As the man passed back through the intersection, Abner watched the glow from his lantern overpower the weak light bulb overhead. Moments ago, he’d been mortified as he was forced to listen to the commotion at the other end of the hallway, breaking into a nauseated cold sweat at the thought of what could be happening to Elbert. The lantern light quickly faded away, and a short time later the door at the top of the stairs closed, plunging the basement into eerie silence once again.
What did that son a bitch just do down there? he thought to himself, his fear and guilt turning to anger.
Frustrated, he slammed his shoulder into the large pipe that was trapping his foot. There was a sharp pang of pain, but—to his surprise—the pipe wiggled to the side a little before settling back into place with the sound of crunching dirt. Momentarily dumbfounded, he sat there in the dim light and looked at the pipe. Tentatively, he leaned his shoulder against the rusty metal and rocked back before quickly slamming forward again. Another jolt of pain shot through his arm as a shower of dirt and dust rained down onto his head—but the pipe had moved even more than the first time.
Elbert stayed crouched in his hiding spot for several minutes after the man in the lab coat had left. The apparatus was still on, recording the vital data, and the screen illuminated the room with its pulsing green light. Only a few yards away on the hospital bed, he could hear KM-426’s slow, sedated breathing, and the raspy exhales softly reverberated off the walls around him. On top of the machine, the ink-needle continued to swing back and forth across the paper, scratching with its familiar dutiful enthusiasm.
He’d only gone down into the basement to find Abner, afraid that his friend would get in over his head as he normally did, but now he was the one who needed help. Crawling out from behind the machine, he carefully walked to the middle of the room, watching the sleeping creature for any movement. He needed to find a way out of the room, and ideally before the man returned. At the same time though, he also wanted to learn what was happening at the depot—certain that nobody in town was aware of the late night laboratory.
The tall man in the lab coat had taken most of the papers with him when he’d left, and now only a couple of sheets lay scattered on the tabletop. Picking them up, Elbert held them to the screen’s green light in order to read, but the writing was too feint to make out the words. He briefly considered flipping on the light switch—as the man had done earlier—but the last thing he wanted was to wake the wretched monster on the bed beside him.
Putting the papers back down where he found them, he continued to search the table for clues: a can of lantern fuel, some matches, discarded syringe needles, a couple of half-worn pencils—but nothing surrendered to his curiosity. It’s not here, he thought to himself as he looked around at the cryptic machines, whatever and wherever the answer is, it isn’t here.
Just then, the rhythmic breathing under the bed sheet halted momentarily before resuming again, deeper and more deliberately, as though each breath were a conscious decision. Shit— he thought with dread as the bottom of his gut dropped away. Remembering what the man had said about not responding to the first injection, Elbert suddenly wondered just how long the medicine would continue to last.
Backing away from the table slowly, he could hear the restraining straps begin to groan under tension as each new deep breath stretched them tighter. He didn’t dare to make a sound for fear of drawing attention to himself, watching the bed in mute horror instead as the room again began to fill with the same gagging stench as earlier.
Under the sheet, the breathing began to sound like a low-pitched snarl, growing louder as the fabric sucked against the snout before puffing back out like a ghostly bubble. The needle in the corner began to increase its tempo, pausing less and less at each end as the scratching paper bore testimony to the horrifying reality: KM-426 was waking up.
The metal bedframe creaked loudly as the beast tested the straps, flexing its enormous muscles under the thin sheet. Elbert could feel icy panic creeping up his spine as the snarled breath grew more determined. The smell was almost too much to endure and he pulled his shirt over his nose to staunch the rotten odor. The needle was swinging back and forth wildly as the green line jerked up and down on the monitor in a frenzy.
Elbert hastily searched the room for somewhere to go but his original hiding spot was still the only place that he could find—and he didn’t think it would take the creature long to notice him there. On the bed, the snarling grew louder, and he watched as a large wet spot appeared on the sheet over the freakish head while the enclosed room began to thunder with the noise.
Desperate to do something, Elbert racked his brain for ideas. Suddenly remembering the man’s earlier examination of KM-426, he tried the only thing that would come to his panicked mind:
“Eh… err…,” he began to say, his own voice sounding strangely unfamiliar in the room. “En…, en—entspannen! Yeah—entspannen,” he said in a trembling voice that he prayed sounded as calm as the man’s had been. KM-426 was still growling noisily though, so he repeated the same word a couple of times, louder with each try.
To his surprise, the boisterous growling abruptly stopped, and the sheet laid motionless on the bed. Astonished, he thought to himself, could it really be that simple? Just as he had been about to congratulate himself for his quick thinking under pressure though, the rollers on heavy wooden door suddenly began to squeal.
Shit— he thought as he raced back over to his hiding spot, wiggling feet-first back behind the machine, this nightmare won’t ever end. Wake up, Elbert. Wake up!
He pressed his eyes closed as hard as he could as the door banged to a halt, but he wasn’t dreaming. When he opened them again, he was perplexed to see the green haze still filling the room. Where’s his lantern… he wondered as he waited for the man to enter. Oddly however, there was no movement, and the scratching needle was the only sound in the darkness.
