I squirmed out from under Gwen, supporting myself against the sofa that had tipped over when she threw herself on top of me. I could hear her and Spliff both, shouting for me to "get down", "take cover"... but of course I couldn't. Any more than I could close my eyes in a dream.
For a moment they seemed to just hang there: five silhouettes floating among the twinkling shards of glass, like pieces of a mobile above an infant's crib.
Then, with a thunderclap of boots slamming against the floor - the offices at 1700 Lincoln erupted into a war zone.
Like charmed snakes, Lilywatt's whips lashed out from her hands, wrapping tight coils around their prey. With a snap of her wrists, the sniper's rifles were thrown off their mark, sending a violent stutter of gunfire into the rafters.
The other guards took aim, but they were distracted by the stocky, hairy figure that was walking directly over them, gripping their heads with disturbingly large, prehensile toes. Realizing that Danger Monkey was intending to draw their fire up, two of the guards scoured the room for other targets - but the half-simian avenger leaped at them, drawing their heads together with a dull thud.
The left-flank sniper kept a tenuous grasp on his weapon, struggling against Lilywatt in a game of tug-of-war. She kicked her leg high, catching the middle of her whip with a boot heel. When she brought it down again, the gunman was yanked directly into the path of her fist, his gun flying out of his grasp...
With all the urgency of man waving to a neighbor on the way to his car, Greyraven raised his arm, snatching the rifle from the air. It spun around in his hand only once - but something he did caused the magazine to slide out and drop to the floor. He caught the muzzle-end and charged toward the reinforcements who were bursting out of the stairwell.
The Deacon caught a few stray bullets in the chest, but he kept obidiently to his post. From the console behind him, Vaig shouted, "Control Room...?!"
"The Hyperconverter is now online, Mr. Vaig..." came the response.
Just then, an unconscious guard dropped onto the control panel, tossed there by the Deacon after Danger Monkey had thrown the body at him. DM climbed over the Deacon's body, swinging around his limbs like a jungle gym. He sceeched madly, punching and scratching his face.
Attempting to shove the body aside, Vaig yelled, "Pick up that gun, you idiot!"
From the base of the console - where he had presumably been curled up in the fetal position - Tim stood up, dangling the fallen guard's firearm from his finger.
"Now shoot somebody!" Vaig yelled.
Tim blanched, dropping the gun like it was something that could be used to kill somebody.
Stray bullets were flying just overhead, but I couldn't turn away from the spectacle: Greyraven and Lilywatt, battling against the fresh onslaught of guards; Danger Monkey, his fur matted with blood, tossed aside by the scruff of his neck; Vaig pushing the body from the console. Gwen and Spliff were still shouting at me from under the coffee table, but I wouldn't move until that last voice roared from behind me...
I dove to my side, narrowly avoiding the low-flying object that was darting through the room like a predatory bird. It cut a sharp turn around the Deacon - only a second before it would've clocked him in the jaw. When it landed, sinking one of its arms into the top panel of the console - I realized that it hadn't come from a wild throw. The explosion threw Vaig back against his desk...
Spliff crawled out from under the table. "Fuck yeah... I knew he'd come back!"
Have you ever looked at those domino masks, that little strip of cloth that so many heroes have worn over the years, and thought to yourself - Seriously? I mean, this is somebody's brother, or mother, or dentist - and nobody has ever recognized them? That's what's protecting their family from retribution?
But watching him there, standing not ten feet away from me - I understood. That was Darkstreak - no one else. Everything we had ever known was hidden away behind that mask.
He ran to where we were huddled on the floor. "Are you all okay?"
Spliff was the first to answer. "Yeah, we're alright. But how did you...?"
Darkstreak followed his gaze to the "live" speech airing on a TV across the room. "We've got a man downstairs... he told us Vaig was nowhere to be found."
"Darkstreak! Get those civilians out of here!" - Greyraven.
"Yes, please..." called another voice.
The cables that had lowered them in were still hanging through the roof. The injured Danger Monkey pried Tim from Greyraven's boot, and the two of them were reeled up into the hovering Argojet.
Greyraven and Lilywatt stepped over the bodies of the unconscious security guards, approaching Deacon Struck. The massive preacher ignored them, moving slowly - almost casually - away from his post. Towards us...
"Darkstreak-er," he chuckled, "haven't seen you on the TV lately. Thought you might'a seen the light. Moved away from this life'a sin..."
