Mayella Island, North Atlantic International Waters – Friday, the 22nd of June 2012. 05:23 PM.
Radiant appeared above the island in a burst of light, feeling both hopeful and troubled. Athena’s parting words had left him with a possible solution to the Sleepwalker crisis, but it came at a great cost: Dancer’s safety and anonymity. Even if Athena succeeded in keeping Samael from killing the girl he perceived as the Antithesis, Dancer’s cover would be blown – and Samael would know she was now part of the island crew.
This will mean war between us.
Before he got the chance to inform his crew of new developments, Kathy’s voice chimed excitedly through his helmet. “Andrey! Morpheus just told us he located Mascot in the Pacific. He just reunited with one of his child mirrors that had infiltrated the Conglomerate headquarters. It’s going to take a bit to retrieve her, but he believes she’ll come through.”
The news lifted a weight from his chest. The storm front with its intense winds and shroud of darkness was still headed their way, but the day seemed a little brighter now. “Thanks, Morpheus. Keep us updated. As of right now, I need to speak to Dancer. Where did you take her?”
“She’s still resting at the beach. Don’t tell me you’re…”
Radiant cut her protest short. “We don’t have time for this. Could you not doubt me for one damn minute?”
He beamed himself to the beach, grateful for the heavy silence on the comms channels. That poor, beat-up girl had an impossible decision to make. She deserved a moment of respectful peace among her newfound allies.
He found her lying on her back on one of the few sandy portions of the beach, her strawberry blonde head supported by a pillow taken from the resident tents. Her bruised, swollen face had been washed of blood and patched up with band-aids.
Kathy and Checkmate sat in the sand on either side of her, their faces tight and guarded. Some of the other heroes – Aura, Rune and Calavera – stood further up the beach, keeping a respectful distance. It seemed that even they hadn’t been able to contain their curiosity about the girl who had the international press in a frenzy.
Radiant materialized in knee-high water and walked the remaining few meters on foot, giving her time to adjust to his presence. She recognized the costume immediately. Her one unscathed eye fixed on him and she slowly sat up, her mouth twisting with pain.
“Be gentle,” Kathy said, all stern-faced authority. Apart from the hero families there were only a handful of girls left on the island, and she had declared herself their patron saint.
Andrey gave her a nod, pulled off his helmet, and then crouched in front of the girl so their eyes were at the same level. The sight of her wounded young face left a bitter taste in his mouth, dissolving his carefully prepared speech. She shouldn’t have to do this. He’d pulled out all the stops looking for her, had ended his hero career after the terrible mistake leading up to her transition.
“There you are,” she said in a sweet, clear voice, sounding awfully young.
“There I am,” he returned. “Hello, Sarina.” Her birth name would be more comfortable to her than the one she’d been assigned by the Evolved Oversight authorities, he assumed. Her powers had brought her nothing but grief.
“Hello, Andrey. That’s your name, isn’t it?” Her expression softened as she took in his face, now no longer concealed by the visor of his helmet.
“It is. I’d like to let you know I talked to Emily on the phone. She’s doing fine and sends her regards.” It was true enough for him to keep his concerns hidden and his face neutral.
Despite her injuries, Sarina’s face lit up like a Christmas tree. “When did you talk to her? Just now?”
“A few minutes ago. One of your other friends, the–” he caught himself before the word ‘albino’ slipped out, “other girl, she’s in hospital and being taken care of. No one has located the boy yet.”
Sarina’s face fell. “Oh.” That was all. No questions. Nothing but a lopsided frown on the half of her face that wasn’t swollen and purple-black.
Her obvious dismay spurred Checkmate into action. “You said his name’s Patrick, right? Don’t worry, we’re going to find him. Morpheus is better at locating people than anyone else I know.”
“I’m flattered,” the AI drily commented through Andrey’s armband. Checkmate and Kathy had set theirs to silent so the hero broadcasts wouldn’t needlessly upset their guest, though they both wore ear buds to keep up with updates and calls to action.
Kathy said nothing. She stared at Andrey with hard eyes, her thoughts loud enough for him to hear. Are you going to tell her or not?
As much as it pained him, he had to at least test the waters and learn how she felt about the prospect of going up against the Sleepwalker. He wasn’t going to push her, and if she was still under the effect of Power Zero, the idea would be dead on arrival. The ball was in her court, at any rate.
“There is something I need to talk to you about,” he said. “I’m sorry to ask the question under these circumstances, but did the villains you encountered inject you with anything?”
Checkmate blurted out an answer before Sarina got the chance. “She already told me they did. She’s feeling better now, just needs rest.”
Of course, they hadn’t been present when the Sleepwalker turned a small town into a piece of his own waking nightmare. Andrey himself might have felt differently if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes.
Sarina mustered a smile for him even though she had to be in pain. “He’s right. I’m still a little woozy, but I can feel my powers returning.” Her smile thinned, showing a reflection of what she’d been through. “I haven’t thanked you yet. I was barely conscious when you found me, so I don’t remember much, but Checkmate told me everything. Thank you. I mean it. And thank you again for taking my brother in. Can I talk to him soon?”
