Officer Kyle Jenkins was talking to his father on the speaker phone as he crossed Lowell Bridge to the opposite side of Santa Isabel Bay.
“I won’t be able to come tonight, dad. A couple of colleagues are sick and they asked me to do some overtime. I’m afraid I need the money.”
“Will you stop acting as if you had an obligation to come visit me every day? I’m not crippled. I’m just old,” his father’s voice came through the other end of the line.
“I know…” Kyle started saying. “Are you eating well?” he then insisted.
“For God’s sake, Kyle. I’m perfectly able to take care of myself. I was a cop for forty years and believe me, back then things were not as easy as you’re used to.”
“I know dad. It’s only… anyway, sorry. I’ll pick you up tomorrow at 9 to bring flowers to mom.”
He knew his father was as affected as he was by his mother’s unexpected demise. He just did not show it, which concerned Kyle even more. His mother had not been a very strong woman, so she had been one of the first affected by The Flare to die. She had been mentioned in the news. Then, thousands of other women started to die, and the world had forgotten about Rose Jenkins.
Santa Isabel had been hit the hardest. As yet, no one really knew exactly what The Flare had been, but everything pointed to his home city being in the focus of the inexplicable solar eruption. Close to half of the million women that had developed a cancer and died a few weeks after the event had lived in the Santa Isabel metro area.
One day short of the tragic anniversary, the city was still recovering. As well as the women that had died, a similar number of inhabitants had left, having found it impossible to keep living in a city that had been so cruel. The ten million that had stayed had yet to bounce back.
Traffic continued to be a nightmare, but Kyle thought that even the blaring of horns had decreased, as if people couldn’t find the energy to complain to each other.
“You don’t have to come if you’re too tired” his father said on the other end of the line, taking Kyle away from his thoughts.
He was about to protest when the world went to hell.
Kyle had never experienced an earthquake before. So, it took him a couple of seconds to realize that he was in the middle of one. A very big one.
He lost control of his squad car, which crashed into the car just in front. His airbag went off, confirming that it had not been a mild impact. It was far from the only one. And, at the same time, it was far from the worst consequence of the tremor.
A steel girder pierced the car just in front of him as the ground under Kyle shook again. It took him a moment to realize that it had not been another quake, but the bridge breaking. A fifty yard area straight ahead of him bulged, sending cars in his direction. There were more crashes, even if they were less violent than the first one had been, and there were a couple of cars skidding past his cruiser and slamming into other vehicles in the lanes on both sides. And then, there were screams.
Kyle brushed his forehead and noticed a trickle of blood on it. Still, he thought he was more or less fine. His first reaction was to reach for his cell phone and check on his father. He had to discard it when he saw that there was no line, confirmation that this had not been a mild earthquake at all.
Kyle hyperventilated and thought about what to do. The screams of the people getting out of their cars and running along the narrow aisles between packed vehicles showed him the way. He was a police officer, for God’s sake. He should get out of the car and try to see what he could do to help.
The first thing he did was to switch on the police radio to ask for instructions. He switched it off right away when he realized that it was pure chaos. He was on his own. But he had his duty.
The first obstacle in his quest to help was the fact that his cruiser’s door would not open. It was jammed by a car that had crashed too close to his. With the window not rolling down because of the damage to the door, Kyle’s only option was to shoot the glass and then squeeze through the window hole, taking care not to cut himself any further.
He noticed he was still a bit dizzy from the crash, but managed to move through the spaces between cars, pausing by a couple of people that were sitting on the road, backs against their cars, with different types of cuts and bruises. Kyle stopped for long enough to make sure that they were not seriously injured and went on.
He helped a panicked woman out of her car, taking care of her little boy first, then tried to recruit a couple of volunteers amongst those that looked less affected and in better shape.
Screams brought him and his two new collaborators running to the edge of the area where the bridge had bulged. What he saw there made his heart freeze.
The bridge had not only bulged. A full section of it, maybe fifty yards long, was missing, the gap between the spot he was standing on and the next standing section about two hundred feet above Santa Isabel Bay.
Kyle dreaded to think just how many people might have been on that particular stretch of road when it had broken. Looking from above, there didn’t seem to be any activity from survivors on the surface of the water below.
He shifted his attention from what had happened and focused on the task at hand. The task that had caused the yells that had attracted him in the first place. The school bus.
Kyle had never been especially good at Physics. He did not need to be to know that the balance of the fifty-foot yellow bus was far from perfect, with about half of it on the road and the other half looming over the gap. The bus was tilted towards the gap, its back wheels a few feet above the road. It seemed almost a miracle that it hadn’t fallen yet.
A metallic groan and a small swinging of the vehicle confirmed his thoughts. And then, he could hear nothing but the screams of the children inside. It took Kyle a couple of seconds to react. By the time he did, he realized that the people had already organized themselves and had run some ropes around the back fender, pulling back to try and bring the bus back onto the road. They had not been not very successful.
