Chapter 11 – In Reverse

The email to Doctor Soin had been sent from a cafe with free wireless internet in Newark. The man who sent it hadn’t even entered the business; he’d just walked past with his tablet computer tucked under his arm. The system had automatically connected and sent out the email over the RR anonymizing network without the user doing anything.

So close to its larger counterpart, Newark is New York City in miniature. The area of New Jersey exists in the shadow of New York and much of its population commutes between the two states regularly. Following the lanky white teenager in reverse down a sidewalk in the pre-dusk, I was struck by how haphazard it all looked. Pedestrians and traffic alike slunk around streets painted with uneven lines, jumping concrete crevasses with frantic but tentative urgency.

The teenager wore his light hair buzzed against his scalp and wore a hooded sweatshirt and cargo pants with thick work boots. At first blush, his wardrobe gave the impression of a cargo hauler or dock worker, but the details didn’t fit. The boy didn’t have calluses or muscles to speak of, and the clothes were similarly fresh – no major scuffs or tears. I got the impression of an actor playing the role of a blue collar worker.

The young man made his way several blocks south to where retail and office businesses gave way to warehouses and shipping centers. Four semi-trailers were docked at the warehouse that the boy entered – or, to be more precise, exited.

Two dozen men of varying ages moved around, pulling boxes from shelves and packing pallets to move onto the trailers. All were dressed similar to my mark, although some had shed outer layers in the warmth of the indoors to reveal muscled, sweaty bodies in tanks and t-shirts. Most of the older men carried extra pounds in their gut, but they were uniformly larger men to begin with and not a one (my mark excepted) lacked the bulk of daily physical work.

I followed my young man up two flights of stairs to a set of rooms above the high ceiling of the inventory level, and through a door with a proximity scanner that turned from red to green as he approached. I stopped my View at this entrance and reversed the flow of time, accelerating the boy moving quickly down the stairs and out of sight.

Powering forward at a rapid pace, I soon saw the same guy climbing the stairs again, in the usual manner rather than in reverse. No one else had used the entrance during this time. He waved his hand at the scanner and opened the door impatiently as the light turned to green.

The rooms had always been the territory of upper management, but what had once been office space had been hastily converted into luxurious quarters. Three corner offices had been made into sizable bedrooms, the windows darkly painted over but the sunlight replaced with ample floor lamps and recessed studio lighting. A stocked kitchen and wet bar, a pool table and dartboard, and two sitting areas with large TV’s had all been added to what previously would have served as the home of numerous cubicles.

Occupying two of the larger chairs were a pair of older men who did not fit the mold of the laborers below. They were each at least sixty, grey going to bald, dressed in shirt sleeves with suspenders. Their features, from their squashed noses to their ruddy and wrinkled skin, told me they were brothers. Each sat on the edge of his chair, mouth moving, the two deep in serious discussion.

The young man plopped in a chair a fair distance from his elders; they looked up at his approach. He responded, nodding, without looking in their direction, and opened up his laptop in a clearly dismissive gesture. The men didn’t seem to mind; one of them took out a phone and dialed, holding the speaker call for both of them to hear.

When I first learned to use my View, it was situations like this that compelled me to try lip reading. The results were disastrous. On two occasions I had acted on information gleaned from deciphering lip movements that turned out to be entirely off-base. The majority of speech information is formed inside the mouth, and even expert lip readers barely hit one word in three in controlled studies.

The upshot is that, as a matter of policy, I did not even attempt to lip read. There comes a point where the cost and likelihood of constructing false information exceeds the value and likelihood of recovering true information. While I still looked for ways to exploit my View, I had temporarily consigned verbal conversations to the unknown. Instead, I sought out firm information I could use, like the phone number of a person named ‘Dave D’ that the two men were talking to.

I dropped my View and focused on the satellite map of Newark, tagging the warehouse and writing down its address. Adding the name and number to my notes, I sat back for a minute and tried to get my head around the big picture.

Whoever wanted Whisper was very well-informed; they had agents remove her from prison within hours of her unplanned stay. More impressive, they had time to get a message to Doctor Soin on site with no more than a few minutes notice that NYST supers were approaching. This implied an admirable competence and operational flexibility.

Much more chilling was what they were willing to do to her; they would rather see Whisper killed than allow her to be reclaimed from the hospital. I still couldn’t wrap my mind around what that was supposed to accomplish. It was the opposite of a cover-up: a murder attempt on a hero was a big red cape to a super team. Refraxx, and no doubt several of Whisper’s other friends, would push to take down the perpetrator at any cost.

The apparent conclusion was therefore that the person or group who orchestrated this wanted to direct the attention of NYST. A misdirection, to be used as a distraction? That hardly seemed plausible considering how many other heroes New York could bring to bear. A frame-up, though, was a possibility. An underground power could gain considerable ground bringing heat down on a rival, even if the matter were eventually cleared up.

