Mayella Island, North Atlantic International Waters – Friday, the 22nd of June 2012. 05:31 PM.
It was plain to see that Sarina considered herself ready, and the changes she had made to the environment confirmed her potential to undo the damage the Sleepwalker had done. However, Radiant couldn’t help but wonder if she was truly up to the task, and he wasn’t sure of her motivation. If she didn’t believe in saving or at least bettering the world, then what was the reason for her current commitment?
For now, just be grateful, he thought. Save your doubts for when the crisis is resolved.
“How do you feel now?” he asked her. “If you’re feeling nauseous after using your powers, you should rest for a few more minutes.”
She bumped her fists together. “I’m well enough. Bring it on.” The sunlight fell through the hole in the stormy cloud canopy that she had created, setting her hair afire with a coppery glow.
“I’ll be staying with her the whole time, right?” Checkmate asked, his posture rigid with tension.
Radiant gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “That’s the plan, yes. One of Athena’s combat units will take you both to a safe altitude.”
“Good to hear you guys are talking again,” Kathy said. “How long until she gives the A-Okay?”
“However long she needs. She’s setting up the surveillance drone for a recording while also creating a diversion for Samael.”
“We have enough time to cover the basics one more time, then.” Kathy turned to Sarina and gently put her hands on the girl’s shoulders. “How much do you know about the Sleepwalker?”
Sarina shook the hands off. “I know enough. He’s in his own little world but has limited power over ours, he’s scared of water, and getting caught in his aura sucks. Oh, and he teleports now. I paid attention when you were talking about him.”
Her haughty tone caught Radiant off-guard. Sarina was now radiating an air of self-confidence that went a little too far; gone was the vulnerability from minutes before. Not only could she move without support, her steely expression didn’t reflect any pain. The transformation was eerie in its suddenness.
“Our observations also suggest that his teleportation is limited to his line of sight,” Radiant added, careful not to show his surprise at her change in behavior. “You might be able to take advantage of that. Or exploit his fear of water, though we didn’t get the opportunity to double check that after his surge.”
The discussion didn’t advance beyond that point. Athena’s voice came through his earbud, delivering the news he’d been waiting for. “Unit PL-2 is positioned and ready, I pinged Checkmate with the coordinates. You have one to two minutes before the Covenant Triumvirate is back on the scene.”
“Are they still fused into one entity?” Radiant asked.
“Yes, and I do not expect them to split up. Fusion and Velocity would be too vulnerable on the ground. Samael is the dominant personality, expect them to react accordingly.”
“Thank you, Athena.” Radiant resisted the urge to say more, but his heart fluttered at the prospect of asking her for a real, more amicable post-Sleepwalker talk. If the opportunity ever came up. What they had between them had ended too abruptly for his comfort.
“I’m ready,” Checkmate said, fiddling with the controls of his communication armband. “Dancer, Radiant?”
“Yes,” he confirmed. He signaled Rune and Calavera who were still standing further down the beach, surrounded by an ever-growing number of spectators.
“Good luck,” Kathy offered. “Come back in one piece, all of you.”
Radiant waited for Checkmate and Sarina to vanish from sight before beaming himself back to Poland, using his last position’s coordinates as a reference point. He appeared almost exactly in the same spot, a few hundred feet above the lake bordering the forest where he’d last seen the Sleepwalker. The target was still there, though he had wandered dangerously close to the small town which bordered the park to the north.
Unit PL-1 held its ground, but had no sway over the Sleepwalker. None of the offered distractions deflected him from his course. Tall trees and dense underbrush hid the town from the Sleepwalker’s view, but unless he changed direction, he was going to step out into the open in a matter of minutes.
Radiant triggered the visor’s overlay grid to see that Checkmate had teleported Dancer to a small speck of an island near the center of the lake. He beamed himself there, hovering a few feet away from the pair while Checkmate climbed up into the crook of the humanoid robot’s bent arm. The android was doing its best to provide a foothold and secure its passenger with its other arm.
Dancer tilted her head back to consider her would-be transport with a wary expression. “We don’t need the robot,” she declared. “I can take us both however high we need to go.”
Radiant winced at the idea. “Don’t take needless risks. Save your powers for the Sleepwalker and leave the piloting to Athena.”
Dancer turned to face him with a defiant look on her face, but thankfully didn’t argue. After a pause and a doubtful glance at her would-be transport, she climbed onto the android and held on tight, surprising Radiant with her fearlessness. Or perhaps it was overconfidence. He could only hope she was up to the task. Losing the town had been bad enough; he didn’t think he’d be able to stomach losing Dancer so soon after he finally found her. Worse, if she couldn’t stop the Sleepwalker, it would be the end of everything. There was no plan B.
The Athena-piloted unit took off the instant the girl was secure in its grasp. It ascended at a steady pace until it was fifty feet above ground, where it accelerated with a final burst of speed. Radiant watched it go with a heavy mind and heart. When it dwindled away to the size of his thumbnail, he siphoned energy from the sunlight to beam a short distance upward, reaching the designated altitude before the android did.
