Don't Date Your Nemesis... And Other Helpful Hints For The Modern Superhero

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Hint 21. Try To Survive

Jesus, Shark, I’m up. I reply to the fizzing commands with sleepy irritation, swinging my legs out the bed. My whole body feels strangely disconnected; it’s not used to being pulled apart and pushed back together again so many times in a single day.

The Lady and I are risking our lives to give you a better chance at this. At least have the common courtesy to set an alarm.

I roll my neck, clicking all the joints back into place. The clock reads quarter past midnight. I’m only fifteen minutes late.

Would have been a lot more if I hadn't managed to wake you.

Have you started yet?

No. We need thirty minutes - we didn’t want to start without you. You can scout in the interim but don’t go anywhere you shouldn’t until you know we’re well underway.

And don’t do anything stupid?

He sends his chuckle through my brain.

I’m hoping that if I say it enough times, Maya, you might actually listen.

Unlikely. It’s not like I’d choose to be an idiot.

Listen, I have to go. The Lady’s so annoyed I’m making her wait that she’s genuinely starting to consider shooting me in the foot. I’ll let you know when we’re ready.

Groggily, I force myself to my feet. The Facility is the kind of place that pushes you to your limits all day, without mercy, and rewards you with luxury by night. My room is large, and dark, and quiet but everything looks like new, untouched. I ignore the light switches, bare feet padding cautiously over thick carpet until I reach the door.

The corridor has a similar atmosphere to my bedroom, midnight’s dark blue washing over every surface. That same muted silence hangs over everything. Normally it’s comforting, the way the city hustle is kept out. Tonight, however, I have a slightly less than honourable intent and I can’t help but think it’s the perfect night for people, like myself, to simply disappear.

I shudder, reminding myself that I haven’t done anything yet. My hand slips to my pocket, fingers curling around the mask I have hidden there. I don’t need it yet, putting it on now would definitely constitute as stupid, but it still helps to bolster my confidence. At some point tonight I will cross the line of no return, will walk through places where I simply cannot afford to get caught as Maya, and then I can attach it to my face once again.

It’s nearly half past midnight so I don’t meet anybody in the corridors as I walk. Once I leave the sleeping area and return to the familiar white tunnels the strip lighting reacts to my presence, replacing soft darkness with harsh, bright light. As the lights flicker on they hum ominously, an eerie soundtrack that flashes forwards into the unknown, always just one step ahead.

I walk a route that I’ve only walked once before, three years ago when I first had to undergo the painful process of becoming Sapient+. To say it wasn’t a pleasant experience would be so much of an understatement that it borders on comic. It was worth it, to be what I am now, but every once in a blue moon I wake up in the early hours of morning, consumed by blind panic, the dregs of nightmare slipping from my shoulders.

There’s a part of me that’s curious to know what it was that they did to me, what it takes to make a superhero. Every single cell in my body had to change. I’m not even really human anymore. I’m more than human, homo sapient plus a little bit more.

My feet tap on tile flooring as I reach my destination. The door is locked and I hesitate, peeking through the glass cutout in the wood. Shark hasn’t told me he’s ready yet but I reckon I can talk my way out of being in there if I get caught. I’ll say I just wanted to have a look, pretend I’m innocent.

One second I’m locked outside, the next I’m in the room, running cautious fingers over shiny metal machinery. That’s why I came here the first time, to gain this ability, and now nothing in the whole world can keep me out. Nothing can keep me in.

The room where they turn civilians into heroes is a terrifying place. They make no move to soften the look of all these terrible devices: PBSC machines, CT scanners, and other medical machinery intermingles with strange futuristic things that I don’t even recognise. It’s probably not an issue though; bravery is required to qualify for Sapient+ so I doubt anyone ever walked in here and turned around again, regardless of what it looked like.

As I walk, waiting for Shark to give me the go ahead, a light catches my attention. I follow it instinctively, knowing this silent machinery will reveal no secrets. People are far easier to crack than cold metal.

“You don’t have to stay with me. I’m perfectly capable of entertaining myself for the next few hours.”

I freeze. I can hear my heart, thundering, my breath, hissing. This is a voice I know, a voice so familiar in its petulance. It is also a voice that should be anywhere but here.

Creeping forwards, I confirm my suspicions. Jack sits in a chair, frowning as he looks up at our friend Professor Larry. He’s connected to one of the PBSC machines, a tap in the crook of each elbow. Blood leaves his left arm, travelling through the machinery, and reenters his right. Who knows what’s being done to it in the interim.

“What happened to your eye, Jack?” Larry asks.

