((author’s note: from here on, the web serial chapers are not nearly as well edited as the books. Sorry about that. Editing books is so much easier than trying to convince WordPress to accept changes without messing everything up.))
San Francisco, USA – Friday, the 8th of June, 2012. 09:08 AM.
As it turned out, the transition from imprisoned rogue to an official US heroine was basically a non-event. All it took was a signature at the end of a five-page contract that outlined the rules and duties of being a Warden, and that was it. After a few days of holding non-person status over her head, the United States of America welcomed Christina Jia Chung back as a hero — and, by extension, as a citizen.
Chris was begrudgingly grateful, though she didn’t appreciate the temporary imprisonment and wasn’t likely to forget the way she’d been coerced into the Wardens. She wasn’t feeling ready for this. Her introductory chat with the other Wardens hadn’t convinced her she was going to fit in, but the authorities had twisted her arm until she’d signed that bloody paper.
Okay, they hadn’t literally twisted it. But the mix of psychological sweet-talking and threats regarding her non-human outlaw status had come pretty close.
Kid’s drawing had probably had the biggest impact on Chris. She didn’t really understand why, but after seeing it, she would have felt like the biggest prick ever if she hadn’t agreed to at least meet the Wardens. Things had developed from there, and the rest was history, as they say.
Everyone had been in a real rush to get her ready for action, too. Her counseling sessions had been cut short, and she hadn’t been offered any sort of grace period to settle into the team. Mrs. Clarence had informed her that Homeland Security and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency would be present during the briefing scheduled for today. It was almost as if they expected her to disarm nuclear bombs from day one or something.
In retrospect, Chris didn’t regret getting herself out of that stifling cell. Finally, she was able to move again. She was greeted by a perfect summer morning, warm but not too hot, and the sea air carried the faint scent of home. The memory of the days spent in solitary confinement quickly melted away in the sun.
To Chris’s surprise, almost no one was watching. She had feared that the authorities would turn her arrival at the Wardens’ headquarters in the Union Square district of San Francisco into some kind of media spectacle, with interviews and the usual political drama. But apart from her psychological therapist, Mrs. Clarence, no one even tried to talk to her during the five-minute walk from the observational cells to the main building.
Maybe they were worried I’d change my mind if anyone asked the wrong question, Chris thought as the uniformed guards ushered her through the huge, steel reinforced double doors that guarded the entrance to the main building.
The three Wardens were waiting for her in the main hall, all dressed up in costume for the occasion. Two were in their late teens and the other one was Kid, the nine year old Empath Chris had already met. She couldn’t spot the Counselor, a Visionary in his forties who was supposedly the team leader. She assumed he was busy elsewhere.
Of the three Wardens present, Noire immediately stood out — and not just because she was an inch taller than Overdrive, who was the ‘oldest’ team member at nineteen. Noire could have passed for a villain with her horned silver and purple mask. The costume that covered most of her body consisted of a matching mix of leather and kevlar in shades of purple, grey and silver. Ribbons and shreds of fabric, each of varying length and shade ranging from silver-grey to black, dangled from her arms, waist and thighs.
Seeing as the costume was worn by a Darkshaper whose powerset could have been inspired by a horror movie, the design was much tamer than it could have been. Noire’s power involved animating her own shadow, which could turn into a semi-sentient creature whose power only increased with the absence of light. The exact details hadn’t been released to the public, and probably for good reason. Noire’s power scared a lot of people.
Overdrive’s outfit followed an energy theme. His helmet was asymmetric, with metallic blue plates covering the entire left half of his face and the upper portion of his right. The eye slits were surrounded by jagged white lightning bolts. His skin-tight blue suit bulged where protective materials had been incorporated; thin white lines extended across its entire surface, each one forking at least half a dozen times. Several foot-long bolts poked upwards from his shoulder blades.
From their brief chat a few days ago, Chris had gathered that he had some degree of control over all the electronic devices within his range, regardless of their size or complexity. The problem was, his power wasn’t very reliable — at least not yet. He could feed those devices some of his energy, but the resulting short period of hyper-performance often ended with an unintentional burnout or explosion.
