Oakland, USA – Monday, the 18th of June 2012. 11:14 AM.
Goddamn it. Why now? Andrey thought, all too aware of how the persistent ringing had caught the attention of everyone in the room. Once he went through the steps required to open the secure fanny pack, the curious glances would turn to stares, and he wasn’t prepared to explain why he kept his phone locked away.
The timing was more than just a little inconvenient, and most likely intended for that effect.
Does he know where I am? Andrey wondered if he was being watched by anyone other than the heroes in the room. The thought sent a shiver down his spine.
“You going to take that call?” Rune asked, feigning ignorance. He didn’t even raise an eyebrow. He just flicked a thumb at one of the two closed doors that were connected to the room. “If that’s a private call, head into the bathroom and close the door behind yourself,” he said.
Thanks for keeping my secret, Rune. Andrey assembled a smile, giving the Swedish hero a meaningful look that hopefully conveyed his gratitude.
“I’ll be a minute,” Andrey told the others in an attempt to mimic Rune’s outward nonchalance. His hand betrayed him. A wave of uncomfortable heat pulsed through his limbs and caused his fingers to flutter lightly against the reinforced nylon of his belt pack.
If anyone noticed, they didn’t show it.
“Sure. If it’s important, then go,” Overdrive said flatly as Andrey pushed the bathroom door open.
When Andrey had nearly closed the door behind him, Rune made a remark about recent new transitions. Andrey didn’t hear the conversation that followed. Once he’d found the light switch on the wall, he locked himself into the bathroom with that damned, relentlessly ringing phone. The voices beyond the door shrank to a low murmur.
He fumbled with the secure zipper in a frantic attempt at getting the thing out before the caller hung up which would mean that he’d failed to respond and his family was in danger. But the caller appeared to be in a patient mood. When Andrey brought the phone to his ear, he was greeted by a familiar silken voice that dripped fake affability.
“Well hello, my injured hero friend. I hope your recovery progresses well,” Gentleman said.
“That isn’t your concern,” Andrey replied icily. He glanced to the door, then stepped into the shower in an attempt to keep the conversation contained. “I’m still not playing your games, so make it quick.”
“As blunt as ever.” Gentleman paused, then sighed. “You do not adapt well. A weakness of yours, if I may add. Your loved ones are safe, I am calling for no reason than to warn you.”
More assassins? Andrey didn’t ask. Having no intention of offering up more than necessary, he waited for Gentleman to speak again. The silence helped him suppress the heat that pulsed inside of him, stay calm and in control of himself.
He knew this wasn’t the time or place to confront the villain about Dancer. But if Andrey ever found Gentleman’s physical body rather than one of his illusions, they were going to have a real talk. Andrey’s fingers flexed in anticipation.
“Sovereign is about to force a confrontation to lure you and your new allies out, using one of his puppets. He would just love to assume control of one of your merry band, and all he needs to make it happen is line of sight. Perhaps you can guess who his preferred target would be?” Andrey could hear Gentleman’s smirk. Puppets.
Andrey hoped it wasn’t the teenage girl Sovereign had recently captured. He really didn’t want to kill her, not even if others depended on it.
“Sovereign’s range is line of sight?” Andrey asked against better judgement, knowing that the answer would be unreliable at best.
Gentleman was happy to comply. “Almost, but not quite. Our current estimate of his range is sixty meters, although you may want to factor in a small error margin for your own sake.”
I’ll assume a hundred.
Andrey considered the possibility of a ploy to facilitate his demise, but the set-up was too elaborate for a murder plot. Besides the warning he’d received about the powered kill squad had been accurate.
“I wonder what you gain from this,” Andrey said. “I wasn’t aware you cared about my well-being.”
You certainly didn’t care about Dancer’s. He seethed at the thought, clenching his teeth to maintain a calm demeanor.
“I do, but perhaps not for the reasons you imagine. The United States is my home territory, and I am not inclined to let outsiders make a claim for it. You see, my distrustful friend, there are some things that hold a special place in my corrupted heart.”
Andrey spent a few seconds of mulling the facts over before he decided how to proceed. “You’re awfully happy to give up information on Sovereign. If you’re asking me to take him down for you, you could at least ask nicely.”
“This is not about Sovereign,” Gentleman replied. “He is a delusional would-be villain who would not concern me if he was not supported by a certain entity from the East, whom you may know as Buddy. Buddy has his eye on the United States, ever eager to prove his conceited superiority by meddling with Conglomerate affairs.”
A villain war? And you expect me to choose sides?
“How is this meddling with your affairs?” Andrey snapped. He lowered the phone from his ear, tracing the hang up button with his thumb. He didn’t press it, but there was something tantalizing about the ability to end the conversation on his own terms, offset only by the potentially unpleasant consequences.
If Data did any research at all, the Conglomerate knows where my family is.
