Disclaimer: Eric, Kimberly, Wes, Jen, Alice and Taylor do not belong to me, they belong to BVE, but since BVE aren't using them any more, do you suppose they'd mind me borrowing? Gina, Annie Myers, Danielle 'Barbie' Hines, Ian Foster, Ellie Phillips, Paul Meachen and Police Chief Mackenzie do belong to me, as do all details of plot and set up. Ben Johnson is borrowed -- as ever with grateful thanks -- from Ekat. The assorted named -- if not necessarily speaking -- guardians belong to themselves. You guys know who you are -- many thank yous for letting me borrow!
Timing: This is roughly one year on from the end of Almost Unreal. There are some slight and minor spoilers for that story, but they really are minor.
Many thanks to Chris, Vanessa and Angel who've been enormous help in the writing of this. Many thanks also to Gamine who, though very busy, found the time to read through and beta for me. Again -- thank you all!
Warning: This story is PG-13 in rating. It is, therefore, not explicitly violent or gory. It does, however, contain several very intense situations. People of a very nervous disposition might want to hit the back button here.
It was a slow day, Gina noted as she frowned at the Solitaire game she was playing. Nothing strange; nothing out of the ordinary; no phone calls from Silverhills PD... Nothing. And she wasn't exactly complaining about that, either. Not after everything that had happened in the last year -- and she was more than well aware that what she knew about was a bare fraction of everything that had gone on. She finally spotted the next move open to her. Yep, a little bit of peace and quiet was what they could all do with.
The voice, a husky, cracked alto, forced Gina to look up. She found herself looking at a short, Asiatic woman.
"Can I help you?" Gina replied, trying hard not to actually stare at the woman, who looked oddly familiar although Gina was reasonably sure she'd never met the woman before in her life. Something about the eyes...
"I'm looking for Eric Myers," the woman answered. "I'm told he works here?"
"May I ask who's calling?"
The woman nodded. "Annie Myers -- his mother."
Eric entered the reception area of the Silver Guardian headquarters, intending to head out for some lunch, in time to see a small, Asiatic woman approach Gina's desk. She looked... He found his gut tightening. She looked familiar. Without even thinking about it, he changed direction, heading towards Gina's desk.
"I'm looking for Eric Myers -- I was told he works here?" the woman was asking.
No. Oooh no. It couldn't be... It shouldn't be...
"May I ask who's calling?" Gina asked.
"Annie Myers -- his mother."
Both Gina and Annie jumped at the sound and force of his exclamation. He didn't care, it was taking all his personal restraint not to cross the remaining yard between him and Gina's desk -- and by extension Annie -- and throttle the woman.
"Eric...I..." Annie began, turning to face him.
"Save it," Eric interrupted. "I don't want to know. I'm going to say this once and once only. You walked out of my life when I was sixteen and as far as I'm concerned, you can stay out of it now." He pointed towards the door. "Get the fuck out of this building before..."
"I want to explain," Annie cut in, desperation written large on her face.
"Explain?!" Eric exploded. "You forfeited that right thirteen years ago!"
Eric growled, his fists clenching. "Get out of this building before I call the police and have you charged with trespassing."
Annie's jaw hinged open. "You wouldn't...your own..."
"You want to try me on that one?" Eric snapped. "Go right ahead. Gina, call SPD. Better still," he added, smiling predatorily, "call 911 for an ambulance."
He took a step forwards.
"Commander Myers, no!" Somehow Gina had put herself in between him and his intended target. "If you do what I think you're planning, I will be calling SPD but it won't be to pick up a trespasser."
"Gina, get the hell out of my way."
For a long second, Eric was tempted to just pound both women into the ground. Good sense, fortunately, prevailed. With a wordless snarl of rage, he turned on his heel and headed in the direction of the gym.
Gina watched Eric leave and swallowed. Hard.
"Thank you..." Annie began.
Gina slowly turned to face the older woman. "Don't get me wrong," she answered. "I didn't do that for you, I did it for him." Annie looked taken aback. "I strongly suggest you don't come back here again."
"Ms Myers," Gina responded, "I've worked here eighteen months. I've seen Commander Myers in a variety of different moods. I've never seen him that angry. He fully intended to kill you and next time, I might not be here."
Gina watched the other woman's shoulders slump. "You're right. Tell him..." Annie shrugged. "I'm sorry."
Gina watched as Annie walked out of the building and shook her head. What had she been saying about peace and quiet?
Eric pounded the stuffing out of the punch bag.
How dare she show up like this? Here? Now?
