Trubino, Russia – Friday, the 15th of June 2012. 05:44 PM.
Time trickled away while Andrey waited for the grey-walled room to be replaced by something familiar and comforting. The murmur of voices had ceased some time ago, but he could still hear the metallic clang of Snake-man’s distant footsteps.
The footsteps were soon replaced by a different kind of noise. A shout, sharp and commanding, pierced the air before being drowned out by a loud bang. Andrey sensed movement, too fast to track, then a surge of heat which increased the air temperature to uncomfortable levels.
Andrey’s dazed mind couldn’t make sense of any of it, but it recognized the danger of heat. Tight chains dug into his flesh as he jerked to the side, limiting his movement. The pressure of the metal around his neck stopped his breath.
His vision blacked out again as he was gasping for air. It returned just long enough to see flames rise up before his face, crackling and hissing all around him. A wave of burning agony extended from his shoulder to rip through his body as he made an attempt to roll sideways, away from the heat. The cold metal restricted his movement, however, so all he could do was to lay still until the air cooled and the shouting stopped.
When his vision returned, the environment had changed to a blotchy dark stone ceiling, dimly illuminated by a single lightbulb that dangled from a red cable. There was a fully stocked clothing rack underneath, but the searing pain in Andrey’s shoulder made it hard to focus on anything else. He clenched his teeth in an attempt to shut it out from his mind. Moments passed. Another shout rang somewhere nearby, the words incomprehensible.
No fire, he realized. There had been heat, and crackling flames, but now they were gone.
Andrey squinted at the body extending below his chin. It looked familiar enough, despite the tight wrap of chains and the blood soaked fabric that covered most of it. A length of metal jutted from his left shoulder, but it wasn’t on fire. He moved a hand. Several fingers slid along the length of chain that was connected to his shoulder, slick with blood.
Movement drew his attention to the door that opened into a wall to his right, flanked by a dusty wooden shelf. A figure dressed in a long sleeved black shirt and black trousers had stepped through, sporting a distinctively male build with broad shoulders and muscular limbs. A black balaclava mask concealed everything but the man’s eyes.
Andrey didn’t care about the mask; his attention was drawn by the huge two-handed axe the man was wielding. Its blade gave off a reddish glow so intense it lit up the whole room. Even in his dazed, confused state he recognized it for what it was: a deadly weapon.
“No,” he growled. “Go away.”
His fingers convulsed in a desperate attempt to channel his power and defend himself, but the spark of his power-his energy potential-was beyond his reach, and he couldn’t grasp it.
The masked man spat an incomprehensible volley of words as he made a step towards him. Then he lowered the axe, switching to a gentler tone in a more familiar language. “Andrey. Hold still so I don’t hurt you.”
I know you. Andrey couldn’t link the voice to a face, but he trusted it enough to stop struggling against his bonds.
The masked man raised his fingers, and a greenish glow began to swirl about them. It flickered, then manifested as a symbol of entwining bands of light, extending outward to feed themselves into the glow of the axe. The glow’s color changed from red to green.
As soon as the light dimmed, the masked man hefted the axe shaft with both hands and swung it downward. Andrey’s body convulsed in anticipation of an attack. The constricting chain about his neck pinched his windpipe, leaving him breathless.
The bonds shattered with a loud clang that reverberated throughout the room. Bits and pieces of chain clattered to the floor and onto Andrey’s blood soaked clothing, some with brief bursts of green light that faded on impact. The harpoon shaft dissolved, but the tip remained firmly lodged within his shoulder.
I know you. Andrey’s mind echoed the earlier thought, still failing to make the connection. “Who?” he asked. He’d meant to include more words, but they didn’t come.
“What the fuck did they do to you?” the masked man asked, then shook his head. “Wait here.” He stepped through the door and out of view, wisps of green light trailing in his wake.
Andrey made a sluggish movement that sent another body-wracking surge of agony through his veins. He heard a gasping cry which faded the instant he stopped moving. If he just lay there, staring up at the ceiling, he could almost see the angel’s face in the shadows beneath the swaying lightbulb.
More movement stirred Andrey from his daze. Someone grabbed his arm, masked like the first man, but dressed in black from head to toe.
The voice was different from the previous one, softer and higher pitched. “Hold still. I’m getting you out of here.”
