Brussels, Belgium – Monday, the 18th of June 2012. 06:09 PM.
I should have seen it coming, Andrey thought as he studied the lines of his rival’s mouth. The threat didn’t come as much of a surprise. He knew Samael’s hunting schemes, and the Antithesis rumors that were circulating on the news must have drawn the Dark Angel as surely as blood drew a shark.
After more than a year with the Covenant, Andrey knew he stood no chance of talking his rival out of it. Not Samael. He could, however, make his own position perfectly clear: he’d be damned if let another innocent girl be murdered by self-proclaimed judges.
“You hunt villains,” Andrey said. “She hasn’t done anything to make your list. The Antithesis headlines are the Conglomerate’s scheme to spread mass panic. And, God help us all, it’s working. Just look at yourself. ”
Samael made a low, ruminative sound, and for a moment it seemed like Andrey’s argument had gotten through that thick skull of his. Then his mouth twisted into a cruel sneer.. Andrey distantly wondered if Alexandra had ever seen him like this: a puffed-up prick, taking up arms to spearhead his own personal crusade.
If she had, she never would have thought she needed him, Andrey thought. Not even for a second.
“The Conglomerate didn’t turn Slovakia’s capital to glass,” Samael said. “That’s what villains do, Andrey. They spread panic, and she’s doing a pretty damn good job of it.”
“I know you. You just want to be appointed the world’s grand savior,” Andrey accused him. “That’s always been your biggest issue with me. Not my conduct in the team, and not my personal history. I was the better hero.”
Something flashed in Samael’s eyes, and his wing ribbons flared as if stirred by a heat wave of emotion. “Fuck off,” he growled. “And don’t get in my fucking way.”
Samael didn’t wait for a response. He manipulated the air around him to evoke a final blast that carried him out through the window and knocked Andrey back against the bed. The larger pieces of hospital equipment swayed, while the smaller items smashed against the wall and the floor.
Andrey threw an arm up to protect his eyes from flying shards. When he lowered it, he saw his nephew’s white on black drawing drift downward, veering dangerously close to the remains of dessert pudding smeared across the hospital floor.
Andrey made a quick step forward to catch the drawing. He glanced down at the winged figure on the black sheet, then gently put it down on his bed before sitting on the edge of the mattress.
“Go to hell, Jordan,” Andrey muttered. He ran his fingers through his wind-swept locks. The gesture did nothing to calm the chaos that boiled inside of him.
At the center of it all was Alexandra.
When he closed his eyes, he could see her perfectly.. In his memory, she was wearing one of the dresses she kept for the rare evenings that weren’t dedicated to hero work. When she did her curls up, when she smiled, she looked like a different person. Someone gentle and charming, who was comfortable in showing him what remained after stripping away the power armor and the professional heroine’s attitude she wore during the day.
Andrey tried to shut out the assault of the ideas Samael had implanted in his mind. The image of her, dressed up for someone else. Kissing someone else. He didn’t even want to consider what may have followed afterward.
It was her decision, of course. But he couldn’t ignore that sense of betrayal that impaled his gut with a red-hot knife.
He doesn’t love her. This is a stab at me. He glanced down at his twitching fingers. Jordan is too enamored with himself to care for anyone else.
Andrey lost count of how many times he picked up his phone and set it back down. He wouldn’t reach her that way, of course. But he had other duties, things to get in order. Calls to make.
“I’m going to kill you,” he said to the now empty room, willing his fingers to stop twitching. Then he stood and made his way across the cold tile floor, his bare feet crushing broken shards of ceramic and mashing down clumps of spilled pudding. He stopped at his bedside table, which now lay in the corner on the other side of the room, and pulled the handle of the lowermost drawer.
There was a loud crack. Glancing down, Andrey saw that he was holding the whole drawer; he had ripped it out instead of opening it.
“I’m going to cover the damage,” he murmured to himself. It seemed that the hospital staff was still afraid of entering his room. Not that he blamed them.
Pushing the thought aside, he stepped back to his bed and placed the drawer on it. He noted with some cold, distant satisfaction that his helmet was still inside, even though he hadn’t been able to lock it away.
With one arm still trapped beneath a firm wrap of bandages, pulling the tight-fitting helmet down over his head was unusually difficult. But once the dark visor slid over Andrey’s eyes, he felt better. Calmer. More focused.
