13.13 Devastation

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Somewhere in Rwanda, Africa – Saturday, the 23rd of June 2012. 08:12 AM.
When Radiant appeared on within the eye of the tornado, his wings gave off the burst of near-blinding brilliance he needed to gain an early advantage. Even though his helmet’s visor protected his own eyes, his vision momentarily whitened out. From somewhere nearby he heard what had to be cursing in a language he didn’t understand. Up until that point, everything went according to plan. His target, momentarily blinded by his wings, didn’t attack him. The violent winds Tlaloc had conjured up couldn’t affect Radiant within the calm center of the storm.

But the unthinkable happened: a wave of dizziness washed over him and made him stagger, sending him to his knees. His wings before reappearing with an audible crackle that sent a painful jolt through his body. His skin tingled. He felt as if his head was straining not to burst at its seams, aching in a way he never experienced before. Clenching his jaw to keep himself from crying out, he slumped over, pressing his fists into the hard-packed earth beneath him. The pain was so overpowering, so encompassing that it blurred his vision and erased any conscious thought.

After what could have been minutes or seconds, it ebbed enough for him to recollect his senses. The first connection that formed in his dazed mind took him back to his past experience with Power Zero, of how it weakened his body and dampened his powers. Was this what was happening now? Had he somehow been drugged again?

No. Dizzy and overwhelmed as he was, he could tell this was different. His power shifted and twisted inside him like a living thing. His wings flickered, but whenever they reappeared, they were larger than before. His skin glowed and seemed to emit a light of its own.

Power surge. There was no other explanation for his present experience. If this was true, then all he had to do was hold out, to survive until the surging process was complete. Unfortunately, he was still weak, and it didn’t look like his opponent was willing to give him the time he needed to recover.

He heard another barrage of curses ahead of him, sounding closer than before. A crackle of lightning followed. Radiant threw himself to the side and landed hard on his shoulder, triggering a new wave of nausea. An ear-shattering thunderclap ripped through the air to his left, close enough to send a spray of loosened earth across his exposed skin.

I have to get up. Have to fight.

His pulse thrumming in his veins, Radiant used what strength was left in his hands and arms to push himself to his feet. As he swayed and struggled to keep his balance, another thunderclap came, so close he felt the surge of electricity dance across his skin. Tlaloc still had to be blinded by the initial wing flare. One point in Radiant’s favor.

Unfortunately, the odds were stacked against him in every other way. He saw his opponent in front of him – a tall, slender man who was naked except for a loincloth and the white tribal tattoos that stood out against his skin – but the energy he drew from within himself refused to obey his will. Radiant staggered one step forward, then another, one hand held in front of him to shoot laser beams that didn’t come. If this was a power surge, it was happening at the worst possible time. His initial confidence dissolved into fear. His death at the hands of his opponent became a very real possibility.

Still, he pushed himself forward, hands balled into fists at his sides. He could barely stand, but was prepared to use his fists instead of his lasers if it came down to it.

His trudging feet loosened a small stone that hurdled away with an audible clatter. Tlaloc squinted in his direction and the air stirred around them both. Radiant had a fraction of a second to break into a charge before strong winds slammed into him, throwing him off balance again. He was less than ten feet away from his target when the assault knocked him to the ground.

Rolling onto his side so he was facing his opponent, Radiant made another desperate attempt to shoot a laser beam. It was futile. His wings flared instead, thirty feet long and so bright they whitened everything out. His power twisted inside him with a searing intensity that made him cry out in pain.

A thought sparked in his mind, an amalgamation of raw need and emotion rather than words. If you exist, Lord, give me the power I need to make it through this. Through everything.

He couldn’t tell if his prayer was heard. But his power responded in a way he had never experienced before. The core of the energy that rested inside him swelled and expanded, branching off and forming new connections that sent another wave of searing pain through his head and blurred his vision. He somehow found the strength to stand, but his punch hit nothing but air.

The Rwandan warlord didn’t wait for him to recover. Before Radiant could launch another attack, the air around him exploded with a deafening boom. The next surge of electricity he felt coursed right through his body. His vision blacked out. He had a feeling of falling, but never felt himself hit the ground, and there was no pain. There was nothing but a vague impression of Athena screaming in his ear, though he couldn’t understand the words. He was too overwhelmed to grasp the meaning of it all.

Eventually light consumed the darkness that had overtaken his mind, and he discovered that he hadn’t fallen but was standing face to face with his opponent. Tlaloc stared at him wide-eyed, fear written all over his white-inked face. Confused as to why the man was gaping instead of attacking, Radiant used the opportunity to raise his hand and make another attempt to call forth a laser.

Contrary to what he expected, the energy that coursed through him unleashed more than a laser. It was a discharge of light that came from his own body and incinerated his opponent in an instant. One moment the man was standing there, the next he had been reduced to a pile of ash that was dispersed by the wind before Radiant’s eyes.

