San Francisco, USA – Sunday, the 17th of June 2012. 09:13 PM.
Shortly after sunset, the five heroes who’d been selected for the scouting mission – Umbra, Aura, Noire, the Canadian, and Chris – drove to their destination in a silver colored Ford Fusion they’d rented for the occasion. It had been agreed that the Canadian would come along as backup; he could focus on driving without being distracted by his powers.
They made their way across the long expanse of the Oakland Bay Bridge and the wide-open waters of San Pablo Bay below. The water gleamed with a silvery sheen where it was touched by the moonlight, and the peaceful atmosphere lulled Chris. Her thoughts drifted back to the reunion with her parents, to her mother’s embrace and the gentle prodding of Barney’s snout. To the idea of going home at some point in the future.
Across the bay, the lights of San Francisco glittered like a cluster of stars in the deepening darkness. There weren’t as many of them as Chris remembered from visiting Seattle a few years back. Sure, it had been a different city, but she couldn’t imagine the nightlife being so different. San Francisco should have been bustling on a summer Sunday evening, filled with people intent on making the most of their week-end before Monday came along. Even the traffic was about half of what it should have been.
Doomsday anxiety, Chris suspected. Television and the internet were full of talk about worst case scenarios concerning power surges these days. Preacher’s followers handed out flyers at every other street corner, it seemed, and some people had quit their jobs and moved to countryside homes. She tried not to be discouraged by the apparent lack of faith in heroes.
In the car, no one spoke. Chris blamed the silence on Peter’s absence and Aura’s weariness – the European Empath had sunken into the passenger seat, one cheek pressed against the window to her right. Her inner clock was set to a different time zone. Chris would have liked to let her sleep; the girl couldn’t be more than thirteen, though she seemed mature for her age. But there was no denying that her powers could mean the difference between life and death.
The Canadian hadn’t even turned the radio on. Maybe he was sick of the doom-mongering as Chris was. Beside her, Nora sat with crossed arms, her half lidded gaze seemingly focused on nothing. Umbra was to Chris’s left, completely absorbed in himself. His eyes had turned completely black a few minutes ago. In the scattered light from oncoming headlights, they looked like lumps of coal, their whites gone completely. He didn’t even blink.
Chris watched him for a minute, intrigued by the eeriness of his powers. He was gazing into a different realm, she knew, some layer of reality that was hidden from the rest of them. In there, every suitably dark location within his range was interconnected, feeding him information about everyone in it – including their powers, to a degree. He could see through walls and other barriers as long as the space beyond them was filled with darkness.
That was how he’d explained it, anyway.
The group had decided to make the drive rather than teleport closer to their target area, in part because Umbra needed time to gradually expand his senses and navigate the flood of information in the area. The car was also less likely to draw villain attention.
Chris ran her fingers along the smooth plastic wrap of her Athena created wristband, going over the plan in her head. Until Umbra or Aura picked something up, the group would blend into the late night traffic and circle the area she’d marked on the map – Mission Dolores Park, which Aura believed to hold some potential conflict, but without risk of death for any of them.
Depending on what it was they picked up, the group would make a stop and investigate further with Aura and the Canadian’s support. If they found themselves in over their heads, then plan B involved getting the hell out, hopefully with some new information that would help them determine their next steps.
And god damn it, they needed information on Emily’s whereabouts, and soon. Chris scowled in frustration, her hand curling into a fist. She slammed it into the door, prompting everyone in the car to turn their heads in her direction.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, not really meaning it. The car looked perfectly fine. It could take some punishment. Her fist throbbed, though, reminding her of how fragile she really was.
“Tense?” Nora asked, shifting to see Chris’s face beneath the shadows that flashed over both of them.
“A bit, I guess.” She cleared her throat and looked out the window again. They were rolling off the bridge now, swallowed by the unusually quiet metropolis that loomed around them. The towering architecture made the absence of nightlife all the more noticeable.
She probably isn’t in the city anymore, Chris reminded herself. Damn it.
“You know,” she said. “We should kidnap one of those villains. Make them talk.”
“Are you serious, kid?” the Canadian asked from the driver’s seat. “Do you even understand what you’re suggesting? We’d essentially become criminals.”
