Mayella Island, North Atlantic International Waters – Monday, the 18th of June 2012. 08:51 PM.
The heroes gathered at the base of the cliff shortly before sunset. They stood around a small campfire whose flames cast a warm glow over the rocky, grass-speckled ground. Andrey noted that the faces around him shone with anticipation at Kathy’s impending arrival. The discussion of who was staying and who was leaving hadn’t happened yet, but for the moment at least, the gloom of the past hours was gone.
“Checkmate, we’re ready. Come in to my position,” Rune said into his armband. The ground levelled off ahead of the Swedish hero, expanding into a fairly wide area that was devoid of trees or other obstacles that could have led to teleportation accidents.
The prospect of seeing Kathy for the first time in months kept Andrey focused on that empty space. There was a strange uneasiness in his gut that he couldn’t fully explain to himself. Kathy was a friend, and he owed her a great deal, but he had no reason to be anxious. And he knew she was more likely to bury herself in Athena’s tech than to berate him for neglecting their friendship. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder if her answers would confirm his worst fears.
“Roger. Incoming!” Checkmate’s voice responded, his words echoing through every armband that had been left active.
There was a brief distortion of space at the position where Checkmate was about to appear. It wasn’t exactly a blur – more like a momentary blind spot, noticeable only if one knew exactly where to look. The dark-featured teenager popped into view a fraction of a second later, accompanied by a woman who was about as tall as he was but considerably heavier. Kathy was a sight to behold, and the background of the pink-orange sky provided the kind of dramatic entrance she would have wished for.
Kathy was wearing a one piece bodysuit. Its skintight spandex was a startling shade of yellow, with protruding shoulder pads and a broad red belt that glittered in the evening sun. The bodysuit left little to the imagination, and considering her curviness, it was almost too much to take in.
Apart from the costume, she looked unchanged. Her hair still tumbled a scant inch past her shoulders in auburn waves, gleaming red in the dying light. Large silver hoops dangled from her earlobes, and she seemed as astute as ever. Her green eyes swept over the assembled heroes, absorbing every detail of the new location. She obviously didn’t need time to adjust after what had to be the first teleportation experience of her life.
She’s serious about this, Andrey thought, taken aback despite his resolution not to let Kathy catch him off guard. That resolution was about as old as their friendship, and he’d broken it time and time again in the one and a half years since they’d first met.
Kathy’s attention finally settled on Andrey. Their eyes met, and he walked the thirty steps to the base of the cliff, not knowing what he’d do or say when they met face to face. Compliment her on the costume, maybe? She couldn’t have fashioned it in the few hours she’d had since being invited to the island. Her debut as a superheroine must have been some time in the making.
Andrey could hear the others following him. He knew that the introduction he gave Kathy was going to influence the way the group perceived her. He knew how gifted she was, but they didn’t, and her unique sense of humor took some time getting adjusted to.
“Seriously?” She called out, planting a hand on a wide hip while her other ruffled her curls dramatically. “No costumes? None at all? I feel so overdressed. You should have warned me, Snookums.”
Hearing his pet name in public nearly put Andrey off his stride. He managed to keep his cool by assembling his most disarming smile, which he offered to her along with his hand. “Welcome to Hero Island, Kathy,” he said. “I’m glad you could make it. If you haven’t thought of a hero name yet, we’ll come up with something together.”
She tilted her head, eyeing his hand as if she wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. “Not even a hug?” she asked. “After all this time? Shame on you, Andrey.”
“We’ll get to that later,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to get your costume all rumpled up. It’s obvious you’ve invested a great deal of work in it.”
She flashed one of her cat-ate-the-canary smiles, leaning forward to grab his hand and pull him closer. “I’ll demand compensation, of course. Don’t believe for a second I’m letting you off the hook,” she whispered into his ear.
“I know,” Andrey whispered back. “Let’s just get settled in first.”
He didn’t want to reinforce her public use of his pet name with a hug, but he did appreciate having her here. If Legion could follow connections over tens of thousands of miles, she would have been in danger if she was on her own. And she was someone he could rely on.
Regardless, that anxious flutter in his stomach wasn’t going away.
A stifled cough drew Andrey’s attention to Checkmate, who was trying too hard not to gape at Kathy’s skintight bodysuit. Rune and Aura were catching up to him and Kathy now, with Crashbang and Overdrive just behind. Andrey gave Kathy’s arm a brief squeeze to assure her of his support. Then he released her hand and turned to face the others.
