steel lungs are shouting the house down

pg-13 | no warnings apply

Phi reached up to adjust her glasses before remembering that she didn't have them on. They were only for cosmetic purposes - she looked good in them - but she had developed a habit of pushing them back on her nose when she was nervous.

If Clover was similarly anxious, she was doing a good job of hiding it. She actually seemed pretty damn cheerful. Her pink hair was pulled back in a ponytail, looped through the hole in the back of a bright blue cap. It matched her uniform, which matched the logo on the outside of the large truck she was easily maneuvering down the freeway. Half of the truck held Sigma, Alice, and surveillance equipment; the other half was a fully-functional taco truck, so if anyone actually did come up wanting food, Clover could serve them. Phi doubted there was going to be that much demand for tacos at 8pm on a stormy March evening.

She understood why she had been selected for this job, but she was still uneasy about it.

Joining this fucked-up hate group was easy; they accepted anyone as a member. Anyone who didn't have an obvious genetic deformity, at least. Phi was kind of surprised they didn't ask you for a sequenced genome when you filled out the application online. Plenty of genetic "defects" didn't have obvious phenotypes.

Akane didn't just want someone in the organization, though. She wanted someone to be able to cozy up to the inner circle to gain a better understanding of exactly what they were up to. Both she and Alice thought their best chance was to send in someone who looked like a typical member, in terms of demographics.

Although the website of Americans Concerned, Making Excellence (motto: helping humanity reach the ACME of evolution) reported that they did not believe any one race or ethnicity was superior to another, when Nona hacked their membership list, she discovered the group was 93.4% white. Not terribly surprising, given the fact that they embraced many ideas the Nazis had promoted a hundred years ago. Probably turned off some people.

That eliminated Alice, the Kurashikis, Junpei, and the vast majority of the mostly-Japanese Crash Keys, though.

What did surprise Phi was that the group was also 75.3% female. For some reason, she had assumed hate groups like this were usually male-dominated enterprises. (She made a mental note to do research to see if her thinking was correct.) Maybe it was because their leader was a woman, or maybe it was because of their position on abortion, which was unsettling even to Phi's liberal sensibilities. They didn't just want to keep it legalized; they wanted it to be mandatory in cases of "genetic illness, defect, or other genetic threat to our species".

That knocked out Carlos and Sigma, although neither of them had really been strongly under consideration to begin with. Akane and Junpei both asserted that Carlos's acting needed major work, and after Dcom, nobody seemed confident in Sigma's ability to go undercover and be stealthy about it. Personally, Phi thought he'd be just fine as long as neither she nor Diana were in immediate danger, but she didn't argue too much on his behalf. Having just found her parents three months ago, she wasn't too crazy about losing them any time soon.

With men out of the equation, that further limited the pool to a couple computer technicians, their doctor, a chemist, Diana, Clover, and Phi. Anyone without field training was out of the question, which thankfully eliminated Diana.

Akane had been floating the idea of getting Diana field trained, even though Sigma and Phi kept shutting her down every time. Phi frankly didn't care if her mother had a strong connection to the morphogenetic field; so did a lot of other agents. Diana was still learning how to control it. Just last week, she had been working on her telepathic connection with Sigma and unwittingly brought up a memory of dying in the acid shower in the decontamination room. Maybe it was fucked up that Phi and Sigma were making decisions for Diana without even consulting her, but screw it. Phi was not going to watch her mother be hurt any more than she already had been. Period.

So it was down to Phi and Clover, and Clover ... she ... she meant well.

As repulsive as Phi found most of the group's policies to be, she probably wouldn't be so uncomfortable if she hadn't clicked on the tab about homosexuality. For all their professed enlightenment, they made it very clear that they thought gay people were a genetic mistake. Being gay "prevented natural procreation" according to them, which made them "genetically faulty", just like straight, infertile people. They cited a (since-discredited) article from 2021 declaring they had located the "gay genes" and advocated genetic testing and mandatory abortion for any fetus that had them.

So she was going to be trying to infiltrate a group that thought she was an aberration that should have been eliminated in her mother's womb.

