13.1 Devastation

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Mayella Island, North Atlantic International Waters – Friday, the 22nd of June 2012. 04:45 PM.
“Andrey? Is everything okay with you, up there all by yourself?” The voice coming through Radiant’s earbud belonged to Kathy, but it was uncharacteristically tense. He barely recognized it without the saucy attitude that was her trademark.

Her tone spoke of impending bad news and prompted him to look around for signs of trouble. Looking down at the vaguely crescent shaped island which lay stretched out below him, he discovered none. The ocean looked peaceful from the distance, the colorful vegetation that engulfed everything but the top of the tall cliff swayed in the wind, and flocks of birds periodically rose up from the treetops to circle high above the stony shore before settling elsewhere.

And yet… the air smelled faintly of ozone, and the wind had picked up speed. The western horizon had darkened already. The atmosphere was eerily foreboding, carrying the promise of something more sinister than bad weather. Whatever it was, Radiant could feel it reverberating in his bones.

That feeling was what kept him out here, more than a hundred feet above the Atlantic Ocean, drenched by the occasional downpour and whipped by the wind. Radiant’s powerset made him the most efficient lookout apart from Morpheus, whose mobile units needed to preserve energy more often than not. The island’s automated surveillance systems covered most of the surrounding underwater environment. Above the water, however, none of their available technology was superior to his human eyesight, boosted by the tech Athena had built into his helmet.

During the long hours he’d spent keeping watch, Radiant frequently compared himself to a reverse lighthouse, meant to scare off visitors rather than guide them to the home port. But most of their potential visitors could be classified as threats of some sort. Legion was at the very top of the list.

How long has it been since the last sighting of Legion? Radiant mused, eyes fixed on the horizon. His helmet’s tinted visor blocked out most of the remaining light in the sky, making it appear darker than it already was. He must be somewhere out there, preparing for the next confrontation. Watching. Waiting.

“Andrey!” Kathy shouted now, sounding even more agitated than before.

Radiant turned in midair, away from the sun. Now that he was fully charged up, he spread his wings, allowing their blinding luminescence to flare on either side of him. “I’m here,” he said. “I was lost in thought. Everything’s fine, Kathy. How are things down there?”

She snorted, her tone relaxing. “If you’re done playing the brooding lone hero, we have big news for you. Well, Morpheus does.”

“Thanks, Kathy. Patch him through.”

She hesitated and he had the sense that she wanted to say something more but thought better of it. There was a faint click as she granted the AI direct access to his helmet’s built-in communication resources. Unlike the heroes who had joined them so far, Data’s creation was still considered suspicious enough that a majority vote had decided against his direct inclusion on the communication lines. He was permanently linked to Kathy, however, and requested temporary access whenever he needed it.

Radiant wasn’t alone in suspecting that the AI could listen in without any of them noticing. Like Kathy, he preferred to assume that their new ally was playing by the rules unless he gave them reason to believe otherwise. Athena seemed to trust him, after all. She wouldn’t have used him as her personal messenger otherwise.

“Hello, Radiant,” the AI’s pleasant voice chimed through the earbud.

The lingering unease in Radiant’s gut prompted him to scan the island and the surrounding ocean one more time before responding. “Hello, Morpheus. I hear you have news for me?”

“I do. I located Dancer’s phone.”

The news wasn’t entirely unexpected, but still surprising enough to stop Radiant’s breath for a moment. “That was fast,” he admitted. “You’re sure it’s hers?”

“Yes. I wouldn’t tell you about it if I wasn’t sure,” The AI replied with a defensiveness that sounded uncomfortably human.

“Where is she? Is she in danger? I’ll alert the others and–”

“South Africa,” Morpheus interrupted coolly. “The city of Pretoria, which is largely deserted due to flooding. There may be villains present. I don’t think she’s in immediate danger, but I can’t tell for sure until I get a visual.”

