The city-state of Singapore – Wednesday, the 27th of June 2012. 07:31 PM.
Emily didn’t have a concrete plan; it was an inspiration at best. But the idea solidified as she was telling Kasparov about it, and because it distracted her from the scenes of death and destruction that were all around her, she kept talking. It was a way to distance herself from the abyss of the soul-crushing helplessness she had faced a moment ago.
Of course, Kasparov didn’t like the idea. His Visionary powers worked most reliably when he planned at least two or three hours in advance. If Emily derived from the script he had laid out for her, he could no longer identify the safest options for her to take. His power wasn’t flexible. Given the near infinite amount of possible futures he had to consider, it took him an hour just to figure out the best – meaning, the safest – place for Emily to sleep.
She didn’t envy him. But she wished he would trust her with a little more personal freedom.
Emily heard him sigh heavily and though she expected a rebuke, he instead surprised her with a question. “How would you distract the Wild Hunt without drawing attention to yourself?”
When she told him, he was silent for as long as it took her to change direction and walk a quarter block down a different road. She didn’t care what he said; she had already made her decision. The part of the city she crossed now was still untouched by the Wild Hunt, but everyone she saw was in a panic, running desperately in search for cover or pounding on closed doors to request shelter from those inside. No one was safe tonight. Judging by the noise, the villains were now wreaking havoc on the shops and restaurants by the shoreline. Emily resisted the urge to cover her ears with her hands and walked faster.
Kasparov finally spoke. “Your plan sounds reasonable. It could buy you time, but please don’t overestimate your new powers. You’re still inexperienced and haven’t had enough time to train them. You remember the number one game rule, right?”
“I know. I have to stay safe. I can’t pick a fight with these guys.”
He sounded relieved. “Exactly. Go, then. I’m rooting for you.”
I know you are. You’re my safety net, my mentor and my only ally here.
Even though he couldn’t see her, Emily ended the call with a wan smile, grateful for the trust he placed in her. He had told her that what she did tonight would be as significant as anything Radiant’s hero group had ever done.
When I first met Dancer, I said I was going to save the world, she reminded herself. First I thought everything was going to be okay if I saved her. It was like everything depended on her. Now everything depends on me.
She stepped into the space between two parked cars and crouched low, using the temporary cover to lower her guard and retrieve the blue-gray hooded jacket she had stashed away in her rucksack. It was a poor excuse for a costume. It would have been easy to fancy it up using Sarina’s powers, but running around in a superhero outfit was pointless. Emily was most effective as a faceless ghost. The hooded jacket, which was just a bit too large for her, did a decent job at concealing her identity.
After she slipped the jacket over her shirt and pulled the hood up, Emily grabbed her rucksack and left her cover to listen for the Wild Hunt. The villains made so much noise that anyone would have been able to keep track of their movements. For now, it seemed as if the villains were still roaming aimlessly. Emily’s plan was to lure them to a less densely populated area by placing a bait they couldn’t ignore.
There was, after all, a certain person Legion was much more interested in than the Technician.
Emily waited until the roaming cloud of darkness drifted away from her, then shifted to a personality she was intimately familiar with: Chris. Knowing that she needed a boost in courage to supplement the powerset, she dove deeper than usual, using her friend’s emotional numbness to get rid of the fear and insecurity in her own heart. A flood of foreign memories invaded her consciousness. Since she had combed through them many times before, it was easy to identify the ones she needed to use her friend’s powers efficiently. Anything not related to combat or power expertise got pushed to the back of her mind.
Going this deep gave Emily a much needed boost to her Guardian powers. She was now nearly as strong as Chris, but there was also the risk of her friend’s personality assuming control of her decisions. It was a risk she had to take because she needed the power boost.
But where was she going to place the bait? Her goal was to minimize human losses, so a less populated area would be best. However, there wasn’t exactly an abundance of those in the densely packed city state. Having studied a map of the area in advance, Emily knew about the shipyards on the peninsula that extended from the southwestern part of the main island, but those were a long run from her current position.
Remembering the big cemetery which had to be near the western shore, she started running in that direction, taking full advantage of Chris’s speed. The people she passed looked too panicked to identify her as anything other than a strong gust of wind. To minimize the chances of being spotted by her enemies, she darted from cover to cover in short sprints, occasionally waiting for her GPS map to update and point her in the right direction. The cemetery was less than a hundred meters away. Once she was done setting the bait there, she would have to run another half mile to her target’s house, which was located on the outskirts of a green area belonging to a golf and country club.
