Senior Detective Arthur Donnel, DPD (retired), took a bite of quiche as he looked over his notepad. “So, Effitech is pursuing leads in the kidnapping case, was hired to consult on the Lamarck investigation, and now has some sort of ties to German terrorists.” He looked across the dining room table at me for confirmation.
After the tumultuous events of the previous evening, I had been thrilled to hear upon awaking that my family had gotten up for sunrise services and would then be returning home for brunch. I had time to make the bacon and spinach quiche before heading over. While I sympathized with Mom’s scowl whenever Dad over-indulged, I couldn’t help but feel pride that he was on his third slice of my dish. Dad might take one helping out of politeness, but never three.
I nodded and gestured for him to continue. He scratched his chin and mused, “You’re concerned that this is too much of a coincidence.” Another bite of quiche and then, “the CIA is behind the kidnapping… how did you learn that, again?” His look sharpened as I shook my head and made a ‘moving on’ gesture. “And somebody in government doesn’t want their experimental supers questioned about Lamarck. Meaning,” he bared his teeth in a sardonic mockery of a grin, “that they had something to do with Lamarck.”
He flipped a page back in his notepad, and I was struck by how familiar this all felt. Dad had started bringing his investigations to the dinner table when I was in middle school. He’d go over notes and lines of reasoning; Paris and I would throw out wild ideas while Mom played skeptic and referee. It made me feel like Encyclopedia Brown – although Paris was probably the better analog to the child detective, since any new insights Dad took back to his cases were usually hers.
In large part, it was Dad and Mom’s complete openness with us – their willingness to include us in their secrets, to build the mental privacy wall around all of us instead of just the two of them – that led us to trust them with our own dire secrets when we got older. Although I would never want them to, I knew they would both give their lives before betraying our trust. The three of them shared blood, but all four of us shared the deep bond of family.
In this modern reenactment of our dinnertime talks, though, more of the details of the tableau were wrong than just our ages. As I laid out the Lamarck case and my new concerns about Effitech, the two women at the table had offered very little in the way of commentary or criticism, instead projecting a wordless discomfort in stereo. Dad and I soldiered on.
“This German group… you’re sure they’re not behind the Lamarck shooting?”
I shrugged. “I’m sure that their invisibility and flight supers aren’t. They didn’t leave Germany following the Effitech meeting a week ago. I followed a team to a city near Berlin where they quietly raided a police station gun cache and delivered the weapons to a port in Hamburg. Whiteout returned, alone -”
“She makes the group invisible?” Dad interrupted me to confirm.
“Right, limited to three people and their possessions as far as I’ve seen. She returned alone to the Effitech building to pick up a briefcase with small vials of liquid in it and a data drive.”
I nodded. “Payment for the guns, yeah, that was my guess. The vials were unmarked, and they stowed the data drive without looking at it. That brings us to the present.”
Dad scratched his chin again. “So, the Übermenschen are still in Europe, and other than being connected to Effitech don’t have any identified role in the Lamarck situation, right?” He waited for my shrug. “Prune it.” I watched him draw a line beside a whole section of his notes and make a couple of quick marks. “The augments direction is the one that smells right for the Lamarck case. The Effitech matter is something different.”
“But I was only watching the Übermenschen because of the Lamarck case,” I protested. “Isn’t that too much of a coincidence?”
At this, Dad turned and smiled at Mom, who begrudgingly spoke. “False dichotomy,” she said, without much enthusiasm. “The only possibilities aren’t direct involvement or coincidence. There may be a more tenuous connection that explains the correlation. For example,” she warmed up a bit as she speculated, “if Effitech is acting on behalf of the CIA or other intelligence agency, they would tend to look for supergroups with mobility and stealth assets. Neither you, nor they, are targeting supers at random, so the chances that one of the groups you are looking for would also be working for them on an unrelated mission are higher than naive probability.”
Dad nodded, “I agree. Prune it,” he said again, and it sounded like an order. Dad knew he didn’t have any real authority in these matters, but he also knew how much I respected his investigative skills. By record and reputation, he was one of the most skilled Detroit homicide detectives in living memory. And although she hadn’t proven it yet, I was confident there was another of those sitting at the table with us.
Paris finished the last bite of her breakfast, which markedly had included none of my quiche, and cleared her throat. “So, Laila Morris,” she began slowly.
“Yes?” The change in topic seemed abrupt; I was anxious to address Paris’s question and get back to the present issue of the Lamarck investigation and augments.
