San Francisco, USA – Saturday, the 16th of June 2012. 09:22 AM.
“A bomb?” Nora and Peter blurted with almost perfect synchronicity.
The cops at the front said nothing, but the driver must have reacted to Chris’s words in some way, because the car slowed abruptly. Chris couldn’t muster up the attention span to respond or determine whether they were actually stopping. She pressed her fingers to her temple in an attempt to hold on to the flashback visions she’d just experienced.
More than ten people, less than twenty. One has a bomb. Tables with white tablecloths. Floor to ceiling windows–
“Chris!” someone shouted. It took her a second to realize it was Peter.
She glanced over to see him staring at her with wide-eyed shock. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder, and the gentle pressure from it drew her attention to Nora.
“A bomb? You sure?” Nora asked again. More gently, this time, but she strengthened her grip on Chris’s shoulder to stress the urgency of the question.
“Yeah. We have to…” Chris trailed off as she realized the car had pulled to a stop on the sidewalk. Looking through the front window, she could see a familiar looking Chinese diner up ahead. We’re almost at our headquarters. Her eyes narrowed. Not a coincidence.
The cop on the passenger seat twisted around to look her in the eye. “You serious about this, girl? We’ll have to call for reinforcements.”
“Don’t,” Chris replied.
They’d just be more people getting hurt. She decided to keep that comment to herself; it would just reinforce the calling for backup idea.
“This is a set up,” she said. “Hero business. I think someone in there wants to talk to me.” Before anyone could protest, she reached past Nora to open the car door that faced the sidewalk. “Come on, guys. I need you.”
“How do you know?” Peter asked. “The bomb trigger,” Chris said, eager to get out of the car before her danger sense flared anew and threatened to turn her stomach upside down. “Someone’s thinking about activating it if we don’t stop, which means they expect us to show up, and that they know exactly how my danger sense works.”
“That’s creepy as hell,” Peter said. “We should go look for them before the city blows up. Hopefully we can figure out what they want.”
“Hopefully,” Chris echoed.
Nora didn’t comment or ask any questions. She just shifted to climb out of the car and offer a hand. Chris grabbed her crutch and followed suit, grateful for the fact that the cops weren’t budging from their seats.
Go home to your wives and kids.
“Wait!” Just when Chris started to believe adults were listening to her for once, one of the cops swung the car door open to call out to her. “Get back in. We’re expected to take you safely back to headquarters. It’s just half a block, then you can discuss this with your—“
“We don’t have the time,” Chris said. She was already positioning the crutch under her arm to start hobbling down the sidewalk, back in the direction they’d come from and where Mr. X with the bomb had been. She was fairly sure she’d recognize the location upon seeing it with her own eyes. This early on a Saturday morning, it would most likely be some kind of coffee and donut place.
Nora soon flanked Chris to the right. Peter caught up a few seconds later, adjusting his pace to move along in time with the tock-tock-tock of her crutch. Chris paused for a couple of seconds to project forcefields onto each of them before resuming her pace.
As usual, Nora’s forcefield was brimming with a tad more energy than Peter’s, but the difference was minimal. As to whether they’d survive a bomb detonation… well, it was probably better not to find out.
Chris glanced over her shoulder to note with some relief that the cops didn’t try to stop them. They followed at a distance, though; one of them had a phone out. Doing that call for backup, no doubt. Their entourage had stopped as well, the mounted sirens silent.
Chris quickened her pace, alternating between her good ankle and the crutch in a practiced rhythm. “Have to get there… before the cops… make a big fuss,” she said, struggling to get the words out without slowing down.
“We could just have asked them to drive us back there,” Peter said.
“No. They were… going to… stall.” Cops don’t know how to work with Heroes, she added silently. We’re just some kids to them.
Chris scanned the venues on either side of the road for any familiar focus point. Only a couple were open that she could see, and none of the store fronts showed a glimpse of guests. Damn. How far back was it? She couldn’t tell for sure how for how long – and how far – the car had kept on rolling after she’d requested the stop.
