New York, USA – Tuesday, the 12th of June 2012. 08:37 AM.
As it turned out, working with the Covenant had some perks. A flight to New York in a private jet, a night spent in a five star presidential suite, and the most luxurious breakfast Chris had ever seen.
The small table prepared for her and Peter had been so lavishly decorated with choice pickings that she didn’t know where to look first. The choice between coffee, tea, and two different kinds of fruit juice alone would have been overwhelming for most any teenager she knew.
Chris sat on her padded suite chair with a new Wardens sponsored smartphone in hand, watching Peter stuff himself with salmon bread rolls.
She lacked the appetite required to appreciate all that stuff. Sure, the food looked great. She was sure it tasted as delicious as Peter’s half-lidded gaze and delighted murmurs indicated. What bothered her was the environment. The gilded wall ornaments, priceless Persian carpet and the massive chandelier dangling overhead radiated a sense of authority and expectation that twisted her stomach into a knot.
Chris checked her smartphone clock for the fifteenth time that morning. Less than an hour to go, and I’m not even wearing my costume yet. Glancing up from the small screen, she saw Peter wag his fingers in consideration of the donut selection.
“Don’t stuff yourself until you feel sick,” she said. “We’re getting picked up by a chopper, remember?”
“I know. I can’t wait. Do you have any idea how much I’ve wanted to fly in one?” He picked a chocolate coated donut from the basket and bit off a large chunk. “Thanks for taking me along. You’re the best.”
You know the whole world will be watching, right? Chris watched him devour the whole donut with only three bites, his face shining with anticipation. Yeah, guess your only worry is whether you’ll look good on camera. Lucky you.
“Sucks that Nora can’t be here,” Peter said, licking his fingertips. His chin-length brown hair was in utter disarray, tufts of it sticking out in every direction. The helmet sat on a spare chair beside him, ready to cover up his bad hair day.
“I’m sure she’d be all over the French cheese,” Chris said, peering down at the lists of contacts on her smartphone screen. It wasn’t much of a list, really. Just the names of her three teammates, Mr. Turner, Athena’s emergency number… and the Chung family number at the bottom.
Hey, Chris. Call your parents.
“They’ll let her out when we get back, right?” Peter asked.
“Right. That’s what Athena said.”
“Cool. She’s a bit of a bitch, but I like her anyway.”
Chris murmured a vague response that might have been agreement or not, she didn’t invest any thought in it. She was just glad the Covenant had agreed to the deal she’d offered them.
“Did you seriously tell them you’ll chain yourself to her? Are you girls going to sleep in the same room now?” Peter rambled on, grinning around the finger he’d popped into his mouth.
Chris slid her chair back and got to her feet, still gripping her smartphone. “You’re such a dork sometimes,” she said, then made her way through the connecting door to her half of the suite. “I need a moment to myself.” The door slid shut behind her before she got a response.
The Mascot costume awaited her by the window, draped over a chair the evening before. Chris ignored it. She stepped past the chair to the edge of her king size canopy bed and settled down on it, putting a hand to her cheek.
The smartphone screen still glared at her with its not-list of maybe-contacts.
What’s a phone call when you’re chasing some powered serial killer that has the Covenant on alert? The memory of Peter’s statement in the Canadian diner drifted through her mind, lingering there because he had a point.
Chris drew in a breath, braced herself, and selected the last entry.
The dial tone rung at her ear a few times. She didn’t count, but there seemed to be a lot of ringing. She was just about to lower the phone and disconnect when the ringing stopped, replaced by a female voice thick with weary resignation. “Chung?”
On some fundamental level, Chris knew she was listening to her Mom’s voice, but she almost didn’t recognize it. Maybe the connection was to blame. But probably not.
“Hello, Mom,” Chris said, fingertips digging into her cheek.
For a few long seconds, there was only silence. Then someone gasped, and something dropped with a loud clatter.
I hope that wasn’t Helen’s cup.
“Christina?” Mom’s voice whispered. “Your counselor said you might call, but…” there was a pause, followed by a quick and more spirited, “how are you?”
“Pretty okay, I guess,” Chris said. “Just spent a night in a really fancy hotel. I haven’t checked out the wellness rooms, but the breakfast is fantastic. The Covenant isn’t staying here, but the UN pays for everything. There’s a…” Chris cut herself off when she realized she was rambling.
