Valle de Bravo, Mexico – Wednesday, the 27th of June 2012. 02:07 PM.
As Kasparov had said, the afternoon provided the besr opportunity to gain line of sight to Calavera and Spirit without drawing attention from the locals. Emily only had to teleport herself within walking distance to the village that served as the Latin American heroes’ base, get line of sight to her targets and imprint them before teleporting out. The instant her feet appeared on the brown, sparsely vegetated Mexican soil, she cloaked herself with Sunny’s powers and covered the half mile to Valle de Bravo on foot.
The midday heat turned the short walk into a trip through purgatory. By the time she reached the outskirts of the town, she was drenched in sweat, the hooded shirt sticking to her like a sodden second skin. But compared to the situation she was going to dive into in approximately thirty minutes, this was nothing. A warm-up exercise before the hell of a Legion-controlled New York.
For reasons she didn’t completely understand, Kasparov had determined that it was safest to approach on foot. This small rural village sported a surprisingly advanced surveillance system combining both human operatives and significant technology. Since Emily wasn’t familiar with the village, the ‘teleport blind and hope for the best’ approach entailed a high risk of being spotted.
Upon reaching the small storehouse which served as her first waypoint, Emily cowered in the shadow cast by the red clay brick walls and activated her headset. “Close enough to teleport?” she asked.
“Yes,” Kasparov replied. “You’re out of sight of the human lookouts. Look around the corner on your right; you’ll see a group of avocado trees to the left of a big red building. If you teleport into those trees, the chance of being picked up by their surveillance system is approximately zero. You should have line of sight to the heroes from there.”
Emily did as instructed. Even though her experience with Checkmate’s powerset was limited, she found his teleports to be more accurate and less prone to accidents than Dancer’s reality leaps. The guy was a highly specialized one-trick pony; each and every one of his powers fed into his ability to change locations in an instant. He had heightened spatial awareness, could calculate the distance to a given location or object in the blink of an eye, and even had limited farsight to any place he set his mind’s eye on. Within line of sight or when moving to familiar locations or precise coordinates, his teleports worked like a charm.
The farsight ability allowed Emily to enter the trees without as much as twisting an Avocado branch. She heard the heroes before she saw them; their agitated Spanish carried across the stone tiled piazza which separated her from their house. A large group of villagers had gathered there. They sat or stood in the shade of the roofed-over porch, frowning as they listed, their tanned faces shadowed with concern.
Standing side by side at the center of the group, Calavera and Spirit took turns as spokesmen. Emily had a hunch what they were talking about, and since this hunch related to her friends in New Orleans, she couldn’t resist listening in. She switched to Prophet’s polyglot power and crouched low among the trees. She didn’t need to be in New York for another twenty minutes, so she thought she could spare a moment for eavesdropping.
As she suspected, the villagers were discussing Saint’s fate. It took Emily less than a minute to get the gist of the argument. Calavera, a pacifist and strong believer in the sanctity of life, refused to let go of the idea that Saint might still be saved after Legion’s death. Even though the Brazilian Guardian hadn’t been born in this village, many of his friends and relatives now lived here. Their collective emotions ran high. It didn’t look as if many agreed with pulling the plug on Saint’s life support for the sake of triggering a power surge.
You have to do it, Emily silently urged them. Kasparov hadn’t told her if Chris was actually going to experience a power surge if the heroes agreed to kill the comatose Guardian, but he did say that the effects were bound to help their cause. So, she suported the idea even though she couldn’t do anything to make it happen. Saint was already as good as dead anyway.
Deciding that she had heard enough, Emily reclaimed Checkmate’s powers and teleported back to her one-room hideout in Israel. The alarm clock she set in advance showed seventeen minutes remaining until the departure time for her mission. She swept up Mr. Tibbs with a fierce, desperate hug, letting his warmth and feline affection strengthen her resolve. After setting the cat down on the bed, she used the remaining time to practice her newly acquired powersets.
Spirit’s poltergeist powers were straightforward and simple to learn. They allowed her to assume an incorporeal, ghost-like form, perfectly invisible except for a handful of specialized perception powers like Dancer’s life sense. While in ghost form, she could pass through solid matter as easily as if it were air. According to Spirit’s treasure trove of experience, the only obstacles she had to worry about were forcefields, strong electric currents, power negating zones, and walls or subsurfaces with a thickness of more than fifteen feet.
A life sense similar to Dancer’s – though at a much shorter range – and telekinetic manipulation of nearby objects rounded out her poltergeist ability. Compared to many of the other powers she had collected so far, the telekinesis seemed a little underwhelming. She managed to lift a pen off the table but couldn’t toss it in the direction she wanted. Fine-tuning this ability required more practice than she was able to do in such a short amount of time.
