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Stealing from Shadows

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The van rattled down the road and hit a pothole, shaking the people inside like dice in a cup. One of them glared glared at the driver and said: "Why did I ever listen to you?"

"Because you're a sucker for a pretty face. Hold on!"

Another pothole had the same effect to the first, and the passenger's glare got worse, just about burning its way into the driver's brain.

"Alison, I'm serious. Of all your dumb ideas that I've ever heard, this has to be the dumbest by a long fucking way. Stealing from Shadow Sun!? They kill people!"

The driver flicked hair out of her eyes and scoffed. "Sure, if you listen to the rumours pushed by idiots who don’t really know anything. If you listen to rumours, our crew're just as bad, so that tells me that we can handle it."

"That's the stupidest reasoning I ever heard."

"And besides," she said, not listening, "it's not like we're really stealing from them. It's more like...tidying up after them."

"Sure, we're just going to break into their building, get past all their security systems, and 'tidy up.' Hell, if we told them, I'm sure they'd be fucking delighted, probably tell us to go right ahead!"

"Well now you're just being ridiculous."

The passenger's eyes bulged almost all the way out of her head. "I'm being ridiculous!?"

"Quiet."

That was the second passenger, finally making herself heard. "You're nervous. That's fine. Don't take it out on us."

The first passenger took a moment to turn her glare to the back seat before returning it to Alison. "That's another thing. Why did you have to bring her along?"

"I already told you, Karen's part of the team. You're our computer whiz, and she does the security stuff."

She snorted. "Sure, great. With a pair like us, we hardly even need you along."

"But without me you'd never have got this thing together. I’m your criminal mastermind, you’d be lost if I wasn’t around!”

That declaration effectively ended the conversation for the next few minutes, as they started to pass the broken edges of the city. Larger ruins up ahead marked the rough centre, but even here buildings were smashed open and burned down by the fighting or its aftermath.

"Shit. Worse than I thought."

"The apocalypse isn't too pretty, huh babe?"

“Shut up Alison, you know what I mean. This is…fuck. Are you sure the place will even still be standing?”

“Yeah, see?” She jerked her chin forwards at the shattered skyline. “That thin tower, with the curves. That’s our target.”

“Long way,” said Karen.

“Yeah, but we’ll get there just fine.”

There was another loud thump, even worse than the others, and the first passenger shrieked. “What the hell was that?”

“Crack in the road. Sorry. I think the way’s starting to get worse…”

They rounded a corner, and found out just how much worse it was. The road had been pulverised entirely, pounded into gravel by the tracks of an enormous tank. They could tell, because the tank itself was still there, lying in wait with its cannon pointed their way.

The van came to a very abrupt stop, and none of the people inside dared to breathe. The barrel of the tank’s main gun looked big enough to swallow them whole.

The tank did nothing.

Alison was the first to speak: “I think…it’s dead.”

“It’s a tank, babe. It was never alive.”

“You know what I mean, Soph. I think it just got hit in the fighting, it’s not going to do anything.”

“Doesn’t have to.” She waved a hand at the tracks in the road. “Unless you think this old rustbucket can get across that, we’re stuck.”

“We’ll just have to find another way. There’s lots of roads going to where we want to get.”

They backed the van up and brought it awkwardly around, away from the war machine’s threatening gaze. The next way they tried went well enough for a while, then ended at a pile of rubble, and avoiding that sent them down a side-street, almost ninety degrees from where they wanted to be heading.

“We’re never going to get there.”

“Shh. I’m trying to figure this out.” She yanked them around a corner, almost pulling a couple of the wheels off the road and making the ancient motor wheeze, sent them careening down a narrower road between a few still-whole buildings.

“What the hell! What the hell are you doing?”

“I think I’ve got this…”

They came out the other side, back into the sunlight and onto another, rather more comfortable road that pointed them once more towards their destination.

“See, told you! Here we go! Ha!” The road was wide, and clear, and it was almost ten minutes before they came up against their next obstacle. Unfortunately, it was a slightly bigger one.

“It just ends!”

“Shit…”

The three of them stared out at the jagged end of the road – where once it had raised up to join others and make its way further into the city, now it was broken off, cement supports abruptly ending, and chunks of concrete and steel lay shattered on the ground below. They looked around for an exit, but there were none close by.

“I think I saw a way off a couple of minutes back.”

“Nope, too far. We’ll stop here, go on foot.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? Alison, come on! On foot? We don’t even know what’s out there!”

She grinned. “Only one way to find out, right?”

“I’m serious! The tank was a false alarm, okay, but there could be others, there could be…fuck, I don’t even know!”

Their other passenger chimed in. “G.U.A.R.D. moved out more than a week ago, and they’d cleared it of threats before then. Locals are gone or dead.”

