New York, USA – Saturday, the 9th of June, 2012. 07:31 PM.
Andrey arrived at Katsuro’s civilian apartment in Manhattan without expectations. He already knew that Alexandra’s negotiations with the various established Evolved factions hadn’t been more successful than his own meeting with Preacher, and it wasn’t likely that he would get a chance to meet someone new tonight. He hoped to spend an evening with friends, if nothing else.
It was Alexandra who opened the door. She wore a dark blue strapless dress that he hadn’t seen on her in more than a year, making him glad that they chose a private location which eliminated the need for costumes. She had pinned up her black hair in a way which flattered her fine features and dark eyes, but a few curls had escaped their hairpins. She made a futile attempt to rein them in before hugging him.
Chamomile shampoo, he thought, breathing her in.
He smiled down at the tumble of curls that brushed against his dress shirt. “Normally I only get hugs after helping you with your paperwork,” he joked.
“I missed you,” she murmured into shirt. “I have not seen you in four and a half days.”
He could have said he was sorry, but he didn’t want to lie to her. He had missed her company, sure. He had missed her wisdom, her reassurance, her warmth, but the gentle press of her body reminded him of his mother’s warning about not misleading her. Alexandra probably read more into their relationship than there was.
He stepped back from the hug with a friendly squeeze before peeking through the open door. “Is Maya here yet?” he asked. “Katsuro said that she might be held up by an interview for the Wardens.”
“Yes, she has arrived,” Alexandra answered stiffly. “She will not join the existing Wardens team. The Department of Evolved Affairs is considering a new team based out of the East Coast. She would be among its first members, along with the Canadian and other independent rogues who agree to the terms.”
There won’t be any independent rogues left before long, he thought, recalling the UNEOA’s new heavy-handed approach to unknown entities.
“How is she taking it?” Andrey asked.
“Better than we thought. She will be able to see Katsuro more often if she joins a team on the East Coast, as opposed to the Wardens on the other side of the country.”
Andrey wondered how she might fit into a hero team. Rose the Red could give off an irresistible scent that had a variety effects from poisoning to putting anyone within range to sleep. Fortunately, she had the option of deactivating her power. The same had not been true for others.
He stepped through the doorway without voicing his doubts. “I should say hello before Katsuro makes any jokes about rude Russians,” he said instead.
Katsuro Sakai—known as Paladin, the world’s most famous Revoker—had furnished his spacious three-room condo in a Western style rather than relying on Japanese design. The living room looked American, complete with a large flat screen TV hung above a gas fireplace. Two beige designer couches were arranged around a glass coffee table, and a set of French doors led out to the large balcony on the northern side of the room. The only Japanese elements were a low wooden dining table and the half a dozen legless Zaisu chairs surrounding it. Andrey smiled as he remembered something Katsuro had said once: The best way to get a glimpse at a man’s soul is to force him to sit up straight while eating pizza.
True to form, Katsuro sat perfectly upright on one of the couches with one hand resting beside his girlfriend’s knee, not quite touching it. He was tall and powerfully built for an Asian, with a hard edge to his beardless face.
“Hey, Katsuro,” Andrey said as he entered the space. “Hi, Maya.”
Katsuro stood to shake Andrey’s hand. Maya offered a wriggle of her delicate fingers. She had styled her red hair into a loose ponytail that hung over one shoulder, and her lean figure sported a healthy tan.
Andrey nodded at the glass in Maya’s hand. “Did you save some wine for me?”
“Of course, we did, you boozer,” she joked amiably. “Good thing, too. It looks like you could use a glass.” Her grin softened. “You doing okay?”
“Yeah, I just need to catch up on some sleep is all.” Andrey did his best to sound convincing.
“Don’t we all,” Katsuro broke in, his tone half-joking as he settled back down on the couch. “They’re making the rest of us do all your work.”
Maya reached over the coffee table for the wine bottle and a clean glass. “Don’t you mighty heroes ever get a vacation?”
“I should take Alexa’s advice, and wind down for a few days,” Andrey said thoughtfully.
Maya gave him a wink as she poured the wine into the glass. “Maybe we should leave you alone with her later, hmm? We have a surprise guest, so you better behave,” she teased, passing the glass to Andrey.
“Surprise guest?” Andrey asked, taking the wine. From where he stood, he couldn’t see anyone else.
Alexandra came up beside him. “In the bathroom,” she whispered.
