Mayella Island, North Atlantic International Waters – Monday, the 18th of June 2012. 06:08 PM.
If there was such a thing as faith at first sight, this was what would inspire it. A tiny speck of an island in the vast expanse of the Pacific – forgotten by the world, now rediscovered with a new purpose. After his report to the US government and the following inter-hero discussion regarding where to get started with the hero project, Radiant had decided to call up Kathy for suggestions, and Kathy wasn’t one to disappoint.
She had supplied Radiant with coordinates to a location could serve as a future base. Radiant knew that the heroes needed something to sink their teeth into. Something to help them believe they could still make a difference in the world and to get their minds off everything that had gone wrong of late.
Radiant was first to arrive and take a look at the island. From a bird eye’s view, it appeared to be an oblong, vaguely crescent shaped outcropping of volcanic rock, old enough to be almost completely overgrown with lush vegetation. The southern end of it was nearly at sea level and featured a small rocky beach. Then the terrain gradually rose upward towards the steep cliff at the north end that marked the island’s highest point of elevation.
As Radiant beamed himself down to the cliff for a closer look, he was taken by the island’s primordial charm. No human had ever lived here. All there was to see were precipitous slopes, vivid green juniper and laurel trees, rocky beaches and a wealth of wildlife, most of which was smaller than his thumbnail.
The island itself was tiny. Its land mass couldn’t be more than a few square miles in total, which made it the perfect location for a new hero base. It was too insignificant and too far off the track for anyone but the local bird population to care about its existence.
Radiant sat down at the top of the cliff, allowing himself a moment to take in the peaceful atmosphere. The air was the perfect temperature, just slightly over twenty degrees Celsius. It carried the salty scent of the ocean, of dense vegetation and the promise of rain.
It carried the potential for new beginnings.
This could be a safe haven, Radiant thought, watching a glossy black beetle seek refuge in a small crack between the rocks. Not just for the heroes, but our relatives as well. For my brother and his family. It was easy to imagine that this remote speck of an island would be more secure than Mexico in the long term.
“Don’t forget who you have to thank for spilling Athena’s secret,” Kathy reminded him through his helmet. “Actually, I’m surprised she kept it a secret from you. Wouldn’t it have been the perfect scenery for a nice, relaxing weekend fling?”
Radiant didn’t take the bait, but his mouth twitched. Even now, in the wake of Legion’s devastating attack on San Francisco, Kathy still had a way of making him relax, and she was hard to resist.
After a suitably long moment, he gave in to Kathy’s teasing. “Alexandra isn’t the beach type,” he said.
“Such a shame. That woman needs to get a tan. Greek people shouldn’t be pale. It’s a breach of one of the universe’s fundamental laws.”
“You’re a quarter Greek. Lead by example,” he suggested.
Kathy snorted softly. “I wish! I’m still dealing with the mess she left behind.” She paused. “Wait. Are you inviting me over? Right now?”
Radiant smiled faintly at the innuendo, though he had no intention to encourage further discussion of the subject. He was aware that he owed Kathy and that he’d promised to pay off his debt with a date, but this wasn’t the right time. Too much hinged on getting this project off the ground, and on getting the others involved before the momentum they’d shared in San Francisco was lost.
I’ll keep my promise to you, he silently assured her. Later.
“Can you tell me how far she got in setting up the base here?” he asked in an attempt to get the conversation back on track. “Any leftover equipment and resources could help us get a headstart.”
“I’m sorry, Snookums, but you’re not going to find much. According to the data I was able to pull from the smoldering remains of Olympus, there’s a single room built into a cliff, beneath the highest point of elevation. Can you see it?”
“I’m sitting on it,” Radiant replied.
“Okay. It’s kind of hidden, some of the UN’s hirelings spent months on it. Look for a triangular rock that isn’t really a rock. It contains the access mechanism. Athena herself only spent a few days there, so… chances of finding useful toys are between zero and zilch.”
Radiant scanned the expanse of the cliff until he spotted the rock Kathy had pointed out. He could see why Athena would have chosen it for the access mechanism – it was right above the flattest section of the cliff, the most likely landing spot for her small personal aircraft.
“The UN supported this?” he asked. “To what purpose?”
