Part Three: Learning from the Past
“Can I have my laptop back yet?” Jenny shifts restlessly on the couch, watching CB read.
“Still reading,” CB says.
“Why?” Jenny doesn’t bother keeping the annoyance out of her voice. “What’s the point? Weren’t you one of the ones who actually brought them down?”
“Sure,” CB says. “That was a fun plan. We played it perfectly, too. I mean, everyone expected Alex to be the good soldier and for me to go rogue. Nobody expected Robert to build a mechanical island floating in the middle of the ocean and declare it a sovereign nation, or for Roger to get pissed and threaten to break both Robert’s arms. They played the press, and the government, and PRODIGY like pros. But we weren’t part of the investigation afterward, so I never saw how far it went. I never got to see any of these attachments that actually name names. Now shut up and let me read.”
Jenny sighs, looks around the safe house, and sighs again. She’s bored, and the novelty of being hidden from the world has long since worn off.
Elliot Grady claims it was a rich man’s fallout shelter, once upon a time. She can believe it—it’s as comfortable as a large, windowless box can possibly be. Six rooms, all on the small side but well furnished. Two bedrooms, a common room, a bathroom with a shower, a small kitchen, and a room set up with Jenny’s computer and some perimeter security monitoring equipment.
“I never understood the island thing,” Jenny says. “Why would Gladiator need a floating island?”
“Wouldn’t,” CB says. “Thorpe Industries found it awfully convenient, though.”
“I don’t see that either,” Jenny says. “It seems like it would be a money pit.”
CB looks up from the laptop. “Can’t say anything about that part, but it probably would have been more expensive not to build it and move there. Thorpe Industries was about to be sued out of existence.”
Jenny’s eyes widen. “What? Why? I never heard anything about that.”
“Think about it. The Gladiator armor is proof of concept not just for cold fusion, but for miniaturized cold fusion. Not to mention energy efficient force fields, high-density lightweight polymers, ridiculously advanced sensor tech, and that energy gun he had coming out of his arms. Add to that, he invented the medical tanks they’d always stick us in after a fight. And he inherited Gray Falcon’s anti-gravity technology after… after he died. He has all this stuff that could change the world forever—for the better—and he made it clear from the beginning that he wanted to make it available to the general public. All these companies out there that are essentially competitors in name only, along the lines of ‘hey, we build things, too’—they were going to become irrelevant as soon as any of that tech hit the market. There’s no way they were going to take that sitting down.”
“What could they do about it?” Jenny asks. “I mean, too bad for them, right?”
“Well a bunch of them got together and started suing Robert for violating their patents.”
Jenny frowns. “Patents of what?”
“That’s what I asked, first time I heard about it. And Robert said they were just trying to force him to reveal how everything worked.”
“I thought you said he wanted to make it available to the general public,” Jenny says.
“He did,” CB says. “But he wanted to make money off it too. He’s not really an open source kinda guy. He figured he’d keep exclusive rights on the tech for ten years then release it to the world. His competitors pulled every dirty trick they could think of to keep him from selling any of it, and the legal tricks worked. He was barred from ever selling any of the technology in his Gladiator suit on the grounds that it might have infringed the copyrights of one of these other companies. Which is bull, but since Robert wasn’t going to reveal any of his secrets to prove it, there wasn’t much he could do about it.”
“But that’s not right!” Jenny protests. “The advances in computer technology alone could—”
CB laughs. “Robert is probably the smartest man in the world. His only competition is Overmind. Maybe. But it didn’t matter how many circles he could run around Microsoft when it came to designing software, he didn’t stand a chance against them in the business world. Or in the courtroom.”
“Let me get this straight,” Jenny says. “The reason we don’t have rocket suits and regeneration tanks is because a bunch of companies successfully sued him in court by claiming they thought of it first?”
“Pretty much,” CB says.
“But that’s stupid,” she says.
“And that’s why he has a private floating island in the middle of the ocean.”
“No,” CB says, “that happened because all those companies then petitioned the government to force him to reveal how his technology worked. And they were going to do it, too. Using the PRODIGY laws.”
Jenny falls silent again.
