An unknown location – Saturday, the 16th of June 2012. 12:51 PM on Sarina’s music player.
“You could see the little Princess first, if you are so inclined,” Gentleman said, fingers clasped about the head of the black cane he was leaning on.
He had changed his appearance before meeting her in the windowless, metallic cube of a room Sarina now found herself in, now wearing his Victorian half-mask with a frilly white shirt. She might have asked about the sudden change in attire if she didn’t have more pressing things on her mind.
“No. This mission is more urgent,” she replied. “People could be dying while we talk. You’ll be able to swap us back when we’re ready to see the Princess and the rest of the shelter, right?”
Sarina flicked a glance over the windowless, featureless room with metallic walls she’d been swapped to after stating her terms. She didn’t know who had taken her place at the British mansion, probably another member of Gentleman’s crew, but her gut told her that the mansion and her friends were far away. Really far.
The air in the brightly lit cubicle room had a stale scent to it, and the unadorned metallic walls vibrated with a faint hum, just barely noticeable during the brief breaks in conversation.
We could be really high in the air. Or at the bottom of the ocean. Or on the moon.
“That girl’s got some guts, I’ll give her that,” the only other woman in the room said. She had been introduced as Magpie, and Sarina could see why – numerous piercings lined the woman’s ears and eyebrows, and the bright light of the neon lamps above gave them a silvery gleam that reminded Sarina of pirate treasure. She wore a punk outfit with holey purple leggings and a loose black shirt, and her long black hair had been styled with a sidecut, shaved on one side of her head while left to spill freely on the other.
“What about my guts?” Rampage said. He slapped a hand over his rippling washboard stomach, flashing a wolfish grin. “We’re going in with her.”
“Our powers are working,” Magpie said. “The chica got some willy-nilly deal that’s triggered by music. Ain’t that right, boss?”
Gentleman corrected her with gentle reproach, adjusting the grip on his cane. “That would be an oversimplification. And perhaps untrue. We shall see.”
And this time, I’m not going to let my powers change who I am.
The woman settled her gaze on Sarina with open curiosity. “What’s your team say about this? You going in to Hellhole Central with a bunch of strangers?”
“I can make decisions for myself,” Sarina replied, not eager to mention the fact her friends thought it was a terrible idea.
She hadn’t stayed at the mansion long enough to discuss. The others seemed to think she was a child in need of protection and special care, and she was frankly getting sick of it all. Besides, every additional minute of skirting around the unspeakable A-word would have grated on her sanity.
The others also shared the opinion that kidnapping a little girl for any reason was a terrible idea. They just didn’t understand, didn’t see how leaving the kid to be kidnapped by villains was far worse. Villains would abuse her powers; Sarina was going to keep her safe.
Gentleman had agreed under the condition that Sarina would convince Kid to join the Nameless of her own free will. But that was a problem for later. Right now, the focus was on helping the people trapped in a villain-controlled city.
“Okay, so… Drifter swaps us to Thailand,” Sarina said. “How are we going to get back? If we’re headed to Hellhole Central, it might be too dangerous for a travel squad to replace us.”
“Pak Kret, to be more specific,” Gentleman replied. “Worry not about your evacuation, dear. Data will take care of it if necessary, and also ensure no harm befalls your replacement.”
“And what’s the situation exactly?”
“An angry local has claimed ownership of the town after experiencing a power surge few hours ago. His name is Hellion, I believe? Before the surge, he was a rather quiet rogue. Magpie, you have been following the news, yes?”
“You got that right, boss. Been glued to the screen.” Magpie grinned. “They call him Hellion because his powers turned the city into the war zone, everyone’s fighting for no goddamn reason. Half of it has probably burned down by now. Don’t know more than that, no one’s reporting from the area anymore.” She paused to flick a glance to Sarina. “You wanna go fix shit, Thailand’s a good place to start.”
“Sounds like fun,” Rampage said, rubbing the back of his neck in anticipation. There was a predatory air about him that belied his tanned beach boy appearance. “Take your time looking around before you change it all back, girlie.”
We’re going to help people, not fight them. Sarina kept her dissatisfaction to herself. These guys had been assigned as her backup, and she wasn’t going to start an argument before heading into a war zone.
“Are we going to get cameras so Drifter can move us around?” she asked instead.
