Mayella Island, North Atlantic International Waters – Friday, the 22nd of June 2012. 06:59 PM.
It was a matter of minutes to get Sarina and her brother David safely tucked away on Motuora Island, a tiny speck of land in the general vicinity of New Zealand. There were no pre-built cabins and they had to set up their own tent, but the two siblings didn’t seem to mind. Seeing the big grins on their faces as they enveloped each other in a fierce hug, Radiant had no concerns about leaving them on their own for a few hours. Besides, they were not completely without protection. Athena had one of her combat suits stationed nearby and would be watching over them with her drones. In spite of everything that had happened between them, Radiant still trusted her to keep them safe.
The woman was too stubborn to change.
He would have preferred to keep Sarina and David on Mayella Island, but Aura verified that the new location was safer for everyone involved; she had checked each of their auras in turn and expressed her concern that Legion might be tracking Sarina. According to the Visionary, no one on the island was safe. But having the Healer present increased the threat level exponentially.
Every hero on Radiant’s team was aware that Legion had absorbed Visionary abilities including the Counselor’s power to sense connections between people, places and objects. Their fates were now irreversibly intertwined with Sarina’s. Rune wasn’t happy about it, of course, but even the Swede knew that he couldn’t waste energy to fuel his ever-present annoyance. They had no choice but to face the coming days as a team.
“The new Covenant isn’t going to come after us, are they?” Checkmate winced at the driving rain. It hit him with a vengeance, and he was soaked in seconds. He had just left the Baumann siblings in New Zealand. It had been warm and sunny over there, but the storm was still raging over the North Atlantic surrounding hero island, driving man-high waves westward.
Andrey glanced at the gloomy sky. Only a sliver of angry orange light was visible along the horizon; the clouds had swallowed everything else. “Not anytime soon. Samael was holding the Covenant together. Besides, they have no mobility without him.”
The young hero wiped his brown-skinned face with the back of a hand. “Okay. Am I dismissed, then?”
“Yes. Thank you for the help, Ravith. Get warm, get dry, and try to sleep. Keep the armband on alert. I’ll let you know if I need you to retrieve Jasper Davis.”
“I hope the storm’s gone by then. I don’t have any dry clothes left.” After a final lopsided grin, the Teleporter was gone.
You and me both, Ravith.
Unwilling to walk the last few meters in the rain, Radiant beamed himself to the trapdoor leading down into the surveillance room. Kathy’s ominous insinuation about Christina’s parting message – something that apparently couldn’t be discussed over the shared hero comms – was still fresh on his mind, so he yanked the trapdoor open and climbed halfway down the ladder before sealing the passage above him.
Kathy was alone. She fidgeted in her chair as he climbed the rest of the way down, and jumped to her feet when he reached the end of the short ladder. “You’ll never guess what Christina told our teleporter.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not in a guessing mood.” Andrey pulled the helmet off and shuffled over to Kathy’s console, dripping water with every step.
“All right. Is your armband turned off?”
Frowning, he glanced down at the band of white plastic on his right wrist, making sure none of the small lights were on. “Who is it you don’t want to listen in, exactly?”
“Dancer.” Kathy continued before Andrey had a chance to interrupt her with a question. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m on her side, and I’ll take up the fight for her if Rune doesn’t get over himself. But I’m not sure she’s ready for this.”
“Ready for what?”
Kathy kept a steady gaze on him and twisted her hands beneath her chin. “Jasper made one of those music tracks for her while he was Gentleman’s prisoner. You remember how his power works, right?” After a nod from Andrey, she went on. “Jasper had a power surge, and he has the track on him. Dancer’s power surge if she gets the track. He’s carrying it on him, right now, wherever the hell he is in Italy.”
Andrey stared back at her. “Christina didn’t bring it up with me. She was barely conscious. How sure are you about this?”
“Jasper was sure. He talked to her about it before they got separated.”
Momentarily silenced by the implications, Andrey clicked the files Kathy had been sifting through and called up a Baumann family picture on the monitor beside him. Sarina and her brother posed on it, wearing enormous Elton John glasses and sticking out their tongues at each other. It was a window into the past. A glimpse of who the girl had been before Gentleman tainted her.
We have to get that soundfile. That much was clear. Whether the new ‘Healer’ was ready to actually use it, though, he couldn’t tell. He could only hope that the coming days would turn out to be a positive learning experience for her.
Kathy hadn’t lost her ability to read his thoughts from his face. “You don’t think we should let her have the file, do you?”
“Not yet. I do believe she means well, but she acts on instinct and emotion. I don’t know if she doesn’t understand the consequences of her actions or if she doesn’t care. If it’s the former, we can work on it.”
“What if it’s the latter?”
If she stopped caring altogether, then God help us all.
He caught himself slowly flexing his fingers and gripped the edge of the desk to still them. “I don’t know, Kathy. I prefer to believe I can help her, and that the next few days prove she’s ready for a power surge.” After a reflective pause he added, “I’m heading to Italy.”
