Hadera Research Facility, Israel – Tuesday, the 19th of June 2012. Local time unknown.
Please kill me.
Those three words hit Chris like a punch in the gut, and her forcefield did nothing to protect her from the impact. What she’d hoped for was a vision. Some words of wisdom. Something, anything, to help her find a way out of this mess with a sane mind and an intact conscience.
But as she was looking down at the elderly woman and the wires clinging to her frail, comatose body, she finally realized she was on her own. The world’s number one Visionary wanted nothing more than to leave this world behind.
“But why?” Chris whispered. She sank to her knees beside the hospital bed, taking the Oracle’s twig-like wrist in her fingers. “What is it you know that makes you so afraid?”
Sanctuary shifted on his chair, leaning forward to settle a hand on the Oracle’s arm. “I don’t know,” he said. “I doubt she’s afraid of you or the mission you were sent here to do. Her concern has always been with the world.”
“Why didn’t she just tell me another of her riddles? I’m bad at solving them,” Chris murmured into her mask. The devil’s visage felt hot and heavy on her skin, making each breath excruciating.
“Because she knows you’re bad at solving them.”
Chris turned her head so she could see the side of his bearded face and his watery green eyes. They were locked onto the Oracle’s limp form, but distant, as though he was looking through her into a future that had been revealed only to him.
“Did she ask you the same thing? To…” Chris couldn’t finish. The words jammed in her throat, refusing to come out.
“Yes,” he muttered.
“When she was brought down here.” Sanctuary’s shoulders sagged. “She knows I won’t do it.”
“Have you ever considered it?” She hated herself for asking, but she couldn’t help it.
“Yes.” He lifted his chin, chest heaving, to look her in the eye. “You’re a Guardian. You understand why I can’t.”
“Yeah. You figured you could just avert whatever it is that’s haunting her by keeping her safe, didn’t you? Then there would be no need to grant her wish.”
Sanctuary’s lips moved, but Chris couldn’t hear what he was saying. King’s voice came from the radio that sat right next to her ear, drowning out the other man’s words. “Your bonding efforts are touching, but it seems you need a reminder what you came here to do. Less talk, more action. This is in your own interest. Null is waking up. You have one minute to disable Sanctuary. Rampage will carry the woman once the deed is done.”
They still don’t have visuals. Chris glanced at the door. It had been left ajar; Alastair’s eye spheres could have entered the room easily enough. Whoever else was in the system with the Conglomerate Technician was seriously messing with the villains. But damn it, she wished they’d do more.
“Null,” she said to Sanctuary. “Does your aura protect us from him?”
His face fell. “Are the villains waking him up?”
“No. But the guys in charge of the facility are about to do it. It seems they evacuated everyone but us.”
The Guardian visibly tensed. He muttered something Chris couldn’t understand, the grip of his fingers tightening around the Oracle’s bony arm. The Visionary no longer looked peacefully asleep. Her eyelids were fluttering, and her mouth was distorted, shaping urgent, sibilant sounds that were not quite words.
She isn’t afraid of Null, Chris assumed. She’s scared out of her wits of whatever Gentleman is going to do with whatever it is she knows.
“Null’s projections will not harm us,” Sanctuary said. “They will go after the villains. Anyone outside my quarters.” He gave Chris a suggestive look.
“I can’t stay with you,” Chris whispered, meeting his gaze. “My costume’s wired. If all else fails, they’ll just blow me up. Your aura doesn’t protect you against remote controlled bombs, does it?”
And Gentleman will keep pursuing his schemes without fear of retribution because no one even knows where he’s hiding, she added silently.
“No,” Sanctuary whispered back, breaking eye contact.
Chris sank against the edge of the bed, draping her arm over the Oracle’s quivering body. Her thoughts raced in all directions, weighting consequences and searching for solutions in possibilities she hadn’t considered before. She didn’t want to end the Oracle’s life any more than Sanctuary did, and part of her mind and body screamed at the thought of sacrificing Ryan. She didn’t even want to think about what the villains would do to him if she defied them outright. But then again…
The Oracle knows more about cause and consequence than anyone else does.