“Ah, yes. Forgive my forgetfulness, I always seem to disregard the technical details. They are Data’s domain, you see. Not very interesting.” Gentleman raised the tip of his cane, pointing it at a large bronze colored disc that leaned against the wall to Sarina’s left.
“That’s the camera?” Sarina blurted out. The thing had a diameter of about three meters, and its polished surface was smooth and unadorned, without any gouges or lenses. It was about as similar to a camera as a dish to a television.
“Yes,” Gentleman said, sounding amused. “However, it is more than a tool of observation. Call it your flying carpet, if you will. You are looking at Data’s contribution to your mission.”
Sarina just kept staring at the bronze disc, too surprised to respond.
Off to the side, Magpie chuckled. “Aw, she’s cute. We should keep her for the Conglomerate.”
“I realize my explanation was not much help,” Gentleman said. “The device is similar to a drone, somewhat more advanced than Athena’s playthings. It has some limited ability to fly and will take you and our larcenous friend to your destination within the city, wherever that may be.”
Larcenous? Sarina didn’t recognize the word. Her English was pretty good, but not that good.
“He means Magpie,” Rampage said. “She was a cat burglar with no talent whatsoever. Luckily for her, she got powers.”
I don’t care what she used to be.
“How is Rampage going to keep up with us, then?” Sarina asked.
“I don’t need no flying carpet,” Rampage said. “I run and climb faster than that thing floats. Wait and see.”
“Data will observe and support your mission for as long as the device stays within range of you,” Gentleman explained. “The visual feedback from the drone is relayed to Data and Drifter both, allowing for a swift evacuation if needed. Be aware that we have no means of protection against Hellion’s powers. If you begin acting, ah… strange, you will be evacuated immediately. I do recommend you keep your distance from Hellion.”
“The disc is our only way home?” Sarina asked. No matter how long she stared at the drone, she couldn’t find it in her to trust the thing. Data was the rumored Ghost in the Machine, the villain responsible for the global internet shutdown in February.
If she’d had any other means of reaching the city before it burned down, she would have taken that other option. Not going wasn’t an option, not after what she’d learned half an hour ago.
Shanti had died for her powers, and this was her responsibility.
“Your two companions will also be carrying small devices that include cameras,” Gentleman said. “Worry not, my dear. Should you wish to return at any time, just let them know.”
“Okay,” Sarina lied. “I’m ready to go.”
“Wonderful. Magpie, Rampage? I trust you will explain everything else as needed?”
“Sure,” Rampage said. “I’ll explain a pretty girl how the world works all day long.”
“You know what to do if you encounter any trouble,” Gentleman said. “Good luck.”
The last words were directed at Sarina. She realized he was looking at her nodded, her attention already on the large bronze disc. Now that she was looking at it from up close, it still looked like an oversized, featureless bronze dish.
Or a miniature UFO.
Looking up, Sarina saw that Magpie had moved closer and was now standing behind her. The young woman tilted her head to the side, tapping a cheek with her ring-adorned finger.
“There’s some rumors going around,” she said. “About Data. And a second power surge. Not sure the guy’s human anymore, and I’ve never seen him to verify. Looking at this thing, I almost believe he isn’t.”
“People can have two power surges?” Sarina asked.
“It’s just a rumor. Forget it.” Magpie cut herself off with a quick, tight smile. “So. Why are you doing this? I’m curious.”
Isn’t it obvious?
“Because apparently no one else is doing anything about this?” Sarina said.
The woman’s lips twitched. “I know you’re some kind of big shot destined to save the world or something. That’s not why I asked. Why’d you leave your guys behind for us? No offense babe, you look like a scared rabbit. I bet you don’t even know where you are.”
The rabbit reference stirred something in Sarina, and the words came out before she’d even decided on an answer. “I don’t need to know because I’m not joining up. Gentleman said only three people can be swapped in, and I’m not going to get my friends hurt for no reason. Besides, it’s none of your fucking business.”
Magpie’s grin disappeared, and her eyes went wide. After a few awkward seconds of stunned silence, Rampage chuckled, and Sarina was surprised to find she wasn’t sorry about the language at all. If anything, she felt better about herself than she had a moment ago.
“Might wanna take that back before she chomps your head off, Mag,” Rampage said.
“Mmmh.” Magpie’s dark eyes narrowed in consideration. “Fine. We shouldn’t waste more time anyway. Let’s give her the rundown on powers.”
