12.14 Precipice

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Conglomerate Shelter, somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean – Friday, the 19th of June 2012. 04:11 PM.
Waiting for Jasper to finish his track was excruciating. There was no more Ryan to talk to, to comfort and to commiserate with. Chris was alone with her doubts and regrets. The void he had left behind was a constant reminder of what she had sacrificed, as well as the consequences she was now facing.

Knowing that she had the means and the opportunity to strike back against the villains, and that every minute she spent waiting around could result in that opportunity slipping through her fingers, left her in a permanent state of restlessness. Her choice was between attacking now or guarding the secret of her connection with Lark until Jasper finished his track for Dancer. When she stood face to face with Jasper, that choice was an easy one to make. But after a few more hours in her cramped cell, the doubts came creeping back. Chris warded them off best as she could.

The wait did take its toll on her options, though. The villains remembered the Power Zero shots which had been left in her possession after all. She lost them when Laughing Wolf and King stopped by to collect her discarded devil costume, deciding it best to give up the folding wrap with its vials and syringes and accept her daily meal instead.

She did manage to keep one of the vials: the one she had pocketed the instant she returned to her cell after speaking to Jasper.

No one asked about its whereabouts or even seemed to suspect it was missing. Without a syringe to inject it with, the liquid drug wasn’t nearly as useful, but anything the villains didn’t know about counted as a potential ace in the hole.

She resisted the temptation of leaving her cell to explore. Every so often she stopped by Jasper’s window, hoping for a thumbs up that didn’t come. He was keeping track of the time, though, and held up his fingers to signal the number of hours that had passed between visits and to her know how much progress he’d made. More often than not, he only needed the fingers of one hand to get the point across. He was most likely the only prisoner with access to a digital clock.

Time crept at a snail’s pace for everyone but him.

Jasper pursued his project with a determination that was almost a little frightening. Chris never caught him sleeping. Every time she stopped by, he was sitting on the same chair, bent over the sound mixer controls, ears covered by headphones and fingers flying across the numerous switches and buttons in a hyperactive frenzy. All the food that was delivered to him by the villains ended up on the desk beside his monitor, untouched except for the occasional nibble.

As much as Chris would have liked him to be more considerate of his health, she couldn’t exactly blame him. She drank all of the water the villains brought her, but only in small cautious sips, pausing after each gulp to minimize the risk of getting intoxicated with tranquilizers– or worse. She could hardly get the food down. The bouts of nausea she’d been struggling with since her first Power Zero injection came back with a vengeance, reinforced by cigarette withdrawal and the nagging feeling that Gentleman was plotting his next scheme while she sat around waiting to implement hers.

She slept in fits and starts, always considering the possibility of her captors never letting her wake up again. But staying awake was impossible. Unlike Jasper, she had nothing to occupy herself with, and the lure of sleep to pass the time was strong.

Occasionally, Chris caught a glimpse of one of Lark’s little hologram bird hover drones whirring along the corridor, pretending not to notice her. The AI had been silent since it opened Chris’s cell door for the first time, showing no reaction to her communication attempts. The door kept opening for her, though, suggesting that Lark was laying low to avoid villain attention.

They must know Morpheus manipulated Lark somehow. Chris rolled the thought over and over in her mind while she sat on her cot, throwing paper napkin balls against her prison walls to murder a couple hours. She found it hard to believe the villains were too stupid to figure out why Lark had shown a reaction to someone who obviously wasn’t Data. Gentleman, at least, must be aware of Data’s ultimate project. According to the Lark-recorded conversation Chris had listened to, the two of them had talked about it at least once.

She wanted to believe Data’s ultimate project was competent enough to out-smart the villains it was hoping to defeat. If the AI concealed Lark’s manipulation as something else – a theft of intelligence or a failed takeover attempt – then maybe, just maybe, Lark’s alliance with Chris would never be exposed.

At least not until it was too late.

