Part Two: Crossfire Safehouse
Red Shift stands in the garage of the Crossfire safehouse, staring through a portal at the conference room of the Nautilus. The portal is shaped like a Persian arch, its borders purple-back shadow mixed with radiant gold light—a combination difficult to stare at directly. Light warps around it, making the air at the edges ripple. The interior of the arch gives a clear view of the other side, and he can actually hear people moving around the conference room. That side of the portal is currently in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Puerto Rico and Florida. He crossed from there to New York City in only four steps.
That’s fast. Even for me.
He shrugs his right shoulder, trying to adjust his backpack without letting go of the overstuffed duffel bag in his right hand. The bulk is inconvenient, but he can’t stop staring at the portal, through the portal… around the portal. He’s worked with teleporters, and he’s seen teleportation tech, but he’s never seen anything quite like this.
“You actually walked through that thing?”
Curveball stands on a small platform set in front of the door that leads to the living area on the second floor. Stairs made of industrial concrete and steel pipe connect the platform with the garage. He isn’t in great shape: his face is a mask of bruises, and one arm hangs limply by his side as the empty sleeve of a canvas shirt hangs over it. His eyes are sharp and clear, though. He looks at the portal warily.
“Sure did.” Red Shift readjusts his grip on the duffel bag and walks to the raised platform. “Didn’t melt or anything. That’s a pretty useful trick the Doctor has.”
Curveball blinks. “The Doctor? That’s what he went with? He’s gonna get his ass sued.”
Red Shift laughs, then shakes his head. “He went with ‘Doctor Enigma.’ It’ll take a while to figure out how to address him in the third person.”
Curveball looks amused in spite of himself. “You could just call him David.”
“You could,” Red Shift says.
“You staying, or going back?” Curveball asks the question a little too casually for Red Shift to believe he doesn’t care about the answer.
“Doctor Thorpe has plenty of biologists at his disposal,” Red Shift says. “Most of them are better than me. I figure I’ll be more useful attacking a… what did you call it?”
Curveball relaxes a little. “An evil wizard’s tower.”
Red Shift nods. “An evil wizard’s tower.” He hefts the duffel bag again. “Doctor Thorpe and I brought a few force multipliers.”
“Good.” Curveball stands to one side, letting Red Shift through the door. “Thanks. It’d be nice if we could get Regiment and Vigilante in on this as well, but hell yes I’ll take the guy who can break Mach 12.”
Red Shift flashes an affable grin as he walks through the door.
* * *
Jenny Forrest stares down at the motionless form of her uncle and tries to figure out what, exactly, she should feel.
In some ways it would be easier if he was dead. If he was dead she could look past all the years—decades, probably—that he had been a self-important asshole who cared more about his career than his family. That’s what you do with dead people, right? You overlook the bad, and focus on the good. So she could forget how terrible he was, and focus on how he died a hero, working with his grandfather to bring down a powerful conspiracy. But he’s not dead—not yet. At the moment he’s lying down on a ratty green couch, surrounded by a circle of that weird purple-gold energy David conjured out of thin air.
Looking down at the man, it’s hard not to remember all the times she hated him—hated the way he used his grandfather’s fame to further his own career, hated the way he tried to control everyone he met, hated that fake smile that everyone who wasn’t part of the family thought looked exactly like Liberty’s.
Still, looking down at the man and seeing shadows of the pain and fear that were etched into his face just minutes before, it’s hard to think of him as anything but a victim. But even that is wrong: if his statement is to be believed, he was working a long con with his grandfather. That means being a raging asshole was part of the job. That makes everything even more complicated. Had it all been an act? Does she know anything about her uncle at all?
“Jesus, Uncle Toby. Are you some kind of hero after all?”
Jenny looks up to see CB standing in the doorway. Just behind him, Red Shift ducks into the weird room with the torture chair.
“I didn’t realize I said that out loud,” she admits.
CB smiles slightly. “Monologuing. Occupational hazard.”
