Curveball Issue 32: The Foe Beneath

Part Three: Hitting the Beaches

Street Ronin is sitting at Robert Thorpe’s desk, directing traffic.

It’s the most logical place: Thorpe is already connected to the island, has access to everything, and his office has enough room to accommodate some of the extra gear Crossfire brought along to allow their communications—specifically, the equipment that makes it possible for Red Shift to communicate when he’s moving at high speeds—to work properly with everything else.

Doctor Thorpe is not currently in the room—he’s overseeing the second phase of the evacuation—but a few of the other Thorpe Institute techs are sitting at other ad hoc stations set up in the office. Overmind and Lieutenant Bernard—despite the earlier levity, Street Ronin isn’t quite ready to start calling him “Doctor Enigma” just yet—are there, both trying to look calmer than they feel.

The “ad hoc stations,” Street Ronin notes, don’t actually look ad hoc. They look like they were intentionally designed to be used in the room. He also notes that they’ve stopped calling the room “Doctor Thorpe’s office,” and they’re now referring to it as “the bridge.”

He glances over the tactical display, noting the position of the creatures just as they are about to make landfall.

“OK, I see an opportunity to push them back a little. If we pull it off, we buy ourselves maybe another half hour of point defenses.”

The island is essentially an inverted triangle: the “north” beach is a short stretch of land that juts out into the ocean forming its own tiny peninsula. The “east” and “west” beaches flare out from the north beach, curve around the bulk of the island and then taper off in a point at the “south.”

“Agent Hu, can you take the north beach?” Street Ronin does some swift calculations in his head, curses as he realizes he can’t afford to trust his math skills that much, and starts keying them into his terminal.

“That depends,” Hu says. “There are things I can do, but… well, how married is Doctor Thorpe to this beach?”

“Not very,” Street Ronin says.

“OK,” Hu says. “We’re good. This isn’t precise, though: I’m pretty sure I’ll get most of ‘em, but pool really isn’t my game. I’m pretty sure I’ll wind up knocking some in the wrong direction.”

“Understood,” Street Ronin says. “Scrapper Jack, Vigilante, head to the north beach to support Agent Hu. But, uh, stay back until you get the signal.”

“What’s the signal going to be?” Vigilante asks.

Boom,” Hu says. “And maybe a light tan.”

“Regiment, Red Shift: I need you to focus on the east beach. Go all out—Red Shift, push, and push hard to get them off the beach. Regiment, you focus on pushing them farther back into the water. Until they hit land they should all be packed pretty tightly together.”

“Got it,” Regiment says. Red Shift sends his acknowledgment shortly after.

“I’m going to focus all the island’s point defenses on the west beach. Since they only have to focus on one side, I think they’ll actually be able to push the advance back. I figure if we keep that up for ten minutes there’ll be enough of a buffer to let the defenses take over the whole thing for a while. Should give the townspeople the window they need to finish up. Report when you’re in position.”

“In position,” Regiment says.

Red Shift reports he’s in position.

A moment later, Hu chimes in: “In position.”

“Right. Switching point defenses now…”

Street Ronin keys in the command.

* * *

Roger Whitman hangs motionless in mid-air, watching the creatures creep slowly up along the length of the east beach. He hears the whining hummm of the island point defenses as they break from their earlier targets and refocus on the other side of the island. A streak of red flashes across the beach; the air shatters as a sonic boom trails behind. Sand barely has time to billow up behind the blur as the things on the beach are ripped apart. Red Shift isn’t trying to attack them, he’s just moving through them, and it looks like he’s doing it effortlessly.

Roger represses a shudder as the beach is littered with the remains of rubbery, reptilian flesh. Sand fills the air, obscuring the scene of carnage to nothing more than the frenzied thrashing of indistinct silhouettes.

Roger activates his earpiece. “Red Shift is almost done. I’ll be moving in soo—”

The world twists sideways. An explosion tears through the sky, filling Roger’s vision with blinding white light. Roger blinks, then turns to face the sound.

The north beach is gone. Roger gapes at the remains of where it had been, only moments before. What remains, of both land and beast, has been literally torn to shreds from the force of overpressure. That was Agent Hu, he thinks to himself. Holy cow.

“Um.” Agent Hu’s voice breaks in over the line, weak and mildly dazed. “Sorry about your island, Doc…”

Roger hopes she’s all right, but he can’t spend any time thinking about it. Red Shift is almost done clearing the beach. It’s his turn.

