Boltigen, Switzerland – Tuesday, the 5th of June, 2012. 2:45 PM.
Sarina blinked, willing the black window to disappear and her computer screen to return to normal. But when she dared another peek, nothing had changed. The line of white text continued to tease her with its cryptic English message.
“Hi, Dancer. You look bored. Wanna have some fun?”
The cursor’s persistent blinking below the mysterious line of text demanded a response, but she had no idea what to say.
Maybe this is some kind of test, she rationalized, thinking of the uniformed guards all around the compound and the curious scientists who seemed anxious to poke and prod her at every turn.
She decided that if the white coats were testing her, she’d probably figure it out soon enough. She was about to reach for her mouse when the on-screen cursor moved. As she watched, another line of text was transcribed into the black window.
“Don’t be scared. We just wanna talk.”
Sarina stared blankly at the screen, even more confused than she’d been after the first message.
Her mind started racing. Why were they typing in English? Until now, the government scientists had always communicated with her in German. And, even more concerning, how did ‘they’ supposedly know that she looked bored?
Is someone watching me?
She cast a glance over her shoulder, confirming that she was still alone and that no one had snuck up behind her. Then she got up and took a closer look around her newly transformed room, searching for any security cameras she might have missed. She didn’t see any. She did discover a dead housefly on the edge of the desk, but figured it was an unlikely culprit.
Unless it’s not really dead . . .
She shook her head; now she was just being paranoid.
She sat back down and laid her fingers across the keyboard. Even though she had no idea what to make of the messages, she decided that sending a response couldn’t possibly make the situation any more surreal than it already was.
Finally, she typed a few words of response. But before she hit the enter key, she hesitated. She grabbed her mug and set it upside down on the edge of the desk, entombing the dead insect. Just to be sure.
When she returned her eyes to the screen, she saw that a smiley face emoticon had appeared beneath their last message.
She frowned. The sight of it irritated her enough to finally hit the enter key.
“Who are you, and how’d you get in my computer?” she’d typed. She’d almost added that her internet connection was most likely under government surveillance. But if her mystery messagers were working for the government, they’d already know that. If they weren’t, well, then they were doing something illegal and deserved to get caught.
An answer appeared promptly. It was like they’d read her mind.
“We got around the security system so we could contact you without the wrong people finding out.”
So they hacked into my computer, she realized. Even she knew that such a feat probably wasn’t very easy to accomplish.
Another message appeared almost immediately. “Don’t you think you’re too special to waste away in some decommissioned army basement?”
Sarina’s brows knit together. She was well aware that she shouldn’t be delving into this kind of conversation. Queenie had strongly advised her to inform the authorities should any strangers try to contact her. She considered finding calling the guard station to let them know, but she didn’t move. She could do that in a couple minutes. In the meantime, she wanted to know what the heck was going on. Besides, the boredom really was getting to her.
She typed out a response. “What do you care? You don’t know me.”
“We know you well enough to know you could be one of us.”
There was that ‘we’ again. Who were these people?
Another message arrived. “Don’t you want some freedom? Go wherever you like, when you like. Help people if you wanna.”
This gave Sarina pause. The idea was tempting. But considering the fact that she was talking to some random hackers, she had little reason to buy into it. Something just seemed a little . . . off about the whole thing.
Her adoptive mother’s voice rang in her ears. Sara Bee, you’ve got to be a little more careful of who you give your trust to. How many times had she heard those words? It seemed the warnings were beginning to stick.
Sarina grabbed her cell phone from the shelf above her desk. But before she could retrieve the number for the guards’ station stored in her list of contacts, another message blinked on the screen.
“Don’t do that. You’ll get DJ in trouble.”
The mention of Jasper’s name turned the phone into a ten pound brick that nearly slipped from her fingers. Her mind froze for a second and failed to muster up the disbelief she wanted to feel. She’d known that something was off about Jasper today. His slow response time, his abrupt departure. Did they have him? Were they going to hurt him?
