Conglomerate Shelter, somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean – Tuesday, the 19th of June 2012. 07:09 AM.
“It’s changing you,” Ryan observed. He settled back in his chair, glancing at Chris’s face as though he wasn’t sure he wanted to be looking at her.
“What is?” Chris asked. She sat on the cot across from Ryan, leaning back against the cold metal wall. She welcomed the chill that crept up her skin. It gave her an opportunity to feel something other than restless anxiety.
“This place. It’s getting to you, messing with your head, and you don’t even notice.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” It was a deliberate lie, an invitation for Ryan to have an actual conversation with her. Or at least something more than the one-word exchanges that had defined their coexistence for the past twenty-four hours.
“You just told me how you dumped two dead bodies into a shredder-hole in the ground. Two people, tortured to death by our captors. And all you care about is the sound of the ocean coming from somewhere below?” Ryan raised his voice a notch. While there was no anger in it, there was an emotion there, but it was one that Chris could not place.
There was a moment where she thought he was going to jump off his chair, grab her by the shoulders, and shake her. Part of her wished he did exactly that – showed her he cared. He didn’t, though.
“They were already dead. I couldn’t do anything for them,” Chris argued. “I do care about people I can help. About you. About the guy next door who’s probably going to die next if he doesn’t compose some power-boosting tracks for the villains. About the family of six that’s trapped here, and everyone back home. It’s just….”
She paused there, trying to find the right word. Something to get her point across to Ryan without setting off any villain alerts.
He finished before she could. “Priorities. Yeah. I understand. To a point.” His tone softened, and he leaned forward in his chair, now looking straight at her. “But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re turning into someone I don’t recognize. I don’t know what to make of it.”
Are you afraid I’m going to become a villain after all? No, that couldn’t be true. Ryan had been her best friend for most of her teenage years. He, of all people, should know better than to assume she’d turn to the dark side. Chris swallowed the question. His doubt stung, but she’d be damned if she let him know. He had given her no insight into how he felt, hadn’t asked for her help or support.
“You already didn’t recognize me when I was a Warden,” she said instead, hating the way her voice wobbled. “I stopped a gigantic robot from turning Seattle into a battlefield. I went chasing after Legion, then dealt with the villain attack on New York until I broke my arm and everyone insisted I should take it easy for a while. You never responded to any of my text messages.”
I’m so sorry about Helen, she wanted to add, but the words dissolved in her mouth and her eyes began to burn before she could pull her mind away from those damn text messages. She wasn’t going to cry in front of Ryan. If she wasn’t his pillar of support, then who was going to be the strong one?
He said nothing. His features softened, though, and his eyes broke contact with hers, giving her a moment to compose herself. She was grateful for it.
“I know I should have been proud of you,” he finally said. “You were charging ahead, making the best of your situation. I wasn’t as strong as you were. I was in a bad place.”
Chris wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. Opening herself to the anger she’d been holding back for weeks helped keep the tears at bay. “Don’t give me the ‘I didn’t want to drag you down’ speech, okay? A good luck was all I needed.”
After another moment of awkward silence, Ryan rose from his chair, walked over to the cot, and settled down beside her. Too stunned to speak or anticipate his intention, Chris leaned into the wall at her back – the reassuring, predictable coldness of it – until he slipped his arms around her and pulled her against his chest.
He’s so warm was her first, dazed thought. He was skinnier than she remembered, and the rough stubble of his jaw scratched her cheek in a pleasant way. As his warmth seeped into her, her eyes misted over. Stupid tears rolled down her face. But Chris didn’t care anymore. She was happy to simply relish in the realization that Ryan didn’t hate her.
“Do you have a plan?” he whispered after a long moment of silence.
“No,” she whispered back, avoiding eye contact with the tiny camera lens that was embedded in the wall at the head end of the cot.
At the same time, she slipped her left hand into the two inches of space that separated Ryan’s stomach from her hip. Yes, she drew in big letters, using his chest as a notepad.
