There were a number of things Sharron MacReady had decided she would use her extraordinary gifts to learn to do since gaining her powers alongside her colleagues Richard and Craig. In fact, there were so many things that she had made a list. It was an extensive list, and had not one of her powers been exceptional memory, it might have been contained less-than-securely in a large file sitting in her locker at HQ. As things were, it existed, annotations and footnotes and all, entirely inside her head. Constantly added to, forever growing with far more new additions than she managed to tick off, because there was not enough time in the world, not even with the powers she had been granted.
She was currently very regretful that the entry 'learn to fly a plane' had been so far down the list. Due to that oversight, it was looking like she wasn't going to have opportunity to tick off any more of that list at all.
"There must be something we can do," she urged Harvester. She had already pulled the body of the poisoned pilot from his seat, and tried her best to revive him, but some things would always be beyond her skill.
"They know..." Harvester was hyperventilating uselessly. She'd been meant to escort the scientist safely from the grasp of the foreign power he was defecting from into friendlier hands. "How? How could they know? It must have been your people! I took such care...!" He backed away from her, wide-eyed in his bout of paranoia. He stared at the windows, the cloud cover thick and uncompromising beyond them in the dark night outside, and stared at the hatches, and twitched, trapped.
Sharron rolled her eyes. "It wasn't me. I'd quite like to survive the next few minutes. We can think about the less important questions later." She slid back into the pilot seat and frantically tried once more to establish any kind of contact with Craig or Richard.
Mind to mind, no matter how far they were apart... She had done it dozens of times before. Now, of all times, it wasn't working. Now, of all times, it seemed they were too busy...
Craig Stirling was less than thrilled with the situation keeping him occupied -- namely one lab full of biological agent set up to go off like -- or at least as good as -- a bomb within a matter of minutes if he couldn't find the right mix of chemicals to prevent it. Massey had gloated, at the point Craig had been tied upside down above the vat, that everything he needed to stop large-scale disaster was in the room with him. Getting out of his personal fix had lost him a good deal of the time Massey had given himself to escape the area: a radius of a hundred miles or more.
Revenge crazed scientists were the worst.
Craig had played a bit with chemistry in school, and toyed with the idea of learning more since his horizons had been so usefully expanded, but at the end of the day, his brain had a direct line to Sharron, and he could always ask Sharron for help with any of that sort of thing.
He could get nothing but fuzziness and desperation from his mental link with her right now, telling him she wasn't in any better a situation than he was. Massey had left the whole contents of his lab laid out, but this was way beyond Craig's skills. The only reason Massey had taunted him with it was because he'd already dismissed him as so much dumb muscle...
Well, damn it. Craig stumbled to the lab bench. The smell from the brewing vat was heady enough to make his vision swim, and he didn't much like to think what it was doing to his DNA. Frayed ropes still dangled from his wrists, catching on the contents of the tables as he grabbed up labelled containers with names that meant nothing to him.
Richard... Richard, tell me quickly. You didn't happen to play with chemistry sets when you were a boy?
Excuse me? Richard's dry voice returned, sounding a little frazzled but then Craig couldn't remember what time of morning it was wherever his friend had been posted.
Craig elaborated. Can't get through to Sharron. I'm going to die in about, oh, the next ten minutes, unless I can get instructions from someone with the applicable knowledge. And you know I hate to be self-deprecating, but my untimely demise is a long way from the worst of it. Can you get hold of... wait. Where are you?
Richard's mental vibration quivered with a sense of wry laughter and mild exasperation. That's... a difficult answer, actually.
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! thought Richard Barrett, blinking back at the... jaguar, was what he thought it actually was, although an upbringing in rural England had not given him a lot of grounding in such types of wildlife identification. Whatever it was, it seemed to regard him with a certain intellectual detachment, like it was contemplating conversation, and not supper. He smiled at it and lifted a hand, palm outward, and started to slowly back off. Slow, careful movements, and he wasn't about to turn his back on it.
Of course, now of all times would be when Craig chose to twitter in his ear. Richard started a bit when the communication unexpectedly came through -- definitely a downside of telepathy -- and the creature in front of him sort of hissed or growled or something in between, and the whole of its lithe and dangerous feline body twitched.
"Good kitty..." Richard tried.
Did you get dumped out there by an enemy? Craig asked, affronted on his behalf.
Hah... responded Richard. The truth was, he had no idea what had happened, who the enemy was, or even if there was an enemy. He'd been with a full expedition party, including people suitably knowledgeable about surviving in this sort of environment to make up for his lack. But when he'd woken up, they'd been gone, with little clue left behind as to their whereabouts. The inhabitants of the area spoke of cursed lands, but Nemesis and their employer had considered something a little more modern and suspicious than curses was most likely to be afoot around there.
He was wholeheartedly leaning toward curses, after hours stumbling through the jungle with no trace to be seen of any of the people he'd been travelling with.
