San Francisco, USA – Saturday, the 16th of June 2012. 06:11 AM.
Chris didn’t recall the details of the dream she just had, but once she’d roused herself into a state of semi-consciousness, she could tell something was different. She cracked her eyes open to see that her room was unchanged, still shrouded in darkness. But something about the light that seeped through her curtains bothered her. It took her a moment to realize why. The light flickered nervously, alternating colors in short intervals.
Being the daughter of a cop, Chris recognized the pattern easily enough, even without a blaring siren to accompany it. The flashing colors on her bedroom wall filled her with an ominous sense of unease, and she lifted her head from the pillow to check the digits on the radio clock that sat on her small bedside table.
6:12 AM. It was a perfectly normal time to wake up. Nothing about the glowing digits hinted at impending disaster.
Chris decided that she was overreacting and sat up, rubbing her eyes. She normally woke early, but another fifteen minutes of pretending not to be awake would have been nice. Still, the cop lights piqued her curiosity enough that she swung her legs to the side, grabbed her crutch from the head end of her bed and hobbled across the dark room to the window.
Today would be her last day with the crutch. She was looking forward to being rid of it. Unfortunately, according to Uberdoc, the Technician who’d developed her medication, the broken arm would take another few days to heal fully.
Running and Parkour were her primary means of stress release. Her new status as a cripple had dramatically increased her cigarette consumption.
Chris pulled the curtains aside to look out the window. Her room was located on the fourth story of the Wardens HQ, so she could only see a small section of the road below. That limited view was enough for her unease to grow. The road teemed with police cars. When she tilted her head far enough, she could even see the front half of a heavily armored army vehicle.
A whole police armada had congregated right outside the Wardens headquarters.
In these numbers, they’re here for a reason.
A chill spread through Chris’s body and clutched her heart. She turned away from the window abruptly, hobbled back to the bedside table with five determined hops, and grabbed her phone from the bed table to check it for missed messages. There were none.
The lack of a reaction from her danger sense should have put her at ease, but it didn’t.
Chris kept the phone and made her way around the bed to the door. She pulled it open with her good arm, then reclaimed her crutch and heaved herself across the threshold. The long corridor that connected her room to the community living space and her teammates’ rooms stretched into the darkness, as silent as the rest of the building.
Chris considered knocking on Nora’s door to ask if she’d noticed anything unusual. But she wasn’t sure she had a valid reason for waking her teammate up, and it was definitely too early to check on Emily. With the elementary schools still closed down because of security concerns over the villain attack on New York, Emily was most likely still asleep.
Instead, Chris leaned against the wall for support and pulled up Mr. Turner’s number from her short list of contacts. She wasn’t sure he’d be awake at a quarter past six, but in his case, she didn’t care nearly as much. After confirming her selection, she was immediately greeted by a busy signal.
Chris didn’t wait for a click in the line. She hobbled back into her room, tossed the phone onto her bed, and grabbed the hoodie from the back of her desk chair. She’d had enough practice playing dress-up with her handicapped arm that it only took her a couple of minutes to pull on. Once her lucky hoodie fit snugly over her sleeping shirt and the plastered arm, she felt more awake and at ease. She’d already gone to bed in a clean pair of soft jogging pants, so the sneakers she had tucked away beneath her bed completed the short list of things she needed to get ready.
Once she was dressed, Chris picked her phone back up and tucked it away in a hoodie pocket. Then, she hobbled down the length of corridor to the apartment’s entry door. The elevator was just beyond.
If she had to talk to a policeman to figure out what was going on, she would.
Upon reaching the elevator, Chris heard voices drifting up the stairway. The concern in them was unmistakable and inspired her to lower her hand from the call station to listen instead. If she wasn’t supposed to hear whatever it was that was being discussed, she’d consider it a bonus. The boss-men didn’t seem to take their teenage heroes very seriously, and Chris knew from speaking to Athena that the Department of Evolved Affairs was keeping secrets from them.
