Duncan and Niasa – 16. Tropes, Turns And Terminus


My mind felt hazy, as if my brain had turned to vapor. It was very hard to focus on a single thought at a time; rather, a thousand thoughts bounced around inside my skull, as if it was a beehive of ideas, sensations, and notions. I didn’t like that, it was like I had no control over my own mind. Although, on the plus side, that made my stress-induced nausea more manageable, as I had no difficulty thinking of something else than the cause of my stress.

Apparently, this was what one felt when put under a partial Glamour for an extended amount of time, especially when one is also planning to subvert a self-righteous archangel’s evil plan for world domination.

Sorina was nervous, too. I could tell from her driving, the sharp turns she took, and the force she applied on the gas pedal. Her breath, however, was calm and regular, and I would have bet her face was a mask of serenity -I couldn’t tell, as I was made to wear a blindfold once more.

The car trip took us over three hours. When we arrived, I could hear the sound of waves crashing against something -cliffs, at a guess-, and the distant screams of seagulls. The air carried the scent of iodine, through my opened window; I took a lungful of the stuff to help with my nerves. The weather was warm and sunny, too.

Once again, I was only allowed to take off the blindfold inside the building. This mansion looked exactly like the other one, with one detail: there was no furniture. The place was barren, as if nobody lived there. As per her instructions, Sorina led me directly to the elevator; Bianchi had been very insistent that she didn’t take any detour.

The elevator had no panel or button, yet after we entered, the doors shut and the cabin moved downwards. I assumed there was a hidden camera somewhere, and somebody watching through it. The ride took about a minute, and delivered us to a long, white corridor. I was immediately reminded of that underground lab where I had first met Niasa. We passed by a few doors, turned a corner, and arrived at a double door flank on both sides by two Human women. They both wore black suits with a black tie, and I could guess the concealed pistol on their flanks. Seeing us, one of them spoke in a very low voice in her earpiece, then nodded to her colleague. The latter went to frisk the both of us, and took Sorina’s mobile. She stared at me in the eyes, like she was trying to hypnotize me. Then, she went back to her spot, and the double door opened with a hushed sound.

We arrived in a gigantic room, spherical in shape. The rocky walls indicated that it had been dug inside the cliff. It was topped off by a large, round, opening in the ceiling, through which I could see the blue sky. We were standing on a catwalk installed at about mid-height of the room. Above us, I could see a large bay window, through which I could distinguish a few silhouettes. I assumed it was some kind of observation room. I also saw another door, opposite the one we had just passed.

At the centre of the room was a large metallic object, looking like a hollowed-out lozenge, with thick cables plugged in various places. The would-be portal. I could hear some sort of droning sound coming from it, making it seem even more ominous.

Bianchi appeared through the roof entry, her large wings glowing in the sunlight. She landed before us, and her feathery limbs seemed to disappear once again. Without any hesitation, she approached me and grabbed my chin, peering into my eyes like the guard did.

“Good,” she said. “He’s been Glamoured.

– As you ordered, Ms Bianchi,” Sorina said.

“Lead him to his workstation. We’re just about ready for the final step.”

Well, that doesn’t sound good. Another guard, a man this time, appeared to take us. We went back to the long corridor, passed the third door on our left, then climbed a flight of stairs. There was another corridor, then the guard led us to a small office. It was rather dark, the only lightning coming from a computer’s monitor, and a set of server racks visible through a glass door. The guard silently ordered me to sit at the computer, then pressed a few keys on the keyboard. A window opened; it was one of those forms I had to fill at work.

“Get to work,” Sorina ordered.

I did so immediately, acting as robotic and hypnotized as I was supposed to be. The guard left us without a word. As soon as the door closed behind him, Sorina leaned over my shoulder, took my hand in hers, and whispered:

“I saw two cameras in this room. One of them is pointed at you, but it can’t see me. Don’t move your lips, or your head. Squeeze my hand once for yes, and twice for no. Do you understand?”

I squeezed once.

“All right. I doubt your computer can access the main network. Those” she pointed at the racks beyond the glass door “probably do. I doubt I have access to them, but I’m going to try. Just continue your job -as slowly as you can. Okay?”

Another squeeze.

Sorina then went to the glass door. For the corner of my eye, I could see it did not have a handle, or any hinges. Sorina found a little black box that was likely a badge-reader. She pulled her company badge and tried to use it, but the reader gave a red light and a beep. She then looked around her, probably looking for a potential weakness, then came back to me.

