Conglomerate Shelter, somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean – Monday, the 18th of June 2012. 07:58 PM.
Chris didn’t know whether to be concerned or relieved that Gentleman was absent from the merry villain gathering. Gentleman’s enforcer – Laughing Wolf – was there, tall and unsmiling and as unsettlingly creepy as she remembered him. He wasn’t sitting at the table with the others. Instead, he stood behind Magpie’s chair, his tattooed arms crossed over his mighty chest. Chris noted that he wore an earbud in his ear. A communications link to the boss, perhaps?
In addition to the imposing native American, Chris recognized Drifter and Rampage from the Evolved reports she’d studied as a newly minted Warden. Rampage was in his mid-twenties, a man whose tanned, athletic appearance might have made him an ideal cover model for some trendy Californian surfer magazine. He was dressing the part, too. Nothing about his casual outfit screamed ‘villain’ or even ‘powers’.
Drifter, on the other hand, was a short, unobtrusive man with curly dark hair. American, Chris remembered. The guy used to work with some US police departments before suddenly switching sides. Apparently, crime did pay, and the Conglomerate was the only powered institution that could guarantee some degree of protection from persecution.
Chris knew exactly how important he was to the organization, despite his appearance. This wasn’t just another Conglomerate grunt. He was the group’s most important member and possibly even more irreplaceable than Gentleman and Data were. This guy, who’d once only had a range of a couple hundred meters, had somehow become capable of dragging people and objects halfway across the world. He was the number one reason for the Conglomerate’s reach and their ability to kidnap anyone from anywhere. And as if that wasn’t unfair enough, all he needed was a visual to both of the targets he wanted to swap positions.
Taking him out would cripple this whole damn group, Chris mused.
If she hadn’t been drugged to the eyeballs, she might have been tempted to rush the man and take him out. A forcefield-coated, high velocity punch to the throat would have killed him as surely as a well-aimed bullet. But as it was, she could barely keep herself on her feet. Just thinking about her powers made her want to throw up. There was no way in hell she’d be fast enough to blindside Drifter and his watchful entourage.
I’ll make it happen, she promised herself and everyone she’d left behind. But not here, and not now.
“Aw, look. She’s checking us out,” Rampage chortled, derailing her train of thought.
“Check me out, chica,” the only kid in the room challenged. He was a prepubescent boy with silver-rimmed glasses, dressed fully in black and trying too hard to look the badass villain part. His pimples and his pudgy figure spoiled the effect. He spoke English with a Scottish accent, though that wasn’t much of a clue. Chris didn’t have the faintest idea who he was.
Beside the boy sat an older man whose athletic build belied his apparent age. He was going bald, and thin wisps of gray hair clung to his skull, falling like cobwebs around his rutted face. His identity was as much a mystery to Chris as the boy’s was.
Neither of them is Data, she deduced. She didn’t remember Data being that old, and he definitely wasn’t in the kid’s age range. A quick search of her memory tagged the world’s number one Technician as a middle-aged, blue-eyed Dutchman.
So where is Data?
Chris glanced to the left. At the furthermost end of the table sat the only villain in costume. Unfortunately, the costume belonged to a man she both recognized and had absolutely no desire to get acquainted with.
The thirty-something Thai looked exactly the way he’d looked in every single picture Chris had ever seen of him. The left side of his face was unnaturally slack, with a perpetually drooping eyelid and a sagging mouth that marked him as a stroke victim. This afflicted half of his face had been painted white and was accentuated by an upturned, blue-lipped mouth that drew his sagging lip into a mockery of a smile. A painted heart of the same color surrounded his left eye.
Mr. Smiles was one of the few villains who had managed to escape the Covenant. He’d kept a low profile, frequently changed locations, and drew on his powers to vanish whenever the heroes tracked him down. Any make-believe scenario he acted out became true. He could shoot people with finger guns, and if he pretended that he wasn’t actually in a room with you, then, well… he wasn’t. There were some limits to his powers – range, among other things – but Chris couldn’t recall the details.