One of the voices belonged to Mr. Turner. She didn’t recognize any of the others.
“…protocol dictates that we keep headquarters under lockdown,” an unfamiliar male voice said. “If the goal is to minimize the risk, it’s our best option.”
“Our young heroes won’t take it well,” Mr. Turner’s voice replied. “The Guardian, in particular, has a tendency to feel restless. She’s the one who concerns me the most.”
Minimize what risk? Are the villains up to something?
Chris chewed on her bottom lip while the footsteps drew closer, hoping that her public appeal on E-Life – the talk show with Steven Reid – hadn’t drawn more attention than anticipated. She’d meant to provoke Gentleman into contacting her, but two days had passed without a reaction from him or his gang. The rest of the world had gone nuts, though, making her wish she wasn’t confined to the USA with a broken arm and sprained ankle.
Here in San Francisco, Preacher’s sect – the Guides of Destiny – had begun handing out flyers and holding End of the World speeches. They were trying to recruit the rogue Evolved who had a strong desire to retain their freedom despite increasing governmental pressure.
Chris considered heading back inside to wake the others, but she wanted answers, and she wanted them now. She waited at the elevator until Mr. Turner emerged from the stairway, accompanied by the HQ’s Chief of Security, a uniformed guard and a cop.
“Good morning, Mr. Turner,” Chris said as her boss stepped into her view. He didn’t look nearly as spruced up as usual. Instead of his usual suit, Mr. Turner wore a dress shirt and a pair of black pants that hadn’t seen an iron in recent history.
The small procession coming from the stairway pulled to a sudden stop, and a look of surprise rippled across Mr. Turner’s face. He stared at Chris for a second, then managed a smile that looked as fake as his snakeskin shoes.
“Oh, Christina! I didn’t expect you to be up so early. Are the others awake as well?” he glanced over her shoulder to the apartment door at her back. He received some questioning looks from his entourage, but no one else spoke up.
“No. I woke up to all those police lights and wondered what’s going on,” Chris said.
“There has been an incident,” Mr. Turner said. “Perhaps we should head inside so we can pass the information to everyone at once.”
“What kind of incident?” Chris asked, not moving. In her experience, delayed answers tended to be the worst, and this whole situation made her more than just a little antsy.
I’m the one who concerns you the most, you said.
Mr. Turner gave her an exasperated look. “The Department of Defense has some concerns regarding your security. Our security actually since this concerns everyone in headquarters. Would you please open the door and wake your teammates?”
You could be Gentleman and his goons.
Chris hesitated, taking a moment to appraise the body language and facial expressions of the quartet ahead of her. Mr. Turner wore the same painted on smile she remembered from past encounters. The policeman glanced around nervously, as if he was waiting for the sky to fall. Chris didn’t know the guard or the Chief of Security well enough to be absolutely certain of their identity.
She did have a safeguard, though.
“Okay. Just a moment,” Chris said, turning to face the door panel and hold her thumb above it, not making contact with the fingerprint scanner. She half expected her danger sense to scream bloody murder at her intent, but it didn’t.
Chris was able to open the door without getting any danger vibes. When she hobbled into the apartment on her crutch, Mr. Turner and his entourage followed a few feet behind, tactfully matching their pace to hers.
“Do we have to sit down for this?” Chris asked as she hobbled down the corridor.
“No. This will hopefully only take a few minutes.” She knew he was subtly – or not so subtly – asking her not to give him a hard time.
We’ll see about that.
Chris detached her right hand from the crutch to give Peter’s door a solid rap. She heard a muffled sound of protest and raised her voice to speak through the closed door. “Peter, wake up and come out, Mr. Turner is here. We got some security issue.”
She continued on without waiting for an answer and gave Nora’s door the same treatment. Nora’s response came after seconds, loud and clear. “Need a minute!”