The small room dwindled away in a blur of bright colors, causing Andrey’s stomach to make a leap. The colors soon reassembled into shapes he recognized. He found himself in a vast field of green and yellow that gave off an earthy scent.
The slender masked man stood beside him for a second before disappearing. Moments later, he plopped back into view with another black clad person in tow. The one with the axe.
Andrey realized there was a third someone off to the side, slumped over and sobbing. A fourth squirmed on the ground, making small, broken sounds that turned his blood cold.
Not well. Hurt.
He reached out in their direction, clenching his teeth. His fingers grasped a handful of grass, unable to make contact with the hurt person. Too far.
The tall masked man let go of his axe and dropped to his knees. For a long moment, there were no words. Just a rustle of wind mixed with those inhuman sounds which soon stopped. Some part of Andrey felt responsible, though he didn’t fully understand why.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
The kneeling man raised his head and tore the ski mask from his face, giving him a long, bleary eyed look. “I hope whatever you had to do there was worth it, man. Aura said it was going to be you or Nadia who died here today.” He dipped his head in the direction of the sprawled figure that had gone silent. “She knew, and still decided to go save your sorry ass.”
“Rune. He needs to get to the hospital,” someone else said.
Rune. Understanding teased the edges of Andrey’s consciousness, still out of reach.
“Of course. Go. Andrey first,” the kneeling man said.
Eventually, faces became a blur and voices converged to a steady hum of noise. Colors drained away, fading to shades of white, and the earthy scents were replaced by pungent smells. Then everything faded into nothingness. Even the pain.
When Andrey finally came to, he found himself surrounded by darkness. The ache in his shoulder had ebbed to a dull throb which was easy to ignore.
Not at home, he realized. Where am I?
He raised a finger to rub the fatigue from his goop-caked eyes. He felt the scratch of beard stubble against the back of his hand; scratchier than it should have been. Hadn’t he shaved in the morning? Puzzled, he lowered the hand onto the soft linen blanket which covered his stomach, letting his eyes roam.
The darkness around him wasn’t absolute. Pale white light flowed through a large window to his left, bright enough to reveal the silhouette of a large wardrobe against the wall across from him. The metal frame of his bed shimmered dully where it was touched by the light, and the bandages that wound tightly about his upper body appeared startlingly white against the surrounding blackness.
Now that his mind was clearing, he recognized the layout and design of the room. A hospital. His next thought was a memory: I was shot and drugged.
Other memories came flooding back in vivid detail. Of how he had been blind and helpless, disconnected from his power. He’d never known how just how much the flow of his energy belonged to him until it was no longer there.
Jolted by the memory, Andrey turned his awareness inward to find and tap into the energy potential within himself. He reinforced it with the strands of pale light that flooded through the window, feeding that potential until it warmed his body from within. As he directed it outward, a warm glow bled from his finger to flow across the back of his hand, dimmer and more short-lived than it should have been. Still, it was good to know that his powers hadn’t been permanently crippled.
And yet… it was those powers, and his status as a former Covenant hero, which endangered the people he cared about. Christina had called him a Beacon. He no longer found the equation reassuring. Radiant attracted trouble, and it was his family who suffered for it.
He sank back into his pillow and let his hand drop onto the bed, its glow extinguished by his broodings. He let his gaze wander along the left side of the room. The chair that leaned against the wall by the window, within arm’s reach of his bed, caught his attention because someone was sitting on it, head drooping and chin resting against a bulky chest. Shadows covered most of the face, but Andrey recognized the braid that hung over one broad shoulder.
“Rune?” he asked with a rough, scratchy voice.
Nothing happened for a long moment. Then Rune’s head jerked up, eyes flying open to focus on Andrey. He muttered something incomprehensible before easing into his heavily accented English. “Damn you, Andrey. Sure took you a while to wake up.”
“I’m sorry,” Andrey rasped. “How long was I out?”
Rune buried his face in his large, rough hands, rubbing it. “Too long. My ass feels every single hour of it.”
Andrey wanted to ask why the Swedish hero was sitting next to his bed late at night, but something told him he already knew. His memories of the events just before he blacked out were sketchy, but none of it was pleasant, and much of it included Rune’s hero team in some fashion.
