San Francisco, USA – Saturday, the 16th of June 2012. 10:45 AM.
“From Emily?” Peter echoed, moving closer to Chris to sneak a peek at her phone. Nora exhaled a sharp gasp, but didn’t budge. Neither of them asked if Chris was serious. The expression on her face had been answer enough.
Left speechless for the moment, Chris handed the phone to Peter and pivoted her crutch to limp over to the armchair. The buzzing in her head warned her to sit before she found herself sprawled on the floor for the second time today.
Behind her, Peter read the text message aloud for Nora. Chris didn’t need to hear it again; the words had burned themselves into her mind. She just didn’t know what to make of the news just yet. Depending on the kind of interpretation her mind favored at any given moment – someone messing with her, or Emily actually being okay – her body was alternately trembling with anger or relief.
“Hey Grumpyface,” Peter read. “You’re probably worrying about me, but don’t! I found someone who needs me more than you, and maybe I’m gonna save the world. I’m staying here because I want to. I’m with nice people, and you can take care of yourself now. Make sure my parents and Mr. Tibbs are okay! Hugs, Emmy.”
“Save the world? What’s she talking about?” Nora asked with a dark expression, clearly more concerned than relieved.
Peter gave a helpless shrug.
On the armchair, Chris was grateful for the big cushion that hid her quivering knees from view. The fact that no one was paying attention to her was a relief. But, in a moment or two, she knew her teammates would look to her for ideas and solutions. Still, their momentary distraction gave her time to think everything through.
She didn’t have enough information to jump to solutions, but ideas were definitely within reach. As far as she could tell, the text’s wording matched the older messages Emily had sent Chris over the past days, and it would have been difficult for an adult to emulate the little girl’s style this well. It was easy to assume the message had actually been written by her.
Then again, the Wardens had just run into a damn mind controller. And Chris could have named at least three other Evolved who messed with thoughts, perception or emotions. One of them – Buddy – was reportedly establishing a villain group based out of Russia. Did that group have plans to establish a foothold in the USA? Maybe. And if they did, the Wardens would be in the way.
Maybe this is about more than a kidnapping. Could be psychological warfare, something to demoralize and distract us.
None of the cops in charge of protecting the Bell family home had been mind-controlled, though. They just hadn’t noticed anything, and the alarms hadn’t been set off. That evidence still strongly hinted at Gentleman, and Chris refused to believe he’d simply ignored the contact request she’d made in that talk show.
Gentleman is based out of the States, but the Conglomerate operates worldwide. Sovereign is new to the scene and doesn’t belong to them. Is this a display of power among villain factions or something?
If Emily really thought she could save the world, it had to be something related to her powers. Maybe she saw herself as some kind of secret agent capable of influencing the villains who’d kidnapped her.
At any rate, the thought of a nine year old girl trying to save the world was just… wrong in so many ways.
I was supposed to protect you, kiddo.
“Hey Chris,” Peter said weakly. “Do you think the message is really from Kid?”
“I don’t know,” Chris replied without turning to look at him. She felt a single tear rolling down her cheek and wiped at it with her sleeve before she was ready to face her teammates. “But Aura should know something if she looks at a photo of Emily.”
“You text Rune. I’m gonna finish packing,” Nora declared, already marching off towards her room. “Last one out is a rotten egg.” The joke didn’t contain any humor and failed to lift anyone’s spirits, but Chris acknowledged it with a half-hearted smirk anyway.
We’re not running, we’re protecting the staff who works here. Chris understood the reasons behind the evacuation. In the case of a villain surprise attack, the collateral damage wouldn’t be pretty. And she’d do a better job at this Guardian thing if she only had a handful of people to watch out for.
Besides, with superpowers involved, the first strike could decide everything. And the heroes would only get the first strike chance if the villains didn’t know where to find them.
“Our families are getting evacuated from San Francisco too, right?” Peter asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “The boss-man said so.” Chris extended a hand to Peter. “Pass me the phone. I’ll contact Rune to confirm Emily is still okay, then call Mr. Turner to let him know we’re ready to move out in ten minutes.”
“Okay.” He sounded relieved, glad to have someone who was willing to make decisions in this whole mess. “And after that, what’s next?”
“Then we’re calling the cavalry,” Chris said.
San Ramon, USA – Sunday, the 17th of June 2012. 09:11 AM.
I’m going to see my parents.
Chris settled back on her new office chair, taking a moment to absorb the message from the email that was open on her screen. She pushed one knee against the desk and rolled one inch back from it, letting the sunlight that flooded through the open window touch her skin and melt her resolve.