A new, more noticeable groan tilted the bus some more, and he could feel the people pulling back straining in unison. The bus moved barely a couple of inches forward, but they were two terrifying inches.
Kyle’s eyes moved from the bus to the people trying to pull it back and then to the bus again. His first instinct was to help pull. His colder head prevailed and he climbed a car that had stopped right at the edge and looked at the terrified children through the windows.
They were both screaming and crying. A quick look down the bus showed him a red splotch on the windscreen, and he understood that the driver was dead. He unsuccessfully looked for the teacher. And then, he started screaming and gesturing with his hands.
“Get to the back of the bus! Move back!”
It seemed pointless for a while. The bus groaned once more, and Kyle feared that it would slide past him and into the bay. Eventually, the first two kids understood what he was saying and moved to the back of the mass transport vehicle. Soon, others started following. It was not as easy as Kyle would have thought. The kids were not that old, and the bus was tilted enough that they had to practically climb their way back. A few of them were too afraid to react, but more and more kids started to understand what he was asking them to do and helped balance the weight.
Kyle smiled as he saw the bus pivot in the opposite direction for the first time. He climbed down from the car and headed towards the people with the ropes, who were looking more hopeful than the last time he had checked.
And then, a new chunk of asphalt broke, and the bus moved in the wrong direction once more. Kyle was pretty sure that it would have dropped straight into the water if no one had been pulling back. Still, the fight against fate was starting to feel like a futile endeavor. A few of the rope-pullers looked way too strained, and even though they had been joined by some fresh helpers, they seemed unable to prevent the apparently inevitable for much longer.
With all the tension, Kyle had not heard the large helicopter passing overhead. He did not register the characteristic twin rotors of the Chinook until he turned to look in the direction of the various gasps. He quickly forgot about the chopper and focused on the woman instead.
She was walking along the aisles that had formed between abandoned cars and if anything, she stood out. It was hard to judge from his distance, but it was clear that the woman was massive, dwarfing the cars she was walking past as she moved with a sense of purpose. She was gorgeous too, something Kyle would not have imagined in a woman that size. Blonde, with large blue eyes and thick glossy lips, she had the face of an action movie celebrity stuck on the body of a giant fitness model. Her muscles did not bulge but were incredibly well-defined; they were impossible to miss, since the woman was dressed only in a pair of shorts and a top made of a dark material that was so tight fitting, it seemed that it would rip apart at any moment. The top clearly had the hardest of jobs, since the woman’s chest could not be described as anything but humongous. Kyle wondered which would be the correct letter of the alphabet to quantify its size. It was not until she cleared the last line of cars that he noticed that she was barefoot.
People got out of her way as she kept walking towards the bus. Towards Kyle. As the authority in the area, he decided he should probably do something, so he climbed down from the car and headed towards her, only to stop when he realized that he was only as tall as her midriff.
“I’m here to help” the woman said in a surprisingly high-pitched voice.
“O… Ok,” Kyle said. “How?”
“Let me show you,” the woman said.
She walked past him and around the people that were still trying to hold the bus in place. She had to bend to get under the ropes and reach the underside of the back of the bus. And then, the most astonishing thing Kyle had seen in his life took place.
The woman placed one hand on the fender and the other below the bus. After that, she started straightening up. The vehicle groaned once more, but it was a different type of groan from the one he had been dreading. The bus started to move, but this time it moved in the right direction. Or, to be more precise, it started moving upwards.
The woman kept straightening up, not even looking strained as the bus kept following her motion until soon it was no longer touching the road. Kyle could hear the collective sigh as the woman kept going, now standing completely upright as she kept pushing up her arms and the bus with them. The mind-blowing nature of the entire scene made Kyle lose his perception of time, but a replay of the sequence in his head convinced him that it had probably not lasted much longer than a few seconds.
The bus was soon horizontal, even if it wasn’t touching the road. In a way, it appeared to be hovering, its only contact with the bridge via a woman standing at its end. The woman turned, still holding the school bus, and looked at Kyle as if what she was doing was the most natural thing in the world.
“Would you mind making some room? I need to set the bus down.”
People did not waste time clearing the necessary space, allowing the massive blonde woman to kneel and set the yellow mass transportation vehicle softly onto the road. She stood back up, smiling like anyone would after a job well done, and dusted her hands off.
“What… how… who are you?” Kyle asked.
The woman looked down at him and widened her smile, seemingly ready to answer. Then, she changed her expression and said:
“The kids can’t get out. Come!”
Kyle tried to follow her around the bus, her so-much-longer legs making it hard for him to keep pace. The woman was standing by the front door of the bus, the children packing in behind it.
“Move back, kids. I’ll open it for you,” she said with a sweet voice.
The youngsters inside did not react. They were too panicked.
