Hadera Research Facility, Israel – Tuesday, the 19th of June 2012. Local time unknown.
King had announced the start of the mission through the monitor screen, but Chris could tell he wasn’t the demon-masked male who had replaced one of the two UN guardsmen. That man was shorter and a little thicker than King.
Rampage went in there first, she assumed.
The second guard whirled around and raised his gun but didn’t get the chance to react to the intruder. He vanished from view before firing a shot. A slender, wolf-masked female – Magpie – appeared in his stead, clad in the same reinforced leather outfit Chris and Rampage were wearing. The eye holes of her mask offered enough visibility for her to look up at the camera and flash a victory sign.
“No other UN personnel in sight,” Rampage reported. His voice didn’t come through the screen’s loudspeakers. It was relayed by the small radio integrated into Chris’s own mask, making it sound as if the villain was standing right next to her.
This time, King’s reply came through the same radio. “Well, hurry up and find two more targets for Drifter before the entire facility is on alert.”
“Does our resident do-gooder know what to do after we bring her in?” Magpie asked. She looked straight into the camera, her wolf mask cocked provocatively.
“I can guess,” Chris said. “Forcefields on everyone?”
Rampage didn’t need protection from physical harm, she assumed. He was invincible for as long as he kept moving, and Chris suspected King to have a few aces up his sleeve, too. He appeared too calm and confident to be worrying about bullets.
What the villains wanted was to be excluded from the pacifying effects of Sanctuary’s peace aura. For as long as its range extended into the facility’s upper levels, the local guards wouldn’t be able to do anyone harm. The same wouldn’t be true for villains with forcefields.
“Correct,” King replied. “And please, keep your danger sense sharp. A threat to us is a threat to you. And, by proxy, your friend.”
“Right,” Chris murmured. For once she was glad for the mask; it kept her face from being an open book to anyone with a video connection to her.
King clacked his tongue. “Let’s get a move on, then.”
“We’re on it,” Magpie replied. She lifted a hand and touched the upper edge of her mask.
The on-screen perspective shifted, from a diagonal top down view to the roughly hewn stone tunnel that stretched ahead of the villainess. It was sparsely illuminated by a line of widely separated, oblong neon lights along the ceiling. One of the lights was flickering nervously, casting an eerie play of light and shadow over the cavernous location.
Whatever this place was, it looked like something out of a spy movie. And it was definitely underground. A massive steel gate closed the tunnel behind the two villains; the two armed soldiers had clearly been guarding it. Up ahead, the walls were uneven and the floor was slanting downward. Thick tubes ran along the upper third of the left hand wall.
How the hell did the villains get a camera in there? Chris wondered. King had described the location as a secret prison and research facility not even the Covenant heroes knew about. A place like this had to be guarded by the best security the international community’s pooled resources could afford.
Magpie looked down at her armored glove, prompting the on-screen image detail to swivel downward. Unlike Chris’s glove, hers featured a small, integrated monitor displaying some kind of map. It was too small to make out details, but Chris spotted a small green light that could only be a road map of some sort.
“Heading due east,” Magpie announced through the radio. The camera swept upward, honed back in on the tunnel, and bounced in time with the villainess’ steps.
After all this time of watching the camera feed, Chris could no longer control her curiosity. “How come you got working comms down there?” she asked through the radio, half expecting to be brushed off.
“Alastair is in control,” King said ominously.
“In control of what, exactly? The local security cameras?” Chris went on, eyes glued to the wall-mounted screen in front of her.
“Yes. And more.”
Chris had no reason to doubt his words, though the idea of that snot-nosed kid hacking into what had to be one of the world’s most advanced security systems didn’t jibe. Alastair was no prodigy. He wasn’t even remotely on a level with Data. He’d been forced to install a crudely assembled bypass to one of the prisoner area doors, for crying out loud.
Mental note to Emily. One: Data is most likely dead or holed up in that room. Maybe he’s a prisoner himself and somehow managed to lock everyone else out of his cell.
And two, the Conglomerate is using his tech.
“Did Lark have anything to do with hacking into that place?” She asked over her mask’s integrated microphone.
