San Francisco, USA – Sunday, the 17th of June 2012. 10:01 PM.
Despite the haze of darkness that had blinded her, Gravity Girl – controlled by Sovereign – pulled the suspended car through the air towards herself, generating a selective gravity that only pulled one particular object. Chris couldn’t even begin to guess how it worked. Right that moment though she also didn’t really care how it worked; her mind was occupied by Aura.
The suspended car hung ten meters above Chris for a few seconds, long enough to catch a glimpse of Aura’s anxious face behind a rear window. The young Empath’s lips shaped words that couldn’t be heard over the gravitational storm.
Inside Chris’s forcefield, Aura’s voice came through the armband clearly enough, though it was thin and wavering. “I can’t see my own aura! Chris! Can you do something?”
“It’s going to be okay,” Chris replied in a lame attempt at feigning reassurance. She kept her eyes on Gravity Girl, waiting for demands. Or maybe a challenge. Something.
But nothing happened. Gravity Girl just hovered beside the car like an angry force of nature, the juvenile attitude from minutes ago gone. Her ponytail had come loose, and her hair flared around the haze of darkness that clung to her face. She kept the car just high enough that it was impossible for Aura to jump without serious risk of breaking her neck.
I could catch her.
“Aura,” Chris said into her armband. “Open the door as quick as you can. I’ll catch you.” Looking up, she could still see the Aura pale face behind the window. The girl looked scared out of her wits, too anxious to open the door.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the gravitational storm broke completely. Uprooted vegetation and the contents of various trash cans continued to hang in midair for a second, then they dropped, scattering to the ground in a wide radius around Chris and Nora. Only the car was unaffected. It kept hovering on the same spot, defying them.
“I think I’m going to have a chat with your little friend. We’ll meet again,” Sovereign called down at the Wardens with Gravity Girl’s voice and without a hint of uncertainty.
Looking up at the Evoker – who, she hated to admit, had the tactical advantage right now – Chris’s mind raced to find solutions. She couldn’t make a fifteen meter jump. Nora’s shadow was limited to ground level, same as the Canadian. And Umbra wasn’t fit for combat.
Calling in Radiant or any of the other heroes in reserve wasn’t going to resolve the situation without risking Aura’s life, either. He might succeed in killing Gravity Girl, but she was only the host, and a loss of control resulting in a fifteen meter car drop would be hazardous for poor Aura. Chris had no idea where to start looking for Sovereign’s sidekick who had opened the portal in the sky; her danger sense was no help.
That left one option.
Checkmate. He needs to teleport into the car. Chris felt a surge of relief at the realization that they hadn’t been backed into a corner just yet. She couldn’t risk contacting the teleporter without tipping Sovereign off, but she could give him a ping on his armband to let him know it was safe to return. Besides, he was already tuned in and most likely waiting to jump back into the fray.
“Would you let her go if we agreed to leave the damn city?” Chris shouted back at the villain, hoping to keep his attention off her armband as she fumbled with the controls. Having to operate with only one hand was frustrating as hell. She could only reach the button by folding her fingers back against the armband. She succeeded in sending the signal though.
“If you don’t remove the blindness, I’m taking your friend with me,” Sovereign declared. “I’m not going to stick around for your backup.”
Damn it. Chris had to keep him talking for at least a moment longer, but how? He’d already smelled a rat.
“The cops aren’t coming,” Nora said. “They’re keeping their distance, shitting their pants. Good job I guess.”
As Nora spoke, her fingers closed around Chris’s good arm to give it a gentle pull towards the right. Chris glanced in that direction to see that Checkmate had appeared next to her teammate, questions all over his face.
“Aura,” Chris said with a flick of her thumb up at the car. At the same time, she tapped into the energy potential within herself and projected a forcefield onto Checkmate and adjusted its shape, so it wouldn’t block his access to the car.
It hadn’t been a precise statement, but it seemed that the blindness had made Sovereign cautious. That one word was enough for Gravity Girl beat a hasty retreat westward, cutting through the air above the park with the car suspended just beneath her.
Chris watched her flight for a second of startled surprise, trying to wrap her head around the villain’s ability to navigate while blind. She snapped around to face Checkmate.
