Hadera Research Facility, Israel – Tuesday, the 19th of June 2012. Local time unknown.
You are not alone. Athena sends her regards.
It sounded too good to be true. It couldn’t be real, could it? Chris stared blankly at the letters on the screen, expecting them to vanish or be replaced with something along the lines of ‘haha, dumbass!’ at any moment.
Magpie stirred her from her daze by climbing down into the computer lab. She landed beside Chris with a thump of her heavy combat boots.
“Get out of my way,” the villainess hissed.
Chris tore her eyes from the screen to comply. She stepped forward. Her movement triggered the nearest office booth’s lighting system, a simple LED lamp that illuminated the entire length of the room.
When she glanced to the monitor again, it had gone as dark as all the others in the abandoned lab. The words were gone. She wasn’t sure they had ever been there in the first place.
I’m going insane, she thought bitterly. The Power Zero injection several hours before had plagued her with all kinds of side effects. Why not some post-injection hallucinations to add a new, exciting flavor to her palate of challenges?
Rampage climbed down behind her. King was levitating again, and he floated down the vertical tunnel as easily as if he were taking an elevator. He paid the computer lab no mind. His attention immediately turned to the only exit: an unobtrusive gray door situated at the center of the left hand wall.
“Alastair,” he said through the radio. “How far until we can breach into the next level?”
The answer was immediate. “It’s a short walk through the research complex, then a long way down. I’ve updated the map.”
“How many armed forces?”
“You’ve bypassed most of them,” Alastair informed. “But twenty or so of the Oracle’s Elite guards are getting in position to intercept you. And don’t forget the spring guns. The last meters before the Oracle’s chamber will be packed with them.”
Lacking any visual clues as to what was going on, Chris moved closer to the door to listen for the sound of an alarm being raised. There was none, but she did pick up a heavy metallic clang from far away. The sound of an elevator door being opened, perhaps. Or something different altogether.
She reminded herself not to get her hopes up. As far as anyone in this facility knew, she was just another masked terrorist. No one was coming to her rescue.
“Onward, gang,” King commanded. “Mascot. Open the door.”
Chris shuffled forward until her sweaty hand was on the doorknob, but she couldn’t make herself open the door.
While Chris was struggling with herself, Alastair’s voice piped up on the radio. This time he spoke in a nervous staccato, barely taking the time to breathe. “Shit. I just lost the cameras.”
King stopped dead in his tracks. “You did what?” For the first time since Chris had met him, his stoic facade wavered.
“Yeah,” Alastair meekly replied. “I don’t know what the hell is going on. I think someone else hacked into the local grid. They’re gone now, but Lark… responded, somehow. He’s still fully functional, though. I only lost the cameras.”
Looking down at her hand on the doorknob, Chris saw her fingers trembling. As much as she would have liked to turn around and see the villain reactions to the news, she didn’t budge. Besides, their expressions were concealed by their masks, and the last thing she wanted was for them to suspect she knew anything.
You are not alone.
“Well, shit,” Magpie said. “Get those cameras back under control before the boss rips you a new one. Getting stuck down here wasn’t part of the plan.”
“I’m aware.” Alastair struggled to control the tremor in his voice.
“You’re the Tech. Do your damn job,” Rampage added.
“Shut up, both of you” King barked. “If there is the slightest chance anyone’s listening in, I want to know now.”
“No, nothing like that,” Alastair blurted. “They’re gone now, I’m positive. I’ll know more after I’ve taken a look at Lark.”
“Lark wouldn’t respond to anyone but Data,” King went on. “And Data is dead. Get those cameras back, or –I– will rip you a new one.”
“I’m on it.” And with that, the boy Technician broke contact.
So he really is dead. Chris’s head tilted forward until her forcefield bumped against the door. Data’s name had little meaning to her until she’d found herself caged and surrounded by enemies. Now that she knew he was dead, she couldn’t help but feel regret over the loss of a potential ally. Maybe the only ally she could have hoped to find here.
King stepped past her and pushed the door open, then shoved her, forcing her to stumble forward and out of the computer lab. There was nothing on the other side of the door but a new, empty, dimly lit tunnel. Chris was grateful for that. She really didn’t want to see any more civilians get caught up in the villain advance.
Rampage prowled onward, scouting ahead while King recited another string of Latin. This time, King kept going for at least half a minute, adding more and more words as if he was constructing a complex poem. The environment didn’t change, though. The villain did.
He turned invisible.
Chris stared at the spot where she’d seen him seconds before. She could still make out the outlines of his shape as he moved but only because she knew where to look. He had made himself perfectly transparent.
He can’t provide a visual for Drifter, though. She wished she knew what the hell was going on. She wondered if the mysterious messenger was who they claimed to be, and what exactly they had done or intended to do. The lines of text on the monitor had left her more confused than hopeful, but whoever they were, she supposed the messenger hadn’t been able to tell her more without alerting the villains.
