Chapter 19 – A Problem and a Plan

The people around the table seemed content to wait as I collected myself. Despite the teleconference display being at the opposite end of the rectangular table from the Doc, each of the four were turned nearly flush with the table to keep him in view. There was little doubt who was running the meeting.

“Thank you very much for meeting with me,” the Delphic voice played over conference room speakers. “This is unexpected, and I am sorry that I am not familiar with everyone here.”

Doc nodded toward the two men on his left. “You know Fred and Kyle, I think.” Kyle Tran (Glitch) matched his partner Fernando Campos (Glimmer) both in wary expression and aggressive fashion choices, although the bold clothes looked different on his narrower and longer frame. I hoped Fred wasn’t still angry at me for my earlier questions about Lamarck; from what little I had seen of their organization I didn’t think I could count on Doc to reign him in.

To the woman immediately to his right, he said, “This is Kat, head of logistics for the lab.” The woman was tall, dark skinned with softened features that contrasted with the strong lines of a revealing top. She had the poise of a professional and a laptop opened in front of her; the only one at the table.

Briefly considering Kat, I decided I was misinterpreting some of the clothing choices. What I thought of as “club wear” – provocative and tight clothing displaying the body to good effect, which I had seen Fred in before but was worn by Kyle and Kat as well – was worn in this room with the air of professional attire. I had never spent any time understanding Eutopian norms, and they seemed to be evident here.

The other woman, olive-skinned and shorter, wore a white button-down blouse that matched European sensibilities about office wear. She also wore a visible side holster and sat within easy reach of an assault rifle propped against the table. Doc nodded to her next, “Janice is head of security here. She has an advanced degree in strategic planning and I often consult with her on more… tactical projects.” He gave her a second nod, this one just for her rather than for me, and she returned it.

The Doc turned back to the screen. “Mister Crum will call in shortly, but I see no reason to wait. Kat, the Donnell file first please. Mister Delphic, please explain the situation.”

Doc’s cadence was keeping me on edge, and I still didn’t feel collected. I swallowed and started typing. “Hector is a friend of mine who lives outside of Detroit.” A shared screen joined the meeting table on the call, and I saw the same outdated profile shot from my file along with the summary bio page. Hector Donnell, 28. Detroit, MI addresses, phone numbers, and employment. My life on a sample platter.

“Hector has worked with me in certain matters. He is highly skilled in building computer hardware and I have availed myself of his expertise,” I supplied. Over the last couple of days I had started building a Delphic/Hector history in my head, and now I had to put it to the test.

“Is he a super? Omicron sensitive, I mean.” The question came from Kyle who was now fielding half-harsh looks from Doc and Kat. Doc, at least, consistently avoided the word ‘super’.

“Not to my knowledge,” I replied. This question I had prepared for. “He has worked in proximity to omicron detectors without setting them off. Most likely he is not.”

“How did he end up on their radar?” Janice asked.

Doc responded, “The file on him goes back to when he graduated in 2012. He’s a skill asset, which means National Resources monitors his whereabouts.”

Fred leaned back in his seat. “The CIA watches US citizens?”

Janice leaned forward, mirroring him, and nodded. “Anybody they think could be a candidate for foreign recruitment. Same way they justify a ‘Domestic’ budget for supers.” I noticed the ‘s’ word from her didn’t get the same looks.

“The takeaway,” Doc continued, “is that the connection came from monitoring Mister Donnell rather than Mister Delphic. Which leads to the next question.” Doc sat with his hands calmly folded atop the table. “What losses would you incur by cutting ties with him at this late date?”

His face was steel, and he asked this question with minimal expression. The others around the table were not so stoic. Fred was trying to suppress an eyeroll and Kyle’s brows lowered to match a small frown. Janice snapped her head to look keenly at the Doc, while Kat focused her attention on her laptop.

This was not a question I had considered. I was a bit horrified to find myself, unknown to them, not only the subject of this hypothetical severance but also its object. How would Delphic respond to this? It was tough to trace the tangle of identities and motives I was supposed to be simulating.

