In the movies, there would have been a moment of hesitation while they all looked at each other. One of them would have stepped forward to begin the fight, and I’d start taking them on one by one. Unfortunately, Vince has clearly seen the same movies and knows that that doesn’t work out in favor of the mob, as the eight clones in front of me all rush me at once.
I draw two lines of fire in wide arcs behind them, one on the floor and one on the ceiling. This encircles them in a space about 20 feet across, trapping them in a relatively small area. Of course, I’m also trapped in this area with them, but that’s all right; I was bait for this part of the plan.
Getting a firm grip on my backpack, I swing wildly at the nearest clone, catching him in the shoulder. It’s not a particularly damaging hit, but since he had no idea that the backpack contained an oxygen cylinder, the unexpected force of it knocks him sideways into his duplicates, tumbling them into each others’ way for a split second.
He grabs for the backpack, but I’ve already pulled it back and tucked it tightly to my chest. Then, shutting my eyes, I run backwards as quickly as I can.
For a moment, heat engulfs my entire body, and light flares against my squeezed-closed eyes. There’s a crackle like brittle plastic being crushed right next to my ears, and the unpleasant smell of burning hair. Then I’m through, stumbling backwards and colliding painfully with a desk which is thankfully not yet on fire.
Frantically, I check the backpack, but it seems to have survived the trip unharmed. I think I’m all right, too, though parts of my skin feel a bit crisp and I can see that my arm hair’s been singed away. The surface burn joins the still-healing nose, ribs, finger, skull and assorted bruises in the catalog of damage. I’m starting to forget what it’s like to not be in at least mild pain all of the time.
There’s no time for self-pity right now, though, as the architect of most of that pain is bearing down on me now. He comes in swinging, but I duck and clobber him with the phone from the desk, tangling him briefly in the cord.
He kicks for my knee as he frees himself from the obstruction, but it’s a glancing blow and, as stated, I’m getting used to powering through injuries. Grabbing the computer monitor off of the desk, I bash it haphazardly against the side of his head, and my lucky shot connects; Vince goes down hard, cracking his face against the side of the desk on the way down.
Of course, three more clones are already on their way, and the desk is clear of large objects now. I grab a cup full of pens and hold one threateningly in front of me.
A Vince laughs. “What are you going to do, write a letter of complaint about us?”
I throw the pen at him, and as he reaches to swat it disdainfully aside, I explode it into the hottest flame I can manage. He lets out a surprisingly high-pitched shriek, clasping his hands to his chest like an offended 1800s schoolmarm. The other two clones, warier now, fan out slightly, working to surround me.
I sit on the desk and swing my legs over, twisting as I land on the far side to keep facing the clones. Once there, I heave the desk over at them, setting it on fire as it goes. They recoil, drawing back closer together, and I draw another ring of fire around them, hemming them in. Obviously, any of them can break out the same way I did, but I’m hoping that the knowledge that there are others out there to stop me will cause them enough hesitation to stay put, at least for a little while longer.
I need to find the real Vince. The air is becoming thick with smoke and hazy with heat, and fires are casting strange shadows everywhere. If he escapes, this was all for nothing.
It’s possible that he already has. He could have ducked out the back door as soon as I lost sight of him behind that second wall of flame. If so, I’m wasting time with his doubles here while I should be chasing him.
He set this up, though, so I don’t think he’s gone. He planned this as a showdown, and as far as he knows, he’s still winning it. He’s got to still be here somewhere.
I try the quickest way I can think of to draw him out: taunting. “Hey Vince! You…loser!”
I need to work on my vocabulary. Vince has a seemingly bottomless well of names to call me, and Regina did before him, too. Meanwhile, pretty much all I’ve got is “loser.” It’s kind of embarrassing. I’m getting shown up by a two-bit criminal.
Repetitive or not, though, it works. From somewhere in the smoke, I hear, “I’m going to watch you swallow your own intestines, Dan!”
Shoot, that’s really evocative. I have seriously got to step up my game.
I start to walk towards where I heard his voice, but something’s wrapped around my ankle. I look down, preparing to free it, and shout aloud wordlessly.
Vince’s horrifying human stain has been spreading, and has now come up behind me. My ankle is caught in the grasp of a half-formed hand, a thumb and two fingers melting directly into a puddle of formless, freckled flesh. An eyeball turns to look at me, and a mouth bursts forth to sink into the side of my shoe. More fingers extrude as I watch, reaching upward and pulling hands behind them, clambering their way up my leg.
This is not a person. You can burn it, says the logical corner of my mind, and for once the emotional part fervently agrees with it. With a shudder of revulsion, I light up the writhing pile of flesh, and tear myself free from the burning mass as it flails, trying to escape the flames. The smell of roasting meat rises from it, sickening me even as my mouth automatically waters.
