Monday, September 23, 2013
November 21, part 2
The announcement that the medical building was on fire brought screams from several Earthers. Dad held his hands up and bellowed for quiet.
“Panicking will get us all killed. You and you—” he pointed to a couple of the orderlies “—stay right here and keep an eye on the patients. Everyone else who is able, fan out and see if you can find another way out of here.”
We did just that, some people sobbing in fear. The storage room had only one obvious entrance, the locked door. I found a vent an infant might have been able to wriggle through, but nothing else. Frightened cries announced that no one else was coming up with an escape either.
“I think I see a panel of some kind in the ceiling,” a deep voice called. Like terrified lemmings, we rushed towards the voice. It came from the area filled with shelves.
One of the orderlies and a doctor stood among the shelves looking up. We crowded around the metal floor-to-ceiling unit they stood in front of. After confirming the rack of shelves was bolted down, the Kalquorian doctor climbed it, trying to reach the metal panel overhead. It looked pretty small. It was definitely too tiny for someone Kalquorian-size. I knew just from looking that Dad’s bulk would never, ever get through.
The other doctor got up there and pulled on a manual handle on the panel. It swung down easily, revealing a dark hole. He could fit his head inside, but not his wide shoulders. He stuck his head in and had a look.
He ducked down again after a few seconds. “It’s got an extremely low ceiling, but otherwise it’s a wide open space. I saw some light coming in from a far wall, so it’s possible there’s a way out for you smaller Earthers.”
Hands closed over my shoulders and I twisted my head around to see Weln standing behind me. “Let’s send them up then,” he said. “They can go for help, maybe call the fire and rescue crews here.”
Dad stepped up beside us. “I think it’s our best chance.” He smiled down at me. “Ready to be brave, my daughter?”
“But – but—” I stuttered. I didn’t want to leave him and Weln and my mother behind.
“That’s a girl,” Weln said, lifting me up and shoving me so I was forced to start climbing the shelves. “Get out as fast as you can and find help.”
“Fuck,” I muttered. Pushy Kalquorians. But I climbed with Weln coming up beneath me. He made sure I didn’t fall.
When I reached the doctor at the top, I paused to have a look around. Candy was now coming up, along with another couple of smaller women. Kalquorians were also climbing, clinging to the shelves as they kept hold of those trying to reach the dubious safety of the overhead space. Faces stared up at me from those who still stood on the floor, their eyes wide and frightened.
I glanced at the locked door, and terror knifed through my guts. Thin tendrils of wispy smoke were wafting in through the seams. The place really was on fire. If I didn’t move my ass, people were going to die.
“Take care of Mom,” I whispered to Weln and gave him a quick kiss before accepting the hand of the doctor at the top of the shelves.
“I will,” I heard him say.
The other Kalquorian helped to boost me towards the open square. I lifted my arms, grabbing onto the ledge and scrabbled my way into what at first looked like pitch black. I wondered how the hell I was supposed to find my way out of there when I couldn’t see shit, but the most pressing matter at hand was to get up there in the first place.
My hips scraped the edges of the opening, and I got stuck for a moment. A big hand shoved up against my ass, forcing me through. I decided I wasn’t going to take the manhandling personally since the guy was trying to save my life.
I looked around, my eyes starting to adjust. A little light was beaming in from a square in the wall several yards away. I could make out that the space between ceiling and roof was barely high enough for me to crawl. Damn, it was tight in there.
I heard grunting and swearing behind me, and Candy’s head and shoulders shoved through the opening I’d just come in from. Her butt got stuck too, and she squealed when the pushing hands beneath her popped her through.
“This way,” I called. Without waiting, I made for the square of light.
“Damn, this isn’t an attic,” Candy complained. “It’s barely a crawl space. I can’t see. I can’t hardly move. What kind of stupid idiot makes a space so small and worthless?”
“Come on,” I said, crawling as fast as I could go. I smacked my head against the ceiling and spewed expletives. It hurt like hell, but I kept going.
I heard more voices rising behind me, but I noted how the surface beneath my hands was warming as I neared the far wall. I could also smell smoke. I thought the fire might be right beneath, and it scared me. We didn’t have much time to get out. “Hurry!” I yelled back at the others.
I got to the bit of light and discovered it was an access point to the outside. The cover had fallen off of it at some point, perhaps in a storm. The hatch was lying on the floor next to the opening, its remaining hinge twisted. Thank you Mother Nature, for knocking the hell out of this building at some time in the past.
I poked my head out. The ground was several feet away, making me feel almost dizzyingly high despite this being only a one-floor building. Worse still, there were windows below on either side. Their glass panes had burst out, and black smoke boiled through the openings. I recognized I was on one side of the big building.
“We’ve got to move!” I yelled at the others who had escaped the storage room. “This place is going up!”
And Mom, Dad, and Weln are still in there, along with dozens of others, my mind whispered.