“That’s alright. Let’s just see what happens and make the best of it.” His fingers went up to her back, slipped underneath her hoodie, and drew a question mark onto her skin.
“I looked around a bit, but of course they didn’t give me an opportunity to leave the high security area. Figuring out that the dead get flushed into the sea was my biggest discovery.” Chris dropped her voice to a low whisper, as if she was actually trying to make their conversation a private one. Of course, she was, but her voice took no part in it.
Her finger trailed across Ryan’s stomach to leave a different message. Data, she wrote. After a brief pause to let him form the connections between the big, crooked letters, she added Lark.
She wasn’t sure if he understood. Probably not, but they couldn’t discuss details right now. And as much as she wanted to tell him how her power had almost worked during her tussle with Rampage, that subject was also taboo until she discovered a better means of private communication than finger messages scribbled on skin.
“You’ll figure something out,” he whispered back. His hand gently pressed against her back before adding another sequence of words: I TRUST U.
The words – or maybe it was the touch of his fingers and the warmth of his breath – made Chris’s heart flip in her chest, forcing her to pull back before Ryan picked up any cues from her body. She knew the difference between a friendly, supportive embrace and something more, and this classify as ‘something more’. There never had been and never would be something more. And considering the situation she and Ryan were in, her non-existent love life wasn’t exactly a priority.
Help the Oracle and ask her for advice, Chris instructed herself. Protect her. Investigate the mysterious door. Data. And Lark. She recited the three names – Oracle, Lark, Data – in her mind until her pulse slowed and her face no longer felt flushed.
Ryan’s arms fell away from her. “I mean it,” he said.
Chris could tell he was trying to sound reassuring, but, to her, he sounded like he was someplace far away. “I know,” she managed to say.
Before either of them could resume the conversation, Gentleman’s chipper voice resounded over the wall-mounted intercom near the door. “You little lovebirds are a delight to watch. Would ‘right now’ be a bad time to remind you of your promise?”
Chris tensed on reflex. Yes, it was a bad time. She had no power to resist the summoning, though. Gentleman knew this as well as she did.
She quickly reached for Ryan’s hand, squeezing it as she gave her response. “No. What’s going to happen next? More Power Zero injections?” She glanced to the window, relieved to discover that none of the villains were waiting for her on the other side.
Ryan’s expression darkened. His fingers tightened around hers, seeking reassurance.
“Oh, no,” Gentleman’s voice replied. “Not this time. We’re going to improvise and deviate from the script tonight. Are you excited?”
“Yeah,” Chris lied. Her heart was thrumming in her chest again, though for different reasons. She couldn’t help but wonder whether Gentleman’s script change included a gruesome death scene, featuring the disposable heroine. It was comforting to know that apparently, she’d get to keep her powers. At least she wasn’t going to die as a helpless victim tonight.
“Very well, then. Raise your eyes and behold your costume, delivered straight to your suite!”
Chris frowned in confusion. I’m going to wear a costume?
She looked up. Above the center of her cell, a section of steely ceiling retracted, revealing a hatch as wide as the length of her forearm. Something dark and baggy fell through, crashing onto the vacated folding table with a harsh thud. After delivering the package, the hatch closed seamlessly.
Gentleman’s cheerful announcement made it easy for Chris to process what she was looking at. The ‘gift’ on the table was indeed a costume, the kind of outfit a villain might pick out for a nighttime mission in hostile territory. It consisted of a Kevlar-reinforced black leather bodysuit, complete with boots, gloves and a full face helmet whose visor modeled a grinning red devil’s face. The costume’s purpose was clear enough.
No one’s going to recognize the bear mascot among the wolves.
“What happens after I put this on?” Chris asked.
“You will, of course, be relocated,” Gentleman informed. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise that you will be working with my crew, or that your friend here will pay the price if you make trouble for any of them.”
“Chris,” Ryan whispered. Chris felt his hand close around her wrist, but she ignored it. She had a hunch as to what he was about to say, and she couldn’t afford to listen. She had to do this. She couldn’t allow him to change her mind.
