Once I was confident that my recordings of the Morrises would accumulate on their own, I checked and found that Doc was online and available. The hour wasn’t too late as yet, and I wanted to get to bed early in anticipation of work tomorrow.
Although I hadn’t taken any jobs for tomorrow, today’s cool but clear day was projected to develop into wind and rain late into the night. It was a condition of taking jobs from Lion that, with some restrictions, repairmen be available after inclement weather to handle the uptick in emergency repair calls. These jobs would be assigned with a short service window, and failing to respond could impact your ability to take jobs in the future. At least we received the rate for expedited work.
Since I wouldn’t wake up to any sort of alarm or alert in the middle of the night, I had to make sure that my five hours and forty minutes ended well before I’d need to get to a job. Early to bed, early to rise – in emergencies only.
I put in a voice call to Doc, and was happy to hear his voice right away. “Good evening, my friend,” came the rich but scratchy voice of the aging scientist. “How are you?”
As busy as I knew Doc Stevens was (and I had Viewed him enough times to know that he was often overseeing active experiments, chatting by text, and coding while we talked), he always opened our conversations with small talk. From what I knew of the Doc’s history and personality, he didn’t usually indulge these sorts of pleasantries. I’d broached the subject with him once, early in our talks, and he explained that the idea of talking to a digital intelligence intrigued him, and that he introduced “human elements” into our calls in order to gauge my reactions.
“I’m moving smoothly towards completing my objectives,” I replied in my Delphic voice. “It is good to hear from you, although usually your messages are a bit more forthcoming than this one was.”
“I didn’t want to give anyone extra reason to try to listen in on this conversation.”
Interesting. “We are speaking now. What is this about?”
The line picked up the sound of rustling paper. “A freelancer that I have… an arrangement with… shared some information with me yesterday, and it seemed prudent to inform you.” A slight delay, and I could hear the clatter of a keyboard on his end. “He took on an unusual kidnapping job in the States over the weekend. A seven-year-old girl in the DC area.”
“Vivi Michaels,” I interjected. “I found her on behalf of the FBI yesterday, and was preparing to send info of the kidnappers’ whereabouts to them.” A pause; Doc didn’t immediately respond. “Were you planning to ask a favor on your associate’s behalf?” I could probably leave one of the names out of my report without impeding the investigation into whomever hired them. It might be worth it, depending on what Doc was wanting to trade.
But he declined. “If you want to help law enforcement chase him down, by all means do,” he said. “I hadn’t known you were being asked to help with the case. Although it confirms that I was right to want to inform you about it. After my associate reported his suspicions, I checked the payment amounts for the job against a number of accounts that I keep an eye on. A similar amount of money was withdrawn from a Cayman account that launders foreign expenditures by the CIA.” Raspy breathing on the line – he was waiting for a response from me.
“I’m not following. Are you saying that the CIA was behind the Michaels kidnapping?” That didn’t make sense for several reasons, the first of which was that the CIA wasn’t supposed to be operating on US soil at all. I guess that would be a good reason to hire unaffiliated agents, I pointed out to myself.
“Either them or an affiliated organization tapping CIA resources, yes.”
“To what end?” I still didn’t get how Doc was connecting this back to me.
“I really don’t know. Half the time I think those agents are just screwing with people when and where they can and hoping that something will eventually come out of it that they can claim was their purpose all along.” I could imagine him shaking his head; I heard his sigh. “In any event, I have sporadic access to internal budget figures I can cross-check when spending like this happens. And the division codes for these payments are the reason I called.” More papers rustling. “Apparently this was a FAM operation.”
Foreign Asset Monitoring was the CIA branch charged with keeping track of supers around the world. It started as a management branch for US super teams overseas, but before long it included an intelligence function for spying on foreign supers – and this became its sole function when the super teams themselves were given their own bureau under the Department of Justice. Any “asset” regularly deployed by a foreign power was on a list monitored by a team of agents and analysts.
I typed out, “So the Michaels kidnapping had something to do with foreign supers? From which country?”
