Dragonslayer, Part VII

Participants:

asi_icon.gif avi_icon.gif aislinn_icon.gif bao-wei_icon.gif candice_icon.gif colette4_icon.gif dearing_icon.gif devon2_icon.gif devon4_icon.gif

francis_icon.gif josiah_icon.gif huruma_icon.gif lucille_icon.gif rue3_icon.gif sabine_icon.gif samson_icon.gif scott_icon.gif yi-min_icon.gif

Also Featuring:

hull_icon.gif reed_icon.gif

Scene Title Dragonslayer, Part VII
Synopsis Wolfhound completes their operation.
Date February 28, 2020

Something is dreadfully wrong in Praxia.

The crimson security lighting aside, Yi-Min Yeh can feel something in the air that has changed. A tension since the time she last set foot in these halls. Security cameras on the Executive level appear to be deactivated, something Wolfhound couldn’t have done in advance. Something happened here, something no one on the outside was yet made aware of.

“So,” Colette’s voice rises as a whisper from beside Yi-Min, “what’s the plan, Doc?”

Somehow, this ambience of wrongness in Praxia is far less comforting to Dr. Yeh than it really has a right to be. There might once have been a point when she would have welcomed any signs of subversion in this place she had worked for so long to undermine, no matter the mysteries of the source, but such is not the case now.

The enemy of their enemy might well be nobody's friend.

Staring stonily but meaningfully down the length of their current corridor, one which angles away from the pair of them into a spectacle of sharply redlit gloom, Yi-Min answers her partner's whisper without looking.

"We continue," Yi-Min says just as quietly, already beginning in that direction like a particularly determined sliver of a shadow. "Up."

Up, as the original plan still goes, towards the exterior terrace where she knows the Ziggurat's tower-like VRF condensing units to be housed. 'We need to be careful' feels like a rather needless thing to append in this environment, so she does not.

Up?” Colette’s voice comes quietly at Yi-Min’s side from the emptiness. “We’re on the top— right.” Suddenly, she understands. The maintenance floor, a level between the executive administration offices and the physical ceiling of the Ziggurat.

Yi-Min’s path to the maintenance elevator from the executive suites is a short one. The ziggurat is a sprawling structure, but it becomes increasingly smaller toward the top, making this level the simplest to navigate. Though it looks nothing like she remembers, it feels like a foreclosed office building, devoid of any and all security presence. Cameras still function, but no immediate alarms should be raised by her presence.

As Yi-Min reaches the maintenance elevator, she can hear Colette press up against the wall nearby. “This stuff usually involves more shooting,” Colette quietly offers as Yi-Min badges the elevator doors open, “Pinehearst, the Institute… this is weird.”

As the elevator doors open and Yi-Min steps inside, she can hear Colette’s bootfalls back into the elevator. The photokinetic stays invisible, even once the doors close. But Yi-Min has a theory why it’s so dead in here; Adam and his primary forces must be engaged elsewhere. It’s the only reason she can expect why he hadn’t shown himself, why they hadn’t met with immediate resistance. Something is in motion, and it isn’t just the elevator.


Meanwhile

The Praxis Ziggurat

Laboratory Sub-Basement

Dr. Cong’s Lab


The ziggurat has been under lockdown for over 24-hours since the explosion in the executive suites. It has been a confusing and isolating time, especially for the scientists operating in the sprawling labyrinth of the ziggurat’s basement levels. No word has come from security on the nature of the explosion or when the lockdown will be lifted.

Uncertainty has allowed the rumor mill to churn in steady activity. Enough security personnel—who are also in the dark—had seen a flight of Qingniao aircraft taking off from Alameda Point Airfield to raise internal concerns. No one had seen or heard from the Director in almost a day and the local chief operations officer, Yao Sze, had likewise been a no-show.

In the cold laboratory of Doctor Bao-Wei Cong, there are concerns being aired, visible in puffs of warm breath. Doctor Stefan Morrison paces around beside the ice-crusted edge of a massive underground pool contained within the cavernous lab. Frost rimes the floor where tile meets concrete, and the distant glow of computer screens in the far corners of the lab feel like distantly twinkling stars in the otherwise low light.

“If he abandoned us, we should leave.” Stefan says, rubbing his hands up and down the arms of his jacket for warmth. “He may be dead for all we know. Whatever that explosion was it—Doctor Cong are you listening!?”

For all intents and purposes, the only thing left of authority is the security forces of the Ziggurat; in the labs, there's little of them to be found. Perhaps it became part of the reason Stefan has come skittering into the bowels of the laboratories rather than elsewhere. The pool is dark despite the LED lights afforded by the workstations. The prickly ice serves as a barrier between stark lab floors and the dark tiling which dips under the water.

Doctor Morrison is first met with an abject quiet for all of his crowing; the temptation to let him writhe lingers, but Cong loses that fight. Between the cracks and small floes having formed on the surface, Stefan becomes pinned under the bore of yellow eye and the rise of a crisp fog.

"Morrison," There's something almost… amorphous to the way Bao-Wei has presented himself. Shapes, planes, textures. Yet, it is enough. "Quiet." He could say much more, though he refrains— the hiss of air is enough. A fresh sheet of frost drapes over the pool's surface, a frozen bog with the abstract shape of something bulging just beneath, freshly sunk.

"Surely you've experienced a facility collapse before."

Stefan exhales an exasperated sigh and throws his hands into the air. “What does that even mean!?” He argues with the frozen surface of the pool. “No, I— I’ve never— ” He considers something. “How many times have you done this?

Three, but who’s counting?

The sound of the lab doors opening comes with a gust of climate controlled air that feels warmer than Bao-Wei’s lab. Four Praxis Heavy Industries security officers in full combat gear stride in briskly, rifles aimed at the floor. Behind them, a fifth security officer escorts seven other scientists on Doctor Cong’s team and their sole research “partner” Devon Clendaniel.

Rounded up with the scientists is a face that was drawn in to this web through a mixture of coincidence and purposeful intent. Aislinn Graves.

“B2 Lab secure!” A security officer calls both to his squad and over their comms. Though as they enter, the security team looks around in uncertainty at the frost clinging to the walls. Others seem surprised by how their breath hangs in the air.

“Doc— Doctor Morrison? Doctor Cong?” One officer asks, stepping forward. “We’ve been asked to move all personnel out of the basement. We have intruders inside the Ziggurat.”

"An' push pops, from the looks of it." Aislinn has never been in Doctor Cong's lab; in fact outside of her work she has largely kept to herself since her arrival in Praxis. Despite everything, there's a smirk on her face as her eyes scan around the lab. In one arm carries… well, a small potted plant.

Even as one guard eyes it, she gives him a look.

With a small pouch at her side, her eyes land on Dr. Morrison. Tilting her head at him, she raises an eyebrow. "I don't really recommend waitin' t' get in gear." For any number of reasons.

Reluctance drags at Devon’s steps, marking an unwillingness to enter the lab that no amount of pushing and dragging from the security detail could stop. He's a free man, after all — as free as any laboratory experiment could truly be — allowed to come and go as he wants. And the labs in the depths of the stone prison, where Doctor Cong lurks, aren't anywhere he wants to be. He casts a sullen, angry look at the guard that's got him by the arm, resistant to all attempts at shaking free.

His expression darkens when the chill in the air begins to sink in. It turns baleful, a cornered creature realizing he's fast becoming cornered. Devon's eyes snap to the cohort of scientists, skips over those he'd unwillingly accompanied, and settles blame on Morrison and Cong.

Stefan never does get an answer to his question.

Instead, the doors open at the fore of the lab and officers file in, company in tow. The idle lurch of the pool from side to side indicates movement, icicles clicking off of the sides and bouncing over the floor and underfoot.

Devon is likely to know the feeling of being watched from a bulk of ice; he's been here a long, long time now, and the glitter of eye can be tracked if you know where to look. Though Doctor Cong has been neutral towards his treatment of Clendaniel, the fact remains that the young man is still here, still a 'ward'; perhaps it was for the best, given this turn of events.

"Would you like for me to make you a push pop?" If it weren't the here and now, the sinister words out of the pool may have taken on a less grotesque meaning. "I am aware." Once more the pool tosses, ice scattering. One by one, pieces of the pool begin to crack against one another, first creating an amalgam of edges before it sinks like a rock. When that pool's surface is finally fully breached, it is by the scratching points of long digits clicking against tile and floor. The rest of the pool seems to follow the lift of a serpentine shape, arching its way towards the ceiling and bristling with fresh frost, long and brittle as they form in the serpent's wake. It is a skin-tingling cold that briefly roils from the air, slowly and surely winding back in on the frame of ice.

"Out, and where?" Doctor Cong's eye rolls into focus along the jagged face of a snake, yellow and sharp. This is a fine a place as any, isn't it? What waits outside but more of the same

Doctor Morrison stumbles backwards on seeing Bao-Wei like this, mouth agape and eyes wide. He had never witnessed this measure of transfiguration from the doctor, in spite of his often-times inhuman appearance. A security officer takes Doctor Morrison by the arm, keeping him from falling over entirely.

Even the security officers don’t really know what to do with Bao-Wei. The arrival of two mechanized, bipedal security robots gives them a false sense of security in the face of a mythological creature who is ostensibly on their side. Devon can hear the Qing drones come marching in, their heavy-footed steps sparking a low-key panic response in the back of his mind; memories of fire, screams, pain, and darkness.

“Doc— Doctor Cong,” one of the security officers finally says, motioning to the double doors out of the lab, “we’ve been ordered to bring all research personnel up to the residence level for your safety. We have— ” the officer turns his head, pressing fingers to his ear. His eyes go wide, and as he is about to cite some sort of concern there is a tremendous eruption of gunfire down the hall.

Security officers pivot toward the sound of shouts and automatic weapons. Two officers drag Devon to the right, finding it easier as he’s suddenly hit by a wave of vertigo and nausea from seeing a hallway overlaid with the current room. The gunfire echoes redundantly in his ears, and suddenly he has a very clear notion of who the intruders are.

Before security can even get into position, as Doctor Morrison is being hauled behind the cover of a bank of computers, the doors to the lab burst open with a kinetic shockwave, flying off their hinges and launching one security officer square off his feet. The trio of flashbangs that follow are a disorienting icing on the cake.

When security officers raise their rifles to return fire, it is James Dearing first through the door, hip-firing a weapon intended to be mounted on an armored truck, launching high-velocity rounds that chew through AEGIS armor like paper. Three security officers and a bank of computers are eviscerated by the hail of gunfire, quickly followed by the loud pop of a heavy pistol as Scott Harkness takes up a position of cover outside of the lab, dropping another armed security officer.

By the time another Devon Clendaniel and Rue Lancaster come through the door there’s four security officers left, crouched behind small measures of insufficient cover which Dearing turns to and—

stops

because

That’s a dragon.

Rue’s brows climb in tandem with her flipping up the visor of her helmet to get a better look, as though it might somehow be distorting her vision and making her see things that aren’t there. “Yep,” she breathes out, eyes fixed on Bao-Wei’s form that is definitely exactly as it appeared from behind the helmet. “It sure is.”

Shit.

“So,” Rue says to Dearing without looking at him, “that’s all you.” Because he’s probably got the only weapon that would do any good. If they need to use a weapon at all from this point. Then, she raises her voice to the rest of the room, “Alright, listen up! Anyone else who doesn’t want to be perforated?” She finally starts glancing around the frigid space. It’s like a fucking Chicago winter in here. “Toss out your weapons. Into the pool is fine with me.”

She lifts her rifle, but while doesn’t point it directly at anyone, she settles her gaze on Devon. The one that isn’t her squad’s Devon. “Or I can show you how great a shot I am. Your fuckin’ choice.”

At Rue's shoulder, Hound-Devon stares at Bao-Wei. Fractures of memories flash through his mind, glimpses into the inhumane tests and treatment he'd been subjected to. He shakes his head slightly, fingers flex and his grip adjusts on the pistol in his hand. Oh, how he'd love to sink a shot between the doctor's eyes. The element of surprise is on his side, no one would fault him for taking the shot. He'd be put on report for the maneuver, but for the first time in his life he'd doubt if any one of his superiors would blame him for the hot-headed action.

The gun stays. Fingers squeeze around the molded plastic of the handle, gloves creak slightly with the effort. His finger doesn't go to the trigger, the muzzle doesn't train on the monster that haunts his nightmares. He takes a slow breath in, slides a look to Rue, then follows her direction to…

himself.

Vertigo almost eases as the overlay of the laboratory on the laboratory settles into something nearly seamless. The vision of the intruders overlaps strangely, like a room of warped mirrors in a carnival funhouse. It affords Praxia-Devon the strange opportunity to see his teammates at two angles. But the vision is entirely without the thrill of hope he'd always imagined it would have.

"Look what the cat dragged in." Although he sounds amused, the slight tick of a smile on his face is anything but. Disbelief muddles with hatred. The guards with hands on the Praxia ward’s arms can feel a slowly growing tension, though he shows no outward sign of impending movement.

Safety, the officer says.

Cong has nothing to say to that, instead shifting, angling back; the undefined outline he gives against the light catches on it, the warp of water reflecting back and forth, spidery lines where ice has forced together. Gunfire which progresses from the corridors beyond the lab draws his eye, no move made to find cover. The flashbangs are what gets through to him, if only in vision; golden eye snuffs out, draconic frame arching further back, up. Tile buckles underfoot at the edge of the pool. A sound moves from the ice, a hollow knocking echoing off of the walls.

"Congratulations," The echo warbles down into speech from an open maw, stretched as if stitched partway closed. Bao-Wei's eye swivels back into light, a shock of color, voice grinding with irritation. "You've reached a dead end." It lacks threat. It is simply fact, undirected towards any party in particular.

Talking— to no-one but himself.

Ice blooms at the dragon's back, spreading over the wall— and doors. The only exit is the one which the Hounds came through. Where the Qing arrived. Where, he does not doubt, more will begin to seep in. A brief moment is spent peering down at the Devon he's been keeping ward over, the same look passing forward over the one in Wolfhound armor. Now, Doctor Cong seems to acknowledge the situation itself. For what it is.

Aislinn's jaw clenches as Wolfhound enters the room, her attention briefly pulled away from Dr. Cong. "Fuck," slips out in a low breath, even as her eyes move from Dearing to Rue - she recognises the latter, head canting slightly to the side. Well. That certainly makes things more complicated than she wants to deal with.

Eyes move around, widening as she realises there's no other immediate egress from the room - she's not much of a fighter, and even if she was she's ill equipped for it. So it'll take another plan to ensure she gets out of this unscathed.

Moving as close to Praxia-Devon as she can, she leans forward and whispers into his ear. "You're up, kid," she remarks before pushing him forward and back peddling away. Arms wrap around the potted plant, pulling it close as she presses against the wall behind her, a look over to Dr. Morrison as she motions for him to join her.

Stefan swallows audibly, both hands slowly rising in a gesture of uncertain surrender as his wide, blue eyes flick back and forth between the heavily armed PMC and Bao-Wei, but then settle on the Qing drones who keep their aim trained on the Wolfhound officers, but do not fire, implying perhaps an intelligence behind their tense standoff.

Scott makes a purposeful look at one, then makes eye-contact with Dearing, before looking at the other. Dearing only briefly acknowledges the robot when face-to-face with the dragon that is Bao-Wei. He grimaces, and draws in a sharp breath.

The Qing drones mechanical fingers twitch over their triggers.


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat

Air Filtration Maintenance Level


The elevator has only a floor to ascend to reach the maintenance level, and when the doors open there are no high ceilings or palatial marble-lined floors. Instead there are just narrow corridors of bare concrete, external power conduits, water lines, and ventilation ducts. Without environmental controls it is swelteringly hot in the maintenance level.

“Do you know which way to go?” Colette’s voice comes from near the open elevator doors. The hallway ahead of them only extends about ten feet before forking left and right. But given how small the executive level was, this floor can’t be more than a hundred feet across on all sides.

About that whole 'I’d expected more shooting' thing.

"Mmm. If I had to hazard a guess, we're not the first ‘guests’ to have dropped in here unannounced tonight." Beneath the high purr of the ducts, Yi-Min's reply is hushed with a tautness that flirts with the boundary of dread, something which harmonizes oddly with how ostensibly calm she still appears. In the darkness of her mind's eye, away from Colette, she glimpses again all her old whorls of conjectures regarding the bioweapon Adam had asked her to make— and all the consequences that might yet come, if the identity of the guest was indeed what she surmised.

But there isn't time to dwell on this now. There is no time for further guesswork, and no time for regrets.

Not for the past, and especially not going forwards.

"Left here," Yi-Min murmurs, reaching to brush her small fingertips against a short line of control valves they pass as though this serves as physical evidence of her decision for both her and her unseen partner. Unless Adam had somehow managed to rearrange this section of the Ziggurat's actual internal layout in the time between her last visit and now, then her assessment should still be correct.

The subtle sound of bootfalls behind Yi-Min are the only clue she has to Colette’s positioning as they make their way through the serpentine corridors, past junction boxes for power and telecommunication lines. Some of the junctions have small built-in workstations with flip-up screens, all of which are powered down. It isn’t until the heat rises that Yi-Min is certain they’re going in the right direction.

A strength of hallway near the middle of the roof is lined on either side by seven foot tall and four foot wide metal boxes that contain delicate blades of aluminum throwing off considerable heat. Dozens upon dozens of VRF condensers hum with activity, pumping climate-controlled air through the arcology. There are aisles between the rows of condensers, each one just barely wide enough for someone to walk shoulder width.

The heat coming off the condensers is considerable and a sign stenciled onto the concrete wall warns:

EXTREME TEMPERATURES
Please utilize a PHI-3 maintenance drone.
Serious risk of injury is possible.

Below which are pictures of a person laying on the ground with heat lines coming off of them and a separate pictograph of fire.

“Tell me you have one of those drones,” Colette says flatly.

Yi-Min does not.

Not personally.

Luckily, she knows a person who knows a person drone.

After a single glance at the dramatically illustrated warning on the wall, and then another, more long-suffering glance in Colette's direction but not aimed at her, Yi-Min jabs a brisk message into the little square of illumination marking out her phone in the rising heat.

Yi-Min
Now would be a lovely time for that drone backup up here.
If you're not terribly busy, that is.
Sent

There isn't anything else Asi could possibly be occupied with right now, Yi-Min is sure. Not inside this absolute delight of a building whose owners had chosen to cram hundreds of condensing units inside one sweltering room, creating a nightmare of a fire hazard that literally had to be babysat by robots, as opposed to just setting them outside like a normal evil megacorporation without high-tech blast shielding.

ON1
我有點忙.1
Seen

Elsewhere in this sturdy structure, explosions are happening after all.

ON1
As soon as I get access, I'll retask something your way.
Seen

It's the most Asi can promise, but neither does it come with a timeframe.

Yi-Min
太好了.2
Sent

It's probably a good thing that it can be difficult to interpret tone through text, especially since Yi-Min's eye is lingering on the word 'retask.' The implication of that word choice really isn't the best.

Yi-Min
Any idea on how long you might need?
Sent

Noises of uncertainty don't carry well over text, either. There's a brief pause which could have any possible cause. But a response does come relatively swiftly.

