Klosterneuburg, Austria – Tuesday, the 19th of June 2012. 09:31 AM.
At the bottom of the moving staircase was… paradise. At least it seemed that way to Sarina, who hadn’t eaten properly in the past twenty-four hours. A large underground hall opened up in front of her and the other Nameless, brightly illuminated by the rows of lamps that hung overhead. Directly ahead of them, a dozen cash registers were neatly lined up to separate the merchandise from the exit area. Only three of them were manned.
Sarina noted the long waiting queues in passing; she was already on the way to the fruits and vegetables that were being offered on the right side of the entry area. She took a small plastic bag from the nearest dispenser and filled it with a random assortment of apples, oranges and peaches. They all looked equally fresh and delicious. If she hadn’t been worried about cameras and store detectives, she might have grabbed the first fruit in reach and eaten it on the spot.
Unsurprisingly, Patrick didn’t have the same restraint. He grabbed a banana and peeled it as he watched Sarnia fill her bag. Emily, on the other hand, followed Sarina’s example and claimed a shopping bag for herself.
“Don’t take too much,” Sarina reminded them. “We need other things too. And let’s not eat anything until we’re past the cash registers.”
“And let’s stay together!” Emily said. “It’s easy to get lost in malls. This one’s much smaller than the ones in San Francisco, but still.”
“Right,” Sarina said with a glance up at the mirror-tiled ceiling. She couldn’t even begin to guess where the cameras had been installed, but they had to be somewhere. Stores like this one always had them.
Then again, maybe the store detective was as absent as most of the cashiers appeared to be.
“Come on,” Sarina told the others. The three apples and two oranges were about as much as she could afford to take for now. They needed much more than fruit to keep them sustained until Paris.
Patrick, still chewing a mouthful of banana, fell in without protest. Emily clutched her bag of peaches like a precious treasure, smiling from ear to ear.
They drifted onward like a trio of hungry ghosts. After the first sets of shelves, a good routine was established, and they worked as a team. Sarina decided what they would take, Emily pointed out items from the lower shelves that she might have overlooked, and Patrick carried the bulk of their pickings. By the time they reached the long, glass-topped counter with the baked goods, he was loaded with three large plastic bags. Sarina thought about taking one or two of them, but the heavy load kept Patrick from doing anything stupid.
The other shoppers paid them no mind; seeing Patrick’s powers in action never ceased to amaze Sarina. The kid wasn’t simply turning them invisible – he somehow convinced every other person in sight that they weren’t even worth remembering. Coupled with the ability to conceal their voices, it was pretty damn impressive.
He was among the first Evolved to experience a power surge, Sarina remembered. She had never asked what his powers had been like before, but maybe she should. Her own powers had been way off the charts from the very beginning. She couldn’t help but wonder what a power surge would do for her.
Everyone would freak out even more, that’s for sure. The thought was oddly satisfying. If Sarina could attain enough power that no one would dare to cross her ever again, her mission of rescuing Jasper and keeping the kids safe would become much easier.
The three of them grabbed as many sandwiches, plastic bottles and snacks as they could reasonably carry, then started migrating over towards the line of cash registers that barred the passage to the moving stairway.
“We can’t just walk past through one of the unstaffed checkouts, can we?” Patrick asked impatiently. He somehow managed to clutch a half-eaten candy bar on top of the three big plastic bags he was carrying, a feat that was nearly as impressive as his powers.
“No,” Sarina said. “I’m sure that if there are any cameras at all, someone’s watching the checkouts.”
“Some funny looking people who sneak out with food in their bags would look weird, right?” Emily asked, peering at the fifty person queue that was ahead of them. Unlike the Nameless, those people had no other option but to wait.
Sarina could imagine the threat of hidden cameras all too well. She made a turn to the right, away from the queue and towards the left side of the store. That section offered a variety of household items for sale, which made it much less populated than the food department.
“Let’s hug the wall over there,” Sarina said. “Then I’m taking us straight to the exit.”
“Why over there?” Patrick asked.
“I don’t think it’s under surveillance,” Sarina said. “You can’t steal a vacuum cleaner. It’s too big and bulky.”