Rune broke the silence first. “I wasn’t planning to fall asleep next to you, but you’ve been out for more than thirty hours. First I figured the docs would call me when you’re ready to talk. But there’s this question that’s bugging me and won’t let go. I wasn’t in the frame of mind to get anything done without an answer from you.”
Andrey used his good arm to raise himself up in his bed and meet the other hero’s eyes. “I’m awake now. We can talk.”
“You’re damn right we can. Tell me what Nadia died for. Tell me it wasn’t some bullheaded Russian honor bullshit. It might help if you somehow tried to save the world. It wouldn’t bring her back, but maybe Milan could stop being a wreck and move on.”
Nadia. Skyfire. Andrey wasn’t sure who Milan was, and he wished he’d taken the time to memorize the civilian names of Rune’s team before Gentleman’s phone call disrupted their meeting.
He took a moment to consider his words. He remembered the blonde heroine the way he’d met her at the hotel suite in Liverpool, armed with a glass of booze and a scowl on her face. Her eyes had demanded answers as much as Rune’s did now.
She didn’t trust me, but she gave her life for mine. The realization made his heart heavy. Barely twenty, if that. It should have been me protecting her.
He rubbed his face. “I’m sorry, Rune. Tell me what happened, and I’ll explain.”
Rune’s mouth pressed into a grim line, his gaze trailing off to the shadows on the wall. “It was her decision to go after you, you know. Something about that Liverpool broadcast and the feedback theory reveal stuck in her head. The girl was dead set on not letting some psychotic villain inherit your speed of light.” He snorted a mirthless chuckle. “Her words, not mine. Figured we couldn’t let your sorry ass get roasted.”
“Was it Nusku who…” Andrey didn’t want to finish the question. The words killed her stuck in his throat, stopping his breath.
“You got that right,” Rune growled. “They had boarded up the basement windows, so Ravith had to take us in blind, without a clue who was even in there. Milan went first and took Hook down. The bang alerted Nusku, who set the whole fucking room on fire. Milan escaped through the door. Nadia was in the worst spot.”
Rune stopped there, his jaw working in silent fury before he found the strength to continue. “You know the irony of it all? Nusku had a goddamn power surge right after he killed her. I saw those fire walls grow, man. I still see them when I close my eyes. It was her decision, but my call to make. I’m still the guy with the responsibility.”
I know what that feels like. Andrey kept the thought to himself. Rune’s team had never enjoyed the benefits of Saint’s protection. Unlike the Covenant, they had no choice but to be aware of their own mortality.
A siren howled somewhere outside, announcing an emergency patient. The ambulance lights flooded the room with flashes of red between split seconds of darkness, casting an ominous look over Rune’s glowering face.
Andrey pushed himself to break the silence first. “Are you sure it was a power surge? Nusku’s tricks have been mistaken for a surge before.”
“I’m sure. You didn’t see it, Andrey. I have.”
“Did you get him?”
“No. He used the fire as cover, so we couldn’t see shit. That short woman escaped too, never got more than a glimpse of her. Must have used some kind of teleportation.”
“The town?” Andrey continued. His fingers tapped a staccato rhythm against the bedsheet, defying the calmness of his voice.
“Your town and your folks are safe. Nusku’s barrier disappeared when he did.” Rune leaned forward, the wooden chair creaking beneath his bulk. “Your turn. Explain. Tell me what Nadia died for.”
“I evacuated my mother and my brother’s family from Russia, but I still have kin there,” Andrey said. “Two aunts, an uncle and some cousins. Three of them live in Trubino. I couldn’t sit back after hearing about burned corpses on the news. Could you?”
The other man shook his head, and then tapped a finger against his stubbed cheek. “The villains didn’t kill any of the townsfolk, but I suppose you couldn’t have known. Is that it, or do you have anything else to say?”
“I’ve handled situations like it for more than a year, Rune. I made some choices the last time Aura warned me about danger, back in the hotel, and those choices turned out to be right for me. I found a way out last time. I was sure I could do it again.”
Rune snorted. “You’ve grown too used to being immortal. Saint had you covered, didn’t he?”
“He did,” Andrey said. “But we never fully understood his power or its limits. Tell me what happened in Trubino, Rune. I can’t undo it, but I won’t forget, and I’ll pay my dues.”
