His warm blood dropped onto her neck and arm. His right hand kept pulling on the gun without getting a firm hold. She was painfully aware of the turtle pendant beneath her shirt, its small metal dome cutting into the skin of her chest as she wrenched her body from side to side. Her lungs screamed for air. Flecks of white now joined the red and the darkness that clogged her vision.
“If you don’t want to choke to death,” he snarled, “let go of the damned gun.”
Shoot him. Now!
Gathering what remained of her strength, Wisp pulled on her weapon as hard as she could, which wasn’t very hard at all. She managed to tilt the muzzle part of the way toward her attacker, aiming it back against him and herself both without knowing what she pointed it at. Her index finger scraped against the trigger, trembling too hard and positioned the wrong way to pull it.
Smoker snarled a curse and his left hand came away from her neck. The number of fingers working to pry the gun from her increased, forcing her to grip it with both hands instead of straightening the dislocated mask. Breathing didn’t become easier. The mask meant to save her life was suffocating her. The white flecks in her vision danced faster and harder, telling her that she was going to die, die, die.
Her strength drained away when a voice shouted something she couldn’t understand, floating toward her not from above but from somewhere far away. Not Smoker. Who, then?
Her snapshot thoughts whirled in confusion, barely on this side of consciousness. A dull thud sounded nearby. Smoker cursed, then cursed again as the sound repeated itself with extra oomph. Something hard and heavy came crashing down next to Wisp, causing a cascade of vibrations across the plastic roofing.
“The fuck,” Smoker said, the distraction loosening his grip on the gun.
Sensing the lapse in concentration, Wisp did the one thing her fading consciousness still clung to: she pulled on the weapon with everything she had and was rewarded with it coming loose from Smoker’s grip. She still couldn’t see a damn thing but his next curse told her where his head was. Not giving him a chance to react, she threw her hand back over her head, aiming in his general direction, and pulled the trigger.
The bang smacked her eardrums as hard as a jackhammer and the kickback ripped through her already weakened muscles, tearing the gun from her hands. All sound had been sucked out of the world, transformed into a persistent ringing in her ears that brought back the nausea in force.
She gagged, the taste of vomit filled her mouth, and she fought to keep her stomach down while ripping the gas mask off her face. It came off quite easily, allowing the summer air to flow through her airways and bring her back from the brink of death. The mask dropped at her feet and was forgotten the instant it slipped from her fingers.
Breathing felt awesome. Every breath she took helped clear her mind of the fog that had clouded it, although her vision remained fuzzy and everything around her was shades of gray, none of them moving. She barely registered that her fireflies, spinning around her in a compact swarm looked a little less red. The ringing in her ears made it hard to form complex thoughts.
Did I kill him?
After another moment of breathing and fighting down the nausea, Wisp rolled to the side and pushed against the heavy weight on her back until it became lopsided and the pressure on her lessened. She crawled out from underneath it, sliding away from the edge of the roof on her hands and knees.
Having freed herself, she stared at the limp, man-sized shape while her vision recovered and the white specks faded away. The villain lay sprawled on his side, draped across the bloodstained roofing like a broken mannequin. The right rear portion of his head was missing and a dark puddle had formed around it.
I did it.
There should have been relief, a burst of elation – a sense of accomplishment at least. Instead, Wisp felt absolutely nothing. It was as if a door had opened up inside of her, showing her the horrors of a near-death experience, and then slammed shut so tight nothing could penetrate the cracks. Instead, she had a nagging feeling she was forgetting something important.
How far will you go to protect what you hold dear?
No, not that. But the villain wasn’t going away. He swam around inside her head, displacing other thoughts as he moved. Snickering his approval at what she’d done.
Will you kill, and kill again once you discover the efficacy of death?
Go away, go away, go away
I’m forgetting something.
She located the gun near the body and picked it up. But why were there fist-sized rocks strewn about the roof, all of them clustered near her and the dead villain? The vague sense of forgetting something important became a nagging impulse and the memory snapped back into her consciousness.
Thud. Something had distracted Smoker, enabling her to get the upper-hand in a critical moment. The rocks? Had someone thrown them?
Wisp glanced around the rooftop before shifting her attention to other nearby buildings. She located the escape beacon she had positioned on top of the residential building across the street, a small apricot star now shifting back toward crimson. Spirals of Smog wafted around it. An impossibility, considering that the other building was as tall as the one she was standing on. She traced the outline of the Smog-shrouded roof to a human figure, dressed in a taped together suit like hers and waving his arms in what looked like a desperate attempt to catch her attention.
What the … Luca?
