Part One: Airborne
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”Jacob Marley, A Christmas Carol
The Thorpe Industries supersonic cargo plane looks more like a space ship than an airplane. At least, it does to CB—it’s an argument he’d briefly had with Robert, back in the old days, starting when he made the offhanded observation about a prototype design. Robert had taken it upon himself to disagree.
“It’s all smooth and bubble-like,” CB says. “I’ve never seen an airplane look like that before. It’s… spacey.”
Robert shakes his head. “It’s aerodynamic, which would be completely irrelevant for a spaceship. Spaceships fly in space. They don’t need to deal with the friction involved in tearing through a gas at 800 miles per hour.”
“Spaceship,” CB insists. Robert wisely lets the matter drop.
Now CB and his group are riding in the passenger cabin of the thing itself—the schematic he’d seen in Robert’s lab—and he still thinks the same thing.
Spaceship. It even hovers.
Six men and two women sit around a table in the passenger cabin. One more man is laid out on a couch in the small recreational area at the far end of the cabin, unconscious, an IV sticking out of his arm. A seventh man—or what’s left of him—has been stuffed in a black-and-yellow biohazard sack and is propped up against the cabin kitchenette. He’s not dead, but his current state is non-conscious and, in a direct quote from his only conscious teammate, “visually disturbing.”
The conscious men and women sitting around the table are: CB (Curveball), Roger Whitman (Regiment), Jenny Forrest (Zero), Jack Barrow (Scrapper Jack), Special Agents Alan Grant and Lijuan Hu, former Special Agent and now wanted terrorist Peter Raphael Travers, and the only conscious member of the vigilante group Crossfire, known only as Street Ronin. The man on the couch is Street Ronin’s teammate, Red Shift. The man in the sack is his other teammate, Vigilante.
CB stares at the sack and suppresses a shudder as he sees the sides ripple and bulge. As far as anyone knows it’s not possible to actually kill Vigilante—his ability to heal himself is so extreme that he was actually disintegrated once, which (according to Street Ronin) took about six months for him to fully recover from. This time around was nothing like that, but in order to rope-a-dope a magic golem, he allowed himself to be mangled and crushed repeatedly, and when it finally spit him out, he wasn’t recognizably human. In the aftermath of the fight, Street Ronin put what was left of his teammate in the sack.
CB finds the fact that Crossfire had the presence of mind to create a “carry bag” for Vigilante’s remains more than a little disturbing.
Street Ronin notices CB glancing at the bag and shrugs. “He’ll be OK in a day or so. Hopefully we land before he regains consciousness. That’ll be dicey.”
Street Ronin is wearing the standard Crossfire uniform—black tactical armor with a yellow stylized crosshair set above the left breast. He’s a Hispanic man in his mid-thirties, and the wear of the job is starting to show in the lines his face shouldn’t have yet, but does. Especially around the eyes: the beginnings of crow’s feet, the perpetually dark circles, a certain hardness in his gaze that doesn’t soften, even when he’s just talking casually. He has the hyper-aware look of a combat veteran. Which he is, essentially.
“Why will it be dicey, exactly?” CB forces himself not to reach for the half-smoked pack of cigarettes in his right trenchcoat pocket. He really, really wants a cigarette.
Street Ronin sighs. “Vigilante doesn’t really like to talk about it. When he… dies, and then comes back… he gets angry.”
“Yeah,” CB says. “I guess if I allowed myself to get eaten by a giant magic robot I’d be kicking myself too.”
“No, not like that,” Street Ronin says. “Think ‘purple shorts’ angry. Death is apparently very traumatic.”
“It is.” Special Agent Alan Grant is a member of Division M, the metahuman branch of the Department of Homeland Security. CB had always assumed that meant Division M just dealt with metahuman threats, and was surprised to learn their agents were actually metahumans themselves. Grant is a teleporter, and—according to Roger—can make duplicates of himself. He claims that’s not actually what he does.