“A visual? Are any of your combat units in range?” Radiant blurted, speaking as quickly as he could without the words jumbling together.

“Not even close. But there are cameras on site, and I’m working on a remote access solution.”

Why does this take you more than three seconds? He considered confronting the AI with the question, but discarded it in favor of other, more pressing concerns. “Who are the villains on site?”

“Again, I can’t confirm for sure until I get a visual,” Morpheus declared. “But I do know I’m looking at an abandoned sports hall which was modified by the Conglomerate. There may be traps. Please stay put for a minute while I look into it further.”

Of course it’s the Conglomerate. We just eliminated their biggest competition. Radiant glanced down at his gloved right fist and the glow of luminescent energy that clung to it. Was this the day of his long-awaited showdown with Gentleman? If so, he was ready. By god, was he ready.

“Alright. I’ll give you a minute before I alert the team. Cameras or not, I need the coordinates now.”

The AI didn’t respond, but the helmet’s visor lit up with a grid of green lines showing Radiant’s current position. He zoomed out with a practiced sequence of eye movements, further and further until the target location appeared as a blinking, triangular cursor far to the southeast. The distance was indicated as a little more than 5500 miles. A short hop for him; a significantly longer flight for Samael should the UN catch wind of this and decided to interfere.

He absently tapped his armband to open communication to all, his awareness already drifting away from the island base and back to the world beyond the hero refuge. This was it – the moment and the opportunity he had been waiting for, what he had worked toward ever since that fateful last meeting in Paladin’s apartment. He became a man on a mission then, and that mission was still ongoing. The anticipation burned inside of him and set his nerves afire.

Has Sarina retained any awareness of Shanti? He wondered, thinking back to that evening in India which ended his career as a Covenant hero. Shanti had been fully aware of why he came to see her. She knew his name, and when they spoke, she greeted him with the placid demeanor of a saint. I forgive you, she told him. But please, protect the people.

Shanti was the bravest person he ever met.

The small light on his armband glowed green, indicating that communication was open between himself and the members of the new team he’d built. They had all talked this through, had plotted various retrieval scenarios far in advance. He knew they were as ready to meet Dancer as he was.

Except Milan.

The memory of the hero’s sunken, shriveled face eclipsed Radiant’s enthusiasm. Crashbang was the one regret he had after the Smolensk mission, but it was a big one. The young man’s body and soul would never mend.

Unless Dancer learns how to heal.

Radiant threw his wrist up to speak through the armband. “Heads up, team. I’m about to head to head to South Africa and scout a location with assumed villain presence. Rune, Checkmate, are you listening in?”

Checkmate’s reply was immediate. “I’m here. What’s up with South Africa?”

“I was about to make us some cheese toast, but I’d rather be grilling villains,” Rune interjected. “Don’t even think about going alone. We all remember what happens when you forget to bring a team to a team mission.”

Radiant’s face hardened. Now that the last traces of Power Zero had been washed out of his system, he remembered that particular episode with disturbing clarity. “We don’t have time for discussions. I’m not letting Checkmate go in there blind, at any rate.”

Spreading his brilliant wings, Radiant flashed across the ocean like a shooting star moving at the speed of light. He materialized near the West African shore, a good distance from the target location but close enough to collect environmental data for the calculation of his last few precision jumps.

“I’m going to do a long distance scan of the area,” he informed his teammates, adjusting the grid to prepare for the next jump. “I need to hear what Aura knows. Aura, are you plugged in?”

The mousy Visionary’s voice came through his earbud rather than the armband. “It’s going to be okay, I think. You all look fine on the pictures I’m looking at. I don’t think anything bad is going to happen.”

“Thank you, Aura. You’re a real asset to our team.”

No response came; the Visionary was quite shy and rarely showed a reaction to praise. Reassured by the girl’s insight, Radiant beamed himself across the African continent, away from the coast. He materialized in the air a short distance west from the city of Pretoria, the South African capital.

