Liverpool, England – Tuesday, the 12th of June 2012. 11:25 AM.
Radiant recognized NBE Britain’s former headquarters from a few hundred meters away. It stood out against the squat, reddish brown buildings that lined Princes dock from this distance, but not because of its height or architectural value. It was the only building whose greyish-white façade featured brown rivulets of sewage water. The dozens of vehicles that surrounded it looked like toy blocks left behind by some bored child.
Radiant beamed himself to a distance of thirty meters, hanging in the air above a deserted principal road. From there he got a good view of the half dozen gully suckers that fought a desperate battle against the muddy water. By now there was so much of it that it had flooded the adjoining parking lot and statue park. The police kept their distance from the building, as did the vans with the news channel logos.
The stench of sewage wasn’t overwhelming from this high up, but noticeable enough to assume the area was going to be evacuated before long.
Why sewage water? Radiant wondered. What was she trying to do?
He beamed himself close enough to the flat, antenna-crowned roof to see the source of the downpour. The water really did emerge from thin air, but there weren’t any distortions or blurred out space. Certainly nothing so shocking or unusual that it would hint at the Antithesis, the end bringer that had been mentioned in the Oracle’s prophecies.
It was easy to suspect Dancer had tried to create some sort of distraction or used the water to stall the heroes, but the sewage seemed needlessly malicious.
This wasn’t her idea, Radiant decided. Someone must have put her up to it.
He looked down at the groups of people who lingered at some distance from the building, considering. He couldn’t expect to get answers from the police, but if the earlier newscasts were anything to go by, then the European heroes knew what had happened here.
“Iris,” he said. “Establish connection with Rune.”
“Establishing connection with Rune,” the AI echoed from his helmet. “Error. The requested number is out of service.”
Is everyone erasing me from their list of contacts already?
Radiant exhaled. Looking down over the edge of the roof, he could see a group of men in dark grey uniforms with full body armor who lingered near the entrance to a coffee shop about twenty meters from the flooded building. They had removed their helmets and were armed with paper coffee cups, seemingly caught up in conversation. Radiant activated his visor to zoom in on the writing on the back of one man’s jacket. It was the name of a private security company.
Worth a try, he decided.
Radiant beamed himself down to the walkway leading up to the coffee shop to walk the last twenty meters on foot. The men’s conversation came to an abrupt end when one of them spotted him and mentioned his name. That was all it took for all five of them to fall silent and turn around, eyes flicking to Radiant.
“That’s not the real one,” a short man with curly dark hair said, not even bothering to lower his voice. “I heard Radiant is dead.”
“Just missing, I think,” another man replied.
I’m not deaf, at any rate.
Andrey pulled the helmet off while crossing the last meters with a swift stride. “I’m not dead, and I’d like to investigate what happened here,” he said. “Are you with the security company that was on site during the event?”
None of them took the initiative to answer. They exchanged glances, taking sips from their paper coffee cups or fussing with their equipment. After several long seconds, a smooth-faced man spoke up. He looked younger than the others, perhaps young enough to muster the hero enthusiasm that the others were lacking.
“Wow, holy shit. It’s actually you. I can’t ask for a picture when I’m on duty, but… hi. I’m Edward. Edward Dunn.” The young man extended a gloved hand, face lighting up with a small, hesitant smile.
Andrey wasn’t in the mood to return a smile of his own, but he gave the hand a quick shake. “Andrey Luvkov,” he said.
“Are you going after the villains?” Edward asked. “Someone has to. I can’t believe all of those scumbags got away.”
“We’re not authorized to answer your questions,” the short, curly-haired man brusquely cut in. “We don’t want trouble with the cops. None of us were inside the studio, the ones that were are gone, just like all of the witnesses.”
Their tight, wary faces said more than the words did. Where the hell were you? Andrey could see the implicit question in every pair of eyes that had settled on him. Except Edward’s.
“Is Rune’s team still in the area?” Andrey asked, focusing on the problem rather than the aura of suspicion. “I need to talk to them.”
