The window erupted in a spray of automatic fire, lighting up the hallway in a spectacle of twinkling glass and hot death. Gunsmoke trailed out from the hallway,and we sprang into action instantly, diving into cover against the wall. A shard of glass slashed across Hands face, but she slammed an invisible appendage over her lips to prevent her cry from being heard.
Footsteps crunched their way through broken glass. Gunze shot us a stern look, and kept himself as flat against the wall as possible. There wasn’t a point in arguing with him, not when there was an enemy just on the other side.
The gun went off again, and again, carving out hot chunks of the room a piece at a time. Through the obliterated window a stray round took out the already sputtering monitor sparking on top of the front desk in a gust of blue smoke.
I gritted my teeth and waited, desperately willing my heart to slow down. If I was this scared already, how was I supposed to deal with the rest of it?
Gunze’s eyes slid over to mine, and then jerked at the door. Meaningfully, one of his hands twitched.
I slid over to look at Hands, the blood smeared across her young face, then jerked my eyes at the door.
She nodded, and we moved all at once.
Gunze yanked the door open with a flurry of strings, throwing it to the side, surging out of the way of the frame, and the Cuban Patrol member was seized by the air itself, Hands’ face stuck in concentration.
Then his helmet slammed against the wall. Then again. Then again. It cracked on the third one and his hands twitched, sending one last spray of bullets down the hallway, spend shells littering the ground around him.
Then one more time against the wall, there was a sickening crack, and he fell to the ground twitching.
Hands looked sick beside me and I grabbed her shoulder. “You did good,” I hissed. “But I need you to stay good. The pain’ll be there for you to face later, alright? We need to keep going, we don’t have time to panic.”
She nodded at me, her bloodied face bobbing up, and I shot a look at Gunze.
“What?” he said, gruffly. “Tired of having people murdered for you?”
“Self defence, Gunze,” I hissed. “And throw the body behind the desk, I want them to have to look for it. Hopefully, they’ll think that this was done by our hidden friend in the room.”
“If not?” Gunze said. He did it anyway, tossing the corpse, or just broken man like he was a bale of hay.
“Then we’ve given up information we didn’t need to,” my mind thought back to Faraday. Don’t release anything that you don’t intend to. Nullify when possible. Do not escalate, end things. “And we’ll just have to /live/ with those consequences.”
Gunze laughed. “You got a bit of leadership to you. Your father never has had that.”
My head jerked and I stared at him for a moment.
He flashed me a toothy, dentured grin and gestured down the hallway. “Careful now, the halls will turn into killing fields if we don’t press the advantage.”
So we moved into the hallway. Spend rounds littered the floor, holes littered the walls. Blood littered the air and splattered across the paint like modern art.
I followed it to the source and found a D class hero. Brand new. Temporary ID around his neck, which had been thoroughly slit.
His eyes were still wet with terror.
I reached over and snapped the name off of his neck and held it in my fist.
Was this what it meant to be a hero? Seeing the dead around you and vowing to make a difference? I’d remember his name. Find his family. After we were out of here.
Gunze nodded in approval. “Good idea. It might help us get around if we have an ID.”
Hands was quiet behind me as I stood up, card in my hand and went to the next door. It’d been blown off of it’s hinges.
There’d been another fight in this break room. Bullets covered the walls, marked them like chicken pox. I turned around and looked at the front desk, then traced my way back.
“They took it room by room,” I muttered. “Had to have faced heavy resistance each step of the way. What were they after?”
“There are many things in an association base,” Gunze said, grimly. “Information is chief among them. Don’t worry about it.”
I was relieved to find that the sole body in the room was a Cuban Patrol member and not another wide eyed cape cut down by sustained assault rifle fire. His neck had been wrung like a chicken.
I didn’t want to think about how easy it was to dismiss the other side, just because they were murdering scumbags.
The card key cut into my hand and I flicked it about. I didn’t want to look at the name. Didn’t think I could put up with another human life snuffed out, or carry that knowledge yet. Couldn’t bear to know that someone had died while I’d deliberated even coming here.
I stopped at the next door.
Not because I wanted to, but because a guy had a knife blade held to my neck. Pressed me firmly against the wall, hands held tightly to keep me from moving.
Gunze stopped, his eyes jerking between the two of us, and Hands stiffened.