“It was meant to serve as a fully automated base for naval surveillance,” Kathy informed him. “With a five thousand mile radius. Don’t ask me why they abandoned the project. Maybe the funding dried up. All the drama the Covenant ever had to deal with happened on land. No big bad monster rose from the sea to terrorize cruise liners.”
“Did the planned surveillance system involve drones?” Radiant asked, struck by an idea.
“I don’t know. But it is Athena we’re talking about. Drones were just her thing.”
“I’ll take a look in a minute. Assuming we find a Technician who understands Athena’s code, do you think we could get the system working?” Radiant asked.
“I happen to know a techie who understands her code better than most,” Kathy replied cheerfully. “No magical doo-doo, though. Raw talent only. Is that a problem? Can you still get her a job interview?”
“You’re volunteering?” Radiant asked, equal parts amused and intrigued. “I wasn’t aware that becoming a superheroine was part of your agenda.”
“What do you know of my agenda?” Kathy scoffed. ” You’re just some stranger who never calls back unless he needs something from me.”
Andrey’s gaze dropped to the black beetle. It was still trying to squeeze its bulky body into the small crevice it had no hope of fitting into. In a way, he could relate to the poor bug’s struggles. He stood no chance of arguing the point with Kathy, and he knew exactly what her answer would be if he mentioned just how full his hands had been the past days.
The Covenant just blew up in my face, Athena is wanted by Interpol, and certain people are intent on putting me behind bars for cleaning up her mess. I’m still making time for you. Try again, Snookums.
“Are you free today?” he asked. “I’ll ask Checkmate to bring you here. Then you can take a look at the equipment on site and meet the other heroes.”
His offer rendered her speechless for a couple of seconds. He heard her suck in a breath, then she said, “Really, you’re not going to argue? At all? Are you feeling well, or should ask the head doctors over in Brussels to take another look at you?”
Radiant smirked. “Really. If you can get the surveillance up and running, you’ve got the job.”
“Wait. Is this about Legion?” she asked. They both knew it wasn’t a serious question. Kathy Ulman wasn’t anybody’s fool; she must have thought of precautions against another Legion sighting long before this conversation. “Maybe I should read the fine print before I get myself entangled in hero business,” she joked.
“You do need to understand what you’re getting into. It’s about offering a perspective, Kathy. About hope. We need this island to be safe. Nothing puts more of a damper on hero business than concern for family and friends, and this could be a safe haven for them.” He cut himself off to ensure he was keeping his emotions in check. Kathy didn’t interrupt, and he appreciated her silence.
“I’ve read up on Legion’s absorbed powers,” he went on. “Unless he has a strong emotional attachment to the Azores, he won’t be able to teleport anywhere close by. He does swim very fast, but if we get any kind of surveillance working, he won’t be able to take us by surprise.”
“What about the Conglomerate?” Kathy inquired with a cool, level tone. If she was worried about complicating her life further, she kept her emotions contained.
“Drifter is their only means of long range transportation. As long as they don’t get a visual on us, we have the upper hand.”
Kathy was silent for a moment, seemingly mulling over Radiant’s plan. Then she said, “I don’t think a surveillance system is going to cut it. If that’s all you’ve going to do in terms of defense, you might as well hoist the white flag. You need some bang in the mix. Something to shoot down any and all unidentified drones before they reach the island.”
She was right, of course. As Radiant gazed at the vast expanse of the ocean surrounding his speck of an island, another thought came to him. It was something he should have considered sooner.
The Conglomerate has someone with locator powers and maybe Kid. They’ll know where we are.
Radiant traced the white plastic of his armband with a thumb. As much as he wanted for this sanctuary to become a reality, he had to acknowledge the holes Kathy had poked into his plans.
“Could you set up the air defense?” he asked. “We’ll find you any and all materials you need.”
“Yes, but I’d need time,” Kathy said. “And I’m not sure we have it. And Interpol will be very interested to hear that I’m tinkering with Athena’s stuff after, you know, she became a wanted person.” She expelled a dramatic sigh, likely to emphasize the enormity of the favor she was doing him.
As if he could ever forget.
“Wearing orange wouldn’t suit you, I agree,” Radiant said. But as long as you stay out of sight, Interpol isn’t going to care. They have their hands full with real trouble. The Sleepwalker, to name one. The Covenant…” he broke off there, not wanting to elaborate further.
