* THUD *
A dull tremor gently shook the floor, halfway stirring Hal out of his slumber. He lay in that murky miasma of half-sleep: barely even aware that he was no longer unconscious. It was almost impossible to wake any further on his own, and he lacked the willpower or energy to open his eyes.
“Hal.” He felt Miri's hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake. “Did you hear that?”
“Mmmm?” He rolled over, slowly forcing his eyelids to open. The room was dark and blurry to him, but Miri soon reached over to shake a glo-orb, and the needle of new light poked sharp pain into his skull. Hal winced, hoping his eyes would adjust quickly.
The room was well sound-proofed by design, so Hal couldn't hear very much of what was going on outside. He thought he heard the muffled sounds of commotion, like a violent argument was happening down on the floor down below.
* CLACK – CLACK – CLACK *
The distinct sound of springer fire pierced through the heavy walls, sending a jolt of adrenaline into Hal's heart. They were under attack.
“Oh shit!” Hal rolled over and instinctively reached at the nightstand, grabbing for his pistol. His talons found nothing but empty air and polished wood, coming up entirely empty. The gun was nowhere in easy reach. It still lay among the pile of his bloody clothes that sat in a heap on the floor of the bathroom.
“Miri! The gun!” Hal was slow to move, half-tangled in the sheets of the bed, but Miri was faster. She rolled out onto her feet and started running for the bathroom door. She only made it two steps before the door to their suite exploded inward, blasting free of its hinges and slamming into the far wall. Miri screamed and fell to the ground, covering her face from the shower of timbers that blew just past her head.
There, standing in the doorway, was the last person Hal wanted to see. Marcus' eyes were alight with raw fury, and a swarm of his cronies filled in behind him as he strode into the room, violence giving speed to every step. The business end of mixed springer rifles and pistols trained onto Hal's chest, pinning him in place at the edge of the bed.
“HAL!” Marcus' face was twisted into the darkest hate filled scowl Hal had ever seen. In one hand he clenched the shaft of his cane with a white-knuckled grip. In the other, he held a compact, easily-concealable pistol. “I knew you would go crawling back to Jonny and the rest of these assholes! Did you really think you could get away after what you've DONE!?” In a burst of telekinetic rage, the fragments of the door scattered outwards to slam against every wall.
Despite the armed intruders, Miri scrambled to her feet and tried to run for the bathroom. One of the cronies grabbed her, yanking her back and holding her rudely in place. “Let go of me you bastard!” She didn't stop struggling despite being outnumbered and overpowered. For a moment, she actually squirmed free, elbowing her captor firmly in the face and spinning away. She started to reach for a weapon, but a swift strike of a rifle butt to the base of her skull knocked her out cold just as quickly as her struggle had begun. Two of Marcus' henchmen held her limp body up, preventing her from collapsing on the ground.
Marcus growled, pointing his gun at Hal as he walked closer. “Do you have any idea what you've done to me!?” Tears rolled down Marcus' cheeks, and he thrust the barrel of his gun at Hal's skull. “DO YOU HAVE ANY FUCKING IDEA WHAT YOU'VE DONE!?”
Hal's tail lashed out, biting Marcus in the forearm. “Gah!” His own tails flailed in response, slashing at Hal, slicing into his skin with their sharp bloodletting edges. The hilt of the pistol was quick to follow after, striking Hal in the temple and shooting a sharp flash of pain through his brain.
Hal tried to move out of bed and stand on his feet, but Marcus' fury was too relentless to withstand. The pistol slammed down against his face again, and then again, and again, smashing teeth, cutting scales and pulverizing cells into a pulpy ruptured mass. Marcus only relented when Hal collapsed helplessly onto the floor, coughing out crimson saliva with wheezed and labored breaths. Hal felt the barrel of the gun press against one swollen and blinded eye.
“It wasn't supposed to end like this, Hal! We could have been brothers again! We could have changed the world together! But now....” Marcus half-sobbed between furious breaths. “Now that's all over, you god damn bastard of a brother!”
With a surprisingly strong grip, Marcus grabbed Hal by the throat and dragged him back upright, pinning him against the wall. “I should kill you for what you've done. But a man like you doesn't deserve that mercy.”
“Marcus...” Hal coughed, barely managing to utter the word. A sharp punch to the gut halted his protests, causing him to wretch violently.
“I don't care what you have to say Hal. You don't matter to me anymore. You don't matter at all.” Marcus' face was inches from his, breathing toxic clouds of hatred into the air between them. “I'm going to make you understand the new pain you've given me.” With his good eye, Hal looked past Marcus and saw Miri hanging naked and limp in the arms of her new captors. “You like learning new things right? Let me teach you what it feels like to forever lose the person you love.”
