Nathan stopped in the middle of the cube farm and turned toward the wall of windows that overlooked the Puget Sound.
What the hell had that been? It had sounded like a bomb going off.
Quickly, Nathan surveyed the rest of the office, glad once again to be tall enough to see over the cube walls. As the product manager for his team, he’d used that to his advantage to watch his people now and again.
A few others had noticed the noise and were ground hogging. Most were still going about their day, writing email, preparing presentations, surfing the web. A few were even working, writing code or testing.
A whistling sound spun Nathan around. From the north. Something was approaching them, though they were up on the thirtieth floor.
Shit. Was that the blast wind from the bomb?
“Get down!” Nathan shouted.
Sue, one of the testers, stood there gaping at him. “Huh?”
Some of the people who had also seen the oncoming dark cloud had walked closer to the window to get a better look.
Geez. Self–preservation instinct of lemmings. These were the people who would go down to the beach to watch the tsunami, weren’t they? Even his kids had better sense.
“Get down! Behind something! Away from the windows!” Nathan shouted again, shoving people down as he raced toward the northern wall.
The blast wind hit the glass building hard, shattering windows. Nathan dropped behind the nearest desk, cursing his great height, trying to scrunch himself up into as small a ball as he could.
The wind howled like a hunting beast as it blasted through the office, rocking the desk Nathan hid behind, shattering the windows on the far side of the office. The whole building tilted in a way that sickened Nathan.
The office floor was not supposed to move like that.
The wind passed and the world straightened itself again.
Damn. How fast had that wind been going? How far would it reach? Bobby and Jimmy were down in Federal Way, with his ex–wife. Would they feel that blast wind too?
Shredded paper still floated listlessly in the air when Nathan looked up. Wind continued to blow, an eerie sound in a normally closed office. A woman was weeping.
But that was it. The hum of all the computers had died. Dimness enshrouded them—all the lights had gone out.
Nathan pushed himself up, taking account of who was there, who remained. It was automatic with him, drilled into him from his dad, the fire crew chief. As far as he could tell, people had only minor cuts. No arterial blood.
“Okay people, listen up,” Nathan said loudly.
Everyone ignored him.
“Hey. HEY!” Nathan shouted.
People started turning toward him. This was good. He figured a large part of this group was in shock. He had to get them out of there, however. It wasn’t safe. Who knew how much structural damage the building had taken? He shivered, remembering how the whole place had tilted.
Or if there would be more bombs?
“We need to leave this floor. Start heading down the stairs. There should be flashlights in the kitchen. Take only your purse or backpack, don’t worry about carting anything else down thirty flights of stairs, unless you absolutely can’t survive without it,” Nathan instructed, helping Sue stand up.
She still looked dazed. They all did.
But they had to move. Now.
“What was that?” Gary, from finance, finally asked.
“What is that?” Latoya asked, pointing through the broken window toward the north.
A black mass swirled above the buildings to the north, the direction the blast wind had come from. It appeared to be a hole to someplace, somewhere else. Inky darkness and foreign stars shown through it.
The building shuddered.
Nathan hadn’t seen much that he would outright declare evil. Men did what they did, usually because they had good, if selfish, intentions.
That? That rift, or whatever the hell it was? That was evil.
“Don’t know. Don’t care,” Nathan said firmly. He turned people physically away from the windows, pushing them gently toward the emergency exit. “We must get out of the building. We’re too high up.”
That got people’s attention. More than one person shuddered. A few people jogged toward the exit, realizing what danger they were in.
“My phone’s dead.”
Nathan looked up from herding people toward the exit. Mike, his prima donna coder, stood in the middle of the flow, blocking people.
“Duh,” Nathan said, plucking Mike’s phone from his hands and turning him toward the door.
“That blast took out all the cell phone towers for miles,” Nathan explained, though he wasn’t certain. “Nothing is going to work inside the city for a while.”
“Hey, my tablet won’t turn on!” Sue, his tester, complained. Now she stopped, blocking everyone.
Nathan felt like screaming. Didn’t these people understand that the blast had made the building dangerous? That if a second blast hit, they’d all be toast? The tower might crumble?
While Nathan hadn’t been in New York during 9/11, he’d certainly seen the footage, like everyone else. Had it analyzed and drilled into his head by his dad.
