Moscow, Russia – Tuesday, the 12th of June, 2012. 11:05 AM.
“He’ll miss you something fierce if you make the mistake of going home.”
Andrey adjusted his grip on the phone to avoid hanging up by accident. “Can I get a bit more information? I’ve got more than one place.”
“’Course,” the man on the other end replied. “There’s some new hit squads forming. Angry guys who need cash. Data’s traced some of them to Moscow, Boss wants you to not confuse them with us. They’ve taken a contract that’s been out there for a while, I hear. Wouldn’t rely on your other places still being a secret if I was you.”
“This group consists of whom?” Andrey asked. He turned his head to scan the hotel corridor behind him. He didn’t see anyone, and the door to the suite he’d just left was still closed.
“That’s all you’re gonna get, anything else is favors.”
No deals with the devil. “I’ll decline for now,” Andrey replied.
“Have it your way. Good luck.” A faint click in the line ended the call.
Priorities. Andrey had no intention of getting shot by powered assassins, but he had to get his family out of the line of fire first.
He started moving while he pushed the phone back into one of the secure pockets integrated into his costume. Upon reaching the stairway down to the lower levels, he paused to pull the helmet over his head. Some detached part of him registered people heading up the stairs. A gasp of surprise, footsteps that stopped abruptly.
As soon as the helmet’s closing mechanism snapped shut at his temples, he beamed himself out through one of the windows that marked the end of the corridor. Two short jumps later, he found himself above a field of dandelions and the sparsely traveled road that crossed it.
Two more calculated beams brought him to a couple of meters above ground. Low enough to drop Gentleman’s cell phone beside a triangular rock formation without risk of damaging it.
When he was a good distance above the discarded phone, Radiant activated the helmet and spent a few seconds listening to Iris’ boot sequence. He considered the risk of entering his apartment for the half minute he’d need to retrieve the secure data stick from his laptop. That stick contained all of the notes and research he’d accumulated over the past few days. Drafts of action plans involving potential allies. Contact information, facts and observations to complement the power and faction lists.
Aura’s voice echoed in his head. Your aura has gotten darker since you came here. The Traveler’s aura was black around the edges too.
“Setup complete,” the AI’s artificial female voice announced in his ears, emulating a timbre that was painfully close to Athena’s. “Three hundred and seventy-nine new stored broadcasts.”
Wish I could actually talk to you.
Radiant closed his eyes behind the visor for a moment, reminded of his vulnerability by the wind that rippled over his costume. He was far from bulletproof, and it wouldn’t take much to reveal the weakness he shared with almost every other Evolved out there.
“Iris,” Radiant said. “Terminate all home stations.”
“This process will deactivate all communication with Olympus from home stations,” the AI declared. “Proceed?”
The question gave Radiant pause. Olympus – Athena’s core server – was responsible for the routing of any and all communications attempts with him, including calls from Calavera and his family. It also linked him to the secure database that contained his data backups. He’d be able to recreate most of what he’d stored on the stick within a day, but losing access to Olympus would undo the work of years.
“Can you recreate the access network from a new base?” Radiant asked.
“Yes, if the requirements are met and user identity is verified.”
“It isn’t verified? I’m wearing you, Iris.” Radiant tapped a gloved finger against the outer plating of his helmet.
“The Genesis process requires a higher level of identification. Execute now? I do not detect a connection to a new base.”
Radiant shook his head. The wind swept across the dandelion fields below, giving him an uncomfortable reminder of the phone he’d left behind to buy himself a few minutes of guaranteed privacy.
“Not now. Will you be able to maintain all communication processes after home station termination?” He asked.
“Only outgoing communication,” Iris replied. “Incoming queries will be stored until access to Olympus is established from a new base.”
That will have to do, Radiant decided. The helmet would allow him to call already established contacts, including Calavera and his family. As much as he wanted to find Dancer, he couldn’t get invested in the search before he evacuated his family. Rune hopefully knew enough about his situation not to expect a reply today.
“Terminate home stations,” Radiant said. “Establish connection with Calavera.”
“Termination in progress. Wireless resources detected. Connection established,” Iris confirmed. “Calling.”
Please pick up.