I didn’t think anymore at that point. In a sudden fit of desperate hurry, I crouched at the edge of the window and jumped.
I didn’t land so well. My ankle rolled beneath me, sending out a flare of pain. I yelped, but there was no time to nurse the injury. The crackle of fire was loud in my ears.
“Holy shit!” Candy said from overhead. Her eyes were huge when I looked up at her.
“I’m going for help,” I yelled. “You and the rest get out of there!”
Without waiting for an answer, I ran towards the front. As soon as I turned the corner, I ran into a wall of heat so intense I screamed from burning pain. I thought my hair might ignite and I stumbled back. My face felt hot, as if sunburned, but there was no time to worry about such stupid stuff.
Running in a wide arc, I made it out far enough that I could see the front of the Medical building. The side I’d escaped from was an absolute inferno. Damn it, the place was going up fast. I wondered if the facility’s fire retardant system had been disabled.
I turned, hoping to find help of some sort on its way. The blaze roared behind me, but I heard a constant barrage of blaster fire not too far away. The occasional explosion shook the ground. There would be no help where fighting was going on.
The Academy’s firefighting facility, with shuttles filled with flame retardant and men who could battle the conflagration at my back, was half a mile away. Help could be here in seconds if they knew to come and had personnel not fighting the attackers. But as fast as the fire was spreading in Medical, I didn’t think I could get to them in time to save Mom and the others.
“Shalia!” Candy ran up to me, her face smudged, tears rolling down her face. Four other women who had been locked up with us were right behind her. “What do we do?”
I stared at Medical. The front entrance was still clear of fire, though I could see plenty of smoke through the glass doors. The storage room was on the right side of the building, away from the main part of the blaze still. A desperate idea occurred to me.
“Run to the fire facility!” I yelled to be heard over the fire’s bellow and another earth-rocking explosion. “Get help over here right away!”
“What about you?” Candy yelled back.
“I’ve got an idea. Don’t stand there talking to me, go!” I gave her a push.
Miracle of miracles, she took off running, screaming for help as she went. The other women went with her, screaming as well. Hell, I wanted to scream too, but I was going to need all the air I could keep in my lungs.
I ran for Medical, hoping I wouldn’t be too late. The automatic doors opened for me, sending a burst of heat against my body, but it wasn’t the same blast I’d felt at the corner of the building. The fire was coming this way, but it hadn’t gotten that close yet.
I started hacking from the smoke right off the bat, but I’d figured on that. Fortunately, there was a ladies room in the hallway leading to the storage room. I ran into a patient’s room, snatched the pillowcase off the pillow, and raced into the restroom. Feeling every second flying by, I wet the pillowcase and tied it around my mouth and nose.
Then I went back out into the hall. I thought I could hear the roar of the fire approaching, but I didn’t look in that direction. Instead, I ran as fast as I could for the storage room I’d quit so recently, my eyes stinging from the haze of smoke that surrounded me.
The sight waiting for me made my knees almost give out. Next to the door was a service conduit. I knew it held all the electronics that powered the opening and locking mechanism. The thing had been savaged. Chopped up, in fact, like someone had gone at it with a meat cleaver. It was inoperable. Matt and his asshole friends had been damned determined no one would escape the room alive.
I wasn’t going to get in there without something to tear out the door itself. Since I’d spent more than my fair share of time in the building, I knew about the fire emergency kit near the main entrance. Hell, I would have run right past it on my way to rescue Mom and the rest. I wheeled around and ran back the way I’d come.
The smoke was definitely getting thicker, and I didn’t see that the glass case that held a fire extinguisher and axe had been broken into until I was right on it. The axe and fire extinguisher were both gone, and the hose had been hacked away from the old system that probably didn’t work anymore anyway. It occurred to me that the axe was probably what the shitheads had used on the storeroom door’s mechanism. I bet they kept it too.
There was another kit closer to the room Mom had been kept in, but that was on the other side of the building where the fire was currently raging. The smoke from that direction was black and boiling and thick. I knew the area was probably already engulfed with flames, but damn it, Mom, Dad, and Weln, along with a lot of other people were going to die. So I went in.
I had to walk with my hand sliding along the wall because I couldn’t see. Pretty soon I was crouching lower, trying to get under the worst of the smoke. It got hotter with every step, and I started coughing in earnest. The air hitting my lungs wasn’t only thick, it seared my throat. My eyes ran constantly, and I finally shut them. I couldn’t see anyway.
I counted off doorways as I passed them, remembering Mom’s room was the sixth one in, and the panel with the building’s second axe was one door beyond that. I could hear crackling flames along with the deeper roar of the inferno as I went along. I expected to walk into a wall of fire at any moment. I hacked and choked on the acrid air.
Door six. Mom’s room. One more to go. Sweat from the heat of the fire poured off me. It was stifling, and I couldn’t really breathe anymore. I had the crazy urge to just lay down and give up. My head buzzed and ached. I wasn’t going to make it.
