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Chapter 20: Escape
Storm
palladian23 wrote in superwebnovel
Author's Notes: Bad language, descriptions of working in the heights, fire, property damage, derogatory language, fistfighting, blood

I've got an extra-long installment for you today! Enjoy, and happy holidays to all

Many thanks to my super-duper editor gwoman for her work on this chapter!


Back to Chapter 19

Lex pulled her jumpsuit on and then rummaged around in her purse for a few moments. She'd already given a few small things to Casey to be packed into her bag at Union Station, so the last couple she took with her had to be even smaller things whose absence wouldn't be readily noticed. Taking a couple of pictures of her brother and sisters out of her wallet, she folded them together with a big wad of twenties, palmed the whole thing and put it into a zip pocket of the jumpsuit. Next, she took out the thumb drive all her important files had been backed up to and found another zippered pocket to store it in. She changed the batteries on her flashlight and added a glow stick that she'd just bought into the same pocket. Finally, Lex brought out a little bottle of headache medicine and put it into an upper jumpsuit pocket, hoping despite the throbbing stab behind one eye that she wouldn't need to use it.

Hearing a knock on her door and shouting, “Come in,” Lex then walked to the door to meet Riss.

“Hey,” Lex said, gesturing to her closet. “Come over and have a look at this t-shirt before we go. I just got it and I really like it.”

They both poked their heads into the closet, exchanging a quick, intense look as Lex slipped a small bundle consisting of a new change of clothes into the open top of the bag Riss carried. As they came back out, Riss shook her head.

“I don't know,” she said, “your comic book t-shirts always look a little goofy to me.”

“They're not comic books, they're manga,” Lex said, trying to sound annoyed while she turned to give the room one last look before closing the door behind her.

The two of them knocked on Casey's door and then entered after hearing muffled permission. Lex stood for a moment, struggling to look bored despite the churning in her stomach, directly in the line of sight for the main camera in Casey's room. Meanwhile, Riss and Casey quickly wrestled a larger bundle of clothes into Riss' bag.

“So,” Riss asked a moment later, “is everyone ready to go?”

Lex and Casey nodded and followed her out into the hallway. The three headed for the briefing room together. When they reached it, they realized they'd arrived last. Joan had actually come for the briefing in person, and Serena greeted them with a raised eyebrow, to which Lex quickly looked away.

Clara didn't look pleased, but only Casey got an annoyed glare as Clara gestured for all of them to take a seat.

“You're going to be the lead response team for another burning-building rescue,” she explained. “For any of you that haven't heard before now, the fire that you helped with a while back was deliberately set, and the person who started it had intended for all of the people who lived there to die. Since we saved them, the arsonist has set another fire in hopes of being successful this time.”

A picture appeared on the big screen of a building spotlighted in the dark. No flames could be seen, just some smoke.

“The target,” Clara continued, “is another apartment building a few stories shorter than the last one. The situation is different this time, though.”

Lex listened intently, tapping her fingers on her thigh underneath the table, as Clara described the known situation. The building stood fourteen stories high with the most intense parts of the fire in the outside walls, but this time the stairs had been broken between the second and third floors first, then every two floors from there on up. On top of that, so much smoke had gathered in the stairwells that anyone trying to escape that way had difficulty getting out without an air supply. No one seemed sure why there was so much smoke, or its source.

Lex noticed Clara pointing out particulars on the building by gesturing to an electronic blueprint she'd brought up on the large screen. Lex raised her hand, clearing her throat so she could get her words out. Clara looked at her in surprise and then nodded.

“Is that the actual building blueprint?” she asked Clara. When the other woman nodded, Lex continued, “Can we get that loaded onto Riss' computers so that we can refer to it onsite? Also, this time, I want her to have access to the building cameras.” She met Clara's eyes when the other woman looked up at her. “Call whoever you need to and get permission. If the arsonist has set this up to be worse than last time, I have a feeling that we haven't had the last of the bad news.”

Clara nodded in return, her expression cautious. “All right, I'll do what I can. That's all the information we have right now. We're still getting reports in from the site, though, so the situation could change at any time. Did anyone else have any questions?”

Lex nodded. “Actually, I do have one more. Will any other teams be there?”

“The Alpha team will be.”

After considering for a moment, Lex spoke again. “Since we know they're down a few people, if we need anyone else, can we bring in someone from another team?”

Clara looked at her for a moment. “I guess we could, but we've never really done that before. I'll have to get permission.”

“OK, thanks. Please get it, if you can.”

“Anyone else?” Clara looked around the room, but no one else spoke up, so she nodded. “All right, let's get downstairs and get moving.”

Lex saw Riss disconnecting a thumb drive from a computer along the side in the situation room, and Lex, Casey, and Serena waited while she packed it into a zip pocket, then all three of them went downstairs to the van.

When they made it out to the site, they all got out and just studied the building for a moment. The van had parked on the street in front of the building and the team stood on a small lawn near a circular drive. As she heard a siren, Lex turned her head to see an ambulance departing from the plaza in front of the office building across the street, the place the medics appeared to have taken over.

As she turned her attention back to the building they'd come to evacuate, Lex couldn't help but note the contrast to the shorter brick office building to the left. The apartment building had been constructed from red and cream stone, and Lex felt her heart sink at the destruction as she looked through the smoke at the elaborately carved entrance. On the other side of the burning building stood the half-built skeleton of what, according to a sign on the lot, would one day be a high-rise office building. The air around them seemed permeated by an acrid, smoky smell and the muted crackle of a hidden fire.

Lex continued to look at the burning building, preoccupied by the thought that although it stood only fourteen stories this time, because of the lower break of stairs they still had a dozen floors to evacuate. She sighed as she stood with her teammates and turned hopefully to Serena to ask, “I don't suppose that—”

“No, sorry, I've never been into this building before,” Serena interrupted with a sigh. “Too bad, too; it looks like it was kind of nice before someone set it on fire.”

“OK,” Lex said, turning to the rest of the group, “I'm going to see if any of the fire fighters remember me from last time and will bring me up to speed. Can you stay nearby until I get back?”

