Conglomerate Shelter, somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean – Monday, the 18th of June 2012. 08:09 PM.
Lark. Who the hell is Lark?
It wasn’t the first time Chris asked herself that question, but now that she was staring up at the mysterious holographic bird, the question bounced back and forth in her head. Was she looking at another of Gentleman’s villains? She had never heard of anyone who could shapeshift into a ghostly bird, but she supposed it was possible. Stranger things had happened in the aftermath of the Pulse.
The bird didn’t react to her presence. But just when she started to believe it had no awareness at all, it flickered momentarily, revealing a tiny, metallic sphere that was hovering in place of the winged body. The hologram reappeared shortly thereafter, covering the sphere with its semitransparent shape.
Considering that Lark had appeared above Alastair’s shoulder, there was only one possible explanation.
The kid’s a Technician.
But why did the Conglomerate need two Technicians? Chris tried to think of a reason Data would want a sidekick and came up empty. Unless… Data was dead, leaving Alastair to inherit his frighteningly potent powers. It was an uncomfortable thought.
Fortunately, Chris was interrupted before she could delve too deep into the idea of a disturbed prepubescent kid becoming the new ghost of the internet. The web of darkness around her convulsed, increasing the pressure on her neck. All thoughts left her as she gasped for air.
“Pay attention,” Magpie hissed. The shadow strands extending from her stirred, then the pressure subsided and Chris could breathe again, if only just barely.
“I’m paying attention,” Chris croaked.
“Good. As soon as you’re done cleaning up your mess, you’re going to follow Lark to where he leads you. You pick up the trash and take it to the garbage compactor. It’s all very simple and straightforward, and you get to keep your rags on.”
“Do try not to slip and fall,” King added. Something in his tone told Chris that he wasn’t kidding.
“Anything else I should know?” she asked.
“Chances are you’ll need to make more than one trip,” Magpie went on. “And don’t dawdle. If you pull some stupid shit, we might have to punish you after all.”
“If you’re going to give me some time limit, I should know what it is.”
Alastair lifted his glasses to rub one of eyes, glancing sidelong to Magpie. “Maybe we should give her one. Just to make sure she doesn’t get into trouble along the way.”
“A hard limit would hardly be reasonable,” King objected. “Given her current health condition, I’ll be surprised if she completes the task at all.”
What’s the point of all this, exactly? Chris wanted to ask. If she had any reason to believe she’d receive a straight answer, she might have. She refused to see herself as a fleeting diversion for a bunch of bored villains. There had to be a method to this madness; she just hadn’t yet figured out what it was.
“Alright, then. No time limit. Just don’t dawdle,” Alastair reiterated. “Lark is watching you, and that means I am watching you. Don’t try to talk to him. You’d just be wasting your breath.”
“Got it,” Chris said. “Will you release me now?”
Surprisingly, Magpie let her go without further ado. The strands of solidified darkness that had been holding Chris in a tight grip fizzled out. They drifted off like wisps of smoke and evaporated in the cool, musty fortress air.
The sudden lack of restraint made Chris’s body slump down like a limp doll, but she managed to reactivate her muscles before she fell. Every inch of her was hurting, letting her know that she was still alive. From there on, she drew on sheer stubbornness to keep going, and eventually she regained her strength. Enough to keep moving, anyway.
One by one, the villains vacated the dining area while she was swabbing the floor. Mr. Smiles stuck around for a bit, pretending to do his share of cleaning – pretending hard enough that he actually got some cleaning done – before he lost interest and wandered off. Chris couldn’t shake the feeling that he was going to reappear any moment, for no reason other than to give her a good scare.
If she survived until bedtime, she was going to dream about finger scissors.
Laughing Wolf never left. He kept watching her from the back of the dining hall, recording every step she took with that unnerving, neutral calm of his. Once or twice Chris tried to make conversation, but all she got from him were hand gestures pointing her in the direction of the cleaning equipment. And Lark’s holographic animation never changed. The bird stayed close to her, always in sight but always beyond reach. It was as if it was scared she’d try and mess with it.