The Sleepwalker had nearly made it to the edge of the park at that point. His nightmare had transformed the landscape once more – the trees were no longer upside down but instead had frosted over with blood red icicles, and the tree shapes strangely two-dimensional, like paper cutouts strewn across a crimson snow field. The Sleepwalker’s aura already reached well beyond the park. The circular expanse of blood red snow made it easy to estimate his current range: less than a mile, but more than three thousand feet.
He marked the Sleepwalker’s current position within his visor overlay and relayed the information to Morpheus, who would distribute it to any ally in need of precise position data. To his relief, the Covenant’s fused Trinity was nowhere in sight. Athena had kept her promise.
“We’re in position,” he told the others through the armband. “Athena. Status update, please.”
“I am positioning the surveillance drone for the recording,” she said. “ETA less than ten seconds. I have done a camera sweep across the Sleepwalker and the affected town, and will have a close-up of Dancer in about… well, now.”
The android caught up to Radiant’s altitude and hovered next to him, overshadowing him with the bulk of its massive, titanium-plated body. It held its left arm to its lower chest, allowing Dancer and Checkmate to stand on it and hold fast onto the android’s protruding shoulder plates. Its right arm was wrapped around them, protecting them from the strong wind that tore at their hair and clothing.
The sphere-shaped surveillance drone whizzed through the air toward Dancer and stopped about ten feet ahead of her. She spared it a brief glance before turning her attention to the twisted park – and her target. Her face only showed grim determination. Checkmate, on the other hand, looked like he was about to faint. He kept his eyes closed and his chin pressed to the robot’s strong shoulder, holding on for dear life.
Radiant raised his voice to be heard over the wind. “How are you feeling? We’re ready if you are.”
“Don’t wait for me,” Checkmate added without opening his eyes. “Just tell me if we have to evacuate in a hurry.”
Dancer pulled her hair back from her face. “I’m fine. I don’t have my maximum range, but I don’t think it matters. Is the robot going to change position if I ask him?”
“Yes, but don’t go much lower unless you absolutely have to. It’s not safe.”
“All right.” She took a deep breath, her eyes locked on her target.
The wind subsided abruptly and without warning. Within split seconds the air became charged with palpable, but invisible forces that made the hairs on Radiant’s skin stand on end. The nightmarish landscape below vanished before his eyes. The crimson snow gave way to a rocky landscape in one massive reality ripple which expanded outward explosively, and the frosted cardboard cutouts transformed into pine and leaf trees that were common to the area. Defoliated thorn bushes became shrubs in full bloom. The transformation wasn’t complete, however. It only affected a relatively small area directly below the flying android and its two passengers. Beyond that point the landscape was half-formed or unchanged, remaining a reflection of the Sleepwalker’s nightmarish vision.
The change wasn’t permanent – the Sleepwalker’s aura overpowered Dancer’s influence – but it got the shambling Evolved’s attention. The Sleepwalker stopped in his tracks and stared, wide-eyed, at the reality shifts that were happening around him. Dancer had succeeded in halting his advance at the very least.
“Can you pull him out of his reality and into ours?” Radiant asked, the skin of his right hand tingling with the energy he was channeling through it.
“Maybe,” Dancer responded. “But I need more time to figure out how. And we don’t have time.”
Checkmate twisted in the android’s grasp to look at her. “If you created a lake so big it covers everything in his sight, he wouldn’t be able to teleport away, right?”
“You know what’s going to happen if I flood everything in sight. People will never stop seeing me as the bad guy.” Dancer looked past Checkmate at the surveillance drone. The drone’s three camera lenses stared back at her.
The Teleporter deflated. “Good point.”
“No flooding,” Radiant agreed. “Use your own judgement. You know your own limits better than anyone else does. We can’t give you advice, but we’ll be there to bail you out if anything goes wrong.”
Her lips moved to form a single word that was swallowed by the wind, and then she was gone from the android’s grasp. She didn’t fall, and Checkmate hadn’t teleported her. The young hero looked as surprised by her sudden disappearance as Radiant was.
He looked to the Sleepwalker as a possible culprit, but the pajama-clad Evolved was still frozen in a wide-eyed stupor as his surroundings slowly transformed back into a piece of his nightmare. Dancer wasn’t anywhere near him.
“Iris! Where did she go?” he yelled into his helmet.
The AI projected a blinking cursor onto his visor, marking a position almost directly below him. But before he got the chance to look down, the Sleepwalker and everything that was in a thirty foot radius around him twisted and blurred. Reality came apart with a ‘pop’ that Radiant felt rather than heard, torn asunder by a flux of conflicting powers. For the briefest of moments the world around him was reduced to black nothingness. It flickered back into existence before his mind caught up with what was happening, sparing him the heart-stopping shock of witnessing the impossible.
What he saw after this was still mind-bendingly weird, but it was at least somewhat comprehensible. The Sleepwalker was gone. A large, opaque black sphere sat on the ground in his stead. Radiant’s visor overlay informed him that the sphere was fifteen feet in diameter and most likely made of glass, but it didn’t explain how the sphere had gotten there.
