They stand on the tarmac of a small but undeniably modern airport, squinting as their eyes adjust from the dim light in the cargo plane to the bright sun shining overhead. Off in the distance they can see a cluster of buildings bearing the logo of the Thorpe Technical Institute—formerly the R&D branch of Thorpe Industries, now a wholly independent entity in its own right. On the other side of the airport is a beach with white sparkling sand. Off in another direction—CB can't tell North from West from East out here—looks to be a small forest, and beyond that there's even a mountain.
“It doesn't look like a fake island,” CB says.
“It's not fake,” Roger says. “We are actually surrounded by water on all four sides. It's artificial. There's a difference.”
Just to the side of the plane is a large biohazard tent, which they are herded toward by men wearing biohazard suits. There are two entrances: Jenny and Hu are sent through the flap on the left while the men are forced to wait in line at the flap on the right. Behind them, more men in biohazard suits unload the seventy-two coffins into a line of trucks.
“Whatever. It's impressive, is all. And big. Well, for something he built from scratch over the last ten years. I mean, there are bigger islands out there, but this one has an airport and his corporate HQ.”
“And a town just on the other side,” Roger says. “Nice one, too. Population ten, fifteen thousand if I remember right.”
CB squints at the office buildings off in the distance. “That doesn't look like it holds ten to fifteen thousand employees.”
“Employees and families, CB. It's a company town. And most of the facility is underground.”
“Of course it is.” CB sighs and looks at the beach. “Oh well.”
“Really?” Roger tries unsuccessfully to hide a smile. “You were never much of a beach guy back in the day.”
“I spent the last ten years in Farraday City,” CB says. “It's kinda nice to see one not littered with needles, human refuse, and the occasional body.”
When it's his turn, CB steps through the tent flap on the right and is immediately intercepted by yet another hazmat-suited technician with a handheld device that he immediately starts waving up and down CB's body. CB waits impatiently while the tech peers at the screen.
“Well? What does your tricorder say?”
“It's not a—” The man breaks off. “You're fine. Please step through the flap to your right, shower, and change into the clothes on the table at the far end.”
“I thought you said I was fine,” CB says.
“You are,” the man says. “This is a precaution only. You'll get your original clothes back. If you want them.”
“Fine,” CB grumbles, and steps through.
It's a chemical shower, it's cold, and it smells terrible. It also instantly destroys the holding power of the gel in his hair, which pisses him off immensely. The clothes aren't much more substantial than hospital scrubs, though a clean white bathrobe and slippers are also provided, which helps. When he steps out the other side, he sees almost everyone else is dressed the same way. Street Ronin is pacing off to one side, muttering to himself.
He's wound pretty tight. CB walks over.
“Not your usual look.” He tries to keep his voice light and friendly. “You almost look harmless.”
“I'm putting up with this because everything I know about Thorpe says he's a stand-up guy,” Street Ronin says. “But they took Vigilante and Red Shift and won't tell me where they are. I get that he's a super-genius and all, but I don't think they understand what's gonna happen if Vigilante wakes up and decides he's having a really bad day.”
CB frowns. “Yeah.”
“I apologize for that.”
CB turns to see a very tall black woman emerge from the tent flap on the left. Her skin is very dark, and her hair is divided into long, thin braids, gathered up in the back into a loose ponytail. She's dressed in the same scrubs and bathrobe as the rest of them.
Street Ronin's eyes widen slightly. “Dr. Mahmoud.”
“I apologize for this whole thing,” she says, sighing slightly. “We were caught off guard by what you found in the containment chambers and felt we really couldn't take any chances. Street Ronin, you have my word that Vigilante and Red Shift are in good hands. Red Shift is already responding positively to his treatment, and Vigilante has been transferred to an area designed to withstand any situations where he might react badly. You further have my personal assurance that no medical or scientific procedures will be performed on them beyond what is necessary to help them recover. That order came directly from Dr. Thorpe himself, and I will see it carried out in both letter and spirit.”
