The call came in at 1:07 p.m. the next afternoon.
A fifty-two-story hotel built almost a century ago decided to go all Roman candle. Is it bad of me to welcome the escape from a crew of guys telling me for an umpteenth time how striking my dark sapphire eyes are against my paper-white mug? Or that I’m too delicate and pretty to be a firefighter? At least the catcalls stopped a year ago after I threw Lamar out of his chair while arm wrestling.
By 1:12 p.m., I’m suited up in full regalia and humping it up the stairs behind my fire-buddy Jason Dunn. He’s been with the brigade seven years now, signed on soon after turning eighteen. His stationhouse is across town from mine, but we run into each other often enough. I suppose that’s a bad thing since us meeting technically means someone’s shit is burning to the ground.
There’s still a bit of ‘protect the girl’ going on, as the lieutenant has sent us to the twenty-ninth floor to do room checks and make sure none of the guests are sticking around. The flames are chowing down on hotel between the thirty-first and thirty-eighth, advancing toward the roof. Fire tends to burn upward much faster than it goes down.
Being under the burn leaves the stairwell relatively clear, though the stink of burning plastic and wood is strong. A handful of civilians scramble down past the line of yellow-coated firefighters. Pair by pair, we break off and enter floors. Most of these guys are from other station houses; this burn’s pulled in every engine within eighteen miles, plus a few Hydromancers providing helicopter support.
A surprising percentage of victims tends to ignore alarms. I’m not sure if it’s excessive fire drills at work that get them thinking of the flashing lights and bleeping as an irritation instead of ‘get the hell out so you don’t die.’ Maybe humanity has simply reached the point where large numbers of people really would rather snuff it in a burning building instead of miss five minutes of reality TV―or whatever else someone inside a hotel room at one in the afternoon would be doing.
Word comes over the radio in my helmet that a group is trapped on the fortieth floor, close to the top of the fire, like sausages in a frying pan. Three lieutenants and a handful of chiefs direct firefighters by name, arranging a coordinated attack to push the fire away from a possible rescue point. They’ve got three Hydromancers on site now, all of them redirected to hammer the floor directly under the endangered civilians in an effort to buy time.
Since our names aren’t mentioned, Dunn and I continue heading for our assignment at the twenty-ninth. I hate being coddled. Of all the responders on scene, I’ve got to be the least nervous in here. Almost all of them are terrified inside. Any human being would be. It’s natural. What sets us apart from the average citizen is we’re willing (and able) to set that terror aside and charge into an inferno to get as many survivors out alive as possible.
Only, for me, it’s different. I’m not the least bit scared. I’m more scared of not being scared, if that makes any sense. Being in a burning building gives me the eerie comfort that I’m exactly where I am supposed to be. That whole permanent sense of unease I mentioned before? Yeah, it’s gone inside a fifty-two-story inferno. Then again, I only get that gnawing irritation in silent calm, and those two words don’t exist in a place like this. Nothing about a burning hotel is silent or calm. Between the constant bleep-buzz of the alarm, the distant roar of the conflagration a few floors up, the thunder of helicopters, and random breaking sounds, it’s a chaotic mess.
The radio’s an unintelligible chorus of firefighters and bosses trying to shout over each other. Dunn and I have a buddy channel. If we talk on it, it’ll auto-mute the general broadcast so we can hear each other. Critical for life-and-death reactions, especially when two lieutenants are angling for captain next year and trying to be Commander General Hero over the open channel.
For the most part, idiots like that tend to get ignored. We do what we need to do when we need to do it, and if Lieutenant Big Head gets too far out of line, there’s usually a captain around to knock them down a peg.
Jason ducks through the door at our floor. The air inside is hazy. He hesitates a second. Hmm. The fire’s picking up speed.
“Uh oh. Guess it’s not as clear as they thought,” he says on our channel before switching to the broadcast and yelling, “We got smoke on twenty-nine. Heads up on Thirty.”
“Roger,” says another man.
“I got left,” I say.
We advance down the corridor, booting open doors one by one. The hotel’s system has released all the magnetic locks with the fire alarm activated, but every so often, there’s a malfunction or an idiot tenant who’s tripped the deadbolt. My third door has such an idiot.
A good, solid punt bashes the door in.
“Holy shit,” mutters Dunn.
“What?” I send over the radio before yelling, “Fire Department, get your ass out of here, now!”
