Averton Beach, Averton, Washington, USA – Saturday, the 26th of May, 2012. 09:42 PM.
When Chris had fled the scene of the car wreck, she hadn’t had a specific destination in mind. She just ran. Eventually her intense speed had slowed to normal jogging pace, and she found herself at the beach, kicking up grass and sand with each long stride.
Night had long since fallen. The sea had turned black, except for the shimmering silver glow where it reflected the moonlight. The wind that stirred the waves was cold enough to discourage most people from taking a stroll on the beach. The only other people in sight were in a group of four farther up the shore.
Chris came to a halt on the sand and rubbed the tears from her eyes. She needed a moment of peace before the Covenant showed up. Or the police. Or, in the worst case scenario, her parents.
Breathing hard from her run, she trudged across the sand to Founder’s Rock, a looming wall of jagged stone which just so happened to be one of Averton’s defining landmarks. The sheer size and incline of the rock formation often attracted amateur climbers, but Chris just wanted to disappear inside a small crevice she knew about from her childhood. She headed for the narrow opening, which was easy to miss behind a series of boulders.
Chris squeezed herself into the crevice and settled on the damp coarse sand, leaning sideways to rest her cheek against the rock. It felt soothingly cool against her sweaty skin. More than that, it provided her with something solid, an anchor to hold on to while her thoughts whirled around in loops.
The life she’d known was over. She would never graduate from high school or have any chance of pursuing a sports career. The people she used to know would most likely be scared of her now, or else they would hate her like Ryan seemed to. And she would miss the dog.
Chris realized that she should come up with some kind of plan, but she couldn’t muster any motivation. Not for herself, anyway. She’d mutated into something that night. Something other. Ryan had given her that look, and Helen … no. Her mind refused to go there. For the thousandth time in the past hour, she felt herself go numb inside as her thoughts strayed too far in that direction.
After an indefinable amount of time, Chris heard her lion’s roar ringtone over the sound of the crashing waves. She ignored it until it stopped, then listened to the ping of the incoming voicemail message with her face buried between her knees. There was no point in checking it; she didn’t want to hear anything that anyone else had to say right now.
But it could be Ryan, she realized, raising her head and drawing her knees close to her chest for warmth. She dug the phone out of her hoodie pocket and wiped her eyes again to clear her vision.
The activity log listed an intimidating number of unanswered calls and new text messages spread out over the last forty-five minutes. It included five calls and three text messages from her mother and two calls and no text messages from her father.
And the list didn’t end there. Two text messages were from José, her sparring partner from boxing. Josh and Luke, her soccer buddies, had sent two messages each. Three of her classmates had sent five texts in total. Some girl she barely knew and who wasn’t even in her class had sent a whopping seven messages.
There was nothing from Ryan.
She let the phone fall to the sand. Her stomach tightened and she buried her face between her knees again, choking back the ragged sobs grating at her throat. When she felt reasonably sure that she could hold herself together, she picked her phone back up and opened her inbox. She couldn’t gather the courage to check the messages from her parents. She already had a pretty good idea of what they’d be about.
Chris selected the name of the text-spamming girl and scrolled through her messages first.
From: Ashley, received: 08:50 p.m.
“Oh, wow. Shit, Chris, is this for real? Ryan’s dad called my mom and my parents are really upset.”
From: Ashley, received: 08:54 p.m.
Wanna tell me what’s up? It’s kinda creepy.
From: Ashley, received: 08:59 p.m.
Man did u really blow up a car??? What happened???
From: Ashley, received: 09:08 p.m.
Ur all over the news.
From: Ashley, received: 09:10 p.m.
They say the Covenant is in Averton and it sounds like they’re talking to Ryan.
From: Ashley, received: 09:11 p.m.
Don’t get killed OK? I still think ur cool and I think Ryan will say the same.
From: Ashley, received: 09:13 p.m.
“Ur not gonna make my phone explode cuz I’m annoying, rite?”
Chris’s lips twitched as she read the last message. It was almost amusing.
If we ever meet again, I’ll buy you a Pepsi.
Chris lowered her phone and rubbed her face with one hand. She understood why Ryan hadn’t contacted her, but it still stung. Whatever it was that had happened back there, she hadn’t done it on purpose. She still wasn’t even sure what she’d done, exactly.