I can do it, Emily told herself as she positioned herself among a group of ornamental trees to the south of the cemetery. They provided enough cover to hide her from perfunctory surveillance. She was no longer afraid, though; she no longer felt anything. Chris’s emotional numbness enveloped her thoughts like a soothing white blanket. Chris was focused and more than ready to face the villains, which made it easy for Emily to analyze the situation and develop a simple plan.
Her target was the three story government building ahead of her. According to the GPS map, this was the Civil Defense Academy. It was built entirely of white stone, with multiple high gable rooves, stone pillars, and a fancy lighting system. It looked important enough to give the illusion that someone might want to protect it.
Step one: assume Dancer’s powers.
Emily reinforced her personal forcefield before switching powersets. It took her four long seconds to absorb as much of Dancer’s personality and power potential as needed to draw the attention of the villains. However, the new flood of memories included more emotional baggage than she was comfortable with. Her previous calmness was gone. She was furious now, angry at the villains who murdered random people for fun, and angry at herself for having done nothing to stop it. She was a freaking powerhouse, after all, second only to Legion himself. The Dancer part of her brain screamed at her to just kill those damn villains. It took all of her assembled willpower to heed Kasparov’s warning and proceed with the plan.
Step two: draw the Wild Hunt’s attention.
Dancer’s life sense revealed no humans inside the building. This was good, because the place was doomed to be destroyed the instant the Wild Hunt showed up.
After confirming that her current power range extended well beyond the white stone building, Emily infused a large sphere-shaped section of space around it with her will and began to tug on the fabric of reality, testing its rigidity. Filling empty space with material drawn from the nearby surroundings wasn’t too hard. When she practiced various applications of Dancer’s powers, Emily had never failed to create a wall or a sphere. The tricky part was to make it large enough so the Wild Hunt would spot it and come over here, preferably after she was already gone.
She didn’t think they would want to miss out on an opportunity to capture Dancer. By the time they figured out that Dancer wasn’t actually here, neither inside the building nor anywhere on the island, Emily would hopefully be on the run with the Technician in tow.
Constructing the sphere took longer than expected, though. Inexperienced as she was in the role of a reality shaper, Emily had to make many small corrections to the mass distribution of the granite she was drawing from the environment. This was nothing like building sandcastles or playing like clay. The laws of physics opposed her every step of the way as she attempted to create a hundred foot tall, hollow sphere. The constant adjustments took up all of her attention. She was so absorbed in her task that she didn’t notice the approaching cloud of darkness until it swept across the cemetery and snuffed out the electric lamps.
The sphere wasn’t yet complete. It curved upward to a height of about ninety feet, where it ended abruptly, as if the top had been shaved off with a knife. The missing top was now being enveloped in wafting, all-consuming shadows.
They’re here already?
After a second of startled surprise, Emily withdrew her consciousness from the unfinished stone construct. And not a moment too soon. Cipher’s aura exploded outward, and a wall of darkness rushed toward the cluster of trees where the Empath was hiding.
Reason told her to escape immediately, but the part of her mind that was overflowing with Dancer’s confidence held her back, and she wasted valuable time convincing herself that trying to attack a bunch of targets she couldn’t even see was a really stupid idea. Unlike before when they had roamed the city, the Wild Hunt didn’t show their faces or the hood of their flying convertible car. There was nothing to see but darkness.
Right before the surging shadows consumed her entire field of view, she jerked her head to the left, fixed her gaze on the first thing she saw, and yanked herself through spatial reality. Instinctively taking advantage of her full power range, she appeared above a fountain three hundred feet away from her previous position. But the landing was rough. After dropping a short distance, she crashed into the fountain basin. A sharp pain shot through her wrist, which didn’t make sense because she still had her forcefield up… or not? It was hard to think through the shock and the pain. The hard landing scattered her thoughts and left her in a momentary daze, making her want to close her eyes and rest until everything started to make sense again.
But the fountain refused to let her rest. The water filled her mouth and got into her throat, so she lifted her head and coughed it up. Her whole body throbbed. Sudden awareness of the danger she was in flared in her head, reinforced by the roar of an explosion that sounded too close for comfort. Something off in the direction of the government building was cracking and bursting apart.
Emily lifted herself out of the water with excruciating effort and turned her head, looking back in the direction she had come from. She could no longer see the sphere, the ornamental trees or any of the buildings near the Civil Defence Agency. There was nothing but darkness.
“Judit!” Kasparov’s voice yelled through the headset that somehow still clung to her head. “Get away from there! Use Dancer’s teleport. Use it now.”
