[I thought I had posted this ages ago, but apparently not - just the Longbow villain profile of Gen. Rossum, which tells the broad strokes of these events from the law enforcement perspective. It's handy background for some other stuff (notably "Sidestep", but also the upcoming piece on the Torch of Victory's origin), so here it is, a bit belatedly. For the historically curious, the text of the letter was written at around the time stamped in the story; I put the framing bits together today to make the whole thing more of a proper short. --G.]
Saturday, December 24, 2005
1760 Ajax Avenue, Apartment 6A
Paragon City, Rhode Island
Tasha Thornton slept in that morning, partly because the night before had been a long one - trust the Circle of Thorns to come up with a fiendish plot to spoil Christmas! - and partly because, what the hell, it was Christmas Eve. It wasn't until nearly noon that she arose, yawning, and padded down the hall in her nightshirt to the kitchen. There she put the kettle on to boil for some tea, then went to the front hall for the mail.
Returning to find the kettle boiling (got to love those electric jobs), she fixed a cup of tea, sat down at the table, put the morning copy of the Paragon Times aside for later perusal over waffles, and shuffled through the envelopes. Bill from Paragon Light & Power; you may have already won; get satellite TV with free installation; Hero Corps holiday special on neighborhood patrol. Sometimes having the outside world assume you were a civilian yielded amusing items like that. As if Tasha, the radiant Twilight Torch, needed Hero Corps to hire some rookie from Atlas Park to come make sure the Warriors weren't busting into apartments on Ajax.
Last in the stack was a bright red envelope that Tasha immediately made for a Christmas card. She didn't recognize the handwriting - neat and regular, like a draftsman's tidy notations on a blueprint - but the return address, which said simply "ROSS" and an address in San Diego, was tip-off enough as to its origin. Tasha smiled and opened the envelope, revealing a jolly Santa with one eye decorated to "twinkle" with a stamping of metallic foil. Inside were the usual canned best wishes for a joyous holiday season, along with a note in the same clean handwriting. The latter informed Tasha that the writer had enjoyed her recent visit to Paragon City very much and hoped to get the chance to return soon.
Tasha was mildly surprised to be getting a Christmas card from Jen Ross, whom she really didn't know. Jen was more of a friend-of-a-friend; she and Tasha's friend Dan Hudson (secretly her crimefighting partner, the intrepid Captain Photon) were sort-of-long-distance-dating-or-something, having met on the Internet a few months before. Tasha gathered that she was some kind of website database administrator or the like. At any rate, Jen had visited Paragon City a few weeks before and spent most of that time hanging around with Dan and, by extension, Tasha. She'd seemed a likeable enough girl, though Tasha couldn't shake the feeling that there was something a little odd about her.
She closed the card and made to get up from the table to see to the rest of breakfast - but when she did, something happened that put thoughts of breakfast clean out of her mind. Santa's twinkling eye began to glow, emitting a bright blue-white light that momentarily filled the kitchen. Before Tasha could collect her wits - was this some kind of attack, or what? - the light died down to a faint glow again and an electronic voice announced from the card,
"Proximity sweep complete. Identity confirmed: Thornton, Tasha, alias Twilight Torch. Message commences: Now."
Before Torch's startled eyes, the glow brightened again, not to its former room-filling intensity, but enough to create a conical column of light perhaps a foot high in the space above the card. In that column, after a moment of static, appeared a finely detailed holographic person about six inches tall. It was the person she knew as Jen Ross, dressed in civilian clothes - which included what looked very much like a Steel Canyon High School letterman's jacket.
Tasha sat back down and regarded the holographic Jen with astonishment - she'd seen things like this before, but never on her own kitchen table - as the hologram began to speak.
Hi, Tasha. Or, I suppose, in this context I should call you Torch. Don't worry, Dan didn't tell me anything about it. He doesn't even know I know he's Captain Photon - but, I mean, c'mon. All he wears for a disguise is those flash goggles, and you don't even bother with anything like that. It wasn't hard to figure out. You guys are kidding yourselves if you think you have secret identities; it's just that people in Paragon are too polite to say anything. Trust me, I know. I grew up there. It's part of the culture.