Her face must have given away her fear, because another message appeared within seconds. “Don’t look so scared! Jasper’s our friend, too. He says, ‘I told you I’d see you soon, Dancing Queen’.”
Sarina felt her body relax. Yeah, that totally sounds like him. But why didn’t he say anything before he signed off? Unless he assumed that our chats over the forum’s messenger were being monitored . . .
She took some comfort in the fact that he’d sounded pretty okay when they’d chatted a few hours ago. Not like someone under duress. The delays had been odd, but he could have been distracted by talking to someone else at the same time.
“Let me talk to him,” she typed.
“No can do,” came the response. “He’s not here, but he’s on the phone with us. Ours is the only computer with a secure connection.”
‘Secure connection’? That’s one way to put it, she thought. Although it was in line with what she’d heard about hackers seeing their actions in shades of gray instead of strictly as right or wrong.
“How do you know what I’m doing?” Sarina typed, her fingers flying across the keyboard in a frenzy.
“We’ll tell you if you promise to keep it secret that we contacted you.”
She weighed her options as she absentmindedly fingered her cell phone. It did sound like Jasper was with them, and she’d hate to get him in trouble with the authorities.
She took her hand off her phone and set it on the keyboard. “Okay.”
She wasn’t sure if she was telling a white lie or not, but she could figure out how she felt about all of this once Big Brother stopped watching her.
Sarina raised her head in surprise. Indeed, the small camera on top of the monitor was powered on, the small light beside it glowing green.
She gasped. They’d been watching her? Had Jasper been watching her?
No, she decided. He isn’t a creep like Overdrive.
“How long have you been watching me for?” she typed, annoyed.
Another quick response. “Not long. Just since you went all Andy Warhol on your walls. Way cool.”
So they saw that, she realized, feeling slightly proud of herself. She also felt really silly about the dead housefly now.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“We are a group of four people, five now with Jasper. Names have to wait until we meet up. Rogues, I guess you’d call us. But we’re all like you. Different powers obviously.”
Being rogues didn’t mean much, Sarina knew. Most Evolved were rogues by default, if they didn’t join a hero group. Only a minority of Evolved were villains, willfully setting out to use their powers to hurt others. Just like in the rest of the population, there were some bad apples.
“Why is Jasper with you?” she typed next.
“He’s sick of waiting around for the higher ups to tell him he can actually do something. He says the Covenant and his government just use his music for whatever they want, without his permission. Plus, they don’t even let him leave London. Just like you.”
Sarina found herself nodding. She’d heard this from Jasper before.
Before she could respond, she received another message. “So he’s getting out from under their thumb. And you should come with us, too.”
Sarina chewed on her lower lip. Something seemed too good to be true about the idea of being able to leave here.
“Too bad it’s not that easy,” she typed. A part of her hoped she was wrong.
“But it is that easy. If you’re with us, you can go any place, any time you want.”
Sarina raised an eyebrow uncertainly. Everyone knew that Evolved had a particularly hard time travelling around without UN say-so. Since the Pulse, borders had been reinforced, and trains and airplanes were regularly patrolled to check for Evolved travelling without permission.
Whoever was on the other end of the webcam must have seen her skeptical expression. “Trust me . . . we’ve got options that other Evolved don’t have. We could even get you to South Africa, if you wanna go there.”
Sarina frowned at the screen. She couldn’t even begin to imagine how they’d pull that off, unless . . .
“You’ve got a Teleporter on your team?”
The response was evasive. “Can’t say until you agree to go with us. If you’re too scared, whatever. Your loss. Jasper thinks you’re cool, but we don’t know you.”
Sarina rubbed her forehead, closing her eyes for a moment. She had absolutely no clue when she’d be allowed to go home, if ever. And despite her mysterious success in redecorating, she still didn’t really know how to control or activate her power. So what good was it doing her, just sitting around here?
She opened her eyes and peered down at the keyboard. The picture Jasper had sent her a few hours ago crossed her mind, making her smile. His mock grimace with its underlying humor. The way he held up the miniature King Kong figure against the background of London.
Dancer and DJ saving the world.