She did remember that he was one of the few villains who could be classified as a psychopath. He hadn’t robbed banks or sold drugs. He’d gotten a kick out of walking into schoolyards, pretending he was everyone’s daddy, and then scaring the kids so badly that some of them had to be institutionalized.
And now he was looking at her as if she was some kind of shiny new toy, his head cocked to the side and his fingertips laced together in contemplation.
I can pretend, too, Chris told herself, doing her best to maintain a poker face. Unless he becomes a problem, I’ll pretend I didn’t see him.
Magpie’s velvety voice interrupted her train of thought. “Looks like the poor girl is frozen stiff. Would anyone like to check her pants for, you know… suspicious smells?” she wagged her plucked eyebrows suggestively.
The older man guffawed, spraying a mouthful of beer across the floor and part of the table.
Chris’s face was burning, but she kept her voice cool and her countenance cooler. “No need to check anything,” she said. “How about you just give me a quick run-down of the rules instead?”
She couldn’t shake the feeling that this whole slave deal had been Magpie’s idea. If the murderous looks she’d received through her cell window were any indication, that woman wanted her more than just gone – she wanted her dead. And Chris didn’t doubt that the punk witch would jump at the first opportunity to make it happen.
As someone whose life was wholly dependent on the whims of a megalomaniac villain, Chris knew she was treading on very thin ice.
Magpie’s eyes narrowed a fraction. “Eve, we can hardly see her. Bring her here,” she commanded.
“Yeah, let’s take a look,” the boy said. There was a crack in his voice that compelled Chris to adjust his age up by a couple of years. He couldn’t be more than twelve or thirteen. As Chris was being pushed forward, the kid looked her up and down with a creepy, salacious smirk.
Once again, Chris was glad for her trusty hoody. It did a good job at concealing the curves she didn’t have.
“I guess you want me to do the dishes,” she tried. She liked that idea a great deal better than some of the others that were flashing through her head.
“No, not the dishes,” Rampage said. He was studying Chris as well, but in a mildly curious manner – the way an older boy might consider a toy he’d outgrown years before. It wasn’t exactly reassuring, but at least he didn’t appear outright hostile.
“We could teach her to do tricks. Liven the place up a little,” Drifter suggested. “Smiley is a poor jester. No offense, Mr. Smiles.”
The face-painted villain flashed a lopsided grin but said nothing.
“Could we just get to the part where you explain me the rules?” Chris asked. Then, looking directly at Magpie, she swallowed her pride and added a strained “please?”
“Yeah, Mag. Come on,” Rampage said. “Messing with heroes is fun and all, but I got other shit to do.”
“Fine,” Magpie said in a cold, harsh tone. “Let’s cut to the chase. You thought it was a wise idea to dictate the terms of your stay, and for some reason the boss didn’t mince you and flush you into the ocean, but don’t you get any illusions about being in charge here.” She sat up up from the chair back she’d been leaning over, marking her presence as the resident alpha female and looking incredibly satisfied with herself.
Ocean? We’re on an island?
Feeling all eyes on her and figuring that she was expected to say something, Chris replied with a simple “okay.”
Magpie gave a curt nod. There was something furtive about the way she was looking at Chris, and if Chris’s danger sense had been active, she supposed that it might have done a tap dance in her head just about now.
“Each day that you’re not doing something for the boss, you’re going to work on a task for one of us,” Magpie went on. “You’ll do whatever we say, exactly how we say it. If we’re not satisfied with the execution of your task, you get to decide if we cut something off from you or from your friend who’s back in that cell of yours.” She punctuated the statement by splaying her fingers like scissor blades, demonstrating just how much she was enjoying this.
“Where’s the boss? I’d like to hear this from him,” Chris asked. What little strength the drug had left her with went out of her legs, making her wish she could sit down without looking weak.
“He’s not here,” the nerdy looking kid informed her. “He likes to watch, though. You better believe he’s always watching.”
