The man in the hi-tech body armor walked from cell door window to cell door window, inspecting the contents. His large and dangerous looking weapon swung slightly from its strap as he slowly made his way down the sterile and much too glaringly well-lit hallway. His employers’ unwilling subjects of experimentation were all subdued and quiet. This was unsurprising given the time of night it was …and the paces they’d been put through during the day. Aliens, mutants, and even stranger things still, Kurt Kleiner, high-priced thug-for-hire, couldn’t be bothered to work up concern over them.
Better you than me, he thought to himself.
He checked his watch for the fifth time in as many minutes. Shift rollover was approaching and he was bored beyond words. He would never have voiced a word of complaint to his unforgiving paymasters, but sometimes, times like tonight, Kurt missed The Eternal Reich.
Sure, S.P.I.R.E. paid better. Especially the sections he played rent-a-gun for. Good benefits package, too, because, well, who bothered Eisenritter with questions about dental coverage?
But, it was so boring.
“Stand guard over these technicians here, Kleiner.”
“Make sure no one touches those glass tubes there, Kleiner.”
“Taser the restrained specimen again, Kleiner.”
No excitement. At least in The Eternal Reich you got to occasionally shoot people. Annoying people. Here it was all, “Don’t injure the specimen unnecessarily…” and “Careful firing that around this equipment, you dolt!”
Ah, well. People in costumes didn’t punch him through walls here, either. That part he didn’t miss. And “guard staff for a cabal of mad scientists” as a job descriptor didn’t get the authorities quite as worked up as “brutal foot soldiers for a cabal of genocidal world conquerors,” so if worse came to worse, bail amounts and a chance to flee the jurisdiction were actually still options.
Passing another cell he looked in to make sure it was still occupied. No surprise. It was. A young female mutant, acquired only recently, slept on her cot.
He smiled to himself.
Her ability? She made a few duplicates of herself.
As if that would enable her to break down reinforced armor plating.
And the dupes all dropped to the ground when tasered just like any normal person would— adding useless and equally fragile targets for the guards’ rifle practice was barely more than pathetic, in his opinion. Her neighbor, though… when Kleiner stopped in front of her cell, he carefully inspected the prisoner and her surroundings.
Bare cot frame; just a thin metal slab, really. Wearing a skintight and pocketless body glove to leave no way to hide anything on her person. No material loose in the cell of any kind, certainly nothing technological.
All the sensors were behind armor glass in the ceiling and walls, and there weren’t even any screws accessible. That idiot Johanson had underestimated her last week, and she had managed to slip away and make it to a janitorial supply closet. Thirty seconds, sixty at most. The aggravating little wunderkind had weaponized the cleaning supplies by the time they found her and was rapidly repurposing the janitor’s old Walkman into what the eggheads later determined was an EM Damper. Supergeniuses weren’t to be trifled with, no matter how waifish and harmless they looked.
There she was sitting cross-legged on her cot, glaring daggers at him. Of course, she was awake.
She’d had nothing at hand worse than floor cleaner and household chemicals, and moments later Johanson had massive chemical burns over half his body and was being wheeled hurriedly to the infirmary.
Hmm. Maybe this job wasn’t so completely boring, after all.
A few seconds walk later and he stopped in front of the full armor-glass door to one of the more involved holding areas. All the equipment lining the walls intimidated some of the guards, but Kurt had seen actual Doomsday Weapons™ up close; he wasn’t impressed. Now, the reason all that equipment was necessary, that was different.
She looked like a young woman, maybe a body-builder of some kind. But he had overheard the techs talking. They didn’t know what she was or what made her tick. She’d been brought in unconscious by some people S.P.I.R.E. occasionally did business with — he didn’t know who they had been and it was quickly made very clear that pursuing that line of questioning was a bad idea — and they’d been tasked with analysis and what amounted to storage. She stood in her big glowing energy bubble, designed just to contain her, awake and sulking.
