Brussels, Belgium – Monday, the 18th of June 2012. 05:48 PM.
Andrey Luvkov hated waiting. It forced him into a passive role for unknown amounts of time, unable to move things along by his own accord and on his own terms. He liked to know what was happening, and he enjoyed having a timeframe to work with.
The medical staff at the Saint-Luc University hospital in Brussels provided neither answers nor a concrete timeframe. Andrey had been given some vague assurances that he was due for a release ‘soon’, and that he would be free to work with Rune’s team. Not nearly enough information.
A couple of European Evolved Union representatives had stopped by to check on his recovery process and to ask questions. About his departure from the Covenant. About the villain encounters he’d had in the past few weeks. About the extent of his cooperation with Rune’s team.
The result of all that talk had been a recruitment offer for the Euro team, along with political asylum in Brussels. Neither was a viable option – not with his brother’s family hidden away in Mexico and guarded by the Latino team – so the immediate future was still up in the air. Andrey’s knew what he wanted; his personal goals just didn’t correlate with the expectations the local authorities had of him. As much as he appreciated the hospitality, he couldn’t place the integrity of Europe above all else.
Andrey had answered their questions truthfully, for the most part. The only pieces he’d kept to himself concerned the details of his ‘agreement’ with Gentleman, the villain phone he’d been forced to accept and was now keeping hidden in a secure belt pouch courtesy of Rune, and the current location of his brother’s family.
Denis went outside today. He hasn’t talked to any of the locals, but it’s a start.
Andrey read the text message from his brother with a sting of grief in his heart. They hadn’t told Andrey’s nine year old nephew the truth about his absence, but the fact that Andrey hadn’t visited in some time must have clued him in.
Andrey put the phone down and glanced at the white-on-black drawing that hung to the left of his bed, next to the hospital window. Other, more colorful drawings surrounded it. All had been created by Denis’s hand.
Checkmate, the European team’s teleporter, had been kind enough to retrieve the drawings and pin them there. He hadn’t known there was a special meaning attached to the black and white one, and Andrey hadn’t clued him in. He looked at it whenever he lost faith in his hero identity.
Andrey wasn’t sure the white pencil angel on the black paper looked like a hero, but the humanoids that had been drawn around him were looking to him for guidance. Hero or not, the angel seemed to know the way.
Are you sure you don’t remember the Pulse? Preacher had asked. It wasn’t a pleasant memory, and Andrey tried to push it from his mind. Even if you’ve forgotten, the Pulse will try to guide you.
“The world’s heroes need someone to unite them,” he told himself. “That’s my decision. No one else is making it for me.”
He used the remote to turn on the television that was mounted on the wall opposite his bed, then leaned sideways to grab a bottle of imported Swedish beer from the side table. Rune had left a bottle or two after each of his visits, and Andrey had learned to appreciate the brew. It had a harsh, honest taste that suited the Swedish hero’s personality. It was the perfect way to honor their friendship in Rune’s absence.
The movement sent a brief stab of pain through Andrey’s arm and shoulder, reminding him that he was still undergoing treatment. He steadied the bottle against his stomach and opened it with a slight, practiced shake of his good hand while his attention drifted up to the television screen.
On the screen, a stone-faced newscaster informed viewers of the ongoing mass exodus from some of the larger European cities. People with resources were taking unpaid vacations, uprooting their families, and moving to the countryside. Others were heeding Preacher’s call by leaving everything behind to join one of the Guides of Destiny communities. There they would huddle down in assumed safety, waiting for Evolved – the Godkin – to solve the world’s problems.
They need some heroes to believe in, Andrey thought for the hundredth time since he’d woken up in this hospital. He had to get out of here as soon as he received an official statement of release. He wasn’t exactly a prisoner, but leaving without approval from the local authorities would result in more drama than he was willing to put up with. Especially if he wanted to keep working alongside Rune’s team.
But if they take too long, I don’t have a choice. There’s too much at stake.
Andrey glanced to the digital watch on his side table, noting that the digits had barely changed since the last time he checked. He drummed his fingers against the television remote he’d placed on the bed.
No news about my release before the evening, they said.
Andrey exhaled a frustrated puff of breath, grabbed the remote and flipped through the news channels in search of Covenant related stories. With every commentary that failed to mention his former teammates, he grew more tense. Eventually, he found himself pondering a very unpleasant possibility.
