The pre-dawn morning made it harder to make out the motions of the delivery driver as he tapped on the keypad, but I reversed his motion a few times until I was certain which buttons he was pressing. Baltimore wasn’t easy on its drivers, and I sent a silent thanks to the man as I dropped my View.
I understood the chill of outdoor work in the early morning; my own day job put me in that place often enough. One nice perk of my real work is that I could sit cozily at my basement desk, coding information-gathering routines or Viewing distant locations. My main physical concern was not getting enough exercise.
I entered the code number into the spreadsheet and checked over my work. In total, Doc’s requisitions for hospital codes and information had taken around ten hours of work, which I had spaced out over the last week. I still had another week and a half before it was due, and I was no closer than a week ago to deciding whether to give it to him.
The requested information was thorough. A biological agent introduced in the supply lines whose security I had penetrated would spread through the US population at epidemic rates. Even a purely non-infectious agent, like a chemical, if introduced in all the medication supplies this would give the Doc access to, would provide widespread national exposure. If what the Doc intended was a Trojan horse, this would put the Greeks well within the inner walls of Troy.
Of course, under that tale, I’d be dead by then. I made a mental note not to go against a super named Achilles any time soon.
It said something about my mindset that, despite the danger, I was strongly leaning toward giving Doc Stevens what he had asked for. I knew some of this was simple sentiment – not wanting to disappoint a man who held me in genuine esteem, and not wanting to go back on my word – but a larger part was practical. The Doc had a network and resources that dwarfed my own. Refusing his request closed doors that I may very well have to have open in the future for me to survive.
When I agreed to take Doc’s help in dismantling Iron Lantern, I had thought of it as a deal with the Devil, but that wasn’t quite right. The Devil tended to cheat men out of the benefit of their bargain, and the Doc had done no such thing. Nor did I have any reason to doubt his genuine desire to help people. I just couldn’t trust his definition of ‘help’ to match… a sane person’s. Less a deal with the Devil, then, and more a deal with one of those mischievous creatures from pre-Christian European mythology. Not good, not evil; just inscrutible to mortals.
The call came in exactly as scheduled, and I was thankful that other matters over the coming days would distract me from my pending dilemma. “This is Delphic,” my synthetic voice answered.
“Delphic, this is Liberty.” The video on the call was crisp, showing her solid bronze helmet with its fully detailed faceplate. The unmoving face was not an exact match to the Statue of Liberty, but the placid expression was the same. Many considered the mask comforting, but I found it disconcerting. “Thank you for your forbearance in rescheduling this meeting. It’s been over a week, and I really am sorry that it kept getting pushed back.”
“Since we have no pressing business, the delay caused no harm,” I typed and allowed my Delphic voice to respond. “In fact, I am not certain why the meeting is necessary at all. I presume that you had originally scheduled it to discuss progress on the Lamarck shooting.”
“That’s right,” she agreed.
“Do you need any further information regarding that case? I understand you have access to the closing reports, which covered all pertinent details.”
“No, the reports were adequate.” Her tone was even. I realized that her mask provided some of the same advantage as my digital persona in eliminating any facial reactions and at least somewhat insulating any changes in vocal timbre. She was certainly harder to read than a hero like Peregrine. “Congratulations on identifying the killer so quickly.”
“Thank you. American and Canadian law enforcement -‘
“- were instrumental in the investigation and capture,” she repeated along with the machine voice. “Yes, I’m familiar with the official statement. But I don’t mean to mince words.” She tried for a dramatic pause, but the lack of eye contact on either side dulled the effect. Her mask and my avatar made the use of a visual display on the call superfluous. “If you hadn’t figured out what you did, when you did, Jordan Meer would have at least one more kill under his belt. Did you know that Velo has young children?”
“I did not.” I had accessed the secure file, including civilian identity, of the local Ottawa superhero who was Meer’s actual target when he missed and killed the US Super Team member, Lamarck, instead. But once the killer was apprehended, I hadn’t spent any further time learning about the lives of the victims.
“You’re the reason they still have a father. So… well done.” I heard no mockery in Liberty’s voice on this; she seemed entirely sincere. It suggested that her own strength to continue the wearying work of a superhero might come, at least in part, from the knowledge of families she had kept whole.
