New York, USA – Tuesday, the 12th of June 2012. 11:44 AM.
“Status update,” Athena said. The Covenant heroine’s voice came through Chris’s earphones just as Chris and Overdrive reached the top of the stairs on the upper deck.
“The villains in Liverpool were identified as Raven’s crew. They have escaped with a hostage, but several unknown villains remain. The European heroes are handling the situation. So far, there are no signs of hostile activity here. Wardens, do you have anything to report?”
Damn. Does everyone know about Saint already? Chris adjusted her microphone, trying to forget the mental image she had of Ryan sitting on the deck below. Staring holes into space. Waiting for answers he probably wasn’t going to get.
“Haven’t seen anyone suspicious,” she said. “Nothing from my danger sense, either. But I think the news about England are starting to come in. Some people are leaving the stadium.”
Next to her, Overdrive didn’t comment, but he gave a nod of agreement. The effect of the spreading news was noticeable by the all the people who were frowning at thwir mobile devices. More than just a few abandoned their seats, and some were clearly in a hurry.
A mass panic with this many people? That would end really badly.
“Are the heroes already on site in England?” Chris asked, her pulse quickening despite the lack of visible threats. That was just a normal human reaction; her powers had nothing to do with it. The lack of any reaction from her danger sense made her wonder if someone was messing with her senses, like Legion had.
“Yes. The European team has recruited a newly transitioned teleporter who moved them to Liverpool. I will give you more details after we are done here.”
A teleporter would be pretty useful just about now. We’re too split up. Chris leaned against the railing to try and keep out of people’s way. Her attention was on the light cloudy sky above the stadium rather than the upper deck, but she could feel the jostle of bodies against the back of her costume.
“We’re incoming,” Paladin’s voice came through the earphones.
Samael appeared first, a grey streak of movement across the sky accompanied by a gust of wind that swept across the upper stands and ruffled people and banners alike. He stopped about a hundred feet above the center of the grassy green ballpark, a dozen silvery ribbons fanning out around him to take the shape of wings that were streaming in the air.
A murmur of excitement came from the crowd that wasn’t distracted by the idea of getting the hell out. For every person who’d gotten news about Liverpool and decided to leave, there were fifty others still enjoying the event.
“Mascot. Your range?” Samael’s voice over the headset was curt, slightly distorted by the air torrents that surrounded him.
Not sure how strong it’s going to be on you. Chris projected a forcefield regardless, feeling the energies take hold around the figure in the sky a hundred feet away. That’s my range, apparently.
“Done,” she reported over her microphone.
“Good job, Mascot,” Samael said. He kept on floating there, wing ribbons going slack where they were caught within the forcefield.
The spectators were much more impressed by Samael’s appearance than Chris was. Some even jumped up from their seats to take hero snapshots. Chris glanced aside to her teammate who craned his neck to gawk like everyone else, a goofy smile on his face.
She resisted the urge to give him an elbow nudge to remind him why they were really here; he’d figure it out on his own if the event turned sour. Her mind drifted off to the spectator deck below, considering all the possible routes that would take her there. Just in case.
Paladin arrived a minute after Samael. His massive suit of white and grey plated power armor descended from the sky to hover twenty feet away from Samael, lacking the other hero’s speed and maneuverability. The eye slit of his helmet glowed now, and he had slung the huge Athena-powered sword across his back. It was about as long as he was, sticking out to the sides in a way that might have looked funny if it couldn’t bisect a car with one hit. That was no joke – Paladin had demonstrated it live on television.
Chris projected a forcefield onto Paladin and was rewarded with a polite “Thank you, Christina” from her earphones.
Paladin’s alright, she decided. Might make a good leader while Radiant’s gone.
As she looked at the hovering suit of armor, Chris couldn’t help but wonder how Athena managed to pull off not one or two, but three Technician specializations. Drones, communications and powered equipment? The research that had been made public suggested that even the most skilled Technicians specialized in one, two fields at most. Three was just insane.
You didn’t secretly power surge, did you?
The large screen that had been installed over the scoreboard flickered on, and Chris pushed the thought aside. Instead of a static logo, the screen now showed the UN Secretary General’s face. Many of the spectators who had stuck around got out their binoculars or scrambled for a better view.