So, yeah, I guess I have some explaining to do, right? Well, that's what I put together this little message to do - and it wasn't easy to get to you, I'll have you know. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
First I need to apologize for deceiving you when I was in town a while back. I'm not from San Diego and my name's not Ross, it's Rossum. As in the notorious General Rossum and her army of mechanical marauders? Yeah, that's right. If you believe the Paragon City press, I'm a supervillain.
Now don't get excited! I know how you hero-types think, but this isn't some kind of elaborate threat or challenge. Even if I was into that kind of foolishness, which I'm not, I'm reaching out to you for a completely different purpose, so please, please hear me out.
The truth is, I have a favor to ask you, and before I can ask it, it's important that you know... uh... where I'm coming from. Who I really am.
You've probably heard this before, but... I never set out to become a supervillain. Hell, I don't even really think I am one. I'm a criminal, sure, but that's different. I'm not out to take over the world or anything stupid like that. I... I'm not really sure why I'm doing what I'm doing any more.
Up until about 18 months ago, my life was normal. I lived in Steel Canyon with my parents and my brother Johnny. We had a good life... but what I didn't know at the time was how my father was paying for it. See, my father was Carl Rossum. The roboticist? I dunno, you're a sorceress, maybe you've never heard of him. I'm sure Dan has, he reads that kind of magazine.
Dad's original name was Karel Rosumov. He was a Czech by birth, but he grew up mostly in Russia. He was the Soviet Union's foremost roboticist when he defected in the early '80s, after his two brothers were both killed in Afghanistan. He changed his name to Carl Rossum, settled in Paragon City - they say Miss Liberty was involved in his defection, but I don't know if that's true, he never talked about it at home - and eventually married an American woman, started a family. Johnny was born in '87, and I came along two years later.
Dad taught robotics at the Steel Canyon campus of Paragon U and did military and industrial research. One of his life's goals was to build a mechanical soldier so that no one in the future would have to lose a a son or a brother to war. He also helped out high-tech heroes with their gear from time to time. Remember Horatio? Dad knew him. Bastion, too. Powerstein, Manmachine, Eve O'Destruction - when I was little it wasn't at all uncommon for heroes to stop by Dad's lab, or the house after hours.
Johnny was never all that interested in what Dad did for a living, but I can't remember a time when I didn't want to do the same thing. I was helping him with his work before I was out of grade school - not with any great expertise, you understand, but fetching tools and holding lights for him, anyway. Over time, he taught me everything he knew, and I soaked it all up. I guess I was kind of a prodigy, though it didn't really seem that way to me at the time. I just knew I was helping my father do something he loved. It was a good life.
Even the Rikti invasion didn't trouble us all that much. Steel Canyon wasn't very hard-hit compared to some parts of the city, and Dad's work with DATA meant that he and his family were on the safe list. We spent most of the war in a bunker, working on repairs to heroes' gear and trying to figure out how the Rikti's stuff worked. When it was over, we came out and resumed our lives. I remember Dad said once he almost felt guilty about how easy we had it compared to a lot of people in town.
After the war, though... things got tougher. With so many heroes killed and the city's infrastructure in chaos, there weren't enough resources to protect everyone who needed protecting. Dad wasn't as well-guarded as he was before and during the war, and some pretty unsavory people started taking an interest in his work. The prototype of his robot soldier was almost ready for testing - too late to help in the war, but he had hopes that they would be helpful in the reconstruction. I was worried that someone might try to take it, so I started working on a design for a security robot of my own. I called it "No. 76". I was 13, so it wasn't really all that sophisticated, but it would've gotten the job done, or so I thought. Dad just kind of chuckled indulgently and left me to it, saying that with his luck my robot would turn out to be better than his and I'd get the contract.
Then one day I went to his lab after school and found the place demolished and cops everywhere. Someone had shot up the place and stolen the robo-soldier prototype. A cop told me Dad had tried to stop them, so...
... they killed him.
They didn't know who had done it - and really, after the war, there wasn't a shortage of suspects. I wanted to help them find out, but they just laughed, patted me on the head, and told me to go on home. There wasn't anything else I could do, so I did.
Dad and I had a workshop at home - all good obsessive technologists have a workshop at home, I'm sure you've seen Dan's - and I had been working on my own robot there. I went home and threw myself into the project. I'm not entirely sure why. It just seemed like I had to do -something-, and that was the only thing I could do that would help. Mom was off in her own little world - the doctor had to sedate her - and Johnny and I were never all that close. He used to laugh at me always going off to do "egghead stuff" with Dad.
