The Protectorate, Great Britain, 2012
“Brought you breakfast!” Pete shouted as he walked into the room, making her jump in her seat.
“Jesus, Pete, can’t you knock?” Mandy shouted, already feeling frustrated. He never learned. Ever since Desmond had been sent away – inevitable, really, but still a shame – Pete had suddenly decided to woo her. And while she wasn’t generally against having a good man wooing her, Pete… did not understand how to properly treat a lady.
“Aw, come on sweetheart, don’t be mad! Here, I brought you your favourite breakfast.” With a wide, boyish grin (he sure didn’t look like his twenty-four years) he put a tray of food onto an empty part of the console in front of her. It was loaded with turkish sausage, pan-fried to spicy red perfection, warm garlic bread and a hearty mixed salad.
Pete was a firm believer in the theory that the way to any heart was through the stomach (not a bad idea) so he’d quickly found out what she liked to eat (a little creepy, since he hadn’t asked her, but sniffed around) and now regularly brought her her meals, especially when she was pulling a night and early-morning shift (very handy, but also really annoying).
Unfortunately, her traitor of a stomach decided just then to make hungry noises (she hadn’t eaten for more than twelve hours, apart from a few donuts), which only made him grin even wider (why didn’t his head just fall off backwards?) and made her blush and turn to the food, swiping her strawberry blond hair out of the way.
No reason to let it go to waste.
“Thanks. But you really should knock next time,” she said in between two mouthfuls. Dammit, she wasn’t even angry or frustrated anymore.
His feeding-her-until-she-falls-in-love-with-him gambit seemed to be playing out well, and there was nothing she could do about it.
“Anything happen?” he asked her after a while of her quietly eating.
“Believe me, everyone here would know if something happened. I’d be pounding the big red button.”
He chuckled, which again made him seem younger than he was. “I guess so. Man, doesn’t it freak you out sitting here all the time, watching… him?”
They both looked at the monitor wall, and she knew what he meant. Ever since what had happened to Desmond, the board of directors had gotten really nervous and redoubled safety measures. No one knew how the Protege had reached him to cause such a reaction. Then again, compared to his other powers, it was really quite trivial.
But just the fact that he had acted… everyone was freaking out. If he woke up, truly woke up in a way they couldn’t keep secret, it might spark world war three. It was the last thing they needed.
“I guess… it’s not him who’s freaking me out, but everyone else. How they’ll react. We almost had a world war before he shut himself off, and now…”
“Situation’s just amazingly strained right now, I know. So let’s just hope n-“
A high, whining sound slammed into them, knocking them off-kilter.
“Wha-?” Mandy almost fell off her chair. Her head was ringing, her vision blurred. She pushed the button by sheer reflex, and then she did fall off her chair.
By the time she came back to her senses, Pete had done so, too, and was helping her up.
They looked at the monitors, expecting… something. But Ember was sitting where he always did, apparently unaffected by whatever had knocked them out.
Then again, he could probably walk on the sun without even getting a sunburn.
Still unable to hear anything, Mandy pushed a few buttons and switched half the screens to look at the defensive lines of the Protectorate – and her blood ran cold.
The Protectorate was under attack.
A group of metahumans, all capable of flight had smashed into the South-Eastern section of the perimeter… the second wall, to be precise. The first one was untouched, and they were already pushing through towards the third one.
The group was pretty much split in the middle. Half of them wore nondescript skintight black suits with heavy, featureless helmets, decked out in various equipment, from large guns to a full suit of power armor in one case – three of them women, one male and the other seemed to be androgynous – and the other half were dressed in various costumes. Of those, four were women, two were men and one looked like a green dragon.
Pete and Mandy watched in horror as these two groups demonstrated an insane amount of teamwork and perfect synchronisation, punching through the second defensive line.
Mandy immediately noticed that one of them – one of the women in costume – was not participating in the fighting. Instead, her arms were wrapped around something packed in thick red cloth, and she was flying in the middle of her group, staying safe, and teleporting around in blinking flashes, evading any attacks.
“The Fay,” whispered Pete. Or maybe he was screaming, and she just couldn’t hear him well.
