New Orleans, Louisiana, USA – Wednesday, the 27th of June 2012. 05:11 AM.
Dawn was still an hour away, but as Sarina squinted her eyes at the stars swimming in the purplish-black sky above, it seemed like they were already fading. The air was still pleasantly cool, enriched with a humid, salty scent coming from the big lake to the north. Apart from the occasional shout or the baying of dogs, this was a silent, peaceful night. The former Crescent City – now City of the Lost – was still asleep and dreaming of better days.
Now that Radiant’s group of heroes had joined forces with Noire and made New Orleans their secondary base of operations, this last hour before dawn had become Sarina’s favorite time of the day. It was a short period of hope and peace, a breathing pause before the merciless sun revealed the reality of the refugee-filled sprawl and heated it up to more than thirty degrees Celsius.
The heat always sparked trouble. Fights broke out over food rations, over accommodation disparity, and deep emotional wounds. Nearly a million people now lived in and around a city that had been built only to hold three hundred thousand, and most of those had left everything behind to seek shelter under Noire’s protection. Many had been separated from loved ones and roamed the streets in search of something to believe in. In a few hours, the daily struggle to keep the peace would begin anew. But not just yet.
Sarina had snuck out of the Lighthouse room she shared with Jasper to sit up on the gallery platform alone, feet dangling over the edge, leaning sideways against the edge of the railing to gaze out over the silent lake and the long causeway that stretched across it. Traffic across the causeway had come to a complete stand-still days before. Two long lines of abandoned cars shimmered in the moonlight, blocked by panic-induced road accidents which had happened long ago.
There was no more police. No one to keep watch over the roads and clear away obstacles. Sarina could have cleared the roads but she didn’t bother. Keeping up with the demands for food, drinking water and lodgings was more important to her, and fuel was starting to become a scarcity anyway.
Behind her to the south, New Orleans now extended far beyond its usual territory. After a lesson in architecture from Radiant, Sarina had surrounded the city with a fifteen foot high stone wall whose transition points were controlled by a mix of heroes and volunteer militia. Thousands of upon thousands of simple stone buildings – courtesy of Sarina – now covered the outskirts of the urban area. The electricity had gone out days before, but she had constructed add-ons to the existing sewage and water system which worked reasonably well.
Since Texas was a chaotic, violent mess and no refugees coming from that direction – or any direction – were turned down, she’d already had to expand the city wall once. Both of the airports were now occupied by refugees or city militia. The Louisiana superdome had been turned into a gigantic storehouse of much-needed goods that Sarina restocked with her powers whenever they were about to run out. Simple food such as canned fish was easy enough to create; the ocean was in the neighborhood, after all. Medicine was tricky because the raw materials for making it were complex and not always available. But thanks to her city improvements, most of the refugees were in good health so far.
As she gazed across the lake, thoughts and ideas came to her as if in dream. The world around her looked different in her imagination. A vast Eden dotted with small settlements of happy people, living in small communities surrounded by their loved ones. Sarina of all people knew what it was like to be separated from friends and family. It wasn’t something she wished on anyone else.
All of my power still isn’t enough to change the world, she mused with a touch of sadness in her heart. This was a fact not even the music track Jasper had composed for her could change. Her range and abilityto affect the environment increased dramatically if she listened to it, but the information overflow was too much for her human brain to handle, so she couldn’t make effective use of the music-induced power boost.
As far as this city was concerned, Sarina provided food and shelter, and she had kind of restored Rome after its destruction by nuclear explosion. But fixing everything, everywhere at once required more power than any hero would ever have. It was easier to unravel the world than to stitch it back together. Her hero friends were aware of this, too, which was why they had stopped trying to save everything and everyone. Now Radiant and his allies did their best to protect certain cities or areas; the last bastions of hope in a world gone mad.
