Conglomerate Shelter, somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean – Friday, the 19th of June 2012. 04:42 PM.
I need that gun, Chris thought over and over again as she waited for the villains to complete their set-up. Lark stopped responding to her questions and didn’t relay any more villain conversation, so she leaned against the wall beside the intercom, allowing the coldness of her prison to seep into her bones while the insufferable silence dragged on.
I need that gun.
Knowing that she might finally acquire the missing puzzle piece in her plan – a real weapon – gave her a focus and put her brain in overdrive. All she had to do was to hide it from the villains and survive until they brought her back here. The mental image of the gun made it easy to shove all other thoughts aside and disregard the fact that she’d most likely have to hurt a potentially helpless, drugged up girl – the only one who could recreate the world, if Jasper and the Oracle were to be believed – to get it.
If Gentleman was to be believed, then Dancer was also the world’s only Evolved capable of using her powers while pumped full of Power Zero. Chris was skeptical. Having been on the receiving end of the drug’s debilitating side effects, she found it hard to believe that even the Healer’s unique powerset would be enough to overcome them.
Unless, maybe, if the Healer learned to actually cure herself.
If Chris was honest with herself, she cared much more about Jasper’s well-being than about his controversial girlfriend. He was a nice guy who didn’t deserve to be buried throat-deep in other people’s crap. It probably wasn’t Dancer’s fault that she had walked straight into Gentleman’s trap, but if she really was all-powerful, then maybe she should have tried harder to come to her boyfriend’s rescue. Besides, it was hard to develop any feelings for someone Chris had never even talked to.
Just hold out, Jasper. I’ll come through for you even though no one else did.
Chris couldn’t tell how much time had passed until Lark reported back to her with a single chirp. She opened her mouth to ask another question, but the walls of her prison faded away before she could. Instead of a spartan prison cell, she found herself on a smooth parquet floor beneath a domed ceiling, fenced in by a barrier of tightly strung barb wire. Four flood lights fitted on tall poles beamed down at her, bathing the playing court in uncomfortably bright light.
She blinked hard and brought up a hand to shield her eyes so she could make out the cameras which had been installed above the arena. Their placement – two near each ‘corner’ – suggested potential blind spots at the outer edges of the field. A bright orange diet coke ad banner clung to the waist-height stone barrier which separated the playing court from the spectator ranks surrounding it. The two cameras above it had to be the malfunctioning pair Alastair had complained about.
You better keep your promise, Lark.
Even though she wasn’t getting any feedback from her danger sense, Chris projected a forcefield onto herself and scanned the uppermost bleachers for exits. But all she could make out in the surrounding sea of darkness were vacant seats, the broad stairways connecting the various levels, floor-length curtains covering many of the walls, and the impenetrable dome structure of the ceiling.
Her heart sank at the absence of natural light. She had no intention of running from the fight – too much hinged on her return to the Fortress – but after God knew how many days spent in a steel prison under the sea, it would have been nice to just see the sun. To reassure herself there was still a world out there. That it hadn’t all gone to hell yet.
A large blank screen hung above the barb wire fence at the other end of the playing court. Chris had never been keen on going to indoor sports events, but even she could tell that the screen was as out of place as the barb wire. It must have been installed there on Gentleman’s orders. A quick glance confirmed that a second screen, similar to its counterpart in size and appearance, hung a couple meters above her head.
“Come on, Gentleman!” She shouted at the nearest camera. “Bring it on already!”
The response boomed from a loudspeaker on the other side of the barb wire fence. “A moment, my impatient friend. I thought you may need a minute to look around first. Did I assume wrong?”
“Yeah. Don’t assume anything about me.”
“Very well, then.” Chris couldn’t tell if the disappointment in his voice was real or just another act meant to mislead her.
She got her way, though. A woman dressed in camo pants and a tank top appeared out of nowhere at the other end of the playing court. Chris was too surprised not to stare. The woman looked older than Dancer, and she definitely hadn’t been swapped in for someone else. Chris was quite certain that there hadn’t been anyone there.
Drifter couldn’t teleport people around; he needed a visual of two targets in order to have them swap places. Had the woman been there first, turned invisible by one of Gentleman’s illusions? If so, then…
…the bastard is somewhere nearby.
She couldn’t see him, of course, but his presence was looming large her mind, and he was going to stay there until she dealt with him once and for all.
The woman at the other end of the playing court vanished as suddenly as she had appeared, replaced by a strawberry blonde teenage girl in a baggy, oversized t-shirt which hung to the middle of her thighs. She clutched a gun in her right hand and raised her left to her eyes, squinting against the near blinding brightness of the surrounding floodlights. The small plastic rucksack dangling over the girl’s back puzzled Chris more than the gun.
They didn’t take any of her stuff?
Dancer – or someone akin to the Swiss girl Chris had seen all over the news after the villain attack on New York – did not look anywhere near as intimidating as the circulating Antithesis rumors suggested. She swayed on her feet, visibly struggling to get her bearings, and her face had the slack, perpetually confused look of someone who’d been drugged up to the eyeballs.
