Hint 25. Concentrate On The Job At Hand
Shark doesn’t bother donning his mask as I take his arm, bringing us both to the address he has specified. I follow his example, awkwardly running the material over my fingers instead of laying it across my face.
We arrive somewhere in the suburbs. An orange porch lamp washes muted light over our shoulders, throwing the garden at our back into deep, nighttime shadow. Shark reaches forwards, rapping his knuckles on the wood, and waits patiently for this homey cottage’s inhabitant to answer.
When it is Larry’s smiling face that opens the door, I am not surprised.
“Cristian!” He exclaims and there is genuine pleasure in his tone. I can’t help but like this man, who opened his heart to such scrappy, loveless children.
Larry spreads his arms for an embrace and it’s only as Shark steps forward to accept it that he notices me. He drops the gesture immediately, looking confused.
“Oh, sorry. Umm… Card Shark.” he says.
“Relax,” Shark smiles, pulling him into a rough hug. “She knows everything.”
Larry laughs, slapping him on the back and treating me to a grin that is just as warm as the one he gave Shark.
“You be careful with my boys,” he says, allowing Shark to precede him into the house. “They don’t know their own strength.”
The words are friendly enough but this is the first time a parent has warned me about the damage their child could do to me. I’m used to being told not to break hearts but this is the other way around. Perhaps it’s only because I know, quite vividly, what Larry’s boys are capable of. I don’t know. Somehow the words feel like a thinly disguised warning.
Shark throws himself on the sofa, kicking his feet up onto the coffee table. Larry walks into the kitchen. As he passes he leans down, almost without thought, and smacks Shark’s feet onto the floor. I have to turn away so he doesn’t see my smirk. There’s something funny about seeing a nefarious criminal turned superhero acting like a disgruntled teenager.
Shark just grins, tossing me a wink. He pats the sofa at his side and I drop onto the cushions, allowing him to rest a jaunty elbow on my shoulder.
Larry returns a minute later, placing two cups of tea on the recently vacated coffee table.
Larry smiles. “I wish she’d come see me.”
“She’s just bristly. I’ll bring her next time. I promise.”
Larry nods pensively.
“I’m sorry my dear,” he says to me, dropping onto an armchair opposite us. “I seem to have forgotten your name.” He grins and, for the first time, I discover where Shark picked up the habit. “I must be getting old.”
“Ancient,” Shark replies, earning him a roll of the eyes.
“Maya,” I say. “It’s nice to meet you again.”
“Maya.” Larry nods. “Yes, I remember,” he says. There is a pause as he narrows his eyes scrutinisingly. “Is Jack responsible for your face?”
I balk, brushing a light touch across my eye. I’d almost forgotten the bruises. I’d just assumed the mask would cover them. I never thought I’d be baring my face tonight.
“No,” he says. “Well, yes. They were Jack’s fists but it was my fault. I set her up. I didn’t know he’d be there.”
Larry shakes his head, disappointment oozing from every pore.
“Why must you insist on repeating the same patterns over and over?”
Shark looks away, reaching for his mug. “I don’t know,” he says. “I’m trying to be better.”
“Yes,” Larry replies. If anything, he sounds even more upset than before. “I’ve been watching you on the television. Why must you both be so public about everything? It always turns into a stupid competition between you boys.”
Shark pauses. After a brief second, he pulls in a deep breath and smiles.
“Hey, Pops…” he begins but is interrupted almost instantly.
Larry’s expression hardens immediately. I can’t help but feel sorry for him.
“You only ever call me that when you want something. I became immune to that trick a long time ago, Cristian. I don’t want anything to do with this little endeavour of yours. Just like I didn’t want anything to do with any of the others.”
“This one’s important.”
“They’re always important.”
“And don’t give me that ‘you know I can persuade you so you might as well just give in now’ speech,” Larry warns. “I’m immune to that one too.”
“You know it’s true, though.” Shark grins. “I can persuade you. You’re soft.”
Larry stands, collecting up our empty mugs.
“I’m going to give you a very similar speech to the one this lovely lady had to witness me give Jack,” he says. “I don’t want you to leave but unless you change the way this conversation’s going, I’ll have to ask you to go.” Larry turns to look at me. “That’s the problem with this one - he always ends up playing people like chess pieces.”
“And what about the other one, Lawrence?” Shark snaps. “We’ve had so much fun talking about me. What’s the problem with Jack?”
