Afterword

Three years. That’s how long I’ve been working on this story, first with weekly, then monthly updates as I approached the end. With the exception of a couple short, announced breaks after the first two years, I never missed an update.

I’m glad I finished it. Phew! This story means a lot to me in many different ways. It was not only surprisingly successful; Anathema was in the top 15 on TWF for years and years, and garnered over 350K total views – in a way, this story is also the diary of my personal growth as a writer. Some of you might remember that the early versions of my initial chapters were barely readable. 😄

Now that the serial is complete, I’ll start work on Gifted by Light, a standalone novel in the Anathema universe with a new story and a new cast of characters. I’m going to finish editing the book before I turn it into a web serial and put the whole novel on Amazon.

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Thanks for making this long, scary and awesome journey with me. Without all of your support and comments, I probably wouldn’t have found the energy to keep editing and keep going after the first 2 or so years when story weariness really started to set in.

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15 Epilogue

Previous chapter

Afterword

 
 
 

What remains of Heroes

 
 
Faith, Former Hero Colony, Switzerland – Friday, the 30th of June, 2017. 09:05 AM.
 
 
It’s been five years since the world ended and a new one began, and as I look at it now, I am once again overwhelmed by how beautiful it is. Across the river, a short distance from the pier where I’m sitting, the wheat we planted in spring is approaching harvest season, not yet golden but taller and greener than any wheat I ever saw in the Before. The river water is crystal clear, and the air – as clean and fresh as it must have been a millennium ago – smells of flowers that didn’t even exist until The Change. Breathing it in makes me feel heady. Makes me wonder if you can smell it, too.

As much as I enjoy the sights and smells around me, I didn’t always feel this way. It took me years to come to terms with what we’d lost, and learn to appreciate what we’ve gained. The first winter was tough; the snow fell four feet deep, more than any of us here in Faith were accustomed to. We struggled to preserve fruits and vegetables without sugar or vinegar and we didn’t have much of a clue how to survive. We used to be a generation of technology addicts. We pressed buttons and computers made things happen for us.

To you, the Before is going to be a bedtime story. A fairytale you dream about after I kiss you goodnight and tuck you into the little birchwood bed your father is making for you. Before long, you’re going to pelt us with questions what the world was like when metal birds flew across the sky and the roads were too dangerous to play on. I got you some storybooks from the traders who came up the mountains early in June, but if I’m being perfectly honest here – and as your mother, I should be – I cried a little as I leafed through the pages to look at the pictures.

I miss the ocean. I miss the tangy smell of it, and the way the waves rippled in the early evening light. Now the nearest shore is half a continent away because Eden – the girl who remade the world – decided to reunite all the former heroes and their close relatives at the foot of the Alps, in her own homeland. I understand why she did it; it’s not like I didn’t want for all of us to stay together. But I miss the ocean anyway.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I miss pressing buttons, too. I wish I could get you one of those crib mobiles with music and light effects, like the one my baby brother had. Whenever the lights went out and the darkness filled his room, he started to cry and didn’t stop until his mobile chimed and sparkled and made everything magical. I wish we could have that same reassurance. Something to let us know that ten or fifty years from now, the world will still be a peaceful, magical place for our kids to grow up in.

I still miss Dylan. He would be eight by now; I’m sure he’d enjoy his role as your uncle.

There aren’t too many kids around, so I hope you’re going to be okay growing up around teens and adults. We all expected an uptick in pregnancies the first year or two, because, you know, there isn’t that much to do in winter, and the things that used to stop pregnancies from happening don’t exist anymore. But the opposite happened. I honestly don’t know the reason. It could be a change to our bodies, or some kind of substance in those plants we eat that sprout like weeds everywhere. Fact is, you’re going to be the fourth child to be born into our community in five years.

So, little one. You’re going to be everyone’s superhero. When I told your father we were going to have a baby, he pulled me into his arms and held me so tight I could barely breathe . He’s a strong guy, you know. Back when we were still fighting the bad guys, he swung an ax almost as tall as I am, with a massive steel blade that was covered in glowing Viking runes. Sometimes I wonder what happened to that ax. Maybe it’s still out there somewhere, sleeping at the bottom of a lake, waiting for future generations to uncover it as an artifact of legend.

Anyway, this strong, long-haired guy with the resolve of a Scandinavian bear nearly crushed me before he turned away abruptly, muttering something about willow twigs for a crib and rushing out of our house all so I wouldn’t see the wet shimmer in his eyes. I saw it anyway when he came back, loaded not only with willow twigs but a basket of blueberries and trout from the river. He didn’t say anything else for a while, but he busied himself by making us a wonderful dinner. I’ve never gone hungry since.

David once asked me why I fell for Pär – Rune – of all people. I actually didn’t know at the time, but, after I thought about it more, I figured out the answer. He’s dependable. At some point after that harsh first winter, and the struggle to get our hastily built log cabins upgraded for the next winter, I stopped being an angry teenager and I guess dependable was what I wanted. Pär never even chased me. He didn’t go out of his way to spend time with me or make witty conversation. He was just… there, and he was mature, and level-headed, and he knew how to get things done. Without him, we’d probably still be huddled around a fire in a cave and relying on traders for our long-term needs.

Oh, and he used to kick some serious ass. He was one of the few heroes who knew how to take the fight to the bad guys.

The last time I talked to Emily, she wanted me to consider hooking up with David or Peter. I actually did consider them, you know. Peter surprised me by turning into an all-around good guy, just like Emily said he would, and he’s always out and about to fill up the water tanks or help fix someone’s roof. But he’s still not the type to commit to that one special girl forever. David would have been, I think, but he left in the first spring to accompany Jasper in his quest to find Sarina.

I really hope they find her. Sarina has to be somewhere out there, as confused as Emily was when she showed up the second day. Emily just materialized out of thin air, having lost most of her memories and her powers. She couldn’t tell us what had happened or where the others were. But she recognized me immediately and I think her strong desire to be with me and the other ex-heroes could have been what drew her back to us. How she found her way back from wherever gods go when the reality they live in ceases to exist.

I suspect that she retained a fraction of her power, hid it away inside herself somehow. Maybe the rest of us still have that tiny spark as well. I can’t make forcefields or run like I used to, but my skin doesn’t get burnt when I get too close to a fire, and my cuts and bruises seem to heal faster than they should. If this is a new kind of power that survived The End, I hope I can pass it on to you. Playing outside is a bit more dangerous now that the world is ruled by Mother Nature. Thistles and thorn bushes everywhere; plants are growing like crazy. As far as I can tell, most of the small roads are already gone, covered by a carpet of dense vegetation.

When Jasper was still with us, he often mentioned that could still hear Sarina somewhere out there. That the sound of her soul is like a siren’s call, a distant harmony of ethereal chimes. He heard the rest of us as well, but the melodies were different, and he couldn’t tell someone was upset from miles and miles away. There was no such range limit with Sarina. When I sat with Jasper during one of his melancholic moods, he would often tell me how she was feeling right that moment. How she was content, but had never found true happiness in the After. That she most likely didn’t remember him.

I think that bothered him more than anything else. Was the fact that Sarina didn’t appear here with Emily a hint that she’d decided to go on without him, or was it a simple accident? Something she’d had no control over? I think he suspects it was a decision she made; maybe she felt she had to punish herself or something like that.

No, I don’t think powers are gone. Nora claims she can’t control the darkness anymore, but I saw her child – a boy who recently turned two years old, fathered by Athena’s brother– play with his own shadow. Then, there is the matter of your father, who killed a grown bear all by himself. He claims no powers were involved, but if powers are now relatively weak and subtle, how would he know for sure?

My train of thought is interrupted by a voice from behind me. “Hey, Chris,” she says.

It’s Emily. Her shadow falls over the edge of the pier and the gently rippling water below it, telling me by its asymmetrical shape that she’s carrying something round and relatively large. As I turn my head to smile at her, I see it’s one of the baskets my mother made, and that Emily’s orange cat is sitting in it. Mr. Tibbs glares down at me in feline disapproval. He was best friends with my dog until Barney died of old age, but now that he’s gone, the cat seems to hate me for some reason.

Maybe it’s because Emily spends too much time with me.

“Hey, munchkin,” I reply. The past five years have transformed Emily into a cute teenage girl with tousled bangs obscuring her blue eyes and a long auburn braid. She’s grown quite a bit and I really shouldn’t call her munchkin anymore, but if I’m persistent enough the nickname might bring a few of her memories back. I’m too stubborn to quit trying.

She gently sets the basket down in a sunny place a safe distance from the water, then strokes Mr. Tibbs’ head before moving to the edge of the pier to sit beside me. Her slender legs are still shorter than mine, so her feet dangle a scant inch above the water.

I ask the one question she never poses, most likely because part of her never stopped sensing empathic vibes. “How are you feeling today?”

Her eyes don’t flick toward me, instead focusing on the mountainous hills surrounding us. “Today is an okay day,” she says as if to herself.

I pluck a blade of grass to tickle her with. “What makes it okay and not great?”

“The fuzziness in my head.” Emily swivels to look at me but ignores the tickling. “It’s worse today than yesterday. Even Mr. Tibbs is giving me strange looks, like he knows something I don’t.”

“He probably does,” I say. “He knows how tasty field mice are, and he’s weirded out by the blueberry stains on your teeth.”

The joke fails to make her smile. She wipes her mouth absent-mindedly, gaze dropping to the blueberry stains on the front of her shirt. It’s an old shirt, like all of the bits and pieces of clothing we have left these days, patched and reinforced by burlap. But it’s the oversized one she wore when she appeared here after the end, and she really likes it. She grew into it. I can’t say I understand why she’s so attached to it. For most of us, shoes and warm winter clothes are a bigger concern than our favorite shirt.

God, how I miss the feel of running around in proper running shoes.

She’s frowning so hard that I decide to take her mind off of whatever it got stuck on. “There’s been another UFO sighting,” I reveal with my best attempt at a mysterious face.

“Another?” Emily’s eyes are wide with wonder.

“Yeah. Yesterday afternoon, some folks came up from the valley town to trade for our wool. They say a strange metal orb was flying around at night, headed up into the mountains. So, Peter was most likely right. Someone’s watching us.”

Emily gives me an incredulous look. “But how? All the technology is gone. The cars, the airplanes, the Internet… everything.”

Her confusion breaks my heart, but I do my best not to show it. “You don’t remember what I told you about Athena?”

“I do, but… if the world we live in rejects technology now, how can there be UFOs or whatever flying around?”

