Paris, France – Friday, the 22nd of June 2012. 07:11 PM.
The Sleepwalker surged.
It took a moment for the news to sink in. Radiant would have liked to believe that Kathy was making a terrible joke, but the quiet sniffle coming from the other end of the line crushed that hope. She was one of the strongest women he knew. He had only ever seen her cry once: a few days before, back when she told him about Athena’s exodus into space.
He grasped the first question that came to mind. “How bad is it?”
“I don’t know, Andrey,” Kathy replied. “It just… it just happened. A minute ago. But it’s bad. I’m looking at the data from one of the surveillance choppers.” She fell silent.
Radiant turned his visor to the horizon, his mouth pressing into a grim line. “Coordinates, please. I have to look into this. Is the Sleepwalker near any population centers right now?”
“He’s approaching the city of Wroclaw in Poland. The River Oder runs through it, but even if we still assume him to be afraid of water… more than half the city is on the wrong side of the river. Its population stands at more than half a million, for heaven’s sake…” Kathy’s voice tore like cloth caught on a nail.
God Almighty. The thought of all those people brought Radiant back to Alameda Island in San Francisco, to Legion and the blood-curdling sound of tens of thousands screaming in unspeakable agony. Legion hadn’t emerged during the past few days, but Radiant knew he could be hurt and beaten. The Sleepwalker, on the other hand, existed within his own twisted reality and was immune to any attack or power. And now his power had surged. It was incomprehensibly terrifying, an entirely new level of fear.
Rune cut in. “Andrey. Make sure to stay far away from that thing. If other power surges are any indication, his range might have increased by an order of magnitude, and you’re not immune to it. We’re all standing by in case you need us.”
“I need anyone available to investigate that site in Pretoria. Mascot was there before Drifter swapped her out, and she needs our help. Kid mentioned an underwater location in the Pacific when I talked to her. Morpheus, are you listening in?”
The AI responded. “Yes. I should tell you that Athena has deployed three combat units. Their estimated time of arrival in Wroclaw is two minutes and forty seconds.”
A feeling of warmth settled inside Radiant, renewing his hope for a solution to this crisis. Thank you, Alexandra. We’ll be working side by side again.
“Can you multitask?” he asked, already pulling up a map of Poland to project the coordinates onto his visor.
“Yes.” The AI’s mortified tone was disturbingly humanlike. “I employ child mirrors of myself to perform a multitude of tasks. Do you need an analysis of all current Sleepwalker data?”
“I do, and I need you to do whatever is necessary to locate the Conglomerate base. I’ll be reporting from Poland next.” With that said, Radiant released his energy in a burst of luminescence, transforming himself into a beam of light that shot eastward across the sky.
He came to a calculated stop above a large lake that was seventy miles southwest from the Wroclaw city center. A large, roughly crescent-shaped park extended to the northeast of the lake’s shore, covering about half the distance to the city. A highway was leading up in the same direction, running parallel to a railway line and intersecting with two more heavily trafficked roads.
Radiant soon discovered that instead of moving in one of two directions, an abnormal percentage of the traffic flowed away from a small settlement about ten miles to the east from his position, in a desperate, honking, accident-inducing rush. One look at the small town at the center of the panic was enough to reveal the source of the panic and stop Radiant’s breath.
What must have been a populated settlement minutes before had turned into a grotesque mockery of civilization. Buildings had been blackened and twisted into crooked caricatures. Trees hung in the air upside down, ashen-colored and bare. The church tower, now an impossibly tall and slender spike of obsidian glass, rose from a blood-red meadow which had been set aflame by ten different smoldering fires. Seen individually, they were no larger than the average campfire. But unlike campfires, these didn’t stay in place. They slowly moved, setting anything they touched ablaze.
“This isn’t the Sleepwalker’s power,” Radiant whispered into his helmet’s microphone, unable to take his eyes off the perpetually morphing scenery. “He never affected our world. His aura pulls the minds of his victims into his personal nightmare.”
As he watched, the outer edges of the affected area expanded another few feet outward, turning green grass red and the southern half of a two-story building to obsidian. The wind picked up, adding the sound of screams to the faint scent of putrid smoke that permeated the atmosphere.
“Surveillance data suggests that he now projects that nightmare as a semireal illusion around him,” Morpheus was saying. “Keep your distance. I suspect the range of his mental subjugation aura has increased.”
Radiant activated his visor’s zoom capabilities to scan the affected area for victims. “Why wasn’t the local population evacuated?”
The AI’s response was immediate. “His movement speed has increased by an unknown factor. I’ll mark him on your display. Watch.”
Radiant allowed the AI to direct the zoom and draw his attention to a single figure shuffling past the former church courtyard, marked as a priority target by a blinking red outline. He immediately recognized the Sleepwalker’s torn, tattered pajamas. The man’s appearance still matched the images that had been broadcast by news channels all over the world: bare feet, thinning dark hair, and pale eyes that were frozen wide with never-ending horror. He was walking at the same excruciatingly slow pace as he always had.