Confusion crashed over her like a bucket of ice-cold water. She waved back, calling out to him as loudly as her bruised throat allowed. The roar of Cathedral bells booming in her ears drowned out everything else. And as if the situation wasn’t bewildering enough, the gas mask covering Luca’s face made it impossible to read his expression.
His gesticulation shifted from waving his hands over his head to firmly pointing at the sky. When she looked up in the indicated direction, she blinked, hard.
A floating man hung in the air above the dead villain, a myriad of silver ribbons flowing out from behind him on a current of air that defied physics and formed a semblance of wings. A skintight black costume covered the man’s athletic body, and small adornments in the shape of angel wings framed the Venetian mask that concealed the upper half of his face. He was looking at her and his lips were moving, shaping words she couldn’t hear or understand. When he finished talking, his mouth set in a hard, angry line.
She saw herself the way he must have seen her right then: a girl on a rooftop, clad in the torn, bloodstained remains of a cheap and poorly designed villain costume. A gun in her hand and the corpse of an unarmed man without costume at her feet. She would have looked suspicious in anyone’s eyes. Except this wasn’t just anyone.
The distinctive black and silver outfit identified the new arrival as the Dark Angel Samael, the air-based Evoker who had been Radiant’s rival among the Covenant heroes.
The one hero who, according to headlines and Evolved analysts, enjoyed killing the bad guys a little too much.
As Wisp stood there staring at the floating hero, a knot untied itself inside her chest and the fear she thought she’d defeated came flooding back, filling the void of numbness she’d been carrying inside of her for the past few minutes. An image of the gun in her hand popped into her frozen mind, spurring her into reflex action. She dropped the weapon for the second time, desperate to show her harmless and perfectly good intentions, and even managed to raise her hands part way.
A split second before the gun hit the roof, the air burst in a silent thunderclap of violent energy, knocking her backward with tremendous force. The city lights tilted around her and the air whipped past her body. The world unraveled as if in slow motion, the purplish-black sky reeling and crimson lights whirling around her. A strange lightness settled in her stomach and she held on to her fear, using it to sharpen her mental focus.
She was dropping. She had dropped before. She knew how to drop.
The instant she felt herself tumbling downward instead of in reverse, Wisp shifted her weight so she was facing down, a river of Smog raging below. The toxic vapors rushed toward her as much as she dropped toward them, curling upward as if to extend a welcome. She was falling. The firefly swarm ahead of her as she fell, cutting a passage through the Smog right before she traversed it.
Then, a split second before she hit the ground, she swapped herself with one of her lights, breaking the momentum of her fall. Softening it. She failed to land on her feet, but instead of slamming into the pavement with the force of a hurled projectile, she dropped three meters before landing on her hands and knees.
It still wasn’t pretty. The impact rattled her through and through, triggering a stab of agony so intense she cried out. The pain raced through every bone in her body, and her already injured ankle twisted, unable to withstand the weight of her body. Tears welled up in her eyes and her vision blurred yet again.
Somehow, she managed to roll onto her back, easing the strain on her knees and ankle. The rough pavement bit through the tattered remains of her Smog suit. The stabbing pain made it difficult to pay attention to anything else.
Smog billowed around her, barely restrained by the myriad of floating lights that were keeping her company. It appeared so close she thought she could touch it with her outstretched hand. She felt it bite into her exposed skin, corroding her flesh at a snail’s pace because the presence of her lights made direct contact impossible. Without direct contact the process could take hours, or so the experts on the radio claimed.
She couldn’t get up. She tried, but every time she put any weight on her ankle, the pain became unbearable and her body refused to heave itself off the ground, sagging back down.
Not that it mattered. Samael was nearby, and given the number of glowing orbs surrounding her, he’d likely locate her without too much trouble. Grant her a quick death if she was lucky and leave her to decompose in the Smog.
Her mind drifted back to Luca. Had he lied about going to collect some things from home so he could come after and support her? It seemed exactly like the kind of irrational, selfless, completely crazy thing he’d do. Thinking of him warmed her from the inside out, then settled a calmness over her, and reduced her pain to bearable levels. She tried not to breathe because the Smog-induced dizziness made it hard to think. Keep thinking. Of him, of the others. Keep her consciousness from slipping away.
Now that she had stopped trying to get up, the Smog came alive and began to move. Formed the shapes she had seen down in the warehouse basement, and more. They kept their distance except for the one that rose up right in front of her, stocky and broad-shouldered, the vapors shaping its body so thick it almost seemed solid. The face, a blur of indistinct features. Then she recognized the bonnet on his head and a new surge of nausea swept over her.
This isn’t possible. She had to be hallucinating. Wishful thinking on the brink of death.
“Dad?” she said.
The smoky figure shuddered in response. The yellow-orange vapors that made up its torso dissolved and flowed upward, forming the likeness of an arm and a hand being raised in a military salute. Wisp spent a long, otherworldly moment staring at the Dad-like apparition, overwhelmed with a torrent of emotions that hit her like an electrical charge. She wanted to laugh at the mad absurdity of it all. Cry in despair and relief because after a year of uncertainty and doubt, she had finally found her answer.
Her father was here. He had been here this whole time, and now he was free to leave.
She raised her own hand to return the salute and held it. It might have been a figment of her imagination or an echo of brainwaves that had been extinguished long ago, but the gesture meant the world to her. It legitimized everything she’d done for the past year and gave her a sense of accomplishment that had been missing until now.
Thanks, Dad. Goodbye.
She had almost forgotten about the superhero when a strong wind blew from the sky above, rising with a gust so powerful it knocked her flat on the ground and whipped her hair around her face. She held her breath, flinging both arms over her face to protect it from the avalanche of Smog that rushed past her, its intense stench stinging her nostrils and making her eyes water. In her mind, she created a sanctuary containing everyone she cared about, the dead and the living alike. A treasury of affection to keep her company in the afterlife. She awaited the end with the stoic fatalism of a soldier trapped in a foxhole far behind enemy lines.
Except the end didn’t come.
The wind subsided, and after a few moments, she lifted her arms from her face to see the superhero, Samael, floating in front of her. The many wing-like ribbons fanning out behind him streamed in a steady current, shimmering like silver in the pale moonlight even though the air was perfectly still. The eyes behind his wing-framed mask considered her coolly and without anger. He was holding her gun in one hand, but kept it pointed at the ground.
The firefly spheres encased her body as a compact, a spinning swarm of thumbnail-sized lights. They shone a pallid shade of green with only the slightest hint of yellow. Wisp blinked the tears from her eyes, trying and failing to remember the last time they had shown her any semblance of green.
None of it made any sense. This time, she had to be hallucinating for real. The hero had knocked her off the roof of a five-story building, and she didn’t think he had expected her to survive the drop. He must’ve come to finish her off.
Luca stepped into her field of vision, still wrapped in his makeshift Smog suit without the gas mask to conceal his face, and everything fell into place.
He was looking at her and his lips were moving, making her wish that she could hear his voice. He rushed to her side and fell to his knees. His gloved fingers interlocked with hers, and she tried on a smile for his sake. He didn’t smile back. He kept talking and talking in what appeared to be fast, frenetic phrases, but the words were directed at the superhero, not at her.
She didn’t need to understand him to know what he was doing. He held on to her hand and caressed her fingers, his expression soft, and his eyes gentle. Letting her know without words that he was defending her. Explaining the situation and answering the questions she could not.
She struggled to sit up, choking down the pain that raged through her body, and gaped at the floating hero. “I can explain everything,” she said. “I just can’t hear very well right now.”
Samael acknowledged her with a nod. He said something to Luca before launching himself back into the night sky, silver ribbons trailing behind his sleek receding form. He must be scouting the vicinity before he went to investigate the warehouse.
I’ve done my part, it’s up to the Covenant now.
Relief enveloped Wisp like a warm blanket. The pent-up adrenaline left her body and she shook, fatigue seeping through every bone and muscle that wasn’t hurting like hell. The air smelled wonderful and she drank it in in long, satisfying gulps. There wasn’t a trace of Smog in it.
Luca brushed the hair from her face and leaned in close. His breath tickled her cheek. “It’s all right now. The Covenant got the pictures you took with the drone camera.” From this close up, the low rumble of his voice barely penetrated the cacophony in her skull.
“I think my hearing is coming back,” she said. “I don’t think I can walk, though.”
He lifted her onto his back, giving her a moment to find the least painful position and she wrapped her arms around his neck. Feeling him this close was new. Even though the pressure of being held so tight sent a jagged jolt through her knees and ankle, it drove home the understanding that she had survived. They had survived.
She relaxed against him, all the accumulated tension from the past two days rushing out of her in an instant. The fatigue that came afterward left her dazed with a sense of falling down an endless black well. She barely registered Luca’s movement as he staggered to his feet, lifting her up with him. The well’s darkness pricked at the edges of the consciousness. The stabbing ache in her body kept her from hitting the bottom and passing out.
“I saw my dad,” she mumbled against Luca’s neck.
He said something, the words drowned out by the bells inside her head. His fingers found a spot on her thigh that didn’t hurt and squeezed it gently.
