Breaking the Mold

All the world was pain. All of it that he knew, in all his seven conscious seconds. He was vaguely aware of something before the pain, like a thick cocoon that kept him warm and brought dreams and voices and feelings. But now it was only pain. Physical pain, sharpness and roughness slashing and crushing him. Mental pain, all around him. Aural pain, the screams and crying and crashes in his ears. Some of the screams were his own.

There were others, too. He could feel them writhing and screaming like him, around him, under him.

With a sputtering cough that ejected some slimy liquid, he managed to raise his head a fraction of an inch. His body felt heavy, and he wasn't sure why this should be. There was wreckage all around, and he was covered in something sticky that made the dust in the room cling to him. He blinked his eyes blearily and tried to get up, but couldn't even rise to his knees. The fear and weakness and confusion washed over him. He collapsed again, eyes shut, and whimpered.

A heavy thing fell, a steel beam. It knocked loose a concrete slab, and he felt himself sliding. The cries intensified, and with them, the terror. He curled his head down into his chest as he rolled and tumbled down a heap of debris. A shrill yelp of pain escaped him as he crashed through a pane of glass.

He came to a stop at the tree-line and gasped to catch his breath. He felt stickiness – blood – all over him. But the terror of the ruined place was quickly giving way to exhaustion. His head lolled on the cool ground as he panted, eyes falling shut.

******************************************

Inside, the moaning had not stopped. A steel cart was pushed aside, and a disheveled man in a torn lab coat crawled out from under some shelves.

"Would you stop that blasted wailing?" he snapped, pulling off his glasses in an attempt to clean them. "Get up."

Two younger scientists, a man and a woman, looked up at him with wild eyes.

"M-my leg," the young man gasped out. He was gripping the limb in question, which was wedged beneath a mass of metal.

The older scientist, the site leader, cast a critical eye at the leg. He picked up an iron bar and deftly levered the wreckage off his subordinate's shin. The other man hissed, but managed to pull his leg out.

"Thank you, Professor Hern," the younger scientist said shakily.

"Celac can wrap that for you," Hern said, kicking a battered first aid kit toward them. "It doesn't look too bad. Is there anyone else?"

Doctor Celac, the woman, stared at the first aid kit. "They were in the break room downstairs."

Professor Hern glanced at the mass of rubble. "It looks like your devotion to your work paid off in the end," he mused. The younger two swallowed.

"In any case," Hern continued, "Get Langes patched up, then help me find the bodies."

"I... I don't think we can make it down there safely, sir," Celac said faintly, grabbing the light brown hair next to her ear as if for support..

"What? No, the specimens. They must all be retrieved, accounted for, and resubmerged as soon as possible. It's too soon for them to be out, the conditioning process hasn't been completed..." He was talking to himself more than the others now. "We can only hope we haven't lost the entire crop of them, it would be a catastrophic setback."

"You're... worried about the specimens!?" Dr. Langes burst out. Celac had turned away and was heaving up the contents of her stomach.

The senior researcher's steely gray-brown eyes met his junior's lighter hazel ones. "You know as well as I do that the others are dead by now. But what I clearly know better than you is that we will all wish we'd gone with them if we have to face the Boss empty-handed. He demands results, and if you think that Giovanni will have any sympathy for our plight whatsoever, you are sadly mistaken. We give him what he wants, or we end up worse-off than your friends around the water cooler. Understood?"

The two nodded hesitantly.

"Good. Now find the bodies. I'll find somewhere to store them."

Dr. Celac began rolling up Dr. Langes's once-khaki pant leg. She took a small brown bottle of peroxide from the first aid kit and splashed it over her colleague's leg. He sucked in his breath as the liquid foamed in his wound.

"Keep still," the dark-haired woman said quietly.

"I'm trying. Do you think -"

"No. Whatever it is, no." She took out a gauze pad and pressed it to the wound to remove some dirt and blood, then began carefully picking bits of metal and glass from his flesh with a tweezers. "And if you're smart, you'll try not to think about it either." She poured a little more peroxide on and patted it dry before pressing a fresh piece of gauze over the cut, which wasn't as bad as it looked. "Can you stand?"

