Illustration by Rozida Shaikh
Quincy's last walk through the Academy halls was mottled with stumbling sidesteps, blood spurts, and cannon-fire kicks. The hallway twisted into a silvery red haze. It led out into the mid-afternoon rush of a full Academy evacuation. It was lost on Quincy that the rush was to get away from him.
"Get that thing off- blend," Crichton whispered as he and Quincy reached the frantic heat of the fleeing crowd. He tore his bandanna free and jammed it in his pocket, with all semblance of Blackstar the vigilante. Now Quincy was just another youth in flight.
"Where are we going?" his throat scratched, and almost emptied his stomach. He was hardly able to keep up with Crichton's fistful of his shirt.
"Probably the last place you want to be," Crichton said, "But it's the last place they'll chase you."
"Proceed to the nearest checkpoint at Path 50, 46, or 78," belted a nearby Rank. Crichton tore Quincy away from him, "Have your ID's... excuse me, sir!" Quincy's eyes shot down. He couldn't know. Maybe not about him, but Crichton had knocked the Prime Guardian from his feet on stage.
"Head towards Path 78. Cut into the forest at he road sign," Crichton murmured, "Take as many turns as possible- hey, put that thing away," Quincy hadn't realized his wet scarlet blade was still deployed, let alone that he was gripping it too hard to keep his hand still. His muscles unraveled from the weapon. It was a true challenge to press the button that collapsed the blade into the handle. By then, Crichton was gone.
Invisible to his companion only feet away, he drew a small metallic oval from his coat. In years undercover, this scenario was one of a thousand Crichton had prepared for. He flipped a tiny lever on the device with the grace of practice. Four wheels popped from its hidden hatches. After a button jab, the little car sped off through the scrambling shoes of the crowd. A barrel popped straight up from its top, and emptied a magazine of blank rounds.
Quincy had been disoriented before the imaginary gunfire scramble. Now he lurched, ducked, and hopped through tides of people shoving for their lives.
"Remain calm!" a Rank screamed, "They're blanks!" Quincy shot from the fringe of the crowd to the forest. He caught flashes of Ranks armed with rifles and scanners at the Path 78 checkpoint, through the trees. Several students had already been torn from their parents for a secondary inspection.
"Quincy!" Crichton's voice bounced through the trees. He crouched by a service hatch. From his bottomless coat, Crichton drew a steel cylinder just bigger than his hand. He fitted its hollow cap over the bolt of the hatch and gave it a stern tap. Quincy flinched away when the little device thundered louder than a gun. The service hatch bolt shot from its hinge in a puff of gunpowder smog. It stuck in a nearby tree. "Help me with the hatch. They'll be here in a second." Crichton broke Quincy from his trance by tossing the gun-stick his way. He snatched it automatically, and lurched back to life. Crichton hardly needed help with the hatch.
"Lay down on the ground with your hands over your head!" a voice boomed down into the service walks as they dropped in. Crichton and Quincy clanked through the glass-and-steel catwalk, until a chaos of boots rained down behind them. The lock popped on the service hatch in front of them. Quincy nearly collided with Crichton's back when his heels squealed to a stop.
"Desist now!" a Bolt Ranger echoed down.
"Get in front of me," said Crichton. Quincy shoved past him as light beamed through the hatch overhead. "Closer- uncomfortably close," said Crichton,
Crichton shrugged off his coat to show an almost paper-thin backpack. It's straps wrapped his shoulders, waist, and chest. He pulled Quincy's shoulders to his chest. Clasps snagged Quincy and bound him tight to his guide. A collection of Ranks and Bolt Rangers poured through the light, ahead and behind. From a holster on his belt, Crichton slung an adhesive whipcord that arced across the floor, wall, and ceiling. Everywhere it touched, it stuck.
"Comfortable?" Crichton said.
"Good." Crichton pulled a pin on his belt, and the next Quincy knew, he was falling.
Whatever was in that cord hardly made a pop, but it was enough focused force to shatter the seams of the service walks. Quincy watched his would-be captors rise away amidst falling sheets of steel and glass. Below, a canopy of knotted branches grew like a stain in Quincy's wide eyes. They plunged like lead through water, until Crichton yanked another cord on his pack. The kick of their harness knocked Quincy's wind right out, when their parachute deployed. For about three seconds, he gazed down at the Nether Layer, the crust of his planet, with all the wonder it deserved. The haze in the air made it hard to see the grey flatness- the uncloaked walls of the Tower. Then the first Ranger ripped past them.
"Lean where I lean!" Crichton screamed. Bodies on wings of steel sliced around them like bullets. How Crichton knew where to steer, Quincy couldn't guess, only follow. He swung his feet and jerked his shoulders, until the tension around him suddenly released. Their chute folded around a Ranger who'd finally hit the mark.
He, Crichton, and their pursuer spun into a wild, flapping free-fall. The Ranger closed the gap between them by rolling down their parachute cords like a spool. Quincy rifled through his pockets. He fumbled with the cylinder for a second, jabbed it to the Ranger's chest, hoped it was facing the right direction, and fired. The gun-stick blast flung their would-be captor to the wind. Quincy's eyes refocused on the jungle canopy rising to swallow him.
Crichton deployed their backup chute just in time to reduce matters from certain death to certain injury.
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