8.7 Shelter

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Northampton, England – Sunday, the 17th of June 2012. 11:13 AM.
 
 
“It’s almost like a normal phone,” Tess explained as she pressed the device into Sarina’s hand. “Ye write that message and add the number. Anything else is Techie stuff. Leave that to me.”

The phone, if it could be called that, was both larger and heavier than the models Sarina was used to. It consisted of a metal frame as long and wide as her hand and the actual ‘phone’ body with the connecting display affixed within. An entangled mess of wires and tape held it all together.

No, Tess’ creations couldn’t be considered ‘elegant’ by any stretch of the imagination.

The red-haired Technician noted Sarina’s frown and met it with an insouciant grin. “Doesn’t have to look pretty if it gets the job done. Hurry up. Ace’s about to join us with the story.”

“Okay,” Sarina said with a glance to the open kitchen door, making sure their team leader hadn’t come downstairs already. Once she was reasonably sure she wasn’t about to be called into another group meeting, she settled back into the window niche to take advantage of the sunlight and let it inspire possibly the last message she was going to send her family. There was a tight feeling in her chest that demanded to be filled with words. She just had to find the right ones.

Jasper sat on a kitchen chair by the window, close enough for his shoulder to nearly touch her leg – which dangled from the windowsill – but far enough to respect her space. He pretended to read the book he’d grabbed from the library, but his wandering eyes gave him away.

She resisted the urge to nudge his shoulder with her foot and started typing her message instead. If the group made the decision to heed the next city rescue call, Sarina was going to have plenty of time to enjoy sharing Jasper’s proximity in the confined space of Tess’ car.

She pulled her mind back to the task at hand, deleted the clumsy first line she’d written, and started over. Finding the right words was difficult at first; she didn’t know what she could possibly write that didn’t make her sound like  an ungrateful kid who’d abandoned the world’s best family. But after the third line, a dam broke, and she poured her heart out until the character limit forced her to stop.

Once she had finished, she still wasn’t sure she’d managed to express herself the way she wanted, but she was out of time. Tess’ expectant expression and the sound of footsteps from beyond the kitchen door only allowed for a final skim-through before she hit the send button.

 

Hey fam-gang

This won’t be coming from my phone, but it’s actually me. I love and miss you guys and I’m doing okay, so don’t worry. Don’t listen to the news, they don’t know me like you do. I’m still the same and I’ll use my powers for good, I promise. Hugs and kisses, Sara.

 

“All done?” Tess asked as she accepted the tinkered not-phone from Sarina.

“All done,” Sarina assured her.

She swung her other leg off the windowsill just in time to see Ace step into the kitchen. He was pressing another of Tess’ misshapen phones to his ear, seemingly listening to the voice on the other end of the line. Patrick followed at his heels like a minion, ready to close the door behind his boss.

The atmosphere in the room shifted from relaxed to tense anticipation. Patrick took position beside the kitchen door and crossed his arms, displaying a more youthful version of Ace’s stony expression. Tess pulled out a chair for herself and settled back, propping herself up before hell broke loose. Jasper finally lowered the book he hadn’t been reading.

Snow was somewhere – Sarina had a fleeting memory of seeing the white haired girl by the windows, but she couldn’t spot her right that moment. That girl was really hard to notice at times.

“Gentleman wants to talk to you,” Ace said, eyes on Sarina. He stepped closer, removing the phone from his ear to offer it to her.

She disliked the look on his face, and the idea of a private chat with Gentleman had even less appeal. “Turn the speakers on,” she said. “Then he can talk to all of us.”

Behind Ace, the library door opened – very slowly and with an amateurish attempt at sneakiness – and Emily peeked through.

Ace glanced to the girl’s face beyond the door crack, then shrugged and pressed his thumb down on the phone. Gentleman’s voice came through the speakers a second later, loud and clear.

“It seems that my request has been denied. Very well.” He sounded so blasé about it, not disappointed in the slightest.

Something shifted at the back of Sarina’s mind and stirred up a feeling of vague suspicion. Being unable to place it or link it to any apparent facts, she forgot about it the next second.

