Part One: Thorpe Island, Secure Recovery Room
Vigilante’s eyes open.
He lies in the middle of a large, empty cube, naked and curled tightly into a ball. The floor, walls, and ceiling all gleam dull white under the harsh lights recessed in the high ceiling. He’s in his cell. Or his recovery room. At a certain point in the process it’s the same thing.
He isn’t alone. Immediately he sits upright, turning to face the three men watching him. He knows two of them very well, and he has some history with the third. Street Ronin carries a sports bag looped over one shoulder, and Red Shift’s left arm is in a sling. They’re both out of uniform, which is unusual, but he’s pretty sure the third man—a slim, tall man, reddish-brown hair with graying temples, leaning heavily on a cane—is the reason why.
The man hesitates. “Not for a long time.”
“Doctor Thorpe, then.”
“If you insist on a title. How are you feeling?”
Vigilante stands easily, without pain. “A little drafty. But my tantrum period is over.”
He sees Street Ronin and Red Shift relax as Doctor Thorpe nods.
“I thought as much,” Thorpe says. “We were monitoring your neurological functions, and they weren’t spiking like they were earlier.” He nods toward one of the walls. Vigilante glances over, and sees a that a piece has buckled outward, the ends beginning to twist.
“Sorry,” Vigilante says.
“How much of that do you remember?” The curiosity in Thorpe’s voice is unmistakable. “Normally people who experience that level of physical trauma suffer memory loss…”
“More than I’d like,” Vigilante says. “I guess I passed out while the magic robot was grinding me to a pulp. I woke up in here, went nuts, your guys—I assume they’re your guys?”
“Your guys tried to sedate me with some kind of knockout gas. I guess it worked eventually.” Vigilante looks at the damaged section of wall again. “Eventually. Dreamed I was building a birdhouse.”
“A birdhouse?” Thorpe raises an eyebrow.
“Whenever I’m sleeping off the last bit of a really big hurt I dream I’m building something. It’s probably symbolic. Anyway, I’m OK until the next time I get torn to bits.”
“He’s OK, Doc.” Red Shift’s laid-back, easygoing voice is light and conversational. “I owe him for sucker-punching me back in Farraday City, but other than that he’s fine.”
“Sorry about that,” Vigilante says.
Red Shift shrugs. “It was a good call. I was about to kill myself with that last push. I’ll still get you back, though.”
Street Ronin snorts. Thorpe continues to stare at Vigilante thoughtfully.
“Look, Doc, I don’t mind answering your questions, but I’d rather not do it naked.”
Street Ronin snorts again, then throws the sports bag at his feet. Vigilante kneels and unzips the bag. It’s full of clothes.
He dresses quickly as they take turns bringing him up to date: Regiment arriving at the fight. Curveball and Agent Grant discovering test subjects in the complex. Everyone going to Thorpe’s floating island. A general, tentative agreement to work together to nail down what was going on.
Vigilante buttons up a light blue denim shirt. “Test subjects.” His voice is flat.
Red Shift nods gravely. “We’ve been trying to work through the data to figure out what happened to them. The patients are in stasis right now, and they’ll stay that way until we’re positive we can wake them up without killing them. Or anyone else.”
Vigilante looks at Red Shift pointedly, an unspoken question hanging between them.
Red Shift shakes his head. “Pretty sure they aren’t.”
Vigilante nods once. “OK. What do we know so far?”
“Not a lot.” Thorpe sighs. “It’s only been two days, and the data is incomplete. We’re all going to meet up later today. I can bring everyone up to speed then. Right now I wanted to talk to you about something else.”
Vigilante looks up, narrowing his eyes. Thorpe fidgets uneasily, wincing slightly as his weight shifts from his right foot to his left. Street Ronin sets his jaw, staring back defiantly. Red Shift sighs softly as he shakes his head.
“This sounds like it’s going to be fun,” Vigilante says. He sits on the floor and starts pulling on a pair of athletic socks.
Robert Thorpe takes a deep breath. “The Guardians and Crossfire always had a complicated history. There’s no getting around that, and because of that I realize I’m not the best person to be bringing this up. Especially since you spend a lot of time going after the more unethical branches of my profession.”
“No offense,” Vigilante says.
“None taken. I don’t feel any pity for people who use science as a way to excuse their own sociopathy. Once upon a time I might have felt obligated to protect them—duty, law and order, all that—but these days I’m more inclined to believe they deserve what they get. The point is, I know you have a general mistrust of mad scientists, including me, and it makes me reluctant to have this conversation.”
Vigilante sighs. “Doc, we don’t hate scientists. Just predators pretending to be scientists. You’re legit. What’s your point?”
“Your tantrum period,” Thorpe says. “When you first arrived, Street Ronin made it very clear you needed a… well.” He sweeps his hand across the room. “You needed something a bit sturdier than our standard medical facilities.”
“Yeah,” Vigilante says sourly, “this was a pretty bad one.”
“But from what I understand none of them are particularly good.”
Vigilante doesn’t answer.
“Look, Vigilante…” Thorpe starts to pace, winces slightly, then stops. “I haven’t performed any tests on you—I swear it, and Red Shift and Street Ronin can back me up on it—but I am a scientist, and despite the fact that I haven’t been actively poking and prodding you I couldn’t avoid observing you. And there are a few things I’ve noticed that concern me… and I feel professionally and personally obligated to share those concerns.”
Vigilante scowls. “Go on.”
Thorpe points at the large dent in the wall. “This concerns me. Your colleagues won’t come out and say it, but I’m pretty sure it concerns them too.”
“I’m not exactly OK with it either, Doc,” Vigilante says.
“I didn’t think you were. But the damage to that wall is still there. If we hadn’t managed to bring you under when we did, you would have broken through that wall and started tearing up the rest of the complex. That would’ve been catastrophic.”
“I know,” Vigilante says.
Thorpe sighs, clearly exasperated. “What’s going on? This wasn’t a thing back in the day. I saw you get taken down by a sniper only to get back up again a few hours later. All you did then was grunt in annoyance and ask if you’d missed anything important.”
“That was fifteen years ago,” Vigilante says. “Things change.”
“What changed?” Thorpe asks.
“It hurts,” Vigilante says. “It hurts a lot.”
Nobody says anything. Thorpe cocks his head to one side as he considers Vigilante’s words.
“I didn’t expect that,” he admits. “You don’t expect healing to hurt.”
“It always hurt,” Vigilante says. “It didn’t always hurt this much. It was a lot easier to deal with back when we were all running around the same turf. It’s stronger now, though—I heal faster than I used to. I heal more than I used to. And it hurts more right along with it. It’s easier to handle when I’m fighting, because it’s just more pain in the mix—not fun, but it’s manageable. I can prepare for it and tough it out. But if I actually fall…”
He looks at the twisted section of wall.
“My first thought is oh God, this hurts and there’s no time to grit my teeth or get ready. After that it’s fight or flight, and there’s no running away from it.”
“Painkillers don’t help,” Red Shift adds. “We’ve tried. His body burns them away, just like any other toxin. I have no idea how much it we’d have to pump into him before he noticed a difference. I’m not even sure it’s possible.”
Doctor Thorpe nods. “I see the problem. I’d like to try to help, if I could.” He grips his cane tightly. “For a while now I’ve been very interested in the field of pain management. I can’t make any promises, of course, but if you’re willing…” he trails off. “That’s the issue at hand. I fully understand you have very compelling reasons not to be willing.”
“I appreciate that,” Vigilante says. “I’ll think it over.”
Thorpe nods. “Just let me know.”