“Looks like we’re gonna need to be a bit more forceful,” she said. “That door locks electrically, and I’m guessing the alarm it’s connected to does too. Here’s my idea: I can create a short blackout by short-circuiting this room -there’s got to be a fuse box nearby. That should open the door, and shut down the cameras. No doubt there’s a backup generator that’s going to kick in after a few minutes, so you’ll have to place Rin’s gadget and come back real quick. Do you think you can do that?”

One squeeze.

“Good. And if anything goes wrong, do you remember what you’re supposed to do?”

One squeeze.

“Okay. I won’t be able to warn you when I cut the power, so be ready.”

She gave me a quick, anxious peck on the cheek, and briskly walked away. I reported my attention to the work Bianchi had me do. It seemed a lot more complicated than the stuff I did at NUTEC. Just looking at it gave me vertigo, and I was fairly sure it wasn’t just because of my physical aversion to maths. I noticed then that I had stopped working completely; focusing on my work had, as usual, made me unable to do it. Quick, let’s think of something else. I immediately thought of Niasa… and started having a mini-freakout. Somehow, this entire plan’s craziness only hit me at this moment. What if somebody noticed I wasn’t actually Glamoured? What if something went wrong, and Team Hellraiser couldn’t get in here in time to save our arses? What if something happened to them? What if something happened to Niasa?

Mercifully, the power went down at the moment my mind was taking a downward spiral, cutting my budding panic attack short. I leaped out of my seat and barrelled to the glass door. It was indeed unlocked, but opening it with the nails I didn’t have was a pain, especially since it seemed to weigh a bloody ton. But, with some effort and a few curses, I managed to open it enough to slip by.

The server room was, predictably, powered by a different grid. A dark blue hue illuminated the whole place, and the hum of numerous fans was nearly deafening. The server racks were arranged in rows of four, with a monitor plugged in on each row. After some quick browsing, and with the help of Rin’s instructions, I found the place where to plug in the small external drive she had given me. I took off my left shoe, and removed the sole, revealing my contraband. I grimaced as I realized I had been sweating a bit, then plugged the thing -fortunately, a bit of humidity had not hindered it.

As I made sure to hide it properly, I heard a voice, and nearly jumped out of my skin.

“… had to happen now! Right in the middle of…”

A man turned the corner of a server rack. He was rather short, balding, wore a lab coat and had beady, sunken eyes. I recognized him instantly: it was the scientist that had been experimenting on Niasa, back in that underground lab -the other underground lab. Talk about a reunion! Will I meet my parents next? Unfortunately, he recognized me too -guess I had left quite an impression on the chap. His face fell, and his eyes opened wide.

“You,” he growled.

My adrenaline kicked in, and I saw two options. The first was to obfuscate him with some Dunk-grade fast talk; pretend I was someone else, that I had no idea what he was talking about… Unfortunately, he placed a hand on his earpiece and opened his mouth to talk, so I immediately went with option two: I grabbed a monitor and whacked him on the temple as hard as I could. The poor sod fell on the side and banged his head against another server rack. He barely had time to utter a second word before losing consciousness.

Just when I was naïve enough to believe I got off scot-free, I heard a second -female- voice:

“Doctor Wiker, are you all right? I heard a terrible noise.”

It came from the other side of the server room, and was followed by the sounds of footsteps. I had maybe thirty seconds until the woman reached me and the banged up doctor. I considered dragging his body out of sight, and possibly trying to find some place to hide it, but there was simply not enough time. A cold shiver ran down my spine as I elected to hide myself behind a rack, after nicking the doctor’s mobile, which I saw protruding from his coat’s front pocket, and his earpiece.

Due to the fact that all communications would likely be monitored -if not jammed-, we had decided to not use mobiles unless it was an absolute emergency. Our cover about to be blown seemed to qualify, so I sent Niasa a text: “want to catch a film next Sunday?”. It was the code we decided upon to mean: “something went sideways, get me the Hell out of here”. I had no idea how long it would take for her and her family to get here, or what I should do in the meantime.

One thing at a time. I heard the woman swear in surprise as she found the doctor’s body. I dared to give a glance. She was dressed like those guards I met earlier. Kneeling aside the doctor, she was taking his pulse, muttering under her breath. A quick look around informed me that there were only two exits: the one that led back to the small office, and the one through which these two people had come in. With a bit of stealth, it seemed possible to sneak past the guard and leave.

Just as I was having that thought, the lights came back on, meaning the cameras probably did too. I winced, and inadvertently bumped into one of the racks.

“Is anyone here?” the guard called out.

Damn it. I clenched my teeth so hard it hurt.

“Yes,” Sorina’s voice said.

