“I feel like a broken record at this point,” my sister began, “but you can’t be serious.”
I shrugged as I savored a hot bite of oatmeal, layered with honey. It was a low-key breakfast, eaten before the rest of my family headed to church. I was the only one fully dressed; Paris and Mom each sported pajamas under robes while Dad wore his traditional Sunday domestic outfit of underwear with black socks.
After a Saturday afternoon and evening spent falsifying records for Lamarck’s imminent return, I knew that I had a long Sunday ahead of me working with NYST. Rather than divide the day up with brunch, I decided to join my family for their light breakfast before church.
“You’re outed to one roommate, and there’s no way you can keep seeing Kimberly without her learning, too,” Paris offered, accepting my nod of agreement. “So walk away, li’l bro. Not a hard call.”
As she slurped down coffee, my sister caught our dad’s eyes. He hadn’t shaved yet, and he scratched at his neck while he chewed a piece of toast. A days’ growth was enough to notice the stubble was a lighter color than his head hair had ever been before it went grey. Dad met his daughter’s gaze, his own left eyelid half-closing as he swiveled to face her squarely. She nodded slightly in my direction, which caused Dad to quirk an eyebrow, which in turn made Paris frown slightly. Dad closed his eyes and nodded, and Paris shrugged, rising carefully from the table.
Mom had expressed to me, privately, that she was sometimes a bit envious of Paris’s ability to hold what amounted to elaborate conversations with Dad using only facial expressions over a few seconds. It was a knack that neither Mom and I had, and while I’d put forward the idea that it was their common profession that allowed for it, there was already a rudimentary form of it when Paris was a teenager. A natural physical empathy that the two of them shared, and we didn’t.
The gist was clear, though, when Paris started clearing dishes while Dad picked up her line of attack. “I take it you haven’t done anything to actually confirm what she told you?” Dad cleared his throat, gulping down milk as he pinned me under his policeman’s stoic glower. “Check her or her friends out, make sure they’re not government plants?”
I sighed, but stopped short of actually rolling my eyes. “We’ve been over this, Dad. I don’t make it a habit to spy on the people in my life.”
Dad raised an eyebrow at that, but didn’t respond in words. I knew what he was thinking: over the years, this wasn’t a policy I had applied with any consistency. No doubt he would bring up some of the prying I had done into the lives of authority figures when I first came into my abilities in high school, if he thought he needed to.
I hadn’t realized I was in a staring contest with him until I dropped my gaze. “Anymore,” I qualified, when I realized what he was waiting for. “I’ve made some mistakes, but I don’t do that sort of thing anymore.”
“Delphic does, though,” Mom pointed out. She was pointedly not looking at Dad or me, her attention on a department store circular. She slowly stirred her cooling coffee with a spoon as she pretended to browse women’s clothing.
“Criminals,” I replied. “Suspects. Not personal.”
Mom kept her eyes down, her tone level. “Those supers you hired, what were they suspected of?”
I knew it was a rhetorical question, but it still rankled that I didn’t have a good answer. She was right, of course: as Delphic I had never balked at investigating allies and finding out more information about people on either side of the law. I had dived deeply into the lives of Fitz and the Gardner sisters. I’d accessed secure government files on a number of occasions.
I shrugged. My spoon noisily scraped the sides of the bowl as I captured the last of my breakfast. Dad’s eyes were still on me. “I met her at a club,” I said. “There’s no reason to think she’s secretly… whatever.”
Dad relied, “Other than the fact that she’s writing a thesis on supers, has two supers for roommates, and that she immediately targeted you before you even made it into the building.” He cleared his throat again. “Think back… did she let you out of her sight the entire time you two were there? Restroom break, anything?”
I thought back and shook my head. “It was an intense evening.”
“Sounds like it,” he nodded. “You like her a lot.” He didn’t bother to make it a question. “So swallow your pride and snoop a little.” Dad rose from the table without waiting for my response. Mom set down her magazine and followed him upstairs to get dressed.
