Covenant Headquarters in New York, USA – Wednesday, the 6th of June, 2012. 00:22 AM.
“In the beginning, there was light. In the end, darkness consumed the world, but those who had been called found their way within the dream.”
Andrey Luvkov pressed the replay button one more time before closing his eyes, and focused his attention on the female voice transmitted by the audio file. He didn’t know Palestinian Arabic since he never studied a word of it. But he had access to every possible translation, and he’d listened to the recording so often that he understood every word by now.
This wasn’t about the meaning of the words. He’d spent hours trying to identify missed details—changes in the Oracle’s inflection or anything else that might help him decipher the prediction. This particular audio file contained one of her last known statements, recorded ten days ago. Because none of her prophecies had ever been proven wrong, for that reason and others, every word the comatose woman whispered was taken with a great deal of seriousness.
As far as Andrey knew, only a handful of people were aware of the most recent predictions. More than a week ago the Covenant’s overseer, Vega, and the Small Assembly of emergency UNEOA representatives, had decided to evacuate the Oracle to a secret location. The media hadn’t been informed of it.
Not even Andrey, the Covenant’s Evolved leader, knew the Oracle’s current whereabouts. That alone told him more about the political leaders’ growing sense of paranoia than he cared to know because although he’d been worried about security leaks and political tensions several days ago, at the moment he wasn’t in the right state of mind to focus on more than one problem at a time.
Andrey kept his finger on the replay button, but didn’t press it. He needed a moment of silence to dwell on the Oracle’s statement. The first part is similar to the Book of Genesis, but not quite the same, he mused wearily. And why was it in past tense?
According to the various translations, the experts disagreed over the exact English equivalents of a few words. Nuances, but not enough to doubt the statement as a whole.
Failing to draw any new conclusions, Andrey settled back on his designer leather couch and rubbed his face. He’d barely slept in the past five days so his thought processes were less and less coherent by the hour.
Across the room, the ridiculous, oversized plasma TV which adorned one wall of his apartment-like quarters showed scenes of a soccer game. The sound was on mute because Andrey didn’t want anything to distract him from the Oracle’s words.
As he looked at the television screen, Andrey realized he probably wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be working, but he had to distract himself somehow. And since the UNEOA authorities had stopped flying in special brand vodka from Moscow for his sake, he needed something to keep his mind from wandering too far in the wrong direction.
It would be nice just to hear someone talk about something trivial for a change. It was less like a coherent thought and more like a feeling he had tried to ignore.
Andrey turned on the TV’s sound to hear the sports commentator ramble on about the upcoming game. The players’ names sounded vaguely familiar, but he didn’t recognize their faces. For a minute he simply sat, letting the sound of the human voice sink in.
He couldn’t recall exactly when he had last seen another person, but he suspected that it must have been about a week ago. Alexandra had stopped by daily on occasion, trying her luck at his locked apartment door. It was a sweet gesture, but he didn’t want to deal with female empathy right now. At least the sports commentator was considerate enough not to ask how Andrey was doing.
Remembering that he had work to get done, Andrey looked down at his tablet. His fingers fumbled around with the touch controls until he discovered the notes he had prepared some time ago. When, exactly, he couldn’t say. That morning, maybe? Yes. It had been that morning, after word came in that the Swiss girl had gone off the grid.
Or had it been yesterday? The British boy was gone now. No, not a boy. A young man. Twenty-one, the document reminded him. Went by the handle DJ. Queenie was upset about his disappearance since they were fellow countrymen and all.
These disappearances are getting out of hand.
Andrey realized his thoughts were fraying, and he had to regain his focus. He had a strong responsibility to his teammates, the UNEOA, and the rest of the world. Keeping his mind in order was part of it.
Skimming the lines of text reminded him that these two off-grid cases were related. Dancer and DJ. Sarina Baumann and Jasper Davis. Their disappearances had happened in quick succession, and the UNEOA’s IT team knew that the two Evolved in question had chatted online up until the day before. All suspicions had been confirmed by one last text message Sarina had sent to her brother.
