David sits in a window booth in a small, run-down diner, trying to eat a cold cut without throwing up. It’s not that the food is bad; he can’t tell if it is or not. Everything tastes like cardboard. The problem is that his doctors warned him he needed to stay in the hospital to recover, and his body is sparing no effort to tell him that they were right.
It’s mid-afternoon. There aren’t too many people in the diner, but the ones who are stare at him furtively when they think he doesn’t notice. He looks a mess: his entire face is a splotchy pattern of bruises, his hair is greasy and unwashed, he hasn’t shaved in days, his hands won’t stop shaking, and he can’t focus on anything for more than a few seconds without his vision blurring. His cane, a simple metal crook with a rubber tip at the end, sits on the table in front of him because he can’t get it to lean properly—he keeps knocking it over, and when he has to bend down to pick it up his ribs hurt like hell.
The good news is he doesn’t look like a cop. It’s not good to look like a cop in Morrisania—the cops in the local precinct have a reputation for corruption, not entirely undeserved, and they aren’t very welcome. Morrisania has become, unofficially, one of the safest towns in New York… and the people who keep it that way consider the local police part of the problem.
David grew up in the South Bronx, and moved back after he got out of the service and joined the NYPD. It’s changed a lot over the years—it’s a far cry from the desperate, arson-scarred, crime-ridden wasteland it was in the 70s—but it’s still not entirely safe. There are still dangerous parts, areas where people just don’t go if they can help it. For a long time, Morrisania was one of those areas. When he was a kid Morrisania was one of the “bad places” that you stayed away from at all costs.
It still has one of the highest crime rates in the city, but statistics can be deceptive. Vigilante justice is illegal, and it doesn’t matter to the city if it comes from armed citizens taking the law into their own hands or masked metahumans doing the same thing. The two groups who keep Morrisania safe are, technically, criminals. Anything they do to keep the peace is, statistically, criminal activity. But if the crime statistics were broken down, Morrisania would look very different: “Gang activity” is high, “destruction of property” is high… and every other type of crime is very, very low.
As a cop David was technically obligated to treat both groups as criminals. As Sky Commando, he often had to prioritize levels of threat, and he found it difficult to justify arresting people who had arrived to help him. Over time he developed a strong but unofficial working relationship with one of the two groups, the Bastions.
The other group is Crossfire. His relationship with them is a bit more complicated.
A shadow falls across his table. David looks up and sees a tall black man staring down at him in surprise.
Curtis Dupree is the leader of the Bastions, and goes by the name “Brother Judgment.” He’s a telekinetic, a very strong one, and a moderate telepath as well. He’s tall and quite thin, almost gaunt, giving him a slightly cadaverous appearance. Long, thin dreadlocks are pulled back into a loose ponytail that falls down his back. He wears a dark suit, a gray silk tie, and a black trench coat that almost reaches the floor. Despite all those layers he appears completely unaffected by the heat.
David squints up at him and nods in greeting. “Hello Curtis. Sorry to drop in like this.”
Curtis stares at David for a moment, says “it’s OK” to the room at large—to the visible relief of everyone else in the diner—then slides into the booth opposite his. “What the hell happened to you?”
“Oh, it’s a long story,” David says, then taps his right temple with his index and middle finger.
Curtis nods slowly, closes his eyes, and concentrates.
What the hell happened to you?
David grits his teeth, exhaling sharply. His headache erupts into spike of searing pain, and he almost passes out. Curtis’ eyes widen in alarm, and David feels him retreating from his mind. David shakes his head quickly. Curtis looks at him uneasily, but stops.
Mental communication is difficult when only one side is telepathic. Curtis tried to explain it to him once, but most of it was lost on him: because the non-telepath can’t read thoughts, the telepath has to use a mild form of mind control to tell the recipient what to remember “hearing.” It only works when there’s a certain level of trust between the people having the “conversation,” and it’s difficult to use when the brain is damaged. Unfortunately, that’s what a concussion is: brain damage. In David’s case, he hopes it’s temporary, but he’s pretty sure this isn’t helping him recover.
