronds flex and shiver, tasting the air. He grasps for the axe, fingers crawling uselessly across the wall, but he’s numb and clumsy and when his fingers nudge against it, it clatters to the floor, out of reach.
Fuchs moves even closer. The twitching spider limbs quiver around MacReady, not touching him, but he can feel how they stir the air near his skin. They’re sharp too; they could easily pierce him, rip him to shreds. A sound emerges from Fuchs’s parted lips, a high keening sound that MacReady feels vibrating in his own chest.
Without warning, the legs twitch back. Fuchs exhales a long rattling breath that isn’t a breath, and eases away. MacReady, his naked back pressed against the wall, stares in frozen disbelief as Fuchs begins to shamble towards Childs, towards the man who might be the last person in this place who can still be called entirely human.
“No.” His voice is hoarse, grating. He peels away from the wall, his gait as clumsy as the Fuchs-thing, and grabs the axe from the floor. “Leave him alone.”
Fuchs stops. Then he takes another step closer to the bunk. A pincer twitches at the blankets.
“I said ‘stop’, you fucker.” His bare feet slap against the floor. The axe feels loose in his numbed hands, like it might slip from his grip at any moment. He swings it, the head biting deep into Fuchs’s back in a blow that jars his bones, drilling deep into his joints. It’s enough to nearly break his grip. When he jerks the axe free it comes loose so suddenly he falls backwards, off balance.
Fuchs turns. His face is immobile, the twin effects of cold and rigor mortis , so MacReady knows the emotion he’s seeing on his face – that mild turn-the-other-cheek expression of sorrow and forgiveness – isn’t really there. Either he’s imagining it, or whatever’s inside him is making him imagine it. It’s enraging, and he shifts his grip on the axe.
“You fucking bastard .”
He moves between the Fuchs thing and the bunk, his gaze darting to what’s left of the gasoline. Not much, but they gathered what they could. If he can get Fuchs outside, burn him, burn it …
As he’s thinking this, Fuchs turns and shambles out. Before he can think about what he’s doing, MacReady has dressed, pulling on his parka and pushing his feet into his boots without lacing them. Considering the state of his hands, he probably wouldn’t be able to lace them if he tried. He takes the last of the gasoline and the axe.
Outside is a world of constant movement and churning shadow, the spindrift stinging his eyes. The distant camp has long since stopped burning, the remains barely visible beneath a shroud of snow, like the remains of a lost civilisation. It won’t be long before it vanishes completely.
He feels weak, boneless. How much of him is human now? Will he even recognise the moment when he crosses over, when it’s replaced enough of him that there’s nothing left? Has that moment already come and gone?
He was expecting to have lost the Fuchs-thing in the time he wasted getting dressed, but it hasn’t made much headway. He can see why. It’s falling more than walking, able to take no more than a couple of steps before it stumbles and has to thrash at the snow to right itself.
He can feel it. The thing’s emotions are bleeding into his, a tight fist of dread tightening around his throat. It’s terrified, although not of him. The snow whips into his eyes, near-blinding him so he can barely see as he catches up and swings the axe, burying it deep in Fuchs’s spine, dropping the poor sweet-natured bastard. He works the axe free, and brings it down again, hacking at Fuchs’s leg just beneath his buttocks.
The body spasms, jerking onto its side. There’s a sound like the snapping of dried twigs, and without warning Fuchs bends backwards so violently his heels almost strike the back of his head. He arches, crablike, and within the cracked cage of his splintered ribs something squirms.
The tendrils of the thing quest out, recoiling like a snail’s antennae when they meet snow, and Macready hears ( cold so cold so very cold macready ) a constant drone of panicked heartache so intense it makes his throat hurt. He recoils from it as surely as the thing recoils from the cold, sickened by the sympathy clawing at his heart. It’s like a flame licking at bone-dry kindling; he can’t fight it.
He throws the axe aside, and grabs the gasoline. More splatters on the snow than over Fuchs, and he fumbles with the lighter, swears as he drops it, and has to fumble in the snow with his numbed fingers.
The thing squirms out from between Fuchs’s ribs. It’s even smaller than MacReady expected, maybe no bigger than a house cat, a writhing, clawing thing, covered in a thick coat of bluish grey fur. It clings to Fuchs like a drowning man clinging to wreckage from a shipwreck.
