((author’s note: I had to change the order of chapters. The Gentleman interlude is next, and Radiant’s Smolensk mission comes after, split into 2-3 parts. Each part will still be 3K words minimum. Despite the reversed order, there will be no spoilers. Thanks for your understanding!))
Mayella Island, North Atlantic International Waters – Wednesday, the 20th of June 2012. 10:13 AM.
“Uncle Andrey! Can we see Papa from up here?”
Denis shielded his eyes from the sun as he gazed down the side of the cliff, searching the rocky outcrops and forested rises for anything of interest. A flock of birds rose from the canopies, and Denis gleefully tugged on Andrey’s arm, pointing.
The growing settlement of tents that sprawled below the cliff hadn’t held the boy’s attention for long. There were a couple dozen of them by now, all lined up along the edge of the forest that fringed the rocky western shore, but Denis had already thoroughly explored them after his family’s arrival on the island.
Maybe being surrounded by heroes makes all the difference for him, Andrey thought, a smile on his lips.
Seeing his nephew like this, all giddy and excitable, filled him with a sense of accomplishment he hadn’t felt since the successful evacuation of his kin from Russia. Back in Mexico, Denis had been too afraid of more villain encounters to leave his new home. Now he was often among the first to greet each group of refugees Checkmate brought in – friends and relatives of the heroes who had decided to partake in the Hero Island project.
“Your Papa is in the surveillance room,” Andrey replied, pointing to the small opening in the rocky surface a bit further down the cliff. “He’s helping Kathy install the last of the equipment she needs.”
The control room, still cramped and stuffy, remained unpopular with most of the island’s inhabitants. Kathy spent most of her days there, and Stepan, a skilled handyman, had volunteered to help with the tech. Further down, where rock turned to grass and the ground was reasonably flat, a half dozen adults were gathered to sort through the contents of the crates Checkmate had brought in. They contained food and other supplies the growing settlement needed.
“I wish I could help,” Denis said. He bent down to pick up a small stone and tossed it into the waves of the ocean that churned below them. “But I can’t help because I don’t have superpowers. It’s not fair. Why can’t powers run in families?”
“I don’t know,” Andrey replied. He picked up another stone and rolled it in his fingers, considering his answer. “No one knows. But you don’t need superpowers to help. Kathy doesn’t have them, and she’s a heroine.”
Once he’d made his point, he let the stone drop into the ocean, immensely grateful for the fact that his young nephew had been spared the reality of superhero life. Andrey had witnessed far more hero than villain deaths.
“Kathy has a costume,” Denis pointed out, his small face twisting into a frown.
“If you ask your Mama nicely, maybe she’ll make you one,” Andrey suggested, amused. His sister-in-law was about as experienced with thread and needle as he was with Moscow’s latest women’s fashion.
“Mama doesn’t make anything,” Denis complained. “She just sits in our tent and talks about going back to Moscow, and then Papa argues with her and they’re both angry.”
Andrey gave the boy’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “She misses home. Some people find it hard to adapt to change, and your Mama is one of them. She’ll get used to it.”
Denis nodded eagerly. “She listens when I tell her it’s safer here. Because you are here, and Calavera, and Spirit, and Morphis…” he recited the names of the Latin American heroes with childish fervor. Denis’s enthusiasm was warranted; they had been his bodyguards in Mexico. Spirit not only had excellent perception in ghost form, but he could also possess most any material and imbue it with a variety of effects. He had been the Luvkov residence’s friendly poltergeist.
“What do you think of Morpheus?” Andrey asked. “Has he played hide and seek with you yet?”
Looking down at the shoreline and the dozens of heroes and refugees who populated it, Andrey couldn’t spot the two fifteen foot machines who had flown in from a hidden base in Portugal after Kathy got the signal out. They were hard to overlook. Their absence likely meant that they were preserving energy.
Overdrive helped charge them, but he was afraid of overcharging and accidentally destroying them. While doing so had been helpful in San Francisco, here, in their new base of operation, keeping the machines in good working condition was of pivotal importance.
“Only once.” Denis nudged a small rock with his foot and gave Andrey a sullen look. “He cheats. I went to my secret place under the cliff, and he found me right away. He didn’t even look anywhere else. That’s no fun.”