Langes turned on his side and carefully rose to his feet. He winced as he put some weight on the bad leg. "I'll manage."

"Good." Celac rubbed her eyes tiredly. "The specimens should be behind that wall. Be careful."

"You too," the other scientist replied softly as they cautiously picked their way through the rubble.

***********************

Sound. A shout. The inadvertent escapee was jerked back into consciousness.

"What do you mean you can't find it!?"

There was a mumbled reply that he couldn't catch.

"Well then keep looking! They're in no shape to get up and walk away. They certainly couldn't use any powers. If they're not all accounted for -"

"It's not there! It's just not there, we can look all day and not find it!"

"Don't get hysterical. I'll look, you get ahold of yourself." There was a pause, and a soft thump. More murmured words were exchanged.

The one outside was breathing fast. His heart raced as his eyes darted this way and that, searching for some idea of what to do. He wasn't sure what was happening, but he felt that it was not good. His surroundings were strange, all trees and rocks and greenness. The grass and fallen leaves prickled against his bare skin. A chill wind blew up, and as a flock of birds took flight nearby, he began to feel raindrops patter down through the trees. He struggled to heave himself onto his side, but lacked the strength.

A deafening clap of thunder boomed. The sky was split by lightning as rain suddenly poured down in sheets. He curled his head down in the hopes of some protection. And felt himself sliding...

The weak cry of pain and surprise was completely masked by the violent cloudburst. He slid through wet grass and mud, and over small rocks and branches, bumping into larger rocks and trees, all the way down to a small stream. For a moment he lay, half in the cold water, trying to catch his breath.

There was a faint rumble, then a rushing sound that quickly grew louder. He opened a swollen eye just in time to see a mass of brown water surging at him. He sucked in his breath. And it struck.

*****************************

"Look, this window's broken," Dr. Langes called out. Dr. Celac lay where she had fainted, covered in an emergency blanket to protect her from the sudden storm that was now ending.

"They have never moved or used any telekinesis. It couldn't have escaped," replied Professor Hern irritably.

"No, but look," the younger scientist insisted. "It could have slid down the debris and outside."

"I find that highly improbable." The graying man was eying the window now.

"But the others were up there, and the last one mysteriously disappeared," Langes said reasonably.

"Hm. So go out and find it."

Dr. Langes hesitated, then hobbled over to a collapsed section of the wall. He gingerly lowered himself down to inch out on his back.

"In your own time, by all means," Hern snapped.

"Sorry." Langes sped up a bit, but he still eyed and tested each surface before putting his weight on it.

"Is it there?"

"No. But..." Langes looked up at the window and down at the ground. "It would have exited with some force, probably at a fifty-degree angle, so it would have landed..." He limped towards the forest. "...About here. And then rolled, I suspect."

Professor Hern was outside in a few leaps, and strode over to join his subordinate. "Any signs of passage may have been washed away in the storm."

"No, look." Langes took a few steps into the woods and crouched down. "I could be wrong, but I think something slid down the hill in the mud."

The older man raised an eyebrow, impressed, as he stepped over to join the other scientist. "You're more observant than you let on." Then he frowned. "It seems the dam broke again."

"It must have... washed downstream."

The two men gazed thoughtfully down through the peacefully dripping trees at the rushing water below.

"It must have drowned," Hern muttered. "It had no muscle mass or experience to save it. But just in case, we'll need to do a sweep downstream."

Langes gulped and shifted his weight. Hern frowned.

"Go wake Celac up and brief her. You're too crippled to be of much use. I'll have to call Headquarters... but I'll wait until we know more."

"But the Boss... he'll understand that there was nothing we could have done, won't he? That attack came with no warning."

"Oh, he'll understand." Professor Hern was frowning back up at the ruined lab. "There's very little Giovanni doesn't understand. But the real question is, will it matter? This will add up to hundreds of millions of dollars' damage and losses. It won't be taken lightly."

"We'll all lose our jobs and credibility," Langes realized quietly.

Hern regarded him oddly, then barked out a short laugh. "You're rather new here still. Employment may be the least of our worries now."