New Orleans, Louisiana, USA – Wednesday, the 27th of June 2012. 06:53 PM.
Sarina stood in a daze, unable to make sense of what the Not-Emily, who spoke with Dancer’s voice, was telling her. It was the cold glint of accusation in the little girl’s eyes that disturbed her the most. This judgmental attitude, so unlike the Emily Sarina knew, kept her perpetually off balance and made it hard to think. The words stung in her heart because she couldn’t easily dismiss them as a childish prank. The accusations weren’t completely wrong. Not if Sarina made a conscious effort to be honest with herself.
“One path to victory.” She repeated what she had just heard from Not-Emily, blinking tears away. “So if I don’t go away, the world is going to end?”
“It’s just for a little while.” The Empath was smiling now, the harshness and accusation melting away from her face until only the real Emily remained. When the girl opened her mouth again, the voice that came out was her own, bright and kidlike. “When you’re ready to come back, I’m gonna be there for you, waiting. I promise.”
Sarina was so glad to have the real Emily back that she didn’t truly process what was just said. Before she could compose herself and clear her mind to ask the Empath what she meant, the gloomy room with its heavy stench of death and decay folded away before Sarina’s eyes and she took another leap through the physical plane of reality, plunging into more alluring scenery. She landed on her feet after a short drop and felt the softness of grass beneath her. A forest clearing opened up around her, cypresses and ancient pine trees painted in a soft golden glow by the approaching sunset. The air was pleasantly warm and smelled of undisturbed vegetation. The remains of an old campfire marked the center of the clearing, surrounded by a ring of fist-sized rocks.
“I used to come here for camping with my parents,” Emily explained with a forlorn expression. “Let’s sit a bit so I can tell you everything.”
They settled down in the grass and talked like friends, though instead of Sarina explaining the world to the child, like she often had when they had traveled through Europe together, she now found their roles reversed. She asked questions, and Emily answered them. About the Empath’s power surge, her solo attack on Legion’s base, and why she hadn’t made contact with her friends until now. They also talked about Sarina’s journey since the day she gained her powers, the experiences she had endured, the choices she had made and how they shaped her as a person.
“Kasparov suspects you had a power surge right when your Transition was happening,” Emily was saying. “You remember it, right? Being up on stage, everyone’s eyes on you. The bass from the speakers and how it felt like a tremor inside your body. You felt a connection to everything and everyone in the hall and then, boom!” The little girl’s hands flew into the air. “Your connection was to the city, and everyone in it.”
“I remember.” Sarina allowed her eyes to drift shut momentarily, the scene unfolding in her mind’s eye. “I didn’t know what a power surge was. Or what it felt like. I mean, no one ever surged during their transition, why would it happen to me?”
“Because there’s only one Healer! You can have surges even if no one dies.”
“Makes sense.” Sarina squinted into the golden light, enjoying the feel of its warmth on her face. Even without activating her life sense she was aware of the small wildlife up in the trees and down in the underbrush, of the buzzing insects and the birds who kept warbling their sweet little songs, blissfully unaware that it was the end of days. The tranquil atmosphere soothed her and made it easier for her to accept her fate. Because this was worth giving up everything. Her life, her friends, the goals she used to pursue in her quest for personal happiness before her perspective on what constituted happiness shifted.
If I could remake the world, she thought, I’d make everywhere look peaceful and beautiful like this. I’d let friends and families stay together forever. Lovers, too.
“So I’ve been selfish in everything I did,” she finally said, resisting the urge to argue the point.
“I don’t think it was everything. But a lot of stuff that mattered.” Emily was considering her with a half-lidded gaze. “And it was bad influence, too. Gentleman pushed all the wrong buttons.”
“Would it be terribly selfish if I wanted to stay with Jasper?” Sarina hugged her knees to her chest and peeked over them at the child Empath.
