Disclaimer: Sky High does not belong to me, and never will. I make not a cent of profit off of this, save entertainment (which is not, unfortunately, legal tender).
Warnings: There are a few swearwords, and a bit of violence and gore. Not a lot but it's there, and it might upset younger readers - so be sensible, please.
Pairings: Huh. This is a bit of a tricky one – I didn't really put any in. You might see flashes of Will/Layla & Zach/Magenta, but, as I said, the fic never out and out says it, so maybe not. I suppose if you turn your head and let your eyes un-focus it could be called a Warren/Will pre-slash, but really, the only pairing here besides friendship will have to be read in.
Fonts: You'll notice large chunks of text in italics. These parts are describing events outside the 'present' timeline – ie, scenes that occurred in the past. It might be a little confusing, but the non-linear format is part of the story – I've tried to separate them as much as I can
By Ryuuza Kochou
It was a matter of pride. Of poise. Of dignity. Of professional athleticism. Ultimately, it was a matter of alcohol in large amounts, of the immovable object versus the unstoppable force, greased lighting metabolism pitted against complete invulnerability, and, so far, it was a no score win.
"So, you are coming to watch the game on Saturday, right?"
Warren Peace, Sky High alumni and current undergraduate college student/superhero dodged a deadly silverish tentacle that looked flabby and harmless until it crushed something to a pulp beneath its slopping mass and the proceeded to devour it.
Wide trenches already pitted the concrete streets, giving a birds eye view of the sewer works and storm drains and subways, and everything else that constituted the digestive system of an en masse civilisation.
Trust Will, trust him to pick a time like this to ask. Super strength wasn't the only thing he'd inherited from his dear father, oh no. Denseness in the face of danger is a congenital trait, who knew? It probably would have put him on the wrong side of the natural selection process if he weren't so damn lucky.
"You're bringing this up now?" Warren, aka Firefight, hissed as a line of fire, white hot and concentrated as napalm rushed from the tip of a finger cocked like a gun, ripping through the tentacle that had dared get too close, rendering it into vapour and ash. "Focus, Warrior! Focus!"
Will Stronghold (aka Third of the Stronghold Three, aka the Warrior), merely grinned at him from behind his mask, and casually ripped a street light out of its foundations like a weed and swung the ten foot steel pole like a baseball bat, knocking flying gobbet-like projectiles back into their sender and significantly shortening the length with each swing until there was nothing left but a two foot thick, four foot long stub with concrete still ringed around the base. Warrior threw it so hard the air tore as it spun, hitting the thing dead centre so hard that it was cut in half by the air rip. That, combined with Firefight's line of white fire shooting right up to the base, forced the creature to slow as it re-formed.
The ash particles and the bits of street lamp were swallowed in the slowly but unstoppably moving silver streams, glittering up the streets, leaking into drains and holes, sinking cars into the street, and tearing them apart…lord, wasn't the age of technology a beautiful thing!
Someone, Firefight (for Firefight was who he was at the moment) didn't know who, but with remarkable clairvoyance knew that they would shortly be a world of pain, had been messing with nanotechnology. And, what with the nature of the universe being what it was, had then proceeded to go big. A two storey, ever moving blob of silver was moving up the streets, leaving nothing put canyons in its wake, devouring everything it touched at its fore. Remaking and reforming with every undulation, it had no definite shape, but every so often tentacles would shoot out, creeping and searching, mapping its way like a blind creature in the depths of the sea, because, in fact, it was. Wherever the tentacles touched anything, it was ripped apart by unseen but incredibly effective little eating machines which were quickly breaking down the matter to make newer, better machines. It was big, and it was spreading. Occasionally it would take on the form of whatever it assimilated, so at any one time you could be fighting the giant ill formed front end of a Chevy that had just been swallowed, or it rose to match the shape of a building, before wavering and collapsing back to what was, basically, a blob. It was drawing all the local super heroes like a magnet attracts iron filings.
And that, Firefight decided, was the most annoying thing about super villains. I mean, look at that line of silver just trickling down all the holes, seeping down all the cracks. That's what was doing the real damage, not the blob. The blob was big, but it was slow and obvious. But that sinister, gleaming silver river of searchers and gatherers at its base, that went into all the nooks and basements, that ate at all the foundations, so that the city wasn't just being eaten, it was being sunk into its own depths, imploded into its own waste. Geez, you didn't need the blob to destroy the city. That silver stream, not a half an inch think, could puddle around a Buick and, without even rising, devour it utterly in about half a minute, making it look at if it was being swallowed by the ground. God, if a super villain had ever thought to be subtle about it, slowly let this stuff trickle into the cities secret highways and byways, into its forgotten gaps and man made caverns – hell, there wouldn't be a city, eventually. It would happen too exquisitely slowly at first, for weeks no one would even be aware, and then it would happen really fast, and by then it would be too late to get to safety…Firefight felt at this point that he should have got some sort of medal for joining the side of Good. Imagine what the city would be if you had a few more villains who could think of these things.
But apparently, this one hadn't. Nope, he had followed the good old fashioned, I'm big, bad and Mr Clever Dick, and if I make it big and bad enough, nothing can stop me! Mwhahahaha!
Laugh riot, genius.
"Nasty little sucker," Warrior commented as he landed by Firefight to watch it re-form. Logic dictated that this was the moment to rush in, enemy down and weak and vulnerable. But the first thing any hero learned was that rushing in when you didn't know every thing about your enemy was not the path to a successful career. Or a long one, come to that.
And they didn't know anything about it yet. Ten minutes ago the protagonist, the antagonist and their crew of merry sidekicks had been heckling an action movie at the local flick station, when the silver screen had suddenly turned...er, silver. And had spilled inwards like a wave.
After a five second long strategy meeting they had come up with a well thought out and logical evacuation plan for the patrons ("Run for the exits! Come on people! You there, move your arse!"), and then had adjourned to the empty projector room for a two minute change and pep talk (five minutes in Zach's case, who had never really got the hang of the whole instantaneous changing uniform thing). Ethan, in his wisdom and undeniable genius at spotting the obvious with his eyes and ears and then using his brain to connect them up, had come up with a working hypothesis and, impressively, a plan.
"Nanites," he'd said, coke bottle glasses slipping down his nose, his only sign of complete panic his twitching hands and slight drooping of his features. His flight instinct was kicking in, and his power was responding. But he held it together. Ethan was always a funny kid that way. Warren respected him, which is not something he doled out to many. "This is extremely bad. If they are self sustaining, then we're going to need an all encompassing solution."
"Er…what?" Will had said. Warren had rolled his eyes, but was secretly relieved that he had been saved from asking. He would have been anyway, Zach was a safe bet for asking for clarification.
"The nanites are tiny, microscopic," Ethan explained. "And mostly what they do is make more of themselves. Like germs, I guess. They spread, and grow and multiply, until you get a disease. The only way to kill the disease is to kill the germs – all of them. Look out there," he'd pointed through the projection room viewer window to the gleaming tide. "Every square inch of that goop must have a billion nanites or more in it. We could stamp and squash and blow it up, but as long as one is left, well, alive…"
"It's tissue and Nyquil time," Zach had finished, and they'd all blanked until they realised he was still thinking in the metaphor.
"Right," Ethan nodded. "We need something that can get all of them at once."
That was a puzzler.
"So, we're talking a lot of water here?" Layla had asked. "They're machines, right? We can drown them? My mom knows this dryad who might be able to help…"
"Maybe," Ethan had been unwilling to commit.
"But they're tiny machines running on remote, right?" Magenta had cut in, arms crossed defensively across her chest, which was her way of showing stress. "They might be waterproof, or they might just use the molecules in the water as more food," she flicked her purple streaks out of her eyes distractedly. "And even if you fill an ant nest with water, there's still no guarantee you'd kill every ant. Sometimes you just push them in where you can't see them."
They had all considered, but not for very long. The walls had started to sag, and there was an ominous, continuing groan coming from all sides. It was when the whole building started to sway and swing that Zach had forwarded the following suggestion.
"Um…just as an aside, can we possibly do this somewhere which isn't about to collapse on our heads?"
Adjourning to the street, decked out and ready to go, they had spent the first few minutes simply evacuating whoever was in the way of the silver menace, which had apparently started at a bayside building and seemed to be sweeping south. Okay, step one of the Epic Battle Procedure Handbook (or EBPH), published in secret by the ISA or International Superheroes Association, check.
Step two: Confront enemy and determine power level, power type, and relative destructive capabilities.
As far as Firefight could tell it was big and slow, but that was not a huge disadvantage because it had complete unstoppability, and invulnerability. Blow it up, it takes all of a minute to reform. And you try damming a flood you can't touch if you liked your hands where they were.
Give the emergency services people their due, they had tried their best. Fire trucks had been rolled in, and it had been blasted with water. There wasn't a fire truck in the world that could hold enough water. They had tried chemical foam, which had all effect of tissue paper on a fire, and then some sort of new experimental liquid acid-plastic gel, which might have worked, if, again, the quantity was to be found. All it had done was given the nanites a nice lamination and had made it more invulnerable. Blasting a break wall had only helped the thing do its job. Someone, whom Will and Warren both thought at least deserved praise for originality, had suggested wiring all the city's power into the cables the thing was swallowing a give it a massive shock – maybe short it out. It only fed the damn thing, and caused a blackout. All the police and fire fighters could do was back off, and Firefight could hear them grinding their teeth about it. They may not have super powers, but hey, that's what made their effort so much more heroic. They walked in, weak, helpless bipedals pitted against some complete madman's vision with only intellect on their side and they still hated to back down, even when grossly outclassed. You had to give them points for guts if nothing else. Will always did. That was one area in which he was quite unlike both his parents, who never even stooped to ask the a cop on the scene his opinion on things, despite the fact that they go up against evil every day in various forms and can have an uncanny insight into it.