There was another long pause. “That’s wonderful, Christina,” Mom finally said with strained cheer and a hint of tears underneath. Chris recognized it right away, it was Mom’s ‘I’ve been thinking of Dylan lately’ voice.
“Yeah, it kind of is,” Chris replied.
“You’re working with the Covenant now? Your counselor didn’t mention anything about it.”
“It’s just for today, I think. You know, the UN press conference in New York? They’re streaming it to a huge screen in the Citi Field stadium. A lot of people will be there to watch.”
“Oh,” Mom replied, her voice gaining some momentum now. There wasn’t even an awkward pause. “Yes, they talked about it on the news. I heard Ryan is going to watch the speech. New York isn’t such a long drive from Harvard.”
Oh god. Ryan. Chris felt her fingers cramp about the phone, and all the nice harmless small talk she’d mentally prepared vanished from her mind. Her and her mother had managed to skirt the bad stuff so far – Helen, most of all – but this was enough put a lump in Chris’s throat.
“How are you and Dad doing?” she asked after a couple of seconds, fingertips digging into her cheek again.
“We are fine, Christina,” Mom replied with a tone that suggested anything but. “Your father has taken a few days off work to… take care of a few things, but he will be back on patrol soon. He really would like to talk to you, Christina. Are you going to call again later? He’s gone to get some groceries.” There was a hopeful note somewhere in there, but Chris couldn’t tell whether it concerned her dad’s return to the job or herself.
“Not today. I told you about working with the Covenant, yeah? I don’t know how long it’s going to take, could be late.” Chris didn’t want to admit she was relieved to have her mom on the phone rather than him. Knowing him, any kind of talk was just going to end in a guilt trip and a few months of radio silence.
“Oh, yes. You told me. Of course.” Mother continued after another pause. “Your counselor told us what happened. We don’t understand all of it, but she explained it quite well.”
Is that a good thing? “I don’t really understand it myself,” Chris admitted. “It’s just how this shit works, it does what it wants.”
“Does the Covenant use that kind of language, Christina?” Mom protested, gentler than what Chris was used to. Resigned.
“Sorry,” Chris said. She was, about all sorts of things. Just not the language.
“Will you be able to come see us sometime? Or maybe we could make the trip on a weekend… it’s just a few hundred miles.” A short, mirthless chuckle came through the phone. “The house seems so big and quiet now. Even the dog sleeps most of the day since you’re gone.”
I’m sorry you’re lonely and the dog’s getting old. Chris wasn’t sure about the last time she’d given her mother a hug, but if she hadn’t been so far away, she might have given it a try just about now. It might have felt a little weird, like two passengers comforting on another a sinking Titanic. It might have been nice, too.
She wasn’t going to find out, at any rate.
“I need to get ready,” Chris said. “The UN is sending a chopper in a bit. I’ll stay in touch, okay?” I don’t know how, but I’ll figure it out sometime.
“Be a good girl, Christina.”
The call ended on that note, but Chris spent a few more minutes sitting on the edge of the bed and staring into space. She wasn’t thinking about anything in particular; too many of the ideas she’d been left with were painful to hold on to.
Be a good girl, Christina.
Eventually, she got to her feet to transform into Mascot.
Mascot noticed it the instant she and Overdrive were accompanied into the Whitefield business center beside the stadium entrance. They’d been informed that the center would serve as their meeting point with the Covenant, but instead of finding four heroes they were met by a lone drone. It hovered above the reception desk, oddly out of place in the airy room with white-painted walls. The business center served as an information terminal for visitors looking to buy baseball merchandise, books and other goodies.
Definitely not drones.
“What’s going on?” Mascot asked, scanning the room for anyone she might have overlooked. All she could see were shelves stacked with merchandise, magazine stands, and a cozy lounge with square upholstered seats arranged in a semicircle.
“Please standby,” the drone said with an artificial voice disturbingly similar to Athena’s. “Awaiting further information.”
“Wow. Guess they don’t need us after all,” Overdrive scoffed.
One of the uniformed UN employees that had accompanied the Wardens to the business center pulled a phone from his jacket. “Give me a minute,” he said, moving over into an adjacent room. He didn’t close the door, but he clearly wanted to be out of earshot.
