Mayella Island, North Atlantic International Waters – Monday, the 18th of June 2012. 10:40 PM.
The heroes had retired to the tents for the night, but Andrey was too anxious to join them just yet. They had a long day ahead of them, he knew, with more projects to tackle than they had working hands available. He needed sleep as much as everyone else did, but his head swam with questions, and he dreaded the answers as much as he needed them.
If it wasn’t for you, she would have stayed with me, Samael had told him, and the words still burned in Andrey’s mind.
He ached to know why she’d quite literally left this world behind, and under what circumstances he could hope to ever see her again. Part of him wanted to know what exactly had happened between her and Samael, while another just wanted to eradicate any memory of what he’d been told.
Kathy had to know how he felt. She was too perceptive to be fooled by his façade of practiced coolness, but she didn’t show it. Now that they had found a moment of quiet to be alone, she seemed to enjoy their almost-but-not-quite date regardless of the circumstances. It was a date without romance, a chance to rekindle their friendship, and she had questions of her own.
“Kicking Buddy out of Smolensk? You’re sure you’re ready for this?” Kathy asked. She was sitting cross-legged across from Andrey, leaning her cheek against one of her fists while she considered him with that demanding look of hers.
Andrey knew the answer already but held it back to maintain an air of dignified – and false – thoughtfulness. If he appeared too confident, he would have to tell her his plan of attack which she would then tear apart, highlighting all the problems he was already well aware of. He couldn’t make the big revelation just yet. He needed information—information on the Covenant’s offensive against Buddy, information on why it had failed—before he could finalize the plan and fill inthe gaps. But he didn’t ask for that information. After everything Kathy had done for him, she deserved a moment of quiet to voice her own concerns.
“I suppose I might be ready,” he said evasively. “We’ll see.”
He leaned back his head and gazed up at the distant ebony sky, thinking, Alexa is somewhere up there.
Kathy prodded his chest with a finger, drawing him back to the reality of the island. From the location they’d chosen for their talk – a small grassy hill overlooking the wild overgrowth along the western shore – the island didn’t look as small as Andrey knew it to be. It certainly seemed spacious enough to shelter everyone who needed a place to stay.
Alexandra and her drone army included.
“You could at least pretend you’re paying attention to me. Jerk,” Kathy scolded him, eyes glittering.
Andrey complied, glancing back at her. She had exchanged her yellow bodysuit for a pair of wide red linen trousers and white blouse. The top’s asymmetrical cut flattered her ample curves, and Andrey could tell she’d invested some thought in her appearance. It was an outfit for a date, no doubt, but not so revealing as to hint at plans for the night. She had to be too aware of his personal history to have such high expectations of him. She just liked to pretend, he supposed.
“I’m sorry,” Andrey said truthfully. “I have a lot on my mind, but I’m glad you’re here. And I’m sorry we couldn’t share a bottle of wine in a nice diner.”
It was an honest answer. She must have read it on his face because her expression softened as she watched him. The moonlight flattered the pleasant symmetry of her round face. But it did nothing to bring out the characteristics he appreciated most about her: a razor sharp wit coupled with a wide array of talents.
In another universe, at a different time and place, we might have had a real date, you and me. He smiled faintly at the thought. If alternate universes really did exist, then there had to be one that was perfect. A world where the Pulse never happened. Where everyone went about their daily lives without fear or insecurity.
“I believe you. For now,” she said with a tiny smirk. “Are you going to answer my question, or would you rather move on to the part of the evening where I peel you out of that costume?”
“It wasn’t an easy question,” he said, not rising to the bait. “But I can tell you I don’t know if we’re ready. It doesn’t matter, Kathy. I promised her that I’d take care of things down here, and I keep my promises.”
Kathy didn’t need to ask who ‘she’ was. She simply nodded, offering him the last of the onion rings they’d brought along. Checkmate had been kind enough to make a special delivery.
“Let me rephrase,” she said, turning serious. “Do you think you have the necessary manpower and resources at hand? Even if you’re ready, the kids probably aren’t. You might not have the time to train them.”
She dipped her head towards the cliff that jutted into the night sky a hundred meters to the north. The campfire at its base was still visible as a faint reddish glow in the darkness. A single broad-shouldered silhouette sat next to it, keeping watch over the pair of tents.
Kathy was right, of course. Villain influence was growing with every day that passed, pushing the world closer to chaos and anarchy. The heroes didn’t have a month to gather intelligence and develop reliable tools to use in their struggle. They didn’t even have a week and could barely afford to rest for the evening.
