The rooftop of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building is designated a Sky Commando refit and refuel center, and the rooftop has been reinforced with a landing pad and chassis support lattice. Alishia Webb lands easily, hitting the pad dead center, and waits as a mesh of steel beams and ruggedized cabling close around the sides and back of the Sky Commando chassis, hooking into it to run an automated diagnostic and set up what resupply is needed. Then she opens the front and steps out as her tactical armor detaches from the inside.
For a moment she feels exposed, standing outside the chassis, wearing only her tactical armor. The armor is vastly superior to the armor in use in traditional police forces—or even in standing armies—but it doesn’t hold a candle to the Sky Commando chassis. It’s hard not to feel invulnerable in it.
Which is stupid, she reminds herself. What happened to David could happen to you, too.
She murmurs the command to retract her helmet, breathes in warm fresh air as the helmet splits into multiple pieces and retracts into the back of her armor, and walks toward the elevator on the other side of the roof. A lone figure, dressed in a black suit and wearing sunglasses, waits patiently as she approaches.
“Agent Henry,” Alishia says.
“Sky Commando,” the man replies.
Special Agent Phillip Henry is a tall, thin man. His skin is very dark—much darker than her own—and his hair, cropped close to his skull, shows traces of gray on the sides. His eyes are completely hidden by his sunglasses. His mouth is, as always, drawn into a thin, straight line.
He looks like a caricature of a Federal agent: humorless, overdressed, and pretentious. It’s the sunglasses that push the look over the top, but she knows the sunglasses aren’t so much a fashion accessory as they are a courtesy. Agent Henry is a metahuman: he always knows when you’re lying, and if he makes eye contact it’s impossible not to tell the truth.
Agent Henry presses the elevator call button and absently fiddles with the knot on his tie. It’s an unusual display of nervous energy.
“Agent Hu usually meets me up here,” Alishia says.
“She’s on leave,” Agent Henry says.
“Because of Grant?”
Agent Grant died a few weeks ago, killed in an incident that turned Division M on its ear. If rumor and scuttlebutt were to be believed, the men who killed him were also working for the Department of Homeland Security.
“Sorry again,” Alishia says, and wishes she can think of something else to say. Losing a member of your team is tough, and it would be even harder on Agent Hu. She’d been his partner.
The elevator door opens. They both step in.
“We need to talk about that,” Agent Henry says. “Very soon. Not now, though. Just… be prepared for the unusual.”
“What’s going on?” Alishia asks. “I haven’t heard from you for weeks—I mean I get that. But… today out of the blue my captain tells me we’re on a new task force, the meeting’s today, and that’s all I get?”
“I suspect that’s all she knows,” Agent Henry says. He breathes out sharply, clearly annoyed. “We don’t know much more than that, either. We’ve been taken out of the loop.”
“Grant’s death?” Alishia asks. “Is it true someone actually stole his body?”
“That’s part of what we need to talk about,” Henry says. “Later. But I can tell you that the vehicles the assailants were driving were issued by the DHS. What’s more, the paperwork was traced back to Division M.”
Alishia’s eyes widen. “Your own people?”
Agent Henry shakes his head. “I questioned everyone here. I expected to find nothing, and I did. But Division M is larger than this office, and I can’t travel to DC and start questioning the office staff there. My abilities are constrained by law, and my superiors prefer to handle things differently. We didn’t contact you because we were told not to during the… ‘ongoing investigation.’”
“Great,” Alishia says. “More political bullshit. So what’s happening today?”
“Today we get to learn about this new task force,” Agent Henry says. “From what I’ve been able to gather it has something to do with the TriHealth incident.”
Alishia nods thoughtfully. The “TriHealth Incident” was a Code Ultraviolet that was triggered when members of Crossfire assaulted the TriHealth building in Manhattan. That was strange, on the surface: TriHealth was a health insurance company, and while Crossfire was probably responsible for raising a few premiums it didn’t have a track record of going after private companies.
