The first thing Janet became aware of was something feathery caressing her cheek. She smiled, thinking about how much she loved to lie in bed enjoying Sam's light, teasing touch. Sam had a soldier's hands, covered in scars and calluses and small wounds. But Janet never stopped marveling at how soft they could feel fluttering against her skin, touches so delicate they felt more like the ghost of a caress rather than the real thing, simultaneously evoking a swirl of pleasure and the aching need for something more substantial.
But something was wrong. As awareness slowly and painfully returned, Janet frowned. Her mouth felt thick and dry, and it was as if lead weights were holding her limbs down. With a supreme effort, she managed to lift one hand, brushing feebly at the side of her face. Her fingers made contact with something solid resting a scant centimeter or so from her head.
It took a few seconds of careful probing to figure out what it was, and when she did, Janet pulled away, snatching her hand back as if it had been burned.
It was a humanoid skull. A few tufts of hair clinging to mummified skin had been brushing against her cheek. Pushing herself up on one hand, Janet turned away quickly and sat up.
Bad idea, she realized, quickly squeezing her eyes shut again as a wave of nausea rolled over her. Awareness faded abruptly for a few seconds, then came crashing back when she tried to open her eyes again. She hadn't felt this bad since the morning after the last exam at the end of her first year in medical school. In fact, she thought, pulling her knees up and leaning forward, closing her eyes again, she was fairly certain this was far worse. She breathed deeply, alternating between willing her stomach to keep its contents and forcing herself not to think about the new friend she'd regained consciousness next to.
After many seconds her stomach lost the battle. Turning on her side she vomited convulsively, curling up miserably as her body was wracked with dry heaves. Patients under anesthesia often got nauseous, and she wondered if the chemical properties of the insect toxin likely causing this were similar. Whatever had been in that giant bug's breath, Janet realized she was having a rather severe reaction to it.
Not as severe as dying from it, she reminded herself, She'd been certain she'd been drawing her last breaths as she'd lost consciousness. At the moment, however, as her body shuddered under another onslaught of nausea, death was definitely preferable.
"Janet! Janet!" It took a few seconds for Sam's frantic voice to filter through her misery, and at first she couldn't fathom where it was coming from. Then it struck her.
Of course. Her radio. She'd left the channel open earlier, to stay in contact with Sam.
"Sa...Sam?" she finally managed, before contending with another bout of dry heaves. Her voice was weak, nothing more than a whisper and she had trouble forming the words. Not surprising, she thought grimly, under the circumstances.
"Janet, thank God! Are you all right?"
For some reason, perhaps because the situation was so serious, Janet was struck by the utter silliness of the question. She tried to laugh, but it came out as a breathless wheeze.
"Do I-" She coughed, her already abused abdominal muscles protesting vigorously. "Do I sound all right to you?" she finally managed.
She heard Sam sigh deeply. "It's good to hear your voice," Sam said, the relief lacing her tones clear to Janet over the tinny distortion caused by the radio. "I thought..."
Sam didn't finish her sentence, but Janet nodded slowly, knowingly. "Yeah," she rasped. "Me to." They shared a moment of silence.
Cautiously, Janet shifted until she was in a sitting position. The dry heaves seemed to have subsided for now, but her surroundings continued to spin disconcertingly. Her head ached horribly. She spent several moments drawing in deep breaths, wishing she still had her canteen. Her mouth tasted foul and she was hot and thirsty.
Taking a moment, she looked around her, then immediately wished she hadn't. Skeletons, partial and whole, filled the space around her. Piles and piles of bones, some with leathery bits of flesh still clinging to them. A mountain of dead bodies rose to her left, smaller mounds scattered nearby. She was sitting in a small hollow, nothing more than a clearing where the bones had been pushed back to reveal the floor.
Janet was not squeamish, not by any stretch of the imagination, but she could feel her skin crawling, the horror of the sight instantaneously raising gooseflesh on her arms and the back of her neck. She had to get out of here and she had to get out of here now, she thought frantically, knowing that at the moment she was not strong enough to stand.
"It's a big bug," she said finally, tearing her eyes away and focusing intently on the toe of her boot. She'd rest, regroup, get her strength back and get as far away from this new horror as possible. "Like a praying mantis. Huge. It attacked me, sprayed some kind of chemical in my face. I thought it had killed me." That last was admitted in a small voice, her feelings of loss and helplessness as she'd lost consciousness suddenly overwhelming her. She didn't want to die here. "How long was I out?" she asked, changing the subject in hopes of calming herself.
"About ninety minutes," Sam said.
