New Orleans, Louisiana, USA – Wednesday, the 27th of June 2012. 06:25 AM.
To Chris, being bound to a hospital bed was just a different kind of captivity.
Sure, she had been hospitalized before. She already knew what it was like to stare at the ceiling and wonder about everything that had happened outside her whitewashed little room. But unlike a couple weeks ago when the Covenant flew her back to San Francisco with her broken arm and head full of fresh hero experiences, there were no more newscasts and text messages to keep her connected to the world. The few remaining news stations no longer reached her. The power went out more and more often, and the clinic staff had come up with fancy terms including, but not limited to, “post-traumatic stress syndrome” to deny her access to information.
The heroes let her keep her communications armband and occasionally addressed her through it, but she could tell they kept her out of the channels where the important talk was going on. It was as though they feared she’d rip out her IV needle and run someplace she wasn’t supposed to go.
Their assumption wasn’t entirely wrong; the thought had crossed her mind a time or two.
In theory, Christina Chung was not to be exposed to potentially unsettling news or situations. In practice, however, Mascot remained one of the last Guardians and a bastion of defense against Legion’s powers. Checkmate frequently delivered allies heroes in need of forcefields to her room. They all offered their thanks but were gone as quickly as they came. In most cases, she didn’t even know their names or what power classification they fit into.
Sometimes the labels the doctor and nurses stuck on her came to life in ways she hadn’t anticipated. The dreams – lucid, dark and persistent enough to linger even after she thought she had woken up – were the worst. In them sometimes Ryan visited her, bloodied and beaten and barely recognizable as human. The poor guy had no shoes. She wanted to give them back to him, but couldn’t remember where she put them. Maybe the nurses had taken them away when she was asleep.
The family visits – again courtesy of Checkmate – had been pleasant so far, though. Her father, who used to resemble a character out of a Robocop movie, had been molded into a quiet and mellow individual when the world ended and a handful of heroes were left with the responsibilities of ten thousand cops. Her mother smiled a lot and stoked Chris’ hands. One time they brought Barney the dog, who’d had a more soothing effect on her psyche than any of the meds she was supposed to take.
Maybe someday I can go back home, she’d told herself then, knowing it was impossible. Just be a daughter again.
Among Chris’s other regular visitors was David, a man in his early twenties with a Swiss accent who had introduced himself as Sarina’s brother. He had earned visitor rights by somehow convincing the three-person clinic staff that he was a graduate student of psychology. It had taken her all of five minutes to unmask him as a plant researcher with a fanboyish interest in her heroic endeavors, but since he seemed sincere and he complied with her requests for information, she didn’t mind him stopping by. At least not as long as he didn’t mind hanging out on the outer fringes of her friend zone.
Those outer fringes were not so bad. Her friend zone contained a lot of empty spots now, places where people used to be. Others she simply didn’t remember or care about anymore; blank white blots, frosted over with ice, had taken their place. There were gloomy areas, too, ones she refused to consider because the memories linked to them would have pushed her over the edge into a mental prison filled with guilt and regret
What kept her afloat in her self-contained bubble of clinic life were the moments where the others connected her, letting her know she was still part of the team. Her hero identity was all she had left. The part of her that was just a teenage girl had died somewhere down in the Conglomerate fortress, leaving behind a husk driven only by the need to keep going down the road she’d chosen. Step by step. Doing whatever necessary to win the game or at least deny victory to the bad guys. That need filled every particle of her being, leaving little room for things like interpersonal relationships or the activities most girls her age considered ‘fun’. If she tried to read a book or play a phone game, her thoughts inevitably wandered to the latest piece of bad news, to people and places she knew to be in trouble. To necessary steps and defenses against the expansion of Legion’s influence.
Nora and Peter didn’t understand. They thought that spending time with her, embracing her and filling her up with friendship and funny anecdotes was going to change her back into a person. They didn’t get that none of this mattered until there was a place for them to live out their love and friendship in peace.
Ironically enough, Chris now saw more similarities between herself and Radiant than she’d thought possible a week or so ago. They were both wound-up clockwork soldiers, marching against the army of darkness until they toppled over or their batteries ran out. It was all they knew to do anymore. But unlike Radiant, Chris remembered what it was like to be a person, and the emotions that occasionally flared up inside her were real. Radiant was getting worse at pretending to be a person. Sometimes he just hung there like a wall lamp, staring into space as though nothing and no one concerned him anymore. Even his new ‘hearing’ seemed like a poor attempt at being human; an energy creature from outer space learning how to adapt to earthly conditions.
