Jenny shifts in her body armor, wishing she’d just hurry up and settle into it so she’d stop obsessing about it. It’s not exactly uncomfortable—it’s not even particularly heavy, thanks to her now-above-human-norms strength—but it’s a layer of bulk she didn’t used to have, and it’s throwing her off.
“You’ll get used to it.” Street Ronin makes a few final adjustments to something on her back. “Faster than you think. I figure by the end of your first fight.”
They’re in her room in the bunker. It’s still her room, despite the fact that the bunker is now putting up six people and was really only designed for two. CB claims he’s lived in smaller spaces with more people, and other guys claim they don’t mind. She figures it’s mostly macho sexist bullshit, but at the same time she finds herself wanting to spend more and more time by herself, so she takes advantage of it. She’s jumped into something she can’t jump out of, and the enormity of it is terrifying.
I’m not backing out. I don’t want to back out. I’m going to do right by these guys.
God, I hope I don’t screw up.
“I haven’t trained in it,” Jenny says. “I mean, when I was sparring with Red Shift I was focusing on being agile—dodging, weaving, not getting hit.”
“That’s good,” Street Ronin says. “I recommend you keep doing that. This armor won’t turn you into Vigilante or Scrapper Jack. It’s mitigation, not absolute protection.”
“I get that.” Jenny tries not to sound impatient. “I do, but… won’t it slow me down?”
“A little, at first, but not nearly as much as you think. And once you adapt? You’ll need to adjust your balance and your stance, but you’ve got Liberty’s strength and reflexes. Give it a while and it’ll be like wearing clothes.”
“If you say so,” Jenny says.
“Don’t worry, Zero. I don’t have super powers, and my armor is heavier than yours, but I can still duck and weave with the best of them.” Street Ronin claps her on the shoulder.
The shoulder pad rattles slightly. He frowns.
“Hold still, I need to tighten that. This is supposed to be stealth-friendly…” He tightens something between the plate and the shoulder and claps her on the shoulder again. This time it just thuds, no rattling.
“That’s good. OK, try on the helmet.”
He holds out what looks like a black paintball helmet, complete with built-in goggles and face grill. She stares at it, not sure what to think.
“Put it on,” he urges. “It’s stronger than it looks. The grill will obscure your features—that’s good if you don’t want anyone to know who you are—and it won’t constrict your breathing. It also won’t protect you from gas, though, so keep that in mind.”
Jenny takes the helmet and puts it on. She immediately regrets having long hair.
“Try a ponytail,” Street Ronin says. “Braiding your hair would be better. Keep it low, right where the back of the neck joins the skull, so it falls down instead of back.”
“Braid. Yeah, OK.” Jenny nods. “Gimme a few minutes.”
“Tell you what,” Street Ronin says. “I’ll go back out with the others—I still have to tweak some of the rest of our gear. Why don’t you take off the armor and get back into it on your own, just to get used to that part of it. Get your hair straightened out, and then come out when you’re ready to tune the helmet. It’s as good a time as any to show the team.”
Jenny reddens slightly. “They’ll laugh.”
“They’re not going to laugh,” Street Ronin says.
“CB is going to laugh.”
“Well, yes,” Street Ronin admits. “Curveball is probably going to laugh.” He grins, turns, and shuts the door behind him as he leaves.
* * *
The common room of the bunker is now an ad-hoc command center. Crossfire’s equipment, fully unpacked, won’t fit in the monitor room, and the whole place is starting to look more like a military command center. Red Shift sits in front of Crossfire’s “mobile network”—the computer rig they take with them when they’re on the road. Four long metal crates, probably filled with weapons, are stacked in the center of the room, and a fifth has been placed in front of the couch for use as an ad-hoc coffee table. Jack Barrow sits on the couch, feet propped up on the crate, reading a dog-eared copy of The Long Goodbye. Vigilante is in the kitchen making coffee. Street Ronin is in Jenny’s room helping her with her new armor. CB stares at all the equipment piled around him and feels a brief surge of hardware envy. Then he looks over Red Shift’s shoulder, examining the images of the warehouses they’ll be attacking only a few hours from now.
They’ve had to be very careful with their reconnaissance. They’re operating under the assumption that the bad guys are well-equipped and extremely paranoid, so they’ve been relying on long-range surveillance. Crossfire has a few floating spheres—Street Ronin gets upset when CB calls them “drones,” but he can’t think of anything else to call them—that they occasionally send on long-distance flybys, taking pictures of the warehouse area in an attempt to determine where the actual hideout is.
It’s an inconvenient process that requires a great deal of patience. In order to minimize detection, the drones don’t transmit anything—they have to be physically deployed and retrieved, their data recovered and processed, and only then can the images be studied. The images are taken at long-distance, so they don’t reveal a great deal of detail. They do, however, show activity, and the batch of images taken the day before show a number of trucks pulling up to one of the warehouses and unloading cargo.
The drone was too far away to pull a license plate, but CB recognized the trucks: Elmuth Shipping. The trucks are unloading cargo, but the pictures aren’t clear enough to determine what that cargo is—crates of some sort, long, rectangular crates.
Or coffins. Crap.
“Could this be where they’re collecting all that medical data?”