“We don’t know if it’s the world itself that rejects it.” I put my head back to scan the clear blue sky for strange foreign objects, squinting against the intense morning light. “I think that would have been really difficult to pull off even when you and Sarina still had your powers. Maybe you just erased all the tech devices that existed at the time. Which means that something from outside – from outer space – could still come visit.”

She doesn’t respond, so I give her a moment to mull over my theory. If Athena is still somewhere out there, and I really hope she is, it makes sense that she’d want to check on us. Her Greek family is here; her younger brother got married to Nora three years ago. I don’t know why Athena doesn’t come down to visit in person, but she must have her reasons.

I’m curious as to why Kathy and the genius Technician from Singapore never turned up here. Or Kasparov, Calavera, and the other international hero teams we were in contact with. Pretty much everyone who worked directly with our group lives in Faith, along with their close relatives and a handful of their good friends. Around eighty people all in all, though the Irish kid who used to travel with Sarina and Emily only stayed for a short while. He, his younger sisters, and their parents wanted to try and find a way to go back to Ireland.

I’m glad to have my parents nearby. My dad in particular seems to enjoy his new lifestyle as a sheep farmer, and we get along pretty well these days. But I don’t know anything about our extended family or Emily’s folks. As far as I remember, she and her parents were very close. I feel bad for her because it seems like they didn’t survive the end.

“Don’t be sad, Chris,” Emily says with a soft voice. “I’m sorry I changed everything so much before I lost my memory. Everything’s going to be okay, though. I promise.”

I can’t help but smile. “You used to say that a lot, you know.”

“Did I keep my promise?” Emily asks after chewing on her lip.

“I think so. If this place is representative for human communities elsewhere, you managed to solve world hunger forever. Along with overpopulation, environmental pollution, cyberterrorism and nuclear warfare. We still struggle because we don’t know how to live without all nice things we used to have, but mankind will learn and adapt. Overall I’d say you did a pretty good job.”

I chose to go with the optimist’s perspective because I don’t want her to feel sad and guilty about what’s already done and gone. If she’s still an Empath, she’ll know I have doubts about the future, but I don’t want those doubts to overshadow our lives. I choose to believe that Legion doesn’t still exist somewhere. I choose to believe that we can learn to make weatherproof shoes and clothes for coming winters. That mankind won’t find new reasons to wage wars with slingshots and sticks and that we won’t die of diseases we have no cure for.

The prospect of having a baby without proper hospital care already scares me enough.

“It’s going to be a girl, I think,” Emily says out of the blue, catching me off guard. “Don’t ask me why, though. It’s just one of those fuzzy feelings in my head.”

I stare at her for a moment before I find my voice again. “Do those fuzzy feelings tell you anything else I should know?”

She glances away, turning her eyes to the sky. “Nope. Nothing important, anyway.”

I decide not to press her. “Come on,” I say as I pull my feet from the river and stand up. “Let’s try and catch some fish.”

As I raise my eyes to the nearby forest, I see it: the gleam of something small, round, and metallic above a canopy of tall broadleaf trees. It’s gone the next moment, making me wonder if it was a trick of the light.

I tell myself that it doesn’t matter. We’re on our own now; Athena lost all of her earthbound tech, and it doesn’t look like she’s coming down for a visit. Still, I wish her the best and hope she’ll visit us when she’s ready. It must be lonely up there with no one but Morpheus for company.

Our community will thrive because we rely on each other. Together, we survived the end of the world and defeated Legion. The friendships we made along the way give us the strength to face whatever else may come.

I choose to embrace the future; we’ll make it into our ultimate happy ending.
 
 

Space Drifters

 
 
Space Shuttle Phoebe, 250 miles above Earth – Friday, the 29th of June, 2012
 
Three hours before the end
 
 
Alexandra Latsis had nearly given up hope that he would ever find his way back to her, but shortly before the end that the Visionary had predicted, he finally did.

There wasn’t much left of him. A pale wisp of light, no more than the size of her coffee mug. He was hovering right outside the window closest to her, as if aware of her presence but afraid to come inside. As if he wasn’t sure he’d be welcome in the cramped cockpit of her space shuttle. When she realized what – or who – she was seeing through the window, her heart jumped to her throat and she shouted instructions to Morpheus as she scrambled to activate the device she had prepared in advance.

Originally, the life support system had been designed to keep her in body in a state of stasis if her food supply ran out. But when Kasparov contacted her to let her know how the world was going to end, her plans priorities shifted, and she had to find ways to repurpose her resources for a single goal: preservation of knowledge and technology in space. At least this was the rationale she clung to in order to justify her own actions.

It pained Alexandra to think of her mother, her younger brother, and the other relatives she had left behind in Greece. Now should have been the time to head back home and reunite with her family. To face the end alongside the people she valued the most and apologize for the decisions she’d made that led to her exile. Over the past few days, she had railed against her self-imposed fate again and again. Only in her dreams did she do the right thing: she commanded the shuttle to take her back home while there was still time left until the end.

In reality, making the choice wasn’t so easy. The man she couldn’t help but love needed her; she was the only one who could help him now. God knew she’d tried to give up on him. Andrey had never been unkind, but he’d been stingy with his affection throughout their entire relationship. His warmth for her had grown over the course of their separation, rekindling her affection in turn, but both of them had been too caught up in their hero duties to consider their feelings. Regardless of their lack of current relationship, Alexandra wasn’t ready to let him fade into the deep black void. Considering that he flickered inches from the window, drifting along to keep up with the shuttle’s slow rotation, he didn’t appear to be any more eager to give up than she was.

It took her a minute to boot up the coffin-sized apparatus and type the appropriate commands on the system console. That one minute seemed to stretch on indefinitely; every time she glanced to the window, she half expected Radiant’s pale shimmer to recede back into the eternal night. And when the device finally signaled its readiness by lighting up, she still didn’t have a plan for how she was going to assume his physical form inside of it. If he materialized anywhere else, he’d die in a fraction of a second. No amount of technology or superpowers could resuscitate the dead.

Technically, Radiant was no longer alive. His human body had succumbed to massive electrical shock and burns the very instant his surge transformed him into a sentient being of luminescent energy. According to Kasparov, the Lightshaper had the power to reclaim his physical form whenever he wanted, but instinctively knew that doing so would mean true death. But if his humanity was too far gone to understand and trust her, he’d remain a dying flicker light until the last of his energy was used up, and he faded into nothingness.

Alexandra rushed back to the window, her heart pounding in her chest. He was still out there, a dying light in a sea of darkness, drifting an arm’s length from her face behind the window’s inch-thick panes of glass. She raised a hand to signal him, then touched her fingers to her heart. There was no reaction. She should have expected this, but the disappointment still churned in her gut.

“Come inside, Andrey,” she pleaded, belatedly realizing that he couldn’t hear her. The glass barrier between them was too thick for sound to penetrate. She’d have to find another way to catch his attention.

After a frantic moment in which she considered her options, Alexandra rushed over to the toolbox that was strapped to the back of her pilot’s seat, opened it, and retrieved the flashlight she kept there in case of power outages. It was a fairly strong one, though its beam was narrow, and she wasn’t sure it would be enough to catch Radiant’s attention. She turned it on as she raced back to the window, then aligned the beam so it shone directly onto the wisp of light. Nothing happened. However, after she turned the beam on and off in rapid succession, Radiant flashed back. The reaction only lasted for about three seconds, and there didn’t appear to be a rhythm or pattern to it. Still, it let her know he was still able to communicate. She breathed a sigh of relief.

As a next step, she pointed the flashlight at her own face and assembled a smile for him. This time, it took a good long moment for him to react, but eventually he drifted closer to the window. When she took a step back, he followed. She kept taking small steps backward until he had passed through the thick glass panels and hung in the air in front of her, motionless except for the ripples of light he sent across the shuttle’s interior walls and window.

She kept the flashlight focused on her face as she spoke. “Andrey. If you can still hear me, please listen. I need you to trust me, and I need you to keep following this beam of light until I turn it off. When I turn it off, you have to return to your human body. I know this scares you. It scares me as well, but it is the one and only way for me to help you. If you understand, please flash back at me.”

When he didn’t give her the signal, she repeated everything she’d said, bit by bit, until he finally did. There was more she wanted to say, matters of the heart and mind he most likely wouldn’t be able to absorb or comprehend in his current state. So, she simply stood there, struggling for words, her trembling lips and watery eyes exposed by the flashlight she kept trained on herself.

He drifted toward her. A swath of luminescent energy brushed against her mouth, and she closed her eyes, painting a picture of Andrey in her mind’s eye. Not the hero she had let go from the Covenant and from her life, but the striking young man who had gifted her a cactus on her first day as a heroine. The Russian architect with the roguish smile who’d invited himself for coffee in his broken, heavily accented English.

She remembered the feel of his lips on hers. She remembered the scent and feel of him, the way he nuzzled the nape of her neck to make her laugh and distract her from negative thoughts. She remembered his dry, endearingly awkward sense of humor and the way he used to communicate with his hands and eyes when he couldn’t find the right English words.

The memories helped keep his image alive as she guided him into the life support device and waited for him to reclaim his physical form. She held on to that image as she pressed the button to activate the device’s stasis field, lacking the courage to study what truly remained of his body inside the coffin-like apparatus. The blinking red monitoring screen painted a clear enough picture: he was a charred husk of a man, trapped in critical condition until the day Alexandra’s research revealed a cure.

One thing was for sure. For as long as the technology she’d built was the only thing keeping Andrey alive, Alexandra couldn’t return to Earth.

She’d die of old age before she gave up on him.
 
 
Space Station Tiangong, 250 miles above Earth – Friday, the 9th of June, 2017.
 
 
The past five years had gone by in a haze, filled with moments of euphoria and despair. Today was one of those rare days where Alexandra remembered to take a look at the wall-mounted homemade calendar Kathy had made for her: a simple bricolage of cardboard and paper featuring pictures of Earth and neatly hand-written dates. She absently noted that another ten days had passed without her crossing them off in red pencil. Another ten days wasted, gone, never to be recovered.

Despite all of her tireless research, she wasn’t one step closer to discovering a reasonably risk free treatment for Andrey’s frozen body. The problem was that in order to treat him, she’d have to temporarily disable the stasis field, the very thing that was keeping him alive. She had successfully altered the system’s integrated brain-machine interface to communicate through dreamlike mental stimulation, but no amount of machine-supported telepathy would ever compare to real physical contact. On some days she missed him so much that she experienced physical sensations of loss all over her body. Her heart ached in a way she couldn’t explain in words, and her mind was often restless, refusing to drift off into sleep when she needed it the most.

