Conglomerate Shelter, somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean – Friday, the 19th of June 2012. 05:17 PM.
Chris didn’t think the velvet-padded door to Gentleman’s room would be unlocked, but for the sake of exhausting all options she approached it anyway. Unlike all the other doors she’d seen in the fortress, there was no security panel or other electronic component anywhere near it. Only an old-fashioned brass doorknob protruded from the red velvet. Bending down, Chris discovered an actual keyhole-sized opening beneath the knob.
Clearly, Gentleman didn’t trust Lark with access to his private quarters.
Encouraged by the lack of feedback from her danger sense, she grabbed the doorknob to discover that it didn’t turn and couldn’t be pushed or pulled. No surprises there.
Her active hyperspeed effect gave her an advantage over most obstacles, however. The velvet padding peeled away when she pulled on it, revealing a massive wooden door. Wood was all right, easier to deal with than the damn metal that this whole underwater fortress seemed to consist of. It took a few speed-powered kicks for a crack to appear, and then a few more for the old-fashioned mechanical lock to come loose. After removing the lock, opening the door was a simple task.
But there was no Gentleman behind it. Instead, Chris discovered another security door a few inches behind the first, and this one wasn’t made from wood. It looked like steel, but shinier, more silver than gray. It was also closed.
Just how many doors are there? She asked herself, staring sullenly at the obstacle in front of her. She obviously wasn’t going to kick this one open. She needed help.
She grudgingly turned back around to face the foyer and Lark’s hovering sphere, dreading the seconds that were about to pass. If she wasted too much time trying to get access to Gentleman, Drifter might regain consciousness. The other villains – King and Mr. Smiles in particular – would get the opportunity to launch a counter–attack. And Jasper would be without protection for that much longer.
On the other hand, she couldn’t just leave Gentleman to continue his reign of terror. He was the Conglomerate’s mastermind; responsible for countless kidnappings as well as the mass panic that was beginning to overtake the world. Killing him was the only way to ensure the group wasn’t going to rebuild what she destroyed. Without him, the Conglomerate would fall apart in no time.
Time snapped back into place and delivered a burst of noise from the next floor down. A rush of footsteps came from below, indicating that it would only be a matter of seconds before Chris’s ladder-blocking forcefields were attacked.
Not that it mattered. If anyone broke through, she was just going to speed up and create as many obstacles as she needed to keep Rampage and Eve at bay. She could afford to ignore the two of them.
She shut the noise from below from her mind. “Lark. If you can’t open that door, contact Morpheus. The villains are already alerted. We don’t have to keep the secret anymore.”
To her surprise, Morpheus’ pleasant baritone addressed her directly through Lark’s sphere. “I’m here. Even with my limited access, I should be able to crack the door.”
Before he even finished talking, Chris sensed a heavy, crushing impact on one of her forcefields which sent a cold shudder through her. “How long?” she asked through gritted teeth.
“A minute at most.”
“We don’t have a minute,” she shot back, wondering if killing everyone except Gentleman wasn’t the better solution after all.
But no. She didn’t have enough bullets for all of them, some would most likely be immune, and as much as she detested Alastair’s attitude, killing kids still wasn’t something she wanted to venture into.
Several tense seconds passed. The conversation between her and Morpheus abruptly died, but the shouts and curses from below did not. Sensing each and every one Rampage’s furious kicks and punches, Chris projected a new forcefield at the top of the stairs when the first of her barriers shattered.
Her senses were so invested in the energy barriers that she almost missed the middle aged man with the painted-on grin who pretended to appear behind her, meaning that he actually did. He made no sound or movement. His thoughts
girl on a skewer chop chop
set off her danger sense and sent a stab of searing pain through her body, momentarily overwhelming her with visions of being impaled by an oversized kitchen knife.
Her body responded reflexively. She ducked and triggered her speed at the same time, but her attacker was a split second faster to impose his will on her. His hand shot forward in a stabbing motion, and the make-believe knife thrust half an inch deep into her chest, bypassing her forcefield.
Time stopped before the blade plunged deeper. Her danger sense calmed somewhat, and her mind cleared. All that remained was a persistent, nerve-wracking impression of life-threatening but not immediately lethal circumstances.
It took Chris a moment to realize that the injury was real, not just a vision imposed on her by her danger sense. She stared down at herself in a daze, stubbornly denying the reality of the pain in her chest until the front of her sweatshirt blossomed red.
Even then, all she could think was that was Ryan’s gift for me. I’m never going to get it clean. The concern she felt was vague and distant, overpowered by the need to keep going before everything went so wrong that her action plan became unsalvageable.
The psychopath has to die next, her plan dictated. Then Gentleman and everyone who gets in my way.
Now that her mind was no longer being flooded with visions of her imminent death, she had to turn her head to find her attacker. He still stood in the same spot, the heart-framed eye gleaming ferociously while the sagging half of his mouth grinned its painted-on grin. He held his right hand in front of him, stabbing her very slowly.
