Conglomerate Shelter, somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean – Friday, the 22nd of June 2012. 05:13 PM.
“I’m ready. Open the door.”
Nothing happened for a long moment. Chris stood at attention in the pitch black darkness of the room she’d been transported to, holding her breath and clutching the gun she’d acquired from Dancer. Every muscle in her body was tense and prepared for an attack. She was so ready that her heart was thrumming a staccato beat in her ears, painfully aware of how every passing second diminished her chances of finding Jasper alive.
She didn’t invest much thought in the brilliant light which had descended on the arena just before Drifter yanked her back into the fortress. Most likely it had been one of Gentleman’s illusions, or some kind of special effect to rack up the tension for whichever audience was going to see the broadcasted duel video. Even if it had been something else… it didn’t matter now, did it? No one had shown up to help her over the past few days, and her brain refused to believe it could happen after all. She was on her own.
When the door finally opened, she jumped, half expecting to find a hostile reception committee on the other side. But the metal-cased corridor in front of her was empty, dimly illuminated by a flickering ceiling lamp. She recognized it as the Conglomerate fortress’ prisoner area, the right-hand branch which was lined with several doors she had never investigated.
Lark’s small silvery sphere was hovering two feet in front of her face. Its birdlike holographic overlay stared at her with small beady eyes, the semitransparent wings flapping in perpetual motion.
Chris didn’t need to think of what to ask. There was exactly one way to pull this off, and she had one chance to do it right. “Where’s Drifter?” she blurted.
“We’ll get him set up in the old surveillance room,” Data’s voice informed her through the hovering sphere. “Right by the dining hall, so he doesn’t forget–”
“Stop,” she interrupted. “Interrupt his video feeds to anywhere. Especially Jasper.” She didn’t doubt she was going to find him there. He had just delivered her back to the fortress, after all, meaning that he had to be staring at a bunch of monitors to swap people around.
“Can you lock him inside his room and open every door between me and Jasper?”
Lark chirped again.
Chris allowed a few seconds for the doors to open before triggering her hyperspeed, condensing the flow of time around her. Lark’s appearance had been reduced to a naked silvery sphere, frozen during an ‘off’ moment the hologram’s projection process. She reached out to cautiously pluck the sphere from the air as she stepped out of the small chamber to walk down the corridor. She wasn’t in a rush, not anymore. She had all the time in the world.
The pleasantly viscous feel of time was both reassuring and invigorating. It turned her into a flash of lightning, an unstoppable force. If Jasper was still alive, then nothing and no one could threaten him anymore. Chris could almost feel the threads of fate pulling her along. If something like karma existed, then she was the
living embodiment of it, on her way to deliver justice and rectify
mistakes of the past.
By the time she made her way to the end of the corridor, the door to the execution chamber was wide open, welcoming her. She entered the room with a determined stride, wielding the gun in her right hand and Lark in her left.
Only one villain was present in the chamber: Laughing Wolf. The Native American dominated the room even as he crouched at the center of it, one knee drawn up to his bare chest while the other touched the metal floor. The skin of his broad face and tattooed neck glistened with sweat. The scarred fingers of his right hand gripped a fifteen inch bowie knife he appeared to be toying with, now frozen in mid movement with its tip pointing at Jasper’s narrow chest.
Chris was relieved to see that Jasper didn’t look any worse for wear than he had on screen. He stood spread-eagled against the wall, arms pinned in place by thick metal bands which enclosed his wrists. A tangled mess of greasy brown hair hung into his face and covered his eyes.
The rotating steel spikes she’d seen on screen were attached to a retractable machine, about half as tall as Chris was, which had been lowered from a hatch in the ceiling. It didn’t appear to be powered on, and she couldn’t fight the impression that unlike Laughing Wolf’s bowie knife, the device was mostly for effect.
As expected, the other prisoner spots along the wall were empty. Nothing indicated that Ryan had ever been there, not even a splattering of blood on the wall. Seeing the room now, cleaner and tidier than she remembered, she could almost believe he wasn’t actually dead. Maybe Lark, who was closely linked to Morpheus’ plot of revenge against the killer of their former master, had lied to stoke her anger. And Gentleman might have feigned the screams. His voice imitation act was as good as Emily’s.
If he’s still somewhere around here, I’m going to find him.
Chris released Lark’s sphere into the air beside her, using both hands to rack the slide of her gun back and verify that it was, indeed, loaded. She couldn’t tell what model it was, but she’d absorbed enough firearm knowledge from her dad to tell it was semiautomatic, easy enough to handle.
Most non-military handguns fired eight or ten shots before they needed to be reloaded. Dancer had fired two. If the magazine had been full to begin with, then…
Six shots are six dead villains.
The next three steps took her to Laughing Wolf’s crouched form. He was an obstacle and a constant threat to Jasper’s safety; she had no convincing reason to ignore him.
