Hannah was nineteen and cautious to the point of distrusting everyone who didn’t belong to her closest circle of friends. She had spent half her teenage years committing petty crimes, and the other half evading the authorities and her unhappy family life. Having nowhere else to go made it unlikely she’d just up and leave. The bonds of friendship tied Hannah to this place, and as far as Wisp knew, the same was true for everyone else.
Luca must have noticed her mood because she caught him giving her one of those intense looks only he could pull off. One that made her feel like he could see right through her as if he knew what she was going to do before she herself had figured it out. “What are you thinking?” he asked when their eyes met.
“You tell me,” she replied, carefully arranging her expression to keep it blank. “You know me better than anyone.”
His face slackened and his brows furrowed. “It’s a bad idea, Nici, and you know it.”
Wisp frowned. The use of her past world persona, even if it was just an abbreviation of it, caught her off guard. Nicoletta Gehring was a figment of a different reality. An ordinary girl without remarkable skills or talents who wouldn’t last a day in Dead City. Nicoletta wasn’t capable of leading a group of survivors in a perpetually hostile environment. Hell, that girl couldn’t even defend herself against high school bullies without using her army officer dad as a security blanket.
Wisp jammed her hands into the pockets of her camouflage cargo pants. “I told you not to call me that.”
“Sorry. It’s still a bad idea, though.”
“What’s she going to do?” Sara asked. No one answered, so she turned to her older brother, who shrugged.
They didn’t need to state the obvious. The Smog was no longer rising and covered the entirety of the church plaza surrounding their tower. It reached roughly five meters above ground. This was half the distance between ground level and the platform where the group had gathered, and that meant the only other direction was up. Except for someone with powers.
“They’re right, it’s a bad idea,” Max said. “It’s almost impossible not to breathe any of it in. If the wind blows from the wrong direction, it’s going to burn up your airways and corrode your lungs before you even get to say ‘oh shit.’”
He wasn’t wrong. Wisp knew this as much as anyone, but every single time she ever accomplished anything, she had done it by charging forward and not looking back. Grasping at opportunities as they came. Stopping to think and plan just reminded her of how much she was in over her head trying to maintain a home in this godforsaken place, so ‘slowing down’ wasn’t an option.
“I’ll only be gone a couple of minutes.” Wisp held her hands in front of her, pointing finger guns at Max. “Believe in me or die, glum face.”
One corner of Max’s mouth twitched. “Yeah, okay, I believe you. Please don’t shoot.”
Sara twisted her lips into a tiny pout. “You can’t find her in two minutes if you don’t know where she went!”
“I can’t,” Wisp admitted. “But if I’m lucky enough to go in the right direction and get in range, I’ll at least know if she’s surviving.” Weaving her fingers through the air, she formed another ball of light to join the first that was still hovering next to her. Since it was assigned to its creator until told otherwise, it glowed the same greenish yellow as the ones she’d assigned to her friends.
“Thanks, Wisp.” Max’s gruff voice softened. “Knowing that she’s alive … it would help. It really would.”
He wasn’t the type of guy who opened up about his feelings. But the brief shift in demeanor confirmed something she’d suspected for some time: he cared more deeply about Hannah than he let on. In the past few months, the two of them had often embarked on joint adventures that took longer than expected. There had been glances, too. Little gestures. Seemingly innocent remarks ripe with hidden meanings.
We can’t lose Hannah, Wisp thought with a heavy heart. The gang’s going to fall apart if we do.
She began to untie the bandana she wore around her wrist, but Luca put a hand on her arm to stop her.
“Take mine,” he said. “For good luck.” He bowed his head and loosened the knot at the back of his neck, then pulled the strip of white and yellow down and pressed it into her hand.
Gazing up into Luca’s dark eyes, she found they reflected the same warmth that Max’s voice had contained earlier. “Thanks.” She tied the bandana about her neck and pulled it over her mouth and nose. “I’m not going far. I just have to try.”
“I know.” Luca’s hand squeezed her arm. “We’ll heat up some beans. If you get lost out there, follow the scent and you’ll be back in no time.”
“Beans with bacon!” Sara said with forced cheer. “Hurry up, okay?”
“Sure,” Wisp said.
After pointing a pair of finger guns at the other girl, Wisp turned, picturing herself as a soldier on a rescue mission. The illusion gave her the courage she needed to face the haze-embroiled cityscape. The flat-topped church building, located less than ten meters from the bell tower’s platform, was the obvious choice for her first jump. It wasn’t that tall, however. The toxic fumes enveloped its window-paneled walls completely. Only the center of the roof was still reasonably safe, and only for a short time.
With a flick of her fingers, Wisp dispatched the newly created ball of light to a spot on the church roof. She switched positions with it and held her breath, surveying the Smog-shrouded city to locate her next destination: a large hotel complex with a roof terrace that was just barely within range.