“I could,” Patrick pointed out.
“You’re not like most people. Come on.”
Upon reaching the household department, Patrick and Emily kept close to the shelves as instructed. Sarina could just barely see the lower end of the moving staircase from there. When she formulated the relocation wish in her mind, reality responded immediately, taking her and her companions to the bottom of the staircase that would lead them back up to ground level and the exit.
Emily appeared next to a stack of shopping baskets and just barely managed to keep her balance. One inch further, and she would have been on top of it.
“Wow,” she said. “No matter how many times you do it, it’s still weird.”
“Are you both okay?” Sarina asked.
Emily nodded, but Patrick didn’t respond. He had that distant look on his face again, his head tilted to the side slightly as he listened to faraway sounds the others couldn’t hear. Before Sarina could ask about it, he stepped onto the moving stairway and started drifting upward, eyes fixated on what Sarina assumed was the direction of the exit.
She waited for Emily step onto the stairway, then followed just behind. Halfway between floor levels, she realized that Patrick wasn’t looking to the exit. His attention was fully invested in the television screens they’d passed on their way down.
“Hey Sara,” he said. “They’re showing something different now. You want to see this.”
Patrick was right. The television screens that lined the electronics store’s display window were showing a different program now, and it was one she couldn’t walk away from. From the moment she’d ascended far enough to see over the railing, the on-screen images took her breath away, and the world around her ceased to exist.
Sarina was looking at David, her brother.
She recognized him despite the scruffy three-day stubble that covered his face. It gave him the look of a homeless man instead of the sporty twenty year old student she’d left in Switzerland, and the way the on-screen Davids gazed at her – helpless and desperate – cut deeper than a knife. She couldn’t help but feel responsible. After all, she had been the one who’d left Switzerland without as much as a goodbye; their lives of everyone she knew and cared about might have played out differently if she’d stayed.
Her family might still be alive.
The moving stairway rolled relentlessly onward, delivering her to the ground level. She stumbled forward, steadied by a skinny pair of arms that grabbed her shoulders. “You realize that’s an interview from today, right?” Patrick said.
“What?” she asked, trying to grasp his words through the haze that clouded her mind. Her family was gone, killed by Legion. It hadn’t been that long ago that Emily revealed the facts everyone else had been keeping from her.
Patrick pulled at her until she was facing the display window. “Read,” he told her, pointing at the tagline that was slowly scrolling across the bottom of each screen.
“David Baumann, Sarina’s brother,” she read. It took her a second to note the timestamp that had been added at the very bottom: 19.06.2012, 08:15.
Could he actually be alive? She wondered, propelled by a sudden surge of hope. Before she knew it, she found herself directly in front of the display window, face pressed up against the glass. David’s voice was easier to hear now.
“…never knew her like this,” David said in a somber tone, speaking High German with a distinctive Swiss accent. “The girl I knew – my sister – couldn’t hurt a fly. Yes, I heard that she got into some trouble with her previous foster parents. But I’ve never seen her have a meltdown. She was shy, always worried she could do something wrong.”
Was I? She asked herself, her gaze dropping to the winged dancing shoes that adorned her feet. She supposed the impression wasn’t completely wrong, though it didn’t feel completely right, either.
Then again, the David on screen was different from the one she’d known, too. Her David had talked with his hands as much as his voice, and his calm demeanor had anchored her whenever she’d been troubled by the daily struggles of being a former addict. His eyes had smiled whenever he talked to her about his favorite subject: nerdy biology students trying to compete in national soccer league. He’d been the nerdiest of them all.
That David wasn’t on television today, and Sarina didn’t know how long he had been gone. Maybe as long as she had.
“Shy? That seems like a contradiction,” an off-screen interviewer’s voice stated.
David didn’t respond. He just sat there, smiling a faint, melancholic smile that made Sarina want to reach through the screen and hug the sadness from him. I’m not shy anymore, she silently reassured him. But I still don’t hurt people for no reason. I didn’t hurt anyone in Bratislava.
“Sarina?” Emily’s voice piped up. It sounded very close, but Sarina couldn’t tear her eyes from the screen.
