In the air above Morristown, USA – Tuesday, the 12th of June 2012. 11:05 AM.
“Athena. Athena. Update 11:04 by WABC, New York. Broadcast stored. Mascot. Mascot. Update 11:04 by WABC, New York…” Iris’ artificial voice continued rattling off its list of names through Radiant’s helmet, just as it had done for the past hour. The UN’s upcoming press conference had thrown every international news channel into turmoil, and the radio surveillance program picked up so many trigger keywords that the information barrage never ceased for long.
Queenie’s name never came up again. The broadcasts about her fate had stopped some twenty minutes ago, shortly after the news of shots being fired at her in New York. By now, the radio silence had lasted long enough to hint at an UN-enforced news embargo.
No news usually meant bad news, Radiant knew.
Part of him wanted nothing more than to head over to the stadium and check on his former teammates. But seeing as his various communication attempts had been ignored, he didn’t expect to receive a warm welcome if he showed up in person.
I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you, Sarah. If I was, maybe none of this would have happened. The fact that he hadn’t known about the attack didn’t make it better. His ignorance was what frustrated him the most – none of his former teammates had spoken to him since their last get-together at Paladin’s place in New York. Radiant could believe that Samael was behind the cut off communications, but there had to be more to it.
The silence was too absolute to be born from one man’s threats.
Radiant relaxed the fingers of his fisted right hand and opened his eyes. He could make out the greyish haze of smog that hovered above New York far to the southeast. Seen from his aerial vantage point, the metropolis appeared as an accumulation of grayish specks that grew taller in the direction of the Atlantic Ocean.
Sarah Williams, more commonly known as Queenie, had been taken to one of the hospitals down there. The UN hadn’t revealed her exact location for understandable reasons, but Radiant had never felt more removed from his former friends than he did right now.
He knew better than to try contacting them again, but he couldn’t help himself. “Iris. Establish connection with Athena,” he said. The sound of his voice prompted the AI to cease the information barrage, giving him a moment of peace.
“Establishing connection with Athena,” Iris echoed. “Error. Connection refused. No port detected.”
Nothing new there. Radiant clenched his teeth in frustration, then decided to try a different approach.
“Record a message,” he said. “Observe the connection. If a port does open up, send the recorded message.”
“Understood, Andrey. Recording begins now.”
“Alexa.” Radiant raised his voice to be heard over the wind that tore at his costume. “I know we talked about this. You decided not to talk to me, and I respect that decision. But this is an emergency. I know Sarah was shot. Calavera told me what happened to Saint. I know that he’s no longer able to protect you, and that you’re vulnerable. Things have changed since the last time we talked… hell, everything has changed. I want to help. I need to.”
Once he’d gotten the words out, Radiant spent a few painfully long seconds awaiting Iris’ confirmation.
“Recording stored.” There was a pause, then the AI switched back to its standard routine, oblivious to the human drama it had witnessed. “Athena. Athena. Update 11:07 by Fox News, New York. Broadcast stored. Paladin. Paladin. Update 11:07 by Fox News, New York…”
Radiant waited for Iris to finish rattling off the names of Covenant and Wardens members before interrupting. “Replay that broadcast,” he commanded. “Fox News, 11:07.”
There was brief shift in the volume of background static. “Replaying broadcast. Announcements on hold.”
At that point, the AI’s artificial female voice was replaced by the male news anchor whose broadcast had triggered keyword detection. “It appears that two of the Covenant heroes, Athena and Paladin, have secured the Kingston Business Hotel. According to inside sources, the UN Secretary General is staying there for the duration of the event. A live transmission of his speech will be transmitted to the Citi Fields baseball park, where over forty thousand-”
The transmission cut off abruptly. Only a faint buzz of background static remained, the sole indicator of the power still being on.
“Status report,” Radiant commanded angrily. Nothing happened. The helmet continued to project his current position onto his visor grid, but Iris and all of the AI’s sub-programs had gone deathly silent.
This is no coincidence, he realized. Not less than an hour before the UN’s highly anticipated press conference.
