In the air- Short Story Challenge 18/09/2018

IN THE AIR

 

The Jordan air was hot and stale, but the air around Ann was electric. She was sat in the plane staring out across the desert, her body ran wild with nervous lightning. This was going to be the biggest break-through of her career. So far, anyway. She was so engrossed she barely heard the gruff voice to her left.

“Ann? How are you doing?” The old professor asked. She slowly peeled her gaze back, and met Dr Rosenthal’s pale green eyes. Her eyes adjusted to the interior of the plane, the artificial lighting, the cramped seating, and the proximity of Ian’s tired and lined face, suddenly missing the infinite desert view. She breathed deeply and her hands tightened on the arm rest. She swallowed and tried to put on a brave face.

“I’m fine, Ian.” She tried to stretch a smile over her face, but her heartbeat still raced. She turned back towards the desert and tried to think of their destination. I’ll be fine once we get off of this goddamn plane. The plane itself was small, with only enough space for her crew and the Jordanian accompaniment, but it was too cramped for Ann. To her left sat the brilliant Brit himself, Dr Ian Rosenthal, her long time mentor since she was in college in San Fran, and she was happy to have him alongside her for this breakthrough in archaeological history. Dr Rosenthal had also brought his top student along, much to Ann’s disapproval, the shaggy haired Greg Sullivan, who’s slumbering head rested against the arm of her long time partner Anthony Green. The four of them had travelled all the way to Amman to meet with the escort Dr Rosenthal had arranged, after almost a year of correspondence and negotiating with the Jordanian government. It had been a nightmare, but they finally made it, now journeying into the heart of the unending desert.

The red, rocky landscape looked like the surface of some distant, barren planet, and her imagination went wild with notions of adventure and intrigue, of uncovering some unknown alien artefact, of being chased by a sinister organisation and winning the day. Of course, the reality of archaeology is nothing like that. In reality, her and her team would be sitting at their own piece of earth for several hours for a week until they found a scrap of pottery, then the endless paperwork. By that point, others would have found out about the find and would try moving in for a piece of the glory. She couldn’t let that happen, this was her breakthrough, and no-one else’s.

Three hours after the departed Amman, they began to descend on a small, isolated runway. There were a few small buildings, but everything else was barren as far as the eye could see. The plane landed with a startling jolt, Ann was lifted from her seat and hit her head, adding a dull pain to her already uncomfortable feelings. She glared at Ian, and he smiled sympathetically.

“They say that rougher landings are actually safer than smoother ones..” He chuckled a little. Ann did not. Finally they were out of the plane, and into the blaze of the Jordan sun. The crew behind them rushed to get the equipment and belongings out of the plane. There were six Jordanians on the plane with them, plus the two pilots. As they exited the stairway, they were met by a woman dressed in black with shaded eyes, obviously impervious to the blazing heat. Next to her were two soldiers in light green camo, toting heavy-looking machine guns. Ann looked at them curiously, wondering their purpose, but Ian looked elated, and rushed to embrace the woman.

“Aqilah!” They hugged, and he turned with a huge smile on his weathered face. “Ann! Please, meet Aqilah! A former student of mine.” Ann hesitantly walked over, the heat beating down on her, ad shook the woman’s hand. She had a tight,reluctant smile, and her long black hair danced behind her.

“Nice to meet you, Ann. Ian told me about you.” There was hardly a trace of accent to her English, but her voice remained cordial. Ann, however, had never heard of Aqilah before, Ian had only referred anomalously to his ‘contacts’. He continued to have his delighted smile on his face, forgetting to help the others bring their stuff from the plane. Ann dropped her suitcase, and one of the soldiers, a hulking, bearded man grabbed it wordlessly and took it to one of the buildings. She called after him but he either did not understand or hear. The buildings were shabby, a small flight tower and half a dozen metallic huts. They were shown to their accommodation and Ann gratefully received a cold shower, beginning to feel like herself once more.

