The agony was magnificent in its measure, killing her with an intensity beyond any she'd ever known. The burning children clung to her, starved for release, and as they touched her, touched their siblings, they passed their pain on in a wave that would not cease. It went on and on until parts of the collective gathered and fell away, dying, melting, her children sacrificing themselves so that she might live. Slowly, slowly, the agony receded, trained away from the physical, became the suffering of loss, of infinite sorrow.

As the injured pulled away, left her enveloping arms to die alone, the rest of the children came forward, singing, crooning to her, easing her torment as best they could. They engulfed her, soothed her with their liquid kisses--and by their sheer numbers, they overtook her. It only took a moment. The queen lost her identity as Marcus had lost his, giving over to the hive, becoming more. Becoming all.


The allness of the new creature was whole and healthy, a giant, different than before. Stronger. It heard mechanical sounds nearby. It reached inside itself, accessed the mind for information, understood--the murderers were trying to flee.

They would not escape. The hive gathered itself on a thousand supple limbs and went after them.

Neither of them wanted to think about running into any further trouble, but they had to assume the worst. Rebecca checked the handguns while Billy loaded the shotgun, the two of them calling out the dismal numbers--fifteen nine-millimeter rounds left, all total. Four shotgun shells. Two Magnum rounds.

"We probably won't need them anyway," Rebecca said hopefully, staring up at the growing circle of light. The elevator was slow but steady; they were already halfway to the surface, would be there in just another minute or two.

Billy nodded, holding his left side with one dirty hand. "Think that bitch cracked one of my ribs," he said, but smiled a little, also looking up at the light.

Rebecca stepped toward him, concerned, reaching out to touch his side--but before she could, an alarm started to blare down the shaft. Each door they slipped past now had a red light flashing over it, casting crimson splotches of color over the rising platform.

"What--" Billy started, but was interrupted by the calm, feminine voice of a recorded loop.

"The self-destruct system has been activated. All personnel must evacuate immediately. Repeat. The self-destruct system--"

"Activated by who?" Rebecca asked. Billy shushed her, holding up one hand, listening.

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"... immediately. Sequence will commence in--ten minutes." The lights kept flashing, the siren blatting, but the voice stopped. Billy and Rebecca exchanged a worried look, but there wasn't much they could do . . . And they'd be long gone in ten minutes, God willing.

"Maybe the queen--" Rebecca said, not finishing the thought. It seemed unlikely, but she couldn't think of how else the system might have been triggered.

"Could be," Billy said, though he looked doubtful. "Anyway, we'll be out of here before it happens."

She nodded--and they heard the crash below, the thundering, squealing rip of metal, of incredible ruin at the base of the elevator shaft.

They both looked down, found spaces in the plat-form's partial grid flooring, saw what was coming. It was the queen--only not the queen. This was much, much bigger, and a hell of a lot faster, a giant dark mass pulling itself after them.

Rebecca looked up, saw how close they were. Just one more minute and we'11 be out--

She looked down again, her breath catching as she saw how close it already was. She had the image of a crashing wave, black and alive, opening up as it sped toward them, revealing more blackness inside--

"Oh, shit," Billy said--

--and the platform upended, broke through a wall, pitching both of them off.

Rebecca landed on her side, hard, immediately got to her feet, still holding on to the shotgun. Billy was getting off the floor a few meters away, concrete, painted yellow lines radiating out from beneath his feet--

Helipad. Underground helipad.

They were in a vast room, no helicopter in sight but plenty of random mechanical equipment strewn about, the small islands of metal only emphasizing the room's spaciousness. What little light there was came from a few stray shafts of sunlight coming down from the motile ceiling--which meant they were only a single floor from the surface. It took Rebecca the space of a heartbeat to see where they were, a second beat to locate the queen. What the queen had become.

It was crawling out of the ragged hole in the wall where the elevator platform had come through, flopping masses of tentacles over the broken pieces of metal and stone. It was like some crazy optical illusion, watching as it pulled itself from the shaft, its colossal form just coming and coming. The thing that finally expelled itself onto the concrete floor was as big as a moving van, long and low and seething with twisted vines of leech matter.

Rebecca could only stare--and was nearly jerked off her feet when Billy grabbed her arm, pulling her away.

"There's a staircase over there!" He motioned vaguely at an exit sign across the room, what seemed an incredible distance away--

--and as if it could hear them, could understand, the queen monster moved, heaved its great bulk across the floor with surprising speed, heading off their escape route. It half turned back toward them, tentacles whipping about its shapeless head, a thick puddle of blackish goo spilling out from beneath its hideous frame, and started to rear up--

--and then squealed, pitching back and forth, a high, hissing noise erupting from its squalid body. Smoke actually started to rise from its back, from where--Sunlight. A shaft of sunlight, thin but bright, lay across the beast's back. The creature sidled to one side, moving out of the light, and started for them again.