“Soon, yes,” he assured her. “He wanted to return the car he borrowed from his friend, but we gave him one of our armbands to keep in touch. I expect he’ll be joining us tonight.”
Truth was, no one had had the time or opportunity to inform David Baumann of how his sister turned up on the island. Perhaps it was for the best. Seeing her like this would have been as painful for him as it was for her.
“Sarina,” Andrey said. “There’s a reason I asked you about your powers. We received word of the Sleepwalker’s power surge a few minutes ago, and I need to know if you’re feeling well enough to deal with him. You’re the only one who might be able to reach him in his alternate reality.”
What followed was a moment of tense, heavy silence. The girl’s face was frozen, betraying nothing. She turned her head to gaze at the ocean with a faraway look to her one good eye. “It was bound to happen eventually, wasn’t it?” she said, the words barely audible. “It seems like everyone surges if they stay alive long enough.”
Her melancholy prompted Andrey to try and lighten the mood. “I haven’t, and I’ve been around a while. No one told me where to sign up.”
No one smiled. Checkmate crossed his arms over his knees and let his chin sink onto them. Kathy reached for Sarina’s hand, squeezing it. “You don’t have to do this,” she said.
“She’s right,” Andrey said. “The decision is yours and yours alone. Although you should know what’s going on out there, and why I’m asking you to make the decision.”
Her expression remained rigid. “I can imagine. It’s the Sleepwalker. It has to be bad, right?”
“I was there. His aura now transforms the landscape around him, turns it into a piece of his nightmare. The people who get caught in it… they have auras of their own, and they no longer trail behind him. They all teleport now, the Sleepwalker included.”
Checkmate jerked upright, his arms dropping off his knees. “Damn.”
“How far does he teleport?” Kathy asked. “Morpheus gave me a quick run-down, but he didn’t provide all the details. He wouldn’t be so stingy if my name was Athena and my threats to mess with his code had any weight.” She gave an irritated snort.
“Line of sight is my guess,” Andrey said. “You should also know that the Covenant is on site. We’ll protect you, but Samael has it in his head that you’re the Antithesis, and he should be considered a hostile party.”
“Oh.” Sarina’s mouth twisted into a disdainful sneer. “Samael. Right.”
“How are we going to protect her from Samael?” Checkmate asked. “The Covenant has declared itself the world police, and now that everything’s going to hell, the world governments are so desperate that they let them get away with it.”
“I have an idea,” Andrey said. “Kathy, do we have any video recording and broadcast equipment on site?”
She gave him an incredulous look which gradually transformed into a grin. It was thinner than usual for her, but it was reassuring to see that she hadn’t lost her gallows humor yet. “You cheeky devil! I know what’s on that sexy mind of yours, and I like it.”
“Please answer the question. Athena is keeping the Sleepwalker occupied for now, but we don’t know for how much longer.”
Kathy sobered in an instant. “We have… some. Little in the way of recording equipment unless you count cell phone cameras, but broadcasting won’t be a problem, especially not with Morpheus on our side.”
“Knowing Athena, her surveillance drone is equipped to record visual footage,” Andrey said.
“I don’t get it,” Checkmate said. “What’s this about?”
“It’s about me, isn’t it?” Sarina added, glancing with suspicion first at Andrey and then at Kathy.
“Yes,” Andrey admitted. “Anarchy and desperation have put the UNEOA and the Covenant into a strong position, but they still need public approval to operate. The Shanti riots were a political disaster that nearly ended the UNEOA as an institution. Imagine what will happen if the world witnesses your intervention against the Sleepwalker. It won’t change Samael’s mind, but when the world celebrates you as their savior, an execution order will be very much off the table.”
Kathy’s eyebrows furrowed. “Gentleman influenced mass media to paint her as a villain in the first place, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” Andrey said. “We might as well use this opportunity to undo the damage he has done.”
Sarina lifted her hands in a defensive gesture. “Wait. Stop. I haven’t agreed to anything yet. You know the disaster that happened the last time someone gave me the ‘you’re meant to save the world’ speech? ”
“This isn’t about saving the world,” Andrey said. “It’s about you being the only person who might be able to do something about the Sleepwalker, if you’re up for it. I’m not Gentleman, and no one’s pushing you to do anything.”
A sudden gust of wind delivered the first raindrops of the storm. One fat raindrop landed on Sarina’s cheek. She wiped it away with the back of her hand, glowering at the darkened sky with her one good eye.
Checkmate broke the uncomfortable silence with his good-natured personality. “Hey,” he told Sarina in a conspiratorial half-whisper. “If you want to go take a look, I won’t leave your side. If things go bad, we’ll be out of there in a flash.”
She smiled at him. “Thanks. I’ll take a look, but I can’t promise anything beyond that.”
“We won’t let anything happen to you,” Andrey stated firmly. “And we won’t do anything without a rock solid plan.” He paused there, careful not to push her too hard.
“Sure,” she said. “What’s the plan?”