I worked for three days straight finishing 76 - who turned out to be pretty impressive, if I do say so myself, though back then he was still very crude. Then I went back to the cops and offered to help again. They turned me down, and the guy in charge - Lt. Baker, I can still remember his face - was pretty nasty about it. He said it was illegal to have armed robots in Paragon City and he had half a mind to run me in for building 76.
So I went home again. Mom was passed out in front of the TV and Johnny was nowhere to be seen. I locked myself in my room and just cried until I fell asleep.
I woke up to the sound of my mother screaming. Without thinking, I got up and ran downstairs. The living room was full of Sky Raiders, and they had the prototype robo-soldier with them. It seemed they couldn't get it to work - it would recognize a commander, move and follow, but it wouldn't fight. Dad had embedded safeguards in the operating software to lock out the combat programming. The Raiders were hoping he'd left some notes at home explaining how to override them.
Mom was trying to explain to them that he never brought stuff like that home - which wasn't really true, but she didn't know any better, she never took much of an interest in his work either - but they weren't having any. They'd already hurt her, and their leader told her they'd hurt her more if she didn't come across with anything she knew.
She saw me crouching partway down the stairs, and the Raider captain must have seen it in her face - he turned around and spotted me.
"It's Rossum's daughter!" he yelled to his men. "Grab her! Maybe the woman will talk if we apply a little pressure."
I ran back upstairs. Some of the Raiders came after me. I got back to my room and activated 76 - why I didn't think to do that before, I don't know. The pair of Raiders who kicked down my bedroom door got quite a surprise, that's for sure.
I'll never forget the look on the face of the first man I killed. Well, technically I didn't kill him, 76 did... but he had no will of his own then, so the difference is pretty well academic. The Raider took a shot at 76, but he was off by a mile, and then 76 clobbered him, smashing the faceplate of his helmet. Before he could finish falling, 76 blasted him with his laser cannon. I'd never smelled anything like it, and it was obvious from the look on his face that the dying Raider never had either.
The other guy yelled for backup, and... I dunno. Something in my head just snapped. I told 76 to kill them all. I'm not entirely sure what happened after that. It's all a blur of shooting and running in my head. I know we finished off the second guy who came upstairs, then went down to the living room. The Raiders still couldn't get their robot to work, and they weren't prepared to fight one themselves. The room was too small for them to use their jetpacks. One of them got desperate, I guess, and tried a grenade.
When I came to, the room was trashed and the house was on fire... and I was the only person left alive. 76 shielded me from most of the blast, so I was just scuffed up and knocked out... but... well, if I'd felt like an orphan before, I was one for sure now.
76 got me out of the house - I don't remember telling him to do it, but I must have, he couldn't operate on his own then - and then the cops finally showed up...
... and arrested me for everything Lt. Baker could think of, from arson to murder. Murder! Sky Raiders kill my father, break into my house, and I'm the murderer? I tried to stay calm. I told myself, OK, relax, Jen, no DA will ever prosecute you for this crap. This is Paragon City, not New York. People don't go to prison for protecting themselves in this city.
But, just my luck, I drew Candace Springfield for my prosecuting ADA. Ever heard of her? She's a self-proclaimed "crusader". After the war she was on TV a lot talking about how the city's dire straits were no excuse for lawlessness, and she was going to make damn sure that only properly licensed authorities took the law into their hands. A crusader against vigilantism in the City of Heroes. Can you beat it? Anyway, she took one look at 76 and decided she was going to make an example of me. I was underage for even a provisional hero license and I for damn sure hadn't registered 76 as a household weapon. The extenuating circumstances didn't matter to her - I was just the kind of case she'd been waiting to make precedent with.
ADA Springfield would've been bad enough, but Judge Cranston was sympathetic to her cause, and my public defender... well, she meant well enough, but she didn't have a lot to work with. Most of the heroes Dad worked with before the war were dead, and Athena couldn't find anybody who could come and make a splash by testifying to my character the way Statesman did in the Defiers of Mystery case.
