12.3 Precipice

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Conglomerate Shelter, somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean – Monday, the 18th of June 2012. 06:44 PM.
“Because, silly girl, you are a dead hero,” Eve said. “No one likes dead heroes. They have a bad smell about them.”

I don’t know if I’m still a hero, but if I was dead, I probably would’ve noticed by now.

Chris paid the villainess and her cheap witticisms no mind. Instead, she took one last look at Jasper, who was looking back at her through the window. His appearance had changed dramatically when compared to the near catatonic state he’d been in only ten minutes ago. Now, his posture was straight and his expression alert. He flicked her a thumbs up.

Just before she stepped past the window, Chris flicked him one back. Perhaps it was a meaningless gesture. But right that moment, she felt better about her chances of escape than she had in the past few hours. She and Ryan weren’t alone in this. Not anymore.

Eve wasn’t paying attention to what Chris was doing. The villainess clicked onward on her heeled shoes, happily chattering away. “Watchmirror is not alone,” she informed. “I hope you don’t mind children… I hate most of them. Noisy, stinky little brats. The ones over here, however, are quite well behaved. They so love my cooking.”

They’re probably just scared out of their wits. Chris glanced past Eve to the cell window ahead, where a slender, cinnamon-skinned young man was on the lookout for anyone approaching through the corridor. He had to be about the same age as Jasper, though there was an air of meekness about him that erased a few years from his soft, gentle face. It made him look like a really big kid.

When his brown eyes settled on Eve, he tensed up immediately. His head snapped around to speak a few words to someone behind him, someone so far back in the cell that Chris couldn’t see them. An anxious child’s face peered through the glass before quickly withdrawing from view.

Just how many children are in there? Chris wondered, quickening her pace to brush past Eve and see for herself. The villainess made a sound of protest but let her pass.

There weren’t just kids inside that room. There was a whole family, three generations of almond-eyed, cinnamon-skinned people huddled in a corner. A white-haired, leathery-skinned woman was cradling a little girl to her chest. A man and woman in their late thirties sat on the floor, their hands joined together in silent prayer. A preteen boy – most likely the kid who’d been peering into the corridor – was crawling underneath one of the two cots in the room.

Only Watchmirror stood at the front, waiting near the door all by his lonesome. And he didn’t look happy that his cell neighbor was stopping by for a chat.

“You guys snatched the guy’s whole family?” Chris asked, dismayed by the scene in front of her. The cell wasn’t any larger than hers was, and she knew from experience how cramped it was with only herself and Ryan taking up space. There was a family of six in here. Two cots and a single toilet for all of them.

“The parents begged to be taken instead of him,” Eve said without a trace of sympathy. “It would have been cruel to take the parents and leave the children, don’t you think?”

Bullshit. You’re using them to scare him into cooperation. Chris took a deep breath and bit her tongue, struggling to keep calm. The little girl’s hair hung in greasy strings around her tear-strained face. Chris couldn’t keep looking her. The Guardian part of her soul was urging her to intervene, right now. But she couldn’t.

Not yet.

The extortion tactics were obviously working. Eve crooked her finger, prompting Watchmirror to pad to the right side of the window like a well-trained dog, taking position across from her. He didn’t even glance as Chris. His attention was fully focused on the villainess, his body so tense and his shoulders drawn in so close that his neck seemed to disappear between them.

“This is her,” Eve announced. “Answer her questions, Watchmirror.”

As commanded, the young man’s eyes finally turned to Chris. “Ask, please,” he said stiffly.

Just what have they done to you? Chris wanted to ask. Any hope she might have had for a supportive prisoner talk melted in the face of his tight, controlled expression. Eve was right, she mused. He just wants me gone.

“Okay,” she said as gently as she could manage. “I’m curious about your power. You can locate people, right?”

“Yes,” he replied. Just that one word.

“Does your power have a range limit?” Chris went on. “Or can you find people no matter where they are in the world?”

“No matter. I find people, everywhere.”

“And you know what their powers are, too?”

