San Francisco, USA – Monday, the 18th of June 2012. 11:39 AM.
Heroes? Radiant prayed as he watched the two humanoid shapes descend to the city, dropping side by side in a perfectly concerted action. They were fast. It took barely a second until he could make out the metallic gleam of their full body suits and even less to realize that his first impression had been wrong. He didn’t recognize them, and the size of them was so massive that it would have been a stretch to consider them people. They had to be about four or five meters tall and looked almost exactly identical. They only differed in the color of their metal plated suits: one was red, the other blue.
Athena’s combat drones, Radiant assumed, amazed by the discovery. He’d never seen her use anything remotely similar to these models, but the fact that they could operate within Legion’s aura had to mean they were remotely controlled combat units.
They split up briefly before touching down. The red one pulled to a stop behind Legion, keeping itself suspended there while its companion took position directly above the pulsing mass of flesh.
Legion responded with a gravitational assault. Radiant couldn’t feel the effects from where he stood, but the blue unit was knocked back and into a five story building. Several tendrils lashed out from Legion’s body. They hit the side of the building with the force of a demolition vehicle, tearing a hole the size of a car into it.
Blue dodged the attack by shooting upward. A persistent blue light flared on its arm, cutting through the nearest two tentacles like a knife through butter and igniting a pained screech from Legion.
A laser blade, Radiant realized. Athena had been meaning to construct one for Paladin, but she’d never succeeded. Not to Radiant’s knowledge.
Mascot’s voice called from below, lost in the cacophony of screams and crumbling architecture. Radiant looked down to see her being half carried, half pulled off the road by the united effort of Noire and Rune.
He nearly beamed himself down to help, but Mascot’s warning from a couple minutes ago held him back. Her forcefield was the only reason he hadn’t joined the rest of Alameda Island in screaming his lungs out, and turning incorporeal would cancel the barrier. He was essentially grounded where he stood: on the roof of the middle-school building, overlooking the erupting chaos.
A series of hissing sounds drew his attention back to the red unit that was holding its position in midair. While Legion threw himself at Blue, Red had launched a flurry of glowing projectiles. Radiant discharged his energy to press the fight with a barrage of his own lasers. They wouldn’t have had much impact on their own, but the combined attack was powerful enough to send Legion reeling. The gigantic mass of flesh crashed onto the middle school’s box shaped gym hall and broke through, collapsing half of the building in the process.
It still wasn’t enough. After a few seconds of tense silence, Legion launched himself back into the air, as large as the building beneath Radiant and still growing. The holes the blue projectiles had burned into his flesh mended more quickly than the eye could keep track of.
Newal’s regeneration took several minutes, Radiant thought with growing exasperation. Good Lord. Legion must have had more than one power surge.
The blue combat unit looked much worse for wear. It hadn’t lost its ability to fly, but one of its arms dangled uselessly at its side, and the laser blade had been extinguished. It launched itself in Legion’s direction to assist the red unit, then stopped. It gave off a low hum that reminded Radiant of the power generator his father had kept in the basement as an insurance against outages.
“Get down!” Overdrive yelled at him. “I’m overcharging it!”
There was no need for questions. Radiant understood the teenager’s intention and pulled him down with himself. They pressed flat against the roof as the hum grew to a mighty, pulsing roar. It was soon accompanied by a bright glow and finally a thundering explosion.
Then nothing. The screaming stopped.
The heroes hadn’t won, but the battle was over.
Legion was gone. Not dead – Aura had been able to confirm that much at least. But after the remaining combat unit’s supercharged attack and the massive destruction it had wrought, Radiant felt tentatively optimistic that Legion wouldn’t be seen again for some time. He had considered himself a god among Evolved, and he had been proven wrong.
Lord knew they needed a breather. The heroes needed to reorganize and recuperate, and the city itself had been damaged in ways that went beyond was visible on a surface level.
Radiant beamed himself upward to hang in the air above the battlefield, overlooking the destruction. Legion hadn’t left a complete body behind – only the bits and pieces that had been severed and not destroyed – but immeasurable amounts of his blood marked the location of the battlefield. The cyborg Overdrive had charged had self-destructed after a brief burst of superperformance.
He couldn’t imagine how the victims of Legion’s mental assault would go on with their daily lives after this. No amount of psychological counseling would cure them of the fear of powers or of the next villain attack. Panic would spread far beyond the borders of the city, Radiant knew. Fear was an infectious disease that thrived in the absence of hope. If the heroes didn’t rack up some real victories soon, they had a bleak future ahead of them.