She blanched, recognizing the costumed part of the group. They were a part of Britain’s biggest crime syndicate. And the woman with the bundle… Boudicca, a relative newbie with quite the reputation.
As to the other group, she couldn’t say. They had no distinguishing marks whatsoever.
But they were all striking at the worst possible time – Lady Light and most of their top-level metahumans were away to Kansas, responding to an appearance by Desolation-in-Light, and they’d also had several technical problems lately, with half their blimps out of commission and parts of the wall – especially the South-Eastern section – being seriously defunct.
Did they know when to strike, or is this just a coincidence?
The invaders pushed to the third wall, where they met the hardest resistance. One of the women in black stretched her arms out to the sides, and a wavering, flickering sphere of distorted air and light formed in front of her.
With another flash of disorienting noise and worse, it exploded, knocking most of the defenders (as well as Mandy and Pete) for a loop.
By the time they’d come to their senses again, the enemies had nearly broken through the third wall and its defenders.
“Oh God, oh God, they’re going to get through!” shouted Mandy, even though she couldn’t even hear herself.
A flicker of light appeared over the battlefield, stretching to form a rectangular doorway. A tall figure clad in light stepped out.
Lady Light smashed into the group of invaders like the fist of God, taking down two of the Fay members in one hit. Her hard light armament formed into a glowing set of winged armor, a spear twice as long as she was tall and a winged crossbow, and she tore into the invaders, even as her aura reinforced the defenders, calling them to arms once more and with thrice their former fierceness.
She was met with coordinated counter moves, the remaining invaders focusing more on her than on the others. The woman with the wide-range perception attack initiated her power again, but Lady Light broke through their defensive lines and kicked her so hard it drove her into the ground, fifty meters below. Then she turned to Boudicca, striking at the woman-
Who teleported out of range at the very last moment, trying to get past her and into the Protectorate proper.
Lady Light reforged her spear into a whip, drawing her closer, the whip apparently blocking her teleportation.
Boudicca was fighting desperately to break free, and despite being supposedly a Paragon Tier all the way through, she was obviously straining Lady Light – though the other villains were doing their best to help, too.
The four remaining metahumans in black teamed up and attacked Lady Light, while the other members of the Fay spread out to fight back the other defenders.
Mandy watched in awe as Lady Light fought all four enemies – going by the powers they displayed, each of them had to be Apex Tier at least, and she was pretty sure the androgynous character was a God Tier blaster, every one of his blue energy beams tore huge chunks out of the walls and the ground, the light lingering to eat through the material, whenever Lady Light didn’t redirect his blasts upwards – and took down two more in about thirty seconds, not even needing to reforge her armament. The androgynous blaster was the first to go down, taking so many hits in so little time he was apparently unconscious before he was halfway down towards the ground. And all the time, Lady Light kept holding on to Boudicca, preventing her from teleporting into the range of the Protege.
“Down there!” Pete shouted. He was pointing at one of the monitors.
Mandy looked to see how the woman Lady Light had earlier stomped into the earth raise her arms, weakly, and set off another of her disorienting blasts. This time, it was far weaker and didn’t reach the two of them, but the defenders reeled and many were promptly smacked down by the invaders. With her senses at her command, Mandy could see that both her teammates and Lady Light had remained unaffected, the latter shooting a bolt of pure light into the prone woman, knocking her out for good.
And then Boudicca managed to tear off the whip and teleport past the defenders, into the Protectorate.
“He’ll tear that madwoman’s mind to shreds!” shouted Pete, but evidently, Boudicca didn’t care. She charged into his range without hesitation.
* * *
Lady Light flared up, her armament reforging itself into a sword, a pair of blade-like wings and three spheres that rotated her body. She turned towards the remaining invaders – only two of the black-clothed strangers and one of the Fay, not counting Boudicca, were still active – but they all ceased fighting and turned to watch Boudicca. Lady Light, too, turned to watch, the woman now beyond safe reach even for her.
