Star Boy nearly tripped as he scrambled out of the elevator, pushing everyone ahead of him. “Go, go!”
He knew everybody in the gaggle of personnel before him, comm officers and assistants mostly, their terror rank, their breaths coming in panicked gasps. The brilliant lighting of the parking garage was a balm, meant they were safe, and Fabricators were on hand to pull folks away from the elevator, clearing the doors.
“Richard!” Cindy shoved her way back to him. “What are you doing? You’re not going back up there?!”
“I have to, Cindy.” He drew himself up and gazed off over her shoulder, trying to look noble. “There are people still trapped up there. You know how it is. They need a hero.”
“Shut the fuck up, you can’t go back up there, you can barely make manna bread -”
Star Boy’s heart was pounding, and it felt like liquid terror was coursing through his veins, but he knew what he had to do. “Cindy? I won’t flinch from my duty.”
“Duty my ass, we need you coordinating -”
He swept forward, wrapped an arm around her waist, and dipped her down to kiss her passionately. She froze, and when he drew back her eyes were wide, shocked.
“We’ll always have Paris,” he whispered, then straightened and stepped back into the elevator to hit the lobby button.
“You don’t even have a gun!” she wailed.
He raised his hand and finger-gun shot her in the heart. The doors closed. All bravado fell away. “Fuck fuck fuck,” he whispered, running his hands over his balding head. “OK Star Boy, this is just like in Jurassic Park, kids are in the kitchen, just a don’t draw attention, velociraptors don’t eat what they don’t see…”
The elevator doors dinged and opened to reveal the ruined lobby. The far doors were shattered, having burst inward with the first furious Nem3 assault. Couches were knocked over, glass glittered like handfuls of diamond, and streaks of blood were vivid against the floor where people had died and been tossed around.
Bodies. A dozen at a glance, mostly the military guys who’d tried to put up a stand during those first few seconds.
“Fuck,” whispered Star Boy, rubbing his palms on his hips. He’d not bothered with a gun. Without Smite they were useless anyways, and he couldn’t shoot a door from a distance of a dozen yards. No, better to stay frosty, to stay sharp. This was a witty man’s game, and he was the wittiest.
“OK, where the fuck did you guys go?” he whispered, peering out of the elevators. Gunfire echoed from one of the ballrooms, along with the ecstatic shrieking of a demon, and Star Boy’s entire being broke out in goosebumps. Why hadn’t he grabbed some amulets? A breastplate? An axe?
Because none of it would have helped against an actual demon.
“Softly softly catchee monkey,” he whispered and eased out of the elevator. It was really kind of amazing, how badly his body didn’t want to do what it was told. It reminded him of the fifteen minutes it had taken him that one time to leap off a boulder into a frozen lake. It was like his instincts were ten steps ahead of his mind, and knew he was better served just staying still.
But fuck that noise, he was the Star Boy.
OK, first he’d check the hotel offices. They’d placed their spillover personnel back there. Wincing with each noise he made, Star Boy ghosted across the lobby, trying to avoid stepping on broken glass or smears of blood. More roaring came from upstairs. Had a Nem3 gotten up to the rooms?
Star Boy rounded the huge front desk and dropped down. Why the fuck was he panting? He wiped sweat from his brow. Ridiculous. He crawled to the office door, pushed it open.
“Don’t shoot! It’s just your friendly neighborhood Star Boy!”
He raised his head. The small, open plan office was in disarray, with three military guys aiming rifles at him while a dozen office workers crowded in behind. “Hey, hi there. Somebody order pastrami?”
“Jesus Christ, Star Boy,” said one of the soldiers, a lanky dude called Orville. “What the fuck you doing in here?”
“Coast’s clear. Time to get below. C’mon.” Star Boy gave them all his best shit-eating grin. “I’m here now. Nothing to be worried about.”
“Nah,” said another soldier, his name tag reading Lee. “We should hang tight, stay quiet. We’re safe here.”