“You already know the answer to that. Shanti dropped everything to wander around on bare feet and heal people. I think she had a boyfriend, too.”
Of course she did. Sarina nodded to herself. She was a lovely person. I adored her and had posters of her everywhere in my room.
“I’ve never actually gone to India,” she said after a moment. “I really did want to go when I was in that Swiss army basement, to help everyone who needed me. But I never did.”
Emily cracked a little grin. “Want to go now?”
Their leap across the world took them into the morning of a new day. Eight thousand miles from Florida, their previous location, the urban sprawl of New Delhi was brightly illuminated by a hot summer sun and bustling with human life. Emily chose the skeleton of a tall, unfinished building as a vantage point. From there they overlooked the city’s slums, a dirty-brown amalgamation of corrugated iron roofs, faded colors and convoluted dirt paths. The hot wind blowing from that direction carried the smell of rot and unwashed bodies, but despite the infectious fear which had driven hundreds of millions from urban centers everywhere, the slums of New Delhi pulsed with life. Sarina perceived the local population as a glittering tapestry of densely packed life lights, brilliant and beautiful, filling the drab environment with the color it lacked. These people were going on with their lives if their civilization wasn’t on the brink of collapse.
“They’re doing pretty okay. They don’t have a lot of food, but they already know what it’s like to be hungry all the time.” Emily pivoted on her bloodied pink sneakers, turning away from the slums and toward the towering modern architecture in the other part of the city. “The poor can go into the big city now. The police don’t stop them if they are looking for a meal there.”
Following the little girl’s gesture with her eyes, Sarina turned to face the metropolis whose polished steel and glass facades gleamed in the morning sun. The sturdy, well-constructed buildings were far less densely populated than the slums. She sensed the vibrant life force of hundreds of thousands of people. But there should have been millions.
“Where did they go?” She asked.
Emily squinted into the sun, her face revealing nothing of her thoughts. “A lot of them fled to the countryside, but there have been riots and battles, too. The police is gone. The army is defending the borders against China and Afghanistan.” Her smooth forehead creased in thought. “Maybe when Legion destroys the Chinese army, the soldiers can go home to defend their families.”
“That’s a little mean, Emily. I’m sure the Chinese soldiers have families too.”
The Empath’s shoulders sagged in defeat. “Yeah. Sorry. I’m supposed to cheer you up and instead I’m being all gloomy and stuff.”
Sarina reached out to put an arm around the girl’s narrow shoulders. “Is that really the reason we’re here? Cheering me up?”
“Not really.” Emily scratched her cheek. “I’m telling you what you need to know before you decide if you want to go away or go back to Jasper.”
“Do I even have a choice?”
“Sure. Everyone has a choice. I don’t know if I believe any of the stuff Preacher said, like… about God leaving the world to us, and the Devil being the one person who knows Evil better than anyone else. I don’t think religion has anything to do with anything. It’s always been about the people, you know? What decisions they make. It’s just that when someone has too much power, their bad decisions suck for everyone else.”
The simple truths from the child’s mouth struck a chord with Sarina. She recalled the history lessons she had learned in school, remembering what she had been told about primitive tribes, people who cared for each other and their environment long before the age of civilization and technological advance. The oldest religions were founded on a deep respect and worship of nature itself. When these first tribes waged war, it was usually a struggle for survival and to secure much needed resources for one’s family.
In a perfect world, she mused, there would be enough food and shelter for everyone, and people wouldn’t need to fight at all. They’d respect and love each other.
“The people in the slums,” she said. “They’re still here because of each other, right? All they have is their community, and the little homes they built from whatever was lying around. If they left, they’d have nothing at all.”
Emily withdrew from the older girl’s one-armed embrace but held on to her hand, small fingers twining together with Sarina’s. “I think so, too. Let’s go and get to know them better. Pick anyone, and I’m gonna tell you their story.” She was smiling now, her gloom melted away.