Mascot looked at Overdrive. “I’ve got a shit feeling about this.”
“You always do,” he said, waving a hand dismissively. “You’re a living air raid siren. I’m sure everything’s okay. Guess someone spilled coffee over Queenie’s dress?”
“Maybe,” Mascot said. She leaned against a wall beside a baseball magazine stand, watching the UN guy make his call.
He said a sentence or two, then his expression changed from puzzled to grim.
I knew it. Mascot checked the pockets of her costume, making sure she was equipped with her smartphone, a flashlight and a bear shaped key pendant filled with pepper spray. The taser she’d requested would have been way more useful, but apparently no one wanted to trust a teenager with one of those.
She resisted the urge to retrieve her packet of cigs and waited for the man to finish his call. It didn’t take long. He came back in after a couple of minutes, trouble written all over his face.
“Someone will be over in a minute to equip you with com devices,” he said.
“Athena was supposed to hand them to us,” Mascot said. “Is everything alright?”
“Please standby. Awaiting further information,” the drone echoed from its position above the reception desk.
“It seems something came up,” the UN employee replied with a stony expression.
“Okay.” Mascot leaned off the wall and stepped over to one of the seating group, dropping down on a square seat to wait. Overdrive returned the magazine he’d been leafing through and joined her, shoulders starting to slump a little.
“It could be coffee,” Mascot tried.
He didn’t have a response this time.
Fifteen minutes later, a flustered man wearing an UN colored overall arrived to equip the two Wardens with headsets. They looked standard issue, similar to the stuff one might expect to find at an electronics store, though the microphones had been replaced by custom made pieces.
“These aren’t the models the Covenant uses, but they’ve been modified to run on the same secure coms line,” the man explained. “If they don’t fit underneath your helmets, you’ll have to take those off.”
“Is someone going to tell us what’s going on?” Chris asked as she pulled her helmet off.
“Yes. Check in as soon as you’re equipped and linked.”
“Not coffee then, I guess,” Overdrive commented. No one looked amused. The UN employees still wore the same grim, pinched expressions.
Mascot toggled the small switch that activated her headset and adjusted the microphone. “Hello?” she asked into the faint static that came through her earphones. From the corner of an eye, she saw the men who’d accompanied her and Overdrive leave the business center. They moved with swift strides, phones pressed to their ears.
“Christina? Are you and Peter still at the business center?” Athena’s voice replied after a few seconds. It sounded even more strained than it had at the Wardens headquarters, thick with suppressed emotion.
Something’s not right at all, and this definitely isn’t about coffee. “Yeah,” Chris replied. “What’s going on?”
“Is Peter listening in? I am not seeing his signal.”
Mascot glanced to Overdrive, who was still trying to squeeze his head into his helmet with the headphones on. “Hey, O. Leave the helmet. Athena wants to talk to us.”
The teenager grimaced, but obediently lowered the helmet onto one of the seats and toggled his headset switch. A small green light flared next to his microphone.
“It seems you are both ready. I realize we are short on time, and I truly wish I could be with you and give personal instructions, but Queenie was murdered a short while ago.”
“What? How?” Chris asked, eyes on her teammate. Overdrive’s jaw dropped, eyes going wide. She felt her stomach tighten into a knot.
“A sniper bullet, just as she was leaving the Covenant’s quarters. Samael, Paladin and I have been trying to track the culprit. Do you understand what this means?”
“Word got out that Saint is out of the picture,” Chris replied. Her mind raced ahead to other implications, none of them pleasant. “And you’ve lost your ability to keep tabs on villains.”
“Yes,” Athena’s voice confirmed. “Without Queenie we have no way of knowing if there are rogues among the spectators, and there may be more assassination attempts. The Secretary General still wishes to go ahead with the speech. He believes that cancelling it would endanger everything we achieved after the Shanti riots.”
I guess we both know the stadium was a really bad idea. Chris tried not to think about the impact this many people would have on her danger sense. “The Secretary General will be safe?” she asked.
“I have secured his location and will be staying with him, but Samael and Paladin require forcefields. I need you two to keep an eye on the stadium until further instruction. Troublemakers might attempt to provoke a mass panic, and we are expecting forty thousand people within the hour.”