ON1
5分鐘.
Seen

As she lowers her screen slightly, Yi-Min delivers another neutral look towards the rough space where she'd last heard Colette's voice. "Five minutes. Supposedly," she informs the young photokinetic, tone so overly mild she couldn’t make it more so if she tried. She keeps the display held closely enough to remain easily visible at the corner of her vision, ready to serve as a catalyst for any kind of reaction at a moment's notice, but she is also not holding her breath.

It's time for them to play the waiting game for as long as is needed.

“Five minutes,” Colette echoes.

“It’s never five minutes.”


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat

Laboratory Sub-Basement

Dr. Cong’s Lab


“You’re outnumbered.” Doctor Morrison says with a slow rise of his brows indicating the Qing that remain standing and the remaining security team.

“Worse, you’re outgunned.” Morrison continues, nodding back to Bao-Wei. “Perhaps it is in your best interests to lay down your arms, yes?” His brows rise. “And we can… discuss terms?”

Stefan’s confidence is slowly returning as he realizes just how stacked the situation is against Wolfhound. He doesn’t, after all, join Aislinn, but instead takes a confident step back toward the edge of the pool, shoes crunching in ice. He sees the hound-head insignia on the uniforms, and smiles with nervous anticipation.

“Let’s all be sensible.” Stefan says with that growing smile.

Rue scans the room slowly, brows lifted as she makes a show of silently counting the number of combatants in the room, mouth forming around the numbers as she goes. One, two, three… Her head tilts to one side after she finishes her headcount, as if considering the odds for a moment.

They aren’t great, admittedly.

But they haven’t been fired on yet. It’s a gamble to bet that the situation will continue, that their good fortune will hold.

The muzzle of her weapon begins to lower, but without any verbal command given to her squad to do the same. “You want to discuss terms?” she asks, a small quaver in her voice. Dearing’s heard that tone before. It’s always when she’s complaining about a supposedly bad turn in the river. Or about to pull something underhanded while they’re sparring.

Airmail’s report is loud in the quiet of the room when Rue squeezes the trigger, firing a round into the meat of Dr. Morrison’s leg. “No, I don’t think we’ll be discussing terms of our surrender. Does anyone else think we should be doing that right now?” She flips down her visor and turns her weapon toward the guards with the other Devon.

“Are you stupid?”

Matching voices express the question in incredulous unison and two sets of identical eyes fix on Morrison. And then each other.

It's all Hound-Devon has time to say before Rue punctuates the irony of the situation. His focus jerks from his other self to the doctor as the lieutenant fires the first shot. While she dots the I’s, he brings his firearm up to cross the T’s. “Kinda like our odds,” he asides to the rest of his team. He takes aim on Aislinn, leaving Bao-Wei for Dearing and Harkness. “Just like old times.”

The echoing crack of gunfire in a small, enclosed space is unpleasant, to say the least. Rue fires her gun and severs the strange sensation of Praxia-Devon seeing himself while seeing himself. He flinches, slips free of the guards’ hold so he can cover his ears a second too late to save them from a painful ringing.

“Are you crazy!?” If the question to Morrison was disbelieving, the one now directed at Rue is absolutely unbelieving. Praxia’s ward stares at her, at the other him, lips curling with a fleeting show of cynicism. Now that gun is pointed his way? “Have you lost your everloving mind?”

Carnage comes next.

The moment a round is fired in the standoff the Qing slip back into action. Not more than seconds later Rue is slammed from both sides by automatic weapons fire. She wasn’t expecting the robots to be so fast on the draw. The air is knocked out of her lungs, a spiderweb crack splits her visor from a deflected round and the impact jerks her neck back so sharp she feels muscles in her back tear. One minute Rue is standing and the next she’s on the ground.

Dearing opens fire on one of the Qing with the machine gun, armor-piercing heavy weapons ammo tearing through body armor designed to deflect hand munitions. The robot’s head shatters in a shower of wires, glass, and internal components, blinding it before it is ripped limb from limb by the howl of gunfire.

But Dearing is caught by one of the other security officers, shot five times in the back with a burst of automatic weapons fire. He jerks forward, dropping the machine gun before landing on his hands and heels. Smoke issues up from the battery pack of his armor, much as is sizzling out of Rue’s. He hears the same high pitching whining alarm in his helmet that Rue does, and as he scrambles across the floor to get out of the path of automatic weapons fire, the loud report of a .45 magnum blasts through the air.

Scott Harkness, who had been readied to fire, blows the camera out on the robot but takes a volley of blind automatic fire to the chest, launching him off of his feet and down onto his back in the hallway. The headless machine totters around, firing wildly down the hall, bullets zipping over Harkness’ prone form.

Josiah, out in the hall, grabs Scott by the back of his collar and drags him into cover in the narrow space between the doorjam and the wall, pressing his back up against the concrete. He quickly pats Scott down across the chest, brushing flattened bullets off of dimpled AEGIS armor. Ferrofluid leaks out of a few areas where the rounds tore through the armor, bleeding silver down the front of Scott’s chest.

“You stay down,” Josiah says, listening to the whirr of gunfire and waiting for the Qing to need to reload. “I got you.”

The guards with Praxis-Devon drop like a sack of potatoes with the precision gunfire provided by Rue, freeing the Devon-come-ward-of-Praxia from their grasp. Aislinn, staring down the barrel of a gun, watches her life flash before her eyes.

Kill them!” Stefan screams, dropped to one knee on the floor. He looks back and up at Bao-Wei. “Kill them all goddamnit!

Observing the ensuing chaos on both sides, Doctor Cong's icy shape reels back a second time, gaze on the room as a whole. Morrison's down, the Qing. A backup in the hall pulling one of the Hounds to safety. Rue and Hound Devon taking the brunt of reaction. Errant gunfire embeds dozens of bullets in the dragon's hide, splintering the surface in ripples only to fall with clatters and splashes to the floor and pool. The noise of the battle is deafening in the lab.

For Bao-Wei Cong, the line of disturbance is crossed when he hears the nearest screams and begging— commanding?— Doctor Morrison on the floor. It isn't his place, nor his authority, and never an allowance. Stefan has never been the one calling the shots. In the heat of battle, testing the limit of power serves up only one thing: anger.

Anger and patience tested by security forces ailing, Wolfhound's soldiers buckling, sparks and blasts, wailing from the floor. Noise. A bubbling red at the back of his mind claws forward. Yellow eye flashing, ice prickles and bristles. The crimson clouds what is left of Cong's expressiveness with a fine mist. Enough.

Stefan Morrison's screams end in a shower of blood and bile.

The dragon's body crests the water in jagged angles, head snaking upwards, swanlike in the moment before descent. Lights fall, the lab quakes, loose objects shattering and crashing. Nose and lower jaw slam into the floor on either side of Doctor Morrison, tile flying. Golden eye rolls and flickers wildly, distant, dissonant and dissociative; the teeth close around flesh and bone with a rumbling snap, hauling its spoils back into the cold open air.

There had been a smug smile on Aislinn's face as Morrison is shot. She had been so very ready to rub it in his face that maybe that wouldn't have happened had he come to join her like she had indicated. She had had a plan, one that might have made this better for two of them.

But then Wolfhound lives up to what she's heard, and decides a firefight is better than a discussion. Blood, oil, and electric sparks fill the air, and Aislinn Graves screams. The plan had been to feign fear, but now it's very real. Too real. Eyes widen as she stares down the guns aimed at her, and all she can think of is her sister.

Paralyzed, her breaths are quick and shallow as she waits for what's next. Dr. Cong cannibalizing Dr. Morrison was not on her bingo card, knees weakening as she watches this new fresh horror in front of her. When they finally give out from underneath her, she collapses to her knees, arms pulled up close and over her head as the plant she had been carrying dallas to the ground. The pot doesn't shatter, but it does gain a long crack, though Aislinn pays it no mind.

Instead she waits for how this can get worse - and amid her racing thoughts, how she can get out of it alive.

A foot severed by frozen teeth drops, shoe and all, from Bao-Wei’s mouth and hits the floor with a wet slap. Through the frosted ice of Bao-Wei’s mouth and the glare of flashlights trained on the frozen behemoth, a dark shape of Stefan’s body working its way through the frozen beast’s vestigial throat can clearly be seen.

From the ground, Dearing grabs the leg of the headless Qing and yanks it off of its feet, then like a child having a temper tantrum with a doll, flings it back and forth smashing it to increasingly more disparate pieces back and forth across the floor. Limbs of the Qing fly off with each impact, until Dearing is left holding a single twisted leg.

Then he remembers.

Sunstone.

Fuck.


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat

35th Floor, Executive Security


Fuck.”

The feed from wall-mounted security cameras in the basement lab level go out when the Qing drones’ proprietary self destruct systems activate, causing a massive explosion in the lab. Sabine Hazel lifts a hand to pinch the bridge of her nose as drone operators frustratedly slam their hands against the consoles.

“Get me a retrieval team down there,” Sabine says with a slow turn to an officer standing behind her. “Someone might have survived that blast. If they’re not ours I want them stabilized and detained.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The security officer says, turning toward the sliding doors into the command room. But they open before he reaches them, and the officer steps aside and stands at attention at the figure who slouches through.

adam_icon.gif

“Don’t just bloody stand there,” Adam barks at the security officer, who springs back into action and rushes past him and out of the command center. Sabine steps down from the slightly raised overseer’s perch and walks between rows of drone operators to meet Adam halfway in the room.

“Sir,” she greets, knowing that he didn’t come down here for a status report.

“We’re still on-plan,” Adam says as if to dismiss her concerns, “but I was informed Wolfhound has breached the building?” His brows raise. “Which members?”

Sabine takes a moment to consider the question, then motions with her head over to another high-set bank of wide displays. “We had a breach downstairs, but we were unable to identify before Qing self-destruct systems activated. We believe another team came in through the executive roof access utilizing Yi-Min Yeh’s codes, but we haven’t seen her come up on camera yet, we’re dispatching a team to the roof now.”

Adam’s eyes narrow slowly, and he turns his attention to screens showing fires outside the Ziggurat. “The explosions?”

“The Guardians,” Sabine explains. “We’ve spotted April Silver on a handful of security feeds. We believe they may have set charges leading up to this operation, they’ve destroyed two munitions factories and a fuel processing plant, the chain reaction destroyed an entire petroleum storage facility.”

“Jesus Christ,” Adam says as he massages his brow with his hand. “Aerial?” He inquires, and Sabine has no monitor to show him.

“External cameras are mostly street-focused, but there’s an experimental aircraft performing strafing runs on our ZZ-7’s, Sir. Our drones can’t keep pace with it. Moreover,” Sabine points to a screen displaying radar images. “We’ve picked up aircraft launches from western-facing US military outposts, this may be the start of a full invasion. We need to— ”

“Ma’am!” A security analyst screams, “Core Processing has gone offline!”

Sabine whips around, wide-eyed. Adam seems even more distraught at the revelation, walking over with Sabine to the console showing formerly red nodes on a spiderweb map turning blue like a spreading infection.

“The Wolfhound operatives that bypassed the Qing’s made it through into Core Processing and locked us out. I don’t know what they did, but they’ve assumed control of the entire automated system, only the partitioned network on this floor is still operational! They must have a technopath but— none of the automated traps triggered!”

Adam’s blue eyes search from side to side, and he exhales a sharp snort out of his nose. “Show me that team.” He demands, and Sabine brings him to another screen showing a gunfight in a stairwell from several minutes ago.

Huruma,” Adam whispers, followed by a look away from the screen at to the floor. His attention snaps then to another woman on the screen, and he points at her with two fingers. “The automated technopath countermeasures didn’t trigger because it doesn’t recognize the intrusion as anything but the system.”

Sabine balks in confusion. “Why?

“It’s complicated,” is Adam’s response. “I just— didn’t think this was a possible outcome. There’s things about the Core that I didn’t want to explain.”

Sabine’s eyes narrow, her face flushes with anger and she curls her hands into fists. “I am your head of security!” She shouts. “And you didn’t think I needed to know something about our security system!?

Adam looks down to the screens, baffled. “Tetsuyama shouldn’t have— she had no reason to…”

Suddenly, Adam realized that he’d been outmaneuvered.


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat

Air Filtration Maintenance Level


“…fuck it’s hot.

Invisibility was no escape from the heat. What was supposed to be five minutes turned into a far longer tail. Slouched against one of the concrete walls, Colette stares up at the ceiling and wipes sweat-slicked bangs from her face. Fifty pounds of armor and gear feels five times as heavy in the oppressive heat, and as she turned her reddened face toward Yi-Min, she looks about five more minutes away from dropping all of it.

No reply comes from Asi, even after she's gone past the agreed-upon time. It's unclear if she's even receiving messages at all, for the silence that's pervaded since last contact.

Literally anything could be happening in the outside world. Here, it's hard to tell. Here, only what can be seen, what can be heard…

The sounds of ambulating can be heard, actually— that of a machine. "«對不起我讓你等3»," comes ahead of the bot, mechanical and distant save for the humanity of its apology. The recommended PHI-3 maintenance drone coming down the hall moves only as fast as it can, which gives the person controlling it enough time to communicate further. "«All security drones are down now. Should make it easier on you when you leave. I can't do anything about the people you might encounter, though.»"

Once close enough, the drone turns just so in Yi-Min's direction. "«The solution, please.»"

In at least one way, the relatively quiet operation of a cutting-edge VRF system like this one (all the corners Praxis had cut notwithstanding) was a curse. The omnipresent droning of ductwork that would normally act as a welcome distraction from the utter lack of communication from Asi is nonexistent, leaving both Yi-Min and Colette a strangely desolate atmosphere in which to stew, even in this cluster of condensing towers.

For too long, it's like they're sitting in a void composed of emptiness and even emptier, excruciating levels of heat.

At last, the painfully casual arrival of the PHI-3 maintenance drone makes Yi-Min lift herself from her own semi-reclined position against the concrete wall opposite Colette, her short hair plastering to the back of her neck in sweat.

Fastidiously ignoring the state she’s in, she presents the drone with the solution at the prompt: several sealed, crystal-clear cylinders visibly filled with colorless fluid, pulled one by one from the inner folds of her coat. "没关系. You know what to do," she advises as she lets the last one go.

"Please do not drop any of them before you get them to where they're going."

That would be bad.

Colette rises from the floor, swiping her forearm over her brow as she does. The look she gives the machine is one of relief, and hearing Asi’s voice come out of it doubly so. “Fancy action there, Oni.” She offers a look over to Yi-Min, then down to the cylinders.

“What, ah,” Colette motions with her chin, “exactly is that anyway?” At the same time, she’s unfastening her gas mask from her hip. Knowing the how of the plan didn’t always mean knowing the what. But she’s never liked that disparity.

The drone can't slide Colette a look on the sly, but the mechanical tones of "«You haven't seen the half of it.»" sound smug enough to convey it. In the meantime, each individual cylinder is grasped with an arm each. Then, the maintenance drone shifts, moving past the two to come face to face with the door.

Things are happening quickly. You might want to cut your sauna trip short.»" The bot doesn't even need to make a gesture to open the door, out which pours even more heat as soon as it slides free. "«Head to the roof, I'll see you soon.»"

A warning about donning the gas masks seems unnecessary entirely in present company, so Asi forgoes it entirely as the bot steps inside the maintenance area and the door seals shut behind it again.

The injunction to begin heading out is as unnecessary as one to don masks. Yi-Min hadn't planned on sticking around, and she's willing to bet Colette hadn't either.

"Three parts halothane, two parts modified neosaxitoxin, one part some other things," Yi-Min discloses airily as she watches the PHI-3 drone go, as though she's explaining a banana bread recipe. "But all parts we don't want to still be standing here once Oni hits the fans, mask or not. Let's go."

Yi-Min doesn't appear to have a mask on her. She doesn't need one, after all. But after one long, last, deeply evaluative gaze at the clanking rear of the drone Asi had hijacked, she is already turning to sweep back down the sloping corridor they had originally entered through. God willing, they would actually all see each other on the other side.

Colette breathes in deeply as she pulls on her gas mask. «Wendigo-3 calling in to let you know Medusa is out of her lair.»

«We’re returning to rendezvous.»


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat

Southeast Stairwell


«Repeat. Medusa is out of her lair.»

Colette’s voice comes over the comms as Huruma’s squad ascends the stairs from the Network Core. Finally, they were able to be in synchronized radio contact again.

“Masks!” Francis says, stopping on the stairs to unclip his gas mask and fasten it over his head. “Not to add to the pile but we’ve got 21 minutes before those charges blow.” Francis reminds his team as he ascends the stairwell, taking stairs two-by-two at the group’s back. “Whole lotta money is gonna go straight down the toilet when that happens. We really don’t want to be around for the flush.”

«Not to pile on but,» Scylla comes over the comms, «##E2CFC9|Transceiver and I hit a roadblock, there’s a physical firewall preventing us from getting access to the Shanghai servers, we analyzed the security documentation in the network and it’s a physical switch on the Executive Security Level, shuts down all outside network access. We’ll need you to flip it before we can get inside the Shanghai Arcology intranet.»

«Right now we just have public-facing access, but we need backbone.» Transceiver adds. «We’re halfway there, but I’m gonna deface all their stuff while we’re here!» The boy adds with jubilant laughter.

"Well, coincidentally, it's where we're going." Asi poses over the channel while she keeps pace, however sluggish and forced her movements feel as she works through ambulating while still exploring the vast awareness at her disposal. "So there's that." sounds distracted even so.

Her grip tightens around her gun while she searches feverishly for signs of the other teams storming the castle ziggurat, coming up short on a headcount. Where were Lieutenant Lancaster and her crew? This worry dominates her attention as much as distant eyes still in Detroit, which she can afford less and less focus to, because she needs to focus on where her feet are falling, and where the drone on the maintenance level is maneuvering, opening the vents, starting the fans—

Right, she needs to put on her mask. Asi slips to the side of the stairwell to affix hers around her face, testing its security before she turns her eyes up again, the blue of their glow less vibrant than before, desaturated somehow… but still quite visible through her visor.

"I don't have eyes on the basement team," Asi admits to those on the stairwell alone. "Hopefully they heard the message."

Hands lift to secure Lucille's mask on her face and she's then looking over her teammates. Things were moving along alright, they needed to keep moving though. "They're professionals," Which doesn't answer whether they could have heard the message but she has faith that they will pull through, it's what Wolfhound did. A quiver of worry colors her emotional palate but she's filled with an overwhelming sense of dedication.

Lucille is not gonna stop.

"Let's get up there," The tall woman begins to ascend.

"Hell." Huruma's voice hisses outside of the comms in response to the lack of ping from the ground group; she tugs her mask into place as she does.

"So we find the big red button. Of course we do." A moment is taken to consider the upwards slope of the stairs, the tiny eyes of cameras dotted along the shaft's corners. With the others in various states of emotional stress, she acts as a neutralizer; the empath's vicinity exudes her own focused, confident mood. They can do it. Like everything else until now.

Arriving on the entrance of the executive security floor is simple enough and with security cameras no longer tracking the Hounds’ movements, it’s a simple task to move in sight-unseen while having a complete tactical awareness of the Ziggurat’s security. It is a sad state. The door for the Executive Security Level entrance unlocks when Asi gets even near it, sliding open into an L-shaped hallway on the corner. There is no human security operating in the corridors on this floor, in fact there’s only a skeleton crew operating inside.

