Force over Distance: At All Angles Part 6
Water runs into the dark.
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations
Text iteration: Early morning.
Additional notes: None
At All Angles: Part 6
Greer stands in a shaft of purple that angles like a spotlight through the jagged-edged remains of a second floor window. He faces what he’s gonna go ahead and call “west” and squints in the direction of an ever-setting sun. Ruins spread below. Empty shells of buildings, their windows blown out, line narrow roads. Glass litters the ground—inside, outside—shards of the stuff spill over floors, reflect off roads, lie between alien plants pushing their way through places they were never meant to grow.
The city’s dead.
But not totally reclaimed by nature. Whatever happened here, didn’t happen all that long ago.
He flips the grip on the knife in his hand and does a visual sweep of everything he can see.
Every so often, his eyes flick to Rush, braced with a hand in the naked circuitry of the terminal that Greer’d worked open. It’d been as dead as everything else in this city. Not a drop of juice left to power it.
It’s workin’ now.
Just like the fried shuttle they’d ridden down from space.
Just like Greer’s leg.
Come to think of it, the doc hasn’t been limping on this little planetary excursion; maybe he’s healed his own feet.
The guy’s been keeping a thing or two under wraps, seems like, but Greer’s not complaining. They could use something in their corner at this point; god knows they’ve got little else: twelve ounces of water, half a power bar, two MREs, a length of rope, a first aid kit, a kino and remote, a flashlight, and a knife.
To the east, Greer hears the distant rumble of thunder.
His eyes flick to Rush as the scientist pulls his hand out of the alien terminal. “Rush?” he says, nice and quiet. “You good?”
Rush glances at him, quick and oblique, then shifts his gaze to empty air. Subtly, he nods, like he’s responding to someone Greer can’t see.
“Rush.” Greer leaves the window, gets a little closer, and tries again. “What’d you find out?”
“They were conducting research here,” Rush whispers, looking down and to his left, as though he can see through the floor. “Research.”
“In this building?” Greer scans the hallway for the hundredth time. “Can I pick ‘em or what? Told you this looked like a lab.”
“Did you?” Rush asks, still x-ray visioning the floor. “They’re all labs.”
“What d’you mean they’re ‘all labs’?”
“I mean,” the scientist whispers, “they’re all labs.” Slowly, like he’s scared of losing his balance, the doc kneels and presses a palm against the floor.
“Okay.” Greer crouches beside him. “Fine. Labs everywhere. Science for all. You got a destination for us or what?”
“They brought a gate here,” Rush says absently.
“There’s a gate here?” Greer’s teeth are clenched and he’s damn near vibrating with the need to shake the information out of the doc.
He doesn’t though. He sheathes his knife and he holds his patience.
“Yes. There’s a gate. It isn’t active. Also, there are ships.”
“Can we use the gate?” Greer hisses. “Can you make it work?”
“Quid?” The word comes quiet and with a lateral glance. Greer’s sure it’s not meant for him. Rush is staring at his hand, spread flat against tie-die metal. His breathing’s turning faster, shallower—
“Doc, hey, listen to me,” Greer says. “Forget this bullshit.” He peels the man’s hand off the floor. “Can you make the gate work or do we need to find a ship?”
Rush, startled into college professor mode, says, “How should I know?” like they’re discussing math over tea and crumpets. “The gate’s the better option.”
“Okay, so where is it?”
“Five kilometers left and half a kilometer down.”
“Left?” Greer repeats.
Rush points to his left, opposite the eternally setting sun.
“Okay, we’re callin’ that east. Half a klick down?”
“Yes. Sequestered. They grow their way out of the dark.”
The fine hairs on the back of Greer’s neck prickle and stand on end. “Whose planet it this?”
“It’s their planet,” Rush whispers. “Didn’t you know?”
Rush nods. Again, he presses a hand flat against floor. “Are we on the ground?”
“No, but we should be. Let’s go.”
Rush looks up at him, eyes wide, tense as hell, his head cocked, as if he’s listening.
“What?” Greer whispers.
Rush holds the eye contact, his fingertips blanching where they press the floor.
Greer doesn’t move. He doesn’t breathe. He listens, like the doc, with his whole body.
He hears the wind whistling around corners and through broken windows, ruffling leaves in the street below. The roll of distant thunder almost obscures another sound.