“Hate to break it to you, dawg,” said Star Boy, “but no where’s safe if you don’t have several feet of concrete between you and them. They’re forcing their way into different parts of the hotel as we chitchat. So c’mon. It’s a straight run to the elevators and safety.”
“All right.” Orville put up his gun. “Nems are out of sight?”
“How’d you think I got here? Hell yeah they are.” Star Boy cracked open the office door and peered out over the front desk at the huge lobby. “C’mon, the night time is the right time.”
Everybody moved up, Lee complaining the whole while, and then on the count of three Star Boy opened the door and stepped aside so everybody could race toward the elevators.
Which was of course when a Nem3 emerged from the far hallway that led down past the conference rooms.
The demon was huge. Star Boy had seen hundreds if not thousands of them over digital media, but that had done nothing to prepare him for their sheer bulk, their vicious horror, their monstrous strength. The creature looked like a juicer’s wet dream, all bulging muscles and earthworm-sized veins under its black skin, its body as big as a tank, its tail whipping behind it, its blank skull-face orienting on the column of people as they raced to the elevators.
“Shit!” Star Boy looked around desperately, saw a handgun on the desk along with three clips. “Shit shit shit!”
The Nem3 rumbled and stepped out into the lobby as people screamed. Orville was hammering at the elevator button.
“Don’t shoot!” screamed Star Boy, snatching up the handgun. “Let me distract it!”
He raised the gun and squeezed the trigger. Nothing. Was it broken? He tried again, nothing. Safety! Where was the safety, this little thing? He thumbed it down, aimed, fired, and the gun bucked in his hand as a bullet bounced off the Nem3’s head.
“Ha! You feel that? You feel that, motherfucker? That’s Star Boy, that’s Star Boy power, coming right at you, you - you -”
He opened fire again, a wild spray as the gun kicked, bullets bouncing off the demon and doing absolutely no damage to it.
But he got the thing’s attention.
The Nem3 turned slowly as if curious to fix him with its sightless visage. Its tail whip cracked.
“Oh fuck,” gurgled Star Boy as he fought the urge to piss himself. “Oh… uh…” He raised the gun, lowered it, raised it once more, then dropped as the Nem3 spun and lashed at the desk with its tail.
The desk’s surface erupted in a mass of papers, shattered monitors, and huge flakes of wood. Star Boy screamed and resisted the urge to go fetal. Somewhere he heard the elevator ding. There was a box down here. Military green. Could it be?
“Please please please,” he whispered, fumbling at the catches. They were unlocked. He flipped the lid open as huge footsteps came his way. Inside was black foam with a half-dozen grenades embedded inside it.
Tears came to Star Boy’s eyes. “Thank you. Universal Source, God, Buddha, whomever. Thank you. I don’t deserve this.”
He grabbed a grenade. It fit snugly in the palm of his hand. There was a simple ring affixed to the top. Star Boy yanked it off and leaped to his feet.
The Nem3 was right there, looming over him like an ebon wave about to crest and crash.
“For the Alamo!” Star Boy screamed and hurled the grenade right at its face. He dove aside the moment he released. He caught a flash of the Nem lunging forward to snap at the grenade, twisting its head aside as it did so, then Star Boy hit the ground and shattered glass and the grenade detonated.
Star Boy immediately scrambled to his feet and turned, not daring to hope - but the Nem3 was still standing. Its skull was shattered, with black ichor running from the fissures, and smoke rose from the great gaps in its maw, but it was still standing.
“Fuck,” croaked Star Boy. The other grenades were at the Nem’s feet. Star Boy backed away as the demon shook its head, huge dollops of ichor flying, and oriented on him.
But looking past the demon, he saw that everybody else was gone. They’d escaped.
“A hero,” whispered Star Boy. “Me. A genuine hero. The best of the best. A martyr. I always knew I’d sacrifice it all. The nobility of my soul. Solid silver. Solid Snake. Me and Goku. Oh shit.”
The Nem3 reached down, clutched the front desk and hurled it aside. The huge piece of furniture tore free of its constraints and shattered into massive chunks.