The longer she mulled over her situation, the more she wanted to believe in the idea. But there was still one thing that was weighing very heavily against it.
“But my family is here,” she typed. “They would never forgive me if I just left. I owe a lot to them.” She felt tears welling in her eyes as she hit enter.
“You don’t have to leave them forever. Just consider it a vacation. Besides, it’s not like you’re anywhere close to them now, are you?”
The messager had a point.
“You guys will help me web chat with them when I want?” she typed, hoping that if they could hack into her computer here, they’d be able to set up a so-called ‘secure connection’ anywhere for her to reach her family in an untraceable way.
“Definitely!” came the immediate reply. “So you’ll come to France with us? Ever wanted to see Paris?”
Paris? There went Sarina’s eyebrows again. She couldn’t deny that being in Paris would totally beat being . . . here. They had some pretty cool dance crews over there, too.
She squinted up at the suspicious webcam, teetering on the edge.
“Maybe,” she finally typed.
A smiley face appeared immediately. Then, “How ’bout we come to you so you can meet us? No one will even notice we’re there, I promise. They let you out for walks whenever you want, right?”
What were they getting at? Sure the guards let her outside, but they’d definitely notice if she just walked off. “Yeah, but not far . . .” she typed.
“Good! We’ll just come and have a little chat, and if you like us, we’ll all drive to Paris together for a few days. See how it goes. No pressure.”
Sarina bit down on her bottom lip. That seemed fair enough. Besides, how dangerous could it be with the guards and the Covenant keeping such close tabs on her? And more importantly, it would mean she could finally meet Jasper — even if it was just to say hi to him.
Regardless of what her mother might say about her being too trusting, there was something about Jasper that just made her believe in him. No, she didn’t know him well enough to rightfully consider him a friend; but whatever connection she felt when they chatted meant something to her. Something real.
Before she had a chance to change her mind, the blinking cursor added another line of text. “We’ll be there tomorrow morning. Leave your computer on.”
Tomorrow? That seemed awfully soon.
Some more practical concerns started to infiltrate her mind. From what she’d heard, Paris was one of the most expensive cities in the world. She tapped her fingers across the keys. “I don’t have much money with me . . .”
“Money isn’t an issue,” came the reply. “And we’ve already got a place to stay. See you tomorrow morning!”
Before she had a chance to think up any more excuses, the black window closed itself.
“Yeah,” she muttered. “I guess I will.”
Sarina sat there for a few minutes, replaying the last half hour in her head. What had she agreed to?
Nothing, she reminded herself. She’d only said ‘maybe,’ not yes. And the agreement was that she’d only go with them if she liked them. No pressure.
She got to her feet, suddenly feeling the need to put some distance between herself and her computer.
Just to be sure she wouldn’t get peeped on before she was ready to call her parents, Sarina grabbed a pair of socks from her dresser, knotted them together, and draped the makeshift cover over the webcam.
She still wasn’t sure what or how much she’d tell her family, but she had almost two hours to figure it out.
After a nice long shower, Sarina took a brief stroll around the compound to catch some sunlight and gorgeous mountain views. On her lap around the building she passed a number of armed guards, all of whom were charged specifically to keep an eye on her but none of whom seemed all that interested in what she was doing. Though they were always careful to keep their distance from her unless absolutely necessary.
After about half an hour’s worth of fresh air, Sarina settled back down at her computer desk. She looked at the homework she’d been emailed by her school, but quickly lost interest when she realized that her history teacher had sent her an assignment on the history of the UNEOA and the Covenant.
“As if I want to write an essay about that,” she grumbled, knowing that her classmates were studying the Napoleonic wars. And she wasn’t sure her essay would even get looked at. She still planned on getting it done today, but knowing they’d pretty much written off her high school education wasn’t exactly a motivation booster.
She uncovered the webcam and opened the web phone software, then selected her home number. After over a dozen rings, her family still hadn’t picked up.
Why aren’t they answering? She wondered with a mixture of concern and self-doubt. What if they were hurt? Or, worse, what if they’d written her off, too?
