The heavy metal door creaked open very slightly, just enough. Through the thin opening careened a shining black cylinder that glinted for just a moment in the fluorescent lights before erupting into a blinding starlight. The bright explosion overpowered the weak white light of the flickering tubes, casting straight-edge shadows across the walls of every cubicle and against the sheer walls of the cement-encased room. For an unseen moment the environment was painted in black and white.
The loud crack of the explosive echoed off the mortar walls, bouncing between them for seconds after. Immediately as the last remnant of the noise faded away and the grenade thudded to the floor, Alice Team stormed the office.
The four masked and darkened invaders filed into the room in an instant, armed and ready. All at once they cried in pain as their headsets screamed into their ears, deafening feedback screeching in protest to their arrival. With no time to waste, the team ripped the speakers from their ears and tossed them aside. From the ground the headsets continued to scream, the sound only growing louder.
"Search and clear!" yelled Rosa, struggling to pull deep breaths through the filter of his gas mask. The team fanned out and filed through the aisles and aisles of cubicles, stuffing their rifles toward every corner and frantically scanning under every desk. The red beams of their lasers swept wildly through the dusty room. Too many hiding spots and not enough eyes, thought Rosa as he ducked past another corner.
Quickly, the team reached the opposite end of the room, meeting each other with their backs against one of the drab grey walls.
"Clear!" shouted Fletcher, and the others echoed. Lin kneeled down and dug through his bag while the other three kept their rifles up and scanned the room.
The workplace was dreary and sad, full of nothing but rows and rows of chest-high cubicle walls patched with grey fabric and framed with black metal. The cement walls of the room were patched and plastered over with white in places, the only interruptions in the ashen pattern aside from three black metal doors. One of these had just been kicked in by Alice Squad and rested crooked, held up by only one of its hinges.
Campbell recognized the office from the video clip they'd seen in their briefing. Every monitor had been smashed in. Every phone was disconnected and most were shattered against the floor. Every computer was missing a side panel, the parts inside stirred about and destroyed. It was consistent, systematic chaos. Certain pieces stood out by the bloodstains on their edges. Keyboards, phones, and paperweights were scattered between cubicles and occasionally crusted with dried blood. Some of these sat drowning in coagulated pools of it.
He looked to the fractured plastic posts which marked the places that security cameras had been torn from the walls. Buried snug in a corner was the speaker of a PA system that'd been punched in. The scraps of electronics sparked occasionally, raining yellow stars onto the carpet beneath.
"CO2 is normal," mumbled Lin beneath his mask. He held a small yellow box with an LCD display that flipped through various numbers as he clicked a button. "Monoxide is normal. No ammonia, phosphorus, asbestos. The air seems fine."
"What about some kind of pathogen?" Rosa questioned, remaining suspicious. Lin shook his head.
"We can't rule it out."
"Right. Masks stay on," ordered Rosa. He winced, biting his lip as he noticed a sharp ringing in his ears left over from the detonation. He could hear the others breathing heavily through their masks, an unnerving and uncomfortable noise.
"What the hell happened to our headsets?" asked Campbell, out of breath and sounding panicked. Even still the crew could hear the speakers shrieking from the floor across the room.
"Some kind of feedback loop," said Lin. "But I don't hear anything that would cause that."
"Was it the flashbang?" Rosa continued. The thought of losing communications altogether was a grave worry.
"No, we waited out the echoes. Do you guys hear any kind of noise? Anything at all that could ruin our mics like that?" Everyone shook their heads. Rosa stretched his jaw, still trying to fight the ringing in his ears.
The team's breather was cut short by a loud and garbled robotic voice booming from behind the nearest door, just to their right.
"All per… nel plea… shift at… time."
"What the fuck!?" Campbell shouted and whirled toward the door with his rifle at the ready. "What was that!?" He was pushed into a blind panic. His vision was already faded at the edges by his gas mask, a vignette border that seemed to close in by the second.
