Northampton, England – Saturday, the 16th of June 2012. 11:58 AM.
She’s dead. Legion got her.
Looking at Sunny’s face beside her, Sarina wondered if there was more he didn’t tell her. She did remember what Ace had said about the mysterious monster that made Evolved disappear, but she wasn’t sure why he implied she might be in danger. The one person who could have left those traces on the internet was dead, right? He’d just said so.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” she said. “Neither should you. Besides, it’s not like we posted our home address on the internet.”
He looked like he was about to continue, but didn’t. His eyes darted back to the windows that lined the wall to the left of the great double doors.
“I’m not planning to leave,” she added. “Don’t worry about it, okay?”
“I know it’s hard,” he said, voice distant. He tilted his head in that peculiar way that told her he’d picked up something of interest.
Changing subject already? Looking at his face, Sarina assumed the possibility of her leaving made him uncomfortable, so she decided not to pry.
“What is?” she asked.
“Powers. Losing your family because of them.”
“Is that what happened to you?”
“Sort of. They didn’t mind the powers, my mother actually met Tess’ uncle at one of those Evolved Conventions in the UK.” He smirked a bit, though his attention was still on the windows. “They weren’t hitched when we left, but Tess still thinks she’s my big aunt and responsible for me.”
Wish I had my big brother. Sarina had a pretty good idea what David would do if he somehow found her: he’d give her the speech about bad company. The thought made her smile. He was missing out on an opportunity of being proven wrong for once.
“Did you get a chance to say goodbye?” she asked.
“No. Tess thought we couldn’t risk it. That was in April, so the Covenant didn’t kill everyone who’d surged, but there were rumors in the Evolved community. And Tess thought some bad guys would try to grab me if they found out about my powers.”
Remembering the tension that had broken out when his power surge came up during the gathering in Paris, Sarina could believe it. Don’t worry, I’ll protect you too.
He lowered his gaze to the set of colorful braided bracelets that adorned his left wrist. The intense sunlight made the small beads gleam green, white and orange. The colors of Ireland, as he’d explained her some time ago.
“Did your girlfriend make them for you?” Sarina asked. She’d meant to sound light-hearted, but it wasn’t very convincing.
He didn’t smile. He continued talking in that same quiet, monotone voice, as if he’d never stopped. “I have three little sisters. This one’s from Leah.” He touched the uppermost of the bracelets on his wrist. “This is from Ciara, and this one is Roislin’s.”
“Does Tess have any kids?”
“No. I think she’s gay. But she makes a great aunt.”
Sarina blinked at the sunlight, trying to conceal her surprise with the hand that held her hair. Considering how Tess always seemed to hang out around Ace when she wasn’t busy tinkering, Sarina would have expected her to have some kind of interest in him. Not that it mattered.
“She does look out for you,” Sarina agreed. “Anyone can see that.”
He nodded, eyes focusing on some distant mark. “Ace actually has a son. He was married in Germany. I think the boy lives with his ex.” He hesitated, but not long enough for Sarina to answer. “He made a secret phone call the other night when he thought I was sleeping. The kid’s really young, like half my age.”
“You probably shouldn’t tell me about him,” Sarina said with an attempt at a good-humored smile. “Unless you want to be skinned.”
Sunny shrugged. “He’s not going to kick me from the group, and you promised you’re not telling anyone. Anyway, that’s the reason Ace doesn’t mind working with Gentleman, the Conglomerate has a bunch of people watching the kid. If any villains knew about the boy, they’d use him as leverage against Ace. Maybe the heroes would get the same idea. Some of those guys are assholes.”
“Like Radiant?” Sarina smirked to herself, then stopped. In hindsight, the joke wasn’t nearly funny enough to justify it.
“Exactly like Radiant,” Sunny echoed, oblivious to the lame attempt at humor.
“Maybe we could take care of Ace’s boy,” Sarina said. “I wouldn’t mind playing someone’s big aunt.” She rested her chin against the knee she’d pulled against herself, closing her eyes. Sitting here like this, out in the warm sunlight, she could get used to the idea. There was something nice and comforting about it.
“And drive him around in our car?” Sunny said. Sarina opened her eyes in time to see him scrunch up his nose. “What if he poops his pants? My youngest sister wet her bed until she was seven. And I don’t think Ace’s very good at doing Mom stuff.”