“Maybe it was an EMP,” Stanley, the reasonable coder said. “An electro–magnetic pulse bomb that went off.”
Whatever bomb that had gone off had been much stronger than that, but Nathan wasn’t about to argue with these people.
They were mostly nerds and geeks. They should know these things. But they were his nerds and geeks.
“Come on people, let’s worry about it later. We’ve got thirty floors to get down,” Nathan said.
He waited, holding the door, making certain the rest of the people on the floor exited.
A strange roaring sound caught Nathan’s attention. He paused, looking back toward the north.
The rift had shifted on its axis. Instead of spreading out in a spiral across the city, it now reared above it, like a giant wave, clawing at the air. It looked like an artist had taken a picture of the sky, then torn out a chunk of it, revealing the night beyond it.
Except this wasn’t an ordinary night. There were stars glimmering in that darkness, yes.
But also other things. Beasts that roamed between the stars.
At the base of the darkness, fog rolled into the city, sniffing and feeling its way around. A mist that filled Nathan with fear.
He shook himself and slammed the emergency exit door behind him, telling himself that he’d seen too many made–for–TV schlocky science fiction and horror movies.
He still dreaded what would happen to the tower when the mist reached it.
About the twentieth floor, the air turned foul. It was as if someone had hacked into one of the sewage pipes, spilling it out over the stairs.
Nathan put his hand firmly over his nose and mouth and tried to take shallow breaths. Visits to the gym (when he had time) certainly hadn’t prepared him for these stairs.
But at least his kids kept him in somewhat good shape, though they were older now, less interested in horsing around or playing catch, more interested in their phones and video games.
How was he going to get to them? If it had been an EMP, car engines would be fucked for miles. The interstate would be blocked for days with dead cars.
Nathan would walk if he had to. Caroline, his ex, could manage multi–million dollar negotiations before coffee in the morning, but often failed at the little things like making sure there was food in the house for the boys to eat.
Though Nathan could have taken the stairs faster if he’d been on his own, he walked with his team, encouraging them. More than one had lighters that they were using to navigate the stairs with—the emergency flashlights carefully stocked in the kitchens on every floor were all toast.
Not all of these people smoked. At least not cigarettes. Made him curious about the rest, though.
“Hey Boss,” came a voice from down further on the concrete stairs.
The group stopped. Nathan sighed. He felt like a schoolteacher with six–year–olds, constantly telling them to stick together and to keep moving.
Nathan slipped by the group that had stopped, pressing himself against the cold (slimy?) iron railing.
“Yeah?” Nathan asked when he reached the landing where Stanley, Mike, and a few others stood.
The staircase going down was filled with billowing smoke.
No, it couldn’t be smoke. He would have smelled smoke. His father had been hypersensitive to smoke of any kind. Hell, his dad had been able to tell when someone was smoking in their car from two cars away on the interstate.
It was that damned mist he’d seen pouring out of the base of the rift.
Nathan grabbed hold of the staircase railing and leaned his head into the mist. It felt like…mist. Cold. Damp.
But silent. He couldn’t hear anything below him, and he should have been able to hear the people in front of them, also clomping down the stairs.
It had a metallic scent to it, like wet steel. Not like fog from the ocean at all.
Nathan turned back to Mike and Stanley. They were going to hate this.
He still managed to keep a straight face as he said, “All right. I want everyone to hold hands.”
“What?” Mike asked, instantly offended.
Nathan couldn’t help but give him a tight smile. “You heard me people. Hold hands. This mist isn’t natural. The only way we’re going to get through this is together. You got me?”
“Yeah, boss,” Stanley said. He held his hand out to Mike. “Think of it as a team–building experience.”
“Exactly, the kind that the evil HR gnomes make us do once a year,” Nathan said.
He paused. He shouldn’t have said that out loud. “Sorry,” he said hastily.
“It’s okay, boss man,” Stanley said. “We knew you hated them as much as the rest of us.”
Nathan wasn’t sure what to say to that. So he merely nodded, took hold of Mike’s other hand and called out to the group, “Stay close. Don’t let go. We can get through this.”
Nathan took one last deep breath of the fouled air on the staircase before stepping into the mist. Instantly blind, he clamped onto the railing with his other hand and started down the stairs slowly.