“I don’t think Morpheus understands what fun is,” Andrey said. “He was created so he could find villains right away, without looking anywhere else. He has more advanced senses than you and me.”
“But I’m not a villain,” Denis protested.
“Of course not, but Morpheus doesn’t know how to play games the way you do. He only knows how to help heroes in fighting villains. Athena made him that way.”
Denis seemed to mull this over for a moment. He turned his face to the ocean. There was a sadness to his eyes, and the solemn look on his face gave him the appearance of a younger Stepan.
A tender feeling washed over Andrey as he watched the boy. Seeing Denis like this infected Andrey with the urge to provide comfort and reassurance, just like Stepan had done for him in their childhood days.
“We’ll catch those villains,” Andrey said. “I promise.”
Denis shook his head and picked up yet another stone to throw into the ocean below. “Is it true that Athena has gone to heaven?” he asked in a small voice. “I really wanted to meet her. Grandmama said you two were going to get married, maybe.”
Andrey’s face contorted. “Who told you this?” he asked the boy.
“Kathy,” Denis said. “Last night I asked her where Athena was, and she just pointed up at the sky and gave me a kiss on the cheek, like my babushka did when she didn’t want to tell me that uncle Kirill died.”
“Athena isn’t dead,” Andrey said, more firmly than intended. “And yes, you’re going to meet her someday. She’ll return to us when her work is done.” He did his best to sound convincing for his nephew’s sake and for his own.
Denis nodded, relief passing over his face. “When are you going to fight the villains, Uncle Andrey? If they’re hiding somewhere, Morpheus can help you find them. Real quick.”
“When we have all the information we need,” Andrey said. “Kathy is on it. She’s good at finding answers.”
Andrey expected his nephew to have more questions, but, apparently, he didn’t. He appeared to be more invested in staring at Andrey’s right hand.
“What are you seeing now?” Andrey asked. “Are the wasps out to get me again?”
“Your armband,” Denis said, as if reporting a substantive discovery. “The little light on it lit up.”
Andrey glanced down at his armband to see that the boy was right. The small light indicating connectivity status flashed green, which meant that one of the other heroes was about to contact him. But no voice came through. Even after a few seconds of waiting, the device remained silent.
Is someone listening in on me? Andrey couldn’t even begin to imagine who might have reason to spy on him and his nephew, but he couldn’t rule out the possibility, either. The blinking light filled him with unease.
“Who’s there?” he asked in English, raising his voice to be heard over the chatter of the indigenous bird population.
Rune’s voice answered with a hint of surprise. “Hey. I was just about to contact you. Did you gain mindreading powers when I wasn’t looking?”
Andrey hesitated, taken aback for a moment. Aware of his nephew’s eyes on him, he quickly collected himself to tackle the problem with the most direct approach.
“Have you been listening in on me?” he asked.
“What? I just wanted to tell you there’s someone who wants to talk to you.” Rune sounded genuinely offended– definite points in favor of his credibility. “I activated my armband five fucking seconds ago. Who the hell would want to listen in on you and Kathy-”
“Stop,” Andrey barked. “Denis is with me. Watch your mouth, Rune.”
“Oh,” Rune faltered. “Damn. Sorry, little guy. Ignore the potty-mouthed Viking, alright?”
He wasn’t listening in on us. If he was, he would have known about Denis. Andrey glanced from the armband’s flashing light to his nephew, who sat with his hands cupped over his ears, feigning ignorance. Andrey smiled at the gesture.
“Forget about it,” he said into the armband. “The person who wants to talk to me, is it Alexei?”
“Who is Alexei?” Rune asked.
“Athena’s brother,” Andrey reminded him. “Checkmate brought him in last night, along with most of her close family.” He felt cautiously hopeful that he’d made the correct assumption, mostly because Athena’s relatives were among the refugees he most hoped to connect with. They had proven elusive, however, and seemed to avoid him in particular. He wondered what Alexandra had told them about him. But maybe it was better that he didn’t know.
They did talk to Kathy. It wasn’t much, but knowing that someone he trusted and who spoke their language had taken care of them gave Andrey some comfort.
“Oh. Right. The kid from Harvard?” Rune asked. “No, not him. It’s the Chungs, Mascot’s folks. They specifically asked to speak to you.”