Lark finally broke her silence after an unspecified amount of time that might have been two or three days, but felt like a week. The persistent chirps coming the intercom’s speakers stirred Chris from her nap. She was awake and alert in seconds.

“What’s going on?” she rasped through her dry throat. The small water bottle which had been brought with the last delivery of food sat on the floor beside her, still more than half full.

“I’m not sure,” Rampage’s voice sounded from the speakers.

Chris pushed herself into a sitting position in an instant, her head throbbing with the sudden movement. Her heart leaped into a gallop.

“Then why are you saying we found her?” Eve’s skepticism was apparent even through the intercom.

Upon realizing that Rampage hadn’t addressed her, Chris deflated somewhat, though her heart was still pounding with the ferocity of a caged tiger. This is it, she realized. It’s happening. She dug her fingers into the pocket of her jogging trousers, making sure the Power Zero vial was where she remembered putting it.

“Technically, it was Alastair who found her,” Rampage went on. “He’s using Lark’s code to bug the hero coms and keep track of everyone who calls Radiant’s number. Guess who the last caller was.”

“Dancer? Are you serious?”

Rampage chuckled. “No, not her. Some guy using one of the phones Tess built for the Nameless using Data’s spare parts. He didn’t say much. Way I heard it, he just wanted to check if the number was genuine before calling again later. He did say his name when they asked, though.”

“I thought Ace didn’t survive?”

“He didn’t. The guy calling was Dancer’s brother. Our lil’ whizz kid located the phone less than a hundred miles from Paris.”

Damn it. I have to go see Jasper. Now.

Chris didn’t give herself the time to weigh the risk of discovery against the need to check on the power surged music composer. She couldn’t pretend that her efforts had accomplished anything noteworthy so far. Jasper gave her a motive to keep going, to maybe turn this whole mess around and come out on top with something more significant than her own lousy life.

The ability to reshape the world and give it another chance.

In seconds, she was at the door and waited for it to slide open. She slipped through before it had opened fully, triggering her hyperspeed in mid movement. Her forward momentum became a leap through time, delivering her to Jasper’s cell.

She looked through the glass window to see the British musician collapsed at his desk, his eyes shut tight, one of his hands still resting on the laptop’s keyboard. It was obvious that he had passed out while trying to finish Dancer’s track. A quartet of water bottles flanked his monitor, all of them empty.

Chris groaned. “Let me in,” she demanded from Lark, resisting the urge to punch the door.

Nothing happened. The door didn’t open, Jasper was still asleep, and Chris didn’t have the slightest idea as to how she was going to wake him up if the water in all those empty bottles had been tainted with tranquilizers. Judging by the way they were lined up, he had gulped them down in an attempt to keep himself awake. A plan that had obviously backfired.

But the million dollar question was still on the table. Why the hell was Lark not opening the door?

The question was answered when Jasper vanished from the room, replaced by a man who was built like a prize fighter and wore the black uniform of the Conglomerate’s unpowered thugs. His sudden appearance knocked Jasper’s chair back and away from the table, sending it crashing into the opposing metal wall with a loud clatter.

The intruder’s attention was currently fixed on the sound mixer console. But if he turned his head just a little to the right, he was bound to spot Chris, obviously not locked up, standing behind the floor to ceiling glass window.

Oh shit.

She dipped sideways and accelerated to the left, feeling strangely weightless for the brief moment it took her muscles and her sense of balance to adjust to her power. The flow of time thickened and condensed around her. She was past the window before the thug could react. Her frenzied steps carried her onward, through the depopulated corridor and the long line of locked security doors until she was back in front of her own cell.

“Open up,” she demanded, pressing her hand against the door in an attempt to will it to open.

And open it did. The instant she stepped back into her cell, she was greeted two male voices from the intercom, one of which she had never heard before. It jabbered in nervous staccato English that was laced with some kind of European accent.

“Yes, I know, orders were clear, got it. Will let you know when I get word from Incubus. They’re setting it up just like you asked.”