Rampage made the start. “Okay. In case you haven’t heard, I can boost myself with animal abilities. Any animal I think of, long as it doesn’t require bodyparts I don’t have. If it’s a big grizzly bear, I take a car apart in seconds. Spider lets me run up walls. Can keep a few active at once, and when I move I’m near invulnerable.” He flashed a roguish grin. “Works in all sorts of situations. I’m a bag of fun, babe.”
Sarina got the pun and decided to ignore it. “What about you?” She asked Magpie.
“Darkshaper. Long range, darkness turns solid if I want it to. And I got a rifle with Power Zero charges. That’s all you have to know.”
That stuff exists? Sarina managed to hide her surprise. Better than killing someone and risking a power surge, she decided.
“Okay,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with my powers, but we’ll find out.”
“Do you actually have to dance to activate them?” Rampage asked. He caught Sarina’s glare and quickly added, “That’s another rumor. Lots of those to go around.”
He looked disappointed. “Shit. Ah, well. You guys ready?”
“Let’s not forget the earbuds,” Magpie said. “It’s how Data communicates with us, and how we stay in touch in case we get separated.” She reached into her belt pouch and produced a handful of small white devices, then passed one to Sarina. It was round and about the size of a fingernail, with an ear-shaped clasp to keep it firmly attached.
“Right. Let’s go, girls,” Rampage said, taut with anticipation.
Magpie brought a hand up to her face and pointed her wristwatch at the bronze disc. Sarina realized it wasn’t actually a wristwatch when the saucer-shaped drone flicked out of existence, replaced by a heavy, black and red motorbike that dropped onto the metal plated floor with a loud clang.
“Before we go, let’s make one thing clear.” Magpie turned to face Sarina with a no-nonsense glare. “The boss said you can do whatever you want, but if we fuck up and something happens to you, it’s on our heads. So don’t go running off to do some crazy shit without our consent, that clear?”
“Just make sure you’re not the one who screws up,” Sarina said.
Sarina was last to be moved out of the cubicle room, and it only took her a couple of seconds to realize why. Her new location was hot and noisy, and the smoke-filled air had a foul smell that it that nearly made her gag. Near and far, people were shouting and screaming. The perpetual clang of weapons came from every direction.
Sarina had been transported to the top of a low hill overlooking a river. The grassy field she stood on was littered with shards of broken glass, and several dozen people were locked into a desperate battle a few meters ahead and below.
She held her breath, scanning the writhing mass of bodies for the cause of the conflict. Some kind of monster, maybe. But the longer she looked, the clearer the scene became. These people – Thais of varying age and status, judging by their clothing – were fighting one another for no apparent reason. They swung broken bottles, parasols, even kitchen tools at whoever happened to be within reach, their faces twisted by blind fury. The ones who were too wounded to stand still tried to swing and stab at anyone nearby. The ones who’d lost their weapons used their teeth and fingernails.
With her attention focused on the violence, Sarina didn’t realize the others were standing to her left until Magpie called out to her.
“Dancer! We got this!”
Sarina turned around to see thin tendrils of darkness seep from Magpie’s hands and body. They drifted through the air towards the furious mob below, extending with the speed of flowing water. The wisps of darkness grew longer and longer and split up, webbing around each of the writhing bodies until everyone had been caught in Magpie’s shadowy grasp.
Then the darkness reached a level of solidity comparable to flexible lengths of rope, keeping the combatants transfixed within a web that was still connected to Magpie’s body. The screams of rage grew louder, but Sarina was relieved to realize that the mob didn’t have enough wiggle room to keep fighting. Their makeshift weapons had been engulfed by solid darkness, and their limbs and bodies were bound in a similar fashion.
Rampage sat in the grass beside Magpie, watching her with idle fascination. The bronze disc hovered in the air a few meters above them.
“You’re not going to kill those people, are you?” Sarina asked, blurting out the first thing on her mind.
“Don’t worry, babe. I just stopped them from hurting themselves. The effect lasts a few hours.”
“Okay. That gives us some time.” Sarina turned to overlook the river and the city that loomed beyond it. The hot wind that blew from that direction assaulted her face with a stench of smoke, chemicals and death. Her heart sank in her chest as she took in the details.