That evening, her contingent joined Aqilah for dinner, a delicious meal of flat-breads, hummus, falafel, olives and fruit. Ann wondered how they managed to keep the food so fresh int he middle of the desert. Ian and Aqilah shared some wine, but Ann and Ant declined, opting for water instead. The sun began to descend, and a chill replaced the overbearing heat. After the meal was over and the plates were cleaned, they returned to the table and Aqilah addressed them all, the first time since they arrived.

“You’ll leave tomorrow morning with your group, I have instructed four of my guardsmen to accompany you.” She took a sip of wine. “Just in case.” Ann’s heart pulsed. Ian had spoken about staying with Aqilah at their new base, but Ann whirled in fury, this was as much his discovery as hers. He nodded sadly, and continued to drink.

That night her mind was a haze of broken dreams and paranoid thoughts. All the scenarios that could and might go wrong hung like paintings in her consciousness, but still she woke. The morning heat was palpable by seven, and by eight she was already missing the night time cold. Their group had piled into two jeeps the base had. Aqilah and her military contingent were just as much a mystery to Ann as the dig site at this point, but she could only accept their help and go with it.

The jeeps drove deep into the red sands, the breeze sweeping graciously over Ann’s head. Her hands fidgeted nervously on the journey there. Ant bit at his fingers in anticipation, and Ian grinned recklessly at the open sky, but Greg appeared to be almost falling asleep. She ground her teeth at that. She had been waiting all of her life for such an exciting prospect, years of sitting in labs and offices and dig sites where the most exciting thing they found was a piece of broken pottery, all culminating to this, yet he was here, on his first excavation. He had no idea how lucky he was, but he was apathetic to it all.

The better part of an hour passed when they finally reached a mountainous crevasse. The lifeless rocks sat idle as they had for hundreds of years, and the breeze stalled. Her mouth gaped, and Ian stood in his seat, elated. There it was, the one thing they had been looking for, found with almost pinpoint accuracy. In the smooth surface of the rock, was a gap, that resembled a cross, burned into the earth by either erosion, formation or by ancient hands. Ian hissed with laughter and clasped her shoulder, and his warmth and excitement channelled through her, and she laughed too. Greg shook his head as they brought him back to reality. This was Ian’s discovery, piecing together various maps and ancient writings, but this was only a hypothesis, and now it was brought to life.

They exited the jeeps and brought out their equipment, the excitement was palpable, contagious even, but that was short lived. Inspection on the cross provided no clues as to anyone ever living here, all they had done was prove that the cross was real. So they did all they new how to, they dug.

The sky bled with red streaks as the sun began to depart, and the evening chill began to crawl up their spines. They had dug a square, about five feet into the earth, but all they had found was rocks, and even more rocks. Ann sat next tot he disposed earth, wiping the sweat and dirt off of her face. She felt defeat, the elation passing. They began to pack their equipment up, preparing to head back tot he base, but Ian kept digging, desperately, feverishly, like a man possessed.

“Ian, it’s time to head back.” Ant called out. “We can come back tomorrow.” But Ian barely heard him. He had Greg assist, and together they dug and dug until the sky was consumed by indigo. Ann was prepared to grab him by his shirt and drag him tot he jeep, when she heard the telltale clunk. She stared at him, and he stared at Greg, who had a face of complete surprise as his trowel was submerged int he earth. They dusted the area around the excavation, and found a circular stone, smooth and stained by time. The mood changed, and everyone leapt into the pit, event he guards. A perfect circle, around five foot in circumference had appeared.

“We found it..” Ian whispered.

They returned the next day, no-one having slept fully that night. This time Aqilah accompanied them, and with their hearts in their throats and armed with crowbars, they lifted the circle, to reveal a gaping wound in the earth, a dark hole that reached into the abyss. They dropped a flare into it, and the red light dissipated, consumed by the blackness. They threw ropes down, anchored to the earth, Ant and Greg had volunteered to abseil down first. She watched as they disappeared into the underworld.