Radiant’s pulse quickened with anxious anticipation. He dismissed the visor overlay to scan the distant, haze-shrouded cluster of New York for any changes and found none. Familiar skyscrapers thrust up through the smog, and a barely visible Lady Liberty overlooked the numerous ships that drifted to and from the harbor.
Still, there was an uneasy feeling in his gut that pushed him to investigate further.
He knew where to find answers, and he didn’t need Iris to show guide him to that particular location. His former civilian residence was one of the few places he could have located blindly.
Radiant shot himself northeast across the sky as brilliant beam of light, traversing the Atlantic and Europe within a fraction of a second. Three short distance jumps later, he found himself hovering above the road leading up to his Moscow residence. He didn’t need to locate the keys; he could enter easily enough by beaming himself through one of the windows.
When his physical body manifested, he didn’t find himself in the wide, sparsely furnished living space. It took him a couple of seconds to realize why: he had entered through the wrong window.
Radiant couldn’t remember the last time he’d stepped into this particular room, which had served as his study back when landing a paid architectural design job had been his greatest concern. The thin layer of dust that covered the golden brown hardwood floor hadn’t been disturbed by footprints in years, and more dust danced in the sunlight that flowed through the only window above the antique mahogany desk. On top of the desk, scattered briefcases joined miniature models of Luvkov family homes that had never been built.
Looking at them now infused Radiant with a pang of melancholy. He’d been planning and building a future in this room, but each and every one of those plans had involved his wife. The padded brown office chair that was drawn up against the desk had been a gift from her, to silently support him during the many long nights he’d spent on sketches and application letters.
To the chair’s right, an old wooden shelf contained dozens of folders with old paperwork. A stack of briefcases that had been left untouched for years occupied the seat, as dusty as the floor was. They contained remnants of a previous life, left behind when Andrey Luvkov evolved into Radiant and moved on to New York.
He couldn’t imagine that any of it would be of any interest to burglars or assassins. Athena had always been worried about break-ins and attempts on his life, but the whole world knew that he wasn’t living in Moscow anymore. The lock had never been broken.
Radiant shook off the memories that clung to the study and opened the door to the living room. He couldn’t remember if he’d been keeping up with the bills lately, but he hoped that the electricity was still running. He needed his television and the internet to check on the world.
Something was wrong, and that vague feeling of dread wasn’t going to fade until he figured out what it was. He didn’t believe that Alexandra would shut Iris down on him without warning. Not like this, and definitely not right after an attempt on Sarah’s life.
The living room was considerably less dusty and cluttered than the study had been, showing signs of habitation from a mere week ago. The small bar that separated the built in kitchen from the other living space still had a shot glass on it, the contents long since evaporated. The red sheeted bed in the small extension that branched off the living room had been halfheartedly made, then forgotten about.
Andrey removed his helmet, running his fingers through his short, dark blond curls. He only spared the bed a glance in passing. It was too large for one person and reminded him of someone who’s passed away under heart-wrenching circumstances, someone he didn’t want to think about.
He strode over to the black, Athena-designed device that had replaced his phone and pressed the play button for missed messages, expecting none. A few more steps took him to the elaborately carved armchair he’d moved here as a memento to his father’s legacy, but he didn’t get the chance to sit down.
The black box behind him emitted the distinctive beep of a recorded message.
But the recorded voice wasn’t Athena’s. The woman who’d called him was his sister-in-law, and she spoke frantic Russian that quivered with panic.
“Andrey, oh god, I hope this is the right number. Andrey? Pick up, please. It’s Alena. Your brother isn’t here, and there’s a man who wants to talk to you. He’s scaring me and the boy. Call back as soon as you hear this, please.” The message ended there, filling the room with a heavy silence that seemed to drop the temperature by several degrees.
No, there were no coincidences today.
Andrey’s jaw clenched. His sister-in-law wasn’t easily spooked, and he’d never heard her voice sound like this. Not even when his brother got involved in a car accident that resulted in a broken leg and nine weeks of rehabilitation.
He briefly considered just beaming himself out through the living room window. He could have reached his brother’s apartment in Moscow before the device finished dialing the number, but a glance at the device’s display let him know Alena had called from her mobile number. If she wasn’t at home, then all he would achieve by flying over there was to waste time.
