As it turns out, I didn’t have to stab anyone; my invisible stalker left without revealing himself or his motives. After giving him several minutes to return, I sat down in front of my computer and resumed my research of the city’s Imbued.
<You know, it’s all in the database,> Phoebe said. <You don’t need to spend all night studying on the computer.>
Pheobe wasn’t suggesting that I rely upon the computer to provide my knowledge for me; she knew as well as anyone that the computers weren’t as fast as natural memory. What she meant was that Artemis had far more comprehensive databanks than any browse of the internet could provide.
<I think any eavesdroppers would get suspicious if I sat down on the couch and stared at a blank wall all day,> I answered almost without thinking. <Perhaps I could turn the television on, but given the nature of Espers, they might realize something’s unusual.> And reading with the cybernetics feels weird as hell. I kept going through search engine results. <Besides, there’s something to be said for getting your information from the ground level. You may not get the big picture, but sometimes the small picture provides the most knowledge. This, for example.>
The familiar tingle of the communication relay sending higher data kicked up so Phoebe could see through my eyes. <They have a scoreboard for arch-rivals? Holy crap, Arachne has over fifty enemies! How does she find time to get anything done?>
<Near as I can tell, she doesn’t,> I sent back. It felt good to be the ‘expert’ on a subject for once, even if it was something I just recently discovered. Phoebe already knew New York had over twice the Imbued per capita as any other part of the country, and over twenty times the number of heroes and villains, but the culture which emerged from that density was new to her. <All kinds of things are measured, like number of fights per month and how much media coverage they get. And you should see the number of times these people switch sides. It’s like a soap opera.>
<That’s weird,> Phoebe agreed. <Wait. Aren’t side-switches usually part of a plea bargain? Wouldn’t they go to jail for violating parole or whatever?>
<Can’t force a plea bargain on someone who’s not charged with any serious crimes.> I went about pulling up another set of notes on villain criminal activity. <Half the so-called super villains in the city are only guilty of misdemeanors and fighting super heroes or other villains. Heroes who, it turns out, will swear under oath that they don’t want the villain charged with any crimes. A lot of times, they even sign boxing waivers before the fight.>
<That is so… cool!> Leave it to Phoebe to see the highlights. <Like they’re playing a big game! They even keep score!>
<Exactly.> My feelings on the matter were more mixed than Phoebe’s. To see others treat violence as a game was repugnant to me as a soldier. On the other hand, there were few Imbued street gangs of any notoriety in the city. Any game that prevented children from being murdered was a good game in my books. In that regard, New York was far better off than most cities, and this ‘game’ was part of the reason.
Sure, it had organized crime with Imbued enforcers, and some small time gangs, but nothing to the scale of some cities half its size. <It’s a game, focused on rep and fame rather than power and money. The most famous villain in the city calls himself ‘The Owl’. He’s been active for a decade and his only outstanding warrants are for flying his miniature jet in the city without a permit.>
<That sounds like so much fun! Hey, do you think we can talk Doctor Patil into letting us play heroes and villains for a while? I want an arch-rival! Maybe Lord of the Dance? He looks awesome!>
<I think I’d rather not,> I said. <First, they still wear spandex costumes rather than something remotely practical. Second, when I said it’s like a soap opera, that includes the promiscuity. Jungle King, for example, has been romantically involved with every member of his team who isn’t an underaged sidekick, and half of his rivals on this list, all in the last year.>
<But that’s over thirty… eww…> Phoebe paused for a second. <No wonder none of the villains are committing any actual crimes. They’re all too busy at the clinic getting blood tests.>
<Welcome to New York City. Where ‘make love, not war’ meets ‘porque no los dos?’ Which is in part of why I’m masquerading as a c-list Imbued. I don’t want to get involved in that hot mess.>
<Good. I don’t want you involved in it, either,> Phoebe said. <But since you’re being such good boy, I’ll still put on a spandex outfit for you later.>
Borderline sexual harassment aside, she had the figure to make it work for her. <I’ll keep that in mind.> I wonder if my com system conveys sarcasm. Perhaps I should ask to experiment in the control room with my chip. <In any case, I should return to studying, perhaps get in a few hours of shut-eye. You should do the same, I might need you tomorrow.>
<Mmm, okay,> she said. <Pleasant dreams.> Her tone made it obvious she was still on the subject of spandex.
<Yeah, you too.> For the sake of my peace of mind, I hope neither of us have dreams tonight. True to my word, I did get some sleep in, and if I dreamed of anything it was forgotten before I woke. I made sure to go through the names and known powers of a couple hundred more Imbued, as well as a handful of other details I might need to know before I work.
I walked through the doors to my faux employment an hour early, as was an established habit. Several cops glanced my way, with varying degrees of concern and sometimes contempt. A small number even showed what could only be described as pity. I pretended I didn’t notice; an act that would fail to fool any but a few of the less observant officers. Nothing suspicious about trying to put on a stoic demeanor under difficult circumstances.
I approached the desk and put on a smile that looked as forced as it was. “How’d the day treat you, Janine?”
Janine hesitated, her eyes going wide. That alone was nothing new; the woman was in the same age and race range as my disguise. She was also attractive, in a cute librarian sort of way. I might have considered asking her out if she were a decade older and the situation wouldn’t have made it horribly wrong for several dozen other reasons. Instead, she was another woman who I pretended I didn’t know found me attractive.
Now, however, her reaction was a matter of concern, and perhaps even fear. She wasn’t afraid of me, that was a simple enough emotion to identify, she was more afraid for me than anything specific. Perhaps reevaluating what she thought she knew from our prior interactions. “Just the usual bedlam.”
“That bad, huh?” In my experience, Janine liked to vent about the more frustrating events of her day at any opportunity.
