Fitz jumped down the stairs and swung around the doorway to reach the ringing phone on his desk. He looked up at the wall clock. The final report had been sent less than ten minutes before, and it was no surprise for a client to call right after. He probably should have stayed and waited for the call rather than heading upstairs.
“Hello?” He shifted around to fall hard into his office chair, a minor perk that came with the small storefront he had starting renting almost a year ago. At the time, its most important feature was the included living space on the second floor. The arrangement was mostly to his advantage, although the lack of physical separation between his work and more personal spaces was sometimes wearing.
“Mr. Fitzwallace, this is Delphic. Thank you for sending the report.” A chill still ran up Fitz’s spine whenever he heard the mechanical voice. There were synthetic voices on the market that could often be mistaken for the real thing; Delphic’s was intentionally inhuman. “Do you have time to speak with me? I had a few questions.”
“Of course, Mr. Delphic.” His voice was smooth and soft; any rasp in it was well-hidden. “Was everything to your satisfaction?”
“Entirely so,” the machine replied. “You uncovered several connections between the Steele family and the local black market. More than I had originally expected, in fact.” The pause was almost long enough to prompt a reply but not quite. “How did you decide where to plant the sensors?”
“I know where people usually sweep for bugs, so I put the sensors where they don’t. Your instructions were clear they didn’t need to have line of sight or be close enough for sound. That made it much easier.”
“How did you avoid detection when you planted them?”
Fitz grinned to himself. “Lots of experience.”
“And judicious use of your perceptive power, correct?”
Fitz started to seize up, but forced himself down. Delphic knew stuff; that was its whole thing. He was a fool for not anticipating that it would know about him. “Only when I’m pretty sure I can get away with it undetected.”
The pause was slightly longer than normal. “You sound unhappy that I mentioned your powers. I hope I have not caused you distress.”
“Nah, it’s fine. Should have figured.” He scratched his head as he brought a file up on his desk computer. “So, did I pass?”
“What do you mean?” The synthetic voice didn’t sound very much like a question; the intonation was all wrong.
“Whatever it was you were testing me for.” The assignment required a broad smattering of different skills, and both the time required and the amount of documentation provided to accomplish it were uncharacteristic of a real job. Fitz had figured out before he started that the machine had some ulterior motive. “Did I pass? Because if so, I’d like to go ahead and discuss what’s on the agenda next.”
Fitz didn’t want to come across as desperate, and he wasn’t in any immediate danger of falling behind on rent or anything. But he was eating into his savings more months than he was putting anything away. Freelance detective work, particularly when the police didn’t vouch for you, wasn’t as steady as he’d expected.
“You passed.” The pause before Delphic spoke again was shorter than he expected. “My intent was not to ask you to complete another assignment.”
His stomach flopped. “Then why did -”
“I’d like to hire you. Full time.”
Fitz felt a rush of hope, but a twist in his gut reminded him to stay cautious. “Full time? Doing what?”
“Things I can’t easily do. Like placing sensors. Talking to people anonymously. If I wanted to, say, walk into a hardware store and buy a piece of lumber, how would I do that? The internet is amazing nowadays, but it leaves damning records and requires days of lead time.”
“Huh, I hadn’t really thought of that.” He had, actually. He had been meaning to ask Delphic how it managed low-key face-to-face meetings. Now he knew: it hired employees to handle them.
A horrifying thought occurred to Fitz. “Would that make me… a henchman?”
“In a sense, yes,” Delphic answered with no hesitation. “I am also hiring office staff, but your role is different. I want someone that I trust to provide both discreet and competent support as I need it.”
“Without regard for the law,” Fitz pointed out wryly.
There was a very slight pause before Delphic responded again. “I want you to regard the law, certainly. I want you to understand the law well enough to skirt the obvious pitfalls and stay out of trouble.” Its artificial articulation was measured and even, but there seemed to be more energy behind the words somehow. “For fifteen years you served Atlanta PD, ferreting out corruption in government and in local businesses. You knew where the department drew the line, and how not to get caught.”
“And then I got caught.”
“You took down the wrong people, they exposed you for using powers. The prohibition against supers in law enforcement is foolish and short-sighted.” Again, the mechanized tone made it hard to read the energy behind the words that he was sure was there.
“Doesn’t make me any more employable.” Fitz couldn’t entirely keep the bitterness from his tone.