After a few minutes of dazed hesitation, she selected Ryan’s name from the list of contacts. That was the easy part. Following up with the right word choice would be much harder. After a small eternity, she made her selection. She wasn’t entirely content with what she had to say, but no amount of time could fix that—or fix anything else.
Ryan, you probably hate me right now, but I swear I didn’t do it on purpose. I don’t even understand what happened. I’m sorry. Chris.
She wasn’t quite sure what she’d do if he didn’t respond, but just thinking about it was almost enough to break her resolve. She quickly pressed the send button with a trembling thumb before she had a chance to change her mind. Then she slid sideways onto the cold sand and hugged her knees, curling up into a ball. Some submerged part of her conscience screamed at her to care about
Helen, but she just couldn’t go there right now.
Chris managed to cry herself into exhaustion. It wasn’t quite sleep, but eventually there weren’t any more emotions left for her to spill.
After what must have been hours, Chris felt steady enough to face whatever the world had in store for her. Her phone had gone quiet, and a quick check of the activity log confirmed that even her parents had stopped calling her some time ago.
The phone clock told her it was just past midnight. Her mind still felt numb, but it didn’t take much effort to realize that if the Covenant had already deemed her a threat, she wouldn’t be sitting here anymore. And if society didn’t want to see her locked up or dead, then they’d want to get her hooked up with the Wardens, the ‘official’ US hero team. The hero label was just that, a label, but it seemed to redeem the newly transitioned in the eyes of the public. People were much more accepting of heroes than rogues.
But Chris already knew that she’d make a pretty shitty hero. She’d already proven on numerous occasions that she couldn’t cope with rules and regulations, and, as far as she could tell, that was exactly what the Wardens were about. If she had become one of them, she’d have to deal with the media —with people—on a daily basis. Besides, heroes were expected to set examples. And just what kind of example would she be setting for anyone else? Even Kermit the Frog would do a better job than she ever could. At least he made little kids smile.
Don’t let anyone pressure you into any kind of role. The memory of Ryan’s voice flooded into her consciousness, bringing her back from darker places.
“Thank you,” Chris whispered, closing her eyes for a moment. She sat still for a while, chin nestled in the crook of one arm while she pondered her options. Most of her thoughts boiled down to the same general idea. She couldn’t join the hero team, but she couldn’t live her life like an unwanted monster, either. She had to do her own thing as a person and hope that it turned out alright. If it did, then maybe she’d be ready to face her family. Or what was left of it.
Once again, Chris forced images of Dylan and Helen from her mind. They’d both died on her watch. The Wardens probably wouldn’t even want her on their team with that record. But she still couldn’t accept the fact that she was now some sort of threat to society. All she wanted was to give Ryan and her parents a reason not to hate her, and for everyone else to leave her alone.
Doing good on her own terms, as an independent rogue, was the only way she could ever hope to make things right. If someone else made the decisions for her, it wouldn’t be the same. She had to take charge of her own atonement. It was the only way to get rid of the demons that were eating away at her.
A flicker of light in her peripheral vision drew her attention back to the outside world. She let her arm drop from her knees to grab her phone before crawling out onto the beach. As she emerged from her hideout, she quickly surveyed the shore. The foursome from earlier that night was nowhere in sight, and the threat of rain had passed.
She turned her attention up to the source of the light. A bright shining humanoid figure had joined the stars above Averton, outshining the moon with the sheer brilliance of his outstretched wings.
Maybe she should have been scared, but she realized that she was already beyond the point of caring. She was most likely already dead to her parents and to anyone else she ever cared about. But if she went ahead with her plan to strike out on her own, then maybe that was for the best. Any kind of emotional baggage would just get her killed for real.
Chris looked down at her phone for a long moment, then stepped out onto the wet sand and tossed it into the waves.
The luminescent figure in the sky made no move. He gave no indication of whether he’d even seen her standing on the shore. It didn’t matter. The Covenant was the highest hero authority, a team of the world’s most powerful Evolved who had been handpicked by the international community. If they wanted to step in, they would. And there wasn’t anything she could do about it.