Sssorrrry Curtis. I’m being ffffffolll… folll… folllowwed. Tthhhey are probably llllllllllllllll… lisstenning.
Curtis frowns. I can barely understand you. What happened?
David tries to focus on the word “concussion” but he can’t. Finally he thinks back to his last memory before the concussion. Bus. Wall. Pain.
He tries to grin. Only one side of his mouth goes up. “I had to retire. I’m not on the job any more, Curtis. My replacement is good people, though. I think you’ll like her.”
“Sorry to hear it.” Curtis keeps his voice neutral as his gaze drifts over to the diner window.
He’s trying to find my tail.
“So what are your plans?” Curtis asks. Why did you come here? You should be in a hospital. I didn’t think you were stupid.
David laughs. “Sleep. Watch TV.” Nnnnot my ffff… ffffrst choice. Nnnneeed to talllk to Crrrosssfirre.
Curtis narrows his eyes. The Bastions and Crossfire are allies. They’ve worked together more than once to keep Morrisania safe, and they’ve gone out of their way to help each other even in situations where their goals weren’t necessarily the same. David’s relationship with Crossfire is significantly more complicated: last year they were officially declared a “terrorist cell” by the Department of Homeland Security because they started focusing on public officials accused of corruption.
David spreads his hands placatingly. Nnnot a cop annnymorrr. Immmportant!
Sweat rolls down David’s face. He closes his eyes and rubs the bridge of his nose with his trembling hands. His head is killing him. The process is excruciating, and the effort is taking almost everything he has.
Curtis looks back out the window, thinking it over. David doesn’t blame him for being cautious: David’s relationship with Crossfire isn’t nearly as good as it is with the Bastions. The Bastions are vigilantes, but they’re focused on protecting their neighborhood, and they’re careful not to go too far. Crossfire—Vigilante, Street Ronin, Red Shift—declared war on something years ago, and they take the word “war” seriously.
David has worked with them, and he’s squared off against them, depending on the situation at hand. Lately they’ve been targeting public officials suspected of corruption, which means that lately, David’s been squaring off against them more often than not.
Immmportant, Currtis. Forr thhem.
Curtis studies David carefully, then makes a decision. “OK. Wait here. I’ll set it up.”
David sighs in relief. “Thanks.”
Curtis gets up. “He’s a friend of mine,” he says, looking over his shoulder to the guy working the counter. “Take care of him, OK?”
“Sure,” the man says.
Curtis nods once to David, then walks out of the diner. David watches him through the diner window, trench coat billowing out behind him, until he turns the corner and disappears from view.
The man behind the counter coughs nervously. “Can I get you anything?”
“Glass of water,” David says. His voice shakes. His hands are shaking even harder than they were when he came in. “And a straw.”
The worst part of the wait is wondering who is following him and why. The government? The soldiers? What do they want, and what will they do to get it? If it’s the government, they might be content to follow him and leave it at that. If it’s the soldiers… he decides to move to a table away from the window. He chooses a small table with two chairs next to the bathrooms, out of the way with a good view of the room.
The afternoon crowd comes in. The customers are all black and Hispanic, and when they see the beat up white guy sitting by the bathroom they all have the same reaction—they look over to the guy behind the counter, relax as they get the “he’s all right” nod, then ignore him completely. Morrisania residents have adapted to strange events rather well—when they see people running away, they run away as well. When the guy running the diner just shrugs and nods his head, they stop worrying about it. After a while David starts to relax, sinking into the murmur of background chatter as the regulars order their meals and talk about their day.
The door jingles and the murmur falters. David glances up to see that a new customer has taken a seat at a table near the door—a clean-shaven, young-looking black man wearing a gray sweatshirt and sweatpants. His nose is buried in a book, apparently oblivious to everyone else. They aren’t oblivious to him, though—the conversation among the regulars is quieter. They look uneasy.
