Antares had been away from his friends for far too long. He had been so embroiled in a dimension-spanning conflict with the malevolent group of sorcerers called the Brujeria that the affairs of the Squadron had gotten lost in the shuffle.
As he walked down the halls of Squadron Supreme Headquarters, a quantum duplicate of the Champions’ building located in its own pocket dimension, Antares could sense the toll that the Shroud’s split with the Squadron had taken on his comrades. It was clear that everyone on the team was waiting for the next shoe to drop.
As he entered the Conference Room, Antares was shocked to see how pale and harried Arcana, his friend and fellow practitioner of the Magickal Arts, had become since the burden of leadership had fallen upon her.
Sitting beside her at the head of the meeting table, Antares smiled at her. Her sea-green eyes met his briefly and the shadow of a smile crossed her face.
“Welcome back, Sky-Rider,” she said. “You have been missed.”
“The Brujeria made greater demands of me than I had foreseen.” Antares paused. He had not realized that his divinatory abilities had not forewarned him how grave the threat the Brujeria would pose until that moment.
“You are aware,” Arcana began matter of factly “that the Shroud has attempted to recruit some of our own members into her ranks.”
“Indeed,” the mage recalled how the Shroud had recently circumvented Squadron electronic security in an apparent attempt to recruit certain individuals to her Squadron Sinister. “What puzzles me is why AIDA had not improved our security protocols in light of Jennifer’s… departure.”
Antares paused to allow his concern to register as it was clear that this question had not crossed the mind of the Greek-born sorceress. Perhaps his ability to foresee the future was not the only one inexplicably diminished.
Arcana pondered Antares’ words a moment.
The android named AIDA was an enigma. She professed to have begun her existence on an alternate Earth as a sentient program called the Artificial Intelligent Data Analyzer or AIDA for short. She claimed to have been the creation of Thomas Thompson, a member of an alternate Squadron Supreme, and housed in the mainframe that functioned as the nerve center of that group’s headquarters. Yet, how her neural network had been installed in an android shell or even how she had come to be on this Earth were a complete mystery.
Could the Shroud have programmed the android to act as her agent within the Squadron, collecting actionable intelligence and sowing dissension amongst the ranks? Arcana found it difficult to accept such treachery from someone as forthright as Jennifer Jones.
“I do not have to remind you,” Arcana began, “that Jennifer is a gifted scientist and strategist. If she set her mind to it, she would eventually overcome any safeguards AIDA could put in place.”
“Perhaps,” Antares shifted slightly in his seat. “What also troubles me is the sheer… clumsiness of her actions,” the magician sat forward, his eyes locking onto those of the stunning sorceress. “The Shroud’s ability to outthink our opponents has saved us all at one time or another. However, she chose to move against us in a manner that would be discovered almost instantly. It makes no sense”
Arcana nodded. “I too am at a loss to explain her actions of late,” she said rising slowly from her chair, “But I intend to understand them fully.”
As she turned to leave, Antares rose to his feet and placed a firm hand on her shoulder. She turned to him, her hands resting gently on her hips. He looked down at her soft face and, for a moment, his stern countenance softened.
“How can I help you, Arcana,” he asked more ardently than he had intended.
“Your friendship is more than help enough,” Arcana said, a smile brightening her face. “May the Lords of Light guide you, Antares.”
“May their light shield you in the darkness,” Antares answered mechanically.
With that, the sorceress turned and strode out of the Conference Room. He stood there for a few moments, his mind going over his all to brief conversation with Arcana. He decided to perform a working that very evening to ascertain by mystic means the Shroud’s plans. He would also ask Squadron member Mite, himself an artificial life form, to keep AIDA under surveillance surreptitiously.
His Sight-beyond-Sight may have abandoned him temporarily but Antares had always trusted his gut and his gut told him that AIDA was not to be trusted.