Prague, Czech Republic – Friday, the 8th of June, 2012. 08:53 AM.
Radiant used the bulk of his body to brace himself against the swirling gusts that were slamming into him. Gathering his powers, he transformed himself into a beam of light that briefly illuminated the overcast sky, then shot himself upwards until he reached an altitude just above the rooftop he’d just been pushed from.
Looking down, he could see that Samael hadn’t moved. His former teammate was keeping himself suspended next to a church’s bell tower — playing to the gallery, no doubt. The long ribbons of gray and silver that streamed from his costume were whipping at the air around him. In a way, they served as the Dark Angel’s version of wings.
Samael had been listed as the second most dangerous Evolved after the Sleepwalker for good reason. His control over air involved the ability to create vacuums over entire areas and enabled him to crush bones with increased air pressure.
Radiant knew his former teammate better than he would have liked. The two of them had never been on particularly good terms, and their relationship had cooled down even further after Radiant’s unanimous election as leader of the Covenant.
Fortunately, Samael’s body language didn’t suggest an escalation that was likely to end in a duel to the death. If he ever did get serious about harming Radiant, he’d strike hard, fast, and definitely without warning. At any rate, he’d succeeded in challenging Radiant’s self-control — which was probably exactly what he’d intended.
“Did you fly all this way to provoke me, or are you planning to address this situation?” Radiant asked, jerking his chin towards the rubble-strewn alley where the trapped level-eight threat continued to pace between the glass obstacles. Judging by their color and lack of glow, the molten puddles had cooled to a solid state by now.
“Are you suggesting that I kill this thing?” Samael replied in his distinctive South African English, throwing a disgusted look down at the new transition.
Thing? Is he even aware that there’s still a person in there somewhere? Regardless of how high the level of threat, Radiant never found it easy to put another human being down.
Especially not her.
“You know why he can’t be killed outright,” Radiant answered, stressing the word ‘he’ and its implied humanity as he gestured towards the alley. “His aura has absorbed untold amounts of energy.”
“Why don’t you flutter off and let the heroes handle this? You know the protocol: when the Covenant comes in, the rogues get the fuck out.”
Fuck you for knowing just how to piss me off.
Realizing that he was starting to lose his temper frustrated Radiant even more; Natalya would have been disappointed. He forced himself not to rise to the bait.
“I know you aren’t coming back, Andrey,” Samael said, his currents carrying his words through the air. “Things will get interesting when the others finally realize that. Alexandra’s still holding out hope, you know. Lord knows why, but the woman is crying her eyes out for you.”
Radiant knew that if he stayed another moment, he’d say something he’d regret.
“Have fun, Samael,” he said instead. Then he charged up and beamed himself a few hundred kilometers north, towards the Sleepwalker’s last reported position.
Without Athena’s active involvement, his helmet’s software ran on automated algorithms. They weren’t as effective, but they still allowed him to find his way. He discovered his target after three more jumps.
Nothing seemed changed. If there was some kind of connection between this ongoing threat and the student in Prague — one that went deeper than the consumption of drugs — it wasn’t apparent.
The Sleepwalker was a man in his forties who’d committed suicide on sleeping pills several months ago, shortly after he’d transitioned. Since then, he’d shuffled brainlessly towards the Polish border with the tireless persistence of a walking dead. He was wearing blue pajamas and no shoes; the waking dream in which he existed prevented him from grinding his feet down to bloody stumps. Physical and biological limitations didn’t apply to him anymore. The man never stopped walking, didn’t need to sleep or eat. Whenever he reached a body of water, he simply turned in a different direction and kept going, though it was possible he might have been able to cross them.
Nothing could deter his path. Water hoses had been used to shift his direction slightly, but any attempts at fencing him in had failed; he could channel his untiring strength to scale anything and endure all types of barbed wire. Thus, the European authorities had settled on a strategy dubbed ‘watchful waiting’ until they figured out how to deal with him.