Calavera’s powerset, on the other hand, spoke to her in a way she could easily relate to. Kasparov had already told her that the Mexican necromancer never fully revealed the extent of his powers, but as she delved into his mindset and flexed those new power muscles, the guy’s potential still blew her away. His ability to manipulate matter wasn’t limited to chopped wood and bone. He bent actual living vegetation to his will, made mature trees twist and snap and controlled wooden logs telekinetically.
And not only plants. Corpses.
When she pried Calavera’s most dangerous and well-guarded secret from his mind, Emily sank to the floor, overwhelmed by her discovery. Why did he keep it a secret? She asked herself before realizing the answer a second later. He’s a militant pacifist and concerned with his good guy image. He was afraid of others forcing him to do things he didn’t want to do. Instead of animating villain corpses in order to puppeteer them back into battle, Calavera had constructed refugee shelters, campaigned for the hero image and helped build morale. He experienced an early power surge and didn’t tell a soul.
As she immersed herself deeper in his mind, Emily was relieved to discover that living creatures – beings inspirited with a will of their own – were beyond Calavera’s control. His ability of reaching out to nearby plant life felt surprisingly similar to her empathic sense. Only instead of picking up people’s feelings, she opened herself up to the vibrant vital energy of bushes and trees. The plants didn’t pollute her mind with negative emotions. They only transmitted three states of being: healthy, sick, or dead. The deadwood spoke to her the most. It responded easily to her commands, even when she reshaped or summoned it from fifty feet away.
By the time the alarm clock let her know she had five minutes left, Emily had succeeded in constructing a crude wooden shield from branches she called in through the window. “How are you feeling?” Kasparov asked through the headset.
You’re worried I changed my mind, aren’t you? It sounded mean and accusatory in her head, so Emily kept the thought to herself. She had no doubt that the Visionary cared about her as a person and not just as a playing piece. When she couldn’t sleep that first night after her escape from the NATO office building, he stayed awake himself and read to her from a storybook until she nodded off. They had never met in person, though, and she expected they never would. The reason was straightforward.
Over the past few days, the connections between them had grown so strong that the instant Legion became aware of Emily, Kasparov would be in danger as well. The Visionary had already told her he didn’t expect to survive until the very end, and that he had taken precautions for every probable outcome. He would deny Legion access to his powers no matter what happened.
“I’m ready,” she replied. “It doesn’t matter how I feel. I’m going in there.”
“Stay safe, Judit. We’ll speak again soon.”
Emily refused to think about what may or may not happen an hour from now. As previously instructed, she removed the headset and used one of Radiant’s lasers to melt it down to a lump of plastics and burnt up electronics. When and if she returned from New York, there would be phones awaiting her at different locations across the world. Phones she had hidden days before.
Or maybe she’d just return for Mr. Tibbs and go join her friends instead. Trust that they would be okay without a secret Visionary and his assistant pulling strings behind the scenes.
Because if there was a future after today, she wasn’t sure she wanted to keep playing this game anymore.
Her last act was to fill Mr. Tibbs’ bowl with food and open the window to allow him escape in case she didn’t return. The cat gazed up at her with big, concerned amber eyes, giving the impression he understood perfectly well what was going on. Maybe her Empath powers had rubbed off on her pet somehow.
“You be a good cat now,” she told him as she stroked his furred head. “You’ll find people who will be nice to you and help you stay fat and happy.”
Hearing her own words made her eyes burn again, so she took her leave, teleporting herself halfway across the world in a flash.
Her destination was one she was already familiar with: the Top of the Rock observation center at the heart of Manhattan – New York City’s most renowned lookout point, now at the heart of Legion’s empire. The last time she came here, Emily was accompanied by her parents, and the night view of New York’s glittering skyline had appeared magical to her child’s eyes. Now the city was shrouded in darkness. Here and there the glow of torches and bonfires flickered throughout the streets, but none of the once majestic skyscrapers appeared to have power access.
Central Park, once a neatly trimmed and fenced in quadrangle, now sprouted from the center of Manhattan as a sprawling, jungle-like mass that threatened to engulf the surrounding urban domain. Painted silver by the pale moonlight, the dense temperate forest stretched into Columbus and Park Avenue and nearly reached the Broadway district. Of course Central Park hadn’t expanded this much in such a short amount of time on its own; about eighty percent of it were Qin Liangyu’s creation. The villainess had released volley upon volley of wood element shots at Legion’s behest.
Maybe this is Legion’s idea of a garden Eden, Emily ventured.