Her voice raised in volume and lowered in pitch as she continued, “We need to move past congratulations, though, and onto business. What’s going on between you and the NSA?”
I should not have been surprised by this line of inquiry. Harmony Norberg, heiress of the Norberg fortune, was as connected in national politics as her poorly-concealed alter ego, Lady Liberty of the New York Super Team, was within the intelligence community.
I typed my reply: “I doubt there is anything I would be permitted to say that you don’t already know.”
Her mask rotated left and right in a head-shake gesture. Without any facial expression it was hard to pin down the reaction precisely. “That was really unwise. We rely on US intelligence to support a lot of what we do, and they rely on us. Going after them in court creates problems for all of us.”
“Their actions represented the betrayal of trust. I’m just trying to hold them accountable.”
“We have less… visible ways of doing that. There’s a liaison at the DoJ who can bring concerns directly to senior administrators at any of the intelligence agencies.”
“Considering what they were doing, it hardly seemed wise to bring to their attention that I know.”
“You mean Iron Lantern? The project that you trashed?”
“Are you aware of what the project was designed to do?”
“Attract and trap an AI.” Her bland tone conveyed an unnerving disinterest in the whole idea.
“I discovered the project and filed my lawsuit against it. I had nothing to do with its destruction.” Something of a double-bluff, perhaps, but it seemed like a reasonable denial. “Still, if the project was trashed, I am glad. I doubt you would be as accepting of a government project designed to kill you.”
Liberty chuckled. “Then you don’t know me very well. I’ve worked with DARPA to make sure the DoD has a targeting solution against every super on the East Coast.”
I found that very hard to believe. “Even yourself?”
“Tandem controlled guided missile pair.” She spouted it off with almost cheerful abandon.
“Aerosolized serin derivative.”
I sat staring at my monitor for several moments. It didn’t seem at all plausible that a popular super could be so… cold.. about murdering her colleagues. “None of this is classified?”
“It’s all classified. Which by now I’m certain is no barrier to you at all.” A slight edge creeped into her tone. “The point is, working with rather than against the authorities is what separates the heroes from the villains. And I’m getting worried about which side you’re on.”
There was nothing new about these accusations; Peregrine and others had expressed their concerns about me for years. “I provide support to super teams. Your suspicions are groundless.”
Liberty’s tone sharpened more, “Then why are you represented by the same firm as Lawrence Stevens?”
The real answer was that the Doc had arranged it. “Crum Bernhard has thousands of clients. They also have expertise in fighting for the rights of supers in court.”
Her scoffing laugh maintained her aggressive tone. “In the same week that one of Iron Lantern’s programmers – a super no less – resigns and moves to Eutopia to work with Stevens… the same week all Iron Lantern records are destroyed… the firm representing you and Mister Stevens files a suit alleging the NSA is illegally spying on an unnamed civilian with ties to you.” A surprisingly slender gauntlet came into view as she gestured; it was the same green patina color as her mask. “I’m not really asking if you’re working with him. I’m asking why.”
“And this would be a concern because you believe Doctor Stevens is a supervillain?”
“Mister Stevens? Who hasn’t held an accredited degree in thirty years? Because of all that torturing and murdering he did?” Liberty’s muffled voice was loud and clipped, but the venom was more theatrical than genuine.
“Your concern is noted. I claim no connection to the man, other than purchasing some of his products.” Since it was an open secret that US intelligence agencies still bought and used emitters and detectors sold by Stevens onto the black market, she could hardly fault me for doing the same.
“And I don’t believe you. So, two free pieces of advice about… Mister… Stevens.” She stretched the honorific out as long as she could. “First, if you want to see his true colors, suggest, just off-hand, that you might not be able to fulfill a debt to the man. Second, to give you an idea of the effects of a friendship with Stevens on your other friends?” She paused, interrupting her verbal cadence, and pressed two buttons on her gauntlet with the opposite hand. “Ask Spinner, please excuse me for just a second.”
Whatever drama she had intended to end her second piece of advice had been derailed by something else requiring her attention. She had muted the channel but left the image on, and I watched with idle interest as she continued to move her helmeted head and occasionally make button presses on her wrist.
I felt her body language was getting more agitated as I watched, but I had to admit to myself that it was just as likely I was reading overmuch into the poor visual cues I had. I brought up the portal for the New York Super Team operational system and logged in. It had been more than a year since I had been asked to aid in a New York City incident, and it was unlikely I still had legitimate system access, but there was no harm in trying while I waited.
