David spends the first few minutes throwing up on the floor. It’s not the same floor—the cheap vinyl tiles of the diner have been replaced with cool, slightly grimy concrete.
“Are you OK?” Manuel sounds worried.
“No,” David says, and takes a deep, ragged breath.
“Sorry the trip was so rough. I’m not used to pushing around that much mass.”
David nods wordlessly as he tries to pull himself together.
The table and both chairs are there—wherever “there” is—and so is David’s cane. The part of David that isn’t preoccupied with being sick is impressed. Teleporters are rare, and the ones he’s familiar with can’t carry more than a fraction of their own body weight when they travel. Manuel managed to move himself, his chair, the table, David, David’s chair, and David’s cane.
“I’m not cleaning that up,” someone says. It’s an easy-going, laid back voice. David can’t see who it is—he’s focusing intently on a single spot on the floor—but he’s pretty sure it’s Red Shift.
He’s in a large, square garage, completely empty except for the chairs and tables from the diner. While it’s empty, it doesn’t look abandoned—there’s no dust, and the concrete smells strongly of motor oil, coolant, and cleanser. Three of the walls have garage bay doors, three to a side, and each bay door is paired with a hydraulic lift. The fourth wall is solid concrete with a door in the middle. The harsh, bright light of fluorescent ceiling lamps fills the room. There are no windows.
David, Manuel, and the table are in the exact center of the room. A few feet from the door is Crossfire. They’re in uniform—the black combat suits with the stylized yellow crosshair over where the left breast pocket would be—but they’re not wearing their visors.
This is David’s only advantage, probably the only reason they agreed to meet with him. He’s seen them without their masks before, and even though they haven’t always been allies, he never told any of his superiors what they looked like.
Vigilante stares at David impassively, arms crossed, dark eyes searching for something. He’s a little over six feet tall and built like a construction worker—not the bulging muscles of a professional weightlifter, but the solid mass of someone who spent years doing hard labor. No callouses or scars, though, and his dark hair has no trace of white.
“Any landing you can walk away from…” His voice is hard, but there’s a little humor in it.
“I haven’t tried to walk yet.” David coughs one last time, spits, grabs the back of his chair and struggles to his feet. Manuel offers him a hand, but he waves it off. He grabs his cane off the back of his chair and leans against it heavily. “Thanks for agreeing to see me. I know it’s a risk.”
“Not as risky as it could have been. Thanks Blink.” Street Ronin nods to Manuel. He’s about the same size and build as Vigilante—in many ways, they look like they could be brothers. But Street Ronin’s face displays every consequence of his profession: it’s full of long-healed scars and fresh bruises. He looks like he was knocked around recently: a cut below his left eye is closed with tight, professional stitching, and the right side of his face is heavily bruised. His dark hair is starting to show traces of premature gray.
David turns to Manuel. “Blink?” Crossfire likes to keep things professional—they almost always refer to people by their handles, even if they know the person’s real name.
Manuel shrugs. “I don’t really like it, but I had to think of something. I’ll make it work.”
“I’m just surprised it wasn’t already taken.” Red Shift is a little thinner than his teammates—he’s built like Manuel, like an acrobat, which has the odd effect of making him look both shorter and more fragile than his teammates.
Manuel grins. “Curti—I mean, ‘Brother Judgment’ did a web search against the registry a few months ago. Last guy who had it died, so technically I could have registered if I wanted. But hey, we’re mavericks, right? If someone wants to sue me for it they can try. I don’t care. Anyway it’s kind of a stupid name. I wanted ‘Massdriver,’ but everyone keeps telling me that’s a gun.”
“It is a gun,” Street Ronin says. “Anyway, thanks for the help. We can take it from here.”
Manuel’s smile fades. “There’s not going to be a problem, right? I mean, I guess you guys have a history.”
Vigilante shakes his head. “No problems here, Blink. If we weren’t willing to hear him out we wouldn’t be here.”