A procession of a hundred or so people shambled along behind him, all with similarly distant gazes and drooling, gaping mouths. There had been thousands at one point, back before efficient evacuation plans could be implemented. Any attempts at waking these followers from the Sleepwalker’s influence had ended badly. Further back, a few stragglers whose legs had failed them crawled along. They were the ones whose relatives kept on hoping for a cure instead of requesting a sniper shot.
Radiant could see the European Evolved Union’s helicopter hovering a couple hundred meters below him, accompanied by a second chopper marked with a TV station’s logo. The world watched the Sleepwalker’s slow march with bated breath, hoping he’d never surge.
Noting the media’s presence, Radiant decided to move on. Everything seemed status quo here, and he didn’t want to risk opening himself up to questions he wasn’t ready or willing to answer.
Instead, he beamed himself a few thousand kilometers east, into the heart of Russia.
He was relieved to find his apartment in Moscow just as he’d left it. Alexandra had installed some subtle safeguards to alert him of any intruders, but so far the alarms had never identified any. Hopefully that meant his personal refuge was still a guarded secret. It was nothing special — just a typical two-room bachelor pad with empty glasses and vodka bottles scattered across various surfaces.
After stripping off his costume, Andrey grabbed a shower and changed into some civilian clothes. He ordered in some stuffed pancakes from a nearby take-out joint and then checked his e-mail. One new message revealed Preacher’s confirmation of the meeting Andrey had requested for that afternoon.
When his food arrived, he tipped the delivery boy handsomely. Stepping past the unplugged phone that had never been in service, he cleared a few empty glasses off the coffee table and took a seat on the second-hand couch.
After wolfing down the pancakes, he poured himself a drink from the stash of bottles in his minibar. It wasn’t so much the alcohol itself that he craved; it was the familiarity of it, the taste of home and the memories of happier days before superpowers.
Back when he’d known who he was. Before he’d started questioning everything about himself.
When he finished downing the drink, he felt ready to check the Athena-designed communications device that had replaced his phone. As long as the higher-ups hadn’t permanently banned all communications with him, Athena had probably already sent updates on any new developments since she’d disconnected from him earlier that morning.
Andrey pressed the button and a recording of Athena’s voice sounded from the small black box.
“Andrey, I do not know how happy overseer Vega and the Assembly will be, but I want to thank you for stepping in to handle the Prague transition. I apologize for having tried to stop you. The Chief Executive of the Czech Republic was very grateful when he contacted headquarters this morning. All remaining residents near the danger zone have been evacuated, and we believe that Prague will be habitable again once Paladin has removed the threat.”
They’ll cheer three times for the Covenant, no doubt, Radiant thought, peering into his empty glass. I bet nobody will even know I was there. He tried not to be affected by the petty thought, but he couldn’t help it.
Three cheers for Samael.
While Andrey refilled his glass, Athena’s voice continued to be relayed.
“You made the right call by stepping in. Please let me know about your observations and interpretations after you check this message. We will use any new information to augment Samael’s report.”
Samael’s never been very good at reporting, Radiant recalled. He prefers quick kills to systematic observations.
Andrey threw back the second shot of vodka, relishing its burn in the back of his throat.
“There is still no news of the recently disappeared young Evolved, but the last of the riots have calmed down. The UNEOA’s press conference is set for next Tuesday, but the Assembly has not yet come to a conclusion regarding the information that will be released.”
What could they possibly say to justify Shanti’s elimination? Andrey wondered, slipping into a spell of melancholy.
“As per your request, I am working on contacting various parties for you.”
He gave a genuine smile. He should have known that Athena would come through for him. Well, not for him, exactly. She believed there was a need for real change, too.
“I need more time to track down the rogues who may be of interest to you, but I have managed to set up a meeting with Paladin and Rose tomorrow evening at Paladin’s private apartment Manhattan,” her voice continued. “It is unlikely anyone else will be present, however. The Wardens are occupied with the investigation of the American off-grid cases. The South American Triumvirate may consider cooperation with you, but I am still waiting on their decision. I have reason to believe that Saint may be in contact with Preacher.”