“Looks like they’re about to start,” Overdrive said. “Think we should split up so we can cover more ground?”
“That’s a bad idea,” Chris said. “Stay with me. With this many people, we’ll lose track of one another if there really is a villain attack.”
She had invited Peter along to give him the chance of being a real hero for a day, a decision she now regretted in the face of a possible mass panic. Still, her regrets didn’t change the fact that she was responsible for him.
“The Secretary General is about to start,” Athena’s voice announced over their headphones. “I will keep you updated if anything of importance happens.”
Paladin took off. He ascended slowly until he was well above the upper deck, then accelerated towards the east.
“Damn. Don’t you wish you could fly?” Overdrive asked, a wistful look on his face.
“I guess,” Chris replied, eyes on the screen. “But if I was him, I’d be twice dead already. I couldn’t even hold that sword.”
“Good point,” Overdrive said. “It looks like it weighs a ton. I’m sure the suit helps, but still. Can you believe there’s a skinny Japanese guy in there?”
“I don’t think he’s skinny. These guys have actually worked as heroes for years.” Chris leaned over the railing to scan the visible rows on the decks below. Her danger sense still refused to give her even as much as a tingle.
My danger sense should work if someone’s planning to get people hurt, she mused. If I don’t get any feedback from it, then maybe there aren’t actually any terrorists here?
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” a man’s voice boomed from every loudspeaker installed throughout the stadium. Slowly, the murmurs of the crowd ebbed away. “Mr. Patrick Kwabena, Secretary General of the United Nations, is about to address the world. Please take your seats and remain quiet throughout the event.”
“I’m curious what they have to say, too,” Chris said. “I bet the Secretary General is pretty nervous. If he screws this up, there’s going to be riots and protests all over the world again. Maybe worse than before.”
“Yeah,” Overdrive agreed. “I’d hate to deal with rioters. That’s just shitty, give me villains instead.”
I hope you get your answers, Ryan. I really do.
Chris wished she could see through the floor to the middle deck, check whether Ryan had taken her advice and left. The thousands of spectators she saw instead looked peaceful enough; some had even brought small kids. The sight of all those preschoolers sitting on parental shoulders made her insides clench with a vague feeling of fear.
“I wonder who decided it was okay for people bring little kids,” Chris said to Overdrive. There’s no way I can cover all of them with forcefields if this gets ugly.
Overdrive shrugged. “Some of those kids really wanted to see a hero, I guess.”
The on-screen still image of the Secretary General flickered and was replaced with a live transmission of the same tall, dark skinned man whose thinning gray hair had been brushed back from his face. He looked up at the camera, unsmiling as he faced forty thousand people awaiting answers with bated breath.
“It is with great concern that I speak to you today,” Secretary Kwabena began. He spoke with a firm voice and a straight posture, raising his hands from a dark wooden speaker’s desk with the UN emblem at the front.
“Today, I address not only the international community of united governments, but the people. You, the citizen of the world, have a right to know that our world is changing. The powers that threaten world peace and stability have never seemed more menacing. Today, I wish to give you hope. To assure you that the United Nations have not abandoned its cause and continue to strive for peace, security and equal rights.”
Chris’s attention drifted from the screen to scan the crowd again. Nothing had changed as far as she could see, but that lingering unease still churned in her gut.
“Those powers have threatened to divide our unity before, back when they first emerged after the Pulse. The United Nations took the lead role in developing solutions and agreements that guard the state of the world as we know it to this day. The Covenant has succeeded in eliminating the threats we could not overcome with conventional means. To this day, Evolved powers have claimed considerably less lives than the Haiti earthquake in January of 2010, a month before the Pulse.”
How much longer can you keep the secret about the Covenant? Chris furrowed her brows at the screen. If Raven knows they’ve become mortal, not long at all. She could see why the UN would keep on trying to preserve the status quo; Athena had said the words after Chris’s arrest in Seattle.
“It is my duty to inform you that the world no longer stands united,” the Secretary General continued, echoing from every loudspeaker throughout the stadium. “India and China have decided to withdraw from the United Nations. They continue to benefit from the international community’s knowledge and support. The Covenant has lost one of its members as well. Radiant will be working as an independent hero from now on, but we extend our trust in him. He continues to follow the ideals that have guided him in the past.”
