Ep 08: Burning Dark

I followed Derek into the elevator. He seemed grim now, ignoring the rest of the people who’d accompanied him into the well as more of his men arrive to man the station and turn it into a de facto XDF base. Alice, still silent, was with us as, and as the elevator doors were beginning to close, they were blocked by the arrival of one more: Marisol.

          She stared at Derek as if she expected to be argued with. But Derek didn’t argue; he just shrugged and beckoned her to enter fully so the doors could close.

          When we reached the top, and the little cleared space we’d used in our landing, we saw more black-suited XDF agents jumping out of a helicopter that hovered there, almost, but not quite, making a landing.

          As we moved toward the other helicopter, the one we’d arrived in and which was waiting for the other one to leave before its own blades began to whir, Derek moved off to the side and took Alice by the arm. He brought her close, in an obvious attempt at privacy, which I refused to respect. What happened next was going to affect all of us—there weren’t going to be any private conversations, at least not any that did not include me.

          He gave me an annoyed look as he asked Alice, “Are you going to be ok? Can you handle this?”

          She just looked at him and made as if to stammer out a response, which he cut off before she could get started.

          “I might need you, but I don’t know what else we’ll see, Alice. I know the magic that you and Mysteria work has a lot to do with emotion and intent … If you’re not ok, I’ll do whatever I can to help you get that way, but I need to know.”

          She scowled a bit as she said, “I don’t know how anything else we’d see could be worse than … than what we found. I’ll be ok. Anger is useful.”

          “That it is.”

          Behind us, the elevator opened again, revealing Michael and Pegasus. Derek locked eyes with Michael and nodded. Pegasus gave me what I had to assume was a look of warning.

          “Let’s get going,” Derek said, and helped Alice up into the helicopter.

          She looked at me as I climbed in after her. Something was restored now, some sense of purpose or personal strength that had melted away as she’d held Mysteria’s head in her hands. Derek’s reminder that there was still more to do seemed to have been just what she needed.

          We were facing each other, Alice and I, and as I settled down and strapped in, I watched her bring the bead-and-braid bracelet up and inspect the gentle purple orb that still glowed there.

          Marisol strapped in next to me, waving off Derek’s offered assistance at drawing the safety harness around herself and strapping it shut. I wondered why Derek wasn’t making any kind of protest at letting her come along. She wasn’t exactly dressed for any sort of action, wearing a black dress underneath an oversized men’s white, button-down shirt. She was even wearing heels, for crying out loud.

          “I know,” she said. “I didn’t exactly get home in time to change after my show.” I must not have been inspecting her apparel as surreptitiously as I’d thought.

          “Your show?” I was about to ask her if she was a stripper, but for once, I stopped myself.

          “I’m a singer-songwriter,” she said. “I play a couple of clubs downtown.”

          “Oh,” I said, at once elated and disappointed by this new information.

          Derek hopped in and gave the thumbs up signal to the pilot. After a few noisy moments, the world fell away and my stomach gave a little twist.

          The sky appeared, then the ground, Nova City, still swathed in its dark blanket, studded in places with fire.

          “You think they’re dead, don’t you?” Marisol said. I wasn’t sure why she was talking now, but I wasn’t sorry to be the person she was talking to.

          “I hope not,” I offered, partly because it was true, and partly because I didn’t know what else to say.

          “It’s your brother … Sir Solstice?” It was weird, she was having to work to be heard over the noise of the copter, but her tone was casual, almost too casual, as if the conversation was the only thing keeping her from breaking down completely.

          I nodded because I didn’t feel like yelling.

          “We were supposed to have dinner tonight,” she continued. “I was late because I stopped at the grocery store after my set. I was trapped there before Juanita found me.”

          I nodded again.

          “Our building is just … it’s gone. What was that thing?” She looked away from me then and got quite. I looked up to see Alice, smirking of all things, and thought that I should probably say something reassuring to fill the space, but I didn’t have anything to say, and the answer to her question would take too long to explain.  I watched as we turned in the air and Pegasus appeared, framed in the open doorway.

          I thought about where we were going, and wondered, was I insane? Were we all insane? What if the battle was still raging? Whatever had happened here, it had caused Lady Peace to be thrown down from the heavens. What did we think we were going to accomplish against such a force if it was still there?

          I pulled the crappy little disposable camera out of the pocket of my really the worse for wear tux jacket, and held it there in my hands. Something about doing that made me feel better, but I wasn’t exactly sure why.

          We were up high enough now that the air that blew in over us was coldsnap-chill. Marisol turned her face away from the rush and unconsciously leaned toward me as her onyx curls were blown across her face. I leaned forward as far as my straps would let me, looking to see what I could of our destination.

          The stone hung in the air, under what power I could not begin to guess. From where we were now, it was just a dark spot in space. We were just a little under it and angled away so that if there had been anything large enough that it was visible from the side, we wouldn’t have been able to see it. The stone shrunk as we moved away to try to rise above it, and  the copter shook. Marisol grabbed on to her harness and I sat back and allowed myself to be held in mine.

          Outside, Peg and Michael peeled away, Peg’s great wings stretched out to their full span as she tried to rise up on the winds, Michael flat and forward, holding on to her with all his strength. She rose then, more quickly than should have been possible, and I lost sight of them until we’d risen up on the other side of the stone. She tumbled, fighting the wind, then vanished again.

          Our copter shone spotlights down on the stone, but they did not highlight anything revelatory; it still looked like nothing more than a big flat rock hanging in the sky. For Nova City, this was pretty mild stuff. I scanned its surface for a sign of anyone’s presence, and figures lying prong among pieces of shattered boulder. We weren’t close enough to be able to make anything out, and it was covered in darkness besides.

          I couldn’t even see if Michael and Pegasus had landed yet.

