San Francisco, USA – Thursday, the 14th of June 2012. 07:03 PM.
“Talk shows,” Andrey repeated. Hearing the words from his own mouth didn’t make the idea any less outlandish. “Is this a serious suggestion?”
Peter grinned at him. “You won’t know until you try.”
“Not a live show, of course,” Christina said. “You don’t want to let the bad guys know you’re looking for Dancer. It shouldn’t be hard for you to get a television feature, though. Most any channel would broadcast a video of you. You’re still a hero and they still need their viewing figures.”
Andrey’s lips creased into a thin smile. “I’m not exactly popular right now,” he argued.
It was a massive understatement. Truth was, he’d grown so tired of the newsflash escalation that he instructed Iris to stop recording broadcasts which contained his name. He could only listen to himself being referred to as ‘the late Radiant’ or ‘the hero who wasn’t there’ so many times before his brain latched on to the subject, triggering yet another full-blown identity crisis.
“You don’t have to be popular to make headlines,” Peter said, pointedly glancing aside to Nora.
The girl returned a mock glare.
Andrey took a moment to give the idea some consideration. The more he thought about it, the more plausible it seemed. He didn’t have a clue as to Dancer’s whereabouts, and he certainly didn’t know how to contact her privately. She had left her cell phone in Switzerland when she’d gone off grid. Email? No. If she still used the same email address, Europol’s lead Technician would have tracked her down already.
How would she contact me? This was another question without ready-made solution. Broadcasting his own private number across a television network was off the table. Not only would Andrey get spammed by all kinds of hoaxers; there was no telling what someone with Data’s skill or resources would do if they got ahold of his contact information.
Kathy might be able to help. As much as he disliked the idea of requesting her assistance yet again when he could do nothing to repay her, he understood that he might need to.
“I’ll think about it,” he said. “Let’s pool resources for now. If you like, I’ll send you my compiled notes on everything that concerns us. They’re by no means complete, but maybe you can fill some of the gaps.”
“Sure,” Christina replied. “Likewise.”
“Can we figure out a better way to contact each other? Phones are pretty damn inconvenient in emergency situations,” Peter said.
“Because you always forget to charge yours,” Nora teased.
“Not always. Sometimes. Anyway, Athena promised to get us equipped with something, but who knows if that’s still a thing she’s planning to do now that the President officially turned the Covenant down.”
The mention of the President drew Andrey’s immediate attention. “He turned the Covenant down? What was this about?”
“The Covenant wanted our team mascot,” Peter explained.
Not surprising, given her powerset.
“I see,” Andrey said. “As for communications – the Covenant used GPS and emergency alerts to keep the team connected regardless of location. If you know a skilled Technician, I should be able to cover the expenses and get everyone equipped.”
“Really? Do you even know what it would cost?” Christina asked. “If working for the Covenant made you that rich, the maybe I should have agreed to join up.”
Andrey tried, and failed, to determine whether she was joking. Her power face was impassive, revealing nothing.
“I wouldn’t call it rich,” he said. “I haven’t spent much over the past one and a half years; the UN covered most of our expenses. My savings kept accumulating, so I have a few healthy bank accounts by now.” Andrey inwardly scratched three apartments off his list of possessions. Two of those had been sponsored by the UN; he doubted they were still secure. Fortunately, he felt no particular attachment to those two apartments. The old flat in Moscow, where he had lived before flying to New York to begin his new life as a hero, was the only one he cared about.
“Maybe Mr. Turner could find us some walkie-talkies if we ask?” Peter suggested.
Christina’s face fell. “Didn’t we agree to leave the boss-men out of this as much as we can? If we ask for a budget, someone’s going to tell us exactly where and when and what we can spend it on. It would suck.”
Peter slid Andrey’s borrowed sunglasses down over his own eyes, enjoying the feel of famous hero shades on his young face. “Right.”
“Hey, Radiant.” Christina turned her attention back to Andrey, brows furrowed in thought. “You said Data’s power surged, right?”
“Yes. Data had already gone undercover at that point, but we have reason to assume his surge was among the first. In fact, it might have been the first in history. Why do you ask?”
“You also said only Athena competes on equal terms with him.” Christina let the statement hang in the air, watching him as she put out her cigarette in a vanilla colored ashtray.