New Orleans was one of them because Noire’s recent power surge allowed her to defend it all by herself, for the most part. Legions of her shadow creatures patrolled it day and night, always on the lookout for uninvited Evolved or other troublemakers. They were unaffected by Legion’s powers or Cipher’s darkness and perfectly capable of killing the Wild Hunt if it ever made the mistake of showing up. Furthermore, the shadow army put a swift stop to looting or any gunfights that broke out. The peace here was an uneasy one, due to the eerie animated darkness that was necessary to keep it, but most people were now more afraid of what was happening elsewhere than they were of Noire and her shadow creatures, so they kept coming.
China’s Evolved army and the Arab League’s Mukhtareen hero group also held four or five cities between them. There were a few hero teams who tried their best without getting involved with Radiant’s group directly, but in most cases, their cities only lasted for as long as Legion didn’t care about them. The king of villains accepted no ‘rulers’ other than himself. Word on the streets was that he didn’t trust anyone else in a position of influence and that anyone who didn’t cooperate with his demands disappeared or was publicly executed by Legion’s growing villain army.
Salt Lake City and the Guardians of Destiny sect continued to resist, though. Temple, one of their Evolved, had the power to retain the reality of what the city was like a week ago, a time of peace and stability back when the Mormons first declared its independence. He maintained a reality stasis of sorts, though time continued to flow normally in Salt Lake City. It was just that any event that threatened the peace wasn’t allowed to happen. Since Temple was joined by a powerful Visionary named Gospel, no outside force – not even Legion – was able to mess with his reality. It was said that the city was a paradise where food never ran out, and no one got sick.
Maybe we should all pretend to convert to the Mormon faith. Sarina smirked to herself, only slightly amused by her joke. It would have been funnier if she had someone to laugh with her. But Jasper was sleeping, Noire most likely patrolled the city with her shadows. Chris… Chris shouldn’t be laughing at all. She was far from well and always looked to be in pain.
David, Sarina’s adoptive brother, often kept the wounded Guardian company. The fact that he spent nearly as much time with the American heroine as he did with his sister told Sarina that maybe, just maybe, he had a little crush on the girl. Sadly, it didn’t seem like Chris was interested. She didn’t show much interest in anything or anyone.
If only Legion disappeared again, even if it was just for a few days. Chris could recover, get hooked up with David, and maybe I’d even find Patrick and Emily.
She sent her wish to the fading stars, unsure whether there was anyone up there able or willing to grant it. Nora had tried to recruit her for God’s army, but Sarina wasn’t a particularly devout person, and the end of the world wasn’t going to change her beliefs. Radiant, however, had become very religious for some reason. But he was slowly fading from the world; it was painful to watch how his memories decayed more and more with every passing day. Hopefully, his Bible talks with Nora helped him hold on to the part of himself that was still human.
“You look sad,” Jasper’s voice came from behind.
She turned her head in surprise. Jasper crouched behind her with his arms around his knees, windblown brown hair in disarray and a roguish smile on his face. He still wore the black boxers and the wrinkled white sheet music shirt she’d last seen him in… no, that was wrong. Her mind drew a blank. He’d obviously put them back on before he decided to come looking for her.
He must have seen something in her face because those incredible blue eyes of his lit up with a glitter of amusement. But instead of speaking, he reached out to rub her shoulder, causing her heart to flutter stupidly.
“Hey,” she managed to say. “I thought you were going to sleep until noon. Didn’t you say you were more worn out than a one legged ninja in an ass kicking contest?”
“Well.” He squinted at her lower back, scratching his head in feigned embarrassment. “I did say that, didn’t I? But I forgot to mention I was hungry, too. So, when I woke up to the tune of my rumbling stomach, guess who wasn’t there.”
Sarina laughed, her melancholic mood blown away by Jasper’s humor. He was always like that, unable to stay serious for more than five minutes. So, she indulged him by pulling her dangling feet back up onto the platform and tackling him with a hug that left him flat on his back. He raised his hands in surrender. Even though she now had him pinned to the ground, sitting on his thighs in her skimpy white night shirt, he lifted his eyes innocently to meet hers.
He was such a good guy.
