The Last Resort, Part IV


ali_icon.gif dumortier2_icon.gif elisabeth4_icon.gif erin_icon.gif garza_icon.gif

Scene Title The Last Resort, Part IV
Synopsis NYPD-SCOUT is sent to test a last resort against the Ohio River Fire with the aid of a federal prisoner.
Date June 29, 2021

Beyond the boundaries of the Safe Zone, a battle for the future of New York is being waged.

It is not a battle of military might, but a battle against the forces of nature itself. The Ohio River Fire, a wildfire that has chewed across the American Northeast from Pennsylvania to New York, rages on the banks of the Hudson River, threatening to cross to the Manhattan Exclusion Zone, and then into the Safe Zone. Evacuations are already underway in the western-most reaches of the Safe Zone—Fort Jay on Governor’s Island and Roosevelt Island—but no amount of evacuations will be sufficient if the fire jumps the river.

A powerful storm—conjured forth by the combined effort of local atmokinetics—hammers the fire at the eastern edge of New Jersey with torrential rain and east-to-west winds to push back the fire and buy time for the people on the ground. Hundreds of full-time and volunteer firefighters are stationed across the eastern edge of New Jersey, cutting fire breaks, demolishing ruined buildings, and trying to provide any measure of impediment against the storm. Many of these firefighters have been out here since May in preparation for the worst.

Now that the fire has come, all the preparation in the world seems insufficient. Numerous injured firefighters have been evacuated back to the Safe Zone and many more caught in the tempestuous blaze that were unable to be saved. And the majority of those lost to the fire are volunteers, and some yet still volunteers of a different stripe: Rikers Island Correctional Facility Volunteer Firefighters.

These firefighters are joined by a host of Yamagato Industries Tetsujin labor drones outfitted with fire suppression and rescue gear, alongside Raytech SPOT drones for search and rescue of wounded or trapped firefighters. Everyone and anyone who can aid in the efforts has gathered out amid the blaze, where ruined homes and businesses meet roaring walls of crackling flame.

Liberty State Park
Ruins of Jersey City
New Jersey

June 29th
7:44 pm

Towering walls of flame roll across the rubble-strewn streets of Jersey City, bringing the last remaining buildings to ruin. Plumes of thick smoke rise up in defiance of the wind, and turn the rain into an oily soot-stinking film.

Amid the towering trees of the overgrown remnants of Liberty State Park, just a stone’s throw away from Ellis Island, an olive drab humvee rumbles across the open park with headlights shining bright against the gloom. The humvee is branded with the seal of the 91st Military Police Battalion and driven by Sargeant Kevin Bosch, delivering important aid out to the volunteer firefighters already stationed at the park.

Inside the humvee, Lieutenant Elisabeth Harrison and Detective Erin Gordon ride along with a young-looking SESA Agent, Rene Dumortier, and an inmate firefighter from Riker’s Island, Ali Underwood. The NYPD Liaison is due to Underwood’s status as a flight risk and that she needs to join the relief effort without negation drugs. Agent Dumortier is there, ostensibly, to keep Underwood under control.

As the humvee closes in on its destination, the passengers can see the local team of volunteer firefighters set against the brunt of the wildfire, dressed in fireproof gear and bright orange prison garb. The backs of their jackets read RIKERS ISLAND in reflective fabric, much as Ali’s does.

As the Humvee comes to a stop, Sergeant Bosch turns to look at his passengers. “I’m going to circle around to the other side of the fire!” He yells over the wind and the rain hammering on the vehicle. “Radio to me when you need evac!”

Out the windows of the humvee, the passengers see the volunteer firefighters working to clearcut the park, unaware that if all goes according to plan it is going to get much greener on site.

"Jesus," breathes the blonde lieutenant as they roll into the active burn region. The temperature has shot up so that it feels like standing right next to a campfire — and they're still a half mile back. Elisabeth has never experienced heat this intense outside of an explosion. And although she usually ditches her helmet when she's working, in this instance she is doing exactly what she's been told — keeping the damn thing on. Hair is flammable, after all.

Glancing at their driver, she nods briefly before looking at the rest of her little team. "Here we go." She pops the door open and has to pause at the inrush of even hotter air and smoke. Her blue eyes are already watering and stinging as she climbs out and moves to hold the back door open so people can emerge.

At first it proved difficult to fight the urge to give Underwood a souvenir black eye- - but once it's clear that he has different things to worry about, the temptation has gone. Dumortier isn't certain of what they've told her about him- - but at least he knows everything about her. Insofar as deep as her records and files go.

Still, Rene has seen her work firsthand, and he hardly needed an introduction of the kind.

The journey in the humvee had him quiet save for short exchange of credentials, and until they reach the line it remains this way. Dumortier's gear is light in comparison to the bulky silhouettes they've passed by; a layer of fireproofing covering a layer of water repelling fabric, his SESA status helpfully emblazoned across the shoulders. If you told him ten years ago that he'd be wearing Alphabet Soup- -

"I'm starting to really have a complex with this fucking fire." Rain hits his hood as Rene turns his attention to Harrison on slipping out of the humvee. The bill of a cap and the sheen of eyewear manage to keep his vision clear, for now. Once his boots hit the ground there is a visible steadying of his frame against the wind and incoming heat.

“They really lied when they said we’d be getting fresh air,” Ali Underwood says behind her PPE, somehow managing to sound seriously disappointed, like a young woman who expected to be out shopping right now, instead of on her way to a burned out forest. “But I was thinking— we should focus on Cypress trees. Until recently, I didn’t even know I could change the plant matter itself that much, but if we can get it to draw in the extra moisture from the swamp faster, it could work some wonders.”

The trees might bleed a little with the way she does things, though.

They can’t quite see the shine in her eyes, but Rene at least can hear it in her voice, “Aren’t plants just magnificent?”

Erin struggles, tries, and fails to pull the hood of her slicker over her helmet - much like her lieutenant, not wanting to end up a mass of fried hair like a science experiment gone wrong - and lets it slip uselessly to her shoulders, accepting the constant patter of rain on the helmet’s matte surface, resulting rivulets dripping from the slightly extended edges and down onto her cheeks and nose, occasionally even into an eyelash. This is definitely going to serve for some distraction on a day that none of them, save perhaps their guest of honor, needs very much.

“I’m surprised the rain is even hitting us,” she says to no one in particular. “You’d think it’d just…evaporate before it comes anywhere near the flames.” And indeed, it seems that the rain that makes contact with her helmet, her face, her slicker, any of it just evaporates away immediately, leaving them all steaming like cartoon madmen. She’s been in the heat, of course, of many fires over recent months, but none of them have compared to this. Not even close.

“But I’m okay with them just letting Jersey City burn a little more and then putting it out,” she mumbles to Elisabeth with a smirk. “I got mugged here once and they left with just my shoe. My shoe. It was a good pair, too. ‘90s Docs.”

“But anyway,” she continues, “what’s the plan, boss?”

The volunteer firefighters slogging across the park in the rain toward the Humvee seem to want to know that too. The dozen of them are dressed in heavy, yellow and orange flame resistant gear, heads shrouded in hooded respirator masks crowned with black helmets with soot-smudged visors. Steam rises off of them as they move into the nearly sideways rain coming in off of the river. Overhead, in the cloud-filled skies, thunder rumbles in a distant and reverberating peal as the blistering cold of the atmokinetically generated storms and the heat from the fire collides in the upper atmosphere.

