Pretoria, South Africa – Friday, the 22nd of June 2012. 07:00 PM.
A power surged Irish kid.
Radiant couldn’t recall the boy’s name, but he knew exactly who Kathy was talking about. Interpol and the UN had already reached the conclusion that Sarina Baumann and her accomplices travelled off the grid together, concealed by the boy’s power. But what on earth were they doing in Paris? It was hard to imagine they missed the headlines. The city’s transformation into a cesspool of gang violence was broadcast worldwide, repeatedly and from every possible angle.
Now it looked like the Covenant had finally dispatched a clean-up team. Radiant had few doubts about the reason why; their coincidental intervention when Dancer and her so-called ‘terrorist’ friends happened to be in Paris didn’t seem to be a coincidence. Not to mention the fact that before today, it had looked as if the UN was going to tolerate the Evolved gangs in what remained of Paris so long as they didn’t cause far-reaching trouble. Two days before, Radiant and some of the heroes from his island group had made an effort to intervene in what was essentially a territory war. In the end, they had nothing to show for it except for an injunction from a UN official, ordering them to stay out of Paris. Or else.
Kathy and Radiant both suspected that the Covenant had informants in the city, and that their reports were of more value to the international community than peace in a ruined city the world no longer cared about. There were too many fires to be put out elsewhere.
“The girl you just retrieved from Pretoria must have an interesting story to tell,” Kathy was saying through the armband. “Want me and Aura to ask her? A little heart-to-heart talk among gals. No boys invited.”
Despite everything, Radiant caught himself smirking at Kathy’s unflinching attitude. But the humor was short-lived. “For now, just give her the medical attention she needs. If she wants to talk, great. If not, we’ll figure out what we can do help her friends. Are they still in Paris?”
Kathy snorted. “Guess again if the Covenant was willing to reveal where they’re keeping their prisoners.”
“I was hoping you or Morpheus tracked them down. If they actually have Emily Bell…”
She gently cut in, finishing the sentence for him. “…knowing you, you’re not about to give up on that little girl. Go, then. We’ll hold down the fort in the meantime.”
Truth was, Radiant wasn’t willing to give up on any of them. Dancer and the child were in danger of getting crushed in the cogs of the UN’s fear mongering and strict regulations, and if the boy’s powers truly had surged, he was at risk of execution. The authorities no longer relied on Power Zero to deal with dangerous perceived criminals. Not after Paris.
“How about Samael – still in Paris?” he asked.
“I’m afraid so,” Kathy said.
Radiant’s jaw worked silently, chewing on words and ideas he wasn’t ready or willing to divulge. His power remembered the last encounter with Samael. It sent a fiery tingle across his skin, small sparks of energy accumulating around the fist that had connected to his rival’s shoulder, barely missing the Dark Angel’s sneering, masked face.
Athena isn’t dead, Samael had told him. Just gone. And I should know, because we had a nice fuck just before she left.
As if she’d read his mind, Kathy interrupted thoughts with that placating tone she only ever used when she believed he was losing his temper. “Try not to do anything too risky, okay? I know it’s a lot to ask of you, but we need you here. You’re the one holding everything together.”
Radiant exhaled a puff of condensed anger, deflating. “Right. I’m not going to start a war with the Covenant.” It was as much a promise to himself as it was to Kathy.
“Best of luck, Snookums. Keeping my toes and fingers crossed. As is everyone else.”
“Thanks, Kathy.” Raising the armband to his mouth, he added, “Rune. You’re in charge in the interim. Let Checkmate stay with Dancer for now, we’ll check this place for anything the Conglomerate left behind as soon as I get back from Paris.”
“Roger that,” the Swedish hero confirmed. “Call me if you need backup, as always.”
I won’t need backup. This is personal.
Radiant called up the world grid on his visor and selected Paris as his destination, using the indicated geographical data to calculate the speed and direction of his first jump. He beamed himself out of the abandoned sports hall using the same opening he’d entered through and then continued northwest, crossing five thousand miles in the blink of an eye.