CB smirks. “The DHS has the inside track on that?”
“No…” Special Agent Lijuan Hu is Grant’s partner. She can burst into flame. Quite spectacularly, to hear Jack tell it, which is apparently why he spent a lot of the fight stark naked. “He has the inside track. He’s officially dead at the moment.”
Everyone stares at Grant except for Pete Travers. Apparently this is old news to him.
“Got to see my own autopsy,” Grant says. “It really sucked.”
“OK…” CB shakes his head. “You’re pretty weird, Agent Grant.”
“Says the fifty-something geezer who looks like a twenty-something extra from Sid and Nancy.”
“Says the thirty-something Fed who’s apparently seen Sid and Nancy.”
“God Almighty,” Roger mutters, “there’s two of them.”
Roger Whitman is a six-and-a-half-foot-tall black man with graying temples and the physique of a linebacker in his prime. He is the only one of them that can be accused of wearing a costume in the traditional sense: his red-and-black bodysuit is the same design he wore back in the day, and it never served any practical purpose. The only thing it had to do was not fall to pieces during a fight.
CB glances at Jack, dressed in a too-small track suit with a TTI logo on the left shoulder. It’s all they found on board, but it was better than traveling in a plane with Naked Jack.
Maybe it has a purpose after all.
“I’m just saying,” Grant says, “if you’re gonna get angsty about something, not liking how it feels to die is pretty legit in my book.”
“Is that the same book you use to keep people from flying?” CB asks.
“No,” Grant says, “that’s a list. Get it straight, Chief.”
Street Ronin continues as if the interruption had never happened. “The point is that when Vigilante comes back to his senses he might be more than a little pissed, and not particularly rational about it. He’s not as strong as you guys…” He nods to Roger and Jack. “But I still don’t want to be a few thousand feet above ground if he flips out.”
“I quite agree.” Travers has been silent for most of the time in the plane, content to sit and watch. In the old days, when Travers was assigned to the Guardians as an official government liaison, CB had never noticed exactly how much the man sat and watched.
“With Street Ronin,” Travers clarifies. “I also don’t want to be a few thousand feet above ground if he ‘flips out.’ I don’t fly.”
“I fly,” Agent Hu says. “But I can’t really take passengers unless they’re fireproof. I guess that means you, Scrapper.” She grins mischievously.
Jack shrugs, causing the track suit jacket to strain at the seams.
Grant rolls his eyes. “Jesus, Hu, buy him dinner first.”
Hu hits him squarely in the arm.
Everyone laughs, more to relieve tension than anything else.
“I’ll be right back.” Jenny Forrest pushes back her chair and stands. The laughter dies off, and she fidgets self-consciously as she finds herself the center of attention. Her combat armor, black plates of composite steel set over a black composite mesh, clanks loudly in the sudden silence. “I… Mr. Whitman, where’s the bathroom in this thing?”
Roger smiles and points. “Through the hatch, second on the left.”
Jenny nods once. The right side of her face flushes slightly—the left is swollen and bruised. “Be right back.”
CB frowns as he watches her leave.
Grant shakes his head. “Mister Whitman?”
“Give her a break. I’ve known her pretty much all her life. She didn’t call me ‘Roger’ when she was eight, and she hasn’t had any reason to since.” Roger looks at the hatch thoughtfully. “She OK, CB?”
“Nope.” CB doesn’t elaborate.
Roger nods. “She gonna be OK?”
“Pretty sure,” CB says. “She had a rough trigger.”
“Yeah,” Roger says. “I heard about that. From her mom.”
CB looks at Roger sharply. “Juliet knows about that?”
“A lot of people know about it,” Roger says. “She and Marty got it from Senator Morgan himself. Apparently he’s trying to keep everyone from reclassifying her under Title XII.”
Travers raises an eyebrow. Grant and Hu exchange knowing looks.
“Shit,” CB says. “Juliet’s gonna kill me.”