Emily pushed the door as far as she needed to slip through, then slinked over to Jasper and Sarina on her tiptoes as if she hadn’t been spotted by everyone already. In spite of the tense atmosphere, the sight of her put a smile on Sarina’s face.

“Can he just tell us what it’s all about now?” Sarina asked, extending a hand to Emily. The girl took it gingerly and settled down on the carpet beside Jasper’s chair.

Gentleman’s voice sounded from the phone’s loudspeakers, his tone unchanged. “Seeing as you are not in a talkative mood, I will try and accommodate you with brevity. Raven’s murder of crows has claimed the city of Bratislava and may very well expand their territory if left unchecked. You may also want to hear they visited a few prisons and left with an assortment of eager new recruits.”

“Bloody bastard,” Ace muttered. He set the phone down on the breakfast table and pulled out a chair for himself.

The memory of Raven’s smug, self-congratulatory attitude bubbled to the surface and made Sarina’s blood run hot with anger. If the Crows hadn’t shown up in Liverpool, the Nameless would have made it out of the television studio – without international attention and without the supervillain label that stuck to Sarina’s forehead ever since.

She already couldn’t stand the guy in Paris. The way he’d sized her up as he lounged in his chair with complacent grace made her want to

cut his dick off

empty a bucket of icewater over him. Sarina knew that type of guy all too well. They thought they could have anything they wanted, and they never backed down. She

still had a bone to pick with the guy

wasn’t really keen on ever seeing him again. Then again, if Raven’s influence had grown to the point where he could threaten an entire world region, could she and her team afford to leave him unchecked? It was no secret that Queenie’s death had reduced the Covenant to a shadow of its former self, and the villains knew. Ignoring Raven’s crows might lead to further escalation down the road.

Sarina remembered the man who had been kidnapped from the studio, as well. His name had slipped her mind by now, but she still felt guilty for not having been able to help him, and for some reason Ace had made the decision not to shoot Raven that day. Now it looked like that decision was coming back to haunt them.

“What’s with the man Raven kidnapped from Liverpool? Did the heroes ever free him?” Sarina asked. Her attention was on the phone that had been left on the table, even though she knew it wasn’t going to give her any clues on deception or honesty.

“He has been freed, yes,” Gentleman replied. “Not by the heroes, but the United Nations met the demands for his release. Some kind of ransom, as I recall.”

“No demands were made public,” Jasper said.

“You are quite correct, my observant friend.” There it was again, that slightly amused lilt to Gentleman’s voice. “Naturally, the United Nations did not admit to meeting villain demands. Imagine the political repercussions.”

If that worked once, it’s only going to encourage him to kidnap more people. That’s how terrorists operate. That line of thinking led to a decision. We have to stop Raven.

Apparently Tess shared a similar thought; she posed the question Sarina would have asked next.

“Who’s he got now? How many with powers?”

“Ah. Now that is an interesting question,” Gentleman said through the phone’s speakers. “If we dismiss the existence of a couple hundred criminals for a moment’s thought, we are looking at a manageable number of Evolved within the claimed city. Amunet, most likely. Gemini and Vortex. Their, ah, more strongly combat oriented members appear to have been relocated to spearhead teams in other cities of interest to them.”

Gemini. The mention of the young rogue Wildcard’s name gave Sarina a tingle of unease. About a year ago, his transition had sparked discussion regarding the existence of a conjurer or minion master type of classification. It ultimately ended with the conclusion that Evolved researchers lacked the required data to verify and establish a new classification.

Gemini hadn’t been listed among the strongly combat oriented Evolved, but his invisible ‘friend‘ – or conjoined twin, as he’d claimed himself – could see through any kind of illusion, was immune to most effects due to lacking a physical body, and could attack anyone at melee range. Sunny’s concealing power wasn’t going to stop him. As far as Sarina remembered, their only disadvantage was that the invisible ‘friend’ couldn’t leave Gemini’s side.

“Why is Raven splitting his crew up? Doesn’t make sense,” Tess said.

“It does, if we consider the ease with which he controls a city with a population of nearly half a million,” Gentleman’s voice said. “Be aware that Raven experienced a power surge. He may now expand his darkness over a large portion of the city if he so desires. A few dozen criminals with darkness vision enforce control with ease.”