Still, it was good to know Andrey was still somewhere in there. Still holding on, trusting her to find a solution no matter how many years it might take. He had retained his memories and responded to questions the way she expected him to. The personality she had fallen in love with was still evident. Fortunately, time passed differently for him, so the forced idleness had no negative effect on his psyche. He seemed more at peace than she was.

I could build him a new body, Alexandra mused as she lifted her mug for another sip of stale coffee. He learned how to play chess through the interface in a day. He should be able to control a robotic arm, perhaps even a mobile unit with humanoid limbs.

The idea enticed her. She was tempted to start drafting a design plan right away; to hell with her other research projects. Surely they could wait for a few days. However, a voice from the doorway to her office cut into her brooding silence, interrupting the train thought.

“Alexandra, for heaven’s sake! Have you even noticed that your coffee went cold hours ago?”

Feeling caught in an act of telltale self-neglect, Alexandra set the mug down on her desk and swiveled in her chair to glare at the intruder. Kathy stood in the doorway in her red jumpsuit, hair piled on top of her head in a disheveled bun, her ten month old baby cradled in her arms. The Greek-American IT specialist and former Athena sidekick had lost a good sixty pounds since the day she’d volunteered to wait out the apocalypse in space, but her ample curves and broad shoulders still made for an imposing figure.

This wasn’t a simple check-up for Alexandra’s sake; it was obvious that Kathy was making some kind of statement. There are other people still living here, the firm look in her eyes said. Stop keeping yourself locked up alone with a dead man.

Alexandra was about to protest, to emphasize the significance of her stasis engine for other ongoing projects, but then the baby fidgeted in Kathy’s arms and made a happy gurgling sound. Alexandra’s arguments dried up in her mouth. She felt a sting of guilt in her chest, not only because she barely remembered the child’s name but because she saw Kathy’s stern expression shift to wounded affection.

If it wasn’t for their old friendship and her deep sense of loyalty, the former IT specialist never would have agreed to join Alexandra’s space mission, and she certainly wouldn’t have stayed long enough to fall for Mark Yeo and give birth to two young spacemen. Mark and Kathy were the reason Alexandra no longer had to dwell inside a cramped shuttle. Shortly before the end, the two of them had loaded two more of Data’s shuttles with plants, small animals, and supplies before abandoning Earth to head up to the former research station.

Upon arriving there, Mark convinced the Tiangong’s crew of four researchers and engineers to cooperate for the greater good of humanity. The six of them – Mark, Kathy, and the Chinese crew – prepared everything necessary for the space rendezvous which ultimately allowed Alexandra’s shuttle to dock with the station. They had given up their earthbound friends and families to float in the great expanse, to drift among mute satellites and other remnants of human civilization.

Alexandra was grateful for the support, she truly was. She just wished they weren’t so persistent in distracting her from her work. The expansion of the station itself was done; the Tiangong now offered a decent level of comfort and long term sustainability for up to twenty people. Alexandra had done everything in her power to make it habitable and upgrade its surveillance systems for terrestrial research. Was it too much to ask that she be left alone now? It was almost as if the others conspired to keep her from finding a cure for Andrey.

“Thanks for the coffee,” she murmured, startled by the weary rasp of her voice. “Cold or not, it will keep me alive as I work on a new design.”

Kathy didn’t take the hint. The woman not only refused to leave, but moved over to Alexandra’s chair to gently put the baby on her lap. Little Mara – or was it Sara? – promptly grabbed a fistful of Alexandra’s shirt and proceeded to pull on it, exposing a section of her olive-hued stomach.

Too taken aback to react to the assault, Alexandra blinked up at the former sidekick who was now towering over her. “What’s the meaning of this?” she finally blurted out.

“Sara wants to play with you,” Kathy declared as she grabbed a chair for herself. “Besides, I wanted to see you. You clearly need a prodding to remember you’re still human.”

“I tell her every day,” Morpheus said through the wall-mounted loudspeakers. “Not that it does any good. She stopped listening to me a long time ago.”

Of course the AI would side with the others. His job was to process and analyze the surveillance data gathered by the Tiangong’s various sensors and telescopes, and while he did a fine job as a researcher, he had always found human social behavior more interesting than geological structures or weather changes.

Little Sara seemed to recognize Morpheus’ voice. She let go of Alexandra’s shirt and twisted on her lap, small hands reaching for the edge of the desk to pull herself up on it. The startled Technician quickly gathered up her papers to keep them from being drooled on.

“Give it a try,” Kathy suggested as she gathered the child back into her arms. “Talk to me. See what happens. Who knows, you might even be interested in what I have to say!” She finished her statement with a grin.

Why not. We can talk for fifteen minutes if you will leave me alone afterward.

Alexandra sighed and massaged her forehead with her fingertips. “I finished calculating the erosion field’s relative strength based on distance from Earth’s sea level. I can send you the formula, if you like.”

“Just give me the bullet points,” Kathy replied. “If we sent a shuttle back there, would the passengers make it?” She asked the question casually, trying too hard to sound disinterested as she tickled the baby’s stomach.

Alexandra knew how her friend truly felt about the subject. Everyone but herself and Morpheus had considered leaving at one time or another; the uncertainty of whether a return was possible was what kept them on board. That, and the children. One of the Chinese crew members was pregnant, another had given birth to a boy three years ago. Kathy and the other women wouldn’t risk the return trip with young children on board. If those kids grew into teenagers, however…

Even though Alexandra disliked the constant interruptions, part of her dreaded the idea of being left behind even more. Perhaps this was the part of her that was still human and longed for companionship even as she rejected it. Besides, one of the Chinese women was a Transmuter who had been assigned to the Tiangong shortly before the end. She duplicated any type of inorganic material she had a sample of; her power was what had made the station expansions and repairs possible. Given the erosion field’s effect on technology, there would be no return trip into space. To lose the Transmuter meant to lose the Tiangong.

To lose Andrey.

I could lie to her. The thought came and went, accompanied by a fleeting sense of guilt and shame. No one but me has made the calculations. They would believe me if I told them there is no way the shuttle will make it through Eden’s erosion field.

“I am not sure,” Alexandra replied. “I need to do more tests before we can eliminate the risks. However, the latest batch of surveillance drones was the most successful. The smallest models survive Earth’s surface level for about thirty minutes before they decay.”

Kathy gave a clack of her tongue. “So it’s as we suspected. An object’s mass matters… check. Distance from sea level, check. The complexity of the object itself…”

“…matters as well,” Athena finished, reeled into the conversation by Kathy’s wit and easygoing expertise. “As do the materials involved. Iron a naturally occurring element on Earth; it lasts for years and years. Alloys such as steel will decay very quickly, as will compound materials such as plastic.”

“So, basically,” Kathy paused to wipe some drool from the baby’s mouth, “Earth could revert back to simple, iron based steam engines, but there will never be a new industrial era. And no electricity.” She grinned. “Steampunk. I like it.”

Alexandra caught herself smiling. “I do not know about the punk part, but I could see the steam happening.”

“So, have those drones picked up anything interesting yet?” Kathy leaned closer to peek at the array of surveillance monitors above Alexandra’s desk. At present, all of them showed still images the drones had taken before breaking down. A river filled with crystal clear water. Vast expanses of dense, healthy forest. A village sized cluster of simple stone buildings, too distant to make out people or details.

“Not yet,” Alexandra said. “I will send the entire next batch to Switzerland. If Eden is alive, she may have returned there.”

“What are you going to do if you find them?” Kathy asked as she studied the on-screen images.

“Find who?”

“Your folks. Old friends and relatives. What if?”

Alexandra allowed a moment for the idea to take hold in her heart, to warm her from the inside before she found the words to match her feelings. “If I find them,” she said, “I am going to live.”
 

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Vote for Anathema

14.17 Endgame (the End)

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To Emily, the last three days before the end passed in a dizzying haze, punctuated by moments of hope and despair. With Sarina gone, the Empath was the only one who could solve seemingly impossible problems and overcome any odds. She was a Healer and a near unstoppable offensive weapon all in one. A Guardian and a secondary teleporter whose reach and power far exceeded Checkmate’s limitations. Every minute she spent sleeping, someone died. Sometimes the death toll of a single minute numbered in the thousands. So she tried not to sleep, but then she made mistakes, and the other heroes forced her to rest.

As Kasparov had predicted, Legion absorbed the entirety of the Chinese Evolved army and used their powers to wreak havoc across the Eurasian continent. The villain became nigh unstoppable, limited only by his lack of mobility. But since one of the Chinese heroes had inherited Buddy’s power, Legion now commanded an army of thousands of well-equipped and highly disciplined soldiers. India’s Evolved mounted a counterattack but fell victim to Buddy’s compelling aura. One by one, they returned home to attack the people they had sworn to protect.

Fortunately, Noire and Radiant succeeded in taking out the Wild Hunt, rendering Dollet’s remaining flesh idols useless as teleportation points. The news of Cipher and Aerodyne’s deaths sent a ripple of excitement through the international news stations that were still broadcasting, weakening Legion’s influence over the myriad desperate souls who had begun to worship him as their ultimate judge and only chance of salvation.

The heroes’ numerous attacks against Legion’s allies and assets snapped previously passive Evolved out of their apathy. Each victory won by Rune and Chris’s teams or Athena’s mechanical army diminished the numbers of Legion’s supporters, and gave courage to those who had all but given up. More than twenty previously unknown heroes rose from the ashes of their broken, war-torn communities and took up the fight, defending the remains of human society against the chaos of the apocalypse. Kasparov’s visions often turned the tide of battles that would otherwise have been lost. But since the Visionary couldn’t turn his attention everywhere at once, not every battle could be won, and not every disaster could be prevented.

Saint Petersburg fell first, ravaged by the gigantic firestorm Nusku had unleashed on it. San Francisco was set ablaze by a cult of end of the world fanatics who possessed heaps of homemade explosives and little sense. Like Moscow, many cities fell victim to civil war or mobs of armed, desperate people who sought to ensure their own survival by securing as much food and other resources as possible.

Legion’s gradual downfall also led to the ascension of opportunists who sought to replace the villain as the ultimate authority. As Sanctuary’s surge had shown, the last power surges before the end were a hundredfold stronger than all the others that come before, giving near godlike powers to a handful of Evolved. Only four of them turned out to be villains, but those four – who would later be known as the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – caused a great deal of damage before the heroes managed to put them down.

Nusku’s death triggered a power surge that left large portions of West Africa scorched to ruin, and hundreds of thousands dead due to dehydration and heat stroke. A hundred foot tall shapeshifter ravaged the city of Hong Kong and the nearby countryside. In the Middle East, a self-proclaimed Jihadist marched against Jerusalem with a gigantic army of golems made from dust and stone, ravaging everything in his path. Sanctuary’s aura prevailed, however, saving countless lives and settlements in and near Israel.

