San Francisco, USA – Wednesday, the 13th of June 2012. 09:15 AM.
On the morning of Emily’s departure, the goodbye committee that had assembled in her honor nearly filled up the entirety of the Wardens headquarters entrance hall – twenty by thirty feet of smoothly polished stone floor that extended between the reception desks and the elevator. All of the Wardens staff including the cleaning crew was there alongside the Wardens and Mr. Turner, waiting for their turn to offer their best wishes to the world’s youngest heroine. When Emily emerged from the elevator, she was flanked by Mrs. Clarence, who accompanied her every step of the way.
Emily shook countless hands with dutiful politeness and a painted-on smile. But when she finally made her way to her former teammates, that smile grew into something real.
“I’m going to miss you guys,” she said, wrapping her arms around Chris’s waist and crutch. “Especially you, Grumpyface.” She raised her chin to look up at Peter without letting go of Chris. “Hey, if Grumpyface ever smiles again, take a picture and send it to me. Okay?”
“I’ll try if I’m fast enough,” Peter said. “But knowing Chris, It’s going to last about a second.”
“I smile all the time,” Chris defended herself. “You just don’t notice because you’re always staring at the TV screen or your computer monitor.” She shifted her weight in an attempt to wrap her good arm about Emily without putting strain on her injured ankle.
“We’ll send you a picture of her boyfriend,” Peter suggested with a sly smile. “Or maybe of her face when she gets home from a date.”
“That’s not a proper discussion to be having with a nine year old girl,” Mrs. Clarence interjected sternly. She had taken position beside Mr. Turner, armed with a ball pen and a frown of disapproval.
“It’s okay, I know all about kissy stuff,” Emily said. She gave Chris’s waist a final squeeze, then let her arms drop away and stepped back from her. “We can talk on the phone! My school is closed because of the villains in New York, so you can call anytime. It’s gonna be boring at home anyway. Don’t be sad, Grumpyface.”
Can’t hide it from you, can I? Chris managed a painted smile of her own, hoping she wasn’t twisting it into a grimace.
“I’ll be watching over the others while you’re gone,” Chris said. ”You know that’s my role thing. Right?”
“Right. You promised to keep an eye on Nora for me.” Emily stepped over to the dark-skinned girl to smother her to the sound of a hundred spectators cooing and awwing. That was the standard reaction to Kid doing anything in public, really.
Chris fought back her irritation, trying not to let that smile slip from her face. She doesn’t even know most of them. This should have been a private team moment.
“Or maybe I’m keeping an eye on Grumpyface,” Nora said, lifting a finger to her cheek for emphasis.
Off to the side, Peter snickered quietly to himself. Emily let go of Nora to give him a quick squeeze as well, completing the round of hugs for the trio.
Chris looked out the front windows to see Emily’s escort pull up in front of the building. It was a totally cliché black government limousine with dark tinted windows, most likely armored as well.
Have a safe trip home, midget.
After Queenie’s murder and the attempted assaults at the stadium, Uncle Sam wasn’t taking any risks regarding the safety of American heroes, even retired ones. Chris suspected Emily’s family home was going to be as much under observation by special forces as the Wardens headquarters were.
The fact that America’s elite soldiers had to protect superheroes was kind of ironic, really. But heroes had to sleep, and if a team of well-prepared villains got the chance to strike first, things could get very ugly very fast. This reality hadn’t been directed by a narrator who always let the good guys win; the bad guys were actually dangerous.
Chris turned her attention back to the entrance hall, where Emily was just about to complete her tour of handshakes and good wishes. The little girl stood at the center of the crowd, facing them all with the solemn grace of the world’s youngest hero to receive her decoration. Instead of a medal, she accepted the rolled up Kid poster that had been adorning the walls of the the cafeteria until a short while ago. The one that had been covered with so many visitor signatures that the life sized photograph was barely visible anymore.
“Can I get the posters of the other Wardens, too?” Emily asked, lovingly clutching her own poster with both hands. “I really want Mascot in my room! She keeps the bad dreams away.”
That’s silly, Chris thought, flattered against her will. She expected Peter to make a bad pun at her expense, but he was keeping quiet for once.
Mr. Turner shot one of the staff members an inquiring glance. The PR guy, Chris remembered.
“I believe that should be possible,” Mr. Turner said after receiving a nod of affirmation. “We’ll just replace them with new copies. Do us proud, Emily. You’ll always be remembered as our heroine.”
There was a round of applause, then the girl was escorted to the door, flanked by two uniformed women who carried her pink plastic suitcase and bag for her. She waved over her shoulder, getting more waves in return than she could possibly care about.
