((Important author’s note: in order to give myself time to plan the final arc, I’m going to take a one week break and post the next update / preview chapter on Sunday, the 30th of October – 2 weeks from the time of this post. Thanks for your understanding.))
The countryside of Trubino, Russia – Wednesday, the 24th of February 2010.
Shortly before The Pulse
It was a cold, but beautiful Russian winter day, and since Denis had the week off from school, Andrey decided to make good on his promise to take the boy on an adventuring trip through the countryside. Well, since Natalya and Alena were tagging along, it was more of a sightseeing tour. The ‘adventure’ consisted of discovering wildlife and trying to capture it on a photograph before the car engine sent it scurrying back into the forest.
Denis seemed to be enjoying the trip regardless. “A fox! Uncle Andrey, I see a fox!” he would squeal, twisting on the passenger seat to press his nose against the window. “It’s over there! Do you see it? I bet you don’t!”
It was a game they played. More often than not, it was Denis who made the discovery, and he was mighty proud whenever he spotted an animal before Andrey did. Natalya and Alena laughed and played along, even when Denis named an ice bear, a crash-landed space ship and Father Freeze himself. They would always fortify the boy’s discovery and tease Andrey for not seeing it.
“I’m driving,” Andrey playfully defended himself. “I can’t keep an eye on the forest and the road at the same time. You want to try it, Denis? You’ll see how hard it is to drive on all that snow and ice.”
Of course it wasn’t a serious suggestion. Andrey kept the steering wheel strictly under his control, though he didn’t pay more attention to the road than necessary. The time spent with his family was the best part of this trip. Even though he enjoyed the sight of the snow-frosted winter wonderland, nothing compared to the simple pleasure of breaking out from the city together with his wife, of escaping the arduous work schedules that kept them apart for most of the week. Having his sister-in-law and nephew tag along was an added bonus.
At around noon they decided to park the car near one of the small lakes that dotted the heavily forested countryside southwest of Trubino, Andrey’s birth town, and go for a walk. Natalya requested the stop because she had a particular fondness for the location. A few years before, after a failed fishing attempt that ended with both of them falling into the water, Andrey had proposed to her there.
That was in summer. Even though it was winter now, the scenery surrounding them still had something magical about it. Snowflakes drifted from the gray sky, slowly dancing in the breeze before they melted on the silvery lake surface. White and purple crocus and snowdrop flowers poked their heads through the thin layer of snow, budded prematurely during an early week of spring and then shock-frosted by the returning winter. The nearby forest was deep and unspoiled by human influence. Tiny icicles adorned the fir trees. Whenever the sun broke through the cloud cover, it set the icicles afire, causing them to glitter like diamonds.
It was the middle of the week, so no other cars or day-trippers disturbed the peaceful atmosphere. Andrey enjoyed the prospect of the Luvkovs having that beautiful landscape all to themselves. Since none of them made plans to go fishing today, he didn’t anticipate any unpleasant surprises.
He opened the car’s trunk to grab the rucksack with the daytrip supplies he prepared in advance: sandwiches, two extra pairs of padded gloves, three thermos bottles with tea, a flashlight and a folded map of the area. He didn’t expect to need the flashlight, but Denis had a habit of running off in the direction of whatever caught his interest, and the forests around here were gloomy in winter. Even during daytime.
“Any idea what direction we should take, husband?” Natalya brought a hand to her face, pretending to shield her eyes from the sun as she winked at Andrey. “I heard there is a very special place around here.” It was obvious she wanted to return to the site of his proposal; her suggestive smile told him as much.
“I wonder where you hear such things,” Andrey joked. He tightened the rucksack straps and glanced at Alena who had turned to face the lake, the long wisps of blonde hair that tumbled down the back of her coat already dusted with snowflakes. “Is that all right with you, Alena? It’s a short walk of about fifteen minutes.”
She nodded and grabbed Denis’ shoulders with both of her gloved hands, steadying her son. The boy was leaning forward to poke the lake surface with a thin stick he had picked up from the ground.
Denis scrunched up his face. A thick woolen knitted cap covered most of his head, making him appear even smaller than he was. “Can’t we go fishing instead? Papa said he and uncle Andrey used to go fishing all the time, but he never takes me.”
Natalya snorted a laugh. She was positively glowing now, her pale cheeks flushed by her bright mood and the cold winter air. The shoulder-length tufts of black hair that stuck out from under her cap were tousled by the wind as she shook her head vehemently.
“No fishing.” Even though Andrey’s tone was serious, he cracked a grin. “We might see fish when we get there, but only if you’re quiet and well behaved. Your stick scares them away.”
“Okay.” Denis tossed the stick into the snow and allowed his mother to guide him back to his other relatives, away from the deceptively quiet water. He made a hopeful face. “Maybe we see another ice bear along the way, then uncle Andrey can take a picture of him, too.”
