Moscow, Russia – Thursday, the 28th of June 2012. 02:02 AM.
On the early morning of June 28th, all the heroes were awake early, ready to undertake their individual missions after a scant few hours of sleep. Emily didn’t know where most of them had gone. What she did know was that she was finally getting the chance to work alongside Chris again and that the two of them were about to cleanse Moscow of villain influence. Afterward, if everything went well, they might be working separately or teamed up with other heroes. The coming hours and days would be filled to the brim with heroic struggles. Fights and skirmishes to bring about the best future they could hope for.
This is an all-out war of attrition now, Athena had told them while she called up a map of Moscow’s underground, highlighting possible entry points into the subway tunnels. We deplete Legion of allies and resources in order to force a compromise. Reaching that point will save billions of lives, and give DJ the time he needs to complete his project.
Right that moment, Emily was content to spend a few precious minutes of mission prep time with her friend, to indulge in the feeling of them being together and watching each other’s backs. They perched side by side on the top landing of the stairway leading down to Moscow’s metro, doing their best to make unimportant small talk and ignore the reality of the bombed, scorched street canyons surrounding them. The darkness of night did little to conceal the frayed silhouettes of what had once been stores and multi-story apartment buildings. Emily had grown tired of the perpetual, pervasive reminders that the world was ending. She knew that Chris had numbed to them long ago.
In Moscow’s case, the responsibility for the ubiquitous destruction fell on Gentleman. The villain’s revelations about intrigue and corruption among political powers had thrown numerous regions across the globe into turmoil. Large regions of Russia experienced a violent civil war, and the Russian army itself split into two factions, one of which was apparently spearheaded by the Evolved who had inherited Buddy’s powers. Fear and instability shattered old loyalties and forged new ones, leading up to the situation Emily and Chris were now facing: two Russian Evolved guarding one of Dollet’s flesh puppets in Moscow’s underground. The two of them shared the expansive metro tunnels with thousands upon thousands of frightened civilians who sought shelter from air raids.
Which was why Athena and Morpheus hadn’t been able to smoke the bad guys out, and Emily and Chris had to go in. This was exactly the kind of situation the heroes couldn’t ignore. The estimated seven million still living in Moscow would be vulnerable to Legion’s aura as long as Dollet’s power-channeling icon remained there.
Unlike Chris, Emily knew exactly how long the city’s grace period was going to last: somewhere between five and seven hours depending on how long China’s Evolved army stood up to Legion before being annihilated. Kasparov had filled her in through a text message not too long ago. She quickly decided to keep it to herself; Chris was already struggling to get back into her old form after all the days she’d spent in captivity or bound to a hospital bed. That much was apparent from the many curses she had muttered during her thirty minutes of pre-mission parkour training.
I’m here to support her. Emily slanted a glance at her friend, smiling to herself. The two of us together, using the same powers, are gonna be unstoppable.
Chris didn’t look back at her. The Guardian had already dropped the small talk and moved on to the on-site mission briefing, speaking to Athena through her armband. “How long before Crashbang joins us? I’ve never worked with the guy before. Would be nice to say hello before we charge headlong into battle.”
“Give him a few minutes,” Athena replied. “He has been out of commission even longer than you.”
“He wasn’t even conscious until an hour ago,” Emily added. “Rune had to tell him about all the stuff he missed while he was out.”
“Right. Sorry.” One corner of Chris’s mouth tilted upward, her attempt at an apologetic grin. “Whenever he’s ready is cool.”
In the brief silence that followed, Emily resumed tapping her knees to calm her nerves. The subway entrance, a gaping black hole at the bottom of the stairway, was confirmed as unused. The nearest life lights shimmered more than fifteen feet below ground. But because she could sense them through Dancer’s powers, Emily was no longer able to pretend she wasn’t about to risk her life alongside Chris. They were already entangled in the hands of fate and headed toward a tragedy unless she prevented it.