“Heroes, meet Kathy,” he said. “She was the Covenant’s IT specialist and worked directly with Athena. She’ll take care of the tech in our surveillance center.”
“Impressive costume,” Rune commented, flashing one of his wolfish grins. “Not what I’d associate with a Technician, but sure to draw attention.”
“Oh, I know!” Kathy enthused. “But you know what they say. If you don’t have balls, you need a car that does? I’m obviously trying to compensate for the lack of oomph in my pants.”
“I… don’t even know how to respond to that,” Rune said. “But welcome to the team.” He offered a hand, and she shook it with much more enthusiasm than she had mustered for Andrey.
Off to the side, Checkmate made a strangled sound of poorly concealed laughter. He had a fist pressed to his mouth, but once he realized everyone was looking at him, he dropped the self-censorship act. “Sorry,” he choked out. “But I really like her.”
There was a moment of awkward silence as everyone glanced in Kathy’s direction.
“How sweet!” she declared, her hands clasping together over her heart. “Is it okay if I like you, too? Or would that be weird in a creepy kind of way? I’d hate for my hero name to be the Cougar.”
Crashbang guffawed. Rune’s eyebrows shot up, a, but his lips twitched with amusement. The others just stood there, looking dumbstruck.
A good start, Andrey observed. She hasn’t lost her knack for brightening the mood. He saw how Aura mustered up the courage to step in front of Kathy, and decided that for now, they didn’t need him to move the introductions along.
“Hi, Kathy,” Aura said shyly. She had to look up to fully take in Kathy’s appearance, and her eyes behind the red-rimmed glasses gleamed with excitement. “Um, your aura is interesting. It’s different from us Evolved, but really… pretty.”
“My, aren’t you a dear,” Kathy cooed. She bent down to put her hands on Aura’s slender shoulders. “Do I have your approval, then?”
Aura nodded and lowered her gaze to the ground. Kathy gently pinched the Empath’s cheek before straightening.
“Well,” she said. “I hear a goddess scattered her toys across the island. Would anyone mind if I go take a look? I so love to play with her things.”
“Isn’t it too dark by now?” Rune asked. “We haven’t managed to get the lighting in the surveillance room working. I’m not sure anyone has, there’s just that one lamp.”
“We brought in several strong flashlights,” Andrey reminded him. “And it’s up to her to decide if she’d like to work under these conditions.”
“Do we have power in there?” Kathy asked.
“Enough to run the operating system, I suppose. We haven’t turned it on,” Andrey admitted. “Checkmate brought some batteries in, and Overdrive charged them. If you still need more juice, there’s a generator in a side chamber.”
“Are you telling me a bunch of men couldn’t get the operating system running when you had power?” Kathy clacked her tongue.
“I know Athena’s systems,” Andrey defended. “They bite.”
“You guys are such pansies. Come on, then. Show me the way.”
“I’ll take her,” Checkmate offered.
“You guys go ahead and start, you know, making plans,” Kathy said. “I’ll bet you haven’t been doing enough of that. No offense, Andrey, but you aren’t much of a talker.”
“I’ll do better,” he told her – no, everyone – with all sincerity. “By the time you’re done in the surveillance room, we’ll have things figured out.”
Kathy flicked him a thumbs up just before she and Checkmate vanished from sight. With the two of them gone, everyone’s attention shifted to Andrey, and Rune watched him expectantly. Prove you’re serious about the leader role, his eyes said.
Andrey felt thoroughly ready to tackle the challenge. He’d built a team before; he could do it again. “Get comfortable,” he told the expectant faces in front of him. “We have a few things to discuss.”
“First, we need to clarify who’s with me in the long term,” Andrey began once everyone had settled around the campfire. “Affiliation going to matter a great deal once we decide on our first team assignment. Rune, what’s your status with the European Union? Is your team free to operate as you see fit?”
“That’s a good question,” Rune said with a glance over his teammates. They sat on either side of him, chewing on sandwiches they’d roasted over the fire and seemingly content to let him do the talking.
“Did you get a chance to discuss the subject with your superiors?” Andrey asked. He couldn’t help but think of the one instance when Rune’s team had been ordered to Romania when Andrey had asked for their support in his home town. He didn’t bring it up, though, not wanting to give the impression that he was resentful.
