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Deep Green

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Sherry tightened her grip on her flashlight and swept the beam across the corridor ahead. Somewhere a pipe had burst and the entire floor was covered in an inch of murky water, splashing around her boots as she walked. Faint dripping sounds echoed in the halls.

There, ahead, just where her map of the floorplan had indicated - the shape of a door jammed open, and a yawning chasm of a lab beyond it. Her flashlight’s beam glanced off lab equipment gone dusty with disuse and a handful of upended chairs and tables inside.

“Just like home,” she murmured to herself distractedly as she slipped through the doorway.

Inside, sheafs of waterlogged paper drifted in thin shoals with the ripples from her footsteps, and an automatic light flickered on, valiant, above her. She sniffed cautiously. Mostly the same grime and rubble and damp mold as the rest of the facility, but underlaid with something else - a florescent rot, like fruit spoiling on the counter.

She moved her light around, casting back and forth for a source. In the far corner, the beam found a shoe protruding from behind an overturned desk, and Sherry sucked in a breath and moved toward it.

The scientist had bloomed in death. His skin peeled outward in wide, scalloped petals, melting into the puddled water. His lab coat looked like a deflated balloon, propped up in places by the tentpoles of his ribs. Sherry was grateful his face was turned away at a sharp angle so all she could see was the side and back of his skull, covered in pale hairs drifting like cilia.

Had something - someone - done this to him, or had it happened on its own, the rot creeping through the lab and into its inhabitants? Sherry edged closer. No obvious wounds. She couldn’t gauge if the twist to his neck was unnatural or not without looking harder than she’d prefer to.

And anyway - there, on his chest, the laminated ID card. One corner had split in the water, staining the inside, but the magnetic bar code looked intact. Sherry leaned forward and carefully tugged the clip open.

She was waiting for something to happen, for the body to lunge or dissolve into spores, but it just laid there. Sherry flipped the ID over for a name - Janik Virtanen, clearance level 4-S.

“That’ll get me into the basement,” she said, more to hear a living voice in the strange stillness of the room than anything else. She tucked the ID into her pocket and backed away from Virtanen’s body, unholstering her handgun as she moved. The briefing hadn’t said they expected any dead bodies in the lab. It was supposed to have been abandoned entirely. “Of course this couldn’t be that easy.”

Back in the hall, she moved her flashlight up and down again, slower this time. Nothing had changed, as far as she could see, and the only movement was in the small waves of water kicked up by her steps. She ran through the map in her head again. Down this hall, turn right, then a left halfway down the next should bring her to the basement stairway. The smell of decaying plant matter behind her had faded as she left Virtanen’s tomb, but it still clung to the hall as she moved down it, along with bleach and damp mold.

Right turn into an identical hallway. At the very end, a heap of furniture had been piled up against the far door. That wouldn’t be an effective escape route, then, if things went south. But the door on the left swung open with minimal resistance, and at the end of this short hallway the sign labeling the basement glowed a dim sodium-vapor orange. The card reader beeped cleanly when she slid the ID through it.

“Open sesame,” she muttered to herself.

Water from the hall sloshed down the stairs when she pushed the door open with a shoulder, but in her light the flooding didn’t seem much deeper than her ankles on the landing below. Sherry thumbed the safety of her handgun on and then off again for good measure and started down.

The deeper she went, the more overwhelming the spoiled green scent became. She was grateful, edging the door to the basement proper open, to see the lights were still powered down here and she could tuck her flashlight away and use that hand to cover her nose and mouth. Algal growth clogged the flooded water and clung, parasitic, to her boots and shins as she walked.

In the basement the halls were wider, branching straight ahead and to the right with grimy tile and flat expanses of steel covering every surface. The blueprints she’d been shown had the basic outline, but no indication what the spaces were used for, and as far as she could see they looked identical from here. Pick a direction at random then - Sherry kept her back to the wall and moved toward the nearest door down the right hallway.

