An unknown location – Friday, the 22nd of June 2012. Local time unknown.
Sarina could immediately tell that she was at a disadvantage. The girl who’d been introduced as Christina moved with the speed and reflexes of a professional runner, and she didn’t make the mistake of running in a straight line. She veered to the left side of the playing field, then continued in a zigzag line that made it impossible to get a good shot.
Knowing full well that she’d be even worse off in close combat, Sarina tried to line up a shot anyway. She aimed as best as she could and pulled the trigger twice. Her first shot went wide. The recoil pushed her hands up, forcing her adjust her aim and lose valuable time. The second shot tore through the polished parquet floor, inches from her opponent’s feet.
Christina faltered but quickly regained her composure. She leapt forward into an even faster run, then flashed across the last few meters in an instant.
She still has powers? That observation made the Power Zero charges in the gun all the more valuable. But Sarina didn’t get the chance to fire again. Before she knew what was happening, Christina was grabbing her arm and trying to wrench the gun from her fingers.
Sarina struggled against Christina’s strength, desperately trying to push the barrel away from herself and against her opponent’s body. She managed to keep her finger locked around the trigger, but her opponent was both stronger and more experienced in melee combat. While Sarina was struggling for control of the gun, Christina eased her grip on it and cocked her right arm back.
Her punch hit Sarina square in the face. It wasn’t a very hard one – it barely hurt, but she lost focus and staggered backward. The gun slipped from her hand.
Can’t let her have it. In a last-ditch effort, Sarina threw the weapon off to the side.
She heard it slide across the floor but lost track of it when her opponent’s foot connected with her knee. Unlike the previous punch, the kick sent a flash of pain through her body and threw her off balance. She fell backward, crashing hard onto the floor. Her small canvas rucksack did little to soften the fall. She might have cried out in pain, but the impact had knocked the wind out of her. All she managed was an agonized wheeze.
Annoyingly, the pain brought tears to her eyes, blurring her vision despite her effort to blink them away. She couldn’t see the gun. She remembered the direction it had skittered off into, but the floodlights blanketed the fenced in area in near blinding brightness. Everywhere she looked was light, blurry shadows and the shape of that girl she didn’t even know.
The girl who meant to kill her.
To her surprise, Christina ceased her attacks. She wasn’t even moving. She stood with her head turned upward, looking at the screens.
Sarina didn’t want to look at them. She needed that gun to help Jasper, so she started dragging herself very slowly backwards across the floor, to the edge of the playing field and away from the brightness, hoping her opponent wouldn’t notice.
“Very good, Christina,” Gentleman’s voice boomed from the loudspeaker above. “But the way this is playing out is little, shall I say… disappointing? I expected more of a fight. As of right now, your opponent does not seem very motivated. Perhaps I should provide assistance?”
Give me my powers, and I’ll show you a real fight. Not wanting to draw any attention to herself, Sarina bit back a response and focused on shuffling backward.
Suddenly, a grinding, roaring sound emanated from both ends of the playing field. It rattled like a drilling machine, piercing marrow and bone. Sarina’s breath stopped. She could tell what it was before she’d even looked up at the screens. The metal spikes around Jasper’s limp body had stirred to life, and they were slowly closing in on him. Judging by the sounds that were coming from the other end of the field, the other guy wasn’t faring any better.
Sarina squeezed her eyes shut, desperately trying reach for the gun with the power of her will. Nothing happened. She tried again. This time, she invoked a mental image of the Jasper she’d seen just before – pinned to a wall, helpless and vulnerable.
About to die.
Something stirred at the back of Sarina’s mind. She could feel that the drug-induced void inside of her was no longer absolute. Thin threads of power drifted through the void like spider silk, too fragile to grasp but responsive to emotion. The desperate situation she was in provided plenty of that.