Andrey couldn’t piece the rest of the details together yet, he’d need more information first. Luckily, overseer Vega had a full team to analyze everything about Dancer’s goodbye message. Did it hint at coercion? They couldn’t rule it out, except they had focused their investigation on kidnapping scenarios rather than on murder.
Another glance over the open document reminded Andrey of how he already tried to connect Dancer and DJ to previous off-grid disappearances in Europe. The lack of meaningful notes indicated that he hadn’t been very successful in that area, either.
As he stared at the list, the words blurred together. He blinked hard, and rubbed the bridge of his nose with two fingers. He read from the top, beginning with the title “European off-grid cases.”
Monday, April 3, 2012: Patrick Callahan, age 14, and Teresa Mullen, age 25. Enhanced senses, object modifications. Wild card classification and Technician classification, respectively. Last seen together in Galway, Ireland.
Friday, April 13, 2012: Emilia Ramos, age 19. Spontaneous combustion of nearby objects. Evoker classification. Last seen in the village of Castril, Spain. Some evidence suggests possible homicide, but insufficient proof.
Saturday, April 28, 2012: Jacob Wilson, age 26. Probability manipulation, Wild card classification. Australian citizen working in München, Germany. Divorced with one child, age 6. Last seen in Paris, France.
Friday, May 11, 2012: Iza Pawlack, age 53. Changes emotional bonds between people. Wild card classification. Last seen in Krakóv, Poland.
These cases were irksome because they were the only ones in Europe that had managed to outright avoid Queenie’s tracking capabilities. Sure, there had probably been a few new newly Evolved who had died before they became known, and maybe a couple of transitions had slipped through the cracks without ever drawing Queenie’s attention. And who knew what was going on in China? But everyone listed here had been firmly on Queenie’s radar before they had disappeared without the slightest trace. The Spanish girl, who had grown up in a strict catholic rural area, may have been a homicide victim. But nothing about the other disappearances hinted that anyone had come to harm.
The Swiss girl’s disappearance had caused such political uproar that it was stuck in the forefront of Andrey’s mind regardless of the headache and insomnia. Interest in her was high enough that Swiss government representatives had been flown to New York to make an official statement in regards to their security lapse.
Andrey had seen the lists in the Covenant’s database. Sarina Baumann was right at the top, a priority target to be kept secure, healthy, and under observation at all costs. And it was no wonder. Hers was the only unique power set to have ever been reported apart from Shanti’s.
Andrey had taken notes on the subject somewhere. But where? Maybe he had scribbled them in one of his tattered notepads. As searched through his papers, his thought process dissolved again, and soon he forgot what he was looking for. The pull of doubt which had eroded his sense of identity over the past few days cast its shadow over him, and he knew it would claim him completely if he continued to brood over it.
A change in the colors on the TV screen drew his attention away from the tablet. The program had changed to a tennis match with more grunting than commentary between serves.
Andrey reached for the remote, and flipped through channels until he found a station full of commercials. Commercials were good. Cheerful people radiating happiness.
Just as long as it wasn’t the news. If he was confronted with the headlines, he might do something he would regret later. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
A toilet cleaner commercial reminded him that he had ignored his need to visit the bathroom soe set the remote and tablet aside before pushing to his feet.
As Andrey trod down the dark hallway to the bathroom, his footsteps were accompanied by the faint buzz of the camera they installed in the hallway on the day he moved in. Even in his current mental state, he understood why the UNEOA had done it. He was theirs now, and his powers were dangerous enough that he was kept under surveillance. Still, there was something irritating about the way the camera realigned itself to keep track of his movements.
The lack of sleep had taken its toll on his body coordination. The world’s most famous superhero nearly crashed into the hallway table beside the bathroom door, disturbing the marble archangel statuette perched on top of it.
Andrey paused just long enough to steady the figurine with one hand. It had been a gift from his mother. As such, it was something he treasured, even though it felt like a particularly ironic choice today.
You placed your trust in the wrong son, Mama.
He heard a commercial actress laugh in the living room, secure in her TV world. Andrey pushed the bathroom door open and stepped inside, feeling his way along the wall to find the switch. When he flipped it on, the room was awash in brightness. If only every problem had such a simple solution.