The sky above Paris was dark gray, shrouded in clouds that appeared eerily reminiscent of the brooding, stormy atmosphere on Hero Island. Radiant broke through the clouds to discover a city that had seen some bad days. The traffic on the once bustling roads and avenues had come to a standstill; the only movement he spotted came from a handful of pedestrians who scurried across a rubble-strewn city square like hunted animals. The Eiffel tower stood tall and proud as it always had, but the surrounding park and many of the nearby multi-story buildings had been ravaged by fire, superpowers, or explosions. The ongoing gang wars had left their mark on the city.
Coupled with the gloomy atmosphere, the city made for a depressing sight. Unlike Pretoria, it hadn’t just been rendered inhabitable, but a war zone. The remaining population – those who had nowhere else to go – risked their lives, their health and their sanity by staying in what was effectively a battlefield for Evolved troublemakers.
Even the French government is in shambles, Radiant remembered. Samael is free to do as he pleases.
He swallowed the bitter taste in his mouth and beamed himself onward, into the air above the river Seine. He didn’t need to look far to find the Covenant. Fusion hovered atop the Arc the Triomphe, easily recognizable by the wind-whipped ashen robe that flapped about his scrawny body. A myriad of tiny drones swarmed the air around him. They were about the size of a thumbnail and dispersed in a burst of gleaming metal particles, flying off into western part of the city at incredible speed.
Before he knew what was happening, two of the tiny devices separated themselves from the swarm and stopped three feet ahead of him, hovering steadily in place. Watching him.
He flicked a finger at one of them. It recoiled back, evading him.
“I need to speak to Samael,” he said. The last word was the hardest: “please.”
Where’s the rest of their team?
Velocity, the latest addition to the Covenant, was nowhere to be seen. Radiant assumed that she was using her superhuman speed to scout the area, supported by Fusion’s drone swarm. It looked as if the Covenant was still searching for something. If so, then he dared hope that the children were still in the city, hiding somewhere to escape the attention of the heroes.
Samael emerged from a shadowy alley and flew upward through the air, silver ribbons trailing in his wake. He stopped at a distance of ten feet from Radiant but chose a slightly higher altitude, forcing Radiant to either look up at him or content himself with the view of Samael’s exposed navel.
“Look what the cat dragged in,” Samael said. “I’d ask what on earth brings you here, but something tells me I already know.”
Radiant cut straight to the point, eyeing his rival coolly. “Maybe you do. I heard you’ve found some kids, and that the powers that be have an interest in them. One of them is nine. Should I remind you that she was reported as missing weeks ago? The US authorities want her to come home.”
Samael pursed his lips, absently slapping fist of his right hand into the palm of his left. “Ah, yes. The innocent little girl, kidnapped from her family home in the dead of night. As it happens, she has witnessed a number of crimes in the meantime. Hung out with some terrorists who are wanted by half of Europe. We should ask some questions before sending her on her way, don’t you think?”
“The American authorities should do the questioning,” Radiant insisted, his tone a notch above irritation. “She’ll provide a witness account in the presence of someone she trusts. What else do you want from her, exactly?”
Something flashed in Samael’s eyes, and for a moment the two men were in a deadlock, staring one another down and refusing to budge. The implacable hostility that hung between them was so thick a knife could cut it. Radiant was familiar enough with Samael’s power mongering personality to know exactly what his rival wanted: Emily Bell’s unique ability to access the memories of those she had imprinted.
In a better world, the international community would have stepped in to clip his wings and send the girl back home, but that the laws and conventions of the past were crumbling. Power surges had already caused more damage than any US military intervention might inflict. Desperate world leaders regarded the Covenant’s proven ability to remove threats more highly than ever.
Unfortunately, this also meant that picking a fight with Samael would result in a massive backlash from multiple powerful entities. If Radiant was branded a villain, it would mean the end of his island project. The heroes and rogues who had united under his sway – as well as their families – would be forced to abandon him or go into hiding.
My brother’s family has already endured enough.
Looking at the gloomy sky around him, Radiant’s unease grew. The feeling of impending disaster was stronger than ever. If he was right about this, the world was going to need all of its heroes. Even Samael.
His rival’s derisive tone pushed him to the limit, however. “Swallowed your tongue? You seem awfully meek today.”
