My first feeling upon hearing Whisper accuse Liberty was massive shock, but my second was great relief. It was terrific to hear that I wasn’t the only person who had noted that the NYST leader’s behavior often seemed more in line with pursuing personal goals than in concretely meeting the law enforcement needs of New York.
Still, I wanted to treat Lakshmi’s own conclusions with some delicate scrutiny until I understood their basis.
“You believe that Lady Liberty is responsible for Refraxx’s death at the hands of Kowalczyk’s enforcer?” I asked.
Whisper nodded. “It fits the facts I know. Although it will be useful to have you verify some details I don’t know.”
“First, that she’s trying to have it both ways. Privately, to us, Zee went off on his own… hotheaded…” she audibly sobbed, but forced herself to stop. “Sorry. So, to us, the cover story is that this was just Refraxx on his own. But then the official story is that he was on a solo mission for NYST, right?”
“Yes. I’ve been asked to help with doctoring the records for that.”
“Okay, so… what if that’s the actual truth?” I thought but didn’t reply, so she continued. “What if Liberty did send Refraxx out there, and the story of him doing it on his own is a cover?”
“Didn’t you say earlier today that this was the sort of thing you could see him deciding to do, though? The solo decision seems in character.” As I sent this, I was worried my implied negative judgement of Zee might upset her further.
Her hair flopped over her headpiece as she nodded. “That’s what makes it a good cover – it’s plausible as a lie.”
It also made it plausible as the truth. “Liberty intended for Refraxx to be killed by the enforcers?”
The woman ran a hand through her upturned shock of hair. “Yeah, or… she planned for it?” I don’t think she intended it as a question despite the intonation. “She once said something to me about making lots of plans, and taking advantage of whichever one worked. Did you watch the new Dinklage movies?”
“The Vorkosigan films?” I had seen both of the ones released so far, and read the underlying books.
“Right, the Norberg group helped fund those. Harmony’s a big fan. Something in the most recent film…”
“Not one path to victory, but all paths,” I sent quickly from memory. It was one of the tag lines from The Vor Game.
Lakshmi nodded. “She says stuff like that sometimes. It makes me think…” Her mouth moved for a minute, but I couldn’t pick out any words. “… she wasn’t counting on Zee losing, but she was ready to use it if it happened.”
This was sending me into dizzy knots. I knew I shouldn’t pick at it, but… “So you think she was comfortable sacrificing him? That this was a good outcome?”
“Him and… and others.” Keeping a firm voice was an act of will at this point. “The follow-up team, too.”
That seemed far-fetched. “Including Millsec?”
She gave a quick headshake. “No, I mean the immediate backup: Bronze Scarab and Flawless Form. They were sent out when Zee’s situation was unknown.”
“I thought they were picked because they could get there quickly.”
“Bronze Scarab was. But she could have carried almost anyone. So why FF? His powers aren’t suited.”
“Liberty believed that the support would fail?” Considering the actual outcome, that seemed plausible.
“Could fail, and the better for her if so. Zee always said that Flawless Form was the strongest critic of her little torture projects.”
“Is that her motive for wanting to get rid of Refraxx? The enhanced interrogations?”
Her shrug was in the negative. “He didn’t really oppose them, other than supporting me. It’s more about shoring up her power base against someone that constantly questioned her.” Her palm came into view. “But now that he’s gone, she will definitely take advantage of it to push me to the outside.” She sighed. “Don’t be surprised if I’m put on ‘mental health leave’ for a few days, and then never cleared to return to missions. Two capes with one stone.”
Her words were cold and biting. There was no neutral detachment here; Lakki saw this as personal. I asked, “So if you’ve felt this way about Lady Liberty, why visit her house? Why stay on the team?”
“For Zee,” she immediately answered. “He always talked about ‘friendly rivalry’ and that the Norbergs were much better as allies than enemies.” She unthinkingly let camera view turn away from her. “He was living out his dream being a superhero. I was mostly there to be with him.”
The tilt let me see the wall and ceiling behind her: old wood panelling and concrete baffles. Not residential features. “Are you in a secure location?”
The camera angle tilted back to show her face as she nodded. “NY Public has closed stacks. I’ve used this study room for years. Never seen a soul.” She pivoted. “So the big question is, what do we do about Lady Liberty?”
That problem had been on my mind all day, and I still didn’t have a solution. “I am not sure what there is we can do,” I sent. “We could try to gather evidence that she intended what happened to Refraxx, or to any other supers she’s hurt.” In silence I considered how much I trusted Whisper, and decided to share further. “Liberty attempted to capture me today.”
