9.6 Devotion

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San Francisco, USA – Sunday, the 17th of June 2012. 09:49 PM.
This time, the reaction from Chris’s danger sense was different. Instead of overwhelming her with scenarios of injury and death, the surging threat potential rose the hairs on her skin.

She jerked forward in reflex to stop whatever had triggered it – Prodigy’s hand, she assumed, which had slipped half way into his pocket. She barely noticed how time slowed all around her. The use of her power felt so natural that it became part of her movement.

A fraction of a second after moving forward, she found herself face to face with the teenage genius, fingers clasped around his arm. Her forcefield flowed tightly about her body, filling the air with a hum of energy that made her skin tingle.

From up close, Prodigy’s face beneath the drape of his hood was a mask of startled surprise. To her left, Chris heard a gasp from Gravity Girl. Behind her, the crowd erupted in a flurry of voices. She hoped they were leaving the scene, but she couldn’t pay attention to them. Addressing the threat potential these two teenagers radiated was of a higher priority.

“Stop,” Gravity Girl hissed at her. “Whatever the fuck you’re about to do. Don’t.”

Prodigy’s arm twitched nervously in Chris’s grip. He swallowed, eyes darting over to Gravity Girl, then back to Chris. “Let me go,” he demanded.

“You did something, didn’t you?” Chris asked. She didn’t feel compelled to relax her grip. “Right when you saw us. Which is why your hand went where it is now.”

“Piss off, heroes. You don’t want to get involved,” Gravity Girl said with a glare that could have cut iron. But, oddly, her tone didn’t match. There was an anxious quaver to it that took the edge out of her threat.

“We’re obviously already involved in whatever is going on here,” Chris said. “And why would you even come to San Francisco if you’re not up to something? Gravity Girl isn’t even supposed to leave New Zealand.”

From somewhere behind Chris, Nora hollered, “I’m gearing up!”

Seconds later, Chris’s danger sense flared again, filling her with the chill of Mr. Black coming alive. It didn’t infuse her with visions of death and destruction, but she knew all too well how quickly that would change if Nora’s control over the shadow slipped.

It had happened in Canada.

“I got this!” Chris called out to Nora over her shoulder. “Pull him back to you!”

Some of the crowd who’d stuck around had spotted the animated shadow, as evidenced by the curses and fearful cries that filled the air. To Chris’s relief, many people  reacted by beating a hasty retreat to the edge of the park. However, others lingered to observe their Godkin idols with unconcealed admiration.

“Run,” Chris called out to them. The sight of their eerily reverent faces sparked an idea, and she adopted a commanding tone. It wasn’t something she was used to, but she couldn’t think of a gentler way to resolve this.

“That’s an order! Get out of the park, now!” Chris yelled at the crowd. Finally, the last of them began to scatter.

Prodigy twisted feebly in her grip, but seeing as Chris hadn’t tried to harm him, he eventually began to relax. Gravity Girl just stood beside him and glowered silently. Neither of them made any serious attempt to flee the scene, and judging by their lack of cooperation, they didn’t have much to say, either. Their ambivalent reaction was equal parts confusing and irritating.

They’re surprised to see us and scared, but all they do is tell us to leave, Chris thought. What the hell?

“Chris, they aren’t the bad guys,” Nora objected.

Chris realized she’d sounded harsher than she intended and forced herself to release Prodigy’s arm. What she really wanted to do was find one of the real bad guys and punch them until they delivered the answers she wanted, anything to fill the void Emily’s kidnapping had left behind.

“Thanks,” Prodigy murmured. Chris couldn’t help but notice that he still didn’t withdraw his hand from his shirt pocket.

There wasn’t any point to trying to stop him anymore, Chris knew. The damage was done, something had been set in motion, and she could feel the danger potential of it grow more intense with every passing moment. She just didn’t know what it was. The vision that flashed at the back of her mind was still too fuzzy.

They don’t mean to hurt anyone, but they will, Aura had said. And she’d mentioned the possibility that the future she’d seen might be changing. That deaths could become a possibility.

“You’re hiding something,” Chris said. “Come on. Help us out a little.”

“I told you to leave,” Gravity Girl snapped instead of giving an answer. Her eyes flicked about nervously, scanning the park in search of something. “You should have listened.”

“Are you waiting for someone?” Chris asked. She looked around the moonlit park for anything unusual, but all she could see were the flickering images on the now muted projection screen, and the silhouettes of people who hadn’t reached a reasonably safe distance yet. Some of them hadn’t gone further than a few dozen meters. Apparently, the Godkin were just too fascinating to them.

