Sloan hated the night shift. It had always been a chore, even when they had the last generation of assets being grown and trained here, some of them more prone to restlessness than others. That had been almost a decade ago, though; before his age had started catching up with him. He didn’t relish the long nights. Nor the ache in his knees and back that invariably followed.
At least the drive was pleasant. He glanced out of his car’s side window, admiring the snowscape, dotted by hills, distant mountains, and patches of determined shrubs. He found it soothing.
Eyes back on the main road, he caught what he could have sworn to be a figure in the distant gloom. He squinted, tapped a thumb against a lever to switch from the car’s usual headlights to the floodlights, and caught a petite figure, arms waving in the air above their head.
Sloan raised an eyebrow. Quite far afield of a place to be stranded. The nearest town was a kilometre or two behind him on the road. Drawing closer, the figure became easier to identify, picked out a little clearer in the gloom.
A young woman, wrapped up warm against the chill. He drew his car up alongside her and came to a stop. He rolled down his window.
“Can I help you, miss?” he asked. “You seem lost.”
“Oh my gosh,” the girl replied, a heavy Bostonian accent undercut by a sniffle. “You stopped. Thank you. Yeah, I, um-” she gestured behind herself into the snowfield. “I-I had an accident. I was trying out one of those-” another sniffle. “Those snowmobile rentals. But I think I hit a rock or ran out of fuel or something because it won’t start up again. I don’t think I can make it back to the resort and it’s dark and I’m cold and-”
Sloan had raised three children to adulthood. He liked to think he had learned a thing or two from the experience. He knew, for example, what it looked like when one of them was building towards tears. He raised a hand.
“Now now, miss. Don’t you worry. I have some spare fuel in the back. We’ll sort you out.”
Sloan gave a wry smile. Damned tourists. At least this one was pretty.
He pulled a torch from his glove box, then pushed open the car door, climbed out of his car, and began crunching his way through the snow around his car.
“You from the States?” he asked, fumbling with his keys in the cold. “I have a daughter there. Works as a loan co-ordi-”
The first sharp palm blow against his larynx was enough to stop him talking. The second was likely just for flavor. He stumbled backwards, gagging for air. Then his instincts kicked in. He brought forth a shield. He swung the torch around himself, trying to catch a glimpse of his attacker.
The next strike caught him in the jaw. Not unarmed, this time. This was something heavier. Something metal. His shield bore the blow with only a minor complaint. The second one, not so much. He bit his tongue.
Sloan threw his torch aside, opting now for blind force. He swung wild and wide, great gouts of flame bursting madly into the world from his hands. He had no idea if he managed to land a hit. It didn’t matter. He kept going for half a minute, at least, until he was spent, no more energy to burn.
His throat ached. He couldn’t see, his night vision wrecked by the imprint of the fire against his eyes.
He fumbled in his pocket. He had to contact someone.
A pair of hands at his neck. Small hands. The girl. Not strangling; a choke hold, trying to knock him out. He reached up, some buried masculine instinct telling him he could simply push her off.
He was wrong.
There were fewer guards around than there had been when she was young. Far fewer. One in the front gate control, two in the courtyard.
Where was the man on the upper floor, watching from the sniper’s nest that ringed the topmost level of the compound? Where was the one disguised as a snow-clearer? Or the one with the dogs that kept watch on the tree line? The obstacles that had constantly challenged the planning of her youth?
The place felt empty now.
It had been five days since she had stabbed Leanne; each of them gruelling in their own ways. The first day had been spent trekking her way through the thigh deep snow towards the mountain with the ski-slopes, her journey slowed by having to first head out in the wrong direction through the trees, dusting behind herself to hide her tracks in the snow, before cutting a wide arc around the complex to avoid suspicion. The route had taken her four hours longer than it reasonably should have done. The path up the mountain itself had involved rock climbing. Barehanded, after hours in the cold.