Supermodel looks. Definitely one of the most beautiful females he’d ever seen, even if it turned out she really only looked human (or female for that matter). But so unbelievably strong.
The bubble spun whenever she hit it, allowing none of the power to push outward from her efforts. Otherwise she would have punched her way through every wall here and made her way to the surface. Kurt had also seen the tests they ran on her and knew there was nothing in their arsenal onsite that could bring her down if needed; he was also quite sure that whatever had actually managed to knock her out and made her initial capture possible, he never wanted to meet that either.
The techs said the bubble would hold. If it didn’t, Kurt and the other guards had resolved to make a show of confronting her, to look like they were doing their jobs just long enough to withdraw from the area, and then to run like hell and let her do whatever she wanted to the labcoat guys. No English, though. Whenever they talked to her, she rambled back in some language they hadn’t identified yet.
He stopped before the blast door that marked the security perimeter. Beyond here he didn’t have the clearance to proceed and he was fine with that. He had heard bits and pieces of scuttlebutt about the things kept confined in the lower levels and he was happy to sticking in his own prescribed security zone to patrol.
Sigh. Only a few minutes used up. He wanted shift change to signal so he could go home and watch the game he had DVRed last night, preferably before one of his coworkers starting babbling on about it when they came in and ruined the outcome for him. The Sterling City Mavericks were hosting the Meridian Crowns and he had $50 riding on the Crowns. They’d been on a winning streak and he wanted to cash in a little before it petered out. After the last three abysmal seasons, he felt a Crowns fan had it coming. At least the team had finally dumped that overpaid, over-the-hill pitcher last season. What a loser.
Perhaps it was because his mind was elsewhere, but Kleiner completely missed the sound of the metal cable snaking slowly through the ventilation grate in the ceiling. When he turned, a small hyper-dense dart shot forcefully from the systems pod at the end of the motorized cable, piercing his neck armor and instantly injecting him with enough synthetic tranquilizers to drop a rhino in its tracks. He never even had time to register his surprise before he slumped bonelessly to the ground. At the same time, utterly silently, a small sphere then hovered down, staying bare millimeters from the ceiling. It flew to each of the cameras and attached small devices to each before returning to the shaft.
A tool-mounted waldo then emerged from the pod to detach the grate from its moorings before the grate was levered up into the ventilation shaft. Only then did a figure emerge, dropping into crouch on the floor before stealthily moving down the corridor. Quiet as a mouse on the outside, inside her head thoughts came fast and furious.
“Our intrepid heroine’s brilliant plan continued to work flawlessly as she made her way into the villain’s dire…no, dread…no, deadly, yes, deadly lair, “ she thought to herself, her imagination providing a rousing accompaniment of action hero theme music in her head.
An observer would have noticed the intruder was slight, not that much more than five feet tall even in her reinforced and exotic footwear, and barely above a hundred pounds. Closer examination would have revealed the reason, namely age and gender. The intruder was a young woman, at most sixteen, maybe seventeen years of age. A complex-looking GPS in hand, she seemed to know exactly where she was going, passing the containment cells with purpose and so quickly she probably didn’t even know what they were, aiming directly at one of the labs.
A few seconds work with a device from one of her pouches and the door opened without problem. She stepped inside and then stopped in her tracks, her jaw slowly dropping open.
“Oh, Minerva,” an electronic voice said out loud, somehow conveying mild exasperation in its digitally modulated tones. “I told you I didn’t want you putting yourself at risk for me.”
Lying on an elevated work table, its surface rotated up and forward at an angle, was a machine in the form of a woman. “Robot” didn’t really do it justice; “android” would have been more accurate. Numerous wires were attached to ports and various connections showing under opened ceramo-metallic plates. Holographically displayed screens displayed myriad readings for its systems, but the other lights in the room remained dim and there was no one apparently there to monitor the systems in person at this hour.