Radiant stared at the blackened remains, dumbfounded. This is impossible. His lasers had always been instantly lethal, but not like this. He looked down at himself to discover that his body now consisted of a sheer, man-shaped luminescence similar to the afterglow he left in the wake of his speed of light travels. His new self was at least a few inches taller than before. The shape of his wings hadn’t changed, but they now fanned out on either side of him as permanent manifestations of his power, brilliant and rippling as if stirred by the wind.

But he couldn’t hear the wind. He heard nothing at all. The world was now perfectly silent, despite the tornado that continued to roll across the ravaged land.

“Athena?” he wanted to call out in dismay, to seek reassurance and an explanation from the one person who would be able to make sense of the inexplicable. But he had no voice, and upon reaching out to touch his helmet, he discovered there was nothing there. No equipment, no physical body. No connection to anyone else.

His earlier fear came back to him. His nervous system was gone, but his consciousness remained, and he remembered what it was like to be afraid. This was unlike any power surge he had ever heard of. Surges increased the range and intensity of powers. There had been four or five known instances where they added a new ability. He didn’t recall a single case where a power surge rendered an Evolved incorporeal.

I’m not dead. The dead can’t kill. The reassurance he gained from looking at Tlaloc’s charred remains only lasted for a second, erased by a new idea. Athena must think I’m deadif only I could…

Before he could finish the thought, his power stirred and pulled him skyward as a shapeless beam of light. When he reformed, he found himself surrounded by stars and darkness with the planet Earth as a bluish-white sphere below him. Up ahead, a small white shuttle drifted in space. Radiant stared at it in a daze, watching as it rotated slowly, revealing the three round, illuminated windows that dotted its bulbous side.

This isn’t real was his first thought. How did he end up in space, without any coordinates or position information to go by? And if this was Athena’s shuttle, how had he located it? He didn’t remember making the decision to look for it. The mere idea that he could exist in space for any amount of time was mind-boggling.

But if this wasn’t real, then the surreality was remarkably persistent. The distant stars continued to glitter around him. The shuttle kept on flying through the eternal night, slowly drifting away from him. The planet Earth looked exactly as it should, each ocean and continent a perfect reflection of the satellite photographs he had memorized. Eventually, after minutes of shocked amazement, Radiant came to terms with the possibility that what he was seeing might be real after all.

Only one way to find out.

He beamed himself closer to the shuttle, surprised to discover that his power now obeyed his will. It delivered him to the exact location he wanted: through the nearest window and into the shuttle itself.

Alexandra Latsis, also known as Athena, was strapped to a padded astronaut’s seat, fenced in by the multitude of screens and controls that filled most of the shuttle’s interior. Two thin cables ran from one of the consoles to her temple, connecting her to her tech. Her eyes were closed and her eyelids fluttered lightly as though she was dreaming. There was nothing peaceful about her sleep, however. Her attractive olive-hued face was twisted in a perpetual frown. Her dark curls were sticking to her sweat streaked forehead, and countless tears had left their marks on her cheeks.

It pained Radiant to see her like this. At that moment he wanted nothing more than to scoop her up in his arms and tell her that everything was going to be all right. That he hadn’t died, that he was right there in front of her. All she had to do was to open her eyes and acknowledge his presence.

But when he lifted his hand, he couldn’t find the courage to touch her face. His fingers shimmered with a transparent luminescence that appeared eerie even to him. What if he accidentally hurt her instead of comforting her?

Before he got the chance to reconsider being in the shuttle, her eyes flew open, and she stared at him in apparent amazement, fingers tightening around the edge of her seat. Her lips moved but made no sound. I can’t hear you, he wanted to tell her, but couldn’t find a voice to speak with. She tried to communicate again, and he shook his head, putting a luminescent finger to where his lips and ears would have been if he still had a body.

Alexandra’s hand flew to her mouth and her eyes went wide. She pressed a button on one of her consoles and then undid the straps that tied her to her seat, floating upward to snatch up a tablet from the mess of objects that drifted through the shuttle’s interior.

Having an idea what she intended to do, Radiant drew a glowing finger through the air, writing letters with the luminescence that trailed in the wake of his movements. It’s me. I can’t hear you or speak. But I’m here.

She watched him with rapt attention and typed on her tablet when he had finished. Then she held it out to him so he could read. I monitored your vitals through the helmet. Was this a power surge?

Yes, he wrote in the air.

Her frown deepened. She hesitated a long moment – too long for comfort – before she typed a response. Please stay like this. Whatever you do, don’t change back to your body.

He was afraid of the answer, but asked the question anyway. Why?

A fresh tear rolled across her cheek. Because I watched your vitals, Andrey. I was sure Tlaloc killed you. Your body is dead.