Bed’s unmade, wisps of black smoke puff out of gaps in the drop ceiling. Shit, the fire has to be on the thirtieth by now. I can feel it chewing right overhead. We don’t have a lot of time before this floor becomes a broiler.
“Fire’s moving down,” I say over the radio. “Black smoke seeping out of the ceiling on the twenty-ninth.”
“Copy that. Yeah, we see it,” says the same man who’d ‘rogered’ Dunn before. “Fireball moving up the hallway. We’re not going to be able to get to the east side.”
“Come on, Amari, move your ass,” yells Dunn.
I spin to check the bathroom. Naked fat guy lying in bloody water, wrists slashed. “Got a body here,” I say over our private channel. “He’s already checked out.” While hoofing it to the next door on the left, I add, “Suicide, not fire.”
“Poor fuck.” Jason’s five rooms ahead of me since none of his doors wound up bolted.
Yeah. This poor guy’s first day as a ghost, and the place he chose to haunt is probably going to be torn down. While wondering what becomes of ghosts when their buildings are demolished, I make short work of a few doors before a heavy thud comes from the hallway outside.
“You okay?” I yell, rushing out of another empty room.
Jason punts a door again. “Bolted.” He pounds on it, yelling, “Fire department. You have to get out!” He kicks it a third time, but the door holds.
“Move!” I run into a stepping side-kick that almost takes the door completely off its hinges. It flies open and embeds in the wall.
“Mother of fuck.” Dunn stares at me. “How did you do that?”
“Uhh, Taekwondo classes?”
Before I can steal his room, a woman’s scream comes from a good way down the hall.
“Shit,” I say. “I got it.”
I sprint toward the shouting woman, sailing past a four-way intersection and an elevator area. Copious billows of inky smoke swell out from the seams in the metal doors. Shit twice. That’s not good. We’ve got minutes before this floor’s glowing.
“This is Drake. The thirtieth is gone. Fire everywhere. Twenty-nine, stay alert. It’s about to get warm down there.”
“Copy,” I say over the radio.
The screaming leads me to a door on the left three-quarters of the way down the length of the post-elevator hallway. Heavy, sooty smoke seeps between gaps in the drop ceiling tiles. The door opens with ease, and I barge in on a bone-thin woman tied down to the bed with bright red nylon straps. She’s topless, and it’s hot. Not that kind of hot. The kind of hot where her edible panties have melted and patches of wall are blackening.
A man lays face down beside the bed with a syringe still sticking out of his arm. Drug paraphernalia is all over the table between the two beds. As soon as I look at Mr. Needle, I can tell he’s dead. Zero whispering of any sense of thought in that head.
She screams, thrashing at the restraints. “Help!”
Yeah no shit, lady, why do you think I’m here? “Stay calm. You’re gonna be okay.”
I rush over and grab the sex-shop tie-down. Tiny padlocks secure wrist cuffs, but a good yank rips them away from the part that goes around the mattress. Geez, cheap. As panicky as the woman is, I’m shocked she didn’t get loose already. Then again, she’s maybe eighty pounds. Meth’s a shitty way to meet your maker. If you’re gonna buy a ticket to hell, don’t go coach. I rip the chintzy restraints off and scoop her up. She’s probably a user as well, prominent ribs, looks thirty going on fifty, and I barely register the weight of carrying her.
“Luis!” she shouts.
“Sorry, ma’am. Luis is already gone.” I pivot to carry her feet-first out the door, and haul ass to the stairwell access at the end. “Dunn, where you at?”
“Be there in a minute, checkin’ all the left side rooms you slacked off on.” His voice conveys a grin, so I don’t bite his head off.
“Got a live one here. We need to get her out.” I set the woman on her feet.
She streaks down the stairs as soon as I let go. Shit, lady. I don’t know what’s down there… I’m about to yell at her to wait, when a tremendous crash comes from behind me, shaking the floor. It feels like the entire hotel sways from the impact. I raise an arm to shield my facemask from a brilliant orange flash.
“Ugh,” says Dunn over the radio. “Fuck. I’m hit.”
“Jason!” I shout.
A second or two later, the flare fades, revealing a good portion of ceiling has caved in. Huge blocks of concrete slab decorate the hallway, and fire glows from most of the open doorways. The world above me has become a scene straight out of Dante’s Inferno. Luminous clouds of fire shimmer from bright to dark orange, swimming around each other like living creatures. I stall in my tracks, mesmerized by the danger, the beauty. Only the rasp of breath in my mask reaches my ears; the rest of the world has become silent.