It took Andrey a moment to realize why she gave him that long, searching look. He had been content to assume Alexandra kept no secrets from him, especially not one as enormous as a power surge. You could have told me, he thought bitterly. We trusted each other with our lives. How would this have been any different?
As much as he disliked the idea, he had to admit it was possible. No Technician but Athena had ever succeeded in creating complex, adaptive AI systems that rivaled Data’s designs.
You must have had your reasons, he decidedly assumed. Take care of yourself, whatever you’re doing.
He closed his eyes, thoughts drifting off to wherever she might be to extend his best wishes. He opened them after a few seconds to search the table for his sunglasses, belatedly remembering he’d passed them to Peter.
“It’s cool,” Christina said. “We don’t have to talk about right now. I just figured it would be really neat to have Athena on our side, you know? Just her, without any political strings attached.”
“It would,” Andrey agreed. “I need to check on a few things at home. Let’s stay in touch; you already have my number and email. Let me know if anything comes up.”
“Deal,” Christina said, offering her fist for a fist bump. “Good luck, and don’t die.”
It was nearly midnight when Andrey made his way back to his new home, posing as a tourist who’d missed his last bus and was desperate enough to pay the exorbitant fee for the ninety minute taxi drive. He had beamed himself to a location near Córdoba before dusk, taking advantage of the last daylight to conceal the luminescent energy that was a byproduct of his power.
He couldn’t take that risk of beaming himself into Valle de Bravo. The local villagers – many of whom spent most of the day outdoors working as farmers and ranchers – would have spotted him and asked questions. His family’s well-being was dependent on their anonymity; any gossip about Radiant’s identity would jeopardize their safety.
Andrey stopped by the house across the road to check up on them before retiring for the night. A glance through the one illuminated window revealed Alena and Stepan, huddled together on the couch in front of an old tube TV. He assumed his mother and nephew were asleep in their rooms.
He gave the front door three solid raps before a sound of voices and movement came through, muffled by the red painted wood. Stepan opened the door just far enough to peek through the crack, revealing a sliver of his weary, freshly stubbled face. If he was glad to see his brother, he wasn’t showing it.
“What’s up, Andrey?” he asked. “It’s late. Is everything alright?”
“Just checking on you and Alena,” Andrey said, relieved to see annoyance rather than anxiety on his brother’s face. He’d been gone for most of the day without explanation, and he could deal with Stepan’s admonition. Anything but more villain attacks in his absence.
“We were about to go to bed, but if you’d like to talk…” Stepan opened the door a little further, not enough to allow passage. In the cozy, yellow painted living room behind him, Alena sat up from the padded bench and flashed a smile as weary as her husband’s face was, though without any of his poorly concealed anger.
Andrey shook his head. “I don’t want to put you out. I just got back and wanted to make sure everything’s alright before I get some sleep. I assume Denis and Mama are in bed?”
“Safe and sound. I got everything under control for once. We don’t need to be saved.” Stepan scratched a stubbled cheek, his sharp features softened by a fleeting grin. “Mama spends most of the day sleeping since your Latino friends equipped her room with air conditioning.” The grin disappeared. “I’m more worried about my boy, to tell you the truth. He hasn’t gone out to play with the other kids yet, and they come knocking twice a day.”
“Give him some time,” Andrey suggested. “I’ll take care of the bad guys. Good night, Stiopka.”
“Night,” Stepan said, echoed by Alena from the back of the room. He closed the door and locked it with a final loud click.
We’ll keep the boy safe, and he’ll see it as a big adventure before long.
Andrey held on to that idea as he crossed the hard beaten road that ran through the entirety of the small village. He stopped at the front door to his small borrowed home and dug for his key, glancing over the four barred windows that lined the stone facade without an outer wall and gate to block them off from the road. This was a poor people’s home, only recently upgraded by Technomage.
Not that a stone wall would stop a supervillain.
Calavera had agreed to send him a safety engineer that would install a state of the art alarm system the next day. Andrey hadn’t gotten around to accessing one of his five bank accounts; it was one of the things he’d scheduled for the next morning.
He didn’t enjoy being in debt. He’d experienced some serious financial pressure back when he began studying architecture and met Natalya in one of Moscow’s bookstores, struggling to complete his degree and to pretend he wasn’t penniless whenever he saw his future father in law.