“Now, can I get back to this? I have a lot of homework to do…” CB turns his attention back to the laptop, and starts to read.
And so he reads.
The USB drive Travers gave CB has a lot of material on it. Jenny is interested initially; she was in high school when the PRODIGY conspiracy was uncovered and was more upset by the fact that “Uncle CB” had disappeared and been classified a villain than she was by the thought that metahumans were being conscripted by the government. The files are interesting, and she guesses there’s probably something useful in them, but once is enough for her. Not for CB: he reads them over and over again, looking for any minor detail that he might have overlooked on his last pass, hoping that some shred of information might give him something to work with.
Jenny starts to wonder if they’re ever going to get around to cracking the encryption on her great-grandfather’s file. That, she suspects, will have all the really important information.
She stares at her jacket, thrown over a chair in front of a security monitor, and sees the edge of her smartphone sticking out of a pocket. She grabs the phone, sits down and begins prying off the back.
“What are you doing?” CB doesn’t bother to look up.
“I’m disabling the phone part of my phone,” Jenny says. “Taking out the SIM card and doing a few other things to keep it from accidentally making emergency calls. That way it can’t connect to the cell network, so it can’t be tracked by cell phone towers.”
“It also makes it sort of useless as a phone,” CB points out.
“Sure,” Jenny says. “So? It’s still a handheld computer. It’s more powerful than the desktop computers that were around ten years ago. And I’ve got some apps on it that might come in handy. Custom ones.”
CB looks up, regarding her thoughtfully. “Good idea.”
Jenny gets to work. She removes the SIM card first, then rummages through one of her bags to retrieve the tool kit she uses for small electronics. She carefully makes a few physical alterations to the phone, reassembles it, and plugs it into a nearby outlet. She spends the next hour making sure the phone is off and can’t be inadvertently turned on.
“Did you and mom have a thing?” she asks suddenly.
“What?” CB looks up, surprised. “Did your mom and I what?”
“You know,” Jenny says. “Have a thing. I mean, neither of you talk about it, but whenever I see you guys talk there’s… subtext.”
“Ah,” CB says. “Yes, there is definitely subtext.”
CB actually looks uncomfortable. “Yes. Yes, we have a history. We had a… thing. Before your dad was in the picture. Not after.”
Jenny clamps her mouth shut. That was going to be her next question.
“It ended, and your dad came into the picture, and I like your dad a lot, so that was a good thing all around.” CB turns his attention back to the laptop.
“How serious?” Jenny asks.
“Do you really want to know the answer to that?” CB asks.
“I asked, didn’t I?” Jenny says crossly.
CB sighs, closes the laptop lid, and turns to face her. “Fine. Yeah it was pretty serious. As serious as I get, anyway. I don’t know how serious that is compared to other people. I don’t focus well on… people…”
He trails off, frowning. For a moment Jenny thinks he looks terribly sad. Then, as quickly as she sees it, it’s gone. “I always called her ‘Lois.’”
“Because she was a reporter?”
“Because she kept getting into trouble,” CB says, laughing. “I told her she was only doing it to get my attention. Which, for the record, she never denied.”
Jenny tries to picture CB dating her mom. She can’t quite manage it.
“It pissed Alex off something fierce, too,” CB adds. “Despite the fact that he liked me an awful lot, he in no way felt I was worth the attentions of his granddaughter.”
Jenny laughs. “Really? Did you ever fight about it? Did he forbid you to see her?”
“Well… yes, actually. Juliet and I had been together for a few months, and he took me aside and told me that I’d better, and I quote, ‘respect her, and treat her like a lady, or we would have more than words.’”
CB smiles slightly. “He meant ‘no sex.’”
“Oh…” Jenny giggles slightly. “What did you say to him?”
“I said ‘too late.’”
Jenny stares at CB in shock. “You did not.”
“I sure as hell did. And then Alex hauled off and hit me harder than I’ve ever been hit in my life. When I woke up he was standing over me apologizing.”
Jenny wants to laugh, but she’s not sure it’s appropriate. “What happened? You shook hands and that was the end of it?”
