Sentosa Island, Singapore – Wednesday, the 27th of June 2012. 06:24 PM.
Of course Emily knew what this meant. Data – the Ghost in the Machine – used to be one of a select few Evolved whose powers could change the face of the world, though, most of the time, he had chosen not to do so. Legion getting ahold of his powers was a recipe for disaster. As far as Emily was aware, power surges were often transferred to a newly transitioned Evolved along with their powers, and rumors suggested that Data had surged twice.
Phone pressed to her ear, she asked the question she felt was most important while scrambling through the park’s underbrush. “How much time do I have before Legion’s goons come looking for him?”
“I’m not sure,” Kasparov admitted. “But I know that I have a much better idea of where exactly our guy is hiding. Legion has to rely on the connections he sees through the Counselor’s powers to track anyone down. Those connections were severed when our target went back into the power nullification field he built at home.”
“Okay. So, I go there first, put an egg shell on him and make sure he’s okay until the heroes finish their important thing and can pick him up?” Talking about egg shells instead of forcefields made it easier for Emily to think of her mission as a fun game. The mental image of a small white shell on some Asian guy’s head helped keep her anxiety at a manageable level.
“Yes. If necessary, convince him to leave the basement. If he escapes without being seen by the villains, the forcefield will prevent Legion from tracking him. But it would be best if you talk to him as little as possible.”
Because she was distracted by the phone conversation, Emily didn’t spot the narrow, paved road until she stumbled onto it. This was a small island; civilization was only a short walk away from the forest. “If I talk too much, there’s going to be a connection between me and him, right? Legion could use that to find me.”
She scanned the road in both directions while she spoke. To her relief, the only people she spotted – a young Asian couple equipped with backpacks and cameras – were too far away to overhear what she said.
Kasparov’s tone softened. “Exactly. Never forget that your own safety is more important than anything else.”
“I got it. Easy peasy.” The last part was a lie she told herself. Knowing that Legion’s goons were on the way or somewhere in the area gave her the heebie jeebies.
“Don’t forget your forcefield,” Kasparov reminded her.
Lightly smacking her forehead with her left hand, she turned around and slipped back into the forest. There probably wasn’t anyone around to watch her using powers. Even so, avoiding needless risks was always preferable.
Back under the cover of the exotic trees and plants, she briefly assumed Chris’s powerset to project a forcefield on herself, then switched to Patrick to take advantage of his camouflage and sound suppressing aura. Since she was holding on to her own personality, her area of effect was much smaller than his, but large enough to hide her presence from other people. Surveillance and smartphone cameras would still spot her, though.
“I’m ready,” she reported when she was done. The forcefield tickled the hairs on her skin with its faint vibration, making her feel a little safer. It reminded her of the happy days she spent playing hero alongside Chris.
“All right, Judit. Stay safe.” Kasparov ended the call.
Emily grinned at the mention of ‘Judit’. Kasparov never complained about the fake name she’d given him. He took revenge by assigning her a codename in turn. She thought it was stupid until he explained that Judit was the youngest female chess grandmaster in history, and still considered to be the world’s best female player. Being compared to a child genius was cool and boosted her confidence a little.
Phone in hand, Emily made her way down the narrow street toward the monorail icon on her GPS map. Kasparov had given her detailed directions to the house of ‘Data’ before the start of her mission. But since this was her first time alone in a big city she had never visited before, he had added numerous waypoints to the phone map. Thanks to those, she knew exactly where to take the monorail to Singapore’s main island, where to get on the bus and the station where she should stop. Her small rucksack contained food for the journey as well as her headset microphone and a purse of money in the local currency. The headset was for emergency use only. An American child without adult supervision was already plenty suspicious if anyone spotted her. A headset microphone that clearly wasn’t a toy would only make her stand out more.
Still, nothing prepared her for the overwhelming assault of exotic sights, smells, and sounds and having to navigate them all on her own. Powers or no, she was still a young child who was carrying a lot of responsibility for the very first time. Making her way through the sprawling city-state was more difficult than she had expected.
