Outside Smolensk, Russia – Thursday, the 21st of June 2012. 08:52 PM
Peter and his companions stepped out into the streets of Smolensk. The city looked much like any other of the old European cities that lined the Dnepr River. The alleys were narrow and contorted, but occasionally gave way to large, open plazas and patches of greenery. As he looked up – cautiously, to avoid looking at a live projection of Buddy’s face by accident – Peter spotted a couple of cross-topped cathedral towers extending into the red evening sky.
But God was no longer worshipped in this city. A narrow-faced, bushy-browed Indonesian Evolved had taken His place, and life-sized posters displayed Buddy’s superiority for all to see. One of the posters was stuck to a brick wall across the entrance to the school courtyard. Peter hadn’t paid particular attention to it when the van drove past it, but now it was right ahead of him, insulting his sense of morality. The man on the poster wore a smug grin that made Peter want to punch him right in the face.
Well, maybe he would get the opportunity to. And maybe he’d even muster the courage to actually do it.
The presence of Nexus’ network was more tangible out in the alley. Peter focused on the source of the tingling sensation, reaching out with his senses until he spotted the finger-thick wire that ran along the base of the tightly built row homes across the street. It adjusted its color according to the material it traversed, but now that Peter had discovered it, he could easily see the network of wire branches that reached through doors and windows.
One had even found a way into a parked car, tapping the electronics within. Inside apartments, it would latch on to phone and internet lines and smart devices to absorb and change the information that flowed through. It was also the source of Buddy’s personal television broadcast that renewed his influence over the local populace daily.
Radiant paid the parasitic wires no mind. He had stopped at the edge of the alley and was looking west where the sky was darkening and the city looked as quiet and depopulated as it did everywhere else. Buddy and the core of Nexus’ network were somewhere in that direction.
Prodigy had been able to pinpoint the location during his five minutes of inspiration, but as much as Peter wanted to get the liberation mission done and over with already, he knew they couldn’t go kick in the doors just yet. Prodigy couldn’t predict the future. They had to give Spirit the fifteen minutes he’d need to scout the villain hideout, figure out the numbers and locations of their opposition, and get back to them.
“Try to look like you belong,” Radiant said with a glance to Peter and Crashbang. There wasn’t anyone in sight apart from an old woman eyeballing them from behind a closed window, but Radiant kept his voice low and his expression guarded.
“Sure,” Crashbang said in the same low tone and started walking down the alley, hands tucked away in his pockets.
He had a small injection gun with Power Zero charges hidden in his jacket. Knowing that they had the stuff available – and someone with superhuman speed to use it – helped Peter feel more optimistic about their mission.
He just wished the guy with the Power Zero was someone more… reasonable and emotionally stable.
Peter did his best to look like he was just some kid on the way to visit his grandparents, who just so happened to live in a city occupied by villains. The home address of his fictional family was a five minute walk away, an apartment on the second floor of a building that had been mostly abandoned during Buddy’s Smolensk invasion. Of course, in reality, Spirit was the only person they were going to meet there.
“I really appreciate you two coming along,” Radiant said as they turned a corner and found themselves heading down a road that looked completely deserted. “And I’m going to get each and every one of us back home.”
“I’m not doing this for you,” Crashbang replied.
Peter’s mind wasn’t on motivational speeches. He sensed a source of static electricity whose emission pattern reminded him of a very large television screen. “Don’t look to the left,” he said. “I think there’s a projection screen there. Set to mute, but it’s definitely turned on.”
He felt that there was something else right ahead of them, some disturbance in the electric field that permeated this city. But he couldn’t see what it was. With the exception of an abandoned, deflated soccer ball, the road ahead of them was empty.
Before he could open his mouth to warn the others, a shrill whistle pierced the air and the disturbance manifested a couple of meters in front of Radiant, who came to an abrupt, startled stop. It was a girl. A child, even, with short black pigtails, wearing a jeans overall that had been mended with mismatching patches of cloth. She had put two of her fingers inside her mouth, half-covering the vulpine smile that curled her pink lips.