It took me a minute to recover, but I decided to continue the way I had from the beginning. Not a cold unfeeling utility calculator, but a person. With friends.

I finally had Delphic send, “I am unwilling to consider those costs to me separate from the costs to Hector.” Doc didn’t move, but the others reacted with… smugness, was the closest I could approximate. “He is a friend, and his well-being matters to me.”

“Which is why,” Doc spoke again, still not moving an inch, “you need to fully consider cutting ties. Hector Donnell is not a direct target.” He spread his hands and rose his head to stare sharply into the camera. “You are. Mister Donnell’s connection to you is the reason he has a powerful law enforcement officer watching him.” The others’ expressions had moved back to something more neutral; apparently we were back on regular territory. “If they have him brought in, it will be either to neutralize his help to you at an opportune time, or as a bargaining chip. Dropping him is an easy way to protect him.”

“It would be a costly break,” I insisted. “I’ve sunk a lot of resources into my hardware in Detroit. Also, I fail to see how I sever the relationship in a way that takes Hector out of danger.”

“He’s already tagged under you,” Janice agreed. “They aren’t going to pull his tail or write him off unless they are forced to.”

“Can’t they be forced to?” Kat asked. The shared screen didn’t show activity but she had been typing in the background. “Hector can invoke full citizen rights in the US, like a member of the Noble Caste here.”

Doc nodded, turning slightly to her. “In theory, yes. But it’s not as simple as here. It’s all more… codified. Layers of proceedings. That’s why we need Harold.” He scratched his chin. “We can set aside the question of a retreat, for now, since we aren’t sure how to effect one. And I will return to my primary question.” He reverted to the exact, neutral businesslike posture he had when the call started. “What can we do for you?”

“I don’t know, Doctor. I am still in the process of analyzing the full extent of the agency actions and plans. I was primarily looking for information or perhaps advice on how to proceed.”

Doc licked his lips, crossing his arms across his chest. “Have you figured out what ‘Iron Lantern’ is?”

“I have not. It appears to be an NSA project, and I am reluctant to enter their systems directly.”

Doc nodded. “This I can help with. Kyle?”

Doc looked to the nonplussed man, who gave a single slow nod. “NSA, Iron Lantern. Should I go make the call now?” He took Doc’s sweeping hand gesture as assent, stood up, and left the room.

I knew very little of Kyle Tran’s background. He was an American expatriate and had not been registered with a super team prior to his move to Eutopia. However he had wound up working with the Doc, he still had some way of getting US government information. It made me wonder if Doc’s insights about the budget for the Michaels kidnapping weren’t also through Tran.

“Based on the situation as I understand it now, I see eight broad tactics we can use in some combination.” He nodded to Kat and the shared screen changed to a blank document. As the Doc spoke, she typed the header words into a list.

“One, remove the agents. There are fewer than a dozen personnel with any knowledge of this case. If suddenly none of them are available, the case stymies, if it doesn’t collapse altogether.”

‘Remove’ was a rather cold-blooded euphemism for ‘kill,’ and it made my own blood freeze to hear it. “Wouldn’t that level of interference have serious repercussions?” I had Delphic ask.

“It would depend on how it was done,” Doc said calmly. “One agent could accept a lucrative job at a private firm; another could be reassigned to other cases within the agency. Certain agents could be quietly persuaded to retire early. More direct, attention-seeking methods might not be needed at all.”

That helped my conscience a bit. So assassination was in play, but not an opening move. I lit on my next objection. “How much does this obstruct the agency in the long term? They will assign more personnel, will they not?” Any government office had churn, I knew, and keeping thorough files and reports allowed agents to step into each others’ shoes.

“Two.” Doc smiled. “Attack the records. You can do that digitally, yes? Destroy or modify all of their computer records on Hector and Delphic to make them valueless or worse?”

“There’s a paper-only order in place,” Kat interjected as she put the text from the Delphic file on the screen. “They’re not putting operational instructions or critical information in the digital files.”

A throat-clearing sound came over the line and was quickly matched to Fred Campos by the looks of the other attendees. “Do we know where the files are?”

Doc looked to Kat, and then to the screen. He waited for me to answer.