I doubt he is the only one. Being told they’re gods appeals to many Evolved.
“The Mukhtar want to wait and see, and the European Evolved Union refuses any communication that is not official,” the recording continued.
So much for talking to the Viking.
Andrey had met the EEU’s team leader, Rune, on several occasions. The Swedish hero was easy to like — and even easier to share a drink with. Andrey planned to establish contact with him regardless, avoiding official channels.
The Mukhtar’s reaction was no surprise. The Arab Evolved League had been doing its own thing for years, much like China. Both were efficient enough at suppressing trouble before it made international news that no one complained.
“I sent some surveillance drones out, but there was no trace of Raven. I suspect he . . .”
As Athena’s recording continued to ramble on, Andrey let his thoughts wander. They landed on Alexandra, and the way she’d spoken to him back before she’d implanted that dreadful language software in her head. She’d done it purely out of concern for her career as a heroine. The software had allowed her to master a few dozen languages in record time, but it seemed like she’d lost part of herself in the process.
He’d grown used to Athena’s stilted speech by now, but listening to so much of it at once made him miss the young Greek woman with the shy smile who’d communicated with her hands and eyes.
When the recording finally ended, Andrey grabbed a notepad and recorded the report she’d requested, trying to remember everything about the events in Prague that seemed important. He jotted down the ways the shadows were spawned and how they interacted with his lasers, their absorption effect and their apparent weakness to glass.
Once that was out of the way, he got ready for his meeting with Preacher. He didn’t expect very much to come of it, but after the terror he’d witnessed in Prague earlier, he felt more pressured than ever to find answers.
Maybe Preacher knew something that Andrey didn’t. Enough people seemed to believe in him that the meeting was worth a shot, and even though Andrey had no interest in joining the Guides of Destiny, he had to reconsider his role in the world. That morning had definitively proven that the lone hero act wasn’t going to work out for him in the long term. He hadn’t been able to deal with the threat on his own, and Samael had made it clear that he couldn’t rely on further cooperation from the Covenant.
If things went badly next time — if, God forbid, any undue innocents came to harm while he was on site — Andrey might even risk being branded with villain status. He knew how UNEOA bureaucracy worked, and it was not fond of rogues.
Andrey Luvkov had to find his place in the world all over again.
The Guides of Destiny headquarters in São Paulo didn’t look like one would expect for an organization that had over sixty million followers worldwide. Preacher’s sect had acquired a run-down, two-story brick hotel and had expanded it with various concrete extensions and outbuildings over the years.
Andrey had left his costume and helmet at home, wanting to just be himself for a while. Wearing a simple pair of jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, he rung the visitor’s bell beside the massive iron gate just like any average person might have. As he waited, he pulled the knit cap down over his brow to help hide his identity from passers-by.
His silver cross dangled over the front of his shirt. He wasn’t sure why he’d chosen to wear it. To set himself apart, perhaps. Preacher had banned his members from using religious symbols in accordance with the sect’s belief that all divine energy had left the world with the Pulse.
The intercom crackled and a female voice said something in Portuguese.
“I’m Andrey Luvkov,” he replied in English. “Mr. Varras is expecting me.”
“Yes. Moment,” the voice replied in heavily accented English.
The gate swung open thirty seconds later. An attractive Latina woman in her early forties met him on the other side and motioned for him to follow.
Preacher was waiting for him in a small but generously outfitted office that gave off a homey atmosphere. The furnishings were last-century vintage, and paintings depicting many natural wonders of the world almost completely covered the walls.
Fits his belief about our earth being the actual Garden of Eden, Andrey noted.
Preacher held himself with the poise of a fit middle-aged man who believed in himself. His curly black hair framed a set of keen dark eyes that settled upon the visitor with interest. He was sitting behind a simple wooden desk, his fingers laced together beneath a distinctively Latino-featured face.
“Mr. Luvkov, come in! May I call you Andrey?”
