New Orleans, Louisiana, USA – Wednesday, the 27th of June 2012. 11:14 AM.
“We’re playing the Italian Game now,” Kasparov had told Emily not long after she returned from Singapore, weary and depressed, her head filled with the screams of those she had left behind. “We need to position the bishop – you – for an early attack on Legion’s base.”
“But I’m not a bishop,” she had replied. “I’m a girl. All I want is to help my friends.”
“Technically, you are the queen. The most powerful and versatile girl on this side of the game board.”
So, he’d told her about his visions and the conclusions he had drawn from them. What she gathered from them was this: without an early surprise attack on the heart of Legion’s empire, a few hours from now the heroes were going to suffer losses they’d never be able to recover from. Kasparov had spared her the details. She didn’t want to know which of her friends were going to die or get hurt so badly they’d never recover from it.
Or if they were going to scream the way the people in that big city had.
“So, I’m going to sneak into Legion’s base alone,” she had said, too stubborn to let him sense her fear. “Why now? And why do I have to go alone?”
“Because Legion picked out your friends’ weaknesses from Noire’s mind, and because you are the only major player beside me he is not aware of. You are a wildcard, able to bypass his defenses and take out his key pieces before they come into play.”
In her heart, Emily knew that he was right; her wildcard status was the reason she hadn’t been able to see or speak to her friends since her power surge. If she made it through the Italian Game, maybe she’d be able to fight beside Chris and the others once more. Assist Sarina in learning how to heal people. Maybe they would figure it out together and travel the world again, side by side, healing the world the way Shanti did.
Or maybe I’m going to die, and then they’ll have to fight without me.
The thought gnawed at her as she stood outside the room where Checkmate was staying, peeking through the window to imprint him while he was asleep and unaware of her presence. Kasparov’s power made bypassing the heroes’ surveillance fairly simple. He had given her the exact minute and second when all possible coincidences stacked up – drones not yet passing through, lookouts temporarily distracted, Radiant not around to reveal that this trail of light wasn’t his own – offering a window of opportunity to beam herself into the city without drawing attention.
Fortunately, only the Visionary was able to exploit this circumstantial weakness in the heroes’ defenses. He had told her where the relevant cameras were, how to take advantage of their blind spots, and how often Athena’s drones patrolled near the clinic building. Checkmate felt nothing of her Empath power. He lay there on his bed in blissful ignorance of Kasparov’s visions, his chocolate-hued face relaxed for what had to be the first time in days.
“I hope we can be friends someday,” Emily murmured against the window. “I’d really like to.”
Immersing herself in a new mind for the first time felt a bit like trying on a brand new pair of shoes. They were uncomfortable at first, but as she wiggled her way inside, they gradually adjusted their form to fit her perfectly. She didn’t know the Teleporter well enough to speed up the process, so it took her a full minute of sorting through his skill memory to grasp his power and fully understand how he used it.
Her next stop was Chris’s room. Knowing that both of them might be dead in a few hours, Emily had insisted on visiting her friend during Chris’s drug assisted late morning nap, and she had fought hard for Kasparov’s consent. “45 seconds, he had finally told her. Any longer, and you risk losing your wildcard advantage.”
As she gazed down at her friend’s sleeping face, pale in its wreath of messy dark brown hair, Emily had to resist the urge to reach out and place the tip of her finger on Chris’s nose. Ensure herself that the Guardian was real, warm, and getting better.
Hi, Grumpyface. I’m right here next to you. Have you been looking for me?
But, of course, she couldn’t do that. Couldn’t wake Chris and say hello for real, not even if this was their last chance to speak. Still, the short visit served as a powerful reminder of what Emily was fighting and surviving for, and it renewed the little girl’s hope in a future after the end of everything.
You were always there for me as a Warden. It’s my turn to take care of you now.
After taking the full 45 seconds Kasparov had allowed her, Emily teleported herself out of the clinic and to a location far from New Orleans. She didn’t need to pull the destination from Checkmate’s memory. It was deeply rooted within herself, her personal refuge and the place she still called home.
Everything about it looked different now. As she stood in the flourishing backyard garden, raising her eyes to a second story window, the Bell family home loomed over her in a way that felt cold and uninviting. The ground floor windows had been shuttered. Three or four newspapers, turned to sodden lumps by the rain, were strewn on the porch. Even the air smelled different. It had a burned odor, like the acrid aftertaste of a fire that had been extinguished days before. The colorless sky and the silence from the surrounding neighborhood reinforced the eerie sense of emptiness.