“I do, and I don’t think we’re going to make any progress by following the rules. We’d just have to keep it our own private business.”
“Mr. Turner would chop our heads off if word got out,” Nora objected. She’d turned her face to the window and Chris couldn’t see it, but over the past weeks, she’d learned to ascertain Nora’s expression from her voice. Now, she knew, Nora’s expression was particularly sour.
Grumpyface fellowship, Kid had called them once. The thought almost made her smile.
“Mr. Turner isn’t finding solutions,” Chris said. “If we don’t, no one will. The Department of Defense just moves us and our parents around. Sure, it helps, but they haven’t a clue how to actually deal with supervillains.”
“How would we even pull it off?” Nora asked. “We don’t have a secret lair. No place to lock the bad guys up.”
On the passenger seat, Aura glanced over her shoulder, but didn’t say anything. Umbra still sat in the same position, staring into space with his inky black eyes. Chris wasn’t sure he’d heard anything at all.
She closed her eyes and analyzed the problem. The answer dawned on her when she thought back to the rest of their alliance, to the guys who’d taken part the plotting but hadn’t come along in the car.
“Rune can set up barriers with his rune effects, right?” she asked, not opening her eyes. If she did, she might see something distracting that would scatter the ideas she’d lined up in her mind. “Those effects last a long time. Days, maybe weeks. And Checkmate can kidnap people easy if he gets within arm’s length.”
The Canadian chortled. “Kidnapping. That’s the word, you got that right. It’s a crime, kid.”
Chris wasn’t sure when she’d decided she disliked the guy, but that one comment made her realize that at some point, she had. Sure, he was a badass and nearly twice her age, but she really hated being called a kid. Seeing as she needed the guy as an ally, she did her best to keep her emotions in check.
I never said we didn’t have to get our hands dirty.
To Chris’s surprise, Umbra emerged from his semi-catatonic state to respond. “How about we get some real facts before leaping to conclusions? I can help with that. We’re getting closer. I can feel it in my eyeballs.” He grinned, revealing teeth that gleamed white in the headlights of a passing car.
In your eyeballs? Seriously? Chris gave him an incredulous look before responding. “Yeah. We should consider the option now, though. And hear what the others have to say.” She glanced to the driver’s seat. “How long until we get there?”
“Mission Dolores Park? A few minutes,” the Canadian replied. “I’ll skirt the area for a while if you want to call Rune. Can’t imagine he’ll agree, though.”
“And Checkmate,” Nora added. “Not gonna pull it off without the teleporter.”
“True,” Chris admitted, already searching her bag for her phone. The gleam of white plastic around her wrist reminded her of the armband, and she stopped. Old habits did die hard.
Much more efficient, Chris decided and pressed her thumb against the monitor, feeling the eyes of the others on her. Seeing as it had been her idea, they’d expect her to resolve this. She’d either get Rune’s agreement or be shot down like a clay pigeon.
The small monitor on her armband lit up in response to her touch. It showed her a selection of contacts, including the customized group she’d set up for the international hero team shortly after receiving her armband. She’d named it AH – short for Allied Heroes.
If I get everyone involved, we’ll never stop discussing. They didn’t have time for that, Chris knew, and she hoped the others were equally aware of their limited timeframe. She opened the group with a sweep of her thumb on the monitor, then manually selected Checkmate and Rune before pressing the contact button.
Rune’s scratchy voice reached her first; it came through the armband loud and clear. “Trouble?” he asked with an undertone of alarm.
“Not yet, we haven’t reached the park. Got an option to discuss,” Chris informed him. She glanced at Nora, who gave her a thumbs up. She flashed a smile in return, grateful for the support.
“What’s up? Need me already?” Checkmate chimed in, relayed through the armband.
“No. I just thought we should consider capturing one of the bad guys. Ask them some questions. Rune, you could set something up to keep them contained, right?”
Rune was silent for a few long seconds. Maybe he was wondering whether she’d lost her mind. She prepared an answer in advance: everyone’s losing their minds lately.
