There was only one building in the vicinity taller than the skyscraper the ziggurat crowned and, of the immediately neighboring buildings, it was the furthest away. Rabbit folded his arms along the top bar of the chest-high guard-fence with a cigarette clenched between his teeth, watching the upper row of windows on the other building intently. There was a series of hanging pipes that ran just below the windows to the corner of the building, where it turned at a ninety-degree angle to run up the wall and disappear into the base of the ziggurat.
Julian was standing beside him with a pair of binoculars around his neck and an oddly modified rifle leaning against his leg. Further down the fence, Caine seemed to have fallen asleep, propped up between Cross and the railing. They had left their son with Ath’ran’s family, but Rabbit very much doubted that Sem was far from either of their minds.
Some distance beyond them, Surge was sitting on the top railing of the fence, staring out at the city. He had offered to be the one to cross over to the ziggurat first, but Caine had asked him to hold back and accompany everyone else. The plans for the building and the monument had shown no electrical wiring above the building’s uppermost maintenance floor; if Surge were to come out of the wires from those, Caine reasoned, he would have to use the metal circuitry inside the ziggurat to pull himself up, and it could potentially damage it. Surge had accepted the explanation with a nod of his head, but there was a disappointed cast to his posture as he did so.
“You guys seriously rode a scooter all the way from No Town?”
And then there were Sasha and Phineas. They’d taken to each other rather well. Rabbit thought they must think alike in some ways after having to deal with Julian on a regular basis. Glancing over his shoulder at them, Rabbit found them crouched together next to a large reel of wire that was bolted into the roof, looking more like they were playing dice than about to attempt a ridiculous effort to save the world.
“Yep.” Phineas scratched the side of his nose with one finger, smiling. “Long trip, but faster than the trams because we didn’t have to make stops or switch routes part way through. And it’s small enough to fit on a U-tram.”
Sasha answered around a sucker in his mouth. “But all three of you?”
“Dao Ming and Jin aren’t very big. Plus, I overclocked it. Look--” He held out his metal arm, palm up, and pressed his thumb into the side of his first knuckle.
A holographic image of what Rabbit presumed was the scooter in question appeared outlined in green above Phineas’s palm. Poking at one tire with the tip of his finger, he dragged the image around until he had he view he wanted.
Looking away again, Rabbit nudged Julian in the ribs with his elbow, earning him a questioning grunt. He jerked his head a little and Julian looked back over his shoulder at the pair behind them. His binoculars fell from his grip, bouncing on the strap around his neck as he stared.
Rabbit smirked and turned his attention back to the ziggurat, eyeing the tiered building. Folding his arms across the top of the fence, he leaned forward and chewed on his cigarette in agitation. Even without the aid of binoculars, he could make out the elegant looping symbols gleaming silver in the diffuse lights of the surrounding buildings. They still couldn’t read it. They didn’t even know for sure if it was writing. Caine had said it was the same as the writing in the book Yoko had found, but the script in his stills from the video he had recorded was blurred and pixilated. Even if they had known the script, it would have been rendered illegible, and if Yoko understood it, he hadn’t told anyone else what it said.
Rabbit hadn’t seen Yoko in days. Whatever he had found--and he had found something, Rabbit had no doubt about that--it had been unsettling enough to make him even more reclusive than normal. That anything could shake him that badly was inconceivable, in Rabbit’s estimation; Yoko had lived long enough to see everything. Everything. Whatever it was that could scare someone who was thirty thousand years old and part god, Rabbit couldn’t even imagine it.
Alan certainly hadn’t been scared when Rabbit had seen him earlier that day. He hadn’t even been impressed.
‘It won’t make any kind of difference,’ he’d said, half lying across the counter with the shop door locked and a silver flask dangling from his fingers. ‘No matter what you do, everything will stay the same.’
How that could be, Rabbit didn’t know and Alan had been too drunk to explain. Quinn, who said that alcohol tasted like propane and therefore didn’t drink, had just shrugged when Rabbit had turned to him in question.
‘Da knows the end of the world, before and after,’ he had said. ‘I guess it’s not as exciting the second time.’
The way Caine had explained it, though, a cataclysm was one of the best-case scenarios; Rabbit didn’t want to picture what could be worse than that. His mind conjured images of bloody flames and crumbling streets, the sky falling down on the heads of people running and screaming. If there were any people left.
Could he die if the world fell apart? Or would he and his inorganic body survive, still wandering the ruins when nothing else was left?
He concentrated on the fence biting into his arms where his jacket didn’t cover them, forcing his thoughts to focus on the present and his eyes to focus on the ziggurat. Julian was still twisted around, watching Phineas and Sasha over his shoulder. Caine was awake and Cross’s voice was an incomprehensible murmur on the edge of Rabbit’s hearing as she reassured her fiancée.