“…isn’t what it used to be,” Kathy gently finished before he could get hung up on a subject that was both uncomfortable and irrelevant right now, given their priorities.”We’re still going to have a talk?” he asked instead. About Samael, he wanted to add, but didn’t. It was another of those subjects that would flare his temper without improving their situation.
“We’re still going to have a talk,” she echoed with that distinctively female reassurance he knew from Alexandra. The two of them were alike in more ways than they had ever realized.
“Start packing,” he said. “I’ll talk to the other heroes, then call you in once everyone has been informed.”
“You better. If you forget to call, don’t bother ever dialing this number again.” Her voice was now sharp as a knife, the humor drained out of it.
He could have assured her that the circumstances were different this time, but they couldn’t get caught up in emotions. They were both aware that the villains were on the verge of causing a total collapse of human society.
“See you in an hour,” he said with all the reassurance he could muster. He’d had countless hours of forced rest to ponder his next steps, but, in the end, everything came down to one simple, undeniable fact.
The Covenant as a heroic institution was gone. Radiant was the last hero left who knew how to manage a team and how to take the fight to the villains. If anyone could forge unity among the heroes, then it was him.
“Was this really one of Athena’s bases?” Crashbang asked, not even trying to hide his disappointment. He poked the lone dusty flatscreen monitor with a finger as if he could force it to do something interesting. It defied him by remaining powered off.
“Looks like a mad scientist’s storeroom if you ask me,” Checkmate added. “Except that nothing works.”
They weren’t wrong. Radiant had been just as disappointed after he discovered the access activation switch and the short ladder leading into the chamber below. What had been intended as a surveillance command center had the surface area of the average child’s bedroom in Moscow – barely more than twenty square meters, Radiant guessed. It wasn’t an easy guess. The room was illuminated by a single battery powered bulb and chock-full of parts and components. Some of them he recognized, but the purpose of most remained a mystery. None appeared to be drone parts.
There was a single console desk with a monitor that looked like it had never been powered on. Power was the biggest issue here, Radiant had realized after a brief examination of the various cables that ran across the walls and the floor. They all seemed to connect to somewhere, just not to the gasoline-powered generator in the adjoining chamber.
“We can’t accomplish anything here. We need to get the power running,” Radiant said. Five minutes of inspection was enough, he longed for sunlight and fresh air.
“If Checkmate brings some batteries in, we got Overdrive to charge them,” Crashbang suggested. “The guy’s an infinite power source.”
“That’s a good idea,” Radiant said. “We’ll ask Kathy about it when she gets here.”
He let the two teenage heroes climb up the ladder first, using the opportunity to give the room one last glance. The stonecutting work that had been done here was impressive, and he suspected that some of the tools involved weren’t available to any regular construction company. But the clutter of parts inspired no hope that Kathy could ever get a reliable security center running, let alone within a timeframe of a few days. Athena’s former sidekick was exceptionally gifted with technology, but she didn’t have powers.
Still, he could tell that the island stirred a sense of discovery and ambition in the other heroes. After the gloom of the past hours, that was an accomplishment in its own right.
Once the chamber was sealed once more, the three of them headed down to the foot of the cliff, where Rune was busy setting up a tent at the edge of the forest. Radiant noted that Overdrive wasn’t helping. In fact, he sat a good ways away, slumped back against a rock, his head hanging so low that his chin seemed to disappear within the neckline of his shirt. Aura perched on the rock that supported Overdrive, studying him from behind her red-rimmed glasses.
The former Warden hadn’t said a word since his arrival on the island, and Radiant had attributed his silence to the Legion encounter. But perhaps there was more to it than he’d realized.
“Poor guy,” Checkmate said. “Must be real upset about his teammate. I would be, too.”
“Go talk to him,” Crashbang suggested. “You’re good with people sometimes.”
“I’ll handle it,” Radiant said. “You two could go help Rune. If you start working on the second tent, we’ll be all set up by the time Kathy arrives.”
Crashbang gave him an incredulous look from the side, then shrugged. “Sure. It’s not like you can make the guy feel any worse.”