“Legally, we’re bound to address threats on EU territory before anywhere else,” Rune replied. “But if you ask me, the Union is about to break. Everyone’s waving their arm in panic, and they all think their crisis needs to be addressed before anyone else’s. They’ll be at each other’s throats before long.”
“Just look at Slovakia,” Crashbang said with a grim expression. “They were hit hard by the Antithesis, and no one else really gives a shit. We were only called in for a brief look around. Before we could even try to do anything, Brussels ordered our retreat. Told us it was too dangerous there.” The words cast a sour look over his face.
“Were you looking for Dancer in Bratislava?” Andrey asked.
“We tried,” Rune said. “Didn’t get enough time to even get started. But we still got enough Power Zero to take her down if we see her. Just need to get close enough for one good hit. Crashbang can do it, he’s fast.”
I’ll find her on my own, then. Andrey wondered how his personal agenda would affect his chances of building a new hero team, but he couldn’t worry about it now. There were more immediate concerns to address.
“Would be nice if that stuff worked on Legion,” Crashbang added. “It’s a damn shame we couldn’t try it on him.”
Andrey nodded in agreement. “Back to my first question,” he continued, pressing on. “Is the command chain going to impact your ability to work with a new team?”
“No,” Rune replied. “As I said before – the command chain is falling apart. No one has a fucking clue how to deal with this kind of crisis in the Union, and everyone is too scared out of their wits to take responsibility for any of the shit that’s going on.”
“I see,” Andrey replied. Command chain conflicts could have broken the team, and he was glad to check them off the list of concerns. While the state of the Union was regrettable, it didn’t come as much of a surprise. The UN had been torn by similar issues on more than one occasion.
“So… what’s going on with Noire?” Overdrive asked after a second of silence.
Andrey shifted back to face the teenager. “I talked to her. She needs time, but she’s still with us. We can call on her if needed.”
I hope, he added silently.
A collective sigh of relief went through the group. It was apparent that Noire’s absence had been heavy on their minds, overshadowed only by Mascot’s second disappearance.
“Overdrive,” Andrey said. “Do you know the status of the former East Coasters? Are they staying with the army?”
“The Canadian sent me a message,” Overdrive replied without looking up from his phone. He’d been clutching it since they gathered around the fire. Despite Aura’s persistent attempts to shove a sandwich into his hands, he was the only member of the group who hadn’t eaten yet today.
“What does it say?” Andrey asked. He picked up a roasted apple and set it down in front of the kid.
“He’s going to assist the FBI and the army in cleaning house in San Francisco,” Overdrive replied, not noticing (or ignoring) the apple. “They’re looking for any leftover villains. The man is nearly forty and knows how to work on his own. Go figure.” He rolled his eyes with an expression that said ‘whatever, old man’.
“Good to know someone is taking care of it,” Andrey replied. The Canadian would have been a valuable asset, but he wouldn’t have easily accepted someone else’s leadership. “Tell him to stay in touch in case they need Aura’s help. What about Rose the Red and Umbra?”
Overdrive frowned. “Uh, Rose, well… she never really did anything as a hero. I don’t think she can handle it, and after Paladin died… I guess she wants to go home to Hawaii.”
“If I was her, I’d swear revenge and go on a villain hunt,” Crashbang growled.
“She isn’t the type,” Overdrive said. “I guess I could try and talk to her.” He shrank a little, failing to show any enthusiasm for his own suggestion.
“No need,” Andrey said. “We’ll make do. What about Umbra?”
This time, the answer came from Aura. “I don’t know, but he and the Canadian have the same color right now. I mean, their auras are similar. I think he’s going to help the army and the police, too.”
Andrey nodded. “He’s got the powers to track down the rest of Sovereign’s gang, assuming they’re still in San Francisco. That means we have ten heroes to work with.”
Checkmate perked up at the count. “Ten? Wait. Are you counting the Latinos and… Mascot?”
“I’m counting Kathy. Calavera and Spirit are joining us tomorrow. I’ll be happy to count Mascot when we have clarity regarding her status. And Checkmate–” Andrey paused until he was sure that he had the teleporter’s full attention, “the next time we run into her, you should get in range and remove her from that location immediately. Can we agree on that?”
The young hero stared back at Andrey in surprise, mouth hanging open over the grilled chicken leg he’d been eating. “Wouldn’t that be like… arresting her? Or kidnapping?”