In a last ditch effort, she lashed out with her will, commanding the horrifying mechanism to stop. Maybe it was nearby, out of sight but still within her range. It didn’t stop. But she felt a ripple through reality, a brief moment where it became malleable. She just didn’t have enough influence over it to change anything.
Christina’s voice rose over the noise, urgent and furious. “Shut it off. You want to see a fight? Fine. Just shut that damn thing off.”
On cue, the drilling stopped. “Much better,” Gentleman said. “Why must you always be so difficult?”
“You overdosed her,” Christina accused. “This isn’t a fight. You just want me to beat the crap out of that poor girl. Is that it? Is that the ‘fight’ you want to see? I’m the one you should be pissed at.”
“I had hoped you would perhaps enjoy it a little,” Gentleman replied. “That girl is the one who wanted Emily, after all. Be glad she has no control over her powers. If she did, she would erase you and everything around you before you could blink. And perhaps she still could, if she tried just a little harder?”
You lying, manipulative sack of shit. Sarina wanted to scream those words at him – and more – but something held her back. No one was paying attention to her. If she could avoid attention for another moment, she just might be able to make a dash for the gun. She could see it now. It was in the upper right corner of the playing field, resting against the waist-height ring fence. It was only five or six meters away.
Just a little further. Sarina clenched her teeth and continued sliding backwards, as fast as she could manage without making any noise. Which wasn’t very fast at all.
Christina glanced to the spot where Sarina had been just before. When she didn’t see anyone there, her eyes flicked to the fence, finding Sarina.
Their eyes settled on the gun at the same time. Sarina felt her body tense, ready to attempt that final dash. But her opponent didn’t budge. Christina just stood there, watching Sarina with a completely expressionless face. As they were staring at each other, Christina’s hand slid to the back of her leg to flick a thumb in the direction of the gun.
She wants me to grab it? It didn’t make any sense. They obviously both wanted to keep their boys alive, and the rules of Gentleman’s game only offered safe passage to one of them. Why would that girl want to help her? She was holding back, though. Sarina could tell as much.
The sharp, disapproving clack of Gentleman’s tongue came through the speakers. “Will you finish this already, or do you intend to keep talking to me until that gun is back in her hand?”
Sarina’s mind raced as she tried to understand what the hell was going on. If her opponent really had full control over her powers, then she’d hardly been using them. Was she an ally? This whole set-up implied that she was as much a victim as Sarina was. But what Gentleman had said about Emily…
Emily. The name led to another thought, and facts began to come together. She mentioned her friend Chris and how mad her friend was because she was gone. Sarina could have cleared everything up with a few words. Under different circumstances, she would have wanted to. But Gentleman’s rules forbade any communication between her and her opponent, and she wasn’t going to put Jasper’s life on the line.
I can’t trust her, Sarina decided. I have to play for time, and I need that gun.
The gun. Sarina sent the thought in the direction where she’d last seen it. Reality stirred ever so slightly, but the only noticeable effect was another bout of nausea that turned her stomach upside down. She didn’t feel steady enough to try again.
“Finish this, or I will,” Gentleman said again, sounding bored.
Damn it. Sarina pushed up to her knees, then kicked one leg back to propel herself forward. She managed to leap a short distance before landing hard on her stomach. Her knee screamed in agony, but her hand reached far enough to touch the gun.
Before she could pick it up, Christina appeared in a blur of movement and kicked the gun from her hand. Too surprised to maintain her grip, Sarina couldn’t do anything but watch it skitter across the floor, away from her. The force of the impact set her left hand on fire. She bit her tongue against the pain.
Without conscious thought, Sarina balled the fingers of her right hand into a fist and launched it upward, into Christina’s stomach. It wasn’t a terribly powerful punch, but strong enough that the surprise on Christina’s face turned to pain. She folded over.
That’s for helping me. Sarina drew her good leg back to add a kick for good measure. Her opponent stumbled backward, evading Sarina’s foot.
