Part One: Sky Commando
Alishia Masters remembers her first week in the Sky Commando program as if it were yesterday. One of the first things she remembers noticing is the press. They were everywhere: any time David would go on day patrol there would always be a few media helicopters trailing him. Any time he set down, there would be a van or two somewhere nearby. They never approached, they never asked for interviews, they just… lurked.
At the end of the first week she remembers asking David why. His response was both direct and unsettling.
“They’re waiting for us to fuck up.”
Alishia was never sure exactly how serious he was when he said it. David had been a tough mentor, and in the early days he spent a lot of time trying to push her buttons, just to figure out what they were. It was six months before he let her get anywhere near the suit, and the first time she botched a landing, taking out the side of a grocery store in the process, it was another month and a half before he let her try again.
He was pretty possessive about the suit. She knows the feeling.
She’s never been particularly comfortable around the press, at least in part because of that conversation, and any time they’re on hand she feels less like a hero and more like a public relations disaster waiting to happen. That’s why she prefers night patrols—most of the press are at home.
Also, night flying is a hell of a lot more fun.
She’s flying over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge from Brooklyn to Staten Island, taking in the Manhattan skyline. It shines brightly, skyscrapers washing out the night sky. No stars necessary, the skyline says. We make our own light here.
The skyline blurs slightly as a priority message pops up in the suit’s HUD. Alishia sees the phrase Code Ultraviolet and immediately sets all thought of fun aside. Code Ultraviolet is reserved for the really important stuff. Usually it means very dangerous metahumans are involved.
“Play message,” Alishia orders.
“Code Ultraviolet: TriHealth Building, Manhattan. Metahuman seen entering building approximately twenty minutes ago. Fire on the upper levels. Initial reports on identity of intruder are sketchy, but some civilian footage suggests Crossfire may be involved.”
“Response mode.” Alishia’s voice is tight, her words are clipped. “Dispatch, this is Sky Commando and I am en route. I am requesting MTHD backup, with available units to set up a perimeter and secure the scene. How soon until fire arrives?”
There is a short pause as the dispatcher checks. When the voice returns, the dispatcher—male, older—sounds mystified. “Fire and Rescue is already there, Sky Commando, but they’re… they report being denied access to the building.”
“They report what?”
“MTHD units are already on the scene, and blocking access to the building.”
Alishia narrows her eyes. “My ETA is ten minutes. Sky Commando out.”
The phrase Sky Commando out automatically kills the feed. “Contact MTHD, Ultraviolet band.”
The Sky Commando program isn’t the only part of the NYPD organized to respond to metahuman threats: NYPD SWAT has the Metahuman Division. MTHD and Sky Commando were, in the very beginning, competitors for attention and funding. Over time it became clear they were a lot more effective when they worked together. That hasn’t changed since Alishia took the seat. At least, she hasn’t thought so.
She’s surprised to see the tired, worn face of Captain Banks on the screen. Paul Banks is the head of the MTHD. He and David got along pretty well. Alishia never had much contact with him directly.
“Sergeant.” Captain Banks looks a little surprised to be talking to her, which is fair. While Sky Commando has a direct, private line to the MTHD, it’s considered proper to coordinate via dispatch so the entire force can coordinate appropriately. “MTHD is responding per your request. Our closest team is fifteen minutes out, though. I think you’re going to get there first.”
“Closest team?” She can’t hide the surprise in her voice. “Captain… I was calling to follow up on a report we’re getting from Fire and Rescue on the scene. They say MTHD units are preventing them from entering the building.”
Captain Banks raises an eyebrow. “We don’t have any units on the scene.”
The Captain has a reputation for honesty. Alishia is inclined to believe him. That said, she never would have pegged Clive Darius as dirty, either. Right now there are only a few people she’s certain she can trust, and none of them work for the NYPD.
Alishia nods. “OK. Someone on the scene is obviously confused. I was just calling in case your people had better intel. Sorry.”
“I only know what we just heard,” Banks says.
“All right. Sorry again, Captain. Sky Commando out.”
The Captain’s face winks out.
A minute later her comm beeps again. When she answers it, she’s surprised to see the scowling face of Lieutenant Clive Darius.