“However you want to name it. I’m serious,” Andrey stressed. “If you see her, drop her here. On Hero Island. I think it’s safe to assume we all want to talk to her?”
As the words finally sank in, Checkmate’s face broke into a wide grin, and he gave a mock salute. “Hey, that sounds like something she would have done. Kidnap first, ask questions later. Okay. Got it.”
“Wait, you’re not giving orders here,” Crashbang protested. “Shouldn’t we vote or something?”
“Does anyone disagree?” Andrey asked, scanning the faces around the fire for signs of disapproval. Rune worked his jaw and thumbed his chin. When he caught Andrey’s gaze, he cleared his throat. “You’re quick to make decisions for all of us, Andrey. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe not. Time will tell, eh? For now, let’s talk everything through before we leap to action.”
“Let’s discuss this, then,” Andrey said. “We all know Mascot is playing a key role. The Legion battle has proven as much. I just want to talk to her.”
“Alright.” Rune settled back, draping an arm over his knee. “That’s something we can agree on, for now.”
Crashbang gave Rune a long look, and for a moment it seemed like he would challenge his team leader’s authority. But Rune ignored him, and Crashbang finally just shrugged, expressing his disagreement with a silent scowl.
“Thanks, Rune,” Andrey said. “Now that that’s settled, let’s move on to our immediate goals.”
There were nods of agreement, and Andrey could see that he had their full attention. That was important – he needed them united and fully invested in the idea he was about to propose. His plan didn’t just involve going up against overwhelming odds; the heroes had to give hope to a collapsing world. If they wanted to succeed, then everyone present had to shed their personal doubts and give it their all.
“Let’s start with all of you,” Andrey said. He leaned forward until the light of the fire flickered across his face, illuminating him. “I’d like all of you to make a wish. Whatever you feel is most important to you.”
He got the reaction he had expected: furrowed brows and puzzled faces. Over a year ago, right after his formal appointment to team leader, his Covenant teammates had given him a similar reaction to the same question.
“Anything?” Overdrive asked, tilting his head as if he feared he’d misheard. “I mean, sure, whatever. But what does this have to do with building a team? With getting Chris and Emily back? Shouldn’t we start with, I don’t know, plans to take down the Conglomerate?”
There were some nods of agreement from the others. Only Aura kept nibbling on her toast, shrouding herself in knowing silence.
“And shouldn’t we wait for Kathy?” Checkmate asked. “You counted her as a member of the team.”
“I do,” Andrey said. “I’m counting everyone who had business to attend to elsewhere. We owe it to them that we get started now, before the villains make a move we can’t recover from. We’ll fill the others in as soon as possible.”
Checkmate opened his mouth to continue the discussion, but Aura beat him to it. “I want things to go back the way they were,” she said. “Before the Pulse. But I know that’s not possible, so I just want everyone to be safe until it’s all over. It’s going to be over sometime, right? Everything ends sometime.”
After she finished saying her part, the group fell into silence. Rune wrapped an arm about Aura and pulled her close, causing her glasses to slip out of place. To her right, Crashbang gazed grimly into the fire and tossed a small twig into it.
“Milan? What are your thoughts?” Andrey asked, deliberately using the young hero’s civilian name. Crashbang blinked in surprise, and Andrey could tell he now had his full attention. Didn’t expect me to remember, did you?
“Go on,” Rune gently encouraged him.
That broke the dam. Milan spoke up, quietly at first, but with increasing fervor as more and more words spilled out from him. “I want Nadia to come back. Some Russian asshole called Nusku killed her. Burned her.” His eyes settled on Andrey, and his mouth tightened. “You know that.”
“I know,” Andrey said, pressing the twitching fingers of his right hand flat against the ground. “We can’t bring her back, Milan. But we can protect others. What would your next wish be?”
Milan clenched his jaw. “I want to kill all villains,” he said. “I don’t even care about power surges anymore. What are the odds that a hero surges? Or at least someone who isn’t an evil psycho?”
You’d fit into Samael’s new Covenant, Andrey thought with a pang of sadness. Hopefully, the young heroes were more receptive to positive influence than Samael had been.
“I don’t know the odds,” Andrey admitted. “But think about the reason behind your wish. Why do you want to kill all the villains?”
The young hero’s hands clenched into fists. “Because if I don’t, they’ll kill us. They’ll kill my friends, my family, everyone I care about. Everyone you care about.”