Warrior was doing that now. Firefight stayed back, his reputation for being the silent, stalker-in-the-night type to maintain, but he watched carefully. He wondered if the Commander noticed how much more the average beat cop liked and preferred the son over the father. Commander condescended, Warrior listened. And unlike most superheroes, tended to let the authorities in on the plan. As a result, most cops and other emergency personnel thought of the Warrior as an extension of them, rather than a dangerous and arrogant vigilante only a few steps up from the criminals they fought.
"Its no good," one engineer was saying shaking his head. "I'd suggest cutting our losses and trying to sink it into a pit, but with all this structural damage we'd take the city with us."
"Wouldn't do any good," Warrior shook his head, but he wasn't patronising them. "It'd just keep eating its way under anyway. Too spread out. That plastic stuff nearly worked, though. Liquid nitrogen?"
"Maybe," one of the SWAT leaders considered. "You'd need a vat of the stuff and a way to transport it." He looked at the Fire Chief.
"Not in our trucks," he negated. "They aren't built for it. The metal'd go brittle and crack open before we could even get close."
"The army is coming," A police commissioner reminded. She checked the reports in her hand. "They're bringing the nitro, and some EMP devices."
"Maybe if we can dump them in the stuff…" Warrior trailed off looking at the newly reformed silver blob as it slowly oozed toward them. Still a ways off, though.
Firefight rolled his eyes. Sometimes Warrior had trouble thinking outside the square. And he tended to get caught up and forget the plan.
"It'll never work," he called over, dismissing the idea with a wave. "It might put a hole in it, but it'll reform, it always does. Most of the challenge is stopping the spread."
The emergency authorities were not at all friendly with Firefight. It didn't help at all that he looked like the personification of vigilante in all the black leather.
"Right," Warrior shook himself. "Right. The plan."
"You guys distract it," Kid Liquid, (aka Ethan) had shouted from the street, where Guidelight (aka Zach) directed traffic using his glowing hands as direction signals. And Royal Creature (aka Magenta) ferreted people out of their buildings with nothing more than scathing wit and fierce determination. Woodnymph (aka Layla), was resting after trying to set up a leafy barrier to the silver tide, and the shock of having it ripped apart as she was building it travelled back along her florapathic pathways. She was alright, just momentarily rattled.
Warrior was throwing everything he could in its way, Firefight was trying to melt it back. So far, no luck.
"What?" Guidelight had asked.
"Not you," Kid Liquid had amended. "I need you to come with me to the lab. I've got a sample. I'm going to see if I can find out where all this came from, and I'll need to test its sensitivities, light and heat and so forth. I'd take Firefight too, but he'll be needed here."
"You got a plan, or are you just blowing smoke?" Royal Creature, who had come about her name in a strange sort of way, purple being the colour of royalty, and her ability to speak the language of rodents, and be the smartest around had given her a unique position among the rodent population of the city. You could laugh about it until you felt thousands of little clawed feet running up your trouser leg or infesting your bathroom, fridge and locker at Royal Creature's command. And it was, she admitted as an aside, better than being called Queen Rat or Purple Pig or something.
"I've got a sort of plan," Kid Liquid looked rueful. "Mostly centred on finding the source of this stuff. Or it's centre. It's brain."
"You think there is one?" Woodnymph asked from where she sat against a street light post, getting her breath back. The curled ivy leaves which framed her face and masked her eyes were definitely wilting slightly, but she was improving. She straightened her forest green costume, in leafy patterns, one short sleeved top with wooden greaves on her arms, and a battle-ready skirt that looked like moss. Very earthy look.
"There's definitely a consciousness," Ethan said firmly. "It's hitting all the main support nexus' of the city and is consistently moving toward populated areas. Of all the people it actually attacked, the police were the first. It recognised them as more threatening than civilians." His thin, almost leotard like body suit was picked out in simple, non-descript colours was designed for ease of re-form after melting. The sneakers were specially designed to match. The top continued into fabric frame and a half mask over his nose and mouth, around his neck. His eyes, still covered by glasses, were alight with possibilities and ideas.
Damn. A consciousness meant that it was less easy to control or manipulate. Or fool.
"You can find it?" Royal Creature was sceptical, it was her nature to pull against the optimistic option. Her crushed purple velvet crop top and tight glossy pants and leather jacket made her look like an average Goth clubber until you noticed the matching mask. Its raised lines over her forehead accentuated her scowl, making it permanent.
"Follow the bees, find the hive. Somewhere in these things," he held up the hastily constructed containment unit (abandoned PET bottle), "Is the memory of their source. It's built into their very shape. If we study the elemental aspects of the components…"
"Yeah, yeah, we get it, study the books, know the beast," Guidelight flashed at a car trying to nose ahead of the rest of the traffic, momentarily blinding the driver. He backed right off.
"How long will it take?" Firefight watched as the thing started to swell and grow, momentarily forming the spire of the city fountain it had just swallowed. "It's spreading out under the ground."
"The sooner I start, the sooner I'll know."
Great, just great. "You and the glow worm better get moving then."
A wall of fire leapt up to cover their escape. The thing had been canny enough to try to keep them close to the danger and too busy to regroup and strategise. Warrior did his patented Commander Ground Punch, and ensuing ripple forced the silver the teeter back uncertainly.
"Woodnymph, you and Royal go to the edges and see if you can track how far its gotten underground. See if you can slow it down at the edges. Firefight and I'll take care of the centre."
Woodnymph had had that look on her face. That, I-know-you're-trying-to-protect-me-you-chauvanistic-jerk-try-being-more-subtle-about-it-why-don't-you look. She could say a lot with silence.
"Woodnymph, I need you to mark the circumference of the spread. You'll know exactly when and where the underground drones will start to breach it, and you'll be able to use the roots to slow it right down. It'll hurt, I know, but it's the best searching equipment we have!"
Firefight, who was seldom impressed by anything, was incredibly impressed with Warrior at that moment. The guy couldn't do a poker face to save his life, but his excuse was so exquisitely crafted and said with such disarming sincerity that you were completely taken in. From the look on her face, Woodnymph was.
Besides, we wasn't wrong. Woodnymph was incredibly sensitive to the moods of the plants she grew, and she could send her most delicate roots into even the tiniest crevice, and would sense the tiniest destructive presence. And plants were a fierce ally – the human monuments of the ages were so much rubble when pitted against the mosses and tree roots of the earth, taken over an age. She could fence them, and know when the fence was breached. It also, quite incidentally, kept Woodnymph well out of the danger zone.
"Right," she said, "Come on."
Royal Creature, who was in some ways far more aware than her friend, was smirking, but she let it pass without comment. Her talents would be useful too. If you wanted to know what was happening in a city, never ask the humans; they seldom knew enough to know where they were, let alone what was happening. No, you ask the rats – they would know before any human when to abandon a sinking ship. Knowing where they were, where they weren't and where they were running would provide a more accurate map of the of the danger zone than the most skilled cartographer.
"Well then," Warrior said in his best tea-party tones. "It's just you and me now dear friend. Uh…any ideas? Seriously, I'm dry here, man."
Firefight rolled his eyes, and incinerated a tentacle that scythed its way towards his friend's unprotected rear. "You might start with facing your opponent."
They had to follow the Plan.
"Okay, tell the army to plant those EMP's at the treeline," Warrior pointed to the leafy barrier, the giant redwoods that formed a picket fence, reaching over even the sky scrapers as they marked the boundaries of the battle field, nearly two miles across. Woodnymph sure knew her stuff. It took something a lot bigger that a puny nanite to get past the root matrix of a giant redwood. "Spray the nitro into the gaps. Ring it in, we'll take it from there."
That still left the problem of destroying it, but at least it was something constructive.
Firefight wondered how much damage had been done to the foundations of the buildings around…whoops, no need to wonder.
The buildings on either side of the main street were folding inwards like a soldiers wedding arch. Firefight could hear the boom and feel the rattle of more buildings in streets around them tumbling inwards or literally falling down, straight into pits and craters. From above it looked like a game of chaos dominoes.
Unfortunately for the 'war room', the slowly tipping buildings were bringing push and pull forces of several thousand tonnes of steel and concrete to bear on the street. It buckled like an aluminium sheet in a high wind.
Suddenly, there were no flat surfaces, as giant slabs of bitumen were pushed up and down, rent, torn pipes screeching above the din of screams, water and whatnot gushing every where, cars tossed like toys, street lights bending like coat hangers, and the buildings crashing together overhead, showering glass and debris.
Firefight scrambled to the top of a slab that was, amazingly, rising above the rest with a fire truck perched shakily on its leading spire.
He snatched at a beat cop who was being catapulted from a flipping, loose chuck of street. He'd smacked into Firefight's slab rather hard and slithered down the rough surface, until Firefight snagged him by the ankle and hauled back. He was faintly impressed that the mildly concussed officer had the wherewithal to catch another cop as he came rolling down the steep slope covered in road rash and…shit! impaled with shards of glass. Several bits in the arms and shoulders, one very serious dagger like bit in the stomach. He was still alive though and he groaned at the cop who'd saved him as the sudden stop jolted the wound.
"Hang in there partner," the middle cop in their human/hero chain whispered. "I got ya."
Firefight adjust his grip on the top lip of the slab, stricken fire truck at its apex still screaming its sirens. Looking around for support, he noticed the raised line of the kerb running down the length of their section of street, and something else.
"Hey," Firefight called down to the mostly conscious upside down cop. He struggled to maintain his grip on the slab, which waved like a sheet in the breeze. The whole street was still undulating, the blob was getting crushed under the in-folding buildings. "If I swing you, you think you can make the PO Box?"
It jutted out a few feet over to the left like red precipice but it might hold the cop's weight– the bolts holding it to the street, Firefight remembered vaguely, had been designed to withstand car crashes since the city was sick of joy riders taking out the post services for fun. It wasn't as fun if you wrecked dad's car in the process.
The cop blinked dazedly for a moment, but rallied. "Yeah," he coughed. "Yeah, we'll make it."
