12.18 Precipice

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Conglomerate Shelter, somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean – Friday, the 19th of June 2012. 05:19 PM.
The alarm went off almost instantly after the villain’s masterly mind splattered across the wall behind him, suggesting that maybe the notorious trickster had been honest for once. Chris barely registered the background noise. What concerned her right at that moment was the nagging uneasiness Gentleman’s final words had left her with, and the slowly settling realization that she didn’t ask about Ryan before it was too late. The urge to shut the villain up had become insurmountable.

I can still find him. I’ll just keep looking. The thought wasn’t as comforting as it should have been. Part of her was aware why she hadn’t asked: because she already knew the answer and couldn’t bear to hear it again.

“You should get patched up,” Morpheus was saying with machine-generated sympathy. “The bleeding looks bad.”

Chris lowered her gaze to see her blood all over the floor. “Oh,” she said, lifting her left foot to put it down somewhere a little cleaner. “Yeah, I guess.”

A light dizziness was beginning to set in, dulling the pain in her chest and reducing the howling alarm to background noise. The noise now sounded further away, somehow, as if someone had picked it up and was carrying it away from her.

She heard Morpheus’ voice just fine, though; it was coming from right beside her. “I can’t prevent the self-destruction of the Shelter – my code’s been chopped up and modified by amateurs – but I can give you as much time as you need.”

“Okay,” Chris mumbled to herself. She pressed her hand to that annoying red-rimmed hole in her hoodie and shuffled back the way she came. Upon reaching the entrance area without power suppression she activated her speed again, and created a new palm-sized forcefield to seal her wound. If she wanted one free hand to support herself in case the dizziness become overwhelming, she didn’t have any hands left to carry the AI’s sphere. It would just have to open all the doors at once or catch up with her.

The slow-down effect reduced the alarm to a low, droning sound. It was kind of nice, really. The time bubble she’d created prevented the AI from rambling on and on, and she didn’t need to wonder whether her ‘ally’ was truly unable to deactivate Gentleman’s dead man switch. She could just keep walking. Do her thing. Follow her plan without outside interference.

It only took her a moment to remove the forcefields which blocked access to the ladder. On the floor below, Rampage and Eve stood frozen in time with looks of concern on their rigid faces. The French villainess was grasping the ladder, one foot set on one of the rungs, about to make her way to the main floor.

The submarine isn’t going to wait for you. Or me.

Chris took her time climbing down the ladder past the two villains, pausing just long enough to surround them with a tightly packed cluster of forcefields. When time continued to flow normally, they’d have a hard time moving, let alone going anywhere. Hopefully, the forcefields would last long enough to keep them off her back for a few minutes.

Down on the ground floor, no villains were in sight. The canteen looked to have been abandoned in a hurry. Eve’s paper cup was now spilling out on the floor, creating a large brownish puddle. Chris didn’t bother skirting around it. She dragged herself onward. Her dirty sneakers left a trail of blood and brownish footprints in their wake.

The security doors to the pantry and prisoner area were wide open, giving her hope that all of the fortress was now accessible by default. She didn’t have time to waste. Indeed, the cell doors on the left side of the circular corridor had all been unlocked. Watchmirror’s anxious young face peeked through the doorway, looking outside for threats but not daring to go step out of the confines of his room. The two kids stood right behind him, holding each other’s hands. The three adults were further back.

Chris passed them by with a silent promise: I’ll be right back.

After a few more steps she noticed a significant change in the layout of the corridor and the surrounding area. The rooms at the very back, beyond the meat grinder and the execution chamber, were no longer accessible. A sheer metal wall — so compact it didn’t leave a finger’s breath of space — stretched from the floor to the ceiling to cut off these rooms from the remaining prisoner area.

That wall hadn’t been there a minute before.

So much for the submarine. King doesn’t want anyone else to get aboard.

Failing to be terribly disappointed or surprised, Chris moved on, back to the execution chamber where she had left Jasper. He’d made the effort to hide, but there just wasn’t very much to hide behind apart from the big furnace-like machine with its suction hoses. She found him right behind it, crouched in the space between the two hoses, and stepped into his line of sight before releasing her hold in her power.

Now that the blaring alarm once again overpowered all other noise, she had to raise her voice to be heard. “Let’s get going. Do you have Dancer’s music track on you?”

When his eyes flicked to her, they went as wide as saucers, and he actually flinched a little. His mouth fell open, but it took him a moment to speak. “What on earth happened to you?”

