Outside Smolensk, Russia – Thursday, the 21st of June 2012. 09:13 PM.
Fear was a funny thing. It had the potential to paralyze you, to make you cower in a dark corner until the threat passed. But under the right circumstances, it could give you wings, that extra push you needed to overcome any obstacle.
When Peter heard the whistles of a little girl summoning more villains to his location, something inside of him broke loose. His mind blanked out. The noisy crowd of people ceased to exist. All he saw was a gap amid the shifting mass of bodies ahead, and the narrow, dark alley that was beyond it. He ran without a conscious thought.
A flash of intense, eye-incinerating brightness came from behind him, powerful enough to light up the windows in the multi-story apartments that were ahead of him. The lack of other sources of lighting – Buddy had instructed the populace to conserve power by keeping the lights turned off – amplified the effect. The flash lasted for little more than a second, but it was certain to alert anyone in the area that something was going on.
Radiant’s wings, Peter thought, though he was too anxious and too caught up in his adrenaline rush to glance back and check.
He dodged a pair of hands that tried to grab him, driven on by the booming of Rage’s empowered voice behind him. He wasn’t focused enough to make sense of the words, but he could tell that the villain was in a very, very bad mood. Rage sounded like a behemoth about to tear down a building. The villain nearly managed to drown out the gunshots that came from the top of the stairs, where the armed guards had been lined up. The crowd began to scream.
Peter sped up his pace. His sneakers flew over the pavement, but, still, his progress felt excruciatingly slow, the noise still terribly loud and close by.
Just as he reached the opening of the dark and seemingly quiet alley he’d been homing in on, another bright white flash lit up the area behind him. The accompanying bang wasn’t exactly loud, but still more intense than the one he’d heard when Crashbang loosened his superpowered punch.
Peter raced through the crumbling stone gate at the mouth of the alley and only stopped when he was a good distance beyond it. He squeezed his eyes shut for a second. The cover of darkness made him feel safe enough to catch his puffing breath and get his thoughts in order.
Radiant blinded everyone and Crashbang went into area sweep mode, he assumed, hoping against all odds that he was right. They got this. They have to.
He could have turned around to check if the others needed help. He could have done a number of things, from finding himself a weapon to trying to using his energy manipulation powers to mess with people’s guns, but none of the options he had seemed particularly helpful. At best, he’d create a momentary diversion. At worst, he’d get himself and possibly others killed.
Still, the scene of battle was less than a hundred meters away. All it took to be a part of it was to gain control of his shaking limbs, turn back around, and make a step. Then, he’d just have to keep going.
But Radiant wanted me to go. Peter cracked his eyes open to stare down at his clinched fists, which were barely visible in the gloom. It’s his mission, and he makes all the decisions. He knows what he’s doing. Right?
Peter couldn’t hear any more gunshots now. But the pitiful wails that drifted from the crowd were still very audible, cutting deep into his consciousness. There had been children there. Elderly people. Hundreds of innocents, none of whom should have been part of this.
I came here to help them, he told himself, frustrated by his own cowardice. I should start doing my goddamn job.
Radiant and Crashbang were heavy hitters who could deal with multiple attackers at once. Peter could barely fight his way out of a paper bag. The way he saw it, his only redeeming quality was the fact that only his power could fry Nexus’ system. Taking care of the city-wide network was as much part of their mission as dealing with the villains was. Even if the heroes managed to eliminate every single villain in the city, the system would continue to broadcast Buddy’s face, potentially renewing his influence over the local populace. There was no guarantee that the villain’s demise would break the spell. The Nexus core didn’t care whether Buddy was dead or alive.
Peter heard voices from further down the alley, pulling his mind back to his own predicament. He didn’t understand a word and couldn’t make anyone out in the darkness, but whoever was talking sounded upset. They couldn’t be too far away.
A light came on in a window two stories above him. At the same time, Peter picked up a change in the Nexus network’s latent emission pattern. It pulsed, and pulsed again, increasing its activity with a suddenness that reminded Peter of a disturbed wasp’s nest. Now, it wasn’t just a soundless hum that vibrated against his skin. When he extended his superhuman senses to the energy that pulsed all around him, the electromagnetic radiation stung him with the power of a thousand tiny needles.