The woman, incredibly, was flying towards Ember, teleporting ahead every few seconds to speed up. Cameras from the other side of the Protectorate were picking up images of her face, showing it being drenched in tears, the eyes reddened, with four thin, fading scars on her left cheek, as if someone had raked their nails over her face.
Her flight wavered as she reached the halfway mark, her teleportation ceasing, as she seemed to almost curl up around the bundle in her arms.
Mandy could only watch in horror as the villain fell down, her flight turning into a dive towards the ground.
She slowed herself down, barely, rolling to absorb the impact, taking more care to keep the bundle than herself unharmed.
There were still nearly two kilometers between herself and Ember, and it appears she now had to get there on foot.
“Holy mother of God, how the fuck is she doing that?!” Pete exclaimed, his eyes wide in disbelief as she just forced her way onwards, staggering every now and then.
Over the field and through a small wood she ran, jumping over a small pond and then over the wall of the old town’s cemetery. She broke the wrought iron gate on the other side with a kick, then staggered, fell to her knees and threw up.
“Oh please, let her stay down, please,” whispered Mandy, and Pete fell right in.
Boudicca complied, collapsing to the side, curling up around the bundle.
They both sighed in relief.
“Oh God, I almost thought she’d get through to him,” Mandy half-whispered.
“Me too. Man, what a madwoman. To even get that far… I wonder what’s in that bundle? A teleportation device, maybe? To steal him?” said Pete.
Mandy shook her head. Despite it all… she had the dreadful feeling that she knew what was in that bundle, and why Boudicca was so… determined.
And just then, the fallen villainess moved, slowly pushing herself up onto weak legs.
“Oh, heavens no,” they both said.
She took a step forward… and then another. And another. Step by step, she staggered forward, crying, wailing, her whole body shaking hard enough to almost throw her to the ground again, never to rise again.
Boudicca did not fall.
Step by step, slower and slower, she approached the center of the small town, approached him.
And then she stepped around a corner, and within sight of him.
They both held their breaths, expecting some kind of… reaction. She was the first to ever get this close.
The Protege did not move, nor react to her in any other way.
Her face mad with grief, shame and… another emotion, one Mandy had trouble placing, Boudicca took another step.
It took her almost ten minutes to reach the Protege.
She knelt down in front of him, raising her arms, holding out the red bundle. With one hand, she quickly opened it, then went back to holding it up with both hands, presenting it to him, her head lowered, her body shaking with sobs – but her arms were steady.
Mandy gasped when she saw the content of the bundle. She’d half expected it, but to see it.
A boy lay there, a baby, small and wrinkled… and dead. His skin was pale, his face relaxed as if asleep, his too-thin limbs unmoving.
The Protege did not react.
Boudicca did not move, but her lips started to move. Long-range microphones picked up her whispered words.
“Please… please… please… please…”
After nearly ten minutes – ten minutes of dread for Mandy and Pete, ten minutes in which she imagined the world to hold her breath, the begging ceased, as Boudicca’s strength waned.
Her arms began to tremble, losing strength. Mandy could not even imagine the mental anguish she had to be going through, this close to the Protege himself.
And then the cloaked boy moved.
They all gasped as he raised his head, looking at the corpse, at the woman.
They begged him to go back to stillness, or for this to be a dream, a feverdream even…
He raised a hand. He plunged it into the baby’s small chest.
The screens flickered.
When the image came back, he pulled his hand out of the baby – and it started to scream, wailing, living.
Mandy fell to her knees.
* * *
Afterwards, as Boudicca dissolved into delirious sobs, clinging to her reborn child, the Protege reached out and touched her shoulder.
He shoved her, gently, and she vanished in a flash, her teleportation enhanced far beyond its usual limit, taking her all the way out of his range.
Lady Light picked her up and flew her into the main administrative facility of the Protectorate. The five black-garbed metahumans had vanished without a trace during a split-second, as a black claw seemed to appear behind each of them, grabbing them and pulling them away to vanish.
The remaining four members of the Fay were detained along with Boudicca, though in separate rooms. None of them put up any resistance whatsoever.
Mandy left the surveillance room to Pete, who was all too willing to fill in for her (he was useful, and maybe just nice enough to give him a real chance) and staggered over to the general briefing room.