Jenny tries to suppress a smile. “I thought only villains did that.”
“They’re just better at it, usually because they’re standing off by themselves while their minions do all the dirty work. Heroes have to monologue while fighting, which makes effective wordplay challenging. On the other hand, we have amazing cardio.”
She laughs in spite of herself, then frowns when she looks back down at her uncle. “Were you serious? About him being a hero?”
CB walks into the room, staring at the Senator with a mixture of admiration and dislike. “Yeah.”
“I always thought he was one of the bad guys,” Jenny says. “Not exactly evil, but so wrong I never understood how he could be related to great-grandfather. His whole ‘metahumans are unregistered weapons’ spiel was pretty awful. But if he was acting all this time—”
“Pretty sure he wasn’t lying about that,” CB says. “Let’s just call him complicated and leave it at that.”
They stand in silence a while.
“How’s your arm?” Jenny asks.
CB stretches it out in front of him, wincing slightly, then shakes it out, wincing a little more. “A little better. Red Shift brought an IV with some of Crossfire’s weird regenerative concoction. I’ll be fine after that.”
“Red Shift?” Jenny asks, cautiously optimistic. “Is he…?”
“He is,” CB says. “We get two-thirds of Crossfire for this. I’ll take it.”
The swinging door to the kitchen opens, and David Bernard steps through. He looks different, even since this morning: he’s stronger, healthier, and no longer half-starved or on the verge of exhaustion. The hollowness in his eyes and cheeks have filled out to the point that he almost looks normal. That said, there’s still something… off. Jenny can’t put her finger on it, but the wholesome, all-American appearance is flawed somehow, as if it were covered in a nearly-transparent film smeared with a fine layer of ink.
“Lieutenant,” CB says. He steps to the side to give David a better view of the Senator. “Or, uh, Doctor Enigma, I guess.”
David grins self-consciously. “Such a pompous name.”
“And Sky Commando wasn’t?” Jenny asks.
“It felt a little more earned…” David stares down at Senator Morgan, furrowing his brows in concentration.
Jenny feels a pang of worry. “What is it? Is he getting worse?”
David shakes his head. “Still holding steady. I’m trying to figure out how long we have until the thing I did stops working.”
“Oh,” Jenny says. “And?”
David frowns. “Three or four hours.”
“That’s what you said an hour ago,” Jenny says.
“I know. But it looks like the people who cursed him didn’t expect him to have any protection. They haven’t tried to break through yet. They will. When they do, that’s when the timer starts.”
“In that case,” CB says, “we need to get this show on the road.” He turns to Jenny. “Red Shift brought something for you. He’s in the armory.”
Jenny blinks. “There’s an armory in this dump?”
“It’s a Crossfire safehouse,” CB says. “There’s always an armory.”
* * *
The armory is cramped but well-organized, filled with lockers and weapons cases stuffed full of deadly things. Red Shift hunches over a workbench at the far end of the room, fiddling with a small, rugged-looking black box attached to a tactical harness.
He doesn’t turn or look up when Jenny arrives, so she waits as patiently as she can, hoping he looks up soon. When he doesn’t, she clears her throat.
“CB said you wanted to see me.”
“Sorry,” Red Shift says, still not looking up. “I did, I’m just a little distracted… your bag is the farthest on the right, in front of the lockers.”
Jenny glances over the lockers—all closed—and looks down. Three backpacks sit on the floor, arranged in a row.
“My bag?” Jenny grabs the rightmost bag. It’s bulky, but feels light.
“Gift from Doctor Thorpe,” Red Shift says.
Jenny opens the top of the bag and peers inside. “Body armor?”
“The armor Street Ronin made for you out of Curveball’s old gear was pretty basic. Doctor Thorpe has a complete fabrication facility on the Nautilus—along with every other type of scientific facility known to man, probably—so he worked up a replacement he felt would better integrate your new physical skills with your technical skills. I don’t usually recommend using new gear before it’s properly field tested, but Doctor Thorpe has a pretty good track record for this kind of stuff. He says you should watch the helmet demo before going out.”