“I find you very employable. Will you hear my offer?”
He leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling, thinking. This was all happening very quickly, but… “Sure, Mister Delphic.”
“Fifteen thousand dollars a month.” His eyes widened; that was twice his best month’s gross earnings to date. “If you choose to maintain your business as a cover, which I recommend, we can arrange payments from multiple accounts to simulate different clients. I expect you to pay all your taxes, however. Do not cross the IRS.”
He grinned at that. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“I will cover your travel expenses as well, which will be substantial. Your physical presence and situational awareness are your most valuable assets for me, so I plan to put you front and center whenever I need you. You will keep track of the hours you work and request time off whenever they build up to considerably more than a regular work week.”
Fitz nodded to himself; this all sounded very reasonable. Time to look for the catch. “Are you sending me into dangerous situations?”
“Not all the time, but sometimes, yes. I work with super teams to take down dangerous criminals.” A short pause, as though the machine were evaluating something. “Slightly more dangerous than what you’re doing now. Still significantly less dangerous than police work.”
Fitz mulled that over. “I think you’re underestimating the danger. A day tracking a supervillain has a higher chance of a lethal incident than a month going after regular criminals.”
“I concede the point.” The smooth tone was even, impassive. “Do you need time to consider?”
The ex-cop gave himself a minute to think, then let himself break into a grin. “Not, really no. I’m in.” He sat forward and focused on his remaining concerns. “Two things though.”
“My car’s on her last legs. It’s stretching the meaning of ‘travel expenses’ a bit, but I wanted to ask about an advance against a new-”
“You’ll want to answer that.” There was a click; the line had gone dead.
Less than a minute later, Fitz popped up from his desk at a pounding on the office’s front door. It was frosted glass, an old-style “T. Fitzwallace, Private Detective” carefully stenciled on it. The hours were posted and the current time was firmly after.
When Fitz opened the door, he only had a moment to process the weedy young man standing in front of it before his gaze swept over to the curb. Parked quite illegally along the narrow sidewalk was the single most beautiful thing Fitz had ever seen. The Acura NSX was sleek black, chrome accents catching the dying light of the Decatur evening.
In a haze, Fitz took the key fob from the young man and approached the sports car. He circled it twice before getting in the seat. Seven minutes later, he hit 105 mph on the highway heading north.
When Fitz next slid into his office chair and picked up the phone, he glanced at the clock to verify that a bit over an hour had passed. The car, equipped as it was, cost about the same as what Delphic was asking him for a years’ work. Moreover it was equipped exactly as he wanted it – color, features, everything. Someone had checked his browsing history.
“This is Delphic,” the machine answered on the second ring.
“A new NSX order takes months. How did you have it here today?” He steeled his voice for suspicion but he knew some of the excitement had leaked out.
“I asked,” Delphic replied, “just over a week ago. They accommodated my request. Is the car to your liking?”
“It’s my dream car, as you know.” Fitz shook his head to clear it – an action that hadn’t worked the first two times he tried it. “And not justifiable as a travel expense, since it’s so noticable. So what’s your game here? Trying to buy my loyalty?”
“Trying to show mine,” Delphic replied. “I took the time to determine that you wanted this. I took further time and considerable effort, as well as money, to get it for you. Timothy-”
“Fitz,” he replied automatically.
“Fitz, I’m asking you to go into dangerous situations for me. I’m asking you to do legally questionable things for me. And I’m asking you to take actions that I can’t easily take myself but are very important to me. By paying you well and treating you with respect, I will earn your trust and loyalty.”
Fitz mulled things over for another minute, idly toying with the key chain that he hadn’t let go since he left the car. “I’ll still mostly need to rent something when I’m sneaking around.”
“It’s in the budget.”
The detective grinned and shrugged to himself. There was never any real doubt. “Then I accept. What’s first?”
Ex-NSA analyst Bonnie Lam adjusted herself for the third time. The silk blouse was low-cut, which combined with the underwire bra created a quite… noticeable… cleavage effect. Modesty was impossible, but her vigilance at least kept decency in reach. The short skirt was made of some material that bounced up to reveal her thighs regularly. She would have mitigated the effect by walking more slowly and carefully, but her companion set a brisk pace.