I pulled up a list I had compiled of the known criminal players in the greater NYC area, but I was distracted by an unexpected call to Delphic’s video chat number. The incoming call was tagged as NYST but with an unknown extension; curious, I answered.

“This is Delphic,” I sent as I mentally processed the image before me. The plush seating area held two figures in casual college-age clothing. The man was a foot taller than the woman and had his arm wrapped tightly around her. Her posture and demeanor projected no emotion of her own, instead seeming to be swallowed up by his massive presence.

“Delphic, I hope this isn’t a bad time.” Upon speaking, I instantly placed Refraxx’s nasal voice. The height and coloration matched Refraxx’s – and immediately brought to mind that the height and coloration of the woman tight against him matched Whisper.

I quickly typed a response. “Not at all. Sorry for my confusion, but I wasn’t expecting to see you two out of costume.”

“See? I told you he would know.” Whisper’s voice was just barely louder than her name implied, breathy and impermanent, a melody in constant decrescendo.

The man gave a smiling nod and gestured toward their camera. “Go on, then.” To me, he said, “Lakki insisted we call and speak to you.”

Sitting up and clothed, ‘Lakki’ fit the description of a shy young Indian woman, her hair pulled back and untamed just as in her costume. “Thank you for finding me,” she said. It felt awkward, like she was forcing difficult words out. “I don’t remember any of it. Zee says I would have been out of the city before I was found, if not for you.”

“You’re welcome,” I replied. “How are you feeling?”

She coughed. “H… honestly? Not good.” She backed herself up against her partner even more closely, her arms wrapped tight around her and rubbing as though she were cold. “Hitting… ah, killing her was the last thing I really did. Since then, it’s all been out of my control.”

Refraxx (‘Zee;’ I would have to look up their records soon) squeezed her into his side, and she burrowed desperately. “You still want to talk about the rest of it?” he asked her softly. The softness was relative; his directed murmur was still louder than her normal speech had been.

Lakki shook her head, her unruly hair moving out of sync with the rest of her. “You go ‘head.” I saw Zee release his grip on her as she began to fade from sight, her increasingly insubstantial form slipping out of the room like an eerie breeze.

He didn’t make any move to watch her go. He held his forehead in his hands for a moment, displaying his stress clearly, unconcerned at my continued telepresence. I patiently waited as he collected himself.

He finally looked up, as though to make eye contact with my motionless avatar. “I don’t want…” He stopped and started again. “To begin with, let me say it again. Thank you so much. I don’t know if you get told that enough. It… you…”

He put out his right hand, and a dozen metal balls, each about the size of an egg, floated into the air in front of him. He started six moving in one direction, and then the other six in the opposite direction, and began directing them to circle each other, keeping them synchronized so as not to collide or move out of the space immediately in front of him. Individual balls began to take on more complicated paths, and soon I was staring at a display with too many sweeping, orbiting bodies to focus on at once. By long practice, Zee – Refraxx – was doing it. And he maintained the disparate motions without pause even as he turned his attention back to me.

“I hope you don’t mind; it helps me focus. Clears my head.” The cadence in his voice was much closer to what I had seen before when he was in costume. His hero habits ran deep.

“Not at all.” I sent. “I do hope that lack… key feels better. I do not envy what she went through.” My synth didn’t handle her name with particular grace.

“I think the fact that she was out cold for most of it is what really bothers her. Here I was, worried out of my gourd, and she wasn’t even, like, conscious.” He shook his head. “She’s never liked being the object, the thing that gets acted upon. She wants to be the subject that does the acting.”

“Helplessness is a common feeling among victims of violent crime.”

He paused, then nodded. “Yeah, I suppose this is pretty much that. Good call.” He slowly and smoothly moved the balls one at a time to some place below the camera’s coverage. “So, with the next thing, we just… we don’t want to come off as ungrateful. We do appreciate what you’ve done already.”

My stomach sank. “Are you concerned about the lack of progress on identifying those behind the kidnapping?”

Zee nodded and gave an apologetic shrug. “We… ah, we heard you spent some time on Friday decorating an office building.” His tone had an accusatory note in it.

“That’s incorrect. I met with the executive officers of my start-up corporation. Setting up the new office space was on the agenda, but it wasn’t something I provided my own processing time to.” In fact, I had spent quite a bit of my own time and mental effort, at least on Georgia’s office. But this wasn’t the right situation to admit that.

“Harmony says you usually only spend a handful of hours a day on the super stuff. If I were in your shoes…” his fingered twitched, and he swallowed before finishing, “You figure things out that no one else is figuring out. You solve unsolved cases. Why do so little of it?” He didn’t raise his volume, but his pitch did raise; he sounded like he was pleading.