We’ll do better from here on out, he decided.
From his position above the school courtyard, he could see the other heroes gathered around Mascot. Noire kneeled beside her former teammate, arms wrapped tightly about her. Mascot was barely visible beneath the spill of black braids. Overdrive was right next to the two of them, talking with an agitated flutter of his hands and a huge smile on his face.
Checkmate had brought Aura and Crashbang in, and the European team had positioned itself in a half-circle around the former Wardens, intent on shielding them from harm. The united hero spirit they radiated was heart-warming. But it wasn’t enough.
We need to speak to the American authorities.
Radiant turned his visor towards the flock of helicopters that had initially kept their distance. A trio of them now surveilled the airspace above the island, and Radiant didn’t doubt that he’d be answering some questions before long.
Mascot’s voice over the armband pulled him from his thoughts. “Hey, Radiant. Sorry I couldn’t give you an advance warning.”
Radiant’s mouth twisted into a humorless smile. It was more than a little odd that the teenage girl, formerly a victim of kidnapping by the Conglomerate had been eerily aware of Legion’s arrival and intentions.
Still, she had offered a genuine apology, and he did appreciate what she’d done.
“I’m going to assume that it couldn’t be helped,” he said. “Though I look forward to hearing your story. This isn’t the end. What happened here is going to haunt all of us, and the next time Legion makes an appearance, we have to be prepared.”
“Yeah,” she replied feebly. “Sorry.”
“How did you know Legion was going to show up?” Radiant asked, randomly picking one of the many questions that bothered him.
Her answer was prompt. “The Conglomerate knew. They’re keeping tabs on Legion, and they knew he’d teleported to the States and was on the way here.”
Have they been keeping tabs on me? Radiant wondered before assuming that yes, they most likely did. He couldn’t fathom why Legion hadn’t attacked him during his stay at the hospital in Brussels – he would have been an easy target in his bandaged and sedated state – but that particular mystery was of no immediate concern.
As he looked down at the hero group, he saw the one surviving mobile combat unit drift up from the road, its glowing eye slits lock on to him. If Athena controlled it, then the questions he had for her were even more pressing.
“We need to talk, Christina,” he said into the armband. “I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”
“Don’t you forget I’m still one of the good guys,” she replied before the connection broke. The small green light that indicated an open comms link went out.
Her final statement puzzled him, but the combat unit kept him from dwelling on the matter. The way it positioned itself in front of him – almost within arm’s reach – conveyed the impression that it meant to talk.
She, Radiant corrected himself on a note of hope. Athena.
He took the opportunity to study the details of its expertly crafted appearance. The human body had served as a model for its general construction, though its upper body was so bulky it appeared triangular. It had to be, considering the wide array of weaponry that protruded from its arms and shoulders. He couldn’t identify any of it; it looked far more advanced than any of the tech he’d ever seen in Athena’s workshop.
Multiple layers of heavy metal plating protected its chest frame, further adding to the bulk. The head, a simple knob with glowing slits for eyes, seemed squat and condensed in relation to the rest of its body.
The design looked familiar. Radiant couldn’t place it but his gut told him that he wasn’t looking at one of Athena’s designs. It didn’t fit her preference for the simple and practical, and if his experience with architecture designs was any indication, then this model had been designed by a man.
Still, the question burned inside of him. He had to ask. “Athena?”
“Morpheus,” the construct replied with a male voice that sounded perplexingly human. “I serve the goddess. If you have questions, I may have answers.”
Radiant smiled faintly at the idea of Athena as a divine being who kept watch over the world from space. He didn’t doubt that she’d do an excellent job at it, though he would have preferred to have her somewhere not quite so far away.
“Did she build you?” he asked.
“In part,” it replied. “My body’s maker is Bremer Nilsen, more commonly known as Data. My operating system is the product of a collaboration between Bremer Nilsen and Alexandra Latsis.”
Could she have hacked into Data’s systems? Radiant wondered. He couldn’t even begin to imagine why on earth Athena would be in control of one of Data’s designs, but if she was, then this was the only logical explanation.
He pushed the thought aside, choosing instead to ask about the more tantalizing option. “Can I contact her through you?” he asked.