“Pretty sure they’re gone like everyone else,” the same man replied, supported by all too eager nods from two of his colleagues. “Just missed them, actually. They were sniffing around the area until half an hour ago.”
The EU’s Empath probably didn’t pick up any traces, then. It was disappointing, but not too surprising. Empaths were rarely able to investigate past events; those were the domain of Visionaries.
“I don’t think there’s much for you to investigate,” another man said. “Don’t bother talking to the cops. They locked the whole building down. Not that anyone would want to go in there. If you get too close, the stench is bad enough to make you gag.”
“Edward,” Andrey said, turning his attention back to the enthusiastic young man. “If I needed to reach Rune on the phone, could you make it happen?”
The security guard perked up at the sound of his name. “Oh, yeah, I think so? I know the boss has been talking to the heroes. Wait a minute.” Edward wasn’t equipped with a headset microphone, but he produced a cell phone from his utility belt and flipped it open. He hesitated, giving Andrey’s face a long, thoughtful look.
“No offense man, but where have you been? We needed you here.”
Andrey extended a hand for the phone. Explaining his absence from both villain attacks would get his family involved again, and he just couldn’t do it. Especially not in front of strangers.
“Family emergency,” he said simply.
“Alright.” Edward brought the phone up to his ear. “Give me a minute.”
It took nearly ten minutes, but Andrey’s persistence was rewarded with a live connection from Edward’s cell phone. When the man passed the phone to him, Andrey took the opportunity to get away from security guards and onlookers and withdraw into one of Britain’s red telephone booths. It wasn’t exactly private, but it was an improvement.
“Rune?” he said into the phone. “It’s Radiant. I tried to reach you on your old number, but it appears to be out of service.”
“They say it’s you,” a craggy male voice with a heavy Swedish accent replied. “I’m not convinced. The Radiant I know would have supported his folks in New York. Unless he was dead, of course.”
So would the one I knew.
“I understand my absence raises questions,” Andrey replied, unoffended. “I had a family emergency and wasn’t aware of what was going on.” Acknowledging it for the second time was easier and didn’t sting nearly as much.
“No emergency alert from your gear? How strange. My number got compromised, did you know? I had to change it.”
“Athena and I aren’t on the best of terms right now,” Andrey admitted. “She likes to assume she doesn’t need me, and she’s probably right about that.”
Both statements were true, but Andrey doubted either one had anything to do with Iris’ shutdown just before hell broke loose. He would have preferred if they did. The idea of Data corrupting Athena’s software was more disturbing than the alternative, especially considering he still had to rely on Iris for support.
Rune offered a clack of his tongue and a few seconds of silence before answering. “I see.”
“I know it’s late, but I’d like to offer support. If you let me.”
“As what, a freelance hero?” Rune asked with unmistakable incredulity.
“If that’s what you’d like to consider me. I’m still the man you shared a beer and Norse heroics with.”
“Ah, yes. The Norse tales.” There was a hint of amusement there, a definite improvement over the suspicion. “Tell me, Andrey. Who stole Thor’s hammer?”
“Is this a test?”
“Yes. I am still not sure who I am speaking to, Radiant.”
Andrey leaned back against the closed glass booth door, knuckles pressed against his forehead in an attempt to remember that cozy bar in Brussels a few months back. The faux red leather seats popped into his mind with surprising clarity, just like the bitter taste of the Swedish beer. He remembered some fragments of Rune’s beloved Norse myths, but if Thor’s hammer had come up at all, the memory had been drowned along with the name of the bar.
“You’re depending a villain hunt on a riddle?” Andrey finally asked, breaking the silence before it turned awkward.
“No. I’m pondering the risk of trusting you.”
“I don’t remember that particular myth,” Andrey admitted. “I don’t think you mentioned it. You did tell me about Baldur, the Norse god who radiates light. You compared him to me.”
A deep, throaty chuckle came through the phone. “Alright, Andrey. You passed.”
“Thanks, Rune,” Andrey said. “How about meeting up, then? Are you up for it?”