The display lit up immediately with a map, active team roster, and data feed – I was in! As I processed the visual information, the voice of Liberty could be heard loud and clear over the channel: “- reason not to land them in range or even fly over. The NYPD have hostage negotiators. This is a bank robbery.”
A male voice the system identified as GigaGiant responded, “There are an unknown number of supers in there with civilian hostages. We need to go in.”
“We can push the decision off for a few minutes,” a feminine voice, brighter and softer than Liberty’s, said. “Heavy pair with support alpha and beta. Approach and deploy from the East side a block over, and stay out of sight.” It spoke with authority and wasn’t labeled with a channel; this was HQ. “We will see if the intel is any clearer when you get there.”
There was no reason to leave that to wishful thinking. I closed my eyes and sank into my View, a bird’s-eye perspective of New York City looking inland from over the water. Building and landscape features along the coast provided broad markers to point me toward the address of the banking office under siege.
My View’s movement speed in the present was limited only by sight and thought, but more than two minutes passed from the time I closed my eyes until I could examine the interior of the city bank branch. The building layout was clearly divided, by decor as much as by function, into three distinct areas. The front portion was open to customers and focused more on accessibility than security: well-lit and open with more barriers between spaces and front offices formed by windows than by walls. A white man in a balaclava held an M16 in front of about a dozen New Yorkers cowering against one wall of the space.
The middle section, past the teller windows and the set of nondescript ‘Authorized Personnel Only’ doors, was set up as an office. All vertical surfaces were beige wall or shelf or filing cabinet. Here, a smaller black man in a facemask stood at the door to a break room. His gun, identical to the first, was pointed at seven clean-cut, distressed bank workers perched in chairs and on the room’s table.
The back third of the building clarified for me why this would have at least seemed a decent target for a robbery. Carts and inserts that I recognized as fitting conveniently into armored trucks were available alongside rolling doors opening onto loading bays. This area was a labyrinth of concrete and carbonized steel, with no part of it accessible without some seemingly irregular combination of keys, codes, and dials.
This wasn’t just a branch location to serve personal banking; it was a hub location for commercial services. That meant a real vault, better security, and potentially a lot more cash on site.
The path from the front areas to the last two robbers involved passing through four previously secured entrances that had already been breached – doors torn off or battered in. They were women, or at least appeared so by the cut of their nondescript fall clothing and mask choices. The one driving her fists into the thick metal of the vault door was the larger of the two. She had violet highlights in her long dark hair, tied back and pouncing chaotically against her neck as she punched at the sealed entrance with great passion but little apparent effect. Her hands were bare below the sleeves of an oversized black leather jacket, the lower half of her face behind a bandana with a pink and gray kitty design on it.
The punching woman’s fists were surrounded by a dim blue light coming from the upturned palms of the woman next to her, whose unwavering stare made her look as though she were exerting herself every bit as much as her partner. Her own knit mask left only the eyes free.
I focused to rewind the flow of time in my View, skipping back to when the first silver fragment of latch hit the opposite wall, and minutes further as the team of four entered the bank. As they reversed their entrance to the building, they also reversed their masking, and so I looked attentively as they removed their coverings to show me their faces. All four were in their teens or twenties. The two women looked Hispanic, and despite a difference in build, carried enough facial similarities to be sisters.
My most recent high-profile mission, discovering the murderer of a United States Super Team hero killed while in Canada, had left me with an excellent resource that I had taken steps to update and automate: a worldwide database of known supers. It took seconds to match broad power set, race, and age range and determine that Nikki and Ezzi Bordone were known and at large.
The chatter had kept up while I was researching. The deployed super team was sitting and waiting while NYPD completed the parameter and discussed options. I tagged the appropriate files in the NYST database, then typed and sent my own voice message.
“Delphic here. There are two armed men and two powered women inside. The supers are Nikolita Bordone and her sister Ezmerelda, designated Hitter and Forgetter. Their powers are superstrength and defensive field projection.”
“Hitter and Forgetter?” GigaGiant snorted. “Where do they come up with-”
“It doesn’t matter,” Liberty’s louder and unassailable voice cut in. “What’s the hostage situation?”