He'd set the past aside -- all of it. He was trying to start a fresh. The last thing he wanted -- or needed -- was for her to arrive here and drag it all back up. But too late -- she'd done just that.
"It's dead already," said a voice from behind him.
"Not goddamn dead enough," Eric snapped. "Leave me the hell alone."
"Gina told me what happened," the voice persisted.
"Did she -- well if you're here to get me to 'talk' about it, there's nothing to talk about."
"I thought you'd got beyond pushing everyone away," said the voice.
"I'm not pushing anyone away," he retorted. "There is nothing to talk about."
"And that would be why you're pounding the punch bag into shreds," answered the voice dryly.
Eric stilled, not looking at the speaker. "You wouldn't understand," he murmured, the anger burning into a cold depression.
Eric slowly turned round to face the speaker. "Jen..."
But whatever he might have been planning to say was lost as the loud klaxon of a general alert started to sound. His personal problems faded to insignificance allowing the commander-persona to float to the top.
"Report," he called to Jen, who was listening to her headset, as he realised he'd left both his headset and equipment harness in his office when he'd decided to go to lunch.
"There's a 'situation' at the East Mall and hotel complex," Jen answered. "Chief Mackenzie has requested we send a team -- and specifically asked that you, me and Wes attend."
That meant whatever was happening was likely to warrant the ranger powers -- and was going to require certain things from the rest of the Guardian team. A few names automatically sprang forth. "OK -- hook up with Wes; make sure we have all three morphers." Jen nodded. "I'll meet you in the vehicle yard."
"You got it." She paused at the gym door. "And don't think this is getting you out of our chat, Eric."
Eric offered her a faint smile. "I'll look forward to it."
As Jen disappeared, Eric swiftly headed up to his office to collect his own equipment harness and headset. As he went, he unclipped his cell phone from his belt and dialled home.
"Yes?" Kimberly answered a little tersely.
"Bad day's about to get worse," Eric answered, skipping pleasantries.
"That's your business voice," she observed. "What's up?"
"Not sure," he replied, opening his office door. "But Mackenzie wants the rangers, so whatever it is can't be good."
"Who're you sending over?"
"Fos and Barbie -- they'll be with you in five minutes," he said, grabbing the equipment harness and starting to pull it on. "Is Ellie there?"
"No...wait...yes -- just walked in."
"Good." He headed back out of his office. "Gotta go now -- see you in ten."
"You got it."
He ended the call and replaced the phone on his belt, already mentally promising to make it up to Kimberly later. Pulling his on headset, he instantly got blasted by the assorted comm. chatter a general alert always inspired. He waited a moment then pressed the transmit button on his headset.
"Alpha team -- Johnson, Earhardt, Foster, Hines -- report direct to the vehicle yard. Comm. team -- Stewart, Jackson, Elliott, Carter -- report to the comm. centre. Beta team -- Miller, Fredricks, Deslaurier, Sanders, Schwartz and Reed -- on station standby. Gamma and Delta teams -- Watson, Lear, Haynes, Pelka, Sterling, Hauritz, Fried, Clingeleffer, Pfitzner and Jones -- get your heads down, this could be a long op. Myers out."
He reached the vehicle yard to find Ben, Taylor, Foster and Barbie, along with Wes and Jen, already there. Wes tossed the Quantum Morpher in his direction.
"Mackenzie's specifically asked for Wes, Jen and myself," Eric explained as he caught the morpher. "That means he wants rangers. Ben -- you're ground commander. Fos, Barbie..."
"Pick up Kim and rendezvous," finished Foster, a tight smile on his face. "You got it."
He and Hines started towards one of the SUVs parked in the yard.
"East Mall and hotel complex," Eric continued. "We don't know what the situation is -- but you can bet your ass it's not good."
"Copy that, Sarge. See you in ten."
Foster and Hines departed. Eric turned to the rest. "Let's go."
Eric could recall the East Mall development getting the go ahead. He'd just been starting junior high -- which made the development roughly fifteen years old, give or take. It had been a shining piece of eighties development.
As they approached the complex, Eric could see smoke rising from the development while the whole west side of the mall itself seemed to have collapsed.
"Jesus Christ," Taylor mumbled.
Eric couldn't help but agree.
They were waved through the police line and shown where to park, still a good fifty yards away from the building.
"Eric, with me," Ben announced, slipping into the role of commander. "Everyone else, set up our comm. post ready for Kim when she gets here and be ready for just about anything."
Eric followed Ben from the SUV as Chief Mackenzie and a man Eric mentally identified as Silverhills' fire chief.
"Good, you're here," said Mackenzie, not bothering with pleasantries. "This is Paul Meachen, chief of the Silverhills fire department."