Kid was the only one who even remotely resembled what one might expect a kind-hearted hero to look like. Her costume gave her the appearance of a young werecat — almost a werekitten, as it were. Her hooded, long-sleeved white shirt was trimmed with fur on the right side. The oversized fur-lined hood had been drawn up, covering parts of the golden-hued mask that peeked out from underneath it. The left side of the mask was styled after a cute kitten head with a feline eye, while the right resembled the face of a smiling little girl.
Chris remembered seeing Kid’s power in action when they’d first met in her cell over a week before: extreme empathy, extendable to any living creature. Kid could think and act like the target, even experience their emotions, without ever forgetting what it felt like to be them. And she could emulate their voices with perfect accuracy, too.
“Woooo! She’s here!” Kid called out, the excitement clear in her pre-teen voice. She tipped her head back to look up at Noire, hands keeping her hood in place. “Remember, you promised to be nice to her,” she added quietly, but Chris still overheard.
“I promised to try,” Noire corrected.
Chris saw the formidable Darkshaper sizing her up from behind the eyeholes of her monster mask.
Alpha female. Beats getting teamed up with a pretty princess, I guess, Chris thought as she fingered the frayed sleeves of her grey hooded sweatshirt. She wasn’t planning on getting involved in any dramatics over teenage pecking order, so Noire could play the boss if she wanted. Chris just wanted to be left alone.
Overdrive nodded his head in an informal greeting. He obviously wasn’t treating this meeting as a huge deal, and Chris was grateful for it.
“Good morning, Wardens,” Mrs. Clarence said to the trio. “I’m sure you all remember Chris. She’ll be joining you a little sooner than we had planned, but this way we’ll be able to start the investigation right away.”
Mrs. Clarence placed a hand on Chris’s shoulder and gave it a gentle nudge that was probably supposed to be encouraging. Chris fought to keep her flight instinct under control, knowing full well that the consequences of running off would be disastrous. Plus, she’d never stand a chance of escaping the Covenant — not with Queenie’s tracking powers. And she actually did want to help, if anyone let her.
“Hey, guys,” Chris managed with an awkward little wave.
“Hi!” Kid beamed back at her.
The others remained silent.
“Oh, you poopy heads,” Kid chastised them. “Say hi to Chris!” she instructed, prodding Overdrive with a finger.
“Hey, Chris,” he muttered.
Awkward silence filled the corridor.
“Sorry, I haven’t been handed the team leotard yet,” Chris joked lamely, motioning to her street clothes.
“I heard your new costume’s almost ready,” Kid said with enough enthusiasm for all of them.
“I’m getting a new costume?” Chris asked with a glance to Mrs. Clarence.
“Did I forget to mention it?” the therapist asked, looking genuinely apologetic. “I’m sorry, Chris. Our equipment designers are working on something that will be a little more practical than your old costume, but the overall look will remain the same. I hope you don’t mind.”
Do I even have a choice?
Chris shrugged. She really didn’t care either way. She just hoped the new ensemble would help her to fit in quietly. Besides, a more practical costume probably wouldn’t be a bad thing in case she really did have to fight off a giant tentacled demon lizard like the one from Kid’s drawing. Chris had let her baby brother down, but she’d be damned if she let anything happen to Kid. The girl’s kitten costume looked about as protective as a pillow.
“Great,” Mrs. Clarence said, looking genuinely pleased that Chris wasn’t kicking up a fuss. “I’ll make sure you get to see the designers’ progress as soon as possible. Now, are you ready to see your new home?”
I could manage this without supervision, you know. the therapist guardedly. Geez, it’s like you think I’m about to go off the deep end or something.
Noire mistook Chris’s expression. “I think I’m scaring her. Maybe I shoulda showed up in civilian stuff, too,” she mocked in her Louisiana drawl.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Chris muttered. Sure, Noire’s menacing powers made her probably the most unpopular Evolved in America, but Chris had already been exposed to some pretty serious hero business on her very first day in costume. “Are the Wardens’ quarters in this building?” she asked the therapist.