Arms already screaming at him, Firefight prepared to swing, and was momentarily distracted by another guy, a fire fighter, falling from the fire engine above them and sliding down the steeple, yelling. Damn! Firefight only had two hands, middle cop was gripping his partner with both of his and the bottom cop was barely conscious and in no condition for quick movement.
The street at the bottom was shifting and sliding against itself, as giant slabs tried to settle while the building bent closer. When he hit that heaving, swelling mess down there he would be so much human paste.
With timing impeccable, Warrior plucked the sliding man neatly from certain death, already toting three others, clinging to the superhero wherever they could find space. He carted them down to safer areas, where braver ambulance personnel had edged as close as they could to the disaster. Looked like they were overloaded already.
Warrior was flying fast and grimly, saving those in the most danger as he circled like a dragonfly around the stricken street. He casually rammed a building, changing its trajectory away from the ant-like people trying to escape the street.
The blob was shrugging off the crushing weight of the buildings like a coat, and had apparently stopped to eat. There was a roar as helicopters filled the skies like giant blue bottles.
"Ready?" Firefight called down to his current charges. "On three!"
And a one, two…Firefight groaned as his shoulder wrenched throwing the men as far left as he could, dropping neatly onto their momentarily safe spot. Middle cop hauled stricken bottom cop onto the ledge and huddled over him on the small space, pressing his hands onto the bloody mess of his stomach.
A thick hemp rope snaked down to them as a determined fire fighter with a little white, red crossed bag in hand slowly rappelled down to the cops. Firefight hauled himself up onto a jagged lower edge than the fire truck at the top, and braced himself amongst the steel support rods, which now looked like tattered tassels.
Right, so, next thing. He looked up. An assortment of people had managed to climb to the fire truck apex, because it was safer than braving the meat grinder where all the slabs met. Warrior was diving into the very street to haul out injured and trapped people all along the road, flying them up to hovering helicopters waiting for deliveries. The people at the apex spire were in a relatively stable spot for now.
They needed a way down. If they waited until everything settled, they would most likely be laminated across the street by the slabs and the buildings. And glass was still falling like a shower of diamonds.
The buildings were slowing down – they were sagging, but not falling over anymore. Even as Firefight looked thick roots and Wisteria creepers, strong as steel cables, were worming their way up from the foundations, wrapping around the teetering towers, and getting the undulated slabs of street into a vice like grip. Not enough to right them, but more than enough to hold them steady.
Good old Woodnymph, she was not nearly as clueless as she acted around Warrior. There she was, where the street was stable, hands up and eyes closed as she concentrated hard.
Way down, way down…well, there was only one, and its was jagged and pitted – not a safe run. Maybe he could smooth things over. Hell, it was bitumen – it melted if the day got hot enough, and he could do far hotter.
"Hey. Hey!" he yelled up to a fire fighter still near the business end of the screaming fire truck, instead of perched on the smoother curve of the corner further along, where everyone else was. "You! Be ready with the water works!"
"What?" the guy called back. Young, barely older than Warrior, damn, he would have to do.
"Just turn on the water when I say!"
"Er…er…Right!" the young fire fighter nodded, milky white, but he edged slowly over to pump controls.
"You down there!" Firefight yelled to the guys perched on the post box. "Watch it, okay? Its about to get really hot!" He got nods from the able.
"Everyone else don't move!" he bellowed. Click hiss, and he had a pilot light in the palm of his hand. "Ready?" he called up to guy he'd mentally nicknamed Water Boy.
A shaky nod. Firefight hoped he could come through, 'cause otherwise this would be stupid and dangerous.
Right, and….a wave of orange flame cascaded up to the lip and swept down again, across the slope, over the jags, into the pot holes. Followed by another. And another. And another. He concentrated hard on parting it well around the cops on the post box, and making it hotter where the jutting shards were..
Slowly, inexorably, the sharp steel and glass began to lose definition under the orange ocean, and the tar started to drool and form rivulets. The whole slab and street below was a lake of flame, and metal, stone and steel began running together in molten steams, heading slowly downwards, filling gaps, destroying jutting pipes and slabs, a molten, black, sickly smelling river, a great leveller. The great leveller.
A hissing, humming sound behind him reminded the fire hero about the blob, which was now well fed and coming for the threat.
"NOW!" was shouted above the din, and after a moments breathless hesitation, the young fire fighter lunged for the release lever, bracing himself against the side of the street as the waterfall poured out from the nearly full fire truck, and down the street steeple. It took some concentration to direct the heat to work with cool, and forge a path through the cracked a pitted street to the safe area but it was done, mostly with gravity and luck. And coming to meet them were Woodnymph's creepers, picking their way over the smooth, welded in road, forming ladder and climbing grids to follow down. Warrior was there, using a girder a lever, wrenching still moving bits of street out of the way of the river, moving through the polluted steam with nary a cough, and only Firefight knew that he did this by the mundane practise of being able to hold his breath. People didn't respect heroes who coughed.
Firefight was coughing – he had to get his breath back. It was only ever effortless in the movies. Otherwise, it was a tremendous force of will to make and maintain that level of plasma in the air. The steam from the water across the melted street was black and smelled like an industrial works. Every breath was caustic. But he gulped down the foul air anyway. God, he felt pounded flat.
The people were slowly creeping down the newly formed road, while overhead the buildings creaked. Someone had stopped the siren from the truck, and in the sudden silence the slight creaking was loud.
Chest screaming and arms not much better, Firefight sagged on his perch and watched while Warrior emerged from the smoke, checking on the post box guys who were hunched over their fallen comrade, and then ferrying the guy and his partner down to the ambulances below.
Okay – enough breathing time. Warrior sure as hell wasn't going to outshine him, not after that cute swan diving series into pool of jagged metal, falling glass and shifting tonnage of concrete to pluck survivors from certain death. Bracing his lead weight body against the slope, be manoeuvred his way upwards, stopping occasionally to lend a bracing grip to one of the people picking their way down. Warrior darted in among them, picking up the wounded and those unable to tackle the steeper sections. Firefight worked his way up past the last of them, and along to the fire truck, where a hunched figure still gripped the pump controls with one white knuckled hand.
"Hey," he said to Water Boy. "You ready to get down?"
A head shake. That was okay, Firefight understood that. He'd been in this kind of place before, though not for many, many years. Where everything was just so bad, that the mind decided that not moving was the only way to ensure it couldn't get any worse. Don't talk, don't walk, don't move, and there's no way anyone can blame you…
Or not. Firefight had managed to get around to see the kids face and healthy humans, even scared, didn't turn that colour. He tracked the kid's body, and finally settled on his hand – or where his hand should have been.
For one wild moment we thought he was actually looking at an amputation, but no, he could see it still attached, just…stuck. In order to get to the controls, the kid had put his hand straight into the molten tar to get the reach. Now cooled, the hand had become one with a fourty tonne block of half melted street. Firefight could see blisters all the way up the kids arm, and that was just from being near the intense heat. He didn't want to know what was left of the hand. It must have showed up on his face, despite his best efforts.
"Its okay," the kid grinned, his face a weird bluish grey. "It doesn't even hurt. Its okay, sir, really."
No, that wasn't okay. And since when did he rate a 'sir'?
A shadow passed across them. Firefight and the Water Boy looked up to see Warrior floating closer.
Firefight watched him take in the kids slightly loopy expression, and felt the annoying dork's glance shoot over him too. He couldn't possibly look worse than he felt, but he had to look like something else to rate that sort of searching look. He must be more tired than he felt, definitely, if a moniker like 'annoying dork' had slipped its way past his barriers. Geez, he hadn't called anyone that since high school.
"A little help," Firefight gestured to water boy, who was beginning to shiver. The searching eyes had noticed the hand.
"Shuffle over a bit," Warrior gestured. He swung closer, and braced both his hands on either side of the kids buried one. Slowly, carefully he pushed down, bringing all his strength to bear exquisitely at the two points, and Firefight heard the delicate cracking as the melted stuff crackled away. Firefight, who had perched on one of the truck's mounting rails, neatly caught the kid as he toppled free.
"'m fine. Fine," the kid was clammy and his speech slurred. Firefight got a look at the damage, and grimaced at what he saw.
"Right," Warrior looked equally appalled. "Time to make like the trees."
"And what, hold up the buildings?" Firefight offered sarcastically
"Been there," Warrior cracked a smile. "Done that, done that, done that, and done that. And that was just today."
"Arrogant prick," Firefight commented as he shifted the kid into Warrior's outstretched grip.
"Overconfident jerk," Warrior retorted, kid over his shoulder. He suddenly reached out and grabbed Firefight by the shoulder and scruff.
"Hey!" Firefight tried to shake him off. "Get off me! I can get down on my own you moron."
"Trust me," Warrior's smile was tight lipped and grim. "You don't want to go the long way."
He jumped up as the silver tide crashed over the fire truck, reducing it to nothing in moments. Warrior didn't even waste time hovering as he fled down to the rest of them waiting below.
Woodnymph was waiting for them, looking tired but triumphant. "We've got them pinned, mostly. I've got the trees blocking up all the big tunnels and the roots are constantly reforming, keeping them from getting through where they try. It was trying for all directions, but its having a hard time now. The army put down its EMPs and liquid nitrogen for back up." She suddenly shivered. "The trees don't like it. Cold poison. But they're coping."
Warrior gripped her shoulder as he passed, delivering the stricken kid to the waiting if overworked paramedics. Already overloaded ambulances and whatever other vehicles that were still workable and could be driven or hot wired were being driven away through the empty street, survivors making their escape.
Firefight heard one of the paramedics speaking to the kid, reassuring him as they loaded him. 'Waterman', huh? What a little joke for the universe.
There was a crashing sound behind him, and he spun to see a half a Ford hitting a shooting tentacle that had been heading for them. It was knocked all the way back into the body, taking the Ford with it.
"You might start by facing your opponent," Warrior was smirking.