Marcus released Hal and took two steps back, letting him collapse onto the floor. He looked back at Miri, then back at Hal. “Mmmm, she is beautiful, isn't she?” A twisted smile crossed Marcus' lips. “My boys are about to go into battle against our oppressors soon. What better way to reward them than to give them the uninterrupted company of a beautiful young woman. I'm sure they'll enjoy her just as much as you did.”
Hal fought mightily to push himself upright, but barely had the energy to succeed at the task. “Marcus... don't...” His protests were far to feeble to even reach across the room.
“Look on the bright side, Hal.” Marcus smiled a pained and tragic smile. “I'm not going to kill you. I'm going to let you live on. You'll have the rest of your life to live in our new world... as a miserable little cripple, alone, abandoned by the people you once loved.” The smile disappeared. “It's the only fate you deserve.”
Marcus trained his gun on Hal. “But... just because I won't kill you doesn't mean I won't shoot you. After all, I can't have any last minute heroics spoiling our moment of glory.” Hal didn't have time to move or to protest before Marcus pulled the trigger. The bullet whizzed through the air in a millisecond, striking Hal in the thigh with a bloody, meaty, *thwack*.
Hal screamed, rolling over onto his side and clutching at his wound. It bled freely, bubbling thin rivulets between the fingers that attempted to hold the tide at bay. Marcus and his companions ran out of the room without another word, leaving Hal to scream and bleed deep into the carpet.
“Fuck!” Hal cursed out loud, blinking away the tears of pain that blurred the vision of his remaining good eye. He pulled himself up, half onto his feet, and pushed forward towards the door. He made it one step before his doubly-injured leg gave way beneath him, dumping him back down into a graceless heap. Hal barked another curse and crossed the remaining distance in an awkward crawl, pulling himself forward onto the top of the lobby staircase.
Through the posts of the railing he saw Marcus and company had already reached the base of the stairs, and they were about to reach the double doors of the front entrance. Miri was slung loosely over one cronie's shoulder, completely unconscious. One of the accomplices fired a few rounds blindly into the central chandelier, causing those scattered patrons brave enough to watch to duck their heads back down. The dark nighttime wind blew cold air in through the shattered front door.
“Attack!!!” Jonny's voice echoed in pursuit of the intruders, and he erupted from the back hallway with Marvin and Geno, each one of them holding a military grade springer rifle. They surged forward and fanned out, opening fire on Marcus' entourage. A quick flurry of bullets and shouts were traded between the two sides, but one of the cultists quickly activated his power, erecting a shimmering translucent shield of energy to stop the bullets launched their way. The shield bearer stood firm while the rest of his compatriots conducted an orderly retreat back through the entrance.
“Fuck you, Jonny!” Marcus offered a parting shot of words. “I always knew you'd never move up in the world!”
“And I always knew you were a special kind of asshole Marcus! Thanks for messing up my shit for no good reason!” Jonny fired a few more impotent shots into the energy shield that flashed brilliantly with each impact.
“Hmph.” Marcus merely grunted and sneered in response, walking back out the door and out of sight. The last remaining Celestial reached into his pocket and produced a glass orb filled with blue liquid. He lobbed it into the center of the room and ran back out the door.
“Sparker!” Jonny shouted out loud and ducked back behind cover, just in time to escape the blast. The grenade exploded in a brilliant blue-white flash of light and sound, sending a concussive, dazing blast through the entire lobby. Even at the top of the stairs, Hal was not fully protected, and he felt the pressure wave pass through his body. It scrambled all of his atoms in a split second, stirring and then rearranging them into a loose facsimile of their original state.
Perhaps it was because of the sparker, but the entire building seemed to fall completely silent. Hal blinked, barely able to move, as he watched muted, delayed fragments of chandelier fall down onto the floor below.
One by one, like reluctant lemmings, Jonny, Marvin, and Geno poked their heads back out of cover. They were followed by other patrons and employees, and even Cassi emerged from the back office where she had been hunkering down. Everyone seemed to look lost, as if they were unsure of what they were supposed to do next. It was a good dozen heartbeats before Jonny looked up and spotted Hal lying helplessly on the ledge above. “Hal!” The word echoed faintly though overloaded eardrums, barely acknowledged.