It wasn’t exactly in the direction Wisp wanted to go – north, into Shadow gang turf – but it would help her get there in a roundabout fashion. Other tall buildings extended to the northwest of it, creating a teleport-accessible skyway across a city stretch of a hundred meters.
This was the limit of how far she dared to go. A stone’s throw into rival territory.
Feeling slightly nauseous, Wisp dispatched her light to the hotel terrace and switched places with it. She dropped a scant inch and landed on her feet, releasing a puff of air when the shock of leaping through spatial reality passed through her body. She wheezed. She sucked in a mouthful of stale, foul-smelling air filtered by the bandana covering her mouth, and nausea churned in her stomach again. The hotel complex skyway loomed ahead, its farthest reaches impossibly far away and shrouded in deathly orange.
Focus. Hannah’s just a few jumps away. Probably.
Wisp moved her fingers through the air, creating yet another light while the beacon she’d used for her previous jump floated back to her. It reached her in a matter of seconds, and she commanded it to stay there.
The other sphere she sent out again, watching the faint, short-lived trail of light it left in its wake. When it reached the next walkable roof section, Wisp focused her superhuman senses to direct it exactly where she wanted to a flat, protruding portico above and away from the haze. This was the safety margin she needed in case of a sudden shift in wind direction. Still risky, but not immediately lethal.
This would be so much easier if I could send my beacons through windows.
Wisp needed line of sight to direct her lights and to swap positions with them. At night, it was sometimes possible to send a light into an already illuminated room behind a glass window, but during the day, the windows reflected the sunlight, making it impossible for her to see through unless she was standing very close to it.
Holding her breath to protect her lungs and airways, Wisp took a moment to check surrounding buildings for any sign of Hannah and found none. She didn’t need line of sight to dispatch a light to someone else. A mental image of the target person was enough.
Since she’d already covered a long distance, Wisp created another ball of light and focused on Hannah. She pictured her missing friend the way she’d seen her the night before: a short, wiry, freckled girl adorned by piercings and framed by long red hair.
“Find Hannah,” she said.
The light didn’t budge, but it flickered. The missing girl had to be almost in range now. This was definitely the right direction.
Encouraged by her discovery, Wisp pumped her fist and steeled herself against the nausea and dizziness that was beginning to prickle at the edges of her consciousness. So close. She couldn’t turn back now.
The next leap took her to a large balcony overlooking the decaying remnants of Berlin’s once proud zoological garden. The animals had perished long ago, but the cages and corrals remained, surrounded by skeletal trees and puddles of brownish water. The haze wasn’t as thick, but nothing moved down there. Certainly not Hannah.
Fighting a new wave of nausea, Wisp commanded another light to locate her friend. This time the messenger flew off to the northwest, changing its color from yellow-orange to deep orange. Wisp’s personal beacon retained its ocher hue, indicating an imminent, but avoidable threat to her life. Hannah had to be in worse straits than she was.
So she isn’t someplace safe.
Wisp swallowed her concern and followed the light path. The dispatched beacon flew downward at a shallow angle. It was soon swallowed up by the deathly haze, but Wisp identified the general direction it was headed, the Berlin Institute of Technology. The Shadow gang’s headquarters.
Located roughly a kilometer north of the balcony she stood on, the university’s multi-building complex was only partially submerged in the swirling fumes that had consumed a large portion of the city. The haze carpeted the expansive university grounds to the upper ground floor parts. The elongated, sandy-hued buildings stood a proud four stories tall, their long rows of arching windows defying the deathly reality of the outside world.
The sight of them stirred too many memories, not all of them pleasant. Already nauseated by her proximity to the deathly fumes, Wisp drew in a sharp gasp and clutched the balcony railing with both hands, struggling to keep herself upright.
The university was more than just rival territory, it was where everything had begun. Where Max, a former student of electrical engineering, had listened to her warning. Where the two of them and Sara huddled together with other frightened citizens, waiting for the hero Radiant to deal with Osmotic once and for all. The building that sheltered them when everything went wrong, when the air took on the scent of death and hundreds of thousands vanished in the first Deadening.
Stop staring. Move.
The airborne poison ate away at Wisp’s body and her senses, blurring her vision and sapping more of her strength with every passing minute. It jumbled her thoughts and made it hard to focus. At this point, she’d be grateful if she made it back to the others before nausea consumed her completely.
Wisp staggered as she let go of the railing but managed to catch herself and turn back the way she’d come. The rooftops and terraces were marked by the trail of beacons that she’d left behind while making her way into enemy territory. A lifeline of lights to guide her back to the old church tower, to the rest of the gang and to relative safety. All she’d need to do was to keep the beacons in her sights as she leaped homeward.
She had successfully relocated to the protruding portico when she saw something that shouldn’t have been there, something so puzzling and alien that she froze on the spot, doubting her sanity. A person. More than that, a floating person with a man’s physique, but transparent and… made of Smog? Wisp blinked, then blinked again hard. Her vision blurred around the edges. The ghostly figure drifted among the toxic vapors as though he was part of them.
