Paris, France – Friday, the 22nd of June 2012. 06:25 PM.
Power Zero. Those two words meant a total loss of control over one’s powers, and for Sarina, they also meant a return to the helplessness she’d often felt before she learned to control hers. The understanding filled her with a deep sense of dread that she’d thought she had defeated. Now it came creeping back, and she couldn’t use ignorance to shrug it off. She was very aware that the power-suppressing drug was more than a rumor. Gentleman had talked about it, Ace and Tess had used it, and the gun she’d inherited from her former team leader was loaded with Power Zero charges.
She fought against the dizziness until she was certain she could stay on her feet, then forced her mind to focus. She knew where she was and what she’d come to do. All she needed was a few seconds to deal with the villains in the mansion ahead of her.
“Snow,” Sarina croaked into the darkness. “They’re here. Right ahead. Help me.”
Her life sense flickered, and for a second, she lost track of where everything was. Then the structure of the mansion reformed in her mind, and she could see Snow approach her as a faint blur of light. Beyond that, she saw nothing – no city, no other life lights in the distance. Darkness was all there was.
“I help,” Snow said in her soft, quiet voice.
The darkness vanished as she spoke. Not all of it, but a large enough section that Sarina could see the mansion’s rear windows and the weed-strewn grass she was standing on. She let go of her life vision to let her human eyes take over, reducing the dizziness to bearable levels.
Begone, Sarina ordered the mansion’s stone wall. Her power stirred, but the effort of trying to focus made her head throb and her stomach heave. She suppressed the urge to throw up. Once she felt reasonably steady, she condensed the remains of her power and hurled them at the mansion.
Walls and windows eroded away from the center of impact, vanishing faster than the eye could follow. The ceiling, the other walls and most of the mansion’s structures remained intact. But now that the back wall was gone, Sarina could see the parlor as clearly as if she was looking into a doll house.
The long dining table where she’d been seated a couple of weeks ago was gone. In its place stood four simple wooden chairs, arranged in a cross-shape so each one faced a different direction. Each chair had one person on it, and while their costumed appearances were very different, they had two things in common: cocked guns and enhanced vision goggles. On some sub-conscious level, Sarina understood that the goggles were really bad news, but her mind was too numb and dazed to follow that train of thought.
Her attention was on the lanky man who sat in the chair facing her. He wore tight-fitting, black and white racing leathers that had been reinforced with small, scale-like plates. His legs were crossed and his fedora tipped to the side in classic villain fashion. He was flashing his white teeth in a dirty smile that wasn’t exactly Raven’s smile, but close enough. His gun swiveled toward her.
Sarina didn’t get the chance to check out the rest of the villain quartet. Snow raised one of her hands in the direction of the chair arrangement. Sarina reached for her gun in reflex, but she never got ahold of it. Another bout of dizziness hit her, like a tidal wave from the epicenter of an earthquake. Her vision blurred. Her slight headache became a splitting one, and gravity itself decided to take revenge on her by tripping her up. She sensed that she was falling, but the impact was a vague, almost dreamlike sensation. The following gunshout was very loud and much more real.
“Snow?” Sarina croaked. No answer came. She heard voices, but something told her that they weren’t friendly, weren’t Snow.
Her stomach heaved again. She barely managed to roll onto her side before the bile rose in her throat and something escaped through her mouth. Something she’d eaten a while back, she couldn’t tell what or when.
“Not killing anyone, are you now?” A male voice said from above her. “The world’s most powerful Evolved, my ass. You’re looking rather pathetic right now. Maybe a little cute, too. But mostly pathetic.”
The words had little impact. “Snow,” Sarina said again, trying to blink away the tears that shot into her eyes. There was a blurry shape next to her. White, motionless, on the verge of turning more red than white.
“Snow? Is that the white-haired freak’s name?” the same male voice asked. “She’s taking a little nap now. She did something naughty that made her very tired.”
Sarina didn’t know what to say. She wanted to cry, though the reason why was drifting further and further away from her. With great effort, she turned her head in the direction of the voice. A tall, blurry shape wrapped in blackness towered over her, looking down at her with big circular eyes that didn’t look human. She tried to grasp his name from memory, and it slipped through her fingers. She remembered that she had to kill him, though, and that she had a gun… somewhere. Her fingers fumbled around under the wet tangle of her shirt and only found skin.