Firefight didn't appreciate the in-joke, and glared as he roasted the creeping silver stream that was rising up behind Warrior's ear. The Third of the Strongholds sure could duck fast. "Good advice."
Woodnymph huffed exasperatedly at both of them. "If you're both finished, I don't suppose you've got any brilliant plan for actually stopping this thing?"
The three of them turned to the enemy, which had grown exponentially and was moving a lot faster. The cars behind them were still pulling away.
All three heroes shared the same thought. Um……
Warrior was suddenly darting away, shooting into the underground garage of a building immediately to the left. Concrete shattered like porcelain as he took out the support pillars. The thing wavered and fell…right where the other two were.
But that was okay – Firefight felt a sudden jolt, and suddenly the world was going down and along, wind roaring in his ears, as Warrior snatched them up and shot them above the mass of falling structure.
"Jesus Christ on a crutch, Warrior!" Firefight yelled above the howling downdraft. "We're supposed by saving the city!" He was completely outraged. He was not some helpless civilian to be toted around by an overachieving idiot who flitted about like a bloody hummingbird.
Warrior shrugged, fully aware of Firefight's annoyance - and amused by it, the jerk. He was crispy critters next time they sparred, Firefight swore.
Woodnymph was taking this much more calmly. "Get me on the ground, I'll put more wood in its way. All we can do is slow it down until Kid Liquid gets back to us. You keep the blob busy, I'll weave a few nets. Royal Creature I having all the rats block up all the holes at the perimeter, and working inwards. No one can get where they can get! Last I saw she was bullying an army engineer to rig up some sort of nitro pack they could carry with them."
They were holding their own, just. But they needed to change strategies soon; this was all just stop gap stuff.
Warrior turned and the blob, now six storeys and gathering momentum, tilted away out of Firefight's line of sight. As Warrior headed towards the ground, Woodnymph got one arm free.
"There," she said, red curls swept back. She was pointing to a squat building with rooftop arboretum, a green square in a patchwork of grey. "Just drop me," she added as Warrior began flying down towards it. "They'll catch me."
Warrior sighed, but obediently dropped the young woman to what amounted to an eight storey drop, and watched her all the way down. He needn't have done so, the trees were already stretching upwards as they were talking. By the time Woodnymph met them, they were already as tall as the building they shared a home with, and had formed a cradle to gently take Woodnymph to the ground.
He adjusted his grip on Firefight as they swung back towards the blob. "So," an amused voice found Firefight's ear. "You are coming to watch the game on Saturday, right?"
Firefight nearly groaned. There were time you just wanted to shake Warrior a point out the nature of reality to him, but no one ever did, because they liked Warrior's version of it better. Where it was actually perfectly normal to bring up domestics in the middle of a life or death struggle. Like there would be another Saturday for them. Like there was no chance they would fail.
Resigning himself to a bit of inane chatter, Firefight formed a globule of white hot fire and shrugged as eloquently as he could, hanging off his friend. "I guess." He fired a quick succession of fireballs with pump action regularity, cutting a burning line across the thing as Warrior swooped neatly overhead. "Others?"
"Not this week," Warrior swooped to pick up a girder and spun a couple of time to get the momentum, before cutting the thing in half.
"Could you not do that," Firefight shook his head to re-level his inner ear. "Why not?" he went back to Saturday.
Warrior shrugged as he coasted down to a taller building that was still standing. "Layla's doing her environmental thing, Ethan's doing his intern thing, Zach says the theatre booked a special encore of Truthful in Grace, and the managing directors a real head case. And Magenta," Warrior paused. "is doing her Magenta thing, I dunno what."
Firefight wondered if Warrior had noticed he'd switched back to 'identity' names rather than using 'hero' names, which according to the Hero Code was illegal while in costume in view of the public. Firefight had actually laughed when he found out about that rule, but the ISA took this stuff, like secret identities, very, very seriously.
They landed on the skyscraper, and took a moment to breathe. Just throwing stuff at it clearly wasn't working, but it was still reforming, so they could take a much needed smoko.
So, Firefight did a mental run down while he rotated his strained shoulder joints and tried to get some feeling back into his numb fingertips. Layla (studying ecology, surprise, surprise) had an environmental meet, and she was probably hosting it with her mother. Will would sometimes go with her but they bored him stiff, and it was enough for Layla that he religiously recycled and joined in on the bigger protests that he got out of the nitty-gritty environmental strategy meets.
Ethan, who was studying Physics (speciality: molecular structure of basic elements), had an internship with Bernard & Bradshaw, exquisite international jewellers, working as a gemmologist. He was pretty good at knowing basic elements – and why wouldn't he be? He'd been most of them. It was kind of embarrassing the amount of money he was raking in on a mere internship.
Magenta was studying veterinary sciences, a compassionate job for a seemingly unsympathetic personality, but those who knew her knew better. If she was reticent about giving them another gore story from her internship and making Zach gag, then it was probably something personal. Putting a favourite animal down, or something. It meant they probably wouldn't see Layla, even after the meet, because the girls roomed together in a boarding house near the college and Layla was never to found lacking when one needed a compassionate shoulder.
Zach, who was doing an Acoustics major (with sighs of relief from everyone in the vicinity when he finally, finally gave up a dream of being a musician. Had he continued, Warren would have lit the oven, and Will would have slammed the door shut), swung back and forth between moonlighting as a DJ at the local clubs and working as a acoustician/lighting man/sound stage builder/odd-job guy and the entertainment centre. It suited his naturally loud, brash nature and when he glowed unexpectedly in the night, everyone thought it was just a lighting trick. It was one of the few jobs he was allowed to do.
Will had laughed when he heard it, but it was true. Certain doors were closed to you as a super hero in the job market. You didn't put a pyro in the vicinity of flammable liquids, for example. You didn't put a speed freak anywhere near a race track. You didn't put a bestiopath in the vicinity of a slaughterhouse. Natural ego and/or sudden unexpected emergencies could have your powers suddenly emerging without any say-so from your brain, and you couldn't be any place where it would be noticed. All part-time jobs taken during high school had to be approved by the school board – Will's class of power couldn't be used in an office, because accidentally smashing a keyboard in half with a finger would be a big blip on the radar, but he could work at a construction site part time (which he did) where they needed brawn and endurance and didn't notice sometimes uncanny strength if the job was done. The ISA could find a place for everyone in various former hero run businesses and organisations, but some liked to stay in the real, non-powered world.
"I guess its just you, me and the junkfood," Warrior watched gloomily as the blob thing swallowed the building he had thrown in its path and swelled again. Trees were beginning to rise in the streets – making the city seem more like an aging ruin, broken and defeated.
"Melodrama isn't you, Warrior," Firefight snorted, noticing his friend standing on the lip of the building edge like a defeated soldier waiting for the walls to fall in.
"What else is melodrama for, if not for these moments?" Warrior blinked at him, his usual countenance of surprised enthusiasm replacing the grim lines. "I mean, come on, we got life and death, zero plans, slim chances for survival…you've got to play the part. It's no fun otherwise."
And you shrug off those little details like they happen to other people?
"You're not supposed to have fun with angst. That's the whole point," Firefight pointed out with despotic logic in a deadpan tone.
"You're such a conformist."
Of course they were just filling the silence, propping up the dead air. Neither liked to admit they were out of ideas.
Saved by the bell – cell phone tones cut through the inanity.
"Hello?" Warrior produced it from his shielded boot pocket. "What? Slow down, slow down, what?….hang on, Firefight needs to hear this."
He snapped it onto speaker mode and Firefight came closer. "God, god, you've got to do something!" Guidelight shrieked over the phone. "Kid Liquid's gone nuts! I mean totally off the train! He tracked those machiney things back to the bayside, a…" there was a papery rustle. "Professor Cyril Twell. He was a professor of advanced tech at the state U before he retired. The machines all have a solarium core, you know, that weird shit old Meddie used to use in science class to recharge the equipment batteries. The prof was the only person besides Medulla to have bought some into the city in years, he said on the license sheet that he wanted it for some academic experiments in power sources for machines."
Oh crap, this just kept getting better. Solarium was powerful, self sustaining, took only a little to do a lot, and was very, very unstable. People who used it tended to become unstable too. Medulla had hated the stuff, it picked up on psychic vibrations and tended to twist them in odd ways. The few times he had demonstrated its potential as an energy source, he had never actually handled the stuff, and he would stick a radioactive carbon in his mouth if he thought it would make a better toothpaste, so that said all that needed to be said about how deadly the stuff was.
"How do you know what he put on the licence sheet?" Firefight had a sinking suspicion he knew how.
There was a sound, quiet but profound in the lull. Guidelight, a guy to whom which deep thought came as easily as rain in a desert, cleared the bile from the back of his throat. "We…we found his place. Dockside. Great view," the words dropped in the air like lead. He continued in the same tone. The panic from before was just the other way he expressed his horror. "He….the prof built things in his workshop. Had chalk boards up everywhere. God, its covered in numbers. Like a mathematicians wet dream." There was a giggle. It was hysterical.
"Guidelight? Talk!" the unexpectedly sharp order from Warrior appeared to bring the shell shocked Guidelight back to an even keel.
"Look, we had to break in 'cause no one answered and we found the workshop in the basement. He definitely built them. He designed them all - the paperwork and math and stuff was there. Still is."
"What about Professor Twell?" Warrior persisted, and Firefight rolled his eyes at the proper use of the honorific.
"Aw geez," there was another swallow, and then another. "Well they got out and they must have been just quietly growing for weeks and the old guy probably never even knew 'til…there's not much left. Just some…blood and…stuff." The strained whisper gave birth to a silence to loud it was almost solid.
Firefight took a breath. It was worse than breathing tar steam. He wrestled the phone from Warrior, who was ominously still. "Guidelight," he barked without preamble. "What are we dealing with? Put the popsicle on."