And Ryan’s one of them, somewhere out there. Chris closed her eyes for a moment, wishing she’d waited with that dreaded phone call until all of this was over.
“Shit,” Overdrive said over the coms line, voice flat. “Are the others with you and the Secretary General?”
Chris had a hunch that what he’d really meant to ask was, ‘are the two of us going to be left with the task of protecting forty thousand people?’
There’s no way I can protect this many people. The knot in her stomach made itself felt with a sharp twist, filling her mouth with a hint of bile.
“Samael is fast enough to move between locations if needed, and will stay near you,” Athena replied. Her voice was calm now, professional. “Paladin would need half a minute. Make your rounds about the stands and let me know if you require assistance. My drones are there to support you. Use line one to communicate between yourselves and with me, switch to line two if you need to speak to Samael and Paladin.”
The villains are going to party, Chris thought, peering down at the switch for the com lines.
“Of the rogues we know to be in the United States, there are three who may show up and try something. All hold grudges against authorities and the Covenant in particular. Amunet, Mirage and One Fell Swoop. There may be others Queenie was unable to track within the area. Gentleman in particular is notorious for this.”
Someone with a bad luck curse, someone with area illusions and a walking talking chain reaction. Could be worse, but not by much. One Fell Swoop had the most disaster potential with his ability to project whatever was happening to one person onto a group of others.
Or just one, to let any Covenant attack backfire on them.
“What about Radiant?” Overdrive asked. “Can’t you guys call him for backup or something? He’d be faster than anyone.”
“It is complicated, Peter,” Athena replied with a tone that brooked no further questions.
Touchy subject, I get it.
“If you two have no more questions, please head up to the stadium. I need to check in with the others.”
“No questions,” Chris said, straightening up from her seat. She shot a glance to Overdrive, who quickly echoed her with a ‘no questions’ of his own. She left her helmet where it was. She’d need every bit of her peripheral vision to spot anomalies her danger sense might not pick up right away.
“Be careful,” Athena said. Then the line went dead.
“You wanted to be a real hero, right?” Chris asked as Overdrive stepped to her side.
“Yeah,” he answered with a small voice.
That’s why I asked to have you along.
“Come on, let’s get going.” Chris started in the direction of the main stadium entrance, out of the business center and onto the large plaza out front. The plaza was filled with throngs of people now, even more than she had spotted on the way here. The two costumed Wardens didn’t go unnoticed. Several people reacted to them by grabbing phones to make pictures, but more just stared. Some even called out with autograph requests, though no one mustered up the courage to meet them up close.
Chris ignored them and pulled Overdrive’s arm when she had to, grateful for everyone who kept their distance. Even if it was the uncomfortable, wary kind, with glares instead of smiles.
The two Wardens headed up to the middle deck of the spectator stands, past beer and sandwich vendors, up the stairs and along the front railing that separated the stands from the other decks and the grassy ballpark below. The rows of seats were packed even now, more than half an hour before the starting time. The spectators who arrived early had claimed the seats with the best view of the gigantic screen that had replaced the scoreboard.
According to the information leaflets that had been handed out, that screen was going to show the live transmission of the UN Secretary General’s speech. But right now it only showed a static image of the UN logo.
People seemed more reserved up here; no one but a few kids tried to talk to the passing Wardens. There were stares and flashlights, sure, but no picture requests or questions.
Chris peered up at a ‘do not disturb the heroes’ sign that adorned one of the support pillars. Oh, that’s why.
The dozens of floating Athena drones might have had something to do with it as well. The metal spheres whirred overhead, patrolling above the seat rows with the speed of hunt-falcons.
“Why do they even bother filling a stadium instead of just broadcasting on TV?” Overdrive asked. He watched a drone float up the stairs they’d just climbed. It made a ninety-degree turn at the top, then drifted off over the sea of heads.
“I guess some PR person thought they had to make an extra effort in the Covenant’s hometown,” Chris said. “But I’m not the guy who made the decision.”
“Did the TV channels get permission to do a live thing?”
“One or two maybe,” Chris replied. “Or none. Fuck if I know. It’s probably too late to cancel it now, at any rate.”
