Part Twenty Three: Haruspex Analytics, Upper Floors
Everything is cold.
Wood bursts into splinters as Jenny’s shoulder clips the doorframe, the force of the blow sending her spinning out into the stairwell as the creature follows, shrieking in triumph. She isn’t hurt, not physically—her new armor soaks up everything she isn’t able to dodge or block—but her right hand is still numb from her last attempt to punch one of those creatures in what she’d thought was a face.
She takes a knee, letting the floor halt her spin and reorient her perception, then rolls to the side as the shadow zombie reaches out. It overextends, stumbles, and Jenny takes the opportunity to grab its legs and lift it over the railing. The shriek rises in alarm, then stops as it strikes the rail on one of the lower stairs. She hears it strike a few more as it tumbles, then nothing.
She flexes her right hand. Still numb. Not even needles. She glances at the corner of her visor that shows her physical condition. As far as her suit’s diagnostic computer can tell, her hand appears normal.
Gunfire erupts from the hallway—steady, controlled bursts from Street Ronin’s rifle, mixed with the quick, staccato shots from Agent Grant’s pistols—causing the shrieking to raise in volume and pitch. Jenny flexes her hand one more time, just to reassure herself that it still works, and pushes her worry aside to focus on more immediate problems.
She subvocalizes the command to activate the comm channel. It registers two active listeners—Street Ronin and Agent Grant. The plan had been to have the entire group on the same channel throughout the operation, but something is blocking them… which is why every group has Agent Grant.
“Where are these things coming from?” Jenny keeps herself as low as she can as she runs back into the hall. Street Ronin crouches inside an office doorway. Agent Grant is farther down, where the hall opens up into a cube farm. Another pack of creatures emerge from the stairwell at the far end of the building.
Street Ronin switches to single fire, taking time to aim before pulling the trigger.
“I’m gonna go with ‘Human Resources,’” Grant says. As soon as Street Ronin stops firing, Grant’s image blurs, reappears down the hall behind the latest group, and fires twice. Two creatures drop, and the group’s charge falters: some try to turn to face the new threat, others crash into the ones trying to turn. He grins, waves once, then disappears as Street Ronin detaches a metal sphere from his belt and rolls it down the hall. It speeds on its way, straight into the confused mass of shadow creatures.
Street Ronin’s hand clenches into a fist. The sphere explodes in a ball of bright, hot light. The high pitched shrieking of the creatures rise even higher.
Street Ronin is very proud of those little bombs. He claims they burn themselves out so hot and so fast that there’s practically no chance of starting accidental fires, and so far his claim is holding out. All that’s left in the hall is scorched carpet, walls, and the charred remains of bodies.
Jenny’s glad she can’t smell anything through her helmet. The look on Grant’s face tells her everything she needs to know.
“I think we’ve got some time,” Grant says. “There’s an army of these things in the lobby. We have the heavy hitters set up down there as a diversion.”
A loud boom echoes from far below them, causing the floor to shake.
“That’s probably them. Pretty sure that’s who they’re gonna focus on for a while.”
Street Ronin nods, swaying a little as he gets to his feet. It’s easy to forget that he’s the “normal” one—scary good with his weapons, but he doesn’t have the kind of enhanced endurance Jenny does.
“You OK?” she asks.
Street Ronin nods again. “Sorry about the one that got past me. Thanks for taking it on.”
Jenny flexes her numb, cold hand again. “That’s what I was there for.”
“What happened to it?” Street Ronin glances down the hall to the stairwell.
“I threw it down the stairs,” Jenny says. “It stopped shrieking, so I assume it’s dead.”
She tries not to notice how casually she says that. For a second she remembers a security guard, eyes wide with terror at the sight of his own gun pointed at his face. She pushes the image back, anger rising. Not now!
Street Ronin turns to Agent Grant. “Where are you right now?”
“I’m with Curveball, Blink, Brother Judgment, and Doctor Enigma,” Grant says. “We’re a few floors below the lobby. We went down the elevator shaft.” He very quickly fills them in on the plan—distraction in the lobby as a smaller team goes after the objective. Street Ronin nods in agreement. “So what do we do? Zero?”
Jenny manages to push the lingering traces of bad memory aside. “I vote keep going down. Though maybe faster than we have been. I don’t want them to figure out they can come up both stairwells.”