“Ready for your first day?” Kat’s short red camisole hugged her tightly, both emphasizing her large breasts and baring the lower curve of her round stomach. Not much better than a halter top. Her black pants were creased like slacks but hugged her closely like yoga pants. It was exactly the sort of thing the sorority girls used to wear to class – which was about the only way that those girls and ‘class’ would appear in the same sentence.
“Mostly, yes. I just wish you had found me more… appropriate clothing.”
Kat took another look up and down Bonnie’s petite frame. “What’s wrong with these? I picked them out myself – they look good on you.”
Bonnie smoothed down her skirt. “Not for working in a lab. These clothes are…” she mumbled, “flirty.”
Her guide and new roommate nodded. “Exactly. You’re Nobility; you’re expected to display your status.” Kat’s long dark hair fell across her shoulders as her short legs surprisingly kept an aggressive pace. She didn’t walk – she strutted.
“Dressing like this is a status symbol?”
Kat nodded. “Only members of the Noble Caste are allowed to advertise themselves in the open. Men and women dressed like this – who move like this” she tossed her hair back and to the left, proudly, “let everyone else know who we are.”
Bonnie kept pace with Kat as she considered her words. “How does sexuality connect with being a Noble?”
Bonnie stopped in the middle of the hallway, her eyes wide. Kat turned after a moment and faced her. Bonnie asked, “What did you say?”
“Eugenics. Controlled breeding programs. Nobles are free to reproduce widely to increase the rate of omicron sensitivity in the population. The lower castes are not.” Kat seemed confused as to why Bonnie’s expression was still so dark. “Can we walk? The lab’s just around the corner here.”
The ‘hallways’ were little more than well-lit tunnels moving between different parts of the facility. Kat (actually “Princess K’at” according to a late night internet search, although no one called her that) had given her a comprehensive tour earlier, but still insisted on taking her everywhere until she was acclimated.
It had not been an easy decision to decide to work for Doctor Stevens after everything that had happened. Waking up in Eutopia had been a shock, and her first hours after arrival had been spent vomiting from the innoculations and antitoxins that Doctor Varilla and her assistants injected into Bonnie before she could enter the facility.
In the end, the prospect of working with a prize-winning genius on technology that would revolutionize the world overcame the fear and anger she felt at what Delphic had arranged to do with Bonnie and her NSA work. And the daunting idea of learning a new country and culture, particularly one as strange as Eutopia, was offset by the lack of close connections she had ever made back in Virginia.
Originally she had been offered another couple of weeks to accommodate herself, with Kat as her guide. But last night ‘the Doc’ had asked her to start early, explaining that he wanted additional help on a product that he had an unexpectedly tight deadline to get operational.
Now, on top of all this, she had just been informed that Eutopia was a nation-sized breeding program. And she was expected to represent its Nobility? She hoped Doc Stevens had a lot of work ready for her.
She needn’t have worried. The room Kat ushered her to was sized and equipped like an industrial lab: more than a thousand square feet of space with tool shelves and bins of equipment throughout. A fourth of the room was marked off with yellow caution tape. In a different corner of the room, the Doc was staring at a monitor mounted on a standing desk.
Doc Stevens glanced back only briefly before returning to his screen, which Bonnie saw was modeling the output of a simulated circuit diagram. From the back, his white hair looked thinner. “Bonnie, good! Come here please.”
Kat nodded. “I’ll leave you to it.” Doc dismissed her with a wave.
As Bonnie approached her new boss, he turned to face her for the first time. His eyes sunk to her outfit and he smiled. “Excellent, you’re taking your station seriously! I was worried about that.”
Bonnie hunched forward shyly. “I’m not really comfortable with it.”
He nodded. “Kyle threw a fit. You’ll get used to it.”
“Why don’t you-”
“Two reasons.” The Doc picked up a device from the desk while talking. A thin nylon rope stretched between three metal cases, each the size of a deck of cards. “Age and status. Nobility usually stop ‘advertising’ when they have their first grandchild; I’m over eighty. It’s also ambiguous whether I’m in the caste or not since I don’t publicly acknowledge any powers. Put this on.”
Bonnie took the device, which the Doc had held out to her like a necklace. “What does it do?”
“Monitors your temporal contraction. If it works, we’ll know just how fast you’re going while you work.”
Bonnie nodded and put it on; the metal adhered very lightly to her skin. The low cut of the blouse meant it didn’t get in the way of what she surmised were sensors.
