The force of the parachute spreading wide and catching air tore Kyeongwan and Sami apart.
The plane glided overhead with Jerry still inside the smoky fuselage. The dot of The Classic zipped off for his next victim. The wind took Sami’s parachute toward the lightning rod on the 63 Building and Kyeongwan lost sight of her.
In the reflection of the windows, she was a rag-doll.
On the street, she was a puddle in clothes.
There he was.
Not a memory.
Not a video Sami had watched a hundred times.
Not a photo hanging in her house with that stupid grin.
It was him.
She hurried down the steps of the helipad but the parachute snagged on the opposite corner, draping it across the limit for weight printed in thousands of pounds and the limit for rotor diameter printed in feet, and as she looked down to fumble with the buckles and straps, she lost sight of him.
The camera drone floated in her face to catch her reaction and she swatted at it but missed.
A heavy door slammed closed.
“Yasser!” She chased him.
Her voice echoed down the stairwell that led to locked doors and at the final one, floor 57, she was ready to rip the door off. She didn’t have to.
All the top ten lists of tourist attractions in The City, even the one put out by Orange Peals’ socials, listed the 63 Building at number 10. It was a great first thing to do. The lowest floor had restaurants and shops and an elevator that went straight to the top, no other stops, where visitors ignored the office art for a view of the city. But there wasn’t much else. None of the restaurants made anyone’s radar. The shopping was there because why not? The other 61 floors had their own entrance and elevators so the office workers could get to their desks each morning without paying an exorbitant $30 admission. It was just a good central view of The City, and in the series, a landmark you wanted a selfie at. However, some patrons would sneak in to see the rest of the building hoping for a special treasure and the secretaries were tasked with answering calls and gatekeeping.
“Ma’am, do you have a visitor’s badge?” the secretary said.
“A man came through here.”
“Ma’am, you can get a badge at the security desk if you take this elevator to—”
“Tall. V-neck and blazer. It couldn’t have been—”
“more than a minute—”
“TELL ME WHERE HE WENT!” Sami screamed over whatever inane script she followed.
This drew the branch manager from his desk, a 50-something redhead with thick tortoise shell glasses that didn’t look good back when Bradley here adopted the style. “Janine asked you to leave, ma’am.”
“Listen, Bradley, I don’t care anymore about this stupid...”
The man’s shirt was untucked and splashed with blood. His tie was snipped where thin. “I’m going to have to escort you out.”
“Touch me and we’ll see where that hand can fit.”
He stepped toward her and she kicked the umbrella bin at his ruddy face, knocking those glasses off. A few office employees gathered blocking the entrance and behind them, Sami saw there’d been violence.
Overturned desks arranged in an octagon formed an arena. A man, unconscious, bloody and shirtless, lay inside and the victor raised his wrists clad in coffee pot handles, regular and decaf, brown and orange, with the glass gouging deep after his makeshift boxing gloves shattered upon KO.
Sami backed up to the elevator doors. Her hand smudged the wall panel as she slapped for a button. Up, down, what did it matter once she was on? Above the door, the LED flashed the elevator’s current floor: 5.
The office workers closed in.
The drone hovered over the wet crater in the center of the street. Water trickled down the sides, running over exposed pipes, gathering in a puddle beneath the yellow plaid shirt. A fine mist had splashed outside the hole. The cracks in the pavement funneled the remains, but even the droplets on the flat intact land were pulled down.
From the crater, Kyeongwan emerged. A pebble fell out of her fingertip.
The shimmering gold of the 63 Building towered above the apartments and small businesses lining the city block. The shimmering gold that she’d seen her reflection in as she fell.
She remembered seeing Sami’s emergency parachute drifting toward the top of the building.
“How many now?”
In the broadcast room with more monitors than people, quiet chatter into headsets helped Tim the intern in the back corner behind a stack of curved ultra-wide screens communicate with Marshall up front. His whispers barely registered over the hum of equipment. Tim the intern said, “Six. No, five. Kyeongwan’s camera is still up.”
“Send it north,” The Director commanded. “Replace the one in the crash.”
“But...” Tim the intern hesitated to ignore the direction. “But she’s up, too.” He couldn’t see The Director’s reaction. The Director hadn’t looked away from the main screen, even when he barked that he’d been watching this view for too long and Eli had panic-switched through a few till she found one with something happening. Tim would hate for that bark to be sicced on him. “Should I still send it?”
Marshall cringed in his ear. “Dude.”
The Director turned around with the answer in his silence.
Tarnished splendor, mirroring the reflection Kyeongwan saw in the fall, lay beyond the front door.
Usually the center of the room had a tree decorated in fairy lights year round with astroturf at the base. Modern murals blended styles and stories, and the myth it wove started in school with a child raising their hand and after destruction, atrocities, and vengeance painted above the elegance of restaurants and the convenience of pretzel vendors, the circular room wrapped back around to that child still asking to go to the toilet.
The tree was still there, but nutrients from a body trickled down whetted branches.
The restaurants had shuttered in time but the dents came from inside: prisons, not shelters.
The mural had gone untouched, but perhaps Kyeongwan had arrived too early.
