Hadera Research Facility, Israel – Tuesday, the 19th of June 2012. Local time unknown.
“We have someone who can, and who is about to be very motivated to take Sanctuary down.”
King didn’t take his eyes off Chris. His white mime mask loomed over her, waiting for the words to sink in.
The underlying threat wasn’t lost on her. The villains already had the key to her cooperation: Ryan. She knew this as well as they did. If King was waiting for her to squirm and protest, though, he was about to be disappointed. Chris had no intention of doing him the favor.
Her hope was fixed on the door up ahead. It looked more secure than any of the others she’d passed along the way; perhaps it had been enhanced with power-suppressing mechanisms that would keep King from forcing it open.
Even if he did manage to get it open, Sanctuary and the Oracle weren’t going to be easy bounties for him to claim. His law-bending powers were strong enough to bypass solid stone, but Chris, being the only one without malicious intent, was the only one who could enter the chamber. And if the Oracle – the most powerful Visionary in history – was willing to talk to her, then the room behind that door just might hold the potential to turn this whole mission around.
“How, exactly, am I supposed to take Sanctuary down?” Chris asked. She could guess the answer, of course, but she wasn’t going to prompt the villains. Not even if the solution was obvious.
“You really don’t know? Or are you just being difficult?” King tilted his masked head in a birdlike manner.
She didn’t have the motivation or energy to come up with a witty answer, so she just shrugged.
“You’re going to give him a Power Zero shot.” King’s perpetually patient tone now wearing thin. He dug into his costume to retrieve a small black folding wrap not unlike the one Eve had taken to Chris’s cell, then held it out to her.
Rampage spoke before she could take the bundle from King. He was still kneeling beside Magpie’s limp, blood-spattered body, cradling it in his arms. “And hurry the fuck up. You’ve already done enough to ruin our mission.” For once, there was real anguish in his voice.
I’m sorry no one told you how my forcefields work on people I don’t like, Chris thought sarcastically.
She slowly plucked the folding case from King’s hand, showing that she wasn’t in a hurry. “Are you sure you can get that door open? Looks pretty solid.”
“Yes.” There was a pause. King tapped the fake smile covering his mouth with a gloved finger before speaking again. “Drifter. Swap Laughing Wolf in to keep Mascot’s friend company. Put the hostage on the comms.”
Chris’ blood turned cold. “Go ahead and open the door,” she muttered, already on her way to the metal-clad passage. King floated along at her heels, long black cloak rippling about his gangly body. Rampage, however, didn’t budge. He gave Chris a parting glare before turning his attention back to Magpie’s corpse.
King couldn’t advance beyond the mouth of the metal corridor. He crossed the threshold with a single energetic step, only to bounce back from an invisible barrier. “Stop,” he commanded.
Chris stopped and turned back around to watch him perform the same ritual she had observed earlier, his fingers moving with careful precision while his mouth formed long phrases of monotonous, utterly incomprehensible Latin.
Sometimes he recites his magic spells and sometimes he doesn’t, she observed. Can he put permanent effects on himself? If that’s true, he only needs to speak to bend the laws of his environment.
To her disappointment, the heavy security door didn’t resist the villain’s power. Within seconds it was reduced to fine, steely-grey particles that remained compact for the briefest of moments before coming apart in a cloud of dust.
Chris didn’t wait for further instructions. She tapped into her power and sped up, rushing into the passage ahead while the haze of metallic dust drifted apart so slowly it barely seemed to move at all.
The floor might be booby trapped, she realized. She didn’t want to rely on her danger sense to find out.
She adjusted her balance and planted her feet on the left-hand wall instead of floor, running up rather than straight ahead. King’s voice came through the radio as a low droning sound, stretched beyond recognition by the time-slowing effect of her hyperspeed.
Her mind was a complete blank. She spared no thought for the villains or the ‘mission’ she’d been pushed into. She felt only the momentum of her movement, the undisturbed flow of her power, and the way her body rebalanced itself to defy gravity.