"Ben Johnson," Ben answered, "Silver Guardians field commander, and this is Eric Myers."
If Ben doing the talking at all surprised Mackenzie, the generally grouchy and reluctant police chief didn't show it. Eric wasn't sure what that meant.
"Gentlemen," Meachen began, "as you can see, we have a serious situation in progress. At approximately two o'clock this afternoon there were at least four separate explosions in the complex. Two on the west side of the mall, causing that side of the development to collapse, one on the north side which caused further structural damage to the mall and at least one in the foundations of the East Plaza Hotel."
"At least one?" Ben echoed.
Meachen grimaced. "Prevailing theory is that it was one massive one but the structure is sufficiently unsafe that we cannot get in to assess damage. Nor can we get in to look for people trapped. Because of the smoke we have to go in with breathing gear and that combined with the IR gear..."
"No room," Eric supplied. Meachen nodded. "Which is why you want the rangers," he added, looking at Mackenzie.
"It's a job I know you can do," Mackenzie answered, for once not sounding like he was gritting his teeth as he said it.
"Do we have any idea of how many likely to be trapped?" Ben asked.
"The estimate we're working from at the moment, from the whole complex, is five hundred," Meachen answered. "This happened at a prime shopping time so the mall would have been busy..." The sentence trailed off because there was nothing else to say.
"Where do you want us to go in?" Ben continued.
"The are three entry points," Meachen replied. "North west corner; north east corner and hotel."
"One each, then," said Ben. Eric nodded.
"Good to go in...?"
Ben glanced at Eric as much to say: You know the answer to this question, not me. "Five minutes," Eric said.
Meachen looked a little startled but relieved. "Good."
Mackenzie nodded. "Good luck," he offered.
Ben gave a nod and walked back towards the SUV, which had been joined by the second SUV -- that meant Foster, Hines and Kimberly had arrived.
"OK," Ben called, pulling everyone's attention to him. "This is the situation..." Swiftly he outlined what had happened. "Plan is this," he continued. "Wes, Jen, you have the North West and North East entry points respectively. You'll work in tandem on that section of the mall. Eric -- you have the hotel."
Eric nodded -- he'd been expecting that, particularly given that the Quantum Morpher was considerably more powerful than the two standard chrono-morphers.
Ben continued, "You'll each have an outside spotter -- Barbie, with Eric; Fos, with Wes; Taylor with Jen. This building is unsafe and there may well be signs outside that the building's going to go long before there are signs inside." There was a lot of sense in that. "Kim is the comm. controller; all voice traffic will go via her."
"Call signs," said Kimberly briskly. "Red one is Wes; Red two is Jen; Red three -- Eric. Spot one is Fos; Spot two is Taylor; Spot three -- Barbie. I am Control; Ben is Control two."
"I'll be with Kim," Ben added, "marking off your locations as you go through so that if the worst comes to the worst or if we lose comm. we know where you are." He paused. "Any questions?" Silence. "OK -- let's get to work."
Eric met Wes and Jen's gaze. "Ready?" he asked.
"Ready," Jen answered nodding.
"All the way," Wes replied.
Eric nodded. "Let's do this. Quantum Power!" He was aware of Wes and Jen both starting their own morphs even as the wash of power over took him. There was always a heart stopping moment that this would be the time it didn't work or that it would go wrong, then the morph took full effect and the fear vaporised.
A moment later and he, Wes and Jen were fully morphed.
"Comm. test," came Kimberly's voice over the internal comm. system. "Control to Red one." There was a pause while Wes answered. "Received. Control to Red two." There was another pause while Jen answered. "Received. Control to Red three."
"Loud and clear," Eric answered.
"Received." He got the impression Kimberly was smiling although since he was standing outside the SUV command post and she had taken her place in it he couldn't see her to know for sure. She ran through the three spotters with no problems. "Control to all call signs, we are good to go."
Eric slowly made his way into what had once been a luxury hotel foyer but what was now a soot coated, rubble-strewn mess. What worried him most was the almost forty-five degree angle the floor had to it. The west side of the building had to have dropped a good five to ten feet. Not good.
"Control to Red three," came Kimberly's voice.
"Update on your situation -- Meachen has just reported to us that there were thirty members of staff on shift and forty guests checked in."
"Any clue on how many of those accounted for?" Eric asked, picking his way through the rubble towards the stairs.
"Twenty of the staff got out there and then. We have no clue about the guests -- it's a modern hotel."
"So no checking in room keys." Eric grimaced. "So I'm looking for anything up to fifty people?"