The city hadn’t burned down, but many of the small riverside houses west of the nearby bridge were on fire. Some had collapsed into the water, their wooden support pillars too damaged to keep supporting the weight. Thick clouds of smoke drifted up from the adjoining piers, dark against the blood-red sunset. Some small boats drifted down the muddy brown river.
They were the only proof of anyone still being alive in Pak Kret.
No, Sarina corrected herself. There were sounds as well, drifting on the wind from the more densely populated districts across the bridge. Screams. Car horns. Gun shots.
“From the looks of it, the locals are treating this like an air raid,” Magpie commented. “Can’t say I blame them. Probably safer than trying to leave the city.”
“If this villain claims the city, it seems safer to leave,” Sarina said. An angry shout came from somewhere far ahead, diffused by the scorching wind.
“Anyone who’s still on the streets now is probably up to no good,” Magpie said. “Hellion turned them into a pack of hunting dogs, worse than the hooligans after a Manchester United match. He just walked around and anyone nearby went nuts.”
“I want to try and help these people,” Sarina said, forcing herself to look back down at the transfixed mob. “God. There’s blood everywhere.”
Data’s voice came over the earbud – calm, male, and very human. “Yes. See if you can heal their wounds. I’m scanning for powers in the interim.”
“Just don’t mess with my effect,” Magpie said. The strands of darkness fell away from her, and she stepped back, disconnected from the shadowy web she’d created.
Sarina could feel the others watching her. The nausea churned in her stomach again, intensified by the smoke-filled hot air that hung over the city.
Dear God, if you exist and I’m supposed to fill Shanti’s role, please let me help these people.
Sarina slowly dropped to her knees and let her eyes wander over the grass that was slick with blood, over the mangled bodies that lay scattered nearby. Remembering Jasper’s advice from a few days ago, she settled her thoughts on positive emotions: all the love and kindness she’d experienced in the past years. It was an attempt to clear her mind from anything negative before she reached for her powers again.
Then she infused herself with a single thought, investing all her willpower in it. Be healthy.
Nothing happened. Sarina was sure she would have recognized even the faintest pulse of her power; nothing remotely compared to the intoxicating feel of it.
“Need music to do it?” Magpie asked. “I can sing if it helps.”
Sarina hid her disappointment behind a blank expression. “No. If I use music, I get powers, but they’re all wrong.”
“Huh. You get different powers?” Magpie didn’t even try to keep the skepticism out of her voice. “Okay. Whatever, babe. What’s next?”
“Maybe she needs a warm-up,” Rampage suggested. “Let’s get closer to the action and try again.”
Or maybe I can’t heal after all. Maybe I can only restore the city. The thought was still bitter, but more acceptable than the idea of being completely useless without her other half’s influence. She wanted to do this on her own, and she wanted to do it right.
Sarina narrowed her eyes against the intense glow of the sunset. “Let’s go towards the city center. We can’t see much from here.”
“Scouting!” Rampage said, scrambling to his feet. Moments later, he was running downhill on all fours, making his way to the bridge with the speed and agility of a leaping tiger. Sarina could have sworn he’d gained about fifty kilos since the last time she’d paid attention to him. The bright red bodysuit stretched taut over the bulk of his upper body, and his limbs looked nearly twice as thick as they had moments ago.
“He’s making sure the way’s clear for us,” Magpie said as she unslung the rifle from her back. “Data’s going to warn us about powers, but you better believe we can get shot.”
The bronze disc floated downward until it hovered right beside Sarina. “Get onto the drone, both of you,” Data said over the earbud. “It will be safer.”
Sarina hesitated for a second before she stepped onto the drone and sat at its center. The smooth metal surface offered ample space to herself and Magpie, who sat beside her a moment later. Then the drone slowly floated upward, and Sarina grasped its hard metal rim to brace herself against the nausea that stirred inside of her.
Once they were a dozen meters above ground, the drone began to drift towards the city center with its fires, screams and gunshots. Rampage had already reached the end of the bridge and was waiting there, perched atop a stone arc with colorful paper lampions dangling from it. A shirtless madman stood below, screaming something incomprehensible at him.
“What are you going to do if we find Hellion?” Magpie asked, disturbingly unaffected by the sickening atmosphere. She readied her rifle with a few practiced moves, then aimed at a cone-shaped temple that gleamed like gold in the dying light.
I’ve no idea.