Checkmate elbowed Crashbang, who fell silent. The trio continued trudging downhill in awkward silence. It was now painfully clear that Radiant hadn’t even begun to earn the respect of the others heroes. If he was going to build a new team from the ground up, he had his work cut out for him.
Are they going to stay with me? Radiant wondered as he watched his Swedish friend secure the tent poles to the ground. Rune and his team were here for now, but Noire hadn’t heeded his call, and the discussion of who was going to stay involved with the island base hadn’t happened. Not yet. And there were more heroes he hoped to get involved: the Latinos, for starters. Noire. Any of the world’s rogues who were looking to step up their game.
“Good luck, Radiant,” Checkmate said as they reached the base of the cliff, giving him a firm slap on the shoulder.
“Thanks.” Andrey lifted the helmet from his head before approaching Aura and Overdrive, who sat by the edge of the forest five meters from Rune. Close enough that he could hear them over the crashing of the waves.
“She’s really okay,” he heard Aura say. She spoke softly and settled a hand on Overdrive’s shoulder. “She just needs some time, I think.”
Andrey took a couple of steps toward them and winced at the sound of the grit crunching beneath his shoes. Aura and Overdrive turned toward him before he had even a chance to speak. He hadn’t meant to barge in on them, but that plan was blown now. So, he offered a small smile and asked, “Care to let me in on the conversation?”
“It’s nothing,” Overdrive said with a dismissive shrug. “You probably have more important things to do than get involved in our issues.”
Aura pinched his shoulder. “He wants to help.” Her eyes darted to Andrey now, and she leaned back a bit to study him. “And he wants to lead us, I think.”
“Can’t hide anything from you, can I?” Andrey said. He squatted down in front of the two teens, mindful of their space. Hopefully, the position change helped him appear less imposing and less… old.
Aura smiled at him, letting him know that he’d won her approval for the moment at least. Overdrive, on the other hand, challenged him with a hard stare. “I don’t know about the others, but Mascot is my team leader,” he said. “Yes, I know she’s gone. But she’ll kick some ass, take some names, and be back when she’s ready.”
I hope the same. After his first-hand experience of what Legion’s presence had done to San Francisco, Andrey was very aware of how much they needed the Guardian’s support.
“I don’t doubt it,” he said, doing his best to sound more reassuring than he felt. “But someone has to hold down the fort in her absence. Make sure we’re prepared and that everything is taken care of.”
“We don’t have a fort to hold,” Overdrive pointed out.
“Not yet.” Radiant picked up a red cedar twig and pointed it at the edge of the forest where Crashbang and Checkmate had started erecting the second tent of Hero Island’s very first dwelling. The tent was a flat triangle, about two meters high and three wide and made from sturdy, waterproof beige brown cotton canvas. It provided no protection from villains, but it looked perfectly capable of keeping the rain out.
It was a start.
Aura seemed to agree, because her smile widened into a beaming grin.
“Forts are so last century,” Overdrive stated dryly. “But I’m getting sick of moving from one place to the next. It’ll be nice to stay somewhere for a while, even if it’s just a tent on some rocks.”
“I can count on your support, then?” Andrey asked. He extended a hand, offering it to the teenager.
For a moment, Overdrive just stared down at it, biting down on his bottom lip in consideration. “I guess,” he finally said. “Not that I’m much help. You want Nora, she’s the one who can do something about Legion even if there aren’t any big robots to power up.”
“I’ll help, too,” Aura quickly added before Andrey could respond. She clasped her smaller hand about his wrist and gently pulled it towards Overdrive, then did the same with him, linking the three of them together in a triangle of hands.
“Thank you,” Andrey said honestly. These heroes – Rune and Mascot’s teams – had already been a community before his late arrival, and he appreciated Aura’s efforts in helping him settle in. If he proved himself capable of addressing the many issues they faced, perhaps they would let him ease into the leadership role. His rise to leadership of the Covenant had happened much in the same way.
“If you want to talk to Nora, you can use my phone,” Overdrive said. “She didn’t want to come. Chris disappearing again made her, I don’t know, give up somehow.”
Aura tightened her grip on the hands she’d drawn together. “I think you should. We need everyone for this, and we really need Nora.”
Did she give up on us, or on her hero role? Andrey asked himself, weighing the possibilities. They were equally unpleasant.
“Did she say that she would come later?” he asked.