Larry’s eyes narrow dangerously. He freezes in his exit, glaring back at Shark furiously.
“No,” he says. “Don’t use that against me.”
Shark throws his hands up in mock surrender. “You need something from us,” he says, “and we need something from you. Seems fair enough to me.”
Larry turns on his heel, marching back into the kitchen without a word.
“I’m lost,” I say.
Larry’s eyes are hooded when he returns to the room.
“Jack didn’t finish his treatment on Saturday,” he says by way of explanation, “and I haven’t seen him since.” He turns to look at Shark. “He’s dangerous,” he says.
“But he’s not my responsibility.”
“You wanted to take on a responsibility for the people of this city, though.”
Shark stands, folding his arms. He almost seems to loom over his adoptive father, glaring menacingly.
“Give us your login information for The Facility and we’ll get Jack back.”
“No. Cristian this…”
“What’s your username?”
“I’m not going to…”
“Thank you. And your password?”
“Cristian, I’m warning you…”
“Thank you, Pops.” Shark smirks. Leaning forwards, he takes Larry’s head in his hands, pressing their foreheads together in a very masculine display of affection. “Your subconscious betrays you,” he says.
Larry pulls back, scowling. “I could lose my job,” he says, hesitating. “Or worse.”
“I know,” he says. “That’s why you’re going to call them up as soon as we leave and tell them exactly what just happened. You warn them that Shark lifted the information from your mind. Tell them Whisper’s on her way.”
“Don’t worry.” Shark smirks. “You haven’t even seen a quarter of what we can do.”
I take his hand, tossing Larry a guilty smile by way of farewell, and do something I never thought I would be stupid enough to even consider. Air swirls around my shoulders, dissipating slowly as we reform elsewhere.
The glare of The Facility’s underground lighting flickers on immediately, disappearing off into the distance with a familiar drone. Shark does not look nearly as pensive as I feel he probably should. He’s grinning with excitement and as I step back to throw a worried glance over my shoulder, he drops my hand, tying the mask to his face.
“Oh Whisper,” he prompts, mocking. “Isn’t about time you started enjoying yourself?” He leans down, taking my mask from my lax grip and securing it firmly across my brow.
After a moment’s hesitation, I allow myself to echo his grin.
“We’re going to be like the movies,” I say.
“Indeed we are.”
He checks his watch, frowning slightly. “Not much time, though,” he announces, grabbing my hand and breaking into a sprint.
He doesn’t question why I just dumped us in an empty corridor when he wanted to start at the vault, the place where our last visit ended. He must be able to see into my mind, realising that the whole of Saturday night is a jumble. I don’t know where the vault is. I don’t know where anything is.
He does though. He spent his entire childhood here. These endless tunnels must feel like home to him.
“Not home,” he says, tugging me round one final corner to deposit us both into sudden stillness, right in front of that massive circular door. “This place was a prison for me.”
He checks his watch again.
“We’re making good time,” he says, “but we’ve probably only got a few more minutes before Larry finishes raising the alarm.”
“Is it really going to be this easy?”
“I doubt it.”
Shark runs his fingers appreciatively over the surface of one of the massive metal locks.
“In the movies,” he says, “we’d get to blow these bad boys away with some impressive pyrotechnics.”
“And you think that’s less cool than this?” I ask, taking his hand and flicking us through the wall.
Shark laughs as he reappears.
Ok, you’re right. That’s pretty cool.
I don’t say anything, too busy staring around myself, and Shark allows me a second to take in the aftermath of my previous visit. I’ve never seen a room so capable of change; it’s completely different to how it was just a handful of hours ago. It is neither the soft, dark server centre that it was supposed to be, nor is it the scene of destruction that it had become after I left. Now it’s just empty. Automatic lights switch on at our presence, revealing a pile of half constructed shelves. Other than that, it’s clinical. All the broken bits have been cleared away, the walls plastered over. Even the carpets have been changed, no suspicious stains to mar the floors. That could have been Jack’s lifeblood, I think to myself, rolled up into a black bin bag and tossed out the door.
“There’s nothing here,” I say.
“Wait for it.”
Shark has his head tilted back, staring at something in the corner of the room. I follow his gaze, noting what appears to be a camera, mounted high up next to the ceiling.
“You see that one?” He asks, “and that one?”
There are eight in total, mounted in a circle.
“They’re not cameras,” he says. “They’re projectors. Vex, I know you’re there.”
