Erik didn't remember Baltimore as the city in decline it spent the last thirty years of the twentieth century becoming. He was too young. He was born in the year 2000, a few months before Ray Elliot exploded in green light and disintegrated a suburb of Louisville. A baby at the time, Erik had no awareness of the bone-deep ways the world changed. He did not see the coming of the Next heralded by Elliot's light show.
He was too young during those early years to comprehend the anger and fear held by many. Erik had no concept of the idea spreading across the world that the person sitting next to you on the bus might hold an ability powerful enough to wipe out a city block. Erik was spared these things.
Instead his first memories, some of the most powerful, were formed during the renaissance which followed. Baltimore became one of several hubs where the official position was to welcome Next of every stripe with open arms. Those with enhanced intellect moved in and set their genius to solving economic problems. They did this as it was done in other cities; by inventing entirely new technologies and industries based on them.
Erik's father had commented more than once what a powerful force even those few brilliant people had been for change. A man invents a new microchip architecture more advanced and efficient than anything imagined by normal people, then brokers an agreement between giant corporations to bring new business to town.
Just like that, contracts for data centers, manufacturing facilities, and new infrastructure were signed. That was the one example of many Erik's dad liked to use.
Those early years were formative for him and reformative for the city. Old buildings came down, new ones rose in their place utilizing the newest Next-created materials and technology. As those first steps began to bear fruit, more Next saw the place as a viable option.
City council members sold Baltimore by asking a simple question: do you know what we can accomplish with men who can fly, women who can lift five tons without breaking a sweat?
Even as a small child, Erik understood through the context of the people around him that the rapidly changing—and growing—city was unusual. For the adult residents like his parents, it was like watching an old man drink from the fountain of youth.
When the first earthquake hit, it was barely noticeable. The news reported the devastation across the south and midwest, but the massive quakes released by a group of rogue Next only sent bare tremors as far as Baltimore.
It was the second set that broke Charm City in half.
“Erik, you okay?” Dom asked, waving a hand in his friend's face.
“Huh? Yeah, man, I'm good. Just doing the last few problems and we can go.”
Dom shook his head. “Wish I could do that. I sit at home with those books open for like an hour before it starts making any sense.”
It was a refrain Erik heard at least once a week from his best friend. Erik had always been strong at math and science, and this year he'd combined the two by taking physics. Dom, ever willing to join his friend in whatever classes they could share, had signed up with him. Dom was far from dumb, but Erik didn't just get the work, he enjoyed it. Though he'd spent most of his academic career doing well, physics was the first class he'd developed a hunger for.
“Okay, done,” Erik said a minute later, closing the book with the sheet of paper he'd written his homework on still inside. “I can help you with yours if you want.”
Dom, who was only called by the longer Dominic when his mother caught him in a lie, shook his head. The motion sent his short dreadlocks swaying. “Maybe if I hit something I can't figure out on my own. If I don't figure this shit out for myself, it won't do me much good on the tests.”
“We should probably get going,” Erik pointed out.
Erik and Dom's parents all worked at Johns Hopkins, Erik's as researchers and Dom's as teachers. None of them would be home for hours yet, and the boys were supposed to be at one house or another by four thirty for a check-in.
“Yeah,” Dom said. “Let's—what the fuck was that?”
Down the block, a flurry of people burst from a coffee shop, running as a slowly-dispersing mass in the direction of the wall they sat on.
“I don't know,” Erik said, hopping down. He put a hand out to one of the approaching people, but let it drop when he got a good look at their faces. They weren't just scared, they were wild-eyed with terror. The sort of scared Erik had only seen in person once, when a neighbor got the news that her daughter was in a serious car accident and was on her way to emergency surgery. It was the stark, nightmare fear of imminent death and destruction.
When other storefronts began spewing out people sprinting for their lives, Dom jumped down as well. “What the hell is going on?”
Erik shook his head. “No idea, but we should probably run, too.”
They did. Erik was stockier and shorter than Dom, but what his legs lacked in stride he made up for in endurance. Dom loped ahead, a few lengths at first with the lead growing, then stopped at an intersection. “Over here!”
They raced toward a Mexican restaurant, its doors standing open. From it blared the slightly off-harmony voice of a dozen televisions at max volume.
“...repeat, move inland as much as possible. The earthquake has apparently caused a submarine landslide. A tsunami is expected to strike the east coast within the next half hour. It's unknown at this time how large or damaging this even will be...”
Erik turned to Dom, whose eyes now carried that same wild look. “What do we do, E?”
“I don't know,” Erik admitted. “We're not close to the water, so I guess depending on how big it is we're either far enough away or couldn't get far enough if we ran that whole time.”
He went over everything he knew about tsunamis in his head, which amounted to what he'd seen on TV about the one in the Indian Ocean. Something tickled in the back of his mind, a half-formed thought informed by his physics class about the relationship between the intensity of the earthquake and the wave itself. It was vague enough to reassure him while leaving him anxious because he didn't really have anything to base it on.
Instead of talking it out to himself as he was prone to do, Erik ran. This time with Dom behind him.