David tenses. The regulars don’t know this guy. They don’t know him either, but someone they knew told them not to worry. Nobody in the room can vouch for the new guy.
He keeps his eyes down, nursing his water. It could be a coincidence. He decides to find out.
He stands up abruptly, swaying as he steadies himself against the wall, and makes his way to the bathroom, deliberately leaving his cane on the back of his chair. It’s a short walk, but he has to keep his hand against the wall the entire way to keep himself from falling, and by the time he gets there his side hurts so much he wants to throw up. The bathroom is single occupancy only: a sink, a toilet, a paper dispenser, and a small window where the outer wall meets the ceiling. It’s open, providing the room the only ventilation it has.
On a better day, David might be able to work the pane off the window and climb through it. There’s no way that’s going to happen today.
He locks the door, then uses the opportunity to throw up in the toilet. That hurts, too, but he feels better once he’s finished. He cleans himself up, unlocks the door, and makes his way back to his table.
The guy by the door is gone.
David settles back into his chair and waits. A few minutes later the guy comes back, looks directly at David, then returns to his chair and his book.
“You OK, man?” The guy behind the counter looks David, concerned. “You look really rough.”
“I’m having a bad day,” David says. “Can I get another glass of water?”
“Want something stronger?” the man asks. “You look like you could use it.”
David thinks back to the doctor lecturing about the things he should and shouldn’t be doing. Alcohol was solidly in the “no” column. On the other hand, I’m doing pretty much everything else in that column…
Reluctantly he shakes his head. “Water’s fine.”
The door bangs open again, and once again Curtis steps into the diner. The room quiets momentarily until Curtis gives a general nod, then conversation returns to normal. David sighs in relief as he makes his way to the table.
The man with the book stares at Curtis, then at David. He’s frowning.
Curtis sits down in the other chair. “Ready?”
“OK.” He pulls a cell phone out of his trench coat pocket and quick dials a number. “Hey! You ready yet? Got it all worked out?”
Curtis listens to something on the other end. “Hold on, I’ll check.” He stands, walks over the men’s bathroom, and opens the door. “Yeah, all clear.”
The man with the book has abandoned all pretense of reading. He stares at Curtis openly, a puzzled expression on his face.
David feels something pulse, hears a low whumping sound, and a moment later a Hispanic man with shoulder-length hair walks out, grinning wide.
“Hey Boss,” he says cheerfully. He looks over at David. “That the guy?”
“The man himself,” Curtis says. “David, this is Manuel. He’s new.”
Another one of the Bastions. David nods in greeting. “Hi. Hope you don’t mind if I don’t get up.”
“Don’t bother, man, I got it covered.” Manuel is short and compact, built like an acrobat or a dancer. He moves like one, too—every motion easy and fluid. He wears a red tank top, black cargo shorts, cross trainers and athletic socks. Unlike Curtis, he’s sweating profusely.
He sits down at David’s table and looks him over. “Heard about you,” he says, flashing him a flawless smile. “You look like someone chewed you up and spit you out.”
The man’s cheerfulness is infectious, and David feels himself trying to smile in return. “I’d say you should see the other guy, but the truth is he probably looks better.”
“Yeah, I hate those fights. Grab the table. One hand on each edge. OK?”
David look at the man quizzically.
“Like this,” Manuel says, and grabs the table firmly, one hand gripping each side as if he were getting ready to lift it.
David does it. Manuel notices the shaking in his hands and frowns.
“Hey,” Manuel says, “This is gonna work, OK? But it will probably hurt like hell.”
“What are exactly are we going to do?” David asks.
“Just hold on to the table,” Manuel says, then closes his eyes. “Don’t let go for anything. And get ready. Five, four, three, two, one—”
The entire world tips violently to his right. David cries out in alarm, gripping the table with all his strength as the diner spins around like a cyclone. Everything goes black for a second, then white, then the world spins back into view…
… and they’re not in the diner any more.