Despite their ridiculous size and visible opulence, locating a particular property in the Hamptons can be surprisingly difficult. Manors are often recessed a mile or more from the road, make copious use of landscaping features and tree cover, and follow no uniformity in spacing and construction. A celebrity or mogul who chooses to purchase a Southampton estate on multiple acres of land does not want her privacy easily breached; many addresses (including the one for the Norbergs’ house) aren’t available on the major navigation services.
No matter how elusive one wishes to be, however, the tax man has his day. Surreptitious access to the hamlet’s records office led to an accurate geographic map with parcel data included. The ‘modest’ manor had a footprint of over 6,000 square feet, tripled by use of both a second story and a full basement. Guiding my View through sitting rooms and guest bedrooms on the second floor, any doubt as to the identity of the owners fled. While tastefully done and clearly very costly, a superhero theme pervaded the space. Hallways and quiet corners held, instead of ornamental suits of armor, replicas of the armor of famous supers. Other rooms would share a color palette with one superhero’s costume, the hero’s own emblem included in the design of a wall sconce or woven into a tapestry. I found myself bewildered by the lengths to which the theme had been pushed.
I found Harmony Norberg on the first floor of the manor in an interior room dominated by a desk overlooking a dozen monitors. Several of the monitors shifted minute by minute to different camera views within and surrounding the building, implying this area to be a security office.
Harmony had changed out of her armor and into a blouse and jeans. My eye was first drawn to the thick black metal bars that ran up next to her legs, meeting at a solid harness surrounding her pelvis. I remembered the thorough media coverage when, in her teens, Harmony became one of the first experimental users of the new powered walk-assist exoskeleton, allowing her to move around with far greater freedom than a wheelchair.
Ten-year-old Kelda Norberg had not been with her parents and sister the day their private plane crashed near Chesapeake Bay, leaving Harmony to pull herself and her mangled legs out of the fiery wreckage that had already claimed the lives of everyone else aboard. But their parents had left nothing to chance with regard to the fate of the Norberg holdings – everything was left to the girls, with guardians and trustees having only very limited authority over the assets until the real inheritors came of age. The sisters grew into both charm and brilliance, with a deep and abiding loyalty to each other than made them an inseparable pair in the mind of the public.
Harmony and another woman – clearly not her sister, although she looked familiar to me – were working on a broad wheeled cart with a mounted screen and camera, nearly as tall as they were. The wheels were motorized and the screen and camera mounted on an articulated arm. This was the teleconference drone she had mentioned that she wanted me to call in early to test. The other woman, dressed business casual, was typing on a wireless keyboard connected with the system. From what she was doing, it was clear the drone had a large on-board power supply and a massive disk drive.
As I watched, the two women moved between the drone and a terminal in the room connected to the home’s wireless internet system. The software controlling the routers had identified the drone’s unique device address, and they were tweaking the settings on the bandwidth of its connection. A readout on the drone’s screen showed the fluctuating connection speeds as measured from its end. They were throttling the bandwidth – intentionally limiting how much data the drone could send and receive over the wireless network.
The woman assisting Harmony looked up briefly and made a comment that left her smirking. It was at this point that I realized who she was: NSA Analyst Susan Shives, formerly of the Iron Lantern project.
I had known that Shives was still employed by the Agency, but was convinced that she had been reassigned to a different project unrelated to me. When I had revealed her affair with her boss to his wife and the NSA higher-ups in order to shut down Iron Lantern, it was Agent Brody that had taken the brunt of the impact. He was on leave pending the conclusion of the investigation, and would almost certainly be terminated. Shives, on the other hand, while still technically under investigation as well, was allowed to join a new team the week following the incident. The dominant narrative inside the Agency was to view Brody as a coercive boss, and both of the analysts as his victims.
This didn’t fit what I had seen. Shives was very much a willing participant in their ongoing affair, and had been as careful in concealing it as Brody. Fair or not, the fallout was that the analyst was still employed by the government… and, by the looks of it, was still working on trapping me.
I rewound my View by the better part of an hour and watched Susan put the trap together from the beginning. The plan became clear: they would provide the drone as a teleconference option, then worsen the wireless connection until it became spotty. This would induce me to ‘jump’ into the drone via wire and pilot it locally. A concealed mechanical switch would deactivate all the external comm ports and seal me in the machine.