Athena’s voice came through the armband, interrupting her melancholy moment of reflection. “Get ready – we begin in five minutes. This will be the best window of opportunity according to Kasparov.”
Chris promptly rose to her feet in a fluid motion. Her alert narrow eyes were fixated on the gaping darkness at the bottom of the stairway. “How long does this window of opportunity stay open?” She asked.
“Legion will be severely distracted and unlikely to jump in on you for about six minutes,” Athena informed. “You should still be reasonably safe for ten more minutes afterward. Regardless, you should keep up your guards. There may be reinforcements coming in through graffiti wormholes.”
Right. Legion’s new Vortex guy. He’s always on the move, too unpredictable to track down. The graffiti had proven impossible to remove; the wormholes even survived the destruction of the wall they had been sprayed on. But it seemed that Legion and the Wild Hunt’s vehicle couldn’t pass through, and no powers could be projected through them. So, they posed less of a threat than Dollet’s idols did.
Chris tugged the hood of her black sweatshirt over her short ponytail. “We’ll finish up before reinforcements arrive.”
I hope so. Emily leaned her head against the Guardian’s back and hugged her from behind. If Chris wasn’t afraid, what could possibly go wrong? The two of them would be mirror reflections of each other, drawing strength from the same well of determination.
Checkmate and Crashbang appeared in a flash, two slender male silhouettes illuminated by moonlight and the glow of a distant fire. Emily swiveled to study the newcomers with intense interest. Crashbang was, in a way, her responsibility now. She had brought him back from death’s door with borrowed powers. Now he stood before her in a dark gray jogging suit, his once shriveled head covered by a newly grown bit of short, frizzy hair. He slapped his palm with a balled fist, an obvious – to Emily – attempt to hide his insecurity.
She wrapped her fingers around his toned forearm and gazed up at him with a smile. Having not spent enough time around him to passively influence his thoughts and emotions, this was the best she could do.
Tension visibly eased out of him as he met her eyes. “Hey, Emily. I heard you’re the one who… I don’t understand how you did it, but thanks. Helping you out is the least I can do.”
“Hey,” she replied.
In a rare display of gentleness, Chris reached for Crashbang’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “Welcome to the team. You can stay out here, we’re only going to call you in if we find a room full of guys with guns.”
He gave a mute nod, his attention on the subway entrance below.
“Good luck,” Checkmate said before teleporting away to do his thing elsewhere. He never stayed for a chat. Given the crucial role he played in nearly all hero operations, villains would target him before anyone else if given the chance. And forcefields weren’t always failsafe; Noire had proven as much.
Regardless, all three of them were already protected by Chris’s forcefields.
Checking her armband timer to see that they had three minutes left, Emily relayed the most important pieces of mission information. “We’re looking for a room with one of those ugly dolls in it. We have a pretty good idea of where it is, more or less, but even with Dancer’s powers I can’t see much this far down. There’s way too much stone, huddled people and weird old tube structures in the way. We’re guessing the two Evolved and a bunch of guys with guns are gonna be nearby.”
Checkmate nodded again. “Can you tell me more about those villains? Rune didn’t have the time to say much about them.”
“One of them is Down Under – yeah, right, she’s not originally from Russia. Anyway – her powers depend on how far above or below the ground she is. If she goes up high enough she’s weightless and can fly. Down there she’s really heavy, and buff, and super resistant. Can move through stone like it’s water. Your power probably isn’t gonna affect her.”
“Not even the Revoker grenades the new Data made?” Crashbang pulled one from his belt and held it up. It was a bronze colored metal sphere the size of a fist, marked with a big red ‘R’ and with a trigger mechanism on top. The Technician from Singapore had started making these soon after he joined the heroes, though most of his time seemed to be spent inspecting and repairing stuff Athena needed that Data had left behind.
Chris shrugged. “Maybe. We don’t know until we try. Tik Tok, the other guy down there, is the bigger problem.”
