Moscow, Russia – Tuesday, the 12th of June 2012. 11:05 AM.
She really is the Antithesis.
The villain’s words hung heavy in the air, snapping Andrey out of the daze that the news of Sarah’s death had left him in. He could feel his jaw work silently before he spat out an answer.
“You’re a murderer and a liar.”
“Ah. It seems I have found a button, and pushed it,” Gentleman drily observed. “My sincere apologies. It seems that you really do care about Dancer. Fortunately, I can assure that unlike you, she is both safe and in good company.”
Andrey swallowed the response that was on his tongue. “You know where she is,” he said instead, forcing himself back into his practiced calm.
“Perhaps I do,” Gentleman admitted.
Andrey glanced over to Alena and Denis. Part of him still wanted to believe they were real, watching and waiting for him to remove the villain from their home and bring their world back into order. Real or not, their anxious faces pushed their needs back to the forefront of his mind.
“How exactly do you plan to contact me with your ‘requests’?” Andrey asked, pushing his attention back to the villain who sat ahead of him. “I’m a busy man, you said so yourself.”
“Indeed you are, my ill-tempered friend. But behold! I have a solution for your troubles.” Gentleman dug a hand into his pants pocket and produced a small white cell phone with gold rim around the number keys. “I assumed you would like the colors,” he added with a sardonic smile.
For the sake of playing along, Andrey extended a hand for it. “Bugged and equipped with a tracer, no doubt.”
Gentleman’s smile withered. “That would be both crude and cliché. Besides, I have no need for tracers. You do remember what I just said about the little Queen’s replacement?”
I remember every word, don’t doubt it for a second. “Yes,” Andrey said as he plucked the cell phone from Gentleman’s slender, long-fingered hand.
“I do not demand that you carry it with you at all times. That would be quite unreasonable, would it not? But make sure to call back within an hour. Failing to do so would result in consequences that you most likely would not enjoy.”
“Is that all, then?” Andrey asked. “You’ve proven your superiority and held your villain speech. We would all very much appreciate if you packed up your goons and left my brother’s home.”
“Almost. You and your loved ones will enjoy the company of my men for a little while longer. They will let you know when they are ready to leave.” Gentleman gave his upholstered seat a gentle pat. “Until then, I suggest you indulge in this wonderful piece of craftsmanship and reflect on our conversation.”
He’s playing for time, Andrey realized. He wants me here for a reason.
He considered confronting the villain about it just to see his reaction, then discarded the idea. Gentleman was a professional actor and more likely to mislead him than to reveal anything of use. And right now, Andrey just wanted him gone and as far away from his family as possible. Preferably on the far side of the moon.
Unfortunately, Andrey wasn’t Superman, and the moon was far beyond his reach. Besides, his power didn’t allow him to take anyone along with him. As much as he hated to admit it – as of right now, his best option was to do as he’d been told.
But the next time we meet, it’ll be on my terms. Bet your lousy life on it.
“I suggest you watch the news in an hour or so,” Gentleman said as he rose from his seat without making the slightest sound. A faint rustle came from behind the couch and slightly off to the side.
There you are. Andrey squinted at that spot, and Gentleman saw him squinting. The villain’s illusion grinned at him, casually smoothing the chest frills of its shirt with one hand.
Andrey might have been able to pinpoint the correct location, even gotten a laser off in time before the villain’s minions got the chance to fire their guns. But he couldn’t jeopardize the lives of Alena and Denis. And the villain knew.
“You’ll step out of the shadows and finally show your face on the news?” Andrey absently replied.
“Perhaps. But I shall not spoil the surprise. It will be marvelous, I assure you,” Gentleman enthused. “And I promise that all will end well. All you need to do is to remain comfortably seated until my men give the signal. Farewell.”
The villain’s illusion winked out of existence with the last word, leaving an empty couch and the still very present henchman in Spetsnaz armor. The man was leaning back against the glass-front cabinet that contained Alena’s beloved crystal figurines, calmly lighting himself a cigarette while he watched Andrey.
Gentleman is a voyeur. He hasn’t gone far, Andrey suspected. He certainly wasn’t planning to provide the villain with any kind of entertainment. “Alena,” he called out instead. “Are you and Denis here?”
“Yes,” a thin female voice replied from the other side of the living room. It was distant and slightly muffled, giving reason to believe that it was coming from Stepan’s office. The door wasn’t locked and had been left ajar.
“Shut up,” the henchman barked, pulling the cigarette from his mouth. “No talking.”
Andrey swallowed another sharp reply and closed his eyes to listen into the stillness of the apartment. It wasn’t the first time he wished for enhanced senses, and he suspected it wouldn’t be the last. All he picked up was the tick-tock of grandfather’s wall clock to his left and the faint scraping of the henchman’s armor against the creaking cabinet. His pulse gradually slowed down as he waited, his eyes fixated on the phone.