Four fist-sized hatches began to open around the destroyed door as she surged onward. Spring guns, she assumed. They didn’t concern her; her power outsped them. Chris entered the metallic-gray haze long before the first shots were fired.
The dust blurred her vision, but her feet still found the vacant doorframe, leading into the Oracle’s quarters. Chris adjusted her balance once again, preparing herself to leap down from the left-hand wall. She hadn’t yet seen beyond the door and couldn’t tell exactly where she was going land, but her danger sense didn’t alert her of any imminent obstacles.
Convinced that she was going to be okay, Chris pushed away from the wall and broke through the dust cloud before she hit the floor. She landed easily in a crouch, breaking her momentum with a hand pushed down against the smooth parquet floor beneath her. Her eyes, which had adjusted to the dim lighting conditions in the tunnels, were assaulted by a bright halogen lamp that hung just above her. She turned away from it, scanning her surroundings.
The mysterious room beyond the security door wasn’t anything like what she’d expected. Instead of a prison cell, she had broken into a cozy little foyer, complete with artificial potted plants, a worn out doormat by the now disintegrated door, and a wooden rack to keep shoes. The walls were rendered and plastered creamy white, adorned by a couple of framed photographs displaying an arid landscape. A glass bead curtain led the way to what Chris assumed to be a full-fledged apartment. It looked like Sanctuary had set himself for a comfortable life under the circumstances.
Looking at all those items that so clearly belonged to someone’s private living space made her feel like a bully who had just raised his foot to stomp on a meticulously-raised sand castle. She buried her masked face against her knee, her body convulsing with a sob that didn’t come. Her fingers tightened into a fist around the folding wrap they were holding.
But Chris just couldn’t allow herself to get caught up in regret. She told herself that all this was necessary for a greater good; she had to navigate this precipice best as she could. Hopefully, the difference she made would be worth the price she paid.
Chris lifted her head and straightened up, still surging with velocity. She hadn’t seen the rest of the apartment and wasn’t willing to ditch her speed advantage just yet. She was nigh invincible within the time bubble of her power, too fast for anyone to land an attack or block her way.
The glass bead curtain flew wide open as she burst through, disturbed by her velocity. The beginnings of a high-pitched sound – an alarm, she assumed – pierced the air. She paid it no mind. Sanctuary already knew about the villain break-in, and she didn’t doubt he was armed and ready to keep her away from the Oracle.
He wasn’t waiting for her in the room beyond the curtain, though. This was a large, roughly crescent-shaped living room, as cozy and thoughtfully decorated as the foyer had been. There were three widely spaced wooden doors on the wall opposite Chris. The one to the far right had been left ajar, allowing a glimpse of a white porcelain wash basin and the mirror that hung above it.
The other two were closed. Chris had no doubt Sanctuary and the Oracle would be behind one of them, but she made her way to the bathroom instead.
She broke the effect of her hyperspeed. Time continued to flow around her, delivering King’s voice through the radio. “…ascot! I didn’t tell you–”
She cut him off, raising her voice to be heard over the blaring alarm. “I’m inside. I won’t be talking to you while I’m in here with Sanctuary, but I’ll give you an update after.”
Having made her point, she picked her momentum back up and surged forward to the bathroom door. She lightly tapped the door with a finger, rocking on her feet to sustain the effect of her power while the door swung open in slow motion. Once inside she made her way to the toilet, then ripped a long length of toilet paper from the holder. Then, she went back outside, lifted the devil mask from her face and stuffed its hard plastic interior with multiple layers of toilet paper. She left the radio uncovered but made sure to bury the microphone.
If the villains wanted to listen in, well… they could go fuck themselves.
If she’d had reason to assume her wired costume wasn’t going to blow up, Chris would have removed the damned mask altogether. She wasn’t afraid of letting Sanctuary see her face. In fact, she hoped he’d recognize her. She wanted him to look her in the eye and know that he wasn’t being assaulted by a murderous fiend. She had no desire to assault him at all. She did have a plan, though, and, with some luck, he’d listen and play along.