Watchmirror frowned a bit. His eyes flicked over to Eve, as if to ask permission.

The villainess fluttered her fingers dismissively. “Go on,” she said.

“Yes. I know,” the young man finally admitted. His eyes, though, were saying something different altogether: please don’t ask me any more questions.

Chris felt a chill go through her. As much as she wanted – needed – to know whether she would be a replaceable gear in Gentleman’s scheme, she couldn’t help but wonder if her temporary cooperation would lead down the path Watchmirror had gone. Would she become a hollow, frightened caricature of herself? She couldn’t believe that she’d cave in so easily.

Then again, she hadn’t asked what the villains had done to this guy and his family.

“No more questions?” Watchmirror asked hopefully.

“I do have more,” Chris said. . “What are my powers?” She knew, of course. And she felt like an ass for even asking. But she had to know if he was bluffing. The full array of her powers had never been revealed to the public.

His frown deepened. “Why you ask your power?”

“I know it’s a stupid question. But if you can answer it, I’m almost done. I promise.”

He drew in a breath, awaiting a nod from Eve before he went on. “Is hard to say in English. You make… hard space around people. Feel if someone get hurt. You get hurt. You are fast, too.”

Good enough, I guess. Chris would have liked to hear more specifics about her danger sense, but considering his limited knowledge of English, that might have been too much to ask.

“Can you tell me where Emily Bell is? The little girl Empath?” she asked instead. Her previous conversation with Jasper was still fresh in her mind. He’d told her that Emily joined his team of off-gridders. Not even the Covenant’s Visionary, Queenie, had been able to locate them. Chris couldn’t think of any reason why Jasper would lie to her. This guy, though…

If one of them is lying, Watchmirror will tell me a different story about where Emily is.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I try find her sometime. But she is gone from world. Can’t see.”

“Gone as in, you can’t see her or gone like… dead?” The word was almost too hard to speak.

He shook his head, putting a finger over his eye. “Can’t see.”

If that’s true, then Gentleman can’t find her. No one can. Chris took some solace in that.

“I only have two more questions,” Chris announced. A look of relief rippled across Watchmirror’s face. “Where is Dancer?”

This time, he responded without hesitation. “I don’t know. Can’t see.”

She might still be with Emily, then. This thought sparked another, more sobering, possibility. But what if he was instructed to tell me he can’t see any of the people I ask him about?

“Last question,” Chris said. “Where is Jeannette Chung? My mother.”

Watchmirror squinted to Eve again, scratching his skinny neck uncomfortably.

The villainess responded in his stead. “He can’t locate anyone without powers. If that’s everything you got, you can stop bugging him now.”

Could Queenie only locate other Evolved, too? Chris couldn’t remember. She would have liked to know if powersets that passed on after death changed at all. If they did, then perhaps Gentleman’s threat to kidnap her replacement after her death was nothing but a bluff.

Mental note to Emily: Worth looking into. Why did none of all those famous Pulse researchers never figure this one out? Did Data erase all of their research so the Conglomerate would be ahead of everyone else?

“I don’t have any more questions,” Chris lied. She had plenty, though she doubted she was going to get any reliable answers here. She’d have to find them on her own.

“Very good!” Eve cooed, all creepy eagerness. “Let us continue our little sightseeing tour, then.”

“Sure,” Chris said.

She didn’t need a sightseeing tour, of course. Especially not one that involved Eve shadowing her every step. What she needed was a better understanding of the villain base, its social hierarchy and the various security mechanisms that were bound to get in her way sooner or later. She had to know what kind of resources – and powers – Gentleman could draw upon.

And even if I never make it out of here alive, maybe Emily can pass something on. It was a strangely comforting thought.

To the rest of the world, Gentleman’s Conglomerate had always been a ghost entity, an organization so controversial and evasive that many had denied its existence. So, any kind of inside information could give the heroes the edge they needed to make it through the coming days. Maybe she’d even dig up something about Legion. Gentleman obviously had an interest in the Oracle and her prophecies; it wasn’t unthinkable that he was hoarding Antithesis related information.