«Officers!» One of the firefighters calls out through a respirator-mounted comm speaker. He throws up a gloved hand in greeting. There’s a metal plate on the front of his helmet reading DEPUTY CHIEF at the top, N5A in the middle, and a faded NEW YORKER at the bottom. «Deputy Chief Rollins!» He says with a gesture to himself. At his back the volunteer firefighters all bear the RIKERS ISLAND patches on their jackets.

«The blaze has rolled past the last firebreak!» Rollins breathlessly explains, motioning back to the front of the blaze a few blocks away. «It’s having trouble chewing through the wetland! But the buildings are all going up! We’ve got teams planting demos to try and clearcut the path to the river but—» He shakes his head. «We’re running out of time! I hope you’ve got some good news for us!»

The face mask feels stifling as Elisabeth belatedly slips it on but it immediately helps the breathless feeling at least. And whatever stifling she's feeling, she knows it's just her — the mask is clear with plenty of space. She just knows it's there. It's not nearly as confining as, say, her armor's mask/helmet combo. Jamming her hat back on over the straps that go over her head, the brim keeps some of the rain off the mask at least and she activates the comms.

«Everybody online?» Her gaze flits to each of her companions to verify, and then she bangs on the roof of the SUV to let Bosch know he's clear to take off. She turns as Rollins comes up. «Chief, I'm Lt. Harrison. We've brought an agrokinetic — she thinks cypress might be an answer!» She gestures toward their 'volunteer'. «The plan is to get in here and see if we can slow this bastard down by putting more really wet plant matter like the swamplands in its way!» Maybe it's a long shot, but they've tried pretty much everything else, right? «Agent Dumortier has to stay with her, so tell us what we need to do to help create the firebreak behind her and we'll dig in.»

The Lord is testing me. Dumortier has since fixed his attention on Ali while the firefighting team checks in with Elisabeth. Not only is he still passively disturbed by the things she had done, her apparent fixation is uncomfortably familiar to his own.

He just doesn't advertise quite as… openly, perhaps.

"Give me a Cypress and we'll see how magnificent…" Dumortier pauses, squinting against the firelight before examining the ruins leading towards the river. "In the meantime…" His hands flex at his sides, gloves thick on otherwise slender fingers. Grass tickles up through cracks in the concrete, Rene's hand seemingly testing the air between. "Reeds should help keep drainage from happening too quickly."

“Never really worked with grasses— always more of a tree person. They’re just so— majestic,” Ali either doesn’t care how she sounds, or just— no— she just doesn’t care how she sounds. This was what she thought and she had pretended to be someone else for so long that it had been tiring— being who she really was finally was freeing. That was the only good thing about being captured. She didn’t have to hide anymore.

“Drainage break sounds like a great idea— keep as much of the moisture as possible from getting into the Hudson so the trees can absorb it,” she agrees, from the sound of her voice, probably smiling at him as she speaks. “But if I can find stuff to work with, I’ll give you more trees than you’ve ever seen. Since the cities are pretty dead anyway it’ll look much better with trees.”

At what the officer says, the prisoner actually addresses her, oddly enough, almost as if they were equals, “So they only managed to get away with one of your shoes? Did you make them pay for that shoe?” They can almost hear the grin of pride. She bets she did.

Erin has never been particularly swayed by crazy; raised in Brooklyn, you see your share of weird things in 7-11s on weekends (or, let’s be honest, weekday afternoons). As she fits the respirator onto her chin and throws on an NYPD ballcap, which negates the pressing desire for windshield wipers somewhat, she isn’t sure if she should actually address this one; as fun as it is to overhear one person shouting to the other about religion at the counter, she’s only heard the briefest of tales about Ali, but she also knows that sometimes fire, as they say, feeds fire. But fuck it. This could be interesting. “Yes, ma’am,” she says to the prisoner, “only the one shoe. I was a teenager at the time. I won’t say that I made them pay per se, but…well, I did find the shoe again later, but it was never quite the same fit.” And with that, she lifts the mask up over her mouth and speaks into the receiver.

«Lieutenant, if we do start digging by hand, I can probably alter the density of the soil in the area. No guarantees on how far or for how long, but it’s worth a try. Don’t want to get too tired out digging into heavy clay if we’re in it for the long haul.»

Chief Rollins gives an overly theatrical nod to ensure he’s read, slapping a hand on to Elisabeth’s shoulder. «We’ll take whatever you got! There’s four volunteer teams that haven’t reported back yet that’re supposed to be here; they were just down the shore! No way of knowing what hit them! Radios have been going in and out for the last twenty minutes, something about the sun!»

Early waves of a coronal mass ejection disrupting radio and cell communications. Elisabeth doesn’t spend as much time as she does around Raytech without picking up that knowledge. But also the bleak truth Richard revealed to her. The secret of why he’s gone. What he’s trying to avert. Is it already starting?

One of the volunteer firefighters approaches the group, and it’s at this point that it’s obvious he only has one arm. His right sleeve is pinned up at the shoulder. There’s a nametag on the front of his Riker’s Island Volunteer Firefighter jacket that reads GARZA.

«What are we doing!?» Garza shouts to the group, glancing back at the fire. Up close it’s clear he’s an older man, a bit of gray hair visible in the visor of his mask, in the weariness of his voice. But he still seems fit.

Chief Rollins waves a hand at Garza. «Stay back with the others. Make sure the fire doesn’t advance east as much as you can!//»

Garza nods, looking back to the yellow and orange painted bipedal Tetsujin drones that are the closest to the fire, using hand tools to dig up the ground and remove burnable matter. The SPOT robots from Raytech are patrolling further back, spraying fire retardant froth all along the ground. Their little frames hop and amble through the torn up vegetation, smoke issuing off of their metal chassis.

«Whatever you need, Harrison!» Chief Rollins shouts. «You got it!//»

Fire is not Elisabeth's usual wheelhouse, and to be honest, she's feeling a little overwhelmed at the magnitude of what they're standing in. The news about the radios just brings home the grim (and possibly futile) nature of all of it. She shakes that thought off, however, and—metaphorically speaking—puts on her big-girl pants.

«Right,» she tells the Chief. «Gordon, you and I are going to start the trenching again where the Chief says. We're backing Dumortier and Underwood. You two— » the aforementioned plant people, « —I want you to do everything you can in tandem and see if we can stop this shit.»

Through the grimy rain, Liz scans the area and notes the placement of the SPOTs. «Chief, I want to set the SPOTs to giving us as much of a fire retardant barrier around us as possible so that we don't have to move til the last possible moment — we need a circular area and a path back to the river.» Just in case. «Do we have anything left in the NY Forestry divisions for retardant dropping?» The Forestry Service usually has some helos or planes that can dump water or other smothering agents… but that might be years ago and no longer available too. She has no idea.

Chief Rollins shakes his head. «Barely is a Forestry Division to speak of!» He replies over the noise of the wind and the flames. «Everything we got is either in the air or out of service, we’re doing everything we can. We’ve got one helo servicing this area, a few up north trying to keep the fire from spreading to Albany. It’s a fucking mess!» He sounds as much exhausted as he is frustrated. «War wasn’t kind to our resources!»

"I have a thing for mushrooms, myself." Dumortier seems to take Ali's demeanor in stride, at least for the time being. He's not forgetting what she's done. She saw a sculpture, he saw something horrific. He takes in the exchange between the Chief and Elisabeth, giving the one-armed Rikers crewman a long look.