Andrey nodded, deciding not to comment. There was much to be said about that particular topic, more than they were ready to absorb. More than he was ready to pass on.
“Pär?” he asked. “Your thoughts?”
Rune smirked at the use of his civilian name. He invested a few seconds in adjusting Aura’s glasses before turning back to Andrey, keeping his arm draped protectively about his younger, smaller teammate. “I want this to work out,” he said with a sweep of his unoccupied hand to indicate the two tents by the edge of the forest. “Don’t let this go to your head, but I can see what you’re planning. If it works out, it’s not going to solve everything. But it’s a start.”
“Thanks for your trust, Pär,” Andrey said. “It means a lot.”
The Swedish hero cleared his throat noisily, as if to rectify the statement. “Of course, chances are it’s all going to go sideways. I just hope to be thoroughly intoxicated when it happens. I’d hate to die sober, man.”
I’ll prove you wrong, Andrey promised himself.
Aura’s eyes rolled upwards to shoot Rune a look of disapproval, and he gently patted her back. “Sorry, girl. We’ll send you home with Checkmate first, you’re too young to get shitfaced anyway.”
“I don’t want anyone to die,” Checkmate cut in. “Especially not Aura. That’s my wish.”
“That leaves Overdrive,” Andrey said. “Peter, right?”
The brown-haired teenager jumped a bit, his head shooting up as if he hadn’t expected to be included in the discussion. Andrey could imagine that he felt out of place, surrounded by strangers he’d fought with but barely talked to. He’d lost his teammates under slightly less dramatic circumstances than Andrey had, but they were still gone.
“Who told you my name?” he asked, squinting across the fire at Andrey.
“We met a few days ago,” Andrey reminded him. “In your family’s ice cream parlor.”
“Oh, wow.” Peter rubbed his eye with a fist, shoulders sagging. “Was that only a few days ago? Seems longer than that.”
“A lot has happened since then,” Andrey agreed. “What’s your wish, Peter?”
The teenager’s fist dropped to his side, and he turned his face towards the night sky as if the answer was somewhere up there.
“I want Chris back,” Peter said. “And Emily. And Nora. I know that’s kind of selfish. So many people out there need help. But I don’t care, I just want them.”
No one spoke up to disagree with him. For a moment, the only sounds that could be heard were the crackling of the fire and the distant songs of nocturnal birds. It was a meaningful moment, Andrey knew. He kept silent, allowing the heroes to feel the significance of Peter’s wish.
When he broke the silence, he took a moment to look over each one of the heroes who had gathered around him. “All of those wishes have something in common,” he said. “All of you have someone special you want to be safe. Milan wants to kill the villains because he’s concerned for his friends and family.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Crashbang replied. “So what?”
“This is what it means to be a hero,” Andrey said. “It’s not about killing the bad guys, not about costumes or making an appearance on television. Our prime duty is to protect those who can’t protect themselves, and we need to start with those closest to us. I’ve chosen this island as a shelter first and foremost. Your friends and families will be safe here.”
“And Mascot, if we ever see her again,” Checkmate said.
“Mascot. Noire. Anyone out there who wants to heed the call.” Andrey picked up a charred branch and stoked the fire into a roaring brightness. It wouldn’t be seen across the ocean, of course. But it lit up the night as a beacon, marking the island as a home.
“Anyone who wants to be safe from Legion,” Rune said. “If he doesn’t disappear from the scene again, everyone’s at risk. His powers are just fucking awful. Can’t think of anyone other than Mascot who’d stand a chance against his psychic assault.”
“I’ve sent out warnings,” Andrey said. “As did Kathy. But as long as we don’t know where Legion is or what he’s planning, our only option is to address the villains we know about.” He took a deep breath before he addressed what came next. “Buddy’s team is our highest priority. I would rate the Conglomerate as the bigger threat, but we don’t know where their base is. Not yet.”
Rune flashed a humorless grin. “You’re biting off more than you can chew. Again. What have I told you? Stop trying to get yourself killed, man. The Covenant went after Buddy, and look how that turned out.”
“His power is almost as unfair as Legion’s,” Checkmate added. “You see him, you become his best friend. There’s no way to resist that I know of.”
“There is,” Andrey said. “Information and preparation. The Covenant went into Smolensk blind. Forget everything you ever read about hero combat in comic books – in reality, it rarely lasts longer than a few seconds. That’s how long it takes for the better prepared party to win.”