Doc gestured to the cordoned area. A desk monitor similar to his was set up, but the keyboard in front of it was contact-sensitive: adapted to accelerated input rather than reliant on mechanical action. A clear container rested on a table straddling the caution tape. “This is your work area. Instructions are on the computer. Everything you need should be provided, but you can request anything else by messaging me. Items will be placed in the bin. Nobody else will get in your way or touch anything in there.”
Bonnie nodded. “What’s the project?”
“Building a coherent upsilon field resonator. I’ve worked out the theory and the first two dozen harmonics in three dimensions, but I need third-order smoothing. A hundred harmonics at least.”
Bonnie blushed. “I… don’t know what that means.”
The old man’s eyebrows raised, and his voice lowered in a self-indulgent rasp. “You’ll figure it out. I estimate that background reading, completing the calculations, and building the circuits should take you about thirty-five hours. We’re starting the procedure in five, so,” he gestured to her with a shrug, “sevenfold acceleration or better. Let me know if you need me.”
She hadn’t. She knew from past experience that she could maintain tenfold acceleration for the entirety of a work shift, and she looked up from adding the 134th and final circuit to the mechanism to find that just over three hours had passed.
Doc showed little reaction other than a nod of approval. The two of them worked together to install the mechanism and configure the emitters. The system was calculated to excite an eight cubic meter area, and preliminary tests showed it did so well within specifications.
The one thing that hadn’t been explained was what the device was supposed to do.
That became clear when Dr. Varilla and her assistants entered the room. The three women wore surgical scrubs with sensible shoes. They wheeled in a metal table and positioned it in the middle of the emitter area. Removing the cloth covering the man… no, the corpse on the table, the surgeon went to work.
“Recovering this specimen took longer than expected,” the Doc explained to Bonnie. Apparently they were expected to watch, or at least he was. Bonnie didn’t particularly want to, but couldn’t bring herself to ask to leave. “An omicron sensitive with a strong internal forcefield and accelerated natural regeneration, both of which he could share temporarily with those nearby.” He pointed to the corpse’s head, a significant section of which was missing. “His injury exceeded his abilities.”
“Lamarck?!” Bonnie said, loud enough that the two assistants glanced their way for just a moment. “This is the body of the US super that got shot a month ago?”
“Less than three weeks, actually. Which is the point. Even kept at low temperature, the cells decay rapidly. The sooner we can activate the resonance, the more there will be to see.”
Bonnie was appalled. Voices sympathetic to Stevens and to Eutopia had insisted for decades that human experimentation was no longer the focus of his research. And here she was, on the very first day, watching them sew up a fallen hero to hit his body with radiation from a prototype she had just made.
Kat had been very clear that she was a guest, not a prisoner, and could leave at any time. As Bonnie watched the work being done repairing the body from a thorough autopsy, she mentally worked on the wording of her resignation.
When Varilla announced completion, Bonnie looked in disgust at the lifeless form stretched out in front of them. One eye and much of the back of the skull was missing, casualty of the bullet that had proved too immediate and lethal an injury for even super healing. The stitched-together torso was a mosaic of thick, burgundy fluid oozing across pale skin, only the body hair creating any semblance of life. Its skin lay loose over flesh already beginning to dessicate. ‘Repaired’ or not, it was a corpse, not a man.
Half a dozen other people had entered the room. The two men in less sensible clothing Bonnie identified as Glimmer and Glitch, two other supers employed here. Kat had joined as well, and three (modestly dressed) women she didn’t know.
Everyone stood well back from the testing area as Doc Stevens activated the emitters. Nothing happened at first, other than the same quiet humming that Bonnie had heard when the machine was activated on an empty area. But, as they watched, the scars sank onto the corpse’s skin and disappeared. Monitoring equipment showed a temperature increase, and as they continued to watch, the missing pieces of the badly damaged head seemed to fill themselves in.
Varilla and her assistants scrambled for more medical sensors as the Doc made sure his own radiation sensors were capturing everything. But everyone froze when the corpse, its skin already having reclaimed its ruddiness, twitched and shuddered in a coughing fit.
An apparently uninjured man sat up on the table, spitting out a thick fluid and looking around in surprise, but his surprise was matched by that of the onlookers.
Meeting the man’s eyes, the Doc said, “Huh. I was not expecting this.”
Bonnie reconsidered her immediate resignation. There was, after all, much to do.