He wouldn’t have handed me this goddamn phone if they weren’t alive.
As if to spite him, the henchman spoke up with an audible sneer. “I really hoped he’d leave me in a room with her, you know. Heard good things about Russian cunts.”
An angry surge of energy started building in Andrey’s fingers, filling them with a prickling sensation that set his skin afire. The effort of holding it back took everything out of him. He leaned over his fisted hands and pressed them into the white and gold spandex of his costume.
“Come on, do it,” the man said. “You’re an angry alcoholic who can’t get over his dead wife and can’t even protect his brother’s bird. That’s pretty sad for a hero, man. You’re just another one of those attention whores in costumes.”
Can’t let him provoke me. The thought was a flash of clarity within a haze of boiling rage.
“Don’t have the guts, huh? You’re such a bore. The boss said all bets are off if you don’t play by the rules.” The man exhaled a puff of smoke in Andrey’s direction. It dissipated before reaching him, but lingered long enough to taint the tidy room with the stench of nicotine.
Alena will want to open the windows first thing, Andrey thought, latching on to the first distraction that came to him. She’s like Natalya in that regard.
He let images of Denis’ second birthday unfold before his mind’s eye. The memories took him back to a quiet, relaxing place that kept the red haze from overtaking him.
He and Natalya had been married for a bit over three years at that point. He had proposed when Alena got pregnant, encouraged by his brother who frequently told him that money was more patient than a woman’s heart was.
He remembered the dress she’d chosen for the birthday celebration. It was as red as a Christmas bow, with short puffy sleeves to match the silk blossom she wore in her coil of meticulously braided black hair. She hadn’t been the kind of beauty that turned heads when she walked down the street, but Andrey had fallen in love with the way her gentle face glowed when she was happy. She’d been very happy that day, recently married and full of hopes and dreams for their future.
Natalya was the angel, not me. I only borrowed her wings.
Only a handful of people knew that the luminescent wings that had become Radiant’s trademark were based off one of his wife’s designs. He’d discovered the sketch in the little notebook she occasionally used to take notes on her dreams before they faded from her memory. She hadn’t been a superstitious woman, but she strongly believed in the predictive power of dreams.
None of them told you that you were going to be taken away from me. Andrey stared down at the simple gold ring that adorned his finger, absently brushing it with a thumb. He let go of the memory and occupied his mind by counting the seconds instead.
He got to a few hundred before the squeak of an opening door alerted him. The door to his brother’s office had opened fully, allowing a view of an empty chair, a narrow shelf stacked with tennis trophies and half of the ancient study desk Stepan had inherited from their father. There wasn’t a trace of Alena or Denis in sight.
“Where are they?” Andrey angrily asked the empty air ahead of him.
An unfamiliar male voice responded from somewhere behind him. It wasn’t the armored brute he’d seen before, but someone else. “They’re in there, but you’re not gonna find them before we’re out. If you’re not satisfied, good luck complaining to the boss. You can check in thirty seconds.”
If there’s one drop of blood on them, I’m going to do more than just talk to him.
“You better hope they’re healthy and well,” Andrey growled. He started counting to thirty while doors opened and closed and heavy footsteps trudged past him. There had to be three or four men, all of whom were invisible. Even the pseudo-Russian henchman in his stolen armor had disappeared from view by now.
Andrey didn’t trust Gentleman to have shown him a real person’s face, but he made an effort to memorize it regardless.
The door closed as he reached twenty-five, the footsteps fading. The last seconds dragged on for what felt like minutes. When he finished counting to thirty, Andrey pushed to his feet, reaching the office door in seconds.
He discovered Alena and Denis on the floor beneath the window the instant he stepped through the doorway. They huddled against one another the way Gentleman’s projection had shown them in the kitchen. Alena’s tear-stained face turned to Andrey as he stepped inside, making helpless, muffled sounds through the layers of brown duct tape that covered her lips. Denis just looked up at him with quiet desperation in his eyes.
“Are you hurt?” Andrey asked. He quickly crossed the room to make his way to the window, but stopped when he saw Alena tense up. Her slender shoulders pressed back against the wall as if she wanted to disappear in it.
“Did they hurt you?” Andrey asked again, sharper than intended.
Denis shook his head and looked up at his Mom, who carefully peeled the duct tape from his mouth. Andrey waited while she removed her own gag, struggling to speak.
“No. But they talked… about all the things they would do if you didn’t come.”
“Why are they doing this, uncle Andrey?” Denis asked, eyes shimmering with tears. “Why didn’t you punish them?”
Because I am a poor excuse for a hero. Andrey rubbed his forehead while he tried to find the right words. “My communication was shut down. None of the alarms went off.”