Andrey tossed the remote back onto the armchair, then dropped his helmet onto his carpet. He quickly stepped to the communications device to grab the attached headset and pull it down over his head. He pressed the callback button.
After four rings that seemed to last for an eternity, someone picked up. “Hello?” A young boy’s voice asked. It was quiet and small, but steadier than his mother’s had been. He recognized it instantly.
“Denis,” Andrey blurted. “Your mother called. Where are you? Are you safe?”
“Uncle Andrey!” The boy sounded genuinely relieved. “We’re at home. Dad isn’t here, but there’s a man who wants to talk to you. He says he’ll wait for you here He’s really sure you’ll come. Are you coming, uncle Andrey?”
“Who is this man? I need to talk to him,” Andrey said, struggling to keep his voice under control. He could feel his face heating up, and his fingers were beginning to twitch. He didn’t want the boy to witness his uncle losing his temper.
“He didn’t give a name,” Denis replied. “His Russian is really bad, but he says he’s a friend of yours. There’s two others that I can’t see anymore. He made them invisible or something, but I can still hear them moving.” The sharp, frantic clack of women’s heels could be heard approaching from somewhere in the background.
“Denis, listen. I’ll be over in a moment. Go to your mother, I need to talk to…” Andrey didn’t get a chance to finish. There was a faint thud as the phone passed to someone else, then Alena’s voice came through the line, thick with strained emotion.
“Andrey, oh god. I’m so glad you’re calling. There’s a man here – he looked like my husband, so I let him inside. He brought two men with guns. They said they’ll hurt my little boy if I call the police.” Her voice broke there, the words dissolving into incoherent sobs.
Gentleman. Andrey invested a couple of seconds in composing himself before he gave a response.
He had seen this coming, had known what his decision to go rogue meant for his family. The UN’s protection extended only to families of heroes. Being aware that their well-being now wholly depended on him, he had spent days evaluating the options and resources he had available, and the steps required to keep them out of villain reach. He’d made arrangements with Calavera to evacuate Stepan, Alena and Denis to Mexico. They should have left the city the day before, but his stubborn brother had insisted that he needed more time to wrap things up at work.
I should have knocked you out and dragged you onto that plane myself.
Andrey swallowed his anger and frustration, hoping it wasn’t going to leak into his voice. “Hold out for a few seconds,” He instructed his sister-in-law. ”I’ll be right there.”
Andrey yanked the headset off and picked his helmet back up, useless as it was. If the microphone was still functional, it might allow Athena to listen in. He trusted her not to interfere, not with his family at risk. But he wanted her to have some kind of closure in case he wasn’t going to survive this. Which was a very real possibility.
His unique ability to address threats in an instant had placed him on numerous death lists. Crime syndicates and villains alike had placed sizeable bounties on his head, and he didn’t doubt that the Shanti incident had made him a few more enemies.
Andrey beamed himself through the window and a short distance up, far enough to appear a good distance above the road. From there, he continued traversing the sky above Moscow in short bursts at speed of light, carefully maneuvering around tall buildings.
It only took him a few seconds to reach his brother’s city home. It was a modest, green-roofed apartment building on the outskirts of Moscow, seemingly undisturbed on the outside. Denis’ blue bike leaned against the steely lattice fence, and the small garden had been recently tended, green sprouts shooting forth from a nine square meter patch in neat rows.
Andrey dropped to ground level, then approached the front door with his helmet pinned beneath one arm. He found it unlocked as usual. He pushed it open and listened into the stairwell. The sounds of a TV drifted down from one of the apartments on the second floor, but the door to Stepan’s ground level apartment was shrouded in ominous silence. No voices or footsteps came from that direction.
Gentleman is all about the act, Andrey told himself as he walked up to the door at a slow, controlled pace. And this one is all about me. He has no reason to hurt Alena or the boy.
