Curveball Issue 16: Point of No Return

Part Three: TriHealth, New York City

Vigilante and Street Ronin stand on the roof of the Mercer Actuarial Building and stare down at the street below. Traffic is moderately heavy, and they frequently hear the sound of car horns blaring angrily as vehicles fight for the right of way.

“Audience tonight,” Street Ronin says. His voice is calm and steady, but Vigilante can detect an edge to it.

“Yeah,” Vigilante says. “That’s OK. Fun won’t start until we get in.”

They gaze at the TriHealth on the other side of the street. Mercer Actuarial is slightly taller than the TriHealth complex, so they’re looking down at its roof. The roof is a plain, flat surface with a cluster of exhaust vent pipes and a maintenance hatch.

“No security on the roof,” Street Ronin says. “Sure you don’t want to go in that way? A lot simpler.”

“Simpler,” Vigilante agrees. “Also quieter. We want to knock first.”

“OK,” Street Ronin says. “Help me get set up.”

They kneel, hunching over a rectangular metal box as they quickly pop a series of latches across the two long edges. The top slides off, revealing a gray slab of metal and eight spheres, each roughly half the size of a man’s fist. Street Ronin picks up the gray slab, turns it over once in his hands, and flicks it away from him with a single, sharp motion. A tripod pops out of the bottom, extending fully. He sets the tripod and slab securely on the ground. Vigilante removes each sphere from the box and sets them down in front of the tripod.

“I was hoping to test these a bit more before we used them in the field,” Street Ronin says. He removes a USB cable from a pocket in his combat harness, attaches one end to his visor, and attaches the other to the gray slab. Immediately the sides of the gray slab begin to blink as it boots up. “OK, stand back. I’m going to turn these on.”

Vigilante stands back. Street Ronin places his hand on the gray slab, traces a pattern near the upper left corner, and with a low hum the eight spheres rise into the air.

The gray slab is essentially a giant touchpad: individual controls are marked out on an overlay that displays on Street Ronin’s visor whenever he looks at it. He sets the spheres to follow mode, designates a leader, and they fly down toward the TriHealth building below.

“How are you going to find the server room?” Vigilante asks.

“Heat,” Street Ronin says. “All those computers are going to radiate heat, and the resources put into cooling will be significant. So I’m going to fly the spheres around the building until I find…”

His voice trails off and he hunches forward, making careful, precise gestures on the control surface of the slab.

“Thirteenth floor.” Street Ronin grins, his voice rueful. “Damn it. I’ll pay you later.”

Vigilante chuckles. “They just can’t help themselves, sometimes.”

“OK, well… I found a vent. That’s going to be my way in. As soon as I’m in position I’ll start tracking.”

Vigilante stretches out on the roof, lying on his back, looking up at the sky. “Let me know when it’s my turn. Until then I’ll just look at the… smog, I guess.”

Street Ronin grins, then gets back to work. He instructs one of the spheres to immolate itself and burn through the vent, then guides the other seven up into the building. Sure enough, the vent is directly under the server room. It’s relatively simple to find data connections from there. Ten minutes later he’s ready.


Vigilante stirs slightly—he’s fallen asleep.


“Yeah.” Vigilante sits up.

“I’m ready. Your turn.”

“Right…” Vigilante stands, rolls his left shoulder, then his right. Finally he lowers his visor into its locked position. “How’s my feed?”

“Visual is fine,” Street Ronin says. “Might get spotty inside. I don’t know what kind of tech they use, but I expect the server room will make transmitting video a challenge.”

“I’m flattered you think I’m going to get that far,” Vigilante says. “OK. Start pinging me.”

Vigilante hears a soft ping in his earpiece, repeating at two-second intervals. It’s an audio feed Street Ronin is transmitting directly to him—if it gets cut off, he’ll know someone is jamming the line.

“Time to make a mess.”

Vigilante steps over the edge of the building and disappears from view.

It takes Vigilante a few seconds before he finally hits the sidewalk. The force of the landing echoes down the street, splitting the concrete as Vigilante immediately leaps across the street, arcing high to avoid the oncoming traffic, and lands neatly in front of the revolving doors that lead into the TriHealth lobby.

Vigilante straightens, grabs the edge of one of the doors, and pushes. The door buckles in its frame, glass shatters, and with a groan the revolving door grinds to a halt. Vigilante turns sideways and slips past the twisted frame, then with a swift kick he shatters the glass in the door blocking his way into the lobby. He steps through.

The lobby is large and spacious—it looks more like the lobby of a modern bank than a health insurance company. There are booths lined up along the walls, and velvet rope lines set up to separate each line. The lobby is empty except for the security desk where a single guard is shouting into a headphone.