There, she learned the other pieces of the story.
Boudicca, real name Iris O’Sheannan, aged twenty-two, had lost her unborn son just yesterday, when a rival villain had attacked her at home, wounding the pregnant supervillain and causing a miscarriage. Her son, Sean O’Sheannan, had been just a month away from being born.
At midnight, while her teammates had been trying to calm her down, promising her horrible, horrible vengeance, she had been contacted by someone who claimed to be a part of the ‘Companions of the Future’. He’d offered her their top operatives for an attempt at breaking into the Protectorate and bringing her son to the Protege. At no cost. She had been too desperate to ask for reasons.
She’d agreed, and her teammates had immediately pitched in.
As it turned out – Lady Light got them to talk – Boudicca had always had a particular power she’d kept secret, an extremely focused precognitive power. It was useless for mid-battle use, nor could she get warnings from sudden attacks and such (which explained why her enemy had been able to catch her at home, despite her teleportation), but provided she had about five minutes and a clear picture of what she wanted…
Her power allowed her to make the perfect plan for any caper. It was predicated on her own knowledge – the more she already knew about the situation, the better the plan – but it certainly explained her meteoric rise in the underworld.
One of the Companions of the Future, a metahuman who had not participated in the attack itself, was a power booster, capable of giving massive split-second boosts to powers.
Combining those two… they’d hit at just the right time, at just the right point, working perfectly, combining their powers and skills in just the right ways…
They’d even planned for Lady Light and the Dark showing up and trying to fight them off, though they admitted that, seeing how Lady Light alone had torn through them so easily, and how, in the end, it had been Boudicca’s raw will that supercharged her powers and allowed her to break through the whip which let them succeed, their plan had been less than sufficient. Had the Dark not stayed behind to help against Desolation-in-Light, then they would have been stopped.
No use thinking about could-have-beens now.
Boudicca had been put into an empty room, watched over by Lady Light and several cameras. The woman was delirious with joy, crying and giggling as she nursed her son for the first time. Even if she got through this with her sanity intact, Mandy doubted that she’d be convicted for anything – the courts would demand access to the surveillance footage, and rightly so, and she couldn’t imagine anyone condemning her for wanting her son back, especially seeing how… how overjoyed she was.
But that was not the worst part.
The attack had gone public. Someone had hacked into the Protectorate’s supposedly secure computer network and pulled all the footage of the fight, and then of what happened within. It had been streamed live on the internet, and was now already the most-watched video clip of the last three years.
They all knew what that meant.
Five years ago, the existence of a metahuman capable of healing any ailment, reversing age and even death itself had nearly led to another world war. Religions all over the world had proclaimed him the Messiah of their faith, or the devil incarnate, or Buddha reborn. Some had called for his death, no matter the cost. Some had demanded the privilege of throwing themselves at his feet. And so many had desired the prize he offered – for many the greatest prize of all – immortality.
Only his self-imposed exile had prevented the war from breaking out, the unlikeliness of him ever acting again.
Now it had been proven that the Protege was still active, if restrained.
The Califate had begun moving moments after he had revived the boy. Religions all over the world were once more in uproar, the True Believers were beyond ecstatic, the Returners were eager to welcome their newest member and his mother into their ranks (and also ecstatic about their ‘beloved’ awakening from his slumber) and the Sovjet Union…
The Reds were thought to have nearly three-hundred thousand metahumans among their ranks, with more than three fourth of them being trained for combat. For war. Roughly two-hundred and twenty-five thousand metahumans, raised from birth to be fanatically loyal to the Red Council…
The Red Council, which had been wiped out by Desolation-in-Light just months ago, leaving the Union in upheaval…
All these metahumans, already unstable by their very nature, further destabilized by the loss of the focal point of their worldview…
Now they saw a chance to return to the world order they knew. A chance to bring back their masters.
A chance that came attached with a time limit.
And the Pacific-Atlantic Treaty Organization would never allow them to even attempt to revive the Red Council, not without a fight.
The Sovjet Union declared war against the PATO nations just three hours after Sean’s rebirth.