Andrey had no previous experience in dealing with the stage actor gone villain, but he’d read the files the UN kept about him. The man loved a good show, and he loved being at the center of it even more. Gentleman wasn’t likely to offer an easy opportunity to overpower him – the man was perpetually shrouded in illusions that extended to his minions, as well. And he’d gone off grid long before Evolved disappearances had become much more frequent. Queenie had never been able to locate Gentleman or his partner in crime, Data – the infamous ghost of the internet.
Successful deals with him boiled down to one simple rule: pretending to play along.
The doorbell echoed hollowly throughout the stairwell. Shortly after the sound had faded, Andrey heard movement from the other side of the door. The heavy, trudging steps indicated someone of considerable weight.
At least one of the men Alena mentioned isn’t an illusion, Andrey deduced.
The man who opened the door was massive, nearly two meters of muscle and sinew. He wore a set of Russian Speznaz armor that covered everything but his bald head and the heavily tattooed arms. The armor was for show, Andrey assumed; most likely ‘liberated’ from somewhere during Gentleman’s visit to Russia.
The KBP submachine gun was not for show, however. Andrey had no doubt it was loaded with real bullets.
“Where are they?” Andrey asked, fixing the henchman with a level stare.
“Inside,” the man replied in unaccented English, one hand on the door.
Andrey stepped into the shoe and closet-lined vestibule that was adorned with Alena’s colorful paper cut-outs, continuing past the henchman until he was far enough into the living room to spot the villain. Gentleman hadn’t bothered assuming a flamboyant look for the occasion. He lounged on the couch that faced the entryway, wearing his Victorian half mask with an uncharacteristically mundane pair of black trousers and a long-sleeved, frilly white lace shirt.
Denis sat on the villain’s lap. Contrary to Gentleman’s decidedly relaxed poise, the boy was rigid, shoulders drawn in with his head hanging low between them. He perked up at the sound of footsteps, but his body language didn’t change.
“Ah! My tardy friend arrives at long last!” Gentleman announced cheerfully. He checked his wristwatch with a flourish of his arm, frills brushing against the boy’s face. “Sixteen minutes and forty-seven seconds since the call. A little disappointing, I must say. You are getting old.”
Instead of giving a response, Andrey took a second to scan the room. He immediately spotted Alena in the open plan kitchen, arms wrapped about her slender body and shoulders pressed pressing back against the fridge. She looked thinner than he remembered, small-boned and delicate.
“Alena,” Andrey said, as reassuring as he could manage. “I’m here. It’s going to be alright. Just give me a moment to sort this out.” He would have felt more confident about it if he knew whether he was addressing his sister in law or one of Gentleman’s illusions, but as of right now, he didn’t have enough clues to go by.
Alena gave a curt nod in his direction. Her expression didn’t change much; she still had that same petrified look on her face.
“Gentleman,” Andrey said, turning his attention back to the couch. “I’m going to assume this is between you and me. Let the boy join his mother, then we’ll talk.”
The villain cocked his head, masked eyes squinting down at Denis. “Ah, but we had such an interesting conversation just now! Did we not, my dear boy?”
The boy gave a barely perceptible nod, fingers cramped about the front of his blue sweater. The villain rewarded him with a wide smile and a pat on the head.
Say something. Anything. Gentleman couldn’t project voices as far as Andrey knew. He wanted to believe that the boy was actually here, frightened but unharmed. If the boy had been kidnapped from the city, then finding him would become excessively difficult. Despite the Covenant’s best efforts, the Conglomerate base had never been tracked down.
“You see? The sweet little boy agrees with me,” the villain enthused. He grabbed the top of Denis’s head and pushed it up and down to force another nod. “Little Denis just told me how his father watched over you when you two were little boys. Who would have thought that the mighty Radiant used to hide from the bullies in a bookstore, waiting for his younger brother to rescue him?” Gentleman ended the statement with an asking clack of his tongue.
“Leave my family out of this,” Andrey said. “You want to talk, fine. Here I am.”
“Here you are indeed. I might forgive your delay if our little rendez-vous proves fruitful. Go, boy. Run to your mother.”
Denis didn’t budge. He squinted over at his uncle, eyes rolling sideways while his body remained completely rigid. When Andrey gave him a nod, Denis slipped off the villain’s lap and got to his feet. Then, he quickly stepped over to the kitchen to be received by Alena’s arms.