It popped open when she swiped the ID card, but inside had been gutted; not even a chair or a desk left inside. The next two rooms followed the same pattern, and she’d almost convinced herself to go back to the forward hallway when she opened the fourth door.

The smell was an almost physical wave that made her stagger back. She nearly dropped the ID again in her haste to cover her nose and mouth again.

Once, when she was a little girl, they’d gone camping in the Arklay Mountains, on a rare break her parents took from their work. She’d spent the weekend stumbling through the woods and clambering over logs while her parents trailed behind and whisper-argued over their experiments, and the wet, grassy scent everywhere she turned had been a welcome reprieve from the chemical labs and dirty city she’d spent the rest of her life in.

This was that times a thousand. She was afraid to inhale too deeply, thinking of Virtanen melting into substrate on the floor above. She nudged the door open with her foot and entered the room handgun first.

Most of this room was as empty as the last ones, like someone had scoured the place for every bit of furniture or lab equipment they could find, but in the middle sat a massive terrarium. It must have been three feet high and twice as wide, with a mesh top and an elaborate set of mechanisms crawling over the side to disperse water and chemical fertilizers. Sherry’s breath caught in her throat.

Inside the terrarium were rows of red flowers, petals bleeding to a sickly yellow at the outsides. They were planted close together in a thick, virulently alive carpet over the bottom of the terrarium and the green smell inside the room was nearly overwhelming.

“Shit.” She’d seen these before.

The West African BSAA branch had sent a report over, something one of their operatives and Claire’s brother had encountered. And her father had kept a box of the dried samples in his lab. She’d always thought they were pretty, had even once reached for one to play with before her mother snatched her hand away and scolded her harshly for it.

The growth support system clicked on to dispense a mist of water and something gooey and sweet-smelling. Sherry glanced at her watch; 1:20am; twenty minute intervals? Everything she’d read indicated the viral variant of the sonnentreppe was nearly impossible to grow outside of the specific conditions it originated in, but if this lab had been successful in replicating that...

Well. That was why she’d been sent, rather than another operative or even a full squad. That and this damn lab was supposed to be empty. Still, she’d come prepared, just in case she found something. She pulled a hard plastic sample container out of a pocket and holstered her handgun in favor of a knife, and approached the terrarium.

The lid of the tank wasn’t secured by any means, and she pushed it aside just far enough to reach a hand down and take a cutting from one of the plants. Flower, stem, and a leaf for good measure. She dropped them into the sample container and sealed it shut, and kept her breathing as shallow as she could.

A small, furious, grieving part of her wanted to smash the terrarium to pieces, but she settled for going around the side and cutting the plastic tubing of the growth support system. She didn’t know - didn’t want to know - what would happen if the plants themselves got into the water table, but she could at least starve them out.

Sherry drew her handgun again and backed out of the door, running through her briefing in her head. Infiltrate Tricell’s remote lab; determine what, if anything, had been left behind. They’d only sent the one operative because all intel indicated it was abandoned and had probably been cleared out then; Sherry, specifically, because it was direct viral research. She was only supposed to check for anything useful left behind and then report back, but if Tricell had managed to successfully cultivate the progenitor virus flowers outside of their original setting...

She stepped back out into the hall, sucking in a deep breath of air and collecting herself. Bring the sample she’d secured out, and call in for backup; that’s what she should do.

Deeper in the lab, something crashed.

Sherry froze, water sloshing up around her ankles. Her finger twitched towards the trigger of her gun and she held her breath. Four seconds of silence, five, six - and another crash, underlaid with something terrifyingly close to a human scream.

No time to get back into radio range and call for backup, not if someone was still in the lab. A scientist, or a test subject? She moved towards the junction in the hallway, as quickly as she could without splashing water too loudly and giving away her presence. Another crash, another scream at the far end of the other hall. She moved a little faster.

The scream had come from the left, and there, just before the dead-end of the hallway; a set of scratched chrome lab doors, improperly shut. Sherry slipped the toe of her boot inside and carefully, carefully pried one open.

