The official meeting is ending. The real meeting is about to begin.
The official meeting, where Robert Thorpe revealed to all present that someone was creating a virus specifically engineered to kill metahumans, and where David Bernard revealed that they were going to use magic to simultaneously infect every male on the planet with it, ends with scientists milling about in a buzz of tense, excited conversation. None of them will sleep tonight: most won’t even bother going home to try. They will, instead, be organizing ad hoc meetings of their own, where they’ll brainstorm the best ways to approach the problem.
The real meeting will consist of fourteen people.
Jenny Forrest stares at the display screen and shudders. It’s a schematic of a virus, and she understands absolutely nothing of what she’s seeing, but if Robert Thorpe says it’s a virus engineered to kill metahumans, she has no trouble believing it. The other part—that the delivery system is a magic spell that, when cast, will infect every male simultaneously—is a little harder to accept. Harder, but not impossible: she’s seen enough in the last month that she’s not willing to dismiss it out of hand.
She looks at the man who made that claim: long, shoulder-length brown hair, a thick brown beard, and blue eyes that alternate between alertness and exhaustion. If anyone had to play the role of a crazed wizard, he certainly looks the part—the problem is, he doesn’t look the part of who he’s supposed to be. Jenny has actually met David Bernard before: once or twice, at police functions. He always looked crisply military, like a hotshot pilot in a war movie. She doesn’t see much of that in the man at present.
David looks up; their eyes meet for a moment. Jenny looks away, embarrassed at being caught staring, and bothered by something else she can’t put a finger on. There was something in David’s gaze that unnerved her—as if something else was staring at her along with David.
He and LaFleur were off researching magic while we were in Farraday City. Did they find anything?
A moment later she adds a second question.
Did anything find them?
She barely hears CB over the buzz of the scientists still in the room. Jenny looks over her shoulder and sees CB standing next to her, staring up at the screen, his face impossible to read. “You understand any of that?”
“No,” Jenny says. A moment later, she realizes he’s referring to the schematic on the screen. “Oh. No.”
CB nods absently. “Yeah, Greek to me, too. Can’t make heads or tails of it.”
Jenny turns her attention to the virus schematic once more. “I think you need advanced degrees to understand that.”
CB shrugs. “I guess. Robert, LaFleur, and Red Shift all seem to get it. And the Lieutenant gets the magic part, I guess.”
“The only thing I remember from college biology is that photosynthesis has a night cycle,” Jenny says. “I don’t even really remember if calling it a ‘night cycle’ is accurate, that’s just how I remember remembering it. You?”
“I have to fall back on high school biology,” CB says. “Which I’m pretty sure I skipped at every opportunity. So the best I got is ‘chlorophyll.’”
Jenny starts to smile, but stops when she catches the look in CB’s eyes. He’s angry. He’s doing his best not to show it—standing casually, speaking conversationally—if she hadn’t seen that look she wouldn’t know it. But his eyes tell a different story altogether.
“Are… are you OK, CB?”
His voice is normal, but those eyes… Jenny shudders and turns her attention to the rest of the room. The scientists are starting to leave in earnest now, a steady stream of small groups, all talking excitedly as they exit.
Everyone else has scattered across the room, bunched together in small groups, conversing quietly. Crossfire is at the very back of the room. Vigilante, Red Shift, and Street Ronin have moved three chairs into a small circle, and they all lean forward, heads bowed, whispering to themselves in voices too low for Jenny to hear—even with her enhanced senses, she can only make out the occasional word, and not enough to make any sense of it.
Too much background noise.
Roger is still in his original seat, leaning back with his eyes closed, looking for all the world as if he’s asleep. LaFleur, Jack Barrow, and now David Bernard are on the other end of the same row. Jack and LaFleur are conversing in a low murmur—Jenny can make out more of their conversation, which has something to do with an announcement LaFleur is going to make soon—while David, like Roger, sits in his chair with his eyes closed. He doesn’t look asleep, though: he looks more like he’s meditating.
In the middle of the chairs the three Federal Agents—Peter Travers, Alan Grant, and Lijuan Hu—are having a rather heated conversation about someone named “Henry.” Alan Grant looks genuinely angry, rather than the cocky, smart-ass demeanor he usually favors, and the clearest parts of the conversation are when he starts cursing… which he does often. Agent Hu appears to be trying to calm him down, while Travers looks on with the same polite, friendly, distant expression he always has when he’s working.
Robert Thorpe is leaning against his desk, whispering something to Alimah Mahmoud. The president of Thorpe Industries doesn’t say anything, but nods thoughtfully as she considers his words.
Jenny looks at the different groups and frowns. She can’t fault everyone for grouping up the way they have—they’re falling back on the people they have the longest working relationships with—but it still feels wrong somehow.
We should be working through this together, right?
Robert grabs the cane leaning against his desk and walks to the center of the room.