Before I could properly collect my thoughts, Paris pulled up a chair next to me. From the kitchen, the dishwasher started its noisy rumbling. “You said you had some other news to share?” She added as much levity as she could to her voice.
Nodding, I announced. “Lamarck isn’t dead after all.”
Paris’s eyes grew wide at this. “You mean, like, somebody new took the superhero name? Or they managed to copy his powers? You couldn’t mean… his head was blown off!”
“Not blown off. The bullet hit the brain and destroyed an estimated fifteen percent of his grey matter. Enough to kill him on the spot.”
Now my sister gave me a look of confusion. “But you just said -”
“The Doc,” I interjected, and saw Paris’s expression immediately darken, “Got hold of the body and tested some sort of enhancement field on it. Brought him back.”
Paris scowled. “Brought him back?!” When my eyes narrowed, she continued, “There are so many less ridiculous explanations than literal resurrection. Cloning, shapeshifting, brainwashing with plastic surgery. Heck, the idea that Stevens arranged to have him smuggled out of Ontario alive, somehow, and got him out of a coma, is more plausible.”
I had started shaking my head halfway through her speculation. “It checks out. They wheeled a corpse into a room prepared with some heavily modified upsilon emitters. A living person walked out.”
“You Viewed it?” Paris said it like I was cheating.
I cocked my head. “Sort of.”
My sister gave a sigh. “Stop hiding the ball, li’l bro. How did you ‘sort of’ see it? That’s not how your power works.”
“Never before that I can remember, no. But I can’t see the guy actually get up off the slab. It…” I tried to explain it. “Everything in the room started shining brighter and brighter, like someone was turning the contrast up on an old CRT monitor. I couldn’t make out any detail at that point; I was effectively blinded.”
“This happened when Stevens turned the machine on?” Paris asked.
“Before he did, actually, by a few seconds. I tried Viewing forward and backward, but the effect was consistent, as though the glow was part of the scene itself.” I added, “It couldn’t have been, though, because no one there reacted to it. It’s pretty obvious that whatever that device did, it interacted with my own powers.”
“Quite convenient,” Paris interjected, “since it stops you from being able to confirm the miracle itself.”
“What are you insinuating?” I scoffed. “That the Doc used an unknown effect of an untested machine to block a power that he doesn’t know about?”
Paris shrugged. “You said he’s mentioned ‘perceptive powers’ before. It could have been designed to block spying from more than just you.”
I shook my head. “If he had tech like that, he’d use it over the whole facility. Everything is already heavily shielded, and he uses external jammers against long-range radio. If he had a machine he could turn on to block powers, I’d never be able to View his lab at all.”
Paris nodded, conceding the point, but murmured, “You’re underestimating him.”
“And you,” I quieted my voice to match hers, “are being paranoid about him.”
“Somebody has to.” She favored me with a kind smile as she finally allowed the clock to pull her upstairs to finish getting ready for church.
That made it an appropriate time for me to take my leave, but a yelled “Hector!” from Mom stopped me halfway to the door. I diverted myself to the top of the stairs, where I found her choosing a pair of earrings to match her dress.
“Yes,” I answered letting her know that I was there.
“This Kimberly. You serious about her?” She avoided using the word ‘love,’ but I knew the implications of the question.
It wasn’t an unreasonable question. Serious psychiatric professional that Mom was, she nonetheless believed that the right person could sink deep into you very quickly. One of her favorite claims was that she had fallen in love with Dad less than twenty minutes into their first date, and Dad had taken a couple of months to catch up to her. He privately told me she was exaggerating, but not by much.
Deciding to genuinely consider the question, I thought back to Kimberly, our evening and night together, and how much I enjoyed her company. But I also worked my way through the following day and evening, realizing that once I was away from her, she hadn’t distracted me at all from my investigation work or what I had put together for Lamarck. Growing fond of her, definitely. Falling for her? “Not yet,” I finally said in reply. “It’s too early. I’m going to take some time… going to let her take some time.”
Mom nodded. “That’s very wise. Don’t do anything life-changing until your heart demands it of you.”
She beckoned me over and I bent down to plant a kiss on her forehead. “See you for breakfast tomorrow, baby. We’ll be praying for you.”
