Chapter 1: The Road to Hell
As he watched the news play across the television screen, Paul Brighton could feel his stomach churning. It was an exceptionally unpleasant sensation, one that he convinced himself he could feel from his head straight down through to the tips of his toes. It couldn’t have been just his stomach that was churning. It must have been his whole body churning. It was as though the world was somehow spinning in perfect time to his body, so that even though it appeared as if he was sitting still, he was in fact in a very rapid, very dangerous tailspin that threatened to spill his insides across the laboratory floor.
Alan Dale, a tall, bald, and short-tempered forty-something, who also happened to be Paul’s boss, would normally not have been happy about there being any sort of outside electronic in the room. “This is a research laboratory,” he would have shouted at Paul in his weak, straining voice that sounded as if it had spent too many of its years not being put to any use, “not a movie theater,” or some such other not quite comparable comparison. On this day, however, he was not going to be angry. On this day, he was not going to be bothered at all. On this day, he was going to sit in the corner of the room, watching the screen over Paul’s shoulder, and then he was going to die.
It had been almost two hours now, but Paul still clutched the phone uselessly in his white-knuckled hand, as if he expected it to ring any moment. Or, at least, somehow alert him that it would become available for use once again. For the first hour he had refused to give up, repeatedly redialing and waiting through several of the busy signal beeps, half way expecting and half way hoping that they would turn into a ring, but it never happened. As time - and the news - rolled along, it became ever more and more clear to the two men in the room that there would not be any help coming this day. In fact, Paul began to doubt there would ever be help coming again. Help was a thing of the past. Life was a thing of the past. On the television there was only death, and he knew deep in his heart that this is what the world had become.
This is what they had made of it.
Not that this had been their intention. They never had anything but good intentions. Their lives had been spent with nothing but the best intentions. Or at least that’s what they attempted to convince themselves of now.
It wasn’t as though they didn’t have good reason for thinking it. Their brains were veritable databases of helpful medical knowledge. Though he hadn’t ever actually tried, not seriously anyway, Paul was certain that, if necessary, he could diagnose, treat, operate on, and nurse back to health almost any number of typical, problematic medical problems that they would face on a normal, day-to-day basis at any hospital. Of course, he was smart enough to realize that sending someone to an actual medical doctor or surgeon would be the vastly preferred first step to any treatment he might recommend, but with the changes in the world he was watching, it started to seem significantly less unreasonable to consider making use of those latent skills.
Yet it was that very knowledge that had led them down this path. While their hearts and minds had sung with the rigorous devotion of a priest to the anthem of “First do no harm,” their hands had unfortunately created a reality that was beyond the worst horrors of their nightmares.
Alan coughed, a hacking, disgusting cough full of blood and spittle, and shifted a little on his stool. As he did so, he rolled his head along the wall, hoping to find a more comfortable spot to rest it against the metal and concrete making up the cabinet and wall he leaned against. The sound and the movement were enough to snap Paul out of his reverie and back into reality. Finally, though still with reluctance, he eased his grip off of the phone, letting it slide out of his hand and onto the table. He hurried across the room to his boss.
My co-worker, my friend, Paul decided as he walked, forcing the uncomfortable thought down his gullet. The man might be dead in a matter of minutes – in a matter of seconds, even – and there was no reason he should have to die alone, without a friend around. The two men might not have always gotten along, but surely they respected each other, and surely they could come to some mutual understanding at a time like this.
The tall, thin black man placed a comforting hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Alan, are you all right? Can I get you anything?” he asked, the trembling in his voice annoyingly betraying the terror boiling away on the inside.
Alan’s eyes rolled unseeing in their sockets, but he barely moved otherwise. A grim wheeze escaped through his throat, and Paul could not tell for the life of him whether it was the other man’s breathing or merely a noise he couldn’t help but make.