"Come on, you," Rene puts a hand against Ali's back to usher her in the direction of a mostly uncut patch behind the break. Quick to fall in line beside her, he digs out a fistful of something from his jacket's pocket. The half-dried matter in his palm expands into a reaching tangle of white, threadlike growths. Reeds sprout and dot the wake of his steps. "Do you need something living or dead? Show me."

“I hate it when people stretch out my shoes,” Ali sympathizes very well with the officer, on something so small, even if it seems very small compared to everything they should know about her crimes. Dumortier at least, knows more than most. He’d seen the results. He’d tried to help repair and fix some of the damage that happened to a tree, because people in general do not consider trees to be people.

Such a thing had not even worried Ali when she turned those victims. She had not cared that they would be opened up to those who would not view them as human anymore. Who would just see them as objects who could be removed at their leisure. Who would try to cut them down and get rid of them to get them out of the way.

No, she just felt like she was turning them into something she had seen as far more beautiful than people, and giving them something she’d wished she could give her sister.

“The base needs to be alive— Then I can grow it with excess living matter pulled from the ground and the air. The roots I build from the living matter to start usually seek out the rest that I need to turn to increase the size and density to make up the rest. I used to think I needed mammals to start, but as it turns out—” She reaches over and touches the now living reeds, the life pulled out of dryness, and it starts to change, into a small tree, like a bonsai tree removed from it’s pot. “Just place it on the earth and we’ll get to work turning this hybrid baby into a new tree row to sprout up in the area.”

It is a hybrid. Of two trees would never be scientifically hybrided. The Cypress that she’d mentioned before—and an aspen.

Over on the non-agricultural side of things, Erin nods affirmatively to Elisabeth’s direction. “10-4. Let’s see how this works.”

She kneels down in the Elisabeth-facing muck, takes a breath, and smooshes her gloved hands down to the ground. The gloomy, slick earth pools between her fingers and she reaches with her senses, lower, lower, seeing what she can find. It’s…dirt. Regular dirt. It’s wet, but it’s not heavy clay. It’s not silt. And given that they are in Jersey City, she’s moderately surprised to find that there aren’t too many heavy metals, either. She removes her hands and looks up.

“It’s not too bad over here. The moisture is going to be a problem, but there’s not a lot that I can do about that. For now, we’ll do this the old-fashioned way. Sad, though, I was hoping to find a full dinosaur or something; this whole thing feels a little Jurassic Park.”

Dusting off her knees and shins, which really just spreads the mess around, Erin stands up and heads to the vehicle to find the folding shovels stashed back there.

Once she’s retrieved them and turns from the vehicle, Erin’s eyes play tricks on her. For a moment, inside the rippling wall of the flames, she swears she saw something that looked like the shadow of a dinosaur. Just for a moment, that play of light and shadow elicits an involuntary nervous laugh on her way back to Elisabeth and the others.

In the interim, Garza motions to the other convict firefighters, trying to spread them out across the field. A moment later, one of them simply crumples to the ground. Garza notices the prisoner to his right fall over and waves a hand in the air. «Deakins!» He yells, taking a knee by the younger man’s side while reaching for a water bottle, assuming it’s heat-related. It’s only then he sees something that says otherwise. Garza touches his gloved hand to Deakins’ chest and his fingertips come back wet and red.

«What the f—» Garza starts, a split second before another volunteer firefighter collapses into the dirt. This time he sees the puff of vapor out his back before he crumples. Blood. It’s fucking gunfire. Garza wheels around, looking to see if anyone else is seeing this.

But another shot comes quick after the last, this one targeting Ali, hitting her in the thigh and knocking her square off of her feet. There’s no sound of a gunshot audible over the wind, she’s just struck down so close to Dumortier as to leave a spray of red across his shoes and pants. On recognizing the threat it’s second nature to Elisabeth to extend her auditory reception range, tune out the background noise, like an animal going on the defensive.

First she filters out the wind, then the roar of the fire, background voices and chatter. Then she hears the sound that the wind and fire and rain are masking. Boots crunching in dry undergrowth, the slot-clack of a bolt-action rifle being reloaded. The clang of a spent shell casing hitting asphalt. Hydraulics. The hum of electric motors. Not west, not in the fire. South.

South and closing in.

When the first person drops, Elisabeth's attention is caught by Garza's shout — she's expecting to see that someone needs a pair of hands to help them up because of something fire-related. The second guy drops, though, and it's the faint piff of wet blood that alerts her in that split second all is not as it seems. It takes only a couple of seconds for her to narrow and filter the sounds around them, the slot-clack of the rifle instantly recognizable. «//FALL BACK! RETREAT TO THE RIVER, GOD DAMN IT! Someone's shooting! GO! GO! GO!» She has the fire chief by one shoulder, shoving him in the direction of the river — the volunteer who went down second, he was hit center mass. There's nothing to be done for him.

And the reality of Liz's life is that the sounds of hydraulics are just as familiar a threat. Pivoting on a heel, she barks at Erin, «Gordon, get 'em all moving!» Convicts or not, they're here fighting the fire and putting their lives on the line. She'll be damned if they'll get gunned down on her watch if she can help it. And you know what? She's fucking sick and tired of this kind of shit.

Wading toward where the bootsteps are coming from, she notes their direction and speed beneath the roar of the fire. And there is plenty of ambient sound to work with, thanks to the inferno. You guys wanna fuck around and hurt firefighters — screw you. She doesn't even have to pull on her power at the level of what Felix once called her Human Tsunami ranges. Elisabeth already has enough sound around her to shape and throw a pressure wave, a directional sonic boom, hard and fast in the direction of the gunfire.

Why is it that the standard of sacrifice is blood? Dumortier does not voice this question to Ali, for many reasons. Instead, he simply keeps his eyes on her, one hand cradled at the air near the reeds she repurposes. The change is clear to him, when it comes to simple warping into complex. His fingers come to a rest on the sapling forming under Ali's control, and when he takes it from her it comes more readily alive under his. Before it gets put to ground, the thready white growth on his other palm is smoothed over its surface, grasping and tangling in around roots; a quick and painless coexistence which is set to flourish.

"Aspen cloning," Rene's voice can be heard in the air between the two of them, a sudden mirth in his words as soon as he realizes what it is she has done to the notion of the Cypresses. Thoughts that cross his mind about the nature of aspens as fire survivors are, unfortunately, thrown into the wind when Ali is knocked flat. While Dumortier doesn't possess Elisabeth's skills to be able to hear what happens, he is sharp-eyed enough to be able to quickly discern the events as they unfold. Head says Flight, Heart says Fight. It could still go either way, even as the tree in his hand thrashes its way into the mud and ash at his feet when he drops it.

"Merde," Crouching next to Ali, Dumortier reaches out to assess the darkening hole that has appeared in the thick fabric of her uniform. "Don't move." He almost spits it, tension rattling in his frame. Roots threaded in white toil and unfurl around them, rising up like worms in the rain and meeting over their heads; portions have slid over Ali's leg under his hand, building a pressure for the safety of her wound.

