12.1 Precipice

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Conglomerate Shelter, somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean – Monday, the 18th of June 2012. 06:02 PM.
 
Four days earlier
 
 
In captivity, time followed different rules. It stretched on and on until the hours melded together. The time spent with Ryan were her only pleasant moments, though they were often bittersweet, reminding Chris of how desperate their situation was.

Captivity wasn’t a new experience for Chris. She’d been a prisoner in San Francisco’s Wardens headquarters, back before the Covenant and the US government pulled the strings that led to her elevation from rogue to hero. But even then, alone in a tiny square room whose most sophisticated equipment had been a free standing chemical toilet, Chris had never felt completely disconnected from nearly everyone and everything she cared about.

The sheer metal walls that were surrounding her now gave no hint about her whereabouts. The artificial lighting could be dimmed, but never be turned off completely, and the one window existed only for the amusement of the villains.

It wasn’t even an actual window. It was a transparent barrier of bulletproof glass that was like a shop window, allowing the Conglomerate villains to study their prisoners from a safe distance. Sometimes they stopped by for a few seconds, sometimes it was minutes. Sometimes they talked, and occasionally their words were worth listening to. Chris had spotted three villain visitors so far: Gentleman, the Indian and the punk witch.

Gentleman was easiest to deal with because he only showed up to talk, and Chris was reasonably sure that she and Ryan would be kept alive as long as Gentleman kept talking. The punk witch was a minor annoyance. She occasionally showed up with a burger or sandwich, planted herself in front of the window and ate her meal in plain view of the prisoners. She’d smack her lips and make mmmh’ing sounds to let them know just how good it was. Whenever she caught Chris looking, she pointedly drew a finger across her throat, so Chris stopped doing her the favor.

She had no idea why that woman got such a kick out of threatening her.

The teasing had little effect on her, at any rate. What she really craved was a smoke. Chris wasn’t exactly a chain smoker, and she knew she’d get over the cravings eventually, but the withdrawal made it hard to think straight at times. The villains were a more pressing concern than her addiction.

The Indian creeped her out the most. He was like a ghost, unnervingly silent and unpredictable. The other villains could be heard all the way through the corridor, the sound of their footsteps amplified by the metal plating that covered everything here.

But Laughing Wolf defied the laws of physics. He was over six feet tall and built like a pro fighter, with tribal tattoos that trailed down the side of his neck. He moved with a snake-like grace and never spoke a word. All he did was collect the prisoner’s paper dishes and deliver the next meal, which usually consisted of scrambled eggs and burned toast.

The latest meal still sat on the folding table at the center of the cube shaped cell, its tin foil wrapping untouched. It had most likely gone cold by now. Without knowing whether Gentleman would agree to the terms she’d suggested, Chris couldn’t get any of it down. She had a nagging suspicion that if his answer was ‘no’, she’d find out about it by means of a poisoned meal. Or maybe she’d just get electrocuted on the spot – along with Ryan, whose survival chances would be approximately zero without Chris. He had seen and heard too much to survive her death.

She strongly assumed that Data had designed this prison; her cell’s power-suppressing abilities suggested as much. So, Gentleman must have access to more advanced methods of prisoner suppression than poisoned food.

But whenever Chris thought of all the hidden traps and gadgets she might have to deal with eventually, she tucked Ryan away in some safe spot at the back of her mind. He was a normal person. Not physically weak, but compared to her, he was slow and vulnerable. If anyone was going to challenge Data’s security systems, it would have to be her.

They didn’t discuss escape plans. Chris had no delusions about privacy in her cell. She was pretty sure that someone, somewhere, would be listening to every single word they said.

Right now the cell was silent. It was Ryan’s turn on the single cot they shared. He had finally passed out after many long hours of brooding and worrying about his loved ones back home, leaving Chris to watch over his sleep.

He looked so peaceful, his handsome face softened by blissful oblivion. His top knot had come loose, and strands of shoulder length brown hair spilled over the whiteness of the pillow. Seeing him like this gave her a painful reminder of how vulnerable he really was and how much his fate depended on her own.

And, judging by the way her heart fluttered when she looked at him for too long, she still had the biggest, most idiotic crush on him. It was one of the things that frustrated her most about herself and not because he was only just learning to be her friend again; she’d grown used to drifting along the outer edges of his friend zone after he’d moved away to study at Harvard.

No, she was angry at herself because she hadn’t been able to let go of her feelings and because that devious bastard of a villain knew exactly how to take advantage of them. The night of her transition, she had saved Ryan, but failed to protect his girlfriend – her own sister. Helen was gone, but Chris would go through the seven hells before she let Ryan down again.

“I’ll get you out of this,” she whispered. “I don’t know how, but I’m going to make it happen.”