As the family quartet made their way north along the shore, Andrey took the lead with Natalya on his arm, savoring the fresh, crisp winter air and the faint note of his wife’s rosemary perfume. Behind them, Alena was her usual bubbly self and did most of the talking. She happily filled him in on the merits of her new apartment’s in-floor heating, on Stepan’s newfound passion for tennis and their plans to have another child. It could have been a perfect afternoon.
Until the darkness came.
It was Denis who saw it first. His scampering footsteps stopped suddenly, his startled gasp cutting into a momentary lapse in conversation. When Andrey and Natalya turned to see what was wrong, the boy stared at the lake and lifted a finger to point at something in the distance.
Andrey’s heart skipped a beat. He saw the darkness at the same time as Natalya tightened her grip around his arm. It rolled toward them like a tidal wave of shadow, snuffing out the wintry landscape in its wake. As far as he saw, there was nothing left of the world to the East. Nothing but impenetrable blackness.
“Natalya…” It was all he managed to say before the darkness swept over them and erased everything that existed only a moment before. He still felt Natalya’s fearful grip and the warmth of her breath on his neck, but he couldn’t see her, and he didn’t know if Alena and Denis were still nearby. It was the uncertainty that frightened him the most.
“I’m here,” Natalya said with a small, shaky voice. “Denis? Alena? Denis!”
To Andrey’s relief, Alena’s response came from somewhere nearby. “I’m here. Denis, too. I’m holding his hand. Where are you? What’s happening?”
“I’m scared,” Denis whined. “I want to go home.”
The thought of home wasn’t comforting. Did their home still exist? The darkness came from the east, and if it kept advancing in that direction, it would reach Moscow before long. Andrey gently rubbed the back of Alena’s winter coat in an attempt to comfort her, but he didn’t know what to say. His thoughts darted to the flashlight in his rucksack. If they could make their way back to the car, maybe they’d find a way to escape the darkness, too.
Andrey slipped his rucksack off and set it on the ground, tracing the smooth nylon with his fingers until he found the zipper to open it. “Let’s keep calm and stay together. It’s probably just a solar eclipse. Give me a minute to retrieve the flashlight, then I’ll lead the way back to the car.”
He wasn’t sure how convincing he sounded, but Natalya’s grip on his shoulder relaxed and Denis stopped crying, which helped Andrey feel calmer in turn. Maybe this really was a solar eclipse. Maybe the surge of darkness was an optical illusion of some sort, a side effect of being exposed to light reflections from the snow and the lake surface.
When his fingers grasped the flashlight, he harrumphed triumphantly. “There we go. Let there be light!”
He clicked the button on in time with his announcement. It worked. The resulting beam wasn’t bright – it barely cut through the darkness – but when he shone it on Natalya, he could make out her pale, anxious face amidst the surrounding darkness. But that was all he saw of her. Her cap, shoulders, and coat – anything not directly in touch with the flashlight beam – was still obscured by the gloom.
“There you are,” he whispered, immensely relieved to see her squint her eyes against the brightness. A brief scan of his surroundings revealed Alena and Denis, who held each other in a tight embrace. None of the Luvkov family members were missing.
“Natalya, hold my hand.” Andrey adjusted his grip on the flashlight and took Natalya’s hand.
“I trust you,” she whispered to him. “Please take us home, Andrey.”
He gently squeezed her fingers while instructing Alena and Denis to form a human chain behind him. By holding on to each other and walking with slow, measured steps, they were able to move through the darkness in an orderly fashion. Andrey took the lead with the flashlight in one hand. If he shone it down at the ground, it provided just enough brightness to see where he was walking. The footprints in the snow didn’t lie. If they kept following their own footprints, Andrey expected they would lead him and his family back to the car before long.
But then, all of a sudden, everything stopped. The sounds. The cold wind biting into his skin. The movements of the boy and the two women who followed behind him. He still felt the pressure of Natalya’s fingers that were entwined with his own, but she no longer followed along behind him. When he tugged on her hand, it felt stiff and lifeless as if he was trying to drag a shop window mannequin behind him.
His heart froze in midbeat. “Natalya?”
When he brought up the flashlight to shine it at her face, he was stopped by a chorus of voices. They came from nowhere and everywhere at once, filling him with a sense of confused wonder. Yet somehow, he wasn’t afraid. Not anymore.
He nearly dropped the flashlight. “What… who are you?”
Instead of answering his question, the chorus of voices filled his consciousness with a variety of names and expressions in a multitude of languages, all of which he absorbed and understood in a moment’s breath. Their meanings differed, but most had two words in common:
Bern, Switzerland – Wednesday, the 24th of February 2010.
