San Francisco, USA – Monday, the 18th of June 2012. 06:30 AM.
Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13.
Despite the early hour, Nora Landry found herself wide awake, kneeling on the floor of yet another room that had been assigned to her after last night’s events. The bible verse she’d pinned to the wall kept coming back into her thoughts. She was looking at it now, searching the words for some kind of deeper meaning to… everything, really. Chris’s disappearance. Emily’s kidnapping. Her own powers, and the craziness that was overtaking the world.
Nora believed that everything happened for a reason: God had a plan. She couldn’t even begin to understand that plan, but she didn’t need to. Her faith was what had kept her sane after the media backlash that had followed her transition, back before she’d learned how to keep Mr. Black reined in.
Her faith helped her believe in miracles, too. Chris wasn’t dead – Aura would have known if she was – but she’d taken insane risks to get Aura out of that car. Chris had always been too reserved and too caught up in her own mind to be anyone’s BFF, but if John 15:13 was any indication, Grumpyface loved her friends enough to deserve a miracle and come back in one piece.
“You’ve seen that crazy ass stunt she pulled, right?” Nora asked the good Lord, her hands clasped together over her chest. “Checkmate saw it too. He’s the only one who can keep up with her when she goes into human rocket mode. You know, they really should have named her Overdrive instead of Peter.”
Nora unlaced her fingers to wipe at her stinging eyes, annoyed with herself. She’d mostly succeeded in holding back the tears so far, and she wasn’t going to start crying now, less than thirty minutes before meeting the boss-man. If she started crying, she’d officially give up on believing, and she wasn’t the kind of girl who gave up.
“I’m actually kinda glad I wasn’t there at the end,” she rambled on. It helped keep the tears at bay. “If I had seen the guy who dropped in her stead, I woulda thrown up. I’m pretty sure Checkmate did, even though he didn’t admit it.”
She paused to swallow the lump in her throat and glance down at her smartphone, the only occupant of her untouched cot. There was no new message from Aura, but Chris looked back up at Nora from the home screen background image. It was a picture they’d taken shortly after the Wardens returned from their mission in Canada. They’d both been sprawled on the carpet in the living room, their arms and fingers clasped together to flash a conjoined victory sign at the camera.
No, Nora didn’t even want to imagine what Chris might have looked like after a hundred meter drop. She averted her gaze from the phone to focus on the handwritten note on the wall, praying that the holy words would help her get connected to heaven.
“I hope the police can identify the poor guy who got crushed with the car,” she said. “And I hope he’s one of the bad guys. I never understood why you let some people get away with the messed up shit they do. At least we know we’re dealing with Gentleman. I mean, Emily probably got kidnapped the same way, right? With Drifter’s power. Maybe they’re back together now. Chris would like that, and Emmy too.”
Maybe our mascot’s meant to be gone, Nora added silently, clasping her hands together until her knuckles turned white. Chris wanted to find the villains. She’s gonna be okay. Maybe she’ll even find a way to blow up villainville and escape with Kid.
There was something deeply comforting about placing trust in a higher power, now more than ever. None of the recent events had changed Nora’s way of praying. She still talked to the good Lord as if he was the friend she’d made as a child. He was more distant now but still connected to her through emotional attachment and memories of times she’d felt He listened. He never answered, but that was okay. He was busy, she knew, and Nora was just one girl among many.
“I wanted to take Chris to a gospel concert sometime,” Nora told the good Lord. “I don’t know if she would have liked it. Knowing her the way I know her, probably not. Does she ever sing? It takes a dedicated Momma to inspire that kinda lovin’ for music, and Mrs. Chung seems like a real quiet person.”
Thinking about it made Nora realize how much she missed her old New Orleans gospel choir. The singing had always made her feel like she truly belonged, and there had been moments where she’d felt the loving warmth of the hymns flow right through her. Whenever that happened, it seemed like the good Lord paused whatever He was doing to truly listen for a little while.
After her transition and the move into the Wardens headquarters, Nora had tried to find a new church in San Francisco, but it just hadn’t been the same. She’d never truly felt accepted. There was always someone – or two or three someones – who were obviously uncomfortable in Evolved company despite stating otherwise.
