Bern, Switzerland – Thursday, the 21st of June 2012. 10:31 PM.
“Hero victory? What hero victory?” Sarina muttered, searching the television screen for answers. The camera panned across the crowd, attempting to capture the elevated mood. Sarina didn’t need to understand Russian to pick out Radiant’s name from the chorus of voices.
“Let’s wait for the commentary,” Patrick said, his precious tub of ice cream completely forgotten.
As if to fulfill the teenager’s wish, an excited male commentator’s voice blared from the speakers. “By now, news of the liberation of Smolensk has inspired hope in billions of people worldwide. Celebrations are taking place in New York, Moscow, and Berlin, and the people’s anticipation for Radiant’s upcoming speech is huge. This just might be the most significant hero victory since the Pulse, and perhaps a long-overdue validation of the hero role in the world.”
The on-screen image switched to another location with a different crowd, but the atmosphere was similar. Sarina recognized the Brandenburg gate in the background. But she couldn’t share in the mass euphoria just yet. Too many questions were still left unanswered.
“I expect that this will have a significant impact on international politics,” a female commentator’s voice chimed. “China and India will be momentarily placated, at the very least. We shouldn’t see superpowered special forces outside the Chinese boundaries in the near future.”
“I don’t believe China is actually going to mobilize in defense of world peace,” Sarina said. “This is all just a bunch of late night infotainment talk. But if the heroes are finally getting their act together, maybe Emily can stop feeling like she needs to save the world.”
And maybe everyone else can stop projecting their hatred of superpowers onto me, she added bitterly.
“Yeah,” Patrick replied absently, his eyes remaining glued to the television. “Is this actually for real?”
“If Smolensk wasn’t actually liberated, people would have noticed,” Sarina said.
“But Radiant taking out a whole bunch of supervillains alone?” Patrick shook his head. “No way that happened.”
“He must have had help,” Sarina told him. “Let’s stay tuned in for that speech. I want to hear it.”
When she thought of Radiant, she was half inclined to maybe adjust her opinion of him if the news about Smolensk were actually true. Not inclined enough to make that phone call he’d publicly appealed for; these days, she only wanted the heroes to leave her alone. But she could believe that the man she used to admire so much was willing to make amends for what he’d done to Shanti. Maybe there was still a spark of heroism left in that tarnished heart of his, and maybe the world did need him.
But I don’t. All I need is Jasper, David and a nice quiet place to stay with my friends.
The news broadcast went on, and Patrick called out for the others to join them. But by the time David poked his head through the door, the news focus had already shifted to an earthquake in Indonesia.
Unsurprisingly, the newsreader tried to blame even that on superpowers.
“What did we miss?” David asked. He had a teacup in one hand and passed a cookie to Emily with the other.
“Radiant liberated Smolensk, or so they say,” Patrick informed them. “There’s going to be a speech later, so we’re waiting for that.”
Emily’s mouth fell open, and she quickly pushed past David to get a better view of the television screen. “Awesomesauce!” she exclaimed. “Was he fighting with any of the Wardens? Wait, that’s not Radiant on the news. Did you change channels or something?”
“No, but I they’ll change back to him when that speech comes on,” Sarina said. “It says so at the bottom.”
Emily deflated a little. “Oh, okay. Let’s wait then.” She walked over to the single seater armchair, flopped down on it, and then started chewing the cookie, her eyes fixated on the screen.
“If this is true, it’s the best thing that’s been on the news for days,” David said. “I’m kind of glad you missed the events of the past couple of days. Some people have considered moving into bomb shelters. One of my friends already has.” He shook his head.
Did your soccer club? Sarina almost asked, but thought better of it. The club had meant a lot to David, and she could tell that its absence from the practice field bothered him. Besides, she had an odd suspicion that the rumors that were circulating about her had something to do with it, and she didn’t want to know whether she was right.
“No cookie for me?” Sarina challenged David, flashing a grin to distract him from the disaster broadcast that was playing in the background. “What kind of brother are you?”
