// DEGRADE, PART 2 //

In the complete silence that Anders had fallen into, the three knocks on the bathroom door signaling the arrival of the emergency squad could have been bullets in the distance. “Open up, Mr. Shew. There’s nothing to fear in here now.”

Anders jerked his head up from his dozing at the sound of the feminine voice. He got up from the toilet and crossed the few feet to the door, pulling it open. Five adults, an assorted mix of  races and genders, were clumped together in front of the bathroom door.

The woman who answered the call, a lanky sort with a wild black pixie cut missed in all directions, poked her comrade in the shoulder with a gun to force him to take a few steps forward. “Sir, I would recommend that you be escorted back to your suite while we investigate. If it’s an intruder or an experiment gone feral that the security system failed to detect, they might go violent, and you-” she eyed Anders’ striped blue pajamas- “are insufficiently armored to deal with such an emergency.”

“It’s my laboratory…” Anders snapped his fingers together, racking his brain. “What was your name again?”

“Claude, sir.” She shook her head. “I acknowledge your ownership of this place and your full rights to do as you please, but this is a matter of personal safety.” She passed her gun to her other hand and plucked the chest piece of her armor, as tight as a second skin without being lewd. “Frederick, if you please?”

Anders held his hand out in front of the poked comrade before he could latch a wrist onto his arm. “I would be failing at my job if I didn’t see firsthand everything that I could.”

“Whatever. Just stay in the middle.” Claude shrugged her shoulders and gestured for the group to begin heading to the right, following the blood trail. Anders shut the bathroom door behind him and joined the group, and Frederick and another guard fell behind so that Anders would be completely surrounded.

The spatters of blood increased in size from the size of Anders’ pinky to his foot as the group progressed down the maze of hallways. Anders hopped from foot to foot, trying to avoid the blotches, but the guards continued to tromp on unaffected through the maze of hallways.

“Anders?” Claude stopped, bringing the rest of the group to a halt. She aimed her longshot gun at a point down the darkened hallway, a red laser light focusing somewhere in the distance, but dropped the matter a moment later and continued her march with the group. “When exactly did you hear this scream?”

Anders tripped over a splotch the size of his head and stumbled into Frederick, who pushed him off. “About ten minutes ago. I’m not exactly sure… I was more focused on not accidentally running into serial killers than figuring out what time it was.”

“Of course you did.” Claude’s lips twitched as she reached over to the light control box and flicked on the master switch, illuminating every hallway in the building. The group took a right turn and continued in their march, stopping outside the glass doors leading into the dormitory. Claude tapped the glass with her gun, but none of the subjects inside stirred.

“The trail stops here,” she muttered, turning about-face and eyeing the rest of the group. “Frederick, stay behind with Anders. I’m taking the rest inside to see if there’s more.”

“Aye, ma’am.” Frederick saluted, and Claude pushed through the glass doors. Frederick clutched Anders’ arm and pulled him away, dragging the man behind him.

“Where are we going?” Anders grabbed the hand on his arm, digging his fingers under to pry the hand away. “Aren’t we supposed to wait here?”

“I have to go to the bathroom, and unfortunately, the armor doesn’t have a waste management system yet.” Fred deposited Anders outside the bathroom door at the end of the hallway, only a short saunter away from where Claude had disappeared, and slipped into the bathroom.

“Thanks, Fred. You’re such a big help, keeping me safe out here.” Anders rubbed the red mark that Fred had left on his arm.

“Can it, Anders.” The toilet seat went up, and the sound of Fred relieving himself leaked into the hall. “I was never good with the armor anyways. This might take a few more minutes. Don’t get yourself killed.”

Anders slid down against the wall, only to jump right back up as more of the blood splotches around the corner caught his eye. How could Claude forget that? He glanced around, making sure that none of the group was within eyeshot, and darted along the path of splotches.

The rate of drops slowly decreased with each passing foot until Anders stopped outside a storage closet. The suite staircase was behind him, and he shivered as he realized that the route of whoever was dripping blood just went in a large convoluted circle. Remaining outside the range of the blood pool under the door, Anders knocked once, receiving no answer.

Thanks for nothing, Claude. Anders placed a sweaty palm on the door handle, taking a single gulp before turning it and pulling the door open. The glassy eyes of Giles stared up at him from the floor, and Anders dropped to the floor, shrieking like a little girl and furiously kicking himself away from the open doorway.

The clomping of the guards’ steel-toed boots immediately sounded in the distance, and Anders rolled onto his stomach and covered his eyes with his hands to shield himself from the horrors at his feet. He remained there on the ground, trembling half from nerves and half from the chills of the concrete floor.

“Get up, Mr. Pusillanimous.” Claude nudged him with her left foot before turning to the empty closet. Her jaw slowly dropped, and she let go of the gun, which clattered on the floor. “What the hell?”

Anders crawled back up, leaning against Claude with shaky legs. He buried his head in her shoulder for a few seconds before daring to look inside of the closet. Freshly smeared on the walls in shaky letters were the words “It’s too late”.

“It’s too late for what?” Claude shrugged Anders off and stepped towards the mangled corpse. Multiple stab wounds riddled Giles’ body, and Claude leaned over and extended one hand to brush the eyes closed before noticing the crumpled paper in his left hand. “Fred? Can you come over here?”

“No way am I dealing with a dead body.”

“Fine. Blue, come over here. I need some strength.” A burly woman who Anders assumed was Blue joined Claude in the closet doorway. Blue holstered her gun before prying Giles’ sticky hand open, clenching her teeth before the fingers gave way and the paper fluttered into her hand.

“What’s going on in there?” His vision wavered, and he backed up against the wall to try to calm his dizzying head. “My… My assistant…”

“Yes, Anders, he’s dead.” Blue handed the paper to Claude, who opened it and exposed the single word inside. “I hate to inform you, but you’ll have to pick a replacement tomorrow.”

“My… My right-hand man…” Anders’ chest constricted as he caught the paper that Claude slipped to him. He rubbed his eyes before turning it over to peer at the words, just as messy and convoluted as he knew that the morning shift in just seven hours would be.

DEGRADE.

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