“Is a super.” She carefully hid her anger under a surface molasses, clearly trying to lead and mollify me.
“Polarity, yes.” I waited for her to spit it out so we could move along.
“Working with the CIA.” She kept her tone sweet and even.
“Or another intelligence agency, yes, as a seed asset.” I turned to Dad, “which connects back to Effitech again, because -”
“Hector.” Paris captured my entire attention with my name bellowed a little too loudly for a dinner table conversation. “A CIA seed asset that you have now confirmed is explicitly stationed in your neighborhood, with you as a target, for working with Delphic. Yes?”
I nodded again. “Yes.” I waited for her to continue this time.
Paris threw exasperated hands at our mother. Gladys Donnell sipped her coffee and then asked, “Son, what would happen if Polarity got the call to arrest you?”
I looked to Dad, trying to figure out the reasons for these questions. He nodded to me, indicating I should answer. “She’d suit up and come arrest me. I don’t see that there’s much I can do about that,” I blinked and shrugged.
“Who at the CIA is involved in planting this seed asset?” I shook my head in preparation of answering that I didn’t know, but she pressed forward. “What are they investigating Delphic for? What are the parameters for having you arrested, and who gets to decide? You don’t know any of these things, right?” I nodded. “Don’t you have methods of figuring them out?”
“Not easily. The risk in hacking CIA servers -”
Mom interrupted, “- is less than the risks you are facing now. How many of these actions have you really considered?”
I thought back over the last few days. Ever since discovering that my worst fears were realized – that I really was under government observation – I had pushed the issue aside. I hadn’t genuinely taken any steps to address the situation. And even now, I was having trouble understanding why I should.
Mom tried to reach across the dining room table to grab my hands, but unsurprisingly she couldn’t reach. Neither she nor I were large people. So she came around and pulled up a chair right next to me, then entwined her fingers with mine on top of the table.
“Baby, d’you remember what we talked about when you first told me about your powers?” Her tone was softer but somehow more urgent than before.
I smiled, “Quite a few words on their ethical use, I remember. We kept revisiting scenarios for months after that.” I looked back fondly on those chats.
“That too, baby,” she cooed, “but I was talking about the mental risk factors.” She waited a minute as I thought back on it.
“You thought,” I was having trouble recalling, “that extended Viewing would remove me from the immediacy of my own life. I’d cease to see the things happening as ‘real.'”
“Depersonalization,” she offered. “And particularly derealization. A person is still aware of what’s going on, but dissociates it from his own life. He avoids acting on it, because it’s not ‘real.'”
I tried to recall how our discussion went. “But didn’t I point out, and you agreed, that this was almost always the result of severe trauma? That as long as I kept a cool head I would probably be fine?” I had shifted my seating entirely to face my mother now, the few remaining morsels on my plate forgotten.
Mom met my gaze and shook her head. “I acknowledged that, dear; I didn’t agree. I think you wrote my warning off on that basis, but the truth is that your power puts you in a unique psychological state that I suspect will always be vulnerable to this problem.”
She started to increase the volume and intensity of her speech as she confirmed that she hadn’t lost me. “You make detailed observations of situations halfway around the world. You jump your vision around in time and space, analyze people who will never directly impact your real life.” Her hand squeezed mine. “You have conditioned yourself to see Delphic, and the things you do with your powers, as divorced from your life as Hector. And, because, you can move your attention between different cases, you are staying away from the situation that could seriously affect your life.”
“All our lives,” Paris supplied. “You can bet we’re all on their radar.” I looked her full in the face to take the brunt of her anger, but her expression showed fierce concern instead. She was worried about me much more than about herself.
I thought for a moment about my situation and our family. Paris was right – ignoring an existential threat to me, especially one from the government, put her at risk as well. Except that I wasn’t even the real target from their point of view; just working with Delphic. Would that merit the resources to look into my family too?
In the steely regard of my mother and sister, I could see that I was reflexively working to discount the danger, to downgrade the level of risk. And, having realized that, I willed myself to internalize it instead.
The sinking feeling in my stomach blossomed like a poisonous flower. I imagined agents battering down my door, weapons drawn; I saw them unplugging and dismantling my hardware to be carted away. Myself and my sister in separate mirrored rooms, interrogated then left to sleep. Paris terminated, unable to wear her uniform ever again.