Andrey’s heart sank as he realized neither of them made a sound. No footsteps, not a single word of comfort from Alena’s lips.
“You could have talked to me in the States,” Andrey said, starting towards the couch opposite the one Gentleman had claimed.
“I could have,” Gentleman said, quite agreeably. “But you have been such a busy boy, fluttering here and there. So hard to catch.” He wagged his fingers to illustrate his point. “This way, I was sure to have your attention, with a small bonus to motivate you. Alena, dear? Would you make us some coffee?”
Alena didn’t respond or react in any way. She cowered beside the fridge, arms wrapped tight about her boy. Gentleman expelled a dramatic sigh and turned his attention back to Andrey. “I expected more hospitality from a Russian woman. Alas, more disappointments.”
I could just kill you. Andrey toyed with the idea for a couple of seconds before discarding it. He had no way of pinpointing the exact position of Gentleman’s henchmen, and he couldn’t take risks without a guarantee that his family would be safe. Not for the first time, he cursed his lack of enhanced senses.
Andrey lowered himself onto the edge of the couch, clasping the helmet with his left hand. His eyes never left the villain across from him.
“If I find out that any of them were hurt, you’re going to regret it,” Andrey said. “If I don’t find you, I’m quite sure I could locate some of your hirelings and assets.”
“Ooh, threats!” Gentleman enthused, clapping his hands cheerfully. “Please, do give me the hero speech. I so rarely get to enjoy one of those.”
“You’ve been avoiding them for years,” Andrey said. “Were you behind the attack on Queenie this morning?” He leaned forward on the edge of his seat in an attempt to pinpoint the source of the voice. The villain was nearby, but not necessarily in the exact position he could see him.
“What do you think?” Gentleman asked.
“I’d be hard pressed to think of someone else to suspect.”
“Ah. Well, sometimes the answer truly is that simple,” Gentleman replied, casually draping an arm over the back of the couch. “I doubt you would understand this, but the world is in dire need of change. Your friend – the young Queen – played a pivotal role in this state of oppression that has lasted for too long. If you follow the news, you can hear the masses cry out in protest of the Covenant’s law. You, my conflicted friend, should know this better than most.”
“They don’t want villains,” Andrey pointed out, his voice hard. He made a mental note of Gentleman’s lack of denial regarding the attack on Sarah. I won’t forget this.
“Now, let me tell you something.” Gentleman lifted a finger. “There are no villains or heroes. Those terms were forced on us by pop culture fiction that used to be somewhat popular before the pulse.” He tilted his masked head like a curious bird, watching for a reaction.
Get to the point already. Andrey kept quiet and let the villain finish his speech for the sake of Alena and the boy. With Gentleman in such a chatty mood, maybe the conversation could be directed away from pop culture fiction and towards more pressing subjects. If he got all fired up by his own talk, perhaps he’d become careless and drop a hint about something Andrey could use.
“Did Data shut my helmet’s assistant down?” Andrey asked, grasping the first opportunity.
Gentleman rolled his eyes. “You truly are a bore. Always charging straight ahead without regard to the small details you might miss along the way. Perhaps it was foolish of me to expect more from our first encounter. Alas, you are charging in the wrong direction. I am not a Technician, I have nothing to do with any failures in that regard. Perhaps you should ask Athena herself?” He ended with a suggestive quirk of his lips.
The provocation attempt dripped off Andrey’s resolve without effect. No matter what happened between us, she wouldn’t cut me off from the AI.
“Let’s discuss solutions. You know what I want. I’m hard pressed to believe you went this far just to talk to me,” Andrey said. He glanced aside to Alena and Denis, half expecting them to have vanished. But they were still sitting on the floor by the fridge. Or not. It wasn’t unthinkable that they had been kidnapped and moved out of the house.
If he wants something from me, he won’t risk hurting them.
“You are quite correct, my impatient friend,” Gentleman said, following Andrey’s glance with a wan smile. “There is a reason for my visit. You may not appreciate the effort, but I really am trying to accommodate you. We are having a honest, friendly chat without need to harm to the lovely woman and her boy. I want us to get along, you see. The fact that you no longer follow execution orders increases your status among peers. I sent Raven for parley, but alas, he proved useless.”