I’m not the only one who needs a break, he thought, noting her droopy eyelids. Before he could ask another question, the bathroom door opened with a click. A moment later, the chime of bones, clattering against each another, filled the small apartment.
“Calavera?” Andrey couldn’t hide his surprise.
She grinned at his dumbfounded expression. Calavera must already have been flying out of Mexico while she filled Andrey in on the details of the meeting.
The imported hero stepped into the living room in full costume. His mask resembled the upper section of a human skull, supplemented by large yellow teeth that had been painted around Calavera’s mouth. His black suit was adorned with the imprint of a life-sized skeleton, which would have been painfully cliché without the addition of the multi-hued neon buttons that lined his jacket. The rattling sound came from his trademark poncho made of pieces of bone strung together. Real bone, Andrey knew.
It was a welcome surprise. Andrey had hoped for a positive response from the South American hero team, which included Central America, but he hadn’t expected their leader to show up in person.
The specifics of Calavera’s powers had never been made public, but rumors said that the man fit the classic definition of a necromancer: telekinetic powers with a focus on dead matter, namely bones and wood. Andrey had also heard that Calavera’s poncho was possessed by his dead grandfather, who had been a Mexican brujo. The bones were believed to react to certain stimuli, including falseness, subjects of great interest, and impending disasters.
Or maybe Calavera himself rattled them for the sake of theatrics.
“Hola, Calavera,” Andrey greeted the man.
The bone fragments rattled as the Mexican hero shook Andrey’s extended hand.
“We won’t get you into trouble by meeting with us, I hope,” Andrey added, gauging whether or not Calavera was responding to Andrey’s cooperation request in his official capacity.
“No, señor,” Calavera assured with his overstated Mexican accent as he claimed a seat on the vacant couch. “There will be no trouble. It is a team decision that we will work with you. Not … how do you say in English? La Confederación?”
“The Covenant,” Maya supplied.
His team has agreed to circumvent the Covenant to join me? Andrey wondered. Considering that the other hero teams had refused to even meet with him, it was almost too easy. What did Alexandra tell him? He watched her sit on the couch beside Calavera. She must have noticed his eyes on her, but she refused to meet his gaze.
Andrey raised his wine glass to his lips to hide his frown.
Katsuro kicked off their official meeting. “Shall we get started?” he said, his tone matching his military straight posture.
The man never takes full advantage of his couch. With that thought, Andrey claimed the seat beside Alexandra and settled back, stretching out his long legs. She shifted closer, leaning into him.
“I believe Andrey would appreciate it if we started with the core issues,” Katsuro suggested.
Andrey gave him a thumbs up without lifting his arm from the comfortable padding and the gentle curve of Alexandra’s body beside him.
Maya leaned back to watch the others with a twinkle in her eyes. “Let’s get this over with so we can relax.”
“Maybe you should start by explaining your intentions,” Katsuro suggested to Andrey.
Andrey nodded slowly. Just what are my intentions? he asked himself, still unsure of the answer.
“Well … as some of you already know, I’m no longer associated with the Covenant, the UNEOA, or anyone else,” he said, picking his words carefully.
If anyone in the room was surprised, they didn’t show it.
“I’ve tried to establish contacts with various factions around the world for some time, but my hands were tied,” he continued. “Now that I can speak for myself, I have more options.” He paused before adding, “Risky options.”
“Where’s the risk in talking to other heroes?” Maya asked.
“The Covenant has been the major player in Evolved politics for the last two years. They won’t appreciate other players on the board,” Andrey explained. “Especially not one who used to be their figurehead for political campaigning.” He willed his fingers to relax their grip on his wineglass. He needed to appear level-headed if he wanted to change the world order.
“Andrey, you are the most popular and respected hero worldwide,” Alexandra said. “If there is anyone who can bring everyone to the table, it is you.”
He appreciated the fact that she didn’t mention how his last official mission had ruined his reputation, or how his actions had tainted the Covenant’s popularity, but, judging from the guarded looks on everyone’s faces, no one was fooled by Alexandra’s words.
He had no choice but to address the elephant in the room. “We all know that the Covenant’s influence and credibility have been weakened by the Shanti incident.” No one denied it, making it easy for him to continue without interruption. “So now the time is ripe for the various factions to reconsider their positions.”
It was a good opportunity, Andrey knew, but also dangerous. Every increment of change he accomplished would create powerful enemies along the way.
“Maybe you hope this meeting is about some kind of grand plan about how to restore world stability. Answers to power surges, the future of the world, and whatnot.”