The white people churches she’d checked out hadn’t been any different. Besides, Nora preferred the liveliness of the African American communities. White churchgoers didn’t know how to loosen up. They tended to just sit stiffly their pews, barely moving their lips as if they were afraid of being heard.
“If Chris comes back, I’m dragging her to a sermon, I swear,” Nora continued, sitting back on her heels to ease the strain on her knees. “Doesn’t matter if she likes it or not, I’m just gonna make her like it. Just let me know she’s okay, and we heroes will figure the rest out somehow. It’s harder without her, but among the lot of us, we got a few brain cells.”
She hadn’t expected to actually receive an answer – that almost never happened – but her phone pinged, alerting her of a new message.
Thank you, Lord, Nora thought, investing some preliminary gratitude before she checked the message. Just in case. Gratitude could make good things happen. She pushed up from her knees, pulling a face at the jab of pain that shot through them. She hadn’t noticed how long she’d been resting in that position, praying time away.
She understood there was a possibility she could be dead before noon, and if that was part of His great plan, she’d accept it. Still, it made her not want to think about the minutes and hours that trickled away.
Nora picked the phone up and glanced down at her screen. She’d expected to be summoned by Mr. Turner ahead of their scheduled appointment, which could easily happen in the case of an execution order. But the message sender was listed as Aura, though the appearance of the Empath’s signature icon – thick-rimmed glasses with a pair eyebrows that were drawn into a skeptical frown – was just as nerve-wracking as a summoning by the boss-man would have been.
Nora considered deleting the message without reading it. If Aura was about to deliver bad news, then it might be better not to know. And if Nora was going to die, she’d have an easier time of it if she could keep believing that Chris was somewhere out there, still kicking and plotting the downfall of all villains.
While Nora enjoyed life, she didn’t feel her own death would matter that much in the grand scheme of things. The press hated her since the day of her transition, fellow Christians were scared of her, and everyone who’d ever called her demon bitch would most likely be relieved by her passing. She’d had had half a year to digest the fact that she’d most likely die young. After the Covenant’s conclusion that her shadow was both semi-autonomous and one of the most potentially devastating powers, she’d barely avoided an early execution order thanks to an appeal by the state of Louisiana. Mr. Black hadn’t killed anyone, but some people had gotten hurt badly enough that there had been some close calls.
Then Nora had lost control of Mr. Black on the Wardens mission up in Canada, and Chris had saved her butt by striking a deal with the Covenant. Said deal required the two of them to stick together at all times.
And now Chris was gone.
Nora’s thumb rested on the confirmation button for a few seconds before she found the courage to read the text message. Once she did, though, her mood brightened.
She’s still okay, Aura had texted her. Really angry, but that’s not so unusual, is it? I’ll let you know if anything changes.
Nora breathed a sigh of relief, and some of the tension that had been building up since Aura’s last update seeped out of her. You be angry, Grumpyface. Kick some villain butt while you’re there.
Nora’s fingers tightened around the phone, and for the first time in her Evolved life, she wished for a power that would let her transfer some of her own resolve to support her friend. Not that Chris would need it.
Or maybe she would. Villains were some scary shit.
Before Nora’s mind could plunge too deeply into the possibilities, someone knocked on her door. Peter, she assumed. They’d been assigned to the same secret hideout – some former CIA offices – along with some Wardens staff.
The knocking stopped, and Peter’s voice came through the door. “Hey. Are you ready to go? It probably wouldn’t look good if we showed up late…”
Nora checked the time and was surprised to learn that she’d spent more than two hours talking to the good Lord. It hadn’t seemed that long to her. She prayed for stress relief when gospel singing wasn’t an option; she could pour her heart out without fear of rejection or disagreement. It was almost like keeping a diary. Instead of taking notes on her life, she told the good Lord about her personal issues, her fears and her insecurity. And He never ratted her out to anyone else.
Nora didn’t know who else might have listened with such patience and acceptance. She liked Chris a lot, but their conversations had never touched on personal issues. Peter wasn’t exactly the best listener, and Nora suspected that Mrs. Clarence cared more about damage prevention than anything else. The woman’s paycheck was issued by the government after all.
