For Saeto, that issued a challenge in the form of a request.
Soot-laden air; the whirl of helicopter blades, percussive gunfire and prolonged screams. It was a heavy afternoon, filled with death and cackles, improvised plans and battered hope. Exhaustion weighed down on Cross' shoulders along with everything else, yet still he stepped lively; voice smooth and sure as he whittled down Zeus' walls. There was an insecure heart at the center of it all; impressionable and desperate with just the right amount of pride to goad it out.
Many things had gone wrong, but an opportunity presented itself. Several, in fact. But they were all mutually exclusive, so Cross had to choose wisely. Kill Zeus, kill Greene or a compromise.
He could trick Mercer into a bloodtox bath, just waiting for him, bubbling and warm. Even after the first trial by fire, Alex came back for more intel. Pissed and unsure, threatening to throw Cross across the city, yet never laying a hand on him. It's funny how that works, but Cross figured that all those Blackwatch bastards buzzing in his head respected the Specialist just enough to give Mercer pause. Being a Big Name gave him leverage in ways he never expected, but that's why he's the best. Cross works best with the unexpected.
However, that's a short term solution that in no way improves a long term problem. Cross had a twisted history with a woman he'd never seen, ever since his initiation into The Watch and the reason his only retirement plan was a hole in the ground. He wouldn't say he hated Elizabeth Greene, but her runners were a thorn in his side that cost lives and created ghost towns for his men to exorcise. A big picture kinda girl, laying the foundation for a worldwide epidemic. He hadn't known the Redlight project was still active, much less in New York of all places, but he's been finding lots of skeletons and secret files in the rush to stabilize the situation.
Lax security, loose lips. Randall's lost his edge.
Mercer could take her on. At the very least weaken her further than the bloodtox alone so that his troops could finish the job. Orders were to capture. Highest priority for national security and the future dominance of the American forces over the rest of the world. Heh, not likely gonna happen and Cross was going to pull as many strings as it takes to end her and her brood. Had already told the big wigs that Zeus was just a tenderizer and that he'd swoop in at the last second to neutralize them both at their weakest.
It was a good plan. Enough chaos to cover their tracks and get away with it. End their miserable existence and put the ghosts to rest.
Then Taggart got drunk and called him into his office. That tiny room tucked in an apartment building. No signs, no guards, nothing to tip off Zeus. Cross expected to get yelled at, though the Colonel had no authority over him. Somebody to blame for their losses, a patsy, the scapegoat; Taggart might as well scream at a mirror. Yet Cross went anyway, because he could tell that man had a secret ready to break out. And what a doozy that was.
Operation Firebreak. If, and only if, Greene dies. If Randall can't have his pet project back, he'd rather wipe the board clean.
Couldn't let that happen here. Too many survivors, the city's not dead yet.
So killing Greene was going to require a gentler hand. Lucky for the city, Cross found out just in the nick of time, before he set his final plan in motion.
Which left him with compromise and with a being like Blacklight, there's only one card he could use to play nice. "You look distracted, Mercer. I'm ready to hand you the key to beat Greene and you're keeping an eye out to the coast."
Alex glanced back, eyes jittery one moment, then focused the next. Ah, caught in the act and he knows it. "It's nothing, tell me the plan. I want Elizabeth Greene dead." Jaw set tight and fists clench, all tension and rage. Cross needed to shift him towards regret, just enough to open up.
"Greene's hurt a lot of people. Changes them, it's what she does. If I could turn back time, there's a lot of people I wish I could save." Cross walks up to the roof's edge, eyes square on a plain white building in the distance. Time for a gamble. "Your sister's with Ragland over there. It's not too..." The crunch of gravel, the force of the grab that left Cross breathless for a moment as he inwardly winced, yet remained placid . "It's not too late for her."
An icy glare, bared teeth and a threatening lift could not hide that sliver of fear in his eyes. "What do you know? What did you do?" A rush of air as the world turned, slamming against the floor with an oomph as Alex straddled his waist and raised a fist, red and black tendrils squirming around it.
Without a second's thought, Cross shot upward and connected his open palm with Mercer's neck. An electrical current shot up from his chest through the webbing in his sleeves into outlets on the tips of his fingers, shocking Alex into a spastic jerk that allowed Cross to slip out from under him. A breathless chuckle and shuffling feet, Cross shook his gloved hand as it smoked. "I'd say this gear barely passed the field test." As Mercer struggled to coordinate his movement, the Specialist undid straps on his suit, pulled out wires from within and hefted a burnt out battery out of a back compartment. "Don't fight me, Zeus. I got tons of toys you don't know about. Not your enemy here."