I nearly jumped again. Sorina had come again through the office. Seeing me, she put a finger to her lips, then went to find the guard.

“What happened here?” I heard her ask.

“Dunno. I just found him like this. Is your Human…

– Still at his desk. I doubt he heard anything, in the state he’s in. Have you called this in?

– No, I was just abou-”

There was a muffled sound, followed by some banging noises. I came out of hiding, and saw Sorina holding the guard in a sleeper hold. They both struggled for a while, the guard throwing a few kicks and punches that either missed their targets or didn’t manage to free her. Sorina then kicked her legs from under her, and a few seconds later the guard got glazy-eyed and dropped to the floor. With a breath of relief, Sorina stole the guard’s earpiece and put it on. I put Wiker’s on as well, and she showed me how to turn off the microphone.

“That bought us some time,” she said. “But they’ll find out soon.

– I already texted the others. The device is in place.

– Good. Now, to get out of here…

– The cameras must be back on. We can’t come back to the office without being seen. Where does this other door lead?

– I’ll find out. Stay put. Wait.”

She grabbed me by the collar and smacked her lips against mine. Something went off in my mind, and I realized she had undone her partial Glamour.

I nodded, and crouched behind a server, while she made her way to the door. She leaned in, gave a quick look, then gestured to me to follow her. The next room was a laboratory, not unlike the one where I had met Niasa almost three years earlier, although the equipment in this one seemed more cutting-edge. Thankfully, it didn’t contain any drugged up guinea pigs -or anyone else, for that matter. The lab also had two doors, the other leading back to the main corridor.

“What now?” I said.

“We need to reach a place that can be easily secured, and barricade us in until the others get here. We have to be quick.

– How long do you think we have?”

Sorina opened her mouth to answer, when we both heard a voice in our earpieces:

“Andrews, come in. We have a possible intrusion in the server room.”

– What are the odds that the guard you knocked out is called Andrews?” I said.

“Andrews, come in,” the voice repeated.

“Should you try answering?” I said.

Instead, Sorina went to a cupboard filled with various pharmaceuticals, and tried to push it on its flank to block the door.

“To all: possible alert level two,” the voice said, now sounding more stern. “Andrews is not responding. Cortes and Woodrow, check the server room.”

Feeling my stomach dropping, I went to help Sorina. Although my upper-body strength probably didn’t contribute much, the two of us managed to turn the cupboard into a makeshift barricade. We turned to the other door. The other piece of furniture that could be used to block it was a metallic desk, but it would need some heavy objects so it could hold. As we got to work, the barricaded door’s handle moved, and we heard something trying to push it open. I froze. After a couple of failed attempts, the person knocked on the door, then I heard him say:

“No, it’s not locked. Something’s blocking it. Report it, I’ll try to…”

A loud bang resonated through the room as the man on the other side tried to open the door by ramming something -most likely himself- against it. The cupboard seemed to hold, so we focused on blocking the other door. It wasn’t long before we heard someone enter the server room. Judging from his exclamations, he had discovered the bodies.

“Cortes to Security,” we heard him say in our earpieces, “I just found Wiker and Andrews; they got knocked out. Subject Alpha is not at his workstation.”

Subject Alpha? Is that me? They couldn’t give me an original codename?

“Copy, Cortes,” Security answered. “To all: alert level two is confirmed. Switch to the emergency channel.”

There was a short high-pitched sound, and my earpiece turned completely mute. Sorina’s did too, and we decided to take them off and throw them away. The guard in the server room tried to ram the door as well. Our makeshift barricade proved less effective, and he managed to open the door by two or three inches, even as Sorina pressed against it. He immediately snuck in his hand, carrying a small plastic object that looked like a gun, which I assumed to be a taser. Before he could hit Sorina, she leaped on his hand, and bit down hard. He tried to retreat, but Sorina immobilized his hand, wrestled the taser out of it, and turned it on him. After a squealing of pain that made me shudder, he dropped to the floor.

As for me, I was pushing against the hallway door with all the strength I could muster. The other bloke had not given up; quite the opposite: I heard two new guards arrive to help his effort. Three people, evidently in good physical shape, against little old me… Even Gordy and his gambling addiction would have hated those odds. I started looking for anything within reach that could be used as a weapon. Given the setting, I was hoping for a scalpel, but all I could find was a pair of medical scissors. At least the pointy end looked like it could cut through skin…

“Remember: we need the Human alive,” one of the voices said. “Do whatever you want with the Vampire. Ready?”

Two of the guards pushed against the door in a synchronized assault –BAM-, and I almost fell back. The door opened an inch. BAM. Another push, another inch. My hand squeezed the scissors as I raised them above my head, ready to stab as soon as I’d see flesh.

