Hadn’t heard that in over a month, wailing in the distance. I stopped and counted the beats.
Too long for a Tornado.
Too long for an attack.
It was something different. Something I’d never heard before or been briefed on.
Then at the end, it finished with a classic Association cadance. Then started back up again.
Slowly, with numb fingers, I picked up the com on my belt and flicked it open. In the corner, for the first time since the first attack on Mobile, the Association network was up. Limited connection, but up.
A few emotions flittered through my head. Hope, maybe. Joy, maybe. Would’ve smiled if not for the siren. What did it mean?
I leaned back against the wall and flicked through the com for siren protocol.
Under the weight of my fingers, I stared down at the siren page, and found what I was looking for under association protocol.
My thumb paused on it for a long moment, and then slowly, very slowly, I looked outside. Gloomy storm clouds in the distance. It was Mobile. Of course it was going to start raining.
Then, as people who still had radios or coms among us realized the channels were up, my com was bombarded with emergency broadcasts. Crackling static from emergency coms, from heroes that had retired up north, from scouts we had sent out to make sure the outlying towns were safe.
People I recognized, people I didn’t.
“There’s a thing, and it is moving towards us rapidly, we have reports out of Satsuma that the highway is blocked by a thing, and it has arms and eyes. Pink flesh. It’s… eating cars.”
“We have reports of sirens in Saraland, does anyone know what’s going on? I didn’t even know we had Association sirens here!?”
“Police are engaging it, I repeat, the saraland police are engaging it.” The radio broadcast distorted under the weight of bullet and gunshots, and the hiss of something in the distance.
Then it crumbled into static and something like music, pouring through the rough edged speakers of the aging Com device in the palm of my heads; complex ups and downs like siren song, etched in something gurgling and bloody.
I barked out a command into the com. “Get out of there and report down here! Everyone, get to Mobile as soon as you can!”
Heart thumped in my chest.
Gunshots. Something human screamed. Wet tearing. Crunching. Thump of foot steps, growing harder, faster. Rumble of something in the distance, gnashing teeth. Screaming static, song.
The radio cut out.
The siren grew louder, as it poured through the next emergency broadcast. Just static and the wail of the siren, and the heady breath of someone trying to outrun death.
“There are planes in the air. Mobile, there are planes in the air, I repeat, there are plan-”
Then harsh static, and the com cut out.
The reports flowed in like a waterfall as I paged through them.
But the message was clear. There was something in Satsuma, north of my location, and it was heading south.
Flicking through them one by one, I finally found a more official com signal.
“-e repeat, we have lost track of suspected Lost Boy around Stockton, if there are any Association members in Mobile, Evacuate the city. This is not a drill, we repeat, we have lost track of a suspected Lost Boy Entity around Stockton.”
Wasn’t a far stretch from Stockton to Satsuma if you were willing to get through the tangled mesh of forests, rivers, swamps, bayou.
I swallowed, and flicked to the next com line. “People of Mobile, we’d like to inform you that the quarantine will be expanding upon your location in the next hour and a half. Anyone caught inside the city will be asked to not leave until we have handled the situation. If you have places to stay elsewhere, leave Mobile as soon as possible. Thank you.” Man’s voice. Not a simulated one, but a real one, with
I swallowed. Planes in the air. Handled the situation. Mobile. Quarantine.
My knees felt weak as I slid down the wall and sat on the floor, feet making creases in the moldy carpet. I tugged my cape overtop of my knees and swallowed again. It hurt this time, my mouth was too dry. Probably from all of the sweat running down my back.
But this wasn’t just a com I was holding. I could communicate back, I could…
Had to look up the code to contact that Association station that had just sent out the evacuation order, and it took too long, enough time that the minute shifted to the next one. It was too fast, and too slow.
Recognized symptoms of a panic attack, by the tightness of my hands, the numbness of my limbs, the flurry my brain was up to. Take a moment. Breath.
You’re not going to help anyone if you go hysterical. There’s a lot of people who are receiving those transmissions, and you’re not going to help if you’re just as panicked as they are.
I was the ranking hero in Mobile. If anyone could… do anything… it’d be me.
Punched the code in, slipping into the frequencies. Secure line. Didn’t want them to hear. Didn’t want them to…
“This is Gale, ranking hero of Mobile. What’s the situation?”
“Who the hell is Gale?” came the line from the other side of the radio. “I was under the impression that Mobile was a retirement community. Shouldn’t I be talking to Gunze?”
Clicked off the voice for second so I could breath, hissing it through my teeth, then clicked it back on.
“This is Gale, ranking hero of Mobile. I repeat, what is the situation?”
“There’s been an escapee from the Montgomery Exclusion zone. High profile. We’re taking care of the damages caused by the escape, but we cannot put forth the forces to quell the escapee at this time.”
Breath in. Breath out.
“Are you responsible for Grove Hills?” I asked, slowly.
“That situation is also handled,” the radio operator cut in, curtly. “And is not to be discussed on the open air. Your communications have been cut, barring radio.”
They were responsible for the internet being cut off. Of course they were.
They didn’t want it to get out what they were planning for Mobile. Didn’t want evidence to be held against them later.
Tongue flicked between my lips. Mouth was drier than the desert, teeth scuzzy. Had to keep focus. Not give into the panic.