He became Radiant.
After a short boot sequence, Iris’ approximation of Alexandra’s voice greeted him with the same phrase she always used. It felt like coming home. This feeling was enhanced further by Iris’ communication routines that contained a trace of her creator’s personality and humor.
“System setup complete and ready for instruction. Hello, Andrey,” the AI said. “No shoulder rubs from me, but can I assist you with anything else?”
“Hello, Iris,” Radiant replied. “Please check if Athena has attempted communication over the past few hours. Possibly from a new, unknown network.”
“Understood, Andrey. One moment,” Iris said. Then the AI went silent, leaving him to his thoughts.
A space shuttle. What on earth made her do this? He tried and failed to wrap his head around the idea of Alexandra just drifting in space. In a tiny, confined shuttle, bereft of the support of anyone who cared about her.
Knowing her, it must have been an act of utter desperation. She wasn’t the type to abandon everyone and everything she’d worked so hard for over the past years. The absence of answers reinforced his sense of loss and helplessness. Radiant gazed out through the window at the patch of sky, wondering if she might be thinking about him right now. If he occupied any place in her mind at all.
I’ll bring you back, somehow.
Iris’s voice pulled him back to the uncaring reality of his hospital room. “Since my last time of activity, there have been three communication requests from Morpheus. Zero activity from Olympus. The system no longer appears to be on-.”
“Morpheus?” Radiant said quickly before the AI finished rattling off the last word. “Who is Morpheus?” The meaning of the other piece of information dawned on him a second later. “Olympus is offline? It can’t be. Maybe you’ve been blocked off somehow?”
“Morpheus is an intelligent expert system capable of complex learning, autonomous decision making and intelligent communication. Its code is based off of Athena’s Clotho prototype three point eleven, and while I cannot determine the creator, I detect a sufficient amount of familiar code elements to suggest a relation–”
“It’s an AI like you,” Radiant concluded. “I need more information on Olympus, Iris. It can’t be offline.” He didn’t need to remind the AI that Olympus served as the underlying system for the Covenant’s everyday routines, or that everything from stored information to door control mechanisms was connected to it.
“I detect no signals from Olympus,” Iris replied with inhuman calm, unaware of the enormity of her statement. “Access has not been denied. The ports have gone offline.”
Data has destroyed the system. It was the only viable explanation, and, maybe, the only possible reason for Athena’s exodus into space. She would be nigh untouchable out there. The conclusion wasn’t very comforting, but after making the connection, Radiant had reason to hope it would lead him to solutions and answers.
Morpheus is based off Athena’s code.
As much as Radiant wanted to believe the AI had made contact on her behalf, he couldn’t rule out the possibility of Data using her code. The villain wouldn’t have been able to shut down Olympus without gaining access to her code.
“Can you contact Morpheus?” Radiant asked.
“No,” the AI replied. “I am unable to locate the host.”
“In that case, establish connection to Kathy,” Radiant said. As Athena’s former Covenant IT sidekick, Kathy had to know something.
“Establishing connection to Kathy,” the AI echoed. “Routing through home base in Valle de Bravo, Mexico. Alternate paths are no longer available. Do you trust this connection?”
“Yes. It’s fine,” Radiant said.
He’d had one brief phone chat with Kathy shortly after his admission to the hospital, but the conversation topics had been more light-hearted. He owed her favors, of course. And possibly a date. Considering everything she’d done for him, he’d have to find a way to make time for her. Somehow.
Kathy picked up almost immediately, suggesting that she might have anticipated a call. Her tone was less than friendly though. Her vibrant contralto voice cut through his eardrum.
“If this is another of you assholes from Daily Dork News something-or-other, go fuck yourself. I don’t have information for you, I’m not giving any interviews, and my official statement is a big fat middle finger. If you need something to put on your front page, I can send you a picture of that big, fat middle finger. You’re welcome.”
Radiant smirked. At least Kathy seemed well.
“Hello, Kathy,” he said.
There was silence on the other end of the line, then a sharp inhaled breath followed by a much friendlier tone. “Is that actually you, Snookums? My ears are hurting so much from all the drama, it’s hard to tell. And you never call.” There was a pause, then a single loving, velvety word: “Jerk.”
“It’s me. I’m sorry I haven’t been more available. A lot has happened.”