Once her mask was suitably prepared, Chris positioned herself in front of the center door and terminated her hyperspeed effect.
“Fine,” King said through the radio. “But make sure you deliver, and soon. Don’t dawdle until Null wakes up.”
Chris was only half listening. She didn’t need a reminder about her situation. She knocked on the door as any average, polite visitor would – with a gentle rap of her knuckles.
Sanctuary’s response was as sudden as it was violent. The shot wasn’t as deafening as the assault rifles had been, but it packed enough firepower to tear through the door, leaving a hole the size of a quarter near the point where a grown man’s heart would have been. Chris’s danger sense didn’t give her more than a brief tingle. Her forcefield stopped the bullet effortlessly.
So his power’s peace effect doesn’t apply to him, she observed, wishing her fellow Guardian would have joined the fight against the bad guys instead of hiding away down here.
What she said was, “That’s not going to work. Can we talk?”
The blaring alarm turned off. It wasn’t what Chris had hoped for, but it was progress.
A more pessimistic part of her brain expected another shot to be fired. When none came, she put her hand on the doorknob, leaning in close to listen through the perforated door. The steady beep of a heartbeat monitor came from the other side, along with hushed whispers in a language Chris couldn’t understand. She had a vague recollection of reading about the Oracle and learning that the Visionary only understood Arabic.
She’s awake? No, that couldn’t be. The Oracle had been in a deep coma since the day of her transition.
“Can I come in?” Chris tried, pushing the folding wrap with the Power Zero shot up into her costumed sleeve where it wouldn’t look so obvious and so… threatening.
The whispering stopped.
“I’m friendly,” she added. “I heard you can sense hostile intent. You’re not picking anything up from me, are you?”
Chris wasn’t sure whether her forcefield blocked her emotions as efficiently as it did with Sanctuary’s peace aura, but she hoped that the other Guardian couldn’t read her like an open book. If Sanctuary got a hunch about the Power Zero shot in her sleeve, he might not be willing to listen to her plan at all.
Fortunately, she got the reaction she had hoped for. “Open the door. Slowly,” a man said in rough, heavily accented English.
Chris did as instructed. As soon as the door was wide open, she brought up her hands to show she meant no harm.
Sanctuary sat on a chair right behind the door, pointing a small firearm at her. Her attention didn’t settle on him, however.
The room behind the Israeli Guardian might have belonged in a hospital. Its whitewashed walls were plain and unadorned, lacking the homey atmosphere and the personal touches of the other rooms. The Oracle – a small, frail-looking woman whose long black hair had been silvered with age – rested in a hospital bed. Her eyes were closed. Bulky pieces of medical equipment fenced her in on all sides, and thin wires extended from two nearby devices to disappear beneath her snowy-white blankets.
Chris faltered once more, conflicted by her conscience and the sight of all that medical equipment. What if the frail old woman needed all those sensors to survive? The devil mask felt more restrictive than it had a minute ago, its stuffy plastic smell nauseating.
I’m not going to be responsible for another death, Chris swore to herself as she stood there at gunpoint, hands in the air.
“Take off your mask,” Sanctuary commanded gruffly.
Everything about the Israeli Guardian was the Oracle’s exact opposite. He was in his late twenties, with a tall, athletic build that would have suited a regular bodyguard. Short curls of light brown hair brushed the top of his ears, and a short, well-kempt beard concealed his young face. A pair of piercing green eyes sat above an aquiline nose, watching Chris’s every move with hawkish attention.
“I can’t,” she said. “My costume’s going to blow up if I do.”
Sanctuary’s eyes narrowed.
“I’m not exactly here by my own volition,” she added quickly. “I’m the heroine Mascot, and I want to help you.”
Sanctuary’s expression relaxed ever so slightly, but his tone remained harsh. “How exactly does your being here help us?”
“It doesn’t. But I’d like to resolve this in a way we can both live with.”
Sanctuary glanced at the Oracle’s comatose form in the bed beside him. His gun barrel lowered a hair but then sprang back up immediately to point at Chris’s masked face. “You claim to be Mascot. Prove it.”