“And that’s the first thing I don’t like about this,” Ace declared gruffly. “Power surges scare the piss outta me. That shit ain’t funny, mates.”

No. Not Raven.

Sarina squeezed her eyes shut in dismay at the unfairness of the power surge lottery. Why was it never the good guys who got the power surges? Then again, she wasn’t sure who the good guys were, anymore. Warbreaker, who had shown up in Pak Kret to face Hellion, only succeeded in complicating matters. Athena’s drones showed up to the scene pretty damn late. The European heroes tried to arrest Sarina, last she knew. And Radiant… no. She didn’t want to go there.

“Sucks that Amunet joined those guys,” Patrick said, hanging his head a little. “I liked her. If you ignore the whole witch deal, she seems pretty okay. Wasn’t she a popular fashion designer or something?”

“As it happens, your team leader’s powers serve as a very efficient counter to bad luck,” Gentleman’s voice pointed out. “And Amunet can only operate within her field of vision. If your sharp-eared boy pays attention to sound, your team should be able to avoid her and Gemini both.”

“Vortex creates fast travel tunnels or something?” Sarina asked, wishing she’d taken the time to memorize the details of every known Evolved, not just the ones who intrigued her.

“A kind of wormhole,” Gentleman corrected with a school teacher’s patience. “Objects and people alike may pass through them. However, they require a mark of some sort, and only one may be active at any time. His range does not extend to other cities, but be aware that he has left countless marks across Bratislava.”

“What’s the other thing you’re not liking, Ace?” Jasper asked.

“The heroes know the kid’s weakness to cameras,” Ace said, wagging his hat in Patrick’s direction. “Gentleman told us yesterday morning they know, right? So we gotta wonder if word has gone around as much as the bloody Power Zero vials have. Everyone’s gotten their hands on it by now, seems like. Makes me wonder who’s been handin’ out.” He pointedly glared at the phone on the table as if he’d already identified the culprit.

“Ah. Indeed, this may be cause for concern,” Gentleman said. “However, I do know the whereabouts of this particular group, and I am willing to assist. Their current location has not been equipped with surveillance systems. They lack a Technician at present, and seeing as their headquarters are neither known nor accessible to outsiders, they feel confident about their security.”

“How do they get in, then?” Patrick asked. “And where’s their place?”

“Vortex,” Tess suggested, throwing the word out there before Gentleman got the chance to reply.

Gentleman’s voice chimed in a second later, affecting mild amusement. “I will reveal the location if you agree to address the situation.”

Ace and Tess exchanged glances, and Sarina dipped sideways to check on Emily. “What do you think about this?” she asked.

Emily shrugged her skinny shoulders without unfurling her hands from her knees. “Ask me later.”

On the chair next to her, Jasper was watching Emily with an expression of concern, eyebrows drawn together in silent consideration.

Something about Gentleman’s voice conjured up an inexplicable flicker of suspicion at the back of Sarina’s mind, and the next question tumbled from her mouth before she realized the words had been hers. “Emily, do you know anything about Gentleman? What does he want?”

The girl’s chin sank onto her knees, and her eyes narrowed at no one in particular. “Nope. I can only imprint people I see.”

Sarina sucked in a breath to hide her disappointment. That would have been a little too convenient.

Ace’s voice drew her attention back to the table. He had picked the phone back up and was talking directly into it, his thumb hovering over hang up button. “We gotta discuss it among ourselves. I’m callin’ you back soon.”

Jasper was first to break the silence that followed. “Maybe our first question should be to define our goal. If we go ‘address this situation’, as Gentleman calls it, how do we resolve it?”

“We free the city,” Sarina said. “Without killing anyone. Those guys are a bunch of thugs, but Raven’s power surge is bad enough. Killing other Evolved would only lead to more surges happening.”

“What happens if we take just take Raven out?” Jasper threw the question to everyone in the room. “Can we assume the crows fall apart without him?”

“Pretty sure that’s what would happen,” Tess said. “His shared powers are what makes the crows dangerous in the first place. If they couldn’t fly and see in Raven’s darkness, they’d just be a bunch of delusional kids.”