It was odd. The group behind him felt like a living thing, as if he was actually connected to each and every person along the chain. Sue’s worry for her sister crept over his shoulders like a cobweb shawl, never fitting right and always cold. Latoya’s guilt over her mother and daughter dragged his ankles down, like they were shackled together. Why had she left that morning after such harsh words?
Was the cold of the mist intensifying? The dark thoughts echoed on and on. Nathan knew that shouting was useless—even if his team could hear him, they’d ignore him, like they always did. Boss man coming down from the high lords of the company to dictate what they should do, as always, instead of getting out of the way and letting them do their damned jobs.
Nathan shook himself.
Where the hell had that come from? Did his team really think of him that way?
No, there was something about this mist. Something that wasn’t right.
Nathan focused on grasping the railing more tightly. The cold steel bit into his palm.
That was real.
The concrete steps under his loafers. The way his chest moved in and out. The ache of his calves after so many stairs.
Those were real as well.
The light up ahead? Probably not real. But Nathan concentrated on it anyway.
Hey, if the mist could amplify all the bad things, why couldn’t it do the good things as well?
A man Nathan didn’t recognize stood on a landing and held what looked like a medieval torch—a bright fire burning in an iron basin, balanced on top of a long wooden handle.
The guy was dressed like most office workers, with his office shirt tucked over his rotund belly and into his dress slacks, loafers and glasses.
“What floor are you from?” the guy asked. He glanced at Nathan’s face, then glanced away.
“Thirtieth,” Nathan replied.
There were at least five more floors above theirs.
And why wouldn’t this guy meet his eye?
“Good, good,” the guy said, nodding. “You’re on eleven, now. Stick together. Ignore the squishy bits, below.”
Nathan did not like the sound of that. “Squishy bits? And where the hell did you find that torch?”
“You’ll see,” the guy said, shaking his head. “The torch was just lying there, on the floor, after the mist curled up,” he said defensively. “It lit up when I touched it. I seem to be the only one who can hold it,” he added quickly.
“Okay,” Nathan said. He wasn’t about to take the torch from the guy, though it was the only thing that seemed to hold the damned mist and fog back.
“Get as many past the lobby as you can,” the guy warned, stepping back.
What the hell? How could he just disappear like that? Was the mist that thick?
Or just that unreal?
Nathan gave two quick squeezes to Mike’s hand before he started down the stairs again.
Only eleven more flights.
They could do this.
Four flights down, Nathan’s foot sank into the next stair, maybe half an inch.
Shit. Was this what that guy had meant by the squishy parts? Was the concrete melting?
Or was it covered in something that Nathan didn’t really want to see? He still couldn’t smell anything, but he remembered the foul odor from just above the mist.
He squeezed Mike’s hand twice as he took another cautious step. Just as mushy as the first.
Was that something oozing over the top of his shoe?
No. There was nothing there.
Nathan took another step.
The guy had said to ignore the squishy bits. Nathan could do that. Just as he’d ignored the ripe smell from Bobby’s diapers when he’d been sick, or the heartbreaking wail that Jimmy as a baby had given when he didn’t get his way.
They could do this.
Was the next step more firm?
Was everything in his imagination?
Nathan tried to picture more light in the dark mist. Maybe another flame billowing next to him.
All he felt was the cool mist tickling the back of his neck, making goosebumps break out across his shoulders.
Goddamn this mist. Nathan was really starting to hate whatever the hell it was. Why couldn’t it just go back to its own universe?
But it was here, now, and Nathan had to deal with it.
He still burned with anger, though. Burned with desire, too, for more light.
For more solid footing on the stairs. For the chance to see his kids.
Something answered. Like an extra organ had just formed in the middle of his chest, a heater that warmed his skin.
Nathan gulped, then blew out quickly. Had he swallowed the mist? It seemed to be deep inside of him, now.
Whatever it was fed his fire, his own light. Brightened the area around him.
Nathan forced himself to take a step, then another, the darkness honing in on the light he now felt inside of himself.
The darkness was hungry for that light. Tried to lick his skin to get any part of it. Then the darkness condensed around him, enveloping him, trying to smother that light.
The mist couldn’t take it from him, though. Just as his bitch of an ex–wife hadn’t been able to take his boys from him.
Sure, he didn’t live with them anymore, however, they were still his.