“If the others are fine with it, sure. I hope you don’t mind Aura keeping a close eye on you. No offense, but I’m still not sure whose side you’re on.”
Neither am I.
Andrey closed his eyes, giving himself a moment to let the afterimage of Alena and Denis’s faces fade from his mind’s eye. He was acutely aware of how Gentleman’s phone pressed against the inside of his costume, and he still wasn’t sure what he was going to do if he ever received a call on it. Play along some more, or risk the lives of people who were dear to him?
“The right side,” Andrey replied, carefully picking out the words. “You know me. I haven’t changed.”
“Everyone changes. We’ll see, Andrey.”
“You’re still in Liverpool?” Andrey asked.
“Our new teammate was just delivered to a local hospital, so yes,” Rune replied. Any trace of humor was gone from his voice, replaced by the harsh rasp of a man who’d faced death and was ready to do it again.
Andrey still wanted to ask about the Antithesis rumors, but this clearly wasn’t the time for it.
“Just let me know where you’d like to meet,” he said instead. “Anything you can tell me about what happened here would help out a great deal.”
“Wait a moment,” Rune said. There was a faint clack of something being put down, then a sound of footsteps. Andrey listened into the few minutes of silence that followed, each one stretching into what felt like an hour.
If they disagree, I’m out of options.
The silence wasn’t absolute. Somewhere in the background, a female someone’s voice was agitated enough to lash out like distant thunder. Andrey was almost grateful for the fact that he couldn’t understand the words.
When Rune picked the phone back up, he sounded wearier than he had minutes ago. “Most of us agree,” he said. “Come to the Chandler Inn Hotel in thirty minutes. I’ll send you directions to your phone.”
Finding the hotel was easy enough; facing the group of heroes who had filled in for Andrey’s absence was a different altogether. The fact that none of them wore costumes made Andrey stand out like a sore thumb, even after he’d removed his helmet.
A quick scan of the suite gave him a good impression of who had agreed to the meeting and who hadn’t. Rune sat a high-backed chair against a tall window, taking advantage of the sunlight that illuminated his broad-shouldered, well-toned form as if he was one of those Norse gods. He had shaved the beard at some point since their last meeting, but the braid of his brown hair was still long enough to hang over the front of his black and green flannel shirt.
Crashbang stood to Rune’s right. He was a pale, frizz-haired youth in his early twenties whose balanced stance indicated readiness for trouble. He was in good shape, less bulky than his team leader and much more intent on looking the hero while off duty. He’d donned a flashy combination of red brand trousers and a hooded yellow shirt, a color scheme that matched the look of his costume.
To Rune’s left, Aura perched on a backless chair, considering Andrey from behind red-rimmed glasses. They seemed a little too large for her narrow face and gave her the appearance of a curious bird. She was the youngest member of the team – barely sixteen, as far as Andrey remembered – and the smallest to boot. She couldn’t weight more than eighty pounds.
Skyfire had taken position a good distance away from the others, and the scowl on her face left little doubt as to why. She leaned against the wall beside the minibar, armed with a filled shot glass and a cold stare that followed Andrey’s every move. Wet tresses of shoulder length hair clung to her cheeks, her flame printed shirt protected from dripping moisture by a shoulder-slung towel.
You’re too young to be drinking, Andrey thought with a pang of regret. He bit back a commentary. He wasn’t in the right kind of position to lecture teens on drinking, and they had more urgent matters to discuss.
“Welcome, Andrey,” Rune said. He dipped his chin in the direction of a lone chair that had been positioned in front of the right side trio of heroes. “Why don’t you sit?”
Andrey glanced at Skyfire, then over at the chair. He couldn’t help but be reminded of a court setup, but proceeded to settle down without protest. He placed the helmet on his lap and his gloved fingers on top of it.
“Thank you for having me,” he began. “I’m glad we’re getting the chance to talk. If we can find a way to work together, we’ll be better prepared to deal with villain plots.”