Nexus is aware of us already. Shit.
Realizing that standing around in the open wasn’t the best idea, Peter ran to the other side of the alley. He made a beeline for the nearest cover: a dumpster that was tucked away in the narrow gap between two apartment buildings. He barely noticed the stench of rotting trash that had been left unattended for too long. He noted how more lights went on in apartment windows, and he could imagine ten thousand television screens coming alive to infuse the townspeople with new instructions.
Probably “kill them all”, or something along those lines.
Peter sank against the wall behind the dumpster, covering his face with both hands in an attempt to calm his nerves and think. He had completely lost track of where he was in relation to Buddy’s headquarters. He’d memorized the city map before the mission, sure, but reality always looked different from computer-generated layouts. Besides, it was well past sunset. The heroes had timed their mission so the darkness would help them. And they hadn’t prepared a solution to getting lost, separated and hunted by the whole damn city.
Something small hit Peter’s forehead and made him wince. He jumped up, ready to evade the next attack and run, but there wasn’t anyone near him. All he could see in the narrow, gloomy passage was scattered trash and the pair of dumpsters that sheltered him.
Another object hit him in the shoulder. It didn’t hurt, it just left him thoroughly unnerved. He looked down to spot the culprit by his feet: an empty, crumpled cigarette packet. Apparently, an invisible someone was throwing trash at him.
“Spirit?” Peter asked the empty space around him.
The discarded packet floated back up to gently nudge his cheek. It couldn’t talk, of course, but it gave him comfort, knowing that he wasn’t alone.
“Are you coming with me?” Peter whispered.
The floating item lightly tapped his shoulder.
“Thanks, man,” he said. It was the most sincere gratitude he’d felt since the day Checkmate delivered his immediate family to the island.
He might have said more, but he heard voices, overcast by a pair of gunshots from elsewhere in the city. Distant as they were, the sharp bangs made him wish he knew how his companions were faring.
Then again, maybe he didn’t want to know. He might not find the strength to keep going if he did.
“I need to figure out where we are. And how to avoid the bad guys along the way,” Peter whispered. He reached out with his senses to locate Spirit within the electromagnetic field that permeated the city, but all he picked up was the small disturbance caused by the floating cigarette packet.
Of course I can’t sense him. He doesn’t have a body, Peter realized, feeling stupid.
But the thought sparked an idea. Now that Nexus’ parasitic network connections had gone into hyperactivity, the field of impulses they generated was much more perceptible. Peter had sensed Whistle the same way when she’d been almost right in front of him, still invisible. Maybe Nexus’ hyperactivity would allow him to pick up the presence of others a greater distance away.
Peter braced himself against the sting of extreme electromagnetic radiation and reached out with his power. He couldn’t see the electromagnetic fields around him, but the oscillating radio waves interacted with all kinds of material, painting a very simple map of his surroundings in his mind. He could tell where walls and windows were and how the roads connected to one another. After half a minute of intense concentration, he began to understand the changes in wavelengths, and how different kinds of materials affected them.
People weren’t much different from other solid matter. But unlike walls and doors, people moved around, which made it fairly easy to spot them. Peter didn’t sense his teammates, and he couldn’t reach far enough to check out the place where he’d last seen them, but he could tell that small groups of people were now patrolling outside their homes. It was easy to guess what – or who – they were looking for.
None of these small groups were dangerously close to him, and he was fairly confident that he’d be able to avoid them if he kept his mind tapped into the grid. Sustaining his power sense for any amount of time wasn’t going to be pleasant, but it wasn’t like he had a choice.
Peter resisted the urge to pull back from the grid’s radiation. He still had to locate Buddy’s headquarters and the Nexus core, and the flurry of signals that came through the wire network’s webbing branches gave him a pretty good idea of where to look. Most of the signals came from the same direction.