“What kind of tune was it that you woke up to? I wonder.” She tilted her head and peeled the shirt away from his stomach to inspect it. It was a nice stomach, flat but not ripped, without any obvious scars or bruises. The sight of his unmarred skin, glowing in the moonlight, was a painful reminder of how close Jasper came to death in captivity. No matter how often she thanked Chris for bringing him back alive, it never felt like enough.
“Hmm, let me think.” He scrunched up his face in thought, unaware of her gloomy rumination. “It must have been… that song by Alex Sparrow. Yeah. I recognize it now.”
Sarina tilted her head. “Alex who?”
Still gazing up at her, Jasper hummed a short refrain she didn’t recognize.
“Never heard of it. So… where do I poke your stomach to make it rumble a song for me?” She wiggled her fingers threateningly over his exposed skin.
“Don’t you want to know what song it is before you poke it out of me?”
She frowned at him, rubbing his belly button with her thumb. “It’s something rude about blonde girls. Am I right?”
“Not exactly. The title is ‘she’s crazy, but she’s mine.’”
Judging by the grin on his face, he’d intended to cheer her up, but it wasn’t working. “I doubt there’s a single sane hero left in this world,” she muttered, glancing out at the dark city below. Apart from the distant flicker of a campfire, there wasn’t a single light to be seen. Nothing but shadows and gloomy silhouettes.
Instead of responding, Jasper pushed himself up with his elbows and sat straight, pulling Sarina into his arms. Down below, the City of the Lost was beginning to wake from its slumber. Dogs barked. A baby cried. A rooster crowed in anticipation of a new day.
“Your melody has changed, you know,” Jasper murmured against her ear. He sounded upbeat and hopeful for some reason.
“Oh? What has changed about it?”
He fell silent as if listening, eyes closed and chin resting atop her shoulder. “It’s hard to describe. There was always something ethereal about you, a vibrant harmony that resonated with everything and everyone around you. That’s still the case, but its musical depth has increased. I can hear you from farther away now, and there are no more jarring notes. I wish you could hear yourself, Sarina.”
It wasn’t the first time that he had told her this, and she still didn’t know what to make of it. It was hard to understand the concept of ‘soul music’ when only Jasper could hear it. What she knew and had experienced were the sounds of the world: the whisper of the wind, the buzz of insects, the pattering of rainfall during a silent night. Now that the human society was in shambles, the nights and the majority of the days were silent at least for as long as no one stirred up a conflict. There was hardly any road traffic. A cloud of fear hung over everything and everyone. Even the birds hardly made a sound anymore.
Does the world have a soul? Sarina wondered. If it does, is it afraid?
Jasper stroked her cheek with his thumb, studying her moonlit face with a look of concern. “Now you look sad again. What’s on your mind?”
“What does the world sound like? To you, I mean.”
He tilted his head before looking past her at the sprawling skyline of the slumbering city. “New Orleans itself doesn’t make a sound, but the collectivity of everyone who has gathered here produces a polyphonic hum, like a chorus of thousands of instruments that are really far away. I can’t make out any particular melody, if that’s what you’re asking. But I hear Noire. And Chris.”
“People with powers are easier to pick out from the hum, right?” Even though Sarina already knew the answer, she wanted to keep talking and have the chance enjoy his company for a while longer. The sky was beginning to brighten on the eastern horizon. The best hour of the day was about to end.
“Right. And you are easier to pick out than anyone else.” Jasper tightened his embrace and then released her. “I noticed something else before I came up. Did you take a look at the potted rubber tree outside our room lately?”
“No, what about it?”
“It’s healthy.” He watched her carefully as he said this, his expression uncharacteristically serious.
Sarina blinked at him. “Why is… oh.” She remembered now. Her mind’s eye conjured up the image of a withered, pathetically shriveled rubber tree whose leaves had turned an unhealthy brown-and-yellow. “Are you sure? I watered it a bit, but I don’t think it helped much. It’s too far gone.”
“Yes, I’m sure. I also checked the hibiscus flowers downstairs. They’re in full bloom. All of them.”
