Ep 03 : Hell’s Waiting Room

Gail Dorian grew up a military brat. Her father was an air force captain. She followed him into service before leaving the military to become a civil rights attorney. I know, strange transition. She dedicated herself to serving first her country, then her fellow man, and finally, the world itself. And she did all of this even though she was not, technically, human.

Because Gail Dorian was discovered as an infant in a crashed Crimnorian cruiser that Captain Steven Dorian had shot down over the mountains of western Nevada. Her alien physiology gave her astonishing powers, which she used, honoring both her adopted and birth parents, as the heroic Lady Peace.

Laura showed me her draft of the obituary, but it read to me more like a eulogy. A eulogy that could never be given, because most people had no idea of the connection between Attorney Gail Dorian and Lady Peace. Was this the time for them to know?

As it turned out, it wasn’t necessary, not quite yet.

Despite how it had appeared, Lady Peace wasn’t dead. When Derek first took her pulse and declared that he could, indeed, sense a heartbeat, we were certain that this was just the grief-stricken delusion of a man in love. After a few more minutes, however, her lips moved and she tried to speak,  before falling unconscious once more. Though it was not repeated, it was clear that she was alive, if just barely. She might be the indestructible woman, but I could not look at the damage done to her and not wonder at the sheer force of will that would not let her die.

Derek had her taken away in a special XDF ambulance. He got in the ambulance with her, but before the door closed on them, he ordered one of his men to escort Laura and me to wherever it was they were going.

 I thought maybe he had some super-secret facility set up for dealing with superhuman injuries, so I was really disappointed when all we did was follow the ambulance to County, where we were taken to a waiting room in the ICU.  We watched, with Derek, as the doctors hooked Lady Peace up to all sorts of equipment I could neither accurately describe nor understand. Laura stood next to Derek, one hand on his shoulder. I knew that she was the only one, really, who could understand what he was going through. She was even polite enough not to force her way into the conversation when one of the doctors came out to speak to him.

That’s when she took out her handheld and composed the first draft of the obituary. I wanted to take a picture of Lady Peace laying there, a shot no one else could get, a shot no one had thought it would ever be possible to get, just because that’s what I do, even if it did make me feel a little creepy to even be thinking about it. My broken lens saved me from a moral crisis.

At least my film hadn’t been destroyed.  I really needed to get back to the paper with these pics.

But Laura was just sitting there, all alone. I couldn’t abandon her yet. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t have a ride and wasn’t sure if the city was in lockdown or something, which would make it really hard to get a cab across town.

So I sat down beside her. “I admit this doesn’t look good, but it doesn’t mean that Dan’s not coming back.”

“Wes, don’t. OK? Just … just don’t.”

So I didn’t. I sat in silence with her until Derek returned.

At first, he just stood there, and stared through the glass at the super-squad of physicians attending to his beloved. Finally, he said, “They won’t let me in yet. But there’s nothing they can do for her. They can’t even break her skin to perform surgery, if they thought that’s what she needed.”

“But isn’t it already…” I began, but to my credit, did not finish.

“I’ve decided to call in some help.”

“Who?” Laura asked.

“Someone who has access to powers we don’t, powers beyond medical science.”

“Mysteria?” Laura asked. “You know where she is?”

“Not exactly. But I’ve already called in the next best thing.”

As soon as he said that, the hospital shook. The world went black for a second before emergency power took over. Every monitor within earshot screamed at us.

If I hadn’t already been sitting down, I would have ended up on the floor, where Derek was crouched, his arms raised to protect his head.

“I don’t even want to ask,” he said as he stood up.  His phone rang a second later. “What now?”

Laura stood up, and I with her. She was in reporter mode again, I could tell, which was a good sign. I watched Derek’s face as he nodded, giving curt “uh-huhs” in response to whomever was on the other end of the line. He ended the call with a stern command, the specifics of which I could not hear, and as he disconnected spit out, “Christ!” under his breath.

“What’s going on now, Derek?” Laura said, her tone low, her words measured.

“Would you believe a giant monster attack?”

“At this point, I’d believe an army of those killer bunnies from Monty Python,” I said. “It’s not that, is it?”

“I need to go and coordinate my men, be out there with them. But …”

“I understand,” Laura said. “You’ve trained them well. They can handle things without you, at least for a while.”

