East Cape, South Africa – Saturday, the 8th of January, 2000. 7:15 PM.
Nine years, eleven months, and twelve days before the Pulse
Such a beauty. Maybe I’ll name you, Jordan Steyn thought as he carefully lifted the Musgrave hunting rifle off its hooks above his bedroom door. He enjoyed the feel of the metal and the smoothly polished wooden grip beneath his fingers. They assured him that he wasn’t some helpless farm kid anymore. Unlike most boys his age, Jordan was ready to start taking on responsibility.
Making sure his fingers were nowhere near the trigger, Jordan walked across the room, pushed his school books aside and carefully set the rifle down on his desk. Old man Steyn had made it quite clear he didn’t want his sixteen-year-old son to keep his Christmas present loaded, but Jordan figured his dad would never know.
Dad isn’t going to check, Jordan reassured himself. So as long as his best friend and confidante Steven kept his mouth shut about it, everything would be fine.
Jordan leaned over the desk and pulled the bedroom window open to let the warm, earthy evening air flood his room. It was too dark outside to see the rows of maize in the fields, but he could still make out the stables’ silhouette in the moonlight. If he could get his hands on a scope, the thieving bastards who’d tried to steal their horses a few months back would be in for a nasty surprise.
Getting the bullets had been easy. Lots of people, including the arms dealers, were willing to help bend the rules to keep the blue-blooded families safe on their own properties. Everyone knew that being a white farmer in South Africa was becoming increasingly dangerous lately. The fact that Jordan’s mother was black didn’t make it any easier on the Steyns. The local blacks — including her own folks—had disowned her seventeen years ago.
Jordan picked the rifle back up to carry it downstairs. His mum was about to put dinner on the table, and she hated it when he let his food get cold. Besides, he didn’t want to risk pissing her off even more tonight. She’d made a cryptic face when Steven had asked to see Jordan’s new rifle. Not quite angry, but definitely stormy. And while his mother would never be so rude as to chastise her son’s best friend for asking, Jordan knew that she wasn’t pleased to be sharing the dinner table with firearms.
Still, Jordan couldn’t resist stopping as he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror over his desk. He knew he looked badass with the rifle; the camo print cargo pants and red tank top only added to the don’t-mess-with-my-farm image being reflected.
“Are you going to join the Commando, Jordan?” he asked his mirror image, smoothing his short, wavy black hair away from his forehead.
The toned youth in the mirror didn’t have the look of a farmer. Most landowners were white—or, increasingly, black—but Jordan’s skin had the café latte hue often associated with athletes and movie stars. The best of both worlds, really. According to his female classmates, he wasn’t bad looking, either.
“I think you should join up. Show them how it’s done,” Jordan told his reflection, narrowing his eyes pensively. He had his mum’s eyes, people often said. Hers were dark, with a savage intensity that had led his father to nickname her his ‘lioness.’
Jordan stepped back from the desk and aimed the rifle’s long barrel at the mirror. He could almost sense the extra weight of the five bullets in the chamber.
“Those patrollers aren’t doing shit to protect our community,” he muttered. “They’re almost as useless as the police. You could make such a difference, man.”
Maybe he’d bring it up with his parents at dinner tonight. He knew what they’d say, but still. He was tired of sitting idly by, doing nothing while his neighbors were getting robbed left and right.
Easing the rifle down, he turned away from the mirror and stepped into the hallway to descend the stairs to the dining room. Just as he reached the top step, he was stopped in his tracks by a single, high-pitched cry.
He stood motionless, frozen on the stairs while a lump of unease filled his gut. Then a male voice barked some angry words that were muffled by the door at the bottom of the stairs.
That’s not Dad, Jordan realized. Or Steven, either. Someone else is in the house.
Jordan took the next few steps cautiously, his fingers tightening around the rifle’s grip with every movement. When he reached the ground floor, he paused. Something told him to wait rather than barge into the dining area. He leaned forward and pressed his ear against the door at the bottom of the steps.