They had been gone for almost five minutes, and Ann chewed at her nails, when the roped began to tug. One, two, three. That was the signal, and the other prepared to throw their ropes down too. Ann climbed down, her body trembling as she reached the cold interior. Her headlamp was almost non-existent, the darkness was all consuming, when the red light began to show, and Greg called to her. Her feet came into contact with the rocky ground. The air was stuffy, a cavern sealed away from the world for god knows how long. Greg and Ant had begun setting up lanterns, and they marvelled in disbelief at the chamber. The hole of light was about thirty feet above them, and every sound echoed. There were no plants, animals or bodies of water. Just dust particles floating in the massive cave.

“Whoa..I can’t believe I found this..” Greg laughed. Ann fixed him with dagger-like eyes, but then she laughed too. This was something else. The cavern was huge and empty, they began to hypothesise that maybe it was a grave-site and prepared to dig, but after moving forward, they heard a crunch below. Bones. No need to dig.

“Oh my god..bones..this is a grave site..we need to..” Ann’s voice trailed as her headlight caught something at the far end of the chamber. Greg and Ant began to gather the bones for inspection, carefully wrapping the non-broken ones. Ann was drawn to a large object, walking slowly to avoid the bones, but as she got further, the density of bones grew. Skulls, femurs, ribs, large and small, some possibly child-size, around the pedestal at the end, they almost piled up. But there was something on the top of the pedestal.

Ian sat nervously at the top of the entry point with Aqilah, barely listening to her as she spoke. He was nervous, and desperately envious of their youth. He would have given anything to be with them in there, but he could not manage it. Soon they saw one of the ropes strain, and they went to help hoist it up. It felt heavy, and he could be sure it was not one of the explorers. The object was wrapped in cloth and tied up carefully, and with extra caution they brought it to the surface. Like an excited child at Christmas, he unwrapped the object, his mouth as dry as the land around him. He tried to halt his eagerness and show caution, but his heart beat around his ears and his eyes were wild. Within the cloth was a stone slab, with ancient writings scrawled onto it’s surface.

They didn’t get back until night again, and the camp was electric. They laughed and cheered, declaring Greg the new, albeit accidental, successor to Dr Rosenthal. Even Ann laughed at that, and it was nice to see Greg show some genuine emotion and laugh too. Ian excitedly told them he had contacted an expert on ancient languages in Jordan, Dr Zaid Ahmad, in a small town called Mardou. Ian, Ann, Ant and Greg would leave tomorrow, with the rest of the team carefully excavating the skeletons.

They said their goodbyes and thanks-yous to Aqilah, who would remain here at the camp for now, awaiting their return. They carefully loaded the slab onto the plane, and flew to the city of As-Salt. Ann watched the desert give way to vibrant green mountains, her mind one again distant from where she was.

They landed int he city, and chartered a van to the town of Mardou, sat neat upon a large hill, and Ann felt her ears once again pop. The verdant forests were below them now, and stretched on towards the city from where they came. They met the professor in his large manor house, a stout man in his mid fifties of stiff courtesy. He greeted the contingent and showed them their rooms for the night, but was truly only interested in seeing the stone slab. He and Ian spent all day in the lab, carefully decoding the language as Ian regaled him about their journey to find it.

Ann and Ant took this time to unwind the town, stopping for coffee in a local cafe, but they felt multiple stares at them. Mardou was not know for it’s tourism, and two white people here seemed a suspicious thing. Ant shrugged it off like he always did, but Ann could feel the eyes piercing her back. When the discomfort grew too great, they prepared to leave, but the barista seemed genuinely interested in them, professing to having only seen Americans in films and shows. They told him they were archaeologists, and he knew instantly they were here to see Dr Ahmad. They tipped him heavily, and a smile formed a chasm in his face, and he thanked them profusely.

The evening was cool, and they relaxed at a restaurant, waiting for the two professors to arrive, with Greg already tipsy on wine. They enjoyed casual conversation, for once not speaking about the dig, but the professors were late, and the wine flowed more and more. An hour later, Ian dashed into the restaurant, his bald head permeating with sweat.