Manuel nods slowly, then turns to David. “Well, that’s my cue. Don’t do anything to piss these guys off, OK?”
“I’ll be OK,” David says, shaking Manuel’s hand. “Thanks. Tell Curtis I owe him.”
“Sure.” Manuel grins. “I’m pretty sure he already knows that, though.”
David feels a pulse of energy surround the man, hears the whumping sound, and then in an instant he’s gone.
“Neat trick,” Street Ronin mutters.
David turns back to Crossfire and wobbles a bit. “Thanks for seeing me.”
Vigilante nods. “Why are we seeing you, Sky Commando?”
“I’m not Sky Commando any more,” David says. “Retired, on disability. I’m a civilian now.”
Vigilante, Street Ronin and Red Shift trade glances.
“Why?” Vigilante asks.
“Fight with Rampage,” David says. “Knocked through a wall. Technically I haven’t been Sky Commando for months. This week just made it official.”
“Concussion?” Street Ronin asks. He doesn’t heal like the other two—he has a better idea what the ramifications of that are.
“Yeah,” David says. “And on Thursday I stumbled into something that didn’t exactly help my recovery. That’s what I want to talk to you about.”
“OK,” Vigilante says. He keeps is voice neutral. “We’re listening.”
“Right,” David says. “OK. Background first. Do you know a guy named Pete Travers?”
“He’s a Fed,” Street Ronin says.
David nods. “DHS specifically, though he was part of the FBMA before that. At some point during the last year he decided I knew more about you guys than I was letting on. He let me know he knew, and also let me know he wasn’t going to make an issue out of it.”
Vigilante, Street Ronin and Red Shift trade glances again.
“That’s a little hard to swallow,” Vigilante says.
“I can’t make you believe me,” David says, “and I’m not going to try. Just hear me out and take it from there.”
Nobody says anything, so David continues. “After Crossfire was officially classified as a terrorist group, Pete started doing things to minimize my involvement with the task force they set up to take you guys down. I couldn’t stay completely clear of it, but I was never in a position where I had to admit that I knew what you looked like. And I never volunteered it. I was relieved, but I thought it was odd for Pete to stick his neck out like that.”
“It is,” Vigilante says.
“Well that leads up to Thursday. You guys know a paper called The Weekly 832?”
Red Shift laughs.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” David says. “I’d never heard of it till today, but apparently I live pretty close to it. My local grocery shares a parking lot with it. And on Thursday, as I was getting groceries, it was attacked.”
He wobbles again, and grabs a chair with his free hand for support. “They were the same soldiers who attacked Martin Forrest’s house. They murdered the publisher and tried to blow up the entire building.”
Vigilante looks interested in spite of himself. “Same guys? You know this?”
David shrugs. “The weapons are distinctive. It’s either the same group or the same supplier. Same group makes more sense to me. What doesn’t make sense is why they’d go to the trouble to go after this guy. The paper’s a joke. The publisher was a whack job who was convinced the United States secretly surrendered to Germany during World War II, and that the government has been secretly controlled by shadowy Nazi Overlords ever since.”
“The guy was a loon,” Red Shift confirms. “I actually met him once. Took a lot of drugs. Muttered to himself all the time. He was pretty harmless, though. It’s not like anyone ever believed him.”
David reaches into his pocket and pulls out the front page of the newspaper, unfolding it smoothing it on the table. “It’s a ‘broken clock is right twice a day’ thing. The Weekly 832 was going to publish something true—something about you guys. I’m pretty sure Travers thinks it’s the reason these mystery soldiers attacked.”
“Conspiracy Theory,” Red Shift says, walking up to the table to see the article.
“I liked that movie,” Street Ronin adds, and moves to the table as well, followed by Vigilante.
“It’s called ‘Metahumans Wage Desperate War Against Shadow Government,’” David says. “Not a gripping title. But the first paragraph. Read the first paragraph.”