“Get Aura out of that car,” she said, the words tumbling over one another in their attempt to come out all at once.
“Can’t teleport into something that moves,” he replied, visibly deflating.
Meanwhile, Sovereign had already reached the end of the park with Aura in tow. Even though the darkness about Gravity Girl’s head was dissolving, she didn’t even cast a glance back at the park, and at the speed she was going, she’d disappear into the urban canyons of San Francisco within seconds.
“Follow as far as you can,” Chris called to the others before speeding up.
Time condensed to viscous molasse around her. As she started running, she looked back up to the section of sky where she’d last seen the kidnapped car.
The mind-controlled Evoker had nearly reached a crossroads leading deeper into the city. From Chris’s altered perception, they barely seemed to move, and she could make out Aura’s small silhouette inside the car. Her face was a pale white oval against the darkness that surrounded her, and she was pressing her hands against the glass on either side, hoping to be seen.
It was me who told her to stay back in the car, Chris thought, momentarily overcome by a sense of regret. She’d be damned if she wasn’t going to fix this somehow.
With her speed advantage, Chris had no trouble catching up to the hovering car, but she couldn’t overcome the elevation difference. Gravity Girl was careful to keep herself and her hostage well above ground level. While her opponent shuffled through Chris’s perception with excruciating slowness, Chris ran past the car to check the section of road ahead. She didn’t need to worry about disturbing the traffic. The police had already placed the immediate area under lockdown.
A short distance ahead, she spotted an eight story building, illuminated by a yellow neon sign that identified it as a hotel. A thought flared in her mind as she jogged down the street.
I could scale eight stories.
Chris had scaled a wall with hyperspeed before, though she hadn’t been limited to one arm back then. The idea of repeating that stunt with one arm in a sling did nothing to boost her confidence. The rational part of her mind screamed stop, this will go horribly wrong. But that part hadn’t been in charge when Chris faced Mirage. Or Legion. Or Gentleman’s monster robot beneath the mall.
She dealt with the burst of adrenaline the way she always did: by running. It was something that felt nearly as natural as breathing, and she didn’t stop when the ground beneath her sneakers tilted, leading upward rather than ahead.
Moments later, Chris found herself skirting along the edge of the roof. She kept her eyes on the car that was suspended in the air a couple of feet from the edge, overshadowed by Gravity Girl’s floating body. The Evoker stuck so close to the cabin of the car that she could touch it with an outstretched hand. The darkness around her face had dissolved by now, and Gravity Girl was looking ahead, though her head had begun to turn towards the hotel very slowly.
Punching range. It was an emotion rather than a plan, and Chris didn’t act on it. She really didn’t want to hurt Gravity Girl. Punching Sovereign’s real face would have been immensely satisfying, though.
Pointedly neglecting the eight story drop down to the road, Chris raced the rest of the way to the car and jumped, relying on her momentum to carry her across the two feet of open space and onto the trunk. Her sneakers landed on the lacquered aluminum with a dull sound that perpetually echoed, extended by her altered perception.
She didn’t stop there. If she had, she might have had to acknowledge that she was being completely freaking insane and most likely seconds from falling to her death.
Instead, Chris lowered herself to a crouch and turned slowly until she was facing the rear window. Her hyperspeed effect would be terminated the instant she stopped moving. And when that happened, Sovereign was bound to use Gravity Girl’s powers for a counterattack.
Aura had to get out of the car.
Chris could feel the car tilt beneath her weight as she shuffled forward to the cabin. If she could get a door open and Aura reacted quickly enough, the girl would be able to jump onto the roof. Chances were Chris’s intervention would catch her off guard, though, and there was no telling what she would do.
Contacting her through the armband while Chris maintained her speed effect wasn’t an option. While the speed effect was active, Aura would only hear a high-pitched string of vocal noise.
Please be ready, Chris pleaded as she extended her right hand to the window. She could see the young Empath on the seat next to it, looking out the window as if she anticipated something – or someone – to appear outside.
Chris made some circling hand motions beside the window, hoping to draw Aura’s attention a split second before the door opened. Then she leaned forward and reshaped her forcefield energy about her hand, tightening it until it vibrated against her skin like a supercharged membrane.