Peter invested all of his willpower to expand his radio vision further, but he couldn’t look in that direction. Beyond a certain point, the energy levels were so high that everything became a blinding blur of pain. He could only endure it for a few seconds before letting go of his power.
A shudder ran through Peter’s body as his knowledge of the city layout dwindled away, reduced to mundane darkness. He sucked in a lungful of warm air.
“Hey Spirit. I think I found the Nexus core,” he said. “But I don’t know what’s there. Did you get any chance at all to look around?”
Naturally, no answer came. A soft wad of cotton hit him in the face instead.
He brushed it off with the back of his hand, annoyed with himself. “Poke me once for yes, twice for no?”
The cigarette packet rose from the pavement to nudge his leg. Once, twice. No.
“Damn it,” Peter muttered. He invested a moment to listen for approaching voices or footsteps, but the only sounds he picked up were faint and distant.
A brief flash of brightness drew his attention to the strip of dark purple sky that was visible overhead. Another set of flashes followed, three thin streaks of red light that shot over the city at lightning speed. Then nothing. The sky darkened once more, but Peter felt more optimistic than he had a moment ago.
“Those were lasers,” he said. “Radiant is still out there, kicking ass.”
Spirit nudged his knee once. The silent reassurance gave Peter the motivation boost he needed to pick himself up and grasp for his powers.
Now that he knew what to look for, assembling the map in his mind only took seconds. He didn’t need to plunge his senses into the source of the radiation. He remembered where it was.
“Stick close to me,” Peter said. “I know where to go, and I know how to avoid the patrols.”
Peter hadn’t promised too much. He soon became comfortable enough with his alternate mode of perception that he could navigate the city without relying on his eyes. He and Spirit made excruciatingly slow progress, though, needing to avoid not only the patrols but also the citizens who had been startled into alertness. The countless detours turned the two-man assault on the villain headquarters into a waiting game.
All the time spent waiting for the right time to advance gave Peter too much opportunity to worry about his teammates. He hadn’t encountered any more villains since he got separated from the others, but there hadn’t been any signs of life from his companions, either. Nothing to fortify his belief in a happy ending. And he certainly didn’t want to imagine Buddy’s creative methods for getting rid of unwanted guests.
Back in Indonesia, the man had preserved animal bodies for a living.
The two heroes made their way to the top of an abandoned hotel across the street from the villain headquarters, and their first impression of the location seemed to confirm Peter’s fears. A tall metal pole rose from the small parking lot that was in front of the two story building, and the night wasn’t dark enough to conceal the humanoid shape that had been chained to the top of it. The body hung upside down, swinging back and forth in the wind.
Its head was missing.
Radiant? Peter’s heart sank to his stomach. He wanted to avert his gaze from the gruesome trophy, but he couldn’t. He had to know. The longer he looked, the less resemblance he saw, and his pulse gradually returned to normal. Whoever it was that had been strung to that pole, they were taller and bulkier than Radiant and still wearing some kind of heavy armor suit that seemed strangely familiar. Now that Peter’s eyes had adjusted to the moonlight, he could see the man-sized sword that was dangling just behind the corpse.
“Oh shit,” Peter whispered. “That’s Paladin. They strung him up like a hunting trophy.”
He half expected to be pelted with some random piece of trash again, but this time, Spirit showed no reaction. Nothing moved on the other side of the small, iron-railed balcony they’d chosen as a vantage point.
“Spirit?” he asked, shuffling an inch forward to see the villain headquarters through the narrow gaps in the railing. “Are you off scouting?”
The villain base had once been an unobtrusive, flat-topped, three story building that served as an administrative center for the local government, but now multiple layers of charged barbed wire isolated it from the rest of the city. The tall arched windows were gaping black holes, heavily reinforced and filled with opaque glass to keep out bullets and prying eyes alike. The building looked as deserted as the parking lot and the wire-crossed lawn that surrounded it. There wasn’t a hint of light, and not even a single guard stationed on the roof or by the steel-reinforced entry door.