Holy shit, China too? And not a word about Queenie. Chris glanced to Overdrive. He met her eyes with a small nod, lips pressed into a hard line.
A murmur swept through the crowd. Most people still watched the screen with quiet anticipation, but the stillness of the moment was broken.
Chris suspected that China’s solo run sparked more concern than Radiant’s defection. It was still the world’s most populated country along with India, and the Communist government had never agreed to expose any of its Evolved. No one but China knew exactly what kind of team they could assemble into a strike force. They’d been so successful in keeping the national peace that no one complained too much, but China’s withdrawal from the UN was going to cause a political uproar.
“Wow. Didn’t think China would drop out,” Overdrive commented. “Isn’t it one of the biggest agenda setters?”
“Guess there isn’t much of an agenda to set anymore,” Chris replied. “Sounds like something big happened behind the scenes.”
Good luck trying to sell us world peace after this.
“But we are still united by the cause,” the man on screen went on, settling a long fingered hand over his heart. “And the cause has not changed. Every single world citizen deserves an environment to thrive in, to pursue their dreams and grow old among family. They deserve the best the international community can provide. In some ways, we have moved closer together in the years since the Pulse. The world’s brightest scientists, visionaries and problem solvers now work for the international community. Resources are more fairly distributed, and we have moved several steps closer to absolute world peace. I ask you to have faith in everyone who works hard to ensure that we do not fall back into the dark ages of disparity and isolationism.”
Big words, Chris thought. Still not true for everyone.
“Many of you wish to understand the events in India that have been referred to as the Shanti incident,” the Secretary went on. It was as far as he got before a roaring cacophony of voices and movement drowned out the words that came from the loudspeakers.
The mention of the Shanti incident had nothing to do with it. A gigantic hand appeared out of nowhere, towering over the center of the ballpark to raise a twenty foot long middle finger towards the sky. It was the same shade of blue as the UN flags that dangled beneath the screen, with the matching logo on the back. It didn’t cast a shadow, but it did a good job at blocking view of the screen for most anyone.
Up ahead, the floating figure of Samael pulled back from the raised middle finger. He started circling along the edges of the stadium’s open roof, ribbons trailing in his wake.
“Attention,” Chris said into her microphone. She reached out with a hand to touch Overdrive’s arm. “Athena? Something’s happening here. Probably Mirage.”
There were no screams from the crowd. Just shouts of surprise and protest, echoed a thousandfold throughout the stadium. More and more people jerked from their seats, but no one was running. Not just yet.
“Oh shit,” Overdrive said.
“The drones are ready for intervention,” Athena’s voice sounded from the headphones. “Alert us if you see a target.”
A female voice boomed from the field and the hand that towered over it, distorted and empowered to swoop over the stands with the loudness of a jackhammer. “Anyone who listens to this propaganda shit is no better than the UN murder squad! If you want to live, get out NOW. We’re going to blow up the stadium in a few minutes, and the Covenant won’t do jack shit about it.”
“Oh shit!” Overdrive said again. He shuffled one step back from the railing, forcing Chris to apply some pressure to maintain her grip on his arm.
The voice achieved what the illusionary hand had failed to do: panic spread like a brush fire. Many of the people who’d been standing scattered, abandoning their positions in search of the nearest exit. The faster and more determined ones jostled their way through, stumbling over others who hadn’t yet managed to get to their feet.
That kicked Chris’s danger sense
bruises roughly elbowed sprain kick snapping bone
into action. Countless minor injuries assaulted her senses, their intensity and severity increasing as the mass exodus threatened to escalate. The sheer amount of danger feedback distracted her from the illusionary hand, the voice, and any sound that came through her headset.
In reflex, she projected as many forcefields as could manage in a few seconds while trying to pinpoint the smallest and most vulnerable targets. It was futile. People flooded across the stands like one gigantic mass that swept over the kids and anyone with slow reflexes.
Overdrive’s voice snapped her out of it, and she realized he was yelling at her face. “Chris, pull yourself together! We have to find the villains!”
Focus. I have to act. Chris grit her teeth and pushed the danger sense feedback to the back of her mind. The pain was bearable, but it started to build up.
Athena’s voice sounded from every loudspeaker in the stadium. “Please remain by your seats. There are heroes present who will address the situation. If you remain calm, no one will get hurt.”