But the Ziggurat is so large that Asi is having a hard time parsing all of the data at her disposal. More than forty floors of cameras covering nearly every single room, office, and closet, some of which are disabled due to what she presumes must be damage. With the drones and robots deactivated, it is a simple task for Asi to lead her team by the pockets of analysts and non-combatants on the floor, ducking into corridors, waiting for security analysts to pass by, and moving for their real objective.

Secure Command.

The name is stenciled in white across the brushed steel doors closing off the center of this floor, beyond, Asi knows the score: Sabine Hazel — she can pull her file from facial recognition within the Ziggurat — former Company agent, former associate of Richard Ray, came to work for Adam after the collapse of the Institute. According to the file, Gemini recipient, superhuman strength.

Aside from Sabine, there’s roughly 150 analysts and 20 drone pilots in that pyramidal room beyond the door. And…

…Adam.

The grey-blue light in Asi's eyes flicker on seeing him without seeing him, her momentum slowing outside the door as she sees what's within and without. "Extremely outnumbered beyond this room. More… information security than physical security, but I don't have a good eye on how many seated are armed. Easily over a hundred bodies, some of them are already shifting because they can't access their drones anymore. There's also leadership present."

"Hazel, Sabine; Head of Security, Gemini recipient— superhuman strength. Monroe, Adam; Company Director."

And so many other things, but in the eyes of Praxis' system, that was the chief descriptor.

Her eyes half-lid for a moment in indecision. Then, she takes a half-step back from the door, holstering her gun. "The gas will hit shortly, taking care of our numbers issue," Asi voices distantly, something still taking her mind elsewhere. It's different than the distractions of her ability— Huruma can sense it best in the emotional turnover she goes through as she wrestles with her own thoughts.

Because it's almost over. It would take the patience of a few minutes to hold here, time she could spend exfiltrating data while waiting to flip the switch for Scylla and Transceiver. It would just be a matter of patience.

But Adam Monroe is just on the other side of this door.

Tongue pressing to the roof of her mouth, Asi ends it with a quiet 'tch' and looks back up, the door into Secure Command opening as soon as she begins moving toward it. She passes through, unarmed save for the glow of her eyes, arms resting by her side.

"Monroe," the technopath calls out calmly, loudly. "You've been deceived. If you haven't seen it yet, understand it now." Asi continues forward, trusting in something other than armor. "Your plans are going to fail because you let the wrong people in. Naidu owns Lanhua Chen now, and who knows how many of your other resources. If you want to still have a hope of winning against it, then it's time to make new allies." For a moment, her glowing gaze shifts to Sabine, then away back to Adam again. "And quickly."

The Ryans woman is silent as they traverse the halls and come to Secure Command. Grateful for Huruma's calm that she exudes, Lucille tips her head to the side and eyes narrow as Asi relays the information that she is perceiving, there's a brief stab of worry for the technopath burning herself out ability wise before it wafts away thanks to her mentor's empathic ability.

Super strength. Adam Monroe. Gas being deployed.

Lucille's mind spins her rolodex of skills and talents before she settles on a course of action as Asi steps inside and begins to speak. The shorter woman is unarmed but from behind her, an audible click can be heard. There's a touch of a hand to Francis' shoulder, light blue eyes surge to glowing amber as she taps her friend's adrenal glands, flooding his system with adrenaline. Boost.

Mazdak. Nathalie. Chen's name is tucked away for later and Luce's eyes glow that hot gold as she levels her sidearm at the blonde immortal and steps around Asi free hand grazing her shoulder as well sending her feelers over Asi's biological signature, eyes narrowed. "What my friend means is," Licking her lips and allowing her ability to slowly unfurl within her. Invisible biofeelers seethe and unseethe, "You have no allies, and," well Huruma knows that's not necessarily true but Lucille's aim is shifted, swinging from the immortal to the woman only known from her file as Sabine, "And you're all under fucking arrest." There is a rage still within Lucille and Huruma having done well to keep her team's emotions in check affords the younger woman this settled mind for this course of action.

Boost.

Adrenaline floods through her system and she pulls the trigger aiming for the super strong woman's legs as she runs into the room to dive behind a desk.

She could feel everything once they got closer. Huruma's ability picks up signatures like droplets to a rivulet, seamless even as she stops outside with the others. With the mask, helmet, armor — they can't see her expression. Lucille can sense the writhing of something below her skin, speeding up the heart regardless. Something's there beyond the door. Someone.

Asi's confirmation betrays the twist of muscle at her shoulders, tensed under the suit. The empath defers to the technopath on this particular task; on one hand, they do need to gut the place. On the other, those feelings match her own.

Unlike other times, Huruma possesses no mind to curtail what Lucille means to do. She can guess, as soon as things in the others heighten, the hundred-some bodies in the space ahead reacting in sluggish time.

Asi standing inside, Lucille moving in around her, Francis taking point, there's only one dark silhouette left to stand where the doors once closed; the rifle in Huruma's arms is cradled light against her front, muzzle down. It provides a toothiness to the lack of visible features, punctuated only by her firm stance and Lucille's go.

Rather than the empath rushing in after, the room fills with a heavy cloud of emotions which settle on the Praxis numbers, mixed up into a bitter cocktail of burdening hopelessness and deference.

Had Adam been willing to talk, all of that went out the window when the first shots were fired. Lucille finds herself in a world of confusion when her shot hits not Sabine but Adam who in a blur of blonde hair and dark clothes interposes himself between her in a burst of superhuman speed. Adam grits his teeth and buckles down onto one knee, having taken the shot in the hip.

Sabine turns and grabs one of the consoles nearby as a technician scrambles away covering her head. With a flex, she rips the console up and off of its moorings and turns it around like a shield, blocking the fire that comes from Francis’ sidearm as a response to Lucille starting of the fireworks. Francis is a wide-eyed wreck as he fires, hand trembling. Sure, he’d tested out Lucille’s brand of adrenaline-dosed nightmare fuel before, but it’d been a long time since those training exercises and he’d forgotten just how intense it is.

As Huruma’s emotional coils begin to strangle the room, she is affecting nearly two hundreds minds, a crowd of people with differing emotional and psychological textures blended into one homogenous malaise at her whim. None of the drone pilots and analysts have psychic defensive training expertise, though Sabine Hazel — ex Company agent — does.

Huruma can feel the resistance, the determination brought upon by Sabine hunkering down on a single emotion: puzzlingly, love. Not romantic love, not the heat and the pulse, not the caress. But a warm, blanketing embrace. Maternal love. Intense, desperate.

Sabine screams away the depressive wave of emotional torpor, hurling the console at Asi. The technopath is quick on her feet, not having to fight through a psychic assault, and is able to dive out of the way before the console hits. It strikes the empty floor, shattering into layers of frame, waferboard, and flying keys going every which way.

Adam’s wide blue eyes are focused on Huruma, breathing in sharply through his nose. “You’re making a mistake!” is all he can shout. But Huruma only half hears his message, because there is something behind him. On the display screen showing the interior of some sort of aircraft carrying a cruise missile as cargo.

Horror of horrors.

It’s Ben.

On the security feed, Benjamin Ryans is locked in what looks like a confrontation with yet another Adam Monroe, this one dressed in the sleek black armor of one of Providence’s Horsemen. On the screen, that Adam has his back pressed to the white hull of the missile, the Kensei Sword drawn, blade nearly forced back against his own neck. Ryans is looming over him, hand held out, as if projecting some sort of unseen force against the sword.

The Adam in the room, the Adam in front of Huruma stares up at her with wide, desperate eyes.

Don’t do this.

Asi's adrenaline spikes without even a touch as Lucille slips past her, her eyes doing a doubletake at the Hound's forward press. What my friend means… she says, and the technopath knows whatever comes next, it is not what she would have said. Not what she would have done.

The gunshot is an unexpected bit of punctuation onto it all. "Ryans—!" She reaches out, but it's all too late.

Fuck.

The pause before Sabine throws lets Asi watch and sidestep easily, and she still doesn't draw her gun. She has the grace to keep her commentary amongst themselves, heard over their headsets only. "«We can't apprehend them if they're dead!»" It's with frustration that she draws the Banshee clipped to her back finally, striding forward and firing it in a clear line at Sabine, rather than the other prone Praxis leader.

"Everyone remain where you are." she shouts with unwavering authority. For all that, the grey-blue glow of her eyes still shifts after to Adam, like the look alone will give her answers as to just what is coming undone.

Even for all her access, she's still not entirely sure.

There could have been a chance to stop Lucille Ryans.

One moment to maybe call her to lesser means to get the job done.

Then the young woman's eyes lock on the screen showing her father and seeing him standing against Adam in this very moment, it brings her even more strength and fearlessness that she doesn't even need thanks to the adrenaline running through her veins. «They'll come just fine maimed.»

Now. She thinks in her head, for herself and for her father. Finish this.

Lucille's head peers over the side of the desk she stands behind and she shoots a few more rounds over towards Sabine before holstering the weapon and charging forward towards the dark haired woman. Gold eyes narrowed in stiff concentration as she moves faster than usual. Spinning in a tight circle before proceeding to leaping over a desk with nimbleness and ripping her Banshee from its holster in midair to fire upon the unnaturally strong woman. Agony. A blink of her eyes and all around her general vicinity people will feel pain. Lucille doesn't rush in towards Sabine until she knows the sonic weapon is doing its job but she bobs and weaves in and out awaiting to see when her ability is affecting the older woman.

She wants to look at Ryans' face on the screen but Lucille is her father's daughter and the current objective is most important, she had to make him proud.

As Asi did before her, Huruma crosses into the room amidst crashing and a boldness given to her by something more than the armor; the miasma follows her, a pressure on the mind. Sabine's resistance is unsurprising, though it's nature— it causes the claws trying to slip in to retract. The rifle cradled in the empath's arms lowers, the stock perching against her hip.

Lucille and Asi working to subdue the ex-agent becomes a warbled noise in the muffle of her hearing. They're somewhere else. Huruma's vision tunnels for Adam crippled before her. His words are distant too. Mistakes. Adam is intimately familiar with this seeker's focus, having seen it a hundred times before. His silent plead falls on deafened ears, not for the same reason as a moment ago.

"… What have you done?" The AEGIS helmet levels away from the fallen man, against better judgment the visor slipping back. Huruma's eyes are locked on the feed, pupils dilated and the sprawl of her ability a sudden and dead weight. Wherever this is, whatever's happening— the moons of her eyes dart down to Adam, tearing forcefully away from the screen where one of her best friends is locking horns with yet another copy, backed up against what is clearly a weapon of mass destruction.

Dread replaces the other flavors of her empathic field, cold and complete, sick and cloying.

"Adam," Huruma snarls, deep voice a weakening, straining rasp. Only for him. "あなたは何をした…"

Sabine can’t hear Asi's call, can’t hear much of anything as the Banshee’s wail hits her. Her hands move to her head, teeth gnashed together, eyes wrenched shut. She’d forgotten how terrible these things feel. Just when Sabine is ready to zig, Lucille zags and keeps the weapon trained on her with the quick-twitch agility of her adrenaline boost. It gives the Gemini-recipient no time to adjust, and through her slivers of her eyes visible Lucille can see her dark irises flickering gold as she tries to use her ability, but then loses focus.

Analysts and drone pilots are scrambling out of their desks, some staggering and falling on their sides, collapsing in the fetal position and screaming as Lucille emanates a wave of pain from herself. Adam can barely take in the carnage around himself, looking at Lucille with wide eyes — Ben’s daughter, again — then back to Huruma.

At the same time, on the screen, Adam is saying something to Ryans as they struggle. The Kensei sword comes close to his throat, forced back by Ryans’ telekinesis, biting into his neck.

The Adam in the security room fears what’s coming. He opens his mouth to say something, and on the screens behind him Ryans reaches out toward the cruise missile and clenches his hand into a fist. Metal dimples like an aluminum can, jet fuel sprays into the air, there is a scalding flash of flame and

[ SIGNAL LOST ]

Adam sucks in a sharp breath, one hand clapped over his mouth and eyes wide. Blue eyes track from side to side. He wasn’t watching the screen, he didn’t need to.

Behind him, Lucille has taken Sabine down onto her knees. The concentrated fire of the Banshee coupled with Lucille’s ability is overwhelming pain. She collapses onto her side, back arching as a scream erupts from her and she slams her fists into the floor, deforming the metal tiles under her.

This wasn’t supposed to happen,” Adam says with a shaky voice, eyes reddened and glassy.

The pain that radiates from Lucille encourages Asi to stand back, Banshee lowering when she sees the Ryans daughter has things well in hand in regards to Sabine, between her ability and the increasing pain the Banshee alone would rain on her. A turn of her head reveals Huruma closing in on Adam, the technicians drowning in hopelessness cowering where they are, leaving just—

Her head turns instinctively in the direction of the terminal behind Adam and Sabine. Her feet lead her in that direction, subprocesses readied at her fingertips with only a twitch of her hand.

"Tell me about it," Asi scoffs in passing as she walks right by Adam, laying her hand flat on the machine. Subprocesses spider away into the hardened system, seeking out the switch that needs flipped, the red button that needs jammed to broker access to Scylla and Transceiver.

Be careful.

She'd be remiss not to warn them.

Then her eyes close, the hand that was flush with the system instead reaching for the digital storage device she has clipped to her person. She funnels her focus on extracting damning data against Praxis through her subprocesses in the room and the system at large before it all comes crashing down on them — information about the deployment on US soil, weaknesses and exploitable faults in their war machines, and finally, finally, data from the depths of the Praxia labs regarding their current black projects. She uses herself as a sieve for everything she can, dumping it to the device in her hand capable of holding terabytes of information.

Her eyes open to glowing half-moons, a passing facade of an attempt made at listening to the world around her though her soul is diving through so many others.

No.

Time slows down to a snail's pace as Lucille's eyes lift from Sabine's prone form to the screen as more of the events unfold before the group of people.

No.

"I'm just thinking about it, not saying yes." Yet. The faux blonde sighs and puts her face in her hands. Shaking her head and looking back up at her father she goes over to the table and sits, taking out some pills from her purse and taking them with a glass of water. "Need my meds." She says softly and then she's not looking at her father. To her, those pills are a sign of failure.

"I can understand the money." Ryans admits, his voice a little rough, turning to plating the steaks, with mash potatoes, and a green beans cooked with bacon. "But, you know me." He says with a soft sigh, not really looking at his daughter, even when he hears the distinct sound of the pill bottle. If his wife had still been alive would that sound still be a presence in their life? The sound gets a small flash of a pained grimace before it takes on it's normal neutral. "I just want to see you…. "

The words fail him as they always do. There is a soft drawn out sigh, his head shaking slowly. "I want you happy, Lucille." Both plates are scooped up from the counter. "It… just… did not seem healthy when you were living that life." There is nothing judgmental in his tone, just genuine parental concern.

A plate is settled in front of her, his hand moving to rest on her head, as he's done a thousand times before when since she can remember. Only then does he set his own plate down and settle into his chair.

Eyes widen and pupils shake, it makes her press the trigger to the Banshee even harder, baring the weapon down on Sabine. Lucille shakes her head, No.

"You don't have to explain anything to me.." she snorts and then nods her head. "Then don't." she says simply, "I'm done following your orders like I'm under your command or something. I'm a grown woman now, you'll treat me as such, or have nothing to do with me." Yeah, she's pretty pissed as well.

"I knew, they knew I had daughters, but didn't know for sure it would get this far." Ryans growls out, taking a steps towards her, the anger and hurt now showing in those blue eyes. "It has been a nightmare out there getting anything done, I literally have not had the time to just drop everything. I have been working hard to prevent this very thing from happening." The last thing he says echos off the walls as he very nearly yells at her, this whole case is effecting his control that much. His eyes move over her face, as he is silent for a very long moment.

He pivots on the ball of his foot, suddenly, a glare leveled at his oldest, before she gets his back and he's moving towards the door, "One of the agents outside will escort you." There is no room for arguing in the tone of his voice.

"Tell them to keep up." Is all Lucille says to her father and then she's grabbing her things and pushing past him to open the door and walk out to the hallway, turning to make her way towards the stairs, not saying another thing to her father or looking back for that matter.

The missile is clenched and the gas spreads out and feed goes dead. Her father's face vanishes from the screen. It's a feeling that can't be explained that needs no superhuman ability to perceive, she knows her father is dead. If nothing else Adam's reaction tells Lucille all she needs to know. "No!!" The woman takes her leg and delivers a swift, too hard kick to Sabine's head to knock her out. The pain she emits remains and her own pain surges to the forefront, coupled with rage and grief, shock. A tidal wave of negative and violent emotions coupled with the adrenaline that pumps through her veins has the young woman screaming in rage.

"I'm sorry about the other night. I should have tried to keep more calm." She admits and then she's ruffling her hair and looking at her dad. "But I thought I was going crazy.. no sign of Rebel after he contacted me. It was like none of it happened and then I find out, you told him not to contact me. I-." Lu sighs again.

"Because at the time he was dangerous." Ryans explains gruffly, sounding a touch distracted in his search. Reaching under it to pull out a length of two by four, inspecting it. "I worked for the Company, he endangered my daughter… what do you expect me to do? Let him continue to manipulate my little girl?" It's an honest question "but…" He pauses glancing up at her, "I kept in contact with him, he's been indispensable. He was part of the reason I was able to get you back when you both were kidnapped."

He made a deal with who at the time he thought of as the devil. My have those times changed.

"And it's fine, you're allowed to be mad about the situation." Ben states, going back to inspecting wood. The current pushed back and other pulled out. "Your sister was — and probably still is. I've expected it." But he doesn't sound overly apologetic about it.

He doesn't sound overly apologetic and for that, Lucille gives him a glare. "It's like you care.. but only to a certain extent. You want to keep us safe, but it's like you can't be bothered with how we feel about things."

The oldest Ryans girl blinks and looks away, adding softly. "I'm not asking you to be mom. But I am asking that you have a little bit more of a heart sometimes. What's the use protecting us if we never come over for Sunday dinner?" Not that they have Sunday dinner.. but still. Message sent. Beep beep.

"I love you dad and I'm happy that you're back and safe." She thinks for a moment. "Thanks for keeping us safe by keeping us in the dark for so long too." She tilts her head at smiles at her father. "Now.. can we have a real hug? I think that's what father and daughters do after they have a disagreement."

The board searching abandoned for the moment, Ryans slowly straightens to his full height. Brows furrow a little at her sudden shift. "I protect you, cause you are my girls and I love both of you. Even if you never came over for Sunday dinner and hated me… I'd still do my damnedest to protect you." Those words are softly spoken, a hint of a smile on his features. It's an issue that Noah Bennet knows too well and maybe why the two older Company agents were able to find common ground again.

Hands move to rest on her shoulder, fingers squeezing gently. "I know all of it doesn't make sense, but trust me… you were safer when you only knew I paper sales man." Ryans watches his daughter's face , he's guarded and uncertain. "The secrecy was necessary. Had you known, they would have sent someone to make you forget.

"I love you, Lulu… You were my first born and I still remember the feeling of holding you for the first time." Ryans smiles a little at the remembering. "I wasn't much older then I look now even." Finally, he moves to draw her into a hug, still relieved to have her back, despite the strife.