A quiet sound.
The muffled snap of glass under pressure.
It echoes faintly from the floor below.
Greer gives Rush a deliberate nod, then holds up two fingers and motions toward the limited cover of the opposite wall. “Go,” he mouths.
Rush shakes his head.
Before Greer can snag his jacket, the doc backs out of his reach and heads for the open window. This ballsy motherfucker thinks he can cling to the side of a building? He’s out of his damn mind. But there’s no time to argue, no time to reason with the guy, no time and no place to secure the rope Greer has in his pack because he can hear them down on the first floor of this skeletal lab.
Greer slides forward to join Rush. They crouch below the window.
Above their heads, the wind whistles softly around little shards jutting into the frame. The ledge is narrow. Four inches wide, maybe?
"Are you sure," Greer mouths.
Rush stares at the busted window like he’s doing math in his head. Probably, he is. Not a great sign, in Greer’s book.
Around the corner, half a level down, he hears the Nakai ascending the stairs.
He’s trying to figure out how the hell he’s gonna help the doc out the window when Rush surges to his feet, plants a foot on the ledge, and steps up and through the frame. He goddamned pivots, kills his momentum and steps laterally out of sight with the kind of grace that hits as supernatural, given all the shit he’s fighting through.
Greer’s not gonna look a gift horse in the mouth.
He steps up, copies Rush’s movement and steps out of the frame of the window. He clamps his hands good and tight on a seam in the dark metal of the building’s exterior. A cold wind blows at his back, catching the loose ends of the straps on his pack.
He quiets his breathing.
In and out.
In and out.
A break in the clouds defines the leading edge of a massive, approaching storm. The front spiders with lightning.
Beside him, Rush’s fingertips blanch, every muscle in his body tensed.
Greer narrows his focus to the lower ledge of the window, ten inches or so from his boots, and starts counting off the seconds.
Four long, blue fingers rest on the windowsill.
The thing’s less than a foot from where he’s standing. If it leans out, even a few inches beyond the frame of the window, it’ll see him.
Greer pulls in a long, silent breath and shifts his weight to free up a foot for a Hail Mary kick.
The fingers in the frame wrap around a shard of glass and snap it, with a dull crack.
Greer exhales, controlled and slow.
The fingers vanish.
The wind whistles around the edges of the building.
Greer lets out a long, slow breath and counts off seconds in his head. One minute stretches to three, which stretches to five.
His forearms burn. His fingers have gone numb.
Below, he catches a flash of blue in the cross-street. A cluster of Nakai have gathered in the road.
Jesus god, all they need to do is look up and it’s game over.
He looks to Rush. The man’s eyes are shut, his hands blanched, his hold on the building’s gone rigid with effort.
Greer takes a silent, lateral step toward the window. He hooks two fingers inside the frame and uses that as a fulcrum to angle himself away from the building enough that he can get a glimpse of the hallway.
He snakes his entire hand inside the frame to stabilize himself, then eases out of his pack and slides it through the window. That done, he turns to Rush, debating between whisper-talking the guy through a window re-entry versus something quieter and trickier.
He anchors his a hand and foot inside the window frame and waits for a flash of lightning.
As the thunder comes, he closes a hand around the doc’s wrist and hauls back with every ounce of leverage he has, using his body mass and momentum to drag the scientist through the open window. It’s rough as hell and it only works because the doc’s a small guy and just kinda lets it happen.
They hit the floor as the thunder fades and Greer hauls Rush in and clamps a hand over his mouth. The doc doesn’t fight him, just lies there while Greer listens for any indication that the Nakai are still in the building.
Rush jerks in his grip like his batteries have kicked back on. He strains against Greer's hold.
“Cool it,” Greer whispers against the man’s ear. “It’s me. I’m gonna let you go, but no talking.”
Slowly, Greer releases his hold.
The scientist gives him a look that puts across the idea of, What the actual hell? pretty damn effectively.
“Can you sense the Nakai?” Greer whispers, thinking of the way Rush’d spread his hands out along the floor before the alien search party had shown up.
Rush makes an equivocal hand gesture.
Greer tries not to shake the guy. “Are there any down there?” He presses a fingertip against the floor, pointing to the lower level.