As for her Momma – Nora hadn’t even told her about the trouble she was in. Her poor mother would just worry to death without being able to change a damn thing.
“Been ready for hours,” Nora replied, looking at the closed door. Lying to Peter’s face would have been wrong, but she didn’t feel so bad about lying to a stupid piece of wood.
“Okay. I’m waiting right here.” Something about his voice gave her pause. He didn’t sound like his usual self at all. His voice wavered a little, and compared to the easy-going guy she’d known him as up until a few days ago, the change was both startling and noticeable. He’d been sad about Chris and Emily, sure, but he liked them. His modus operandi with Nora had been to make fun of her at every opportunity.
He’s actually that worried about me? Wow. Nora knew she probably wouldn’t hug him or anything, but she was touched.
“You don’t have to come along, you know,” she said as she pushed herself to stand. “It wouldn’t change a thing. You could watch some funny anime or something.”
Why did she have to say it like that? She hated that she didn’t know how to return niceness when it was flung at her. Peter was trying to be nice, trying to show that he cared, and she just brushed him off. Trying to return niceness was kind of like catching a baseball that came off a major-league ballplayer’s bat, and Nora Landry really sucked at baseball.
“It’s just you and me now, Nora. You know that.”
“I know,” she echoed. She stared at her phone again, rubbing her thumb against the screen as if she could will a new message to appear there. It worked with oil lamps in fairytales, and a free wish would have come in very handy right now.
Nora wouldn’t have used it for herself. Chris had stood up for her in front of the Covenant when no one else had. If there was such a thing as wishmaker miracles, Grumpyface would be the one who deserved one.
“O, you get any news about Prodigy? Rune’s still watching over him, right?” Nora asked as she picked up her sneakers from beside the door. It wouldn’t do to walk into the boss-man’s office barefoot. She wasn’t a sinner in need of penance.
“Yeah. Didn’t you check your email?”
“Not for a couple of hours,” she admitted. “Had other things on mah mind.”
“Rune and Aura talked to him. From the sounds of it, he hasn’t caused any trouble. He’s just worried about his girlfriend. He talked about some stuff, though. I put it in a report for Mr. Turner. Reckon it will get sent to the White House.” He sounded quite pleased with himself, which was an improvement over the thin, wavering voice he’d had at the start of their conversation.
“What stuff?” Nora asked as she slipped her feet into her shoes.
“I’ll tell you afterward if it doesn’t come up during the meeting.”
“At least tell me if the Euros got away with the kidnapping stunt. I forgot to ask Aura, and I don’t have time to check my emails.”
“Yeah,” Peter replied with a hint of impatience. “He said he came willingly, so drama was avoided. Come on. We have to go.”
“Right,” Nora mumbled. Then she switched her phone to silent mode and opened the door.
Peter stood a few feet to the right, dressed in an oddly formal outfit she’d never seen on him. The sight of his tie and collared dress shirt made her feel self-conscious about her jeans and the baggy green shirt she’d chosen from her dresser at random. He didn’t look like he belonged into that outfit, though. The three day stubble didn’t fit, and the thin smile he assembled for her sake didn’t exactly radiate manly confidence.
“Hey. I’m sure it’s going to be all right,” he said.
“If you say so, Hero,” she replied with an equally lame attempt at a smile.
“Yeah. You never acknowledge it, but you’ve really been helping, you know. Especially in the showdown with Gravity Girl and when we found the bomb. I put it all in my reports, so I’m sure they noticed.”
“Thanks,” Nora replied, unsure what else to say.
They headed down the corridor in silence which Nora preferred to awkward conversation. Now that they were actually on the way to Mr. Turner’s new temporary office on the floor above, her carefully constructed calm began to wear thin, and her mind drifted back to the question of her own fate.
She couldn’t help but wonder if she’d go to heaven if she died today. She didn’t consider herself particularly good or heroic, but she’d done her best to stop the bad guys. That had to count for something, right?
The lord is my shepherd, she recited internally. I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul.
Regardless of whether or not He was listening, the familiar lines of the well-practiced verses calmed Nora’s nerves. By the time she and Peter arrived at the polished teak door that led to Mr. Turner’s office, she felt steeled by her faith, ready to face whatever was in store for her.
