New Orleans, Louisiana, USA – Wednesday, the 27th of June 2012. 07:51 PM.
Athena’s orbital surveillance array picked up the news long before awareness of the event spread across the globe. As Athena would later tell it, she was watching the blue marble of planet Earth through the windows of her shuttle when it happened: a wave of brilliant golden-white energy, slowly blossoming up and out of the central region of Israel to eventually cover the majority of the Jewish state. In some ways, it resembled a gargantuan forcefield, but that wasn’t what it was. Not exactly.
At 01:05 UTC, almost exactly seven minutes after Saint’s death, Sanctuary – who was hiding away in Jerusalem, considered dead by many – experienced the strongest power surge in world history. Its effects were so off the charts that they overshadowed the records of Dancer’s transition in early June. The Guardian’s peace aura had grown to immense proportions and now affected millions of people, making violent behavior impossible within its area of effect. Athena quickly concluded that Israel would soon be the destination of choice for countless refugees who sought safety from villain attacks.
As for the nuclear missiles, she saw them as well. The first batch trailed across the atmosphere like three fingers of death, streaking toward the city of New York at a suborbital altitude. None of them reached their intended destination. A brilliant blast of light – Radiant, who had been dispatched in the nick of time – caused all three of them to detonate sixty-five miles above the Atlantic Ocean, though the decision to intercept the nukes had not been unanimous. One hero, whom Athena refused to name, approved of sacrificing New York in order to destroy Legion. Only time would reveal the nuclear explosion’s long term effects.
As of seven p.m. local New Orleans time, the quarrelling remains of the US governmental body had not yet launched a counterattack on Russia. But the risk of an all-out nuclear war remained high. The Visionary who had introduced himself as Kasparov now dozed the minutes away in a perpetual daze, tirelessly scouring potential futures for the knowledge needed to prevent a worst case scenario.
Emily didn’t know where he was, and she still wished she could have met him at least once before they lost contact with one another. She assumed he didn’t want to give her the opportunity to imprint him. Kasparov was in danger now, exposed to Legion’s awareness through the connections which tied the Visionary to the Empath and, now that he had gotten in touch with her friends, the other heroes as well. She trusted him to do everything in his power not to get caught by Legion. Because that would be a worst case scenario right there.
She carried the Visionary’s advice close to her heart as a charm to ward off misfortune. His final instructions for her had been straightforward and easy to understand, though she still struggled to absorb all of them, and some of the things he’d told her she didn’t like at all. But if this was what it took to save the world, she supposed she could come to terms with it eventually.
Don’t lose yourself, he had told her. So, when Emily was done convincing Sarina to do what had to be done, she stopped pretending to be someone else and banished her coterie of alternate personalities to the deepest recesses of her Empath mind. While pretending to be someone else made her life easier whenever reality became too much for her, she realized that it was dangerous and that she had maybe gone a little too far with it. If she immersed herself too deep for too long, she’d be stuck in that identity until someone knocked her out. It had happened before. Trying too hard to be a cat was what had brought her powers to public attention, after all.
With Kasparov hopelessly entangled in his visions, it was up to Emily to fill in her friends about everything, the good and the bad. She dreaded the bad, and the desire to simply hug everyone, cry, and allow herself to be a little girl without soul-crushing responsibilities nearly overwhelmed her. Knowing what was involved made her tired of trying to save the world.
The reunion with her friends, at least, started with good vibes, as Sarina would have said. They awaited her in Chris’s room at the clinic – everyone except Radiant, Checkmate, Noire, and of course the Healer herself. Because Sarina wasn’t going to return. The others didn’t know this yet, but Emily did. And she was tasked with the unpleasant duty of explaining why.
Chris, who had returned to her hospital bed after Saint’s death, was the first to jump to her feet and envelop Emily in a fierce hug that swept the little girl off her feet. The hugging had to be painful for Chris, whose chest wound was far from healed. But to Emily, who was still struggling to come to terms with the sudden loss of her parents, it meant everything. For a short moment, she allowed herself to melt against her friend and lose herself in the embrace, forgetting everything and everyone else around her.
“Look at you, munchkin, all grown up now,” Chris declared with a grin that looked carefree and genuine. “Stealing the spotlight from the rest of us.”
Emily made a face. “I don’t want the spotlight. You can have it back.”