“You aren’t actually here, are you, Athena?” the female voice boomed from the field. “You’re full of shit, and soon everyone will know.”
Athena’s voice continued broadcasting her message in other languages. It didn’t stop the mass exodus, but enough people slowed down that Chris’s danger sense calmed a little. The stairs became congested with a jostling, anxious crowd, but not quite a stampede.
Focus. Chris drew in a breath and started towards the nearest stairs as quickly as possible without shoving anyone.
“Mirage’s illusions center on herself,” she said to Overdrive. “She has to be down on the ballpark.”
“But we can’t see her,” Overdrive said. His voice came from right behind, letting her know he was following.
“Right. We’ll have to figure something out.”
“Wardens,” Paladin’s voice came from the earphones. “What are you doing?”
“Heading down to where the hand is,” Chris replied, weaving through the press of bodies towards the middle deck. Some of the people who spotted her costume tried to move out of the way. Not that they had much room to move. “Mirage has to be at the center of the illusion. Is the Secretary General okay?”
“Yes. No one has attempted to assault the hotel so far.”
“I could hit the area around the illusion,” Samael suggested.
“No. We cannot be sure One Fell Swoop is not present,” Athena objected.” I think I can find Mirage,” Chris said. “Danger sense didn’t go off until people started to panic. I don’t think they actually want to blow the stadium up. It’s a bluff.”
“To what purpose?” Paladin’s voice asked.
“Educated guess? To kill you guys.”
Chris glanced down at the last set of stairs leading to ground level and the exit. It was hopelessly choked with people trying to make their way through. Nothing hinted at a stampede escalation, but that could change any moment.
“Hold off on any attacks until we’re sure One Fell Swoop isn’t present. Be careful and coordinate with Samael,” Paladin said. “I’m heading your way.”
By the time Chris and Overdrive reached the center deck stairway, there was little hope of moving more than one excruciatingly slow inch at a time. Someone roughly elbowed Chris’s side as they squeezed past, pushing her up against the railing. She suppressed the urge to swear, because damn it, she had to focus.
She was also trying to locate the kids, and created a small forcefield around each one she managed to pick out from the swarming crowd.
“We’re not going to get down to the ballpark,” Overdrive said, sounding further away than he had a few minutes ago. “Why don’t you protect yourself?”
“That’s just going to get someone hurt,” she said. “They won’t see the forcefield.”
Instead, she turned as far as the press of bodies allowed to look for Ryan among the seat rows. She still had a pretty good idea of where he’d been sitting, and unlike most anyone else, he hadn’t budged from his seat. She projected a forcefield onto him, making it just large enough to cover his whole body.
Hate me more if you want, but I’m doing it again.
She didn’t wait around to see his reaction. Overdrive called out to her from somewhere, and she turned, pushing up against the railing to avoid being jostled more. She could see that teammate had fallen some ten feet behind, pinned by the mass of people who pushed and shoved their way past him.
“O,” she said over the microphone. “Get away from the crowd. I’ll go down there.” Having made her point, she projected a forcefield onto him, making it as small as she could while still covering anything vital.
“How are you going to…” he started asking. The last word was protracted to a drawn-out, extremely low-pitched ‘o’ by the time slowing effect of Chris’s hyperspeed. She heaved herself up onto the stairway railing, hoping the blur of movement she’d likely leave in her wake wasn’t going to cause more panic.
The costume made the tightrope walk more of a challenge than it should have been, and she really wished the authorities would drop that damned mandatory costume law already. Chris had completed Parkour routes that experienced freerunners considered difficult, but rushing down a length of railing in a bear costume was a different thing altogether.
She managed to keep her balance and avoid stepping onto hands and arms thanks to her power’s time slowing effect. Whenever she felt her balance slip, she had a moment to realign herself.
By the time Chris reached the end of the stairs on the lower deck, Overdrive had nearly finished the next word through her earpiece. It was too drawn out and distorted to understand. She heard a low-pitched vocal din from behind as the crowd began to recoil in the wake of her movement.
Chris skipped the last section of stairs and leapt off the railing onto the grassy field. She landed on her feet and created a forcefield around herself, then straightened up and continued running towards the towering blue and white hand that still raised a gigantic middle finger into the sky.