“Give me a minute,” she said. “I have to see this. I have to know.”
“Know what?” Patrick asked.
Sarina wasn’t sure. But she did know that her brother was alive, and she didn’t want to miss a single word of what he had to say.
Right that moment, David was listening to the interviewer’s voice, his brow knitted deeply as if the interviewee’s role demanded great concentration from him. And maybe it did. Maybe he was struggling to hold back his feelings regarding the stupid, one sided questions.
“It’s understandable that you still remember her as your sister, and I believe our viewers can relate,” the interviewer said. “Is it true that you haven’t seen her since the day of her transition?”
“I saw her during the first days of her quarantine. Through Skype. She was bored and homesick, but I could tell how much she wanted to be a heroine. The Sarina I knew wanted everything to be nice and peaceful and right. I honestly can’t picture her in any other way.”
Did I? Sarina was taken aback by the statement. Was I really such a child?
The interviewer kept on prodding without mercy, obviously unmoved by David’s discomfort. “Given that most of the world has never known her as you do, how do you feel about the charges the international community has filed against her, David? Would you consider the possibility that they are justified?”
This time, David didn’t need time to consider. His answer came right away.
“I’m just a biology student,” he said. “I don’t have powers, and I don’t know what it’s like to have them. So, I can’t answer that question for you. And, with all due respect, I don’t think anyone, but Sarina can. I’m sure she has made mistakes, but she should get the chance to speak for herself in front of the International Court of Justice in a fair trial.”
At that point, a shudder went through David, and he reached up to rub one bleary eye with his fist before he could continue. “I know she didn’t hurt our parents. Whatever happened to them, she had nothing to do with it.”
What? Sarina couldn’t believe what she was hearing. It was just too outrageous to comprehend. She just stood there, staring at the screen, dumbstruck.
Emily found the right words in her stead. ” That was Legion, you dummies. Don’t those television people know anything?”
“Yeah, how can they not know?” Patrick chimed in. He planted himself next to Sarina, eyes on the screen and grocery bags dangling from his hands.
While her companions shared their thoughts, Sarina struggled against the furious burn that was building in her gut. She knew that feeling. It was the emotion that fed into her powers and had helped her overcome her own weakness in the past. But she had no use for it right now. The two kids were with her. She was taking care of those kids, and she could have misunderstood what was being said on television. She’d missed most of the interview, after all.
Her parents had been everything to her. They would have wanted her to keep a cool head despite this vile, baseless assumption that…
Emily threw her twiggy arms around Sarina from behind, squeezing the heat out of her. “It’s just a stupid television show,” the little Empath murmured, nuzzling Sarina’s back with her cheek. “With stupid television people who say stupid things to make everyone watch. We know what really happened, alright? And look, your brother believes in you. He doesn’t need stupid people to tell him anything.”
“Just stop watching,” Patrick added. “We should be going anyway. You know that. We can’t stick around here long. The place’s got cameras, and Snow is waiting.”
“Give me a minute,” Sarina choked out.
“She needs a minute,” Emily echoed sternly. She showed no intention of loosening her grip on Sarina. Her small arms held on as tight as a lifebelt, as if there was a life in need of saving. And maybe there was.
“So David was alive all along?” Sarina whispered.
“We never said he wasn’t,” Patrick replied. “It was you who didn’t want to talk about any of that… um, family stuff. Remember?”
Sarina squeezed her eyes shut, shutting out the images and the words that came through the speakers. She would have given anything for a chance to see David and tell him her story. But not even her supposedly world-ending powers reached far enough to instantly take her back to Switzerland. And even if there was a way of doing it – she couldn’t afford to. She’d get her brother into trouble and probably her small group of companions as well.
“Don’t do anything silly, okay?” Emily murmured against Sarina’s shirt. “Jasper needs you. We need you too. Even Patrick, who pretends he’s all grown up and independent.”
Sarina flinched, cracking her eyes open to see the little girl’s face peek up at her from beneath her arm. “Stop reading my mind,” she said. “It’s creepy.”
“And stop talking crap about me,” Patrick added sullenly.