This time, King didn’t grace her with a response. The two on-screen villains marched onward through the rough-hewn tunnel, reporting their observations in brief intervals as they went. The tunnel made a sharp bend, leading past a massive freight elevator and a pair of bunker doors with indecipherable Hebrew labels. Apart from the occasional debris, the winding stone tunnels were as empty as they were long.
The absence of UN personnel suited Chris just fine. If she was lucky, she just might get through this without taking part in any battles.
Rampage cut into the tense silence as if he read her mind. “I wish I knew where all the scientists are hiding. I’d love to ask them some questions.” The sneer in his voice didn’t imply he was planning to make friendly small talk.
“As would we all,” King stated. “But focus on the primary target for now.”
Chris held her tongue. If it was true that this facility had been engaged in secret and potentially illegal Evolved research, then she would have liked a few answers, too. She just didn’t want to see anyone get hurt.
As far as she could tell from Magpie’s shaky video transmission, the two villains were now approaching a more brightly lit and well maintained section of the complex. A man’s voice came from further ahead, echoing from the stone walls. It sounded annoyed rather than alarmed. The words, too distant to make out, had a foreign twang.
“Stop,” King said. “Send an eye sphere.”
The two villains halted their advance as ordered, backing up against the right hand side of the tunnel. Magpie’s camera was now pointed at the opposite wall, showing frustratingly little of what was going on. The villainess’ black-sleeved arm dropped to reach for something she was carrying at waist level.
A scouting drone? Chris decided not to ask. She had another question that demanded an immediate answer. “Is Sanctuary’s peace aura active where you are?”
It wasn’t King’s voice that replied through the costume’s integrated radio; it was Alastair’s. “For now, yes. But the instant they notice you aren’t affected by it, they’ll shut him down. Fast.”
“I’m not in there yet,” Chris reminded him. “Which means Magpie and Rampage are affected by it. As of right now, anyway.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Rampage replied. “Drifter isn’t here with us, so he can swap you in no problem.”
Right. You’d never be able to pull this off without me or Drifter. Chris sagged against the wall and lowered her eyes, giving herself a break from the on-screen reality. She had to get her mind off the self-accusing trajectory and find a way to sabotage the mission without risking Ryan’s life or her own. Could she manipulate her forcefields to prevent from blocking Sanctuary’s power? Possibly. Could she do it in seconds, without raising suspicion from the villains? Unlikely.
They said Sanctuary and the Oracle are on the lowest level. It’s going to take us some time to get there, she rationalized. They won’t notice if I experiment with my own forcefield until I figure out how to manipulate theirs.
Magpie’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “Three soldiers, two civilians,” the villainess reported. “Just barely beyond my field of vision.”
“Scientists?” Rampage asked.
“They look like engineers, actually. How do we proceed?”
Chris’s attention flicked back to the screen, which stubbornly refused to display any new clues. Magpie’s mask cam was still turned to the wall.
“Drifter goes for the civilians,” King declared in a disturbingly calm, level tone. “We’ll take care of everyone else. The labs should be in that direction. If you can find a sweet spot to break through into the next level, go for it.”
“So the elevator is out of the question?” Rampage asked. “Even though Alastair has control of everything?”
“Yes, unless there is no other way. The security network could buckle and throw us out at any time.”
“Data has never been kicked out of any system. Why don’t you ask him for help?” Chris tried, and failed, to keep the sarcasm from her voice.
There was no response. The villain team’s collective silence confirmed what she had been suspecting all along: the world’s number one Technician was dead, and it didn’t look like Alastair had inherited his powers.
“Go,” King commanded.
The camera perspective shifted as Magpie did. The camera refocused on the tunnel as the villain quickly made her way toward the soldiers. The distant voice was drawing closer, now joined by others. Chris estimated she had less than a minute before she was yanked into a battle on the UN’s home turf.
She prepared herself by tapping into the flow of her power. It came to her effortlessly, as it always had. She breathed a sigh of relief. The Power Zero didn’t do any permanent damage. Not yet, anyway.
