And nothing happened. I mean, it made a whoompf noise like a dragon farting—and yeah, I do know what that sounds like—but that was about it.
I cursed and was about to throw it away, when my skin told me that whatever my eyes said, there was something going on. Something…building. Pressure. There was a pressure wave, out in front of us. And the Nazis started to take a step.
It was like an obscene version of a street mime in the classic “walking against the wind.” They tried to move, and it was in slow motion, shoving against something, a wind that wasn’t there. They even leaned into it, as Vic and the rest sent a hell of incendiary and explosive rockets into their midst.
But my toy was only slowing them down. It wasn’t doing a thing about their arm cannons. And they let loose with those, forcing us to duck behind an increasingly smaller barrier, forcing me to move my gun out of harm’s way,
They got Duff; he was just a fraction of a second too late. One of the energy blasts took his head right off, vaporized it, and the headless body flopped down next to Jon.
I tried to get Vic’s attention, then—this might be the last time, the only time I’d be able to tell her how sorry I was, how sorry for everything, but there wasn’t any time, and she couldn’t have heard me over the blasts, the scream of the energy cannons, and Jon’s stream of curses.
We weren’t stopping them. We could slow them, but we couldn’t stop them. And if they hadn’t known about the Vault before, if they had only followed Vic and her crew in by accident, they surely knew what it was by now. They’d have everything that was in the Vault, of which the Inferno was only one part, and probably not even the most important.
That was when I knew, I knew that the Inferno bomb was the key. We needed to let them in, let them past us, and blow the Vault with the Inferno—
I made a dive for Duff’s body, scrambling through his clothing, his pockets, trying to find the damn thing. My hand felt it in his vest and I looked up to see every Nazi trooper had his energy cannon trained on me. They’d blasted away the last of the barrier over Duff’s body, and now I was in the open. I heard the whine as the weapons all ramped up.
My skin wasn’t going to stop that.
You know how they say, in moments like this, everything moves in slow motion? It does. Just like some cheesy special effect—I watched as Vic launched herself at me. I felt myself falling over as she hit me. I slid sideways, behind more of the barrier, out of harm’s way.
I watched her glow white, then vanish in the crossfire of a dozen energy beams, taking the blasts meant for me.
The world stopped. She was gone. Forty-five heists, thirty-two meaningless trysts, six Nazi troopers and fifteen years too late, I had finally found peace with us, but I would never get to tell her. I would never get to hold her again, or see that winsome smile meant just for me. All the good that was Victoria Summers was gone in a flash of light, and my world crumbled in the wake of that blast.
I lost it.
I didn’t care anymore. I know I must have been screaming something, and it must have been coherent, because Jack, Jon, and the three OpOnes went wide and around, letting the troopers shoot their way past us and into the Vault itself, dodging blasts as they ran. I screamed at them, taunting them, moving, always moving, getting them to chase me deeper in. I saw Jon go down, then two of the OpOnes. I didn’t care. All I cared about was living long enough, just long enough, to take those bastards out. Once they were well into the Vault, I turned and dove for the tunnel, somersaulting and rolling, coming to my feet and dropping the Inferno to the ground.
Jack and the last OpOne and I ran up the tunnel, through the delivery bay and made for the outside. The troopers were a lot slower. They turned as one, and started their slow march toward us. And I waited until they were right on top of that bomb.
“Ignition!” I screamed. And I hit the remote trigger and turned to watch as the other two hit the dirt.
They were right to call it “Inferno.” The Vault glowed a magnesium-flare white. The columns holding up the ceiling collapsed, and the whole building above fell down, down onto the troopers. An enormous cloud of rubble spewed out of the tunnel doors, slamming into us, throwing us back to land in battered heaps on the ground.
I blacked out again.
It couldn’t have been long.
When I came to, and crawled to my feet, the only sounds were the ticking bits of falling rubble, explosions in the far distance, and Jack’s feet hitting the pavement as he booked out of there.
Vic’s last OpOne and I stared at each other through the settling dust. I could tell what was on his mind. This was the infamous Red Djinni. And any other day, if I hadn’t been on the Ten Most Wanted List before, after blowing into the Vault I would have been.
On the other hand, compared to what had been in here with us, and what was plainly still out there now, I was a pretty pitiful minnow among the piranha. The world as we both knew it had just done a complete one-eighty. And I knew what Vic would have done…would have asked me to do.
“Look,” I said hoarsely. “Let me help you save whoever we can. Arrest me after. Okay?”
Wordlessly, he nodded, got to his feet, and offered me a hand up.
Everywhere it was the same. The Nazis had miscalculated. We weren’t sheep. We weren’t going to bare our necks to the knife. If we went down, we would go down fighting.
Mind you, I say “we” in the larger sense, because I personally was groveling and shaking in a closet, too afraid to crack the door. I’m not proud of that. But in the larger sense…we were far from out for the count. Echo Headquarters, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Dull explosions cut through the roaring in Alex Tesla’s ears. Under the influence of Doppelgaenger’s injection, he lapsed in and out of a dreamlike torpor, but beneath the disorientation, his mind raced and tossed ideas into his addled consciousness.
Uncle Nikola. Echo. A ring of fire. His dead secretary. Eisenfaust. Doppelgaenger’s shifting features.
Lying on his side, facing the window, he watched a figure with a winged helmet dash through the sky, twisting and turning to avoid stabbing blue beams of destruction.
Mercurye: a part of his mind recognized the OpOne. Mercurye, the messenger.
A ring of fire, dissected by a Y. It seemed so familiar to him. He rubbed his eyes to wake himself.
Surprised, Alex stared at his hands. He could move! He levered himself up to sit in his chair. From the vantage point, he could see armored men spread in squads across the lawn of the Echo campus, directing their weapons at buildings and scattered flying metahumans. Mercurye drew a large part of the fire; he danced between the beams as if running through a forest.
He forced his hand to move across the desk and tap the buttons of the intercom for a line out. Static hissed out of the speaker. He thought he’d pressed the wrong button, but no channel gave him a signal. Mercurye zoomed past his window, a spry blur. The beams followed him; they tore at the masonry of the building. The window exploded inwards. Shards of glass rained on Alex. Adrenaline overcame his paralysis: he dove under the desk.
The sounds of battle were no longer muted. Cries, screams, gunfire and detonations reached his ears. Papers littered the floor from his earlier fall. A letter on Echo stationary lay inches from his face. Echo Corporate Headquarters, it read. 100 Echo Way, Atlanta, Georgia.
Atlanta. The intersection of I-75 and I-85 formed the Y in the ring: I-285, the Perimeter. His unconscious mind had already processed what Doppelgaenger hinted at: Better for you to live as we burn your little army and your city in a ring of cleansing fire.
It wasn’t merely an attack on the Echo facility. The Nazis had far greater designs.
He needed a messenger.
* * *
The last of the Nazi troopers had vanished through the hole in the cellblock wall, in pursuit of the prisoner who called himself Slycke. The Commandant and Valkyria had taken their squad—and the unconscious Doppelgaenger—back the way they came, towards the administrative wing of the facility. Ramona counted ten painful breaths and rose to her feet.
In order for the Commandant to stroll in as casually as a red-carpet celebrity, he must have brought a massive force to engage the Echo metahumans.
The guards around her were dead. Yankee Pride still had a weak pulse but looked like the ingredients for sausage. He would be of no use to her.
Her options were not encouraging: follow Slycke and his hunters out of the building, or trail the Commandant and that evil bitch.