Ultimately, the consequences were on Chris’s shoulders. She knew this all too well. As much as she wanted to turn her back and walk away, she wouldn’t be able to live herself if she did.
“Forty seconds,” King’s voice urged her through the mask.
Chris gently brushed the Oracle’s cheek with a gloved finger. The woman stilled beneath the touch, her wrinkled face relaxing.
She knows I’m stronger than Sanctuary.
Chris straightened from the edge of the bed and turned to face the other Guardian. “Tell me about the Oracle’s end of the world prophecy. Fast. We’re almost out of time.”
Sanctuary eyed her warily, and for a moment she wasn’t sure she’d be able to get anything out of him. She wouldn’t blame him if he clammed up on her; she might have done the same in his shoes. He couldn’t see the tear that was trailing across her cheek. He was looking at a pair of eyes behind a grinning red devil mask.
But after several seconds that dragged on like minutes, he entrusted her with a message. “Her prophecy was misinterpreted on purpose. The Antithesis is the ultimate judge, but they aren’t responsible for the end of the world.”
Chris frowned. “Who is?”
“Everyone,” Sanctuary said in a grave voice.
What do you mean? She almost asked, but a pessimistic little voice at the back of her head told her she didn’t need to look to Sanctuary or the Oracle for the answer. She had seen the news reports often enough: chaos, anarchy, mass panic. The step by step failure of international alliances and politics. Power surged individuals getting high on the thrill of their own powers, elevating themselves to a quasi-divine status until someone came along to blow their lights out, spinning the wheel of misfortune all over again.
The world couldn’t handle superpowers. Hell, Evolved people couldn’t handle superpowers.
“Who can stop it, then?” she asked, controlling her voice. Beneath the cover of her mask, the single tear became a tiny rivulet of despair. She wasn’t crying for the world, though. Not just yet.
“The Healer could undo the damage, but they are tainted,” Sanctuary said with that faraway look in his eyes.
“Fifteen seconds,” King buzzed angrily through the radio. “Get a move on.”
Chris still had hours’ worth of questions. Choosing one of them was like juggling balls of fire; she couldn’t hold on to any one of them long enough to determine which one was worth keeping.
“There must be something the rest of us can do. Is there anything?” she blurted, grasping one of the questions at random.
“You’re a Guardian, Mascot. Go and protect those you care about the most.”
Chris tensed. Her hands clenched into fists at her sides, rebelling against the thought of what was to come. “You do that,” she murmured into her mask, avoiding eye contact. “Stay safe. Help some people.”
She sped up without conscious thought, triggering her power before Sanctuary got the chance to react and before she could change her mind. She stepped to the other Guardian’s chair, plucked the gun from his lap, and turned away from him before he could see or understand her betrayal. She was beside the Oracle’s snowy white bed in an instant, aiming the gun straight at the comatose woman’s forehead.
“I trust you,” Chris whispered between ragged breaths.
The words were meant for the Oracle’s ears. But in her mind’s eye she was looking at Ryan, gun cocked at his face, her finger quivering against the trigger. She saw him as clearly as if she was still sitting next to him on the cot, tracing his skin to convey a hidden message that was meant only for the two of them.
It’s you or the world, Ryan.
What was left of her conscience retrieved a memory of his voice, of the words he’d shared with her minutes before she disappeared inside the devil costume.
If the choice ever comes between me and everyone else, I don’t want you to hesitate.
The gun didn’t go off with a bang. It shuddered ever so slightly in her grip, producing a dry cough that would develop into a deafening bang if she stuck around long enough to hear it. She didn’t, though. She released the grip, leaving the gun suspended in midair while the bullet emerged in slow motion. What she couldn’t escape was the sound of her scream; it was trapped with her inside her own time bubble.
Realizing that the horrific sound was coming from her own mouth, she cut it off, turned around, and headed for the door. Behind her, the gun’s cough was building into a thunderous roar. As she dashed out of the apartment, some part of her mind registered that she was leaving everything behind. Sanctuary. The Oracle. The mental image of Ryan, and the way his features softened just before he leaned in close to embrace her. Her identity as a heroine alongside the mangled wreck of her feelings.