Sarina chewed on her lip, unsure how to respond or what he was implying.
“I already told you that you’re changing. I can hear it. I can see it, too. You might not be aware of it, but I believe you healed those plants.” Jasper’s hands squeezed hers, holding them tight. “Maybe you should stop by Rune’s hero friend again. Or Chris, if you prefer.”
But I’m not changing. Or am I?
There was one change that came to mind. Now that she was able to accept – and return – Jasper’s feelings for her, she was living a kind of love she had never explored before. Her outlook was shifting, and she was learning to appreciate small things she used to never pay attention to. Like… the effort that went into the design of buildings. Or the many small animals who coexisted with humans in urban areas.
“I wish Emily was here,” Sarina murmured. “I’m sure she’d help me figure out what’s going on with me.”
While she was lost in her own mind, Jasper tugged at her arm, drawing her attention back to the here and now. A shadow floated in the air above her, as tall as she was but far less human in its appearance. Its form streamed and swirled as if blown by the wind, and even though it lacked eyes or any other facial features, it seemed to be staring down at her.
“I hate to disturb the two of you,” the shadow declared with a hollow echo of Noire’s Louisiana drawl, “but I need to borrow Dancer for a minute.”
Nora never intruded on others without good reason, so her sudden appearance told Sarina there was something serious going on. She planted a kiss on Jasper’s lips before disentangling herself from his embrace. As much as she wanted to keep enjoying his company, she couldn’t afford to be selfish anymore. Her past mistakes – Snow, among others – haunted her in her dreams. Sarina’s only chance at redemption was to grow as a heroine and do better from now on.
“Take care of yourself out there,” Jasper whispered as she rose to her feet. However, as one of the small handful of people who had complete faith in her, he didn’t look concerned.
“Go back to sleep,” she told him, half-joking. “Use the opportunity while you have it.”
“Get married already,” The shadow creature grumbled in its hollow, inhuman voice. It was already drifting off toward the center of the sprawling city, so Sarina cut the farewell short. She stepped through the gap in the railing and kept walking at a brisk pace, over the edge of the platform and through empty air. Gravity didn’t affect her because she didn’t allow it to. Whenever she fell too far behind the shadow creature, it stopped, giving her a chance to catch up.
Some of the refugees who were already awake and out on the streets looked up at the sky, pointing at Sarina and calling out to her as she passed. She sensed no hatred or malice from them. The population of New Orleans no longer cared what she’d done or failed to do in the past, they had experienced first-hand how she expanded the city, distributed food, and built a wall for their sake. To them, she was a heroine like Noire and the others.
And she’d be damned if it didn’t feel good to be loved and appreciated for once.
The shadow stopped near the campus of Tulane University, a complex of beautiful, 19th century stone buildings near the center of the sprawling city. As far as Sarina could see, nothing seemed out of order. There were no signs of fighting or vandalism and no suspicious noise.
“For the past two hours, my scouts have been reporting strange people in the city,” Noire said through the shadow that hovered in midair. “Or maybe it was the same person. I’m not sure.”
“Suspicious how?” Sarina asked, wondering if and how she would be able to help. The shadow creatures were better suited for surveillance and counterintelligence than anyone else. Their tracking ability outclassed any sleuth dog, and unlike a Visionary with scanning powers, they could stalk a target through doors and walls for all eternity or until a Revoker dispelled them.
“I’m not sure. Whoever it was moved around a lot and tried a little too hard to avoid suspicion. But what’s really got me worried is that my shadows couldn’t track them. It’s like that person wasn’t really there. Can you look around to check for weird strangers with powers?”
“Sure,” Sarina replied. “It’s going to take a bit, though. Even if I crank up my range to the maximum.”
“Thanks. The last time I got an alert it came from somewhere around here, so maybe you get lucky.” The shadow drifted silently for a moment before speaking again. “I’m leaving the city to you for an hour or so, okay?”
“What? Why?” Sarina blurted, taken aback.
“Because there’s something going on in Singapore, and Radiant needs me there.”