Chris had no doubt that the next time Legion surfaced, it could very well mean the end of everything. And if the monster somehow got ahold of Dancer’s or even the Sleepwalker’s powers… then goodnight.

We’re standing at the precipice, Chris thought gloomily as she followed Eve to the next heavy security door. Gentleman is dancing on the edge, cackling to himself while the rest of the world is looking in the wrong direction.

Chris didn’t know why the villain wanted the Oracle so badly. She had a few ideas, though. Why did villains ever want anything? To feel superior to everyone else. Gentleman in particular enjoyed knowing things, in having more information, more knowledge than anyone else. Maybe all he wanted from the Oracle was to hear the end of the world’s story before anyone else did.

“Through here,” Eve was saying, pulling Chris’s mind back to more immediate concerns.

The door ahead didn’t mark the end of the corridor. As far as Chris could see, it sat at the upper end of the circular prisoner area, where two seemingly identical passages curved off to the left and right. Much like the other doors she’d seen along the way, this one was a massive steel structure, larger than the rest but surrounded by the same lights and security mechanisms she’d seen elsewhere. Remote-controlled flamethrowers, maybe. Or laser cutters to bisect unwelcome visitors within seconds.

“This door leads to food storage, then my kitchen,” Eve cheerily pointed out. “Try not to touch anything. You could get into trouble!” She pressed her thumb to the touchpad that flanked the door. Then, she stepped back a bit, raising her purple-lined eyes to the three indicator lights that were just above.

“We’re headed to the kitchen?” Chris asked warily. “You want me to cook, or what?”

“Oh, no,” Eve replied. “Something better. Much better.”

“What, exactly?” Chris pressed. By now, the vague feeling of dread she’d been carrying inside her gut was condensing into a hot, hard ball that urged her to run or strike before anyone could get her. Running was out of the question, though. She couldn’t even tell if the exit was up, down or ahead.

Eve wasn’t looking at her right that moment. The villainess had her attention on the door, secure in the knowledge that Chris was drugged up to the eyeballs.

Chris balled the fingers of her right hand into a fist. Part of her wondered if she still had enough strength in her to knock out a flyweight like Eve with one punch.

But she’d do… what? Ryan was still back in their cell, and Chris seriously doubted that the exit out of Villainville was right beyond the kitchen. That would have been too convenient, even for a make-believe scenario.

Chris lowered the first, forcing her fingers to relax. “What makes it your kitchen?” she asked, watching the lights above the door flare in sequence.

“I’m the cook, of course,” Eve said as if it was totally obvious. “I’m the reason you haven’t starved yet.”

You burned all that toast like a real pro. Chris could appreciate the fact that she hadn’t gone hungry or died from food poisoning, so she refrained from commenting. Besides, she wanted Eve to stay in a good mood if only because the alternative would be undoubtedly much more unpleasant.

The door retracted into its silver-gray frame, revealing a small storage room. Chris glimpsed two large fridges that stood side by side, as well as simple floating shelves stocked with rows upon rows of cans and preserving jars of questionable content. Upon following Eve into the pantry, she also spotted a sizeable stock of beer cans whose labels identified them as an American brand. There were no exits apart from a fist-sized ventilation shaft and a red-painted metal door that sealed the opposite end of the room.

The ventilation shaft didn’t protrude from the wall. It went through the floor and continued on through the ceiling, forcing the air current to flow in a vertical direction. All the air vents Chris had spotted so far worked in the same way. There had to be a reason for that.

No hard liquor, Chris noted as she scanned the room. She could think of all kinds of reasons why Gentleman wouldn’t want his superpowered minions getting wasted, but if he meant to prevent alcohol-induced superpower accidents, then the Conglomerate’s prison fortress had to be located in some remote, nonurban area without access to liquor stores. Maybe the villains were as stuck here as the prisoners were.

