Forces Gather: Part Seven

Submitted by C B Wright on
Lines of Communication

The rain has picked up since they arrived at the apartment, and the fire escape is so slippery from the mixture of rain and grime that Jenny’s first attempt up the ladder is almost her last. Her foot slips, her body twists, and she feels herself falling over the edge. She avoids falling by thrusting the crook of her arm through the top rung of the ladder. She dangles there for a moment, trying not to panic, then manages to get one foot back on the ladder, then another.

She makes her way up the remaining seven floors, then finally pushes herself up on to the roof. The roof is a flat, shallow depression that is currently a pool of filthy water about two inches thick. She grimaces as she hauls herself over the edge of the roof, and grits her teeth as she slogs across the roof, looking for the ladder.

The ladder is stuck, and she has to struggle to get it to extend. Eventually it does, emitting a loud squeak of protest all the way to its full length. Getting it across the building to the one next door—a building of similar height and quality, complete with its own shallow pool of filth on the roof—is considerably easier to do. Crawling across it, however, is terrifying. She clings to the ladder and forces herself not to look down, ignoring the way the ladder shakes and rattles in the wind, and ignoring that it creaks every time she shifts her weight on it. When she finally crosses she pulls the ladder along behind her. The fire escape is at the far end. It’s wider, sturdier, and in much better condition; it’s much easier to climb down than the one on CB’s building was to climb up.

Once she hits the ground she starts running. For a while that’s all she does: CB wanted her away from whatever was in the building, so she focuses on doing that first. Despite the events of the last few days she finds she has more than enough energy for running. She follows the boardwalk for a while, then, suddenly remembering some of the things CB had said about the boardwalk, she abruptly veers inland for a few blocks.

When she finally slows down, she realizes she has no idea how to get to the pawn shop. She knows where she is in relation to CB’s apartment, but they got there through the sewers. She needs a map. She doesn’t have one. She doesn’t know where she is. She doesn’t know where to go. And, once again, she’s drenched to the bone.

She looks around for a shop, or a restaurant, or even a bar. She doesn’t see anything like that. It looks like she walked into a warehouse graveyard: empty buildings, boarded up with shattered windows, large, empty loading bays, graffiti on all the walls and trash everywhere. She doesn’t see any people, though, and that surprises her. Based on what CB had told her, she expected to see homeless.

The building to her right looks as if it were gutted by fire, but the roof appears to be intact, and she wants to get out of the rain. She makes her way up a concrete loading bay and walks through the open bay door into a dark, cavernous room filled with debris. She stands in the doorway, shivering despite the summer heat, and tries to decide what to do next.

She has to get to the pawn shop. She has to figure out where the pawn shop is. There are only a few ways to do that, and none of them are particularly safe. Asking random passerby for directions is dangerous, Farraday City being what it is. Being lost, she assumes, will be interpreted as being vulnerable. She doesn’t want to deal with that at the moment. The other option is to turn on the GPS in her smartphone—even without the SIM chip, she should still be able to use that. But that’s probably a bad idea on an entirely different level. She has to assume that the “bad guys”—whoever they are—will be waiting for her to use something like that. The best solution, she thinks, would be to get on a city bus and ride it until she reaches the terminal. She knows how to get to the pawn shop from there. The problem with that plan is that she’ll have a higher chance of running into the police, or into the TriHealth people who are looking for them.

Or she could find a pay phone, call Elliot, and get him to come to her.

She shoves her hands into her jacket pockets. Her right hand closes around the cell phone—the one Travers gave CB. She pulls it out. It’s a cheap model, with a flip top and a very basic LCD display. She takes a breath, flips it open, and turns it on.

The phone takes a few seconds to boot. She accesses the address book, and finds a single entry—a New York phone number, no name, no address. She dials it.

The phone rings three times, then she hears Pete Travers’ voice on the other end.

“CB, this is not a good time.”

Travers’ voice is muffled. It sounds like he’s outside, which is unusual. Jenny can hear cars driving by.

“Uncle Pete?”

Travers hesitates a moment, then clears his throat. “Jenny?”

“Uncle Pete, we’re in trouble. CB needs help. He gave me this phone and told me to call you. I don’t know what’s going on but he says it’s magic and he told me to run.”

“Wait, what? Hold on.” She hears Travers puffing—he’s running. The street noise fades, and when he speaks again his voice is a little less muffled. “Did you say magic?”

“Yes.”

Travers sighs. “OK. This is… kind of an inconvenient time. Where are you now?”

“I’m in a warehouse…” Jenny says.

“Right, sorry, I mean city. What city are you in?”

Jenny hesitates, torn between caution and desperation. Desperation wins. “Farraday City.”

“Really?” Travers sounds mildly surprised. “That’s interesting. Um, something happened at the office recently, and I don’t have access to as much support as I'd like, but I do have a few options. Hold tight. I can’t promise anything. The support may be unconventional.”

“I’m not sure what normal support would look like, right now,” Jenny says.

Travers laughs a little. “That’s fair. Jenny, after we hang up I need you to keep the phone turned on.”

“I thought this phone could only be used once safely,” Jenny says.

