Laura doesn't have time for disorientation or indecision. The universe is half black and half red, rolling around her like some demonic Macintosh mouse ball, furious wind is rising in her ears, there's an organ-rearranging urge to vomit-- all of this is irrelevant. "Tanako" got the drop on her, again. The last time, she vows. It's the end of the world. Plan A. Beat the Glass Man.
She powers all the way up to her phoenix form, full aerospace mobility with a twelve-metre wingspan. Dynamic pressure hammers into her wings, slowing her corkscrew roll. Purple crosshairs flash across her HUD, highlighting the mana output from Nat, Anil and even Nick. Far below them all, Rachel Ferno is a paralysed, dying blip, and the Bridge is outputting a weird alien helix of red and blue. But all the blips are dwarfed by the tornado of leaky force shields which represents the Glass Man.
Laura folds her wings around herself, aims her engines at the sky and dives. One second and she's past the other three. One point five and she's through the peregrine falcon's record, officially the fastest-moving animal on Earth.
The Glass Man looks up. Laura is the brightest thing in the sky, unmistakeable in both the optical and thaumic spectra. He raises a hand to fire. But Laura's coming back to the fight with the bones of a plan, which starts like this: He's human. Humans need to see. She beats him to the trigger, blinding him pre-emptively with magnesium-white light. His first shot misses. It's a drill spell, pushing a rifled cylindrical force field through the air, a gunshot minus the gun and the bullet. It cracks the air open like a hollow thunderbolt. Laura vectors sideways as hard as she can while still closing the gap. Closing his eyes and going thaumic, the Glass Man fires twice more at the luminous being bearing down on him. The second shot grazes Laura's hull, doing no obvious damage but sapping almost all of its structural energy. The third punches directly through her left wing, destroying it and gouging a channel of flesh out of her physical shoulder. Laura howls, more in shock than in pain, as adrenaline cushions almost all of the injury. She staggers in the air, losing her streamlining and starting to roll out of control. She fights it with thrusters, but it isn't enough to recover.
The Glass Man shrugs, scolding himself lightly for wasting time on pointless projectile combat. He reaches out with his other hand, forming a claw grip, as if grasping some invisible throat. Then, he simply teleports Laura into the appropriate gap, discarding her hawk form and all of her momentum.
Laura chokes. At this heart rate, the lack of oxygen is immediately life-threatening. She feels pressure in her head rising, as if blood is about to start forcing its way out of her tear ducts. The Glass Man's "glasswork" follows the contours of his face so closely that Laura can almost see the curled lip, the single eyebrow raised in grudging admiration. The Bridge, floating obediently behind him, simmers down from the sudden activity, fading in colour from actinic purple to nominal dull red.
"Back from backup, hmm?"
Laura manages to grind out an unintelligible sound. She latches onto the Man's wrist with one hand, pulling futilely. Charitably, he relaxes his grip by just a fraction, granting her enough air to spit out an epitaph.
Her self-defence spell fires from the hip, scything up from her other hand into the Man's midsection, crossing his armpit and face. There's a screech like steel across granite across glass. The Glass Man turns his head aside for a second, as if in a light breeze. Then he turns back, unscratched.
And now, says the smug little voice in Laura's head, which is even starting to sound like the Glass Man, it's over.
Laura begins to black out. She relaxes and lets it happen, because whether she's won or not isn't up to her anymore.
And the Bridge, with its braid cleanly severed, falls out of the Glass Man's control.
He notices, after that one moment. He even starts to turn. Too late.
It's Anil who catches the Bridge, landing on it at a relative speed of more than a hundred and fifty kilometres per hour. Without shock absorption, the impact would break him in half, but he's wearing a shield which Laura - through half-closed eyes that are rolling back - recognises, one she wrote herself years back,
EPTRO. The Bridge plugs itself enthusiastically into Anil's brain, and he disappears, too quickly for the Glass Man to loose a shot at him. For a second, there's no further movement.
"What--" the Glass Man begins.
A Montauk ring clunks into existence around his neck.
His firestorm of magic caves in on itself. The mana is all sucked into storage. His shields collapse, including the reinforced armour field which was gripping Laura by the throat, and the light-negative layer. Behind it, he's just another immaculately-suited Wheel Group-esque male, same ideal jawline, same piercing blue eyes. His flight spells evaporate and he and Laura fall away from one another. He clutches the ring at his throat with both hands, but it's too small to come off. His face is a picture of perplexed shock.
Laura, rubbing the circulation back into her own throat, thinks he looks like he doesn't understand how the fight ended this way, so soon. Like he wants more time, to work those seconds out again.
They materialise on the emergency runway at Cape Kennedy, with a nominal flash of blue-red lightning. Anil immediately drops to his knees beside Rachel Ferno. She has arrived lying down, with enough metalwork embedded in her head that it props her up. Blood, black under the pervasive red light of the global warning signs, is pulsing weakly out of the fresh wounds in her skull and dribbling down the wires. Some of it begins to spread across the runway surface. Her fingers twitch.
