Chapter 20 – Diplomacy and Duplicity

There had been a lot of disagreement with my strong desire to have Delphic contact Laila this morning, but I felt it was necessary for two reasons. First, she represented the earliest and most extreme pivot point in the full scheme. If for any reason Polarity was activated and apprehended Hector within the first 48 hours, it changed the timing and importance of several other actions. Unbeknownst to Doc and his crew, it would also take Delphic out of commission over the same period. The direct route to pin down this variable was worth the risk.

The second reason came from considering the long-term outlook for me. Presuming everything could be resolved and Delphic remained in operation, I had to pay attention to my reputation among the superhero community. Talking to Polarity now showed respect and goodwill, even if she wouldn’t immediately appreciate what I was doing.

I slipped under for a momentary View of Laila. The dull ache spread behind my eyes as I closed them, a loud complaint from my overtaxed brain. She leaned over the kitchen counter with wide eyes and a drawn mouth. She wore similar clothes to what I’d seen on my last visit, appropriate for welding work. A damp dishrag lay forgotten on the counter in front of her, the dishwasher half loaded behind her. I tolerated the crescendoing headache as best I could while I focused on our dialogue, intermittently Viewing when I could spare the attention.

Her voice returned, not steely or wary as I might have expected but light and friendly. “This is Laila. Who did you say you were again?”

“This is Delphic.”

“I don’t know anyone by that name. Is this a telemarketer?” I detected nothing out of place in her inflection. She was a much better actor than I was.

“Ms. Morris, I appreciate your difficult position. If your act is for my benefit, there is no need.” I punched through quickly, hoping a dialog would be possible. “You have been assigned as a seed agent targeting Hector Donnel in an attack against me.”

I saw her eyes widen, but her voice showed no hint of admission or apprehension. “Hector? My neighbor the cable guy? What does he have to do with this?”

“Please check your email.”

I watched her move to the sitting room and open up her laptop. She launched her email client, as well as a chat window. She quickly typed out a message, “We have a problem!” and sent it as her inbox loaded with new mail.

Fortunately, all of the internet traffic through the Morris home router was still relayed through my eavesdropping server. As she had opened the chat client, I identified the headers for the chat data and blocked them from being relayed. Her laptop still registered as being connected and the server validated the messages as sent, but whoever was supposed to be on the other end wouldn’t get them.

“The email has several attachments, and you should look at all of them,” the Delphic voice continued over the phone line. “Please open the first one as I summarize.”

She opened the first attachment; it loaded a document file of several hundred pages. “What you are looking at is an unabridged compilation of the government’s records on me. Five years of speculation and analysis, incident write-ups, and curated news articles. Everything the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA has on me.” I watched her start to scroll through the pages. “There is dangerous information in there. The current whereabouts of certain criminals, the names of agents, and the like. Please be careful with it.”

Laila had typed “Are you there?” into the chat window and I could tell she was growing anxious having received no answer. She said, “Why would you give me this? You’re not supposed to have these files. I’m not supposed to have these files.” She scrolled through page after page with uncontrolled fascination.

“I had to give you everything so you can conclude for yourself that what I am saying is true.”

“Which is?” Her voice was about a quarter octave deeper. She was dropping the facade.

“They are not investigating a crime. They are committing one.”

I watched her eyes narrow at this as she continued to read through after-action reports filed by FBI agents from Super Team missions years ago. “You’re saying government agents are conspiring against you?” Her teeth showed in an unkind grin, “How original.”

“Please open the third file,” was my Delphic response.

“Not the second?”

“The third addresses what you just said.” It would have been more dramatic if the files had been in the correct order, but alas.

As she opened it, I explained, “These are scanned records detailing the Iron Lantern project. Many of them are by hand, as the NSA is extremely strict about digital devices at the facility. The objectives are clearly outlined in the first several pages, though.”

Laila’s eyes had moved from suspicion to simple focus as she allowed herself to dive into the documents. “A network intentionally set up like a maze.” She scrolled further. “‘Digital entity containment’? Meaning you?”

“Meaning me. The dollars are black, not officially allocated, but they were approved and budgeted for this almost two years ago.” This was yet another occasion where I wish I could convey tone in my synthetic voice.

