As I waved from my doorway at Larry’s SUV backing out of my drive, I had already switched mental gears towards the evening’s tasks. I was working to recall enough details of a View of Zurich from two weeks past that I could begin there; if not, I would have to start in DC and move across the Atlantic.
While I had found some absolute limits to my abilities, what I could feasibly accomplish in a given unit of time mostly depended on my memory and concentration. I needed “fresh” scenes to start my View, and the number of different locations I could reasonably keep in mind depended on my emotional state and perceptual clarity. Calling up a View had more to it than just knowing what a location looked like; I had experimented with recorded images, including 3D panoramas, of new locations without success. Having already seen the location – either in person or through a previous use of my View – was a hard limit on its starting locale.
From the comfort of my desk chair, my computer system open and ready for work, I carefully meditated on the alternating classic and modern lines of Zurich’s eclectic city scape. My memory trolled through misty half-images for several minutes before they snapped into focus and I sank into my View. As I sank, I instinctually rewound past sunset and the present darkness, allowing the return of daylight to assail me.
I don’t know if it’s a quirk of the climate or due to the ever-present lake, but bluish haze always seems to be permeating the city, as though I’m viewing it through a novelty lens. Still breathtakingly beautiful, though. I only allowed myself a handful of breaths before raising my View up to a superior, maplike vantage.
The mountainous macro-features made central Europe easy to navigate from a bird’s eye just by tracing the right range… or so I thought. When I briefly dropped my View to check against a satellite map, though, I had diverted myself to Nuremburg. I scrutinized the map more before moving my View properly south to Munich.
As I surfaced again to consult my records, I noticed an unidentified Alice&Bob chat window that had made it past my spam filter. The message was unexpected.
“Delphic, this is Diane. I need to talk to you about something, unmonitored.” The encrypted chat program said she was still online but didn’t indicate she was writing any more.
Not many people had my public key, but enough did that there was no guarantee this was actually the RCMP sergeant.
“I’m here, Diane. Please stand by,” was all I wrote. Then I went under.
Sergeant Waterford had left the Ottawa field office an hour previously. I followed her blonde hair and severe suit down the street to a nearby hotel, up the elevator, and to the door of her small room. I fast-forwarded to the present before moving my View inside.
She sat cross-legged on the queen-sized bed in a white bra and panties: a pleasant view of an unquestionably lovely woman that I would very much enjoy under different circumstances. Looking over her shoulder at the screen of her laptop, the Alice&Bob chat window with her message and my response was up. She bit her lip as I watched, visually impatient for my response.
I dropped my View (somewhat reluctantly) and sent another message. “I confirmed your identity. Is something wrong?”
“How did you confirm my identity? This is supposed to be anonymous.”
“Your data still comes from somewhere. It’s just encrypted so no one can read it. The chat servers’ proxies are decent but not uncrackable.” This was true, which is why my own connection to Alice&Bob ran through extra layers to obscure the source.
“That worries me. I wanted to talk to you in a way that couldn’t be tracked by either of our agencies.” I let myself View her again, just briefly. She was pacing now, occasionally running her hands through her hair, keeping an eye on the laptop waiting for my response. Her gait was unpretentious, free of affectation or display. I had always found that people were most refreshing when they believed themselves to be entirely alone, unseen. For a second time I reverted to my desk before I became enthralled by the sight.
“There is never any guarantee of that, but the chances are low. What is your concern?”
The ellipsis icon hung on the screen for a while as she wrote. I closed my eyes to View her again, but realized I didn’t have a good reason to this time. There is a line between investigation and flat-out peeping, and I suspected I had already crossed it. I refrained.
“The augment projects aren’t run out of our agency and we are being denied access. Even some records of experiments I could access before are now restricted from me.” After these lines appeared, she was still shown to be writing more, so I waited. “Heathcote was told that the DRDC is independently investigating its subjects and will confirm they were not involved. I think this stonewalling may mean they know something. Or someone was involved maybe.” More typing. “RCMP’s hands are tied. Yours aren’t.”