“I don’t think she’s in the mood for a chat,” an unfamiliar female voice said. “She’s such a party pooper. The sullen silence kind of takes the fun out of it all.”
Party? The word made no sense. Something about the way she’d said it stoked Sarina’s anger, suppressing her tears. She made another effort to find the gun.
Finally, her fingers closed around the hard, cold thing that was right next to her body. She pulled it, but a sudden pressure on her wrist stopped her and sent a pulse of pain through her arm. She bit her lip to keep herself from screaming and tried to shut the pain from her mind. She had to focus on the voices, hear exactly what they were saying. She couldn’t remember why this was so important, but it was.
“She carries a gun and a rucksack,” a different male voice observed. That one was vaguely familiar and thickly punctuated with some kind of European accent.
“She does,” the female voice observed. “Maybe we should take the gun and search her? Could be other weapons in that rucksack.”
“No need,” the first male voice said from above. “The gun gives her a chance to last for more than a few seconds. More interesting that way. And if she has anything else… well, it won’t be our problem.”
Interesting? What? Sarina wanted to ask, but the words didn’t make it through the fog that was clogging her mind. Some part of her was still aware enough to know that the gun might be her only chance to set things right again. There was something special about the shots it fired, she knew. Something these guys would hate to find out. The effort of trying to remember it nearly made her throw up again.
She felt some of the pressure pull off her wrist. She still couldn’t move her hand, but the pain lessened to a dull throb. It made it easier to listen and get her thoughts in order. Somewhere out there, there were still people she cared about and who depended on her. She had to focus and find a way back to them.
“Let’s get rid of her already,” the female voice said. “We’ve done our job, haven’t we?”
“She poses no danger to us,” that other, more strongly accented male voice said. “She has no control now. I sense no power from her.”
“Nyx has a point,” the black-clad shape said. “Raven stuck around, wanted to play. And look what happened to him. I’m making the call now.”
“Call?” Sarina croaked. There was a brief moment where she wondered if anyone was going to call her, then the next wave of dizziness came along and scattered the thought.
The tall black shape chuckled. “Would you like to make the call? I didn’t know you were so eager to talk to Gentleman.”
Gentleman. The name stirred something inside Sarina. Her fingers convulsed around the gun, and her mouth twisted into a snarl. “I’m going to kill him,” she managed to say before the sickness in her gut cut her off.
Another chuckle came from above. Then, the tall shape bent down until the two tinted circles of his eyes appeared almost directly above her face. “Between you and me, I wouldn’t mind seeing you pull it off,” his voice murmured at her ear. “Hold on tight and don’t lose that gun.”
“You ready now?” the female voice asked impatiently. Sarina turned her head far enough to see another blurry, dark-clad shape approach. This one was shorter, curvier and had white hair that protruded from her head in short spikes.
“Ready?” Sarina echoed, equal parts confused and angry.
“She wasn’t talking to you,” the tall male shape said. “Anyway. Hold still for a moment, will you?” He retrieved some kind of small device and pointed it down at Sarina. “Have fun,” he told her ominously.
Then, everything—the people shapes, the blurry blotches of color, the scent of the grass, the sound of the rain, and even the pressure pinning Sarina’s wrist to the ground—vanished She found herself in darkness again, sprawled on a hard surface instead of grass. The coldness of it bit through the wet fabric of her shirt and trousers.
It took her a second to spot the thin streak of red light coming from somewhere ahead of her. As she settled her eyes on the light, it traveled downward until it rested on the soaked shirt that was covering her chest. Somehow, made her more uncomfortable than the people-shapes and their voices had.
“Who?” she asked the light, hoping to distract it while she pulled the gun from its holster. The dizziness was beginning to clear from her head, and her fingers were no longer fumbling helplessly. But she still felt no connection to her power.
Someone responded from the direction of the red light. She recognized the voice. It cut through her like a knife.
“Sarina, are you here?” Jasper asked. He sounded feeble, anxious and very far away.
“Jasper?” she cried. “Where are you?”
“I don’t really know,” he said. There was a sadness to his voice that confused Sarina. Strangely, he didn’t sound at all relieved to hear from her.
She fumbled to find the right words and string them together. “Why… can you talk? To me?”