“Sure, Karen, that’s great. Thanks. And you know this fucking how?”

She shrugged. “I hear things.”

“Great. So what you’re saying is we can take your word for it? Fuuuuck.”

“Babe, listen. We’ll be fine. Like she said, the place is empty. We’ll get to the Sun building, get in, take whatever, get out. Easy as that.”

“It’d be a damn sight easier if we were still driving there.”

“Well, what would life be like if everything was easy, right? Hey Karen, open the footlocker.”

The small woman opened the locker in the back of the van, and withdrew three assault rifles. She passed one to Alison, who took it eagerly, and one to Sofia, who was less enthusiastic.

“What use do you expect to get from these?”

“Hopefully? Nothing. But better to have them and not need them than the other way around, right?”

“If we ‘need’ them, we’re boned! If we see a damn thing, we need to run. Fuck fighting.”

Karen rolled her eyes, but Alison ignored her. Instead she stepped in close. “Look, I know you’re scared. I’m sorry if this isn’t going how you expected, but I think it’ll all be okay. These are just for safety. We don’t know what’s out there. Best if we’re careful, yeah?”

Sofia sighed and checked the weapon, adjusted its strap: “Fine, whatever. Let’s get going, then.”

Alison smiled. “That’s my girl.” She kissed her softly, and slipped the strap of her own gun over her shoulder.

They left the vehicle and walked to the concrete barrier, hoisted themselves over and into the city. The scars of battle where everywhere they looked. More wrecked tanks and what Alison insisted was the remains of a helicopter, contrasted starkly against the remains left by the other side – nothing more than bones and a few scraps of meat. Sofia flinched once and hissed a warning at the others, thinking she heard something huge flapping in the distance, but even after a minute of waiting perfectly still, nothing had revealed itself, and they kept moving.

The further they got into the city, the worse it got. Wherever they looked there were signs of the battle – cracked streets, tumbled streetlights, shattered windows. They paused to catch their breath next to what had probably been quite an impressive building, and was now a pile of rubble about two stories tall. Sofia sat down on one of the larger chunks and took a slow look around.

“Wow. Just…fuck.”

“Yeah, fuck is about right.”

Everything within sight was wrecked. The road was torn up so much that it was impossible to tell who or what had done the damage – although a huge footprint, the outline of its claws still visible, gave a hint as to one of the perpetrators.

“So this is where you used to live?”

Alison shrugged. “One of the places. I’ve always moved around, even before the…but anyway yeah, I guess I was here for a while. Year or two maybe. I worked a couple of jobs around the place, you know. Lived where it was cheap. Not this part of town exactly, but near enough.”

Soph nodded. “Sure.”

“What about you?”

“Hmm? Oh, no. I’ve always been a country girl, you know that. Could never deal with being fenced in. Even when I worked for Shadow Sun, I lived as far out of town as I could manage.”

“Lucky for you, then.”

“I guess. None of the monsters seem to care that much about random farmhouses, anyway.”

The breeze rattled a few stones over the ground past their feet.

“How did you get so into computers and stuff, living in the middle of nowhere like that?”

“Hey, they have computers everywhere. Besides, sometimes there’s not much else to do out there.”

“Ha, sure.”

Karen had walked a little way away, but now she was back, and eager to be moving on. “There’s a way forward. Should get us in. Coming?”

Sofia looked up at Alison, shrugged, and stood. “I guess I am. Let’s go.”

The way turned out to be a little concrete alley, still mostly clear of wreckage, that led them down towards the centre of the city. Branching paths turned into a maze between fragmentary walls, and when they opened up again it felt like they hadn’t been breathing for an age, and they gasped in the open air.

The Shadow Sun Corporation building wasn’t far now, just a street or two away. They crossed the road carefully, watching their feet – and suddenly froze at a shrieking noise, not far in the distance.

Sofia’s gun was up, pointing around wildly.

“What the hell was that?”

“Metal?” Karen suggested, but Alison shook her head. “No, that was…nothing good. If we’re out in the open and see it…let’s go.”

They scurried in much more of a hurry, scattering rocks as they went. At the other side they ducked into the doorway of a building for half a moment, then moved on in a rush. The last blocks went quickly under their feet, and it had barely been a minute before they made it to the front doors.

The doors, of course, did nothing.

“Okay Karen, do your thing.”

“My thing?” Karen took a quick look at the door. “I can’t open powered automatic doors if they aren’t connected to power. Did you have a back-up plan?”

Alison shrugged, hefted her gun, and put several shots through the doors. Then she kicked the middle, and a large part of the glass fell in.

“Subtle.”

“Hey, it worked. Come on.”