“In private?” Andrey asked. He didn’t need to know the reason for their request. He had a pretty good idea of what—or rather who—they wanted to speak to him about.
“Didn’t say anything about wanting privacy,” Rune said. “They’re down by the beach, not far from their tent. Good luck, man.”
The small green light on the armband flickered briefly, but it didn’t go out, indicating that the connection was still active. Any words spoken would be transmitted… somewhere.
“Is your armband broken, uncle Andrey?” Denis asked. The boy jumped to his feet and brushed some stone dust from his trousers, clearly aware that the fifteen minute excursion with his uncle had come to an end.
Andrey watched him with regret, wishing he could have made more time. Now that he was trying to shed his reputation as the hero who wasn’t there, he had to be everywhere at once. He sincerely wished for some kind of power to create duplicates of himself.
“I don’t know,” Andrey said, studying the steady green light on the white plastic band from up close. “It could be. I’ll ask Kathy about it.”
The boy nodded and shoved his hands into his pockets, demonstrating his unwillingness to have his hand held for the short trip back to his parents’ tent. “You said she was good at finding answers.”
“That she is,” Andrey said with a glance to the white satellite dish that now crowned the cliff’s highest point of elevation. “And she just upgraded.”
Andrey could easily pick out the Chungs from a distance. Not because he recognized them – they had only just arrived, and he hadn’t spoken to them yet – but because their faces expressed a pain that was familiar to him. Despite the deep lines of concern, their eyes still held a gleam of hope that was wholly directed at him.
He beamed himself to the rocky beach a couple meters from them, giving them a few seconds to adjust before he extended a hand to Mrs. Chung. He could tell from the way she hugged herself that she was having more difficulty coping than her husband was.
“Andrey Luvkov,” Andrey introduced himself. “I’m so glad to welcome you to the island. I met Christina, and I know how concerned she was for your safety. This would mean much to her.”
Mrs. Chung’s face lit up at the mention of Christina’s name, and she unfurled a slender arm to accept the handshake.
“Thank you,” she said. “I hope we aren’t a bother, we just wanted to ask a few questions about…” her voice broke, and she looked away, as if she was ashamed of the tears in her eyes.
Her husband was quick to fill in. “Glad to meet you, Mr. Luvkov,” he said. He grasped Andrey’s hand tightly, and Andrey couldn’t help but feel that his handshake contained a message. Perhaps something along the lines of ‘she’s gone again, and I’m holding you responsible.’
Now that Andrey was standing in front of Mr. Chung, he could see that the man’s features were drawn into a stoic expression that bore a painful resemblance to Katsuro. Paladin had maintained the same kind of indomitable air.
“I understand that you’d like to ask about Christina,” Andrey said in an attempt to offer reassurance. “I don’t know her current whereabouts, but I did see her on Monday. She helped us deal with a very dangerous villain who made an appearance in San Francisco. We wouldn’t have made it without her.”
“We heard about it from the police. The official recount of events left us with some questions, and we were hoping you could help.” Mr. Chung let go of Andrey’s hand after a long moment. His gaze didn’t waver, though.
We were left with questions of our own, Mr. Chung. I’m afraid only Christina herself could answer them.
Andrey knew he wasn’t in a position where he could afford to admit ignorance. The Chungs weren’t the first refugees to look to the heroes for assistance, and in trying to build up this community from the ground, he had taken responsibility for all of them.
He couldn’t even begin to imagine what Alexandra’s family was going through. Alexandra hadn’t just disappeared; she was accused of high treason.
“What questions in particular?” Andrey asked. “Ask me anything, and I’ll try to help.”
“We really don’t want to be a bother,” Mrs. Chung fussed, giving her husband a pleading look. “It’s just that we don’t know if… when to expect her back.”
“Christina doesn’t cope with pressure too well,” Mr. Chung interjected, showing no reaction to his wife’s signals. “We were told she may have been kidnapped and were relieved to hear that she has been seen in San Francisco. But we don’t understand why we haven’t heard from her. Has she gotten into some kind of trouble?”