"You are -- Mackenzie is running a report-in station, though, so as people call in we'll update you."
"Control two to Red three," came Ben's voice. "Location please."
Eric smiled faintly. "First floor, about to try the stairs down into the parking garage. First floor is clear of people."
"Copy that, Red three. Control two out."
Eric was peripherally aware of more comm. chatter, but as none of it was directed towards him, he tuned it out. The stairs down to the basement parking garage were treacherous. He wanted to use the IR scanner on the Quantum Morpher but he didn't dare take his attention away from where he was putting his feet.
The stairs were sloping east/west -- as the floor of the foyer had been -- but making them even more difficult was that the stairwell had partially collapsed, leaving some sections missing stairs altogether. Those blank voids were sheer drops, and while Eric knew they wouldn't kill him, he wasn't over keen to take that short cut into the basement if he didn't have to.
"Copy that Spot three. Control to Red three."
Eric paused. "Go ahead Control."
"Spot three reports the sound of falling masonry."
"Whole building's on roughly a forty-five degree tilt east/west," Eric answered. "There's bound to be some of that. Can you ask Spot three if it sounds like big pieces or just grit?"
"Will do -- standby Red three."
Eric waited where he was while Kimberly relayed the question to Hines. While he waited for the answer, he took the chance to run a first IR scan. There were a couple of questionable readings thrown up -- enough doubt that he knew he'd have to get down into the basement.
"Control to Red three."
"Spot three says grit for the most part. Nothing larger than pea-size."
"Thank you Control -- and thank Spot three. Tell her to yell if the pieces sound like they're getting bigger."
"Understood, Red three." There was a pause. "Take care?"
Eric smiled tersely. "I will do."
A look further down the stairs revealed a huge pile of rubble blocking the stairs completely. Eric pulled a face. Guess it'll have to be the old fashioned way. He backtracked to the nearest gap in the stairs and peered through it. The night vision element in his visor enabled him to see the floor some ten feet below. The darkness down there was truly inky. A shiver travelled up his spine. I hate dark spaces...
This was not the time for that fear to show its face.
Eric drew a calming breath. Hysterics later, work now.
He swallowed and jumped.
Kimberly was glad to be the comm. controller. It meant that when something like this happened she knew exactly what was going on and she wasn't left sitting at home, glued to the local news feed; waiting for news; wondering if Eric was all right.
"Red one to Control."
Kimberly pulled her attention back to the here and now. "Go ahead Red one."
"Completed the first shop here -- all clear. Moving on to the next one."
"Understood, Red one."
"Thanks for the location update," Ben contributed.
"No worries, Control two. Red one out."
Kimberly sat back in her seat, watching as Ben marked off the cleared shop on a mall floor plan that Meachen had produced.
"Thank god this was just a single story mall," Ben observed off-mic.
"Control this is Spot two."
"Go ahead Spot two," Kimberly answered.
"What is Red three's current location?" Taylor queried.
"Heading towards the basement."
There was a pause, then Taylor said, "I know Spot three's mentioned falling masonry -- I can see the north-west corner of the hotel from my position and I would swear it's dropped a foot in the time I've been standing here."
Kimberly swallowed. "Understood, Spot two. I'll relay that message. Control to Red three."
There was a long silence. So long that Kimberly wondered if they'd lost contact with Eric. "Sorry about that, Control -- checking for life signs. Go ahead."
"Spot two reports the hotel is subsiding into the basement at your end of the building."
"Yeah -- I've spotted that myself. I've also got a little bit of a problem."
Kimberly felt her heart leap into her mouth. "What's the trouble?" she asked, somehow managing to keep her fear from her voice.
"I have a casualty down here -- and no way to evac. The stairs are gone almost completely -- I got down by jumping through a hole in the floor."
Off-mic, Ben swore. "Red three this is Control two -- what is the status of your casualty?"
"Dazed but conscious; has sustained some cuts from flying glass and masonry and has a leg injury of some description. Too dark down here to tell anything more than that."
"Copy that, Red three. Standby."
Kimberly looked at Ben. "What now?"
"Red three to Control."
"Go ahead Red three."
"We're smoke free down here, so if you can get someone in with a rope sling..."
"That's what I like about the boss," Ben mused off-mic. "You can always rely on him to solve your problems before you've had a chance to think about it!" Flicking his comm. set over to the fire service's frequency, he started to call up Meachen for just that.
Kimberly smiled. "Understood -- we'll update you on an ETA when we have one."
"Understood. Red three out."
