Wednesday, June 6, 2012

3/14/12 - The Last Flight of The Owl pt. 4

Joe Samuels swoops from station to station, along the top tiers of the Owls Nest, being extremely careful and quiet as he does.

He'd be quiet, anyway -- even in his own home. But now that his home has been overrun by well-armed monsters, to the point that the gangplanks and walkways below are literally crawling with them, setting the self-destruct mechanisms in motion is going to be very tricky.

Especially without the full uniform that he wore for all those years. He's got his hand talons, clutch boots, and goggles, but those were all he had time to grab.

He doesn't even have his utility belt, without which he's almost naked.

Of course, that just gives him another reason to not directly attack the enemy, for he knows that these Falsefaces are deadly things -- best avoided where possible. They are super-strong, highly resilient, and impervious to pain, with the ability to change their faces to resemble anyone they need to masquerade as. Their guns fire swift pulses of white-hot flechettes capable of burning through low-grade steel, to say nothing of human flesh and Owl armor.

And, as he's seen in the last few minutes, they seem to have acquired the ability to teleport since the last time he and SPYGOD discussed such matters.

Fortunately, they don't know the layout like he does. When his father put this structure together, Joe was constantly by his side, watching and learning and asking questions. And the knowledge that was passed from father to son in those days is all that's keeping him alive, here and now.

He's not the only one, though.

He can see Mark moving through the airducts, back to Owl 10. His thermal goggles tagged him a few minutes ago, and while he can see that he's carrying what has to be the portable drive with him, he doesn't see Rachel, anywhere.

That can't be good, but he has to trust that the situation is in hand.

He also has to trust that, whatever's taking Martha this long, she's doing alright with what she has, too. The explosions from the garage below have him very worried, but he's sure that Thomas got out before then. The kid's good -- a better Talon than he ever was at his age, anyway -- and if anyone could have jumped out of the jaws of death just before they slammed shut, it's him.

That just leaves little Kaitlyn -- who's going to be an amazing Talon, one day -- out there, somewhere, and Hargreaves, who can always pull another body out of storage if something happens.

What can't be replaced, however, is the Owl's Nest, itself. The building below is likewise irreplaceable, and will also be destroyed when the hidden structure above it goes away. That and some of the land on the estate, including that nice pond that they just had put in a few summers ago.

Except for the graveyard, of course. The shaded, solemn plot is far enough away to survive. Only that, and the heavy gates out front, will remain to mark the day the Samuels had to flee Chicago for their lives.

Only his father and mother, his grandfather and grandmother. Aunts and uncles. His wife.


He closes his eyes and shakes his head. No. He will not let this blind him to the moment. He must go on and complete this task.

The family will survive. They will learn from this. They will come back stronger than before from their sojourn in the wilderness.

He has faith in this. And while that faith may not be the size of a mustard seed, under the circumstances, he knows that God has given him greater miracles from even smaller stockpiles of that precious substance.

So he leaps and soars one last time through the great metal cavern his father built, working quickly and diligently to bring it all down upon the things that would destroy that man's legacy.

* * *

A group of four falsefaces walks through the smoke and fire on their way to the library. Their guns are raised and ready to finish the job the butler obviously failed at. And then they can go upstairs to join their brothers, already hunting for the last few occupants on their list of targets.

They're not being all that careful or stealthy, but why should they? Theirs is the superior position. They have every tactical advantage save one, today -- an intimate and secret knowledge of the battlefield -- but so far that advantage isn't counting for much. 

They keep that cheery thought right in their heads as they turn into the smoke-filled library, and begin to creep into it -- eyes open and guns ready. They see their four comrades lying on the floor, in various states of death or dying, but cannot see anything further than their flattened forms for the thick smoke.

The smoke is obviously not from the fires their weapons have set. They try to adjust their bionic eyes to find their targets, but something is ruining their ability to read heat signatures and see movement. It's some kind of outside interference that they haven't encountered before now.

It dawns on the group's leader that they may have encountered some kind of sophisticated chaff, which could be concealing their targets. Their briefings indicated that these urban vigilantes are known to use such tactics in their self-righteous war on American society's many failings. So he decides to have his group fire blindly throughout the room, knowing that, if someone's hidden in there, they will be struck down by a sustained field of fire.