Then, there was the Cerulean Death. The villain responsible for the plague was alive for less than a day, but his legacy – a strange, highly contagious sickness which turned the skins of its victims blue before it killed them – lived on. It claimed the lives of thousands upon thousands in Southeast Asia and spread panic across the Asian continent.

The heroes had a few losses to mourn as well. Crashbang was killed in action less than twenty-four hours after Emily had healed him, sacrificing himself to secure an escape for Rune and Checkmate. Even though she had barely known him, Emily cried for him. Bringing the young guy back from the brink of death made her feel more responsible for him than most of the others. After she got the news from Athena, Emily had to carve out fifteen minutes of alone time and rail against her fate – and the fates of her parents, her friends and everyone she ever cared about – until she felt composed enough to return to her duties.

Calavera vanished without trace. After hearing reports about rioting and looting in Mexico City, he asked to be teleported to Mexico City to help calm the situation. His armband went silent shortly afterward; Athena’s drones retrieved it from a trash bin behind a cocktail bar. There was no blood and nothing hinted at a struggle. After a brief peek into the Mexican hero’s psyche, Emily managed to verify what most everyone had already suspected: Calavera had quit and walked away. He’d been struggling with himself and his identity for some time. Saint’s death had finally pushed him to breaking point.

“Farewell, Calavera,” Emily murmured as she lit a candle for him in the Saint Louis cathedral, where she spent a few quiet moments between missions. “You’re a good man. One of the best I’ve known. If that’s why you had to go, I understand.” Even though she respected Nora’s beliefs, the candle held no religious significance for the young Empath. Still, the feel of its flickering warmth blooming across her skin calmed and comforted her, and she infused it with her best wishes for Calavera, hoping that the radiance of his kind heart would keep on guiding him in the future. If there was such a thing of a future for any of them.

Maybe he left because he figured out what I have to do. The thought sent a chill through her, releasing the fear she had locked away since the last conversation she’d had with Kasparov. She had pushed it away, but it always came creeping back, making her shiver in the cool cathedral air. Maybe he wants to be with the normal people so he can watch over them. See what’s going to happen from their point of view.

Radiant stayed with the other heroes until sometime in the early morning of the 31st of June. His silent departure didn’t come as a surprise; the Lightshaper had stopped showing any interest in hero work or his former teammates the day before. It seemed as if his humanity had finally burned away, consumed by the bright bursts of superheated energy which he had used to intercept nuclear missiles in mid-flight. Now he hung in the night sky like a silent star, distant and unapproachable. Perhaps he would keep watching over the world after the end. Somehow, Emily found the idea comforting.

She would have healed him if she could. Her inability to save Radiant – whose body would die the instant he assumed physical form – was one of her biggest regrets. Would Athena be able to live on without him, forever drifting in space with no one but an AI for company? Emily never found the courage to search the heroine’s mind for the answer. When one had no more tears to spare, not knowing was the better choice.

Data’s successor and Kathy were doing fine at least. As far as Emily knew, the two of them spent the last days before the end inspecting and upgrading the automated factories Data had left behind. Rumors suggested the launch of two more shuttles which were packed with plants and materials; supplies that Athena had requested for reasons of her own.

Jasper, who was well protected by his teammates, kept working tirelessly on the music track which would boost Emily’s powers and tip the fate of the world. Naturally, he asked about Sarina. He asked about her every day, looking sad and miserable and tired. Since the heroes had – for good reason – forged a silent pact not to fill him in, Emily could do little to comfort him. On more than one occasion she passed out in his room, sunken against his office chair with one arm wrapped around his waist for support.

“Hold on, Jasper. Keep going for a little while longer. Everything’s gonna be okay, I promise.” She kept murmuring the words even in her dreams. He held on, and so did she. Together, they were going to save the world or die trying. And if he believed in her, maybe she could believe in herself in turn.

Together, they would end it all and write a new beginning.

 

New Orleans, USA – Sunday, the 1st of July 2012. 07:03 AM.

 

Jasper finished the song in the early morning, and after some initial testing of how Emily’s powers responded to it, the remaining heroes gathered outside the lighthouse to send her off to her final confrontation with Legion. Even Jasper, who was more sleep deprived than anyone, made the effort to hold himself upright and stand with the others. Naturally, he wanted to see Sarina now that his work was done. The light of hope was so bright in his eyes that Emily had to avert her gaze and turn away.

His blissful ignorance made her feel like the worst villain ever.

The others radiated a mixture of concern and optimism. Of those present, only Athena was aware of the plan Kasparov had concocted to save the world, and she had good reason to keep it from the others. Rune and Nora would try to stop her, Emily knew. They’d plead and argue and, if she let them, they would make her hesitate long enough for the fear to twist in her brain and selfish ideas to bubble back to the surface.

She couldn’t afford to hesitate. Every minute wasted meant that somewhere out there, more people died in senseless conflicts and violence. Emily had to put an end to it all because no one else could.

Chris, at least, didn’t need an explanation, and she was too smart to try and change the Empath’s mind. She was crying, though, and the fierceness of her hug implied that she knew that this particular goodbye just might be forever.

“Hey, munchkin,” Chris whispered in a voice too soft and low for anyone else to hear. “Whatever happens – try not to do that cliché hero thing and sacrifice yourself, okay? It’s not a good ending if the good guys die in the end.”

“I don’t know if I’m gonna die,” Emily whispered back, burying her face against her friend’s neck. “If I go bananas, Sarina can heal me. Morpheus told me where she is, and I promised I’m gonna be there when she wakes up.”

Chris pressed a gentle kiss to the younger girl’s cheek. “We’ll be here when you wake up, too. Try to remember that.”

“Yeah. Um, Chris… can you promise me something, too?”

“What is it?”

Emily couldn’t help but to grin a little. “If there’s a tomorrow… maybe you could fall for Sarina’s brother, okay? He’s actually a really good guy. Or maybe Peter. He’s slowly turning into a good guy too.”

She must have glanced in Peter’s direction because he piped up in protest. “Are you guys talking about me?”

The girls shook their heads in unison. There was nothing left for them to say, but their fingers twined together in silent promise. No matter what was about to happen, their friendship would endure. And if there was a future for both of them, perhaps the power of that friendship would bring them back together.

In the end, Emily cut the farewell short. She hugged everyone in turn, ending with Rune, who towered over her with a frown so deep it had joined his bushy eyebrows together. His short beard brushed against the top of her head as she disentangled herself and turned away abruptly, scrunching up her face in a desperate effort not to cry. She couldn’t let her tears taint the last memory her friends would have of her.

“Take me away now,” she said to Checkmate, grateful for the fact that he didn’t hesitate. Both of them were shielded by one of Chris’s forcefields. That, and music player with the song Jasper had composed for her, were all the support she needed. She had a few seconds to slip the headphones into her ears and press play before she was whisked away.

The music – an upbeat electronic tune which changed its rhythm and tempo frequently – already filled her mind before her feet hit the ground. After a short drop, she landed in a crouch, putting out her arms to help soften the impact. The ground shook violently beneath her, but her hard landing had nothing to do with it. Legion’s gigantic form loomed in the distance.

The villain had assumed the form of a dragon again, though now he was so massive that his winged shape eclipsed the sun even as he lumbered across the ground. The shadow he cast obscured Emily and a large area of cracked, soot-covered earth surrounding her. She couldn’t even tell where in Europe Checkmate had taken her. Neither the barren, scorched landscape nor the city that was burning in the distance offered any clues about her whereabouts.

It didn’t matter. After a quick glance over her shoulder to verify that Checkmate was already gone, Emily flexed her music-empowered Empath abilities and focused her gaze on the villain. Then, not giving herself a moment to remember how scared she was, she imprinted Legion. By doing so she opened herself up to the Many, an amalgamation of semi-aware personalities, allowing them to assault her mind with their pain and insanity. They laughed and screamed and rambled nonsense in four different languages as they coursed through her, testing the limits of her own sanity.

Without the support of the music thundering through her earphones, she would have lost it, but the song allowed her to endure the mental assault. She pushed the foreign presences away and focused her attention on Legion, plunging deeper and deeper into the darkness of his internal world to find the one power she needed to borrow from him.

However, the imprinting process had him made him aware of her presence. His massive, horned head snapped around, though she was barely aware of how his eyes locked onto her. Her own internal struggle made it difficult to keep track of his movements. Still, she felt the earth shake as he launched himself into the air, heard the thunderous clap of his wings and sensed a stirring in the hot air above her. The villain didn’t bother with subtlety; her Empath senses told her that he wanted her to know that he was coming. He didn’t expect the scrawny little girl to be ready for him.

Or for her to strike first.

The instant he lowered his gargantuan body to the ground, she dashed toward him, propelled forward by her own fear of failure. She dove beneath his swiping claws and twisted, one hand flying upward to touch the scale-covered arm that had attacked her. Her fingertips brushed against his skin for the briefest of moments, but that one moment was enough. Emily released the power she had borrowed from the villain, commanding him to be absorbed into herself.

What happened next was… insanity. Pain, so immense and uncontainable it made her scream at the earth and the sky and the immense shape towering over her. A myriad other voices screamed back, both inside her head and out of it. Her flesh twisted and her body convulsed, growing and changing shape with such abrupt force that her bones snapped like twigs. But the most violent struggle took place inside her head. Legion wasn’t gone. He had only changed places, and his iron will fought on, seeking to overpower her with his ferocious hunger for control.

 

Polloc Island, Philippines – Sunday, the 1st of July 2012. 11:06 PM.

 

Dancer was dreaming.

Caught in a state between sleep and consciousness since the UN personnel sedated her and locked her away, she drifted in a timeless place, unaware of where she was or how she had gotten there. She remembered the woman with the gold-rimmed glasses and the soft voice who had repeatedly assured her that she wouldn’t be harmed. She also had a vague recollection of uniformed men, armed to the teeth, who were too afraid of her to look her in the eye and of bright lights and empty hallways.

In the end, after the light faded and the voices ebbed away, there was a whole lot of nothing. A cold blackness, occasionally pierced by a single thought or a fragment of a dream bubbling to the surface with intense emotional energy. Jasper’s face, wrapped in a haze of regret. David’s sad smile. Emily’s lips, shaping words Dancer couldn’t hear, but her heart remembered their meaning. A heartfelt promise made by a little girl.

When you’re ready to come back

A dreamlike vision of a burning world, devoid of life and sound, with no one left to return to. Was this what awaited her? Would anyone at all be there for her if she found a way to escape… whatever this cold, dark place was?