“Because they want me to talk to you, Sarina. To assure you that I’m okay.” He sighed. “That you can save me, but I’m not sure you can. Watch out for yourself, okay?”
“Save you? How?”
“Someone will tell you soon.” His next words came in a rush. “You can’t trust them, Sarina. You can trust me, though, and I’m telling you to watch out for…” his voice cut off at that point. There was no other sound to provide clues about the abrupt silence, only the steady red beam that was still pointing at Sarina’s chest.
“Let me talk to him!” she screamed at the darkness, quivering with anger. “Bring him back, you assholes!” She lifted the gun to point it at the source of the light. The gun grew heavy in her hands. Weak as she was, she decided to lower it before the weight turned her arms to jelly.
“You’ll get the chance soon enough,” an unfamiliar male voice said. It was coming from the direction of the light. “But only if you can stand up. Can you?”
They’re mocking me. Everyone is mocking me. Sarina narrowed her eyes at the surrounding darkness, but found nothing there. No noise, no movement, no target. She tested her life sense and couldn’t find that, either. It was as if she was fumbling for a light switch that had drifted out of her reach.
She made the effort to scramble to her feet. Not for the voice in the darkness, but to prove to herself that she could still kick ass. With great effort, she pushed her aching body up from the cold metal floor, then pushed some more until she was on her knees. She fought through a brief spell of nausea, but once it had passed, she discovered that she could straighten up with relative ease. The beam of light tracked her movement and refocused on her chest.
“Very good,” the disembodied voice said. “What you’re feeling right now is a side effect of Power Zero that should pass shortly. I’ll give you a minute to recover before your grand performance.”
“What?” Sarina snapped. “Who are you?”
“Your travel guide,” the voice replied. “Courtesy of your old friend Gentleman.”
“Gentleman,” she repeated. The name stirred something dark inside of her. Her fingers tightened about the grip of her gun, eager for action. “Take me to him.”
No answer came. Sarina stood there for a moment, glaring at the red light while she waited for something to happen. The light glared back at her in stubborn silence. After a long moment of nothing happening, she felt reasonably steady. Then, everything came flooding back to her. Emily and Patrick. The people in the mall. The white-haired girl, more red than white.
Oh god, Snow. I have to… have to go back. Find her. Find them. Sarina had no idea what the mention of a ‘grand performance’ had been about, and she didn’t want to find out. She couldn’t be here. Snow and the kids needed her in Paris.
Sarina turned away from the light to explore the length of wall that was directly ahead of her. The red beam only illuminated a small section of it, but as she followed its smooth, featureless surface into the darkness, she found a corner after a few steps. Then another. The room she was in was so small that she’d explored all of it in moments. To her dismay, her hands founds felt no notches that would have hinted at doors or windows. She was trapped inside a hollow metal cube that appeared to have no entrance or exit.
I’m not going to get out of here without my powers. When that realization set in, Sarina made another frantic attempt to grasp her powers. All she found was another headache and a vague feeling of emptiness.
Just when she was thinking that enough time might have passed for her powers to return, the disembodied voice spoke up one last time. “Good luck,” it said.
Then everything vanished again. Before Sarina knew it, she found herself standing on the glossy, polished parquet floor of a large hall with a domed ceiling. Several floodlights beamed at her and at the floor, preventing her from getting a good look at her surroundings. The blinding brightness made her eyes hurt.
Sarina brought up a hand to shield her face, not releasing her grip on the gun. As she squinted to the right, she saw a waist-height ring that separated the parquet floor from the rows upon rows of spectator seats that were vacant and shrouded in shadows. Just above it was a tightly woven, head high wall of barb wire. She couldn’t see any nearby windows. There were a few near the domed ceiling, but from where she was standing, they looked tiny and very far away.
There were cameras, too. At least half a dozen of them overlooked the playing field from different angles.
Sarina’s pulse quickened as the details began to come together in her mind. Apparently, her ‘performance’ was going to take place here – in an abandoned indoor stadium without spectators, but with barbed wire to keep the players on the field. And it seemed that she was one of them.
“Welcome!” Gentleman’s voice blared from somewhere above and behind.
Sarina whirled around and raised her gun in reflex, pointing it in the direction of the voice. But no matter how hard she squinted, she couldn’t see the villain there. All she saw was a pole-mounted speaker that soared above the mesh wire barrier, well beyond her reach.