Nora was studying Chris’s face with a thoughtful expression. “You think whoever is behind this knows something about Kid,” she finally concluded.
“Yeah.” There was nothing else to be said.
The trio walked half a block in silence before Chris stopped, eyes drawn towards a small, unpretentious café with a European style, canopy-roofed outdoors seating area. Despite the mild weather, none of the outdoor seats were taken, but Chris could make out a number of silhouettes through the large glass windows.
My danger sense hasn’t gone haywire since we got out of the car. They must know we’re coming.
Chris narrowed her eyes against the sunlight, taking a tally of the silhouettes beyond the windows. She couldn’t tell how many people were in the café, but they didn’t have the appearance of a panicking crowd. Still, charging in blind wasn’t a valid plan. Not even with forcefields.
“Nora, can you let Mr. Black take a look inside that place?” she asked, indicating the café with a finger.
Nora furrowed her brow, and her eyes flicked around to take in the surrounding Saturday morning scenery. A young couple walked their dog. A woman in sports gear jogged down the other side of the road, and traffic was sparse. No one seemed to pay any particular attention to the trio of teens, but Chris had no doubt that someone, somewhere, was watching them. And the cops who’d stopped some distance behind looked plenty suspicious.
“Okay,” Nora said. “Moment.”
Her shadow detached from her sneakers and slipped over the pavement. Chris instinctively stepped back from it, as did Peter.
Chris’s danger sense didn’t go haywire in response to the animated shadow, but Mr. Black’s latent threat level was high enough to give her a light chill the instant the creature stirred to action. The last Evolved who’d given her that kind of latent threat vibe had been Legion. Fortunately, Nora seemed to have her emotions under control.
Over there is the bad guy. Chris watched the shadow glide towards the café and halfway up the outer façade until it literally sank into the wall. The legs remained visible outside, two elongated streaks of darkness that resembled smears of coal left by some mischievous kids.
“Nora,” Chris said. “If anyone sees him, pull back, okay?”
Nora didn’t look like she was paying attention, but her nod was satisfying enough as an answer. “Fourteen people,” she reported after a moment, her voice low and hollow. “All in the same room. No one’s scared of a bomb. No one at all.”
“Maybe they don’t know,” Chris murmured.
“Looks like it’s safe to go in and look-” Peter said. He kept talking, but Chris lost track of his words in the next surge of possible devastation that
trigger if the monster isn’t reined in
washed over her, searing her flesh and ripping it apart a dozen times over. This time, she was prepared and the trigger reaction didn’t catch her off guard. She managed to keep herself upright by focusing on the part of her mind that her superhuman senses didn’t have access to.
“Nora,” Chris hissed, forcing the word out through her teeth. “OUT. Now.”
The danger sense calmed as abruptly as it previously had in the car. She forced herself to relax and looked up to see Nora’s shadow withdraw from the café. Just like that, it reclaimed its position by her feet, and the latent chill it had brought about evaporated as well.
“Sorry,” Nora mumbled. “Musta seen him.”
“Yeah. At least there’s no doubt they knew we were coming.” Chris glanced down the road to look for anyone who might have their attention on her, Peter, and Nora. The only ones she caught staring back at her were the duo of cops behind them.
No villains with spyglasses.
Whoever they are, they’re not complete idiots. No luck in that regard.
“I’m going in,” Chris announced. “Might be better if you guys stay out here.”
“No fucking way. You got mah back, remember?” Nora said.
Chris couldn’t help but smile a little. “Yeah.”
“Same here,” Peter added. “Besides, we got forcefields, right? What could go wrong?” He made a half-hearted attempt at a smirk that might have been cute at a different time and place.
“Think you could disarm the bomb if you see it? Power it down or something?” Chris asked him. She watched his face with intent, to make sure he wasn’t feigning confidence about something that could go terribly wrong.