Sarina wasn’t on bad terms with her new family now — not exactly — but she couldn’t deny that something had changed. She couldn’t define what that something was, but it bothered her. A lot.
On the fifteenth ring, her mother finally accepted the call. What had taken her so long? The question nagged in the back of Sarina’s mind.
“Hello there, Sara Bee,” came her mother’s voice when the call was finally connected. For some reason, she’d only accepted the call on microphone mode, not camera mode.
Despite her worry, Sarina smiled at the sound of her mom’s voice. It was nice to hear Swiss German after all that online chatting she’d been doing in English lately. Unfortunately, it lacked her mother’s usual distinctive cheer. Which did nothing to put Sarina’s mind at ease.
“Hey, Mom,” Sarina tried to feign casualness.
It didn’t seem to work. “Sarah Bee, what’s going on? Is everything alright on your end?” her mother asked with concern.
“Oh, sure. All’s cool here. Pretty boring. Actually, it’s so boring that I’m even doing my homework,” Sarina tried to joke. She wasn’t sure if her mom bought it. “How are you?” she asked, wondering why the webcam still hadn’t been turned on.
Gosh, I hope you haven’t been crying.
“I’m alright,” her mother replied, sounding tired. “Everyone we see is full of questions. People on the street, the news . . . it’s almost like we’re famous.” There was a chuckle, but it sounded feeble.
“I’m sorry about all the trouble,” Sarina said quietly. And she meant it.
“Oh, honey, it’s not your fault.”
That was just the sort of thing a mother would have to say. Sarina tried to believe her. “Everything else okay?” she asked.
“Well, I miss you, of course. As do your father and David.”
“I miss you all, too,” Sarina said, suddenly fighting back tears. “Are they around?”
“They’re in the kitchen. Wait a second, I’ll go get them.”
Sarina heard a bit of bumping around, and then there was silence. As she waited for her dad and brother to come on the line, the nagging questions returned. If the whole family was home, why did it take over a dozen rings for someone to pick up her call?
After half a minute, a man’s voice echoed in the distance. Then a second one joined in. Brighter, more cheerful. David.
You’ll always be my big bro, no matter what. The thought brightened Sarina’s mood a little.
Then the webcam was activated and Sarina saw her dad taking a seat on his home office chair, leaning forward to flash a hint of a smile at the camera. She could see David’s elbow off to the side, but her mom was nowhere in sight.
“Hello there, girl. They’re feeding you alright, I see,” her father joked.
Sarina flashed a smile and adjusted her position in her seat. “You know it,” she replied. In fact, the food at the facility was pretty disgusting — which only made Paris all that much more appealing.
“You’ll have superhero strength in no time if you keep that up,” he noted.
Her dad had always been a big hero buff, even before the Pulse. He’d had a collection of comic books still in their plastic and everything.
“Are you doing your homework?” he asked, checking all the fatherly boxes.
“Yeah,” she fibbed, managing to keep a straight face. She was planning on doing it, after all. “It’s all about the UNEOA and the Covenant, though. Not the regular subjects.” She heard her voice falter as she said the last part.
Her dad must have heard it too. “Oh, honey. If you want to keep up with your regular classes, I’ll see what I can do. I’m still on good terms with your principal.”
Sarina cringed internally at that. She didn’t like to think about how her parents had been called in for ‘talks’ with the principal when she’d just started living with them and was still struggling with her drug therapy and rehab programs. She was reminded once again of how much love and commitment they’d shown her over the past couple of years — which only made her mother’s absence from the video chat that much more upsetting.
“Speaking of the Covenant,” David chimed in, moving into the foreground. “Queenie paid us a visit last night.” He wiggled his eyebrows at the camera, as he usually did when sharing unexpected news.
“Yes,” Dad confirmed, his tone more serious, “she did. She was here for quite a while, actually.”
Sarina swallowed, her throat suddenly dry. Was that why her mom was being so weird today? “Oh, yeah? What did she want?”
“She just had some general questions about you. You know, your personality and interests,” her father informed her. “She was interested in the family album, wanted to hear about your development over the past years, those kinds of things.”