Sarina returned a smile, glad for the opportunity to stave off the decision that was looming over her head. As long as she didn’t respond with a yes or a no, she could still pretend she was soon going to return to Jasper. Trace the back of his neck with her fingertips and ask about his progress with the latest composition project. It was all too easy to picture him in her head. Her mind, already aware that she might never see him again, conjured up the scene with melancholic fervor. No matter what time she returned, he’d most likely be sitting at the mixer console the other heroes had organized for him. He’d put his head back, blink weary blue eyes at her, and assemble a smile to pretend he wasn’t too busy saving the world to hang out with his girlfriend.
Hey, you, he would say. Want to sit and listen for a while? I haven’t made as much progress as I’d hoped, but maybe you can help me out.
But Jasper wasn’t the only person occupying thoughts. Her adoptive brother David – who had left his life behind to follow her – was waiting for her back at the lighthouse in New Orleans, most likely drawing up crop planting schedules for the city’s green areas until she found the time to stop by for a chat and a bit of sisterly affection. David never begged for her attention, but she could tell from the way he looked at her that he was struggling with a sadness of his own. The grief of losing their parents overshadowed every word he said and every move he made.
As Sarina opened her mouth to let Emily know that leaving her loved ones behind wasn’t an option, the Empath’s sad, knowing smile turned the words to ashes in her mouth. Shanti sacrificed everything for the sake of everyone else, Emily’s big blue eyes seemed to say. It’s what made her the Healer.
Still struggling to digest the bitter insights she’d been fed only moments before, Sarina swallowed her protest. She’d disprove the accusation of selfishness by doing something entirely selfless, something she had meant to do since the day after she gained her powers. “All right, then,” she heard herself say. “Let’s walk among the people. Tell me their stories.”
Emily reached for her hand and clasped it tightly. “That’s how you learn to love them, you know. Love them so you can heal them. The stories are what makes them people.”
They teleported down into the rubble-filled depths of the slums together, hand in hand still, the sweltering heat and the smells of rot and disease enveloping them. Sarina pulled up her sweat-dampened shirt to press to her nose, but quickly let go of it when she realized what she was doing. Acting like a spoiled princess wasn’t acceptable behavior for the Healer.
“I’m gonna hide us with Sunny’s powers,” Emily announced. “Only a little bit of his powers so you can still talk to me. Stay close and take us wherever you want to go, okay?”
Sunny. The name made her start, and she bit her lower lip, keeping a close eye on Emily. I had a responsibility to him, too. No one ever found him, did they? It’s almost like he was never part of our group.
“What happened to Patrick?” She heard herself ask.
Emily’s eyebrows furrowed. “He’s okay. On the way back to Ireland to find his folks. He made some new friends, too, and is taking care of them.”
“Are we going to see him again?”
“Probably.” Emily pointed aat a group of boys who were running down the muddy path lined with ramshackle huts, heading toward the two Evolved who were standing in the middle of the path. A sad-looking preteen girl trailed behind them, struggling under the weight of the enormous plastic water bottles she was carrying. The boys swerved around Sarina and Emily without so much as a glance, unaware of their presence. But the girl, slowed by her load, stopped to blink watery brown eyes at Sarina’s shadow on the muddy path.
“Tell me about her, Emily.” Resisting the impulse to reach out and touch the girl’s dirt-smeared face, Sarina backed away until she was against the wall of the adobe hut behind her. The Indian girl shook her head and lumbered on, thick black braid swaying against the drape of her sari.
“Chanda.” Emily murmured the name with a half-lidded gaze, her head cocked to the side as though she was processing a distant sound, fingers tapping a silent rhythm on her thigh. A long moment passed before she said anything else. The sounds of slum life filled the silence: the high-pitched wail of a baby, the chanting of women at work, the distant hums of Hindi voices from all directions.
Hello, Chanda. A faint smile on her lips, Sarina watched the girl turn a corner and disappear from sight. You never saw me, but I was here. I finally came to help.