Chris pressed a hand to her chest to keep the blood inside as she straightened up from the floor, staggering. She couldn’t see Mr. Smiles’ make-believe knife, but she could feel it, still stuck inside of her and continuing to push its way through her ribcage in extreme slow motion. A tiny voice at the back of her head wanted to remember the anatomy lessons from high school, to assure herself that no vital organs had been pierced, but she didn’t have the time to think. Not with her attacker standing less than five feet away from her.
She aimed at his forehead and pulled the trigger before letting go of the gun. It hung in the air completely static, ready to deliver its bullet the when continued running normally. Mr. Smiles, unaware of what was going on, kept on grinning at her. She assumed he was going to die exactly like that. He’d never know what killed him.
Reminded of her chest wound by her nagging danger sense, she pulled her hoodie up to see that her tank top was more red than white and getting wetter by the second. The make-believe knife had left a hole the size of her pinkie on the right side of her chest, a few inches beneath her collarbone. The blood flowed slowly but steadily.
It’s not the heart, Chris stubbornly told herself. Just a flesh wound. I can keep going.
She tugged on the tank top to expose her skin, drawing a small circle around the wound with her fingers. Infused by her determination and a small fraction of her power, a miniature forcefield blossomed there to staunch the flow of blood. It didn’t seal the wound completely, but Chris estimated it would keep her going for a good long while.
Long enough to pay Gentleman a visit and evacuate Jasper and those kids. Maybe even long enough to find Ryan.
Chris raised her hands to cover her ears before slowing down. Still, the bang of the gun was like a thunderclap in the confined space. She winced and immediately reactivated her power to catch the gun before it dropped. It was still in midair, but the recoil had sent it flying almost all the way back to the nearest wall.
She glanced at Mr. Smiles to see the frozen spray of blood coming from the back of his head. He was already falling backward, hands flying up, the one half of his mouth that wasn’t paralyzed falling wide open. It was all she needed to see.
With the foyer being devoid of any sort of cover, she made her way back to the hatch and the ladder. It was the floor’s only exit, after all, and she wanted to have the option to relocate if necessary. Once she had repositioned herself, she checked the gun for any remaining bullets, pleased to discover another one was waiting in the ejection port.
The ache in her chest was making its presence felt by sending a fiery pain throughout her body whenever she moved. Her danger sense had been dulled by the fact that her attacker was dead, though. It was little more than a vague discomfort now.
Eyes firmly set on Gentleman’s security door, she terminated the speed effect to let Morpheus do his job. The gunshot still rang throughout the foyer. The shouts of struggle from below continued. Her blood rushed in her ears, pulsing against the small forcefield that clung to her chest.
“You’re wounded,” Morpheus observed impassively.
Chris didn’t take her eyes off the door. “Shit happens.”
“If you are feeling well enough to maintain an attitude, you might want to secure the submarine. I could open the access; it isn’t far from where you were being held.”
“We can do that later. Right now, I need you to open that door.”
Truth was, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to climb down the ladder, dodge some more villains, jog to wherever the submarine was, and then still have the strength to return in time for her rendezvous with Gentleman. The ache in her chest was beginning to spread outward into her limbs, setting her nerves on fire.
She still had to collect the prisoners too. They weren’t going to need the submarine. Their ticket out of the fortress was currently unconscious, locked up in his own room. That ticket wasn’t going to be available to her, though. There was no way in hell she could let Drifter live.
“Do you have a way out?” Morpheus asked, interrupting her thoughts.
“Yeah,” she shot back. “You. I’m avenging your master for you, and all you have to do is open some doors. You could at least make the effort to get me out of here.”
The AI remained silent for several long seconds before responding. “My mobile units are quite far out, but I’ll see what I can do.”
Before Chris could ask what and where those mobile units were, exactly, the door slid open. What she saw beyond was a wide, open room crammed full of what appeared to be stage props. A clothes racks lined the walls, interspersed by hat racks, walking canes, and mannequins which had been fully decked out with old-fashioned outfits. Large paintings plastered the walls. Floor-length curtains concealed the absence of windows. And at the very far end of the fifty-feet long room…
…was a stage, complete with a stage design modeled after what appeared to be a wealthy sixteenth century noble’s room. The king size canopy bed at the center took up a good portion of the stage. A piano with a chandelier on it stood to its left. To its right was a fully equipped vanity with a silver-framed oval mirror, and… Gentleman.
The villain lounged on a velvet-backed chair in front of the table, facing the open door. He had a walking cane across his lap and the fingers of his right hand rested against his jaw, giving off an air of unfazed anticipation.
A crudely painted, red-rimmed eye symbol was on the wall above him, a touch of ugliness in the otherwise picturesque scenery.
Calling on her speed, Chris took a moment to study the eye painting. There was something disturbing about it that she couldn’t put into words, even more so because she wasn’t sure what it meant. Divine Judgement? The all-seeing eye of God? No, she couldn’t imagine the villain being religious. People like him were too full of themselves to accept any higher authority.
She almost wanted to ask him about the eye, but that would have meant giving up her speed advantage. After checking her gun one more time to ensure it was loaded, she stepped into the room, moving at a brisk pace without running. Her chest hurt too damn much to run.