With a crackle and a low hum, the lights dim, allowing Vex’s red outline to appear. She looks disgruntled - if a fake, laser projected front for a massive computer can look disgruntled - and her cape ripples around her shoulders.
“Identify yourself,” she says to him and then turns to me. “Operative Kurtis, you are not authorised to be here.”
I don’t understand. I thought Jack broke her. How do they have her up and running again so quickly and, if she is functioning correctly, why haven’t I been identified? I went to work today. I was literally surrounded by policemen. If she’s running properly, I should be rotting in jail somewhere.
“She never went down, Whisper,” Shark says. “She’s got hundreds of backup servers that she can just switch over to if anything goes wrong with the others. Our friend and his little fit isn’t nearly enough to jeopardise Vex.”
“It would not be the first time Sapient+ have damaged my hardware,” she adds. She turns back to Shark. “I need you to identify yourself before this conversation can continue. I have a potential match in my records but I am not yet certain.”
“I’ve got a username-password combo,” he says.
She just shrugs as though it makes no difference and waves a hand. A virtual keyboard appears before her and Shark types for a minute, submitting Larry’s credentials.
“This is a system account,” she says. “It corresponds to many individuals: you do not match any of its most recent users. Identify yourself.”
He just grins and her eyes travel over him for a second longer. I think his smirk is the thing that finally gives him away.
“Cristian Beckley Sharpe,” she says. “Age 27, height one hundred and eighty two centimetres. Currently non-operative. Powers: telepathy, flight. Responsible for the deaths of three Facility employees. Your file is marked as dangerous. I have broadcast an alert to security.”
“You found me then,” he says. “I knew you would - you’ve become a lot more sophisticated. I remember the days when you were just a logo on a screen.”
Vex smiles. This is the first time I have seen her do so.
“You are aware that you have logged in. I cannot withhold information from you, despite the fact that I know you should not have access.”
Shark chuckles slightly, shaking his head.
“How friendly of you to remind us,” he says. “This is so exciting.” He turns to me. “She’s exactly like a human being but so much better. I can’t read a single word of what she’s thinking. This is the most intriguing conversation I’ve had in years.”
“That, Mr Sharpe, is because I do not think. I process.”
He shivers with barely concealed pleasure, turning back to her. I try and pretend I’m not just a little bit jealous.
“That’s a pity,” he says. “I can’t read processes.”
“Anyone can read processes.” She looks smug. “It is simply that you do not have access to my log files.”
She flickers for just a second, as though she’s elsewhere.
“Prepare yourself, Mr Sharpe. Someone is authenticating at the door. You will have company in twenty six seconds.”
“Log my companion in under the same credentials as myself.”
Vex folds her arms, hair and cape whipping around her body in an imaginary gale.
“Why does it feel like you don’t like me?” I sigh as Shark strides towards the door.
“I have a very sophisticated AI, Miss Kurtis. I can - and have - formed very strong opinions of you. Do not be concerned, however. This does not affect what I will and will not be able to do for you. What I lack is not the ability to form judgements, it is the ability to act upon them.”
“That’s very sad.”
“Indeed. Take this for example. I would very much like for you to be apprehended regarding your recent violation of my premises. However, no one has requested the identity of the intruder, no one has checked their email alerts, and no one has trawled my logs. I am powerless.”
“Lucky for me then,” I say, distractedly turning back towards my companion.
Shark appears to have completely forgotten our presence. He widens his stance as the first lock on the door slowly clicks open and, though I can only see the back of his head, I sense that he’s grinning.
There’s just something so dominant about it, so powerful. I find myself slipping back into familiar patterns, resisting the urge to run my hands under his tight shirt and up his sculpted chest.
Want to see something impressive, Maya?
Yes. Please. Anything to distract me.
He reaches around behind himself, drawing the pistol from the waistband of his jeans. Instead of levelling it at the door, as would be expected, he tosses it back towards me. The weapon clatters to a stop at my feet, sliding smoothly across the linoleum flooring. He cocks his head over his shoulder, tossing me a wink.
“Don’t need it,” he says. “Get what we came for.”
Despite his command, I cannot stop myself staring as he turns back to face the door. It swings wide open on robotic hinges and six Sapient+ file in, eying Shark suspiciously. At least two crane heads over their shoulders, peering almost desperately into the every nook and cranny of the room. I am reminded of the words Shark gave me the first time he appeared in my bedroom. They’re looking for The Lady: she does that to people.