"Calm down." Fletcher muttered. "Look." He pointed toward the shattered speaker in the upper corner of the room. "There's a PA system. That was probably just some kind of scheduled message." He patted Campbell on the shoulder, shaking him a bit. "What did I say about being so yellow?"
Another muffled voice exclaimed, this one from the door adjacent to their left. This one was whole and real, and human.
Every member of Alice Team raised their rifles toward the door. Hearts were beating hard, and breaths were shallow and loud. Campbell especially was gasping for air through his mask, drawing quick and raspy gulps through the filters.
Together the team moved toward the door, their heavy boots thudding loudly on the carpet and breaking the occasional chip of glass or scrap of plastic. Every noise put the crew more and more on edge. Any element of surprise would be lost in this mess of noisy litter.
Finally, the squad reached the door and flanked either side of it. Campbell stood to the left, opposite the handle. The other three formed a single file line to the right, backs against the wall. Rosa nodded and Campbell reached for the handle. He pushed the flat handle down slowly, finally bottoming out with a soft click. The door opened inward. He nodded to Rosa, who counted down on his fingers.
3… 2… 1…
With a loud smash, Rosa kicked the door wide open, the handle burying itself deep into the weak plaster on the other side.
"On the ground, on the ground!" Four voices overlapped, a rebel yell as the armor-clad soldiers piled into the room.
Blood painted the carpet of the break room, pooling beneath the two corpses who lay sprawled and mangled on the floor, open gashes reducing their lab coats to ribbons. Tables and chairs were thrown against the bloodstained walls, and the room was littered with empty chip bags and shattered glass. Huddled in the far corner next to a shattered vending machine, shivering and terrified, was a janitor. In his fingers he carefully held a shard of glass, weakly brandishing it at the four of them.
"Drop the weapon!" commanded Rosa. The man complied, tossing the piece of glass to the floor and putting his hands in the air. "Get on your feet and put your hands behind your back."
The worker complied, standing to come eye-to-eye with the masked faces of Alice Team. He was pale and ragged, and his nose bled slowly. His right eye was blackened and bruised with a matching cut on his cheekbone just underneath.
"Watchdog, we have-" Lin spoke to nobody, a mere reflex. He cleared his throat, fighting to keep his voice strong and authoritative. "Identify yourself."
"R-Randy Garfield," he stammered in a scared, high-pitched voice. "S-sanitation, I guess. Who are you guys?"
The team gave no response, instead surveying the room itself. Lin kept his rifle trained on the stranger. Fletcher and Campbell each kneeled next to a corpse, stirring through pockets in search of anything useful. Rosa was looking around the walls. He wiped his fingers through a bloodstain, surprised when it smeared along the cement and came away wet on his glove.
"This is new," he muttered, turning to Randy. "When did this all happen?" Randy began to shiver again, taking a moment to catch his breath.
"Maybe… Maybe fifteen minutes. I don't know." He shuddered hard, shaking his head. "There's no time down here."
"Did you kill them?" asked Rosa. His voice was soft and understanding, not sharp with accusation. Given the circumstances of their first encounter, his first assumption was that the two were killed in self defense.
Randy paused for a moment before nodding. "But, but they attacked me! They… they… they had knives and…"
Fletcher spoke up from next to one of the bodies, turning a long pocket knife over in his hand. "He's not lying."
Rosa let out a long breath, fogging up the inside lenses of his gas mask. A pounding headache had developed since they entered the bunker, and trying to make sense of things was only aggravating the pain.
"So they attacked you. And you killed them both by yourself with nothing but broken glass?"
"No! I had… help." He slowly lowered his hands, rolling his shoulders. "Chris and I were holed up in here and they came at us." He nodded toward a corpse. "I punched that guy, but Chris… Chris went crazy."
Randy's eyes lit up and widened from a revelation. "You guys came from outside, right? Did Chris make it out? Did you see him?"
The members of Alice Team shared a telling glance. Campbell, stood a distance back, only shook his head. "Oh." Randy's spirits sank, his voice lowered. "Okay."
"Listen, Garfield." Fletcher was on his feet, his hands resting on the rifle slung across his chest. "We need to know what's going on here. Why are all these people killing each other? Why did they attack you?"
