Conglomerate Shelter, somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean – Tuesday, the 19th of June 2012. 08:54 AM.
After a stomach-lurching leap out of the lightless room, Chris crashed onto a floor that was as hard and cold as the one she had just been yanked away from. Her new location was brightly illuminated and furnished with objects she recognized immediately: an army style cot, a toilet behind a lattice screen, and a small folding table with two chairs. Her black and gray hooded sweatshirt and flannel jogging trousers were spread out across the table, awaiting her return.
She was back in her cell. Only this time, she was alone. Ryan wasn’t here anymore.
Chris knew the reason why, of course, and that knowledge rested like a rock in her gut. She couldn’t dwell on it, though. It was too soon for her to cease her forward momentum, to stop and think about what she’d done, and fall apart. She couldn’t allow the villains figure out she was aware of
Ryan’s behind-the-scenes murder. So she pushed herself to sit upright on the floor, still trapped inside the bulk of her bomb-wired costume. She turned her head to scan the unbreakable window to her right. Upon discovering that no one was watching her from the other side, her attention shifted to the intercom which was next to the heavy security door.
“Welcome home!” Gentleman announced with sickening cheer, his voice sounding from the intercom’s speakers.
Some part of her wanted to scream at him. She hadn’t burst out with profanities in a long time – not since her high school days, actually – but right that moment, she had to bite her tongue to keep the language down. The more rational part of her brain told her she was only going to defeat the villain by beating him at his own game: putting on a show.
“Where’s Ryan?” she snapped.
“Ah. Well.” There was a pause. “A small problem has come up, you see.” He stopped there, no doubt waiting to see her reaction.
But she just kept staring at the intercom, fingers digging into the reinforced leather of her black costume pants. She forced herself to sit straight and breathe evenly, keeping her secrets inside and the villain’s provocations out.
She stubbornly maintained the tense silence until Gentleman broke it. “It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that I spoke to King and Rampage. It seems there was a small misunderstanding regarding the goal of our mission – your mission, as it were. Well? Is there anything you would like to say about it?”
“Where’s Ryan?” she demanded. The thought of him being tossed into the meat grinder to serve as fish food was unbearable. She balled her hands into fists, forcing herself to keep breathing evenly.
“Is that all you worry about? Some powerless boy who turned his back on you when you needed a friend?”
Once again, Chris bit her tongue to keep herself from lunging at the villain. You don’t know shit about him. He had his reasons, and he trusted me when I needed someone to have faith in me.
“Does gullible selflessness still rank among the traits that are expected of heroes these days? Well, if you must know… he is not here. You failed to uphold your end of the bargain, so I decided to move him to a different location. It seems you need some quiet time to consider your actions, and their consequences.”
You lying bastard.
Chris lowered her head until the face of her grinning devil mask was pressed to her knees. A tremor ran through her body. She supposed she should have felt something to go along with it, but she had stepped beyond the threshold of how much emotion a person could push through. She was back in the void, detaching herself from all that human baggage.
“Don’t fret! You will get another chance to save your boy before long. Next time, however, I want to see you put some effort into it. Show me you care. More importantly, show him you care. I regret to say that after your betrayal, poor Ryan may have gotten the impression you are not all that interested in his well-being.”
“And when’s that going to happen?” Chris pushed herself to say. “That other chance?”
“A very good question. I must admit I do not know. This special opportunity relies on certain circumstances which are beyond my control. Fear not, I will pass the news on to you as soon as I know more.”
Special opportunity? Is that some fancy new term for murder?
Chris pulled at the sides of her mask. “Can I take this thing and the costume off, now?”
“You may. Will you manage on your own, or should I send someone to help you undress?”
“I’m fine,” she said dully, lacking the emotional capacity to be creeped out by the offer. “Can I get some privacy?”
“You may. I hope you understand that given the current circumstances, I cannot allow you to explore the Shelter anymore. Someone will stop by to bring you a meal before too long.” Having delivered the message, the intercom fell silent.