My parents don’t live here anymore, Emily reminded herself. They went to live in an UN shelter because they were told I’d be sent home if they comply with the authorities. Still, something about the atmosphere here rubbed her the wrong way. The house didn’t just feel abandoned; it felt dead. And Kasparov had tried too hard to convince her to stay away. It seemed as if there was something here that he didn’t want her to see.
A pitiful mewling sound drew her attention to a rustle in the almost knee high grass. A big orange cat jumped out, and proceeded to rub around her legs with a rumbling purr. His head pressed against her so hard that she nearly fell on her butt.
“Mr. Tibbs!” Emily squealed, her somber mood clearing up in an instant. She crouched down and scooped the cat in her arms, hugging him to her chest. He squirmed a little but never stopped purring.
Something was wrong, though. As she dug her fingers into Mr. Tibbs’ fur, she couldn’t help but notice that he was skinnier than she remembered. And why was he here? Shouldn’t someone have taken care of him while her parents were away?
“What are you doing here, Mr. Tibbs?” She gave him a stern look while her fingers continued to ruffle his fur. “Did you run away from my parents?”
He gave her that snobby look that only cats can do. Despite that, she wanted to keep him and take him along wherever she went. We’re vagabonds now, Mr. Tibbs. We belong together forever.
“Want to go inside?” She asked the cat, expecting Kasparov to protest through the headset she wore underneath the hood. He didn’t, though. “Let me know if you want to talk” was all he said. There was a sad undertone that made her wary.
Talk about what?
She resisted the urge to ask and infused the cat with Checkmate’s power instead, taking him along as she teleported herself straight into her room.
Her room, at least, still looked exactly as she remembered leaving it. The bed was made, linens folded and covered with a kitten print bedspread. A choice selection of enlarged photo prints adorned the wall above it, reflecting moments from her life as a Warden. Some went even farther back, to her days as a child without powers, loved and sheltered by an easygoing father and a clinically anxious, overprotective mother.
The Warden photos exerted a stronger pull on her emotions, however. Emily released the cat onto the bed to study the photos one by one. One of the pictures – taken by Nora’s cell phone – showed her costumed Kid next to a life-sized Canadian werewolf statue. Chris stood to her right, furrier than the monster in her Mascot costume. She was making a fist and holding it up to the werewolf’s snarling visage. To Kid’s left, Overdrive used his strawberry ice cream to finger paint a drizzle of fake blood on the wolf’s snout.
This was before Nora got into trouble, Emily remembered. Before we found Legion in Canada. Who would have thought that one day he’d be too scared to be in the same city as her!
A different photo showed a seven year old Emily in a sea world park in Florida, happily petting one of the dolphins who would play a part in her transition not long after the picture was taken. She had chosen that one for her wall collection because it marked the last day of her childhood. Mere hours after that moment, she became something more than human and less of a child. Adults would involuntarily invade her mind with their grown-up thoughts and feelings. It became impossible to perpetuate her ignorant innocence under these conditions.
Driven by some inner compulsion she didn’t understand, Emily threw her head back and assumed a dolphin’s voice to click and squeak at the pictures on the wall. A confused Mr. Tibbs made a mewling noise at her. So, she stopped and looked down at the cat, meowing at him instead.
He didn’t respond. He gave her that snobby look again, tail twitching in disapproval.
“What?” Emily sank to her knees in front of the bed, lowering herself to eye level with her furry childhood friend. “I’m just playing at being a kid. Can’t I be a kid hours before I’m going to die?”
Mr. Tibbs moved to the edge of the bed, rubbing his fuzzy cheek against her smooth one. She felt his purr vibrate against her skin, and a dam broke inside of her, releasing her entire reservoir of pent-up tears at once. She sobbed so hard that her shoulders shook and the cat stared at her in apparent confusion. Mr. Tibbs had never seen her like this. She had always been a cheerful child, doing her best to spread her cheer to the world so the people around her – usually her parents and classmates – didn’t have any negative emotions to rub off on her.
When she was finished crying, she used the sleeve of her hooded jacket to dry her eyes and tried to pull herself back together. Right that moment, she would have given anything for the comfort of her mother’s arms or one of her father’s light-hearted jokes. But her parents had gone to some shelter, and she didn’t immerse herself in their minds and memories anymore. Not for any reason.
“I’ll open a can of cat food for you downstairs,” she sniffled, rising to her feet. “Just give me a moment, okay?”
Mr. Tibbs didn’t complain. He was now occupied with licking his front paw, signaling for her to take all the time she needed.
Emily turned around to face her desk, a low-slung, snowy white writing table complete with an upper attachment containing compartments for her assorted childhood treasures. All of the drawers came with easily graspable pink handles. The comic she had drawn during her last stay at home was strewn across the blotting pad in five colorful pages, slightly dusty and doomed to remain unfinished until the end of the world or the end of Kid’s heroic mission.