The blaze looks at me, recognizes me.
I feel like I’ve seen a wall of fire once like this before. Once when I’d been a little girl, but the memory is fleeting.
“Amari!” yells Dunn. “Get out of here before it all comes down! I’m pinned.”
Squinting into the glare and smoke ahead, I spot Dunn half-buried under a pile of former ceiling. An I-beam lays across slabs of concrete, pipes, and wires. He’s trapped up to the thighs.
Deep crackling emanates from random places above me in a rapid staccato; I picture concrete breaking apart. The floor at my feet vibrates with heavy grinding. The twenty-ninth is losing structural integrity. Any second now, we’re going to be on the twenty-eighth. Buildings like this can pancake if it gets hot enough. One floor gives out totally, and it’ll take everything below it down to the ground.
Dunn does not have time for me to get backup.
“This is Captain Walters. Everyone out!” comes over the radio. “That’s an order.”
Jason lifts his head at the death rattle of the building. He knows it too. “Get out of here, Amari. I’m fucked.”
“No you’re not!” I sprint for him.
A large blur falls toward me, knocking me into a stagger, but I keep my balance, swatting it aside with an oof. When I’m about ten feet from the debris pile, a room door pops open in a blast of fire. I cringe away from it, but it wraps around me. Not too bad, only a little toasty. No pain.
I power past it and skid to a halt by the mountain of debris. Dunn’s eyes are huge white spots in the grime covering his clear facemask.
“Get the fuck out of here, Amari! This is my last ride, babe.” He waves both hands in a repetitive ‘go away’ gesture.
“No.” I stare at the I-beam and lock onto it with my telekinesis. If I can shove a truck out of a parking spot, I can move this.
He screams as the beam shifts. Concrete dust pulverizes around it, but it jerks only a few inches back and forth. I gasp, grunting like I’m trying to lift a 400-pound barbell without special powers. Dammit, it’s wedged. He shouts again, pain mixed with panic.
The floor shudders like an earthquake.
Damn it. “I’m not leaving you here. You’re not dead yet!”
For all the good it’ll do, I lurch forward and grab the I-beam with my bare hands. I have to move this thing. I have to pull it away so he can survive.
My temples throb with a bizarre sensation. The first thought that filters past the ‘must lift this’ mantra is I’ve strained so hard I’ve given myself an aneurysm. A sharp yank rips the air hose away from the bottom of my facemask, pulling it down and twisting it so I can’t see shit. The harness holding my air tank, and my firefighter’s coat are torn off me to the rear. A hunk of concrete must’ve fallen on me.
“What the fuck!” shouts Dunn.
The I-beam gives way, rising. I’m lifting it. Telekinesis plus my arms. Holy crap. I’m doing it. I grunt, strain, pull, and…
Feel the metal bend between my fingers?
The I-beam comes clear of the mound of crap and I haul it into the air. It’s much lighter without concrete on top of it. I pivot to the side and give it a toss before reaching up to fix my facemask. It refuses to sit properly; when I try to force it, my head twists. My frustration level goes from zero to ‘break everything I can touch’ in an instant. I rip the facemask off and hurl it to the floor. It falls through the hole the I-beam made, and tumbles to the twenty-eighth.
Holy shit. I lose two seconds staring at the damage the thing I just lifted caused. How heavy was it?
Dunn crawls backward from the debris pile, staring up at me like he’s about to (or already has) loaded his pants.
“What?” I ask.
At that instant, it occurs to me that the ceiling is closer than it had been. I look down at myself. My hands have sprouted black talons, and the floor is farther away from my head than it ought to be. At a strange sensation of ‘touch’ I’ve never before realized, I shift my gaze to the left and catch sight of a wing, like a dragon’s, mushed against the wall. A patch of sapphire light illuminates the spot, mirroring the motion of my head. I raise a hand to my face and it turns blue.
What on Earth? My eyes are glowing and I’m like seven feet tall now?
“Amari? Is that you?” breathes Dunn.
Another ripple of shuddering and crunching emanates from everywhere. The whole building is teaching itself how to breakdance.
“So they tell me.” I’m not sure if he can hear me since my mask is one floor down. I’m about to take a step toward him when I get a sudden flash of insight that this entire hallway is a second and a half away from being full of fire. A strong gust of wind whips up out of nowhere and rips past me from the front.