“Well, I…, uh, the…, I mean to say, “ the intruder stammered before seeming to regain her equilibrium and overcome some of her shock. “Crap. Okay. I admit it. This was nothing like what I was expecting to find here after talking to you online. You’re a machine.”
“I am an artilect. A simulated humanoid chassis housing a dedicated artificial-intelligence software package. If I possessed less sophisticated capabilities, I would have been unable to circumvent S.P.I.R.E.’s network protocols and access an internet connection even as briefly as I did.”
“You never said you weren’t human.”
“I never said I was, either. And correct me if I am mistaken, but you weren’t technically authorized to intercept my communication attempts with The Challenger Institute’s offices, one of the few potential allies whose systems the network was not actively surveiling and blocking …were you?”
The young woman blushed slightly as a sheepish grin rose on her lips.
“Well, okay, not technically. But Uncle Percival wouldn’t have held it against me. I am family after all. So, is your name even ‘Leah,’ like you claimed it was?”
“Records I accessed from less protected databases here claim my systems were based on those of an artilect created by a man named ‘Steele.’ The technicians working on me informally referred to me as ‘Coppelia 2.0,’ so yes, I do claim that appellation.”
“They changed your visual design a bit, then. I’ve seen pictures of the original. Anyway, I came here to rescue you and that’s what I intend to do. We can worry about these other, ummm, details, later.”
Minerva Challenger strode across the room, trying very hard to project every ounce of what she deemed “maturity” and “determination” as she did the hero swagger she had practiced in front of her mirror at home.
“Did you injure yourself bypassing their security?” the android asked, its voice showing concern. “You seem to be walking oddly.”
The youngest scion of the Challenger family stopped in mid-stride. She sighed heavily.
“Never mind…,” she growled under her breath as she began to unhook the web of sensor probes and electrical connections from Coppelia.
Luis Villarojas walked quickly through the security entrance down to the containment and analysis level. He wanted to catch Steiner before shift change to give him the money he owed him. Otherwise, their schedules wouldn’t overlap for several more days and Steiner could be such a whiny douche about money. Besides, it would be worth it just to get the chance to “accidentally” let slip a few words about the game that ended a couple of hours ago and ruin it for Kurt.
Like most of the others working security here, Luis didn’t really like Steiner. No, he didn’t have the surly German’s experience or training, but dropping the names of the big-shot Black Hats you used to work for —at every available opportunity — was annoying, not to mention childish.
The duty roster said Steiner was in the female containment wing tonight. Luis also didn’t understand why they had to segregate the “specimens.” It wasn’t like any of the guards were masochistic or suicidal enough to try anything with these girls, and the male prisoners weren’t in any condition to play Romeo after what the eggheads here put ‘em through daily. He shuddered and grimaced at the thought of what “bubble girl” would do to him or any other guard stupid enough to let her get those steel-crushing hands on them.
He stopped dead as he turned the corner and saw Steiner laid out on the floor.
“Oh, Hell,” he muttered as he whipped his head around in every direction, his gun frantically sweeping around in his hands as he desperately looked for whatever did this to the big jerk. One of the reasons he worked for S.P.I.R.E. was that they flew under the radar. He was just supposed to look intimidating; it didn’t mean he really wanted to have to fight or actually earn his paycheck. Managing to get a grip on his nerves again, he ran to the security station at the end of the juncture and slammed the alarm button.
Minerva helped Coppelia to her feet.
“See,” she said. “Easy-peasy and none the wiser. Now let’s get out of –“
She was cut off as lights started flashing and klaxons wailed.
“Crap. New plan. It involves running. A lot.”
“We can’t leave yet, Minerva. I was not the only prisoner held here for their nefarious ends.”
“First, we most certainly can leave yet; I only planned on getting two of us out of here and this ‘other prisoners’ stuff is news to me. We can come back for others when we go get some backup. Like, maybe, The Sentinels, or at least the Feds. Second, no one actually uses ‘nefarious’ in conversation, Leah; it’s like, totally all ‘Rocky and Bullwinkle’ and stuff.”