“If we apply the first strike rule of powered combat, we don’t have to be ready. The villains won’t be prepared,” he said. “The Covenant lost the fight over Smolensk, but we can make use of the intelligence they gathered.”
He remembered what Samael had told him. 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.
Andrey felt his face burn as the memory of his friend surfaced. He hadn’t had the time to mourn or move on, and maybe he never would.
“They did gather information on Smolensk,” Kathy said, her voice softening. “Athena can help you out. Not just with intelligence, but with backup. And I have good reason to believe she will.”
“She’ll work with us?” Andrey asked, hoping he hadn’t misheard.
“Athena will provide intelligence, Andrey. You already know she’s… gone.” Kathy drew in a chest-heaving breath. “Morpheus might work with you in her stead.”
“Morpheus. I remember. The AI behind those two combat suits, we talked briefly during the Legion aftermath,” Andrey said. “He left me with several questions.”
And I know Alexandra was in there, watching and listening, he added to himself.
He looked to Kathy for the answers Morpheus had failed to provide. She returned a feeble smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “He told you to talk to me, didn’t he?” she said. “For a sentient string of code, he’s such a dear.” The words matched her usual self, but her tone didn’t. There wasn’t a trace of humor in her words.
“And Alexandra?” Andrey asked. “Did she talk to you?”
“If you want to define ‘saying goodbye’ as ‘talking,’ then I suppose so.” Kathy’s lips quivered ever so slightly, and she turned her face away from him, wiping her nose with the back of her hand.
I didn’t even get a goodbye, Andrey thought. Didn’t even know what was going on.
He said nothing, giving Kathy a moment to compose herself. Finally, he got up from the beach towel they shared, only to settle back down next to her. He draped his arm about her shoulders to keep her close, and he felt her relax into his body.
She felt nice and warm. Softer than Alexandra, and part of him might have liked to… no. He appreciated her company as a friend and newly introduced teammate, and he didn’t want to complicate matters.
“What do you think?” he asked to distract himself, tipping his head back to look at the star studded sky. “Which one is her solar-powered shuttle?”
She made a soft, amused sound. It might have been a chuckle if her mouth hadn’t been buried against the spandex that covered his shoulder.
When he pointed upward, she lifted her head to follow his finger with her eyes. “That’s silly,” she said. “Space shuttles aren’t stars. They don’t radiate light. Even you should know that, you Russian lout.”
If the words had come from anyone else, Andrey would have been offended. But Kathy managed to make them sound like a term of endearment.
“I think she’d want to be part of the Perseus constellation,” he went on. “He was the first hero in Greek mythology. She could position herself at the end of his arm – right there – and aim her mighty bow down at the villains on earth.”
“You’re talking about Artemis,” Kathy corrected him. “Athena had a spear and shield.”
Andrey gave up on the barely visible constellation and lowered his hand. His thumb brushed the frills of Kathy’s blouse, but he pulled it away. “You know I’m bad with names,” he said.
She grinned. “I’m glad you finally remember mine. Took you long enough to stop mistaking me for Carly, the accounting girl. Her office was five levels below mine. Five.”
Andrey pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers. “Did Alexandra ever tell you about Morpheus?” he asked, eager to change the subject. While he was by no means a software expert, he could tell that a project of that magnitude must have been in the works for months, and the fact that Alexandra had never mentioned it to him stung more than he cared to admit.
“Yes,” Kathy said, sobering. “Two minutes before she asked me to fill you in and broke contact. She sent me some files that erased themselves after I finished reading them. That’s how I learned who she really was. But she sure as hades never told me. Not directly. Not face-to-face.”
Kathy bared her teeth in a grim smile that hinted at bad news. In the pale moonlight, her teeth seemed very white against the light bronze hue of her skin, almost intimidating.
“I knew Alexandra,” Andrey said. “She never had to tell me what was going on with her life. There’s only so much you can hide from someone you’re sleeping with.”
Kathy nodded to herself, avoiding his gaze. “I never got invited to a three-way fling, so maybe I’m the only one who didn’t know. The only one who cursed her in three languages, then cried for her, then flung the custom keyboard she’d designed for me against the nearest wall only to pick the pieces back up and cry some more.”
Andrey studied her, waiting for some kind of hint that she wasn’t being serious, but it never came. He watched her eyes fill up with tears. Before he knew what to say or how to react, she buried her face in her hands, hunched her shoulders forward, and let out a long, piteous sob.