Andrey nodded and shook the offered hand. Preacher gestured for him to sit down in the armchair opposite the desk.
“Thank you so much for setting up this meeting,” Preacher enthused. “I’ve been wanting to meet you for many months now.” The Portuguese accent gave his voice a warm lilt that might have sounded amiable to a less suspicious visitor.
This is a dangerous man, with or without powers, Andrey reminded himself as he sat down.
“I’m sorry for the short notice,” Andrey replied. “My schedule has changed dramatically as of late.”
He studied the man behind the desk, looking for any kind of indication that he’d been informed of Radiant’s rogue status. He still didn’t know how the information had been leaked to Raven; perhaps Data had somehow intercepted some of Athena’s encrypted signals. She was still investigating.
Preacher chose to ignore Andrey’s comment and let his attention fall on Andrey’s silver cross instead. His lips curled into an almost smile. “What brings you here, Andrey? Your request was . . . vague.”
“I have some questions.”
The religious leader nodded. “Ah, yes. Most people do. Have you read any of my publications? They reveal a lot of answers. Unless they’re out of stock again?” Preacher frowned. “No matter. They should still be available online.”
“I’ve read some of them,” Andrey informed. “But they didn’t answer my questions.”
Preacher settled back in his armchair. “Let me guess. Maybe you’re looking for a change of direction?”
Andrey narrowed his eyes. The man was hitting too close for comfort.
“In a way, yes,” Andrey said slowly. “Although in this day and age, I believe everyone is struggling with change.”
Preacher nodded. “I agree. Have you heard my podcast series on the subject?”
“Some of them,” Andrey repeated. He’d underestimated Preacher’s evangelical tendencies. “And I couldn’t help but notice that some of your predictions were less inaccurate than those of most other people.”
“That’s because scientists are liars,” Preacher replied, sounding pleased. “The white coats care more about their tidy reports than about the truth.”
With surprising briskness, Preacher got up out of his chair and leaned over the desk. There was something unnerving about the intensity of his stare. Andrey didn’t flinch, but his muscles tensed.
Yes, the man denied having transitioned, but Queenie’s powers had revealed an anomaly about him that she hadn’t been able to figure out. It wasn’t unthinkable that some Evolved could hide their abilities from her.
“You are Godkin,” Preacher pronounced weightily. “You have more answers than anyone else — including me. But you are afraid of listening to yourself. Of listening into yourself.” Slowly, he sat back down and folded his hands, the epitome of calmness. “Tell me, Andrey. Why is it that you are so afraid of remembering?”
“What should I be remembering?” Andrey asked, not breaking eye contact.
“The Pulse. Is it not the root of all your questions?”
“I remember the Pulse. Everyone does — the power went out for the whole world, and when it came back on, the news didn’t talk about anything else for days.”
“But most have forgotten that one minute that was considered lost. I remember it. As you could, too, if you tried.”
Thousands have claimed the same thing, and their reports were all wildly different. Andrey kept watching the man’s face, saying nothing.
Preacher exhaled a long breath, his attention drifting back to Andrey’s silver cross.
“Your God loved you, Andrey,” he finally said.
The comment caught Andrey off guard.
If that was true, my wife wouldn’t have been murdered by petty thieves while I was in church with my mother.
Andrey’s fingers clenched into fists beneath the table edge, but he didn’t allow the emotion to find its way onto his face. He’d practiced long and hard to be the kind of calm, reasonable man who inspired others. It had worked for a while at least.
“And because He loved you, He gifted you before leaving this world,” Preacher declared.
Andrey desperately wanted him to stop talking.
Natalya was the only gift I ever wanted.
“You are a man of action. Someone who takes responsibility,” Preacher continued. “You are one of the few who are truly worthy.” He leaned over the table again. “You came here wanting to find your new role. Don’t deny it. Once you find that role and accept it, you will remember.”
“I never wanted this. I’m an architect,” Andrey said, looking down at the fists on his lap.
Preacher waited for him to continue, and he did. The words just fell into place, one after the other.
