I noted, in a detached sort of way, that there were fewer flames than I would have expected. The heat crawling out of the HVAC center wasn’t my greatest concern; it was pressure that attempted to keep me pressed against the wall. A violent cough ripped itself out of my throat as I pushed myself back to my feet, shaking my head in an effort to think clearly again. “What?” I asked.
“Hill wasn’t keeping up with the proper precautions,” Sarah said, in a terse voice. “It’s technical, but the details don’t matter. You have to get out of that factory right now.”
I heard truth in those words and, using the adrenaline I’d been tapping for fifteen minutes, managed to stand up again. Mila was slumped against the opposite wall. A steady trickle of blood came from a wound on the back of her head, but she was awake. Her eyes tracked me as I lurched forward and grabbed her wrist in both of my hands. She used one of her hands to push off of the wall while I pulled. We were both on our feet and rushing back down the hallway at top speed within a few seconds.
The toxic fumes from Billy’s fake plastic shards continued to spread through the building, expanding at a ridiculous speed to fill every cubic inch of space. I hadn’t asked Sarah what the side effects of inhalation might be, but I suspected that I wouldn’t like them. It didn’t matter, though; I still needed to breathe, both to speak and to power my bruised body through the twists and turns of the processing plant. “I need an out, Sarah!”
While she worked, I turned my attention to Mila. With effort, she was keeping pace with me. “What happened to Carlos?”
“I don’t know!” Mila yelled back. “He’s probably making his own escape!”
I started to reply, but another explosion shook the building at that exact moment. The sudden bloom of fire ripped the oxygen away from me and any words I planned to speak died on my lips. Another wave of overwhelming pressure hit us from behind and I barely managed to grab onto one of the machines to my left. Almost immediately, I realized that not all heat necessarily came with a visible indication; the metallic surface of the machine was hot enough that I could practically smell my palms burning. I jerked my hands away and kept my balance through sheer force of will.
In addition to the original explosion, fires had begun to spread through the factory. Tongues of flames leapt from one machine to the other, crawled along the ceiling in parallel lines, and dripped to the ground like raindrops. The path ahead of us came to life in an instant. Mila and I backed away from the fires, intending to turn back, but that way was blocked as well.
“Sarah?” My words were surprisingly calm, considering our situation. A miniscule part of my mind congratulated myself for that.
“Uh…take a left from where you’re at,” she said. “I don’t know how long that path’s going to stay clear, so you have to hurry.”
Neither Mila or I wasted even a single split-second. She was a little faster than me, but I was less than inch behind her as we hooked a left and dashed down the aisle. At the end of that path, Sarah provided more directions and we followed those like our lives quite literally depended on it.
While we ran, I found myself analyzing our situation and drawing conclusions. The reduction in breathable air, caused by the fire, was intense enough that I legitimately feared asphyxiation. At the same time, it was possible that the vacuum was responsible for my continued good health. Without an in-depth understanding of the chemical reaction I’d started, I couldn’t know what concentration of fumes I could safely inhale. Since I could barely breath at all, my concern shifted from possibly toxic gases to a general breathlessness. I wasn’t sure if that was better, but it was at least a familiar problem.
“Devlin?” A voice asked, from less than a few feet away. I pulled myself out of my thoughts and noticed the Russians standing at an intersection ahead of me. Stani gave me a look that was something between astonishment and bewilderment. “What has happened?”
Gradually, I came to a stop and bent in half, gasping greedily at the scant amount of oxygen available. “Complications,” I managed to say.
“I don’t know how long you’ve got until the entire building comes down around you,” Sarah said. “The route I had in mind is…not an option, anymore, but I think Carlos and whoever else came with him are leaving.”
A cough shook my entire body before I could respond. “You think?”
“There’s kind of a lot going on,” Sarah shot back. “We can figure out the next step after I get you out of this death trap.”
“No complaints here,” I croaked out. “Where…what do you…”
I coughed again. In the haze of smoke and the general chaos of the fire, I couldn’t be sure if there was blood mixed into the drops that flew from my mouth. My breaths, which had been difficult before, became impossible. I felt my temples pounding and could not, for the life of me, remember exactly why that pain was there.
Mila held out an impatient hand, gesturing wildly at Stani to pass over his coat, which he did after a moment. She balled the garment up and pressed it to the back of her head. “Devlin’s not doing well,” she said. “Sarah, where do we go from here?”