Little by little, the car continued to tilt sideways beneath her added weight. Gravity Girl’s eyes were now fixed on the hotel roof Chris had vacated a split second before.
Chris slipped her hand into the door handle and pulled. To her surprise, the door didn’t just open. The hinges broke. The door literally burst from its frame and came loose. Before Chris knew what was happening, she heard the beginnings of a loud crack and found herself staring at a vacant gap in the cabin.
Chris hadn’t even been sure she’d be able to open the door at all. Finding out that the kinetic force of her powered movement could do this was startling and amazing in equal parts. She’d been educated on the kinetic force of extreme velocity after accidentally killing Mirage at the stadium, but seeing herself hold a dislocated car door really drove the point home.
However, she realized this meant something else, too. She wouldn’t be able to hold the car with an immobile forcefield; the abrupt stop would wreck it in seconds. And while her speed was active, she couldn’t pull Aura out of the cabin without breaking the girl’s bones. The thought of that possibility tightened Chris’s stomach into a miserable knot.
Chris released the handle. The car door seemed to hover in place for a brief moment, then began to drop. While it began its extreme slow-motion descent, Chris climbed up onto the roof, feeling how the two tons of steel and rubber realigned by little and little.
Give me five seconds, Chris thought with a glance to the hovering form of Gravity Girl. Then she lowered herself onto her stomach, her plastered left arm held out to the side while she lowered her right hand to the vacant doorframe.
When she turned her hyperspeed effect off, a cacophony of noise exploded all at once. The initial impact of her shoes on the trunk, the sounds of her movements across the aluminum. The loud crack of the door being torn from its frame.
The car jerked forward, shifting beneath the additional weight that hadn’t been there seconds before.
“Aura, take my hand!” Chris shouted over the noise, her fingers extended for support.
The girl in the car reacted quickly. Before more than a couple of seconds had passed, Chris could feel Aura’s fingers grip her hand. She tightened her own grip in response.
“YOU!” Gravity Girl’s voice yelled from above. Chris chose not to pay attention to her just yet, she assumed she still had a few seconds before hell broke loose. She needed them.
Without activating her hyperspeed, Chris hooked her feet about the other end of cabin and pulled. Aura’s petite body slipped through the vacant doorframe into the three feet of open space that now separated the car from the hotel. By now, the car had almost passed it. Only a few meters of walkable roof remained.
Despite Aura’s lightweight appearance, the physical strain of keeping her suspended with a one-armed grip sent a jolt of pain through Chris’s shoulder. Aura’s glasses had slipped, and her hair hung into her face, but the brown eyes that locked onto Chris’s eyes were equal parts anxious and hopeful.
Got you. The worst wasn’t over yet, Chris knew, but it was an improvement.
Aura’s weight pulled Chris forward. She triggered her hyperspeed before more than an inch of her slid over the edge; all it took was a shift of focus and some finger movement with her other hand. The relative time shift gave her a moment to look around.
Aura wouldn’t be able to jump to safety, she saw. She hung too low beneath any walkable surface, and Chris lacked the strength to pull her up with only one arm. The nearest surface was a small, green and white striped awning that had been erected over a balcony near the northern end of the hotel, about two meters below and a little to the left of Aura’s dangling feet.
It was just a little too far off, and not solid enough to support Aura’s weight. But it gave Chris an anchor point for a forcefield.
She projected a small one with a two feet radius onto the very edge of the awning, then drew the energy field outward and flattened the top until it formed a solid base directly below Aura’s current position. And to be sure the girl couldn’t possibly slip and tumble over the edge, Chris attached another forcefield to the hotel’s stone façade. She then reshaped it until it adjoined the first, all the while keeping her fingers moving to sustain her speed effect.
Once she was satisfied with her setup, she infused both forcefields with the command to remain perfectly immobile. That way, they’d hopefully stay in place to support Aura even if the anchor points were destroyed.
Chris took a deep breath, infusing herself with the courage she’d need to let time resume its course. Everything depended on how the next few seconds played out.
She looked down at Aura’s face that was frozen in time, still meeting her eyes with a look of trust. Please don’t get hurt, Chris thought as she withdrew her hand and terminated her hyperspeed.