“Stole my kill,” The guy grunted.
My eyes were narrowed, crossed, staring at the blade pointed just underneath of my chin. I swallowed and leaned back slightly. The knife followed after me, held unerringly in his hands.
Then my focus slid forward to person in front of me. His other, scar licked hand bore another knife, nimble fingers flicking it about.
But I recognized the scar rimming the base of the fingers. It seemed unlikely… but unlikely had been the name of the game the last few weeks.
“Colton?” I guessed, though my voice came out as more of a croak than anything confident.
The knife vanished into thin air at my throat, his dispassionate green eyes jerking to settle on the other two. He kept me held in place though, the threat implied.
“If it isn’t literally the last person I would ever expect to be here,” Colton said, his voice rimmed with amusement and something more smoldery. Flecks of anger in the alloy. “Are you supposed to be a rescue party? You’re a bit late.”
I swallowed. “You’re looking at what we could get together.”
“We?” Colton’s eyes flicked over the two of them. “I see an old man and a useless wretch. I hope you don’t mean to say that this is your team. It’d have to be even more disappointing if you were leading it.”
Hands slapped Colton across the face without more than a moment of hesitation, and I broke out of the hold and begged my heart to still. “Wrong time for this. Are you with us or are we going to leave you behind?”
Gunze laughed behind the three of us. “Good to see some fire from the new generation.”
“Shut it old man,” Colton snarled at him. “I was doing just fine picking them off until someone got the lot of them mobilized.”
“How is that a bad thing?” I asked. “We got the pressure off of you.”
“Only for a damn moment,” Colton returned. “When they get back, they’ll be organized, and then how am I supposed to pick them off when they clear the rooms one by one? They’re armored, you useless D class.”
“B-class,” Gunze corrected, sweeping past him. “And let’s keep going. Surely there someone mildly more useful than you we should be saving.”
“I don’t like the tone of your voice,” Colton cut in. “And Gale’s been a D class since we took opening classes together. Been on the D track the entire time. We split off when I got moved to B.”
“And yet,” Gunze said, his eyes flicking to the pin on Colton’s shoulder. “You seem to be a C class now.”
My eyes settled on the stripes on his shoulder. He’d been demoted.
“A temporary measure,” Colton said, knives spiralling off of his fingers, splitting into many different shapes, makes and models. “Just like us allying. Come on, I know where they’re holding the rest. Don’t hold me back.”
“Which means Gale outranks you in the current situation,” Gunze twisted his words in deeper. “So let Gale give the orders.”
“Report,” I commanded Colton, turning away. I didn’t want to see the expression on his face. Didn’t want to know what doubt he’d see on mine.
“Are you really having me do this?” Colton snarled.
“Report!” I barked.
“Seven hours ago, we reported unknown aircraft in the skies. When command flagged them down to warn them that they were in our air space, they shot down our radio tower. We’ve been unable to communicate effectively ever since.”
I blinked at him. “What do you mean, unable to communicate?”
“The bands are jammed, all we get is static.”
My eyes settled on the com on my hip, and Colton seized it in his hands, dragging it up to his face.
“Purple capes? Where the hell did you get something this old? Which body did you take it from.”
“It was given to me with my promotion,” I said, grimly. “Why do the channels work?”
“They must be hitting the bands the new ones are on. Older ones use less secure lines, probably figured there wouldn’t be movement on those anyway.” The knife master’s eyes flicked up at mine. “Exactly how much back up are we talking about here?”
“Just Ironmarrow,” Gunze muttered. “And me.”
“We need more. Way more.”
“How many do you think are left and moving?” I asked, grimly.
“Probably Two or Three. They went for the classrooms first, to suppress the A rankers. Me and few others were in suspension for… poor behavior,” Colton said, flatly. “We got out alright, and I think Osteor is still rocking around. Be hard to take out someone that bullet proof.”
I breathed out a sigh of relief. That meant, if we could extract her, we’d have at least one person who could heal.
“Not to interrupt the report,” Hands said. “But why do we need more?”
“They got at least five squads in here, and about an hour ago, I heard an armored contingent show up. My guess?” Colton paused, the knives spirally back into one form. “They’re getting ready to clear the place out entirely. Strafe it with guns until we’re all dead.”