Emily dropped her gaze to the polished marble floor. “Sorry,” she murmured, failing to sound sorry at all. “Chris said the same thing, but it’s not really mindreading. Scout’s honor.”
Sarina shook her head and glanced to the television for one last look at David. But her brother wasn’t on the screen anymore. He had been replaced by a young man who leaned against a white hospital table for support as if he had trouble keeping himself upright. His red and white flannel shirt failed to conceal the thick wrap of the bandage he wore underneath, and his short, dark blond curls were in disarray.
If Sarina hadn’t been too overwhelmed to leave the department store, she might have turned away without paying further attention to the man. But he started talking, and when he did, recognition struck her like lightning. She knew that voice. She could have picked it out from any of the radio and television announcer voices she’d heard in the past months, and not just because of the Russian accent.
Less than a year ago, back before she’d learned that he was a murderer, Sarina had recorded any interview featuring this hero. She’d collected every scrap of information about him. She’d daydreamed about hunting villains with him and Shanti, who still held a special place in her heart.
Sarina opened her mouth, but no words came out. Emily’s arms dropped away from her waist, and they both stared at the screens, equally flabbergasted.
“Wow!” Emily said. “That’s Radiant, and he’s talking about you!”
“Shhh,” Sarina said. She put a hand over the girl’s mouth and gently held her against her hip while listening to the voices that came through the glass. Two were two, Radiant’s as well as a simultaneous German translation for the Austrian audience. The voice overlay forced her to pay very close attention in order to hear the original.
“I know you haven’t harmed any innocents,” Radiant said. He was looking straight at the camera, at her. “And I don’t believe you intend to. But I have reason to believe you’re under the influence of someone who intends to push you to the other side. To turn you into a villain.”
How does he know? Sarina wondered. Radiant was an outcast, hated by the world, hated – maybe – by her. She couldn’t fathom how he’d found out about Gentleman’s involvement in the events that had led her here. She wasn’t sure if she wanted him to die in a fire for what he’d done to Shanti, but the fact that he’d gone such lengths to send her a message ignited her curiosity. For the moment, he had her attention.
Emily pulled at the fingers that were cupped over her mouth, and Sarina lowered her hand absently, still listening. Judging by Patrick’s unusual silence, he was doing the same.
“I’d like to ask you to stop and think about whether you’re really doing what you want to do,” Radiant went on.
Do you ever heed your own advice?
Sarina nearly laughed out loud, but she managed to control herself at the last instant. A small gurgling sound escaped her lips, prompting Emily to look up at her with a frown.
“It’s fine,” Sarina told her. “Just ironic, that’s all.”
Emily nodded and turned her attention back to the screen. Radiant had produced a strip of paper with boldly written numbers on it and was now holding it into the camera.
“When and if you’d like to talk to someone who understands, call or send a message to this number,” Radiant said. “It belongs to a good friend of mine who could help you out. She could even help you get in touch with me if you’re up for it.”
You still have friends? Sarina wondered. He looked genuine, she supposed. But she’d recently come to understand that people were full of shit most of the time. Even if they happened to mean well or were trying to help, they were probably still lying through their teeth.
“Emily, is he lying?” she asked, just wanting confirmation for what she already knew.
“Um, I dunno,” Emily replied. “My powers don’t work through pictures or TVs. But he has a Dave the Deliveryman face. I think he’s actually really worried about you.”
“Dave the Deliveryman?” Patrick asked. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh. Um. I guess I’ve never really talked about him.” Emily scratched her nose and squinted at the television, as if to reassure herself of the assumed likeness. “Dave the Deliveryman is really scared of dogs, even the little puppies. Every time he hears barking, he makes that face.”
Sarina tried to see what Emily had seen, but Radiant had already disappeared from the screen. A weather forecast had replaced him, and the newscaster looked rather happy to be commenting on storm fronts rather than superpowered threats.
“No one barked,” Sarina said absently, trying to figure out how she felt about all this. Half of her wanted nothing more than to believe Radiant, to believe in a hero who used to hold a special place in her heart. But her other half – a more instinctual and maybe smarter half – screamed at her to stop being such a trusting dumbass. And she had to admit that trusting people hadn’t served her well of late.