From his airborne position, the aftereffects of Monsoon’s flooding a few weeks before were still apparent in the brown muck that covered the lower stories of many buildings in the northern parts of the town. The Bon Accord dam–located about ten miles north of Pretoria–had overflowed, adding another four million cubic meters of water to the power surged Evolved’s artificial lake. Many of the smaller buildings had been washed away.

What remained was a sprawling, muddy-brown corpse of a city whose largely intact southern half was still inhabited by a few hundred thousand people. Wherever he looked, he saw disaster relief teams working to clean up the mess. Progress was slow, though, and some areas were still rendered inaccessible by leftover bodies of water.

Radiant’s visor overlay indicated his destination with a triangular blinking arrow. The marked building was a large, dome-shaped event venue situated on a small hill near the far northern end of town. The trash and leftover water surrounding it painted a fairly clear image of why the disaster teams hadn’t considered it a priority.

“I’m within visual range of the location,” Radiant reported through his helmet. “No signs of hostile activity so far. Morpheus?”

The AI’s response was immediate. “I just got camera access. Get in there as fast as you can.”

His heart skipped a beat. “Is she in danger?”

“Yes,” came the simple reply.

Without further ado, Radiant measured the distance to the building’s dome-shaped concrete roof and beamed himself there, leaving a burst of luminescent energy in his wake. He materialized almost directly above the dome. From there, he soon discovered that all of the windows had been covered with thick curtains or sealed by walls that shouldn’t have been there. He couldn’t find an obvious opening to beam himself through.

“You said something about traps?” he asked through his helmet, gradually adjusting his position until he was hovering a few feet above the parking lot which flanked the building.

And how did you know about traps before gaining camera access? It was a good question, though best saved for later. The girl was in danger. He would save the lengthy discussion for when this current situation was resolved.

“There might be traps, yes. Best avoid contact with doors, windows and the ground.”

Incited by the awareness of the amount of time he was wasting, Radiant beamed himself back up to the ceiling and extended his hands to release a red-hot laser beam, burning his way through the concrete. Within seconds he created an opening as wide as his arm. Its edges glowed orange with heat, though the temperature didn’t concern him.

The sounds coming from the interior of the building did. There were harsh thudding sounds and sobbing coming from the inside – two people were fighting.

“Going in,” Radiant reported through his helmet before beaming himself through the hole he had burned into the concrete.

In his rush to intervene he miscalculated the distance to the floor of the building and materialized in a crouching position with his knees drawn up to his chest. Knowing that he’d put himself at a disadvantage, he called upon his wings in reflex, relying on their blinding brilliance to disable any nearby villains. He’d spent enough time charging up that the wings manifested at their full length of twelve feet. They lit up the entirety of the sports hall as if it was a mall before Christmas; only the helmet’s tinted visor protected his eyes from his Lightshaper power.

A quick scan of the area revealed two people on the playing field ahead of him; neither of them resembled any villains he knew. Ten feet ahead of him stood a middle-aged, balding man whose glasses framed big, watery eyes. He moaned and stumbled around helplessly, rubbing his eyes with his hands.

Dancer was lying on her side beside the man, so still she barely seemed to be breathing. Her head was turned to the side, revealing a bloodied, swollen face. Even the strawberry blonde hair which spilled across the floor had blood in it. A lump of dread formed in Radiant’s stomach.

What on earth happened here? Given the absence of villains, he couldn’t even begin to fill in the blanks of what the Conglomerate had hoped to achieve. There was a large, blank screen above each end of the playing field, and a number of cameras and mute loudspeakers surrounded it, refusing to provide clues. A tight weave of barb wire defined the boundaries of what had to be some kind of arena, though it would hardly have stopped Dancer from escaping. Unless…

Power Zero. The idea came to him in a flash, triggering memories he’d been trying to escape. “Morpheus,” he said through this helmet. “What I’m seeing here… is this real?” A more cautious part of him refused to shake the feeling that this was a big set-up concealed by Gentleman’s illusions, meant to lure him into a trap. It wouldn’t be the first time he fell for one of those.

