Chapter 6 – Work

I lingered a while longer in the sitting room of my childhood home, enjoying the toasty warmth absorbed by the carpet and upholstery and the easy rumble of an antiquated HVAC, before setting out for my first job of the day.

Thanks in no small part to my own influence via some well-written and cheaply sold software, both Lion Electric and DetCom, the largest electricity and internet providers respectively, had moved to a flexible “job” system for licensed and bonded professionals across the city. A typical installation service call would enter a queue and be taken in between two and three weeks, nonessential repairs five to ten days; “expedited service” paid a premium and would usually be snapped up and handled the next day. Somebody with decent tools and transportation could make a full-time job out of it, and a few did, although most used it as extra part-time income while going to school or working elsewhere. Night and weekend calls were not unusual, particularly in safer neighborhoods.

This is what Hector Donnell did, according to my CV and my neighbors. As day jobs go, it was flexible and provided me an excuse to go anywhere in the city. I had taken three internet installs and a transformer repair all midtown. A full but not frantic day if all ran to plan.

My first installation went without incident, and my second was a no-show even after multiple calls to the provided number. By early afternoon, I found myself climbing access rungs to a relay about fifteen feet above a corner convenience store.

This was not my actual repair call, but it was the reason for the jobs I selected. Over the last two years, I had positioned a variety of omicron sensors around Detroit, each with a range of around 5 miles. The sensors drew negligible power from the boxes where they were placed and didn’t stick out much among the myriad boards and kludges that were part of the modern electrical framework, but they provided me a broad if shallow look at where supers might be operating in the city.

The sensors had so far led me to three unregistered supers, found after tracking over fifty alerts total. I’d refined my software based on these trials and errors, but it was too early to tell if the fewer alerts meant more accuracy or just lower frequency overall.

As I replaced my basic unit with a more sensitive triangulating device, I took notice of someone on the street below who was trying to get my attention. A middle-aged man with a thick mop of hair and a bushy mustache was waving a hand at me and yelling “Hey!” every few seconds, his other hand protected against the chill in his dingy suede jacket.

I took a few seconds to View the immediate past and see him walk from behind the counter at the convenience store, guessing he was either manager or owner of the place. I nodded and waved a hand at him, securing my tools and the removed device before climbing down from the box.

“Good afternoon,” I began.

The man shook his shoulders, glancing around in practiced skepticism. “Nah, it’s a kinda blue day. What were you doin’ up there, son?”

I patted my tool belt and pointed up at the relay. “Got a call to check that unit. Somebody reported an outage further up the road.” I nodded to the shop. “You work there?”

The man nodded in return. He gave his mustache a quick scratch and squinted at the building, as if trying to see it with new eyes. “Own the place. One of the kids came in, and mentioned you out here.” He looked me up and down with hostile suspicion. “Thought it might be a kid up to no good.”

I shook my head. “No sir, just doing my job. Did you notice any outages yesterday or today?” My cover story might seem thin, but the truth is that aging city infrastructure almost always has small problems and hiccups. Only a very dedicated and targeted investigation would be likely to pick up on a lie.

He gave himself another minute examining me before apparently deciding that I passed. “No, power’s been fine.” After another moment, he added, “Careful with your colors there.”

I looked down at my outfit. The blue jacket was my standard outerwear for fall. “Sorry, is it dangerous to wear blue around there?”

“Just recently. A new gang started up around here, tagging buildings and signalling in blue.” He pointed to his own brown jacket. “Part of why the kid mentioned you, I figure. Although I haven’t seen them out in the middle of the day. Better to check, still, right?”

I nodded, and checked my mobile. “I have to get to my next call. Thanks for the heads up. I’ll leave the blue at home next time.”

When I got to the transformer, I could see why there had been a call: the padlock on the unit had been smashed off, leaving it wide open. The box doubled as controller box for the traffic signals, but a quick check showed everything working properly.

I added a second triangulation sensor to the box and synced it to the network before adding a fresh padlock (charged to Lion). Working together, the two sensors would provide much more fine detail about omicron emissions in this area of midtown. I could return to retrieve the detailed data in a couple of days, and if there were any ongoing pattern to the signals, I should be able to locate a source.