Damn it. Just leave already.

“We didn’t want to come here,” Prodigy said with a small voice. He rubbed his arm and dropped his gaze. “We considered joining up with the Guides.” He jerked his chin in the direction of the screen. “They’re taking Evolved in, but none of their groups exist in New Zealand.”

You’re not getting to the point. Tell me about the villains. Chris felt her fingers clench at her side as she studied the Prodigy’s twitchy, nervous face, and for one seething second she had to resist the urge to yell at him. He and Gravity Girl obviously had no intention to help the heroes, and even a blind person would have noted that they were connected to the bad guys in some fashion.

Well, if villains were about to show up, then all Chris and the others had to do was wait. Somewhere underneath the boiling anger, Chris might have been as anxious as the two teenagers in front of her, but she didn’t give that emotion a chance to surface.

She brought her armband up to her mouth. It was already set to let the others listen in, so she didn’t need to flick through the options to get a message out. “Everyone, we might have villains incoming. Checkmate, get ready in case we need backup.”

“Chris, you sure it’s a good idea to just wait around?” Nora asked.

Chris returned a nod. They’d wanted a confrontation after all. That had been the whole point of their mission.

Now that Nora was so close, Chris could sense the flow and interaction of the two energy barriers as they fed into one another. Nora’s forcefield was nearly as strong as her own, and hers had been able to contain the energy of a bomb.

Chris’s attention wandered back to the spectators who’d failed to leave the vicinity. They were strangers. She had no emotional attachment to them, and while she wished them well, she knew she wouldn’t be able to protect them nearly as well as she could Nora.

“Gravity Girl,” Chris said. “If you guys aren’t villains, get those people out of here.”

“Okay,” the girl replied with a glance to a young family, surprisingly meek for once.

And that was it. There were grand gestures, and no visible effects; Chris felt Gravity Girl’s power as a ripple in the atmosphere that raised some loose wisps of her dark hair from her face. The spectators who were still lingering nearby cried out as they were swept off their feet and heaved a short distance upwards. The altered gravity carried them all the way to the northern fringes of the park and the road that skimmed alongside it. Some dropped bags and cellphones in the process, a small price to pay for their safety.

Once she had assured herself that no one was getting hurt, Chris snapped her attention back to Prodigy.  “You were about to explain why you’re here and what’s going to happen,” she said, struggling to keep her voice firm over the tightening knot in her stomach. The threat was closing in on them. She could feel it in her bones.

He hesitated. Chris could see him swallow hard. He pulled his hood deeper over his pimpled face and said, “I gave Sovereign a signal.”

“How? What’s in your pocket?” Chris asked.

Prodigy pulled a smartphone from his hooded sweatshirt. The screen displayed some kind of confirmation text. “Already had it prepared,” he added. “I had hoped we wouldn’t need it.”

“A signal for what? That we’re here?” Chris asked.

Prodigy nodded, but not to her. His attention was on the road that bordered the northern fringes of the park. The people who had been hoisted up by Gravity Girl’s power were being gently lowered to the ground near the road, and from the looks of it, none of them wanted to return.

“We’re looking for trouble, but why are you guys still here?” Nora asked.

“We’re supposed to keep you busy,” Prodigy said, shuffling his feet in the grass. “It’s part of the deal.”

“We could evacuate you both,” Nora suggested. “We got a teleporter.”

Gravity Girl’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t touch me or my boyfriend. I’m sick of everyone bossing us around.”

Everyone? The villains? We can’t let you stick around.

Chris sensed that someone or something was drawing closer. It was still outside of her range; otherwise  she would have gotten a clearer impression of the threat. But the tightening knot in her stomach let her know that they were running out of time.

Prodigy can’t do much harm in genius mode, she thought. If we get Gravity Girl out of here, Sovereign can’t turn her against us.

She raised her armband and said two words: “Checkmate. Go.” She didn’t want to say any more for fear of tipping off the wrong people about her plans. She wasn’t sure that Sovereign couldn’t eavesdrop on their conversation.

Unfortunately, the two words were enough to jerk Gravity Girl into action. She sank down into a half-crouch, then grabbed Prodigy’s arm and pushed herself up off the ground.

Chris infused her body with speed before the two rogues could ascend higher than a couple of feet. She surged forward to charge at Gravity Girl, whose upward momentum had come to an almost complete stand-still within the altered window of Chris’s perception.