She felt silly about it now, but she had been anxious about coming out to her parents. Or at least, coming out to Diana. She had been fairly confident that Sigma wouldn't have an issue with it, even though she suspected in his younger days, he might have been one of those guys who thought an appropriate reaction to learning a woman was gay was to ask if he could watch. Diana may have been one of the nicest people she had ever met, but Phi had met plenty of nice people who turned out to be fucking bigots. She still remembers coming out to her high school physics teacher and seeing the admiration in his eyes turn to disgust.

Phi had waited to say something until a family dinner with a nice bottle of chardonnay, and of course Diana's reaction had been to ask if that meant Phi had a girlfriend and could she meet her, not right away of course, because they had just been reunited and she didn't want to make things awkward but it would be nice if she could meet the special person in her daughter's life and maybe Phi could invite her over to dinner but only if Phi wanted to and that was when Sigma gently took the glass of wine out of Diana's hand, just in time to stop Phi from possibly actually crying.

When Clover was four blocks away, she pulled over and let Phi out. Phi made sure Sigma and Alice could hear her over the microphone as she made her way down the street as quickly as she could. Her umbrella was large, but the wind blew the rain against her legs, so her shins were wet by the time she reached the building housing the ACME meeting.

After signing in with her fake name, she asked where the bathroom was, killing both the audio and video feed until she was out of the stall, because her father really did not need to experience her peeing. She turned it back on before grabbing paper towels and drying herself off the best she could.

"Visual okay?" she murmured as tossed the wadded up paper towels in the trash.

"Video and audio are good," Alice responded.

Phi headed into the auditorium, slightly stunned by how full it was. There were only maybe a few dozen seats left open in a room that was supposed to seat three thousand. She knew not all the people here were necessarily already members, and some of them might have been protestors, but it was still surprising. And depressing.

She got as close as she could - a seat in row fifteen - and settled down with the booklet she had been handed at the door. On the cover, there was a group of cheerful-looking young people. In spite of what they had learned from the membership rolls, and very, very white crowd that had gathered, the photograph showed a variety of ethnicities. A black man was smiling broadly at a possibly Hispanic woman. A woman with a hijab was holding hands with a man who Phi guessed was supposed to be Korean, based on the writing on his shirt. The inclusion of a dark-skinned man with a feather headdress and another one in a fur-lined parka, looking like an Eskimo stereotype, made it pretty clear that this wasn't actually a representation of any group within ACME; it was there to convince the white members that although they were spouting Nazi ideology, they weren't anything like the racists they were idolizing.

Look, we're inclusive! it screamed. Don't have to feel guilty even if our speeches sound like they came out of Mein Kampf.

The lights dimmed and before their leader even stepped on the stage, people started applauding and cheering. Phi felt ridiculous, but she joined in, then sat back down and pulled out her notebook and pen.

Alice hadn't been able to figure out the woman's real name; she called herself Idylla and looked the epitome of Hitler's perfect race - blonde hair, blue eyes, pale skin. She wore a low-cut white gown with double-D boobs practically falling out. It barely made it to her mid-thigh and didn't leave much to the imagination, as if to brag that her genetics gave her a shapely figure.

Which made it even more surprising to Phi that there weren't more men here.

She waved to the adoring crowd for only a moment before gesturing for them to sit down.

"I would ask you why you are here, but I believe I already know. You're here because you see what's happening around you, and you're sick of it. You're here because humanity isn't at a standstill; we're going backwards. You're here because you're tired of watching your tax dollars support the unfit. You're watching them hold us back, and you're angry!"

The people around her got on their feet again, so Phi dutifully stood and cheered.

When they settled down, Idylla continued. "No good farmer allows their weakest stock to breed. No good gardener allows weeds to grow up around their plants. So why are we allowing the weakest and most defective of us to continue to reproduce? The energy and the money spent on taking care of these burdens of society could be much better spent. Look around you. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Our health care system is going bankrupt."

"Phi, don't."

She resented her father's voice in her ear. Only the people surrounding her stopped her from stating out loud that unlike some people named Sigma she had no problem controlling herself and not getting into an argument with idiots telling blatant lies.

When it was required by the job, anyway.

"Our government runs work programs to give the disabled jobs. Jobs that you and I need. Jobs that could feed our children. We are suffering and the government is wasting their money on people who should have never been born!"

