“Status report, please.”
Street Ronin is saying please, so CB figures he’s worried about something.
“My bus is about half full,” CB says.
“Same,” Jenny says.
“My four are a little less than that,” Grant says. “The other thirty-four are behind me.”
“You still stuck at four?” Agent Hu sounds surprised. “I thought you were back up to five again.”
“Not if a fight’s going to break out,” Grant says. “Which I’m pretty sure is what’s going to happen. Speaking of, what’s up with the new jet spa we’ve got around our island?”
“Still growing,” Street Ronin says. “Four hundred twenty feet thick, and still growing.”
“You’d think we’d see something by now,” CB mutters.
Street Ronin laughs sharply. “Oh, we definitely see something. Sonar’s just a solid mass of somethings. Doctor Thorpe sent a little unmanned submarine probe down there to get a look. It’s a solid wall of things I’m trying not to think about too much.”
“Right.” CB looks at the forty buses parked in the town square and tries to work out the math. “So when you say a solid wall of things, how solid are we talking?”
There’s a brief pause. “As far as we can tell it goes all the way down.”
His eyes widen. “No shit. To the bottom of the ocean?”
“What’s to the bottom of the ocean?”
CB looks up to see an older couple standing in front of him, staring at him in fear.
The man, slightly overweight with thinning, straw-blonde hair, wraps his arm around the woman’s shoulders and squeezes slightly. “You said ‘to the bottom of the ocean.’”
“Right…” CB curses silently. Good going, genius. Try not to panic the civilians, OK? He mutes his earpiece and turns to face them. “Yeah, sorry. Don’t worry about it. Just get on the bus so we can get you someplace safe.”
“Is that where we’re going?” the woman asks. The line moving into the bus stops, as a few other people turn to face them.
They’re all afraid, but they’re all keeping it together. They’re doing what they’re supposed to… so far.
So it would be really great if you didn’t screw that up for everyone, CB.
“Hell yes,” CB says. “Look. I don’t know how long you’ve worked here, but you’re standing on the biggest freaking boat ever made, disguised to look like an island. The man who invented that says he can protect everyone if we get to the main complex. If he says it, I believe it.”
The couple trade glances. The woman laughs nervously. “That is why we took the job.”
“Yeah,” the man says. His gaze drifts over the water, staring at the ever-expanding ring of churning foam. “It’s just… this is…”
CB forces himself to stay calm. “Look, I get it. This is scary. It’s OK to be scared, just don’t panic. Get on the bus.”
The man nods, but doesn’t move.
“Mister,” CB says, an edge creeping into his voice, “you’re holding up the line.”
The man blinks, stares at CB, then looks at the line of people behind him. “Jesus! I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
The man and the woman move forward, stepping up into the bus. CB waves at the rest of the line, and everyone falls into step.
CB unmutes the earpiece. “Any of you worked out a mathematical way to get people on a bus faster? Maybe we could get Vigilante and Jack to rip off the roofs and just start throwing ’em over the top.”
“Don’t worry,” Street Ronin says. “They’re nowhere near the surface yet, you have plenty of—”
At that moment, the ocean explodes.
Dark shapes burst out of the deep, shooting high into the sky, arcing slowly, then falling back into the water with a splash. The trumpet returns, and the sound is harsher, more urgent. With the trumpet’s call is a new sound: low, wet, rumbling, a cross between a rattling cough and roar. As more creatures burst into the open air, the sound increases, until it is so loud that it’s impossible to hear the sirens.
Somewhere in the back of CB’s mind he’s chanting objects in mirror may be closer than they appear over and over again.
The townspeople, already on the edge of reason, begin to panic. They start to push each other, many attempting to force their way through the line and into the bus, some abandoning the lines altogether, heading toward the complex on foot. CB wades into the line, trying to keep the panicked people from trampling each other in their haste to board, but it isn’t working. They’re frightened, out of their depth, and driving themselves into a desperate frenzy.
“It doesn’t feel like we have plenty of time!”
One of the townspeople takes a swing at CB, trying to get him out of the way. He parries the blow easily, and the next, and steps smoothly to one side to avoid another man’s attempt to tackle him outright. “We need to do something now, or we’re not going to be able to regain control of the—”
The world goes silvery white. A snap and hummm cuts through the sound of the roaring beasts and the shrill trumpet’s call, and when the translucent dome appears over the island those sounds disappear entirely. The siren shuts off, and the sudden lack of sound startles the newly-rioting crowds into stillness.
Loudspeakers crackle to life, and a calm, strong voice speaks through them.