The Wardens gathered in their living space five minutes later, facing the quartet of visitors who were still standing by the apartment door, graciously keeping their distance. No one bothered sitting down. Peter peered at the visitors from beneath his tousled bird’s nest of uncombed hair, his sleepy face reflecting curiosity. Nora stood with her arms crossed over the front of her baggy shirt, giving off an air of suspicion.
This wouldn’t be the first time the Wardens’ headquarters had been placed under lockdown. The first few days after the events in New York, the young heroes had been strictly ordered to stay inside until further notice. But something was off about this whole procedure.
The two security guys just so happened to position themselves in a way that blocked the exit, Chris noted.
“I’m sorry to intrude so early,” Mr. Turner began, spreading his hands in his usual placating manner. “We’re facing a grave situation. Your former teammate Emily has been kidnapped from her home, and the Ministry of Defense is about to re-evaluate your personal security.”
Nora drew a sharp gasp. Peter stood frozen in shock, his jaw hanging open. Both of them glanced to Chris with anxious anticipation, as if expecting her to make it not be true.
Chris felt an almost overwhelming need to say something, anything, but the mention of Emily’s name had knocked the words from her mouth and any coherent thought from her mind. After a long moment of being stared at from all directions, she sank against the wall behind her.
Radiant was right, she thought. They didn’t go after my family, they went straight for Kid. She closed her eyes. Damn it.
Mr. Turner broke the uncomfortable silence with his somber voice. “We are all shocked by the news. If the President hasn’t been informed yet, he will be in the next few minutes.”
“What’s the President going to do?” Peter asked, sounding worried. “We have to get the Covenant involved. Right away.”
Something in his words stirred Chris from her daze, and the numbness seeped from her mind, transforming into anger. At herself, mostly. But there was plenty left for the people in charge of protecting Emily after the little girl’s retirement from the team.
“Okay,” she said, suppressing the pulse of pain in her ankle as she pushed herself off the wall. “Just what the flying fuck were Emily’s guards doing?” Her eyes flicked to Mr. Turner, fixing him with an accusing glare. “You said there was an entire team devoted to watching over her. Dozens of people. Did they all fall asleep or go grab coffee?”
The Chief of Security shifted uncomfortably before speaking. “We had camera surveillance set up around the Bell family home, with added security measures within. None of our systems showed a breach or triggered an alert.”
“How is this possible?” Mr. Turner asked. “I was under the impression that any attempt to hack into the security system would trigger an alert. It was designed by a Technician, was it not?”
“Yes. No trace of intrusion was found. The kidnappers must have used concealing powers that our cameras couldn’t pick up.”
“Like Gentleman’s powers?” Chris asked, struggling to keep her voice under control. “How long ago was this?”
“The break in occurred around five AM, assuming they accessed the house shortly after the girl’s father left for work,” the Chief of Security replied. “The mother didn’t wake and wasn’t able to give a report, she is currently being examined for power-induced aftereffects.”
Five AM. That didn’t sound that long ago.
Chris yanked her phone from its pocket and checked the time. She could still be nearby. If we hurry, I can pick something up. A stream of possibilities flowed through her mind, and she didn’t notice Nora approaching her until her teammate settled a hand on her arm, starting her from her thoughts.
“We’re gonna find her,” Nora said in a low voice intended for just the two of them.
Chris dipped an absent nod, attention flicking to the closed door with the two guards in front of it. “I know the way, I can maybe get there in under a minute. Step away from the door.”
“Christina,” Mr. Turner said in a sympathetic voice that failed to placate her.
“Really. I’m faster than a car. But I have to go now.”
“Chris, don’t.” The words came from Peter this time, gentle and pleading.
The guards didn’t budge, and everyone kept staring at Chris as if she was the one who needed saving. They just didn’t understand. If Emily was still in the city, Chris had the powers required to find her. Right now.
And everyone was just standing around, wasting time.
She surged forward, forcing time to slow to a crawl around her. She used her crutch in time with her good leg to advance towards the guards at the door. As she moved, Nora’s hand dislodged from her arm with a barely noticeable brush of fingers on skin.