BLAM! I took a step back, as fear got the better of me, but then noticed the door had not budged this time. Then, I heard screaming.

“What the heck is that?!”

What followed was a melody of scuffling noises, grunting, and cries. It lasted maybe fifteen seconds, then ended as abruptly as it began. In the ensuing silence, I could faintly hear a man moan in agony. Then, someone knocked on the door.

“Did somebody order some Big Damn Heroes, with a side of hellish hotness?”

My heart leaped in my chest as I recognized Niasa’s voice. Sorina and I removed the cupboard and opened the door. I threw myself in Niasa’s arms. I noticed the guards -two men and a woman- littered around, wriggling on the floor, holding various parts of their bodies in obvious pain.

“Where are your sisters?” I asked.

“Out and about,” she said with a smirk. “Daddy’s here, too…” Her mouth twitched. “So’s Gordy.

– Gordy? What the Hell is he doing here?

– Beats me. He just said he had to be there. We were in a hurry, so I said fine as long as he sticks with Dad.”

Bloody Hell, Gordy! What are you thinking?! Does this have anything to do with what Janus asked you to do?

“Let’s just get out of here,” Sorina said. “We need to find the security room.

– Already have,” Niasa said. “Moira got there and disabled everything she could.

– You found out how to use the security codes Janus got us?

– Err, yes and no. We used those to get inside the base, but as for the security stuff… Moira pretty much just opened a few panels, and clawed every cable she could find.

– The best kind of troubleshooting,” I said.

We ran out of the lab and into the hallway. Niasa gave me my mobile back, having found it in Sorina’s car. Almost as soon as I turned it back on, I received a call from Rin.

“Thank you for calling Bianchi’s secret base, the jackboot factory where nightmares are made, this is Duncan speaking, how may I direct your call?

– I’m accessing the data,” Rin said. “Predictably, there’s a lot of it. I’m erasing everything pertaining to you, Sorina or Niasa.

– Hopefully, she doesn’t have any off-site backup.

– According to Janus’s intel, she does, but you’ve given me access to it, as well. This base is really the core of all of her operations.

– No doubt. I’ve seen her portal. It’s not active -doesn’t look like it is, at least-, but that’s only a matter of time.

– Ah! Speaking of which, I’m also browsing through all of the technical data. I’m looking for a way to disable that thing safely. I was thinking your transdimensional-energy-tainted brain could be of help.

– What do you need me to do?” I said.

“From what Niasa described, there is an observation room. They probably test the portal from there, in safety. Go there. With some luck, there will be an emergency shutdown button.

– Got it. Hey, how come Gordy escaped you once more? You told me you would be more attentive.

– He didn’t escape me,” she said, sounding embarrassed. “I… let him go.

– You did? Why?

– Because… Look, just talk to him. Call me back if there’s anything. We don’t need to worry about our phone calls being listened to, now.”

We dashed down the hallway and reached the observation room. It was certainly the biggest in the whole base after the portal room. Multiple large computer screens were installed above and beneath the bay window, displaying various numbers, graphs, and scientific-looking data. Debra was there, brawling with a Human guard on the floor. The two of them were entangled in such a way that it was hard to decide which one had the upper hand. They kept trying to kick, scratch, and bite each other. Instead of a trained guard and a Hellhound in a regular fight, it looked like two kids squabbling over a toy. Niasa moved to help her sister, but she kicked her away and screamed:

“I got this!

– No, she doesn’t!” the man said, with a petulance matching hers. “No you don’t!

– Shut up! Yes I do!

– Whatever,” Niasa said, rolling her eyes. “Darling, come on. Let’s find a way to kill this thing.”

I counted no less than twelve computers in the room, all turned on and active. Their monitors displayed a series of white characters on a black background, along with the occasional progress bar and some red writing. Some of it was familiar to me, but overall I might as well have been trying to read a novel in Chinese. Judging by her expression and the way she was biting her claw, Niasa couldn’t make much sense of it either. As to Sorina, she looked more confused than me.

“Damn it,” Niasa said. “I have no idea what language that code is. I don’t know how to undo… whatever it is it’s doing.

– Do you see anything that could look like an emergency shutdown function?

– Nope. Apparently, Bianchi doesn’t give two shits about OSHA.

– Bollocks. Let’s just rip those computers off, that’s bound to do something.

– Those computers are connected to the portal. What if we accidentally trigger something?

– Like what?

– Like… I don’t know,” she said. “Like some kind of… transdimensional… quantum… overload thing? Look, what I’m saying is, we don’t know how this thing works, but we know it’s dangerous.”

