She turned to study the screens and I read the lines of tension across her shoulders. My earlier confidence started to wane and I stepped back toward the doorframe. June typed and clicked a bit and then pushed back from the desk with a loud swear.
In the time it took her to stand, an explosion went off overhead. I blindly grabbed for Andromeda with one hand and Mathis with the other. Screams and shouts and more cursing sounded through the blinding haze of ceiling components. I tried to inhale as little as possible and keep my eyes squinted shut. I heard Andromeda coughing and felt her raise her shirt over her mouth. Mathis was doing the same and I hoped Jin was, too.
When the shaking and rattling stopped, I released my grips and pulled my own shirt over my mouth to take a couple of filtered breaths. I still couldn’t see anything, and more disconcerting, I couldn’t hear much. Someone was moving around, but I couldn’t tell who. I didn’t want to give us away too quickly, but I also didn’t want to leave the relative safety of the doorframe. My instincts had been pretty good, considering it was still upright.
A slow breeze started to pick up and I sank to my knees, pulling the others with me. The breeze grew in strength like an industrial fan until the air was clear enough for me to risk peeking. A hazy figure was standing in the middle of the room with a small whirlwind twisting around them full of insulation and drywall. It moved upward and disappeared. I looked at the figure and he looked back at me, though I couldn’t tell much through his balaclava and goggles. My mouth was dry and my heart was racing. Despite the clearer air I felt like I couldn’t breathe and I knew I was in shock; the others were too, more than likely. I wanted to lay down and elevate my feet but I didn’t want to move until I knew what this person wanted.
A sound shifted our attention to an overturned desk where I saw Tower Goddess rising like a determined and very angry Construction Deity, robed in dust and particulates. A broken keyboard fell from her shoulder and she stood like an action hero at the end of their abilities, but still ready to destroy something.
“Stand down,” the masked figure ordered. He was speaking through some kind of voice modulator.
“Under what authority,” TG snarled.
“We’re kin, you and I.” He looked at me. “And her.”
TG hesitated for a moment before launching herself forward. Balaclava put up a confident hand to catch her attack but she dropped to a knee and somehow continued to advance, catching him around the waist and dropping him like a sack of potatoes directly into a portal. It opened on a wall and as he hurled through it, she planted a vicious kick into his gut and sent him back into the portal. This one opened in the ceiling and she was positioned, kneeling, beneath it so that he landed back-first across her meaty thigh and rolled off, twitching and wheezing, an arm twisted awkwardly to reach for the injury. But he stayed down.
She gestured briskly at us to join her. “This is the vanguard. We need to regroup.”
“Where to?” I asked as I stood. Andromeda helped steady me and reached to give Mathis a hand. His legs were in an awkward position; they weren’t built for crouching and he’d maneuvered himself to the ground but was having a hard time standing.
“How’s your charge on those things?” TG asked him.
“Low; maybe another hour of normal use.”
“Can you run?”
“I have to flip the switch and it’ll call social services and activate a GPS to provide emergency assistance, but yes. And it’ll cut my charge down my a third.” He coughed and looked around. I did the same and we both saw Jin at the same time.
A leg was pinned, possibly severed, under a capsized desk and the computer from on top had broken his jaw at the least. His eyes were closed and I didn’t see his chest moving.
“Oh my gods,” Andromeda whispered, hands moving to her mouth.
“Shit.” TG moved me out of the way and knelt beside him to check for a pulse. “We need to regroup,” she said again, kicking more rubble out of the way as she hunted for living bodies.
Mathis didn’t move. Andromeda and I shared panicked looks before she took a breath and took his hand. I followed TG’s lead, shifting desks and moving downed ceiling tiles. I found two bodies and TG came to check for a pulse on each. I knew how, but she was clearly more confident in her abilities and I was willing to let her take charge.
Andromeda had convinced Mathis to look away from his friend and she had him held close. I didn’t see him blinking.
When we’d located all of the techs, four alive, TG secured Balaclava’s hands and feet with computer cables and tied a mouse cord around his open mouth. It looked extremely uncomfortable, but part of me thrummed with revenge. She directed the two most capable techs to drag him behind us and we crossed into the rest of the building.
It looked deserted. More than it had previously. How many people were here? Too, it looked out of place. Nothing was damaged here and we were the ones brining dust and blood and horrible memories through the untarnished places. I didn’t want to touch anything in case I sullied it. I kept Mathis and Andromeda in front of me in case one faltered. Tears started to form in my eyes and I soothed them back. Not yet. Soon, but not yet.
TG led us to the boss’s office. She rapped out a coded pattern and I heard the sound of automatic locks releasing. We assembled inside and I saw the closet door was open. The boss stood in front of it with two pistols in hand, but she only used her chin to gesture us all through the door. When I passed through I saw another portal, but it was unlike any other I’d experienced.
This portal had pops and flecks of color dancing across the surface instead of a steady steel-blue or gray-green like I’d seen before. No one else hesitated, and what else was I supposed to do? I followed and after a quick swirl that made me remember a parking lot carnival ride, my feet hit solid ground again. I stumbled but managed to keep upright and get out of the way for the next arrivals.
May 04, 2021