((author’s note: from here onward, the serial will update monthly, with 2-4 new chapters per update. Read my comment on this chapter for more information.))
Córdoba, Mexico – Wednesday, the 27th of June 2012. 06:53 PM.
The floors and hallways of the hospital where Saint was sleeping the remainder of his life away were for the most part desolate; any patients who could be safely relocated had already been evacuated over the weekend. But the Brazilian hero, one of the three known Guardians, wasn’t alone in his hospital room. The beeping of the machines provided a steady, but unobtrusive backdrop, quiet and respectful of the condition he was in.
The people, though… they made enough noise to wake the dead. Chris had spent a scant half hour in the room and already she thought her head was going to burst from all the arguments being tossed back and forth with the same people saying the same things over and over again. Calavera, who emphasized his passionate words with large, swiping hand gestures, went on and on about the sanctity of life and his unswerving belief that Saint could still be saved. Athena – represented as always by one of her drones – would agree before deflecting his arguments with her impassive analysis of… everything, really. Spirit only spoke up to side with Calavera. Overdrive sided with Athena whenever he found an opening in the conversation, and Checkmate, looking half asleep on his chair by the window, said nothing at all.
Dancer wasn’t here. She had stayed in New Orleans to fulfill her promise of watching over the city while Noire was recovering. Inwardly, Chris awarded the Healer bonus hero points for recognizing priorities, and sticking with them. Arguing wasn’t a priority, and she didn’t think they could afford the time to keep doing it. Once or twice she resisted the urge to reach up and silently unplug the life support machine, murmuring a sincere apology to Saint while the others kept disputing his fate, too caught up in their heated arguments to notice the machine’s final, drawn-out warning signal.
Whatever is going to happen to Saint has to happen soon. Chris squatted beside the bed to study the comatose man’s slack, oblivious face, trying – and failing – to recognize the Guardian who had once shaken her hand at the San Francisco airport. All she saw was the shell of the man she had been so excited to meet back then. A corpse tied to this world only by flexible tubes and the artificial wheeze of the respiration apparatus. Try as she might, she couldn’t catch a glimpse of Saint’s once so distinguishing level-headed dignity.
She brought a hand to his cheek to see if it was still warm to the touch. You’re not really in there anymore, are you? If you were, you’d understand. You’d tell us to set you free and get back to saving the world.
Like so often, she wished with all her heart that Emily was here. The Empath would be able to shed light on the issue. If nothing else, Emily could at least let them know if the hero Calavera and Saint so desperately hoped to save was still home. If he wasn’t, everyone could stop arguing, and maybe the power surge they had all been waiting for – even those who refused to admit it – really was going to happen.
Chris was all too aware of what the heroes were missing: a leader with the authority to make decisions for all of them. Lack of authority, and everyone feeling equal, produced arguments and drawn-out discussions. She missed the old human Radiant more than she cared to admit. He hadn’t always been without fault, but it was him – the Beacon – who had brought them all together in the first place. The other heroes listened to him. Now, though, their shining leader had turned into a tireless and seemingly invincible weapon against Legion. Someone who sought out evil and took little part in human interaction. Sure, he was powerful. The heroes needed someone like him. But they needed a leader too. Athena did her best to take up the slack, but she was somewhere far away, and not everyone understood why she had exiled herself to some space shuttle. Hell, Chris wasn’t sure she got it either.
As she sat there brooding and half-heartedly following the conversation, her armband lit up, though no one was speaking through it. At the same time, Athena fell into an abrupt silence that stretched on for about a minute, and the others soon bottled up as well, waiting to figure out what was going on. The tension was so oppressive it overshadowed the faces of those present and made the room itself seem to be getting darker. Chris strained her eyes to make out the hands of the vintage clock on Saint’s bedtime table. It was a little past seven, the agreed-upon time for the conclusion they had hoped to reach.
Turning her attention back to her armband, she noticed that the green light had gone out again. It was as if some unknown person meant to get her attention before deciding to talk to Athena instead. Who are you? Chris asked the armband, eyebrows knitting together in bemusement. What’s going on?
All she got from her danger sense was the same fuzzy, aimless unease she’d been feeling for days, even in her sleep. Nothing and no one was ever ‘okay’ anymore. The time they spent talking here, in Saint’s room, had been bought dearly by Radiant, other hero groups across the world and Athena’s army of machines, who kept up the good fight so the others could rest. Or argue.
In the end, Athena broke the silence with a single gunshot erupting from the drone-mounted machine pistol. The bang tore through the air with a startling finality that brought everyone up from their seats, jumping and wincing at the sound, expecting an attack that never came. The sole victim was Saint. The Brazilian hero was lying in his bed as he had before, but now a blood-red stain forming on the front of his hospital gown. The respiration apparatus maintained its mechanical wheeze, causing the wound to spurt alarming amounts of blood.
My danger sense didn’t trigger for him, Chris realized, struggling to process the scene she had just witnessed. She had jumped to her feet like everyone else had, but now that she was standing and poised for combat, she couldn’t decide what to do. There was no attacker in sight. Unless… no. Chris received no danger vibes from Athena’s drone. It simply hovered there, watching impassively as the room erupted in a pandemonium of questions and protest.