"I can't! That's what I was calling about! Look, he did some theorising...on the guys chalk boards for Chrissake, and he left me some notes on what to do." Another papery rustle. "Look, he thinks these things run on a dual system. A tandem movement, he said. There's actually two parts to every one machine. One searcher, who finds materials, then a builder, who is paired with it and takes it apart to make a new pair. The builder is powered by the solarium stuff, and it remotely powers the searcher. Kid said that the searchers are the real key – they direct the movement of the builders, so if we can get control of them, them the builders will just follow along. He said that the searchers look for dense material that emits the highest electromagnetic energy, hence it sweeps towards the city and steel and concrete in the sewer systems."
"So no brain," Firefight summarised. "Kid Liquid was wrong."
"Nooo, he was right," Guidelight said slowly. "There is, sort of. Kid reckons that the solarium started absorbing thought patterns from the prof, and then destroying them. So something from the professor got through and is running the machines." There was a pause. "You should see some of these chalk boards - man, it's weird. I mean, you can see where he started – all these complex equations and stuff. Kid Liquid looked over his work and said the original idea was some sort of garbage disposal system. But when you look at it you can see…well, look, I know stuff all about maths in general but I'm fluent in jibberish, and that's basically what it ends up being. Looks like he was pretty paranoid towards then end, he has a lot off nutty stuff on the boards about teenagers and how stupid and evil they are…guess he had some issues with his students in his day."
"Okay, okay," Firefight snapped. "Why are you telling us this? Where's tuna melt and why has he cut the exposition in half?"
"He left all this stuff for me to find while I was…upstairs." Probably throwing up somewhere, Firefight deducted accurately, but he couldn't be sure that he wouldn't have, so he let that go. "The little prick! He just ran off!"
"Ran off to do what?" The idea that Kid Liquid had run away didn't even enter his mind.
"Jesus, he's nuts! He thinks that he can direct their path to one area where we can destroy it, if we can get there ahead of it."
"Direct it?" Firefight prompted, and missed Warriors astonished gasp.
"You've got to stop him!"
Firefight felt something brush his arm. He shrugged it off irritably, focused on the tinny voice over the line. "From what?"
"Uh…Firefight?" there was a whisper from beside him.
"I mean he's committing suicide!"
"Will you tell me already!" Firefight yelled, at end of his patience.
"You'd never believe it!" Guidelight was still too flabbergasted.
"Firefight…" Warrior tried again.
He turned, and dropped the phone.
Coming closer, Ethan's face was rising out of the quicksilver like a tide.
"Bloody, bloody damn!"
It was two minutes later and Firefight and Warrior were pounding their way up the street like sprinters.
They could have flown, but Firefight had been air-lifted enough for one day, and Warrior was tired. Besides, when they got there, what could they do? Kid Liquid had removed even a means for slowing it down, now that he was a part of it.
After getting Guidelight back on the phone, he had managed to convey that the Kid had liquefied and gone in to battle with the very heart of the machine. There was a consciousness there to fight – twisted and made up of a few simple but powerful desires and passions, but it was a consciousness and it was in charge. Now Kid Liquid's consciousness was spreading out among the machines, far more complex and far less insane. Firefight didn't know for sure, but he was willing to bet in all that mess that Kid Liquid was having a time keeping it together – being scattered and re-scattered across the swarm of machines all the while butting up against the distilled insanity of the late academic. Firefight knew that they wouldn't stay separate, there was bound to be overlap.
The longer Kid Liquid was in there the less certain of his own identity he would be. Exposure to solarium wouldn't help.
"Of all the stupid, reckless, idiotic, moronic…."
"You're just mad 'cause you didn't think of first," Firefight said with immovable tranquillity. All the inanity was washing away, leaving behind the naked blade edges behind. They moved differently. Their voices were different, heavier, sharper. They moved so efficiently and unstoppably that they might be mistaken for super speeders.
"I could have," Warrior growled. "I also never would have been stupid to actually do it."
"You would have," Firefight snapped back. Warrior had no right to the high ground. "In a heartbeat. You've done far stupider things. What you wouldn't have been was smart enough to now you'd have to order someone else to do it! You bloody hero!" He said the word like other people say 'jackass'. "You're mad because Kid was two steps ahead enough to take the choice out of your hands, because he couldn't trust you'd do the right thing!"
"Hah!" Warrior pulled ahead of him for a moment, and Firefight knew he'd scored a point. They took the turn on Carina and Kingsbury and headed up Fifth, not even discussing the route or missing a beat.
"Maybe," Warrior snarled back as Firefight caught up. "I was thinking further ahead than the rest of you. Kid Liquid's turned this thing from a battle to a hostage situation, unless you have some brilliant plan for separating him from the machines now! Sure as hell he won't reform by himself!"
Firefight cursed. He had been right, but unfortunately so was Warrior. An impossible situation had become doubly impossible.
But Guidelight had said Kid Liquid had a plan…
"Keep it busy, I'm heading for Colestone Plaza," Guidelight had said grimly, back in control now that he'd delivered the news and had some back up. "Kid had an idea, I'm going to put my emergency wiring knowledge to good use. Try to get it there – Kid Liquid will be helping."
That was all they'd gotten before the batteries had gone dead on the much abused phone.
And then they'd started running.
"On the bright side, we know every book shop in the city centre is safe," Firefight offered ironically as they passed a vista of structural damage and one still standing little book store that had been avoided by the machines, who had an entirely new set of thought patterns to obey.
A ghost of a smile. "And the Radio Shacks," Warrior added.
"The computer café's."
"The jewellery stores too."
"So all the nerds'll survive and they'll be incredibly happy because they'll have to repopulate the earth with all the rich socialites."
Warrior burst out laughing for a moment. "They had to have a lucky break sometime."
Then he sobered. "We've got to get him out of there, Firefight. We'll never know if he's really dead or still alive…"
Yeah, there was that too. Professor Twell was proof that the mind didn't stop because your body was gone. There is always a yearning at the core of the universe, the endless desire for life, the layer upon layer of sentience there to explore, of which the body is a tiny part. And now Kid Liquid was there like the professor was; in a terrible limbo, not alive and unable to die…maybe not ever. Who's to say when they finally destroyed these things that the solarium left wouldn't still hold the professor within - trapped, awake, unable to finally let his fears and angers go; a living nightmare, an ever-awake existence.
Firefight remembered being told by his mother a story about a man who tried to build a tower to heaven, and was stuck down by his god, and because even gods have a sense of irony, he was punished for building the highest tower by falling into the deepest pit – the endless pit. Firefight remembered when he was younger imagining that man, falling forever in the dark. He wondered if it was like that.
They pulled into Hetherington at the intersection of Fifth and the Sinnel, cut across the park and down Broadmore and whirred into the warehouse district, which was the centre of most of Warrior's construction work.
It as one of the great reconstruction plans of the city council – unable to make money in factories anymore they decided the defunct old storages would be remade into high rise apartments and mall complexes. It was the kind of project drowning in words like 'dynamic' and 'futuristic' and 'exciting opportunity', which left the thoughtful person wondering how much they were planning to con out of you.
The biggest and most complex of the complexes was Colestone Plaza, a monumental half finished tower/plaza sprawl whose central skyscraper's skeleton rose up against the horizon and cut through the city's skyline. It had the distinct honour of being called a white elephant before it even got off the ground. The city was already looking for buyers.
Will didn't care. Work was work.
They had cut into the path of the blob and it was moving fast, rolling and flooding down the streets and over buildings and houses, being herded by the trees and the rats – Guidelight had gotten through to the heroines.
Kid Liquid's face was not in the blob anymore. Firefight couldn't tell if that was good or bad.
They cut through the pitted and half finished Sun Towers and Warrior lead Firefight through all the rabbit holes and secret pathways through the maze of construction sites, until Colestone swung in to view, its skeletal framework and patchwork of black geometrics against the ochre sky.
The blob was following them.
The city was dark – the power still hadn't been restored. Nevertheless, at the top of one of the high rise cranes, a light glowed. Guidelight's sharply contrasted phosphorous imbued costume shone faintly at the end of the crane arm, where he bent over the lifting magnet. Firefight watched the lines of his costume change as his posture shifted when Warrior floated up to conference. Firefight waited in the graveyard of unused girders, power lifters and mounds of earth that made up the plaza space. From the entrance, the city silhouette changed shape and flashed silver as the nanites rushed forward, ringing by trees, blocked by rat packs and driven by the will of a desperate sidekick, it headed toward the area that Kid Liquid had labelled 'threat'.
"Warrior!" Firefight yelled up to the flying hero. "Now would be good!"
The streams were flying forward like the wash from an overflowing dam. Firefight backed up and nearly tripped over a hunk of metal on the ground. Cursing and righting himself, he nudged the thing with his toe, realising it was another lifting magnet, set upright on the ground, power cables snaking across the dust to the site elevator, which ran on its own generator. Firefight stooped closer – yep, someone had been finagling the wires. A suspicion began to form.
"Negative charge," Warrior said, landing beside him. "That one up there, positive charge. "One to attract the searchers, one the builders – Kid Liquid said that was how they told the difference between one and the other. I'll keep the magnets from getting gummed up, and keep them apart. Guidelight will direct the crane. You'll have to keep the juice running."
"Great," Firefight grunted. The first of the silver streams had hit the entrance, and the rushing tide was quickly following. Around Colestone mounds started to grow out of the ground as the earth under the unfinished plaza was pushed upwards.
There was no time – Warrior shrugged out of his cape and tossed it aside.
The cape, Firefight remembered, was a bit of a sore point with Warrior. In fact, the whole costume had been a nightmare. After Will had shamefacedly conceded to showing them the designs his father had drawn up, it had taken them four straight hours to stop laughing.
But the Warrior had gotten a word in – he had removed the tights and the open chested lycra and the neon colours and managed to remake it with something approaching style. His colour choices were restricted to the Stronghold Three, but be had compromised with dark, dark blue pants with straight lines and a wine red fold in sleeveless gi top with white seam lines and a white waist sash. He had suffered the small white stars on the ends of his pants as long as he was allowed to wear the red leather boots. His mask was a simple white ribbon line across his eyes, long trails down the back.A few wrist guards later, and he had a costume that more or less wouldn't make him die of embarrassment.