He couldn’t hear my sigh, or see me flinch from the implied accusation. That I could do so much more. That keeping Delphic a part-time activity, a hobby almost, was surely costing lives. I responded with my stock answer. “I am already near my limit on what I can accomplish.” I could see the skepticism creep into his eyes as I continued. “I’m only active doing this sort of work for a few hours a day because during that time I’m putting my analysis capabilities under severe strain. The hour it took me to find Whisper, for example, involved a nonlinear search pattern that translates into over seventeen quadrillion operations. Any brain, even mine, simply can’t keep up that level of activity without having to recover.”

I could see that Refraxx was buying it. He was nodding along with my explanation and seemed to really be listening. I continued. “Unfortunately, I’ve found no way to decrease the time associated with my recovery. Although hosted over computer processors in some nebulous way, my mind is still fundamentally a messy human brain with its trillions of connections. I have to reset myself with sleep or risk my health… and if something is damaged, no neurosurgeon or computer engineer in the world is going to know how to fix it.”

“So the reason why we only see you for a few hours each day is because the rest of your day is spent sleeping? Recovering your… stability?” This made sense to him; it was an answer he could live with.

“That’s right. I can sometimes engage in low level activities – casual conversation or routine maintenance – while I rest. But a good chunk of it is actual sleep. I’ve even managed to isolate some data pulses similar to delta brain waves while I do it.”

“Okay. Wow. Uh, thanks for the answer. And, I guess, not biting my head off for asking the question.”

“It was a good question.” Better than he even knew – one I tried hard not to spend too much time asking myself. “I have located the source of the threatening email that Doctor Soin received. We may very well have the culprit in hand very soon.”

“I certainly hope so,” he agreed excitedly. “I should go track down Lakki. Thanks again, Delphic. Oh, and hey! On that start up thing.” He had stood from the couch and was moving closer to the camera.

“Delphic Incorporated.”

He snorted. “Not at all subtle. I like it. Anyway, next time you offer equity, hit me up. Wellspring would love to help you out.”

With that offer, I had a decent idea of who ‘Zee’ actually was. The sprawling Dumond family were the owners of the Wellspring Investment Group, a Wall Street venture powerhouse. There was speculation of super powers somewhere among the clan, which it turned out was spot on.

“I will take you up on that. Give lack…key my best.” He nodded and ended the call.

Tracking down the real identities of the two supers was a short task. Sure enough, mogul-to-be Zachary Dumond-Wilson was known to be an item with heiress Lakshmi Visser. I added their files to my list for later reading.

My to-do list was growing faster than I could cross items off of it, a sure sign that a long night or three would be needed. But I wasn’t there yet; it was early afternoon, and I was ready to find out just what sort of men would want to harm Whisper. But before I could launch another search, I checked my email, and found an urgent message from the Doc asking for me to call him at my very earliest convenience.

I double checked that, yes, the message had come to Delphic and not to Hector. Having interactions between the Eutopia-based facility and both of my alter egos was an increasing risk, an obvious shatterpoint in my already flimsy facade. I needed to resolve the pending issues, but I was rather certain that the Doc was going to be giving me a new one instead.

Doc picked up my call on the first ring, audio-only as usual. “Good afternoon, Mister Delphic. Thanks for getting in touch with me so quickly. How are you?” Doc’s scratchy voice had its usual tone, but it pushed forward at a faster pace than usual. He was in a hurry.

“My objectives are proceeding, thank you,” I responded.

“Good. Please, allow me to get straight to the point. I’d like to ask your help on a sensitive issue.”

I had not heard the Doc speak this way before. I understood that much of what we discussed was in some sense confidential, but usually it was my secrecy rather than the Doc’s that was of concern. “How can I help?”

“First, I’m sorry, but I need to be explicit on this. Can you agree to keep our discussion in confidence even if you decide you can’t, or won’t, provide your assistance?” He sounded quite urgent on this point; his cadence sped up even further.

“I agree to that, Doctor. You didn’t really need to ask. I always keep your confidence.” Other than sharing it with my parents and Paris, of course, but I considered that the same thing.

“All right, then. I need your help smuggling someone into the United States.”

That was not what I expected. “I am surprised at your request,” I sent. “Glimmer and Glitch are far better at undetected transport than anything I could arrange.”

“Yes, and they’ll be providing the transport,” he explained. “What I want you to do is provide his cover story. A trail of records that makes it plausible for him to have been misplaced for a month, without any suspicion that he found his way down here.”

“Do you mean medical records?” I asked. “Was he injured?”

“More than that.” Some amusement crept into his tone. “He was killed, in fact.”

“You’re smuggling a corpse back into the States?” I was becoming more confused by the minute.

“Oh, he got better.” He gave a real laugh this time, one that quickly gave way to a serious coughing fit. When he recovered, he said, “Jacques Guillaume. You’ve heard of him?”

Heat climbed my throat. “The superhero, Lamarck?” I added, “His brain was destroyed by a bullet. They did an autopsy.”

“He got better,” Doc insisted. “But he can’t have gotten better down here. We need to send him home. Are you in?”

When I recovered enough to respond, we discussed the logistics of a reverse kidnapping.

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