When someone knocked on the door to the room, she felt real excitement without need for pretense. She knew her teammates were out there dealing with some serious shit, and Nora had been in this room up until twenty minutes ago, crying and screaming and unable to speak after her one-second exposure to Legion’s aura. Now that her friend had been taken away, Chris wasn’t allowed to see or call her through the armband. She was pretty damn concerned.
The woman who poked her head through the door was one of the nurses, her young face nearly as white as her work uniform and wearing a perpetual look of concern. “How are you feeling, Christina?” the woman asked.
“Can you just tell me what’s up?” Chris shot back. She didn’t have the patience for formalities or the energy to pretend that she did.
“Your hero friends want to get together and talk about something. Since you are awake and–”
Chris cut her off. “Just take me there already.” She grabbed the IV pole and sat up, legs swinging over the side of her bed. “Or stand aside and tell me where the meeting is.”
Before the nurse got the chance to protest, a small, mousy girl with glasses slipped past her and into the room. “Don’t worry, she’s okay. I can tell with my powers.”
“Hi, Aura.” Chris assembled a smile, but it faltered. “Is this about Nora?
“Um, yes, and other things. Can Rune come in? He wants to push your bed if it’s okay with you.”
Releasing the IV pole, Chris put her feet back on the bed and sank into her pillow. Her bandaged chest protested the motion. “Sure.”
As she said this, large man’s hand emerged from the half open door to settle on the nurse’s shoulder and gently push her aside. “We’ll take it from here.”
The nurse glanced askance at Rune, who now stepped into the room dressed in his customary flannel shirt and jeans. Spotting Chris, he flashed a toothy grin and a victory sign, which actually succeeded in allaying her concerns. He was an honest, down-to-earth guy who wore his heart on his sleeve, making it easy to believe in his optimism. Next to him stood Aura, looking awfully young and fragile next to the towering Swede. Even her smile was small.
“I hear you’re on bed pushing duty,” Chris said to Rune. “Don’t fall and break a leg, okay? They just waxed the floor.”
No one laughed.
The nurse broke the silence. “Christina, call us if you start feeling unwell or if you need painkillers.” She made a clicking motion with her thumb, indicating the emergency button which was connected to the bed. Having made her point, she left the heroes to themselves.
Rune took position behind the head of Chris’s bed and pushed, rolling her through the open door and into the corridor. Aura blurted out the news as she shuffled along beside Chris. “The doctor did some tests and said Nora is going to be okay. She needs to rest for a day or so, though.”
“That’s good to hear.” Chris closed her eyes in relief. Too many of her friends had already been lost or forgotten; the loss of her best friend would have cut too deep and left a bigger vacuum than she could endure. But then the next thought came along and destroyed her bubble of relative comfort. “Wait. Who’s going to look after the city in the meantime?”
“Everyone,” Rune rumbled from above and behind her. He was rolling her down the corridor now, and pulled the bed to a stop when they reached the elevator doors. “Dancer’s going to be busier than usual. I hope the girl can handle the responsibility.”
Guess I’m not going to stay in bed much longer, Chris ventured. Noire had been a bastion of defense that even Legion shied away from. Without the Darkshaper, things were going to be interesting.
The group rode the elevator to the second floor in silence. The meeting room – a staff lounge that had been cleared of all bulky and unnecessary appliances – was right across from the elevator, its wide open door guarded by one of Athena’s hovering drones. “Welcome, Christina,” it proclaimed in its flat monotone. “I am glad you are able to join us today.”
Chris decided to focus her attention on the meeting room instead of wasting energy on a response. The first person in sight was someone she didn’t recognize at all. The man – Asian, chubby, and wearing of glasses – stood by the window, eyes flicking nervously as if in search of an exit. Beside him hovered another of Athena’s drones, unobtrusive but vigilant.
“Mascot incoming,” Rune rumbled as he rolled the bed through the open door. Aura’s padding footsteps told Chris that the Empath was following right behind him.
The room was airy, high-ceilinged, and illuminated by the soft, reddish morning light that came through the tall double window. Even though most of the original furnishings had been removed by the heroes, the room with its wall-mounted dartboard and colorful pastel mural paintings retained a cozy atmosphere.
In contrast, the people gathered in it looked tense. Calavera and Spirit, the two remaining Latin American heroes, shared a faux leather sofa and wore the same tight expression. Dancer and DJ exchanged hushed whispers on the longer couch which was pushed up against the wall opposite the Latinos. Beside them, Peter sat with a sour look on his face. Radiant and Checkmate were nowhere to be seen.