Can we take Raven out?” Jasper asked. “Do you know anything more about his power surge, Ace?”

“Just what Gentleman told me. Emo Kid’s still not immune to bullets.”

“The idea was not to kill anyone,” Sarina interjected.

Ace gave her a firm look. “We got some Power Zero from Gentleman’s crew before they left.”

“It works,” Patrick added, still leaning back against the wall. “Tess ran a test on it yesterday, using a really small amount. It shut her powers down for half an hour.”

Sarina put her head back against the window frame and absorbed this information. She didn’t like the idea of power negating shots being passed around like candy, and the idea of having to rely on it appealed to her even less. But did her team have an alternative?

“So we give Raven one of those shots, drag him out of there and hand him over to the police?” she asked, watching Ace’s face. His mouth tightened, but she couldn’t fathom why.

“Probably not a good idea. The Slovakian army is stationed all over the city, but they’re just waitin’ to shoot every Evolved they see.” He paused there, brow furrowed in thought. “Could leave Emo Kid somewhere for the Covenant to pick up. Athena’s drones are scoutin’ the city, but Tess could get the word out without us bleepin’ on anyone’s radar. She’s good at that.”

“It could be done,” Tess confirmed. “Could send one of my own drones out. They’re not as smart as Athena’s, but they can shout out fine. After we’re gone of course,” she added with a grin.

Sarina cupped a hand over her mouth to hide her poorly timed and totally inappropriate smirk. She couldn’t help herself; the mental image of Raven wrapped up like a birthday present was just too amusing.

“If we don’t address this, will someone else?” Jasper asked, dead serious for once. “Bratislava is close to Vienna and two other European countries. That’s a lot of damage potential if the crow’s goal is political chaos.”

“Probably why they wanted that city,” Tess suggested. “Now’s a good time with the Covenant holding back on execution orders. And I don’t think Athena’s drones operate well in darkness. If she upgrades them, maybe. But that takes time.”

“Yeah, I don’t think anyone’s going to do shit about it,” Patrick said. “That whole darkness deal sucks. Ace could still hit Raven between the eyes with his eyes closed, but most heroes would be helpless.” He grimaced. “Radiant maybe, but who wants to bet on him showing up? Not the smart kid.” He pointed a thumb at himself as if the implication wasn’t blatantly obvious.

I just made a promise to my parents to use my powers for good.

“Give me that Power Zero gun, and I’ll try,” Sarina said.

All eyes were on her. Even Snow’s. The Asian girl’s white dress blended perfectly with the whitewashed wall behind her, doing an all-too-efficient job of hiding her from her own team. Sarina only noticed her because she happened to be looking in that direction when Snow turned her head.

“Wondergirl or no, you’re obviously not goin’ alone,” Ace said.

“I know I have Jasper’s support. Sunny too. It would be nice if someone wanted to drive us, because I’m done being swapped around by some person I haven’t even met.” Sarina bit her lip before she could add something that was maybe better left unsaid for now.

She really hoped the person who’d replaced her in Thailand was okay.

To her surprise, the person speaking up next wasn’t Jasper or Patrick, but Emily. The girl stood with both arms raised over her head, as if she feared being overlooked by all the taller, older people in the room. “If Sarina is going, I’m going too,” she declared.

The look on Emily’s small, stern face drew a chuckle from Jasper. “Spoken like a real heroine. Forgive the rest of us, we’re still learning.”

Emily gave him a nod of acknowledgement. “It’s okay. Just stop trying to be villains, you’re real bad at that too.”

“Who’s trying to be a villain?” Sarina asked.

Emily pointed a finger at Ace, who shrank into his seat and pulled the hat down over his face. Everyone stared, Sarina included. No one spoke up, though; not until Emily broke the ice with infantile cheer.

“Duh, calm down! I was just kidding. He didn’t rob a bank or anything. I wouldn’t be staying with real villains, they give me poopy feels.”

You and me both. Sarina shifted on her chair, relaxing. As long as she could assume good intentions, she wasn’t going to lose sleep over Tess’ hacker friends or Ace’s card sharping background.

“Anything I should know?” Tess asked, hand lunging across the table to snatch Ace’s hat and push the brown leather brim up from his face. She leaned close to give him the evil eye.