Chris hadn’t felt sorry for her before, but now she did. At least a little.
Gentleman’s voice blared from the loudspeaker, denying them the time to get accustomed. “Welcome!”
Startled, the strawberry blonde girl whirled around and raised her gun at the speakers, nearly losing her balance in the process.
“My, my. You are pointing that thing in the wrong direction, dear. Your opponent is across from you.”
Dancer’s eyes flashed angrily. As she was staring at the loudspeaker, her confused expression transformed into a snarl – teeth bared, eyes narrowed, fingers tracing the gun’s trigger as though she could barely keep herself from pulling it. All around her, the air shimmered eerily.
Except the temperature in the sports hall hadn’t changed. It was still cool in there; sixty degrees Fahrenheit at most. Chris adjusted her initial assessment of her opponent. Right that moment, the slender girl in the oversized shirt looked more Antithesis than Healer, and she definitely didn’t pass as a helpless victim.
Chris had to admit to the possibility that maybe Gentleman’s assumption regarding Dancer’s resistance to Power Zero had been correct.
But the moment passed. Dancer’s eyes flicked from the loudspeaker to the other end of the arena, finding her opponent. The snarl slipped away, eyebrows rising in bemusement. The hand holding the gun sank lower and lower. The air stopped quivering.
Regardless, Chris was glad for the reassuring vibration of the forcefield against her skin.
“Very good,” Gentleman’s voice blared cheerily. “I see you have become acquainted with one another. Now, if you would please look up?” On cue, the two screens flickered to life.
Chris didn’t bother following the villain’s instruction. She had already seen the monitor before it was turned on, had overheard the villain talk courtesy of Lark, and could easily assume what he was getting at. Instead, she kept her eyes trained on Dancer to see her reaction. If that girl cared even half as much as Jasper did about her… one way or another, it would show.
Dancer’s face fell as she stiffly stared at the monitor, her gun pointed at the floor. She lifted her chin and turned around. The girl in the oversized shirt took her time absorbing the scene that flickered across Ryan’s screen. Her mouth fell open. She turned to take in the images on the other screen as well, her shoulders sagging.
In turn, Chris’s mouth tightened. There was nothing she could have said to improve the situation for anyone involved, and communication had been prohibited as per Gentleman’s rules. She didn’t want to think about what she was about to do: beat up the girl, take her gun, and assume that the villain would stay true to his word and let Dancer go. This was, hands down, the most auspicious approach. Chris was focused, her mind clear.
But if she was ready, then why did she have a sick feeling in her gut?
Dancer’s left hand clenched into a fist, and she turned back to the loudspeaker, her chin held high. “So, what now? You going to explain what the point of all this is?”
“Ah, but of course! We shall proceed to the rules, then. Christina? May I have your attention as well, please?”
While Gentleman delivered his villain speech, Chris’s eyes were drawn to the screen which was across from her and above Sarina. As expected, Jasper was on it – pinned to the blotchy walls of the all too familiar execution chamber, eyes closed, lips moving in a silent rhythm.
Her heart sank. Unwilling to give Gentleman the satisfaction of provoking a reaction from her, she kept her expression passive and controlled, revealing nothing. She couldn’t stop herself from flicking a middle finger in the loudspeaker’s general direction, though.
Dancer was staring at her. Chris stared back, but not at the other girl’s face. Her attention was on the gun in her opponent’s hand.
I need that gun.
An overinflated sigh came through the speaker. “Still in a rebellious mood, I see,” Gentleman observed. “Very well, have it your way. I am giving both of you the chance to save your dear, precious loved one. This is your one and only opportunity to free them, so I suggest you don’t squander it. The rules are simple: kill your opponent. Whoever remains will be free to go wherever she pleases, as will her friend…”
She stopped listening at that point. She didn’t care to hear any more lies; all she wanted was to get this done and over with.
Meanwhile, her opponent disengaged the safety from the gun and raised it, aiming straight at Chris.
You don’t know how my powers work, do you? Chris kept the thought to herself. Pointing it out wouldn’t have changed anything.
“How do I know you’re not full of shit?” Dancer asked. “You’re a backstabbing snake who is just going to kill them both for fun.”
“Christina could confirm that I honor my word,” Gentleman replied. “I saved her life once. Did I not, Christina?”
Why don’t you just shut up already? Chris clenched her teeth to stop herself from speaking. She did nod though, at least a little. The day she was kidnapped, Drifter had plucked her from midair seconds before she fell to her death, and the fact that she got captured was her own damn fault. There was no way in hell she would have survived a two hundred foot drop. Not even with her speed and her forcefields.
Gentleman sounded pleased. “I am glad you remember. Doubt me if you will. But if you do, just look at the screens above you. A live transmission does not lie. And now: begin!”
A thought emerged as Chris waited for the signal, struck her hard enough to lock her breath in her chest. If Gentleman is here, then Ryan isn’t an illusion. She forced herself to breathe and dashed forward. He’s real. They recorded him before they killed him.
