Nestor gagged on the smoke. The gust nearly blew him into the stair well. He curled into a ball and hurled himself in the opposite direction. He couldn’t see much, but he could tell that the only thing on fire at the entrance to the stairs was the door itself. Flames draped from its top to the sweep, but the floor was wet. The fire bloomed in fresh oxygen. Its furious light arced into the stairwell.
He rolled to a stop about five feet away. Bits of charcoal with red tips exploded from its surface. Some flew like missiles. Some fell, igniting invisible reservoirs of gasoline in water on the landing. He frantically tore off his backpack and patted down his limbs for hot spots with his bare hands.
Dumb, he thought, coughing into one hand, rummaging for his gear with the other. Damp, he realized, but not burning. He pulled on his gloves and protective specs. He was still blind though. His eyes were streaming. Behind him the blazing door swung back, snapping shut so suddenly he flinched.
Now scramble, he thought, forward, pushing the pack toward the double-doors that he remembered enclosed the exit. Ten more feet, he guessed. Four more seconds before his lungs completely fried.
His phone vibrated against his thigh. Nestor sputtered, half laugh, half racked in pain.
“Hold on a minute,” he said aloud. His pack was finally jammed. He crouched over it, tracing the door’s seam up to the handle set. His finger tips strayed over the rim of a port hole. Grasping the lever, he pulled himself up, then released the latch slowly. His phone vibrated again.
He heard a group saunter by, two or three. Maybe one was a guard. He shouldered his pack again. No way he could see out clearly unless he pressed his face to the glass. It was scorching to the touch with his glove on. He exhaled as he eased it open just enough to slip through, taking a sharp right turn blindly.
He knew where he was, but his vision was messed up. Nestor was blinking his blood-shot eyes like crazy behind the specs. After all, they were photochromatic. They had faded to black, mirrored lens the minute he emerged from the backdraft. He looked as professional as anybody. His phone vibrated.
He was headed for shuttle bay, the terminal of tubes in the forge that connected eight high-speed moving walkways to eight branch offices. Those workplaces, portables, bivouacs, labs, whatever that had never acquired any kind of permanent status like HQ in all the years that it had been in business. BalCom International.
Nestor surfed the lunch traffic at BalCom International like a pro. The cool air and people flowing through headquarters felt good and bad at the same time. He couldn’t catch a deep breath. Some people down stream of him sniffed ostentatiously. The turned their noses up into the scent of smoke and gas drifting by.
How can these people not know there is a fire in the hole? Nestor wondered. His phone vibrated again. He felt like doubling over, so he did.
He glided over to a wall to repack his gear and answer the phone. The phone blinked 13:32. Mikey. Nestor switched on his ear piece and straightened up.
“Where are you?” Mikey hissed.
“About to board the NW-bound.” Nestor doubled over again. He squeezed an aluminum cylinder out of his jacket’s seam and transfered it to a trouser pocket.
“Yeah.” He took off the jacket, balled it into the pack.
“ETA?” He extracted a sports coat from his pack and rotated his cap.
“13:47.” Nestor peeled off his gloves and stuffed them in a pouch.
“We’ve got to talk.”
“You get three minutes.” He clipped on a tie and for good measure pinched the tear ducts by the bridge of his nose.
“I’ve got new orders.”
“I’ve got an appointment with the Honorable Lieutenant General Dr. Vista at 14:00.” Mikey whistled in Nestor’s ear.
“Man, you’re really going for it?”
“Later,” Nestor replied. He hoisted his pack and waded back into the stream, flowing to the NW tube.