Skyfire snorted a dry, sarcastic chuckle. “Says the hero who wasn’t there when everything went to shit.”
“Nadia. Don’t,” Rune interjected.
She grimaced, but drowned her protest with a mouthful of whatever she’d filled her glass with. Water, hopefully.
“I understand my absence raises some questions,” Andrey said. “I told your leader I had a family emergency, and that’s the truth. I’d like to leave it at that if you don’t mind.”
“Did your folks get caught up in any of this?” Crashbang asked with an expression of genuine sympathy. “That sucks, man.”
You’ve no idea. Andrey absently pushed the bulge of Gentleman’s phone deeper down into his costume pocket.
“Maybe you wonder what I can bring to the table,” Andrey said, driving the conversation forward before it got stuck on the family subject. “I have a few contacts you might not have access to. Top level scientists. UN representatives. Journalists.”
It was the truth. He didn’t know how many of those contacts were still willing to talk to him, but he intended to find out.
“Anyone in the Covenant? Now that would be useful,” Crashbang said.
“Maybe,” Andrey replied.
“Useful for what?” Skyfire cut in. “We’ve been talking to the UN and to journalists for the longest time. It’s not like he’s the only hero in the whole wide world who knows someone. If he’s even still one of us and hasn’t switched sides.”
“I don’t think he has,” Aura said, speaking up for the first time. “But he’s very conflicted about something. And he’s hiding something, too.”
Rune gave the girl a long look. He watched her for a moment, absently thumbing his stubbled jaw, then settled his gaze on Andrey. “Is this conflict something about your family?” he asked in a cool, judicial tone.
“Yes,” Andrey admitted, meeting Rune’s eyes with a level gaze.
Rune swiveled to glance at Aura, who gave him a nod. “Alright,” he said, visibly relaxing. “That seems reasonable.”
“You could also call on me for backup,” Andrey offered. “I get to within a minute, faster if I have coordinates.”
“If you actually show up,” Skyfire said.
“I’ll give you a number that gets relayed to my earbud. Which I wear when I sleep.”
“I’d like to say we can return the favor,” Rune said. Skyfire opened her mouth to speak, but he curled a finger, cutting her off. “But there’s a number of problems with that. The European Union doesn’t deal with rogues. Our meeting here isn’t official.”
“I appreciate that,” Andrey replied. “Having spent a year trying to unite the heroes and rogue factions, I’m aware of the official stance. The Covenant tied my hands, and as you might have guessed, no one could never agree on a plan of action. If we want to change anything, we have to come up with solutions on our own.”
“Who’s working with you right now?” Crashbang asked.
“The Latinos,” Andrey said. “I talk to Calavera almost daily. I’ll need a couple of days to check on my other contacts.”
“He means he doesn’t have anyone else,” Skyfire said, resorting back into dry sarcasm. Her eyebrows went up until they disappeared beneath her bangs. “That’s probably why he’s knocking on our door.”
“I’m here because of the rumors about the Antithesis,” Andrey replied, relaxing the grip of his fingers about the helmet on his lap. “If the rumors are true, your team faced her a few hours ago. I’d like to know if there is any truth to them.”
On cue, the hotel suite atmosphere changed. Skyfire’s face curdled like sour milk, but she kept quiet for once. Crashbang cleared his throat, and Rune’s face hardened to granite. Watching their reactions gave Andrey a tingle of unease. It took some effort to hold back the questions that burned on his tongue. Patience, he told himself.
“The rumors are true,” Rune finally said, crossing his arms over his chest. “And you should take this seriously. We all do.”
“I’ve seen the anomaly on the studio’s roof,” Andrey said. “Did any of you see her create it?”
“Of course we did,” Crashbang growled. “She used that power on us. It’s why Checkmate is in hospital. Wasn’t that all over the news?”
“I heard about it, yes. But we all know that the news are not always reliable.”
“Most of the juicy facts are being swept under the rug,” Rune said. “For good reason. We don’t know who spread those Antithesis rumors, maybe Dancer did it herself. But, Andrey…”
Andrey belatedly realized he’d lowered his gaze and looked up.