I listened to Sarah’s answer, as if it dealt with someone other than me. She sounded…panicked? Concerned? There was a nervous beat of emotion in her words that I had difficulty placing. “The loading bay,” Sarah said. “Get to the loading bay, I can open the door and let you guys out. But if the network goes…”
She didn’t finish the sentence. She didn’t have to. Mila and Stani helped me to my feet and, with their help and the assistance of Iosif and Leonid, we began to pull ourselves through the aisles. Sarah didn’t need to provide directions; the Russians had just left the loading area, and they apparently remembered the way.
At some point along the way, I succeeded in pushing the mental fog away long enough to form a few valid thoughts. “James?” I asked, without prelude or preamble. “Chester?”
“They should have gotten away by now,” Sarah answered. “Stani’s group got caught by the fire, but Billy’s guys had a clear path out of the building.”
“How far until the – “
I cut myself off as a man stumbled into the path in front of us. It wasn’t difficult to see that he was in bad shape. His chest should have been ventilated, judging from the holes peppering his shirt, but it seemed most of the shrapnel and debris had been stopped by some type of concealed body armor. The occasional shard had found flesh, on his shoulders, his legs, and his face. Each breath seemed to cause him pain and a mixture of blood and spit came from his lips with each exhale. One of his arms was bent at the wrong angle, a flash of white bone standing out amidst the field of scarlet blood; the other hand held a gun, pointed in our direction.
It wasn’t a handgun. It was too long to be a handgun.
Carlos’s eyes widened as he saw us. Instead of making any attempt at convincing Mila to join him, however, he opened fire with the assault rifle an instant after he recognized our group, pouring bullets into the aisle like he held a firehose instead of a firearm. Using the split second of notice my adrenaline soaked senses provided, I tugged at Mila and Stani and pulled them out of the aisle, so that they collapsed onto me in an undignified heap. Iosif and Leonid took cover in the shadow of a machine across the aisle from us.
Carlos was yelling something in Spanish, but I couldn’t make out the syllables over the roar of the fire and the steady pops from his gun.
“The security system is completely down,” Sarah yelled into the comms. “I can’t see anything that’s happening inside. I need you to tell me what’s going on!”
Whatever effects the toxic cloud was supposed to cause, I had begun to feel them enough that I could feel my ability to rationalize slipping away. The Russians covered their mouths with shirt sleeves and tried to breathe sparingly, but it was too late for me to do anything like that. I’d been at ground zero, when both explosions caused the plan to quite literally blow up in my face. The tiny portion of my mind that had, so far, continued to note details with a clinical detachment drew the logical conclusion: if I didn’t escape, and soon, there wouldn’t be any need to worry about permanent side effects.
A chunk of cement broke free of the ceiling overhead and dropped to the ground between us and Carlos with a momentarily deafening thud. I struggled to force my limbs to cooperate, hoping to take advantage of the brief break in gunfire, but my numb legs refused to do much more than twitch. The beginnings of a headache pressed against the inside of my temples.
“Sarah, we need an exit!” Mila, helping me to my feet and supporting the majority of my weight with her much smaller body. I don’t know how she managed it, but she carried me forward and covered the path in front of us with her weapon held in the other hand.
“I’m looking for one, but I can’t…there isn’t any way to make sure that you aren’t going to get caught by the fire!”
“Figure it out, then, and figure it out fast!”
“Uh…according to the blueprints, there’s an exit just two turns ahead. Maybe a few dozen yards, if something else doesn’t go wrong along the way.”
Mila grunted inarticulately in response. She moved, as if to redistribute my weight across her shoulder, but stopped when Iosif and Leonid both stepped up and took me from her. The two Russians were, collectively, strong enough to simply lift me from my feet and carry me, at double speed, towards the exit. The plant continued to fall apart around us, in chunks of increasing size. At one point, we were forced to navigate around boulder of rebar and cement that fell within mere feet of our group.
Eventually, we saw open air and the moonless night ahead of us, through an open loading bay door. With most of the fire behind us, Iosif and Leonid stopped for a quick handful of seconds to catch their breath. Stani’s eyes were growing watery, but he gave me a quick examination anyway. When his hand touched the small of my back, his expression turned stony. His hand, when he withdrew it, came away wet and red.
Something was wrong. I knew that much, even if I couldn’t seem to figure out exactly what was amiss. It wasn’t Carlos’ appearance; while surprising, we could have dealt with that. It wasn’t the fire of the secondary explosion. Those had been a shock, but why would my smoke-choked mind be wasting processing power on facts I already knew?
There had been an original timeline. A concern that Sarah and I both shared, dealing with our group’s ability to infiltrate the processing plant before…
The cops. I dug deep within myself for focus, felt something shift in my chest that most certainly was not supposed to move, and forced words out. “How long…until…the cops?”