The next logical step was to get some real sleep. There were still plenty of hours left before sunrise, and most of her body hurt about as much as it had after her first boxing lesson. If she didn’t crash for at least a few hours, she’d be even worse for wear in the morning. She looked back at the crevice in the rock, but the chill emanating through her body told her it was time to move on. She’d never be able to get any real rest in there.
A new burst of light drew her attention back to the night sky. The shining figure was gone, but the energy trail he’d left in his wake cast a pale sheen across the rolling ocean below.
New orders, she speculated. Maybe they got word of something bigger and more threatening than me. It wasn’t a cheery thought, but it made her feel slightly better about her own situation.
Chris tilted her head back, taking in the sight of thousands upon thousands of stars—all those tiny beacons of light in the darkness. Radiant’s glowing haze still roiled across the dark star-spattered sky, expanding in all directions as it slowly faded.
Even in darkness, there is light, her mother had often told her when Chris had a particularly bad day at school.
When her neck started throbbing from stargazing, Chris began shuffling down the sand towards town. Her plan, loose as it was, was to find herself a park bench. Preferably someplace out of the way of former classmates. The local news broadcasts would be airing just about now, warning the locals and spreading word of yet another transition in the USA.
The litter-strewn Museum Parkway had been completely deserted last night when she’d arrived, but by dawn the scenery was different.
The sound of people talking stirred Chris from her sleep. She was exhausted and sore, but the distant chatter of indistinct voices wormed its way into her consciousness and was difficult to ignore. She rolled onto her side and opened her eyes.
And there, not sixty feet in front of her, was a complete television crew.
Startled, Chris squinted her eyes shut against the bright morning light. Then she sat up and braced herself for another look.
The TV crew was still there. They’d set up their equipment near the edge of the park, beside a small van with the words ANBE News: Evolved for You printed on the side.
Now that Chris had stirred from the bench, a few things happened at once. Someone started the van’s engine and several crew members began barking orders. The camera guy scampered over to a large tree for cover, still pointing his equipment in her direction. A blonde man holding a mike began talking into the camera lens with frantic haste, waving his arms in the general vicinity of her bench.
It was absurd. The reality-comedy kind of absurd, without the comedy.
The crew was too far away for Chris to decipher complete sentences from their excited chatter, but she caught snippets, including her name, along with the words ‘activity’ and ‘this morning.’
What the hell?
She was still taking in the details when a female voice from above interrupted her dazed thoughts.
“Christina, are you feeling alright?”
Chris looked up and realized that the words had been transmitted by a hovering drone. The device was about the size and shape of a basketball, with small metal extensions jutting out from its lower half like legs on a spider. A dark-tinted lens, set within the center of the metal sphere, adjusted itself to view her face.
“I’m okay,” Chris said, peering up at the drone guardedly.
The thing made a slow descent until it was suspended in the air directly in front of her, its dark lens focused on her with a faint mechanical buzz. Chris followed the drone’s movements with narrowed eyes and prepared to jump to her feet in case she had to make a break for it.
“I am glad to hear that, Christina. We have been quite concerned for you,” the object said in a voice which sounded more like a real human being than a machine. However, the English was stilted and artificially correct, as if the woman was reading from a textbook.
The words caught Chris off guard. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected from her first encounter with the Covenant, but definitely not concern. “Who are you?” she asked, peering into the camera lens.
“Athena,” the drone replied. “Do you recognize the name?”
Of course, I do, Chris thought. A person would have had to have been living under a rock for the past two years to have missed who Athena was. Chris wasn’t a hero junkie like some people were, but she’d seen the posters, t-shirts, and merchandise featuring the famous Covenant heroine. Athena was one of the world’s most powerful Technicians, second only to Data.
Her name explained the strange speech pattern. According to hero tabloids, Athena had developed a software program that allowed her to speak every language. And considering that she was Greek, it was apparently working. It just made her sound like a robot.
“You’re with the Covenant, right? With Radiant and the others?” Chris asked, making sure.
“Yes, that is right,” Athena said. “Radiant asked that I speak with you, Christina.”
Chris felt her shoulders relax slightly. It had to be a good sign that the Covenant was talking to her. If they considered her a threat, she’d most likely be dead already.
“Would you like me to send the television crew away?” Athena asked.
“Yeah. They’re giving me the creeps.” Belatedly, Chris added, “Please.”
“Just a moment.”