Chris’s costume pocket vibrated, distracting her from the crowded stands. She stopped bat the railing to get her cell phone out. After flipping it open, a ‘new message’ icon flashed on the small display. The sender’s name brought a smile to her face despite the ominous atmosphere.
“Kid’s messaging us,” she said.
“Oh? What’s she saying?”
“Good luck, Grumpyface,” Chris quoted from the text on screen. “With about ten smiley faces.” Chris flipped the cell phone shut and shoved it back into her costume, careful to close the zipper all the way. Can’t afford to lose that thing.
“Sounds like her alright. Think they’ll remove her from the team?”
“I’d miss her, but I hope so,” Chris said and continued on her way along the railing.
“Would be sad, but true. It’s all going to get worse.”
We’ll need luck to find troublemakers in this crowd. Chris’s gaze passed over a group of youths wearing NY college jackets. Nearly every one of them was wielding a can of beer, and all looked tense with anticipation. Two rows behind, a large group of people made a clear political statement with the ten foot long Shanti banner they held on to. Bright blue shirts with middle fingers imprinted over UN logos seemed to be in fashion today. Wherever Chris looked, she spotted hundreds of them.
She felt kind of sorry for the Secretary General. The poor guy was going to have a hell of a hard time working this crowd.
And the Wardens faced the challenge of spotting Amunet or One Fell Swoop in this crowd, who probably weren’t going to do them the favor of showing up in costume. And Mirage? Finding her would be next to impossible if she didn’t want to be seen.
Chris was on the way to the stairs leading up to the upper deck when an alarmingly familiar voice spoke up behind her. It wasn’t loud. In fact, the surrounding cacophony nearly drowned it out, but she could have picked it out from a crowd anywhere.
Not kiddo, not Chris, just Mascot.
Chris froze, one hand on the railing. She turned slowly without letting go to see Ryan sit like a bereaved man among bridegrooms. A solitary figure dressed in dark hues, standing out against the background of jostling people with craned necks because he was so still. He hadn’t bothered tying his hair back. The brown waves spilled over his cheeks and shoulders, nearly concealing his doleful eyes and the short beard that had sprouted on his jaw.
Oh shit. Chris wanted to avert her gaze and move on, focus on the crowd and potential troublemakers. But she couldn’t. The instant she saw his face she was paralyzed, unable to break free from that look in his eyes. Even her heart seemed to stand still.
It wasn’t the look he’d given her after the car crash, it was worse. A deep void instead of despair and accusation.
Do you still remember your smile summoning ritual, Ryan? It was the first thought that bubbled to the surface. Some part of her wanted to walk up to him and rub his cheek with a thumb until the look on his face changed. But the idea felt wrong in more way than she could count. Sometimes, things were so broken that picking up the shards just resulted in bleeding hands.
“Her funeral was two weeks ago,” Ryan said when she didn’t speak up.
“I…” Chris started, struggling to think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound awful and wrong. For the first time ever, she missed that stupid bear helmet. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it,” she finally blurted out.
Fact was, she could have been released from her cell for a day. In shackles, with an entourage and enough security measures to make her want to sink into the floor every step of the way, every second of the ceremony.
He nodded without looking at her and just went on, as if talking to himself. “Your dad held a great speech, finding all the right words.”
“Ryan,” Chris tried, reminded of the press of the jostling crowd when someone bumped into her. “You should go home. Um, I probably shouldn’t say this, but bad stuff could happen.”
She ignored the gentle squeeze of Overdrive’s hand on her arm.
“No. I’m here to understand why. I still haven’t figured it out.”
Neither have I.
A faint crackling noise came through Chris’s earphone, followed by Athena’s voice. “Mascot, Overdrive. We just received word that NBE Britain has been attacked by a group of villains. They have overwritten the transmission with one of their own and taken hostages. We have to assume that the news will spread within moments, please be on alert. Samael and Paladin will be with you in a moment to receive forcefields.”
“Chris, come on,” Overdrive said firmly, giving her arm another tug. “We have work to do.”
The urgency in his words snapped Chris out of her melancholic daze. She cast a final glance to Ryan, who sat there on his seat the same way he had before. Bent forward with hunched shoulders, elbows resting on his thighs, vacant eyes on her face.
Then she turned away and headed up the stairs without another word.
Whatever it was, I won’t let it happen to you.