Andrey squeezed his eyes shut as a shudder of anger coursed through him. His fingers quivered against the phone. He took a deep breath, counted to five, then brought the phone back up to his ear. “If you said something just now, I may have missed it. Go on.”
The villain went on, seemingly unoffended. “This is a territorial dispute, as you may have guessed. The United States’ significance to the Conglomerate is well known. By supporting Sovereign, Buddy is able to test the waters for future expansion without risk to his own precious resources. He wants to see if we put up a fight. This ‘we’ includes ‘you’, the heroes. I presume he watches San Francisco with keen interest, and will peruse that information for future plans.”
“As will you,” Andrey said.
“Naturally I would. One does not waste knowledge or resources in these trying times.”
“And Buddy’s support of Sovereign consists of what?” Andrey asked.
A soft snicker trickled through the phone. “I thought you would never ask, my ignorant friend. You never ask the important questions first. Sovereign is joined by Hùnluàn, a Chinese runaway rogue whose powers are fairly similar to One Fell Swoop’s abilities. You remember him, yes?”
Redirection of attacks.
“Yes,” Andrey said, wishing the information came from a more trustworthy source.
“Hùnluàn has the power to animate objects and disperse attacks aimed at his sphere of influence. Unlike One Fell Swoop, he cannot make you harm yourself with your attacks. They will be dispersed at random.”
“Chinese rogues,” Andrey replied, more to himself. He would have liked to look the name up, but it was utterly unpronounceable. He wasn’t sure he could memorize it long enough.
“Yes. Buddy employs two Chinese rogues. Naturally, they are corrupted by his own power and absolutely loyal. That makes Buddy more dangerous than Sovereign, whose active control is limited to one individual at a time. Buddy’s subjects remain his dear and willing friends even in his absence.”
“But Sovereign doesn’t control the Chinese rogue,” Andrey said.
“No. And if you are wondering how I know all this, I would like to remind you that I happen to count Queenie’s replacement among my allies. He is a gentle and well-mannered young man, so concerned for his loved ones. It is touching.”
“I hadn’t forgotten,” Andrey said. He hadn’t missed the not-so-subtle stab at his own concern for his family either. His fingers twitched, and he tightened his grip on the phone.
“I am glad we get along so well,” the villain enthused.
“Is that it, then? Am I free to prepare for this impending attack?” Andrey asked, failing to keep the frustration out of his voice. Seeing as he still didn’t know where exactly Sovereign was going to launch his attack, he had preparations to make, allies to inform, precautions to take.
Gentleman must know where Sovereign is.
Andrey resisted the urge to ask Gentleman directly the idea of having to rely on information from the man who’d threatened his family was repugnant to him. He’d back himself into a corner of dependency if he started relying on villain intelligence.
Which was, he assumed, exactly what the villain wanted. Gentleman was a corrupter.
If the heroes couldn’t currently solve their problems on their own, then they needed to step up their game. If no one would step up with him, Andrey was ready to step up on his own. Skyfire’s death and the following talks with Rune had ignited a spark in him that had been lost with Shanti.
Or maybe even before that. Andrey glanced down to the unadorned fingers of his left hand. He didn’t remember when or why he’d stopped wearing his wedding ring, but he had.
“One more thing,” Gentleman said with a casual lilt of impending bad news. “Sovereign may not be the real challenge. You have recently done something that created a strong connection to Dancer. Against my explicit advice, I might add. Legion happens to be looking for her. As you may or may not remember, devouring the Counselor earned him the ability to see connections between others. Good luck, Andrey. Do try not to follow the unfortunate man’s example.”
There was a faint click in the line. Andrey listened to the dial tone for a few long seconds, unsure how to process the information that had been so casually thrown at him.
Legion is after Dancer, he thought. Then: My message on television. She must have seen it.
He couldn’t even begin to imagine why Legion would be after her. As far as he knew, all of Legion’s victims had been targets of opportunity who’d crossed his path. He decided to assume that Gentleman was messing with him, though there was a part of him that wanted to believe his message had reached Dancer.
Sarina. Wherever you are, please call Kathy.
His thoughts were interrupted by three raps on the closed bathroom door. “Hey, Radiant?” a young male voice asked from the other side.
Andrey perked up at the sound of Checkmate’s distinctive French accent. “You’re back from Miami?” he asked. “Did everything go well for the East Coasters?”
“Yeah, I just got back,” Checkmate replied. “And it went well, I guess. They caught the guy they were after. You ready to come out?”
“Yes. I’m sorry I took so long.” Andrey shoved the phone back into the belt pouch, glad to be rid of it. Then he unlocked the door and opened it to face Checkmate. “I’m done,” he said as he stepped into the bungalow’s living room. “Ready to rejoin you for the planning.”