Chris was left with nothing to distract her from the emptiness of her cell and the absence of the
I TRUST U
person who should have been there. The craving for a smoke became overwhelming. There was a dull throb in her head, and a nauseous feeling settled in her abdomen. Power Zero had nothing to do with it; she hadn’t had an injection since about twelve hours ago.
I still have my powers. The thought struck her with startling clarity. If Lark opens the door, I can walk out of here. Turn into a flash of lightning. Her eyes flicked back to the intercom. Was Lark in charge of surveillance, too? If the answer was yes and Data’s electronic diary was as loyal to her cause as it claimed to be, then Chris had the potential to hit the Conglomerate headquarters like a force of nature. They wouldn’t see her coming until it was too late.
Her gaze dropped to the black costume sleeve which covered most of her left arm. The folding wrap which King had passed to her was resting against the soft skin of her forearm, secured in place by the taut fabric of the devil costume. She felt the presence of the embedded syringe whenever she shifted position.
King had forgotten to ask for the Power Zero shots back. Maybe he didn’t think it mattered. Chris was securely locked up in a power-suppressing room, after all.
Except I’m not. She stared at the door, wondering if it would open if she just asked it nicely. In her mind’s eye, she could picture herself racing through the fortress at superhuman speed, armed with Power Zero shots and the ability to bypass any security obstacle. She’d be able to take out Drifter with ease, even Gentleman unless the villain leader was paranoid enough to hide behind his illusions at all times. Considering everything she knew about him, he very well might be.
But something held her back.
Jasper. Watchmirror. The two kids. She ran the names through her head, discovering that she was still too human and too invested in her Guardian role not to care what happened to them. The villains still had a use for them, but how much longer would they be kept alive? Unlike her, Jasper had stubbornly refused to cooperate with the villains.
He said he’d create a track for me, though. Boost my powers.
Having spoken to him in person, she couldn’t help but care about the guy. He was a rare kind of gentle, sensitive soul who thrived on the well-being of others. He didn’t have the guts to do what it took to save himself.
Chris filed the thought for later, investing her attention in the mask and costume she hadn’t yet managed to peel out of. The mask was easy enough to remove. She yanked, and it flew off her face to land on the cot, rubber bands snapping. The reinforced bodysuit posed more of a challenge. She had to throw her back out in order to reach the zipper, and it took her a good ten minutes to pull it down to her waist, little by little.
When she had freed herself of the unwieldy layers of costume, Chris grabbed her clothes from the table and pulled them over her boxer shorts and tank top. Once she was fully dressed, she felt better. Less vulnerable. More like herself and less like a villain dressing up as a hero.
With that out of the way, she crouched down beside the cot to retrieve the folding wrap from the cloth and leather pile at her feet. She pushed it underneath her shirt and into the elastic waistband of her dirty jogging trousers, hoping to avoid the attention of the various cameras she knew to be hidden in the walls and beneath the ceiling.
Time to prove your worth, Lark.
Chris pulled her sweater crossed the room with several swift steps, positioning herself next to the intercom. “You there?” she whispered.
A quiet chirping sound came through the speakers.
“No one’s listening in?”
“Or watching me through the cameras?”
Lark confirmed again. It was almost too good to be true. Chris leaned against the wall beside the intercom, trying to decide whether she trusted the AI enough to grab the opportunity and run with it. It would take more than open doors and her powers to ensure Jasper’s safety. Besides, she couldn’t just launch a surprise attack on the Conglomerate without at least speaking to the guy. The instant the villains caught a whiff of what was going on, they would do their best to use him – or those kids who’s been locked up with Watchmirror in his cell – against her.
“Can you put the prisoner area cameras on standby for ten minutes or so? Make sure no one sees me or hears me?” Chris asked.
Lark chirped conspiratorially.
