CB watches the ocean as he smokes.
The island has a mid-sized town, the town has a small marina, and just off to the side of the marina is a long pier. CB sits at the end of the pier, trying to figure out if he can feel the island floating. It’s an artificial island, after all, and since it’s out in the middle of the ocean he’s pretty sure it doesn’t go all the way down, so it has to float. It’s not so much an island as it is a boat that looks like an island: boats float. Boats also move, and since Robert built it, CB’s convinced that not only does it float and move, it can probably submerge itself. At this point, he’s not willing to dismiss the idea that it can fly.
But he’s focused on trying to feel the island float. On the boat-island proper he can’t feel anything—it’s indistinguishable from solid ground as far as he’s concerned—but out here there’s… something. Maybe it’s just his imagination, but he thinks he can feel the slightest hint of a bob.
The air rustles in a not-quite-natural manner, then something thuds on the pier behind him.
“Hello Roger.” CB doesn’t turn. He flicks cigarette ash out into the water.
“Hey.” Roger Whitman wears blue jeans, sneakers, and a tank top shirt that exposes impossibly solid arms. His tank top is drenched with sweat, and a faint sheen covers his dark skin. He walks over to the edge of the pier and sits, unsurprised that CB recognizes him.
CB wonders what Roger could possibly have been doing to make himself tired. Throwing full-grown bull elephants, maybe.
“Sparring with Red Shift,” Roger says, guessing at the unspoken question.
CB raises an eyebrow. “Really? Last I checked you didn’t like Crossfire much.”
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Roger says. “Also, the enemy of my enemy is a useful sparring partner, and a workout is a workout. That guy is damned hard to hit.”
CB nods. He takes another drag on his cigarette, exhales slowly, then notices Roger’s bemused expression. “What?”
Roger nods at the cigarette.
CB shrugs, then pulls on it again, watching the cherry burn bright red.
“There are kids on this island. What will they think?”
“That smoking is cool,” CB says. “Also, they should all do it so they can be exactly like me.”
Roger grins in spite of himself, amusement winning over disapproval. “You’re a bad man, CB.”
“I am.” CB blows smoke out through his nose. “It’s part of my brooding antihero charm.”
Roger laughs. “Aren’t you a little old for that? I thought you’d be mellow by now.”
“Not mellow,” CB says. “Just tired.”
Amusement fades. Roger looks at him thoughtfully.
“Not physically,” CB says. “I feel exactly the same, physically. Maybe even a little better than I used to. But I’m tired, Roger. PRODIGY broke something, way back then, and I just… can’t… I can’t. I don’t know if I want to play the game any more.”
Roger says nothing for a moment, content to stare at the water rolling up against the pier. A soft wind pushes the cold of the ocean over the pier, causing CB to wrap his trenchcoat around him more tightly.
Roger chooses his words carefully. “What we’re doing isn’t a game, CB.”
CB laughs bitterly. “I’ve got a list of assholes I’d like you to explain that to.”
“Yeah, the politics sucks,” Roger says, “but it comes with the job. You know that.”
“Yeah,” CB says, “I know it. I still hate it.”
“What do you expect?” Roger asks. “We started Project Paragon because the Nazis had already created a squad of super soldiers who were on the verge of conquering Europe on their own. The villains came first. History expects us to be monsters, and we have to prove we aren’t.”
“I don’t have to prove a damn thing,” CB snaps.
“Get over yourself,” Roger snaps back. “If you see a complete stranger standing on your front lawn carrying a fully loaded rifle, are you going to assume he’s birdwatching? Dangerous things without context are scary. They should be scary.”
“That was a perfectly reasonable view to take eighty years ago,” CB says, voice rising. “There was no context eighty years ago. There’s plenty of context now. Hell, there’s not just context, there’s precedent. There are laws and metahuman cops and a great big fucking jail and ‘metahumans are new and scary’ is not an excuse any more.”
Roger takes a deep breath, forcing himself to calm down. “CB, people have a right to be afraid of us.”
CB doesn’t reply.
“I am powerful,” Roger continues, “and I am dangerous. I could destroy New York City if I wanted to. I could destroy any city, if I wanted to. I can’t think of too many people who could stop me. The few who come to mind are other metahumans, and some of them are villains. Some people look at me and see a guy who isn’t destroying the world only because I’ve decided not to. Their continued safety hinges on an arbitrary decision on my part. Can you blame them for being scared?”
“Yes,” CB says. “I sure as hell can.”
Roger sighs, exasperated. “Well I can’t. CB, for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve railed against how the government is corrupt, how politicians are hypocrites, and how everybody just gives up and lets them get away with it. You want everything they do questioned, you want them to be forced to answer to anything they do that might harm somebody. Don’t you think we should be held up to the same standard?”
CB doesn’t answer.
“I think we should,” Roger says. “Can you imagine what would happen if I crossed over to the dark side? You don’t think people should have some kind of assurance that I’m not turning into a monster?”
CB sighs and spreads his hands. “I give up, Roger. Mea culpa.”
