Saturday, November 3, 2007

My chimpanzee wears a flight suit

We made it about halfway down the hall when we heard the screaming start. Sage, tied to the wheelchair, bloody glass held to his throat, tried to turn in the direction of the commotion, but winced and pulled back. The razor sharp glass sliced him shallowly but cleanly across his throat, tracing the direction of his turned head with a thin line of blood. I hurried the wheelchair down the hallway, neither of us talking, both of us knowing in the back of our minds what those screams meant. Silently, Sage pointed his way through the maze of corridors. I was running now, holding the glass only loosely in my hand and away from his throat as the sound of the screams grew more insistent. A bit out of breath, sweating with exertion and fear, we stood outside a door, next to which a small placard said simply, Nursery. I looked down at Sage, who nodded, but otherwise did not move.
“Turn the handle, Sage.” I said
He calmly reached forward, gripping the metallic handle and opening the door wide. I pushed the chair forward and entered the room.

It was a nursery unlike any I'd ever seen. When you think of a nursery, ones mind typically drifts to wall murals of puppies or smiling cartoon characters, of cheerful colors and toy boxes, diaper bins, and night lights. This nursery had none of these. In neat, military order, stood clear plastic bassinets atop bare metal stands with casters. There were dozens of them, in long perfect rows stretching down the length of the long, narrow room. Harsh fluorescent light saturated the room, exposing the pneumatic bank teller tubes that came down next to each of the bassinets. At the same time that I understood what I was seeing in the teller tubes, I also noticed the harsh metal grid that covered the top of each of bassinet. I had enough time to wonder why these people had turned the bassinets into cages, when I saw Finn.

It was clear that whoever had taken him had tried to make him comfortable, but it was equally clear that this “nursery” was not equipped for children nearing their first birthday. He was sleeping, apparently safe and sound, but was laying on a heap of blankets and towels surrounded by a stack of upturned clear plastic bassinets that were forming a ring and thus a make shift playpen around him. With a sense of relief greater than I had known possible, and far more visceral than I expected, I rushed toward him. Only as I bent to retrieve him did I notice that I was still clutching the shiv that had gotten me this far, and it was then that I realized that Sage was no longer under my control. Wide eyed, I swiveled around, half expecting the old man to be running for the door or inches away from me with murderous intent. Instead, he sat calmly in the wheelchair, smiling bemusedly at me, as if he couldn't understand my relief at finding my son intact. I looked at Sage for only another moment, then I reached out, and still keeping my eyes locked onto those of the old man, I set the shard down in the nearest empty bassinet. Then I turned away from him, bent down, and picked up my son.

He stirred a little when I picked him up, and his tiny moan of sleepy complaint reassured me of his basic safety once again. Clutching him, I turned to see Sage, still seated in the chair, gingerly exploring the shallow wound around his neck. Smiling, he said, “So, shall we collect your bride then?” and without another word rose nimbly from the chair and began toward the door. I had no choice but to follow.

Entering the hall jolted me out of the grateful reverie I had been feeling. I could hear a low steady humming sound that I at first took to be some enormous machine, but which I realized a moment later was a deep, throaty moaning that seemed to fill the corridors with the thrum of hungry, stupid, violence. Hurrying now, Sage and I raced further through the labyrinthine hallways, and I had to concentrate as I ran in order to read the signs that marked our progress. With some alarm, I noticed the words quarantine as we pushed first through one set of double doors, bursting into what looked to be a large showering room, and pushed almost immediately again through another heavy set of doors. We were now clearly in a hospital setting. The institutional paint on the walls, the large centrally located desk with a bank of monitors (only one of which was on, and on which was displayed a blinking alarm), and the steady monotonous beep of some impossible and necessary machines. The moaning had grown fainter as we ran, and we began to slow to a walk as we made our way through what was obviously the quarantine wing of what I was coming to realize was a very large compound. Sage paused for a moment before a door simply marked “recovery,” then turned the handle and entered the dark room.

From inside, I heard the thick grunt of someone exerting a mighty effort followed by a deafening crash. I rushed forward and threw open the door, Finn was now awake and began to scream. It was probably the sound of that cry that saved Sage from another kick, as he lay tightly curled on the floor against the wall, holding his right side. Colleen's foot was poised above his face and was ready to drop onto his face, but she didn't bring her foot crashing down. Instead she looked up at Finn and myself and began to weep even as she abandoned her attack and scrambled to her feet.