"What have you done?!" She barks and comes charging towards Adam, Banshee in one hand and a long blade pulled from her boot sheath. Crouching to spring towards the vermin with a scream eyes wild and tears streaming down her face, "What have you fucking done?!" Lucille's mind reels from all the emotions and alterations done to her physical state.

Huruma meets Adam's eyes as he looks up to her once more. The manic tossing and turning of the security center remains an underwater rumble, blood pounding in eardrums, heat spreading sickly through Huruma's chest. She looks back to the feed, shadow cast from her heels as the various screens illuminate the curves of her armor.

"Whatever you choose, you know we will be here." There is an unspoken, 'I will be here'. "You won't have to be alone."

Adam's raw and real fear tells more tales than words ever could.

“People tend to see what they want to see.” Huruma's dark features tickle with a new laugh, small for what is typical. “Even you, sometimes.” Her laugh remains tame, even for the playful cadence of her words.

“Even me,” Ryans admits, with a soft rumble. “Guess we are proof that people can change.”

"And proof of the value of second chances?"

Everything moves a thousand times more slowly, just as it feels for Lucille. The shrieking of Banshees is wailing in her head. A mirror.

"If you asked me back then if I would feel that way about you… I would have thought they were crazy."

Time seems to halt completely. Adrenaline pumps and blood spreads in a fuming fire through her veins. Up into her head. A pressure forms behind her eyes.

"Thank you." His head dipping down again, Ryans' words actually sound like he means it. "on both counts, and I'm sure you will do your best." A small smile ticks up one corner of his mouth.

"I have faith in you."

An almost visible— fruitless— straining.

"I don'want something t'come between what we already'ave either-" Something saddened creeps into her smooth voice. "You are th'only one that seems to understand me."

"I'm not asking for one, Huruma. I don't expect you to apologize for feelings. Especially, not feelings."

A desperate reach of hand that she knows won't get there.

A touch of concern to her family flutters through the rest of his emotions. A hand is held out to her to help her up, but then he stops.

What the hell is he doing?

There is confusion at his own actions, as he realizes Huruma is very well able to take that step herself.

"No…" A whisper.

A hydraulic whine comes with Huruma dropping to her knees on the floor in front of Ryans. Harper’s high-caliber round never made it to its intended target. Huruma threw herself in front of the old man, allowing Ryans to get his shot off. Now, she lands with a wet, wheezing breath on the floor. Blood pools out beneath her, stains the concrete. Hydraulics spasm and sputter.

Pieces of stone fall from the ceiling, chunks of concrete that never quite hit the floor, and instead begin floating upward toward the event horizon in the sky.

He had been ready. Ready, to sacrifice his very life, to make sure that someone like Harper did not roam this world. To keep his girls safe. What Ryans didn’t realize, was he wasn’t ready for this…

“Huruma!”

Blind panic laces through the colors of Ryans’ emotions as he drops to his knees with a whine from his suit. It was not supposed to happen this way, in his mind. Everything around him seems less important than the woman laying on the ground. The fingers of his hand fumble with the clap of his helmet before he is able to painfully pull it off his head, half throwing it aside; leaving it to clatter a little away from him.

“Damnable woman,” he growls out, his emotions switching to anger - at himself and her - as he attempts to get her own helmet off. “What were you thinking?” His whole body shivers as the shock slowly seeps in, it makes it hard for him to get his fingers on the clasp. When it proves difficult, he looks around for help…. Only to find a lot of dead bodies and a badly injured Lashirah.

The whine of bending steel, the sharp crack of concrete, brings him back to the reality of the situation. His breath catches and his eyes widen at the sight of what is above them. “We need to get out of here.” But how?

All he could do was kneel there while his friend was bleeding out; his body half shielding her own from the flying debris. “You die on me now, I will find you and I will kill you myself in hell for making me have to explain to the girls.” A little deflection, but also colored with truth.

Huruma's pale eyes color with the tiniest pops of red. Her breath catches as she watches Ben twist the shell of the bomb as if it were foil. A feat of feats against a manifestation of war.

“I’ve never been able to push you away.”

"…no." Resignation. The aircraft's body warps, fuel sprays like an open vein. Fire.

When the next song comes, the warbling, upbeat music in her ears is replaced by sudden, wild heartbeat. Her empath’s aura unknowingly bleeds a soothing warmth.

She presses her mouth to his.

Pulling away, it isn’t a jerking motion, but a sort of a gradual separation. His confusion is apparent, both emotionally and in the furrow of his brows. Blue-eyes study her for a long moment, as if trying to figure out some strange new puzzle.

When you have been friends with someone for so long, there is a sort of comfort level that comes with it — a certain level of expectation. Something like that…. It isn’t something that he had even imagined with Huruma. He has always seen her as more a part of his family then anything. The way a close and dear friend is often seen.

So this move is unexpected.

Shocking even.

Whatever decision he makes, she may already know in the jumble of his emotions, as he frees his fingers from the tangle of hers. It seems, at first, like he is going to completely pull away; however —

She finds his hand warm against the soft skin of her jaw, calloused thumb skims across ebony skin. Those brows are still furrowed, but his eyes are thoughtful, as he leans in and this time, he kisses her.

Static.

"Do you think that after everything we've all shared together he's going to ever turn his back on you?"

The taste of salt in a corner of her mouth. A physical jerk of the tall woman's frame. Copper in the other corner. A rush of blood, and tears, undammed.

Head shifting away from his shoulder, Huruma sits straight again, her fingers still curled around the crook of his arm with an insistent care. Though not a freefall, she does not stifle the tears pooling over the edges of her eyes and down the planes of her face; they are a quiet trickle, with as much grace as she can afford herself.

The last thing that either of them need is a snapping rope in the mooring keeping them tied to the ground.

Huruma’s hand leaves his arm only to curl up around the back of his neck, then a soft pull as she puts her head against his.

No.

“I guess we will see what happens. If anyone would find a miracle in this world it would be you and the girls.”

Feeling the tug at his shirt, Benjamin glances down at it with a small upward tick of his brow. Allowing himself to be pulled in, so as to finish closing that space between them, there is a stiffness to that kiss. Though not for long as something ignites within him, bringing more warmth and a bit more willingness.

Benjamin allows himself this moment, but all too soon, lips part and he straightens again. He studies her face and brushes the backs of his fingers along her jawline.

A touch of head against his brow comes before he straightens out again, a lingering reminder in Huruma's hand flattening gingerly against his chest.

This wasn't supposed to happen, she hears.

There is a stretch of silence at those two words. Small on their own, but heavy with meaning. Brows furrow for an unknown reason, but not because he doesn’t feel those same emotions. Just that those words are not easily spoken anymore.

“I know,” is what is rumbled out quietly in return.

The world breaks into focus just in time for Huruma's arm to throw out and snatch Lucille's, yanking forcefully enough to send her stumbling back. The dread exuding from her has changed with a spark, rage like a hot engine filling the room, fear into hearts.

Wrath.

"Death is a kindness." Huruma's voice growls, saddled with a dark hiss. When she focuses on Adam once more, there are tears and blood, eyes shining. The empath's voice lifts, wild and contorted with heartbreak. "And you will deserve your suffering!"

In an instant, Huruma’s wish is granted.

Right before Lucille and Asi’s eyes, Adam Monroe launches off of his feet like a marionette yanked out of a puppet show diorama. His arms windmill, kick, and twist as he is pulled toward the ceiling, crashing into a display monitor along the way which comes flying off its mooring to smash on the floor beside Lucille.

Adam slams into the ceiling, drags across it as though her were in the film Poltergeist, spins around and then smashes into the ceiling again. One of the soundproofed tiles on the ceiling explodes outward and Adam is bodily hauled into the open, dark gap in the ceiling as he paws, grasps, and claws to try and not wind up in that yawning darkness.

As Adam is hauled into the ceiling, a blood-curdling scream erupts from within, followed by a trickling rain of blood flowing down from that open space along with billowing waves of ashen smoke.

Something else is here.

Something horrible.


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
Laboratory Sub-Basement
Genetics Lab F8


Double doors blow off of their hinges from a concussive shockwave, flipping end over end before smashing into the tiled wall on the opposite side of a dimly lit lab. Through the doors, a woman struggles with her entrance. She staggers, stumbles, one gloved hand clutched at her head. With a few weak-kneed steps she slouches against a row of gently-illuminated medical coolers contains rows of test tubes that rattle on the impact.

Fuck,” she exhales breathlessly, feeling her whole body tremble. It feels like her mind is on fire.

lanhua_icon.gif

Lanhua Chen pulls her hand away from her head, looking across the glowing refrigerators and feels a knot twist in the pit of her stomach. She lurches forward, jaw unsteady and tears welled up in her eyes. There is a compulsion gnawing in her subconscious, an urge that she struggles to fight but cannot break. With each jerky footfall, Lanhua walks down the row of coolers, her hand pressed against the glass doors for support.

At the end of the row, one of the coolers contains syringes rather than test tubes, each one filled with what looks like ink. Lanhua stares at the syringes through the glass, her heart racing with panic as she reaches out and opens the door, grabbing an entire rack of amphodynamine by the handle. She hauls the rack out, slamming it down on a metal table, then lets the door swing shut behind her on its own.

“Stop,” Lanhua whispers to herself, but at the same time she’s tugging off her gloves and unfastening her gauntlets, letting them fall to the floor with a heavy metallic thud. “Stop,” she whispers again as she rolls up her right sleeve, tears now streaming down her cheeks. “Please, stop.”

But she can’t.

Lanhua takes one syringe out of the rack, pops off the cap with her teeth and spits it out onto the floor. The needle depresses into a vein at the crook of her elbow with ease and her thumb depresses the plunges immediately. Black courses through Lanhua’s veins, she feels them burn as the drug courses its way to her heart. Lanhua chokes back a strangled sob as her pupils dilate dime-wide and a tremor comes over her hands.

“Please, stop,” she whispers to herself again…

…and reaches for another syringe.


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
Executive Level Offices


As Colette emerges from the elevator ahead of Yi-Min, there is no more pretense for the invisibility. Security systems are now under control of Asi Tetsuyama and cameras on this floor seemed unresponsive. Nevertheless, Colette sweeps the hallway with a scan of her rifle-mounted flashlight, then steps aside to allow Yi-Min entrance to the hall.

«Back down that hallway, through Monroe’s office, up and out.» Colette says. It seems simple enough.

'Medusa.' Beautiful. Luckily, Yi-Min is too focused on their goal to give more than a soft snort in reaction as she briefly peers down the hallway Colette had indicated with narrowed eyes.

The path ahead might appear clear, but it was dangerous to take such an appearance of simplicity at face value, especially here. The deadened cameras overhead are poor at providing comfort, and her otherwise resolute pace is enrobed in a sense of heightened caution.

It seemed too much to hope that they would accomplish their task without meeting any kind of opposition whatsoever.

Up ahead, it becomes immediately clear that might not be possible. There’s a strange sense of cognitive dissonance for Yi-Min and Colette as they see the entrance to the Director’s Suite looks like it suffered an explosion. The doors are blown off the hinges, glass walls are shattered, there’s evidence of fire suppression having been used and long dried blood swirled in swaths of brown on the floor. The Director’s desk Asi had touched on their way in is shattered in pieces, even the glass on the inside of the blast windows is destroyed.

There’s no way they could have missed an explosion this size happening directly below them. Not to mention the fact that the explosion looks days old. Inside the room, five black-clad private security officers are sweeping through the room with flashlights on.

Fuck,” Colette hisses as she bleeds away like a detail painted over in an oil canvas redaction. Yi-Min can still sort of feel her nearby, hear the subtle noises of her pressing her back up against the wall. The security force doesn’t notice them yet and the gas hasn’t had long enough to propagate through the vents to take effect.

Your call, Doctor Yeh.” Colette notes, deferring to Yi-Min on how best to proceed.

Yi-Min, who doesn't enjoy the benefits of a power that can almost preternaturally render her invisible, has to rely on more old-fashioned methods to stay out of sight. Like Colette, she shrinks against the enveloping shelter of the wall they had only just passed, her breathing growing light and slow as she peeks past to ascertain all the changes that had ripped apart the room ahead since they had passed through here last.

Still scarcely drawing breath, voice as small and concise as a little scrap of wind, she speaks to the presence she can feel rather than see.

"Stay hidden. Follow my lead." For Colette's own sake, Yi-Min can only hope she's had time to adjust her mask on properly. Because the next thing she does is peel her narrow shoulders away from that wall, stepping confidently out from the limited and temporary safety of the corridor

— and straight into the shattered interior of the Director's Office.

"There has been a change of plans. Orders from the top: you are needed down in the labs. Immediately," she commands the security forces as she strides across the tiling towards them like a thin, worried ghost, her inflection low and sharp with an urgency that borders on panic. "No time to explain. 赶紧的!"

Doctor Yeh,” the security officer pivots toward her, rifle raised by hesitation in his eyes. The other four security personnel focus on Yi-Min and slowly raise their rifles. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to come with us. We’ve been given orders from Ms. Hazel to escort you to your quarters until the lockdown has ended.”

Yi-Min isn’t sure where Colette is in all of this, she can’t hear the Hound and there’s been no further attempt at contact made. One of the security officers is close enough that Yi-Min should be able to handle him herself, the other four though…

That she can see the elevator doors from here, past the demolished and blood-stained office, is tantamount to a crime. A smooth exit is just fifty feet away, but these security officers are insistent on making this complicated. It will take some time for the weaponized gas to fill the volume of the room enough to affect them, which means she may need to find a way to improvise and hope the Hound has her back.

Well, it had been worth a shot. Probably?

Still, there might be something to salvage from the proximity that had been granted by this charade. "No! There isn't time!" Yi-Min cries out, pivoting away from the guard in the lead as though in genuine distress. As she's facing away though, one of her hands travels under her belt until it reaches the little matte-black canister she had been hiding there. In the one swift, closeted movement allowed by the equally swiftly-passing movement, she plucks the pin away like the wing from an insect and rolls her possession ominously across the floor even as the rest of the guards are raising their rifles at her.

Clouds of blinding, burning gas begin belching from the grenade’s innards immediately, rendering the surrounding environment nearly opaque in a matter of seconds. In the new chaos, the guard that had been closest to Yi-Min finds himself impaled full through the trachea with the chunky blade of— appropriately enough— a neck knife, and Yi-Min herself nowhere to be seen in the climbing haze.

Weird how that happened, huh.

Blind fire from the remaining officers in a semicircle is not all directed at Yi-Min. Through the smoke she can hear the gunshots go off, but also hear the soldiers scream as they’re hit by their allies. Flashes of blue-white light bloom inside of the gas, followed by crackling snaps of sizzling flesh. As Yi-Min moves through the gas, she steps over a severed arm cauterized through meat and bone and catches a glimpse of a dismembered security officer staggering blind through the gas.

She also catches the black blur moving swift through the gas cloud; Colette using her superhuman sight to navigate the gas, manifesting laser light within the haze, sending segments of rifle muzzles clattering to the floor, followed by fingers and a hand. A whip of blue-green light lashes up like a serpent from the top of the cloud, splits into several hair-fine threads, and then lashes back down with an accompanying scream as another guard collapses into a heap of cauterized slashes on the ground at her feet.

As the gas continues to disperse, Yi-Min feels a firm hand on her wrist and sees the familiar tattoo of a pine forest and birds in flight on the partially-revealed forearm. Colette leads Yi-Min out of the gas and toward the elevator, droplets of blood scattered across the faceplate of her gas mask.

Almost there now.


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
Laboratory Sub-Basement
Dr. Cong’s Lab


A snowflake lands on Rue Lancaster’s nose.

The slight touch of cold prickles her skin, eyes that were once wrenched shut slowly open.

She’s alive.

Pain defines her world, torn muscles and bruises that will be the size of dinner plates for all that the AEGIS armor protected her from a hail of lethal gunfire. But the explosions, she should be dead.

Instead, Rue stares up at a dome of frosted blue ice encapsulating her, both Devons, Aislinn Graves, Dearing, and a few bullet-riddled Praxis Security corpses. Through the frosted surface of the ice, she can see a single monocular gold eye burning in the dark, and as the ice decays and melts, receding like the fingers of some massive hand, she realizes what just saved her.

From the hallway, Josiah walks in with eyes wide, Scott at his side with one arm slung around Josiah’s shoulders. He has one eye squinted shut and a line of blood running from hairline to chin, but otherwise he’s alive.

Josiah looks up to the tremendous form of Bao-Wei Cong in disbelief.

Rue tries to make sense of what she’s seeing. The tinnitus whine in her ears is nigh deafening, and certainly disorienting. Her eyes don’t want to stay open when she looks up, squinting against the light of the lab, trying to look past the spider webbing crack in the visor of her helmet and the larger chip at its nexus where a bullet should have collided with her eye.

An attempt to lift her arm to flip up her ruined visor is met with a distressed cry of pain that she almost doesn’t recognize as her own for how distant it sounds in her own ears. How high pitched and fucking fragile it is. Rue breathes hard, which only heightens her pain. Another involuntary cry tears from her throat before she curls her fingers into a fist, which causes more strain than she ever would have expected, and settles for pressing her gloved palms flat against the cold floor instead.

Panic is shoved back down to the pit of her stomach with partial success. “Fuck,” she breathes out, voice shriller than she’d like it to be. “Oh, fuck.

The cold is the second thing Devon of Praxia notices. The first is the painful ringing in his ears and lack of concussive beats reverberating through every fiber of his body. But it's the cold he opts to react to as he cautiously unfolds himself from a futile attempt at taking cover. He hadn't gotten very far — freed of his security detail, he hadn't even made it a step as all Hell broke loose. No, his unarmored self did the next best thing and dropped face down onto the ground, and his arms wrapped over the back of his neck and head.

Now, rising to a knee and pressing a hand to one ear, he's looking up at the ice-dome that's formed. The Praxia ward shifts his weight, eases himself to standing upright while his eyes wander from the apex of the curve and then downward. To the Hounds.

To his other self.

Somehow, still at Rue's side, Devon the Hound is on a knee. One hand has his teammate by the shoulder, every muscle taut with a readiness to drag her back behind the line. It's the cold that draws his attention. Like a strange mirror of his other self, his eyes rise to the ceiling of the dome. He stands slowly, movements nearly identical to his twin's in the way he follows the curvature of ice. To the corpses.

To his other self.

The pair stare at each other, watch one another with an obvious lack of trust for the other. The Praxia edition of Devon looks, after a beat, like he's about to tell himself to fuck off. The one from Wolfhound removes his helmet to reveal a disconcertingly identical expression.

There's a long groan that issues up from the floor behind Praxia-Devon as Aislinn slowly regains awareness of the immediate area. Her arms seem to curl around her stomach, but as she tries to sit up it becomes clear that, rather, she still holds that potted plant close. She blinks, eyes focusing as she coughs.

As her eyes clear, she begins to survey the carnage around them. Her eyes shift up to the looming golden eye and she swallows, scrambling backwards against - whatever flat surface she hits first, the melting ice or the wall behind them. She doesn't stand up, she just stares ahead, blankly. A sound croaks out of her throat, probably supposed to be words but instead caught somewhere on the way out.

She angles her gaze down at the ground… and smirks, waiting for what happens next.

