<First name, L-I-U.> Phoebe stressed every letter like she was talking to a somewhat brain damaged parrot. Part of me wanted to be insulted, but this was the thirteenth attempt to allow me to hear the name. <Last name, W-O-N-G. Repeat for confirmation?>
<Sending. Liu Wong. Sent.> I could only hope it worked, otherwise we might have to admit the power was unbeatable. <Did you receive?>
Now out of the heavy traffic zone, I took to jogging the rest of the way home. Amongst things I was attempting to puzzle out of their behavior, I knew the distance was intentional. Shadow-Tubes were famous for having dozens of outlets in any given city. Even if they’d put me in the restaurant, I’d be closer to home, ergo they didn’t want me closer to home.
<Yes. There was no registered disruption to the equipment,> Phoebe said. <Your brain activity appears normal, as does every system. I’m going to run another test. Sending name. Sent. Nothing registered as abnormal.>
<Nope, still can’t hear the name. I didn’t even notice a time delay where the name should have been. Whatever the cause, it’s thorough.> I suppose I should be grateful it’s not stronger.
<There’s nothing unusual registered on the scanners. No signs of brain alteration, or response delay, or confusion. You’re not even showing signs that you’re lying!> I wasn’t sure why signs I was lying should be a factor, but I trusted Phoebe as the expert. <It has to be an attack on the equipment.>
<I told you, the Tech is perfect,> Integral insisted. <In the unlikely event that an Imbued gained a very specific ability to hack a biotechnological interface of which there is exactly one in all creation, the Blue Steel would draw power from the interaction. It’s nonreactive, therefore the point of failure must be in the organic components, not the machinery.>
I have never been referred to as ‘the organic component’ before. On the plus side, if I’m ever asked for the nerdiest possible name for a punk rock band, I now have the answer.
<The problem is not organic!> I may have been willing to let it slide, but Phoebe had a different opinion. <If it was, the scanners would identify the problem so we could fix it! The Gadgets aren’t finding the problem, ergo they are the problem!>
Okay, this is going somewhere dumb, fast. <How about we table the source of the problem for now, and perhaps work on finding workarounds? We can all agree it’s Imbued, which means a single human being is the source of the trouble. We just need to find our wayward Infiltrator and then I’ll politely explain that I don’t appreciate people poking around inside my brain.> Perhaps via punches to the skull.
<Are you sure you want to keep going?> Phoebe had dropped anger for concern. <We don’t know how powerful they are, but we do know you’re vulnerable to their Infiltrator. If things go wrong… we may not be able to protect you. We still have time to back out.>
<The fact that they can get through my protection is why we have to be the ones who complete the mission. My half-vulnerability has proven one of our best clues, especially since they don’t seem to realize I have a resistance. As long as I remain cautious, I’m our best chance. Besides, can you imagine what happens if another organization gets their hands on the target, first?> Assuming they even can. <It has to be us.>
<If… if you’re certain.>
I went silent, seeking some combination of words that somehow sounded like ‘yes’, without being a blatant lie. Integral came to the rescue. <We’ll work out some method to cancel the Infiltrator’s power, or at least detect when it’s active. Whatever power’s involved, it’s proven unable to cancel Chantelle’s symbiotes, which means he’s nowhere near helpless.>
<That’s right.> It was the closest I could come to thanking Integral while Phoebe was still in the room. <The computers are useful, but even without them I’m still more powerful than most Imbued. In fact, since much of my equipment profiles barely uses the scanners, I can switch hardware and it’ll be as if the power doesn’t work on me at all.>
<Do you have any preferences for this mission?> Integral seemed as eager to switch subjects as I was.
That is a good question, now that I think about it. <Scrap the targeting system, we know that’s useless.> Not that I need it in the first place. <Set the biomonitor back to its basics. I’ve done as much system hacking as I’m likely to get away with, so we can drop that. I’m tempted to try the stealth field, if only for novelty’s sake. Can we do that without sacrificing the speed and durability augments?> I wasn’t as concerned about strength; there was no point at which my punch could be more effective than a taser or Blue Steel bullets.