“Thanks Mom. I know you always do.”
I used the ride home from my parents’ to mentally align myself to the day’s objectives. My attention today would mainly be on New York – first, to brief Lady Liberty and NYST on the Kowalczyk brothers; later, to attend the Norbergs’ evening event. I had never interacted with Harmony Norberg out of costume, and I was interested to see how much of her Liberty persona was a crime-fighting facade.
I headed downstairs to work on my presentation for the day, but instead found myself acceding to the Doc’s request for Delphic to call him. I first checked Hector’s numbers and accounts, but the Doc hadn’t sent anything more to Hector after Anne Varilla’s email with my genetic data. This was likely just follow-up on the Lamarck situation, then.
My call was answered audio-only. “Delphic,” his voice was scratchier than usual this morning, almost to the point of unintelligibility. “Thank you for calling me this morning. I hope I didn’t interrupt your plans.”
“You did not,” I sent quickly.
“Good.” The sounds of rustling papers were almost as loud as his voice. “Were there any complications with Jacques’ records?”
The Doc had provided me access to a server with detailed medical records for a ‘John Doe’ and information about a private rehabilitation and treatment center near DC. The records had Lamarck in a stable coma for most of the preceding month, with him waking up and slowly regaining his facilities on a timeline that matched when he actually woke up in Doc’s lab.
I wasn’t sure why Doc had provided Jacques’ actual medical records on the server as well, but he had. From how well the falsified records matched the real ones, including medications and test results, Doc (or perhaps Dr. Varilla) wanted the medical professionals in DC to have accurate information on him.
“There were no complications,” I sent as Delphic. “John Doe has been monitored continuously since he was brought in as a coma patient, and has only recently awakened with severe retrograde amnesia.”
“And the room?”
“There wasn’t a single room that had been vacant over the last month. I had to edit four other patient records.” There was more to it than that, since I wasn’t using the hospital system’s user interface to make the changes. The system was smart enough to log such edits regardless of origin and user. I had to go in and edit the files directly.
“Are you sure that was wise?” Doc asked. “It reconciles inconsistencies, but it also means there are now five patient files that don’t match memories, rather than just one.”
I had considered the same question. “If the main risk were chance discovery, then your concern would be valid,” My Delphic voice replied. “In this case, we can be certain that the John Doe record will receive scrutiny. Minimizing the alterations is less important than assuring the records match.”
“All right, thank you.” He let out a very audible sigh. “I must admit, as much as I hate to lose the potential research benefits of his particular omnicron aberration, I am relieved that he has decided to return.”
That was certainly surprising coming from the Doc. “Why is that?”
“Anne… ah, doctor Varilla… has diverted time from other projects to spend with Jacques. His unique case is more personally interesting to her than some of our core research. It removes a distraction.” He coughed briefly before continuing. “Worse, the ethical situation with Kat is troubling.”
“Your head of logistics has an ethical quandary?” I had looked up Princess Ka’at after the Doc had introduced us weeks ago. She was an acknowledged daughter of King Ak’b’al, the solitary ruler of Eutopia and an extremely powerful super. Many of Ak’b’al’s children were prominent in the Kingdom as powerful supers in their own right, but Ka’at was not. Supposedly, the King only acknowledged his children when they manifested powers… and yet, Ka’at had been acknowledged quietly, without any of the King’s usual bombast.
The Doc hissed a laugh. “It’s no quandary for her; she’s quite confident of her position. She’s been seducing Jacques.”
“She insists he’s not. She frames it in terms of Eutopian versus American views on marriage, which makes it a lot harder for me to put my foot down.”
I let myself consider the situation for a moment, but I was drawing a blank as to what Ka’at’s argument could actually be. “She is positing a legal ambiguity due to him having been dead?” I asked.
“No. She claims that you’re not married to someone you don’t… ah, hold in your heart.” He cleared his throat, almost mumbling. “Kat says if he can’t remember his wife, then he’s not her husband anymore.”
“Guillaume can’t remember his wife?”