The steel in her voice makes it clear she means what she says. Either that, or she's one of the best liars CB's ever met, but that's not really Robert's style. He sees Street Ronin relax a little and nod. The woman relaxes in turn.
CB turns to Street Ronin. “So you two know each other?”
“What?” Street Ronin shakes his head. “No. She's Alimah Mahmoud.”
“Seriously?” Street Ronin frowns in disbelief. “She's the President of Thorpe Industries.”
CB blinks. “I thought Robert was the—“
Dr. Mahmoud laughs, a clear, carefree laugh that seems utterly at odds with the steel in her voice just moments before. “I just lost a bet,” she says, smiling. “Is everyone finished?”
As if on cue, the right tent flap opens and Roger comes out in scrubs and a bathrobe. “Alimah! I didn't think you'd be here.”
Right. Roger's been here before.
Dr. Mahmoud's smile broadens. “I couldn't miss this, Roger. It's historic.” Her smile fades as she looks at the last of the trucks drive off with the last of the caskets. “And not all of it will be pleasant, I'm afraid. Come on. Robert's waiting for us in his office.”
“Really?” CB looks down at his bathrobe. “Dressed like this?”
Dr. Mahmoud shrugs apologetically. “He'll explain.”
* * *
Robert Thorpe's office is not designed for entertaining guests.
There's no point: since the 90s there have been very few people he's actually wanted to see. The people he has seen have been trusted employees and friends—people he doesn't need to impress. So the office was built to serve as his own private communications center and prototyping lab, allowing him to work on his designs in private while managing other, more mundane matters.
And also highly unusual, very unique matters.
He's never bothered denying the viewscreen that takes up the entire wall behind his desk was ripped off from Star Trek. Like so many other technologists of his day, Star Trek was his muse: it had things he wanted to actually exist, and the “main screen” of the Enterprise was one of his first projects. It's actually a little dated these days—a lot of the high tech firms are moving to holographic displays—but he still thinks it's the coolest thing in his office.
Some people just won't give up their eight-track tapes.
“Show me the tarmac.”
The data on the screen moves to the side as a window opens up displaying the TTI airfield. The cargo plane is still there. The cargo trucks are gone, and the only people he sees are the ones taking down the biohazard tent.
“Daniel, where are our guests?”
“Doctor LaFleur is in the recovery room monitoring Mr. Bernard. Doctor Mahmoud just notified me that eight of the arriving party are on their way to your office.” The voice is human and male. It's a very specific voice, one taken from his past, and the past of a few of the new arrivals.
Robert frowns. “Which eight?”
“CB, Forrest, Travers, Grant, Hu, Barrow, Whitman, and Lange. Mr. Carpenter and Dr. Dalton have been sent to recovery. Mr. Carpenter requires threat protocols in place for certain stages of his recovery.”
“Right. Daniel, from this point forward make sure that members of Crossfire are referred to only by their code names. This includes all official documentation. Do not refer to them by given names to anyone other than me, and then only if there is no chance anyone will overhear.”
“How am I doing today?”
There's a brief pause. Robert feels a tingle down the back of his spine. “The cane will be sufficient.”
Robert stands, with a little effort, and grabs the cane propped up against his desk. It's a lovely cane, black-stained wood with a silver tip and handle, and he hates it intensely. He walks around the side of the desk and waits.
Metahumans tend to live longer—assuming their line of work doesn't kill them, of course—and Robert benefits from that to an extent. His abilities aren't physical, so the effects aren't as pronounced, but other than a little salt creeping into his reddish-brown hair he appears to be a man in his late thirties instead of one almost eligible for Social Security benefits. On a superficial level, he appears to be perfectly healthy and in the prime of his life. But there are pieces of the picture that don't quite fit: the cane. The way he favors his left side. The occasionally pinched look on his face, usually masked but peeking through occasionally, the way his green eyes water slightly. All of these suggest chronic pain to anyone with the experience to see it.