I made a mistake at that point. I freely admit it, what I did next was dumb. I guess you could say I panicked - or that I snapped, which is what Springfield ended up telling the jury later. I saw myself being railroaded and the Sky Raiders getting off scot-free - so one day in juvie, while I waited for my trial, I cobbled together a signaler out of another inmate's radio, activated 76, and broke him out of the evidence locker, then sent him to get me. We went underground. I had some kind of grandiose movie fantasy that I was going to bring down the Sky Raiders and clear my name, and everything would be all right again.
Instead, I spent a year on the run, going from one skeevy part of town to another, chasing false leads, dodging the other gangs of scum that overran the city before Statesman's call brought enough heroes to town to stabilize things, then dodging all the damn heroes. I didn't get anywhere. Didn't accomplish a damned thing. I couldn't even find my own brother. I stole to survive... to get parts and upgrades for 76... to keep the other thieves off my back. Eventually I got good at it. It started to seem almost normal to live in an abandoned warehouse with a heavily armed robot, rob banks for a living, and chase down dead-end lead after dead-end lead on the Raiders.
Until, finally, I pulled one bank job too many and got caught by some two-bit heroine named - if you can believe it - "Paradox Archer".
Well, if Springfield and Cranston were after my blood before, they were baying for it now that I'd proven their point for them by becoming a Known Public Menace. They hung me out to dry. I was 15 years old and Springfield charged me as an adult; Cranston let it stand; jury selection was a joke. A jury of heroes might have understood, but I wasn't eligible since I wasn't one myself. The twelve solid citizens I ended up with bought into Springfield's "this reckless, uncontrollable girl, positioned to become a terrible scourge if society doesn't step in" bullshit all the way.
Fifteen years old... 25 to life in the Zig, and the Sky Raiders walked away laughing.
Sound like justice to you?
I tried to straighten up then, I really did. You can check the records, I was a model prisoner in the Zig. Kept to myself, stayed out of trouble, didn't get involved in the prison gangs. I don't know if you've ever been in there, but the Zig does have a small juvie section, and the warden, at least, had a little bit of sense - I was convicted as an adult, but he decided to put me in the juvie wing until I turned 18, in hopes that I might not get chopped up like fresh hamburger right away. He even put me in a work program. I ended up doing database work for one of those goofy online dating services. (So, yeah, I was a DBA, kind of.) One day at work I got so bored I started reading the profiles, then sending email to the ones I thought looked interesting. That's how I met Dan. Someone registered him as a joke. I'm thinking probably Manticore.
Anyway, the point is, I was being good. I wasn't plotting to escape. Athena was working on getting me a new trial, and she thought our chances looked pretty good. I even had offers to do some online consulting for a couple of robotics firms in town, though Warden Sokolov hadn't approved any of that yet. I'd even met a neat guy, though I kinda had to lie to him about where I lived and what I did for a job. Uh, and how old I was. But yeah. It looked like I might actually be able to turn my life around after all.
Then Arachnos hit the prison. I'm sure you read all about that. Hell, you and Dan might've been out there on the other side of the fence with all those Longbow guys trying to contain the riot, for all I know. Me, I stayed in my cell and hoped it'd all blow over, until one of their guys showed up with my pulse rifle and told me Lord Recluse wanted to see me in the Rogue Isles by sun-up.
That didn't sound like my idea of a good time, but he didn't look like he was prepared to take no for an answer, and anyway, the guards had seen me holding my rifle and talking with him, and gosh, the Paragon City criminal justice system was so ready to give me the benefit of the doubt last time.
So I went.
That was pretty long-winded, huh. Sorry about that. I always forget what a long friggin' story it is to tell to someone else. Not like I have a lot of practice, either.
So anyway, now I'm here, living in the Rogue Isles, being watched by Arachnos because their freakjob leader thinks I'm "destined" to be some kind of great villain. I bet it'd blow Candy Springfield's mind if she knew that Lord Recluse, of all people, agreed with her assessment of my character. I've been tempted to send her a card, but...
Look, I didn't want this. I don't want this. I don't want to be part of some world-conquering shadow conspiracy. I don't want to associate with these people. I can handle re-stealing stolen tech from the other gangs of thieves in these islands, or strongarming other villains to safeguard my space. I don't even mind knocking over the speakeasies and casinos this place is riddled with, because hell, everybody whose money I'm stealing is scum anyway. But there are some seriously warped and cruel people in these islands, and my "work" for Arachnos is starting to bring me into contact with them. I'm under more and more pressure all the time to do things that I couldn't live with. I want out.