Hal tried to pull himself up along the railing to get back onto his feet, but was having difficulty with the task. Jonny and Marvin rushed up to meet him, and were quick to grab and steady his balance before he tipped too far over the railing. “He's shot, boss.” Marvin rumbled in his usual stoic tones, prompting another cry of alarm from Jonny. “Holy shit, Hal! You're bleeding all over the place. Come on. We gotta staunch that before you pass out.”
Marvin's engulfing grasp was strong enough to lift Hal clean off his feet. He cried out in pain at the sudden movement, but soon enough he was being whisked down the stairs in the arms of his acquaintance. He was gently deposited down onto the narrow counter of the lobby, where Cassi normally welcomed new visitors and arranged their accommodations. Hal could barely fight to stay conscious though it all. The electric fire of pain stretched up through his leg, and down from his face, converging in the center of his being. Adrenaline and endorphin were all that kept his heart beating.
“Hang tough, Hal. You ain't dyin' on me now, of all times.” Jonny's voice offered encouragement from behind and out of sight, as he retrieved a medical kit from underneath the counter. “You're lucky your brother uses a pea shooter. If that had been a trooper round, it would have broken your whole damn leg.”
Hal cried in pain once again as Cassi applied pressure to his leg with a fresh pad of gauze. The white fabric quickly seeped through, flooding into a deep, soggy red. She didn't seem all that encouraged by the results.
Hal half screamed, half sobbed at the ceiling. Why was this happening to him? How could one forsaken night go from the worst one of his life, to the best one of his life, back to the worst again so quickly? “Damn it, Hal, stop squirming!” Jonny held him still with an unusually firm grip, giving Cassi a bit more space to work. The loop of a tourniquet started to constrict around his thigh, its pressure seeming to build like that of the night. Hal wasn't sure if it was tears or blood that was flowing freely from his eyes, chilling his face and drying in a small pool next to his skull. Whether it was his body or his heart, something inside Hal felt like it was about to give out.
Cassi worked quickly, fighting against the tide with practiced fingers and a strong touch. Somehow it seemed like this wasn't the first gunshot wound she'd dressed.
Hal had no more words left in him. To utter one would break the fragile wall of the dam that kept him on the high side of consciousness. With his one working eye, Hal glanced around the room, blinking through his tears. Everyone was watching him. Not just Cassi and Jonny.
More faces he didn't recognize.
Here in the quiet eye of the storm, the reluctant glances of employees and customers also watched on in silence. They were too scared to leave, but not brave enough to return to hiding, and instead remained trapped here in the lobby, looking on as the owners of this sanctuary treated him: a naked, broken, and bleeding man. The cold air of the night continued to blow in through the broken front door, wrapping around Hal's body like a thin blanket. It wouldn't be hard to just close his eyes and surrender. Let the night finish on its own without him. He had already given it so much. How could he possibly give it any more?
Cassi finished wrapping his thigh, pulling the bandages tight with a strained sigh. Only after taking a breath and looking him over did she realize his glance. Their eyes made contact for only a second, and Hal saw her expression soften a bit. He couldn't bear to hold it, and looked away, blinking salt from his eye.
Her hand reached out to rest on his head. When she spoke, her voice was matronly and calm, despite the violence scattered about them. “Hey, sugar. You're going to be just fine.”
Hal didn't acknowledge her. Lying exposed on the counter, surrounded by friends and strangers alike, one emotion seemed to swell the most within his heart. It wasn't fear, and it wasn't anger.
It was shame.
Such an overwhelming feeling drowned out even the pain that consumed his body. Hal couldn't remember the last time he felt like this. Never before had failures hollowed him so deeply than those of tonight. He wasn't able to save his family. He wasn't able to save his brother. He wasn't able to save the woman he truly loved. They were all gone, whisked away like a gentle sound carried by a strong wind.
“Awww, hun.” Cassi seemed to understand his emotions through her touch. “You don't need to be ashamed.” He angled his eye back towards her face, and Cassi gave him an honest laugh and a smile. “Do you really think you're the first man I've found naked in this lobby? Trust me. You won't be the last one either.”
Jonny seemed to notice that things hadn't quite reached their proper conclusion, and looked around the room. “Why the hell ain't the cops here yet?” He started barking at Marvin and Geno, who must have been waiting somewhere just out of Hal's vision. “Don't just stand there, guys! Hide those weapons and get downstairs cleaned out! Do you wanna end up in jail for a night or ten years?”
Hal heard them scurry into action, moving further out of sight without complaint. Jonny looked back down at Hal, offering a forced smile. “You doin' ok, champ? It looks like Cassi was able to get the bleeding under control. We have plenty of time to get you to the hospital, now.”