Hesitantly, she let her arms drop away from the Guardian’s athletic frame and wrapped them around Peter instead. The former Warden dropped to his knees to pull her close, grazing her cheek with his three day stubble. His voice was a low murmur intended only for her. “I cried a bit when I heard about the UN guys kidnapping you. Don’t tell Chris, though.”
The heartfelt confession touched Emily deeply, and not only because her Empath senses assured her of his sincerity. She hadn’t expected this. Not from O, whom she knew as a self-centered young guy whose hormones drove him to do and say thoughtless things sometimes. She hadn’t earnestly immersed herself in his world of thought since their Warden days, and finding him like this – all quiet and contrite – made her feel sorry about borrowing his powers without even taking a peek into his heart to see for herself how he was faring.
The others were a bit more reserved, but all of them expressed joy at her safe return. Rune patted her shoulder and gifted her a carved Viking charm for her protection. Calavera patted her head with an almost fatherly affection. Aura radiated a strong desire to hug her but was too shy to actually do it. Athena, represented as always by one of her drones, gave a rousing speech about the power of friendship and true heroic spirit. It sounded like something Radiant might have said, but without a hint of the Lightshaper’s innate fervor and charisma. Her words always had a machine-translated ring to them.
It’s okay, Athena. Emily touched a hand to her heart as she transmitted the silent message, hoping that the exiled heroine would pick it up somehow, sense a vibration of that heroic spirit she was talking about, and overcome the soul-crushing sadness she felt over Radiant’s death. Thanks for trying. I know you’re doing your best.
Radiant’s absence was felt by all of them, though most of the heroes tried to hide their feelings from one another. The Lightshaper was somewhere out there, doing what had to be done, buying them the time they needed to talk and prepare for the battles that still lay ahead of them. He had already destroyed the meat effigies near New Orleans, preventing the surprise attack on New Orleans that Kasparov had predicted in a different future where Emily didn’t attack Legion’s base in New York. But there were still many more of Dollet’s puppets to be removed from other locations.
No one asked any uncomfortable questions, but despite the warm welcome she had received, the air in the room was thick with an atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty. Emily cleared her throat, grasping for words until one of Chris’s rare smiles infused her with the courage she needed to locate her starting point.
“I’m sorry I didn’t contact you guys. I felt really bad about it, but Kasparov told me I had to stay hidden and quiet so Legion wouldn’t see me as a threat. It was the only way for me to break into his tower and not get toasted right away.”
Emily stopped there, allowing the words to sink in. She could see their effect, like ripples expanding across water. A sharp gasp came from Peter, whose expression shifted from confusion to shock. Calavera and Spirit exchanged worried glances. Rune scratched his head, his mouth a grim line of disapproval. Aura, on the other hand, just looked sad. Her eyes behind the blue-rimmed glasses appeared large and mournful, filled with knowledge of events Emily herself barely remembered. Chris’s smile was gone, her expression unfathomable, showing nothing of her thoughts.
Taking in the sight of them all, Emily gave them an outline of what she had experienced over the past few days. The power surge during her stay at the NATO offices, and how she kept it a secret from everyone. Kasparov’s phone call. The days spent struggling to master her new abilities while she hid away in Israel, blending into Prophet’s group without truly feeling a part of it.
She left out the news of her parents. That was a private matter, something to hide away in the little black box where she kept all of her bottled-up tears. Sometime later, if she got the chance, she was going to talk to Chris about it. Maybe they’d even get the chance to talk about the After, the days after Legion, if they could make such a future happen.
I want to stay with you. Emily wasn’t sure when she had decided this, but apparently she had. You and Peter and Nora, together forever until we’re wrinkly like old paper. Of course, this was a dream that would never come true; she knew this better than anyone. Still, she liked to pretend. To keep dreaming while she could.
Her memories of the infiltration mission were strangely fickle. It had come to pass only hours before, and her mind’s eye showed her a clear image of herself floating through a huge glass window, but everything that came afterward was a disjointed blur running and violence. She bristled at the thought of admitting how she had borrowed her friends’ personalities in addition to their powers. Besides, she had a hunch that Calavera’s heart would shatter into a million shards if he knew she was aware of his power surge and of how she had used him. Fortunately, no one suspected her of identity theft.
Except the ever-silent Aura and her big, knowing eyes.