I’m gonna be there for you

Dancer struggled with herself, unable to decide whether she wanted to return to that burning world or keep dreaming. But then Emily’s voice pierced the nothingness. She was singing now – a special melody, one that Jasper had created – and her voice gained in strength and timbre. It was bright and clear, so powerful it broke through the silence which had taken Dancer’s world away.

Waiting.

Abruptly, Dancer’s mind cleared. Emily, is that you? I can’t see anything. It’s dark here.

A vision of the little girl, surrounded by flames, blossomed in her mind’s eye. Emily had stopped singing and was gazing into the burning world ahead, her small face bloodied and bruised. Remember yourself. The way you are right now. No matter what happens, you can’t forget.

Don’t worry about me, Dancer replied in her mind. Afraid of being left alone in the dark when the dream faded, she held on to the vision, bringing Emily’s presence into focus. Her bruised and battered body. Those tear filled blue eyes, sad and full of pain. What happened to you?

The Empath flashed a wan smile. I fought Legion, she said. I’m still fighting Legion. I’m coming to you now. I’m almost there. That’s why I can talk to you like this.

Dancer was confused. Since when can you talk to people in their dreams?

There was no response. The vision faded. An alarm sounded instead, faint and distant, but ominously drawing closer. Was this another dream? No. It seemed real somehow, and it was coming from somewhere beyond the dark space that Dancer was floating in. As she focused on it, she was able to hear it even better. It had a nervous, fast paced-rhythm; kind of like a fire alarm, but deeper and far more pervasive.

The fire from my dream, Dancer thought with a start. Is it here? Did it follow Emily?

The bellowing roar of an explosion scattered her thoughts. It washed over her with a force that rattled her bones and startled her awake. Dazzled and disoriented, she found herself bathed in a bright red light which pulsed with the same nervous rhythm as the blaring alarm did. As she tried to move, Dancer discovered that she was trapped inside a white, glass-topped tube reminiscent of a medical MRI scanner. Or a white metal coffin crammed full of strange technology that looked to be medical in nature. Her hands, still numb and strangely cold, made a dull sound as they banged against the glass. There was no way out. The silence and darkness had given way to a cacophony of noise and light that made her want to cry out for help.

But try as she might, she couldn’t make a sound. Her tongue felt like it was made of sandpaper. The words clogged in her throat. She began to hyperventilate. Soon, she was too tired to keep banging on the glass or looking for a way out. She couldn’t feel a connection to her powers; they had been taken away before she was put to sleep.

As Dancer forced herself to lay still and calm her breath, she sensed a source of power that wasn’t her own. It pulsed at the edges of her consciousness and called out to her, without words but with a strange sense of belonging. It pulled her like a magnet. If she were able to move, she would have walked toward it. But she was still locked in.

Not for long, however. Another loud boom shook the tube, accompanied by a dying man’s scream from somewhere nearby. The tinted, opaque glass panel above Dancer’s face cracked and the tube slid open, revealing a low white ceiling illuminated by a blindingly bright light. Suddenly, she was too afraid to climb out. The haunting scream still rang in her ears, and her heart pounded in her chest, propelling a roundabout of frenzied thoughts.

This can’t be Emily. The realization came over her in a flash of terror. Emily doesn’t kill people. She sat up and blinked furiously, trying to make out shapes in the blinding light. Legion must have followed her here.

As if to confirm her suspicion, a chorus of voices – male and female, old and young – rose at once and sent a shiver down her spine. “Hello, Sarina,” they said. Nothing else. Only the blaring alarm filled the silence that followed.

Now that she knew where to look, Dancer twisted inside the open tube and turned her gaze in the direction the voices had come from. There was movement, a slithering of sorts in three or four places at once, but nothing that looked like a person. Despite an almost maniacal urge to look away, to lie down and go back to sleep until this nightmare was over, she blinked. Blinked again and again until the light dimmed and she could see what was in front of her.

It wasn’t Emily. It didn’t even bear any likeness to Legion’s recent evolutions. It was a chaotic, pulsing mass of greyish flesh, dotted with shapeless, twisting clumps and appendages that might have been failed attempts at forming heads and limbs. The carpet of flesh now covered all but one of the wall-mounted lamps, along with the entirety of what appeared to be a windowless chamber, dome-shaped and about eighteen feet in diameter. Dancer’s tube-shaped coffin was situated in a wall niche of about five square meters, and was still sitting inside of it, looking out into the main room. Closed doors branched off into what Dancer assumed to be other sections of the complex. Pale moonlight fell through a gaping hole in the ceiling. There was little doubt in her mind as to how the thing – which she stubbornly refused to acknowledge as Legion or Emily – had made its way in.

“What do you want?” she croaked, making another desperate attempt to grasp her powers. This time, they came to her easily. Whatever effect had suppressed them was no longer present. She didn’t immediately use them, however. Something held her back.

“Heal me,” the chorus pleaded. Dancer now recognized Emily’s voice among them. It sounded thin, and scared, and desperate, and she didn’t have the heart to ignore it. Not after the dreams in the dark and the little girl’s heartfelt promise.

When you’re ready to come back, I’m gonna be there for you, waiting.

“How?” Dancer asked shakily, still fighting the urge to teleport away.

One of the thing’s long appendages rose from the floor and extended toward Dancer’s hand. “Join me,” the Many implored, with Emily’s voice rising above the others as the dominant one. “I’m in control right now. Together, we can overpower Legion. But you have to come willingly.”

Dancer bit her lip and glanced away. She wasn’t ready for this. But what choice did she have? If one more sacrifice was the key to saving the world, then refusing it would have been the ultimate act of selfishness. She had sworn to herself, and to others, that she had grown to be a better person. This was the ultimate chance to prove it.

More importantly, it was what Shanti would have done.

I’m sorry, Jasper, she thought as she reached out to touch the arm of rubbery grey flesh in front of her, allowing herself to be absorbed into the shapeless mass.

 

Paris, France – Sunday, the 1st of July 2012. 07:17 PM.

 

In the beginning, there was light. In the end, there was a song, a composition of dulcet harmonies accompanied by Jasper Davis’ voice. A track to empower Eden and remake the world. But the song had been too powerful for a single human mind to process and use. Now, though, Eden had the Many to make this final journey with her. Those among them who had not been too far gone to be healed whispered and sang along, quivering in anticipation of what was to come.

A dance to end it all and start anew. A new genesis, invoked by the hopes and dreams of those who had endured the hell of Legion’s mind long enough to lend their minds and souls to Eden. Among them was Aiden Locklear, a young man from the Alaskan town of Tanacross who had come to learn everything there was to know about Evil.

Unity. Penance. The former Legion.

He wasn’t in charge of the Many anymore. His memories and knowledge lived on as part of the collective conscience; Eden and Soulseeker – the former Kid – frequently consulted them as they discussed their plans for a better world. By knowing how Evil manifested, maybe they could banish it forever. Prevent it from ever taking root again.

“Wars start because people don’t have enough of what they have to survive,” Soulseeker pointed out as they strode through midair, crossing the sky above the ruins of Paris as one. Eden’s body, now restored to its human form, served as their vessel.

“In many cases, the cause of conflict is not resources, but mad leaders,” Zhang Yong objected. He was one of the Chinese Evolved Legion had absorbed shortly before the end. A recent victim whose sanity had not eroded away.

Eden halted her stride in midair, so close to the Eiffel Tower’s uppermost spire that she could have stretched out her arm to touch it with the tips of her fingers. But Paris’ famous landmark didn’t interest her nearly as much as what lay around it: acres upon acres of destroyed city blocks, burned out cars and crumbling, rubble-filled roads. Death and desperation. A blood-red evening sky glowed above it all, dark clouds driven across it by a strong wind that smelled of smoke and ash. It brought the sounds of wailing and distant gunshots.

Against all odds, people still lived here. Trapped in what had become a battlefield, the scene of a war initially sparked by fear, political tension… and powers. Her personal insight into Paris’ development over the past month had prompted Eden to choose this city as the starting point. The Many didn’t have the time or opportunity to visit every corner of the world, so the picture of chaos and despair down below was representative for everything that had gone wrong everywhere.

“I want powers to go away. Everyone’s powers.” The wind took the whispered words from Eden’s lips, and the Many stirred in response. They had opinions of their own.

“Why?” Zhang Yong was the first to ask.

Soulseeker piped up. “I know why. We can’t trust anyone with powers, we don’t know if they’re gonna be responsible or not.”

Eden said nothing. She gazed down at the ruined city with a heavy heart, wishing more than anything that she could undo all of the damage that had been done, to restore lost lives and mend broken souls. Her adoptive parents, taken by Legion weeks before, were among the people she missed the most. Their warm, engaging personalities had been trapped inside Legion so long they were ground to dust by his mind.

But the lessons she had learned from them would stay with her forever. She would always remember her mother’s gentle encouragement. Her father’s way of seeing everything in a positive light, and David’s guidance whenever she encountered a problem she couldn’t solve on her own. David, her adoptive brother, was still alive. He was somewhere out there and awaiting her return.

Now that her journey of growth and understanding was coming to an end, the hardest part was still ahead of her: letting go.

“Do you understand that if we remove powers from the world, we will most likely perish?” one of the Many asked. “We are now one. Our powers keep us alive and sane.”

Eden’s thoughts had already wandered elsewhere. She was no longer human and would never be able to return to Jasper, or David, or any of the other people she held close to her heart. Once the world was remade, what did it matter if she lived or died? She had no desire to be a goddess in the tomorrow she created.

“I want all technology gone, too,” she told the others. “The cars, factories, television, the Internet, everything. People don’t need technology if we don’t give them reason to need it.”

Zhang Yong joined into her train of thought. “If we assume that technology is another source of power and an instigator for conflict, I agree. No electricity. No weapons of mass destruction.”

The Many murmured their agreement with few abstentions.

“There are still five and a half billion humans left,” the Chinese sage went on. “Large cities rely on technology to function. However, Earth’s total land surface area is over fifty-seven million square miles. There is enough space for everyone to live in small communities.”

“We can change deserts and mountains so people can live in them, too,” Soulseeker suggested.

In the end, the Many – drawing on the collective wealth of their personal experiences and knowledge – made a decision on how the world would be remade, and Eden retrieved a small music player from her pocket. She let go of everything and everyone she treasured, slipped the earphones into her ears, and let Jasper’s final music track run through her like a surge of lightning. It supercharged her, filled her with the power of a thousand storms and caused her awareness to explode outward. Had she still been human, the sheer immensity of her newfound potential would have knocked her unconscious. But the Many joined

When she danced, her range increased exponentially. There were no more limits to how far she could reach or much she could bend the fabric of reality.