The first waypoint – the station for the monorail that would take her to Singapore’s main island – was easy enough to find. Emily took advantage of Patrick’s concealment effect to dodge the fare and find a seat at the very back of the train, away from the other passengers. But she soon caught the atmosphere of fear and unrest that hung over the metropolis she saw through the monorail’s windows. The big Ferris wheel near the waterfront was frozen, its lights dim even though the sky above it had already darkened to a purplish-red hue. National flags of all sizes adorned the facades of many buildings, and the ocean, painted blood-red by the sunset, was populated by tightly packed clusters of small boats. Emily could tell at a glance that these weren’t fishing vessels. They looked more like house boats and were filled with too many people.
So, they’re scared of Legion too, she concluded. Despite the heroes’ best efforts, Legion’s influence was growing. His threats, broadcasted on television and the radio or delivered in person by his shock troops, had already thrown the majority of the world’s largest cities into chaos. The villain demanded absolute loyalty and the dissolution of local governments; he accepted no rulers other than himself.
Salt Lake City, which was governed by the Guardians of Destiny and two frighteningly powerful Evolved, had successfully defied him so far. The same was true for China. Thanks to its highly mobile superpowered strike teams, China’s army now closed in on Mongolia and the southern fringes of Russia, targeting cities that had surrendered to Legion. As far as Emily was aware, all the Chinese military managed to do was to cause more chaos. The fear they brought with them spread faster than any virus.
When Emily got off the monorail at the station on Singapore’s main island, the first thing she heard was a chorus of protest hymns in a language she didn’t understand. The protesters looked to be of different age groups, gathered outside of what looked to be a government building and equipped with banners bearing the face of a politician. There was only about a hundred of them, but their tightly pressed bodies made it hard to reach the next waypoint – a bus station – without bumping into anyone. Keeping her head down and her arms close to her body, Emily adjusted the shape of her forcefield to make it fit her like a second skin.
The protesters didn’t frighten her; their anger was most likely directed at the President and his indecision regarding the Legion threat. What really unsettled her was the waterspout fountain she passed on her way to the bus station. The stone figurine resembled a lion whose legless body was covered in fish scales. It was more cute than scary, but the water gushing from its open mouth was red. She didn’t stop to check whether it was blood, red dye or a trick of the light. Picking up her pace, crossed a street strewn with protest pamphlets and ran to the bus station, desperately hoping that the bus lines hadn’t been shut down. Things must really have gone downhill if the locals and the police stopped caring about littering.
She only noticed the faint vibration of the phone when she stopped to catch her breath at the bus station. There was a message from Kasparov, sent five minutes ago. She already expected bad news before she opened it, but when she skimmed over the text, her stomach sank further.
Wild Hunt has been dispatched, the on-screen text told her. Keep your camouflage up and avoid them at all cost.
This is going to be bad, Emily thought.
As she lowered the phone, heart caught in her throat, she scanned the purplish sky for any signs of the Wild Hunt’s arrival. This wasn’t just a bunch of ghosts out of a European fairytale. Legion had formed the Wild Hunt as his personal terror squad. Over the past two days, the villain trio – consisting of Aerodyne, Cipher and the Screamer guy Emily had encountered in Paris – flew across the world, sowing chaos and destruction wherever they showed up. Since Cipher could teleport people and objects within his aura of darkness, they also kidnapped people or summoned Legion to their location. Cipher’s shadow teleport had a huge range because he projected his darkness through the ugly meat puppets made by Dollet. By using those puppets, he could reach any place where one was hidden. But the person responsible for flying the trio around was Aerodyne, a strong telekinetic with the ability to alter the weight of objects. The Wild Hunt would be sitting ducks without him.
Fortunately, the sky was still clear, and the cityscape of majestic, brightly illuminated skyscrapers looked undisturbed. But if the Wild Hunt showed up, people were going to die, and things were going to be destroyed. Emily didn’t need Visionary powers to know this. Those guys were called a terror squad for a reason.