Chris glanced at herself to see that the fingers of her left hand were nearly as bloodied as the fabric of the hoodie they were clutching. Even the gun, tightly clutched in her right, had somehow gotten bloody. “Work-related accident. I’m fine. Do you have the track or no?”

He averted his eyes, trying too hard not to stare at her. “Just finished before… well, this. The soundfile’s in the room with my music equipment.”

“Come on then,” she said, already on her way out of the chamber. She couldn’t tell how many minutes had passed since she knocked Drifter unconscious and left him in his room, but it felt like some iteration of ‘too damn long ago’. Besides, the alarm made her more restless than she already was.

At least she didn’t need to sweet-talk Jasper into coming along. He wasn’t in great shape himself, but he had no trouble keeping up with her pace. “Did you find a way out?” he asked as they made their way to his former cell.

“Yeah,” she replied. “Drifter.”

He gave her an incredulous look but didn’t ask questions which she appreciated. They didn’t have time to discuss. Hell, she wasn’t sure they had time to get the soundfile, but if Dancer really was the Healer, then that power-boosting track just might be important enough to risk both their lives for it.

When he was back in his cell, Jasper’s fingers flew across the keyboard of his laptop in a blur, and his eyes gleamed with newfound determination while he performed the necessary steps to copy the track onto a data stick. As she watched him from the doorway, Chris envied him for his vibrant energy. She’d felt that way once, like she could push the world back from the brink if she only tried hard enough.

“Got it,” Jasper announced. He raised the triumphant data stick into the air before rushing back to her side.

Chris triggered her hyperspeed for the split second she needed to evade his hug. After walking a few steps down the corridor she released her hold on her power, allowing him to catch up. Each step sent a fiery pulse through her chest wound. She felt as if Mr. Smiles’ make-believe knife was still wedged in her flesh, twisting a little whenever she took a breath.

Jasper gave her a rueful look. “I’m so sorry, that was inconsiderate of me. You must be in pain.”

“It’s nothing,” she lied. “Just keep that data stick safe.”

“You should take it. You have better odds of keeping it safe.”

Talking was beginning to hurt more than breathing, so Chris kept her answer short. “No, I don’t.”

She stopped in front of the cell containing Watchmirror’s three generation family. The Visionary was still in the doorway, poking his head out like an anxious meerkat on the lookout for trouble. Predictably, his eyes flicked to her bloodied sweater before noticing the gun in her hand. He recoiled back into the cell.

“What is happen?” he asked in broken English, his voice shrill and squeaky. Behind him, the members of his family huddled together at the very back of the room. Both of the kids were now crying.

“If you want to get out,” Chris managed, “you all come with me. Now.”

They didn’t look like they wanted to. Considering how damn noisy that alarm was, it wasn’t very likely that anyone except Watchmirror had even heard her. Or understood her English.

“No, no. This is trap,” the anxious young man said. “We go, bad man kill us all.”

“Bad man is dead. You’re going to die if you stay here.” Having made her point, Chris turned away from the doorway and did what she did best: she kept moving.

That’s when she realized something was very wrong with her. Not that long ago, she would have done anything in her power to ensure the safety of those kids. Now… if they didn’t want to come with her, what was she supposed to do? She didn’t have the strength to carry a grade schooler on her back, let alone two of them. The realization made her a little sad, but not enough to dwell on it. It was easier — and much more efficient — to focus on her next step.

“Chris, wait!” Jasper called after her.

She didn’t turn back around, but she stopped walking, giving him the chance to speak before they were so far apart that a conversation would be impossible.

“Give me a minute or two. I’ll catch up with the kids and their parents.”

“Don’t take too long,” she replied. It was meant to be a shout, but her lungs failed to produce the necessary volume. The last word ended in a ragged wheeze which burned its way through her chest.

No lung damage, she rationalized, drawing the conclusion from what little medical knowledge she’d accrued in high school. I’d be coughing up blood if he pierced my lungs.

Since Jasper was staying behind, she called upon her hyperspeed to quickly make her way back to Drifter. Lark — or Morpheus — awaited her in front of the closed door to the surveillance room. As she stepped up to the hovering drone she let go of her speed and doubled over, fighting off a spell of dizziness while she removed the forcefields that were blocking the door.

“There is a first aid facility on the living quarters floor,” Morpheus helpfully informed her.

Chris straightened herself with some effort, discovering that she could manage more easily if she made no sudden movements and took small, shallow breaths. “Later,” she huffed, erasing the forcefields she’d left on the door. “I need to go in there. Now.”