“Everyone calm down,” Checkmate said, spreading his arms in helpless supplication. “I’m sure she had a reason. Let Athena speak!”
Calavera, whose usually placid face was now twisted in wordless fury, grabbed the nearest chair and raised it over his head, turning toward the drone. Chris sped up in reflex, blanking out the pulse of agony from her bandaged chest to surge forward and block the Mexican hero with her body. She still wasn’t sure what was going on, but she couldn’t let him damage the only entity capable of explaining the situation.
“What the hell is going on?” Chris heard herself ask. She gently pried the chair from Calavera’s hands and he didn’t stop her.
The drone’s artificial female voice rang out, and everyone fell silent. “I am sorry. Truly, I am. But hear me out first, and if you still wish to retaliate afterward, I will give you an opportunity to do so.” There was a pause that no one cut into. “The new Oracle has revealed himself. As we speak, the future of the world is being rewritten. The events of the past few hours have changed everything. As much as it pains me to say it, we need this power surge. And we need it to happen in the next few minutes.”
“Why?” Overdrive asked, already slumped back onto his chair, eyes wide and fearful.
“A short while ago, Russia launched three atomic missiles at Legion’s base in New York. None of them are going to reach their target. The United States will, however, launch a counterattack. With the Visionary’s help, we should be able to avoid the worst-case scenario. But none of us are going to sleep over the coming days.”
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA – Wednesday, the 27th of June 2012. 06:42 PM.
While the others were away on a mission to decide Saint’s fate, Dancer remained in New Orleans as a vigilant, all-seeing presence, keeping watch of the city through the omniscient eye of her life sense. She expected an attack from Legion. Now that Noire had been put out of commission and the heroes’ defenses were weakened, everyone expected a villain offensive. Only Athena’s repeated assurances that no attack would be happening before nightfall – why was the exiled Technician so sure of this, anyway? – had prompted the heroes to pay their respects to Saint before pulling the plug on his life support.
“It’s six forty-five,” Dancer reported through her armband, “and the situation on site hasn’t changed. I’m making my rounds as usual, maintaining my maximum range. No unknown Evolved presences have been spotted. Over.”
No one expected her to use the standardized voice procedure jargon, but ending her transmission on an over instilled her with a sense of authority, somehow. It made her feel competent and important, as though she was a seasoned heroine. Perhaps most importantly, she was full of zest and burned for the chance to actually be a heroine again, wanted it as much as she had right after her transition. Before everything went wrong and events seemingly out of her control – but not really, as she belatedly realized – forced her down a path she never meant to walk. The days she had spent alongside the New Orleans team had changed her outlook on what it meant to be a heroine.
I stopped running away. And then I ended up here, taking responsibility not only for my friends, but hundreds of thousands of people.
Suspending her patrol atop the Louisiana superdome, Dancer unclipped the water canteen from her belt and took a long sip, looking out over this safe haven that was now hers to protect. Her life sense transformed the sprawling city into an amalgamation of gray blocks and flickering colors, the lights of countless people crammed into a myriad streets and small spaces. Each one looked beautiful in its. Together, they formed an ocean of earthbound stars extending in all directions.
Dancer wasn’t up on the dome to enjoy the sights, however. She scanned the familiar scenery for disturbances – Evolved signatures that didn’t belong. Their powers caused them to shine brighter than any of the normal people, making them easy to spot. She was on full alert and had been for hours. And yet when she did find an intruder’s signature, overpoweringly brilliant and more colorful than anyone else she had ever viewed through her life sense – it looked eerily familiar to her. Like someone she used to know but no longer recognized.
Reaching for her armband, Dancer pushed the button signaling an intruder alert. “Unknown signature spotted,” she reported in a staccato of hurried words. “Will relocate–”
Before she could finish, the intruder appeared inches away from her, crossing a distance of a hundred feet in the blink of an eye. A small person, suspended in midair.
“Don’t,” a female voice said, bringing Dancer’s heartbeat to a halt. “There’s no need.”
It was her own voice, coming from someone else’s mouth.
Dancer blinked, doing her best to come to terms with this impossible reality. Her life sense folded in on itself and withdrew back into her mind’s eye, revealing the world as she saw it with her own human eyes.
Floating in front of her was Emily. The girl still had the appearance of a child – small, child’s clothes, tousled auburn hair pulled back into a ponytail – but her blue eyes reflected an adult soul. She was eyeing Dancer critically, head tilted to the side, her expression tight and unreadable.
“Emily,” Dancer managed. “What…”
The girl shook her head. “No. I am you.”
Emily seemed to believe what she was saying, that much was obvious. Her voice and mannerisms didn’t belong to a nine year old child; she had to deliberately use her powers in order to imitate Dancer. But… why? What was the meaning of this? And why was her life signature – the reflection of her powers – so different from how the Healer remembered it?
Frustrated by her own confused silence, Dancer grasped the first question that came to mind. “How did you escape? Last we knew–”
Emily interrupted her with a cheeky little grin. “How would you escape from anywhere? It’s not exactly rocket science when you can teleport.”