More cheering. Phi honestly expected someone to start screaming Sieg Heil at any moment. In the middle of the cheering, though, a group in front of her caused a commotion. They stood and took off their jackets; it was only when they turned around that Phi saw they had swastikas with a red line through them on their shirts. They tried to shout, but the rest of the crowd immediately turned on them. The woman closest to them started punching the loudest one - probably the leader.

"Do you need me to come in?"

Phi shook her head emphatically, although she probably could have verbally answered Sigma's question with no problem; nobody was paying attention to anything except the protestors. Idylla had security converging on the fracas and soon things had calmed down. There was no need for her father to barge in and act like a clichéd superhero, whisking her away and ruining the operation.

By the time the speech was over, Phi's throat was sore from shouting. Idylla could only go a few sentences before her supporters began applauding or screaming accolades. Her speech had little actual content and mostly seemed composed of slogans to fit on bumper stickers, slogans that everyone began chanting as soon as the words were out of her mouth. Phi had felt particularly uncomfortable during the section on how homosexuality needed to be eradicated ("engineer the gay away!"), but she was confident she had played her role well.

Thirty-three hundred dollars of the Crash Keys' money had gotten her a VIP pass to an individual meeting with Idylla after the main event. Phi had to go through a metal detector and show her ID before being let in, and had to wait almost an hour before it was finally her turn. Sitting off to Idylla's side was a stunningly beautiful woman who was tapping away at a tablet. Like Idylla, this woman had pale skin, but her hair was a deep blue shade that couldn't possibly be natural. Her dress, her lipstick, and even her mascara were also a dark blue.

If they had met in another time or place, if she wasn't part of such a hateful group, Phi might have asked her out.

"I'm Rada," Phi told Idylla as she shook her hand. "Your speech was excellent."

"Thank you. I find it's easy to speak about something when you're truly passionate about it." She apparently noticed that Phi's gaze kept drifting to the blue-haired woman. "This is Nuria, my assistant."

Idylla gestured to the chair in front of her. As Phi sat, she adjusted her shirt so that the button cam would have a good view. She resolved to stop staring at Nuria; she may have been drop-dead gorgeous but she worked for a sociopath. Not to mention it might tip them off that maybe she wasn't exactly straight.

"What brings you here? Nuria says this your first time with us. I'm rather surprised you would pay the extra money for this. It's usually something our long-term members do."

She cast her eyes down, hoping to look shy. "This ... this is something I've become passionate about, as well. It hits very close to home."

"I hear that so often." Idylla leaned forward, put a warm hand over hers. "Family member?"

"My brother."

"Ah. You had to watch him suffer?"

Phi swallowed hard. "We were separated at birth, actually. When we were reunited, I discovered he had a ... a definite defect. My family and I would probably have been better off if he had never been born."

Although she had practiced her backstory repeatedly in front of the mirror, this was the first time Sigma was hearing any of this. Maybe she should have given him a heads up.

"I assume he was given up because of his defect. It happens so often. Your parents couldn't care for him?"

She shook her head and bit her lip. It wasn't hard to induce tears. "They didn't have the resources. Abortion was a possible option, but they didn't take it. Because of that, people suffered."

"Often people don't realize the burden the unfit put on our society until it affects them directly." Idylla turned to Nuria, who had already anticipated her boss's request and handed her a USB drive. "This has a copy of my second book on it. It'll work with your Kindle or any generic e-reader, or you can put it on your computer. Most of my other works are on economic costs but this one covers the emotional cost of shouldering the unfit. It looks like you're still dealing with the fallout from it."

"I don't know if I'll ever fully recover from it."

She hoped Sigma couldn't hear the truth in her words. She had a job she actually liked, with enough money and spare time to resume her goal of having two PhDs under her belt before she turned 22. She had found the father she never expected to meet and the mother she thought was dead. She was happy, and actual good had come out of all of this shit, but that only mitigated the trauma and the pain of everything she went through. It didn't erase it, make up for it.

"Oh, honey." With that, Idylla was up on her feet, tugging on Phi's hands to pull her up into a hug. Phi didn't attempt to hide her discomfort; she presumed it would be normal for someone with her fake background to dislike physical contact. Idylla released her, but then cupped her face in her hands. "Things will get better. Especially now that you're here. We're working for people like you. We're on your side."