<We’ll have it ready for you,> Integral said. <Perhaps the upgraded armor will make you more resistant to the Infiltrator?>
<One can hope. Keep me appraised.> I dropped the link, knowing full well they could turn it back on whenever they liked. I pushed my jogging just a little harder, giving myself to the simple pleasure of good exercise with good muscles. The thrill of pushing oneself was one of the few happy memories I had of my childhood, my personal therapy, and I was in dire need of burning some stress. I picked up speed, while telling my forcefields to create resistance, the net result slowed me down to the speed of a healthy normal athlete, while feeling to me like I was running through water.
I tried not to think too hard on the fact that most of my muscle structure was now some bizarre hybrid grown in a laboratory that, somehow, still registered as ‘human’ to my scanners. Phoebe did say she and Chantelle got a lot of practice beating medical Gadgets. Before, I’d assumed my equipment had been told to overlook my modifications, but recent events had me questioning everything.
By the time I returned to my temporary home, I had managed to produce lactic acid faster than my body could cleanse it. It wouldn’t be long before it wore off, but for now I actually felt sore.
Unfamiliar scents hit me as I opened the door to my apartment. Human. At least three people in addition to Stormbreaker, Alice and myself. I took a slow, deep breath as I stepped into the building. Two male, one female, adults in relatively good health. One has a sickly sweet scent indicative of diabetes or perhaps alcoholism. I hadn’t yet gotten enough experience to differentiate every scent and how it related to illness or drug intake. In any case, the scents were too old for the ‘guests’ to still be here.
I kept calm, forcing myself to act like I wasn’t on high alert even though I knew these people were hidden from my tech. I looked at the dust pile caused by my little spar with Stormbreaker that was now my core source of clues. “Well, there’s a security deposit I’m not getting back.”
They were clever, whomever they were, and my guess was they wore socks over their shoes to avoid leaving telltale prints. They even swept up after themselves to conceal their footprints. Too clever for their own good, they also hid tracks left by Stormbreaker and myself.
I grabbed my broom, sweeping all the junk into the crater in my floor as an excuse to comb my house for clues. I activated the scanners, on the off chance they’d have something useful to say, only to get several little hidden points. Including one inside my landline phone, and another in a smoke detector. <They bugged my apartment.>
<You’re certain?> Professor Abernathy replied. Phoebe and Integral must be working on some other system.
<That’s why they dropped me off so far from home. They needed time to hide all the bugs.> I avoided looking at the hidden devices, though I kept an eye out through the scanners. <Guess they wanted to make certain I wasn’t in contact with the feds or something. Although the one they hid in my shower is just gratuitous.>
<Tells us a great deal about their resources,> Abernathy said. <If they have a Diviner, it must be a limited one or they wouldn’t need the bugs. How comfortable will you be with the one in the shower?”
<Just a minor annoyance as part of the job.> Truth was, I’d spent too many years in the military to get hung up over such a trifle as personal privacy. It helped that what they’d be looking at wasn’t my real appearance. As long as none of my coworkers got hold of the footage, I’d be fine. <I’ll have to remember to eat more than once a day, and pretend to sleep more than an hour a day, that’s all.>
<We’ve already taken steps to rent the apartment above yours. We’ll set some hardware to isolate their signal and piggyback on it.> That was my favorite part of working with Professor Abernathy: she didn’t allow herself to be distracted from the job. <Incidentally, we have confirmed that was Imbued, and he was guilty of the crimes he was charged with. Unfortunately, he was never officially scored and is dead, so my power can’t discern his abilities. My powers also confirm your ‘Alice’ thinks of herself as a ‘Gifter’ power set. She does not think of herself as an Infiltrator of any sort. I wish I could tell you more, but I have only one question, which stays on reserve for emergencies.>
Questions that are worth thousands of dollars a pop. <It’s appreciated. You may also be able to get a crew in my apartment to repair the roof and floor. Also, since I’ve got about six hours to kill in bed pretending to sleep, got some recommendations?>
<If you’re into Westerns, AMC’s running another John Wayne marathon.>
I’m sure my father’s looking forward to that. <How about if I download Journey to the West in the original language? Been meaning to read it, anyway, and it might give Phoebe some insights into how this Infiltrator’s power functions. With any luck, it’ll be one of those that loses strength with repeated exposure. It’s already past my theoretical bedtime, so I’d better get on that.>
Abernathy took the dismissal for what it was. <I’ll let her know when she gets back.>
I went through the usual dressdown routine, including the shower. Other than a hope that whomever monitored me found my visit to the toilet as awkward as I did, it was uneventful. Turns out, Journey to the West was better than I’d expected.