He raised his hands in surrender. “There were only a few left, and they were gone before I even knew what was going on. Your friends have cookie vanishing powers.”
“Yes,” Snow confirmed. “Cookie vanish.” She slipped a cookie into Sarina’s hand, then relocated to the far end of the couch, where she re-draped the layers of her long dress before sitting.
“See? Like that,” David said, grinning back at Sarina. “The pizza is going to take about fifteen minutes. Let’s just get together and take a break from all the gloom and doom for a little while.” His face relaxed, taking on a more serious countenance. “It’s good to have you here with your friends, Sarina.”
“Sounds good. I think we can all use the break, too,” Sarina said. “And thanks for the cookie, I really needed to get some sugar into my system.” She smiled at Snow, but the white-haired girl kept staring at the television as if it was the only thing that existed in the world.
“So, if we’re welcome, can we sleep here?” Patrick asked hopefully. “And if yes, can I have the couch?”
“It would be real nice to sleep without getting rained on,” Emily mumbled through a mouth full of cookie.
“We have two bedrooms here,” David was happy to point out. “Only one actual bed, but two air beds and one couch. There’s enough room for everyone.”
“I’d really like some sleep, too,” Sarina said. “But can we afford to stay the whole night? David… let’s talk about Paris first. Depending on how bad it is, I’m not sure we can accept the offer. You said the city is a theater of war. I’m sorry, but that sounds pretty bad, and we’re running on a deadline, so…”
David sighed. “So much for taking a break from the gloom and doom.”
“We don’t know if there’s a time limit,” Patrick argued. “Maybe Jasper is sleeping in a silk canopy bed and getting fat.”
“He’s not,” Emily said quietly.
Sarina resisted the urge to ask for details. The young Empath was already under strain with keeping track of Samael’s disturbed mind, and if she learned anything that would help rather than just demoralize their group, she’d likely say so.
So, Sarina kept quiet and turned her attention back to her brother.
“It’s okay. You have your priorities, and I understand. Just let me sit first.” David shuffled over to sit on the couch next to Sarina, putting his cup down on the table, then draping an arm around her shoulders as if to soften the impact of impending bad news. It should have been a comforting gesture, but during that brief moment of anxious anticipation, it only made her more worried for Jasper than she’d been before.
“Maybe you know that France recently tried to reverse its open door policy that welcomed any and all Evolved,” David began. “International pressure was part of it. Russia was accusing France of sheltering powered terrorists who had attacked a small Russian town. The UN wanted all French Evolved to get registered and move to observation centers, all under the pretext of protecting them from Legion. And after the Covenant fell, some of the French Evolved might have stretched the boundaries of their personal freedom a little too far. There were just a lot of them in France, and knowing they were there made the rest of Europe nervous.”
“David, you don’t have to go into full-blown teacher mode,” Sarina interjected, eager to move to the part that was immediately relevant to her mission. “I’m not studying for an exam, and you don’t have to explain every little detail. We just need to know what to expect when we go to Paris.”
“Right,” David said, absently rubbing his brow with a finger. “Anyway, when the French government tried to enforce stricter Evolved policies, things got out of hand. The pro-Evolved Guardians of Destiny marched on Paris. They were joined by three or four of the local rogues, and what had begun as a protest march developed into a new French revolution. The President fled the Elysée Palace, and the whole government structure basically fell apart.”
“That doesn’t explain the war zone,” Sarina said, hoping her brother had overstated the severity of the current situation. He did sometimes if he really wanted to get a point across to make sure information would stick in her mind.
“The President called the Covenant in,” David went on. “And Samael did what he does best. A portion of the city was destroyed, and everyone who’d been on the fence regarding Evolved was now fiercely for or against them. Preacher’s Guardians of Destiny continued to do their thing and put France on the brink of a civil war. They declared Paris to be a free city that welcomes all Evolved, but it’s really just a lawless zone now, without a government or a functional police corps. It’s all still chaotic. If the rumors are true, Evolved gangs are starting to take control of some districts.”