“Sky Commando.” Darius has a low, gravelly voice. “I am already on the scene, and my people have it locked down.”
“What is Vice doing on the scene?” Alishia uses every bit of self-control she has to keep the suspicion out of her voice. And how the hell did you get access to this line?
“We just finished up a raid four blocks east of here,” Darius says. “We were closest, so we were first on the scene.”
He’s lying. Alishia is positive he’s lying.
“OK,” Alishia says. “I’ll be there in seven minutes.”
“There’s no need. We’ve got everything under control here.”
God damn it. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Darius says. “The suspects have already fled the scene. There are wounded, and the building is still on fire, and we need forensics to go over everything, but there’s nothing for you to engage here.”
He’s trying to get her to stay away from the scene, the rat bastard.
She takes a deep breath. “I don’t have a choice, Lieutenant. Sky Commando has to respond to every Ultraviolet while on duty. And I can’t end an Ultraviolet until I arrive at the scene.”
Darius nods stiffly. “Understood. But once you’re briefed on the scene you will call it off.”
Technically Darius has no authority to give her an order of any kind. Technically Sky Commando calls the shots in these situations—metahuman response is what the program is for. Technically, Sky Commando can, during an Ultraviolet, give anyone other than the Mayor or the Chief of Police a direct order and expect it to be followed without hesitation or argument.
“You want to tell me why?” Alishia asks.
Darius just stares at the screen, eyes flat. “Nope.”
Practically, she’s a Sergeant, he’s a Lieutenant, and he’s a bona-fide crime-fighting superstar with a hell of a lot of political pull. Technicalities be damned: Darius is giving her a direct order because he knows he can get away with it, at least for the short term. Alishia knows it, too.
“Yes sir,” she says.
“Good.” Darius nods, apparently satisfied, then kills the line without so much as a goodbye.
“Asshole…” Alishia grits her teeth and quickly calls Agent Phillip Henry’s private phone. He picks up on the second ring.
“Agent Henry.” He’s tired, but he doesn’t sound groggy.
“This is Sky Commando, and I don’t have a lot of time. How fast can you get your team out to the TriHealth building in Manhattan?” She doesn’t waste time on pleasantries, and he picks up on that immediately.
“Fast,” Henry says. “Not all of them, but some. Why?”
“Code Ultraviolet,” Alishia says. “Crossfire is a possible suspect, and Clive Darius is already on the scene.”
“Darius?” Henry is definitely paying attention now. “What’s he doing there?”
“Pulling rank,” Alishia says. “He just ordered me to call off the Ultraviolet as soon as I arrive.”
“Can he do that?” Henry asks. His voice is tight with excitement. It sounds like he’s pacing the room.
“It’s complicated,” Alishia says. “Short version is ‘yes, but it’ll cost him.’”
“What do you think he’s trying to do?” Henry asks.
“Coverup,” Alishia says. “Something went wrong tonight and he’s trying to make sure nobody finds out what. Pulling rank like this is… well, he can get away with it, because he’s connected. But it’s stupid. Long term, it’s stupid, and he doesn’t have a reputation for that.”
“So whatever he’s trying to protect is worth the risk,” Agent Henry says.
“I don’t know. I think so. Just a hunch.”
“OK,” Agent Henry says. “How do you want to play this?”
“How fast can you get your people there?”
“I can have Agent Grant on the scene in two minutes. Everyone else will take a bit longer. What do you need?”
Alishia considers her options before replying.
“I need you to live up to your reputation,” she says.
* * *
Lieutenant Darius’ claim that the scene is locked down and under control turns out to be grossly exaggerated. The press are already there, and Darius’ men are struggling to keep back the teams on the ground. They’re completely ignoring the two helicopters hovering next to the seventh floor of the TriHealth building, where smoke and flame pour out of a broken panoramic window. Too much fire, too much press, too many bystanders…
…and damned if Fire and Rescue personnel aren’t squaring off against armored MTHD personnel.
Alishia frowns as she zooms in on that image. They aren’t MTHD—the design is slightly different, and there are no official markings of any kind. She zooms in on the armor, saves a few images for later study, then lands by the main entrance to the building.