“He has Technician and Revoker powers,” Emily explained. “We know almost nothing about him because… well, Revoker powers. But Kasparov said he’s dangerous and unpredictable.”
Before Crashbang could ask another question, Athena’s voice, cut into the discussion with solemn urgency. “Fifteen seconds. Crashbang, I will keep answering your questions while you are on standby. Good luck.”
Emily and Chris exchanged a silent glance. The Empath reached inside herself, seeking the imprinted reflection of the Guardian’s personality she had filed away in her mind. It came to her easily. A flurry of foreign yet familiar memories welled up inside her, boosting her courage and determination. When she sped up, she glanced to the side and saw Chris do the same. Their eyes met. They nodded at one another. And when they started running, they extended their hands to each other, fingertips joining together.
The two of them dashed into the mouth of the subway entrance, navigating by the light of the flashlights they’d been equipped with. The first short tunnel and the adjoining ticket kiosks were devoid of people but showed signs of habitation: discarded plastic bags, cigarette butts, empty bottles and a ragged sleeping bag were strewn on the concrete floor. Vaulting over the turnstiles, Chris and Emily continued deeper into the tunnels, following the subway tracks in the direction where Emily remembered spotting powered people through Dancer’s lifesense.
They could have teleported part of the way, but running was the more sensible choice. Keeping Chris’s danger sense active as much as possible increased their chances of not getting knocked out or killed. Switching powersets took two or more valuable seconds depending on the personality Emily changed into, and as soon as they were spotted by one or more people, there would be noise and the villains would be on alert. Emily liked the idea of maintaining their speed advantage for as long as possible.
As they plunged deeper into the tunnels, the signs of habitation increased. Fires flickered in the distance. People huddled around makeshift fireplaces with hunched shoulders and sunken, vacant faces. Their numbers quickly increased, and by the time Chris and Emily reached the target area, the refugees were packed so tight that the two Evolved had run along the walls to avoid jostling them. Eyes widened and heads turned, ever so slowly, in their direction. The men who carried guns – there were more than just a few – started looking slightly more alert, but stood no chance of stopping the two flashes of movement that dashed along the walls.
Eventually, though, the two heroines had to slow down. They had run through grimy, long abandoned tunnels that branched off the main subway system and found a surprising amount of people in them. But they did not find any suspicious rooms that looked like they might contain a hidden flesh idol. They didn’t see any alternate passages either. The handful of doors they passed were either already open, the rooms beyond occupied by refugees, or so rusted and covered with grime that they hadn’t been opened in decades. Chris and Emily didn’t spot wormhole graffiti on any of the walls, another hint that they might be in the wrong place.
The girls’ hyperspeed exploration couldn’t have taken more than two or three seconds in real time, but Emily was wary of backtracking through areas they had already passed. The subway inhabitants became increasingly alert to their presence. Given enough time, there would be noise. Noise always invited trouble.
So, Emily raised a fist, making sure that Chris could see her, and swung it downward to request a stop. They continued running along the tracks, and another door – most likely leading to a maintenance room – emerged ahead of them. The heroines dashed past a small group of men who were smoking, two of whom were carrying holstered handguns, and through the open maintenance door.
The room beyond was almost completely dark. A tunnel campfire provided just enough illumination to make out a dozen humanoid shapes, sprawled on the concrete floor on what appeared to be sleeping bags or thin mattresses. Emily paid no attention to them. She pulled herself to a stop at the center of the room, an arm’s length away from the nearest refugee, and spun around to see Chris block the doorway with her forcefield-covered body. After a brief nod, Emily reached deep down inside herself and switched powersets.
All around her, time snapped back into place with a cacophony of sound. Distant voices echoed down the underground passage. A wild staccato of footsteps – their own footsteps, delayed by their incredible rush of speed – washed over Emily and Chris. From outside the room came movement and a startled curse in Russian.