“So the heroes didn’t achieve anything except destroy part of the city?” Patrick asked, not even trying to hide his scowl.
“I don’t know the details of what happened there,” David said. “I’m not sure anyone does. But the Covenant succeeded in suppressing open surface-level violence. It pushed the gangs into hiding. Judging by the reports so far, most of the fighting happens at night.”
“Maybe they’re all scared of Samael coming back,” Emily suggested, frowning deeply. “I really want to avoid him, too. Knowing a little more about him just makes him scarier.”
“Scary,” Snow echoed with her faraway voice. She was clasping the folds of her dress with both hands as if she needed something familiar and reassuring to hold on to.
“We went up against worse odds when we faced Raven’s gang in Bratislava,” Sarina reminded them, not the least bit deterred from her plan. “David. We need to go to the district of Passy. Do you know if any of the gangs are active there?”
He gave her a quizzical look that let her know she’d be the one getting grilled with questions before too long. “No,” he said. “I don’t know, Sarina. I’m sorry. All of this was very recent and very sudden, and some of the headlines contradict one another. What I do know is that the city has become so dangerous that no one has even tried to reclaim it and that I can’t let you go there unless you have a very good reason.”
“Storytime,” Patrick said, gently plucking Sarina’s cookie from her fingers. She wasn’t annoyed; her emotions were wholly invested elsewhere.
“We have the best reason,” Sarina said, looking straight into her brother’s eyes. “My boyfriend was kidnapped by the villain Gentleman, but no one knows where his hideout is. Except maybe the Sun King, who lives in Paris.”
Now that the words were out of her mouth, she had a brief moment to contemplate the fact that she’d just elevated Jasper to boyfriend status. Then David began asking his questions, and as a diligent student and self-proclaimed nerd, he had a habit of questioning everything.
“Maybe? What makes you believe this Sun King might maybe know about Gentleman’s location?” he began, challenging her with his Kasparov’s stare.
“Because my first stop after leaving Switzerland was Paris,” she said. “And I’ve seen how Gentleman and the Sun King behave around one another. They’re pretty good friends. Besides, Gentleman gave me a brief tour of his Shelter before he turned on me and my friends, and the Sun King’s daughter was there. The Princess. Well, she’s not really his daughter, he’s more like the caretaker, but I know she’s important to him.”
“A villain gave you a tour of his hideout? Care to explain?” David went on, cocking his head without releasing her from his stare.
Sarina threw her hands up in frustration. “You know I’m not a villain, so can we please not go there? I made some bad decisions. You know it’s a bad habit of mine, you said so often enough.”
“She tried to go good,” Emily explained. “It just turned out all wrong.”
David sucked in a breath, then nodded. “Alright. We can save that story for later. So… if the Sun King’s daughter was in Gentleman’s hideout, what makes you believe the Sun King himself is still in Paris?”
“That’s actually a very good question,” Patrick said, biting into the stolen cookie.
Sarina dipped sideways to lightly punch his shoulder with a fist. “Don’t you turn on me too,” she said. “It’s the only plan we have. Or do you have a better one?”
“Nope,” he admitted, then silenced himself by shoving the whole cookie into his mouth.
“Well?” David asked.
“The Sun King really likes his Paris residence. He stayed there even after most of his house staff had left,” Sarina said, grasping for straws. It was her only plan, and she’d be damned if she abandoned it to do nothing instead.
David only gave her a second of respite before he continued his merciless prodding. “And you’re sure you could find this house again? Do you have the address?”
She squeezed her eyes shut, refusing to endure the Kasparov’s stare any longer. “Yes, I’m sure. We might have to look around a bit, but I remember that house very well. We just need to get to the northwestern part of the city, which would be pretty easy if someone was driving us.”