“I know,” she said. “We talked about it on Saturday, remember? When I called. Let me guess, you – like absolutely everyone else – want to ask about the vanished goddess.”
“Yes,” he admitted with a brief twinge of guilt. He should have called, yes, but more pressing issues had consumed him over the past days.
“Surprise, surprise,” Kathy replied with mock astonishment. “I can see myself in a new fortunetelling career. What do you think? With my astonishing clairvoyant abilities, I’d make a suitable gypsy woman, robbing malls and rubbing balls all day long.”
“Balls?” Radiant asked, alarmed.
“Crystal balls, silly. For fortunetelling.”
Radiant shook his head. He wasn’t in the right state of mind to appreciate Kathy’s distinctive sense of humor, but he appreciated knowing that she hadn’t lost it. “I promise to make time for you. When I get out of here, I’ll stop by, and we’ll have a chat.”
“Where are you right now?” Kathy asked, her voice suddenly serious.
“Still at the hospital. I should receive news about my release in an hour or two.” He considered telling her about Samael but decided against it. This was an old feud and something personal, something between him and his rival, and nothing that Kathy needed to know about.
“Not exactly a suitable location for this kind of talk, Andrey. I’ve brushed off all the vultures for now, but the devil knows what they’ll be up to next. They’re smelling the Covenant’s rotting carcass. They’ll never figure out what really happened, but the headlines are going to make enough waves to surf in the Sahara. We’ll talk when you come see me.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Radiant said. “And that’s exactly why I’m concerned. Why are the journalists on your tail, Kathy? The news have been silent since Smolensk. I only just heard about Katsuro.”
A good man and a better hero.
Mentioning the name brought back painful memories. Radiant allowed himself to sink against a bed post. His shoulder throbbed, but the pain was not enough to allow him to ignore the aching loss of his friend.
“I’m sorry, Andrey,” Kathy said with sadness in her voice. “What happened there was a big load of horse crap. And I don’t know who tipped the vultures off, the UN has been all hush-hush about it.”
“The same person who spread the Antithesis rumors,” Radiant suggested.
“You’ll have to tell me about that person,” Kathy said. “In private. I need some names for my imaginative kill list.”
“I will. While I have you on the line, do you know anything about Morpheus? An AI based off one of Alexandra’s prototypes? It has attempted to contact Iris, and I don’t know what to make of it.”
“Yes,” Kathy replied, not offering up any more information. Radiant could picture her smiling to herself on the other end of the line; she’d always enjoyed stringing him along.
“I shouldn’t assume hostile intent, then?” he tried.
“No,” came the answer, sweet as sugar. “But, you know… later. When we’re having our heart to heart.”
Before Radiant got the chance to respond, someone knocked on his door with an urgency that demanded his attention. The voice that came from the other side was male and spoke English with the French accent that was distinct to the city.
“Mr. Luvkov? We’re representatives from the European Evolved Union. If you’re feeling well enough and not still, ah, seeing visitors… we’d like to talk. May we come in?”
“There’s my release appointment,” Radiant said into the phone. “Goodbye, Kathy. I’ll talk to you soon.”
Getting the political formalities sorted out took almost an hour; the following paperwork absorbed another twenty minutes. When all was said and done, Andrey Luvkov had been officially released from the hospital under the condition that he stopped by for daily check-ups until his fully recovery.
The paperwork included his signed agreement to never harm the EU or its allies, either directly or indirectly, with a long list of examples and clauses. He had also been respectfully asked to lend his support to the European team in whatever way he could manage. Seeing as he’d already intended to do so without a written contract, he didn’t mind signing his name. Every throb in his shoulder was a reminder of the debt owed to Europe and its heroes.
Packing his personal items took considerably less time. The shirt and leather jacket he’d worn during the inglorious battle in his birth town were ruined beyond repair. That left his two phones – the personal phone along with the one he’d been ‘gifted’ by Gentleman — the helmet, some spare clothes he’d borrowed from Rune, a wallet and the white armband Athena had created shortly before her exodus to space.
His costume had been patched up by the EU team’s designer. Looking down at it now, a neatly folded up square of white and gold with barely noticeable stitches, he wasn’t sure how to feel about wearing it. It belonged to a man who had made some questionable decisions and demoted himself from world’s most loved hero to a highly controversial rogue.