It takes MacReady too many tries to make the lighter ignite, and when it does the weak little flame takes him by surprise and he almost drops the lighter again. He tosses it down onto Fuchs’ body and the gasoline ignites with a whumph.
It scorches his skin, and an instant later pain engulfs him. Inside his skull, the thing screeches in pure terror and pain. Engulfed in flame, it thrashes across the snow towards him, and he falls again as he struggles to his feet.
He flails around for the axe, but in the dim twilight he can’t see it. There’s nothing but the searing heat of the fire on his half-frozen skin and the howling of a thousand voices inside his skull. There’s no words or intelligence to the thing’s screaming; it’s devoid of thought, of anything but fury and hatred and pain.
As quickly as it began, the screaming stops, the pain abates, and MacReady is left broken and panting. The thing has gone still, burning on the snow.
He closes his eyes, panting, lies on his back. He’s no longer cold. Instead, he almost feels comfortable, distant and dreamy, giving up all his pain, all his fear, to the peace that envelops him. He’ll get up in a moment and go back inside to check on Childs, of course he will; just for the moment he needs to rest.
A flicker of movement resolves into a husky padding out from the shadows. He turns his head, watches it approaching. He sees it, but doesn’t register it, not until the husky noses at him, licking at his face. He reaches up to push it away, fingers sinking into the coarse fur, then realises what it is, what it must be, as it lopes off.
They thought Blair had killed all the dogs. Of course, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they lost track of the number that escaped and miscounted how many corpses were in that twisted mass of burnt flesh, so maybe one had survived. Trouble is MacReady knows that only makes sense if the survivor is a facsimile.
A real dog would have come back. It wouldn’t stay hidden.
It’s not a real dog.
How far could it get? Even in freezing conditions, could it reach the coast? Another settlement? With the weather this bad, he can’t be certain of anything, but it might be possible, and it won’t need to get as far as the coast if it stumbles across another animal, like an albatross.
Weak he may be, but there’s a core of steel running through him. Whatever it’s doing to him, it’s made him stronger. He rolls into a crouch, moistens his bone-dry mouth with saliva. “Come here, boy,” he croaks. The husky can’t have heard him, but it looks back anyway.
( it doesn’t have to be this way macready )
“You’re a lying piece of shit.”
He still can’t see the axe, and when the dog whirls and takes off, he goes after it. Unlike Fuchs the dog is living flesh; it moves faster than him, and its fur keeps it insulated from the bitter cold. Ice needles at his eyes, and it’s so cold he can’t breath, fresh virgin snow crunching beneath his unlaced boots. He slips and trips, throwing himself through the snow, following the white flash of the dog’s fur and its steaming breath. It keeps stopping, turning back after bounding every few steps, as if it’s playing with him.
Black charred ruins of the compound rise up around him. There’s an air of peace about the camp now, the chaos and slaughter forgotten. It leads him through the ruins and he follows, until he’s almost forgotten why he’s chasing the dog or what the fuck he’s planning on doing if he catches it, only that he has to stop it from escaping.
It stops by the wreckage of the chopper, and in a last desperate push, he throws himself forward, wrapping his arms around its stocky powerful body. Its muscles squirm beneath the coarse hair, but it behaves like a dog, licking his face in greeting. Its saliva burns and he buries his face in its fur, and it’s warm, it’s warm , and his breath comes in wrenching gasps of pain.
His exhaustion and desperation and fear are all blotted out as something rises up inside him, a tidal wave of overwhelming love for this dog that’s not really a dog. It has an alien quality to it; it doesn’t belong to him.
He tightens his arms around the dog, thinking that he’s doing it to stop it from getting away, and knowing at the same time that that isn’t the reason at all. His horror is drowned out by the love, for the dog, for all the others, the ones who are part of him now.
And for Childs, who soon will be.
They all whisper now inside his skull. He didn’t come to the Antarctic to make friends, but the Lord works in mysterious ways, and his head is filled with a legion, a multitude of voices, American and Norwegian and otherwise, all clamouring inside his head. They’re so loud they drown out the part of his mind that was still ( just about) R J MacReady, and he doesn’t care because he hasn’t felt love like this since he was a boy.
The dog twists in his arms, lapping at his face with its burning tongue. Its saliva is already freezing on his skin. It feels as if a hand has pressed against his cheek, and a voice whispers in his ear, in his heart, pulsing through his veins.
( welcome home macready )