My wings catch it and pull me back two steps.
With a thrust of my arm, I telekinetically shove Dunn. Hard. He zooms off down the corridor like a human torpedo. A tremendous roar builds behind me, and I barely have the time to whirl around and shield my face―with one arm and a wing―before the backdraft explodes.
I close my eyes, expecting this is the end of my line. But intense pain never comes. The sensation reminds me of a pleasant summer breeze. Small pieces of wood hit me and clatter away. Seconds later, when the push of wind dies down, I open my eyes.
Most of my clothes are smoking cinders. My boots kinda survived, but that’s the extent of it. I’m more stunned by not feeling naked. Where bare skin ought to be, my chest resembles armored plates. I still have the general shape of breasts, but they’re like made of snow-white Kevlar or something. Same with my arms and legs… and tail. Say what?
What the fuck am I?
Did I get a contact high from being in that druggie’s room?
The floor lurches, about to drop out from under me.
Dunn’s muted scream snaps my head around. He’s scrambling to get a hold of something as the rug below him gives way, chunks of concrete falling. Above us, the heavy thud, thud, thud of pancaking floor slabs rumbles closer.
I’m not sure what makes me react, but I sprint straight at him. Oh, hell. I’ve got goddamned wings. I wonder if they work. He doesn’t see me coming, which is probably a kindness. I’m more than a little freaked myself; I imagine seeing a whatever I am galloping straight at him wouldn’t be a fun memory.
The floor starts to buckle under my steps the closer I get to him. Clawed toes grip the carpet, keeping me from sliding. When I reach him, instinct takes over and I hurl myself forward, dragging him. Somehow, I wind up flying horizontally down the remainder of the corridor, cradling Jason to my chest.
My left shoulder bears the brunt of our impact with the wall, and we smash clear through the cinder blocks to the outside amid a rain of small chunks. An instant after we’re out, a blast of thick grey dust rushes out to surround us. Our floor just pancaked. Shit. I can’t see a damn thing, but I can still feel gravity. With a lean, I trust my ears telling me there’s open air in front, and dive. We clear the dust cloud in a few seconds.
Dunn lets out a scream far too high to have come from a man. We’re twenty-nine stories in midair over the hotel courtyard. My wings stretch far to the sides, acting like a parachute. As if on autopilot, I steer into a spiral that bleeds off speed, heading for an open yard a short distance away on the other side of an empty street. Jason groans, keeps his eyes closed, and keeps muttering “holy shit” over and over. My desire to not smack into the ground slows us even further, as if reality or gravity listened to me. Wings flared, I extend my legs and glide into a landing in an alley half a block away from the fifty-two-story-high Roman candle. Somewhere out of sight in the smoke, the thudding of a helicopter continues.
Jason stops screaming a few seconds later. He uncurls himself from my embrace and stares into my eyes.
My reflection in his visor isn’t as bad as I feared. By and large, my face looks the same, except my eyes are glowing pools of dark blue energy and I’ve got horns. They’re maybe four inches with a slight curve, and onyx black like my claws and toe-talons. Hmm. Guess that explains my subconscious attraction to black nail polish.
“Amari?” he asks.
“Yeah.” My voice sounds the same.
“Did that just happen?” He pulls his mask off and gulps down fresh air.
I look back at the inferno belching fire from windows wherever the building crumbles in fits and starts. The floors have collapsed to about the nineteenth, great plumes of dark grey dust and smoke shroud the structure like a cloak, creeping downward. By some miracle, the pancaking stopped before it went all the way to the ground. Shit, I hope they got those people out.
“If it didn’t, we’re having one weird-ass afterlife,” I say.
“What are you?”
“Other than naked? I have no idea.” I brush ash off my arm. Am I stuck like this? Or how can I change―
I shrink back to my normal five-foot-six. The armored chitin becomes skin, my wings go back to wherever they came from, and my tail feels like it retracted up into my spine. Now that is funky. The sensation leaves me squirming and paralyzed with ‘ick.’
And quite normally naked.
Damn it’s cold. Or… maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s cold to me.
He drags himself upright, favoring his left leg. After shrugging off his air tank, he removes his long coat and offers it. “Here. You’re, uhh, a little out of uniform.”
“Uhh, thanks.” I pull the coat on and close it. “Maybe we should keep this quiet huh? Like not tell anyone?”
Jason nods. “Sure, if you want. You saved my ass. Whatever you want me to say, I say.”