Agent Grant grimaces. “Yeah. Let’s hope they don’t get smart.”
“Zero.” Street Ronin stares at Jenny’s hand. She realizes she’s been flexing it unconsciously the entire time. “What’s wrong with your hand?”
Jenny raises it, wiggling her fingers. “Not sure. I… when the thing broke past you, reflex took over and I tried to punch it in the face. Only, you know, no face. As soon as my hand passed through that… shadow fire, or whatever it is, it went cold and numb. I can still move it, but I can barely feel it.”
“Take off your glove. Let’s get a look.”
Jenny hesitates, then releases the latches that attaches the suit’s right gauntlet.
“Holy shit,” Grant says.
Dark patches of deep purple run along the front and back of her hand. Tiny dark purple threads extend from the patches. She can’t tell if that means the patches are growing or receding.
“Well,” Jenny says. “Fuck.”
Street Ronin takes her by the wrist, moving her hand slightly to catch the light better. “That doesn’t look good.”
Jenny snorts. “There’s that Crossfire gift for understatement. The good news is, it doesn’t hurt.”
Street Ronin shakes his head slowly. “I’m not sure that’s good news.”
“Well… yeah, OK, now that you point it out, it seems like a bad sign.” Jenny tries to keep her voice light. “But there’s not a lot we can do about it right now. I can still use it, it doesn’t hurt, and we’re kind of in the middle of something. So we keep going.”
As carefully as she can she reattaches her gauntlet to her armor.
Street Ronin nods in agreement. It’s not like they have many options. “I’ll go first,” he says. “Zero, you follow, Agent Grant, bring up the rear. I don’t like the thought of those things swarming over us from above.”
They resume their descent. Three flights down they see the broken body of the creature Jenny threw over the rail, it’s “head” still a burning shadow. They gingerly step around the corpse. Jenny’s hand throbs as she passes by.
For a time, they hear nothing but the echo of their footsteps, and the occasional rumble from the fight below. The rumbling is severe enough that it makes the rail tremble in return.
“What are they doing down there?” Jenny glances over her shoulder at Agent Grant, who shrugs helplessly.
“They’re the distraction,” he says. “They’re being distracting.”
“You can’t check?”
“No,” Grant says. “I’m almost back up to five, but it’d be stupid to try that in this kind of situation. Last thing we need right now is for me to get confused about where I am and fire my gun in the wrong location.”
Jenny smiles slightly. “You’re weird, Grant.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Seriously. Most people with your talent would talk about how many copies they make. You talk about how many places you can be.”
“That’s because I don’t make copies. I don’t understand why what I do is so much harder to grasp than someone who creates photocopies of themselves out of thin air.”
“What’s our status?” Street Ronin interrupts their bickering with a wholly appropriate question. For some reason, that aggravates her immensely.
“Our little strike team is exploring the level at the bottom of the elevator shaft,” Grant says. “Not much to report so far. I’m not at the diversion, so I can’t report on that, but that’s also the group I’m least worried about. You’re here with me, so no point in reporting on that. It’s getting interesting outside. Sky Commando’s on the scene. I think she’s meeting with Agent Henry now. I’m trying to keep my distance for now, on account of me being officially dead and all. No one has approached the bunker. The Senator…” his voice trails off. Jenny can feel him staring at her. “He’s not in good shape. Whatever Doctor Enigma did is wearing off, and it’s starting to hurt.”
Jenny hand grips the rail a little tighter, but says nothing.
Conversation drops off until they reach one more level, then Jenny stops in her tracks.
“Do you hear that?”
The other two stop. Agent Grant frowns and shakes his head. Street Ronin cocks his head to one side, then stiffens. He hoists his rifle. “Fighting.”
“That’s our decoy group,” Agent Grant says. “Partying it up in the lobby.”
Street Ronin shakes his head. “This is only a floor or so down.”
As if on cue, the faint sound of shrieking wafts up from below. Jenny flexes her hand. Still nothing.
Agent Grant sighs, then checks his pistols. “I was getting used to not fighting these things.”
“What I want to know,” Street Ronin says, “is who exactly is fighting these things? Unless some other vigilante has broken through that alloy shell, it’s a pretty short list.”
Jenny’s eyes widen in shock. “You don’t think…”
All three break into a run, descending the stairs at unsafe speeds.