The revolving door to the TriHealth building is hopelessly twisted out of place; broken glass litters the entrance and scatters into the sidewalk as heavy-booted people move to and fro. The lobby beyond is completely obscured by a solid, metallic curtain. Two of the mysterious, unmarked armored personnel stand on either side of the revolving door.
Lieutenant Darius emerges from a small cluster of uniformed officers off to the right and walks quickly over to Sky Commando. “OK,” he says. “I need you to—”
“Hold on a minute, Lieutenant.” Alishia smiles as she watches annoyance and frustration play over his face. “I need to check out that fire.”
Darius steps back as Sky Commando launches back into the sky, rising up to the seventh floor in order to peek through the broken window into the room beyond. The interior is engulfed in flame: floor, walls, ceiling, all are burning. But other than the flame coming through the window, the fire doesn’t appear to be doing any damage to the outer walls. According to her HUD, the surface temperature of the building wall is no greater than that of any other building on the street.
Alishia flies back down to the sidewalk.
Darius scowls, his arms folded across his chest. “Cancel the Ultraviolet.”
“The fire on the seventh floor is not contained,” Alishia says.
“The fire isn’t a metahuman, either. Sky Commando, you aren’t needed here. Cancel the Ultraviolet and leave the scene.”
Alishia wonders how long she can string this out. “Fine. I’ll call it in…”
“Don’t bother, Sky Commando. This is a federal investigation now.”
Lieutenant Darius’ expression falls into a carefully maintained mask of neutrality as he stares past Alishia, into the street. Alishia’s HUD shows Department of Homeland Security Agent Alan Grant step around one of the fire engines, holding his badge up over his head as if he were using it to ward off evil spirits as he closes the gap between them, the tail of his rumpled trenchcoat flapping behind him as he moves.
A spark of recognition flashes in Darius’ eyes.
Grant keeps his badge held over his head as if it were a beacon of truth and righteousness. “Any metahuman incident that occurs within a mile of a federal building is a federal matter, Lieutenant. Half a mile from here is a Veteran’s Administration office, so you are out of luck.”
Darius glares at Grant. “This is bullshit.”
“I’m cryin’ for ya,” Agent Grant says. “Really. I mean we all made such good friends the last time, didn’t we? There was so much cooperation then.”
“You got a problem with me being here, feel free to call someone. Call your Captain… oh, but I don’t answer to him. I guess you could call the Mayor, but I don’t answer to him, either. Oh, wait! I know. You can call the Governor. That’d be another guy I don’t answer to…” Grant finally loops his badge around his neck, then sticks his hands in his trenchcoat pockets as he takes a look around. “Jesus. This crime scene really is a clusterfuck.”
“If you think you can do better—” Darius begins, but Grant cuts him off.
“Of course I think I can do better, Lieutenant. This is amateur hour. Sky Commando, I’m gonna need you to get those helicopters farther back.”
“She doesn’t work for you!” Darius is shouting now, spittle spraying out of his mouth.
“Actually she does.” Grant turns back to Darius and raises his voice. “The Sky Commando Program gets some of its funding from the Department of Homeland Security. That means we can call her in if we deem it appropriate to do so. And hey, guess what? I deem it appropriate to do so.”
Darius is livid. “You are making a big mistake, ‘agent.’ You assholes have been throwing your weight around ever since you got here, and it’s pissing off all the wrong people.”
Agent Grant plants himself directly in front of Darius. Grant is taller, so he leans in until he’s only inches away from the Lieutenant’s face.
“You know what I’m gonna do about that? Do you?” Grant cocks his head to one side, waiting for a reply.
Darius doesn’t answer.
“Well I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do,” Grant says. “I’m gonna go home, and then I’m gonna cry. I’m gonna cry about how mean all the police officers are being to me, and I’m gonna cry about how you hurt my poor, tender feelings. I’m gonna cry, and cry, and cry, and cry, and cry. But then I’m gonna journal it, so I think I’ll be OK.”
Alishia is thankful the Sky Commando helmet is completely opaque as she grins from ear to ear. Whatever Agent Grant’s metahuman ability may be, it’s clear his real super power is being an asshole.