"Kim -- can you get SGHQ up?" Ben asked as he finished speaking to Meachen. "Get Beta team up here -- if the hotel's in the sort of state I think it is, this isn't going to be the only time we need this and it's not going to help if we keep having to ask Meachen for equipment."
Kimberly nodded. "Will do." She flicked over to the standard Silver Guardian frequency. "SGHQ come in."
"SGHQ here," someone answered. "How are things where you are?"
"Not good," Kimberly replied.
"We have WSLV on -- doesn't look good. What do you need?"
"We need Beta Team up here," Kimberly stated. "We need the extra man-power."
"Any special equipment requests?"
Kimberly glanced at Ben. "Rope slings and protective headgear."
"Understood. ETA Fifteen minutes. SGHQ out."
Kimberly flicked back to the operational frequency. "Do we have an ETA on the rope sling right now?" she asked, looking at Ben.
"Control to Red three."
"Go ahead Control."
"ETA on that rope sling is five minutes."
"Control two to Red three -- there will be a paramedic with the sling before you ask."
In spite of the situation, there was a huff of laughter from Eric. "Copy that, Control two. Thank you."
"No worries. Control two out."
"Red three," Kimberly continued, smiling a little, "is the rest of the basement clear?"
"Affirmative on that one -- my casualty says he was the parking valet, Miguel Rodriguez, so he would be the only person down here, plus I read no other life signs."
"Understood. Thanks Red three. Control out." Kimberly looked at the list of unaccounted for hotel staff. "That's one found." She crossed Rodriguez's name off the list. "Only nine to go."
Jen slowly swept her gaze over the ruins of what had once been a toyshop. Piles of boxes were a testament to the events -- although they seemed to be the only physical sign of what had occurred. The structure otherwise looked fine.
"Control to all call signs, we have our first survivor," Kimberly announced.
That news was cheering. It meant this operation was in time. Who knew, perhaps they would find all the people listed as missing in the hotel. The mall, though, was likely to be a different prospect.
A faint sound caught her attention. Following it, Jen rounded a corner and found the first sign of structural damage -- the entire back wall had collapsed. The part of the store that joined on to the hotel.
"Is someone there?" called a voice.
Studying the rubble pile, Jen answered, "Silver Guardians. I can't see you yet, though, so keep talking to me. I'm going to get you out."
"Silver Guardians?" queried the voice, sounding as though it was coming from somewhere to Jen's left. "What good can you do? You're just hired thugs."
"Well," Jen answered, following the voice, "for hired thugs, we come in handy sometimes. Keep talking."
"How can a private army be useful?" the voice wanted to know. Jen finally pinned down the speaker's location and carefully made her way over to them. "I mean...this is a job for...for...professionals."
Jen rolled her eyes as she reached the person, a middle-aged woman who was apparently pinned underneath a large slab of concrete. "Whatever you say, ma'am," she answered.
"I suppose you think I'm being unreasonable," the woman continued.
Jen studied the way the concrete was lying on the woman. "How're you feeling under there? Is there anywhere in particular you're trapped?"
"My ankle -- otherwise I'd have been able to wriggle out." The woman shot Jen a bemused look. "What are you planning to do?"
"I said. I'm going to get you out of here." Jen started to carefully probe the rubble roughly where she thought the woman's feet were likely to be.
"But you're one person!"
"Well one person can get a lot done," Jen replied. "Trust me on that count." She managed to uncover the woman's feet but only just held back a curse. The woman's right ankle had been completely mangled by falling concrete. "I just need to contact my team," she said.
"Is it bad?" the woman asked. Jen hesitated. "It's bad."
"It is -- but I promise you, I'll have you out of here in just a moment." Over the comm. system, Jen called, "Red two to Control."
"Go ahead Red two," Kimberly answered.
"I have one casualty in Murray's Toy Box. I have no problems with getting her out but her ankle is crushed, so walking is a definite no."
"Understood, Red two -- Miller and Deslaurier will be waiting with Spot two."
"Thanks Control -- ETA three minutes."
"Understood. Control out."
Jen moved to a position behind the woman's shoulders. "I'm going to gently pull you out," she explained. "It is going to hurt, but I've got people standing by outside who'll take you straight to the paramedics."
Jen gently took hold of the woman just under her shoulders and started to pull. The woman gritted her teeth as she started to move from the concrete coffin. There was an ominous rumble. The pile started to give way. Desperation leant her extra strength. The woman came free as the pile collapsed.
"OK?" Jen asked.
The woman nodded, shock and pain setting in. "That was close," she mumbled.
"Let's get you out of here."
After a little effort, Jen got the woman arranged piggyback style on her back.
"I take it back," the woman mumbled.