He looked down at his hand on the bedsheet to see that his fingers didn’t twitch. He felt calm, his mind clear of the red haze that had consumed him when he first heard the news of villains targeting his birth town. But the memory of the girl stuck in his head still, refusing to let go.
Barely twenty. Good lord.
“Mmmh. My turn to talk, then. Fine.” Rune settled back on his chair, relaxing. “Don’t know how they did it, and I can’t wait to hear it from you. Hook caught you with a chain he kept tied to himself, coated with Power Zero. Then they dragged you down into the basement of a house whose occupants they’d locked up on the first floor. You do know about Power Zero? You barely remembered your own name when we handed you over to the medical staff.”
“I do,” Andrey replied. “E-Zero. Athena called it a rumor about a month ago. If she didn’t know it was real, I doubt more than a dozen of the highest ranking UNEOA officials did.”
Rune flashed a toothy, humorless grin. “A rumor? You wish. No one confirmed it, of course. The egg-heads never admit to anything. I figured it out from the questions they asked later.”
Andrey didn’t ask what questions those had been; he could imagine all too well.
“The Covenant thought you were dead, by the way,” Rune went on. “Any idea why?”
Feeling the weight of the other man’s inquisitive gaze on him, it took him a moment to piece the answer together. The requiem protocol. Iris didn’t get a signal from me. The thought led to another that sped his pulse up a beat. My helmet.
“I set up a dead man’s switch before heading to Trubino, and I haven’t given the signal that I’m alive,” he said. “Do you know where my helmet is?”
“We got it. You can have it back when we’re done talking. The EU officials want to have a chat with you, by the way. They classified you as a political refugee.”
Andrey stared at the illuminated half of Rune’s face, hoping for a twitch of humor. None came. The Swedish hero met his gaze with stoic calm, bushy brows furrowed in anticipation of a response.
“You’re serious,” Andrey concluded. “A political refugee? Really?”
Rune jabbed a thumb at him. “You’re being treated in Brussels, not far from the EU headquarters. As far as Europe is concerned, Russians wanted you dead. Which qualifies you as a refugee.”
Andrey pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers, squeezing hard. “I disagree, but I can see how they reached that conclusion. Does the Covenant know I’m here?”
“Yes, but it wasn’t made public; only a small handful of people know. Wouldn’t want our hospital to be attacked by the crazies who are after you. No doubt some EU official will be breathing down your neck the moment I step out of your room.”
More favors? They’ll have to start cloning me before long. Kathy would approve. Something about the idea of sending one of his clones off on a date with Athena’s sidekick amused Andrey enough to form a tiny grin, concealed by the darkness in the room.
“Is that why you’re sitting here in the middle of the night?” he asked Rune. “To give me a break? Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it. But you look like you could use some rest yourself.”
The other man shrugged. “No. I told you. I already told you I couldn’t sleep without getting answers.”
Andrey sank against the hospital pillows, feeling the pull of gravity on him. “Do you know what kind of cooperation the EU is expecting of me? I already agreed to take care of Legion. Has he emerged again?”
“Not a trace. Europe has made the Antithesis the number one priority. I don’t know what they’ll ask of you, but I do know what they told me.” There was a meaningful pause. “We’re going to take her out, and we’re cleared to use E-Zero.”
She’s not the Antithesis.
Andrey’s face twisted with disapproval, but he didn’t comment. He’d tried having that conversation when he met Rune’s team a few days ago. If he wanted to change anyone’s minds about the girl, he needed facts. Facts tended to make a better impression than good intentions did.
“Killing her can’t be the solution,” he said.
“We’re not going to kill her. I don’t know how the hell villains got Power Zero, but if they have it, the UNEOA won’t be holding back any longer. They’ll freeze her in one of those cryo chambers tinkered by Uberdoc.”
Not if I find her first.
“And how do you intend to find her?” Andrey asked. “The last time we met, you said you had an idea how you’re going to do it.”
“I’ve been ordered not to tell you until you’ve convinced our UNEOA liaison that you’re going to cooperate.”
“Of course.” Andrey coughed into a fist to rid himself of the lump in his throat. “Thank you,” he said after a tense moment of silence. “For everything.”
Rune nodded. “Better late than never, eh? But I still don’t understand why everyone’s all over you. You’re about as likeable as a poison oak, too invested in your tragic hero role to get shit done. It doesn’t suit you, man. Stop trying to get yourself killed.”