“I’m not sure. I could try, but I might set it off. My power isn’t hard science, and I’ve no clue how a bomb works.” He looked reasonably convinced.
“Okay.” Chris gripped her crutch and started hobbling the last fifteen meters to the café entrance. “Come with me, but let’s not mess with the bomb if we don’t have to.”
Upon coming closer, Chris could see that Nora had been right regarding Mr. Black’s perception. The people she spotted through the tall windows didn’t have an air of anxiety about them; they looked like perfectly average Saturday morning guests who’d stopped by to enjoy a coffee or donut before going about their days.
No, she corrected herself. Something’s off.
They looked a little too cheery. Each and every one of them wore easy, relaxed smiles that could have indicated a healthy dose of marijuana as a coffee ingredient. They didn’t stop smiling.
They’re all high or brainwashed.
Chris tried to think of any known power with the potential to create that kind of effect. Rose the Red came to mind, but Paladin’s girlfriend was about to become a member of the newly East Coast Wardens team. It was doubtful she’d be working with villains. Buddy, the former Indonesian rogue who’d made headlines as a villain of late, made everyone in sight consider him a dear friend. Chris didn’t remember any of his victims grinning like idiots, though.
“You see that?” Peter asked, having stopped beside Chris to gawk at the café’s window front alongside her.
“Yeah. Let’s not eat any donuts in there. This setup is too elaborate for wanting us dead, but still.” Chris limped to the front door, hoping that whatever effect caused this would be stopped by the forcefields she’d equipped her team with. After all, they had successfully blocked Legion’s mind powers back in Canada.
Halfway to the door, she sensed movement and saw Nora brush past her to open it. Intent on being the first to enter the lion’s den, Chris hopped up the one elevated step with the support of her crutch and continued on into the seating area.
There were about eight tables, and all but one were occupied by at least one person. Not all of the guests looked like they’d meant to stop by for a coffee and stay. There was a pair of uniformed cops who probably should have been on patrol, a barista who wasn’t doing his job, and – at the very back, seated on a padded bench beneath a large round glass mirror – a little boy who looked too young to be sitting there all on his own.
The sight of the kid rekindled Chris’s anger all over again. Setting up a bomb to gouge her was one thing; getting little kids involved was in an entirely different league of villainy, and she projected a forcefield onto the boy before she’d even finished looking around.
She didn’t notice the man behind the bar until he moved, but once she’d realized he was there, he was impossible to overlook. He was an athletic, younger guy with a typical California tan and a very atypical outfit. He was wearing a long coat whose dark green fabric bulged slightly around his chest and waist, as if he’d tucked an assortment of weapons away underneath it.
Or a bomb. Which explained the choice of coat on a warm summer day in the first place.
His face was smooth-shaven, with narrow eyes and thin dark brows that hinted at Asian heritage. He was also the only person in the café who wasn’t grinning like an idiot, a dead giveaway that Chris was looking at the culprit. She just didn’t have the faintest clue who he was. As far as she could tell, he’d never been featured in the news or in any Evolved wiki entries. She would have recognized the face otherwise.
And while Chris might have risked her ankle to run over and resolve this hostage situation by punching a villain in the face, she wasn’t sure enough about the guy’s identity to risk setting off the bomb and potentially kill everyone in the café. He could have been an illusion. Or an innocent.
Besides, she needed information.
“Don’t move,” he said. His English was flawless; nothing about it hinted at outsider status.” And don’t use any powers. If this man dies, the bomb goes off. He’s a proxy, a jogger I collected a few hours ago. You wouldn’t want to kill an innocent, would you?”
“What do you want?” Chris asked. She sensed light pressure from Nora’s fingers on her arm, and shook her head slightly. Not going to risk it. Keep him talking.
Nora’s hand dropped away from Chris’s arm. The shadow at Nora’s feet flickered, then grew still.
Peter had claimed a position near the door, just a few steps behind his teammates. He stood there with his chin lowered, eyes on the coat-wearing man’s face. Trying to look intimidating, perhaps.