The girl’s face scrunched up in surprise. “Capture? How?”
“The telepresence robot at the manor. She brought in a CIA analyst to build a trap into it. Hit the switch to cut off all of its external ports.”
Her mouth thinned out. “She has a lot of government contacts. Um, so, why didn’t she flip the switch when you were in there?”
“I never jumped into it. I stayed on remote access the whole time.”
Whisper nodded. “Another contingency. And you didn’t confront her on it?”
I didn’t have a good way to shrug. “I might have, if other events hadn’t eclipsed it.”
“It… doesn’t seem…” her sentence slowed and diminished as though she were a music box just winding down. “It has the same problem as everything else. I see the disconnect? Between who she is and what she claims? But… I don’t see any way that it helps. Any way to exploit it. None of it is really a weakness.”
“You’re looking for a weakness?” I probed. “To what end?”
Her nostrils flared as her eyes and mouth flattened. “She needs to answer for what she’s done.” The steel was there again, but it always appeared for barely a moment, the length of one or two sentences, and then was gone.
“That’s not an answer,” I sent, and before she could respond immediately followed up with, “Please hear me out.”
She took a breath and swallowed whatever she had been about to say next, willing to let me speak.
“Justice is a motivation, not an end goal,” I explained. “What does it look like for Liberty to have answered for her crimes? Would it be enough that she has explained them? Or given an apology?” I continued to type as I checked Whisper’s reaction; she was nodding reluctantly. “Are you seeking to have her removed from NYST? As a super altogether? Do you want to see her in jail? Maimed or killed?”
I knew I had gone too far in my description when she scowled. “I don’t need revenge,” she set down solemnly. “Justice, because actions need to have consequences, even if you’re Lady Liberty.”
“What do those consequences look like?”
“… don’t know.” She was back to almost imperceptible.
“Well, until we have a handle on that, I don’t see that we can even plan a reasonable response.” When she nodded, I continued. “If we expect Liberty to suffer any consequences at all, we’re going to have to get help.”
Whisper’s face scrunched up further as she shook her head. “No… not… him. Not them.”
“What do you mean?” I had a pretty good idea what she was going to say, but I wasn’t going to borrow trouble in case I was wrong.
“Your mad scientist friend and his henchmen. Stevens. I…” she coughed and drew herself up. “Zee wouldn’t have wanted me to get involved with a super villain, not even to win a fight like this. Can… we leave them out of it, please.” She didn’t make it sound like a request.
“Acknowledged,” I sent. “I disagree with your characterization of Doctor Stevens as a super villain -”
“Doesn’t matter,” she interjected softly.
“- but we have allies closer to home.”
“New England? Spinner?” she supplied.
“Among others.” I had a few markers I could call in from other heroes I had helped; there were a number of professional supers across the country who considered me an acquaintance and ally if not a friend. “I am still not entirely certain what it is we are trying to accomplish, which makes it harder to ask others to join us.”
Whisper’s face screwed up, then left the frame as she hunched over. “We’re on the same page, though, right? We need to do something?” It was a hungry question.
“We agree on that, yes.”
I could see her eyes again as she said, “Then let me think about it, okay? Maybe call Spinner? Or whoever else you can trust.” She re-centered the camera on her and put on a half-hearted smile. “We can talk more tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow, then,” I sent, and she disconnected.
When I turned back to the monitors, I found it difficult to focus on them; I was bleary with fatigue. It surprised me when I looked at the clock and saw how early in the evening it still was. Everything that happened with Refraxx and the Kowalczyks had taken place in under two hours, although it felt more like two days.
If all ran according to plan, within another four hours, Lamarck would be back on US soil… and hopefully I would be sound asleep by then. I reviewed my repair and installation schedule for the next morning, knowing I had to be home around lunch time to attend the meetings that my new employees had asked for.
I had just texted Paris about breakfast when I was notified of an incoming call from Lady Liberty. The HQ system showed that she (along with GigaGiant, Petiolule, and Enki) had arrived at New York HQ ahead of the captives.
“This is Delphic,” I sent upon answering. The video showed the costumed back of GigaGiant as he rummaged through a large locked cabinet, retrieving two thermal sleeping bags.
“How is Whisper?” Liberty and GG were in one of NYST’s supply rooms. She turned away from the blue super to open another cabinet and pull out hospital-grade blankets. She stacked them into a growing pile of cold weather gear.
“She is grieving,” I said in my Delphic voice, deciding to stick with the obvious.