Everything happens for a reason, she reminded herself. God hasn’t left us, Preacher is full of shit.
Peter squeezed her shoulder. While she appreciated the gesture, it was awkward and made her want to slip through the door to escape his grip. She’d never been touchy-feely with anyone except her mom. Not unless she counted the people who’d thrown things at her after the circumstances of her transition leaked to journalists and neighbors.
“I’m fine,” she said, reaching up to pluck his fingers from her shoulder. “Really.”
“Okay,” he said, bobbing his head too quickly. He turned to the door and gave it a single, solid knock.
“Come in!” Mr. Turner replied from the other side. He didn’t sound like he was about to cry, at least.
Peter opened the door for Nora, allowing her to look into the room beyond. The sparse arrangement of furniture was the same as she remembered from Mr. Turner’s old office. The immense, large ebon wood desk was in the center of the room, flanked by a matching filing cabinet to the left and a fake indoor palm tree to the right. The floor to ceiling windows at the back flooded the room with early morning light, casting a warm glow over the two people who’d claimed chairs by the desk.
Nora was surprised to note that instead of a Covenant hero, Mr. Turner had Mrs. Clarence, the team’s psychological counselor, for company. Nora might have taken the absence of would-be executioners for a good sign, but the tight smiles she saw gave the opposite impression.
Oh shit. This better not be about Emily or Chris. Nora shot Peter a glance, but he didn’t seem to have noticed the ominous atmosphere in the room. He just nudged the back of her shirt with a finger, urging her on.
“Good morning, Wardens,” Mr. Turner said in a calm, appeasing tone that put Nora on high alert. It was his bad news voice. The last time she’d heard it, he had informed her that there was no trace of Chris to be found anywhere in the city, no signal from her armband, and definitely no attempt at communication.
“Good to see you, Wardens,” Mrs. Clarence echoed. “And thank you for accompanying Nora, Peter. I’m sure she appreciates the support.”
“Morning,” Nora said. She’d never understood the need for lengthy speeches just to say hi.
“Of course I’m coming with her,” Peter said. “We’re the last two West Coast heroes after all.”
Mr. Turner’s smile slipped a notch, but he said nothing.
Nora noted the two chairs that had been placed opposite their superiors and stepped to the one to the right, eyes searching the cluttered mess on the desk for clues. Apart from the laptop that sat in front of Mr. Turner, a half dozen folders, and papers covered most of the desk. When she didn’t spot anything that looked like an immediate threat to her life, she sat down, waiting for someone to say something while Peter closed the door.
Unsurprisingly, her teammate took the initiative first. “Weren’t we expecting someone from the Covenant?” he asked.
Mr. Turner gave a slight nod. “We were.”
“Then I don’t understand…” Peter stopped, eyes flicking back and forth between his teammate and the Secretary of Evolved Affairs.
“Wardens, please listen to me,” Mrs. Clarence requested. “We received word of the Covenant’s formal dissolution an hour ago. The two of you are no longer under UN jurisdiction. Nora, do you understand what this means?”
She did, but it took a few seconds for the news to sink in. “I’m gonna live,” she finally got out, still overwhelmed by the unexpected turn of events. “No execution order.”
“Yes, Nora. Covenant involvement won’t be necessary.” Mr. Turner reached around his opened laptop to collect a document with an official seal on it. He kept the two Wardens in suspenseful silence while his eyes flicked over the lines of text. Nora twisted in her chair to catch a glimpse of it, but the writing was too small for her to make out.
“Hey, that’s great news about Nora,” Peter said. His face lit up with relief, and he dipped sideways to put an arm around his teammate. Nora didn’t smile, but she returned a silent squeeze. She couldn’t believe everything was fine and dandy just yet. She was still waiting for the catch.
“But what’s up with the Covenant dissolving?” Peter asked after a moment. “We need those guys. Athena in particular. I mean, she only just made these armbands for us.” He pulled back his shirt sleeve to reveal the white plastic armband he was wearing underneath.
“We know, Peter,” Mrs. Clarence answered with a note of sadness to her gentle therapist’s voice. Nora couldn’t help but notice that her eyes were wet and her face was flushed.
