Red Shift is already up—CB isn’t sure he really sleeps—and has apparently already made breakfast. A lot of breakfast: eggs, sausage, bacon, toast, ham, and various combinations of each. CB steps over a puddle of batter and adds pancakes to the list.
Red Shift sits at the small table, eating what appears to be a five egg omelet, six pieces of toast, and a pile of sausage and bacon set on top of seven pancakes. In contrast to the enormous volume of food on his plate, he is daintily sipping a mug of coffee. He’s bent over Jenny’s laptop, staring at the screen intensely.
“Good morning.” Red Shift doesn’t look up from the screen. “Help yourself to food. I think my metabolism is finally settling down.”
CB grunts and pours himself a cup of coffee. He finds a plate, adds two pancakes and some bacon to it, and sits down opposite Red Shift. Halfway through his coffee he realizes he forgot to get a fork. He shrugs, picks up one of the pancakes with his hands, and shoves it into his mouth.
“I was a little worried for a while,” Red Shift says. “I was burning through food like it was the old days, back before I knew how to manage everything. It shouldn’t be acting like this now.”
“Magic.” CB’s mouth is stuffed full of pancake, and it sounds more like “mavvik.”
Red Shift frowns for a moment, trying to process what he said, then nods when the word registers. “Magic. Right. Hadn’t thought of that. We haven’t really had a lot of experience with it, to be honest.”
CB shakes his head, swallows, and rinses it down with more coffee. “Nobody has,” he says finally. “Most people who use it try very hard to stay out of sight, and when they finally come out into the open it’s… bad. The Guardians had to deal with it twice. Two times too many. Both times there were side effects for everyone who came into contact with it.”
“What kind of side effects?” Red Shift asks.
“Different for everyone,” CB says. “It seems to affect technology the same way—Grey Falcon and Gladiator found it drained their power like crazy, and nothing worked as well. Everything was weaker. Regiment couldn’t shrug it off like he could every other damn thing in the world—it could actually hurt him. And he had trouble controlling his strength. He would wind up accidentally crushing things one second and then not being able to open a door the next. Everything around me got weird and random. I can’t explain it more than that. The only person who seemed to be able to work through it was Liberty. Big surprise there, he could work through pretty much everything. Except, apparently, a bullet through his head.”
Red Shift looks thoughtful. “So it affects control. Well, that would explain it. When I first started out I was afraid I was going to starve to death if I pushed too hard. This felt like that.”
“I hate magic,” CB says. “Bad news. And Doyle… Christ. Doyle plus magic is a bad combination.”
“Well I’ll try to stay clear of him in the future,” Red Shift says. “I’ll let Miss Liberty handle it. She seems to be immune.”
“… Miss Liberty?” CB stares at him blankly.
Red Shift shrugs. “I can’t keep calling her ‘Miss Forrest.’ She’s not a civilian any more. And we don’t do first names.”
“Yeah,” CB says. “You guys were pretty funny about that way back when. So basically you’re still the most tight-assed vigilante group in the world.”
Red Shift laughs. “And you’re still incredibly polite.”
CB grins. “I’m not sure Miss Liberty is going to like you using her laptop.”
“I was looking over the medical records you pulled out of TriHealth,” Red Shift says. “And I noticed something interesting.”
“Oh?” CB scoots his chair around the table to look at the screen. “What?”
“Well…” Red Shift opens one of the files. “You already said you thought there was a link between TriHealth and the ‘serial killer’ you were investigating just before Liberty was murdered.”
CB nods. “Most of the victims had TriHealth listed as their insurer.”
“Actually,” Red Shift says, “they all did.”
“No,” CB says. “I remember the police files. Some of them were with other providers.”
Red Shift nods. “They still had TriHealth as a secondary provider. I took the list you gave me and did some searching. Every single one of the identified victims is a TriHealth customer.”
“So there’s a solid link there,” CB says.