After twenty more minutes in the same vein, Idylla apologized and said she had to meet with the next supporter. Phi was grateful; Idylla was entirely too touchy-feely. Idylla excused herself to use the restroom and Phi turned to go, stopped only by a pale hand on her arm.

"I'm sorry about that," Nuria said in a soft voice. "She has no concept of personal space."

Phi laughed, relaxing a little bit for the first time since she had walked in. "Yeah. I noticed that."

"She's a good person. That book really can help you. It helped me." It seemed like she had more to say about that, but was distracted by the opening of the boardroom door. "Oh, I'm sorry. This is her next appointment. I hope we'll see you around, Rada."

She dashed across the room to greet the young woman who had just entered. Phi passed by both of them on the way out.

The rain had stopped, so she tapped her umbrella on the street as she walked back to the truck. Over her earpiece, she could hear Sigma yelling for Clover to start packing things up and stop playing around with the hot sauce while Alice was doing something on the computer, her long nails making tapping sounds on the keyboard.

"You guys save me any food?" she said as she knocked on the back door. Clover let her in with a smile and handed her a delicious-smelling taco on a cheap cardboard street-food tray. Phi plucked her earbud out and placed it on the table as she sat down next to Sigma. Propping her feet up, she took a bite out of her dinner. "This is really good," she shouted up to the front as Clover started to drive them away.

"I told you I didn't use too much hot sauce!" Clover yelled back, presumably at Sigma, who sighed and rolled his eyes.

"Look at this," Alice instructed. "Sigma noticed this tattoo on the shoulder of the woman who came in as you were leaving."

"A ship's wheel? So she's a sailor?"

Sigma crossed his arms over his chest and frowned at her. "Did you even read Akane's report on her vision?"

She had to think for a second; the report Sigma and the others had gotten would have had the salient points while leaving out anything that would have clued them into the fact that the information came straight from Delta's mind. Now that he had said something, she did remember Akane mentioning a tattoo. But better to play dumb then accidentally reveal something.

"It's a dharmachakra, actually, I think," Alice said. "The 'wheel of law' or 'wheel of transformation'. After Sigma noticed it, I ran a pattern recognition program and found this."

Images popped up on the screen; Phi hadn't even noticed it at the time, but apparently a dozen more people there at the lecture had the same tattoo. "So people in this group are into karma. What's the point?"

"This symbol isn't anywhere on any of their official documents. And with the sheer fabric of that tiny dress, I think we would have noticed if Idylla had one."

"You think it's a group within a group?"

"Akane did say she didn't think ACME's leader was behind this," Sigma pointed out.

Phi was inclined to agree. Idylla was an irritating bigot, but she reveled in the attention she got from her fans. A nuclear war would decimate her population of lapdogs. Not to mention radiation would do a number on her carefully-coifed hairdo. Her rhetoric, though, could inspire the wrong person into thinking humanity was polluted beyond repair, and maybe the only solution was to destroy it all.

Alice's computer started beeping; she grinned as she brought up the minimized window.

"I got a hit off the Tattoo Recognition Database."

"What's that?" Sigma asked.

Before Alice could respond, Phi butted in. "It's a database of images of tattoos that the police and immigration use to profile people, violate their civil rights, and deny them entry into the country."

The other woman scoffed. "Actually, it's a database that agencies like mine use to keep people like you and your family safe from terrorists and gang members."

"Do you deny that we gave this technology to China in 2021 so they could persecute -?"

"Could you two knock it off?" Sigma pinched his nose. "Just tell us what it found."

"Two - no, three people in prison with similar tattoos."

In spite of her ethical objection to the software, Phi leaned forward. "What are they in for?"

"Give me a ..." Her voice fell flat as their files came up. "Kidnapping, breaking into a pharmacy to steal drugs, and tax evasion."

Sigma sighed with disappointment while Phi slumped back down in her chair. "Well," she said. "If there was a guy in prison for trying to start a nuclear war, that would have been a little too easy."

"Yeah." Phi saw Alice save the profiles, anyway, just in case, before returning to the video footage. If she was annoyed by Sigma leaning in close and occasionally taking the mouse to focus in on something, she didn't show it. Alice took something out of her pants pocket and began flipping it over with the fingers of her unoccupied hand.