That's why I sent you this message. I'm starting to pick up a reputation, and I want you to know that I'm not what you hear about on TV. Those people who were kidnapped from Paragon and handed over to Dr. Vahzilok in the Isles? That wasn't me. I know the freak who commissioned that job, and he tried to get me to do it, but I wouldn't. I'll never speak to him again if I can help it. If I could get away with it I'd kill him. He's the worst kind of scum imaginable.
I don't want to be like that. I can't be like that... but if I stay here, under Recluse's thumb, I'm afraid all the forces at work in this place will make me like that sooner or later. I have to get out of here while I'm still me.
I can't make my move yet. They're still watching me too closely; even when they send me to Paragon for errands I can't do more than slip away for a day or two, like I did when I visited you and Dan, and I was taking a big chance there. I had to pass it off as "recon", which my Arachnos handler seems to have bought for the time being.
I have to keep playing along for now, but I'm on the lookout for any opportunity, and as soon as one opens up, I'm going to jump on it. I won't live like this a minute longer than I have to.
Why tell you? Because you're the only one I can tell. I can't risk giving all this directly to Dan - you know how he is, he'd be on the next chopper to the Isles and looking to blast everybody in sight until he found me - or worse, he wouldn't believe me when I say I didn't choose to be this way. He's pretty old-fashioned about the whole good/evil thing. I have to bring him around to it slowly, and there may not be enough time. You, though... well, I don't really understand magic, but it seems to me like you harness some dark forces in your work. I figured that might make you a little better able to understand how a fate like mine can creep up on a person, and how someone like me might want to change that fate.
I need an ally on the outside, if only so I know there's someone rooting for me. I don't know if you'll actually be able to help me make my escape when the time comes, but even if you can't, I hope you'll be willing to try. Aside from Dan, my only friends are my robots. I need more than that if I'm going to make it through this.
I'm not asking you to come and bust me out. I'm not asking you to take any active part in my escape plans at all. All I'm doing is giving you a heads-up. If I do make it out, I'm going to have to try and straighten out the mess before I can live in peace in the "real world". All I'm asking is for you to... to consider being on my side when that day comes, 'cause I'll need all the help I can possibly get.
This message will only play once, so write the next part down. Ready?
If you understand where I'm coming from and want to help me, put an ad in the Paragon Times classifieds this Monday that says "76 Nova for sale, blue, AT, 8-track, power everything. Garaged winters, never used by Gravity Controller. $1750 OBO. Serious inquiries only." I'll try and figure out how to set up a face-to-face meeting, God knows how, so we can talk it over.
If not... then I'm sorry I've wasted your time, and I guess I'll be seeing you when you come to take me back to the Zig.
The little glowing figure of Jen Rossum looked glumly back at Tasha's look of astonishment for a moment, then flickered and disappeared. A moment later there was a muffled "zap" and a tiny coil of smoke rose from the card as the message device burned itself out.
Tasha re-read the notes she'd scribbled down at the end, then picked up the envelope and had a closer look at it. It showed no signs of having been mailed from the Étoile Islands (the official name of the Caribbean nation more familiarly known as the Rogue Isles). The stamp was a United States 37-center - a Statesman stamp, no less - and the postmark was indeed San Diego. However the device had been delivered, it had been cleverly done, and the device itself had slipped past the Freedom Corps mail screeners who checked all registered heroes' mail for hidden traps, curses, and whatnot. Pretty slick - slick enough to convince Tasha that if the girl had meant her any harm, she'd have had a decent chance of arranging it.
She opened and closed the card again, but of course it did nothing. Whatever the message device had been, it was just a tiny piece of fused wreckage now.
Tasha wasn't sure how long she sat at the table, contemplating the card, thinking about what she'd just heard. She doodled various arcane symbols (and non-arcane ones - later examination would show that her own costume's chest logo and that of Captain Photon were on there) on the next page of her kitchen notepad while she sat in thought, her tea getting cold.
Then she folded the Times open to a particular page, carried it to the end of the island where the kitchen wall phone was, and dialed.
"Hi. Yes. I'd like to place a classified. Is it too late to get it into Monday's paper? No? Super."
"A Telegram Explaining My Position"
A City of Heroes mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Twilight Torch created by John Trussell
© 2005, 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited