Dr. Archer doubles over in another fit of coughing—a strange, barking cough that echoes throughout the abandoned brewery. It passes after a moment, but he's still left short of breath. He looks over to the workbench, making sure that the latest batch of stolen hard drives are busy decrypting, then turns his attention back to his book. It's a dog-eared copy of the parenting book What To Expect The First Year, and he flips through the "Childhood Illnesses" section, making sure he hasn't missed anything.
"Croup," Archer says to himself. "How the hell did I come down with a case of croup? I'm a superhero, for crissakes!'
The answer comes bubbling up, unwanted, from his subconscious: Because you're less than two months old, Billy. Because you never inherited any of your mother's antibodies, because you don't have a mother. And because you continue to live in this unheated, leaky shit-hole of a cave. Some rocket scientist YOU turned out to be.
"Gahh," Archer grumbles to himself, as he shuffles over to the makeshift kitchen area. He was going to have to do something about that. The money he'd stolen from those drug dealers had nearly run out, and he was going to need a find a proper place for Leon and himself to live, soon. Plus, Archer is feeling the need to reconnect with the human race, to walk among regular people and regain some semblance of a normal life again.
Archer fills his cup—coffee, as strong as his still-developing digestive system can handle—and takes a tentative sip. He grimaces—the coffee is ice cold. The wiring has gone on the fritz again, he thinks to himself. Archer shuffles off to the junction box, grabbing a handful of tools off the bench as he passes. He begins fixing the electrical system, nursing his coffee as he works. He imagines that he's starting to breathe a little easier. Bronchial dilator—the words drift through his mind as he works. A mixture of pride and embarrassment has kept him from asking Dr. Tompkins for a shot of cortical steroids—the standard treatment for a severe case of croup—so Archer has decided to use his homemade remedy, large doses of caffeine, to fight the swelling of the tissues in his throat.
Finally, Archer is satisfied that the kitchen has power once again. He heads back to the workbench and checks the time on one of the computers. Heather should be here soon, he thinks to himself. She had mentioned that she would be stopping by after work. He's been looking forward to going over some modifications to the Technicality armor they'd been discussing. Of spending some time together where they weren't fighting for their lives. Maybe get out of here for a bite to eat, perhaps even catch a movie—God, when was the last time he had even BEEN to a movie... ?
Archer begins to look over some of the files he's already managed to recover from the hard drives, but finds it difficult to concentrate. He's distracted by thoughts of Heather, when he's supposed to be figuring out a way to save his wife. Assuming she's even still alive—he'd left word at the Third Rail as soon as they returned to St. Louis, but he's heard nothing from anyone at the Syndicate. Even if they do have another "Contained" in their custody, it could be anyone—another hapless victim of Stern, whom Blackheart has promised to restore if they just impersonate Sharon? Or maybe even Flashburn herself? Even if it is her, what will she think of me—running off after the accident, possibly condemning her to the same fate as me? And what will Blackheart want in exchange for the "magnanimous" act of saving her from death—when it was his goons who may well have provoked the confrontation in the first place?
Archer thinks back to the last time he saw Sharon. He had been arguing with her—they had been doing a lot of that, the last couple of months before the accident. About working too much at the lab. About being isolated from their friends and family, living in Los Alamos. About feeling that they didn't have much in common any more. Was some part of Sharon secretly relieved, when she got the news that her husband was dead? Did she already have someone else, waiting in the wings? Would somebody from Los Alamos not believe she died in the explosion and come looking for her—her white knight, charging in to rescue her? And what would Alex and the others think, if something goes wrong in trying to restore Sharon, if they started seeing Heather and himself together... ?
Archer shakes his head, trying to clear his mind of that line of thinking. Sharon was nearly killed, he thinks to himself. I have the means and the responsibility to save her, if it's at all possible. Whatever happens after that, I'll deal with as it happens.
"That cough sounds nasty. Some kind of southwestern bug?" Heather Takahashi's voice is comparatively chipper, the fleeting glint of teeth between her lips showing as her smile flickers across the planes of her face. While certainly she can't hold a candle to Koyotie's amazing looks, there's an attractiveness about her features nonetheless. Twin eyes of brilliant blue glance over Archer from behind a thick pair of glasses as she walks into the room and puts a hand on her hip.