This was how it ended, and how it began. A song, a dance, and the hopes and dreams of a dozen conjoined souls who danced along.
  

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Vote for Anathema

14.16 Endgame

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Moscow, Russia – Thursday, the 28th of June 2012. 02:19 AM.
 
 
In the heat of the moment, Emily did what she’d been conditioned to do at the first sign of trouble: she channeled her Lightshaper powers and raised her hand to shoot a single high-energy laser at the lump of flesh in front of her. The effigy burned up in an instant. In the blink of an eye, it was enveloped in a radiant white glow before collapsing, reduced to ashes which gently floated to the ground.

And not a moment too soon. Chris opened her mouth to shout something Emily couldn’t quite make out; her distorted hearing turned the words into a buzz of drawling noise. The door was open but nothing came through. The sight of the vacant tunnel on the other side of the doorway, barely illuminated by the golden glow of Emily’s Lightshaper wings, filled her with a vague apprehension. Just a minute ago, Dancer’s senses had shown her a large cluster of armed men outside the room. Why didn’t they come inside? Were they waiting for the heroines to come out?

And what was that weird clicky noise?

“Let’s get out of here,” she told Chris, her own voice a high-pitched whine in her ears. They had accomplished what they came for. There was no reason for them to stick around and pick a fight with the bad guys.

Chris nodded and turned to face the door, eyes wary and her posture alert.

Fingers drumming rapidly against her pant leg, Emily reassumed Dancer’s powers and a touch of her personality, just enough to attain the level of power functionality she needed for a quick escape. No one interrupted her transformation. The doorway remained perplexingly unused, staring back at her as she extended her will to the metro entrance and anchored herself and Chris there.

They leapt through reality together and landed near the top of the stairway, where Crashbang awaited them. He was munching on a half-eaten sandwich with a big grin on his face. “Hey,” he called out between bites. “That was incredibly fast, even for–”

Emily felt another distortion of reality, only this time, she wasn’t the one causing it. Her heart leapt into her throat when she realized what was happening: she was being pulled back down. After a second of startled disorientation, a familiar darkness unfolded before her eyes. Her small flashlight, not yet extinguished, cast a dim circle of light over the flesh idol she had destroyed only moments before. She heard the sound loud and clear:

Click.

“What the flying fuck?” said Chris from somewhere to her left. No, not somewhere. The Guardian was standing in the exact position as before. Both of them were.

A different sound – a sound of movement – came from outside the room. Too stunned to react in any other way, Emily swiveled to point her flashlight at the doorway. A human hand appeared. With a single flick of the wrist, it tossed three small objects into the room. It was a short throw, aimed not at the heroines but at the floor a few feet from the doorway. Short enough for the objects, metallic cubes of some sort, to hit the floor with a dull clattering noise. One of them glowed red on impact.

Click. There was that ominous sound again, accompanied by a wave of malicious anticipation so powerful it seeped through the stone walls.

“Chris–” Emily said with a start, but the Guardian had already sped up and dashed through the doorway in a blur of movement. Trusting her friend to take care of whoever was outside, Emily tapped into the fabric of reality and wished for the three strange cubes to go someplace far away. She couldn’t imagine they had been tossed into the room for no reason. Whatever the reason was, she assumed she probably wouldn’t like it, so it seemed like a good idea to get rid of them before doing anything else.

Since Tik Tok was both a Technician and Revoker, she half expected her powers to jam, but they worked just fine. The three cubes vanished before her eyes. She was about to think of a creative new way to permanently destroy Dollet’s meat puppet when she heard Chris shout from outside.

“Get us out!”

Without asking why, Emily extended her Healer senses to locate the Guardian a few steps from the doorway, toe to toe with Tik Tok’s flickering aura. He was wearing some kind of suit which appeared completely black through her life sense, though she didn’t take the time for a closer look. She willed herself back to the surface and pulled Chris along.

The two heroines materialized a short distance from the spot where they’d appeared the last time. Emily opened her mouth to speak, but Chris was faster. “His suit,” she gasped. “It’s some kind of Revoker power armor. I couldn’t even think about hitting him without my danger sense going off like crazy. Not just because of him, but–”

It happened again. Reality twisted and churned around Emily, responding to a power beyond her control or influence. She was pulled back down, and Chris was pulled along with her. They appeared in the same underground chamber yet again, assuming the exact same positions they’d been in the instant the metal cubes were thrown through the doorway. It was as if their bodies decided to react to someone else’s memory of the positions they should assume. The same was true for the Revoker’s cube grenades: they made yet another dull clattering noise as they hit the ground yet again.

Something was different, though. This time, none of the cubes glowed red. The one closest to her, however, was now emitting a constant, high-pitched hum that prickled her skin with goose flesh. Judging by the frown on the Guardian’s face, she was feeling it as well.

“I can’t move,” Chris groaned through clenched teeth. “Can you remove those things?”

No suspicious clicking sound came from anywhere in the room. Not pausing to wonder the sound had stopped, Emily focused her senses on the scattered cube grenades and made yet another wish for them to disappear. She also wished for the meat effigy to be crushed beneath a thousand tons of stone and concrete, but the idol defied her. It refused to move even an inch beyond its current position.

Realizing that this entire set-up was looking more and more like a well-designed trap, Emily made another attempt to escape the room with Chris in tow. Whichever effect had prevented them from moving didn’t seem to affect Dancer’s powers. The two heroines leapt upward through reality and back to the moonlit streets of a burning, bombed, and depopulated Moscow. This time, Emily chose a location a good hundred feet from the metro entrance as their first stop. After verifying that Chris had materialized there alongside her, the Empath decided to make yet another leap, then another.

Tik Tok’s range had to be limited. Everyone’s range was limited in some fashion.

The heroines had reached the mostly intact outskirts of the city when reality churned again. They were yanked all the way back into the same darkness and moldy, unventilated air. This was when Emily’s fear kicked in with full force. Her breath stopped, and her heart tried to stop with it.

We’re trapped, she realized. We’re not getting out of here if I don’t figure out what’s trapping us.

“I can move,” Chris reported, lowering her flashlight to the cube grenades and the open doorway which loomed behind them. “But our forcefields are weaker. I think the Revoker effects are random. They change every time these things hit the ground.” She pointed one of her sneakers at the humming cube.

As if on cue, another hair rising click came from somewhere in the room. Emily finally understood what it reminded her of: the sound of a photograph being taken.

It was then that something else dawned on her. Tik Tok’s unpredictability, and the fact that Kasparov hadn’t been able to predict how this confrontation was going to go down. Randomness. Why had the local villains not made a show of force yet? As she thought about it, Emily answered her own question: They’re rolling the dice until they know they can win. If this was true, it would explain the belated click after the cube grenades had already hit the floor. They want to keep the power effects that are active right now.

Which had to mean that whatever they were, the combined power of those active effects was going to be trouble. Something the bad guys wanted to happen.

“Chris, block the door!” Emily cried out, reaching into herself to grasp Dancer’s powers at the same time. Chris obviously hadn’t been able to locate the source of the threat – she would have said something if she did. It looked as if the responsibility for their safety, as well as the success of this mission, fell on Emily’s small shoulders.

She pushed her life sense outward with a frantic determination and scanned the room’s walls, boxes and shelves through it. The various structures and containers appeared as semitransparent, overlapping shades of black and gray, filled with a wide variety of suspicious objects. Many of them appeared to be made of metal. Fifty or more had the look of something built by Technician, but none stood out as the cause of the reality-warping effect which was trapping the heroines in the room.

Since she was out of clever ideas, Emily grasped each and every suspicious object through Dancer’s powers and shifted her focus to faraway places, preparing to throw every potential Technician gadget out of the room.

Except that she couldn’t. Try as she might, the physical reality of the room didn’t allow her to change it. It now seemed to have a muscle memory of its own.

What disturbed her more were the sounds of combat coming from right outside the room; the men who had been stationed in the nearby tunnels must have used Emily’s distraction to make their move. She whirled around to see Chris involved in a scuffle for control of the doorway, her fists flying out at armored attackers with superhuman speed. It wasn’t the Guardian’s usual speed, though. She was no longer fast enough for her movements to become a blur.

Willing herself to stay calm and keep looking for solutions, Emily swallowed her fear. She said the forcefields were weaker and I still don’t know where Down Under is. We have to…

Gunshots tore through the air and a deep rumble shook the ground, throwing her off balance and scattering her thoughts. Reacting instinctively, she reached out to Chris with her powers and made a desperate attempt to pull the both of them upward, out of the room.

Nothing happened. She felt a tremor in the fabric of reality, a clash of unseen forces as her power tried to make her wish come true, but her feet stayed firmly planted on the ground. Something beyond her control was keeping her rooted in place. By now she was too aware of the trap to pretend she’d be able to escape, and that awareness sent a shiver through her, making her legs tremble.

She grasped Radiant’s powerset and managed to activate it a split second before something large and vaguely humanoid broke through the ground, showering the room with dense, hard clumps of rock and soil. The seismic convulsion knocked her on her butt. The flashlight slipped from her sweaty hand. Something the size of her head, too fast and sudden to make out in the dark, crashed into her forcefield. Chris was shouting something she couldn’t understand over the sound of the ground caving in on itself.

Putting her trust in the fact that the Guardian had to still be blocking the door, Emily drew Radiant’s power into herself, absorbing as much of it as she thought she could handle. If she took too much, she’d lose herself and her humanity, possibly her life. If it was too little, she’d lack the strength she to overpower the bad guys. There was no doubt in her mind that whoever had just broken through the floor was one of them.

Myriad luminescent wing ribbons extended from her back and shoulders in a flash to flare with a near blinding intensity. She willed them to whip forward, into and through the flesh idol, burning and mincing it at the same time. Three or four of them intersected the hulking humanoid who was now crouching at the center of the room, but seemed to have little effect beyond the burn marks they left on her stony gray skin.

Yes, her. The human golem had a distinctively female shape. She was massive and grotesquely muscular, equipped with stony curves that looked like they could crush a person’s bones if she squeezed them too hard. Her eyes were pools of obsidian, utterly expressionless. When they fell on Emily, the cavernous mouth beneath them twisted into a semblance of a grin.

Emily stared back, more out of stunned confusion than confidence. Burn marks. Radiant’s wings were as powerful as his lasers and had melted stone before, but Down Under appeared unfazed. She can’t be that resistant. Emily shook her head, wanting desperately to deny what she was seeing. The movement helped break her daze and her thoughts fell back in place. Tik Tok did something to weaken our powers. It’s probably one of those cube things.