"An hour and a half," Janet muttered. She'd been lying in this subterranean burial chamber surrounded by humanoid remains for an hour and a half. This was all getting to be too much; she didn't have much in the way of either physical or mental reserves left. Janet seriously began to fear turning into an hysterical, weeping lunatic. An hour and a half, she thought. Sam must have been beside herself with worry.
"Colonel O'Neill let you stay?" she forced herself to ask, thinking that if she could keep the conversation going she'd regain some of her equilibrium. How many times would Sam have checked in over the course of ninety minutes, she asked herself.
"Well," Sam said slowly, "He didn't really have much choice." Janet smiled at that, in spite of herself. She'd encountered Sam's stubborn streak herself, and knew it was a force of nature to be reckoned with. But Sam's next words surprised and disheartened her. "I can't get back to the shaft chamber. There's a wall blocking the way."
"Shit," Janet breathed. "That happened to me too.
"I know. Did the pyramid shake just before it happened?"
"Yeah, it did. And I'm guessing from your question that it did for you too."
"There hasn't been anything since. I don't know if it's operating on a timer, or if we're somehow setting it off." Janet could hear the frustration in Sam's voice. "Where's the bug now?"
Janet had been in the process of passing a badly shaking hand across her brow, noting that she was sweating freely now. She'd need to worry about dehydration, especially with the vomiting. The question made her stop dead, her hand still in mid-air. She could hear the blood pounding in her ears, her body responding to the sudden fright caused by the thought that the giant instinct might still be nearby.
"I don't know," she whispered, hearing the tremor in her voice. She should look, but she was suddenly too afraid to move.
"Janet, it's all right. It'll be all right," Sam said, quickly, soothingly. "If it was still nearby, you'd probably know by now. You don't hear anything, do you?"
Janet held her breath, straining her ears. There was nothing, and after a minute or two she breathed a deep sigh of relief. "I don't hear anything," she said. It was gone; it had to be gone.
"Good," Sam said. "Where are you? Are you still in the same place?"
"No," Janet managed to choke out as she surveyed the gruesome landscape again. She debated whether or not to describe where she was to Sam and thought better of it. Sam was trapped in here now, too, probably with that horrible insect stalking her; there was little point in filling her head with dreadful images of what might happen to her. "I'm out in the open though," she said hesitantly. "I can't stay here."
If Sam detected the note of hysteria in her voice she kept it to herself. "Any sign of Makepeace?"
"No." But it did occur to her that if he wasn't already dead, Makepeace was probably around here someplace as well. The thought sent a surge of strength coursing through her limps and she rose unsteadily to her feet.
Janet instantly regretted the action, but ground her teeth together and fought to keep her balance as the world around her faded away again. "I will not fall down," she muttered between clenched teeth. "I will not fall down." The thought of collapsing into one of the nearby piles of bones was more than enough impetus to keep her on her feet.
"I believe you," Sam said solemnly.
Janet smiled. "I'm going to find a more secure position, then look for Makepeace," Janet advised, shuffling toward what looked like a path through the debris.
"Right," Sam said. "Just be careful."
Janet felt an hysterical giggle bubble up in her throat, not quite sure what recourse she had against the big bug anymore. She wished she was still armed, but given how spectacularly she'd performed with Makepeace's handgun earlier it was probably pointless anyway. Hiding was always an option, provided the bug didn't have other sensors it used to locate prey. What she really wanted to do, she thought pausing for a moment to sway unsteadily, was to curl up into a tiny ball somewhere so she could sleep it off.
Wherever this was, it was huge, a vast chamber. Fighting down a wave of disgust, she clambered quickly over a pine of bones, hoping desperately that the path continued on the other side. Thankfully, it did.
She'd only proceeded a few more meters forward when she spotted three things simultaneously. The first, instantly absorbing all her attention, though she filed the other observations away for later, was a dusty, bloody leg clad in a familiar tan fatigue. Darting forward, Janet breathed a deep sigh of relief at the sight of Makepeace sprawled face down atop a dusty skeleton.
Pressing her fingers firmly against his carotid artery she was doubly relieved to feel a pulse, slow and weak, throbbing against the tips of her fingers. Given his wounds the insect's venom must have had an even more devastating effect on him, possibly putting him in a coma. However, considering how bad she still felt it was probably a blessing that he was unconscious and unlikely to wake up anytime soon. Turning him gently over, she grasped the ankle of his good leg and dragged him carefully off the pile of bones and onto the path. She noted that he had his pack and rifle still slung over his arm. They'd have a few supplies and a weapon until Sam found them.
"Sam, I found Makepeace." She quickly filled Sam in on the details.
"Can you move him?"
"I think so," Janet said, not relishing the idea of dragging Makepeace's heavy bulk around the pyramid with her.
"Good. Find a secure position, then the two of you wait there. This'll be easier if you stay put and let me find you. There's no sense in both of us wandering around getting more and more lost. We'll find a way out of here together."