Radiant counted the seconds while the dial tone rang in his ears and the wind filled his nostrils with a heavy scent of blooming summer. He got to eight before a click in the line introduced a familiar voice with a heavy accent.
“Yes, Radiant? This is you?”
“Calavera. I called earlier.”
“Ah. Yes. Your very urgent message. Your family is well? Nothing has changed?”
“A lot has changed,” Radiant replied, shutting out the images that pulsed angrily behind his closed eyelids. “If I needed instant evacuation for three adults and a child from Moscow, could you make it happen?”
The Mexican hero was silent for a few seconds before responding. “Ah. That will be difficult. Not impossible, but yes, maybe. I need to make some calls. They are in the city now?”
“Two adults and the child, yes,” Radiant replied. “My mother lives an hour out.”
“Moscow has more than one airport, sí? Which one is good for private jet?”
“Vnukovo would be closest,” Radiant replied. “I also need someone to drive a car out to Trubino. My mother lives there. I’ll call you from her home for directions.”
“That is simple. Call now, tell them to go to the airport now. When all is done, join me here. We talk about favor, sí? How you help us.”
I know you want to avenge Saint. Point me in Legion’s direction.
“I’ll need a place to stay as well,” Radiant admitted, forcing the words out. “Powered assassins.”
“Two favors,” Calavera said. “Maybe you go on date with mí prima? She is very nice lady.”
Radiant had no response to that.
“Lo siento. Bad time for joke. You call family now, we talk soon. Buena suerte, Andrey.”
Radiant didn’t waste a moment after the call ended. “Iris,” he said. “Establish connection with Stepan.”
Valle de Bravo, Mexico – Thursday, the 14th of June, 2012. 02:06 PM.
“Andrey, pay attention to any error messages that may pop up. I don’t know all of Athena’s code, but enough to let you know if it’s going to blow up in your face.” Kathy’s voice came through the phone line without a shred of concern. Andrey could have sworn there was an eager, cheerful ring to it.
“You’re enjoying this,” he said as he plugged the cable into the small socket at the back of his helmet. The monitor on the desk in front of him didn’t light up, but Iris confirmed the connection with a small blinking light.
“But of course. When does a humble IT system manager ever get the chance to play with the toys of a goddess?”
“We could argue the fact you’re the Covenant’s system manager, and that I am doing the toying,” Andrey replied. He put the helmet on the desk and checked with the phone in hand, glancing to the silvery wall socket that had been hidden behind a bookshelf and a retractable wall only thirty minutes ago. Fortunately, Calavera knew how Technomage concealed her access points.
Another of Legion’s victims.
“Tch.” Kathy clicked her tongue, sharp and disapproving. “More like the stooge. I replace parts, order new ones, and install boring system updates for the office sitters downstairs. She doesn’t let me touch the interesting parts. She’s just like you, really.”
Andrey pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers. He considered a suitable reply, but decided otherwise. “The connection looks fine,” he said. “Iris should be ready to go.”
“Give her the command, Toymaster,” Kathy replied. “Big Sister will be watching.”
“Keep your fingers crossed.” Andrey put the phone down and picked the helmet back up. Iris filled his ears with a faint hum of activity as he pulled it down over his head, feeling familiar mechanisms click into place.
“Iris,” he said as the visor lit up before his eyes. “Initiate Genesis on connected base.”
“Scanning new base. Resources exceed required specifications. Continue with identity verification?”
“Yes,” Andrey said.
He adjusted the office chair with one hand to get seated before Iris assaulted him with an unpredictable identity test. Hopefully Kathy wasn’t able to listen in on him and Athena’s AI. If he failed this, he’d never hear the end of it.
The visor darkened, then lit up with a bright flash of light brown to black hues that Andrey’s brain refused to process. His body reacted instead, and his pulse sped up, redistributing resources to areas that had been neglected just a second ago.
“Familiar reaction pattern confirmed, pupil dilation detected. Genesis will now initiate,” Iris’ voice chimed.
Andrey barely registered the words and the lines upon lines of status updates that began to fill up the screen in front of him.