Ice crumbles in pieces as it furls back towards the floor, scattering in sizeable chunks amongst bodies of officers and robots alike, bumping against AEGIS armor and freezing to the surface of clothing. Frost glitters onto hair and skin.

Whatever is left of Stefan Morrison slumps from the descent of the ice as it slides away like a glacial floe, semi-fluid. The corpse lands amidst the Hounds and those left. It is a blackened, skeletal shape bundled in the tent of a torn lab coat.

Drained.

The remnants of both Qing lie in a shower of coolant, oil, and scorched metal on the outside of the circle formed by lack of flash and fire. A flicker of gold drags along the laboratory floor, only coming to a halt as it reaches a reforming crag of ice, sliding up like a flashlight moving from floor to wall. Underneath of it, the ice begins to coalesce. Creeping out in a dozen directions, all to pull the fallen pieces back into the observing cyclopean obelisk.

Dearing is slow to lower his weapon, unable to move his stare from the fixed figure looming above them. There is a silent tension of uncertainty, and Dearing slowly angles a look over at Rue trying to get an assessment of her condition.

Josiah is frozen in place, looking at Bao-Wei cong the way one might a Tyrannosaurus fucking Rex who just stepped out of the pages of history and into down town San Francisco. Scott squints with his one open eye, lips parted in abject disbelief. He’d heard the stories about how Brian and Veronica got out of the Institute arcology, but he’d thought they were embellishments.

No one moves, no one says a word. Water drips from the ceiling, breath is visible as a frosted mist in the air.

The last thing on Rue’s mind right now is moving. As ice starts to melt and fall away above them, she cringes, squinching her eyes shut tight as a block of it falls not far from where she lays. Everything, everything is pain, to the point where she isn’t entirely sure she doesn’t have a bullet inside of her somewhere.

When what’s left of the man she shot also lands on the floor, far too close to her head for comfort, she finally manages to get a clear look at Dearing, finding him looking back at her. “You have command,” Rue rasps. What they do now is up to him. She’s in no condition to call the shots.

Like a scene out of a horror show, chunks of ice and Doctor Morrison squelch heavily onto the floor between the Hound and the Praxian. Neither breaks from staring at the other to look.

Without a word, without a look, the helmet is tossed behind. It's intended for Josiah, though the Hound called Devon gives no indication of it. He probably thinks it's obvious, given that the others within his team are all armored. It's a ballsy choice that follows Rue's lead in taking the soldier in; and hopefully it won't come back to bite him in the ass.

Praxia's prized experiment takes a small step as the Hound makes his blind throw. Devon of Praxia stands a little taller, body rigid for an instant. Unspoken warnings and threats cut into his expression. The steeliness of it echoes back at him in his twin's face. Like two strange cats, they stare each other down, size each other up.

The only thing missing from their communication is the hissing and growling.

Aislinn continues to stare down at the wet floor in front of her, eyes wide. Only the two Devons squaring up pulls her eyes back up to the room. "Whatever you two're about t' do, now's not the time," is spoken in a low voice. "Just-" her eyes turn to Rue and as far away from what remains of Morrison as she can.

Swallowing, she pushes herself back up to her feet and starts to stride toward Rue and Dearing, though it's movement that purposefully lacks confidence. "Let me take a look," she says as she picks up her bag and her plant. "I-" is offered to Josiah and Scott as well. "My sister used t' be a nurse." She stops after a few steps, lest she meet Stefan's fate.

Hissing sounds, though not from either Devon. It's the obelisk that looms there, eye sharpening, iris pinning as it finds them. Cracks form in precise curves, and the ice breaks apart into limbs. The details come alive as afterthoughts, all spines and jagged edges. Doctor Cong does nothing to stop the brave steps of Aislinn Graves; his focus lies forward as one cumberous fist slams into the tile between the twins. The tremble sounds like a drum. It shouldn't.

Cong's frigid, golem shape intercedes on the potential altercation. Broken metal and ice vibrates with the quivering of the floor.

"Out."

His rumbling is clear as day. One scathing look from the beacon of his golden eye. A second rumble, two staccato vibrations from under the basement.

A hiss like hot air from the floor, and one more word more insistent and bellowing than the last. The hiss stops when water begins to seep from underfoot.

"OUT."

Dearing doesn’t hesitate for a single moment as he pushes Aislinn out of the way with one arm. “Sorry for this,” he says to Rue before hoisting her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry that re-injures every single bruised, ripped, and torn muscle up and down her back. The involuntary scream that escapes her comes a split second before Dearing calls. “Withdraw.

He steps between the two Devons, gently pushing the Hound-aligned one with his shoulder while jerking his head away from the other. “Both of you heard Falcor, Commander’s hurt, we extract.”

Hey!” Dearing calls on the comms as he carries Rue toward the laboratory door, “we have minor casualties down here, we’re pulling out. Everybody’s leaving, but we can’t push in any further, too hot!”

Scott looks over to Aislinn. “You might want to tag along,” he suggests, wearily, “unless he wasn’t talking to you.” He being the monster.

Josiah helps lead Scott out, making sure to try and wait for Aislinn to follow.

“We’re headed back to the loading dock, we have Amarok-4 the Sequel with us!” Dearing shouts as he jogs ahead of the group, abandoning his machine gun to the floor of the dragon’s lair.

“What’s your sitrep!?”


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
Secure Command


The sound of Dearing's voice over the comms is what rouses Asi from her catatonia, something that punches through her awareness. She blinks, more aware of her surroundings than before, even if she's blind to them at the moment.

"«We're—»" is as far as she gets in a reply before she hears the crash behind her. She cranes her head to the side, listening for more. A slow blink later and her gaze comes back into focus, allowing her to see Adam flying through the air.

Asi's blue-grey eyes flicker in recognition of the danger, even if she lacks knowing what exactly she's looking at. Her gun arm lifts, Banshee held primed. Her voice continues to carry over the comm without her opening her mouth to speak again, all the same urgency felt within it regardless. "«Contact with an unknown enemy. They just swiped Monroe from under us and ate him alive.»"

She'd swear about that, but it wouldn't do any good. Additionally, she doesn't blindly open fire, holding out thin but fervent hope neither of the Hounds will either.

Gates have been thrown, Scylla and Transceiver have a tunnel to China now. Drone network is down. Secure Command is down. Assuming this thing doesn't eat us momentarily, we should make our exit.»" Only then does she glance to Lucille and Huruma with a silent placation of Right? before she looks to Sabine's prone form on the ground.

With the stampede sure to come in the form of analysts and techs panicking, they themselves might be her safest bet out.

Lucille is in crazy enough state of mind she almost tries to jump right up after Adam and the monster of smoke and ash but instead she just stands there, salty tears soak her face. Was this all real? Delia, stop playing games.

The dark haired woman closes her eyes and waits for her younger sister to stop playing the nasty trick, making her think this was reality when she was in a nightmare. Change this Delia!! Lucille is almost content to wait forever until Asi's communications finally reach her through the fog. Heart thumping, her eyelids flutter open and they slide over to where Sabine lays but Lucille seems to look right through her.

There's just a curt nod of her head and Lucille walks away not bothering to bend down and drag Sabine with her. Fuck it all.

Delia please… wake me up…

For the span of a few seconds, Huruma can't be sure that she wasn't the one to make her own wants come true. She holds her breath as Adam hits one surface after another, and it isn't until the pieces of the ceiling come raining down that she lets go—

No, it's not her.

What it is, now, that's something familiar. Blood smeared down her face, Adam's on her armor, Huruma doesn't look away from the yawning dark above their heads. Her eyes gleam under static light from slowly dying feeds. One, two, click, click, click. They go out in a steady, sobering rhythm. The empath's eyes are fixed when her ability bursts forth in mimic of the creature up above.

Already pumped full of adrenaline and grief, Huruma lashes out with an unholy wail, those thousands of prying, sharp, digging fingers and the many, now focused eyes firing fury from her head. The sudden taste of blood in her mouth, and in her mind's eye, teeth and tongue.

Slavering.

If she can't have Adam—

Huruma's anger tilts. Barrels down its own path. Slams into the consciousness deep in the heart of the dark. Latches, drags. Devours.

Into as black a pit of fear and despair as she can paint.

It’s like trying to catch a fly between two fingers; possible, but challenging. The being in the ceiling is quick to move, too quick for someone crawling on their hands and knees. It feels like it can predict when those psychic talons will try to clench down and slither just out of Huruma’s expansive reach. Occasionally she finds purchase, but the mind — the will — is remarkably strong. Or, it’s not strength but perhaps more cunning. She’s never quite felt a mind adapt to her psychic assault this way before, though it isn’t an insurmountable emotional fortress, as it does retreat.

But not without Huruma having some measure of victory… pyrrhic as it is.

The ceiling tiles explode from a weight landing on them, and Adam Monroe’s headless body falls out in a shower of blood and gore amid screaming technicians trying to flee through the exits away from Wolfhound and away from the carnage.

«We’re in!» Scylla’s voice comes over Asi’s comm. «Breaking down internal security, Transceiver is killing arcology power in Shanghai and negating defenses. We’ve got indications of human prisoners here, Gemini research labs, we’re running through the detention database right now and opening cells. Slash and fucking burn!»

All of this is like so much noise, even as Asi is seeing so much other information on other security feeds and where her spidery subprocesses are spreading. Two pieces of data catch her attention, a screen that a drone operator was observing that has a bright red alert flashing on it:

[Connection Lost: Automated Combat Processes Active]

{{killprocess ai.combat/ursa

[Command Failed]

It would appear that something inside the Ziggurat, somewhere, is still operational on its own. But when she starts subconsciously cycling through security camera feeds, she finds something else entirely.


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
Laboratory Sub-Basement
Genetics Lab F8


Slouched up against a concrete wall, Lanhua Chen’s eyes are a glossy black burning with two gold rings of light. Six syringes are scattered at her feet and a seventh just finished being injected into her veins, which spread like the branches of an inky tree up her forearm and along one side of her face. She is screaming, exhaling a breathless and agonized wail and the ground around her is vibrating so hard it’s shaking the security cameras.

As Chen steps away from the wall, more than forty floors below Asi in the foundational levels of the Ziggurat, she raises her hands to her head, exhales another agonized scream as blood begins to trickle from her nostrils, and then doubles over and slams her hands into the concrete floor underfoot, crushing the stone in a hemispherical depression that sends a violent shudder up


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
Secure Command


through the entire Ziggurat. Lucille approaches Asi, leaving Sabine on the ground behind her, and she can feel the entire Ziggurat sway like they were in the upper branches of a tree. Overhead displays rattle on their anchors, some fall loose and crash to the floor. Praxis staff scrambling for the exits lose their footing and collapse onto the ground, trampled by other employees trying to escape the carnage.

As if she was punched in the face, Asi sees stars bloom in her vision, but they aren’t blotches but rather alerts from systems designed to detect earthquakes within the Ziggurat. They flash with great alarm, indicating that the systems designed to prevent an earthquake from damaging the structure are activated.

[[SEISMIC ACTIVITY DETECTED]]
[[ESTIMATED INTENSITY: 6.6]]
[[ESTIMATED EPICENTER: LOCAL]]

Having been hanging back, unsure of what to do amid Huruma and Lucille’s breakdowns and the tight quarters fighting, Francis snaps a sharp look over to Asi and shouts. “Was that a fucking earthquake?

As soon as the shaking starts, Asi is forced to let go of the storage device clipped to her, pausing in her attempts to scrape together damning information and copy it out before it's burned. The building is shaking to the point she can't clearly focus on the striations in the data, and reluctantly she begins the recall of subprocesses of herself, and her other self, regathering the pieces of her ability back to one cohesive whole and thensome. Disorientingly, she still feels even more pieces of her yet within the system, too many for her to carry as she is, all still pinging back information.

"Fuck," she breathes out in a whisper, caught here and three other places at once. Her heart aches, her head aches. There is too much to possibly react to at once, forcing her to prioritize. After a beat, she lifts her voice for Francis' benefit. "No," Asi answers in a weary shout over the noise, because he's both right and also not. "It's an ability. Chen's on a sublevel, on amp, trying to…"

The run to the roof feels almost impossible to make right now. If it's impossible for them to make, then the team in the basement… Hell, those everywhere else in the building. Workers, regular citizens… A simple check is all it takes to reconfirm that the lockdown persists. Now, even only suspecting what Lanhua's dangerous goal is, it's clear it needs to end. People need to seek safety, immediately, and safe is no longer here.

With an upward flit of her glowing eyes, Asi sets about drawing back the blinds around the Ziggurat. The blast shields covering the side of its brutalist form begin to slide back. Doors unlock. Emergency lighting across all of Praxia initiates, accompanied by an automated message signaling for evacuation. The hall outside Secure Command is no exception to this.

«Keelut-2, your team must go immediately to Genetics Lab F8 on your level. Lanhua Chen injected a fatal amount of amp and is causing the earthquake. If you do not stop her, she's going to bring this entire facility down on our heads. She's a Gemini recipient with an unknown combination of abilities— shoot to kill before she completes her work or we're fucked.»

«Yeh, Demsky— the unknown element is fleeing. There is a chance it could be coming up. Eyes sharp.»

«No can do!» Dearing’s voice crackles over the comms, «basement is hostile, we have injured, captives, and civilians with us!» Civilians being a Devon.

Yes, the basement being hostile is the issue, Dearing. Asi turns herself around mentally, reaching out to the disabled drones on the sublevel, willing them active again with a new purpose.

«I'm retasking units to try and intercept her, then. Any drones you see active shouldn't be targeting you any longer. There is one rogue Ursa unit that's an exception, and that's it.»

An alert klaxon blares.

«This is an automated message»

As the building shakes Lucille stops herself from exiting the room and throws her arm out to the side catching herself on the wall and looking over her shoulder at the other three behind her. The earthquake and her own potential death does something to Lucille and her eyes come back alive as she glares, "«Try..»"

She tucks her pain and grief behind a flimsy shield of a mask and grits her teeth.

"«Asses in gear now.»" Lucille's voice is firm but laced with pain that she can't all the way get rid of. "We leave, now."

«An Emergency Evacuation Has Been Initiated»

Her head is pounding. Like it never has before. She gets one win, in the sense of a predator versus the horn.

She knows what it was. Perhaps that is the worse thing. Huruma remains locked until she is certain that he is gone from her senses. The first thing she looks to when her ears fill back with alerts and screaming is that wall of light. Only a few cameras remain inside of the Detroit feeds. The lead weight inside of her chest is unbearable, but the job's not done.

The only easy day was yesterday.

The floor vibrates, even if the footprint of the ziggurat resists the quaking; as Huruma braces herself and closes her visor, she swallows back the lump in her throat. The thick blast doors creep slowly into sheathes, lights pop. Evacuation orders, alarms. Asi's voice divesting itself in bits and pieces over comms is set aside, for now. There is nothing left for them to finish inside the fortress. Leave, now. Huruma can feel the emanance of fear wafting up from below, as the doors unlock in succession.

«Please Exit the Ziggurat Immediately»

"Come." The deep voice of the empath carries the crackle of overuse as she swoops in on Sabine Hazel. Huruma takes her by the arm, an aura of safe around them both. As she pulls Sabine up, Huruma offers words under her breath to the woman's ear, a ministration. "I do hope you like Christmas carols."

Time to go.


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
Laboratory Sub-Basement


“Did you say an Ursa unit!?” Dearing shouts over the blare of the klaxons, jogging at the head of the group with Rue over his shoulder and Airmail held in one hand. In the same moment, there is a high-pitched mechanical whining sound and the slam of something metal inside the concrete walls. Two slabs of concrete seamlessly appear to slide into the floor, revealing concealed charging stations for two Qing drones.

Fuck!” Dearing shouts, skidding to a stop as the Qings step out from their enclosures, blue points of light flickering in their monocular eye, one throwing Dearing a thumbs up, before both units jug off down a branching path.

«This is an automated message»

Jesus,” Dearing exhales, looking back to the others. “We’ve gotta get back to the Katsch, we’ve disabled the lab as best as we can. “Sanderson!” Dearing looks past the Devons to Josiah, “Make sure Graves doesn’t get out of your sight!

Josiah glances over at Aislinn, then back to Dearing and nods a bit hesitantly, still partly burdened with Scott.

“Hey,” Dearing asks over his shoulder to Rue, “can you walk?”

«An Emergency Evacuation Has Been Initiated»

“I can throw up in this helmet if you don’t stop fucking jostling me,” is Rue’s response to that question. Her voice is weak from pain, but she’s not saying no. “Put me down,” is more an order than a request. Either she’ll manage to keep up, or they’ll leave her behind. The latter is the order she’d have given him if they hadn’t been given the opportunity to leave of their own accord.

But she’s not in charge now.

Her vision swims when she finds her feet under her again, staggering against the wall and panting hard as she tries to make screaming injuries shut the fuck up a bit. Rue means to nod, reflex telling her to give a visual cue instead of a verbal one, but that just results in a brief howl that she cuts off behind her teeth. “Go,” she demands, even as she starts putting one foot in front of the other herself.

Ursa. The Devons share a look. For the shortest second ever recorded, there seems to be a mutual worry that highlights upon that information. Some grains of what could become common ground settles, a thread stretches to bridge the gap. Then all at once it shatters more easily than the most delicate of soap bubbles.

“Get your ass moving.” The Hound called Devon gripes at an imagined lagging of his twin’s cadence. He certainly doesn't care to be caught having to fall back to make sure the other him doesn't become another casualty. He motions with head and rifle at the space that hasn't significantly increased between them and the lead. “Last thing we need is you—”

“—can't prove I'm the one that caused it.” Devon from Praxia plows right over the top of whatever his counterpart had been saying. Much to his Hound version’s chagrin, his pace neither speeds up nor slows. His expression echoes the glower worn by his twin. “Should give me one of your extra firearms.” Just in case; it's an argument he's voiced once or twice already.

The response to it this time, from the Hound Devon, is a derisive grunt that's lost in the Klaxon screams. “We’ll talk about after you grow up.”

When Josiah is told to make sure she stays in his sight, Aislinn feigns an exhausted sigh, eyes angled down at the ground. "I'm telling you," she remarks in a voice that almost gets lost against the klaxons, "you have the wrong woman. Aislinn's my sister," the agrokinetic remarks in the manner she imagines she would - somewhere between tired, pleading, and annoyed.

Looking up at Josiah, she offers him a thin smile. "Elspeth Graves," she reiterates, before looking back down at the floor. "They had me here to keep my sister doing… whatever she's been doing." She holds up the plant, inspecting it. "This is hers, if you want it." She tips it towards Josiah, before looking back towards Rue. "I can patch her up a bit if you let me."

It can't hurt to play nice, even if it's a bold faced lie. Whatever gets her out alive.

“You can look her over when we’re out of here,” Josiah says back to her, unsure of what to make of Elspeth.

Up ahead, Dearing slows his pace and lets Rue get a little headway on him, checking the rear of the group. “C’mon!” He says, waving Scott and Josiah ahead of himself, Ms. Graves after. “Clendaniels let’s fucking go!


Moments Earlier

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
Executive Helipad


A gust of cool, February air greets Yi-Min and Colette as they reach the helipad on the roof of the Ziggurat, stepping out of the elevator and into fresh air. Colette takes a few stumbling steps forward and tears off her gas mask, looking around with wide eyes. The Tlanuwa was supposed to be waiting for them.