Just two weeks prior, Alice had pressed that same challenge coin into Phi's hand, whispering that she couldn't meet with the contact as planned; she saw someone she recognized and she knew she'd be identified if she went into the café.

"You show that to him, he'll know you're with me," she had said.

It was jet black with a gold rim, a woman's face in profile on one side, and the phrase "be polite, be professional, have a plan to kill everyone you meet" along with a lipstick imprint on the other. Phi had come to realize Alice fiddled with it whenever she was frustrated by lack of answers.

By the time Clover had them back at headquarters, Alice had identified a dozen attendees with criminal records, using facial recognition software. She loaded the files onto a drive and tucked it between her breasts as she hopped out of the back of the truck, pausing for a moment to turn around and look at Phi.

"Not bad," she said before leaving.

Phi sighed and turned to Sigma. "Probably the closest to a compliment I'm going to get out of her, isn't it?"

He didn't respond, staring at the blank computer screen, fingers drumming on the table. She was pretty sure she knew what he was thinking, and was dreading the conversation if he decided to bring it up. She hadn't even known Sigma would be coming along; Akane asked him to go with them in case they needed "muscle", which Phi privately thought was ridiculous. It was just a recon mission in a public arena, and even if something went south during her meeting with Idylla, she could handle her damn self, and Alice was certainly sufficient for backup.

"You know what Akane says about lying," she said, hoping to head off the conversation before it started. "It's best to hide a lie within a truth. Easier to remember, easier to portray convincingly, easier for them to swallow."

"So you don't..." He trailed off, and for a brief moment, Phi could see agony on his face.

If she were being honest, there were times when she genuinely blamed him and Akane for the whole mess. But she could just as easily blame herself. She was the one who suggested using the bomb. She ran away with Diana, giving him the opportunity to try to disarm it. She was the one who checked on Mira, moving in close enough to allow her to stab her with the syringe. She was the one who wasn't fast enough to get inside before the entry collapsed, who hadn't anticipated Diana's moves. She was the one who carried Radical-6 to the outside world.

"I blame Delta, dumbass. Even if he had to recreate everything to make sure he was born, he didn't have to kill people to do it. You and Akane both set up games to activate esper ability where people didn't have to die. Which was still fucked-up, don't get me wrong, but there were ways to 'win' with everyone surviving. Delta is a twisted fuck who probably got his rocks off watching people suffer."

"The only reason he existed is because -"

"Because you and Diana suck at anti-family planning. I know. Nobody's hands are clean in this, Sigma. I could sit here for hours and theorize that if Akane didn't do this, or if Carlos had done that, or if you and Diana hadn't done this, then none of this would have happened. But it did, and pointing fingers and assigning blame isn't going to do shit to save the world."

Sigma didn't look entirely reassured, but just like Idylla had, he took her hands to pull her up and into a hug, to which she feigned resistance. With his height and his muscle, he towered over her, engulfed her. But just like with Diana, there was such a familiar smell, and clichéd as it may be, she felt safe in his arms. As impossible as it was for an infant's brain to retain a memory, she swore she could recall him holding her as a baby. Probably just a wistful dream.

Lingering too long would ruin her reputation, though, so after a while, she said, "Okay, grandpa, I think that's enough."

His eyes were shinier than usual as she stepped back, and she felt a pang of guilt. But she was right; wallowing in the past was useless unless it could provide some clue to stopping the fanatic. It wasn't her fault if he couldn't let it go.

She let him walk her to her car, even though the SOIS garage was probably the safest place in the city to park. The ride home was uneventful, if a bit too long, and she decided against a quick nap before her early morning class. She took out her notebook - her scribbled quotes and comments strategically annotated with things like "yes!" and "exactly!" to avoid suspicion if she was questioned - and began to search for key phrases.

Idylla had plagiarized heavily from Hitler, but also biologists and politicians. And, it appeared, politicians were plagiarizing from her. Her numbers on the "thirty million" genetically unfit people who were draining Medicaid dry had been used by two different candidates for public office. Both of them had been defeated by their opponents ... but just barely. If Phi hadn't been so cynical to begin with, it would have been disheartening. The vast majority of people who survived the Holocaust were dead. People said "never forget" but often did anyway.

But if this was the case, and Akane's clues from Delta's mind were true about this group influencing the fanatic ... their suspect pool might be bigger than they thought.