Part Four: Crossfire
“For a factory that was shut down by the EPA, it sure gets a lot of traffic.” Street Ronin stands on the roof of an old warehouse two buildings down from the factory in question. He puts down his binoculars, turns to the other two men standing with him, and shrugs. “I saw Mauler, but I don’t know if the others are there. Mauler’s kind of hard to miss, though.”
“Leave Mauler to me.” Vigilante rolls his right shoulder, then his left. Limbering up. “Greg, you need to find where they’re keeping the ‘cargo.’”
Red Shift nods absently. “No problem. You gonna keep it together tonight?” He asks the question lazily, but there’s an edge to it.
“Yes.” The annoyance in Vigilante’s voice is obvious.
“Just wanted to know how to plan the rest of my evening.” Everything Red Shift says comes across as easygoing and laid-back. He’s the most low-key speedster Street Ronin has ever met. Either that, or he’s the most amazing actor Street Ronin has ever met.
“God damn it, Greg—” Vigilante stops short, takes a breath, and forces himself to calm down. “It’s been pretty bad lately,” he admits.
“Glad you noticed,” Red Shift says. “Worried about you, Chief.”
“You’re dying too much,” Street Ronin adds.
Vigilante nods. “Pushing too hard,” he says. “But it got us this address. And damned if we’re not taking Darius down tonight.”
Street Ronin checks his rifle and his pistols one last time before going in. “Alive?”
“Preferably,” Vigilante says. “But we’re not the good guys.”
We’re the guys who get it done. That’s the second part. It’s always been the second part, for as long as they’ve been working together. Street Ronin and Red Shift nod, almost in unison.
“Try not to get killed, Tommy,” Red Shift says, slapping Vigilante on the back. “You’re always so grumpy after.”
Vigilante chuckles. “Yes, mother.”
“Target priorities,” Street Ronin prompts.
“Yeah…” Vigilante thinks. “I’ll focus on Mauler. If he’s the only one there, then Greg finds the cargo and takes down anyone on guard. Hector, you’ll be taking out anyone else.”
“Sure,” Street Ronin says. “That’s the easy scenario. What if the whole crew is there?”
“Earsplitter got tagged by Sky Commando a few weeks back. She’s in the Pit now. Or should be. I didn’t hear about any breakouts. If Flicker and Target are there… well, Greg, you’ve got Flicker. Hector might get a lucky shot off—”
“Doubt it,” Street Ronin says sourly. “Too fast.”
“That leaves you, Greg. Hector, if Target’s there things will get really messy, because he’ll probably kill the cargo out of spite. And if we’re taking on all three, that’ll give Darius a chance to bolt.”
“If the whole gang is there we’re screwed,” Red Shift says, “but best bet is you and Hector take ’em on first, while I take down the goons. I’ll have a few seconds before Flicker notices.”
Vigilante thinks it over. “Yeah. That’s a better plan. Hector, that means you and me, we go in first. Greg doesn’t come in until we can assess, then he can either target goons or go for the cargo, however it goes.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Street Ronin says.
Red Shift laughs. “You always say that. You never say if it’s a good plan.”
“We never have good plans,” Street Ronin says.
Red Shift laughs again.
“Visors down,” Vigilante says. “Time to fight.”
Most heroes and villains have unique costumes that are intended to reflect their individuality, their strengths, their weaknesses, or some kind of theme that reflects their basic nature. Some groups adopt costumes that are similar—variations on a theme—but they still adopt personal touches. Crossfire’s uniform is intended to be identical. The reason is simple: in their costumes, Vigilante, Red Shift, and Street Ronin look essentially the same, which makes it that much harder for them to be identified out of costume.
A very observant person might notice that Street Ronin’s skin is slightly darker than the others, or that Red Shift’s hair is light brown, while Vigilante and Street Ronin have almost coal-black hair. But they are roughly the same size, and wearing the body armor they appear to have roughly the same build. With the visors down no one can see the color of their eyes.
The uniform is Street Ronin’s design: black, snug-fitting, reinforced with armor over all the vital organs. A yellow, stylized target sits over the left breast, but other than that, there are no markings. Their visors almost look like ski goggles: the faceplate is a dark, glass-like lens that covers almost a third of the face. It does more than provide anonymity: it has UV and IR displays, as well as the secure comm channels they use to coordinate their actions. The original design had the visors attached to a ski mask, to obscure the faces completely, but Vigilante found the ski mask was too easily twisted around in close combat, and too difficult to readjust. Now a thick elastic strap keeps the visor over the face, and a simple tug repositions it as needed.
Vigilante looks out at the old factory, clenching and unclenching his fists. “Sentries still there?”
“Hold on.” Street Ronin pushes up his visor and takes out the binoculars again. He reminds himself to try to add a zoom setting to the visor display. “Yeah. Same three. One fell asleep.”
“Take ’em out quiet,” Vigilante says.
