Rome, Italy – Saturday, the 23rd of June 2012. 08:12 AM.
This was no hallucination; it was reality. As Andrey watched, transfixed by his attempt to take in the sheer amount of detail that had been added to the city, the floating teenage girl in the oversize shirt relocated to a different position where the destruction was still apparent. Then, reality warped again, reshaping itself to mend another section of scorched land in a mile radius around the Healer.
Because that was who she was. She couldn’t revive the dead or cure the injured, but she could restore the city itself. It was more than Radiant or anyone else could have hoped to do without her assistance.
“Do you like it?” came Sarina’s voice through the armband. “I haven’t had much time to study up on what the city used to look like.”
Checkmate was first to respond. “Are you kidding me? You just created a city and removed the radiation with a flick of your finger, and you’re asking us if we like it?”
“This is impressive, I must admit,” Athena commented through Radiant’s earbud, unheard by anyone else. “However, I must remind you that we do not know if the new city is habitable. I detect no radiation, but the buildings may be unstable, and there appears to be no electricity and no usable sewage system. This is a husk of a city. Still, given time and effort, people may be able to live in it.”
Radiant zoomed in on one of the larger buildings to see for himself. There were doors and window frames, and panes of glass to fill the windows, but he spotted no power supply lines. Or cars. On closer inspection, the cobblestone roads didn’t look particularly well suited for heavy traffic. The disaster relief vehicles were able to navigate the main roads, though most of them had come to a standstill. For those who were caught in the middle of it, the sudden transformation must have been maddening.
“Sarina,” he said into the armband. “Why didn’t you create paved roads? A city of this size needs them to manage its traffic.”
“Because cars pollute the environment. People are going to adapt… oh, maybe I should add a subway system? Give me a minute.”
Radiant shook his head, wishing the girl was better at ordering her priorities. “Subways need running power. Can you get all the power lines up?”
“Uh… no. That’s too complicated. But all the tunnels and tracks are there, I’m sure someone smarter than me is going to figure out the rest.”
“You did well,” Radiant told her. “But if you have the potential to heal… there are people in need of help down there. The subway can wait.”
This time, she had no response for him. He couldn’t tell if she was making another attempt to help those people, but he was sure she was aware of the critical condition they were in. Putting pressure on her wasn’t going to help matters.
Rune’s voice came through the armband, filling the grave silence. “Let me talk to the relief teams. Checkmate can help deliver survivors to hospitals.”
“I can move all of them at once,” Sarina chimed in. “Not very far, but somewhere outside the city so the rescue teams don’t have to search for them.”
Right after she’d made her suggestion, Kathy’s voice came through the armband and Radiant’s earbud simultanously. “Let her help, Andrey. We’re getting flooded with evacuation requests – the number you broadcasted on television receives an average of fifty calls per minute. If you can do without Checkmate in Rome, we really need him elsewhere.”
“Who’s calling?” Andrey asked.
“Everyone. People are scared out of their wits, and not only because of Rome. Villains are running rampant all over the world. Especially the power surged ones.”
“Upload the coordinates to my helmet. I’ll check on every location in need of hero intervention and decide where we’re going next. In the meantime – Checkmate, please coordinate with Kathy to offer transportation to those who need it most.”
“Understood,” the teleporter said.
Rune quickly followed up. “What about me and the rest of our crew? Please tell me we’re going to kill some villains. I’m getting sick of this shit.”
You and me both, Rune.
“Help any refugees who arrive on our island. I’ll call you in for the next team mission, but as of right now, I need to have a look around while Checkmate works with Kathy.”
“Fair enough,” the Swede rumbled.
Turning his attention back to Sarina, Radiant discovered that she had changed location again, restored another portion of the Roman suburbs and moved more people than he could count to an athletics field that was still intact. The sight of the seemingly endless rows of incapacitated disaster victims left a bitter taste in his mouth. He absently touched the silver cross that hung in front of his costume, hoping that there was a hell and that Gentleman would spend an eternity burning in it.
Having studied the effects of radiation poisoning early in his hero career, he knew that most of these people wouldn’t make it, not even with immediate medical attention. Their fate made him question his decision to keep Jasper’s track a secret from Sarina. What if it was the missing piece to her Healer classification? Could he bear the responsibility for the death of Rome’s survivors, knowing that he could have saved them with a few words to Jasper?
On the other hand, if the music track’s only effect was to amp Sarina’s existing abilities up to godlike levels, everything she did afterwards would weigh on him. The girl seemed well-intentioned enough, but her actions so far hadn’t always been level-headed or well-conceived. With that amount of power, what if she misjudged the laws of physics and damaged the planet itself?