I think I’m hurt, she wanted to tell him, but the wall of shadows that loomed ahead told her she had no time to waste. The diversion she created seemed to be working, but she wasn’t so foolish to assume that the villains wouldn’t look elsewhere if the bait revealed nothing of interest.
Fortunately, the phone hadn’t gotten wet. Emily pulled it from her pocket, checked the map, and then chose a new destination for her teleport. Some woman on the sidewalk yelled something and pointed at her, or maybe she was pointing at the darkness. Emily barely registered it. She fixed her eyes on a distant parking lot and reached out with her will, wishing herself in that direction.
The landing was much better than the last one. Emily dropped an inch onto the paved ground and then crouched low, using a pair of parked cars for cover. There was no immediate threat in sight. But she felt bruises all over her body, and the persistent, throbbing pain that pulsed in time to her heartbeat forced her to pay attention to her wounded arm.
Still flustered by her mad escape, she stared at it in confusion. The cut on her forearm was about as long as her hand and was bleeding profusely; the steady drip of blood had already formed a small puddle on the ground. After a moment of dazed disbelief, she realized that her forcefield had deformed and didn’t fit the shape of her body anymore. Apparently, she wasn’t so good at pretending to be Chris that she could summon a forcefield and forget about it. Her arm must have been cut on a sharp edge when she crashed into the fountain.
“I cut my arm,” she reported through the headset, anxiously scanning the parking lot for people and surveillance cameras. Finding none, she pulled out her rucksack and rummaged through the contents while waiting for Kasparov’s reply.
It took him a minute to respond. She assumed it was because of all the possible future scenarios he had to evaluate now that she deviated from their original plan. In the meantime, she pulled a silk shawl – brought along in case there was a need to conceal her face – from the rucksack and wrapped it tightly about her bleeding arm. It didn’t stop the bleeding, but it was better than nothing.
“You’re hurt,” Kasparov said in a grave voice. “The sensible option would be to return and recover in time for the next mission.”
Emily hung her head, but she wasn’t ready to give up. Dancer’s inherent stubbornness still spurred her on. Besides, she didn’t want to be responsible for what was going to happen if the Wild Hunt turned its attention back to the city.
Even though she didn’t say anything, her mentor must have anticipated her response. “Switch to Mascot and run the rest of the way. You’re going to need her danger sense. Go now.”
She followed his advice without questioning it. As she shifted back to Chris’s powerset, her danger sense flared with an intensity that sent a chill through her body, and cold sweat burst from her pores. She couldn’t tell where the threat originated. It felt eerily omnipresent, like a swarm of invisible eyes scouring every nook and cranny in search of her. The urge to leave the parking lot right that moment was overwhelming.
So, she did. Emily stood and, after verifying that the villains were not yet in sight, infused herself with Chris’s speed and started running. She knew the direction and what the target’s house looked like. As long as she had the speed advantage, it had to be possible to win this game. She wasn’t going to give up over a stupid injury. Not just yet.
Now that she was inside her own bubble of relative time, the run took about fifteen minutes, though she knew that those minutes would be mere seconds to anyone else. While she ran, her main opponent was her own body. She was nine years old and not nearly as fit as Chris. The bruises hurt. The cut on her arm kept throbbing. Her map was still locked onto her last position before she sped up, so she had to rely on visual cues and run in circles until she recognized the target’s home.
Relief flooded her when she finally stood in front of the small, unobtrusive house with its miniature garden and wooden lattice fence. It was a modern construction consisting of two stories that had been stacked on top of each other like white building bricks, adjoined by a garden which was partitioned off from the patio by a glass sliding door. Apart from the poorly tended garden, everything looked so neat and orderly that it was hard to believe someone was actually living there.
Kasparov had told her that the new Data – she couldn’t recall his real name – was a paranoid geek who rarely left his basement. He had also warned her about the guy’s homemade security system. If she wasn’t careful, she might get seriously hurt or even die. But thanks to her Visionary friend, she was aware of the security system’s weak points and had a good idea of how to trick or avoid it.
The lattice fence and the hidden surveillance camera observing it were the first obstacles. Remembering Kasparov’s instructions, Emily made sure there were no potential witnesses nearby, then walked along the fence until she reached a blind spot behind the house. From there, she had a good view of the sparsely furnished living room through one of the big first floor windows.
After taking a deep breath and giving herself another boost of Chris’s confidence, she switched to Dancer’s powerset and teleported herself straight into the living room.