“The fuck?” Colette asks, placing two fingers to her earpiece. “Tlanuwa-2, this is Wendigo-3, sitrep!

Before Avi has a chance to answer, the roar of jet engines provides Colette with all the answer she needs. But it isn’t the Tlanuwa coming in for a vertical landing, but screaming through the skies over the San Francisco Bay. Pivoting toward the sound, Colette sees the black experimental jet banking sharply to the left, circling around as it lays down a stream of gunfire into the hills.

«Those fucking tanks went berzerk a second ago, started fucking shooting at everything!» Avi’s voice crackles over the comms. «We’ve got Guardians down on Alameda that are in the line of fire, trying to clear the artillery out! Hold tight!»

The shift in scenery to that of a sudden opening of sky only brightens the sight of blood rippling down Yi-Min's own hands, freshly and wetly borne from the last man she had left different knives embedded inside before making her exit. Similar to Colette’s appearance, she is spattered in narrow dashes of blood here and there.

None of it is her own.

The Taiwanese woman's eyes are tranquil as she stares up into the wheeling aspect of wind bearing the Tlanuwa aloft over the bay— away from them.

It's Yi-Min's turn to defer to Colette with a nod so passive it is almost missable, indicating that she would follow the lead of the Hound from here on. "What now, miss Wendigo?" No, that surely isn't a hint of irony in her tone, placid as it is.

Brows furrowed, Colette listens to the chatter coming over the comms. “Jesus, I’m not sure if— ”

Whatever was about to come next is cut off by the sudden shudder that rocks through the Ziggurat, causing the roof of the building to sway from side to side like a stack of playing cards on an unsteady hand. Colette moves beside Yi-Min and takes her arm to make sure the doctor doesn’t fall, bracing herself as the building shakes and then calms.

Blind eyes wide, Colette looks up and around, trying to figure out what just happened. A crackling bark of noise over the external speakers delivers an answer for her a second later.

«This is an automated message»

Colette looks over to Yi-Min, expression practically ashen.

«An Emergency Evacuation Has Been Initiated»

“Fuck, fuck!” Colette hisses, then releases Yi-Min’s arm. “Avi! We need evac on the roof! Something’s happening inside!”

«Little busy here!» Avi shouts over the comms, and the distant sound of artillery fire punctuates his sentence.

«Please Exit the Ziggurat Immediately»

Slowly, a horrifying thought dawns on Colette. Wolfhound hadn’t planned for the need of an evacuation of the entire facility, this was supposed to be a mission to disable security and external defenses so the US Military could make a clean entrance to the Safe Zone. But this.

Asi’s voice comes clear over the comms. «Keelut-2, your team must go immediately to Genetics Lab F8 on your level. Lanhua Chen injected a fatal amount of amp and is causing the earthquake. If you do not stop her, she's going to bring this entire facility down on our heads. She's a Gemini recipient with an unknown combination of abilities— shoot to kill before she completes her work or we're fucked.»

«Yeh, Demsky— the unknown element is fleeing. There is a chance it could be coming up. Eyes sharp.»

«No can do!» Dearing’s voice crackles over the comms, «basement is hostile, we have injured, captives, and civilians with us!»

«I'm retasking units to try and intercept her, then. Any drones you see active shouldn't be targeting you any longer. There is one rogue Ursa unit that's an exception, and that's it.»

Colette turns to Yi-Min. “The gas. Yeh, the gas!


Meanwhile

Laboratory Sub-Basement
Genetics Lab F8


Hands trembling and eyes wrenched shut, Lanhua Chen struggles to keep herself together. There is a compulsion — an intrusive thought — driving like a knife into her skull. Her veins burn, her heart is racing, she feels sick to her stomach and trembles in terror and anticipation. When her moment of calm is broken by the whirr-clack-whirr of Qing drones moving into the lab, her gold-on-black eyes snap open. Guns open fire, but bullets hang weightless in the air.

The ground around Lanhua vibrates, her hair is thrown about in an intangible wind, and when she raises one hand to the machines, they are disassembled by a concussive blast of force so powerful it destroys not only the machines, but punches through a four foot thick concrete wall, bending steel beams like clay. The ceiling tears open in ragged lines of rippling destruction, raining shards of concrete down from overhead.

Lanhua lurches, blood trickling from her nose and quickly swept away by her forearm. The ground cracks under her feet, and she staggers forward, through the open hole in the wall, gasping for breath.

Please, stop.


Now

Laboratory Sub-Basement


Up ahead, Dearing slows his pace and lets Rue get a little headway on him, checking the rear of the group. “C’mon!” He says, waving Scott and Josiah ahead of himself, Ms. Graves after. “Clendaniels let’s fucking go!

The wall beside James Dearing erupts in a concussive shockwave that throws him clear off of his feet and sends him flying into another wall that splinters with shards of broken stone and metal rebar. The explosion is so loud, so concussive, that it leaves everyone’s ears ringing and confused as to how they ended up on the floor. The ceiling gives way a moment later as heavy slabs of steel-reinforced concrete come crashing down from above.

A massive piece of concrete falls directly down on top of Scott Harkness and vanishes in a latticework of light as he sucks it up into his pocket dimension a split second before it crushes him to death. It gives him a clear view of the larger pieces of steel and concrete that land squarely atop both Devon Clendaniels.

A massive cloud of stone dust blasts down the hallway, and Aislinn’s head is spinning. She can’t tell if the vibration coming from the building is her bones reverberating from the force of the explosion or if the whole building is going to come down on top of them.

Josiah rolls onto his side, choking and gasping for breath. As he slowly sits up, he looks ahead to Rue, palms flat on the floor and elbows bent, trying to push herself back up from the ground.

There is no sign of Dearing or either Devon.

There’s no chance to react when everything suddenly gets tipped on its head.

Or maybe it’s Rue that’s been tipped.

The resurgence of her pain and the evidence of new damage speaks to that pretty well. Pushing herself up with an agonized cry, she staggers back to her feet and starts taking stock of where everyone is. Harkness, Sanderson, Graves…

No.

“Dev!” Rue calls out for her friend. Fuck callsigns. “Devon!”

Nothing.

Dread starts to grow as she turns around in a slow circle, like maybe she just didn’t look hard enough or something. She flips up her cracked visor finally, blinking hard as she makes another pass. Her heart sinks and her blood feels like ice.

Dearing!” Staggering forward to where she last saw him, she continues to call out his name, voice growing more and more panicked each time. “Dearing! You son of a bitch, answer me!” Angling a look back to Josiah in spite of the way every single muscle in her neck and her back protests the movement, she fixes him with a look that’s equal parts determination and fear. “Help! Please! Help me find him!”

Rue turns back to her search, already starting to try and move rubble to find some sign of her partner. “Dearing!

Aislinn's teeth chatter for a moment just from the vibration alone, frozen in place with her eyes wide and one arm still wrapped around the proffered plant. All hell just keeps breaking loose and she's about at her limit for how much of it she can take. Swallowing, she sits up and offers a slow look over to Josiah, and then forward to Rue as she struggles to do much of anything effectual at all.

"I can- I can't do anything about that," she stammers out. Maybe if she had a bigger plant with more tensile strength, but that would also be giving herself away. And while that might be worth it in this situation, that would be if it would accomplish anything. She doesn't wait for Josiah before she rises up to her feet, wobbly the entire time as the vibrations still wind their way through her body.

"Look I know you're not going t'listen t' me, Miss, but y'r already in bad shape an' if you keep losing blood - which you're only makin' worse - it's not going t' end well for any a' us."

Turning, she offers a hand to Josiah. It's what she would do.

Josiah stares at the offered hand, then looks over to Rue scrambling through the pile of rubble where Dearing was. He’s frozen in a moment of uncertainty, between pragmatism and empathy. Scott Harkness has survived enough conflicts to not have to pause to make that choice. As he pulls himself to his feet, he staggers first over to where Rue is, and then waves Josiah over to where both Devons were.

Josiah swallows, looks back at Aislinn, and holds up one finger and jogs off to that rubble pile. Coughing, Josiah blinks repeatedly and swallows down a lump in his throat. His head feels strange, heavy. He breathes in deeply and then exhales sharply again and slowly starts to move toward the rubble pile where the Devons were, but drops to one knee and brings a hand up to his head.

“Something’s wrong,” Josiah says, “it’s like… “ he realizes the Wolfhound members are wearing gas masks. Suddenly he wonders if, in all the chaos, they’d forgotten to warn him about something. Steeling himself, Josiah slowly rises to his feet and furrows his brows as he looks at the rubble. “I can— I think I can feel him!” He says, moving toward the fallen concrete.

As Rue pulls rock and rebar away from where Dearing was, she feels Scott’s hands on her shoulders. Pulling her back, gently. “Lancaster,” his voice is shaky, as are his old hands, “Lancaster.” There’s mountains of rubble, some of it is holding up the rest of the ceiling. For all that he’s trying to get her to realize what’s going on, he’s also scanning the rubble. Holding out hope.

A hand thrusts out from the rubble by Josiah, scraped and bloody fingers curling in the air. “I got him!” Josiah shouts, kicking away concrete debris, “I got him!” As Josiah takes the hand, he can see shoulders, then a blonde mop of hair powdered by concrete dust as he hauls Devon up out of the rubble, covered head to toe in concrete debris. Josiah looks back to Rue and Scott, and his heart sinks for her.

But then he remembers, looking back to Devon. Weren’t there twins?


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
37th Floor
Executive Residential Level


«This is an automated message»

wu_icon.gif

Doctor Wu Shengjiao looks up to the speaker above his apartment door, hands balled into fists at the emergency alert. He paces the floor, feeling the tremor rumbling through the ziggurat’s superstructure. When the blast screens over his windows open, he rushes first to them, looking out over the burning stretch of Alameda where the refineries and factories are.

«An Emergency Evacuation Has Been Initiated»

There’s a buzzing noise when the lock on his apartment door is undone as Asi’s subprocesses go through the steps of releasing imprisoned residents from their lockdown. Wu turns sharply, about to run for the door when he sees that there is someone waiting for him there. Tall, bearded, wild gray hair and dried blood covering his face. He does not need to know Samson Gray to know that no good will come from his presence.

«Please Exit the Ziggurat Immedi

The speaker above Wu’s door crumples in on itself with a shower of sparks as Samson enters the room, then in a sudden burst of superhuman speed appears inches away from the doctor, who practically jumps out of his skin. Wu throws his hands up in a gesture of surrender and Samson pushes him back against the window with a thunk.

Monroe.” Samson growls through clenched teeth. “Where is he?”

“I— I don’t know!” Wu is prompt to respond. He can smell the coppery stink of blood mingling with the odor of tobacco coming off of Samson.

“What did he do?” Samson asks, and he can tell the question holds no context for Wu based on his reaction. “I thought he was a regenerator!” He yells, yellowed teeth bared like an angry dog. Wu recoils from Samson’s anger, hands trembling.

Wu stares at Samson for a moment, unblinking, not knowing how to answer the question. “I— I— he— G-Gemini. Copies. All different.” Samson’s eyes narrow and his jaw muscles flex as he gnashes his teeth together, leaning in close to Wu’s face.

Where is the one with regeneration?” Samson asks in an animalistic growl, and this close Wu can hear the rattling wheezing of each breath he takes.

Wu freezes, uncertain. Then, for lack of any better lie, he offers up the awful truth. “Dead.” He gasps out the word. “He’s dead.”

Samson presses a telekinetic force against the middle of Wu’s chest, lips parting and ashen smoke spilling from his lips. “When?

“Yesterday.” Doctor Wu says with a shake of his head. “He died yesterday, in— his office.”

Pieces slot together for Samson, and as he slides his tongue over his parched lips his next question to Doctor Wu is given with the utmost care, whispered right into his ear.

Where is his body?


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
Executive Residences, 39th Floor
Northwest Stairwell


Back up the way they came, two stairs at a time.

«This is an automated message»

Asi Tetsuyama feels like her mind is being pulled apart at the seams. Every single subprocess at her disposal is actively feeding data back to her, the subprocesses that belonged to another version of herself likewise send back data feeds in slightly different sensational modes, making it feel like she is a stranger in her own skin. They are tiny, electronic martyrs to the cause, and she is unable to save these tiny pieces of a greater whole.

«An Emergency Evacuation Has Been Initiated»

Somewhere, she knows the ZZ-7 tanks defaulted to some sort of automatic seek and kill mode, and that Avi is attempting to eliminate the threat they represent in the Tlanuwa. Somewhere, she knows the Guardians are withdrawing from Alameda across the bridge into Oakland. Somewhere, she knows there was just a collapse on the lower levels and cameras are cut out everywhere. Somewhere, she has every Qing unit she can control converging on Lanhua Chen. Somewhere, — no — here

Here she is galloping up stairs back toward the roof with several floors left to go. The descent was so much easier and with the building quaking like it is, there’s no way it’s safe to take the elevators. “Eight minutes!” Francis calls up from the stairwell, checking his watch.

Huruma is not far behind Asi, and though she’s carrying an unconscious Sabine Hazel up the stairs there is an almost dead look in her eyes. A look of shock. Of trauma that is being partitioned for another, later time. Lucille has no such coping mechanisms, and her suffering is writ large on her face.

Eight minutes until the system is down, Asi's extra eyes and ears and arms wrent from her body all at once. It both is an eternity away and too soon yet. For all that she's flooded with information, it isn't impossible to—

She trips up the next stair, stumbling and then pressing on as soon as she gets her balance under her again. It's a good thing she holstered her weapon before they began this ascent.

"«Tlanuwa, status? We need you in five.»" Asi grabs ahold of the stairwell railing and pulls herself up to the next landing with a grunt of effort. If she sounds winded, it's because she is.

«Almost there!» Avi’s voice pops over the comms, «Got mobile artillery platforms firing on the Guardians. Demsky and Yeh are already on the roof! Just gotta do one more pass!»

The adrenaline has begun to wear off and Lucille staggers to the stairs, but steels herself. She had to make it back home. She had to see Delia… Oh Pippa. She sees her father in her mind, on that screen. He fought ‘til the very last breath he could take. She couldn't stop now.

Grunting, the young woman makes her way up the stairs, bringing in the rear. Her eyes flicker from gold to light blue and back but Lucille refuses to stop. She would need all the strength she could muster to get out of here alive with her chosen family.

Boost.

Adrenaline floods her system anew and she gasps from the shock to her system. Heart beating rapidly and her vision darkens on the edges, Lucille falls to one knee and grabs the railing. It takes a moment, moments they don't have, but Lucille has strength. Pulling herself up she flies up the stairs, feet pounding on the steps.

Pain in her head, legs, back, everywhere; it's relegated to a distant hum in the back of her head, like the tinnitus after a bomb. Huruma has had to segment her pain for decades, and it doesn't stop now. The bright glass of her eyes has dried, blood sticky between chin and the brace of helmet. The visor gives her only a partial measure of privacy. Movements steady, neither methodical nor quick.

The brain says move. So she moves.

Sabine went out by the time they reached the middle of the next set of stairs. Huruma's shoulders are solid under the carry, even if her hands momentarily struggle to keep things balanced. Bits of her pay attention to Asi and Lucille, Francis and the unconscious Sabine. Other parts tuned to the voices in the comms. For a passing breath she feels the urge to speak creep up her back, but it never gets past the line of consciousness.


Meanwhile

Laboratory Sub-Basement


Pieces of concrete clatter and fall aside as Josiah keeps digging for Devon’s twin. The one pulled from the rubble doesn’t even have the luxury of anyone being there to check on him, with Scott trying to pull Rue off of the heap of nearby rubble and Josiah occupied by digging through another. “I see him!” Josiah shouts, pulling back another piece of concrete, followed by immediately recoiling and clapping a hand to his mouth.

Josiah’s voice is stolen from him, eyes wide and back straight. There is a hand covered in blood and concrete dust sticking out of the rubble, a mangled bracelet around one armor-clad wrist, sparkling mutedly, caked in blood and grime. Josiah shakes his head looks back to the Devon he pulled free before, dressed in civilian clothes. He then looks back to Scott and Rue, unable to explain what he sees. It’s too horrible.

“Rue,” Scott strains, grabbing her by the arms and pulling, “Rue!” There’s thousands of pounds of concrete there, debris piled upon debris and Dearing was at ground zero for the blast. “Rue we have got to go. We have to go. Right now.”

A distant tremor shakes the building, accompanied by a groaning sound and a flickering of the lights that weren’t damaged by the last blast. “Lancaster!

She'd broken the ritual.

It occurs to her while she's sifting through the rubble: this is her fault. There was a way to things. How they'd approach an op. A pattern that they engaged in, and it had been like good luck, hadn't it? It must have been, because she chose not to keep the tradition, and now this.

“No!” Rue shouts, shrugging Scott off. They've found Devon, so there's hope. (She doesn’t realize yet that it isn’t their Devon.) She keeps prying at chunks of concrete, tugging upward without regard for her own well-being.

If only she had Dearing's strength.

She doesn't even have her own strength right now. Each time she drags another crumbling block off the pile, she further exacerbates her own injuries. It doesn't matter, though. None of it fucking matters, so long as she can find him.

Her voice cracks when she calls out his name again, demanding and begging all at the same time. “Dearing!

But she'd flipped up her visor, so she's no longer breathing through her mask like she's supposed to be. This time, when he means to pull her back, Scott finds more success. “No!” The sound comes out in a squeak. She's started sobbing. A ragged, broken sound. “No, I can't leave him! He— He wouldn't leave me, Hark! I can't – I can't –”

Rue sags against Scott, finding that's what's left of her energy seems suddenly sapped from her. “No,” she whispers again, voice fading quickly, leaving only her tears.

This is all very hard for Aislinn to watch, standing a bit back and off to the side. Not because she's worried about them or scared, no. She has no real empathy for any of these people, knowing full well that they were effectively here to put her out of a job AND arrest her. Rather it's because of the emotion on display that she finds herself increasingly uncomfortable.

Still, there's an instinct that drives her to want to look after Devon, learned from when she was a nurse. There's no real intentional movement made, not with the resistance that's been shown to her helping out so far, but that instinct helps lend a sense of legitimacy to the front she's put up. That she's Elspeth Graves, compassionate as she was, and not her secretly sociopathic sister.

She watches Rue for a moment more, before letting out a sigh and wordlessly looking off to the side. They're going to die here if this keeps up.

If not for slackened muscles allowing skin to conform to sharp angles, an obvious lifelike softness that no artisan has ever achieved with stone, a casual look could peg Devon as statuary — poorly carved statuary. Fine dust from concrete leaves a thick layer of grime on his skin and clothes, packed in some places and cracked in others from sweat or blood or both. He hasn't moved since Josiah hauled him free of the rubble.

But he's alive. Aislinn can see that much when she spends a second watching. His chest moves with short breaths, the sort that come from physical exertion and near death. Of someone taking an inventory of their internal functions.

A hand scrapes across concrete and gravel. Devon uses it to push himself upward. Scott's words and Rue's pleading cries are a slowly approaching thing that he turns his face toward. Josiah's look of horror is caught in passing, Asilinn's anxious avoidance, Dearing's absence. The pieces don't fit together cleanly or easily — he'll figure it out later — but right now, "We need to get out."