I can’t make this decision. No one can.
Radiant caught himself squeezing the silver cross so hard that it cut into his skin. He released it with a gasp, willing his mind to free itself from the turmoil of emotions that had overtaken him. If he applied strictly logical terms to his dilemma, then his previous assessment was still valid: he couldn’t let her have Jasper’s track just yet. Not until she proved herself to be responsible.
I’m so sorry. I wish I could save all of you.
He forced his attention back to his visor’s internal display, where Kathy had marked crisis hotspots around the globe, marking the ones that needed his help the most. One of them was in the northern Ukraine, where a villain trio had systematically carved a path of destruction through some of the smaller towns and villages in the area. Two of them were fairly recent transitions, but the third was someone Radiant knew all too well.
Nusku. The fire Evoker who had taken his birth town hostage and killed Skyfire, one of Rune’s team. Nusku, who reportedly surged after taking the girl’s life, and fled like a coward when the European heroes rallied to Radiant’s side.
We still have a score to settle, you and I.
Over on the African continent, two self-declared Evolved war lords clashed in Rwanda, fighting a bloody battle that was rooted in ancient tribal feuds. Since both of them had recently surged and now commanded enough power to make cities crumble, their showdown of weather- and sand-based powers left vast parcels of habitable land in ruin and thousands of people without homes.
Meanwhile, the United States was on the brink of a civil war between the frighteningly powerful Guardians of Destiny sect and those who opposed it. Three different locations in the US were blinking on Radiant’s visor map. The President had tried – and failed, for the most part – to restore order with military intervention. Remembering his last encounter with the US military after Legion’s emergence in San Francisco, Radiant wasn’t sure that any number of heroes would be able to make a difference there. He would be unwelcome at best and shot on sight at worst. He had to focus his attention on Rwanda and the Ukraine.
“I’m off to check on Nusku’s gang,” he informed the others. “Please keep me updated on progress in Rome.”
It was Rune who responded. “I’m keeping an eye on things here. We’ll be ready whenever you need us.”
Radiant said nothing. His thoughts went back to the countless dead and injured who were appearing outside the city in ever-increasing numbers, leaving him with a pang of guilt. He released his luminescent energy to beam himself thousands of miles northeast, to a point far above the last known location of Nusku and his new gang. Athena’s observations suggested that someone with life leeching powers similar to Sylph’s (though with much greater range and the ability to absorb energy from other life forms) was in the vicinity. The third member of their trio was keeping a low profile so far, most likely supported by concealment or invisibility-based powers.
The destruction was shockingly apparent from above. Numerous fires ravaged the once lush landscape, barely contained by firefighting efforts and the recent rainfalls. Everywhere Radiant looked, coils of smoke circled toward the golden-orange sky, filling the air with a pungent smell that burned in his throat. Herds and flocks of panicked animals fled from the flames. The villages that hadn’t already burned down had been mostly abandoned. Radiant spotted a herd of dead animals – cows, he assumed – that had been shrunken and shriveled by the flames until they were little more than hide and bones.
But try as he might, he couldn’t spot the actual perpetrators. Unless the third member of their trio commanded fast travel powers, they had to be hiding nearby, but it didn’t look like they were coming out to face him.
“Athena,” he said through the helmet. “Do you have any eyes in the area? Nusku’s hiding from me. I need him tagged.”
“Of course he is hiding,” Athena responded through his earbud. “You are a flying artillery unit, capable of operating outside of their power range. They shut down one of the combat suits we sent in to intervene earlier, so they were most likely forewarned.”
Radiant was taken aback. “How did they shut it down?”
“Cannibalize – the new Sylph – drained it of energy. I am as astonished as you are. Be careful, his range is greater than Sylph’s by at least twenty feet. And before you ask, the UN did not come up with his name. He chose it for himself.”
This is new. Sylph was never able to drain anything other than living beings.
Radiant shook his head and relocated, careful to keep his altitude of two hundred feet above ground. The ever-present destruction and the absence of the villains who caused it reminded him of the set-up in his Russian hometown that had nearly succeeded in killing him. There was something in the air here, something fouler than the pungent smell of burning forests and villages. He couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but he felt that he was being watched by some invisible presence.
On instinct, he beamed himself farther up before addressing Athena again. “Something’s wrong here. I don’t know what it is, but I’d feel better if I knew where the bad guys are before we summon Dancer to put out the fires. Can you dispatch some more search drones?”
“Backups are on the way. It is going to be a few minutes before they provide results, but I agree that you should be careful.” Her voice softened with her last few words.
Unsure how to react, he made an attempt at a joke. “You could always come back down here and save me.”
