Chapter 23:

Set Ablaze

Code: Zero Defect

I ducked behind a small crevice in the middle of the corridor. Already, the coatsmen's marching could be heard running behind me. Luckily, they turned the wrong way, giving me a moment to rest.

With a deep breath, I reached for my shoulder and clenched the wound as hard as I could. I've been shot before, so I'm somewhat familiar with how it feels, but damn... this hurts.

Along with that wound, several cuts wrapped around the edges of my arms and legs from the bullets grazing past me as I ran. This won't do. I'll be completely immobilized before I can get those prisoners out of here.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the earpiece. After a momentary pause, I slipped it into my ear.

"Astrid," I muttered.

A couple of seconds later, she replied, "Eh? Strider? Hold on one second, buddy. I'm in the middle of overseeing an operation right now."

"Heh... At the refinery?"

"Huh? How did you... Wait... Don't tell me... Where the hell are you, Strider?"

"Take a wild guess."

"Ain't no way... Are you actually suicidal? Or are you just that dumb that you'd waltz into a den crawling with enemies all by yourself?"

"Neither, but I am a sitting duck right now, and I need your guidance. Can you help me?"

"What... Haaa... There's a reason why we told you to drop all of this, buddy."

"And watch all of these innocent people get tortured? I might as well be killing them myself."

She said nothing for a solid minute while I attempted to stabilize my breathing. I just need to rationalize my pain, and I'll feel better. This is nothing compared to what the people of the undercity must go through every single day. That's the truth, so I can't keep sitting around like I'm the unlucky one from just a bullet wound.

"Found you," Astrid said.

From the corner of my eye, I saw a camera on the ceiling slowly turning towards me.

"That was fast," I chuckled.

"We've been monitoring this place for a while now," she said. "The cameras in that building are all under my control."

"Whoa, that means I snuck past the greatest hacker the city has ever seen? Awesome."

"... Shut up."

I couldn't help but crack a smile, even in a situation like this. I won't admit it to her, but it's nice hearing her voice right now.

"Wait, you're hurt," Astrid noticed.

"Tell me something I don't know," I scoffed.

"This isn't the time to be joking. You're bleeding everywhere. If you don't-"

"No time. What's important right now is getting all of those people out of here."

She remained silent for a while. Like her, I'm a defect. I expect her of all people to understand what's going through my mind right now. Opposing the High Order is not the only reason we fight. We also fight for those who fall victim because of their beliefs.

At the very least, I'm gonna get them out of here no matter what. If I die, I die. That's all there is to it. Until then, I have to succeed. Otherwise... They'll die with me, and that's not something I'm willing to simply let happen.

"Go further down the corridor," Astrid began speaking. "On your left, there will be a small divot that leads to a staircase down."

"Understood," I said.

I forced myself off the ground and ran. Just like she said, there was a set of stairs leading to the first level. I quickly made my way down only to be met with an intersection.

"Take the right corridor until you see an exit sign," Astrid continued. "There's a set of windowless doors there. Get inside."

Following her directions, I made it to the door that she was talking about. Cautiously, I opened it and stepped in. Doesn't seem like there's anybody here.

Towering all around me were mechanical contraptions. A bunch of pipes were flowing through each one, attaching themselves to an even larger tube near the center of the room.

"And this is?" I asked.

"The distillation room," Astrid answered. "Those pipes you see going around are filled with chemicals. All it takes is one tiny spark and boom. There goes half the refinery."

"What? I can't do that. There are still people in here."

"They've already been evacuated."

"Eh? But... how?"

"Let's just say we beat you to the punch, buddy."

I suppose that was possible from the very beginning. After all, there was a huge protest going on outside of the refinery. There's no way something like that would've escaped Calypso's eyes and ears.

"Okay, so... How am I supposed to set this thing off?" I asked.

"Walk up to the distillation chamber on your left," she said. "See that time bomb?"

It took me no time to find it, as it was a huge colorful box that did not look like it belonged there at all. Attached to it was a screen and a number pad.

"Press the pound button and type exactly as follows," Astrid demanded. "Got it?"

"Understood," I said.

"Six. Zero. Eight. One. Three. Six. Four."

After completing the sequence, a series of beeps went off. The timer then appeared on the screen, counting down from exactly three minutes.

I took a step back and looked around. "Timer set."

"Astrid to all stations," she said like a train conductor. "Charges are set and about to blow. Two minutes and fifty seconds. Center point at the west perimeters of the building, blast radius will level just about half of the building. For reference from your always caring and beautiful genius, the vehicle depot is the safest point. Thanks for riding with Calypso Express."

I pushed my way out of the doors and bolted through the hallways. Not too sure where I'm going, but I know it's away from the distillation room. I ran and ran, yet my injuries wouldn't allow me to go any faster.

"Calypso, be advised, one minute until kaboom." Astrid came in through the comms.

As much as I would've liked to keep going, I stopped for a second to catch my breath. This isn't good. My vision is fading.

"Wait, Strider!" Astrid called out. "What are you still doing there?! Move your ass!"

Right then, I heard the explosion go off. I turned around to see the windows shattering in rapid succession. The shockwave was coming, and right behind it was a cascading wall of fire.

"Code: Temporal Acceleration," a familiar voice whispered in my ear.

Something latched onto my wrist, but that was all I felt. The next second, I was standing in a completely different environment. Instead of the bright hallway that was being filled with fire, I was now on my knees in a wide, open area.

It was dark. Faint rays of moonlight shone through small windows near the ceiling. From a huge opening to the side, I could see the parking lot being drenched by the sudden shower of rain.

A crack of lightning lit up the room for just a second, but that was all I needed to see everything. This room... It's the vehicle depot. It was almost unrecognizable, but an uneven line of flaming trucks gave it away.

"You..." that same voice muttered. "What are you doing here?"

I tilted my head slightly to see that Zephyr was the one holding onto me. Her cyan eyes glowed brightly in the darkness, but she wasn't the only one.

I slowly turned around. Minerva and Loki stood off to the side, their eyes radiating just as bright as Zephyr. As I concentrated more, I began to notice the sheer amount of bodies lying cold on the ground. Splatters of blood filled the ground with pockets of fire blazing next to them. And there stood Holiday, captain of Calypso, looking down on me with a menacing scowl.