“If this is an NSA project, where does the CIA fit in?”

“The second file, if you please,” I responded. “Hector’s record. This one is slightly redacted. I blacked out evidence that he’s hacking the Lion Electric power meters.”

“That’s a crime, isn’t it?” She was grasping for a foothold.

“Yes, but not a matter of national security. Note the justification given for the agent looking into it.”

“Leverage.” She was sitting up straighter now, her tone backed with steel. Any pretense of weakness was gone. “The CIA uncovered the connection between you and Hector?”

“They were spying on Hector for unrelated reasons. When the link was discovered, they decided that Hector would need to be neutralized when they came after me.”

“And that’s what they expected me to do?”

“Yes, and for a particular reason. Can you open the fourth link?”

Laila first checked her chat window, but didn’t write anything more when she saw no reply. She opened another large document, this one digitally indexed into several sections. “You don’t have to read through all of this one,” I typed. “The first memo is an executive summary.”

“Legal opinions?” My attention was elsewhere but I thought she rolled her eyes.
“Restrictions on CIA and NSA activities. Neither of them can make an arrest in the United States.”

“Not even when they’re investigating someone?”

“They’re not American law enforcement. They don’t have jurisdiction within the US.”

“So who do they… the FBI. Or any federal law enforcement. Like me.” I was elated by what I saw in her eyes – a glint of molten anger.

“As a federal officer, what is your standard for arresting an American civilian?”

“Reasonable suspicion of a federal crime, intervention to prevent imminent harm, or hot pursuit of a fleeing felon,” Laila rattled it off without hesitation.

“Which of those would justify detaining Hector?”

She thought for a full minute before answering. Her words thudded like lead. “None of them,” she replied. “I was told I was acting as an agent for the CIA, not under my DoJ authority.” The anger glowed brighter.

Polarity’s admissions of the last couple of minutes showed that she was past pretending. As I had strongly hoped, she was more concerned with the agency’s underhanded use of her in ignorance than with the means by which I had obtained and was sharing their records. I had read her correctly, and I was greatly relieved.

“So, what do we do?” I appreciated the ‘we.’

“First, please don’t attack Hector,” I said. I was happy to see her nod to herself. “Second, I’d like you to suit up and talk to a US attorney about the material in an affidavit. It’s the seventh attachment.” She opened the file; it was a statement from ‘registered California Combined Super Team member Polarity’ outlining what she had been ordered to do by CIA agents. Civilian names and addresses were not given; nobody would be able to find Hector or Laila from it.

“You want me to try to get the DoJ to sue the CIA?” There was just a pinch of wry amusement in her incredulity.

“No. I am preparing to file an injunction against the government. Once a US attorney has agreed that none of the material in the affidavit is illegal for you to witness to, we want Polarity to attend a deposition.”

“If I refuse?” There was still a hint of mockery in her voice.

“I would tell my attorney to live without your testimony. I owe you just for not attacking my friend.”

That set her back a bit; the joking tone left her voice. “Your friend?”

“Yes,” I sent immediately. “Hector is one of my closest friends. He’s helpless; a civilian, as far as I’m concerned. It’s up to me to protect him.”

Polarity shook her head, perplexed. “So this whole time, you saw me as a loaded gun aimed at your friend?”

“Yes.”

“What drove you to have this conversation, then? What if I had blown you off, turned around and told my agent contact everything?” She checked the chat window again; when she saw it was still free of any reply, she closed it.

“The risk seemed reasonable,” I said. “You seemed like you could be made to understand.”

“Mmmm,” she mused. “How much of this have you told Hector?”

“All of it.” I had batted around different versions of this story, but having my civilian identity as a visible part of the plan later would make ignorance hard to reconcile.

“Hector and your attorneys know my identity?” I could hear a little of her anger directed toward me at that.

“Just Hector,” I corrected. “The attorneys are operating with me as the client and plaintiff rather than Hector. For now even they don’t know his identity. It’s too bad he doesn’t have a code name and costume like you do.”

“It has it’s own problems.” She gave another feral grin. It changed into a bitten lip, which lasted in silence for more than a minute before she spoke again. “Okay,” she decided. “I’ll do that.” She hung up.