Abruptly, Kathy turned her chair around to face Andrey. “Right now? Are you serious? We don’t know where he is.”
“Which is why I’m going to find out,” he said. “You mentioned camera footage. It’s a starting point.”
“You shouldn’t go alone,” Kathy insisted. “The bigger Italian cities are on the brink of a civil war between Evolved haters and supporters, and it’s starting elsewhere, too. Anyone who recognizes you might shoot you.”
Andrey tugged at the wet spandex of his costume, inspecting it. “No one’s going to recognize me if I’m not wearing this.”
A tiny grin snuck onto her face. “Are you going to take it off right here? You should, you know. It’s wet. You’re going to get sick.” End of the world or not, it was good to see she hadn’t lost her sense of inappropriate humor.
“You wish.” He picked up his helmet from the desk and pulled it over his head, reconnecting himself to his AI-maintained comm lines. “Athena. Do you copy?”
“Yes,” Athena replied through his earbud. “Juggling numerous issues at once, as I am sure you can imagine. An amateur video of your encounter with the Sleepwalker and Samael has already leaked online. We considered deleting it, but doing so may raise too much suspicion.” There was that ‘we’ again. Meaningless, most likely, but the word wormed its way into Radiant’s mind.
“How bad is it?” he asked.
“Dancer is not on it. It is poor quality, of course, but viewers identified you and Samael. I must warn you that you may be pegged as the killer.” Her frustration was evident in the way she pronounced the last word.
Meanwhile, Kathy’s attention never wavered from him. He showed her a fake thumbs up as he kept talking to Athena, making a mental note to fill her in while he readied himself for Italy.
Kathy swiveled the chair back around to face the monitors. “Sure,” was all she said.
“Thanks, Kathy.” He made his way back to the ladder, picking back up the conversation with Athena. “What about the footage you recorded? Can it be edited to give a more favorable impression of what happened?”
“If you have the time to do the editing, I will not stop you. I’m tied up just trying to keep everything from falling apart. Did you know Morpheus just intercepted a computer-triggered signal to launch an atomic missile from North Korea?”
Radiant froze on the spot, one hand on the ladder.
“The target was Seoul,” Athena said, providing as a weary sounding response to the question he hadn’t asked. “Without our intervention, it would have gone off less than ten minutes ago, triggered by a Combination of Conglomerate sleeper agents and infiltrator software planted by Alastair. I doubt the North Korean leader was aware. With luck, no one will find out, and there will be no more nuclear weapon incidents.”
He climbed the ladder as she spoke, but only responded to her after he was back on the cliff and the trapdoor was sealed beneath him. “I’m sorry, Alexa. I expected Gentleman’s dead man switch to be bad, but not this bad. Don’t release the Poland footage. If anyone wants to pin Samael’s death on me, so be it. Better me than Sarina.”
There was a long pause. “There is space for two in my shuttle,” Athena finally said, the coldness gone from her voice.
The remark caught him off guard and he couldn’t tell whether she meant it as a joke or a serious suggestion, but it brought a smile to Radiant’s lips. “They still need me down here, but I like your retirement plan. As for right now – can you provide support in Milan? I need to find Jasper Davis.”
The answer was prompt. “Yes.”
Thirty minutes later, Radiant was standing on the rooftop of a three-story apartment building overlooking the Piazza Santo Stefano, a cobblestone plaza bordering numerous cafes, restaurants and the old San Bernardino church. The sunset had already bled away in the cloudless sky. The city was now illuminated by the numerous warm-glowing lamps and light chains that had been installed along plazas and streets for the tourists, though it was doubtful that many of them would be strolling through the twisting medieval alleys tonight.
Milan was pure chaos. Crowds of protesters filled the streets in numbers ranging from a few dozen to thousands, raising fists and, in some cases, improvised weapons into the air. Farther to the north, where the train terminal was located, protesters – both those supporting and those opposing Evolved – had congealed into a violent, twisting mass that took up a large portion of the area between three largest city parks. Their shouts and screams filled the air, creating a roaring cacophony that nearly drowned out the sounds of honking car horns and shrill police whistles.
The local police forces were hopelessly overwhelmed. As he took in the chaos from his vantage point above the apartment building, Radiant couldn’t help but agree with Kathy’s assessment: this was the beginning of a full-fledged civil war.
On the other hand, the erupting chaos masked the superhero’s presence from the local population. It was so dark that his beam of light stood out against the night sky, in plain view of anyone who looked up, but hardly anyone raised their eyes to the sky tonight. The riots and the fighting drew the local population’s attention to the streets.
“I’m looking at Santo Stefano from an adjoining rooftop,” Radiant reported through his helmet. “Where’s the camera that caught Jasper on film?”