Roger isn’t as fast as Red Shift—under certain conditions, it’s not even close—but he has the advantage of being able to fly. He feels the air pulse around him as he goes supersonic, and the world around him grows sharper, clearer—not slower, exactly, but so much easier to understand…

He briefly considers his options. Red Shift has pushed the advance back into the water, to a point where he can’t run, and where he can’t really swim, either. The creatures are half submerged, which is slowing them down as well. Further out, he has to worry not just about the creatures he can see—the ones that have surfaced—but the ones crawling along underneath as well.

Right. He takes a deep breath, then dives.

He feels water vaporize into mist as he hits the surface, sees the world go dark as he rams himself like a human-sized bullet through the first of many creatures, feels an unpleasant burn-tickle as he tears through its body. Its blood is acidic, apparently, though not enough to hurt him—just enough for him to notice. His eyes adjust to the darkness of the water almost immediately, but it doesn’t help: all he can see is dark, writhing, groping forms as they try to make their way to shore. Moments later he’s out of the water, eyes stinging from the salt and light and unnatural blood, and then he dives again.

Again, and again, back and forth, he hurtles himself into the water, always trying to force the horde back. The east beach drops off quickly, and eventually he doesn’t bother coming up for air after every strafing run.

The creatures attempt to fight back. He’s moving much too fast for the ones he targets to defend themselves, but the creatures just behind lash out, jaws snapping closed in the space he’d occupied only moments before. Once or twice he feels a mouth close on his foot, but they don’t break the skin. Nothing ever does.

After a few minutes underwater he emerges to draw another breath and take a quick tactical assessment. It’s hard to tell exactly how much progress they’ve made: the surface of the water is littered with reptile parts, and more are washing up on a beach that is already full of reptile carcasses. He sees Red Shift—well, he sees his contrail—streaking across the beach, picking off creatures Roger missed in the water.

Roger’s earpiece buzzes to life.

“That mostly worked,” Street Ronin says. “I’m returning the point defenses to their original firing pattern.”

A moment later the turrets on the east beach begin firing in long arcs across the waters off the east shoreline.

The red blur comes to a halt, and Regiment can see Red Shift standing on the beach, swaying in place.

“I don’t have much left,” Red Shift says, voice thick with fatigue.

“I’m… not so great myself,” Hu adds. Roger can see her in the air, a bright speck in the distance, weaving and bobbing like a drunk firefly.

“Come on in,” Street Ronin says. “The last bus is loaded up and on its way in. Regiment, keep to the air, look for any stragglers we might have missed. Scrapper Jack, Vigilante, get back to the last bus and escort it in.”

Roger starts circling the island, keeping inside the firing range of the turrets as he scans the surface for signs of encroachment. He doesn’t find anything. That bothers him.

“Everything looks clear up here,” Roger says.

There’s a short pause.

“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’s voice grows cautious. “True.”

“Hey, I’ll be real happy if this plan goes off without a hitch, but how often does that usually happen?”

* * *

No one is quite prepared for the intensity of Agent Hu’s attack. For Vigilante and Scrapper Jack, it’s particularly startling.

They stand on a short hill at the far end of the beach, looking out at the mass of rubbery-black flesh crawling toward them. Jack represses a shudder, wondering what the most effective way to kill one of those things will be. The north beach is narrow, but it’s long, and the creatures have filled up about half the length of it so far.

Over the line Jack hears Regiment announce he’s in position, and notes with annoyance how calm and collected the man sounds.

That’s because he can fly. Lucky bastard.

The line snaps to life again. “In position,” Agent Hu says.

Vigilante nudges Jack and points. Agent Hu, currently a brightly burning humanoid shape, is hovering about ten feet above the creatures, three quarters of the way down the beach. They don’t react to her presence.

“What exactly is she going to do?” Vigilante asks. “She was pretty solid against the magic robot, but that was a single target. She can’t cover the whole beach in fire, can she?”

Jack shrugs. “Beats me. Street Ronin seems to know.”

He briefly considers using the man’s real name, just to annoy Vigilante, but now isn’t the time for that.

“Switching point defenses now…”

Jack can feel the change when the turrets focus on the west beach. The air stirs slightly as energy shoots across the center of the island. He half-turns, shifting his gaze away from the beach for just a moment. That’s when he feels Vigilante tense.

“Her fire’s gone out!”

Jack whirls back to the beach just in time to see Agent Hu, no longer burning, fall into the center of the horde crawling out of the ocean.