Time resumed with a cry of surprise from Aura, who now found herself dropping. The hovering car jerked forward once more, and Chris’s danger sense went into high alert. Its perpetual tingle turned into a torrent, infusing her with the knowledge that any sudden movement would be the end of her. She’d fall to her death like Sovereign’s proxy had.
Reflexively, Chris plunged her senses into her own forcefield, immobilizing it on top of the hovering car. She briefly felt Aura’s impact on the platform she’d created. Then a shift in gravity flipped the car over, and Chris with it. Before she knew what was happening, she found herself hanging upside down in midair, suspended only by her skin-tight forcefield that stuck to the car’s lacquered surface like the world’s most efficient superglue.
Her heart was pounding in her ears now, and the only thought that passed through her mind was the harsh realization that if she made the slightest movement, she was going to fall to her death. The forcefield around her wouldn’t remain firmly attached if she shifted.
Gravity Girl didn’t waste any time on words. The next gravity shift yanked the car around to slam it into the nearest solid concrete wall, cabin and Chris first. Despite the forcefield acting as a buffer, the impact rattled every bone in her body, and she could feel that some of her barrier had eroded away. She knew she wasn’t going to be able to maintain it forever under this kind of pressure.
The half-baked escape plan that had formed in her mind was shattered by the next impact against the same wall. This time, the car – with Chris on it – was ground against the concrete in a sustained attack that sent out small sparks and ate away more of her forcefield.
Parts of the car’s outer shell came loose and tumbled to the road below. Its steel frame creaked and shuddered, making Chris feel doubly glad about Aura’s escape.
She resisted the urge to close her eyes, watching for an opportunity to detach herself and move, with or without her power. She didn’t get one. Gravity Girl yanked the car back up. It ascended at break-neck speed, and Chris clung to the cabin with her one good arm, while walls and windows of the taller buildings rushed past her. She’d never been afraid of heights, but this was insane. Her stomach was a tiny, hard clump that had dropped to her knees.
Chris could feel her sweaty hand beginning to slip from the car’s severely dented frame. On instinct, she infused her forcefield with the idea of immobility, like she’d done before to create a solid surface for Aura to step on. Her barrier became solidly attached to the car, easing the strain on her arm and shoulder. But she knew it wasn’t going to save her from a hundred meter drop.
As if to confirm her suspicion of what was going to happen next, a jolt went through the car. Its movement changed direction. Rather than being pulled upward, it started a sideways sweep back towards the now devastated park.
A thought gradually crept into her mind. I’m going to die. The realization filled her with sadness and a sense of regret. I promised my parents I’d come home. In her mind’s eye, she saw Nora as well. And Peter. And god, Emily. She was an Empath. She’d know before anyone told her, wherever she was.
But Chris wasn’t out of options just yet. She raised her head to look up at her captor, whose face expressed anything but sympathy. The girl it belonged to wasn’t home. “Sovereign!” Chris hollered. “You don’t have to do this. You could take me hostage.”
The villain flicked her the briefest of glances. “I don’t need you. People want you gone, and you’ve no fucking clue how powerful they are.”
Buddy? Chris wondered. Somehow, she still couldn’t believe Gentleman belonged with those ‘people’. This wasn’t his style.
The suspended car jerked to a halt. Chris’s jaw clenched. She didn’t want to look down, but she did, and the sight of the park – whose destruction was even more apparent in the moonlight – made her stomach lurch, as if she was already falling. She closed her eyes before she risked spotting any of the others. If they were there, they’d get a first-hand experience of seeing her turn into a meat puddle. Which was probably the villain’s point.
“Goodbye, Mascot,” Sovereign spat with Gravity Girl’s voice. The car dropped.
Chris clenched her teeth as the air rushed past her forcefield, and she began to fall, determined not to scream. She looked up, so she couldn’t see the ground rushing towards her. As Gravity Girl’s silhouette shrank away, Chris caught a glimpse of movement. Something shot through the air, something small that cut through her field of vision with incredible speed. It stopped just above her, and Chris had half a second to make out a round shape that gleamed dully in the moonlight.
Drone, she thought in blank amazement. Athena?
Then the night sky was yanked from her field of vision, and her insides turned to slush. Her feet and knees hit a solid, hard surface, though the impact wasn’t nearly as hard as she’d anticipated seconds before. Her forcefield gave in, but not because of the drop. It simply dissipated.