“This way,” Magpie commanded. “Don’t get your hopes up. We’re almost there.”
Unfortunately, the villainess wasn’t lying. It took the four of them less than a minute to reach their destination: a small archive, filled to the brim with document boxes and shelves containing research materials. The invisible King murmured another string of Latin to open a passage through the solid stone floor. Once again, Chris was pushed to go first.
She knew she had reached the lowest level before she had even climbed far enough down to see where she was going. Her danger sense tingled with ever increasing intensity as the Oracle’s guards became aware of her. Her forcefield dulled the flood of information she got from her danger sense, but she could tell there were about twenty of them – determined, ready, and armed with an arsenal of assault weapons and grenades.
I’m not your enemy, she wanted to tell them. But she knew as well as the villains did that no one was going to listen. She was a masked terrorist. The instant she released the rope to drop into the room below, they would attack her with everything they had.
Going back up wasn’t an option. Chris looked up at the narrow shaft’s entry point to see Rampage and Magpie peering down at her. She was the bait, meant to draw fire from the local security so the villains would have an easier time going in. They weren’t going to let her back out of this. And besides…
I want to talk to the Oracle before Gentleman does.
Emboldened by the thought, Chris gathered all of her energy and wove the strongest forcefield she was capable of. She took a deep breath before adjusting her grip to slide down the remaining length of rope.
The instant her feet hit the floor, the thunderous roar of two assault rifles filled her ears. Multiple bullets hit her forcefield, followed by a grenade going off fractions of a second later. Her forcefield flickered, but withstood the damage. Chris’s danger sense alerted her just in time to turn away before the room became an inferno of noise and blinding whiteness. She collapsed to the floor in reflex, playing dead.
For a moment, she thought she might really be dead. She felt strangely weightless, and all sound was absent since that last bang. She couldn’t hear her own breathing. White spots were dancing before her eyes.
The sounds came back in a sudden burst. A male voice pierced the silence first, shouting something in sharp, angry Hebrew. Chris’s danger sense flared
weightlessness, shouts turning to screams
again, filling her mind’s eye with images of reverse gravity and soldiers being flung around like puppets. At the center of it all was the floating figure of King, invisible to anyone but her and her danger-sensitive consciousness. He was bending the laws of the world to his whim. He was death incarnate.
Stop. Killing. People.
Even though she could barely see the stone floor beneath her, Chris struggled to sit up and turn her head toward the soldiers who had fired at her. Her watery, bedazzled eyes made out two humanoid shapes among the dancing white lights. She projected two forcefields onto them before gravity reversed itself and she fell upward, crashing into a solid surface with such force that her own forcefield flickered momentarily.
Then, the screaming began. It was like a repeat of the massacre from several minutes before, except that Chris couldn’t as much as lift a finger. It was as if she was being pushed against the ceiling by an invisible hand, her body pinned in place by the thin membrane of energy she had woven around herself. Her mind wasn’t protected, though. It wanted to crawl away, go someplace nice and quiet, away from this torrent of violence she could do nothing about.
Eventually, everything stopped. The screams, the white spots in her eyes, and the invisible hand. She floated back down to the ground, greeted by the masked figures of Magpie and Rampage and King’s disembodied voice.
“See? I told you she would be fine,” King declared. “Her forcefield is strongest on herself.”
Rampage bent down until his grinning demon mask was inches from Chris’s face. He brought a gloved hand to her stomach and gently prodded the forcefield membrane that covered it.
“Surprising,” he said. “It doesn’t look like much.”
Chris resisted the urge to punch his ugly mask, opting to ignore him instead. Her thoughts raced to the two men she’d covered with her power just before she hit the ceiling.
Please be alive. And please play dead.
She held on to that thought as she rolled to her side, away from the villain who was looming over her. Now that her eyes had recovered from the blinding flash, she immediately spotted the heap of uniformed bodies who lay near the north end of the room. One glance at their broken, twisted limbs was enough to determine the cause of death: warped gravity.
Chris closed her eyes, but reopened them a second later. She had to understand where she was and what was going on around her. There was still one person who was relying on her for help: the world’s most powerful Visionary, bed-bound and about to be kidnapped to serve as a pawn in Gentleman’s schemes.
“I could get the door open, but I can’t approach it,” King was saying. “Sanctuary’s aura is too strong beyond this point. Or perhaps Mascot’s forcefield is too weak.”
Chris forced herself to look past the dead soldiers to find the door. Most of the bodies lay at the far end of the room, but some were further back, in a short passage leading to the most heavily reinforced security door she had seen in the facility so far. Like the corridor leading up to it, it was made from sheer gray metal, with multiple magnetic locks and a pressure plate that were reminiscent of some of the doors Chris had seen in the Conglomerate’s fortress. The design was simpler and less futuristic-looking than Data’s was, however.