“Down to three already,” Peter commented, rubbing his eyebrow. “Damn. You think they’re going to hook us up with someone new?”
“Maybe Rose the Red and the Canadian,” Chris suggested. “Adding them to our team would make more sense than placing them on the East Coast.“ She adjusted her grip on the crutch to start hobbling her way to the elevator. Emily was gone, hopefully happy and safe. There wasn’t anything else that needed to be said. Chris was done here, and she knew she’d get briefed on whatever else she needed to know.
Like whether or not they might be allowed to leave the headquarters anytime soon. Being kept inside for safety reasons was starting to grate on the Wardens’ collective nerves.
“Don’t cha get your hopes up, O,” Nora said. “Rose is Paladin’s girl, and you don’t wanna piss that guy off. His sword’s bigger than yours.”
“I wasn’t even thinking about that,” Peter protested.
“Suuure,” Nora replied, dripping sarcasm that was as dry as sawdust.
“No, you don’t want to piss Paladin off,” Chris agreed. “I’ve seen that sword. Up close.” She realized her mistake when Peter guffawed, followed up by a snorted laugh from Nora.
Chris hobbled the last few steps to the elevator, then leaned onto the metal railing beside the switch to cover her face with her right hand. When she felt ready to lower her fingers, she called the elevator.
The others clearly weren’t done with the subject. Chris felt their eyes on her during every long moment of their ascension to the top floor. Nora was watching her with rapt attention and quirked eyebrows, Peter with a perpetual grin and a decidedly cool poise to let her know he was years ahead of her in terms of sexual experience. Which he probably was. Not that she cared; it wasn’t something that would help him save the world.
“Seriously, you’re a virgin?” he blurted out on the third floor.
Did you have to bring it up while we’re trapped in an elevator? Fuck you. Chris would have said the last part out loud, but he might have taken it as some kind of invitation to keep making fun of her. Instead, she opted for diplomatic silence, staring at the elevator doors and counting the seconds until they would open. This was one of the many situations that were best solved by walking away, and the fact that she couldn’t really put her on edge.
“Wow. She really is,” Peter stated as they reached the top floor. “No wonder she’s grumpy.”
“Leave her alone,” Nora said. “Go read one of those porn mags you’re hiding under your bed.”
He made a face. “I’m not old enough to read those things. They’re for frustrated old retirees, man.”
When the elevator door opened, Chris was first to hobble out and press her thumb to the identification panel. “Bugger off. I’m going to do some research,” she declared, then continued on to her room.
“I’m gonna do some homework,” Nora announced behind her. “Someone’s gotta use their brains here.”
“Fine, I’m watching some Anime. Someone has to do research on how to kill the bad guys,” Peter said over the sound of footsteps.
Chris made it to the unadorned door that marked her room, pulled it open with an awkward balancing act and hobbled inside. Once she had successfully shut the world out, the tension eased out of her. Her chest deflated, and her fingers relaxed their grip on the crutch.
Some distant words drifted through the closed door, too muffled to understand. No more teenage drama for now. Chris eased away from the door to inspect her room and maybe get an idea of how to get started on her research. The Wardens needed some kind of action plan, and she didn’t think Peter or Nora would get started on it if she didn’t provide them with some kind of ignition.
Sunlight flowed through the large double window across the room from the door. It cast a glossy sheen over the new mahogany desk beneath it, hinting at the beginnings of a nice sunny day outside. The idea of heading out for a little while regardless of crutches and consequences was more tempting than it should have been.
Chris spent a moment pondering it while she stood beside the slotted white wood shelf that contained an assortment of leftovers from her high school life. The books didn’t draw her attention, but the large coiling dragon poster that hung above her bed did.
Mrs. Clarence had suggested it as an addition to her otherwise quite unadorned room, and she’d agreed because she liked the dragon’s grumpy face with its long, deeply furrowed brows and slanted reptile eyes. Right now, she could have sworn it was frowning down at her.
It’s a bad idea, I know. It’s okay to get myself into trouble, but I promised to take responsibility for Nora.
Still, the idea of doing nothing bothered her more.
Chris hobbled over to open the window and have a smoke. When she was done, she sat on the swivel chair in front of her desk and booted up the laptop.
A quick check of the Wardens intranet revealed a new update by Mr. Turner that had been marked as important. Chris read through it with her cheek resting against a fist, her interest growing with every word that came after the first mention of ‘President’.