Unless, of course, they were fronts for organized crime. When Sky Commando had arrived on the scene, she found that the TriHealth building had made some distinctly non-traditional design choices: strange alloys baked into the walls of the building, a security system tricked out with anti-personnel attachments, not to mention security forces wearing powered armor whose designs appeared to have been stolen from the NYPD Metahuman Division. On top of all that, one of the NYPD’s most celebrated officers, Lieutenant Clive Darius, had attempted to pull rank to keep Sky Commando away from the scene. Darius was already under investigation—Division M had uncovered video evidence possibly linking him to the people involved in Liberty’s murder—but this drew the attention of Internal Affairs.
“Good,” Alishia says. “If Darius is dirty I want to take him out.”
Agent Henry doesn’t reply to that. He doesn’t have to.
They don’t exit on the Division M floors—the elevator continues to descend a few floors until they stop at a level designated simply as “meeting rooms” and exit into a mostly-deserted hallway.
“Everyone in the building has been told it’s ‘closed for fumigation,’” Agent Henry explains.
Alishia snorts. That means everyone in the building knows there’s an important and “secret” meeting going on today.
“I thought it was stupid, too,” Henry says. “Come on.”
They walk halfway down the hall and stop in front of a set of doors flanked by armed building security. The doors are mostly glass, but curtains have been thrown over them to prevent anyone from looking into the room.
Agent Henry flashes his ID at the guards. They nod and stand aside as the doors swing open, revealing a small foyer with another set of doors on the other end.
Alishia follows as he strides across the room and opens the other doors—heavy, metal doors this time—and steps into a large, brightly-lit meeting room.
It’s one of the multimedia rooms the building has, built like a small theater, complete with a stage and ten rows of stadium seats. Alishia and Agent Henry make their way down to the front, where the rest of Division M is huddled together, talking in low voices.
She can’t help noticing how many different groups are in the room. Members of the MTHD—New York’s Metahuman division—are already seated in the back, and she can see representatives from the FBI, the DHS, the Federal Bureau of Metahuman Affairs, and a few other stony-faced groups that she pegs for the CIA and NSA. She’s the only member of the Sky Commando division present, which annoys her, but she relaxes a little as they near the three members of Agent Henry’s team.
“Sergeant.” Brian Frank, a short, mustachioed man with thinning blond hair and impossibly wide shoulders, nods and smiles slightly in greeting. Agent Frank reminds her of one of those rugged cowboys from the 70s—it’s probably the mustache that does it—and she’ll be surprised if he says anything else for the rest of the meeting.
She smiles and nods by way of reply. The lean woman with dark, curly hair standing to Agent Frank’s left laughs in amusement.
“It’s turned into a contest with you two. Whoever says the most words to each other loses.”
Agent Frank laughs. Alishia grins. Neither says anything.
Desiree Malloy laughs again, slapping Agent Frank on the shoulder, shaking her head. Alishia wonders once again where she’s from. She looks… Hispanic? Indian? Neither fits her name.
“I hope we start soon.” The woman to Malloy’s left rolls back a suit sleeve and stares at her wristwatch, sighing impatiently. “I’d like to know what we’re going to do, since we’re no longer doing what we ought to be doing.”
Erin Collins is Agent Henry’s second in command. She vaguely remembers Agent Grant calling her the Blonde Amazon—to her face—and it is the most appropriate inappropriate description Alishia can think of. Collins stands at six-foot-one, towering over everyone but Agent Henry, who comes up about a quarter of an inch short. It’s hard to tell beneath the standard “Division M work suit,” but the way Collins moves convinces Alishia that every inch of the woman is made of muscle.
They’re all metahumans. For all I know she’s their Regiment.
“We should go ahead and take a seat,” Agent Henry says. “They’ll get started roughly twenty minutes after we give up waiting for them.” He doesn’t smile when he says it, and Alishia is left wondering, once again, whether his humor is intentional.
They all choose seats in the front row. Alishia stares at the fold-down seat next to Malloy, hesitating for a moment before she sighs, folds it down, and gingerly settles in. Early versions of the tactical armor were so heavy and cumbersome it would have been impossible to use such a flimsy chair, but Sam Vicks has been obsessed with making the flight suit thin and flexible enough to “wear everywhere.” The latest model is about on par with a soldier’s body armor in terms of bulk and weight. It’s a little wider than she’d like, but it works.