Don’t stare. This is dangerous. Get away. As much as she wanted to stick around and observe the mysterious apparition, her body wasn’t going to endure the conditions much longer. And if this person was her enemy…
Alarmed, Wisp tore her attention from the floating figure and peered ahead, trying to locate the next beacon. Where had she left it? Some kind of tall hotel building. After blinking some more to clear her vision, she thought that the one ahead and to the right looked familiar.
The Smog stirred. Streams of toxic haze whipped outward from the ghostly figure, lashed by a force other than the wind. A thick cloud of disturbed Smog billowed with the ferocity and abruptness of an explosion, extending higher and farther than it realistically should have. The pungent stench it carried overpowered Wisp’s senses, and she stumbled backward from the billowing cloud, and managed to twist in the direction of the nearest beacon. The instant it entered her sights, she whisked herself away. She had no time or energy left to worry about anything other than finding the fastest way home.
This can’t be real. I’m hallucinating. There are no ghosts. The Smog isn’t alive.
By the time Wisp returned to the church tower, she was barely able to stand on her feet. Her eyes burned and watered, but she could still make out the faces of her friends as they rushed toward her, pulling her away from the edge of the platform. They all talked at once, called her name, asked if she was okay and if she’d found any trace of Hannah. She shook her head, then nodded, unsure how to respond. Her mind still swam with dizziness. When she opened her mouth, the words clogged in her throat and all that came out was a rattling wheeze.
“She’s been out there too long,” Luca said. “I’ll take her upstairs. You guys should come too.”
“We probably should,” Max said. “The conditions are hellish today. I’ve never seen the Smog reach this far up.”
Heading up to the belfry sounded good to Wisp, so she let Luca support her while she climbed the stairs. The stairway leading to the uppermost level was narrower than its counterpart below, and the wooden boards creaked beneath their weight. But the change in air quality easily made the precarious climb worth it. The higher up Wisp went, the easier her breathing became. The acidic stench became less noticeable. By the time she climbed the last step, the air smelled as fresh as it had during the cooler spring days, and she was able to stand upright without feeling like she was about to collapse.
The stairway opened into the tower’s belfry. It was more spacious than the walkway adjoining the lower platform, a hexagonal chamber enclosed by shoulder-high, elaborately carved stone walls. The tapering and badly damaged spire was supported by six large arched openings that looked like multi-part windows, but had never held glass panels. No bells hung above.
It was a shame, really. Wisp often regretted not being able to summon her other gang members by ringing the bell. The ones in the new church tower couldn’t be operated without power, a rare luxury in Dead City. Only northeast Berlin still enjoyed reliable grid access.
What bothered her more than the missing bells, however, were the dead birds. The poor things got poisoned by the Smog and then flew up here to die. The feathery corpses of crows, pigeons, and songbirds lay strewn across the stone floor, their beady eyes frozen open in lifeless stares. No matter how many times Wisp used the belfry as a vantage point, she could never get used to the birds. So she stopped looking. Stopped paying attention to the ones that were still twitching.
She stumbled into the belfry with her eyes half closed, trusting Luca to find her a place to sit. Nausea still held its grip on her mind and her stomach, but her vision began to clear, and she felt steady enough to let go of Luca’s hands. He unscrewed his canteen, giving her a moment to settle on an old piece of carpet before he offered it to her. Max and Sara’s voices drifted from the platform below, the words rushed and too low to hear.
“Drink up.” Luca kneeled beside Wisp. “It’s bottled water from the mall. It’ll help get the toxins out of your system.”
“Thanks,” she managed.
Now that her head was clear, the details of everything she’d seen and experienced over the past few minutes came rushing back to her. Her fingers tightened around the canteen, and her eyes stung. She felt as if she’d failed Hannah, and she hated this feeling of helplessness that resulted from her own failure. The others relied on her. She was the only Evolved in the city, the only person with powers. One of maybe four hundred in the whole wide world. Regardless of how many others dismissed her for having a weak power-set, or how low she ranked on the Covenant’s list of potential heroes, she was supposed to be special. She had to be strong for those who hadn’t been gifted the way she was.
And by Grandma Rosie and her gingerbread saints, she was trying. Pretending to be a leader for everyone’s sake.
Luca was studying her with a quiet intensity. His dark eyes held a plethora of questions but he held them back, seemingly giving her time to collect her thoughts and come back to her senses.
“I didn’t see Hannah,” she finally admitted. “I came into range, though. The light I sent her was redder than mine. And there was some weird flying freak on the way back.”
Luca’s head flinched back slightly. “What?”
“Yeah. The Smog didn’t bother him at all, or maybe I was seeing things. I’m not sure yet. Let’s talk about it when the others get here.”
Luca pulled himself up, staggering from his knees to his feet. “No way. We have to warn them now. What if your flying freak is about to attack?”