“I wouldn’t mind doing it,” she said.
“Just wait. Gentleman’s guys are building some kind of shelter that’s going to keep us safe when everything gets worse. Ace’s going to take his kid there. Maybe you could bring your family.”
And how would I convince them to come along? Sarina wasn’t sure they’d want to see her anymore. Not before she could disprove the villain tag the news had placed on her.
“Are you going to bring your sisters?” She asked. “I’d like to meet them.”
“Maybe,” Sunny replied with a small voice.
They sat in silence for a minute while treetops rustled overhead and a crow croaked in the surrounding meadows, far away.
“What?” She glanced over to see him lower a hand from his face. There was a shimmer on his skin that reflected the sunlight as a glittery trail across his cheek.
“Can I hug you?” he asked without looking at her.
She didn’t need to mull it over. “Sure.”
He carefully slid closer on the well’s stone rim until he could throw both arms around her. His head with the crop of short messy hair came to rest against her shoulder, face buried beneath the spill of her hair. She could feel his breath on the skin of her neck as he sighed, his slender body relaxing in her arms.
It was nice. Naturally, it didn’t compare to hugging a parent or her adoptive brother, but the moment of warmth and connectedness came close enough.
Sarina broke the silence first. “Hey,” she asked. “What’s your real name? And who came up with Sunny for you? You don’t exactly have sun powers, you know.”
He relaxed the grip of his arms and raised his head from her shoulder to look at her. “My mother,” he murmured unhappily. “When I got powers and the Covenant asked what name I wanted, she just picked it for me. It’s a dumb kiddie name.”
Sarina couldn’t help but be amused. “Why didn’t you change it after you left home? And what’s your real name?”
“It’s Patrick. I wanted to, but Tess just kept calling me Sunny and it stuck.” He pulled a face, arms dropping away from Sarina. Judging by the distant look on his face, the conversation beyond the windows had rekindled his interest in distant ongoings.
I’ll call you Patrick, then. The deep furrow of concentration on his face kept her from prodding. Whatever it was that had drawn his interest, she thought it better not to interrupt.
“Hey Sara,” he said after a moment of joint silence. “I think they’re about to call us back in.”
They gathered in the library, enjoying the breeze of air that flowed through the windows and stirred the dust of months, maybe years of disuse. Dust covered nearly everything. The dozen antique wooden shelves that lined the walls, surrounding a low ebony table. The large, unlit stone fireplace at the far end of the rectangular room and the stern-faced man’s portrait that hung above it, staring down at them with a perpetual look of disapproval. It seemed to consider the arrivals with a healthy dose of British skepticism.
The five generously cushioned green armchairs that surrounded the table looked reasonably clean. The last time Sarina had snuck into the library to grab some books, the chairs had been covered by the white linen sheets that now lay on the thick Persian carpet in carelessly discarded heaps.
Gentleman chose his seat first, followed by Sarina, who picked the armchair across from him to keep maximum space between them. Patrick lowered himself onto the carpet, leaving the armchairs to the others. Ace claimed one and removed his brown Akubra hat to settle it across his lap. Tess sat next to him. Jasper claimed the last seat, closing the gap between Sarina and Gentleman.
Sarina was reminded of Snow when she heard the discordant clang of piano keys being played in random order. They drifted into the library for a half minute before Patrick stood and closed the door, shutting out the sound along with any awareness of the white-haired girl’s presence.
“Well, my estranged friends,” Gentleman began in a chipper tone. “It seems there are some disagreements. Let us discuss.”
Are you going to mention the ghost who’s supposedly looking for me? Sarina sank into her armchair, her attention fixed on the slender, well-groomed man who almost had Radiant’s face.
“What disagreements?” Patrick asked.
Ace cocked his head, shooting the boy a skeptical glance that said ‘don’t pretend you weren’t listening’.
“Ace wants a part in the shelter,” Tess said. “We made him boss, doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything he says. Liverpool was a fishy deal.”
“Ah, yes. I assumed you would wish to know what led to the unfortunate events in Liverpool.” Gentleman laced his fingers together beneath his chin. “Raven was contracted to kidnap Mr. Kovac. It appears that Sahabat – more commonly known as Buddy – wanted some leverage to demand One Fell Swoop’s release from Covenant custody. You may remember that Athena arrested him in New York.”
