XIV: The Long Road Down

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Chapter XIV


Dominic scratched the side of his head slowly. He might have had an itch, or maybe his fingers just needed something to do. He laughed once, a stiff burst of breath.

Whatever, man… he thought in shaken disbelief. He shut off his systems. For a moment, he felt repulsed by his gear—the smooth, efficient lines; the effete A.I. operator; the bright charts and graphs drawn over the world. He couldn’t help but connect it all to Frank Marrus and his work. The same work that had ostensibly led the world into hell.

He snapped out of his daze. If he got lost in that place, he would never find his way home. Any number of things could have happened, he knew. Even that evidence wasn’t damning; innocent until proven guilty.

His hands pressed downward heavily, raising him up from the floor. Doesn’t change how things are. Doesn’t change what I need to do. He wiped at the rubble on his chest as he stood. The dirt was sticking to him, darkening his uniform with gray patches. He brushed once more, cautiously aware that something wasn’t right; the air was heavy, distorted.

He eyed the surrounding sky through the city’s heavy, disassembling remains, the red-orange sunset bleeding into its crumbling crevasses and casting pale aura around stalwart, metal frames, still jutting up from the earth like cold, rotten fingers. And there was a strange electricity to the air, tingling, almost shocking him…

“Hngh!” he grunted, catching his breath and reeling. He fell to his knees and in a moment it was gone. What the hell was that? He stood up rapidly, gasping for air, his eyes darting from side to side in the ashen room. Only shadows greeted them.

“Shit,” he breathed, shaken. He looked down near the arboretum and at the gathering crowd. They were too far away too see clearly… and for some reason his systems were slow to re-activate… but there was clear commotion and chaos. Whatever it was, it had hit them, too.

‘Cloak,’ he thought, edging into the shadows and preparing for another shock. ‘Cloak… cloak…’ Nothing happened. ‘Systems…’ Nothing.

Fear crept up his spine. Blind and naked.

It doesn’t matter… He thought of his daughter. Her name comforted him. I’ll see this through, Elise... He gripped the frame of the building and swung his leg around to the outside. He knew he wasn’t doing this for her; but he felt that somehow she appreciated his resolve.

Steadying himself, he dropped off and grabbed the floor where he had been standing, dust shaking below his hands. He was still strong, even if his suit couldn’t shift its form. He dropped another floor and sank into a crouch, again feeling an electric tingle in the air. He braced himself and…

Nothing.

It was only fear. The hair pricked up on the back of his neck and he peered out over the edge of the building again, its slanted face driving downward into an empty street below. He didn’t have time to take the slow road back. He had waited longer than he had planned and couldn’t leave those civilians tossing in the wind any longer; even if it did mean putting himself at risk.

He didn’t have any clever ideas; except, “go”. Don’t matter if I get shot at, he thought, running and jumping straight out of the empty window. His feet held in the air for a half second before pattering lithely down the concrete at a steep angle. His suit might still be able to withstand a leap all the way to the ground, but he wasn’t about to test his luck.

Eyes up. The concrete at his feet blurred into trees. A skeletal forest of grey separated him from the arboretum, growing closer with each hurtling step. Watch for threats…

Only grey limbs and desiccated ground.

He jumped to the side, launching from one floor to the next with gathering momentum; his feet hit the ground with almost spring like levity, the faintly detectable ‘psh psh’ of his still-working impact dispersion system softening the descent.

And then—he was fully airborne; a yawning emptiness gaping beneath his suspended feet. He didn’t need to think—his body readied for the drop, instinct aligning his limbs as he flung through the fallen floors. A moment’s fear misaligned him slightly, and he felt his body tweak sideways.

Shit.

Concrete erupted all around him in a tumultuous cacophony of crumbling destruction, the floor giving way and dumping him unceremoniously into the level below. Debris scattered and ricocheted and he rolled to a stop, gray raining all around.

He felt himself lying completely still and his brain pounded heavily. He had been careless—unguided by the subtle nudging of computer systems meant to navigate around his human error, he was bound to slip up. He should have known that.

His eyes blinked in refusal of the particles on the air and he coughed and rolled over. Then, sitting up slowly, he turned his head this way and that, grateful to note that there was no acute pain. He coughed heavily again and stood shakily, patting at himself semi-consciously, glad to be still intact.

Man… he thought, quivering. He turned and looked back the way he had come—through the swirling gray haze, a growing darkness obscured the floors overhead.

Aura, he thought, instinctually. Again, nothing happened. Troubled, he took a few steps more and gazed over a crumbling ledge and down the remaining feet to the earth. I have to keep going… He sat on the edge and squinted into a hazy pile of rubble. Then, sliding off carefully, he caught the floor and lowered himself as far as he could before letting go, a gentle fall to offset his blunder.

Almost silently, he landed upon an ash covered dais, once a platform for displaying sculptures and artwork at the building’s entrance. He looked back and up over his shoulder at the building’s distant peak. I wonder what it used to be.

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