Her superhuman senses informed her of Eve and Rampage’s ongoing struggles against the barriers she’d erected around them. Rampage was fighting his way through, but was only making minimal progress. She didn’t expect him to make his way through for another two or three minutes. Regardless, she created another mass of superimposed forcefields over the ladder hatch to buy herself – and the other prisoners – some additional time.

The door to Drifter’s room slid open, revealing a villain who was conscious, but looked to be in nearly as bad shape as she was. The skin of his neck was badly bruised. He staggered and braced himself against his desk, opening and closing his mouth like a fish on land. Upon seeing her, his eyes bulged in panic. He stumbled backward and nearly tripped over his own feet. But he couldn’t escape the room. Not with Chris standing in the doorway, raising her gun at his face.

“Make sure he doesn’t get out,” she told Morpheus before stepping inside. Even though the dizziness still prickled through her skull, she felt steady enough to speed up and position herself behind the man before he could react. When time snapped back into place, she quickly brought her arm about his neck, just like she’d done before. The pressure of his back against her wounded chest nearly made her cry out. She clenched her jaw, compressing the cry into a ragged gasp that didn’t reveal just how much she was hurting.

Drifter struggled in her grasp, but relaxed a little when she made no move to choke him again. “What do you want?” he asked in a small, anxious voice.

Chris allowed herself a moment to manage her pain, keeping the gun firmly pressed up to his temple. “You’re going to release the prisoners,” she said. “All of them.”

Data’s holographic projection stepped up to her side. “I assume you need me to restore the video feeds?”

“Yeah. But give me a moment.” Chris steeled herself against the pain and tightened her grip, careful not to let Drifter look at her. If he got a visual of her and someone else, at the same time, he’d swap her out for one of the Conglomerate’s straw men. The other prisoners would still be stuck here with no way out.

“If you turn your head, I’m blowing a hole into your skull,” she hissed, concealing the fact that she was going to do so anyway. But only after everyone else was out.

The man stiffened in her grip. “You’re not getting away with this.”

“Oh, but I believe she will,” Morpheus cheerily divulged. “Let’s see… your boss is dead, as is the psycho clown. King and Alastair wisely decided to take the submarine. Eve and Rampage have been walled in, so don’t count on them to reach you in time. Did I forget anyone?”

“Laughing Wolf,” Chris said. “He died first, actually.”

Drifter was silent for a moment before responding. “Assuming you aren’t lying… how am I going to get out? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this place’s about to blow up.”

Right. He can’t swap himself out for anyone else. Sucks to be him.

“You’re going to blow up first,” Chris growled, “if you don’t play along.” She increased the pressure of the gun against the side of his head until he grunted, a shiver running through him. It was becoming increasingly hard to hide her own weakness. If the guy could actually see her behind him, bloodied and unsteady on her own feet, he wouldn’t have been so docile.

“The submarine is most likely gone,” Morpheus informed. “However, I am kindly suppressing the self-destruction process and will be sending help.”

Drifter’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “What kind of help?”

The AI was quick to answer. “Oh, you know. The kind of help that is going to handcuff you and inject you with Power Zero. Beats getting blown up, don’t you think?”

Drifter licked his lips, squinting at the row of surveillance monitors on the wall to his right. Even though she couldn’t see all of his face, Chris could tell he was struggling with himself, wanting to believe in that small chance that everything would turn out all right in the end. Having been in that position not too long ago, she could, to some degree, relate.

For now, she was glad to let the AI do the talking. Morpheus saved her the effort of pretending she wasn’t about to collapse. Keeping track of Rampage and Eve’s struggle to break through her forcefields was taking up most of her mental bandwidth. She didn’t expect them to interfere anytime soon, but they were making progress.

“Just who the fuck are you?” Drifter asked the AI.

“Would you believe me if I told you I’m Data’s immortal soul?”

Drifter spit a small glob of blood onto the floor. “I don’t know. Data was a freaking genius, though. If anyone found a way to achieve immortality, I’d say it would be him.”

His AIs are good at bullshitting, I’ll give him that.

The door slid open, revealing Jasper, the two kids with the tear-streaked faces, and the terrified looking woman who had to be their mother. Chris couldn’t see Watchmirror or the other two family members but decided to assume they weren’t too far behind.

Chris released the breath she’d been holding. Now was as good a time as any to renew some small faith in happy endings. “You guys ready?” she asked Jasper through clenched teeth.

“Yeah,” he replied, gently ushering the kids into the room. “I promised them they’d all be able to leave together.”