But then the screaming began – the Sleepwalker’s voice, coming from inside the sphere – and the ‘how’ became easy enough to deduce.
“What the flying fuck!” Checkmate exclaimed.
Radiant kept staring at the sphere, too stunned to respond. He hadn’t doubted Dancer’s ability to come up with a solution to the Sleepwalker crisis, but he hadn’t expected… this. Whatever it was.
The girl popped into existence right in front of him, blocking his view of the sphere. She hovered in midair effortlessly, grinning and wild-eyed, her hair and clothing untouched by the wind that was whipping around her. “Do you like what you see?” she cheerfully asked over the sound of the Sleepwalker’s screams.
“What am I looking at, exactly?” Radiant managed.
“Our solution,” she declared, spreading her arms in a grand gesture. “He’s stuck in there until I figure out how to pull him into our reality.”
“Why’s he screaming?” Checkmate asked, still clinging to the hovering android.
“Because he’s surrounded by water,” Dancer explained. “And the glass is tinted, so he can’t see outside and can’t teleport out.”
“His aura is still active,” Radiant observed. “But the local authorities will be able to evacuate the area and secure it with the help of the army. It’s an improvement. You did well, but now we need to get you out of here.”
He wasn’t ready to feel optimistic just yet. Looking at the pitch black sphere, he couldn’t help but wonder how it was going to influence the world’s opinion of the girl who’d been branded as the Antithesis. Its opaque blackness and the muffled screams coming from within did little to portray her as Shanti’s successor.
Checkmate extended a hand to her but couldn’t reach far enough. There were still two feet of space between them. “Athena, can you get me closer to her?” he asked.
The android began to float toward Dancer, but the girl blinked out of existence before the Teleporter’s hand made contact with her arm. She reappeared a short distance away, too far to be touched but near enough for her voice to be heard over the wind. “I can’t go yet,” she insisted. “I’m responsible for what happens here. I’ve never used my power like this before. I don’t know if it’s permanent.”
Under different circumstances, Radiant would have agreed. But he knew they didn’t have the time to follow standard protocol, and he suspected she knew it just as well. The girl was playing with fire.
The surveillance drone floated around them in a slow orbit, watching their every move. He hoped the recorded footage would be salvageable. Dancer’s future hinged on it.
“Athena,” he said. “I need an update on Samael’s ETA.”
The answer was immediate. “He is separating from his team now. I still have their attention, but he has become suspicious. You have half a minute.”
Not nearly enough time.
“You have to go. Now,” he insisted, his tone harsher than intended.
She stared back at him, unimpressed. “I’m not scared of Samael. You guys should probably go, though. I bet he’s going to arrive in a bad mood.”
“Come on. You can’t do this to me! I was supposed to protect you,” Checkmate pleaded.
Radiant clenched his teeth in frustration. “Checkmate, get out. That’s an order.”
“Now,” he barked.
The young Teleporter gave Dancer a final wounded look before disappearing. The android was left behind empty-handed, awaiting orders.
“Athena. Withdraw all units and keep the surveillance drone at a safe distance,” Radiant said before beaming himself to a position directly above the black sphere, where he would be prominently visible. He held on to a shred of hope that Samael could still be reasoned with. Dancer had accomplished the impossible, after all. The proof was right here in plain sight. Only the twisted, snowy-red landscape surrounding it spoiled the effect.
“Andrey, no. You need to–” Athena’s voice cried through his earbud, before a sudden shift in air pressure knocked the wind out of him. He was hurled backward like a rag doll. The world spun around him, white and red and gray and red again in a frenetic, fragmented blur.
Before he knew what was happening, he came to an abrupt halt that rattled the bones in his body. The world stopped spinning. Part of him realized that he was still midair, so he made a desperate attempt to grasp his power and beam himself up away from the spinning ground and any more attacks that might come.
He materialized somewhere in the sky, struggling to breathe through the pain in his chest and regain full control of his senses. Athena was yelling at him through his helmet, but his head swam too much to focus on what she was saying. He had to find Dancer and Samael.
The blinking visor display drew his attention to a gray and silver figure ahead of him, surrounded a multitude of wing ribbons streaming in the air. Samael. Radiant aligned himself to tap into his power and charge a laser for self-defense, but before he could do anything, the other figure in the sky dissolved with a burst of red and fell, gone.
Radiant struggled to make sense of what was happening. His visor overlay blinked furiously, drawing his attention to a crumpled figure on the ground far below. His mind had cleared enough to understand what Athena was saying through his helmet. She didn’t sound cool and controlled anymore.
“Andrey! Andrey, can you hear me? Talk to me, please!”
He wanted to, but he had more pressing concerns. Dancer was still somewhere…
He didn’t get the chance to finish the thought before she appeared out of nowhere to hover right in front of him. Her lips were pulled in to a satisfied sneer, and her eyes gleamed with righteous fury. This girl bore no resemblance to the one he had spoken to only minutes before.
“Don’t worry about Samael,” she said. “He tried to kill you, but I killed him first. Now how about we go free Emily?”