By the time she put the gun to his forehead, his dark eyes had already flicked up at her, and his lips had parted in an expression of surprise. His heightened senses were useless against her speed. Chris pulled the trigger without a second thought.
She released her hold on time for a split second, just long enough for the force of the gunshot to throw the man’s head back. His occiput exploded in a spray of blood which hung like mist in the air behind him, dispersing slowly while Chris lowered the gun and turned away from him.
She approached Jasper next. As far as she could tell, he hadn’t budged at all. Still holding on to her power, she lifted a hand to slowly brush the hair back from his face, careful not to hurt him with an accidental touch. His eyes were wide open, fixed on Laughing Wolf’s position. A smear of blood had dried on his chapped lower lip, but he looked otherwise unharmed. As well as could be expected under the circumstances.
Chris pulled her hand back before terminating the effect of her hyperspeed. The loud boom of the gunshot continued to roar behind her, startling Jasper, who winced in his restraints.
“We don’t have time to talk,” she told him quickly. “The shot alerted them. Go hide somewhere, I’ll take care of everything.”
The release switch for the restraints was on the wall to Jasper’s right, just beyond his reach. She pressed it as she talked, watching with satisfaction as the metal bands holding his wrists popped open.
“What… how?” he mumbled in a half-cracked voice. He blinked a few times, and his eyes rolled upward, struggling to focus on her face.
She racked the gun’s slide back once more, relieved to find another bullet waiting in the ejection port. “Lark. I need you to open every door between me and Drifter, now.”
“What are you going to do?” Jasper asked.
Chris wished she could afford the minute it would take her to fill him in. But Lark chirped, prompting her to trigger her speed again. Once the rest of the fortress had slowed to molasses, she projected a forcefield onto Jasper before plucking Lark’s sphere from the air and turning away.
She walked from the room with mixed feelings. Jasper wasn’t going to be safe on his own, not even if he found a decent hiding place. She had to take care of Drifter before she could do anything else, though. If Alastair–the Conglomerate’s replacement Technician–found a way to restore Drifter’s access to video feeds, all hell would break loose within seconds.
Worse, Gentleman would vanish before she got access to him.
With that thought in mind she sped up, jogging the rest of the way to the pantry door. It was wide open, same as the red security door which allowed access to the adjoining dining area. So far so good.
Upon entering the galley she spotted Eve, who was leaning back against the chromium buffet with one elbow propped on it. She held a paper cup in her right hand, a thin vapor rising from it in a time-frozen column. A very relaxed looking Rampage sat on a table’s edge across from her, frowning at something Eve was saying.
Those two were about to cause trouble. Rampage’s eyes had already flicked to the door, still unaware of Chris, but not for much longer. She stepped next to him and leveled her gun to his temple, but then lowered it and continued on her way. Her two highest priority targets had to be somewhere beyond the open door slide door at the other end of the canteen. Without knowing exactly how many bullets she had left, she couldn’t afford to waste any on villains with relatively harmless powers.
King or Mr. Smiles, on the other hand… those two were dangerous as fuck. She could only hope that neither one of them would get the chance to interfere.
Moving on, Chris passed through the door at the back of the canteen and found herself in what looked to be a small lobby, no more than ten feet square. Its steely-gray floor and walls were as cold and uninviting as the rest of the fortress, though there was something here she hadn’t seen anywhere else: a ladder. It was affixed to the wall directly across from her, leading to the upper level through an opening in the ceiling.
She only gave it a passing glance. What drew her attention was the door on the right hand side of the lobby, which was wide open and – as far as she could see – leading to a room stuffed with monitoring equipment.
Time to put an end to the kidnappings.
Chris tightened her grip on the gun as she made the last few steps to the door. Drifter – a fairly short, unobtrusive man with curly dark hair – stood next to a desk which had been equipped with numerous switches and controls, surrounded by a myriad of monitors of varying size. She noted with some satisfaction that instead of people and locations, the screens showed nothing. All of them were blank.
Drifter had had just enough time to freak out about it. He’d jumped up from his chair, toppled it over, and was just about to unleash a slew of profanities through his headset microphone.
She cocked her head to the side to glance at the small sphere in her left hand. “Nice to see that you didn’t screw me over,” she said, half expecting to be screwed over any minute. She was Morpheus’ sword of revenge, after all, and she didn’t trust the AI’s motives one bit.
The still-open door posed a problem, however; she didn’t trust it to remain closed if Alastair wrenched control of security from Lark. If Drifter didn’t yell at the Conglomerate Technician to get his shit in order, someone else would.
Chris released Lark back into the air and then looked over her shoulder to project a forcefield onto the lobby side of the doorway. Once the passage was sealed, she slipped behind Drifter and released her hold on her power. He stood frozen just long enough for her to bring her right arm about his neck and jam it locked with her left.