He could still see Jimmy’s first smile. Remembered how tightly Bobby had gripped Nathan’s fingers as he took his first steps.
The world could go to hell and back (and it possibly already had) but Nathan still had his boys.
The darkness grew solid around Nathan. He was blind—couldn’t see, taste, hear, or smell anything. The railing under his fingertips grew faint, as if he was holding onto the thinnest silk cord.
But Nathan held on. Took the next step. And the next.
The darkness lost its grip. The air suddenly smelled normal again, like a musty staircase that too many sweaty bodies had passed through recently.
Nathan heard his own footsteps on the concrete suddenly. And the cold steel of the railing pushed up against his palm.
Abruptly, Nathan walked out of the mist. He was suddenly in an empty staircase. He didn’t see anyone ahead of him. He walked to the next landing, still holding Mike’s hand, before he finally turned back.
Mike followed him, standing beside him. And Stanley. And Sue. And Latoya. And Jeremy. And Mikhal. And Vamshi. And more.
A knife slashed across Nathan’s heart when he felt the chain break.
Someone along the line had fallen—they’d let the darkness in.
Before Nathan could sprint up the stairs, Mike and Stanley grabbed hold of his arms.
“You can’t save everyone,” Mike said sternly. “You have to get us out first.”
Nathan struggled against them for a moment, then stopped.
Mike was right, for once. Nathan had made it through. He’d brought over a dozen with him.
Someone along the chain had fallen. But the others were still together. They could help each other through the mist and the darkness.
Nathan had to get his team out of the building.
They didn’t pass anyone else on the staircase, which Nathan thought was strange. However, at least six more people joined them from above, who’d made it through the darkness, who’d been part of the original chain.
Seemed Gary from finance actually had his uses.
Nathan paused just before the door to the lobby. The people behind him bunched up anxiously.
“Now, you heard what the guy said about the lobby?” Nathan asked.
“What guy?” Mike asked.
Mike had been right behind Nathan. Hadn’t he seen the guy?
“You know, the guy with the torch. Up on the eleventh floor,” Nathan said.
The others glanced at each other, then back at Nathan, shaking their heads.
“Okay then. Never mind. But we hustle our way through the lobby. Quickly,” Nathan instructed the people following him.
“Yes, boss,” Stanley said. He reached for Mike’s hand again.
Nathan hesitated. Would it be better for the group to go through as a chain? “No, bunch together,” he instructed. “Not a chain. Groups of twos and threes,” he said. “Ready?”
“You know, the HR gnomes would probably have a field day with all this touching,” Mike grumbled.
“You’re alive because of it,” Nathan snapped. “Now come on people. Let’s move out.”
He knew the words he spoke weren’t his own, that from somewhere deep inside him he was channeling his father.
He didn’t care, as long as they got out alive.
Nathan yanked open the door leading to the lobby, unsure of what to expect.
They’d come out right next to the elevators. To the left were the doors and the street.
“Move!” Nathan shouted.
Stanley and Mike started sprinting toward the door, followed by Vamshi, Carol, and Pat, and the other groups.
Stanley hit the door leading to the street hard and pulled Mike through it.
Vamshi slowed, then stopped in the middle of the lobby, green mist forming around him. The girls kept running.
“Go! Go! Go!” Nathan shouted, herding the others out. “Don’t stop! Not for anything!”
Nathan glanced at the open lobby to his left as he raced toward the doors.
The nice, well–trimmed trees and bushes had gone seriously wild. They grabbed at the people fleeing, throwing vines and prehensile branches at them.
The lobby had also grown…aware. It had been a nice, generic lobby before, exactly like hundreds of other business lobbies in downtown Seattle.
Now, it watched, aware of them, like a wild cat in the trees, stalking it prey.
They had to get out of there. Or the building would keep them.
Nathan did the only thing he could think of—he plowed into Vamshi. Maybe if he could get the other man out the door, the mist would let him go.
But running into Vamshi was like running into a pillar of concrete. That was what he was starting to resemble, actually, turning solid and square as he stretched up toward the ceiling, planting himself in the lobby.
The green mist now dug into Nathan. It was greedily happy to see him. It wanted his power, his soul. It would use him to drive its roots into the basement pilings of the building and take the whole thing over. Make the whole building come alive.