“…forget whatever you thought you knew about Sarina Baumann. This is someone different with her powers, someone ruthless and ready to kill. She exploited our good faith to lure us to the roof, away from her villain friends, just before she attacked.”
“And what did I tell you? Don’t trust her,” Skyfire cut in. “You should have listened to me.”
“Athena wanted to take her into custody,” Rune replied. “We had to try. The Covenant’s authority applies to us as well, Nadia.”
“This was a request from Athena?” Andrey asked, straightening up on his chair. He knew they’d discussed the subject on that last evening before breaking off communications, but he couldn’t remember if she agreed. Knowing they were on the same side in regards to the girl would have been the best news in weeks.
“You don’t know about it? Didn’t you say you still have contacts with the Covenant?” Crashbang asked, brow furrowing.
“I said maybe. They’re among the options I have to look into.”
“I’m quite sure she’ll change her mind now.” Rune draped an arm over the back of his chair, watching Andrey’s face. “You can’t take this girl into custody. She warps reality, maybe even time. If anyone is Anathema to the Healer, then her. You’d understand if you just heard what she said, and saw her face when she said it.”
“Seriously,” Skyfire said. “The bitch had demon eyes. Wouldn’t be surprised if she could turn you to stone just by looking at you.”
That’s not the whole truth. She’s being manipulated, and I know by who.
Andrey turned the words and facts over in his head. The idea of sharing his suspicions had a certain appeal to it. But he couldn’t be sure the villain’s cell phone wasn’t bugged, and he couldn’t risk putting it away. Not until he knew for sure his family would be safe.
“I have some theories and maybe leads of my own, but I need to do verify a few points before I can share.”
“If you share now, we can help you verify.” Rune dipped a nod in Aura’s direction. “We have an Empath. I don’t remember you mentioning one.”
You still don’t trust me. Not that I blame you.
“Could you give me an idea of your range?” Andrey asked the girl with the red-rimmed glasses. “If we pursue this together, I’d like to ask you to check on a few people across the world.”
“I would be the one asking her, Andrey,” Rune declared with a wolfish grin. “You’re asking for our help, and you’re not leading anyone anymore.”
“You’re right. You’re in charge, and I’m asking for help.”
“I’m glad we agree,” Rune said. “Aura, if you want to tell him, go ahead.”
The girl’s face brightened with a genuine smile for Andrey. “It works at any range, but I have to see the person or a picture of them. It’s not as accurate with pictures, but I can find out a few things from the color of their aura. If they’re lying, how they feel, or if they’re going to die soon.” She watched him for another moment, the smile fading. “You should be careful, Andrey. Your aura’s gotten darker since you got here.”
The phone. Andrey stopped himself from reaching for it in reflex. No. If he didn’t want me to meet other heroes, he would have said so. “When did it change?” he asked. “What were we talking about at the time?”
The girl furrowed her eyebrows above the rims of her glasses. “It was just a moment ago.”
“Nadia,” Rune said. “You are not thinking of murdering my guest, are you?”
Skyfire snorted, pulling one foot up against the wall behind her. “You should know me better than that.”
“Could it be coincidence?” Andrey asked. “Not related to anything I said or did here?”
“Yes,” Aura confirmed. “I think someone wants you dead, and everything is, um, ready to make it happen since about a minute.
Nothing new. “I guess I should change my plans for today?” Andrey asked, the corners of his mouth twitching with a wry attempt at humor.
“That might be a good idea,” Rune said. “You could stay here for some time if…”
“No,” Skyfire cut in. “He can get a hotel room on the other side of the world in two minutes.”
Not with a backup identity.
“It’s alright, Rune. I’ve been wanted dead for some time. Athena calculated the latest bounty at half a million dollars, the Yakuza refused to take it.”
“The Traveler’s aura was black around the edges too. It looked exactly the same.”