Chris bit her lip to keep herself from commenting. She had to stay focused on the man she was keeping in a headlock to prevent him from taking advantage of the situation, but the dizziness had grown so severe that she wasn’t sure she’d be able to use her powers or react in time to prevent her prisoner from breaking free. Hell, she could barely stand.

The mother released a flood of incomprehensive words in some foreign language, gesturing helplessly with her hands. They’re from some Asian country, Chris remembered vaguely. Guess she wants a return ticket.

Drifter squinted at the door. “Just how many people are there? We don’t have a whole group of swap targets in the same place, let alone under camera surveillance. I can send two people to the same location, then again two. The rest are going to go wherever. America, most likely.”

The monitors surrounding his surveillance console lit up, showing at least twenty different locations that Chris failed to recognize at a glance. A few were devoid of people. Most of the screens showed exactly one person in a room or back yard, killing time by reading or sipping coffee.

“All of the swap targets are criminals, right?” she asked, her suspicion aroused by the civilian outfits and harmless appearance of the on-screen people. One of them was a kid who couldn’t be more than fourteen or so.

“They’re Conglomerate associates, without exception,” Morpheus assured her.

“Don’t swap the kid in.” Chris still wasn’t convinced this place wasn’t going to blow up after all. She could imagine all kinds of reasons why Data’s vengeful AI might want to destroy it rather than inform the authorities, who would no doubt find the leftover tech as interesting as the leftover villains.

“Who first?” Drifter asked.

Jasper stepped over to Chris, eyes on the screens. “Where’s the first pair located?”

“Atlanta, USA,” Morpheus said. “I’ll display the location info. Check the bottom of each screen.”

Chris closed her eyes, too busy fighting the dizziness to read the various taglines. She felt like she was burning up from the inside. Her body shuddered, and she had to lean on the prisoner for support. She barely processed what happened next: people disappeared, others appeared and were ushered out of the surveillance room by some combination of Morpheus’ tech and Jasper’s reassurances. The blaring alarm finally stopped, too. The silence probably played a big part in keeping the situation under control.

“Hey, Chris,” Jasper said in a quiet, gentle voice, pulling her back from the edge of unconsciousness.

She cracked her eyes open to see him standing in front of her as the last person in the room who hadn’t been evacuated. She was still holding the gun to Drifter’s temple, but her arm had dropped away from his neck. The man didn’t struggle or try to escape. Like her, he had nowhere to run.

“Are you going to be okay?” Jasper asked, concern written all over his face. “I have a bad feeling about leaving you behind. You should go first, Chris.”

“No,” she rasped in a strained voice that didn’t sound like hers. “I have the gun. You have to go. Now.”

“Take him to one of the cities in Europe,” Morpheus commanded. “Just not Paris. Too much drama over there.”

Jasper reached out for her arm, his touch as light as a feather. “We’ll meet again,” he said. “I’ll let everyone know what you…”

He never finished the sentence. Drifter swapped him out for a dark-skinned woman in a blue dress, who cried out in surprise at the sudden location change. She didn’t look like a criminal. She didn’t even look like a Conglomerate associate, though Chris was aware that looks could be deceiving.

“Get out,” she rasped, looking at the woman with what she hoped was a death glare.

It worked. The woman babbled something in nervous staccato Spanish or Italian, and then vacated the surveillance room through the open door.

“You’re next,” Drifter told Chris.

“No, you are,” she said before pulling the trigger.

By the time the gunshot’s thundering echo died out she was already on her way out of the room, still clutching the gun without really knowing why. It felt like a part of her. Made her feel a little safer.

Morpheus’ sphere drifted alongside her. “Interesting choice,” the AI said. “You could have gotten out of here, but chose not to.”

Chris didn’t respond. She needed her breath and her energy to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don’t act so surprised, she thought. You knew I was going to do this.

“I’ll come pick you up,” he said over the sound of her wheezing breath. He must have figured out where she was going, and why. “Good luck.”

You better.

She grasped her power, surprised to discover her speed still came to her. It didn’t shorten the agonizing walk, but it gave her time to reach her destination–the meat grinder–before Eve and Rampage broke through the forcefields. A long vertical shaft filled with rotating blades, motion-triggered compactors and sharp spikes to turn bodies into minced meat for the sharks. And at the end of it… the wide, open ocean.

Chris had a hunch she was going to find Ryan somewhere in that shaft.

She projected a large forcefield bubble onto herself, enclosing as much breathing air as she could justify, then adjusted the forcefield’s shape to make it the kind of slender cylinder that would be able to squeeze through.

Then, she jumped.

((End of arc 12))

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