Chapter Twenty Two - Pods and Sods
Charlotte gasps. Below are rows and rows of white shiny pods, the ones in her father’s cryogenic lab at Parson’s. Each is adorned with rows of blinking coloured lights. Men and women in white are moving swiftly among them, checking each one, while three more assistants are gathered round a pod from which the urgent beeping comes. Seated nearby, studying large screens are a few more white-clad assistants. Her breath held tight, Charlotte’s eyes search for that precious object she dreads is here. In the far corner, lying on its side with the door crookedly open, lies the pod marked ‘Ellen Campbell.’
“No! You bastards!” She yells. Throwing up her hands she instinctively sends a shockwave into the lab below. Human bodies fly everywhere, pods too. She’s just about to launch herself down there when Gabe restrains her.
“Charlie, stop! What are you doing?”
“Mum’s pod!” She growls, her head thumping with a crescendo of pain. “Look, they’ve opened it. They don’t even care!”
He spins her to face him, staring down at her.
“You have to calm down. We’ll never find your father this way.” He flicks a glance at Anna Povic.
“Just watch me!” Charlotte snaps, pushing away from him. Raising her hands she glowers at the hapless people below.
“Charlie!” Gabe cries. “Please.”
“I have every right!” She lifts her chin. “And the power.”
“Good, good,” purrs Anna Povic. “Express your anger! Make them feel it.” Her hardened face is eager. “Show us what you can do.”
Charlotte spins, her fingers spread at her sides. Suddenly the woman’s face goes red and she clutches her throat. Her eyes are bulging as she is lifted off the floor encased in a filmy bubble while the guard stares helplessly, too scared of Charlotte to do anything. Charlotte smiles, spinning the woman round and round, enjoying the feeling of power surging through her so easily, so freely, so wonderfully. Revenge tastes delicious.
“You will tell me where my father is,” she snarls, “or I will crush your windpipe.”
“Charlie, look at what she’s making you do!” Gabe pleads.
She turns on him. “I am not going to let her go until she releases my father!” She smiles evilly at the woman, gurgling in mid-air. Tilting her head on the side she adds, “Or maybe I won’t.”
“This is not like you, Charlie. This isn’t right!” Gabe says desperately. Anna Povic’s face is purple, her lips swollen unnaturally, her eyes glazed. “You’re killing her!” Gabe seethes through clenched teeth. “Stop it.” He grabs her arm, hard. She glares at him, wordlessly angry. “Is this what you’ve become, Charlie - a killer?”
“You don’t know what it’s like!” Tears threaten, but she drops her gaze and the bubble snaps. Anna Povic plummets to the concrete floor with an awful crunching sound, screaming in agony. Gabe pulls Charlotte closer.
“Listen to me. This is not the way to get your dad back. This is not what he would want.”
Her head is pounding. She looks at her arms, covered in ugly, black marks of death. Resting her face against the soft fabric of his shirt, she can feel the comforting firm muscle beneath. Her breathing slows.
“Don’t give up now,” he murmurs into her hair. “Be strong. I know you can do it.” She opens her eyes. Anna Povic is groaning in the background, the guard standing haplessly beside her. Gonzo is watching Charlotte, afraid, yet sympathetic.
“Sorry,” she mumbles, with a lopsided smile. Gonzo nods very solemnly and puts a hand to his ear, listening.
“Bird says he’s found something.”
At that moment, all the lab assistants down below suddenly look up. The males are identical to the blonde guard.
And all the females look exactly like Charlotte.
Around the huge chamber, the walls explode as figures in black appear from everywhere, from doors that were just now solid walls. Doors in the floor open, spewing out swarms of black-clad people, all armed, all identical to the females and males in the lab below. Charlotte pushes Gabe behind her.
“Shoot them!’ shrieks Anna Povic from her position on the floor, her eyes wild. She snatches the device from the nearest guard. Dragging herself along the floor, her chipped red nails scratching for purchase on the smooth surface, she points it at Charlotte and fires. A beam of green light flashes out. Charlotte flicks up her hand and the beam stops in mid-air.
“Get back! Get behind me!” She cries, spreading both hands wide, feeling the power gather itself inside her like a blazing tornado. But she’s too slow. Other beams spray towards them.
“Argh!” Cries someone behind her. No! Holding her hands out, Charlotte creates a bubble around herself and the boys. Groaning with effort, she lifts it high into the air, towards the lofty ceiling. Charlotte looks down. Through the filmy surface of the bubble she can see green beams harmlessly hitting the wall. Anna Povic is lying awkwardly, her mouth working in agonised, exaggerated movements as she gives instructions to the clones teeming about her. Sharp pain stabs into Charlotte’s head. She clutches it with one hand, struggling to keep focussed.
“I can’t hold it much longer,” she gasps, her eyes seeking Gabe’s face. He looks at her helplessly, his hands reaching out, but afraid to touch her and break her concentration.
“Can you get us to the lift?” Gonzo asks softly.
She nods. “I think so.” She clenches her whole body tight. The heat that powers her is fading, as the pain increases. Any second now she will lose consciousness. She fights, shuddering violently, biting her lip so hard she can taste blood. The bubble moves slowly, slowly towards the wall, as if it is caught in a web of resistance. She has no idea what’s going on below them now. All her will is focussed upon getting them to the lift. But what will they do then?
Using every ounce of concentration, Charlotte lowers the bubble to the ground. With a finger she traces an opening and beckons the boys to step out. Suddenly caught in real time, they turn slowly, shrug and stare at her, mouths open. The wall is completely smooth, as if the lift doors were never there. Charlotte fights the panic rising in her throat.