Suddenly, at the far edge of the room, an orange-and-gold android stepped out from the shadows.
"Vsshrt! Strrrth shhhl MRRRAAAT!" it coughed, sounding like it was repeating an order at Jack in the Box.
Not looking especially confident, Darkstreak turned back to us. "Alright. Just follow me, close to the ground. I'll get you to the ship."
In an impressive display of speed (granted), Sureshot - modeling his brand-new, taxpayer-funded Cyber-Armor® - unsheathed his bow, and fired off three of his trick arrows. The first two - tipped with explosive boxing gloves - were laying on the ground by the time the third blew a sad-looking net out its ass - five full seconds after the Deacon grabbed it from the air. The Deacon threw it like a javelin, back at Sureshot, tangling the archer in its sticky mesh.
Lilywatt sprung into action, snapping her whips at the Deacon. The end of one spun around his wrist; the other he caught in his hand. Except for the smoke rising from his jacket, the curls of electricity licking across her weapons didn't seem to bother him at all.
"You... stupid... redneck! Get back to your post!" Vaig had managed to crawl back to the console, and was furiously punching at the controls in order to tame the sparks.
Realizing he left an open path to Vaig, the Deacon jerked his arms, lifting Lilywatt into the air. Before she could think to let go, he brought her crashing down on top of Greyraven.
Seconds passed, with neither of the them moving. It took a few more for Vaig to register his triumph. "The fools! Did they honestly think -"
Just then, the console whirred back to life, illuminating his face like a camp counselor telling a ghost story. With an almost erotic relish, he slapped his open palm against the glowing red button...
Nothing happened. I opened my eyes.
Spliff turned to Darkstreak. "What the hell? Did it not work?"
Just as I realized that my phone - or something deep inside my phone - was pulsating - the room shook from a series of explosions. Sureshot was back in action, firing an endless array of arrows at the Deacon, one after another. At long last, the giant dropped to the ground.
From behind a thick veil of smoke, Vaig called, "You're too late. The Hyperconverter is already re-configuring the network... mapping the temporal fault..."
A look of grim determination washed over Darkstreak's face. "I have to get downstairs..." he said hitting a button on his belt.
I was about to ask him what he could do, when the metal rescue platform lowered in through the ceiling.
We loaded everyone on as quickly as possible. Sureshot climbed up to where the platform met the cable, to ensure that the connection was secure. After we got him on, I saw Spliff run a fingertip over Greyraven's utility belt; he snapped his hand back when Darkstreak shot him a look. He had probably been trained to look out for that sort of thing.
Wrapping her arms around me, Gwen asked, "Are you okay?"
No. "Yes. Yeah, I think so..."
The phone in my pocket kept throbbing, like a nasty bruise. "Network re-configuration", apparently. It didn't hurt at all, it was just... distracting.
"Hold on, everyone," Darkstreak called, as the platform lurched upwards.
We were ten feet in the air when the massive, grey-tinged hand reached out of the smoke, swatting the side of the platform.
It occurred to me, even then: Deacon Struck is big, but...
"C'mon, 'Streaker," his voice bellowed, "let's you and me have a little have a little 'come to Jesus'..."
The hand reached and grabbed, reached and grabbed - until finally, he caught a hold of Darkstreak's leg.
He hung from the edge of the platform. With every yank, we nearly fell off the side.
Realizing the danger, Darkstreak yelled up to Sureshot, "Just go! Get those people to safety!"
When he let go, the platform jerked, swinging wildly.
Gwen had lost her footing, and was rolling toward the edge of the platform. I dove onto my stomach, catching her wrist right as she fell off the side.
The Argojet bobbed for a second, its autopilot compensating for any further resistance. "Just hold on," I called to Gwen, "I've got you!"
And I did, too. Another couple of seconds, and I would have pulled her to safety. But that's when the bullets pinged off the side of the platform...
The Mullet, aiming directly for me... I think don't think she even cared who else was on there, much less why she was assigned the job of stopping us in the first place.
The Argojet was ascending quickly. If I hadn't jumped when I had, I never would've made it without breaking my legs.
I grabbed Gwen, tackling her back behind the same couch that we had just escaped from. Bullets skimmed the edge, tearing through the upholstery. The Mullet was a pretty fair shot, considering the smoke, and the fact that she had Greyraven and the Deacon as obstacles.