Noire’s dark eyes narrowed into threatening slits above her chocolate-brown cheeks. She clearly wasn’t used to being brushed off so easily.
“They are!” Mrs. Clarence answered Chris’s question, cheerily glossing over the tension. “They’re a few floors above. If we took the stairs it would give you a good impression of the various levels,” Mrs. Clarence enthused.
“Sure,” Chris said, already making her way to the nearby stairwell.
As they passed through three floors of administration cubicles, security offices and snack shops, Chris shook more hands and learned more names than she could process. Nearly every public area in the building served the secondary purpose of displaying Wardens merchandise, with the cafeteria holding the top position in terms of visitor friendliness. The life-sized hero posters on the walls had been signed by legions of adoring fans; the poster of the most popular Warden — Kid, also known as Emily Bell — was so heavily covered in signatures that the child’s smiling face was barely recognizable anymore.
Only the top two levels of the sprawling five-story building had been declared off limits to visitors. The fourth floor contained spacious training rooms, a library and media corner, and an infirmary for emergencies. The fifth housed the quarters of the Wardens themselves.
“And here we are,” Mrs. Clarence said, stopping in front of the massive metal door that guarded the entrance to the top-level apartments. “The door is unlocked with your fingerprints,” she explained, indicating a touch panel beside the heavy door. “Your right thumb print, to be precise. Go ahead and try it, Chris. The system should already recognize you.”
They already have my fingerprints? Chris thought, then realized immediately that she shouldn’t be so naïve. The government goons had likely taken her prints when the Covenant brought her in as an unconscious captive.
“Who else has access?” Chris asked as she stepped up to the panel, wondering whether she needed to worry about a surprise visit from her parents. It might have been nice, maybe, but she wasn’t sure she was ready to handle it just yet.
“Only the security guards, in case there’s an emergency,” Mrs. Clarence replied.
“I’ve only seen them once,” Overdrive offered, surprising Chris with his sudden candor. “They’re pretty cool about letting us have our space.”
“Yeah, they only came in when—” Kid began, then stopped herself short and cupped a hand over her mouth.
“Don’t cha go bringing that up, baby girl,” Noire said somberly.
Kid gave a quick nod, her eyes wide. “Um, sorry. I know we shouldn’t talk about that,” she assured Noire.
Chris placed her right thumb on the door’s security panel. The light above the doorway changed from red to green and the metal door retracted into the wall. “Talk about what?” she asked no one in particular. Her question went unanswered.
“The team structure is built on trust,” Mrs. Clarence reminded Noire instead. “I leave it up to you all to decide whether you’d like to fill your new teammate in, but I’d like you to know that she’s a very perceptive girl with a lot of sense.”
“Sense, or scents?” Overdrive joked darkly, waving his hand in front of his nose. “Because some of that smell still sticks to the walls,” he added nonchalantly.
Kid scrunched up her face and pinched her snub nose between two fingers.
What the hell? Did someone die in there? Chris thought as she lowered her thumb from the panel. A potential murderer in their midst didn’t exactly help her feel at home.
As if she’d read her mind, Kid slid her small hand into Chris’s and gazed up at her new teammate with the kind of genuinely caring smile that only children could pull off. The kind of smile that usually looked fake on anyone else.
Chris smiled back and gave Kid’s small fingers a light squeeze. Just don’t actually read my mind, she wanted to tell the girl, but didn’t. You wouldn’t like it in there.
“I’ll let you explore the rest of the quarters without my supervision,” Mrs. Clarence announced, seemingly unconcerned about how the new foursome would get along. “Go ahead and choose any empty room you like. The others can let you in on the house rules and tell you whom to call to order whatever furnishings you want for your new room.”
“We can order anything?” Chris asked. “Seriously?” The deal sounded too good to be true.
“Anything reasonable,” Mrs. Clarence elaborated.
“In other words . . . no hookers for O,” Noire sneered through her monster mask, elbowing Overdrive in the ribs.