The door opened, revealing a scrambling cacophony in the corridor outside, and one of Derek’s body-armored XDF soldiers escorted someone inside. She was an asian girl, a little shorter than I was, with black-framed glasses and her hair tied back in a ponytail. She wore a long knit sweater over her jeans and t-shirt combo, and carried over her shoulder a rough-clothed knapsack. I felt like I’d seen her somewhere before, but didn’t remember her name.

“Derek…how is she?” the girl blurted out, ignoring Laura and me and going to the window to get a look at Lady Peace.

Thanks for coming, Alice,” Derek said. Then he looked at Laura. “This is the help I was talking about.”

“That was fast,” I said.

“I already had her on the way. I was pretty sure the docs weren’t going to be able to do much for Gail when we were riding over in the ambulance.”

At the mention of Lady Peace’s real name, Alice’s head jerked around to throw a shocked look at Derek, then a renewed survey of Laura and me.

Laura she gave a polite nod. But was that a quickly-hidden scowl she gave me? What the hell had I ever done to her?”

“Laura Callahan, Wes Callahan, meet Alice Nakamura. She works with Mysteria.”

“Works with,” Laura said, eyeing what looked like the spine of an ancient text and at least one scroll that poked out of her knapsack. “As in … magician’s apprentice?”

“I’m her graduate assistant,” Alice said. “But Derek … I don’t have anything like her talent. I don’t know what I can do for her.”

“I know, I know. But Alice … I know you’ve studied. No one else can do anything for her … maybe there’s something you can try?”

“Well, I’ve been working on a few battlefield healing spells. I can try, but I may end up doing more damage if I don’t have things exactly right.”

“Please, Alice. Please try.”

“Will they let me in there with her? I’ll need to be next to her. I’ll need to touch her.”

“I’ll tell them to let you in. And if they won’t, well, I do have a gun.” There was nothing in his voice to indicate that he was joking.

As they were talking, Laura disappeared into the corner with her cel phone. When she returned, she said. “I called Claire. Ben took Chloe and Sadie into the bunker underneath their apartment building. They’re as safe as anyone in town.” A new panic had blanched her face. Worry not for her husband, which was bad enough, but the primal fear she felt for her child.

“We can go,”  I said. “I’ll go with you. I need to take my film into the paper anyway.”

“All right, but not yet. I want to see if this girl can really do anything.”

“Do you know her?”

“I’ve seen her, but never really been introduced. Derek seems to trust her.”

“I didn’t know you and Derek were so close.”

“We had dinner with Derek and Gail a couple of times a month. They’re good friends.” That made sense. What other couple on the planet was going to understand the insane lives they all lived. “I was going to help Derek pick out a ring next week.”

With that, she left me and went to stand at the window. I leaned back in my chair and allowed myself the space of a few breaths just to sit and do nothing.  I hate sitting and waiting. I’m the kind of guy who has to be moving all the time. I was always the kid in the fourth grade classroom who kept getting detention because he would jump out of his seat and run to the window whenever he hear a noise outside, or saw the fighter jets coming in to land at the air force base a few counties over. You could say that I have a touch of the adhd, but I would probably have moved on to something else by the time you were done saying it.

So it was a good thing, sometimes, to force myself to stop. There were a couple of problems that I needed to solve. First, how was I going to get from the hospital over to the paper to get my pictures developed and submitted? Second, how was I going to track down Dan? He’d been out of touch before, but never like this, never with so much bad stuff going on and never with such an obvious warning sign that something had gone so wrong.

I wished I’d refused Derek’s escort and just hopped on my scooter to follow the ambulance here. As it was, I was going to have to jog across town because I really doubted the El train was running.

Low voices got louder as Derek argued with the doctor, trying to get them to allow Alice into the room with Lady Peace. Alice just stood there, her arms wrapped around some worn, leather-bound (at least I hoped it was leather) oversized book. For a second I thought Derek really was going to pull out his gun.

But finally, he said, “You told me there was nothing you can do for her. This young woman has a specific expertise that may be able to do some good. Whether or not you believe in it is irrelevant. It can’t hurt, so you’re going to let her in.”