“Um, we’re done planning,” Checkmate said. “The Wardens were just informed that Gravity Girl is laying waste to Alameda Island. Homeland Security is mobilizing, maybe the army as well. Did your call have anything to do with that?” He asked, looking inquisitively at Andrey.
The news stopped Andrey in his tracks. He glanced to the others, none of whom looked surprised, then back to Checkmate. “What are the chances they’ll keep their distance and let us handle this?”
“I don’t know,” Checkmate said. “They want me to bring Umbra and the Canadian in. Those guys are working with the military now that the Wardens are history.”
Andrey briskly turned to Rune. “Can I count on your team?” he asked.
“As long as you keep Uncle Sam off our backs,” Rune said. “No offense, but we don’t want to get shot for pissing off the guys with the guns.”
“Appreciated,” Andrey said. “Overdrive. Call the Canadian. He needs to convince the army to keep their distance while address the situation, and that includes Umbra and him. It’s too dangerous.”
“Sure,” Overdrive said, already digging his phone out. “But I’ll do it because it makes sense, not because you’re playing boss.”
Andrey shook his head. This wasn’t the time to establish pecking orders with teenagers; Lord knew they had more important problems on their plate.
“And what are you gonna do?” Noire asked. She wore the same scowl she’d had on her face since Andrey’s arrival at the bungalow.
“I’m going to scout,” Andrey said, meeting her eyes. “I’m the only one who can do it from a safe distance, so please trust me and stay put for now. I’ll keep you updated once I’m there.”
“Okay,” Rune rasped. “Just go, man. Go.”
Andrey grabbed his helmet from the table, pulled it down over his head and beamed himself through a window into the bright blue morning sky. He materialized above Oakland with the same queasy feeling he’d had since the phone rang, now reinforced by the knowledge that an innocent girl was being forced to launch an attack on San Francisco, and that Gentleman had set something up for him.
“Iris. Give me the coordinates to Alameda Island,” he said.
The AI didn’t waste time on words. The requested information flashed on Radiant’s visor immediately, providing him with a direction and distance.
After three more beams, Andrey hung two hundred meters above the Alameda harbor. The southeastern section of the island extended below him, and from this altitude, the extent of the damage that had already done was all the more apparent.
The bridge that had connected Alameda to Jingletown on the mainland was a chaotic mess. Broken support pillars clung to sections of overhanging road that threatened to collapse into the water. Numerous cars were wedged on either side of the bridge’s missing midsection. Panicked people were fleeing on foot, climbing and falling over one another as they tried to get to safety. Some had fallen into the water and were now struggling to keep themselves afloat, screaming at the top of their lungs for help that didn’t come.
Radiant suppressed Andrey’s emotional reaction and invested a few seconds in reporting the facts over his armband. “Checkmate can help here,” he concluded, transmitting the position data to the other armbands. “If Aura doesn’t see him in danger, he may come in. Will keep threats away from the water. Over.”
It would only take the teleporter a few seconds to evacuate the people who were in immediate danger, Radiant knew. As much as he would have liked to stay and keep watch, he had to find Gravity Girl. Or, better yet, Sovereign.
Several choppers hovered above the mainland like a flock of sandy-hued crows, keeping their distance. Let’s hope the Canadian handles the army, Radiant thought before he beamed himself South to the Highway crossing San Leandro Bay.
He couldn’t spot Gravity Girl. The path of destruction she’d carved across the island ended a couple blocks from the southern shore at an intersection of roads between two small parks. To the north, roofs had been damaged or outright destroyed, and windows had been shattered. Glass shards and broken construction elements covered the streets. Overturned vehicles were strewn around like discarded toys.
By contrast, no damage was apparent in the south. The bridge that connected Alameda to Bay Farm Island seemed untouched, though it was so congested with cars that the traffic had come to a standstill. The cacophony of car horns could be heard even from two hundred meters up. More people were fleeing from the devastated area on foot, seemingly unaware of Radiant’s presence.
He wished he could go down and show himself, let them know that he was here to take care of the threat. But he couldn’t spare a minute. He couldn’t even spare a few seconds.
“Can’t spot our target, but I see her probable last position,” Radiant informed the others over the armband. “Sending the position. I’d need to go down for a better view.”
“Don’t go down,” Rune’s coarse voice replied. “I bet it’s a trap. We can’t lose you to Sovereign, man.”
“What does Aura see?” Andrey asked.
“Nothing,” Rune said, audibly concerned. “And it’s freaking me out. She has never seen nothing before. It’s like something or someone is blocking her.”
“Who could be blocking her?”
“Fuck if I know,” Rune growled. “Be careful, alright? And Checkmate, come back ASAP. Leave anyone who isn’t drowning.”
“Roger,” Checkmate’s voice replied through the armband.