Eve showed no interest in the food stock. She glanced at Chris to make sure she was keeping up, then quickly crossed the pantry to take position in front of the small red door. There was no touch panel on the wall next to it, though the trio of control or scanner lights looked similar to the ones they’d passed before.

“Why is this door red?” Chris asked. She wasn’t freaking out just yet, but the signal-colored paint begged the question of whether there was actually a kitchen on the other side – or

a slaughterhouse

something else altogether.

Eve responded without turning her face from the scanner. “Why is something marked red, usually? The color is sign for danger.”

“Um, is there something I should know about this kitchen?” Chris went on, not in a hurry to catch up to the villainess.

“Silly girl. The danger is not here, it’s where we came from,” Eve replied, sounding amused.

Because of the prisoners? Chris wondered, then discarded that thought. With the exception of Watchmirror and DJ, all prisoners were locked away within power suppression fields, and she doubted that the door had been painted signal-red for her sake – which meant that the ‘danger’ most likely concerned the other villains. The ones she’d never seen pass by her cell, ever.

Mental note to Emily: This place isn’t exactly villain paradise. It looks like Gentleman is enforcing some very strict rules, and I bet some of his crew isn’t happy to be here.

“And here we are,” Eve said as the red door opened up ahead of them. The door retracted into the wall almost silently, just like the ones before it had, but the room beyond it wasn’t nearly as quiet. An excited buzz of voices drifted through the doorway. Most of them sounded young and male. Chris wasn’t yet sure why that bothered her, but somehow, it did.

Eve reached back to grasp her arm in an uncomfortably tight grip. “Remember,” she hissed. “Talk time is over. You follow orders from here.”

Chris cleared her throat before responding. “Right. I got it. You don’t have to put the screws to me.”

“We will see,” Eve said. Then, she quickly stepped through the open door, dragging Chris with her.

Chris could immediately see that the ‘kitchen’ consisted of little more than a stove, a couple of cabinets and some countertops that had been placed against the wall on the left side. To the right, a long – and almost disturbingly understocked – chromium steel buffet separated the open plan cooking area from the rest of the room, which appeared to be a canteen of sorts, large enough to feed hundreds.

In terms of design and color, nothing fitted together. Not even the kitchen counters. The whole room had a comfortless, cobbled-together look. The walls and floor were as depressingly windowless and steely-grey as the rest of the fortress, though.

The villains had gathered around – and, in some cases, on – the table that was closest to the door Chris and Eve had just stepped through. There were seven or eight of them, and once they spotted Chris, their noisy chatter faded into silence. She stood at one end of the chromium steel buffet with everyone staring at her as if she was the main course. And maybe she was.

With a couple of exceptions, their expressions mirrored Eve’s almost exactly. There was a hungry look to them that put all of Chris’s senses on high alert. But her danger sense, muted by the Power Zero, was deathly silent.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Magpie – the punk witch – had claimed the seat at the head of the table, which was directly across from where Chris stood. She had turned the chair towards the pantry door and was sitting backwards in it, her arms draped over the backrest in a nonchalant manner.

Her grin was the biggest of all.

Wisps and tendrils of darkness wafted off from her, surrounding her with a corona of shifting, quasi-solid shadows that almost looked alive. Chris could tell that she was showing off. My power is bigger than yours, her eyes were saying.

“There she is!” Magpie cried, as if everyone wasn’t already aware. “Come on, boys. Let’s welcome our newly assigned slave.”

And there it was. The one word explanation for Eve’s impatience, the eager grins, and the numerous comments about Chris’s duty to follow orders. Slave. The word elicited cheers and table raps from some of the villains.

She hoped it was a joke, but as Chris scanned the length of the table and the faces of those who had gathered there, that hope disappeared in a puff of smoke. Anger flared in its stead, but Chris knew she wasn’t equipped to do anything about her current situation. She wasn’t facing a bunch of high school bullies, here; the slightest mis-step could lead to a gruesome death.

She had brushed off the world’s most notorious supervillain and extorted an agreement to her terms from him. Somehow, she was still alive. But he was putting her in her place.

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