Has she been crying? Nora wondered. Knowing Mrs. Clarence and her stoic calm, Nora couldn’t even begin to imagine what would make the therapist cry.
Mr. Turner broke the silence without looking up from his document. “Wardens, you should know that the Covenant hero Paladin died during an attempt to liberate the Russian city of Smolensk from villain occupation. I’m told Buddy’s villain group is responsible, and while we can only guess at their plans, they seem far more aggressive than the Conglomerate.”
“What about Athena?” Nora asked.
“Disappeared. The UN isn’t informed of her whereabouts, though her drones still appear to be functional. They’ve been spotted scouting a number of locations.”
“How can Athena just disappear?” Peter blurted out.
“We don’t know, Peter.” Mrs. Clarence wrung her hands helplessly. “But Samael remains and is expected to build a new team of highly mobile heavy hitters.”
And there was the catch. Nora felt her fingers tighten around the edges of her chair. She’d never met Samael, but what she knew about the Dark Angel made her fear for her life all over again. Unlike Paladin, Samael was a walking talking execution order.
It’s going to be fine. It’s all part of the Lord’s plan, she firmly told herself.
“There is more,” Mr. Turner continued, now narrowing his eyes at something on his laptop screen. “Athena appears to have shut down the whole server and communication system she designed for the Covenant, including all of the information that was stored there. The reasons are unclear, but she is under investigation by Interpol and the UN.”
“Seriously?” Nora asked, hoping that she’d misheard. “Why the hell would she do that?”
“We don’t know.” Mr. Turner exhaled a long breath. “It could be that she had good reason. But please verify that your armbands are still working.”
“I already checked,” Peter was quick to reply. “Mine looks fine.”
“That’s good to hear. But if you hear anything from Athena, please contact me immediately,” Mr. Turner requested.
What, so she can be arrested? Nora crossed her arms in silent defiance, not having a clue what she’d do if the situation did come up, but she nodded for the sake of moving on to a different subject. A nod wasn’t really a lie. She wasn’t the only one who needed a moment to chew on that particular bit of news. No one said anything until Peter finally broke the silence.
“A new Covenant led by Samael? I’m not sure that’s good news,” he said. Nora caught him glancing at the document in Mr. Turner’s hands – the one she’d already been wondering about.
Mr. Turner didn’t seem to notice or care. He just smiled his thin smile again. “You have some good news, I heard. Prodigy shared some valuable information?”
Your turn, Peter. Nora settled back on her chair, content to leave that part to her teammate.
Peter smoothed the handful of printout pages he’d brought along and passed them to Mr. Turner, who skimmed over the first few paragraphs, then settled his blue-grey gaze on the teenager across from him.
“Care to summarize?” Mr. Turner asked. He handed Peter’s printouts to Mrs. Clarence, who gave them much more attention than he had.
“Uh, sure,” Peter said. “Prodigy said someone contacted him and Gravity Girl over the internet, someone who claimed to be a friend. Turns out it was Buddy. It was like he knew they wanted to leave New Zealand, but maybe those guys contact all the rogues they can? Anyway, Prodigy and Gravity Girl were offered a trip to the States under one condition.”
“And what would that condition be?” Mr. Turner asked.
“They had to stay in San Francisco for at least a week no matter what happens.” Peter paused there, scratching his stubbled jaw with a finger.
“Why?” Mr. Turner asked. Mrs. Clarence didn’t speak, but she stopped reading to shoot the Wardens an inquiring glance.
Peter shrugged. “Prodigy wasn’t sure. They didn’t have to pay or anything. They were even given money for hotels and stuff. Maybe Buddy thought they’d scout out the States for future expansion plans, or maybe he wanted to mess with Sovereign. Speaking of that guy… Sovereign approached Prodigy and Gravity Girl with one of his puppets. Seemed to think they were spying for another villain group and scared them shitless with threats. They almost left, but breaking the deal with Buddy was scarier I guess. They were promised they’d be left alone if they contacted Sovereign the instant they see any of us Wardens.”
“Sovereign’s city,” Mr. Turner echoed, his thin eyebrows shooting up.
“Yeah.” Peter pulled a face. “Not that he’s done all that much so far. I’m starting to think he’s not as powerful as we thought. Just real good at hiding from the feds. And us.”
