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

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Hint 37. You Are The Protector

An hour later, I find myself standing rigidly opposite Ripley’s desk. I’m still wearing the loose tracksuit they provided me with at The Facility and it feels strange to be here so informally. Everything about the station is different. All the usual case notes on the back wall have been removed, replaced by one massive map of the city. Someone has hacked at it with a fat black marker, wiping out whole regions. I imagine these denote the areas of destruction, places Jack has already razed to the ground. There is far more marker than there is anything else.

“I don’t understand,” I say. “Why tomorrow and not now? What is it that we’re waiting for exactly? We know who we’re looking for, and Shark knows how to find him. What’s holding us back?”

I just want to get this over with. I want to get back to my normal life.

Ripley leans back in his chair, eyes flicking briefly onto the man at my side. The biggest change I’ve had to get used to in the last five minutes is how easily Shark fits in here. He’s back in his mask and bandana but not a single person has even paused as they pass Ripley’s window. He seems as much a part of the furniture as I am.

“That’s a question for your beau,” Ripley says.

Shark folds his arms, eyes narrowing, and I can see him calculating something. Eventually he sighs, a decision reached, and his voice crackles through my head instead of out loud. He chose not to trust Ripley.

We’re waiting for Anna to finish with the sequences, he says. She’s close enough to think she’s done but she won’t be happy until she knows it works, until she’s had proof.

“And why does that matter?” I ask, ignoring the way Ripley looks across both of us, confused.

Because we promised our people their right to protect themselves.

“So?” We take out Jack first and then we give them their sequences. Why is it holding us back?

And what if we lose?

I falter, just looking at him. Shark raises an eyebrow. “Do you think we’d simply be able to walk away from that?” He asks.

“No,” I breathe. “Not this time.”

Don’t worry, he assures me, reading the doubt before it’s even begun to blossomin my mind. You’re strong enough.

“I hope so.”

Ripley coughs, folding his arms across his stomach. I return my attention to his presence. There’s nothing about him that suggests the anarchy he must have left behind at The Facility. I’m surprised they even let him leave but then there was probably very little reason to continue scrapping with him once I had already left and Ripley’s always been very good at talking his way out of trouble.

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“We’re leaving,” Shark says and the way he speaks brokers no question. “You’ve seen her, like you wanted, and she’s fine. We will be seeing you tomorrow.”

We turn to leave and for a second I truly believe Ripley will allow us to go. My palm is wrapped around the handle already, door creaking open, when he finally speaks up.

“And when we have him?” Ripley asks. “I can trust you to let justice run its cause? I can trust you to follow the letter of the law?” I look over my shoulder, watching Ripely run an idle hand over his scarred stomach. “You strike me as someone to take things personally, superhero,” he continues. “Don’t let him cloud your judgement, Maya.”

“You’ll never…” I begin but Shark already has a heavy palm on my shoulder, stilling my voice.

“I don’t care what happens to him as long as he’s stopped,” Shark says. “He’s yours.”

Ripley just nods and Shark brushes past me, out into the station once again. I follow, allowing Ripley’s door to shut behind us, but I don’t let him move any further. I reach out a hand, taking hold of his arm, and pull him in close.

“I showed you what I saw,” I hiss as Shark’s brow furrows. “You can’t give him to Ripley. Even Delanon couldn’t hold him, not now.”

Shark takes in a single breath, filling his chest, and as he slowly releases the trapped air, I watch his eyes. They turn to steel.

“Don’t worry, Maya,” he says. “It won’t get that far.”

I swallow nervously but I’m glad he spoke, glad he gave me the honesty of his intentions. He knows I’m not going to leave him for it. We both know he’s already a killer, that he has it in him. My only fear is that, in the end, he might not be the only one. It could be any of the three of us, left with the choice to end all of the destruction with one final blow, and I’m worried that it might have to be me.

“Don’t worry,” Shark repeats. “You’re strong enough.”

He smiles, betraying the gravity of our conversation by darting into the small space that separates us and placing a fleeting kiss across my lips. He straightens, wrapping an arm around my waist, and surveys the station floor.

“Hey, Housemate!” He calls when he finds what he’s looking for. “It’s time.”

“Time for what?” I ask as Alex turns his head.

Alex holds up a single finger, requesting just a modicum more time. He has his head bent over a table, discussing something with Tim. The conversation looks like an intense one but eventually agreement of some description is reached, even though Tim walks away looking more than disgruntled, and Alex jogs to our side.

“Let’s go,” he says.

“Where?”

“Home,” Shark says. “My one.”

“With Alex?”

