Firefighters have an incredibly tough job. I mean, I know that’s not really much of a revelation, but I’d never really thought before about how much mental fortitude it takes to head into a burning, collapsing building. Every cell in your body is screaming for you to leave. To ignore that primal demand in hopes of saving someone else’s life? That’s nothing short of amazing.
I have the idea to drag Vince over to where the cops are, so that the firefighters can get all of us at once if they got here in time, but I’m not able to drag him two steps before my ribs flare up and I fall to my knees, coughing. So when the rescuers come charging in the front door a terrifyingly long few minutes later, I’m still curled up around my oxygen cylinder, unable to stop staring at the advancing fire.
When I hear them come into the building, I shout, “Over here!” Or try to, anyway. I stupidly draw in a breath outside of the mask, and get a lungful of soot for my troubles. Instead of shouting, I collapse into another coughing fit. It gets their attention, though, so I suppose it’s not the worst result.
The fireman who gets me to my feet tries to pry the backpack loose from my hands, but I’ve got it in a death grip, and after a second he shrugs and gives up. “I’m going to support you to the door!” he shouts to me, over the hissing roar of the fire. “Rodriguez will carry your friend!”
“He’s not my friend,” I wheeze, but the fireman just nods at me, so I don’t think I was understandable. He helps me outside at a fast walk, shielding me from much of the fire with his body. By the time we’re at the front door, I’ve got my lungs under control again. The air outside is astoundingly cold, and I shiver as it hits me.
The fireman turns to go back inside, and I call out, “Wait!”
He turns and I say, “There are police officers down, unconscious in the back right of the main room. Near the offices.” My voice is still pretty raspy, but at least I’m audible again.
He nods and disappears back into the flames, moving at a quick trot. An EMT puts an arm around my shoulders and guides me farther away from the building, saying something that I don’t process.
Peterson and the other six cops who made it out are there, pointing to Vince and various clones as they are carried out and arguing with the medical personnel. Seeing me, Peterson breaks off and hurries over.
“Which one is the original?” he demands. The EMT with me gives him a dirty look, but I point to where Vince is lying unconscious on a stretcher.
“We’re cuffing the others — if these people will let us do our jobs,” Peterson says, returning the EMT’s dirty look. “But what do we do with him when he wakes up?”
I shake my head. “He’s…I don’t think he can do anything anymore. At least, I hope not. I can’t.”
Peterson addresses the EMT directly. “As I’ve been saying to your colleagues, this man is part of a gang that’s wanted for a large number of violent crimes, including attempted murder. And now arson,” he says, jerking his head sideways to indicate the inferno behind him. “So if I could please cuff him so that he doesn’t take someone hostage when he wakes up, I would greatly appreciate that.”
The EMT glares at Peterson for a moment longer, but says, “As long as I can treat him, do what you need to do. At least he’s not as badly burned as some of the guys over there.”
“They’re violent criminals who just burned down the police station! We can’t let them wander around just because they’re hurt.”
“You can’t handcuff someone with second-degree burns on his wrists, either!”
I sit down on the ground and lean against the ambulance, still cradling my oxygen tank absently. Fire hoses spray torrents of water over the burning station, slowing the progress of the burn. I watch as the firefighters carry out dozens of bodies; to my relief, nearly all of them begin showing signs of life within a few minutes of being carried clear of the fire. All of them have burns, but from the looks of it, everyone might have made it out.
There’s a rattle to my right, and then a voice speaks. “So, Danny. Nice work. You got me.” This is followed by a second rattle as Vince shakes the wrist that’s handcuffed to the frame of the stretcher.
I ignore him and keep looking ahead at the fire, and after a moment, he continues.
“All it cost you was a police station, huh? Not bad, not bad. I wonder what those cost to rebuild? A lot more than I ever stole, I bet.”
“You tried to kill me, Vince. You tried to kill a bunch of people.”
Vince laughs, a harsh croak from seared lungs. “Funny thing is, I can talk to you now. There isn’t this fist of hate in my head when I think about you. Guess I got it out of my system.”
I don’t have anything to say to that, so I stay silent and we both watch the fire. Eventually, one of the police comes and wheels Vince’s stretcher away, and I watch alone again for a while.
Another EMT comes by to put a blanket around my shoulders. She tries to take the oxygen tank from me, but I still haven’t relaxed my grip on it.
“It’s mine!” I tell her.
“Where did you get it?” she asks.
“I’m holding it for a friend. I told her I’d return it.”
As she leaves, I realize that my left hand aches from having been curled tightly around the bag for so long. I try to open my fist, but the fingers are locked in place, and I end up having to use my right hand to uncurl it. The zipper teeth are branded across my palm in an angry red welt from where I gripped the metal during the fire, and my hand aches in the cold air.
I look at the bag stupidly for a minute, then twist the valve shut on the oxygen tank and hug the bag to my chest again. I sit there watching as the water slowly defeats the fire, as the roof collapses and buries the interior of the building in rubble, as the policemen organize the wounded into friend and foe and allow the EMTs to take everyone away for treatment.
The fire is still burning slightly when they help me into the back of the ambulance. I’m crammed in there with three of the cops who made it out before the fire started in earnest; they’re all a little banged up from the brawl, but they’re not burned and are therefore low-priority transport, like me. We’re basically going to the hospital for a once-over so they can send us home with a clear conscience.
Partway through the ride, one of the cops leans over and says to me, “Do you have any idea what happened in there?”
Well, yeah. It’s pretty straightforward. An immortal man cloned himself a couple of dozen times and started a fistfight with the police, so to stop him, I set the entire station on fire with my mind. Oh, and also there’s a terrifying semi-sentient puddle of body parts that’s taken over much of the floor, but that’s probably dead now. If it was ever alive.
I’m still trying to think of a way to translate this into something normal when another officer says, “Leave him alone, Sean. He’s in shock.”
“Sorry,” says Sean.
I don’t feel like I’m in shock. It seems like the sort of thing I’d know about, certainly. Doesn’t it? I stare straight ahead, puzzling over this until we arrive at the hospital. It’s not until an EMT taps me on the shoulder to guide me out of the ambulance that I realize everyone else has already left. I might be in shock.
The EMT takes me to the waiting room, and the nurse at the counter gives me a clipboard with paperwork to fill out. I take it back to a seat and stare at it emptily for several minutes before putting it down in my lap, still totally blank. Then, with my left arm curled through the straps of the oxygen cylinder backpack, I fall asleep.