“May I ask who I’m speaking to?”
“Terrence Hill, secure operator for the Montgomery airport.” came the reply.
“Are there planes in the air, Terrence?” I asked. Voice soft. Thought I could hear people listening in on the line.”
“You’re correct,” Terrence replied, breathing out. “Listen Gale, you need to evacuate that area.”
“We both know there’s not enough time for that, not really,” I said.
“There’s not,” Terrence agreed. “It’s still your job.”
In. Out. In. Out. Head pounded. Blood chugged through my veins like sticky glue.
“Can you not send out a team to handle the situation?”
“We risk the exclusionary zone entirely if we direct more forces from the breach,” Terrence said. “I’m sorry, Gale.”
“Stop,” I said, thought my voice sounded more like a mewl than a command. Breath in, out. Swallow. “You don’t get to do this. You don’t get to just destroy us.”
“Acceptable collateral to prevent another Exclusionary Zone from forming, Gale. You know the rules.”
In another world, I would’ve been briefed about all of the particulars a B rank would know, and I would know what he meant. In another world, I would have a dedicated team designed to handle whatever situation was thrown at me.
I wondered what that world felt like, because I was more than aware that I had a ragtag team of drop outs, has beens, and teenagers to fight instead of anything resembling an Eradicator team.
“Give us information, at least. What’s happening here.”
“Can’t do that, Gale. This is above your clearance.”
“Fuck clearance, tell us what we’re damn well dying for,” I hissed into the Com.
“It’s… not that simple. I could lose my job here. There’s a lot of people whose lives depend on Mobile being handled.”
“I’m losing my damn life here,” I hissed even harsher. “Did the people in Grove Hills plead like this, you fucking son of a bitch? Did you listen to them fucking die while they pleaded?”
“I wasn’t at Grove Hills,” Terrence said, his voice blank. No affect. Compartmentalization training. How many people had he given this news to? How many people had died?
How many people had been sucked up into the gears of the crisis, sacrificed for stability’s sake?
“What the hell is a Lost boy?!” I hissed.
“Hold up, who are you talking to?” A voice I hadn’t heard in what felt like months echoed through the comm from several different angles from several different microphones.
“Hero down in Mobile. Says the name’s Gale.”
“Mobile? I thought that place got wiped out in the base attack!” Excelsior’s voice echoed through the line, and my heart thumped and stopped, sputtering for air, fuel, rhyme, reason. “It’s still there?”
“Excelsior?!” I squeaked. Things were different.
“Gale?!” Excelsior laughed, audibly shoving the person out of the way. “You made it? How’s Mobile?”
“Bombs, sir,” came a more distant voice. “We’re ready to handle the breach.”
“Give me a minute,” Excelsior replied, his voice harsh and shrill. “Gale, are you still there in Mobile? Are you leading things?”
Audible breath from Excelsior across the microphone.
“We have a failed quarantine, and there’s a Lost Boy heading towards your position. It’s going to go after the strongest energy source in the city, which is-”
“Faraday,” I breathed out, heart thumping even faster.
“If he gets to Faraday, we’re going to have to scorch a lot more than Mobile. Now, listen Gale, I-” His voice break. My heart sank.
Words flew from my lips.
“I can do it,” I said, without thinking. Couldn’t think. Had to react.
“You can do it?”
“You’re an hour away, Sir. Get here as soon as you can.”
Excelsior breathed in, I could hear it. Could hear him warring with himself. Wanted him to vie in my favor.
“Sir, we can’t do that,” came the whir from the other operator. Terrence. Other people in that building, directing things.
“I can tell you full well what we can and can’t do, man,” Excelsior’s voice was as sharp as his blade. “If my student damn well says the situation will be handled…” his voice was filled with weight. A tiny bit of hope. “Then damn well the situation will be handled.” The mic buzzed with static as I stared down at the com.
I could hear something in the distance roaring. Could taste death in the air, on the gasp of the wind flowing past the afternoon sun.
“Just answer me this,” Excelsior’s voice came in through the com, loud and clear. There was arguing in the background, and the whirring of plane engines. Didn’t want to know what happened to Montgomery, but I knew it all the same.
Failed containment. Converging on my position.
A thing worth destroying Mobile over. Couldn’t…
“Yes sir,” I said.
“Can you give me an hour?” His voice was as serious as I had ever heard it. More serious than when he’d lost his hand, more serious than when Negalli showed up and he’d told me to run.
More serious than when he said he was proud of me. That I was inspiring.
“Sir,” I said, staring at the horizon, where I could hear it coming. Could hear songs that had never been song, the squeal of flesh on steel. The crackle of life. Could feel it in the wind. Could feel it in the breeze.
But I wouldn’t bow to it. Couldn’t bow to panic. Couldn’t bow to fear. Couldn’t do anything but say, with all of the energy left in my damn body. “I could give you a whole damn day if it meant saving the city.”
Excelsior’s voice barked. “Give me an hour, Gale. Get to the graveyard, and I’ll get there as soon as I can. Operator, take me to Mobile.”
“Sir, the bombs will reach far faster than we can get you there.”
“I said,” Excelsior hissed. “Get me to Mobile. We can still save the people there, operator, and I was under the impression our job was saving lives.”
Silence from the rest of the room.
“See you soon, Gale.”