"Take what back?" Jen asked, heading for the exit.
"What I said... You can do this job."
Jen smiled faintly. "All part of the service, ma'am."
"Control, this is Miller -- we have the evac from Murray's Toy Box."
Kimberly smiled. "Understood Miller. Control to all call signs, we are two for two. Repeat, that is two survivors."
"Control two to Red one, can you state your current location please?" Ben asked.
"Just finishing with shop two and about to move on to shop three -- Dbase Computing."
"Understood, Red one."
"Shop two is clear."
"Copy -- Control two out."
"Control this is Spot three. I have an update on the falling masonry."
Suddenly any jubilation Kimberly might have been feeling at two survivors found evaporated like a glass of water in the Sahara. "Go ahead Spot three."
"It seems to have stopped for time being. I haven't heard or seen anything drop for the best part of five minutes."
Kimberly sagged back into her seat. "Copy that, Spot three. Keep your eyes and ears open."
"Will do. Spot three out."
"Red three from Control."
"News for me?" came the reply. Kimberly relayed what Hines had just told her. "Understood. Can you ask Spot two how it's looking from her perspective?"
"Will do -- standby." Kimberly wanted to believe that Hines' words were good news. "Spot two from Control."
"How's the hotel looking to you?"
There was a long pause, presumably while Taylor made an assessment. "I'd say it was still dropping at this corner but the rate's slowed. Maybe only an inch or two now."
"Thanks Spot two. Red three."
"Spot two thinks it's still sinking."
There was a pause on the connection as Eric clearly swore off-mic. In spite of the situation, Kimberly found herself smiling. If it had been anyone else acting as Control she knew they'd have received a blast of whatever choice obscenity it was. But her, he never swore in front of. It was...touching. "Understood, Control. Thanks."
"No problem. Control out."
"Control two to Red three. Can you give me a location please?"
"Heading up from the foyer to the second floor."
"Thank you Red three. Control two out."
Kimberly sighed. "It's not 'if' the hotel's going to collapse but when," she said, looking at Ben.
Ben nodded. "I'm no structural expert but...sure sounds that way."
Kimberly looked at the comm. set. Maybe this time it would have been better to be watching this on the television.
Eric picked his way along the corridor of the second floor. The IR scanner indicated there were at least three people on this floor, which was a good sign, but the crazy tilt to the floor made the going hard -- and would make it even harder if there were injuries.
"Hello?" called a voice from room 203. "Is there someone out there?"
"Silver Guardians," Eric answered.
"Oh, thank god!" exclaimed the person. "I can't get this door open...I heard an explosion...what's happened?"
"The door I can help you with," Eric answered. "And yes, there was an explosion. We're evacuating people right now. When you get outside, you'll probably find someone who can tell you more than I can."
"OK...you can get me out?"
Eric smiled to himself. "I can -- but I need you to get clear of the door. Well clear." He waited. "Are you clear?"
"Yes I am."
"OK -- on the count of three, I'm going to get the door open. One, two...three." Eric planted a kick on the wedged door. The cheaply constructed door gave out and exploded in a shower of matchwood. "OK -- come out."
A woman in housekeeping uniform appeared. "Thank you!" she exclaimed.
"You're welcome, ma'am -- are there any more housekeeping staff on this floor?"
The woman frowned. "There shouldn't be -- we do a floor each."
Eric debated for a moment as to whether to send her down the stairs on her own and decided against it. "There are two more people on this floor," he said instead.
"That'll be the young couple in 209," she answered. "They had their 'do not disturb' sign out."
Beneath his helmet, Eric smiled. "Thank you, ma'am. Chances are they're trapped like you were. Let me go get them, then we'll all get downstairs together."
She nodded. "OK."
With one eye on the IR scan and the other on the room numbers, Eric said, "Control, this is Red three."
"Go ahead Red three."
"Got three more people you can cross off your list, Control. One member of the housekeeping staff and the occupants of room 209."
"Unharmed?" Kimberly asked.
"Housemaid, yes -- just getting to 209 now. Standby." Eric stopped at the door. Sure enough the other two heat signatures were behind the door. Aloud he said, "Silver Guardians -- how're you doing in there?"
"What's going on?" asked a voice irritably.
"It's a long story," Eric answered. "I'm here to get you out."
"We don't want to leave," objected a second voice. "We were up late and..."
"And that's not a request," Eric cut in. "This place is subsiding. It is dangerous. You have a count of three, then I will free this door."
"But we're not wearing anything!" said the first speaker, scandalised.
"Then I suggest you get some clothes on pronto. One. Two. Three." A second door imploded. Without waiting for an invitation, Eric entered the room, to find a young couple in the first stages of getting dressed.