Billy grabbed her again, pulled her back. The self-destruct alarm continued to bleat, echoing through the helipad--and the female voice calmly informed them that they now had eight minutes before the sequence would commence.

"It can't handle sunlight!" she shouted, as she and Billy both turned, started to run. They headed for the room's northwest corner, the farthest from the monster as it humped toward them, twining between the stray beams of light. It wasn't as fast as it had been in the elevator shaft, less to push against, but it could almost keep up with them running.

"Any idea how we open the roof?" Billy asked, shooting a look behind them, steering them more north.

"Power's out," she panted. "But there should be manual latches, probably hydraulic. If the roof's on an incline, it'll slide open when we unlock them. We can hope."

"Do it," Billy said, visibly winded. "I'll try and keep her distracted."

Rebecca nodded, looking back at the creature. It had fallen behind, but it wasn't flagging, wasn't struggling to catch its breath the way they were.

She headed for a likely looking panel on the nearest wall, as behind her, Billy turned and started to fire the nine-millimeter.

The hive went after them, shedding matter from its back where the light had touched. Its consciousness wasn't entirely animal, nor human, but possessed elements of both. It understood that its home was threatened, that another force would destroy its shelter, soon. It understood that sunlight meant pain, even death. And it understood that the two humans that ran before it were the cause of it all, were the instrument of its imminent destruction.

One of the humans stopped, aimed a weapon, fired. Projectiles pierced its outer flesh, wounding, but did not penetrate to the core. As with the sun burns, the creature shed the injured matter and continued on, gaining quickly now, close enough to smell the human's terror. It lunged forward, knocking him down.


Billy hit the ground as the queen monster jumped at him, one of the waving tentacles lashing his feet out from under him. He tried to roll away but it had his right ankle in a firm grip. Cursing, Billy pushed himself closer to the mass of the creature, brought his other heel down on the bunched tentacle as hard as he could, and again. The appendage retracted, the monster thrashing away from him.

Billy sprang to his feet, spotted Rebecca at the west wall, messing with a control panel. He turned east and ran, looking back to make sure the thing was on his trail. "Sequence will commence in--seven minutes."

Lovely. It never rained but it goddamn poured. Billy ran faster, pushing himself, the monster trailing too close for comfort.

When he'd gotten far enough to risk it, he turned, saw Rebecca at another control panel across the room. The monster lunged for him but was too far away to reach, its outstretched limbs still a meter away. Billy got off a shot into what seemed to be its face, then turned and ran again, stumbling on rubbery legs. The thing came after him, seemingly inexhaustible.

Come on, Rebecca, he pleaded silently, forcing himself to go faster.

Rebecca reached the fourth and final latch as the recorded loop told them that they had six minutes left. She grabbed the small wheel that served as the manual key, twisted--

--and it was stuck. Not entirely, but it took all her strength to manage just a half turn. She strained, felt her muscles scream for leniency as she got another half turn, almost there--"Rebecca, move!"

She shot a look back, saw that somehow, the queen monster had gotten close, too close; it would be on her in thirty seconds--but she couldn't, wouldn't run, knew that they couldn't afford the time it would take to circle around, to try again.

Billy was firing, the sound of the bullets hitting liquid flesh terrifyingly immediate. She didn't even look, knew she'd lose her nerve if she saw how close it actually was.

"Come on!" she screamed, pulling at the obstinate wheel with all she had--

--and it came unstuck, even as a thick, wet limb wrapped around her left ankle, horribly alive with slick, diseased movement--

--and with a heavy squeak of powdering rust, the heavens split wide, raining light over them all.

The light! The light!

The hive screamed as death rained down, first poaching its skin, then boiling it, thousands of individual leeches dying, falling away, the burning worse than fire because it was everywhere, all at once. It tried to escape, to find shelter from the torture, but there was nothing, there was nowhere.

The two humans ran, disappeared through a hole in the wall, but the creature didn't notice, didn't care. It twisted and turned, giant sheaves of flesh scraping away, layers of its body smearing across concrete, exposing the pulsing pink center of itself to the cruel, killing light, the disinfectant light of day.

By the time the building exploded a few minutes later, there was hardly anything left of it--only a handful of straggling leeches, confused, drowning in the lake of death that had once been their father, had once been James Marcus.

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