She stopped and turned back as she realized her companion had already stopped and seemed lost in concentration.
“…And you’re not actually listening to me anymore, are you?”
The lights flickered for the briefest second. Then Coppelia was looking at Minerva again.
“I had only the smallest window of opportunity before the system locked down. I disabled the two nearest containment cells.”
Minerva rolled her eyes. “Awesome,” she deadpanned. “Not. Two more lost little sheep Bo Peep has to deal with.”
“You are not displaying the level of self-control and easy adaptation to stressful situations I expected from a member of the Challenger family, “ Coppelia said.
“I just turned sixteen and this is my first solo excursion into a hidden base against countless fanatical supervillain minions looking to kill me. Cut me some slack.”
“Technically, this organization is not comprised of ‘supervillains,’ to use your term. Also, these are not fanatical minions. They are mercenaries, and merely human, albeit well-trained and heavily armed ones. Oh, and there are only a few dozen, not countless.”
“Well, gosh. Don’t I feel all kinds of better for knowing that,” she retorted, again deadpan.
“Sarcasm is counterproductive at this moment.”
“Doesn’t make it any less satisfying, though,” Minerva answered through a forced but predatory smile, drawing a small, efficient looking gun from one of her pouches and moving up to peer around the door frame.
The first squad of guards to arrive slowed from a run as they approached Villarojas’ position, making him smirk in anticipatory glee. Yep, he thought. Good men with the gear and the training and the tactical position. Someone was in for a nasty surprise. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
A split-second later Luis saw the cell door beside the massed squad open and a teenage girl slip out. As she moved she split into two and then three of herself as fast as his eyes could follow and much faster than his compatriots could react. She slipped between them fluidly, duplicating and reconsolidating or vice versa, over and over. A punch here and then she was gone. A shot placed at her there as she disappeared only to have the shot hit the guard behind where she had been. An elbow thrown, a guard tripped, disappearing and reappearing like an old-fashioned slinky-toy spooling and rebounding. A frank assessment told him she looked more frantic and desperate than trained or precise, but the effect remained the same nonetheless.
Then he heard the high-pitched whine of a power-cycling blaster behind him.
Spinning, his rifle pointing in front of him Luis noticed that his blaster pistol wasn’t in its holster. And his key-ring wasn’t hanging from his belt. In front of him stood another, different girl than the one humiliating the security response detail. This one was a long-haired brunette, as opposed to the duplicator and her short black bob cut. The brunette had his pistol in one hand and his keys in the other. It looked like she was using his keys to screw the buffer plate back into place on the side of his pistol.
“Catch,” she said, tossing both the gun and keys to him. Reflexively he dropped his rifle on its strap to catch the items.
“You guys still use those funky comm-systems in your helmets, right?” she asked.
Before he could respond, the gun flared actinic blue from its power core and the collimation chamber overloaded, releasing some kind of pulse. Instantly, the earpieces on each of the guards helmets blew up and they all fell to the ground twitching in agony as consciousness fled.
Luis’ last waking thought was a stream of profanity before he too succumbed.
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes,’” the young woman said, as she admired her handiwork. Then she looked over at the other girl in the hall, who had an understandably confused expression.
“Bwa-ha-ha!” she suddenly let out, causing her already confused erstwhile companion to take a step back. “Sorry. Sometimes I just gotta let loose with my inner Frankenstein…”
“That was sweet,” they heard from behind them, as a young blonde and some kind of robot walked over to them. Neither of them looked anything like the initial pair’s captors, so they didn’t immediately respond in alarm.
“Now let’s get out of here while we still can-, “Minerva began.
She was again interrupted, this time by the sounds of numerous boots on the steel floor-plating as a second squad rushed into position from another juncture to the long corridor. A dozen ugly-looking weapons projected aiming laser dots toward the four targets standing openly in the intersection.
