Buses are not intended to be driven fast. They are built for power, not speed, and pushing a bus to go faster than its design supports reminds CB of shaking the contents of a cereal box very hard in order to get at the prize at the bottom. So when the ground tremors start, he thinks it’s the bus.
He takes one hand off the steering wheel, reaching into his trenchcoat pocket, and fishes out a crumpled pack of cigarettes. Jenny, standing in the bus stairwell, looks at him crossly.
“You’re smoking now?”
CB manages to thumb the end of a cigarette out of the pack, sticks it in his mouth, and pulls the rest away. “Don’t want the bus to break down just yet.”
“Just yet?” A note of incredulity creeps into her voice.
“I don’t care what happens to it once we get where we’re going,” CB says. He replaces the cigarettes, and takes out his lighter.
His earpiece crackles to life as Street Ronin instructs Scrapper Jack and Vigilante to return to the bus as an honor guard. It doesn’t take long before he sees both of them, one on each side, keeping pace by jumping alongside it.
Dammit I wish this thing could go faster. He fumbles with his lighter. It sparks, but doesn’t catch.
CB’s earpiece crackles again. “Everything looks clear up here,” Roger says.
CB frowns. That’s not Roger’s happy voice. He works the lighter again—again it sparks, but doesn’t catch.
“You don’t sound happy about that,” CB says. “That’s the kind of thing I’d expect someone to be happy about.”
“Yeah,” Roger says. “Well… it’s us.”
CB scowls. “True.”
Jenny glances sharply at CB.
“Hey,” Roger continues, “I’ll be really happy if this plan goes off without a hitch, but how often does that usually happen?”
“Dammit,” CB mutters, and works the lighter again. Finally he gets a proper flame.
“Excuse me.” One of the passengers leans forward, his voice trembling only slightly. “We’d appreciate it if you didn’t smoke.”
CB takes a moment to not say everything that immediately pops into his head. He reminds himself that the request is probably reasonable. He fights back the irrational, and wholly inappropriate rage that comes over him.
“Sorry,” he says, and lights up.
The passenger blinks, surprised, then presses on. “Look, my daughter is allergic to cigarette smoke—”
“The road!” Jenny’s shout cuts off the man completely. She points ahead, and as CB squints through the dusty glass he can see a stretch of road a few hundred feet ahead of them rippling like the surface of a lake.
“Oh, shit.” CB takes a long pull of his cigarette, trying to feel for the world spinning around him. “Shit shit shit shit shit.”
“What?” The passenger has, for the moment, forgotten his complaint, keying in on the fact that the man trying to drive them to safety is suddenly a lot more concerned than he was before.
“We’ve been playing this all wrong,” CB says. He can feel it now: the world spins, full of possibility. All he has to do is choose… “We’ve been thinking in two dimensions.”
“Two… dimensions…” Jenny’s eyes widen. “No.”
“Everybody hold on!” CB shouts. Then he chooses, the world snaps into focus, and he slams on the brakes.
If a bus isn’t designed to go fast, it also isn’t designed to stop when it’s going fast. The entire bus jolts as the brakes try and fail to halt the forward momentum. CB turns the wheel sharply to the left, and the bus tips up on its right wheels as physics begins to demonstrate exactly how poor a judgment call that was.
And then a moment later, for no reason that any physicist would ever be able to properly explain, the bus falls back on all four wheels. It proceeds to skid into a one hundred and eighty degree turn.
The passengers scream. Jenny exhales sharply as she’s thrown against the folding stairwell doors—fortunately they’re locked closed, and she isn’t thrown out. CB concentrates on the turn, letting up on the brake just before it finishes, and hitting the gas to get it moving forward again. In less time than anyone has a right to expect, the bus has turned around and is moving in the opposite direction.
The rippling patch of road tears open and falls away as a mass of rubbery-black salamander-things pour out of the earth. CB can hear swearing over the line, and incoherent crosstalk as Street Ronin tries to clarify exactly what the hell is going on.
“We’re cut off, is what’s going on!” CB snarls. He looks to his right and his left. Neither Jack nor Vigilante are there—that means they’ve waded in, trying to buy him more time.