On the way home, I checked my work dashboard and was pleased to note that the Morris house was now listed as a pending job. I had a script active to automatically grab any listings in my neighborhood as soon as they were posted in the system, assuring that any installations or repairs that might trigger discovery of my modifications to the street’s grid would not be taken by another worker. In practice, this also meant that any jobs near me were taken promptly even without the clients paying any premium. I’d advised my neighbors not to bother electing “express service,” and I took good care of them.

It raised a minor alarm that the job was only posted now, since they usually became available within a few hours of a client calling them in, even if most were not handled for days or weeks thereafter. Had Kurt and Laila never gotten around to calling DetCom? Maybe a service rep had forgotten to click “Submit” and the error had just been caught. No way to be sure.

Thanks to my missed call, I already had a new modem and router in my trunk, so I pulled up at the Morrises’. From the outside, nothing about the house stood out from the rest of the neighborhood: the same neutral color scheme, the same unassuming bushes and sparse lawn. The inside I had already seen the day before – their layout mirrored mine.

I distinctly heard the ring inside as I pressed the doorbell. I waited more than a minute before pressing it again, and this time I quickly heard the creaks and clacks of hard boots on parquet floor as Laila Morris rushed to the door. From her demeanor as well as her garb, she was clearly not expecting company. Sweat beaded on her face under hair pulled back in a severe ponytail. A heavy grey smock hung over a tight t-shirt and frayed, stained jeans, tucked into clunky steel-toed work boots. Her annoyed expression softened somewhat as she eyed me, my toolbelt, and the box under one arm.

“Laila, hi. It’s Hector.” I worked very hard to keep my expression more friendly than curious – people with secrets are understandably threatened by curiosity. “Did I catch you at a bad time? I can come back later.” I’ve never been great with body language, but I thought I managed to come off as more willing than eager.

The tall Asian woman shook her head, absent-mindedly running a hand back through her hair. “Not a bad time at all, Hector. I was just working on a piece. What can I do for you?” She managed a single glance back toward her garage before mentally shifting to engage me more fully.

I tried a small smile. “It’s what I can do for you, actually. Internet? Your job came in from DetCom, so I wanted to drop by and,” shifting the box a bit, “hook you up.”

“Sure, come on in.” She stood aside and held the door as she motioned me past her and into her sitting room.

I was drawn immediately to the metal sculpture that seemed, if not the focal piece of the room, certainly its most eye-catching feature. In person it seemed larger and more solid, and yet somehow it blended into the space warmly. Laila noticed me looking.

“That’s one of mine. I sculpt metal.” Her gaze was warmer now, clearly welcoming a comment and confident in her craft.

“It’s nice. You were working on a new piece in your garage, you said?”

Her eyes narrowed slightly for just a moment… I noticed too late that she hadn’t said anything about the garage. But all she said was, “That’s right. There’s an industrial art expo next month, and I’m putting together an exhibit. Come see.”

As I followed her into the workshop, the temperature change was dramatic. She had propped the inside door open; if the garage was insulated it was producing enough heat for the rest of the house. I bet she’d want the inner door shut and the large garage door open in the summer time.

Three steel structures laid along the length of the garage, far more angular in their geometry than anything I’d seen (or Viewed) in the home. Flat plates marked a base surface that showed each piece to currently be on its side; upright, it would be at least twice human height. I’d seen industrial sculpture of this sort before – meant to be admired up close and from directly underneath. They provide a sense of human ingenuity, of raw power, that I could already feel being instilled in them by the artist in their construction.

Laila just leaned against her bench and let me walk among the pieces. Thinking about the speedster incident, I wondered if these larger pieces were part of Laila re-claiming her strength against something that made her feel vulnerable. I could see why a super with metal powers would learn to craft in that medium, to take strong possession of the unfeeling metals with which she entrusted her life.

I ran a hand along a horizontal strut, cool to my fingers in contrast to sweltering air. “These are… daunting,” I offered.

She smirked. “That’s a good word.” I saw her take a mental step back, trying to see with fresh eyes. “I’ll transport the pieces separately, but I’m planning to attach cross-pieces on-site that will tie them together.” She nodded to a long, narrow I-beam with its end inserted into the lathe. “Finished, assembled… even more ‘daunting,’ I hope.”