Enough power to light up a small town. Bottled lightning, it was called. Had potential if the engineers could stop it from burning up. Though Cross should write a thank you note anyway. Mercer had stayed down for nearly a minute. More than enough time. "I know where Dana is because that's how I contacted you. Through Ragland. That means I've known for awhile now. It's my secret, Alex. I didn't betray you." Let that sink in for a second, get in closer. "I can get her help. Ragland's been out of the game for too long. He doesn't have the resources or knowledge to cure Dana in time. She'll become a runner. You know it. I know it. Ragland doesn't because you don't want to say it out loud." Soften up; a little fatherly, a little understanding. "Don't want it to be true." Now to offer his hand. [i]Take it, you germy bastard, take the bait. Trust me. [/i]
Mercer managed to get on his back, small twitches in his face and extremities fading away with each passing second. Adam's apple bobbed as he cleared his throat, a splash of black escaping his lips to be reabsorbed on his cheek. "H-how?" Not perfect, but promising. A little sharing might smooth out the last wrinkles of doubt.
"Same as with the D-Codes, same as with me." Cross crouched in and grabbed Mercer's hand, not to pull him up (Zeus is much too heavy) but to anchor the contact. Forge a bond. Give a little to take a little. "My first mission with Blackwatch to see if I'd make the cut; I was the only one to make it out. It was a bloodbath, but The Watch do not take half-measures and looking back on it, I realize that it was a cakewalk compared to a lot of FUBAR's I've been in since." Cross sighed and sat down as he released his grip. Mercer didn't feel like standing up anytime soon.
"It was a small town in the middle of nowhere. There was a young girl, about fifteen, looked normal. Quiet, dirty, in shock. I took pity on her. Could say it was ironic that she was the objective and the reason I made it out was because I tried to save her. A runner." A huff of breath, as humorless as his grin. "I wasn't a rookie, but I made a ton of rookie mistakes. Vomited in my mask, took it off as I choked and panicked. Lost the damn thing. Never realizing as I shot at monsters that they never took a swipe at me as long as this girl held my hand. Then I found out the truth."
Cross leaned back, resting his weight on his forearms as he stretched his legs out. The blood red sky and setting sun reminded him of past days. "Last survivor of the squad, out of ammo, out of options; the girl petting this beast with too many mouths and not enough eyes. And I'm pissed. Not at her. At myself. Because how blind did I have to be not to see that coming. But see, here's the thing." Craned neck lets Cross glance at Mercer, his eyes hidden beneath the hood, but he can tell the guy's listening. Good.
"Now I'm the one that's quiet, dirty and in shock, and she took pity on me. She kissed me once and whispered 'please'. And just like that, I reached up and..."-snap of his fingers- "... broke her neck. Not because I wanted to, but it's what she commanded me to do. That quickly. Infected and part of the hivemind. Then I was free again. Her death triggered something in the rest of the infected. A last order or an echo of her own suicide, I don't know. But they all died within minutes, ripped themselves apart. The breakout had been contained. Except for the traces left inside of me."
"Blackwatch still let you out?" At the corner of his eye, he could see Mercer grimace. The curiosity in his voice unable to disguise itself as disinterest.
"They didn't know at first. This was back when surveillance wasn't easy to maintain. There was a deadline before they sent in bigger guns, enough time. I was able to clean up. Grabbed a mask off a corpse. Contacted HQ and had very selective memory as I filed the report. Single survivors was the usual, not the exception." There was a joke there Cross couldn't piece together, so he let it slide. "After that I was really good at identifying Runners, hunting them down, putting them out of their misery. That girl, she made me stronger, faster, tougher. Hell, even smarter. But she left me human, because deep down, no Runner wants to do what they do." Place the seed of hope in Mercer's head. "A little kindness helped her break free."
Mercer shot to his feet with inhuman speed and whirled on Cross. "How does that help Dana? How does that stop the infection? You're gonna mercy-kill her, is that it?"
Calm as can be, Cross recalled the worse years of his life. "I'm getting there. I was too good. Stood out. Randall himself shot me in the arm to see if I'd heal after I denied getting injuries on the job as the cause of my unusually good health. See, I don't have any redlight strain in my blood, nothing to detect. But when I'm exposed to the infection, the blood work gets interesting." Cross stood up and dusted off the grit, then slowly turned away to prompt Zeus to connect the dots.
"Anti-bodies?" For all the scientists Zeus had swimming in his head, he was rather unsure about the basics. Probably too much contradictory scientific theory and debate to root out the facts.
Better to humor him, get his confidence up. "Now you're catching on."