“Fine,” she said. “How about some privacy so I can change?”
“Your wish is my command,” Gentleman warbled. “You would do well not to keep us waiting, however.”
“Chris. Listen to me,” Ryan went on, louder this time.
“I won’t,” Chris said, unsure as to whom she was responding to. Her throat was suddenly raw. She stood and made a step towards the table with the costume on it, but Ryan’s fingers held her wrist in an iron grip, holding her back.
She lowered her eyes in dismay. “You know I have to do this.”
He tugged on her arm, forcing her to turn back and face him. His eyes were clear and wide, but overly bright. “I’m not going to talk you out of it,” he said. There was a pause, a moment of trepidation before he pulled her closer, his lips right by her ear. He lowered his voice to a whisper that was scarcely audible.
“If the choice ever comes between me and everyone else, I don’t want you to hesitate.”
The words she’d prepared for him died in her mouth. After what felt like an eternity, Chris managed a small nod. It was all she could do to keep herself from crying again.
Chris soon discovered that her black devil costume served more purposes than identity concealment. The helmet and chest piece had been reinforced with strands of Kevlar, and a cursory inspection of the multilayered material revealed suspicious lengths of wire and other hard, heavy parts that seemed mechanical in nature.
Are they going to blow me up if I don’t play along? The thought should have been shocking to Chris, but it didn’t come as a surprise, and she couldn’t even find the energy to get riled up over it. She hadn’t been injected with Power Zero. Naturally, the villains wanted some kind of reassurance that she wasn’t going to turn on them.
As if Ryan’s life wasn’t enough of a motivator.
Chris changed into the black costume in silence, decidedly avoiding Ryan’s clouded gaze. The reinforced leather was stiffer and heavier than the outdoors sports garb Chris was accustomed to, but after some trial and error she managed to squeeze herself into the nearly skintight outfit. Fortunately for her sanity, she didn’t need to strip down further than her tank top and biker shorts. The reinforced leather was uncomfortably heavy, but flexible enough as to not hinder movement. She supposed she’d be able to run short distances in it if she had to.
For Ryan’s benefit, she decided not to mention the wire stuffing. He looked stressed enough as it was.
In silent agreement, they skipped any goodbye. Poignant goodbyes in books and movies always seemed to invite tragedy, and Chris wanted to go into this mission with a memory of the Ryan she’d experienced minutes before. The skin on her back tingled, remembering the message he’d left there.
I TRUST U.
Chris jerked her costume’s front zipper upward. “I’m ready,” she declared, facing the intercom.
The reaction was immediate. The steely-gray walls, the window and the intercom dissolved, leaving her momentarily disoriented. When her brain was ready to piece her new surroundings together, she found herself in a square room that was much smaller than the one she’d just left behind. There was no window. Smooth metal walls fenced her in on all sides; Chris could have touched them all by extending her elbows. The only door was a rectangular gash in the wall to her left, barely visible in the dim yellow light cast by a single light bulb.
There was a large wall-mounted screen right ahead of her. As she was staring at it, it flickered on to display a still image of the UN’s lightning bolt emblem. Chris didn’t ask about it; she raised the one question that was burning in her gut right that moment.
“Who was swapped into the cell with Ryan in place of me?”
The answer came from the screen, though the voice wasn’t Gentleman’s. It was cool and articulate, without a trace of fake enthusiasm. “One of the guardsmen. He’ll be keeping your spot until after the mission.”
Chris recognized the voice. It belonged to King, the villain who’d spoken up in her defense when the others had discussed her punishment for failing to please. She wasn’t so naïve as to believe he’d done it out of the kindness of his heart, but the fact that he was addressing her now gave her hope that she’d be tackling this mission with someone who wasn’t a total nutcase.
“I want to see Ryan before we get started,” she said. “Make sure he’s okay.”
“If you insist.”