Everyone shrugged or nodded so Lex headed over to the knot of firefighters and equipment situated next to the medics. Fortunately, Lex quickly found some people who remembered her from the last job and seemed glad to give her the latest information, and pointed her to the engineer assisting their efforts. After talking with all of them for a short while, Lex came back to meet with her own team.

Once everyone had been assembled again she told them, “The firefighters have been working on evacuating the lower two floors. They're mostly done, but it's been slow going because of all of the smoke in the stairwells. Also, more bad news. From what the fire fighters have been able to see, due to structural damage in parts of the building as it burned, the arsonist somehow banked the fire around the edges of the support beams. They seem to be heating up from the outside in, like the rest of the building but much more slowly. However, as they get hotter they'll change temper and the floors may begin to collapse in the process.

“The other thing they told me sounded a little odd. Basically they haven't been able to evacuate anyone by putting ladders on or near the windows. They found the heat to be too fierce in general and when they try to get a ladder close to any part of the wall, the fire seems to flare up there, almost as though it could see them coming.”

Everyone exchanged glances then, grim looks on all of their faces. Lex could almost hear her friends' thoughts, wondering if the arsonist had hidden nearby. “So, let's think about it,” Lex finally said. “Riss, can you bring up the blueprint of the building?”

They studied it quietly until Lex broke the silence by asking, “Let's say we had no lack of time and resources. What would you do to get the people out?”

“Rip the front and back of the building off and get a lot of ladders,” Casey said.

“I'd go into all the apartments and get everyone,” said Serena, “but I'd have to find a good way in first.”

Riss looked up just before she spoke. “I'd tell everyone to go to the roof and then have helicopters get them.”

“This is stupid. Why are we doing this?” the computerized voice from Joan's suit asked.

Lex sighed. “Because no one has any good ideas right now about how to get people out. Helicopters can't get close enough because of all of the heat thermals and jets of fire coming off of the building. The fire fighters are now too worried to get close to any of the outside walls with ladders, since many may be on the verge of crumbling, plus there's the other problem we talked about. The elevators don't work. The stairwells are broken or so filled with smoke that the firefighters are having trouble evacuating the two lowest floors. We need to think of some way to do this, and the key will be coming up with an idea no one's thought of yet.”

Unable to see the expression on Joan's face, Lex stared at her helmet for a moment, and then looked back at the rest of the team. “Any other ideas? Don't be afraid to throw out the weirdest thing you can think of; maybe it will spark an idea for someone else.”

As more ideas went back and forth, Lex found herself half listening and half looking at the blueprint of the building. Lex thought about Casey's idea and about fire fighters and how they made it to fires as she stared at the center of the building. Suddenly, she broke into the discussion.

“Does anyone know someone with the ability to create lasers or something to cut through things with? Someone who could cut through something substantial, like a wall.”

Serena shrugged. “I knew a guy on the New York team who could do stuff like that. I think he's even still there. He could probably cut through a wall, I guess. It's hard to say, though; he liked to brag a lot.”

“OK,” Lex said, “I think we should cut a hole all the way through the building here.” She pointed to an area near the center of the roof that fell in between the support beams. “Then, we should drive a pole through it and have everyone slide to the ground floor and come out the main entrance. What do you think?”

Everyone stared at the blueprint for a long moment, and then started looking at one another with some consideration. Casey glanced up and smiled at Lex.

“I think it might work.”

“This is crazy,” Joan's computerized voice sounded out. “How would we do all that?”

“Well,” Lex replied, “We could ask Serena to get the guy she knew on the team in New York—”

“One Roger, coming up,” said Serena, disappearing.

Lex sighed, and then called into her communicator. “Clara, are you there?”

“Yes, Lex, go ahead.”

“Can you get permission for us to, um, borrow someone named Roger from the team in New York? He can create lasers or something of the sort, but I don't really know any more about the guy other than that.”

A brief silence ensued, and Lex listened hopefully. Finally she heard, “I'll do my best. I'll let you know as soon as I hear anything.”

“Clara, actually I think he's already on his way here,” Lex clarified, trying not to wince.

Another stony silence followed, then Clara's voice came back on the line, her tone more forceful. “Anything else?”

“No. Thanks for your help!”

Lex looked at the remaining group and saw Casey trying not to laugh and Riss all too obviously buried in the computer screen in front of her. Joan, of course, gave nothing away behind her faceplate.

“To continue,” Lex went on, “I figured Serena and Roger could work together on creating the exit. We could have him cut down from the roof, and then Serena could transport what he cut out of the way before it fell to the next level. Once we had the holes cut, probably Casey, George, and Joan can stick a pole in the center and everyone could get out of the building that way. I wanted to ask you, Joan, to help get some fire fighters up to the roof so that they could go to each floor and help regulate getting people out. If the pole isn't set well, Casey and George could take turns holding it steady. Riss could support us by watching on the cameras to make sure all of the people are out and identifying the injured, and so could the psychic from the Alpha team. Serena could help by transporting anyone out who couldn't make it down the pole. What do you think?”

Joan made a thoughtful noise, but didn't volunteer anything more. Casey nodded with a big grin while Riss looked up, an eyebrow raised.

“I did get permission to hook into the security cameras, so I can run support for that,” she said with a dip of her head.

“What are you going to use for the pole?” asked Joan's processed voice.

Lex stopped for a moment. “I'm not sure. Does anyone have any ideas or know of anything long enough and smooth enough to work?”

She'd started to think about the problem when a voice behind them interrupted her train of thought.

“OK, I'm back. Sorry it took so long, but this guy was asleep when I got there and wouldn't hurry up even after I mentioned it was an emergency.”

Serena hooked her thumb over her shoulder towards a gangly looking man with wet, dark brown hair combed back on his head and a cheesy smile, dressed in a chocolate brown jumpsuit. He'd crossed his arms over his chest and looked at each woman in turn.

“Well, Serena, if you'd mentioned I'd be helping out a bunch of lovely ladies, I would have put everything else off,” he said, smiling wider.

Lex and Casey gave him surprised glances, but Riss just shot him a flat look before burying her attention in her computer screen. Joan's faceplate surveyed the man for a moment before turning away.

Finally Lex broke the silence. “Well, thanks for coming out.”

She briefed Serena and Roger on the plan while Casey appeared to study their surroundings, surveying everything in sight.