They didn’t respond. The silence dragged on, punctuated by a single, choked sob from Alena. Denis was disturbingly quiet in contrast. He kept on clinging to his mother, face buried against the spill of disheveled blonde hair that fell over her shoulders.
“Would you like me to call Stepan?” Andrey asked. “I’ll stay with you until he gets here.”
“Please,” Alena whispered.
“Would you like something to drink?” Andrey went on, wishing he could make her safe and comfortable. But the damage was done, and they both knew it.
“No, we’re fine,” Alena said quickly. It was an obvious lie, but maybe she needed to convince herself it was true. “I just want my husband home.”
Andrey picked up the handset of Stepan’s office phone. His fingers started dialing his brother’s work number almost without mental effort, it was one of the first numbers he’d memorized.
Alena rubbed her cheeks with her fingers, watching him without meeting his eyes. “Andrey,” she said.
“Yes?” he asked over the dial tone in his ear.
“I don’t ever want to be at the mercy of those… people again. Or anyone like them. I’d rather be dead. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Andrey replied. He could feel the anger seep out of him, replaced by something darker and more desperate. On the other end of the line, a receptionist picked up to inquire about his reason for calling in fast-paced, impatient Russian.
“Andrey Luvkov,” he said. “I need to speak to my brother. It’s an emergency.”
Andrey made his way back to his Moscow apartment two hours later, still lacking a response from Athena. Iris had reactivated herself half an hour after he called his brother and urged him home. The AI’s first action had been to download the countless news broadcasts that had been recorded in the meantime, pretending the shutdown never happened. Iris didn’t have an explanation for it, at any rate. Every one of Andrey’s queries had been met with error messages.
Andrey hadn’t taken the time to listen to more than a couple of broadcasts. There were hundreds of them, and after the hour he’d spent trying to calm and reassure his brother, he didn’t want to rely on a possibly compromised AI to explain the news for him. He had to see for himself why Gentleman had been so intent on keeping him in limbo.
Surprisingly enough, Stepan didn’t blame him for the villain attack. Watching Stepan blame himself had been worse in a way; Andrey knew only too well what kind of effect self-chastisement could have on a man. He himself had experienced plenty of it after his wife’s death, and again after Shanti’s.
Andrey activated the Athena-designed communications device and dialed Calavera’s number. No one picked up. He left a message to inquire about an evacuation of his family that wouldn’t draw attention. With that done, he settled on his armchair in front of the TV, peering down at the white and gold cell phone he’d been forced to accept.
The look on Alena’s face had been seared into his mind’s eye. I don’t ever want to be at the mercy of those people again, she’d told him. I’d rather be dead.
She hadn’t outright stated it, but he could tell she still expected him to keep the promise he’d made weeks ago. To not let his withdrawal from the Covenant affect his family, and to keep them safe. He had failed the first half of the promise, but he still had the chance to fulfill the second.
After a few long seconds of pondering the potential trouble the device was going to cause him, Andrey set the phone down within reach, hoping he wouldn’t have to pick it back anytime soon. Maybe the villain would never call, or maybe Andrey would get the opportunity to deal with Gentleman before any more demands came through that phone.
As he stared down at the gold-rimmed keys, Andrey made a promise of his own. You caught me off guard, but it won’t happen again.
Something held him back from reaching for the remote. Instead, he spent a few minutes sitting in dazed silence while the events of the past two hours drifted through his mind. There was a tight feeling in his chest, an old friend that demanded to be drowned in vodka.
Andrey resisted the urge for a minute. That was how long it took him to get to his feet and grab an empty shot glass from the small bar that bordered his open plan kitchen.
Go ahead, Alexa, he thought as he filled the glass to the brim. Call me and tell me to stop. Tell me everything about the long term effects on my mental processes and my memory.
The vodka had a bitter aftertaste to it. It taste of failure, not the familiar taste home Andrey had been hoping for. Regardless, he filled the glass a second time and downed half of the liquid in one gulp.
Then, he flung the glass against the far side of the kitchen. It shattered, sending jittery rivulets of vodka trailing down the whitewashed wall. Other drops left marks on the dusty counter that hadn’t seen much use over the past years. It had been lovingly painted by his wife a few years back, and it was meant to be used for shared evenings of cooking with friends. Andrey couldn’t help but wonder if Natalya was watching him right now, if she was disappointed to see him drinking again.
The nagging memory of the villain henchman’s words pulled Andrey from his spell of melancholy. You’re an angry alcoholic who can’t get over his dead wife and can’t even protect his brother’s bird. That’s pretty sad for a hero, man.
“To hell with you,” Andrey growled. A familiar red haze washed over his mind like a tidal wave, and something heavier than a glass clattered to the floor. Then three loud thuds in quick succession. An instant later, Andrey found himself in front of a shattered cabinet. He stared down at his fist while his mind drifted off again, back to the past and a different, warmer and gentler voice.
