Chapter 3: Setbacks

He knew that it would be hard to save the world.

But not this hard.

The skies were overcast that day, one of many that had characterized the winter season. Crow found himself drifting without aim on a walkway bordering the Charles River. He had taken many such walks as of late; the expenditure of energy and the harrowing frost helped numb the mind. It had been almost over a month since their victory at the secret Titan incubation facility. But was it really a victory against the First Wave, or merely a minor setback in their plans? He had the nagging sense that it was the latter.

The year's holiday period proved far more eventful than those in Dan's recent memory. At Becca's suggestion, the group held a Secret Santa exchange. Dan, who had picked Druid's name from Spock's scale Stormtrooper helmet, bought his recipient a Starcraft-themed mug. Meanwhile, Dan received the first couple of issues of the Sojourner Chronicles from Spock, who secured them cheap through employee discounts at Larsen Comics; he had explained with his typical fanatic fervor that if Dan was going to read any comic series, that this cult favourite was the one.

As for the New Year, Polaris had absented herself to visit some family in Vermont, so it was just the boys, beer, and baseball at Druid's place. As a whole, the festivities had been oddly, well, festive, with laughter, banter, and general camaraderie to be found in droves. Yet no one was able to fully enjoy themselves, for a pall clung to the air and in the back of their minds, darkening the mood, and no one had been willing to openly acknowledge the fact.

Gary's death had placed a great burden on them all. His body was lost in the wreckage, so no official burial could be conducted. Despite this, the Liberation Front had chosen to gather in vigil. Yet as much as Dan had wanted to say something, a tribute to their fallen ally, he couldn't bring himself to speak a word.

None were surprised that this burden had fallen the hardest on their leader. In the restless nights that had haunted Dan since the incident, he had been afflicted with remorse, questioning his competence and ability to lead; and what sleep he did have was replete with nightmares. The grudge he held against the Shapeshifters only made things worse, as the Front had yet to pick up any definite signs of First Wave activity, and so he had nothing at which to direct his anger and helplessness but himself.

He had also visited his mother during the holidays. He made it a habit to see her every now and again, as she lived by herself in an apartment building out in Lexington, having long since stopped trying to find herself a man; as she often quipped, so long as she had Dan, she would need no other man in her life. His visit was well received, as Sheryl Thompson was always pleased to see her son. But as was the wont of all mothers, she was concerned about the state her son's health. It was clear by the haggard look and tired eyes that he was not getting much sleep, and his grim state of mind managed to seep through the thin cracks of the cheerful facade he put on for her sake.

She had asked him if he was alright, just as everyone else had been doing lately; and every time they did, he would inform them that he was just fine.

And he was fine – so he reminded himself once more – as he strode on the riverside promenade.

"Hey, Dan!"

His head perked up at the sound of a familiar voice, whose emitter bridged the distance with a light jog.

"Rebecca?" said Dan as she approached. "What are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same thing."

The pair moved to the railings on the side, leaning against them while watching as the Charles carved its path to the sea. Polaris wore a blue coat, a red scarf enveloping her neck; her freckled cheeks had been refrigerated to a warm pink. Dan was roughly ten years her senior, but he nonetheless recognized that she was a pretty young girl.

"So, Crow." She made a brief pause, wiping a lock of auburn hair from her face. "You know, I've been meaning to ask you why you chose that name."

He raised an eyebrow.

"You first," he retorted.

Cornered, she smirked.

"Alright," she said, turning her eyes to the river. "I'm sure you know that Polaris is the northern star. I've always been drawn to stars and planets; it's probably why I'm studying astrophysics at MIT. And why I dig New Age stuff."

"Astrophysics, huh? That's pretty cool."

"Sure is. Okay, your turn."

Without batting a lash, he answered, fixated to the distance.

"It's my online username."

"Well gee, mine's Polaris. Come on, Crow. There's got to be more to it than that."

He sighed.

"If you mustknow," he began after a few moments, trying to sound interesting, "crows are associated in many cultures with death. Given my interest in the paranormal and the occult... the choice was a no-brainer."

Even before he had finished the sentence, his features darkened, and he turned his sights to the river with brooding complacence, thinking how apt a name it was; he was indeed a crow, with death as his shadow, following him wherever he went.