“OK, OK, I’m on it.” Street Ronin has returned to his calm, clipped persona.
“Don’t bother,” CB says. “There’s no good way back to the facility. I don’t care how flat the fucking island is, this bus won’t do offroad.”
He thinks quickly, sorting through his options, trying to find the one that sucks least.
“I’m heading for the airport.”
At those words, the bus falls completely silent. They can hear the creatures roaring in the distance, some in anger, some in pain.
Finally Street Ronin breaks in over the earpiece again. “You won’t have a lot of time,” he says. “The point defenses will give you maybe five or six minutes once you get there. You won’t have enough time to prep anything for takeoff.”
“I’m already there,” Red Shift says. He sounds utterly exhausted, forcing his normally cheerful voice into a determined growl. “Someone tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”
“I can help,” Roger says, and the sky echoes with a supersonic boom.
“So can I,” Agent Grant adds. “Just so happens I’m in the neighborhood.”
“That’s great,” Jenny says. “Do any of you know how to prep and refuel a plane? And who exactly is going to fly it?”
Silence again. A distinctly more uncomfortable silence.
CB shrugs. “One thing at a time. I can just… I don’t know, turn levers and press buttons at random until we—”
“I can fly it.” David Bernard’s voice cuts across the line.
CB raises an eyebrow. “Aren’t you at the main facility right now? How are you getting from point A to point B?”
“I can make it,” David says. “If everything works out right I’ll even have it waiting on the runway. Red Shift, Regiment, Agent Grant, I’m going to walk you through a very short and extremely unsafe prep checklist. Meanwhile we need everyone else to focus on slowing down our new best friends.”
A new voice comes through the earpiece—one CB doesn’t expect to hear. An older voice, crisp, full of authority and lacking any hint of uncertainty. “Understood. I am on my way.”
Artemis LaFleur, the villain Overmind, is taking the field.
Jenny frowns. “What exactly does he do, anyway?”
“He’s a shapechanger,” CB says.
“So he’s going to… what?” Jenny asks. “Turn into a giant bear, or something?”
“Not exactly,” CB says. “It’s a little showier than that.”
“And what should I do during all this?” Jenny asks.
CB glances over at her. Her jaw is clenched, lines of frustration etched deep into her forehead. “You and me, and probably Agent Grant, we’ll be getting these people on the plane.”
“That’s it?” Jenny bites down on the rest of what she was going to say. She flushes slightly, turning away in embarrassment.
“Yeah,” CB says. “It’s a little frustrating, right? When everyone else is running at the speed of sound, and flying through the air, and hitting things with the force of a Mack Truck traveling at full speed downhill. But all that stuff is kinda pointless if we can’t get these people off the island.”
“I know that,” Jenny says. “I know that, really. It’s just… I mean, I know it, but I still feel—”
“This is where Alex would be,” CB says. “If he was still alive. This is what he would choose to do.”
Jenny bows her head. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
“And besides,” CB says, “anyone who can beat Johann Richter in a fight doesn’t have to prove jack shit to anyone.”
Jenny smiles slightly. “I didn’t do more than hold my own. Once Street Ronin showed up, it wasn’t exactly a fair fight.”
CB snorts. “Fair fights are for evil movie ninjas. The rest of us cheat.”
* * *
There’s not much time for discussion after the ground gives way. Fortunately, Jack and Vigilante are pretty much on the same wavelength: the bus needs a buffer, and at the moment they are it.
Without breaking stride, they throw themselves into the mass of creatures bursting out of the earth. At first the hole in the ground is relatively narrow, only wide enough for five or six creatures to escape, but the edges are crumbling quickly. Jack wades in, grabbing one of the reptiles and swinging it in an arc, knocking it into two others, driving them back into the hole. One cries out in pain as it ceases to be part of the advancing horde and instead becomes an obstacle—it’s torn to pieces by the creatures behind it.