If given the opportunity, she would have. Probably.
When Chris was finished with the floor, Lark fluttered over to the red door that was leading back to the pantry and the prisoner area.
So we’re going back there, Chris observed. Not surprising, I guess.
Of course the villains weren’t going to let her handle the trash from anywhere other than the high security zone. And if the meat grinder was back there, then it didn’t take much to connect the dots and guess the kind of ‘trash’ she was going to run into.
Now that she was staring at that damned red door again, covered with fresh bruises but without any new insights to show for the effort, a feeling of hopelessness washed over her. It wasn’t exactly a new sensation – she had been in tight spots before. But this time, something was different.
She no longer believed she was going to pull through. In fact, she was certain she was going to die here. This was where it was all going to end. The villains would use her and her powers and discard her when they were done, leaving her friends to die horrible deaths the next time Legion showed up. Chris tried to push the thoughts away, but they came creeping back. The door was only three meters away from her. But she couldn’t take another step.
A bird’s chirp pulled her attention back to Lark. It had abandoned its position and was circling around her head with swift, impatient flaps of its semitransparent wings.
“Who are you?” Chris whispered. She kept her voice low to keep Laughing Wolf from listening in.
The bird didn’t grace her with a response. It took off toward the red door and stopped there, flapping its wings on the spot.
So you’re not talking to me, but you’re polite enough to wait for me. Chris narrowed her eyes to pinpoint the tiny sphere that was concealed within the hologram’s body. This was clearly more than a simple observer drone or a program following a strict routine.
Intrigued, she gave herself a nudge to keep going. On cue, Lark chirped, prompting the door to slide open. Unlike before when Eve had opened it, it obeyed without a second of delay. There was no series of lights turning on in sequence. It was as if Lark itself was part of the security system, a key that only had to be inserted and turned.
Chris was taken aback. If the door security had been designed by Data, then why was the kid’s bird program operating it with such ease? According to everything she had ever read and heard about Technicians, the tools and programs they developed were unique and followed their own rules. One Technician couldn’t use another’s system. At least not without some struggle.
Maybe the kid is Data’s apprentice. But that conclusion didn’t sit right with Chris, either. Data was something like an ultimate hermit and frighteningly powerful. Why would he need or want a cocky prepubescent boy for an apprentice? Had he felt a sudden urge to pass on his knowledge because he thought he was going to die? And if Data was already dead, then…
…Lark’s system compatibility could only be explained with the assumption that Data’s powerset had been transferred along with his power surges and a profound understanding of all his work.
Whatever the answer was, Lark provided no clues. It fluttered through the open door and into the pantry, then hovered at the next door, where it was waiting for her once again.
Chris waited for the red door to close behind her. Once in the pantry, Laughing Wolf could no longer see her, leaving her free to make another communication attempt.
“I know they probably instructed you not to talk to me, but… can you talk? I mean, you can chirp. That’s almost the same, right?”
The bird’s image flickered briefly, like it had done in the dining hall. Apart from that, there was no reaction. No sound, no change to its position or appearance. It just kept flapping its wings in silent anticipation.
Wondering what would happen if she moved, Chris crossed the pantry. Lark waited until she was only a few steps away, then opened the passage back into the two-way corridor that led to the cells – and whatever was beyond the segment leading to the right. Chris hadn’t been to that section of the fortress yet.
Is it an AI? Chris couldn’t tell. Still, she was grateful to have Lark for company rather than one of the villains. One walk with Eve had been more than enough.
Instead of taking the left side passage leading to the cells, Lark veered off to the right. Instead of following, Chris stopped at the door, eyes flicking to the left. The corridor made a slight bend, preventing her from seeing any of the cell windows, but she knew that Ryan was in that direction and only a short walk away. She wouldn’t need any more than a minute to check on him. But she had no idea how the villains would react if she deviated too much from protocol, and decidedly parting ways with her guide – who would immediately notice – probably wasn’t going to do her or Ryan any good.
