Ep 09 : Ultimatum

          Even though I knew it wouldn’t do any good, I instinctively lifted my arm up in front of my face to ward off my zombie brother’s energy blast. Instead of feeling my skin crisped off and peeled away as my clothes were turned to ash, I actually saw the crimson-yellow blast split around me as I was pushed back by a wall of warmth.

          Then I was on the ground, on top of Derek, Marisol behind us. Why hadn’t all three of us been incinerated?

          It was then that I noticed the still-shimmering wall of energy that formed a shield in front of us, emanating from my watch, which now glowed with a golden power, completely charged. I’m sure that Dan would have been surprised if he’d been feeling anything at all. But he wasn’t Dan anymore, he was just a repository for Spectros’ sick magic.

          “Release my brother, you fucking necrophiliac,” I yelled at him, resting as I was in the intimidating position of having just been knocked on my ass.

          Spectros shrugged, and put a hand on the shoulder of Dan’s golden armor.

          I felt movement under me. Derek pushed me up and off of him, and whispered in my ear, “Wes, can you drop the shield?”

          “I didn’t even raise it,” I said. “Hell if I know how to drop it.”

          Derek cursed, and called back to Alice, who’d dove down into the shadows so as not to be incinerated by the spillover from the blast that I’d diverted. I couldn’t hear their conversation.

          Marisol stayed close behind me, for obvious reasons. I was trying my best not to look at my brother’s slack face, but it was hard to avoid. He was just staring there like some sort of robot, waiting for a command. I wondered if it mattered who the command came from.

          “Dan! Fry Spectros!” I called out in what I hoped was an authoritative voice.

          Nothing happened.

          “You can’t have thought that would work,” Spectros said.

          I just shrugged. It had been worth a shot.

          “Wes, quit helping,” Derek hissed at me.

          The glow from Dan’s armor intensified, filling the darkness, but it illuminated nothing that was more than six feet away from him, forming a bubble made of bright yellow paint in an ocean of ink. If anything, that darkness seemed thicker, more substantial, with the armor’s aura for contrast. This darkness didn’t seem like anything Spectros could have caused, at least not like anything he’d done before. But he had to be involved somehow.

          “How did you do it, Spectros?” Derek called out as he rose to his feet. “How did a puissant like you manage to defeat the light brigade.”

          Alice had come forward. She and Marisol crouched down behind Derek while I knelt at his side, keeping an eye on my shimmering shield, praying that it didn’t pick exactly the wrong moment to drop. It wasn’t like I had any control over it, at least not consciously.

          Spectros gave us a thin-lipped smile. “No, Mr. Trent. You’ll hear nothing about it from me. I’m not as stupid as you hope I am.

          “It doesn’t feel like his magic,” said Alice. “ He might have prepared the ground to raise the thralls, but the rest of this … I don’t think he did it.”

          “You hear that Spectros?” Derek yelled. “We can tell you didn’t do any of this. You’re taking credit for the work of your betters.”

          “You’re a stupid man, Trent,” Spectros answered. “I don’t know what you think you’re going to accomplish, but you won’t bait me.”

          We felt heat, even if we weren’t incinerated, by Dan’s renewed blast. I expected it to fade after a moment, but it continued, burning around us with a ferocity and continence that defied explanation. Dan’s energy powers – not that I really understood them all that well, to be honest – allowed for short, intense blasts. This … it seemed beyond anything he’d done before. Had his – I had to get used to using this word – death unlocked the armor from some self-imposed limit? If it had, what were we going to do about it? I was pretty sure my revived watch wasn’t going to keep up with it forever.

          “You still want me to drop this shield?” I asked Derek.

          “I withdraw the request.”

          Dan’s face had totally vanished in the light and in the fire. What was happening to him, really? If he was nothing but a zombie thrall now, how was he controlling all of this power? After all, fire was one of the surefire ways to kill a zombie.

          “Wes, get behind me,” Derek said. He was still standing, shielding Marisol and Alice from a heat that had intensified from searing to full-on blistering. I could see why. Dan’s energy was breaking down the shield. Already holes had appeared, melted-glass ruptures that we had to crouch down to avoid. Did Derek plan to save us all by shielding us with his body? That would probably be about as effective as trusting in a lead-lined refrigerator to survive a nuclear explosion. Sure, his sacrifice would be heroic. But it would also be futile.

          But he stood there and brought up his weapon, bracing himself against the recoil.