“Would you mind testing your powers? Let me know if it’s too hard or if the attempt makes you feel sick.”
She tilted her head back to gaze up at the sky. More raindrops were falling now, the harbingers of an impending downpour. “If I can get rid of this storm, the Sleepwalker won’t be much of a problem.”
“We can handle a little rain,” Kathy said. “Start small, don’t strain yourself.”
Checkmate raised his wrist and tapped the armband with a finger. “If you need time to talk things through with Athena, I’ll fill everyone else in, let them know what’s going on.”
Radiant picked his helmet back up and pulled it over his head. “Thanks, Ravith. Kathy, will you keep an eye on the girl? This won’t take long, but my attention will be elsewhere for a minute or two.”
Kathy pushed to her feet with surprising agility, given her voluminous body. “Of course.”
When Sarina made the effort to stand, Kathy and Checkmate offered their support, helping her up. She swayed on her feet, but the Teleporter slid an arm around her waist, holding her upright.
It pained Radiant to see her like this. The girl wasn’t fit for combat, let alone a potentially lethal encounter with a power-surged monstrosity. She should have been resting and spending time with the last living member of her immediate family.
The mental image of the little boy in the town that had been caught in the Sleepwalker’s aura, pummeling his head with his own small fists, dispelled his concern. “Iris,” he said into his helmet. “If Athena is still open for communication, I need to speak to her now.”
To his relief, the AI didn’t hesitate. “A connection to Athena has been established,” Iris announced for the first time in what felt like years.
Given the urgency of the situation, Radiant cut straight to the point. “Athena… Alexandra. Does your offer still stand? Dancer agreed to investigate, but I need to know whether I can count on Samael staying away from her. I also need to borrow your surveillance drone for a live broadcast. Do you copy?”
“Yes,” came the immediate reply. “Morpheus relayed your conversation with your teammates to me; I already executed the necessary steps for a live recording.”
“Thank you. We couldn’t do this without you. It means a lot.”
“As for Samael,” she went on in her cool, emotionless tone, “He trusts me enough that I should be able to divert his attention for a minute or two. But Andrey, be aware that when the time is up, that is it. When he realizes what is going on, he will try to kill you, and he will never trust me again.”
Radiant took a deep breath before responding. “I didn’t mean for this to happen, but it seems there’s no way around it. God knows I tried to work with him. Will you be all right?”
“Yes,” she said feebly. “I will be.”
He turned to look at Dancer who was standing without support, her arms stretched out on either side as she made a wobbly step forward. She half-turned on one foot, barely maintaining her balance, and bent her arm towards her chest, performing a slow wave motion with her fingers. The sight of her struggle was so concerning that it took him a moment to recognize what she was doing. She was dancing, extending her range.
“She said the extended range effect lasts a while,” Checkmate told him, having caught his glance. “If she increases it now, she won’t need to do it again later.”
“We’ll keep you outside the Sleepwalker’s range,” Andrey told the girl. Through his helmet’s microphone, he addressed Athena. “Athena. Do those combat suits have enough fuel left to keep two relatively lightweight people airborne for a few minutes?”
“Define relatively lightweight.”
“Dancer and Checkmate. I’d like to keep them together in case of emergency, and we already know that an altitude of a few hundred feet above the Sleepwalker is safe.”
“I see. Yes, that should be possible. Four or five minutes, less if you want the unit to activate its camouflage field.”
Camouflage field. Many of the robotic combatants were equipped with one, Radiant remembered. It was how the two units who’d joined them from Portugal had avoided detection.
“Would the field conceal the two passengers?” he asked, intrigued.
“For the most part, yes,” Athena replied. “They would not be invisible, but would be much harder to spot.”
“Please get the unit ready and ping us the location. Have you opened communications with Samael?”
“Yes. So far, it is working. I have his attention.” Her tone was flat now, indicating that she was having some difficulty with that part of that plan.
He said nothing. Part of him wanted to burst out of his calm, professional shell and demand to know why she had ever been friends–worse, lovers–with Samael in the first place, and why exactly she’d broken off communications, but he resisted the urge. Knowing that whatever had existed between her and Samael was now coming to an end made it easier to accept her past life choices.
“Thank you, Alexa.” The familiar form of address slipped out before he realized what he was saying. “Let us know when you’re ready.”
This time, there was no response. Given how busy she had to be right that moment, he couldn’t fault her.
Checkmate’s excited voice drew his attention back to the beach. The Teleporter was pointing at the sandy shore behind them, prompting Radiant to turn.
He was still looking at a beach, though the yellowish-brown sand had turned pink and the rocky outcroppings that emerged from the water now shimmered dully in the remains of the pale afternoon light. The rocks had been transformed into colored glass, smooth and transparent. It took Radiant another moment to notice the absence of rain.
He looked up to discover an island-sized hole in the cloud cover directly above them. The sky shimmered through, bright and blue, defying the approaching storm.
Sarina grinned at him, looking steadier than she had just a moment ago. The wind whipped her hair around her face, and her eyes gleamed with a new intensity. “I think I’m ready,” she said.