Please be okay. I’ll be back with you soon.
Chris forced herself to turn around and follow Lark’s lead. The bird continued on at a comfortable walking pace, leading her into a corridor that was grimier and more dimly lit than its left hand counterpart had been.
Dark blotches of varying size and shape covered of the metal walls and the floor. Thick cables ran across the floor, following its curving course until they connected with wall sockets or some of the Technician equipment that had been left along the length of corridor. There were no windows. Chris spotted numerous doors, though. All of them were closed, and with the exception of one, all were small and unobtrusive. She couldn’t even guess the purpose of the rooms they sealed.
What she did notice was the crude installation on the large door to the right. No less than half a dozen cables ran towards it, feeding power to or connecting an assortment of tools and electronics that looked much more low-tech than the advanced, almost futuristic systems Chris had noted so far. A partially disassembled keypad was connected to the door’s touch panel, and two cables ran through a hole that appeared to have been drilled into the door itself. Chris wasn’t much of a security tech or electrician, but she knew enough to recognize what she was looking at.
A crudely assembled bypass for that door’s security system.
Chris stopped and stared, her guide momentarily forgotten. Someone had broken into this room and hadn’t bothered to be subtle about it, meaning that the other villains – or Gentleman, at the very least – had to know. The parts that had been used to create the bypass looked distinctively different from the door’s panel or anything else.
This set-up only made sense if she assumed two facts to be true: one, Data was dead or not cooperating with the group. And two, the new kid hadn’t inherited his powers. But if that was the case, then why had Lark been able to pull his open sesame trick on all the other doors? The facts didn’t compute.
Meanwhile, the holographic bird was waiting a few steps ahead, its small eyes fixed on Chris. In the yellowish artificial light that flowed through the ceiling vents, the sphere was barely visible beneath its projected body. There were no other lights.
“Hey, Lark,” Chris said. “I understand that you can’t talk to me. Everyone here has rules to follow, and you’re making sure I play along, do what I’m supposed to do. And I’m going to. I’d just like to take a quick look at you. Is that okay?”
She didn’t expect an answer, but she shuffled ever so slightly forward while the bird was – hopefully – distracted by her voice. She had gained about an inch when the hologram realized that she was moving. It froze, flickered unsteadily, then resumed flapping its tiny wings.
“I’m not going to touch you or anything,” Chris went on. “Really, it’s going to be okay.” She considered dropping Data’s name just for the hell of it, but decided against it. The villains were most likely listening in, and she didn’t want them to know what she was thinking.
Chris kept inching forward in extreme slow motion. Lark stayed in place, watching her from above. When she was directly below it, she had a good enough view of the projection sphere to recognize it as an advanced piece of technology. It was only marginally larger than her thumbnail, made of a sheer, silver-colored metal and perfectly silent. There were no visible protrusions or indentations. Nothing about its appearance suggested that it could emit light, let alone hover in midair or project a mobile hologram. It looked as futuristic and out-of-this world as most of the visible tech around here had.
That kid didn’t build Lark, Chris realized. Data did.
She resisted the urge to examine the sphere further. Instead, she stepped over to the bypassed door and gave it a closer look. It was shut tight, and the drilled hole was too small to see anything beyond the two cables that were running through it. The urge to push the door and figure out whether it would open was almost overwhelming. Whoever was – or had been – in there had shut the villains out, which classified them as a potential ally.
“I’m not touching anything,” Chris declared, pointedly turning her back to the door. “Let’s keep going.”
Lark hesitated briefly before fluttering onward. Chris followed just behind, determined to revisit the ominous door if she got the opportunity to do so without supervision.