He squinted back at her from beneath furrowed eyebrows. “Nothing new to you.”

Tess released the brim, allowing it to flop back down. Her eyes flicked to Emily. “Alright. Ye know anything about Gentleman, Kid? Or Raven? Any of the crows?”

“Um, nope. I gotta see people to surf in their heads. It’s okay if I only see them once ever, I can still connect even if they’re far away. But pictures don’t work.”

“Any villains at all?” Tess asked.

Emily shook her head. “Just my friends. But I’m not telling you anything about them.” She crossed her arms over her chest as if to stress the point. “The people who took me from home don’t have powers. They don’t know anything interesting about Gentleman or Data, either.”

“Gentleman must have hand-picked them for ignorance,” Ace scoffed.

“So we trust Gentleman or we don’t,” Tess said. “But my nephew wants to go with the girl, and I’m not letting the kids walk to Slovakia.”

Over by the door, Patrick folded his fingers into a heart shape over his chest and leaned off the wall to walk to the breakfast table. He claimed the chair next to Tess and flashed a satisfied grin.

Ace paid him no mind; he was looking at Sarina instead. “Just so you know, I still think it’s a shit idea. We should bunker up somewhere, look after the people we care about. Leave the heroics to the suicidal kids.” He peered down at the phone on the table, brows furrowed in thought. “You’ve seen the shelter. Did it look safe?”

Sarina bit her lip. She could tell from the look on his face that he wouldn’t like her honest opinion on the shelter’s appearance, and she didn’t want to be the jerk who destroyed his hopes for his son’s future.

“Yes,” she said. “The Princess is happy there.”

Ace picked the phone back up. “I’m callin’ Gentleman,” he said. “We drive.”

 

+++

 

Bratislava, Slovakia – Monday, the 18th of June 2012. 03:42 PM.

 

The car pulled to a stop with a jolt that dropped Sarina’s arm from her stomach, stirring her from her trance induced doze. She sensed movement from Jasper, who’d kindly volunteered his lap to support her pillow, and cracked her eyes open to see his fingers twined in her hair. He gently tugged on something beyond her field of vision, and the earphone slipped from her ear. The song she had been enjoying dwindled away to a faint hum.

Patrick’s face appeared above her. If the roguish grin on his face was any indication, he was enjoying the interruption way too much.

“Stop smooching,” he said. “We’re here.”

Sarina rolled her eyes and sat up, brushing her hair from her face. “Didn’t your parents tell you how smooching works?”

Patrick’s eyebrows shot up to challenge her. “No. Are you going to demonstrate?”

“Not with you,” Jasper said as he freed himself of the pillow. His white dress shirt looked a little rumpled in places that had been exposed to Sarina’s head, but beneath the tousled bird’s nest of his hair, his eyes sparkled with a winner’s confidence.

No smooching had happened, but they had definitely moved beyond the friend zone at some point during the twenty hour drive. Without words, for the most part. Just small gestures of mutual appreciation. It had been nice without going anywhere too quickly.

She could appreciate the fact that Jasper hadn’t made a serious move. She had enough time to figure out how comfortable she felt in their closeness, content to let it flow through her and fill her up with a kind of warmth that was new to her.

She hadn’t felt any urges to move on to the smooching, but that might have been her lack of experience with relationships. Sure, she’d had a boyfriend, but he never gave her the time to get comfortable. He had wanted a girl to show off. Sarina’s own desire had been more focused on belonging somewhere and being accepted by his friends.

On the centre seat in front of Sarina, Emily was waking up as well now, roused by some gentle words from Tess. Her mouth opened in a wide yawn that gave her the look of a baby bird begging to be fed. Beside her, Snow was peering out the window at Bratislava, capital of Slovakia.

It was a grey city. The car had stopped beside a windowless wall that was covered with faded black graffiti and barely illuminated by a cloudy, sunless sky. When Sarina leaned past Jasper to check out the view on the other side, she could see a few specks of color from green shuttered windows and parked cars. Multi-story blocks of grey apartment buildings stood side by side, overshadowing the lifeless road.