“This is Robert Thorpe.”
The crowd focuses intently on the sound of Robert’s voice. CB can feel the tension easing slightly.
“As you all know, this island is under attack. Per our evacuation protocol, we are moving you to the main facility for your safety.”
The tension eases further. Good timing, Robert.
“Our enemy is trying to slow your evacuation by provoking you to panic. I realize that what you see right now is startling—that what you’ve heard, and will hear again shortly is extremely uncomfortable—but if you focus on the evacuation, you will be safe.”
The crowd murmurs uncertainly.
“Understand that right now, the most powerful men and women on the planet are standing by to make sure that you all board the buses safely, that the buses take you to the main facility safely—that you arrive and disembark safely. Regiment. Curveball. Vigilante. Red Shift. Street Ronin. Scrapper Jack. And yes, it’s true: Overmind is also here. You’ve heard those names. You haven’t heard of the metahuman agents of the Department of Homeland security who are here to defend you, but if you look up you can see one of them, floating next to Regiment. Her partner is with you now, helping you board the buses. And on top of that—on top of all of those people, who have pledged to keep you safe—we have the former Sky Commando and the granddaughter of Liberty—both metahumans, both standing with us.”
The crowd has fallen completely silent.
“I won’t pretend this isn’t a serious and dangerous situation,” Robert continues. “It is. But we have prepared for this danger. I realize how frightening this is—it’s only rational to be frightened, in this situation—but the important thing is not to panic. Do not panic. Board the buses in a quick, orderly fashion. When you exit the bus, you will be safe. Until then, focus on what you need to do. Focus on allowing the people who have sworn to protect you to do their job. Focus, and don’t give in to panic.”
Another moment of silence passes.
“Unfortunately, we can’t maintain the acoustic dampeners for much longer. When they go down, all that sound is going to return. Be ready for it. Don’t give in to it. Board the buses. Focus. Thank you all for your cooperation.”
By the time he finishes talking the lines are moving again. When the silvery field disappears, when the roar of inhuman sound returns, the crowd flinches visibly… but the lines stay, and people keep boarding the buses.
CB sighs in relief. He turns his attention back to the crowd, focusing on getting them on the bus and out of the town. That’s his job. He pushes the noise as far away as he can, and focuses on his job.
* * *
The first wave of creatures don’t make it to land. The island’s point defenses activate, and solid beams of searing blue energy sweep across the waters, cutting through the rubbery-black creatures effortlessly. Again and again the weapons sweep across the waters, and cries of pain and unthinking rage mix with the low rumbling roars as rubbery black shapes continue to shoot out of the water and into the air.
But as effective as the island’s defenses are, they can’t hold back what threatens to be a literal tide of abomination. Some slip past the built-in defenses.
The ones that reach land die quickly at first: one moment Regiment is hanging in midair above the island, the next he is streaking toward the beach in a blur, and an inhuman shriek sounds, briefly, before bits of rubbery black flesh explode. Or the burning woman streaks across the sky, a lance of fire cutting another in half almost as neatly as the island’s energy weapons. Or a red blur races across the island, ripping into a giant, misshapen shadow just as it crawls out of the water.
For a while, they hold the line. CB and the others in town focus on loading the buses and sending them off. Eventually they do fill, and one by one they make their way up the road, back to the facility. There are only seven buses left when someone screams, then someone else shouts, hoarse with fear:
“The ocean is gone!”
CB glances over his shoulder and feels his jaw go slack. It’s true: he can no longer see the water. As far as he can see, in every direction, all he can see is a mass of crawling, rubbery-black flesh.
“Get on the bus…” He stares in horror as the creatures crawl over each other as they attempt to reach the beaches. They are alien things: large, vaguely similar to salamanders, eyeless heads and gaping maws full of razor-sharp teeth.
“Get on the bus!” He forces himself to turn away, back to the remaining townspeople. “Don’t look out there! Focus on the goddamn bus!”
Three buses pull away.
“I don’t want to sound pushy,” Street Ronin says, “but how are the buses coming along?”
“Four left,” CB says.
“One is almost full,” Jenny reports. “Two more are at half. One just started loading up.”
“That’s good news,” Street Ronin says. “Here’s the bad news: the creatures are about to hit the island en masse. When that happens, things get more complicated: the point defenses are going to get useless pretty quick. Apparently they were specifically designed not to shoot holes in the island.”
“Well. Shit.” CB looks at the remaining buses and shakes his head. “You know, on any other day I’d consider that good thing.”