They stepped carefully through the broken doors, making sure not to get clothes caught on the shards spiking in from the edges. The foyer was enormous, and if it hadn’t been for the lack of power and the general disarray, it obviously would have been very impressive. The walls were glass and steel, and the floor had an enormous mosaic of the Shadow Sun logo. All around were screens that would have displayed the many charitable enterprises, technological advances and military victories that the Corporation could lay claim to, if they’d had any power. Without it, they showed nothing but dark reflections of the lobby.

“Okay, Sofia, you’re up. Where to?”

“You wanted to get research, right? See what they were working on?” Alison nodded eagerly. “Then we’d best find the head researcher’s space. My guess, that will be at the top floor of the laboratories section.” She gestured at a sign next to the lifts. “Looks like that’s going to be around level twenty-five.”

“Ugh. That’s a lot of stairs. Surely these places come with backup generators?”

“Yeah, maybe, but I don’t know these places that well. I don’t know where they’d keep those.”

“That’s not exactly my area either. You can’t even make a guess?”

She shrugged. “Maybe the basement? Sorry, one of the basements? Fuck, how should I know?”

“Fine, whatever.” Alison rolled her eyes. “Twenty-five flights of stairs it is, then. I just hope you’re sure that’s the right floor.”

She was sure when they started climbing, and for the first fifteen flights. At around seventeen she started to feel doubts, and by twenty-two she was almost certain that she had been wrong, that they were going to the wrong area entirely and that they wouldn’t find anything like what they were after. She didn’t say anything, but the added anxiety certainly made it harder to keep putting one foot in front of the other. They finally reached twenty-five, panting and glaring and sweating, and shoved at the door.

It didn’t open.

“Oh you have got to be fucking kidding me! No!” Alison kicked at the door, took a step back, and kicked harder. The door shook on its hinges, but stayed firmly closed. She raised her gun-

“No, stop!” Sofia grabbed her. “You could kill us all! What are you thinking?”

“Do you have a better idea?”

“All ideas are better ideas! God, Alison! Let’s take a moment to just look things over, okay?”

They took a moment. The door looked very impressively solid, and sat so snugly in its frame that it might actually have been airtight. The handle and lock were steel, brightly polished. Sofia indicated the lock. “Hey, Karen. How are you with this kind of lock?”

She crouched down to take a look. “Not bad. Will take me a minute or two, though.” She pulled a little roll of tools from her coat, gestured at the others. “Give me space.”

Alison and Sofia stood back as she worked, watching anxiously. Karen didn’t even seem to notice them, focusing completely on the work in front of her.

Finally there was a click, Karen pulled hard, and the door swung open. “There.”

Alison grinned and Sofia grimaced. “Cool! Now what’s behind door number one?”

She strode in, Sofia and Karen almost ready to follow – then there was a sudden crack of gunfire, and she fell back, rolled behind the wall.

“Shitting fuck! Who shot you?”

Alison shook her head. “Didn’t see anyone. Think it’s some automated defence turret thing. Did it get me?”

Karen took a close look, nodded. “Grazed your leg. Not too serious, but it will hurt when adrenaline wears off.”

“Ahh, fuck. Okay, what do we do? What do we do?”

Sofia and Karen shared a concerned glance, for just a fraction of a second. Then Alison nodded to herself, propped her body up against the wall. “Right, I know what we need to do. Karen, do you have any of those smoke grenades?” She nodded, very slowly. “Great. Give me a couple.”

“Babe, what the hell are you planning with those?”

“Easy.” She grinned. “I’m going to confuse the hell out of the turret, and while it doesn’t know what to shoot, I’m going to smash it to pieces with this!” She reached into her bag and took out a short crowbar.

“You absolutely are not. With your leg all shot up? No way. Wouldn’t using the gun be at least a little smarter?”

“The gun’s really only for human enemies, something like this it’d do basically nothing. Come on, you have any alternative?”

Sofia looked at the doorway, looked at her companions, and sighed deeply. “Yeah. Pretty much the same plan, but I’ll do it, not you. Karen, give me the grenades.”

Karen looked a little sceptical, and Alison said: “No offence sweetie, but are you sure? Have you ever done anything like this before?”

“Have you?” At Alison’s silence, Soph nodded. “That’s what I thought. Grenades.”

Alison reluctantly handed them over. “Be careful, babe.”

“You know me. Alright, hold that crowbar for me, I’m going in.”

She pulled a pin from one grenade, rolled it in, followed by the other. Thick grey smoke gushed from the little cylinders, and was met with a confused whirring sound from the turret.

Sofia grabbed the crowbar, took half a second to psych herself up, and ran in. There was a sputtering of gunfire, and a couple of arrhythmic clangs of metal on metal. Then one more gunshot, and silence.

Karen and Alison looked at each other, horrified. Then, from the turret room, they heard: “Fuck.”

It was said quietly, but with feeling.