The poor souls who had gotten caught up in his invisible aura no longer shuffled along behind him, however. What was happening instead was much worse. One woman stumbled out of a doorway the Sleepwalker was passing, walking two steps in the opposite direction before bursting into flames. She kept dragging herself onward as though nothing had happened, one human torch among others. A small boy stood next to a swing, pummeling his head with his own small fists, over and over again. An older man limped across a street only to vanish without trace before he reached the other side.
Horrified, Radiant zoomed out to search for potential survivors. He found none.
The words caught in his throat. “How…?” he began, struggling to absorb what he was seeing. This didn’t compare to any other power surge he’d ever studied or observed with his own eyes. It defied the established patterns, defied logic.
Even Morpheus had nothing to say.
Determined to uncover the mystery of the Sleepwalker’s increased movement speed, Radiant shifted his attention back to where he’d last seen his primary target. But the walking nightmare was nowhere to be seen. He had vanished from the general vicinity as suddenly as the old man before him.
“Zoom out and look across the street on the west side of town,” Morpheus supplied helpfully. “He has been separated from his parade of pre-surge victims, which makes him harder to spot.”
Radiant did as prompted, zooming out with such haste that he overshot and the town dwindled to a blackened smear in the landscape. A blinking red cursor guided him to the edge of a forest. As he adjusted his field of vision he rediscovered the Sleepwalker’s shambling figure about a mile from the town. He continued his northward march unerringly, warping the landscape in a half-mile radius around himself as he went.
The traffic on the nearest highway came to a sudden, violent standstill. Cars and trucks collided in a gigantic burst of glass and metal seconds before the road itself shifted and warped, transforming into a fiery river of magma.
“He’s teleporting now?” Not waiting for a response, he channeled his innate energy into his hands and spread them before him, releasing two inch-thick laser beams. The Sleepwalker’s dream-induced reality had always shrugged off attacks, but perhaps now…
As feared, the lasers had no effect. One hit the ground in front of the target, failing to scorch the morphed red grass. The other went straight through the Sleepwalker’s body and deflagrated upon hitting the ground.
“Damn it,” Radiant cursed.
Morpheus chimed in with his inhumanely calm, rational advisor’s tone. “I don’t believe this to be actual teleportation. Blinking would be the better term, or perhaps dream-induced relocation. It appears his range is limited to line of sight.”
While the AI issued its statement, the Sleepwalker stopped walking. He came to a sudden, staggering stop, his head twisting around in search of something or someone. One of his hands rose to grope the empty air ahead of him before dropping to his side.
“Something caught his interest,” Radiant said. He channeled his power again, this time creating a pencil-thin, persistent beam that he slowly drew across the ground in front of the Sleepwalker.
The monstrous Evolved stared at it for a brief moment before snatching at the blue beam of light with both hands. As before, the scorching hot laser passed through him without effect. But when Radiant directed the laser away from him the Sleepwalker followed, shuffling after the strange light with outstretched hands and an open, drooling mouth.
“Good thinking,” Morpheus said. “He never reacted to anything but water before.”
Radiant kept drawing the laser across the ground, guiding the Sleepwalker into the grotesquely morphed park full of floating, ashen upside down trees. “If we can keep him from relocating, we might be able to save countless lives. There’s nothing in this park but small animals and insects.”
“How long does your stored-up energy last?” The AI sounded genuinely curious.
“Long enough for Athena’s mobile task force to join us. They’ll give us time to come up with a solution.” Radiant briefly scanned the sky steely-gray sky, looking for any sign of incoming allies. He didn’t doubt that Athena would keep her word. Despite the silence that now hung between them, she had never forsaken him.
“With a joint effort, we might be able to lure him into a sparsely populated area,” he went on, tentatively hopeful. He called up a map of eastern Poland and Belarus on his visor. “With some luck, we might be able to trap–”
“Radiant,” Morpheus interrupted. “Check his victims.”
Having been too distracted with the Sleepwalker himself to keep an eye on the transformed town, Radiant was in for a shocking discovery. He now discovered a half dozen of the Sleepwalker’s victims–including two human torches–well outside the town, and, each of them had incited a transformation of their own. The landscape morphed around them as they moved, dispersing the Sleepwalker’s nightmare throughout the surrounding area. One of the living torches blinked across a soccer field in a series of teleportations that were too fast to track, leaving a trail of smoldering fires in his wake.
“No,” Radiant said, his laser halted by the mental shift of focus. “God damn, no.” He beamed himself to the soccer field where the living torch wandered among the spectator stands below him, not following a clear direction or purpose.
“The flames are part real, part illusion,” Morpheus commented. “They seem short-lived and don’t behave as normal fires would.”
Radiant didn’t give a damn about the fires. He fired one of his strongest lasers at the shambling humanoid, relieved to discover that unlike the Sleepwalker, this one did die. As much as he regretted shooting humans who didn’t deserve death, this one had no longer been human. None of the Sleepwalker’s victims were. The damage to their minds and bodies could never be undone.
He invested a moment to charge up, absorbing the pale sunlight from the cloudy sky. “Please don’t tell me their auras have the same effect as the Sleepwalker’s.”
“I don’t have enough data to verify, but our backup is almost here.”