“I could,” Rune finally said. “But you know I can’t. Not without approval from the EU. You’re talking about a scenario that goes far beyond unofficial teamwork.”
“She’s got a point, though,” Checkmate said through the armband. “I’ve been thinking about the same thing. With a power nullification rune prepared somewhere, I could take a villain out of combat before they get the chance to—” He broke off, voice cracking a little. “Before they get the chance to murder anyone,” he finished, the words heavy with emotion.
Chris didn’t know how to fill the following moment of silence without resorting to awkward and maybe unwanted sympathy for Skyfire’s death. She’d heard all about how the EU heroine died, and she’d never been good at offering condolences. Either her timing sucked, or her choice of words did. Or both.
We’re not letting anyone die, she decided with a glance over the small team who sat in the car with her.
Chris broke the silence first. “Rune, I’m leaving the choice of location to you. It doesn’t hurt to be prepared, right? Let’s consider it an emergency option.”
“Mascot knows what she’s doing, bud,” Checkmate said. “She’s kicked ass every time so far. Even Legion’s ass. Can’t say the same about us.”
Internally, Chris cringed a little. Sure, it was nice to be trusted and respected by her peers, but… damn. Expectations.
“We’ll think about it,” Rune said. “Go where you’re supposed to go, fill us in.” And with that, he was gone. Chris’s monitor flashed red to inform her that he’d gone offline.
“Do your thing, Mascot. I believe in you,” Checkmate told her before the connection broke.
Umbra informed them that he was starting to pick up passive power vibes as they reached the western fringes of Mission district. The Canadian pulled the car into Dolores Street, a short distance north from the park but outside its visibility range. The road itself was as quiet and lifeless as every other they’d traversed along the way.
In the distance, a voice boomed with eerie fervor, supported by a chorus of approval from what had to be fifty people. She was too far away to understand the words, but there was a certain rhythm to them that reminded Chris of zealous television preachers.
Not Preacher, she hoped. The guy’s supposed to be in Brazil.
She narrowed her eyes at the darkness behind the car windows, but all she could see were the nearby buildings and some illuminated windows. Something was definitely going on here. Just before turning into Dolores Road, she had spotted a few police cars that had stopped on the curb with flashing lights, keeping their distance from the park.
Chris didn’t blame them for failing to break up a possibly illegal nightly gathering with Evolved participants. That was her job.
“Stop now,” Umbra requested. “I’m feeling the area out.”
The Canadian pulled the car into a parking space that belonged to a bowling venue whose lights were out. Judging by the boarded up front door and windows, the place hadn’t seen any visitors in some time, and the owner had clearly done more than just closed down. The boards looked thick and sturdy, and there were layers of them, nailed to each other.
Someone has watched too many zombie apocalypse flicks, Chris concluded.
Umbra slumped down and gasped. Chris twisted in her seat in alarm and projected a small forcefield on him in reflex, but he sat back up, seemingly unhurt except for the liquid darkness that flowed from his completely black eyeholes in thin rivulets. It extended outward from his cheek to puff out in the air, like tendrils of cigarette smoke that had been dispersed by the wind. It looked really freaking creepy.
“Dude,” Chris said, taken aback. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” he replied in an eerily flat voice. “Just doing my thing.”
Aura’s eyes behind her glasses went wide, but Nora just watched her fellow Darkshaper with a look of idle curiosity.
They waited half a minute until Umbra spoke up again. “Two kids with powers,” he muttered. “Gravity Girl and Prodigy. Isn’t dark enough to know why they’re at a nutcase gathering. Must be a date or something.”
“Wait. Gravity Girl?” Chris asked to make sure she hadn’t misheard. “Are you sure? We’ve been keeping tabs on the most dangerous rogues. Gravity Girl hasn’t left New Zealand since her transition, and that was what, two weeks ago?
She didn’t need to explain how Gravity Girl had made it onto the list of the twenty most dangerous known rogue Evolved in the world; the news of her had spread across the globe like a wildfire. During her transition, she’d nullified the laws of gravitation physics for her car – along with hundreds of others that had been unlucky enough to be nearby – and lifted it a few meters above ground. As was often the case with transitions, she lost control after a few seconds. All the hovering vehicles had dropped at once, along with their passengers, nearly all of whom had been injured in the process.