My stomach sank. The list of supers on FAM’s domestic list was small – just supers with unknown origins that operate primarily or solely in the US. It was mostly villains that hadn’t yet been successfully ID’d, and those few vigilantes that managed to dodge registration requirements. Like Delphic.
Doc continued, “considering you were approached about finding the girl, I would presume that FAM is targeting you in some way. It might have been something as simple as a fact-finding mission. Testing your limits and abilities.” His voice was swamp mud roiled by shifting gravel. “Or they might actually be trying to track you down, trap you somehow.”
A further pause, and I could hear the shrug in his voice when he spoke again. “Or this whole line of reasoning might be spurious, and this is for something else. Maybe Michaels’ company was bidding on CIA work and someone wanted to test him. But regardless, you should be informed. Now you are.”
I nodded, but obviously he couldn’t see it. “I appreciate the information,” I sent by synth. “I’ll be careful.”
“About that,” Doc shifted to a stronger and more business-like tone. The chat program informed me he was sending a file.
The file included several documents, each with a person’s name. I opened one: Andrea Suez, years of experience, skills, references.
“Are these resumes?” I typed. Had I been speaking to the Doc in my own voice, it would have been incredulous.
“Along with known background and a rough personality profile. All competent people I have worked with before or are working with now. In the States or willing to relocate, presuming you prefer to keep your activities focused there.” His voice sounded strained, urgent. “Enhanced intellect, even at digital speeds, is not a substitute for specialized expertise. With as much as you’re trying to accomplish, and with the sort of attention you’re garnering, you should have a dedicated security team at minimum. Intelligence analysts to look for opportunities and threats. An answering service, a facilities manager.”
“Doctor, I’m a person, not a business,” I replied. “I don’t need to hire staff; I can handle my projects efficiently as I am, with outside help as needed.”
“You can exercise much more extensive control over employees than over allies,” he retorted. “Delphic, you can’t properly pursue your interests if you are the only one watching out for them. I know you can afford it. Look into it.”
The call ended. Doc Stevens had forgotten to add small talk at the end; I suspect his treatment there was far closer to what most people would get from him. It was normalizing in a way.
I saved the personnel files locally and checked my messages. Agent Lewis was asking for a two-hour teleconference tomorrow at noon, with several names on the invite list… including Benjamin Michaels himself. I sent back my acceptance, and took some time updating the FBI file with the most current information.
I woke up at a little after 4 am. My phone showed an alert from Lion Electric; a quick check out the window showed that the storm had come just as expected and dumped a couple of inches of freezing rain. A text to Paris cancelled our breakfast meeting.
Checking the address for the service call, I let out a low curse. La Fleure. In this weather, it would take more than an hour just to get there.
I quickly put myself together and bundled up tight, with work gloves and boots. Most importantly for the location, I tightened a Lion Electric ball cap over my knit winter hat and pocketed not only my ID but a printed copy of the work order.
La Fleure being one of the wealthy white neighborhoods, and me being a black man, I was guaranteed to be speaking to a policeman in the next few hours. This was the one time I wish Lion Electric had us wear neck-to-ankle work suits like they have for their full-time employees. Minorities that do yard work typically have obvious uniforms for the same reason; it might lower the daily number of calls to the police about your presence from half a dozen to one or two.
I strapped a steel ladder to the roof of my car and slowly pulled out onto icy roads, heading southwest. The light pre-dawn traffic was counteracted by some jam or accident every couple of miles. It was closer to an hour and a half before I pulled off the road next to a long brick-lined drive that led up to a five million dollar home.
The neighborhood was lousy with trees, with only a half acre or so of cleared and manicured lawn surrounding each manor. A branch heavy with ice had broken off a large maple and pulled a line out of a relay that fed, if my map was correct, three houses on this side of the street. The size of these houses probably came with four-digit monthly electric bills, so Lion had good reason for wanting the situation resolved quickly.