“…know you got gold somewhere,” growled a man’s voice, barely audible above the heartbeat thundering in Jordan’s chest. “All you rich folks have gold, but you always deny it.”
“We’ve invested everything we have in the horses,” came his father’s voice, eerily calm. “Go take a look. They’re good breeds. Take them.”
“What’d I say? You always deny it,” the stranger’s voice spat. “Think y’all will start to talk truth if I start cutting up your boy here?”
Jordan’s hand instinctively tightened around the rifle. Just try to cut me, you asshole, he wanted to shout, but he lacked the courage. There was a scuffle and the sound of chairs scraping against the tiled kitchen floor. Jordan wanted to move, but couldn’t. His feet were frozen to the floor.
“No, please,” came his mother’s whimper. “Leave the boy alone. Let him go.”
Steven. The realization flashed through Jordan’s mind like a bolt of lightning. They think he’s me.
He looked down at the rifle he was carrying, loaded and ready. He wasn’t a bad shot, but he didn’t know how many intruders there were or if any of them had weapons pointed at his folks.
“Get off him!” his father yelled with furious desperation. “We don’t have anything you want!”
Jordan pressed his shoulder to the door. If he was going to do this, he’d have to act fast.
“Whadda you say, boy?” an unfamiliar voice sneered. It sounded like a different person. A second attacker. “Do your folks have anything we might want?”
Jordan sucked in a breath and held it. His feet were still refusing to move, waiting for his paralyzed mind to identify the right moment to act.
“N-n-no,” Steven stammered. “We don’t, I promise.”
Jordan let out his breath and shifted his gun to his right hand.
Someone cried out with a high-pitched shriek that didn’t sound human.
My lion mother. The thought came out of nowhere.
Then a dull thudding sound came through the door, then a louder one that was punctuated by a howl of pain. Jordan knew he wouldn’t have much time after they caught sight of him. He’d have to aim and fire within a second, tops. He’d have to shoot to kill on his first shot. These aren’t people, he told himself. They’re animals.
“God, give me strength,” he whispered as he carefully released the door handle and pushed the door open a few inches. Its hinges let out a squeak that seemed to reverberate through the entire house.
Through the hand’s breadth of open space he saw the broad back of a white man in a stained laborer’s uniform. The man he was standing only a couple of meters from the door, pointing a handgun at the tangle of two people caught up in a desperate scuffle on the far side of the room. They were right in front of the fireplace. One was his mother, and she was being wrestled to the ground by a black man twice her size.
Shaking with anger and fear, Jordan brought the rifle up to his right shoulder, the way his father had taught him. Through the gap in the doorway, he aimed at the back of the white man’s head.
Animals, he reminded himself.
His mother’s attacker used his size advantage to push her against the fireplace and slam a knee into her gut. She released a sharp cry of pain that turned Jordan’s blood to ice in his veins before she slumped over onto the ground.
Jordan watched, paralyzed with horror, as a third man came into his field of vision and stepped up to the fireplace. Black-skinned and wearing a sleeveless white wife-beater, he was even bigger than the man who’d just laid his mother out flat.
Shoot already, he willed himself, still aiming at the back of the white man’s head. But his finger was frozen on the trigger, incapable of applying pressure.
Then the third man swung his arm downward, hard. It was only then that Jordan noticed the long metallic object he was carrying, and it connected with something with a loud crunch.
“Mum!” Jordan yelled.
His voice was drowned out by the bang of his rifle going off. He didn’t feel the recoil. He didn’t feel anything at all, even as he stared at the hole he’d made in the back of the white man’s head. All he could think about was his mother and the feeble shriek of pain that had just come from her lips.
Someone was shouting Jordan’s name. Maybe it was his dad, maybe someone else. The next thing he knew, the door was open all the way. Had he pushed it, or had someone else?
Another bang from his rifle. One of the men by the fireplace went down, falling on top of his mother’s lifeless outstretched legs. The third man bolted, his stained wife-beater disappearing into the darkness outside.