“The CIA files are stored in the agents’ offices,” I typed.

“Langley?” asked Fred.

“Correct.”

“Not a problem.” The super looked smug. Doc nodded, considering the issue settled.

This made me uneasy, and I was divided as to why. Part of me was concerned that Glimmer’s attitude was unmerited bravado. Another part of me worried about the implications for my country’s security if it weren’t.

“Three,” the Doc announced. “Countermeasures to agency action…”

It was almost an hour of planning later when Kyle Tran returned, setting a notepad on the conference table. We were more than half an hour into working through the implications of Iron Lantern when another screen was added to the call.

Harold Crum, Jr. was in late middle age and gave an air of bad health, his paunch noticeable within his suit jacket and his thinning hair more grey than blonde. He spoke with a pleasantly rich baritone. “Hello everyone. Lawrence, I’m sorry it took me so long to get back with you. It has been a terribly busy day.”

“It’s a Sunday,” Doc said perplexed.

“Trial tomorrow,” the man explained. “But you said this was urgent. I haven’t yet reviewed the files you sent.”

“Have you met Delphic?”

“I’ve not had the pleasure. Delphic, the digital superhero, yes? He’s on the line?”

“Good evening, Mister Crum. This is Delphic.” I wasn’t entirely understanding the attorney’s role in this, even after working through a nominal strategy with the Doc and his crew.

“Delphic, I’m Harold Crum. My father and I have represented Doctor Stevens for many years. I take it you’re in a spot of legal trouble?”

“I’m more concerned about my friend Hector,” I began, and the Doc and I quickly summarized the situation for him.

“Well, the first thing to know is that the CIA arresting Hector in the US, or ordering the seed agent to do so, would almost certainly be illegal,” Crum began, “but the second thing to know is that they won’t care. They will order their agents and assets to do whatever they think is best and take their lumps in court afterward. Warrants? Probable cause? Oversight?” He shook his head. “These are people who believe that success makes a career and failure is swept under the rug. They don’t play fair with their enemies, and the only difference between foreign and US enemies is how secretive they are about it.”

He pivoted, “The flip side of this, is that it’s not hard to get accusations to stick. Courts know our intelligence agents are shady. Judges and US attorneys don’t like it when they target Americans. So there’s ammo there.” He took a long swallow from an insulated cup. “Hector could file in federal court for an injunction prohibiting Polarity from arresting him without a court order. But even with that, there are several other ways they can legally go after both of you if they choose.” He shrugged. “Anything they do, we can fight afterwards, but that doesn’t make it any less damaging now.”

The discussion continued for quite a while longer. After almost two hours, Harold hung up and the two male supers left to make additional preparations. We had a plan, and for the first time in a while I felt more excited than scared.

With Doc, Kat, and Janice still left in the room, Kat spoke up next. “It’s confirmed. You have an invitation to reside here in Eutopia for as long as necessary. Please provide me with Mister Donnell’s contact data and I will send him instructions on how to arrange transport.”

“Thank you, but it seems very unlikely that Hector would be willing to leave Detroit.”

Kat nodded, and Doc broached the remaining subject. “Are you ready to discuss payment?” His face was hard again, not showing any particular emotion but too intense to be called neutral.

“You have been hinting that you are looking for something other than cash,” I typed.

“The effort and risks being taken aren’t worthwhile in exchange for funds, although Kat will write you up a bill for the operational expenses incurred. Harold is quite pricey as well.” He cleared his throat, then nodded to Kat again.

A small file transferred. “This is a list of the data we need. It’s substantial. We want everything on this list by the end of the month, and a method in place by which you can alert us to any significant changes.”

I opened and perused the file. Pharmaceutical production and shipping schedules. Hospital requisition numbers. The physical locations of hospital pharmacies, security codes on controlled substance lockers. Several major hospital networks across the United States were included. It was all incredibly disconcerting.

“This data set will not be easy to come by,” I typed. “What is it for?”

“We are nearing a breakthrough on a new vaccine,” he explained. “And we plan to release it into the American patient population covertly.”