Red Shift leans over and peers at the circled paragraph. “’Most heroes are oblivious to the true powers that control our lives, but three New York City metahumans have waged a private war against the dark forces that have made every important decision since 1944. The Weekly 832 has learned that not only are these grim warriors united in their struggle against these forces, but two of them were also products of them—victims of a secret test program, the continuation of the Paragon Project, later referred to as ‘MK ULTRA,’ and then even later as PRODIGY. They were used as test subjects in an ongoing effort to create a secret army of metahuman slaves…’ Holy shit. That’s definitely us.”
“That’s what I thought,” David said. “I don’t know how much Travers knows about you guys. I think he actually knows more than I do. He has a lot more resources, and he’s been working on that Task Force ever since it started up. But what I know—at least, what I think I know—is that you guys started this for a very specific reason. One person, or one group. Someone who’s been experimenting on people.”
He looks at Vigilante for confirmation. Vigilante doesn’t reply.
“The article says ‘three metahumans,’” Street Ronin points out. “I’m not a metahuman.”
“Same difference,” Red Shift says. “You might as well be.”
Vigilante picks up the newspaper and looks it over. “Yeah. It’s probably about us. Why would these soldiers care? And why would a Fed want us to know?”
“Why are they calling you terrorists?” David asks.
Vigilante’s jaw tightens. “I’m not going to debate tactics.”
“I’m not debating tactics,” David says. “You already know I think you go too far. That’s not the point. It wasn’t your tactics that put you on the No-Fly lists, it was your choice of targets.”
“He’s got a point,” Street Ronin says. “There wasn’t nearly as much heat when we were focusing on criminal organizations. It wasn’t until we started dealing with the dirty bureaucrats and politicos that we became a threat to national security.”
“Odd coincidence, that,” Red Shift agrees. “It’s almost as if we made someone angry.”
“String it together: these guys attack the Forrest house. Some agency takes control of the investigation and kicks out everyone else involved. Then these guys attack a newspaper about to print a story about you. You’re classified as terrorists because you’re going after corruption in the government…”
Street Ronin smacks his forehead. “It’s all the same guys. Vigilante, all this time—”
“Yeah,” Vigilante says. He stares at David thoughtfully. “You think Travers is sending us this information because he doesn’t trust his people.”
“I know Pete Travers,” David says. “He’s as honest as they come. If he’s trying to get this information to you, it’s because he’s convinced you’re right, and he thinks some of the people he’s working with are dirty.”
Vigilante drops the newspaper on the table. “A lunatic who publishes a newspaper isn’t much to go on.”
“I was getting to that,” David says. “It’s not the only thing Travers gave me.”
He reaches into his jeans pocket, takes out the thumb drive, and puts it on the table. “I don’t know what’s on it.”
Everyone looks at the thumb drive in silence.
“You’re in this now,” Vigilante says.
“Yeah,” David agrees.
“You’re in it on our side. The ugly side. It doesn’t matter who was following you—if you’re right, it got back to these guys. And if they really are connected to the ones we’ve been going after, they’ll kill you. They’ll call you a hero, they’ll give you a really big funeral, probably even put it on TV…”
“Like they did with Liberty,” David says quietly.
Vigilante nods once. “No proof though. Not yet.”
“I want in,” David says. “I can help. I can’t fight, but I can help.”
Vigilante looks to Street Ronin, who nods, then at Red Shift, who shrugs. “You’re not going to like who we’re working with.”
David considers that. “Maybe,” he says. “But this isn’t about liking people, is it? If we’re right, some of the guys I do like are dirty.”
“Yeah,” Vigilante says. “OK. First thing’s first. You’re not fit for much of anything at the moment. Let’s get you cleaned up. We have access to some tech that’s a little more advanced than whatever your doctor has.”
“OK,” David says. “What then?”
“Then the fun starts,” Vigilante says. “Then we read you in.”