It's obvious, but stated as directive and not suggestion. He ignores the twinge of fear that follows. Will any of them, the Hounds he'd spent years with before captivity, the strays they'd picked up along the way, even listen to him? "Harkness," Dev pauses to swallow, dust going down a dry throat. He rests a second on his knees then looks up. "Lead the way. Lancaster and you," he points at Aislinn, "take center. We'll cover." That would be Josiah and himself, indicated with a look to the former soldier.

At first Scott sees no reason to question the directive from Devon, but it’s the missing bracelet on his wrist, the civilian clothes. It crushes his heart, it gives even that old soldier pause. The walking dead, and yet… not.

“Come on,” Scott says, gentler than before, wrapping one arm around Rue’s shoulders as he leads her down the hall. His broken ribs can wait. He’s had worse, survived worse.

Josiah can’t help but fix Devon with a look of complete and utter disbelief, then slowly pivots his attention to Aislinn. He’s less hostile than he was with her a moment ago, and the very-recently-retired Praxis Security Officer motions with his chin for her to follow. Not his rifle, not with a bark. He just insinuates the obvious:

Come with me if you want to live.

The dead will stay behind.


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
Executive Helipad


There was a moment of silence between Yi-Min and Colette, and as the cold February wind whips across the rooftop, Yi-Min’s chalk white jacket flares out and swishes from side to side behind her like the tail of a temperamental cat.

Doctor Yeh, funnily enough, is quite aware of the gas. The problem is that there is much less she can actually do about it this long after the fact, especially from their vantage point way up here on the rooftop. She cannot turn back time, nor can she take her concoction back into herself like some kind of human Squeegee. The most she can do is trust that Asi would remember the plan they had discussed and agreed to enact beforehand.

But to that end, it didn't hurt to make sure.

Blood smudges into the line of Yi-Min's earpiece as she depresses the button to talk, and a moment later her voice superimposes itself onto the activity of the coms as a cold crackle.

"Oni. Redirect all the vent focus you can into Genetics Lab F8. There should be additional settings you can override, if you look." It was hardly a secret that the laboratory levels of the Ziggurat were a beast in terms of volume of resources consumed. All the climate control requirements were no exception. "Oh. While you’re at it, be very sure you've turned the rest of them off, too." Just in case this important sequential step had, you know. Slipped Asi's mind.

It's not that it had— just—

«That solves the issue of where to… send it.»

There's just a lot going on.

«I'll—» A second passes. Another. Elsewhere, Lanhua Chen has left the lab the redirected gas would have been sent to. «Chen's dispatched the drones I sent and is going on a walk. She's heading… for the hangar? I'm venting the gas there now.»

All the while, Colette is waiting, pacing back and forth beside Yi-Min, looking around. There’s more than forty floors between them and the ground level and no exits on the way. Suddenly, she remembers something Kaylee had said to her on the job just a few days ago.

She isn’t infallible.

A stone sinks into the pit of Colette’s stomach as a moment of doubt regarding Tamara’s precognition lands heavy. “We might need to go down,” Colette suddenly finds herself saying. “I have a rappelling kit, we can go down the face of the Ziggurat maybe— ” she does the math, it doesn’t work.

“Maybe…” Colette says with a shake of her head, looking around in disbelief, listening to the roar of the Tlanuwa’s engines circling around.

Eyes narrowing, Colette hears something scraping. Blind eyes reflexively move to Yi-Min, then past her. She tenses, curls the fingers of one hand closed and conjures a small ball of flickering light in that knuckled cage and creeps toward the edge of the roof.

The scraping is getting louder now, moving in a steady and rhythmic cadence that sounds more like crashing the clearer it becomes.


Meanwhile

Laboratory Sub-Basement
Vehicle Hangar


Lanhua Chen staggers up the ramp into the shared hangar between the basement and sub-basement levels. Ground vehicles are parked in rows here, and on lowered lifts at the far end of the hangar Z-12 Qingniao that were never launched sit in quiet readiness for a company that will never use them again. A voice, Lanhua’s own, burns through her mind like molten steel, hollows out her senses of self-preservation and leaves her shoulders slack and fingers twitching in spasms of dying brain cells.

As she lurches between two parked trucks, Lanhua sees her own reflection in the muted glass, sees the burning gold of her irises, the jet black veins throbbing on the side of her face. She is horrified by what she has become and recoils from her own reflection. But the intrusive thoughts are relentless, they afford her no time for self-reflection, no time for reconsideration. They are simply and ceaselessly focused.

Make them pay.” Lanhua whispers to herself. There is no fighting it any longer.

Now directly below the heart of the Ziggurat, Lanhua drops to her knees and slams the palms of her hands into the floor. Her back arches, shoulders heave, and cracks spread through the concrete as subsonic vibrations rattle the foundation apart. Pieces of stone taken aloft by telekinetic force float weightlessly around her, and splotches of blood dapple across the floor below her face from where it drips out of her tear ducts and nose.

Make them pay,” Lanhua whispers in a strangled sob that turns into a wailing scream as the kinetic energy continues to build up around her. She fails to hear the sound of vents opening one-by-one above her, the hollow rattle-clack of climate control systems coming online. From all across the arcology, the sedative being pumped into the building is redirected down to the hangar level bisecting both basement floors.

Make them pay…


Meanwhile

Laboratory Sub-Basement
Morgue


Ashen smoke billows heavily out of the ceiling-mounted ventilation system. Heavier than air, it pools on the ground, leaving sooty trails where the ambulatory cloud roils and churns. The ashes boil and rise upward, forming a column from which Samson Gray emerges, watching the way the fluorescent lights flicker as a vibration shakes through the building.

Samson’s tired old eyes start scanning the metal lockers on the far side of the room, counting upward through alphanumeric codes indicating who resides in what. Raising one hand, Samson pulls a door off of the wall with a metallic plink of the hinges, then sets the door down with a rattle on the floor. With his other hand he draws the tray out and strips it of the white sheet covering the grisly, mutilated remains of a man in a black suit.

Adam Monroe’s corpse lays facing Samson, mouth open and face halfway torn apart by an explosion one day prior. He is missing an arm and one leg from below the knee, they hadn’t even bothered to put it on the tray with him. This close now, Samson slowly approaches the corpse and looks into its milky white eyes, inspects the blotching yellow-purple bruising forming on the side of his face closest to the tray where all of the blood has coagulated.

Samson’s eyes narrow, and the fluorescent lights overhead spark, gutter, and then go out.

Throwing the room into darkness.


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
34th Floor
Security Core


A shuddering rumble shakes the four bridges connecting the cardinal entrances of the security core. Suspension cables holding the bridges in place vibrate with a hollow, metallic report like piano wire plucked by a finger. In the middle of the room, the massive dodecahedron of flat, black metal hums softly with the continued operations of a thousand subsystems within the arcology, now backed through Asi Tetsuyama. Or at least, a different Asi Tetsuyama.

The bundled spinal column of braided fiber optic cables extending down from the dodecahedron core reach the outer wall of the core, where rows and rows of exposed server blades are maintained by a half dozen scurrying spider-like robots. These machines disregard a foreign body in the system, four bricks of C-4 planted along the base of this cybernetic system.

The LED on its face counting down.

0:21

The system hums on, relentless in its ignorance.

0:20


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries
Sub-Basement Level
Security Complex Loading Dock


Scott Harkness steps out from around the side of a stack of metal crates that toppled over from the last time they’d been in here. His .45 revolver sweeps from corner to corner, checking the loading dock for any signs of other security personnel. His attention then moves to the Katsch still parked in the middle of the loading dock, doors open and waiting for the Hounds’ return, except…

0:19

As Rue and Aislinn come around the corner, they’re the first to hear Scott mutter, “Fuck.

Up ahead, the loading dock doors are just as the Hounds left them, 3/4ths of the way closed. There is a massive slick of coolant and hydraulic fluid on the floor, like a blood trail of a messy kill. But where once there was a massive ursine robot, pinned between the doors and crushed to presumably death after having its head practically severed from its body by machine gun fire.

The doors are open maybe six feet wide, but the robot is gone.

0:16


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
Executive Helipad


Exhaling a shaky breath, Colette stops advancing on the roof’s edge and then starts to hastily back up as the sound of clawing and scraping only gets louder and more intense. The more it sounds like something moving, getting closer, galloping.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Colette turns around, running straight at Yi-Min. “Run! Run!

0:13

A massive silhouette rises up from over the side of the ziggurat, silhouetting Colette in blackened metal spewing with smoke and broken steel. The hulking form looks like an animate junkyard at first for all that it’s missing its forelimbs from the ankles down, for all that its head has been sawed apart by heavy gunfire, jaws crushed in what must have been some kind of vice. But the eleven foot tall ursine form of a mechanical bear crests the edge of the roof, having climbed up the side of the ziggurat to the last remaining point of entry.

The machine takes a lurching step forward, twisted jaws opening with a shower of sparks, tertiary cameras moving like tiny eyes along its shoulders and back. The cannon attached to its mechanical spine sputters and twitches, barrels twisted and unable to fire. But those rending claws, those horrible misshapen jaws.

0:10

Those can kill.


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
42nd Floor
Executive Offices Level


Asi is the first person out of the stairwell and back into the executive offices level, just one floor below the rooftop. Lucille and Huruma are close behind with Francis as they make their way out into the hall and a growing sense of something being very wrong.

The entrance to the Director’s Suite looks like it suffered an explosion. The doors are blown off the hinges, glass walls are shattered, there’s evidence of fire suppression having been used and long dried blood swirled in swaths of brown on the floor. The Director’s desk Asi had touched on their way in is shattered in pieces, even the glass on the inside of the blast windows is destroyed.

0:08

There’s no way they could have missed an explosion this size happening directly below them. Not to mention the fact that the explosion looks days old. Inside the room, five Praxis security officers lay dead on the floor, some looking to have been very recently dismembered by a cauterizing cutting implement.

Huruma and Lucille know precisely what did that.

Colette.

It's abundantly clear, at least, what was wrong with this space the first time they passed through it. Asi's eyes go right to the shattered pieces of the desk, her brow slowly pinching together in a furrow.

She'd spend more time on this, even a verbal what the fuck, but they're out of time. The rumble of the building tells her that much, even if the impending explosion that'll bring down her extrasensory control of the building isn't cause enough on its own. Her eyes sweep the floor for anything that looks like a trap, and then she pushes onward.

Asi makes it halfway through the space before one extra, niggling thought trips up her movement, bringing her to do more than be on autopilot. She blinks, the glow of her eyes diminishing, looking down at the blood— the signs of explosion.

Extraneous subprocesses claw the system for signs of Chess' whereabouts. The last time she was here was…

0:06

Blinking quickly, Asi looks to those she came with, using their presence to center her back in this moment, to ignore the sinking of her stomach. What she's found bleeds into the storage device clipped to her with a touch of her hand, left for later consideration. When she falls into step next to Francis, it's without another look at the explosion, no chance given to herself to presently ponder its meaning further. She steps over the corpse of the guard stabbed through his throat and keeps moving.

Feeling the rush of her ability effecting her body Lucille's reactions are quick and she crouches at the damage tho she doesn't need to inspect any closer to know the work of her best friend.

"Col," Lucille whispers and it's then in that moment the only thing she wants to do is lay in Colette's arms and disappear from the world.

In order to do that they would need to survive and getting to that roof was the only option. Walking alongside the others Lucille moves to the rear whenever there isn't enough space.

0:04

Huruma hears the crunch of glass debris under her boot before she registers the state of the suite. Whatever kept this from them… the marks are old. The blood long coagulated. The guards, however— "'Lette." She unwittingly finishes Lucille's own murmuring, a steady look still drilled into her face and eyes.

They're up there. She thinks. Reaching out… hurts. Huruma squeezes her eyes shut for a few moments, navigating the stairs by muscle memory under the burden of pains and weight all the same.


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries
Sub-Basement Level
Security Complex Loading Dock


“Katsch isn’t gonna fit,” Scott says as he focused on the more immediate problem than the disappearing robot. “I can’t vanish those doors, and C4 isn’t going to budge them. Unless anyone has any better ideas, we’re gonna have to move on foot.”

0:01

Josiah looks at the doors and shakes his head, then turns his attention back to Rue and Devon, then to the Katsch, then back to the doors. “Foot sounds about as good as— ”

There’s another rumble, the entire ziggurat shakes this time, and unlike all the other times the power goes out. All of the internal lights go dark, remain that way, leaving the Hounds in pitch blackness save for the distant light at the end of the long underwater tunnel that leads back in the direction of the island of Passport three miles away.

Rue takes stock of the space around her. Everything takes precious seconds too long to register in her (almost certainly concussed and) grief-stricken brain. The space between the doors, where the Yaoguai was once felled, is what she settles on, trying to decide how they’re going to make this work.

“No. Wait.” Lancaster makes her limping way over toward the controls to the door, grasping at the chain around her neck and tugging it free with one swift motion that’s rewarded with a shrill sound of pain and a feeling of breathlessness in its wake.

Yi-Min Yeh’s credentials are passed through the console one more time to see if she can get those doors open without brute force. The mechanism starts to grind to life.

Then the power goes out.

A ragged sob of helplessness is punctuated by the thump of her helmeted head against the console. “Fuck!

For a moment, all that can be heard is the unsettling rumble of the building’s foundations and Rue’s attempts to get herself back under control. After a beat of silence, her voice lifts again, firmer. More like herself. “Go,” she demands. “Get yourselves as far from here as fast as you can. I’ll be behind you.” With as battered as she is, she can’t keep up with them, but she’s not going to sit around and wait to be crushed to death, either.

Bannerman’s Castle wasn’t her tomb. Maybe the Ziggurat of Praxia will be.

But she’s going to make it work for it.

“And if any of you fucking chuckleheads asks who died and put me back in charge, you will find the fuck out.” Rue warns. “Now move!

When the lights go out, Aislinn freezes dead in her tracks. Her grip tightens on the rim of the lightweight plant pot she's managed to keep a hand through all of this. A myriad of options and outcomes plays through her head - this could be her chance to break away, let them leave and get on their merry way before escaping herself. That assumes the building stays in one piece long enough to allow it though.

She could finally break character, make use of the dark and her ability to slow or incapacitate them, and make her break for it. It wouldn't be hard in the state any of them are in. In all reality if they didn't have guns she probably could slip away at literally any time. If they don't get out in time, that's not her problem.

Or she could just… slip away and wait for the collapse. With Praxis and Adam going under, was there even much of a point to living with a target on her back? Pretending to be Elspeth will only last so long. Eventually someone will look into it, and she doesn't want to be around for that reckoning.

She remains still for a moment longer before quietly and slowly slipping off to the side, to the other end of the Katsch. Reality will make its choice for her if she doesn't hurry.

Eyes slant skyward when the ground shakes, diverted from their scrutiny of the doors to the ceiling — and the fuck ton of everything that's beyond. Devon is still staring upward when the lights go out. Every part of him stalls for just an instant, snapped out of it when Rue speaks. He turns in the direction of her voice, barely a silhouette in the oppressive darkness.

"Belay that." Calm, assertive. No hesitation in countermanding the order to leave. Just that tickle of uncertainty that follows. "No one's fucking staying in this nightmare."

Devon takes a step forward, to better try and make out the faces in the dark. It doesn't help much, and he frowns as he presses on. They'll follow orders or they won't. "You, security guy, are going to carry Lancaster as carefully as you can until we're out. Doctor Flowers, you're going to stick close and assist like you're all bee-eff-effs since preschool." Which leaves Scott and himself.

"Keep our path clear, Scott. Just…" Dev smirks and shakes his head. "Go toward the light. I'll guard our backs." He's unarmed, but maybe he can slow any pursuit with his ability.

"Fffffucking Clendaniels," Rue hisses, but puts up no more argument than that, scraping a gloved hand under her nose that comes away with blood and tears. "Guess the insubordination is genetic."

Scott sucks in a deep breath, exhaling a wheezing cough as he checks the cylinder of his .45 revolver, then snaps it back closed. Rue’s compromised and injured, Devon isn’t Devon, but— it’s the order Scott would’ve given, if he were an officer.

“Jog, brisk.” Scott says clearly in the dark as the whole ziggurat begins to rumble. “Three miles, don’t stop.” With that, he slips past the black silhouette of the open doors and begins running down the underwater tunnel.

“Sounds like you don’t get to be a straggler,” Josiah offers to Rue with apology and an incline of his head, reaching out to gently take her hand. “But you look light,” he notes, trying to keep his tone calm and gentle. “Won’t be no burden at all.”

In the darkness, Rue can only see the reflection of distant light playing off Josiah's eyes and the more angular planes of his face. She lets out a huff of laughter that's also strained with the effort to try and hold back more tears.

“Because, ma’am,” Josiah says politely to Rue, “I do believe you’ve been outvoted.”

"If you think the camera adds ten pounds," model humor, "you'll be amazed what the armor does." Mercenary humor.

Shakily, the squadron's commander braces her arms around his shoulders and grits her teeth against new pain. "Two handsome men sweeping me off my feet in one day," she jokes half-heartedly, because it's all she has left I'm her right now. Deadpan, she adds, "Lucky me."


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
Executive Helipad


Colette’s blind eyes are wide as she shows Yi-Min ahead of her, and the ringing in her ears is drowning out the sound of her own horrified scream as five thousand pounds of hungering steel comes barreling toward her on broken stumps of shattered legs.

Colette’s heart sinks, she knows she can’t outrun it, can’t hide from it.

This is it.

There’s a sudden smashing sound and a tearing of metal complete with a spray of sparks and pieces of robotic chassis as something dark and moving fast falls out of the sky, landing on the metal monstrosity like a meteor that fell out of the sky, breaking it into a few pieces and stopping its charge. The white phosphorous smoke clears just enough to make out a dark shape that is in AEGIS armor. Over the radio they hear a voice, that’s familiar at least to Colette.

«Looks like I got here just in time.»

adel2_icon.gif

The figure straightens, the very recognizable shape of Adel Lane, surrounded in a kind of staticy field that seems to move around her body. That effect is not part of the suit, and it wasn’t there when Colette last saw her fight. It had been the main reason she left Wolfhound— she had to learn how to use this new version of her ability. With a step, tests her joints, which seem to be undamaged for the most part. “Taking these things apart is my favorite pastime.” Future time? Whatever.

“Miss me?”

Adel!” Colette screams in delight, jaw slack and eyes wide.

"I don't know who you are, but yes. Yes, you did. This is apparently what we get when we show up too early." That's from Yi-Min to Adel, much more dryly as she summarily gauges the measure of Colette's reaction. Adrenaline is still fresh and warm in her veins, too early to have begun to fade yet, and there is a bright glint in her eye when she finally moves her gaze away from— what is now left of the colossal, twisted mechanical cadaver.

"Friend of yours, Col?"

Colette’s response is a tactile one, rushing past Yi-Min and stepping up off the smoking forelimb of the bear to throw her arms around Adel’s shoulders. There’s a laughter, mad and jubilant, that slips from the photokinetic as she embraces the long-long Hound, and with a tight squeeze looks at her with tears in her eyes.

How!?” Colette asks, a nervous tremor in her voice. But the answer doesn’t truly matter; it could be the Guardians, it could be Avi playing his cards close to his chest, it could be Noa, it could be magic for all she cares.

