Milan, Italy – Friday, the 22nd of June 2012. 10:30 PM.
The distant mushroom cloud was only visible for a moment, illuminated by the column of fire that had sent it skyward. The fiery glow soon faded. The cloud shrouded a small portion of the southeastern sky in a maelstrom dust and darkness, snuffing out the stars. The image of the explosion burned itself into Andrey’s memory and seared his soul. It had been a momentary flicker, unnoticed by most people, but Andrey – forewarned by Athena – had seen it for what it was.
What remained was a hollow feeling of helplessness and dread. He stood transfixed, unable to take his eyes off the sky. This is it, he thought. The end of the world. The most frightful human-made devastation, not on a computer or a television screen, but right before his eyes.
Someone spoke to him in agitated Italian, snapping him out of his daze. The group of policemen in riot gear were right in front of him now, staring at him instead of the sky that had darkened once more. They showed much more interest in him than the picture he was holding, indicating the street behind them with angry gestures.
When Andrey didn’t respond to the Italian, the man closest to him – stone-faced and built like a tank – switched to strongly accented English. “You, get off the streets! Go to your hotel, and listen to the news. This is a bad night to be outside.”
They haven’t seen it. They’ll hear about Rome soon enough. Andrey considered telling them, but what would that accomplish? He still had to find Jasper. Talk of nuclear weapons would only delay his mission and raise questions he couldn’t answer. The locals were so occupied with riots and vandalism that the bright flash in the sky was too distant and unreal for them to realize what it meant.
Now that the initial shock had passed, Andrey quickly regained his composure. Remembering the picture he was holding, he offered it to the officer closest to him. “I’m looking for someone.” Andrey eased into his practiced calm, but his pulse kept racing. “A young British man, early twenties, alone and most likely lost.”
The Italian policeman barely glanced at the picture. “If we find him, we send him home.” He switched back to Italian to respond to a call coming through his shoulder radio, and Andrey slipped the picture back into his shirt pocket, moving on.
He quickened to a jog and took the alley to the left that had been indicated by Morpheus, haunted by his own thoughts. He was aware of how many nuclear weapons were left in the world: fifteen thousand. Three hundred of them were in France, which wasn’t all that far away from Milan. And the Conglomerate must have maintained a base in the city. It was the only logical explanation for why Jasper had turned up here.
Now that he was thinking about it, Andrey couldn’t ignore the possibility that Milan would be next. Gentleman tore down everything that he and Data had created, had exposed ally identities and – as Christina had reported – blew up his former headquarters. Any city with a Conglomerate base in it was in danger.
Desperate to find a hint to Jasper’s whereabouts, he scanned any location he passed: restaurants, shops, apartment buildings. Through the apartment windows he heard locals laughing, singing and arguing, aware of the riots but unaffected in the safety of their homes. News of Rome hadn’t made it through the wires yet.
Andrey saw no sign of Jasper, but after a short jog he did locate the police station that Morpheus had told him about. It was labeled Polizia in bright neon letters, and four officers in navy blue uniforms and caps stood in front of the main entrance, blocking it. A stationary green and white police vehicle sent flashes of emergency lights across the crowd that had gathered in front of the police station. There were people of all ages there, shouting and pushing and complaining, trying to make their way to the blocked entryway.
Andrey didn’t understand what most of them were saying, but they looked upset, and a few of them had clearly experienced a rough evening. One English speaking man complained about his vacation residence being overrun by rioters and demanded instant police intervention. But everyone was speaking at once, and no one listened to him. Everyone who had gathered in front of the police station was here for a reason.
Andrey gently pushed his way forward, murmuring apologies along the way. When he finally reached main entrance and the policemen blocking it, he caught a glimpse of the interior through the illuminated windows. The lobby and reception area were as hopelessly clogged as the exterior. There had to be more than fifty people who were sitting on the waiting benches or standing near the two reception desks, waiting for their turn to speak to the officers on reception duty. A handful had the incongruous look of tourists , but – like the crowd outside – most appeared to be locals of all age groups, angry and anxious, rattled by the evening’s events. The clamor of their cries, complaints, and shouts came through the glass windows as incongruent noise.
As he failed to detect Jasper in the crowd, Andrey’s heart sank. Had the young Brit not turned to the police for help? Was he still wandering the streets, possibly injured and getting involved with the wrong people? There were a lot of Evolved haters on the prowl tonight.
No. Athena’s drones would have spotted him if he was still somewhere outside.
He retrieved the picture and made his way to the four officers who were blocking the entry door, holding it up for them to see. “I’m looking for my friend,” he said, raising his voice to a near shout. “Have you seen him?” He nearly dropped the photograph when a heavyset man in a bloodied dress shirt jostled past him to demand immediate police assistance in French-accented English.
Only one of the policemen reacted to Andrey; the others were too busy blocking the door from the flood of petitioners who wanted in. The man glanced down at the picture before nodding toward the lobby.