While not operating with the same massive budget as US military research, Canada’s Defence Research and Development was every bit as resourceful and secretive as its American and European counterparts. It did not escape me that, if I tangled with them, I would be going after the same agency that developed Canada’s defenses against hackers and cyber warfare, and there was no question that this would include cutting-edge United States resources.
I typed, “You are asking me to go after the Canadian augments without your help?”
Her response came quickly. “With the help I can give unofficially.” We both knew that wouldn’t be much. “I can point you to the facilities and give you access through my account. What little access I still have.”
“Does Spinner know about this?”
“He does. He is heading back to the states to see what he can learn about their projects. Some super team members have worked with augments before, and he thinks he can call in favors.”
“This seems very dangerous.”
“I agree. But the alternative is to run into a dead end and close the case.” A slightly longer pause. “A lot of us work with the supers. They are part of the RCMP too, we take care of each other. We need to find who did this.”
I had a strong impulse to jump into this immediately, but it warred with a more rational fear as to the likely consequences. When departments of the same government start engaging in espionage against each other rather than cooperating, it never goes well for the agents stuck in the middle.
These cautious instincts were, however, only a weak protest against the internal forces urging my forward on this. My own self-image, my desire to be a hero, was wrapped up in this – in the idea that I would press forward to save lives and seek justice even at personal risk. And, if military-sponsored augments were really out killing supers, then that needed to come to light. The idea of DRDC (or DARPA in the States) actively concealing murderers to protect their research was blood-boiling.
Internally, I chose to acknowledge a third reason that was at least as strong as the first two: I didn’t want to disappoint Diane or Spinner by turning them down. Despite only having known them for a handful of days, they afforded me a respect and trust that really satiated a deep hunger I had for camaraderie and praise as a hero. It simply isn’t that hard to talk yourself into choosing what will make others like you.
“I will investigate the Canadian augment program and its subjects,” I sent. “You said that you have physical addresses for their facilities?”
She sent me a file transfer protocol directory link, a long string of numbers on a website hosting domain. “There are nine files in the directory, and all of them are encrypted using your public key for A&B. They have addresses for the four facilities where the augment experiments have taken place, although two have since closed down.” I started downloading and checking the files while she continued. “In each city where they decided to run the experiment, their process was the same: find an empty building in a medical services park, set up under a new fake business name, advertise clinical trials.”
“The summary document you provided me earlier would imply an omicron sensor and upsilon beam emitter at the facility. Is that correct?”
“Yes.” A longer pause before the next long message appeared. “The initial clinical trial was a simple medical exam and blood work. Looking for that .3% of the population with the genetic markers for powers that don’t have powers. Offering those people a lot of money to undergo a background check, sign an NDA, and then spend a week in the ‘clinic’ undergoing the exposure tests.”
“What if some of the subjects already had powers but had concealed them?”
“They identified ten people in that category. We made records for them in the supers registry and put them under seal like with any secret identity. Defense cut them loose from the project, obviously.”
The ethics were questionable here: it didn’t seem they were meeting the constraints of ‘informed consent.’ This was not surprising for research condemned by the international community.
Diane continued to message me. “The files have some of the trial data, but it’s heavily redacted. No personal info for the subjects. That’s a big part of what we need to investigate them.”
“If the trial data includes powers, that at least tells us which records to target.”
“Don’t rely on that. Many of the powers were variable or just not recorded.”
“How many subjects were tested under the program?”
“Over 400 reported successes from an initial pool of a thousand subjected to the beams.” Short pause. “And 60 deaths.”
I was amazed they could keep that quiet. “Is that what shut down two of the facilities?”
“No.” The initial reply was immediate and then followed by the rest of the message. “They are currently focused on additional testing for the successes who volunteered to stay with the project. All of those could fit into two clinics so they closed the other two. ”
“If they are testing powers, would they not need to move to a larger secured area? You can’t really fly or run inside a medical building.”
“We think some of them have, but DRDC won’t confirm it. Their super testing labs are in Toronto. That’s most likely.”
That provided me with a lot of avenues to pursue. “I will see what I can figure out. Are we going to continue to use this channel?”