“Thanks,” she said through the tightness in her throat. “For coming after I told you not to.”
Step by step they swayed through the darkness together, a friend unit that felt complete without the need to communicate. Wisp kept her eyes shut so she couldn’t accidentally look at herself. Her Smog suit was coming apart, revealing more of herself than she wanted to see. Her skin appeared red and swollen and the skin around her ankle had been corroded to the bone.
Instead, she directed her thoughts forward. Her future was a big blank, with many uncertainties and pitfalls. She had not only crossed the world’s most powerful group of supervillains, but also robbed a bank, resisted arrest by sanctioned heroes and shot a man in the head. Questions would be asked and investigations made. Even if she explained everything, there was no guarantee the UNEOA wasn’t going to slap her with the villain label and issue an execution order. Villains were on the rise and the world was falling into chaos. She didn’t expect leniency from anyone out there.
Especially not from the Conglomerate. Something told her that the villains would be on her track, and probably her doorstep not long after.
That was okay, because she was no longer afraid. The curse of uncertainty had been lifted from her shoulders, and the memory of her father’s final salute burned bright in her soul. She was ready to move on to wherever her life took her next.
With luck, she might figure out her place in the world after all.
“Wisp has her kiddie gang. The Sun King has his court. You fly around and tell people to work together, and in return they all gather around you. Moths to a flame and all that. It’s like you’re a beacon or something.”
Mascot, to Radiant
The Dead City gate, a tall arch made of stainless steel, painted red and yellow and decorated with string lights that glowed a pale gold in the predawn gloom, loomed ahead. Beyond it, almost within earshot but still out of sight, was a police-controlled checkpoint guarding access to the traffic artery that used to connect the city of Berlin to its southern suburbs. Wisp didn’t need to approach the checkpoint to know it was there. A barrage of radio broadcasts and air-dropped flyers pointed to its location.
And for those who had somehow missed the evacuation order and the instructions, large neon-colored signs and posters had been put up on the walls and lampposts approaching the gate. A medley of smiling faces and catchy slogans that promised a better future to any would-be evacuees.
“So it’s back to the other world,” Hannah said through a wistful smile. She was leaning on Luca for support, one arm draped over his shoulders while holding on to a lamppost with her other hand.
“Yeah, I guess,” Wisp said.
From her vantage point on Max’s back, the gate lights appeared as a luminescent haze of colors, a beautiful aurora borealis beckoning her to come closer. Unfortunately, she was in no condition to walk, and while the painkillers helped, they dulled her senses to a soft blur. The ringing in her ears had lessened to a low buzz that might never go away completely.
“How do you feel about going back?” Luca asked with a mellowness that made her wish he was carrying her instead. He had offered it, too, but she’d been too ashamed of her own weakness to accept.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “Thanks for coming along, though. You didn’t have to. I mean, Samael only ordered me to report to the gate post.”
Sara, flanking Max as always, set her bag of portable belongings down on the pavement to give a double thumbs up. “Survivors forever,” she declared.
Back to the other world. It’s weird, but it had to happen someday.
To Wisp, the lights ahead meant a chance to rest. To eat her first cheeseburger in more than a year, watch some television, and then curl up somewhere quiet to catch up on mourning her dad. A prison cell would be fine. And she was going to enjoy the heck out of that cheeseburger.
As for this city, it no longer felt like home or even a place to return to. Her only wish was that the others could come along.
On the other side of the gate, police with armored vehicles and an entire contingent of disaster relief personnel would be awaiting her. Government officials who would ask her name and perhaps have her arrested on the spot. As of right now, she couldn’t see them and they couldn’t see her, but if she went any closer, her entire group would be questioned and photographed and dragged back into the real world.
There was no need for her friends to endure the spotlight. They’d be able to slip away and start a new life without making headlines and, more importantly, without becoming targets for villain retaliation.
“Anyway,” Wisp gave Max a weak pat on the head, “this is far enough. You can put me down here.”
“I’m not just going to leave you on the street,” he said, gently pushing her hand away. “You’re hurt, so we’re taking you to the gate. They’ve got a doctor over there.”
“But–” Wisp said.
“I’m coming with you,” Luca said, causing her heart to skip a beat and sink with worry at the same time.
“I’m coming, too,” Hannah declared with a cheeky grin. “Got some pretty damn good reasons, too.”
“Wait, stop.” Wisp made a cutting motion with her hand, and winced at the pain she was causing herself. “Aren’t you wanted by the police, Hannah? Because of all that stuff you pulled a while back?”
“I don’t think that old stuff matters anymore,” Sara said.