Shortly before The Pulse
“It’s a ritual all newcomers have to undertake.” Martin grinned at Sarina as he offered her the joint he had rolled earlier. “You just transferred to our school. This is our way of welcoming you. It would be rude to decline.”
Sarina hesitated. Sure, she was new to the region and wanted to find friends as much as anyone, regardless of her background. But she was technically still in the rehab phase after overcoming her Coke addiction, and she hated the idea of betraying the trust of her new foster family. They let her go out to explore her new environment on her own. The reason she was sitting here, alone with a couple locals she just met, in the back yard of the school where she would start attending classes the next week, was because her parents trusted her.
Technically she was cutting school right now, but she had permission to do so. Everyone who mattered was aware of her personal history.
Steph giggled at Sarina’s hesitation. The short haired teenage girl sat on the steps leading up to school’s back entrance, equipped with a pink pom pom beanie hat and matching mittens to fend off the winter chill. Her bright blue eyes held no contempt, but Sarina knew how quickly the moods of teenagers could change. Could Sarina reject the joint without rejecting her future classmates at the same time?
She made an attempt at reconciliation. “Technically I haven’t transferred yet, I’m still in my social immersion phase. My parents want me to settle in before I start going to school.”
As if to demonstrate that the joint was totally kosher, Martin took a drag himself. “Social immersion phase? Uh huh.”
Steph giggled again. “She’s from Zürich. Judging from the way she talks, I bet her folks are rich and fancy.”
“Probably.” Martin exhaled through his nostrils. “Besides, don’t they all snort Coke up there?”
The joke hit too close to home. Feeling herself tense up, Sarina changed the subject. “Aren’t you guys cold?” She rubbed her jeans with her hands to emphasize what time of the year it was. “Why don’t we go for a hot drink somewhere… is there a Café nearby?”
Steph and Martin exchanged a glance over the plumes of sweet-smelling smoke that hung in the air between them. “I’m a little cold too,” the short haired blonde confessed.
Thank you. Sarina couldn’t find the courage to speak up, so she assembled an awkward smile instead.
Martin stubbed out the remains of the joint against the yellowish-gray stone wall that surrounded the school’s back yard. “You girls are such sissies. Let’s head inside, I’ll roll us a new one.”
Her shyness overpowered by curiosity, Sarina spoke up. “Isn’t the school closed during the lunch break?”
“Technically, yes. But I know where the key for the back door to the teacher’s office is.” Martin winked at her before bending down to raise one of the flowerpots whose occupants had withered several months before. To Sarina’s dismay, he retrieved a small metal key from underneath it.
Her breath caught in her throat. Oh no. If we get caught, I’ll get a note in my report before I’m even officially enrolled at this school. She wanted to protest, to point out how stupid it was to smoke weed in the teacher’s office, but the words were stuck in her head. There were no authority figures in sight. These two teenagers, however, were present and didn’t look at all concerned about sneaking into the teacher’s office. Sarina assumed they had done it before.
They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t know we’ll be okay, right?
She let Martin usher her through the back door and into a clean, vacant hallway with a series of wall lockers and potted plants that were actually still alive. It was warm here, and apart from the three teenagers the school was empty and silent. Sarina was able to relax a little.
Flashing a confident grin, Martin unlocked the first door on the left side of the hallway and pushed it open. “The teacher’s office is here. They won’t notice the smell if we open the windows afterward.”
Even though she wasn’t convinced, Sarina followed him into the office. It was smaller than she had expected. A half dozen desks displaying varying states of orderliness lined the walls, each one joined by a wastebasket as well as framed photographs and other personal items belonging to the teachers. A pair of well stocked wooden bookshelves overlooked the room from the center, and a big chalkboard hung on the left hand wall. To Sarina’s surprise, there were still Christmas decorations scattered about. Five thick wax candles stood on a table among leftover peanuts and chocolates.
“Don’t worry, we’re not going to steal test results or anything,” Steph assured her. “Sit down. The carpet is comfy.” Leading by example, the short-haired girl settled down on the carpet cross-legged and snatched a chocolate from the table with the Christmas leftovers.
Martin sat next to Steph and retrieved the marijuana pouch from his pocket, but he didn’t look at it. His dark eyes settled on Sarina instead. “Why are you transferring to this school, anyway? Did your family move to Bern?”
“Something like that,” she replied. The carpet was thick and comfortable to sit on. The conversation subject was not.
Fortunately her two new friends didn’t pry. They happily chatted about the school, the teachers and their other classmates while rolling another joint, and before long Sarina’s doubts and concerns dissipated in a puff of sweet-smelling smoke. She felt so relaxed that she lost all her inhibitions. And before she knew it, she was telling her new friends about her past life, happily sharing the dark details that she had kept locked away within herself.