“Divided up between the front and office areas with one gunman on each. The sisters are attempting to physically force the vault in the back.”
“That’s dumb,” I heard a new voice say. The dash labeled it ‘Refraxx’. I hoped that was a typo.
“It is, but it’s to our advantage,” Liberty replied. “Pet, I think this new intel makes a team assault viable. Your call.”
I quickly Viewed and returned; the situation was unchanged. There were a few more visible dents in the vault door, but nothing resembling a breach yet.
“All right,” agreed HQ. “Let’s do it now. We’re informing the squad. Go.”
The system’s roster showed GigaGiant leading the field team of Whisper, Refraxx, and High-Cap. From Refraxx’s shoulder camera, the physically formidable team leader was already bounding around the corner and over the police cordon to land at the bank’s front entrance. GigaGiant was an impossibly muscled and completely hairless slab of man with unnaturally pale blue skin that complimented his white and blue skintight costume. High-Cap’s smaller lithe form jogged after him, her hair tucked under her signature red cap that in conjunction with her red uniform reminded me of a movie bellhop. Style choices aside, she was the team’s second ‘heavy.’ I didn’t know the extent of her powers, but it implied she could take point position in a firefight.
Whisper had no camera feed and her position wasn’t marked in the system with the others. After a moment’s thought, I remembered why: she turned herself insubstantial over several seconds of concentration and could fly and move at rapid speed until dropping the effect. I remembered thinking of the power as sort of a ‘discount Millisec’ – the speedster could switch states near-instantly. Whisper’s ability made her choose targets carefully, and… hm…
“Delphic to GigaGiant.”
“Yes?” They were about to enter; there was no subtlety to the annoyance in his voice.
“Suggested tactic. Have Whisper bypass the gunmen and target Forgetter: the shorter woman wearing the black mask. She provides the defenses for both of them. Hitter is a fragile weapon once her sister is down.”
From Refraxx’s feed I saw the large man nod, and say something to a darker patch of video next to him that must have been Whisper. Even knowing where she was, I couldn’t really see her.
I returned to my View to observe the raid in real time. Whisper did more with my advice than I had suggested. The mauve-costumed hero punched Forgetter hard, in the back of the head, while Hitter was still driving her hands into the reinforced steel as hard as she possibly could. Forgetter crumpled to the ground; Hitter sank to her knees in pain as the bones in both her hands snapped with the full force of her strength driving them against the door.
At the same time, the other three supers were entering the bank howling war cries. The volume was intentional, as the goal was to get the gunmen to swing their weapons away from the hostages to point them in the direction of the two bulletproof heroes. GigaGiant took three bullets from the white robber’s gun before it flew out of his hands (due to Refraxx’s power, I assumed from his hand motions at the same time).
High-Cap never slowed down from moving toward the back offices and the second gunman. She leapt through the door, feet first, her yell reverberating off the walls.
This man, however, didn’t follow the script. He panicked… but he squeezed the trigger on his gas-fired fully automatic rifle before he jerked it across the room and towards High-Cap.
My View was right behind her. The red-clad super heard the sonic assault of the bullets far before she could have seen the results of them hitting the soft flesh of those sitting in the employee break room. It was clear to me that the extent of her knowledge was that the criminal was still pointing into the room and still firing the weapon.
She landed on her feet just to his left. Her punch drove through his head, ripping it more than halfway off his neck. The gun stopped firing as the slack body hit the floor.
I stayed plugged into the NYST system during the immediate aftermath, and no one begrudged it of me. There were six fatalities total: four civilians from gunshot wounds, the gunman who had shot them, and Ezzi Bordone. Whisper’s knock-out punch had killed the woman within minutes, silently, before anyone had bothered to even check if she was breathing.
Hitter’s self-inflicted injuries would require a long recovery, as would the gun wounds of two civilians. Whether Hitter would have the opportunity to heal was an open question; New York had a felony murder statute that put the death penalty on the table if powers were used.
Lady Liberty didn’t call me back that day. Her apology email came late that night, and explained that she was taking personal responsibility for calling the families of the dead victims. She sent me an invitation for a party the Norbergs were having the following weekend. I wondered if she had intended some more finessed explanation for the connection, some fig leaf for her secret identity, and had just been too emotionally exhausted to bother.
If so, it wasn’t something I would hold against her.