Andrey perked up, the jostling crowd forgotten. “He’s in there?”
He didn’t understand the man’s Italian response, but it had an affirmative clang to it. Neither policeman budged, however. They kept blocking the entry door against the desperate masses of whom Andrey, it seemed, was one.
He lowered the photograph. “Please, I need to see my friend so we can both go back home. I can’t leave without him.”
The policeman’s Italian response sounded apologetic. Those standing next to and behind Andrey were pushing harder now toward the door, perhaps seeing their chance to reach the front entrance and be heard.
The crowd gathering outside had grown into the hundreds now. It was easy to imagine what would happen if the door was opened: the small, hopelessly understaffed station would be overrun by a desperate mob. The sounds of fighting and gunshots were drawing closer now. Hotels were most likely no longer safe. The petitioners had nowhere else to go.
Andrey set his jaw, scanning the tightly packed bodies of those who filled the lobby. The crowd was too thick to see those who sat at the very back. Feeling the danger of more impending disasters, he took charge of the situation in the only way he could: by beaming himself through the windows into the room beyond.
The sudden brightness radiating from his body drew startled cries from those closest to him, but by the time they knew what was happening, he was already on the other side, materializing in front of a coffee vending machine in the far corner from the reception desks. Heads turned. A woman cried out in shock. The luminescent energy faded quickly, but the flash of brightness made everyone aware of him.
Andrey didn’t wait for a reaction from the uniforms present. “Jasper Davis!” he shouted over the din of other voices.
No response came, but he now had the attention of everyone in the room. One of the officers on reception duty rose from her chair and shouted something in Italian.
“Jasper Davis!” he repeated. “If you’re here, please respond!”
The crowd stirred. A few backed away from Andrey until he had the center of the lobby to himself, others staged noisy protests. Two officers on guard duty jumped into action, leaving their posts and slowly pushing their way through the crowd.
He suspected this was going to escalate into a lengthy discussion they didn’t have the time for. He called out again, and this time a muffled response came from one of the closed doors lining the short corridor beyond the lobby. The interrogation rooms, Andrey suspected. He couldn’t make out the words, but the voice was young and male.
Just as the first of the officers grabbed his arm, Andrey beamed himself across the lobby and into the corridor, where he materialized between two wooden office doors. He hadn’t been able to pinpoint where exactly the voice came from, so he called again and opened one of the doors haphazardly. The office beyond was empty.
But the response he got was clearer now. “I’m in here!” The voice was coming from behind the next door to the right.
The lobby behind him was now as chaotic as the street outside. Since there was now twenty feet of space – and a mass of people – between the officers and him, Andrey rushed to the next door and yanked it open. On the other side was a small, windowless interrogation room with two uniformed men sitting at a small wooden table, paper coffee cups in their hands.
The instant Andrey appeared in the door, the taller, younger officer jumped to his feet, releasing a torrent of angry Italian words that may have been obscenities. Fortunately, he wasn’t carrying a gun.
An uncomfortable looking Jasper Davis was wedged between . Andrey recognized the young man’s bright blue eyes, but there was a haunted look to them, and his hollow cheeks had eroded the youth from his delicately featured face. Andrey could only guess what he had endured in captivity.
Raising his hands in a placating manner, Andrey made an attempt to diffuse the situation. “I don’t mean to intrude, but unless you have reason to hold this young man against his will, I need him to come with me.”
“They’re asking me some questions,” Jasper said, studying Andrey with his alert blue eyes. “Why are you here?”
He doesn’t recognize me.
“Sarina needs you,” Andrey told him.
“Get out,” the tall young officer barked in strongly accented Italian. “If you are friend or family, you wait outside.”
“I assume he told you about his powers?” Andrey held up a finger and commanded his power to illuminate it with a luminescent glow. “This is Evolved business. I’m better able to help him than you are.”
Jasper opened his mouth, but it took him a second to find the words. “Radiant? Is that you?” He glanced at the officers flanking him before returning his attention to Andrey and the open door.
Andrey pulled the fake glasses from his eyes and slipped them into his shirt pocket. “Yes.”
The young man’s face lit up with a flash of joy. “Is Sarina here with you? Is she–”
The officer who was already on his feet shouted something in Italian to address his colleagues outside before stepping to the door, cutting Jasper off as he addressed Andrey. “You are not allowed here. You are disrupting an investigation.” His rotund companion frowned in apparent bemusement, but said nothing.
Andrey felt his patience snap. “Look outside if you want to investigate. There was a nuclear explosion three hundred miles from here, only minutes ago. We don’t have time to sit here and argue.”
That got their attention. The two men stiffened, giving Jasper the chance to jump to his feet. He proceeded halfway around the table before the tall officer caught his arm, stopping him.
Andrey stepped in to intervene. “Are there any criminal charges against him? I don’t think there are, so you can’t keep him. Whatever it is that’s going out there, he has nothing to do with it.”