She didn’t laugh. “You know that is not an option, Andrey. The shuttle was never designed to return to Earth. There was no other way to guarantee that I would be able to oversee Data’s automated factories without outside interference.”
No, I wasn’t aware. Knowing that she was stuck up there pained him more than he thought it would.
The velvety timbre he hadn’t heard from her for so long made him want to keep the conversation going, even if it was only for a moment. “I wonder what drove Nusku to team up with two new transitions and destroy villages. I don’t see the method to the madness.”
“It is political. Certain bodies of the Russian government are paying them to scare the Ukraine, hoping that the southwestern neighbor will run to Mother Russia for help with the Evolved problem.” She sighed. “The Covenant would have stopped them if they had tried this sooner, but now even the Covenant has fallen apart.”
Politics. Has the world always been this mad?
Radiant performed one last scan of the landscape below him before calling up the next set of coordinates on his visor. “I’m heading to Rwanda. I hope I’ll be able to accomplish more there than I did here.”
“Good luck.” Those were the last words he heard before he flashed southward across the sky and materialized above the small African sovereign state.
The instant he regained his senses he was hit by a stinging, biting blast of sand that engulfed him completely. He couldn’t see the sky or the landscape below him. The helmet protected his face, but the whipping blasts of sand knocked the wind out of him and bit into the exposed skin of his hands and his lower face, making him feel as if they were on fire.
Startled, he tapped into what little daylight existed within the storm and beamed himself farther up. Above the storm, the air was clear and cool, allowing him to breathe. He inhaled deeply before looking down at the swirling chaos he had escaped.
The storm was immense. It covered the land like a smothering shroud that extended nearly as far as Radiant could see. Occasionally the roiling mass was permeated by flashes of light. Since he already knew which two Evolved were involved in this unnatural battle of the elements, he was able to identify the flashes as man-made lightning.
At the heart of the disturbance would be Tlaloc, the warlord whose proclaimed goal was to protect his land and his people from outsiders. The man who had amassed his own army before his power surge turned him into a force of nature, and who had been battling his rival Nomad – the Sand Master – for days. All attempts at reconciliation between the two had failed, and the land and its people were suffering for it.
Radiant suspected that any attempt to talk to one or both of them would get him killed. If Nomad filled his lungs with sand, he was done for. And since Christina was being treated in hospital, he had no means to protect himself from Tlaloc’s deadly lightning.
As he was trying to come up with a solution that didn’t involve killing both of the men, a section of the storm ripped open and the sand was sucked from the air by an expanding funnel of wind that soon grew to the size of a tornado. Radiant had only seconds to beam himself away before the violent winds became strong enough to rip him out of the sky. From his new position, he watched the massive whirlwind split up into four smaller funnels that drifted in four different directions, each accompanied by colossal bolts of lightning that propagated across thousands of feet.
It was a humbling sight that made Radiant’s own powers seem weak and insignificant. After more than a year of occupying a top three spot on the UN’s list of most dangerous Evolved, he had to admit that the Evolved landscape had shifted; the world belonged to the Surged now. He had little hope that more than a handful of Evolved would survive that kind of onslaught.
Radiant wasn’t one of them.
I can’t bring any of the other heroes here. It’s far too dangerous. This thought led to another. If I go in blind, they’ll kill me before I see them.
He swallowed his fear and thought back to what Kathy and Morpheus told him about the Evolved warlords hours before. Nomad wasn’t bothered by his own sandstorm and used it to conceal his location, which was why this battle was still ongoing. Tlaloc influenced the weather in an expanding radius around himself, which meant that he had to be at the eye of the tornado before it split up. Every time he unleashed his powers, it took him a few minutes to recharge before he could do it again.
“Athena, do you copy?” he asked through his helmet.
“Yes. I cannot offer you support here, my drones in the area have been destroyed. What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to end this before they destroy the African continent. Don’t tell me it couldn’t happen.”
To his surprise, she didn’t argue with him. For a moment the only sound he heard was the howling of sand and wind as the weather shifted wildly. He hovered a reasonably safe distance above the storm, observing, waiting for the next big tornado to form. He was sure Tlaloc would be at the center of it.
Just when the winds were forming another funnel, Athena reported back through his earbud. “Andrey, something strange is going on. The Visionary girl detected a shift in the auras of many of the active villains. Perhaps you should return until we can investigate.”
He barely heard her. Now that he was positioning himself to dive into the eye of the storm, the howling drowned out all other noise. “Talk to you soon,” he told her as the tornado grew and expanded below him.
Then he beamed down into the center of it and materialized within a burst of blinding brilliance, unfurling his luminescent wings.