Without further thought, Chris stepped in front of the reinforced security door to watch it slide open before her eyes. The steely, dimly lit corridor stretched before her, quiet as a graveyard and several degrees colder than her prison chamber had been. To her left, the corridor curved its way toward the meat grinder and the execution chamber she’d been sent to for ‘cleaning’ duty. To her right it followed a gentler curve, allowing her to glimpse the large cell window that came before her own, as well as a half of the one that came before it.
Not giving herself time to think or develop any kind of emotion, she surged down the left hand side, speeding up to dash past the doors leading to the meat grinder and Data’s former chamber within the blink of an eye. She continued past the door leading to the pantry and dining area to stop in front of the door leading to Jasper’s room. Having gone the roundabout way guaranteed the silence of the other prisoners; she didn’t trust any of them to keep silent about a strange flash of movement beyond their windows.
Jasper was sitting in the chair in front of his sound mixer. His body was even skinnier than she remembered, and the circles beneath his eyes reflected the prostration of another long night. His arms dangled limply at his sides, and his chin had sunken down on his chest.
Chris felt herself tense up. Don’t be dead. Just don’t.
As though he read her mind, Jasper’s head lifted from his chest, bleary eyes settling on her through the glass window. The door slid open at the same time, giving off a faint buzzing sound that seemed treacherously loud to her ears.
The door got more of a reaction from him than her presence had. His eyes snapped wide open, his limbs scrambling to grab the edge of the sound mixer as he nearly jumped out of his chair.
Chris made a single step into the room. Jasper receded at the same time, rolling back his chair until he was wedged between his sound equipment and the desk with his laptop.
“Hey. It’s actually me,” she said in her best attempt at a soothing voice. “I’m not a villain wearing an illusion.”
His eyes darted to one of the wall-mounted cameras before returning to her.
“They can’t see or hear us,” she went on, not budging from the door. “I made a new friend, but it’s complicated. I probably don’t have long. Is it okay if I come in? We need to talk.”
He continued to stare at her, but refrained from pointing out that she had already entered – through a door which should have been closed to her. He tilted his head as though he was listening to something. As she watched she could see the tension ease out of him, his jaw unclenching and shoulders relaxing.
“It really is you,” he whispered. “How did you get in?”
She stepped closer to the chair he was seated in, encouraged by the shift in his mood. “Someone opened the door for me. What’s more important is that I have my powers, and I’m equipped to really mess with this place. I’m only going to get one chance, though.”
“You have control over your powers?”
Chris nodded, her gaze dropping to the slight bulge of the folding wrap that stood out against the fabric of her pants. “Yeah. I have some Power Zero shots, too, but we need to make them count.” She noted how his face lit up at the mention of ‘we’.
“Tell me how I can help you and your
I TRUST U
She was going to say something, but the words died in her mouth, brutally massacred by the reality that was pounding on the walls of the emotional barrier she had erected around herself. There was a sharp, metallic taste like blood on her tongue. She swallowed it, but she had already lost her bearings, didn’t remember where she was going to take the conversation. Her thoughts rambled on, fraying and changing gears.
You know what? The Chinese believe that if you save someone’s life like I did with my friend the day I got my powers, you’re responsible for them. Sounds like some crazy shit, right? My dad really believed in it. He’s Chinese. But the funny thing is, I’m a Guardian who gets everyone killed. My little brother, my sister, and… you know. People.
“Chris?” Jasper sounded concerned for some reason. The hopeful expression was gone from his face. He was now frowning at her, scrutinizing her as though he wasn’t sure whether he was looking at her or someone else.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I’m still walking, right? Still going on.”
It was the truth. She had stepped out of the Oracle’s room and kept walking, on and on, doing what was necessary for the greater good. She hadn’t come apart yet. Sometimes she felt a rip in her seams, but she was holding herself together for the moment at least.
Jasper gave her a long doubtful look, but said nothing. “What’s your plan?” he asked instead.
Chris raised her hand in a halting gesture. “Before we talk more… you know this is dangerous, right? Can you hear anyone approaching from the pantry before they see us?”