When Andrey’s eyes had adjusted to the light, he glared at the mirror. In it he saw the reflection of a man in his early thirties whose athletic figure was hidden beneath a saggy sweater, pajama pants, and a crooked posture. It was a man whose face hadn’t seen a razor blade in over a week. The barbarous facial growth, sprouting around the hard line of his mouth, made him look like a stranger even to himself.
He was considered attractive once, he knew, and not that long ago. People Magazine had put him on the cover more than once, and his fan mail had included offers of marriage and offspring so frequently that Alexandra had teased him about it at least once a week.
He turned away from the stranger in the mirror to use the facilities, a good enough reason to stop glaring at the reflection of a killer, at least for a few moments.
Andrey washed his hands just as another commercial jingle beyond the bathroom doorway stopped. It was replaced by a charismatic man’s voice that welcomed his audience back to ANBE news.
Andrey groaned. ANBE was an American novelty channel with regularly updated Evolved news, or, at least, with what passed as ‘news’ these days.
His hands clenched into fists at the sink. He should have checked the channel logo before setting the remote aside. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, resisting the urge to rush back into the living room and smash the TV against the wall. .
Instead, Andrey decided to endure the newscast, challenging the nagging feeling that he was going insane. He was going to have to face the world’s opinion of him at some time or another. Might as well be now.
The Shanti incident was still the main headline. The growing avalanche of suspicions, accusations, and conspiracy theories were so intriguing that they trumped any official statements.
“We turn our attention back to India, where the united voices of the president and the two parliamentary houses continue to demand answers. They are asking for an official listing of UNEOA members involved in the approval of the execution order that was issued on Shanti.” Silence followed, a dramatic pause, as emphasis on the last word hung in the air.
“The calls for transparency persist,” the newscaster’s voice continued. “An increasing number of member nations officially deny their involvement in the events leading up to Shanti’s execution. India’s withdrawal from the United Nations Evolved Oversight Authority remains a strong possibility, and other nations may follow suit.”
Andrey raised his head, wincing at the reflection in the mirror.
You did this, he accused.
“Out on the streets, millions of people worldwide are calling for justice. It’s not surprise these demands are loudest in India, which is where our Middle East correspondent, Barbara Jean, has covered this story for the last two days. Barbara, can you enlighten us on the current situation?”
The voice of the newscaster’s female counterpart joined in after a couple of seconds, eager to share the latest advancements with the audience.
“Yes, Daniel, it is now 2:04 in the afternoon in New Delhi, and crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands continue to demonstrate in all the major cities throughout India. While the situation looks relatively controlled here, the US Embassy was raided by a crowd of rioters just a few hours ago. According to our interpreters, their anger is directed at Covenant headquarters in New York.”
Andrey glared at the tiled bathroom floor. Six stories below him, the faceless top brass had been hiding out in their posh offices all week. When they returned to their families in the Hamptons on the weekend, nobody would even bat an eye at them.
“The people have even been burning UNEOA flags, as well as fan merchandise dedicated to the various Covenant members—especially those of Samael and Radiant, the group’s main enforcers—”
On impulse, Andrey smashed his fist into the bathroom mirror. It shattered with a loud crystalline cracking sound before he realized what he had done. Glittering shards of glass rained down into the sink and onto the floor. A few broken fragments of his reflection still clung to the mirror frame.
A single eye glared back at him, accusing him, reminding him of how he had ruined everything that mattered. Identity. Reputation. Both shaped a man’s role in the world and made him who he was.
One and a half years ago, Andrey had been an insignificant Russian architect—nothing more than a newly transitioned nobody. They brought him here, and he had looked out the windows of this apartment with a dream and a silver cross around his neck, wanting nothing more than to inspire hope in people.
By now, the whole world knew how that turned out.
As Andrey looked down at his unscathed fist as a distant memory of something Alexandra once said passed through his mind. Her voice had been softened by humor and her Greek accent at the time, months before she tried so hard to lose them both.
You can’t cut yourself, you silly thing. You know that.
Andrey didn’t remember the context. It was buried somewhere beneath everything that had gone wrong lately, all those things nagging at him because he couldn’t fix them. Politics. The never-ending power struggles with Samael. Numerous world issues. The bloody Covenant itself, and what it was turning into. What was he turning into?