Door seven. Almost there. I searched the wall with my hands, feeling how hot the surface was. The wall was lumpy, as if it was blistering from the heat. I scrabbled frantically over it, desperate to find the glass panel. My skin felt scorched, and I imagined the flames were all around me now, licking at my flesh as I moved down the wall. I choked on fumes and felt ready to collapse at any moment.
I came to the next door. I froze, horror filling me. There was no emergency fire kit. I must have miscounted the doors. I’d fucked up and now I was going to die, taking my mother and other loved ones with me.
I sank to the floor. This was it. Despair was a black cloud that took the last of my strength away. I’d failed utterly. My only consolation was that it was for the last time.
Something crashed. It was probably part of the building falling down. At any rate, it startled me. With that sudden flash of fear, adrenaline hit. The stubborn part of me shouted, Find another way to help the others!
I struggled to my feet and began feeling my way back along the hallway. The wall was definitely buckling. I could feel the bulges beneath my palm as I stumbled forward. And then there was smoothness, a section of wall that felt like glass...
The fire kit. I’d found the fucking panel that I’d somehow missed before.
I felt along desperately for the opening latch, my eyes slitting open in an effort to see. Nothing greeted my gaze but black. The pain from the smoke was tremendous, so I was forced to remain blind as I searched for access.
I found the indentation and seized it, yanking the panel door open. An instant later, I had the axe handle in my hands. I wrenched it free.
It was heavy, and my strength failed. My knees buckled, and I felt the world around me tilt. I was on the verge of passing out, the lack of oxygen having its way with me.
Damn you Shalia, no! I thought, forcing myself to get moving again. I’d finally gotten the means to save those who meant the most to me, and I wasn’t going weak sister now.
The next minutes – or maybe they were only seconds – felt like hours. It was a nightmare of darkness and the taste of smoke filling my nose and mouth. There were long, hellish moments in which I thought I had somehow gotten turned around, that I was heading into fire instead of escaping it. The roar of the fire beat on my ears until I wanted to scream. My chest burned and strained with the lack of air and constant intake of smoke.
At last, the wall I used to guide me along disappeared. I chanced opening my eyes again, and I was in the foyer of the building once more. The smoke was dense here too, but I could make out the shapes of the main desk and some of the chairs. Heavily filtered light came from one side, which meant that was where the glass doors were.
Coughing so hard I nearly threw up, I lurched across the expanse into the next hallway. The smoke continued to thin as I made myself hurry, and it was with incredible relief that I saw the door to the storage room. I’d made it.
I thought about calling to those trapped within, but I had so little strength. I couldn’t get any air into my lungs, which felt like balls of fire within my chest. I needed all I had left to chop into the door.
I hefted the axe to one shoulder, bracing my legs wide since it felt like they wouldn’t hold me up much longer. I didn’t even try to aim. I just swung as best I could. The axe hit the door, throwing a few splinters around.
I have to take a moment to thank God or fate or whoever was looking down on me that day. The Academy has a mix of older and newer buildings. The newer ones all have metal doors. In other words, they’re impossible to go chopping through like a half-assed Paul Bunyan. Medical was an older building, one that had laminate wood hollow-core doors. In other words, two panels no thicker than plywood with air in between. So as weak as I was, barely managing to stay on my feet, I was still able to cut a hole through the thing with only a few chops.
Then I just couldn’t do anymore. The smoke was getting thick again. My fingers were going numb, and the buzzing in my head was so loud I couldn’t hear anything else. My sight had narrowed to a pinpoint. I knew I was done.
I staggered up to the door. With the very last of my strength, I shoved the axe’s handle through the hole I’d made. They’d have to finish the rescue by doing it themselves. The last thing I remember was the sensation of falling and trying to say, “Timber.”
The next moment I can bring to memory was making the desperate attempt to cough up a lung or two. My chest was in agony. Breathing was the most incredibly hard thing to do, though air was being blown right down my mouth. As I hacked away, the person giving me mouth-to-mouth moved back. It was Dad, and he was bawling his eyes out. Weln was right next to him, crouched over me with tears tracking down his cheeks.
“Stay with us, my daughter,” Dad begged.
I couldn’t respond with all my choking efforts to get oxygen. I did understand that they had gotten out. We were outside, though with the two men crowded over me, I couldn’t have told you exactly where I ended up. I also couldn’t hear if the fighting was still going on. All I could hear was me, coughing and wheezing desperately.
They were safe. I hoped that meant Mom was safe too.
Weln looked up, taking his eyes off me. “The emergency shuttle is here.”
“Go,” ordered Dad. “Get the oxygen and anything that will help her.”
Weln disappeared, but the world was going dark for me again. I heard Dad call my name from far away, but I couldn’t answer him. That was the last I knew of anything for a long time.