The incident had been classified as an unfortunate transition accident, but as far as the general public was aware, hell would freeze over before Gravity Girl received permission to leave New Zealand. No airplane or cruise liner would let her aboard.
“I’m sure,” Umbra replied. “Go talk to her. I’m not sensing any hostile intent. They’re both anxious, though.”
“Anxious about what?”
“No idea. Maybe take Aura along?”
She’s too vulnerable, Chris decided as she considered the small teenage girl on the passenger seat. We already know shit’s going to go down.
Aura unfastened her seat belt and spoke up for the first time since they had gotten into the car. “I’d like to see them. I think I could tell if they’re with the villains or not.” She opened her mouth to say more, but hesitated, pushing her glasses up from her nose. “Be careful. None of you are surrounded by death yet, but those two rogues are dangerous somehow. I see it more clearly now than I did before.”
“Yet? You mean something could change that makes death a possibility?” The Canadian asked.
“Maybe,” Aura echoed, her voice small.
Nora gave the girl a second of contemplation before cutting into the silence. “Who’s Prodigy again?” She asked.
“Teenage genius, for a minute or two. The kid can never hold on to a subject for long enough to write a paper before his focus changes,” Umbra said. The color of his eyes shifted with the sound of his voice, the darkness momentarily withdrawing.
Prodigy might know something about Emily or who we’re up against. Two minutes of genius would be enough for some questions.
“Sounds kinda harmless, I guess,” Nora said.
Chris wasn’t so sure about that, but she didn’t see the benefit of lengthy discussions, either. “Aura, you should stay in the car. We’ll send pictures to your phone,” she said. “You and Checkmate actually, when he gets here. If anything happens, he’ll pull you out. Canadian, stay back and guard her from outside. Keep an eye on the area.”
He didn’t respond to her request, which she interpreted as approval.
“Okay.” Aura raised her wrist with the white armband. “I’ll keep the others informed. You’re going to let me listen in, right?”
“Yeah. That’s the plan,” Chris said as she projected a forcefield onto the teenage girl. Adjusting the size and shape to let her forcefield recipient sit comfortably was routine now, and Chris directed the flow of energy almost without conscious thought.
“Pass the coordinates to Checkmate,” the Canadian said to Aura. He then pulled his sheer, eyeless mask down over his eyes, effectively blinding himself and becoming invisible to everyone else.
Chris watched the driver’s door swing open, intrigued by the suddenness of the Canadian’s disappearance. There was no transition, no blur or gradual vanishing. The instant the mask covered his eyes, he erased himself from her field of vision. He was still audible though. If she listened closely, she could hear the scrape of his shoes against pavement.
Nora, who had already climbed out of the car, lightly nudged Chris with a fist. “Come on.”
Chris nodded and slid left on the seat, toward the open door. Up front, Aura was already busy getting her armband set up. Her fingers danced across the small monitor to select the desired options.
“Don’t leave the car, okay?” Chris told her.
Aura just nodded, distracted.
Once they’d closed the doors and locked the car, Chris projected forcefields onto Nora and Umbra. The Canadian’s invisibility prevented her from targeting him along with the others. He was a self-proclaimed badass and had agreed to stay near the car, but the part of her who’d grown comfortable in the heroine role urged her to offer her Guardian protection anyway.
“Canadian, you don’t have a forcefield,” she said. “If you want one, remove the mask for a few.”
His voice came from the empty space beside her. “I’ll be fine.”
“Suit yourself,” she replied. “Let’s not head to the park directly. If we go that way–” she pointed at a gloomy side alley that branched off Dolores Street, “we can skirt around the park a bit before we’re seen by anyone in it. Sound good?”
“Sure,” Umbra said with a lazy shrug, hands jammed into his pockets. To Chris’s relief, his eyes weren’t bleeding darkness anymore. Leaving a trail of freaked out people wasn’t part of the plan.
Nora glanced in that direction, then nodded.