I closed my eyes and brought up a View of a German farmhouse. Skadi, Warner, and the unnamed speedster I had started calling “Mouse” in my own head had spent the night there the last two evenings, but it looked like Baldur had arrived in a vehicle and they were preparing to move on. It was late afternoon; I rewound to confirm that there were no other visitors during the day. I jumped back to the hunting lodge where Valkyrie and Allfather were still hosting Whiteout and…
I heard the shouts of “Hector!” at the same time I felt Mom’s tiny hands roughly shake my shoulder. I opened my eyes; she scrutinized them with medical assessment.
“Adderall?” she asked softly. When I nodded, she stepped up and gave me a hug, awkwardly around my chair, holding my head to her. It was too brief; when she pushed herself back to her chair I wasn’t ready for her to let go. “Baby, you have a built-in escape mechanism in your power. You’re starting to exhibit addictive behavior. Do you understand?”
I frowned. “I get what you’re saying, Mom, but I don’t see it. I’m not people-watching; I’m not hopping around Europe on a lark. I monitor dangerous criminals; I solve murders and help heroes.” I glanced over at Paris for a moment; the way her scared and worried expression mirrored her mother’s made her face look like a magnified reflection, albeit without the laugh lines.
Mom glanced at Paris, too, before she responded. “Yes, it’s important work. No doubt. But you can still abuse it. In fact, when people are doing their dream jobs,” she deliberately and pointedly looked at her husband and daughter in turn, “they are more likely to unhealthily obsess over their work. Deprioritize their own wellbeing and their other commitments.” Rather than leave it at implication, she said, “Your father and I had it out several times during his career, and I have had to start talking to your sister about it recently as well.”
Dad cleared his throat, “I came by it honestly, though. When I was growing up I didn’t learn ‘balance’ or ‘priorities.’ Men worked, and if you worked harder you were a better man.” He shrugged.
“And my daddy taught his sons the same,” Mom agreed. “If you can only get people to learn one lesson, hard work is a good one.” She caught my eye again. “My kids can learn more, though.” Her tone became almost reverent as she repeated words I had heard many times. “Invest attention and effort proportional to utility. Don’t maximize; optimize. An act carries all its consequences. Your perspective is intrinsically limited.”
“All these I have followed from my youth,” I replied with a smile. Mom twitched an eyebrow; she didn’t approve of me no longer attending church, but she didn’t bring it up unless I pushed. Cheekily quoting the Bible during a serious conversation was certainly pushing.
“You may not remember, dear,” she proffered with some acerbity, “but Jesus’s response to the rich young ruler was to give him a fresh rule that He knew would humble him.” She chuckled at my wary look. “I’m only human, so let me add an easier one.”
Paris chimed in: “Thou shalt not ignore an imminent personal threat.”
Mom shut her mouth and swallowed whatever she was about to say. She nodded at her daughter. “Okay, that one.”
It was clear to me that my family was rather seriously overreacting to what it still seemed to me was reasonable behavior. But what Mom was saying made enough sense to listen to, even if I didn’t think I would need to change much in practice. I nodded in agreement. “Okay.”
Mom leaned forward more, her eyes closely focused on mine. “Hector,” she said, “I want you to come over here this week for breakfasts, and plan to talk to me after your sister heads to work.”
“You’re not usually up that early,” I pointed out.
Her lips thinned in a closed-mouth grimace. “I’ll make it work this week.”
I nodded. “Thanks for worrying about me, guys.” I meant it. Misguided or not, I depended on that fact that they cared for me. It was a constant calm in the center of an ever-changing world. “Do you agree with Dad’s assessment that I should sideline the Übermenschen and focus on the augments?”
“I think he’s right about that, yeah.” Paris answered quickly. “But can we circle back please? What’s your plan for Polarity?”
I mulled it over, carefully keeping the panic down. “I think… I need to figure out who at the CIA is after Delphic, and why.”
“Into the lion’s maw, then?” Dad asked. At my nod, he said, “Have you considered the direct approach?”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I said to encourage him to explain. The women looked equally unsure.
“Have Delphic call Polarity and ask for a meeting with her CIA contact.” At my surprised look he added, “or go through your FBI agent friend. Or dig just deep enough to get the name and number of the agent in charge.” He bit into his last piece of toast. Dad was the only one of us with anything left that we intended to eat.
Paris said, “That gives up the advantage that we know about the mission and they don’t think we do. Is it worth it?”
I shrugged. “It might be, if there’s a chance to talk them out of it. Or at least know what I need to do to avoid them pulling the trigger.” I winced, instantly regretting my choice of metaphor.