"You can't do that!" squealed the woman.
"I just have," Eric retorted, patience rapidly evaporating. "Now get moving."
At that moment, the building gave a shudder.
"Geez you weren't kidding!" exclaimed the man.
"No, I wasn't," Eric retorted. Then over the comm. system he said, "Red three to Control."
"Go ahead, Red three."
"Occupants of room 209 unharmed but sans any shred of dignity now."
There was a snort of laughter. "Red three this is Control two -- you are soo going to have to explain that remark later."
"Will do -- can there be someone ready outside to meet these three, please; this is rapidly getting more dangerous."
"Copy that, Red three," answered Kimberly. "Reed and Saunders will be there."
"Thanks, Red three out." Eric turned his attention back to the couple. Aloud he said, "Ready?"
Meekly, the woman answered, "Yes."
"Here's the latest list of staff members missing," said a police officer, handing the list to Kimberly. "All the kitchen staff are safe and sound -- they appear to have mustered somewhere else, not realising that they were in the wrong place."
Ben rolled his eyes. "There's always one group who do that."
Kimberly compared the new list to the list she'd been working from. "Control to Red three."
"Standby." Kimberly held her breath. "Sorry -- negotiating a bad flight of stairs. Go ahead."
"Good news. All staff have now been accounted for."
"Definitely good news." There was another lengthy pause. "How're we doing on the guests?"
"Just checking that now, Red three -- standby."
Kimberly looked to the police officer, who shrugged. "We're still collating that."
"How long?" Kimberly asked.
The police officer spread his hands wide and shrugged again. "I know this is critical but we're waiting on people getting out of business meetings and hearing something's gone down."
"Well can you get a preliminary list?"
"I'll do what I can, ma'am."
"Thank you." Turning her attention back to the comm. mic, she said, "Red three, still no firm list."
There was another pause in which she got the impression Eric was swearing. "Understood. Control two, I'm just about onto the third floor. If Red one or two have finished, I could use some help here."
Kimberly swallowed. "Copy that, Red three. Will check that out for you. Control out."
"Thanks Red three, Control two out."
"Control, Spot two." Taylor's voice was the last thing Kimberly wanted to hear.
"Go ahead, Spot two."
"The hotel's not looking great right now. It's definitely dropping again. It's not safe."
"Spot two, pull back to a safe distance," Ben cut in.
"Am doing so," Taylor answered. "Spot two out."
"Control to Spot three -- what's the situation with you?" Kimberly asked, trying desperately to keep the fear from her voice and not really succeeding.
"I'm safe where I am right now," Hines answered. "But you can tell Red three that the masonry's started showering down again -- and this time it's not gravel, sized."
"Understood. Thanks Spot three." Kimberly glanced at Ben. She debated who to call up next. "Control to Red one."
"Go ahead, Control."
"How's your area looking, Wes?"
"It's clear so far. Not too damaged, despite everything."
"Copy that -- standby for a change of plan."
Kimberly looked to Ben. "Control two to Red one."
"Go ahead, Ben."
"I need you to get round to the hotel," Ben replied. "Red three has checked out basement, first and second floors but is rapidly running out of time."
"Copy that -- heading there now. Red one out."
"Control to Red three."
"I heard the change of orders -- tell Red one I'll skip right to the top floor -- that is twelfth floor -- and work down, if he can pick things up from the third floor."
"Understood. And message from Spot three," Kimberly continued. "The masonry's started falling again -- big bits now."
There was a long pause. When Eric's response came back, it was breathless as though he'd just run up several flights of stairs. "Thanks. I'm getting this done as quickly as I can. Red three out."
"Red two to Control."
"Standby Red two. Control to Red one -- Red three is working top down; start from third floor and work up."
"Go ahead Red two."
"I've cleared the structurally damaged section of my area -- do you want me to help Red one and three?"
Kimberly looked at Ben who shook his head. "Negative, Red two -- continue as you are."
"Understood, Red two out."
Kimberly rounded on Ben. "Why not?" she asked.
"Because there could well still be people stuck in that section of the mall," Ben answered.
"Spot one to Control." Foster's comm. call effectively terminated the conversation.
"Go ahead, Spot one."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Control two to Spot one -- make your way round to Spot three's position and be ready to help anyone coming out. We've got a hustle on here."
"Understood. Spot one out."
Kimberly opened her mouth to say something to Ben. He forestalled it by saying, "I know, Kim. I am just as worried as you are, but I do not want all the proverbial eggs in one basket and there are other people who may need our help."