Up until the early morning, the Covenant’s struggle against the spreading villain influence had been the number one topic on the bigger channels. There had been updates hourly. So, by now, there should have been news regarding the villain occupation of the city of Smolensk. Athena, Samael and Paladin had launched a coordinated attack to liberate the city just before Andrey’s medication-induced afternoon nap
Instead, media attention was focused on Bratislava’s transformation to a ‘city of glass’, as some news channels had named it.
“The glass composition is surprisingly sturdy,” a newsreader’s voice commented over the shaky images that had been captured on what was clearly an amateur video. “So far, it appears that none of the buildings have collapsed.”
Andrey’s fingers clenched together, trembling with pent-up anger. He was angry at Gentleman but also at himself for failing his mission: to prevent Dancer from being turned into a villain.
No evidence suggests that she killed any innocents, he told himself as he watched the images that continued to flicker across the television screen. But after this devastating display of power, the whole world was afraid of her and reaching out to her had become more difficult. It was easy to assume that the spreading panic would force her into the defensive. Anyone who might have forgotten the Oracle’s prophecies regarding the Antithesis and the end of the world had received reminders through the raging media storm.
Andrey knew only too well who was behind the spread of those rumors. Gentleman was a lover of drama and tragedy, a passion he shared with mass media. The public demand for dramatic headlines played right into his hands.
Still, none of the news reports made any mention of him; he had always been good at keeping a low profile. And Data – the fabled ghost in the machine – had erased any evidence that would have threatened Gentleman’s status as the world’s most underestimated villain.
I’m not done with you, Andrey thought, his mouth set in a grim line. I know exactly who and what you are. He forced his fingers to relax their grip on the remote. If the last few days and the conversations he’d had with Rune had taught him anything, it was that death was the only acceptable excuse for abandoning a mission.
Unlike Shanti, Dancer was still alive, and the mission to find her was ongoing.
She was somewhere out there, confused and most likely overwhelmed by her own potential. Andrey knew he had to find her before anyone else did. If Rune beat him to it, his team would pump her full of Power Zero before freezing her in a cryo-chamber to prevent her powers from passing on to anyone else. Rune had told him as much.
Andrey ignored the closing summary about the Antithesis’ assumed plans and checked the clock again. Six PM, he noted. It’s late enough to be evening. His eyes darted to the closed door to his room, but no sound came from the other side. The wait for his release continued. As did the unease that nestled within his gut.
He picked up his phone – the red and silver model Athena had modified for him, the ‘gift’ he’d received from Gentleman – and made a call to Rune’s number.. After eight rings, Rune’s voicemail answered with an automated message.
“Hello, Pär,” Andrey said, interrupting the voicemail’s torrent of words. “If you can hear this, pick up. It’s important.” He spent a half minute waiting to see if Rune would pick up while watching the television screen. The program cut to commercials, offering him a new shaver instead of the answers he needed.
After the silence on the other end of the line had stretched on for several seconds, he continued. “It’s about the Covenant. None of the channels show any news about the Smolensk aftermath. I wanted to ask if you’ve heard anything through official channels, and if you have, I’d appreciate if you give me a call. Thanks, man.”
Andrey broke the connection and put the phone down on the side table.
His fingers closed around the television remote. The feel of the sleek black device in his hand was soothing. It gave him an illusion of being in control of something, at least. A music commercial featuring a dancing teenage girl drew his mind back to Dancer.
Does she watch television at all? He wondered as he began flicking through the channels again. The message he’d recorded for her had gone live on CNN late on Sunday evening, after a brief chat with an all too eager production manager who had pledged to support Andrey in any way possible.
Mascot was right, he mused. They would broadcast anything as long as my name is attached to it.
BBC had picked the story up soon after CNN, and by noon, the news coverage of Andrey’s plea had reached most of Europe. It took him less than two minutes to find a channel that was currently airing his message. One of the smaller European stations, he assumed; he didn’t recognize the logo.
Watching himself on the screen shouldn’t have felt as strange as it did. It hadn’t been the first time he made an appearance on television, but somehow, everything was different this time. Maybe because he hadn’t followed any PR plan and didn’t care about the video’s effect on his popularity scores. This time, everything was real.
“Hello, Dancer,” on-screen Andrey said with a weak attempt at a smile. “I want you to know that this broadcast isn’t anything official. I wasn’t asked to do this, and none of what I have to say is scripted.”