As he spoke, the balding man stumbled further away from the battered girl and toward the sound of Radiant’s voice, hands helplessly groping the air in front of him. “Please, help!” he whined in French-accented English. “I am blind!”

If there had been blood on his hands, Radiant might have incinerated him on the spot. Fortunately for the man, he looked about as dangerous as a pastry dough, his pudgy fingers clean and unmarred.

“Stay calm,” Radiant told him. “The blindness will pass in a few minutes. Help is on the way.”

Meanwhile, Morpheus contacted him through his earbud. “No illusions, as far as I can tell. The villains are gone. The Conglomerate pushed Mascot and Dancer into a fight to the death, but swapped the Guardian out when you showed up.”

Insanity. Unsurprising, perhaps; villains rarely followed common sense in their plans. As much as he regretted not being able to rescue Christina, he was glad for the opportunity to retrieve Dancer. Plus, now that they had found one of the Conglomerate’s temporary bases, it would only be a matter of time until Morpheus discovered their headquarters.

Hold out for us, Christina. Your friends haven’t abandoned you.

Radiant beamed himself to Dancer’s side before addressing Morpheus. “I have some questions, we’ll talk about this later.” Through the armband he added, “The location is clear. Found Dancer, I need Checkmate here to help me out.”

“Are you serious? Isn’t she permanently invisible or something?” Checkmate replied, his voice quivering with excitement.

Radiant dropped to one knee beside the girl, gently brushing a bloodied wisp of hair from her bruised face. “She isn’t invisible now,” he said. “Sarina. Don’t be afraid, I’m here to help. Can you hear me?”

Her tear-filled eyes glanced upward, though they didn’t look at his face. Her gaze fixed on something beyond him, something only she could see. A single word slipped from her lips in barely a whisper. “Dad?”

Radiant’s heart sank. Right that moment, looking at Sarina’s delicate, bloodied face, he wanted nothing more than to make Gentleman pay for whatever it was he had done to this girl. The fingers of Radiant’s right hand tightened into a hard, angry fist. He willed himself to relax when Checkmate appeared next to him, drawn to the location by his armband’s signal.

The young Teleporter’s eyebrows shot up as he took in the scene. “Oh, damn. We should probably take her to a hospital.”

“We can’t,” Radiant said through his teeth. “She’d be arrested on sight. Take her to the island. We’ll figure out everything else from there.”

Checkmate jabbed a thumb at the balding man who was now sitting on the floor, blind eyes flicking around within a tear-streaked face. “What about him?”

Radiant pushed himself up from the floor. “Take him to the island until he recovers his sight. I’ll have a few questions for him before we send him on his way. Take Dancer first, though.”

“Gotcha!” With that, Checkmate touched Dancer’s shoulder before vanishing with her. A brief moment later he reappeared to take the balding man with him.

I don’t know what we’d do without him. Radiant watched the young hero go with a heavy heart, knowing full well how much his hero outfit depended on the Teleporter. Without him they would become sitting ducks, unable to respond to threats in a timely manner.

Rune’s voice over the armband interrupted the thought. “Is it safe enough to bring Kathy to your location? We need to search the place for anything the Conglomerate left behind. Track the bastards down.”

Radiant opened his mouth to respond, but Kathy cut in first. “Not right now. Andrey, you’re needed in Paris.”

Her urgency stirred the unease in his gut. “What’s going on?”

“Your old friend Samael happened. The Covenant just released the news that they apprehended some ‘terrorists’ in Paris, including a little American girl and you’ll never guess who else.”

Radiant’s stomach tightened into a knot. “Jasper Davis?” he ventured.

“No,” she said. “A power surged Irish kid who makes people vanish.”

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