He peered down into his glass to avoid their expectant stares. I hope the same.
“I don’t have any answers at this point,” Andrey admitted. “All I know is that the way we’ve seen those issues handled so far hasn’t improved the situation.”
Calavera’s bone cloak clattered in what could have been agreement or disapproval, distracting Andrey’s train of thought. He searched for some kind of thread to pick back up.
“I want to make decisions that feel right to me, and I want to invite you all to join me in the search for answers,” he finished, drained of energy.
Calavera nodded his skull-covered head, eyes hidden behind the dark lenses that had been worked into the skull’s eye holes. Relieved to know that he had the South American heroes on side, Andrey turned to Katsuro.
The stoic Asian was a hard man to read. He wasn’t the kind of person who betrayed his feelings on his face, but he had proven himself to be a reliable friend on more than one occasion. Of all the people on earth, Andrey trusted Katsuro more than almost anyone else. The Japanese hero wasn’t one to rush his decisions, and Andrey knew he had to respect that.
He turned to the other person in the room with whom he would trust his life. “Alexa?” he asked, surprised to discover that he was squeezing her fingers. He wasn’t usually the needy one.
“Can we talk about this later?” she whispered, averting her eyes.
He knew her well enough to know that there was something she wasn’t telling him. When did we start keeping secrets? he wondered. Andrey’s mood became tainted by a distant feeling of betrayal. He had expected at least a little enthusiasm for his plan. She, of all people, knew how much it meant to him.
When he took his hand away from hers, she noticed. A wounded look rippled over her face before she regained her composure.
“I received an answer from the Mukhtareen,” she offered. “They are interested, but hesitant. They will consult among themselves before committing. If you converted to Islam, it would speed things up.”
“Not an option,” Andrey said. He had read some of the Quran, but he wasn’t ready or willing to invest his faith in any god.
“I assumed as much, and have already given them that answer,” Alexandra told him. “Prophet has agreed to speak to you in person if you wish to accept the invitation.”
Andrey decided not to respond at the moment. While Prophet, the Turkish teenage genius with superhuman wisdom, looked pleasant enough on TV, Andrey wasn’t sure he was ready to have another brush with religion quite yet. He was still in recovery from meeting Preacher.
“Nothing from the rogues?” he asked instead.
Alexandra just shook her head.
They’re suspicious of Shanti’s killer, he deduced. Can’t blame them.
On the other end of the couch, Calavera’s bone poncho rattled.
Andrey needed a change in subject so he turned to Katsuro. “Sensei, have you changed your mind? Will you agree to replace me as leader on the Covenant team? I’m sure everyone here agrees that Samael would be a bad fit, and you’re more experienced than anyone. The Assembly would approve of your suggestion, I’m sure.”
Katsuro’s face hardened. “I changed my mind, maybe, but I did not change my heart.” He settled his fingers on his chest in a solemn gesture. “Since I’m the second transition in history, it means that I’ve had more time to make poor decisions on my own.”
“You don’t need to make decisions on your own,” Andrey insisted. “You could set up a team vote structure, like I tried to do.”
“Tried is the operative word,” Katsuro replied. “I’m sure that I would come up against the same walls as you, especially with my history.”
Andrey recalled that Katsuro’s first hero name had been Ronin, back when he had made some mistakes. But who hasn’t made mistakes?
“Do you remember what you told me right after I joined up?” Andrey asked his friend. “You said, ‘Don’t let the past be dead weight on your feet’. Everyone here believes in you, Sensei. And for good reason.”
There were nods of agreement, and Maya squeezed Katsuro’s hand. Calavera shifted on his seat with a faint chime of bones.
“Fine,” Katsuro agreed with the stoic resignation of a man condemned to death. “I’ll announce my candidacy for overseer Vega tomorrow.”
Alexandra echoed Andrey’s unspoken thoughts. “We appreciate it, Katsuro. We all know what Samael’s main priority would be if he were made leader.”
“To kill every rogue who isn’t locked away, even if that means total war,” Katsuro replied.
Andrey caught Maya, stealing a glance in his direction. When their eyes met, she averted her gaze as if she was ashamed of making the connection to him.
“Speaking of rogues, what direction does the Assembly plan to take?” he asked, forcing himself to relax his grip on the armrest.
Alexandra was first to respond. “The zero tolerance rule is in effect. Rogues remain outlaws, but the Assembly remains conservative with kill orders, except for proven villains.”