Red Shift shrugs. “It’s possible. We don’t know what data the New York office sent them. But I thought you said there wasn’t any tie between the local TriHealth office and this group.”
“I didn’t find one when I went out looking,” CB said. “But I’m looking at one right now.” He points at the yellow-and-orange trucks in the photo they’re studying. “Elmuth Shipping.”
“Oh,” Red Shift says. “That’s interesting.”
“Interesting,” CB says. “Yeah. Also worrying. I’m pretty sure Elmuth isn’t ‘in’ on whatever’s going down—if they’re being used, it’s because they don’t care and don’t ask questions, which is a short-term advantage. But it’s only short-term.”
Vigilante is standing next to CB now, holding three mugs of hot coffee. He sets two down in an empty spot, and takes a sip from the third as he stares down at the blurry image. “You said their security wasn’t great.”
CB picks up one of the mugs and fights back the urge to light a cigarette. “I said it was a joke. These guys aren’t big players. If they’re being used it’s because our Very Special Friends are short on time and couldn’t wait to do it the right way.”
“So they’re planning something big,” Vigilante says. “Big enough that they need to risk being noticed.”
“That’s not good.” Jack doesn’t look up from his book.
“I can’t think of a situation where it would be,” CB says.
Jack looks up from his book. “It means they’ll bolt when they’re done. They’re not bozos. They’re high-level players. They’re… well. They’re operating at Artie’s level. At least at his level.”
CB tries to ignore the strangeness of someone calling Artemis LaFleur, one of the world’s most dangerous villains, “Artie.”
“Oh,” Vigilante says. “I get it. It’s a calculated risk.”
Jack nods. “They’ve decided the payoff is worth losing the base. Whatever happens, as soon as they get what they want, they’re gone.”
“We’d better get going, then.” Street Ronin stands in the doorway dividing the common room from the hall. “Zero’s almost ready. Armor fits pretty well.”
“Yeah, but what’s it look like?” CB asks.
“She’ll be out in a few. You can see for yourself.”
Vigilante looks around the room. “So this is it, then? For real, this time?”
“Now or never.” Jack turns his attention back to his paperback.
CB turns to Street Ronin. “I think I’m gonna want some hardware for this. Hook me up?”
Street Ronin raises an eyebrow, then waves to the crates on the floor. “Help yourself.”
“We better suit up,” Vigilante says.
CB walks over to one of the long metal crates and starts unlatching it. “Use my room if you want some privacy.”
Vigilante nods, picks up a bulky rucksack sitting to one side of the couch, and disappears down the hall. Red Shift stands, stretches, and follows.
“I’ll change after I finish with Zero’s armor,” Street Ronin says.
CB glances at Jack, still buried in his paperback. “Jack?”
Jack shrugs. “Not my style. Pissed about my boots, though.”
“Why?” CB looks at Jack’s boots. “They’re fine.”
“Give it time.”
CB and Street Ronin unstack the crates in the middle of the room, and CB goes through each until he settles on two custom automatic pistols.
“Excellent choice,” Street Ronin says. “You’ll want the holster for those. The belt’s rigged to hold high-capacity magazines.”
“You’re right,” CB says. “I will want that.”
“Might also want to consider this.” Street Ronin hands him a black metal baton about six inches long.
CB takes the baton and flicks it downward. The baton extends swiftly, locking into place with a crisp clack. “This have a holster too?”
“Clips on to the gun belt.”
“Works for me,” CB says. “Put it on my tab.”
“I guess I need a tab, too…”
Everyone looks up as Jenny steps into the room. Her body armor is patterned after body armor made for snowboarders: a series of plates set over more flexible material, providing protection while still allowing for maximum flexibility. The difference is that sports armor is usually hard plastic over nylon, and this armor is metal composite plates over a steel chain mesh—essentially chainmail for the 21st century. The armor plating locks into sockets set directly into the mesh, removing the need for extra straps, and over the armor is a vest harness with pockets and hooks and pouches. Her gloves are heavy nylon and fingerless, and a metal plate is attached to the back of each, coming just past her knuckles. Her hair is braided and coiled into a short bun at the base of her neck.
“Huh,” CB says.
Jack sets his paperback down. “If I were going to have a costume, that’d be a good one.”
Jenny smiles slightly. “It’s not a costume. It’s body armor.”
Jack laughs. “It’s body armor for you. It’d be a costume for me.”
“Now try the helmet,” Street Ronin says.
Jenny walks into the center of the room, grabs the helmet, and puts it on.
“Good-bye Jenny,” CB says. “Hello Zero.”
Jenny cocks her head to one side, which looks a little odd with the helmet. “Yeah?” Her voice is still Jenny’s—the mesh does a good job of obscuring her face, but it doesn’t muffle her voice at all.
“You look like a Stormtrooper and a SWAT Commando had a one night stand,” CB says. “In a good way.”
Street Ronin grins. “I was going for Stormtrooper/Ninja, but I’ll take it. Zero, the helmet has a tactical earpiece so you’ll be able to maintain radio contact. Other than that, all it really does is protect your head. It doesn’t do anything fancy. I didn’t have enough time.”
“It’ll be fine,” Jenny says. “Thanks for all this. I’m sure I’ll be the prettiest girl at the cotillion.”
“You’ll…” Street Ronin trails off, confused. “What?”
CB bursts out laughing.