Somehow, the idea that Caine needed reassurance, that he also had his doubts, was comforting. They were all in the same situation and they all had the same information, even the most powerful of them.
Surge’s voice was unexcited, almost bored. For someone used to living at the speed of light, watching someone else do something at normal speed that he could have accomplished in seconds, if that, had be galling and fiercely anticlimactic.
Rabbit rolled his eyes and grabbed at the binoculars around Julian’s neck, forcing him to lean in close as Rabbit looked watched Jin crouching on the windowsill he had been eyeing earlier. As Jin wrapped his hand around the pipes next to him, Julian wrapped his hand around Rabbit’s arm, making him twitch in surprise.
“Don’t just take things without asking,” Julian admonished. With a scowl, he wrested the binoculars back from Rabbit and let go of his arm.
Shrugging, Rabbit squinted against the distance. Jin had been chosen to make the ascent to the monument because he’d worked in the circus and, supposedly, wouldn’t need any additional equipment to accomplish it. With macabre curiosity, Rabbit watched him find his grip on the pipes, calculating the rate at which a body of Jin’s size would fall and the maximum distance he would get before hitting a skyway.
“Twenty creds says he can’t keep his grip.” Sasha’s words paralleled Rabbit’s thoughts as he came to lean against the fence beside him. Glancing sideways, Rabbit saw Phineas on Sasha’s other side, filling in the space between him and Caine.
There was a faint ratcheting sound before Phineas responded and Rabbit could have sworn he saw Phineas’s left eye change shape, distending around the iris and pupil.
“What he does at the blank space at the top of the pipes will be more interesting.” Phineas pointed, indicating an area of sheer metal sheeting that was a little less than a full story in height.
Sasha smirked. “Want to put any money on it?”
“There are too many variables.” Phineas shook his head. “And too many possible outcomes. I don’t like to bet on something that’s so uncertain.”
“Stop it, both of you.” Julian leaned forward to level a stern look around Rabbit at them before looking back through the binoculars.
Seven pairs of eyes locked onto the figure teetering on the narrow window ledge. Jin remained still, the wind tugging at him. If he knew they were watching, there was no indication of it, at least not to the unaided eye, and whether or not his hesitation was from nervousness or something else was impossible to tell.
The moments stretched out interminably long before he finally moved and Rabbit held his breath. Beside him, Julian was doing the same.
It was as though Jin had coiled himself up like a spring and then released the tension all at once, rocketing up the pipes. His movements were rhythmic and quick, balancing the distribution of his weight among his limbs in a way that couldn’t have been due to conscious action. Everything about the way he scrambled up the side of the building spoke of instinct and even fear.
At the top of the pipes, where they bent at a right angle to run through the base of the ziggurat, Jin wrapped his hands around the pipes, but he didn’t stop moving. His upward momentum continued through his lower body and he drew himself up into a handstand, carrying the motion through so that his feet slammed into the metal side of the monument. Then he went still again, as though waiting.
“...What is he doing?” Sasha asked finally, breaking the breathless silence on the rooftop, but not the electric tension.
Breath hissed through Julian’s teeth, but he only shook his head in response, unable to tell through the binoculars.
“He’s got curved spikes on his heels,” Caine said with a small smile, chin resting on his hand. “And the plans show that the wall is only half an inch thick. He just punched right through it.”
While Rabbit was calculating the speed at which a body Jin’s size would have had to be moving to build up enough force, assuming a certain sharpness of the spikes and that the metal was construction grade steel, Sasha frowned and looked over at Caine.
“I thought the plans didn’t show the inside of the thing right.”
Caine shrugged. “They don’t. Some parts of the blue prints are totally inaccurate.”
“How did you know the thickness of the walls wasn’t one of those parts?
“I didn’t.” Caine continued to smile, watching as Jin took his hands off of the pipes and began to curl upward, a motion belying the strength of his wiry body.
“What would have happened if you’d been wrong?”
Rabbit could have answered the question--he’d already done the calculations needed to come to the right conclusion--but he was too busy staring at Jin in astonishment. So, while Jin groped for a hold on the edge of the ziggurat, it was Phineas who answered, his voice macabre with curiosity.
“Too thick and he’d have bounced off. Too thin and his weight would have pulled the spikes out of the holes he made.” He shrugged thin shoulders. “Either way, he’d have fallen.”
Jin had to have known the logistics of what he was trying to do in order to accomplish it; he’d known the risks and undertaken the task anyway. That made Rabbit feel calmer than the cigarette in his mouth had. There was no turning back from here, even if Alan was right.