Where are the damn cameras? Chris squinted at the kitchen and the shadows in the corners of the room. She spotted no obvious cameras, though she didn’t doubt the kid’s statement. She couldn’t imagine Gentleman missing an opportunity like this.
“Can I request an audience with the boss?” Chris asked. She had a hunch that the answer would be no, but it didn’t stop her from trying.
“You just did,” Magpie said, cupping a hand to her ear. “Doesn’t sound like he’s in the mood, though. Sorry.” She failed to sound sorry at all.
Gentleman is pitting me against his crew, Chris realized. She could see all too clearly where this was heading. She had made her stance clear, and now that everyone knew she wasn’t going to join up, she was going to play the hero part – as a plaything for bored villains who’d been deprived of hard liquor. By drawing the lines in the sand, Gentleman also conveniently prevented her from finding any allies among his crew. No one would want to be the bullied kid’s friend. Not in a community that thrived on the misery of outsiders.
“Alright then,” Chris forced herself to say. “Whose turn is it? Let’s play.”
Magpie’s self-satisfied smirk froze. Surprise flashed across her face, though she quickly collected herself. “We were just about to determine the lucky winner. Let’s vote.”
“Ah, democracy,” the athletic older man said, savoring the word. “Such a rare commodity, especially in a place as this. It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t go to waste.”
“Who’s your vote, King?” Eve asked. She clicked over to the vacant chair beside Magpie, leaving Chris to face the assembled villains on her own.
King? The name didn’t ring a bell. Chris suspected it was part of a longer, more original alias. The white-haired man with the impressively youthful build wasn’t dressing the part of a king, but the way he held himself – relaxed and utterly confident – told her that he considered himself a prince among prawns.
King flicked a finger at the kid. “I vote for Alastair,” he said. “Young talent needs a chance to grow and learn from experience.”
Alastair? That name didn’t ring a bell, either. The Conglomerate have snatched him up shortly after his transition, Chris assumed. They must really have wanted his power. Whatever it is.
“Can I vote for myself?” Alastair asked promptly and a bit too eagerly. Something in his tone made Chris reconsider whether she preferred the kid over the psychopath.
“Sure you can,” Rampage said. “My vote’s for Eve. She’s looking cranky today. Someone needs to give her a good rub.”
“I vote for Smiles,” Magpie cut in. “It’s about time someone livens the place up a little. It’s been too long since we had a good laugh.” She squinted at Chris as she spoke, studying her reaction.
Chris gave her none. She stood with her hip against the chromium buffet, preserving her energy and balance.
“I vote for Alastair, too,” Eve was saying. “It should be amusing, if nothing else. And I doubt he succeeds in getting our slave killed on day one.”
No one’s going to get me killed today, Chris tried to assure herself. I agreed to help Gentleman with his mission. They know he wants me alive.
“Kill, no,” Mr. Smiles said. “Scare her little bit, maybe.” The words came out twisted and garbled and not just because of his accent. The paralyzed side of his mouth shifted without speaking, grinning its painted-on grin.
“So… what about you other slackers? Speak up,” Magpie urged.
“I abstain from voting,” Laughing Wolf said in his quiet, measured voice.
“Since there’s only two votes left, no one’s going to get more than Alastair,” Drifter pointed out. “I don’t care either way, so I might as well add my name to the hat.”
“For Alastair?” Magpie asked, sounding disappointed.
“So I win,” the kid said. “I knew you all secretly love me. So…” He turned in his chair, pointedly redirecting his attention to Chris. His glasses fixated on her like microscope lenses. “What do you think your task is going to be?”
“I still have high hopes for the dishes,” she said.
“That would be boring,” he complained. “The boss rarely lets us have any fun. Dishes aren’t fun.”
“I could dance,” Chris suggested. “I actually can’t dance, so I’m pretty sure it would be amusing.”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this wasn’t a night club last I checked,” Magpie said. “And we’re not playing games, here. We’re testing your loyalty. Give her hell, kiddo.”
