After Stan had survived his hike up 16 flights of steps, managed to avoid being shot in the face, and expertly ditched the would-be heroes while keeping his cover intact–he couldn’t believe Rick handed him one of his own guns back–he thought that opening a locked door to subdue a scared little girl and claim their riches would be a piece of cake. Instead, he found more signs of trouble almost instantly.
Why can’t anything ever just go easy, he thought to himself with a grunt. Opening the outer door that led from the chemistry lab’s offices into the little vestibule outside the lab itself, Stan found Malanan attempting to calm Strong, who was throwing himself violently at the door. Together, they restrained the man even if they couldn’t exactly pacify him.
“Do you see her face? She’s laughing at us!” Strong shouted, spittle flying from his mouth like a rabid dog.
“What’s his deal?” Stan asked, keeping one hand on Strong’s shoulder to restrain him while he fished the keycard out of his pocket with the other. Malanan held his second-in-command back with both hands.
“She doped him up with something. When I found him, he was just slumped in the corner, but then he started freaking out, seeing things, hearing things.” Malanan nodded toward the rectangular glass window cut into the door that led into the lab. There were signs taped across it. “That set him off for some reason.”
Strong’s body went slack beneath their hands and for a second they thought he was going to collapse. Malanan held him upright by grabbing the front of his vest. Strong shook his head once and locked his knees beneath him. “I’m alright,” he muttered. “M’alright.”
Stan doubted that. He doubted it very much. The only upside was that Strong was now as much a danger to himself and Malanan as he was to Ol’ Stan, so maybe the odds had been evened out a little.
Nothing’s ever easy.
Before unlocking the lab door, Stan studied the placards that were blocking their view through the window. They were both electric yellow with neon orange and fire engine-red icons. One showed an inverted triangle with a bold exclamation point stuck smack in the middle; the other showed a little penguin that would have been cute under any other circumstances. Stan wondered if it was the penguin that had set Strong off or if it had been a final sighting of that little bitch before she disappeared into the lab behind her stupid signs.
She’s up to something. “Be careful in there,” Stan warned. His fears were confirmed a moment later when the intercom on the control panel next to the door addressed them directly.
“Hey guys!” Kacie said, cheerfully. “I found what you were looking for; too bad I’ve hidden the drugs all over the lab. You might find them, you might not, but be careful! The whole place is rigged with booby traps. Good luck!”
Little bitch. Stan waved his keycard over the reader. A beep and a little green light signaled the all-clear. Malanan reached for the door handle. It turned, and the door opened, but when he tried to take his hand off the handle, he found that it was stuck fast, frozen to the metal. It was only then that the bone-chilling cold registered in Malanan’s mind. His reaction was to tear his hand free. He left behind a thin layer of skin that ripped his very fingerprints and palm lines away. A thin hiss of pain escaped him as he tucked his flash-frozen hand against his side to warm it up. He used his elbow to lever the door the rest of the way open, stepped through the doorway, and promptly fell on his ass.
Malanan hit the hallway tile with a grunt. He tried to stand again but found that all he could do was a comical sort of slip and slide motion. Every time he put his hands down, injured or not, they sank into the freezing cold depths of liquid nitrogen that was spraying onto the floor from a trio of brass-colored nozzles snaking out of the wall. He pulled his hands back to safety only to have his feet go out from under him. To make matters worse, his breathing started to grow shallow in the thickening, noxious fog.
It was Stan who pulled Malanan upright again. It was Stan who had the wherewithal to cover his hand with his shirtsleeve and turn the liquid nitrogen nozzles off. He shouldered the door back hard enough to dislodge one of the nozzles from its perch wrapped around the door handle. The nozzles clanged against the ground and came to a sputtering stop as the fog cleared and the frost evaporated.
“When I said ‘be careful,’ I meant it.” Stan took a confident step forward and the others followed.
Malanan attempted to regain some sense of leadership. “Let’s split up and find the drugs.”
Strong added, “But if you find that little bitch, make sure to save her for me.” If the former soldier and current mercenary didn’t have enough reasons to be angry with Kacie Lin, he was about to get one more. The very next lab in the vicinity of Harry Strong had another placard on it; this one featured a bright red-and-orange lightning bolt. Strong, heedless of the warning, grabbed the door handle and got the shock of his life.
Electric current thrummed up his arm. It vibrated his bones like a jackhammer. It took Strong what felt like an eternity, but was really only a second, to wrench his hand free from the electrified handle. He shook his arm violently, trying to force the feeling back into it and make his muscles obey his mental commands once more. This time, he used the rubberized sole of his boot to turn the handle and pull the door open towards him. A length of electrical cord came with it. It was spliced and stripped, the bare electrical wire wrapped around the door handle itself. Strong threw the door open wide as far as it would go. Some piece of equipment he couldn’t name came tumbling to the floor and broke apart on impact. And waiting for him inside the lab was Kacie Lin.
Strong rushed at her. She never moved. But somehow she disappeared before Strong could close his fingers around her throat. She didn’t dodge him, she just vanished, like smoke, like a dream. In her place was a cardboard box with a McClean’s sticker on it. That pacified Strong somewhat as he attempted to shake the previous hallucination out of his head. But tearing open the lid, he found only an empty box. A decoy. A trick. Wasn’t that cute?
“They’re fakes,” Strong shouted, heading back into the hallway and hoping the others understood him. “The boxes, they’re decoys.”
The answer from Malanan came back as he rejoined Strong with Stan. “Gotta check ‘em all anyway.”
