The store was wide and “L” shaped, a taller – maybe fifteen foot high – atrium before a central service desk, and then the rest of the room angled off to the right. The walls were white, slatted wood, perfect for hanging product hooks. Tall, thin glass display cases – perhaps too difficult to move to the dumpster – still dotted the sales floor like clear towers, a few even containing mementos forgotten in the rush to vacate the building. Nearby, one of the cases featured a Commander Riker commemorative plate, and acrylic miniatures acted out a scene just in front of it.
It was safe to assume this was the collectibles store I’d been sent to.
The trees were the reason for my astonishment. Starting at the service desk, the back of the store was packed full of artificial Christmas trees, all lit, the reds, greens, blues, purples, and yellows all mixing together to glow a strong, yellowish orange.
Looked like something from Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Next to the entrance stood two blue 55 gallon buckets. Obviously, this place was intended for fighting.
I approached the artificial forest carefully, the Shot Blast up and tucked tightly into my shoulder. I ignored Keith’s presence completely. He’d help or not as the whim struck him. The whim struck him as the thought struck me, and he tapped my shoulder and whispered “I can hear people rustling in there.”
I nodded my understanding, and pulled the pump smoothly towards myself as someone stepped out from between a gap in the trees, soaker raised to take a shot at me. My hand ran the pump forward instinctively as my shot lanced into the trees, and as I sidestepped, my second blast slammed into his way-too-preppy American Eagle polo.
My sidestep had taken me just outside the course his first blast had taken. I was surprised it hadn’t hit Keith, it had been so close. It must’ve cut perfectly between us.
We stared at each other over our guns for a moment, and American Eagle sort of looked back into the forest. “They’re here! Two of them, a guy and a girl, they’re – “
He sputtered as pressurized water hissed into his mouth, and his eyes widened as I stalked forward. He got the idea and got the hell out of dodge.
So there was at least one more in the woods. Probably two or more. I looked around. No rule saying I couldn’t alter the battlefield to my favor. I walked over to the wall and unplugged the powerstrip that lit the forest of fake trees. Instantly a third of the forest’s lights winked out, the ambient yellow glow diminishing considerably.
Someone in the darkened portion yelped “What the – “ the rest unintelligible as they tripped over a Christmas decoration and brought down at least three trees.
I smiled and stalked into the woods, Shot Blast hanging by my side, pistol and light drawn and held together. Keith followed silently along behind, camera up and clicking occasionally.
Walking the tight, narrow, winding path lit only by my flashlight made me think of Dead Space. So when I saw a guy on the ground, writhing around in a pile of plastic boughs, attempting to untangle himself from Christmas lights and garland, I allowed myself the self-indulgence of not just shooting him in the chest, but also both arms. Probably confused him to no end.
The amount of time spent wandering in the close confines of the Christmas maze was intolerable. Jumping up to see over the tops of the trees, I was able to divine my position. Middle of the back of the store. Probably a good idea to head for the leg of the “L.”
I didn’t feel like retracing my steps, searching for the one pathway that would take me towards the exit and not the minotaur in the middle of the labyrinth. I put my shoulder down and bulled between the trees, making for the wall.
The thin, flexible needles brushed at me like a freaky massage, and back here – in the lighted area – I could feel the heat given off by the multitude of bulbs. I hit the slatted white wall, and the going was easier as I edged around the outside of the maze. Probably cheating, who cared?
Something about the back room gave me pause. Some sixth sense started screaming, and on this night, I was listening to all of my senses. I swapped the pistol and light for the pump-action, and eased around the corner into the large back room. Big, big enough to hold all the boxes and backstock the employees would have to deal with every day. Something changed at the edge of my vision, and I turned, eye to the glass as the bathroom door edged open. It opened farther after my second shot hissed into the gap, and a college girl stepped out, just as preppy looking as the guy I’d shot moments ago. A blue Super Soaker pistol dangled from its guard on her finger.
I kept the Shot Blast trained on her as she passed by.
There was a plywood desk in the corner next to a metal filing cabinet, both looking like they’d seen better centuries. A poster for “The Passion Of The Christ” hung over the desk, high up on the wall. Someone had to have worked to get it up there. Just what everyone wants to do every day – come into work and see a picture of a dying Jesus.
A telephone number was spraypainted into the battered top of the desk, and I dialed it, pistol pointed at the door. Keith stood near the door frame, peering out. The voice on the line said “Clock tower” before hanging up.
I guess that meant there had to be a clock tower somewhere around here. That’d be noticeable. The pistol went back in my satchel, and I swept out of the office, low and fast. Water splattered off the doorframe over my head, and I worked the pump continuously, pulsing out shot after shot. They were heavier, thicker blasts, but carried little speed and sank quickly, maybe making twenty five feet at most.
Two guys at the tree line surrounding the “clearing” around the door, and I took out one with my second shot. I cut off the other’s angle by dashing into the narrow space between the trees and the wall, sprinting the little alley next to the slatted particle board like I’d done before.