Alimah moves to the side of the room, sitting next to Roger, nudging his arm gently. Roger stirs, opening one eye and smiling slightly at Alimah, who nods towards Robert. Roger sits up straight and waits.
The other groups have also quieted and turned their attention to Robert—everyone but Agent Grant, who is in the middle of making a very colorful point.
“—and if we don’t we’re fucked!”
He shouts in almost total silence, his voice ringing off the walls. Hu winces, grabbing his arm, as Travers looks on, still smiling.
Grant turns, noticing—or, perhaps more accurately, re-remembering—the other people in the room. “And I don’t mean it in the good way, either!”
Robert takes a deep breath. “Let’s all take a moment to calm down before—”
“Let’s not,” Grant says. “Look, Doc, no offense to you or anyone else in this room but if we assume everything you just said is true then we’re facing a deliberate, targeted biological attack against the metahuman population on a world-wide scale, with a projected fatality rate of up to 50% of that population, along with guaranteed additional deaths among civilian populations.”
“That’s the worst-case scenario,” Robert says. “We’re not there yet. That’s why we need to—”
“I need to contact Special Agent Phillip Henry in Division M and let him know what the fuck is going on,” Grant says. “Then we need to contact the NIH and FEMA and alert them of a potential metahuman contagion, and alert other countries of the same thing, and get them this information so they can start ramping up to try to counter it.”
Artemis LaFleur shakes his head. “That would be unwise.”
Grant’s laugh is sharp and humorless. “The world’s most dangerous supervillain doesn’t want to go to the cops. Let’s have an in-depth discussion on exactly how not shocked I am to learn that. We can share. Maybe we’ll trade friendship bracelets.”
“Grant…” Agent Hu places a hand on her partner’s shoulder. “Try to be less of a jackass, and at least let him tell you why.”
Grant glares at Hu for a moment, then shrugs. He turns back to LaFleur, waiting expectantly.
“Under most circumstances,” LaFleur says, “and despite your obvious assumptions to the contrary, I would consider alerting the authorities the right thing to do.”
Grant doesn’t bother hiding his disbelief. “You would.”
“I would,” LaFleur says. “Fighting a virus—especially one that can potentially affect the entire world—requires an infrastructure far more developed than any single organization or corporation. Even if we assume Dr. Thorpe and his people can create a cure or vaccine—which is not guaranteed—I’m not convinced Thorpe Industries has the resources to successfully manufacture and distribute it to everyone who would need it.”
“We can probably manufacture it,” Robert says. “I know it doesn’t seem like it, but the metahuman population is very small compared to the entire population on earth. The problem, as Dr. LaFleur points out, is getting a cure or vaccine administered. We will absolutely need the cooperation of local governments to do that.”
“Then what’s the problem?” Grant demands. “I call my boss and we get that started.”
“Because,” LaFleur says, “at least part of the government—at the very least, part of the American government—is in on the plot.”
A grim silence settles in over the room. Grant crosses his arms stubbornly.
“Don’t even try to say he’s wrong,” Hu says.
“You’re not the boss of me, Hu.”
Hu doesn’t rise to the bait. “That’s why Agent Henry sent us with Travers in the first place. Our own people shot you in the back, remember?”
“…Yeah,” Grant admits reluctantly. “Hard to forget.”
“Let’s not forget that our best suspect in the murder of Liberty is a sitting Senator,” Vigilante adds.
Grant’s right eyebrow shoots up. “The Junior Senator from New York?”
Grant whistles through his teeth. “Christ. It’s a goddamn Shakespeare play.”
“That should be our focus,” Vigilante says. “We don’t know who to trust, but we know one person we’re pretty sure we can’t—and if he is behind Liberty’s murder, either he’s neck-deep in the conspiracy or his handler is.”
“How exactly should that be our focus?” Roger Whitman crosses his arms as his mouth droops into a disapproving frown.
“We grab him,” Vigilante says. “Then we ask him questions. Lots of useful questions.”
“No way,” Roger says. “Kidnap a Senator? You’re crazy.”
“I wasn’t suggesting we all do it together,” Vigilante says. “Crossfire can handle it. We’re already a ‘terrorist group,’ and it was only a matter of time before we targeted a corrupt politician that high up.”
“No.” The finality in Roger’s voice makes Jenny uncomfortable. She’s not sure what would happen if Roger and Vigilante came to blows, but she’s pretty sure it would involve a lot of property damage. “We can’t work like that. Not on something this big.”
Red Shift cuts in, sounding uncharacteristically impatient. “Regiment, we don’t really have a lot of options. We know what the bad guys are doing, but we don’t know who they are, where they are, or when they’re going to do it. We have one solid link. We’re not going to kill him.” He glances at Jenny as he says it—the man is her uncle, after all. “It won’t do anyone any good to kill him. We need what he knows. Capturing him is the best way to get that information—it cuts him off from his support.”