He sat, leaning against a white hospital table for support. Unlike the other broadcasts Andrey had watched of himself where he was perfectly presentable, this one showed him with his short dark blond curls in disarray. He hadn’t made any attempt to conceal the bandages that wrapped his chest and left arm; they were very visible beneath the partially buttoned red and white flannel shirt he’d borrowed from Rune. He looked like a petitioner rather than a hero, and a rather beat-up one at that.
She probably wouldn’t want to talk to a hero in her current situation anyway Andrey assumed. He reached for the last remaining bottle of Swedish beer while he listened to himself make a very public appeal to one single person.
“I can’t possibly know how you’re feeling right now. No one can. But I believe I can relate to your situation in some way – not too long ago, I left my home, my friends and everything I knew behind to do something no one expected of me. No one truly understood my reasons, and I made some questionable headlines. Everyone asked if I was still a hero..”
The Andrey on screen looked straight into the camera, unsmiling, but with the certainty of someone who understood. “I know you haven’t harmed any innocents, and I don’t believe you intend to. But I have reason to believe you’re under the influence of someone who wishes to push you to that other side, to turn you into a villain. I’d like to ask you to stop and think about whether you’re really doing what you want to do.” He made a meaningful pause there, maintaining eye contact with the camera for a few seconds before he went on.
“Stay safe and stay yourself. When and if you’d like to talk to someone who understands, call or send a message to this number. It belongs to a good friend of mine who could help you out. She could even help you get in touch with me if you wanted.”
I should check on Kathy. Ask if she has received any prank calls, Andrey thought as he watched his on-screen self hold up a strip of paper for the camera. The twelve numbers on it had been written with a broad black marker, spaced evenly and shaped with meticulous care. You write like a first-grader who has a crush on his teacher, Kathy had told him after he’d transferred the recorded video to her.
Andrey didn’t doubt her ability to handle prank calls. She was better at dealing with nonsense than most.
He was contemplating calling her when a sound from the window caught his attention. Within a split second, he knew something was off, that something didn’t match the normal sounds of traffic that came through the window. There was a faint squeak. Close. Too close.
Reflexively, Andrey gathered energy and transformed into a beam of light that shot halfway across the room, away from the bed and the window. When he regained his senses a couple of seconds later, he found himself an inch from the cabinet that had been built into the wall next to the television.
The first sound he heard was the clatter of the visitor’s chair crashing to the floor, forcefully dislocated by his own materializing body. He whirled around to face the window, raising his right hand in preparation of a laser discharge.
He didn’t shoot, though. The sight of the man who’d pushed the window open to float into his room raised his pulse to a feverish pitch – courtesy to a year’s worth of frustration and conflict – but none of it justified an attack.
“You,” he growled.
“Hello, Andrey,” Samael replied in a chilly tone that left no doubt how he felt about their reunion.
He had made his entrance in his full Covenant costume. The mask – a sheer grey plate with small, wing-shaped adornments and silver rim around the eye holes – hid his facial expression, leaving only his thick-lipped mouth visible. In contrast, the combination of skin-tight silver spandex pants with a snug black shirt left little to the imagination; the v-cut of the shirt very nearly reached down to his belly button. The Dark Angel was still in perfect shape, and he still enjoyed showing off.
“You can lower your hand, Andrey,” Samael said. “I’m obviously not here to kill you. If I was, you’d be dead.”
The long ribbons of silver-hued silk that were his trademark trailed across the floor behind Samael. If his power had been active, the shifting air currents would have stirred them into a perpetually streaming movement.
Still, Andrey didn’t trust his rival enough to lower his hand. There was something reassuring about the way the gathered energy tingled along the surface of his skin. As long as he allowed his emotion to feed into his powers, he felt like had some measure of control – over the situation, and over himself. It kept his temper from flaring.
“You’re on the EU’s home territory,” Andrey stated, watching his opponent. “You don’t want to start a fight here. So, what do you want?”
Samael cocked his head, pointedly checking out Andrey’s bandaged shoulder. “I heard you tried a career change as a harpooned fish. I couldn’t resist stopping by to take a look.”
The provocation was so predictable that it barely stung. “I’m still alive,” Andrey shot back. “There, you’ve checked on me. Feel free to leave.”