“I said move back!” she repeated, her tone still soft, but her volume several orders of magnitude higher. She had sounded like a stadium speaker system, Kyle was sure that she had been heard several hundred yards away.
It worked, the pupils clearing enough space for her to take hold of the door and start to open it. It soon became evident that it would not be possible. The panel was so twisted that opening it at the middle would still not clear enough space at the top and bottom.
Kyle had seen enough already to make a suggestion.
“Um… can you fix the door?”
After what he had seen this strange woman do, it felt like a logical enough request.
“Sure thing,” the woman said. “But we don’t have time for that.”
Human minds are very adaptable. This was the reason Kyle wasn’t completely freaked-out when the woman, who he guessed would be in her mid-twenties, pushed her fingers into the steel around the door frame and, after a bit of complaining from the sheet metal, managed to get them right through. A second later, she was tearing the door frame away from the bus as if it had been made of paper.
She discarded it over her shoulder and beckoned the children to walk out with a smile. It took them a few seconds to make their minds up. Finally, they stampeded away from the school transport, even if none stopped by the woman who had just saved them.
She looked momentarily disappointed, but her beautiful smile returned a second later.
Kyle was speechless, so it took him a moment to react when the woman turned to him and asked:
“I’m here to help. The kids are safe. What’s next? You’re the only agent of authority I can see around. I need some instructions,” said the massive woman.
“How… who are you?”
She rolled her eyes and said:
“There’s no time for explanations, but I guess you need something, so I’ll give you the short version. I promise to tell you the rest when we’re done. My name’s Jennifer Watson. I’m twenty-six. I’m a real woman. But I’m freaking strong! I guess you already saw that. I’ve come here to help. But I need you to tell me how. I’ll follow your orders.”
“Why?” Kyle asked.
“Well, you’re a cop,” Jennifer said.
“I… I don’t know… did you see anyone injured on your way across the bridge?” Kyle finally asked.
“Nothing serious,” Jennifer said, shaking her head.
“Ok…” Kyle replied, hesitating.
Jennifer started tapping her foot while he thought, which made Kyle even more nervous, if only because of the fact that the road was slightly cracking as she did so.
“I can hear some people in need of help on the other side of the gap,” Jennifer offered, getting impatient.
“How?” Kyle asked.
“Trust me. I can,” Jennifer said.
Seeing that Kyle kept hesitating, she then offered:
“Maybe you want us to go and help them?”
“But how?” Kyle asked again.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Jennifer said. “Sorry.”
Kyle did not understand what she was talking about. Regardless, the amazon bent and grabbed him by the armpits. One moment he was standing on the bridge, the next he was dangling two feet above the road and the next he was soaring across the gap between the two standing sections of the bridge. He could feel Jennifer’s impossibly hard body against his skin, but he could tell that she was taking care not to hold him too hard.
They landed well past the edge of the bridge, Jennifer’s feet digging a small crater as they came down, the shockwave knocking a couple of abandoned vehicles onto their sides. It was the only empty area in their surroundings, and Kyle realized that the woman had chosen the landing spot carefully.
“I think what you mean is that I should be helping those people over there to get out of their cars, right?” Jennifer suggested.
Kyle nodded and she headed towards a pile up, pushing cars apart like a little girl playing with a model set. Once there was enough space between them, Jennifer started ripping doors out. Kyle was still surprised by how delicate she was as she carried the more severely injured victims to empty areas where they could receive attention.
Once the wounded were safe, it became clear that they were lacking medical assistance. Jennifer turned to Kyle and looked down.
“These people need a doctor,” she said.
“Yes…” Kyle replied. “I… don’t see one around.”
“There’s an ambulance about two hundred yards down the road. It’s blocked.”
“Can you?” Kyle asked.
“Yes, but I need you to clearly order me to do it. Otherwise, the brass is going to be pissed off.”
“Sure… Jennifer, could you… could you go over there and bring the ambulance here?” Kyle asked.
“Is that an order?” Jennifer replied with a wink.
“You got it!”
The woman disappeared with a jump. Two minutes later, an ambulance appeared to float towards him. Kyle was the only person in the area who wasn’t shocked to see it being carried by a young blonde woman who was making her way through the spaces between crashed cars.
It took the medics some time to get out of the vehicle, but they did once Jennifer encouraged them. Then, she urged Kyle to continue their humanitarian mission.
Officer Jenkins adapted remarkably well to the possibilities opened up by the impossible woman as they went on, freeing trapped people, getting the injured to assistance and saving those in dire situations.
Susan was not feeling very confident as the adapted helicopter carried her to the city. She had been expecting to have much more time before going public but the mission-call had come in a rush. She was smart enough to know that, after today, her new life would be exposed to the world, and she wasn’t too sure if she wanted that.
Jennifer and Nathalie seemed considerably less affected. As far as Susan knew, they had been longing for the exposure. They seemed incredibly comfortable with what they had become. Susan could not understand it. Nine months after waking up from thirteen weeks of the most excruciating pain, Susan still did not know what, or who, she was.