“Guard isn’t trying to stop me.” Vigilante keeps his voice low and conversational—too low for the guard to hear over his own yelling.

“Smart.” Street Ronin’s voice comes in sharp and clear over the visor’s earpiece. “I’m going to send a sphere down to the street, just to keep an eye on things.”

“OK.” Vigilante waves casually at the security guard and follows the sign that points to the elevators. “I figure they’ll do gas or something first.”

“Worried about it?” Street Ronin asks.

“Nope.” Vigilante ducks around a corner and sees four elevators, all closed. “Found the stairs.”

The stairs, as expected, are by the elevators. The door, as expected, is locked. It’s a fire door, made of reinforced steel.

“Steel door.”

He kicks at the door. It buckles under the force of the blow, but it doesn’t fly off its hinges. Vigilante stares at the twisted mass, still sitting in the frame, still attached to its hinges, and still locked.

“Okay… not a steel door.”

Two more kicks do the job. The door breaks free and falls into the stairwell beyond. Vigilante kicks it out of the way, then starts climbing.

“You were right about the gas,” Street Ronin says. “Look at your HUD.”

Vigilante looks up into the corner of his visor. There he sees the feed Street Ronin is pumping in—a view of the lobby from across the street. The top-to-bottom glass windows are now shuttered, and the now-broken revolving door is blocked by what looks like a solid steel wall.

“Looks like they’re sealing it up,” Street Ronin says. “Guess they don’t want something leaking out into the street.”

“How thoughtful of them,” Vigilante says.

By the fourth floor the air has a distinctly sharp taste.

“They’re deploying the gas, whatever it is.” Vigilante feels a vague flash of euphoria as his body adjusts to the attack. “I thought it was a neurotoxin at first, but I’m not sure.”

“I’m not going to ask how you know that,” Street Ronin says.

“It’s too lemony.”

He tenses each time he approaches the stairwell landing for a new floor—each landing is basically an enclosed room. There are heavy not-steel doors on every floor, not just leading into the main part of the building, but also separating the stairs from the landing itself. These doors aren’t locked, but each time he steps onto a landing he expects an ambush. Each time, the ambush doesn’t come. The only sounds he hears are the echo of his footsteps as he climbs and the soft ping of Street Ronin’s ambush feed.

Halfway between the seventh and eighth floors, the ambush feed goes dead. They make their move on the eighth floor landing. It’s a hell of a move.

Once he steps onto the landing he hears the loud buzz of a klaxon alarm as blast doors descend from the ceiling with a thunk, completely covering each exit. Vigilante clenches his fists and steps into a crouch, but before he can do anything else sections of the landing floor explode in a blaze of white-hot phosphor. Vigilante remembers thinking that an unusual choice—the explosions burn hot, but they aren’t very large—and then a moment later the phosphor sparks with the gas in the room.

For a moment the room is full of fire. Then the light dims, the air feels heavy, and the gas condenses, still burning, into a thick, jello-like substance that clings to everything it sticks to. He is, effectively, swimming in napalm.

He starts to scream as the burning gel envelops him, and forces himself to stop before any of it gets into his mouth. As painful as it is—and it is excruciatingly painful—his uniform and the organic armor that makes up the outer layer of his epidermis make sure that pain is only skin deep. The last thing he wants is that stuff inside him, burning its way through. That would probably kill him outright, at least for a while. He closes his mouth, closes his eyes, and forces himself to stop breathing.

Vigilante isn’t a scientist. He has no explanation for why his body can do what it does, and the scientists he knows can’t do any better—he is, in their eyes, a medical and scientific impossibility. But despite his ignorance about why and how, over time he’s learned exactly what his body can do and how much punishment it can withstand. He knows how long it takes for his body to neutralize toxins. He knows how long it takes for his body to mend broken bones. He knows how long it takes for his body to completely regrow an arm. Despite the pain of literally being coated in fire, he knows he’s not even close to dying.

The pain makes it hard to focus on anything complicated, so he forces himself to check his gear. His visor is intact—surprising that it withstood both the explosion and the searing heat, but it means he can open his eyes. The rest of his uniform isn’t as durable, and most of it has burned away. His skin is blistering.

Oh, God, it hurts.

The walls are different. They looked like concrete or cinderblock before, but that veneer has crumbled away to reveal glossy white walls. Whatever it is, it isn’t affected by the heat. The surface is smooth and unmarred, no visible scorching or warping, though it appears it might be glowing, just a little. The floor has crumbled away to show similar material. It’s slippery, though that might just be the gel. The doors look like airlocks from a science fiction movie. Everywhere around him is the dull roar of flame… though it’s not quite as loud as it was a few seconds ago. And it’s not quite as bright, or as hot. The fire is dimming.

Airtight seal. The fire’s going out because the room is running out of air.