Mall shoppers, between a dozen and two, were split into two clashing groups with a blurry delineation at the center where only violence was apparent, violence and victory, as the groups split even enough that either had a chance but too many on one team were frightened individuals pressed against the murals wishing it were a portal they could escape into because fairytale destruction, atrocities, and vengeance were preferable to this reality. Those who refused to be victims shouted and chucked the contents of their purses at the attackers, whether it was a book or a sunglasses case. Some lobbed their purses. Some took off their shoes to beat back the swell of bodies that threatened to engulf them. A security guard held the line the best he could (not well at all), urging everyone on both sides to backup, calm down, and go home, but his words went unheeded in the chatter of panic and violence.
Behind Kyeongwan, the door sealed shut. A few ears caught the new arrival. They started yelling to her, “You have to help us!”
They chanted it until others in the crowd joined in the chorus.
“You have to help us,” the security guard said. The pocket of his uniform had torn. The aggressors and employees around him, all dirty faces and wrinkled clothes, approached Kyeongwan en masse, while those against the mural watched uncertain.
She said, “I’ll take care of this.” But she didn’t really know how she’d do that.
But another repeated, “You have to help us,” in this dry, distant voice.
She looked at the automatic door she had come through. “Go, go!”
The crowd was torn between listening to their tender nursery rhyme-filled hearts that insisted on helping and listening to that fear wildly bruising their hearts against ribs, but with regret already fading, many stood under the sensor for the automatic door—and it didn’t open. They worked their fingers into the seam. The lock had latched. Even those who wanted to help Kyeongwan had a new task: beat down that door.
The mob was nearly on Kyeongwan.
“You have to help us.” They backed her into a wall with no escape route. When Kyeongwan pushed into the crowd, they pushed back and forced her onto a cushioned bench. The security guard flashed his Maglite in her eyes.
“What are you doing?” she asked the guard. “I thought you were...”
“You have to help us.” They leaned in like they wanted to devour her.
She kicked the woman in the middle.
From the second rank, another filled the hole.
The woman with the footprint on her shirt rose.
Kyeongwan kicked and flailed and tried but there were too many. Someone grabbed her ankle. She had waited too long to fight back and now that wasn’t an option. She could only scream. The shoppers working on the door to no success charged to her aid but they only jostled the mob, adding pressure to Kyeongwan, pressing these gaping-mouth crazies inches toward her and she had no room left to kick or flail.
The security guard raised his heavy, metal flashlight above with the beam aimed at the ceiling as he prepared to swing it down into her skull.
Her arm slipped from its captor.
The light came swinging.
She raised that free arm to block it out of instinct. She tensed as she expected pain. Light splashed through, slowed but not stopped, still coming for her nose, but that too, when hit, splashed. And then she was behind them, her arm intact, her nose as cute as ever, their shoes a bit wet.
“That was weird feeling,” she admitted to the crowd of would-be rescuers and attackers. Then she sent them on their way while she kept her promise: “GO!” she yelled.
The peaceful crowd retreated to another store, trusting that what they’d just seen her do would keep her and, more importantly, them safe.
Just ahead, Kyeongwan saw a luggage store with the metal shutter open half a meter. Faster than these foot-dragging, mouth-hanging freaks, Kyeongwan outran them, sliding along the smooth marble floor, but she didn’t get low enough and when her head wanged on the metal, the brain liquid and the hair liquid and the ear liquid zipped back in place and she reformed with the thrilled smile of discovery. She was getting the hang of this already.
In a separate part of the city, in the shadow of a hotel that was in the shadow of the 63 Building, Cafe Polyn, a privately owned coffee shop where the owner brought in her gentle giant yellow Lab, was overrun by a similar crowd of infected individuals.
The owner had pulled down the blinds of the glass storefront with beautiful calligraphy stating, “We are always your friend,” but the roving mob had smashed through the slogan and the customers, the sane ones, hid in the garden out back where she hadn’t picked up Polyn’s morning poop yet. There was no windows to the back. The door locked by key only. It was the only entrance unless people started climbing the surrounding, six-foot brick fence. But it wouldn’t be safe forever.
The community team, the only plane to land safely on a nearby 8-lane highway, stumbled upon the scene. “Um... hi?” one of the four said to crowd tossing the espresso cups to smash against the locked door. He didn’t have the confidence or experience to be as heroic as he’d been last night in his fantasies while unable to sleep.
The crowd turned to the community.
The community looked to each other, nervously laughing, waiting for someone else to make the first move.
There was the guy who could fly. The guy who oozed obsidian from his skin that hardened into a protective shell. The guy who could unhinge his jaw like a snake and probably swallow something quite large, and the guy who made flowers grow, but he hadn’t figured that out yet and thought he was a dud. No one truly offensive.
But this was why they were here. Flower Power shoved the nearest man in the crowd.
The crowd shoved back. They overwhelmed him. Kicked him on the ground. Drew blood from a loose tooth and the community team only realized when a wild kick covered in enough blood flung crimson droplets onto the white tile. The Obsidian Ooze dove on top of his new compatriot to shield him. Sharp volcanic glass that could survive all these kicks, breaking phalanges and metatarsals before cracking and exposing the hero to damage, but he was so thin and short and his downed teammate neither of those and the shield only blocked a few blows.
“Stop!” Fly Guy yelled in his Australian accent. “Stop!”
“What are they doing?”
“Nothing,” Marshall reported.
