New York, USA – Saturday, the 23rd of June 2012. 04:05 AM.
As he was unable to hear the screams, Radiant had no option but to rely on Christina’s senses, but he didn’t get the chance to ask her any more questions. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she sagged back against the bed. The smartphone slipped from her fingers to drop onto the mattress. The television blacked out at the same time, the newscast footage replaced by static.
Radiant beamed himself next to the Guardian, painfully aware of how much his incorporeal state limited his options. He couldn’t pick her up and carry her to safety. He couldn’t even contact Athena through the armband to summon Checkmate for an emergency evacuation. And if the Teleporter showed up – there was a high chance that Legion’s psychic aura would drive him insane the instant he materialized anywhere near the hospital. The mental assault seemed strong enough to affect Christina through her forcefield. Or was it her own danger sense that had blacked her out?
As he looked down at Christina’s face, her lashes fluttered lightly but her eyes didn’t open. Wake up, he urged her. Stay with me.
But of course she couldn’t hear his thoughts. After a second of hesitation, he put his luminescent fingers on her wrist and gradually increased the heat of his energy field, careful not to cause serious burns to her skin. He didn’t feel good about it, but he had to wake her up.
It worked. Christina’s eyes flew wide open, and she gazed up at him, before being seized by a racking cough that sent a tremor through her body. Even though she was doubled over in pain, she still made the effort to stand, gripping the bed’s metal railing to slowly pull herself to her feet.
It was the cough that concerned Radiant the most; her injuries and the feedback from her danger sense shouldn’t affect her ability to breathe. Was there gas in the air? He wanted to check how the hospital staff was faring but was afraid of leaving Christina alone in the room. So he watched helplessly while she felt around for the phone and picked it up, holding her breath while her trembling fingers tapped the screen. The fact that she was trying not to breathe reinforced Radiant’s suspicions about gas.
Desperate to help, he raised his luminescent hand, turning toward the window and preparing to destroy it and allow in some fresh air. But once he fully focused on the window, he saw that it was covered by an impenetrable blackness that blocked out the skyline of New York as well as any outside light source.
Legion’s Darkshaper. The new Vortex must have delivered him to New York.
It looked as if the window was the only barrier between the animated darkness and Christina. Even though there was a chance that his power could counter the Darkshaper’s, Radiant couldn’t allow the darkness to enter the room. He had learned a short while ago that his energy was finite; the villain’s was most likely not. Destroying the window was no longer an option.
I’m staying with her until help arrives. Help had to be on the way. Athena was forewarned, so she must have had the time to install at least one of her battlesuits somewhere close.
Meanwhile, Christina had finished typing and dropped the phone onto the bed. The message had taken all of her remaining strength. Now that she was finished she sank back onto the floor, sitting with her head propped up against the bed’s metal rail.
Radiant quickly floated closer to read the message on the smartphone screen. There were only eight words there, riddled with typos but readable enough. Blu van undrground garage. Danger from sthing inside.
This must be the source of the darkness and of Legion’s aura. Is one of Dollet’s dolls inside the van? Radiant assumed as much. Christina’s danger sense must have provided her with a general impression of the power responsible for all those screams and where that power originated from.
However, she was in no condition to clarify. She had been able to hold her breath while typing, but now her lungs demanded air, and she took several deep breaths, passing out before Radiant’s eyes. He looked to the door to see liquid darkness seeping through the crack beneath it. It crept across the floor in the Guardian’s direction, advancing purposefully as though it had a mind of its own.
He stopped it ten inches short of Christina’s legs by firing a laser at it. The darkness melted away around the point of impact and quickly withdrew into the crack beneath the door. The vinyl floor, however, was badly burned and still glowed with heat where the laser struck it.
Let’s hope I don’t have to do this too often.
Determined to deny the villain access to the room, Radiant beamed himself directly to the door and arranged his body and wings in a way to block the keyhole and the cracks. He was still able to see Christina from that position. Her face was partially concealed by the bed post, but her chest rose and fell in a slow rhythm, letting him know that she was still breathing. The gas must have put her to sleep but caused no damage otherwise.
Still, seeing her crumpled against the bed stirred those unidentifiable emotions again. They must want her alive. But why? The next thought stoked the emotional turmoil to a white-hot fire. As a gift for Legion?
Radiant wished he had more information about the powers of the Darkshaper and whoever else was part of the attack squad. Raven’s darkness had a similar look to it, but expanded haphazardly, without direction or purpose. It also had no effect beyond blinding everyone who was in it. Noire’s shadow was relatively small, but possessed limited awareness and intelligence and cut through solid steel as if it was butter. Other Darkshapers created a black mist that afflicted anyone it touched with variable effects such as paralysis, disorientation – or instant death. The man whose powers had led to the deaths of others got slapped with an execution order and that was the end of it. His powers seemingly never emerged again.