He imagines a strike team standing patiently just outside the main door, waiting for the fire to consume all the oxygen and put itself out before coming in to clean up. Not a terrible plan, but Vigilante has something else in mind.

Moving is difficult. He wants to curl up into a ball and wait for the pain to stop—that desire occupies most of his conscious thought, and the only way to get past it is to allow himself to get angry. It’s dangerous territory, but he needs a motivator that’s stronger than pain. His rage will do. He focuses on the anger, and what he wants to do to the people who did this to him. To do that, he needs to get out of this box. To do that, he needs to move. He moves.

He focuses on the door that leads out to the rest of the floor. He backs away from it, until he reaches the far wall, then hurls himself at it with all his strength. The floor is slippery—both from the strange material it’s made out of, and from the gel coating it, but pushing off from the wall allows him to build up enough speed for him to make a sizable dent in the door when he hits it. It hurts—everything he does hurts, now—but he just piles that on top of all the other things that are pissing him off. He backs up again, launches again, and the door groans as it buckles almost in half. One more time: he goes back to the wall, charges at the door with everything, and this time the door rips out of the wall, spinning into the wide, short corridor beyond and smashing into the corridor wall.

Vigilante runs into the corridor, bursting into flame all over again as the gel on his body reignites from exposure to fresh air. A roaring wave of heat nearly knocks him down as the gel in the stairwell does the same. Almost immediately sprinklers in the ceiling activate, dousing the corridor in a steady stream of water. It has no effect at all on the burning gel.

He hears a panicked shout, and through the film-encrusted visor he sees armored figures at the end of the hall. He recognizes the armor: the NYPD uses something similar, designed to be worn by specialized SWAT units in situations where metahumans are actively menacing the public. It’s not Sky Commando-level tech, but each armored suit is fully enclosed, heavily armored, and heavily armed. These aren’t NYPD-issue, however. They don’t have the right markings… they don’t have any markings at all. Three of the armored suits face him—behind them, the corridor opens into a cube farm, and Vigilante can hear someone frantically barking orders just out of view.

Vigilante takes his first breath in minutes. He can smell the fire behind him, and the charred smell of his own singed hair and burnt flesh. He bellows, his voice cracking with raw, seething rage, and charges directly at the armored figures.

One of them takes a step back, startled by the approach of the yelling, burning, naked man leaving a trail of fiery footprints in the carpet behind him. The other two level their right arms at him. Panels slide over the joints, locking the arm into a rigid, extended position, and a large-caliber gun emerges from the top. A moment later both fire: one hits him squarely in the chest, the other in the face. His visor shatters, and he falls back, skidding a few feet along the ground until he comes to a stop.

He sits up. His face is a bloody, misshapen mess, but he can already feel it starting to knit back together. The armored figure in the middle takes another hesitant step back. The other two don’t flinch.

“Deploy stuckey!” The command from the unit on the right is issued in the open air, not over radio, and that’s the only reason Vigilante doesn’t find himself trapped in goo.

He rolls back, toward the remains of the door he’d cast aside when he first burst out of the stairwell. The stuckeys explode between him and his assailants, completely filling the hallway—a tactical error on the part of the armored units, because it buys him more time—and he grabs the still-burning door with both hands. He notices the fire in the stairwell is rapidly spreading into the hall, despite the sprinklers, and it won’t be long before it’s completely out of control.

He grits his teeth as he grasps the door, ignoring the searing heat from the alloy, and smashes it into the wall. It’s not a load-bearing wall, and it only takes a second swipe with the door to create a hole large enough for him to step through. He’s in a long office, a manager’s private office from the look of it, and the door at the end looks like it might open into the cube farm.

Vigilante runs down the length of the office and holds the metal door in front of him as he crashes into the much less impressive office door, which splinters into hundreds of bits of particle board upon impact.

He is now in the cube farm, much to the surprise of everyone already there.

A quick scramble as the non-armored personnel duck into various cubicles, attempting to use them as cover. Vigilante is able to count at least five figures in tactical gear before everyone disappears, not counting the three armored units at the very edge of the hall, who are turning to face him.

Eight, at least. But deal with the armor first.

He throws the burning metal door into the hall. It catches the rightmost unit in mid-turn. Vigilante hears a single, sharp scream as the door shears off its right arm. The door continues through the far wall into another office, crashing into a desk which immediately bursts into flame.

The center unit turns to face its crippled comrade, takes a step away—toward the burning hallway, where the wad of stuckey has melted from the raging heat. It stops, seemingly transfixed by the inferno at the end of the hall. Whoever is in that armor is obviously having trouble keeping it together. To Vigilante that makes it the most useful thing in the room.