After entering the house, Andrey turned on the lights and locked the door before checking his new computer for any urgent updates or messages.
He poured himself a glass of vodka while Iris rattled off a summary of the newscasts that had been stored in his absence. There was a surprisingly large amount of those. Despite its remote location, this small, simple village had a better reception for television and radio signals than Andrey’s Russian hometown did. All thanks to a recently disappeared Technician.
“Priority tags: twenty-seven matches,” Iris announced. “Twenty-one mentions of ‘villain’, linked to nineteen linked mentions of ‘crime’. Seventeen mentions of ‘hostages’. Fifteen mentions of…”
Could be much worse.
Andrey emptied the glass into his mouth before sitting down at his desk to investigate the details. The UN hostage situation was still unresolved, and as far as he could tell after checking the news, no demands had been made public. No sightings of Raven or his gang had been reported. Legion remained an unseen threat.
An Evolved duo who up until now had kept such a low profile that Andrey didn’t recognize their names, had robbed a bank in Cairo. Both escaped before the police arrived on site. In Somalia, a recently transitioned Evoker declared himself a warlord and seized control of some villages. Judging by the number of locals flocking to his cause, the whole country was about to plunge into anarchy. Andrey suspected others would follow.
Meanwhile, the Covenant remained passive. Journalists and bloggers alike were speculating about the Liverpool villain broadcast’s impact on Evolved politics. The UNEOA, ever vigilant to prevent more power surges from happening, had no choice but to put a halt on execution orders. The UN’s small Assembly was in a frenzy to discuss and find new solutions. Seeing as there was no way to constrain Evolved offenders in the meantime, organized crime involving powers was on the rise.
Well played, villains.
Andrey had to admit that the pirate broadcast revealing the correlation between Evolved deaths and power surges had well planned and executed; it certainly succeeded in leveling the playing field in favor of the bad guys. The UN had no choice but to take the cause of power surges seriously. Villains, on the other hand, weren’t obliged to care nearly as much. They kept on committing murders while the Covenant’s hands were tied. And all of this under the guise of seemingly well intentioned information that tainted the Covenant’s public image? Brilliant.
Meanwhile, China remained an unknown factor in the political landscape. The waves of protest at its solo run rose high, no one dared to take action. Russia, at least, hadn’t made any headlines in the past few hours. Andrey was grateful for it.
Once he’d caught up with the news, Andrey opened the new email sent by Rune invested a few minutes to type a response.
Thanks for your patience. How’s Checkmate? You should get him out of hospital and to a safe location only you know about. I don’t want to spread gossip, but you should know that the villains may be on the hunt for rare powersets. Gentleman has kidnapped Dancer and the newly transitioned Visionaries who emerged after Queenie’s death. I don’t have proof, but… who, if not Data, would have the power and resources to find them before anyone else did?
I talked to the Wardens today; they’re willing to cooperate. The Latinos have been busy, but Calavera and Spirit are willing to help out if needed. Other allies include a very resourceful journalist with connections to the UN’s Evolved committee, and a skilled data jockey. She doesn’t work for free, but if you need something dug up from the web, I’ll see what I can do.
Andrey paused there, wondering how Kathy would react to being called a data jockey. She deserved a more flattering resumé, but of course he couldn’t reveal her name. Not even to Rune. If word of her involvement with Athena and the Covenant got out, she would get into serious trouble including but not limited to criminal charges issued by the UNEOA.
He read through the message a few times to make sure it wasn’t too revealing. When he was done, he added one more line, seemingly as an afterthought.
Still interested in your plan to track down the Liverpool villain group. Let me know when and how you’d like to proceed.
One thing out of the way. The ball is back in your court, Rune.
He clicked the send button with a sense of relief, looking forward to getting a few hours of sleep. There was a huge amount of administrative and investigation work awaiting him in the morning. He couldn’t afford to be tired.
“Iris. Switch to sleep mode. I’ll be using the earbud,” he said.
“Confirmed,” the AI’s voice resonated from the speakers. “Good night, Andrey.”
Andrey retrieved the small ear bud from his bag when it occurred to him that he hadn’t showered today. He wasn’t sure of the last time he’d eaten, either. He had a vague memory of buying an extra-large sandwich in between changing locations, but he couldn’t recall whether he ate it that day or the day before.