She went on, somehow, distantly aware that she was moving. She stepped over the worn out doormat and the cheerful ‘WELCOME’ letters that were strewn across it, and continued onward, no longer caring whether the metal-coated floor leading away from the disintegrated door was booby trapped.
The villains were waiting where she’d left them: with the dead people. Rampage stood over one of them, his demon-masked head tilted to the side, peering into the corridor. King hovered a few feet behind him, his voluminous cloak spread out in midair, frozen in time.
Chris was in no hurry to let time resume its pace. She walked up to the two villains slowly, shrouded in the knowledge of a reality that had not yet come to pass. The Visionary was still alive. She wanted to keep going, past the two masked faces and onward, not caring where or when her march would end. If she stopped, then that was it. Reality would catch up to her.
As would the baggage she had left behind in that room.
Something held her back. Instead of continuing on through the room she stopped, turning to face King’s hovering form. She released the hold on her power.
Time snapped back into place to the bang of a distant gunshot. The two villains winced, their eyes flicking about nervously until they settled on Chris. She lifted her mask with a finger and removed the wads of toilet paper that had soundproofed the built-in radio. She didn’t care that they were watching; there wasn’t a whole lot she cared about, anymore.
“What the fuck?” Rampage snarled.
King was slightly more eloquent, though he sounded just as irritated. “Where is the Oracle?”
“Dead,” Chris said simply.
Rampage stalked closer, planting himself in front of her. “Are you out of your mind?”
“I guess so.”
King studied her in silent judgement, his face unreadable behind the white mime mask. He put a finger to the false frozen smile of his mouth, then pointed it at her. “I hope you understand the consequences of what you’ve done. Why the sudden death wish? Explain.”
I trusted someone, Chris might have said if she wanted to explain. She didn’t, though. Not to these guys.
The latent hostility in the room was so thick it could have been cut with a knife. Her danger sense sent a shiver down her spine and made her skin tingle, but the source of the strongest threat
Why am I awake where are the fucking eggheads
was not in the room with her. The danger vibes she picked emanated from every direction – from the cavernous walls, the ground, from the lukewarm, stifling air itself. She sensed the anger simmering inside the villains, multiplied and augmented until it gained an almost physical presence. Having experienced a similar phenomenon when Noire unleashed her animated shadow on Legion, Chris could tell this threat was similar but far more dangerous. It couldn’t be contained by a forcefield. It was everywhere at once.
“Null. He’s awake,” she managed to say.
“Fuck,” Rampage cursed.
A figure appeared out of nowhere, flickering into existence right in front of Chris. The apparition was transparent as a ghost, fists clenched and mouth gaping wide in a soundless howl. Chris recoiled. She had expected Null to manifest her emotions. She wasn’t prepared for that manifestation to be her unmasked spitting image, complete with her favorite jogging trousers and the hooded sweatshirt Ryan had given her for her eighteenth birthday.
The silent scream only lasted a second or two. The manifestation made no move to approach her. Its mouth tightened, then contorted, shaping words with an eerie echo of Chris’s voice. “Not a guardian,” it whispered. “Murderer.” Having delivered its message, it vanished.
Chris supposed she should have been shocked, but she wasn’t. She had left her moral scruples and her emotional baggage back in that room with Sanctuary.
His interpretation of the Oracle’s prophecies had destroyed her delusions about changing the outcome of pre-determined events. If a Guardian wasn’t going to save the world, maybe a murderer would. Preventing Gentleman from accessing the Oracle’s knowledge had been a necessary first step.
She glanced over to King only to see him hover beneath the ceiling, five feet above her head. “We’ll discuss this later,” he stated coldly. “Maintain the forcefields until we reach the next floor, and you might live.”
But not Ryan. The name stung, penetrating the emotional void she had erected around herself. She pushed it from her mind.
Rampage scooped up Magpie’s corpse and slung it over one shoulder. A manifestation of his unmasked appearance appeared beside him, less transparent than Chris’s had been. Its face was so twisted with rage that it barely looked human.