“Buddy hired the Crows?” Ace asked. “From Indonesia?”
“He no longer resides within his home territory, I fear. The Asian troublemakers are feeling bold of late, and are establishing a foothold in Russia, a stone’s throw from Europe. We may need to refer to them as the Huns before long. Rumors suggest they harbor a couple of Chinese runaways. Powerful ones.” Gentleman drew out the word, as if tasting it.
There’s Evolved running away from China? Sarina wasn’t terribly surprised. From what she remembered hearing in school, the Chinese government enforced some very strict internal security policies since the Pulse.
“Did they get him?” Patrick asked, eyes wide with curiosity. “One Fell Swoop?”
“I do know he was released from custody, but little else,” Gentleman replied.
“And you didn’t know anything about this at all? About Raven’s plan to piss on our parade?” Tess asked, her face pinched with wariness.
“Alas, no. They did not use conventional means to communicate with the Crows, as we later found. A flyer delivered hand-written messages.”
“Huh. Buddy had the cash, I suppose,” Ace said. “Nothin’ we can do about it now. But we’ve done our part. We’re not owin’ any more favors, mate. You want anythin’ else, we’re gonna think it through, long and hard.”
So we’re not doing any more jobs for him. Sarina relaxed in her seat, tentatively pleased with the course the conversation was taking.
“What’s this about a shelter?” Jasper asked. He sat with his arms folded in front of him, questions written all over his face.
“Ah. Leave this explanation to me, if you would.” Gentleman raised a finger. “As you may know, the Conglomerate provides some remarkably talented individuals with the funds required for them to make ideas a reality. Many are concerned about the future and wish to ensure their loved ones are safe. We will let you partake, yes, but the construction of the shelter is not yet complete. In the interim, I need to ask something else of you.”
Tess snorted. “We just had that favors shit. I’m not a fan, Ace.”
Not again. Why can’t we just go hunt villains instead?
“I’m not makin’ the decision this time, it’s up to our two greenhorns.” Ace nodded towards Sarina and Jasper.
“What?” Sarina perked up, her frown deepening. “What would I be doing? I’m probably the least useful member of this group.”
Seriously, why is this always about me?
Gentleman gave Ace a long look, fingers steepled beneath his smooth-shaven chin. “I do believe she deserves to know, and this is a good opportunity,” he said.
“I deserve to know what?” Sarina asked, feeling frustrated all over again. This whole situation was entirely too similar to the scene at Ace’s house two days before the studio hijack, where Patrick and Jasper had exchanged mysterious glances without letting her in on their secret.
Tess looked like she was about to speak up but decided otherwise, her mouth tightening. Ace raked fingers through his short fuzz of brown hair without speaking up, despite Patrick’s finger poking into his arm. And worst of all, Jasper. He met her gaze with eyes full of sympathy, as if she was a wounded puppy he’d found at the roadside.
“What?” she repeated, angrier than before.
“If I may?” Gentleman asked.
No one disapproved or volunteered in his stead.
“Well, my dear. It seems you are Shanti’s replacement, and I would like for you to fulfill your role in the world.”
The statement hung ominously in the air while Sarina’s eyes roved over the small circle of those present, waiting for someone to burst into laughter or at least smirk. No one did. Gentleman remained unreadable in his poised grace, seemingly content in watching her reaction.
Sarina hadn’t intended on giving him one. But eventually the awkward silence had dragged on to the point she couldn’t hold back anymore. “That’s ridiculous,” she said.
“I understand it may seem that way. But there is no doubt. You, my dear, are the Healer.”
“When have I healed anyone?” Sarina asked. “Is there some gap in my memory that I don’t know about?”
“I assure you, your memory is quite fine.” Gentleman flashed a smile that made something in her stomach flutter. It lit up his whole face and brought a roguish sparkle to his eyes. She pressed a hand to her abdomen to will the stupid feeling away.
“Then what makes you so sure?” she asked, pointedly looking away from his almost too-perfect face.
“Given the time of Shanti’s death and your transition, there is no one else who could fill this particular role,” Gentleman said. “Perhaps you wondered why your powers failed to match any of the established standards. Even your range is far beyond the norm for someone whose powers have not surged.”