Sarina saw an opportunity and took it. She scrambled to her feet with great effort, then started running towards the gun in the upper right corner of the playing field. She almost made it. Her wounded knee gave in midway, and she fell again, landing hard on her side. She couldn’t keep herself from crying out this time. The sound of running feet told her that her opponent was catching up.
Up. Sarina struggled to her one good knee, fighting the bile that was rising in her throat. She gripped the edge of the ring with both hands and pulled herself into a standing position. Christina was facing her, not even an arm’s length away. She wasn’t even trying to cut Sarina off. The gun was on the other side, behind the two of them.
Sarina saw a slow, sloppy punch coming and edged backwards with surprising ease. Seeing an opening, she dove back into close combat range, hoping to surprise her opponent and throw her off balance. But Christina intercepted Sarina’s elbow with her hand and pushed her back, using slightly more force than she’d invested in the punch before.
Sarina stumbled a few steps back before her battered knee gave in again. She grasped the edge of the ring as she fell, cutting her hand on the barb wire. She barely felt the pain. That all too familiar nausea swept over her again and dulled her other senses. She managed to break the fall with her other hand, but the harsh landing still sent a jolt of agony though her leg.
She rolled onto her side in reflex, anticipating another attack. None came. Christina tugged on her arms instead, pulling her back to her feet – only to give her a final shove that drove her into the corner, almost within reach of the gun.
Sarina’s fumbling hand couldn’t get ahold of it. Reality warped and twitched and spun in circles around her, refusing to obey. She didn’t have any more fight in her. The drug that coursed through her veins made her feel as weak and useless as a dry sponge.
Oddly enough, she could hear Christina talk in a quiet, hushed voice as if she was very far away. “This is a blind spot,” she said hurriedly. “He can’t see what I’m doing. Sorry, but I need that gun.” She did sound genuinely sorry, and the gun might have disappeared into her hooded shirt. Sarina’s nausea and warped perception made it hard to tell for sure.
But I need it more. And Jasper needs me. Now that her anger had drained out of her, she just wanted to cry. There was warmth on her face, so maybe she did.
“I must mention that if there is no winner within the next two minutes, both of you lose,” Gentleman’s voice blared from somewhere. “I did explain the conditions for winning, did I not?”
One of us has to die. Too weak to even get back to her feet, Sarina made a final attempt to grasp her power. But dizziness was all there was. Her stomach dry heaved in protest, more violently than before. She couldn’t even lift her head off the floor. She was full of lead.
“I remember that part, jackass,” Christina called out.
“Very good. Now, would the two of you kindly leave that corner and come back into the center?”
“I’ll put the gun to good use,” Christina whispered. “I’ll save your boy.” Then, she grabbed Sarina’s arms again and began dragging her across the floor to the center, where the light was brightest and the cameras recorded her every move.
Blind spot, Christina had said. Whatever that meant. She couldn’t really save Jasper, could she? He was probably really far away.
The floor was smooth, and Sarina’s body glided over it as easily as if she was floating through a dream. It almost felt that way, too. Now that her stomach had calmed a little, she felt almost weightless. Only those lights disturbed the niceness of it. They spun around her like celestial bodies in space, awfully, blindingly bright.
Something vibrated against her back. She didn’t know what it was, and didn’t care. It wasn’t anything that could have restored her power.
The dragging stopped. Sarina felt gentle fingers touch her cheek, caressing it. “Mom?” she asked, suddenly hopeful. Her mother had been there before all those awful things happened. If she was back with Sarina, then everything would be okay.
But her mother didn’t respond. There was a quiet, subdued sob, then something hit Sarina’s face. Hard. Someone was standing over her, spinning around her as much as the lights were. Then, she got hit again, and everything began to spin faster.
Sarina didn’t feel another impact. The shape above her changed and transformed into a different one, then it was gone. A pair of luminescent angel wings flashed above her – immense, bright and strikingly beautiful. The brightness seared her eyes and consumed everything else in her field of vision. Then, there was nothing left to see.