Jenny fishes through the backpack. “I don’t see a helmet.”
Red Shift straightens from the table, turns and stares at Jenny’s bag. He snaps his fingers. “It’s the hoop.”
Jenny searches through the bag again and pulls out a heavy metal ring. It looks like a solid piece of metal, shaped into an oval. “This looks more like a headband.”
“It gets better,” Red Shift promises. “Lay it all out on the floor and I’ll show you how to put it together.”
“OK,” Jenny says, and starts pulling out the contents of the bag, one by one.
There are a few rigid pieces—a small chestplate, two arm guards, and two shin plates—but most of the space is taken up by a bodysuit that looks like a coarse, thick blend of black and blue-gray wool. There is some semi-rigid tech embedded in the material, but it doesn’t look like body armor at all.
“I think I’d rather wear what I have now,” Jenny admits.
“It doesn’t look impressive in this form,” Red Shift agrees. “This is just for transport. Most of the really clever tech is in the chestpiece, but the rest of it—well, you’ll see. OK, the chestpiece attaches to these sockets here…” he points out a series of disks that look like oversized snaps running down the length of the torso. “They snap in like magnets. Same for the arm and shin plates.”
The plates line up and snap in just as Red Shift says, though Jenny isn’t convinced they’ll stay on during a fight. The last step is to attach the heavy metal circle to the neck. Once all the pieces are in place, a panel on the chestplate lights up, and a small square on the upper-right corner turns green.
“Put your thumb there,” Red Shift says.
Jenny places her thumb over the green panel, which turns red, then yellow, then green again.
“It’s keyed to you,” Red Shift says. “Your DNA as well as your fingerprint. Next is to key it to your voice. Keep your thumb on the plate and say the word ‘activate.’”
Jenny looks at the chestplate uncertainly, then shrugs. “Activate.”
The entire chestplate lights up. Jenny jerks her hand back as the bodysuit inflates like a balloon, then gasps as it transforms before her eyes. What appeared to be coarse wool flattens and smooths into something more rigid. In a few seconds, the transformation is complete, and Jenny is staring down at what can only be described as a suit of armor.
The material is mostly blue-gray, with black running along the seams between the joints and outlining the chestpiece and arm and leg plates. The material isn’t exactly solid: it looks like lots of tiny links, all woven together into a semi-flexible mesh.
“The mesh is kind of like chainmail,” Red Shift explains, “only significantly stronger. It would be a little too cumbersome for most people—I’d find it very restrictive, myself—but with your enhanced strength you should hardly notice.”
“It’s not as intimidating as the all-black armor,” Jenny says, running a finger along one of the arms, “but it looks stronger.”
“A lot stronger,” Red Shift says. “Small arms fire won’t be a problem in that. It can technically resist light artillery, though the concussive force would probably still kill you.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Jenny says dryly. Her gaze falls on the neck piece, where the thick metallic loop of the “helmet” fits seamlessly into the torso. “There’s still no helmet.”
“Put it up on its feet,” Red Shift says. “It’ll stand on its own when it’s like this.”
Jenny does so. She can tell its heavier than it was—she’s not entirely sure how that works, and decides the explanation would probably put her to sleep. As Red Shift predicted, it stands on its own.
“Now tell it to deploy the helmet.”
“OK,” Jenny says. “Deploy helmet.”
Multiple paper-thin plates extend from the heavy metal loop set into the neck, assembling themselves into the form of a fully-enclosed helmet and visor. Despite having seen the helmet assembled with her own eyes, she can’t detect any seams on its surface.
“Doctor Thorpe says he got the idea from watching a movie,” Red Shift says.
“How do I get into it?” Jenny asks. “Do I have to deflate it first?”
Red Shift shakes his head. “It opens in the back.”
Jenny starts tugging at her body armor. “Go back to working on your thing,” she says. “I have a demo to watch.”