“You,” Coat-Man said. He was leaning over the counter to look straight at Chris. “You shouldn’t be surprised. Your powers are very interesting, and I could earn favors with some powerful groups by throwing them back into the distributable powers pool. But for now, I’d rather have a chat.”
“I’m not surprised,” Chris replied, trying to keep the emotion out of her voice. “I’m only surprised about the bomb. What’s with the hostages if you just want to talk to me?”
The man shrugged. “That’s just an option in case we don’t come to terms.”
“Let the kid go if you want to talk.” Chris jerked her chin in the direction of the little boy at the back of the seating area. “Whatever it is you’re trying to pull off, he’s not a part of it.”
The man behind the counter tilted his head and gave the kid a long, appraising look. “Sure. I guess we don’t need him.” He addressed the boy with a warm, appeasing voice. “Go outside, kid. If you turn left and keep walking, there’s some nice cops. They’ll wait for your mommy with you.”
He even knows about the cops.
The boy’s expression didn’t change much, but the eerie eagerness of his smile reached a new level of creepy. “Okay!” he said, sliding off the bench. “I’ll wait for mommy with the nice cops!”
Holy shit, that effect better not be permanent. Chris couldn’t tell whether she was more relieved or disturbed by the boy’s responsiveness to the suggestion.
“Chris,” Peter said as he opened the door for the boy. “I’m making sure no one else comes in.”
Good idea. Chris nodded, then turned her attention back to the man behind the counter. It didn’t take much imagination to picture him as a jogger who’d just made his rounds in the early morning hours before most of the city had woken up. His countenance – the smug little smile and the eagerness with which he leaned over the bar – didn’t match with that image though.
A villain could be controlling him somehow. Chris did a quick count in her head, matching the amount of people she’d seen in the Café against the number Nora had reported. Fourteen people, all in the same room. Nora’s shadow wasn’t fooled by illusions. If it hadn’t sensed anyone else, there probably weren’t any more people in the building.
The bomb guy is either shitting me, or if he’s being controlled, that person has an insane range.
“Do you have a name?” Chris asked once she’d assured herself that the kid had left the café.
“No official name yet,” the man with the coat replied. “The Covenant never figured me out. But you can call me Sovereign.”
Someone likes to control people, I get it.
“Okay, so what’s this talk about? The last villain I talked to wanted to recruit me. How’s that working out in your scheme? I mean, you can probably tell I’m not the type who goes around setting bombs and threatening people.”
“That’s true,” Sovereign replied. “But maybe you noticed I haven’t killed anyone so far. And I know that you’re not the hero type. They forced you into this, didn’t you?” His eyes wandered over to Nora, settling on her. “And you. Do you want to be at someone’s mercy for the rest of your life? The Covenant almost killed you twice, correct?”
Nora glowered at him but said nothing.
The villains have done their research. Chris re-evaluated her impression of those guys’ resources. Their approach to diplomacy seemed off compared to what she remembered of Gentleman, but if they were linked or belonged to the Conglomerate, they might know where Emily was.
“Know anything about the little girl who was kidnapped from her home in the middle of the night?” Chris asked. Her eyes were glued to Sovereign’s face.
He did not look surprised. “We should probably talk about her, shouldn’t we?”
“Yeah. You should.”
“She’s alive and well. We had hoped she’d help motivate you to think everything through.” Sovereign studied Chris as openly as she did him.
Didn’t do your research so well after all. Getting her involved just pisses me off.
“Let me talk to her, then. I have to know if she’s actually fine,” Chris said. With her years of pretending not to give a shit about anything, she could manage a pretty good poker face. Sovereign rubbed his chin as if tasting the idea. He squinted at her with a half-lidded gaze, appraising her.
“I wish I could,” he said. “But Mr. Random Jogger here hasn’t been equipped with the means of contacting our base. Security concerns, you have to understand.”
