The floating dock was rocking back and forth on the artificial inlet at high noon, the swaying motion wasn’t overly pronounced, but it was enough that when Hank came back through the portal he mis-stepped and tumbled down the stairs to land heavily on the salt encrusted wood.
“Damn. That first step is a doozy.” He muttered.
Behind and above him, Juan came flying through the portal, missing the stairs and small barge altogether; he landed in the water a solid four meters off the edge and immediately started swimming back, weighed down by his gear.
Hank scrambled to give him a hand up. Nick came through next, mis-stepping like Hank, but catching himself before he fell all the way down the steps. He quickly moved to assist Hank in dragging Juan back up onto the relative safety of dock.
Gus came through without missing the step, his foot perfectly aligned to the movement of the barge. He sauntered down the stairs as if they were not moving at all.
“Show off.” Hank said. Gus smiled back.
One more figure followed them through the portal. The figure wasn’t solid, it resembled a maelstrom with appendages and a vaguely head like protuberance.
“What now?” Hank asked Gus.
“I should stay out of it. Doctor Sentry doesn’t much care for me.”
Hank snorted and stood up. Juan dumped his pack out onto the barge, emptying it of water and several cans labeled “Charlie’s”, then he too, rose to his feet.
Of the four of them, only Nick didn’t look concerned.
The maelstrom coalesced into a more man like shape, this time of a tall, thin Anglo with thinning sandy blonde hair. “Well?”
Gus nodded to Hank, but it was Nick who spoke first.
“Are you going to help us?”
Sentry’s head swiveled in an unnaturally smooth motion to take in the young man. “I’ve been helping the last seven years.”
“Are you going to help us, now?” Nick persisted.
“You barge in there with no plans other than to…to pick up some beans? Drawing the attention of not one, but two of the supers on the other side! I could have been killed!”
“Hard to kill someone already dead.” Nick said, “We won.” He smiled smugly, “I won.”
“Nick!” Juan said softly with a shake of his head.
“It was a group effort.” Gus said out loud.
“You can say whatever you like, but without me you would not have won.” Nick said, addressing all of them, “I may not be super strong or super-fast or able to see what the future holds…” He looked at Sentry, “Or do whatever it is that you do…but I can make them weak enough to kill. Before we went in Gus said there were only like, twenty of them left over there. Now there is like, 18. How can this be a bad thing?”
Sentry addressed Gus, “You told him there were only twenty.”
“It was an estimate.”
“It was a lie. There are perhaps twenty on North America. No one has any idea of how many are still alive.” Sentry made a dismissive, cough like sound, “You think there’s been a census or something? Not to mention the unfallowed. What you did was upset the balance. Now the other ‘like, 18’ will be scrambling to fill the power void and, more importantly they will want to find out who killed their two missing compatriots. You see, they take outside threats very seriously, young Nick. They will band together to destroy anything that upsets the balance. When they draw the conclusion that I killed their two, they will come in mass to destroy me. When they arrive, I won’t be there. I’m not going to die for your stupidity and when that happens…they will find this.” Sentry gestured at the portal. “How long before any of them are brave enough to pass through? Hours? Days?”
“We’ll meet them here, one at a time as they pass through.” Nick said.
“That’s your plan?” Sentry scoffed, he turned to Gus, “I told you not to come through again. I told you we should attempt to close the portal.”
“Wait, close it? How?” Hank asked.
“Detonate another positronic bomb here. Sentry thinks that will either close this one or shift the portal to a new location.” Gus said.
Sentry nodded, “I won’t spend eternity guarding mankind from its mistakes.”
Gus laughed and despite Sentry’s glare continued to do so, eventually saying, “That’s rich, coming from the dead man who caused all of this to happen. You owe everyone a debt of misery that cannot ever be paid for.”
Sentry started to say something, but Gus held up a hand to stop his next words. “Just stop. Your arrogance brought us here. You’re tired of playing sentry, Sentry? Then go. No one asked you to do this, so I like to think there is some iota of morality left in that rotted soul of yours. You hold the line, you son of a bitch or you walk away. You don’t barter with us to appease your own ego that you’ve paid the price of your sins.”