It was Nora’s absence that bothered Chris the most. Sure, Aura had already revealed that the city’s guardian needed peace and quiet to recover, but the fact that Nora was missing an important meeting drove home the graveness of her condition.
Naturally, Chris was the center of everyone’s attention from the moment Rune pushed her bed through the door. The Latinos got to their feet to shake her hand and wish her a speedy recovery. The others followed suit, and before she knew it, she was surrounded by a wall of people who obstructed her view of the most interesting person in the room.
Chris couldn’t resist cutting into the tirade of kind words. “Who’s the newcomer, and why is he here?”
The room fell into silence as everyone’s eyes flicked to the hovering drone. Athena was quick to comply. “My apologies, Christina. This is Mark Yeo, the Technician we rescued from Singapore. He agreed to attend the meeting since he will be working with us and has questions of his own.”
“The guy who got Data’s powers?” Chris asked.
“Yes. Mark, would you like to introduce yourself?”
The man by the window shook his head, a reflection of morning light caught in his glasses. “My details are not important. Questions first.”
It didn’t escape Chris’ attention that the Technician still looked uncomfortable. He probably didn’t ask to become a hero overnight, she mused. Neither did I.
“Mascot should look at his forcefield,” Rune suggested.
Chris was taken aback. What forcefield?
Now it was Athena who followed up. “Yes. Christina, do you sense anything from the energy barrier on him?”
There was no need to try and sense anything. Unlike any of the forcefields she had ever created, the one that supposedly existed around Mark Yeo radiated no energy vibes and provided her with no feedback regarding its strength and overall structure. The only reason she saw it at all was because it reflected a small portion of the daylight flooding in through the window behind the Technician. Its shape wasn’t round, like her own early projections had been, but flowed around the man to more or less fit snugly around his body shape.
“It looks like I made it,” Chris had to admit. “But it’s not one of mine. What’s going on?”
Rune spoke up next but frustrated her by leaving the question unanswered. “Dancer could have projected it.”
“No,” Chris protested. “Adjusting the shape took me weeks to learn, and I don’t remember teaching Dancer how to do it.”
At that point, Dancer added her voice of protest. “Why does everyone think I secretly went to Singapore? I don’t even know how to get there.”
“Her teleport doesn’t go that far,” DJ chimed in. “Not even if she used the music track I made for her. We tested it.”
This is getting weirder and weirder, Chris observed. She wasn’t yet sure what to think, but the forcefield mystery nagged her so much that she wanted to jump to her feet and poke and prod the Technician’s energy shield until it collapsed, just to see if she could. Rune’s weighty stare and her aching wound convinced her to stay put for now.
Calavera cocked his skull-masked head to the side. “Perhaps she asked Checkmate to take her, yes?”
“Checkmate said he did no such thing,” Athena replied. “We will let him sleep for now. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that Dancer was, in fact, in Singapore for a short while. She could have taken off her armband and left it here.”
“Wait,” Chris cut in. “Maybe I’m just confused by my meds or whatever, but why are you so convinced she went there without telling anyone?”
“Yeah, why?” Peter sounded even more defensive than Dancer had.
“Because,” the drone went on, “Morpheus and I examined the granite sphere that initially drew the Wild Hunt’s attention, and we evaluated the footage from surveillance cameras in the vicinity. The construction process was remarkably similar to Dancer’s reality shaping power. The same is true for the mirrored sphere by the pier. In fact, we cannot think of any other power that would provide the same results.”
Sounds convincing, I guess.
“But I didn’t do it,” Dancer asserted forcefully. She looked as if she was about to say more, but closed her mouth when DJ put a hand on her knee.
To Chris’s surprise, Mark Yeo – who hadn’t moved from his place by the wall– stepped forward. He nervously adjusted his glasses with shaky hands, but his voice was firm. “I said this before. I was saved by a child or a small person in a hooded jacket. The child told me to wait by the water without speaking. With gestures.”
“Did you see the face?” Rune asked.
The man shook his head. “No. It was dark, and the hood… no. But I can confirm the child was a teleporter.”
The fact that some of the assembled heroes looked surprised, but others did not, not gave Chris a decent idea of who had been privy to detail information in advance of the meeting. Rune, Aura and of course Mark Yeo belonged to the more knowledgeable group. Since the Empath was a good at finding leads others had missed, this made sense.
As if inspired by the weight of Chris’s gaze, Aura spoke up. “Maybe this is someone like Legion. Who can do everything, but is on our side?”
“Their actions so far suggest good intent.” Athena’s drone floated away from the wall to retake its position next to Mark Yeo. “However, this begs the question why the ‘child’ did not contact us. We are in touch with every known hero group. It would be easy enough to communicate through them.”