His silent order is carried out, and the room is lit up by their weapons. Old and well-kept books explode and burst into flame. The walls catch fire and windows blow outwards. Shelves shatter, furniture splinters, art explodes, and paintings and photographs are pulverized. 

It took generations to make this room. They blast it apart in less than ten seconds. But at the eleventh, the leader realizes that there's no one else in the room with them.

That's the last thought that goes through his brain before it's shot out the front of his skull. A line of white-hot metal slices through his head, and those of the others in his group. It comes from right behind them, where a very angry mother stands, wielding two of their railguns -- one attached to either side of her son's utility belt, and what's left of her son strapped to the front of her chest, facing her.

"That's what you get for not looking at the ceiling," she hisses as they fall down dead. The light from the fires in the library play off a face streaked with blood and tears. 

And rage -- sacred and pure.

"Mom...?" Thomas whispers, slowly coming around in spite of the painkillers she's injected him with.

"Shhhh," she tells him as they turn around and head for the study, and the elevator she's praying hasn't been wholly compromised: "Go to sleep, honey. It's a bad dream."

"I thought I was... Kaitlyn..."

"She's fine, sweetie," Martha says, kissing his forehead and praying it's not a lie. Two more falsefaces turn a corner and she perforates them both, quickly and efficiently, and then ducks out of the way as two more return fire.

"Remember... she's next..." her son breathes as she slides back to where she was, just a second ago, and blows one of her harriers to pieces from ribcage up: "I saw her... wearing the uniform..."

"Thomas, you need to be quiet, honey," Martha begs him, not able to continue hearing him sing the praises of her possibly-dead niece. She ducks back behind cover as the survivor returns fire, and then sees even more firestreams joining his.

Reinforcements. At least two more. Maybe three.

"She's gonna be so good, someday," he says, smiling beatifically: "I can't wait..."

"Neither can I," she says, and decides there's no time to lose. 

She only has one set of earplugs -- his. She prays for his forgiveness as she puts them in, and then reaches into one of his belt pockets for a Screechbomb. She primes it and tosses it around the corner, hoping the enemy doesn't have the sense to duck. 

And then she puts her fingers as deep into her son's ears as she can, hoping it's enough to protect him from what's going to follow.

The sonic grenade shatters every window in the hallway, rattles her teeth, and makes Thomas scream as his eardrums burst around her fingers. His eyes get as wide as dinner plates, and for a brief second she thinks he understands exactly what's happened to him, and what's left of him.

Then the moment's gone, along with the noise. Thomas collapses back into the unconsciousness that she'd hoped to send him into before doing all this. Martha waits a second, and then, ever so carefully, peeks around the corner.

Ten falsefaces lie there -- their faces shattered, all deathly still. She quickly runs through what's left of them for the study, hoping what she's done has scattered them enough for her to do what needs to be done, next.

And hoping that she hasn't added one more horrible injury to her already-maimed son.

* * *

Mark slowly moves out of the air duct, just as the group of falseface guards that had been watching The Eyes finally leave it.

It was a rather nerve-wracking three minutes, slowly working the bolts off the access panel from the inside while waiting for them to go. He was about to move back up the line and create some kind of distraction to get them out of there, but some other problem seems to have gotten their attention. And thank God for that.

He takes the data pack and slowly moves it over to the two giant windows, and then carefully plugs it into an access hatch between them. That's all that needs to be done, for now. But he has to wait for Joe to get here, along with Martha.

(Hargreaves, too, if he can make it up here. They might be able to capture his programming-stream in flight if he can't, though.)

His thoughts turn to Rachel, once more. He hitches a breath and puts his hands to his eyes, feeling them turn wet again. He knows he can't keep this bottled up forever, but prays he can hold on just long enough to get them to safety.

"Are we ready?" Joe asks from up on the high ceiling of the room, just as he drops down without another sound.

"Yes, we are," Mark says, really not surprised that the man snuck up on him, under the circumstances.

"Where's Rachel?"

Mark bites his lip and looks down. Joe blinks, and then puts his hand to his face. He knew, somehow, but wasn't ready to hear it.

Is anyone, really?

"We're waiting for Martha, then," Joe says, trying to snap out of his grief: "Thomas is after Kaitlyn. I think Hargreaves has been compromised along with the rest of our defenses."

"Then will Owl 10 even work?"

"You tell me," Joe says: "It's supposed to be separate, isn't it?"

