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       Eldnium, p.21

           Enoch Pyle, Jr

  She led him to a cabin near the back of the village. It stood larger than the others, with double doors on the front rather than just a single. She released his arm and pushed them open, going straight to the back room of the cabin, which was empty except for a rug on the floor and a dozen-or-so hangings scattered about the walls.

  Landon was struck by the paintings, all of which were abstract but appeared to represent alien planets. The rug in the middle of the floor was black and speckled with white flecks, like the night sky. He watched Li’an grab it at one corner and fold it backward, revealing a trap door in the wood of the floor.

  Outside, the sound of gunfire and screaming began to filter into the cabin, and Landon’s panic rushed back through his body. “Who’s cabin is this?”

  “Isaac’s,” she answered, pulling a small, silver latch on the trap door and sliding it open. Underneath rested a pair of revolvers with laser sights, two armored bracers, and something like a sniper rifle.

  “How did you know this was here?” Landon asked, amazed.

  “Isaac was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a father.” And that was all of the explanation she gave, and it was all of the explanation Landon needed. Clearly, he thought, her relationship with Isaac was deeper than what was between Isaac and the other heroes, and right now, that seemed to be something that would work in their favor.

  She pulled out the revolvers and slid one into the tie on the waist of her dress where it held but sagged, revealing its weight. She handed the other to Landon. “Take this,” she said, and she took the bracers next.

  Outside, an explosion rocked the cabin. The battle seemed to be moving closer. Landon watched Li’an strap a bracer onto her left arm. He took the other and did the same. It was a loose fit, built for a man bigger than Landon, but it stayed in place fairly well. Its weight surprised him.

  “How does this thing work?”

  “It just does,” she answered, grabbing the sniper rifle and hanging it over her shoulder. “We’ve got to go. Now.”

  Landon heard just a few remaining gunshots sounding out in sparse bursts. The screaming grew faint. Clearly, the battle was turning in favor of The Control, and this made Landon even more nervous. If thirty-something heroes with outstanding special abilities couldn’t bring down The Control, Landon imagined that he and Li’an wouldn’t last more than thirty seconds.

  “What’s the plan?” he asked her, his heart thumping.

  “We need to take to the rooftops but split up and go opposite directions. You draw their attention, and I’ll hit them with the sniper.”

  “We don’t even know how many there are,” Landon complained. “And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it doesn’t sound like things are going so well out there.”

  “They will find us, Landon. They know we’re here. They will destroy this entire planet if they have to. Our only choice is to fight.”

  Landon didn’t understand the point in fighting if The Control had the power to destroy an entire planet. Their odds against these tyrants were nonexistent, and Landon wasn’t a gambling man.

  However, with a second wind of courage, Landon looked Li’an in the eyes and said, “On the hill…I wanted to tell you—”

  “You can tell me later,” she interrupted. “Now let’s go.”

  She ran toward the back of the cabin, and Landon followed. They slipped through the back door and onto a rear patio, where Li’an led the way up a post and onto the cabin’s roof. They crouched there, just on the backside of a gable that blocked their view of the battlefield, smoke rising in the distance, random pops and bangs sounding nearby. Li’an gave Landon a sincere look and said, “We should split up from here. Good luck.” She leaned in, pecked him on the cheek, and then disappeared over the gable.

  Landon remained for a second, staring in the other direction, panicked at the distance between buildings (and flustered by the little kiss). He wasn’t sure how to stay on the rooftops when the buildings were a good twenty feet apart, but suddenly understood the purpose of the Jumping Stones and wished he’d had time to train.

  He took a deep breath, tightened his grip on the pistol, and started running for the edge of the roof. He jumped without hesitation, eyes closed, and sailed through the air, landing on the roof of the next building with a thud and a stumble.

  He stopped and looked back at the gap he’d just covered, and a surge of confidence boiled through him. Maybe we can do this, he thought, and he started running again.

  He moved that way, building to building, working his way around the perimeter of the battlefield, ducking and cowering with each blast in the distance. Occasionally, he’d see another hero moving across the ground. He was shocked to see one in particular run straight through a building and out the other side, passing directly through its wooden walls like a ghost. But two buildings later, he saw the same hero, dead on the ground, with a hole in his head.

  Eventually, Landon made his way to the top of the armory, and he was able to find a good vantage point over the courtyard, where he looked down and saw a man wearing a gas mask and black coveralls standing over Isaac’s body, a cape hanging from his shoulders, fluttering in the wind. Around the man, a dozen heroes lay dead, along with several cape-less men wearing masks and black coveralls like the guy near Isaac.

  From the looks of it, the battle had ended. The caped man represented the last of The Control, and Landon suddenly hoped that he himself didn’t represent the last of the heroes, though he didn’t see Li’an among those who had fallen.