There was a long stretch of uncomfortable silence after Emily’s confession of how she had killed people. Judging by the looks on their faces, everyone still saw her as a nine year old girl. Kids weren’t supposed to kill people.
But I wasn’t a kid when I did it. The Empath settled her gaze on Chris. I was you.
The all-important question hung in the air, until Rune broke the silence to ask it. “How many of Legion’s crew are dead?”
“Two of the three ninjas,” Emily admitted plainly. “They were gonna kill you guys after dark. But now they can’t.” She made a pause there, allowing herself to feel a little proud of how she had protected her friends for once instead of the other way around. “The only one left is Yǔmáo. He’s still super tough, and fast, and probably the best martial artist in the world. But he can’t shadow walk or switch places anymore because the other two are gone.”
Rune nodded at that, squinting as though he was ashamed to show his satisfaction. “What about Dollet? Athena said she was one of the targets.”
“Um, I don’t really remember that part.” Emily said. “Kasparov said she’s knocked out for a while. I think I teleported her out, and then somehow dropped her. She’s alive but she’s not doing anything for a while. The puppets she already made still work but she can’t make any new ones.”
“Which is why Radiant is currently on a mission to destroy the ones we know about,” Athena said through her drone. “There are more we did not locate, including a few in key locations. As soon as this meeting is over, all of us have to work together to . Legion will soon turn his attention to the remaining centers of civilization. We cannot sleep or rest until those cities are safe.”
“Except DJ,” Peter pointed out. “He’s working on a new song, right?”
Emily tensed, eyes dropping to the floor. The meeting was fast approaching the point she dreaded the most. “Yes. He has to, um, make a song for me. It’s the only way for us to win now.”
“Why?” Chris sounded suspicious, and rightfully so. “Why you?”
Unable to meet the Guardian’s narrow, scrutinizing gaze, Emily focused her gaze on her feet. “Is it okay if I don’t wanna talk about it? I mean, we all said we’re trusting Kasparov. He’s like the Oracle. He can see the one future where we win.”
A heavy silence fell over the room. The Empath sensed the other heroes’ concerns and suspicions and did her best to shut them out, instead focusing on the other big question that was still floating around. Using it as a diversion, Emily spoke up before anyone got the chance to resuscitate the subject she had just dropped.
“I talked to Sarina,” she began. “Um, a bunch of you already know this, but Calavera and Spirit probably don’t.”
The Latin American heroes shook their heads in unison.
“We figured out why she couldn’t control her healing power. It’s okay now, she understands, and I think she will be able tocontrol it soon. We healed Crashbang together. He’s still sleeping.”
Rune’s wary expression softened at her words, and he lowered his gaze, rubbing the back of his neck with one of his big hands. “Thanks, Kid. This means a lot to me, and Checkmate, and Aura too. If there’s anything we can do–”
“It’s okay,” Emily cut in. “I know. You’re already doing everything you can. You don’t have to do anything else.”
The mood in the room brightened, relief and gratitude filtering through Emily’s consciousness to warm her heart. She wished she could hold on to those positively charged thoughts, and how they made her feel, forever. But of course someone soon asked the question she had feared, and it flared up like an infectious disease, spoiling the moment.
Where is Sarina now?
“Chris, I’d like to heal you too, if that’s okay.” The question was futile; Emily already sensed that her friend was ready. She could tell Chris fully trusted the Empath’s borrowed Healer abilities, and this trust was an important factor which eased the process.
The Guardian’s gaze fixed on Emily without flinching. “If you think you can do it… go ahead. Would be nice to ditch the painkillers. They’re about to make me go crazy.”
Emily stepped over to her friend’s bed and put a hand on her forehead. Everyone else watched with rapt attention, except for Peter, who came over to stand by the bed and hold Chris’s hand.
“I met Shanti once,” Athena was saying. “She gave the people hope. If the Healer can succeed her predecessor, it will mean much. Perhaps it means everything.”
It does, and it doesn’t. It’s complicated. Emily’s eyes drifted shut, and she tapped into Dancer’s pooled abilities, seizing the ones she needed. There was no need to fully immerse herself in the older girl’s personality; healing a single person only required a little bit of Dancer in her mind. But the sensation of the Healer’s true potential, no longer restrained by a scornful alternate personality, overpowered her senses and drew a gasp from Emily.