Her spirits buoyed by the confidence in Sam's voice and the discovery that Makepeace was still alive, Janet turned her attention to the other two things she'd noticed. One was a mound of round spheres that she instantly recognized as a clutch of eggs. They were encased in a gray slime and when she moved closer, holding her light up to it, shadowy shapes inside the eggs began to move about frantically. Hastily, stifling a small gasp of horror, Janet pulled back.
It was suddenly clear. The insect had been out hunting, looking for food. But not for itself. It had dragged them here because it was procuring food for its offspring. That meant, she realized numbly, that all the bones here belonged to people who had met a fate similar to the one intended for herself and Makepeace.
They'd all been food for hatching insects.
Moving away hastily, more determined than ever to find a secure location, Janet wondered where all these people had come from. They couldn't all possibly have come through the Stargate, wandered into the pyramid, and like a mosquito caught in sap became trapped inside, food for a freakish nightmare.
That question was answered in part by her final observation. Her light had revealed a wall with several pitch-black openings directly in front of her. Upon further investigation Janet realized that she was looking at the front of a house, and that that house stood next to another, and another, and another. An occasional street broke the line of houses, and when Janet looked down those she saw other buildings, dwellings and shops and office, all silent and empty and filled with dust and death.
It was a city.
Janet turned slowly in a circle, staring about her in wonder. All the bones here had come from people who had lived and died in a city inside a pyramid.
Resting one hand on the thick stone doorframe, Sam leaned forward and pointed her flashlight beam down the shaft. The light gleamed off the steps. Straining forward, she looked for but did not see an opening within the limits of her light. With a sigh, she pulled back and clipped the flashlight back onto the front of her vest.
Down was the only direction left; her search of the three other passages leading from this room had taken her to the same type of featureless wall she'd discovered blocking her way in the tunnel she'd originally explored. So down she must go. If this shaft lead nowhere, if this opening should close, if that giant insect should find its way in after her...
So many ifs and none of them good, she thought grimly as she stepped gingerly onto the narrow crosswalk that connected the doorway to the stairs. It seemed sturdy enough, and Sam quickly traversed the distance and began her descent. She was thankful that, despite no handrail and no visible signs of support, the spiral staircase felt very safe and stable. Every so often, she twisted her body so that her light illuminated the steps above her head, straining to catch any sign of movement. There was nothing, only the sight of the dark square of the doorway sliding further and further into the distance.
The echo of her steps rattled all around her, making her nervous that she'd miss other sounds that would alert her to the presence of danger. But whatever metal lined the walls seemed as adept at reflecting sound as it did light. Sam smiled at the sudden mental image of the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz rapping his knuckles on his chest only to have the sound reverberate hollowly down the length of his body. That was what this was like, she decided. She was climbing down the inside of the Tin Man's leg. Maybe, if she was lucky, at the bottom she'd find her heart.
"Sam?" Janet's thin, distorted voice suddenly echoed around her, as if she'd been reading Sam's thoughts.
"Yeah?" She took a moment to reflect again on how grateful she was that Janet was still alive. She'd tried not to think of the alternatives, during that long silence during which Janet had been unconscious. She'd never tell Janet this, certain that she'd never appreciate the sentiment, but the sounds of retching that had sounded over the radio a short while ago had been music to her ears.
There was a slight pause on the other end. "Just checking," Janet said. "Makepeace's vitals are weak but stable."
"That's good news," Sam said. "How are you feeling?"
She heard Janet groan softly. "Remember how sick you got from eating the casserole thing they made for you guys on P9X-444?"
Sam winced in sympathy. "That bad?"
"Worse. I think food poisoning would be a step up. I just hope the fact that I'm conscious and able to move means the toxin is wearing off."
"I'm sure that's the case," Sam said quickly, trying to sound positive. If Janet and Makepeace had both been poisoned then they were under an even greater time pressure to get out. Of course, Janet would know more about this than she would, but until they managed to find each other there was little point in expending energy worrying about it.
"Just hurry up, will you?" There was a note of panic in Janet's voice. "There's no telling where Beulah is."
Sam frowned. "Beulah? You named the bug Beulah?"
"Well," Janet said defensively, "I got tired of calling it 'The Big Bug.'"
Sam had to smile at that. "But...Beulah? I have to know who Beulah is. Or was."
There was a tiny pause on the other end. "My social studies teacher in seventh grade," Janet finally confessed. "She was a million years old, and she had these long, bony arms. And she used to spit when she talked. It seemed appropriate."
"Very," Sam said, laughing. The sound bounced off the walls around her. "But how do you know it's a she?" she asked, deciding that it felt better to keep the conversation going.