Overdrive rolled his eyes at Noire’s comment and stepped through the door. It slid shut behind him, leaving the rest of them outside.
“Aw, did I hurt your feelings? Sorry,” Noire cooed after him, her drawl thick with false sympathy.
Mrs. Clarence ignored the teasing. “Get accustomed to each other, Wardens,” she told the remaining three. “The Counselor should be over shortly to fill you in on the details of the upcoming project. There will also be a number of governmental representatives attending, including the Secretary of Evolved Affairs, Mr. Turner. This mission could turn out to be considerably more dangerous than anything else you’ve handled so far, so I want you to take it seriously.” She looked hard at Noire as she said these last words.
“Who, me?” Noire asked, feigning cluelessness.
Again, Mrs. Clarence let the girl’s insolence slide. “And Chris, if you need someone to talk to, you can contact me any time, day or night. And I’m sure Emily will offer her support as well.”
“Righty-o!” the girl agreed. “Call Dr. Emily for the awesomest hug therapy ever!” she added, extending her skinny little arms for a hug.
Instead of returning the embrace, Chris gave Kid a playful shove. Still, she couldn’t help but smile. Just looking at the girl was enough to brighten her mood a little.
Mrs. Clarence passed a look over each of them in turn, her stern countenance leaving little doubt about the seriousness of ’the project.’
As if the mention of governmental authorities wasn’t enough to get the point across, Chris mused.
“The Counselor has received top-level clearance to work with you for the duration of the project, and his time is valuable,” Mrs. Clarence continued. “I don’t think I need to stress the importance of the impression you make on the government representatives. If you have any questions, ask now. Don’t wait until it’s too late.”
“Doesn’t the Counselor normally work with the FBI?” Chris asked, scratching her cheek distractedly.
She remembered reading about the man. He was technically the leader of the Wardens, but his Visionary powerset worked so well that nowadays he spent most of his time solving murder cases clear across the country. All he had to do was get ahold of enough information or crime scene evidence and his powers formed connections that led right to the prime suspect.
“That’s correct, which should tell you just how important this project is,” Mrs. Clarence said pointedly. “In fact, it’s important enough that the Covenant has asked the President of the United States to take any action necessary to resolve the off-grid disappearances in the US. And we wouldn’t want to disappoint the President.”
“Got it,” Chris mumbled. She pressed her right thumb against the security panel and the door slid open.
“Come on, I’ll show you around,” Kid piped up, grabbing her hand and pulling her through the doorway. Noire followed them wordlessly.
“And remember . . . if you need anything, just call,” Mrs. Clarence called after them.
Chris looked around at her new surroundings as the door closed behind her. The living quarters were infinitely more cozy and personalized than the lower floors — probably because they were off-limits to the public and thus not designed to promote any merchandise.
The space she’d stepped into was shaped like a large inverted ‘T’. To her right was a comfortable living room and to her left was a modern, orderly kitchen. The far wall at the end of the inverted ‘T’ was made completely of glass, with huge sliding doors that opened onto a large balcony overlooking the bay.
The individual bedrooms seemed to take after college dorm rooms, with doors interspersed along the length of the long beige corridor, four on each side. Most doors were adorned with posters or funny messages sprawled across small dry erase boards. She figured that Overdrive was behind the closed door with the heroes poster on it; kittens or bible verses didn’t really seem like his style.
“Bathrooms are down there,” Kid commented, gesturing towards the end of the hallway. “And the kitchen’s over there, but no one ever cooks in it. We order stuff or go out.”
Chris nodded. She hated cooking, too. “Nice living room,” she noted, gesturing towards the mismatched couches, armchairs and beanbags scattered across the colorful patchwork carpet in front of a huge flat-screen TV. There were so many competing styles and tastes that Chris figured it must have been decorated by more than just the three current Wardens.
At that point, she remembered that there had been three others over the past two years. One had deserted, two had died.
Kid noticed the direction of her gaze and broke into a huge grin. “That’s where all the fun stuff happens. We hang out and play videogames and watch movies. The superhero comics shelf is called the comedy corner, if you ever wanna crack up over stupid villains. Almost makes you wish the Covenant hadn’t killed all of ours.”