He could see the worry plastered upon her face; her lips parted, wanting to speak, saying nothing. The air grew heavy and still. They both knew where the conversation was heading, yet neither was willing to embrace the inevitable. Even so, Polaris, after great reluctance, dove into the treacherous waters, daring to brave the cold.

"It wasn't your fault, you know."

"Is that right?" he said. "Well, you be sure to tell him that when you see him again."

Rebuffed by his detached sarcasm, Rebecca's eyes fell.

"You can't blame yourself over this forever, Dan. The circumstances of his death were outside of your control."

"This wouldn't have happened if I hadn't left him down there by himself." His hands tightened to fists. "I screwed up. That's all there is to it."

Dan clenched his jaw. Rebecca also tensed, but for different reasons; Dan's stubborn refusal to climb from the pit he had dug for himself, while understandable, made for no less an exasperating sight.
"You're not the only taking this hard, Dan," she reminded him. "We've all been down in the dumps since that night. But we need someone to keep the Liberation Front together, now more than ever. Whether you know it or not, every member of this team looks up to you, and we're all counting on you to lead the way."

He had always figured that, being the leader of group, the others would perceive him as such, with all the qualities that came with the position; but it he never really thought much of it until he heard it just then from Rebecca. Yet he wondered if their trust in him was misplaced, for the only leading he was apparently capable of doing was the kind that led people down roads ending in blood and sorrow.

Polaris detected this doubt, but that was not what interested her; for a moment, she saw something in Crow's eyes, a faint spark the likes of which she had not seen for quite some time. That ember of determination, of strong will, the thing that, when he was stripped to his core, would be all that remained of his being, was something she did not want to lose. But as it faded into the abyss, she pushed forward.

"Becca –" protested Dan.

"No!" Her lips were pressed in a pout. "You can wallow in self-loathing all you like, but it's not fair to the rest of us to have you give up like this. We're either all in this together, or none of us are." The brief, stern anger subsided, and she sighed, seeming to regret her outburst. "If we give up now, they win," she said in a softer tone. She placed a hand on her shoulder; he shifted his head, partially acknowledging her. "Besides, we have to continue forward, or the Watchdog's death will have been in vain."

It was the last part that struck a chord.

He had been so absorbed in punishing himself for his own shortcomings that he had neglected to acknowledge the one who he had failed. How the Watchdog must have been be shaking his head with disappointment from in the grave he currently shared with fallen beasts. Were he there at the promenade in the flesh, he'd probably wipe his hair to the side and look at him with his squinty eyes and aloof smile.

...it's been an honour serving with you thus far, Crow.

Everyone else believed in him; he wasn't sure if he was ready to do the same, but he figured he might as well give it a try and see what came of it.

"...You're right," said Dan at length. "We gotta keep on going. For his sake, and for the sake of everyone else they've ever taken. The fight's not over until every last one of them is destroyed."

The ember in his eye sparked aflame, the light Polaris held in high regards piercing through the gloom, and she could not help but smile at the promise of Crow's return. He shared in her smile; it was faint, strained, as though the muscles in his face had atrophied, but it was a welcome sight nonetheless.

"... Hey, Becca?" said Dan, looking to the river.

"What?"

"...Thanks. I needed that."

"Good, because so did I," she replied. "Come on, let's ditch this place."

Polaris divorced herself from the railing, beckoning Crow along with her head, and he followed eagerly; the cold was seeping into him, and he had the strange paranoid feeling of being watched.
His smile wavered in moments, however, as did the light in his eye.

"But what good is carrying onward if we can't even findthem?" said Dan. "What few recon missions we've done since the Titan incident have given us nothing so far, and we haven't found any leads."

"Don't worry," said Polaris. "We'll think of something."

At that, he smirked.

"I don't think we'll have to," replied Crow. "With these guys, you know something's bound to happen sooner or later."


XxXxXxXxXxX


It was midmorning when they arrived at an auto repair shop in the Bronx, a locale which was to serve as their place of congregation. Given the highly sensitive material they were about to discuss, such a location seemed ill-suited to their purposes; but like many things in this world, this particular establishment was under their control.

The two of them entered in unison. For now, the tall male with a dirty blonde head was Adrian Barnes, and the shorter one with the crew cut was Kurt Lawson. The shop was abuzz with activity; between the cars being serviced, the tools and equipment and machinery sprawled about, and the cool air and the grit and grime that comprised the scene's aesthetic, they felt very much at ease in this place.

