Part Four: Robert Thorpe's Office
Robert’s office has been transformed into a miniature auditorium.
Rows of chairs fill the first two-thirds of the room—six chairs on each side with an aisle down the middle—and Jenny recognizes almost none of the people sitting in them. She vaguely remembers the faces of one or two of the people who were present at their arrival, and she catches a glimpse of Alihmah Mahmoud, the president of Thorpe Industries, sitting in the very last row. Everyone else is wearing a Thorpe Institute badge. The first row is reserved for her and her companions: Twelve chairs, each with a nametag. Curveball. Zero. Regiment. Red Shift. Street Ronin. Vigilante. Scrapper Jack. Dr. Artemis LaFleur. David Bernard. Alan Grant. Lijuan Hu. Peter Travers. At present, the only chairs that aren’t filled are Vigilante’s, Jack’s, LaFleur’s, and Bernard’s. Jenny remembers something about David being in the infirmary for some reason.
She looks to her right. CB slouches in his chair, head slumped forward, eyes closed, apparently asleep. He looks like he’s back to wearing the clothes he wore when they arrived: ratty jeans, heavy black boots, a faded white t-shirt with the name of what she assumes is a band—something called “The Cramps”—plastered on the front. He’s back to wearing his trench coat again.
Roger, immediately to her left, is still wearing a Thorpe Institute jumpsuit. He also appears to be sleeping, in almost the same position as CB. She nudges him slightly, and the large man opens one eye, focuses on her, and lifts his head, smiling slightly.
“More like nervous,” Jenny says. “And wondering why all these other people are here. I thought this was a secret mission, and all that.”
Roger chuckles as he rubs his eyes. “If they’re here, it’s because Robert thinks he needs them. I guess you discovered something important.”
It’s not precisely a question, but Roger falls silent, waiting.
Jenny shrugs. “Yes? But I don’t know what it is. Robert started reading the contents of the file, his eyes went wide, and he asked for Overmi—uh… for Doctor LaFleur to join him. At that point CB said we’d leave them to their work, and dragged me down to the cafeteria.”
“We’d just be getting in the way.” CB doesn’t bother moving as he talks, and his voice sounds a little sloppy, as if he’s still half-sleeping. “They were going to start talking real fast and complicated, and if we were there they’d spend half the time trying to figure out how to explain it to us. Better to let ’em work, then explain everything after.”
Jenny narrows her eyes as she considers arguing the point, but decides he’s probably right. She turns back to Roger, looking on with amusement.
“How should I refer to him, anyway? LaFleur, I mean. He is Overmind, isn’t he? But nobody calls him that. And nobody really treats him like he’s a criminal, either.”
“Not all criminals are created equal,” Roger says. “Not all heroes, either. It’s complicated and it’ll drive you nuts if you think about it too much. But… look, you do IT security stuff, right?”
“So you’ve been to conventions where you rub shoulders with people who are in your field, but probably not working on the same side of the fence as you are. You know. Hackers.”
Jenny forces herself not to roll her eyes at the term, but nods.
“But at those conventions you all talk shop and exchange information? To at point, at least. And you can probably think of certain situations where at least one or two of the shadier people in the room might have your back.”
“Yeah,” Jenny says. “I guess so.”
“And there are probably people on your side of the fence that just rub you the wrong way, and you wouldn’t trust them as far as you could throw them.”
Jenny nods. “I can think of a few.”
“Well it’s the same here. LaFleur’s a villain, but he’s not bad. Just like Crossfire are… well…” Roger glances over at Red Shift and Street Ronin and frowns.
“Heroes?” Red Shift sounds amused at the thought. “That’s sweet, Regiment.”
“I feel super complimented,” Street Ronin agrees, trying to hold back laughter.
Roger shakes his head. “Well, they’re not villains. But they’re not exactly good.”
Heat rises in her cheeks as she glances over at Street Ronin and Red Shift, who look even more amused by Roger’s description. Red Shift notices her discomfort and smiles disarmingly.
“This has been a weird month,” Jenny mutters to herself.
CB laughs. Roger shakes his head, torn between disapproval and amusement.