"Aren't all praying mantises female?"
"Well, considering what happens to the males, I'm sure they all wished that was the case."
"Oh yeah, I forgot about that. You know," Janet began, and Sam detected a note of hesitation in her voice. "I found some eggs..."
"Meaning there's a headless male bug wandering around?" Sam asked before she could stop herself. She immediately bit her tongue in regret. Great, she chided herself. That was an image neither one of them needed under the circumstances.
"Very funny," she heard Janet admonish. "That's just what I needed to hear. I don't know how close they are to hatching, but I think Beulah brought us down here as food." Sam felt her lip curl in disgust at the thought. Then she heard Janet sigh. "I guess I should do something about the eggs," she said, voice thick with distaste. "I have no idea when they're going to hatch."
"Probably a good idea," Sam said. At that moment, she caught sight of a black rectangle out of the corner of her eye. She paused and looked down, careful not to lean over too far. The last thing she wanted was to pitch headfirst down the length of the shaft.
It was an opening. By her estimates, it was a good twenty meters below her current position. She'd already traveled down the shaft a fair distance, she thought, grateful to know for certain that the stairwell didn't lead to a dead end.
"Listen, I just found another tunnel. You go take care of the eggs, then stay with Makepeace. We should probably think about conserving our radio batteries a little," she added reluctantly. "I'll check in with you in ten minutes, how's that?"
"I don't like it," Janet said quickly. "But you're right. Makepeace has most of his gear with him, so we've got spares of everything. But until you get here, you should be careful. In more ways than one."
"I will," Sam said, switching her radio off.
Quickly, she trotted down the steps separating her from the opening, unclipping her light and brandishing it in front of her as she crouched in front of the doorway.
Unlike the opening above, this one was wider and lead directly into a tunnel. No catwalk connected the stairwell to the tunnel either. She'd have to jump if she wanted to get across. The gap wasn't that wide; if she missed she'd certainly fall, but was confident she could use the stairs to break her fall. It would hurt, but it beat the alternative of tumbling down to the bottom.
Slinging her rifle over her shoulder, Sam took a step back to lean against the central column that held the stairs. Drawing a deep breath, she pushed off and launched herself across the gap. Her feet landed solidly on the other side, stirring up a small cloud of dust. Within seconds she'd unslung her rifle, clutching it firmly in her hands as she moved forward.
Whoever the builders of the pyramid had been, Sam decided, they had an incredibly boring sense of aesthetics. She found herself in a tunnel as non-descript as all the others she'd been in since finding her way into the pyramid. Same gray blocks, same dirt floor. The only thing that had stood out architecturally was the stairwell she'd just vacated.
She'd traveled only a few meters when she let out a low groan of frustration. Another damn wall! This tunnel led nowhere, or had been blocked off the last time the pyramid had started shaking. "Dammit!" she breathed in frustration, striking the wall with her fist. This was starting to get irritating.
For lack of anything better to do, she began panning her light along the ground, near the base of the wall, looking to see if the displacement of the dirt would indicate which direction from which the wall had slid. It wasn't particularly meaningful information; it was more to satisfy her curiosity. Besides, she told herself, at this point, since she was coming up basically empty with respect to a way out, any information was useful information.
The only thing of interest to note, she realized quickly as she examined the edges of the wall, was that the seal was incredibly tight. While the builders were very boring with respect to d�cor, they were obviously master engineers. The precision needed to create moving walls that fit this well was extraordinary, especially a fit that was this good after who knew how many ages had passed.
She was just straightening, preparing to turn and resume her trek down the stairwell when the floor beneath her feet began to shudder gently. "Here we go again," she muttered. Sam turned and stared at the wall in front of her, confident at this point that the roof wouldn't come tumbling down on top of her, and hopeful that the shaking might move the wall in front of her out of the way. Maybe something would work out in her favor for a change.
As she stood watching, the vibration gradually tapered off. To her delight, the tunnel was filled with a loud rasping sound, and the wall in front of her began to slide with excruciating slowness to the right. Sam leaned forward, peering into the tunnel that was slowly being revealed in front of her.
"Holy Hannah!" she breathed as she watched the movement in front of her. It hadn't been a simple wall blocking her way, she realized. As she stared, she saw that the wall facing her, the one that had been blocking her way, was attached to another wall at a right angle that stretched back and formed the right wall of the new section of tunnel in front of her.
That meant... Sam took a step back in shock. That meant that either the tunnel she was in, or the tunnel she was now looking down had moved. The whole tunnel, not just a dividing wall. The movement must have been just subtle enough and the interface between the pieces smooth enough that she hadn't been aware of it. In a flash of insight, Sam realized that the hidden, interlocking parts of the pyramid were probably lined with the same highly polished metal she'd seen in the stairwell.