“It probably does.” Hannah rubbed her nose and squinted. “Thing is, I helped a superheroine liberate the city and get rid of the stinky shit. Something none of the big damn heroes managed to do. That should amount to something like a pardon, especially after the headlines start popping up and the interview requests come rolling in.”
“Except no one is going to tell the story that way,” Wisp said. “We’re just a bunch of kids who finally decided to leave the city after the Covenant came in for cleanup.”
Hannah shrugged. “Says who? We’re the only witnesses who know what actually happened. Samael lit a fire under Constantine’s ass, I bet, but he didn’t see shit.”
“She has a point,” Luca said. “The news folks are always hungry for a story. We just have to be the first ones who tell it.”
Wisp took a moment to process the thought, trying on the idea and testing it for flaws. There would be headlines, yes, she just wasn’t convinced they’d be favorable and flattering. Mass media had a habit of choosing whichever viewpoint resonated with their audience. Playing the superhero card was a coin toss at best.
“You can be my official sidekick if that’s what you really want,” Wisp said. “The thing is, we don’t know if anyone at all is going to see me as a heroine, and Gentleman basically threatened to do horrible things to everyone close to me. I don’t want to drag you guys down with me.”
Hannah gave a snort. “This isn’t just about you or any of us, it’s about Constantine. So the hero said he’d have C arrested, but then what? Let’s face it, I’m in the best position to get him convicted for the shit he’s pulled, and I’m not about to let the bastard walk away from this.”
“Point taken,” Wisp said. “I’d like to see him put on trial, too.”
But is witness protection going to keep the villains from hunting us down? Wisp bit her lip and lowered her eyes. The turtle charm felt warm against her skin, a reminder of a promise not yet fulfilled. The house of cards she had built as a home for the others had collapsed. Making herself a target of villain retaliation put them in danger just for sticking with her.
If I was an actual heroine…
Luca flicked a finger at himself. “Guess who’s in the best position to convince the folks out there you’re an actual heroine? I’ve seen your fight with Smoker, and I know the bullet was self-defense. I’m not going to let you walk the plank on your own.”
Wisp peered at her best friend over the top of Max’s head. The sharpness of his features had softened and he smiled at her, seeming more at ease than she had seen him in years.
Looks like I’ve exorcized both our ghosts. She grinned at him, glad for the chance to keep him in her life and maybe find a future they’d both end up in together. Their ghosts and their grief had prevented them from committing to anything but day-to-day needs. With both gone, maybe something good would grow in their place.
“Thanks, Luca,” she said in a soft voice. “Aren’t you afraid of being forced to live with your mother and stepfather?”
He shrugged, averting her eyes. “I’m turning eighteen in October. Guess I’ll just have to request witness protection from the police.”
Hannah glanced between Luca and Wisp, rubbing her hands together with a knowing grin on her face.
“It’s decided then,” Max said. “We’re going. All of us.”
He pushed forward, Sara falling into step so seamlessly she had to be in on whatever the two of them were planning.
“Whoa, Max, hold on! What about Sara’s legal guardians?” Wisp punched his shoulder without slowing him down. Behind her, Luca and Hannah limped along at a slower pace, but they were definitely coming.
“Headlines,” Max said without slowing down.
The steel arch of Dead City’s gate fast approached, and a group of staff in uniforms – medical services, police and the army – appeared behind it, bathed in the soft glow of its golden chain lights. The only media in sight were equipped with cameras. Two men and a woman in Bundeswehr army uniforms split off from the main group and passed the gate, approaching the Survivors.
“What headlines?” Wisp deflated in an attempt to provide less of a target for the cameras.
“Publicity.” Max gave a curt nod. “People are going to ask why a thirteen-year-old girl would rather stay in that place than return to her family. I’m planning to tell them all about it.”
“If that doesn’t work out,” Sara added while ambling along, “then that witness protection thing sounds pretty good to me, too.”
A uniformed woman stepped in front of Max and Wisp. She wore no weapons and her gray jacket sported the insignia of an officer.
“Nicoletta Gehring?” the woman asked.
The blood drained from Wisp’s face. The sound of her own name rang false to her, and the ringing in her ears rose to a crescendo that drowned out all other sounds. Then a friendly hand clasped her own, and her identity came rushing back with the force of a freight train. She was surrounded by four people who believed in her, and she could think of one more person who’d most likely do the same.
“I’m the superheroine Wisp,” she declared with all the dignity she could muster, “and I’d like to request access to a phone.”
The officer gave a decisive nod. “Would you like to call your family?”
Call what family? They’re right here with me.
“No,” Wisp said, her voice growing louder and more clear. “The Covenant heroine, Athena. She’s expecting my call.”