Filling up her mind with Dancer’s awareness, Emily extended her supernatural senses in all directions to seek out the Evolved signatures she’d spotted earlier. One of them she located instantly. Its power aura wasn’t as impressive as some others she’d seen, but it constantly changed colors from blue to red and flickered like a candle flame. The Empath had never seen an Evolved aura flicker before.
It’s like something is suppressing it, Emily mused. Something or… someone?
She quickly concluded that the aura belonged to Tik Tok, who was both a Technician and a Revoker. Perhaps his tech was interfering with his life signature – or perhaps he had a power-suppressing gadget active. At any rate, he was an unknown quantity best avoided, if at all possible.
Unfortunately, it didn’t look like avoiding him would be possible. As Emily expanded her mind’s eye and examined the layers upon layers of metro architecture surrounding the flickering aura, she discovered a strange lump of material that was neither stone nor concrete. It held a light of its own. The pulsing glow of powers, but without a life signature to accompany it.
No, she corrected herself, revolted by her discovery. There’s… something. Like it’s alive, but at the same time, it’s not.
The strange lump sat on the floor at the center of a strangely vacant room that appeared to be part of a different tunnel network. If there was a connection to the metro Chris and Emily had entered from Moscow’s Kijewskaja station, the connecting passage was obscured by rubble and construction materials, and an unfathomable mass of people. Fewer people than above, but still… hundreds. A suspiciously large amount. All of them were gathered in the semicircular tunnel surrounding that one room and in the smaller chambers adjoining it.
Emily spotted a lot of guns and other weapons among them.
“Did you find it?” Chris asked from the doorway. The urgency in her voice snapped Emily back to the reality of her immediate surroundings. Loud, angry shouts echoed through the metro tunnels. A distant gunshot pierced the air, followed by another which seemed much closer. A chip of concrete splintered above the open doorway.
“Yes,” Emily replied. “Tik Tok is like, right in front of the room. But I can take us there.”
She still didn’t know where Down Under was. Chris didn’t ask. The Guardian simply nodded, her young, hood-shadowed face hardened by determination. “Let’s go,” she said.
Not wasting another second, Emily anchored her will in that one room and wished for reality to become malleable, so she could cut across. She reached out for Chris and plunged through fifty feet of earth and concrete, toward the pulsing power idol.
They dropped onto a rubble-strewn stone floor and into a place of near absolute darkness. Emily stubbed her toe on something hard she couldn’t see and scrambled backward, torn between the desire to scan the room with her flashlight and the need to discard Dancer’s powers and assume Radiant immediately. Her hero training won over her human instincts. Still looking at the world through her borrowed life sense, she verified that Chris – whose aura shimmered with a cool, silvery blue – was beside her, then immersed herself in Radiant’s personality.
But something was wrong. Right before her Empath powers faded away, Emily picked up a startlingly clear tremor of emotion from somewhere right outside the room: malicious glee. A strange clicking noise came from behind Dollet’s empowered lump of flesh. The muted metallic sound of something activating, cut into silence the instant Radiant’s distorted perception overtook Emily’s sense of hearing. She instinctively responded to the threat by flaring luminescent wings. The darkness in the room burned up in an instant, cut apart by a half hundred blindingly bright ribbons that reached all the way to the only door, ten feet away.
But there were no bad guys present to be blinded by Radiant’s flare attack. In the super-eminent brightness that now flooded every corner of the room, Emily saw everything clear as day. The idol, a roughly man-shaped cluster of bloodied flesh, was sitting at the center of the dusty, rubble-strewn floor. The walls of the room were stained, roughly cut stone whose run-down look reminded her of air raid shelters from the fifties. Around the edges of the room were collapsed metal shelves and grimy cardboard boxes.
What she did not see was the source of the clicking sound she had picked up right before switching powersets. Where, exactly, had it come from? From one of the shelves? From the rubble on the floor. There was no time to think about it. The door flew open, and Chris’s arm shot up, their agreed signal for imminent danger.