“Not at this time. She wishes for you to speak to her associate, Kathy Ulman, before further contact is established.”
“Why can’t I speak to Athena directly?” Radiant asked.
The low, perpetual hum of the helicopters inspired him to glance down at the other heroes. He saw Noire wave up at him with both arms, though no one looked to be in trouble. Overdrive had a phone pressed to his ear.
Why Kathy first? He wanted to understand Athena’s reasoning, wanted to understand her. He’d fulfill her request and call Kathy at the earliest opportunity, but the former sidekick wasn’t who he wanted to speak to the most.
“Athena has a message for you,” Morpheus continued. The sound of her name snapped Radiant’s attention back to the here and now.
“What message?” he asked.
The combat unit’s eyes flashed blue, and communication protocol was momentarily overridden by a recording of Athena’s own voice. “Stop playing the tragic hero. That is exactly what Gentleman expects from you. Pull yourself together and do what you always wanted to do.”
The words cut through him. Not because they wounded him – he knew her well enough to understand why she’d recorded that statement – but because they echoed what Rune had told him only a few days ago. And while he’d never seen himself as tragic, he had to acknowledge that others might be inclined to. Alexandra certainly seemed agree with the sentiment.
“Alexa,” he said, pointedly using the name he’d called her after their friendship had evolved into something more. “If you’re watching right now, I have a message for you, too. Whatever it is you’re doing from up there, I trust you. And I’m going to take care of things down here. That’s a promise.”
Morpheus looked at him with those glowing blue eyes, saying nothing. Before Radiant knew what was happening, more words tumbled from his mouth, now raw with emotion.
“I’m not wearing the ring anymore,” he said.
No response came. But when Morpheus raised its large artificial hand to his face, Radiant knew she was somewhere in there, watching him. One metal finger jutted out to touch his jaw beneath the rim of his helmet, then moved sideways until it rested exactly on his lips. Its touch was cold and didn’t remotely compare to real human contact, but Radiant didn’t flinch.
Without a further word, Morpheus withdrew the finger and propelled himself higher into the sky. It veered north in an unknown direction feelings. As Radiant watched him go, he touched his own index finger to his mouth in an attempt to hold on to the moment.
Athena had left without explanation yet again, but he took solace from the fact that he was one phone call away from getting answers.
“Radiant. We need you down here,” Rune’s voice said through the armband. His gruff tone made it clear that it wasn’t a request. “Now. Mascot is gone.”
“On my way,” Radiant replied. If this was true, then he had to assume the worst about Christina’s affiliation with the Conglomerate.
He charged up for a split second and beamed himself down to the road, where the others had gathered in a circle of grim faces. Overdrive stood a short distance away by the side of the middle school building. He was still talking into his phone, and judging by his exasperated expression, the conversation wasn’t very enjoyable.
Radiant dropped onto his feet in front of the heroes, and he quickly noticed the stranger in their midst: a willowy, dark-skinned man whose formal wear gave the impression of someone who’d expected to work in an office today. Crashbang was holding him in a headlock, so he’d clearly done more than just taken a wrong turn.
The man didn’t struggle. Upon spotting Radiant’s helmet, he lifted his hands pleadingly. “Please, Mr. Radiant, this is a misunderstanding! They keep asking me questions, but I don’t know anything!” He glared sidelong at Rune as if to indicate who they were.
“Mascot disappeared, and he showed up in her place,” Rune explained, jutting a thumb at the man.
“I don’t know who that is!” the man repeated, sounding even more exasperated than before. “My name’s Benjamin Parker. I was on the way to grab lunch when everything went dark. I was in some small room without windows. No one talked to me. Then suddenly, I was back here. Please. I just want to call my wife!”
With the emotion of the previous encounter still coursing through him, Radiant could relate to the man’s wish. There were a number of people he desperately wished he could call.
“He doesn’t look like a villain,” Radiant noted. “Aura. Is he telling the truth?”
“Yes,” the mousy teenage girl replied. She was standing next to Rune, almost invisible in the shadow of his bulky frame. “He doesn’t have powers, and he doesn’t know anything.”
“Let him go,” Radiant said with a nod to Crashbang.
The European hero shifted reluctantly but relaxed his grip after a prolonged stare from Radiant’s dark-tinted visor. He shuffled a step back, his hands now hanging limp at his sides, devoid of something to hold on to. He didn’t look relieved. In contrary, his face grew even longer, matching the expressions of everyone around him.