“Am I all right?” The older man echoed, his voice harsh and angry. “How in Hell’s name could I be all right? Do I look all right to you? Do I seem in… any… way all right?” The more words he tried to say, the more difficult it was for him to talk, and by the end of his little speech he was coughing and hacking up a storm. Then, all of the sudden, the coughs ceased and Alan let out a cry of pain, clutching at his side where the wound was and doubling over in his chair. The pain was so intense he almost fell to the ground; would have fallen to the ground, were it not for Paul, standing there like an able sentry, ready for the next move.
“Let me see it” the younger man said as he attempted to pull the other man’s hands away from the wound. “Come on, let me see it!”
Alan continued to protest with weak whimpers and moans, but he let his hands be pulled from the bloody hole so that his compatriot could take a look. As he moved past the other man’s hands and dug through his lab coat, Paul maintained some hope toward what they were dealing with. His recent thoughts on what his medical knowledge might allow him to do fueled this fire, and before long he had himself convinced he could even cure this man. Maybe hope wasn’t lost after all. Then he saw the wound, and he knew better.
All hope was lost.
The cut was green and brown, with thick, light yellow-grey pus bulging and flowing along it and out of it. It was a horribly hideous sight, a sight no human should ever have to see. The sickening realization dawned on Paul that no medical doctor was going to be able to help them now. No medical doctor would have ever seen a wound like that. Yet Paul had. He knew exactly what it was. And now, he knew, many, many more people would quickly come to learn. This was a sight that was destined to become all too familiar to all too many people.
He let go of the clothing and let his hands sink to the floor. Alan quickly returned to grasping at his side as if he could hold off the pain if he could just grip tightly enough. They both knew without another word being spoken what was going to happen then. They both knew without another word being spoken the horror that followed this moment.
“It’s the end of the world,” Alan said, his voice suddenly calm, almost as though it had managed to separate itself from his corporeal body and become its own unique entity. Paul glanced up at the other man, and noticed his eyes were locked in place looking past Paul. He followed the man’s gaze until it led him back to the TV screen, where certainly enough it was difficult to tell whether the images being shown were just the nightly news or an Armageddon blockbuster from Hollywood.
“You don’t know that,” Paul responded, meekly. Neither man believed that for a second, and neither of them so much as acknowledged the statement.
A deathly calm fell over the room. It was, perhaps, the most unsettling thing in a day full of unsettling things. Though he did not want his friend to suffer, Paul found himself incredibly disturbed by the fact that the other man did not seem to notice his wound any more. Alan’s arms hung loosely at his sides, and he made no attempt to cover the gaping hole nor hold back the fluids seeping from it.
Quiet screams unleashed themselves softly from the direction of the TV. Paul turned to see some… thing fall over a man, dragging him to the ground and tearing into his flesh. Then the view shook wildly as the camera turned to flee.
“…warn you to stay inside, lock your doors, and make no attempt to leave,” the eerily placid voice of the anchorman was saying.
“We played God,” Alan said suddenly, startling Paul and pulling his attention away from the news, “And He is angry with us.”
“We did nothing of the sort,” Paul shot back, surprising himself with his anger. “We did the right thing. We were only trying to do what was best for us, for everyone. We were trying to save lives.” The words echoed hollowly in the empty air. Somehow, they seemed unable to carry the same gravitas as Alan’s argument.
But he’s just delusional, Paul told himself. The man was sick, dying even. Certainly by now he must be completely out of his mind with the fever and the pain. His words shouldn’t seem as anything more than the ravings of a madman.
Yet Alan’s motionless body and emotionless voice seemed to deny all reality, and all rationality.
“Unsatisfied with our lives, our destiny, we sought to change it, to take control. We sought to go to places man was never meant to go, to see things man was never meant to see. Now we have cursed ourselves, doomed ourselves to face our own worst nightmares, then die off leaving behind no evidence or trace that we were ever here. Only a small, simple sign shall remain, a sign reading ‘Here be monsters.’ And that monster’s name is ‘Man.’”
Well, that settles it, thought Paul, He is a raving madman.