Hal levered himself upright with Jonny's help. With a grimace he angled his feet over the floor, taking a deep breath to brace himself for the second flood of pain that was sure to come.
“You able to walk?”
“It's alright. I gotcha.”
Hal shook his head, fending off Jonny's attempt to help him stand. “No.”
Jonny gave him a look of pure incomprehension, totally confused as to why he was being shrugged aside. Hal inhaled a deep breath and looked out at the front door to the empty streets beyond. The night seemed to beckon for him with the atonal siren song of hinges swaying in the wind. The evening was not yet concluded, and even now it was not going to give way to morning so easily.
Neither was Hal.
“I'm not going to the hospital.”
Jonny gave Hal a look like he was insane. “For fuck's sake Hal. Do you even know what you look like right now?” The voice was quiet, low, and grim in its tone. “You need a blood transfusion and about a hundred stitches.” The dark pool of blood waiting mere inches below Hal's feet offered silent agreement. “You're in no condition to even host a god damn tea party, let alone fight.”
Hal acted as if he didn't hear Jonny's protests. “I need help getting my clothes back on.”
“Hal. Just think about what you're doing for a second. You're not gonna-” The words were halted by Hal's silent, serious stare.
“Jonny.” Hal grabbed his shoulder with one free hand. “If you're truly my friend, you won't stop me. Please... just let me go.”
Something in Jonny's face changed. Behind the mask of bravado, Hal could see something softer in his eyes. Was it empathy? Sadness? Or just the sobering realization of truth, laid bare?
Jonny blinked and exhaled a deep long breath, gently clapping Hal on the back. “Alright, Hal. Alright.” He nodded, as if convincing himself that it was the right call. He forced a sparkle back into the slim smirk that followed. “But after tonight, you're a big boy. So I won't be helping you with your underwear anymore.”
Hal grunted a pained laugh. “Duly noted.”
It was such a simple task: clothing oneself. Hal had done it countless times across countless days of countless years. And yet now it was the hardest possible action he had ever asked of himself. Moving his leg took every ounce of willpower in every fiber of his being. Hal had to fight hard to stop from howling out in pain at each touch, each twitch, each brush of cloth against skin.
Jonny and Cassi both helped him dress, neither one willing to offer any more words. Slowly, Hal armored himself with the clothing of the streets, like a broken old knight, readying for one last joust. Cracked leather, stained fabric and dried blood. These were his protectors now. If only the morning could ever come when Hal wouldn't need them anymore. He had wanted to be rid of them for so long now.
Hal slipped his arm through the last sleeve on his jacket and felt the leather groan a little as it settled along his back. The familiar feeling felt so alien in its starkness. Would it be able to keep him protected anymore, now that everyone had seen his soul exposed? Maybe it didn't matter. Maybe it wasn't supposed to be hidden. Maybe...
Hal chuckled to himself, shaking his head. Maybe this really was his destiny. Maybe Miri had been right about him, all along.
Jonny dusted off Hal's shoulders, holding him at arms length to give him a look over. “Alright Hal. All dressed in Sunday best. Just like old times.” He looked over Hal's pistol, making sure it was still in working order. “Since apparently I can't stop you, do you mind telling me the game plan?” The pistol was offered to Hal, grip first.
Hal closed his fingers around the handle, letting the weight settle into his palm. “I can't say I've thought that far ahead.”
“Huh. And people say I'm the reckless one.”
“I learned from the best.” Hal took a deep breath and slowly slid himself down off of the ledge onto his feet. That lungful of air was quick to get exhaled again in a sharp, pained hiss. Jonny allowed Hal to wrap one arm around him as he settled in to help support his weight. “Marcus is going back to his church. He'll probably have some stupid ceremony and dramatic speech while he's at it. I guess all I need to do is get over there somehow.”
“The telepads are closed, but that ain't ever stopped me before. Think you can walk a couple blocks?”
“That depends.” Hal winced, adjusting his weight. “Have you been working out?”
Cassi and Jonny both laughed a bit at that one. “If you still have the energy to be a smartass, I'm sure you'll be fine.” The two of them started to limp for the door, but Cassi halted them for just one more moment.
“Hey, sugar.” Cassi pulled his tail close for a soft hug. “You take care of yourself, ok?”
“I've never been very good at that, Cassi.”
“I know.” She nodded, and gave his tail a kiss on the head. “But it's never too late to learn. Just do be careful, ok?”
“I will.” Hal offered a slim smile. “Thanks Cassi.”
