It was almost peaceful, cruising the side streets, cutting in and out of the stalled cars and passing around hours-old-accidents. None of the cars would move until the grid was back up, but at least for the time being, the injured had been tended to.
Still, as they drove, the neighborhood declined from the relatively wealthy suburban housing around the tourist-based Cougar Mountain area to a series of varying degrees of middle-class urban housing. Once-trendy apartment complexes, 50 year old houses and economy cars now dominated the landscape.
Eventually, the inevitable happened. It started with a single gun shot. The bike lurched as Lance accelerated onto the side-walk. The businessman on the back of the bike gasp and hung on for dear life as Lance brought the bike screeching to a stop between a stalled car and a set of steps. "Down!" he said as he dropped of the bike. Several more gun shots sounded. Lance reached up and dragged the stunned businessman off the bike and onto the ground between himself and Tommy.
Then there was shouting. It was definitely coming from behind them. What have we just passed? Lance thought back, trying to remember anything that would give him a clue.
Two more shots. Loud and long, like a small explosion. A shot gun. The stuffershack we passed a block ago. The clerk had been holding a shotgun. Lance looked at their cover. If the battle was going on behind them, they should get to the other side of the stairs. "Other side" Lance said to Tommy and grabbed the businessman. Activating the levitation spell he'd had quickened as payment for a run years ago, he literally flew over the concrete steps and dropped on the other side.
More shouting. Louder this time, clearer. "Get the frag away from my store you fragging gutterpunks!" Another shot. Lance chanced a glance around the end of the steps. Up the street he could see the stuffershack clerk standing in front of the store pointing the shotgun at a group of retreating gangers. At least one of them was limping badly, but they were backing off- for now at least, with no significant casualties on either side. In the distance he could hear Lone Star sirens.
Lance ducked his head down again and counted slowly to 20 in his head. The sirens were getting closer, otherwise, there was no other sound. He chanced another look. The clerk had disappeared, presumably back inside the stuffershack. The gangers were no where to be seen.
"Up" Lance said. "We're going." Tommy was up instantly, headed to retrieve his bike. The businessman had his arms wrapped around his head. He looked up slowly, between his forearms at Lance. Lance extended his hand to the man. "Let's go" he said "while it's safe." The man took his hand.
They ducked onto a side street and drove, as casually as possible out of the area. The local Lone Star officers wouldn't know Lance or Tommy, so they'd have very unpleasant questions about the weapons the two were carrying. Lance had forged permits for his, but he didn't think under the circumstances that the Star would take the time to check.
Avoiding scrutiny was something Lance was practiced at, it wasn't long before they put the sirens behind them.
Twice more as they rode toward Maplewood they were disturbed by gunfire, but never again as close. They ignored it as best they could and trudged onward.
Maplewood was reasonably quiet by time they arrived. The business man thanked them and handed over his pocket-secretary saying "My work address is the first one in the address book. The map is under ‘tools'. Need me to show you how to use it?"
"Nope" Lance said, accepting the machine. "We'll drop it off as soon as we can. You've got my word."
"Good enough for me, thanks again." The man said, and went into the apartment building.
Lance pulled up the map and planned out a reasonable route for the next few miles.
They didn't get far before more sirens became audible, slowly crawling toward them. At first Lance couldn't locate them in the darkness. But as they rode, he could see the red reflection of emergency lights in the air. The reflections were red only; no blue that Lance could see, which meant fire trucks or ambulances, not Lone Star.
Lance was immediately given to wonder how a fire truck would get through the city when he was having trouble on a motorcycle. He quickly concluded that they must be having a hell of a time.
And it was about that time that Tommy broke radio silence. "Is that smoke?"
Lance looked at whatever the lights were reflecting off of. Sure enough, it was dark and thick enough to black out the night sky behind it, and it did seem to billow like smoke. "Let's check it" he said.
They kicked the bikes into gear, weaving through the stalled traffic as rapidly as they could toward the smoke cloud. As they got nearer, the source of the cloud came into view.
The cloud was coming from a medium sized building– about eight floors tall by Lance's estimate. And it was most definitely smoke because the second and third floors were obscured by a carpet of flames.
They closed the distance quickly, and as they rode through the last block toward the burning building, Lance could see that the side was dotted with balconies. That meant apartments, which meant there were probably people trapped inside. Already Lance could hear some of them shouting for help from the balconies.
Lance glanced at the direction he could hear the sirens coming from. A short parade of Franklin Associates fire trucks and engines were weaving through the stalled traffic, going around the cars they could and pushing the others out of the way. At the rate they were going, they were still several minutes away.
Lance accelerated through the remainder of the drive and dropped the bike along the curb at the corner of the building. Once again activating the levitation spell, he shot upward toward the closest third floor balcony.
As he cleared the flames and the balcony came into view, he could hear Tommy on the radio "What do I do?"
Lance didn't answer right away. The first balcony was empty, the old-style sliding door showed no light inside. Lance considered checking it, but passed it by. The next balcony over had several people on it.
"Clear the cars from in front of the building any way you can" he replied to Tommy, hoping his apprentice could make things easier for the responding firemen.
As he approached the next balcony the people stopped shouting for help and gasped at his sudden appearance. "Wha..." stammered one, apparently the mother of the three children who were on the balcony with her.
Lance reached for the nearest child, a boy about 6 years old. "No!" the women shouted wide-eyed, and Lance realized she was in a state of panic. "Get away!" She grabbed the child and pulled him away from the edge of the balcony.