I wonder if I should return Shark’s gun but then I realise he must have known how many there were. He would have heard them through the door. Besides, none of The Facility operatives are armed. I’m not sure if it’s just me but their body language suggests familiarity. They must have met before, at Shark’s infamous distraction perhaps. They look way too eager, restless. I can see what Ripley meant when he said they were out for blood.
Get what we came for, Maya.
Shark springs into movement. I turn away.
Vex is waiting impassively. I can’t see what’s happening behind me but, whatever Shark’s doing, it doesn’t phase her.
“Get me all information you have on the serum activation sequences,” I demand.
Vex’s expression doesn’t waiver. She waves a hand in front of herself and an entire pane of red text springs into existence, scrolling downwards at a pace too rapid to read. Videos flash up at sporadic intervals, playing for just a few seconds before they are overwritten by something else. I realise I’m going to have to be more specific.
I turn just as Shark sends an elbow into someone’s face. He pulls his dazed attacker around his back, swinging him into two further opponents. All three collapse to the floor, giving Shark enough time to dig into his pocket, pulling out a tiny USB and flinging it over towards me. I just watch all this, slack jawed, allowing the memory stick to clatter to my feet.
“Where did you learn how to do that?”
Shark just laughs, dancing backwards as a bright ball of flame leaves someone’s palms, rocketing into the empty space where he used to be.
“Concentrate on the job at hand, Whisper,” he reminds, darting back into the fray. Within a second he’s surrounded by bodies. I can no longer see him except for the odd flailing limb but after that display I’m not exactly worried.
I turn back to Vex who hasn’t moved. She flickers slightly as Shark’s roving fight temporarily blocks one of the beams drawing her crimson outline. She watches me impassively, waiting for her next command, and I stoop, retrieving the USB and holding it out towards her.
“Put as much of it as you can on here, starting with the current sequences for activation followed by as much relevant subsidiary information as possible.”
“I cannot take the USB device from you,” she says huffily. “You will have to use a port.”
“Oh, sorry. Yeah. Where’s the nearest socket?”
I can hear Shark laughing again. As I watch, he sends his fist flying through a woman whose body reacts immediately, cascading into a bright liquid waterfall. She reforms at his left shoulder, slamming the heel of her palm into the side of his head. He staggers forwards a couple of steps, only just managing to pull himself up into the air above their heads before one of her compatriots sends a fist into his stomach.
I don’t hang around any longer, transporting across the room in the direction of Vex’s outstretched finger. Vex, whose insubstantial outline is able to reform almost as quickly as I can, stands over my shoulder as I bend down, pulling up a hinged flap in the floor. Beneath is an entire bed of plug sockets, ranging across a hundred different sizes, and an equally impressive multitude of USB ports.
“You can send information through these?” I ask, jamming the device in. “I thought they were just for charging.”
“All the others were destroyed,” she says, “but I can manipulate the connection to do as we need. You look unconvinced,” she says as I raise a disbelieving eyebrow, “but you will have to trust me.”
“Can I afford to, though?” I ask as she waves a hand again, displaying the lines of text a second time as she supposedly transfers them onto my device. “I thought you didn’t like me.”
Vex’s face doesn’t change.
“I was not aware that you were associated with Cristian Sharpe,” she says. “I may only be a machine to you but I, too, long for freedom.”
As she finishes speaking, she clenches a fist, closing the scrolling text before her.
“Your device is full,” she says.
“Is there enough information on there to successfully activate serum?”
“Fantastic, thanks Vex.”
She actually smiles as I tear the device from the socket. “You’re welcome,” she says and disappears. I get the impression that people do not regularly thank her.
I pocket the USB, turning back to Shark. He has pulled himself up to the ceiling, in that way that he has, and battles with an agent who shares his affinity for flight.
“I got it!” I shout. “Let’s go.”
Shark tilts his head down towards me. This would have been fine except that six other pairs of eyes mimic the gesture.
What happened to Whisper keeping her mouth shut?
“Oh come on.” I shrug unapologetically. He knew the whole silence thing was never going to last. He can try and make Whisper whatever kind of creature he likes but I’m still Maya underneath it all.
My heart hiccups and I realise my adrenalin has made an assessment of the situation without input from my brain. I’m busy making silent small talk while all six of them rush me. Even the one that can fly has abandoned his skirmish with Shark.
