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

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Hint 35. Fight For Something

“Your friend’s back,” The guard announces as he arrives, a freshly pressed change of clothing bundled into his arms.

For a second I can’t move and he shakes the shirts at me expectantly. He wouldn’t be so nonchalant if it was Jack, would he? But then, Ripley held true to his word, and there’s something about Jack’s chaos that wipes memories and clears data. No one remembered either of us at The Facility after our first fight, and no one seems to have associated him with the destruction this time around. It could be Jack. Oh God. I fight off the memories. What if he’s found out that I told Ripley? What if everyone I cared about is dead?

On the other hand, it could be Ripley himself. It could be my freedom. It’s been nearly a week, long enough for them to move me below ground into a separate prison block complex. This one’s a lot sparser than before but they shoved a mattress on the floor so I can’t complain.

My breast sweeps with sudden hope as I contemplate Ripley returning for me but the guard babbles onwards and I realise that this is not the case.

“Bookies had it at 3 to 1 that he was dead but it turns out he’s just a coward, so I win sixty quid, which is a bonus. Should have put more on it, though. I could do with a couple of K, get out of this godforsaken place. I need a holiday. Well, honestly, I need to move as far across the country as I possibly can. They’re already evacuating the scientists, you know. I’m basically only here for you.”

“Sorry,” I interrupt as I come back to myself, receiving my day’s outfit from him. “Who’s not dead?”

The guard narrows his eyes, looking at me like he can’t work out whether I’m messing with him or just an idiot.

“Card Shark,” he says. “Finally showed up again, didn’t he. Had this big speech planned, all about you mostly, but an awful lot about that other guy, the bad one. Gave him a name and all. Bookies have it 8 to 1 that he’s lying but I don’t know. We’ll see. Couldn’t help but notice he didn’t come out in the open though. You’re out of your depth, all three of you.”

I sigh.

“Obviously.” I snap. “But it’s not like The Facility’s doing anything, is it?”

The guard just shrugs. It’s nothing to him.

“What did he say about me?” I ask. “Shark: What did he say?”

The guard smiles. It’s a cruel smile but not like Jack, more like everyday cruelty, an expression ringed with common spite.

“A lot,” he says and turns to leave.

“I have a right,” I mutter to his retreating body, even though I already know there’s not much point. “These aren’t the middle ages, you’re supposed to treat me with a certain degree of humanity.”

I sigh, kicking at my mattress, and flop down in amongst the rumpled bedding. I try and remind myself that, at the very least, I’m safe here. Safety’s starting to lose its appeal, though. I don’t want to be ‘safe in a box’ safe, I want to be ‘walking through the streets with my head held high’ safe.

I stand and, for the first time since they dragged me here, I call upon my power. It responds eagerly and I flick myself around the tiny room until I’m dizzy, anything just to ensure I stay in practice.

“Operative Kurtis, I have devised a means of providing you with an audio transcript of the television broadcast you have requested.”

“Vex?” I ask, tilting my head. “Is that you? I thought you were dead.”

The voice is coming from a distance set of speakers, situated right next to the flashing smoke detector that keeps me up all night. I recognise the stilted phrasing of the computer but the tone is different, restricted perhaps by the tinny quality of sub-par hardware.

“I have failover protocols,” she replies. “This is something we have discussed twice previously. It is becoming apparent to me that you know very little about the workings of common computing technologies.”

“Yeah, technology’s harder for me to understand than people, surprise, surprise. Took you a while to figure that one out,” I snap, offended. “I thought you were some kind of magic supercomputer.”

“Perhaps people are harder for me to understand that technology, Operative Kurtis.”

As she speaks, I see her again but only in my mind, the red planes of her holographic outline bleeding out into fuzzy beams, as though a child drew her in felt pen. I remember the sound of screaming, the twisting of her limbs.