Still, most of the world recognized the costume, and he lacked the time to reinvent himself.
After packing, Andrey sat on the visitor’s chair in his room to consider his options before he decided where to go next. Kathy would be able to shed light on the matter of Athena and Morpheus, but she insisted on privacy, and apart from a two minute chat with Rune in the morning, Andrey didn’t know how the other heroes were faring. He only knew that Rune hadn’t been in the best of moods.
Looking at his communications armband for clues, Andrey switched through the various options to verify that apart from some early testing, no alerts or support requests had been sent to him. Could be a good sign, he mused. Unless they were just sparing the injured guy.
He sent out a position request to the other armbands and watched their coordinates flash across the small monitor in quick succession. According to the displayed data, the European team – with the exception of Checkmate – was gathered in Oakland, California.
The East Coasters and Checkmate were in the States as well, though the data suggested a position in or near Florida. Miami, Andrey concluded. After one and a half years of speed of light travel, he had grown accustomed to reading coordinates.
Not everyone was accounted for; the count came up one person short. Andrey spent a half minute switching through everyone’s position data until he’d identified the missing person.
Mascot. What on earth happened to you?
He tried to open up communications and tap into their armbands, but apparently he’d been blocked off. He spent a second staring at the screen, alarmed, before quickly pulling the helmet down over his head and instructed Iris to call Rune.
It could be a technical issue, he told himself though he knew better. Athena didn’t create faulty tech.
Hearing Rune’s voice instead of an answering machine gave him some small reassurance, but it didn’t help settle his unease.
He didn’t bother with small talk. “Rune. Why am I locked out of the comms feedback for our armbands? I only receive position data, and Mascot is missing.”
“Because you had a hole the size of my fist in your shoulder, and your job was to get better. Need I remind you that you very nearly got yourself killed?”
“I’ve been released. Just now, actually,” Radiant replied. “And you could have kept me up to date. Where is Mascot?”
“I don’t know where Mascot is. No one does,” Rune admitted. Some of the harshness drained out of his voice, leaving a hint of weary frustration. “Kidnapped by villains is our best guess.
“How?” Radiant asked.
“She saved Aura but couldn’t deal with Gravity Girl and was dropped. Checkmate saw her blink out mid-fall, replaced by some poor bastard we couldn’t identify. A cop, if the uniform is anything to go by.”
Radiant closed his eyes, knuckles pressing hard against his forehead. “Damn it,” he muttered. “I warned her about the Conglomerate, I should have been clearer about it. Told her lay low for a couple of weeks at least.”
The mention of Gravity Girl was an unpleasant surprise. As far as he remembered from the Covenant’s reports, the girl had never shown villainous or even violent tendencies; she hadn’t even been able to leave New Zealand.
“That wasn’t an option,” Rune said. “We have a situation in San Francisco involving a new incarnation of Mindbender, less passive and much more malicious. If we lose this battle, we may lose the war for the United States. The President could declare martial law if things go bad enough. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the idea of the US army coming up with ‘solutions’ to villain attacks.”
No, that wouldn’t end well.
“I’m not telling you anything else until you show up here and prove you’re not a walking corpse,” Rune added. “No offense, man, but we can’t risk you being a liability.”
Radiant didn’t respond to the issue of his perceived weakness. He picked up the bag of his belongings and was stepping over to the window a second later, eyes on the data that flashed across his visor. As long as he had the helmet within radio distance of the armband, he could tap into both.
“I’m on my way,” he said. He barely got the last word out before his body transformed into a brilliant beam of light that shot westward. He materialized far above the Atlantic Ocean, invested a couple of seconds in checking his coordinates, and continued his journey with updated calculations regarding distance and direction.
When he arrived at the coordinates, he found himself on the porch of a small, wooden one story bungalow. There were a number of these in the vicinity of Oakland – cheap, secluded, and far from secure. The clay tile roof looked just barely capable of keeping out the rain, and Radiant’s education as an architect told him that the compressed wood walls wouldn’t stop a dedicated punch from a strong man, let alone an attack with superpowers.
The Canadian rented it as a temporary base, Radiant remembered. He had overheard the others discussing the choice of locale over their armbands. He wasn’t entirely comfortable with the choice, but he knew that the acquisition of a suitable hero base would take time, resources – and dedicated leadership. The united hero project lacked all of those things at present.