My heart thumped in my chest like I’d been feeding it nothing but hard truths and misery instead of warm fuzzy feelings.
That was true, to a point. But my heart would be dead if I let the Cubans feed it hot lead.
“Alright. We find your allies, find Osteor, and get out.”
The knives clicked out one more time. “Gale’s seriously the one leading it?”
“I’m retired,” Gunze offered.
“I’m new at this,” Hands said.
Colton gave me a lingering, doubting glare and started forward. “What first, daring leader?”
“Osteor,” I said.
“She’ll be hiding out in the labs. Let’s get there, quick, I doubt there’s much time before they catch her.”
“And if they catch her?” Gunze asked, slyly.
“Then every gun in the facility will see just how long she can remain bulletproof,” Colton said, shooting him a glare. “And old man, she’s worth a hell of a lot more than you are.”
“Whatever you say, young blood,” Gunze gestured at the door. “After you.”
The next room crossed several different administrative departments. Deliberately, the doors were left unmarked, and the structure of the building maze like, specifically to confused any would be infiltrators.
Despite that, the door Colton led us to was also the one that had been blown to bits with a block of explosives. The knife master frowned at the bottom of the door still attached by a ragged half melted hinge, and stepped over top of it.
We followed him and he led us into a courtyard, rimmed in by high building on all sides. A window opened.
An instant later, Colton was on the ground, Gunze’s threads wrapped securely around his hips and arms, and a bullet rested in the wall where his head had been.
The next moment, the wall erupted in a hail of bullets and plasterboard, and I shoved Hands to get her moving, trusting Gunze would keep Colton on his feet.
A bullet tore through the air in front of me and caught the edge of my nose. The skin and cartillage evaporated into a cloud of gore, blinding me, and then came the pain as my nerves fired seconds later.
It didn’t stop my legs from carrying me the rest of the way through the hallway and out to the side side, but it did cause Hands to cry out.
Hands clenching, nerves shaking, knees pressed together, I squeezed as hard as I could through the pain, and listened to the foot falls of Colton’s uniform shoes, and Gunze’s loafers against the ground, interspersed with wild automatic fire.
It wasn’t a miracle they missed most of the shots, they were blind firing from across the courtyard into a thin hallway.
Our one savings grace, and yet…
I squinted, tears rolling down my face the way we’d came, and realized we were cut off, as long as those Patrol members were there.
“Gale!” Hands said, walking over to me. Her invisible hand pricked at mine with something like claws and I snapped it open, eyes watering.
“You up for this, brat?” Gunze asked, peering from behind Hands.
“It’s only a bullet to the nose, Gale’ll be fine,” Colton said, dismissively.
“I don’t know…” I trailed off. We were stuck here. We could only move forward, and I couldn’t catch my breath. My lungs burned and my knees burned and everything ached. Like I was at the bottom of a bottle, and the cork was sliding into place.
My hands were running red with blood, and ruined cartilage ached and dripped down my lips and chin. Hot pain, a sort of leaking one that made me shiver and quake leaked from every inch my face, until I felt half drugged, high on the touch of lead in my face.
“Get over here!” Colton barked. Hands spun away from me and Colton got in my face. His black hair almost touched mine. “Stop your fucking snivelling. Get up on your feet.”
Eyes wide, I stood back up.
“You feel that in your fucking knees? Feel it burning in your face?” He asked, jamming his leg between mine to still them. “That means you’re fucking alive. Now show me that spine you had a few seconds ago.”
My eyes shakily met his.
“I SAID SHOW ME YOUR FUCKING SPINE, YOU WRETCH!” Colton’s words spat across my face. “OR ARE YOU JUST AS USELESS AS I THOUGHT YOU WERE?”
Something flashed across my thoughts. Excelsior, perhaps. Faraday. But farther back than that. My father, sitting on top of the Pinellas islands, staring down at me. Never be disappointed in yourself. Everyday you step forward is a victory. Never let anyone ever deny that from you.
My head smashed into the teenager in front of me’s nose and I felt blood squirt across my head.
Colton stumbled back laughing, and I stared at him with wild eyes. “What the hell is wrong with you?!” I hissed.
“What do you mean?” Colton grabbed his bloody nose and jerked it back in place with a crack of bone and cartilage. “I got you back to yourself, didn’t I?”