“Put it center.” The big screen at the front of the room switched the main cam away from the scene at the top of the 63 Building to Fly Guy’s view of the mosh pit. “Boa Boy can’t do anything. Can’t even watch. Who screened these four?” His voice rose to frightening levels, but casting was home, so it cut low again. “Who’s going to watch this?” The Director was about to instruct Bandile to relay some instructions. Give them a chance at least.
But Boa Boy’s drone swung around for a view behind him and Marshall, spying it on the small screen, interrupted. “Wait.”
Boa Boy couldn’t watch the coming carnage. He looked away and saw, descending from the heavens in a costume tattered to its last, The Classic.
What hope! What fortune! These 4 mega-fans, a local, two from opposite coasts, one from Australia for crying out loud, not only got to meet this long time icon but they were being saved by him.
He strode through the glass, letting remnants shatter against his shoulder. He pulled the two boys from the ground.
The attackers persisted. They grabbed for fabric and limbs. One caught a shoelace and pulled till it was uncomfortably tight.
He tossed the boys to the safety of the street. Flower Power getting a bit of road rash from the roughness but the Obsidian Ooze was fine, just his shell scratched.
Rather than turning to the swarm of opponents at his back, The Classic faced down the two standing boys.
A wet piece of rolling luggage tumbled from its display stack to the patterned floor and Kyeongwan was ready for her attackers. It took them a bit to chase her over here, choosing to crawl under the rolling shutter rather than lift it, but that gave her time to test and prep.
She waited behind an L-shaped counter with three registers, a key in hand.
Their steps sounded on the black marble.
Judging by the noise, they roamed in a pack. They paused in a pack. They peeked around the luggage in a pack.
Her back was against the locked cabinet that contained rolls of receipt paper and her eyes were on the swinging gate that was easy to step over but social conventions stopped customers. That would not stop this mob. So she watched. And waited.
But it was from behind that they yanked her up and over with reward card applications forms flying everywhere.
After the momentary panic, she dripped from their clutches and went on with her plan.
She squirted them in the face with all the pressure of a thumb over a garden hose, then ran the cracks of the floor pattern toward the entrance till she was out, carrying a padlock in her current. She slammed the metal gate shut and locked it. They banged against it so it echoed in the lobby like so many aluminum oven liners. The clanking and clatter. The rumble of her empty stomach.
“Baegopa,” she moaned.
The feeling was exhilarating but ultimately these powers exhausted her. She needed a little rest before continuing upward, but there was still the matter of the shoppers. The peaceful ones.
“Are you okay?” she asked, coming into the clothing store. A few peeked out from behind the racks. “What happened?”
A mom with her young daughter came forward. The little girl’s short hair was in twin space buns and Kyeongwan almost thought she was cute, almost. The mom explained, “They just went nuts.”
Anyone could turn suddenly.
She nodded at the crowd then led them to the door. It stayed closed so she charged it with her shoulder and it rocked under the weight of her tsunami as she splashed against it. A few drops went through the cracks. She tried again. A deep breath, and again. This time, panting, there was no starting as her legs sloshed in her shoes, her feet spilling out. She belly flopped forward. She needed to rest. The floor was a good place for that.
The mother helped her to the bench by the tree. “I’m okay,” she mumbled.
Now it opened. She looked her drone in the lens, wondering who on the other side was in control, what else they had planned, and if they were laughing at her struggle. Embarrassment like this better not make the cut.
She sent the crowd on through that entrance big enough for two at a time, but then the people beyond the exit cried and ran while those waiting in line stopped pushing forward. Something was happening between the set of doors. Kyeongwan rushed through to see the mother on the ground, curled up in a defensive position as the little girl with twin space buns kicked repeatedly.
Kyeongwan’s voice went ragged as she yelled, “Stop!” but she couldn’t get through the surge of people fleeing. She full-on barked, “HAJIMA!” and her rage rolled over on itself. She pushed through. Tackled the girl into the bushes outside, then rolled off and the girl ran into the city looking for her next victim.
The others in the crowd had already taken the unconscious mother for treatment and so Kyeongwan, needing physical and emotional respite, stopped at the bench circling the bloody tree, she leaned back and her head hit a beeping plastic explosive, counting down.
As she headed for the door, she remembered why she was here.
The timer read two hours still, but Kyeongie didn’t know if that was accurate. If there were more. If they were all set to the same time.
However, she did know that this was a show. No one participating knew how to disarm a bomb. Most films had the hero sweating over which wire, in her same predicament, not a clue what they were doing, and in the end, they always, always, always chose correctly. She grabbed some scissors from the pen cup of a clothing store. She cut the green wire.
And the timer stopped.
Kyeongwan headed up the stairs without a clue that she’d gotten very lucky.
From the garden behind Cafe Polyn, the owner grabbed the decorative ax. Any damage was from bashing a painted, wedge-shaped mace that gave the illusion of sharp. The screams from inside the cafe terrified some into scrambling atop each other, over the walls, but she was left alone, too short to get herself up. She’d save Polyn, the cafe and the dog, with this ax.
She unlocked the door and saw the mob of aggressors mumbling as they stood around in the glass they’d shattered into the cafe.
Her clutch softened. The metal fell to the soil.
On the street was more glass. Black glass. Volcanic glass. The glass of camera lenses. And so much blood.
Rising above the flat-top roof, she saw The Classic.