“Let’s just say my priorities have shifted since our last encounter,” Radiant shot back. “I didn’t come here to pick a fight with you. My concern is for those kids.”
Samael’s mouth tightened into a thin line beneath the mask. “Kids? We only found the one.”
“What about the Irish boy? He must have been with Emily.” Radiant wasn’t about to reveal that Kathy had tapped into official channels to learn about the situation in Paris.
“Might have been. Fusion and Velocity are still looking for him.” Samael jerked his head in the direction of Fusion, who – unlike his drone swarm – hadn’t budged from his spot. The Chinese Transmuter looked to be in his element, his arms spread wide and his face turned up toward the sky.
Samael doesn’t lie, Radiant reminded himself. But he doesn’t always reveal the whole truth, either.
“There wasn’t anyone else with Emily?” he asked, watching his rival carefully.
“I found some half-dead albino girl, the Empath kid says she knows her. It’s one of the reasons we’re keeping her for questioning. You wouldn’t know where Dancer is, would you?” Now it was Samael giving Radiant the hard look. A dangerous smirk lurked on his lips, and Radiant felt the air shift in response to his rival’s bloodlust.
Albino girl? Radiant didn’t have a clue who that might be. He made a mental note to ask Dancer about her when he got the chance.
He maintained a blank face for her sake. “Not a clue. Are you telling me you’re not keeping her prisoner?”
“Don’t feign ignorance. You know as well as I do that she wouldn’t last a minute if I found her.”
“Despite the absence of evidence, you still believe she’s the Antithesis.”
Samael floated a short distance back and away from Radiant, creating an air current that caused his wing ribbons to flare on either side of him. “Despite the absence of evidence, you still believe she isn’t.”
Radiant couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “Fine. If I get proof, I’ll let you know. Let me talk to Emily on the phone. I’d just like to make sure she isn’t being treated like a criminal by your friends in high places.”
To his surprise, Samael didn’t immediately brush him off. The South African hero kept studying him with narrow, wary eyes. “Assuming I can make it happen… will you bugger off and let me finish up here? Believe it or not, my teammates and I have work to do. This city is a godforsaken hell hole.”
Looking down at the maze of abandoned, ruined streets below, Radiant had no doubts about the accuracy of that description. “Sure. I’ll help, if you let me. God knows Paris is in need of heroes.”
Samael snorted. “No. The ‘man of reason’ act isn’t going to change my opinion of you. And Andrey… if I ever learn that you’re holding back information about Dancer, you’re a dead man. Athena’s opinion of you won’t mean shit if you’re committing high treason.”
“I’m aware,” Radiant said, his pulse quickening. He kept his fingers still and his power sealed away.
His rival produced a phone from the silver-colored utility belt he was wearing. “I want us to be clear –I’m doing this for her, not you.”
The words cut deeper than a knife and stretched Radiant to the limit. Part of him wanted to rip the phone from Samael’s hand, to ask if he and Athena still had something going between them, even if it was nothing more than regular communication and friendship. His mind threatened to go places he didn’t want to explore. But… no. He had rewritten his own identity; he wasn’t a man controlled by his temper anymore. He was a hero with a mission. People he cared about depended on him.
So he held his tongue while Samael chose a number from his list of contacts and called it. The Dark Angel was surprisingly gentle when he asked about Emily, though his expression hardened when he lowered the phone to offer it to Radiant.
“Make it short,” he growled.
Radiant returned a curt, silent nod. He accepted the phone and brought it to his ear, his anger evaporating once he heard the bright sound of the child’s voice. “Hi, Radiant,” Emily said. “Don’t be afraid for me. I’m helping the UN folks and the other heroes out for a bit.”
“Hi, Kid,” he said. “I wanted to check on you, make sure you’re okay. Is this what you want to be doing? Helping the Covenant out?”
She hesitated. “Um, they said it’s important that I help them. They’re going to show some guys to me so I can tell if they’re dangerous or not. There isn’t anyone else who can do that, right?” Her tiny voice wavered a little.
There is. The Visionary who transitioned after Queenie’s death and was kidnapped by Gentleman. Radiant glanced at Samael, who hovered wordlessly in place with his arms crossed over his chest, giving off an air of impatient importance. The Covenant hero had to be aware of Queenie’s replacement and what had happened to him.