But the cape was the real sticking point. His powers of flight demanded some kind of early warning system with regards to sudden thermals or sinks and current changes. His mother insisted it was quite necessary if he was to take to the skies, despite the fact it was fifty years out of vogue.
He didn't want one, but he knew well enough to listen to his mother. He had sighed and gotten the lighter blue one with raised shoulder lines and rivets. It didn't look too bad, if a little medieval, and the bonus was it was easy to shrug out off, something he did with punctual regularity.
The first of the silver streams shot towards them, tentacles at the ready. Firefight went right, Warrior sprang up, and a wall of fire lit up a circle around their trap.
Firefight headed for the generator, keeping a wary eye on the still swelling mounds that ringing the plaza. He created constant walls of heat and flame, walling the silver off from the whining generator, while overhead Guidelight lifted the crane magnet at high as she would go, stretching the whole mechanism almost to the top of the multi storeyed monstrosity. Firefight could see the thing staining upward as he pushed it back from the generator at the base.
The mounds burst. A plague of rats came racing from the ground, hot on their tails came the silver nanites from the edges of the danger zone for which the rats had dug an express highway.
They scurried through whatever gaps in they could to escape. Firefight, who had never once thought twice when he put down traps and rat-sak at the Paper Lantern, tried to burn a safe path out to one of the back fences for them.
Suddenly, a tiny rat like figure struck out for him, silver trails hot on her tail. If she had had one.
Royal Creature took a flying leap into the folds of his trench coat as he melted the trails after her.
There was a brief rushing sound and a shifting of air as she changed back behind him. He concentrated on maintaining the fire wall as she gasped air, trying to get her breath. The bulk of the blob had just demolished the gates and had doubled in size since it's far reaching counterparts had been diverted back into the main.
The blob wavered this way and that, smashing things left and right, pulling back and then rushing forwards. It looked like is throwing a major temper tantrum.
Kid Liquid must still be in there. Firefight was sure of it. If the thing had been running on the same single minded, insane destructive force it had at the beginning then they would have been engulfed and dead with nary a moment's hesitation. No, the Kid was still there, restraining and fighting the monster of the old man's mind.
Painful sounding coughing behind him. Royal Creature was wavering to her feet, removing from her hair a ridiculous looking framework attached to what looked like cream whipper CO2 bulbs with a complex switching system. Rat nitro packs. Several dozen of the animals glittered in the fading sun.
"Nice deep breaths," Firefight advised the coughing voice behind him.
"Gee, I never….would've th-thought of that…" long bought of coughing. "Myself. Thanks." She leaned on him for a moment, momentarily safe between him and the bulk of the generator.
"Hey, I don't care rat-girl. You can choke all you like as long as you're still useful."
"Asshole," was the heartfelt reply. She still gripped the back of his heavy leather trench to stay upright, and he didn't move from his sentry spot.
"You have to cut a path to the truck gate. Woodnymph is bringing the armies EMP power trucks to that side of the plaza. Guidelight said this thing would never be able to maintain enough power on its own. They'll give it a boost. I can't get the cables in under the ground fast enough, too think and heavy to drag fast and dig at the same time." She shifted her weight, and asked with practised nonchalance "Where's Guidelight?"
Firefight cut a line of molten plasma ahead, slowly cutting towards the truck gate, where the shadows of trees rose marking the way. He freed one hand and waved it upwards vaguely. "Up there." His voice sounded strange, and sounds were becoming disjointed. He was fading.
Indeed, at the top of the unfinished structure was Guidelight, acting as a lighthouse for the helicopters now swarming around the plaza airspace, firing nitro missiles at the thing, chasing it inwards. Firefight had no idea how he had gotten so high.
In the centre of it all was Warrior, and he had started to spin.
In the centre of the two attracting forces that were slowly separating the creatures components with Kid Liquid's encouragement, Warrior was keeping the area clear with a wind vortex, sharp and hard enough to keep the nanites from tearing the magnets apart. The column of wind was sucking the tiny machines inward, the magnets doing the separation work while they were tumbled around in the air. The outer edges of the blob were already being pulled in as Warrior increased the terminal spin, magnets safe at either end in the eye. Firefight began to suspect there was far more involved than just the magnets in this little plan. When this was over, Warrior was going to die…
Royal Creature straightened and, without preamble, dove into path still being cut for her, boots thumping as she dodged and weaved the tentacles and leapt over the spilling streams of the gauntlet run. Firefight swore as he tried to keep his three defences up at the same time. He failed to notice the phosphorus light resolutely but quickly jumping down from the heights.
Vines stretched out to meet Royal Creature at the gate, sweeping her up and out of the danger zone. In the distance, unable to be heard over the shrieking din of the blob, the vortex and the tower which was beginning to be pulled apart between the destructive forces at play in the plaza, the army generator trucks had rolled up.
Guidelight had made his way down. "Hey fire-bug, ready for the big finish?"
Firefight snarled at him. "Bring it on, glow worm." His exhaustion was making him crabby.
Guidelight's mirrored visor glowed orange as he turned towards the path of fire. Coming through the half melted road was a line of rats carrying what looked like a twisted up tree root that flexed like a hemp rope. The rats dragged the heavy duty industrial cable wrapped in a woody vine for protection, slowly along to the generator. Guidelight darted out when it was close enough, and dragged it laboriously to the overheated and clearly in-trouble generator. Ripping loose the cap of leaves from the end of the cable he dragged it to the machine, and popped open a panel that looked like any other panel to Firefight, and proceeded to gut wires from it.
"Hurry it up you shining freak!" Firefight bellowed, flames wavering with every second that ticked by. Warrior had now kept up his centrifugal spin for over two minutes, and while the blob was definitely running into trouble, so, probably, was Warrior.
Guidelight responded with the universal finger, and continued sorting out the spaghetti of wires. Abruptly he shoved the whole plug into the industrial socket, and gave the switch a punch. He lit up like a glowstick, as bright as he could, and the people at the trucks caught the signal. There was a buzz of high voltage – extra power flowed into the magnets, and the things was clearly being torn apart much faster than before, the horrendous shrieking from the metal tower suddenly increasing.
The fire wall not as necessary now, and just as well, because Firefight couldn't maintain it. The machines were now totally focusing on the beguiling pull of electricity through the magnets. The blob was lunging for the crackling, electrified magnets and getting swept up in the ever increasing, thickening silver tornado.
Grabbing frantically for a support beam, Firefight sagged, his whole body boneless and the colours fading. He blinked and blearily tried to clear the black spots from his vision. Something was thrust in front of him, and he made out the unfocused outline of a bottle. Guidelight was saying something, but the sounds didn't seem translate to words inside Firefight's head. He reached for the liquid for his burning throat, and got it on the second try.
That's funny. He never knew he had a third hand. It seemed to be more awake than the other two as it pushed the weakly gripped sustenance toward him and tipped it clumsily into his mouth. A couple of mouthfuls got down before choked, but it was enough to turn the focus dial in his brain.
"Drink all of it," Guidelight urged, taking his hand away as Firefight's grip became stronger. Oh Christ, he's never going to let me forget this. He swatted Guidelight's hands away irritably.
Firefight downed the foul stuff with a grimace. Guidelight gave a rather grim smile. "Pig adrenaline," he explained. "Caffine, protein, iron, sugar, electrolytes and a little guava for flavour. Everything a growing boy needs."
He could feel the chemical emulsifiers speeding up the absorption into his blood stream. Pig adrenaline. Usually he'd dismiss it as a cop out, but right now he'd have gone into a tank of it. The world became clearer and it got easier to breathe and move. It wasn't exactly a thirty second proton pill, but it was close. The power boost it offered didn't last long, maybe twenty minutes or less given his metabolism, and then he would crash hard and spend the next few days with a hangover from hell. It was worth it to be able to see straight.
The tower skeleton was definitely bending now, being sucked in by the incredible pull of the vortex Warrior had formed, curving like a bow. Firefight braced himself against the suction as even chunks of construction material were heaved upwards.
The blob was like clay on potters wheel, brighter, silvery splash at the bottom, darker grey swirling at the top. And in the middle of the two halves a white blur. Warrior was moving so fast his colours had been whited out.
And there, lighter material not pulled by the magnets, was a corona of orange around the blur. Kid Liquid.
Just as the last of it joined the detritus of dust and metal in the swirling mass, the orange corona disappeared, swept up in two handfuls by Warrior as he slowed. Throwing them as politely as possible towards the ground, the blur shot up and down so fast it formed lines in the air, and there was a tearing sound at the cables holding the magnets were suddenly yanked towards the centre of the mess. Holding them out either side, Warrior started to spin fast again. He had never actually stopped.
Letting go of the construction lifters, Warrior let them slowly orbit around him at the end of their cables as he started the spin again, changing the patterns of the currents, making them swirl around each other, never quite touching.
Guidelight was gone. He as crawling along the cable that power the generator, clearly fighting the upward suction. The others were climbing in the other direction, and Woodnymph was putting could more creepers for them to hang onto.
Warrior clambered along the ground magnet's cable, swinging around it like a demented gymnast as vacuum and gravity forces fought over what to do with him. He dove through a thin wall of nanites and into the eye, where the wind roared and whipped.
He was heartily glad for his costume – tough, thick leather that bikers use to keep from leaving their skin on the pavement. The trench coat disguised a few pounds of body armour underneath the stylised flames across the hem. The long sleeved, studded, form fitting leather jerkin and blood red leather pants also were specially insulated – just because your skin could survive the heat, didn't mean your clothes could. The nanites would have a hard time getting through that.
One last time. He formed a flame, and had it ripped from his hand. Cupping his hands, he focused wholly on a single pilot light, making it, forming it, feeding it. And, in a rush, letting it loose.