I'd love to help you, Richard, but the trade-off would be a lot more lives than mine, Craig morosely offered.
Thanks. You're a pal... Something stirred uneasily in Richard's mental landscape, and he realised, It's worse than that. Sharron's in trouble, too... As his concern flowed and coalesced into a well of emotion, of care and apprehension for both of them, suddenly... he could feel her, and Craig. They were joined in the moment as though they were one being. All their three separate situations laid themselves out inside his head, and he understood everything that was at stake, even as he could sense that the other two experienced the same holistic overview and understanding of what faced them.
...Well, it looks like we've come to the end of the road. We can't all survive, and that's the damn, sorry truth of it.
...We have to triage? God damn it, let's tell it like it is, we have to choose which one of us should survive. How could we possibly--?
...All those people! It's madness... You know we must help Craig first. I must help Craig. There isn't time to waste even discussing it.
Craig didn't want to be the last man standing but had to admit the truth of Sharron's prioritising.
Richard didn't want to be big cat food, yet he had to admit that his situation was by far the least urgent or definitively fatal.
Sharron was going to solve the scientific problem, even while the airplane went down, even if it was the last thing she did.
We need to do this!
All right... Yes.
It's been a pleasure knowing both of you. You know I'd swap places to save either of you. I'd do it in an instant.
Wait... Consciousness reeled. For a moment, their combined reasoning supposed that it was Craig's body succumbing to the fumes and felt a wave of horror at what that would mean. But then...
Something's happening! They were so much within each other they weren't sure whose mental voice that was. And the world shifted, spiralling wildly, and flung them out of the tight collusion of three minds, each back into an individual body...
Craig looked up at the maw of a dark-pelted jungle cat with a seriously bad attitude... "Yeah, I feel you, I'm kind of having that same sort of day myself."
Richard's body jerked wildly, as he unexpectedly found himself, unharnessed, in the pilot chair of a plane being jostled by fierce turbulence as it dropped from the sky.
Sharron gasped and almost dropped the vial in her hand, finding herself quite suddenly in the unfamiliar lab, but she didn't have time to question what had happened, she had to work.
Tremayne frowned at his top three agents. They'd had some tight scrapes before, and he'd seen some extraordinary things from them, at least in the flat confines of the words of the reports which came back to him, and the facts of what had to have taken place, somehow, when he read between the lines. But this was truly pushing credibility. That Sharron MacReady, who had no such training, had flown an out-of-control airplane into a... well, a moderately acceptable landing, on a cloudy night over unknown shores? That Richard Barrett had survived ten days alone in the South American jungle without any experience of such was, perhaps, not so extraordinary given what he'd seen these people pull out before, but for Craig Stirling to somehow display unprecedented scientific knowledge and skills to prevent a disaster on a momentous scale? It was preposterous!
Their behaviour now was decidedly odd, as well. Narrow-eyed, Tremayne regarded them as he seethed, "I suppose you can explain yourselves..."
"Personally, I thought you'd be pleased," Sharron said, and the way her voice curled around the unusually sardonic and laid-back words was not quite right. "We all completed our missions with the usual flair." She had been stranded for several days after the emergency landing, and Tremayne had heard that she had suffered minor cuts and bruises, but clearly those had healed, for there was little sign of any blemish on her now. Perhaps she was not dressed and made-up with quite such precision and attention as usual, though. She also seemed uncomfortable in her skirt, shifting often. Tremayne hadn't heard that she'd injured an ankle, but she'd seemed to trip rather in her high heels as she'd come in earlier. Then again, she could have turned an ankle on the steps outside HQ.
"Congratulations are the usual order of the day," Richard said. He seemed the most at ease in himself, despite having had the most arduous journey to get back there. There were still contusions on his skin from his adventure, and his smile was more awry than usual. His accent seemed to be slipping. Tremayne had always suspected he wasn't so public school as he made out, but the drawl that was in there now was plain odd, and he seemed to keep catching himself and trying to inject more Britishness back in.
"So if we're all clear," Craig posed, "is it all right if we go? It hasn't been the most restful of weeks, and I think we're all deserving of our vacation time."
"Sooner the better," Sharron put in, and the remark felt much out of turn coming from her.
But it was Craig who Tremayne eyed the most intently. The man did not have a background in chemical or biological sciences, and he'd concocted a solution that should have taken the backing of several degrees to achieve, with apparent ease in a matter of minutes. It had saved a great many people, but as to what it revealed...? What was he? A plant? A sleeper agent? Something, of that Tremayne was certain.
Craig was sitting with his legs crossed in an unconventional fashion, and his posture was far more stiff, and his face far more stiff, than Tremayne had ever previously seen. This was simply odd, it was all odd, and Tremayne was not happy with all of this rampant oddness.
"Oh, go on." He waved his hand to brush them off. He was tired of thinking about this. They had achieved great things for him, and he didn't like to question them. And yet. And yet.