“What about recruitment?” he asked, aware that he was undertaking his own recruitment campaign of sorts.
“Known rogues in Europe, and in parts of Asia, are now contacted and encouraged to join monitoring programs.”
“Consider me warned,” he joked lamely.
“Perhaps I should take you into my personal custody,” Alexandra responded, offering an equally lame grin.
Andrey was reminded of how good it was to hear her laugh. He needed her friendship right now; he needed her.
Katsuro cleared his throat. “Is there anything else we should discuss?” he asked, turning to Calavera.
The Mexican hero held up his hands. “No. I just wanted Radiant to know he has our support.”
“Thank you, friend,” Andrey replied, reaching across Alexandra to shake Calavera’s hand. The bone poncho rattled its approval.
“Alright, meeting adjourned,” Katsuro proclaimed.
Maya clapped her hands before reaching for an unopened bottle of wine.
“Stay for a glass, Calavera,” Katsuro offered. “You are my guest.”
“Yes, stay,” Maya urged. “We’ll order in some food while Alexandra and Andrey have a private chat on the balcony.”
Andrey caught Katsuro and Alexandra exchange a telling glance. Is this about her secret? he wondered. He rose from his seat with a tight feeling in his chest and gave Alexandra’s hand a tug. She met his gaze, but it took her a few long seconds to stand and join his side.
Too much hesitation.
They stepped past the dining table through the balcony door into the warm summer air. Alexandra pulled the door closed behind them, but only partway.
Leaning over to rest his elbows on the rail, Andrey looked around at the dusk-painted skyline. The mild breeze carried the scent of New York: exhaust fumes, fresh-cooked food, and a faint note of trash. He wasn’t in the mood to appreciate the view. He was aware that Alexandra stood behind him, and that it took her half a minute to come to his side.
He had put her in an awkward position. She worked hard to earn the respect of the UNEOA officials, but he also knew that she wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt him.
“What’s going on?” he asked, keeping his eyes straight ahead.
“You have until midnight to return to the Covenant,” she said in one quick breath. “Once that deadline has passed, we are ordered to cut off all communication with you.”
“Why?” Andrey sounded calmer than his tight grip on the rail suggested.
“I can only guess. So can you.”
He sighed. “We knew this was a possibility.”
“The automated routines of your helmet will still work without my active involvement. As will Iris.”
He looked her in the eye. “You’re one of maybe three people whose communication isn’t traced if you don’t want it to be.”
“I am not taking the risk, Andrey.” There was a waver to her voice as a single tear rolled down her cheek, tinted red by the sunset.
Lord knows why, but the woman is crying her eyes out for you. Samael’s words from the day before rang through Andrey’s mind. She’s scared, he realized, and that sentiment was rare enough for her that it frightened him in turn. “If they threatened to harm you for talking to me, I want to know right this second,” he demanded.
“It is you Samael threatened to kill if we are in contact, and you know he could do it.” There was a pleading urgency in her eyes.
Andrey didn’t respond, pulling her petite body into his arms instead. She nuzzled into him and murmured something unintelligible, the words lost in the billow of warmth he felt through the fabric of his shirt.
I’m not sorry I left, but I am sorry I left you with my tainted legacy.
“You know I can take care of myself,” he whispered against the top of her head. “But if it makes you feel better, we won’t talk until the situation has changed.”
“Yes,” came her muffled response. “I can still find other ways to support you.” She took a step back to look into his face.
He tugged at one of her stray curls. “How about we focus on tonight for right now?”
She didn’t smile like he expected. She just wiped her eyes. “There is more I have to tell you, Andrey.”
“Hmm? What is it?”
Alexandra took a step back to lean against the railing. “I received an email from … an anonymous source. I could not trace it, but I suspect that it came from the Conglomerate. The sender attached a long list of data. Incidents in chronological order, information regarding powers, et cetera.”
“And you think it came from the Conglomerate?”
“Who else would have this kind of information, and have the ability to hide their tracks from me?”
“This email has you worried?” he prompted, only half listening. He didn’t want to spend their last night together by talking about business.
“For the most part the information complements what we already knew and shows that the feedback theory is correct, but in a different way than we expected.”
His mind snapped to full attention.
“After reading the message, I went through our database to do more research. The email contained exact data about time of transition and death for almost fifty Evolved. And yet, we still cannot begin to understand the different power categories.”
Andrey agreed, though he never paid all that much attention to the UNEOA’s research.