The effects of her collision with Mirage at the stadium still fresh in her mind, she pulled herself to a stop a short distance from her target and dismissed her forcefield. Then she reached out for Gravity Girl’s belt. A fraction of a second before she got a grip on it, Chris cancelled her speed.

Sounds and movement resumed. Gravity Girl continued her upward momentum for a split second, then came to an abrupt stop as Chris’s fingers latched on to her belt and pulled her in the opposite direction.

She was harder to move than she should have been and didn’t plummet to the ground, though the attack seemed to take her by surprise. Her concentration broke, and Prodigy’s movement was reversed. He dropped two feet and landed on his feet with a grunt. Gravity Girl dropped as well, though she managed to keep herself suspended in a sprawled position a few inches above the grassy ground.

“Stop struggling,” Chris hissed between clenched teeth. She wasn’t exactly weak, and the other girl was slightly younger and lighter, but the effort of trying to hold her opponent down using only one arm, and against the reversed gravity effect, made her muscles scream with unnatural tension.

Beside her, Prodigy began to ascend again. Chris didn’t have enough hands free to do anything about it, her still mending arm wasn’t much help in its sling.

“Don’t fucking touch me!” Gravity Girl yelled. Chris saw her make a sweeping arm movement, her fingers closing around a handful of dirt.

She’s trying to blind me.

Chris clenched her teeth and reared back her right arm in retaliation. She charged herself with maximum velocity, then ended the speed effect just before her fist connected to the other girl’s temple with a solid punch. She didn’t invest her full strength in it, just enough to daze Gravity Girl for a moment.

She’d probably feel bad about it later. Right that moment, the knowledge of how dangerous that girl could become under Sovereign’s control didn’t leave room for compromise.

Gravity Girl’s head snapped back from the punch, and her gravitational effect was reduced to a faint pull. Prodigy dropped from midair and landed on the grass, momentarily stunned and breathless. The hood had fallen from his head. Chris could see the shock of curly dark hair that framed his startled, narrow face.

He looked so young. Damn it. None of this remotely compared to the threats Chris had faced in Canada or New York, and the sight of him slumped there on the ground made her feel distinctively more villainous than heroic.

Gravity Girl  sank to her knees and looked up at Chris while probing the side of her head with her fingers, eyes narrow and full of accusation. Her thin-lipped mouth moved to shape words that were drowned out by the Canadian’s voice. Chris winced at the sound of it; the guy should have been back at the car to watch over Aura.

“Mascot! Why in God’s name didn’t you just let them go?” He asked her.

Because they’d just get dominated by Sovereign.

Chris opted not to respond. There was no time. Instead, she created a new forcefield around herself, not taking her eyes off the teenage girl.

“Checkmate! Over here!” Nora shouted.

Chris hadn’t noticed the teleporter’s arrival, but a second later, she saw him blink into existence next to Prodigy. Without his costume, Checkmate was barely recognizable in the dark. A wide black hood covered most of his head to protect his identity as the world’s only teleporter.

“Get them out,” Chris called to Checkmate. She had forgotten to say Gravity Girl first.

She realized her mistake when he touched Prodigy’s shoulder and the two disappeared together. Chris had a second to stare at the patch of flattened grass where Prodigy had just been, then her danger sense sent a wave of imminent threat through her body. She sped up in reflex and recoiled through her own slow motion version of the nocturnal park, retreating several meters from

the impact of gravitational pressure

Gravity Girl until her senses no longer told she was about to be crushed. Chris fell to a slithering stop on the moist grass. As far as she could tell from the jumble of danger sense feedback on her mind, none of her companions had been caught up in the area of effect.

No pain, she noted during her surge of movement, astonished.

As sound and movement resumed, her attention was drawn by an angry screech echoing behind her.

Chris whirled around to see that Gravity Girl was in the process of launching herself up into the air, screaming as she went. A wave of gravitational pressure disturbed the air in her wake. It flattened the grass in a ten meter radius around her position, hurling pieces of discarded trash into the night. A crumpled cigarette packet collided with Chris’s forcefield. She watched it drop harmlessly to the ground, a couple meters from the massive circle of flattened grass.

Its only impact was to make her crave a nice, relaxing smoke.

High above, far beyond Checkmate’s reach, Gravity Girl screamed into the night. “BRING HIM BACK, YOU ASSHOLES!”