“A short distance southwest from your position,” Athena informed him through his earbud. “Across from the University of Milan. He was seen leaving the university building and heading northeast along Fia Festa del Perdono. I have some small scouting drones in the city, but I cannot bring them down to street level. Two of them were mistaken for police drones and shot down by protesters.”
The street and university building lit up on Radiant’s visor overlay. He turned to take in the southwestern view with his own eyes, talking as he stepped to the other end of the roof. “If I was Jasper and just escaped the Conglomerate fortress, I’d be looking to the nearest hospital or police station for help. I doubt he still had his phone.”
“Aura did not say he was in danger, correct?”
“Not when I talked to her a few minutes ago.” After a brief look at the southern sprawl of the city, Radiant stepped away from the edge of the roof to turn his attention to a door that, He assumed, was leading to the apartment building’s stairwell. “I’m looking at a possible way down to street level, so I’m going to remove the helmet. Please keep me updated through my earbud.”
“Of course, Andrey. Good luck.”
“Good luck to you as well,” he replied softly, though she had already disconnected from their shared channel.
He pulled the helmet from his head and tucked it away in the small leather rucksack he brought along. Once he had secured it on his back, he retrieved the fake glasses and baseball cap that would conceal his identity and put them on. There was a small picture of Jasper in his shirt pocket. It would come in handy if his communication attempts failed, and since he didn’t speak more than two words of Italian, they most likely would.
Unsurprisingly, the door didn’t budge when he tried the handle. As he didn’t want to risk drawing attention by beaming himself down to the adjoining street, his only option was to resort to vandalism.
Creating a small laser from the tip of his finger, he burned a small hole into the door and removed the lock. The vandalism would be noticed eventually, but it was less conspicuous than a beam of light reaching down to street level. Once the lock was gone, Andrey continued onward, through an old stone stairwell and down to the ground level. He saw no one. The heavy front door opened noisily, releasing him onto a litter-strewn, deserted alley.
After five steps along the cobblestone pavement, he already missed his helmet. He was used to navigating cities from a bird’s eye view, and the absence of blinking icons made it harder to keep track of cardinal directions. Absent his helmet, he had to let the sounds guide him. The din of voices and violence – now interspersed with gunshots – was loudest to the north. If Jasper hadn’t strayed too far from the university where he was last seen, he would hopefully be somewhere to the south.
Andrey turned his back to the noise and followed the alley in the opposite direction, walking at a steady pace. A trio of locals were headed toward him in a hurry, staring at him with wary faces as though they suspected him of some kind of crime. Perhaps he’d tried too hard to pass for a tourist. The real tourists had no business strolling through the streets that night. They were hiding away in hotels and bars, waiting for the riots to pass.
When he pulled the picture of Jasper from his pocket, the young man raised his hands in a repelling gesture and the two women backed away with a torrent of Italian, giving him a wide berth.
For a moment he wondered if they had recognized his face beneath the bill of the baseball cap, but that seemed unlikely. The street lamps didn’t provide enough illumination to reveal his face behind the fake glasses. They must be wary of all strangers, he assumed, turning away from the trio to try his luck elsewhere.
Andrey ducked his head and picked up his pace as he moved on. The squad of four armored policemen in riot gear he spotted further up the street gave him hope that a police station was nearby. He continued in that direction, passing a deserted restaurant and a beautiful historic building whose stone walls were defaced by graffiti of a cape-wearing figure. The figure was engulfed in flames.
We don’t wear capes. Andrey shoved his hands into his pockets as he strode past, determined not to let the hateful artwork rattle him.
“Our drones located a police station near your current position,” Morpheus informed him through his earbud. “Less than a hundred feet away. We can’t look inside without causing alarm, so we’re counting on you.”
This time he couldn’t hold the question back. “Is Athena too busy to speak to me?”
“She’s looking into something. Keep going for another fifteen feet, then head into the first alley to your left and keep going. The police station is at the end of it.”
Another pedestrian quickly marched past, shoulders hunched and head held low. Andrey made two steps toward the man before changing his mind and approaching the policemen in riot gear instead. They moved down the street in formation, shields angled in anticipation of trouble.
Andrey pulled Jasper’s picture from his shirt pocket, but didn’t get the chance to ask his question. The sky above and ahead of him lit up with a white flash so bright that it turned the darkness to daylight for a brief moment. The policemen stopped and turned their eyes to the sky. Andrey followed their example, his blood turning cold. The previous conversation with Athena surfaced in his mind and filled him with a terrible premonition.
With luck, no one will find out, and there will be no more nuclear weapon incidents.
As he watched, standing transfixed and terrified, a column of fire and dust rose into the southern sky, gradually expanding into the characteristic mushroom shape that people worldwide recognized as a harbinger of doom. His fingers kept on holding on to the picture, but the question he’d meant to ask turned to ash in his mouth. There was no noise. No sound of an explosion. Only Morpheus’ voice in his ear, inhuman and emotionless.
“That was Rome. The Vatican.”