“Red Shift is almost done. I’ll be moving in soo—”

Jack never hears the end of Regiment’s message. The north beach erupts into a ball of fire unlike anything he’s ever seen.

One moment he’s standing on the hill, staring in mute surprise at a sudden, fiercely burning sphere of fire igniting in the middle of the horde, and in the next there’s a loud crack, and the horde is shredded into a fine mist before his very eyes. Almost in the same breath, Jack feels an invisible force hit him full on, carrying with it sand and rock and bits of rubbery flesh. He is vaguely aware of sailing through the air, then smashing down onto the tarmac of the now-evacuated airport… then being driven into the concrete before grinding to a halt.

He lies there on his back for a moment, blinking in surprise, staring at the sand and dust still flying through the air. Then, with a grunt of annoyance, he sits up.

He hit the ground pretty hard. He made a crater.

Um.” Agent Hu’s voice breaks in over the line, weak and mildly dazed. “Sorry about your island, Doc…”

Jack staggers to his feet. To the north, all he can see is a billowing cloud of sand. He crosses the distance in a few short hops, returning to the hill where he originally stood, and looks over a rapidly-filling crater of seawater where the north beach used to sit.

Jack wonders if this means the island is in danger of sinking.

Probably take longer to sink than it will to be overrun by evil salamanders.

He activates his headset as he quickly scans the area, looking for signs of any creatures that may have survived the blast. “Agent Hu?”

“Here.” Her voice is very tired.


There’s a quick burst of fire over at the lip of the crater—an instant’s flash which quickly dies away.

“I’m coming,” Jack says, and with practiced ease he leaps, crossing the distance and landing just a few feet away from her.

Agent Hu is wearing her “swimsuit”—it actually does look like a one-piece swimsuit, the kind swimmers wear for races, only the material is stiff and obviously uncomfortable. Treated with asbestos, if Jack remembers correctly.

“Can you stand?”

Agent Hu nods without speaking. She climbs to her feet slowly, wincing from the effort. “I really hope I don’t have to file this report.”

Jack snorts.

There’s a burst of static over his earpiece, then a second, and finally he hears Vigilante, his voice slurred. “Didn’t expect that.”

“Where are you?” Jack asks.

“Island,” Vigilante says. “Sand.”

Jack scowls. “Pull yourself together.”

“Right,” Vigilante says. A moment later: “Sorry. Back now.”

Jack looks over his shoulder and sees Vigilante land at the hill. He waves once, and a second later Vigilante lands next to him.

Vigilante’s face is covered in cuts and bruises, though both are fading rapidly. His dark hair is matted with sand and tiny twigs. He nods once to Agent Hu.

“Did you get them all?”

“Think so,” Hu says. “Hope so. I don’t think I can do that again. Not for a while.”

Jack’s earpiece buzzes, and he can tell from the way Vigilante and Hu react that the same thing is happening to them.

“That mostly worked,” Street Ronin says. “I’m returning the point defenses to their original firing pattern.”

The breeze shifts again, and arcs of energy shoot over them as the northern point defenses resume their sweep across the waters beyond.

Red Shift calls in, nearly spent. Hu ignites and takes to the air, but she’s so tired she almost falls back to earth.

“Come on in,” Street Ronin says. “The last bus is loaded up and on its way in. Regiment, keep to the air, look for any stragglers we might have missed. Scrapper Jack, Vigilante, get back to the last bus and escort it in.”

Jack and Vigilante trade glances. Vigilante sighs, brushes some of the sand out of his hair, and starts leaping inland. Jack grimaces and follows suit.

It takes half a minute to catch up to the bus. It must have taken longer to load than the others, because none of the other buses are in sight. Jack can see faces pressed up against the windows. Looking past the faces, into the bus, it seems to Jack that this bus has been packed to the gills.

The bus weaves slightly, taking the center of the road, and the engine roars louder as the driver tries to make it go faster.

“—that’s the kind of thing I’d expect someone to be happy about,” CB is saying.

“Yeah,” Roger says. “Well… it’s us.”

Vigilante motions once with his hand. Jack nods and they split up, each taking a side—Vigilante on the right, Jack to the left. Jack sees CB sitting at the wheel.

“True,” CB says.

“Hey, I’ll be real happy if this plan goes off without a hitch, but how often does that usually happen?”

As if on cue, the road ahead collapses, and creatures burst out of the ground.

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