“Don’t call anyone with it. Just leave it on.”

“OK,” Jenny says. “Thanks.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” Travers says. “Stay safe. If everything works the way I want you’ll have help soon.”

“What if it doesn’t work the way you want?”

“Well,” Travers says, “then I guess it must be Tuesday.”

The line goes dead. Jenny stares at the phone, sighs, then puts it back in her pocket, careful not to shut it off first.

Fraulein Forrest.

Jenny spins in alarm. She sees the pistol first: a modified Luger, larger and heavier, with an elongated barrel and a larger bore. The man looks about her age, maybe a year or two older, and is dressed in black combat fatigues. He’s clean shaven, his blonde hair is cut short on the sides, slightly longer on top. His clear blue eyes are hard and calculating. He carries himself with ease and confidence; he radiates a sense of purpose that reminds her inexplicably of her great grandfather.

She tears her gaze away from the pistol and forces herself to look the man in the eye. It is only then that she recognizes him. He’s the man from her great-grandfather’s security feed. He’s the man who murdered him.

“Richter.”

Johann Richter, the most infamous metahuman of World War II, smiles politely in return.

* * *

Peter Raphael Travers stands in a New York alleyway, stares at his cell phone, and sighs.

“Shit.”

He stares at the ground for a moment, thinking quickly. Then he starts walking deeper into the alley.

“Marty is going to kill me. Assuming no one else does first…”

Travers is no longer dressed in a slightly rumpled, nondescript suit. He’s wearing blue jeans—something he hasn’t done in decades—and a garish red-and-blue Hawaiian shirt that isn’t tucked in. His hair is gone—he’s completely bald—and he has a day’s growth of beard. It’s enough of a change that most of the people who are looking for him who know him might not recognize him on a first pass. He carries a camping backpack slung over one shoulder. As he walks farther into the alley, he unslings his backpack and starts tugging at the drawstring on top.

When he’s out of view he starts digging through the backpack in earnest. Eventually he finds what he’s looking for—another disposable cell phone. He pulls it out, turns it on, waits for the beep, then closes his eyes and tries to remember the number.

He dials.

He waits.

* * *

Vigilante sits in the Tactical Room of the safehouse, monitoring news feeds. The morning news shows—usually reserved for superficially cheerful topics, birthday announcements, and weather and traffic reports—are breathlessly reporting on the explosion that leveled Senator Morgan’s Schenectady home.

So far the narrative is that terrorists blew up his house. The press, of course, is trying to find a link between the attack on the Senator’s home and the attack on the Forrest Brownstone. The official government statement is that “no information on a link has been proven at this time.”

There is video of the destroyed iron gate and the furrow Red Shift created while exiting the house. Thankfully, due to Street Ronin’s snoop, there is no footage of Red Shift.

That we know of.

Vigilante sighs, drinks day old coffee, and tries to figure out what to do next.

“What’s the damage?” Red Shift comes into the room balancing four fast food bags on top of two boxes of donuts. He sets them down on a small table next to the computer desk and pulls up a second chair.

“Light breakfast?” Vigilante suppresses a smile. Every time Red Shift pushes the limits of his speed he spends the next few days eating a seemingly endless stream of fatty and sugary foods. What’s weird is that it doesn’t matter how long he was running: last night he only topped out for a second or two, but it triggered this reaction just the same.

“Well, I had those pizzas when I got back.” Red Shift grins good-naturedly as he opens the first bag, unwraps an egg sandwich, and starts wolfing it down.

Vigilante turns back to the feeds. “Nothing publicly tying Crossfire to the Senator’s mansion. Not even on the rumor sites. So that’s something.”

Red Shift nods, his cheerful demeanor changing into a thoughtful, pensive look. “I hate to say it, but I think this is a win for the bad guys.”

Vigilante raises an eyebrow. “How do you figure?”

Red Shift shrugs, then reaches for the second bag of food. “If we assume the Senator is working for them, all they need to do is claim that he was attacked by the same group who attacked Martin Forrest. Then they can come up with any fall guy they wish. They get an extra layer of protection because one of their people is now a ‘victim.’”

“I agree.” Artemis LaFleur steps in to the communications center, nodding politely to both of them. “I would, if I were them, use this opportunity to pick a credible target and accuse him—or her—of being responsible for Liberty’s murder, the attack on the Forrest residence, and the explosion. I would target someone the conspirators consider a threat, and the performance I would put on for the public would be spectacular enough to justify whatever actions I’d need to take to further my own aims.”

Vigilante doesn’t like working with villains. From time to time he’s worked with heroes, which has its own challenges, but nine times out of ten heroes have the same general goals he does. Villains, by and large, don’t—but LaFleur is complicated. His aim, his mission in life, is to save the world from itself. The way he chooses to do this, from Vigilante’s perspective, is alarming… but, in very specific circumstances, it makes him easier to trust.

“OK,” Vigilante says. “That sounds reasonable. But who would they go after?”

“I can’t say with certainty,” LaFleur says, “but given how effectively they’ve neutralized all my contacts in the government, I’m inclined to believe I’m in the running.”