For about half a minute Jack is immersed in the struggle. It’s a futile struggle, ultimately—he and Vigilante are more than a match for any one of these creatures, but neither one of them are fast enough to take them down in the numbers needed to halt their advance. Eventually the sinkhole will expand, and the creatures will pour out of it in numbers too great for the two of them to handle. Neither one of them is in any great danger of dying—at least, in Vigilante’s case, not permanently—but they are in danger of becoming irrelevant soon.
They need to find a way to even things up a little. Barring any other options, that means they need to change the terrain.
Just as Jack reaches that conclusion, he notices that Vigilante has stopped fighting the creatures. He’s fighting past them, going deeper into the sinkhole that they’re swarming out of. A moment later, one of the creatures trying to climb out of the hole appears to stumble and fall back, then a second, then a third. That’s when Jack realizes what Vigilante is doing: he’s not fighting, he’s digging. He’s trying to make the sinkhole deeper and wider, forcing them to fill more space before they can climb out of it.
It’s a better plan than anything Jack has at the moment.
He grits his teeth and jumps in, smashing his way past and through a seemingly endless stream of things. They claw at his body, and bite into his flesh—at least, they try to. The creatures, however magical their origin, have been given a physical form, and that form isn’t strong enough to do more than get in Jack’s way. He focuses on moving past them and getting to the wall, then he focuses on moving as much earth as he can.
Make the hole wider. Make the hole deeper.
The best scenario is to keep the opening at the top the same size, while gradually expanding the sides as he works his way down, creating a funnel. That will force the creatures to compete for space, or at the very least to take time away from advancing in order to focus on digging themselves. There’s no way to pull it off perfectly—the hole was already widening when they started fighting—but there’s no time to dither about it. Jack pushes everything else out of his head and focuses solely on digging.
They are both strong men—even among metahumans with the gift of strength, Vigilante is considered stronger than average, and Jack has occasionally been put on the same tier as Regiment—and digging doesn’t pose much of a problem. At first Jack is concerned that digging into the sides will actually help the creatures climb out faster—the dirt has to go somewhere, after all, and “down” is really the only practical option—but the sheer volume of the dirt they manage to move winds up half-burying them, forcing them to slow to work themselves out. It’s working. Not for too much longer, he thinks, but it’s definitely working.
While they work, Jack is vaguely aware of the chatter in his earpiece. Now that they’re cut off, CB is making a play for the airport—a desperation move, given the kind of time they’re working with, but it’s probably the best option they have. He’s only half paying attention until he hears Artie announce he’s joining the fight. He doesn’t hear anything interesting after that—just David Bernard giving instructions on how to half-ass prepping a cargo plane for takeoff—but a few minutes later he hears Artemis again.
“Jack. Vigilante. Please return to the surface. This group is no longer our most pressing concern.”
That’s good enough for Jack. He stops digging, waits for the dirt to stop shifting around him, and leaps, sailing clear of the sinkhole and landing twenty yards away.
It’s not really a sinkhole any longer. It is, more accurately, a miniature canyon: they weren’t as successful at creating a choke point at the top as Jack had hoped, but they managed to make it wide enough and deep enough that the creatures are only two thirds of the way to the top. Jack climbs to his feet, nodding in satisfaction.
There is a soft flicker of light, and Artie appears to his right. He’s in his battleform: a featureless, silvery humanoid figure, slightly taller than Jack, hands tapering off into serrated, razor-sharp blades. He nods once, then waits patiently as Vigilante, bloody but mostly intact, emerges from the new canyon and leaps over to join them.
“They’re gonna fill it soon,” Vigilante notes, nodding back to the canyon.
“It doesn’t matter.” Artie’s voice is slightly metallic in this form, though still undeniably his. “The creatures will be unable to reach either the main facility or the airstrip in time to do anything. Now we have to worry about the west beach.”
“The west beach,” Jack repeats.
Artie nods. “It’s the closest shoreline, and the creatures are about to advance past the minimum safe firing range for the island’s point defenses. I was wondering if the two of you, and perhaps Regiment, might try duplicating this trick there? Only not a pit. A trench.”
Jack and Vigilante trade glances.
“Let’s get started,” Jack says. “We’re wasting time.”