“I’m so sorry I’m late.” He hastily sat down and took Greg’s glass of wine, downing it like a man dying of dehydration, and he shivered. His breathign was erratic and he poured himself another one.

“Ian? Is everything alright?” Ann asked, panic suddenly reaching into her soul. Ian nodded slightly.

“Zaid is not joining us, he’s continuing to work on the slab. I was just on the phone to Aqilah, she already made her way to Al-Salt and should be here soon.” He gulped at his glass again but did not drain it. “What we found was…disturbing..” He drank again.

“How so?” Ant asked, clearly bewildered.

“The slab appears to have been carved by the Ammonites..probably pre-BC, we’re pretty sure..but it’s not easy to decipher it exactly. From what Zaid can gather, it seems to tell him that something terrible killed those people you found in the chamber…something that was meant to be sealed away..” The others stared at him aghast. What nonsense, it was only a slab!

“Ian, you can’t really believe that?” She laughed. Ian was a man of science and history, she knew that, but still he looked panicked. Was he really buying into the ghost story? “What is it you think we released?” She asked incredulously. Ian began to answer, but turned his attention to his pocket, where he retrieved his phone that was ringing.

“Excuse me.” He said hastily, running out of the restaurant again. The others sat in silence, only staring right at each other. Greg took his glass back and poured. His face was a sheet written with panic. Ant smiled at Ann, but began to chew his nails again. Ann was transparent with worry. She had never seen Dr Rosenthal like that before. She excused herself to the bathroom, when she heard shouting from outside. She saw Ian gesticulating wildly on the phone, before panickly stashing his phone away and rushing inside he saw her and grabbed her arm.

“Come on, we’re leaving. Now.” His voice was steel.

“Ian? What-please, you’re hurting me..” She tried to free herself but his grip was solid and un-moving. The waiter came over and asked a question in Arabic. Ian didn’t look at him, merely pulling a huge wad of Dinar and throwing it at the waiter, enough money to pay for four or five meals. The man scrambled to get it, while Ant and Greg stormed up to Ian, puzzled and worried.

“Ian? What is going on?” Ant demanded. Ian released Ann’s wrist without looking at him.

“We’re going, come on.” He commanded. The three looked at each other but did not argue, and got into the van Ian had brought with him. They passed through the dark roads before coming towards the large house again, where a hive of activity manifested outside. They got out and saw lights trained on the dark building, and armed police..alot of them. They were greeted by a woman in black wearing a gas mask that hid her features, surrounded by military men wearing the same thing. The voice was of Aqilah’s.

“Ian. Quick, put this on.” She handed him a similar gas mask, and the others were distributed them too. Ann had a thousand thoughts fluttering through her head like leaves in a hurricane, but she did so anyway. Her vision was minimised to the blurry lenses, and her breathing echoed around her head. She thought the sound might drive her mad after only a few minutes, but still she strapped the stuffy mask, and the others did so too. She noticed that many of the police and guards did not have masks on. They stood around the building with looks of boredom and annoyance plain, smoking cigarettes and chatting amongst themselves, but Aqilah’s contingent moved with swift efficiency, setting up a perimeter and distributing gas-masks, but mostly arming themselves. Aqilah turned to Ian;

“Dr Rosenthal, remain here with the younger one. We’ll take the other two from your team inside. Stay near my men, do not speak to anyone.” She said with iron conviction. Ian nodded his masked head. She signalled to Ann and Ant wordlessly and they followed her and her soldiers intot he house. More and more people showed up to see the commotion; news reporters, journalists, neighbours. This was alot of excitement for a small town. They made their way towards the house, where masked police stood with guns. Aqilah exchanged heated words in Arabic, and they stood aside to let them in. Inside the massive house, the hustle and bustle was drowned out. The whole building was eerily silent, with only her breathing, Ann began to sweat, panic creeping up her body like a vine.  They passed the hall and stairway, the armed men checking each corner for something, or anything.