“You can teleport?” Realizing the futility of the question the instant it had left her mouth, Dancer made a step forward, then another, reaching out to touch the girl who was floating in front of her. Make sure she was real. “Of course you can teleport,” she muttered, more to herself. “I saw you do it. Just now. You appeared out of nowhere.”
The little girl’s cheek felt real, at least, soft and warm and as young as it was supposed to be. Emily flinched at the touch and floated a short distance back, away from the extended hand. “Let’s save the joy of reunion for later. Hugging yourself would be all kinds of strange.”
“I still don’t get it,” Dancer admitted.
“Let’s just say the Empath had a power surge. I don’t have time to explain, there are other things we need to talk about. Like Crashbang. And what went wrong with us.”
Power surge? Dancer let her hand drop back to her side as she considered the term, absorbing it into her thought process. That explains why her life light is much brighter than I remember it. So she can use my powers now? Is this what’s going on?
“Come on, let’s go see Crashbang,” the Empath said, distorting reality around the two of them.
Dancer felt herself being pulled through the fabric of the world, and for the first time in her Evolved life she had no control over the direction she moved in, or the chosen destination. She barely had the time to be surprised before reality reformed, and before she knew what was happening, she found herself standing in a small room which reeked of death and decay.
The source of the smell – the shriveled living corpse of Crashbang – lay sprawled on a folding cot set against an unadorned gray stone wall, shrouded in shadows and linen sheets. Only a narrow pencil of light found its way past the thick curtains of the room’s only window. Motes of dust danced in it, reinforcing the atmosphere of abandonment which lingered in the room. The occupant of the cot had been written off as dead. Not even his family came to visit him anymore.
But for reasons Dancer still didn’t quite understand, Emily obviously had a desire to see the hero who, during the final battle to free Smolensk from villain occupation, had been drained of his life force by Sylph. Now he was in a state of semi-consciousness, too weak to speak or move, surviving only because his withered body drained energy from living beings nearby. Plants, for the most part. People stayed clear of his cottage. The area surrounding his cottage had been staked off to keep refugees from straying too close by accident.
Dancer found it hard to even look at Crashbang for longer than a second; in part because she had failed to do anything for him when she tried. And Rune didn’t allow her to forget. Every time she ran into the Swedish hero, he gave her one of those hard, reproachful looks that said some kind of Healer you are.
Emily didn’t seem to mind the teenage hero’s ghastly appearance, though. She stepped up to the cot and put a hand on the leathery skin of his forehead, slanting a knowing look at Dancer. “I figured it out. Everything you’ve done since you got powers was about you. Everything Shanti did was for everyone else, even accepting her own death. That’s why you can’t heal.”
“What?” Dancer’s mind froze, rebelling with every fiber of her being against the idea she had just been slapped with. It couldn’t be. As far as she knew, she had done everything in her power to protect her friends, and then to find Jasper–
The Empath maintained her piercing gaze without mercy. “I am you, remember? I know everything about you. When you got your powers, you were pissed at some other girl and wanted to put her in her place. You summoned your parents from the airport because you couldn’t stand the idea of not being seen by them. Then you ran off because your government didn’t let you be a heroine, and because Paris sounded more fun than sitting in some army basement. Should I go on?”
“You’re lying,” Dancer snapped, her fingers curling into tight fists. “I wanted to be sent to India so I could help the families who lost their homes to Monsoon’s power surge!”
Emily tilted her head to the side. “Think about it. How hard did you try to get to India? What were those people to you? You thought they all dressed in silks and kept monkeys as pets. You loved the idea of running around in a flashy costume and having candlelight dinners with Radiant. And somewhere deep inside, you never stopped resenting the world for how the first fifteen years of your life went down. You did this weird personality split so you didn’t have to admit it to yourself.”
“I did everything to protect my friends! That includes YOU!”
“Yeah, because you were afraid of being all alone again. Alone against a world that resented you and saw you as a villainess.” The Empath’s Dancer voice was deadpan.
Struggling to find words, to dig up the right arguments and fling them back at her accuser, Dancer dropped her eyes to the living dead hero on his cot. He didn’t look dead anymore. The sunken, shriveled features of his face had filled out with healthy, tanned skin, and his formerly twig-like limbs appeared sturdy and strong. He appeared to be asleep now. His dark lashes rested on his cheeks, and his full lips were slightly parted.
Dancer opened her mouth to say something, but no words came out. Her eyes filled up with tears she had no explanation for. Her heart ached for a lot of reasons she didn’t want to think about.
“You’ve changed recently, right?” Emily went on. “Jasper noticed, and you noticed, too. You were chosen as the Healer for a reason. We can still save what’s left of the world. It’s not going to be fun, though, and there’s going to be even less of it left by the time Jasper finishes his new song.”
“What should I do?”
“What no one expects from you,” Emily said. “You have to go away. Because if you don’t, Legion’s going to catch you no matter what we do, and then everything will be over.”
Dancer rubbed at her eyes. “Why are you so sure of this?”
“Because I went and attacked Legion, and the way it went down changed everything. Our chances are better than before. But there’s only one path to victory now.”