As Radiant walked up to the front door, he saw Rune through the large set of windows that overlooked the porch. Unlike Radiant, the Swedish hero wasn’t in costume. He wore a white and red plaid flannel shirt that contrasted against the bungalow’s dark brown walls, making him easy to see.
Too easy, perhaps. A villain with a gun wouldn’t have needed more than a couple of seconds to line up a shot.
“I’m outside,” Radiant said through the active connection maintained by his helmet AI. “You wanted me to prove that I can hold my own. So… can I come in?”
Rune lowered the phone from his ear and hung up. He glanced outside. When his eyes met Radiant’s visor, he cracked a small grin and jerked a thumb at the general vicinity of the room he was in.
Radiant invested a second to calculate the distance, then beamed himself through the window and into the room. As intended, he materialized half a meter from his friend, in a space that must have been cleared in anticipation of his arrival. The furniture – a small round table, a matching set of chairs and a seven foot tall potted rubber tree – was lined up against the back of the room, next to an open passage led to a small kitchen. The air carried the faint musty scent of a home that had been unoccupied for a long time.
“Hi, Radiant,” a young female voice said to his right.
He turned to see most of the European team and the Wardens assembled on a long padded bench on the right side of the room. Aura and Crashbang sat side by side, flanked by Noire and Overdrive, none of whom looked particularly happy to see him. Only Aura managed a small smile. The others had an air of desperation to them; their faces were as long as the shadows that filled the room.
The sight of them reminded Radiant that he wasn’t the only one who had suffered personal losses over the past few days. We need a hero victory, he decided. Something to help them believe we can still make a difference.
“Hello, everyone,” Andrey said as he lifted the helmet from his head to let them see his face. “Rune asked me to prove that I’m fit for hero work, and here I am.”
He put the helmet down on the table, noting how everyone’s eyes flicked to the bandage that wrapped around his chest and shoulder. It had a distinctive ‘fresh from hospital’ look to it, and the long-sleeved shirt he wore failed to cover it up completely. No one said anything about it. But the tense silence in the room said enough.
“I’ll need to get the bandage changed,” Andrey went on. “And I need to take my meds for another week. But I’m fit for combat.” He flexed his fingers for emphasis.
“Seems awful fast,” Crashbang commented. “You’ve been in hospital for what, three days?”
“Four,” Andrey corrected. “Uberdoc’s treatment methods are very effective.” He was about to add that Mascot had received a similar kind of treatment, but thought better of it and bit his tongue. The atmosphere in the room was gloomy enough without him dropping reminders about the kidnapped Wardens leader.
As if he’d read Andrey’s mind, Overdrive stepped into the breach. “Cool,” he said, sizing Andrey up with narrowed eyes. “You can help us find Chris then. And Emily. You got any leads, superhero?”
Andrey decided to ignore the sarcasm in the last word. He knew it was his fault that he’d been hospitalized and missed out on critical events, but he was here now. “Not yet, but I have some resources I can tap into. Have you contacted her parents?”
“Yeah,” Overdrive replied. “They’re about as fine as you’d expect, given the circumstances.” He paused, visibly composing himself. “The government moved them to some kind of secret bunker after word got out about Chris. No one tried to go after them. It’s something, I guess.”
“Yeah,” Noire agreed. “We thought maybe Gentleman would try to turn Chris and use her parents as pressure. But it looks like he doesn’t know where they are.”
Andrey wasn’t so sure. Gentleman had been very happy to let him know he had access to Queenie’s powers which meant the villain would be able to locate just about anyone, anywhere. And Gentleman had a preference for using loved ones as a means of exerting pressure. Andrey knew this better than he cared to know.
Christina and Emily were close, weren’t they? What if…
Andrey didn’t finish the thought. He felt his pulse quickening and changed the subject before the concern showed on his face.
“Will the East Coast Wardens be joining us?” he asked. “We have much to discuss, and it would be best if everyone was included.”
“They’re off in Miami,” Rune said. “Tracking some troublemaker. Could be a villain. Or not. They’ll manage. Checkmate’s with them.”
“How long…” Andrey began, then his phone started ringing, and his breath was caught in his chest when he realized where the sound came from: the belt pouch.
Where he kept Gentleman’s phone.