After another twenty steps, Lark shot ahead to take position in front of the most imposing door Chris had seen in the complex so far. Its arc-shaped frame was twice as tall as she was and barely fit into the corridor. A hair line crack at the center indicated two separate door panels. Lark chirped once, prompting them to slide apart and open the way to the chamber beyond.
The stench that wafted through made Chris gag. She stepped back, using one hand to cover her mouth and nose until the worst of the smell had subsided.
That explains why no one wanted to clean up.
The stench had been bad enough to indicate several bodies in late stages of decay. Chris braced herself before she entered the chamber, expecting a scene from a horror flick. She narrowed her eyes to thin slits and kept them trained on the floor.
The room beyond the door failed to meet her expectations. The polished metal floor was surprisingly clean. When she found the courage to look up, she discovered that it was strangely… empty, too. It was round, about ten meters in diameter, and about a third of its space was occupied by a large machine. It looked like some kind of furnace with two attached suction hoses, green and red, that were about as wide as Chris was. The ‘furnace’ didn’t appear to be powered on.
The smell was coming from the two corpses that had been pinned to the wall on either side of it. They stood – or rather, hung – with their chins against their decaying chests, held upright only by the manacles that fixed their arms in place. Dried patches of blood piled around their feet. The cause of death was obvious: numerous cuts and wounds on their arms and upper bodies. Their clothing was in shreds.
Having survived an encounter with Mr. Finger Scissors only a short while ago, Chris could imagine all too well what their last minutes had been like. She swore to herself she wasn’t going to end like this. If her name was added to the Conglomerate’s death list, she would go out with a bang.
She could tell at a glance that one of the corpses belonged to a woman. She was in better condition than male corpse, whose skin had already taken on a grayish tint, meaning that she must have died at a later time. Chris didn’t immediately recognize the victims; the oppressive atmosphere of death in the room forced her to cover her nose before she could even think about taking a closer look. She wished she’d remembered to bring a wet rag from the kitchen.
Meanwhile, Lark hovered in the air above her, observing her silently.
They’re just dead people, Chris tried to convince herself. They’re not going to hurt me. She shuffled her feet forward, eyeing the corpses warily with every step she made. If she got this done – and she would, because she wasn’t a sniveling coward – then the villains would hopefully stay off her and Ryan’s backs for the remainder of the day.
“Hey Lark,” Chris said. “How am I going to get them out of those manacles? Do you have a key or something?”
Lark chirped, and the wall-mounted manacles popped open in unison. The corpses didn’t sag to the floor. Rigor mortis had set in a long time ago, and their arms were outstretched like broomsticks on a scarecrow.
Chris didn’t have to ask how she was going to move the bodies, at least. She discovered a stack of clean plastic tarps next to the ‘furnace’, neatly folded and ready for the next trip to the meat grinder. Getting the man’s body wrapped up and transportable was a matter of minutes. Chris wasn’t a religious person, but she made the effort to close his eyes and murmur some lines from the Lord’s Prayer, just in case they meant something to the poor dead guy.
Nora would have done a better job at this, she thought dejectedly.
There was something familiar about the man’s face. Chris couldn’t recall his name or why exactly he was familiar, but she was certain she’d seen him on television at some point. The Conglomerate must have targeted him for a reason.
I’m going to find out who you were, she silently promised him.
Even though the doorway leading to the meat grinder was less than ten meters away, it took Chris some time to drag the body all the way there. Her body still felt weaker than it should have been, and her muscles ached as if she’d just spent the whole day running. Lark, who was leading the way once more, waited patiently whenever Chris needed a break.
The meat grinder was located near the center of the prisoner area, within the blocked off section the corridor was circling around. The opening slide door revealed a seemingly bottomless circular pit that was surrounded by a dark ring of old blood. The pit gaped open three meters wide, without any of the security fencing that should have kept unlucky bystanders from falling in.
Chris had expected as much. Her attention was drawn by something different altogether: the distant sound of the churning ocean far below.