Peter couldn’t help but notice the heavy spring guns that had been mounted all over the building, though. Two of them flanked the entrance, another half dozen peeked down from the roof, and all were connected to the cancerous growth of Nexus’ network connections that covered nearly every inch of the building. The web of wires extended further from there, across the lawn and the roads to branch off into the various the city districts.
Peter didn’t doubt that any remaining villains were holed up in that place, waiting for any suicidal heroes to come and get them. And even if all the villains were dead or disabled – the Nexus core wasn’t, and any attempt to approach it would likely be met with a hail of bullets.
Spirit was bulletproof. Peter wasn’t.
Now I’m here, Peter thought, tightening his grip on the railing as he stared at the building ahead. And I’m not getting in.
He caught movement at the edge of his peripheral vision and looked up to where the armored corpse bucked and swayed violently, animated by more than just the wind. Its legs kicked at the air, almost if they had come back to life to take revenge on the killers.
But that’s impossible. Peter closed his eyes to ensure he wasn’t hallucinating. He opened them just in time to see the dead hero float through the air, still missing a head and clearly coming in his direction. The bulky suit of power armor had been white and gray once, but now it appeared black as coal, charred by the powers that had killed its occupant. It was missing one of its plated sleeves. But Paladin’s gigantic sword floated just behind, as long as the suit was but without the distinctive glow that once made the hero look badass on television.
“Spirit!” Peter blurted out as the suit reached the balcony, failing to contain a totally inappropriate chuckle. “You’re insane. And a genius. But mostly insane.”
The sword was lowered at his feet, but the armor kept hovering within arm’s reach, imposing and terrifying at the same time. Peter could see that the complex parts that had supplied the suit with power – and allowed Paladin to fly – had been destroyed beyond repair, most likely by the massive overload that killed the hero they were supposed to protect.
What remained was a suit of overlapping plates that no one could possibly move in. Especially not without the tech that used to power its various parts, allowing the wearer to perform even the most strenuous tasks with relative ease. The suit consisted of a variety of metal alloys that were both exceptionally resilient and extremely heavy.
Formless clumps of charred tissue still clung to the gorget. When Peter realized what they were, he quickly averted his gaze to examine the sword instead. He refused to remember the former Covenant hero as anything but a complete person.
“I think I could power the sword,” he said after a brief inspection of the tech-infused hilt. “But I wouldn’t be able to use it. No one would. Just look at the thing, it’s heavy as fuck.”
The sword rose from the balcony to perform an upward swing at empty space. The fake attack looked neither graceful nor impressive, but Peter supposed it might have caught someone who sucked at dodging.
“You want to use it?” Peter asked, intrigued by the idea.
Lacking a head, the disembodied armor suit couldn’t nod, but its upper body dipped forward in response.
“You know what happens to any tech I keep powered for too long,” Peter said. “Still, I guess I could keep it charged for a little while. But what’s my role in this?”
The one-armed suit floated forward until the bulky breastplate made contact with Peter’s slim chest. He could feel the coldness of the metal bite through the thin fabric of his shirt, uninviting and utterly intimidating.
“I can’t move in this thing,” he protested, shuffling backward until he was backed up against the railing. “Or… wait. Are you planning to carry that armor with me inside?”
The suit affirmed with another dip.
Peter cast a glance at the heavily fortified building, trying to get accustomed to the idea. When he was in ghost form, Spirit could infuse multiple objects with his powers to grant them various effects. Telekinesis was one of those, but the power came at a cost. The heavier the object, the more strain it put on him. Spirit wouldn’t be able to keep this up for long. Not with Peter’s body weight added to the equation.
Fortunately, their target was a two story building without a lot of places to hide a gigantic computer system. One way or another, this would be over quick.
“Did you look around inside before you took the armor?” Peter asked.
“Is Buddy in there? Nexus? Any of the other villains?”
Spirit confirmed the first two assumptions, then denied the third.
Peter inhaled and expelled a breath as he drew his conclusions. Whistle must have summoned all of the other villains to her side, though there was no way of knowing whether Radiant and Crashbang had been successful in disabling the lot of them. Maybe they were still somewhere out there, battling it out in the streets and the sky.