Street Ronin goes over to the big gun sitting on its tripod. It’s the size of a machine gun, but it’s not. It’s large because it uses a magnetic field to propel iron wedges through the air with the power of a high-end hunting rifle. It’s a little unwieldy, but it has the advantage of being silent. He turns on the generator and waits for the whine to stabilize before looking through the scope and lining up his first shot.
He pulls the trigger. The gun makes a soft buzzing sound, and a sound similar to a release of compressed air comes out of the nozzle.
He pulls the trigger again.
He pulls the trigger again.
“Three. All down.”
“Going in,” Vigilante says, and leaps off the roof, flying through the air in a high arc until he lands with practiced precision in front of the main entrance. Street Ronin hears the sound of metal being torn apart.
“He’s in,” Red Shift says.
“My turn,” Street Ronin says. “Can you pack everything up for transport after I’m down?”
“Yep,” Red Shift says.
* * *
The grapple gun is already lined up for the shot, and a moment later it shoots through the night, embedding into the factory wall. Street Ronin pulls down his visor and when the line is pulled tight he attaches the harness and jumps. It takes ten seconds to cross the length of it. He nearly falls flat on his face when he lands. Angle was too steep—he needs to be more careful. He can’t instantly heal a broken leg.
He unhooks his harness and unslings his rifle. The front door to the factory is gone, and so is most of the doorframe. Vigilante made quite an entrance.
Then his comm link crackles to life. “We got all four! It’s a tra—”
The wall beside the door explodes outward as Vigilante flies out into the street and slams into the wall of the building on the other side. He leaves a man-sized indentation in the concrete. A high-pitched keening noise emerges as an armored form flies out after him, followed by a sonic boom, and Street Ronin staggers, his head throbbing in agony from the sound. He grits his teeth, reaches into a pouch on his holster and shoves an earplug into his left ear.
Vigilante jerks forward, forcing his upper torso out of the indentation, only to be knocked back into it as the keening noise stops, and the air in front of the armored figure’s outstretched hand ripples and warps as waves of compressed sound slam into his chest.
Earsplitter isn’t in the Pit.
Street Ronin hears a bellowing roar, and more of the wall explodes as the massive form of Mauler races across the street, his huge fists balled up and raised back. Mauler gains size and mass—Street Ronin has no idea where he gets it from—and he’s addicted to a particularly nasty designer drug that increases his natural ability while simultaneously making him absolutely, 100% bat-shit crazy to boot.
That’s two. There are two more.
Target’s a normal human, so he’s going to keep his distance. They have a little time before he makes his move. Flicker, however…
Something smashes into him, hard, knocking him to the ground and sliding him back nearly ten feet. Street Ronin’s vision whites out for a second, and as it clears he sees Flicker, his crooked, rictus grin plastered permanently to his scarred face, as he grabs Street Ronin’s rifle and rams the butt into his stomach. The armor does its job—the blow stings, but doesn’t incapacitate. Flicker looks disappointed, then runs off, running around the corner of the building, moving so fast he looks like he’s an actor in an old movie.
Street Ronin doesn’t bother to get up. He rolls over, draws both pistols, sits up and starts firing at the other end of the building. It’s a long shot, but he knows Flicker is coming back around. Maybe he’ll get lucky.
Flicker’s foot smashes into the back of his head. Street Ronin slumps over, his last conscious thought the bastard doubled back.
He hates not being a metahuman.
* * *
“We got all four! It’s a tra—”
The sound of the wall exploding is ambiguous—that could have been Vigilante—but the keening sound isn’t. Earsplitter is a nasty piece of work, and her sonics do very inconvenient things to Vigilante’s organic armor. Red Shift is off the top of the building in the blink of an eye, and before he’s past the first building he’s already supersonic. He hears windows shatter—that’s what you get for not using SoneX glaze—and moments later he’s past Vigilante, Earsplitter, and Street Ronin, through the broken doorframe, and in the factory, looking for targets.
He sees Mauler but leaves him be for the moment. He needs to find Flicker—Vigilante and Street Ronin haven’t had much luck against him in the past. He catches a glimpse of him streaking toward the back of the factory, but before he can give chase he notices Target, wearing strange, bulky goggles, aiming a large caliber gun at… nothing in particular. It looks like he’s getting ready to shoot the wall.
In the the space of seconds Red Shift tries to figure out what he’s trying to do. Target isn’t a metahuman, he’s a highly-skilled mercenary with a knack for invention and a nasty, creative streak when it comes to tactics. He’s essentially Street Ronin, or at least his evil clone. That’s the thought that brings it all together: Street Ronin is pressed up against the other side of that wall, and Target doesn’t intend to shoot it, he intends to shoot through it. If that gun can shoot through a wall, it can probably shoot through their armor. Red Shift changes course, and when he sees a ripple around Target’s form—a telltale sign that his force field is active—he pushes himself to go faster. They collide a half a second before Target is ready to pull the trigger.