An intangible amount of time passed, filled with screams and choked sobs, before Jordan found himself on his hands and knees, retching in the doorway.
The familiar voice was calling his name persistently enough that it finally drew his attention. When he raised his head, a bloodied and swollen face emerged beside him.
“Jordan! Your mum! Come help me!”
“Where’s… where’s my dad?” Jordan finally managed to croak, his voice hollow in his throat.
Steven pointed to the other corner of the room, where Jordan’s dad was secured to one of the dining chairs with layers upon layers of sturdy brown duct tape. His neck was limp and his head was slumped to his chest.
He’s still breathing, some part of Jordan realized. His chest is rising and falling.
“Jordan,” Steven was calling to him again. “Call ten-one-seven-seven, okay? Your mum… just call, alright?”
“Is… is she…” Jordan couldn’t finish. He thought he might retch again.
“She’s okay,” Steven said. “I heard her breathing.”
Jordan crawled on his hands and knees over to the fireplace and knelt beside his mother’s head. Her strong-featured face had been softened by strain, and her neck was twisted at an odd angle as she stared at the ceiling. A puddle of blood was beneath her head, growing larger by the second.
“Mum?” he whispered. “Mum, can you hear me?”
But his mother didn’t turn her head at his voice. Her dark eyes, usually so full of vibrancy and spark, were glassy and out of focus.
I was too late, Jordan thought, his fingers clenching into fists at the sight of the blood pooling beneath his mum’s head. If I hadn’t hesitated, he wouldn’t have had a chance to hit her.
He snapped his head up, looking for someone—anyone—to lash out at. Someone else to blame. But there was no one. Only Steven, bruised and beaten, dialing for help into the wall phone that hung next to the refrigerator.
They mistook him for me, Jordan thought. I should have been here. Maybe then…
The faint sound of panting drew Jordan’s attention to the attacker lying next to his mother’s lifeless legs. The man was struggling to breathe, his chest heaving with effort as a red stain spread across the front of his laborer’s shirt.
Jordan got to his feet as if in a trance. He was barely aware of his movements. He registered the way his fingers closed around the rifle butt as he picked it up, and the weight of the weapon in his hands.
If I let him go, he’ll hurt someone else.
For once, the gun’s brutal kickback felt good against his shoulder.
“She’s awake! Go right in,” the nurse told him, gesturing towards the open door to room 203 with the same fake, painted-on smile that all hospital staff members seemed to wear.
Jordan hated their play acting. It was like some kind of grand conspiracy where everyone was supposed to pretend that everything was going to be alright. He’d endured it for two months, and he was sick of it.
He stepped through the door and entered the small, whitewashed room that had become his mother’s prison. No, that wasn’t quite true. Her own body had become her prison.
She lay in the narrow bed the same way she always did—with the head end raised just enough to let her see the small television mounted in the far corner. Her right hand had been positioned over a small assistive device the used computer software to translate her miniscule finger movements into speech.
“Hi, Mum,” Jordan said, feigning brightness.
Her eyes met his, but no response registered in her features. He sometimes liked to imagine that she was trying to smile at him, warm and gentle.
He held up the small bouquet of pink and purple cosmos he’d cut from their front field. They were her favorites. Or at least they used to be.
Her eyes flicked towards the delicate blossoms, but any reaction was lost within the frozen, emotionless mask of her face.
“They’re already blooming,” he told her. “March tenth. I’ll write it on the calendar for you.”
He took the few steps to the window, where an empty flower vase had been sitting since the pride de kaap flowers he’d brought her last week had faded. Most everything in this room was empty. His mum kept basically no personal belongings there. She couldn’t touch anything, let alone use it. Seeing as nobody ever visited her, there were no stuffed animals or fruit baskets on the shelves, either.