She knew who she had been. A shy college student, not too popular despite the fact that her friends had told her more than once that she was undeniably beautiful. They were dead now, victims of the cancer that, instead of killing Susan, had turned her into something else.
Susan was not stupid. She could see all the amazing aspects of her new condition. But, unlike the others, she could also see the drawbacks. And once she was finally exposed, there would be no way to contain them. Everyone that had ever known her would learn what she had become. And what she had already feared for some months, namely that she was a freak destined for a life spent in the spotlight and at the expense of others, would be truer than ever.
The General had been too specific for her to question his orders or to ask for an exception. There had been an earthquake, a very bad earthquake, and they were going to help the city. The three of them. Susan could see the public relations logic behind that, of course. Lindbergh would have a much easier time explaining what they were and what he was doing after saving a few hundred people than he would under any other circumstances.
“We have arrived,” said the lieutenant who was sitting across from her.
The cargo door of the Chinook opened, and Susan walked towards it. Well, there was nothing wrong with helping people, she thought as she jumped from two hundred feet up, landing with a loud thud as her feet dug into the asphalt.
Three squads of firefighters turned in unison. Susan, who had landed with the grace of a gymnast, walked up to the man who was obviously in charge and said:
“A few minutes ago, you were promised exceptional resources to help clear the tunnel. I’m those resources. I’m here to place myself under your command. I’m ready to take your orders.”
She had carefully memorized the speech, to make sure that she wouldn’t mess it up. Lindbergh had been very insistent that they made it obvious they were acting under the instructions of the rightful authority.
“Er… who are you, girl?”
The man was looking up at her, like everyone else in the world except for Jennifer, Nathalie and Nicole. It was not the first time that she received that look. Her audience had been limited up until that point, but every now and then new people started working in the facility and more often than not they were shocked to see her, even if they had been given prior warning.
By now, Susan was familiar with the type of effect she provoked. Her own little theory held that she was the most shocking of the four, since her girlish face, freckles, long red hair and pale skin did not match well with her new powerful appearance.
Muscles bulged now where there had only been skinny arms and legs, and her almost non-existent breasts had swollen to proportions she would not have ever dreamed about, even after a few sessions of plastic surgery. True, her chest could not compare with Jennifer’s, but the cheerleader’s boobs had already been massive before The Flare.
Susan had wondered if her new condition would allow her to get tanned. It did not, her pale appearance making her stand out among her new cohort. She did not get sunburnt either, though, which was to be expected, considering that the source of her new strength was the Sun itself.
Despite all that, she was bothered by the look from the firefighter.
“I believe you need a demonstration of my ability to help. Do you need that tunnel cleared?” Susan asked. She was pointing at the entrance of the tunnel the firemen had been working on. It was completely blocked by rubble that had fallen when the earthquake had brought down a section of it.
“Yes” the fireman said.
“With your permission, I’ll proceed with the demonstration,” Susan said methodically, repeating yet another of the sentences she had memorized.
She took a path that would lead her through two other firefighters. Susan enjoyed it when they dashed out of the way, looking down at them as she passed. Then, she planted herself in front of the tunnel and mentally sized the chunks of debris blocking the way. She went for the largest one, a big block of concrete with some steel girders sticking out of both sides. The whole thing had to be some twenty feet across.
Looking over her shoulder at the stunned firefighters and smirking, Susan crouched and brought each hand under the large concrete block. Two seconds later, she was holding it well over her head, its weight not making her strain at all as she turned and savored the startled faces of the firefighters.
“Where do you want me to put it?” she asked with a mix of pride and mockery. She guessed they were no longer doubting her abilities, even if they probably still thought of her as a freak.
Her mood changed in an instant when she saw a number of firemen take their cellphones out of their suits and point them at her, ready to take pictures. Susan could feel her blood boiling.
“Don’t take pictures!”
She realized that she had raised her voice too much. And she was very aware of how loud she could be. It was one of the tests they repeated regularly at the facility. The firemen were not only shocked by the volume of her words, they also looked rather afraid. Susan realized that being snapped at like that by someone who was holding a few tons with her bare hands must be unsettling.
She tried to fix it by smiling shyly and adding:
Knowing that she had to break the awkward moment, Susan tossed the heavy chunk of debris to an obviously unoccupied area and walked back to the officer in charge.
“So, you’ve seen what I can do. How can I help you?”
She ended up having to give them the short version of who she was, much like Jennifer had done. Unlike her colleague, Susan had no intention to invest time in the long story later.
She proceeded to follow the men’s instructions as she methodically and swiftly cleared access to the tunnel. Soon enough, firemen could get in and start to help those trapped. A few minutes later, Susan was done with the rubble.
It was a professional co-operation. After the first incident, she never managed to gain the firefighter’s trust. No one took any pictures of her, though.