“Sorry, I had to borrow Peter’s powers again,” Emily finally said. “Chanda is eleven, and her job is to get water from the tanker and fill bottles and barrels. It’s what she does all morning. A nice relief organization lady taught her to read and write, so when she has a bit of time, she teaches younger kids and writes down crimes she sees for a newspaper guy she knows. Because he always listens when the police doesn’t.”
Just a slum kid, but she’s fighting crime. Sarina bit her lip. “What kinds of crimes?”
“Um…” Emily paused, looking uncomfortable. “A little girl was gonna get married but when Chanda spread the word, people got together and stopped the wedding.”
Sarina froze, momentarily speechless. She had expected hearing about a mugging or murder, which made the truth all the more shocking. Her respect for little Chanda grew to admiration. “Has she ever dreamed about having powers and being a real heroine?”
“Nope,” Emily said.
Sarina’s face fell. “Seriously?” She couldn’t imagine why a brave young person, already striving to set wrongs to rights, wouldn’t want the power to do even more for their community.
“None of the heroes ever visited her slum. Not even Shanti, and everyone here really adored her. Chanda wants to be a policewoman when she grows up. Or wanted to, because maybe now it doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Doesn’t India have a lot of heroes?” Sarina turned to gaze up at the glittering monuments of steel and glass that towered over the slums. As one of India’s largest population centers, surely New Delhi must have seen its share of Evolved over the past two years.
“Yeah. But they didn’t go to the slums, either. They were all busy trying to make headlines as the guy or girl who stopped a bank robbery or whatever.”
I’m sorry it took me so long to visit, Chanda.
Surprised to find that she was no longer bothered by the heat or the smells, Sarina called on her powers to relocate herself and Emily to one of the tankers where countless people stood in line, waiting for their turn to fill the buckets and bottles they had brought along.
Concealed by Sunny’s powers, the two Evolved took position near the water tanker to watch the procession of a hundred slum dwellers, entire families loaded with as many containers as they could carry. Sarina picked one of them, then another, and yet another, and every time she did, Emily shared that person’s story. The story of fourteen-year-old Kailash, an orphan ragpicker who collected trash for a living. Little Samar, who had been kidnapped from his family home and blinded with acid before being forced to work for a beggar ring. He was accompanied by his older sister, Lakshmi, who had wandered the streets of Delhi for months until she found him and was able to kidnap him back.
Each story Emily shared stoked Sarina’s empathy for the slum dwellers and for everyone else who had never truly been part of a society where superheroes existed. They went on with their lives because even at the end of days, it was all they knew how to do. All that mattered to them was their homes, their families, and the fact that the water tankers were still coming.
Their stories made it easy to love them. Before she realized what she was doing, Sarina reached out with her powers and, following her instincts, altered the fabric of reality to make it into something… better. Allow the blind to see, the cripples to walk, and those weakened by hunger to get back to their feet and continue on. Their life lights flared in response to the affection she infused them with, filling her heart with hope in turn.
Because the barrier which had curbed her potential broke inside of her. She finally understood that the dreams and ideals that had led her away from home were meaningless, that the way of the superhero was something anyone, powers or not, could pursue. It didn’t matter what anyone thought or if they believed in her. If she did the right thing, they would follow her.
I’ll be back, I promise. I’m coming back for you. For everyone.
“Sarina.” Emily was tugging at her hand now, startling Sarina from her daze. The Empath’s soft voice was barely audible over the outcries of amazement and surprise erupting from all around. “You have to go.”
“Can’t I go to another city first?”
Emily shook her head, her small face overshadowed by sadness. “You don’t have enough time left. Just promise me something, okay?”
Swallowing her dread, Sarina forced herself to nod.
“Remember them,” Emily said. “Remember me, too. And your other friends. And…
yourself. The way you are right now. No matter what happens, you can’t forget.”