“Are you typing that number?” Patrick asked.
It took Sarina a second to realize he hadn’t addressed her, but Emily. The Empath was tapping away on the keys of her small lilac colored phone.
Sarina’s eyes narrowed at the phone, and the angry, mistrusting portion of her shifted in her sub-conscious, bubbling to the surface momentarily. If she’d needed any more proof that everyone had personal agendas they kept hidden from her, this was it.
“Don’t,” Sarina said in a dangerously low tone. “Stop. We haven’t agreed that we’re going to call him. It could be a trap. It probably is.”
Emily glanced up at Sarina with a wounded look on her face. “I’m not calling, I’m saving the number. We can’t decide anything later if everyone forgets what the number was.”
Emily looked as if she’d been struck, even though nothing had happened. The look on her small face pushed the anger and wariness back down, and Sarina was suddenly sorry to see the little girl like that. She made herself exhale and let go of the heat. “It’s fine, Emily. That was actually really thoughtful of you. Thank you.”
Emily nodded a bit, but her frown didn’t fade completely. “Uh-huh. If you don’t want me to do something, ask a little nicer next time, okay?”
“Hey Emily,” Patrick interrupted with sudden urgency. “What’s your name? Your full name, I mean.”
Emily promptly answered for herself. “Bell. Emily Bell. Why, Sunny-Bunny? You hear something funny?”
“Not funny at all. Someone just dropped your name. I think they recognized you on camera. I barely understand German, but that someone also just mentioned the Covenant.”
“Oh poop,” Emily said. “Let’s go, guys.”
Why would they recognize her, but not me? Sarina wondered, not feeling nearly as anxious as she probably should have. She turned away from the display window slowly in an attempt to maintain her cover as just another store visitor. A quick scan of the entry hall revealed nothing new. People still emerged from the moving stairway and went about their way, too occupied with their panic shopping haul to pay much attention to anything else. No one even picked up their pace.
“Wait a second,” Sarina said. “Patrick. Are you sure? Why would her name be dropped and not mine? I’m the monster here.”
She stated the fact without investing any emotion in it. The two kids seemed to think it was a big deal, though. Emily peered up at her with a deep frown. Patrick signaled his disapproval by crossing his arms over his chest, head cocked to the side.
“What?” Sarina said. “That’s what everyone believes. I’m a monster, and maybe it’s true. So what? I’ve stopped giving a shit, and you should too.”
Patrick opened his mouth, but no words came out. His jaw went slack, and his eyes turned distant. “Now someone dropped your name,” he said in a monotone voice.
“Can you repeat the German as you hear it?” Sarina said quickly. “Could be important.”
“Um…” Emily began, then cut herself off. Instead of finishing her thought, she grabbed two of the grocery bags from the floor and glanced to the exit.
“One second,” Sarina said absently, fully focused on Patrick as she tried to make sense of his distorted, barely intelligible German.
“I’m not sure that’s her,” Patrick said, reciting a distant voice he’d picked up with his power. “But I’m positive the child is the one wanted by the Americans. The Covenant is almost on our doorstep. We need to make that call.”
Looking at Emily, Sarina could see why she would be easily recognized. The little Empath was almost unreasonably cute with her snub nose and the spattering of freckles that dotted it. Her hair was auburn with a hint of red, not exactly the most common color, and her big blue eyes seemed to consider the world with perpetual skepticism. Seeing her like this, loaded with too many shopping bags for her small frame, made Sarina want to hug her and tell her everything would be alright. The urge was almost overwhelming, more powerful than anything she’d felt during the past minute or so.
“What?” Emily asked, still wearing that little professor’s frown.
“Nothing,” Sarina said. “Give me those bags. Orderly retreat – after me.”
Sarina felt the bass of her heart thundering in her chest as she led the way across the small hall, but she wasn’t scared. Not exactly. Her pulse raced for other reasons.
She was the most powerful person in the world, and if the Covenant did show up, she was prepared to prove it. Then, maybe they’d stop hounding her and the kids once and for all.