Chris couldn’t find the humor. “I don’t think the ones they’ve killed have been funny at all,” she said.
The cheer was gone from Kid’s face, replaced by a frown. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
Chris was about to say something else when a voice startled her from behind.
“That couch by the window’s mine,” Noire drawled into her ear. Chris had forgotten she was standing there. “So is the bedroom closest to the kitchen, so hands off.”
Kid grabbed Chris’s arm and began leading her down the hallway, away from the unfriendly Darkshaper. “She’s not so bad, once you get to know her,” she whispered. “She’s just all walled in, kind of like you.”
Chris didn’t know what to say. Being around Kid always made her feel so . . . exposed.
“How about I help you pick a room?” the girl asked cheerily. “They’re all kinda the same, but you can ask for all the Chinese doohickeys you need to make yours awesome.”
Chris wasn’t too into traditional Chinese furnishings, but she didn’t say anything. Her room at home had been sparsely decorated at best. Typical for an outdoorsy person, she supposed. Maybe she’d ask for a film poster from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It was her favorite movie and about covered the extent of her identification with Chinese culture.
She stopped in front of a closed, bare door that suggested a vacant bedroom on the other side. “What about this one?” she asked.
Kid shook her head. “Um, better not. That’s where Nato . . . kinda, um . . . blew himself up,” she explained, giving Chris’s arm a tug to urge her forward.
But Chris stopped dead in her tracks. “What?” she asked. The press had reported that Nato had been killed in action while trying to subdue some runaway pyromaniac villain.
But he actually killed himself instead? It was a saddening thought.
“They fixed his room up afterwards, kinda, but . . . I dunno. What if there’s an angry ghost in there or something?”
Chris furrowed her brow. Her feet remained planted in front of the ominous door as she tried to remember everything she could about the short-lived hero. He’d been a material-altering, temperature-changing Transmuter. According to Mrs. Clarence, his potential to affect nearby items had been affected by his emotions. And not just items. People, too, from the sound of it.
This new piece of information confirmed something Chris had suspected for a few days now. As far as she could tell, hero teams — at least in part — tended to be made up of the most dangerous and unstable Evolved out there. They were places for people like her, who got coerced into joining up because leaving them unchecked may have been a security risk. Noire with her creepy shadow fit right in.
As for all the talk about heroism and fighting for a greater good? Save it for the comic books, Chris thought with a tinge of sarcasm.
In reality, the authorities just didn’t want to risk any collateral damage caused by superpowers. The old adage held true in this case: keep your friends close and your potential enemies closer.
“He didn’t get along with girls, so I don’t think he’d want one taking over his room. They made him sad,” Kid told her, sounding genuinely concerned for her safety.
“And because he was sad, that’s why he . . .”
Kid nodded furtively, putting a finger to her lips.
They’re probably not allowed to talk about how Nato died because it would be bad PR, Chris realized. Makes a better impression if he died as a hero.
“Don’t be mad, okay?” Kid said, wrapping her skinny arms around herself as she watched Chris with pleading eyes.
“Why would I be mad?” Chris asked. The question caught her off guard. There was something seriously disconcerting about child Empaths.
Kid just shrugged, then pointed to the two bare doors closest to the bathrooms. “You can take either one of these. Once you decide, I’ll help you get some furniture.”
And with that, she walked off towards the door with the kitten poster on it.
The mission briefing took place in one of the fourth-floor conference rooms. About two dozen government officials were already seated when the Wardens arrived, and several bodyguards were scattered around the perimeter. The air was heavy with an atmosphere of upper-echelon decision making.
Chris recognized Mrs. Clarence’s familiar face among the strangers; she stood out as the only person to greet the Wardens with a smile. From the looks on the others’ faces, Chris could see that this was going to be no ordinary meeting. These people were here to demand solutions.
Chris watched as Mrs. Clarence whispered something into the ear of the well-dressed forty-something man seated to her right. He looked over at the Wardens briefly, following them with eyes surrounded by wrinkles, before returning his attention to the laptop in front of him.