He watched them file out of the door. Certain little things in their mannerisms; in the ways they walked, turned to each other, exchanged looks and touches that were both alike his agents and yet not, rang bells of familiarity within him. As he steered his gaze between them, he felt like he was very close to comprehending something extraordinary...
But, damn it, it made no sense! He shook his head and the fleeting thought was gone. Such things didn't happen. An absurdity! How on Earth could he even entertain it?
Richard let out a long, slow breath. "I feel like that was a narrow escape."
It still felt bizarre to hear Sharron's silky, feminine voice emerge from his lips, albeit stretched into new shapes by his own accent. It was a relief not needing to try play that down anymore, now they no longer had a suspicious audience.
"Yes," 'Craig' -- Sharron -- said, and her voice was even odder coming out of Craig's lips. "Not that your body isn't a perfectly acceptable body, and I am grateful to still be breathing using, well, somebody's lungs, but we absolutely need to fix this now that we're all back together again."
"Fix it?" Craig asked, from Richard's own body, and despite the lack of discrepancy in gender, at least, wasn't that just the oddest thing of all? "We don't even know how we did it."
No, and in none of them individually had sparked the intent to do it, though Craig's words had been the germ of the idea. Richard remembered that moment of mental collusion, where they'd talked of choosing who among them got to live. But somewhere in the joint consciousness that had been composed of all of them, in that moment, some instinct buried in their pooled knowledge had offered up the solution that a simple swap had the capacity to solve all their problems and offer all of their survival.
Or not so damned simple...
Surviving after all was appreciated, but Richard wanted his own body back. Not that Sharron's body wasn't a very fine body indeed.
"It's funny..." Sharron's smile distorted Craig's masculine features quite differently to his own, making it oddly more natural, boyish and dazzling, "actually being here seeing us all like this. I've been coping with being in this body for the past week, but witnessing it..."
She reached out and touched Richard's face, which was her own. He let himself smile under the contact and felt a warm flutter of feeling in his belly. "Better not do that too much in a public setting. Might attract a few stares. Ruin your reputation, Craig."
Then he remembered that he was at least in appearance a woman now.
"Ah, I'd ruin my reputation on you anyday," Craig said, with a snort, smiling to Richard a fraction suggestively from Richard's own body, making it even weirder.
Richard choked. "Hey! I hope you haven't... gotten up to anything, while you've been in there. On those long, cold jungle nights." He narrowed his eyes. Sharron's eyes. "Hey, are you talking about me, or about Sharron's body?" He nudged Sharron. "You should take offence at that."
"Can't I be talking about both?" Craig asked plaintively. "Anyway, we need to get home and dream up a way to fix this. I can't fake your silly accent for the life of me."
"I noticed," Richard dryly. "I have to say, you'd probably have done a better job of landing the plane, but I was all too glad to sit out the jungle adventure."
Craig gave him a shrug. A man's own shoulders shouldn't be allowed to mock him, Richard reflected. "Maybe we all of us had to switch for it to work. Or maybe something in us, or... something else, calculated that my chances of survival were better in that situation. Hell, maybe I'm just better at running and climbing trees, even hauling your extra pounds around." His grin diluted the jibe.
"I think," Sharron said, with a thoughtfulness and distance that told them both their banter hadn't even registered upon her, "that probably the problem we've had trying to fix this so far is simply because, outside of the original crisis, we've lacked the impetus to make it happen while we weren't physically in the same place, to have the focus of our bodies' proximity. I hope now we're all back together again we can fix it relatively easily."
"You mean we were too far away from each other," Richard summed up. "Well then, we'd better go spend some time together."
"It stands to reason that if we managed to use our powers to do it, we can undo it," Craig said. "I'm not worried."
"You stayed the same gender." Richard pouted at him.
"Well, then next time this happens, I'll wear the skirt." Craig smiled easily, and Richard had the feeling he was on to a losing argument.
"He's right in that it's at least an interesting experience," Sharron said. "And we are gathering a lot of those."
"Mm." Richard nodded. "Weren't you keeping a list?"
"Of that among other things," she agreed. "Craig's right about something else. Let's go back to the apartment and work on a solution, however that offers itself."
"You'll find I'm often right," Craig said, kicking Richard's shoes nonchalantly against the ground as he walked.
They headed down the steps outside Nemesis' Geneva HQ. Richard was mostly paying attention to where the ridiculous pointy spikes on the heels of his shoes were relative to the edges of the steps, which took super-powers to manage, but at one point something made him look up. Perhaps a premonition or psychic awareness that someone else's attention was upon him.
Tremayne stood in his office window, thoughtfully watching them walk away.
Well, Richard figured, shrugging off his concerns. If they'd managed to slip this past him, with Craig mangling his accent, and Sharron making Craig's body sit like a woman, and himself tripping around in Sharron's ridiculous shoes, it seemed they truly had to be able to get away with anything.