Once she was done, having barely exerted herself, Susan addressed the officer asking:
“Is there anything else you need me to do?”
When the man looked at her and shook his head, she asked:
“In that case, could you please direct me to some other area where my abilities may prove handy?”
Nathalie was leading a mixed team of cops and firemen as she stepped into the lobby of the Walden Tower. After helping some people out of the rubble of a smaller building that had collapsed, the team she had been working with had been directed to the tallest building in Santa Isabel.
A hundred stories tall, the Walden’s remarkable architecture stood out from the city’s skyline. The men in the lobby were as surprised as anyone who saw her for the first time, but the ones she now considered to be her team hurried to explain that she was on their side and to sum up some of the skills she could bring to the mission.
Nathalie’s oversensitive ears caught the man in charge in the lobby saying:
“What sort of crap is this?”
She realized that, as usual, a demonstration was in order. She did not want to be too extreme, but she needed to find something that would remove any doubts from the minds of the men she had to work with.
The large bronze representation of the world that stood in the center of the lobby fountain was as good a tool for her purposes as any. She walked towards it without saying anything. Ten seconds later, she was holding the solid, twenty-foot-diameter globe in one hand, causing the jaws of those who had not yet met her to drop and those that had already worked with her to shoot knowing glances at them.
With that settled, it was time to get to work. The cop in charge recovered his composure remarkably quickly and filled them in.
Floors seventy-two and above were cut off. Floors fifty-nine to seventy-one had collapsed, and neither the elevators nor the stairs were usable. There were at least sixty people trapped in two of the elevator cars, and their best estimate was that there were over a thousand-people stuck on the upper floors. With the cellphone network down, no radios and the landlines cut, they had no effective way of communicating with them.
There were some men studying blueprints of the building on the lobby’s counter, and Nathalie asked politely if she could take a look. She seemed to have an entourage as she walked over, followed by a dozen men that were barely as tall as her chest.
“They’re exploring possible evacuation routes,” one of the firemen that had come with her explained. “It looks tough”
“Can they show me?” asked Nathalie, softly.
She listened carefully to the man’s words, as he listed the difficulties of each option and laid bare the obvious lack of hope of finding a timely resolution. She was patient. And once she had processed all the information, she suggested her own plan.
“Do you think it will work?” she enquired.
The men exchanged glances, obviously startled.
“Er… yes, it should work. But, can you do that?” the officer in charge asked.
“Of course,” she replied with a confident smile. “I just need someone who knows the structure of the building to come with me. I’ll need directions when I’m up there.”
A shorter than average man with pale blonde hair and even paler skin took a step to the front.
“Ok. Do I have your permission then?” Nathalie asked the commanding officer.
“Er… yes,” he said, still not believing that they were going to do what she was suggesting.
“Ok,” Nathalie said. “Would you all mind covering your ears?”
She got some quizzical glances.
“Cover your ears, please. You’ll understand.”
When the men had complied, Nathalie looked up and addressed the people seventy stories above. It would have felt stupid if her voice had not sounded louder than the speaker system at a Rolling Stones concert.
“People on the top floors of the Walden. Help is on the way. Please stay away from the elevators. If you can, get to the higher floors. We’ll be there soon!”
It had been deafening for the men around her, even with their ears covered.
“How did you do that?” the man in charge asked.
Nathalie just shrugged and headed to one of the elevator doors, choosing the one she had learned had a free shaft. Her fingers dug effortlessly into the metal. It was then a piece of cake to push the doors apart and peer up the shaft.
She turned and beckoned to the pale man.
“Time to go.”
He walked towards her, but then glanced at the never-ending chimney and asked:
Nathalie knelt and said:
“You’ll have to climb my back.”
It took the man two seconds to realize that it was not a joke. He finally swallowed hard and moved towards the massive girl, grabbing her muscular neck and trying to pull himself up. When it became obvious that it would not be an easy task, a massive hand pushed him on the butt and helped him up.
Sigursson would have felt like a child on his mother’s back had it not been for the stark contrast between his pale, almost white skin and the young woman’s almost golden brown tones. She stood up as soon as she felt that he had a good hold, and then walked into the shaft. Sigursson was still wondering how she intended to climb up a thousand feet when the woman extended her palm, fingers close together, turned it downwards and hit the concrete at the side of the elevator shaft. Her fingers easily penetrated as far as her palm. She repeated the operation with her other hand a bit higher and Sigursson realized that she had created two handholds. Her feet soon followed, allowing her a comfortable climbing position inside the long vertical duct.
“Are you OK?”
“Er… yes! How did you do that?” he asked.
Nathalie chuckled softly.
“Are you still surprised?”
“I… I guess”
“Hold tight!” was all she said as she started to climb.
Sigursson could not believe what was happening. It was not only the fact that she was breaking concrete as if it had been crackers. The woman was climbing at a rate he would have been unable to match even if he had had a real ladder.