The pain was excruciating, but I Viewed Laila for several minutes more after we hung up. She called and spoke to Kurt, just letting him know that ‘work’ had come up and she would be out. She then made an appointment at the US attorney’s office and headed downtown in her cargo van. The back part of the van was loaded down with large pieces of sheet metal — enough, I surmised, for a Polarity-sized suit.

A message exchange with Doc later, and I was in my own vehicle heading across town with a small tower computer carefully strapped into the passenger seat. I turned onto the feeder street for my parent’s neighborhood, and…

It was early afternoon when I awoke. I languished in my bed for just long enough to enjoy the complete absence of pain; the contrast from the earlier pounding headache represented a welcome release.

My relief was short-lived, however, when I checked the time. It was six and a half hours since the last time I could remember, which was driving to Mom and Dad’s house to set up the equipment. A quick View verified my suspicion: There was almost an hour of my own actions for which I had no first-hand memory. Fortunately whatever I said to Mom seemed to be normal because she didn’t look surprised or upset. The system test went smoothly, and I had obviously made it safely home.

While completing a minimal shower, I mentally reviewed the next day and a half. Most of the prep work was done, the raw info already in the hands of Doc’s people. Thirty-plus hours would be plenty of time for me to complete my remaining tasks, *if* those were all I was committed to do. But the Lamarck case was still ongoing, and my part of that investigation now included snooping against the wishes of the Canadian government, making it time sensitive as well.

I put two slices of pumpernickel in the toaster, warmed up some leftover meat in the microwave, and piled on some greens to make a quick lunch. I checked my messages downstairs. The Doc confirmed that everything was acquired and in place for the evening. Lady Liberty had sent me a meeting invite for first thing tomorrow morning. Diane had likely stopped by her hotel room over lunch, because the Canadian agent had sent me a message over the private line that Spinner had an update.

My View showed that Laila had returned from downtown an hour before and had stopped by and grabbed her daughter on the way home. Moving to the present, Deborah was now enjoying a cartoon while her mother worked on dinner from the adjacent kitchen. The dishwasher was running.

I exchanged a quick set of messages with Mom, brushed my teeth, and headed across the street.

When Laila opened her front door this time, she gave no welcome smile or other false warmth. Without a word she stood aside and shut the door behind me.
“Hi, sorry to bother you.” I turned and tried a weak smile of my own, which she didn’t return. She swept past me into her sitting room, taking one of a pair of chairs in the corner furthest away from Deb and the TV. She pointed to the other.

“Hector,” she sighed, drawing out the ‘h’ sound with a strong exhalation, “why are you over here? I’m already on edge after talking to that attorney today.” She glanced toward her little girl, making it clear that her apprehensions weren’t just for herself.

Before I could explain, Laila’s phone rang. She frowned at the number but answered anyway.

“Yes?” She didn’t mask her tense irritation. “He is. I take it you sent him over?” She kept her eyes on me warily. “All right, hold on.” She tapped two buttons and held the phone out and between us. “You’re on speaker.”

The familiar synthetic voice said, “Hector, can you hear me? This is Delphic.”

“Hey man. Laila was just telling me how great it is to have me over on such a low-stress day.” She have me a look that made it clear my sarcasm wasn’t appreciated.

“I’m sorry to bother you both. This matter is time-sensitive,” Delphic explained. “I wanted to speak with you together so that there was no confusion or ambiguity about what will be happening next.”

“The lawsuit?” Laila asked.

“Yes,” answered the Delphic voice. “A request for temporary injunction will be filed in the morning in Virginia federal court. We think we will have a hearing by Friday. Everything is being filed under seal.”

“Not public then?” I asked hopefully.

“Not if we can help it. But that’s part of why I wanted us to talk. There is no guarantee this won’t become public, and also no guarantee that someone in the government won’t leak your identities.”

“They can do that?” Laila was surprised.

“Not legally. Both of you should be protected according to the lawyers, but especially you, Laila. Revealing the secret identity of a superhero is a federal crime.”

“They could still do it, though?” I asked. “It would be illegal, but there’s not any practical way to stop it if they decide they want to get petty?”