He cast a glance over her shoulder to the corridor, eyebrows furrowing in consideration. “Yes. But you won’t have much time to get out. Ten seconds, possibly less.”
“Good enough. I just need to be gone before my food arrives.”
Jasper kept watching her, saying nothing.
“As for the plan… I’m going to take out everyone who’s critical to the Conglomerate’s success. Drifter and Gentleman, for starters.” Watchmirror, she might have added, but didn’t.
The line of his mouth hardened. “You don’t need my help if that’s what you’re planning.”
“I’m talking to you because I don’t want you to get hurt, and because I need to check if you’ve finished any tracks. I need to consider all options.” Her mind drifted to the sad little faces of the two kids in Watchmirror’s cell, forcing her to focus and shake the image.
Jasper rolled back to the sound mixer on his desk chair, leaning forward to flip a switch on the console. The monitor above it switched to a generic blue screen. “I’ve been working on something. It’s not finished, though. And…” he watched her carefully as he went on, “it’s not for you.”
Chris met his gaze, feeling nothing. “That’s cool. Just tell me you didn’t boost one of the villains.”
“I didn’t. The track is for Sarina, actually.”
“Because I know her well enough to create a track that actually works,” Jasper stated without a shred of doubt. “And because she’s special. We already talked about her… you remember, that talk, right?”
There was that look on his face again. His vibrant blue eyes gleamed with unconditional belief in something – or someone – Chris couldn’t understand or relate to. Sitting face to face with him like that made her feel dehumanized and hollow. Not that she particularly cared. Not anymore.
“You said you thought she could save the world,” she said after a moment. “But you didn’t say why.”
Not to rain on your parade, but I heard a thing or two about the Oracle’s prophecies before I pulled the trigger on her.
“She’s the Healer,” Jasper said, throwing her off guard. “I’m fairly sure Emily knows. It’s why she wanted to stay with us instead of returning home.”
Chris felt the corner of her mouth twitch. “The munchkin has a better people sense than I do, I’ll give her that. But if Sarina is the Healer, why doesn’t she, you know, heal people like Shanti did?”
Jasper’s face fell. “I don’t know. There’s something wrong with her.”
“I wish I knew. I haven’t done the best job supporting her, have I?” Jasper looked down at his hands on the sound mixer’s desk, the light in his eyes dimmed by regret.
Thinking back to the time of Shanti’s death and Dancer’s media covered transition, the two dates did seem to match up. Adding this to what Jasper had told her just now…
“The Healer is tainted,” Chris murmured, echoing Sanctuary’s words from less than an hour before. “The Oracle said as much. The Healer is also the best chance we have to reverse the damage done by all those psychos out there.”
Chris couldn’t even image why exactly the girl was supposedly tainted, and didn’t look like Jasper knew, so she left the question unanswered. They didn’t have the time or the opportunity to speculate right now.
“It’s going to get worse, isn’t it?” Jasper’s voice was very quiet, barely audible.
“It probably is. Maybe she really needs your track. Would it make such a difference, though? I’ve seen the effects of your power boosting tracks. Sure, they were impressive, but I don’t think they would stave off the Apocalypse.”
“They might,” Jasper said, louder and more confident than before.
“What makes you so sure?”
Jasper squinted at the nearest camera before responding. “You’re absolutely sure they can’t listen in?”
“If they could, we would have noticed already. There’s no way in hell they would let me keep my powers and the Power Zero shots if they knew.”
“Alright.” Jasper ran his fingers through his tousled brown hair, visibly relaxing. “The reason I’m so sure is… my power surge, which happened a short while after I was brought here.”
Chris gaped at him. “You’re shitting me.”
“No, I’m not. This is why I need you to wait until I’ve finished track. I’m not going to assume you can help me escape, but if you can get out, go. Take it with you. For her.”
“How much longer do you need?”
“Two or three days,” he said. “It’s not going to work if it isn’t perfect.”
Chris closed her eyes, rubbing her face with both hands. “You better hurry up, then. Gentleman’s waiting for an opportunity to pit me against her.”