The doctor sighed and ran his hands through his thick red hair before acquiescing. “All right, agent Trent. But this is over my objections. And she’ll have to be in full scrubs.”

“That’s fine,” Alice said, and nodded thankfully.

I had to admit, I was really curious about what exactly this girl was going to do.

The doctor took her with obvious reluctance, to a room off the side of the i.c.u. Derek joined Laura and me at the window. He was calm, but this calm was an obvious mask that almost shattered when, just for a moment, he locked eyes with Laura.

She put a friendly arm around his shoulders. At first it seemed like he was going to shrug off this contact, but he didn’t. He just said, “You know, Laura, I can’t believe I’m saying this but I’m actually glad you’re here.”

She just nodded.

Through the window, we saw the doctor escort Alice into the room that held Lady Peace. She was in full gear, her hair covered, mask over the bottom of her face, but in her latex-gloved hands she still held that ancient book. She said something to the doctor – the soundproof glass made it impossible to hear exactly what—and a few seconds later the doctor left room in the company of the two nurses who’d been standing around the bed.

Alice stood at the foot of the bed, surveying the room, and then pulled out  something that she’d had tucked into her waistband. It was a fat, purple stick, and as she bent down and traced a line on the floor around the bed, I decided that it was some sort of weird, waxy crayon. She worked to get the line completely right according to some standard I had no hope of comprehending, crawling on all fours to shift cords and cables so that she could make an unbroken line.

Satisfied – or at least as satisfied as she was likely to be – she came to stand on the other side of that line, letting it separate her from the bed. Her eyes closed, and she took another long moment that way. Was she actually praying? If she was, who exactly was she praying to? Then she made the sign of the cross, encompassing the book in the motion, and opened her eyes to give Derek a look that she probably meant to be confident but that ended up making her look like a terrified sixth grader about to give a report on Botswana in front of the class.

She looked at me again, for some reason. Was she trying to place me the same way I hade been trying to place her? Somehow, she managed to tear her eyes off me and give one long, intense stare at Lady Peace.

Alice opened the book she’d been holding, took a step back, and then dropped it on the floor between herself and the purple line she had drawn. She stared down at the pages as if committing something to memory.

She mouthed some words (at least I thought she was mouthing them, since I wouldn’t have been able to hear her if she had been shouting) over and over, and then she took a step over the book and was inside the lopsided circle she had drawn around the hospital bed, stretching out her hands, she took hold of Lady Peace’s scorched and broken feet. Spidery lines cracked across the skin of her face with the force she used to keep her eyes closed.

She spoke, and as she spoke the purple line began to glow, staining the white plastic of the medical equipment, and gleaming against the silvery chrome of exposed metal. Lady Peace’s cracked-earth skin took on the same amethyst hue, but it wasn’t so much the color of flesh awash in light as it was showing the light that was being generated from somewhere within that body. The same light was inside Alice as well, pouring through her skin, shadowing the bones in her hands that gripped the flesh of the fallen warrior.

She still chanted.

A tremble rippled through her; there was some rupture in the world we could sense somehow but not actually feel or see. In the space where Lady Peace had been laying, was a vaguely human-shaped purple mist. No matter how much I stared at it, I could not discern her form within it. It was if the mist had broken her apart, suspended her there … but would it now be able to piece her back together?

Alice collapsed, the purple glow faded as abruptly as if someone had smacked the light switch. Thousands of bits of clumpy grey dust rained down on the table, filling the space where Lady Peace had been.

Now we could actually see holes ripped in the air.

A bony white hand pressed through it, out of the nothing, tearing it wider before another hand pushed through, then a leg, and then an entire, bone-skinned monster, vaguely human in shape but for the huge grin that encompassed the lower portion of its face. It plopped down onto the table, and kicked the ash.

It gave a howl, and this we could hear, and then dozens of its fellows leapt through the space, filling the room, accompanied tiny locusts whose wings were made of fire.

We lost sight of Alice as they threw themselves against the glass, and then I lost sight of everything as the glass shattered and they jumped through.  Their joyous cackle scraped against my eardrums. Laura grabbed me, pushing me back to the door. Derek got in front of Laura and as the creatures poured through I heard three blasts and then a sick thump. I tried to stay close to Laura as I crawled for the door. 