No! Nathan silently screamed, trying to brush the mist off of himself.
It merely cackled and lingered on his bare skin.
NO. Nathan would not be stopped. This stupid mist couldn’t keep him here.
It would not stop him from seeing his boys.
Fire erupted from Nathan’s hands, burning the mist. That spot in his chest grew warm as well.
Where the hell had that come from? And why wasn’t it burning him?
Nathan didn’t know. Didn’t care. Directed it toward the mist vines wrapped around his legs, the smell of burnt leaves rising as they released him.
Without stopping again, Nathan raced for the front doors, making it out of the building.
Though Nathan wanted to keep running, he made himself stop and turn back to his team, the people he’d rescued from the thirtieth floor.
There were other people on the street as well. They all looked as though they were in as much shock as his crew.
Both Mike and Stanley took a step back as Nathan drew closer.
“What?” Nathan asked, glancing quickly over himself. He wasn’t still burning, was he?
“Dude. Your eyes,” Stanley said. “They’re all kind of gold.”
What the hell did Stanley mean? Nathan turned to Mike who merely nodded. “Go see,” he said, pointing toward the reflective glass of the building.
Nathan walked closer to the glass, though not too close—he didn’t want to give the awakening building another chance to grab him.
His brown eyes had a golden glow that he’d never seen.
Was that why the guy with the torch hadn’t been able to look Nathan in the face?
It wasn’t normal. Nathan suspected it had to do with the fire he still felt burning inside of him, the fire his father had always feared.
Was he the only one who had changed? He glanced back at the team. Everyone was giving Gary from finance extra space as well. He had led a group of them past the darkness on the stairs.
Maybe his eyes would start to glow later.
Nathan couldn’t deal with that now. He needed to get moving.
“Okay,” Nathan said as he turned back toward the group. “I need to get to Federal Way. To my kids. Those who want to come with me, can.”
“But I need to go to Bellevue!” Sue complained.
“Then you better get walking,” Nathan said firmly. “If that was an EMP, then nothing electronic is going to be running for miles. The roads will all be blocked.”
“We need to stick together,” Mike said.
“Who else wants to go to Bellevue?” Nathan said, raising his voice, getting everyone’s attention.
At least half a dozen people raised their hand.
“There’s your group,” Nathan said. “Stick together. Help each other out. It’s the only way you’ll survive this.”
“But what is this?” Stanley asked, sounding panicked.
A movement out of the corner of Nathan’s eye caught his attention.
That damned mist—no, myst, it wasn’t a human thing, not of this world—was creeping across the lobby of the building, seeking other victims.
Something stirred deep inside Nathan’s chest. Had he swallowed so much of the myst that it was now a part of him? Was that what drove the flames still burning in his chest, just below the surface?
“I don’t know,” Nathan said. The myst seeped under the lobby door, a thin tentacle.
Nathan strode forward, flames leaping to his palm. He blasted that damned myst, sent it scurrying back.
At least for the moment.
“I don’t know what happened,” Nathan said as he turned back toward his team.
They shrank back. Were his eyes glowing more fiercely now?
“And I don’t care. All I care about is how to survive this. Whatever this is.” Nathan paused, then added, “The world has changed. We must change with it. Or die.”
“Pffft,” Stanley said, walking up to Nathan. “Sounds like what our CEO would have said.”
Nathan chuckled. Stanley was right.
Was it still just a matter of crushing the competition?
The myst in the lobby didn’t look too concerned. Or too crushable.
The group divided into three parts—one going to Bellevue, another to Capitol Hill, and a third with Nathan. They took a very long time saying goodbye.
Even Nathan couldn’t lie to them, tell them that they’d be back at work in a week.
The world they’d known had died. Nathan didn’t want to claim the impossible, but perhaps magic had come in along with the myst. He could still feel…something…burning in his chest.
It wasn’t going to be easy. Millions of dollars of damage had been done. It had probably been more than one bomb given the amount of glass scatted on the street, the way two buildings in the distance had shattered.
But they could rebuild. Drive out the myst. Take back the buildings the myst had awoken.
For now, Nathan would lead his group out of Seattle, parting the myst before him, like Moses leading the peoples of Israel.
They would come back.
Man wouldn’t allow that damned myst to win.