It was mind-boggling. Whole pieces of the inside of this pyramid moved around, not just a random wall or two. While outside, she'd marveled at how such an enormous structure could've been built. She hadn't even begun to appreciate the magnitude of the feat. It was like some giant, interlocking puzzle.
Now she had some idea about how. The next obvious question to ponder was why.
Before she had time to address the question, the beam of her light caught movement in the tunnel in front of her. Beulah, she realized, her mind stumbling for a moment over the size of the insect bearing down on her. Janet was right; it did look like a praying mantis, Sam thought numbly, its outer shell an oily green that gleamed in the beam of her light. It put on a burst of speed, and scuttled to run along the side of the tunnel for a second, then in a flash was running along the roof, its enormous abdomen hanging down as its head bobbed and weaved above her.
For a moment her legs refused to move, though she knew it would be on her in seconds. Reflexively, she lifted her weapon, switching the safety off in one smooth motion as she did so, and opened fire. The round of bullets echoed loudly in the small space. Beulah spasmed when several rounds impacted against her exoskeleton, and she faltered for a moment, slowing her approach.
Sam took the delay to turn and sprint back to the stairwell. She couldn't let it get above her. If she could lure it into the stairwell, then get above it, she might be able to fire enough rounds into it to kill or seriously wound it and knock it down the shaft. If she was especially lucky, the slippery surface of the metal would make it difficult for Beulah to navigate.
She didn't even pause at the doorway leading into the shaft, noting gratefully that it was still open. She pushed off with her toes and leapt into the shaft, landing heavily on the stairs. The momentum carried her forward and she slammed her shin sharply against one of the steps, but somehow managed to keep her balance.
It was only a few meters behind her, she realized, so she took off, taking the steps two at a time in the hopes of putting as much distance between herself and it as possible before she opened fire. It had other plans, she quickly realized, when it began crawling up the outside of the stairwell, using the gaps of the spiral as footholds. Within seconds it was just behind her.
Sam spun, kicking out with all her might at the enormous triangular head rising just above the ledge at her feet. Her boot connected with solid exoskeleton and its head rocked back savagely. The momentum of the kick knocked her off balance, and she fell hard against the steps, panting heavily. Just as she lifted her rifle to open fire, it hauled its body up, thorax scraping across the sleek metal as it heaved itself forward.
Aim for its mouth, she thought frantically, clutching her rifle with one hand while trying to push herself away from it with the other. She couldn't afford to have it breathe whatever anesthetic it used on its prey on her. Before she could squeeze the trigger, it braced its body with one enormous back leg and swung a vicious-looking serrated forelimb at her head. She got the rifle up to deflect the blow just in time, but the force of it knocked the weapon from her hands and sent it clattering down the shaft.
There was no time to get her handgun out of its holster. Leaning back, she lifted her leg and slammed it into the insect's head again and again, hoping she could keep it off balance enough to push it over the side. It wasn't working. Instead, it was pulling itself up inch by inch to tower over her, lifting one of those lethal limbs, preparing to bring it crashing down on her.
She gave it one last, hard kick, then rolled quickly to the side just as that forelimb smashed down against the steps leaving a small dent. Without thinking, intent simply on getting away, Sam pushed up on her hands, digging her feet into whatever toeholds she could find behind her, including the insects shoulder, and pushed herself forward, pitching over the side.
Beulah made a grab for her leg, but just missed, and Sam found herself falling headfirst down the gap in the shaft between the staircase and the wall.
After Sam signed off to check out the new tunnel, Janet stood for a moment, quietly fingering the object she'd found in one of the buildings of the underground city. She'd been looking for a safe hiding place, one that was as far removed from the clutch of eggs as she felt she could reasonably drag Makepeace's unconscious form. One that had a limited number of access points and enough dilapidated furniture to use as a barricade should it become necessary.
Most of the buildings in the immediate area were offices or stores. None contained any humanoid remains, which struck her as odd.
Even curiouser, she'd found statues of all different sizes in every building, all variations on the same theme. Turning the one in her hand over, she swiped her thumb across it, wiping away a remaining layer of dust and examined the figurine closely.
It looked like Beulah. This one was not particularly well crafted, rough-hewn and homemade. But others that she'd seen had been obviously fashioned by skilled artists, ornamental representations of Beulah with intricate inlays of marble. By her estimate, just in Beulah statues alone, there was a small fortune down here, since many of them were adorned with precious gems and metals.
Janet wondered why. Why on earth (or anywhere else in the galaxy for that matter) would the people who had lived and died here all have kept figurines of the giant insect that had, in all likelihood, destroyed them? It didn't make sense.