“Everyone’s staying inside,” Patrick commented. “Probably safer for them, and easier for us. Man, the city really looks like a war zone.”

“Where’s the Slovakian army?” Sarina asked. Nice as they had been, she was regretting the last few minutes of her snooze already. Missing the moment of their arrival hadn’t been part of her plan, she’d wanted to see for herself what the situation was like.

“We evaded some army blockades,” Jasper said. “The soldiers didn’t see us, and there weren’t any of Raven’s men that I’ve seen, either.”

“Are we close to the crow’s nest now?” Sarina pulled back from the window and out of Jasper’s space. The location where they’d stopped didn’t look right; the grey apartment blocks that loomed all around the car were far from her expectations for a villain hideout.

“Yeah. Ace’s on the phone again,” Patrick explained in a hushed whisper.

Sarina hadn’t been paying attention to Ace’s voice, but now she did. What she picked up from the conversation on the passenger seat hinted at the tail end of a conversation. There were some directions being confirmed, then a promise of caution and a curt goodbye.

“Alright, mates,” Ace said as he tucked the phone away. “They’re in an underground zoo. Some kinda sea world owned by a private investor. You know, fishies in big tanks. We’re gonna go in where they don’t expect anyone comin’ in, Snow’s gonna open the way.”

“No cameras?” Patrick asked.

“Nope. All the security’s shut down. You ready, kid?”

“Always.” Patrick accepted a baseball cap from Emily and put it on the wrong way, bill covering the nape of his neck as if it was a vulnerable spot worthy of protection.

“I wanna come too,” Emily declared with a stern face.

“No way. You’re staying in the car with Jasper. Right Jasper?” Patrick asked, shooting him a glance across the seat that separated them.

“Wait, when was that decided?” Sarina asked. “Of course Emily isn’t coming, but why can’t Tess stay with her? She’s our team Mom.”

“We need Tess in there,” Ace said. “What’s your lover gonna do, play us a battle song?” His tone was amused, but his face showed the opposite.

“Hey Sara,” Jasper said. He put a hand to her back and leaned towards her. “It’s okay. They’re right, this is the best option.”

“I’m keeping the car in my range,” Patrick added. “They’ll be safer than the rest of us. Come on, stop it with the sad face before you make baby Jesus cry.”

Sarina struggled to control her face. She had no idea why the prospect of leaving Jasper behind bothered her that much, but it did. She looked to the team Empath for some kind of clue and asked, “What do you think, Emily?”

“I should stay with you.” The girl’s voice was firm and clear.

“Why?” Patrick asked.

“Because!”

“You’re not getting us anywhere, baby girl,” Tess said. She reached over to Ace to pass him a heavy looking gun. “The whole magazine’s loaded with Power Zero.”

He racked back the slide, then nodded in acknowledgement. “Gonna be enough.”

I’m the one who talked them into this. Sarina took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly through her nose. If she made a fuss now, she’d be back in the crybaby corner and they probably wouldn’t ever listen to her again. Heck, she wouldn’t listen to herself.

Emily’s voice stirred her from her thoughts. “Why is no one using head phones? The Wardens and the Covenant used some in New York.”

“Because they mess with my powers,” Patrick said. “The way my powers work, we have to stay together anyway. The range is limited.”

Emily placed her hands on her non-existent hips and glared at him. “But you’re not staying together! Sarina, do you have a phone on you?”

“I do. Why? I just use it to check the internet.”

“Give me the number, okay?”

“You can’t call her while we’re in there,” Ace said. “Our Wonderboy’s gonna run out of magic juice if you do. Sound suppression really wears him out.”

“I’m only calling if you’re in trouble. Real bad trouble,” Emily declared.

“How would you know that?” Patrick asked.

“Like I know everything. Doesn’t matter where you are after I see you once.”

Sarina took the initiative to respond before anyone got the chance to disagree. “Okay, Emily. I’ll give you the number if you promise not to call unless it’s not a really big emergency.”

“Cross my heart!” Emily settled a hand on the oversized dragon printed shirt she’d borrowed from Patrick, as solemn as a judge in court.

“It’s settled, then,” Tess said with a smirk.

