((Author’s note: Part one of three. Due to sickness, I couldn’t manage a single chapter over 10K words.))
Outside Smolensk, Russia – Thursday, the 21st of June 2012. 08:36 PM.
From his position behind the driver, Peter Moore should have been able to get a view of the city he was hoping to liberate. But what he saw through the van’s dirty windshield was more like a fortress. A thick, reddish brown stone wall loomed beside the road, fifteen meters high and sturdy enough to have endured five centuries of Russian history.
No wonder Buddy chose this city, Peter thought, narrowing his eyes against the sun. He didn’t even have to build his own wall.
Now that the van was driving towards the city’s rear gate, the wall didn’t look as imposing as it had when it first appeared in the distance. The late sunlight brought out a faint shimmer that gave it an almost magical appearance. It could have belonged to a haunted castle straight out of one of Peter’s favorite anime movies, some mythical place inhabited by a powerful vampire lord and his thralls. Vampires were easy enough to take down. All that was needed were some wooden stakes and holy water.
Being an anime hero would have been nice. In anime, the good guys always won.
As Peter watched the stone wall roll past him, he could momentarily forget about the snipers he’d seen moving up top. The van was able to approach unmolested because it made a delivery, but the heroes were very aware of the snipers. They were one of the reasons they couldn’t just teleport into the city. The risk of being spotted would have been too great.
While the currently passive snipers were easy enough to ignore right now, Peter couldn’t erase the bodies from his mind. He had seen at least twenty of them during their approach to the city – men, women and children alike. Whole families of fugitives that had been dropped where they’d stood.
The villains didn’t let anyone escape, and they didn’t make an effort to bury the bodies. The dead were left to rot outside the city walls, most likely as a deterrent to other would-be fugitives or troublemakers.
Peter had eventually stopped looking at them. He could stomach seeing dead people, but the child-sized corpses covered in flies had tested his resolve, and he was supposed to be a hero even though he didn’t much feel like one right now. Still, he didn’t want to be his first heroic deed to be throwing up in the van. Just like Crashbang and Radiant, he had to keep calm and pretend he was some farmer’s boy on the way to make a tribute payment. It was the only way for them to infiltrate the city without causing a ruckus.
Their tribute payment consisted of sacks of wheat and some homebrew vodka. It was loaded into the cargo area behind Peter, along with Spirit’s incorporeal presence. The wheat belonged to Dimitri, the only real farmer in the van.
Please don’t get killed, Peter thought, glancing at the broad-backed man in the driver’s seat. I’d feel like shit if you did.
As if he’d read his mind, Dimitri squinted at Peter over one shoulder. He was a burly, bearded picturebook Russian who had agreed to support their mission after a long talk with Radiant. He didn’t seem to mind risking his own life, which made him either suicidal or a hopeless optimist in Peter’s book. Dimitri didn’t have any powers. He was just some guy with a van who happened to know Radiant’s family.
He seemed nice, though. Peter knew that the man kept a crumpled photograph of his wife in the breast pocket of his plaid shirt. Every once in a while he pulled it out, smoothed it without looking at it, then slipped it back into the pocket.
“Not be afraid,” Dimitri said in broken, heavily Russian-accented English. “I deliver vodka before. Villain like Russian drink.”
“Yeah. Don’t be such a pussy, Pete,” Milan aka Crashbang said from the other side of the van. The European hero crouched in the small space behind the passenger seat, right next to the front side window.
Unlike Peter, Milan had never averted his eyes from the corpses or the ravaged homes they’d passed. He had taken it all in with a vacant, expressionless face, though he occasionally ground his teeth, pulling a face as if he had been punched in the gut. It wasn’t too different from the expression he’d worn during their Hero Island briefings.
Hate is a strong motivator, I guess. Peter couldn’t relate, but he knew that the other teenager had been in angry mode ever since their first meeting. Crashbang wanted to fight the bad guys badly enough that he’d agreed to come along despite his lack of trust in Radiant.
Lacking the energy or motivation to get caught up in an argument, Peter just shrugged. “Don’t worry about me. You’re the guy with the Power Zero, so you should probably save your energy for the villains.”
Radiant made a soft shushing sound, but Crashbang paid it no mind. He raised his chin to shoot Peter a brief but rather contemptuous look, then turned back to the window. “I’m not scared to do what has to be done. You’re just going to piss your pants and get us into trouble. Why’d you even agree to come along?”
Because I’m the last of the Wardens, Peter thought, too caught up in his own melancholy to feel the sting of Crashbang’s words. Because I was the least useful of them and never got to do a thing that mattered. Because Nora will hear about what we accomplish here, and maybe come back. Because my parents are on that island and I don’t want any of this villain shit to come after them.
Peter kept his arguments to himself. He felt no overwhelming urge to defend his honor; there wasn’t much worth defending in the first place. Radiant seemed to believe in him somehow, and that was kind of cool, but that wasn’t what mattered most. What mattered was the city ahead of them and the small data stick that he kept securely tucked away in his pocket. It contained their most powerful weapon, far more impactful than anything his wannabe hero self could have pulled off on his own.