Then, from within the shadows, he heard his name.
“’Bert?” whispered Abner cautiously from the doorway of the room.
Recognizing his friends voice, Elbert let out a loud involuntary sigh of relief. “Oh thank god, Abner!” He quickly crawled out from behind the machine and the two boys spontaneously hugged. “I thought I’d never see you again. How’d you get the door open?” he asked.
“What do you mean? It wasn’t locked. I saw the green light underneath but I wasn’t sure until I heard your voice, ” said Abner. He dropped his eyes, “look, I’m real sorry. You were right, we shouldn’t have come down here. I know this is my fault. I never should have drug you into this mess, and I promise—I’m going to make it up to you one day.”
At first, Elbert didn’t know what to say. He’d never heard a genuine apology from Abner before, and for a moment he wondered just what had happened to him while they’d been separated. An awkward silence hung in the air until he softly cleared his throat.
“I can’t believe I didn’t even try the door,” he said quietly, almost to himself. He knew Abner was sorry, there was no need to make him feel any worse. He looked at his friend’s green-lit face and said, “It doesn’t matter, no one made me follow you down here. Besides, you were right too.” Turning to the side, he swung his arm in a swooping gesture towards the bed, revealing the hulking mound still lying motionless beneath the sheet.
Abner squinted in the darkness as he slowly walked closer, stopping just before the bed. “I heard these all up and down the hall. They were trying to get out—to get to me. What are they?”
Emboldened by the reunion, Elbert wordlessly leaned forward and drew the bedsheet down, exposing the beast’s giant head. Even in the dim light, Abner could see the grotesque features as the onyx-black eyes stared vacantly up at the ceiling. Gasping quietly, his hand involuntarily flew over mouth to stifle a cry.
“I’m not really sure,” said Elbert, tilting his head to the side as he studied the monster. “The man called this one KM-426, but that doesn’t mean anything. I think he’s creating them somehow. He’s trying to make it so he can control them—like, so they obey him.”
On the bed, the creature continued its deep, inhuman breathing, and the air made a low whistling noise as it passed through the cage of pointy teeth. Thick liquid had been slowly oozing out of the ragged ear hole—forming a gelatinous puddle on the mattress below—and the stench of rotten meat grew more and more revolting.
“But why, I wonder,” said Abner, thinking aloud as he studied the beast with a frightened fascination. After a moment, he couldn’t withstand the smell anymore, and he pulled his shirt over his nose.
“I dunno. If it’s the government, I’d say Korea I guess. But this sure as heck ain’t a government lab.” Turning away from the beast, he looked at Abner and said, “that only leaves a few other possibilities, and all of them mean we need to get out of here—and fast.”
Holding his breath, Elbert gingerly drew the bedsheet back over the monster’s head, careful to keep his hands clear of the mouth and its rows of sharp teeth. Then, just as the sheet was about to cover the hideous face, the empty black eyes quickly turned and met his own.
Elbert froze, unsure of what to do next. The monster didn’t make a sound or try to move, and they stayed locked eye-to-eye for what seemed like an eternity. To his surprise though, Elbert didn’t feel the terror that he would normally expect of himself, if any such circumstance could be conceived. Oddly overcome with courage, he stared deeper into the glossy abyss’ just inches away. As he did, he became certain that KM-426 wasn’t looking at him with malice or rage. It was almost a look of…
Pity, he thought to himself, it’s not angry, it’s sad.
“Let’s go,” whispered Abner impatiently from the doorway.
Elbert didn’t immediately turn away, feeling as if the black eyes were trying desperately to communicate something to him. There were no answers to be found in them though, only more questions, so with an almost apologetic look, he slowly finished covering the horrific face with the sheet. “Alright,” he said with a hint of inexplicable sadness, “let’s get out of here.”
Outside in the hallway, Elbert rolled the door shut, choking off the green light until they were once again cloaked in darkness. “Is there any way out of here other than back down that hall?”
“I don’t think so,” answered Abner, slowly shaking his head in the darkness.
“Okay, well then here goes nothing.” Leading the way, Elbert walked back towards the light at the intersection, feeling better with every step that took him away from the monster in the room. He paused just before the turn and listened for the man down the other hall. Not hearing any footsteps, he whispered, “let’s go,” and slipped around the corner with Abner in tow.
Down the main hallway, only an eerie silence emanated from behind the other heavy wood doors. As they crept forward—now cautious of both the tall man and what was penned-up in the little rooms—they tried their best to avoid making any noise. Soon they made it to the midway point and, as the stairs came into view, they began to move faster. When they reached the bottom of the steps, Elbert started to think that they might actually make it out of the basement—then the door up top swung open.
The two boys just froze like a pair of animals caught in the headlights: there at the top of the stairs was not only the tall man—lantern still in hand—but now he’d been joined by two other men as well. The tall man had been saying something as they walked through the doorway but he stopped mid-sentence when they saw the boys. Caught off guard, the trio halted dead in their tracks, staring back down the steps in mutual surprise.
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