She took a step back, clearing the way once again. “Get along now. Go do your thrillin' heroics before I change my mind and stop you.”
And just like that, the goodbyes were over. Jonny dragged Hal out into the streets, marching him forward with each shuffling, lurching step. The telepad wasn't very far from the brothel, but it might has well been miles away for how difficult it was for Hal to move. Still, they never stopped walking, and Jonny kept him supported every step of the way.
“I've been thinking a lot, and I have a confession to make.”
“Oh yeah? What's that?” Jonny glanced over with a curious half-smile.
“You know the number one rule?” Jonny nodded. “Well... I think I'm pretty bad at it.”
Jonny laughed, the sound echoing deep and hearty off of the walls of nearby buildings. “Hal. Sometimes you just don't know how smart you are.” The zebra smiled wistfully, tightening his grip on Hal as they marched along. “If it makes you feel any better, Hal, just remember.” The smile widened into a golden grin. “Rules are meant to be broken.”
They both laughed at that one, and it helped to take the edge off. Truth be told, Hal's heart was beating a mile a minute, and by this point 'running on fumes' was an overstatement. Exactly what he was running into, Hal had no idea, but here he was, running all the same.
Soon they reached the telepad plaza, finding it entirely abandoned. The lights were on but not a soul was around to be seen. Normally there would at least be a security guard or two loitering around to keep the riff-raff at bay. A section of low fencing around the pad was toppled over, and the door to the control vestibule was left open to sway and clatter in the wind.
“Well, this certainly isn't foreboding at all.” Jonny quipped, frowning at the scene. “You sure you don't wanna just take a breather? Let the troopers sort everything out?”
Hal shook his head, even though Jonny already knew what the answer was going to be. “I can't just make a mess for others to clean up. One way or another, I'm going to see this through. I've spent an awful lot of time running, and I think I'm ready to finally stop and stand on my own two feet.”
“Oh, well, in that case...” Jonny released Hal and stepped to the side, leaving the raptor to support his own weight entirely on his own.
“Ah, fuck!” He grimaced and struggled to keep his balance without any extra support. “You're very funny.”
“Bad metaphors hurt, don't they?” Jonny laughed and made his way to the control room. “Stop being all profound and just get on the damn pad already. It's nearly four in the morning. See earlier comment marked 'this shit', comma, 'getting too old for'.”
“Prick.” Hal half laughed, half grunted in reply, limping his way past the gap in the fence to take his place at the center of the telepad. It felt so large and empty without a crowd of people crammed in alongside him. The cold wind stung his eyes, causing him to blink a bit to fend it off. From the booth ahead, Jonny made a sour face. “Hal, I think your brother and his merry men came through here recently.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, for one, there's a dead guy in here who looks like he was killed by some supernatural face melting laser beam. That, and there ain't any cops swarming the area. Some crazy shit is definitely going down. City central is going to have a field day when they get the coffee pot goin' in the morning.”
Hal frowned. “Do you know how to work that thing?”
“Hal.” Jonny looked over through the window, shouting a bit to make sure he was heard. “Haven't you learned by now that I know how to do everything?”
Hal smiled and nodded, fighting off the lightning arcs of pain that danced through his body. He couldn't hold back any longer. Even though all he had was a pair of threes, it was time to go all in. With a relieved sigh, Hal activated his power, and let the clamor of the world wash over him. The pain in his body bled away, replaced only with a tingling energy and the subtle bass of his own heartbeat.
Hal inhaled deeply and looked up at the clear night sky. Showering down on him was a silent display of brilliant light and nameless hues. The stars were still there, like they always had been, just waiting for him to look up. It was a sight he had almost forgotten in the past few weeks, but the heavens waited patiently for him. In the end, those colors had never left his sky.
An almost imperceptible glow from beneath the horizon heralded the day that would be coming soon. Here, in the opening seconds of astronomical dawn, Hal was the only man to know it.
“Are you ready, stargazer?” Jonny called out to him, his hands resting on controls unseen. The voice tried to sound brave, but Hal could sense its hesitation.
Jonny looked down and nodded. Only once at first, but he followed it with another, and then another, convincing himself once more that this was the right thing to do. A few hesitant breaths marked the passing of time.
“Hey Jonny.” Hal called out, causing Jonny to look up from his procrastination.
“I'll see you on the other side.”
Jonny smirked, letting out one last sigh. The two of them locked eyes for one more heartbeat. “Heh... I'll see you there, Hal.”
And with that last breath, Jonny flipped the switch, and the telepad winked to life.
[End Chapter 22]