It fountained up into the currents, surrounding it, drowning the metal. No, it needed to be hotter. The extra air being sucked in made that easy – the flames slowly started to turn blue. The magnets had snapped loose from their cables long since, but it no longer mattered – it was now a molten ball of liquid metal, slave to the spin, globs of silvery offshoot being flung as far as three blocks.
Crawling around on the ground were the three hero supports, who had picked up from the rubbish on the ground what looked like old coffee cups and a metal teapot the workers had probably used for coffee. They were moving across the web of ground creepers like prospectors digging for gold, fighting the upward suction as they scrambled to gather up Kid Liquid before he got sucked up again.
The inertial forces of the spin were rapidly closing the holes over the hollow silver ball of liquid metal. There was an eye at the top of the spinning thing, and was closing like a contracting pupil.
Come on, Firefight cursed. Come on…
"NOW!" the bellow came from inside the ball and outside it, and every fire truck and water bearing helicopter responded to the same instinctual timing. It was a good thing Kid Liquid had thought to call them in before executing his little plan.
A mix of water and nitro poured in from above and slalomed up from below, and the spinning sphere gave off a spout of steam like the furnaces of the gods, that could be seen for miles around.
Firefight thought to dive under a helpful, newly grown rainforest canopy to escape the worst of the boiling runoff. The other three, able to run fast now that the vacuum had been contained, were sprinting towards the gate, teapot in hand. Firefight, ducking out from the wilting trees, sprang out the other way, well aware that the massive thermal combined with the spin would only hold off gravity for so long.
He was right. Hang time ended, the thing dropped. It corkscrewed wildly, still open eye like a casting hole the only point of reference on the mirrored surface, and then pounded the earth so hard that the still soft metal was flattened by the impact, the earth beneath the tower dipped inwards, and every window for five blocks round was rattled loose from its mooring. There was even a dull bong that made the ears ache. The crumpled hollow still managed to roll drunkenly on the compacted earth, clanging up against the now twisted and gnarled Colestone tower which, amazingly, stayed upright. Just.
A howl of triumph rose from the crowds as it became clear that it was really over. The massed ranks of fire fighters, police, army and medics jumped and cheered, applauding and whooping their approval to the sky. Here they were. The world had thrown itself at them with all the malice and insanity that humanity was capable of but here they were, still standing at the end off it, battered and damaged, but still able to come back.
Firefight ignored them. Instead he ran a hand through his sopping wet hair, and stumbled toward the prone figure that had been roughly tossed from the last unclosed hole of the twisted metal monolith.
Warrior didn't look good. The centrifugal force of the spin had put such enormous pressure on his inner ear that he was bleeding from them. It had burst the capillaries of his nose, and air friction and turned his skin cherry red as it was stripped off cell layer by cell layer, and had ground at his corneas. They were bleeding too. Firefight didn't even want to know what kind of damage had been done to his chest plate.
And yet, struggling to breathe and so disorientated he couldn't even coordinate standing up, he was still conscious. He gave a wheezing cough and had a few false starts before managing g to croak "Score one…for the g-g-ood guys…"
"Spoken like a man who won't be footing the bill," was Firefight acerbic retort and he hunkered down next to the barely-there Warrior.
"Aw..c-c-come on…be f-f-f…" whatever he meant to say was apparently got derailed in his concussed mind. "O-over?" he asked in a harsh rasp.
Warrior keeled sideways and curled up as the coughing got worse. There was blood on his lips. Firefight moved him into correct clear airway position and pounded him on the back. It took several minutes of heavy breathing and choking before his coherency returned. Firefight could see by the glazed glittering of his eye that he was running on an adrenaline surge.
"He's being poured out as we speak."
Firfight could see the other three hovering worriedly as Guidelight poured Kid Liquid out onto a medic's gurney. Firefight couldn't tell from this distance whether it was moving or not.
Firefight shook his head and turned back to Warrior, who was obviously trying to sit up, but couldn't seem to coordinate his arms and legs into the right posture for it. He writhed pathetically on the ground, but Firefight knew he would keep struggling until he either passed out or managed it. He was his father's son after all. The rules that applied in situations like massive trauma and multiple injuries simply happened to other people.
Firefight wondered if anyone remembered if that was why Warrior had chosen his particular name. He had chosen it as an appropriately sappy tribute to his parents when he officially debuted. His official name as listed on the Superheroes Registry was actually Son Warrior – the son of warriors. The media, of course, had misprinted the name originally as Sun Warrior, which had then got shortened again after his second public appearance to just 'the Warrior', which Will had decided to live with. Firefight reckoned that maybe half a dozen people remembered what Warrior's true name was.
Sighing, Firefight gripped Warrior by the tatters of his uniform and helped sit him up. He groaned and swayed, and raised one shaking hand to his forehead. "Whhhooaaa….headrush…" he looked around bemusedly, before focusing vaguely in Firefight's direction. "You okay…"
"I'm not the one bleeding from my eyes, you moron!"
"Doesn't mean you're okay…" Warrior croaked pedantically.
"Warrior, I've just run all over town, melted a street, been dragged around by an overachieving idiot (namely you) and risked being ripped to mincemeat by a garbage disposal gone psycho and all I get out of it is the privilege of paying for more costumes - do you know how much these cost, by the way? - and paying for a movie I got to see all of twenty minutes of. I am completely fine, I assure you." Something hot and molten was rising in Firefight, and he was long unable to make a flame.
He hauled Warrior upwards rather abruptly, and put an arm around his neck ostentatiously to support him. "You finished playing the big hero now? Finished standing at the moral high ground and acting like that will be a big band-aid across all the bad stuff? Finished thinking invulnerability equals immortality?"
"Yeah, 'm done," Warrior choked. Suddenly it had become very hard to breathe again as Firefight took and very firm grip on his neck. "I never thought…well, maybe I d-d-did….I h-h-ad a job…to do."
"It's everyone's job."
"Yeah," Warrior wheezed. He weakly struggled to force his legs to work. "And I won't ever …never…ever…try…to…do it…a-ag-ag-ain alone, 'cause that's j-j-just stupid. I'll t-t-t-tell e'ry…one the…plan…"
Suddenly it was much easier to breathe, and Firefight hauled Warrior over to a skewed support beam and propped him up against it. Warrior watched muzzily over Firefight's shoulder has blurs at the gates began to move into the deserted wreckage of the Colestone Plaza. There were flashing lights. The media had arrived.
Something blacked out his vision. It took Warrior a moment to process that Firefight had shrugged out of his slightly tattered trench coat and was holding it up to him.
"As tempting as it would be to see you on the front pages of the tabloids, they'll probably include me in some way too, so you'd better put this on."
"Wha..?" Clearly Warrior had missed a part of the conversation somewhere.
Firefight cleared his throat significantly and looked down. It was the first smirk Warrior had seen in an hour.
Warrior looked down and willed his greyed out vision to focus.
His uniform had not worn well through the storm of nanites. It was less a costume now than a series of holes connected up with strips of tough material. They weren't dynamic, heroic holes. They were embarrassing holes.
"Ohhh nooo…shit, quick, gimme!" he waved a hand out for the too large but nicely solid covering. "Oh man, s'not fair. Y'not even touched…"
"Hah!" Firefight scorned. He could definitely feel the breeze where he shouldn't.
"'Least my se'et ideity 's safe," slurred the rapidly falling hero.
What? Firefight put a hand up to his face. Yes, Warrior was right – the stylised black flame painted on half his face with liquid latex had not survived the nanites as well as the rest of his costume. Traditional heroes looked askew on the half mask, but any hero with an ounce of sense knew that a mask wasn't designed to fool anyone from close up. If people are close enough to see what shape nose you have, then the rest of your facial structure is an open book. The mask was mostly there to break up the face, draw the eye away from the actual features. Look at Jetstream – she wore no mask at all, and no-one had ever pinned her as Josie Stronghold – people notice far less than even the most cynical ever believed.
Firefight withdrew an emergency face cover from his pocket, and tied the bandanna around his face. No hero would ever laugh at it. They understood.
Warrior painstakingly got the coat on and wrapped it around him like a chastity belt. He stared blankly at Firefight when he was done, waiting for the next instruction. His brain was still bouncing around inside his skull.
Firefight gave an exasperated huff, got an arm around Warriors waist and hauled him off in a stumbling walk toward the mess of activity at the main gate. The power was still out, and the sun was still setting, draining light out of the plaza. Medics were treating those hit by debris flung from the spin, and others were trying to cordon off the media who were pushing and shoving past the crowd of gawkers that had congealed around the site now that it was safe. Blindsided by a flash of light, he had to concentrate not to turn around and snarl at the pushy idiot. He was definitely feeling fuzzy around the edges.
At the edges of the maelstrom no one appeared to notice the nondescript travel bus pulling into the area. The medics noticed the three hovering around mess of orange that had just been poured onto the gurney start wheeling it towards the bus, but they didn't try to stop it. They knew the procedure.
Firefight dragged Warrior toward it, keeping a steady stream of muttered complaints about his weight and how he, Firefight, always seemed to be carrying it. A microphone was shoved in his face, some meaningless babble accompanied it. He swatted it away angrily, melting it with a molten hand. He never claimed to be the nice kind of hero. He watched the harried police try to bring some semblance of order to the mess of souvenir hunters and photographers breaking into the scene.
"And you wanna be one of them?" Firefight muttered incredulously.
Warrior grunted into a moment of clarity. "You wanna save their lives just so y'can listen to ther'prollems." He pointed out.
Firefight didn't like the crack against his chosen field of psychology. He still felt it was more useful than Criminal Justice. He tugged Warrior forward slightly more emphatically than necessary.