About one third of the way in, she suddenly slowed down, just like that, between one step and another. Her forcefield vanished. Sounds popped back into place, and she could once again feel a trickle of blood where the wound-sealing forcefield had been.
Chris stopped in her tracks, pressing a hand to her chest in reflex. A nauseous feeling spread in her stomach, eerily similar to the sickness she’d endured under the effect of Power Zero.
Gentleman stirred in his chair. Now that she was looking at him from less than twenty feet away, he looked… different, somehow. The body language was the same, but his face lacked the aristocratic, aquiline features she associated with him. Apart from his sixteenth century outfit, he looked shockingly mundane, like a random person picked out from a crowd of commuters on a weekday morning in New York.
He isn’t using any illusions, she realized. The suite was equipped with power suppression tech which created a permanent Revoker effect.
“Hello, Christina,” the villain warbled. Eyes flicking to something or someone behind her, he added, “hello, old friend.”
Don’t be distracted. Don’t listen to him.
Chris pushed herself forward, one hand pressed to her leaking wound while leveling her gun with the other. She had absolutely no shooting practice for hitting a target that wasn’t right in front of her. Firing a shot from her current position would just be a waste of a bullet, so she had to get within arm’s reach of her target and pin him–
Gentleman gave her a skeptical look, derailing her train of thought. “My death will trigger the Shelter’s destruction. Would you not prefer to evacuate those poor, innocent children first?”
Against her will, his words captured her attention though they didn’t stop her from stepping up on to the stage. “That has got to be the most cliché villain lie ever,” she spat, her finger frozen on the trigger.
Morpheus had to be right behind her. It would only take seconds for him to defuse the threat, if there truly was one. But instead of providing her with an answer, the AI triggered the remote control of the security door to Gentleman’s suite, shutting it tight.
Chris squinted at the drone which now hovered a few inches to her right, surprised to discover that the small bird hologram had been replaced by a life-sized, semitransparent projection of Data. It looked like a newspaper photograph come to life, with one exception: the hologram’s bright blue eyes glowed red. It looked like a ghost straight from hell.
The sight of it made her uneasy. Something told her that the AI would keep her locked into this room unless she fulfilled its plan of revenge. But since their goals aligned, she didn’t mind the extortion tactics all that much.
Gentleman flicked a finger to indicate himself, still annoyingly unruffled. “Furthermore, you should be aware of the far-reaching ramifications my death would have on the world. It is pure chance that the Sleepwalker has not surged. Should I die, however, such a power surge becomes a certainty.”
Chris assumed he was talking out of his ass, but she wanted to be more than just reasonably certain before she pulled the trigger. “Bullshit. You’re not even the same classification, and even if you were, surges are still random.”
“Not as random as some would have you believe. I know because I did more, ah, practical research than most.” The villain flashed a toothy smile.
By killing Evolved to see what would happen. Gentleman had created the necessary conditions for field research by kidnapping Watchmirror and forcing him to cooperate, and Lark’s replayed conversation snippets had revealed a peculiar interest in the Sleepwalker. Still, it was hard to dismiss the possibility that the villain fabricated the connection from thin air. He had all the reason to lie.
“You’ve always had a silver tongue, I’ll give you that,” Morpheus was saying. “It’s not going to save you, though. Not this time.”
Chris raised the gun to Gentleman’s head, struggling to keep a steady hand. Her blood was now leaking onto the floor at her feet, the front of her sweater tinted crimson.
“Does he have a dead man switch or no?” she asked Morpheus.
The villain continued his one-man show unperturbed, fingers lacing together beneath his chin. “How far the heroine has fallen. The killing is easy now, is it not? Little more than a press of a button.” He sounded pleased, somehow.
“Last I knew, he didn’t,” the AI replied. “I should be able to suppress the signal if he does.”
“Perchance you wonder why King does not ride to the rescue,” Gentleman said. “Well. How should I put it? He has been plotting my downfall for some time. No doubt he is claiming the submarine as we speak, fully aware of the consequences my death would have for our underwater habitat. Methinks our young Technician is hitching that same ride.”
So they’re just leaving their boss to die? On second thought, it sounded exactly like something villains would do.
Still, Chris wasn’t convinced enough to reverse the decision she’d already made, so she put the gun barrel to the villain’s forehead. The bastard didn’t even flinch. “You are damn complacent for someone who is about to die,” she growled.
The villain unfurled his fingers in an opening gesture, hands sweeping outward. “Because I see the greater picture. All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many–”
The loud bang of the gun cut him off. He was thrown back into his chair, a shower of blood and flesh splattering across white-paneled wall behind him. As she lowered the gun, Chris gazed up at the ominous painted eye which sat among the numerous paintings above the stage.
She didn’t doubt her decision to pull the trigger, but she had a very bad feeling about what was going to happen next. Not just here, but everywhere. Not just now, but in the days to come.
As if to strengthen her uneasiness, an alarm went off, echoing throughout the fortress with a foreboding howl.