David made a small hmming sound, then fell silent for a long moment. Sarina opened her eyes to see him hunched over the potted lily flower that was on the coffee table, gently stroking one of its white and pink leaves with his finger.
I’m right here. Talk to me.
As if he’d overheard Sarina’s thought, David lifted his gaze to look at her. “That’s a lot of maybes, Sarina,” he said in a gentle voice that avoided taking on a condescending tone. “I don’t know Jasper, but I can tell he means the world to you, and I can imagine that he feels the same way. He wouldn’t want you to sacrifice yourself for the memory of him.”
“I’m not sacrificing myself or anyone,” she said, her tone firmer than intended. “There’s a good chance the Sun King’s court is still inhabited by someone who knows something.”
“But you don’t know this,” David replied. “You’re assuming something. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but chasing after vague ideas only ends well in stories, and that’s only because the author wants the characters to succeed. This is reality, sis. And all we really know is that Paris is the Kingdom of Anarchy, ruled by self-proclaimed gods.”
Sarina looked to her companions for support but received none. Emily was fussing with her phone, Patrick raised his hands in defense against the glance she was giving him, and… there should have been someone else, but they didn’t speak up, either.
“You’re forgetting that I have powers myself,” Sarina finally said, meeting her brother’s eyes. He seemed to purposefully disregard the fact that she wasn’t a defenseless teenager anymore, and his lack of faith in her was starting to become annoying.
“And what can you do, exactly?” David asked. “All I know is from the horror stories that were on the news.”
“If you’ve heard the news, you already know I can end the world,” she said, infusing the words with the sullen sarcasm she felt. “I’m pretty sure I can handle Paris.”
David’s face fell. “That’s not funny, Sarina.”
His pained expression compelled her to swallow her anger. Being angry at David was like cutting herself; more painful than satisfactory.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She paused to consider her next words, then said, “If there are any rules behind my power, I don’t know them. But… if I want something, I can kind of make it happen, only it’s not always exactly what I wanted. I can change things, but not people. I move people around, and I can sense any living being in my range, even if they’re behind walls.”
“She can fly, too,” Patrick added from where he was sitting on the couch. “Well, it’s not Superman style flight, but it kinda works.”
Emily bobbed her head in agreement.
“Fly? Really?” David asked, sounding surprised.
“It’s how I avoided the Covenant,” Sarina explained. “They don’t know I can do it, so they didn’t search the air space with their drones.”
David’s eyebrows shot up in consideration. “If you can really make your wishes come true, then your power potential doesn’t end at flying. Could you teleport into another dimension? Make yourself and others invincible? Create food and medicine?”
Sarina felt the need to interject before the flood of suggestions – assumptions, really – overwhelmed her. “No, it’s not that simple. I don’t think I can create anything, I just make something appear that fulfills my need, or I change my environment. What appears is not always what I wanted, and I think it’s always coming from somewhere nearby.”
“And you tested all of this?” David went on, eyes flicking across her face.
Sarina rolled her eyes. “I didn’t hire a team of researchers or gather statistical data, but I’m not just making any assumptions, either. I figured this all out by using my power.”
Gentleman believed that my power takes the path of least resistance. If I wish for water, it taps into the nearest source. Sarina pressed her lips into tight line. Her personal history with the villain wasn’t something she wanted to be discussing with her brother.
“She doesn’t really test her power because she thinks it’s dangerous and, um, bad,” Emily explained. “But when she gets real mad, it all comes spilling out like a volcano.”
“I guess that’s it,” Sarina said. “More or less.”
I used to be scared of being someone else, but I’m done with that ridiculous crybaby act. I’m me, I’m taking care of the kids, and I’m totally fine.
“Bratislava,” David said, pulling Sarina’s attention back to him. “Was that really you?”
“Yes,” she said, and more words came spilling out, cooler and harsher than the words that had come before them. “So what? No one died who didn’t deserve it, and hopefully Gentleman got a little scared.”