My foot caught on something – a cord I realized as more lights went out – and I banged heavily onto the floor, skinning my chin on the industrial strength tight weave carpet. I rocked to my feet with a groan, and smiled at the misfortune of the two still in the fake forest.
Keith was right behind me as I ran the edge of the store, finally just deciding to push through. I shouldered through the trees like a linebacker, pushing them to the floor, leaving an absolute mess in my wake. I unscrewed the caps to both of my guns, and gave them a quick dunk at the blue barrels by the door.
Out of the store, and we sprinted along the balcony, keeping away from the visible angle of the edge. It’d take some serious pursuit for someone on the floor to catch me up here, but that was no reason to tempt fate. “Where are we going?” Keith hissed at me as we stopped for a quick breather in the shadowy brick arch of a former rustic-crap-you-don’t-need store.
“The clue was ‘clock tower.’ The second level’s safer than the floor, and I’m guessing a tower’s gonna be visible from either level. I’m just runnin’ around till I find it.”
In the half-darkness, I couldn’t tell if his roll of the eyes was derogatory or appreciative of my genius plan. I chose the latter translation.
Further down this arm of the mall, past the black marble of an old Suncoast store and a NASCAR apparel outlet, worn stickers still plastered to the windows. Around a corner and I said “See!?” to Keith. He nodded. “I suppose it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
This wing of the mall opened up from a broad hallway to another overlooking balcony set up. At the far side had been an anchor store and the tacky gold and pink decorations gave away at least one of the far stores as a Victoria’s Secret. On this side had been a software store, and a lot of potted plants. Like they’d had no idea what to do with the space. An escalator descended to the first floor, next to a metal frame clock tower, the internals freehanging and visible to all.
Had to look pretty cool when it was running.
I stepped up to the balcony and looked over the edge. The clock tower rose out of a wide brick median that had once contained flowers and a fountain. Now the flowers had decayed into the dirt they’d grown from and the fountain was empty, the blue tiled well containing nothing but dust, soda cans, and the odd forgotten penny.
The frame of the tower was about five feet from the balcony. I moved back and forth along the railing and escalator giving the tower and ground below quick flashes with the Surefire. Nothing that looked like a clue. I wasn’t expecting flashing neon lights, but it would’ve been nice to see something. I even made sure there wasn’t anything jammed in the gears of the clock.
Just like Renard Island…I’d have to do it the hard way.
I rotated the Shot Blast to hang at my left side, and swung both legs over the side of the escalator so I was sitting on the thick, wide, rubberized railing. Slowly I pushed up to standing. The angle tugged at my balance. Good thing I’d worn heavy duty boots today.
“What are you doing?” Keith asked as I balanced on the incline.
“Something stupid. It’s getting to be a habit.” I pushed off into a jump, and the frame of the clock tower shook as I hit it. The metal crossbeams dug sharply into my fingers as I grabbed on, and I sought a lower crossbeam with my feet. There. I could balance. The metal frames that made up the skeleton of the tower were about four feet wide by six feet tall, one frame per side.
Now that I’m here… I edged over to a corner support, and did a pull-up, swinging my body around so I could grab a perpendicular crossbeam and grip the vertical beam with my shoes, like climbing a fire pole. I pulled up, got a hand on the vertical beam, and pulled again, working my way up the corner of the tower till I could stand on a crossbeam. I was at the level of the clock face, on the opposite side of the tower. One more frame up, and I could reach up onto the pyramidal room of the tower and feel around for…something.
I worked my way up to stand on the next crossbeam, and inched along it, feeling overhead for something…anything. Nothing on the side opposite the clock face. I rotated around a corner post, and reached up with my right hand while holding onto the beam post with my left, feet shuffling along the crosspiece like a tightrope walker. I felt blindly along the edge of the roof over my head. There it was…something.
I ran my fingers over it. Felt like a small box, perhaps a jewelry box…and it was…taped down? I strained to reach further up, and worked my nails under the tape, peeling slowly. It was curious work, working blindly well overhead with very little to hold onto.
The roof of the tower was pyramidal in shape, black or dark green sheet metal. It was designed as a cap, set in place over the top of the tower, and a short skirt of metal descended from the sides, holding it in place. In one quick movement I let go of the vertical beam behind me, and whipped my hand forward to press against the inside of that skirt. With my left arm now not at full extension, I could lean a little more out and… Got it! The box came free with a jerk, and so did I.
With nothing supporting me except for the pressure of my hand on the inside of the metal cap, my lean had sent my weight too far outside the tower with too little to stabilize it.
It was quite a fall, and I fell silently. Even as I tried to bend my knees to absorb the shock, I thought – curiously – so this is it. This is how I’m punished.
Pressure on my knees as my feet impacted the dirt of the flower bed below, and then I was backwards, and the back of my head hit something hard enough to jar every thought loose with a flash of white light.
I woke up.
I was under a blue tarp, the sun shining through the plastic weave. I rolled my head left and right, saw a duffelbag and metal walls and floor. Oh yeah. Hiding beneath the tarp in the back of Dad’s pickup. The bouncing should’ve given that away. Outside, I heard emergency sirens and honking and more than a few helicopters. I gauged the speed at which we were traveling at over sixty, and it all came back to me.