I understand your current situation is a frustrating one. You’re young, and you’d like to go out and have some fun. I can promise you that some significant changes are going to happen. It’s believed that the President will revoke the hero costume requirement. As a result, you would be safer in public. Athena is working on a communications and tracking device that will allow you to stay connected and call for help in case of emergencies.
Chris paused there to digest the news. Wow. This is going to provoke some protests from concerned citizens. But hey, it would be a pretty awesome for us.
She pushed the chair back from her desk and swiveled on it, careful to keep her pressure bandaged ankle away from any edges. Her mind raced ahead, conjuring up scenarios in which she could go out without being stared at and photographed every other minute. She didn’t allow herself to get too excited, though. The reason behind this emergency resolution was about as shitty as they got.
Chris wheeled the chair back up to the desk and opened a new document which she titled “Wardens action plan.” Not much of a plan at this point, but a start. After a moment of consideration, she started typing a summary of all the relevant facts she could think of, highlighting the most important parts:
Find way to deal with danger sense side effects, and why did my forcefield fail vs Mirage? Maybe ask Mrs. Clarence
Covenant is vulnerable, needs a change of strategy to keep the world order
Wardens issue #1: no mobility. Grounded, lack of a teleporter
Wardens issue #2: Nora can’t act against strict probation terms
EU has teleporter, range? In hospital atm
What’s up with Radiant? It’s not like him to not show up to a villain attack
Hostage situation. No demands so far, no clues. Maybe attempt to destabilize International Community?
Not a clue what else the villains have in store or who all of them are
New transitions unpredictable with Queenie gone. Who is going to find and check on them?
Upon reaching the end of her list, Chris paused to close her eyes. In her mind’s eye, the young blonde heroine in the lacy white and gold skirt was still flashing a victory sign behind the cover of her chair.
I barely knew you, but you seemed pretty nice. Chris expelled a breath, then opened her eyes. She double clicked the Wardens logo on her desktop to get connected to the secure Wardens wifi and look for a complete version of the Liverpool villain broadcast.
It didn’t take long to find an anonymous upload of the whole thing on some illegal website. It was a bit over five minutes long, an appeal to governments and common people alike to be more open minded.
It sounds pretty reasonable. Maybe there’s some hypnotic mind trick hidden in it? Chris furrowed her brow and discarded the thought. Teresa Mullen’s mention of the power feedback effect had sparked an idea she wanted to explore instead.
It took her ten minutes to dig up believable information on the day and time Barrier – the last known Guardian before Chris – died. He committed suicide in South Korea a few months after his transition. The income he’d gained from giving interviews and writing articles had dwindled away to almost nothing, and he never actually tried to be a hero.
His time of death translated to Saturday, the 26th of May. The evening of Chris’s transition.
Shit. The villains could actually be right on point about this. Why hasn’t anyone else noticed?
Chris used a search engine to check on a few other transitions. Just as she skimmed over the Fox News homepage, her cell phone started ringing with its standard jingle that she hadn’t bothered changing. A quick check of the screen revealed an unknown number, and for a moment she considered rejecting the call.
It could have been Emily’s home number, though. She’d never gotten around to saving that one in her list of contacts because they lived door to door anyway.
“Hello?” she asked, holding the phone to her ear.
“Hello, Christina,” Athena’s voice said. “I hope I am not reaching you at an inopportune time. Are you by yourself right now?”
What’s with the unknown number? Chris pondered, frowning at the screen of her laptop. You’re already in my list of contacts. “I guess, if being alone in my room in the Wardens’ quarters counts?” she said. “Um, this is a little surprising.”
“I understand. I did not mean to startle you, and would not be doing this if it was not important. I have a favor to ask of you. Perhaps in exchange for the one I did for you?”
Checking on Ryan wasn’t such a big deal to you, though. This sounds like it’s going to be. Chris brought a hand up to rub her face while she gave her response. “Okay, what is it?”
“I do not wish to keep you longer than necessary, so I will make this short. We have requested to invite you to the Covenant, but your government has refused. This should be your decision to make. Think of the benefits, Christina. With a Guardian on the team, we could work much more efficiently and resume our roles…”
Chris’s mind stopped processing the words at that point. It had gotten hung up on ‘invite you to the Covenant’, followed by the single flaring thought of you’re shitting me. Once that had sunk in, she managed a “what?” that probably sounded as lame to Athena as it did to her.
“I assume they did not tell you,” Athena continued, a hint of weariness to her voice. “No, of course they would not. If you wished, you could take the initiative, Christina. I can give you a list of contacts within the chain of command. Contacts who would listen and push your request forward.”