A series of loud bangs and the sound of breaking glass issued from a lab a little further down the hall. Brilliant flashes of light flared inside of it; blues, reds, greens, and a white bright enough to blind the trio of men standing there watching the too-close fireworks display. When the show was over and the smoke cleared, the three of them cautiously opened the door, which had a placard that featured a small sphere of some material that was clearly on fire. Their investigation led them to another empty biohazard box with the little cartoon man in overalls on it.
“She’s playing with us, wasting our time,” Stan said.
Strong pulled his gun. “I’m done playing.”
“Stay calm. Without her, we don’t have the drugs. We still have some time,” Malanan assured, still cradling his injured hand. They heard a metallic bang from the hallway behind them. “Let’s keep searching.”
Further down the hall, Stan faced a door with a sign that was familiar to anyone over the age of three. The skull and crossbones leered at him, testing him, teasing him. He paused. He considered the traps and the mind of the person who had set them. They weren’t lethal, not intentionally. This little bitch was crafty, he’d give her that, and a pain in the ass to boot, but he didn’t think her a killer. She’d left Mulgrew alive, and Wesley West was presumably alive somewhere as well, Michael, too. No, Stan convinced himself, this would be a feint like the rest.
He opened the door upon a room filled with fog that reeked like death. Stan wondered if he’d guessed wrong. He held his breath and waded into the foggy lab, searching for one of the boxes, or anything large enough to conceal the quantity of meth they were looking for. He found a biohazard box near a safety shower that was pouring water into a bucket; this seemed to be the source of the odor of decay. A simple nudge of the box told him that it was empty. The skunky scent of the room was starting to make his eyes water and his throat itch. He didn’t know if these were signs of some dreadful toxin or not, so he got the hell out of there.
While Stan wiped his eyes and coughed the toxin out of his lungs, the stench of rot wafting into the hallway with him, Malanan appraised a lab door decorated with a sign featuring a not-so-reassuring symbol of a blazing fire. He favored his injured hand, the one that had been nearly flash-frozen, and thought that flash-frying the other one would bring a sick sort of poetic irony to his situation, but he preferred to stay as whole as possible. Without even touching the handle of the door, Malanan peeked through every available square inch of window from every possible angle. He saw nothing. At least, nothing indicating what trap was waiting for him on the other side. But as there was no sight of the drugs either, he had to chance it.
He touched the door handle gingerly, leaving his fingertips in contact with it just long enough for his nervous system to sense whether or not it had been superheated to a skin-melting temperature. It was perfectly cool to the touch. He risked a full turn of the handle but stayed back behind the relative safety of the door itself. A jet of flame filled the window as soon as he’d turned the handle 90 degrees. It was hot enough for Malanan to feel through the metal. He let go of the handle. The flame continued, as if a dragon waited on the other side and preferred its meal well-done. Risking another look, Malanan peered through the fire-blasted glass that was steadily charring but clearer for the moment, now that the placard had been partially burned away.
He saw the source of the flame (a lit bunsen burner), the source of its strength (a benchtop gas nozzle pumping fuel into the fire), and the mechanism of activation (a length of tubing connecting the door handle to the gas nozzle’s own handle. Once turned, it would stay on until either the gas supply ran out–which would take days if not weeks–or someone shut it off manually. Malanan was losing patience. He chose a new tactic.
He ripped the door backwards as violently as he could. The ball of fire flared into the hallway for a moment and then belched out of existence altogether. It’s vanishing curls were accompanied by the clanging crash of metal as the bunsen burner smashed apart on the lab floor. It had been sent there by the whipping coil of tubing that sprang free from Malanan’s savage entry; it’s flame was extinguished. The flowing gas, however, had only briefly been interrupted … it was still filling the room with propane.
Malanan paid it no mind. He stepped over the detritus of the little booby trap that had been set to roast the eyebrows right off his face and did a circuit around the room. Another biohazard box; another empty decoy and waste of time. He left the flammable room behind to reconvene with Stan. The guard was standing in the middle of the hall and eying the liquid nitrogen tank nozzles near the door they’d come in from, as if looking for a clue.
Further up the corridor, standing in front of a door that was closer to the vast shared lab space, was Harry Strong. He was staring at the placard on the door’s window. What it showed was an object that was once whole but had been exploded from the inside out in an apparently violent fashion. What Strong saw, however, was Kacie.
She was in the lab, just on the other side of the door, busy trying to hide the last stash of drugs from them. Too bad for her that Strong had finally caught her in her game.
“Game over, girly,” he mumbled. He cocked his gun clumsily, his well-practiced hands suddenly struggling to obey even the simplest commands. They reached out for the door handle well enough. Strong heard just the barest beginning of a shout from Stan. It could have been a warning, it could have been a kindly greeting; Strong didn’t care. He only had eyes–and thoughts–for Kacie at that moment.
He gripped the door handle. His hands were sturdy enough now. The handle turned in his grasp. He heard the slightest metallic click before his world filled with light and fire.
Strong experienced the next few slow, drawn-out milliseconds as a beautiful oil painting seemed to flare to life before his eyes. Flames of an inconceivable range of colors roared at him, kissed his limbs, tickled the back of his neck. They spilled around the outside edges of the door, the door which seemed to be coming with him as he floated backwards away from the fire. Before he slammed into the wall opposite the exploding lab in a crunching collision that would turn all visions to blackness, Strong saw the flames roll and curl their way along the ceiling of the lab, the hallway, and beyond, like insatiable, creeping vines.
All the glass–the labs’ inner windows, the facility’s outer windows, and every beaker, test tube, and flask within the blast radius–was reduced to a glittering spray of jagged edges and sparkling dust motes. The sound of it may have deafened him, but Harry Strong was too far along the road to unconsciousness to know the difference. The last thought that he had before darkness took him was, “At least I got that bitch.”