Keeping one eye on the cityscape, she typed ‘okay’ on the phone and sent it as a reply to Kasparov. Her fingers were trembling a bit, so she tucked the phone away and jammed her hands into her pant pockets. There was no one else at the bus station. The pedestrians who passed by were in a hurry, and many had anxious looks on their faces. Countless cars and motorcycles rushed down the four-lane road, driving too fast and too close to one another. They all looked as if they were trying to escape from something.
The bus finally arrived right when Emily started to believe it never would. It was a white and purple single decker that rolled past her before jerking to a halt with a squealing sound that made Emily jump. She barely had the time to verify the indicated route number before the center door opened, and a woman rushed outside, holding a crying, red-faced toddler in her arms. Emily squeezed through the space behind her, careful not to brush against the woman or her child, and managed to claim the nearest vacant seat right before the bus lurched into motion.
Almost none of the seats were taken. There were less than ten people in the bus, half of whom appeared to be teenagers. No one was talking. Those who sat by the windows stared outside, their heads tilted toward the sky.
The government must have warned everyone a while ago, Emily concluded with a tight feeling in her chest. They’re probably trying to get back home before something scary happens. It wouldn’t be unlike Legion to make threats before dispatching the Wild Hunt. Chances were the villain had demanded the surrender of Data’s successor, but since no one apart from Kasparov seemed to know where that guy was, handing him over to Legion wasn’t an option.
Please let me reach the guy in time, she prayed. Her Visionary friend hadn’t told her what her chance of success was. All she knew was that no matter how things turned out, as long as she did her best and made sure to stay safe, the world would be better off for it. If she did well enough, then maybe there was no more need to hide and she’d be able to reunite with her friends and family. That was her biggest hope.
The bus chugged along at an excruciatingly slow pace. As Emily peeked out the window, she realized that the traffic didn’t flow, it oozed. The traffic situation got worse the closer she came to the city center. After only one regular stop, the bus was called to a halt and stood still for two or three minutes before being beckoned on by policemen in black full-body armor. The instant she spotted them through the window, Emily ducked her head and slid low on her seat to minimize the risk of being caught on camera.
For a moment, she considered getting off the bus at the next opportunity and running to her destination with Chris’s hyperspeed. But no, that was a stupid idea. If the bad guys were already on-site and somewhere nearby, they were going to spot her if she ran such a long distance. Besides, she didn’t know the layout of the city, and her phone’s GPS would be useless if she ran that fast. The satellite was too slow to keep track of her or update her map.
Just keep moving, she urged the driver. Pretty please?
As if to mock her, the bus lurched forward and then came to a shuddering halt, throwing her into the seat in front of her. Emily barely felt the impact through her forcefield, but Chris’s danger sense sent a chill through her body. One of the other passengers gave a startled yelp. All of the bus doors slid open. At the same time, the driver made an announcement over the vehicle’s internal speakers. His English sounded too foreign for Emily to understand what he was saying. However, since the doors were now open, it wasn’t too hard to get the gist of the announcement. The other passengers got up from their seats and hurried to the exits.
Alarmed, Emily stood and looked through the windows. The bus had stopped at the side of the road. As far as she could see from her limited field of view, countless other vehicles – cars, motorcycles and another bus – were similarly stuck, producing a cacophony of honks and angry voices. Chris’s danger sense was telling Emily to follow the example of the other passengers and get out.
What scared her the most was that she didn’t even know the cause of the traffic jam. Unlike Chris, she didn’t experience any visions about the danger source, and she hadn’t yet figured out how to make them happen, so she listened to her gut and left the bus through the nearest door. Once outside, her lingering unease prompted her to look at the sky first.
There was something there. A fist-sized blotch of blackness stained the dark purple sky above the forest of skyscrapers, snuffing out the stars that had appeared behind it. Emily’s breath caught in her throat. The thing shot in her direction, moving so fast that in a matter of seconds, it grew into an avalanche of darkness that came rushing down the length of road. It extinguished any city lights it touched along the way. People began to scream. Motorcyclists abandoned their vehicles to run toward the shops along the side of the road, colliding with panicked pedestrians.