Maybe it was a cult of some sort, a bizarre Beulah-worshipping cult, she thought. People did a lot of strange things in the name of religious beliefs. One only had to look at the zealotry of some of the people on Earth, both past and present, to understand that. Was it so farfetched to believe that these people, who were sophisticated enough to build this massive pyramid, also worshipped a gigantic praying mantis?
With a shrug, Janet slipped the small carving into the cargo pocket of her fatigues, thinking she'd show it to Sam when Sam managed to find them. In the meantime, she still had things to do. She paused to wipe her lips with the back of her hand, squeezing her eyes shut briefly. Since waking up, she hadn't started to feel any better, which was worrisome. Her head still ached horribly and her stomach wasn't much better. To make matters worse, she felt as though there was barely any strength in her limbs, and the world kept fading away periodically. It was all she could do to stay on her feet. That toxin running through her system was probably affecting her vestibular system, accounting for the hangover-like symptoms and the vertigo.
Despite the grisly carnage all around her, there was thankfully no smell other than a dusty staleness. Whatever had happened here had happened so long ago that no odor of death and decay lingered. Given the way her stomach felt at the moment, that was no small blessing, she thought.
Her first order of business was check on Makepeace again, making sure the splint on his leg was still intact and that no further damage had been done by being moved so unconventionally. After that, she'd take care of the clutch of eggs, then drag Makepeace to the safety of the building she'd scouted out a short while ago. Then, it would just be a waiting game, hoping that Sam managed to find them before either she or Makepeace succumbed to the poison and died.
There was a disturbing thought, she reflected grimly. Hopefully it wouldn't come to that.
But it was comforting to have a plan of action, she thought, as she knelt beside Makepeace and ran her hands gently over his injured leg. Miraculously, the bones hadn't shifted much since she'd first set them.
She was just getting to her feet when she heard a sound behind her. She spun around. Frantically, she scanned the area around her, wondering just what in the hell she thought she was supposed to do if Beulah decided to make a reappearance.
She and Makepeace were in a large, open area, possibly the central square of the city, or an open marketplace. Faces with empty eye sockets and grinning teeth looked impassively back at her, the shadows caused by her light giving her the eerie impression that the heads were turning, tracking her search. But beyond that, Janet detected no sign of real movement.
There it was again, somewhere in the distance, an erratic staccato beat, sounding almost like weapon fire.
Janet straightened, craning to see even deeper into darkness threatening to engulf her small light. Sam, it has to be Sam, she thought as her heart began to pound in her chest. But Sam would only be firing her weapon if...
Oh god, Beulah, she thought, spinning around and snatching up the automatic rifle Makepeace still had looped haphazardly over his shoulder. She ran toward the sound, leaping over piles of bones without any care or thought, all weakness and nausea momentarily forgotten. Sam was nearby and possibly in trouble. She was the reason Sam was even here and in danger in the first place. Janet's only thought was to get to her as quickly as possible.
Reaching the edge of the clearing, Janet paused to listen, holding her breath and willing the blood pounding in her ears to stop. Silence. For a moment, she faltered, the arm holding the rifle dangling limply at her side as she strained her ears for some sound, some clue that would tell her which direction to go in.
A single metallic clang sounded ahead of her and just to her left. In an instant, she took off in that direction, sprinting down a wide, dark alley between two buildings. She ignored the thought that there might be something dangerous lurking in a hidden alcove or hiding behind a corner. Sam could be hurt or dying and that was all that mattered.
The last house in the alley extended out from a rough rock face that made up the outer wall of the chamber in which the city was located. Next to it, directly ahead of her, was what she initially thought was another building. Its outer wall was curved, and there were no windows. A heavy metal door stood wide open, and Janet skidded to an abrupt halt as her light reflected off of shiny metal.
Hearing distant bangs and clatters, Janet moved forward cautiously and peered in. A rifle, exactly the same as the one she now clutched in sweaty palms, lay at the base of a circular staircase.
Instinctively, she looked up. High above her head, maybe a hundred meters away, a light was weaving crazily along the gap between the wall and the stairs, the beam bouncing off the myriad of reflexive surfaces in the shaft. It took her a moment to realize that the light was dropping far too rapidly and in too much of a straight line for it to be someone running down the steps. Had Sam dropped her light, she wondered for a moment, trying to push away the horrible thought that Sam might still be attached to it.
Of their own accord, her legs started to move, as another burst of adrenaline shot through her. She took the steps two at a time, somehow managing to keep looking up without tripping against the steps and falling herself. Maybe I can catch her, she thought frantically, even as the more practical part of her mind realized that notion was ridiculous. In all likelihood, she'd be pulled over the side and they'd both fall to their deaths if she tried that.