“Mike Sigursson, by the way,” he offered by the time he had counted at least twenty elevator doors.
“Nathalie. Nathalie Baptiste,” she replied, not nearly out of breath. “Are you from Iceland, Mike?” she asked, apparently happy to have a conversation.
“No. LA. My grandparents were.”
“Same here. Grandparents from Haiti.”
Mike nodded and then asked:
“So, what do you do? I mean, when you’re not climbing skyscrapers with your bare hands?”
Nathalie chuckled softly.
“Well, that’s most of what I do nowadays, although mostly it’s training. I used to be a nurse, though. Before the Flare.”
“The Flare did this to you?” he asked.
“Kind of. It’s a long story.”
They had reached floor fifty-nine by then. Mike had to look at his watch to confirm that it had taken the massive girl less than five minutes to climb almost sixty floors. The elevator shaft was blocked with rubble and a couple of steel girders.
“Do I push them apart?” asked Nathalie.
Mike realized that it was a genuine question. And that it did not mean she was wondering if he thought she was able to perform the feat, but rather she wanted to know if she should do it. He thought fast.
“No. We don’t know what else this rubble is holding. It could start an avalanche.”
“Oh,” Nathalie said. “Which way, then?”
“Through the floor,” he said.
The amazon climbed a few feet down and pivoted, holding herself only with one hand and foot. She did not seem to be straining, so Mike ignored the urge to yell at her to be careful. She then used her other hand to push the elevator doors apart and make enough space to jump into floor fifty-nine.
It was no mystery how the top of the building had become cut off. The floor looked like a warzone, what used to be luxurious office space now having become a pile of rubble, with collapsed walls and sections of both the floor and the ceiling completely missing. Nathalie sighed when she saw the first corpses.
“I was too late,” she said, the regret obvious in her tone.
Mike understood that he needed to comfort her, which was weird considering that he was riding her back.
“They probably died right after the quake. There was nothing you could have done.”
“Still…” Nathalie said.
“Let’s go save the rest, shall we?” he offered.
It worked. Nathalie brought him off her back and he was soon walking next to her among the rubble, trying to find another way to get to the higher storeys. Being dwarfed as he moved next to the massive woman’s side was less humiliating than being carried like a child, but it was still impressive.
Nathalie soon identified a large enough hole in the ceiling and pointed up.
“Can you?” Mike questioned, surprised.
She did not answer. Instead, she just picked him up by the sides and hopped up, her colossal body soaring through the opening and easily clearing five floors to land in the sixty-fourth.
She repeated the operation once more to get to the sixty-eighth. Then, it was just a matter of finding a new elevator shaft to reach the seventy-second storey and open the doors to land in front of a panicked and, now, also awestruck, audience.
The crowd moved a step back as she emerged from the elevator shaft. Seeing her place Sigursson on the floor did not help.
Nathalie sighed again. She had been expecting it, but it was never welcome. By now, she had come to understand that this would be the initial response she would receive from people, and that the only way to change that would be through deeds.
So, she ignored the reaction and scanned the area, trying to assess the situation.
“That man is trapped,” she said, pointing out a man whose legs were hidden under a heavy shelf.
“The… the shelf is blocked by debris. We can’t get him out,” a random person in the crowd claimed, apologetically.
Nathalie did not reply. She just crossed the room, making people move out of her way, and crouched to grab the shelf with one hand. It took her only a casual movement to push it, and the rubble that had been forcing it down, out of the way. She was a bit more forceful than needed, putting on a show with the overall action.
The man she had just freed looked a bit more thankful than the ones that had received her, but he still moaned in pain. Nathalie crouched and touched his legs with the greatest care.
“They’re both broken, but it’s not too nasty. You’ll walk again,” she said.
The man looked questioningly at her and she just shrugged:
“I’m a nurse, specialized in surgery.”
Standing back up, she addressed the rest of the crowd and said:
“I’m here to help. But I need your cooperation.”
Sensing the mood had slightly improved, Nathalie scanned the room and pointed to an open elevator door and the large elevator waiting beyond it.
“What’s the problem with it?”
“It was here… the power went out,” a woman said.
She nodded, crouched again and picked up the man with both broken legs as if he were a doll. Crossing the room to the elevator, she set him down in it with care.
“Bring the wounded and anyone who can’t move well to the elevator. Everyone else, you need to get to the roof. Use the stairs.”
“But… the elevator’s not working,” the woman protested.
“Leave that to me,” Nathalie just replied. “The rest of you, climb to the roof. And tell everyone else to do the same. Now!”
She beat everyone to the roof, of course. Taking another empty elevator shaft, Nathalie soon reached the machinery housing in the very top floor of the building. Mike breathed fresh air as soon as she opened the hatch and hopped outside.