Andrey mulled over a reply, finding none. He sat up straighter instead, and extended a hand to the man on the chair. A warm glow rippled over his skin to banish the shadows from Rune’s face. “I’ll do better, Pär. Wait and see.”
The other hero’s eyebrows shot up. “You remember my name? Now there’s a surprise.”
“Yes. I thought you preferred your hero name, to remind you why you put up with all the hassle. That’s what you said after the third mug of that Swedish beer you love so much.”
Rune’s skeptical frown slowly transformed into a grin. “You cheeky bastard. Had me thinking you drowned your brain in a bottle of vodka.” He leaned forward to take Andrey’s hand into a firm grip and squeeze it, a little harder than necessary.
Andrey returned the favor, and they stared at one another in shared silence, keeping their fingers locked together while the glow of Andrey’s hand flickered across their features.
“Keep it up, and I might actually call you friend,” Rune said. “And I’ll be sure to remind you of Nadia every time you pull the tragic hero bullshit.”
Andrey returned a nod. “Please do.”
Rune tightened his grip before pulling his hand back, fingers digging into the pocket sewn onto the front of his flannel shirt. “Now that you’re so agreeable, maybe you care to explain this to me.”
Andrey clenched his jaw as he looked at the retrieved phone. It was painfully familiar; stark white with gold-rimmed keys that gleamed dangerously in the glow of his light. He inwardly cursed himself for not having thought about it sooner. It would have been easy to lie about it, but he’d never been good at lying, and it wasn’t an option he wanted to take. Especially not after shaking hands and the honest promise to make amends.
I could get executed by the Covenant for this. Or I could earn Rune’s trust by filling him in.
“Did anyone check it for bugs and tracers?” Andrey asked.
Rune cocked his head, eyeing the phone as disdainfully as though he was looking at a dead insect. “After that very interesting call I received on it… yes, we did. It’s clean.”
“I’m not sure. You tell me.”
Andrey took a second to compose himself before answering. “The Conglomerate took my family hostage. I was given the option to accept the phone and play along, or to accept the death of someone I care about.”
“Play along how?”
“By not interfering with the Conglomerate whenever I receive a call that demands I don’t.”
Rune clacked his tongue, but his expression remained neutral, impassive. “Do they know where your family is now?”
“Most likely, yes. Even if we disregard Data, Gentleman gloated about having the Visionary who inherited Queenie’s powers. One of my sources confirmed that both of the eligible new transitions were kidnapped along with their families.”
“Mmmh.” Rune tossed the phone onto Andrey’s bed, straightening. “I see. It might be best if we keep this between the two of us for now.”
Andrey nodded. “Thanks. I appreciate it.” He let the relief clear his head before following up with the next question. “Care to tell me anything else about the call you received on that phone?”
“A ‘friend’ of yours, inquiring about your well-being. He was disappointed to hear my voice instead of yours. After I told him you were alive, he hung up.” Rune flashed a toothy grin. “We got suspicious when the call didn’t leave a trace. They left the phone as clean as a baby’s bottom after a diaper change.”
“Data doesn’t drop his habits, it seems.”
“No, he doesn’t.” Rune meticulously buttoned his shirt pocket before meeting Andrey’s eyes. “I should get going. Before I do… is there anything you need, Andrey?”
“Yes, actually, I do… I need a recording device for a video I’m going to distribute to some news channels.”
“A public announcement that you will renounce your tragic hero ways?”
Andrey flashed a wry grin, but quickly dropped it when he received none in turn. “No. I need to contact Dancer.”
Rune rose to his feet, leaving the sphere of Andrey’s glow. Now that his face was shrouded in darkness once more, his tone cooled. “Good luck with that. I’ll bring you something to work with.” In passing, he gripped Andrey’s shoulder with one strong hand. “Thank you for being honest with me.” The hand dropped away, and the Swedish made his way to the door on the right side of the room.
“I owe you,” Andrey called after him.
“Damn straight.” Rune glanced back, already gripping the door handle. “Get better soon, man. You have your work cut out for you.”
“I’m going to unite the world’s rogues and heroes, starting today with the two of us. It’s what I always wanted to do.”
“Unite the heroes,” Rune echoed. “Solve your damn problems. And while you’re at it, how about you save the world?”