He straightens as the light over his office door flashes twice.
The door opens. Alimah walks in dressed in scrubs and a white bathrobe, followed by Roger, CB, Travers, the two other DHS agents, Street Ronin, Jack Barrow, and a young blonde woman that he almost doesn't recognize as Jenny Forrest.
As soon as he enters the room, CB's gaze locks on Robert's cane.
“I'm back,” Roger says. “I brought some friends over.”
Robert smiles. “Hello everyone. I apologize for the change of clothes. Your cargo raised some concerns and we needed to make sure there wasn't anything lingering in the air. You'll get a chance to change into something more substantial soon—I just thought it best to meet as soon as possible.”
“It's good to see you again, Robert.” Pete Travers' expression is usually inscrutable, but he does look genuinely pleased. “A pity the circumstances are so unusual.”
Robert sighs. “I'm afraid I'm not very social these days. For a number of reasons.” He looks directly at CB as he says this, and moves his cane just a little. CB's eyebrow shoots up, and he nods slightly. “I did hope to make Alex's funeral. Unfortunately…”
“You're on the no-fly list,” Agent Grant says. “Yeah. I work for some real passive-aggressive assholes.”
Robert takes a moment to revel in the agent's unusual frankness. “That's not how I would have put it.”
“Agent Grant is a people person.” Agent Hu is physically the smallest person in the room. She's also the one who can probably blow up the entire island, if she puts her mind to it. “But he's not wrong.”
“But we do technically work for them—well, Agent Hu does. I'm legally dead at the moment. So that puts us in a bit of a bind.” Grant's all business at the moment, and his partner nods in agreement. “I think it's probably a good idea if we get that settled and out of the way before you say anything that we might be forced to use against you later.”
“We wouldn't want to,” Hu says softly. “But we would.”
CB sighs in exasperation, and opens his mouth to retort.
Robert raises his left hand. “It's OK, CB. They aren't threatening me, they're trying to warn me. Agent Grant, Agent Hu, I appreciate the warning. Let's put our current situation in context.”
Hu nods. Grant shrugs.
“You have apparently been traveling with a rogue United States Agent who is wanted for questioning because he aided and abetted a metahuman organization currently classified as terrorist under Title XII of the Patriot Act.” Robert gestures to Pete Travers, who nods, smiling. “You have also, if I understand recent events correctly, actively assisted that terrorist organization on an assault on privately-owned property on US soil.”
“In Farraday City,” Grant says.
Robert nods. “My lawyers agree that's a legitimate mitigating factor, but they don't think it's enough mitigation to account for the identities of the people you were assisting: the aforementioned metahuman terrorist group, a rogue ex-hero and a possibly kidnapped or brainwashed civilian, and one of the closest known associates of one of the most dangerous supervillains in the world.”
“Retired,” Jack clarifies.
“That probably won't come up,” Robert says.
“Yeah,” Grant says, “we're definitely working off-book.”
“In that case,” Robert says, “if Pete trusts you, so do I.”
Travers' response is immediate and unequivocal. “I trust them.”
“That's settled, then. I'm convinced we're all on the same team here, so let me get to the point: we don't know exactly what we're facing at the moment, but it obviously goes much farther than who killed Alex Morgan, and it's tied to whatever was done to the poor people in those containment units. Most of you have been working on pieces of this. I think the time has come to try to fit all the pieces together, and I think this is the perfect place to do it.”
Jack Barrow crosses his arms. “I'm not saying it's a bad idea. It isn't. But there are a few more people involved in this.”
Robert nods. “Artemis LaFleur contacted me early this morning. He and Lieutenant Bernard are in the medical wing.”
“Overmind?” Agent Grant's jaw goes slack as he gapes in undisguised astonishment.
“Afraid so,” Robert says.
Grant turns to Hu. “Overmind.”
Hu sighs and shakes her head. “I'm gonna get so very, very fired.”