Ep 02 : Look to the Sky

          I decided that no matter what happened, I wasn’t going to close my eyes.  There was a theory that at the moment of death, the retinas recorded the last image that slammed against the back of the eyeballs, and I wasn’t going to have that image be the dark insides of my eyelids. I mean,  I know that whole theory is just debunked bullshit, but I liked the thought. And I was sure that if it did turn out to be actually true, one of Dan’s friends would be able to find some way to develop the film.

          So I looked at Dr. Dillard, I stared at her face as she snarled and spit, animated by that green fire inside her eyes, the fire, I knew, that had burned out her soul.

          I couple of low, shattering crunches exploded in from the side—gunshots?—and the hands that had held me released their pressure on my shoulders even as I felt a burst of heat at the back of my head.

          I took the opportunity to fall back, but as I had been kicking out anyway, I ended up doing some awkward back-roll that was only barely more survivable than it was dignified, and the zombie doctor was on top of me.

          I heard the shot again as the top of her head came off and erupted, a green supernova consuming her head. The rest of her body fell on top of me, splattering me with blood and other, pulpier, fluids.

          What. The. Hell.

          “Wes, you okay?”

          For a second, I couldn’t even process the fact that someone knew my name, and was asking me a question.

          “Wes Callahan?”

          “Um. Yeah?” I sat up, sandwiched between one dead zombie (redundant!) and another. A figure stepped out of the shifting shadows around me, and I since it had apparently saved my life, I decided not to panic. Yet.

But I did take my camera firmly in my grip, just in case I needed to use it as a weapon.

          “What the hell are you doing here?” The voice asked again. It did sound familiar.

          “Good Question,” I answered, as Derek Trent reached out his hand to help me up. He looked, as usual, like the love child of Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson, and was dressed in the black suit/white shirt combo that seemed to be the uniform of the DXD. Derek was the lead agent at the Department’s Nova City branch.

          Not to mention Lady Peace’s boyfriend.

          “You all right?” Derek replaced his gun in his shoulder holster. I’d always been jealous of guys (and girls too) who had shoulder holsters. They didn’t make them for cameras, or I would have had one, just to feel cool.

          “I think so. Thanks for … well, thanks for that.”

          “Any time.”

          “So…judging by the zombies…Spectros?
          “He’s definitely involved. Obviously, he would have had to prepare the rituals to raise the victims of the explosion as thralls. I shot the heads off of four of them back that way.”

          “That’s why you’re here?”

          “Right before the explosion, Gail got a call. It spooked her, and she left. Then this.”

          “Is she here, then?”

          “I thought she would be, but I haven’t seen her. Your brother?”

          “We saw the explosion happen from the museum. He took off. I followed. But I haven’t seen him, either. You said Gail got a message? What did it say?”

          “She didn’t tell me. But I haven’t seen her face like that  since the invasion.”

          That wasn’t good news. If Lady Peace, arguably the most powerful person on the planet, was as spooked as she had been when her own supremely powerful people had invaded the earth … what were we in for now?

          “It’s got to be more than just Spectros,” Derek added. “He’s not really enough of a threat to worry her.”

          “So, what do we do now?”

          “You’ve got a way to get in touch with your brother, right?” I hadn’t seen a lot of Derek Trent in recent months, and we weren’t exactly friends, so it was a little disconcerting to hear someone besides me or Laura speaking so casually about Dan’s identity. But I guess that was just part of Derek’s job. He was almost an unofficial member of the Light Brigade, in the same way that I liked to think of myself. I had to admit, though, in his case, he was actually useful in the field.

          “I do,” I said, and I pressed on the watch again. This time, I didn’t even get the courtesy “trying really hard” dim-bulb flash-fade. It was well and truly dead. “Or, I did. This thing … it just stopped working.” I was trying to keep the rising panic out of my voice.

          “That watch is tied into Solstice’s armor, right?”

          “Yeah.”

          “So, if it’s dead …” He didn’t finish the thought. He didn’t need to. “Has this ever happened before?”

          “Never. Let’s find Laura. She has a locket just like it, so let’s see if that’s still working.”

          “She’s here?” Derek grinned. “Yes, of course she’s here.”

          We heard renewed screaming, and realized a few more of Spectros’s thralls were starting to rise up and attack the rescue workers.