“Yes,” Red Shift says. “And there’s more. Every single one of them has a flag on their file that I’ve never seen before. Here…”
He opens one of the files and zooms in on a box that says “other conditions.” In it is a six digit code.
“PROD55?” CB asks. “What’s that?”
Red Shift shrugs. “Not familiar with it. But every victim has it. I haven’t found anything relating to that code yet, but there are a lot of encrypted files I haven’t been able to crack open. Maybe Miss Liberty can do that…”
“Who is Miss Liberty?” Jenny stands in the kitchen door, dressed in a plain blue t-shirt and a pair of gray sweat pants. “Do I smell coffee?” Then, a second later: “do I smell food?”
“Help yourself,” Red Shift says. “You’ve been out for two days.”
Jenny grunts and descends on the remaining food. She doesn’t even bother to take it to the table. CB and Red Shift look on in astonishment.
“Maybe we should start calling her ‘The Locust,’” CB says.
“Funny,” Jenny says, as she fills a mug with coffee. “Wait… were you calling me Miss Liberty?”
CB recognizes the tone in her voice. It sounds uncomfortably like her mother's. “Uh…”
“It seemed thematically appropriate,” Red Shift says.
Jenny narrows her eyes. “Hell no. Also unacceptable: ‘Lady Liberty’ and ‘Liberty Lass.’ As a general rule of thumb, if any ‘code name’ you come up with feels compelled to announce to the world that I’m a girl, it will be disqualified.”
CB’s mouth quirks. “How about ‘Madam’—”
“Shut up,” Jenny says. “Shut up so very much.”
CB grins, then laughs.
Red Shift looks confused. “I don’t see what’s wrong with ‘Miss Liberty.’”
Time to change the subject. “How are you feeling?” CB asks.
Jenny gives Red Shift one last dark look, then sits down in the remaining chair. “Funny,” she admits. “Like my arms and legs are lighter. I’m made out of rubber. Everything wobbles.”
“Just give it a few hours,” Red Shift says. “You’ll feel normal soon. That’s the dangerous part—you’ll start breaking things then.”
“Lucky me,” Jenny says. “What are you doing with my laptop?”
“He found a link,” CB says. He quickly fills her in on the PROD55 code.
“I’m trying to get a look at their medical histories,” Red Shift adds. “I might be able to put that code into some kind of context. But the remaining files are encrypted…”
“Move over,” Jenny says, wiping her hands on her shirt.
Red Shift pushes his chair back, then steps aside. “I guess I’ll clean up.”
Jenny sits down in front of her laptop and starts typing. “I’ve been meaning to get around to this anyway.”
CB gets another cup of coffee. By the time he sits down again Jenny is grinning from ear to ear.
“Did the bad guys do something stupid?”
“Yeah,” she says. “When we were at TriHealth I was copying everything I could find. They stored their encryption keys in the same directory they put their files, so I got those as well. That was sloppy. That’s the kind of thing that gets you fired. Anyway, the files are unlocked.”
She relinquishes the chair. Red Shift resumes his search.
“CB,” Jenny says, “we have to talk.”
CB raises an eyebrow. He jerks his head in Red Shift’s direction. Jenny shakes her head.
“I’ll shout when I find something good,” Red Shift says amiably.
CB and Jenny go into the bunker’s living area.
“Not a whole lot of privacy in this place, is there?” Jenny says. She sits on the vinyl couch—the same place she was when she first heard about cocooning—and fidgets with her hands as she waits for CB to sit.
“What’s on your mind?” CB sits in the old recliner.
“’Miss Liberty.’” Jenny stares at the floor.
“I knew that would piss you off. Look, Red doesn’t really put a lot of thought into names. I mean, I actually think his is pretty cool, to be honest, but keep in mind one of his co-workers is a guy named ‘Vigilante.’ A name he took because he decided to become a vigilante.”
Jenny waves a hand dismissively. “I don’t really care about the sexist bullshit name. Except that I guess he wants me to actually have a…”
CB nods. “He wants you to have a name, yes.”