Noire wasn’t on her feet anymore. She sat on the road with her knees drawn against her chest, her face buried in them. Her long black braids spilled over her back and shoulders, partially concealing her. Aura crouched right beside her, keeping one arm wrapped about Noire’s shoulders in silent reassurance.
The sight of them was heartbreaking.
I’m going to fulfill my promise, Radiant thought as he watched them. I’m taking care of these heroes. It was what Mascot had tried to do, in her own way.
“Mr. Parker,” Radiant said. “You’re free to leave, though you may want to stay to talk to the police. You are a victim of a crime.” He glanced to the chopper that how hung almost directly above them, the sound of its rotor blades slicing through the air. No one dared to approach the heroes, but several police vehicles could be spotted to the southwest, blockading the road that had already become near impassable fifteen minutes ago.
Benjamin Parker gave a crisp nod and marched stiffly in that direction. The further away he got from the heroes, the more he quickened his pace.
“There’s going be an epic aftermath,” Crashbang said. He kept his eyes down and had his arms folded. “Looks like this place’s about to get bombed or swarmed by special forces. I bet they want us out of the way.”
Radiant looked up to see the choppers withdrawing. A squadron of air force fighters now passed high overhead, circling the city.
“They’re not going to launch an airstrike on a city that hasn’t been evacuated. I’ll sort this out,” Radiant said. He made his way over to Overdrive, who lowered the phone from his ear. “They want to know who was in charge here,” he said.
“Who’s on the phone?” Radiant asked.
“The Under Secretary of Defense for Evolved Affairs,” Overdrive said, pronouncing each word carefully. “He said the name, but I don’t remember.”
“Did you tell them the threat has been dealt with?” Radiant asked.
“Yeah. But I guess they don’t want to listen to some kid who used to be a Warden.”
“Pass the phone to me,” Radiant said, extending a hand. “I’m taking full responsibility.”
Overdrive gave him a long, bleary-eyed look but finally handed him the phone.
Radiant gave him a nod and continued the conversation in his stead. “This is Radiant speaking,” he said into the phone. “I apologize for the interruption. Who am I speaking to?”
“Aaron Carpenter,” an authoritative male voice responded. “I’m the Under Secretary of Defense for Evolved affairs. I’m aware we have a situation in San Francisco and that you are in the midst of it.”
“I am,” Radiant confirmed, keeping his voice calm. “The heroes have already dealt with the situation. There is no need to deploy any more military units.”
“You may call this a victory,” Secretary Carpenter replied. “But as far as the Department of Defense is concerned, we’ve suffered a terrorist attack on home territory, and we’ll respond to it as we see fit. As you may or may not be aware, Posse Comitatus is no longer in effect. We do need you to answer a few questions, though. Preferably in private.”
Radiant pinched the bridge of his nose. The tone of the conversation made it clear just how much his status had changed; he suspected that he would have received a different kind of response a few months ago. He’d been an icon then, the leader of a group who had influenced the ebb and flow of international politics.
“Secretary Carpenter,” he said. “We both know this isn’t going to end here. With all due respect, I believe you underestimate what you’re going to deal with in the near future. The United States needs heroes. You need heroes.”
“And you seem to underestimate the resources and abilities of the world’s most powerful military force,” Secretary Carpenter replied. “If we need additional Evolved support, rest assured that we won’t hesitate to contact the Covenant.”
“The Covenant is gone,” Radiant said. “I’m what’s left of it. And I’m going to build a new team with the young heroes who have fought alongside me today.”
“That isn’t quite correct, Mr. Luvkov. The Covenant is very much operative. In fact, I spoke to the new leader Samael only a few hours ago. As I said before, we’ll contact you if we need you.”
Samael sure was quick to make his first move. Radiant wasn’t terribly shocked or surprised. He knew his rival well enough to be aware of his modus operandi. Samael didn’t dawdle, he didn’t doubt himself, and he never missed out on an opportunity to legitimize the use of lethal force.
There was nothing to be gained from arguing the point further. Not now, and not with only good intentions and the beginnings of a plan to back him up.
“As you wish,” he said, taking inspiration from what he believed Alexandra’s response would have been. “Let me know when and where you’d like to receive my report.”
As he looked over the other heroes, he knew he had to make ends meet. And he had an idea of what he needed to make a fresh start with a new team.