The three of them entered the alley and started approaching the park. Now that they were more exposed to the breeze, Chris couldn’t help but notice that the warm summer air carried an intense smell of decomposing trash that seemed inappropriate for the middle class homes along the alley. The stench of decay was so prevalent that Chris couldn’t help but wonder if the garbage men had shown up to work lately. Along with the boarded up bowling venue, the lack of garbagemen didn’t bode well for other sectors.
Nora pulled a face, but no one made a remark about it. They were on the lookout for something far worse than decomposing trash after all. The two Wardens and Umbra continued along their way until they reached a small edge that was a good vantage point.
Looking downhill, Mission Dolores Park appeared as a grassy field dotted with palm trees whose rain-washed leaves shimmered in the moonlight. The crowd – about fifty people, as Chris had guessed earlier – had gathered in front of a large projection screen that cast an eerie, flickering light over the area and all the spectators.
No, not all of them. A few individuals stood some distance apart from the others, preferring to watch the screen from the relative cover of the darkness-shrouded park. One glance was enough to verify that the speaker on the projection screen wasn’t Preacher, the Brazilian guy who’d founded the Guides of Destiny and had seemingly disappeared a few days ago. Apart from the white-collared priest’s vestments the man wore, he looked like just another skinny white guy, balding and lightly tanned.
“Umbra, where are they?” Chris asked, momentarily ignoring the screen. Being much more focused on their Evolved targets than on religious ramblings, she scanned the spectators for bodies whose size and shape could have indicated Gravity Girl or Prodigy.
“Over there,” Umbra said, pointing at a pair of palm trees twenty meters from the screen. The trees overshadowed the two figures who stood below, arms draped about one another. The display of affection was obvious even to the heroes, who stood a good thirty meters away from the edge of the park.
Maybe it’s a date after all, Chris concluded. But the event choice is really weird.
“They’re the only Evolved in that park,” Umbra added, a thoughtful frown on his face. “And I still don’t pick up any hostile intent.”
Then, the wind changed direction and delivered complete, understandable sentences from the man on screen. Each word was accentuated with a passion and fervor that held the crowd’s attention. Chris grimaced; she’d never been a fan of television preachers. Or television, for that matter, too much air time was wasted on nonsense.
“…states that ‘whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,’” the man’s voice boomed from the park below. “And I tell you this: our Godkin brothers and sisters have received the holy sacrament of God’s own power. They must not be harmed; to spill their blood is the eighth deadly sin that may become our undoing. To refuse the will of Godkin is to refuse the Garden of Eden, of creation itself. And I tell you this: Armageddon is drawing near, and only your devotion to God’s Chosen will save your souls!”
They can’t know there are two Evolved down there, Chris assumed. If they did, Gravity Girl and Prodigy would get a lot more attention.
“I can smell Armageddon already,” Umbra commented, sniffing the air. “We’ll be smothered in refuse if people don’t do their damn jobs anymore.”
“I read the bible, but this crap pisses me off,” Nora said in a tone that matched her sour expression. “Preacher’s folks think they got everything right and that the rest of us are idiots. Don’t know about you guys, but I’m not feeling very saintly at all.”
Chris didn’t care about any of that Godkin blather, though she would have liked to order all those people down there to go home before things got ugly. Aura had seen the danger potential of this time and location; it was the reason they’d come here in the first place.
Be a good girl, Christina. A memory of her mother’s voice washed over her without reason, leaving her with a faint feeling of warmth. She pushed it to the back of her mind to focus on the current problem.
“Same here,” Chris said, not remembering what she was responding to. She noted that they were still far enough from the edge of the park to be out of earshot from the crowd and that the others were looking at her with a mixture of anticipation and curious skepticism. Well, the latter was just Umbra.
“Okay, let’s get started.” She tapped her armband until the names of the other heroes lit up to confirm they were listening in. “Aura, Checkmate, is everyone ready?”
“We’re all set up. Well, almost,” Checkmate’s voice replied through the device. “Found a place that might work for that emergency plan. Rune’s putting the finishing touches to it. Told me to remind you it’s really just for that. For a real emergency.”
“That’s cool. I’ll set you guys to listen only before we head in there. Do an override if it’s a real emergency, okay?”