“No, she’s on your side,” Roger says. “So’s Marty, but… you know.”
CB sighs. “Maybe I should talk to her.”
“Let me take this one,” Roger says.
“Fine by me.” CB leans back in his chair, closing his eyes. “Wise mentor, I am not.”
“Not so bad,” Street Ronin says. “She held her own against Richter. She would have lost eventually, but she was making him work hard for it. She’s gonna be real scary in a fight some day.”
“Yay,” CB says. “She gets to be just like us.”
* * *
Jenny stands in the cargo hold, staring at the coffins stacked from floor to ceiling.
They’re not literally coffins—they’re seventy-two portable, hermetically-sealed isolation chambers, each containing a person. Half of the people are alive, and half of the people… she saw the bodies. They didn’t die peacefully.
She hears the hatch open behind her. She doesn’t bother turning around.
“You’re going to have to start calling me Roger.”
Jenny turns to see Roger Whitman standing in the hatch. “I thought you were CB.”
Roger chuckles. “Don’t make that mistake again.” He walks over to her, giving her armored shoulder a gentle squeeze as he looks at the coffins stacked from floor to ceiling.
Jenny snorts. “I gave up trying to think of a name. Red Shift threatened to call me ‘Miss Liberty’ if I didn’t think of something.”
“I see,” Roger says. “Didn’t expect that one to have a sense of humor.”
“He’s a riot, actually. So’s Street Ronin, once he relaxes. It’s just Vigilante who’s not any fun.” She thinks about the sack leaning against the kitchenette and shudders. “I guess I can see why.”
They stand in silence for a while, then Roger asks, “You OK?”
“Yeah,” Jenny says. “I just… I don’t know. It was too much like it was before the fight. Everyone sitting around, cracking jokes. I couldn’t do that when there was… this.”
She gestures toward the coffins.
“Everyone on this plane cares about those people.”
“I know,” Jenny says. “I just don’t know how to do both yet. How to care and wind down afterward.”
“There’s definitely a trick to it,” Roger says. “After a while you learn to compartmentalize, to set the bad stuff aside for a while, not focus on it until you have to. The trick is figuring out when you have to. If you don’t, you’re going to look for other ways to cope, and that won’t end well.”
Roger shrugs. “CB says you’re a pretty close analogue to Liberty in terms of what he could do. Assuming that’s true, it’ll take a lot more than a shot of whiskey to help you unwind.”
Jenny stares down at her hands. She’s still wearing her gloves—fingerless nylon mesh, with a metal plate on the back that goes just over her knuckles. They’re supposed to allow her to easily use a keyboard while still providing some protection during a fight. The metal alloy is black, but she can see something even darker staining it.
Blood. Jesus, I literally have blood on my hands.
“I shot a guy in the face,” Jenny said. “I didn’t really have a choice at the time. At least I don’t think I did. But it was still horrible.”
“Yeah,” Roger says.
“And then we all attacked that base, and I’m pretty sure I wound up killing more people. I didn’t plan to—I deliberately chose not to go in armed, you know? I figured I’d be able to hold back, like Great-Grandfather did. But they weren’t holding back… so I didn’t. I couldn’t afford to, I guess—I had to use everything I had to stay alive. And then we found these…”
She looks at the coffins again. Stacked floor to ceiling.
“I feel like I should still think it’s horrible. And I do, I guess. Only… not so much.” Jenny turns to Roger, a hint of desperation in her eyes. “That’s not good, right? I shouldn’t be getting jaded after my second fight.”
“You’re not getting jaded,” Roger says. “You’re getting angry. It’s OK to be angry about what the bad guys did to these people. You gotta be careful where it takes you, but being angry? You need that. When you stop being angry about things like this, that’s when you’re in real trouble.”
“I can’t imagine ever not being angry about that,” Jenny says.
“Nobody can,” Roger says. “Not in the beginning.”