Seeing her mom would be nice, and checking her parents’ new temporary home to make sure they were safe would help ease her worries about more kidnappings. Chris just wasn’t sure she could fit a confrontation with her dad into everything else that was urgent and occupying her mind of late.
Mrs. Clarence believes it would be good for all of us.
Chris let her eyes return to the message her psychological counselor had sent her. Certain keywords had been bolded, and all of them came down to the same thing. The risk of Chris being incapacitated by overwhelming danger sense feedback – like back at that baseball stadium in New York – didn’t just put her team at risk; it could also negatively impact her chances of finding Emily. Mrs. Clarence was of the opinion that the painful feedback from Chris’s danger sense had something to do with repressed feelings of guilt regarding her family, Helen and Dylan in particular.
That could easily be true, but it also made the family reunion idea more uncomfortable. As long as she wasn’t actually seeing her parents, it was easy to imagine they didn’t hate her.
She pushed the office chair further away from the desk until she found herself directly beside the window. Outside there was a small patch of forest, and someone’s kite had gotten stuck among the branches of a tall birch tree, its colorful tail streaming in the breeze. A dog barked in the distance. A police dog, maybe. Now that the Wardens had been moved into the neighborhood, police surveillance had increased exponentially.
I hope my parents can let Barney out. He gets real grumpy inside.
Chris smiled faintly at the memory of the German Shepherd, who used to be her personal trainer and her second best friend after Ryan. With him around for emotional support, the parental confrontation didn’t seem so bad. Maybe they could even run a few rounds together.
It wasn’t likely to happen, though. If she was seen by the wrong people, the strategic advantage of staying at an unknown location would be lost.
The Wardens had been relocated to one of the houses normally reserved for witness protection programs. It was located on the outskirts of San Ramon – a quiet suburb about forty minutes from San Francisco – and the property included a subterranean bomb shelter as well as a small gym, fully equipped with foam jigsaw mats and a punching bag. Its alarm system was crude, though, and didn’t include an early warning against villain attacks.
Chris had to be a fully functional alarm system. Sovereign wasn’t fooling around.
The Covenant had confirmed that Empress aka Mindbender, a twenty-something girl who’d lived in France until recently, could most likely be considered dead. Someone else had inherited her powers. With the increase in deaths and transitions during the chaos of the past days, reports on new transitions weren’t reliable anymore. New Evolved could show up just about anywhere.
Addressing her personal weakness was definitely near the top of Chris’s current priorities list – right after Sovereign and Emily – and it was something she could deal with right away. Every other option required news from Rune and the Canadian.
Chris realized she’d been tracing her phone with her fingertips and picked it up from her desk. After a brief moment of consideration, she chose her psychological counselor from the list of contacts.
Mrs. Clarence’s voice answered after only four rings. “Hello, Chris,” she said. “I’m so glad you’re calling. You’ve seen my email?”
“Yeah. You’re pretty sure that my danger sense feedback has something to do with my parents?”
“Absolutely. You told me you didn’t experience any physical pain during your transition. It is possible for powers to develop further after a transition, but according to the reports I checked, there hasn’t been any case of a completely new effect manifesting. Not without a power surge.”
Chris inhaled sharply as she skimmed over the text on her monitor one more time. Power surge? The email didn’t mention that as a possibility. “What if it actually was a really early power surge?” she asked, eyes never straying from her monitor.
“Your forcefields are exceptionally strong, Christina, but the same could be said for any Guardian’s powers. You are hardly outside your classification’s norm.”
“I guess we’ll know more after I talk to my parents. I just don’t know what I’m going to say. I can’t just start in with ‘Hi, please forgive me so I can stop guilt tripping myself’, right?”
“Well, that would certainly get the conversation started.” Mrs. Clarence sounded amused.
Chris caught herself rubbing her cheek with small, circular motions ofher thumb. She stopped and curled the offending finger around her phone instead. “Okay. I’m just going to check on my team, then I’ll let you know if we’re ready to drop by my parents.”
“Nora’s going to accompany you?”
“Yeah. I’m keeping my promise to the Covenant, and hey, it’s no bother. I’ve always wanted a conjoined twin.” Chris glanced over to the door and swiveled on her chair to flash Nora, who was peeking through, a quick grin.
Nora returned a thumbs up and disappeared from the doorframe. The distant hum of the coffee machine let know that Peter was in the kitchen, doing his own preparations. The guy couldn’t live without his coffee.
“I’m glad you girls get along so well, Chris,” Mrs. Clarence enthused. “I’m sure your parents are looking forward to meeting her. We’re going to prepare a ride for you. Just let me know when you’re ready.”
“Sure,” Chris said. “I’ll call you back when I have news.”