          Derek pulled me close to him and then took his gun out of its holster. “Stay close to me. I’m going to assume you don’t have a weapon on you?”

          “All I have is my camera. I didn’t think I was going into a war zone.”

          “What did you think the huge explosion meant? But never mind – you’d probably just be dangerous to me if you were actually armed.”

          “You’re probably right.”

          “So, like I said. Stay here.”

          “I’ll be a hemorrhoid on your ass, agent Trent. Just don’t let the monsters eat me.”

          “I’ll do my best.”

          We ran for the shadows and then through them, for the light. Derek Trent was a hard guy to keep up with; he was fast, and nimble, side-stepping obstacles, hopping over pieces of rubble in his path, avoiding spurting gouts of flame. He stopped at moments when he came upon innocents held down, manaced by the thralls, and took perfectly controlled shots. Heads erupted in green fire and bodies dropped twitching to the ground. He radioes his base so that all of his people, and the special squad of cops he’d trained, would no exactly what protocols to follow.

          And then we were through, on the other side of the line, sheltered from the fire and the quickening dead by a line of ambulances and fire trucks. We were upon Laura before I even realized that we were close to her.

          Trent wasn’t a super-hero, but he might as well have been. Our appearance startled Laura, but didn’t shake her. She greeted Derek with a single, cool nod, and then turned to me. “Wes, what the hell? You look like—“

          “Don’t say it. I know.” I leaned over to brace my palms against my legs so that I didn’t keel over right there. My heart was beating hard and fast enough to bruise several of my ribs from the inside.

          “Did you at least get some good shots?” She asked. “I’m hearing that some of the dead are coming back and attacking the firefighters. Did you see anything like that?”

          “He did,” Derek answered for me. “We took out about a half-dozen of them. But  I was hoping…”

          “You want to talk to my husband,” She said. “Why didn’t you have Wes call him up for you?”

          “Laura,” I said, standing upright now. “My watch died. I Couldn’t … I don’t think I got through to him.”

          “It died?” Alarm trembled her voice for the first time, and her hands went up to the locket that hung around her neck. It was a heart, made of the same metal that made up my watch. Dan had given it to her a couple of years after he’d given me the watch, once she knew his secret and they’d started dating for real.

          I watched the golden heart as she held it between her thumb and her index finger. The tell-tale glow shone through her flesh, making a red-orange light around a dark shaft of bone. Relief pried loose the cold fingers that had clutched at my heart.

          Who knew what had happened? Maybe the “space batteries” in my watch had finally died. They were eight years old, after all.

          “Wait,” Laura said, and those fingers returned, squeezing my heart as if it were a cold, rotten peach. “It died.”

          “But did a signal go through?” I asked her; She pressed again and again at the face of the locket. “Laura?”

          “I don’t know, Wes. It’s not like it texts me back. I asked him once…if it ever did something like this, what it would mean. He said it didn’t mean anything because it would never happen.”

          “And when you wouldn’t take that for an answer, when you kept asking him over and over until he was forced to relent, what did he say then?”

          She threw me an angry look, mixed with the same worry and panic that I was feeling. “He could only tell me that it wouldn’t be good.”

          “So, something’s happened to him,” Derek said, cutting through all of our nonsense. “Or, we have to act as if.”

          Laura blanched at having that stated so boldly, but nodded. “There are protocols for this, right …” She stared at Derek, searching his face. “I mean, I’ve tried not to think about it, but—“

          “Of course there are. What do you think my job is? They start by me doing what I’m doing right now, contacting the families of the Light Brigade to see whose location we can verify”

          “How can we help?” I asked.

          “You can’t. Classified information. I’ll take care of this part and keep you updated. If you hear from him, let me know.”

          “We will. Unless he tells us not to,” Laura said. “What? I’m just being honest. We don’t know what’s happened, and my first loyalty is to my husband.”

          Derek just shrugged. “Understood. I can always have you arrested.” He flashed a brief, tight-lipped grin, then dropped it. Laura returned the same. “But you know we’re on the same side here. We just want to know what’s going on. And prepare for what might be coming.”

          “Let’s not jump off the deep end just yet,” Laura said. “This may not be anything.”

          Even I could tell that se didn’t really believe that. It was just something she was telling herself. I knew because I was telling myself the same thing.    