“Shhhh,” he whispered, trying to soothe her despite the cold fear that welled up inside of him. He had always thought of Kathy as an irrepressible epitome of courage, as someone who would face the end of the world with a laugh and a vulgar joke on her lips. Seeing her like this made him doubt everything he believed to know about Alexandra. It made him doubt he had known her nearly as well as he liked to believe. But he kept sitting there, holding Kathy until her body stopped quivering against his.
When she finally spoke, her voice was so strangled that he could barely make out the words. “She was a member of the Conglomerate. All this time. Ever since she joined up with us.”
That statement left Andrey too stunned to respond. Kathy’s words kept coming in between sobs, and he listened, frozen in place. He listened as Kathy told him about Alexandra’s history with Data and the true origin of her more advanced technology. He followed her description of the countless battles Athena had fought behind the scenes, of how she’d tried to limit the Conglomerate’s influence after Gentleman’s hostile takeover. He could guess the reasons behind the destruction of Olympus before Kathy got to that part.
He sat there, numb, saying nothing, letting the words sink in. When she had finished and the silence stretched on, there was only one question on his mind.
“Do you still trust her?” he asked, surprised by the calm in his voice.
“Yes,” Kathy blurted out. “May we both burn in hell if I’m wrong, but… God, yes.”
“Thank you for telling me,” Andrey said. “Thank you for everything.”
Then, he reached for the energy he’d gathered during the day, shooting himself upward in a burst of luminescence. He wasn’t sure how far up he had gone, but when he regained his senses, the stars were still cold and distant, still gazing down at him from a million light years away. The air around him was icy cold. The water below was an inky-black, vast and uncaring. He couldn’t see the island anymore. From this high up, it seemed as if the tiny speck of land had been swallowed up by the sea. As if it had never existed.
He didn’t know how much time passed while he just hung there in the darkness. He was barely aware of the cold that seeped through his costume into his bones. It chilled him inside until his body and mind felt equally numb.
Why didn’t she tell me? He asked himself over and over again. Whenever he tried to make sense of what Kathy had told him, his mind collided with the fact that during all those months of the life they had shared, Alexandra hadn’t trusted him enough to tell him the truth.
I trusted you, he told her. I shared everything with you.
In some ways, he had known her better than his wife. Natalya and he had shared a great many things, but their work lives had been completely separate. Apart from actual Technician work, he and Alexandra had been together for everything. He’d even fallen asleep beside her while she tinkered with her code on her laptop.
And that was maybe the most shocking part of it all. He hadn’t even suspected a thing. Not once.
He knew her so well that his mind produced the answer she would have given him right at that moment: I only wanted to protect you, Andrey. That is why I could not tell you. My secret would have killed us both.
Andrey tried to wipe the wetness from his face, but he had lost the feeling in his fingers. He couldn’t even feel his own skin.
No getting sick now, you silly thing, Alexandra’s voice gently berated him in his mind. You have a promise to keep.
As much as he wanted to just have a moment to himself, Andrey couldn’t deny that she was right. He had to come to terms with it later. With everything.
He beamed himself back down, missing the island by a few hundred meters, then gradually adjusted his position until he found himself back above the hill. Kathy was still sitting on the beach towel, hugging her knees and gazing up at him. She looked unusually small from above.
He beamed himself back down to the ground next to her.
“I’m sorry,” he said through chattering teeth. “I needed a moment.”
She didn’t respond. Her hand touched his arm, and her expression darkened. Her fingers traced the smooth fabric of his costume sleeve, then came up to his cheek and settled there for a moment. He didn’t stop her. The deep furrows of her face suggested that she was more afraid than anything else.
“That was more than a moment,” she said. “You’re cold as ice.” Without further ado, she stood and draped the towel about him, ignoring his feeble protests. Now that he was back on solid ground, the cold clung to him like a blanket. He clenched his jaw to stop the chattering of his teeth.
Once he was wrapped tightly, Kathy leaned in close and – before he knew what was happening – pressed her lips to his mouth. The kiss didn’t stir anything inside of him. All he could think of was the warmth she spread to him, how her breath smelled of wild berries, and how she didn’t kiss like Alexandra had.
After a few awkward seconds of nothing happening, Kathy broke the kiss and breathed out a sigh. He couldn’t tell whether it expressed regret or relief; maybe a bit of both.
“Well, so much for that,” she said in a surprisingly sober tone. “We’re like strawberry ice cream and the Sahara. Hell’s going to freeze over before we get together.”
“This isn’t the time, Kathy,” Andrey replied. Given the graveness of what they’d just talked about, he couldn’t even begin to understand what had possessed her.
“It’s never the time,” she replied. “You’re like the comet Halley, which shows up once every seventy-five goddamn years. That’s about as often as we spend time together. I just had to know. And now I do.”