“He got Gravity Girl,” Nora reminded him. “And Aura thought we were all gonna die if we scouted the wrong place.”
“Right. There’s that. I should add that Buddy told Prodigy that the United States are going to be a warzone in a few days, and that rogues who don’t belong to anyone are about to get shafted. Um, normal people too.”
Nora wasn’t too surprised by that little tidbit – there was always someone talking about the end of the world, it seemed – but she had expected more of a reaction from the two adults on the other side of the desk. She didn’t get a single emotional impulse from them. No frowns, no exchanged glances, nothing.
“I guess we should do something about it, just in case,” Peter added, clearly as surprised by the lack of a reaction as Nora was.
“You don’t need to,” Mrs. Clarence replied in a gentle, appeasing voice that hinted at more bad news. “Nora, Peter, you are still technically teenagers, and we are responsible for your well-being. You’ll both return to your families with the promise that your loved ones will be kept out of harm’s way.”
“WHAT?” The word’s burst out before Nora even realized she’d said something. “Are you asking us to go sit in the corner while shit is going down? While Chris and Emily are still somewhere out there?”
“We aren’t asking you to do anything,” Mr. Turner said. “This is a command from the White House.” There was a faint rustle of paper as he finally lowered the stack of papers he’d been holding. He pulled one out and handed it to Peter. Another was passed to Nora.
Nora read ‘honorary discharge from the Wardens program’ and refused to continue beyond the headline. She lowered the document to glower at Mr. Turner instead.
“Why?” she asked, her voice strained.
“I don’t understand,” Peter added.
Mrs. Clarence was looking at Mr. Turner now. “I believe we should show it to them,” she said. “It will help them understand.”
Mr. Turner’s hands turned the open laptop that sat in front of him. All Nora could see on the monitor was a dark, blurry image, but then his finger tapped the enter key, and the image transformed into a bird’s-eye view video recording of a large city Nora didn’t recognize. She could tell it wasn’t American, though. The roads were narrow and winding rather than arranged in blocks, and some of the buildings looked really old.
There was no commentary. The camera swept over the city in a straight line, showing nothing spectacular. So, when the scenery shifted, the change was both abrupt and extreme. Nora’s breath stopped when she realized what she was seeing.
After a certain point, every inch of material began to reflect the sunlight, as if a gigantic mirror had been twisted and shaped into roads and buildings. Nora narrowed her eyes and leaned in for a better look. From up close, she could see that the small blocks of semitransparent ceramic were in fact cars.
“Oh, God,” she muttered. “What’s that?”
“Glass,” Mr. Turner said. “A few hours ago, the Antithesis transformed the city of Bratislava into… this. With her full range, the transformed area includes over six million square meters. I probably don’t need to tell you about the general public’s reaction.”
Both Nora and Peter stared at the monitor, speechless.
“No deaths have been confirmed,” Mr. Turner went on. “But you can imagine the far reaching consequences. Europe is falling apart. Less than an hour ago, Belarus preventively declared martial law. Their borders are near the Russian city of Smolensk, which the Covenant failed to liberate from villain occupation. Other countries are closing their borders. Even if the Antithesis remains passive, many Europeans no longer trust the established procedures to keep them safe from the Sleepwalker.”
“Oh shit,” Peter said, his voice small. “The Covenant was keeping tabs on the Sleepwalker.”
“Is this for real? You’re not pulling our legs?” Nora asked, dumbfounded. Somewhere deep down, she knew the answer already. But even though they’d been aware things were slowly falling apart all around them, this seemed like too much in too short order.
Mr. Turner and Mrs. Clarence shook their heads, their expressions grim. Even Peter had been left speechless – he’d turned as white as a sheet.
“Oh God,” Nora finally blurted out. “We have to do something. You can’t send us home, we have to help!”
Mrs. Clarence reached out to take Nora’s hand in her own before responding. “The Wardens are being disbanded,” she said. “Shortly after the White House received news of the city of glass, we were informed that the army is stepping up. The United States will crack down on villain terrorism with full force. And because the minimum age for Evolved recruits was raised to twenty-one, the two of you are too young for military service.”