What happened? Chris shook her head slowly in an attempt to gather her senses and keep her surroundings from spinning around her. The dim yellow light that enveloped her definitely wasn’t the moon – it came from ahead, not above. Some kind of lamp provided just enough illumination to identify the hard surface she kneeled on as smooth, polished steel.
A glance down at her wrist confirmed that she still wore her armband, though a small red light informed her that the device had lost connection. Communication would be impossible. If she was lucky, the others knew her position. But that was a big maybe.
At least I’m not dead. Some of the tension eased out of her, but she didn’t feel ready to relax. Too much was unclear.
Chris lifted her head to get a better look at the light source. It flared with a sudden intensity that forced her to squint and avert her gaze. “Where am I?” she asked without a clue whom she was speaking to.
The male voice that responded sounded familiar, though she couldn’t immediately place it. “Among friends.” A quiet snicker followed. “Alas, I fear you will disagree with the sentiment for the time being.”
The voice’s stilted, overly formal way of speaking finally sunk it in. Chris froze, unsure what to say or how to react. She wasn’t dead, and it seemed that she had finally found Gentleman. She just didn’t know what to make of any of this.
She decided to go on the offensive with the first question that came to mind. “Did you kidnap Emily?” She asked.
Hearing herself say the name removed the restraints from her mind, and the feelings she’d been trying to stash away washed over her. Her face flushed, and her eyes filled with a mist of tears. She couldn’t tell whether it was anger or sadness that had brought them out.
“Yes,” Gentleman admitted. As Chris’s eyes gradually adjusted to the brightness that surrounded him, she could make out his silhouette, though his face was still hidden behind the brightness. He sat on a chair, facing her.
“Why? What was the point? You could have come straight for me. I fucking asked you to. In front of millions of television viewers.”
“Because,” Gentleman replied in an overly gentle tone, “Buddy would have taken her. And he would not have allowed her to live in freedom among friends.”
“She doesn’t have freedom now,” Chris shot back, pushing up from the steel floor to stand. “And she isn’t with her friends.”
Gentleman’s silhouette cocked his head to the side, and Chris could see that he was wearing that ridiculous hat that had been part of his costume back when she’d first encountered him in Seattle. “Ah, but how certain are you? She sent you a message, did she not?”
She did. Chris remembered the text as clearly as if she’d read it a minute ago. Aura seemed sure she was actually fine. Chris held on to that thought; it was comforting, in a way. But she was far from ready to let the argument slip.
“Emily is safe,” Gentleman said into the momentary silence. “Perhaps I will tell you where to find her. And how.” The words were laced with mirth. The idea clearly amused him.
“If she was with any heroes, I’d know,” Chris said. “And only heroes can keep her safe.”
Gentleman slowly, deliberately rose from his chair. Chris squinted, trying to catch a glimpse of his expression, but the bright light that streamed from the lamp behind him still defied her.
“You could not keep her safe,” he said. “Perhaps you are not a heroine, then?”
Chris shoved her hands into her hoodie pockets, her fingers curling into fists. She deliberately shifted her attention elsewhere, trying to get a better impression of the room. There was nothing in it. No furniture, no obvious doors or windows. Just smooth metallic surfaces.
“I know what you’re getting at,” she said without looking at him. “It’s not going to work, and I’m not going to pretend.”
“What makes you so sure?” he replied. Chris could tell from the dull echoes of his footsteps that he was approaching her with a smooth, predatory gait. “We both know you try, dear. But you were never meant to be a heroine.”
Bullshit. I’ve done more hero stuff than most.
“I’m not going to join you,” Chris said, letting her eyes flick back to him.
Now that he was standing right in front of her, she could take in his appearance fully, and what she saw didn’t match up with her expectations at all. Her breath stopped in her throat. His shoulder-length brown hair framed young, chiseled features, and he gazed back at her with kind eyes that weren’t his own.
She was looking at Ryan.
She’d known about Gentleman’s powers, sure, but in her current state – emotions spilling from every crack in her resolve – she was too taken aback to even flinch when he brought up a hand to gently trace her jaw with his thumb.
“But you will,” the villain said with a perfect emulation of Ryan’s voice.