“Not that I can see,” Delphic said.

A tugging on my pants leg prompted me to look down at the plump toddler who, with a confident smile, thrust her arms up at me. I picked Deb up and sat her on my right leg, where she happily turned her attention back to the cartoons still playing across the room.

Laila’s expression hadn’t lost any of its steel, but she didn’t seem to mind Deb choosing me to hold her. “I won’t lie: everything about this freaks me out.” She swallowed. “But I put in a call to a woman I know at Justice, and your legal assessment was spot-on. The CIA has done this before, and it was the law officer left holding the bag. I’m on board.”

“Thank you,” came the voice over the phone. “Hector?”

“Laila figured it out, but that doesn’t mean the next guy will,” I assessed. “I hope we can keep our names off the news.”

“Okay. Laila, the best way for you to get in contact with me is to respond to the email I sent you before. Hector, we will be in touch. Thank you both.”

“Thanks,” she said and ended the call. As she put the phone down, Deb suddenly lunged forward at her mother. I managed to keep my grip on her long enough for Laila to reach out and take her.

“I know this is messing things up for you guys,” I said by way of apology. “Thank you for sticking your neck out.”

She nodded, still not smiling. Her shoulders drooped just a touch as she said, “I’m… sorry I was ready to. You know. I just saw it as carrying out the mission.” She shrugged. “That’s not really an excuse.”

I nodded, standing up and turning half toward the door. “I understand. It’s not as though you meant me harm, not really. You fight crime, and this was a part of that.”

She stood and followed me to the door, still holding a wriggling two-year-old in her arms. I let myself out, and she closed the door behind me.

I waited until I was behind my own locked door and down into my basement before I opened up secure chat. “All done,” I typed.

“How did I do?” the message came back almost immediately.

“Fantastic, Mom! I can’t think of a single difference between what you said and how Delphic would have said it. A+.”

“Most of it was pre-written baby.”

“Not all of it. Maybe I should retire and you can be Delphic from now on.”

“No thank you.” A longer pause before she continued, “I will do this again if you need to both be somewhere together, but Delphic’s speech patterns need to stay consistent. He is very visible.”

“I know. Thanks.” I watched her status change to offline.

I checked the time. The workaholic speedster programmer, Bonnie, left the office on Mondays to attend an aerobics class at a nearby gym and then went home afterwards. That was about four hours away. A View in the present showed the three agents all at work – Susan testing a network card, Bill talking to Bonnie about a particular code section.

On my machine I brought up the remote module for both Susan and Bill’s phones, confirming their status and locations. Susan had left hers in her car while Bill’s was at home on a charger in the hallway. Most smart phones are set up to automatically download and install updates from the network providers; it is trivial to gain access and control with the right malware.

Putting the false messaging log together had not taken long once I had done the more laborious work of establishing when the agents actually arrived at home each day. And with a bit of detached voyeurism I was able to make sure the messages provided a fully factual description of the philandering, accurate each day to that day’s activities. The results were titillating to say the least.

This was necessary because Agent Brody and Analyst Shives were, perhaps not surprisingly, careful enough to have avoided producing any such incriminating evidence. There were no cameras or microphones recording them where they screwed, no suspiciously flirtatious messages sent by text or email. Susan and Mrs. Brody (Tabitha), as cordial acquaintances, texted more often than the illicit pair. To prompt the required debacle, some creative accounting was on order.

The props were ready and the players were not deviating from their predicted paths. The curtain would raise very soon.

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One thought on “Chapter 20 – Diplomacy and Duplicity

  1. haha cool. Some cheaters getting rekt incidentally to all this is just icing~ Also I was totally not expecting the mom reveal there, I was thinking prerecorded message… I guess using mom is smarter overall. Riskier though, when everything inevitably goes tits up.

    There are two or three paragraphs detailing that Hector blacks out in this chapter but it felt kind of rushed to me? Like if I had been skimming I would have missed it for sure. Maybe my attention span is just short though I dunno. Maybe a line break or something would help – instead of just ellipses into another paragraph?

    Anyway, fun read as always – thanks for the chapter.

    Liked by 1 person

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