Down Under’s massive head swiveled to the left side of the room, where Chris was still struggling to defend the doorway. It could only be a matter of seconds before the she-golem made a move to attack. Considering the size of Down Under’s massive stone fists, Emily wasn’t sure the Guardian’s weakened forcefields would hold. They had already absorbed multiple melee attacks and bullets from the men who were trying to storm the room.

Even though she was sprawled on the ground, Emily’s wings were still active and provided enough illumination to see the three metal cubes, now covered in dust and bits of earth, about seven feet from her outstretched arm. She sensed movement from Down Under and quickly fired a red-hot laser from the tip of her finger, aiming at the cube closest to her.

But the laser didn’t connect. It vanished before hitting its mark, its energy fizzling out as if it had been sucked into an invisible black hole. Emily blinked hard. Tik Tok must have used Revoker powers to shield his technology from attacks. If the cubes couldn’t be destroyed and the room itself resisted her attempts at changing or removing anything from it, how was she going to escape? No matter how many options she considered, nothing seemed to work.

In the meantime, Down Under – who was too large to stand upright – had decided to ignore Emily and twisted on her trunk-like knees to face Chris instead. The room was small enough and the villain’s arms long enough to throw punches with minimal movement. The first of them was aimed straight at Chris.

Alerted by her danger sense, the Guardian evaded the attack with the ease of a trained boxer shifting her upper body backward in a fluid movement. Her attacker’s stony fist hit the wall with enough force to send a shockwave through the stone and rattle Emily’s bones.

As she struggled to get back on her feet, Emily saw that the tightly packed mass of oncoming attackers were pressed up against an invisible barrier, unable to pass through the doorway. Chris must have sealed it with forcefields. However, itwas obvious that the barricade wouldn’t hold for long. It buzzed and sent sparks flying whenever it was hit by a bullet or a melee weapon.

Given her sheer strength and body mass, Down Under could most likely have broken through the force fields in an instant. Fortunately, the she-golem looked much more interested in her duel with Chris, who evaded a jab aimed at her head with superhuman nimbleness. She ducked low and swiveled to shoot Emily a troubled glance. Why are we still here? Her eyes asked.

Emily’s gaze fell on Chris’s belt and the Revoker grenades attached to it. An idea formed in her head, and she heard herself call out to her friend before she fully understood what it was. “Grenades! Revoke his tech!”

Since Emily wasn’t a very skilled or reliable thrower, she only carried one of the power-suppressing grenades that New Data – she couldn’t for the life of her remember his real name – had equipped most of the heroes with. Their area of effect was relatively small, but if one of them hit Tik Tok’s toys head on, there was a chance the trap’s effects would be mitigated long enough for the heroines to escape.

But… what, exactly, was she aiming at? The strange objects she’d seen hidden among other mechanical parts in boxes and on shelves? There were a lot of them, and they were scattered all across the room.

The cube things are right there, she reminded herself.

As if she’d read her mind, Down Under grabbed the nearest shelf and tore it off the wall with one hand. As the rusted iron structure hurtled toward her, Emily dove for cover, boxes overturning to send a hailstorm of old nails and bolts onto her. Instinctively, she enveloped herself in her luminescent energy and flashed across the room to materialize behind Chris. She was still collecting her senses when the shelf crashed against the wall where she’d just stood.

Someone’s forearm, holding what appeared to be a machine pistol, broke through the forcefields blocking the doorway and the room erupted into chaos. The deafening barrage of bullets being fired and ricocheting off the walls made it near impossible to think. Emily saw Chris take one of the Revoker grenades from her belt, but she didn’t see what exactly the Guardian was doing with it. Down Under had picked up a huge iron barrel and hurled it at the two heroines. Convinced that her forcefield wasn’t going to hold, Emily used Radiant’s powers to beam herself across the room yet again, away from her friend and behind a pair of large boxes that still looked intact.

She ducked into cover and grasped Dancer’s powerset while reaching for her grenade at the same time. The instant she stopped borrowing Radiant’s light, the room fell into murky darkness again, lightened only by Chris’s flashlight and the one Emily herself had dropped. Someone yelled for the men to keep shooting.

No longer able to keep track of what was happening, Emily corralled her thoughts to focus on the options she had available right that moment. The grenade in her hand. Dancer’s powers, their potential still tangible, coursing through her mind. She was protected but Chris needed her help. They had to get out of here. There was no way they could fight their way out with their weakened powers. Chris was smart, though; she’d find a way to drop a grenade on those cubes. But until she heard the distinctive bang of the grenade going off, the Empath had to find other ways to help. Throwing her own grenade carried the risk of hitting her friend by accident. On the other hand…

Crashbang.

He was still out there, just barely within her reach. And the guy was a living grenade whose explosive aura had messed with Technician equipment in the past. He’d blind and stun everyone nearby on impact, but if Emily ducked low, maybe she could avoid getting knocked out.

I can’t take something out of the room, but maybe I can bring someone in.

“Crashbang,” she said through her armband. The gunshots and the sounds of fighting nearly drowned out her voice. “Charge up and start running down into the metro. Don’t ask. Just say when you start moving.”

“What? Okay… now.”

Remembering where she had last seen him, Emily extended her reach as far as she could and grasped his life light, pulling him down into the room while ducking behind her cover at the same time. She felt his presence, and a split second later everything became a brilliant, blinding flash of white. The flash was accompanied by a thunderous roar and a shock wave that rattled everything and everyone in the room, knocking them out.

Except Emily. Protected by the pair of large boxes which had shielded her from the blast, she was still conscious but barely. Still, she remembered what to do.

She pulled the three of them out of there.
 

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Vote for Anathema

14.15 Endgame

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Moscow, Russia – Thursday, the 28th of June 2012. 02:02 AM.
  
   
On the early morning of June 28th, all the heroes were awake early, ready to undertake their individual missions after a scant few hours of sleep. Emily didn’t know where most of them had gone. What she did know was that she was finally getting the chance to work alongside Chris again and that the two of them were about to cleanse Moscow of villain influence. Afterward, if everything went well, they might be working separately or teamed up with other heroes. The coming hours and days would be filled to the brim with heroic struggles. Fights and skirmishes to bring about the best future they could hope for.

This is an all-out war of attrition now, Athena had told them while she called up a map of Moscow’s underground, highlighting possible entry points into the subway tunnels. We deplete Legion of allies and resources in order to force a compromise. Reaching that point will save billions of lives, and give DJ the time he needs to complete his project.

Right that moment, Emily was content to spend a few precious minutes of mission prep time with her friend, to indulge in the feeling of them being together and watching each other’s backs. They perched side by side on the top landing of the stairway leading down to Moscow’s metro, doing their best to make unimportant small talk and ignore the reality of the bombed, scorched street canyons surrounding them. The darkness of night did little to conceal the frayed silhouettes of what had once been stores and multi-story apartment buildings. Emily had grown tired of the perpetual, pervasive reminders that the world was ending. She knew that Chris had numbed to them long ago.

In Moscow’s case, the responsibility for the ubiquitous destruction fell on Gentleman. The villain’s revelations about intrigue and corruption among political powers had thrown numerous regions across the globe into turmoil. Large regions of Russia experienced a violent civil war, and the Russian army itself split into two factions, one of which was apparently spearheaded by the Evolved who had inherited Buddy’s powers. Fear and instability shattered old loyalties and forged new ones, leading up to the situation Emily and Chris were now facing: two Russian Evolved guarding one of Dollet’s flesh puppets in Moscow’s underground. The two of them shared the expansive metro tunnels with thousands upon thousands of frightened civilians who sought shelter from air raids.

Which was why Athena and Morpheus hadn’t been able to smoke the bad guys out, and Emily and Chris had to go in. This was exactly the kind of situation the heroes couldn’t ignore. The estimated seven million still living in Moscow would be vulnerable to Legion’s aura as long as Dollet’s power-channeling icon remained there.

Unlike Chris, Emily knew exactly how long the city’s grace period was going to last: somewhere between five and seven hours depending on how long China’s Evolved army stood up to Legion before being annihilated. Kasparov had filled her in through a text message not too long ago. She quickly decided to keep it to herself; Chris was already struggling to get back into her old form after all the days she’d spent in captivity or bound to a hospital bed. That much was apparent from the many curses she had muttered during her thirty minutes of pre-mission parkour training.

I’m here to support her. Emily slanted a glance at her friend, smiling to herself. The two of us together, using the same powers, are gonna be unstoppable.

Chris didn’t look back at her. The Guardian had already dropped the small talk and moved on to the on-site mission briefing, speaking to Athena through her armband. “How long before Crashbang joins us? I’ve never worked with the guy before. Would be nice to say hello before we charge headlong into battle.”

“Give him a few minutes,” Athena replied. “He has been out of commission even longer than you.”

“He wasn’t even conscious until an hour ago,” Emily added. “Rune had to tell him about all the stuff he missed while he was out.”

“Right. Sorry.” One corner of Chris’s mouth tilted upward, her attempt at an apologetic grin. “Whenever he’s ready is cool.”

In the brief silence that followed, Emily resumed tapping her knees to calm her nerves. The subway entrance, a gaping black hole at the bottom of the stairway, was confirmed as unused. The nearest life lights shimmered more than fifteen feet below ground. But because she could sense them through Dancer’s powers, Emily was no longer able to pretend she wasn’t about to risk her life alongside Chris. They were already entangled in the hands of fate and headed toward a tragedy unless she prevented it.

Athena’s voice came through the armband, interrupting her melancholy moment of reflection. “Get ready – we begin in five minutes. This will be the best window of opportunity according to Kasparov.”

Chris promptly rose to her feet in a fluid motion. Her alert narrow eyes were fixated on the gaping darkness at the bottom of the stairway. “How long does this window of opportunity stay open?” She asked.

“Legion will be severely distracted and unlikely to jump in on you for about six minutes,” Athena informed. “You should still be reasonably safe for ten more minutes afterward. Regardless, you should keep up your guards. There may be reinforcements coming in through graffiti wormholes.”

Right. Legion’s new Vortex guy. He’s always on the move, too unpredictable to track down. The graffiti had proven impossible to remove; the wormholes even survived the destruction of the wall they had been sprayed on. But it seemed that Legion and the Wild Hunt’s vehicle couldn’t pass through, and no powers could be projected through them. So, they posed less of a threat than Dollet’s idols did.

Chris tugged the hood of her black sweatshirt over her short ponytail. “We’ll finish up before reinforcements arrive.”