“Very good,” Gentleman’s voice lauded. “I would be beside myself if I missed Dancer making her grand entrance in Paris. Do keep me updated.”

Chris only listened half-heartedly. Her mind was with Jasper, desperate to picture what was happening to him right that moment. She could imagine it all too well, and the mental image of that kind-spirited, talented guy being used as leverage for some kind of murder game made her want to spin around, rush to that goddamn execution chamber she’d cleared of bodies a few days before, and punch every villain in there until they turned to mush.

But then she’d do… what? She still didn’t know the layout of the fortress or how to leave it without Drifter’s intervention, and she had a sneaking suspicion she was going to encounter more areas with power suppression tech if she went to track down every last villain in this place. Lark’s silence over the past days had prevented Chris from investigating further.

Besides, she wasn’t convinced her intervention would save Dancer from the trap that seemed to have been set in advance. If she was captured and Chris killed Gentleman, what was going to happen to the girl Jasper and Emily had so much faith in? It wasn’t unthinkable that the Conglomerate’s allies would kill her out of spite. In short, she didn’t have the faintest clue what Gentleman’s thug friends were going to do. Him, though… she had him all figured out.

Gentleman’s announcement to her after her return from the failed mission made him rather transparent. His plan was to stage a duel to the death between Chris and Dancer, capture it on video, and then possibly broadcast it to the world. He’d made the bullshit promise to spare Ryan if Chris emerged victorious, but of course he didn’t know she’d already been informed of his death.

He thinks he has the upper hand, but he doesn’t know shit.

Chris stood by the intercom with her head bowed and her heads tucked away inside her pockets, breathing evenly, waiting for her pulse to level out. I’m coming for you. You just wait.

When she felt reasonably steady she leaned away from the wall, eyes flicking back to the intercom. “Lark. Where are we, exactly?”

“More or less at the center of the Pacific Ocean,” Data’s recorded voice informed. “A few hundred miles from the Hawaiian islands. Now, if you’re thinking ‘nice little sunny beach resort’, think again. We’re going underwater.”

“How far down?” Gentleman’s voice, flat and completely devoid of enthusiasm.

“At least three hundred feet, though I would prefer more. The deeper down we go, the easier it is for me to conceal our presence. We’ll be flying under the hero radar, staying undercover with as many men and women as you need.”

“Just tell me what you need to make it happen, and how much more I should calculate for livable conditions. I do admire your work, but I have no intention of sleeping in a cramped submarine alongside five to eight bawdy, unwashed men.”

Data barked a laugh. “This is why you’re never going to be a real villain. You’re such a wuss, Scott.”

The villain banter did nothing to brighten Chris’s mood. At least three hundred feet beneath the ocean, possibly more? Even trained divers needed special equipment to emerge from that kind of depth. She assumed she could maybe pull it off with some creative power use, but she wasn’t sure about Jasper or the two kids.

“Is there a way out of here that doesn’t involve getting teleported by Drifter?” she asked.

Once again, it was Gentleman who involuntarily provided her with the information. “We encountered some, ah, technical difficulties regarding the submarine. Since Data is unwell and not likely to recover anytime soon, submarine access will be limited to myself, King, and Laughing Wolf. Rest assured that the rules for shore leave have not changed. Drifter will be available for transportation at the scheduled times.”

Technical difficulties? Chris didn’t buy it for a second. “Can you pilot a submarine?” she asked, belatedly wondering whether the AI’s programming allowed it to abandon the villain fortress entirely.

Lark showed no reaction. Chris wasn’t sure if the AI didn’t know the answer or if it had been instructed not to reveal that piece of information. It looked as if that question had led her to a dead end. Not knowing how much time she had left until the next act in Gentleman’s play, she decided to change the subject.

“Where is this duel supposed to take place?” she asked. “Tell me whatever you think I should know about the location.”

Lark was quick to comply. “I have my eye on the city of Pretoria, South Africa,” Gentleman’s voice informed through the intercom. “An abandoned sports hall, to be precise. Perhaps you remember Monsoon’s power surge?”