“Don’t give up,” Roger says. “Just don’t lose your perspective. We jumped through hoops when we did the job because it showed everyone that we knew there were boundaries, and that we respected them. There are rules you have to follow when you put on the white hat, and sometimes following those rules means the bad guys take advantage of you. That doesn’t mean the rules aren’t important.”
“You sound like Alex,” CB says.
Roger smiles. “Thanks.”
They lapse into a brief silence, CB stewing in his thoughts, Roger content to watch the ocean roll by.
CB grimaces, reluctant to continue the argument, but he presses on. “Why didn’t Alex go public about the virus?”
Roger looks surprised by the question. “You think anyone would have believed him?”
“Why not? He was Liberty. The world would believe him, right? Especially if he released that file… and he already has a reputation for exposing secret government plots against metahumans. Yeah, I’m pretty sure people would believe him. Not everyone, sure, but there’d be enough. So why didn’t he?”
Roger frowns. “I’m still not convinced, but for the sake of argument: if the world would believe Liberty, I have no idea why he wouldn’t go public.”
“I do,” CB says. “Because they’d screw us.”
“Come on, CB—“
“Not all of them,” CB says. “Just the government.”
“Come on, CB—”
“Someone is trying to murder us, Roger. They’re trying to murder us, and they’re willing to murder regular people to do it. Guys who haven’t done a damn thing other than to be born with one fucking piece of DNA that means jack shit to them are doomed to die, just to get at us.”
He flicks the stub of his cigarette across the water, watching it tumble end over end as it disappears into the ocean.
“Just the men,” Roger says.
“I don’t know about you,” CB says, reaching into his trenchcoat pocket for another cigarette, “but I don’t find that distinction very comforting. And it’s not exactly true: the virus can kill any metahuman, right? It’s just the delivery system that focuses on men. What else are they cooking up? Aerosol delivery systems? Infecting the nation’s blood supply? Finding another spell? I don’t think these assholes are going to be satisfied with just the X-Y set.”
“Yeah, OK,” Roger says. “Fair point. What does that have to do with people screwing us?”
CB pulls his lighter out of his other pocket and cups his hand to shield it from the wind. “Because we went public with PRODIGY. Remember what happened? We went public, the government declared the project was illegal, they arrested a bunch of bad guys, and every single damn elected official talked about how horrifying it was that someone had invented technology to enslave and control metahumans. Then there was announcement after announcement about how all the technology and research had been destroyed. So what happened in Farraday City, Roger? I had to kill a man because he’d been hooked up to the thing everybody swore had been destroyed!”
Roger’s eyes widen as he sees it.
“Yeah,” CB says. “Someone screwed us. Someone decided those things were too valuable to destroy. Someone decided there was too much to learn from it. But they didn’t tell anyone—no, they didn’t do that—because they didn’t want to deal with the fallout from the metahuman community. They wanted an ace in the hole.”
“You think Alex knew?” Roger asks.
“About the harness? I don’t know. But he knew the virus was based on PRODIGY research, that was right in the file. And there’s your answer: he didn’t tell the world because he didn’t want the government to swoop in, take charge, and tell everyone that everything was OK, all the while locking away the virus in a safe somewhere ‘just in case they need it later.’ Which is exactly what they’d do, because why wouldn’t they?”
“Because they see lots of people with loaded rifles,” Roger says.
“Yeah,” CB says. “All standing on their front lawn. I get it. They’re frightened. They don’t trust us. Some don’t like us, and some downright hate us. But all the empathy in the world won’t change the fact that someday, someone would come up with an excuse to use it. And we’d be right here all over again.”
“So you think Alex sent you the file because it had to be handled unconventionally.”
“That’s kind of my thing,” CB says. “When he sent me that file, do you know what he said in the email? I don’t know if I ever told anyone. He said ‘you know how I always tell you to tone things down? To show restraint?’ And then he said ‘not this time. Give ’em hell. It’s no less than they deserve.’”
Clouds pass over the sun, momentarily dimming the day.
“Since the first day I met him,” CB says, “Alex has always told me to pull back. He once said that when I do what I do, it’s the equivalent of throwing a live grenade into a crowd of people. He always tried to get me to push only when I had to, and to try to do everything the hard way. I’m not saying I always listened to him, but he was always about me scaling back. And he told me to take off the kid gloves. He told me they deserved it.”
Roger looks away.
“Sorry, Roger. In a perfect world I’d be all for truth and justice and wearing the white hat, but the stakes are too high to do this the regular way. I don’t know how to survive this without crossing a line.”
Roger stands, the planks squeaking softly as he shifts his weight. “Maybe.” He turns his back to the ocean, staring inland toward the town. “Maybe you’re right. But I think you’re missing an important point, CB. In a perfect world, you wouldn’t need the white hat. In a perfect world, the lines would be irrelevant. The reason we have lines we don’t cross is because the world isn’t perfect, and we’re trying to make it better.”
“Sometimes you can’t change the world,” CB says. “Sometimes all you can do is survive it.”
Roger looks at CB, sighs softly, and rises up into the air. Seconds later he shoots across the sky, disappearing from view.
CB watches the ocean as he smokes.