I fretted a bit. The story of Niasa’s late father, as told by her step-father, came back to my mind.

“Right… Let me call Falkenstein.”

I did, and put her on video conference.

“Rin, we need help. Do you know what any of this shite means?”

She looked at the screens, and gasped loudly.

“Great Elders! The portal is opening.

– What?!” Niasa and I both said.

“If these readings are correct, the process has already started.

– Can’t you do something?” Niasa said. “Throw in your virus, mess the whole thing up?

– I already have, but I’m afraid it won’t be fast enough. We may only have a few minutes before a living being can cross!”

Niasa growled, and punched a keyboard, making its keys fly everywhere. Looking down at the scissors I still held, I asked:

“What about the electrical side? That thing obviously works on electricity. If we cut the power cord, the whole thing should shut down.

– Yes… Yes!” Rin said. “If both the software and the hardware are hindered… Yes, that can work! It’s worth a shot, at least.

– All right. Niasa, Sorina, let’s go! Debra, you… hum…”

Debra and the guard were still on the floor, still entangled, but they were no longer fighting. There was still some roughness in their moves, though. I sort of felt jealous of the guy. The first time with a Hellhound is quite an experience.

“Well, who didn’t see that coming?” Niasa said. “Let’s just go. Sorina, stay with her, just in case.”

When Niasa and I barged in the portal room, both Seth, Moira and Gordy were already there, the first two holding their own against about ten guards, the third just trying to survive the whole ordeal intact. With Niasa coming to their help, the battle turned to the advantage of Team Hellraiser. The family fought with strength and speed, but not much style. Had there been a referee present, he would have screamed foul more often than inside a hen house.

“Oi, you,” I said as I grabbed Gordy by the shoulder. “Since you graced us with your presence, you might as well make yourself useful.”

I dragged him to the portal.

“We need to find what powers this thing, and cut it.”

Gordy looked alternatively at me and the portal, looking lost like a Frenchman at an abstinence ball.

“Get to it!”

The metallic structure of the portal had few apparent cables. I cut them all off just in case, but it didn’t kill the droning sound -which, but maybe that was my imagination, seemed to have gotten louder. Meanwhile, Seth, Moira and Niasa defeated the last of their opponents, who retreated, to either find some reinforcements or a hole in which to hide in shame.

“Dad!” Debra screamed from the observation room, which window had been destroyed by a flying piece of furniture. “We got some company, up here!

– Niasa, stay here,” Seth ordered. “Moira, come with me!”

I found nothing else to cut, so I decided to rip the panels off the damned thing to find more cables and wires, and ordered Gordy to do the same. Taking screws off with scissors was about as convenient as making yourself a cuppa by putting the milk in first, but there weren’t any tools around. Gordy tried using a coin from his pocket, along with a piece of metal as a lever. Thankfully, the various parts had not been welded together. After a couple of minutes, Gordy and I managed to find three thick, grey cables. One ran on the floor, the other two were on each of the portal’s sides. I tried my scissors on them, using them like a saw. The result was… underwhelming.

“Ugh. Love! Get over here, I need something sharp.”

Niasa, who was on the lookout for anything, turned to me, and immediately froze, with the expression of an animal having spotted another, bigger predator. I followed her gaze. About ten feet above me, looking down on us like a malevolent deity, stood Aster Bianchi, on top of her portal, wings spread and face distorted with not-so-righteous fury. Her white and gold chainmail shone in the sunlight. In her hand she held a longsword, the kind you’d picture on a knight in a period piece. Above her, an iron door went to close the hole in the ceiling.

“I should have smelled the hellish taint on you the moment I laid eyes upon you,” she said.

“But you didn’t,” I said. “Guess you just weren’t faithful enough.”

She took one step forward and dropped on the ground between me and the portal, with a metallic sound that echoed through the entire room.

“Let me guess,” I said, “You’re going to offer me one last chance to redeem myself and join you. Or else…

– I will not disgrace myself or my cause with such an offer,” Bianchi retorted. “You have laid with that sort, worked with it against me… You didn’t deserve a first chance, let alone a second one. Once a criminal, al-”

Niasa had leaped like a cheetah, and landed on her chest, cutting her mid-sentence -and hopefully teaching her a solid lesson about monologuing. They both landed a couple meters away, punching and kicking. Bianchi’s longsword fell to the floor with a clattering sound. I ran to make a grab for it, thinking using that bitch Angel’s own weapon to destroy her portal would be the most beautiful form of irony. Bianchi saw me, and made a large, sweeping motion with her arm. The next thing I knew, I was blown back by a sudden, invisible wind, strong enough to land me on my arse.