The second floor housed more shopping, but beyond that, doors were locked from this side to prevent nosy customers from wandering into the offices that actually filled the floors of this building. Kyeongwan had never been here. She didn’t know that between populated floors there were 10 stories missing because it was wasted space on a decorative set piece that got evacuated to be destroyed twice a season. She saw the locked employees-only door and slipped under to follow the staircase as high as it’d take her before she wandered into a trashed office.
No swivel chairs—they’d been tossed to the street. A breeze cut itself on jagged window panes. Electrical cords stretched the canyons between overturned computer desks. Filing cabinets spilled the contracts with dotted lines signed by the muck of footprints. An arena in the center. And all the office workers tied up on the inside.
But for the moment, she could ignore that.
She said, “I thought I never see you again.”
The mob of dowdy employees had their individuality boiled down to the width of silver stripes on their uniform tie, some a quarter inch, some an eighth, even pinstripes, and these automatons ran down the steps, the stairs ringing with speed while Sami had taken the elevator. Beat them by a cool minute with enough time to sneak out to the backstreet and slide a car in front of the door. After some futile beating, they returned to the elevator.
Each morning, the employees parked on both sides of the single-lane street so the middle path, popular for pedestrians who wanted to avoid the main roads, was already narrow. The kind of street you’d hear a horn and get to the side between stationary, randomly generated license plates to wait for the car to pass. But today, the cars that would normally honk were abandoned. And just a few ahead of Sami was the man she’d been chasing.
“Yasser!” she yelled.
He continued on his way.
She sidled between cars, folding in mirrors and scooting the vehicles aside for an extra few inches, but still going too slow to catch him.
Still slim and tall, he easily slid around the obstacles. This wasn’t a costume, this wasn’t hair, this wasn’t any more makeup than he normally wore. This was him and she was losing him. Again.
“Screw it.” Sami flipped the car over her head. She only needed her one working hand but car after car after this long morning, she was getting worn out, cursing at an unexpectedly heavy electric vehicle and then her control went loose with the bed of a pickup truck that hit the building, shattering gold behind her. Still, she kept on. She had to. He was so close and he wasn’t stopping so neither could she. There was no time for patience.
After wiping sweat from her brow, she grabbed the fender of the next car and let go too soon and it flipped—forward.
He didn’t turn.
He didn’t see it.
He didn’t know.
“OUT OF THE WAY, DUMBASS!”
In the chaos, she couldn’t see that the car had landed on its roof. That the 64-ounce jug from the gas station had hooked on the rear view mirror, dumping its Diet Coke onto the shattered safety glass. That somewhere beneath was her brother.
She charged the alley. It hurt to shove aside the cars like this but every second might have been the difference between saving him and losing him again.
But at the crash site, she hesitated, not ready for reality.
The doors around her opened with squeaky hinges. An army surrounded her in the same drab uniform. Not a hint of individuality. All the same as the man under the car, splattered in Diet Coke. The man she once thought no more was a dozen around her, closing in.
In the Belmont parking lot, there were the skeleton broadcast crew’s cars and then a few of the animators’ that seemed to be paying rent for no reason when Slipstream pulled up.
The sidecar for her motorcycle was loaded with replacement drones. They could fly. They’d make the distance fine. But might as well save the battery power since she had to go anyway.
“Make him remember,” The Director told her. “His role is to sit and wait.”
“Oh, he remembers, but you know how he is.”
“Then make him do it.”
She slid on her helmet with the gold ornamental V-fin then flipped the visor down. “Got it, boss.”
Her brother’s beautiful head flew off into the hands of her brother. These shitty imitations wouldn’t capture Sami. She’d clobber every one of them that came for her.
She clobbered that one, but no more.
None of him came for her.
All of him retreated.
But she wouldn’t let them do that either. How much heartbreak had she endured already today and now, these things went and got her hopes up? That stupid V-neck with a casual blazer. That stupid face. It was unforgivable. So, aggressive or not, they’d be dust.
They fled down the alley till it parted two ways and so did the retreating army.
One path led to the main road that they blocked, funneling her the other way, to the labyrinth of sewers, where they lined up on either side of the entrance to allow her passage. She saw this trap and turned around, but there they were, too.
When she challenged that blockage, however, they parted.
Their presence was encouragement. GPS directing her “This way.” Should she refuse, they’d reroute and pop up with new directions and be the classic bothersome brother she knew, but should she continue to refuse--nothing more. There was no consequence.
Other than never seeing the real him again.
And so, wordlessly, she accepted. Sami followed them deep into the sewers.
When The Classic tore open the plane to a team of 5, actors and OP cast mixed in, the Dominican-American actress from Chicago, Carla, was the first with her hackles up. And when he started toward her in the front, she opened a portal and her telekinetic teammate sucked him through. Whatever clouds the brute wound up in were far from them and the autopilot descending to accommodate for the loss of cabin pressure would soon steer them to a safe landing. Everyone thought they had passed the first test.
But the second test, when they leveled off looking for an open street wide enough, was The Classic returning with a quicker plan to eradicate the plane at once.
He tore off a wing.
And Carla, again, didn’t hesitate to open a portal. Not for him. Not for their safety. But for her and her alone. She wound up on the ground, watching her plane spiral toward the woods and then a second plane crashing much closer.
Now she was hesitant. She flew a lot. She knew how hot and volatile jet fuel was. But she watched the wreckage smoke, peeking in with a small portal in the back.