I was less than impressed with their plan. It was obviously a non-starter for reasons they didn’t know (I’m not actually a disembodied computer-hopping intelligence). But even assuming my cover to be true, the plan greatly underestimated my wariness and preparedness. Multiple steps depended on me freely choosing one option over another, based on persuasion rather than coercion. There was no way to reliably secure the desired outcome if I declined Liberty’s suggestions, and I would lose nothing in doing so.
Well… not nothing. I lost the opportunity to interact with supers in a more casual setting, including Liberty herself as Harmony. The party offered a taste of the camaraderie that I craved as a super, and I needed to admit at least to myself that the temptation was strong. Did Liberty understand me that well, that her bait was so apt? Or perhaps what I felt was more common among supers than I thought.
I deliberated as to what sort of message to send by my response to this trap. If I let them know that I knew, it might just encourage them to be even sneakier next time. And even though this trap wasn’t an actual threat, Shives at least knew about Hector as an associate of Delphic. There was no guarantee the next attack would be as harmless. My best approach was to thwart their plan in a manner that gave them as little data as possible.
Analyst Shives left the manor more than an hour before Harmony had suggested I call her. It was appropriately cautious of them to completely remove her from the premises, since the three members of Iron Lantern were known antagonists. Since the whole plan hinged on the reliability of the internet connection, the router was accessible by a remote user.
It is a trivial task to cause a routine or program to not work; it takes considerably more finesse to do so in a way that is not obvious. Fortunately they had wanted a time delay before the throttling started in earnest; a misplaced zero made sure that the connection would be at full strength until well after the party. It would look to them like a perfectly mundane error, the kind you risk any time you run new code.
Just as interesting, the cameras and monitoring station were on the same network as the wireless routers, and with the right purloined credentials I cemented access to them as well. This I was not surreptitious about, as it was comfortably within Delphic’s normal behavior. Every room in the manor was surveilled, restrooms and closets included – except for the two largest bedrooms and their en suite baths. Both were well lived in, and which belonged to Harmony was obvious from the presence of a motorized sling hung from a winch to assist her out of bed.
The bookcase in Harmony’s bedroom was, in my own opinion, a bit too on the nose. The other bedrooms didn’t have such heavy floor-to-ceiling shelves. I wasn’t at all surprised when I moved my View through it and found a small dressing room with the Lady Liberty suit docked and awaiting its owner. The suit was, unfortunately, not linked into the house’s systems; I would have loved to access its control systems and determine the full feature list. How did the interface manage to integrate seamlessly with Harmony’s own powers? It was probably one of the most complex feats of engineering in the world not owned by a national military or space program.
Reluctantly I turned from Harmony’s secrets back to her activities. She had been joined by her older sister, Kelda, who was dressed in a similar blouse and slacks but somehow managed to make both seem more feminine. She stood half a head taller than her younger sister who was herself by no means a small woman, and yet Kelda gave the impression of being much smaller than Harmony. She floated around a large sitting room, breezily directing a dozen men and women as they moved furniture and set up covered dishes. The dinner would be served in buffet style, to my surprise; I had expected table service.
The logic behind the buffet configuration became evident as the hired help began to depart from the building, leaving the sisters alone in the house with two servants who were dressed and behaved notably differently from the caterers. Kelda took the two of them for last minute preparations while Harmony returned to her drone and used it to place a call.
“This is Delphic.”
“Hi!” The same bright smile met the camera as earlier that afternoon. “The drone should be ready to go; I’m here with it now. Do you need me to send you the IP and subnet addresses?”
“That shouldn’t be necessary. One moment.” I had already found and connected to the mobile device. The controls were straightforward; I backed the unit away from Harmony and tilted the arm to continue pointing directly at her. “This is an excellent device. Thank you for providing it.”
“My pleasure,” she beamed. “I should let you know, the WiFi in the area of the house where the party will be can get awfully spotty. The unit is equipped with an eight petabyte drive and a bleeding edge processor.” Her tone was more earnest than was ideal for the bait she was laying for her trap. “If remote piloting becomes a chore, you’re welcome to… what’s the term, jump? Into the drone?”