This wasn’t the first time Ali had been shot, but somehow she had been expecting it more the first time than this. This time took her by surprise and before she even realized what happened she was down on the ground and in blinding pain, reaching outward to try and share her pain with— anything really. But the only one close enough was Rene. Her immediate self-defense thought is to do what she had done when shot in Missouri— channel all the pain she felt into the tree she had made— but she didn’t have that tree within reach. And while she might have thought for a moment she could turn him into a tree and do the same thing—

Something stopped her at this moment. And it wasn’t really sanity or anything. So much as the fact that— this was a person who appreciated her trees as much as she did. So she just lays there, unable to move. “You’re wrapping my wound with vines,” she states the obvious, almost quietly, almost in awe. Plants really were so wonderful, after all. But— “What’s happening? Did some of you guys decide to just start shooting us?” she asks, almost as if she legitimately thinks they would do that.

She hears the noise, but it’s difficult to see anything beyond her immediate area. She looks toward the fallen prisoners. “If you get me closer to them, I can turn them into something we can use, assuming they’re not dead already,” she adds. She sounds like she’s in a lot of pain, but.

Crazy can handle a lot.

As the shots crack through the dusty, thick air - so thick it would be like eating a blanket or drinking a very bad merlot with every breath were it not for the respirator - Erin instinctively drops the folding shovels plork right into the mud and, unholstering her weapon, pivots on the spot in the glorpy miasma. She drops to a crouch, eyes darting back and forth: it wasn’t a dinosaur, but it was something.

And then Elisabeth’s voice comes through her comm with directions: protect the volunteers. Protect and serve. These are humans too, dammit. She’d seen enough of this unnecessary division during the civil war.

«Copy, Lieutenant.»

She stops for a split second, observes the scene. There are chaotic masses of orange-clad offenders, orange like the flames they are fighting, to the north and the west, the river to the southeast. Got it. Internalized it. She rushes north to the closest squad, trying to find the person in charge while simultaneously shepherding these people, innocent in this way at the very least, towards the Hudson - oily and slick at the best of times, now black and choppy as the tides battle the wind coming off the flames.

It takes near thirty seconds for the resounding shockwave of Elisabeth’s ability to fade. In that time the gunshots stopped, giving precious time for Erin to lead the volunteer and inmate firefighters back toward the SUV and away from the gunfire. Chief Rollins runs alongside Erin, keeping his head down as he moves.

Elisabeth, eyes forward toward where the gunfire came from, still hears the sound of mechanical whining. There’s a groaning noise in the woods, followed by the splintering crash of young growth trees toppling over. It’s too far in the rain and steam to make out details more than silhouettes, except—


The field in front of Elisabeth had been spotty with small fires. After her sonic shockwave they had been completely snuffed out. Did Liz do that? Could sound waves extinguish fire?

The crack of new gunfire jolts Elisabeth out of that thought, and through the smoke and steam rising off of the grass she sees people advancing out of the dense park undergrowth. Humans, not machines!

Two dozen people dressed in respirators, military surplus body armor, and carrying assault rifles push out of the smoke and begin opening fire on the retreating firefighters. A dozen more than Elisabeth had estimated. Gunfire pops in bright report against the dark and Elisabeth feels herself struck by a couple rounds, hard enough to knock her off of her feet. Thankfully the police-issue AEGIS armor deadens both blows to what feels like a swift kick rather than a deathblow.

With the wind knocked out of her, Elisabeth feels a hand take her wrist, and she sees one of the inmate firefighters grab her with his only hand and pull her out of the line of fire and behind a large tree surrounded by what was once a flower garden. Emanuel Garza, sees Elisabeth’s vest, recognizing that kind of gear from the raid on the Times Square Building, and nods to her and gives a thumbs up with one on hand. She’s going to be ok.

Two inmate firefighters that Erin is shepherding away from the gunfire are caught by the advancing attackers, collapsing to the ground. A third is struck in the back of the head and blood fills his visor as he falls in front of Erin’s path. The SUV is struck more times than anyone else, and it becomes clear that the attackers are aiming for the SUV, shooting at its tires, blowing out its windshield, and punching through the hood.

On the ground, Dumortier and Ali are low enough and far enough away from the immediate gunfire to be out of the line of fire. But they are the first to see red glowing lights emerging through the smoke behind the advancing people.

Quadrupedal robots radiating rippling waves of heat off of their chassis emerge from the smoke, their heads sculpted to resemble half canine, half feline skulls with curving metal teeth. They are caked in rust, some pock-marked with bullet holes. They’re DoEA Hunters from the Civil War era, but once they get into range where their internal Compass technology detects Expressives, the slow-moving machines suddenly break into whining sprints, charging their prey.

Gasping under the impact of the slug that knocked her down, Elisabeth is grateful for the help. As she fights to catch her breath behind the mask, she keys on her radio and rasps urgently, "Fucking shooters have Hunter bots! Watch out!!"

A glance is given to Garza and she motions for him to move backward — they don't have the manpower or the firepower to tangle right up front with this group. She can make out that there are at least a dozen humans in the approaching hoard, maybe more.

The Hunters are the first and most imminent threat though. Struggling back to her feet, she leans on a tree to use it for cover as she attempts to literally blow the Hunters right off their legs this time. The quadrupedal bots in the Wasteland had joint weaknesses — all mechanical structures are prone to them — maybe the same tactics will work. And right about now, she wishes Alia were around just to wipe programming.

She focuses on the Bot headed for her and Garza and tries to throw it back with another sonic hit.

The shockwave tears up the loose, wet soil and throws it into the air. When the wave hits the Hunter bot, the vibrational frequencies rattle loose screws apart in the frame, send them clattering down into fast-moving internals that then turn the screws into shrapnel blasting out of the machine-beast. One leg becomes dislocated and turns its sprint into an end-over-end tumble, face first into the mud, ass over head, and then its like a NASCAR accident where the machine flips end-over-end as limbs and hardened plates come flying off.

The smoking hulk of that Hunter bot skids in the mud to a stop at Elisabeth’s feet, the red light in its eyes flickering before going out entirely.

In another time Dumortier wouldn't have thought twice about using dying people in the way Ali seems to indicate. But having seen how exactly it all works- - that visceral feeling he would get treating those trees, that stuck. So he does think twice, stomach flipping before making a landing. "Fine."

"It's not us." Dumortier crouches in the shelter of his ability with Ali, squinting against the smoke and as tense as a hare in the brush as he reaches out with his ability. His touch latches onto whatever it can, bolstering their defenses. It's an appropriate feeling, ears perked and eyes peeled, darting for the lights as he spots them. Ali isn't privy to the reason for the ensuing "Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck…" unless she happens to tune into the static of the radio. Fumbling with a fitting on his armor, Rene coughs against his respirator and fishes his way into a pack at his belt. He's used to more mobility than what he has; all that sits between them and the world is a tangle of tree flesh and mycelium. In a gloved palm he produces a metal case, blue eyes visible behind the visor as he surveys Ali's state. It's not…. ideal. None of this.

Fuck it.

"I'm not letting some fucking rustbucket get the better of me again." She won't know what he means, but the edge in his voice is perhaps enough, skirting towards something far past stress, a touch more manic. An indicator of trauma, at best. At worst… When Dumortier pops the hinge on the small case, air hisses and vapor puffs into nothing in the heated air. He slips a slender cylinder into his palm, twisting one end off as he speaks.

"This was supposed to be for after we figured shit out. But, you felt like having some fun, didn't you?" Of course she did. No sooner does Dumortier ask does he lift the pen flush to his shoulder and depresses the end under his thumb.