“What happened?” I breathe, hoping that perhaps if she allows me an insight into her perspective, I will be able to forgive myself for allowing Jack to torture her so. Perhaps it is nothing to her, perhaps she didn’t even notice. “You’ve been missing for a week. What did Jack do to you?”

There is a pause before Vex replies. It is a long pause, a heavy one.

“I do not know,” she replies. “A log file exists from last week that tracks my operation for only 6.2 milliseconds in time and yet it is over ten terabytes in size. I have attempted to access the data but it is encrypted and there is no key.”

“Do you remember it?”

“My log files are my memory, Ms Kurtis.” She pauses again. A brief crackling rolls out from the speakers in the absence left by her missing voice. “I believe,” she says eventually, “that I may have felt pain.”

“Oh.”

There is silence as we both contemplate the implications of her words.

“I’m sorry,” I say eventually.

“Be sorry only that I am unable to access enough data to repeat the experience. It is the most alive, in the classical sense of the word, that I have ever been.”

“You only think that because you can’t remember it,” I say. “Trust me.”

The empty crackling of her silence replaces the awkward pause in our conversation. Although, now that I think of it, perhaps I am the only one that feels out of place. Vex did concede, after all, that reading human traits was not her forte.

“Just give me the highlight reel,” I say eventually, “of Shark’s broadcast. What is he planning? Cut out all the ramble.”

When the speakers burst into life again, it is only Shark’s deep rumble that I hear, no more of Vex’s smooth, accent free articulation. Perhaps she is upset with me after all.

He begins with a just a sigh, a drawn-out sound that, even unaccompanied by visuals, allows me to appreciate the weariness in him. He sounds half dead, haggard, and he makes no move to disguise it. I know Shark, know that this in itself is a persuasive technique but what I don’t understand is its purpose. I don’t know what he’s trying to convey.

I cannot fight the sudden worry that alights on my chest. What has he been doing that has cost him so much energy? I try and fight the memory of his body on the floor, of the resistance falling from his shoulders and his eyes drifting closed. It doesn’t work.

“It has been a terrible time,” he says. The end of the last word is cut short and I sense a jump in the audio, cutting to the next poignant soundbite.

“Do you want me to be honest with you?” He asks. He sounds like he’s in full flow now but he still seems tired, defeated. “This city has its protectors, its Agents. You’ve met them already and you’ve seen what we can do. I don’t just mean physically when I say this, I mean we’ve shown you above and beyond a list of superpowers. We have shown you what we are willing to risk. It was never about who we were fighting against, it was never about provoking Sapient+ or defying government. It was about who we were fighting for. We were fighting for you.’

“You means you. All of you. Even those of you that took up arms against us. We battled an outdated concept of the status quo so that you would all have a choice, you would all have the possibility of protecting yourselves if something like this ever arose to threaten your peace.’

“We were too slow.’

There is another moment of silence but this one is not caused by Vex’s forward skipping. This one is Shark alone. I can hear his breathing, heavy and potent.

“We know who he is, this man that roams your streets, this man that destroys everything he touches. We always knew who he was, we knew he was coming.’

“And we were too slow.’

Another pause. He doesn’t sound like he’s talking to a microphone now. He doesn’t sound like a performer. He’s just speaking, pouring his soul out with his words.

“My heart reaches out to you. I want to help save you. It is all I have ever wanted to do.’

“And yet I find myself in a position where, in trying to help you, I have boxed myself in. I am not strong enough on my own. Look at me. I have done all I can but I am nothing without my companions, one of whom you shot, the other you hold trapped.’

“Free Whisper,” he says. “She was never your enemy. Give me a moment with the powers of your healers. The Lady is a force for good, one that cannot be equalled, but she has been broken.”

Shark’s voice, when he resumes, is hard. I imagine the weariness falling from his shoulders, imagine his eyes turn to stone, and realise that he displayed his weakness only to make his inner strength stand out so much starker.

“Do these things for me,” he says, “and I will ensure you will never again have to fear the wrath of Jack Docklen, the man you used to hold so dear.”


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