It was empty.
The seats from row 9 to 1, to the torn down door, were empty.
Then a dufflebag was tossed out the other side of the portal and someone walked out unscathed.
She was ready to get out of there if it was The Classic again and this guy was big but soft. As the sole survivors of their teams as far as they knew, they forged an alliance. He knew this city and show better than she did. “Where we heading?”
He pointed to the tallest building shimmering gold in the distance.
“I never thought I’d see you again,” Kyeongwan said. After the plane, the fight, the fall, climbing to get here on tired legs that sloshed with every stair but she had pushed through and the reward was not what she wanted but a reward all the same. Sami was still out there. She knew that. She hadn’t known Jerry was. “I’m so glad…”
Jerry stood up from behind an office worker with red-hair and a necktie snipped where it was narrow. Jerry held black plastic strips: zip ties. One was around the office worker’s wrists. One was around each office worker’s wrists.
“How did you…?”
He’d fought through this office solo. Not even just escaping the plane, somehow, maybe waking up last minute and finding a parachute and jumping, but then surviving this fight and coming out on top.
Then she remembered why she was up here. Not just to find Sami. But to warn Sami. About the bombs. “No time to talking. We need people out.”
Not saying anything, mouth hanging, he stayed where he was, watching her go to work on his zip ties with the scissors from the first floor. She cut the binds around their ankles. They couldn’t be trusted, even the docile ones, because of the infection and each would need help standing, but for now, she just cut.
The third person Kyeongwan freed, she recognized. Vaguely. A Dominican-American woman with light brown skin. Strong cheekbones and parted, tight curls.
She moved onto the next guy. She didn’t know him.
But she kept looking back. No name came to mind. She was good with names, but none came.
Just a bleary-eyed memory of a phone gone missing.
She left the office worker tied at the feet to go back to the woman. As she worked on the gag about the woman’s mouth, Kyeongwan really took in the scene again. The arena. The other hostages that weren’t gagged. Had she been especially troublesome? Was Jerry just getting to the rest? She looked beyond the arena to the stained floor and the smashed windows and the interior pillars. There were four pillars. Two had plastic explosives, blinking lights, beeping, counting down. 20 minutes left.
Kyeongwan undid the gag.
“My hands!” the actress pleaded.
Kyeongwan went for the bomb with her scissors, and Jerry stepped in her way with a duffle bag full of his props as she finally realized his treachery.
Unable to accept it, she asked, “Why are you doing?”
Any explanation would do!
He reached into the bag and pulled out what could have been a squirt gun as easily as a photon rifle.
“Are you infected? A zombie?”
He aimed it at her.
“I’ve got powers and I know you don’t,” she said.
“I’m just not ready to reveal them.” He pulled the trigger. The thrumming electro-coil around the barrel left a charge on the ferromagnetic rod fired toward Kyeongwan that summoned light bulbs, thumb tacks, and staplers among every other bit of metallic shrapnel in the nearby cubicles. The opposite of a grenade. The sparking light bulbs that were ripped from their sockets smashed on the floor. A calendar fell from the cork board as a wet thumb tack went whizzing for Jerry’s cheek. He flinched and groped his eye socket like it might’ve blinded him, but it hadn’t even left a mark.
As the last ripple around her heart settled, Kyeongwan, like a fire hose, blasted her friend through the window to the branch manager’s office. The venetian blinds tangled around him.
“My hands!” the actress yelled again. “If you get my hands free, I can get us out of here.”
Kyeongwan yanked the scissors from the junk pile around the magnetized rod that maintained a weak charge. She cut the actress free and Carla waved her hands in a large circle which opened a wormhole like a long tunnel of swirling thunderclouds and at the end of it, a swivel chair on the street below.
“You can travel!” Kyeongwan didn’t have the word for the power exactly. “Can you escape these people?”
“Better idea: I’ll open a portal to the clouds; you blast him through.”
Kyeongwan calmed the swirling hands. “He’s hypnoed.”
Carla yanked away. “I don’t care! That crotch goblin had me thinking we were on the same side till he came up behind me with a three-hole punch.”
Jerry bent behind a desk picking through his bag. The window to the office was broken and wet. The window in the office, the shimmering gold lens to the rest of the city, maybe a panel she’d seen herself in, was broken, too.
“Even if he’s lost, I can’t do that to a friend.”
The actress let that moment hang before relenting. “I can only take one at a time and even that’s--I don’t know if I have it in me for 8 trips.”
“Can you 7?” Kyeongwan said. “I’m okay.”
It took her a breath to accept that, but then Carla pulled Bradley by the snipped necktie through the portal and it closed behind them.
When he emerged through the office door, Jerry had glass shards in his beard and a rifle in hand. Red with a glass chamber where a bullet normally went. “So, you’re like Slip. You’re not special. I know how to deal with you.”
When the city planners on the Orange Peals staff conceived the city, they included buildings that’d look good destroyed, scenic parks and lakes, forest flatlands surrounding the city on one side and a mountain that rose high enough for snow peaks. They wanted every environment to fight in without the overhead of travel for cast, crew, and equipment. That planning included sewers that spanned the entirety of the city in a confusing maze with secret lairs.
Sami hated shooting in the sewers. It smelled authentic. In slow motion, the glimmer of studio lights off pooey water looked even worse.