"Yes, ma'am," Archer replies, slipping into a mock Texas drawl, "what we got here is a case of the Heave-os Rancheros—DRY Heave-os, that is!" He smiles weakly. "Actually, it seems I've got a respiratory virus called croup. Normally, it only affects infants, children under two. Add 'reconstituted clones' to the list too, I guess. There's no real cure for it, but it's generally not fatal, and shouldn't be contagious to the rest of you. I'll just have to wait it out for a few days, maybe see if I can get Blitzkrieg to whip up an icy mist for a while—cold-air humidifiers are supposed to be the best thing for it. Maybe ask Koyotie to smear Vapo-Rub on my chest...." Archer adds with a wink.
A quiet snort is Heather's response, shaking her head lightly side to side. "Look, Bill—we should talk about Los Alamos. I'm... I'm really glad we were able to help you get what you needed." Heather tosses her reddish hair, taking in a breath and letting it out through her nose. "It certainly did me a world of good to put some serious smack down on the Syndicate goons they sent to trash the place, of course. Lately, though... well, I've been thinking about it a lot."
Archer senses a change in the air, and decides to put aside the wise cracks and playful banter. He gestures for Heather to have a seat, then starts to prepare a fresh pot of coffee.
"What's on your mind, Heather?"
"A lot of things, actually." She responds. Her tone remains casual and thoughtful—serious without hanging any heavy weight or significance on her words.
The redhead curled into a seat, wrapping her arms around her chest and leaning forwards towards Archer. "First, I don't blame you for getting me and Alex out of there during the fight. It was a good move. We already had what we came for and all... it's just that Jacket was left behind back there and... well, I wanted to get my last licks in too. No big deal, though." Heather smiles at her teammate, finishing with a light sigh.
Archer nods quietly. "That thought had occurred to me, too, when we were in the middle of bugging out. But Ferris is a big boy—he can take care of himself. From what he's hinted at, he may have been at this for longer than all of us put together. He must have been doing SOMEthing right—I'm not certain he even has powers, and he's able to hold his own... "
"At first I was really mad... and then I took a moment to think about things. Remember when I spoke to you about being concerned with my emotional responses?"
"Sure," Archer replies, handing a steaming cup of coffee to Heather, then taking a seat across from her.
"Well, yes—I was getting emotional during the battle. Seeing those ICOMP guys getting flash-fried like that... well, just more sins for the Syndicate to bear."
"Well, we aren't exactly without sin, ourselves." Archer pauses for a moment. "I mean, Wildfire dead, Tempest in the hospital after falling out of the sky—I know it wasn't Alex's intent, but still... we have to watch that we're not putting ourselves above the law. And we have to allow for the fact that we're going to make mistakes—we are going to screw up. But," he adds, "we need to try to position ourselves so that when we do screw up, they're not the kind that can't be taken back." He thinks of Reg for a moment. "And we have to learn to forgive ourselves."
A frown crosses the woman's face briefly, but she nods. "Forgiveness is tough, Bill. But that's actually at the core of the second thing I wanted to talk to you about."
"In the courtroom, it's easy to label someone a criminal based on the crime. If someone steals, they're a thief. If someone rapes, they're a rapist. If someone commits murder, he... or she... is a murderer."
Heather doesn't meet Bill's eyes after that sentence, switching to looking out the window. "But it's not that simple. Like all the really important things in life, it all boils down to a question. And not the answer itself so much as HOW we answer it. Bill, do you believe that a person is as bad as the worst thing they've done?"
Bill regards Heather for a moment. In the golden light of the late afternoon, her hair looks almost ablaze with color, each strand like polished copper. But his enhanced vision sees even more—a faint nimbus of quantum possibilities illuminating her fair complexion. Like St. Elmo's Fire, or the Northern Lights.
Lord, she's beautiful.
"I don't think it's as simple as 'good people' and 'bad people'," he replies at last. "I think that all of us carry inside us the capacity to do wondrous—or monstrous—things. Certainly, I believe people should atone for their wrongdoings, pay for their crimes. Sometimes it has to take the form of man's laws," he continues, struggling a bit to put words to the feelings, "and sometimes it's a matter of making peace with one's inner demons. But I believe none of us is above reproach—or beyond redemption."