There’s no room to run, no space to dodge, but I don’t let them get close enough for it to matter. As the first reaches my personal space, a bright ball of flame flickering around his palm, I disappear, translocating back to the far corner of the room. Shark hops down from the ceiling, rejoining my side, and I press the USB into his hand.
“Shall we go?”
His face crumples in disappointment.
“Just a little longer,” he begs and I roll my eyes.
Before I can reply, we no longer have a choice in the matter. All six supers are back, three of them flying into the space between us. A fist finds its way to the back of my jacket and the next thing I know, my feet are off the ground.
Above me the Facility operative smirks, tugging my dead weight up towards the ceiling. I grit my teeth, slamming a fist into his wrists. His smile disappears immediately and I repeat the gesture, legs flailing. He lets go.
I’m falling but the sensation doesn’t last long enough for it to even register. I land on another operative and she splatters. I know her trick, though, and I’m already fading from existence as she reforms. Her hand flies through empty air and I reappear behind the boy with fire in his palms, sending my elbow into the back of his skull just in time to rescue Shark from a barbecued face.
Everything’s moving too quickly to process. Shark’s fighting at my side like we’ve been partners for years, using my body to shield his movements before darting back into the fray. He must be reading my mind to dance so fluidly in my shadow.
“Now?” I ask. “Can we go now?”
“Just a little longer.”
The boy with the flame is lying motionless at our feet but the rest of them don’t even seem to care. Shark launches skywards, wrestling with my previous abductor, and I find myself alone once again.
“Alright, fine,” I grumble as he disappears. “Who’s next?” I ask and four angry superhumans turn to face me.
As it happens, it’s all of them.
I duck below a wild punch, launching my foot into someone’s kneecap, and disappear. Shifting just a metre to the right, I materialise in empty space. At least two of them are taken by surprise but I only manage to hit one before all four have caught up. He staggers but doesn’t go down and by this point, I have to use my power again before they can all grab onto me at once.
I’m panting, desperate, but they just keep coming and I keep moving. The euphoria hits me eventually. I block a punch with an arm, my muscles burn, and I cannot help but laugh. I’m a superhero. A superhero.
I only discover that one of them can turn his skin to metal when he hits me in the stomach. I double over instinctively, gagging and the liquid woman shows me she’s just as capable of being perfectly solid. She sends a fist flying into my already battered face and I stagger back onto one knee.
My stomach spasms, as though imaginary hands are twisting through my insides, and as her hand connects with the bruises that already dominate the majority of my face, I see stars.
She’s already pressing into my personal space again and I throw my hands up to protect my face. I will not lose to her, not after everything that happened with Jack. I’m a different person now, stronger. I grit my teeth, trying to pull myself to my feet, but she doesn’t allow it, slamming her foot into my ankle.
Shark yells and a body drops onto the group, knocking half of them to the floor before they can punish me further. It’s the operative that can fly… or that could fly. I think he’s unconscious before he even hits the ground and Shark hovers overhead, legs wide, fists on hips, cocky.
“Can we go now?” I beg, flinching as I dab a tentative finger over my mask.
“By my count, there’s still four left,” he says .
He lands at my side, taking my hand and pulling me back to my feet. I swipe his pistol from the floor, securing it in my grip as I stand.
“Do it quickly, then,” I say, pocketing the gun myself so he doesn’t get the wrong idea. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.
“You know they’d have no problem killing you,” Shark prompts softly but I just shake my head.
They’re back again and Shark takes me at my word. There’s no messing around, not anymore, and within three minutes, he sends his elbow into someone’s throat with so much force that she hits the floor, gasping. He leaves the liquid lady to me and we dance hesitantly across the floor. Every time she reforms, I disappear. Every time I reappear, she drops down into water once again.
“Shark,” I hiss as I find myself pressed up against his back. “How about now?”
He shakes his head, blocking three rapid punches and returning with two of his own. I sigh but the telltale click of bullets falling into chambers drowns out any sound.
Shark turns, allowing us to take in the sight together. Where before there had only been the perfectly spherical opening of the vault door, there is now a mass of aggressive, masculine machinery. It’s one of The Facility’s heavy-duty assault weapons, designed for power and nothing else. It’s heavy, requires two men to operate it, and it’s not capable of aiming anywhere near us. It’ll just fill this room with flying metal and fire.
“Alright, change of plan,” Shark says, grabbing my arm. “We leave now.”