Erik had no destination in mind as he pumped his legs relentlessly forward. The all-consuming thought burning all other rational consideration away was to move inland. He knew the likelihood of it doing any good was small, but he ran anyway. A creeping, dense weight of inevitability was trying to run him down; the idea that he was about to die and there was nothing he could do about it.
“Stop!” Dom shouted breathlessly from behind him. “Erik, stop and look!”
Erik slid to a halt, almost running into a car jammed between countless others on the panicked streets full of fleeing people. A skinny man wearing a black t-shirt and jeans, every inch of skin below his jaw covered in tattoos, stood on top of a nearby vehicle.
“Crazy white dude,” Erik said. “So what?”
Dom, who had struggled to keep up with Erik's terror-driven sprint, shook his head. “He wasn't there a second ago. He just appeared.”
As Erik watched, the man vanished into thin air. Well, not actually into thin air. More likely he had the ability to fold space around himself. Erik was sure he was a teleporter rather than having just gone invisible or something—there had been a slight rush of air filling in the empty space where the man had been.
“I wonder if he's coming back,” Dom mused.
Just as Erik opened his mouth to reply, the tattooed man reappeared. This time he was not alone. With him came a tall white guy in a tailored suit, dark hair neatly trimmed. His eyes scanned the location, stopping briefly on the two boys. His looks said he was a little vain, but that gaze was all business. Erik flinched slightly under its intensity.
A small woman with light brown skin stood in front of the group, her hand on the shoulder of another woman, the tallest Erik had ever seen. She had to be six and a half feet, her tightly braided hair falling halfway down that length. Rather than look awkward, the slender lady in her sleek black uniform had the taut poise of a dancer. The impression was proved accurate as she moved, gracefully leaping atop another car.
“Ready, Ms. Kadege?” asked the man with the dark hair.
The tall woman smiled without looking back at him. “You brought me halfway around the world for this, Agent Cassidy. Of course I am ready.”
The accent was thick but perfectly intelligible to Erik. It was from somewhere in Africa, he was sure, but he only filed away the information as a minor curiosity. Any other time his quick and curious mind would have followed an impulse to ask questions, learn more. Today—right this second—he was faced with Next appearing out of nowhere in the midst of a potential national tragedy.
It never occurred to him to wonder whether they might be the bad guys. The deep radar meant to pick up on small details and warn him of danger didn't so much as blip.
The man with the dark hair, Agent Cassidy, began to glow. A fey green light shined from his hands, which settled onto the back of Ms. Kadege. She gasped, eyes showing whites all the way around. “My god,” she said, her voice suddenly dry and cracked. “I didn't expect that much.”
Cassidy exhaled a resigned sigh. “That's just me calibrating. Get ready.”
The light that followed briefly competed with the sun itself.
“We don't have much time,” said the small woman, putting a hand to her ear. “They've got a goddamn hydrokinetic speeding up the wave. Sixty seconds.”
Erik stood transfixed as Ms. Kadege lowered herself to one knee, bowed her head, and stretched both arms as high as she could get them. The movements were tightly controlled but perfectly fluid. Even the harsh stretch of her long fingers seemed deliberate.
A faint blue shimmer covered her dark skin, then expanded outward. As it began to cover more area, it grew a deeper blue and formed into a sphere. Erik's head snapped up to watch the globe grow, wanting to see how far it went before it stopped.
It didn't, that he could see. The wall of energy raced onward and was lost from sight, its color making it impossible to see against the sky.
“What the fuck is going on right now,” Dom said next to him, not making it a question.
Erik laughed, a sudden, jerky reaction to the insanity of the situation. “I got no idea, man.”
The shaky laughter caught the attention of the group. Cassidy glanced over at them, eyes scanning Erik once more. “You might want to run, guys. Don't know if this is gonna work.”
“We're good,” Dom said at once. “I think we're safer with you.”
“Right,” Erik agreed. It was true; he suspected if something bad happened, they might be able to catch a ride with the teleporter if nothing else.
“Hey, what the hell are you doing?” said a new, and very angry, voice. “You freaks making this shit happen?”
The voice belonged to an older man who stepped out of a small store holding a shotgun. His expression was crazed as he raised the weapon to his shoulder and took aim.
Suddenly Erik wasn't feeling quite so safe.
The small woman raised her hands, palms forward, and hopped down off the car. Walking slowly toward the man, she spoke to him calmly. “Sir, please put the weapon down. We're here to help. I understand this is a stressful situation. Don't make it worse by doing something you'll regret.”
The gun wavered for a second. Had it shifted to the right, maybe everything would have worked out. In that moment of consideration, however, it drifted left. Right toward Erik and Dom. The small woman must have had a good sense of her surroundings, because she did a sideways hop to keep herself between the barrel and the boys.
Erik saw the movement startle the shopkeeper. He knew what would happen a fraction of a second before it turned into reality. The shopkeeper, probably in a purely reflexive motion, tightened his finger on the trigger.
The shotgun went off with a thunderous crash, taking the woman in the face from two feet away.