<Are you okay?> Phoebe asked. My eyes flicked to the clock. It was now pushing midnight, and it seemed Phoebe had subbed in for Abernathy at some point without telling me. <There are some strange readings in your biosigns. You’re far more stressed than you should be under the circumstances.>
Stressed? <You could say that.> This mission’s been weighing on me from the beginning. <I got a brain full of Stormbreaker’s power a few hours back. Nothing I couldn’t deal with, but I’d hate to find out what it’d be like without the armor soaking his power.>
<Based on the readings we got? Not much worse,> Phoebe said. <We were very careful to keep mods away from your brain, for numerous reasons. Stormbreaker’s power seems to work by stimulating natural thoughts and feelings related to guilt, rather than any form of direct control or manipulation. Makes it an unreliable ability, as it’s only as powerful as the target’s natural emotional state. On the other hand, as it relies on natural traits, it should be capable of bypassing many forms of anti-Infiltrator powers.>
Translation: it made me feel bad because I already felt bad. I forced myself to ignore that line of thought; it wasn’t conducive to a successful mission. <What about the suicide incident? He made three people kill themselves.>
<Dunno, haven’t read the case studies,> Phoebe answered. <You’re talking about the terrorists? Miss Jill would say it takes a particularly unstable psyche to attack an institution full of innocent people, knowing the police will kill them even if they succeed. I’m no expert, but seems to me they were suicidal already. Stormbreaker’s power did little more than cut out the middleman.>
Which makes the deaths an accident, rather than deliberate. Which makes me even more of an asshole. Wonderful. <So, what’s the ETA on it wearing off? It’s reached the point of affecting my work.>
<Wear off?> Phoebe went silent for a minute, which was time I used to finish entering in a report. <Warren, his power is instantaneous. All lingering effects are natural results of the initial trigger. His power ‘wore off’ the second he stopped using it.>
Of course it is. I don’t get the luxury of blaming outside influence. <Thanks for the info. I’m going to be busy with these reports for a couple more hours, so maybe you should take the time to get your own projects done.>
<Miss Jill says it’s not good to bottle up your feelings,> Phoebe said. <My power and millions of dollars of medical analysis technology agrees with her. Would you like to talk about it?>
No, I would not like to talk about it. Especially not with you, seeing as you contribute to the issue. <Don’t have the opportunity at the moment. I promise I’ll have chat with Doctor Crisp later. For now, I have a mission to complete. I’m sure you do, too.>
<Okay. But I’m keeping my pager ready for an alert, in case it’s needed.>
<Thank you.> Perhaps some day I’d explain to Phoebe that sometimes the best thing you could do to help someone was nothing. Fortunately, my other set of supposed colleagues were more than willing to give me space to tend to work rather than deal with people. One unforeseen benefit to acting like a jackass was that if you wanted to be alone, people left you alone. As such, I was left in peace until morning came.
I heard the slight wheeze in Chief Brown’s voice before he stopped in front of my desk. “How’d your first night treat you?”
Meaning he wants to know if his punitive measures are working half as well as he hoped they would. Time to disabuse him of that notion. “Sorry, Chief, didn’t see you there. Things are going great, and everyone’s so friendly.” If sarcasm had physical form, we’d need the janitor to come in and scrub the walls. “Give me ten more minutes and I’ll be finished for the night.”
Chief Brown knew I still had an hour and a half before my shift was officially over. “What do you mean finished up?”
I looked back down at the computer, typing away even as I spoke; I was being impolite at best, but such was the nature of the role I was playing. “I’ve only got six more entries for the night.”
“You’re telling me you can complete six entries in ten minutes.” Chief Brown talked as if I just claimed I lived in a secret military base on the moon. A couple nearby officers did a terrible job of pretending they weren’t eavesdropping on the conversation. What is it with people listening in on conversations that don’t concern them in the least?
“Nah, six full entries would take me about eleven minutes, but this one’s done…” I tapped a couple keys louder than necessary. “Now.” I looked up at him, putting on the most smug smile I could muster. “I suppose I’m a little ahead, so I can afford a break to talk, if you want.”
His skin turned a little redder than usual and I could smell the salty-sweet of his blood pressure climbing. “A little ahead? You weren’t expected to complete it in one night. That workload was meant to keep two people busy all weekend.”