Anil summons Ed Hatt's kara and slots the ring over Rachel's right hand. "There is no reason why this shouldn't work," he says, the closest thing he has to a prayer. Nick kneels alongside Anil and feels for Rachel's pulse, the rest of his limited first aid knowledge effectively useless here. Natalie and Laura hang back. Laura is dealing with her own injuries, and Natalie can't stomach the sight.
(Thousands of miles away, Hatt clutches at a sudden empty spot at his wrist. He is standing dumbfounded at his office window, staring at the impossible red holograms which tessellate across the entire sky. He knows what the warning signs signify, but he has no idea how to react to this information. High energy magic? How high? Is something going to explode? Is it the world?)
"Are we absolutely sure that this is a Wheel Group medical ring?" Nick asks.
"One thousand percent sure," Anil says. "Ed Hatt wasn't Wheel, he didn't know how to use it. But she does."
"But she's nearly dead. Seven-eighths dead."
"Doesn't matter. It can work. It has to work." Anil stares into Rachel's pierced, blind eyeballs for a second. He curses sharply and checks his wristwatch. "I lost track of time. It must have been sixty seconds already."
The ring evaporates. A thin wisp of smoke curls up in front of them all, glittering red, then dissipates into the breeze coming off the ocean.
Rachel Ferno exhales, and that's the end.
Laura blinks. "What just happened?"
"I. I don't know," Anil says. He invents hopelessly, not daring to turn and look either Ferno sister in the eye. "A permissions issue or a s-special case or something. You said she was ex-Wheel, she never had a ring? Maybe she was never meant to have a ring, maybe they set it up so that she-- couldn't ever use--"
Nick drops Rachel's wrist and instead feels at the side of her throat. There's nothing there either. "She's dead."
There's a long, chilly, bitter silence.
"So what else was there?" Anil asks anybody who's listening, trying to conceal his cracking nerve. "Because, ah. With fifteen minutes left to work, I was really banking everything on Rachel Ferno magically fixing this for us, if you'll excuse the expression."
"You said something about moving the Earth?" Nick offers, desperately.
Anil glances at Natalie. She is shaking her head, and without any verbal communication the two of them arrive at a solid shared conclusion: for mundane mages, with mundane amounts of mana, under such absurd time constraints, it's absolutely futile.
Now. Do it.
Laura shakes herself free of Natalie and takes the Bridge. A rectilinear chunk of dark metal, it has off-puttingly little mass, as if made of steel-plated helium. Eager to be put to work, its connecting cables unthread themselves from the side of Anil's head and bond with Laura's once more.
"There was a Man made of Glass," she says. "He won't even have hit the water yet." She turns and strides down the axis of the dark runway, delivering two commands into the Bridge and then releasing it to take up station behind her shoulder. The deep gouge in that shoulder is forgotten. She flexes her hands.
"Laura?" Natalie turns, detecting an anticipatory growl in her sister's voice. It makes sense to her to summon the Glass Man back, perhaps there's some desperate final gambit there, an outside chance that he still hasn't destroyed his copy of the key, but Natalie realises just too late that this is not at all what Laura is thinking. "Laura, DON'T--"
Laura raises two hands high above her head and summons her mother's magic staff, a thin, two-metre rod of heavy steel. The Glass Man appears ahead of her, stumbling, suddenly reoriented, still with the Montauk ring wrapped around his neck. He finds his footing and looks up and Laura convinces herself she can see his pupils narrow to pinpricks in the split second before she brings the end of the rod down on the top of his skull.
He breaks open with a black splatter and a sick crumbling noise; he plunges chin-first into the asphalt. Laura waits a second for the corpse's limbs to settle, then pulls the staff clear from its resting place, just above the bridge of the Man's nose, and hits him a second time, scattering more matter.
"Oh, Jesus," Anil says.
"She's lost it," Nick says, transfixed.
And a third time.
"Laura, that's enough!" Natalie shouts.
Laura turns. Her eyes might as well be on fire. "She's dead, Nat."
"He killed her. It's over. Are you happy, now?"
"No." Nat is almost unreadable; she's devoting all her concentration to not looking directly at the remnants of Laura's work, and blotting out the fleeting moment of partial recognition. She holds a hand out. "Give me the Bridge."
"We're going to die today, Nat," Laura cries. "We've got nothing else." She winces and clutches her shoulder again as the injury reasserts itself. There's blood soaking all the way down to her wrist now. She didn't notice. She drops the staff.
"Yes," Natalie says. "We lost. Now, for the love of God, give control of this thing to someone with the faintest fucking idea what she's doing."
Laura hesitates for an uncomprehending moment. She doesn't know what there is left to do. Dumbly, shaking her head, she hands the Bridge over to Natalie. Nat inspects the artifact for the first time, turns it over, toys with the cables. She seems to find it to be to her satisfaction.
Anil checks his watch again. "I give us twelve minutes and change."
Nat closes her eyes for just a second. She can see where she needs to go now, the best guess. It's not a good guess, and maybe a year or ten from now she'll wake up in the middle of the night with a stabbing realisation that there was a scintillatingly obvious route to salvation standing in front of them the whole time. But she boxes that reaction up, and stacks it with all of the others.
"When the sky clears," she says, "that will mean you can stop counting." She disappears.