The lab’s occupant was a scientist, thankfully facing away from Sherry; grimy labcoat, tangled ponytail, hunched over a monitor on the far side of the room. She slapped at the keyboard, hissing violently under her breath and swaying from side to side on her feet. Something writhed and twisted below the fabric of her coat.

“Is it the monitor, or is it the children? Which, which, which?” The scientist jerked her mouse and something happened on the screen that she disliked; she lunged forward like she wanted to attack it, before subsiding a half-second later and clawing at the counter it rested on. “Have to go check, see for myself.”

Shit.

Sherry raised her handgun as the scientist turned around. She was still muttering to herself, distracted enough that Sherry could get a look at her before she noticed she was no longer alone, and Sherry’s stomach twisted violently at the sight.

Was this what Virtanen had looked like before he’d progressed to his current state? Frills of fungal matter and bruised red-and-yellow ran up her jaw, mimicking the progenitor virus flowers. Her eyes were sunken and watery, runny egg-whites wobbling in their sockets and the dark mold-spots of her pupils widening when they rolled over Sherry.

“You!” the scientist - the BOW - shrieked, and Sherry fired.

Three shots, straight into her center mass, and the BOW was abruptly halted in her lunge. Her legs bowed under her but she didn’t topple, and the blood dribbling down her front was thick and swimming with something green and wriggling.

Shit. Sherry backed away from the BOW, keeping her handgun trained on her. She was going to have some choice words with whoever had done intel on this lab once she got out of here. The BOW pawed at her chest and stomach and her head rolled on its neck to follow Sherry.

“You starved the children,” she hissed. Her shoulders heaved and Sherry cast around the room, getting her bearings. Chairs and desks heaped along the walls, each dripping with plants and greenery in cascading mounds, created a convoluted maze. Piles of paper pasted together into a thick sludge in the water.

The monitoring station the BOW had been using was a massive old thing embedded in the wall, too far away to make out most of the readout but the big, blinking red box was obvious enough.

“You starved the children,” the BOW repeated. Her mouth opened wider and then wider still, and the green rot scent was so strong Sherry’s knees gave out.

She scrambled back, splashing through the water and bringing her gun up again. The next three shots sent the BOW staggering back, and Sherry used the moment of distraction to dive for the cover of the furniture piled against the walls. She slid behind a desk and peered out from the far corner. The BOW was stumbling in a loose circle - whatever this virus was must have slowed her faculties, made her disoriented, to lose Sherry that easily.

Good; that gave Sherry a moment to prepare. She reached her free hand under her jacket until her fingers closed around the flashbang grenade. Just in case, indeed.

The BOW was still splashing around in the center of the room, nearing her cover. “Time to move,” she whispered, and lunged out from behind the desk. The dangling plants dragged and dripped over her skin as she passed through their tangled growth. “Hey you!”

The BOW made an anguished noise caught between a sob and a shriek of rage as she turned towards Sherry’s voice, and her front split open, ribcage peeling back and thin, stringy skin hanging like moss in ragged drapes over splintered bones. Sherry fired again and the bullets were swallowed up, colliding with the meaty insides of the BOW. She reared her arm back to throw the grenade, but the monster was faster.

The air between them filled with green spores that made Sherry’s eyes water and her throat constrict, and the BOW leapt forward and collided with Sherry. The ribcage wasn’t a ribcage anymore, but a mouth bearing down on her, and Sherry flung the grenade inside the maw a second before it snapped shut.

Pain ricocheted through her torso. Sherry crashed into the water, and didn’t know anything else.


“Sherry, it’s time to get up.”

Her eyes flutter but she can’t open them - it feels like someone’s holding her eyelids shut. A hand, cold and familiar, presses against her forehead.

“Sherry.”

“Five more minutes?” she mumbles. The voice scoffs.

“You’ve had enough time already. Come on, sweetheart, up you get.” Hands under her armpits, halfway leveraging her upright but something grinds wetly in her chest and they relent, sinking her back down into the - into the water? The bedding under her feels damper and damper.