She had a whole bunch of other plans and priorities, but the fact that he was here – because of her – brought him to the top of the list.

As she sat there beside him, waiting for time to trickle away while Gentleman was brooding over his decision to accept or deny her request, her thoughts drifted back to the other reasons she had for staying alive. The memory of her parents surfaced first, filling her with a twinge of sadness. They’d been so happy to see her when she visited them in their new home near San Francisco. That short trip back had made her painfully aware of how much they depended on her. She was their last living child, and she’d made a promise to become part of their lives again.

If she was going to die here, then failing to keep that promise would be one of her greatest regrets. It was one of the things she’d really meant not to screw up.

I hope someone takes care of you two, Chris thought, twisting her fingers together. Mrs. Clarence, maybe. She’s pretty good at what she does.

Maybe the Wardens therapist was taking care of Nora and Peter, as well. Those two needed someone to look to for guidance. Chris had no idea whether she’d done a good job as a Wardens team leader, but she could imagine how difficult it would be for Peter and Nora to keep going now that more than half the team was gone.

There were five of us right after I joined up, Chris remembered. Then the DoD sent us on a PR mission that actually succeeded in finding Legion, and we were down to four.

Chris knew all too well that Legion was still somewhere out there. After the powers he’d manifested in San Francisco – extreme regeneration and the mind-bending psychic assault that had washed over most of Alameda Island – Chris was inclined to believe that the Oracle’s doomsday prophecies had some truth to them. The sound of ten thousand people screaming in unison wasn’t something she could easily forget.

Without Chris’s forcefields, the chance of her friends and loved ones surviving Legion’s psychic assault would be slim to none. She rated him as a monster of apocalyptic proportions, far more dangerous than even the Sleepwalker had ever been. The Sleepwalker was slow, and he’d never learned any new tricks. The powersets Legion had absorbed in addition to his own made him nigh undefeatable.

If we’re all very lucky, he’ll spend a few more days licking his wounds, Chris thought. And if we’re very unlucky, he’ll have a power surge in the meantime. Or several.

She shuddered at the thought. During her very first encounter with Legion, the feedback she’d gained through her danger sense had given her a frighteningly good impression of who the monster was: a multitude of personalities, driven insane by a never-ending cycle of pain. If all of them could surge separately, then the future was very bleak indeed.

There was also the issue of the armband Chris had been wearing when Drifter snatched her from San Francisco. It had been her primary means of communication with the other heroes. If the villains succeeded in hacking it, then her friends might be in grave danger.

Chris glanced down at Ryan. He was very still, looking too exhausted to even stir in his sleep. She resisted the urge to drape the thin woolen blanket over him. Instead, she returned to watching the corridor beyond the window. Whatever Gentleman’s decision was going to be, he’d most likely send one of or more of his henchmen to deliver the news or kill her. If the answer was no, then she hoped that they’d at least have the mercy of letting Ryan sleep through it all.

She shifted sideways to rest her shoulder against the metal wall. If Gentleman agreed to her terms at all, then she’d have more and better opportunities to play for time. Time to learn everything she could about Gentleman’s hideout and his gang.

If she managed that, then she could find a means to escape – or take Gentleman’s conglomerate to hell with her.

Emily has access to my memories, she reminded herself. If I can at least figure out where I am, this is going to end as a hero victory.

The sound of footsteps that came down through the corridor, putting an end to Chris’s brooding. The noise put her on alert immediately. Each of the villains had their own distinctive gait, and this was someone she didn’t recognize. Someone new.

Chris slipped off the edge of the cot, careful not to disturb Ryan, then stepped over to the window. She still couldn’t see more than the five meters of corridor that were right beyond the thick glass, but the steps were audible enough. Their vivid, bouncing rhythm hinted at someone female without heavy combat boots.

Not the punk witch, Chris deducted with some relief, though she had no reason to feel optimistic just yet. She briefly glanced at Ryan’s sleeping form on the cot. Then she turned back to the window, bracing herself for a potentially unpleasant encounter.

When the visitor stepped into her view, Chris recognized her easily enough.

Eve.

The world’s first female Evolved planted herself in front of Chris, striking a pose with one hand on her hip and a sardonic smile on her purple-painted lips. Her lipstick matched the eyeliner, and the curly hair that fell a scant inch past her shoulders was a darker shade of purple. She had some kind of black purse pinned beneath her left arm.

A gun? Chris wondered. No, that couldn’t be right. The purse was too flat to contain a firearm. Knives? That seemed more like it. But why would the villainess arm herself with knives? Chris had years of experience in the boxing ring. Eve had the look of a pole dancing party girl, someone who barely knew how to hold an eyeliner. Her white crop top and denim hot pants did an excellent job at drawing attention to her curves and the numerous tattoos that covered her skin. She didn’t look particularly fit, though.