Sarah gave an answer, but it was lost as Carlos picked his way through the rubble and opened fire on us once again. Except for the vans, there was no cover available and the Russians practically dragged me behind one of the vehicles while Mila returned fire in short, controlled bursts.
The sound of sirens reached my ears, providing an answer to my question, during a brief lull in the gunfire. A simple break-in, as we’d planned, might only have brought a token police force to investigate. A full-scale explosion at an industrial plant, however? That would bring police, ambulances, fire trucks…there was no chance of making a clean escape from the factory now. Too many eyes would be on the scene and too many questions would be asked.
“Local law will be on the scene in maybe two minutes,” Sarah said. “You’ve got to get moving!”
Of course, that wasn’t a possibility. Whatever damage the initial explosion had done to my body, it had been enough to ensure that I wasn’t going to move very far or very fast anytime in the near future. Sarah couldn’t see the grave expressions the Russians wore – I must have lost the camera at some point during the mad dash to freedom – but I could, and I knew what those faces meant. We had lost. The game was up.
A surprising depth of anger swelled from deep inside of me, complimented by the pounding inside my skull. We had made it so far and accomplished so much. The idea of losing here, because Hill’s fake corporation hadn’t kept up with safety protocols, was infuriating. I slammed my fist into the side of the van, ignoring the brief flash of pain when my knuckles connected with the metal.
And then I stopped, the pain of my wounds, my dizziness, and my confusion disappearing for a single instant. I hit the van again, this time with my palm, and an answer crystallized as if from thin air. I kicked weakly at Stani until he focused his eyes on mine, then I flicked my vision to the van’s driver side door. It took two repetitions of that before he understood what I intended.
He gave quick orders to his goons in Russian. Iosif opened the door just wide enough that he could slip inside and started to hotwire the vehicle; Leonid half-pulled, half-carried me to the vehicle’s back doors. I used some of the last dredges of strength I possessed to help him get me into the back of the van. I struggled into an upright position against a tiny wall of white baking powder. Stani leapt in next to me a moment later, and spat out a few more words that I couldn’t understand.
The car sputtered and came to life around us. From my position, I couldn’t see anything other than the open air, but I could still hear.
“You’ve got to get in there,” Sarah said. Not to me, but to Mila.
“So that he can perforate that van as soon as they start to leave?” Mila replied. “Not a chance. I’ve got a job to do here.”
“You have to leave,” Sarah insisted.
There was a brief exchange of gunfire that drowned out any sentence either Mila or Sarah might have spoken. Then, “Get him out of here!”
Stani touched two fingers on his whole hand to the earbud and I was reminded that he was also listening to the conversation. He searched my expression for some sign of what to do; finding nothing there except what must have been blank, rapidly spreading confusion, he made up his mind.
He said two words to Iosif before lowering his voice and speaking directly to me. “Hold on to something.”
The back of the van was remarkably devoid of any hand holds, so I grabbed onto Leonid’s arm as Iosif whipped the van into motion. It was a not a vehicle designed to take corners well, but he managed to pull it out of a momentary fishtail and point it in the proper direction. This had the effect of allowing me a brief view through the van’s swinging back doors.
Mila stood, facing into the fire and chaos of the processing plant, firing both of her guns into the flames. Every line of her body stood in clear, sharp defiance. She threw caution to the wind and sent rounds flying in Carlos’ direction, without bothering to take cover. He fired back at her, but his aim lacked any precision. At least one bullet pierced the wall above my head and another managed to find its way into Stani’s arm.
“You…don’t have…do this…” I managed to cough out.
Mila turned from her tableau of fire and devastation for an instant and actually smiled at me. “Feed the cat, will you?”
Something ruptured within the factory and the explosion that came from its depth made the first two seem like firecrackers in comparison. Everything tilted. I watched as a pipe ripped its way free from the wall and swung with awesome force into Mila’s midsection. She was lifted into the air, just as a fireball of biblical proportions issued forward.
The ensuing tremor caused Iosif to lose control of the van once more. My grip on Leonid’s arm had been too weak to do much more than provide comfort; as soon as the rear of the van swung wide, I lost hold and flew the short distance through empty air until my skull connected with the opposite wall.
Fire trucks and ambulances were pulling up to the plastics plant in large numbers. I saw as the police took up the perimeter, securing a zone we had somehow managed to escape. I saw as the plant grew smaller and smaller. I made it for a few more seconds, perhaps half a minute, before my injuries, the smoke inhalation, and my own bone-deep exhaustion became too much to bear. I closed my eyes, and slipped into unconsciousness where I saw nothing at all.