“If you shouted any louder, Mobile would fucking know our exact location!”
“If you were anymore of an idiot, they’d be able to find you by measuring the average IQ drop.” Colton returned, smirking.
Gunze swept through. “If you could stop flirting with Gale…?” he said, slyly, passing by the two of us.
Colton twitched. “Like I’d want anything to do with that D class loser!”
I scowled at him. “I’m a B, you idiot!”
“I’ll believe it when I see it!”
Hands passed between the two of us and grabbed our shoulders without using her hands, tugging us along.
“Osteor,” She said, simply.
Colton grinned and stomped ahead of us, his mop of black hair slick with the blood from his nose. “Everyone ready to be big damn heroes?!”
“You might want to shut up,” Gunze said. “You’re giving me a headache with the whiplash.”
Behind us, the hail of bullets slowed, then stopped.
“That’s our cue,” Colton said, knives spirally around and around his fingers. Then he darted forward through the hallway.
I followed after him, pondering what he was up to and watched him launch himself at a man turning the corner.
The knives bit down into the neck of his armor as he shouted, and then he gurgled, blood dripping across the knives in Colton’s hands. Again and again, Colton struck, popping through bone, popping through skin. Through armor and filters. Sharp clicks and clacks of steel on bone.
Then he stood up, knives dissolving back into the aether, and faced us, his clothes streaked with fresh blood.
“One down,” He grinned. “Come on, the base is full of them.”
I stared at it rolling down his neck and tried to pretend that we were still the good guys. We were, and yet…
How could I say I would hesitate before doing the same… if slightly less enthusiastically?
The research labs were a floor below, in the basement. To minimize the amount of traffic in and out, with the exit and entrance both easily defended and easily watched, as it sat in the middle of an open room, festooned in posters and covered in inspirational quotes.
Faraday featured heavily among them, and my heart ached for the nullifying hero.
Colton swept through the open room, but I stared at it curiously. Gunze paused as well.
“Wait, Colton,” Hands said.
Colton scowled at us, clenching his fists. “What’re we waiting for now?”
“Where’s the rest of the Patrol?”
My eyes drifted down to the com on my hip and flipped it on. “Status report,” I asked.
Weakly, through the other end of the radio, Ironmarrow buzzed in. “They’ve got me to back off. Your time’s limited, I’d get out of there as soon as you can.”
My eyes flicked over to the research lab. “Will do. See you on the other side.”
I flipped off the radio. “Well, I can tell you where they’re going to be. But I can’t tell you why they left the lab unguarded.”
“Only one reason, really,” Gunze said, walking over to the door himself. His fingers slipped across the scorched front and came back covered in soot.
“They’re already inside.”
“Then we can’t waste time out here,” Colton said, slamming the door open.
The cool air of the lab greeted us, flowing across my skin. Goosebumps. It smelled like formaldehyde and stranger, earthier things I hadn’t been close to since the academy.
I summoned a gust and dispelled some of it, but it only got worse as we crawled down the stairs as quick as we could. Colton took them five a time, bounding down, his short cape trailing behind him.
But the labs proper were not what I was expecting. Cold clinical white surfaces pervaded it, covering up the faint stench of blood. Elaborate genetic charts, codes, names, individual encoded bits. Phenotypes, genotypes, lineage charts. Sliding across, I picked out my name descended from my father, with question marks drawn around me.
“They’re trying to figure out the descent of powers,” Colton said, walking forward. “Some families have strong affinities for particular abilities…”
My eyes slid over to Hands.
“And some people don’t.”
“Enough science,” Gunze said, slipping through. “Where’s Osteor?”
Rounding the corner slowly, I found her, sitting in the middle of a room, frantically pouring vials of blood down the sink, one by one. Tears streaked her face.
A few things clicked into place.
“How…” I said, pausing mid stride and looking at the other capes.
“Yes?” Gunze asked.
“How did we get the SOS if the radio tower was blown up in the opening volley?” I slowly said.
Gunze went pale.
Colton slumped to the ground under the butt of a rifle.
“Hands on your head,” barked a voice that none of us had ever heard before. “Or I’ll see just how many bullet it takes to turn you into ground beef.”
The clicks of dozens of rifles flicking safety greeted us like the chorus of the damned.