“Got it. Good luck.”
Down below, the man on screen prattled on about the Godkin’s guidance and wisdom. Chris was done paying attention to him.
“Umbra, before we barge in there… did you learn anything new?” she asked.
Looking at him, she saw that his eyes had turned black again. Thin rivulets of darkness seeped from them, dispersed by the nod he gave her. “She has powers beyond gravity manipulation. I’m getting a better impression now that we’re close. She can fly and pull people and objects towards her or others.”
“And Prodigy?” Chris asked. “Anything yet unrevealed we should worry about?”
“Not if he doesn’t assemble a nuclear bomb in under two minutes.”
“Okay,” Chris replied. “Umbra, you should probably stay back. No offense, but you’re in creepy-mode right now, and there’s normal people down there. You’re still in range for my danger sense. If things go bad, I got you covered.”
And you have no combat ability, she added in her thoughts.
He furrowed his brow but seemed unoffended. “Sure.”
“I’m coming with you,” Nora declared. “I’m not creepy looking.”
“No,” Chris agreed. “You’re not. Come on.”
They headed down a flight of stairs that took them to the base of the hill and the edge of the park. Now that they were only a few dozen meters away from the screen, the preacher’s voice boomed over them, drowning out most other noise. No one looked in the direction of the Wardens. So far, their approach had gone seemingly unnoticed.
“Approaching the targets in a moment,” Chris informed the others over her armband. As agreed beforehand, she got no reply.
“They look almost cute,” Nora said in a low voice that was barely heard over the noise. She pointed at the two figures – a ponytailed teenage girl and a young man whose hood was drawn up over his head. It was too dark to make out their faces, but since Umbra had previously identified them, Chris retrieved her phone from her pocket.
A few seconds later, she had a picture. Poor quality, but she hoped Aura would still be able to get something out of it.
“Sending it to Aura?” Nora asked.
Chris nodded and pressed the send button. They didn’t speak during the minute it took Aura to send a reply. After the incoming message beep, Chris held her phone up to let Nora read the text.
That’s them, Aura had written in her text message. It’s not very clear. They still don’t mean to hurt anyone, but they will. That’s all I can see right now.
“Still wondering why they’re here with the weirdos,” Nora said, glancing to the screen with a frown of disapproval.
“We can ask them,” Chris said. “But first we have to convince the normal people to leave before they get hurt, because something will happen. I have an idea.”
Having stated her intentions, Chris drew energy into herself and sped up, slowing the world to a crawl around her. The hubbub of voices dissolved into a low-pitched perpetual hum. The crowd stood seemingly frozen, their reverent faces turned towards the screen with wide eyes.
She dashed towards the screen and stopped in front of it, letting time resume its normal course. Sounds popped back into their rightful place. The man on the screen resumed his passionate speech, undisturbed by Chris’s presence. That is, until she yanked the power cable out of the speakers.The following silence was music to her ears. The crowd’s attention was now on her, their moonlit faces following her every move.
“Hello, people,” Chris said, raising her voice to a volume that hopefully reached all of them. “So, you’ve been listening to this for a while, I guess.” She glanced down at the power cable in her hand, then dropped it to the ground. “If you want to do the right thing, go home. Right now. This place’s about to blow up.”
“Who… are you Mascot?” a man at the front of the crowd stammered, staring at her.
“Yeah. The one with the danger sense, which is telling you all to get the fuck out.”
Chris didn’t wait for more questions. She sped up again and dashed through a gap in the crowd. When she found herself a few meters from Gravity Girl and Prodigy, she stopped. From up close, they still looked as harmless as they had before – young, teens to early twenties, dressed casually without any obvious weapons or armor. Prodigy’s pimpled face had the same startled expression she’d seen on the faces she’d passed by. Gravity Girl directed an annoyed look at the position where Chris had stood fractions of a second before.
They weren’t expecting me, Chris realized.
When she released her energy to let time resume its normal course, Gravity Girl’s expression didn’t change much. Her gaze just swiveled to Chris.
“Hi,” Chris offered.
Then Prodigy slipped a hand into his hoodie, kicking Chris’s danger sense into a state of tense readiness.