Just like she’d done when she stepped away from the Oracle’s hospital bed, she left that thought and her emotional baggage behind, looking strictly forward rather than down into the abyss of her soul. If she looked, or even allowed herself to think about it, she was going to fall and crumble, unable to keep going.
Chris could have trusted her forcefield to stop any bullets and charged straight at her opponent, but the circumstances were too unpredictable for her to take chances. She veered off to the left and then continued running in a zigzag pattern.
Dancer fired two shots. The first went wide. The recoil pushed Dancer’s hands up, disrupting her precarious balance. By the time she managed another shot, Chris was nearly upon her. The bullet tore through the parquet floor inches from Chris’s running feet.
Chris faltered and called upon her powers in reflex. She crossed the last five meters in a time vacuum, reaching Dancer before the other girl even had the chance to blink. Pressing her advantage, she ended her speed effect right before grabbing Dancer’s wrist with her left hand and pushing it down until the gun was pointed at the floor. A startled look rippled across the other girl’s face. But instead of letting go of the gun, she clutched it even harder.
Not giving her emotions the time to catch up with her, Chris reared her right arm back and delivered a straight punch to Dancer’s face. She hadn’t invested much strength in it, but it had the intended effect. The other girl staggered backward. The gun slipped from her fingers, but before Chris could get ahold of it, Dancer threw it off to the side with surprising ferocity.
Chris toyed with the idea of activating her hyperspeed to go pick it up, but ditched the idea when she realized where the gun was sliding off to. If she could push her opponent just a little back into the blind camera spot, the villains wouldn’t see her arm herself. They wouldn’t know what was coming.
Measuring the distance to the blind spot–marked by the diet coke ad–with her eyes, Chris kicked Dancer’s leg just below the knee, knowing that the kick was going to hurt but not cause any serious damage. That was the easy part. But seeing her obviously untrained opponent fall back and crash helplessly onto the floor made Chris wonder whether she had any humanity left at all.
She didn’t want to be doing this. Which was probably the reason Gentleman set this up and why he was watching her.
Chris glanced back up at the screen where Jasper’s lips continued to move silently. He kept his eyes closed, refusing to acknowledge the metal spikes which crept on to the screen, inches away from his face. She absently wondered if there was a monitor ahead of him. If he would open his eyes, would he see her and Dancer and the insanity occurring in this arena?
As if he overheard her thoughts about the setup, Gentleman’s voice from the speakers interrupted her musings. “Very good, Christina. But the way this is playing out is little, shall I say… disappointing? I expected more of a fight. As of right now, your opponent does not seem very motivated. Perhaps I should provide assistance?”
A roaring, drilling noise emanated from both screens in a precisely orchestrated crescendo. Chris could see the metal spikes rotate at high speed, closing in on Jasper’s helpless, pinned form.
“Shut it off,” she snapped. “You want to see a fight? Fine. Just shut that damn thing off.”
To her surprise, the drilling actually did stop. The spikes kept on spinning furiously, but didn’t advance.
“Much better,” Gentleman said. “Why must you always be so difficult?”
Because this isn’t a battle worth fighting.
“You overdosed her,” Chris accused. “This isn’t a fight. You just want me to beat the crap out of that poor girl. Is that it? Is that the ‘fight’ you want to see? I’m the one you should be pissed at.”
“I had hoped you would perhaps enjoy it a little,” Gentleman replied. “That girl is the one who wanted Emily, after all. Be glad she has no control over her powers. If she did, she would erase you and everything around you before you could blink. And perhaps she still could, if she tried just a little harder?”
Chris stared at him, letting the words sink in. She couldn’t tell if Gentleman was lying. But it didn’t matter. Gentleman was obviously doing his damnedest to provoke her; a perfectly good reason not to give him what he wanted.
Movement caught her attention. Glancing to where Dancer stood just a moment before, Chris discovered that her prone opponent was sliding backward, toward the discarded gun. When their eyes met, Dancer froze, but Chris’s eyes flicked to the gun on the floor.
Go get it. We’re almost far enough that they can’t see us.
She couldn’t speak while she was under observation, of course, but she could hide her hand at the back of her leg, flicking a thumb in the direction of the gun. Dancer hesitated, her eyes gleaming with suspicion.
The sharp, disapproving clack of Gentleman’s tongue came through the speakers. “Will you finish this already, or do you intend to keep talking to me until that gun is back in her hand?”
Chris stopped listening. She focused on driving the other girl back into the corner, doing her best not to harm her and taking a punch to her stomach in the process. Everything became a blur at that point, though Chris remembered taking the gun with a promise she intended to keep.
I’ll put the gun to good use. I’ll save your boy.
She did cry a little, despite her best efforts not to. Hitting that poor girl repeatedly so she’d get sent back into the world, as Gentleman had put it, was one of the hardest thing she’d ever done. Her mind blanked out the images and the sounds until there was nothing but light.
A brilliant beam coming from above.
Chris never saw what it was. Fractions of a second before the arena erupted in blinding brightness in the shape of angel wings, her surroundings dwindled away. She was yanked back into a darkness which was all too familiar.
“Lark,” she said, pulling the gun from beneath her hoodie. “I’m ready. Open the door.”