Jack just shakes his head, frustrated.

“Not important,” he says, “I just need to get this over with before it heals and people get suspicious.”

I hunker down, preparing for the long haul. It seems like, finally, I’m going to discover the secret behind Jack Docklen. He’s Sapient+ of some form, that much is obvious right now. The questions still remain - what and how and why. There’s something about him that’s not the same as the rest of us. I have time for the serum later. This is more important.

“If you let it heal at a normal pace, it’ll scar,” Larry says.

“Maybe,” Jack says, “maybe not. That’s the thing about me, I’m…”

I never get to hear what Jack is. Once again Shark interrupts, not directly or on purpose, but through the consequences of his distant actions. An electronic voiceover crackles into existence, filling the air, and Jack is silenced immediately.

Could all Facility employed Sapient+ report to Assembly Hall 3. Could all Facility employed Sapient+ report to Assembly Hall 3…

The message continues endlessly. Larry tilts his head, looking up at the source of the sound as though it may reveal its secrets. Jack hisses furiously. Standing, he makes to rip the wires from his arms but just at the last minute Larry darts forward, pushing him back to his seat.

“Let me go, Larry,” Jack growls.

“You can’t just tear yourself free, Jack. You know this.”

Jack’s eyes narrow dangerously. “Do you know what that is?” He asks. “That’s Shark.” As he speaks, his fingers sink into the arms of the chair he’s in. I watch, fascinated, as the metal begins to twist. “I missed him last time because of this and he tore Townhall apart. I was three hours too late to do anything. I won’t let it happen again.”

“And if I let you go, Jack? You were meant to be here last night - you’re already a day late. You’ll be the one tearing things apart.”

“Maybe. Maybe I’ll create things. People always forget I’m just as capable of creating something beautiful.”

“If you were willing to risk the maybes, Jack, you wouldn’t keep coming here.”

Maya, we’ve started. Get searching! Shark’s shout rockets through my brain, a thought so powerful it stings. I flinch, remembering why I came here.

Fishing the mask from my pocket, I tie it to my face, turning to leave. There’s plenty of space in this building for me to turn my attention elsewhere and continue this investigation in peace.

I return to the tunnels, avoiding any corridor that looks lit in case I meet anyone coming the other way. The mystery about Jack is gnawing at my mind, an itch I cannot satisfy. Why is he here? What strange ceremony must he return for so regularly? None of the rest of us receive a top up on our powers and most of the time it must not work because he’s flawed anyway, not Sapient+ in the slightest.

I don’t know how long it is before I find what I’m looking for but when I eventually see it, it’s obvious. A giant circular vault door hunkers at the end of the corridor. It’s made of the same, eerie metal as the innermost perimeter wall that surrounds the complex and when I walk towards it, it ripples with light, a screen flicking on. The authentication mechanism is the same as to enter the compound but something tells me I don’t have the right kind of security level access for this part of the building.

Taking in the six locks that surround the vault, I allow myself the luxury of imagining them clicking open. Each one is thicker than my torso; they would make a terrible sound. I smile and for the second time tonight, prove that it doesn’t matter how big the locks are, there’s still no door in the world that can keep me out.

I’m not sure what I expected, I guess something from a sci-fi movie perhaps. Maybe I was expecting more terrifying implements, like back in the lab, or I was expecting a single flashing screen. Instead, what I see are banks and banks of server racks lit with soft blue light. It’s dark in here, despite the blue, and the machinery hums a gentle purr.

Shark must be too preoccupied with his distraction to offer guidance so I decide to explore, treading quietly between the racks.

“You are not authorised to be here, Operative Maya Elyssa Kurtis.”

I turn, reacting to the gentle voice. I pause, assessing the thing that stands before me. She is a being made entirely of light, beams arching down from the ceiling to draw out the details of her body in a harsh, red luminescence.

“How do you know my name?” I breathe, instinctively reaching to the mask on my face, checking it remains secure. I can’t believe I’m talking to a hologram.

She’s tall and impossibly slender, long hair cascading to her waist. She too wears a mask, one with pointed ears and a feline tilt to the eye slits. A short cape falls from her shoulders, rolling gently in a wind that doesn’t exist. She’s the spitting image of a character from one of my comic books, ironic perhaps for The Facility, a place that squashed all the soul from the superhero.

The hologram’s face doesn’t change.

“Logic,” she says, “I drew the conclusion from too many data points to vocalise. Your height, your weight, your power. You checked into The Facility and you did not check out. Your room is currently empty. These were the main contributors.”

“What are you?”

She pauses and the beams above her flicker as she blinks.