“I had the best wife a man could wish for. We had a good life. But this . . . God,” he spat through clenched teeth, his fingers jerking at the silver chain about his neck, “didn’t love her nearly as much as she deserved.”
Preacher’s eyes fell on the broken chain dangling from Andrey’s fingers. He looked unimpressed.
“Let me tell you a story, Andrey.” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Quite some time ago, I knew a lovely young woman who had a precious little girl. No older than four, I believe.”
What does this have to do with my wife? Andrey thought. Then he caught himself. Belatedly, he realized that he’d fallen into a trap. He hadn’t come here to talk about his own life — and now he was dangerously close to spilling more than he’d intended.
“One evening, when she’d turned her back for just two minutes, the girl disappeared. The end of this story is unpleasant, but suffice it to say that the neighbor’s drugged-up teenage son had gotten ahold of his father’s gun and mistook the girl for a monstrous wolf.”
Andrey forced his expression to remain blank. What’s the point of this?
“The poor woman was devastated, of course, and cursed the Lord for having abandoned her precious child. She took her own life not long after.”
Whatever point you’re trying to make, it doesn’t apply to Natalya. Or to me.
Preacher stood and began to pace the floor. “Here’s my point. One of the policemen on the case was so shaken by the incident that he dedicated the rest of his life to drug prevention. He started a foundation and saved hundreds of young addicts over the years.”
“Nothing good came of my wife’s death, Mr. Varras, believe me,” Andrey said, forcing his voice to remain calm.
The religious leader walked around to Andrey’s side of the desk. “Not so. Tragedy always creates good, though it may take many years — many centuries, even — to realize it. People need tragedy to outgrow their own self-interest.”
“I respectfully disagree,” Andrey said tightly.
Preacher’s footsteps echoed as he returned to his chair. “Tell me, Andrey. If your wife had still been living, would you have accepted the Covenant’s invitation to protect others?”
“Does it matter?” Andrey replied with a hard look. “Someone else would have jumped at the chance.”
“But not you. And I believe that time will tell that it’s you the world needs right now.”
Andrey was suddenly fed up with playing these games. “Just tell me this. Are your followers planning on getting involved in international conflict?”
The real question was whether his sixty million supporters had the means of arming themselves. Half a dozen Evolved followers were dangerous enough.
“The Guides of Destiny? No,” Preacher said simply. “But I will tell you one thing. Splinter groups are forming, and they might very well rally to defend the world’s Godkin from those agents who would harm them.”
Godkin like Shanti, Andrey filled in the blanks. And agents like me.
“Splinter groups led by whom?” he asked, forcing calmness into his tone.
“I’m not at liberty to say. If some of my followers stray from our doctrine, you will notice soon enough. In fact, I may inform you myself. But you shouldn’t rush to assume harmful intentions before anyone has actually done anything.”
After a moment of tense silence, Andrey stood. It didn’t look like he was going to get any real information out of the man, and he wasn’t willing to endure any more psychological prodding.
“Thank you for your time,” he said, voice calm.
If he was surprised by Andrey’s abrupt exit, Preacher didn’t show it. He simply got up from his seat and extended a hand, along with an irritating smile.
“I should be thanking you,” he schmoozed. “And if ever you find yourself in trouble . . . remember, you have friends here.”
Andrey didn’t agree with the sentiment, but he shook the offered hand with a curt nod. In two quick strides he was at the door. As he reached for the doorknob, Preacher’s voice rang out from behind him with feigned casualness.
“Are you sure you don’t remember the Pulse? Is that one minute of time really so vague, Andrey? Because I think it holds the answers you seek.”
Andrey didn’t know why the question bothered him so much, but it did.
“But even if you’ve forgotten, the Pulse will try to guide you,” Preacher continued. “I’ve seen it at work with some of our Godkin. Interestingly, children remember it best — especially the ones with close ties to Godkin.”
Andrey’s limbs felt heavy.
White lines on black paper.
“No one remembers,” he said, then stepped out of the room, not bothering to shut the door behind him.