“Emily, give me a moment,” he said into the phone. “I need to ask Samael about something.”
“Okay!” she replied.
He cupped a hand over the phone’s mouthpiece before addressing his rival. “Will you send her home if I tell you where to find the guy who inherited Queenie’s powers?”
Samael gave him an incredulous look through the eyeholes of his winged mask. “Do you actually know, or are you bluffing?”
“I don’t know yet,” he admitted. “We have some new leads, though. Answer the question.”
“If those leads go anywhere, then – and only then – we’ll talk again.” Samael gestured impatiently at the phone in Radiant’s hand. “Finish up so you can get out of my face.”
Radiant refrained from commenting, instead turning his attention to the girl on the other end of the line. “If you ever want to go home, call me and I’ll make it happen.”
“Righty-o! It’s okay for now, though. The UN actually lets me do hero stuff, sort of. The American President never did.”
Do you actually mean that? He didn’t ask. He wasn’t likely to get a straight, honest answer with Samael and God knew who else listening in.
He moved to a different subject that was also close to his heart. “Are any of your friends keeping you company?”
A faint sniffle came through the phone. “Snow’s being taken to a hospital, but she’s hurt real bad. I think she’s dying. No one found Sunny, but he’s, um, special. He’s the only one who can hide from my powers.”
Is that true? Radiant couldn’t tell, but for Emily’s sake he hoped it was. Asking her to betray her runaway friend – who was hiding for good reason – would have been a terrible thing to ask.
Emily filled the silence with her bright voice, a sounding little more cheery than she had been a moment ago. “Maybe Dancer is with him, and they’re hiding together. That would explain why I can’t use my power on her, right?”
Radiant smiled faintly to himself. Smart girl.
“That must be it,” he agreed. “Would you like me to pass a message to anyone you know?”
“Nora and Peter. Tell them they can call me if they want. And… um. Radiant?”
“What is it?”
“You have to help Chris. She’s hurt and in trouble and no one’s helping her. I… I think she might die.” Emily’s voice was small again, the words barely audible.
Radiant pressed the phone harder to his helmet. “Where’s Chris?”
“I don’t know! She thinks she’s somewhere in the Pacific. Underwater. And, um, I think there’s going to be some new power surges soon…”
“We’ll find her,” he quickly assured the girl, trusting whatever leads were about to be discovered in Pretoria to lead him to Chris. “Where are you, Kid? Are you safe?”
“Some house in Paris. I can see you through a window. Samael wanted me to get a good look at you–”
He never heard the rest of her words. Samael snatched the phone from his hand and pressed the disconnect button, shooting him an icy glare. “That’s enough. You wanted to talk to her, you did. Now piss off.”
Get a good look at me so you can imprint and the Covenant can keep tabs on me, Radiant finished in his head, trembling with the effort of keeping his cool. Dancer’s fate now depended on a nine year old girl’s ability to keep his secret from everyone else. He would hide Dancer, of course, but he’d never be as good at it as that power surged Irish kid had been.
“Sure you don’t need my help here?” he forced himself to say, meeting Samael’s eyes.
“You’re not a Revoker, so no. One of those French villains turned some locals into his personal statue garden, and we’d like to turn them back. Your laser beams are no use here.”
“What did you do with the villain?”
“That doesn’t concern you,” Samael snapped. “Now go.”
Pumped full of Power Zero and stashed away somewhere, most likely.
“I’m going to have a look around before I go,” Radiant told him. “Godspeed, Samael.”
He received no farewell, though considering whom he’d been speaking to, he hadn’t expected one. He was simply glad that their encounter ended without a battle to the death.
Radiant beamed himself up and away from Samael to get an overview of the city and brief his allies on the news regarding Christina. When he materialized by the Eiffel tower, Kathy’s voice came through his helmet, catching him off guard. She was crying. “Andrey, oh God. Come back. Look at this…”
He stopped in his tracks, forgetting about the city and everything else around him. “Kathy, calm down. What’s going on?”
“It’s the Sleepwalker,” she cried. “He just surged, Andrey.”