They began the descent to Dr Ahmed’s lab, and the panic began to spike into full-fledged fear. The stairs led into a long corridor, where a door at the end was open. The air was heavy, but through the steamed lenses she began to see shapes at the end, something moving, slowly towards them. They stopped, firearms aimed forward towards it. It was low top the ground, crawling. Ann’s heartbeat roared in her ears. The walls were covered in crimson at the end, with the misshapen mass crawling towards them. She heard one of the soldiers call out towards it in Arabic, and then in English, but still the crawling lump made towards them, before stopping suddenly. Slowly, the soldiers approached it, their guns not moving from ahead of them. The mass was red, with a human-like hand stretched out towards them. It’s back was covered in large contusions and boils, and what appeared to be it’s head was peeling it’s skin. When it sensed the soldiers nearby, it lashed out wildly, trying to grab at them with it’s molten fingers, an unearthly lurch emitted from it’s voice. The soldiers were too far from it’s grasp to be affected, and without a beat, pulled the triggers, releasing bursts of bullets into the mass. The noise roared like thunder, and the muzzle flash lit them up like lightning. It moaned and groaned, and stopped moving. They heard a smash of glass ahead, and moved their weapons towards the open door head, moving in quick synchronisation towards it. Aqilah, Ant and Ann stopped at the mass, and saw it’s face was human, contorted in agony. Ann felt bile at the back of her throat, and lurched witht eh threat fo vomit.

“Do not take off that mask, it’s not safe here.” Aqilah told her quickly, and moved towards the soldiers standing at the door, awaiting orders. Ant held her back, asking if she was okay. She gently pushed him away. What the hell is this thing? She looked at the lumpy creature on the floor, with human features, and wondered if it was truly dead. Ahead of them, Aqilah signalled to the soldiers and they moved in towards the lab, where once again, the dominant colour was red. The lab was dark, only one light remained on, the others appeared to have been broken. They stepped on crunching glass near one of the tables, and on the floor was a body, again swollen and monstrous. It’s throat was three times the size, and the left side of it’s face looked like it was blowing up with tumours. Four bullet holes were in it’s chest with blood dripping to the floor. Ann saw that the right side of the face looked like Zaid’s, his eye closed and mouth bloody.

They checked his vitals, but he was long dead. Ann saw that next to him was a broken shard of rock, which she recognised as the slab. She rushed to it, but it was smashed to a hundred pieces. They heard another groan, and saw another body, this one very much moving. One half of it’s face was swollen again, only leaving his right eye and part of his mouth free. His left hand was outstretched towards them,  twice the size of how it was normally and swollen, it’s finger nails torn and bloody. His legs were also swelling, and much of his flesh had begun to peel, leaving oozing wounds on his arms and neck. His one eye was focused on the figures in gas masks. It was deep, dark and full of sorrow, and Ann recognised it. The barista, from earlier. She thought with resounding fear and a hint of anger. Next to him lay a revolver, discarded and used, and a smashed beaker strewn across the ground. His hand continued to grope towards them, and his mouth tried to utter words, but none came. Wordlessly, Aqilah walked towards the mutated youth, and pulled out a pistol. The bang echoed and illuminated the room, and the hand dropped to the floor.

“We need to get back to the others.” She said, her pistol still in hand. Quickly they turned and made their way back to the house. Ann didn’t say a word, she couldn’t even think. All she kept thinking, over and over again, was something that was meant to be sealed away. Together they hurried towards the entrance, and a cacophony began to swell outside. The huddle masses were moving like a hive, there was shouting, and somewhere a woman screamed. They breached the doors and found chaos, the men were guns were shouting at Ann and her group, and many were on the floor, their faces bleeding from pustules that rapidly began to swell. Ian and Greg were being hustled away by Aqilah’s soldiers, but he broke through to speak to her, but she brushed him off and grabbed the radio from her car and spoke quickly. Ann and Ant watched the masses succumb to some new poison, their bodies swelling and bursting. Nearby they heard gunshots, thunder and lightning.