She turned her head, and her eyes settled on his face. “You belong with Alexandra. And, the great maestro help me, I’m going to get you two back together. Because she isn’t dead, she hasn’t gone over to the dark side and I’ve had more time to think than you have. So in sharing my conclusion, I’m saving you time you would have spent going insane over this. You’re welcome.”
Andrey didn’t have a response for her. His thoughts tumbled over one another, and the chill in his bones made it hard to focus.
Kathy watched him for a moment, then her expression softened, and she slung both arms around the canvas wrap that contained him. “We’re good now,” she whispered against his neck. “You don’t owe me anything, and I’ll get your island resort up and running. I just… had to know.”
“How long?” he asked, glad for the opportunity to change the subject and for the warmth that was beginning to seep into him. “How long do you need to get us set up?”
“One or two days for the surveillance system, depending on whether I have to crack any security. I’m going to need some more supplies, nothing too fancy. Should only take an hour if Checkmate helps me with the groceries.”
“I’ll help too,” Andrey offered. There was something else he had to bring up, and as the warmth continued to spread through him, he remembered what it was. “Morpheus. Can you make contact with him?”
Kathy gently pinched his cheek. “I already have, silly,” she said. “Alexandra instructed him to touch base with me He wants to help. He’s as much a piece of Athena’s mind as he is of Data’s. The only problem we have is that the mobile combat units are scattered across the world, and they have limited range. Data never got around to equipping them with limitless fuel engines.”
“Fuel,” Andrey repeated. “Strange that something so advanced is limited by the same rules that apply to tech everywhere.” The warmth provided by Kathy and the towel wrap made it easier to think.
“Once I get the satellite uplink running, I can guide the two units that are stationed in Portugal to the island,” Kathy said. “They should have enough range. I can’t shield them from detection, but Morpheus is a big boy. He can take care of himself. Data’s stealth systems kick ass.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Andrey said. “I wouldn’t trust a flying toaster to help me take down Buddy’s gang, and he’s clearly much more than that. I only got a glimpse of his potential in San Francisco, but it was impressive enough.”
Kathy raised her head from his shoulder to give him an incredulous look. “Flying toaster? Did you just make a joke? You?”
“Was it funny?” he asked in return. It was a perfectly serious question. He really did want to know.
Kathy stared at him for what felt like a full minute, and just as he started to believe that she might laugh after all, she shook her head and averted her eyes. Not a good time for jokes, either, he concluded. Still, the attempt had kept him from dwelling on Alexandra’s fate for a few seconds at least.
“I’m worried about you, you know,” she said after a moment. “I bet India and your other old ‘friends’ still want you dead.”
“I’m aware,” he said. “But don’t worry. I doubt they’ll be able to track me to here, let alone send more assassins.”
“They could hire Buddy’s gang,” Kathy argued. “Raja’s got the moolah to make it happen. And you’re planning a trip to Smolensk, right into the Lion’s den.”
Andrey nodded. “I’ll take the possibility into account,” he promised. Another thought passed through his mind, and he picked it up. “When I called from the hospital, I promised to tell you about Dancer and Gentleman. She isn’t the Antithesis, Kathy. Gentleman spread those rumors to corrupt her and back her into a corner. You know how Gentleman operates.”
Kathy snorted. “I’d like to say that I’m surprised, but… nope. I’ve read his files too. He’s a lousy villain, if you ask me. Always makes others do the dirty work.”
“A corrupter,” Andrey said. “He’s a rare kind of villain, and maybe the most dangerous. Very hard to pin down. There was only one other like him that I remember, and he wasn’t smart enough to do it well. His own minions betrayed him.”
“Gentleman is who you should be going after first,” Kathy said with a sigh. “But you know that. I suppose there isn’t much you can do without knowing the location of his hidey hole.”
“I know.” Andrey glanced to the distant campfire, which was barely more than an ember now. “Let me know when Dancer calls,” he said. “I believe she will.”
Kathy nodded, but didn’t respond. They sat in silence for some time, huddled together for warmth and comfort. They both knew the momentary respite wouldn’t last. The new day would bring numerous challenges, and while Andrey had a good idea of how to tackle them and where to get started, he didn’t know if what they had was enough.
He hadn’t succeeded in uniting all of the heroes. The ones who’d agreed to join him were dispirited, and he could tell they didn’t fully trust him yet. Convincing them wasn’t enough; he had to win the trust of their families as well. Their chances of success wholly depended on whether or not they could accomplish the single most important goal:
Keeping the island safe.