Even a taller, stronger man would have had a hard time defending himself against a rear naked chokehold he didn’t see coming. Drifter was in his late forties, not particularly fit, and inexperienced in unarmed combat. Chris had once been a bullied teenage girl who found release in the self-defense classes her dad made her take. She’d eventually moved on to boxing and Parkour, but not before building the confidence that she could deal with most any would-be assaulter on her own.
“Close the door,” she commanded Lark through gritted teeth while the slender man’s body jerked back and forth. He tried to speak through his closed windpipe, but no sound came out. Eventually, he ceased struggling and sagged against her.
Chris remembered vaguely that interrupting the flow of blood to the brain for more than thirty seconds would result in brain damage. But if she let go before a certain threshold, the man would regain consciousness within a minute. Too soon. She needed him to remain incapacitated until she rounded up all the prisoners for him to release back into the world.
Rampage’s angry shout bellowed from the canteen just before the door closed on its own, shutting out most of the sound. Something large and heavy – Rampage, she assumed – crashed into her forcefield and sent a shudder through her. The barrier resisted him for now, but she knew she had to hurry. She didn’t expect it to survive a focused attack by multiple villains.
It definitely wouldn’t survive King. He and Mr. Smiles would step through the walls as if they didn’t exist.
She counted ten more seconds before releasing Drifter’s limp body to the floor. Lark was now hovering in front of her face, flapping her holographic wings in agitation.
“Where’s Gentleman?” She asked the AI.
“Build me a suite on the top level,” the villain’s voice informed through Lark. “I detest ladders, but given our limited–”
She had heard enough. “Stop. Open the door.”
The AI promptly obeyed. Chris made a single, speed-powered step away from the door as it began to slide open. Rampage’s frustrated roars flooded the room, along with the sounds of his desperate attempts to break through the forcefield.
“Lock it behind me,” Chris instructed before she sped up and plucked Lark’s sphere from the air.
Beyond the now open door, Rampage and Eve stood frozen behind the near invisible barrier which was blocking access to the room. Rampage’s charming beach boy face was twisted with fury, teeth bared in a feral scowl. His arms and shoulders bulged with muscle. He had drawn one of his fists back, preparing to deliver another punch to the forcefield.
Behind him, Eve stood amidst an unmoving trio of her animated tattoos – dragon, snake, and bear. They were obviously attempting to block the way, but the snake’s undulating body left enough of a gap for Chris to squeeze through.
Armed with Lark and the gun, Chris dismissed the forcefield to open passage to the foyer. She slipped past the tattoo animals unmolested, then blocked the door with five forcefields stacked on top of each other. The two villains barely budged during the fifteen seconds it took her to reseal Drifter’s room. But she still hadn’t been able to locate the biggest troublemakers: King and Mr. Smiles. The latent threat of their presence in the fortress made Chris’s skin tingle with awareness.
No other villains were in sight. She made her way over to the ladder, wrapping her fingers around the gun so she could grip it properly while climbing. Eve’s green-inked dragon stared a hole through her as she made her way to the top level. It shifted position ever so slowly, but faster than any person could have. It was creepy as hell.
She climbed up into a large lobby very similar to the one on the floor below. A two-way corridor branched to the right and left. As far as Chris could see from the ladder, it led to several simple, identical doors which she assumed to be living quarters for the resident villains and their hired thugs. Above her, the ladder continued up through an open hatch which must have been sealed moments before. There was a security panel with a small, blinking green light beside it.
“Nice work, Lark,” she said before climbing the rest of the way. “If I make it out of here, I’ll take you along.”
She poked her head through the hatch to discover a top floor which definitely classified as a suite. The lobby was about fifteen feet square, round, and devoid of any cold metallic surfaces. A lush black and white checkered carpet covered the entirety of the floor. An electric chandelier dangled overhead, and the walls consisted of exquisitely carved wooden panels. They looked antique, as if they’d been stolen from a museum.
Two doors were visible, situated at opposing ends of the lobby. The one to the left was padded with red velvet. The other was made from massive, unadorned wood with a sketch of a king’s crown crudely etched into its center.
So that used to be Data’s room, Chris deduced. Looks like King moved in. She wanted to ask Lark if the villain was actually in his room, but couldn’t do so without terminating her speed effect and losing valuable seconds.
She slapped a forcefield onto the crown-etched door, knowing full well that it wasn’t going to stop the law-bending Outlaw King. It would slow him down, though. His Latin recitations took some time.
With that done, climbed the rest of the way up the ladder and sealed the hatch in a similar fashion – as many forcefields as she could fit, stacked on top of each other.
The door to Gentleman’s room was mocking her. It should have been open, but it wasn’t. That could mean one of two things: either the AI had betrayed her, or it couldn’t actually bypass the security of the villain mastermind’s hideout.
She was betting on the latter.