Andrey felt the pressure of his fingers as they curled against his knee. “I remember,” he said. “Wrong time, wrong place. Wrong choice of words. He approached me just before the Shadowspawner’s transition in Prague. If you’re not asking me to join your band of scum, what do you really want?”
“Ah, no, that would be foolish of me. Besides, I doubt you would get along with Rampage any more than you did with Samael. My request is surprisingly simple.” Gentleman made a dramatic pause there, resting a finger on his cheek while he watched Andrey from his seat.
Andrey denied him the gratification of a response and just waited, meeting the villain’s gaze with a cold stare.
Gentleman expelled a sigh. “Such a bore. My request is for you to not interfere with my projects. Of all the troubles you could concern yourself with, they will be of little significance, I assure you. There are greater troublemakers out there than me and mine.”
“Legion?” Andrey asked. “He’ll cease to be a threat the instant he emerges and I hear about it. If he has a shred of intelligence, he’ll stay underground.”
“That would be one of them, yes. As it happens, I have no interest in dealing with Legion, the extent of their madness is far too unpredictable for my tastes. I might even assist you in tracking them down. But for the most part, I am referring to those who haven’t emerged yet. The ones with delusions of grandeur and dreams of changing the world.”
“You’re a murderer, Gentleman,” Andrey stated. “Fourteen confirmed cases, half a hundred more suspected. You’d be in the death row even if you didn’t have powers to protect you.”
“Scum,” the masked man countered, his placid demeanor unchanged. “Lowlives, criminals, rapists. The world is better off without them.”
“Those who opposed you. Your former associate. The FBI agents who tracked you down in Dallas.”
“Will you consider my simple request, or are we going to continue wasting our time?” Gentleman asked, cocking his head to the side while considered his fingernails.
Don’t provoke him, Andrey reminded himself, relaxing the fingers of his left hand. He took a moment to consider his answer. “You claim to be honest with me. But I have no way of knowing if my family is even here, let alone unharmed. And I don’t know about those projects of yours.”
“Ah, would you attempt to kill me if I was not concealing myself?” Gentleman asked, eyes flicking back to Andrey’s face.
“I would be tempted.”
“You would not,” Gentleman said. He parted his lips in a smile that revealed a hint of well-maintained teeth. “And in the spirit of mutual trust and honesty, I will tell you why. My power classification matches the Sleepwalker’s. You do know what causes the power surges, yes?”
“I know what information you relayed to Athena,” Andrey said.
“Do some research to confirm it for yourself,” Gentleman said. “The other reason is that the poor little boy would not survive my death.” The villain sniffled softly, dabbing the corner of his eye with a frilly white sleeve.
At least two henchmen. Radiant squinted to the other side of the room from the corner of an eye, scanning it for hints about another presence. He stopped himself and clenched his fingers into tight, hard fists to keep the angry energy that coursed through him from spilling out. No. I can’t take the risk.
“As for my projects… with all due respect, I see no reason to share the details with you,” Gentleman continued. “But in the spirit of our friendship, I promise to contact you ahead of time should your non-interference be required. In return, I promise that your loved ones will live happily ever after. Unless, of course, the world really does end.”
With Calavera’s help, I could still move them somewhere safe. To the best of Andrey’s knowledge, the Conglomerate had never been active in Latin America.
“I know what you are thinking, Andrey,” Gentleman said with a playful wag of his finger. “Your face is an open book, pages flipping before my eyes. Your idea will not work. The little Queen’s replacement has already transitioned. And, as it happens, the young man is now one of mine.”
So that’s the reason for the radio silence. Sarah is not at the hospital, she’s dead. A cold numbness spread through Andrey’s body, cutting off the reply that had been on his tongue.
“I also suggest you stop looking for the Swiss girl,” Gentleman continued, filling the silence with a merry lilt. “Seeing as you created her, I understand your interest in her endeavors. But I doubt she wants your help or your sympathy. She really is the Antithesis, and she is just about to prove it to the world.”