Maybe the challenge of it had been a good thing, though. For one thing, it had kept her mind from wandering too far towards Caleb. For another, arriving at the resort shivering and exhausted had made getting what she needed almost trivial. All it had cost her was some pride.
Civilians were odd people. They had so much sympathy for a young woman in the snow. Acquiring food and clothes hadn’t taken effort on her part at all. She’d spun them a story about a senseless tourist with a stolen car, and the supplies had been practically forced on her. And money. And a place to stay, provided she washed dishes for a few hours a day at the resort’s canteen.
For days, she had gathered supplies, planned her route, and waited for a snowfall heavy enough to cover her return.
She’d been surveying the place for almost a day before doubling back to ambush a car. It was strange, seeing how security had changed since her childhood. There was so much less of it now. Perhaps because the organization was currently spread out across the world; perhaps because the next batch of slaves were being hosted in a different facility. Hard to say.
Regardless of the reason, the new security made plotting her ingress insultingly easy. Especially with Sloan’s unconscious form nestled in the back seat, hidden from view by a layer or two of blankets. She hadn’t been too gentle with his bindings.
When it finally came to it, she was able to drive right in through the front gate, the illusion of Sloan’s form wrapped around her like a cloak. The man guarding the gate asked for a key-card. She gave him Sloan’s. That was all there was to it. The gate opened.
Inwardly, Twenty Three was almost stunned. It was just so strange, seeing this all for the first time from the perspective of someone other than a prisoner. This was supposed to be so much harder.
She followed the road in underneath the complex to a smaller parking bay she had seen maybe once or twice before in her life. Then, she climbed out of the car, opened the back door, located the bulge in the blankets that indicated the rough placement of Sloan’s head, and gave it a quick whack about the jaw.
Best for him not to rouse while she was here. It would complicate things.
She closed the door, and looked around. It was strange, how much smaller the place felt when she viewed it as an adult. The few times she had passed through here in her youth, it had felt huge, even cavernous, every corner holding what she could only imagine to be layer on layer of extra bays. That impression was gone now. She could see it freely.
Even so, she found herself forcing back a flinch when her eye passed the security camera. She’d beaten the instinct into herself to avoid them. Even disguised, letting it pass over her felt wrong.
She shook herself. She was wasting time.
She strode towards a side door, stepped through, and began climbing the thick concrete steps into the complex proper.
The parking bay had been half full. There would still be people around. She moved quickly.
Through empty hallway after empty hallway, Twenty Three moved. Some rooms, she recognized; places she had spied in her explorations as a girl, or the rooms in which she’d trained.
There were some places, however, that were entirely new to her. A dark room holding a bank of computer terminals. A door labelled ‘breakroom’ that she was tempted to crack open just to see what luxuries her wardens had enjoyed. She ignored them. She knew her heading.
It had been tempting, at first, to simply head for the cell block where she had been held in her youth. To her knowledge, it was the only section of the complex where the doors could be locked from the outside. She had to assume it was where Charlie was being held.
She had opted against it.
The cell block was a risk. To her memory, it was the place in the facility with the highest density of cameras, and the most frequent patrols of guards. She wouldn’t go there unless she had to. Disguise or no disguise. Instead, she moved in what she had to hope was the direction of the security room; a place she had only ever glimpsed through the air ducts.
She didn’t like moving in the open like this. No shadows for her newly bulbous form to cling to; her pace limited to a brisk stride. It rankled.
Once or twice, she encountered others; a middle aged woman who gave a word of greeting as they passed each other by; a younger man who spared a wave. She bit down the urge to strike them.
The journey to the security room took a bit longer than she would have liked; her attempts at navigating through routes other than the air vents leading her into a couple of wrong turns, before finally bringing her to a door.
A second or two of quiet. She reached for the handle, but it swung open before she had time to grasp it, just wide enough for the man on the other side to stick his head through, a chain-lock holding the door from opening any further.