Even after corridors and corners, following the parade of Yassers, between them, in front of, surrounded by, and--she hoped--headed for, her nose hadn’t gotten used to the smell, but when they stopped at a windowless double door of dull metal, she wished the trip had taken longer.
They wouldn’t go another step.
The camera drone lined up for her reaction. Whoever was behind it knew.
There was no more patience left in her. She pushed through, which, after the first shove, was unnecessary. They wanted her through. They filled the gap from where she came.
Her hand on the handle, she told herself, whatever was beyond, she couldn’t expect it to be him.
But she did.
And it was.
It really, really was.
At the far side of the office, the scratchy fabric cubicle walls visually separated Kyeongwan from Jerry, but his red rifle tore holes through them. The charge between shots took long enough for Kyeongwan to duck-walk to a new hiding spot or to sweat and hope he found a possible but wrong hiding spot to shoot at while she took a breath. One office separator covered in robin egg blue wallpaper had so many holes that the overhead bin collapsed onto the family photo of Dolores and her three ugly kids.
She dove to the next stacked drawers between reloads.
“Put on a show, dancer!”
“Why are you doing this?”
She watched for his shadow on the walls. He was to the right. She’d go left. She was ready to dive when a blast cut the aisle a margin wider and went out the window where her drone floated catching the perfect angle of her hiding spot. The angle that gave her away. The window was her last option. She’d done it once. Even if she shuddered at the memory, she could again. But not yet. Carla had only a few workers left.
“Content! While the cameras are watching you can be graceful, you can be raw, but never be boring, Kyeongie.”
But if her drone signaled her position, so did his. He was approaching, and she circled around the other side and when he saw she had moved, he sprinted back where he’d come but she’d already melted to a puddle under the desk where workers kicked off their shoes to play footsie with the electrical strip. When she popped back up, both she and Carla nearly let loose sounds of surprise. Kyeongwan’s sweat absorbed back into her forehead, but Carla dripped. She needed a breather. She needed more time, time Kyeongwan would’ve loved to give her, but the digital readout hooked to the pillars didn’t care.
Kyeongwan ran to behind the copy machine. “I don’t care about cameras!”
Jerry fired toward her.
This gave Carla a moment to choose a hostage to rest with on the street.
“Make your dodges artful, attacks a flurry. Haven’t you seen how Slip does it?”
Carla’s portal opened and as she sprinted through, finding every second in that domain draining, Jerry walked in front with the rifle. There was no time. She hooked the final worker’s bound wrists as her hand swirled a portal between her and that maniac viking and she ran—she ran straight into the red rifle’s glowing muzzle. She let go of the worker to save herself at least but all the hand waving and nothing came.
The rifle was charged.
A stream snaked around his ankles ripped him off his feet as the beam fired upward into a ceiling light. The fluorescent tubes shattered and the metal casing slammed down onto Jerry. Carla disappeared.
“How’s that?” Kyeongwan said into his camera.
The collapsed casing should’ve reminded him he was human, that he still bled, but the sharp corner missed him, denting on the floor, and he was just dazed as she rolled it off.
“Are you done?”
He reached for his rifle.
The force of her flood sent him toward the manager’s window, but she floated him back from the edge, letting her own rage recede from the edge as well.
“Now? Or you ready to show powers you definitely have?”
When she buried him beneath her waves, she hadn’t seen that his reach for the rifle had been successful and she hadn’t seen in all this chaos that it was red for a reason and the blast hadn’t torn holes through the office with concussive force, but now she saw that it evaporated her water with a beam of such intense heat that it now tore through her shoulder. Her arm sloshed off.
She hid once more in the arena of filing cabinets.
Carla was there, too, holding her necklace, praying for the first time this month. She had overexerted herself getting the office workers to safety and yet, she came back. She saw Kyeongwan’s incinerated sleeve. The arm missing. “Him or you! This is my last trip, so which one is it? Him or you?”
The receptionist in a purple blouse was bound, crouching, cowering near the filing cabinet. The others hadn’t cowered. Or cried. Had she ever been infected? Had it all been an act?
Kyeongwan’s arm, a small puddle, lapped at her shoes then returned where the sleeve once was. She felt frail. 5 kilograms lighter and it showed on her cheeks. The skin visible around her neck rippled with every heartbeat. She cut the ties on the woman in purple. “Her.”
She slapped herself and water splashed over her, and it was like exam prep month again, falling asleep mid-essay, slouching down till she gagged on the motionless mechanical pencil. The teacher tapping her desk the first time. Then some stern warnings. Then dropping a book on the floor. Pelting her with shredded eraser bits before Kyeongwan finally, in a dreamy state, not sure if she had permission, wandered to the toilet sink where she could throw cold water on her face even in winter when the building didn’t have centralized heating and some would drip onto her uniform collar, a constant discomfort that kept her awake—for a bit.
“And once you’re out, stay out.”
When Yasser premiered on the show, he hated it. He didn’t know what the roulette would give him but when he discovered it…
“How am I ever supposed to get a date now?”
“Give it a rest,” Sami said on the drive home. She flipped on the radio to drown it out.
Yasser complained louder. “Would you date Mold Man with all the powers of leftover bread?”
“You have to spin it.”