“Ok, time to get organized. The people down on seventy-two still need some time. Which were the elevators that were stuck with people inside?” she asked.
“Five and eleven,” Mike said.
Nathalie easily located the housing for elevator eleven’s machinery and walked towards it, followed by officer Sigursson who had to quicken his pace to catch up. She did not ask for permission before she ripped the roof of the small housing from the structure and hopped inside to look down at the elevator car, some twenty storeys below. Mike arrived in time to see her grab the thick steel cable and pull upwards, much as if she were drawing a bucket from a well.
The elevator groaned at first and generated some sparks later. Once the emergency brake was gone, things were easier. Nathalie pulled the massive elevator out of the shaft in no time.
By now, Mike Sigursson had lost the ability to be shocked by anything the ebony amazon did, so seeing her hold a fifteen by fifteen foot elevator car over her head as if it were a balloon felt almost natural. Nathalie wasted no time setting it down on the roof, pushing the doors open with the ease of a hot knife cutting butter and looking at the thirty very startled people packed inside.
She frowned just a bit when she got the usual reaction. She didn’t hesitate before addressing them, though:
“There’s no time to explain. I’m taking you to the first floor. You’ll find help there.”
Closing the doors shut, Nathalie lifted the elevator with just one hand, keeping hold of the thick steel cable with the other. Then, she walked to the edge. Mike admired the exercise of delicate precision and balance as she crouched and let the elevator car go just enough so that she could still keep it in place with the cable she was firmly gripping. After that, she just stood there, letting the length of the steel cable slowly go as she held the entire weight of thirty people and their container for the entire duration of the hundred-floor descent.
Mike started clapping once the people were safely on the road below. Nathalie merely turned and headed for elevator five.
It took her an hour and a half to evacuate everyone who had been trapped, reaching a pace of an elevator ride every three minutes when she was at her peak.
Nathalie had enjoyed the growing shows of appreciation from the people in the Walden as she kept carrying groups of them down. By the time she was about to load the last elevator car, there was cheering which filled her heart with glee.
“How are you going to get down yourself?” an exhilarated Mike Sigursson asked her as she closed the doors of the final ride.
Nathalie had savored his look of admiration. It was in that state that she scanned the city from atop its tallest building and chose the best possible landing spot.
She felt free while soaring the sky, the 100-story jump feeling almost like flying for a few seconds. Finally, after nine months, she had made a difference. All the pain, all the training and experimentation, all the restrictions of her new life… they were all worthwhile if she could help people.
She landed in the middle of an empty plaza with a loud crashing sound, the combination of her significantly increased mass and the height of the jump making her dig out a crater and cause a blast strong enough to shatter every window on the block. Nathalie sighed, but this was not going to affect her mood. It was an unavoidable consequence of her new ability to help people in ways beyond the imaginable. She took a deep breath and focused her ultra-sensitive ears, trying to determine where to go next to offer help.
Nathalie, Susan and Jennifer were sitting on the oversized couch of the living room, strangely silent as the back door opened and General Lindbergh walked in. Without a uniform, which he never wore, it was hard to imagine him as a soldier. He was a tall man, but the good life had made him lose the sharpness of his best days of service. Together with his haircut, tanned skin and expensive suit, he looked more like a CEO or a politician than a four-star general.
Any doubts about his military origin were gone when he addressed them in the commanding tone of someone who was used to real authority.
“You girls did a fine job today. A real fine job. It’s the best introduction our operation here could have had.”
“We should go back there. There’s still plenty to do!” Nathalie said.
Lindbergh raised a hand and was pleased when everyone shut up.
“You were in the field for more than twelve hours. It’s time to rest. Let the emergency relief teams work during the night and you can join them again in the morning. This time we’ll be more selective and choose missions that highlight your true potential.”
“And bring the cameras,” Susan said with some disdain.
“One day, you will learn to appreciate good PR, Miss Simpson. In the meantime, maybe you could think about how the big bills for running this place are paid. You’re as interested as I am in having taxpayers love you with all their heart.”
“There is plenty of stuff about us on the news already. And we’re trending on every social network,” Jennifer said, her tone so different from Susan’s that it did not feel as they were both part of the same conversation.
“Of course. Anyway, I thought you’d like to learn a bit more about what you did. The earthquake was the worst ever in this area, even worse than the San Francisco big one. We build stuff better these days, but still, it was bad. The official count so far is over three thousand dead. City Hall hasn’t calculated the infrastructure damage yet, but it’s going to be massive. But the important part is that it could have been much worse. You made a big difference, and even if only for what happened today, the Phoenix Initiative makes all the sense in the world. Our estimations, shared by the local authorities, are that you prevented at least ten thousand deaths and rescued more than thirty thousand people that would have been trapped for days. I thought you would like to hear it from me before you get it from anywhere else.”
General Lindbergh started clapping and was soon joined by the support personnel. Then, there was some cheering, which finally drew Jennifer and Nathalie into the celebration. Even Susan smiled.