“A luxury I’m happy to give her. Hopefully the rest of us will have time to grieve, soon enough. Extra-large, you think? No, probably double X.” She added a parka and a set of men’s thermal underwear to the pile before wrapping her suit-clad arms around the whole lot.
The camera picked up the hallways of the HQ building from around the edges of the stack of winter gear as Liberty effortlessly carried it along. She continued, “I wanted to make sure that your conversation with her had gone okay. I also wanted to confirm she wasn’t in the building, since the system has trouble tracking her.” She turned into a tiled hallway with small rooms set up as clinical exam rooms, opening a door to one such room and piling the gear inside. As she turned around, GigaGiant passed her field of view in depositing a second such pile in the same room.
“She was not in the building when we spoke,” I supplied.
“Probably in the library stacks,” the superheroine mused. “Or she might have headed out to Zee’s place.” Her tone turned disapproving. “I hope not. That’s the last thing she needs right now.”
“Not for you to say,” the low voice of GigaGiant interjected. “She might need to go there to say goodbye.”
“She’ll have plenty of time for that,” responded Liberty. “She’s on mental health leave until she gets a full psych eval. And I want to make sure she doesn’t get any ideas about going near Buzz. He’s no good to us unless he’s treated by the book.”
I lost the thread of conversation for just a second as I thought about how Liberty had just confirmed Whisper’s prediction that she would be put on leave. When I recovered, I sent, “Whisper indicated no interest in interacting with any of the suspects.”
“That’s good. We’re going to have enough problems already just with the containment. Here, let me show you.” I could hear her metal footsteps ringing louder than her larger ally’s thudding footfalls as they headed down two flights of stairs. They paused at a bulky metal door until it slid ponderously into the wall for long enough for them to get through. Another tiled hallway was hung with several obvious cameras, each pointing toward a different cell.
The cell that Liberty finally stopped at had its own thick metal door, this one with shatterproof glass making a small window at eye level. I thought the glass was a frosted white until GigaGiant smeared a dinner-plate-sized blue hand across it, showing that it was clear glass that had fogged up. Liberty turned her attention to the panel next to the door. “A balmy five degrees Celsius, thirty percent relative humidity,” she announced happily.
“You are preparing this cell for Buzz Kowalczyk?” I asked. The lump in my stomach was distracting; the only motivation for these sort of conditions was to watch him suffer.
“Quantico has a setup with inert gas, but this is the best we can do for a firestarter.” She checked the readings on the console before moving farther down the hall.
“There isn’t any evidence that Buzz Kowalczyk can regulate his internal temperature in extreme environments,” I insisted. “That’s not something all tactothermic supers can do.”
Liberty’s smooth chuckle harmonized with the deeper notes of GigaGiant’s own laughter. “We’ll get the evidence soon,” she said. “Doctor will check on him at least twice an hour. With the cold weather survival gear, he should be fine.”
“You saw the images of Officer Nunez same as we did,” the giant added. “Why agonize over his discomfort?”
“Weren’t you just saying,” I tried, “that everything needs to be done by the book?”
“This is,” she insisted. “A cold room is standard containment. Approved procedure.”
I would be willing to bet that Lady Liberty had found the worst possible treatment for Buzz that she could fit within the rules. But there didn’t seem any reason to point this out to her.
“Thanks again for all of your help today, Delphic,” the heroine said as she entered another room, inspecting heavy steel manacles solidly fused into a thick metal wall. “You’ll be able to… check those files we talked about before you call it a night?” Her voice had a detectable tension in it, which was better than the unrelenting confidence she had kept up for the rest of the call.
“Affirmative,” I sent. “I’ll confirm once the matter is resolved.”
“You’re a godsend,” she cheered, and ended the call.
Modifying the NYST records to match Liberty’s reports (and my ad hoc explanations) took the rest of my evening. Part of the reason it took so long was the meticulous local records I kept throughout the process. By the time I was finished, and gratefully collapsed into my bed, no file or log in the entire system was inconsistent with our story. Refraxx had been on a discrete solo mission for the Team, not acting on his own.
The original state of every altered file, and a step-by-step log of the alterations, were all recorded within my own system. I seldom took such pains to incriminate myself, but then, I seldom performed hacking services for someone who had tried to betray me earlier in the same day.
I drifted to sleep more slowly than usual, despite my fatigue. The truth was that none of the resources I had available, nor those I suspected Whisper had, seemed enough to deal with a top tier, politically-connected powerhouse like Lady Liberty.
I was frightened, because I knew that even if we were likely to lose, we would almost certainly fight the battle anyway.