” Okay. Take care, Chris.”
Mrs. Clarence hung up. Chris opened her growing list of contacts to select the European number she’d added the previous evening after a number of emails she’d exchanged with Rune. She didn’t care whether the government tapped into her phone calls. The cops hadn’t been able to pinpoint any villain hideouts so far, and the united hero meeting she’d discussed with Rune hadn’t been mentioned outside of emails.
Chris was quite sure the two Wardens teams wouldn’t be able to solve their issues without Aura or the world’s currently only known teleporter. And anyone telling her they couldn’t pool their resources without some kind of international treaty was going to get the middle finger.
Rune picked the call up after a half dozen rings, greeting her with his distinctive coarse voice and Swedish accent. “Hello, Mascot. Aura said you were going to call, and yes, your little friend is still doing very well. Aura checked the girl’s photo a few minutes ago.”
“I wasn’t going to ask again.” Chris had absolutely been about to ask again. “You promised to let me know right away if anything changes, right?”
“That was the deal, yes.”
“And you’re sure there’s nothing we can do to help her find Emily? We could get one of Emmy’s personal items from her home, or…”
“I’m sure, and I’m sorry. Aura doesn’t have locating powers.”
Damn it. Chris swallowed her frustration, crumpling a blank sheet of paper from her notepad to keep the emotion from bleeding into her voice. Her left arm was still in a cast, too immobile to throw the paper ball at anything, but she could at least flick it off the desk.
She’s alive and not hurt. The message wasn’t fake. Chris held on to that thought for a moment; it was better than no news.
Rune broke the silence first. “We just got the news that Athena is going to supply us with cross team communication devices later today. Sounds like you’ll get a similar delivery. The armbands will be equipped with GPS to help Checkmate and Radiant navigate back and forth between all of us.”
Radiant. We need you, old man.
“Is Athena talking to Radiant again?” Chris asked.
“I can’t answer that, but she’ll deliver his equipment to us. He’s going to pick it up once he gets released from hospital.”
“Guess that’s a no, they still aren’t talking,” Chris concluded. “It’s nice of her to give us comms support, though. Especially now that our President decided we don’t need the Covenant anymore.”
An idea struck her, and she cradled the phone between her shoulder and her cheek, using her good hand to check her mailbox again. The email she was looking for was at the very top, sent by Athena ten minutes ago. It only took her a few seconds to skim over the two short paragraphs of text.
“Just got the same news,” she said. “Our delivery is scheduled for tomorrow. Think you could ask Athena to pass all of the armbands to you and have Checkmate bring them over to us and the East Coast Wardens? You know we’re short on time. We still don’t know who or what we’re up against. All the more if Sovereign isn’t alone.”
“Has Sovereign caused any further trouble in the city?” Rune asked with unmistakable concern.
“No. I’m guessing they’re laying low until they get a good opportunity to attack. Guerilla tactics. That way, we don’t learn anything new, and the FBI has a hard time tracking them. I have a feeling the next attack is going to be something big.”
“We should meet today, right after we get the armbands from Athena,” Rune suggested. “Talk everything through, make some plans. Radiant is still in hospital until tomorrow, but we can start scouting the city. Remind me who’s on the East Coast team?”
“The Canadian, Rose the Red, and Umbra,” Chris said. “Umbra is a new Darkshaper who joined up a couple days ago. He’ll be better for scouting than Noire. And yeah, we should meet up in a few hours. Start touching base.”
Chris’s gaze dropped to the cast of her arm. It didn’t hurt, but it was going to have some impact on her mobility for a few more days. Which was much better than the usual recovery time of a few weeks. The serum she’d been injected with – something developed by Uberdoc – was doing an outstanding job at speeding up the healing process.
“I’ll give you a call after Athena’s delivery. Don’t do anything crazy, alright?” Rune said. There was a smile in his voice, and Chris smirked right back.
“Don’t worry, I’m not Radiant. Talk to you soon.”
After putting the phone down, Chris just sat for a minute while the sound of the television trickled through the open door. Peter had turned it on, she assumed. He was in charge of keeping tabs on all the disasters that were happening elsewhere in the world.
The USA had been relatively quiet since the villain attack on New York, though the protest groups on either side of the fence – for Evolved, or against them – had grown dramatically, both in numbers and in terms of activity. And Preacher’s sect was recruiting new members with unprecedented aggressiveness. Their end-of-the-world posters and flyers were everywhere.
At this rate, we’ll be seeing another civil war before long.
Chris pushed the thought aside, pulling her mind back to the problems she could address in the here and now, with her parents now at the top of the list. In retrospect, she wished she’d gotten around to seeing them before Sovereign’s bomb and the subsequent evacuation complicated everything.