“Don’t you feel it? The Guardian vibe?”
Sanctuary said nothing. The gun remained steady in his hand. It posed no threat, of course, but it demonstrated his inability to see her for who she truly was. He was aiming that gun at a villain with a devil mask.
“I could feel it when I met Saint at the San Francisco airport, and the effect was strongest when I shook his hand. Would you touch my hand for just a second?” Chris tried.
Sanctuary’s eyes softened, though the hard line of his mouth failed to relax. He extended the fingers of his left hand while keeping the gun trained on Chris with his right.
She did the same, lowering her left hand while the other remained up in the air. She adjusted her forcefield so her hand would be exposed. Her fingers just barely brushed the other Guardian’s skin, but that fleeting touch was enough to send a jolt of energy through her body. Her mind reeled with a flood of buried memories, names and faces and images she should have remembered but forgot. Each one was
don’t be afraid of the dark Dylan I’m here with you
but a flicker, gone before she could grasp and absorb it, before she could understand what it meant. The sensation passed as quickly as it had come, and, just like back at the airport with Saint, it left her dazed and confused. She felt like she’d been knocked over the head with the ultimate déja-vu, except it was a blank. A blind spot. Judging by the bewildered look on Sanctuary’s face, he had felt it too. Whatever ‘it’ was.
He finally lowered the gun. “Again,” he rasped, grabbing her wrist.
But this time, nothing happened. Chris felt nothing like what she had experienced before; only the pressure of Sanctuary’s fingers digging into her skin.
“Shaking Saint’s hand was kind of like this,” she whispered, still reeling.
“I believe you.” Sanctuary released her wrist and put the gun down on his lap, pointing it away from both her and the comatose woman on the bed beside him. “Why are you here?” he asked.
“The villains who kidnapped me brought me here. They knew my forcefield would pass through your aura, though I guess they expected they’d be able to pass through, too.”
He grinned a humorless grin. “My aura reaches far, but it is strongest here, close to me.” His mouth tightened. “What now? I have no offensive power. I can’t help you.”
“Can we expect any backup security forces to show up?” she asked. “Any heroes? The Covenant?”
She considered mentioning the mysterious on-screen message that had vanished the instant the villains caught up to her, but the absence of actual support told her she was on her own. If Athena had alerted Radiant, he would already be here.
Looks like I’m alone after all, she thought bitterly.
“I doubt it,” Sanctuary said. “If the villains are who I think they are, they’ll block any outgoing communication.”
“Yeah,” she muttered. “And whoever’s left here is being evacuated.” She resisted the urge to rub her face beneath the mask. If someone had offered her a single cigarette in exchange for her soul, she would have accepted without second thought.
“I can’t let you take her away,” Sanctuary stated firmly. “I gave up everything I had to keep her safe.”
“I don’t want to. But there’s more at stake here than you know.” Chris gazed down at the comatose woman with a tightness in her heart. The Visionary looked so peaceful among her snowy white blankets, her eyes closed against the troubles of the world.
Sanctuary gently tugged on the bedsheet, adjusting its drape. “You can speak to her, if you like.”
“I don’t speak Arabic,” Chris said. “Would you translate?”
“She knows a little English. Go ahead, give it a try.”
Chris nodded, shuffling closer to the bed so she could take the Oracle’s hand into her own. The elderly woman’s skin felt like dry parchment, rough and wrinkled, but warm and full of life. Chris could feel the pulse in her wrist.
For a long moment she didn’t know what to say. She just stood in awe of the legendary Visionary, the woman whose predictions were so powerful she had to be locked away far beneath the surface. She had seen Legion’s emergence years in advance, had known about the Healer and the Antithesis before anyone else did. She had predicted the end of the world.
“Hello,” Chris whispered. “I guess you already know who I am.”
The Oracle’s eyes remained closed and her face was slack, but her lips moved ever so slightly.
Chris bent down until the woman’s breath was warm on her cheek and she could make out the three whispered words:
“Please kill me.”