“What the fook?!” Gordy said.

My Hellhound took advantage of Bianchi’s momentary lapse of attention to throw a right hook at her, seizing her in the temple, and causing a break to appear on her mask. The Angel responded with another arm gesture, and Niasa was similarly thrown back like a stormtrooper who ran afoul of a Jedi. She managed to land on her feet, and immediately went back on the offensive, while Bianchi picked up her sword.

“That’s magic, right?” I said, incredulous, to no one in particular. “Proper magic. How the Hell can she do that?!”

I looked at the rectangular, metallic structure. Of course, I thought. That portal. It must have opened enough that she can draw some magic from her own dimension. Which also means the more it opens, the more powerful she’ll get…

“Come on, Gordy!” I said. “Cut that fucking thing if it’s the last thing you’ll ever do. Use your teeth, if you have to!”

Gordy and I got started on the cables, me with the scissors, him with a small piece of metal he had roughly sharpened like a shiv. We managed to get through the rubber cover, and reached the copper-coloured thingies inside. Those proved easier to cut through, and soon the first cable was completely out of order. I stood up and got to work on the second one, while Gordy took the third. My guts turned to ice as I looked at Niasa and Bianchi.

Niasa, unbelievably, was losing. While stronger and faster than her opponent, she was simply outmatched. Bianchi was proving to be a more than experienced fighter, and her magical powers were clearly the deciding factor. No doubt that wind thing was just the tip of the iceberg of her supernatural might.

“You share the arrogance of your kind,” Bianchi said as she easily parried one of Niasa’s clawed attacks, and retaliated with a kick in the stomach. “What are you hoping to achieve? I am an archangel, chosen among my peers by the Divine. I have defeated a thousand enemies!

– And how many of them did you fucking bore to death by talking?” Niasa spat back, blood dripping from her mouth.

With a triumphant cry, Gordy finally destroyed his cable. As for me, I grunted in anger as my scissors broke on mine. The droning sound from the portal had become discordant, as if the whole thing was getting out of tune. I grabbed the remaining power cable, only slightly damaged, with both hands, and pressed my foot against the structure, then pulled with all the strength my body had left. Bianchi took notice, and shouted:

“NO!”

From the corner of my eye, I saw her blast Niasa back, then lift her sword to throw it at me. She did so much faster than anyone could react. Time slowed as I saw the blade getting bigger. Adrenaline paralyzed every one of my muscles; I couldn’t so much as blink. As I watched the pointy end go for my heart in an instant that bled into eternity, I didn’t at all see my life flash before my eyes. Really, I only saw one thing. Niasa. Once again, I could tell you I only saw her face, but…

I closed my eyes, and tightened my grip on the cable. Tinnitus drowned every noise in my ears. I felt a violent pain across my chest, up to my right shoulder. Then the cold, metal floor met me as I fell on my back.

But then, I regained my senses. The tinnitus went away, and I could hear the droning sound dying, then disappearing completely. The pain subsided. I timidly opened an eye, then the other.

“My portal!” Bianchi cried. “What have you done?!”

I saw Niasa grab her by the waist from behind, lift her in the air like a professional wrestler, then drop her hard against the guardrail, putting an end to the fight -she even threw in a kick, for good measure. I tried to stand up, but something heavy was anchoring me. As I lifted my head, I realized it was Gordy, lying on me, covering me, and barely moving. A dark red spot stained his white tank top. The sword had stabbed him in the torso, leaving a nasty-looking wound.

“Gordy,” I said, pushing him off me and on his back. Niasa hurried to us.

“Fook me, I really felt that one,” he mumbled.

“Gordy… Why did you do that?

– You tell… You tell that bastard Janus… I did the fooking favour he asked me. I did.”

Niasa tore his tank top to get us a clearer view of his wound.

“Oh… Gordy,” I said.

“It was really bloody stupid, wannit? Damn, and it was my best top, too…

– Gordy.

– Should probably have thought of some last words. Something witty, that they can put on my tombstone…

– Gordy.

– Ah, fook it. I’ve said enough, anyway. Maybe even too much, right?

– Gordy!

– What?

– She missed your heart,” Niasa said. “You’re bleeding a lot, and she damaged your collarbone, but you’re going to be okay.”

Gordy blinked, then Niasa grabbed his hand to show him how to put pressure on the wound.

“… Oh,” he said.

