The sounds of machines working with industrial efficiency resonated through the warehouse door. They were all Maia’s pawns now. The idol had set herself a higher purpose than entertainment. I crouched by the door, listening, trying to figure out how we could possibly get clear through the warehouse without meeting a grisly industrial accident. While Maia had assured us that she meant no harm to Leon and I, she bore a deep grudge against Rose, our captor. For that, I couldn’t blame her.
I heard the rumble of a heavy unit rolling past, and gave a quick count, “One, two, three, here goes nothing.” I shoved the door open, and barrelled through. I dashed across the aisle, and took cover behind a rack of assorted small furniture. Leon followed, as fast as his damaged body could take him. Rose kept her gun raised and ready, as she brought up the rear.
There was no reaction from the machines. CCTV cameras dotted the ceiling, casting their electronic eyes across the rows of goods. Pickers, collators and forklifts buzzed about like a pack of eusocial insects, fetching objects from the racks and ferrying them to the rear loading dock where we had entered. At the other end of the warehouse, the twin doors of the front exit looked inviting.
“If we work our way toward the front, we should run into less trouble,” I suggested to Leon. “It’s further to travel, but all the activity is centred at the back loading dock.” A picker sped past, basket full of tablet devices, each probably loaded with slices of Maia. It paid us no heed.
“And maybe these machines can rid us of our thorny problem,” muttered Leon, keeping his voice low enough to be lost in the rattle of the machines wheels. “Follow me, bud.”
He stepped out into the aisle, straight into the path of a beeping forklift. With an agility that belied his injury, he ducked around the side of it, slipping between wall and machine. As it passed me, I rushed up to follow, past racks of fishing equipment, but he had disappeared from my sight. A bullet flew past my head and crashed into the tiled wall with a crack.
I turned to see Rose with her pistol smoking. “Whatever heroics you’re trying to pull, spare me,” she said. She stared down the barrel at me, and said, “You’ve got five seconds to come back where I can see you, heroes.” She started to count, “Five,” and I looked around frantically, unable to spot where Leon had gone. “Four,” she continued, her lips curling in a frown. The aisle to my side held rows of fishing rods, providing little cover against a bullet.
“Three,” and she cocked the trigger. The forklift had passed beyond her, and would offer no cover. I stared like a kangaroo caught in headlights.
“Two,” she said, frown held fast. I spotted a pile of lure boxes which would make poor cover near the floor, and readied myself to dive for it. A poor option, unlikely to stop a bullet, but seemingly the best one available.
“One,” Rose said. “It’s such a pity, for a brave little hero to go out like this.” I dove for what cover I could find, and she fired. The bullet cracked into the concrete floor and ricocheted wide. Rose cried out, first in exhalation, but then firming to a cry of pain. I looked up from behind my impromptu protection to see Rose sprawling to the ground, a forklift ramming its prongs past her. She jumped to her feet and spun, firing half a dozen bullets into the battery bay of the forklift. It kept going, spinning its wheels now, as it raised its prongs to chest height.
I stood up and dashed away down the aisle, fleeing with little care where my feet might take me. I raked the shelves with my arms as I went, scattering reels, rods and lures behind me, in order to slow Rose if she tried to follow. I glanced back at the combat to see Rose falling back, pumping rounds into the forklift. It charged, attempting to skewer her with its prongs, but she dodged sideways, and it crashed into a stack of bedside cabinets, sending them tumbling, and setting off chain reactions along the aisles of stores.
The PA lit up with Maia’s sweet voice, “The mosquitoes keep buzzing about. Such small, irritating creatures would be beneath my care, except that you keep trying to hurt me. You drag me away from more important things with your incessant biting. So I must crush you flat beneath my heel.”
I ran to the end of the aisle and then past several more. I ran like the gods themselves were chasing me, because perhaps they were. Or she was.