Andrey silently worked his jaw, leaning into the edge of the vanity. An idea that had been at the back of his mind surfaced. In an instant, he made a decision.
A decision he could never reverse. Shattering the mirror had taken something out of him. Some broken part of himself that wanted to hide away, craving alcohol and solitude. Once he made the decision, shutting out the dozens of voices that tried to dissuade him, he felt better. More stable. More like himself than he had in over a week. Most of his weariness had subsided as well, overpowered by the need to act.
The intercom system crackled as he walked into the bedroom. Naturally, Andrey couldn’t expect damage to UNEOA property to go without notice. He just hoped it wouldn’t be Samael on the other end of the line. Andrey was short on patience right now. With Samael, things had a tendency to escalate quickly.
“Andrey, are you feeling all right?” came Alexandra’s concerned voice. To her credit, she kept the alarm out of it. Her English was calm and almost eerily controlled. “I could come up for a little while, if you wanted. I am not doing anything important. How about I bring up some chocolates?”
Andrey pulled his costume from the wardrobe. The white and gold fabric had a familiar feel to it, and his fingers traced the golden rays that extended from the chest piece as he considered his response.
This costume was meant to be worn by a true hero, not a political puppet. He didn’t know who he was right that moment, but he knew that hero, rogue, and villain were simply labels handed out by the UNEOA’s threat assessment bureau. Labels didn’t change who a person was at their core. All Evolved were just people, often flawed and conflicted. The labels attached to them could change. He could change.
“Do you believe in me, Alexa?” he asked.
There were a few seconds of silence. His melancholy probably took her by surprise, as though she expected to soothe one of his angry flare-ups.
“What an odd question,” she answered.
She spoke in her Athena voice, a touch too professional and controlled. Didn’t she know what he really needed right now was Alexa, the sweet young woman he met eighteen months ago before things had gotten so screwed up?
“I want to know. Do you believe in me?” he pressed.
“Of course, I believe in you,” came an automatic sounding reply. “Now please unlock your door so we can have a discussion.”
He realized then he wanted to see her. He wanted to feel her soft curls between his fingers and look into her dark eyes. But knowing her, she would turn all psychotherapist on him before long.
“You could unlock the door if you wanted to, Athena.”
They both knew that because she had developed the security system for the whole UNEOA tower she had full access to every nook and cranny. If she absolutely wanted to storm into his room, she could. The fact that she didn’t spoke volumes. Perhaps she had doubts of her own.
She sighed in response, the sound of it distorted by the intercom.
“I respect your space, Andrey, but I also know when you need to talk. Believe it or not, I can relate to how you are feeling.”
No, you can’t. You weren’t there. You didn’t look into her eyes. Andrey could have asked one of his teammates to do the job. He knew all too well how much Samael had wanted to go, but Shanti had deserved better. Someone who spoke to her, someone who would listen to her. Someone who cared about her.
The memory of her last moments pushed him to this irreversible decision. He would face many risks, he knew, and his family would lose the benefits of the UNEOA’s maximum security protection. He was fully aware of the threat villains posed to hero relatives.
My family’s safety is my responsibility now, Andrey thought.
He fingered the green and gold UNEOA armband on the sleeve of his costume before ripping it off with a tug. Somewhere above the camera buzzed faintly, following his every move, but he changed anyway. He and Alexandra had shared a bed too often for him to be bashful about undressing in front of her.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Reinventing myself,” he said.
“You have nothing to feel guilty about,” she said in an appeasing tone he knew only too well. “You followed the orders that came from the top. Her powers—”
“Went off the charts, yes,” he interrupted wearily. “Over a mile radius. They passed through any barrier. Plants, people, animals, soil. I’ve seen the reports, Alexa,” he finished, his tone gentle.
She didn’t respond right away. Maybe she was convincing herselfXXXX. He’d certainly done the same in the days after Shanti’s execution order. He just hadn’t been very successful.
“Tell me that you really believe that she would have ended the world by healing it,” he said.
“We will never know,” she answered softly. Her voice became firm. “The rules are there for a reason. We have to trust the scientists, and they had predicted mutations and aftereffects. We have both seen the data, Andrey. The feedback theory cannot be denied.”