“Not just yet.” Samael turned around, silver ribbons billowing behind him, and drifted a short distance through the air to flop down on Andrey’s vacated hospital bed.
Too perplexed to respond, Andrey watched as his rival crossed his legs over the steel lattice at the foot of the bed, getting comfortable.
Is he mocking me? Andrey wasn’t sure. The Samael he remembered hadn’t been big on putting on a show. The open display of superiority was more up Raven’s alley. Or had been. Raven was dead, smeared across a stone wall in Bratislava, if the rumors were to believe.
“Not too shabby,” Samael commented, lazily folding one arm behind his head. “They’re taking good care of you.”
“Looks like someone still has use for an independent hero,” Andrey replied. “It’s nice that you’re enjoying my bed, but get to the point before I have to kill you for wasting my time.” He put an edge in his voice, hoping to get the unwelcome visitor off his back before those EU officials stopped by to discuss the terms of Andrey’s hospital release. He didn’t have time for head games.
“Alexandra would be pleased,” Samael went on, not the least bit put off. “She always did want the best for you.”
Don’t mention her name. Not you. He felt a surge of prickling energy, nearly setting his skin afire with destructive potential.
“She wouldn’t want you to waste my fucking time. Don’t you have some villains to take care of? Go help her do her job,” Andrey spat.
Samael glanced up at him. “If you’re talking about Smolensk, I got two of Buddy’s minions. Haven’t heard what you’ve been up to, apart from very nearly getting your sorry ass killed.”
That wasn’t on the news. Andrey considered the possibility that Samael was bluffing about Smolensk, then pushed the thought aside. He could have accused the man of many things, but he wasn’t a liar.
“This isn’t a competition,” Andrey countered. “I couldn’t care less how many villains you killed. All I care about is the support you provide for Katsuro and Alexandra.”
“Katsuro is dead,” Samael said. Then nothing.
A few seconds passed while the two men stared at each other. As Andrey processed the information, the flow of energy ebbed until there was nothing left but a slight chill.
“What?” he finally asked.
For once, Samael responded with solemn calm. “A few hours ago. Buddy’s gang had an Evoker with a tech focus, took down all of Alexandra’s mobile combat units in seconds. And Katsuro’s power armor along with it.”
“His suit was shut down?” Andrey asked.
“No, Andrey. It blew up.”
God Almighty. Andrey’s hand sank lower and lower until it rested against his thigh. He squeezed his eyes shut. One by one, his friends were falling. And once again, he hadn’t been there to do anything about it.
“I thought you should know,” Samael went on. “Though you would have found out eventually. But that’s not why I’m visiting. We need to talk about Alexandra.”
“She isn’t dead,” Andrey replied without even a second of hesitation. If she was, he would have known. He was sure of that much at least.
“No, she isn’t,” Samael said. “And she asked me, very nicely, to do two things for her. Talking to you is one of them. The other… well.” He squinted, touching a finger to his bottom lip. “That one’s going to be a challenge.”
“Just tell me or get out.”
Samael unfurled his arm from the huge white pillow at his back and sat up, silver ribbons flaring in the wake of his movement. “She asked me not to kill you.”
“That’s old news,” Andrey said, flatly.
“But there’s a twist to it,” Samael said. “The Covenant is gone. Dissolved. I’m the last remaining member, and I was asked to assemble a new team. They’ve finally figured out that my methods are far more efficient than Power Zero.”
Andrey dismissed the words as wishful thinking. The UN knew about the relation between Evolved deaths and power surges. It was the reason they’d allowed to the use of Power Zero in villain takedowns.
“You’re not the last remaining member,” Andrey said. “Overseer Vega would pass leadership of the team to Alexandra long before anyone in their right mind considered appointing you.”
“That’s the thing, Andrey,” Samael said. His eyes narrowed, and the fake congeniality he’d been maintaining drained from his voice. “Athena is gone, and it’s your fucking fault.”
Andrey stared at him while the statement soaked in. Then, a coldness gripped his heart, and he could feel a tingle of energy flowing back into his fingers. “Liar,” he spat. “You said she wasn’t dead.”
“She isn’t dead,” Samael said. “Just gone. And I should know, because we had a nice fuck just before she left.”
As he heard the words from Samael’s mouth, something snapped inside Andrey. Before he knew what he was doing, he had beamed himself a short distance towards the bed and reared his arm back, fingers charged with energy and clenched into a fist.