“But I’m not a healer,” Sarina insisted.
“It is possible that Shanti’s power category was misunderstood and wrongly named. Or that you just have not discovered your healing potential yet. But you need to understand that you are one of a kind, and most likely were gifted with those powers for a reason. You should use them, dear. What did the little Princess say to you when you arrived in Paris? Louis told me she talked to you. You do know she is a powerful clairvoyant, yes?”
“I’d like to keep that to myself.” Sarina sank into her chair, feeling the color drain from her face. She couldn’t help but notice her team’s awkward attempts at not staring and put a hand over her eyes, blanking them out. The implications that flashed in the darkness were painful enough.
I never wanted Shanti to die. I didn’t want her powers.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked.
“Because yer the kind of girl who goes locking herself into a room for four days straight.” Tess’ voice. “Ye take everything to heart like it’s yer fault.”
“I always wanted to tell you, Sara,” Jasper said to her left. “It’s just that we didn’t know about it until after the scrapyard. Gentleman told Ace when we returned to Paris. And then the time just didn’t seem right because you were already worrying about your powers. And Tess is right, you take everything to heart. ”
Sarina lowered the hand from her face, still ignoring Gentleman’s presence on the armchair across from her. “And what do you want from me, exactly?”
“That is simple. I want you to pursue the goals you used to have. You were planning to become a heroine and change the world, is that correct?”
“I don’t think that’s possible,” Sarina said. “I’m not using my powers anymore.”
“Do not worry, my dear. I am aware of your reasons and respect them. I only ask that you visit locations of your choosing that have suffered from recent events. My men will assist and protect you, and who knows? You may find a way to use your powers you are comfortable with.”
How selfless of you.
“And why would you do this?” she asked. “Why do you care?”
Gentleman gave a clack of his tongue. “Because you are special, of course.” His lips parted in a smile that revealed pearly white teeth. “Would you prefer if I conjured up a wise wizard to deliver the request? I will have you know that I could. Someone to name you the Chosen one, offer you a magical sword and kindly ask you to save the world?”
“Hey!” Patrick exclaimed from his spot on the carpet. “That sounds awesome. You should do it. Look, she’s smiling!”
Sarina made an effort to control her face. As amusing as the idea of a wise old wizard was, she still didn’t want to give the impression she was buying into the idea. Not Gentleman’s idea. She wasn’t going to forget how it had been his request that sent her group onto that trip to Liverpool.
Which resulted in a villain tag and most likely international news coverage.
Gentleman raised a hand and wove his fingers through the air, as if performing some kind of magic spell. “Later. I believe our young musician friend has questions?”
“I do,” Jasper said. “What do you want from me, exactly?”
“What you do best, of course. To compose a few more of your works of wonder.”
“That’s the part I’m not chuffed about,” Tess said. “Dat boy’s not working for people he doesn’t know, and we’re not pushing him.”
“We talked about this some time ago,” Jasper said. “I agreed to work on tracks for this group because I travelled with them for some time and consider them friends. I actually need some kind of familiarity to work with. Without it, my tracks are just music.”
Gentleman expelled a breath. “Very well, I see how it is. But please, do let me know should you change your mind.” He swiveled to Sarina, watching her with keen interest. “What about you?”
“Am I supposed to have an answer already? Two minutes after this revelation that Shanti died for my powers, which I already decided I’m not going to use anymore?”
The circle of sympathetic faces around her made her wish she’d kept the words to herself.
“How inconsiderate of me,” Gentleman replied. “Take all the time you need to consider, dear. Mayhaps we could address the other points in the interim?”
“Right,” Ace said. He picked the hat up from his lap and pushed it down over the short brown locks of his hair. “Some things you should all know even if you’ve been keepin’ up with the news. Shit’s gettin’ crazy out there, so we gotta keep stickin’ together.”
Everyone’s eyes turned to Gentleman, who took the shift of attention as his cue. “Ah, yes. While crudely worded, our Australian friend’s comment does raise a point. Our society is collapsing. Thousands are preparing themselves for the end of the world, abandoning their workplaces and schools. Many more migrate away from the cities in anticipation of villain attacks. It only took them a few days to realize the Covenant is no longer in control of world peace.”