Emily stood transfixed. She felt as if she was frozen in time, unable to take her eyes off the oncoming terror squad. This was her opponent for the mission. A bunch of insane, mind-controlled villains she couldn’t even see.
No, that wasn’t exactly right. The dark haze parted before it reached her, revealing the front half of a red convertible car that charged through the air fifteen feet above the road. A woman kneeled on the passenger seat, her black ponytail fluttering in the air behind her. This wasn’t Aerodyne or any of the Wild Hunt regulars. In the split second she had before the darkness washed over her, Emily saw that the woman was Asian, and that she was drawing a weird-looking bow whose arrow resembled something like frozen lightning.
The darkness quickly eclipsed Emily’s senses. It was strangely cold, like a sudden burst of winter air. She felt the chill in her bones when it swept across her forcefield. The loud noise of an explosion came from the road behind her, followed by a second and a third bang that sounded farther away. People screamed. Through the danger sense she had borrowed from Chris, she got a dull impression of hundreds of lives being snuffed out in an instant.
Emily stood frozen in fear, her breath catching in her throat as the full weight of her responsibility pressed down on her. The worst part was the realization that she was truly alone. Kasparov and her friends had never seemed more distant.
After a brief moment that seemed like an eternity, the darkness passed, revealing the full extent of the destruction the Wild Hunt left behind. The explosion – most likely caused by the Asian woman’s lightning arrow – had ripped a smoking black crater into the road, overturning cars and shattering the windows of nearby buildings. Burned bodies were strewn around the crater and on the curbsides. Her superhuman senses told Emily that a few of them were still alive.
But as much as she wanted to help, Emily didn’t have the time to be shocked or to think about them.. She shook her head and shut the out reality of what was right behind her, using a mental exercise she had practiced the past three days. The dark cloud was still visible in the distance. It continued to sweep down the length of road before it turned a corner and disappeared from view.
Focusing on her opponent instead of the victims calmed her down enough to get her thoughts back in order. They’re roaming aimlessly. They don’t know where the Technician is.
She forced herself to look ahead and start moving away from the cries and whimpers of the wounded and dying. Her trembling fingers retrieved the headset from her rucksack as she walked. Even though the controls were child friendly and simple, it took her three tries to activate it. Then, she dug out the phone and called up the GPS map with its blinking marker. Her target location still looked so far away.
“Kasparov?” She asked in a tiny voice that was nearly drowned out by the sound of another distant explosion.
Her mentor responded immediately. “I’m here. I’m glad you’re okay.”
“They’re killing random people now. The bus isn’t going anywhere. I don’t know what to do.” Another explosion in the background, louder than the one before. It sounded as if the Wild Hunt was veering back in her direction. She quickened her pace, maintaining her tunnel vision on the blinking cursor on her phone map.
“You have two options,” Kasparov told her. “Using your powers to speed up has a high chance of drawing their attention, so I don’t recommend it. If you keep going slowly, you’ll most likely reach our man before they find him.” He didn’t have to bring up the consequences of the second option. Emily knew that if she went slowly, the death toll would increase with every passing minute. It was a horrible thought. But she couldn’t shrug it off, and she had a feeling it would weigh on her conscience for a very long time.
“Okay,” she muttered. “I get it.”
“If they become aware of you, there is a chance you’ll draw them to our target’s doorstep. Your chances of success are still good. Don’t endanger yourself.”
He was right to warn her, of course. Cipher had excellent awareness of what was going on within his aura of darkness, and while he hadn’t noticed the forcefield when she was standing still, active power use would definitely draw his attention. And if her guess about the archer girl’s identity was correct, the villainess’ superhuman eyesight and spatial awareness would factor in as well.
Kasparov’s words sparked an idea, however. “What if I distract them?”