“Is that how you think it is, Gustov? That I’m here protecting us from them out of guilt?”
“If there is a better explanation I’m dying to hear it.”
The entity and the prophet stared at each other for a few moments, glaring, Sentry’s expression, though muted was one of anger and rage, Gus’s was of nonchalance, as if he knew he was right.
“Damn you, Gus. This is why I don’t speak to you.” He turned to Nick. “So, blow up the portal now. Close it or re-route it.”
“Or open another one right next to this one.” Hank said.
Juan nodded agreement, “How could we know that would work? We cannot.”
“It is a moot point anyway. Perry has the bombs and he has refused to even consider going down this path.” Gus said.
“The navy guy?” Hank asked.
“Are there no other bombs we could use?” Nick asked.
They all looked at him.
“The military didn’t have them all in one place, did they? Maybe there are some just left lying around?”
“I would have to think on that. I admit it hadn’t occurred to me to go around Perry and get our own bombs. It’s been years…they might not work anymore.” Gus said.
“They don’t last forever?” Nick asked.
“No.” Hank shook his head. “If they are like our nuclear arsenal, they would require a lot of costly maintenance and degrade quickly.”
Juan looked troubled, “Hank…maybe…”
“Max told me they used a back pack unit to make this thing, said the guy who gave it to them indicated a lot of micro bombs had been made…I…” Hank shrugged his shoulders, “Maybe I’m wrong.”
“Don’t you know?” Sentry asked Gus.
“Like I said, I’d have to explore this option. A broad search into the future like this could cause me to get lost. I’d like to narrow it down a little more. Find out where they were researched and then go on a mind trip through the facilities.”
“Los Alamos.” Hank said.
“Si.” Juan nodded.
“It would be a start.” Gus said.
“So, do it.” Sentry told him.
“Not here, it could take a while, I’d rather go something a little less public.” He pointed to the surrounding beaches with their accumulated zombies, all of whom were staring their direction.
A moment later they were in a house that had seen better days. It had been well appointed at one time, but the weather had broken in the back-patio doors and looters had ransacked the place as well.
“Great. Where are we?” Hank asked.
“My place. Time has not been kind to it.” Sentry said, “It’s not far from the clinic…uh the crater. The guest bedroom upstairs is still clean, wasn’t even looted, if you want privacy.”
Gus looked at Sentry, then at the others and slowly nodded. He then climbed up the stairs, which were covered with palm fronds and other debris that had blown through the missing front door. The place had been quality, Gus noted, high end materials that had withstood the humidity better than say, a cookie cut out Mc-Mansion made of builder’s grade quality components.
Downstairs, Sentry watched Gus go and when he heard the door to the guest room shut, he turned his attention to the others, focusing on Hank.
“You’re dying.” Sentry said, “I haven’t seen anyone in your state…you should already be dead.”
Hank said nothing, Juan went into the palatial kitchen, which was also full of palm fronds and beach grasses that had blown in through the missing back patio doors. He started pulling open the oak cabinets one by one.
“So?” Hank answer, “I’ve been living like this for a long time. Not much I can do about it.”
“You, maybe not. Me, on the other hand. Yes, I can do something for you.”
Nick and Juan’s head both snapped over to look at Sentry, neither said anything.
“What are you offering?” Hank asked.
“I think I can clean you up. I have been living with the infected since this started, and, of everyone, I have the very best idea what it does. In my current state I can change things at a microscopic level. There is a battle going on inside of you and I can help you win it.”
“What do you want?”
“I was born at night, but not last night, Mister Sentry.”
“Doctor.” He nodded, “Okay, I do want your help. You’re no rube from the country, despite your hillbilly accent.”
“Thanks?” Hank said.
“I want the portal closed. Gus thinks he has things figured out, he’s going to come back with a plan, the location of another bomb and I want to use it, but I want more than that.”