Crashbang stopped as abruptly as Radiant had, gasping in surprise. For once, he had nothing to say. Considering that this child had just appeared out of nowhere and Peter had no idea who she was and what she could do, that was maybe a good thing.
The pigtailed girl slowly lowered her fingers from her mouth, eyes sparkling with mischief. “Boo,” she said, looking straight up at Radiant.
Radiant regained his composure first. He said something in Russian, but the girl only shook her head.
“I know you speak English,” she replied with a hint of an accent Peter couldn’t place. She looked eastern European, he thought, but she might have been of Russian or Slavic origin. He could never keep those Europeans apart.
“As you do,” Radiant said. “You’re not from around here, then?”
“You first,” she said, pointing a stubby finger at him. “I’m the police here. I get to ask the questions!”
Police? Peter didn’t like the sound of that. It implied that the local villain population had a grade schooler working with them. And even if she was bluffing, the chances of Buddy letting some unaffiliated powered kid run around his town were next to zero. She had to be involved with the group in some fashion.
He glanced at Crashbang, who looked about as dumbstruck as Peter felt. He made no move to get the injection gun with the Power Zero out, and in this case, Peter couldn’t exactly blame him. Powers or not, heroes didn’t attack little girls. Did they?
“Where is your police badge?” Radiant asked with remarkable composure. “All officers need one. It helps troubled citizens know who they can turn to for help.”
“I don’t need a badge,” the girl firmly declared, putting her hands on her nonexistent hips for emphasis. “I got my friends, and together we’re real good at patrol duty.”
Before anyone could ask, she brought a hand to her mouth and did a two-finger whistle, producing a shrill sound that rattled Peter’s bones. It matched the whistle he’d heard just before the girl manifested in front of them, but was louder and resonated throughout the alley a half dozen times. On cue, more children appeared around the pigtailed girl.
Peter counted six of them – four boys and two girls. All were armed in some fashion. The tallest boy, who looked to be about eleven or twelve, carried a baseball bat. The others had knives or tools. The youngest girl – a kindergartener who barely reached up to Peter’s hips – was wielding a corkscrew the way a restaurant critic might wield a fork. She didn’t look like she was aware of its deadly potential.
The sight of them all was grotesque. They looked about as dangerous as a litter of kittens, but at the same time, Peter was very aware that some or all of them might have powers of some sort. Peter wasn’t sure when or how Buddy might have recruited a whole gang of powered children, but he couldn’t dismiss the idea, either. Stranger things had happened in this post-Pulse world they lived in.
“That’s some knock-down argument,” Radiant said, still appearing remarkably unruffled. “Did you just bring them all here, or were they invisible?”
Pigtails beamed proudly. “No, I called them here. I can do that with all of my friends, you know! You better be nice.”
“We’re nice people,” Radiant assured her. “We were just on the way to meet someone.”
The boy with the baseball bat said something in a foreign language that might have been Russian. The girl’s face wrinkled up in a frown, and her dark eyes flicked between Peter and Crashbang.
Please don’t recognize us, Peter pleaded silently. He didn’t want their mission to turn into a mess before they’d even made it to Buddy’s headquarters, and he certainly didn’t want to fight a bunch of kids armed with tools and knives. Among the three of them, Radiant’s face was the most well-known, but his disguise included a wig and a fake beard that radically changed his appearance.
“I’m Stefan,” Peter blurted in an attempt to divert suspicion. “What are your names?”
Pigtails pointed to herself, then the circle of kids who surrounded her. For the moment at least, the frown disappeared from her face. “I’m Whistle. They’re just the gang. You wouldn’t remember their names anyway.”
Of course it’s Whistle, Peter thought, half amused. What else would it be? Then the girl continued, and his humor evaporated.
“We’re going to meet my dad,” she said. “I introduce all weird strangers to him. That’s why he made me the police.”