He didn’t ask her if she was sure. Her face told him all he needed to know. Strangely enough, his sadness felt different from hers – a distant, detached regret that he would never be able to hug his young nephew again, never let him sit on his lap and hear the boy’s laugh when he made his skinny little fingers glow. The Luvkov family would be devastated by the news of Andrey’s death, and his poor mother… no, he couldn’t allow himself to think of her. Radiant had to focus on new possibilities rather than dwell over lost ones.

I’m still hereI can still fight. And yet, Alexandra’s tears stirred his regret and made it into a monstrous thing that threatened to consume his mind. I’ll never hold you in my arms again. Never hear your voice or kiss you goodnight.

As he made an attempt to float up to her, he discovered that his new luminescent form behaved much like a body would if he commanded it to. He was able to wrap his shining arms around the petite woman in front of him. She squeezed her eyes shut against his brightness, so he dimmed it and realigned his wings until they enveloped the two of them in a faint golden glow.

She smiled then, and her lips moved to shape words that were lost to him. It didn’t matter. He had one more message to deliver before he was ready to return to Earth, and he knew she’d understand. It was something he should have admitted and told her long ago.

Pulling back a little, he slowly drew his index finger across her chest in a curving line, drawing a glowing heart whose shape lingered a few seconds before fading. She gazed up at where his face might have been, and, contrary to what he expected, she began to cry harder. The eerily soundless sobs rocked her whole body.

He released her from the luminescent embrace, wondering if he had said or done something wrong, but she only shook her head and wiped the tears away with the sleeve of her sleek white bodysuit. Before he found the right words to give her, she was already typing away on her tablet again. Andrey, you have to find Legion, the screen told him. You’re immune to his powers now. You might be the only one on Earth who can stand up to him.

He didn’t feel ready to change the subject just yet, but Alexandra clearly wanted to move on, and she was right. Hadn’t he asked God for the power to make it through? Now that he had that power, it was his responsibility to use it – for Alexandra’s sake and for everyone else. Everything else had to wait.

Remembering what she’d told him shortly before his confrontation with Tlaloc, he wrote, Aura told you she saw a change in active villains?

Yes, came the answer. Nusku is one of themTheir behavior has changed as well. They alter their plans abruptly and pursue markedly different goals. We suspect Legion is involved.

After mulling the facts over, he decided on a response that didn’t require more than a handful words. My power brought me here when I thought of you. I’ll find Legion.

She assembled a smile for him, making him wish he could offer one in turn.

Keep an eye on Christina, Alexandra wrote on her tablet. She’s at Presbyterian. She’s all alone there, and we have limited access. When he made his luminescent body nod, she added, I’ll tell the other heroes. About you.

Someone had to tell them, of course, but it was a frightening thought. Unwilling to think about his family’s reaction to his death, he chose to ignore his personal situation in favor of focusing focus on higher priority issues. God knew there were plenty of those.

Back soon, he promised before beaming himself out through the nearest window, back into the star-speckled darkness of space. The afterglow of his promise remained with Alexandra until long after he was gone.

Once outside, he set his mind on a single entity: Legion. By conjuring up a mental image of the villain as Radiant remembered him, he hoped that his power would pull him there, like it had pulled him to Alexandra. But nothing happened. He floated there in space, feeling no reaction whatsoever from the energy that now made up his body.

It worked before. What am I doing wrong?

He tried again, now alternating Legion’s two appearances – the little boy and the massive, malformed thing that had assaulted San Francisco – in his mind. Again, nothing. His new set of powers remained a mystery to him.

I have to figure this out, he thought, frustrated. If Alexandra is right about this, I need to…

Radiant’s power flared and pulled him back to earth as a single, brilliant beam traveling at the speed of light. When his shape reformed, he found himself on the ground in a temperate deciduous forest he didn’t recognize. The location seemed random, with no defining landmarks among the multitude of tall, sturdy foliage trees and the thorny underbrush. This was an old forest, untouched by man and most likely far from any center of civilization.

Before Radiant could gain a more conclusive impression, his power pulled him away again. This time he was delivered to a small mountain overlooking a large coastal city. Adorning the top of the mountain was  an immense Jesus statue with outstretched arms. A man sat on Jesus’ shoulder, clad in a mundane office worker’s suit and not so mundane wisps of shadow that slowly swirled around him. The drifting darkness concealed the features of his face.

Rio de Janeiro, Radiant had time to think before he was yanked from this location to yet another. The next one showed him Nusku, walking across a burning corn field, wreathed in flames and flanked by two Evolved – a man and a woman – whom he didn’t recognize.

It didn’t end there. Radiant was drawn to a half dozen other locations and as many Evolved. Some he recognized, others he did not. But he soon realized the terrifying truth:

They were Legion. All of them.

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