Radiant beamed himself a short distance to change perspective without diving lower. He activated his helmet’s vision enhancement systems to scan the roads, parks, and buildings where the path of destruction had ended. The tech was nothing spectacular – Athena had designed it on an idle afternoon in between more important projects – but helped draw his attention to previously defined points of interest by highlighting them.
“Possible power use detected,” Iris commented. A blinking red cursor closed in on a strange sphere by a cluster of squat, flat-topped buildings near the southeastern shore. Lincoln Middle School, the displayed map data informed him.
It took Radiant a second to realize what he was looking at. The sphere was small and nearly transparent, visible only because it reflected the sunlight as it moved. As Radiant watched, it became a flash of movement that stopped on a flat rooftop. At the center of it was a person, no more than a speck against the dark brown backdrop of the middle school building.
Mascot? Andrey blinked in surprise. It can’t be.
He quickly tapped his visor to activate the zoom function. The figure remained on the roof long enough that he recognized Mascot’s face, framed by stray wisps of dark brown hair that always seemed to escape her short ponytail. She wore a black and gray hooded sweatshirt.
It was her arm that gave Radiant pause. The sling and cast were gone. She looked perfectly healthy, and judging by the way her narrow eyes flicked up at him, she had spotted him as well.
Radiant’s head swam with questions. Seeing her alive and well was a relief, but as much as he wanted to beam himself down to check on her personally, he couldn’t trust the circumstances.
“I see someone who looks like Mascot,” he informed the others over the armband. “Aura. Can you confirm this?”
The Empath’s voice replied without even a second of delay. “Yes, I have a picture. One moment.”
Andrey appreciated her professional attitude. She hadn’t doubted him or asked questions, she’d gotten right to the task. She was young, but he could tell she was developing into a fine young heroine.
“Mascot? WHAT? Where?” Overdrive blurted.
“Southeast Alameda,” Radiant replied, eyes never leaving the figure below. “Where Gravity Girl’s path of destruction ends. Her arm looks unhurt.”
“Damn it,” Rune growled. “Can’t be her.”
“I think it is,” Aura said. “Radiant’s aura and hers are similar in some ways. They’re in the same place. Maybe you should talk to her, Radiant.”
“You still can’t see any danger?” he asked.
“No, and that’s very strange,” Aura said in a strained voice. “I’ll let you know if anything changes.”
Gentleman. He’s up to something.
Radiant zoomed a bit out to scan the nearby area. As far as he could tell, nothing had changed. Most of the people who were attempting to flee the island were congealed into a chaotic mob to the southeast, climbing over stuck cars in their haste to escape.
If Sovereign’s – or maybe Gentleman’s – plan involved causing maximum damage, Gravity Girl was likely to attack there next.
Another voice came through the armband, but Radiant was already in the process of beaming himself down to the roof Mascot was on. He only caught the last words when he materialized a few meters from her.
“…actually her,” Noire burst out, half sobbing. “Take us there. Now. Maybe she needs help.”
“Don’t,” Radiant quickly replied. “Not yet. It’s not safe.”
“Hi, Radiant,” Mascot said with a glance down at the armband. He felt the faint static hum of a forcefield taking shape around him. She wasn’t wearing her armband anymore, but he spotted a small white earbud in her ear.
His pulse sped up when he realized it wasn’t Athena’s tech.
“You’re right,” she said, her face serious. “Don’t let Checkmate bring the others in. Not yet. Shit’s about to hit the fan.”
“What do you know about this?” he asked, watching her carefully.
Instead of responding, she walked three steps to the edge of the roof and pointed down. Radiant followed to see what she’d indicated: a set of discarded clothing, strewn on the road below amidst broken glass shards. His mind went blank, refusing to make the connection.
“He’s gone after Sovereign and his gang,” Mascot said, eyes narrowing at a distant point to the West. “Followed the connections. But he’ll be back in a moment.”
“The clothing was… Gravity Girl?” Radiant asked, dumbfounded. He had expected some kind of trap, meticulously planned and prepared by Sovereign or Gentleman or both. Not this.
“And in case we both bite the dust, I want to make one thing clear,” Mascot went on, speaking quickly without looking at him. “I’m not a villain, and I’m here to help you. You know how the Conglomerate operates. They snatched someone I care about. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?”
Before Radiant got the chance to respond, Aura’s voice came through the armband, shrill with panic. “Come back! I see it now! Everything’s dark, oh god, you have to COME BACK NOW!”
“Stay if you want to fight him,” Mascot said at the same time, tense but composed.
As suddenly as if someone had flipped a switch, the atmosphere changed. The air seemed to become thicker, charged with a foreboding of immense power that rose the hairs on Andrey’s skin. For a second, the city became perfectly still. The distant hum of the choppers, the honking car horns, and the voices of the mob stopped, as if caught in a void of time that suppressed all sound.
Then the screaming began.