Your Darkshaper’s powers don’t affect me, Legion. God made me into your archnemesis.
Radiant listened into his own mind, waiting for the villain – if he was actively participating in the hospital raid – to take the bait and respond, but he was alone with his thoughts and the darkness that lurked on the other side of the door. The relentless shadows kept on trying to slip past him, and the task of exterminating them absorbed most of his attention. The assault stopped before too long, but the villains weren’t ready to give up. They switched tactics.
The door vanished. It wasn’t destroyed or gradually dissolved. From one moment to the next, it simply ceased to exist as part of the entryway. The built-up darkness beyond the now empty darkness sloshed forward, into Radiant and through every inch of space not occupied by the blazing energy of his new body.
Even though he shouldn’t have been able to feel it, the impact was painful; cold and smothering like a bucket of icewater poured over a fire. Feeling how it diminished him, Radiant reeled, but so did the dark haze. It recoiled back through the doorway. Some few shreds of blackness remained, drifting through the room after they were cut off from the main body by Radiant’s flailing wing sections. He fired a staccato of precision lasers to eliminate every last one of them before they made contact with Christina.
He didn’t get much time to think about what had happened to the door. He had only just regained his composure when a fireball burst from the darkness beyond the doorway, blazed through him with the speed of a fired bullet and crashed into the floor inches from Christina’s crumpled body. It exploded on impact, hurtling flames everywhere. The room was ablaze in seconds.
As he realized what was happening, Radiant froze for a second in shock before he was able to focus again. The girl is safe within her forcefield, he rationalized. She won’t immediately suffocate. I can deal with this.
He didn’t need to see Nusku to know the villain – or one of Dollet’s puppets – was outside the room, concealed by the wall of darkness. Whirling around to face the doorway, Radiant tapped into his energy field and fired through the doorway, one laser from each hand, aiming low. The next two shots he aimed higher. The wall of darkness quivered and scattered into a multitude of drifting shreds. They coalesced quickly, but not before Radiant got a glimpse of an empty corridor with a now badly damaged wall. The attacker was no longer there.
Chasing after him may have been an option if the corridor wasn’t pitch black. Radiant had a hunch that the dark haze would snuff him out long before he caught up with Nusku, so he turned his attention back to the raging flames that threatened to suffocate Christina and spread to the rest of the hospital building.
He couldn’t tell if a fire alarm had gone off, but if the rooms had been equipped with a fire detection and control system, the ‘control’ part clearly wasn’t working. His architectural expertise told him that water from nearby conduits wouldn’t spread far or fast enough. However, he remembered an article he read about electricity based fire extinguishers several months back. It was one of the things he’d discussed with Overdrive before their assault on Buddy’s gang.
Carbon particles in fires respond to electricity fields. Radiant’s new body wasn’t exactly an electromagnetic field – if it was, he wouldn’t be able to touch others without shocking them. But his lasers depended on electrons, and Overdrive had been able to charge him after he had nearly depleted himself. According to physics and logic, he should be able to generate an electric field with his wings.
The first step was to make his wings into a compact field that covered the burning room’s floor except for the small area surrounding Christina. Next, he experimented with the physical properties of the energy flowing through his wings and observed how the flames responded. He soon figured out what changes were necessary to suppress the fire, and how to optimize the effect. When the bed and floor were extinguished he expanded the electric field over the walls and the ceiling. All in all, it took less than a half minute to extinguish all of the fire sources.
But he still couldn’t take Christina outside, and it was only a matter of time until the villains hatched another plan of attack. The fireball told him they had given up on taking the Guardian alive.
He was considering the option of creating a laser light show to call for help when someone – or something – crashed through the window, showering the hospital room with broken glass splinters. The impact was so sudden and powerful that it tore the window frame apart. When the intruder’s massive frame pushed through, a large section of wall collapsed around him, sending chunks of concrete and insulating material into the darkness he emerged from. He landed next to Christina on all fours, a humanoid hunk of metal whose silver-gray titanium plating was powdered with dust from the impact.
Already on edge, Radiant barely resisted the reflex to fry the cyborg on the spot. He recognized Athena’s battlesuit in time to deactivate the electricity field he’d created for firefighting. There was no need to communicate because it already knew what to do. The AI-powered machine bent over Christina’s prone body and picked her up with surprising gentleness, then draped her over one broad, plated shoulder.
Radiant would have liked to thank Athena for the timely intervention, but the dark haze that encroached from outside the hospital didn’t offer him the opportunity. Christina was much closer to the destroyed wall than to the door, and now that there was no more barrier to keep it out, the darkness redoubled its efforts to get at her. It flooded the room from two directions at once.