The Deacon hovered above him. He flexed his muscles, sending a ripple of fresh, hard mass rolling across his body, ripping his suit like Kleenex. All along his neck and torso, his veins bulged like thick purple lightning bolts. He was growing, right before our very eyes.
"Never understand why a nice, normal boy like you goes and gets himself all mixed up with these sinners..."
"I don't have time for this, Struck..."
"Awww... now 'Streaker, you turn away from redemption, you gonna have to pay the price. Just like your little girlfriend did..."
He waited for a response, but Darkstreak kept his rage buried. Deep. Behind the mask...
The Deacon roared, a strand of saliva clinging from the top to the bottom of his cavernous mouth.
Darkstreak rolled to his feet, seconds before the Deacon's fists smashed into the floor. He faked punches, only to pull back, kicking the giant's shins and throat, instead. But the Deacon had gone against the likes of Ultraphenomenon, even Alphamale himself. When Darkstreak planted his heel in the Deacon's solar plexus, using the momentum to launch himself out of reach - the Deacon grabbed his calf right out of the air.
Gwen screamed when he crashed into Vaig's console.
Two more bullets sent shock waves through the couch. Thing must have cost a fortune.
The Deacon was laughing, stalking towards his motionless opponent - when suddenly, Darkstreak sprung to his feet. He was bloodied, but I couldn't see a sign of any actual wounds.
He ripped the console from the ground, throwing it at the Deacon. Then, punctuating his words with fists slamming against the floor, he yelled -
"I - don't - have - time - for - THIS!"
The ground beneath him collapsed, dropping him and the Deacon to the next floor.
Gwen looked at me, confused. "He can do that...?"
I was about to answer when I heard the distinct sound of clip sliding from the butt of a gun.
As we ran for the stairwell, a heavy sense of vertigo draped over my body, sinking into my bones with every pulse of my phone...
The Mullet was close enough now that when she raised her gun, I could make out the tattoo peeking from the tear in her shirt. Something like a flaming skull, probably carved there with a burning-hot ballpoint pen. I thought of my own tattoo: a telephone headset with devil-horns coming out the top. Stupid twenty year-old Joel...
"I don't understand," I called out to her, "what do you have against me? Why...?"
"Because, you little prick -" she shouted as she finished loading her weapon, "it my job. And I take my job seriously..."
More shots rang out. I grabbed Gwen by the forearm and took cover behind a pillar. Bullets cut through the plaster, just inches away from my left ear. And then - just like I'd always heard about - my life began to flash before my eyes.
But I realized - this cluster of memories running through my head... they were things that I had never actually experienced...
The throbbing from my phone was getting faster - turning into a smooth, steady hum.
And then... something weird happened.
I mean, it was all weird... but this was different. This was personal...
...I was sitting on a couch, watching television with a pint of Ben and Jerry's ice cream in my lap. Across the room, Gwen was curled up in a chair with her laptop. Normally, that much distance would have indicated there had been a fight - but the space was more like a vacuum... one we'd been in for a long time.
On the television, a battle was being waged between the forces of good and evil. Something not entirely unlike the last nine or so minutes of my life. But a movie. Play-acting. Fiction.
I called out to Gwen, indicating the screen. She grunted in agreement, without looking up. When I insisted, she watched for only a second before rolling her eyes.
As the show went on, it occurred to me how absurd it really was. Ridiculous. Comical, even.
I broke into a fit of hysterical laughter...
The ground shook violently, jolting me back into the room. I barely had time to focus, before squeezing my eyes shut, awaiting the kill-shot...
Off in the distance, Deacon Struck roared. Not rage. Pain.
Something burst through the floor; something that looked, for all the world, like a giant pincer...
The room shook again - harder this time. Gwen slipped away from me, out from behind the pillar. I scurried out after her, but she had already sprung at the Mullet, who had lost her footing when the building rattled.
Gwen pinned her down with her knees, and smashed the side of her fist against her ear. She punched like a girl, but it was enough to knock the Mullet out cold.
I wasn't sure whether I was really back, or if this was just a peek at some other alternate universe. When I pulled the phone out of my pocket, I realized that it had stopped throbbing. On the screen, it read: "Searching for Service..."
Panting, Gwen asked me "What's happening?"
I shrugged. Then it occurred to me that I should probably say something more.
"Hey... uh, thanks." I nodded towards the Mullet.
"Thank you for coming to save me."
With tears welling up in her eyes, she smiled at me. "I guess we make a pretty good team, huh?"