"It is," Mark says, really not needing the man's lousy attitude, right now: "It doesn't come on until we turn it on. But if they've hit us this bad...?"

"Then I guess we find out when we find out," Joe says: "All we can do is pray."

He holds out a hand, Mark takes it, and they bow their heads as one and talk to God -- knowing that He's always listening but hoping there's room in His plan for them, today.

* * *

The fully-enclosed elevator shaft that leads up to the Owls Nest comes out in the center of a large grouping of walkways and ramps. It doesn't make a lot of noise when it's in operation, but it's pretty obvious that something is happening when the car's on the move.

So it's no surprise that, the moment it starts going up, every falseface in the area converges towards it. Within moments there are at least fifty of them standing around it, and all of them have their guns pointed right at the door.

The mechanism stops. The doors open. A figure moves forward.

The elevator explodes with white hot fury as fifty separate firestreams rip into it, turning the column incandescent. The cylinder isn't quite cut in two by their pulsing bursts of fire, to say nothing of the lone figure who was inhabiting it at the moment.

The falsefaces stop firing in eerie unison. A few of the ones in the front of the group get up from their kneeling position and walk towards what's left of their target. 

The figure isn't one of their intended targets. It's clearly one of their fellow falsefaces, propped up and sent up the elevator to draw their fire. 

There's obviously some head-scratching going on there, but not for long. Another silent order is given, and the falsefaces blast what little remains of the elevator into flinders. They shoot at the top of the car, and the bottom. They send fire up and down the shaft, with each seconds' worth of sustained fire all but guaranteeing that nothing living could have survived that conflagration.

And as they pulverize the object, hoping to kill one of their primary targets, and more falsefaces teleport into the Owls Nest to provide backup for the search for the others, a bulky figure slowly and carefully makes her way across the ceiling.

Martha chooses her route to The Eyes with extreme care, knowing that if she goes too slow they'll see her, but if she goes too fast the claws may fail. They were made for her son, and weren't designed to carry this much combined weight. But only one of the falsefaces has to look up and see her, dangling from the curved, steel roof, and then she's as good as dead.

They're as good as dead, really. She prays that her son -- his eyes rolling, his ears caked with blood -- does not wake up again until they're safely down, and then away.

But each handhold only takes them so far, and each time she looks off to her goal, it seems even further away.

A miracle would be nice, right about now. Maybe three of them. Or at least some strength.

* * *

"I see her," Joe says, looking around the entrance to The Eyes, up at the ceiling: "She's got Thomas... and..."

"And what?"

"Oh dear Lord," Joe gasps, shaking his head: "He's... he doesn't look..."

Mark sneaks over and looks up, seeing the broken boy that Martha's carrying. The goggles reveal he's still amongst the living, but how much longer that will be is a good question.

A better question is 'who's looking after Kaitlyn?' But he tables that for the moment. There just isn't time to worry about her, right now.

She'll be safe. Somehow he knows this. 

"Let me go and get her," he says to Joe: "You know how to start her up. She'll pilot just like you trained."

"No," Joe says: "She can get here on her own. But there might need to be a distraction."

"Then let me-"

"Mark, I need you here," the man says, putting a hand on his arm: "I'm counting on you. If this family's going to survive, it's going to need you."

"Funny how you never make me feel that way," Mark hisses, shrugging the man's hand away. But Joe puts it right back and looks the man in the eyes.

"Mark, I trust you more than I trust anyone else here, including my own daughter," Joe says: "We were all born into this. We came into this world with The Owl looking over our shoulders and God looking into our hearts. It's our destiny, and we couldn't get out of here if we tried. 

"But you fought your way here, Mark. You earned the right to join us. I love my family more than myself, but I'd take one of you over ten of us, any day. 

"Now, I've been tough on you, yes, but no tougher than I've been on anyone else, including my own daughter. Including myself. 

"But if we're going to survive this, and come back, I'm going to need you to be ten times the man you already are. You're going to have to make hard choices, like letting me go out there and risk my life so you can pilot my daughter and my grandson out of here, and save your own girl's life.

"So can I count on you? Because if not-"

"You're wasting time," Mark says, clapping him on the shoulder: "Go get her. Signal me when you have her. I'll start her up."

Joe smiles. He doesn't even have to ask what the signal will be. Somehow, Mark will just know.

He's that good.