With a heroic effort and no time to aim, Radiant fired a volley of lasers from the fingers of both hands. Those that hit shadows destroyed them on impact. Two grazed the cyborg but did no serious damage to its titanium plating. Three or four of the shots missed. Radiant then diverted energy to his wings, transforming them back into a multitude of laser whips that trashed the room and the shadows flooding in through the doorway behind him. Each clash with the darkness sent a shiver through him and sapped a small portion of his energy, but he sensed that his efforts interrupted their advance.
He hadn’t succeeded in creating a safe passage for the battlesuit, however. The darkness still lurked along the edges of the hole the cyborg had torn into the wall. There was no telling what would happen if the darkness made physical contact with Christina while she was evacuated.
An idea struck Radiant: if he shaped his wings in a way that created a light tunnel leading out of the room, escape might be possible without anyone being harmed. But he had to act fast. Had to keep the villains off guard and on the defensive. If he let them pull him into a war of attrition, he was going to lose.
Without further hesitation, he turned around and extended his wings through the hole in the wall. He willed their luminescent energy to congeal into a funnel shape leading out of the room. The walls of the funnel were sheer light, which was harmless to the battlesuit but instant death sentence for the shadows.
The cyborg understood; it secured Christina’s limp body with a big hand before activating its thrusters. It navigated its bulky shape through the hole in the wall with surprising agility and escaped into the night. Radiant was too occupied maintaining the light tunnel against the onslaught of darkness to see what direction the cyborg took. He slowly counted to ten, which he assumed was enough time to evacuate Christina from the Darkshaper’s area of influence. Then, he let the light tunnel collapse and absorbed all remaining energy back into himself.
Now came the hardest part: to navigate the darkness within the hospital and find the blue van Christina mentioned in her last message to him. The vehicle contained the source of the power that tormented New York. There were a myriad of people screaming their lungs out even though he couldn’t hear them. If he failed to reach his target in time, not only would he fail to save the city; the darkness would consume him. And his only navigation aids were the Guardian’s phone message and his own spotty memory of the hospital layout.
The phone had burned along with the bed, of course, but the words were etched into Radiant’s mind: underground garage. With some luck, the Darkshaper hadn’t bothered to spread his darkness across every floor and every room. There might be some patches of light left to preserve Radiant’s energy and help him find his way.
Not wasting another second, he beamed himself through the gaping doorway and into the dark haze that filled the corridor. The shock of immersing himself in his opposing element overwhelmed his consciousness with a debilitating chill, but sheer determination broke him free of the near paralyzing effect. He remembered the direction of the elevator and how far away it was. Tapping into his energy pool once more, he beamed himself across another short distance, mustering all of his willpower to keep himself from being consumed by the darkness around him.
Radiant prevailed. His shining presence caused the shadows to recoil, suggesting that it caused the Darkshaper pain. Radiant was still surrounded by darkness, but it kept its distance from him, allowing him to see the closed elevator doors and the body of the nurse who had collapsed in front of them. He wanted to check on her, but knew that he couldn’t. She had most likely succumbed to the same gas that knocked Christina out. The only thing he could do for her was to eliminate the source of Legion’s nightmarish aura before she woke up.
Down, he reminded himself. The elevator didn’t lead directly into the parking garage, but if there was any visibility on the ground floor, Radiant was confident he would find the way. He beamed himself through the hairline crack between the elevator doors, noted that that the shaft was devoid of darkness, and continued downward through it until he was stopped by a solid barrier. As he materialized back into his luminescent shape, he realized that he reached the ground floor. The elevator door ahead of him was closed.
After beaming himself through another hairline crack, he found himself in a well-lit hallway that was partially obscured by drifting shreds of darkness. It was connected to the hospital entrance through a set of glass double doors, and Radiant noted that no shadows lurked in that area. However, he spotted five people who had collapsed to the floor or were on their knees, their faces twisted by unspeakable agony. He saw that they were screaming even though he couldn’t hear them. It took a great mental effort to detach himself from the horrifying scene and plan his next steps.
With some luck, the darkness will lead me right to the source, he rationalized. He looked around the corridor and saw a thick accumulation of darkness – enough to fill a stairway or corridor – near the set of elevators behind him. In fact, now that he was looking at it he remembered the stairway that had to be there, a stairway providing an alternate access route to the underground garage. The darkness filled it completely. This had to be the route the Darkshaper’s power had taken to reach Christina’s room. Most likely it branched off to an open window somewhere and wound its way around the hospital exterior.
But where had Nusku gone? And were there any other villains lurking somewhere, waiting to ambush Radiant before he could reach the van?
He had no idea, but he was about to find out.