“So,” Lex finished, “we were just discussing what we could use as the center pole—”

“Lex,” Casey interrupted, “up there.” She pointed at the building in construction to the right of the one they stood in front of. As Lex looked up she saw a tower crane lit up by the nearby streetlights. The two of them stared up for a few seconds, and then glanced at each other. Lex's smile nearly split her face in half.

“You're a genius, Casey.”

Casey grinned in return while Lex looked back up at the building again, considering. “Joan,” Lex asked after a while, “do you have a function in your suit to measure distances by flying them?”

Joan appeared to consider the question for a moment, and then nodded. “I can do that. What did you have in mind?”

“Could you fly the height of the building we need to evacuate and then fly the length of the horizontal piece of the tower crane? We need to figure out if we can use one of those long struts as the pole.”

“But—” Joan began.

Lex held up a hand to stop her question. “Could you just do it? Meanwhile, I'll check with Clara to see if we can get permission.”

After looking at Lex for a few moments, Joan finally nodded. “OK, but I'm not going to do anything to the property here unless we have express permission.”

“All right, all right,” Lex said, putting both hands up. “I'll go talk with her while you're measuring.”

As Joan strode off towards the burning building, Lex turned to Roger. “Could you come with me? I need to talk to our team coordinator and explain why you're here.”

The two of them walked to the M Agency van and Lex ducked inside, motioning the man with her to follow. She found Clara inside, talking on her cell phone. Lex gestured to Roger as he came to stand behind her, resting her other hand on the overly padded plastic bench seat, and watched Clara's eyes widen.

“I apologize, I've got to go. I'll call you back later,” Clara said, quickly hanging up her phone.

“Clara,” Lex began, “Roger's arrived. Serena went and picked him up.”

“I see,” Clara replied, her expression tight-lipped. “I'm still working on getting permission for him to be here.”

“I'm sorry about that. Hopefully it won't be an issue and we can finish what we need to borrow him for and get him back before anyone can decide against it.”

“Maybe,” Clara said warily, “but I'm guessing this isn't the only reason you're here of you would have simply told me by communicator. What else?”

Lex nodded in reply. “We came up with an idea about how to quickly evacuate the building. The bad news is that we'll need permission to take one of the struts off the tower crane next door.”

Lex quickly detailed the plan for Clara, and felt surprised to see the other woman nod in agreement at the beginning, but her face had darkened again by the time Lex finished explaining.

“It's probably going to take me a while to get permission to do that, if I can at all,” Clara said, clearly annoyed. “I'll need to call the crane company, get permission from our organization—”

“Clara, we need to move fast on this. When I talked to the firefighters and the engineer here, all of them were worried that the building could start crumbling at any time. Is there any way you could just get permission to pay damages so that we can move forward with this right away?”

Clara glared at Lex momentarily, then her expression softened. “All right, I'll check on that. Is there anything else?”

She studied Lex with a sour look as Lex shook her head in the negative and headed out of the van, Roger following.

“Well, that went well,” he said. Lex could almost hear the smirk in his voice. She sighed.

“Just get ready. If the next bit goes according to plan, you'll be up soon.”

As the two of them came back to where the group had previously been standing, Lex looked for Casey and Serena. Serena stood under a streetlight looking bored, with Casey nearby, still staring up at the crane next door. Lex moved to join them and the two other women turned to look at her.

“So,” Lex asked, “how do you think we'll be able to get it down?”

Casey looked back up at the building. “I don't know exactly.”

Lex turned to Serena. “Do you think you could get us up there to take a look?”

Serena grinned, and then took something out of one of her jumpsuit pockets. “Sure. Let me see if I can find a safe place for us to land.”

She studied the building with a pair of binoculars, stepping out into the empty street to get a better viewing angle at one point, then finally nodded and put them away. “OK, ladies,” she said, stepping between Casey and Lex and grabbing each of their arms, “here's a higher view of the world.”

They now all stood over the building in construction, on the ballast for the tower crane. At least fifteen stories up from what Lex could guess as she bit back a sudden feeling of vertigo, instead looking at the crane.

“Well,” Casey said, raising her voice against the sound of wind at that height. “I guess we could just toss the pole to the road below.” Even with the competing noise, her tone sounded doubtful.

Lex cringed, imagining the response that idea would get from Clara as she tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear from where it had blown into her eyes. “Do you think there's any other way?”

Looking over at Casey, she saw the blonde shrug her shoulder, gazing down into the street, then back at the tower crane. “Maybe, if Joan could fly it down,” Casey replied, shaking her head.

“Joan,” Lex said into her communicator, “what do you think?”

“I could definitely maneuver it so that it falls in the middle of the street, and guide it to some degree on the way down, but I would guess the full weight of the pole would be more than my suit is rated for.” After a pause, Joan added, “Did you get permission?”

“Still working on it,” Lex answered wryly. “Stay tuned.”

“Serena,” Lex asked next, turning to the other woman, “do you think Roger can do his thing to separate one strut on the tower crane?”

The redhead cocked her head to one side, considering. “Mostly I've seen him shoot things before, not do fine work like this, so I don't know. I also don't know how he is with heights. Let's see.”

Lex watched as Serena disappeared with a grin, then reappeared a minute or two later with Roger. His eyes widened as he stepped back from the edge, Lex noted, and she internally cringed. Maybe he does have a problem with heights, she thought.

Lex put out a hand to steady Roger. “I don't know if Serena filled you in, but one of the things we want your help with is separating the outer strut of the tower crane. Also, before we put it in place, it needs to be smooth, but you can do that part on the ground. Do you think you can do all of that?”

She watched him closely, noting how his eyes widened again and how he straightened upon looking at the women surrounding him. He looked back at Lex, not quite meeting her eyes and replied, “Sure, I can do that. No problem.”

Serena snorted. “Don't bullshit the lady, Roger. Can you really do it, or are you just bragging?”

He looked back at her, annoyed with a touch of nervousness, as if used to Serena seeing through him. “Yes I can do it,” he asserted, his voice insistent. “I'm just bad with heights.”

“How about if we have someone with you every step of the way, someone who could get you out of danger if anything happened?” Lex asked, continuing to study his reactions.

Roger nodded, the movement more steady. “Yeah, that should work.”