Look at me, Andrey. Control your breathing and relax your fingers. Let it flow out of you and into the ground. Do you remember what the Oka river looks like at dawn? It’s red like that angry part of your mind. You have to learn to let it go if you want Papa to give his blessing.
“He doesn’t need to worry, Natalya,” Andrey said, repeating. “I’d never hit you.”
I know, she replied. He could hear her as clearly as if she was standing right next to him. But I’m not letting you go on like this.
Andrey turned to step over to the television, ignoring the glass shards that crunched beneath his feet and cut through the costume without pricking his skin. He picked up the remote and turned the television on. After a minute of letting the images and reports wash over him, he sat.
“…Covenant headquarters have been destroyed, along with the fifty stories of the tower that housed the UN’s administrative offices in New York,” a news anchor declared. “The attack happened shortly after the events at the Citi Fields stadium that resulted in a mass panic. Hundreds of spectators have been severely injured in the aftermath, and several deaths have been confirmed by witnesses. We still lack an estimate on the number of deaths for the time being. The Covenant and the Wardens overwhelmed the perpetrators at the stadium, but investigation of the circumstances leading to the destruction of the UN headquarters is still ongoing. It is unclear whether the remaining members of the Covenant will stay in New York or move into a new base of operations.”
Move, Andrey silently implored his former teammates. Get out New York. Stay safe, both of you.
He switched through a few other news channels absently, then glanced over at the helmet that sat uselessly on the coffee table. Its small green light teased him with a lie of active communication.
If Alexandra wasn’t getting back to him, then Andrey suspected that she wasn’t going to anytime soon.
“Meanwhile, Radiant’s absence during the events in both Liverpool and New York raises questions. The world’s formerly most popular hero appears to have all but disappeared since the Shanti incident. Now that he officially resigned from the Covenant, many of his former admirers speculate on where his future as a rogue will take him. Will he stay true to his heart? Or may we have to see him turn into a villain? Whatever the cause, his apparent lack of interest in the villain crisis does not bode well.”
I was in Prague long before Samael showed up. Andrey shook his head in silent dismay as the newsreader’s voice continued prattling. After enduring half a minute of it, he switched channels, flipping through a selection of the more serious ones in search of relevant information.
A European channel’s mention of an anomaly in Liverpool drew his attention. The screen showed a shaky, poor quality recording of a discolored hole in the air that released a steady downpour of light brown water onto the flat-roofed building below.
“…awaiting the arrival of Paladin, whose Revoker abilities will hopefully succeed in sealing off this anomaly,” the news anchor said. “While witnesses remain under care of the government and the police for the time being, an anonymous source on the internet claims to have knowledge of the Antithesis’ involvement. The European hero team, who fought the villains responsible for the pirate broadcast, has refrained from commenting so far.”
The AntithesisThe news anchor didn’t elaborate – he moved on to the aftereffects of the attack on Liverpool instead, mentioning several people wounded or severely traumatized. The guard who’d been yanked and dropped from the studio was hospitalized with multiple bone fractures. The downpour of sewage that had rendered a ten story building unusable for the foreseeable future.
It sounds unlike Dancer, but those are her powers. It still sounded off, somehow. What Andrey remembered reading about Sarina Baumann hinted at a kind-spirited young girl with a genuine passion for heroics and happy endings. What in the earth happened to you? How did it come to this?
None of the news channels dropped names of possible suspects apart from Raven and his crew, but Andrey’s gut told him she had been there, maybe with that British boy whose name he couldn’t remember. She had mentioned him in the last message she’d sent to her brother. Thinking back to his encounter with Gentleman, it only took Andrey second to make the connection.
She really is the Antithesis, and she is just about to prove it to the world.
“Trying to turn her into a villain, are you?” Andrey asked the television in front of him.
He could easily believe that this was just the kind of project Gentleman would enjoy. Andrey remembered a recorded interview with Gentleman’s he’d discovered in the Covenant database a few months ago; it was one of the few pieces of evidence Data hadn’t managed to erase during his mass wipe of Conglomerate related web data.
Something told Andrey he needed to watch the interview again. The problem was that he’d lost access to the Covenant database, and he’d have to reactivate some old contacts if he wanted any chance of seeing that video.
A problem for later. Andrey turned the TV off and got to his feet, glancing down at the spare laptop he’d left on the coffee table months ago. He had some research to do, but now wasn’t the time for it. If he wanted any chance of seeing Liverpool while the tracks were fresh and Dancer possibly still in the area, he had to go now.
Andrey picked up the helmet and pulled it down over his eyes. It was all he needed to get ready.
I might be a sad excuse for a hero, but I’m going to find you.