Conglomerate Shelter, somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean – Monday, the 18th of June 2012. 08:03 PM.
Under the watchful eyes of the assembled villains, Rampage rose from his chair with a ripple of movement, cracking his knuckles. The gesture failed to intimidate Chris, but it did give her time to determine that her opponent wasn’t using his powers. She could tell the difference because his gait and posture were those of an athletic young man. He didn’t move with catlike grace, and his muscles hadn’t developed beyond basic human fitness.
Maybe he doesn’t fight unfair battles, Chris assumed. Or, more likely, maybe he doesn’t expect to need his powers.
“Aaaallright,” Rampage drawled, lightly slapping his open palm with his fist. “You can make this hard or easy on yourself. Which one is it going to be?”
“I don’t know,” Chris replied. “We’ll find out, I guess?”
Rampage chuckled and shot a glance across the table to Alastair, who flashed a thumbs-down in the fashion of Roman emperors. His pimpled face, combined with a set of nerd glasses, spoiled the effect. King’s impassible scrutiny concerned Chris more. She didn’t even want to glance at Magpie or Mr. Smiles to see what they were doing.
The scary part was that no matter how things turned out, she’d finish this fight as a prisoner surrounded by hostile villains. There was no way for her to actually win in the long run.
Rampage closed in on her without hesitation or caution, signaling Chris that he wasn’t a trained fighter. He had no sense of footwork or balance. He was an average Joe who had grown accustomed to the easy victories his powers had earned for him.
Chris allowed him to come within striking distance. As he approached her, a bout of nausea that might have been her danger sense tore through her stomach. She readied herself for a fast, hard jab to his face, but quickly changed her mind, remembering something she had forgotten about the villain’s powers.
He’s invincible while moving. Damn.
In the split second before his arm moved, Chris decided to stand her ground. Rampage’s hand shot forward, not to attack but to grab her sweatshirt just above the shoulder. She let him.
Just before his fingers could get a good grip on her, she grabbed the offending wrist with her right hand, angled her left elbow against his arm, and quickly bent at the waist to push him down. It was a simple karate move – one of only a handful she remembered from the days before she’d made the switch from martial arts to boxing – but he hadn’t seen it coming. Rampage was driven to the floor, landing hard on his stomach with a yelp of surprise.
There were some gasps around the table. Not wanting to lose her focus, Chris refused to look up at them, shutting their presence out of her mind.
The next logical move would have been to press her knee against his shoulder and keep him down. However, Chris knew she didn’t have to strength to maintain the body lock for any length of time.
She released Rampage in reflex and recoiled, toppling backward to land hard on her butt. And not a moment too soon. The downed villain released a low, guttural growl and jumped back to his feet with superhuman agility. His limbs bulged in places no human limb should bulge. Rampage’s features remained human, but his expression went from surprise to rage as suddenly as if someone had flipped a switch.
It was plain as day how he’d earned his villain name. Chris assumed that his bruised ego did one more thing to send him into Hulk mode, meaning that he wasn’t going to make clever decisions on the fly. It was something she could maybe exploit.
She scrambled back to her feet, struggling to keep the contents of her stomach down. This was the kind of situation where she would have used her powers without conscious effort – except she couldn’t. So she did the next best thing and made a beeline for the kitchen, where a number of cooking utensils dangled from hooks on the back wall.
“That got interesting fast,” King said behind her as she careened around the chromium buffet that divided the open kitchen from the dining area.
The howl that followed was much less articulate than the old man had been.
I need something to defend myself. Chris skidded to an abrupt stop and ducked behind the buffet, using its cover to perform a desperate scan of the kitchen equipment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were no knives in sight. She spotted a good sized frying pan on the wall above one of the counters, abandoned her cover, and ran to retrieve it.
She had only just reached the counter when a heavy impact shook the buffet. Without turning to look, Chris ripped the pan off its hook and held it in front of her body for protection. Chin-length strands of her own hair hung into her eyes and partially obscured her vision. Regardless, she spotted Rampage easily enough. He had jumped on top of the buffet and perched there, his bulging muscles taut and ready for attack.
He’s going to leap on top of me, Chris thought, seeing the way his hands and feet were pushing down against the chromium surface. She couldn’t think beyond that point. Her heart was beating far too fast, throwing her mind into disarray. The frying pan would do nothing against his attack, and it felt ridiculous in her hand.
“Go for it!” a shrill woman’s voice jeered from somewhere. Magpie. Of course it was Magpie.
On cue, Rampage pushed off the buffet with a flash of movement. Chris dove forward at the same time, deeper into the kitchen. Rampage landed hard on the floor behind her. The shock of the impact rattled the suspended kitchen tools and sent Chris to the floor. She skidded for a few more feet until her momentum was spent, then came to a halt right next to the buffet. Its lower half consisted of vacant shelf space, just barely large enough for her to squeeze through. Her right hand was still gripping the frying pan.
“Come on, Rampage,” Alastair grumbled on the other side of the room. The other villains said nothing, though Chris could still feel their eyes on her.