The drone entered a passive standby mode in which it simply hovered. After a couple of minutes, the blonde man in the back of the ANBE van pressed a phone to his ear, his brow furrowing deeply. Then he signaled to the rest of his team with an irritated sweep of his arm. Turning his back, he continued releasing a stream of shouts into the phone, clearly displeased with something.
Another half minute passed. The verbal barrage slowed down as the blonde man was apparently forced into a more passive role by whoever called the shots on the other end of the line. When he turned back to face her, Chris could have sworn that he glared at the drone before ordering the crew to retreat off-site. They loaded their equipment into the van with practiced precision, then climbed into various nearby vehicles and began to vacate the parkway.
At the same time, the drone came out of standby. Its lens refocused on Chris’s face with a faint buzzing sound.
“There is no one who can overhear us now,” Athena assured her. “I am intercepting any signals that are not my own.”
“Thank you,” Chris murmured, half of her attention still on the departing television van. She drew her knees up against her chest, her muddy sneakers resting on the edge of the bench.
“You are welcome,” Athena responded. “You may not have noticed, but we also evacuated the beach last night and placed it under strict lockdown. The same is true for this section of the park. ANBE News was the only exception.”
Chris raised an eyebrow.
“We have found that it helps to suppress public hysteria if we allow the transmission of some peaceful images of the newly Evolved,” Athena explained.
Chris tried not to be offended, but the words cut deep. “Is that why you’re here?” she asked. “Because I’m creating public hysteria?”
“No, not necessarily,” Athena said. “The fact of the matter is that whenever a person transitions, a member of the international Covenant is sent to oversee their file. I have been personally assigned to your case, Christina.”
Chris looked down at her feet. Sand was still stuck to her sneakers from the night before. “Well, thanks for showing up,” she muttered. “I guess.”
“We’ve been with you for the last twelve hours,” Athena informed.
That caught Chris off guard. Again. “Because you think I’m dangerous,” she prompted.
“No, not necessarily,” Athena’s voice repeated patiently, “although a number of referees have investigated your files, and have identified some concerns regarding your psychological profile by taking the assessment of relatives and witnesses into account, it was strongly suggested that we offer you some time alone before attempting communication.”
The assessment of relatives and witnesses, Chris echoed in her head. Her parents. Ryan. All of the people who used to care about her no longer but did. Ryan didn’t, at any rate. She was one of them now.
Chris’s heart felt like it was being squeezed by an iron vice. Her anxiety was rooted in a distant kind of fear, like a red balloon attached to her wrist by a long thin string. It couldn’t hurt her as long as she didn’t look up.
She dropped her head into her lap and made a small sound that was lost in the furrow between her knees. She absently rubbed her temples with small circular motions.
Athena interpreted it as acknowledgement and continued. “They believe you are too unstable to be classified as cooperative. But I think you show promise. I do not believe you intend to bring harm, which is why we are having this conversation right now. Many things will depend on my impression of you.”
Athena sounds like Aunt Claire, Chris mused, her thoughts trailing off. Her mother’s sister had always thought that Chris’s dad was too hard on her.
“If you’re here to pressure me into the Wardens, I’m not interested,” Chris stated firmly. “Besides, what makes you think I won’t hurt anyone?” Chris suspected she was being difficult, but the question had to be asked. She wanted to know the heroine’s thoughts on the matter.
Athena didn’t seem to hold it against her. “First of all, your powers seem to be relatively harmless compared to the likes of Osmotic and Shadowslasher. Queenie did a check on you and believes you have your powers well under control, although I will ask you to be careful near others,” Athena added. “I am sure you would not want to see anyone getting accidentally hurt.”
There was a pregnant pause which Chris stubbornly refused to fill.
“No, it is much more likely that you would attempt to harm yourself,” Athena deduced, as if speaking to herself. “In addition, you do not appear to be the violent type. Of course, there was that incident at your high school in junior year. But after looking into the available evidence, we agreed that your behavior was understandable under the circumstances.”
Yeah, they were bullying me about my baby brother. And then I made them stop.
“Queenie’s report also suggests that you have inherited some kind of enhanced danger sense. Could you elaborate on this for me?”
Chris didn’t know what to say to that. I get visions of people dying, and then it happens. Or something. She pushed the thoughts out of her mind and up into that detached red balloon. “Um, I just know that other people are in danger,” she tried to explain. “But it’s all weird and messed up.”