For a moment, Chris just sat with the phone pressed to her ear, trying to figure out how she felt about all of this. No, she wasn’t surprised the higher ups would withhold information on that kind of request from her. Yes, she could understand why the Covenant would want a Guardian and that there weren’t exactly many to pick from. It didn’t look like Saint was going to recover. And Sanctuary was completely off the radar. Yes, she should probably consider this. It was a really big fucking deal.
But no, she couldn’t abandon the others. Even without considerations of Nora’s future, she didn’t trust the two of them to make the right calls when it counted. Hell, she didn’t trust herself.
“What would happen to Nora?” Chris finally asked. “You know we made that deal.”
“I assumed you would ask. We have discussed this within our group,” Athena replied. “We cannot extend the same invitation to Nora, but I can promise that she would be taken care of in a safe facility, with everything provided for her comfort.”
Safe facility. What a fancy term for prison.
“I can’t do this, Athena,” Chris said. “The guys here need me. Emily being back home doesn’t change much.” I wouldn’t be able to run to her house if she needed me while I was in New York. Chris swallowed the words, feeling them as a lump in her throat.
Athena didn’t respond right away. When she did, her tone hadn’t changed much. If anything, the weariness was more noticeable. “I also assumed you would say no, but I promised the others I would ask. In this case, I would like to ask a different favor. Please get in touch with Radiant, Christina. You may wish to talk to him, and I can provide the means to do it.”
Are you talking to him? You guys seem to have some serious issues.
“Why me?” Chris asked. “The Covenant would benefit the most from staying in touch with its former leader. You’ve already worked together for more than a year, right?” Chris glanced at her laptop screen and scrolled up on her document of brainstormed facts. Radiant was listed there with a big fat question mark.
Athena’s sigh was nearly lost in a faint buzz of static. “I told you it is complicated, Christina. I really cannot tell you more than this.”
“And why would he even talk to me?”
“That is something I can answer. Radiant is looking to pool his experience with rogues who might not wish to work with the Covenant, or who are prevented from doing so by commanding bodies. He hopes to bring everyone together, especially those who had not considered being heroes.”
Good luck with that. Isn’t he the one who killed Shanti? Instead of voicing her doubts, Chris gave her mind free reign to consider the idea for a moment. She used to have a mostly favorable opinion of Radiant. Now she wasn’t so sure anymore, but that fat question mark in her document wasn’t likely to go away if she didn’t do something about it. And she couldn’t deny the fact that he was the only known hero who could travel anywhere in an instant.
“Sure, I guess,” Chris said. “How can I reach Radiant?”
“I am going to give you a number,” Athena said. “Write it down by hand, do not note it on your computer. Try to learn it by heart as quickly as possible, then destroy the note. You will most likely reach an answering machine. Leave a message explaining that I asked you to contact him, and let him know how to get back to you. This will be a secure line, do not worry about leaving your number.”
“Moment,” Chris said, searching her desk for a notebook and a pen. She wasn’t all that surprised by the security procedure, she could see how it would be justified in his case. “I’m ready. Give me the number.”
It was an excessively long number, featuring nearly twenty digits. Chris double checked with Athena that she’d gotten it right, then folded it once and placed it beside her keyboard where it would stay within sight. With that done, she took her chances at clearing up another point from her list.
“Athena, can I ask you something different?”
“I am free right now, ask anything you like.”
“The European teleporter… Checkmate? I get that he’s in hospital right now. Do you think he’ll get better? I’d like to talk to him too.”
Wardens issue #1: no mobility.
“He is not in critical condition and should be able to leave within a day or two,” Athena said. “But this is not something I can assist you with. You lack the status required to go through official channels. You may want to contact their team leader, Rune, directly. I will send you a message with his email address.”
“That would help,” Chris said. “Thank you.”
“Is there anything else you would like to ask?”
Chris had all sorts of questions about reality warping and the Antithesis rumors that had infected the internet, but she figured she’d save those for Rune’s team. Those guys were the ones who had witnessed the villain attack in Liverpool, after all.
“Maybe. Do you think you could help us be more mobile? We don’t get around quickly, and it’s going to bite us in the ass the next time something happens.”
“As things stand right now, I am afraid not, Christina.” There was an undertone of regret in Athena’s voice. “The political situation is complicated, at present. Your President has declared a shift of focus towards national concerns, so direct cooperation will be more difficult from now on.”
“Yeah, I think there was something in the news about that. I’ll take a look. Thanks for calling, Athena.”
“Good luck, Christina. You know how to contact me if needed.” There was a faint, crackling sound, then a long beep. Chris hung up and put the phone down on her desk, turning back to the laptop screen.