* * *

The platform is closer, now. Maybe thirty feet. Martha just has to get within ten and she can swing, leap, and land. Then she'll just have to run the distance to The Eyes, and hope none of the falsefaces down below get the jump on her.

She's another three feet closer when she sees her father leave The Eyes and run smack into two falsefaces coming around the corner of the platform. They'd have seen her if it hadn't been for him. They're about to open fire, and she almost cries out, but her dad has them face-smashed and disarmed in less time than it takes her to take in a breath.

He looks back at her and smiles. Then he grabs their guns and, running back the way they came, opens fire on the falsefaces massed below, whooping and yelling as he does.

The reaction is instantaneous. They open fire back at him, all but obliterating the platform he's standing on. He leaps away from it at the right moment, grabbing hold of a stanchion on a nearby wall and swinging up and over them, firing with his free hand. They continue to fire at him, but are unable to get a lock on him as he swoops, soars, and tumbles in the air.

Just like an owl evading capture.

Martha's on the platform before she knows it. Then she's hustling for The Eyes, seeing that Mark is at the doorway, gesturing her to come forward. As soon as she's there, he helps her get Thomas off her, and places him into one of the room's many chairs, ever so carefully.

"Did you get what we needed from the library?" he asks.

"I did," she says: "But Hargreaves is lost to us. They screwed up his programming."

"I figured," he sighs. 

"Where's Rachel?"

"She... she didn't make it," Mark tells her, not daring to look her in the face when he does: "Get your dad in here now. We need to leave."

Martha's stunned for a second by the news of her cousin's death. But she quickly rebounds -- having seen too much death today to let it break her -- and does what she's told.

She leans out the entrance and whistles high and low. Her father hears, even over the firing of their enemies, loops around in mid-air, and heads back to The Eyes. On the way he throws a handful of Screechbombs down, trying to time his landing to their going off.

"Mark, put in some earplugs," Martha orders as she runs back to get a chair. Mark does as he's told, and begins the countdown on the portable drive. Ten seconds should about do it, right?

Joe lands on the platform, just in front of the entrance to The Eyes. The falsefaces' firestreams light up the floor around him, and he just barely somersaults off it in time. Then he's in the room and rushing forward, watching the countdown on the drive as it reaches 7, 6, 5...

There's a box next to the drive, plugged into it. He turns it on with his finger, and then a retinal scanner pops up and makes sure he's who he says he is.

"'And I only am escaped alone to tell thee,'" he quotes at two seconds to go. 

The Screechbombs go off. The falsefaces begin dying.

The strange energy source that powers the Owls Nest stops, drops, and begins to roll towards critical mass.

And once the drive reaches zero -- a half-second after Joe straps himself into one of the chairs -- the Owls Nest begins to shift and move.

The walls break in certain spots, opening up along hidden lines and unseen seams. Rooms are reshuffled and rebuilt. Platforms flatten and stack. Entire sectors crack open and share electronics and mechanics. Hidden but mighty engines engage, and lift the self-assembling structure slowly up and away from its cradle. 

The Owls Nest breaks itself down in death, only to become something new: Owl 10, itself. 

This was ever the great secret of The Owl: a thing located nowhere on the blueprints or design specs, but encoded in the very warp and woof of the structure since its earliest days. When all hope is lost, and flight is a must, the family can create a portable headquarters to escape within.

And perhaps, one day, return the same way.

"Can we do this in time?" Martha shouts over the sounds of the newly-formed engines kicking in as the room they're in becomes one massive cockpit.

"Yes we can," Mark shouts, watching the 3D controls form around his chair: "We've got thirty seconds till the Nest goes critical. We can be in Wisconsin by then-"

His pride is short-lived. He sees a blue light flickering behind him, reflected in one of the unfolding panels, and turns his head to see two falsefaces teleporting into the room. They level their guns at him and prepare to fire.

Martha screams and tries to unbuckle herself, but she isn't even half done before her father's up and attacking them both. He takes one down effortlessly, but the other sees the blows coming and dodges them with eerie ease.

Joe leaps back and tries to get the upper hand, just as the entire aircraft lurches to the right. He doesn't quite anticipate the change in direction, but his opponent stands his ground, and fires his weapon right at the older man -- shooting his left leg off at the knee and sending him sprawling.

His scream of pain sounds like the end of their world.