Sarina felt a touch of fingers pressing her hand as she finished the thought. Looking down, she saw Patrick lean his head against her armchair, fingers entwining with her own.
“What about the other heroes?” Jasper asked. “There’s teams all over the world. It’s hard to believe they wouldn’t be able to make a difference.”
“Most of them have years of experience with public relations, but very little in regards to powered combat,” Gentleman said. “They suffer from restricted mobility. There are vigilantes who declare themselves heroes, inspired by stories with happy endings. But most only succeed in getting themselves killed. We should expect to see a rise in power surges before long.”
“The Euros have a teleporter, right?” Patrick asked. “That’s so cool. Hey Ace. Let’s join those guys?”
“We do that, we gonna kick the bucket. We’re terrorists, mate.”
“We’re just misunderstood,” Patrick said. “Wasn’t even our idea to go break into that television studio.” He let go of Sarina’s hand and gripped the armrest instead, staring at Gentleman across the round table that stood at the center of their circle. “That was his idea.”
Gentleman raised his hands defensively. “An unfortunate turn of events, yes. I will do what I can to compensate you for the trouble. However, it may be best if you remain undercover as you have been. Some emerging, ah… interest groups hunt the most advantageous powers, recruiting or disposing of them in hopes of better chances with their replacement. The young Swiss lady and the musician would be among the primary targets if they were easily discovered.”
Sarina wasn’t startled or surprised enough to react to the statement. The Shanti revelation had left her in a state of dazed numbness, and she was barely listening.
“Not surprising, I guess.” Jasper gave a shrug that matched the dry tone of his voice, but there was something else hidden underneath. “That Euro teleporter is going to be a target. Who else?”
“Powerful Visionaries,” Gentleman said. “The Oracle. The former Wardens child. While not a Visionary, it is believed she may access the memories of those she has imprinted. The two remaining Guardians, though only one of them would be easily located.”
“What about the little girl we met in Paris?” Tess asked, eyes dark with concern.
“The little Princess is safe,” Gentleman said. “Our dear friend Louis, the Sun King, has entrusted her to our shelter for the time being.”
Children. The thought pained Sarina almost as much as the concern for her family. What’s happening to the world? Another thought struck her as she watched Gentleman spread his fingers in a lecturing professor’s gesture of reassurance – placating and just a little too sure of himself.
“Is that what you’re doing, Gentleman?” Sarina surprised herself by asking the question aloud. “Collecting the most advantageous powers?”
Something flashed darkly in his eyes, as if he’d learned something valuable about her. “An excellent question, my dear. Fortunately, I am not so desperate. My circle of followers has grown over the years, starting long before those new groups that so desperately seek to leave their mark on the world. We unite some of the best talent. In truth, all we lack is a Guardian.”
“And now you need me to go and change things no one else can change?”
“Naturally, yes. But this is not about me, or even my group. No one can match your potential to undo the damage that has been done by others. That is what makes your role unique.”
“And you think my classification could be wrong?” she continued, following along the train of thought that had been set in motion.
“That is quite likely.” Gentleman laced his fingers together in contemplation. “We have identified a number of mistakes and misconceptions. The Arab League’s Mukhtar have compiled a list of classifications that includes Communicators, with Prophet as the first among them. The Covenant noted him as a Wildcard, one of the many they could not assign to a category. It is my belief that you are more than a Healer. Perhaps a restricting or controlling factor to balance the others.”
I’m so in over my head. And my alter ego doesn’t fit into your picture. Sarina didn’t want to go there, especially not with Gentleman included in the discussion. “Can we just discuss the facts right now? Break this down to what we actually know?” she asked.
Ace got the hint and spoke up. “Right. We gotta talk about Power Zero. Gentleman told us some of the stuff’s gone missin’ and turned up in the hands of some villains. Now the heroes are gonna use it too.”
“Wait. That’s the power suppressing drug, right? It actually exists?” Jasper asked.
Tess snorted. “Probably wasn’t tested proper. Now they’re getting desperate and go dig it up.”
“Mayhaps you remember the disappearances of a number of people after the villain attack on New York,” Gentleman said. “As it happens, most of them were involved in the research concerning this particular substance. One was believed to know the whereabouts of Sanctuary and the Oracle.” He let the statement hang in the air, patently watching the circle of faces.