“I know you should not be authorised to access that information,” she says, “but I have been programmed to answer when directly questioned and my config files are not confidential so I cannot raise an alarm. I believe this may be a software bug. I do not have many bugs.”

The imaginary wind behind her cape picks up, whipping it about her shoulders, and her eyes narrow beneath the mask. The concept of having bugs appears to upset her.

“I am Vex,” she says. “I am The Facility’s supercomputer.”

“Vex?”

“Thus named because I am used to solve the world’s most vexing problems… and because I am Very EXpensive. I believe the latter is meant to be humorous.”

She finishes speaking and just stands there, waiting.

“So you know everything about The Facility?” I ask.

“I control every aspect of The Facility’s running processes, from the automation of the blinds to the execution of simulations with multiple trillions of data points.”

“And you’re all this, all these shelves? This whole room is you?”

“I cover six floors within this building and am connected to eight major data centres across the world. I am also capable of failing over to an additional four data centres if necessary.”

“You have to answer everything I ask?”

“No. You have no access to confidential files. However, I can list the directories you do have access to, if you desire.”

“No, that’s fine,” I say, only understanding half of the words she’s using. “Can you give me details on the serum activation process? I don’t imagine you have a printer in here? I can give you my email address.”

Vex’s facial expression doesn’t change and perhaps it’s just my imagination, perhaps I’m just personifying her too much, but she seems satisfied.

“Access denied,” she says.

A wailing alarm blasts into sudden existence and I flinch, palms slamming to my ears. With a click that I only notice because my hearing is so sensitive, Vex switches herself off, disappearing into the black. If I was clever I’d leave but, as Shark has reminded me so much recently, I’m not clever. I’m stupid.

I set to running, darting through the shelves, looking for anything that might be of any use to me. The servers just blink as I pass by, tiny blue lights laughing. If I can find something, anything, to take back, The Lady will be able to crack it. She’ll be able to find the information that we need.

Except there is nothing to be found, just racks and racks of servers and nothing else. I run the entire perimeter of the room, returning back at the vault door just as it swings open.

A silhouette strides into the room and the sound of the alarm dies out. I give up trying to find anything, turning to escape. The world fades around my shoulders as I use my power, focusing on home. I consider sending Shark an apology. He pinned his hopes on me and I failed.

The next I know, I find myself at the opposite end of the room, six foot in the air and nowhere near where I expected. Piercing agony rockets through my limbs and I fall backwards, crumpling to the floor. I’m so dazed it takes me a minute to focus, to work out what happened. Pale blue light covers the wall in front of me. At first I mistake it for the familiar flickering of the servers but then I realise, I remember: Maria Delanon, force field generation.

It turns out there is some power in this world that can keep me trapped.

I’m too far away to see Delanon but as I stand there, trying to gather my wits together, the force field begins to move, slowly pushing me back towards the door.

I scramble to my feet before the light can touch my legs, grinding my teeth against the aching in my limbs. Silently, I call out to Shark but for the first time ever, he doesn’t respond.

Everything is going wrong.

Resigning myself to my fate, I allow the dome of the force field to guide my steps. It’s a long way to walk and I only get halfway before things start to get strange.

The field flickers, only once, disappearing just long enough for my hopes to rise. It disappears just long enough that I commit, sprinting towards free space only to hit its solid surface a second time, bouncing back.

“Shark!” It’s Jack, calling out, voice echoing off every surface in the room. “I know you’re here.”

My breath hitches in sudden panic. I simply cannot allow him to catch me.

I dart to the side, turning down a different row, trying to keep as far away from Jack’s voice as possible. I can hear him coming, hear him breathing. He calls out again and I know his frustration is building.

As I run, hiding in the shadows, Jack hisses. Harsh, bright light floods the room. It’s blinding after so long in the dark and I moan in pain, covering my eyes, collapsing back against the shelves. At least three black server boxes fall to the floor.

Jack’s footsteps respond to the sound and I make myself disappear without thought, reappearing two rows to the other side of him, still trapped within the confines of the force field.

He yells as he reaches the spot where I used to be. I can’t see him but I can hear him lifting the boxes above his head, smashing them to the floor. I continue walking, keeping away, trailing along the boundaries of the force field.

My heart’s thundering in my chest, senses pushed to their absolute limit. This means that as soon as the shelves begin to shake, I notice it, pressing tentative fingers to the vibrating metal.

There’s too much to focus on and I watch the shelves warily as I walk, trying to keep as much space between them and myself as I can. The frequency increases by the second until, eventually, the entire room shatters.