“That’s highly unethical,” I typed, but before I sent it, I thought better of it. The Doc wasn’t asking for this data for several weeks: well after the CIA issues would be resolved. I had plenty of time to debate informed medical consent with him after I was safe. So I deleted my objection and instead sent, “I can have it by the first week in December.”

The Doc nodded and hung up without another word. Left in the silence of my basement, I would have loved to reflect on the repercussions of this, but there was far too much left to do and I was already exhausted.

I gave myself a quick bathroom break and one more pill before sinking into my View. A small converted office building near Alexandria was my target. The structure stood well away from adjacent buildings with a camera mounted above the front entrance. There were two cars parked against the building, and a quick look inside confirmed that all three members of the Iron Lantern project were inside.

Analyst Bonnie Lam’s fingers literally blurred as she typed at super-human speed. I was enthralled, and ended up watching over her shoulder as she wrote some sort of signal handling module in a few minutes that would have taken me at least an hour. She used an unusual keyboard, a fully smooth surface without raised keys which I presumed help accommodate her speed by eliminating some of the mechanical elements. What I found truly impressive was the speed of her mind, which at the level she was working was as much a natural limitation as typing speed.

I was far less impressed with her coworkers, Agent William Brody and Analyst Susan Shives, whom I found sharing a naked embrace on a couch in Brody’s office two rooms away. A quick check showed that this was a daily occurance. Brody, who as the lead Agent on the Iron Lantern project was Shives’ immediate superior, would take ‘breaks’ with Shives at least a couple of times a day before ending a late evening in bed with his wife.

The Iron Lantern project had a well-defined objective: create a data-rich system (known in information security as a “honeypot”) capable of attracting and trapping an advanced digital intelligence. While the NSA would certainly claim such a system could have multiple uses, its one plausible target was clear. They intended to capture Delphic.

Ignoring their extracurriculars, the three agents were an effective team. Lam did the work of an entire team of programmers while Shives reconfigured and maintained hardware and Brody assisted with tests. Brody also fetched existing code from outside the Iron Lantern facility when needed.

Security was simple, but tight. Nothing in the building could send and receive signals outside of it. The Agents didn’t bring any electronics in with them and a metal cage enclosed the work areas. Signal jammers were also deployed liberally. An electronic lock on the outside opened to old-fashioned deadbolts inside.

Hardware that needed to be brought into the system was disassembled and the pieces placed in cases with insulated foam, to be re-assembled by hand within the facility. To import code, Brody would print out the source, bring the hard copies in, and scan them into the system by hand.

Most importantly, I was able to confirm that no measure was taken to create an off-site backup of the Iron Lantern code. Brody reported progress to his own manager, but the three backup drives were all kept in the project building itself. I confirmed this to the Doc and moved on to other preparations.

By 9 am, I was completely exhausted, remaining conscious only due to the effects of a quantity of stimulants even I recognized as dangerous. This was a point, however, on which we had all agreed: each day that passed provided more opportunities for things to go wrong in some unanticipated way. A rapid response was imperative.

So, having received a final confirmation from the Doc, I made the phone call. It rang three times before being picked up. It would have appeared on her ID display as an office number from Virginia. “Hello?” her clear voice sounded well-rested.

“Laila Morris, this is Delphic,” the synthesized voice said over the line. “We need to talk.”

2 thoughts on “Chapter 19 – A Problem and a Plan

  1. Couple days late but I make a point not to read anything that releases on April Fool’s Day so forgive me for that.

    eh I wrote a bunch of nitpicky crap here and spun my wheels for way too long so i deleted it. thanks for the chapter! it was cool and interesting.

    The whole story is interesting actually, makes me think a lot (mostly about how much it would suck to find out all your friends and neighbors are actually *agents* but hey…), and keeps me reading – thanks for writing it~

    Liked by 2 people

    1. If you still have it, I would love to see the “nitpicky crap” too.

      This is my first opportunity to get real reader feedback, since it’s the first serial I’ve posted publicly. I appreciate opportunities to improve. If you’d rather post the nitpicks privately, feel free to email too.

      Either way, thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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