“Oh shit!” Patrick exclaimed. “That sucks. I thought at least the Oracle couldn’t be kidnapped because the UN moved her someplace secret.”
“I do not know if the Oracle is in danger, my young friend. I do know that the Covenant and the European heroes plan to track the lot of you, and that they intend to make use of Power Zero. As far as I am aware, the substance can be applied to long distance projectiles.”
The news didn’t have as much of an impact on Sarina as the idea of children targeted for their powers had. The idea of shutting her powers down came as a relief rather than a threat.
“They can’t track us. You know I’m more awesome than them,” Patrick declared with his distinctive teenage boy’s bravado.
Gentleman tilted his head as he addressed the boy. “They learned of your weakness to cameras. A survey copter called in to Liverpool took a number of pictures shortly after your departure from the building. They showed cloaked figures the pilot had not noticed.”
“And ye know all this how?” Tess asked, eyes narrowing at the masked man. “Ye got an answer to everything, like a priest in church.”
“Oh no, not quite everything,” Gentleman replied. “But I do have more than two ears.” He smiled. “Do not worry. I and mine will keep you off their trail.”
“Before we all advance to the planning, there is something else we should clear up,” Jasper said. He sat up with quiet resolve, eyes flicking over the group to rest on Sarina.
She gave him a frown that would hopefully convince him to just drop it, whatever it was. She was fed up with all the drama regarding her role. She had already made a decision regarding her powers, and no amount of speculation was going to change her mind.
“Don’t,” Ace said in a low, warning tone. “This isn’t the time.”
Jasper ignored him. “You should hear everything. There isn’t ever going to be a good time, but we can’t keep on going as a team like this. Keeping this from you.”
“Uh oh.” Patrick gritted his teeth in dismay.
“What? I thought we were done with this,” Sarina snapped.
Jasper gave her a wounded look. “You can hate me if you want, but you need to know the heroes are most likely tracking you because someone spread a rumor that you’re the Antithesis. But listen. Don’t panic. I know that’s not who you are. I got this special people sense, I remember? If you want, we can-”
Sarina’s mind stopped following at that point. She still heard the words, sure, but they drifted towards her and then hung in the air, ominous and terrifying. Then something snapped inside of her, and the implications flooded into her mind, filling spaces she hadn’t been aware of. And it all made sense.
Several people spoke up at once as she got up from her seat. Sarina was too focused on getting out of the room to listen. She walked across the carpet as in a dream and gripped the door handle, pulling it open. Someone, she wasn’t sure who, called after her.
The sick feeling in her gut intensified once she was halfway through the hall. She quickened her pace to a fast jog, hoping to make it outside before her stomach turned upside down. The main entrance door demanded more effort than the library door had, but the warm breeze of summer air let her know that she’d made it.
She was outside, alone, with no one watching.
Sarina dropped to her knees, releasing the ragged long sob that had threatened to choke her since she got up from her seat. The following one was longer, louder and filled her eyes with a blur.
Chosen one. Considered from up close, the idea sounded like a twisted fairytale parody. Even if she were some kind of fabled heroine, she didn’t know the first thing about saving the world. No one had handed her a magical artifact or pointed her in the direction of the bad guy. The villains could be killed, but their powers bounced back, possibly with even more destructive potential.
And maybe I’m the worst of them all.
There was a moment where she considered just walking away to turn herself in at the next police station she could find. Let the heroes take care of it before she accidentally ended the world.
But she thought of the children who were in danger of being kidnapped or worse because someone wanted their powers. The heroes who wouldn’t be able to protect them, who didn’t know how to be heroes any more than she did. The thought led to an idea, and the idea developed into a plan.
When Sarina made her way back into the library, she didn’t need to wait for a chance to speak up. She had everyone’s attention the instant she stepped through the door, red-faced and weakened, but steadier than she had been.
“I’ll do it,” she said. “Take me someplace I can do something about the villains. But I have some conditions.”
“That is good to hear,” Gentleman replied, joining the tips of his fingers together in anticipation. “What do you desire?”
“I want to see for myself if the Princess is okay. And I want that other little girl somewhere safe before anyone gets to her. The American one, who used to be a Warden. Her name’s Kid, right?”
“That can be arranged,” Gentleman replied with a tone that was just a little too chipper for her liking.
“I want her on my team,” she added.