          Oh my God! Was he really going to …

          The shot shattered the air around us, penetrating my weakened shield as if it were made of some translucent cardboard. Before even checking to see if his bullet made his target, Derek dropped on top of us. The shield collapsed, using what was left of its power to form a glittering dome. I didn’t see it, thank God, but I heard a sick squelch as the side of Dan’s head caved in. Energy, now released from his control, exploded out in every direction.

          I don’t know what any of this looked like from the ground, but it must have been spectacular. The stone shuddered, then was rent with great cracks that spread, allowing between them spaces that let in that fountain of wind. It blew up at us as the stone split apart, falling upward in pieces shot out at the sky.

          The roar and the noise and the fiery shockwave turned to jello every part of my insides, and it was all I could do to grab hold of the nearest thing I could. I heard Marisol scream and I screamed as the rock ripped away around us and the world dissolved in fire as I was cast upward, into the heavens.

 

          I smelled like sweat and melted polyester. Not a great way to wake up. I just lay there, not moving, having the uncharacteristic presence of mind – after an involuntary crab-like waking spasm – to realize I needed to know what was around me before I let anyone who might be around know that I was awake. I wanted to open my eyes, but I was afraid, not only of who might see me, but also of what I might see.

          Fuck it! Patience and I weren’t exactly acquainted. I let my eyes open, just a sliver. That had to be safe enough, right?

          But opening my eyes didn’t do any good. I could still see nothing but darkness, so I went ahead and opened them all the way. With my luck, I was dead and in some black purgatory while the powers-that-be decided exactly what direction the elevator was going to go when it was my turn to push the button.

          My left eye didn’t want to open at all. It felt like it was at once swollen shut and crusted over. It didn’t really hurt –yet, I should probably add—but I could tell that it was really damaged. I brought my left hand carefully to my face so I could wipe away the gunk, hoping that the longer my eyes were open the more they’d adjust to this darkness and I could get some idea of where I was.

          Dan was dead. This thought shot into the middle of all the others stacked in my brain, imploding the entire construct. My big brother was dead, no way around that. I had seen the body. It had tried to kill me.

          And I’d failed in the one task he’d given me, uniting my watch with the rest of the armor so I could get it back to the council before it fell into the wrong hands.

          It was most definitely in the wrong hands now.

          Oh, God … how was I going to tell Laura? How was I going to tell Mom and Dad? These thoughts were enough to force my eyes closed once more. Fortunately, tears helped to clear away the crusted muck.

          The floor beneath me was smooth, and felt like cold, painted concrete against the skin of my cheek.  This was the first time I’d processed the information that I was not lying in the middle of a pile of rubble. I was in a place that had been constructed.

          Where the hell was I?

          I opened my eyes again, and forced myself up on my arms. This was, apparently, enough motion that I tripped some kind of sensor, and bright white lit up the space around me. This was worse than the darkness, stabbing through my eyeballs directly into my brain.

          I was right. I’d been lying on a concrete floor, the ceiling above me a honeycomb of white octagons and latticework. Around me, space stretched out into darkness, but I could tell by the reflected white light that I was surrounded by walls made of glass or plexi or – who knows? – pure force. None of the other chambers were lit, so it was hard to see if anyone was in them.

          I thought about standing up, but as I tried to get back to my feet, all of the blood rushed out of my head and I slammed back down on me knees to keep from falling over.

          New plan. I slid backwards on my ass, until my back hit the smooth surface of my cell’s wall. I leaned against it as my vision stopped rippling and the throb in my head subsided. It was weird. I could see that this cell was octagonal, matching the pattern of the latticework above. Around this cell it seemed like there were more off in every direction.

          The light flicked on in the cell next to mine, triggered by movement as my lights had been. Marisol rose from the floor, pushing herself up as she drew her legs around her, as confused and terrified as I was. Her white shirt was streaked with soot and her hair, still thick and curly on the right side, seemed to have been singed away on the left. There were also blistered white-red welts on the left side of her face.

          We locked eyes through the transparent wall, and her mouth formed words. She was calling out to me, but I couldn’t hear anything she said. I got up and went to the wall we shared, and yelled her name into it. It was clear that she couldn’t hear me either.

          She met me there, raising her fist to pound on the wall. I heard it as the sound of a distant thunder.

          She continued to pound on the wall, and I joined my fists to hers, which did nothing but make everything louder. That was ok. Loud was good. Loud distracted us from the seriousness of our situation. After a few minutes of this, my hands were tired and sore, and I could see the skin swelling with purple and black bruises. So we stopped.         

          Would the noise we’d made rouse anyone else who happened to be in these cells? Were Derek and Alice, hell, even Michael and Peg, lying unconscious in the adjoining chambers? Either our noise hadn’t carried past our own space, or there was no one there, because no light answered us and no one else appeared.