“We have to finish this fast,” Peter said. “So we can go look for the others.”
He assumed a stoic façade and did his best to maintain it while he pried the armor open, separating the charred clasps that had once been part of a cleverly designed sealing mechanism. There was no way to do it respectfully, no time to treat the suit’s former occupant with the decency he deserved. The chest piece’s front half folded forward, and pieces of an indiscernible, thoroughly charred mass slid out. They met the balcony floor with the sickeningly dry crunch of coal being reduced to ashes.
Peter wasn’t particularly religious, but he knew some verses of the Lord’s Prayer that Nora has occasionally recited to herself. He did his best to recall them while Spirit emptied the suit for his sake, then added some words of his own.
Hey, Paladin. I hope you’re watching, because I’m going to finish your mission.
It took him just under a minute to climb into the armor, then another minute to find a position he was halfway comfortable in. An impenetrable mass of something he didn’t want to think about stopped him from sliding his legs all the way into the suit’s plated greaves. Fortunately, the breastplate was massive enough that he could huddle inside it with his arms tight against his chest, the back of his neck pressing against the suit’s neck opening. He couldn’t see outside. Considering that he was about to go on a potentially suicidal plane ride with a Poltergeist for a pilot, that was probably a good thing.
“I’m ready,” he said.
On cue, the armor leapt upward, knocking the air out of him. Seconds later, he felt himself falling. Peter tightened his grip on himself until he sensed steady forward movement. He didn’t need to see outside to know they had entered villain territory. The spring guns opened fire, releasing a hail of bullets that made a deafening rattle against the armor plates that encased him.
Peter slid his hands over his ears and reached for his power. The Nexus core’s pulsing energy felt like his skin was being set on fire, but he only needed a split second to locate Paladin’s sword and feed it a thread of his power. Athena’s technology awakened with a loud crackle and an energy surge that overpowered even Nexus’ radiation.
The roar of gunfire stopped. Peter let go of his energy sense, fully investing his willpower in the luminescent thread that now connected him to the sword. Grow, he commanded. Cut through the goddamn wall if you have to. In his mind’s eye, he conjured up a scene he’d seen on television shortly after his own transition: Paladin, whole and awesome in his power armor, slashing his sword downward to bisect an armored panel van to the amazement of a hundred million viewers.
The sword responded by emitting a bright white glow and a hum that could even be heard within the confines of the suit.
There was a sizzling sound and a loud crack. The armor careened forward, rattled by another deafening assault of bullets. Peter sensed the sword’s movements even through his own blindness and the deafening noise. It whirled through the air like a vengeful dervish, and Peter heard a man cry out in pain. Something dropped to the ground with a thud.
Of course the guards were inside. They had anticipated an attack, after all.
“Holy fuck!” A male voice shouted, shrill with fear. “It’s that dead asshole from outside!”
More bullets drowned out the shouted commands that followed, but none could penetrate Paladin’s armor. The suit bound forward again, faster than before, and the sword delivered heroic vengeance with another couple of strikes. Peter could feel its energy potential reach dangerous levels and severed the power thread before it could cause a cataclysm of potentially catastrophic proportions. He wasn’t sure the armor would survive that.
Hell, even Legion almost hadn’t.
Spirit realized that the sword had been extinguished, and dropped it. Peter could tell that the strain of juggling all that weight was taking its toll on his sidekick. The armor’s movements were beginning to slow, and its legs scraped along the ground, producing a rattling sound that let Peter know they were headed down a flight of stairs.
He cupped his right hand over his shirt until he felt the reassuring presence of the data stick. “Spirit, you’re such a badass,” he said. “Take me to Nexus. You can do it. Come on!”
He couldn’t tell whether his attempt at a motivational speech helped at all, but the suit rattled onward for another few seconds before coming to a sudden halt. When it finally tilted backward, the weight was too much for Peter to keep his balance. He hit the floor with a clang and the pain of poorly fitting armor plates jabbed his tailbone.