“No, I kicked that son of a bitch in the nuts as hard as I could.”
Jenny laughs outright.
“When he could breathe again, it was my turn to apologize. And that bastard kicked me through a window.” CB grins ruefully. “It was just like the old days. Only, I could fight better, because he’d been training me.”
“And you could hex him,” Jenny adds. “Or whatever you call it.”
“Hex is close enough,” CB says, “but no, I was never able to hex him. Never worked on him.”
“Dunno,” CB says. “Never understood it. It just wouldn’t work… which was very inconvenient back when I was a bad guy. I could hex something he was trying to use—make a pair of handcuffs malfunction, for example—but I could never get him to trip over his own two feet, or pull a hamstring, or anything like that.”
“So you and great-granddad were having a fistfight because you told him you were having sex with my mom.”
“Yeah,” CB says, “that just about covers it. And it only stopped because we fell through a skylight into a Bar Mitzvah.”
“I shit you not. We were fighting on a building that was under construction. Like the James Bond movie… well, like many James Bond movies, actually. Point is, it was all steel girders and sub-flooring. We’re grappling, I slip, Alex decides he doesn’t actually want me dead and he grabs my wrist. So there I am, dangling over the edge of this building, your great-grandfather the only thing that’s preventing me from falling to my death, and does he pull me up?”
“Hell no,” CB says. “No. He lets me dangle there and proceeds to lecture me about the proper way to show respect for a woman. So I pull myself up with one arm, lock my legs around his neck, and jerk upright—unbalancing him—which pulls us both off the goddamn building.”
Jenny shakes her head, grinning. “That doesn’t seem very smart.”
CB grins back. “I wasn’t known for ‘smart’ back then. I was known for ‘interesting.’ Besides, I’d already figured out how it was going to go. There was netting under us for… something. I don’t know what. But I angled us to it and we hit it, just like I wanted. Only… the net didn’t stop our fall. It snapped, we rolled off one side and crashed right through the skylight of the building next door. Right into that Bar Mitzvah.”
Jenny laughs, and can’t stop laughing.
CB waits for the laughter to die down, then adds, “They were pretty surprised.”
Jenny breaks into another fit of laughter.
“The father was brilliant, though. He took it all in, then stepped right up and introduced us as if he’d planned the whole thing. And Alex rolled right along… he apologized for the entrance, and explained we’d been fighting a villain, which is why we were late. The kid was floored. It was great. We hung out, danced a little, had some drinks, chatted with the family a bit, excused ourselves and went home.”
“That’s amazing,” Jenny says, then frowns. “You’re not making this up, are you?”
“Nope,” CB says. “True story.”
“Does mom know that story?” Jenny asks.
“Hell no,” CB says. “That’s way too complicated to explain to your girlfriend.”
“I guess,” Jenny says doubtfully. “So, what, great-granddad was OK with you and mom after that?”
CB’s face clouds, then he sighs. “No.”
“Why not?” Jenny leans forward. “What’s wrong? Did he say something else? Did you break it off with mom?”
“No, I didn’t break it off,” CB says. “It’s complicated.”
“I’m sorry,” Jenny says. “I’m prying too much. I’ll shut up.”
“No… it’s OK.” CB doesn’t look like it’s OK. His eyes are unfocused; he stares off into space, remembering something that happened a long time ago. He fumbles with his cigarettes and sticks one in his mouth. He picks up his lighter and toys with it, flipping the top open, then closed, then open, then closed. “Alex didn’t really object to me personally. He objected to something none of us had any control over.”
He lights the cigarette and inhales. The cherry glows bright red. Jenny frowns and fights back the urge to cough. She considers protesting—the ventilation down there is terrible—but she isn’t sure CB will hear her.
“Alex was a great guy, you know?” CB keeps playing with his lighter. Open. Closed. Open. Closed. “He was little too damn smart for his own good, and I didn’t like hearing all his good advice, but… he’d seen a lot. He saw history happen, over and over again. He saw what history did to people.”
CB leans back in his chair and closes his eyes. White smoke streams out of his mouth as he sighs again, almost sleepily.
“We had one more conversation that night.”