Chris pulled herself to a stop in front of the door and the pair of men who blocked it, releasing her hold on her power. Her perception of time shifted back to normal, and she had a moment of clarity where she saw people shift in response to her sudden movement. Heads swiveled, and eyes turned to her new position. Then a pulse of pain shot through her leg, and her attention was pulled down to her ankle.
Someone appeared at her side to steady her and the crutch. “Chris! If you don’t wanna listen to them, listen to me.” Nora’s voice.
Chris clenched her teeth in response.
“You’re hurt. You can’t hop through half the city like that, dork,” Nora continued.
“Can’t…” Chris managed to press that one word through her teeth before Peter cut her off.
“If we go now and take my car, maybe Chris can still pick something up with her danger sense. We won’t know if it’s too late until we try.”
“Yeah. I’m gonna carry her if we have to,” Nora added.
“Thanks, guys,” Chris said. While leaning against Nora, she tested her balance for a way to keep herself upright without setting her ankle on fire.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” Mr. Turner said. “I received explicit instructions to keep you inside and safely guarded. We can’t risk an attack on you.”
“Bullshit!” Chris snapped. “Are we heroes or what? Our teammate has been kidnapped, and you’re expecting us to twiddle our thumbs and trust security and the police to find her? The same people who didn’t even notice someone broke into her home?”
A thought flared, powerful and angry. Don’t deny her being a teammate. Just don’t.
“Christina. I assure you we are doing everything in our power…”
“And how much is ‘everything’? You don’t have powers. The security guys don’t have powers. I could sense her before anyone even sees her.” Chris leaned into Nora, grateful for the support that let her voice her thoughts in coherent sentences. “She’s nine. I promised to watch over her. I’m a Guardian, for fuck’s sake.”
Her teammates opted for awkward silence. Nora adjusted the drape of her arms to hug Chris against herself, easing some of the tension out of her. Chris returned the embrace, letting Nora’s warmth wash over her. It even dulled the throb in her ankle.
“Could this be arranged?” Mr. Turner asked with a glance to the Chief of Security.
The Chief shot Chris an appraising glance before responding. “It would be difficult. That isn’t to say it would be impossible.”
“If you’re holding me back, I swear I’m going rogue again,” Chris said, meaning every word.
Mr. Turner’s expression tightened at the words. “The East Coast Wardens could join forces with you before the end of the day, Christina. Umbra and the Canadian may be able to help.”
But Emily could be dead by then.
The East Coast team, which currently consisted of the Canadian, Umbra and Rose the Red, had been set up in New York after the Covenant’s withdrawal from the destroyed UN headquarters. There had been a demand for a secondary hero team at the other end of the continent, and it was nice to know that they existed. But they were too damn far away.
Peter spoke up before Chris could.. “Any minute we wait is a risk. What if the police or the army lend us an armored car? We probably wouldn’t even have to get out. Chris has a pretty good range.”
“I believe that could be arranged with the Secretary’s agreement.” The Chief of Security gave a nod of acknowledgement in Mr. Turner’s direction.
“I’ll make some calls, but I can’t promise anything. Make sure you rest your ankle, Christina. We can’t risk you suffering permanent damage.”
“I’m fine. Help me get ready,” Chris said, slowly disentangling herself from Nora to prove the point. If she didn’t make any sudden movements, she could manage quite well.
“Give me a few minutes,” Mr. Turner said as he reached for his phone.
As exciting as the drive in an armored police vehicle might have been under different circumstances, the Wardens spent most of it in somber silence. The two patrol cars that accompanied them filled San Francisco’s urban canyons with the sound of their sirens, alerting the early morning traffic of an emergency. Although they helped clear a path to the Richmond district and Emily’s home, the journey was still excruciatingly slow.
Chris would have preferred Peter’s car. The police escort was sure to invite any nearby villain to take a closer look, and Chris internally cringed at the possibility of standard cops getting involved in a superpowered deathmatch. She wasn’t sure she would be able to protect them without having line of sight to everyone.