Ironically, for those who remained in the area despite the President’s evacuation order, Manhattan had become one of the safer areas to live within the United States. Legion promised safety and protection to those who swore their loyalty to him and his ideas for a new world order. About twenty percent of them went insane after having their minds picked apart and being classified as unredeemable sinners, but the rest of them lived on. The water was still running, and the new Central Park was full of berry bushes, vegetables and fruit trees. Legion’s goons executed the only legal form of crime: the public – and often gruesome – punishment of sinners. And since Legion’s psychic aura extended well beyond Manhattan, nothing and no one escaped his notice for long.
He had never psychically attacked the masses in his home territory, though. According to Kasparov’s explanation, those struck with insanity had been evaluated and deemed unworthy as individuals. Emily knew that she’d be fine without forcefield for as long as Legion remained unaware of her. It helped her stay off his radar while she had it, but the instant she entered his headquarters, she was going to lose it.
“The Outlaw King defined three laws pertaining to powers,” Kasparov had told her not too long ago. “Those laws will only affect you for as long as you remain inside Legion’s tower, but they will definitely come into play. They were established as a defense against your hero friends.”
“What laws?” She had asked.
“The first one nullifies any and all forcefields and energy barriers. You won’t be able to use them for your protection while you’re in there. The Outlaw King wasn’t able to nullify hyperspeed powers, but he managed to limit their effectiveness. Last but not least, you can’t alter the tower or anything inside it. Fires and explosions would have no effect.”
“But the villains inside it can die.”
“That’s right. The Outlaw King is remarkably powerful, but he is no Temple. The laws he comes up with are limited in number and in their overall effectiveness.”
Now that she was looking at the tower in question, Emily didn’t find Kasparov’s reassurances very reassuring at all. Legion’s personal skyscraper – thirty stories of former Conglomerate owned offices, labs and restaurants – rose from a cluster of smaller buildings on the east side of Central Park, illuminated by a ghostly white glow that was none of the moonlight’s fault. The light came from within the building, or it seemed to, because it wasn’t real. The uppermost ten stories shone so bright it was hard to see where the windows ended and the vitreous facade began.
Even though the light made it hard to see the details, Emily could tell that the once unremarkable glass and steel building was in the process of warping into something… otherworldly. She had no words to describe what she saw. Her mind drew a connection to the Childlike Empress’ ivory tower from the Neverending Story, except different because Legion had a far more twisted imagination than the author of those books did. There was nothing smooth or symmetrical about Legion’s impossibly convoluted tower. Kasparov had given her a description in advance, but seeing it with her own eyes still blew her mind.
“He has gained enough power to enforce his will on the world around him,” the Visionary had told her. “But unlike Dancer’s power, this is a passive effect that accumulates slowly over time, and he has no control over it. Look at it this way: the combined influence of his mind and his multiple personalities erodes away at reality. Not even Legion was ever meant to accumulate this much power.”
Was I meant to collect this much power? Emily had asked herself over and over again over the past days. Maybe I exist because the universe realized it screwed up. That it had to send a plumber to clean up the mess.
The thought didn’t make her feel particularly heroic or special, it just brought her doubts and fears back to the surface. So she stopped thinking and went on with the plan. She called up Spirit’s personality and immersed herself in it, drowning her doubts in the man relaxed optimism while her body gave up its physical form. Weightless and imperceptible, she drifted off the viewing platform and floated through the night, zeroing in on the ghostly light like a moth approaching a flame.
As Kasparov had predicted, no one reacted to her ghostlike presence. Around fifteen to twenty-five white clad, firearm-equipped men and women – fanatic Legion followers – secured the perimeter of the tower, and none of them as much as blinked at the ghostly invader. One of the men belonging to the former Chinese Snake Squad squatted atop one of the buildings adjacent to the tower, looking alert and ready for trouble. Emily didn’t see a ripple of recognition on his face when she drifted past.
Since the Snake Squad served as Legion’s scouting and infiltration team, all of them were on the list of priority targets. But the man on the roof was too exposed. Attacking him there was bound to draw attention, so she had to find her first target elsewhere.
Emily’s first destination was the fourteenth floor, a former recreational area where the tower’s office workers used to meet for coffee, worked out or shut themselves away for fifteen minutes of morning meditation. Like the floors below it, the fourteenth floor still maintained its business appearance without any freaky light effects or convoluted architecture.
According to Kasparov, this was where Emily would find Wéifēng, the young woman responsible for the Snake Squad’s ability to swap their positions on the fly. Targeting her first was going to severely limit the two remaining squad members’ mobility. Still, the chances of hitting all three of them would be slim to nonexistent. They were martial arts professionals who shared each other’s sight and hearing. They communicated telepathically with one another, and their shadow walking power allowed them to move on a different plane of existence where they were hard to see and harder to hit.
I don’t have to kill anyone, Emily persuaded herself as she drifted through the panorama window leading to the meditation room. Being in ghost form did nothing to calm her nerves. Chris will do it. I’m going to become Chris.