Heather shakes her head.
"No, I didn't mean separating people into two camps. More about... making judgments." She unclasps her arms, putting her hands on her knees. "For instance, take both of us—we're more than just killers. We've done what we've done, and we're not proud of it... but we also do good. What we do is less important as WHY we do it, but that way lies sophistry and 'the End justifies the Means.'" She sighs and shifts closer, the quantum patterns shifting and prisming outwards from her eyes.
"To bring things back down to a specific point... I heard about Flashburn. And I think I'm ready to say that she may not deserve to die, at least by my hand. She's shown that she is more than just a killer too."
The redhead let a shark's grin show on her face. "Not that I have any intention of telling her that, mind you."
"Not to worry," Archer says, returning her grin, "you're secret's safe with me. I know better than to get on your bad side." He thoughtfully rubs his chest where Technicality had once drawn a bead with her rail gun—the bruises had long since healed, but the memory of having the wind knocked out of him lingers in his mind.
"So... " Heather continues. "If why is more important than what... the next question is, why would Flashburn help? Something personal and related to her condition I would presume."
"Conscience," Bill says simply. "It all makes sense, if you take what we know about Flashburn at face value. He begins ticking off points on his fingers. "She works for the Syndicate, committing crimes, to pay off her debt to Blackheart. She and Mirage make their move against the lab in Los Alamos to prevent Stern from doing his 'slash and burn' on all the loose ends; and to keep anyone else from suffering the same fate Flashburn and I did. They bring Sharon back here because... well, a half-life is better than no life at all; and their presence in New Mexico may well have exacerbated things." He leans back against the wall, steepling his fingers. "There are very few true 'villains' in the world, and very few 'heroes'. Which is why I keep coming back to this idea of mine: of giving the metahumans another option besides being government stooges or being outlaws—of giving them the chance to make a finer world."
"Hmmm." Heather murmurs, leaning back and furrowing her brow. "Color me cautiously agreeing with you on the concept of another option."
She tilts her head slightly to the left. "What can I do to help?"
Bill takes a deep breath, and holds it for a moment before he begins. "Heather," he says, "when your husband first started building the Technicality armor, what was his ultimate goal? What I mean is, most of us—scientists, I mean—we pitch our ideas to the government in terms of their military applications, because that's the easiest way to get the funding for our research. Was your husband a career military man, or was a personal combat exoskeleton merely a means to an end?"
A shrug is all the eloquent lawyer can give. "I'm not really sure." Heather says honestly. "From the notes and such he left behind, I think the suit was a prototype. Eventually towards a production model for the Government. Why?"
Bill sits up a little straighter. "Well, just stop and think for a moment about what you have in that suit," he begins. "You've got a pair of gauntlets—tough enough withstand mortar fire, but capable of performing delicate work with virtually no loss of dexterity or sensation. You have a full-body exoskeleton offering a full range of motion, activated by and capable of moving at the speed of thought. You have a self-contained environment suit, capable of withstanding incredible pressures, that isn't much more encumbering to the wearer than a normal suit of clothes. Can you imagine what it would mean if you adapted any of those technologies to civilian applications? Say, prosthetic limbs for amputees or quadriplegics? For search-and-rescue teams, inside a collapsed structure? For deep sea exploration, or even space? You've got something that could be so much more than just a weapon; and there are people out there—people of vision, and more importantly, with money to invest—who would give their eyed teeth to get in on the ground floor to develop that kind of breakthrough technology. THAT could be your husband's legacy to the world...."
Heather's eyes narrowed. "Once his killers have been brought to justice, yes, I agree. I'd be happy to turn over the suit to whoever would be best suited to develop it. But right now... I need it."
"Oh, I wasn't suggesting that you take the Technicality armor off-line," Bill says, holding up his hand, "or that you hand it over to someone else. You're right—we both still have work to do. But your husband's notes, his basic research—those things we could use to start brainstorming and developing spin-off technologies. And that, in turn, would get us the funding we'd need for the REAL work ahead of us...."
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