“Who’s your dad?” Radiant asked, breaking the three seconds of awkward silence that had followed the girl’s announcement.
“Rage,” she declared as cheerfully as if she’d just named her favorite cartoon character. “Well, he’s not really my dad, but he acts like one. He’s that way.” Whistle pointed again, this time in the direction the clamor came from.
Now that the wind had changed direction, Peter could hear screams from more than one person. He didn’t doubt for a second that at least some of Buddy’s crew was that way. Which was a problem. They’d come to confront the villains, sure, but a showdown on the doorstep to their prime target wasn’t part of the plan. And Rage’s power involved emotion manipulation. Apart from striking first, they were ill equipped to deal with that.
But if the alternative was to take down a bunch of kids, Peter wasn’t sure he liked that option any better. Some of them were pointing their improvised weapons at him, but no matter how hard they tried, they failed to look very threatening. Besides, he had to assume they were under Buddy’s influence. Like everyone else in this godforsaken city.
He didn’t have to figure out a response at least. Radiant chimed in, looking confident enough to assume he had some sort of plan. Peter really hoped he did.
“Sure, we’ll come see your dad,” Radiant said. “But are you sure you need to trouble him with some guests from across the border? He’s probably busy.”
“He’s always busy,” Whistle replied. “But he wants to see all the weird people.”
“Wait, what makes us weird?” Crashbang blurted.
Whistle’s eyes narrowed at him. “You talk English, and you said you wanted to look like you belong. That means you probably don’t. The Russians send spies all the time, and I find them all.”
She’s been listening to us for a while, Peter realized with startling clarity. She must have some kind of invisibility power.
A sharp pain startled him from his thoughts. He looked down to see the tip of the kindergartener’s screwdriver poking his hip through the fabric of his shirt. The little girl holding the screwdriver looked up at him with the creepiest smile he’d ever seen on anyone. He was no longer sure he wanted to avoid a fight with the midget villains.
“How about you bring him here, instead? Wouldn’t that be easier?” Radiant asked. He wasn’t being prodded with a screwdriver, but one of the knife wielding kids stood within arm’s reach of him, watching his every move.
“He doesn’t like when I whistle him to me,” Whistle said. “That makes him mad. The others get mad too. But I’ll do it if you’re not coming.”
“We’re coming,” Radiant assured her. “Lead the way.”
Are you serious? Peter thought, giving Radiant a piercing stare. He couldn’t help but consider the possibility that their team leader had fallen under Buddy’s influence somewhere along the way, but he couldn’t imagine when or how. They had carefully avoided looking at any of the screens that projected Buddy’s face throughout the city.
“It’s going to be okay,” Radiant said, meeting Peter’s gaze. Then he looked at Crashbang, who challenged him with an icy glare. “If they have questions, you’re going to be the one who responds. You’re best suited for the job.”
What? The guy couldn’t talk his way into sex with a prostitute. Peter clenched his teeth to keep himself from protesting in front of the assembled midget villains, who would have been very interested in his concerns, no doubt. Handing the diplomat’s badge to Crashbang would jeopardize their mission. If he…
When it finally sunk in, Peter felt rather stupid for not catching the drift sooner. Radiant hadn’t actually meant talking. Crashbang was a mobile flashbang grenade, powerful enough to stun and disable any Evolved that got caught in his area of effect. If the heroes could provoke Whistle into summoning most or all of Buddy’s gang to the same location, their mission would be as good as accomplished.
Crashbang didn’t need private coaching to understand. His lips curled into an eager grin, the sour expression swept from his face. “Sure,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Good. Come on,” Whistle said. She turned on her heels and started marching down the alley, flanked by the boy with the baseball bat.
Peter made a quick step forward before the kindergartener could give him another prodding. As he looked to the left, he saw Radiant do the same. They walked down the alley as a small, tightly clustered group, Whistle and Baseball Bat in front of them while the rest of the kids brought up the rear.