"I have no idea!" the janitor shouted. "I was up here in the offices, and suddenly some techs burst in from the lab downstairs, yelling about… something. I didn't understand it." He peered through the open door behind them, recounting everything that had happened beneath the flickering white lights. "They started ripping cameras down, breaking speakers, smashing computers. If someone tried to stop them they would… They'd just kill them! People everywhere were arguing, and then everyone in the offices just started fighting each other! It was chaos, an absolute brawl. Chris came up the stairs from the labs and told me just to run, so we came in here. It must have been… hours. Maybe even a day, I don't know." He gestured at the empty bags of chips and plastic water bottles scattered around the room. "We were safe for the longest time. Nobody thought to check here. I'm not convinced they were thinking at all."
"But then these guys wandered in." Randy pointed at one of the bodies. "They were exhausted, barely able to fight. And when he saw them, Chris just lost it. He snatched a piece of glass and, tore them up."
The members of Alice Team looked between each other, absolutely bewildered. Different solutions, opinions, and causes swirled through each soldier's head as they mentally scoured their training and studies for any kind of explanation. There was nothing; this was unprecedented.
"He stabbed that one after he was dead," Randy said, looking at the more mangled of the two corpses. "I… I took him out." His eyes were fixed and wide, bloodshot. His healed eye was lined in a dark and tired circle to match the fresh shiner on the other. "He said he had to make sure. But I was sure. I just kept hitting, and hitting." It was apparent now that Randy's knuckles were bloody and scratched. "He stopped moving after a while, but I kept hitting him. I was just so, so angry that he had found us, that he was trying to kill us." Garfield looked back to Rosa and Fletcher in front of him, his eyes welling with tears.
"I killed someone."
Campbell had picked up a chair and turned it upright, and welcomed Randy to take a seat. "You need to rest. We can give you a bit of water and try to get you out of here."
Randy nodded. He was choked up and fighting sobs as he took a seat on the chair. He took a long swig from Campbell's canteen and let the medic perform some basic triage. Campbell checked Randy's pulse, his pupils; his temperature was off the charts. In the middle of a close examination of Randy's' broken cheekbone, the sound of a door opening brought the room to a silent halt. Out in the large office, two sets of footsteps staggered through the room and toward the break room where the squad had taken refuge. Rosa sprinted the lengthy ten feet of the break room and slammed the metal door shut. He Took a chair and jammed it underneath the handle, propping the door closed.
"Who else is here?" He whispered, but he was unsure why. There wasn't a chance in Hell that they were in any way undetected.
Randy shook his head. "I don't know. Techs? More desk jockeys? It could be anyone." He stared at the door with wide eyes, terrified. "If they get in here… I can't kill again. Don't make me do it."
"Nobody is going to make you-"
From outside came the static screeching of the PA system's speaker, louder this time.
"All per… nel plea… shift at… time."
With the final syllable of the stuttered announcement came an earth-shaking smash against the outside of the door to the break room. It was followed by another, then another, and another.
Bloodied hands beat against the black metal of the door in symphony. The door rattled like a drum, the chair beneath it squealing in protest to the outside forces trying to push it free. Rosa did his best to keep it shut while the rest of his force kept their rifles aimed past him at the portal.
Randy was inconsolable. "They're gonna get in here and I'm gonna have to kill them."
Campbell tried his best. "Randy, we have this handled. If they get in, they'll be handled."
"So let them in."
"Let them… What?" Rosa held strong against the onslaught. He tried to count; two, maybe three pairs of hands were pounding at the other side of the door. If he let the door open, his team could easily wipe them out. He felt sick to his stomach even considering it, but it was an option, a choice. His choice.
The door slid open an inch with a grating screech, and four fingers found their way into the room, much more of their adversary than Rosa had hoped to see. He answered with a swift kick against the door, crushing the hand in the doorframe with a sickening crunch. The man outside screamed in a way no human ever should.
The room was a mess of blood and sweat, of screams and shouting, of heat and breath and rising tempers.