As she thought back to the aforementioned surveillance cameras, an idea sparked in Chris’s mind. “If our mystery hero was caught on camera, it should be easy for Aura to tell us more about them.”
Everyone’s eyes settled on the Empath ; she didn’t look as if she enjoyed the attention. Her mouth opened but no words came out.
Athena responded in Aura’s stead. “We are working on it. Unfortunately, we were only able to retrieve a couple of low quality images. They were taken from a great distance and distorted by the unknown hero’s forcefield.”
“This talk isn’t going anywhere.” Rune spoke from his position beside Chris’s bed, his gravelly baritone laden with frustration. “Let’s cut to the chase. How the hell are we going to kill Legion? That’s what we should be doing. We’re heroes.”
Chris flicked him a thumbs up. Finally, this meeting went in the direction the wound-up clockwork soldiers were already attuned to. Unfortunately, Radiant was missing, but she supposed he had drained himself of energy and needed a pit stop.
“Legion’s elimination is our other priority topic today,” Athena disclosed. “Let us begin with a few facts you need to be aware of.”
After the frustratingly sparse trickle of information she received over the past few days, Chris couldn’t wait to see the big picture, and she was sure she’d be able to handle it. Post-traumatic stress syndrome my ass.
“Firstly,” Athena began, “over the past few days Morpheus and myself have been collecting and evaluating all available witness accounts, audio and video footage, and surveillance data pertaining to Legion. I will summarize only the most important points. He built his empire on the remaining cornerstones of the Conglomerate, assisted by the Outlaw King. If you need a memory refresher regarding the Outlaw King or the Conglomerate resources and sphere of influence, consult myself or Morpheus after this meeting.”
Damn you, King. The mention of that name was enough to make Chris’s fingers curl into a fist and fill her up with a flood of unpleasant memories. King, the guy who created his own rules about how his powers worked, was now teaming up with Legion. Big fucking surprise.
All around her, hero faces clouded over. No one spoke up or budged from where they sat or stood.
“You should also know that a contingent of villains specialized in subterfuge appears to have scouted our New Orleans base. Dancer, can you tell us more?”
At the sound of her name, the Healer sat up straight on the couch and swept a glance over those gathered in the room. “Noire asked me to take up watch duty for a while. That’s what I was actually doing before the meeting.”
This time, no one challenged Dancer’s statement. She gave a satisfied nod and continued. “I spotted three Evolved life lights. They looked very similar but represented different people. I couldn’t affect them with my powers in any way. When they saw me, they disappeared.”
“The Chinese Evolved Army’s former Snake Squad consisted of highly skilled and dangerous ninjas,” Athena said. “When they were sent to investigate Legion, he claimed them for himself. We are still investigating the extent of their combined powers. At this point, a counterattack on New Orleans seems likely.”
Right when Nora is out of commission. Just great.
“Furthermore, you may have noticed that the range of Legion’s aura has increased by a factor of five. Our data suggests that his overall power level increases in proportion to the number of Evolved he controls or has absorbed. The protection of other powered, and Dancer in particular, remains a high priority.”
Dancer’s eyes narrowed. “What does he want from me, anyway?”
Your powers, I guess?
“We have some theories,” Athena said. “Find me after the meeting if you wish to discuss them.”
Calavera spoke before Athena got the chance to continue. “It is possible to kill Legion? He is powerful, yes? Like small god.”
“We reached the conclusion that he is next to impossible to kill,” Athena said. “Our combined powers and weaponry cannot match his regeneration. Unless…” she allowed a weighty pause, “we manage to trap him with a power suppression device. Our newest ally has agreed to assist our efforts in that regard.”
On cue, the Technician bowed, earning himself a guarded round of applause from the younger heroes in the room. Not Chris, though. Was this guy going to be the key to saving the world? She couldn’t help but remain skeptical. Technician gadgets took time to develop; the same was true for DJ’s power boosting tracks. She wasn’t sure the heroes had time.
“How long is it going to take to build that trap, and what are the chances Legion’s going to fall for it?” she asked.
“It is too early to tell,” Athena admitted. “We will get started with the tests and a first prototype as soon as Mark Yeo is ready. For now, we must consider alternative solutions with more immediate results.”
For some reason, half the people in the room were now looking at Chris; the other half looked about as confused as she felt. “Why are you looking at me?” she asked.
“We discussed the option of triggering a Guardian power surge,” Rune explained in a grave voice.
The realization came over Chris in a shudder that turned her blood cold.