Morpheus. Some diminished copy of him, at any rate. If Morpheus got hold of Nexus’ system, the heroes would have acquired an automatic win button. Well, almost. There was still Buddy. They couldn’t leave without taking care of that guy.
“Keep it cool. We’re almost there,” Radiant said in a warning tone. “From here on, we’ll speak Russian only unless we’re sure that we can’t be overheard by the locals. Is that clear?”
“Sure,” Crashbang said, shrugging without taking his eyes off the window.
Peter could have rolled his eyes at the European hero, but didn’t. Now that the Wardens had been scattered into the four winds, he didn’t care enough to bother with a reaction. “Got it,” he said, digging up his handful of Russian phrases from memory. He’d only had a few hours of time to hammer them into his brain, but even though Radiant had seemed satisfied with his intonation after the hundredth repetition, Peter wasn’t sure he could keep the accent from creeping into his voice. He could only hope to stay off the radar of anyone who wasn’t a member of their group.
The van began to slow down, and Peter leaned forward to look through the windshield. The way into the lion’s den was surprisingly only a broad, open stone arc that was about four meters high and six wide. Peter had expected a heavy set of steel double doors, like in that old Russian spy movie he’d seen a couple of years back. Then again, the bad guys here had superpowers. Gates were nothing to them.
There were guards, of course. A quartet of men with Kalashnikovs had taken position on either side of the stone arch, and as far as Peter could see, they looked much like the ruffians he’d seen on television: muscular, tattooed with shaven heads. He scanned as many of their faces as he could see, recognized none, and quickly sat back to resume his position as an inconspicuous passenger.
No one with powers so far, he concluded with some relief. Probably.
At this stage of their mission, Peter had no trouble following protocol by keeping still. He was an unwelcome guest in this city, and their mission depended on no one recognizing them in their casual Russian outfits. Knowing that one wrong word could blow his cover was enough to nearly paralyze him.
Likewise, Crashbang barely budged. They both watched in anxious silence as one of the men stepped up to the driver’s window and knocked on it, prompting Dimitri to lower it by a few inches.
Peter couldn’t help but notice that the three other ruffians kept their weapons raised and were pointing them at Dimitri and Radiant, who sat on the front seats. From this close, the automatic rifles looked more intimidating than they ever had on television. Sure, heroes had powers. But they were far from bulletproof.
A man who looked to be the one in charge barked one or two short sentences in staccato Russian. Peter didn’t understand a word of it, but Dimitri responded easily in the same language. He didn’t seem concerned at all. His words flowed with casual ease, and there was a hint of affability in his tone. Dimitri was either accustomed to dealing with the villains or a damn good actor.
Whatever the reason, Peter envied him for his lack of anxiety. He forced himself to draw in a deep breath and clutched his knees to keep his hands from shaking.
Don’t talk to me, he thought. Just let us drive in and do what we came for before we get the hell out.
Radiant chimed in with his own contribution. From the way everyone’s eyes flicked towards the back of the van, Peter could tell that the conversation had turned to the cargo and most likely the two teenage passengers as well. Hopefully nothing looked out of order. While Peter would have liked to count on Rune or Checkmate for support, he understood that a larger group would have drawn too much attention, especially if it included heroes who didn’t look remotely Russian.
Despite Peter best attempts to appear invisible, he head ruffian turned his attention to him, and he froze beneath the scrutinizing gaze. Peter could tell from the man’s inflection that he was being asked a question. He just didn’t have the faintest clue what it was.
Peter glanced to Radiant for a sign, and saw that the other hero had two fingers down, half hidden against his thigh.
Answer two, Peter concluded. His mind felt like it was stuck in traffic, but he somehow managed to extract the second of the phrases he’d committed to memory. He blurted it out as quickly as he could, hoping to cover up his accent with staccato speed.
To his surprise, the man outside the van barked a laugh and lowered his gun. The other men grinned and followed suit. Peter couldn’t fathom why – as far as he knew, he’d said something about the quality and origin of their cargo – but he certainly wasn’t complaining.
Radiant flashed him a tiny grin from his seat, then turned back to the front window. The head ruffian waved a hand in the direction of the van. The quartet of guards stepped aside to let them proceed into the city.
The van rolled forward at walking speed, then slowly accelerated. Through the windshield, Peter saw crudely painted red and yellow arrows on the walls of the nearest buildings, pointing the way to wherever tribute payments were received. There were some skulls and ominous messages as well. They weren’t English and Peter couldn’t read them, but he could easily assume they were threats and warnings of some sort.
There was no risk of taking a wrong turn. Other roads along the way had been blocked off, and numerous pairs of eyes watched their short journey through the occupied city. There had to be a few dozen people on the lookout for any signs of trouble, all brainwashed into supporting Buddy’s whims.
For all the planning they’d done, staying under the radar clearly wasn’t going to be easy. Peter could only hope that Radiant succeeded in convincing the local powers that they needed to check on relatives. Some Russians supplied the villains for that reason; some fell under Buddy’s influence and never left. It only took one accidental glance at the villain’s face on a public viewing screen to turn a random person into a new best friend.