With a sigh of annoyance Paul straightened up and headed back toward the table with the TV. On the table was also a rather pathetic first aid kit that contained one cold pack, an elastic wrap, some small adhesive bandages not usable for more than the slightest of nicks and scrapes, a thermometer, a packet of ibuprofen, and a free trial tube of topical antibiotic. It was almost laughable, might have been if Paul had been merely an observer of the ridiculous situation instead of a participant. This was a medical research lab, home to some of those most advanced medical and scientific equipment in the known universe and yet this pathetic excuse for a first aid kit was all he could use to try and help Alan in his dire situation.
Paul grabbed the thermometer, and turning he glanced out the observation window of the lab room. Somewhere in a hallway leading out of the next room, an emergency light flickered, revealing in brief flashes another room that appeared to be empty. If he went out there, if he took Alan out there with him then maybe he could get to one of the other labs, and make use of actual equipment. It was all out there, somewhere, just waiting for them.
He glanced back at his superior, and knew he couldn’t dare risk it. Even if the other man was in a good enough condition to be moved, there were other dangers out there, lurking in the darkness, just waiting for him to leave the relative safety of his current room. No, he knew deep in his heart that it was much too dangerous to attempt.
Instead, all he could do was watch his friend die before his eyes. But surely better just one of them than both of them?
With a disheartened shake of his head Paul tried to clear his mind of these thoughts and stepped over to Alan. He turned on the thermometer, waited for it to beep its acknowledgement, and then stuck it into the other man’s mouth.
Alan’s eyes opened slightly and rolled up to look at Paul with an unreadable expression. They looked so deep, dark, and completely empty. It was a hauntingly terrible sight. The two men held the gaze for several moments, and then Alan slumped over, his head sliding into the metal cabinet next to him, and the thermometer falling uselessly from his mouth. It clattered noisily onto the floor and then there was only silence.
Paul stood there motionless for what seemed like an eternity, trying desperately to make his lungs breathe again. Numbly, he reached up and felt the other man’s neck, knowing full well already exactly what he was going to feel.
He let his hand drop down by his side, and tried to blink back the tears. With a deep breath, he steadied himself and turned back to the television. Somehow, he managed to stumble across the room and back onto the stool he had been sitting in only minutes earlier, but now seemed like years ago to him. He had never been much of a smoker, or a drinker, but he found himself wanting a cold beer and a fresh cigarette more than anything else in the world at that moment. It just somehow seemed like the most appropriate thing for him to be doing.
He only caught brief excerpts from the news that continued to run before him. “National guard is attempting…” and “Be warned that the danger is…” and “I repeat, do not attempt to leave-”. Somehow, he just couldn’t bring himself to pay attention. He knew what the news was: all grim and tragic and shocking. What good is the news anyway, he dimly wondered to himself, if you basically already know what it’s going to say? It was always just heartbreak and misery, death and decay; the story of the world and the human race for all of the past ten thousand or however many years.
Hardly even realizing he was doing it, he reached over and shut the TV off. There was no saying what he should do now, but he felt like he needed to do something besides just sit there in the dark, idly not watching TV. Numerous ideas supernova-ed through the darkness of his mind, flashing to life and then fading away just as suddenly. None of them seemed to be worth more than a millisecond of entertaining. It was almost as if his brain was shutting down, aware that it would be of no use to him, or anyone else, ever again.
A loud clattering sounded almost immediately behind him and he whirled around, just in time to have a large, dark figure fall down on him, knocking him from his seat to the cold, hard ground. As the air blasted from his lungs, he cursed himself for not having realized this was going to happen. From above him, Alan made strange, gurgling noises as he tried to pull himself closer. Paul’s grip rested firmly around the other man’s neck, however, and he was not backing down.
The creature that was once Alan Dale thrashed wildly. Its movements were strange, its mouth opening and closing as if trying to chew through the air, and its eyes rolling around in its head as if looking at nothing and everything all at once.
This was it, Paul knew instinctively.
This was the end.