“Are…are you okay? Babe?”

“Physically?” Sofia’s tone was sharp. “I’m fine. Mentally? I’m fucking pissed off! Why the fuck did you drag us here?”

“Hey, it’s okay! Look, we’re both fine! You did great!”

“It wasn’t meant to be this dangerous! This was supposed to be Tomb Raider, not fucking…Portal!”

“I didn’t know! How could I have known?”

“How about believing me when I said how scary these people are?”

“Okay! Geez, okay! I fucked up! Now do you want to make this idiot mission worthwhile, or not?”

Soph might have said something else snappish at that, but instead from the next room came Karen’s voice: “The door’s stuck.”

Sofia peeked around the door into the hallway, and saw Karen crouched at the other end, near where the battered gun-barrel jutted from the wall. She had clearly been trying to break her way through, but without luck. “Still have that crowbar?”

She nodded, lifted Alison to her feet, and walked up to the door. It wasn’t quite as impenetrable-looking as the one on the stairwell – apparently Shadow Sun had faith that their turret would deal with thieves (or lost staff) effectively enough. It looked like there might be just enough space…she rammed the crowbar into the doorjamb, as hard as she could. When it didn’t give in right away, she pulled it out and thrust again, harder, over and over, hammering into the tiny gap. It gradually widened, and she used that to push it deeper, levering as much as she could against the door to force it open.

The doorway finally surrendered, scraping open with a shriek, to reveal a rather lovely, open and light area. Large windows around the edges, tinted lightly against the glaring sunlight, made the place feel welcoming and pleasant. Apart from that, it was an ordinary modern office, desks cluttered with computers, stationery, and not nearly as much scientific paraphernalia as they might have imagined.

"This is...really not what I expected this place to look like."

Alison shrugged. "Say what you like about Shadow Sun, they're willing to spend money on their staff."

"I'll say. Look at this view!"

It was very impressive, although it had probably been better before G.U.A.R.D. and the Terrasaurs had brawled through the streets. Now the city below was ruined, a maze of rubble and shattered concrete.

"Look, I think that's the way we came."

“Oh yeah. Wow, I can’t believe we made it through that mess.”

“You’re telling me. Hey, check that out!” Alison pointed to what seemed to be a small park, relatively untouched in the chaos.

“Not bad. Maybe we can take a closer look after we’re done with the scavenging. You know, throw a frisbee a little, take a load off.”

Alison grinned. “Yeah, sure babe.”

"Ah, and that looks like a nice little clearing, between those buildings. This place could be great when they rebuild it, you know? They could go for something a little more open than it used to be, really make it worth living in. And then over there...shit fuck, look at that!"

Alison followed the line of Sofia's pointing finger, and saw - "Oh shit, that's a Raptix!" The Terrasaur was strolling casually along a street with the easy gait of one who knows they are the toughest thing in town. Given that it was a prehistoric monster bigger than a car, it would be hard to argue otherwise.

"Crap. Do you think it's alone?"

"Not likely. They work in packs in the wild, there wouldn't usually be just one."

Sofia’s eyes were wide. "Then we have to get out of here! Fuck this heist, we have to run!"

"No! Look, we got this far without running into any, if we let that one wander on like it wants I'm sure we'll be fine. Besides, we're too small to make a good meal. We wouldn't be worth the effort. You especially, skinny."

"Look who's talking!" But she grinned, slapped Alison's arm lightly.

Naturally, Karen interrupted the moment. "If we can get moving? I got you in here, at least look around."

Alison nodded, trying to ignore Sofia's scowl, and started them walking over to the desks. "Sorry, Karen. Soph, any idea what we should be looking for?"

"We don't even know if the power-" she touched a computer's keyboard, and the monitor sprang to life. "Huh. Backup generator for the important people, I guess. Okay, so we're looking for logins. Sticky notes, photos of family members, whatever we can get."

"What, you don't just sit down at the head scientist's computer and start hacking away?"

Sofia met Alison's grin with a tired look. "See, you think that's funny, but I really don't know if you're kind of serious. And I think the head scientists here were probably too smart to use 'password1' or 'admin' as their passwords. At least I hope so, god."

The three of them started rummaging through the desks.

"Oh, a newton's cradle. Haven't seen one of those in ages."

“Is that a syringe? Ew.”

"Hey, nameplate. Dr. Elias Fischer."

"Nice. Probably other people around here have something similar, that'll help. Anything else in Fischer's desk?"

"Uhh..." A dug a little further. "Mostly just pens, a pad of paper..."

"That could be useful, hand it over."

"...oh, look! Photo frame!"

The frame had been shoved into the drawer, in enough haste that the glass had cracked a little. There was a young woman in the picture, perhaps in her early twenties, wearing graduation robes and a mortarboard.