Lex returned his nod, and then looked over at Casey. “I figure you and George could split up, each holding on to one side of the pole as Roger separates it. Joan can back Roger up until he's done. When it's free, the two of you give it a good push out, and then Joan can guide it down to the street. Serena can stand by to get you three down once that's done. What do you think?”

“Sure, as long as we can get George to cooperate,” Casey responded with a grimace.

“I'll think of something,” Lex agreed, shaking her head. Then, turning to Serena, she asked, “Can you take me back down? I'm going to have to talk George into working on this.”

The redhead nodded with a raised eyebrow, stepping forward. After Lex blinked, the two of them stood on the small lawn in front of the building, and then Serena vanished. Lex coughed as she breathed in, realizing that the smoke hung much more heavily by the ground than up above.

After a few minutes’ conversation with the Alpha team civilian coordinator, and some talk with George in which Lex was somehow able to couch the upcoming events as a competition with Casey, Lex stood on the grass in front of the burning apartment building again, along with George, waiting for Serena.

Suddenly, her communicator crackled, and then she heard Clara speak up. “Lex,” the woman said in a clipped, somewhat tired voice, “I've gotten permission to go ahead with everything you've requested so far. Please be aware, however, that your plan will be assessed after this mission, and if it's determined that a better course of action existed, one that wouldn't have been as expensive, your pay will be docked for the next two months.”

“OK,” Lex agreed without pause. “That sounds fair. By the way, we'll probably need to drop the crane section in the street. If we do that, Joan should be able to guide it so that it doesn't hit any cars.”

She waited a moment, hearing nothing but silence on her communicator, then spoke again. “Clara? Are you there?”

“Yes, I'm here Lex,” Clara replied, her tone even more annoyed. “Just go ahead and do it.”

Serena grabbed Lex's hand as soon as she appeared, and Lex watched as her friend put a few reluctant fingers on George's back, then suddenly the three of them stood on the crane ballast with a nervous Roger, and Casey and Joan.

Lex turned to Joan. “I take it you heard that.”

She nodded in return, and Lex briefly re-explained the plan before they started, then fished another communicator out of one of her pockets to hand to George. As the other four began their tasks, Lex turned to Serena.

“Could you take me over to where the fire fighters are?” she asked. “I need to talk to them about what we're planning.”

Serena nodded as she grabbed Lex's hand, and then the two of them appeared on the side of the plaza with the fire fighting equipment. Lex took her communicator off for a moment as she touched Serena's wrist before her friend left again.

“Can you get back up there and keep an eye on Roger?” Lex said, giving Serena a serious look. “He looks pretty nervous, so please keep an extra eye on him, in case he makes a mistake. We absolutely need him and you for the next step, so can you keep the both of you safe?”

Smiling and saluting, Serena answered before disappearing. “Don't worry Lex, we'll be fine.”

It took Lex some time to explain to the fire fighters what role she wanted them to take, but they seemed eager once she'd explained everything. The engineer didn't seem as happy at hearing Lex's plan, but after a bit of convincing, he agreed to provide her with measurements for the planned hole. At that moment, however, Lex heard some cheers in her headset followed by a terse comment from Joan a few seconds later. “I can't hold it; I'm letting go.”

“All right,” Lex replied, and then braced herself.

The hollow boom that followed caused a moment of silence all around, and Lex surveyed the stunned faces in flickering flames from the fire and flashing emergency lights on the fire trucks. Feeling her face burning with embarrassment, she raised her voice.

“I'm sorry,” she shouted, “I should have let everyone know that was expected.”

At her pronouncement, activity started up again, some people looking at her with annoyance or confusion, but generally accepting what she'd said and getting on with their work. Lex turned to find the engineer staring at her now, but he grumblingly complied when she requested a large tape measure and some chalk. As she walked back towards the front of the building, Lex called out on her communicator again.

“Serena, are you and Roger back on the ground?”

“Yes,” the redhead answered. “He's working on smoothing out the burrs on the pole.”

“Good,” Lex replied. “Could you meet me on the front lawn? I need your help getting to the roof.”

A moment later, Serena appeared, grabbed hold of Lex's arm, and she watched the scenery abruptly change from the entrance of the burning apartments to a high view of the buildings surrounding them, somewhat obscured by smoke and flames. Lex got her balance as she looked around a moment, nodded, then headed towards the edge of the flat roof.

“Where are you thinking about making the hole?” Serena asked.

Lex laid out the measurements the engineer had given her, trying not to get too close to the gout of flames that sprung up along the edge and then began drawing some marks. “Well,” she replied, pointing to the middle before she started the measurements for the next side, “About here. I was hoping you and Roger could do it together. Something about the size of a couple of people and the pole on each floor, all the way down to the ground floor. He cuts and you transport the rubble and the two of you out of the way before everything falls to the next floor. Do you think you can do it?” She patted her now overly-warm hair as she finished drawing, hoping no sparks had flown into it.

Serena smirked. “I think I could. Or we could make a big mess. I'm willing to try it, either way.”

Lex shrugged, her shoulders tight. “It'd be better if you could, especially for the structure. My backup plan is to borrow George or Casey when they get over here and have them push the debris out of the way. We'll have to wait to start, though, because I'll have to ask the fire fighters to make an announcement to get people to move from the center of the building.”

Nodding in reply, Serena added, “Yeah, and we'll have to figure out how to get the pole up here.”

With the ghost of a smile, Lex nodded back. “I have some ideas about that.”

She finished marking out a rough circle and turned back to Serena. “Can we go back down? I need to touch base with Riss before the others get back.”

“Sure thing, boss,” Serena said, reaching out with a wink and then the two stood on the front lawn once more. Lex smiled in return as she made her way over to Riss' temporary headquarters under a tree across the way. Her friend sat on a little blanket with a number of laptops spread out before her, dusting ash from a computer screen with her sleeve, and looked up as Lex approached.

“Hey,” Lex said as she sat down beside the other woman. “How's it going? Did you and Lily manage to set up the same sort of tracking system as before?”

Riss nodded and showed Lex a spreadsheet. “It was a little easier since I have access to the building occupant list now. We're checking everyone off as they arrive, as best we can figure if they're injured and non-responsive. We're just keeping counts for anyone whose identity isn't clear.”