The nine point three earthquake that had shaken the entire state of California.
Dad’s argument with mom that he needed to go find Brett in San Fran.
His argument with me that I couldn’t come along.
The tall dorm building was on fire, and it rocked crazily in the throes of an aftershock. The ceiling caved with a crash, the stairs above ripping from the wall and crushing through the stairs below, filling the already smoke filled hall with choking dust. “Get out the way we came in!” Dad shouted up at Austin and I. “Meet up with you outside! If not…Sam, find your way to the hunting cabin! That’s our rally point!”
I hacked on the smoke and choked out “Got it.”
From below, Brett’s voice. “Vaet, take care of her!”
Beside me in the blinding fog. “I will.”
The crying came from the basement of a shattered apartment building. The front had fallen off, sliding into a massive pile of rubble in the street. It sounded like a child crying, younger than three maybe. Drained as I was from picking my way through the shattered city for two days on a nearly empty stomach, I felt a surge of panic and adrenaline fueled energy at the sound. The top of the rubble pile was level with the second story, and I shown the Surefire down into the depths. Two cables descended into the hole, which seemed to go all the way down to the basement. I reached out for one of the cables and Austin slapped my hand away. “Are you insane? Those are power lines!”
“I’ve gotta get down there.”
“No, you don’t. Even on the off chance you don’t electrocute yourself, you could dislodge rubble, get stuck…and I sure as hell won’t be able to get you out. Even if you do find whoever’s down there – “
I cut him off angrily. “The kid that’s down there.”
“Even if you do find the kid that’s down there, you can’t take care of them if they’re hurt. And even if they’re not, what are you going to do, bring them with us as we walk back to LA? How are you even going to climb back up?”
“I’ll figure it out,” I muttered.
“No, I am not letting you kill yourself over someone you can’t save.” Austin grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the hole.
I exploited the thumb-forefinger weakness and winded him with a jab to the stomach. “If you had any idea how little I care if I live or die, and why, you’d beg me to go down there.” My voice was flat and cold.
He straightened painfully. “I care.” He paused. “I promised Brett I’d look after you.”
I stepped over and grabbed one of the cables. I felt no surprise at the lack of pain and heat exploding through me. I smiled. “See you on the other side.” And then I stepped into the hole.
We walked through the rain side by side, hands cuffed behind us. The child was being carried by one of the National Guard Peacekeepers at the back of the column of refugees. Water streamed down my face and I couldn’t wipe it away.
Austin shifted closer to me and whispered “Do you have ID on you?”
“Yes or no?”
“Yeah, driver’s license in my wallet.”
“Pull your wallet out and drop it.”
“Sam, I need you to trust me. Toss the wallet.”
I inched the wallet out with my fingertips and let it fall to the muddy street. It occurred to me that now I was nobody. My prints weren’t on file with anyone, neither was my DNA. Dental records were probably trashed in a crushed harddrive a few miles ahead in San Fran. I felt panic I had not felt for myself in some time.
I burrowed closer to Austin on the cot. “Why’d you say we were married?” I whispered.
We were housed in a slightly glorified chain link dog cage. Concrete slab beneath, chain link walls and ceiling covered with tarps, a padlock on the wire door. One of thousands of “homes” in the San Fransisco refuge camp. The refugee column had been checked for outstanding warrants, strip searched, hosed down, given MREs, and then locked in these cages.
The room was divided with another tarp, and on the other side, the child slept. I’d sang quietly to him, stroking his hair until he drifted off.
“Friend in the law enforcement program told me once that they can’t make husbands and wives testify against each other,” Austin said quietly. “They’re breaking up friends, relatives, probably brothers and sisters in this camp, but I don’t think they can legally separate a husband and wife. I promised I’d take care of you, that’s what I’m gonna do.” He chuckled. “What, you don’t think we pretend well?”
I smiled in the darkness and kissed his shoulder. “Very well.”
Flashes of light from the hill ahead mixed with never-ending booms and super-sonic cracks closer by. The child was bawling into my shoulder and wiggling to get away as I held him tightly. We were covered against the superstructure of a large yacht, one of the few still upright in the marina. The NG hadn’t been happy with Brian’s breakout and Daniel’s rescue attempt. Getting out of sight and behind cover had been of utmost importance, and the yacht had offered one of the few pieces of cover on the pier. Across the pier, Brett was crouched behind a crate, also trying to stay low.
“The boat’s at the end of the dock,” Dad said. “Go for it, I’ll make sure you get there.”
Austin pulled at my hand before I could offer a protest and then we were jumping from the deck of the yacht to the pier.
There was a crack, all too close, and he folded at the waist, feet slipping on the deck, and his head made sickening thunk against the wooden dock as he lost balance and dropped to the water below.
My feet hit the pier as I screamed in shock, and then I felt a punch in the ribs.
The world went away in a flash of black.