Eventually, moments after the projected image had vanished his visor, he remembered to remove the helmet and dropped it onto the desk. His eyes flicked to the overturned phone beside it. The distant sound of Kathy’s voice came from it, muffled by the white desk plate.
“…messages on the screen?” the words became audible once he picked the phone up. “Andrey! I know you moved to Mexico, but this isn’t the time for a siesta, comprende?”
“…I’m here,” he said, holding the phone an inch from his ear. “Athena rigged Iris with an identity test. I passed.”
“…you sound strange,” Kathy stated after a moment of silence. “Are you feeling alright? Oh… wait. Oh no. She did not. Tell me she didn’t!” The last words dissolved into a fit of laughter.
Andrey squinted at the screen, rubbing the bridge of his nose with two fingers. He almost expected to see something more interesting than scrolling text there, but that opportunity had passed.
“You guys are such perverts,” Kathy commented with mock terror.
Were, Andrey corrected with a pang of regret. He tried to follow the updates that flickered across the screen, but they moved too quickly to note anything other than a distinct lack of errors.
“I’m not seeing anything that hints at trouble. Overall progress is at seven percent.”
“We have some time to chat, then.” Kathy had the complacency of a cat who’d just cornered a canary. “Tell me about your new home. Is it huge, sparsely decorated and lonely? With an immense, satin-covered double bed?”
“The neighbors took the bed because they needed it,” Andrey replied. “I have a very nice hammock, but it’s half a day from the nearest airport. Including a one hour ride on the chicken bus. You’re a busy woman, Kathy.”
Andrey left the screen to Iris and settled back, taking the opportunity to let his eyes wander. Apart from the unadorned white desk and the swivel chair he was sitting on, traditional Mexican design dominated the room with vivid colors ranging from yellow to red and pale green. Talavera pottery décor adorned the yellow painted walls. The small seating area by the barred window featured colorful embroidery, and choice pieces of reclaimed wood furniture cast shadows across the gleaming reddish tile floor.
The house belonged to Calavera’s family and had been inhabited by Technomage before her disappearance. If Andrey rolled his chair back to the nearest window, he could see the one story building that currently housed his brother’s family and his mother. A family of six had relocated to make it happen, and Andrey hadn’t yet figured out how he could possibly repay them.
“You don’t need to ride the chicken bus,” Kathy said.
“No, but I have to be careful. Most of the people here don’t know who I am, and the locals made an effort to cover our tracks.”
After I agreed to make Legion my number one priority and act as backup support at a pinch.
“You can be traced to Paris and Brasília quite easily,” Kathy pointed out. “Even I managed to do it, and I haven’t been blessed with magical doo-doo. I have to make do with charm and ravishing good looks.”
Andrey couldn’t help but smile to himself. I’d go with confidence and a brilliant mind. He glanced back to the monitor, tapping a finger against the corner of his mouth. The progress bar had advanced to just over twenty percent by now, and the lines that scrolled across the screen looked more complex.
“The Latinos laid false tracks. Anyone with an interest will expect us to be somewhere in Brazil,” he said.
“If you ride the chicken bus,” Kathy replied, voice deadpan.
None of it matters if Gentleman got ahold of a Visionary with locating powers.
The smile withered beneath Andrey’s finger, the moment of mental respite gone. Kathy had a way of putting him at ease, but he was all too aware of the villain’s phone in his desk.
“You wanted to look into new transitions for me,” he said. “Anyone between Tuesday around noon GMT and now?”
“Ah, yes. Thank you for reminding me. I got two results, a girl and a young man. They weren’t made public, and both disappeared shortly after local authorities had been alerted, along with everyone who lived with them. In this case, local means Pakistan and Indonesia. I’m sorry, Snookums.”
“Anything at all about powers? And you’re sure no information was broadcast in any way?”
“Positive,” Kathy replied. “Didn’t find anything specific about powers. Only transition alerts. With more time, I could maybe crack Pakistan’s intelligence network and see if there’s anything at all in there. But the indonesians upgraded recently. Might have gotten help from a Techie in exchange for asylum.”
“And how short is ‘shortly’? Are we talking minutes or hours?”
“Between one and two hours.”
Damn you, Gentleman.