“It’s cool,” Alex says. “We found some common ground, we’re pals now.” Alex waits until he thinks Shark’s not looking before he leans down and whispers in my ear. “I’m gonna fuck his sister. He loves it.”

“I can hear every word in your head you filthy little…”

Alex holds up a finger, cutting him off short.

“Get used to it,” he says.

I grab Alex’s waving digit, wrapping my arm tighter around Shark’s torso, and make us disappear before they can tear each other apart. I’m not entirely sure what difference being in Shark’s living room might make but at least it’s not public.

Anna is there as we arrive, curled up in front of the fire with her laptop resting lightly on the hearth. Shark tears his mask from his face and storms from the room. Alex moves in the opposite direction, almost skipping over to join her side.

“Welcome back,” she says to me, smiling prettily, and turns her head up to address Alex. “I don’t know what you’re looking so pleased about,” she says. “You’re about to have the most miserable night of your entire existence.”

“I trust you.”

“Good, then trust me when I tell you it’s going to be agony.”

Alex just shrugs, dropping down at her side. He leans back against the stone of the hearth, slipping an arm behind her shoulders. It’s not quite touching but it’s close enough.

“Careful there,” I warn. “She’ll try and put a knife through your eye.”

They share a look. It’s insufferable.

“Don’t worry,” Alex says. “She already tried twice.”

“Actually, it was only once,” she corrects.

“Oh yes,” Alex smirks. “The other time she only tried to put it through the back of my hand.” He turns up to look at me, mock sincerity creasing his brow. “I deserved it,” he says.

“Fucking hell,” I say, pointing between them. “This cannot be a thing. No. Just no.”

“Too late,” Alex says. He leans backwards, so that he’s talking to me from behind the back of her head, and mouthes the words, ‘I’m going to fuck The Lady, Maya,’ before returning to his original position and continuing, out loud, with: “Next time you should think of things like this before you decide to have a little prison party.”

“I hate you both,” I announce and leave.

Shark is pottering around in the kitchen. He looks up soulfully as I arrive. “I needed you, Maya,” he says. “It’s been hell.”

“I can see that,” I say. “How could you allow this to happen?”

“You think I had any choice?” He asks.

“She looks a lot better,” I say. “Did you get your healers?”

Shark shakes his head. “No,” he says. “But she heals fast, remember, and he’s been taking good care of her. Underneath his blustering he’s… not inherently bad, I guess.”

“It’s not his goodness I’m worried about,” I say. “It’s hers. She’s going to kill him.”

“Well thanks for that vote of confidence, Maya,” Anna says, striding into the room, laptop cradled under her good arm. Alex follows like a bumbling puppy. I want to throttle him.

“Look at him,” Shark whispers. “If she does kill him, he’ll deserve it.”

“I heard that,” she snaps.

“It’s fine, Maya,” Alex says, hopping onto the kitchen counter. Shark scowls but he ignores it. “After tomorrow, she won’t be able to touch me. I’ll be a match for any of you bastards.”

“And on that beautiful note,” she says. “Let’s synthesise some superpowers.”

Alex throws his hands up in victory and my blood rushes cold in sudden realisation.

“No,” I say, “not him. He’s not your guinea pig.”

“He’ll be fine,” she says.

“You don’t know that. The whole reason you’re doing this is because you don’t know for sure without trying it once first. That’s fine, you can have anyone you like, just not Alex. He’s like family to me.”

The expression on Alex’s face drops away and, for the first time since we left the station, he looks sane. He looks serious.

“Maya, I chose this,” he says.

I turn to Shark, glaring up at him.

“You can’t let this happen,” I say.

“The way I see it,” he says, “it’s the one good thing that’s come out of letting you take her to him in the first place. It’s the only reason I’ve managed to get through this week without killing him myself.”

I can feel the tears prickling at the corners of my eyes before he’s even finished speaking. “That’s not funny,” I say. “You know how important this is to me.”

I’m alone, adrift on a sea of Jack Docklen’s horrors, the same memories that assault me every time I close my eyes. Alex is the one constant I’ve had my entire life, he’s the one person that’s always looked after me when I’ve needed it most. He picks me up, sets me back on my feet, and laughs at the blood on my knees. I need that, I need it now more than ever. I can’t afford to lose him.

“Hey,” Alex says, hopping off the counter as my knees begin to buckle. He rests his hands on the tops of my arms, trying to look me in the eye, but I push him away. I slip to the floor, wrapping my arms around Shark’s calves and pressing my face into his thigh. It’s juvenile and stupid but it’s comforting and I need that right now.