"They let you out of the lab? I don't believe it." Questions seeking confirmation. Not to refute Cross' claims. Alex wants to believe.
Voice grave as Cross continued on. Probably shared too much already and about to reveal a few glaring weaknesses. Gotta sweeten the honey pot. "I'm still a guinea pig. More of a field-tester than a lab rat. They can't reproduce or preserve my anti-bodies, so I'm the only source. The D-Codes get a heavy dose when they're getting upgraded to keep them sane and keep Greene out of their heads, but it fades over time and they need a boost. I need fresh exposure to make more. In any case, I'm much more valuable as a hunter. Nobody can catch up to Runners like me."
"That's why you walk around without a mask. It doesn't matter." Amused, a crack in the shell that showed only in the eyes.
Cross turned to face Alex and traced the scar into his hairline. "I could use a bit more protection for my face, but the bosses says it boosts morale when the men recognize me."
The faint cheer disappeared as Mercer rounded up on Cross, his gaze intense and purposeful."Dana gets a dose of your anti-bodies and she'll be fine. Ragland can do that, he got rid of that cancer parasite."
Being taken hostage is not part of the plan."It's not a magic bullet. There can be complications. As long as she gets boosts until the strain she's carrying dies off, she'll need professional care. It can take a while, direct infection from Greene tends to be resilient to treatment. But it'll buy her time." Pause for effect. "It'll wake her up."
Gritted teeth, a shake of denial, Alex walked away as frutration radiated off him."What's the catch?"
"This is all we have, Mercer. This...and then a hole in the ground. So figure out what you want this side of the hole." A deep breath, time for the hard sell. "Work for Blackwatch, help me stop Greene and what could be thousands of new Runners she's already infected since she escaped. You may not agree with our methods, hell, neither do I which is why I contacted you, but there's no arguing with results."
Shocked silence followed by wounded pride. Alex grabbed Cross's front and lifted him. "After what Gentek did to me! McMullen..."
With a flick of his wrist, Cross pulled out his electrified baton and jammed it into what passed for Zeus' ribs. Once free, he kicked a startled Mercer to the floor."Stop! Before you got on a revenge rampage try to piece it all together. I'd tell you the truth now if I thought you were ready. You're not, so shut up and listen to me."
A jump to his feet, shoulders hunched as he crouched low. "You have no..." Cross recognized the clawed hand stance; he had to break it up before Alex lost control.
Taking a risk, Cross dropped the baton and grabbed the lapels of Mercer's jacket to speak directly in his face. Forceful yet serene, tinged with warning "I said shut up. Save Dana or get blind revenge. One or the other. I can tell you right now which you'll regret for a really long time."
Cross reached for Mercer's shoulders, his grip firm then loose. He patted them, then took a step back with a heavy sigh."I have enough pull to cover my tracks on our prior dealings, convince them you'd play ball. Blackwatch doesn't have to be your enemy. They'll keep track of you; you'll be pricked, scanned and sampled from here to the end times. I'm not denying it's not a pretty picture, but your options are limited. The Watch is very pragmatic and no matter who you killed or what you did, as long as you're useful you get to live. And as long as your obedient enoughDana gets to live; if she gets fully cured, you can even try to get her out. Let her start a new life away from all this."
"Why are you doing this?"
Because I found out some truths myself and I want to change Blackwatch from the inside. To make it what it should be and not the self-sabotaging monstrosity it currently is. And you're the trump card that I'll play to get what I want. Alex wants to believe. Give him permission to bite the bait, set the trap and let him walk into it. A bit of hope. "Because I can. Because a little kindness goes a long way and saved my life once. Because you're in desperate need of a friend." Hand outstretched, an offer from one lesser evil to another.
Alex's eyes scanned the distance, at the hospital, at the encroaching chaos that surrounded him and threatened to swallow Dana whole if his guard slipped. He already failed once. As his sight returned to Cross, he examined the man's expression and felt a glimmer of hope. Right then Alex knew that he's being tricked, that he'll be hurt and betrayed. That he's headed down a twisted path, that desperation will be his only choice, just as it is now. "Playing both sides is a dangerous game."
A widening smirk, a crinkle in Cross' eyes. Devious and challenging. "Play to win or get out of the game, Mercer. You got a better deal lined up?"
Once out in the open, Alex's chest loosened. It felt uncanny to be relieved, yet Cross had become familiar enough for Alex to recognize a lie. A small comfort, yet oddly precious. He reached out and shook on the deal; a compromise between two hells decided solely by someone less than a friend, yet more than an acquaintance.
If nothing else, getting inside Blackwatch will give him answers. Nothing could stop him. What's the worse they could do?