Vigilante nods slowly. “I could see that. You’re famous enough that the public would eat it up, and your reputation would make it easy to justify all kinds of extreme actions in the name of taking you down.”

“It’s not really his style, though,” Red Shift says, wiping his mouth on a napkin before reaching for the third bag. “I mean, when I first heard Liberty was murdered, Overmind wasn’t even in the running to be put on my list of possible suspects.”

“Mine either,” Vigilante agrees. “But the public would probably focus more on the fact that he’s tried to take over the world twice.”

“Three times,” LaFleur says. “Though the third attempt was, I grant, too subtle to make the news.”

Vigilante shrugs. “You see my point. You have a reputation for trying to take over the world. You’ve been out of the public’s eye for years. All they have to say is that you’ve been ‘radicalized’ and are adopting extreme measures because this time around, you’re playing for keeps.”

LaFleur smiles slightly. “You don’t have to convince me. I’m already taking precautions.” Something in his jacket buzzes. He reaches in, pulls out a very expensive cell phone, and looks at the number. One eyebrow shoots up and he frowns.

“Odd,” LaFleur says. “I don’t recognize this number.”

Vigilante tenses. Red Shift stops chewing for a moment, frowns, then swallows his sandwich.

“You want to trace the call?” Vigilante asks.

“Yes,” LaFleur says. “I very much do.”

“I’ll get Street Ronin,” Red Shift says. He hurries out of the room.

Seconds later Street Ronin hurries into the room, sits down in Red Shift’s chair, and starts typing at the computer furiously. “Hook up the phone.”

Red Shift hands LaFleur a micro USB cable. LaFleur attaches it to his phone, Red Shift attaches the other end to a hub sitting next to the monitor.

“OK,” Street Ronin says, “put it on speakerphone.”

LaFleur presses a button on his phone and says “yes.”

“My name is Peter Raphael Travers.”

The room is uncomfortably silent. Red Shift, Vigilante, and Street Ronin exchange uneasy glances.

“I believe you know who I am,” the voice continues.

LaFleur takes in the information, apparently unfazed that a Federal agent called his personal phone. “I do.”

“I expect you’re wondering how I have this number,” Travers says. “Let’s not get into that. The short version is ‘I’m a spy’—the long version is more interesting, but it’s long. Instead, I want to talk to you about Curveball.”

LaFleur reacts then. His lips thin, he cocks his head to one side, and he stares at the phone intently. His curiosity has been piqued. “Do tell.”

“I am operating under the assumption,” Travers says, “that you want to assist him in his investigation into Liberty’s murder. Do I assume correctly?”

“You do,” LaFleur says.

Red Shift looks from LaFleur, to the phone, to Vigilante. Vigilante shrugs.

“Glad to hear it.” Travers takes a deep breath. “Curveball is in Farraday City. He is there with Martin Forrest’s daughter, and she has just contacted me asking for help. They are, at this very moment, in trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?” LaFleur asks.

“Magic,” Travers says.

“That’s 800 miles from here,” LaFleur says. “And searching for anything in Farraday City is… problematic.”

“I can’t help you with travel arrangements,” Travers says, “but the young lady has a cell phone. I can give you the phone number. I can also give you access to a satellite that will allow you to pinpoint the location of that cellphone in a matter of minutes. One-time access, of course—I expect they’ll detect the breach immediately, but it should take them at least an hour to kick you off.”

LaFleur purses his lips thoughtfully.

“I’m not in a position to help them right now,” Travers says, “but just between you and me—and anyone else who might be listening in—if the bad guys want someone dead, keeping them alive is usually a fantastic idea.”

LaFleur looks at Vigilante questioningly. Vigilante nods.

“Give me the information,” LaFleur says.

Travers recites three numbers—a telephone number, an IP address, and a password—then disconnects the phone.

“He was in the city,” Street Ronin says. “But I didn’t get him.”

“Do we think it’s really him?” Vigilante asks.

LaFleur considers the question. “Yes,” he says finally.

“Six minutes,” Red Shift says.

LaFleur turns his attention to Red Shift. “I beg your pardon?”

“I can be in Farraday City in six minutes. Street Ronin, can you give me a weather report?”

“Six minutes,” LaFleur repeats.

“It won’t be quiet,” Red Shift says. “Someone’s going to notice. But I’ll get there before they can do anything about it.”

“It’s clear all the way there,” Street Ronin says. “Raining like hell in the city limits, though.”

“That’ll be fun.” Red Shift looks at the boxes of donuts longingly and sighs. “Give me a hand with the rig?”

“Yeah,” Street Ronin says. “Vigilante, hack in to the phone, then send the location to his visor.”

“Got it,” Vigilante says. Street Ronin gets up and leaves with Red Shift; Vigilante moves to his spot and starts typing.

“His rig?” LaFleur asks.

“It’s like a ruggedized IV,” Vigilante says. “Pumps nutrients and glucose into his body.”

“Why?”

Vigilante keys in the last number Travers gave them, and the computer monitor updates to display a map of the United States. Halfway down the Georgia coast is a tiny blinking red dot. “So he doesn’t starve.”