Before Sarina got out of the car, Jasper gently grasped her arm, holding her back. Looking at his face, she saw that he didn’t look nearly as calm and composed as he usually did. He tried to assemble his usual smile and failed, lips twitching mirthlessly instead.

“What does a guy have to do to get your number?” he asked.

Sarina leaned close to plant a light kiss on his cheek. “Nothing,” she whispered. “Just wait.”

 

+++

 

Following the directions Gentleman gave them over the phone, the Nameless arrived at an alley behind a small restaurant that, given the lack of noise and traffic, had apparently been closed down. It was close enough to their parked car that Sarina allowed herself to relax a little. She wasn’t sure of Sunny’s exact power range, but she did know it reached much further than the twenty meters that now separated them from Jasper and Emily.

There was no entrance to an underground to an aquatic zoo here. Snow used her power to erase a section of pavement and create an opening that led down into absolute darkness. It was about the size of a manhole and gaped open like a monster’s cave, holding a promise of hidden threats.

Villains, Sarina reminded herself as she peered down into the darkness. We’re here to deal with them. Another thought flared at the edges of her consciousness, brief but intense. Fuck you, Raven. You screwed everything up.

There was no discussion on who would go first. Ace climbed down with Tess’ support, taking advantage of her strong grip until only his hat was visible from above. Then he let go and dropped, landing with a dull thud almost immediately. A pale blue light flared to life a second later. Sarina leaned over the opening to see Ace standing on a smoothly polished dark stone floor, seemingly unharmed. He waved them down.

After some gentle encouragement from Tess, Snow was good to go next. She made the climb with surprising grace once the drape of her dress was tucked in place to fit alongside her legs. When she was through, Sarina followed suit and slipped her legs through the opening, positioning her sneakers in a way that allowed her to stand on Ace’s shoulders. He supported her weight and helped her ease herself down to the floor.

Intrigued by the ocean blue light, Sarina turned her head to check out the location while the rest of her team made their way through the opening. The stone floor she’d seen from above belonged to a long windowless corridor that wound its way around an immense water filled tank. Fish of varying size and appearance swam within, illuminated by the intensely blue light that shone from small recesses in the right side wall.

No cameras.

“Is someone still feeding the fish? When was this place closed down?” Patrick asked with a low voice, eyes growing wide at the sight of the tank.

Ace pointed.

Sarina stepped closer to see what his finger indicated and was startled to spot a man’s body floating in the water. He wore nothing but a pair of dark trousers, and parts of his right arm and torso were missing.

Sarina turned back around, not all that eager for details after all.

“Where?” Ace whispered.

Patrick tilted his head, and his face went slack to take on that distant expression Sarina had noted before. He grew still, then his index finger flicked up to indicate a closed door at the far end of the corridor.

“They’re all in one room,” he said in a low voice. “Not sure who everyone is. But Raven is there. Some woman, and Buddy I think. Two others. Talking about… expanding. New recruits.”

“No one outside or in other rooms?” Ace asked.

Patrick shook his head, then went rigid again, frowning. “Something’s weird. Their breathing. It’s… really quiet. Almost can’t hear it at all.”

What does that mean? Sarina snapped alert, eyes glued to the kid’s face. All around, the others shifted uncomfortably. Only Snow looked unimpressed, staring into vacant space.

Ace clacked his tongue. “Got an idea why?”

“Um, not sure yet.”

“Alright. Guessin’ some power effect wherever they are. Everyone, on guard. Lead the way, kid.”

They moved around the tank and advanced to the end of the corridor as a group. Ace pulled the door open and held it slightly ajar while Tess released a tiny drone from her equipment belt, no larger than her fingernail. She released it into the air to let it float into the hallway beyond. They waited a minute for it to return, then Tess gave the thumbs up.

So this is one of Tess’ scouting dronesSarina was intrigued by the discovery, but some pessimistic part of her couldn’t help but wonder whether the mini-drones detected installed cameras.

As they moved onward into the hall, that same sense of pessimism grew. It seemed too convenient, their their whole opposition being in one room.

Sarina put a hand on Ace’s arm to get his attention. “Give me a gun,” she said, the words harsher than intended.