A rush of warmth flooded her, and an echo of Chris’s heartbeat thudded inside her head, joining the pulse of her own heart in a vibrant, powerful rhythm. Emily unleashed every emotion she harbored for her friend and interwove them with Dancer’s power. This was what defined the Healer: her unconditional love for every living thing.
She mended Chris’s wounded body with affection and gratitude and empowered it with the fondest memories they shared. Their first encounter in San Francisco where she dispelled the imprisoned Guardian’s sadness with the clicking song of a dolphin. The adventures they had as Wardens, and the lazy afternoons spent on that scuffed old Warden couch when they didn’t have to be heroes. It all poured out of her with an energy that made the air vibrate. There were gasps of astonishment, and a choked-off cry of joy. Peter’s.
The next thing Emily knew, Calavera was hugging her, rambling on and on in a rush of excited Spanish. Aura was clapping her hands, and Chris hastily unwrapped her bandages to inspect the smooth rosy skin underneath, eliciting oohs and ahhs from the onlooking heroes. The look on her face was everything Emily had hoped for. Astonishment. Disbelief. The Guardian’s lips quivered, incapable of shaping words, and her eyes filled with a haze of tears.
Emily disentangled herself from Calavera, then stepped over to the bed, pulling her friend into a tight embrace. She held on for a long time, dreading the impending separation they were going to face. “Now you can run again,” the child Empath whispered. “Maybe we can run together.”
Chris cracked a lopsided grin. “Think you can keep up?” Her expression sobered abruptly, though. “Can you heal everyone out there?”
“I… think so, if I had enough time.” The Empath gnawed on her lip and lowered her gaze to Chris’s strong hand which was holding hers. She sensed the question – the bad one, which would break the mood irrevocably – before Peter asked it.
“When is Sarina going to join us?”
Unwilling to let her friend sense her anxiety, Emily pulled away from Chris. “She’s gone away. I had a long talk with her, and she decided to leave so Legion can’t find her until we’re ready to fight him.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“No. This is was a really important decision for her, so let’s all respect it, okay? We keep fighting until she’s, um, ready to come back.”
The other heroes were staring at her now; the weight of their collective gaze bored into her soul. However, she got a moment of respite while everyone processed their shock and disbelief. But soon the dangerous mix of emotions exploded into a new barrage of questions. Everyone spoke up at once. The cacophony of voices made it hard to understand anything at all, but the questions were predictable, and she had worked out her responses far in advance of the meeting.
“Sarina surrendered to the UN. You know they were already looking for her, right? Rune was supposed to help catch her a while back.”
The Swedish hero rubbed the back of his neck. “That was a while back. I’m not helping now. Why’d she do it?”
Fortunately for Emily, she didn’t have to explain. Athena had already connected the dots and filled in for her. “The UN acquired a piece of Data’s power suppression technology a year or so ago, and reverse engineered it with the help of another Technician who was working with them at the time. If they use it to contain Dancer, Legion won’t be able to locate her, not even through the Counselor’s powers. This facility is separate from the one of Israel. Only a small handful of people know about it, and none of them are Evolved. The Technician who was responsible for the project already passed away.”
“Are you serious? Not even Morpheus knows?” Chris asked.
“He does,” Athena admitted. “But Morpheus’ lack of humanity makes him invisible to Legion.”
He’s invisible to us Empaths, too. It was an uncomfortable thought.
“I can’t believe she just left us,” Peter muttered, slumping onto a chair. “We need her. Why doesn’t she trust us to protect her from Legion?”
Emily looked him in the eye. “Because we can’t, and because she’s going to come back when she’s ready. Kasparov has seen it. With Sarina gone, Legion is gonna go after the Chinese Evolved and gobble them up. That’s still bad, but at least they can put up a fight and buy us some time. The Chinese Evolved army is really strong.”
“The Chinese, yes?” Calavera rubbed his face, sounding as dismayed as he looked. “We must help. What can we do to help?”
“We will do what we can,” Athena said. “But first we must destroy the flesh idols Dollet hid away in large population centers. The lives of millions are at stake.”
A moment of heavy silence passed before Rune spoke up. “We can’t tell Jasper about Sarina. He’ll never finish that track for the kid if we do.”
No, we can’t. Emily didn’t voice the thought; she saw it reflected on the gloomy faces all around her. Everything depends on that song.