I had taken down the ladder and was carefully working my way up an ice-coated incline when I heard the rumble of an approaching motorcycle. Ready for the obvious, I mused how quickly the police could respond to a call in this neighborhood while setting the ladder down on the ground and reaching into my tool belt for my license and work order.
The bike that pulled up next to my car was substantial, a solid body of black and chrome. The man stepping off of it was similarly solid and complimented his vehicle’s color scheme, wearing heavy riding leathers in dull black and metallic colors that met on a diagonal across his torso. A thick lead pipe, easily five feet long, hung across his back. His helmet was a solid surface of reflected chrome all the way around, giving no indication of a visor or faceplate separate from the rest. He removed the helmet even as his silver boots found the icy ground, shaking out a mane of grey-streaked black hair and adjusting his silver and black full-face mask. If his outfit wasn’t so clearly a hero costume, he’d most resemble the antagonist of a very stylized slasher film.
Argent, a long-time member of the Detroit Super Team, took in my work clothes and the tree branch and nodded quickly. “Ay. You here to fix the… thing?” He gestured vaguely at the branch caught on the line.
I nodded back, holding up my work order at eye level. “Got the call two hours ago.” The slits in the mask didn’t let me see his eyes, and I found it off-putting. “Something the matter?” As if I didn’t know.
Thirty pounds of leather lifted as he gave a shrug. “Nah, DPD got a call about a bla… about a guy who didn’t live here walking around.” Impossible to tell if the self-edit had made him look away from me. “If they’d noticed the hat and everything…” another helpless shrug.
I shrugged myself. “Most of them don’t bother looking that close.” I put the paper away and moved to pick up my ladder again.
“Let me,” the super stepped over, and before I could respond he had managed to pull the ladder entirely out of my hands. “Where’d you need it?” Argent’s power manipulated inertia in objects he touched. He could lift objects like they weighed nothing, then swing them at you with enough force to knock a semi over on its side. The truck had made good footage for the nightly news.
Once I resigned myself to Argent’s help, we made short work of the project. I would have had to descend the ladder and move it at least twice to repair and reconnect the line, but Argent could easily and quickly move the ladder with me still on it. A little vertigo was worth the time saved. He asked a couple of leading questions and we chatted while I secured and double-checked the relay.
Argent didn’t say much, and could be a little hard to hear clearly behind the mask, but I figured out that DPD was swamped with traffic-related emergencies this morning and DST had been asked to assist with patrol. That’s why I was talking to a super and not a cop as I’d expected.
After the line was repaired and he’d stowed the ladder back on top of my car, the super reached out his hand. “Be safe out there, Hector. Sorry about whatever idiot called you in.”
I shook his hand and gave him a genuine smile. “Happens all the time, Argent. And this time I’m grateful. You’d make a fantastic electrician’s assistant if you ever get tired of DST.”
He gave a chuckle and mounted his bike. In my car, I marked the job as finished and waited until his engine was no longer audible before heading for home. I spent the drive home thinking about Argent and how nice it was to get to shake his hand.
Since the time I was adopted in the Donnell household, I had dreamed of becoming a superhero like the ones on the news. The ones they made movies out of. Men and women fighting villains and saving towns from destruction. And, at least in my own fantasies, the best part was always being a member of a super team. I loved the idea of having a group of friends and allies that counted on me, that respected me.
In a sense, I was fulfilling that dream with Delphic. But, as shallow as this might seem, I resented the fact that I never got to look a hero in the eyes when they thanked me. I never got a handshake or a hug; I could see their smile when they succeeded, but they couldn’t ever smile at me.
I badly wanted to be not just a faceless internet avatar – not just a tool for saving others – but a real live person that they knew and respected. A flesh and blood part of the team.
Well, I finally said to myself, if you wanted that, you should have prayed for a power other than just seeing things.
I put my yearning aside. Even if I couldn’t fit in quite the way I’d like to, I could still do the work. I had saved lives, and could no doubt save many more. I could call myself a hero, even if I never got to hear the other heroes say it.
That would have to be enough.