"Ooh ooh ooh!" Sofia made grabby hands, and Alison handed it over. She took it, turned it over and popped off the back of the frame, quickly extracting the photo. Writing on the back said 'wish you were here dad! Love you, from Maddy.'

"Tragic," Karen remarked, and Sofia flinched.

"Don't sneak, jeez. Yeah, sad, but more importantly it gives us something. Hopefully..." She slid up to Dr. Fischer's desk, typed in 'efischer' and 'Maddy,' without luck. She frowned. "Something more formal?" She tried 'Madeline,' and…perfect. The computer logged in with surprising speed, given it had been shut down in a wreck of a city for most of a month.

"Excellent. Let's see here...lots of emails here, I guess they love a good paper trail. Always talking to someone in authority called Dr. Saito. They were discussing progress on something big. The Emerald Dawn project."

"That sounds...potentially interesting."

"Sounds ominous, more like. Still...last couple of emails say they're 'getting close,' the project's 'responding,' but they seem to be hitting some kind of roadblock.”

“Any information we can take back? Tech they were working on, parts of this project?”

“No…looks like they were keeping all the intimate details closer to the actual project, which is…ah, damn.”

“What?”

“This says it’s down beneath the building. Basement level five.”

“Oh, you are shitting me. All those stairs, again?”

“Plus a few more levels, yeah. Unless…hang on.” She messed around with something on Fischer’s computer, and there was a quiet tone from elsewhere in the lab.

“What was that?”

“Personal elevator. I thought they might have one – lucky for us, it’s linked up to the power system that’s still working.”

“That seems like a security problem? I mean, after the gun turret I would’ve thought…”
“Yeah, maybe. We’d probably need ID cards to get in from elsewhere. So I don’t know. Anyway – gift horses, right sweetie?”

“Yeah, right. Karen, you coming?”

She nodded, walked with the others into the elevator. It was shiny, nicely lit, but rather small for the three of them, and as they hit the button and began their descent, some faint, pleasant, unidentifiable music played.

They stood around, a little awkwardly, and waited for the lift to finish its descent.

The number kept dropping – 9, 8, 7 – and they stayed silent, the music only underscoring the discomfort. The number finally passed one, and started dropping into the basements. They watched the number impatiently, as they kept moving down, B2, B3, B4…

It shuddered to a halt, the number still glowing B4.

“That’s not what you hit, was it babe?”

Sofia shook her head. “No. Something weird must have happened, or…hmm. Everyone keep an eye out.”

They stepped out, pointing their guns wildly at the darkness. Alison reached into her pack and grabbed a torch, switched it on and flashed the beam around. The corridors were smooth concrete, printed with the Shadow Sun sigil at regular intervals, and otherwise anonymous. Silence echoed hollowly. Nothing showed where their destination was.

Alison took the lead, limping a little, and the others followed closely. The layout of the place was bizarre – turns that went back on themselves, dead ends, and a complete lack of anything that seemed to point the way.

“What the hell were they thinking? Who built this stupid maze?”

Alison grunted, as she took another corner. “Hang on, I think I see something up there. Be careful, ladies.”

The torch’s shaking beam showed a wider opening ahead, some sort of empty space under the centre of the building. As they got closer, they realised how big it really was – what had looked like just a large room seemed more like a small cavern.

At last they reached the entrance, and almost walked straight into a safety rail, guarding the edge of a one-floor drop. Alison flicked the beam around in front of them, and the light picked out green and silver highlights in some colossal monolith in front of them.

“Think that’s the Emerald Dawn project?”

Sofia nodded, slowly. “Babe, maybe we shouldn’t be messing with this. It looks…”

“Oh, come on. We just need a look at their computers and what they were doing. We’ll grab the data and get out, no problems.” Without waiting for the others, Alison followed the guard rail along until she found stairs, and started heading down to the lower floor. Karen and Soph shared a look which might have been mutual frustration, although in the dark it was hard to tell. They hurried after her, and Sofia helped Alison manage the stairs. The sounds of their footsteps on the metal echoed distantly in the enormous space. Their feet hit the concrete floor, and they stumbled into the emptiness.

“Okay, so…do we go towards that thing?

“Yeah, I think so. Hopefully they kept their stuff somewhere obvious.”

The darkness was crushing, the echoes so far that they couldn’t tell where the walls were. It was just the three of them stumbling through the gloom towards the monolith. They could hear their breath, they could almost hear their heartbeats. The emptiness felt like it would eat them all.

The beam fell across something to the side, and Alison focused – a little cluster of desks, computers, cables. “Finally! Come on, babe, we’re almost home free.”

They picked their way over the power cables into the nest of computers, and Sofia booted one of them up. It took a few seconds, kept them waiting and hoping, then the screen turned on, another dim light in the endless darkness.