He clenched his teeth to keep himself from crying out and listened into his surroundings. All he could hear was the perpetual buzz of running technology. There was nothing else. No voices, no gunshots, and definitely no death threats from pissed off villains.
“Are we there? At the system core?” Peter asked.
No answer came. After a long moment of utter silence, he felt safe to assume that the bad guys were either dead or off in some other part of the building.
“Okay, I’m coming out,” he went on. “Help would be appreciated.”
With or without Spirit’s support, Peter found that he could lift the chest piece quite easily. There was a ceiling above him, illuminated by a bright light source from beyond his field of vision. He wouldn’t have been able to tell the color of the material it was made from, though. Every inch of the ceiling was covered by multiple layers of connection wires, and they all ran in the same direction.
Peter couldn’t resist looking in that direction. The wiring guided his eyes towards the large, free-standing metal chair that dominated the center of the windowless room. The shape reminded Peter of a pilot’s seat, though there was no dashboard anywhere near it.
The pilot’s equipment, if it could be called that, covered the entirety of the wall behind the seat: screens, glowing panels, and other pieces of equipment that could have been straight out of a James Bond movie. The wires ran together through a number of thick steel conduit pipes that jutted out from the back of the chair.
The man on the chair was young and so inconspicuous that all the screens and blinking lights nearly succeeded in distracting from his presence. Unlike the villains Peter had encountered outside, Nexus wasn’t wearing a costume. His outfit consisted of a gray cotton pajama and the heavy metal collar that connected him to the chair wires.
Nexus didn’t seem particularly disturbed by the uninvited guest. If anything, he looked bored. He stared ahead with unblinking, colorless eyes that expressed much more interest in the discarded armor than in Peter.
Two nasty looking spring guns jutted out of the wall above and behind him, as connected to the network as everything else.
They’re aimed at me, Peter realized with a start.
Peter reflexively retreated a step, then stopped, because that’s what you normally do when guns are being pointed at your face. Movement drew his attention to the left side of the room, where a small, narrow-faced man stood, flanked by a trio of guards with submachine guns. Unsurprisingly, all of their guns aimed at him too. But that was okay.
Peter only needed to look at the man to know that he’d found his only friend in this city. He adored that man. He loved him with such fervor that the privilege of having his attention made his heart flutter with anticipation. Something tugged at his shirt, but he brushed it off to savor the moment fully. He couldn’t let himself be distracted, not now.
“Buddy, man!” Peter called out with a huge grin on his face. “I’ve been looking all over for you. I can’t believe you’re actually here. Just… wow.”
Buddy returned a smile that raised his bushy eyebrows. Now that Peter could finally see him in person, the man didn’t look scary at all. The stocky build and disheveled black hair gave him the appearance of a Care Bear, ready to shoot rays of pure caring from his tummy.
Peter felt incredibly ashamed for having meant him harm. But he could make amends, and he would. Everything was going to be alright.
“Hello, Overdrive,” Buddy said with his charming Indonesian accent. “Or Peter? Which do you like better?”
“Whichever you prefer, man,” Peter blurted, then stopped, at a loss for words. There was so much he had to tell Buddy about, he didn’t even know where to start.
Buddy was kind enough to help him out. “You came with others,” the dark-haired man suggested, his eyes kind and full of genuine interest. “Radiant, yes? Grenade Boy. And another.” He made a swiveling motion towards the charred suit of armor. “Where are they?”
“Spirit is somewhere around here,” Peter said, alarmed by the mention of his former companion. “Oh god, be careful. He’s somewhere nearby, and he wants to shut everything down.”
“How?” Nexus asked with a voice that cut the room like a whip. “How is he planning to shut everything down?”
“I brought a data stick,” Peter explained, anxiously watching Buddy’s reaction. “Morpheus is on it. I got it right here. Give me a second…” He dug his fingers into his shirt to produce the evidence, but couldn’t get ahold of it. Even after several long seconds of frantic search, he couldn’t find it. He patted himself down. Nothing.
