Continued from Chapter 23, here.
For a moment, the influx of sights, sounds, and sensations was nearly overwhelming.
All around me, alarms shrieked and systems failed. Scientists shouted and threw themselves away from controls that sparked or burst into flames, a couple of them screaming in either surprise or pain. I saw the rest of my team looking around, hands flying to weapons as they searched for an opponent. I saw Orville come staggering out from the break room next door, one hand reaching up to press against his face, smearing a rather crudely drawn Sharpie image on his face.
My focus, however, narrowed in on Sara. She stood there, just inside the main entrance, almost perfectly still. She looked up, at the chaos erupting all around her.
“Dad,” she whispered, her lips spreading into a little smile.
Somehow, I sensed that she was in danger. She was in more danger than anyone else realized, and a primal instinct, deeper than any conscious thought, took over. I threw myself at her.
And as I wrapped my arms around her and tackled her, doing my best to shield her from anything that might be incoming, all of those overwhelming sensations dissolved away.
Blackness surrounded me. No, it was blacker than black; this wasn’t just darkness, but was as if something had sucked all light and energy out of the universe. I couldn’t feel any input, couldn’t feel the floor beneath my feet or the tug of gravity, or Sara’s body against my own.
But she was there, somehow, nearby. I couldn’t explain how I knew this fact, with no sensory input at all, but I did. It was…
It was like wandering around my house at night, almost. Even if my home had been shrouded in pitch blackness, a blindfold wrapped around my head, I still knew where things were. I still knew that the silverware was in the second drawer on the left side of the kitchen, that the fridge opened with two doors, the handles in the middle. I knew these things, even if I couldn’t see them.
And I knew that Sara was… nearby. There was no way to know distance, but I knew she was there. And as I focused my mind’s attention in that direction, light bloomed, and I saw her.
She floated in the blankness, a little soap bubble of light and definition against the background of blank darkness. It was her, her body and her face, but something else about her just seemed more real, as if I could see her true self through some sort of occult lens. Damn, but I just don’t have the words to describe it, but this was Sara, plain and simple.
With that realization, I was able to look down, or in reverse, and see myself. And similarly, in a way I couldn’t quite manage to describe, the version of myself that I perceived was the true version. No lies, no deceptions. I could see my inner strength, my conviction and determination, but also the darkness, that killer that lurked inside me and sometimes came roaring out in moments of battle. He cast a shadow across me, contrasting against my light.
The others were here. I didn’t spot them by looking around, but by stretching out my awareness, probing gently at the darkness around me and sensing their presences. Sergei was cold like the winter of his homeland, but a small but fierce fire burned in his heart with determination. Jaspers was similar; the outer scum of foulness was only a hair’s thickness, with tempered steel giving him boundless strength.
I kept turning my attention in new directions. Corinne was carbon fiber, flexible but strong. Henry was whipsawed rubber, compressed and full of energy. I felt a small gemstone, carbon compressed to pure diamond, off a little further in a direction I couldn’t describe it. I didn’t know until my consciousness reached out to touch it, but then I instantly sensed that this was Feng, forced to be flawless by the pressure constantly upon her.
We were all there… but none of us like Sara. Somehow, even though each of us showed our true inner personality, she shone like a sun, dazzling the rest of us and making us feel like barely half of a real person.
I vaguely also sensed that there were other things, floating out around us. They felt like orbs, cold and crystalline. They had flaws, cracks, and if I’d turned more attention towards them, I could perhaps have figured out what they might be. Next to Sara, however, they were pale shadows, almost unworthy of any attention compared to the girl.
For a timeless instant, we all floated there in the black nothingness, calm and serene.
And then something else intruded, and the peace was shattered.
Again, I just don’t have the goddamn words to describe this. I didn’t detect any of what happened with a sense, not one that I could name; I just knew what things were happening, as they occurred. I might as well call it sight, though, just since I don’t know how to address it otherwise. Second sight? Inner eye?
A tendril of burning red coals, feeling utterly twisted, heinous, and wrong, lashed out from the blackness. It shot towards Sara – and although she instinctively shrank back from its attack, I felt the heat of its presence, hot and scalding and oily, as it passed. She screamed out, a high and pure wordless note of pain and shock.
If that tendril had attacked her, while the rest of us were unprepared for its appearance, it would have all been over. But it didn’t kill her, didn’t attack – not quite. It slowed as it neared her, the whip-thin tip lingering for a moment, twitching as if it was trying to sense her, to read her.
It didn’t get more than a taste before the rest of us moved.
Jaspers, Sergei, and I all moved in, acting as if we had planned out our attacks in concert. I didn’t have limbs, so to say, but my thoughts focused to a narrow edge, thinner than any real world blade.
Protect her. Fight off this attacker. Defend her.
That thought filled me, and I struck out with it against the tendril. It jerked back, fresh blooms of burning red appearing on it as though I’d swung with a sword. Sergei and Jaspers both arrived an instant behind me, swinging out with their own thoughts and opening up more burning lines on the tendril.
The tendril shuddered as it pulled back – but that only lasted a second. Almost too quickly to read, it lashed forward once again – and this time, as it swung at us, there was no mistaking its motion for anything but a devastating attack.
We countered it, somehow. It smashed against me, and I felt my entire mental strength, the matrix of who I am, at my core, shiver and shake. I had to focus for a second on just remembering who I was, that I was Brian Richards, a man, a soldier. A defender.
After one moment of near-panic, I felt myself stabilize, come back to myself. I sensed both Sergei and Jaspers also shuddering, trying to hold onto themselves.
But the tentacle, the burning monster, didn’t get a moment of respite. Corinne hit it next, her attack landing on it like sticky rope and slowing it down. Henry unleashed little bursts of force, knocking the attacker physically back with incorporeal explosions. It fell back, smashing several of the orbs on the periphery of the blackness.
Once again, the tentacle reared up, lashing out with lightning-fast flicks – but Feng’s diamond-hard consciousness appeared, between Sara and the monster.
The tentacle lunged – and was caught, briefly, in pure white light that radiated out from the essence of the woman.
*To be continued…*
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