“Yes. I’ll keep my personal laptop here away from HQ and their network. That means we can only talk about this in the evening.”
“I approve. Don’t take unnecessary risks.”
“You’re the one taking the risks. Please be careful.”
I let myself peek one more time. Her unguarded face showed genuine concern. It was touching. I dropped my View and responded, “I will be as careful as I can be under these circumstances. But we have a killer to find.”
“Good luck,” was her last message before her status changed to offline.
Looking through her files, I could understand why Diane was stymied. The records were piecemeal, disorganized and clearly incomplete. There were tantalizing hints of what we were looking for, with words like ‘vanished’ and even ‘invisible’ embedded in descriptions of subject testing, but never with supporting details.
This new undertaking would involve a sidestep from what we had been doing thus far, and so I decided to put the augments aside for the evening and tackle them fresh in the morning. Sunday is the best option for hacking during daylight hours, since you’re least likely to run into active personnel that might detect you or conflict with your access in real time.
I decided to go ahead and tackle my European villain team, even though Canadian Defence being so cagey about the augments made other suspects less likely. But first, I remembered that I had a backlog of Morris family conversations still being processed and uploaded for my review. I scanned through the generated transcripts to see if anything interesting had been said. It had.
Pulling up a downstairs file from the previous evening, I heard what appeared to be a children’s educational program of some kind, interspersed with relaxed matrimonial banter. Hearing Kurt and Laila over the television was a challenge, but what they were talking about was certainly worth the effort.
“Does the business in Ottawa move up your timetable, do you think?” I heard Kurt ask.
“No,” Laila replied quickly, then backpedaled. “I can’t really know for sure. But I haven’t heard anything from them about it. I think it’s just a little publicity hiccup in the Lamarck case.”
“Did you know Lamarck?”
“Not really,” her tone was subdued. “He healed Red Gryphon after the Luxor incident last year. She said he was a good guy, really friendly and super polite. Easier to talk to than most of the US Team.” A pause. “It will be tough if they activate me in the middle of one of these big cases, especially if it’s because they know Delphic will be busy elsewhere?” Her tone was plaintive and uneven. “Like, he’s out helping the heroes or finding a killer or whatever, and I’m here arresting his friend?”
“Yeah,” Kurt said, because it was clear Laila just wanted to talk this out.
“It would be easier if I knew what Hector did. He just seems like a nice guy, a little closed in. Not the sort that I’d expect would be helping a criminal.”
“I got a different vibe off him, honestly,” Kurt said. “He has that apparent harmlessness and reserve that can hide anything. A lot of those quiet guys are perfectly harmless, but some are sociopaths.” He threw out, almost as an afterthought, “But that doesn’t mean Hector actually did anything.”
“You think his connection to Delphic would be enough for them to take him in if they didn’t have dirt on him?”
“Sure,” Kurt didn’t have the emotional investment in this that Laila seemed to. “Investigators do it all the time. Get the guy you need, figure out what the dirt is later.”
A pause. “I really don’t like the sound of that.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” Kurt’s tone carried just the hint of mockery. “You like your criminals to be unambiguous, clearly and deliberately harming others. But what the Feds see is a lot more grey than that. People who genuinely believe that they’re gaming the system for perfectly innocent ends, helping their company or political party or friends. When all the people you care about are benefiting, and any harm is abstracted against people you never see, it’s much easier to fool yourself.”
“Hmmm,” Laila vocalized. “So Hector might be helping Delphic to commit crimes, and still be a basically decent person who just convinces himself it’s okay?”
“Plenty of criminals have families,” Kurt responded. “Work an honest job, go to church, lend their neighbors a hand.” That last was clearly directed at me. “We aren’t out to judge their character. We seek justice for their actions.”
“You do,” she quipped, “I’m just the muscle.” There were giggles after that, and the conversation moved on.
I was distressed that Polarity was willing to come after me on the government’s say-so, with no idea what I had supposedly done. I had suspected this before, but hearing her confirm it was still unpleasant. At least I could take solace that, if wheels against me were turning, they didn’t seem to be turning any faster than before – as far as she knew.