Andrey sank into his seat, eyes drifting shut for a moment. The short response time had to mean the Conglomerate could effectively operate on a global scale. Or, alternately, direct extremely mobile kidnap squads. He wasn’t sure which of the two options he disliked more.
At least we can rule Legion out.
Something stopped him from believing in Legion’s sudden passivity, but he felt safe to assume they hadn’t become active in densely populated areas yet. Word would have gotten out.
“Which one was first, or fits better into our assumed timeframe of a few minutes?” Andrey asked, opening his eyes just enough to check the progress bar on the screen. Forty-seven.
“Gamal Perkasa, age twenty-two. I don’t have the exact time, but he was several hours ahead of the girl in Pakistan.”
“If you can dig up anything else, let me know. What about the UN personnel that were kidnapped on Tuesday, anything new? Any demands?”
“The UN has all the resources for tracking their missing people, Andrey,” Kathy said with gentle admonishment. “You’re an ultramasculine man-beast in spandex, but you don’t have to save the world. If you’re overcome by heroic urges, you could save me first. Doesn’t every self-respecting Tarzan keep a Jane somewhere?”
“You’re too smart to be a Jane,” Andrey commented, rubbing at his eye with a growing sense of weariness. The other eye remained open, watching the progress bar. Sixty-one. “My life could depend on having that information, now more than ever.”
“Alright.” She exhaled a deep, dramatic and very audible sigh that teased his ear, which was the intended effect, no doubt. “I’ll track what I can for you… but Snookums, how can a hard working girl expect to get paid?”
Andrey lowered the hand from his eye and let it sink onto the desk, peering at the busty, brightly painted pottery figurine that claimed the spot to the right of his monitor. Even a deaf person could have figured out what she wanted. She wasn’t unpleasant, and he didn’t mind her sense of humor. He just didn’t have the time or the energy to invest in distractions.
“What do you suggest?” he asked after a moment of consideration. Seventy-five.
“A date should be the least of small favors,” she said.
“You do remember the half million dollar bounty, right?”
“It’s gone up, last I checked,” she declared cheerfully. “I’ll give you my estimate of what it should be afterwards.”
“I’ve barely slept, Kathy. I’ve had some trouble involving my family, if you remember. I might consider it if I get some sleep and a few leads.”
“If you want to owe me for working in advance, we can arrange that,” she said. “But Andrey, if you chicken out on the chicken bus, I’m going to give your number to my brother. He keeps nagging me about it.”
Of all the threats she could have made. Andrey heard something like a short, dry chuckle escape his lips, unsure whether to be amused or disturbed. “I keep my promises.”
“Connection to Olympus established,” Iris announced from the monitor loudspeakers. “Installing missing resources.” The progress bar leaped to ninety-five percent.
Andrey watched the on-screen updates with idle interest, even though he understood very little of the underlying processes. He hadn’t had many opportunities to watch Athena work, but there had been a special kind of magic in seeing her bring metal, plastic and electronics to life. She didn’t even need to be present to restore his connection to the world.
“Opening gateway to Olympus,” Iris said. “Setup complete. The candy box is now available. Welcome back, Andrey.”
Andrey lowered the phone and stared at the screen with a mix of confusion and amazement. He recognized the icon on screen. Alexandra had kept a heart shaped box just like it on her TV table, stocked with chocolates for their rare romantic evenings.
“Iris. What’s the Candy Box?” he asked.
“The candy box contains a limited mirror of Olympus data,” Iris’ voice declared from the loudspeakers. “It was created twelve hours, seventeen minutes and forty-two seconds ago. You do not have access to Olympus, but you may view any data stored within the candy box. Be aware that the mirrored environment disables all communication protocols.”
Andrey’s head sank against the back of his swivel chair, eyes flicking up to the colorful depiction of a rosy-cheeked saint that adorned the yellow ceiling. You’re not talking to me, but you’re giving me access to Covenant data. This could make all the difference.
The idea of Athena shutting Iris down on purpose seemed more and more unlikely.
The muted sound of Kathy’s voice drew Andrey’s attention back to the phone. He picked it up and brought it to his ear. “I’m online,” he said, interrupting Kathy’s tirade.
“Why, aren’t you lucky today,” she replied. “I didn’t hear anything blow up. Congratulations!”