The rotund officer cleared his throat. “Is this true? About the… explosion?”
“I’m afraid so,” Andrey said in a grave voice. “Mobilize everyone and everything you have. The riots might only be the trigger for something worse.”
The officers from the lobby had caught up with him by now. They took position by the door, speaking into their radios and looking unsure as to how to proceed. Andrey only understood one word, Radiant, but he saw that they slowly backed away from him. They made no move to block his way.
“Go,” one of them said. “We call if we have questions. Everyone has your number now.”
Maybe even Legion. It was an unsettling thought.
Jasper mouthed a quiet “thank you” as he stepped to Andrey’s side.
Jasper was unsteady on his feet, so Andrey slipped an arm around the young man and guided him through the door. “Did they take anything from you?” he asked in a murmur.
The young musician shook his head feebly, shuffling along beside Andrey. “No. Nothing important.”
“You have the music track on you, then?”
The question stopped Jasper in his tracks. “Who told you about it?”
Before responding, Andrey glanced over his shoulder to ensure that no one was within immediate hearing range. “Christina Chung, the Guardian. You may know her as Mascot.”
They were looking at the lobby now, and the majority of those gathered in it were looking back at them. The din of voices had ebbed. Hushed murmurs drifted through the room, but stopped when people caught sight of Andrey and Jasper. Too much attention for Andrey’s comfort. Jasper seemed to share the sentiment. He did not speak, their conversation, for the moment, halted.
“Are you Radiant?” A woman asked in English.
“Your disguise isn’t working,” Jasper commented in his dry British accent.
Andrey considered addressing the crowd, but public relations weren’t high on his list of priorities right now, and his gut told him the situation was about to escalate. Instead of answering to the woman’s question, he activated the armband and brought it to his mouth, using a connection only Athena could hear. “I need Checkmate. It’s urgent. Are any of your drones still outside the police station?”
Morpheus responded in Athena’s stead. “I kept a drone nearby. Come outside if you need a lift.”
“We’ll try,” Andrey replied.
Gently pulling Jasper along, he stepped into the lobby and made his way to the door. Countless pairs of eyes followed his every move, keeping him on guard. He had been an admired hero once. But now that the world was coming apart at the seams, an increasing number of people blamed Evolved for everything that had gone wrong. He saw accusation on more than just a few of the faces he passed by.
“Are you taking me to Sarina?” Jasper whispered. He no longer had to lean onto Andrey for support but stuck close nonetheless.
“That’s the plan, but I need to speak to you first. Alone.”
All around them, the murmurs grew. Some appeals for helpere directed at Andrey now. But as much as he would have liked to help everyone here, there were greater issues at stake than looting and vandalism.
“Please let us pass,” he told the officers when they didn’t step away from the door.
One of the officers at the back of the lobby called out to the others in Italian, prompting them to step aside. Outside the police station the chorus of appeals continued, but the crowd parted, allowing Andrey and Jasper to pass. No one followed them.
Checkmate was waiting for them down the street, his grim face illuminated by the red light that hung above them. He greeted Jasper with a nod before addressing Andrey. “So it’s true, what happened in Rome? You saw the explosion?”
“I did.” Andrey let his arm drop away from Jasper’s shoulders. “What’s important now is that we get Jasper someplace safe, but not our island. I need to speak to him. Alone.”
Jasper shook his head in dismay. “Is this what the world has come to? Nuclear bombs?”
Andrey sucked in the cool night air before responding. “I fear this is only the beginning. I’m glad we found you, though.”
“Can’t say I’m sad about it.” Jasper’s mouth twisted into a half smirk that faded quickly. “You asking to speak to me alone – this is about Sarina, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Checkmate, can you take him to one of the islands near Motuora? It won’t take more than a few minutes.” To Jasper he added, “We’ll take you to Sarina afterward, I promise.”
“Sure. Just wait here, Andrey. It’s faster if I take you.” Checkmate lowered his grid display visor mechanically. “Ready to go, Jasper?”
“I am.” The young Brit extended a hand to the teleporter.
Checkmate took the offered hand, and the two young men vanished together. Feeling wearier than he cared to admit, Andrey decided to follow the teleporter’s suggestion and wait.
It took less than a half minute for Checkmate to return. He delivered Andrey to a rocky beach that glimmered in the sunlight, half a world away from Milan. Jasper was waiting in the shadow of a kauri tree.
“Don’t take too long. I’d like to sleep before we go save the world,” the teleporter declared before he vanished.
Andrey rubbed his face with his right hand, wishing that he could enjoy the luxury of sleep – and knowing that he couldn’t. He looked over at Jasper. “I don’t think I get to enjoy that luxury, but I’ll make sure you and your girl get some alone time.”
Even in the bright sunlight, Jasper’s expression remained somber. “Let’s talk.”