As before, it was easier to divert these trains of thought with work that didn’t directly affect my life. The Frauenkirche clock tower was quite easy to find and not far from my destination point, so I counted the fifty backwards revolutions of its small hand around the massive face. On the appropriate evening I made my way to a small jewelers set in the corner of an old building on an even older street.
Like many jewelry shops anywhere in the developed world, this jeweler had modern security features – an anachronism among the classic architecture and decor. Stepping in from the street, a customer would find herself in a small anteroom looking at the black crossings of security glass separating her from an impeccably dressed man in a suit. The man would press a button on a fob in his pocket, temporarily unlocking the interior door while locking the exterior at the same time, and then would open the interior door and welcome the customer in with a flourish.
The “airlock” was by no means a robbery-proof layout, but in conjunction with the armed attendant it discouraged any but the most resolute criminals.
The Übermenschen were quite resolute.
When he stepped into the anteroom, I immediately recognized the lone man from the pictures in his profile. Baldur had taken a super name that did not match his appearance: a small white man with an unhealthy leanness of features and bright burrowing eyes. Still, he was well-groomed and in crisp shirtsleeves.
There were twelve named members of the Übermenschen in the records, and Baldur was one of four connected with this robbery; infuriatingly, he was also one of five for whom powers were not definitively known. Supervillains very rarely counted non-supers in their number; they would work with them as allies or henchmen but tended to have a clear delineation between such conspirators and team members. It was therefore presumed that Baldur was a super even if his powers were not known.
Baldur nodded and stepped forward as the guard held the door open for him. He stopped past the doorway but still within the arc of the security door and asked the guard a question, gesturing into the building. Because I had read the after-action report, I knew that the delay was to give time for his invisible teammates to move past him into the main area.
Aside from the guard, the shop had two employees and four customers. The “sales floor” was arranged much like an exhibition with well-lit glass containers disposed strategically about the area, intermixed with antique furniture and more specialized displays. An older salesman was helping a young couple look at bracelets, while the younger associate was speaking with a woman customer approximately her own age over a case of ornate rings. The remaining customer was browsing, clearly waiting his turn to be helped.
Baldur moved a few steps to allow the guard to close the door, and then everything happened at once. A tall blonde woman in an all white jumpsuit and domino mask, Whiteout, appeared next to the older jeweler with a handgun already trained steadily at his head. Baldur pulled his own weapon from behind him in a smooth motion that took the guard entirely by surprise. A mousy woman in a light blue cocktail dress, Skadi, seized the other associate around the neck and placed two of her foot-long claws, ending in glistening sharp points, against the woman’s temple.
The fourth villain appeared at the same time, dressed in a generic black jogging suit with a matching black ski mask. She was not identified in the report and I couldn’t match her to any of the known Übermenschen profiles. She yelled for attention and got it; after a few more words, seven people were face down on the ground. None other than the guard showed any emotion but fear; the guard looked more chagrined than scared.
Whiteout took up a corner monitoring position with her handgun while the other three each broke a different display case and started sweeping their contents into satchels brought for the purpose. None of the civilians tried to play hero, and it took less than 10 minutes for the displays to be emptied, including a lock box from within one antique cabinet containg half a million Euros in loose diamonds, according to the report. While I didn’t see Baldur do anything extraordinary during this period, the unnamed super’s motions included short jerks that were obviously accelerated. A minor speedster was a good guess.
The four left much the way they had come, with all but Baldur vanishing from sight as he closed the security door, unlocking the front entrance. Seven people were still cowed on the shop floor as empty-handed Baldur (having handed his satchel to Whiteout) strolled quickly down the street.
A delivery van was parked near a loading zone just two blocks away. Baldur opened the back doors and climbed in. A minute later the doors appeared to close themselves.
Whiteout dropped the invisibility once they were away from the city proper. The attitude of the four was celebrational; this was clearly seen as a great success. The unnamed woman, who having taken off her ski mask I could now confirm was not a known Übermensch, was rummaging through one of the satchels and making pronouncements about pieces she drew out.