It takes him five steps to cross the room. The far right unit has now toppled over, its severed arm lying a few feet from the rest of it. The unit on the left shouts “FOCUS!” and levels its heavy gun at him. Vigilante feels his shoulder go numb, but he’s too focused on his target to care. The center unit turns just in time to see Vigilante bearing down on it. It raises its arms in a half-hearted attempt to block.

Too little, too late.

Vigilante grabs the armored unit by its chestplate and pushes it as hard as he can into the other. They smash into each other with a crunch, and both fall over, the first on top of the second. The operator of the first unit panics, flailing arms and legs in an attempt to get upright.

The second armored unit manages to push the first off, but too late—Vigilante drives his smoldering fist through the chestplate, burying his arm up to his elbow. When he pulls it back out, his forearm is stained crimson.

He turns to the last armored unit.

The operator panics, deploying every weapon it can. Unfortunately it’s still lying prone: the large caliber gun fires wildly through the wall, a small caliber submachine gun sprays bullets uselessly into the ceiling. A series of short, sharp pops announces the launch of every high-explosive grenade and stuckey it has.

Vigilante leaps into the cube farm, trying to get as far away as he can. He’s about halfway in when all the ordnance goes off at the same time.

A third of the cubicles are blown apart by the force of the blast. Vigilante lands on a desk, smashing it in half and getting briefly tangled in the plugs and cables. When he gets to his feet, the room is silent. Even the fire from the stairwell is muted—the stuckeys have once again fused into a solid block at the mouth of the corridor. There is no sign of the hapless armored unit. He hears groaning from somewhere in the cube farm—at least one of the five non-armored personnel survived—but no one is trying to shoot him at the moment, so he doesn’t follow up.

A low rumble fills the air, and the walls shake as Vigilante hears a series of explosions from far above him. It’s the “Plan B” signal—if they lose communication, Street Ronin will destroy the spheres as soon as they meet their objective. Time to go…

The last of the gel on his skin has finally burned out, and he can feel his skin starting to regrow. The outer layer is still charred, and it crackles like cellophane when he moves. He looks around the surviving cubes and finds a bright green plastic rain poncho hanging from a hook on one of the cube walls. It’s better than nothing, so he puts it on quickly, then runs over to a large panoramic window set into the far wall. It’s riddled with bullet holes, so it’s easy enough to break—it’s a little harder to break without raining bits of glass onto the street below, but he manages to fracture it without shattering, then force his hands through to tear strips off the glass until there’s enough space for him to jump through. Then he jumps, angling it so he lands on a ledge of the building across the street. The air is cool on his blackened skin—ironic, since it’s summer, but not surprising given where he’s been for the last fifteen minutes—and he allows himself to enjoy the relief as he jumps back to the TriHealth building in order to give himself the momentum he needs to make it to a roof in his next jump. From there he makes his way, building by building, to the rendezvous point.

Street Ronin is already there, waiting. He cocks his head to one side when Vigilante lands beside him, taking in the poncho and wrinkling his nose at the scent of charred flesh.

“Trouble,” Street Ronin says. It’s not a question.

“That was part of the plan,” Vigilante says. “But I really didn’t expect them to set me on fire.” His voice is ragged and angry. It’s under control at this point, but he’s still in a lot of pain. “Did we get it?”

Street Ronin nods. “We got it. The spheres noticed the traffic about the same time I lost the link with you. I couldn’t communicate with them directly, but they emailed me the details.”

Vigilante sits down on the rooftop, allowing himself to curl up and just sit there for a moment, waiting for his body to heal, waiting for the pain to subside. Street Ronin sits next to him waiting patiently. When Vigilante speaks again, his voice is steady.

“What did we learn?”

“Pretty much what we expected. Someone pushed a panic button and they immediately began transferring a specific set of files to an alternate location. We couldn’t get the files without alerting them, but we did find the alternate location…”

Vigilante nods, satisfied. “Where did it go?”

“Farraday City,” Street Ronin says. “Didn’t expect that. I don’t know where specifically, but I think the newbie might be able to figure it out.”

“OK,” Vigilante says. “Looks like we’re going to Farraday City.”

“Overmind and the Lieutenant haven’t come back yet,” Street Ronin says. “And Scrapper Jack still has business up here.”

“Yeah,” Vigilante says. “Can’t be helped at this point. I can get in touch with Jack, tell him to meet up with us when he can. I assume he knows how to get in touch with Overmind.”

“So,” Street Ronin says, “mission success. Was it worth it?”

Vigilante gets to his feet. He’s sore all over, but his charred skin has turned into blistered skin, and some of those blisters are already fading. His scalp itches as new hair growth starts to appear in patches over his head, and there’s little sign he’d been shot in the face with a .50 caliber rifle ten minutes ago.

“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” he says.

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