“Now, let me lay out the plan for the coming days. Tomorrow you will rejoin the relief efforts, and you’ll continue doing that for as long as it takes to bring Santa Isabel back to normalcy. You’ll be way more popular from tomorrow onwards, so take it into account. Mingle with the people. Be nice. And stick to the scripts the PR team gave you and to the approved Q&A. Once we can declare the Santa Isabel operation a success, Miss Watson will be on point for further PR activities. You’ll receive special training for those. Clear?”
He got three nods in response.
“Perfect. Get a good night’s rest. Briefing tomorrow morning at oh five hundred hours!”
Dr. Campos, who had been standing at the back, moved in front of the girls and gave them a very warm smile.
“See? You’re the heroes I always said you were?”
“You’re too kind Elena,” Jennifer said with a tone that clearly denoted false modesty.
“Really? See for yourselves!”
She switched on the large, wall-mounted TV. An image of the press conference room downstairs appeared on the screen, showing General Lindbergh standing next to a man they quickly recognized as the Mayor.
“There’s been a magnitude nine earthquake in the city and the Mayor comes here for the press conference?” Susan asked.
“Shh. They’re about to start,” Jennifer said.
The Mayor addressed the audience while General Lindbergh stood in an authoritative pose.
“My fellow citizens. In the wake of the anniversary of The Flare, our great city has once again been hit by tragedy. One year after the Sun took half a million of our women away, Santa Isabel has been hit by a magnitude nine point two earthquake with its epicenter fifteen miles inland from Downtown. This is the largest earthquake in America’s recorded history. We were ready, but not enough. Our architectural standards, the strength of our infrastructure and our emergency plans helped reduce the impact of this catastrophe. Nonetheless, we mourn the loss of more than three thousand of our fellow Isabelians. It’s now time to grieve them. But I know that this city will rise again, as it has always done. No matter how hard we are hit, Santa Isabel will continue to be a beacon of progress and modernity, making all of us proud.”
The Mayor remained silent for a few seconds, to let his words sink in.
“Yet, even in the darkest days we find some shining light, and today we have done so in the persons of the three women that have already become the Angels of Santa Isabel. These three women, Jennifer, Nathalie and Susan, and their remarkable abilities are solely responsible for having saved over ten thousand lives and for having freed over thirty thousand trapped people. And since I’m sure that you will want to know more about them, General Owen Lindbergh, standing next to me, is going to tell their story to the world. General Lindbergh, please.”
Lindbergh smiled briefly and stood even more stiffly, if that were possible.
“Thank you Mr. Mayor. I will be brief, since our priority right now is to continue assisting the emergency relief teams to contain the consequences of the earthquake. But I know the public want answers, so I’ll provide them. I am General Owen Lindbergh and I am in charge of the Flare Research Unit of the United States Army. Most refer to us as the Phoenix Unit or the Phoenix Initiative, for reasons that will become clear shortly. One year ago, our country’s West Coast was hit by a solar deflagration of unprecedented intensity and of very special spectral composition. This phenomenon, popularly known as The Flare, had dire consequences for the affected area, with special intensity in the city of Santa Isabel. Right in the aftermath of The Flare, more than a million women were affected by a previously unknown and especially aggressive type of cancer. As you know, none of them survived more than three months. But there were three exceptions.”
It was Lindbergh’s turn to pause for added effect. The girls had to acknowledge that he was good on camera.
“Three of the affected women, three in a million, started to recover after suffering thirteen weeks of intense pain. And then, the cancer changed them, granting them some of the extraordinary abilities you have seen today. These women are Jennifer Watson, a twenty-six-year-old woman who used to be in the Sea Lions cheerleading squad, Nathalie Baptiste, a twenty-seven-year-old nurse, and Susan Simpson, a nineteen-year-old student at West Coast University. After being exposed to The Flare, and after agonizing pain, the three of them gained height, muscular mass and body density, making them much heavier than they would be just because of their stature. Their increased muscle density has granted them extraordinary strength and agility. Given that these three women came back from death only to be stronger, we internally call them Phoenix.”
Another pause. Damn, he was good. Susan wondered if Lindbergh had rehearsed the speech in front of the mirror.
“Under my command, the FRU or Phoenix Initiative, has looked after these women, trained them and is now able to organize them so that they can use their extraordinary abilities in the best interests of this country and its people. I’m happy to report that Jennifer, Nathalie and Susan have agreed to become active members of this unit and to offer their services to society. Today has been their first day in the field. There will be many more. Starting tomorrow. Right now, the priority of the unit I command is to keep assisting Santa Isabel’s emergency teams with the relief effort. We will be in the field tomorrow. Once Santa Isabel is as safe as possible, we will organize a press conference, visits to this facility and interviews. Thank you for your attention and may the victims of today’s unfortunate events rest in peace.”