Aqilah barked orders to her men who moved with haste to their vehicles, and to Ian she finally turned.

“There is a heli-pad at the hospital, my men will pick you up. You all need to leave now. We’ll reconvene back in Al-Salt. Go now.” She turned as quick as wind and got into the car, and her troops rolled out. The others stared aghast, not sure what to do. The chaos swirled aroudn them like a hurricane, people yelling and screaming, men dying and bleeding on the floor. Ann’s legs were glued in place, her body shaking, she did not feel Ant’s hand on her shoulder until he shook her violently.

“Come on, we need to leave, now” He repeated, and he dragged at her shoulder, and slowly her body began to unfreeze, and soon Greg and Ian noticed their hustle and followed. They piled into the van, with Ant at the helm and took off. Soon almost everyone without a mask were on the floor, their bodies mutating into grotesque monstrosities within minutes. She watched from her window as one woman’s hand began to transform into a mass of contusions in front of her, and her wailing  echoed throughout the world.

They reversed out of the carnage, and into the town, and quiet began to consume them once more, Ann’s breathing was fast and erratic, the only sound she could hear.

“Ian, which way to the hospital?” Ant asked, trying to mask the terror in his voice with little success. His eyes were fixed on the empty, dark roads of the town. “Ian!” He repeated, and the old professor shook.

“I have no idea!” He said, anger masking his own fear. They drove into the centre of the town, not a soul to be seen.

“It’s gotta be..” Ant mused and trailed off, oblivious to the headlights screaming towards them. Ann turned to shout, but only a gasp of air escaped her teeth, and a vehicle careened straight for them, buckling the van and turnign their world upside down for what could have been seconds or hours. The van shunted, pushed back by the car that did not break, until they slammed against a buidling, caught between the car and a hard place. Ann’s ears rang with deafening bells, faint ilhouettes of voices, of Ant asking if she was okay. She checked her arms and legs and she said she was, but it may have been a lie. Out of the mirror she watched Greg and Ian lurch out of the car and onto the floor, still in a daze. She helped Ant climb over the seat and exit, clutched his shoulder, wich ran fast with blood.

“Are you okay?” She asked in a panic.

“Yeah, I’m-ah-fine, it’s just my shoulder..” He winced. She grabbed his arm and they moved towards the other car, a mess of blood. She tried to open the door, but it was wedged against the van, and through the broken glass she saw the driver reaching out towards her, with a bloodied, gargantuan hand, that had swollen with tumours. He whispered something in his language, his eyes closed and red, a lump on his forehead oozed. She shrieked and stepped back, Ant grabbed her shoulder.

“It’s spreading. We need to get out of here.” He wheezed, before grunting with pain and dropping to the floor. She called his name, and Greg stood in a daze above them, unsure of what to make of all this.

“Help him!” She screamed, and he obediently grabbed his other arm, still leaking with blood, but Ant spasmed and fell to the floor. The wound on his shoulder began to swell, tiny lumps at first that seemed to inflate as she watched.

“No, no, no, no” Was all she could say, as she watched him writhe in agony, and the lenses of his mask fill with blood. The flesh underneath doubled in size and began to break and peel. “No! Please, Ant, come on!” She said, not understanding what she meant. Ian grabbed her.

“Ann, we have to go, we can’t help him..” He said, almost coldly.

“No!” Her vision began to blur, and she shook, unsure of what to do. Ian grabbed her and hoisted her to her feet.

“Ann, we are leaving!” By now, more people had emerged into the street, screaming and praying to an un-hearing god. Soon they all collapsed, and they all bled. Ian dragged Ann, and Greg gave one last look at Ant as he wriggled in pain, his hands stretched towards them.