“Ask him,” CB says.
“I’m asking you,” Jenny says. “At least, I’m asking you first.”
CB sighs. “It’s a Crossfire thing.”
“What does that mean?” Jenny asks. “And how is it you know them? You’ve been gone ten years.”
“Crossfire got started about the same time the Guardians did,” CB says. “So yeah, we have some history. We worked together on a few things, we worked against each other on a few things. They have this thing about code names, hero names, villain names. They only use them. As far as I know they do it all the time. Back when he thought of you as a ‘civilian’ you were ‘Miss Forrest.’ He doesn’t think of you as a civilian any more.”
CB frowns. “I never thought of you as a civilian. You’re family. That’s different.”
“That’s not what I…” Jenny trails off. “I mean… I’m a metahuman. Like you, and Red Shift, and… and great-grandfather.”
“Probably more like him than me,” CB says. “Or Red. But yes.”
“So…” Jenny looks away. “What does that mean, exactly?”
“You know, Jenny…” CB tries to think of a way put it diplomatically. “In other circumstances, I would give you the ‘it can mean anything you want, or nothing at all’ speech. That you could use your powers for the betterment of mankind, or for the betterment of yourself, choose to be one of the good guys, or one of the bad guys, or you could not do anything at all and keep living your life. Some metahumans actually go through their lives not using their abilities at all. But I’m not going to give you that speech.”
“Why not?” Jenny asks.
“I’m not going to give you that speech because you’re neck deep in this thing. So what it means, as far as I’m concerned, is that we need to get you up to speed so that when things go south you’ll be able to handle yourself. You’ve got a chance to do more than crack algorithms or break encryption or any of that other esoteric stuff you do. I mean, keep doing that—that’s useful—but when it comes time to stick it to the people who snuffed Alex, this gives you a seat at the table.”
“What if I don’t want—”
CB cuts her off. “I don’t care. Look, don’t take this the wrong way, but I should not have let you come with me. It was stupid and careless and I was tired after that fight and pissed off about Alex and I didn’t do what I should have done, which was to steal a car and drive off while you were waiting for me to show up. It was dumb and shortsighted and it put you in more risk than you needed to be in.”
Jenny clenches her jaw angrily.
“That said,” CB continues, “if it weren’t for you we wouldn’t have those files from TriHealth. Hell, if it weren’t for you Doyle probably would have killed me. You’ve done good. At the end of the day, we’re better off with you here. But we’re a lot better off with you here if you decide you’re going to commit. It’s better if I can work with you instead of always having to keep an eye on you.”
Jenny doesn’t reply.
CB gets off the recliner. “I know this is a shock, Jenny, but consider that we’re hiding in a bunker in the most corrupt city in America because someone murdered your great-grandfather, and—if Crossfire’s information is right—your uncle might be involved.”
“I can’t believe he would do that,” Jenny says. She stares at her hands. Her voice is very small.
“I can,” CB says. “He’s an asshole. I’m going to take a shower.”
He heads off down the hall. Jenny keeps staring at her hands. Half a minute later she hears the shower turn on.
“He’s kind of a jerk.”
Jenny looks up. Red Shift is standing in the doorway, holding a mug of coffee.
“I like that about him, actually,” Red Shift says. “And I guess you’re more used to it than I am. I only had to deal with Curveball when he was on the job. Apparently he hasn’t mellowed.”
“How much of that did you hear?” Jenny asks.
Red Shift shrugs. “Just the tail end. I agree with him, by the way. Given present circumstances it’s better for you to step up than it is to keep playing civilian.”
“I know,” Jenny says. She sighs. “I just wish I didn’t have to.”
“Understandable,” Red Shift says, “but largely irrelevant. You have gifts that can keep you alive. You need to learn to use them.”
“I know,” Jenny says. “I guess I need to come up with a name.”
Red Shift smiles slightly. “It’d make life easier on me.”