Jordan knew she didn’t want people to see her like this, skinny and utterly helpless. She’d communicated as much, time and time again, during the first weeks of her confinement at the hospital. Besides Jordan and his father, the nurses were his mother’s only visitors. They read to her from a bible once a day. It was a minor service considering the price of the private room.
It was devastatingly expensive, Jordan knew. Though his father wouldn’t tell him exactly how much, most of the horses had already been sold to pay for it—and she’d only been in hospital for nine weeks.
Jordan put the flowers in the vase and filled it from the faucet in the small adjoining bathroom. When he set it on the windowsill, it added a pale touch of pink to the otherwise sterile white room. Not enough to pretend that everything was going to be alright, but it was a start.
“We’re doing okay,” Jordan said as he pulled a chair to his mum’s bed.
It would inevitably be the first question his mother would ask, and he wanted to save her the effort of typing it out. Besides, he hated how the computer sounded when it spoke those words. It sounded like a ghost. As if she was already dead.
“Dad’s probably going to sell the farm,” Jordan continued, working to keep his voice upbeat. “He thinks he has a pretty good chance of getting a job in Durban.”
He looked down at her hand as she tapped out a response with the two fingers she could still move. “You can’t give up on your grandfather’s farm,” the computer buzzed from the loudspeaker above the bed.
God, how he hated that computerized voice.
“We have to, Mum,” Jordan insisted, blinking back the sting in his eyes. “It’ll be safer in Durban, and Dad doesn’t want to risk another attack. Besides, the police aren’t doing anything to help us farmers. The authorities are so corrupt they’re just part of the problem,” he added, reiterating something his grandfather had often said. Something Jordan wholeheartedly agreed with.
The surviving attacker had been caught, sure, but the bastard probably wouldn’t be in jail for long. He and another one of the attackers had already been caught for similar crimes twice before, but always released on the grounds of insufficient evidence. It seemed that no judge wanted to look like he was siding with the white farmers.
But if they did it once, they would do it again. People never change. How many times had his mother told him that in the past?
Jordan swallowed the next words that burned in his throat. If we don’t deliver justice for ourselves, no one’s going to do it for us.
He finally sat down on the hard plastic chair beside his mother’s bedside and reached for her other hand—the one that had absolutely no movement left. The doctors claimed that that she might regain limited use of both hands someday, but probably not. The brain trauma was just too severe.
“I’m sorry I hesitated, Mum,” Jordan murmured.
Leona Steyn’s eyes fixed themselves on the ceiling. He wasn’t sure if she’d heard him.
His gaze went to the bible that lay open on the bedside table. It looked like she’d been requesting verses from the Old Testament. He picked it up and read the first verse he came to—Exodus 21:24.
Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.
“Is there anything I can do for you, Mum?” Jordan asked, hoping she’d ask for something different today. Something normal. Music, maybe.
Her eyes were suddenly animated as they turned on him. “You know what I always pray for, Jordan,” the computer voice buzzed.
He stared down at his hands. “You can’t ask that of me. It’s awful.”
“If you were in my position, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you,” the voice said before falling silent once again.
He stood up and went to the window so that his mother wouldn’t see the tears streaming down his cheeks. A part of him considered leaving the hospital and never coming back, just so that he’d never have to bear hearing her request again. But he knew that if he left, he’d just be running from his responsibility of looking after her.
That wasn’t the way she’d raised him. She’d given up everything to be a mother to him—her parents, her friends, everything. How could he deny her the only thing she’d ever truly asked of him?
Jordan turned and reached for the spare pillow in the open cabinet by the door. When their eyes met, he could see the moistness that shimmered on her dark cheeks.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes,” the dead voice buzzed. “No one will have mercy if not you. Please.”
Jordan nodded once, then crossed the distance to the bed with a few slow, mechanical steps that made him feel as if he was wading through the dense fog of a dream.
“I love you, Mum,” Jordan whispered before pressing the pillow down against her face.
Catskill Mountains, USA – Wednesday, the 30th of May 2012. 07:36 PM.
Twelve years later
With great power comes great responsibility.