“But we-but we can’t just leave him!” He shouted, but the other two were already running, Ann wheezing and sobbing, and Ian with a cold determination. Greg swore and followed suite, not wanting to leave his friend, but not wanting to be left here either. They made towards the next road, and more and more of the dying came out. When they saw the three with their masks, they hissed and cursed in Arabic, moving towards them with crimson hands, trying to peel off their masks. The trio pushed back, and were kicked and punched at by the hideous mob. Ian swore, and reached behind himself to pull a revolver out from his belt and fired into the air, scattering the crowd. They took this chance to dash out past them, when a woman, once beautiful, not a hulking mess of boils, lumps and sores tried to grab at his arm. He moved the weapon to her face, the intent clear.

“No!” Ann screamed, slapping the gun away. It thundered and flashed, the bullet colliding with a shop window behind them. He pushed Ann aside, and the woman fell to the floor, weeping and moaning. He held the gun at her head again, but this time his hands trembled, and he lowered it again.

“Come on!” He bellowed. They ran towards the largest building they could find, and helicopters roared by above them. They stood and watched as one of them landed on the largest building around, a beacon of light pointed towards the sky. Without a word, they ran to it, unsure if it was really their destination. Around them were more car wrecks, fire and blood. A young boy crawled on the floor towards them, his face and arms larger than an adult’s. Ann had half a mind to tell Ian to put the boy out fo his misery, but she could not say the words.

The building turned out to indeed be the hospital, and the florescent lights blinded them. For a short second they thought they might have found a safe-zone, where she could finally take off her nauseating mask, but she found they had only entered the belly of the beast. The building was full, people moved back and forth in a frenzy. A father with a lump the size of a tennis-ball on his forehead pleaded to doctors with a young girl in his arms, who’s weight he could barely carry. They moved past nurses and doctors, moving so quickly they didn’t even notice the three barging their way through. Behind a screen, several nurses tried to hold down a patient who was covered entirely in blood, as most of his skin peeled and decayed. His tumours were everywhere, and he reached a hand up to a nurses throat, stealing the air from her throat, his nail-less fingers dug deep into her neck, and she cried and bled. The other doctors tried to hold him down, but with his other hand he batted them away. He roared in agony. The trio reached the elevator, but when the doors opened, the small room was full of blood and masses on the floor. They reached towards them, and they backed up, too afraid to even emit a noise. The door tried to close, but the hands kept moving towards them.

“Up the stairs.” Ian barked, and turned before the others could say anything. Greg watched, frozen in new terror, Ann having to hoist him away. They climbed the stairs to the second floor, but the stair case ended.

“Fuck! How do we get to the roof?” Ian asked. Ann looked around a pointed.

“At the end of the corridor, there’s another staircase.” And dashed towards it. They moved past numerous rooms, every patient crying and dying. They heard a crash behind them and one of the doors opened, and a red figure stood. Like the man downstairs, this one was covered only in red, devoid of all skin, only muscles and flesh remained. It roared, a terrible, inhuman sound. There were no eyes, no features except it’s terrible, gaping mouth, which dripped thick, black liquid. It roared again, and ran towards them. Ann felt every organ in her body dropped. It’s so fast.  Before she had finished that thought, it had almost caught up to her and the others.

They turned and sprinted as fast as they could towards the staircase, and slammed the door, the terrible thing behind them slammed against it, banging loudly on the door. Ann felt her lungs convulse within herself. Her breathing was short and fast. Ian leaned on the banister, trying desperately to get his wind back. Greg slumped against the wall, murmuring quietly to himself, asking himself what the hell was happening. They heard another howl below them. A mass on the stairs, a woman in a gown, with massive tumours all down her spine howled, and the skin began to rip and tear, leaving only the flesh below. She shed the skin like a snake, and emerged, bloody and terrible. Below, another howl. The three turned and ran up the next flight of stairs, and then to the next. Exhaustion beat down heavily upon them, and their lungs burned. Come on, we’re almost there! Ann pleaded to herself.