“Transitions are often confusing like that, Christina. You might still notice some small adjustments to your powers in the coming days. Was it just around your sister’s … um, incident … that you experienced these sensations? Or did you experience them any other times?”
“After dinner I thought my neighbor Mrs. Chapman was in trouble, but she and her husband were just fighting like normal.”
“Interesting. Please hold on while I look into that,” Athena said, and then the drone went into standby mode again. A minute or two later, Athena’s voice was back. “The police did not receive any reports matching the time of the incident. However, it is possible that you picked up on some incident away from your home,” she informed. “Shortly before an actual transition, Evolved senses begin to reach out even though they are not yet fully developed or reliable.”
Chris began feeling like some sort of science project. She wasn’t sure she liked being under the microscope like this.
“Not only do you have quite a substantial range, but you seem to project force fields of considerable strength, which is unusual.”
“What makes them unusual?” Chris asked. “Barrier creates force fields. Sanctuary’s peace aura seems much more unusual to me.”
“You are the fourth confirmed case that can command them,” Athena said. “But the first whose force fields are of such variable strength.” She spoke slowly, carefully picking her words. “Do you know the reason why?”
Chris cringed internally. She didn’t want to talk about Helen right now, didn’t want to visualize the car crash or the one force field which had shielded Ryan from harm.
Athena broke the uncomfortable silence that hung between them. “We believe you to be a Guardian, just like Sanctuary and Saint,” she said. After a moment, she added, “Are you sure you will not reconsider the Wardens? Many newly transitioned enjoy working with their national hero branch. I believe you might as well.”
Chris set her jaw. “I don’t want to be a Warden. And besides, I doubt they’d even want me,” she said honestly, repeating her thoughts from the night before. “I mean, look at my reports. How long before someone decides I’m a danger to society after all?”
“So you are choosing to become a rogue?” Athena couldn’t keep the regret from her voice.
“If that’s what you call it, then yeah.”
“Then I must inform you that, as a rogue Evolved, you will no longer be treated as a citizen of the United States. You will forfeit all of your rights as an American citizen and as a human being. In concordance with global law, you will now be classified as an AHLF—an altered human life form.” Chris sensed the threat hidden in her words. As far as she knew, human rights didn’t apply to altered human life forms.
“It is my responsibility to ensure that you are aware of your juridical situation. Now that you are, would you like to reconsider your decision?”
For a moment, Chris wavered. Maybe forfeiting her human rights wasn’t the smartest thing to do right now. Maybe she should play by the rules after all. That was what her sister had always done, and it had always seemed to work out for her.
Until it didn’t, Chris sullenly realized, her eyes stinging with tears.
She shook her head firmly. “I’ve made up my mind. I need to be okay with myself first, and that’s only going to happen if I make my own decisions.”
“Fine,” Athena answered. “In that case, I will officially deem you to be a cooperative rogue. We will leave you alone as long as you play by the rules.”
The drone’s lower half split down the middle and the machine’s gangly protrusions retracted inside. A moment later the thing returned to its original configuration, though from its tentacles it now dangled a piece of green fabric with the letters UNEOA and the Covenant’s golden lightning bolt emblem embroidered on it.
“Take this armband and put it around your arm,” Athena instructed. “It signifies that you have been deemed safe by the UNEOA—the United Nations Evolved Oversight Authority—and that you may move around freely. But,” she added weightily, “you must not use your powers against people, for any reason. You may defend yourself from other rogue Evolved, though it is advised that you call for help instead.”
“Fine,” Chris echoed absently. She stretched out her legs before setting her sneakers on the pavement. She was ready for this conversation to be over. “Anything else?”
“There is one other matter,” Athena told her. “Your parents. They would like to speak to you.”
The red balloon burst.
“I can’t,” Chris choked out. “Not now. Not like this.”
“I can respect that.”
Chris jumped to her feet, prepared to make tracks, but something held her back. “Athena, do you think I can fix this?” she asked into the drone’s lens.
“That is a question only you can answer for yourself, Christina. But I believe you have potential.”
Potential. There was that word again. Maybe this time she would finally be able to do something good and not screw it up. And if she failed, then maybe the world would be better off without her.