  He gathered his courage and lined up a shot with the pistol, aiming for the caped man’s torso, not comfortable enough with a firearm to try for a headshot. He wanted to at least wound the man and go from there. So he took a deep breath and held it, unable to see the laser light against the red of the cape, and eased his finger against the trigger while exhaling slowly. But before he could fire, a gunshot sounded from across the courtyard, and the caped man was struck, staggering backward with the force of the shot.

  Landon scanned the rooftops and felt a sigh of relief to see that Li’an was crouched opposite him, alive and well.

  He lined up his shot again, while the caped man was stunned, and pulled the trigger. The gun popped and recoiled, and Landon watched as his bullet sailed past the man and pinged into the dirt in the distance.

  The man caught his balance and stood upright, apparently unharmed by Li’an’s perfect shot.

  He’s armored, Landon thought, and he knew, immediately, that he and Li’an were at a disadvantage for which he hadn’t prepared himself.

  He watched as the man raised his right arm and pointed his palm in Li’an’s direction, a symbol on the flesh of his hand beginning to glow.

  “Li’an! Look out!”

  The man spun on Landon and fired a pulse of energy from the symbol on his palm, exploding the base of the building beneath Landon. The next thing Landon knew, he was falling in a cloud of dust and debris and crashing to the ground among the rubble of the armory.

  Another blast struck just feet away, and shards of wood were sent speeding through the air. Landon realized that he’d lost his gun in the rubble. His bracer was sparking wildly, clearly damaged. It shocked him several times, and he brushed it from his arm and into the debris.

  A third blast hit the opposite side of him, and he decided it was time to move. So he pushed himself up from the rubble and started running, the caped man’s arm tracking him, firing blast after blast, all of which missed, shattering whichever structures they hit. Landon took cover behind a stone wall, not knowing whether it would protect him from the caped man’s energy blasts, but willing to take the risk.

  He squinted, bracing for what might, ultimately, be the end of his short life, but instead of hearing another blast, he heard another gunshot.

  Li’an, he thought to himself. She really is a fighter.

  And then he heard another blast, but this one wasn’t aimed at him, and he knew, instantly, that Li’an was in danger.

>   He started moving, running straight at the caped man this time, his feet pounding against the ground, his mind a blur. He watched pulse after pulse leave the man’s palm. He was vaguely aware of Li’an speeding from cover to cover in the distance as his breath streamed in and out, smoothly, rhythmically. His eyes focused on his target. He watched the distance to the caped man shrink, excited that the man seemed unaware of Landon bearing down on him. He heard another blast impact somewhere to his right, and Li’an’s scream followed it.

  He dove through the air, arms stretched out, only mildly aware that he, himself, was now screaming, too. And with a speed and efficiency like nothing Landon had ever witnessed, the caped man spun and caught Landon by the neck, holding him in the air, dangling like a caught chicken.

  The man’s grip was like iron. Landon writhed and kicked, but to no effect. The man tossed Landon into the distance like a rag doll, and Landon landed in a pile of rubble, a shard of wood catching him in the side.

  He screamed in pain and ripped the chunk of wood from his flesh. Blood ran down his side.

  “Landon, no!” Li’an shouted.

  He searched for her and found her just feet away, leaning against a heap of broken wood and glass. Her leg was torn open, blood spilling out. Her skin was pale, and Landon had a flash back to when he stared helplessly as his own mother’s life slipped away.

  In the distance, Landon watched as the caped man sauntered over, stepping over the dead with his head held high. With each step the man took, Landon crawled his way to Li’an’s side, determined to die with her. And then he was next to her, leaning against her, holding her hand. He watched a tear streak down her face, carving a clean line in the dust that had caked on her fair and flawless skin. Her warmth shot through his body, though it was weaker now. She was truly nearly dead.

  The man reached the edge of the rubble, his cape draped over his shoulders, and brought from his hip a pistol not unlike Isaac’s, speaking, finally, through his dust-soaked mask in a rough voice, saying, “Option 9-3-1 terminated.”

  Landon watched the man raise the gun, as if in slow motion, and as the man’s finger squeezed the trigger, Landon heard the blast from the cartridge. He saw the muzzle flash, bright as the sun. In this moment’s final effort of heroism, he flung his arm over Li’an, trying to shield her from the bullet, and he waited there, afraid of who would catch the fatal shot.

  But the bullet never came. Landon waited for what he imagined must have been thirty seconds, but still nothing happened.

  Cautiously, he opened his eyes and turned his head toward the caped man, only to find him frozen there, arm extended, muzzle flash fading. The bullet the man had fired was suspended in the air, spinning so slowly that there was hardly any noticeable movement at all.

  Landon sat up, the pain in his side stabbing at him. He looked at Li’an, and she, too, was completely frozen, her eyes both shocked and tired.

  Confusion set in, but couldn’t smother Landon’s confidence in one apparent fact:

  Time had stopped.

  Tommy Returns

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