Part Twenty: Haruspex Analytics, Ground Floor Lobby
A single rasping shriek, high pitched and rising ever higher as it goes on, emerges from somewhere behind the stairwell door. Almost immediately it is joined by dozens of other voices, similar in pitch and frenetic despair. The phrase Chorus of the Damned runs through CB’s head. “How long?”
Brother Judgment stands in the middle of the broken lobby, concentrating. “A few minutes? They’re a few floors down.” Another scream, much fainter, and farther away, causes him to look up. “And many, many floors above.”
David Bernard stands, swaying slightly, then straightens. “You said they weren’t quite human.” He sounds tired. CB wonders what kind of toll all this is having on him.
“That was then,” Brother Judgment says, voice dry. “I’ve gotten to know them a little better. It’s complicated, and I won’t be sleeping for a week.”
David nods. “I definitely get that part. Still, if you could give me something I might be able to narrow it down.”
Brother Judgment thinks it over. “An ocean of murder poured into human skin?”
David frowns. “That’s not as narrow as you’d think.”
“It’s… evocative,” CB says.
“They’re here to kill us,” Brother Judgment says. “That’s pretty much it. It’s their purpose, their calling. I want to say ‘divine calling,’ but that’s not quite right, but it’s a purpose that fills them so completely there’s no room for anything else. They won’t stop, won’t surrender, and won’t accept ours. And they’re… happy about it.”
“Come on,” Grant says. “That is not the tortured screaming of a happy man. Except for this one place in the Village—”
“Shut up, Grant.” Hu is floating near the ceiling, still engulfed in flame, but she’s dialed back the heat quite a bit. “The point is we’re not going to be able to deescalate this. Are we?”
Brother Judgment shakes his head. “No way that I can see.”
“Then we don’t,” Red Shift says. “Lethal force.”
Nobody says anything.
“It’s pretty clear-cut,” Red Shift continues. “These are not innocents. They’ve been performing medical tests on human beings, and discarding their corpses when they get what they want. We just saw one of them willingly slit his own throat and turn into a monster.”
“Come on, man.” Blink shakes his head, looking at Red Shift in disbelief. “You can’t think everyone in this building is in that deep. I mean, a whole building in the middle of the city? There’s gotta be some people who just took a job. Cleaning staff. Temps. Interns. That kind of thing. These people could be mind controlled.”
“I don’t think so.” David Bernard shakes his head sadly. “Not the way Brother Judgment describes their thoughts.”
Another scream, much louder this time. They can hear the faint echo of many feet stomping up stairs.
“The kind of power they’re tapped into isn’t natural to this universe. It can’t exist on its own. It needs either victims or collaborators. The victims it kills, for power and sustenance. The collaborators… it changes them. It scoops bits of them away, filling up the empty spaces with something that makes nihilism look kind. Assuming Brother Judgment’s description is correct—which I do—then these people have had so much of themselves scooped away there’s nothing left to recover. They’re genuinely monsters, now.”
CB exhales, his gas mask fogging a little. “I am so tired of this shit.”
He pulls off his gas mask, letting it fall from the fingers of his left hand just as he places the cigarette in his mouth with his right. Everyone in the room looks on in surprise, some going so far as to shout a warning, or a more generic but equally appropriate “what the fuck are you doing?” but he ignores them. He doesn’t inhale until the lighter makes fire: when he finally does, the cherry burns bright red and the entire world clicks into place around him. After that he breathes in deep through his nose. The air smells metallic, but that’s it.
“You can take your masks off, now,” he says. “I made it go away.”
Everyone just stares at him. Then Red Shift touches something on his visor, and the mouthpiece opens and retracts. “How did you do that?”
“I’m pushing,” CB says. “Because that’s where we are right now.”
Red Shift grimaces. Jack looks startled. The others have no idea what he’s talking about.
“Look,” CB says, “our objective is six floors down. Whatever these things may have been an hour ago, right now they are monsters dead set on murdering us. I am dead set on getting six floors down in order to stop the Junior Senator of New York—a guy I really don’t like, for the record—from getting murdered by an evil magic spell. We’re running out of time and I am all out of fucks to give.”
Another series of screams cuts through the air, very close this time.
“Here’s what we’re going to do. These jokers are gonna pour through that stairwell door like water and we’re gonna pound the ever-loving shit out of ‘em. Hold back only so far as not to bring the building down on us. A minute into the fight, some of us head downstairs. Me, Agent Grant, Blink, Doctor Enigma, Brother Judgment. The rest of you are going to keep these assholes busy. Follow when you finish.”
Sister Sentinel frowns. “I get the basic plan—we draw fire while you slip away—but how are you handling the slipping away part? If they’re coming in through the stairwell door, it’s not going to be easy to go through the stairwell door.”
“We’re not using the stairwell door,” CB says. “They’ve turned off the elevators, but it’s still a straight drop down.”
Blink raises an eyebrow, then turns and jogs to the elevator. “You know, if I get down there first, I can pop back and grab the rest of you one by one. Save a lot of time.”
“It’d be safer if we go as a group,” CB says.
“No time!” The floor is shaking now. They’re getting close. “Look, me and Grant will go. Pretty sure the we can infiltrate to a safe place and bring the rest of you in easier and faster than the group can.”
“I like it,” Grant says. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a terrible plan, but it’s got moxie. Let’s do it.” He turns to follow Blink.
“Don’t die, Grant!” Hu shouts.
“Don’t blow up the building!” Grant shouts back. “The city gets touchy about that stuff.”
They duck into the elevator and disappear from view. Seconds later, the stairwell door flies out of its frame, and a wave of living shadow streams into the room.