The world’s most powerful Evolved was never more aware of his God-given potential than when he dove through the sky, feeling the air respond to his presence and ease his flight. The currents flowed past him, leaving just enough oxygen to fill his lungs. The long silver ribbons attached to his costume streamed behind him, ready to fan out and take the shape of wings.
He was high above New York’s Catskill Mountains. Clouds parted ahead of him the way the Red Sea had parted for Moses. Down below, vast forests bathed in the golden light of an early summer evening stretched out across thousands of square miles. No matter how many times he traversed this area, he could never get enough of it. These mountains were a perfect example of the beauty of creation. They were one of the things worth protecting, and as such, they were his responsibility.
He dove down, enjoying the tingle of gravity in his stomach as he changed direction mid-dive and slowed his flight. He drew himself to a halt as he spotted a lone tree on a hilltop. It was twisted and blackened, most likely hit by lightning in a recent storm. Now it served no purpose other than to disfigure the landscape.
He focused his will, feeling the air currents shift and vibrate in anticipation of his command. In an instant, the air pressure around him changed, drawing trillions of additional particles from the atmosphere before rushing at the hilltop with the force of a thousand tons.
He dove down to examine his work. The tree was literally pulverized, surrounded by a hundred feet circle of flattened grass. God’s work is done here, he thought, satisfied.
Just as he was about to start increasing his altitude again, a pale burst of color on the far edge of the flattened area caught his eye. A cluster of cosmos flowers, their fragile petals still fluttering from his impact.
He hadn’t seen cosmos for over twelve years, when he’d brought his mother a bunch of them on the day she’d passed away. They’re already blooming, he had the urge to tell her. May thirtieth. I’ll write it on the calendar for you.
He pushed the thought out of his mind. What was the point?
His childhood in East Cape seemed so long ago. He’d still been a boy, and people had still had hope in Mandela’s successor. The Pulse hadn’t even happened yet. But the world was a different place now. Dangerous, and in need of protection.
Samael began his ascent again, secure in the knowledge that he’d done the right thing. The tree was already dead, and the blades of grass would rise again before long.
He’d spent the better part of a year practicing the measured application of his powers. By now, he could fully control the wind. He could even let his wing ribbons stream about him while he was on the ground with his attention elsewhere.
He was about to rise through the cloud cover when his earbud crackled with an incoming message.
“Jordan? Are you busy?” Alexandra asked. The quiver in her voice let him know she was having one of her bad days. She was fairly good at hiding it, but not good enough. Not from him.
“Nope, I’m not busy,” he said into his winged mask’s microphone. “What’s up?”
“It is nearly the end of the month. I was wondering if you were done with your report on Christina’s transition in Seattle,” Alexandra said. “Overseer Vega is curious to know your thoughts on if the girl really is a Guardian, or if her powers are limited to hyperspeed.”
Samael tilted his head as he listened to her voice. He loved how she tried so hard to sound like the perfect professional heroine. More than that, he loved how she tried so hard to hide the Overseer’s annoyance with him.
He suppressed a smile. This wasn’t about the report. Not really.
“I just finished it today,” he told her. “I’ll send it to you when I get back to HQ.”
“Thank you, Samael,” she said in that velvety timbre of hers that didn’t come through often enough.
If you have feelings for me, just say so already.
“Or I could bring you the print in person,” he added.
“An electronic copy would be sufficient, but I appreciate the offer,” she replied. She almost succeeded in controlling her voice.
She didn’t say no, he noted with satisfaction.
“I’ll be right there,” he said.
Then, commanding the air molecules around him to form an air tunnel, he shot through the atmosphere towards the UNEOA skyscraper at his top travelling speed.
Two minutes later, he landed on his penthouse apartment’s balcony, his wing ribbons fanning out with practiced elegance, sure that Alexandra would be watching. He slid open the glass door and grabbed a pile of papers off his desk, then commanded the air around him to propel him to Alexandra’s balcony next door.
Alexandra drew her balcony door open as he landed.