Rampage lowered himself to all fours and dashed forward, carrying his dead teammate as easily as if she was made of paper. Magpie’s dangling legs kicked his backside with every leaping stride.
King vanished from sight. “To the stairway!” his disembodied voice boomed from somewhere above, prompting Chris to make her way out of the room. She wasn’t following the villains, and she certainly didn’t consider herself part of the group. They just so happened to be her ticket back into the Conglomerate headquarters.
She had unfinished business there.
She activated her hyperspeed to evade the two reflections of King that had appeared near the tunnel leading out of the high security area. One of them looked fairly harmless; it simply stood there, radiating haughty arrogance and staring into space. The other gazed at her coldly, its eyes gleaming with murderous intent. Neither of them made an effort to follow her.
Chris could tell the new reflections were stronger and more aware than the first had been. Soon the tunnels would be overflowing with them. Given the emotional state the two villains were in, she expected at least half of the apparitions to try and kill them.
The second of Rampage’s reflections appeared as they ran the length of tunnel leading to the stairs. Rampage evaded it with a nimble twist of his body, but unlike its predecessor, this one blinked right back to appear in front of him. Its jaw gaped impossibly wide, delivering a bite that extinguished his forcefield instantly.
He threw Magpie’s limp body at it and kept running, leaping onward with the speed and prowess of a tiger. It caught up to him again, and he evaded it again. He didn’t trust his motion invulnerability to protect him from Null’s power, it seemed.
They didn’t make it to the next level. Alastair’s voice came through the radio as they reached a large, central room containing elevators and stairs. “Stop. I got all the cameras back.”
Chris turned to see Rampage vanish before her eyes, replaced by a prone man in the uniform of local security forces. He dropped from midair to fill the space that had been occupied by the villain split seconds before.
She slowed time to project a forcefield onto the man before he hit the ground. One of Rampage’s reflections was waiting there, with two more on the way. She couldn’t invest any further concern in the man. He barely occupied a moment’s thought.
Chris watched as King was replaced by another uniformed man. She projected a forcefield on the new arrival, then sat down on the floor, wondering absently whether her turn would come or if her costume was going to blow up instead.
Meanwhile, a growing number of manifestations howled with rage as they pounded the forcefield of the guy who was sprawled on the ground a few feet to her right. The most aggressive ones looked like Rampage, she noted. A few Kings wandered the room in search of something or someone who was no longer there. A lone Chris manifestation was curled up in a corner, knees drawn up to her chin, sobbing to herself.
The guards were alive, she observed dully. But they were hurt. Too hurt to talk to her or get up.
After a long stretch of time with nothing but howls, pained groans and insane manifestation ramblings to fill the radio silence, Chris’s surroundings dwindled away. She felt herself being yanked off the stone floor and thrown onto a cold metal surface somewhere else.
All around her was silence and impenetrable darkness.
So they’re discussing me now, and they’re not letting me listen in.
Chris pushed to her feet and extended a hand into the darkness. She discovered a smooth wall right ahead of her, bare and without any indentations hinting at doors. Following that wall, she found a corner after only two steps, then another after three more. She estimated that the room she had been yanked into was about half the size of the cell she’d shared with Ryan.
The thought of him brought back some of the painful baggage she had hoped to leave behind. As she stood there in the dark wondering if she would ever see him again, the silence ended. The radio came back to life, filling her mask with the agonized screams of a voice she knew all too well.
She slumped to the floor, pressing her hands to the sides of her head in reflex. The emotional barrier she had erected around herself crumbled, and her entire body shivered as though she was the one receiving the punishment.
Just when she thought she was going to lose her mind, it stopped. Silence blanketed the room once again.
“What can I do so you’ll stop hurting him?” she asked the darkness in a tiny, quivering voice.
But it wasn’t Gentleman who responded, nor was it any of the other villains. The voice was male and unfamiliar, speaking in a pleasant, calming baritone that expressed genuine empathy.
“Hello, Mascot. This is Morpheus, speaking through Lark.”