“Now?” Rush looks perplexed as hell. He glances into midair next to Greer.
“Yes,” Greer hisses. He takes a beat, realizes he probably wiped the hell out of the guy’s hard disk with his window maneuver, and tries again with a better question: “Are there any Nakai on the ground floor of this building right now.”
Rush shrugs again, but it’s more of an I-don’t-think-so-but-what-do-you-want-from-me-fuckin’-magic? type thing so Greer’s gonna go ahead and file that one as: ground floor’s probably clear.
“Do you know how to get to the gate?” Greer asks.
Rush gives him an inscrutable look. His gaze flicks into nothingness and holds there for a good long while. Finally, he looks at Greer and nods.
They creep along the dim hallway, moving silently, crouching against walls, below the evenly spaced window frames. They duck into a shallow alcove near the top of the stairs.
“Stay here.” Greer pushes the doc against the wall.
Greer inches forward, flat to the floor, trying to muffle the soft scrape of shattered glass with his own BDUs and body weight. He peers over the edge of the landing and down the first set of wide, flat stairs.
No hints of movement in the shadows.
No sheen of blue catching the purple light.
There’s another flash of lightning. Another growl of thunder.
He shifts position, stays low, and creeps down a few steps, balancing on the balls of his feet, trying to see as far as possible without exposing himself.
He returns to Rush and finds the man with his eyes shut, his head in both hands, like he’s surrounded by an army of ghosts.
“Rush,” Greer breathes, trying not to startle him.
“Why are we alive?” Rush whispers, like he’s responding to someone Greer can’t see. “We can’t be their primary objective. Not yet.”
“Rush,” Greer hisses. “Stay with me. With me.”
Rush looks up.
Greer tips his head in the direction of the stairs. “Quietly,” he mouths. “Very. Quietly.”
They creep down the stairs, staying low, balancing on fingertips and the balls of their feet, noiselessly shifting the carpet of broken glass aside as they traverse the winding stair and reach the wide-open atrium on the ground floor.
There’s no available cover.
Greer considers hugging the perimeter wall, but, based on lines-of-sight, all that’ll accomplish is lengthening the route. He motions with his head toward the opposite wall next to the shattered doors they’d entered through. “We’re goin’ for it, doc. One long, straight shot to the far wall. Stay low. Stay quiet.”
Rush stares at him.
Greer gives him a pointed look in return, inviting the man to propose a better idea if he has one.
The scientist opens a hand and makes an after-you gesture.
Greer starts across the long, open expanse.
They’ve nearly made the opposite wall when Greer catches a flash of blue from the open door to the street.
He hears the buzz of a charging plasma weapon.
Rush slams into him, knocking him off his feet and out of the way of an energy blast that goes sizzling overhead.
Greer rolls into a crouch, pulling his knife, reversing the grip, coming up with fists raised.
He drives forward.
It brings its weapon up.
They crash together before it gets off a second shot. It goes for his throat. He goes for its eye, driving the fist with the knife across its face, slashing with the well-sharpened blade. He slices into its insect eye and it shrieks, half aloud, half in his mind. It curls against the wall.
He goes after it, but Rush yanks him back.
Greer shakes the guy off, but the tenacious little fucker gets a grip on his collar and shoves him toward the shattered doorframe. “Don’t touch it,” Rush rasps. “Go. Go.”
Before Greer can assess the terrain outside, Rush shoves him through the door and into the arriving storm. Once they’re in the street, the doc sprints flat out, fast as hell. Greer’s hard pressed to keep up with him.
Lightning flashes overhead, cloud-to-cloud. Thunder cracks only a few seconds behind, the clap and rumble loud enough to cover a few words. “Rush, stay low. Slow down.”
The doc ignores him.
Rain comes like a curtain, sweeping the city street-by-street, sounding off the metal as it comes.
Rush veers into an alley without warning, quick on his feet. Greer overshoots and doubles back, ducking into the narrow space between buildings. The doc presses himself against a shadowed wall, and Greer mirrors his pose, putting himself between the guy and the larger street.
Beneath the sound of rain singing off naquadah laced metal, he hears the arrhythmic beat of a group of approaching Nakai.
Six of them pass their position, covering ground like Greer wouldn’t believe, their limbs bending in ways limbs shouldn’t bend. They’re going somewhere in a hurry. For their half-blind sentry, maybe.