All speedsters have ways of coping with the hostile environment created when they run at high speeds. When Red Shift moves past a certain speed, he generates a force field that protects his body from turbulence and drastically reduces friction. He’s well past that speed when he collides with Target’s force field: when Target flies across the room, slams into the far wall, and slides to the floor like a sack of potatoes, Red Shift feels almost nothing at all.
“That was a lot easier than I expec—”
Red Shift is standing completely still when the bomb goes off under him. The first flash of light causes him to jerk away from the source, and the movement saves his life—it allows his body to generate the force field, which protects him from the brunt of the blast.
It’s not enough to keep him conscious. He passes out before he hits the ground, which, on some level, he appreciates.
* * *
“We got all four! It’s a tra—”
Mauler hits him dead on, and the next thing Vigilante knows he’s sailing through the air into the night sky, only to hit a wall so hard he winds up embedded in it. A second later he’s in agony as waves of sound beat mercilessly against him, threatening to shake him apart. Vigilante knows he’s in trouble, but he keeps losing consciousness before he can do anything about it. That’s one of the reasons he knows he’s in trouble.
Earsplitter’s sonics hurt. They do something to his skin that breaks down his invulnerability much faster than he can heal it back up, and it’s reached the point where Mauler’s fists are doing some real damage. Each blow strikes with enough force to shatter bone—bone that is repaired seconds later when his healing kicks in, but those seconds are spent with his consciousness circling the drain.
When Flicker joins in it gets worse. Flicker hits hard and fast, blow after blow concentrating on one spot on Vigilante’s side until he feels his ribs break. This is bad on many levels: first, it just adds to the hurt. Second, if Flicker is here, that means Street Ronin and Red Shift are out of the picture.
He hopes they’re all right.
As much pain as he’s in right now, he’s not particularly worried about himself. Vigilante is the byproduct of a scientific experiment gone completely awry: twelve years ago he was used as a test subject to try and duplicate the powers of someone his captors called “Patient Zero,” a villain who possessed enormous strength, invulnerability, and regenerative abilities. He got some of the strength, and a strange derivative of the invulnerability, but what surprised everyone—including himself—was exactly how much farther they went with the regeneration. He heals at a molecular level. He was disintegrated once; it took him four months to come back from it. He doesn’t stay down, which is why they’re spending so much time trying to keep him as damaged as possible.
The sonics are shaking his armor to pieces now, and Mauler starts hitting him in the face. His vision is swimming, he can feel swelling somewhere. Flicker is starting to work on the ribs on the other side of his chest. Now they’re snapping like twigs, and breathing is an excruciating ordeal.
The car that flies through the air and hits Earsplitter straight on is an unexpected development. But it’s a welcome one: her sonics are no longer shaking his armor apart, and it hardens almost instantly. Flicker curses as his blows no longer have any effect, and Vigilante feels his ribs knitting back together. Mauler is still pounding on him, oblivious to any change, but he yelps in surprise when Vigilante is finally able to catch a fist with both hands, twist hard, and force him down to one knee.
Vigilante’s vision is still a little blurry—eyes take longer to heal than other organs—but he can see enough to know that someone else has entered the fight. He works his right leg free and kicks Mauler in the side, sending the giant sprawling backward. He works his left leg free, then he’s standing on his own feet again, feeling pissed.
“Abort!” Earsplitter has chosen the better part of valor. Vigilante hears her fly off, then sees Flicker blinking and weaving out of sight. Mauler gets to his feet and glowers at Vigilante, but a second later he turns, leaps high into the air, and bounds out of sight.
That was a sudden and unexpected change in fortune. His vision clearing at last, Vigilante sees a rough-looking man wearing a white t-shirt, faded jeans, motorcycle boots and a leather jacket staring at him. A long, jagged scar travels down his left cheek.
Jack Barrow. Scrapper Jack. Patient Zero himself.
“Hello Thomas,” he says.
“Hello Jack,” Vigilante replies.
They stare at each other warily for a moment.
“Thanks,” Vigilante says, somewhat unwillingly.
“Let’s find the others,” Jack suggests.
They find Street Ronin sprawled on the ground not far from the fighting. Red Shift is in the factory, covered in debris and a fine layer of pulverized cement powder. Both are out cold.
“What are you doing here?” Vigilante asks. “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but it’s a hell of a coincidence.”
“No coincidence,” Jack says. “We were looking for you.”
Vigilante tenses. “We?”
“Don’t play dumb. Look, Thomas, you were set up by the dirty cop you were going after. He knew you were on to him so set up a trail that would lead you here. He also called the police, they’ll be here soon.”
As if on cue, Vigilante hears the faint sound of sirens in the distance.
“We need to talk,” Jack says.
“Liberty. And Martin Forrest.”
Vigilante looks at Jack thoughtfully. “We have a safe house half a mile from here. Help me get these two back there and I’ll hear what you have to say.”
“Thanks,” Jack says.
“This better be good.”
Jack shakes his head. “It ain’t good, Thomas. It’s a mess. And it’s going to get a lot worse.”