But at the moment, she didn't know what else to do, and there was no way she could stand at the bottom and watch helplessly as Sam slammed into the floor and broke her neck. Instead, she thought giddily, she could join Sam as they both took a fatal header off the steps.
Sam's strangled cry echoed in her ears, and Janet refocused her attention on the light above her head, even as she willed her legs to move faster. A small shriek tore from her lips when Sam's light swung abruptly to the side and spun into the stairs with a sickening thud that made the stairs beneath her feet shudder. The light twisted and rolled for a few seconds, then stilled.
The muscles of her legs were beginning to tremble, and it felt like she couldn't pull any air into her lungs, but Janet kept moving as fast as possible up the stairs. But even as she ran steadily closer to Sam, she knew she'd never reach her in time. Janet could just make out Beulah in the light reflecting off the walls, the giant insect creeping steadily toward Sam's limp form.
"No!" Janet screamed, then winced as her shout echoed along the length of the shaft. Her only chance was to draw Beulah away from Sam. "Here!" she yelled again, unclipping her light from the front of her vest and waving it above her head.
That did the trick, Janet realized, as Beulah paused, then craned her neck to stare down. For a second, Janet thought Beulah looked almost curious. Janet ground her teeth and slipped the safety of the weapon off, lifting it to her shoulder as Beulah began to clamber down the outside of the stairwell.
"That's right, Beulah," Janet yelled. "Come a little bit closer so I can shoot you." As a doctor, she'd taken an oath to do no harm. But she was fairly certain that didn't include giant insects who spat venom and collected people for baby food, she thought bitterly. There was no way to scare Beulah off and save Sam and herself. Or Makepeace, for that matter. It had to end here and now, she told herself, and at the moment, she was the only one left standing to finish it. It was up to her.
Beulah was moving fast, almost too fast, and in the shifting light it was difficult for her to maintain her aim. And, to be truthful, while she hadn't quite been Maggie's Drawers, she'd passed marksmanship training with the lowest possible score. If she managed to get everyone out of this, she promised herself she'd spend a little more time out on the firing range.
First things first, though. Janet forced herself to wait until Beulah got close enough so that not even she could miss. She wanted to run away desperately, though, she thought, thinking that the flight part of the fight-or-flight instinct was alive and well in her at the moment.
"Close enough," she whispered, squeezing the trigger. The barrel jerked in her fingers and the stock slammed into her shoulder as a stream of bullets hit Beulah square in the head. Surprised, Janet backpedaled a step or two, then fought to keep her balance as she nearly pitched backwards over the side.
Beulah was still coming, though Janet could see that one of the projectiles had torn through her jaw, leaving the mandible hanging grotesquely off to the side. Another had taken out Beulah's left eye. Biting her lip, Janet squeezed the trigger again, spraying dozens of bullets into Beulah's face and upper body. At this range, the bullets effectively penetrated the exoskeleton leaving devastating damage paths in their wake.
Janet was starting to wonder just how many rounds it would take to put an end to Beulah, when Beulah abruptly lost her footing, tumbling the last few meters down to the curve of the spiral near Janet. Janet didn't react quickly enough, thinking she had finally killed Beulah, but the insect managed to recover as it hit the steps in front of her, swinging one massive back limb around to knock Janet's feet out from under her.
With a small scream, Janet dropped the gun and scrabbled desperately for a handhold as her body fell over the side. She'd probably survive a fall to the bottom at this height, but she'd definitely break a few bones. Just enough to allow Beulah to finish her off once and for all, she thought frantically, before going after Sam again.
At the last second her fingers hooked around the edge of one of the steps and she hung on desperately, legs dangling in the air below her. She had to hold on. Not only that, she thought as she tried to pull herself up over the edge, she had to get to the gun, which was wedged between two steps just a few feet away, and finish the job. If she let go, there was a chance she'd drop down a level or two, but she didn't trust herself to keep her footing on the uneven surface of the stairs. And even if she did manage to keep her balance, the rifle would be too far away for her to get to it.
She was just starting to swing her leg up onto the steps when Beulah lumbered forward, spraying her with clear, sticky blood that oozed from dozens of bullet holes in her head and thorax. One vicious forelimb shot forward and dragged across her back and shoulder, leaving a trail of fire as it sliced deeply into her flesh. Janet sucked in a deep, pained breath and nearly lost her grip as warm blood began to ooze down her back.
She was gasping for air, each ragged breath causing agony to flare in her back even as she felt her fingers slipping. Beulah's blood was pooling on the steps, making everything slippery. Beulah raised that forelimb again, and Janet braced herself for another attack, knowing she could not let go, no matter what. She had to hold on.