No one said anything, so Sentry continued, “I want…redemption. I have had a lot of time to think and what I did, worked.” He held up one misty hand to forestall Hank’s protest, “At the end of the day, you, me, your spic friend over there and even junior here are going to live forever, barring violence. I achieved immortality. I’ll grant you there was a cost, but I beat death.”
“Spic friend?” Juan said.
Sentry nodded in a dismissive manner, “Yes, I take it neither you or Hank here were much of anything before the gift I bestowed, so, whatever you are now, you owe to me. You’re already in my debt for the lives you have, and I don’t really think I need to be bartering with you for a favor when you already owe so much.”
Hank shook his head, “I’m not sure how to process that. Kind of like your partner beating the shit out of you, then cleaning you up and saying, ‘See what a good person I am for tending your hurts?’ You didn’t do this for us. You did this to us. Has insulting and belittling people you’re asking help from worked well for you in the past?”
“Do you want my help or not?”
“Not sure as I do.” Hank said, drawling out the words with a heavy southern accent.
Sentry just looked at him, then turned his head down and muttered, “Not even sure why I asked.” He vanished, as if he were never there to begin with.
Hank looked over at Nick, “I’m beginning to understand why your pa doesn’t like that guy.”
“Do you think he’s gone back to the portal?”
Juan shook his head, coming up from the cabinet with half a dozen bottles of water, putting them on the counter, “No. Not without you. Don’t believe him, Nick, you made the fighting easier for him. Taking on anything coming through the portal one at a time would be a cake walk if you were there.”
From upstairs came the sound of the guestroom door being pulled open and Gus came out to stand on the landing above them.
Hank looked up, “Done already?”
He shook his head, “Uh-uh, barely started, but I gotta be here for this.”
“For what?” Nick asked.
Hank groaned and doubled over, clutching his stomach. Juan was at his side in a supernatural flash and Gus jumped from the landing to stop Nick from going to Hank’s side as well, “Wait.” He said, placing his hand on Nick’s chest. A sigh, somewhat like pleasure erupted from Gus and his opaque eyes cleared up. “I forgot how nice vision actually is.” He quickly removed his hand from the young man but remained between Nick and the others.
“Hank!” Juan yelled, grabbing his friend and pulling him over to the stairs to sit down – the furniture of the house had all been trashed, most of it was near the front door and window and the stairs offered a better seat than the floor. “What’s wrong.”
“It’s Sentry.” Gus said, “I looked here first, though he might want me out of the way. He’s lived his life asking for forgiveness, rather than permission. I guess he was trying something new asking to try and fix Hank, instead of just doing it.”
Juan and Hank both looked over at Gus, with Juan asking, “Does it work?”
Gus shrugged, “I don’t know for sure.”
“You don’t know?” Nick shouted, “You see the future! How can you not know?”
“As I have explained to everyone, so many times before; the future is the wind, not carved in stone. If Sentry fucks up, Hank dies. If he doesn’t, Hank lives. I see more outcomes where there is a mix of the two options.”
“He only partly fucks up?” Nick asked.
“Can we do anything to give him better odds of success?” Juan asked.
“I am.” Gus said, pointing at Nick, “It would really screw things up if Nick gets too close and stops Sentry from working. As for you, well, you and Hank have a bond that transcends this mortal coil, I think you being near him will help. You’re all of this world that he has left, and he’ll draw strength from you.”
Juan mouthed the words, ‘All of this world that he has left’ and asked, “What do you mean?”
“Not now, Juan. Hank needs you.” Gus turned toward Nick, “The farther away from him you are, the better. Want to go for a walk on the beach and check out the ocean?”
“The farther the better.” Gus confirmed. The two walked out the back, disappearing from Juan’s sight in moments. As they left Juan felt as if a heavy weight was lifted from his shoulders. Like a release from pain he had grown so accustomed that he didn’t even know he had it. “You’ll be okay, Hank. Vas a estar bien.”