“So we had to kill her?” Andrey spat.
“After her surge, Shadowslasher and Monsoon surged in quick succession,” Alexandra reminded him with a lover’s patience. “The link cannot be denied. And on such a large scale, we could not take any risks.”
Andrey was only halfheartedly listening now. He had heard the same argument often enough. His faith in science had limits, especially when the white coats dabbled in fortunetelling. He couldn’t help but to wonder if the UNEOA’s decision had been influenced by villain schemes. Villains thrived on chaos. That was a fact, not a cliché.
He pulled his helmet onto his head. The face piece, with its small winged adornments, covered the upper half of his face. A dark-tinted visor protected his eyes from the blinding radiance of his own power.
The higher ups didn’t take any risks.
Like Samael, part of Andrey’s powers included exceptional mobility, which could be considered a blessing as well as a curse. They could both travel between locations at hypersonic speeds. However, Samael was an Evoker, while Andrey had access to Lightshaper powers. Their abilities were both powerful and dangerous, which meant that they had to remain under strict supervision at all times. It didn’t help that they had both been listed among the top three individuals to be considered an apocalyptic threat if their powers surged.
Only the Sleepwalker ranked above them on that list.
Andrey suspected the perceived threat levels of Samael and himself were the main reason that they had been invited to the Covenant. Cameras, regular psychological checks, and the UNEOA’s promise to watch over their families, had been part of their hero lives as much as the villain hunts.
“I’m worried about the people, Alexandra.” Andrey directed his visor at the camera as he spoke. “You and I both know how this could escalate. I think I know how I can fix things, but they won’t even let me try. I’m a figurehead, nothing more. The idea behind the Covenant, the one you and I used to believe in, is dead.”
As Andrey crossed the bedroom to the balcony door, he caught sight of his reflection in the sliding glass doors.
Radiant stared back at him.
“Whatever you are planning to do. . . Andrey, please reconsider.” Alexandra’s next words sounded pained. “If you turn rogue and they decide to come after you, I do not think I can hold them back.”
He knew there was something she wasn’t saying: that she wouldn’t be able to provide much in the way of support without incriminating herself. He was calling her loyalties into question, her loyalty to him and to the Covenant.
He hesitated, his gloved hand resting on the sliding glass door handle. He was aware that rogues weren’t considered acceptable anymore. Samael would jump at the chance to subdue him. But Andrey had brooded over this decision for days. He was a man who stuck to his beliefs, and he didn’t believe in this supervised life anymore.
“Andrey. Did you hear me?” It wasn’t a question.
He felt a pang of guilt for making Alexandra worry. Of all the women who were currently part of his life, she was the one he respected the most.
He knew she would manage.
“I’ll be in touch through my helmet,” Andrey said. “As long as Iris provides the actual support, they can’t convict you for maintaining contact with a former teammate.”
“Is that all I am to you now? A former teammate?”Instead of answering, he stepped out into the night and threw himself over the railing. He noted how the cool air rushed past him as he plummeted alongside the UNEOA skyscraper’s glass facade while the sea of lights below drew nearer as he plunged into the darkness.
For a moment, a weaker part of him toyed with the idea of letting gravity have its way.
His mind’s eye confronted him with Shanti’s beautiful brown-skinned face. Her graceful movements and the bells that had chimed about her ankles. Her soft voice with its heavy East Indian-accented English replayed in his mind for the millionth time.
I forgive you. But please, protect the people.
Radiant’s power flared with a brilliant burst of light, illuminating every single window on the skyscraper’s facade, steadying him in the air halfway between the Covenant’s penthouse hero suites and the streetlights that dotted the ground below. His luminescence extended out into the shape of angel wings, each spanning twenty-six feet in length. He had defined their shape, along with his Evolved identity, one and a half years ago. Back when he thought people would love him for saving the world.
A thought passed through his mind as he hung upside down in the night air, a shining beacon in the dark sky.
I have to be the hero who cares for humanity, if no one else will.
But first, he needed to go home.
Radiant’s power flared once more, carrying him halfway across the globe in a flash of light.