The office door hisses open and Jenny turns to see three people enter the room: LaFleur, Vigilante, and Scrapper Jack. She’s surprised to see how healthy Vigilante looks. She remembers how hopelessly mangled he was when they arrived—he was literally carried in sack—but there aren’t even any marks on his body that she can see. He and Jack make their way to the front row, Vigilante settling in next to Street Ronin and Jack taking the chair next to him.
LaFleur, Jenny notices, walks past his chair, over to Robert’s desk. The desk, normally taking up the center of the back half of the room, has been pushed over to one side, giving the audience a clear, unobstructed view of the main screen at the far end. Robert sits there quietly, reviewing something on his private terminal. He looks up as LaFleur approaches, nodding once, and the older man leans over and whispers a few words Jenny can’t make out. Robert nods again, and LaFleur turns, walks past the rows the chairs, and exits through the office door.
Roger turns his head slightly. “Lieutenant Bernard is awake,” he murmurs. “LaFleur is bringing him up.”
“Weird match,” Jenny says. She doesn’t know much about Bernard. She vaguely remembers meeting him at a police function, back when he was still Sky Commando, but he didn’t make much of an impression.
“They were on some kind of mission together,” Roger says.
“Yeah,” CB says. He’s sitting up now, looking more alert. “At my request. Well… LaFleur, anyway. Not sure why he brought Sky Commando. I don’t know what they teach the NYPD these days, but somehow I don’t think he has a background in magic.”
“Who does?” Roger asks.
CB shrugs. “Fair point.”
The lights begin to blink. The murmur of the audience fades, replaced with the sound of people settling into their chairs. The large screen at the end of the room blinks on, displaying a Thorpe Institute logo. The murmuring subsides completely, and silence settles over the room.
“Thank you all for taking the time out of your schedules to attend,” Robert says. He doesn’t bother to stand, but he has the full attention of everyone in the room. “I know this meeting is somewhat irregular. A number of you are already familiar with the goings-on of the last week, and the rest of you, I’m sure, are at least familiar with the rumors.”
Laughter fills the room. Robert waits a moment until it subsides.
“Some of you know more of this story than others, so I hope those of you in the know will be patient while I bring the rest up to speed. It starts with Liberty’s murder.”
The front screen flickers to display various magazine and newspaper articles covering Liberty’s murder, as well as a few pictures of the public funeral. Jenny feels her throat tighten.
“Immediately after Liberty was murdered, two separate investigations into his death were started—one by Curveball and one by Doctor Artemis LaFleur. Curveball was assisted in his investigation by members of Liberty’s family. Doctor LaFleur was assisted by the retired villain Scrapper Jack and by the rogue hero group Crossfire.”
Jenny hears someone laughing softly. She thinks it’s Red Shift.
“These two investigations merged into a single coordinated effort, and culminated with an assault on an underground complex in Farraday City, where they found… test subjects.”
The screen changes to show the stacks of containment coffins.
“We still don’t know the identities of these people and we’re not yet at the point where we’re comfortable reviving them. The data that was recovered from the underground facility was incomplete, but from what we’ve been able to piece together so far, it’s clear they were used to test the effectiveness of an artificially engineered pathogen. Unfortunately, much of the specific data about the pathogen and its method of transmission had been destroyed. We knew very little about its construction until today…”
The screen goes blank.
“Just before he died, Liberty emailed Curveball a heavily-encrypted message. Today we were able to break the encryption and view its contents. What we found was this.”
Jenny doesn’t understand what displays on the screen next. The words PROJECT RECALL are stamped at the top of what appears to be a blueprint scanned into digital format. The sheet has a number of drawings that look vaguely like chains of DNA, but she doesn’t know what they, or the symbols next to them, or the complex formula scrawled underneath them, mean.
“Someone has created a virus targeting the metahuman gene.”
Immediately the room fills with excited whispering, as people in the audience turn to each other and start talking excitedly about what it might mean. Robert falls silent, allowing the whispering to crest, and after a few moments he says “please, hold your questions and comments until the end.”
The room falls silent once more.
“Thank you.” The display starts flashing through pages and pages of data as Robert continues. “It’s more complicated than that, of course. There isn’t a single gene that can be pointed as the official ‘metahuman gene.’ There are a number of markers that, when combined in exactly the right way, triggers a process that may or may not result in a metahuman. The virus targets three of the most common markers.”