He put the earbud down on his desk, rising to his feet to find the flatbread a kindly neighbor had brought over as a welcoming gift the day before. He climbed into his hammock half an hour later, freshly showered and equipped with ear phone keeping him connected to Iris.
“Entering sleep mode,” the AI announced inside his ear. “High alert priority for broadcasts including ‘Covenant’ and or ‘Athena’ and ‘Trubino, Russia’.”
Good night, Alexandra, Andrey thought as his mind drifted off.
Radiant had been out for an indeterminate amount of time when Iris’ voice stirred him in his sleep. The AI sounded as calm and impassive as always, but he sensed immediately that something was wrong. Iris activating herself without request had never been anything but bad news.
“Emergency alert for Trubino, Russia requires immediate attention. Please respond. Emergency alert for Trubino, Russia…”
The name of his birth town trickled into Andrey’s dazed consciousness, shifting him into full alert. He took a second to rub the sleep from his eyes before climbing out of the hammock, sluggishly making his way to the computer desk in the adjoining office.
“Iris. Details, please,” he demanded, staggering into the room.
“Replaying broadcast from Radio Moskva 2, 4:16 PM,” the AI replied.
Andrey reached the desk when Iris was still rattling off the time designation. He leaned over his chair to stare at the monitor with bleary eyes, clutching the edge of the desk.
The screen remained dark, but a male voice replaced Iris in his ear, speaking in fast paced, agitated Russian. “We interrupt our program with an urgent announcement from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. If you have relatives in the town of Trubino, which lies within the vicinity of Moscow, please contact the authorities immediately under the following number…” A long number followed, spelled out with excruciating clarity for the old and the profoundly deaf.
“Anything more?” Andrey asked, losing patience.
“Replaying broadcast from Moscow 24 Live, 4:27 PM,” Iris replied obediently. “Fast forward.”
Now the monitor lit up to replay a news channel transmission. It showed the shaky low resolution recording of a circular wall of fire that blazed a good five meters up into the sky, obscuring the small town that was beyond it. Andrey recognized the dome-shaped top of the temple of St. Sergius and the road leading southwest to Moscow. The camera swept sideways, showing a road which had been blocked off by Russian army soldiers well before it reached the flames. In the distance, several white striped red firefighter vehicles fought a desperate battle against the outlying smoldering fires which must have been ignited by stray sparks.
Andrey immediately noted that this was no ordinary fire. The walls of flame blazed upward but didn’t spread. They kept on burning at the same height and intensity, fueled by something more than the scorched earth beneath them. The high pressurized water from the fire hoses had no effect but to part the curtains of fire temporarily.
Nusku. Andrey’s hands clenched, gripping the desk hard. No one else has this kind of control over fire.
The man hadn’t been a villain last Andrey knew, and he couldn’t be alone. The Russian army would have interfered more successfully if he was.
“…seized control of the outlying southwestern part of town around three in the afternoon,” a male anchor’s voice announced in severe, drawling Russian. “The area includes a number of dachas and small homes inhabited by a couple hundred people. According to trapped townspeople who are able to communicate from within their homes, the villains haven’t committed any more murders. However, they threaten to burn anyone who attempts to flee from their homes.”
Any more murders? Andrey’s heartbeat thundered in his chest as he repeated the words to himself. This was a small, insignificant town. He could think of only one reason why villains would target it. He still had relatives there. Cousins and nephews who had refused to leave their home town when he’d made the request. Why are they going after family I haven’t seen in years?
“Iris. Give me more on the murders,” he commanded, eyes glued to the screen.
“Replaying broadcast from One TV Channel 2, 03:45 PM,” the AI replied.
The screen turned blue but showed no image. All he could see was some yellow lettering set against the background of the tricolor Russian map, informing viewers that no footage was available.
“…estimated twenty burned bodies were left in a specific pattern on a field near the temple of St. Sergius,” a female anchor informed in somber Russian. “Due to the difficult conditions with hostile Evolved blocking off access, none of the victims could be identified or retrieved. Eyewitnesses reported the downing of army helicopters that crossed the flame barrier. The details remain unknown; the Ministry of Defense has neither confirmed nor denied these reports.”
Specific pattern. Was this a message to me?