“Good. Did you hear from Clara about hooking into the security cameras for the building?”

Riss' eyes darted around the area before she nodded, showing Lex a number of video feeds from her laptop screen from all over the building. “Yes. I just heard from her a little while ago.”

The next thing she did, however, was to change to the laptop Lex had given her and show Lex a different feed. It seemed to show the basement of the building, and Riss pointed to something in the corner of the room. Lex took a closer look and a quick breath in as she nodded. It appeared to be a big grate, large enough for a human to get through. She nodded as she sat up straight, trying to stop from breaking out a huge smile and now scanning the area for Clara herself.

“Well, thanks for keeping an eye on all of that,” she said, meeting Riss' gaze. “If you could keep a special watch on the basement, I'd appreciate it. We're all paying attention to the upper floors, so I don't want to miss it if someone gets lost down there.”

“Will do,” Riss replied with a tiny smirk.

Lex approached the firefighters afterwards, asking that they make a loudspeaker announcement telling people to back away from the center of the building and choose one of the wings to stand in. Then she went to request that one of the support people they'd arrived with bring food, and came back to the front of the building in time to see George, Casey, and Joan arrive, each spaced out along the pole and carrying it slowly.

“Thanks, everyone,” Lex said, approaching the group as they reached the front lawn. “Could you just leave it here for the moment while I work with Serena and Roger to get the building ready? The snacks and drinks should come soon, so dig in if you want to once they do.”

Joan and Casey nodded as they slowly lowered the pole to the ground, but both of them ended up glaring at George when he went faster than they did, almost pulling Casey off balance and nearly dropping his end of the pole on Lex's foot. He shot an angry look at Casey before stomping off towards the Alpha team van. Casey and Lex both glanced at each other and shook their heads. A moment later, Lex took a little time to run a hand over the now smooth surface of the pole, verifying the job that Roger had completed.

“All right,” Serena said, clapping a hand on Lex's back, “are we ready?”

Lex nodded, looking over to see Roger at the redhead's other side. As she blinked once, they suddenly stood on the roof of the burning building, the sounds of the city farther away and more smoke billowing by than before. Briefly explaining to Roger what she and Serena had discussed earlier, Lex watched as he listened, looked at the spot she'd marked, and considered for a moment.

“Shouldn't be a problem,” he finally said with a nod. Looking at Serena, he raised an eyebrow. “Ready to try the first one?”

Serena stepped forward with a smirk, standing behind him and laying a hand on his shoulder. “Fire when ready,” she replied.

Lex watched as two focused beams of yellow light emerged from Roger's fingertips as he pointed his hands down at the circle she'd drawn on the roof. It took a few moments, but she could see smoke and dust as the light began to penetrate the roof's surface, and then he turned slowly, following the circle, Serena mirroring his moves. After a couple of minutes, Lex saw the two of them jolt as Roger finished the cuts, and then they vanished.

“Serena, Roger,” Lex called on her communicator, her voice shaky and her heart pounding in her throat as she stared through the hole into the floor below. “How did it go?”

Then the two of them reappeared in front of her, Roger smiling and Serena laughing. “It went OK, but the best thing was the look on George's face! I decided to land the first one right by the Alpha van.”

Serena continued laughing, and Lex tried hard not to join in. “That's good,” Lex said tentatively, “but maybe you could just put the rest on the edge of the lawns or in the alley behind the building?”

“You spoil all my fun,” Serena said with a fake pout, then smiled again and turned to Roger. “You ready to do the next one?”

He nodded in reply. “As soon as you are.”

Lex watched as they completed the next few floors, then waited as Serena rested for a few minutes before catching a ride down to the ground with her. The redhead waved and disappeared as Lex went to collect Casey, Joan, and George.

Once she found all three of them and had gathered them back near the pole (reluctantly, in George's case), Lex went through the plan she'd hatched for getting it up on the roof.

“I thought we could start by having all three of you push the pole upright and lean it on the building. Then, Serena can take either George or Casey up to the roof. After that, whoever's on the ground starts pushing the pole up, Joan takes the middle and pushes, and whoever's on the roof starts pulling. When the person on the ground can't reach it anymore, Joan and the person on the roof work together to get the pole all the way up there, and then the person on the roof pulls it in so that the long part of the pole is mostly on the roof. Do you think that might work, or do any of you have other ideas?”

“Sounds good to me,” Joan said.

Casey shook her head. “I think that should do it. Whichever position will work fine for me, I'm not picky.”

George was silent for a few minutes, staring at the ground and frowned when he looked back up. “There must be a better way to do this.”

He glared at Lex, but Lex smiled in response. “Come on George, you know the ladies are going to need your help.”

By then, his expression was aiming for a glare, but a lot of his anger seemed to have evaporated. “Well, since you put it that way, just remember that afterwards. I'll be on the roof.”

“That's fine,” said Lex, nodding as her eyes slid to Casey, who stood nearby with a neutral look on her face. As their glances met, however, the blonde rolled her eyes and Lex forced her laugh to sound like a cough.

When Serena and Roger appeared about a half-hour later, the passage through the building completed down to the lobby, the operation to raise the pole began. It started off rocky, the pole teetering in the air for a few moments before the three could lower it to rest against the building. After that, Casey, Joan, and George worked together smoothly to raise the pole the rest of the way to the roof.

Lex turned to Roger while the others worked. “Could you come inside the building with me? There's one more hole I'm going to have to ask you to make.”

He nodded in response, so they both put breathing gear on and went inside. The firefighters had cleared the lobby of all furniture, so the only things left to see were the wall-to-wall Persian carpet, the massive front desk, and the carved stone figures in each corner of the ceiling. Since it had a high ceiling, a lot of clear air sat near the floor. When Lex heard a call over her communicator some seconds later, she took her breathing mask off to respond.

“The pole is on the roof,” Joan announced. “What's the next step?”

“The three of you should raise the pole up again, but start to slide it into the opening in the building when you get some height. Serena, can you get on the roof and help them once the pole is inside? Look at where it is and tell them where they should move it so that it goes straight to the bottom, OK?”

“Yes, boss,” Serena's voice crackled over the communicator with a hint of laughter.