The screen updates to display a spreadsheet. “One of the documents we found at the facility is, apparently, a summary of the genetic testing done on each of the test subjects. Although none of the test subjects is a metahuman themselves, each subject possessed at least one of these genetic markers. We believe they had been identified as carriers of the metahuman gene, for lack of a better term. For this reason, we believe the virus is designed to target these carriers as well. They may even be the primary targets.”
Whispering fills the room again, and this time Alimah Mahmoud has to say, rather sharply, “that’s enough!” before the room quiets down.
“Detailed information on this virus will be available after this meeting,” Robert continues. “For the moment, what’s relevant is that the virus was designed to kill, and kill quickly. The test data we’ve recovered suggests that it’s not killing at the level the designers want and is still being refined to increase its potency. Needless to say I will need some of you to organize teams focusing on countering this virus. A cure is preferable, but a vaccine will be acceptable. But there are still a number of unanswered questions.”
Jenny hears the office door hiss open, but she’s too focused on the screen to look back.
“First, it has been pointed out that for an experiment that focuses on metahumans, the choice to include only male test subjects is limiting. Why only men? We don’t have an answer to this question yet. Second, we don’t know exactly how this virus is transmitted. More specifically, the data we have suggests the virus is very difficult to transmit over any great distance—it’s a poor choice for someone trying to start a metahuman plague. Liberty’s file included some information I think I related to transmission, but I don’t understand it.”
The screen updates again. It looks similar to the first page that was shown from Liberty’s file: pictures of DNA chains, with symbols and formula placed all over the page. But the symbols and formula look strange—unnatural, like they shouldn’t be sharing the screen with the pictures of DNA chains and mathematical equations.
“Quite frankly,” Robert says, “I have no idea what this means.”
The voice comes from the back of the room. Jenny turns to see Artemis LaFleur standing the doorway, holding up a painfully thin man dressed in sweatpants and a button-up shirt that looks two sizes two large for him. The man’s hair is long, and he has a thick beard. Jenny doesn’t recognize him.
“Ah,” Robert says. “Lieutenant Bernard. I’m glad you could make it.”
Jenny frowns. That did not look like the guy she met.
“I know what that is,” Bernard says, pointing at the screen. “You’re right that it’s how they plan to transmit it. But it’s not scientific. It’s magic.”
More muttering this time, though from the tone it sounds more disbelieving and dismissive than anything else.
Bernard breaks free of LaFleur, stumbles forward a few steps, then manages to find his own balance. He walks down the center aisle, eyes gleaming from the reflected light of the screen.
“It’s a curse,” he says. “Part of one, at any rate. A curse such as this could be used to destroy an entire family line. Half of it, at any rate, the male half or the female half. This one targets the male half.”
“Why?” Robert asks.
“I’m not entirely sure,” Bernard says, still advancing on the screen, examining each of the symbols in turn. “I think it’s a mechanical limitation. I doubt that’s the right word, but it’s as close as I can get. A spell that can target the population that specifically has limits. It seems that whoever is behind this spell comes from a tradition where men are considered the carriers of the bloodline.”
He turns to look at LaFleur, adding “like Artigenian did.”
“That’s why they only included male test subjects,” Robert says.
David nods. “You said it was difficult to transmit the virus over a great distance. This tells me they don’t have to. If they had enough power, they could conceivably infect every male target on earth in a matter of seconds.”
No one says anything.
Robert looks around the room, then nods once. “I’ve emailed an information packet to everyone here. Please review it when you have time. Your assignments will be handed out over the next day. I want this to be your priority going forward.”
“Very good,” Robert says. “Thank you all for coming.”
The lights return to their full strength, and the men and women behind Jenny start talking excitedly among themselves as they get to their feet and start shuffling toward the door. Jenny looks at the front row—none of them have moved. Everyone looks grim.
It takes fifteen minutes for the rest of the room to empty. Of the original group, only Ms. Mahmoud stays behind, coming up to take a seat in the second row. She doesn’t speak, and the expression on her face is hard to read.
Street Ronin is the first to break the silence.
“Well.” His voice is dry. “At least I’ll survive.”