“That’s the Counselor,” Emily whispered, taking note of the direction of Chris’s gaze. She wasn’t wearing her costume now; none of the Wardens were. And the Counselor could have fit right into a business meeting with his dress shirt and tie.
So this was the person the Wardens answered to now. Their hero team leader. Chris wondered if he lived in the apartment upstairs when he was in town, too.
Mrs. Clarence motioned to four vacant chairs on the far side of the U-shaped table. Chris felt dozens of eyes on her as she and the other Wardens shuffled to their seats in single file.
“Now that the Wardens are seated, we’ll begin,” a skinny, hard-faced man in an expensive black suit announced. “Most of you already know me, but seeing as Christina has only just joined up, I’ll introduce myself: I’m Albert Turner, Secretary of Evolved Affairs and the man in charge of this department. On the org chart, you’ll see us under the Department of Defense, with ties to the Combat Support Agency.”
Chris wasn’t sure whether she was supposed to respond, so she just nodded, her eyes affixed to the table in front of her. All those stern glares were making her uncomfortable, and she could imagine the thin ice that creaked beneath her feet. Keeping her mouth shut seemed like a smart strategy. After all, if she made the wrong kind of impression, they’d likely send her back to her cell — or worse.
“To my left is Mrs. Myers, Secretary to the President of the United States, and beside him is Mr. Ortega of the CSA,” Mr. Turner continued his introductions, indicating various attendees with small finger motions. “Mrs. Strickland, State Secretary of the Department of Evolved Affairs. Mr. Peters of Homeland Security. And Mr. Quinn, who is representing the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.”
There were over a dozen more that didn’t get included in the introduction. It was exactly the kind of situation Chris had hoped to avoid. Structures, rules, expectations.
If I screw this up, it’s on you, Athena. The urge to get out of that room and have a smoke was almost overwhelming.
From the next chair over, Emily gave her a nudge and an encouraging smile. Somehow, it made Chris feel just a little bit better.
Chris glanced to her other side. Noire was wearing her perpetual frown that cast an annoyed look over her entire face, and Overdrive was wiping his palms on his thighs, perhaps smoothing the creases in his trousers.
Do the others know what this meeting is about? Chris wondered. Back in her prison cell, she herself had been briefed by the heroine Athena about the impending mass panic that was about to take over the world. But she still wasn’t sure how much the other Wardens knew.
“. . . creation of the Wardens, the US-based hero team, shortly after the Covenant was founded to oversee Evolved relations at the international level,” Mr. Turner was saying now.
Chris realized she must have zoned out. Geeze, get it together, she chided herself. It was for her benefit that everyone had to listen to this recap.
“The main purpose of the Wardens was, and still is, the assurance of peace and stability throughout the United States when it comes to dealing with Evolved powers,” Mr. Turner continued.
Beside Chris, Noire stifled a yawn.
Mr. Turner shot her an annoyed look before continuing. “So far, in part thanks to the Covenant and the President’s good relations with the UNEOA, you’ve had little to deal with that couldn’t easily be handled by our regular police forces.” There was a pause as Mr. Turner looked at each of the four Wardens in turn. “This is about to change,” he finished weightily.
Mr. Turner turned his head in the direction of the Counselor, who pushed himself to his feet and walked towards the projector screen at the front of the room. Once again, his eyes quickly darted over each of the other Wardens in turn.
The Counselor got right to the point, which Chris appreciated.
“We have strong reason to assume that the off-grid disappearances on the American continents are caused by a powered serial killer,” he stated flatly. “At this point, we don’t have enough information to even guess at their identity. The UNEOA and the international community want this solved now, and as we all know, the Covenant already has its hands full.”
That’s the understatement of the year, Chris thought, recalling the scandal that had erupted when the Covenant’s former leader, Radiant, had gone rogue.
The Counselor looked over the other Wardens until his gaze landed firmly on Chris. “That’s why you, Wardens, will help me solve this. Starting right now.”