“Spin it? Huh! Spin it.” He slumped in his seat. He could infect people to grow his influence if they breathed in his spores. He could even plant spores in moist environments to grow clones given enough time, though in a pinch he could pop one out as a decoy if he was ready to nap for a day after. His bacteria even had the properties of penicillin or poison. But none of that was Tinder sexy. “Call me the blue cheese dildo.”
There was some silence that she hated to break but… curiosity. “You’re not, like, jizzing curds, are you?”
“Don’t ask me that!”
The door had been heavy enough to seal in the sound, but now a hum encased her with the occasional sputtering exhaust pump that fed into the ceiling, that fed up through the road, up through a peak in the skyline. It drained Yasser’s spores to spread throughout the city.
The scent had changed, too, to that of a bathroom someone sprayed in teenage deodorant to cover the smell but instead of dueling till the least offensive permeated, they united to form a super stench.
Still she smiled. A little. Painfully.
Her brother’s gaunt, unconscious--she hoped--body hung from the machinery by so many straps and tubes that poked into his veins, fueling the machine.
She wasn’t a doctor. She had no training. Maybe this would kill him, but she pulled out the IVs anyway.
The drugs feeding into him were to keep him alive and dazed, but none were anesthesia. Only a paralytic that kept him in a screaming dream.
And as they were removed, the effects wore off. His eyes moved under the lids and his teeth unclenched.
Like so many times when they were young and again after their debut, she threw him on for a piggyback ride. She’d carry him out through the pooey water and get him a bath and today would be okay, however hard that was to accept.
His eyes fluttered opened.
He took in the environment and wrote off the escape as a dream. A pleasant one for a change. His big sis wasn’t yelling in this one. “Miyah?”
“Sup?” Casual as could be feeling his hug on her back. She’d cry when they were out.
But with every step toward the door, he understood this wasn’t a dream and this wasn’t good. “What are you doing?”
“Mom missed you.” There was no hesitation when her hand touched the door this time.
“Stop!” His voice was weak.
Outside the door, the army of imitations that had led her to the original greeted them as a group. Samiyah pushed through, expecting them to separate like before.
“You don’t understand,” Yasser pleaded.
The army didn’t separate.
“They’re not mine!”
The mineral fiber ceiling tiles lay broken and singed on the office carpet. Now that Kyeongwan was not as invincible or overpowered as she came into this match, for intimidation, Jerry shot upward and hit an intersection of ceiling frame that collapsed the surrounding tiles on him. It pissed him off more.
His hostages were gone. Time was running down. His troll beard was covered in ceiling dust and Kyeongwan was still hiding.
“What’d you think this was?” he yelled. “The moment I saw you were the same as Slip, I knew what to do! Of all people, my encyclopedic knowledge of possible powers and their strengths and weaknesses, I knew exactly how to beat you so what were you doing acting all uppity before? Huh?”
He melted the copy machine.
“This is the problem with not being unique.”
Kyeongwan had been retreating as a trickle around the wall trim, but today had taken too much from her and too much out of her. She had left a trail that soaked into the carpet. Whenever she reformed out of necessity, she saw her fingers were shorter. Still whole for now but shrinking. Child-like. Slipping into a puddle took more energy than she had left and while he fired wildly, she’d dart around, her ankles sloshing, till she needed to stay still and breathe. She’d been behind that copy machine when he melted it. It had hit her foot. The foot was gone and not coming back. There wasn’t enough water.
He appeared around the corner.
She had nothing left.
“You either have to overpower everyone or outlast them.” Jerry aimed at her.
He let the tension hang and then for just a glance, he checked the cameras. They were trained on him. The interns and the broadcast crew and The Director watching from Belmont. And in that moment, Kyeongwan sprayed him. His finger twitched on instinct and the ray cut through her other sleeve at the elbow, but the water had angled the blast away enough for an escape.
Jerry rubbed his eyes.
In the bathroom, there were a few tiles fallen around the holes she slipped through and she thought she might be safe lying on the ground missing so much of herself.
But she’d left a trail.
He’d caught on.
He fired directly at the bathroom without pause.
This was the moment to make her stand or she’d go out without leaving a single mark on him.
He fired again.
That beard was his pride.
It popped a pipe.
Her legacy would be tearing a chunk out.
Water rained down.
She rose on two legs. Her plaid yellow shirt was fucked. She loved that thing, but she ripped it off. Just a black tank top underneath and all the years of lithe muscle dancing had packed on her. Every limb intact. Every kilogram regained.
At an intersection, Samiyah waited for a gust of fresh air to guide her out, but they were too deep and too lost in the stink to find their way.
“At least put me down,” Yasser said.
“They’ll catch us otherwise.”
“This isn’t a maze. Just going left will send you in a circle.”
Why had she listened to the annoying potato sack on her back? Ahead, the impostor army splashed toward her with no regard toward what they were stepping in or how it soaked into their pants. But the troop they’d broken through to get this far hadn’t stopped their pursuit and now they were pincered in.
“You can’t fight them.”
She squared up, letting her hand bashed broken on The Classic’s skull pin his arms to her chest in case he got some heroically idiotic idea to let go.
“You remember my powers?” he said.
She spun around to catch anyone from behind creeping up on her.
“A few spores up your butt and you’re mine. Dancing on the table or pronouncing quinoa like it’s spelled.”
“I do those anyway.” Sami wiped her bloody hand against her temples to catch the sweat. “Now shut up and let me use my powers.”