She logged them in, and stood back. “Alright, the files should all be there. Grab whatever looks good, it’s up to you.” Alison tugged a small hard drive out of her pack, connected it to the computer, and started copying files across as fast as she could. Karen lurked at her shoulder, watching the machine work.

Without anything else to focus on, Sofia’s eyes turned to the monolith. This close, it utterly dominated the room. It seemed even bigger than before, towering up towards the darkness of the ceiling. Just bizarrely big. She’d seen some of the monsters, of course, and they were immeasurably huge, but this thing was different. She’d never been this close to anything like it, and it held a fascination like nothing else could have. It filled her whole world.

It was closer now – somehow, without thinking about it, she’d been stepping towards it. It was near enough to touch. Slowly, softly, she put out a hand. There was some sort of noise behind her, someone saying something, but it didn’t seem too important right now. Her hand was almost touching it, and something beneath the surface almost seemed to move, a dark green limb stretching towards her own.

She made contact. Her hand rested gently against the smooth, dark substance – it was warm, just a little warmer than her own flesh. It seemed a little lighter around her hand, a faint, almost bioluminescent glow that started to spread, slowly at first, then picking up speed as it moved outwards.

A hand roughly yanked her off it. “What the hell, Sofia?”

“What?” She looked at the monolith, light now spreading high up its side. “Oh shit! What was I doing?”

“What, you don’t know? Somehow you turned the thing on! I don’t know about you, but I suddenly don’t want to stick around and find out what it does!”

“Shit!” They ran back to the computer, where Karen was grimly watching files copy across. “Come on Karen, we’ve got to go!”

“Soon. If we lose this, everything was for nothing.”

“It’s for nothing if we die, too!” Sofia snapped, and Karen nodded sharply.

“Yes, I know. Start getting Alison up those stairs, I’ll join you in just a moment.”

The struggle back to the stairs was made very slightly easier by the growing green light around them, as the monolith continued working to bring itself online. They started clambering upwards, and heard the clatter of feet behind them as Karen caught up. She grabbed Alison’s other arm, and together the three of them moved as fast as they could towards the elevator, winding through the confusing corridors.

The elevators came in sight, and Sofia ran out in front, slamming a hand onto the call button. For a long moment it seemed like nothing would happen – then a chime sounded, and the doors slid smoothly apart. The three stumbled in, and Alison hammered the button for the ground floor until the doors closed. The climbing elevator seemed a lot shakier than they remembered, and took an eternity to get them out of the basements. Finally they reached the ground floor and tumbled out into the foyer, scrambled across the floor. In their haste, they barely noticed how different the place was until Karen glanced up at a screen and grunted in surprise. The others looked where she was and saw that the screens, formerly blank, had glimmered back into life.

“Was that thing just some kind of power plant?”

Alison shrugged. “Emerald Dawn? I don’t know, maybe. I don’t want to bet on that being all it does. Let’s just get out of here.” She kept to her stumbling progress, and Sofia hauled her along. Karen cleared the door of obstructing glass and helped the others back through, out into the street.

They took a moment to pause, catch their breath, and gather their wits. The air outside somehow felt infinitely more real than that inside, healthier and clearer.

Alison was the first to start moving again, and the others had to grab for her arms to keep her steady. She twisted a little, tried to shake them off. “I’m fine! Can we just walk without you two babying me?”

Karen and Sofia shared a look, and Karen let go. Sofia kept her hold, moving together with Alison. “We’ll move a lot better if you don’t try and just push yourself. Remember you’ve been shot, okay?”

Alison rolled her eyes, said nothing as she stumbled along. A little track of sweat rolled off her forehead and she blinked her eyes to keep it out. “Fucking…argh. How far have we gone?”

“Not far.”

“Shit shit. Look…this is dangerous. It’s stupid. You two have the data. Just take it, leave me, and get out. I’ll probably be fine.”

“Yeah, we’re not going to do that. And don’t suggest it again. We got into this together, we’ll get out the same way.”

That was the last word on the subject for a while, as they wound their way back through the rubble-strewn streets, ignoring the gradually-rising hum from the building behind them. Alison battled through the pain, hauling herself on as the others helped her.

“We must…be getting close…by now?” she gasped, as they staggered along a twisting alleyway.

“Yeah, it won’t be much further now,” said Sofia, “we’re getting near. You’re doing fine.”

“Argh geez. Is…that thing…doing anything? Maybe this is…all a lot of worry about nothing. Maybe we…can rest for a minute.”

Karen looked back, squinting into the distance. The glow was intense now, shining from beneath the sky scraper, the refracted glow making the whole tower a strange, sickly colour, and the light was starting to shine out into the streets and paint the sky. Still, it didn’t seem actively harmful, and though she was obviously reluctant, Karen nodded. “Maybe. Sit, take a-“

She was cut off by a crunching boom, and the first thing she thought was that the building must have exploded. Then her senses came back – it wasn’t the building, it was something much worse. And much closer.