“I… I don’t…” he stammered, painfully aware of all the eyes that were on him. Slowly but surely, Buddy’s smile began to slip, and Peter’s heart took a dive to the bottom of his stomach. “I don’t… have it,” he admitted.
“Where is it?” Nexus growled.
Remembering the tug on his shirt, Peter raced to the nearest set of wall consoles to search for any unprotected interfaces. “SPIRIT!” he shouted. “Give it back! GIVE IT BACK, YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE!”
There was no reaction.
Peter had just finished checking the consoles on the right side wall when Nexus jumped up with a sound of snapping cables, and a familiar voice boomed from the largest monitor behind him.
“Hasta la vista, motherfuckers,” Morpheus said.
The two mounted guns opened up simultaneously, plunging the small room into an inferno of screams and roaring projectiles. Peter whirled around just in time to see every other occupant of the room reduced to a blood-red haze in a matter of seconds. The red mist settled over everything: The wires, the monitors, and Nexus’ high backed pilot chair. Where Buddy and his bodyguards had stood, the layer of blood was so thick that it even extinguished the glow of the indicator lamps.
For Peter, time seemed to stand still as the world came crumbling down around him. Everything that had mattered to him had ceased to exist in an instant. Buddy was dead, and Peter was the one to blame.
Only the screams didn’t seem to end. They went on and on until Peter’s throat was raw and he realized that he was the one screaming.
In the end, some rectangular object sailed through the air, too fast to identify before it hit the side of his head.
Then everything went black.
“Peter? Can you hear me?” a male voice asked. It was warm, gentle, and heavily accented. It almost could have been real. For a moment, Peter wished it was. Then a searing pain shot through his temple, and he just wanted the voice to go away, along with everything else.
“Bugger off,” Peter rasped with considerable effort. “I’m dead.”
The voice chuckled. “No, you’re not. But I’m sorry I hit you. How do you feel?”
I just said I’m…
Somehow, that didn’t make sense. Dead people didn’t think. Or did they?
Peter cracked his eyes open to see a cinnamon-hued face hover over him. It belonged to a dark-haired, middle-aged man who wore glasses and liked to throw stuff at people. He was kind of an ass. Then again, he wasn’t.
“Spirit?” Peter rasped, trying to make sense of the mess of memories and emotions that swam in his head. The longer he kept looking at the smiling Latino, the more pieces fell into place, and the more confused he felt. Someone had died, someone important. Peter knew he should have been sad about it, but he wasn’t.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“Still in the same place, but not for long,” another man’s voice replied. “Checkmate will stop by in a moment and take you home. You need to rest, Peter.”
Peter slowly turned his head in the direction of that voice. Radiant sat on a blood-covered metal chair, holding an oversized sword that didn’t belong to him. He was handling it as if it was a great treasure, though, and his eyes were clouded with grief. The one eye that wasn’t swollen shut, anyway.
Another person – no, a charred suit of armor – rested at Radiant’s feet. Its upper half was covered by a piece of cloth, as if it someone had taken the effort to protect the dead man’s peace.
“Radiant, you look like shit,” Peter rasped. “What happened?” He tried to sit up from the floor, but the dull throb in his head became a screaming agony, and he sagged back down.
Radiant cracked a feeble grin. “You did it. You liberated the city.” The grin faded as quickly as it had appeared, though, and his lips pressed into a grim line.
“Where’s that other guy? Grenade Boy?” Peter asked, feeling a pang of inexplicable concern for that other guy whose name he couldn’t quite grasp. It swam somewhere in that tumble that filled Peter’s head, and it seemed important, but the name just didn’t want to come to him.
“He’s alive,” Radiant said in a grave voice that could have implied the opposite. “I’ll tell you everything after we get back. I promise.” His eyes flicked to one of the screens that still looked operational. “Morpheus. Can you connect me to anyone outside?”
“Yes,” Morpheus’ voice replied. “Who do you need to speak to?”
“Everyone,” Radiant said. “I need to address the world, and I need to do it now.”