A moderate rainstorm saw to it that I took a taxi to work rather than the usual walk, and somehow I got the only cabbie in New York which obeyed the traffic laws, so my accustomed hour of leeway for arriving at work was reduced to a mere ten minutes.
I wondered if Captain Brown had someone watching to alert him when I arrived, because he was waiting by his door before I walked in. “Ellison, my office, now.” He didn’t quite shout, but he spoke loud enough that everyone heard.
No other person in the office seemed to be hidden from my scanning tech, suggesting none of them were part of the conspiracy. On the other hand, Stormbreaker still registered on my scanners before our fight, and my scanners recognized him in one of the interrogation rooms with a couple other cops. <The police station may have some shield against the power censoring my scanners. I can detect Stormbreaker again. Or perhaps there’s a time limit on the effect and the Infiltrator hasn’t been close enough to reinstall it.>
<Interesting,> Integral said. <Faraday cages are standard in most government buildings, perhaps that’s the critical factor.>
I hoped that would pan out, but it was out of my hands. I stepped into the Chief’s office, and closed the door behind me. Back to acting like a massive asshole. “Finally realize that keeping me behind a desk is a waste of talents?”
“I don’t think anyone could call it a waste.” Chief Brown smiled, but his biosigns didn’t fit the act. “I could afford to put ten cops on the streets for the money I save by having you do the paperwork.”
I smirked at him. “Yeah, but eventually the press is gonna start asking why you’re risking the lives of good cops on patrols in gang territory rather than sending the guy who can take a shotgun slug to the face instead. ‘Cause let’s be honest, every day I’m not out there is a day someone else who’s not bullet proof is.”
The smile vanished from Chief Brown’s face. Whether it was the implied threat of the press, or the reminder that other cops might die out there, he was no longer in the mood to mess around. “I heard you had a run in with Stormbreaker this morning.”
Oh, of course he’d hear about that. “No big deal. We exchanged a few words, then met after work to have man to man discussion. Why do you ask?”
His eyes narrowed as he scrutinized me, though to what end I couldn’t be certain. He might have been part of the conspiracy, wondering what I’d say about them behind their backs, or he could be a man trying to keep valuable members of his precinct from killing one another. “That’s it? Just a discussion? Where was this, and how long did it take.”
“A discussion between men, as I said.” If Chief Brown heard that we traded blows and Empowered attacks, it was on him to bring it up. At which point, I’d ask him if there was any other way to have a man to man discussion. “We met up a few blocks away, spent most of that time shooting the breeze. Turns out, my first impression of him was wrong.” For example, I didn’t think he was a serial killer. “Wouldn’t mind working with him in the field.” If only to learn the extent of his powers and their weaknesses.
“My conditions haven’t changed. You’re grounded until Doctor Montoya says you’re clear for duty.”
“Well, then I hope you know what to do with me, ’cause I don’t know how to suck at my job.”
Chief Brown’s smile was both genuine and sadistic. “As a matter of fact, I may have talked to a couple of the other precincts. Turns out, they have some paperwork backlog as well.”
Son of a bitch.