“Keep me posted if you run into any problems,” Lex said. Then, she turned to Roger. “We should keep clear for the moment, but what I want you to do once the bottom of the pole is here is to make a hole of about the same diameter. I'm going to ask the folks on the roof to fit it, and then drive it in a bit so that it sticks. I figure we'll probably still have to have someone on the roof to steady it, but if it's solid on this end, that should help out a lot once people start using it. Make sense?”

Roger nodded after a few quiet minutes, and then asked, “Have you worked for any other team before? With the way you're running this operation, I figure I should have heard of you, but I haven't.”

“No,” Lex answered, shaking her head. “I just finished my probation on this team not long ago.”

“Well, let me know if you ever feel like moving to New York,” Roger said, shaking his head. “We could definitely use someone like you there.”

A crash interrupted their conversation then, the noise coming from somewhere far overhead. The two of them automatically stepped back a little farther from the hole in the ceiling.

“Hey, Serena,” Lex called over her communicator, “how's it going up there?”

There was a soft curse in response, and then the redhead spoke. “It's all right...we just got hung up partway down. Up and back a little to your left, Casey,” Serena said a little more loudly.

Lex and Roger continued waiting another few minutes, both sets of eyes glued to the ceiling. Lex jumped involuntarily several seconds later when the pole appeared, not quite in free-fall, but obviously not completely in control. After a moment to let the noise subside once it landed, Lex asked the three on the roof to wait while she measured the pole, estimated about where it should sit in the center, and stepped back so that Roger could do his work. Since the pole was leaning in at an angle, he had no trouble completing the new hole in the floor. Lex had been about to ask Casey, George, and Joan to try to place it when she heard Serena's voice over the communicator.

“Are you done with the last one?”

When Lex replied in the affirmative, Serena continued, “Give me a minute. I've got an idea that should help with what we need to do next.”

Several minutes later, Serena showed up in the lobby with a few bottles of cooking oil. The redhead opened two, handed one to Lex and began pouring her own bottle around the hole Roger had just finished. She shook her head as it sizzled a little because the edge was still hot.

“You can hit the pole up,” Serena said to Lex with a grin. “Proper lubrication is very important for an operation like this.”

Lex blushed and turned away as she started doing what Serena had suggested. After a little while, she couldn't help giggling, and looked back at Serena. “Good idea,” Lex said.

The redhead coughed then, because the smoke had started to get thicker in the lobby. “OK, I'm going back up to the roof.”

“Thanks for the idea,” Lex said, finishing up applying the bottle she had in her hand.

“All right,” Lex said over the intercom, “Will someone please move the pole again now? Roger finished the final hole down here, so please line it up with that. Serena, be their eyes as much as you can. Once it's in place, we'll let you know, too.”

After a few minutes of strained sounds, curses, and directions over the communicator, the pole sat in place and had been pushed loosely into the opening.

Lex continued, “Joan, I don't know if your suit can do anything like this, but if you could, act like a hammer—fly up and then come down with some force on the top of the pole to drive it in and get it to stick. You probably don't want to use all your weight, because we don't want to crack the lobby floor, but some force would be good. George and Casey, could you hold the pole in place for her?”

After a chorus of agreement, Lex just held her breath as silence flooded the communication channel. A minute later, she heard a thunk and a grinding noise as Joan drove the pole into the floor further, and then more silence.

“George, Casey, why don't you take your hands away and see if the pole looks like it's in place?”

“Lex, it looks OK from up here,” Casey responded after a few tense seconds. “I think we should probably have one of us up here to support it, though, once people start sliding down.”

“All right, then, would you mind taking the first half-hour or so? George, can you spell her after that?”

Lex heard affirmative answers, so continued. “Serena, I asked the fire fighters to provide someone to help on all of the floors, so can you start bringing them up to the roof? I told them they could call you if they found immobile people on any floor, so can you stand by for that afterwards?”

“Yes, chief,” Lex heard by her shoulder, jumping as she saw Serena there. A moment later, she, Serena, and Roger stood outside.

“Sorry,” the redhead said, “but I figured you could use some fresh air by now. Besides, I don't think you want to be in there when people start coming out.”

Lex nodded as she took off the rest of her breathing gear. “Thanks, Serena. Roger, do you mind sticking around until we get all the people out, just in case we run into problems?”

He shook his head. “No, I want to see how it all turns out, now. I've never gotten to see the work any other team does, so I'm curious.”

Lex nodded for a moment, her mind traveling to how weird it felt that the areas they were allowed to work in had been completely shut down; no people that weren't medics or firefighters, no press, no crowds, and only one other team. She frowned as she thought about it, knowing it probably shouldn't be a surprise, given what she now knew. Shaking her head to clear it as she felt the headache growing behind her eyes, Lex excused herself to move over to Riss.

“Hey,” she greeted the other woman. “How's it going?”

Riss nodded in reply. “From what I can see, it looks like everything is going fine. The people in the building seemed pretty shy about being anywhere near where you were doing the work. I'm glad the fire fighters have started to arrive on the floors, though, because it looked like some of them got restless. I think they can hear some of the stuff that's starting to fall off the outside of the building.”

Lex grimly looked over at it, noting a few pieces of trim that had fallen in the front yard. “From what you can tell from the apartment records and the tracking system you and Lily set up, about how many people are we talking about evacuating on those dozen floors?”

Riss shrugged. “Somewhere around 2,000. There are 48 apartments per floor, and a good number of families living in them. Of course, we've also got to figure that some of the people had guests. So, I figure about 2,000.”

Nodding, Lex called out on her communicator. “Serena, can you ask one of the firefighters about how long it will take to have a person get down that fire pole we set up? I'm trying to figure how long it'll take to clear the building.”

Lex waited for a moment as she heard someone talking in the background, then Serena spoke. “They say it probably won't take more than a couple of seconds per person. We're going to start soon, by the way. All the firefighters are in place, and they're explaining to the people what they need to do. They want to start from the top down, OK?”

“The people on the top are probably in the most danger, anyway, so that makes sense. Let me know when it starts, please,” Lex requested.

“Will do.”

“I'll be back in a little while to see how it's going,” Lex said to Riss, reaching over to touch her friend's shoulder. “I want to check in with Lily to let them know they'll probably be getting a lot of people coming their way soon.”