Dad shrugged. “Make sure it’s an option you consider. On tough cases there was always a tradeoff between monitoring a suspect for more information and bringing him in. You can’t keep surveillance secret forever, and an interrogation is much more fruitful as an ambush.”
Paris and I chatted about investigation strategies, and speculated as to possible CIA motives, as we washed the dishes. It was only when I was grabbing my coat and giving goodbye hugs that she surprised me by asking, “Have you brought Doc Stevens into this?”
“No. I don’t want to bring Hector to his attention. Have you changed your mind about him?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Definitely not. But info through him is probably less dangerous than info from the source.”
This reinforced for me, more even than the earlier discussion, just how worried my sister was. I promised to consider all my options and headed home.
Over the next couple of hours, I discovered that CIA information systems were uniquely vulnerable to my powers.
At its core, the CIA used “human intelligence” – spies and informants – to keep track of our enemies (and allies). They were notorious for interfering in foreign affairs, having backed one side or the other in a variety of power struggles (Iran, Poland, even some of the early kratocracies in South America and Africa). A ridiculous amount of money, most of it not accounted for, was applied to maintain their informant network. CIA spies were expected to be anywhere and everywhere.
Because of this, the CIA relied on state of the art encryption and communication protocols, but also made it as easy as possible for authorized users to access their system from anywhere in the world. Agents were pressed hard never to write down their password and to memorize long, random sequences to make them too strong for raw cracking. But if you happened to be able to stare straight at the keyboard while an agent put the password in, none of those measures made any difference.
The other major security feature in the CIA system was project-specific authorization. If you weren’t assigned to know about a particular project, you wouldn’t be able to access that project’s files without being granted that access from its manager. But how would you know whom to ask for authorization? The CIA conveniently listed the manager and their contact information, available to any user. This gave me my next target to View.
In short, within two hours, I had access to the asset file for Polarity and dossiers on both Delphic and Hector. Polarity’s file outlined procedures for contacting her through a local agent, and noted that “Strictly no telephonic or other remote communication is to be used. Paper documents and in-person briefings only.” The same instructions were in both the Delphic and Hector dossiers. The file included the name of her handler and the default instructions she had been given if she was activated: “Assist agents in apprehending Hector Donnel. If no agents are present, apprehend Hector Donnel and convey safely to Detroit Super Team Headquarters.”
The Hector file included another nasty surprise: May had been reporting on me. Apparently she had been a CIA informant since 2013, tasked with keeping an eye on a number of young adults in the Detroit area that were flagged for monitoring. May’s parents had moved into the neighborhood so she could get close to me; most of her other targets were in the vicinity of Lawrence. I had originally been flagged at U of M and my movements outlined since that time.
Seeing so much of my friendship with May distilled to a suspect profile made me physically ill. I considered her a close friend. She apparently considered me a paycheck. I hoped she didn’t visit soon; I didn’t think I could convincingly fake our detente, now that I knew.
The Delphic file was much longer than the other two and included a complete list of known interactions with various super teams and with federal agents, along with analyses of my abilities as used during each event. A lot of time was spent speculating on what sorts of digital systems I could move into or control remotely. Several references were made to sharing particular data to an NSA project called Iron Lantern, although the project and my relationship to it were not explained.
The most recent updates to the Delphic dossier described the Vivi Michaels kidnapping – which, as it turns out, was planned and executed by Effitech itself. I had to verify several times that this was actually what the file said, because of how appalling this idea was. Michaels had his own daughter kidnapped and locked up for days in order to test my abilities and provide opportunities to interact with me! What parent could do that? It didn’t seem possible.
But the evidence was plain. Quotes were included of Effitech debriefing the hired kidnappers, and they matched what I had seen. The test was considered inconclusive but at least suggestive of Delphic’s limits: no electronics were present in the farmhouse, but I had been able to track the mobile devices that moved from the abduction to the farmhouse. Suggestions were made for eliminating this possibility in the next test.
As horrifying as all this was, it was helpful in one very specific way: I was no longer fearful of the CIA. I was furious. They had tainted my friendship with May; they had paid for the torture of a little girl. They clearly had no compunction violating my privacy or anyone’s freedom. They seemed to have no particular respect for the law.
I carefully identified, and downloaded full personnel records for, the agents responsible for planning, authorizing, and facilitating these missions.
There were tactics to consider, but I could not leave their actions unanswered. Somebody would be held accountable. There would be a reckoning.