"Just let them in!" yelled Randy. He was on his feet now, and gripping his makeshift weapon tightly. "Let me kill them!"
"What the fuck, Randy!?" Fletcher yelled back. He took his eyes and weapon away from the door and sat the janitor back down with a heavy shove. "Calm down!" he ordered. Instead, Randy lunged at Rosa.
In the movies, gunfights are long, drawn-out ordeals. They are stylized and choreographed, where nobody ever lands a shot unless it's convenient. But in real time, and in a space this small, nobody could miss a shot. All at once Rosa dipped out of the way of Randy's swinging shard of glass. Without his support, the door was allowed to fly open. Two men, both in sanitation uniforms, were permitted entry into the break room. Their eyes were mad, their hands were bloody, and one of them had an absolutely shattered left hand. As Randy charged headlong into his colleagues, wildly swinging, three assault rifles opened fire.
The janitors were reduced to a pulp. Not a single bullet was wasted, and many were hyper-efficient. Sixty bullets and a hundred holes brought down the three wild attackers, who now lay in a heap in the doorway of the break room. Campbell, Fletcher, and Lin were all down on one knee, smoking rifles at their shoulders. Rosa had only had time to right himself, standing from prone with his gun in his hands. By the time he could shoot, the three enraged men were already dead.
"Motherfucker," Fletcher exclaimed. He was breathing hard, a harsh grating sound beneath his gas mask. Lin's face was chiseled, cold and calculated. Campbell sat in stunned shock.
The sounds of their gunshots still echoed down the halls of the bunker when the PA system fired up once again. This time it was blaring; the two sanitation workers had opened the door and allowed the machine to scream straight into the room.
"All… Personnel… Out… Minutes…" It stuttered at an unbearable volume. Fletcher stood from his kneeled position. He stepped over the heap of bodies in his way as he walked out of the break room. He stood alone amongst the catacombs of cubicles in the main office room.
Campbell quickly stood and ran to Fletcher's side. He still had his rifle in his shoulder and he aimed it around every corner he could see, though there were too many to cover. Rosa and Lin lazily followed after until the four of them were stood, shoulder-to-shoulder, staring over the gray labyrinth in front of them. Finally, Lin asked the question on their minds, breaking the uninterrupted ringing in Rosa's ears.
"What the fuck happened here?"
"We're going to find out," Rosa said determinedly. He walked to the open door of the next room and peeked in. What he found was another farm of cubicles, another sad maze of walls and desks and smashed computers. The room was almost a clone of where his team still stood shellshocked.
The stark difference between the two carbon copy rooms was a loudspeaker straight across the way from the doorway where Rosa stood, mounted in the corner. Unlike the others, it still had a small, glowing red light. Looking at the massive speaker reminded Rosa of the awful ringing in his ears and he winced. "Guys," he called to his squad. "I found where those announcements are coming from."
Almost on queue, the PA system blared again. The announcement almost knocked Rosa back out of the room; someone had turned the volume to eleven.
"All… Out… Minutes…" it repeated.
Fletcher shoved his way past Rosa and walked down the length of the adjacent room. He ran his fingers along the cement wall as he paced it, right up until he reached the spot just below the speaker. With two hands, he took his rifle and inverted it, swinging the butt as a club and shattering the speaker into sparking pieces of metal.
"Finally," Fletcher said.
He looked out across this second collection of desks with an obnoxious, proud smile on his face that fell almost instantly. Adorning some of the desks in this room were corpses. Men in suits were lain across their desks with scissors in their necks. They were fallen, beaten and broken, across aisles. Some of them had bloodied knuckles or weapons clutched in their curled fingers, signs of retaliation. But they were all dead.
The others had joined Fletcher with their backs against the wall, looking far across the long rectangular office. "I guess the janitors… Won," said Campbell. "Like that guy said. You hide, or you win."
Rosa leaned against the wall and let himself slide down onto the floor. He ripped off his gas mask and sent it skittering across the concrete. There he sat, his head in his hands, taking it all in.