We only have to shut that damn system down, Peter reminded himself. If Morpheus can’t do it, I have to fry the whole thing.
Peter didn’t enjoy thinking about the second option. His power wasn’t an exact science, and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to control this much energy. He preferred the part of their plan where Spirit, incorporeal and invisible, found the villain command center and scouted out their opposition. They knew the layout of the city, but there was no way of telling where exactly the villains would be at any given time. The Latin American hero would help them minimize enemy contact. Buddy was the only target that mattered; without him, the group would fall apart in a matter of hours.
Spirit couldn’t assume ghost form with any tech devices on his body, though, which meant they couldn’t communicate across a distance. Their coordination would be difficult. On the plus side, Spirit was the only one of their allies who could scout without falling under Buddy’s influence.
“Spirit?” Peter whispered to reassure himself that the Latino hero was still with them.
Peter got no response, but the empty paper cup that had contained his late afternoon coffee shifted on the floor.
“Good luck, Spirit,” Crashbang said. “We’re counting on you, man.”
Peter would have liked to say more – these were most likely the last moments with everyone gathered in one place – but Radiant spoke up before he could. “We’re stopping here,” he said. “Proceed according to plan.”
Keep my mouth shut and blend in. Got it.
Peter had no trouble remembering the plan. As long as they didn’t draw attention towards themselves, everything was simple, and simple was good. The trouble would begin at about the time anyone at all figured out who they were. What came after was mostly up in the air and depended on too many random factors to plan for every eventuality.
Staying alive was at the top of the list of priorities, though. They had to do better than the Covenant did.
As announced, the van pulled to a stop, and Peter leaned forward to get a better view through the front side window. He saw that they were in a large courtyard surrounded by tall grey walls and a small crowd of people in mostly civilian outfits. No one seemed to be pointing any guns at their van. Instead, they appeared to be occupied with the sacks, barrels and crates that were stacked against the wall on the left side. Two men were inspecting the contents of the various containers while others were taking cargo into a two story building that might have been a school of some sort.
The sight of all those goods left a sinking feeling in Peter’s gut. Not because they were tribute payments to one of the world’s most dangerous villains group, but because that one building couldn’t possibly hold enough food to sustain a city the size of Smolensk. If the liberation attempt failed, this city was going to starve.
Radiant and Dimitri didn’t seem to share his concern. They climbed out of the van, and Peter scrambled to the front to follow their lead. He didn’t want to appear hesitant or anxious, especially not with Crashbang watching his every move for signs of weakness.
As Peter got out of the van, he could hear Dimitri and Radiant negotiate in agitated Russian. He barely listened. Other, more distant sounds drew his attention. The courtyard was completely enclosed, but the walls didn’t block off the uniform hum of voices that echoed each other in different directions, repeating the same string of words in a language that was neither English nor Russian.
Each one of them was Buddy’s voice, speaking Indonesian. The local population didn’t have to understand him; they only had to listen. The sub-titles that came with his television broadcasts conveyed any necessary instructions.
There were other sounds as well. Sharp commands came from courtyard, interspersed by distant gunshots that rang from somewhere beyond the tall stone wall. The stale, hot breeze carried a drift of menacing laughter from the west. Through all of it came a chorus of eerily cheerful children’s voices, sing-songing some Russian rhyme without a care in the world.
Peter couldn’t hear Nexus’ network, but he sensed that some branch of it had to be nearby. It filled the air with a latent energy that prickled his skin, giving him goosebumps. Unlike most network systems, this wasn’t just a bunch of parts that had been wired together. It grew and expanded on its own. As far as Peter knew after reading up on Nexus’ powers, the Technician’s information web was almost like a parasitic organism, feasting on the information it absorbed. It had to cover most of the city by now.
Here’s hoping it doesn’t have a mind of its own, he thought, rubbing his arms in an attempt to rid himself of the goosebumps.
It took him a moment to realize that Radiant was speaking Russian to him. Peter glanced down at the hero’s hands for a signal telling him how to respond, but there was none, so he simply nodded. Apparently, that was enough. Everyone’s attention turned back to the van at least.
Without further question, three gruff men stepped forward to unload the goods, leaving Dimitri to sit and roll himself a cigarette while he waited for the action. Hopefully, he would be able to make an escape before the city turned into a hornet’s nest.
Stay alive, Peter thought, wishing he could take the man along. But Dimitri was more accustomed to guns than superpowers, and someone had to stay with the van to maintain their cover. No Russian farmer would have left the vehicle unattended in villain territory.
That’s it? We’re free to roam the city? It seemed almost too easy. Peter couldn’t help but wonder if there was a catch. But Radiant started making his way across the courtyard, giving the two of them the signal to follow, and none of the locals spared them more than a glance. Now that the group of outsiders was leaving the area, the locals seemed so focused on their work that they might as well have been robot drones, indoctrinated to execute the ideas that had been implanted in them.
Maybe they are, Peter thought with a final glance back to the van. Dimitri gave him a wave, expressing optimism. Don’t let them get you.
They left the schoolyard unmolested. Then everything got complicated.