I’ve left my right shoe behind, burning along with that section of the fleshpuddle, and my sock and pants leg are also on fire. I slap at them with both hands, stifling the fire, as Vince laughs somewhere in the dimness of the station.
“Keep laughing, Vince!” I shout, then stop to cough as I inhale smoke. “Keep laughing. I’m coming for you!”
“Bring it, parasite! I can do this all day.”
I kneel down on the ground and peer in all directions, squinting to see through the smoke. I know Vince must be able to see me, judging by his laughter, so it follows that I should be able to see him, too.
At first, I see nothing but furniture, fires, the grasping limbs of the body pool, and the unconscious forms of the fallen cops. Then, just as I’m about to give up, I spot Vince, crouched on the floor exactly where I last saw him. He’s on one knee, his hands pressed against the floor at the origin point of the replicating mass. His face is tucked into the armpit of his jacket to breathe, which means he isn’t looking at me right now. This is perfect.
I break into a run — not toward Vince, but toward the cops. The arms of the puddle grab for me as I leap over it, and the two spot fires I run through add to my burns, but I make it there successfully.
“I see you, Dan!” Vince calls out mockingly, and a clone lunges at me from the haze. He slams a fist into my temple and I see stars, but there’s no immediate followup. My vision clears and I see the clone stomping on the hand of one of the cops, who’s awake enough to have grabbed him around the ankle. With the clone thus distracted, I swing as hard as I can with the backpack, cracking him across the side of the head. He staggers to the side and, with the policeman’s hand holding his ankle in place, falls over.
The clone screams as teeth sink into his neck and hands clutch at his eyes, seeking purchase. The flesh mass has closed the distance and is apparently unconcerned with friend or foe. I start toward the clone to pull him out, but with a dozen cops on the ground and both the fires and the mass closing in fast, there just isn’t time. I turn my back even as his screams choke off wetly.
I start dragging the nearest desk over to the cops. The one who’s moving looks up at me.
“Can you get up?” I ask him, and he nods. “Then help me make as much shelter as you can. I’m — this place is about to go up.”
He lurches to his feet and grabs the other side of the desk. As we pull it, he catches sight of the rapidly approaching pool of body parts.
“What — what –” he coughs, pointing.
“No time! Pull this!”
“You’re surrounded, Dan!” Vince calls out, and I see that he’s right. He’s brought the mass in on all sides, and we’re in the center of a circle no more than thirty feet across and shrinking quickly.
“No more time! Uuuuupppppp!”
All around me, the mass bursts into flame. At the same time, I torch as much of the ceiling as I can reach. The tiles collapse, crashing to the ground, filling the air with smoke and dust. I hear coughing all around me as I hold my breath and fumble with my backpack.
I can see the oxygen mask inside, already hooked up to the tank. As I open the pack, though, the zipper sticks, trapping my fresh air just inches away from my grasp. I tear at it frantically, but it won’t budge. Finally, with a whisper, I melt the slider into slag and rip the pack open, jamming the mask to my face.
I inhale deeply, but get nothing. It’s broken! It’s empty! I’ve forgotten to open the valve. I twist it in desperation, and cool air flows into the mask. I breathe in greedily.
So here I am, surrounded by fire. Around me, the fires burn hotter and hotter as I feed them all I can. Holding my breath, I press the mask to the face of each of the cops in turn, but I have no idea if it’s doing any good. The one who was conscious has slumped back again, but at least he and several others are partially sheltered by the desk.
Hot debris rains down on my back, and I curl my body around the oxygen tank, protecting it. With the mask to my face, I stoke the flames higher, stealing all of the oxygen from the room. Everything is shimmering in a haze now, but I’m pretty sure I can see Vince collapsed face-down where he had been crouched.
I crawl over to check, rolling awkwardly through the burning fleshpool, burning my hands on the carpet. It’s him, the original; I can tell by the bullet-tattered clothes, charred though they are. He’s unconscious but not dead, dropped by the lack of oxygen. My plan worked perfectly.
I look around at the raging inferno consuming the building I’m trapped in the center of, and amend my statement slightly. Mostly perfectly.
I really could have used a step two to the plan, though. This was as far as I’d thought. I kind of figured getting out would be a little bit easier.
Abruptly, my entire body cringes in that momentary, all-over ice-cream headache that signals the removal of my powers. With the mask held tightly to my face, I laugh hysterically. Looks like you’ve successfully passed another challenge, Dan! Everything is on fire. Great work. Way to save lives.
Over the demanding roar of the flames, I can hear sirens. I hope they get here in time.