Can’t be under Sovereign’s control if she’s still pissy about her boyfriend. While gazing up at the hovering figure, Chris reached for a fraction of her power and willed it to blossom around Gravity Girl. With some luck, the barrier would protect her from mind control.

“Help us fight Sovereign!” Chris shouted up at her. Not very diplomatic, but there was no time for that. And frankly, Gravity Girl’s stubborn refusal to cooperate was starting to piss her off.

All you had to do was wait to be teleported out, and you botched it. While she had that thought, Chris could feel some energy leak out of Gravity Girl’s forcefield. It had been weak to start with; now Chris wasn’t even sure it would survive a collision with a piece of trash.

The words had some effect at least; something flashed across Gravity Girl’s face. The dim moonlight prevented Chris from reading her expression, but the fact that she hovered in place instead of launching another attack was telling.

They didn’t get the chance to develop a conversation. While they held a staring match across the ten meters of empty space that separated them, the unease in Chris’s gut surged with a force that took her breath away. It filled her mind with

cars, hurled through the air like paper planes

visions of destruction. In all of them were people, yanked off their feet and dropped from high above. Chris recognized some of them as her team members. She also got a glimpse of an unknown person dropping from a rift in the sky, but that vision was overpowered by other impressions before she could absorb its meaning.

Unlike other times her danger sense had kicked off like this, the pain that had always accompanied the visions was barely noticeable. It didn’t take her breath away. She could still shout at the others.

“She’s about to go haywire! Get into cover!” Chris yelled.

On cue, Checkmate blinked out of her field of vision. Nora whirled around and broke into a run towards the nearest palm tree, followed by the shadow that was slithering along behind her. The Canadian still wasn’t visible, but Chris could hear his boots tromp across the nearby grass.

Chris crouched low, struggling to keep her focus on her surroundings rather than the fireworks on her mind.

“What? I’m not doing anything,” Gravity Girl’s voice called from above, trembling with anger. “I’m waiting for you to return my boyfriend. If you don’t, I just MIGHT go haywire.”

Chris believed her. The girl wasn’t a villain, but she had devastating potential. If what Prodigy had said was true, then the villain had bullied the two rogues into submission. They’d been used to set this up.

Probably hoped we weren’t going to show.

Chris heard a shrill sound and looked up. Above and behind Gravity Girl, a circular section of night sky tore open with a bright red glow. Two long limbs – legs in shorts – slipped through, and the high-pitched squeal intensified as the glowing seams in the sky ripped further open. Chris threw her one usable hand up to cover her right ear.

It’s a man, she realized as more of the body came through the glowing gap. Eerie as it was, the scene seemed familiar. She’d seen it unfold in one of her vision flashes. The man was dressed in a normal summer outfit with sneakers and tank top. He was strangely limp, as if unable to withstand the pull of gravity.

Gravity Girl’s mouth fell open as she stared at the effect. She looked more perplexed than Chris.

The shrill sound cut off, and the man began to fall, triggering a new flood of visionary devastation in Chris’s mind. Each and every vision flash revealed Gravity Girl as the source of destruction. The man would die from the fall. Every bone in his body was about to be crushed.

Chris surged forward towards him, stretching the flow of time as she moved. I can catch him, she thought upon reaching the point of future impact. In order to keep her speed effect active she swung her hand back and forth, keeping her eyes fixated on the body that was dropping towards her in slow motion.

But he didn’t remain passive. His head turned during the fall, very slowly, and his eyes wandered. Chris expected him to look down at the ground at her. He didn’t. Instead, his mouth began to twist into an eerie sneer, and his gaze slowly swiveled upward.

To Gravity Girl.

Chris winced and nearly forgot to maintain the movement that fed into her power. While she didn’t recognize the man, she’d seen that same expression on someone else – the jogger at the Café, who had been possessed by Sovereign. She had no idea who’d opened the gap to send him through, but the culprit had to be nearby. Transmuter powers tended to be short to medium range.

Cursing her lack of ranged attacks for the umpteenth time, Chris allowed time to snap back into its rightful course and shouted up at the girl above her. “GRAVITY GIRL! RUN!”

The man was going to die no matter what she did.

It was too late. The dropping man’s gaze locked onto its target seconds before he hit the ground, and an invisible energy shot forth from him, shattering Gravity Girl’s forcefield on impact. Chris staggered, momentarily stunned by the force of the opposing power. Part of her energy had been violently snuffed out when the forcefield shattered. It left her without the strength to try again.