“Yeah, Sloan?” the man asked, shadows under his eyes and a patch of untidy bristles on his chin. “What do you ne-”
Twenty Three was inside the building now. She wouldn’t waste time conserving energy. She reached out, grasped the man by the hair, used a pulse of indigo flame to break his shield, then slammed his face against the doorframe. She watched his nose snap sideways with a crunch. He opened his mouth for a cry, and found her free hand pressed against his lips.
“Don’t say a word,” she spoke, her voice clear, quiet and calm. “Put your hands where I can see them. Now.”
For a moment, it seemed he wouldn’t comply, too shocked; his hands too busy scrabbling at her own. She gave his jaw a squeeze. He let out a muted whine.
“Stop moving,” she said. “Hands in view. Right now.”
With a small nod, the man raised his hands into her view, moisture building slowly in his eyes.
“Good,” she murmured. “Now keep them there. I’m going to let go of your mouth. Make a sound, and I will kill you.”
She looked into his eyes, waited for him to nod, then pulled her hand away. The man opened his mouth to scream. She punched him in the throat. His vocalizations stopped, his attention focused on simply trying to breathe.
She moved her fingers up along the chain that held the door closed, feeling at the latch. Too tight. There’d be no unlocking it without the door closed. She wouldn’t give the guard that chance to call for help, but pulling it from the frame would make noise. A simple enough problem to solve, but it meant more wasted energy. She sighed.
She cloaked her forefinger and thumb in fire, and gave the chain a squeeze, melting the metal through. Then, she pushed her way inside, the guard still grasped by the hair.
No one else inside. Good. She closed the door, and knocked out the guard.
So much for interrogation.
She turned her eyes to the camera feeds, gazing across one after the next. A dozen or so empty hallways. A cafeteria with all of three people inside. She pressed a switch, the screens flicking over to the cell block.
Interesting. Half the rooms were empty. The other half, as far as she could tell, held prisoners.
These prisoners were odd, though. They weren’t hunting dogs. She was sure of that. They were too disparate in their ages. Too much emotion behind their eyes. A muscular man sat on his bed, arms laden with tattoos, and fists resting on his lap, utterly calm. There were shadows dancing around his feet. In the next feed across, a little girl had her head buried in a pillow, her form shaking. As Twenty Three watched, another, seemingly identical little girl seemed to sprout from her shoulders, and began patting her on the back.
There were more. Over a dozen of them. Some with powers, some without. Then, she found what she was seeking.
A lone boy, an untouched meal sitting beside him on his bed, the edges of bandages barely visible beneath his clothes.
She checked the hallway feeds. Just a single guard.
Where were they all?
She pressed another switch. The west wing: almost empty. The second floor: deserted. She checked medical.
Another collection of rooms. All mostly empty, barring a few with people moving about them on hands and knees. One room, however, was full.
‘Ah,’ she thought. ‘So that’s what they did when the chains failed.’
Her fellow assets were at rest. She had to assume they were, at least. They didn’t seem to be struggling. They looked to be asleep. That may have had something to do with the medicine bags hooked up to their wrists. She recognized a few as assets from her batch. The others looked to be younger; perhaps part of Caleb’s group.
Some were laid in beds. But the medical ward only had four beds. There were more of them on the floor. They were under guard; men with guns at either end of the room, and another walking up and down. At least that explained where the security force had gone.
‘Kept in a coma the moment you couldn’t control them,’ said a bitter voice inside her head. ‘Why not just kill them?’
Then, she asked herself that question again, without the sarcasm.
Why hadn’t they just killed them?
She cast her eyes about again, then squinted at the workers crawling about the upper level. What were they doing? She watched one man pull something indistinct from his pocket, then place it on the ground, his hand tracing a shape on the floor around it.
‘Oh,’ she thought. ‘Shit, it’s a ritual.’
She took a moment to map out the camera feeds inside her head.