They approached another man who in life was known as Larry Weinstein, appearing as a balding man in his forties wearing glasses and a wedding band on his finger; he was discussing something with another employee when they approached him. Upon detecting his two new customers, he quickly wrapped up the conversation and sent the mechanic elsewhere.

"Welcome, gentlemen," said the man wearing a 'Larry' nametag on his uniform with a bright smile. "How can I help you?"

"We're looking to schedule an inspection for our Toyota Zenith."

At the mention of a double-decker model, a serious expression ghosted over the auto shop proprietor, but his cheery disposition never faltered.

"Sure thing, gentlemen," he said. "We're kind of booked for the next few days, though. Come with me to my office and we'll schedule a time for you to come in."

Larry led the two men through the thick of the shop, passing by several cars undergoing a variety of treatments, and down to a short corridor at the end of the building. The din of whirrs and clangs suddenly halved in intensity upon entering the office, and almost entirely upon closing the door. Larry contoured his desk while inviting his guests to sit, which they did.

"What's the situation?" asked Kurt.

"You guys hear about the incident in Watertown with the Titan Processing Plant?" inquired Larry as he unlocked a drawer to a filing cabinet in the corner of the room.

"Blew up, right?" chanced Adrian. "Some kind of random gas pipe explosion?"

"That's the one. Except it wasn't quite as random as we had first thought."

Larry extracted a folder sleeve fat with content before taking a seat at his office desk. With nonchalance, he flipped it open handed a series pictures to his fellow Hybrids, pictures hazily depicting armed individuals wearing dark clothing in what was once known as the Rickman Equipment and Supplies store.

"We were able to salvage optical data from the disks of the few bodies found in the rubble of the Rickman Equipment and Supplies store," said Larry. "It seems that a team of human operatives somehow snuck in and planted satchel charges where the Incubation Tanks were being stored, which would explain the traces of nitroglycerin we detected at the site."

"Infiltration and sabotage?" said Adrian.

"I thought that was our job," noted Kurt dryly.

"That's not all," said Larry, joining his fingers together upon placing his elbows on the desk surface. "A few weeks earlier, we discovered the wreckage of a V-nade detonation at Relay Station 0047, which we also thought was an accident."

He then passed additional photos, pictures also pulled directly from the eyes of disabled Hybrids in their last moments. Blurred faces that had appeared in the Titan facility picture set reoccurred, one a man with a greying beard, and the other, a younger man with brown hair, both of whom wore dark clothing and tuques.

"The dates on these pulls are from a few months ago," said Adrian. Why are we only finding out about this now?"

"Barely anyone ever passes by that Station," said Larry, shrugging. "We only found out about the detonation when one of our people happened to stop by there and witnessed the mess."

Adrian could only nod. The First Wave operation being fragmented by necessity, no one individual could keep track of the totality of their activities, and so it wasn't uncommon that things didn't immediately come to their awareness.

"I'm guessing these two are the ones who led the strike team at the Titan facility," deduced Kurt.

"Right you are." Larry reached into the file cabinet and handed a folder to each of them. "The bearded man is Emmanuel Grayson, a comic store clerk who lives in Malden. The other is Daniel Thompson, a convenience store worker from Somerset. We thought the Relay Station event was an isolated one, as was the appearance of these two; the optical data from the Titan facility proved otherwise."

Kurt and Adrian took a moment to sift through the contents of their respective folders, reviewing the information provided, both rather perplexed.

"They don't seem like ZFT," said Adrian. "Or anyone worth worrying about, for that matter."

"We've done some digging. Turns out Mister Grayson here runs a conspiracy website, and it's clear that these people know more on the First Wave than they have any business to. It seems like we're dealing with a case of misplaced vigilantism. Left unchecked, this might become a problem."

"How do you want to play this?" asked Kurt casually.

"Make it quick and clean. No need to drag the higher-ups into this."

Kurt and Adrian nodded and rose, sheathing their assignments in their coats. Larry closed the door behind them upon exiting the office, and the trio returned to the main shop.

"Have a nice day, gentlemen!" said Larry, playing his role with finesse.

Upon emerging into daylight, the two went in separate directions, melding seamlessly into the crowd as they have done countless times before and as they would continue to do until their operation decades in the undertaking would at last be complete.