“Jumping is a reasonable analogy,” I agreed. “Again, Harmony, I really appreciate your hospitality and your willingness to include me.” I moved the articulated arm to ‘see’ around the room. “Telepresence is much safer for me in a new place, but we will see how the connection holds up.”
I saw Harmony’s face briefly take on the ghost of a smirk at my last remark. From her perspective, everything was in place and the bait was deployed. She had no way of knowing that, no matter how tasty the offering, I couldn’t actually be hooked.
Harmony brought me out of the security room, walking ahead of me and pointing out features of the main floor of the manor. I could hear the quiet but present hum of servo motors in her mobility harness as she moved, maintaining an aggressive pace. As she took each step, her leg swung out slightly, as though she couldn’t bend them quite as far as she needed to. The result was a bit stiff-legged and awkward looking, but it functioned perfectly well.
In the main receiving area of the manor, Kelda stood in front of a large wall-mounted screen, the back of her legs almost touching the seat of a couch upholstered in maroon and peach with small horns featured in the fabric pattern (the colors and logo of Aurochs). She held the remote in one delicate hand and pecked at it with her opposite painted index finger, a look of concentration scrunching up her face.
“Kelda, have you met Delphic?” Harmony greeted her, angling to include ‘me’ in her sister’s line of sight.
Just then the television channel switched to the football pre-show, and a look of relief crossed the woman’s face. She put the remote down and crossed to us. “No, I haven’t had the pleasure. Delphic, welcome! I hope my sister’s project is to your liking?”
“It’s a flattering accommodation, thank you. I understand that the two of you work closely together on these projects?”
Kelda shook her head, meeting her sister’s eyes. “Oh, no. I mean, Norberg is still mainly a financial services firm, and Harmony is as much a genius in that field as anywhere else.” Her eyes flashed for a moment even as her smile grew wider. “But her… other… interests are her own. Other than finding licensing partners for some of her more marketable innovations, I don’t have much to do with them.” She looked the drone up and down in appreciation. “I can imagine any number of global businesses putting one of these telepresence drones in each office for important visitors.”
“You don’t mind being used as a guinea pig, do you?” Harmony laughed.
“I’m happy to beta test your prototype,” I insisted. “So far it’s working great. Easy controls and a crystal clear signal.”
I made sure my camera had Harmony’s face in view so that I could see her reaction to that last comment, and I thought I saw her eyes narrow briefly. But when she spoke, it was a blatant subject change. “We should start receiving guests any minute now. It’s always surprised me how all these emergency responders, whose entire job revolves around showing up on time, manage to consistently be late for any kind of event.”
“They save all of their punctuality for the job, of course,” Kelda quipped. Not a minute later, her expression brightened as she turned to look up at something past me. “Altin! There you are!” The woman swept around me, graceful as a dancer, and I missed the apparently energetic reunion as I swiveled the camera around to follow. By the time they were in my view, Kelda was climbing down from the towering muscular man with ice blue skin that was unmistakably GigaGiant. His face had as little expression as always, but I could see the corners of his lips tug a bit at the attentions of the glamorous woman.
Harmony’s greeting was more subdued. “Good to see you, Altin. I take it everything is settled with that uptown business?”
The man nodded and made to speak, but Kelda cut him off, stretching on her tip-toes to touch a single finger to his lips. “No sir! Harm, you know the rules. Anything but work.” She took a step back toward her sister with a playful scowl look on her face. “You guys spend all day every day down at headquarters talking this stuff out. I think it’s telling,” she directed her speech to me, the newcomer, “that we had to make a rule forcing them to talk about anything else.” She sighed dramatically.
“The things I do for family,” Harmony replied, gesturing Altin toward the room where the buffet was set up. “You must be starved! There’s beef tips with broccoli.”
“I’m always starved…” the man grumbled.
Kelda had made no move to follow them, and instead smiled at the coin avatar displaying on my drone’s screen. Her beauty and joy were so infectious, I felt inclined to smile back even though I knew she couldn’t see me.