The question caught Andrey off guard. He had expected to reassure the parents that yes, the heroes were very much still looking for her daughter and would try to get ahold of her at the first opportunity. He wasn’t prepared to explain that Christina may be entangled in villain business, and he didn’t think they were ready to hear about it. The mother, in particular, looked like she needed a positive message to help her get through the day.
“She’s a heroine, Mr. Chung,” Radiant said. “Getting into trouble is everyday business for heroes. We’ll keep the trouble off this island, and we’ll bring your daughter here at the earliest opportunity. That much I can promise.”
Mr. Chung’s hard expression didn’t change, but he reached out for another handshake. “That’s good to hear, Mr. Luvkov,” he said as he squeezed Andrey’s fingers. “I’ll hold you accountable.”
“Thank you so much,” Mrs. Chung added, wiping her cheek with the back of a hand. Andrey wished he could have offered her more than promises, but those tended to have little substance in hero reality.
The barking of a dog drew Andrey’s attention to the beach, where a white and brown German Shepherd was getting his paws wet. He was staring intently at a leafy twig that floated in the water, not daring to go deeper and snatch it up.
“Is this Christina’s dog?” Andrey asked.
“He’s the family dog, but she always considered him hers,” Mr. Chung replied. “He was the best personal trainer we could have asked for. I only wish she would have shown as much interest in her other subjects as she did in sports.”
Strange that such a brave girl has such a cowardly dog, Andrey thought with a flicker of amusement. The dog made a half-hearted attempt to snatch the twig from the next wave that washed it onto the beach, where it rested for a second before being pulled back into the ocean.
“Barney will know right away when Christina makes it to the island,” Mrs. Chung said with renewed enthusiasm. “He has very sharp ears.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Andrey said. “I’ll try and deliver the news before the dog does. Was there anything else you wanted to speak to me about?”
“That’s all we needed to know,” Mrs. Chung said quickly, shooting her husband another of those meaningful looks whose meaning evaded Andrey.
“I’ve nothing to add,” Mr. Chung said with a barely noticeable twist of his lips that was almost, but not quite, a smile.
“Let me know if anything else comes up,” Andrey said. “I’m here to help.”
Andrey charged up for a split second before beaming himself back up to the cliff, where the narrow passage leading down into the control room awaited him. The last time he’d checked in, Kathy had almost finished getting a basic radar based surveillance system up and running. Now that their base was reasonably secure, they had to think about developing the plan of attack against Buddy’s villain group.
As he climbed down the ladder into the control room, Andrey was enveloped in warm, stale air and the perpetual hum of working machinery. A half dozen light bulbs now illuminated the small underground space, connected to a car battery by a long white cable that ran beneath the ceiling. The working lights made it easy to see that Kathy had eliminated most of the spare parts clutter. Only a few crates remained, neatly stacked by the entrance to the generator room where they couldn’t get in the way.
Stepan wasn’t here, he must have left the room while Andrey was speaking to the Chungs. However, Andrey noted that the light on his armband had gone out, which made a temporary malfunction more likely. He still intended to ask Kathy about it, but it wasn’t the most pressing concern.
“Now look who’s here,” Kathy chimed cheerfully. Andrey noted with some relief that she hadn’t seen fit to don her ineffable yellow costume in his absence. Instead, she wore a sturdy pair of jeans with a sleeveless black blouse, her auburn hair done up in a small bun.
She was standing in front of the command console with its now fully operational flatscreen monitor, next to a slender teenage boy who was slumped into a padded office chair and barely looked awake. Upon hearing Kathy’s voice, his head snapped up, and he blinked a few times.
“Hello, Prodigy,” Andrey said, using a gentler tone than he normally would. The kid had left his Australian home to start a new life with his girlfriend, Gravity Girl, only to see her kidnapped by Sovereign and finally lose her to Legion. Now he was here, trying to help despite the depression and insomnia that haunted him.
“Hi, Radiant,” the teenager murmured sleepily. “Haven’t figured out anything good yet. But the last time my inspiration kicked in, I wrote up a two page guide on how to grow crops here. The best crops. Maybe it will help.”
“I’ll take a look at it in a bit,” Andrey said.
“I know you need a genius plan for Smolensk,” Prodigy went on. “Still working on it. I hope anyway. Maybe the next subject my dumb power chooses is something more useful than potatoes in maritime sub-tropical climates.”