“Well, I looked up the times and dates when the Evolved of each particular category died, and then I compared that information to the occurrence of new transitions in the same category.” Alexandra took a deep breath. “They match, Andrey.”
Now it was Andrey who leaned against the railing. “You mean….”
“The feedback theory is correct. But it is triggered by death, not life.”
Andrey pressed his knuckles to his brow as he processed the information. Something about it struck a chord within him, reminding him of something he jotted down in his notes a few days ago. He must have lost the thread somewhere in the heap of other issues that had occupied him lately.
Categories. Of course. As the understanding surfaced, Andrey’s breathing stopped. “Dancer,” he murmured, sucking in air through parted lips. “Oh, God. When did Shanti die again?”
“Approximately five fifteen p.m., Greenwich Mean Time,” she replied succinctly, making it clear that she had made the same connection.
“And Dancer’s transition?”
“At approximately five twenty.”
Dancer, the girl who didn’t fit any of the patterns. Dancer, whose classification was one of a kind. Dancer, whose range was staggering even though she hadn’t even surged. She had summoned her family from a mile away during her transition, for crying out loud, from a mile away.
Andrey pressed his fists to his temples, attempting to absorb the idea. This was more than just significant, it was world-changing. “So she’s the Healer?” he said, more to himself than to Alexandra.
Alexandra shook her head. “She moved her family, yes, but they were not physically changed in any way. Even though the scientists could not complete that many tests when she was in Swiss custody, there is little reason to believe she could fill Shanti’s role.”
Andrey was confused. “Then what does that make her? Because if the category remains the same….”
Alexandra didn’t respond. She just stood there, peering up at him with those dark eyes. “I will compile a file with the complete data as well as a strong recommendation for the research team.”
Another question surfaced in Andrey’s mind. “Is this the first time the Conglomerate’s contacted you?”
Alexandra nodded, her eyes on the skyline now.
“Well, what exactly did they want?”
“They hope I can pull some strings to prevent more execution orders. They believe Evolved deaths can lead to power surges.”
“What do you believe?”
“I am not sure, but I do disagree with wide-scale executions.” Her voice was firm, composed. Nothing about her face hinted at the vulnerability she showed just minutes before. That was his Alexandra, determined to succeed. Andrey didn’t doubt for a second that she would follow her own path, with or without him.
“Alexa,” he said, appealing to the trusted friend beneath the squared shoulders and firm expression. “Can I ask one last favor before midnight?”
She turned to him, curious.
“Find the girl and keep her safe. You’re the only one who’s got the expertise, the resources and the contacts.”
“I know you feel responsible, Andrey, but she is not Shanti.”
“This isn’t about Shanti.” His voice was ragged.
Alexandra’s dark eyes bore into Andrey’s. “I know you,” she replied with gentle firmness. “I see her shadow behind everything you have done over the past few days. I have seen how she has eaten away at you. You have to let her go. That is the favor I am asking of you.”
“I have let her go,” he insisted, struggling to keep the frustration from his voice. “But what I’m talking about now is different. If this girl is truly beyond everything we know about powers, then she’s important.” He wasn’t sure which part of his sleep-deprived mind inspired his words, but he would figure it out later. As usual.
Alexandra’s features took on a blank expression as she watched the darkening skyline. “I know you do not want to hear this right now, but we have to be careful. The girl said that during her transition, she had angry thoughts. Thoughts she did not understand. She said she was uncertain of her identity, as if it was affected by something or someone else.”
“Transitions are often confusing. You know that,” Andrey pointed out.
“Andrey, we have to consider the possibility that the girl is not in full control of herself. That Shanti’s death spawned the Antithesis.”
Beyond the glass door, Calavera’s bone threads rattled so violently that they were heard out on the balcony. Andrey and Alexandra turned just in time to see the poncho violently disassemble in a wave of fragments. Pieces of bone scattered Katsuro’s condo and showered their assembled friends. Some pieces traveled far enough to hit the glass balcony doors with a clatter.
“What the….” Andrey started. He jerked open the balcony door, running into the living room where Calavera unleashed a tsunami of Spanish profanities while he examined the remains of his trademark.
“Is anyone hurt?” he asked into the room.
“We’re fine,” Maya said, studying a wine stain on the front of her blouse. “Calavera’s abuelo must have got upset by something, that’s all.”
Andrey surveyed the bone pieces that were still twitching on the ground. He turned back to Alexandra, who had followed him in from the balcony.
“Help me find that girl,” he said.