So that’s where they’re keeping her. The Oracle and Sanctuary, the disappeared Guardian who declared himself her bodyguard. And now the villains had brought in the only other remaining sane Guardian to kidnap or murder the first. It was a depressing thought.
As Chris was staring at the door, she caught a glimpse of movement from one of the fallen soldiers. His shaky fingers had gotten ahold of the assault rifle on the floor beside him, and he was aligning it – very slowly – on the villains who stood near the center of the room, only a few meters away from him.
None of them were looking in his direction.
Chris froze in place. No, she wanted to tell him. Don’t do it. Don’t let them notice you. Just play dead, damn it. She hadn’t been able to save anyone else in this damned facility; the half-dead soldier – one of the two she’d protected with her forcefields – was her last chance to fulfill her Guardian role before this mission went to hell.
But of course she couldn’t talk to him without tipping the villains off, and they were going to shoot on sight.
Chris forced herself to turn her attention back to the villains, pretend nothing was going on behind their backs. If the soldier’s last wish was to take some of them with him, then she wasn’t going to stand in his way.
And maybe, just maybe, she could even use the distraction to finish the other villains and escape. But then she thought of Ryan’s parting message, and she knew she couldn’t. Not without knowing he would be safe.
I TRUST U.
King shot her an appraising look. “I don’t suppose you have any idea how we might overcome the inner section of Sanctuary’s aura?” It was more of a statement than a question.
“I can’t make your forcefields stronger, so no.” She glanced past King to see the soldier lift the rifle’s barrel from the floor, taking aim. Unsurprisingly, her danger sense alerted her of imminent gunfire and the hail of bullets that would hit everyone, herself included.
No, not everyone. King was a blind spot to her senses, as if he wasn’t even there.
What the hell is going on with this guy? Chris was incredulous. She had seen him through her danger sense when he’d been the invisible source of the threat, but now she couldn’t? There was only one possible explanation.
The villain had made himself invincible.
“Let me try something,” Rampage announced. He spun around with feline agility, charging at the security door. The instant he was moving, Chris’s senses excluded him from the impending death scenario that unfolded in her mind’s eye. He was no longer in any danger.
The wounded soldier chose that exact moment to pull the trigger. The rifle spewed a stream of projectiles at Chris and the villains, filling the room with a thunderous roar that tore through her eardrums. Several bullets tore into her forcefield without effect. Rampage kept running. King’s hat and cape were torn to shreds by the gunfire, but his body was unaffected. The bullets passed right through him.
Magpie, however, jerked backward in a spray of blood, then sank to the ground with a small, gurgling sound, clawing at her throat. Her forcefield had collapsed on contact with the first bullet.
Seeing the villainess go down gave Chris no satisfaction. In fact, she felt nothing at all. She was back in that emotional void where she was nothing but a passive observer, unaffected by the events unfolding all around her.
Rampage stopped his charge just before reaching the short passage leading to the security door, spun around, and made his way to the armed soldier in seconds.
Chris averted her eyes. The man didn’t scream, but there was a soft, wet sound. She clung to the knowledge that she had shielded two men, not one. One person was still alive, playing dead. He had to be.
“How the fuck did he survive?” Rampage was saying. “Mag’s down, and it’s your fault. The boss is going to fucking pissed.”
“Is it, and is he?” King replied coolly. “I wonder.”
Chris said nothing. Her thoughts drifted to the mysterious on-screen message and the alert that must have gone off almost ten minutes ago. Where were the reinforcements? A high priority facility such as this one must have some kind of backup plan. And if the mysterious messenger really had been Athena or someone close to her, then surely she would have alerted Radiant by now.
Unless no one gives a shit about me anymore, Chris thought dully.
The villains didn’t look concerned about an impending security response. Rampage crouched beside Magpie’s limp body, muttering to himself while he gently removed her destroyed mask. King checked the soldiers’ bodies before heading into the metal-clad passage they had been guarding. After only two steps he stopped, as if blocked by an invisible wall.
So anyone with hostile intent can’t go in? As much as Chris wanted to ask the other Guardian about his power – and the fact that apparently, it overruled hers at short range – she hoped she wouldn’t get the chance. If the door up ahead remained closed, then he and the Oracle would be safe.
“Alastair,” King said. “Status update.”
The answer came immediately. “I intercepted some outgoing communication. You can thank me later.”
“What we need is those cameras,” King snapped. “And Null’s status. Is he still asleep, or no?”
“Yeah, but… um. They’re evacuating everyone from the facility. I just need a few more minutes for the cameras. Promise.”
So they’re going to wake him up. It was the only possible reason for the mass evacuation.
“What he forgot to mention is that Mag’s fucking dead,” Rampage growled. “And we still can’t reach the target.”
“Wrong,” King said. He swiveled around, his eyes behind the mask’s eye-holes fixating Chris. “We have someone who can, and who is about to be very motivated to help us take Sanctuary down.”