I briefly remembered back in basic, when one of the new recruits came in and won a spar against an instructor on our first training day. He was an arrogant punk, but he was an arrogant punk who had been in both football and martial arts, and caught the instructor by surprise. After that, he decided he knew everything there was to know about combat. He paid for his overconfidence in Iraq, when his failure to learn meant he stepped out from cover and took a bullet in the gut. He lived, but the bullet clipped his spine and partially paralyzed him.
I wonder how Parker would feel to learn I still remember him, let alone that I’m borrowing his lines for inspiration on how to be a jackass. “Sorry I’m too good, sir. I promise I’ll be worse in the future.” Knowing him, he’d probably take it as a compliment without giving a single thought to the context.
I could hear Chief Brown’s breathing as he realized that he’d lost control of the situation, and that I didn’t do anything he could say was wrong. After all, attempting to punish someone for doing better than expected was both irrational and stupid. “No, that’s fine. Go ahead and finish up, then you may as well head home early. I’m sure Officer Jacobs will appreciate the chance to get ahead on her work.
I didn’t stop smiling. “Actually, I’ll have to stick around for a while. Scheduled my first visit with the shrink first thing after he gets in. As much fun as I’m having with paperwork, I wouldn’t want to delay my chance to save lives any longer than I have to.”
“I’m sure Doctor Montoya will let me know when you’re ready to go back on the street.” Chief Brown turned and walked away without another word. A few of my coworkers did their best to pretend they weren’t looking at me.
“See you around, chief,” I said. <Please tell me I’m not responsible for his blood pressure. The man looks like he’s one good jump scare away from three simultaneous heart attacks and an aneurysm.>
<I sincerely doubt it,> Doctor Abernathy said. <Our records show he’s in the middle of a divorce case right now, and losing. His soon-to-be-former wife is a lawyer.>
<Ouch.> I made a conscious effort not to grimace; it hadn’t struck me how much of human communication was nonverbal before I got cybernetic implants. <Either way, I expect he’ll leave me alone for the time being.> Or give me a bunch of other jobs so I get them done faster. It may have been a mistake to do the job as well as I did.
<If necessary, we can pull a few strings to put you back on the street early, but only if you can’t thread the proverbial needle. It may run the risk of alerting the target of an outside influence.>
I wonder if she’s just saying that to motivate me. Metaphorical guilt trips are so much harder to recognize than literal ones. <No. It’s a good plan and we should stay the course for the time being.>
<Fair enough. I need to get back to monitoring the area for unusual activity. If you need anything, let me know.>
<Of course. I’d be lost if not for the eyes in the sky.> I wasn’t exaggerating; Professor Abernathy was a godsend in field command, and even Phoebe had given some surprising insights on how to maintain my undercover persona. Without them, this mission could have gone wrong a thousand possible ways.
I tried not to feel too glad that Doctor Patil had opted to stop being directly involved as mission control. I liked him better than most of my prior commanding officers. If nothing else, his ability to recognize his shortcomings and back off was something I could both respect and admire, but he wasn’t suited for making hard decisions in fast paced circumstances.
I pondered this and other things as I finished my job, went about cleaning up, and waited alone for my appointment. Unlike prior encounters, Janine made no effort to speak to me, and I left her alone as well; that bridge had burned before it was built. In the end, it was better that way, if only to avoid Phoebe’s reaction to yet another young woman taking up the supposed ‘love interest’ role.
At last, Doctor Montoya entered the building. I stood and met him before he even had a chance to get in the office. “I hope you don’t mind if I get a bit of a head start?” In truth, it would only be ten minutes early.
“Umm, of course,” he opened the door, holding it so I could follow him in. “I wanted to get in sooner, but the traffic was a nightmare. Please, have a seat in the back room.” He gestured to a side door which, unlike the office we were currently in, had a wood door rather than glass.
“I can imagine,” I said as I opened the door. Inside was a room one might call ‘cozy’, no doubt designed to remind one of a personal study. I could imagine a couple guys complaining about their wives over a glass of scotch in this room, rather than a psychologist deconstructing inner demons. “I live close enough to walk, but not everyone can be so lucky.” It wasn’t truly ‘lucky’ to live so close to the building. While it wasn’t a dangerous neighborhood per se, it was also not an affluent one; rich people didn’t like sirens going off in their neighborhoods any more than drug dealers did.
Doctor Montoya followed behind me after grabbing some stuff off his desk. “You said yesterday that you were only coming to talk to me because Chief Brown demanded it. Have you given some thought to the situation since then.”