“I just want her to take her clothes off,” Alastair declared defiantly. “Data fixed her arm with his tech, right? I want to see what it looks like now.”
Drifter raised an eyebrow. “You don’t need to strip her down to check her arm.”
“No, but it’s more fun that way,” the kid said.
The sick feeling that had been nestling in the pit of Chris’s stomach resurfaced. Only this time, its cause wasn’t vague or ambiguous. She looked at the eight faces that were all watching her, showing a range of emotions from idle curiosity to mischievousness. They made her feel exposed and vulnerable already despite the jogging trousers and long-sleeved sweatshirt that concealed her body.
She was being presented with a line she couldn’t cross. Not even with the threat of mutilation – or worse – looming over her head. If she did, she and Ryan would be victimized for as long as they were stuck in this place. Villains were drawn to weakness like sharks were drawn to blood.
One way or another, Chris sensed that she was going to bleed today.
“Don’t make me wait too long,” Alastair said. “You know what happens if you screw up the task we’re giving you.”
Eve shot him an irritated look. “I’m not watching this,” she said, pushing up from her chair.
“I actually have things to do myself,” Drifter added, following her example.
“You guys are such sissies,” Magpie called after them. “We didn’t make the rules. We’re just following them.”
Eve flipped the bird on her way out of the kitchen, departing through a door that appeared to have no security at all. Drifter just kept walking until he was out of the room, face blank and hands jammed into his pockets.
“Well. This should be interesting at the very least,” King said. He scooted his chair back and propped his boots on the table.
Unfortunately, it didn’t look like anyone else was leaving. Chris did a quick tally of the remaining villains: three men, one kid, one psychopath, and one Magpie. The punk witch’s corona of shadows wafted excitedly, leaving no doubt that she approved of the bullying. Mr. Smiles looked positively entertained. Laughing Wolf showed no reaction at all.
Chris wasn’t sure whether to be relieved that two of the villains had quit the field. Eve and Drifter seemed more reasonable than the others. If this whole situation got out of hand, then it would have been nice to have a couple guys present who still believed in basic human decency.
“I’m giving you ten seconds. Then I want that shirt off,” Alastair said. He had his fingers laced together beneath his baby smooth chin, trying very hard to pose as the bad guy in charge. Chris recognized the gesture. It very much reminded her of Gentleman.
“Come here and make me,” Chris replied. She was reasonably sure she was still in good enough shape to deal with a twelve year old kid.
He knitted his brow. Apparently, he hadn’t expected her to be anything but impressed by his impersonation of the boss.
A quiet chuckle came from Rampage’s direction.
“I don’t have to make you,” Alastair grumbled. “You’re have to do as we say. If we’re not happy with you, we cut something off you or your friend. You don’t need your nose or your ears to work for the boss.”
“I’ll do it,” Chris said. “If you come here, face to face, and make me.”
Rampage chuckled again, louder this time. He was half-heartedly hiding his smirk behind the fingers of his right hand.
“I could help her if you want,” Magpie offered. Two extensions of semisolid shadow wafted from her hand. One curled itself about Rampage’s neck, the other circled Chris without touching her. It radiated an unnatural coldness that raised the hairs on her skin.
“No,” Alastair said. “Rampage is being an ass, so he can do it. I want to see her before we cut her.”
I stand corrected, Chris thought. Mr. Smiles isn’t the most disturbed individual in this room. She wondered if the reason she’d never heard about this kid was because he had been institutionalized until Gentleman found him.
In contrast, Mr. Smiles wasn’t living up to his name. His painted face had twisted into a mockery of a frown. He was staring down at the fingers of both hands, opening and closing them slowly like scissors.
Rampage brushed Magpie’s shadow tentacle away with his fingers. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll do it. Without powers, even. Watch and learn.” The darkness fell away from him. Magpie settled back in her chair, satisfied.
As he got up from his chair, Chris leaned off the chromium buffet, carefully rebalancing her own body weight. She wasn’t feeling great, but she thought she could manage.
All she needed was to land one good punch.