“Punching when you have open wounds? Doesn’t matter if you hit or get hit. These guys might be fakes but they’ve got my powers turnt up.”
The army stayed mostly in place, trapping the siblings in the sewer, and when Sami stepped their way, they waited. Like Yasser, they thought whatever she did was futile.
Sami disagreed. “Don’t fight and we’re definitely theirs. Fight and maybe we make it. Not that hard of a decision.”
“You turn optimist while I was gone?” Yasser asked.
“Not telling. You have to see that for yourself when we’re out, okay?”
“You have to put me down.”
“Miyah...” If she wouldn’t listen, he’d have to handle it. They were ahead and behind and he didn’t even know which way they’d come from. “Pick a side.”
“Front or back? Where you heading?”
Sami shifted his weight on her shoulders. “Why?”
“You’ve spun me around like we’re in ballet again so I forget: which way’s the exit?”
“What are you doing?” she asked.
That dust and stench from the machine room was back. The dust and stench of his spores flecking off his skin.
With all the volume he could muster, he said, “Pick a side or I will and fuck me, if I’m wrong but I won’t be around.”
“Pick a side, Miyah!”
He was just that frail kid on her back after scraping his knee during Nutcracker rehearsal. The kid in so much makeup to rosy up his cheeks so, even Mom in row 7, even under the stage lights, everyone saw his cheer. The kid that looked surprisingly good in eyeliner. The kid in a gold and purple costume that spent all summer and fall complaining about friends laughing at him, but now that he was up in front of everyone, twirling and taking his turn behind the other kids to drag her under the archway of stage parents; while Sami panted, then and now, Yasser was the kid with the biggest beaming smile full of wired crooked teeth watching the curtain fall.
“Front!” she yelled.
“Thank you…” His voice was a soft, raspy whisper.
As the army in front charged toward Sami, then past her, with one final exertion now under his control, to tackle the army behind them, he whispered one more thing to her. “Promise me something? Don’t let The Classic get away with this.”
Kyeongwan dangled the shirt in the doorway and listened for the whir of the rifle charging. It fired into the door frame, cutting the molding around it, and Kyeongwan sprayed through the hole in the wall that had saved her. She solidified with one hand palming his face and the flooding momentum slammed him through an IKEA desk.
As Kyeongwan strode toward him, Jerry charged and fired.
Kyeongwan’s arm fell to a puddle on the carpet but while he waited on the recharge, she floated him toward the window, then pulled back. Her footsteps stayed damp in the carpet. She was still low on energy, but ready to use the last of it to destroy him, if she had to. He’d made that decision. She had to as well. He aimed and fired and Kyeongwan was the perfect wave for surfing, barreling around the beam and arriving on the other side of him.
He ran. He needed distance to aim. Distance to be at all effective against her. He stood over the puddle where her arm fell as he reloaded the gun, and when he turned—when he tried to turn—he felt a sharp pain in his face.
The last time he fired, it hadn’t hit Kyeongwan; it hadn’t severed her arm.
She had dropped her arm to avoid the beam.
It waited on the floor for her command, for this moment, for him to stand over so it could rise up and grip that ginger viking beard and pull. Some strands ripped. Some came out at the follicles. And when a detached chunk of hair was wet in her fist, an uppercut rocketed into him. The wet floor. The force of it. The whole exhausting day. It knocked him off his feet.
The puddle absorbed into Kyeongwan and she was whole again, holding the rifle in one hand and the hair in the other. She discarded both out the window.
The battle was won and she let go of all that emotion holding her up. Kyeongwan’s first real fight. She’d won. She fell forward. A belly flop splashing. Lying in a pool of herself. Just a little nap.
In the quiet, with everyone gone, she heard it clear.
She had about a hundred.
One for waking up.
One for starting breakfast.
Leaving for class.
Leaving for work.
And an extra for ease of mind.
Which one was this?
She was too tired to remember so probably the one for coffee, but she opened her eye to find the phone. She wasn’t in bed but that was normal. She fell asleep many places, but her phone wasn’t next to her. Where was it? she thought, closing her eye to look in her dreams. The plane. She remembered. Smashed and crashed. And she was in a building looking for Sami to warn her about the beep. About the bombs.
“Better run, Kyeongie.”
She started getting up. “Let’s go.”
“No,” Jerry said.
“No time. Let’s go.”
“I think I’ll stay and think about today. Where did it go wrong?”
“I’ll drag you out.”
The power to the elevator was out. “Down all 57 flights of stairs? We won’t make it in time. Slip had an incident like this once and we were all really concerned. And you’re not Slip. You definitely can’t survive what’s next.”
Leave his ass, she heard Sami say. Sami wasn’t there. It was in her mind. If he’s not making this easy and you don’t have the power to get him out, leave him.
But she did have the power! She could swallow him in a pool and jump out. That’d make the landing survivable—right? She hadn’t taken physics. She hated physics. Chemistry, okay. Biology, good! Physics, shoot it dead. But she was sure this could work and he’d be swept away whether he resisted or not. When she tried, she didn’t have the energy. She summoned her strength again, spritzed her face with water, tried again, but nothing.
“Go,” he said.
Go, Sami said.
She looked at Jerry one last time.
Samiyah emerged from the sewer alone in time to feel the shockwave and see the 63 Building collapse once more.
"You do it every damn season, you hack,” she said and went to face The Classic, wherever he may be.