Radiant’s next words were meant for Athena, whom he suspected to be listening in through the AI’s communication channels: “Thank you.”
He beamed himself back to the forest, where the Sleepwalker was still wandering aimlessly among the trees. Stay there. He created another persistent laser beam, hoping against hope to keep the Sleepwalker from teleporting back into a populated urban area.
The Sleepwalker had been chasing after his laser for half a minute when the promised backup broke through the cloud cover above the devastated town. It consisted of two vaguely humanoid, heavily armed and armored units similar to the duo which had assisted him in San Francisco. A smaller drone accompanied them. Its sleek, unadorned appearance suggested that it was packed with analytical and surveillance tech rather than an offensive loadout. The drone hovered a short distance above the town while the combat units dispersed.
“The Sleepwalker is distracted for now,” Radiant reported. “We need to keep him from populated areas and eliminate his nightmare spawn. Athena, do you copy?”
He didn’t expect to receive a response. She hadn’t spoken to him in weeks, and she had reasons of her own to shun him. Morpheus had filled the role of the messenger between them.
“Loud and clear,” she replied in a cool, professional tone. “I am tracking the stragglers as we speak. Keep doing what you are doing. We will find a way to lure him out of the area after I eliminate his spawn.”
We. She said we.
Radiant caught himself smiling and quickly assembled a neutral expression. “Ten-four. My energy levels are low, but I can keep this up for another minute or two. I’ll switch things up a bit. Our target is losing interest in my lasers.”
The light show had lost its effectiveness. The Sleepwalker had ceased to follow the persistent beam which swept across the forest floor and changed direction, shuffling west through the landscape he had created. Trees and shrubbery went up in flames around him.
Radiant fired a flurry of lasers in quick succession. The Sleepwalker stopped his march to gape at the empty air in front of him.
“Ten-four,” Athena echoed through his earbud. “I will send you unit PL-2 in a moment.”
“Thank you. I’m fairly sure that a humanoid who is immune to his nightmare will catch his interest.”
Morpheus broke into the brief radio silence that followed. “Three of his spawn have been eliminated. I located five more, but there may be others hidden within the buildings.”
“We will check the buildings later,” Athena said. “Everything in a two mile radius around the town needs to be put under a strict lockdown. I sent out alerts to authorities, but they may not listen to me until the Covenant steps in to assess the situation. Use your own channels to spread the word.”
Radiant wanted to say something reassuring to her, let her know the world still cared and trusted her to save the day, but she would have immediately recognized his words as the lie they were. Mass media had branded her as the traitor who destroyed the Covenant’s IT systems before disappearing. However, her intervention today was sure to sway some hearts in her favor.
His own included. He’d never accepted the reality of her ties to the Conglomerate anyway, but having her by his side – even if only in spirit – was a powerful reminder of why he had fallen for her over a year ago.
“The Covenant must already be on the way,” he said. “Morpheus. I need you to send them all of the data we’ve gathered on the Sleepwalker’s surge so far.”
In the forest below, the Sleepwalker now displayed an alarming lack of interest in Radiant’s attacks. Despite Radiant’s best efforts to vary the color and timing of his lasers, his target still shambled stubbornly northwest, as relentless as a force of nature and far more frightening.
“I’m losing him,” he reported. “I need–”
The promised backup dropped from the sky before he could finish, its titanium-plated legs lighting up with a bright blue glow as it hovered a few feet above ground right in front of the Sleepwalker. The Athena-controlled combat unit was about twice as thick and tall as he was, though its full body armor and thick, chunky limbs made it appear far more resilient. No one in their right mind would have mistaken it for a human. But with some luck, the Sleepwalker would.
The android’s eye slit glowed red as it locked on to the Sleepwalker. The shambling Evolved stopped in his tracks and tilted his head back, staring at the artificial human with wide-eyed interest. The android moved his arms and hands to flip through a multitude of human gestures, including but not limited to the finger and the victory sign.
It looked absurd, but it worked. When the android floated backward the Sleepwalker followed, and kept on following when the object of his interest picked up the pace.
But Radiant’s unease didn’t let up. He had a sinking feeling that this was a temporary solution at best and that their target would lose interest before long. The Sleepwalker’s alternate reality prevented him from being slowed down or trapped. The Karpaty Mountains were a long way off, and there was no desert or remote island at hand. The Polish government and the UN might be able to develop a mass evacuation plan, but did they have the time to put it into action?
Radiant had to acknowledge that this was most likely not going to work.
“Athena,” he said. “How long until your combat units run out of fuel?”
“Thirty minutes,” she replied. “Possibly more.”
Neither of them said a word. Radiant watched the shambling Sleepwalker from afar, the gloved fingers of his right hand twitching against his side. He had one more trump card though to play it meant to invite a disaster of a different kind.
“The Covenant will arrive on site in less than a minute,” Morpheus calmly informed him.
No, this wasn’t going to end well.
“I have an idea,” he said. “Possibly a solution. Let me run it by my team, and I’ll be back in a minute.”
Athena’s tone betrayed no emotion. “Go get her. I’ll find a way to distract Samael.”