Holy moly, I hope she didn’t ask about the rehab. The thought of her personal struggles being official government business left a queasy feeling in her stomach.
Sarina decided to look on the bright side. Maybe Queenie hadn’t asked about the rehab. And if she had, well, that must mean they were interested in considering her for the Covenant. Right?
Sarina could totally picture herself in a flashy, form-fitting costume running alongside Radiant and Paladin to turn wrongs into rights. Maybe Radiant would even grow bored with his nerdy girlfriend and ask her out for dinner instead. What did he see in Athena, anyways? She talked like a robot and always had a stressed out look on her face.
So what if he was fifteen years older? He had killer looks and was one of the most powerful heroes known to man. And besides, based on what she’d gathered from one of the rare TV features she’d watched, he had an irresistible mix of confidence and charisma to boot.
I would totally learn to speak Russian for him, she decided.
“Sara Bee, are you listening? Sarina?”
Sarina only realized she’d zoned out when mother’s voice started calling her name, persistent and anxious. She forced herself back to reality and refocused her attention. If her mother had stepped back into the picture to use that kind of tone, something was seriously wrong.
“If they say anything about sending you to India, you decline,” her mother implored, her concerned face speaking right into the camera. “You decline. Is that clear?”
“Huh?” Sarina asked, not sure what her mother was talking about.
Her mom gave a frustrated groan. “You need to pay more attention, hon. This is important. Do you hear me? The news is on right now and they’re talking about something going on in India. Something . . . dangerous. We want you to stay away from there. Okay?”
Sarina had to admit that it felt good to be reminded of how much her mother cared about her. But she was still confused about the cause for concern.
“What do you mean? What’s going on?” she asked.
“The UN just confirmed that the Covenant killed Shanti,” David said, all trace of humor gone from his voice. “People everywhere are protesting. India is the worst.”
They killed Shanti? Sarina’s stomach felt like it plummeted all the way down to her newly carpeted floor. Why would anyone want to kill her? Especially when she’s doing so much good in the world!
“Are you sure?” she asked in a small voice. She just couldn’t accept that her number one role model was gone. How many times over the past few days had she fantasized about working alongside Shanti, changing the world for the better? There had to be some mistake.
“It’s true, Sara,” her father confirmed. His voice remained grave. “And with Queenie coming around last night, showing all sorts of interest in you . . .” he trailed off, then cleared his throat. “Just Remember that Switzerland is neutral. If the Covenant tries to get you to do anything that seems dangerous, you can safely decline and appeal to Swiss authorities.”
“But if they want my help . . .” Sarina began.
“Then you say no,” her mom finished for her. Her voice was firm.
“Your mother is worried that you’re still too easily influenced,” her dad explained gently.
The comment stung. Sure, she’d had a bad habit of hanging out with the wrong sorts of people in the past, but she liked to believe that she’d grown older and wiser since then.
“The riots are unreal,” David broke in, changing the subject. Good old David. “People are boycotting anything that has to do with the UNEOA. Some are even calling for the Covenant to be disbanded,” he added. “So listen to your big bro, okay? Stay out of trouble until everything calms down.”
She still couldn’t believe it. Shanti, dead? It just didn’t make any sense. Worse, it trampled her sense of justice and her belief in people’s inherent potential to be good.
“No one said anything about sending me anywhere,” Sarina announced, doing her best to sound reassuring. “But I still don’t get it. The Covenant is supposed to protect people.”
“Explain it to her, David,” dad said. “And maybe you can help her with her homework as well. In the meantime, I have to get ready for the afternoon meeting, but I’ll be back in a few to say goodbye.” He gave a quick wave to the camera and was gone.
David settled into their dad’s office chair and leaned forward to adjust the camera angle, bringing himself into full view. If their mother was still there, Sarina couldn’t see her.
“Ready for the run-down?” her brother asked her in a serious tone.
Sarina nodded, although she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear what he was about to tell her.