There was little time for a reunion however. Even as we held one another, Colleen now grasping Finn to her chest as if fearful he would disappear from her arms again, a middle aged woman followed by Hawthorne breathlessly dived into the room. I realized even as they turned to shut the door that I could hear that moaning again, now much louder and more insistent. If a sound that never changes pitch or tone could seem excited, this one did, somehow seeming to build in intensity as well as volume even as Hawthorne threw himself against the door and locked it, sliding with his back down the heavy wooden door with a sigh of obvious gratitude. Sage was wincing, but beginning to extricate himself from the metal food cart that he had crashed into on his ignominious crash to the floor. Looking around at the room we were in for the first time, I could see a cot that had been rigged with straps, a rather more normal hospital bed covered in what looked to be very old, but very serious blood stains, heavy duty ceiling mounted surgical lighting, a row of monitors, blood pressure cuffs and other assorted medical paraphernalia, and a large armoire. In short, it looked rather like a birthing suit at an advanced but not terribly hygienic hospital. I shuddered to think of what went on in this room that caused all of that blood, and caused whoever it was in charge of this place to deem it unnecessary or too dangerous to clean.

Even as my mind began to mull these things over however, the first of the pursuing undead thudded into the door, fingernails hungrily scraping and clawing at the thick wooden door with such vigor that I immediately began to fear that they may, given time, make some progress. A second later and the next ghoul sent a shudder through the door frame, colliding with all the force of its ravenous desire, then another, and another, each body sending vibrations through the door and floor, shaking small flakes of ceiling dust upon our heads, landing in our hair like drywall snowflakes. Impossibly, this continued for the better part of an hour. Sometimes there would be several minutes between new ghouls, sometimes only seconds or less. I counted at least fifty of them out there, each pressing against the next, clawing and scraping, and most horribly of all, moaning. Finn was screaming now, inconsolable even as he fed from Colleen in the farthest corner of the room. Without thinking, without saying a word to one another, Sage, Hawthorne, and the woman whose name I didn't yet know and I began to push, pull and slide every single thing we could move up against the door.

When there was literally nothing left to pile against the door, I looked at Sage. He looked back, still calm, but no longer wearing that infuriating “What, me worry?” half smile.
“I think,” I said, “it's time for an explanation.”

The old man nodded simply, and sat down indian-style on the linoleum. He motioned for me to join him, and I did, sitting across from him. The others sat too, and Colleen scooted from the back corner of the room, still fiercely clutching Finnegan. We formed a small circle, a band of six survivors, so far, of this madness. Clearing his throat, Sage began to speak.

“Of all the men and women who are part of this project, I'm the oldest. I've been living down here since I was born in 1947. I was part of the original experiment, at least that's what I've been able to gather. I don't remember any adults living here as part of the project I mean, not when I was a kid. There were fifteen of us then, and we lived here from the moment of our births, and for at least fourteen of us, until our deaths.” He looked significantly at the besieged door, and added, “and probably the fifteenth as well. Most of the others here are our offspring, our children if you can call them that, although we were never really their parents. None of us ever had any family other than good old Uncle Sam, and he sent his finest to do the dirty work, changing diapers every three hours like clockwork, and feeding and bathing us on a tidy schedule. I never found out if the project had a name, they didn't really talk to us about what was going on, but they talked about us, and around us enough to know that I was part of the alpha group, and I know enough of my greek alphabet to assume then that I was part of that first wave. You are sitting right now in what I think may be the largest underground city the world has ever constructed. I've been exploring it, mapping it really, in detail now for the better part of twenty years, and I still find a new passage every few months. This place is big, bigger than you can possibly imagine, and as far as I know, we're the only humans left. Make no mistake though, we're not alone.” He looked again at the door, “and I don't just mean them. You see, after World War II, Uncle Sam got it into his head that he needed test subjects, human test subjects, and lots of them. They weren't trying to build perfect soldiers or any of that crap, they just needed plenty of human material that they could experiment on, test new drugs, new gases, new viruses, new weapons, and sometimes all of these at once. That's where we came in. We were grown here you see. You've heard of test tube babies? Well we're the next logical step, only taken by Uncle Sam long before the private sector ever even dreamt of fertilizing the egg out of the womb. We are quite literally the product and property of the United States government, born as children of cold war hysteria and biological advances as questionable as any drummed up by the Fuhrer himself. Mostly, they weren't trying to grow full people, only parts that could be independently tested, experimented on, fucked with. A lung here to test the oxygen absorption rates of poisonous gases, an eye there to set maximum levels of radioactive exposure against soft tissue. We, the people, so to speak, were walking petri dishes, and nothing more. One by one, those that I knew, I guess you could call them my family, fell victim to an experiment that went too far, but not until enough of them was harvested for the next generation of human guinea pigs to be cloned. It was only a matter of time then until I met my own fate, called from my cell and led to my medically approved death. I was saved by the very thing that emptied this facility, by the accident.”

Sage trailed off, looking off into a past I could not imagine. Just as he opened his mouth to speak, Colleen interrupted, the anger and fear in her voice cutting through the room, “I don't really think we have time for this right now. Does anyone know how the hell we're gonna get out of here, cuz I'm not sitting in this room with my baby waiting to die.”

Sage's eyes snapped back into gentle focus, “I think I know a way.”

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