I started laughing. It was a light, gentle laugh, the kind you have when a lot of stress suddenly goes away. Niasa joined in, but Gordy was too embarrassed to laugh as well. Then, my ears picked up a soft sound that went crescendo. Something screechy and disturbing that shook my ear-drums. Soon, it was like a concert of nails on a blackboard. It came from the defunct portal. In the observation room, where the fight was dying down, I saw all of the lights come out.

“What’s going on?” I said.

Niasa shook her head, her fight-or-flight instincts visibly kicking in.

A huge spark came from the metal portal’s frame, striking the scaffolding, startling us and making me scream in panic. The noise intensified: there were now some creaking sounds, like metal fatigue. I pulled out my mobile and video-called Falkenstein again.

“Uh… Rin? We’ve got a bit of a problem here. What’s happening?

– I… I’m not sure,” she said, looking alternatively at what I was filming and at her computer. “I think the portal is collapsing, now that there’s no power to sustain it.

– Oh, that’s just bloody brilliant,” I said.

“What do we do?” Niasa said.

“Get out of here!” Rin said.

“I second that!” Gordy groaned, as I helped him stand up.

“Dad!” Niasa called out. “Girls! We need to leave, now!”

Moira appeared at the broken window bay.

“Yeah, all of Bianchi’s people fled, too. That crazy doctor even took out the power on his way out! We can’t use the elevator now!

– There’s got to be another way out. What about there?” I said, pointing at the door opposite the observation room.

“It’s worth a shot,” Niasa said.

“We’re taking Bianchi with us. Use the cables to restrain her.

– What? Why?

– Because we’re not leaving her here to die, that’s why.

– Yeah, you do remember her trying to kill you, right? That was, like, four minutes ago.

– Well, I’m not her,” I said, in a tone that clearly indicated I considered the matter closed.

Niasa groaned in annoyance, but tied Bianchi’s hands behind her back with some cables, and carried the Angel over her shoulder. Our fallen enemy now had a busted lip, and a big hematoma was appearing on her forehead.

“If she tries anything funny, she’s on her own,” Niasa said.

“Okay,” I said.

While Seth and the others made their way down, we barged through that second door, Niasa leading us, and me half-carrying Gordy following close. It led to a long corridor with barren, rocky walls, looking like a mineshaft.

“Where does this go?” I said.

“The sea,” Niasa said. “I can smell it from here. It’s maybe two minutes away.”

We called down the rest of our merry little band -which apparently now included a very smitten ex-guard- and ran down the corridor. The floor was very uneven, and I tripped a few times. Behind us, the dreary noise got louder to the point where it shook the walls; it now sounded like the whole underground base was a gigantic monster waking up hungry. Eventually, we arrived at a small cove. A small dock had been built there, and moored to it was…

“Maou’s asscrack,” Niasa said. “She actually has a boat.”

It was a sailing boat, to be precise, rather a long and expensive-looking one, too. Its hull was the colour of bronze, and its top part -I don’t really know boat terms- was made out of wood. I had no idea whether any of us knew how to sail, but luckily there were a couple of motors in addition to the sails. Everybody got on, while Debra and her new enamoured recruit untied the moorings. I got at the helm, found the ignition key, and started the motors. Niasa tied Bianchi, still out of it, to the mast. Moira found a first aid kit and patched Gordy up. We all sighed in relief as the ship began moving. We quickly exited the cove, as pieces of rock started falling from the ceiling. There was a collective sigh on board when we saw the sun above us once more. Then, we heard a voice from the cabin down below:

“Aster! Is that you? What happened up there? Are you okay?”

It was a male voice. Sorina looked shocked when she heard it, and descended the small flight of stairs to go find it. I followed her, leaving the helm to Seth.

“Tom?!” Sorina exclaimed.

Oh, right. In the hubbub, we had completely forgotten that Tom was supposed to be here, as well. The boat’s interior was basically a fancy apartment. There was a living room with a kitchen section, a bathroom with a shower, and… a bedroom. Tom was there, sitting on the bed, his lower half covered by the sheets, and he was clearly not wearing any clothes.

“Sorina,” he said, his face showing the typical expression of the husband caught in the wrong bed. “What are you doing here?

– What are you doing here?” Sorina said, her fangs bared.

Tom raised a shaking hand in a gesture of appeasement, and stood up, thankfully still using a bedsheet to cover himself.

“Look, it’s not what you’re thinking,” he said.

No? I thought. It must be worse, then.

– You… All along,” Sorina muttered between her teeth.

“No, Sorina, wait…

– You were on her side all along!” she exploded. “That’s how she found out every time I worked against her!

– Listen to me,” he said, but she wasn’t having any of it.