“How could I forget?” King replied. “It was a rather big deal on the news. Is the city still abandoned?”

“Not quite. The buildings within immediate vicinity of the sports hall remain uninhabitable, however, and this is not likely to change soon. I already dispatched some of our loyal minions to prepare and make adjustments. Nothing grand, mind you. Just a few improvements here and there to keep our fighting hens in and any would-be troublemakers out.”

Fighting hens? Are you serious?

Chris snorted. She didn’t care enough to give the half-assed joke a second thought, but did have a brief mental image of herself ramming the Power Zero vial up Gentleman’s snooty nose.

Lark cut the recording off to replay a male voice which Chris hadn’t heard before. “Three thousand feet of barb wire. Fifty anti-personnel mines equipped with movement sensors. A quartet of snipers stationed on nearby rooftops. The speedy girl’s gonna escape if you don’t pump her full of Power Zero.”

“Oh, I know,” Gentleman’s voice replied. “I do hope she does escape, but I have a feeling I will be disappointed.”

What the hell does that mean? Chris frowned at the intercom, waiting for an explanation that didn’t come. Instead, Lark switched to Alastair, whose squeaky, youthful voice was laced with frustration. “Two of the cameras haven’t been set up properly. I can’t get a visual through them.”

“Which ones have not been set up?” Gentleman asked.

“The ones aligned at the upper right corner. With the diet coke advertisement board.”

Gentleman sighed. “Send someone to fix them, then. We cannot afford to lose the best footage to a malfunction.”

Before the next recording could be played Chris held up a hand, giving Lark the signal to stop. “Wait. Can you tamper with these cameras, too? Or just the ones inside the fortress?”

Lark chirped affirmatively.

Chris stiffened, her mind racing to reconsider her options. She wasn’t sure how much she cared about the footage of the duel – she didn’t want to fight anyone in the first place – but her gut was telling her to take any advantage she could get.

“Switch those two cameras back off if I’m teleported there,” she instructed Lark. “But make it look like a normal malfunction, alright?”

Another chirp from the AI.

“Tell me this,” she went on. “Is Gentleman bluffing, or is he actually planning to kill anyone depending on how this fight goes?” She stared straight at the intercom, trying her hardest not to think about Ryan.

This time, Lark relayed a statement by the villain mastermind himself. “Oh, I am quite serious, thank you for asking. I may need to get rid of some prisoners afterward.”

Chris’s breath stopped for the two seconds it took her to realize that the words hadn’t been directed at her.

Ultimately, Drifter responded to Gentleman’s comment. “Even the Guardian? No offense, but you seem to be rather… fond of her. Should have killed her off after she ruined the Israeli mission.”

“Our heroine has overstayed her welcome. The same is true for our British musician. Dancer, however, needs to return to the world with the experience of the duel fresh in her mind. I’m quite certain she will find it… inspiring.”

“What’s going to happen if Dancer doesn’t overcome the Power Zero in her system? The Guardian might actually kill her.”

“No. I want you to remove Dancer from the scene if she becomes critically wounded; she may develop healing powers after all. Replace her with one of our extras in… oh, I don’t know. Pick a random location other than Paris.”

“What about the Guardian?”

“If she survives and does not escape, you bring her back in. We will dispose of her afterward.”

He actually wants me to run. Chris wasn’t sure what to think of it, but while the idea of running and seeing her friends again was tempting, she couldn’t accept it. She had to return for Jasper, for those kids, and to destroy the Conglomerate from the inside. Besides, the Chris who’d been kidnapped from San Francisco had been

not a murderer

a different person, someone who had been eroded away by the events of the past few days. She wasn’t sure she could return to her friends and family ever again.

“Word just came in – Dancer’s got a gun,” the European-accented male voice said. “Want me to tell Incubus to strip her of weapons before they send her over?”

“Pretend we have no knowledge of the gun,” Gentleman instructed, the words laced with an eerie, cheerful eagerness. “I want to see how this plays out.”

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