“Or his jailers,” Street Ronin adds. “There’s always a possibility that he’s being blackmailed. Not likely, though. Sorry Zero.” Street Ronin nods toward Jenny this time, looking sympathetic but not at all contrite.
“Are you kidding me?” Agent Grant jumps into the fray again. “OK, I’m willing to accept that right now we can’t go public with this, but we are going to have to go public eventually, right? Eventually we’re going to need that infrastructure Our Very Special Supervillain was talking about. No way in hell we get that if we kidnap a fucking United States Senator first. I don’t care how corrupt he is.”
“We don’t need that infrastructure,” Vigilante says, voice tight, “if we stop the virus before it gets launched.”
“Bullshit,” Grant says. “You say he’s behind Liberty’s assassination? What do you think the bad guys are going to do if their pet Senator gets nabbed by Crossfire? Because no offense guys, but you aren’t exactly subtle when you work. Odds are somebody’s going to notice. Probably the Secret Service. They’re trained to notice shit like that.”
“I agree with Agent Grant this time,” Travers says. “If Senator Morgan is taken, and you’re identified for it… well. It won’t be long before Crossfire is identified as the group behind Liberty’s murder, and suddenly the entire world will be focused on bringing you three down. We’ll never make any progress after that.”
“If we do it on our own then the focus will be on us,” Vigilante says. “All we have to do is get you whatever information we learn and then stay on the run while the rest of you do what you have to do. Everyone focusing on us gives you a lot more room to operate in.”
Travers looks thoughtful as he mulls it over.
“You can’t do that,” Jenny says. “Once you do that you become Public Enemy Number One. They’ll have everyone after you. Won’t they?”
Vigilante shrugs. “It won’t be pretty.”
“It won’t be right,” Roger says.
“I don’t see that we have a lot of choices right now.”
“But it’s not what you do!” Jenny protests. “It won’t be just the bad guys coming after you if you do this. Every law enforcement official, every metahuman hero—all they’ll see is Crossfire crossing a line, and they’ll all come after you. Are you going to kill them?”
“Not if we can avoid it,” Vigilante says. “But we probably won’t be able to avoid it all the time.”
“Hold the fuck on.” Agent Grant takes two steps toward Vigilante before he’s restrained by Agent Hu. His body blurs for a moment, then a second Agent Grant appears right in front of Vigilante. His posture isn’t exactly threatening, but his proximity is, and all three members of Crossfire tense as he stares down at them. “If you think I’m gonna stand by while you—“
Robert Thorpe’s voice is loud and firm. The effect is immediate: Agent Grant’s second form blurs and disappears as his first returns to his seat, glowering. Vigilante, Red Shift, and Street Ronin relax. Roger is still frowning, but some of the tension leaves his shoulders as he stops glaring at Crossfire.
“Keep in mind that you all learned exactly what this virus is, and how it will be delivered, no more than an hour ago,” Robert says. “An hour. That’s it. The simple truth is, we haven’t had enough time to come up with a good plan yet. I understand the desire to move now and do something now, but we need to force ourselves to take the time to come up with a plan that will actually work. That means we don’t splinter into different pieces, each with our own incompatible plans. It means we wait and plan together.”
Nobody says anything.
“We’re going to have to work together,” Robert continues. “We just… we have to. We’re the only people who know what’s going on. So far we’ve heard some valid reasons why we shouldn’t, at present, start bringing other people in… so we’re all we have.”
He winces as he rubs the back of his neck, eyes glazing over momentarily as the exhaustion he’s been pushing back forces its way to the front. “Maybe it won’t work. Maybe we’re all too different to sustain an alliance for any significant length of time. All I’m asking is that we wait before we reach that conclusion. Give us some time to come up with a plan we can all agree to first. Give it a week—in a week we should know a lot more about this thing than we do now—and let’s see where we stand. Can we agree to that?”
Nobody says yes—nobody says anything—but it seems to Jenny that the tension in the room has ebbed. It looks like nobody’s saying ‘no,’ either.
“No,” CB says.
Jenny turns, surprised. She’s been sitting next to CB the whole time and hasn’t really been paying attention to him. He’s standing now, his hands thrust deep into his trenchcoat pockets. He’s staring at Robert, looking almost defiant, and as Jenny sees the rage shining out of his eyes she wilts a little.
Robert looks taken aback. “CB?”
“I don’t know, Robert!” CB shrugs violently, his face twisting into an expression Jenny hasn’t seen on him before. Something hard and ugly. “I don’t… Jesus, they call it Project Recall.”
He lets his words sink in a moment. “Project. Recall. Like we’re, what? Defective cars? They’re sending us back? Calling a mulligan? Here’s the problem, Robert: I know you. I know Roger. I know what you’re on board for, and what you’re not. You’re the good guys, and I love you for that, but I gotta be honest, I don’t think this is a fight the good guys can handle. This is a fight only the bad guys can win. I don’t think you’re on board for that.”
Nobody says anything as he leaves the room.