They could see the final stretch of stairs, and the door above. Greg got their first, and dragged at the door with all his strength, and the door came free. He stood, almost in disbelief as the helicopter sat with it’s rotors spinning. Ian came next, ready to collapse, and the two ran towards it. Ann was only a second behind them, when she felt the pull on her foot. She tripped and hit the ground hard. What little air was within her had been well and trying exhausted. She felt the vice like grip on her leg, and felt it drag her back towards the stairs. She looked back at the creatures terrible mouth as it reached through the gap under the banister, and it’s teeth connected with her ankle. She creamed in agony, a terrible sound that penetrated Ian through their masks. He looked at Greg, and then at the helicopter and the soldiers in black Aqilah had sent, and then back to Ann.

Ann called his name, her hand stretched out, the creatures teeth still locked around her calf. The lenses were dirty and blurred, but she could still Ian’s eyes through his mask, and she thought he was welling up, the specks of blue looked distant and sad as he closed the door behind himself. She screamed his name again, and kicked back at the creature, and it came lose. With desperate, depleting strength, she crawled, and then stood, limping towards the door, but it would not budge. She banged against the glass as she watched him board the helicopter.

Greg shouted at Ian, but he could not hear it. He looked back at the door, barricaded by a nearby crate, and Ann feebly smashing at the glass. He climbed onto the helicopter with trembling hands, and by the time he looked back, Ann was gone from it, only a smear of blood remained. His head fell into his hands. The soldiers looked by without remorse, and spoke into the radio.

“This is Echo-3, package secured, we’re Oscar Mike.” They were American. The Helicopter lifted into the black sky, and below them the city was moving like an ant hill. There were fires, there were gunshots, but most of all there were the screams. Ian tried to pull away but he couldn’t, he only slumped back against the seat, the exhaustion suddenly too much to even turn his head. They crossed the city in twenty, agonising minutes, when the radio flared back into life requesting their position. The Americans responded in time, before turning to the others.

“Hold on boys, it’s about to get rough.” At this point they could barely process what they were hearing, until a thunderous woosh behind them brought them back, and two black shapes zoomed by, almost invisible in the night. Objects appeared to fall out of them, and when they hit the earth they burst like blooming flowers, the explosions ripping into the sky. Buildings shattered and burst, the fires spread, and soon the city was consumed. The chaos and shouting were replaced with embers and ash.

Ian found himself being woken up, having passed out at some point. One of the pilots was nudging him. Outside, dawn began to creep up on them, the sheet of navy blue was being listed by white fingers.

“Dr Rosenthal, Agent Aqilah on the line for you.” Ian felt disorientated and dizzy, angry to have found out that this wasn’t the dream. He lurched towards the radio and spoke into.

“Aqilah..are you alright?..” He asked, groggily.

“Ian, did you and your team make it out okay?” Ian swallowed and looked at Greg who was sleeping, his mask had dropped from his face but was still attached, although they seemed safe for now.

“I..No, it’s..just me and one other..Gregory..” The remorse was clear in his voice.

“I’m sorry, Ian, but I’m glad you’re safe. Once we get back to Al-Salt I’ll debrief you.” She almost sounded sympathetic. Ian swallowed, his throat was so dry.

“The..the town..is it..is it all gone?” He asked, sounding not like a professor but a child. Aqilah sighed.

“Ian, you saw the pathogen, as I did. If we let that spread, who knows how much worse it could have gotten?” He nodded, forgetting she could not see him. “Listen, get some rest. I’ll write the report on this on. Take some time before you go back to the Organisation.” He breathed hard. He was about done with the wretched Organisation. It was easy to be grateful for the funding before they sent him into the desert to unearth an ancient bio-weapon. Silently he handed the radio back and leant back against his chair. He tried to go to sleep but he could only remember what Zaid had told him they scripture might have said. The rites of man, the punishment of all. When man’s greed exceeds his nerve, let death come to all, and all will pay his price. He found he could not sleep.

 

 

Prompts used: Prophecy/virus/horror

 

 

 

For more on the challenge, click here!

 

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