“I’ll try and get updated,” he said. “Who knows, I might even sleep. Call me when you find something.”
“Always rely on me to wake you up. Just remember, we have a deal!”
“Right, we’ll be in touch. Goodbye for now, Kathy.” He hung up.
Andrey unlocked the upper right drawer of his desk with the small metal key that dangled from his wrist. He opened it and put the phone down beside Gentleman’s white and gold model. When both phones were locked away, he turned his attention back to the screen.
A double click on the Candy Box icon revealed over a terabyte of the data the Covenant had researched, collected and stored over the years. Power lists, transition patterns, villain and rogue backgrounds, footage of recorded battles and more.
Andrey skimmed over the full list before scrolling back up to the letter ‘G’. Gentleman’s folder contained less data than most others, but the small number of files made it easy to locate a video file named NWInterview2011.mpg.
The devil unmasked. It’s in here.
He had watched this particular interview a couple of weeks ago. The notes he’d taken were lost, most likely destroyed along with the computer he’d left in his old Covenant headquarters apartment. But he remembered the interesting parts.
He fast forwarded through the introductory questions to the part he’d watched several dozen times, then pressed ‘play’.
“… considered for a supplementary role in Andrews’ upcoming modern adaptation of Camelot,” the interviewer said. “How do you feel about returning to the stage as a common soldier after having portrayed a ruler? Your adaptation of King Richard was praised as, I quote, ‘an epiphany of brilliance, unique and outstanding.’”
Scott de Luca, the young man who would become Gentleman, stroked his cheek with a finger, eyes glittering with amused mischief. Without powers or a mask, his appearance was almost disturbingly normal. A lanky dime-a-dozen Broadway actor with straight brown hair and unremarkable features, but a hint of a devil’s knowing smile.
“I assume you’re expecting me to tell you how I’m looking forward to being part of this new show,” the lanky actor said. “How Andrews is a genius, and how I’m going to turn a footman into a hero. I’ll do nothing of the sort.”
“No?” The interviewer asked, clearly perplexed. “Could you elaborate?”
“Gladly,” the actor replied. He leaned forward on his seat, fingers lacing together over his knee. “I’m going to tell you a secret,” he whispered, just loud enough to be picked up by the camera. “I will die an unremarkable actor’s death, and rise from the ashes as the stage director we currently lack.”
“You believe there aren’t enough directors?” the interviewer asked, even more perplexed.
“No. We do have an overabundance of eager visionaries. What we lack is directors with an eye for the perfect role. For reality, for potential. You see, anyone with a smidgen of soul has the potential to shine. To be brilliant, perfect.” He let the word roll off his tongue, eyelids lowering as if to savor the sound of it. “You could take a John Doe with no acting experience, set them up with their perfect role, and the audience would weep like it never wept before. The real challenge lies in seeing the potential. In knowing the one role that will bring out the best in them.”
You never directed anything in your mundane life. Andrey paused the video for later reference and tabbed out of the candy box to check his mailbox instead. He found a message titled ‘Now what?’ and opened it.
I’ve contacted you, now the ball is in your court. Get back to us with some information on what you can bring to the table. Regards, Rune.
Short and to the point. Andrey considered for a minute before typing a response. Halfway through, an idea struck him, and he opened access to his Olympus-protected storage cache to retrieve a digital family photo and attach it to his reply.
I only just regained online access, some more complications came up. Give me 24 hours. In the meantime, here’s a photo of my mother, my brother and his family. They might be in danger. If Aura could keep an eye on them, I’ll owe you (another) one.
Andrey noted the blinking icon of his virtual answering machine just as as he clicked ‘send.’ A quick check of missed calls revealed a single one by ‘Unknown’. Judging by the number, it had been routed over Athena’s personal high priority line.
This can’t be her. Andrey’s fingers froze on the mouse. She wouldn’t be listed as Unknown. Andrey stared at the number for half a minute before opening the call, mentally prepared for a confrontation with a scoffing villain’s voice.
Instead, he heard someone young, female and American. “Um, hello,” Unknown said. “Athena asked me to contact you. This is Mascot, of the Wardens.”