But the blow never came. Beulah faltered for a moment, limb raised high in the air as a spasm seemed to shudder through her. With a lurch, her massive abdomen rolled over the side and collided with Janet's body, nearly knocking her precarious hold loose. For a moment, the two hung there, side by side, Beulah's massive frame sliding lower and lower as Janet struggled to pull herself up. Dimly, Janet noticed that Beulah had stopped moving. Hazarding a quick glance over her shoulder, she saw that Beulah had extended her long back legs down so that she practically stood, precariously balanced between two rungs of the spiral.
The sight gave Janet an idea. With a small prayer, Janet swung her legs to her right, digging the toes of her boots into whatever footholds she could find. Keeping one hand wrapped tightly around the rim of the steps, she used the other to grab onto the exoskeleton that covered Beulah's neck and shoulders, fingers digging roughly into bullet holes. Beulah made some sound, a disgusting, wet wail that came out more as a sigh than a scream.
Janet was past caring, past all awareness as she felt Beulah buck beneath her, trying to shake her off. Grimly, she pushed even deeper into her gruesome handholds, determined to hold on, to use the shattered exoskeleton as a ladder. "I'm not letting go," she shouted, as if that would somehow matter. The rifle was just a few feet away; if she could just hold on, could just pull herself up a few feet more...
Bracing one boot against a ridge that ran down the center of Beulah's back, she hauled herself up and against the back of Beulah's head, pressing it roughly into the stairwell. With a final push, Janet pitched forward and sprawled gracelessly onto the steps, wincing as the edges dug into her ribcage as she slid downward for a second or two.
She'd done it, she thought, not quite believing that she'd actually managed it. Running now on pure adrenaline and anger, Janet pushed herself up and crawled up the steps toward Beulah on her hands and knees. The rifle was still there, and in a second, Janet had it tightly in her hands and was leaning over Beulah's ruined head, the barrel pointed right at what was left of her mouth.
Beulah lifted one limb, arcing it forward to defend herself. Janet clambered back as the sharp edge just barely missed her forearm. She discarded any doubts she might have had about finishing this once and for all and darted forward while Beulah was trying to recover her balance to shove the barrel of the rifle into her mouth. Without a second thought, she squeezed the trigger.
Beulah's head rocked violently back on her shoulders as the bullets tore through to whatever ganglia might be controlling her hunting instinct. With a cry, Janet released the trigger and shoved the gun forward with all her might, experiencing an almost primal sense of satisfaction as she felt tissue give way. Beulah gave her head several hard shakes, but Janet refused to let go, her grip so tight around the barrel that she half expected to see the bones and tendons of her knuckles pop out of her skin at any second.
Beulah took one final, futile swing at her. With all her might, Janet wrenched the end of the gun to the side. There was a loud crack as Beulah's head nearly came loose from her long thin neck. Janet yanked the gun free and prepared to open fire again.
Beulah gave one last twitch, then simply dropped away from the stairwell, falling into the darkness below.
For several long moments, Janet stood there, peering over the side. Her mind registered a distant thud against the backdrop of her hammering heart and gasping breaths. The pain from the wound on her back resurfaced suddenly and throbbed in time with her heart.
She had to go down and make sure the job was finished, she thought. As her arms and legs started to tremble, she swallowed and looked down at the battered weapon in her hands.
"Janet?" a quiet voice said from behind her. Startled, having forgotten that anyone else in the world but herself and Beulah even existed, Janet whirled, bringing the rifle up. "Hey, hey! Watch it," Sam said, lifting her hands in the air.
All Janet could do was stare at Sam as the trembling in her hands got worse and worse. She couldn't lower the gun, she couldn't speak. She couldn't let go.
Janet watched mutely as Sam walked slowly down the few steps between them and curled her fingers around the barrel of the rifle, gently pulling it toward her and turning it to the side. Janet simply followed the gun, closing the distance between them until she was close enough to feel the heat of Sam's body. Her fingers were wrapped so tightly around the weapon that Janet was certain they'd never come loose. "I have to hold on," she whispered, dully.
Sam nodded slowly, as if that explained everything, then reached down and began to carefully pry Janet's stiff fingers away from the trigger with a gentle, reassuring touch. As her right hand slipped away from the rifle, Janet felt a momentary panic set in. Sam wrapped a hand lightly around Janet's wrist, and guided her hand forward. Without thinking, Janet tangled her fingers tightly into the fabric of Sam's flack vest. After that, it was surprisingly easier to let go of the gun, Janet thought, as her left arm wrapped around Sam's neck, fingers curling tightly around Sam's collar. She buried her face against Sam's neck, thinking she was never going to let go.
"It's okay," Sam whispered in her ear as Janet felt Sam's arms slip protectively around her waist. "Hold on to me now," Sam said. "Just hold on to me."