“Are you faking sick again? We’ve got places to be.” The voice is stern and she loves it endlessly.

Sherry pries her eyes open. Her mom’s face is backlit with fluorescents and grave.

“There’s my girl. Come on, Sherry.”

Sherry tries to move, this time under her own power, but every breath is a fresh rake of pain and her torso doesn’t move right. She looks down, sleepily bleary, and it’s a ragged mess of red flecked with green.

“You’re going to be late for school.”

Another voice, and Sherry whimpers, biting at her lip and blinking away tears. Her dad moves closer until he too is peering down at her. Sandy blond hair and a small frown on his face. His lab coat is pristine.

“Sherry, you need to get up.” She can’t tell which of them is speaking, the voices slipping and sliding into a vaguely-recalled slurry. More hands, pushing her ribcage back together, carefully folding over flaps of loose skin around her stomach.

“I can’t, it hurts too much.” She sounds whiny even to her own ears. She can’t get enough air in to speak clearly. The hands pinch and prod, fingers like needles piecing her back together again. Her blood writhes.

“Sherry, you have to keep going.”

“I can’t!” The words bubble and spit in her mouth, flooded with blood and saliva and the bitter spores she’d inhaled.

“You have to!”

God, she used to argue with her mom all the time. Stupid kid stuff, not wanting to go to bed or eat her vegetables. Somehow she ended up holding her mom’s hand, and she squeezes it, feeling her own muscles and tendons work from the inside out.

“It’s hard.”

“I know, sweetheart.” Her dad clasps a hand over her shoulder. Her lungs heave and struggle. It feels like more needles, hundreds of them, crawling through her bloodstream. Sealing up organs and bracing bones as they go. “But you have to do it. Come on, sweetheart, just like when you were little. Remember the rhyme? Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.”

Her mom’s palms are warm on her wrist. “All the king’s horses, and all the king’s men, and all the great scientists of the world couldn’t break our work.”

“Just look at you.”

Her lungs fill.


Her face was under water. Her lungs burned, they bucked and heaved in her chest, and Sherry rolled violently until she could get a breath in. She could feel the layer of sticky spores on her skin, matting her hair, and the tender parts of her throat and lungs where she was still knitting herself back together.

Beside her, the BOW was a crumpled heap, limp and used up the same was as Virtanen. The sight of what was left of her - the slack body in its ponytail and lab coat - shot through Sherry as surely as any bullet while she clambered to her feet.

It wasn’t the time for dwelling on it. Her lungs were still struggling but each breath came a little easier than the next. She retrieved her gun and waded over to the monitor on the wall.

The display readout was a whole lot of data she didn’t have time to decipher, but thankfully that wasn’t her job. The DSO had experts for that; Sherry was just here for the raw data. She pulled the temporary drive she’d been issued, thankfully still intact, out of her pocket and inserted it into a slot on the side of the station. A handful of clicks and a glance at Virtanen’s ID badge number had her logged in and the data copying.

She didn’t turn to look at the BOW.

The drive beeped at her and she pulled it out and stuffed it back in her pocket. She checked her gun - still half the clip in it - and wiped as much of the algae and spore matter off her face as she could.

The rest of the lab was empty. She could feel that, though she did a cursory check anyways. She only looked at the sonnentreppe from the doorway, but already they were wilting and fogging up the inside of their terrarium as they began to rot.

Retracing her footsteps, back up the stairs and past the room with Virtanen’s body. Her clothes were soaked through with water and her own blood but the hard plastic shell around the sample in her pocket was still in one piece, as was the drive. She’d done her job. Someone else could clean up the lab.

She hadn’t taken a vacation in a while, she thought, as she stepped out into the early hours of the morning. The sun was still just a vague promise on the horizon.

She’d need to debrief, of course, and help coordinate the cleanup operation, and she also still wanted to track down and shout at whoever had claimed the lab was supposed to be empty in the first place, but...when all that was taken care of - maybe she was due a visit to the cemetery, and the two empty graves sitting under silent headstones.