“Scratch that. Up, run. Run!”

Sofia grabbed Alison purely by instinct, dragged her into a staggering run. Alison clipped a rock and almost fell to the ground and Sofia’s muscles screamed as she hauled her along, but she did it, hauling her towards their destination, rounding the corner of a building and bolting towards the highway.

“What the shit was that?” she yelled, not sure if she was talking to Karen, or Alison, or herself. In any case, nobody answered her. Then there was another boom, closer this time, and another, and she dared a quick glance over her shoulder as she pulled Alison along after her. She was just in time to see Karen come around the corner, turn, and fire a burst from her rifle at something behind. The response was a roar that rattled the broken glass and gravel, shook the walls, and sent a new surge of dread vibrating through her muscles.

The sound of it had confirmed her worst fears.

“It’s the Raptix! Run! Karen, run for fuck’s sake!”

Whether she heard or not, the other woman turned and ran to follow the others, and not a moment too soon, as an enormous head swung down, mouth closing on empty air where Karen had just been. The beast snarled, glared at the three humans, and started to stride towards them, its enormous clawed feet carving deep gouges into the concrete as it passed.

Karen made it to the others, took Alison’s other arm, and together the three ran for cover, diving into a small alley and scurrying down it.

“This is the wrong way!”

“I know,” said Karen sharply. “Working on it.”

“We have to get back to the van, it’s the only way to get out of here!”

“Said I’m working on it.”

There was a grunt from behind them, and Sofia looked back to see the monster’s eye peering down the alleyway, regarding them hungrily. “Work faster.”

The thing was trying to push closer, but its head was too big, and wouldn’t fit between the buildings. For a moment it disappeared, and Sofia had half a hope that it had lost interest. They were too small to be worth chasing, right? Then a colossal noise shook the world, and the enormous saurian face was staring at them from above, panting hungrily, the smell of its rotten breath choking as it washed over them.

Karen muttered something under her breath.

“What was that?”

“Said it must be desperate, going after the three of us. We’re not much of a meal.”

Alison, practically delirious, nodded and half-smiled. “Of course. Probably hasn’t…eaten in…weeks. Scraps like…us, better…than nothing.”

The others shared a glance, and Sofia nodded. “True enough. We’ve got to get across there, before this thing-“

The Raptix raised its head, then slammed it down against the top of the alleyway, cracking the walls and sending dust and loose bricks cascading down, and illustrating Sofia’s point better than she could have herself.

“Yeah. We do.”

“You have some sort of plan?”

“Some sort. Get ready to run.”

“What-“

Before she could finish the sentence, Karen was dashing back along the alleyway, towards the far end, yelling enough to burst eardrums. “Raptix! You want dinner? Come get some!” She burst out the end of the alleyway, into the open, and kept up her litany of insults and invitations.

For a moment, the monster seemed unsure. It looked down at the two little humans cowering below – so fragile, and so helpless, but infuriatingly difficult to reach – and then spared a glance for the loud, undefended one. It gave a laughing snort, and took off in Karen’s direction.

Sofia only just restrained herself from yelling aloud. It wasn’t as though she’d ever liked Karen, but she didn’t want to see her die. Alison groaned and slumped against her, and that gave her the resolve she needed. “Come on, babe. We’re getting you out of here.”

They left the alleyway, wound their way down a couple of streets, shoved themselves over the concrete barrier, and finally their van was back in sight. The battered, rusting old thing had never looked so gorgeous. It was perhaps fifty metres away, then forty, thirty, twenty…

There was a chatter of gunfire from a small distance away, and the roar of the Raptix. Sofia turned, stared, but she couldn’t see anything between the buildings, except maybe for a narrow glimpse of green-grey skin. Another roar sounded, and the stomp of a giant foot, which brought her back to her senses. She tightened her grip on Alison’s shoulder and heaved them towards the van. A few more metres of struggle and her hand made contact with the door, and she made one last effort to pull Alison inside the thing to safety.

The monster behind them had gone quiet, and for just a moment, she stood there, half-bent, catching her breath. The wind whistled softly.

Then there was another burst of gunfire, and the answering roar seemed closer than before. Sofia spun around, and through the buildings she saw the Raptix, striding gradually closer to them. It seemed unfocused, erratic. In a moment she realised why – the thing was bleeding from one eye, and it was staring around looking for whatever had harmed it. As it came closer, she saw its prey – she saw Karen. She was staggering, struggling, and even with its injury, the monster was getting closer to her every moment.

She turned to Alison, who was sitting upright now and seemed more than slightly out of it.