The other woman nodded and turned back to her computer screens as Lex took a detour to get some bottled water and take some over-the-counter medication against her now pounding headache. She took just a moment to breathe, willing the pain to go away, and then headed across the street to where a number of ambulances waited. The people who'd come out of the first two floors had already been taken to hospitals as needed, and now the emergency personnel waited for the next wave. Lex asked a few of the medics milling around and finally found Lily sitting on the back of a half-open ambulance, drinking an energy drink.

Lex waved to Lily and said, “I wanted to let you know you'll probably start getting some customers very soon, probably in the next ten minutes or so.”

Lily nodded. “I heard you doing some crazy things over there. What was all of the crashing around for?”

“We figured out a way to get everyone out of the building fast, but it did involve partially taking apart the crane next door. Unfortunately, no one could really carry it down from the roof there, so we pretty much had to throw it.” Lex winced as she finished, glancing at Lily to gauge her reaction.

“I guess I can understand. How will you evacuate everyone?” she asked, returning Lex's gaze curiously.

“Well, we cut holes through each floor down to the lobby and stuck the pole from the crane in like a fire pole. Everyone's going to slide down and run out of the building. They should be starting soon.”

Lex could see Lily's eyes widen for a moment before she took another sip of her drink. “Good thinking. It shouldn't take too long to get everyone out, then.”

“Hopefully,” Lex replied with a shrug. “Serena can take care of evacuating anyone who's wounded.”

“Good,” Lily said with another nod. “We've been hoping for something to happen. We were starting to get worried that no one else was going to make it out.”

Lily nodded as Lex turned to go, and she made her way back to Riss' side to sit on the blanket with her friend, after getting a little food and water for the two of them to share. To Lex's dismay, she felt her headache getting worse, and took another couple painkillers. She knew there was no way she could take some of the prescription medication she'd been given while out on a job, because it made her feel stupid or so tired that she had to sleep. Trying to distract herself, she smiled as she watched the first streams of people come out the front door.

The first half-hour passed quickly, and then Casey sat with the two of them, smelling of smoke and eating a snack. Lex could feel her friend looking at her out of the corner of her eye, and after a minute, Lex turned directly to look at Casey and smiled confidently, nodding slightly. Yes, we have a plan. Casey looked relieved then and turned her full attention to her food.

“So, how was it up there?” Lex asked as Casey finished her snack.

The other woman shrugged. “Pretty smoky, as I bet you can tell, but the evacuation seemed to be going really well. Serena only had a few people to get out; most of them seemed fine to make it down the pole. By the time George showed up, they seemed to be between a third and halfway cleared out.”

Lex nodded, calculating in her head. She'd planned to make a move when only a few people were left inside, so that their absence would be unlikely to be noticed immediately and so they could carry out their plan by the time everyone escaped. Calling over the communicator, Lex asked that Serena call in and report the floor she was helping on as she moved downwards. Lex looked up at the other two women watching her.

“Good,” Lex said, “looks like things are moving along. Not long now, and everything will be good.”

The other two nodded at her words, suddenly looking ready in a way they hadn't all day.

When Serena called in and said that they were working on the third floor, Lex looked at Riss and then at Casey and nodded. After that, she pointed to the camera scene on Riss' laptop.

“What was that? Did that look like someone to you?”

Riss smiled wickedly. “It looks like someone might be in the basement. Do you think we should check it out?”

“Definitely,” Casey replied with a wide smile. “I think the three of us should go since everyone else is busy.”

Riss put on a smaller backpack that she pulled from her larger one and locked all the laptops spread on the blanket. Casey stood, almost vibrating with readiness. Lex called over the communicator.

“Clara, Riss and I thought we spotted someone trapped in the basement. Since everyone else is busy, we thought we'd go down there with Casey and check it out.”

“Why does Riss need to go?”

Lex sighed. “She's going to bring one of her computers down and help us track the person using the security cameras. We'll need her help to find them.”

“All right, but don't take long. I overheard the engineers talking a little while ago and they said the building is really starting to go, so if you can't find anyone in a few minutes, get out.”

“OK, we will, don't worry,” Lex said, trying to keep a little twinge of guilt at bay.

The three of them picked up breathing gear and made their way in through the front entrance, explaining the plan to the fire fighters there and getting warnings in response to get back out as soon as they could. They hurried down the stairs into the large basement area.

Lex pointed to a corner with a video camera as they got there, and Riss nodded, closed her eyes for a moment, and then the two of them looked at the image from the camera on the laptop Lex had given Riss, which now showed just static. Riss pointed all around the basement to let Lex and Casey know that she'd knocked out all the cameras, and the three of them moved quickly to the grate they'd seen on the camera image earlier.

Riss and Lex stood behind a support pillar as Casey grabbed then yanked the grate up, bolts popping in all directions. The three then made their way down a rickety metal ladder to the rain sewer, which seemed a far distance below. As their feet hit the catwalk, they all took out glow sticks and lit them, then watched as Riss brought up a sewer schematic on her computer. She hit a key and they all watched as a path lit up that would bring them near to Union Station. The three of them studied it for a moment to memorize it. Shortly, they straightened up and waited as Riss began unpacking clothing from her backpack and handing it out.

As soon as it had all been distributed, Riss quickly changed out of her jumpsuit and boots and stuffed them into the backpack. Lex had gotten about halfway through and Casey had unzipped her jumpsuit when they heard a voice booming above the crackling roar of the fire far overhead.

“Who would have thought of looking for you down here?”

Lex froze as she recognized George, but watched as Casey's head turned slightly towards her and Riss, making a sharp movement with her head to keep them back.

“Everyone else was worried that you were trapped in the basement since we'd lost track of you,” George began. He continued to talk as Casey walked up to him, her jumpsuit still unzipped down to her navel, which caught his attention.

“If you think that's going to save you—” he began, but his words changed to a groan as Casey hit him so hard on his left cheek that his head spun around and a spray of blood hit the wall. A moment later, his body hit the catwalk with a loud thud after which Casey nudged him with her toe, getting no response. Turning her back on him a moment later, Casey quickly stripped off her clothes and then dressed in her new ones. The last one to stuff her jumpsuit and boots in the backpack, Casey hurried back up the ladder they'd come down earlier.