Samael had anticipated the reaction. He shot up from the bed in a smooth motion, supported by a shift in air pressure. Simultaneously, his wing ribbons flared out on either side of him.
Andrey adjusted the direction of his punch and caught his opponent in mid movement, striking a shoulder instead of his face. On impact, he released a small amount of energy. It took all of his remaining self-control to hold back on using a lethal discharge.
Samael gave a sharp, pained gasp. Then, the air currents surged around him, and Andrey was knocked back against the opposing wall. His back crashed into the television screen. He barely felt the impact, but heard the loud crack of glass bursting. All around him, hospital equipment crashed into the walls, filling the room with a staccato of thuds and breaking glass.
Andrey didn’t feel any pain through the angry red haze that filled his mind. He had a vague impression a throb in his injured shoulder and of something poking into the fabric of his shirt, incapable of penetrating his skin.
Without thinking, Andrey beamed himself forward through the disturbed air currents. He materialized too close to the bed and had a split second to adjust before he dropped to land on his feet beside Samael. He made no attempt to attack his opponent. Instead, he leaned in close to his rival until he could smell his sweat and see the tiny red veins in his eyes.
“Insult her again, and I will kill you,” Andrey growled.
Samael released his control of the air. The room dropped into silence, disturbed only by the distant voices of startled hospital staff. He pressed his mouth into a tight line and rubbed his shoulder before speaking.
“I had to promise her not to kill you,” he said. “But keep it up, and I’ll have no reason to hold back.”
Andrey shook his head in an attempt to clear it. Something lurked beneath the red haze, a startling thought that threatened to cut deeper than the glass of the broken television could have.
Samael doesn’t lie.
“I love her,” Samael went on in a sober, almost understanding tone. “And she knows. She needed someone after you left, someone who cared. Someone who made her feel appreciated.”
Samael doesn’t lie.
His words brought that sharp-edged thought back to the forefront, and Andrey wanted to punch the other man’s masked face again. But he didn’t. Andrey found himself incapable of conjuring up his energy or even raising his fist. The anger was draining out of him, and the cold was seeping in.
“So where is she?” he finally asked. He didn’t want to be having this conversation with Samael. He wanted to speak to Alexandra. But he was well aware of the reason she and his other teammates had broken all contact with him. And he wasn’t likely to forget.
“In space.” The Dark Angel rasped a dry, humorless chuckle. “Commanding her drone army from a self-sustaining, solar-powered shuttle.”
“Why?” Andrey went on in a near whisper. He wished the chair hadn’t been toppled over. His legs suddenly felt weak. He needed to sit.
Samael shrugged. “Ask her yourself. I suspect she’ll be in touch with you sooner or later, regardless of my strong recommendation to stay the fuck away from you. You’re a pissant, Andrey. If it wasn’t for you, she would have stayed. With me.” The last words brought back the sharp-edged hostility in his voice.
“Did she say that?” Andrey asked.
Samael sneered. “No. She didn’t need to.”
Then why hasn’t she contacted me?
Andrey was still considering his response when someone rapped on his door with a single, powerful knock. A second later, the door flew open, and a pair of heavily armored EU security guards barged through. They didn’t get far, however. The sight of Samael in his full Covenant costume froze them in their tracks before they had moved more than a meter beyond the doorstep.
“Mr. Luvkov? Do you need assistance?” one of them asked. A perplexed look passed over his face as his eyes darted back and forth between Andrey and Samael.
“Bodyguards?” Samael commented dryly. “That’s cute, Andrey.”
Andrey glanced over the trashed mess in his room. For once, he had no trouble keeping his emotions in check, and he didn’t care to explain why the European Union had deemed him worthy of protection. “I’m fine,” he said. “Just having some small talk with a visitor. But thank you for looking out for me.”
“As you say, Mr. Luvkov,” the guard said, sounding unconvinced. Regardless, he made a motion with his hand, and the security team withdrew from the room.
Once the door had closed behind them, Andrey turned his attention back to Samael. ” If Alexandra is going to contact me, just why are you here? To gloat that you won? That you’re somehow convinced she gives two fucks about you?”
“No,” Samael said, seemingly unoffended. “Alexandra told me you care about Dancer for some unfathomable reason. I’m going to kill her, and if you get in my way, I won’t be bound by any promises.”