Sarina averted her eyes from the burning pier to scan the tall buildings that loomed a few hundred meters ahead, far beyond the end of the bridge. A straight, broad road led towards them, littered with bodies and colorful lengths of cloth that spilled from a destroyed tailor’s store.
“Is Hellion’s power active in a radius around him?” she asked.
“Fuck if I know. If you believe the news, he just walked through the streets and people went nuts wherever he went. The guy’s one angry motherfucker. I heard he lost his job after he got powers, and his family disowned him or something. Must have snapped completely after his power surge.”
“Why would someone claim a city just to watch people kill each other?” Sarina asked. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Magpie turned her head to give Sarina a long, appraising look. Her eyebrows went up to the short black bangs that hung over her forehead. “Look at you, babe. All bright eyed and bushy tailed. I’m not sure if I should be jealous or just feel sorry for you.”
“Just answer the question,” Sarina shot back.
“Okay. Well. People are selfish jerks,” Magpie said. “Giving them powers doesn’t make them heroes, just powered jerks. Hellion’s a guy with a lot of grudges. And men have this ingrained instinct to thump their chests and mark their territory or some bullshit. The ones who died the past few days? Mostly men. They think they have to fight because some idiot in spandex did it in some comic.”
“I don’t believe any comic is responsible for this,” Sarina said.
Magpie shrugged. “Maybe not. But watch your back. It’s going to be us against ordinary people before long.”
You’re wrong. Powers are a responsibility to everyone else.
The floating disc drifted towards the end of the bridge, and Magpie flicked Rampage a thumbs up. He jumped back down to the road, then started running towards the city center. He dodged wrecked cars, debris and rioting groups of people with casual ease, leaping and dashing out of reach before anyone got ahold of him.
“He’s near invincible as long as he keeps moving,” Magpie said. “Just can’t let himself get tied down.”
The disc floated over a small mob that ignored it completely, focusing their collective attention on the systematic destruction of small roadside stores instead. Some of them had caught on fire and sent thick pillars of smoke into the darkening sky. Despite the drone’s evasive maneuvers, the heat was intense enough to send sweat trickling down Sarina’s spine.
“Hellion’s power has two different effects,” Data said over the earbud. “Some groups are intent on destroying the city. Not one another.”
“We’re leaving these be. They’ll be fine,” Magpie said. “Probably.”
It would already help if I could extinguish the fires.
Inspired by a story she’d read about some powerful mage, Sarina closed her eyes and let her imagination roam, conjuring up a mental image of what the city might have been like before all this. Busy roads that bustled with life. Crowded temples, shops and restaurants. Happy, peaceful people.
Peaceful city. No fires.
Nothing happened. The frustration that grew inside of her made her eyes sting. It’s the smoke, she told herself. I’m not crying. Just the smoke.
“You got an idea how to deal with Hellion without your powers?” Magpie asked. “I don’t want to be near Rampage if he goes as crazy as the townspeople. And you see how freaking fast he is, he could surprise us before Drifter gets signal to pull him out. So if I don’t get a shot, it’s all up to you.”
Sarina glanced at the rifle. How did Gentleman get Power Zero? She didn’t ask. She figured that for as long as she had to work together with these guys, she probably didn’t want to know.
“I heard your range is insane,” Magpie said. “Just try harder. Ask Data to play some music if it helps?”
Data didn’t respond to the suggestion; the earbud remained silent.
“No music,” Sarina said, rubbing her eyes with the back of a hand. “We need to get closer to the villain. Maybe I can do something if I actually see him.”
“That’s exactly what I advised you against,” Data said over the earbud. The disc didn’t stop, though. It continued floating its way down the length of road while the buildings that flanked it grew taller, and the roar of voices from up ahead developed into a terrifying crescendo of shouts and screams.
Thousands of them.
Then the wind briefly picked up to the strength of a hurricane, filled with a faint, high-pitched whir that rattled the windows all around. A bright white flash lit up the sky for a fraction of a second, and after it faded, a faint afterglow still clung to the silhouettes of the tall buildings ahead.
The roar of voices stopped. The following silence was almost eerie in its suddenness.
Data’s voice came over the earbud before Sarina could ask. “The power signature I just detected matches Warbreaker, a rogue Lightshaper from India. Recently power surged, it seems.”
Magpie rolled her eyes. “King Kong versus Godzilla. And so the chest thumping begins.”