If I was going to try to unravel Kimberly’s cover story, the easiest thread to start pulling on was Starsword. Her claim was that she had ended a three-year relationship with him while they went to school together at Duke, and that he vanished after saving fellow students in a car crash.
It took very little time to find news articles about the crash and Starsword’s revealed identity, Keenan Ilunga. Three different bystanders recorded from different angles as the tall student jumpee towards the crash and the overturned car, glowing gauntlets materializing over his hands and forearms. The sedan had crumpled badly in the crash, and none of the four doors were unscathed, but Starsword’s hands dug into the passenger side door and pulled it cleanly off its hinges before crawling in.
In truth, the situation wasn’t as dangerous as it looked. Modern automobiles seldom combust, even when badly damaged; this one never did. In retrospect, Keenan probably could have waited and allowed the emergency responders to do their jobs when they arrived a few short minutes later. But news accounts of Starsword made it clear that he was the sort of superhero who prided himself on jumping into the fray.
The fallout was less respectable.
I first rewound to one day before the accident, easily navigating the dormitories of Duke’s campus after dark to find the room that Keenan and Kimberly shared. They were both busy students, and the short time that I Viewed them simply showed them sitting near each other reading their own thick textbooks. They fell asleep in each others’ arms, and went their own way to class the next morning – neither knowing that it was the last time they’d see each other.
Kim stayed up most of the night. I watched over her shoulder as she messaged several of her and Keenan’s mutual acquaintances, while also following the developing story of Starsword and the car accident. No one had seen or heard from Keenan since he walked away from the scene.
As her relationship with the outed super was no secret, Kim received more than her share of attention over the following days. She stayed visibly friendly and cheerful during this time, but her private demeanor fell from concerned to despondent within a week. Keenan had made no move to reclaim his belongings, even; their shared space still contained everything from his clothes to his laptop.
Late one night halfway through the second week, she tried a dozen passwords on his laptop without success. It was almost a month later when she gathered the device up, along with his clothes and other belongings, and sent the lot down the dorm’s trash disposal chute.
I was hooked. Over my next three days, I followed Kimberly through her evening routine has the weeks turned into months and the crying jags into cold stares. I couldn’t read her mind, but I saw her private moments, the things she did when alone just for herself. She was recovering: allowing herself genuine smiles; spending time with friends; turning the pages of her books instead of just staring.
I got to her graduation as the weekend hit in my real life. She was, as far as I could tell, genuinely healed by this point… if more subdued than I knew her in the present. I watched her march across the stage at graduation, spotting her cheering parents in the crowd, then return to her room to finish packing for a summer overseas before her move to Detroit for grad school.
Saturday morning, I joined Paris for a late breakfast while thinking about what I had found… or more importantly, hadn’t found. “She told the truth,” said, as much to myself as my sister as I stared into a glass of grapefruit juice. “She was abandoned by her boyfriend when he got outed as a super. It ruined her senior year.”
“And that’s why I haven’t seen you for the better part of a week?” she raised an eyebrow. “You’ve been spending… how many hours a day spying on that girl’s past?”
I shrugged. “Enough to be certain.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Enough to eclipse everything else in your life?” This was punctuated with a bite of croissant.
She was right. I’d blown off two requested conference calls with my staff at Delphic Incorporated. Fitz was in a holding pattern in New York, and Whisper was asking in text messages why I had stopped joining her calls.
I reflected on this while taking another sip; the juice was too bitter for me, but I had no appetite. I looked up at my sister, who held her accusatory glare. It was an uncomfortable moment until I croaked a response, “Yeah, I shoved pretty much everything else aside to do a deep dive on Kimberly. I -” a deep sigh, “I had to find something to justify freezing her out.”
“But you didn’t,” she pointed out. “So… now what?” Her lips tugged upwards a bit. “You visit her, show her your soft underbelly, apologize for your suspicions?”
“Would that work?” I furrowed my brow in consideration.
Paris nodded. “Oh, yeah. She’s looking to continue things, no question. The roommates may be a little harder, but…” she chewed her last bite, then reached for the last item in the breadbasket. “From everything they’ve done so far, they’re just treating her like a l’il sis. Or at least the one girl is, Sienna. She’ll come around once Kimberly does.”
I narrowed my eyes at Paris. “And you’re completely on board with this?”
My sister nodded, tapping on her tablet as she absently gathered her breakfastware. “We’ve talked a couple of times this week. She apologized for setting me on edge the way she did, and my gut tells me she’s genuine.” She turned her full attention to the empty plate and stood up to clear the table. She delivered a careful kiss to my forehead on her way to the door. “Gotta go. Good luck.”
My mind was still focused on the daunting process of contacting Kimberly – enough so that my front door was closing behind Paris before I registered what she’d said.
“Wait, you talked to her? How did you… huh.” I sighed, not managing to haul myself up to pursue the matter.
I stared blankly at the counter backsplash for a half hour (or maybe just a few seconds; I couldn’t really tell) before hauling myself up to start on the dishes. Paris was reacting true to form: “all back or all in,” as Dad was fond of describing it. Which meant, now that she’d made nice with my girlfrie… with Kim, I would upset her by not pursuing the matter. And, with what I had (not) found, it would be unfair for me to continue to treat Kim with suspicion.