“I can’t keep up with you, Maya,” Shark’s voice murmurs, “your thoughts just flip back without warning, I’m sorry.” His fingers wrap through my hair, playing absently with every strand. “She’s going through some things,” he says.

“Maya.” Alex is crouching at my side, trying to catch my eye. “You were the one that suggested this. You remember? When we were in the holding cells. You were right, I’m a protector. I want to help with Jack.”

“Not this way,” I say. “I didn’t mean it this way.”

“This is the only way,” he replies.

*******

“I still don’t like this,” I say, feet tapping hollowly in the wide galleries of Shark and Anna’s abandoned mansion. I brought us to the familiar drawing room, with the dust covers and the massive mirror, but now we’re walking up, along the long corridor that Anna uses as a shooting range, and into the luxury of a master bedroom.

It’s perfectly private up here, ideal for what we’re about to attempt. Anything could happen and no one would hear.

Shark’s fingers weave through mine and he looks down at me softly.

“It’s already done,” he says. “It’s decided.” He nods over to where Alex has hopped up onto the edge of the bed, legs swinging idly. “There’s nothing you could say that would change his mind. Trust me, I’ve looked for you.”

I sigh, nudging my head against his shoulder in a brief display of affection, and walk to Alex’s side. The bed is a giant fourposter one, voluptuous Persian curtains draped over every corner. I wrap my fingers in the heavy material and watch him watching Anna.

“It’s going to be fine, Maya,” he murmurs, eyes never leaving her as Shark takes her laptop from his bag and hands it over. “And this time, without The Facility to intervene, we can have a new PlayStation every christmas.”

Anna taps a few buttons, nods her head as if she’s satisfied, and discards the laptop on a dresser. Shark steps forward. He clutches a titanium case in his right hand. It seems to long ago that I first watched him stealing that stuff. So much has changed.

Everything seems so inevitable as Shark and Anna talk softly to each other, assembling something out the box. At one point she steps forward, fingers flittering over Alex’s body. She takes his pulse, shines a light in each eye and nods to herself, satisfied. I find myself secretly praying he has a heart murmur or something stupid, anything to stop this going ahead, but I’m not so lucky.

Eventually she straightens. In her left hand she holds a device that looks more suited to a piercing parlour. As she walks over, Shark pulls a glass canister from the box and hands it over. She clicks it into place and as Shark provides her with three further liquids, I realise it’s some kind of automated device, for administering injections in the correct sequence.

Alex holds out an arm expectantly but she shakes her head, lifting his shirt gently to bare his stomach.

“How are you going to activate it?” I ask. “We haven’t got any equipment here.”

“It’s already activated,” she says.

“How?”

Anna turns her head, looking at me with concern. “Would this be easier for you if you understood more about what is happening?”

I nod.

“Alright,” she says. “There are, on a high level, three families of cells in the human body and we need to change them all. There are those derived from endoderm.” Her fingers scrabble at the device in her hand, drawing out a canister. The liquid inside is tinged ever so slightly pink. She hands me the glass tube and moves onto the next one. “Those derived from ectoderm.” The ectoderm tube is perfectly clear. “And those from mesoderm.” Mesoderm is slightly cloudier than the others.

I hand her back the canisters, toying briefly with the idea of tossing them out the window, but Shark looks at me disapprovingly before I can act. Anna clicks them back into place and draws out the final canister.

“This,” she says, waving it beneath my nose but not allowing me to touch it this time. I wonder if Shark warned her about my desire to smash them. “This one will activate them. I made it myself. It’s catalyst, a potent soup of chemicals and stem cells to replace anything that might die in the mutation of his existing cells.”

“Where did you get stem cells from?”

“Maya… Shark and I can get hold of anything. You should know this.” That’s her way of telling me I don’t want to know the answer so I leave it. “Happy?” She asks, slipping the final canister back into place.

“I guess I’ll have to be,” I say and turn to Alex. “Are you sure this is what you want?” I ask. “Remember what it felt like the first time. Do you really want to go through that again? There are always other ways.”

“Maya,” he says. “I’ve decided.”

“Alright, fine.” I step back, hating myself that I’m giving them the permission to proceed, and return to Shark’s side. He wraps his arm around my back, holding me steady.

Anna places her terrifying lab machinery up against his stomach and gives him a brief count down. Alex breathes deep, as though he’s steeling himself, and with the sound of four tiny pistons, she takes it to the point where there’s no going back.

She removes the device as quickly as she placed it there and, for a while, there is silence as Alex rubs his thumb thoughtfully over the four tiny holes in his abdomen.

“Nothing’s happening,” he says.

And then he screams, and he screams…


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