"We…we got'im though…s-s-stupid ol'man. Stupid, s-stupid ol'dude w' to much time…stupid stupid stupid…"
Firefight let him vent a little. Warrior, unlike his old man, actually got worked up over his enemies. "An old man trying to do some good, no matter how it ended," he offered by way of compensation. He felt some empathy for the old professor now, a good man who was probably shown up by the new generation of students, who couldn't keep their mouths shut or their minds open, who were so busy trying to prove they were smarter than this old fogey who started out when computers had filled entire rooms, not realising the teachers job isn't necessarily to be smarter, only to teach…and had retired being told he was out of date, and determined to prove otherwise. Left behind. Shoved aside. Used but misunderstood.
"Don't matter," Warrior shook his head, then stopped the movement with grimace. Firefight could imagine the headache. "Doesn' matter. Was still 'im in th'end. Still his hate, h's choices, h-h-his stupid idea, his stupid robots…" Warrior's one open eye glittered with an unusual rage, but Firefight knew it was just a shell for the weeping. "Do y'know…you…know…the people…in th'street...you know…good decen' p'ple…bang, splat…all g'ne, d-d-d-dead…an' th'kid on t' fire truck an' h's han'…" Warrior toppled forward and weakly punched the ground, causing those nearby the stagger. "stupidstupidstupid…."
"Come on," Firefight got him upright. "It's not that simple, and you know it."
He pulled him the last few steps to the bus. Ron Wilson (bus driver), complete with neon green glow, sat behind the wheel and nodded to them. "Warren. Will."
Warren grunted and Will lisped a 'hey Ron'.
"Hey, he's doing it! He's doing it!" Guidelight's excited shout made them look toward the back. The bus was lined with tiers of stetchers rather like a front line MASH bus, for the hero that really can't get home after the battle. If Ron was here, then someone from Sky High was watching, and had had him dispatched, which meant, Firefight groaned, that the nearest facility was the Sky High infirmary.
Zach had been shouting about Ethan, whose melted state was beginning to show some life. As Warren and Will stumbled back there as fast as they could, the orange stuff started to undulate rather unnervingly like the silver blob of nanites once had, before stretching out, and beginning to rise like bread dough.
But the form that first defined from the re-forming Ethan wasn't Ethan's own face. A older, lined, stressed out face emerged from the liquid. It had no body definition at all, but there was a distinct hatchet nose and a domed forehead above a thin lipped mouth, which was formed in a silent scream, defined in deeper shades of ochre.
"Oh. My god," Layla breathed. "E-Ethan?"
"Ethan, buddy, this is not funny…"
"Right, like he'd do this as a barrel of laughs, lame brain," Magenta was pale. She gripped a scrabbling, squeaking box.
The lips of the dreadful visage moved, half formed vocal chords making the words liquid and nearly inaudible.
Will sucked in a breath, but before anyone could think of anything to say, the face collapsed like soggy bread, and reformed again, this time into a face they knew.
Ethan groaned weakly as he reformed, his glasses gone and most of his costume too, but at least everything else appeared to come back to the right place. Layla hurriedly covered him over with a blanket, beetroot red.
"Ethan," Will rasped, bending over the bed. "Can you hear me?"
"mmmmm," Ethan's head lolled to the side, and Warren's eyes narrowed when he saw the silvery sheen across his eyes, and the glittering silver in his hair and on his nails. There were still a lot on nanites in him, but they didn't appear to be eating him.
"Uuuuggghh," he moaned. "I thiiiiiinnnk II maaaaay've miiiscaaaallllculaated sliiiiigh'ly."
Everyone was grinning. "That's, like, the understatement of the millennium, man." Zach managed chuckle, slapping Ethan on his still forming, boneless shoulder area.
"When I c-c-can see straight," Will ground out between coughs. "M' gonna totally kick your ass f'being such an idiot."
"Loooooking f'ward to't." Ethan's head rolled back onto the pillow, and he sighed.
Ron called from the front, where he'd just finished slamming the door on some enterprising reporter who had made a spirited attempt to get inside. She should be alright once they bought her around. "Ready to move?"
"Yeah, get moving," Warren ordered. He took off the bandanna and moved to strap Ethan in while Layla supported Will over to another bed, ignoring his protestations that he was fine. Zach and Magenta were having an odd half-argument over the rats in the box, but while Zach may not like their presence, Warren noticed he solicitously put out some water for them, the same way he noticed Magenta keeping a grip on Zach's forearm. Warren made it to the opposite bed and slumped down, the first time he'd sat properly since the movie theatre…two hours ago.
It didn't feel like two hours.
Layla was upset as she tried to wash the blood from Will's face, but it was hard to be worried for long, because Will had that dopey grin of triumph on his face that he always got at the end of battle. She huffed at his enthusiastic re-telling, and convinced that he really was fine, went to dig out a first aid kit from behind Ron.
Will turned his severely burned and bruised face towards Warren and winked. Warren chuckled.
"So," he whispered through split, chapped lips. "S'it your turn to bring food or jun'food?"
Warren was momentarily nonplussed, before he remembered the tear Will had been on
earlier. "You're on junk."
Will let out a disappointed noise. "Y'allllways bring Ch'nese," he whined
"I'll tell them they're not invited this time." Warren watched the pun go right over Will's head.
Warren rolled his eyes and shot Will his patented 'you're a complete dork' glare. Will smiled and let his head roll back towards the pillow, and closed his eyes.
Warren slumped against the wall wearily. Trust Will. As if he had ever missed a Saturday game – not one since high school. The sport didn't matter, but the game did.
It was a matter of pride. Who could drink who under the table was a relatively new element, but they never backed down from a challenge. It was the game. The game played every Saturday, sports on the big screen, dinner and junkfood, a case of beers and whether invincibility could best a firemakers ultra fast metabolism. Every Saturday, without fail, since that first Saturday over at Will's house.
The game they had played since the winter prom; that strange little game, that complex push and pull, point scoring game that they'd always been unconsciously playing
It had been played back when they'd been paired for Save the Citizen, when they'd both smirked at each other and done their best to be more impressive.
It was played when Warren submitted to putting up with Will's dad and Will's true sorrow when he thought he was putting yet another strain between Warren and his mother when she played her bitter game against his father. It was played when Warren had stared at Will in disbelief, and had asked him if he honestly thought he would made a foot inside the door if Warren had thought for a moment that Will's presence in his life would have actually done either of his parents any harm? What was he, retarded?
It was played on those nights when Will would show up at the end of Warren's shift at the Paper Lantern, costume in hand, to stalk the night streets in what amounted to some pretty dirty and dark fighting with no real good guys or bad guys, but Will lived with that, because he never let a friend walk alone.
It was played when Warren came over to Will's apartment from the college dorm where he lived after a visit with his father in prison, where he sat like he owned the place and drank beer and played cards with Will until the wee hours of the morning, even if there were exams tomorrow.
Will was always happier when the others came over to his place. He'd been embarrassed that his parents had bought it for him after only a year in the college dorms, a big, expensive loft affair split into several rooms, which Will, eschewing his father's idea of having his own personal inner sanctum, had knocked out the walls and made one huge space where he could invite his friends to watch and stay over if they liked. It was more a club house than anything else.
The game would continue to be played tomorrow, when they all harangued Ethan for being reckless, which would degenerate into a play-by-play so detailed that would make any sports commentator eat his microphone.
It would be played when Will cajoled Warren into joining the crew of volunteers helping to get the city back on its feet. It would be played when Warren cajoled Will into breaking several codes in the hero handbook and appearing to survivors in the hospital after the fact so Warren could check on Waterman, the fire truck kid. They both knew the other side wouldn't be trying hard to avoid it.
It would be played on that first night of coherency in the infirmary, when all the others were gone and Will would take the opportunity to snarl and snap and would be relying on Warren to snarl and snap back. It would be played when they both stopped glaring at each other and merely talked about the absurdity and the tragedy of it all. It would be played later, when Warrior went to Twell's house to look at the boards and try to understand the man, and apologise to him, because there were two things in the universe Will could not forgive: a strike against one of his own, and his own hatred. And it would be played when Warren showed up to wait for him there, to make some sarcastic comment about self-masochism, and start the cleansing argument that would end in some juvenile thumb wrestling match to see who was better at everything.
It would also be slipped into neutral when they dragged Ethan out of whatever shell he managed to hide in, and helped him face his nightmares. When they would go to Zach's play when he became withdrawn and jeer and heckle until he pulled the houselights on them and had them thrown out, and then he would come out grinning and calling them dorks. When they matched Magenta silence for silence until she gave up and yelled at them to stop it. When Layla destroyed the trees she built, and they sat with her in the park until she felt ready to face the cold concrete of the city again. But it would be there.
It was played in every aspect, with every weapon, its complex scoring system so convoluted that they didn't even bother putting numbers to it. It was played because, as Warren knew well, good and evil can't live side by side. One would eventually triumph, and then they would both lose.
But while you build never a bridge between light and dark, because what could you make it out of? you could make the battle eternal, push down on one side knowing, trusting, in your soul that the other side would be pushing exactly as hard. Making the game eternal, so the forces pulling you apart never got a word in edgewise, all the decisions made before you're time you have a way to work around, a complex series of ceremonies that doesn't forget all the things done before, but also lets you work within the present. That allows you to say that you are a rival and a friend both.
It was a matter of poise. Of who will emerge at the highest point – some days its one, some days the other. And ultimately, it was a no-score win, because both sides played to lose. If one was to gain ultimate ascendancy, then the game would end, and what good would be served by that?
The others didn't see it and wouldn't understand it if they did; even Layla who had always been aware of the strange competitive vibes of their partnership. But Warren wouldn't admit to needing anyone, and Will wouldn't accept that being entirely alone was an option for anyone. So, in lieu of this unsolvable quandary, the game was played.
It was a game of pride. Of poise. Of dignity. Of points scored, but also a no-score tie. It was a game of compassion. It was a game of competition. Ruthlessness and kindness. Light and dark. A game of fighting a hatred that should have been, but never got off the ground. It was a game of fighting fate.
It was, ultimately, a game of friendship.
Warren would be there. He'd bring left over Chinese just to piss Will off. Score another point.
But he would be there.
As the bus took off, Warren was already asleep.