Click, goes the plunger once. Click, as it springs back out.

“What is— ?” Ali doesn’t even finish her question, because the pain gets drowned out by the cold dread that shoots through her entire body as she looks out through the fire and foliage at the approaching robots. All it took was a glimpse and she was thrown back to her days in the prison camps of old Manhattan, side by side with her twin sister. The robots had fought in the wars, yes, but not just the war. Those machines and the people behind them were why she lost her sister. Why she was never able to even bury her.

So without even needing to know what the agent beside her has planned or what he intends, her voice becomes a little— feral. “There’s nothing I’d rather do than show those metal bastards what mother nature can do to it.

Even if mother nature is built from the bodies of dying prisoners— or whatever it is that the agent just jabbed into his own skin. She’s ready. And the last time her voice sounded like this— well— she was turning far more innocent people into trees.

Once the pen is used, Dumortier simply lets it drop, his fingers stretching in its absence. He looks to Ali, brow already knit more intensely than ever. Light from the fire seems to catch in a liminal silver behind his eyes.

"Amp. The other one's yours- - if you want it. If not- - tell me now." His breath catches on a deeper exhale, and as it moves back into his lungs the ground shifts underneath of them, lurching suddenly, roots breaking the surface in serpentine coils. Spreading further is the hybrid Ali managed to foster just before everything fell apart, shielding them in the same moments that saplings snap up from the earth.

“Too bad it doesn’t come with painkillers,” Ali murmurs a little, but then nods, because, well, she’s really looking forward to unleashing everything she possibly can on those metal monstrosities as she shifts enough to offer herself for a similar poke.

Fuck.” Erin breathes, as Elisabeth extinguishes the fire.

“Fuck.” Erin says, as the firefighters she was escorting all fall in the line of not-fire.

“FUCK.” Erin exclaims, as the hunter bots are revealed - old, mangled, but still deadly.

“FU…UCK?” Erin half-asks as the agent and ecortee become one with an earthen womb, before she remembers that this is exactly the sort of thing that the two of them were brought on for. She flicks the safety back onto her pistol as she somersaults right through the SUV and, springing back up, plants (pun unintended) her hands against it and tries to render it extra-substantial, extra dense, such that while it may never be an effective vehicle again, it can at least be a shitty makeshift barrier.

But seeing no one in the immediate vicinity after she meerkats back up off of the ground - only bodies, thick smoke, and fleeing backs - she changes tack. Instead, she turns and crouches until only her eyes and helmet are visible over the side of the overturned SUV, pins a kneecap against it as though to create stability (which is accurate in a way) but in reality continuing the contact to keep it solid and dense and a moderately effective barricade, and, using what was once the back passenger-side door as a table, aims her pistol at an approaching bot and fires at its front left knee joint. If it was going to be any random encounter, at least it was with one she knew.

The first two shots go wide and short, respectively, but the third hits the moving knee dead on. The 9mm round isn’t heavy enough to break the joint, but the impact throws off the machine’s entire gait and the fall is almost worse than the gunshot. When the Hunter face-plants into the mud the momentum of its backside causes its hind legs to flip up and over. The resulting torque on the machine’s neck causes the articulated spinal column to snap when it reaches a sharp angle.

Still connected by unsevered wires by no longer having a support structure, the Hunter bot flips end over end and then gets up on shaky legs with its head hanging limp over its shoulder, jaw slack and red eyes still glowing.

The killing machine limp-stalks toward the overturned and swollen looking SUV—thanks to Erin modifying the vehicle’s material density—with a mindless tenacity. But it never gets all the way to Erin. Up from under the Hunter’s feet rises a swirling morass of roots, grasses, and mycelium that twists and insinuates itself through the metal frame and then erupts through the innards of the machine, blooming with the floral bouquet of a dozen mushrooms out the eye sockets of its steel skull.

Nearby, the landscape is turning into something wholly alien and otherworldly. Around where Dumortier and Ali were, there are curving walls of fungal matter growing up eight—ten—fifteen feet in height. Thorns the size of a person’s arm bristle outward from between the fungal bloom in a comingling of plant species. The Hunter that was approaching the two of them is simply swallowed by the verdant tsunami, split limb-from-limb by the growing plant matter until joints pop and welds crack from the internal pressure.

With the Hunters disabled, the mycelial wall becomes an ever-growing sponge of fibrous matter absorbing incoming small-arms fire like a living sandbag wall. Elisabeth and Garza are all but forgotten by the insurgents as they direct their fire on the wall as if it were a person or a beast to be slain. Automatic fire pops in the night, mycelial masses hiss and scream through the transference of water to steam in proximity to the wildfire’s heat.

But for Ali and Dumortier, ringed in walls of fungal shields and thorn-spears, they feel the acute effects of the amphodynamine injection as throbbing behind their eyes, a spike in blood pressure, and a tremor in their limbs. It is at once an intoxicating and terrifying experience, an overwhelming of any biological safeguards and instinctive restrictions on their own abilities that allow them to push beyond their limits, but without any heed to the damage it could cause their bodies in the process.

It doesn’t take long for the gas-masked and heavily armed insurgents to change their tactics. The sudden eruption of a live grenade changes the battlefield, blasting a six by six chunk out of the growing mycelial wall. The attackers split up into more organized units, dividing into a forward advance targeting the mycelial wall with explosives, and two teams moving in the rain to flank around it.

Well, that didn't go quite as expected, to Elisabeth's mind. But hey, it worked. So she's not complaining. Glancing at Garza, she asks tightly, "Do you have an ability to throw out there?" In the chaos of it all, she cannot remember — and isn't sure she ever knew — what his ability might be. She can feel the ache in her ribs where her Aegis kept her from being killed, and she's damn grateful to be hurting.

“They keep me negated.” Garza says through his respirator. “For your safety.” He crouches down near the disabled Hunter and wrenches off its leg with one one good arm, giving it a testing shake. “But I can improvise.”

With a shaky hand, Elisabeth taps the comms and rasps, «Got about a dozen well-armed and well-equipped assholes spreading out. Hit hard.»

Squatting there in the cover they've got, Elisabeth takes a moment to try to catch her breath and her bearings. She starts pointing for Garza. "I can pick out 4 or 5, I think — they're still close enough as a group that we might be able to hit them all if we do it right. I want at least one for questioning if we can keep one alive." But by her tone, it's not a priority for her. She's regressing into kill or be killed.

Garza nods, gripping the drumstick of a Hunter’s leg tightly in his gloved hand. “I’ll flank the right.” He says, then slips around the other side of the tree, stepping softly on the wet ground as he disappears into the smoke.

Inside the cocoon he's created around himself and Ali, Dumortier's hands are submerged in the flesh of the wall ahead, seeming to move through it as he comes fully to his feet again. One hunter is swallowed whole, then a second- - his frame bristles with each, the feel of them crunching and breaking almost palpable to his own senses. Bullets do nothing save for lodge themselves in mycete and wood, peppering like gnats against something which seems to lurch ahead, heedless, gaining ground as Rene turns his attention back to Ali.

Dumortier had heard about the rush of amphodynamine, and yet the experience in reality sits on another plane entirely. It's not just a rush, is it? The pressure behind his ears and eyes seems to build until suddenly- - it plateaus- - a familiar, dissociating sensation into a past version of himself, strung out and angry and - -

Hungry, perhaps.

The ground under Ali crumples in a snaking effort to bring her next to him.