Star Boy flinched and pressed back against the wall. He raised the handgun and clicked the trigger a few times before throwing it at the demon. It didn’t even notice, but leaned down low, preparing to lunge forward, clearly enjoying the moment.
“Aye, fight and you may die,” whispered Star Boy, pushing off the wall. “Run and you’ll live. At least a while.” The Nem3 paused, momentarily confused as Star Boy’s voice gained strength. “And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance? Just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives…”
The elevator dinged again. The Nem3 canted its head to one side. Star Boy was hyperventilating, and with a cry he screamed the last words, “But they’ll never take our freedom!”
And he hurled himself forward, right fist drawn back to punch the shit out of the Nem3.
A bolt of white lighting burst down from the ceiling, immolating the demon where it stood, reducing it to shadows and blue overtones. A shockwave burst out, passing right through Star Boy, who closed with the demon and swung wildly, missed, overbalanced, and crashed to the floor.
The shocking light faded. Star Boy pushed himself upright and saw the Nem3 reduced to desiccated coal and ash. The huge monster collapsed upon itself, falling apart in great chunks.
“What…?” He looked past the demon to the elevators where a large, powerful man had emerged. His beard was thick and shot through with seams of gray, and his face was weathered by countless years exposed to the elements. On his brow sat a dauntless courage, while in his eyes dwelt a deep melancholy and resolve that spoke to a strength far outside anything Star Boy would ever know. His one hand was outstretched, having just unleashed his Assault, and his craggy brows were lowered in focus and confusion over what he’d just witnessed.
“Star Boy,” rasped James Kelly. “Did you try to punch that demon?”
“Well, yeah.” Star Boy climbed to his feet, heart racing, mind spinning. “I challenged it to a Mike Tyson knock-out kind of thing. You know.”
“Well holy shit.” James’s voice was soft. “That’s gotta be the craziest shit I’ve ever seen. You OK?”
Star Boy rubbed chunks of glass out of his palms. “A little scratched up. War wounds, you know how it is. Jesus Christ, James, it’s good to see you.”
James cocked his head at the sound of another roar coming from deeper in the hotel. “Looks like we’re not done here.”
“They came in the front, six of them,” said Star Boy. “Overwhelmed our defenses. It was a mad house.”
“Then let’s go.” James broke into a run, cutting across the lobby. Star Boy went to follow, but James had already disappeared down the hallway before he was halfway there. Star Boy ran faster, wanting to laugh, to sing, and caught sight of James entering the huge ballroom. He ran down the carpeted hallway, but the action was already over by the time he reached the doors.
The ballroom was a mess. A handful of operators had been on hand to defend the heart of Blue Light, but their resistance had been brief.
The number of dead was ghastly.
James had dispatched the three Nems almost instantaneously, and now was hitting the wounded with Sacred Strikes, healing them completely. “Star Boy. We need to get word out that the situation here is under control. Our teams in the field need guidance.”
“Guidance, under control, got it.” Star Boy bobbed his head and ran over to his station. His headphones, everything was just as he’d left it ten minutes ago. His gaze landed on Bruno’s face, his buddy that had been helping him code in new upgrades, and he flinched and looked away.
“I’m going to clear out the rest of the building,” James called out, silencing the babble of conversation. “You’re all safe now. If you can, support our people. The fight out there’s ugly and still ongoing.”
“Yes sir,” said one guy, then another, and soon everyone was streaming back to their stations.
“I’m going to find Hackworth and the rest of command,” said James. “Star Boy, you got this?”
Star Boy met James’s eyes. How the man had changed. Good god, it was like trying to hold the gaze of a primal, ancient warrior, a being more legend than reality. A dark aura of power hung about the man, and he seemed more than merely human.
He actually seemed up to the task at hand.
To fighting this god damned apocalypse.
“Yes, James,” said Star Boy, straightening and feeling a rush of pride over being singled out. “I got this.”
“Good. Hang in there, everybody.”
And with that James stepped back out into the hallway and was gone.
“Hot damn,” whispered Star Boy, sliding into his seat. “Hot fucking damn.”