“King, Are you going to tell me what your powers are, or am I supposed to figure them out in mid combat?” she asked, eyes fixated on the screen.
“I’m the Outlaw King,” he divulged, savoring the sound of it. “Figure it out.”
Chris frowned. You’re all outlaws, nothing special about that. But what if he was talking about a different set of laws? She pushed the thought away for the moment, turning her attention back to the screen.
Following the sound of voices, the two villains made their way into a branch of the main tunnel. The neon lights were more bright and numerous there, and the ground was covered with green plastic mats. A series of identical doors, just large enough for one person to comfortably pass through, lined the right hand wall. All but one were closed.
Three soldiers in ochre-colored uniforms clustered in front of the open door, their attention on the room beyond. They were equipped with helmets and small firearms, but they still looked poorly equipped to handle a surprise villain assault. Chris couldn’t see the two other men the eye sphere had located. She assumed they were back in that room.
One of the soldiers turned his head in time to spot the villains. His eyes grew wide, and his hand flew to his belt, grabbing the attached radio in reflex. Chris saw his mouth open in a shout. It was the last thing she saw through the monitor screen before her surroundings melted away.
She regained her senses in time to see one of the soldiers vanish right before her eyes. King appeared in his stead, dressed in a flowing black cape with a corresponding tophat. A smiling white mime mask concealed his face.
His voice came through the radio even though he was standing right next to Chris. “Now, Mascot,” he hissed.
The last remaining soldier – who looked awfully young and terrified – shouted a warning into the room and did what his companions had failed to do: he unhooked the radio from his belt.
Chris stood frozen on the spot, struggling with herself. If she denied the villains her power, this mission would most likely fail, and the Conglomerate was bound to lose some of its main enforcers. But Gentleman and Drifter would still be alive, and the worldwide regime of kidnappings would go on.
“NOW,” King repeated forcefully. His hand flew to the soldier’s radio and grasped it, freezing it halfway between the man’s belt and his mouth.
A sound of running feet came from the room to the right. Seconds later, the door slammed shut with a bang that echoed throughout the tunnel. The noise drowned out the frantic words the soldier was directing at the radio.
Still conflicted, but ready to make a decision, Chris drew upon her power to project a forcefield onto King. She did the same for Magpie and Rampage who came running down the length of tunnel, now less than twenty feet away.
The power-blocking effect of the forcefield was immediately noticeable. King grabbed the young soldier’s neck with one hand and deactivated the radio with the other, cutting the transmission with a flick of his finger. Rampage raced past Chris as a flash of muscle and movement. He broke through the closed door as if it was paper. The sound of splintering wood was soon followed by a terrified duet of screams that chilled Chris to the bone.
As much as she wanted to convince herself that the two people in there weren’t being killed because of her forcefields, she couldn’t. The screams were too human and too real.
Her mind raced with every consequence that would result from turning on the villains. But she knew there was no way for her to win. She was wearing a bomb-rigged costume that couldn’t be safely removed without help, and too many odds were stacked against her.
I’ll get my chance, she told herself for what had to be the thousandth time in the past two days. Her hands balled into defiant, helpless fists. She watched the young soldier struggle in King’s iron grip until he went limp. He was dumped on the ground and rolled over by the villain’s boot.
Chris only needed to glance at the soldier’s body to know that his windpipe had been crushed. She looked away, detaching herself from the body and the screams coming from the adjacent room.
Mental note: superstrength, she noted dully. Can King redefine his own abilities? Is that why he’s outside the law?
Magpie planted herself in front of Chris. Strands of darkness flowed behind her like a cape, fanning out as she spoke. The villainess radiated a hostility that kicked Chris’s danger sense into high gear.
“I told you she’ll
get us all killed unless I kill her first
sabotage the mission first chance she gets,” Magpie said.
“Is that so?” King’s eyes turned to Chris, studying her from behind the-eye holes of his white mime mask.
“No,” she lied. “We should probably keep going, though.”
“We might still need her. We’ll discuss everything after our return to the base.”
“Whatever you say, boss.” Magpie’s words reduced Chris’s danger sense to a tingling buzz underneath her skin, uncomfortable but not painful.