A look at Peter and Nora’s faces let Chris know they shared her gloomy mood. The three of them sat jammed together on the back seat with Chris in the middle, the crutch pinned between her knees. The painkillers she’d agreed to take before getting into the car did what they were supposed to do: they eased the throb in her ankle.
She knew how to deal with physical pain; her danger sense had exposed her to plenty of it. What was really getting to her was this new feeling of helplessness, of not knowing where to run next or how to address the threat. Worse, she’d failed. She had been warned and decided to do her own thing anyway.
You’re playing with fire, Radiant had said. Thinking back to their meeting in the ice cream parlor, Chris wished she’d listened.
She was ready to do whatever needed to be done to bring Emily back home. This was officially her new atonement after Helen.
Chris began reaching out with her senses the instant they left the Wardens headquarters. Most of the city was awake by now, and hundreds of thousands of people within her reach prepared to start their day. The sheer mass of them flooded her mind with more minor accidents than she could keep track off. A man cut himself while shaving. A child slipped on rain-soaked steps and fell, and the early morning traffic held danger potential of its own.
If Gentleman’s gang is behind this, we’ll either find nothing or something they set upChris tried to recall the street layout of the area as their car rolled into Richmond. They know my powers. It’s going to come down to whether they want to talk.
“Hey, Chris.” Peter’s voice stirred her from her thoughts. “Found anything yet? We’re almost there.”
“Nothing yet.” Chris peered out the window at the two and three story buildings they passed, then glanced at the back of their driver’s head and lowered her voice.
“Hey Nora. Can Mr. Black scout? Or anything other than, um, pass through cracks and cut solid material into ribbons?”
She carefully avoided the mention of people. While none of the Wardens had ever had to witness it, the Covenant suspected that Mr. Black could potentially reduce humans to bloody ribbons within split seconds. And when detached from Nora, he acted semi-autonomously, able to pass through any barrier except for certain forms of energy.
Chris was very aware of why Nora had almost received execution orders twice. She was only alive because Chris struck a deal with the Covenant, promising to never leave her teammate’s side.
“Yeah,” Nora replied. “He’s not a real scout, but he can see people and let me know where they are. No descriptions or anything, just senses fear. He’s a dumb shadow monster.” She tried to sound amused, but she just wasn’t very good at feigning it. Her chuckle sounded like a death rattle.
She’s scared of Mr. Black too, Chris realized with a pang of sympathy.
She resisted the urge to pry for more details. If it turned out that they actually needed to know, Chris could still ask later. Instead, she glanced to Peter, who did his best to maintain a stoic expression and hide the bewilderment in his eyes.
“He’s gonna freak everyone out, you know,” Nora added.
“What if he stayed in the shadows?”
“Maybe,” Nora said. “Gonna tell you more when we get someplace we need him.”
Chris glanced to the two drivers in the front seats. They looked like average cops, the kind of guys who might have gone on patrol with her dad, and she wondered if they’d even been trained or briefed for a case like this. One of them shifted uncomfortably, squinting over his shoulder as he felt her gaze on his neck.
No, these cops didn’t want to get involved in a villain attack, either. And all the Wardens would have needed to handle this on their own was Peter’s car.
Chris seethed at Mr. Turner’s security bullshit. This was hero business, no one else’s.
“We’re here,” Peter said.
The car slowed to a crawl as it approached a two story house with whitewashed walls and a tall wrought iron fence. The wailing sirens that escorted them dissolved into silence. Chris recognized the house from the pictures Emily had sent to her phone.
“No one’s home, right?” Chris asked the cops at the front.
The thick necked officer on the passenger seat answered while the car passed the house and continued down the road, picking up speed. “No one. The mother is being taken care of, and the father was picked up from work. He was taken someplace safe.”
I hope Mr. Tibbs is okay.
“We’re driving around the block,” the driver added. “Until you sense something, or whatever it is you do.”