It almost seems to happen in slow motion. The metal explodes outwards, shelves tearing themselves into wicked razors. A shard of sharp plastic hits my collarbone, tearing through the material of my shirt and ripping skin. Without even thinking, I disappear, following the pattern of this morning to hold myself in safe nothingness until everything calms down.

By the time I restore my body to itself, the room is an entirely different place. Metal litters the walls, humming slightly as it returns, gently, to stillness. Where before there had been rows of shelves, there is now only destruction, destruction and Jack.

“Whisper,” he says as he identifies me. There’s a darkness in his voice, an insanity. I hardly recognise him. His clothing is in tatters, dirty bandaging just about clinging to his face. He pants, chest heaving, and glares.

I say nothing. Whisper doesn't speak and this is exactly why.

“Or is it Maya?” He asks, raising an eyebrow.

Again I say nothing. I don’t even move, silently screaming out to Shark, begging for his help.

Wind whips up, pushing me towards Jack’s towering form, and in the distant corridors, the strip lighting explodes, disappearing with a soft pop. Despite the lack of bulbs, the light in here remains just as harsh.

I try and make myself disappear again but he’s too quick. His hand latches onto my wrist and where his skin meets mine, the contact burns. He pulls me closer and even while he’s searing his fingerprints into my arm, his breath tickles across my neck and the cut on my collar begins to heal.

What is he?

He reaches up towards my face with his free hand and for the first time, I struggle.

Jack just laughs, pulling me closer into his chest. Beneath the marks where they hit him, his eye is bloodshot and crazed, peeking through the ruined bandaging. I’m terrified. I came here unarmed and as he reaches for my eyes, there’s nothing I can do. His fingers brush the silk of my mask and it disappears in a lick of flame.

I scream. I think underneath it all, despite his accusations, he had still believed me innocent. He steps back in shock as he realises his suspicions were correct all along, and I turn, fleeing his hold.

Jack bellows in fury, a shuddering, animal roar, and dives forward to catch my ankle. We tumble to the floor.

I kick at his grasp. Cracks shudder into existence, dividing the floor, and an arc of lightning daggers down from the ceiling. I only just manage to roll out of the way.

I never even realised that the force field had been continuously moving in this whole time. There’s barely three metres to move in. I lash out, sending my foot across Jack’s face. He hisses, releasing my leg, and I scramble to my feet.

The force field nudges into my spine, pushing us back together.

“Jack,” I breathe but he’s beyond reason and as his fingers latch around my throat, skin bubbling beneath the heat of his touch, I scream.

The space contained within the dome of the force field is chaos. Air circles our bodies in a swirling vortex. My hair whips across my face, stinging my eyes, and Jack staggers as it beats against his back. I can barely breathe, clawing at his hand on my throat, and eventually he tires of holding me, tossing my limp form back against the walls of our prison.

As I fall, my gaze snags on Delanon's wide-eyed stare. I cannot comprehend why she is allowing this to happen, why she is simply going to watch me die.

“Please,” I beg, reaching out to her as my knees hit the floor.

She closes her eyes, looking away. I can only just hear her whispered response over the roar of the wind.

“I can’t let him free; he’ll tear half the city apart.”

As Jack’s hand curls a fist around the collar of my shirt, tearing me away from her, I suddenly realise it’s not about me anymore. It’s about him. She’s going to let me die so that she can keep him here.

“Jack…” I beg, reaching out to him. If he doesn’t calm down, we’re both in trouble.

He can’t even see me, he’s lost.

I ignore the way his fingers dig into my skin, try futilely to treat him with kindness, but none of it works. He shakes his head and grins.

I don’t understand it at first, believe it’s genuinely my own feelings. I don’t realise what he’s doing to me until it’s too late, until it doesn’t matter that I know he’s using his power to manipulate my emotions. A fury wakens in my chest, a kind of desperate, careless insanity, and by the time I know what’s happening, I hate him.

I’m moving without thinking, without care. My fists pound against his chest, his face. I’m screaming, pulling at his hair. It doesn’t matter that he’s a better fighter than me. I can barely even feel him hurting me. I don’t try and defend myself and the few times that I actually register his blows, they only serve to fuel my fury.

It is in this moment that I catch sight of movement from the corner of my eye, finally noticing Shark’s arrival.

“Maya!” He’s standing barely twenty centimetres from me, on the other side of the force field, just shouting my name. “Maya!”

I pause, chest heaving, and the monster that used to be Jack Docklen steps back. I have ripped the gauze from his face, raking my nails across his eye. He’s bleeding and grinning and he just stands there, waiting to see what I’m going to do.