‘It’s a ritual centred around the medical ward.’
That was unsettling, to say the least. She felt a pain in her chest for those who, a long time ago, had been her friends. She pushed it aside. For now, she had a job to do, and for now, security was elsewhere. The rest could wait. When she had Charlie out of here, the government could burn it all in her wake.
She paused to bind the security guard and crush his phone, then set off.
One last guard, patrolling the halls of the cell block. She got the drop on him with ease, then dumped him in one of the empty cells. She took his keys, and allowed the illusion of Sloan’s form to fade. On to Charlie’s cell.
A knock at his door. No answer.
She knocked again.
“Dude,” she muttered back. “It’s me. I’m here to get you out.”
“… Go away,” he repeated, his voice deeply tired.
“What?” she asked, not bothering to hide her surprise as she unlocked the door. “Charlie, come on. I told you. It’s Twenty Three. We’ve got to go.”
“I said fuck off!” came the reply, just as she swung the door open.
Charlie was glaring at her from his seat on the bed, his eyes red and swollen, a deep bruise covering his cheek. She could see him better, without the poor resolution of the screen. There were bandages at his waist, too, visible beneath the hem of his shirt. She wondered briefly how far the presumed injuries went.
“What happened?” she asked. “Why are you all cut up?”
For a second, Charlie didn’t answer. Then he shook his head.
“… They found out about my power,” he muttered. “Said I’m too important for them to lose.” He sniffed, then pulled back a sleeve, displaying yet more bandages travelling up around his arm. “They put a tracking chip in me. Said they’d made a whole bunch of extra cuts so I couldn’t tell where the real one was. Mr. Grey says no matter where I go, he can teleport right to me.”
For his part, Charlie wasn’t done. He sniffed.
“What took you so long?” he asked, a sullen accusation in his voice. “I held out for days. Why the hell did you stay away so long?”
“Shut up,” she muttered. “I’m thinking.”
“Don’t tell me to shut up!” he snapped. “All of this is your fault! You lied to m-”
He was interrupted by the older girl taking two quick steps across the room and flicking him in the temple.
“Calm down, or we’re screwed,” she said flatly. “There might still be a way out. But I can’t find it with you yelling.”
Charlie glowered at her, but thankfully quieted.
Twenty Three sat herself down beside the boy, her mouth resting against her hands.
This was bad. This was very bad.
The whole plan, from start to finish, had revolved around being gone before any of the bodies she’d left behind were found. She could leave. Even now, she could turn around, get back in Sloan’s car, and leave. They wouldn’t figure out what had happened for at least the dozen or so minutes required to check the security feeds. But she couldn’t take Charlie with her.
No portals, either. Distance wouldn’t help.
It was a smart move. Putting a tracker in Charlie made it impossible to get him out without fighting their way through. Twenty Three groaned.
“No ideas, genius?” Charlie asked sarcastically. “I thought you could get us out of this with your eyes cl-”
“What we really need,” Twenty Three said, more to herself than to Charlie. “Is an attack. I’m not strong enough to get you out of here on my own. I’d need support from a heavy hitter, like the woman who backed up Caleb. Someone who could turn the tables here.”
“You mean James’ grandma?”
“What?” Twenty Three asked, annoyed. “Who?”
“The old lady who helped out your friend,” Charlie replied. “James’ grandma.”
“You know her?”
“… Do you have her number?”
“No,” the boy replied. Twenty Three had already scrapped the idea and gone back to planning, when he continued. “I know James’ number, though. Why?”
For a moment, Twenty Three considered it. This solution was less than ideal. At worst, it wouldn’t help. At best, they’d be making their escape in the middle of a war-zone. She considered her other options.
“Fuck it,” she muttered, pulling out her phone. “I didn’t want to do this before I got you out of here, because I’m pretty sure these assholes track my phone calls, and it makes everything more dangerous, but we haven’t got any other options. We’re calling reinforcements.”