Riss and Lex waited in silence, staring alternately at the ceiling and at George until hearing a tearing, crashing sound overhead. A few moments later, Casey came sliding back down the ladder, nudged George with her foot again while shaking her head, then Lex and Casey followed Riss farther into the sewers. After they'd moved well beyond where they'd started, Lex glanced back at Casey.

“Did the thing with the building go OK?” she half-whispered to Casey.

The blonde nodded. “Yeah. Our old clothes are up there under a bunch of rubble; I pulled a support pillar down on top of them.”

“What about George?”

“Nobody listening would have heard us, so they can't be sure if he's lying or not. By the time they might get interested in pursuing us, we should be far away. Idiot apparently had a glass jaw,” said Casey, smiling and straightening up.

Lex smiled in return. “Well, for you, anyway.”

“Let's keep going,” Riss suggested, indicating the way with a jerk of her head.

The three of them walked as rapidly as possible alongside the rain sewer, Lex eventually trailing behind. The pain in her head had ratcheted up in intensity, and her stomach had started to roll and grind as well. She willed herself to keep putting one foot in front of another and follow her friends, trying to swallow the pain back down.

Reaching the exit they planned to try, Riss went up first and fed a small fiber optic camera through the manhole cover to check the street. She came back down, nodding that it seemed deserted and Casey went up to remove the cover.

Riss went up first. Her route would take her in the far entrance to the train station, and Casey waited five minutes before following. Casey had agreed to go in the front, and Lex was to wait another five minutes before following to go in the nearest side entrance. After a couple of minutes, however, Lex blinked, realizing her vision had started to have blank patches, and she couldn't tell exactly how much time had passed, since she'd forgotten to mark Casey's departure. Cursing under her breath, she threw her glow stick into the sewer water and climbed up the ladder. Putting one of the gloves on that Victor had made for her, she dragged the manhole cover closed and then looked around at the dumpster further down the alley and the clot of plastic shopping bags tangled around a signpost before walking the half block to Union Station.

Seeing the large clock as she came into the main hall, Lex felt relieved that it read a bit after 5AM, which meant she'd more or less kept to the timeline. Unfortunately, although she kept blinking and blinking, her vision remained fragmented, the pain in her head now tooth-grindingly strong. The overhead lights appeared blinding, and she dropped her gaze to look at the linoleum instead.

Not long, Lex told herself, not long now. All I need to do is to get on the train, and then I can rest. She looked up at the signboard, noting the train they'd agreed to take, the first one west, left in an hour for St. Louis. An hour, just an hour, she told herself feverishly, heading for her locker.

Lex realized as she entered the locker row that someone else stood at the other end, and as she raised her head a little, she almost looked straight at Casey before she recognized her friend, then looked away as if bored. As Lex went to unlock her locker, though, something happened. The pain spiked through her head feeling like an ice pick had pierced straight through her skull, and she barely bit back a cry as the locker door swung open and she grabbed the backpack inside. She saw through a foggy haze as Casey turned to look at her, and Lex tried to smile reassuringly, but instead fell to her knees and immediately vomited. Nothing much came out but water and half-dissolved pills, and she didn't feel better afterwards as usual but so much worse as the pain kept growing into something that would surely drown her.

A moment later, Lex felt herself being raised up, and something about the way the person held her made her realize it was Casey.

“Leave me,” Lex said, but she realized her voice was a barely intelligible mumble before she choked altogether at another wave of pain. “I don't think I'm going to make it.”

Casey seemed to understand her anyway. “No, I'm not leaving you,” the blonde said, and to Lex's surprise, she sounded perfectly calm.

Lex's brain spun as she tried to hold onto consciousness for one more minute. “Call the Chens. Don't know why, but I put Mr. Chen's number into my new phone.”

Then the whole world seemed to flee from Lex as the pain pushed her under so far she couldn't open her eyes and everything seemed to shrink to a single, white-hot point of screaming sensation.

- End of Book 1 -

Forward to Chapter 21
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Comments about anything you liked or that you thought could be improved are extremely welcome!





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Hi Palladian! Your RSS feed doesn't seem to be working any more for some reason, not in my reader or on WFG.
Fiona

Thanks, Fiona! I did fiddle around with it, but it seemed to be working. I see a note later (I'm guessing may be from you) that says things are working, so I'm hoping they are. I have to admit that I have noticed that there's a distinct lag between the time when I post and when it shows up on WFG that I've posted, so that might account for some of this. At any rate, thanks again for letting me know!

Seems to be fixed

(Anonymous)
Seems to be fixed now, hurray!

Great chapter, by the way. I can really sympathize with the headaches. Poor girl!

Re: Seems to be fixed

Glad to hear it!

Thank you. : ) I'm sorry to hear that you can, and unfortunately, so can I. Here's hoping you aren't in the throes of one right now!

Psycho Gecko says "Always keep a crowbar handy when you explore the human mind."

(Anonymous)
That's one escape not going as planned, though the brief beatdown on George was nice. It's going to get them followed in no time flat, but still nice. Well, unless they get lucky and he stays out. Not so lucky for George though. Trauma to the head that causes someone to be knocked out for more than five minutes causes brain damage. Less than five minutes, you're fine. More than five minutes, something's going to go dead in the head. Insane in the membrane. Pitter patter in the grey matter. Stinker in the thinker. Unkind in the mind. Vortex in the cortex. Parabellum in the cerebellum. Troll in the skull. Megalodon in the encephalon. No fun in the cerebrum.

I think you get the point.

Re: Psycho Gecko says "Always keep a crowbar handy when you explore the human mind."

Yeah, that crowbar would definitely have come in handy in this case!

Unfortunately, there was a lot that didn't go as planned. : ( As I've heard it said, though, the important thing is the planning, not the plan itself (since life usually deviates from the plan about 2 seconds into it). I think Casey is probably feeling a lot less intimidated by George now, which is nice. As for George, I don't think he'll be out that long, but it's probably going to take him a while to find a way out of the sewers and back to where everyone else is, since the way out of the sewer above him is now a raging inferno of collapsed building.

Of course, since George doesn't seem to use what's upstairs a lot, maybe it wouldn't be a big loss to him not to have as much of it...

As always, thanks for reading and commenting!

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