“I suspect so.” I could feel myself starting to sweat a little already, and looked pointedly back toward the rest of the house. Laila drew herself up and led me out. “It usually doesn’t, but this much metal in the house may have some unusual shielding effects on the Wifi,” I mentioned conversationally. “If you don’t mind, I’ll put a repeater in one of the upstairs closets. Do you know where the cable drop is?” I picked my box back up off the kitchen counter and looked to her for directions.

It soon became clear that Laila did not know where the cable drop was… and, on closer inspection, there didn’t appear to be one. Laila and I were soon outside at the back of the house, looking at the living room wall and discussing where to drill the hole. We came to a pretty quick decision, and I pulled a small handheld unit and a drill bit off my tool belt. “Where are Kurt and Deb?” I asked as I adjusted and tested the bit.

“Kurt’s on shift until late tonight,” Laila answered, “And Mrs. Anders has been watching Deb during the day so I can work. We’re thinking of putting her in preschool after the holidays.”

Any further comment was cut off by the piercing whine of metal on siding, then wood, as I quickly drilled through the wall and switched bits to enlarge the hole. “Did she go to daycare before?” While you were taking down violent criminals, I certainly did not add.

“No, we had family,” she said flatly, and didn’t seem to want to say anything more. I ran the cable, plugged the hole, and we moved back inside.

“Kurt’s FBI, yes? Working up at the field office on Michigan Avenue?” The cable modem and router were connected behind a sofa in one corner of the living room, and I was waiting for confirmation that the Morrises were greenlit for data before I deployed the repeater.

I caught a slight wariness to Laila’s otherwise friendly expression as she answered. “Mostly, yes, although he’s over at the hospital or the police station sometimes,” she decided to allow. “He’s forensics. Most of the time his workload is pretty light, but when they need him they work him solid for a few days. We’re fortunate I can set my own schedule.” Her gaze turned inward.

My work phone buzzed with the notification I was waiting for. “All set here. Any preference for upstairs?” She shrugged and led me up one flight over newly-laid laminate flooring into what, from the junk and lack of bed, I took to be the spare bedroom.

Three metal sculptures, clearly stored rather than deployed as decoration, crowded each other and us as we picked our way to the room’s small closet. There was, fortunately, an outlet along one closet wall, and configuring the smaller router to repeat the WiFi signal was quick work. Laila was happy to continue to chat while I did my job.

I tested the signal strength and showed Laila how to change the default username and password. She thanked me heartily and showed me out with a genuine smile.

As I moved my car up the street to my own driveway and headed inside, I reflected that everything I had seen so far was still consistent with Laila and Kurt having been moved up here for reasons unrelated to me. Coincidences do happen, I heard from the part of my brain that tries hardest to maintain detached skepticism from my more colorful hunches. But it didn’t stop me from making a beeline for my basement desk.

The program that I executed was one I had yet to use for more than a quick test previously. It very quickly had access to voice files with timestamps going back about an hour, each marked with one of two unit numbers. Clicking on the earliest file, I heard a flat “Kurt’s FBI, yes?” in my own slightly nasal baritone, followed soon by Laila’s alto response. Opening a later file gave me a record of similar quality for our upstairs chatter. The mics in both routers were clearly working as intended.

I had purchased these spy mics from Doc more than a year back, and each time DetCom issued a new router model I dutifully installed them, but this was the first time I had decided to plant them in someone’s home. Probably because I had lived with it since puberty, I no longer thought about invading people’s privacy with my Viewing, but this was different somehow. It seemed more invasive, as though the curtain of silence between me and my subjects was a final garment I was ripping away.

But, as uncomfortable as I genuinely was with this, the situation was simply too dangerous to not gain whatever intel I could. I would run the files through a speech recognition program and mine them for keywords, reviewing conversations that might actually concern me or Polarity’s assignment.

I brought up a different dashboard to see a URL access list: a shopping site and two social media pages. The packet sniffer also showed encrypted email, which I might try to hack into later, but at least the internet monitor was reporting. All in all, I suspected I was getting more information out of their newly installed system than they were.

If the Morrises were what they appeared, then I owed them an apology, although I’d never be able to deliver it. If not… I hadn’t figured out what to do yet.

As usual, my big sister was right. I need an exit.

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