Overdrive shook his head. “She said later, but what she really meant was ‘not anytime soon’. Trust me, I know her.”
“I’ll talk to her,” Andrey said, gently disentangling himself from the interlocked hands to get access to his armband controls.
“Don’t use that. Use my phone. She’ll be afraid of the others listening in,” Overdrive said. He dug the phone out of his pocket and quickly dialed a number before passing it to Andrey. “Better don’t mention Chris,” he offered as a final piece of advice.
“Got it.” Andrey turned to move a few steps away as he raised the phone to his ear, glad for his helmet’s signal strengthening abilities. It remained active even when he wasn’t wearing it.
Nora picked up after a good dozen rings, and her tone didn’t give the impression that she appreciated the call. Her voice had the pallid, toneless quality of someone with no emotions left.
“O, you can stop calling,” she said. “I’m fine. Really.”
“This isn’t Overdrive speaking,” Andrey said. “It’s Radiant.”
“Oh,” she said with a sigh like a deflating balloon. “Hi.”
He could have mentioned that the others were worried about her, but it was easy to assume that she already knew. Instead, he opted for innocuous honesty.
“I wanted to speak to you, but didn’t get the chance,” he said, hoping to ignite her curiosity. “I happen to have some time to myself, so how about now?”
“Sure, I guess. If it doesn’t take long. I was just packing to go see mah Momma.”
“Will you be staying with her for some time?” Radiant asked. “If that’s what you’d like to do, everyone understands. I’m sure she needs you as much as we do.”
He waited out the silence on the other end of the line. Having felt the pull of family ties not too long ago, he could relate to her choice of priorities, though he would have preferred if she’d brought her mother to the island. There was no telling what events the following hours would bring. Or where the next disaster was going to happen.
“I guess,” she said. “I got questions. Mah Momma’s the only one who can answer ‘em, maybe.”
Is this really about Christina? Radiant wondered. The time he’d spent trying to preserve the Covenant’s team spirit had taught him one thing among others: For heroes, ‘time off’ equaled ‘personal crisis’.
“Questions about your plans for the future?” he asked. “I heard about the formal disbanding of the Wardens. Don’t let it discourage you, Nora. You don’t need a government-issued position to use your powers and do what feels right.”
“That’s not it at all,” she said, raising her voice a notch. She wasn’t angry yet, but she was getting there. “Chris never needed anyone to tell her who she was. I liked that about her. It’s the same for me.”
“I can’t know what you’re going through right now,” Andrey tried, wishing he was more experienced in talking to teenagers. “But I have some experience with becoming a rogue, and not knowing where I belong. Do you know the first thing I did after leaving the Covenant?”
“What?” she asked.
“I went to see my mother. She helped me remember who I was, and what I wanted to be doing. With some support from my nephew. He’s the same age as Kid.”
“That’s nice,” she replied flatly.
Sorry. You probably didn’t want to be reminded of Emily.
To Andrey’s surprise, she spoke before he could try a different approach.
“You got it all wrong,” she said. “But that’s okay. No one understands mah questions. I just hoped maybe you were gonna be different.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know you got a cross, but you’re not wearing it. Makes it kinda pointless. You believe or you don’t.”
“The cross? Is that what makes me different?” he asked, unoffended but thoroughly puzzled. He wasn’t quite following her train of thought, but if she wanted to have a discussion about faith, he’d be happy to oblige even though he didn’t have much to add from his perspective. His reasons for abandoning the faith were too personal.
“It would if you were wearing it,” she said. “Then maybe you could answer mah questions. But you don’t, so you’re no different from all the others who only believe in themselves.”
“If you promise me that we’re going to see you after you see your mother, I’ll try wearing it. And if there is anything your mother can’t answer, I’ll try to help you out.”
“Okay,” she said. “Don’t know how I’m gonna feel about anything after I talk to her, but sure. Maybe tomorrow. Bye.”
She hung up, leaving Andrey to ponder whether the ‘okay’ had been firm enough to be a promise. Aura hadn’t been wrong about the hero project needing Nora to succeed, though she couldn’t possibly know what Andrey was planning.
He was going to continue the task the Covenant had failed: to end Buddy’s occupation of Smolensk and show the world that heroes were in business.