Rampage, now on all fours and no more than a few feet away from her, cocked his head, studying her. As she was still contemplating whether she could squeeze through the empty shelf space fast enough, he dashed forward.
Chris had no time to think. On reflex, she lifted the frying plan and tossed it in front of her. She didn’t aim, and she couldn’t invest any strength in a proper throw, but the villain charged straight into the hurled pan while it was still in mid-air. The collision produced a painfully loud clang that resounded through the entire kitchen. It didn’t stop Rampage, but sent him into an uncontrolled skid that carried him past Chris and into the wall at the end of the kitchen.
She didn’t wait to check whether she’d hurt him at all. She dove forward through the vacant buffet space, landing hard on the floor beyond. A loud curse came from behind her.
Move, Chris urged herself. But she could barely lift her head. The nausea in her gut surged, and her limbs felt like they had been nailed to the floor. She barely had two seconds to prepare herself before she heard Rampage jump onto the buffet again. She couldn’t feel the threat potential he emanated, but her suppressed danger sense turned her stomach upside down. Bile rose in her throat. This time, she couldn’t keep it down. She rolled onto her side and threw up onto the metal floor, gagging and gasping for breath.
“Eww,” Alastair said from the table. “You’re going to clean that up afterward. I am not doing it.”
“Nor am I,” Magpie joined in. “Look at her now. Is this what a hero looks like when they’re not talking shit?”
Chris barely heard them. Her thoughts were focused on Rampage, who was most likely about to deliver whatever punishment the villains came up with. According to the rules Magpie had laid out so gleefully, it was going to be her or Ryan who would pay the price for resisting the ‘task’ assigned by the villains. I’m right here, she challenged grimly. Do what you have to do. Leave him alone.
To her surprise, Rampage did nothing of the sort. He jumped off the buffet to land beside her sprawled body, and that was it. No attack came. Not even a snide remark.
As he was looking down at her, the nausea ebbed from her body. Something else vanished as well – something she hadn’t been aware of until now. A faint energy membrane had just barely been keeping her off the ground. Now that it was gone, the cold metal bit into her cheek and the thin fabric of her pants.
A forcefield? The thought lingered for a split second before shattering. No. I’m pumped full of Power Zero. But if her power had not created it, then… who or what did? Rampage? The other villains? That was about as likely as Gentleman making an appearance to hand her the key to his fortress.
Strangely, she wasn’t afraid anymore. She had succeeded in preserving her self-worth, and she hadn’t gone down without a fight. All that was left was to get this done and over with so she could go check on Ryan.
“What are you waiting for?” Magpie asked Rampage. “She’s right there, at your feet.”
For some reason, the villain didn’t respond. He rubbed his jaw with his knuckles, squinting back and forth between the other Conglomerate members and Chris. The anger was gone from his face from his face, replaced by an ominous frown. There was no hint of an injury to him; not even a bruise.
Chris wasn’t too sad about the missed chance to decimate the Conglomerate’s numbers. Something told her that if she’d actually succeeded in doing permanent damage, then her punishment – or Ryan’s punishment – would be much more severe than whatever it was the villains had in store for her right now.
“Do whatever the hell you want,” Rampage grumbled. “This whole charade is about as fun as a kick in the balls.”
“Are you telling us she actually kicked your balls?” Alastair scoffed.
“No,” Magpie said frostily. “Because he doesn’t have any.”
Glad for the distraction from her punishment, Chris turned her head just enough to glance at the villains gathered around the table. King caught her attention first because he was floating well above his chair, drawing lazy circles in the air with his fingers and looking bored. Alastair drummed his fingers impatiently on the table. Magpie was still surrounded by a corona of shadows that were now twitching angrily. Mr. Smiles stood on his chair, using it as a lookout point. And Laughing Wolf might as well have been a background element. He was watching silently, barely blinking, and his face was as unreadable as the wall behind him.
“We’re going to talk later, you and I,” Rampage shot back in a menacing tone. “Right now, I have other shit to do.” And with that, he turned his back on the others and marched off towards the same door Eve and Drifter had departed through.
“And this is why democracy is wasted on outlaws,” King sighed. “Well. I suppose it was an… educational experiment for the…” he checked his wristwatch, “…six minutes it lasted.”
Do all villain teams fight among themselves this much? Chris wondered. She couldn’t remember any other group that had lasted nearly as long as the Conglomerate had, so maybe they did.
Seeing as her stomach was already empty and she was feeling like a human being again, she pushed up to stand, relieved to find that she could.
“How unamusing,” Mr. Smiles said. He sank back onto his chair and folded his short legs under himself. But he didn’t sit all the way down. Something had caught his attention. Or, rather, someone.
Chris followed his gaze to see Magpie’s corona of darkness expand explosively. The flexible shadow strands reached over and around the table, and before Chris knew what was happening, she found herself ensnared in a web that quickly solidified around her wrists and ankles. She managed to shake one hand and one foot free before the shadows turned solid, but more tendrils blossomed from Magpie’s body to finish the job. Soon she couldn’t move at all. The darkness was solid as rock and cold on the skin, holding her in place.