The falling man hit the ground with a sickening crunch. Chris forced herself to look at his oddly twisted, broken form while she struggled back to her feet.

Chris didn’t need to see Gravity Girl’s expression to know no one was home. The rogue Evoker had begun to float away after Chris’s last warning, but now she stopped and turned back around, her face shrouded by nighttime shadows.

“We lost Gravity Girl,” Chris shouted into her armband. “Hell’s going to break loose.” She dropped to one knee and invested all of her willpower into building the stability of every forcefield she’d created. She thought of them as crags that braved a tide. Solid and unmoving.

Before anyone could say anything else, a massive wave of intense gravity raced across the park. Palm trees cracked beneath its force. A pair of massive metal containers were swept up and hurled through the air, and the few spectators who’d still lingered at the outer fringes at the park scattered at last, screaming in terror.

When it reached Chris and Nora, the wave slammed into their barriers with unspeakable force. The feedback that flowed through Chris’s body made her teeth clatter and threatened to eclipse Nora’s forcefield. Chris thought back to the car that had  slammed into her at eighty miles per hour, and how it hadn’t even budged her or Ryan. Ryan wasn’t here today. But Nora was. Her forcefield flickered, but it held.

After the attack ebbed, Sovereign spoke with Gravity Girl’s voice. “Impressive.”

Knowing full well that they lacked the powers for a counterattack, Chris raised the armband. She could have tried to reach Radiant, but that would have taken time, and the others were already tuned in. They filled the comms line with their anxious questions about what was going on.

Chris didn’t take the time to explain. “Umbra,” she said instead. “If you’re in range, blind her. Everyone else, stay the hell away.”

She thought of the Canadian in particular. She didn’t know where the hell he was, but as far as she could tell, he hadn’t been caught up in the effect.

Police sirens howled in the distance. Less than a second later, the two suspended garbage containers were hurled down against Nora. Neither one reached her. One collided with the palm tree she’d used as cover, the other was intercepted by a humanoid shadow that rose up from the ground. There was a blur of darkness, too fast for the eye to follow, then the nearly car-sized container exploded into pieces of trash and metal.

Chris hadn’t ever seen Mr. Black in action before, and she definitely hadn’t known the shadow was that fast. Holy shit.

“Roger,” Umbra replied through the armband.

This time, Sovereign didn’t comment on the heroes’ performance. The next gravitational surge picked up a dozen of the cars that had been parked nearby, and all of them were aimed at Nora. Chris saw them rise up from the northern end of the park like a swarm of clunky, oversized killer birds. She activated her hyperspeed to study their flight path and give herself some time to react. She covered the ground near her teammate with several additional forcefields.

When the hail of cars came crashing down, Mr. Black reduced two of them to shrapnel. The sound of their impact was deafening, but the forcefields held.

Sovereign didn’t get the chance to launch a third attack. A haze of darkness materialized out of the night air and condensed around Gravity Girl’s head. It didn’t suppress her scream of frustration, but it followed her as she ascended in attempt to shake it off.

“Umbra, you kick ass,” Chris told her armband. She couldn’t help but feel a little proud of their accomplishment. They hadn’t managed to capture one of the villains, but considering their lack of hero experience, they’d done well enough in her book.

For a moment, it looked as if Sovereign would be forced to retreat. The heroes could make out Gravity Girl’s silhouette against the night sky as she tumbled through the air, launching a couple of attacks that completely obliterated the park but did no harm to any of them.

Then, there was another shift in gravity, different from any of the previous attacks. It didn’t cause any damage. In fact, it seemed to do nothing at all – until they recognized the silver colored Ford Fusion that was being pulled towards them.

Aura was still sitting inside.

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One thought on “9.6 Devotion

  1. Thanks for reading! Also BIG SPECIAL THANKS to my two new Patreon supporters. You guys rock! I don’t have bonus incentives for Patrons yet, but I’ll figure something out. How would you like getting all the ebooks for free and before their official publication date? I might also write a bonus chapter or two exclusively for Patreon supporters.

    Again, big thanks to the voters as well. You’re helping out so much. This week’s preview chapter concludes arc 9 – afterwards, I’ll have Noire and Athena interludes for you before we move on to the Devastation arc.

    Arc 3 has now been updated to (almost) the ebook version. Some minor things might still be tweaked before publication. All those chapters turned out nicely, but I think the 3.6 Interlude is my favorite.

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