He shook his head, speechless for a moment. The seconds ticked on, filled by commercial jingles and the sound of Emily’s feet tapping against the legs of her armchair. The momentary silence took Sarina back to the top of the hill where she’d stood earlier that day, not knowing whether David would smile at her or turn away.
If he would see his sister or a monster who had taken her place. Sometimes, she wasn’t sure of that herself. And sometimes being the monster felt good.
David reached out to gently touch her arm before her the anxiety in her stomach could condense into a heavy lump. “You should test it,” he said. “Just a little. Not knowing the boundaries of your powers could be more dangerous than discovering them.”
“Okay,” she said, relieved to see him smile a bit. “Just a little. I’ll keep it in mind.”
“Yay!” Emily called out cheerily. “Now everything’s good and we can eat pizza without belly aches.”
“Right,” Patrick said. “So now we’ve talked about everything… are we still going to Paris?”
“Would you still like to go?” David asked Sarina, giving her arm a gentle squeeze before his hand dropped away.
This time, Sarina didn’t need a moment to consider her answer. She was even more certain now than she’d been before discussing with David. “Yes. We’ll be fine, and as long as Emily is with us, I’m sure we can figure something out. I can’t abandon Jasper, David. I really can’t.”
“I know,” he said. “And I’m going to drive you to Paris tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Sara-bro!” Emily said.
The little girl jumped up from her armchair, and, before David knew what was happening, he found himself hugged from all sides. Emily stepped behind the couch to wrap her twiggy arms around his neck and shoulders, and Sarina attacked him from the left, putting her cheek to his freshly shaven one.
“You girls,” Patrick said, rolling his eyes with mock exasperation. “Can’t you just say thanks like normal people do?”
“Nope,” Emily happily pointed out. “Besides, I’m a kid with superpowers. Soooo not normal.”
Sarina planted a peck on David’s cheek, then disentangled herself, eyes flicking across the room to locate the one team member who hadn’t spoken up in minutes. The Asian girl still sat on the far end of the couch, transfixing the television screen as if she was in some kind of trance.
“Snow?” Sarina asked, remembering the white haired girl’s name the instant she was looking at her.
Snow turned her head to meet Sarina’s eyes, but the name she said wasn’t someone from within their group. It was “Radiant”.
And then Sarina realized that she wasn’t hearing the mumble of commercials anymore. She turned her head to see the television screen, where a bloodied, black-eyed Radiant was standing in front of some stone building she couldn’t immediately identify. Seeing him like this, she could definitely believe that he’d fought a bunch of villains. He didn’t look like a victor, though. He looked like someone who had been beaten to a pulp, buried, and then dug up again.
His voice, however, rectified that first impression. It was steady and carried an enormous presence that drew the attention of everyone in the room.
“What you see behind me is the former headquarters of the villain Sahabat, more commonly known as Buddy,” Radiant said. “Up until two hours ago, he and his gang had the city of Smolensk completely under their control. They were using a combination of technology and mind control to subjugate the local population, whom they used as a labor force in order to build themselves a villain fortress.”
At that point, he allowed a weighty pause to fill the ether. The image of him disappeared from the screen, replaced by camera footage of what appeared to be a windowless control room full of equipment and wires. So many wires, in fact, that they covered the entirety of the walls and the floor.
“What you see here is the core of Nexus’ network,” Radiant’s voice went on. “The villains had occupied the city for so long that it grew to cover most of Smolensk’s inner districts. It grew while the rest of the world was arguing over concessions and disagreements. It grew while the Covenant, discouraged by its failed first attack, was chasing after rumors of the so-called Antithesis. Rumors that were spread by Gentleman to accomplish any villain’s ultimate goal: to spread chaos and panic.”
Radiant appeared on the screen again, and the camera zoomed in for a close-up of his bruised, scratched up face. “And they succeeded,” he said, eyes gleaming with a vivid intensity that drew attention away from his obvious injuries. “The age of the villain was yesterday. Today, we herald the dawn of a new age – the age of the hero.”