There's confusion in the room, then. Mark tries to right the aircraft and activate the internal defenses. Martha succeeds in getting out of her chair and hurling throwing claws at the falseface. The creature takes the claws in the arm, chest, and clavicle, but doesn't seem to mind.

And then it aims its gun at the front of the cockpit, once again -- clearly intending to destroy everything it can.

Martha doesn't even see her father leap up from the ground. There's a blur of motion as the falseface's shot goes wild, and then they're tumbling towards the back of the room, which is quickly converting into the rear of the aircraft.

The two figures bounce helplessly from panel to panel as their fighting arena rearranges itself around them. Joe punches but misses as the falseface slides away from him, and the falseface shoots but misses as the terrain returns the favor.

And as they fight, bits and pieces of the slowly-accelerating landscape are clearly visible as as the plane assembles itself around them. Any wrong move could send one or both hurtling out of the plane. 

Martha throws an Owl Line at a stable part of the forward compartment, and -- tying it around her --  advances on the thing intent on killing them, throwing more claws with every step. Not all of them strike their target, but enough hit to make it harder for him to connect with her father. 

With each step, she comes closer to saving him. But with each step, the plane's insides change yet again, and often send him further away.  

"Just a little more, please, Lord Jesus," she prays, reading a line for her father: "Let him grab this. No more death, today, please. Please Lord God, no more death..."

And then, just as she's close enough to almost fling claws through the monster's blank, silver eyes with one hand, and throw the lifeline with the other, a huge panel slides out of the way to allow something else to slide in. 

The falseface and Joe, locked in a fatal clinch, fall out of the suddenly-empty space, and back towards the mansion.

Martha screams and throws the line, and her father, seeing it coming, reaches up to take it.

The falseface sees this, and, as it plummets to its certain death, opens fire on Martha.

The miracle is that none of the firestreams hit her -- raking across the underside of Owl 10, instead. 

The tragedy is that one of the firestreams strikes the lifeline, and cuts it right in two.

Martha howls, trying to ready another lifeline. Joe smiles serenely, looking at her with tenderness, pride, and love as he follows his would-be assassin towards the ground.

And then the panel slides back, and there's steel floor between Martha and the man she'd hoped to save.

She falls to her knees, sobbing uncontrollably. The aircraft completes itself, with all systems showing 100%. Mark tells it to go as fast as it can, ten seconds ago, and it complies beautifully. 

As he falls, Joe twists around to look at his house, one last time. He has no regrets in these last moments. He has served well, he has paved the way for others to serve just as well, if not better, and he has protected the family mission with his last breath.

Is there a better epitaph? He thinks not, and as the large metal structure he just condemned to death rushes up to meet him, he says one, last prayer.

The Owls Nest becomes visible for a full second just before he hits it, and appears to be little more than a cracked, metal stadium that's folding in on itself. But then a massive, purple ball of light appears inside it -- plasma crackling throughout its undulating surface -- and Joe falls right into it.

The ball expands outwards at an alarmingly fast rate, soon encompassing the entire structure, downstairs and all. And when it recedes back to nothing, and vanishes, there's nothing left of the Samuels house but a large, perfectly circular hole in the ground. 

* * *

Martha eventually straps herself back into a chair. It'll only be a matter of time before they've slowed down enough to turn on the cloak and attend to Thomas' wounds. But for now she can sit, put her head in her hands, and weep for her father, her cousin, and the butler she's known since she was a child.

Mark lets her cry, knowing there's nothing he could say right now that would help. But a part of him is intensely grateful. The communication network has started up again, and he's getting a clear and steady signal from Kaitlyn's watch. It looks like she's heading up to Wisconsin, no doubt to the rendezvous point at that tourist trap cheese store that they used to joke about stopping at, but never did.

"Mars Cheese Castle," he muses, shaking his head. He thinks of Rachel laughing at it, and telling him there was better cheese to be found elsewhere, further off the highway. And him thinking that was never the point, but loving her laughter so much that it wasn't worth arguing. 

That's family, in the end. Not the arguments, or the strife, but the simple moments when you look at one another and feel Gods love working between you all. 

With that in mind, he engages the cloak and the sound suppression, and the Samuels family vanishes in midair. 

One day to return. 

(SPYGOD is listening to Ogive no. 1 (Erik Satie, by way of William Orbit) and raising a toast to the dead with Big Eddy IPA)

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