All that matters is right now Adel is here, right when she was needed the most.


Meanwhile

Laboratory Sub-Basement
Vehicle Hangar


The concrete floor around Lanhua Chen is fractured as though she were a comet that fell from space. It is depressed into a bowl, broken and shattered, pieces of stone drift weightlessly in the pitch blackness of the basement, save for what little light is supplied by fires burning in the hangar from the damage she has caused.

Illuminated by the crackling flames, Lanhua sobs through the agony of her condition. Her veins burn like fire, her eyes ache, her skull throbs. Black veins pulse on the side of her face as her anger fuels her ability and gold irises burn bright against wholly black eyes. Pieces of superstructure break free from the ceiling, falling down behind her and crashing into parked vehicles. Massive lights overhead break from their anchors and drop to the ground in a cacophonous riot of sound.

But Lanhua is light-headed, her vision swims. She can’t feel her lips after a few moments, then her face and her extremities. That gold in her irises dims, the black of her eyes retract down to dilated pupils. The black veins in her neck subside with a few heartbeats, and for the barest of moments she is too anesthetized to follow the subconscious trigger she was given, she is free from the compulsion by merit of her mind being stripped away by all of the toxins that had been pumped into the room through the vents.

Lanhua’s abilities flag, and pieces of stone debris held up by her telekinesis begin to fall back to the ground. The outward pressure she was putting on the room coupled with the subsonic vibrations that were shaking the building apart end, and the weakened structure groans under the protest of its own weight.

Tears roll down Lanhua’s cheeks as her vision tunnels in around the edges.

Mom?

And the hangar collapses.


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
Executive Helipad


A bitter wind whips across the rooftop in contrast to the warm reunion between family.

“Heard there was a job that needed doing and took the first flight here. Which was rather exclusive,” Adel says with a joyful grin, spinning around in the air with the other woman for a moment.

Literally. They’re floating.

That shimmery air distortion wraps around Colette as well for a moment, before they both land on the ground once again. Not on the robot bear this time.

“We go way back,” the young woman jokes with a nod to the woman she had known almost her entire life. Then she glances at the other woman with an appreciative look before turning back to Colette again, “You ladies need a lift?”

The emotion flowing from the reunion is heartwarming enough for Yi-Min to crack a small smile to herself at the sight of the friends revolving in midair like figures from some fairy tale, but her general watchfulness does not ebb, and it isn't long before the situation is rightfully brought back down to Earth.

That's a good question.

"Do we?" Yi-Min asks calmly.

After all, the last sight she and Colette had caught of the Tlanuwa had been what now feels like a lifetime ago, prior to the encounter with the URSA. Yi-Min isn't even bothering to try squinting past the swathes of distant rooftop still blanketed in a rolling, undulating storm of rising pale smoke, though just like a storm, it is steadily burning itself out as the minutes pass.

“The rest of the usual suspects are on their way up,” Colette says to Adel, “we’re just waiting for Avi to—” whatever Colette was going to say is cut off by a shuddering vibration that rolls through the ziggurat, causing the roof to sway from side to side again, but this time the shaking is accompanied by the windows on four floors from the top shattering and raining glass down the sides of the pyramid.

“We’ve gotta wait for the others!” Colette shouts, holding down a hand for Yi-Min to take. “We can’t just—” her eyes alight to the doors at the stairwell, and her smile grows.

«Last tank is down,» Avi’s voice comes over the comms, «I’m coming in hot for a pickup! Get your asses to the roof!»

The Ziggurat isn't falling apart, at least not yet, but it feels that way to Asi. She feels blind as she steps out into the light of day, for all that she's seeing with only her own eyes for the first time since they set the charges.

The loss is a hollowness that only deepens the emotional well she's keeping dammed up, visions of elsewhere and their implications shoved aside for later. It helps— of course— that there's a giant fucking wreck of a bear awaiting them on the roof to serve as a distraction.

"Found it," she whispers to herself, gaze alighting to Yi-Min. Her voice lifts, more hoarse than she realized it would be. "It's down," Asi tells her. "Everything's down, now. They're done for."

Then her eyes lift to the sky, to the streak the Tlanuwa makes in the distance. «Did the rest of you make it out all right? Keelut-2? Scylla?»

Sliding onto the rooftop with the others Lucille stops and eyes widen, "Adel?" It figures though, the Children from the Wasted Future were almost always right up under the other. "Did you know-" She saves her question about Noa and just surges forward towards her three friends. There aren't any tears yet but the look in her eyes is one of total devastation.

Were it not for the adrenaline running through her body she might not even be standing on this rooftop now.

They still needed to get off of this place before it fell all in together. Lucille says a final prayer to her mother Mary over the rest of her comrades and bends her knees, readying for Avi.

Once upon a time, a phantom in a dream said something a little like… 'look out for her'. Them. Even if it was just the shade of Delia's memories of her mother, the visual of Lucille racing to meet the others on the roof somehow brings it back, on top of everything else.

Huruma doesn't do any racing. She makes it up onto the flat plane of the rooftop, the voices still in her comms and at least there's a pickup coming. It's got to be this that pulls on the loose thread of her joints and muscles. The moment she is able to put Sabine down like a cat bringing a bird to its people, Huruma's knees buckle and her shoulders sag when she sits onto her heels. Upright is pure luck. That she gets her helmet free is a miracle, its stifling pressure removed with a shaking hand— her adrenaline is going— and kept at her side. Sweat lines her skin, blood from nose, all the way to where her neck meets armor. Tiny vessel bursts frame her irises.

Huruma brings up her comms long enough to issue a dead-voiced, haggard, "«Avi, hurry the fuck up.»"

It's a strange feeling that inhabits Yi-Min as she perceives the others piling onto the rooftop, one by one. At first it is something she truly only feels, rather than sees; she is still turned away to watch the last billows of grenade smoke swirling and dispersing into the skies from the dais, as though some kind of final tidal wave departing from the world.

Hearing Asi's words makes the depth of that reality sink into her at last. This is the culmination of ten years of her work, in more than one way. Ten long years.

"It's done," she says in a whisper, as much to herself as in response to Asi.

And there, as they all wait for Avi, she smiles the quietest of smiles— a light gleam in her eye that is at once catlike and utterly, completely restful.

“I’m sure he’s right behind me. I saw him on my way in,” Adel looks away from the roof for a moment, trying to remember exactly how far away he was— but he also was over the radio, which Noa had hooked her up to once she got within range. He should be on his way. And so are the others— though she doesn’t know how many or what numbers they are supposed to have.

She only had time to get the brief rundown.

“Looks like some of the others have arrived,” the woman in the armor says in her usual cheerful voice, waving her fingers at Lucille. Her empathic signature is definitely Adel. That hasn’t changed. If anything she seems even happier than she had been before, if that said anything about her. She checks Huruma and Lucille off her list, but glances past them for a moment— and doesn’t see as many others.

“Where’s my favorite German city?”

Looks like someone didn’t tell her something on her way over.

Probably not the best time to answer that question as she kneels down and pushes up off of the bits of bear robot that she smashed like an astronaut might push himself up in zero gravity, twisting and turning as she floats upward and looks for the Tlanuwa.

Colette slowly turns and look at Adel, and grows remarkably silent and forlorn, blind eyes averting from her.

But it’s no use, she can still see Adel’s hopeful expression.

That Berlin will be right around the corner.


Meanwhile

Praxia Restricted Motorway, Tunnel
Below Praxia


The ground is shaking and a low, sonorous hum vibrates through the asphalt and causes the concrete ceiling overhead to undulate like the surface of water, spreading hairline cracks. “Don’t look back! Don’t look back!” Scott shouts as he runs, shedding his AEGIS armor with the fast-release clips at the shoulder to lose some weight. Before the armor falls off his back, it vanishes in a latticework of light, added back into his pocket dimension.

Josiah, Rue over his shoulder, jogs ahead at a brisk pace and breathes in gulping breaths with each leg of the journey. Facing backwards, Rue can see what Scott is telling everyone to not look at. She can see a cloud of dust slowly building at the back of the tunnel, the sound of splintering concrete and groaning steel accompanying it, along with the bloom of small explosions.

Blue eyes are wide as saucers as she watches the collapse that they’re hurrying away from. Panic causes her to breathe harder and hold tighter to Josiah as he continues to haul her along. The rumbling, roaring sound of it reminds her of the siege of Pollepel Island.

Rue shuts her eyes tightly and tries to think about anything else in this moment.

Raising a pint to Cole’s new career. Beating Francis’ cheating ass at yet another hand of poker. Her back hitting the mat hard as Hana effortlessly throws her over her shoulder (again). Falling out of yet another tree while Noa watches and laughs.

Laughing easily with Lucille at a nightclub in Milan, watching pills dissolve in the bottom of glasses of champagne. Standing at the edge of the stage and staring up while Robyn Quinn commands the crowd. Sitting at the picnic table with Avi, watching the river send melting chunks of ice away with its current.

Sitting shoulder to shoulder with Devon, nudging him over as she takes a turn on the track in Mario Kart, like that’ll help her avoid going over the edge of the Rainbow Road.

Pouring another glass of late night whiskey for Nathalie, her fellow insomniac.

Folding closed a dossier, then looking up at her partner with a knowing smile, waiting for Dearing to look back.

Her hand folded in Seren’s as they glide over the ice.

Seren.

Rue swats the back of Josiah’s hip. “C’mon! Keep going!” She’s gotta live.

He doesn't need to be told to not look back, but the terror on Rue’s face justifies the risk. Devon shoots a hazardous glance over his shoulder without slowing his pace. It's more what he doesn't see than what he does that spurs him to dig deeper, ignore the awakening aches and burning pains from a year of idleness.

Just a little further.

He reaches forward, while the lieutenant might slap Josiah like a racehorse, Dev puts a hand to the man’s back. Like joined railway cars, perhaps his own energy can be lent to aid another. “Just a little further,” he calls to Aislinn, encouraging the doctor to keep moving. “We can make it.”

There's been a distinct hesitation in every single of Aislinn's movements since before they stepped out into the tunnel. Even now, as she sprints to make it out, there's a clear uncertainty. If she had stayed behind, she would certainly be dead beneath that rubble like that loudmouth commander they had lost earlier. And that— other Devon. That was still weird.

Maybe it's regrettable self preservation that keeps her alive, like always. Damnable as that instinct is, it keeps her from dwelling too much beyond the immediate consequences of her actions. And she's not built for this, she never was, so she's slowly losing ground.

One way or another, there's a light at the end of this tunnel. The problem is, no matter where it leads, it's nowhere good for her.

But at the end of the day, this was probably always what she had waiting for her.


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
36th Floor, Executive Residential Area


The power has gone out, the emergency alerts have stopped broadcasting and the only illumination through the entirety of the ziggurat comes through the long, horizontally-aligned walls of windows. One silhouette against the windows is stooped in exhausted fatigue, hand planted on the glass and head bowed, a tangle of gray hair hanging in his face.

“Gettin’… too old for all this.” The old man says with a shuddering exhalation of breath. But the ziggurat has other ideas, swaying and shuddering as a long crack spreads down the glass. The old man backs away from the window, hand recoiling as the crack splits wider and the reinforced glass continues to spiderweb with smaller fractures.

There’s another rumble, tiles fall from the ceiling and the floor buckles like it was the surface of a swimming pool after someone cannonballed their way in.

“Oh,” the old man says, bracing himself against a concrete pillar to stay standing. “So, I suppose this is how it goes, then…” he admits tiredly, exhaling a ragged cough with one hand balled up into a fist in front of his mouth.

Worry crosses his brows, worry about so many things. Fumbling through his jacket pocket, the old man finds his cell phone and turns on the screen. The cell signal is an antenna with a line through it. “Well, that’s that.” He says, putting the phone back in his pocket as he slides down the pillar to come sit on the floor, leaning his head back against the concrete

pines_icon.gif

and sings.

Sometimes I... don't know where this dirty road is taking me."

Another ceiling tile collapses onto the floor and shatters, bringing down lights with it.

"Sometimes I can't even… see the reason why."

The ziggurat rumbles, the windows shatter and the ceiling buckles downward.

"But I guess I keep a-gamblin', lots of booze and lots of ramblin'"

Pines closes his eyes, letting the melody take him. Head swaying from side to side.

"Well, it's easier than just a-waitin' 'round…"

"…to die."


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
Executive Helipad


Ah one time friends I had a ma, I even had a pa

A roar of turbines signals the Tlanuwa's arrival from the sky, swinging its back end around and opening the rear ramp. Avi is standing at the back of the plane when the ramp opens, holding on to the rigging overhead. "Come on! We've gotta go! Now!"

The ziggurat lurches, as if to prove Avi's point. Colette is the first on the plane, hurrying in and turning to offer a hand to Lucille, pulling her into the plane and then seeing the look on her face just pulling her into a one-armed embrace. Colette looks over Lucille's shoulder, watching Huruma and Francis climb inside while hauling Sabine Hazel's unconscious form with them. Francis turns, looking back to the rooftop.

"Come on…" Francis whispers, watching the doorway to the stairwell.

He beat her with a belt once 'cause she cried

Yi-Min and Asi arrive with Adel taking up the rear. Francis turns to Avi, "Where the hell's the old man? Where's Rue? Where the fuck is— "

Avi slams the button for the hatch close with the side of his hand. "Basement, they were forty floors below when the place started going down." He turns to head toward the cockpit and Francis grabs him by the shoulder and turns him around.

"Then we wait!" Francis shouts, and Avi knocks his hand away and shoves him back.

"Forty floors!" Avi shouts. "If we hang close and this thing decides it wants to blow up rather than implode? We're all dead." He starts walking back to the cockpit, and Francis looks around helplessly, then slouches down into one of the seats.

She told him to take care of me, headed down to Tennessee

The Tlanuwa pulls away from the ziggurat as windows from the roof to halfway down explode outward and the floors begin to warp and compress like a deflating raft. Concrete shatters and metal twists and billowing plumes of debris blast out from the executive level as the roof drops down to the floor below, beginning an agonizingly slow cascading collapse.

It's easier than just a-waitin' 'round to die


Meanwhile

Praxia Restricted Motorway, Tunnel
Below Praxia


"Keep moving!" Scott shouts at the head of the group, his lungs burning from exertion and the ache of broken and bruised ribs making every inhalation feel like knives pressing in on his chest.

I came of age and I found a girl in a Tuscaloosa bar

The entire tunnel is shuddering, and in the suffocating darkness at their backs it sounds like the world is ending in a microcosm. There are crashing sounds, groaning yowls of protesting steel, horrific noises that make it sound like the entire structure could fall in on itself at any moment.

With Rue over his shoulder, Josiah runs as fast as his can, his knees screaming at him with each thundering stride. It is a desperate flight toward a literal light at the end of the tunnel.

She cleaned me out and hit it on the sly

Cracks in the concrete overhead first spill with dirt and debris, then trickling streams of salty water. "Fuck, fuck, fuck!" Josiah shouts as he continues running, looking back at Devon and Aislinn, then ahead to the still very distant light of the outside.

Well I tried to kill the pain, I bought some wine and hopped a train

A massive crash at the backs of the retreating hounds is too loud to ignore, the sounds of splitting concrete and snapping metal deafening. A massive plume of concrete dust rolls down the tunnel following the collapse, throwing their escape into a suffocating blackness and a choking swirl of debris.

It seemed easier than just a-waitin' 'round to die


Meanwhile

The Tlanuwa
Somewhere Over Praxia


Avi settles down into the pilot's seat, even though the controls are already moving. He isn't even flying the jet, hasn't been since the strafing run on the tanks was through. As he collapses into the seat he throws his head back against the rest hard, eyes wrenched shut. He brings a hand up to his face, scrubbing his palm over his mouth and blinks back heavy tears in his eyes.

Then a friend said he knew where some easy money was

Swallowing noisily, Avi clears his throat and sits forward with a few gasping breaths. He forces the shock down, the dread twisting the pit of his stomach and threatening to bring his breakfast back up. Wiping at his nose and mouth, Avi shuts off the autopilot connection for lack of needing something to do with his hands, and takes manual control of the Tlanuwa to bring it around for a look at the ziggurat.

We robbed a man and brother did we fly

Thorugh the cockpit windscreen, the ziggurat looks like a collapsed cake. The northeast side of the structure has fallen down on itself in a slowly slouching collapse. Thousands of residents are still fleeing from the structure, scattering into the streets surrounding the mile wide footprint. Plumes of smoke twist out of the collapsing building and other, distant fires, still burn across Alameda Point Airfield.

But the posse caught up with me and drug me back to Muskogee

Avi's jaw tightens, his eyes burn and he looks away from the ziggurat, covering his mouth with one hand. His entire body is a knot of tension, and he looks to something tucked into the console of the aircraft beside his controls, a small photograph wedged into the seam of an altitude gauge. A photograph of his daughter, Emily, when she was ten years old.

And it's two long years, a-waitin' 'round to die


Meanwhile

Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat
36th Floor, Executive Residential Area


"Ah but now I'm out of prison…"

Pines sings, his eyes closed and the shuddering noise of floor collapses getting closer and closer. The concrete pillar he has his back to cracks from top to bottom, pieces of stone debris falling down to a clatter on the floor around him.

"I got me a friend at last…" Pines continues to sing, letting his head sway from side to side with the lyrics. "He don't drink or steal or cheat or lie…"

A massive crash rings out behind pines as a portion of the ceiling nearby collapses down under the weight of all the other collapsed floors above. Pines curls his old hands into fists, jaw tense as he continues the song. "Ah his name is codeine, he's the nicest thing I've ever seen…"

The presence of a shadow crossing the light coming in from the broken windows causes Pines to open his eyes. There is stark contrast between the smoky, lightless interior of the collapsing ziggurat and the bright daylight outside. This silhouette of a person standing in front of him is a column of darkness with no definition or shape. "Well together we're gonna wait around and— "

"Martin." It's a voice he remembers, and Pines' expression shifts to one of both confusion and recognition. "Need a lift?"

Pines sits forward, pieces of the ceiling crashing down all around him. He tilts his head to the side, looking at an outstretched hand in disbelief.

"Agent Black?"


Not Long Later

Passport
California Safe Zone
California


A swirling cloud of dust and debris is kicked up when the Tlanuwa comes to land on a stretch of freeway connecting the island of Passport to the California Safe Zone across the bay. Nearby, a portion of the freeway turns off into a tunnel access where billowing clouds of smoke and dust twist in thick plumes to the sky.

The rear hatch of the Tlanuwa opens and Francis is one of the first out and onto the asphalt. Other Hounds stand in the hold of the ship, some slouched into seats in various states of emotionally broken and physically battered. Francis Harkness waits, hands curled into fists, trembling in anticipation.

But there is nothing to anticipate.

Francis lurches, hand over his mouth, watching the twin plumes of dust and smoke come belching up into the sky from the inbound and outbound lanes. Jaw unsteady, Francis staggers and feels his knees get weak. He sucks in a sharp breath, starts to take a step back and turn away when someone calls out from behind him.

"Look!"

Francis turns back and through the smoke spies a handful of dark shapes coming into focus. He breathes in sharply, starts to move forward, and breaks into a sprint before he even realizes what he's doing.

He knows what's coming out of that tunnel.

Hounds.


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