With one hand pulling free, he sheds the mask and gear from his face, tearing at the weight of thick fabric in a blood-pumped haze; Ali can see his expression clearly, and even in the orange glow she can make out something wild, flashing silvery in blue eyes. An explosion at his periphery shakes the meat of the barrier, a shudder of affront against a new oncoming tactic of more explosives. A spasm moves along Dumortier's limbs, a shiver in unison.

As another blow creases the wall, the spark of light casts stark contrast over Rene's face again, though this time showing a progression of skin and limbs seemingly flaying apart in a blast of ridged fungus, slicking back from the agrokinetic's face and blending with a growing thick hide of cypress-hybrid bark which takes over the fabrics of his heatwear.

Ali had said she wished it had come with a painkiller, but as soon as it reached her bloodstream she forgets all about the pain of the gunshot wound through her leg. The tendrils of plant wrapped around her leg stopping the bleeding burst forth with a sudden blooming of flowers. Whatever plant they had been before seems to have transmogrified into some kind of scarlet runner bean with the usual orange blossoms blooming a glossy blood red. The green leaves that sprout out along the vine darken, almost to a black, even if if the shape and appearance are right, the colors are off.

Under the cover of the PPE, there’s a ragged inhale, a gasp of surprise, and she looks up at the sky for a moment. Fire and metal and death all around, but also…

The vines come to life, taken over from the Agrokinetic Agent’s control for a moment, and whip around, then slam into the ground, changing as they go, becoming roots, a system connected to the prisoner and reaching out through the earth, seeking.

A vine bursts up at the nearest downed prisoner twisting and growing, lifting his body up from the ground and adding his mass to itself. Spreading his arms, his legs, like the Vitruvian man, wrapped in vines that suddenly have thick thorns that dig into the flesh and rip at the orange suit, tearing it away as his flesh turns to a mix of wood and moss and fungus, bursting forth black spores with a sudden pained scream.

He had not died yet. He would not die now, as he was quickly integrated into the forest, to become part of it, to live within it. To give it growth and form…

And power.

While Dumitor’s eyes shine with a silvery light— Ali’s eyes have turned a deep red. And the translucent blue veins that she might have had stand out all of a sudden wherever her skin is visible. Blackened. Like oil.

Meanwhile, Erin watches the would-be comedy of errors starring the Hunter tripping on something like a banana peel with a bit of grim satisfaction and observes her surroundings: a lot of muck and charred earth, but no fire; a lot of tall plant matter, but no trees; no more bots; and a great wall of…of something in front of her. It’s organic, to be sure. But it also looks like something that would have been at home in that first season episode of The X Files in the forest with the weird mushroom spore things and Scully’s puffy fluorescent 1994 rain jacket. It looks like something perhaps known to The Syndicate, were this not a nonfiction wherein there is actually a Syndicate and they are not as concerned about hiding evidence of human-alien hybrid supersoldiers and instead people do, in fact, have weird supernatural powers that just popped up one day. There are plenty of Cigarette Smoking Mans here. Such things are passe. Either way, what television does not prepare you for is the musky odor emanating from this fibrous forest, somewhere between mushrooms and well-rotted French cheese.

The danger, at least on her side, and at least in the immediate, has passed. She deflates the SUV to its normal, dinged-up body density, pats its frame in thanks, and slumps onto the dirt, sitting against it. There is no sign of the Plant People, though she knows they must be alive, if not well, because their new forest keeps growing and fighting even with holes being punched in it. The volunteers are long over the creek, somewhere new and out of her sight.

But on the other side, Elisabeth and Garza appear to have no cover from a rising tide of insurgents.

«Harrison! Can you make it to me? We have a whole forest of cover and our SUV still has some use in it yet! But not, uh…as a car. A barricade.»

There’s no immediate response from Elisabeth, but the fungal wall entwined with other living vegetation continues to grow in undulating waves. It’s hard to know for sure if Ali and Dumortier are alive within the seething mass, but one thing is certain—the insurgents closest to it don’t live for very long.

The wall expands in rapid pulses, like a heart and vascular system that grows with each beat. For every foot of fungal bloom that is visible above the ground, a hundred meters of mycelium is spreading beneath the wet soil, following the path that knotty roots are burrowing into the soil. Tubular trunks of fungal matter erupt from the ground beneath some of the insurgents, and while Erin can’t see them she can hear their confused and muffled screams as they are converted into fuel matter for the rapidly expanding wall.

Soon, reddish-brown shingles of mushroom are spreading up the front of the SUV. The vehicle’s hood buckles, the remains of the windshield shatters, and flowering vines protrude up through the air vents inside. Tree branches adorned with bright red leaves explode out the side windows, the SUV is tipped up to a 45-degree angle as more vegetation pushes up from beneath, blooming into a massive puffball mushroom that tears along the side and erupts in a cloud of briefly-airborne spores that are quickly tamped down by the moisture in the air.

As the fungal wall ripples and expands, it churns matter from one side to the other like a series of masticating jaws. Shredded clothes and glistening bones are briefly visible in some of the fungal matter before being subsumed back down into the mass. Dumortier and Ali can feel the forest expanding, but it’s like trying to keep a bear on a dog’s leash. No matter how hard they tug, try to control or constrain the growth, it doesn’t stop.

From Erin’s vantage point, the only combatants she knows for sure are still up are the people circling around on Elisabeth’s side. Down on that side of the altercation, something blooms in the dark. A spark of bright orange light, followed by a sudden eruption of flame in a stream that launches through the air and boils off the rain in its proximity.

One of the insurgents marches forward in the dark, flanked by a pair of men armed with assault rifles. But this one carries a fuel tank strapped to his back and a braided metal hose that runs from the underside of the tank to a fucking flamethrower. The whole thing looks hand-made, utilizing civilian fuel tanks likely filled with a homebrew cocktail of napalm-like incendiaries. The weapon itself sputters and sparks and lays down a burning swath of fire that sizzles on the wet ground.

The trio of insurgents advancing behind the flamethrower group are briefly waylaid as Garza comes out of the smoke and fog brandishing that Hunter leg. He strikes one of the militiamen in the side of the head, sending him immediately down to the ground. By the time two of his other compatriots notice, Garza has already stepped in on the back-swing and struck the next nearest man in the jaw. But Garza is neither fast enough nor young enough to close the distance on the third before he trains sights on him, opening fire with a handgun. The first two rounds go wide, but the third hits Garza in the midsection. He continues forward, striking the insurgent in the jaw with the busted Hunter leg, knocking out teeth and sending him flat on his back. It opens up room for Elisabeth to safely target the flamethrower unit and the other insurgents nearby.

As she watches the wall of plant matter roar to life, Elisabeth Harrison is transfixed for a long moment. The scope of what the agrokinetics are doing seems … outsized for what she had been told to expect. But she's no expert on agrokinesis. Behind her faceplate, still wheezing a little from the torso hit, she comes out of her crouch to make her way left as Garza goes right.

It would be easy to simply hit them again in the same way. It works and there is an incredible amount of ambient sound to shape and use. But instead of trying to take the flamethrower out of the equation with the brutal expediency of vibrating his brain into tapioca, Elisabeth calls on more mundane skills — firearms. She carries her pistol always. And Garza just gave her a clear shot, so Liz pauses where she is and aims. If this bastard is wearing armor, hopefully her rounds will impact him the same way she was — knock him down and slow him down. They can drag him out and interrogate. If not, or if it hits the tank and he burns? Well…. C'est la vie. She puts five rounds down range at center mass with steady hands, the sharp report of her pistol barely cutting through the roar of the fire and the writhing sounds of the vines all around.