The watchful eyes of brainwashed citizens followed them every step of the way. That was what disturbed Peter the most: all those adults, holed up in their apartments, watching armed kids herd a trio of men down the street. If Buddy’s indoctrination still allowed them to care at all, they sure weren’t showing it.
Peter was uncomfortably reminded of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, only with roles reversed: the children were doing the rat extermination, and those kids were really freaking evil. His hip still remembered the screwdriver’s sting..
As their destination grew closer, Peter could make more sense of the muddle of noise that came from that direction. There was a lot of shouting, punctuated by the occasional scream of pain or anger. Judging by the overall noise level, he believed there had to be hundreds of people, and most of them didn’t exactly sound miserable. Their yells, combined with sounds that could have been cheers, now resonated what seemed like a short distance away.
The words he could pick out were in Russian. But there was one voice that rose above all others, and not only because it boomed profanities in English. It was empowered beyond human standards to pierce marrow and bone.
“Hey, Whistle. What is your dad doing exactly?” Peter asked in an attempt to break the gloomy atmosphere and maybe get a better impression of what to expect.
“He’s finding new recruits for our city guard,” Whistle replied over one shoulder, not slowing her pace. “Maybe you can be guards too. You look pretty strong. Well, two of you do.”
Peter didn’t ask who she was referring to. Among the three of them, he was the scrawniest. He had always preferred dance beats to actual workouts. Back in the day when the Wardens were the most awesome thing since Breaking Bad and Eddie Murphy, all he’d ever needed to make the girls squeal was his costume.
Funny, he thought. I don’t even care about hitting on girls anymore.
“And how does he pick out the new recruits?” Peter asked, pushing his mind off a track that was leading nowhere.
“He makes them fight, of course,” Whisper lectured him. “The best ones get a job.”
Could have assumed as much.
Peter sensed another projection screen ahead of them and squinted one eye shut, turning his head the other way. He didn’t need to warn the others; they took cue from him and lowered their eyes to the cobblestone road below them.
He briefly wondered why the kids hadn’t just made him and his companions watch one of Buddy’s broadcasts. He and his two companions would have been eager to answer any questions truthfully afterward.
They don’t know we have powers, he realized. To them, I’m some skinny kid who’s probably not even worth keeping around.
However, he couldn’t expect Rage and the rest of Buddy’s gang to be as easily fooled as the midget police was. The villains were sure to keep tabs on every one of the world’s known heroes, and perhaps the rogues as well.
“We’re almost there,” Whistle announced cheerfully upon reaching the next corner. When Peter caught up to her, he could see a paved city square ahead of them, about twenty meters wide and packed with what had to be more than a hundred people. They stood shoulder to shoulder, surrounding a small area at the center where two elderly women threw punches at one another. The women’s bloodied, swollen faces were twisted with furious contempt, and even though their scrawny fists did almost no damage, they kept swinging as if their lives depended on it. And maybe they did.
The crowd hooted whenever one of the women landed a hit. Now that Peter could actually see what was going on, the jeering sickened him to the bone.
Those are your recruits, Rage? He seethed. Gray-haired Grandmas?
It only took him a second to spot the villain in question. Rage was at the north end of the square, overlooking the spectacle from the top of a set of broad stone steps that led up to some kind of government building.
He was a Caucasian man in his forties who wouldn’t have gotten a second glance if it wasn’t for his distinctive red Efreet costume. The outfit featured a pair of curved demon horns sprouting from a copper headband, a flame-embroidered loincloth and – the most prominent part – a large aluminum wheel that was strapped on to his back. Gleaming orange flames of the same material fanned out from it in a circular fashion, giving Rage the look of someone who was perpetually enveloped by a wreath of fire.