Though he was too far away to make out many details, Rabbit could see Jin hook his arms over the edge of the ziggurat’s base. He wriggled a bit to dislodge his feet and began to pull himself up. Julian’s breath caught at something only he could make out through the binoculars, but Rabbit only saw Jin roll over onto the lowest tier of the ziggurat and collapse, spread-eagled on his back.
“Is he okay?” Sasha leaned forward over the fence, squinting through the half-light.
“He slipped.” Julian passed the binoculars to Rabbit and hefted the rifle that was leaning against his leg. “Tell me when he signals.”
Rabbit raised the binoculars and watched Jin lying still, narrow chest heaving, limbs trembling. He threw one arm over his eyes and his bare skin gleamed with sweat.
It was several moments before he sat up and yanked the harnesses and spikes off of his feet so that he could stand up and begin his climb to the top of the monument. Rabbit tracked him upward and watched as he disappeared into the temple structure at the apex.
“This is crazy,” Sasha said, finally pushing away from the fence and spitting the stick of his lollipop onto the rooftop.
Unseen, Rabbit rolled his eyes and was secretly pleased when Julian said, “You’re one to talk.” He punctuated the statement with a sharp clack as he prepped the rifle in his hands.
Rabbit could feel Sasha glaring past him at Julian, but kept the binoculars in place, ignoring the animosity. He didn’t want to be in any squabbles between the two of them anymore now than he had when they’d been together; he just wanted to get everything over with.
When Jin reappeared, waving one arm, Rabbit lowered the binoculars and nodded to Julian. “He’s ready.”
With a soft grunt, Julian took a step away and hefted the modified rifle he was holding to his shoulder. He took careful aim, hesitated just a moment, then fired. The loaded grapple, attached to the spool of wire they’d bolted to the roof, shot across the span between the buildings.
Rabbit held his breath a second time, teeth clenched and hands gripping the binoculars. If the hook didn’t make contact, it would take time to retract the line and shoot again, not to mention the fact that it would break windows as it fell and draw unwanted attention to them.
It seemed like a long time before the line stopped playing out with an audible chunk. Bringing the binoculars up to his eyes, Rabbit scanned for the point of contact of the grapple and finally exhaled when he saw that it had punctured the metal side of the ziggurat’s uppermost tier.
“It made contact,” he reported. “Through the metal.”
“Let’s hope the weight and tension doesn’t make the metal sheer through the line.” Phineas spoke from behind him, where he was locking the reel mechanism in place. Rabbit shot him a disgruntled look, but Phineas only shrugged. “It shouldn’t, but it’s always a possibility.”
Julian lowered the rifle and then began to strap it to his back before hefting the sack at his feet and securing that around his shoulders as well. “You’re too preoccupied with possibilities.”
“Somebody has to be.”
Nobody answered. After a long moment, Surge slipped down from his perch on the fence, onto the outermost ledge of the roof, and paced over where the line rested, taut and vibrating just slightly, against the top bar of the fence.
“See you over there.” He put his hand to the wire and was gone before anyone could reply, leaving the smell of ozone heavy in Rabbit’s nose as he shot down the line in a blue-white plasma arc.
Surge’s exit was followed by the clatter of Phineas dumping out the contents of a bag onto the rooftop. Rabbit turned and grimaced as he looked at what amounted to six pairs of slightly modified bicycle handlebars. If only getting across the gap could be as easy for all of them as it was for Surge.
Phineas seemed unfazed by the danger, picking up one set of handles and crossing over to the fence. He climbed over, all spider joints and long limbs, and took extra care aligning the curved groove in the center of the handles over the wire. Then he leveled a grin at Julian, crouched, and stepped off of the building.
It seemed like a long time before he tumbled to a stop on the ziggurat. Julian’s mouth was set into a grim line, but all he said was, “We should have figured out some kind of braking mechanism.”
Sasha followed Phineas and Julian followed Sasha. Rather than feeling reassured seeing each of them arrive safely on the other side of the gap, Rabbit felt more and more certain that if anything were going to happen to the line and send one of them plummeting to his death, it would inevitably be him.
He watched Caine help Cross over the fence and kiss her forehead as he passed her her set of handles.
“See you in a few minutes.”
She smiled, almost as serene as he was, and a moment later was gone. Caine looked after her, the only sign of anxiety the way he gripped the fence until she landed safely. Then he looked over at Rabbit and nodded toward the wire.
“I’ll be behind you.”
Rabbit gritted his teeth, but approached the fence. “You sure?”
“I know I arrive safely.”
Returning Caine’s knowing smile with an exasperated grimace, Rabbit was nevertheless more relaxed as he hopped over the fence and accepted the proffered metalwork from Caine. Turning to face the wide-open expanse before him, he felt his stomach momentarily knot up in preparation to either explode like a nova or rocket straight down out of the soles of his feet.
Before it had the chance to do either, he positioned his set of handlebars and jumped.