Chris didn’t know how her mom settled into her new home or how her dad had taken the loss of his job. He loved his job. Sure, the government made sure everything was provided for, but Li Chung couldn’t be sent on patrol with villains roaming around. The risk of him getting kidnapped and used as leverage against the last Guardian was deemed too high.
That’s why the comic superheroes had secret identities, Chris thought bitterly. To prevent this from happening.
Despite the uncomfortable circumstances, Chris wasn’t as anxious about the reunion as she might have been a week ago. Every aspect of her old life had been changed, knocked over and rearranged so many times that she didn’t know what to expect anymore. She had changed, too. When she thought back to the old Chris who’d worried about life after high school, she didn’t even recognize that person as part of herself.
Time for a new start, she thought as she picked her phone back up. Let’s do this.
The Chung’s new home was located on the outskirts of Berkeley, close to Tilden National Park. The house itself was one story of smooth dark wood, crowned by dark brown shingles that blended into the surrounding greenery. Judging by the quality of the craftsmanship, it looked more luxurious than the average vacation home but not enough to attract unwanted attention.
The Wardens stepped up to the front door while their entourage of three armed security guards waited in the government-issue car. Chris was grateful for their restraint; a trio of bodyguards would have made the family reunion even more awkward than it already was.
Unsurprisingly, the family dog noticed Chris’s steps on the front path before anyone else did. His excited barking was unmistakable, and her heart made a small leap at the sound of it. It reminded her of her not-so-distant past. – Barney, steak thief extraordinaire, had often waited on the front porch until she returned from school. Chris could imagine that her sudden disappearance had been nearly as hard for him as it must have been for her parents. The poor dog couldn’t possibly have understood what had happened.
Sorry, fur face. For a moment, she wished she could establish some kind of telepathic connection to make him understand. Then again, it was nice to have someone who loved her unconditionally, regardless of what she’d done. Someone who didn’t care about powers or responsibilities.
“Hey, someone’s happy to see you,” Peter said. He stood to her right, hands casually tucked away within his pant pockets. “He’s not going to eat us, right?”
Chris smirked. “Probably not, but don’t give him ideas.”
Nora didn’t say anything. She stood a little apart, her attention seemingly focused on the lush forest and the narrow road leading up to the house. Keeping out an eye for any suspicious attention from strangers, maybe.
The sound of small scuttling steps, her mom’s familiar gait, drew Chris’s attention back to the door. She knew her mom would be the one to greet them. She wondered what her first words would be, wondered what her mother’s face would look like; if she would be happy to see her daughter.
Maybe all of this changed her too.
Jeannette Chung opened the door, her fingers clasped about the handle as if she didn’t know what to do with them. She’d arranged her dark brown hair in an elaborate knot at the back of her head, a style that was new to her, and Chris recognized the skirt and silk blouse as her mother’s formal job interview outfit. Her eyes were moist and full of unspoken questions, and her lips quivered in search of words.
“Hi, Mom,” Chris said.
Then the dog pushed through the door, thirty kilograms of fur and adoration and wagging tail, and put an end to the momentary awkwardness with his happy barking. He charged into Chris, who struggled to keep her balance while keeping her broken arm out of reach.
Nora snorted. Peter just watched with a big grin on his face, clearly enjoying himself.
“You should have come sooner, Christina,” her Mom said. “He’s been waiting for you so long that I couldn’t hold him back.”
“I know. I’m sorry, B-Boy.” Chris resisted the urge to hug the dog, shifting her plastered arm out of the way so she could scratch him behind the ears instead. She looked up at the sound of footsteps and saw her dad appear behind her mom. He looked relaxed, but there was a certain rigidity to his posture that let her know he was choosing his words very carefully. He hadn’t made a decision about her or about her friends just yet.
“Hi Mom, hi Dad. It’s nice to see you too,” Chris said, now addressing her parents. She was surprised to find she could meet her father’s eyes without guilt or fear.
Peter defused some of the tension with his teenage boy charm. “Nice to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Chung,” he said, politely offering a hand. “Thanks for letting us tag along.”
The words put a faint smile on Li Chung’s face. He gave Peter’s hand an uncharacteristically brief shake. “No, we should thank you for keeping our daughter company. It seems you’ve become good friends.”
“Yeah, you could say that,” Chris said in an attempt to make conversation. “Peter, Nora and I have been through a lot together.”
Chris had taken the opportunity to speak up before she could slip back into a passive role with her Dad putting words in her mouth. That had been one of the habits leading to their strained relationship, and while was nice to see him, a reset of established family structures was the last thing she needed right now. She’d outgrown her old self, and her parents – her dad, in particular – had to get to know her as the Wardens team leader.
“Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Chung,” Nora said, more quietly and without Peter’s radiant self-esteem.
Jeanette Chung stepped through the doorway and out into the late morning light, eyes darting between Chris and her teammates to take in their appearances fully. Nora shifted uncomfortably, lowering her gaze.
Meanwhile, Barney was busy sniffing everyone as if to verify whether Chris’s new friends were okay. He still seemed reluctant to leave her side. His happy, wagging tail brushed against her pant leg.
Chris was expecting her mother to settle a hand on Nora’s shoulder, the way she usually did when she tried to get someone to open up to her. But her mom didn’t budge, didn’t say a word.
Her dad looked even more reluctant to welcome Nora. He was leaning against the doorframe with his arms crossed, smiling a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
Not playing the family man today, Chris concluded, a hint of rebellious resentment welling up inside her. She knew her dad’s standards for suitable friend material all too well, and Nora – the ‘demon girl’ with the creepy powers – apparently didn’t meet them.
I never met your standards either, Dad. Not even when I was normal.
“Thanks, Mrs. Chung,” Nora said, glancing at Chris’s mom with a hesitant smile. She was a little taller than Jeanette Chung, but the difference in height hadn’t been apparent. Nora had a way of drawing her shoulders in and keeping her chin low when she wasn’t comfortable.
Chris realized why, and reached out to give Nora’s hand a light squeeze. You don’t have to worry about being accepted by my parents. That’s my concern.
Nora squeezed back, but didn’t say anything.
Jeannette’s attention settled on Chris instead. “Christina, why haven’t you contacted us? We’ve been waiting and waiting to hear from you and you didn’t even send an email..” Her tone was a little reproachful, but not unbearably so. Which seemed strange.
Chris closed her eyes for a second. Do we have to discuss this in front of my friends?
“It’s been difficult for me too, Mom,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what I could possibly say that wouldn’t make you worry. And I didn’t know how you’d react. Or how Dad would react.” She put emphasis on the word, hoping her mother would understand.
“We should probably go inside before anyone recognizes us,” Peter suggested.
Chris shot him a grateful glance. Thanks, man.. He smirked back and wagged his eyebrows, letting her know he’d remind her of the rescue later.
“You’re right, of course,” her Dad said. “Come in. It’s too dangerous to stay outside.” He stepped away from the door to make room for the rest of them.
Barney got the hint and padded through the door first. He slipped past Dad’s leg and settled on the floor of the small vestibule to gaze up at Chris expectantly.
“I’m coming, B-Boy,” she told him.
Mother gently gripped Chris’s good arm, as if she was afraid her daughter would make a break for it any moment. Chris resisted pulling away and let herself be supported, though she would have preferred assistance from her friends. Or just walking the ten or fifteen steps on her own; she wasn’t a cripple.
Nora and Peter followed just behind and removed their shoes in the small vestibule leading to the other rooms. The house had been recently constructed, and the fresh scent of wood was very noticeable. Despite the familiar pictures that hung on the walls, Chris’s foray into the new family domain didn’t feel like a homecoming at all. She wondered if her parents felt the same way.
The living room had been meticulously set up to welcome her, and Chris couldn’t help but smile at mother’s distinctive way of doing preparations. Everything was in place the way she remembered from Helen’s rare home visits. Flowers had been arranged on the windowsills, tasseled red seating pads had been placed on each of the chairs, and a chocolate cake sat ready on the long dining table.
While all those careful preparations for Chris’s arrival were nice to see, they didn’t have much of an emotional impact on her.
The pictures, however, struck home. Once Chris realized the significance of that change, a massive lump formed in her throat.
In this new home, none of Helen’s pictures hung on the wall. Not even the big baby photo that had been a favorite of her mother’s. The framed letter of recommendation to Harvard was gone, along with the paper flowers Helen had crafted in elementary school.
Instead, Chris spotted the colorful dragon she’d drawn in the hospital while she waited for Dylan to be born. There was a photograph of her doing a Parkour exercise – which she didn’t even remember being taken – enlarged to poster size, and a series of images of her, taken at varying ages from baby to teenager, arranged in a vertical column on the wall beside the dining table. There wasn’t a single detail of her hero career. Nothing to remind the Chungs of the one event that had changed everything.
It all made sense now. Her father’s reluctance to accept her fellow heroes. Her mother’s grip on Chris’s arm, the desperate look in her eyes. The new pictures and the meticulous elimination of any memory of Helen and Dylan.
Chris hadn’t returned home. She’d returned to two people who had lost everything – except for her.