I knew she’d be watching for me, he thought, smiling beneath his sheer silver mask.
She had pulled a long black cardigan over the ankle-length blue dress she was wearing. Her styled curls cascaded in a graceful disarray around her smooth olive cheeks. She wasn’t wearing any makeup, but that didn’t matter. She had the kind of face that didn’t require cosmetics to be pretty, especially not with those stunning dark eyes and their unique mix of confidence and vulnerability.
Samael didn’t need to glance over her shoulder to know that she was alone. He knew that he’d most likely find the sad remains of an abandoned romantic evening if she let him inside. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Alexandra accepted the outstretched report with one hand and extended a cup with the other. He took it and glanced down at the contents. Milk with water, just the way he liked it.
“Are you inviting me in, my Queen?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
Instead of responding, she just turned and walked towards the interior of her apartment, leaving the balcony door open behind her.
Not needing any further invitation, he let his wing ribbons float to the floor and followed her into the living room, removing his mask and shoes on the way. Just as he’d expected, there were candles set out on the dining room table, already burned down to half their size. The two untouched glasses of red wine on the next to them told him everything else he needed to know.
“I know what you must be thinking. But Andrey did not stand me up,” Alexandra said. Her tone was just a bit too casual. “He went to investigate the transition in Cambodia.”
Jordan felt his eyebrows rise. As far as he knew, that transition was nothing more than a minor case—nothing the local authorities couldn’t deal with. He decided not to comment. She already knew his opinion of Andrey. Their entire team did, not to mention most of the UNEOA’s small assembly.
He took a sip of his watered milk, as amazed by the taste as he was by her. She was always careful to get the proportions just right.
“So, did your boyfriend give you his report on Monsoon yet?” he asked. He followed her lead and sat down next to her on the upholstered sofa, mindful to keep half a meter between them.
“Yes, he delivered it the same day,” she responded. “Yours is the only one that has yet to be filed this month.”
He waved away her words. “No one pays any attention to those reports.” Then, recognizing his mistake, he quickly added, “No offense.”
“That is no longer true,” she told him, pushing some curls out of her eyes. “Now that political debate is increasing in regards to powers, I am sure that the Evolved committee will pay much more attention to our reports. Thus, I hope you have considered your wording carefully. I doubt our reports will remain dormant in the Overseer’s filing cabinet any longer.”
Debate. Committees. Reports. Does anyone really think that will accomplish anything? Jordan asked himself. Now that power surges had become a reality, each and every transition had world-ending potential. It wasn’t a question of if, it was a question of when. And heroes seemed to be the only ones interested in acting. The international community was just talking and debating and conjecturing about the problem.
About the evil that lurked beneath every shadow and in every household. Evil that spread like some horrible disease. Was he the only one who knew that the extermination of evil took a certain kind of conviction? Jordan had known that Andrey was the wrong choice for the job the instant they’d first met. The Russian shied away from his responsibilities, including his responsibilities to Alexandra. Too much hesitation.
He doesn’t love you, Alexandra.
“…at the core, it is about the funding,” she was saying now. “There are plans for villain prisons, but they might be cost-prohibitive for obvious reasons.”
“You already know my thoughts on villain prisons,” he said.
People don’t change.
She turned her head to consider him. “Yes, you have mentioned them before,” she said with a hint of that velvety timbre.
For a moment, it seemed like this could be the day she’d give him a signal and break free. His heartbeat sped up, but he somehow managed to keep himself from bringing a hand up to trace her cheek. Over the years, he’d learned how to wait for the right moment without letting it pass by.
He’d read up on Andrey Luvkov—not just the official files, but some additional material he’d got his hands on by calling in some favors. The man was a hopeless alcoholic who barely managed to contain his temper. It was a shame that Alexandra didn’t want to see the truth of the man.
But I see it, he thought. And the truth is that everyone’s favorite superhero is going to crack under the pressure any day now.
When that happened, Alexandra would be his.