At least I’m fully dressed and standing. Knowing what was about to come, it was only a small comfort.
“So… here’s the thing,” Alastair announced weightily. “I gave you a task and you screwed it up. You know what that means, right?”
“Right,” Chris echoed, sounding calmer than she felt. The prospect of having a finger removed – if she was lucky – froze her breath in her chest. If she was unlucky, it would be an eye. Or poor Ryan.
“Who’s it going to be, then? You or your friend?”
“I’m right here.” Chris wagged her pinkie suggestively. She was sure she could survive without it.
She saw Mr. Smiles make scissor motions with his fingers. In the blink of an eye he was out of his chair and right in front of her, watching her eagerly while his fingers came together in a final cutting motion. Chris braced herself for the pain, but felt nothing. A few strands of her hair came loose and floated to the floor.
“It’ll have to be a little more than that,” Alastair said. He crossed his arms over his skinny chest. “The other guys voted for me, so I should have the final say on the punishment.”
“She’ll be fine without both of her ears,” Magpie suggested. “Losing one won’t affect her hearing ability.”
“Ear, yes?” Mr. Smiles asked. His finger scissors moved up to Chris’s cheek, brushing her hair back from her face.
Since her neck was fixed in place by solid darkness and she couldn’t turn her head away, Chris squeezed her eyes shut. Right that moment, she would have given almost anything for his power. It would have been nice to pretend she wasn’t actually there.
“How about an eye?” Alastair suggested. “One-eyed people can see just fine.”
“That isn’t exactly true,” King said. “The loss of an eye is a serious injury and may lead to a multitude of other complications. This is especially true if the one performing the surgery hasn’t had a medical education.”
Chris cracked one eye open to glance at him, but Mr. Smiles’ painted face was blocking her view. The right side of the villain’s mouth – the one that hadn’t been painted over with a perpetual smirk – sagged downward, assuming the shape of a petulant comma.
“What complications?” Alastair asked.
“Oh, you know. The usual. Permanent nerve damage, brain damage, fatal blood loss… we don’t have a trained surgeon available, do we?” King asked.
Chris swallowed hard but said nothing.
“We don’t need one,” Magpie said. “Gentleman has access to Data’s medical equipment. It’s not like we never made use of it.”
“Ah, yes. But how will Gentleman react if he has to show up in person, and quick, because our slave is bleeding all over the floor?”
So Gentleman really isn’t here, Chris deduced. Why? And why can’t Data unlock access to his equipment?
“Fine,” Magpie snorted. “Not an eye, then. I’m pretty sure she can lose a finger without permanent damage to anything other than her hand.”
“But I wanted an eye,” Alastair grumbled. Fortunately, he was ignored.
“Even the loss of a finger entails the risk of blood poisoning or an infection,” King went on. “We have to assume that Gentleman wants to launch the mission as soon as possible. Possibly tomorrow. What if she’s sick tomorrow? Just look at her. She can barely stand on her two feet without Magpie holding her.”
Why is he defending me? What’s in it for him? Chris supposed she should have been grateful, but she couldn’t help but wonder why this villain she’d never even heard of was concerned about her health. There was no obvious answer, so she filed the thought away for later.
“Besides,” King continued in his pleasantly cool, articulated voice, “you can save your wicked ideas for after the mission.”
“Okay,” Alastair said. “But I’ll get her afterwards. It’s in the rules. You guys voted for me.”
“We can discuss that later,” King said. “Why don’t we make her clean up? Cleaning is physical exercise and quite good for the health, I’m told. And some of our facilities are in urgent need of attention.”
Chris opened both of her eyes to see Mr. Smiles’ hand drop away from her cheek. He reluctantly turned away from her, eyeing the villains at the table instead. As his attention shifted, Chris exhaled the breath she’d been holding for far too long.
“She could clean the meat grinder,” Magpie suggested. “Clumsy as she is, she just might fall in.” The words were accompanied by an icy glare that left little doubt as to what she hoped would happen.
“But first the puke,” Alastair said. “The smell is making me sick.”
Do I even want to know what the meat grinder is? Chris had a hunch that, one way or another, she was going to find out. And with some luck, an opportunity to further explore the fortress would present itself.
“Just tell me where to go, and I’ll take care of it,” she offered.
“Someone has to keep an eye on her,” Alastair said as if she wasn’t there. “Who wants to make a trip to the meat grinder?”
No one volunteered. Apparently, the meat grinder wasn’t popular with the locals.
Magpie broke the silence first. “Laughing Wolf can go. He’s our watch dog, after all.”
The silent Native American stirred to life to shoot her a cold glare. “Perhaps you’ve forgotten, but I’m keeping an eye on all of you. The prisoner is your responsibility.”
Magpie rolled her eyes. “Fine. Just send Lark, then. He isn’t going to complain about it.”
Who is Lark? Chris wondered. She thought she knew all the villains by now.
To her surprise, Alastair whistled. But no human being showed up. Instead, a small holographic bird flickered into existence above the boy’s shoulder, silently flapping its semitransparent wings.
“Mascot, meet Lark,” Alastair said.