Chapter 39

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As he army-crawled through the ventilation shaft, sweat dotted Mo's forehead, occasionally dripping onto the helmet's visor, where it had begun to collect in a tiny puddle that sloshed around with every movement. He felt like he was roasting in the aluminum duct and had nearly succumbed to removing the bio-suit. The respirator was failing and if he didn't reach the spare in the cycle soon, that's exactly what he'd have to do. And that would spell the end.

There was no stealth in what he was doing; the two rifles – his and Watley's – were strapped across his shoulders but had to be towed behind him to allow room for his arms to pull him forward. As a result, no matter how much he tried to avoid it, they repeatedly clanged against the shaft. On more than one occasion, Mo had peered through a grate providing a limited view of a corridor beneath him and had seen humanoids turn with sightless eyes toward the clatter he'd caused when passing by. The vine-controlled things had then given chase and the sound of their collective shambling conjured the image of an entire horde following his progress through the building.

Mo halted as he sensed some alteration in the atmosphere; the humanoids' movements had ceased. What had caused them to stop? As he listened, he sensed that something else was in their midst, adding a new thread of terror to this ever-expanding nightmare. Mo wondered if the thing controlling the humanoids had descended from its upper floor nest to confront him. He felt trapped; if he moved, he might reveal his position, if it wasn't already known to the thing. But if he remained where he was, this shaft would become his tomb. His inquiry was answered when a broken red light beamed through the duct's grate just ahead of him. Mo's pulse soared as he envisioned the hulking Machine beneath him, poised to pluck him from the shaft. Instead, the grate buckled as the black globe – detached from its body – rose into the ventilation duct and scanned Mo. Through the tear, he saw the humanoids in the corridor below, their empty eyes directed toward the sphere with what seemed to be either wonder or admiration.

The red light vanished, and words materialized inside the head. "Where is the specimen?"

Mo frowned. He hesitated, then said, "Specimen?"

The question sank into blackness, then was replaced with another. "Where is Watley?"

"I don't know." The red light washed over him again. Mo suspected the Machine was inspecting him for any physical indication of lying. "He was here but left. I didn't see where he went. I was trapped by these things," he added, pointing toward the humanoids.

Mo stared into the Machine's glassy visage awaiting its response. After an uncomfortably long pause, he tensed as the entire building suddenly trembled. As if responding to a cue, the light retracted and the Machine rose, smashing through the top of the ventilation shaft. Mo heard its destructive ascent into the hospital's upper floors, perhaps answering a call from the thing living there.

The shaft, having been damaged, began to collapse and Mo scrambled past the holes the Machine had caused. He came to the next intersection, where he was forced to go left as the center and right shafts were blocked by a collection of trembling vine growth. He wondered if the tendrils could detect the slightest current of air and then relay the information back to the main stem - or whatever the hell it was that controlled them. He maneuvered past without touching the shoots and followed the shaft as it curved left and sloped downward.

Mo had reached the ground floor. The checkered view the next grate offered was dim and he could make out only vague, shadowy shapes, but they were sharp, solid angles, stationary objects; nothing moved as far as he could tell. He worked at the shaft exit and it gave way much easier than he'd expected, as though the metal had deteriorated and lost its solidity.

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