The effect was dispelled, though, when the next thing she said was in an entirely different tone, hissed through teeth that kept up the rictus of the smile. “She means well,” the socialite whispered. “Please don’t think otherwise.”
I turned my camera up to put her face front and center. I realized that while her mouth was smiling, her eyes were… pleading. “I don’t understand,” I sent. “Harmony, you mean?”
Kelda nodded. “She’s put herself at odds with you, I think.” She shifted her expression, to something more perplexed but still pleasant. She kept half her attention focused on Harmony to cease this conversation should she return. “The matter with Doctor Stevens, how she uses Enki. She still thinks you may not be on our side.”
All of that was true, but I was surprised to hear her say it. I let the moment pass as I decided what to say, and Kelda spoke up again. “You are, though. You’re trying to be a hero. You want to do good.” She swallowed. “So does she. Her heart’s in the right place. That’s what I need you to know.” She dropped most of her smile as she said, “If we’ve gotten to where good heroes can’t even trust their own kind, I don’t know if–”
Whatever else Kelda had intended to tell me, she was cut off by the persistent influx of people who arrived. They were introduced by their civilian names, but internally I continued to think of them according to their code names. First Enki and Orange Nimbus arrived, followed by Pet and Fleetfoot. The blue and gold hero (whose code name I had determined was Intersect) came next, and then High-Cap with Whisper. They kept coming. Within a half hour, the party was in full force, sporting more than two dozen attendees and all of them superheroes.
The teleconference drone was only an ambiguous success. Unlike my usual role relegated to a voice over the comm system, I had a physical presence on which people could focus. However, the drone was different enough from a human presence that many found it awkward to interact with, and it was difficult to stay included in groups that tended to coalesce and then disband organically.
Still, when I was genuinely included in a conversation, it was singularly fun. High-Cap, for instance (‘Sarah,’ she had said) was an amateur thespian with an absurd sense of humor. While Whisper (‘Lakki’) seemed content to hide in a corner making phone calls, her older friend had immediately put away two glasses of wine and began some very inappropriate, very funny comments about the current Kennedy administration.
This was the mood I was in when I realized that Whisper really had tuned out the party altogether, making call after call on her mobile phone and looking increasingly worried. When an opening presented itself, I approached her.
“Is something the matter, Lakki?” I asked, the synth smoothly handling the name since I had taken the time to program it in.
When she looked up, I noticed she was pale, her eyes starting to puff up as though preparing to shed tears. “Delphic, hi! I… ah… I mean….” she stuttered, finding difficulty stringing together her thoughts coherently.
“Yes?” I prompted, giving her time to collect herself.
She finally calmed down enough to respond. “It’s Zee. He texted me earlier, saying he was too angry for the party tonight and to go without him.” She scowled at the memory. “And I’ve been trying to get hold of him since we got here, you know, just to say hi to everyone? But he isn’t picking up. And… it’s worrying me.” That was an understatement; she was barely holding back from crying.
“Would you like me to trace his phone signal and confirm that he is safe?” I offered.
Lakki rubbed her hands over both eyes before saying, “Could you, please? I can give you his number.”
“That won’t be necessary, Lakki. Just be patient. I will find him.”
I switched out my avatar for one with a little display overlaying the image that said, ‘Delphic Live Conversation Module Offline. Please Stand By.’ This done, I closed my eyes and dove into my View.
It took very little time to follow Refraxx out of the conference room with Whisper, or to the locker rooms where they separated to change into civilian clothing. They reunited, now Zee and Lakki, and used one of several hidden rear exits from HQ. I followed them as quickly as I could as they took the subway to an apartment building in Soho.
Zee saw his girl into her building, but then immediately turned around and reversed course. I watched him ride the subway back to HQ, take a different secret entrance into the building, and then suit up again; less than an hour total passed that he was in civilian garb.
Refraxx then headed to the HQ garage where he unlocked a motorcycle done in his same multi-tone blue color scheme. It was a heavy bike, the kind that could hold its own at highway speeds for long stretches. He turned it on, warmed it up, and programmed an address that he queried from the NYST system.
I felt a punch to the gut when I saw the address. More than an hour ago, without a single message to anyone or request for aid, Refraxx had headed entirely on his own to the Kowalczyks’ hideout.