“Sure,” Chris said mechanically. Her voice sounded distant, like a broken record that was coming from a different room and didn’t belong to her.
Rampage emerged from the room, stepping through the broken door frame. Splatters of fresh blood clung to his forcefield, reminding Chris that the room had gone eerily silent. When exactly, she couldn’t tell. His eyes held a glint of bestial bloodlust that hadn’t been there minutes before.
“What’s this about sabotage?” Rampage growled.
“As I said, we’ll discuss it once we return to the Shelter.” King jabbed a finger at the broken door. “In there. Magpie, block the passage behind us.”
“Did you have to kill those people?” Chris asked.
When King grabbed her arm to pull her along, she didn’t resist. She could have adjusted the shape of her forcefield to keep him at arm’s length, but she didn’t bother doing that either. She did her best to ignore the metallic stench of blood as she was dragged into the room, keeping her eyes trained on the nearest wall so she didn’t have to look at anything else.
Rampage lifted a bloodied finger to draw long streaks onto the transparent energy barrier that was shielding her face. “Yes. Because it was necessary,” he told her. “Don’t fret. Just leave the dirty work to the professionals.”
Chris met his gaze defiantly and wiped the blood away.
The sound of footsteps echoed through the broken door’s frame, still distant but drawing closer. Magpie filled it with a web of darkness that solidified in seconds, sealing the passage to the tunnel.
“Alastair,” King said through the radio. “Give us an update.”
The boy’s squeaky voice responded immediately. “Our hosts are on alert now. Most of their communication isn’t English, but Sanctuary and the Oracle’s names came up. Pretty sure Sanctuary’s about to limit his aura to the lowest level. They’re arming additional troops and deploying them to any stairs and elevators. Expect some bullets to come your way soon.”
And don’t expect my forcefields to make you bulletproof, Chris added in her head.
King remained unfazed. “Now, how about something we don’t already know? Do they know who we are?”
Alastair wavered. “Uh… they’re aware you have powers. They haven’t identified you guys yet, though.”
“Any small army lying in ambush right below us?”
“No. Below you is a computer lab. You’re going to run into a bunch of scared researchers, though.”
Chris cringed internally. She glanced at Rampage to see that the predator’s gleam was gone from his eyes, but she didn’t trust his magazine cover face. The stench of blood still hung heavy in the air.
I can’t let them kill any more civilians, she decided. She wouldn’t be able to live with herself otherwise.
Just as she was wondering how the hell the villains intended to break through what had to be meters of massive rock, King turned to the shadow-sealed door and murmured a monotonous sequence of words Chris recognized as Latin, although she didn’t know enough of the language to understand what they meant. The villain’s fingers wove through the air as if he were performing a magic spell. It would have been ridiculous if the solidified darkness didn’t turn to stone before her eyes.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Rampage said. “He makes his own laws.”
Seriously, that’s his power? Chris was flabbergasted. The transmutation of one element or material into another wasn’t all that impressive, but… if King could actually alter the laws of physics? Holy fucking shit. She hoped there were some serious limitations to his power. Because if not, the man was far too dangerous to exist.
While she was staring, King calmly spoke another sequence of Latin and erased a circular .section the size of a manhole from the floor. The stone wasn’t dissolved; it changed into air. Down below was darkness.
“She goes first,” Magpie demanded.
Chris stared blankly at the uninviting hole in the ground. “Am I supposed to jump down there?”
“Rope,” King commanded.
Magpie obeyed, drawing upon her power to create a long, rope-like strand of darkness and releasing it down into the hole. Chris wasn’t sure how much she trusted the climbing aid, but she had to admit it was better than jumping. So, she climbed.
As far as Chris could see in the dim light that found its way through the hole, she was now in some sort of unused computer lab, with about eight or ten monitor-equipped workstations and the usual office equipment one would expect to find in an office. All of the monitors were dark.
No, that wasn’t true. The monitor nearest Chris flickered to life as she was looking at it, displaying a message on screen.
Chris blinked. What the…
You are not alone. Athena sends her regards.