Lance considered reasoning with her, but he could see the flames were rapidly engulfing her third floor apartment. The plexiglass on the balcony door was already starting to contort from the heat. There wasn't time for arguing. Lance slugged her as hard as he could, right across the jaw. She dropped to the balcony floor.
Lance grabbed the screaming child under one arm and another under his other arm. As quickly as the spell would take them, he dropped away from the building to the ground below. Setting the children on the side-walk, he shot back up to the balcony and grabbed the remaining child. This one was older, in her early teens.
In the few seconds it took Lance to return, the teen had put together a few things- like that Lance was probably trying to help, and even if he wasn't, she was going to suffer an very painful, fiery death if she didn't get off the balcony right away. She reached for Lance, grabbing him around the neck tightly enough that he found it difficult to breath as they descended to the street below.
Once the teen was deposited beside her siblings, Lance retrieved the unconscious mother. He could probably have taken the teen and mother together if the mother had been conscious, but as he plunged downward with her dead weight in his arms, he was glad he hadn't tried.
The next balcony was easier, the elderly couple on it had seen Lance's rescue of their neighbors and he was able to take both of them in one trip.
The fire crew was still several minutes away, so Lance went back up. As he bolted upward he was peppered with glass and heat as a third-floor window burst outward. Fortunately, Lance was just at the edge of the flame-cloud, which only singed him. Lance resolved himself to go around as many windows as possible.
It wasn't long before all the people trapped on balconies were safely deposited on the street below. The fire vehicles were closer, but they were still a minute or two away. By that time much of the fourth floor was engulfed in flames. Lance went back up, headed for the nearest fifth floor balcony. As he ascended he pulled his silver and black bandana out of his pocked and tied it around his nose and mouth. He didn't have a breather so the bandana would have to do.
The balcony was one that had not had anyone on it, at least as far as Lance could remember. He considered for a moment passing it up, but then remembered the old adage: better safe than sorry. He settled onto the balcony and pulled at the door, hoping it was unlocked.
It wasn't. Darkness inside, he could see curtains closed over the plexiglass door. If anyone was inside, they'd likely be near the floor. Lance gave the door a solid kick, but the plexiglass didn't break, instead a small spider web of cracks appeared. Lance kicked it again and then twice more before it shattered.
The entire room glowed red in Lance's thermal imaging sun-glasses. He switched them to low-light, and scanned the room. The living room was unoccupied, Lance hurried through the apartment, ignoring the growing heat and ducking low to avoid the smoke gathering along the ceiling.
The first apartment was empty, the beds in both bedrooms were unmade, apparently abandoned hastily. Lance left the apartment for the hallway. He took a look at the doorway across the hall, made a decision and kicked it in. That apartment was also empty.
And so were the next two. By the time Lance approached the fifth door, the heat could be felt from the floor and flames were already licking at the carpet at the far end of the hallway. The heat was already staggering, and Lance was having trouble breathing in the thickening smoke. He was about to abandon the floor- dead people don't help anyone- when he heard shuffling behind the doorway.
Immediately, he kicked the door in. The room was engulfed in smoke and Lance switched back to thermographic vision. Everything was awash in red, but Lance could see the slightly cooler shape of a person on the floor in the middle of the living room.
Lance rushed inside. The man on the floor had nearly succumbed to smoke inhalation. He still thrashed, barely conscious, as if trying to crawl toward the door. The smoke burned in Lance's lungs as he draped the man over one of his shoulders and rushed for the balcony. He slammed open the door and leapt from the balcony, activating the levitation spell as they dropped.
The procession of fire trucks was just pulling up in front of the building. A few firemen rushed toward Lance and took them man from him. One of them remained with Lance, taking his arm and guiding him toward the nearest fire truck. "You okay, chummer?" the fireman asked.
Lance tried to reply, but could only cough.
"Let's just make sure" the fireman said, guiding Lance to a seat on the curb next to the fire truck. He pulled a metal cylinder from a side compartment, attached a plastic tube to it and slipped the plastic mask at the end of the tube onto Lance's face. "This is just a little oxygen to get you started."
Lance tried to take a deep breath, but the air burned his lungs. He coughed. The fireman grasped his shoulders and held him up as the coughing fit passed and Lance began to take breaths again. The oxygen had an odd, almost organic smell to it, which Lance found very soothing.
He took several breaths and looked around. The fire truck had extended it's ladder to the fifth floor and a fireman was ascending the ladder toward the hose-nozzle attached to the end of the ladder. More firemen were unraveling hoses from the engines toward the building, while others were setting up a perimeter and checking the people gathered outside for injuries.
Lance's head was clearing. It would be best to leave here before Lone Star got around to sending an officer to assist and before the fire guys started asking questions. "Look" Lance started "Thanks for the help. I've gotta go."
"Oh no you don't" the fireman said. "You need to go by the hospital and get checked out. You've inhaled a lot of smoke."
"I'll be fine" Lance said firmly, standing up. The fireman put his hand on Lance's shoulder and tried to push him back down, but Lance easily stepped out of his grip.
Force hadn't worked, the fireman tried talking Lance down. "Look, the ambulance will be here in a few, let them check you out. Maybe they won't need to take you in."
"Thanks for the help" Lance said and started walking away.
The fireman knew better than to follow, he couldn't force treatment on someone who was refusing. "You need to see a doctor" he shouted from behind Lance.
"I'll take care of it" Lance assured the fireman as he walked away. He went straight for his bike, where Tommy was waiting, mounted up and sped off with Tommy right behind him.
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