          Derek’s radio beeped, and he lifted the receiver to his head, had a quiet conversation, and then reported “It looks like my guys have the Spectros thing under control.”

          “That was fast,” I said.

          “We’re good. It’s amazing what some well-placed silver-alloy bullets and a couple of buckets of holy water can get done.”

          “I have work to do here,” Laura announced, her demeanor suddenly cold. I knew her well enough to recognize this as a bad sign. “So do you,” she told me.

          She was right. I looked at Derek, offering, “You’ll keep in touch, right?”

          “You bet.”

          The hospital fire was still raging, but official reports declared it to be under control. Its patients – the ones who’d survived, anyway – were in the process of being taken over to County across town. Laura was set to continue fact gathering, and as Derek seemed ready to move off, back to his investigation, another great booming noise shook the world.

          We did what we always did. We looked to the sky.

          There was something there, some deep-black mass, hanging there in the dark above us. At first, it looked a little like a cloud formation, shadowed by the splashes of light that poured out at it’s edges, and then faded. Three more deep, resonating, drum-thums sounded around us, and the last shook the ground at our feet.

          Of course, I took as many shots as I could of this strange display of light and shadow, standing while Derek and Laura sensibly knelt for safety. Business as usual.

          “Wes, get down here!” Laura growled at me. When I ignored her, she pulled at my leg, knocking me down just as I had centered the perfect shot of red-feathered light against the sky.

          “Don’t be an idiot, kid,” Derek hissed. It was something Dan would say. Something I would ignore.

          But I crouched there anyway, looking up, bracing my camera against the side of the police cruiser sheltering us as I continued to shoot. These were going to knock little Sadie right off the front page. Well, these or the zombies.

          I couldn’t even begin to imagine an explanation for what was going on above us. But there was something there, something that didn’t look like a space ship (thank god). As I continued to stare at it, to capture the image of that dark, broken-edged spot , it was clear that it was much more solid than a cloud. Not knowing how far away it was, I couldn’t get any sense of its actual size.

          But I knew that up there was the Light Brigade. That’s where Dan, and Lady Peace, and Bellerophon, and the rest were, doing their thing, saving the city and, quite possibly, the world.

          I kept watch, hoping to get a glimpse of my brother, or at least a golden, darting spot that I could pretend was my brother.

          Then there was something. At first it was nothing more than a swirling speck in the sky, but it grew larger as it fell toward the ground, fell toward us. It didn’t take us long to understand that it was, indeed, heading right for us. I stood up again and shouted a warning to Laura and Derek as I centered my zoom lens and tried to figure out what exactly this thing was.

          Which was stupid, I know. If it hit me, it would probably destroy the camera, and I would lose all of these shots anyway.

          Derek finally pulled me out of the way, bellowing at everyone within earshot. Most of them had already noticed what was going one. The crowd became a mass of writhing panic, running away from the spot in all directions.

          The impact sent up a shock wave that knocked us all down in a wave. All I knew was that Laura’s back was suddenly in my face, and as I fell I accidentally whacked the back of her head with my camera.

          I felt Derek’s weight on me as the world silenced itself for a brief second, and then started screaming. More sirens, new voices wailing, all added to the cacophony. Derek moved, and I picked myself up. Laura looked back at me, a little dazed, but otherwise fine.

          “What the hell?” I groaned, and then I looked at my camera; its lens had broken off and smashed against the ground near Laura.

          “Oh, god!” This was Derek’s voice. I whirled around dizzily and followed him as he put his hands over his mouth and groaned into them.

          Lying in the middle of a crater made of turned earth and broken asphalt, Lady Peace stared up at the sky. Half of her body seemed burned away, skin turned a crackling char, and the other half seemed broken somehow, a china doll broken and put back together by a recalcitrant child.

          Derek stepped down and fell to his knees at her side. He took her head in his hands and cradled it there in his lap, smoothing out the bloody remnant of her red hair, most of which had been burned off, the ends singed.

          Laura choked off a sob. She put a hand on my shoulder and said, “This … this is impossible.”

          But it obviously wasn’t. Lady Peace, the most powerful person on the planet, was lying in front of us, bloody and broken, cast down from … somewhere.

          And I couldn’t even take a picture.