Contrary to Agent Henry’s prediction, as soon as they sit the lights flicker. The buzz of conversation in the room fades as a man in a dark blue three-piece suit makes his way to the podium. He’s a stout man, with thinning gray hair, and sweat gleams off the top of his head. The badge dangling from his front suit pocket identifies him as a member of the FBI.
“Thank you all for coming. I am Special Agent Oliver Nuzzo, and I’m here to read you in to Operation Bad Seed.” Agent Nuzzo reaches into his suit jacket pocket, pulls out a handkerchief, and dabs at the sweat on his pate.
“I suspect none of you have ever heard of ‘Operation Bad Seed.’ If you have, it means we’ve screwed up.” He smiles, chuckling nervously at his own joke, then coughs self-consciously. “Sorry. I’m terrible at this. Operation Bad Seed is a deep cover operation we’ve been running for the last six years, in an attempt to uncover some deep-rooted and widespread corruption that may have been connected to the, ah, PRODIGY debacle.”
That caused a stir. PRODIGY was not a proud moment in US law enforcement history, since it involved a fruitless attempt to track down apparently rogue metahumans—Curveball, primarily—and ended in the revelation that rogue elements within the government were trying to enslave and brainwash metahuman citizens to turn them into remote-controlled drones.
“This has been a secret project out of necessity. We did not know who we could trust, and did not know how to vet potential confidants. We have a man on the inside, but progress has been slow—he’s earned a certain level of trust, but not enough to close in on the inner circle. Unfortunately, our need to remain secret has put him in a very precarious position. I’ll let him explain.”
Alishia raises an eyebrow. Our man undercover is in danger so we’re going to parade him in front of a bunch of cops? That makes no sense.
Nuzzo nods to someone in the back of the room, and Alishia hears the metal double doors bang open as someone walks down the center aisle. She doesn’t bother to look until she hears Malloy swear in disbelief.
Captain Clive Darius is a legend in the New York Police Department. A middle-aged man with a homely, weather-beaten face—as well as a few scars suggesting that more than the weather has managed to get in a lick or two—he nonetheless remains a fit and imposing figure. He is an undisputed hero among the rank-and-file, and practically worshiped in Vice, his division.
He was the one caught on film interfering with Division M’s investigation. He’s the one who tried to pull rank to keep Sky Commando from investigating the TriHealth fiasco. He’s dirty, and what the hell is he doing here?
Darius takes the stage and turns to face the audience. He scans the crowd, his gaze stopping for a moment as his eyes meet Alishia’s. He nods slightly.
“My name,” he says, “is Clive Darius. I’m a captain in the New York Police Department. About six years ago I was contacted by someone representing a large, unknown organization, seeking to bribe me to perform illegal and unethical services on their behalf. Shortly after reporting the bribe, I was contacted by Agent Nuzzo, and I agreed to go deep cover on their behalf.”
The room is silent. Alishia can hear her own heartbeat.
“During that time I engaged in… numerous illegal activities, all with the FBI’s knowledge and under their supervision, in an attempt to determine who was behind these requests. Two weeks ago, in an attempt to deflect further investigation into this group’s activities, I screwed up. I got outmaneuvered by some of the parties in this room, and I failed the task I was given by my ‘employers.’ I haven’t been able to get in touch with any of my handlers since.”
Darius sighs, shakes his head. “I’m pretty sure they’re planning to kill me. I don’t know when, so I’ve been trying to unload every scrap of information I got. That’s why you’re here: you all know about what happened at TriHealth. I know something—not everything, but something—about the people behind TriHealth. I’m going to tell you everything I know, and this Task Force is going to bring them down.”
The room fills with excited whispering from everyone except Alishia and the agents of Division M. They are all staring at Agent Henry, waiting for his reaction.
Agent Henry stares at Captain Darius, brow furrowed. Finally, he turns to the others.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I just… can’t tell.”