The delivery van pulled into low set of modern buildings that, from the glass roof visible above, flanked a large greenhouse. The side of the van advertised the same plant nursery named on the sign in front of the complex.
Navigating a drive circling around to the rear of the complex, the van nestled against a building wall and brought forth its four passengers and driver. The latter was a young man that could serve as a model for an Aryan nation recruitment poster – blond flat top over bright blue eyes and a chiseled jaw, muscles bulging from neck to calf. This super went by Warner, and was the most famous member of the Übermenschen.
The five of them bypassed the nursery buildings, heading up a path that passed through a copse of mature deciduous trees. Well-concealed from the road, with a green roof that blended into the rest of the forested area, was a long building of wood and mortar. It most resembled a hunting lodge, and following the team into the interior confirmed that impression. Antique rifles and classic taxidermy lined the walls.
The five were welcomed by two further Übermenschen waiting at a long table in a central common area. I recognized the plump blonde woman, Valkyrie, in casual clothes even though her only profile photos had been in costume. Allfather, the grizzled man in shirtsleeves at the head of the table, sipped from a steaming coffee mug while he greeted the others.
The Übermenschen had been wanted criminals in Europe for some time, but had categorically evaded capture. A part of that was simply being smart: they avoided dramatic and dangerous clashes with the heroes. Instead, they kept to a mix of quick and practical jobs like that day’s robbery, along with occasional planned public appearances. The other factor to their success was contingent on those public appearances: their substantial local support in parts of Poland, Austria, and Germany.
The Stalingrad Accords in 1946 had, it was now universally agreed, sown the seeds of permanent nationalism in the territories that remained under the Third Reich’s control until the democratic uprisings some 30 years later. Roosevelt’s decision to placate Goering’s Nazi regime, while perhaps necessary after the Allies’ catastrophic loss at Normandy, poured cold water on wartime pride. It left Hitler’s successor in power over the Germanic States in exchange for a withdrawal from occupied France, Belgium, and large parts of the crumbling Soviet Union. It was a significant factor in the constant political and cultural turmoil the area had endured since.
In the modern era, as long as moderates throughout Germany continued to push for economic unification with the rest of Europe, the nationalists would surely continue to fuel their members’ ire to push back. I couldn’t even imagine why this “European Union” idea continued to come up every few years; barring a significant existential threat to bind them together, I just couldn’t ever see the fiercely proud European powers overcoming their squabbles to do it.
The short of it was that this villain group was enough of a political animal to leave them with plenty of hiding places and allies throughout the country. And, unlike with the Few in Brazil, I could not expect them to stay in one location for the intervening weeks.
Valkyrie and Whiteout were the two members of this group that put them on the suspect list for the Lamarck murder. Valkyrie was a swift flyer who could carry multiple allies along with her, and Whiteout’s powers, while believed to be limited to minutes at a time, were more than sufficient for the brief rooftop excursion.
I kept an eye on the common table and tried to fast forward at maximum speed, but the movements were too quick for me to keep track. I slowed down during each daylight cycle until I saw one of the two women. About two weeks passed this way, although I quickly lost count of the exact day.
I was about a week from the present when neither of my two targets showed up all day. Rewinding to the previous day, it was clear both of them were preparing to leave with Baldur and Warner. At just before dusk, two days before Lamarck’s shooting, the four of them walked out the front entrance of the nursery and squeezed into a sedan driven by a man I could not name. None of them were in costume: they wore the blouses and button-down shirts I associated with German businesswear.
The sedan pulled into a garage in one of Munich’s office parks, unloading its five passengers to an office building with the sleepy near-vacancy that followed the close of business. They signed in with a laconic security guard and made their way up to the fourth floor offices of the building.
They chose the correct business from the three sharing the floor, past a formal-looking reception desk where they were greeted by a man still in his full dark suit and led to a cosy conference room.
At that point my stomach turned cold. I dropped my View and immediately started redoubling my research on the Übermenschen activities and allies.
I was missing something important, and I couldn’t reasonably continue until I understood it.
I needed to figure out why a powerful supervillain team was consulting with the Munich branch of Effitech, Inc.