“Can you drive?”

“What?”

“If I put you in the driver’s seat, can you keep it pointed in the right direction?”

“Maybe?”

Rapidly, Sofia heaved Alison into the driver’s seat and slapped her hands onto the wheel.

“When I tell you, hit the accelerator and don’t stop for anything.”

Alison nodded her head vaguely. Sofia grabbed her gun and turned. In the few seconds that had passed, the monster had stumbled around blindly, and Karen had been getting closer. The wild, angry movements of the thing’s head then brought it a glimpse of her, and it roared in triumph, taking a huge step towards her, readying to strike.

Sofia pointed her gun and fired, and the first burst went clear over the Raptix’s head. It didn’t even seem to notice. The second went lower, and a few bullets struck against its thick hide. That made the monster blink before it just shook its head and kept on coming. It was getting perilously close both to Karen and to the van.

Sofia took a shaky breath, trying desperately to steady her aim. If only she’d practiced more – in a world that was a battleground between dinosaurs and giant insects and flying saucers, learning to shoot hadn’t seemed like it would be much help. If she lived, she promised herself, she’d practice every day and sleep with the ugly thing stashed under her bed. If she lived.

The breath rattled out of her, she squeezed the trigger – and bullets flew at the monster’s face, one hitting just over the eye, and another clipping a tooth and breaking a splinter off it. It reared back, screeched in frustrated pain, giving Karen a brief moment to make up some ground. Her feet skidded on the broken road, but she kept her momentum up and finally grabbed the door of the van, leaping aboard just as the Raptix started to clear its eyes.

“Go! Drive!”

Alison put her foot down, and the van started to move, shuddering, far too slow, but it was moving. Sofia glanced at her a moment – she seemed almost in a trance, head bobbing and eyes glazed. Still, she was keeping the van on the road, and that was enough.

The monster was back on their tails, taking long slow strides towards them. It seemed more cautious now, not as impulsive and eager as it had been, but implacable. Sofia fired another burst at it, and missed almost completely, the couple of hits that she did make barely even scratching its hard skin. It was keeping up with them, covering the shattered ground easily, closing in. She thought she could just about see droplets of drool hanging from its enormous teeth…

She was so focused that when a new wave of green light flooded over them, she almost ignored it. The sonic booms that shattered the air, though, were impossible to ignore. The van rattled as wind hit it, but luckily their pursuer was at least as befuddled as they were – the pressure had made it stumble into a building, and it had gotten a foot stuck in some fallen masonry, and though it struggled, it wasn’t getting free just yet.

“Keep driving, babe. Karen, help her!” She turned to look at whatever the noise had been.

In the distance, she could still see the Shadow Sun tower – what was left of it. It was being orbited by three Martian saucers, and each was caressing it with green fingers of energy, gently beginning to tear it apart. It looked so easy, as concrete and steel peeled away like the skin of a banana, tearing it down to the foundations.

When they unearthed the basement, their energy was answered with another surge of green light, as the alien monolith rose out. The three craft focused their power on it, and the thing quivered for a moment, shimmered in a heat haze, and vanished.

Sofia blinked, squinted, but the thing was definitely gone. The ships seemed to be satisfied, as well – they allowed the remains of the tower to fall to the ground, and left, jumping almost from stillness into incredible speed, and the air cracked again as they went.

The Raptix roared, and pulled itself out of the rubble, and gave one last look at the van, but Karen had gotten control away from Alison, and with her in the driver’s seat they were pulling away into the distance. It roared in frustration, and stalked off again in search of whatever easier prey it could find.

They hit a bump, and everything shook, but nobody said anything. It was several minutes before anyone did.

“What do you think it means?”

Karen didn’t say anything, just raised an eyebrow.

“You know what I mean. I thought the Shadows and the Martians were…I mean, maybe not friendly, exactly, but…”

“Hmm. Yes. Shadow Sun were doing something with that device, that the Martians didn’t know about. Didn’t want them doing.”

“Yeah. That could be good for the rest of us, if it drives the Martians and the Shadows apart…”

Karen was about to say something about that, but Alison moaned and interrupted them. Immediately, Sofia was bending over her, trying to look at her wound. It didn’t look any worse, just a bit of blood that was slowly drying, but still…

“Hey sweetie, you alright?”

She didn’t answer, just stared around.

“Karen, I think something’s wrong. We’ve got to get her back as quick as we can, get a doctor.”

She nodded grimly. “Can do that. Going to be a rough ride, though.”

“We’ll deal.” She stroked Alison’s forehead, softly. “Hey babe, we got what you wanted, okay? Everyone’s going to be really excited about what we found there. It’s going to change everything. Change the whole world. Just hold on until we get home. Hold on for me.”

The van rattled on towards home, away from the wreck of a city.