“Don’t get me started, we’ll be here ’till your shift ends.” She smiled, if warily. “And people have been asking about you. You’re all over the news.”
I bet I am. “I don’t watch the news, I prefer non-fiction.” That statement was, perhaps, the most honest thing I’d said to anyone in this precinct. “Sorry for making your job that much harder. They got me on desk duty for the time being.”
“It’s not your fault,” she said. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’d be lying if I said everything was sunshine and puppies, but I’ve survived worse.” I looked at the back offices. “The Chief said I gotta I talk to the shrink. Personally I think it’s pointless, but such is the decree from on high.” I could tell Janine still didn’t feel comfortable talking to me, so I let her off the hook. “Speaking of, I should go see about setting up an appointment. Sooner I start, the sooner it’s finished.”
Janine’s relief was visible. “Yeah, I’ve got a ton of work to finish. See you around.”
“Absolutely,” I said. For some stupid reason, I felt betrayed. Guess the whole blue wall thing only means they’ll cover your ass, nothing to do with real solidarity. Given what I was here to do, feeling that way was both stupid and hypocritical, but I still felt betrayed.
I was still considering those issues when I pushed the door open to the psychologist’s office. I can’t talk to this guy about it, but I should mention it to Jill when the mission has been finished. “Doctor…” I realized I hadn’t read the name on the door, so it took a second to recall the image and read the name. “Montoya? I’m here to set up an appointment. I assume you already know what it’s about.”
“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage,” Doctor Montoya said as he stood from his desk. He was a tall man, several inches taller than myself in fact, but also quite skinny, as if he’d been stretched out. Coupled with the balding hair, he appeared almost skeletal. His eyes were anything but dead, however, and regarded me with an alert intelligence. “What are you here about, specifically?”
He knows. He knows and he wants to see how I describe the situation. This seemed to support my theory that the first thing a psychologist learns is a million synonyms for ‘how does that make you feel’. “Well, Chief Brown wants me to talk to you about the shooting last night. Says I don’t go back on the streets until you give the all clear. I’d like to get started on that ASAP.”
“Ah, of course, Officer Ellison.” He turned to his rather unkempt desk and pulled a paper out of the mess. “I can meet with you first thing tomorrow morning, if you like. Is nine good for you?”
It meant I’d need to wait a couple hours after my shift ended before the session even started, which would have been annoying if not for the nature of my mission. “I’ll be there. Sorry to drop and run, but I’ll need a minute to learn the new assignment.” I was out the door before he could say anything else; the goal was to make it appear that therapy was a chore I was forced into rather than part of a plan. I went about getting ready for work in relative peace for a while.
While others were content to avoid me if I avoided them, a masked hero approached me. Other than his bottom jaw, his entire body was covered in a purple costume that didn’t leave a lot to the imagination. Unless you had a bioscan power, then you’d know he had foam padding to make himself look a whole lot more impressive than nature provided for. Several yellow lightning bolts strategically highlighted his figure to emphasize the false anatomy even more.
From what I could recall, he was low level flying brick, with an emotional control ability limited to guilt. He was known for making criminals drop to their knees and cry on more than one occasion. Without saying a word, he stepped in front of me, and my battery capped off. I should talk to Phoebe, make her understand a relationship between us isn’t an option. Why don’t I? Do I get some sort of weird satisfaction from toying with her affections?
I clenched my fists together, but allowed Stormbreaker to do his thing. After a moment, the pressure lifted and he spoke. “Nothing at all?”
“Everyone has regrets.” I forced myself to open my hands before I punched him in the face for pulling that bullshit. He’s durable enough that it won’t cause any permanent damage. I dropped my voice so the coworkers couldn’t overhear. “Taking out the trash shouldn’t be one of them.”
<It’s not enough,> Abernathy said over my link. <You need to sell the attitude. Bring up the hostage fiasco.>
If I wasn’t still fighting off the effects of Stormbreaker’s power, I’d have cringed. Roughly a decade ago he managed to break up a terrorist situation with three men threatening to blow up an investment bank’s headquarters over the housing crisis. It could have made his career, perhaps even made him a national name, but the three men shot themselves while under his power’s influence.
While little love was lost for the would-be terrorists, Infiltrators were the most feared of all Imbued, especially ones strong enough to drive victims to suicide. In the end, any ambition he might have had to become a celebrity died with the gunmen. In fact, from what I understood he still got hate speech calling for him to be arrested and locked in the deepest cell, or killed before he used his powers to take any more ‘innocent’ lives.
And I’m about to shove salt in the wound fist first.
<For future reference, I want it known that I would appreciate my next mission be one in which I don’t have to be a total sack of shit.> Despite my objections, I resolved to carry out the task.
I stepped around him as I started to speak, my voice loud enough to be heard by everyone nearby. “Pretty sure you aren’t allowed to use your power like that. But I appreciate you making sure I didn’t have my gun, first.”
I expected anger and indignation from Stormbreaker, perhaps him initiating violence. Instead, he just stood there and let me pass. At first, I thought he might have been too stunned to react, but the time for shock came and went, while he still said nothing. Bioscans registered signs of depression and regret rather than any confrontational emotion. Roughly five seconds after I moved past, he walked away in silence.
I hurt him. That realization stunned me, almost enough for me to fuck the mission and apologize. I wonder if I would have broken character, had I somehow imagined a way to express my regrets that didn’t sound hollow and fake. Lacking any such miracle of word smithing, I returned to what I was doing
He wasn’t the only person whose emotions spiked with shock and anger; I made several enemies today. If my goal was to infiltrate the police department, now would be where I withdrew and reported the mission as an abject failure. As it stood, I was on the path of alienating most of my supposed coworkers and making myself out to be a remorseless killer.
<The mission is still going as planned.> Much as I’m beginning to hate it.