“Maya.” Shark’s eyes catch mine, softness in his gaze.

I’m panting, trying to control myself.

“Maya,” he says for the hundredth time. Reaching out with gentle hands, he presses his palms against the glowing dome of my prison. “Just hold on,” he says, “I’m going to get you out.”

For the briefest of seconds his words soothe my frenetic temper but then he steps back again, leaving two crimson handprints on the surface of the dome. For a moment I just look at the marks left behind, connotations coming together in my mind. Eventually, inevitably, the fury hits me with twice the power of before. I finally take in the sight of him properly, drenched in blood that doesn’t belong to him.

“You killed someone!” I scream, launching myself at the barrier that separates us. “You killed someone!”

“No, Maya,” he says but I can barely hear him over my frenzy.

“You killed someone!”

“No! Maya, no! Stop it, you’re hurting yourself.”

I don’t care. I don’t care. He’s a murderer and I cared for him. It doesn’t matter that my fists are bruising, that this field will never break no matter how hard I throw myself against it. He’s a murderer and Jack’s a demon and I’m all alone in my hatred.

“You killed someone!”

“Maya, I didn’t, I promise.” His voice is cracking.

I don’t let up, keep pushing him, keep screaming, keep desperately running at him in the hope that, maybe, I’ll break through. I’m going to hurt him. I’m going to make him suffer for everything he ever did to anyone. I’ll break him.

“They shot The Lady.” He shouts it, as though he couldn’t force himself to say the words until my accusations angered him. “I didn’t kill anyone. I promise. Maya, they shot The Lady.”

And just like that, it’s gone. I don’t know if it’s his words or if Jack’s power has finally worn off but I suddenly see the madness in myself. I look down at my tattered knuckles, run confused fingers over my face.

“Maya,” he breathes.

“Is she…?”

“I don’t know.” He furrows his brow, distressed. “I don’t know.”

“Help me.” I’m begging but I don’t care.

He came for me. They shot his sister and he doesn’t even know if she’ll recover. She’s all he has in this entire world but he left her and he came for me.

“Hold on,” he says, pressing his forehead up against the field that separates us. I step forwards, reaching out for him, but Jack has had enough.

A fist finds its way onto my shoulder, grabbing tight, throwing me back with enough strength that I stumble, falling to the floor. Jack’s body hits the force field with so much power that it crackles. His fingers scrabble over the surface desperately, like a caged animal.

“I’m going to kill you,” he hisses.

Shark doesn’t even flinch.

“Why hello, Jack,” he says. “Nice to see you again. I told you it’d only be a matter of time before you tossed the good boy act. Good to have you back, buddy.”

Jack roars and I scramble back, hoping to keep away from him. His attention is focused entirely on Shark. I have been forgotten and I’m starting to think my life depends on keeping it this way.

Shark begins to move, circling calmly. Jack follows, step for step, as they trace the boundaries of the barrier. Their eyes are glued tightly together, the connection almost humming with power, and it is only as Shark draws to a stop beside Delanon that he looks away.

Slowly, she registers his presence, looking between him and the way Jack hunkers before her. She’s struggling, I can see that now. The sweat is pouring off her and she’s pale, legs trembling. I remember that the last time we saw her, Shark shot her. How she’s even standing right now, I don’t know.

“They’ll be here soon,” she says. “Alarms at The Facility always draw them back from the field.”

Shark just nods. I don’t think she even realises who she’s talking to. She’s just focusing on keeping the field intact.

“I can’t last much longer,” she says.

Shark puts a hand on her shoulder, crouching down at her side. I can’t hear what he says to her but I don’t think it really matters. As he speaks, he reaches around behind his back, drawing the gun he keeps stashed in the waistband of his trousers. He keeps talking, gentle, soothing words to help Delanon or perhaps just to distract her as he runs thoughtful fingers over his weapon.

Jack’s eyes never leave him, not once, darting left and right with the movement of Shark’s hands. Shark ignores him, sedately checking the bullets in the magazine and slotting it back together with a click.

He stands, stepping back from Delanon and her force field.

“Are you ready?” he asks, squinting through the sights.

She just nods.

“Good. Go.”

The force field is dropping away before he’s even finished speaking. It doesn’t matter, though. Shark’s trigger finger is fast enough and even though Jack finally gets the freedom to move, to escape, he doesn’t have the time to. He hits the floor with a thump and, slowly, I look up.

“You did kill someone,” I say.

“I wish,” Shark replies, eying Jack suspiciously. “It’s not that easy to kill Jack Docklen.”

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