David dove right in. He was studying to be a teacher, and it showed. “Well, you know how there are all sorts of theories flying around regarding powers and everything? How they work, why some people get them, et cetera?”
Thinking back to the document she’d prepared yesterday, Sarina nodded. She was all too aware of the competing theories out there — and the lack of concrete answers.
“Well, the UNEOA made a statement yesterday that officially endorsed one of the theories,” he told her. “They say they finally have enough data to prove it’s true.”
Sarina sucked in a breath. “So they figured out how powers work?” she asked, incredulous. It sounded too good to be true. Maybe she wouldn’t be a Wildcard anymore.
“Not exactly,” David burst her bubble. “They said they could prove something called feedback theory, which has to do with surges.”
“Oh,” Sarina said. She slumped back in her chair.
“According to feedback theory, every Evolved who’s surged continuously radiates energy that causes more power spikes in others, like Monsoon.”
So that’s how Monsoon got to be so dangerous, Sarina thought. Too bad they hadn’t figured out this feedback theory stuff a few weeks ago; if they had, they could have saved thousands of lives. She got lost in regret for a moment.
“. . . so that’s why they’re killing everyone who’s surged,” David was saying. “Because they think they have proof that everyone’s powers are interconnected.”
Sarina leaned into the edge of her desk, trying to piece all the information together.
“So you’re saying they think Shanti’s surge caused Monsoon’s power to spike, too? That without all of Shanti’s good power, Monsoon never could have accumulated all his bad power?” She struggled to remove the sick feeling from her gut.
David nodded into the webcam. “Yep.”
She refused to believe that the Healer could in any way be held responsible for the thousands of people who’d drowned in South Africa. “I still don’t get it. It wasn’t her fault that some crazy decided to go off the handle and kill everyone. I mean, look at all the good she was doing! Doesn’t that count for anything?”
“I guess they feel like they can’t take the risk,” David said. “Do you remember Liquidate?”
“The guy who turned people into puddles? Yeah, that was awful.” Like most people she knew, Sarina’s memory of the weeks following the Pulse was pretty good. Everything had been so new and scary that it had been burned into her brain. “I don’t think anyone would have protested if they killed him.”
“Nobody had to. He committed suicide, remember? He just couldn’t live with what he’d done. But the point is, before him, people just assumed that Evolved have their powers under control. But the whole Liquidate scenario proved everyone wrong.”
The comment cut deep. Sarina knew better than anyone that powers sometimes had a mind of their own, despite the person’s best intentions.
“And that’s why people looked to the UN to form the UNEOA for oversight,” David continued. “As a respected global organization, people trusted it to keep them safe.”
“And to protect Evolved from themselves,” Sarina finished.
“That’s right,” her brother agreed. “So, through the UNEOA, the UN Assembly gave the Covenant executive rights to take action anywhere in the world to stop Evolved threats on human life. So if they can justify something as saving lives . . .” he trailed off, shrugging into the camera.
“Then they can kill. Even a Healer like Shanti.”
David lifted his hands into the air, palms up. “Seems that way.”
Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Sarina remembered the French slogan from one of the last history classes she’d attended at school. Evidently, the Evolved were less equal than everyone else.
That sick feeling returned to her stomach. “David . . .” she began, unsure whether she wanted to ask the question that had been poking at the back of her mind ever since he’d mentioned power surges.
Sarina took a deep breath. “If my power isn’t useless, it’s a ‘game-breaker’.” She curled her index fingers to indicate air quotes for the camera. “At least that’s what Queenie said.”
David raised his eyebrows, urging her to finish her thought.
She swallowed, hard. “So . . . do you think they’ll come after me, too?”
“Nah.” David smiled, but it was a little thinner than what she was used to. “You haven’t surged, so you’ve got nothing to worry about. Besides, our government’s watching over you. And we’re neutral, remember?”
But if our government’s ensuring that everyone here is so safe, then why is mom so worried about me? Sarina wanted to ask.
“Yeah, you’re right,” she said instead.
Being even more confused about what to do than before, she didn’t mention the strangers who’d contacted her.