          Then we started shaking. Actually, that was an understatement. What we’d experienced before had been like mild airplane turbulence. Alarming, but not rising to the level of terror. What we hit now shook us like we were some kid’s toy helicopter that had been accidentally thrown in the drier. We were tossed end over end with such violence that I lost my grip on my crappy little camera. It bounced against Marisol’s temple as it made its way out the door.

          There was a fountain of air pushing up and around the stone, shooting at the sky. I suppose it was what was keeping it aloft, but the exact physics of the thing escaped me.

          There was no question. We were going to die.  I just gritted my teeth to keep from screaming, held on to my harness, and waited for it to be over. I did not close my eyes. I wanted to see.

          Alice’s eyes were shut and she moved her lips as if in prayer, but I couldn’t hear her over the roar of the wind’s roar and the copter’s drone.

          And then it was over. The wind-fountain ceased and our pilot – who was better at his job than I could ever hope to be at mine, and who deserved a thousand percent raise – got the craft righted. I couldn’t see the stone anymore, but after a second I realized that we were above it now, and must be descending.

          Where were Michael and Peg? How could they have made it through that, anyway?

          “Everybody ok?” Derek called out. We all mumbled unconvincing replies in the affirmative. Even though the visual markers around us made it difficult to actually see what was happening, I could feel our descent in my gut and in the panicked flutter of my heart. I tensed up, waiting for that thud that would let us know we had once more been safely caught by the world.

          It came, jarring, rougher than I’d expected. My chin hit my collarbone and pain flashed in my neck and shoulder. Marisol let out a high-pitched hiss.

          “You ok?” I asked her, doing Derek’s job for him.

          “Yeah,” she said.

          “I looked at Derek for some sign of what was going to happen now. Since he’d unstrapped himself, I did too, but he was out of the copter before I’d managed to extricate myself from my safety harness.  I meant to get down just after him and help Marisol (and yes, Alice too), but she was in front of me and halfway through the door before I got there. While I waited for her, I looked out at the place where we’d landed.

          From here, it just looked like were were on the flat peak of some freakishly tall mesa, like devil’s tower on Viagra. The ground immediately around us was mostly even, if rust-colored and scarred,  and had wide gashes cut through it, as if the stone had been raked by the claws of a giant wolverine.

          I wished I could get a shot of it, but all I had left was my camera phone and anything I took with it would be a muddled, blotchy mess in this light. I leaped down and found the ground solid enough beneath my feet.

          Another helicopter was over us, but on the other side of the wind. We watched as it made an attempt to get through, was pushed up and out, and ended up once again on the other side. This pilot must not be as good as ours was.

          Derek watched it, a wince frozen on his face. For a second it looked like the second copter was going to fall out of the sky, but it managed to find purchase in the air and hang there.

          It was dark, the light from out copter’s spotlights all that allowed us to see the mostly empty space around us.

          I didn’t know which would be worse, finding Dan dead up here or having the trail go cold. At this point, no information was almost worse than bad news.

          The sky around us was just as dark as the ground. Some kind of smog or smoke or clouds or other, worse thing had blacked the stars. Some lights stabbed out at us through the wall of wind, as the second helicopter circumnavigated the stone, looking for a way through. There was still ni sign of Michael or Peg.

          My arm buzzed again. Heat flashed on my wrist, the way it had back at The Well. My arm jerked upward and all I could do was stare at it, not comprehending.

          “Wes?” Derek said. Marisol watched me expectantly. The watch pulsed, and with each burst of light there was a corresponding flash of heat. It wasn’t hot enough to actually burn me, but it was getting close.

          “Move around and see if it changes,” Alice offered. At my blank look, she continued,” If it’s keyed in to your brother’s armor, it could be acting as a beacon. It has to be drawing power from somewhere, maybe that’s where.”

          “Yeah,” I said. Marisol and Derek were still just looking at me, with no other suggestions, so I took a few steps, toward the place where our light met the darkness. The bursts stayed the same fore the first few steps, but then increased in frequency by a barely perceptible degree. I kept walking and the effect continued. Alice was right.

          It didn’t take me long to enter the dark place fully. There was no gradual transition, it was like a wall of complete black that enveloped me, with my wrist casting the only glow. I looked back, toward the light, and could still see it even if it felt like none of it was actually cast on me anymore.

          Alice was still there, behind us, but Derek and Marisol were on other side of me. I could barely see them and knew them more as a sensation of movement. All I could do was keep walking, and hope like hell that I wasn’t going to stumble over the edge, or step into some sort of swiss-cheese hole that went all the way through the rock. If there was such a thing, it would be just like me to find it.

          “We’re with you, Wes,” Derek said, and I felt his hand on my shoulder, which did make me feel a little better.

          My watch was almost constantly hot and bright now. What was I supposed to do with that? I just kept going.

          Soon, I could discern there in the darkness a softly glowing, vaguely human form. Its outline, what I could see of it, was familiar.

          Worse, there was someone else there. And as the figure started to glow as my watch was brought into closer proximity, I began to be able to make out this second person’s face in the orange-yellow light from my brother’s armor.

          The face was pale, and the hair was pale too, over a dark suit. The eyes, though, the eyes glowed green with a fire I’d seen before. At the hospital, as Doctor Tanya had tried to choke me to death with her cold hands.

          But this one was no thrall.

          “Spectros,” Derek spit from behind me.

          The figure in my brother’s armor moved. My brother moved. Pushing himself up, onto his feet as Spectros moved away.

          “I knew you’d be along,” Spectros said. “I have a surprise.”

          “Dan!” I called out, and ran toward him, but Derek lunged forward to grab me. “Wes, no!” He cried out, and as my eyes locked with my brother’s and saw the green fire there, I knew why.

          Dan raised up his hands, and the world was lost in fire and light.