Robert Thorpe sits alone in his office, studying the information scrolling past his screen. Digital forensic teams have been going through all the data collected from the underground facility in Farraday City, and they've been forwarding him the most interesting bits all day.
And they are interesting. But they're not coherent—not yet. At the moment Robert's juggling, keeping each piece of information in the air until he can find the pattern that makes it fit. Very little fits at the moment, which is to be expected. They're working with incomplete data.
He rubs his eyes and leans back in his chair, reaching for the ceramic mug sitting on the edge of his desk. It's still warm enough to be tolerable, so he drinks, occasionally rubbing the bridge of his nose with his left hand.
“Yes, Robert.” The computer with the voice of his dead friend replies promptly.
“How are our guests?”
“Agents Grant, Hu, and Travers are comfortably settled in their quarters. Agent Grant is also exploring this facility. He is also walking along North Beach, throwing rocks into the water. He's also drinking at Donovan's Pub and Kitchen.”
Robert smiles slightly.
“He appears to be aware that we're monitoring him,” Daniel adds.
“The… instantiation exploring the facility is providing a running commentary on everything he sees. Some of the phrases he uses are very colorful.”
Robert laughs. “I'll bet they are.”
“And the instantiation on the beach is making rude gestures in the direction of the closest monitor. Though he doesn't actually appear angered by the surveilance.”
Robert laughs again. “What about the others?”
“Red Shift was released from the infirmary a few hours ago. He and Street Ronin are in their quarters resting. Vigilante is conscious and in medical quarantine.”
“What's the status there?”
Daniel pauses for a moment. “Quarantine is expected to hold.”
“Good,” Robert says. “Let me know if that changes. Continue.”
“Jack Barrow is pacing in his quarters. David Bernard is still in recovery; Doctor LaFleur is monitoring him. Roger Whitman is asleep in his quarters. Miss Forrest is in her quarters but isn't sleeping. CB just stepped out of the elevator onto this level.”
Robert's eyebrow goes up. “Send up fresh coffee. Let him in when he gets to the door.”
“Very well, Robert.”
He struggles to his feet, ignoring the pain lancing down his left side as he grabs his cane, hobbles around his desk, and makes his way over to a framed poster: it's the group, just after they'd finally received government sanction. They were all so young: Gray Falcon, Regiment, Gladiator, Liberty, Curveball. Well, Liberty hadn't been young, even then. But he'd always looked it.
“And now, only three,” Robert murmurs.
Two and a half, really.
The door to his office opens with a soft hiss. Robert looks up to see CB walk into the room.
He's dressed in a Thorpe Institute track suit, light blue with a single gray stripe traveling up each arm and leg. The jacket is unzipped and hanging open, revealing a plain white t-shirt that's half-tucked into his pants. He's wearing a pair of gray slippers that probably came with the room. Somehow he's managed to spike his hair, though, and Robert is struck by how little he's changed. He is, to all appearances, still in his twenties. He's a haggard twenty-something: poorly shaven, too thin, raggedy hair sticking in all directions, nicotine-stained fingers and an insolent curl at the corner of his mouth where an unlit cigarette dangles carelessly. But it's the look of a young man who lives hard, not the look of an old man who hasn't stopped. He's exactly the way he was the day they first met. Only his eyes look old, and they looked old even then.
Those old eyes stare fixedly at Robert's cane.
“Sorry for the outfit,” Robert says. “I thought it'd be better than scrubs. We'll have more appropriate attire for everyone in the morning.”
CB shrugs, his gaze never wavering. “I didn't pack, and it's nice to be wearing something not covered in sweat and blood.”
“I can imagine,” Robert says. “I was always kind of glad I never had to deal with that. The advantages of fighting crime in a hermetically sealed tin can.”
“With air conditioning,” CB says. “Yeah. I always kind of hated you for that, you rat bastard.” He tucks the unlit cigarette behind his right ear.
Robert gestures toward the poster with his cane. “Remember this?”
CB's gaze flickers briefly away from the cane, glancing at the poster, then returns. He frowns, then stares at the poster intently. It takes him a moment before he realizes what he's looking at, then he's grinning like a madman.
“I don't believe it.”
CB walks up to the wall and peers at the poster intently.
“I don't fucking believe it. Robert! Honest to God, I thought these were gone forever.”
“I found a few on eBay, about six years back,” Robert says. “I'd wanted one for a while. This was the best of the lot.”
“Man, this brings back memories,” CB says. “I forgot how pissed off we all were about having to do this thing.”
“Completely my fault,” Robert says. “I thought having a publicist would be good for the group. I was really, really wrong about that.”
“Yeah you were,” CB says. “You can't tell in the picture, but Alex is grabbing the back of my trenchcoat with his left hand—right under the back of the collar—to keep me from running off. And look at Danny! God, he was so pissed.”
“He didn't like the way the photographer 'improved' his costume,” Robert says.
CB throws his head back and laughs. “That's right! The photographer—what was his name, little guy, big mouth, reminded me of Joe Pesci—he kept going on and on about how terrible Danny's name was. 'Why are you a falcon? You don't look like a falcon! You don't even have a friggin' bird on your chest! All due respect.'”
“'All due respect,'” Robert says. “That's right. He kept saying that. And Daniel kept trying to point out that the clasp on his utility belt was shaped like a hawk.”