Rage wasn’t alone. A few heavily armed guards flanked him, and a young woman hovered next to him, semi-transparent and surrounded by billowing strands of ankle-length white hair. She wore literally nothing but a pale blue silk skirt that covered about two thirds of her long legs. Her nakedness might have been distracting if she hadn’t been skinny to the point of appearing anorexic, her tiny breasts barely insinuated beneath the indigo spirals she’d painted her upper body with.
But hot damn, her face was beautiful.
Peter didn’t need a reminder to know who he was looking at: Sylph, a Romanian rogue notorious for her ability to ‘heal’ touched targets by draining life force from other people in immediate range. She could also blink across short distances, and her knack for assuming spirit form made her pretty damn hard to hit.
The fact that Buddy had apparently managed to recruit her was a rather unexpected complication. As he overlooked the area, Peter took a quick tally of the other local villains they were aware of: One Fell Swoop, Nexus, Ironfist, Powder Train, and Buddy himself. Ironfist, some crazy martial artist who supposedly ran away from China, was the only heavy hitter. But all had the potential to cause the heroes trouble. Powder Train had ignited Athena’s support drones as if they were 4th of July fireworks. His wide attack area could very well destroy Morpheus’ data stick that Peter kept in his pocket.
Buddy had other powered minions scattered across the world, deployed to do his bidding elsewhere. Prodigy hadn’t known whether some of them might return to Smolensk before the hero mission, he could only calculate probabilities from the immense amount of information he’d absorbed.
Peter felt a hand on his shoulder and flinched before he realized it was Radiant. There was no false placidity on the hero’s face now; his eyes were dark with concern.
“I might need you soon,” Radiant said in a low voice. “Be ready.”
Peter glanced to Whistle, but the pigtailed villain didn’t look like she was paying attention right that instant. She was already a few meters ahead of them, marching across the square with a queen’s confidence, and judging by the way Rage’s horned head swiveled around, her approach hadn’t gone unnoticed.
Crashbang was right behind her. He couldn’t wait for the big showdown, it seemed.
“Okay, sure,” Peter said. It was all he managed before a sharp pain in his back sent him stumbling forward. He kept going, one hand pressed to his throbbing hip and the slight induration of the data chip beneath his shirt.
It’s going to be easy, he told himself through the pounding of his heartbeat in his ears. I just have to get Morpheus into Nexus’ system.
Some of the spectators glanced his way, but most eyes were on Whistle. And that was a good thing, because a discarded plastic bag swept across the pavement inches from Peter’s feet.
There wasn’t a breath of wind.
Peter didn’t halt his steps, but he mustered a smile to show his appreciation for Spirit’s presence. If things got ugly, and they probably would, having a friendly Poltergeist on their side could make all the difference.
Ahead of him, the crowd parted and Whistle called up to the villains atop the stone stairway. “Hey, dad! I brought you some Russian spies who want to be in our army. Can I see the skinny one fight?”
“Which one? I see two skinnies,” Rage’s empowered voice boomed. To his right, Sylph stirred in midair, smiling in anticipation.
Whistle whirled around to look at Crashbang, who – along with her bat-wielding bodyguard – was nearest to her. Then her eyes flicked to Peter, settling on him.
Oh shit, he thought, his insides clenching.
But Rage didn’t wait for Whistle to point out the right Skinny. He gave the nearest guard a powerful kick that forced the man down the stairs, struggling to keep his balance. Barely a second later, Crashbang’s face twisted in fury, and he raced to the stone steps to meet his assigned nemesis.
Except he wasn’t running. His movement became a blur, and when he punched the armored guard a split second later, the impact generated a bright flash and a bang that echoed across the square. He hadn’t taken advantage of his full range – not by a long shot – but the public display of powers hadn’t gone unnoticed. The crowd stirred, Rage stepped back in reflex, and Sylph blinked to Crashbang’s position at the bottom of the stairs.
“Now,” Radiant said. In the fading light, Peter could see a faint glow of luminescent energy that outlined his body. “Avert your eyes and run.”
Peter heard a multitude of whistles piercing the air and ran.