“He got shot an hour after she saw him on TV,” Crashbang added, flicking a thumb in Aura’s direction. “Why would anyone want you dead? Half a million, that’s crazy.”
“I was the only one who could respond to a villain attack within seconds, preventing them from using hit and run tactics. The Traveller could have, but he lacked combat powers and declared himself neutral.”
“And Shanti,” Skyfire said. She looked like she might say more, but the looks on everyone’s faces seemed to convince her otherwise.
Andrey decided not to hear that particular statement and broke the awkward silence. “I’ll figure something out. We should discuss how we’re going to find Dancer and those villains.”
“You mean the villain and those guys.” Crashbang’s expression shifted from concern to something darker. “That girl’s wicked. Stone cold, man.”
Andrey dismissed that comment as well. “Do you have any idea where they might be? And who is with her exactly?”
“You’re sure you don’t need help?” Rune asked, leaning forward on his chair. He stared at Andrey for a few long seconds before going on. “Fine, do as you please. We had an idea earlier. I might fill you in after you check on those contacts you wanted to verify for us. I’ll tell you right now that Aura has found similar color patterns on pictures of most of the off grid cases we checked so far. That’s the Baumann girl, Jasper Davis, and the two Irish rogues.”
A Technician, enhanced senses and the power booster. Could fit. “What about the American cases?” Andrey asked. “Were you able to check on them?”
“Um, some,” Crashbang said with a glance aside to Aura. The girl had pushed her glasses up to rub at her eyes. “They’re alive, and Aura never wants to look at their pictures again. They aren’t with this group.”
“Someone told you about Legion and the security warning?” Rune asked.
“Yes,” Andrey said. “How many do you think are in this group?”
“Our guess is anywhere between five and eight,” Rune said. “We don’t know who created the holes in the walls they used to escape. Those were clean and precise, just as big as they had to be. Not Dancer’s work.”
“The bitch gets a kick out of making a mess,” Skyfire said. “You didn’t see the wall she made, did you? And of course she had to attack with shit.” The girl scrunched up her nose in disgust.
“And all of them were invisible? Could you hear them?” Andrey asked.
“Security said they could see and hear some of them for a short while,” Crashbang said. “We don’t know why. One of them could be heard making threats and talking to Raven. He had an accent of some sort.”
“Australian,” Rune suggested. “The guards identified it. Jacob Wilson. We haven’t found a picture of him to verify, but we’re on it. Working hard, you see,” he added with another wolfish grin in Andrey’s direction.
I’ll return the favor as soon as I can.
“I’ll need one or two days to…” Andrey began, interrupted by the shrill ringtone that came from the back pocket of his costume. Gentleman’s phone. It didn’t just ring, it played a bright children’s jingle that made the assembled hero team gape at Andrey with amused confusion.
I have to take this. They’re not safe.
Andrey pushed up from his chair, baring his teeth in a smile that had to look as misplaced as it felt. “I have to take this,” he declared, pulling the phone from its pocket. “Rune. You still have my secure mail address?”
The Swedish hero gave a slow nod, eyes glued to the white and gold phone that chimed in Andrey’s hand.
“Send me a message,” Andrey said, already on the way to the suite’s exit door. “I’ll get back to you.”
He pushed the door open with his left hand, clutching the phone with his right. A quick pull closed the door behind him. The instant he’d left the suite, his eyes started scanning the red carpeted corridor that extended about fifteen meters on either side to eventually lead to the elevator and a set of stairs. No other guests or hotel staff were in sight.
Andrey’s thumb accepted the call, cutting the irritating children’s jingle cut off. “Yes?” he asked as he stepped away from the door behind him.
“Hello, Radiant,” an unfamiliar male voice said.
“Make it quick,” Andrey replied. “I’m in public.”
“That’s fine. Just got a real simple message from the boss. Nothing to fret about.”
“What is it?” Andrey leaned one shoulder against the corridor wall next to an Art Deco painting of the Beatles, keeping his eyes on the elevator doors.
“He’ll miss you something fierce if you make the mistake of going home.”