The UN logo vanished from the screen. As prompted, the screen showed her a top-down view of her cell as seen by one ceiling-mounted cameras. Ryan sat on the cot with his head down, his face concealed by wavy strands of tousled brown hair, and his fingers knotted together between his knees.. The chair across from him was now occupied by a man in full body armor. The guard held a cigarette with one hand and a machine gun with the other, keeping the barrel trained at Ryan’s chest.
Chris rubbed her face with her fingers. “Alright. Tell me how this is going to go down,” she forced herself to say.
“Our mission takes place in an underground complex in the Middle East,” King explained with an instructor’s patience. “We have already infiltrated the upper levels. Our goal is to reach the bottom, where Sanctuary and the Oracle have been kept for the past three weeks.”
“So we’re going to a prison,” Chris suggested. Once again, she couldn’t bring herself to be shocked. All of her emotions were expended elsewhere.
“The UN would never describe it as such,” King said. “And the lower levels are quite comfortable, I’m told. But yes, there was a point in time when the UN’s Small Assembly meant to contain and study dangerous Evolved whose powers had been warped to abnormal levels by drug abuse. The Sleepwalker was their first target, but could never be contained.”
Right. He exists in his own reality, unaffected by any power, attack or trap. Chris refrained from pointing out the obvious and waited for King to finish his introductory speech.
“You might remember the shadow-spawning abomination who transitioned in Prague. He was reportedly high on LSD when he gained his powers, and the Covenant almost couldn’t stop him. The UN claimed that he was executed on the spot, but the truth is that he died here, in this facility. Naturally, the authorities you used to fight for never bothered telling anyone else about this. Not even their own heroes.”
Chris could no longer curb her impatience. “What’s the point of telling me, then? The Shadowspawner is dead, and we won’t be fighting the Sleepwalker down there. Who are we fighting?” If there was any risk of innocents getting caught up in the crossfire, she wanted to know now.
“I’m filling you in because one of the captives isn’t dead. The agents in charge of the facility are about to realize we’re on our way in, and when they do, they’re going to order Sanctuary to retract his peace aura. Expect them to use every weapon in their arsenal against you. Including their captive.”
You. Not us. Chris clenched her jaw at the villain’s word choice, knowing that couldn’t expect the UN’s security to recognize her as a heroine. It was doubtful that she’d have the time or opportunity to explain her situation. And there was something else that was bothering her.
“Who is this captive, exactly?” she asked.
“Null. I don’t expect you to recognize the name.”
“I don’t,” Chris admitted.
“His name is a reflection of the fact that he never had one. Not as an Evolved, at any rate. Null gained his powers while passed out after a drug overdose; he was subdued and disappeared before the public became aware of him. He spawns physical reflections of other people’s emotions that are quite attached to their host – and often deadly. I should add that his range covers the entire facility, and that he doesn’t require line of sight. He is being kept in cryostasis.”
“And you believe they’re going to wake him up.”
“That’s a possibility, yes.”
“Who’s going in there with me?” Chris asked.
Even after Ryan’s image was long gone, she kept staring at blank screen in apathy-induced stupor, wondering which of Gentleman’s villains had pissed their boss off so much that he was willing to risk their lives in there. The head of the Conglomerate had to be aware of how her powers worked; Data was the ghost in the machine, capable of pulling every bit of hero information from every server including any American hero database. The Wardens therapist and the DoD had been aware of how Chris’s powers worked. If she hated someone, the forcefield she projected onto them would offer the protection value of a wet paper bag.
“I’ll be leading the mission,” King said, seemingly unfazed.
He was the one Conglomerate member whose powers Chris hadn’t been able to identify. She had seen him levitate above his chair, and that was it. His unwavering confidence convinced her to place him into the ‘big shot who could most likely solo this mission’ category. And because he had spoken up in her defense, she couldn’t even bring herself to hate him.
“Anyone else?” she asked.
“Yes,” came the answer. “Magpie and Rampage.”
And with that, the screen flickered back to life, now showing two heavily armed and armored guards in a hallway. Before Chris could blink, one of them vanished from view. A tall male clad in a black leather costume with a demon mask appeared in his place.
“It’s go time,” King said.