Bullshit. Chris could see the assumed link to Gentleman’s Conglomerate crumble before her eyes. Gentleman didn’t have the kind of powerset to match the effects she’d observed here, and she didn’t believe he would have missed out on a chance to speak to her personally. The avoidance tactic didn’t fit the self-absorbed dandy who’d been so intrigued by her, nor did it fit Radiant’s account of the run-in he’d had with the villain. Gentleman would have known better than to use Emily as bait without proof, especially if he wanted something from her.
And the bomb was really fucking crude.
Still, whoever these guys were – Chris couldn’t assume they had nothing to do with her disappeared friend at all. The two events occurred in such quick succession, Chris couldn’t believe they were coincidental.
“That’s a lot of talk with nothing to back it up,” Chris said, projecting a forcefield onto the man while he was fully focused on listening to her. She made it wide enough that he hopefully wouldn’t notice the surrounding faint hum of energy right away.
The barrier was as strong as her own, she noticed. Maybe because it served to protect her and her teammates rather than him.
For a moment, she considered asking Peter to try and disable that bomb. But by his own admission, he wasn’t sure he could pull it off without accidentally triggering it. The forcefield might not be strong enough to contain the explosion. And if that guy in the coat really was just a random jogger, she didn’t want to see him reduced to pieces.
Sovereign’s lack of response gave her an opportunity to test her theory on villain affiliations.
“I don’t know who you are, if my friend is actually okay, or who you’re working with,” Chris said. “You don’t really work with Gentleman, do you?”
Instead of giving an answer, he did
pointless she figured it out
something with his powers, and her danger sense responded with a faint chill. This time, feedback from Chris’s forcefield was similar to what she’d felt when Legion had traced it with invisible fingers.
A ripple of foreign energy dripped off her barrier. One second later, Chris got the same kind of response from the energy fields she’d erected around Peter and Nora.
He can use his powers through a controlled person. After a second of startled surprise, the thought was followed up by another. And he just attacked us.
Something flashed in Sovereign’s eyes. Understanding maybe, or a new plan on how to collectively fuck with them. He grinned, meeting her gaze with a self-satisfied air that rekindled her urge to punch his face. Innocent person, she reminded herself.
“Figured that wasn’t going to work,” he said, triggering a new wave of explosion premonitions within Chris’s mind. “Option two, then. I want this city, and there’s some general consensus that you don’t deserve your powers. The war is on.”
Something about the danger sense reaction was different, this time, and the pain was much more bearable. Chris didn’t take the time to analyze the difference. “Peter! Now,” she blurted out.
The café filled up with a thunderous boom and blinding flash of fiery brightness that knocked Chris to the polished hardwood floor. She barely felt the impact. Her body flailed through the air, then hit something with a dull thump that felt strangely disconnected, as if it was happening to someone else. Everything was noise and screams and overwhelming amounts of energy clashing, with Chris at the receiving end. Lights danced at the back of her eyeballs, and her whole body hummed in response.
If a person could be a lightning rod, this was probably what it would feel like.
Eventually, she heard voices through the ringing in her ears and cracked her eyes open. She recognized two familiar faces looking down at her. Their lips moved to say things she couldn’t quite piece together.
Beyond them were more people, sitting or curled up into little balls. Some were crying, others made no sound at all. The chairs and tables looked strangely intact, as did the walls and the floor. There weren’t any gaping holes. Nothing had burned.
Someone – Peter, she realized – pointed at something. Chris looked up and forgot to breathe.
There was a floating bubble there, still intact and filled with swirling ash and a reddish afterglow of energy. Something about the sight of it filled her mind with a sickening realization.
There had been a person in there only moments ago.
While she was staring at the forcefield, the ringing in Chris’s ears subsided enough to hear Nora’s voice right beside her. “We’re gonna have to evacuate headquarters. Everyone knows where we are.”
Less than an hour later, the Wardens were released from the health check-up they’d received in hospital and stepped back into their apartment to pack some essentials they’d need in their new home, wherever that was going to be.