"I was going to say sorry," said Kimberly meekly.
Ben offered her a smile. "It'll be OK. You want to get some fresh air?"
Kimberly shook her head. "I stay until this is done."
Wes silently shook his head as he made his way along the third floor. He could see how this was such slow going. The floor was now tilting at an angle that almost made it impossible to walk along the hallway.
"Help!" called a muffled voice from room 304. "Is there anyone out there? Please!"
"Silver Guardians," Wes answered. He tried the door, only to find it was stuck. "Are you clear of the door?"
"It's stuck!" the voice yelled, clearly on the verge of hysterics. "Please help!"
"I know it's stuck -- I'm going to get it open, but I can't do that if you're standing behind it," Wes answered, keeping his voice even.
"Oh...oh... I'm away from it."
"Good." A well-placed kick and the door imploded. "OK -- you can come out now."
A nervous looking man appeared. "Oh thank you, thank you." For a second Wes thought the man was going to kiss him. "How do I get out?" the man asked instead.
"Just head straight for the stairs and take care on the way down. Someone will meet you and get you to safety," Wes answered.
As the man took off like a scalded cat, Wes said over the comm. system, "Control this is Red one -- tell Spot one and three to expect another one out."
"And third floor is now clear. Moving up to fourth."
"Copy that, Red one and Control two would say thanks if he hadn't just taken a sip of coffee."
Wes smiled faintly. "Understood, Control. Red one out."
He paused a moment, checking the IR view of the floor to make sure he hadn't missed anything and then headed up the stairs.
The building shook again as Eric climbed down the stairs having cleared tenth floor. The shake made him lose his footing and sent him down the rest of the stairs onto the ninth floor headfirst.
"Shit in hell's fire!"
"Say again, Red three," came Ben's voice over the comm..
"That was not a transmission," Eric retorted, drawing himself into a sitting position and shaking his head, trying to clear the stars from his vision. "This is getting like trying to walk on water."
"Red one has cleared third and fourth. Where are you?" Ben continued.
"On ninth about to start clearing," Eric answered, getting back to his feet. "What's Spot two's location? If this place is going to go, it's going in her direction."
"She's already pulled back, Red three," Ben replied.
"Not to tell you your job, Ben, but make sure she has," said Eric, scanning ninth with IR and getting no life sign readings at all. "You know Taylor."
"Sure do," Ben agreed.
"Ninth's clear," Eric added. "Heading down to eighth."
"Copy, Red three. Control two out."
Ben looked at Kimberly, who was sitting, white-faced, in her seat. "Kim -- get some fresh air," he said.
"I stay," she answered, "until this is done."
"Control this is Red two."
"Go ahead, Red two."
"Mall is clear. Repeat mall area is clear. Most of this area, apart from right up close to the hotel, was in tact, so people got out on their own." Jen paused. "I'm switching to the hotel location."
"Spot three to Control."
"Standby Red two. Go ahead, Spot three."
"It's going," Hines answered. "Repeat hotel is starting to collapse."
"Red two, that is a negative," said Ben. "Control two to Red one and Red three pull out. That is a direct order."
"Copy that, Control two. Fifth is clear -- I am outta here. Red one out."
"No can do, Control two."
There was a frozen moment. Ben didn't dare look at Kimberly now.
"Say again, Red three," she said, her voice almost toneless.
"No can do, Control. Stairs are shot and...shit...there's someone up here."
"Eric pull out!" Ben ordered.
"I'm trying. Have got the casualty. I'm trying to find another way out. I..."
There was an ominous rumble.
"Control to Red three -- what is your status?"
"Red one to Control -- I'm free of the building along with Spot one and Spot three." Wes hesitated. "The stairs were collapsing behind me as I went."
"Copy, Red one," Kimberly answered automatically. "Red three what is your status?"
There was a squawk of static that was all but masked by a dull roar as the hotel building finally gave way.
Ben could only watch in abject horror as the building collapsed gracefully into a heap of rubble. It hadn't just happened. It hadn't...
"All call signs report in," came Kimberly's voice, as though the building was still standing.
"Spot one here."
"Spot two here."
"Spot three here." Hines' voice sounded strained.
"Red one here."
"Red two here -- and in the dark, Control. What's just happened?"
"The hotel's collapsed," Kimberly replied. "Standby." Ben looked at Kimberly and watched as she swallowed. "Red three report in."
Ben sensed everyone who heard Kimberly's comm. hail holding their breath. But no response came.
"Red three -- report in."
"Red three -- damnit report in!"
"Red two to Control," came Jen's voice, quiet but determined. "We will find him."