Beside him, Rush shivers, already half-soaked, his breathing fast and shallow.
“So you can sense them,” Greer whispers.
“Chloe can sense them.” It comes like a correction.
Greer orients himself, turning in the direction of the wind and rain. East, the doc’d said. “This way.”
Rush shakes his head. “First down. Then left.” He peels himself away from the building and approaches a dark grating, already draining rainwater.
“No,” Greer whispers, stone-faced.
Rush stares at him.
“You wanna trek through five klicks of some freaky-ass sewer system? With one flashlight? In a storm? No. We’re not doing that.”
“Yes,” Rush hisses. “We are.”
“No,” Greer fires back. “We are not.”
“They’ll find us.” Lightning quick, the doc reaches up with both hands and grabs Greer’s biceps. “They’ll find us and they’ll tear your mind apart. They’ll remake you in every way it’s possible to be remade.”
“They’re gonna remake me?” Greer whisper-snarls. “They’re gonna tear my mind apart? I know they scare the hell out of you, doc, but—”
“Yes,” Rush hisses through clenched teeth, stepping in, his eyes nearly black in the dimness. “You don’t know what they’re capable of. What it’ll be like when they understand what they have in us. We need t’get ahead of them. They generate EM fields. I need distance.”
“We stay on the surface. It’s gonna be faster and easier. You tell me where they are, I will pick them off one-by-one as we go. I can take ‘em. You just saw me—”
“You’re fuckin’ lucky that thing was too surprised to go for your mind.” Rush presses a hand to his temple.
“We can’t go down there, doc,” Greer gestures to the storm drain. “We can’t. There might be worse shit, flooding underground—”
“They’ll close in on us,” Rush says in a cracked whisper. “It’s already begun. They’ll force my hand.”
“Force your hand? Into what?”
“Matter and energy are intraconvertible. This is necessary, but not sufficient for ascension.” Rush stares at him, his expression horrified, his breathing fast. Too fast. “I took a measurement device from Colonel Telford to track my own progress. I can convert all of it. I know, for a fact, that I can do it.”
“Doc,” Greer whispers, “I’m not gettin’ it.”
“Matter. Energy.” Rush breathes so fast Greer’s worried he’s gonna pass out. “Please understand I don’t want to. I don’t want to.”
“You don’t want to what?”
Rush flinches, like he just got an earful from someone Greer can’t see. “Yes.” He squeezes his eyes shut. “I know. I know.”
“C’mon, doc. Keep it together.”
“You’ve no idea,” Rush hisses, eyes glittering, “how fantastically ‘together’ I actually am. You’ve failed to supply any rational arguments, as to why we can’t proceed as I outlined and therefore,” he kneels next to the grating, “we go.”
Before the scientist can lift the lid on an alien storm sewer, Greer twists a hand into the back of his jacket and yanks him to his feet. “We’re not—”
But it was too fast. Too unexpected. Rush’s expression glazes over, his knees buckle and they fold to the ground together.
“Shit,” Greer mouths silently.
It takes way the hell too long for the scientist to reboot himself. When his awareness kicks back in, the guy scans his surroundings, blinking rapidly. Clearly he doesn’t have a clue about what’d just happened.
“You okay?” Greer asks.
“I’m not compensating well to high-delta sensory inputs that result from environmental change.”
“Yeah,” Greer replies. “I know. For what it’s worth, it only seems to go bad when the world acts up on you. You’re getting yourself around pretty well.”
Rush’s eyes flick into empty air, like he’s taking a poll.
Greer looks at the alien sewer grating.
He looks into the pitch black beyond.
The rain falls faster now, a real downpour. Water runs into the dark.
He does not wanna go down there.
He curls his fingers around the grate and pulls until it comes loose. It’s heavy as hell, and he shifts it only enough for them to slip through. There are metal rungs leading into the darkness, spaced too wide for human comfort. He pulls his flashlight out of his pack and clicks it on.
Fifteen feet down, he can see the glitter of moving water.
“Shit, doc,” he breathes. “I hope you’re right about this.”
“Right about what?” Rush whispers.
Greer shuts his eyes and steels himself. “Don’t worry about it. It’ll come back to you.”