“I did everything I could to protect you, I put myself in jeopardy, and you were working with her all this time!

– And under her, and behind her,” Niasa said, joining us.

I suppressed a chuckle.

“No, Sorina, look…” Tom said. “Look, o-okay, I was working with her. The idea was… she wanted to test your loyalty. I didn’t want to do this, but… Sorina, I did it for you.

– Ah… I wouldn’t try that approach, mate,” I said. “Unless you’ve already been castrated.

– Sorina… Sorina, look at me,” Tom said. He put his hand on her cheek. “I lov-”

To this day, I still don’t understand how that git was surprised when Sorina’s knee met with his groin. How did he not see that coming? I mean, I get it, his back was against the wall, and he had to try something. But, come on, what else did he expect?

A few moments later, Tom was thrown overboard with one of those orange buoys, not too far from a beach we saw. Sorina didn’t look back as we continued to sail south.

“I’m really sorry about this,” Niasa said. “What a prick!

– Yeah… I really don’t know where I am right now,” Sorina said. “For the last two years, I felt guilty about what happened to him -what I thought happened to him. As it turns out, he was perfectly fine… and probably laughing behind my back the whole time. And I… I don’t… I…”

She bent over the guardrail and stared down at the water. Niasa hugged her, and massaged her shoulders. I thought really hard about what I could possibly say to her. Gods, I’ve never been good at this. Happily, Niasa found the right words -well, right enough-:

“Wanna get drunk?

– God, yes.”

They went back inside, to find out what sort of alcohol Bianchi had stashed in her boat’s kitchen. Niasa called out to me:

“Come join us, darling! Then, we can have drunken sex on Bianchi’s bed. It’ll be like a personal revenge.

– In a minute. I need to do something, first.”

I turned to Seth and said:

“Hey, can you stay close to the coast? I have to make a call.

– Aye, aye, cap’n!” he said. “Sorry, I always wanted to say that. Not gonna try my luck with the open seas, anyway.

– Great, thanks.”

I went to the bow, and sat cross-legged on it. My mobile still had half a battery, and I got two bars. I dialled Janus’ number.

“Hey. It’s done.

– I’m glad to hear it,” he said. “What of Ms Bianchi?

– She’s alive. We have her here.

– Good. I’ll text you a location where you can deliver her. What about the portal?

– Closed. Destroyed. Collapsed. I don’t know how to describe it. Nobody’s going to use it, that’s for sure.

– Excellently done. I knew I was right about you.

– I aim to please. Gordy did his part, too. Did you seriously ask him to risk his life to save me?

– More accurately, I told him to ensure your survival through this whole thing. I’m glad he took this to heart.”

I snickered internally at the accidental pun.

“Well, there is only one last item we need to discuss,” Janus continued, “and I suggest we do so in person.

– You mean all the technical data we got inside the base, specifically the how-to guide on creating a portal.

– I had an inkling you would recover it. That is indeed what I wish to discuss.

– Okay. When and where?”

We decided on a time and date, and that was that. I put my mobile down, realized it was in fact doctor Wiker’s, and threw it in the sea. I leaned my head back, my face turning towards the sun. I heard a voice behind me:

“You think you’ve won?”

I looked above my shoulder. Bianchi had recovered. She tried to struggle against her bounds, but without her powers or her sword, she couldn’t do much.

“I do,” I said. “Your lair is destroyed, your portal is gone… and you’re not looking too good either.

– Then you’re as naive as you’re idiotic. Do you think this whole thing started with me? It didn’t, nor will it end with me. There will be more.

– Oh, I’m well aware. But your little conspiracy is over, and that’s enough for today.”

She opened her mouth to retort something, but I raised my hand and said:

“Now, please let me enjoy the sun in peace, or I’ll gag you.”

I felt her staring daggers into the the back of my skull as I turned away and ignored her. She muttered something along the lines of: “we shall see”, but then kept quiet for the rest of the trip.

A small wind started blowing towards the east. I stayed like this, sat cross-legged on the bow of the ship, gazing at the horizon, taking it all in. Everything was… good, now. I had trouble believing it, but it was. Bianchi was defeated, her portal was gone, everyone I cared for was okay… Hell, even Gordy had made it through. I hadn’t felt so peaceful in a while. I continued to sit there for a few minutes, enjoying the rays of the sun, listening to the light sounds of the ocean, the song of the seagulls -well, the screaming, but that’s singing for seagulls-… and Debra and her new beau going at it under the deck. He was a lot louder than she was. Minutes later, I heard Niasa rant at her sister for stealing the bed -and her idea.

Oh, well. Overall, it was a nice trip.

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