          Tired again, I leaned my shoulder against the wall and slid down so that I was resting on the floor. Marisol did the same thing. She looked at me and brought her hand up to her left eye, visibly wincing.

          I nodded to say, “Yeah, it hurts,” and then gestured to ask about her injuries. She just shrugged and felt at her face, and then the side of her head where her hair had been burned away. She patted the area, realizing for the first time that great patches of it were gone.

          I tried to mouth that it looked fine, but that wasn’t an idea I found easy to communicate nonverbally, especially while my face was swollen up.

          Since my tux jacket was in tatters around me, I shrugged it off and was now just in my sweaty-sooty white shirt and black pants, which weren’t in much better shape. I’d lost the bow tie a long time ago. It was a good thing I’d given up on getting my deposit back.

          It was just too hard to try to talk, and neither of us were feeling well enough to sustain the effort. We just stayed there together, resting on either side of that wall. I can’t speak for Marisol, but it was actually a comfort just to know I wasn’t completely alone.

          Were they dead, Derek and Alice and Michael? I seemed pretty likely. Since I had no idea of how I’d survived and come to be wherever the hell I was, I guess thinking about that wasn’t going to be a great use of my time and attention.

          After a few minutes of quiet, I heard a noise, a rumbling overhead as some geared appliance started to work, and then, remarkably, the wall between Marisol and me started to slide upward. As soon as there was room, I crawled under it, into her cell, just in case it was going to close again.

          We sat there together in the middle of our conjoined chambers. Now that I was here, I had no idea what to say.

          She saved me. “Are you all right?”

          “Just banged up,” I replied manfully. “I’ll be ok. How about you?”

          She shrugged again. “How are we going to get out of here?”

          “I think I’m the wrong guy to ask.”

          “What about … ?” She pointed toward my watch, and let her eyes travel slowly from it to my face.

          “This thing … I don’t have any idea of what it does or how it does it. Used to be, I press down on the face and my brother comes running to get me out of whatever mess I’d gotten myself into. That’s obviously not going to work anymore.”

          “I’m sorry …”

          “Yeah, well … we’ve lost them all, haven’t we?”

          “I still haven’t seen Robbie. I’m still hoping.”

          “That’s true. That’s good.”

          “If anything’s happened to him, I need to talk to him. He can’t be dead yet … I have to tell him …”

          “Yeah,” I said as she trailed off. It felt like we were getting into some weirdly personal area. Not that I minded.

          “We’re going to have a baby,” She said. “He doesn’t know it yet. I was going to tell him tonight.”

          “Oh, wow, that’s … congratulations.”

          She accepted with a reluctant smile. “He has to know. That’s why I came with you. I have to tell him that, if nothing else.”

          “I get it,” I said. “You’re ok, right?”

          “I think everything’s fine. Of course, there’s no way to be sure, but for now I have to be careful and just behave like everything is ok. That’s all I can do, right?”

          “The good news,” came a voice from all around us, thrumming deep into our bones and bouncing off the walls, “is that, should your beloved be dead after all, I think you have a willing volunteer to be a father to your child should it ever be born. “

          I stood up and helped to pull Marisol to her feet. “Spectros!”

          “But should you decide to ensure your child will know it’s true father,” The voice came again as the cell on the other side of us lit up, revealing Spectros standing there, his right hand slipped inside the double-breasted coat of his grey suit. Slowly, the wall slid upward, and he took a few formal steps toward us.

 “A choice for you, my dear young mother,” he said, and withrew a pistol from his jacket and held it out to her. “Put a bullet through this young man’s head, and you will be reunited with your one true love.”

          She regarded him warily. “I’ve seen enough bad movies to know this. You have a trick. He’ll be a corpse, or a zombie like Solstice, or you’ll kill me and say ‘you can be together in the next world.’”

          “I will do nothing of that sort. Scorpyon is alive and will be returned to you if you do what I’ve asked. I swear a mystic oath, which is binding upon me.”

          Marisol looked at me. “Wes …?”

          I had no response.

          “You know I have no choice.”

          Panic choked me. Was she actually going to do this?”

          She took the gun Spectros offered, and he backed away as the wall slid back into place. “Please know, these walls are bulletproof. Shooting at them will do no good. I have not given you a way to escape.”

          This was the first time I’d considered throwing myself into a room alone with Spectros as a viable option, if only I’d acted in time.

          “I’m sorry, Wes,” Marisol said, and pressed the gun against my temple.

 

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