“My, my,” the speaker rebuked. “You are pointing that thing in the wrong direction, dear. Your opponent is across from you.”
Sarina contemplated firing a shot regardless, just to damage the speaker and hopefully shut him up for good. But the mention of an opponent drew her attention back to the playing field. By now, her eyes had adjusted to the brightness enough that she could make out a human shape at the opposite end of the playing field. She squinted hard. After a second or two of squinting, the shape became a young, dark-haired person in a black and gray hoodie. Another long look revealed a bruised, swollen face whose features might have been… Asian? Sarina couldn’t tell for sure.
The person looked back at her, unmoving and seemingly impassive.
I’m visible, Sarina realized. Patrick’s powers had covered her in Paris, but they certainly didn’t cover her here. God knew how far away she was from the kids now. As she was looking at that other person, more questions surfaced. Who are you? And why are you here?
“Very good,” Gentleman’s voice blared cheerily. “I see you have become acquainted with one another. Now, if you would please look up?”
Sarina did. Just behind her ‘opponent’ and above the barb wire barrier was a large screen. Displayed on it was a young man – quite an attractive one, Sarina noted absently – whose long brown hair had been done up in a top knot. He stood spread-eagled against a smooth gray wall, his arms pinned on either side by thick metal bands. A thick collar of similar material was around his neck, and a pair of vicious-looking black spikes pointed at his face.
Sarina stared at them for a long moment. A queasy feeling stirred in her gut, and she turned around to discover another screen on her side of the ‘arena’. The scene it displayed was similar to the one she’d seen before. With one exception.
Jasper was on it. He was exposed to the spikes as the other young man was, but he looked calmer and more composed. His eyes were closed, and his lips were moving ever so slightly. Perhaps he was humming one of his favorite songs to himself. Knowing him, that was exactly what he’d do if he found himself trapped in a hopeless situation.
Oh Jasper, I’m so sorry. Sarina’s eyes began to sting, making her nearly as angry at herself as she was with this whole setup. Crybaby, she scolded herself. She curled the fingers of her left hand into a fist, then turned back around to face the loudspeaker. The weight of the gun in her right reminded her that she wasn’t completely helpless.
“So, what now?” she challenged. “You going to explain what the point of all this is?”
“Ah, but of course!” Gentleman’s voice boomed from the speaker. “We shall proceed to the rules, then. Christina? May I have your attention as well, please?”
Christina? That’s a girl over there? Sarina gave the person at the other end of the playing field another look. Now that she had a name to go with the beat-up, swollen face, she could almost pinpoint the other girl’s identity. Someone with powers. Sarina could tell as much.
‘Christina’ lowered her eyes from the screen to consider Sarina. She didn’t grace Gentleman with a response though. She just raised a hand over her head and flicked her middle finger in the general direction of the loudspeaker.
Her one eye that wasn’t swollen shut flicked down to Sarina’s gun.
An overinflated sigh came through the speaker. “Still in a rebellious mood, I see,” Gentleman observed. “Very well, have it your way. I am giving both of you the chance to save your dear, precious loved one. This is your one and only opportunity to free them, so I suggest you don’t squander it. The rules are simple: kill your opponent. Whoever remains will be free to go wherever she pleases, as will her friend. There is one catch: you may not speak to one another. Failure to comply will result in instant loss and a tragic death. The same is true if you attempt to escape.”
Sarina didn’t wait for the villain to finish his introductory speech. She disengaged the safety from the gun and aimed it at her opponent. To her surprise, the other girl didn’t flinch. She just kept standing there, staring at Sarina with one narrow, appraising eye.
“How do I know you’re not full of shit?” Sarina asked. “You’re a backstabbing snake who is just going to kill them both for fun.”
“Christina could confirm that I honor my word,” Gentleman replied. “I saved her life once. Did I not, Christina?”
The girl with the swollen face clenched her teeth, then gave a barely perceptible nod.
“I am glad you remember,” Gentleman said, sounding pleased. “Doubt me if you will. But if you do, just look at the screens above you. A live transmission does not lie. And now: begin!”
Before Sarina could wonder what exactly Gentleman was getting out of all of this, her opponent started running.
And damn, that girl was fast.