Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Omikron Plague : Part 4 : Shelter

"... Yes, that's affirmative, we can actually see it! We gained a visual out of the star-board viewing windows about five minutes ago. According to the instruments panel our starship is around 12 light minutes from the Plague's surface, and that's more than close enough for us, let me tell you. It's ... it's unbelievable. It's huge! It's like an ocean of ... of black ink moving across. Yeah, like looking down at the surface of the sea, except it's coming towards us like a wall of oil! "
"How can you see something black in space, Captain Erikson?"
"The stars. The stars are just gone. And there's a ripple, like waves. Some of the ship's 'scopes are picking up some kind of storms that are like, raging just beneath the surface, with lightning discharging static differentials and sending enormous arcs of the stuff out like ebony sunbursts. There's no end to it - it stretches off, seemingly to infinity in all directions - which is terrifying, but, but I have to say also kind of fascinating. I've never seen anything like it. My God. That I could live to witness this."
"Captain Erikson, are you all right? You don't sound ..."

- Excerpt of a transmission from Capt D. Erikson, Starship Explorer, 387-47-2984

It took her fourteen steps to make it from one side of the street to the other. But every step was frought with pain that she mostly took through gritted teeth. Like running under a shower of sparks made from a welder's oxy-acetylene torch, except the sparks didn't just burn for a second and then go out. The sparks burned, and kept burning, even as they sank in, through her clothes, through her skin.

The bent iron sign protected her head, shoulders and waist, but she was exposed to rain blown under by fierce gusts of wind, as well as drops hitting the ground so hard they ricocheted up onto her legs.

On Alice's fourth step, her sights were set so firmly on the broken window ahead that her boot landed in a puddle of acid. It splashed up and she screamed inside the mask.

Just past the halfway point, a dribble of acid rolled off the edge of her makeshift umbrella and landed on the arm holding the wrapped bundle, half catching the wrist-com, which started to bubble and spit. "Time till take-off ... zzzt ... six minutes ...ffff ... 41 secssss ..."

At step twelve the first hole began to appear in the iron sign.

Before Alice started to cross the street she had figured out how she was going to pass carefully and unhurt through the broken window, but by the end of her journey her plans had changed.

She dived through head first.

The bent sign fell to the ground outside the window with a hissing clatter, rain turning it into swiss cheese. Alice had managed to twist in mid air so that she'd landed on the floor inside the building on her back, jarring it badly, but with the bundle still clutched safely to her stomach - a move she'd done a hundred times in high school gym. But then of course there'd been a crash-mat to break her fall, not a concrete floor littered with shards of glass.

Smoke was rising up from countless holes in the clothes of her lower body, and although she could barely see due to the tears and steam of exertion fogging up the mask lenses, her right boot appeared to be disintegrating before her eyes.

Alice breathed a lungful of air in through the mask, held it, and then forced it all out in one long, agonized and desperate scream. It echoed unheard down the empty hallways and deserted offices of the Toyota-Ford building.

She checked there was no rain damage on the outer blanket wrapping the bundle, and hurriedly kicked off the remains of her right boot. It flew into the corner of the empty storage room where it came to rest, a fuming scrap of leather and rubber. She pulled out another sachet of white powder from her pouch with shaking hands and tore it open, spilling the stuff everywhere but where she wanted it to go. She dropped the white grains of alkaline powder onto her burns as best she could, wondering about and finally deciding against taking off her cloak to tear into strips to dress her right ankle. No time!

Alice picked up the bundle and, against every natural urge inside her crying for rest and a chance to recover, limped out the door into the corridor.

" ... pzzt ... five minutes ... zzt ..."

Alice tried to run, but pulled off her other boot, and then ran barefoot. Her stockinged feet slapped on the corridor floor as she belted along it, changing the bundle from arm to arm whenever she got tired. She was sure she was heading in the right direction, but one thing she wasn't sure of was the luxury of an unlocked door onto the street on the other side. Or whether she could face the rain ordeal a second time.

She sped round a corner to the right at a T-junction, her feet slipping on the corridor floor. Never mind, she thought, taking the next immediate left. She'd worry about that bridge when she ca-

Alice slammed full-pelt into a shutter. The words Emergency Fire Partition were painted on it in large red letters.

Her hand splayed out on the shutter's surface, and she shook it in exasperation, the rattling sound deafening in the quietness of the deserted corridors.

With a grunt of defiance, Alice changed the bundle to her other arm and backed out into the corridor. She ran down to the next turning, spun round it, and slammed right into another shutter.

Emergency Fire Partition.

She retraced her steps, bolted down towards the next left, and managed to take it only narrowly avoiding slipping right over.

Emergency Fire Partition.

"No!" she screamed, pulling off her mask and throwing it at the floor.

Despite the emotional state that she was now in, it was difficult not to notice that Alice was beautiful. Her face, now smeared with grease and tears, had skin almost as smooth as it had been at birth. Her brown eyes, screwed up in futility and exasperation and with lashes laden with tear droplets, were vivid and clear and potentially heart-breaking. She could have been born from a water lilly.

" ... zzt ... zzt ... " the wrist-com stuttered.

The sign for the stairs caught her eye, above a door, and she made for it. Up, or down? She hesitated for a breath on the landing. And then chose down.

Alice made her way as quickly as her painful feet would allow, and the faint sounds of the rhythmical rattle and crunch of factory machinery rose up to meet her.

Maybe if she'd chosen up things would have turned out differently ...


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