The headlines were right there on the news site’s front page, documenting the political landslide that took place in the aftermath of yesterday’s events. Some bloggers and journalists had begun to draw connections to 9/11, with supervillains instead of terrorists.
The president’s speech had been as diplomatic as Chris had expected, but he’d gotten the message across clearly enough. The United States would do anything in its power protect its citizens, regardless of whether or not the rest of the world consented.
India had taken more dramatic measures by revoking the Covenant’s rights to act within its borders. Just like China, India now refused to share any more information on national transitions and was going to deal with any Evolved crisis themselves. As a result, South Korea, Russia and Japan were getting nervous, demanding sanctions to enforce a continuation of the Evolved information exchange.
Chris was well aware of the population charts. If she added up the figures for China and India, the two countries probably had at least a third of all the Evolved in the world. They didn’t need the crumbling Covenant’s support.
Can’t do anything about politics, but I can dial that number.
Chris waited for her fingers to stop drumming against the table’s edge, then picked the phone back up and dialed the long number she’d noted a few minutes before. The seconds spent listening to clicking noise and finally a dial tone made her painfully aware this wasn’t just some phone call. She’d have to consider her words if she hoped to get anything out of it.
After three rings on the other end of the line, a male voice that could have been Radiant’s rattled off a few words in a language Chris didn’t understand. Russian, she assumed.
“Um, hello,” she said. “Athena asked me to contact you. This is Mascot, of the Wardens. If you’d like to get back to me, my number is…” She wrote her number down to visualize it while spelling out the digits. “If you’d like to call me, that’s cool. We might have some shared interests. Have a good day.” She hung up, grimacing at her words. They sounded awkward in her ears.
When she turned her attention back to the laptop, a cheerfully blinking icon informed her of new email. Chris opened it to discover a message that put a smile on her face. There were only two words – BACK HOOOOOOME – but the image attached below told her everything she needed to know.
It showed Emily wrapping her arms about a fat orange cat in what looked to be a small backyard garden. Both girl and cat squinted their eyes shut against the sunlight, sharing the same content grin.
Chris decided to type a quick response to wish Emily some happy relaxing time. After clicking the send button, she turned her attention back to the Wardens action plan that still lacked any kind of action. She settled back on her swivel chair and tapped her pen against her cheek.
It all comes down to finding the villains before the next disaster, she pondered. But our chances of finding them are pretty shitty. She couldn’t even be sure they were in the States anymore. Mirage, One Fell Swoop and Vortex had been, but that didn’t say much. Considering that the attack on the stadium had been nothing more than a diversion, it was easy to assume that those three had been pawns in someone else’s scheme. Maybe they had been offered payment and had expected to get away unharmed, protected by the cover of Mirage’s power.
Chris opened the public Evolved wiki entry containing known data about Gentleman. He was described as an aspiring Broadway actor in his mid-twenties who’d withdrawn from society without any hint of a transition. Later investigation revealed that he’d assumed a number of fake personalities to wangle hundreds of thousands of dollars from banks, investors and former colleagues before disappearing from the picture completely. Given the fact that not even Queenie could track him, he had been declared dead until the night Chris encountered him in Seattle.
Her memory of that encounter and Gentleman’s voice was still quite fresh. He’d said something that bothered her enough to stick in her mind.
So feisty. And a girl! I don’t blame you. You may change your mind before long.
“You’d talk to me, wouldn’t you?” She said, looking at the on-screen image of a remarkably average looking young man with brown hair and eyes. The idea of taking him up on his recruitment offer crossed her mind and was discarded after a second. The spy on the bad guy tactic only ever worked in stories. Besides, she had to keep an eye on Nora to prevent any execution orders from happening.
If I want to lure them out, I’ll have to throw a bait out there and see what happens. Chris mulled that idea over for a moment, then picked her cell phone back up and dialed Mr. Turner’s number. He picked up after only two rings. “Mascot? What is it?” he asked.
“Hello, Mr. Turner,” she said. “I wonder if that talk show offer is still on the table? The one from E-Life?”
“I was not given a deadline, so I assume yes. Have you changed your mind? You weren’t very fond of the idea when I brought it up.”
“Maybe,” Chris said, forcing some enthusiasm into her voice. “But I’d have to check with the others first. I don’t want to be the jerk who just drags them into it.” They’ll have to know about the plan, she added in her mind. If any villains take the bait, things could get serious.
“I’ll call them and find out,” Mr. Turner offered, sounding way more excited than she had. “This is a good idea, Christina. Your fellow Americans will love you.”
Chris doubted it, but she agreed regardless.