The message was clear: fuck the Covenant.
Chris braced herself for the danger sense trigger she’d get if she was about to collide with anything, and dashed through the center of the illusion. Her vision turned blue for a couple of seconds. Then she emerged on the other side of the hand and continued running. Half the distance to the other end of the stadium, where she turned back around.
That’s not the center of the illusion then. Just how big can she make it?
Chris couldn’t remember and didn’t want to risk slowing down to ask the question over her headset. Now that she had rushed head on onto the battlefield, she’d likely get targeted the instant they spotted her. There was no way Mirage would be alone.
She glanced to the spectator stands where she’d left Overdrive, then turned around and charged at the illusion from a different angle, aiming for the front of the hand this time. Again, she ran through it and halfway across the field without any feedback from her danger sense.
The third charge wasn’t any more successful. Chris swallowed her frustration and took a moment to ponder the situation while she jogged around the hand in a wide circle. –
In theory, she could just keep running until she hit something or someone – hopefully Mirage – by accident. But the fractions of seconds that passed while she made her rounds would keep on accumulating. At some point, things would start happening. Likely not anything good.
If I was Mirage, I’d place the illusion in a way that doesn’t give away where the center is.
Chris considered the seat rows closest to the baseball field. Many of them had been abandoned by now as people withdrew to the back wall or the stairs. A few risked the climb down onto the ballpark despite the illusion and the booming voice from earlier.
And I wouldn’t risk being stampeded by a crowd that can’t see me.
Chris sped up again and gave the illusion a wide berth, following the outer security wall that separated the front rows from the field.
Her danger sense flared when she completed a quarter circle and reached a point almost directly behind the projected illusion. The premonition of crushing bones and sharp pain made her body
gotta slow down so I don’t kill someone
wince and knocked the wind out of her. She made an effort to slow down, stumbling the last steps forward at a fraction of her initial speed.
Chris’s forcefield collided with something and collapsed under the strain of the impact, giving off a palpable burst of energy that raced across her skin. Her momentum continued to carry her forward, and there was a second collision that made multiple things crack and snap like twigs.
Then the moment of relative slow motion ended. Chris found herself crashing to the grassy ground alongside the wide-eyed face of a blonde woman who’d appeared out of nowhere after the impact. The woman made a low gurgling sound, barely audible and too choked to be a cry.
Oh fuck. Chris grit her teeth and rolled off to the side, off the woman’s sprawling body that made those awful sounds. A stab of pain shot through her own leg and one arm, more intense than anything her danger sense had fed her during the past minutes. She gasped, trying to keep herself from crying out loud. She didn’t need a doctor’s degree to realize that some of those bones she’d heard snapping were her own.
Now that she was on her back, she caught a glimpse of clear sky, unobstructed by any illusions. A dark grey figure floated far above, surrounded by a corona of whipping silver ribbons.
The next pulse of pain filled her eyes with a mist of tears that made everything blurry.
“Mascot. Get away from the target.” Samael’s voice came through the dislodged headset that somehow still clung to her head. It was sharp and commanding, without a trace of sympathy.
Do I look like I can move?
For once, Chris was in too much pain to raise a middle finger of her own towards the sky. She wasn’t in the right frame of mind to ponder why her forcefield had given in on collision, either.
Off to the side, Mirage tried to move. The blonde woman in jeans and a short-sleeved shirt dragged herself half an inch away from Chris before collapsing with a whimper. She clearly wasn’t going anywhere and didn’t seem capable of creating any more illusions.
Fuck you, Samael.
The thought gave Chris the push she needed to start crawling a few inches away, dragging one leg and one twisted, dangling arm along. Every half inch of progress was marked by a sharp gasp, teeth clenching.
She hadn’t made noticeable progress when the crowd erupted into panicked screams of a volume that drifted across the entire ballpark. There were other sounds, as well. Thousands of feet stirred in unison to trample their way towards the exits.
All around, a myriad of floating objects shot through the air to converge into a vortex around a dreadlocked man who stood beside Mirage. They ranged from plastic bottles to baseballs and solid chunks of concrete, and the vortex was growing.
Chris had a couple of seconds to witness the source of the panic before the feedback from hundreds of simultaneous injuries blacked her out.