Andrey sifted a couple more broadcasts in a frenzy. None revealed any kind of message which may have been directed at him. Instead, they repeated already known information with two additions: The fire barrier had appeared about two hours ago, and the only villain who’d been identified so far was Nusku. Witnesses had spotted one or two more Evolved, one of whom was a woman, but couldn’t relay enough information to identify the culprits.
Nusku’s involvement stung. He was a fellow Russian who’d earned a living by uploading his artistic fire stunt videos. When Andrey gave his very first television interview after his transition, Nusku sat beside him, shaking his hand and wishing him a bright future.
I shared a drink with you and called you friend.
Andrey invested a moment to focus and breathe. When his hands stopped tingling and he trusted himself to engage in a calm, civilized conversation, he picked up the helmet and pulled it over his head.
“Iris. Connect me to Rune,” he said.
I’m keeping my promise, Christina.
He clicked on his mailbox while the dial tone rang in his ear. He found an e-mail from Rune, sent less than an hour ago. It contained only two words:
The Swedish hero’s throaty baritone answered promptly. “Andrey. You got my message?”
“Yes. That’s not the reason I’m calling. Have you seen the Russian news?”
As if a switch had been flipped, Rune sounded weary. “I’ve seen all the news, Andrey. Russia. Congo. Romania. Singapore. I assume you’re asking for help like everyone else is doing. The European Union wants us to kindly ask the Romanian Visionary to stop driving unpopular politicians insane. I hope you’re aware we are the only hero team that gets around quickly.”
Before I went to sleep, it was Egypt and Somalia. Andrey closed his eyes and rubbed his face in dismay. “All of this has happened in the past twelve hours?”
“Eight hours. We only just got confirmation that Checkmate is combat ready. Before that, it was a grueling wait between headlines, never knowing when we would get the go signal, or if it was coming at all.”
Eight hours. Insanity.
Andrey didn’t have a response for Rune. His thoughts raced back and forth between the three alternate options he had left: asking the Latinos, asking the Wardens, or going alone. Since none of the other teams had speed of light or teleportation available, his options were reduced to one. He knew Trubino was a trap, but he knew just as well he’d never be able to forgive himself if he sat this one out.
Besides, his failure to show up in Liverpool and New York had been discussed all over international news. If history repeated itself, he’d forever be branded ‘the hero who wasn’t there.’
All of Russia would be watching the sky today.
A man without identity is a man without soul.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Rune said after a moment of silence. “What’s wrong with people? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with people. Powers, and some asshole in Brazil telling them they’re gods. It’s mind poison. Some are in it for the money. Then there’s the guys on dumb as fuck power trips now that the Covenant’s twiddling thumbs.”
“That’s not what I was thinking,” Andrey said. “I’m trying figure out how to make this work. I have to go.”
“You don’t,” Rune said. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re not fire- or bulletproof. Someone wanted you dead two days ago, and someone set this up. Save the world another day, man.”
Kathy would agree with you. Andrey’s lips twisted into a mirthless parody of a smile.
“I can make it work,” he insisted. “I just need to figure out how.”
“No,” Rune countered, a grim edge to his voice. “You don’t understand what I’m trying to tell you. If you go there, you’re dead meat. Aura checked your photograph thirty minutes ago. Your aura’s darker than black.”
“Help me out, then. I’ll assist you in Romania afterwards, any way I can.”
“We can’t. I wish we could, but the decision was already made. We’re headed to Romania, Andrey. Don’t throw your life away. Don’t give them what they want, just back off. They don’t want to kill anyone, only you.”
Andrey bowed his head, pinching the bridge of his nose with two fingers. “They already killed twenty people to send me a message, Rune. I’ll talk to you later.” He hung up. There was nothing left to say, and he couldn’t afford to waste another minute.
I can make it work. I didn’t die the last time Aura warned me.
He considered changing into a civilian outfit with a reinforced leather jacket instead of the Radiant costume with its nonexistent protection value. He did need the helmet, though. And if he encountered any trapped locals, he needed them not to confuse him with a villain. Most Russians kept somewhere between one and ten firearms at home.
A few minutes later he was in costume, with the addition of the jacket and Gentleman’s phone strapped to his arm in its soundproof box. Outside, the morning sun had risen high enough to conceal his beam of light.
“Iris,” he said. “I’ll be away for some time. Secure the home station. If I don’t return or contact you within twelve hours, execute the requiem protocol.”
“Understood, Andrey,” the AI replied. “Good luck.”