Erin and Elisabeth are of one mind. Completely flabbergasted by the scope of the massive wall of writhing organic compound as well as the heat of the fire having reestablished itself, she can see only one target: the flamethrower tank. Set off the walking timebomb, potentially lose his information, but stop the fire? Worth the risk, hoping it’ll keep at least one of his comrades alive in the blast to learn where, exactly, this is coming from. She stabilizes, takes aim, and fires three rounds of her own, the report from Liz’s weapon ringing through the air with hers almost like an echo, like Dolby 7.1 surround.

It goes about as well as Elisabeth and Erin both expected. Three rounds to the side, one to the target’s leg at the knee, and as he’s buckling to the ground Erin’s round straight to the—

Fire and steel erupt in a pressurized explosion as the makeshift flamethrower tank explodes on taking a round. There is nothing left of the man it was attached to when it goes up, just a smoking stretch of smoldering grass and the distant sound of hard, wet objects raining down amid scraps of cloth and a shredded boot. The remaining militiamen that were in close proximity to that blast writhe on the ground, perforated by steel shrapnel and bone fragments.

Although he can feel there is a distant wrongness, Dumortier's more logical brain is hazy behind the feel of power. It is new and strange, and he can feel himself feeding off of Ali Underwood's own sway. After a few long moments of far away shrieks and pops of gunfire, his listening wavers from the physical outside the tomb of megaflora and mycete.

Stopping should be on the menu too. Should be. Should be. Rene's teeth clench with a glint of that silver reflection in his eyes, mirrors against firelight like something small and feral waiting down in the dark. The scales of fungus shed partly across his frame, breaking up the woody silhouette of Rene Dumortier as it raises a hand and grabs slender fingers through the air. Hot air collected inside of the makeshift cocoon is displaced as the cooler pushes its way in through a shredding exit.

Even the tug of desire over control does little. Because somewhere deep down, maybe he doesn't want it. The haze does much to dissuade him from pulling harder back on the reins, at least for the time being. At least for now. Silver flickers to blue as Dumortier looks down and shades the irises of his eyes, light removed and crystal stare familiar more than foreign as he looks over the frame of his companion. Fire, in its primal shape, sends messages like pain to nerves as it touches mycelium and root; the newest spots are fueled ones, hotter than the rest under the influence of homemade incendiaries. Roots push at his heels and Dumortier slips through the canopy of alien forest to skid to a halt atop of it, seeking.

Out in the light, his transformation into something wild and spriggan has become quite plain, as he swivels his attentions to where he can feel and hear the danger now present to the construct that he's become a psuedo-master of.

“How beautiful…” Ali whispers under her breath, as she drops down to the forest floor, grasping writhing vines that are a mix of fungal and stem, some strange hybrid that could not exist in nature, but somehow did with this interference. As Dumortier slips away through the forest in that beautiful form, he can feel the secondary presence within the growth. Ali.

She doesn’t fight to control it as much as she seems to be willing to be engulfed by it.

The vines she touches tear at her protective clothes, seeking skin, seeking blood. She can’t meld with it as he can, but it’s trying to meld with her anyway. There are no screams of pain, no sounds of horror from Ali.

Not a single one.

Even as she encased within the very plants that she helped create. A giant tree, or perhaps, a group of trees growing entwined, starts to rise where Durmortier left behind, made of twisting roots of black wood.

Quaking Aspens, by the looks of them— but with blood-red leaves unfolding.

And a torn-off piece of an orange jumpsuit hangs from one of the branches.

Screams and explosions turn to horrific silence of this massive tree unfolding amid the forest of crimson fungus. The wind howls across the field, rain drives down, and small fires burn on the ground. Garza crumples down onto one knee, dropping the broken machine’s leg to clutch his side where he’s been shot.

Dumortier’s otherworldly verdant form looms, backlit by the approaching inferno. A monster risen from the morass, with the gnarled branches of a red-leafed tree spreading overhead. A stretch of the wildfire is still closing in, buffered by the wall of fungus which is—remarkably—doing its job as a barrier well.

There are no more gunshots, no more sounds of conflict brewing, nothing save for the encroaching heat that causes the rain to vaporize into a thin fog and the ground to steam as it boils the moisture away. The orange glow is bright in Elisabeth’s periphery, and her mind races back to that moment when the fighting started.

The field in front of Elisabeth had been spotty with small fires. After her sonic shockwave they had been completely snuffed out. Did Liz do that? Could sound waves extinguish fire?

Could they?

The explosion of the man has Liz ducking instinctively. She's far enough away from the concussion of that to not get knocked on her ass, but she can feel it in the air itself — and she can feel the impact of smaller bits of flaming meaty debris that used to be a person falling down out of the air around and onto her fire-resistant helmet and jacket. It's going to be gross cleaning up later.

Slowly she turns her head toward the encroaching flames, swallowing hard as her mind works to compartmentalize what just happened and to assess the possibilities. Fire requires air. Sound — and more particularly sound manipulation — is a manipulation and vibration of air molecules. A sonic boom is a blast wave that leaves behind it a pocket of vacuum, the 'boom' created by the explosive inrush of air once the blast wave is past. As she reasons her way through the thought, Elisabeth touches her mic.

«I think I might be able to snuff out the flames in some radius around me — I don't know how far. Gordon, get to Garza and backtrack. Everyone else…» Jesus, the shades of the past just keep rising up in the ashes of the present. «Everyone else in comms range, hit the deck. As flat to the ground as you can go. You have … about 20 seconds.» Because that's how long it's going to take her to gather enough force to pulse-detonate a sonic boom the size and scale of which she has no fucking clue of the extent. Hail Mary is always so much fun.

As the tree unfolds, the silence pressing all around them, Erin slides down behind her makeshift SUV barricade and watches with her mouth hanging slightly open, which she is certain much later must look very, very dumb. It’s beautiful. It really is. Even with the ominous suggestion of the jump suit causing her to assume the fate of Ali, she can’t help but be awestricken with wonder and magnificence of this incredible plant. Dimly, she thinks, maybe in another life I was a botanist instead.

But she pulls her brain free. «Affirmative. Sorry for the…spaghetti. Did any of the accomplices make it?» With a glance over the barrier, and seeing nobody of harm in her path, she crouches low and runs to make it as far as she can to Garza in the 20 seconds remaining.

Although the change has affected much, somewhere in there remains enough of a communications apparatus that Elisabeth's words are able to reach Dumortier through everything else surrounding and becoming a piece of plant matter. It's sparse, and static, but he can pick it out.

Feet hit the forest floor near where Garza is folded in a primal pain, and Erin sees the slim shape ahead with increasing clarity.

«Here.» Once she has scurried ever closer, a lurch of ground and root in her wake rises up and over the three like the shell of a terrapin, Rene's arms outstretched to guide it. His voice stifles a strange vibrato, given by the state of him. «I've got you.»

It’s the last thing anyone hears before all sound ceases to be.

The silence is terrifying and unnatural. All ambient noise is drawn inward toward Elisabeth like a receding tide. To Elisabeth it sounds like the ocean—the noise of the wildfire, creaking wood, voices, wind, rain—all of it becomes a roar that grows to a great and looming crest and then—

is expelled.