There were a few more tattoos than Chris remembered seeing on the photos of Eve that circulated the internet. However, she did recognize the black and red snake that coiled about the French woman’s arm. It had come alive and poisoned a French club owner during Eve’s transition. The man had very nearly died.

The snake was old news, though. Chris’s eyes darted to the black and green dragon that rested on the villainess’ thigh. That one was definitely new. And if it’s animated form could actually spit fire, then it posed much more of a threat than the snake did.

As if she had read Chris’s mind, Eve brushed a finger over her tattooed dragon. The image twitched once, then became a shapeless, blurry haze that spilled into the two feet of space that separated Eve from the window. There it expanded explosively, taking the shape of a floating, semitransparent dragon that was about twice as tall as Eve was.

Chris stepped back from the window in reflex. The dragon’s maw opened wide, then shot forward through the armored glass. Chris flinched, but held her ground. The animated tattoo vanished on contact with the cell’s power suppressing atmosphere.

Chris expelled the breath, keeping her eyes trained on the villainess beyond the glass barrier. Data’s security system doesn’t distinguish between villain and captive powers, she deducted. It suppresses both. Good to know.

Eve’s purple lips twisted in poorly concealed disappointment.

Your dragon tattoo isn’t that scary after fighting Legion, Chris wanted to say, but didn’t. “Hi, Eve,” she said instead. “Did Gentleman send you to talk to me?”

Her eyes trailed back to the black purse. Now that Eve’s grip had shifted, it looked suspiciously like a tool kit. Or perhaps a folding wrap full of knives and surgical instruments.

“Nothing to talk about, chérie,” Eve cooed with her French accent. “Only what must be done.”

Chris’s eyes narrowed at the words, and her mind raced with the various possibilities of what this could mean and how their encounter would play out if it came down to a fight. As long as the power suppression remained active, Eve couldn’t lay a finger on her without coming inside. And if she did come in, then Chris’s physical fitness and boxing experience would put Eve at a serious disadvantage.

Eve was either bluffing, or she had a few tricks up her sleeve that didn’t involve powers.

“What has to be done, exactly?” Chris asked.

Eve rolled her eyes, tapping the folding wrap with her painted fingernails. “What do you think? That the boss will let you stroll around in our base as if you are on a Sunday walk? No. Step back from the window, little girl.”

So he agreed to my terms. Chris’s heart made a small leap, then skipped a beat. You’re not planning to saw my feet off or something, are you? She gave the folding wrap another long look, then discarded that idea. It seemed much more likely that Gentleman would proceed with the same method that had worked for him so far: using Ryan as a safeguard. Chris was painfully aware of Ryan’s sprawled body on the cot behind her, oblivious and utterly defenseless.

“How far back?” she asked Eve through the glass.

“As far as you can,” the villainess replied. “Then I come in, and you do as I say. This is not going to hurt much if you hold still.”

Chris felt uncomfortably reminded of the vaccinations she’d received as a child. Eve has Power Zero, she realized with a start. It was the only conclusion that made any sense. Gentleman obviously wasn’t going to just let her run around and find a way to destroy his base with her powers.

The idea of getting injected with some experimental drug that had unknown side effects appalled her, but if the drug guaranteed free reign of the villain base, like she’d asked, then maybe it was worth it. Maybe the benefits justified the potential damage to her health and her powers.

“Okay,” Chris said, doing her best to sound calm and submissive. She stepped back from the glass until she found herself standing next to Ryan’s cot, pressing her back to the wall.

Ryan stirred but didn’t open his eyes. Chris was grateful for that; the poor guy was already worried enough.

“Good girl. Stand still, I’m coming in!” Eve announced, her voice muffled by the glass. Some clicking sounds came from the door’s security system. The steel door was to the right of the window and looked almost like a security gate, seven feet tall with framed mechanical parts that could have been straight out of a science fiction movie.

Even Eve seemed to have a healthy respect for the security door. The villainess slipped through before it slid fully open, then quickly slammed her hand onto the controls, sealing the passage behind her.

For a brief moment, Chris considered charging Eve before she got the chance to lock the door. If Chris’s assessment of the security system was accurate, then she would regain her powers the instant she was out of her cell.

But there was no way she could have taken Ryan along.

Eve gave Chris a look of wary assessment before stepping in front of her. Then, she unfurled the folding case she’d brought along, allowing Chris to see what was inside: a set of syringes and two vials of mysterious liquid. One was sapphire blue, the other bilious green. Neither one was looking appealing.

“Gentleman agreed to my terms, then?” Chris asked, forcing her attention away from the vials.

“Perhaps. Who knows? The boss is full of surprises,” Eve replied casually, a mischievous smile on her lips.