“There must be a button somewhere,” she says to Gabe. “Hurry!” He nods slowly, caught in real time. The boys fan out, their hands gliding over the surface. They move so agonisingly slow Charlotte is tempted to snap the bubble, but she focuses on keeping the protective shield at their backs. A small part of her brain rejoices at her new skills, under such dire circumstances, but as she turns to see what is going on behind them, she sees that time is no longer her friend. Exact replicas of herself are running towards her, their faces sharp and intent. Their limbs move in slow motion but through the gauzy film of the bubble Charlotte can see that the tiny world she has created is slowing. Her power is draining away. She grits her teeth, striving to feed more energy into the bubble, even as her head explodes with pain and ice threads through her veins. The other Charlottes are within ten feet now, reaching out their slender hands to grapple with her. They don’t seem to communicate verbally at all, just nodding to each other in a silent language of telepathy. Among them, the blonde young men are firing beams.
“Gabe!” She screams. He turns, his face white with terror. She’s losing the bubble. Real time is catching up with all of them.
Then the doors appear from nowhere, sliding open.
“In! Now, Charlie!” Gabe reaches through the flimsy remnants of the bubble, grabs her blackened arm and yanks her into the lift. As the doors start to close the bubble disintegrates and the beams impact like thunder. They all duck behind the partially closed doors, their hands over their faces, as if those feeble fleshy things could protect them from the burning light as the doors inch together, like two snails. Peeking from her crouched position, Charlotte is mesmerised by her clones, who are throwing themselves towards the door, their pretty faces distorted in ugly determination. Gabe is smashing the ‘close doors’ button over and over with his fist. Gonzo kicks at anything that pushes through the doors. The doors meet silently. Charlotte cries in little breaths of distress, her eyes on Gabe’s grim face. His jaw is clenched, his eyes steely as he helps her to her feet and envelopes her in his arms.
“Well that was ugly as a baboon’s backside,” says Gonzo, panting.
“Bird?” asks Gabe, touching his ear. “Yep. Right. Ok.” He looks at Charlotte. “He says we’re headed down to level four.”
“Is that good?”
Gabe shrugs. “Probably.”
Charlotte groans in agony, the world inside the lift spins in giant circles. Reaching out to push Gabe away, she jerks forward and vomits orange goo all over Gonzo’s shoes. She looks up at him apologetically, then flops to the floor. As the darkness creeps over her she feels someone slapping her face and Gabe’s voice, distantly pleading.
“Charlie, not now! We need you. Stay with me!” She struggles against the darkness with every tiny shred of strength inside her, forcing her eyes to open wide.
“Help me…” She gasps, sagging against him. “Pinch me,” she mutters, slurring her words. “Hard…” Tight pain is ricocheting inside her head, but she feels a distant sensation somewhere on her skin. “Twist!” She cries. Gabe complies. The pain is sharp on the side of her neck. She tunes into it, willing her mind to ignore everything else.
The doors open. Gonzo’s voice is low, with an edge of despair to it.
“What?” Charlotte turns slowly in Gabe’s arms. They face complete darkness. Even the light from the lift is too shallow to penetrate the utter black. Gonzo looks at Gabe.
“Six steps. To the right,” whispers Gabe.
Gonzo nods, then strides confidently out of the lift, turns abruptly to the right and steps away from their sight.
“But what…” Charlotte begins to say, dazed by the overwhelming desire to faint.
“Sh.” Gabe gently puts his warm hand over her mouth. “We don’t know what’s here,” he whispers, directly into her ear. He kisses the side of her face gently. The lights above them flicker on, revealing a long room with rows and rows of white pods. There are no coloured lights, no soft beeping sounds, just a layer of dust over everything. With Gabe’s help, Charlotte struggles over to the first one. Craning her neck to peer into it, she braces herself for what lies inside. It’s empty. She sighs and looks round for Gabe’s reassuring face. He shrugs.
“Maybe they’re all empty. Do you really want to inspect every single one of them? You need to rest, Charlie.” He turns to Gonzo, who hands him Charlotte’s bulging Gucci bag. He puts it on the floor, unzips it and takes out a soft, warm jacket. “Here, put this on. You always get cold after you use your powers.” She obeys, silently, her mind striving to focus and process what has happened to them, and what might have happened inside this abandoned room. Gabe helps her sit down and lean up against the empty pod. He hands her a flask of water, which she gulps gratefully, along with a handful of pills. Taking out a syringe, he beckons Gonzo to help him. Charlotte is so disconnected from her body now she doesn’t even feel the needle go into her vein. Her mind is still striving to function, even though her body wants to shut down completely for about a month.
“You should lie down for a bit,” Gabe says firmly, removing another thick jacket and a small pillow from the bag.
“How much stuff have you got in there?” She murmurs, allowing him to lay her on her side, the pillow safely tucked under her aching, wooden head, the thick jacket over her like a blanket. She wonders idly how come he is so organised and knows what to pack. “You are no ordinary teenage boy…” She feels his lips against cheek.
“We’re going to do some reconnaissance.” Gabe says. “Stay Here.”
Charlotte manages a weak grin, then, closing her eyes settles down to allow her body to restore itself. She’s going over how she crafted the bubble and the opening for the boys to get out, when suddenly the face of a little girl pops into her mind. Ruby. What are Ruby and her parents are doing today? Wouldn’t it be nice to be a normal little girl, with normal parents and a normal life… But somehow she knows that Ruby’s life is no longer normal. She ought to be dead. From this point on, the pre-destined course of Ruby’s life has been altered. She has been given a second chance. Just like Charlotte. The first one. As her thoughts turn to wondering what the boys are doing, Charlotte finally succumbs to sleep.