I tried to put myself in Jacques Guillaume’s place. Waking up feeling perfectly healthy in body, but with a memory riddled with holes. What relationships might I lose, or lose so much of their foundation as to make them unsalvageable? We are our memories; it would be an absolute nightmare.
I found myself growing angry at the idea of a person taking advantage of someone suffering in this way. It just seemed so selfish.
“I can understand why you are relieved for that situation to resolve itself,” I finally sent.
“It’s certainly a load off,” he agreed. “Now, regarding your help in this matter. We need to discuss your payment.”
I had a prepared response for this topic. “Discharge my debt for your help with the Iron Lantern matter. I’m willing to call it even if you are.” This sidestepped the issues with his original requested payment, alleviating my fears in the process.
There was another short pause. “I’m sorry, Delphic, but I can’t accept that,” Doc finally said, his tone aping kindness.
I frowned, and typed, “May I ask why not?”
“What I’ve asked you to provide for payment from that job,” the Doc replied, “is far more valuable to me than your services here. I need to insist that you provide the information that we agreed upon, and look for another fair payment for yesterday’s services. Money is always a possibility.”
I could not ignore how forceful his tone sounded. I recalled that, just four days ago, Lady Liberty had told me to see how the Doc would react if I refused to honor an agreement. Doc had always been patient with me…
“Doctor, I have developed misgivings about providing you with access to so much of the United States medical infrastructure,” I sent. When Doc didn’t respond, I kept going. “If you believe the two services are not balanced in terms of value, I am comfortable offering further services or items of value to balance them. But I would prefer to find an alternate payment for our earlier agreement.”
“I…” his voice was stronger now, rising in volume, easier to hear. “I understand your position, Delphic, but I am not open to renegotiating that agreement. You already received what we agreed to, and I really must… insist… that you provide me with what you owe.” Added as an afterthought, “By the end of next week, as we agreed.”
I chilled at the tone of his words. They were severe, with more passion in them than he usually put in his voice. His message was a gauntlet wrapped in velvet, and the soft cloth was already worn thin.
I couldn’t help myself. “What if I refuse, Doctor?” I wanted to take back the words as soon as I heard them from the Delphic voice.
“It would certainly destroy the trust I’ve placed in you, for starters,” he quipped. “Why bother working with someone who doesn’t keep their word?”
“For starters?” I asked.
“What, that’s not enough?” Doc growled. “Do you want me to threaten you, or… oh.” He stopped a moment, and when he spoke again, I somehow knew he had a grin on his face. “Oh, yes, heh. Very clever indeed.” The change in tone almost gave me whiplash. “Was it Eddings at the Bureau? Or… no, it was Norberg herself, I bet.” He chuckled, the rasp returning to his voice as he did. “She’s trying to convince you I’m the enemy, told you to renege. Watch my reaction.”
I didn’t see any reason to lie. “Lady Liberty is quite opposed to heroes having any relationship with you, Doctor.”
“Hypocritical of her,” he replied. “Check out any of her office spaces, or even the Norberg estate on Long Island. I guarantee her omicron detectors and beam projectors aren’t American knock-offs.”
“Thank you for the information.”
“Norberg got her wires crossed on me, though,” Doc volunteered. “I’ve taken some harsh actions against men who have crossed me before… but those were criminals. Unscrupulous, nasty people in their own right.” He breathed out heavily in a way I couldn’t identify over the audio. “I don’t make it a habit to threaten or extort the people I do business with. Not unless they’re the sort of people who only listen to threats in the first place.”
“That’s good to know,” I sent. I still didn’t have any intention of crossing the Doc if I could help it… he was undoubtedly the most dangerous person that I dealt with. But it was genuinely good to know that he wasn’t dealing with me the way he would a villain or cutthroat mercenary.
“Look, let’s table the payment discussion for another time,” he said. “Thanks for taking care of things so quickly.”
I logged off, and checked the clock. I had less than an hour before my scheduled meeting with NYST, and a couple of loose ends that I wanted to tie up first.
It was barely mid-morning, and I could already tell it was going to be a very long day.