He shook his head. “Space’s too tight for the lil’ bit of practice you had, girl.”

His lack of trust in her was frustrating, but Sarina had to admit she wasn’t confident enough in her abilities to push the subject. Not after her screw-up at the French scrapyard, which had ended in Snow and Ace having to save the day.

Patrick led the way down another short flight of stairs and into another corridor, past a wall mounted sign that pointed the way to a section of the aquatic zoo labelled ‘Aquama’. A small camera symbol indicated a movie theatre of some sort.

Small white overhead lamps flared to life as the Nameless advanced towards a set of large double doors that marked the end of the corridor. The door was slightly ajar at the center, and it didn’t take enhanced senses to hear the faint murmur of muffled voices that drifted through.

“They’re not in this room. The voices are coming from the next one,” Patrick said. “A smaller room to the right.” Then he took a step back, giving Tess space to release her mini-drone through the door crack.

Another minute passed while the tiny scout explored the space beyond the door. A bout of laughter drifted from the right side of the Aquama, followed by a firm male voice. Sarina didn’t understand the words, but she identified Raven’s annoyingly smug tone easily enough.

I’m coming for you, asshole. This time, Sarina caught herself feeling way too excited about this villain hunt. She leaned against the wall at her back and inwardly counted to thirty, only stopping when she was sure to be in control of herself.

The drone returned, floating through the door crack into Tess’ open hand. “No one,” Tess said. “Invisible or otherwise.”

“Alright,” Ace said. “Advancin’.” He gripped the gun with his right hand while pushing the door with his left. It swung open to reveal rows upon rows of blue padded cinema seats arranged in front of a gigantic screen. The walls, painted in shades of silver, black and blue, extended upwards to intersect with a large dome of darkened glass. No sunlight filtered through, and the wall lamps remained dark.

Too dark for Sarina’s taste. She trailed behind the others who made their way along the wall to a smaller door on the right side, trying to hide her discomfort. She didn’t remember feeling that way in Thailand. Then again, she’d departed on her last mission knowing her team was somewhere else and probably safe.

They stopped a few meters from the door. “Snow,” Ace said in a low voice. “Make a peephole. If they got a power effect in there, you…”

Patrick interrupted him with a sharp, low “oh shit.”

Sarina turned to see a surge of darkness billow through the door they’d just passed. It expanded as quickly as it had back in the television studio, swallowing row upon row of blue padded seats within seconds.

Oh shit.

The familiar sight of Raven’s expanding darkness stopped Sarina’s breath, but she wasn’t as surprised as she could have been. That other part of her that had been lurking at the back of her mind had suspected it all along, and she couldn’t wait to smear Raven across the nearest wall.

A circular section of wall a few steps from the smaller door glowed red, and someone stepped through. That someone was wearing a colorfully polka-dotted one piece suit with a grinning clown’s mask. The instant he was through, he crouched low, wrapping both arms about himself.

“Poser,” Tess said. Her lips kept moving, but whatever she might have sight next was drowned out by the bang of Ace’s gun.
 

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4 thoughts on “8.7 Shelter

  1. This is easily my longest chapter to date – about the size of a Wildbow update, more or less. 🙂 I hadn’t planned for over 6K words, somehow it just turned out that way.

    The bonus incentive for voting should now finally work if you click through to the Bonus Content page. You can vote for multiple stories, you aren’t limited to one vote.

    I don’t mind not earning any money with the serial, and I’m not ever going to ask for donations. Comments and votes – and knowing that a couple hundred people come back to read the new chapter every week – gives me all the motivation I need. I’d love to see the readership grow over time, though, which is the reason I decided to implement the voting incentive. A higher TWF ranking would help immensely in advertising the serial as something worth reading.

    The ebook edits are still progressing. I expect to publish the first two books (Transition and Escalation) in September, and those will be the kind of quality I won’t mind charging money for. I’m excited already!

    I’m almost done with the Legion interlude, which is going to answer a lot of open questions at the end of the Shelter arc. I’ll post it right after chapter 8.8.

    Today, going to start updating the first 5 chapters of the second arc to an early ebook version – with improved writing and additional information to better explain some easily missed details. This won’t be the final ebook version, but very close.

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