I hope so. Emily leaned her head against the Guardian’s back and hugged her from behind. If Chris wasn’t afraid, what could possibly go wrong? The two of them would be mirror reflections of each other, drawing strength from the same well of determination.

Checkmate and Crashbang appeared in a flash, two slender male silhouettes illuminated by moonlight and the glow of a distant fire. Emily swiveled to study the newcomers with intense interest. Crashbang was, in a way, her responsibility now. She had brought him back from death’s door with borrowed powers. Now he stood before her in a dark gray jogging suit, his once shriveled head covered by a newly grown bit of short, frizzy hair. He slapped his palm with a balled fist, an obvious – to Emily – attempt to hide his insecurity.

She wrapped her fingers around his toned forearm and gazed up at him with a smile. Having not spent enough time around him to passively influence his thoughts and emotions, this was the best she could do.

Tension visibly eased out of him as he met her eyes. “Hey, Emily. I heard you’re the one who… I don’t understand how you did it, but thanks. Helping you out is the least I can do.”

“Hey,” she replied.

In a rare display of gentleness, Chris reached for Crashbang’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “Welcome to the team. You can stay out here, we’re only going to call you in if we find a room full of guys with guns.”

He gave a mute nod, his attention on the subway entrance below.

“Good luck,” Checkmate said before teleporting away to do his thing elsewhere. He never stayed for a chat. Given the crucial role he played in nearly all hero operations, villains would target him before anyone else if given the chance. And forcefields weren’t always failsafe; Noire had proven as much.

Regardless, all three of them were already protected by Chris’s forcefields.

Checking her armband timer to see that they had three minutes left, Emily relayed the most important pieces of mission information. “We’re looking for a room with one of those ugly dolls in it. We have a pretty good idea of where it is, more or less, but even with Dancer’s powers I can’t see much this far down. There’s way too much stone, huddled people and weird old tube structures in the way. We’re guessing the two Evolved and a bunch of guys with guns are gonna be nearby.”

Checkmate nodded again. “Can you tell me more about those villains? Rune didn’t have the time to say much about them.”

“One of them is Down Under – yeah, right, she’s not originally from Russia. Anyway – her powers depend on how far above or below the ground she is. If she goes up high enough she’s weightless and can fly. Down there she’s really heavy, and buff, and super resistant. Can move through stone like it’s water. Your power probably isn’t gonna affect her.”

“Not even the Revoker grenades the new Data made?” Crashbang pulled one from his belt and held it up. It was a bronze colored metal sphere the size of a fist, marked with a big red ‘R’ and with a trigger mechanism on top. The Technician from Singapore had started making these soon after he joined the heroes, though most of his time seemed to be spent inspecting and repairing stuff Athena needed that Data had left behind.

Chris shrugged. “Maybe. We don’t know until we try. Tik Tok, the other guy down there, is the bigger problem.”

“He has Technician and Revoker powers,” Emily explained. “We know almost nothing about him because… well, Revoker powers. But Kasparov said he’s dangerous and unpredictable.”

Before Crashbang could ask another question, Athena’s voice, cut into the discussion with solemn urgency. “Fifteen seconds. Crashbang, I will keep answering your questions while you are on standby. Good luck.”

Emily and Chris exchanged a silent glance. The Empath reached inside herself, seeking the imprinted reflection of the Guardian’s personality she had filed away in her mind. It came to her easily. A flurry of foreign yet familiar memories welled up inside her, boosting her courage and determination. When she sped up, she glanced to the side and saw Chris do the same. Their eyes met. They nodded at one another. And when they started running, they extended their hands to each other, fingertips joining together.

The two of them dashed into the mouth of the subway entrance, navigating by the light of the flashlights they’d been equipped with. The first short tunnel and the adjoining ticket kiosks were devoid of people but showed signs of habitation: discarded plastic bags, cigarette butts, empty bottles and a ragged sleeping bag were strewn on the concrete floor. Vaulting over the turnstiles, Chris and Emily continued deeper into the tunnels, following the subway tracks in the direction where Emily remembered spotting powered people through Dancer’s lifesense.

They could have teleported part of the way, but running was the more sensible choice. Keeping Chris’s danger sense active as much as possible increased their chances of not getting knocked out or killed. Switching powersets took two or more valuable seconds depending on the personality Emily changed into, and as soon as they were spotted by one or more people, there would be noise and the villains would be on alert. Emily liked the idea of maintaining their speed advantage for as long as possible.

As they plunged deeper into the tunnels, the signs of habitation increased. Fires flickered in the distance. People huddled around makeshift fireplaces with hunched shoulders and sunken, vacant faces. Their numbers quickly increased, and by the time Chris and Emily reached the target area, the refugees were packed so tight that the two Evolved had run along the walls to avoid jostling them. Eyes widened and heads turned, ever so slowly, in their direction. The men who carried guns – there were more than just a few – started looking slightly more alert, but stood no chance of stopping the two flashes of movement that dashed along the walls.

Eventually, though, the two heroines had to slow down. They had run through grimy, long abandoned tunnels that branched off the main subway system and found a surprising amount of people in them. But they did not find any suspicious rooms that looked like they might contain a hidden flesh idol. They didn’t see any alternate passages either. The handful of doors they passed were either already open, the rooms beyond occupied by refugees, or so rusted and covered with grime that they hadn’t been opened in decades. Chris and Emily didn’t spot wormhole graffiti on any of the walls, another hint that they might be in the wrong place.

The girls’ hyperspeed exploration couldn’t have taken more than two or three seconds in real time, but Emily was wary of backtracking through areas they had already passed. The subway inhabitants became increasingly alert to their presence. Given enough time, there would be noise. Noise always invited trouble.

So, Emily raised a fist, making sure that Chris could see her, and swung it downward to request a stop. They continued running along the tracks, and another door – most likely leading to a maintenance room – emerged ahead of them. The heroines dashed past a small group of men who were smoking, two of whom were carrying holstered handguns, and through the open maintenance door.

The room beyond was almost completely dark. A tunnel campfire provided just enough illumination to make out a dozen humanoid shapes, sprawled on the concrete floor on what appeared to be sleeping bags or thin mattresses. Emily paid no attention to them. She pulled herself to a stop at the center of the room, an arm’s length away from the nearest refugee, and spun around to see Chris block the doorway with her forcefield-covered body. After a brief nod, Emily reached deep down inside herself and switched powersets.

All around her, time snapped back into place with a cacophony of sound. Distant voices echoed down the underground passage. A wild staccato of footsteps – their own footsteps, delayed by their incredible rush of speed – washed over Emily and Chris. From outside the room came movement and a startled curse in Russian.

Filling up her mind with Dancer’s awareness, Emily extended her supernatural senses in all directions to seek out the Evolved signatures she’d spotted earlier. One of them she located instantly. Its power aura wasn’t as impressive as some others she’d seen, but it constantly changed colors from blue to red and flickered like a candle flame. The Empath had never seen an Evolved aura flicker before.

It’s like something is suppressing it, Emily mused. Something or… someone?

She quickly concluded that the aura belonged to Tik Tok, who was both a Technician and a Revoker. Perhaps his tech was interfering with his life signature – or perhaps he had a power-suppressing gadget active. At any rate, he was an unknown quantity best avoided, if at all possible.

Unfortunately, it didn’t look like avoiding him would be possible. As Emily expanded her mind’s eye and examined the layers upon layers of metro architecture surrounding the flickering aura, she discovered a strange lump of material that was neither stone nor concrete. It held a light of its own. The pulsing glow of powers, but without a life signature to accompany it.

No, she corrected herself, revolted by her discovery. There’s… something. Like it’s alive, but at the same time, it’s not.

The strange lump sat on the floor at the center of a strangely vacant room that appeared to be part of a different tunnel network. If there was a connection to the metro Chris and Emily had entered from Moscow’s Kijewskaja station, the connecting passage was obscured by rubble and construction materials, and an unfathomable mass of people. Fewer people than above, but still… hundreds. A suspiciously large amount. All of them were gathered in the semicircular tunnel surrounding that one room and in the smaller chambers adjoining it.

Emily spotted a lot of guns and other weapons among them.

“Did you find it?” Chris asked from the doorway. The urgency in her voice snapped Emily back to the reality of her immediate surroundings. Loud, angry shouts echoed through the metro tunnels. A distant gunshot pierced the air, followed by another which seemed much closer. A chip of concrete splintered above the open doorway.

“Yes,” Emily replied. “Tik Tok is like, right in front of the room. But I can take us there.”

She still didn’t know where Down Under was. Chris didn’t ask. The Guardian simply nodded, her young, hood-shadowed face hardened by determination. “Let’s go,” she said.

Not wasting another second, Emily anchored her will in that one room and wished for reality to become malleable, so she could cut across. She reached out for Chris and plunged through fifty feet of earth and concrete, toward the pulsing power idol.

They dropped onto a rubble-strewn stone floor and into a place of near absolute darkness. Emily stubbed her toe on something hard she couldn’t see and scrambled backward, torn between the desire to scan the room with her flashlight and the need to discard Dancer’s powers and assume Radiant immediately. Her hero training won over her human instincts. Still looking at the world through her borrowed life sense, she verified that Chris – whose aura shimmered with a cool, silvery blue – was beside her, then immersed herself in Radiant’s personality.

But something was wrong. Right before her Empath powers faded away, Emily picked up a startlingly clear tremor of emotion from somewhere right outside the room: malicious glee. A strange clicking noise came from behind Dollet’s empowered lump of flesh. The muted metallic sound of something activating, cut into silence the instant Radiant’s distorted perception overtook Emily’s sense of hearing. She instinctively responded to the threat by flaring luminescent wings. The darkness in the room burned up in an instant, cut apart by a half hundred blindingly bright ribbons that reached all the way to the only door, ten feet away.

But there were no bad guys present to be blinded by Radiant’s flare attack. In the super-eminent brightness that now flooded every corner of the room, Emily saw everything clear as day. The idol, a roughly man-shaped cluster of bloodied flesh, was sitting at the center of the dusty, rubble-strewn floor. The walls of the room were stained, roughly cut stone whose run-down look reminded her of air raid shelters from the fifties. Around the edges of the room were collapsed metal shelves and grimy cardboard boxes.

What she did not see was the source of the clicking sound she had picked up right before switching powersets. Where, exactly, had it come from? From one of the shelves? From the rubble on the floor. There was no time to think about it. The door flew open, and Chris’s arm shot up, their agreed signal for imminent danger.
 

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Vote for Anathema

14.14 Endgame

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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.
  

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Vote for Anathema

14.13 Interlude (the Healer)

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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.”
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