I fell back into the lazy, overconfident mentality that Phoebe helped train me on. Little details, such as how to relax one’s body language, and how to walk with a swagger without letting it be obvious that that’s what you’re doing. I had to wonder if there was something about being insane that made people better at acting. “Nothing to think about, really. Did the best I could under the circumstances.”
“A woman did die, and then you shot the perpetrator,” Montoya pointed out. “I imagine that must have been unsettling.”
“You want unsettling? Try IEDs hidden in baby strollers. Under the baby. After that, pretty much everything’s a walk in the park.” My undercover persona was a veteran, after all; it was easier to lie when the majority of the details were at least half true. “You can’t hold yourself responsible for every civilian casualty on the battlefield. If you did, it’d drive you insane. I’ve seen people take their jobs home with them. Bet you’ve seen people do that. It’ll eat you alive if you let it.”
“I have known a few people to do that,” Montoya said with the same calculated care I’d seen from Doctor Crisp. “I admit, I’ve never been in a war before. If I pretended to understand what it was like, I’d be doing you and millions of other soldiers a disservice.” Compliment and sign of respect, which means he’s moments from going on the offensive. “Is that what you saw the situation as? A battlefield, with casualties and an enemy soldier?”
I forced myself to smirk. “No. Soldiers have a sense of integrity, even enemy soldiers deserve some respect. This was an act of terrorism peformed by a coward. He got what he deserved. His victim deserved better, and I’d save her if I could.” In fact, in a way I did save her. “I don’t care about him. Or any of the other monsters I’ve had to kill to protect innocent people.”
“I see.” There was a pregnant pause, while Montoya picked through possible replies. I couldn’t imagine he liked what I said much. I didn’t like what I said, either, and in fact would have been tempted to punch anyone who agreed with those sentiments. “You seem to place a great deal of emphasis on protecting people.”
“Of course I do,” I said. “Who doesn’t believe innocents should be protected? Maybe not everyone has what it takes to make a difference, but no one wants criminals and terrorists to run free without someone out there to stop them. That’s why they pay taxes to the police and military. We’re here to protect them from the monsters.”
“You make an interesting point,” Doctor Montoya said. “So, tell me. What do think of the people who can’t, as you put it, ‘make a difference’?”
“As long as they’re not causing problems, I don’t care what they do. They deserve the same protection as everyone else, until they prove they don’t.”
“Implying there are ways to prove you don’t deserve protection?” Doctor Montoya prompted yet again. I had to admit, he was good at what he did. Every question gave him further insight into my supposed values, while revealing little to nothing about his own personality or opinions.
“Yeah,” I said. “By being a scumbag criminal. I don’t expect everyone to be part of the solution, but they don’t get to be part of the problem.”
The conversation continued much the same for the next hour. Perhaps I gave away too much, too fast, but Phoebe, Abernathy and Doctor Crisp all insisted that extremist mindsets were often quite eager to justify their beliefs when given the opportunity. If anything, keeping my mouth shut would have endangered my cover.
I jogged home after, content with Professor Abernathy’s assurance that I sold the deception masterfully. Inside, I wondered how much of what I said was a lie, and how much was stuff I did believe.
It’s not like I hadn’t thought about the simple solution of vigilante justice before in my life; the black and white mentality was an alluring concept. Perhaps that simplicity, that apathetic way of looking at the world, was why I rejected it. Human beings were never as simple as black and white, and judging them as such was lazy. I hated laziness, in all its forms.
Case in point, it would be lazy to rely solely upon my superhuman senses rather than my trained skills and instincts. <My alert software has been disabled again,> I signaled Doctor Abernathy.
<Even looking for it, I can’t find the source,> she answered. <This is one of the strongest anti-surveillance powers I’ve ever heard of. Easily a four and a half, perhaps as high as six.>
<You’re the expert,> I said. <But I wonder. A skilled spy would know not to block every possible alert. It’s more suspicious than doing nothing. Plenty of power, to be certain, but no finesse.>
<A newbie, perhaps?> Abernathy suggested. <Or an indiscriminate power. Most powers carry notable weaknesses.>
<You got a point. I’m just throwing out guesses.> I put my hand on my door handle, opening the door slowly. I know that scent. <Whatever it is, we know it can’t beat my natural senses.> I stepped inside, only to catch a haymaker to my jaw. I rolled with the punch, but the superhumans strength sent me flying over my couch. I landed on my hands, then flipped onto my feet in a crouched position.
Stormbreaker hovered in front of me. “You have no idea how good that felt.”
I brushed the blood away from my split lip, then smiled. “Don’t worry, I’m about to find out.”