It had taken the Department of Defense less than fifteen minutes to approve the evacuation of everyone who’d been working or staying at the Wardens headquarters. The news of a mind controller in the city – potentially a power surged one, considering Sovereign’s range – had startled the higher ups into frenzied activity. On every level the Wardens passed on the way to their apartment, the staff flew around like an anxious swarm of bees, doing their part for the evacuation.
No one wanted to take the risk of baiting villains. If Sovereign could assume control of anyone who wasn’t protected by a forcefield – and use his powers through them – then the villain could, in theory, walk right through the front door and assume control of the entire building.
Not even Chris was sure her danger sense would alert her in time to prevent any damage from being done. And as far as she’d gathered, no one had a clue who the hell Sovereign was. The East Coast Wardens team would be brought in for surveillance support, and the Covenant had been alerted, but for now it seemed best not to offer the bad guys any first strike opportunities.
War had been declared. The Wardens weren’t sure why the hell any villain would want their city of all places, but there was a chance San Francisco would turn into a battlefield before long.
At least the former hostages were okay. None of them seemed to be suffering any aftereffects apart from what should be expected after such a traumatizing experience. They’d all regained control of themselves after the explosion, and as far as the Wardens knew, were receiving appropriate care.
“I think Sovereign might be a girl,” Chris said after checking a message she’d received on her phone. Peter and Nora stood right next to her with their packed bags, waiting for the car that would take all of them to a secret new location.
“A girl? Why do you think?” Peter asked. He was sitting on his bag, gazing up at the big television they were going to leave behind. The latest news flickered across the screen, the sound muted. The Wardens already knew what the broadcast would be about.
About ten percent of the truth; the authorities didn’t want to risk causing mass panic.
“Athena just messaged me,” Chris said. “Sovereign’s powers match a twenty year old girl who was registered in France and disappeared a while back. Mina Polat. The Covenant named her Empress, but apparently friends called her Mindbender.”
“That fits, I guess,” Nora said. “But she’s the only match? Really? What category is she, anyway?”
“Wildcard,” Chris replied. “Actual mind control is really rare, so rare they never made it its own classification. Athena didn’t know about anyone else with similar powers.”
Peter shook his head. “I didn’t get a twenty year old girl vibe from Sovereign. Did you?”
“Not really,” Chris admitted. “But if Mina is dead, Sovereign must have transitioned a short while ago. Maybe a week ago or even less. That seems way too early for having a power surge.”
“Seems way too early for us to be fighting over San Francisco,” Peter said. “That’s not how it goes in the stories. Things start small, then escalate. We don’t even know who we’re fighting.”
“This what we were going for,” Chris said. “When we agreed to do the talk show. Not San Francisco, but, you know… confrontation.”
“Yeah, she’s right,” Nora said. “I’m ready to kick some ass.”
Someone, somewhere, has to know something about Emily. Chris decided not to bring it up again, they were all aware. “We’re going to have the numbers advantage,” she said. “We’ll bring backup once we know where and how to start.”
The others just looked at her with raised eyebrows.
“Radiant,” she added. “Rune’s willing to lend us his teleporter. And the DoD is bringing the East Coasters in.”
Peter’s face lit up at the mention of ‘teleporter’. “Hell yeah. Rose and the Canadian.”
“We gotta prepare,” Nora said. “And you gotta heal faster. You still good to lose your crutch tomorrow, Peg-Leg?”
“I think so, unless Uberdoc-” Chris started, then, her phone beeped, signaling an incoming text message. She frowned and pulled the phone from her pocket, flipping it open.
She read the message once. Her blood turned cold, sending a shiver down her spine. She read it twice, just to be sure, but she didn’t get a chance for a third attempt to absorb the message. Her eyes filled with a mist of tears that turned the words into a muddy jumble.
“Oh God,” she said, struggling to find her voice. “It’s from Emily.”