Chris felt eyes rest on her. Peter and Nora were both watching her with silent anticipation. Chris had no idea why; she was only a substitute leader until someone more suitable came along. Her team’s trust in her was equal parts flattering and intimidating.
“What’s your range again, Nora?” she asked after a few seconds of consideration.
“At least half a block, something like that. But it’s better if he stays near me. You know why.”
“Yeah,” Chris said. “I know.” Seeing as the cops at the front were probably listening in, she kept the rest to herself. Can’t risk you losing control.
“The guys who took Emily must have been professionals,” Peter said, looking as miserable as he sounded. “I mean, no one even noticed them. I asked about the security measures for Emily after she left, and they were actually pretty solid. There were cameras everywhere.”
“The Conglomerate had the resources and powers to pull it off, I guess,” Chris said. “Cameras don’t see through Gentleman’s illusions.”
She projected a forcefield onto Peter as she talked, noted the amount of energy she could feel emanating from it, then dismissed the barrier. Over the past days, she’d come to the conclusion that Mrs. Clarence’s assumption was correct. Her forcefields seemed stronger on people she knew and liked.
Chris had never considered her teammates in terms of how close she felt to them. She’d grown comfortable around them, and that was more than she could have said about any of her former classmates at high school. But when creating forcefields, she’d noticed that her Guardian powers seemed to favor her teammates – Nora, in particular – over others. Any barrier she created around Nora contained three times as much energy as it did for most anyone else, and just a little more than it did for Peter.
Now that Chris had gotten to know him better, she didn’t mind his teasing nearly as much. He was a nice guy with a good head on his shoulders when he was actually paying attention and taking things seriously. And every once in a while, he was actually funny, especially when he wasn’t trying to be.
“Don’t cha think it could have been someone else?” Nora asked. She pulled a knee up against the front seat, as if warding her personal space against potential invaders. “Villains are growing on trees now. There’s gotta be some new groups forming.”
“We don’t know much of anything right now,” Chris replied. “Anything’s possible, I guess. I’m still not picking anything up, by the way.” She hated the sound of those words. Failure wasn’t an option.
“Damn,” Peter muttered. “Would have been too easy, I guess.”
“Peter, have you ever tried powering something down instead of, you know, doing your supercharge thing? Could you stop a car?”
“Never tried, to be honest,” he said. “You think we’ll get attacked by a car?”
“No. But maybe a villain who can’t teleport or fly would try to get away in one?” Chris shrugged. Most of her attention was still invested in scanning the city. As long as her danger sense wasn’t injecting her with too much pain, filtering out unwanted information was quite easy now, after all the practice she’d had..
“I broke a television once,” Peter said. “Was an accident. I never infused it with my power or anything, just wasn’t paying attention. My old man got real pissed.” A wry smile crept over his lips, then his face turned serious again. “I guess I probably could. Just don’t expect anything good from it.”
At that point, they lapsed into silence, and Chris was grateful for it. The silence helped her focus on her danger sense and the vision flashes she picked up while they rounded the block Emily’s home belonged to. After half an hour of not learning anything useful, they decided to start heading back and extend their coverage to other city districts. All the while, Chris’s visions followed the same pattern she’d experienced for the past hour.
Until they didn’t.
When the car drove down the street leading back to the Wardens headquarters, a
loud bang and a burning, searing explosion that shreds skin a dozen times over
much more intense and devastating wave of feedback washed over her without warning. It
pull the damn trigger if they don’t stop driving
knocked the wind out of Chris. She got a glimpse of Peter’s lips moving while an echo of the deafening bang still rang in her mind, and her mouth opened in a silent scream.
Then whoever was in charge of the trigger changed their mind, and it was over as abruptly as it had begun. The pain, the nauseating danger potential, everything. Chris made the effort to straighten up, allowing the hands of her teammates to steady her.
“Stop. Now!” She croaked as she found her voice. “And then drive back. Someone’s got a bomb, and they’ll trigger it if we don’t stop.”