She was blind.
The following moments passed in a painful, fog-like daze. The pounding of her head and the ache in her knee told her she was still alive, but she couldn’t tell whether the voices and sounds she heard were real. There were bright spots in her eyes that swallowed her entire field of vision. She heard someone call her by her name, and the voice was strangely familiar, but she couldn’t remember why.
“Who?” Sarina called out in confusion.
“Friends,” a different voice said in accented English. It was young and male, and she was reasonably sure that she’d never heard it before. How could he be her friend if she didn’t even recognize his voice?
“Leave me alone,” she rasped. There was a light pressure on her shoulder. She tried to shrug it off but couldn’t. Her body refused to obey her.
“Take her back to base,” the familiar voice said. “I’ll be with her in a minute.”
Before Sarina knew what was happening, she gently dropped onto a rough, grainy surface that tickled her skin with its warmth. Birds warbled in the distance. There was a steady, swooshing sound nearby. Water? It took her a few seconds to recognize the pattern. An ocean. Where am I?
“Don’t be afraid,” the young male voice said. “You’re safe, okay? No one here wants to hurt you.” The pressure withdrew from her shoulder. She felt somewhat comforted by the absence of physical contact, but her face still felt as if it had been set on fire. She groaned.
With great effort, Sarina managed to turn her head in the direction of the voice. The bright white spots that had been seared into her eyes were beginning to fade. She blinked furiously until she could make out a slender, brown-skinned young man crouching next to her.
“Who?” she asked again.
“Ravith,” he said. “I don’t wear a costume anymore, but some of the other heroes still call me Checkmate. I work with Radiant. You know him, right? Sorry about your eyes. He didn’t know if there would be any bad guys in there.”
Radiant. As Sarina thought back to the blinding flare of angel wings and the strangely familiar voice from before, names and events began to fall into place. She groaned but not because of the pain. She didn’t have time to talk to the heroes. She’d left Emily and Patrick without protection. Snow was hurt. And Jasper… oh god, Jasper. The memory of his on-screen image surfaced in her mind, sending a shiver of fear through her body.
“I have to go back,” she said, trying to sit up. The effort made her head explode with a searing, pulsing shock of pain that knocked her back down immediately.
“Please don’t do that,” Ravith said in a soft, pleading voice. “And don’t try to use your powers. It’s just going to make it worse. You’ll be okay if you rest for a few hours. You’re a bit beat up, but it’s nothing too bad.”
“I can’t,” she groaned. “You don’t know anything. People are going to die. You brought me here, so you can take me back.”
Ravith was looking at her sadly. “There wasn’t anyone else there. Just some poor guy who had been kidnapped from Paris. Radiant knows about your friends, though,” he said. “If there is anything that can be done, he’ll do it.”
He knows where Jasper is? Sarina felt a glimmer of hope, but it quickly flared into suspicion. How had the heroes found her? She was quite certain that her last location hadn’t been Paris, and she doubted that Gentleman had been kind enough to spread her position data around. Jasper and that other guy hadn’t been there, either. Only their on-screen images, transmitted from God knew where.
Ravith must have seen something on her face, because he answered the unspoken question. “You’re probably wondering what happened. As far as I know, your Empath friend called your brother, and your brother called us. Morpheus traced you through your phone.”
“Who is…” Sarina began, then cut herself off. It didn’t matter. “David is here?” she asked instead.
Ravith nodded. “You can see him later, if you like. But Radiant wants to talk to you first.”
“I have to go get Snow,” Sarina pressed. “She’s hurt. And I have to get Emily and Patrick out of Paris. And find Jasper. And… damn it, I left a bunch of people with some villains there. They still need help.”
“We’re going to take care of things in Paris,” Ravith assured her. She could tell from the way he was avoiding eye contact that he was keeping something from her.
“When?” she asked.
“After dealing with the Covenant,” he said. Then, after a pause, “they found your friends first.”