“It’s fine, Sugarbun,” Kathy said. “Just stay up to date with Morpheus on any new information he digs up, alright? Maybe you’ll snatch up some keyword that inspires you.”
“Sure,” Prodigy said wearily, eyes drifting shut again.
Get some sleep, Prodigy, Andrey thought. We’ll figure this out somehow.
He crossed the room and stopped next to Kathy to look at the monitor that was in front of her. It showed a three-dimensional model of the island, overlapped by a few lines of what appeared to be statistical weather information.
“Have you been able to test the radar, Kathy?” Andrey asked, watching the practiced staccato of her fingers on the keyboard. The speed at which she entered lines upon lines of command code never ceased to amaze him.
“You bet I did, and Morpheus ran a few tests of his own. The radio buoys that are still functional give us a range of about a hundred miles. They’re solar powered, though, so don’t expect too much from them if we get a few days of bad weather.”
“That should be enough for now,” Andrey said, giving Kathy’s shoulder a brief squeeze of reassurance. “What about our vertical range? We might have to deal with flying attackers at some point.”
Kathy pulled a face, her fingers on the keyboard growing still for a moment. “Would ten meters be enough? We’re not exactly equipped for three-sixty degree surveillance, Snookums.”
Morpheus’ startlingly human voice came through the monitor loudspeakers before Andrey could respond. “Local units P-02 and P-03 are equipped with scanners of their own. They’ll be able to guard your airspace for as long as the hero Overdrive keeps them powered.”
“Well, there’s that!” Kathy said cheerfully. “And our underwater detection is quite excellent. Legion isn’t going to evade us by scuba diving.”
Andrey made an honest attempt to at least smirk at her joke, but he couldn’t. After his face to face encounter with Legion, any hypothetical scenario that included the shapeshifting monster was far from amusing to him. The sound of ten thousand voices screaming in unison still rang in his ears.
After a glance at his face, Kathy quickly changed the subject. “In other news, China is finally stepping out of the closet. They agreed to reinforce the new Covenant with one of their most powerful Evolved.”
“Samael’s team?” Andrey asked, alarmed. “Who is going to join them?”
“I’ve no idea how to pronounce his Chinese name,” Kathy said. “The UN named him Fusion. He’s a Technician and Wildcard hybrid with the ability to temporarily fuse his inventions into a more powerful single unit. Looks like he can also fuse his powers with other Evolved. Oh, and he can split his mental processing power a hundred ways. They claim he had two power surges. Which would put him on the same estimated power level as…”
“…Data,” Andrey finished for her. He hadn’t felt the need to sit down so far, but now he found himself reaching for the camping chair that stood off to the side. While Samael wasn’t an immediate threat, such a strong addition to his team was bound to cause problems in the future.
“Did I hear this right?” Andrey asked. “Fusion can temporarily merge different Evolved into a more powerful individual? Just… how does this work?”
“Fuck me if I know,” Kathy said. “But listen to this.” She tapped on the keyboard a few times until a teletext page appeared on the monitor. “China made an official statement regarding the, I quote, ‘chaotic situations that have arisen of late’. They said that if ‘the international community proves itself incapable of restoring peace and stability to the world, the People’s Republic of China may take steps to resolve the situation’.”
Andrey shook his head in dismay. “They most likely could, but I hesitate to think of the consequences.”
“India may soon play a more active role as well,” Morpheus’ voice added. “I estimate that China and India each command over two dozen Evolved, including six of the world’s most powerful top ten.”
And all of Shanti’s countrymen want me dead. The thought should have been a bitter one, but Andrey had had enough time to dwell on it that it had just become another fact of his hero life.
“Let’s discuss Smolensk,” Andrey said. “I’m giving us two days to end the villain occupation, so I need a run down on the most up to date facts we’ve gathered.”
Kathy eyed him critically. “Are you sure two days are enough?” she asked.
“It has to be,” Andrey replied. “It’s safe to assume that Buddy has no intention of abandoning that city. The longer we wait, the more he strengthens his position there.”
“I’ll help you,” Morpheus said, and the white on black teletext page vanished from the monitor, replaced by lines of text that filled the screen faster than even Kathy could have typed them.