“Yeah, right. I just want to know if he’s letting me out of here before I let you inject me with this stuff.” Chris crossed her arms over her chest, making no move to roll up her sleeve.

Eve’s smirk deepened, as if she knew a secret she wasn’t going to divulge. “You may leave the cell, yes,” she said. “But if you leave, you have to ask for permission to go back in.” She glanced down at Ryan’s sleeping form on the cot, looking at him in a way that made Chris want to punch the woman’s smirking face.

“If anyone hurts him in my absence, all bets are off,” Chris said in a low tone. “You know that, right?”

“Oh, no one is going to hurt him,” Eve said dismissively. “But if you want to go out and see the Shelter, the Shelter is going to see you.”

“I get it,” Chris said. “The place’s full of villains who haven’t been injected with power zero. I’m going to behave.”

“Are you? Very good. Give me your arm,” Eve demanded.

Chris hesitated. Something about the woman’s tone was giving her pause. There was too much anticipation in her voice, and that insufferable, knowing grin was still sticking to the woman’s face. The villainess was clearly looking forward to something. But what? Chris wasn’t sure she wanted to find out. She kept her thoughts to herself and rolled up her sleeve, keeping her eyes trained on Eve’s hands as she loaded the syringe with the green liquid.

“The blue one is the antidote?” Chris asked.

Eve’s eyes flicked from Chris’s arm to her face. “The blue kills you,” she said.

Chris stared at her face for a moment, unable to determine whether or not the villainess was lying. She certainly had reason to.

Mental note to Emily: there could be an antidote for Power Zero. I don’t know if I’m going to find out for sure, though. Not without using myself as a guinea pig.

Chris barely felt the sting. The drug made itself felt a few seconds after the injection. Almost immediately, she was overwhelmed by dizziness, nausea, momentary disorientation, and one of the strongest headaches she had ever experienced. In some ways, it was similar to the migraine she’d felt shortly before her transition – a swarm of supersonic bumblebees was passing through her skull, though this time, they didn’t move on. They died. Each death was marked by a fiery sting that seemed to penetrate Chris’s head from within.

She groaned. Her vision blurred, and when she tried to reach for Ryan she couldn’t remember where he was in the cell . Her pulse increased to a dangerously rapid pace and pounded in her ears.

Then it was all gone. The pain, the confusion, and the sickness in her gut. Her powers, too. There was a vacuum-like nothingness where they had been. Chris had never been more aware of her power than right that moment, when she couldn’t feel it. The absence of that connection was more frightening than the pain had been.

“Get up, and let’s get going,” Eve was saying. She sounded further away than she had been a moment ago.

Looking in the direction of the voice, Chris could see the villainess standing next to the door. The folding case was now tucked away beneath her arm, and the smirk was gone from her face, replaced by an impatient little pout.

Ryan was still fast asleep. One of his hands dangled over the side of the cot, nearly touching the cold metal floor.

“I’ll be back before you wake up,” Chris whispered. “I promise.”

She pushed off the wall and cautiously set one foot in front of the other. When she was reasonably sure that she wasn’t going to fall flat on her face, she picked up her pace. The door was only a few steps away.

“How are you feeling?” Eve asked, watching her.

“Fine,” Chris said. It wasn’t exactly true, but almost. She didn’t feel like she was going to throw up any second. That was good enough for now.

Seemingly satisfied with the response, Eve positioned herself in front of the door and pressed her thumb to the touch panel. The door slid open, but not before several seconds had passed.

Is there a facial recognition system in place? Chris wondered. The touch panel reminded her of the one that had restricted access to the Wardens apartment in San Francisco. That one had responded much more quickly, though. This security system appeared to be far more elaborate.

“I guess you’re supposed to keep me company,” Chris said as she stepped into the corridor. It continued to the left and right of her, and as far as she could see, there was another windowed cell on either side. She couldn’t see the exit. The corridor made a slight bend, most likely winding its way around a circular center area.

“For now, yes,” Eve replied ominously. She turned right, signaling for Chris to follow.

“You’re making sure I behave?”

Eve rolled her eyes. “Yes. And no. You find out soon enough.”

Chris wanted to ask more, but the sight of her cell neighbor stopped her in her tracks. She recognized him through the window. The guy had been featured on the news so often that his name had become a synonym for the ominous off-grid disappearances in Europe.

DJ. The power booster.

Chris couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy. He had a look of silent suffering about him, and the sadness in his eyes could have made a stone weep. Has he been Gentleman’s prisoner all this time? Chris wondered. She couldn’t recall when exactly he had disappeared, but it seemed like a long time ago.

“You coming?” Eve asked impatiently.

“Not yet,” Chris said. “I changed my mind. I still want to talk to your Visionary, but I’m going to talk to this guy first.”
 

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