The comic itself was nothing special; it was what most adults expected from a nine-year-old: cats, superheroes, and cats in costumes. Dogs, too. Friends and families who banded together to overcome challenges easily. The first few pages of the comic were early drawing efforts from three years ago, scrawly and composed of colors that would not normally be combined. The later images, however, looked so professional that Emily hadn’t dared show them to anyone until after the truth about her powers came out.
Because shortly after her transition, she met artist Greg Capullo at a convention and couldn’t resist borrowing his expertise.
Mr. Tibbs’ mewling stirred Emily from her reverie. She let her eyes wander over the photos, the Hello Kitty carpet, the cutesy curtains and the dusty schoolbooks one last time before she opened the door leading out of the room. “Okay, Mr. Tibbs,” she announced in what was she hoped was a cheerful voice. “Chow time!”
As far as she could see through the doorway, the second floor hallway looked normal, though the unnatural silence made it feel forbidding and lonely. The wrongness of it only hit her when she stepped out of her room. Something was missing. Not her parents; she obviously hadn’t expected them to be home. No, the missing presence was immaterial, a haze of left-behind emotions which had accrued over years and years of shared family life. It used to bother her because her parents’ regular fights had left the strongest and most persistent emotional marks – not in her room, but almost everywhere else. Now that their echoes were gone, the realization hit her like a thunderbolt. It took her breath away and swallowed her whole.
The sadness in Kasparov’s voice. The family cat, who should have been with her parents or with their kindly neighbors. The overpowering emptiness, which made itself felt in more ways than one.
They’re not at the UN Shelter. Emily’s quivering fingers found their way to the headset microphone and turned it on. Maybe they never were.
“Kasparov?” She asked in a tiny, quivering voice. “Why? Why didn’t you tell me?” She sank to the parquet floor and sat there immobile, too shocked to even cry.
“You know why.” His voice was gentle and a little sad, just like before when she was about to teleport into the house, and earlier when he tried to convince her it wasn’t a good idea to return home.
Of course she knew why. It was as clear as eggs is eggs. An hour or two from now, Emily was going to infiltrate the dragon’s lair on her own, with nothing but her diverse powerset and Kasparov’s Visionary empowered plans to shield her from harm. She would have to deal with the world’s most dangerous villains; kill as many of them as she could before they killed her friends. Emotional baggage was just going to jeopardize her chances of survival.
But the question refused to stay down. It bubbled up inside her like lava, burning her from within. “How did it happen?”
Kasparov took a long moment to respond. “The Wild Hunt has been targeting the UN shelters to destroy the illusion of safety they provided. The San Francisco shelter was among the first to get hit.”
Discovering that she had tears left after all, Emily furiously rubbed her eyes with her fists. “When?”
“Two days ago. It was over in an instant.”
He’s telling me they didn’t suffer. She hugged her knees, rested her chin on them, and since she was losing the fight against her tears, she squeezed her eyes shut to hold them back. Two days ago was Monday. They died while I was training to use my new powers. Although she knew it was futile, her Empath instincts drove her to tap into the space of her brain that her parents’ imprint had occupied, a desperate attempt to feel their presence one last time. But of course there was nothing there. She wasn’t able to immerse herself in the minds and hearts of the dead.
“Your grandparents are fine,” Kasparov supplied. “Your aunt, uncle, and cousins as well. You’ll be able to visit them before the day is over.”
This time, Emily chose to say nothing. She knew that if she let her thoughts run away to her extended family, she might not find the strength to be a heroine anymore. So, she sat there in silence until Mr. Tibbs made his presence felt by rubbing his head against her knee.
“I know you’re hungry,” she heard herself say. “Let’s go downstairs.”
A can was opened. The cat ate. Motes of dust danced in the still kitchen air while the wall clock ticked the seconds away. Emily drank it all in – the scratches she’d made on the wall as a little kid, her mother’s shopping list on the kitchen counter, the wilting flowers on the table – before picking Mr. Tibbs back up. She wasn’t going to just leave him here.
“Take the cat back to your hideout for now,” Kasparov told her. “Roughly two hours from now, we’ll have the best window of opportunity to imprint Spirit.”
Emily barely listened. She teleported back to Israel from memory, released the cat into the one room apartment that had been deemed safe for her for the moment, and then leaned back against the wall to let the minutes pass her by. Imprinting the Latin American heroes would be the last step in her prep game. Kasparov didn’t expect Calavera to play a role in the upcoming infiltration mission, but Spirit’s poltergeist powerset held the key to Legion’s headquarters.
Hours passed by somehow, leaving no mark on her memory. And then suddenly it was time to go.