“Note to self,” Minerva said, sotto voce, “Leaving hard cover to group gloat before securing area equals remarkably bad idea. Got it. So… very… got it.”
An intercom came noisily to life. “Drop your weapons and you may live to see morning!”
The brunette glared contemptuously at the intercom speaker on the ceiling.
“I can’t drop my brain, doofus. Besides, I’d worry a lot less about the four of us,” she said, her finger slowly rising to point at the elaborate containment room down the hall as a smile that can most charitably be described as “evil” grew on her face. “And I’d be a lot more worried about the fact that my little pulse weapon also shut down the auxiliary power to the cells over there. You know, the auxiliary power that was feeding the force field rig for ‘bubble girl?’”
They couldn’t see the face of the man on the other end of the intercom, but the sudden fear on the faces of the guards through their helmets’ transparent face covers was very noticeable, as was their all slowly turning their heads toward that room’s door as one.
For a moment, there was nothing but silence in the corridor.
It was brief.
Then, a horrendous tearing, rending, and crashing cacophony heralded the brutally swift appearance of an enormous piece of machinery —easily the size of a train engine — as it burst through the corridor wall and left metal supports flattened, armor plate ruptured, and reinforced concrete shattered in its wake. The few guards left standing made a pitiful, almost perfunctory display of firing a few shots at the statuesque blonde strolling out into the corridor as if she owned it. The shots appeared to have little effect, but the men fled almost immediately and before they really had time to assess that result anyway.
Ignoring her remaining audience, all four of them, she walked over to the trashed hunk of gargantuan machinery and with disturbingly little effort, picked it up, destroying what little ceiling remained over her head. With a mighty heave, she threw it upward at an angle, clearing numerous floors above them as it barreled through without slowing before clearing the surface and continuing on into the sky, then crashing with a monstrous roar somewhere outside the facility.
“Really hoping that industrial park topside was as deserted as it looked,“ Minerva said softly.
The woman in front of her turned, seeming to take in Minerva and the other three for the first time and slowly walked toward them.
Minerva and the other two human-looking women shuffled into a crouch behind Coppelia.
“Whatever it is you want to hear us say to not piss you off, just assume we said it. Repeatedly. Okay?” Minerva blurted out hurriedly.
The taller blonde stopped and loomed down at them.
In fairness, the looming was pretty much in the eyes of the be-loomed, but Minerva thought there was room for interpretation.
“I see the one-who-is-many, the artificial woman, the runt of her family, and the annoying one. Where is the other from my dreams, the Nubian with the skull painted on her face?” the tall blonde asked, her voice every bit as beautiful as the rest of her. It was also a bit imperious, but Minerva conceded internally she wasn’t the best judge of that right then and there.
The four shuffled around to look at each other for a moment and then returned their gaze to her.
“The who? The what? Hunh?” was all Minerva could manage.
“It is of little import. Come. We leave. I am weary of this place and would seek sustenance elsewhere.” And with that, she spun on her heel and leisurely walked up the slanting tunnel her makeshift battering ram had left behind it.
“Wait! Did you just call me a runt? Hey!” Minerva turned toward Coppelia. “When did I stop being in charge of this rescue?”
The brunette barely spared her a glance as she briskly walked to catch up with She-Who-Is-Not-Ignored. “You were in charge? I must have missed that part.”
The black haired girl shrugged and gave Minerva an awkward “embarrassed for you” sort of look and then also started jogging up the incline.
She was about to respond in some heat when Coppelia put a hand on her shoulder. “Thank you for rescuing me, Minerva. I am very appreciative. Now, let us see if we can minimize the damage that one does to the city.”
“She is kind of indiscriminate with her strength, isn’t she?”
“I was referring to the little brunette.”
“Oh. Good point. We’d better hurry.”