The sonic shockwave that comes next hits like a clap of thunder to those behind the audiokinetic. But that sound is just the aftershocks. Fueled by pure adrenaline and a lifetime of mastery in her gift, Elisabeth funnels all of the sound around her into a conical blast that strikes with the force of a hammering ocean surf. The shockwave does not come all at once, but flows like waves, rippling in intensity.

In an instant a swath of the wildfire simply ceases to exist.

To outside observers it seems like witchcraft. Elisabeth directs noise forward and the fire vanishes as if cowed in terror of her prowess. But the science behind it is simplistic in its beauty. The oscillation of the sound waves creates a vacuum between the peaks and valleys of the noise, and where there is vacuum fire cannot exist. The rapid, sharp oscillations suck all the air out of the fire and snuff it out with a moment’s thought.

Elisbaeth crumples to her knees in the next instant, then forward onto her palms.

Her chest aches, head throbs, vision blurs, and arms tremble. That much exertion of force is exhausting at the best of times, but after a fight like they just had, it’s practically debilitating. But through the sharp and familiar pain, Elisabeth looks up to see that gap in the raging inferno and an involuntary laughter ripples through her. She did it, they can do it. They can stop the fire. The tools have been there since the beginning, they just hadn’t realized it.

They could tune the Banshees.

Every law-enforcement officer in the city carries one. The Yamagato robots could be outfitted with quickly-modified Banshees and marched into the fire. This wasn’t the end of the Safe Zone.

There was time, thanks to the forest that Rene and Ali raised. Time to commit to a plan.

Time to extinguish the wildfire.

She is barely able to hold herself upright and standing is asking too much of her. Elisabeth tips slightly to drop her hip to the ground, just dropping to a heap. Her voice into the comms trembles almost as much as her arms do. «Rollins, tell the tech guys to recalibrate the Banshees on the SPOTs and Yamagato bots. Any sound will work, but long wavelength, high velocity, will snuff out the fires. Dispatch, if you're reading me, tell every cop on the ground the same thing for their handheld. Get a tech on the line from RayTech if they need help recalibrating.»

All she gets back is an earful of static. The solar storms are still blocking broadcasts made at long distance. There’s still time, though. They just have to move.

Sitting upright feels like too much work, and Elisabeth allows herself to slump over a bit with a combination of disbelief and relief. That's not an application of her power that she ever gave a moment's consideration to.

The headache isn't as bad as it could be. And right now, she doesn't care that there is still fire raging all around. For this one moment, she just lays there in the soot and mud and water, her mind drifting a little bit. Another small giggle escapes her inside the face mask. "Human tsunami," she murmurs, remembering the day Felix called her that. "I think I need a nap now."

She might be a little high on the adrenaline with the expulsion of that much energy all at once.

The second the world is audible again - the first in which Erin suspects she can move, for her wild and irrational animal brain felt the pressure of sound and never bothered to test a limb or digit - she opens her eyes to the dark bandshell of earth covering, or probably more accurately protecting, her and Garza. She thinks it was Dumortier’s voice she heard, but was it even really hearing?

The second second that the world is audible again, Erin moves faster than she thought she could ever move to find her way back to Elisabeth, the ground parting before her footsteps as the progenitive Red Sea, manipulating the muddy matter without even realizing it. She drops to a knee in the mud and grabs her Lieutenant’s deflated hand, absolutely awed. “Well, Lieutenant, I’ve got to say that today wasn’t at all what I was expecting; what about you?”

The soundwave, she realizes, has knocked the elastic from both of their hair, and she feels a slight tickle at the back of her neck as the strands fall gently loose.

That rising shell clamps down around three bodies moments before the echo of sonic scream vibrates through the plants woven tightly as cover. It's muffled, but it's difficult to mistake the sound for anything but their comrade with the banshee's lungs.

Dumortier's own rim is spilling over as he hears it outside- - then a roar dying out even further. His senses are still spread out over his network of plants when they slowly but surely seep out of his influence; the agrokene's grip falters enough for it all to come slithering back. Everything ceases growth, the last unfurling leaves and bulging fungi slow to a stop. The remnants of his power curl in to the protective shell and allows a man-sized portion to slide like as many worms back into the muddy soil, releasing Erin to the still smoky air, now filled with the acrid smell of fresh charcoal.

As for the young man it sourced from, he has sunken to his knees, small treant frame melding into shallow roots, eyes losing that feral, angry gleam. For what it is worth, there is a phantom breath, exhaustion from a drug-fueled power surge coming down like a deck of cards. All the same, it is that exhaustion and crash which Rene knows too well, and a familiarity that gives him the benefit of not collapsing.

Not yet, anyhow.

When viewed from across the river, the fungal forest now rising up off the coast of New Jersey looks like an alien landscape. Backlit by the approaching wildfire, that haunting otherness is only enhanced.

From a distance, it is hard to see the victory at hand here. Tendrils of smoke rise up all across the Safe Zone, the Hudson River is ablaze, smoke rises up from inside the Manhattan Exclusion Zone, gunfire pops in the distance. Sometimes it is hard to see how the injury is healing for the scab in the way.

But one just has to hope that, in time, things will get better.

They have to.


2,400 Miles Away

The looming slope of Mount Shasta cuts into the crystal clear sky like an arrowhead. Thin clouds are wisped across the horizon like dry brush strokes across an oil canvas. Amid the forested foothills between Shasta Lake and the mountain, a community has risen up, connected by a network of dirt roads and winding forest trails.

Gunshots ring out in a clearing in that forest, glass bottles decimated by high-caliber rifle rounds. A middle-aged woman in a trucker cap lowers the rifle from her shoulder, squinting against the sun to view the remaining line of bottles on the distant post-and-beam fence. She laughs to herself, ejecting the shallow magazine from the bottom of the rifle with a soft click.

“Honey, I’ve said it before and with God as my witness I’ll say it again…” says a tall, thin man on approach to the sharpshooter. “I don’t never wanna be on your bad side.”

The sharpshooter cracks a smile, clicking the safety of her rifle on before setting it down on a weathered picnic table, the barrel facing out toward the distant treeline. “Well, you keep them good looks and honest heart and you just might.” She says, closing the distance to him. Rising up on her toes to greet him with a kiss. Their wedding bands glint in the light of the setting sun.

“Just got off the horn with Eugene,” he says to her as their kiss breaks, “the spearhead did what it needed to. We have insertion.” She smiles at the news, leaning away enough to pump a fist at her side and exhale a whooping cheer of victory, kicking one heel at the ground as she does.

“You run that up the flagpole yet?” She asks him and he shakes his head.

“No,” he says with a smile, “wanted you t’be the first t’know. Me and the boys are gonna drive into town in a bit, give the good word.”

From behind, five quadrupedal machines lurk out of the treeline. Feral, predatory, leonine things painted a matte, tactical black and armed to the teeth with mounted weaponry. The machines continue by, followed by a dozen soldiers in full kit and forest camouflage gear. He glances back at them, offering a polite nod, and several of the soldiers return the same.

“We’re really gonna do it.” She says, stepping back in to grab the collar of his flannel shirt and place a kiss on his stubbled chin. He smiles in clear satisfaction, looking out to the forest lit gold by the light of the setting sun.

“We are…” he says with certainty.

“…we’re gonna see our little girl again.”

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