I needed to be careful, though, not to over-focus on ‘fairness.’ My time and attention were not entitlements, ‘owed’ to Kimberly simply because she’d passed a background check and waited patiently. If I went to her now, it had to reflect a genuine desire to be with her, not a sense of obligation.
Taking stock of my household chores, I was surprised but pleased to see that my good habits had continued even when I wasn’t thinking about them. The pile in the laundry room was manageably small, the mail opened and sorted; I’d apparently even scrubbed the toilets at some point, although I had no recollection of it. This left my digital duties to attend, and those I had not maintained on auto-pilot.
A liaison at Lion Electric was inquiring why I hadn’t taken any jobs in a week. Georgia had queued up multiple items in need of my attention and requested a call to resolve them first thing Monday. Whisper wanted me to call her as soon as I could, day or night. Fitz was pushing for me to either give him additional instructions, or let him return home.
So, one matter to deal with as Hector (two, really, since tackling this stuff was a way of putting off Kimberly) and three as Delphic. The tone of Whisper’s messages implied frustration, so I called her first.
“Delphic, hi!” The audio-only response that answered me was Whisper’s voice. Each couple of words were accompanied by a heavy puff of breath. “Is everything all right, on your end?”
“All within acceptable parameters,” my response played. “I apologize for my unannounced absence.”
“Spinner explained to me that your,” she inhaled deeply after having lost her breath for a minute, “uptime, could be unpredictable. And not really under your control.” She was offering me an easy excuse… and I took it.
“That’s correct. I can force the matter when I am required to, but it has severe costs. How have matters progressed in my absence?”
“Overwhelmingly quickly.” A low hum in the background died off, and a moment later a video feed joined the audio. Whisper was in her full form-fitting outfit, her hair and headband glistening with sweat as she stepped away from an inclined treadmill. “That’s part of why I was anxious to get hold of you. We’ve found the Norberg Holdings server where Liberty’s emails are stored.” She hung her video pickup – presumably a phone – in front an area with gymnastics equipment. “You don’t mind if I keep up with my training routine while we talk?”
“Not at all.” Having the space for these sort of facilities in a New York apartment was bordering on the absurd, reminding me again that while I’d done very well for myself as Delphic, I was interfacing with families that could gain or lose my net worth in a single day trade.
“The plan,” she lifted herself up on a set of uneven bars, “is to head in tomorrow evening. The Norbergs have an award function to attend; one that wasn’t too hard for me to beg off, considering.” I saw her eyes harden in concentration as she inhaled, muscles tensing, and swung around, leaping for a pair of rings positioned four feet up and ten feet away from her perch.
To my knowledge, Whisper had no strength, speed, or endurance enhancement in her power set. The leap should not have been possible. But I noticed that, as she made her jump, the visual feed seemed to blur her image. She shot past the target rings, having to rapidly grab and yank herself backwards to avoid a nasty fall. “Ack! Sorry. New techniques.” Steadying the rings, she flipped over to balance her full weight on her hands while her body pointed upward, straightened legs in a familiar gymnastic posture. “So, while we know Harmony and her sister are elsewhere and the building is otherwise closed down, I’ll slip in and copy the server. Or just take it. Wanting your advice on that.”
“You were planning to mount this infiltration yourself?” I asked. “Why not a larger team, now that we have allies?”
Rather than responding right away, I watched as her image blurred again, but this time entirely in place. Tentatively, she withdrew her hands from the rings, hanging in midair, her flickering image floating with no visible support. “Smaller is better for a stealth mission,” she recited. “I’d feel a lot better with you in my ear… although we’ll not be using official comms, for obvious reas… ons…” I could vaguely see her push her arms downward as though to arrest the start of a gradual fall. It didn’t help, and when she spun to grab the rings again, her hands passed right through them. She let out a surprised squeak as she plummeted rapidly towards the gym mat, which was suddenly far too thin for what it was about to receive.
Whisper never hit the floor, however. Her blurry form flickered more as she dissipated, collecting and solidifying in a standing position in front of me. Her mouth was screwed up into a frustrated grimace. “Sorry about that,” she told me again. “Zee had always talked about exploring the limits of my abilities, and… it…” her tone faltered, ending in little more than a mumble, “feels like a way to keep him closer. Dumb, I know.” She had folded in on herself, her eyes wandering the floor and the walls without reaching the level of the camera.
It was hard for me to hear her talk like that, but I wanted her to feel free to say what she needed to say. “You don’t need to feel embarrassed about doing things to remember Zee,” I finally typed.
She nodded, looking up and giving the screen a hint of a smile, before it segued into a determined frown. “I’m not going to let them sideline me,” she spat, taking a step forward and grabbing the mobile. “Zee’s hero work was the most central part of him… the most alive. It’s how he saw us changing the world. Not through our money or business connections, but doing the work of real heroes.”
“Zee would approve of this mission,” I said it as a half-question.
She nodded, moving away from the gym area and pulling her mask and headwear off even as she replied. “Very much. He’d whine that he wasn’t coming with me, but he’d be all over it.” She placed the phone so that it was looking down on her sitting at a computer desk. “And since I’d rather not get caught or killed, we have some planning to do.”
I started a message to Fitz as I listened to Whisper’s plan. Putting off my reckoning with Kimberly had just gotten much easier.