“I used to be a problem kid, you know,” Sarina explained between between drags on the joint they shared. “It’s why I was sent to so many different foster homes. I set another girl’s bed on fire once, and when I got mad I was really scary. The psychobabblers think I have some kind of personality disorder.” It wasn’t funny, but she giggled anyway. “Before I was taken away from her, my real mom gave me drugs to keep me quiet or something.”
Steph’s smile thinned. “But you’re okay now, right? You seem really shy and quiet. I never would have thought–”
Waving her hand, Sarina cut the other girl off. “Yeah, I’m okay now. My new family is great, they help me a lot. Especially my adoptive brother David. I never get mad anymore. I’m a better person now.”
Martin opened his mouth to say something, but suddenly the room became so dark that Sarina couldn’t see his face anymore. It was as if all light was gone from the world, leaving it in a primordial state from a time before life existed.
Steph screamed. Sarina was too relaxed to feel panic, but the other girl’s fear rubbed off on her, making her feel cold all of a sudden. What was going on? It was the middle of the day. If she was the only one who couldn’t see, she might have believed in a drug-induced hallucination, but Steph…
“It’s a monster! We’re going to die!” The girl cried.
Several long seconds passed before Martin spoke up, his voice firm but tense. “There is no monster, Steph. It’s just dark.”
“But why? Why is it dark? This isn’t normal… oh God, someone tell me what’s going on!”
As they talked, Sarina tried to get her thoughts in order. No, this wasn’t normal and yes, it was scary. She didn’t know why it was happening or what she could do about it. What she did know was that even though she only met these guys an hour before, she really liked them. They were nicer to her than any of her previous classmates had been. Steph’s pitiful cries tore at Sarina’s heart.
So she rose to her feet and searched the darkness for the table and the candles that were on it. “Martin, give me your lighter,” she said.
It only took a moment to light the five candles and arrange them in front of Steph. The small flames provided enough illumination to make out the crying girl in the darkness, though they didn’t staunch her fear. A tremor ran through her body with every heart-rending sob.
Leaning in close, Martin whispered to the girl. “Shhh, it’s going to be okay. I know it. You believe me, right?”
When no response came, Sarina moved over to nuzzle Steph’s cheek with her own and embrace her from behind. “This is what the universe was like at the beginning of time,” she suggested, closing her eyes to shut the darkness from her mind. “We can make a new universe with a wish. A better one, filled with beautiful green planets and happy people.”
“You think so?” Steph was still sniffling, but she didn’t tremble anymore.
“Yes. I can smell flowers now… roses and lilies and cosmos flowers. Do you smell them? When we wake up, we’ll be in a lush garden. All your teachers and classmates will be there, attending classes under a bright blue sky.”
Right that moment, Sarina wanted nothing more than for her wish to come true. If she could remake the world, there would be no more inequality, no more war and pain and suppression. So she hugged the other girl close and created a new universe in her mind.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a chorus of voices coming from nowhere and everywhere at once. “Sarina.” They filled her with warmth and a profound feeling of being loved, unconditionally, with all of her flaws. It was such an overwhelming experience that her eyes misted over.
She blinked the tears away, but the darkness was still there. “What… what is going on?”
The response came in every language and accent that was ever spoken. It was a single word, and even though its expression varied slightly depending on the language, the meaning was the same.
Even though Radiant only remembered what he himself had experienced during The Pulse, Prophet had seen it all. Preacher was wrong about one thing: the world’s creator wasn’t gone. But Prophet’s wish at the end of the world had invoked the ultimate freedom of will: to remake the world, or to end it for good. Nothing that happened since the 24th of February, 2010, followed any kind of higher plan.
Legion is wrong, then, Radiant communicated through his thoughts. He is no Messiah.
No, he is not. But the world ended because mankind caused too much suffering. We had a responsibility to take care of one another, and we failed. Legion was given a special role because he was among those who suffered the most.
What special role?
I don’t know, Andrey. I don’t understand everything myself.
After a moment of thinking, Radiant formulated another question. If I understand correctly, those of us who have powers received them because of what we did during the Pulse?
Yes. Most people were too afraid to act. They waited for the end, unable to see through the darkness. They gave up on themselves and on the world.
Radiant was confused. What’s the meaning of villains, then? Why do they exist?
They had strong personalities and were not fearful. Ultimate freedom of will, Andrey. There was no plan. Not anymore.
And the power surges?
Prophet was silent for a minute before responding. I believe there is a finite quantity of those who took action during The Pulse, which means a finite quantity have the potential to Evolve. When too many die, the few remaining ones are strengthened so they will have a better chance to stay alive and do what they were meant to do.
And what’s that?
To create a new world, Andrey. To prove we can take responsibility for it, and for each other.