“'Your crotch?'” CB mimics the pitch and cadence of the man's voice perfectly. “'You want people to look at your crotch in order to remember your name? What is this, a porno?' And then he pulls out the feather-cape and beak mask…”
“…and Daniel says there's no way he'll wear those things in a fight…”
“And then the guy says 'it's a falcon, fer Chrissakes, just put it on...'”
“...and so he puts them on, just to get the guy to shut up…” Robert adds.
“…which doesn't work,” CB continues, “because then for the rest of the shoot he keeps saying 'you look regal. You look friggin' regal.'”
“That's right,” Robert says, chuckling. “Wow. That was a miserable day.”
“Yeah,” CB says. “The worst.”
They lapse into silence, staring at the poster.
“So why the cane, Robert? What's wrong?”
Robert's smile turns a bit sad. “Just years of good living, finally catching up to me.”
“Oh? So you finally became the billionaire playboy you were always meant to be?”
Robert laughs sharply. “That's not good living.”
The door to his office opens again, and a heavyset man in a white waiter's uniform rolls a coffee tray into the room.
“Thanks Pete.” Robert waves once. The heavyset man nods, turns and leaves.
CB makes a beeline for the coffee. “Can I get you one?”
“Cream, two sugars.” Robert goes back to his desk, gingerly easing himself into his chair.
CB sets a fresh mug next to the near-empty one, moves a chair around to the side of Robert's desk, and sits, waiting patiently.
Robert takes a sip of coffee, thinking. “Remember Wasteland?”
“Hard to forget the alternate universe where everyone exists but you.”
“Remember the bunker where we found their Robert Thorpe?”
“What was left of him,” CB says.
Robert frowns. “Yes. Targeted by a virus that had been engineered to kill him—him specifically. Since we didn't know how to detect it, and their Thorpe never figured out how to cure it, I stayed in my armor the whole time we were there. Two and a half months, I think?”
“That sounds about right,” CB says.
“That's when it started,” Robert says. “I thought I was just exhausted at first. I mean, we all were. And Daniel… well. His funeral took a toll. And right after that came PRODIGY, right on schedule. Everything was chaos, everyone was stressed. I didn't realize what was happening for years. By then it was too late.”
CB leans forward. “What was happening?”
“It was my suit,” Robert says. “You remember when Popular Mechanics had an article that tried to figure out how I controlled the suit? Obviously it's armor, so I can't sit back and throw switches to turn things on and off. In the end they decided everything was voice activated, which was actually the way it worked in my earliest models. But by the time that article came out, I was controlling everything by thought.”
CB purses his lips thoughtfully. “It was when you switched to the new helmet, right? You ditched the one in the poster—the one that actually looked like a gladiator's helmet—and switched over to the astronaut motorcycle thing.”
“That's right,” Robert says. “It had a neural link that translated brainwave patterns into system commands. I didn't have to say anything—I could just think and the suit responded.”
“I never knew that,” CB says.
“I didn't talk about it much,” Robert says. “It was very finicky technology. I was hoping to refine it before unveiling it. Then all the lawsuits happened and I stopped talking about my research entirely.”
“The thing is…” Robert looks back over at the poster. “As cool and as useful as the neural link was, it wasn't entirely safe. Brainwaves aren't exactly easy to decipher. If they were, we wouldn't need telepaths to read minds. The technology that went into the neural link was pretty advanced—still is, I guess—but it could only read very basic patterns. On its own I could get it to turn the suit on and off, and to activate the flight system. I needed it to detect more granular patterns. And since I couldn't make the sensors more sensitive…”
He grins sheepishly, then shrugs.
“I decided to make my nervous system louder.”
“Louder,” CB says.
“Like an amplifier,” Robert says. “The suit boosted my nervous system a little. It made everything easier for the neural link to read. It worked great, the tests I ran indicated it was safe, as long as I kept the boost within a very specific range. Which I did…”
“But you missed something,” CB says.
“I didn't think about the effect sustained boosts would have over time. And then there we are, in an alternate reality, and I'm stuck in the suit for two and a half months…”
“Christ,” CB says.
“That's where the damage started. After that, it didn't matter how long I was exposed—each new exposure messed me up just a little bit more. By the time I figured it out it was too late. I managed to roll back the damage a little. I don't have seizures any more. But tremors, lancing pain, periods of prolonged weakness… it varies day to day.”
“Christ.” CB shakes his head in disbelief. “You blew your own speakers.”
“As good an analogy as any,” Robert says. “It's another reason I've become the recluse I am. I don't want to give my enemies any extra encouragement to come after me.”
“Sure,” CB says. “Except that you've got a few on your island right now. As houseguests.”
“Crossfire aren't enemies,” Robert says.
“I'm not talking about Crossfire, Robert, I'm talking about Artemis LaFleur.”
“LaFleur isn't my enemy, CB. He's my doctor.”
“There aren't many people who really understand metahuman biology,” Robert says. “Not in an authoritative sense. And LaFleur leaves the rest of us cold. If it weren't for him I'd be much worse off than I am today.”
“Don't get me wrong,” CB says, “he's a pretty stand-up guy for a megalomaniac who wants to rule the world. But he's still one of the most dangerous villains on the planet.”
Robert's laugh mixes bitterness and amusement in equal measure. “CB, I'm on the United States no-fly list because I wouldn't do my patriotic duty and hand over everything I'd created to the government so other people could take credit for everything I'd devoted my life to creating. I had to move my base of operations to international waters to make sure no other government would try the same thing. I'm a disgraced hero and scientist living on a floating island. If you look at the world a certain way, I'm one of the most dangerous villains on the planet.”