The information they contained was familiar to Andrey. The listed facts had been in Athena’s report on Smolensk, which Andrey had studied immediately after Morpheus delivered it. The percentage indicators that marked the end of each statement were new to him however.
“Presence of Russian military forces under Buddy’s control – ninety-two percent?” Andrey asked, reading from the text on screen. “Does the percentage refer to probability?”
“In a way, yes,” Kathy told him. “Morpheus has calculated the probability of Athena’s observations still being up to date after the failed Covenant attack. There is an eight percent chance that the soldiers were temporarily withdrawn from Smolensk.”
“Why would Buddy withdraw them?” Andrey asked. “Doesn’t it seem more likely that Buddy would reinforce the armed troops in anticipation of more attacks?”
“Temporarily is the magic word, Andrey,” Morpheus replied. “This particular villain group is more concerned by local threats to its sovereignty than outside forces. Russia has stationed close to fifty thousand troops within a fifty mile radius around the city. Buddy has to engage in warfare in order to secure supplies.”
Kathy snorted. “Which is ridiculously easy, because One Fell Swoop redirects any attacks on them to hit their opposition instead.”
“They got One Fell Swoop, but they don’t have a teleporter to bring in supplies,” Andrey remembered. “And the Russian army can’t launch a full scale attack on the city without risk of killing every single unpowered civilian in there. Buddy’s influence is strong enough that every last man would stand up in his defense.”
“Not only men,” Kathy pointed out. “The Covenant was attacked by children. If you go in there, be prepared to fend off kindergarteners and pensioners that wag pointy sticks at you.”
“There is no if,” Andrey stated firmly. “I am going in there, but I hope to avoid open combat. We only need to disrupt Buddy’s television broadcasts to break his influence over the local population.”
“Easier said than done,” Kathy pointed out. “You need to at least take the Technician out – Nexus. If you just destroy his tech network, he’ll have it fixed back up in much less than twenty-four hours. That’s how long Buddy’s influence lasts without visual contact to his victims.”
“I can only provide limited support,” Morpheus said. “I have three dormant combat units within range of Smolensk, but I expect that Buddy’s Transmuter would disable them as quickly as he destroyed Athena’s drones. His power extends to any electronical device that he has not marked as friendly.”
“What is the Transmuter’s range?” Andrey asked.
To his surprise, the response came from off to the left, where Prodigy sat straight as an arrow, his eyes as wide as saucers. Any hint of weariness was gone from his face. He talked in a quick staccato speech that was hard to keep track of, the words flowing from superhuman inspiration.
“Powder Train’s exact range can’t be estimated. He himself is not aware of it. All verified data suggests one power surge and an area of effect that covers most of the city. The effect lasts twenty-two hours and six minutes…” still talking, Prodigy jumped up from his chair to grab the notepad containing his handwritten notes on agriculture.
Andrey exchanged a glance with Kathy, who looked as dumbstruck as he felt. He had hoped for valuable input from Prodigy, but given the unpredictable nature of the teenage Visionary’s power, Andrey hadn’t expected it.
“…with one to two hours of variation depending on circumstances,” Prodigy went on, scrambling for the pencil he’d left on the desk.
Andrey took the opportunity to direct the flow of inspiration with a question. “What Evolved will we face if we attack tomorrow?”
“Seventy-seven percent chance to encounter Nexus, Buddy, One Fell Swoop, Powder Train and Ironfist,” Prodigy replied. “Seventy-nine percent chance to encounter only Powder Train, Nexus and Buddy after a preemptive attack on the Smolensk North military aerodrome. Verified data suggests that location is of importance to the villain group. Sixteen percent chance to succeed with a direct attack. Eighty-four percent chance of infiltration success with… oh god. Too much information. I need the damn computer. I think I got Nexus’ system figured out.”
Before Andrey could ask, Kathy jumped up from her seat at the computer console. “Morpheus showed him some of Nexus’ code an hour ago,” she told Andrey, speaking almost as quickly as Prodigy had.
Andrey said nothing. He watched with utter amazement as the three-minute genius plopped down on the chair Kathy had just vacated and started typing away, noting everything that passed through his mind while the inspiration lasted.
Fifteen minutes later, they had an attack plan.