Heat Wave: Charging Up


I was rebuilding an electromagnet from scratch when the phone call came.

I try not to mix phone calls and electrical work as a rule, but I had just switched to a new phone, and the only one who had the number so far was Hangman, and not because I’d given it to him but because he always seems to have my number. I frowned and set aside the magnet and moved to the other side of the workbench where I had left my jacket, fished my phone out and answered.

Now like I said before, usually, when Hangman calls, he, or she, sends me a fax as a signal, but today I got to speak the man himself. Or, at least, I got to talk to a computer generated, flat and expressionless voice. That kind of theater is a little overdramatic for my tastes, but I’ll admit that it serves to keep some of the mystery surrounding the Internet’s biggest information dealer intact.

I didn’t know that when I answered the phone, though, I was expecting the usual electronic mess. So I just pushed the call button and waited.

After a moment, I heard the voice drifting up from the speaker saying, “Pick up the phone, Circuit.”

I raised an eyebrow and put the phone on speaker and took it back to my work area. Since magnets can scramble electronics I put what I had been working on away and pulled out a set of microbatteries to keep my hands busy while I was talking. “This is unusual. To what do I owe the honor?”

“Just calling because I wanted to ensure my newest cash cow doesn’t get arrested before he really starts spending money.”

“Arrested? Me?” I finished working the batteries into a sequence and picked up the vest I planned to set them it. While it was designed as tactical load-bearing gear, it looked like part of a three piece suit. Appearance is as important as ideals, after all. “What makes you think I’ll be arrested in the near future? Or at all?”

“Call it a hunch,” Hangman replied.

“I take it that having this hunch explained to me will cost money,” I said, amused. Perhaps it’s a side effect of my talent, but working with electronics always puts me in good humor.

There was a long pause from the phone, and for a moment I thought I’d lost the signal. Then Hangman said, “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you’re a cynic, given your line of work.”

“My dear man,” I said, taking a pair of needle nosed pliers in one hand and the vest in another, “cynicism is an entry requirement. Don’t confuse that with callousness or some other lack of feeling.”

“So you’re not worried about it? Then I can-”

“I am always concerned about the possibility of arrest,” I said, interrupting. While it might seem rude I was glad of the opportunity to do so, as I noticed that there didn’t seem to be any lag time between my interruption and when Hangman stopped speaking. I kept talking as I thought about that. “What I’ve learned to do is be philosophical about it. You’ll learn to do the same.”

“Is that a fact?”

Hangman didn’t dispute my status as the older, more experienced of us. Another little tidbit to file away. “So tell me, how much will an explanation of your little hunch cost me?”

“This time, perhaps more than you’re willing to pay.”

I stopped my hands’ continuous busywork at that, raising one eyebrow in curiosity even though Hangman couldn’t see it. “What exactly is that supposed to mean?”

“It means I want you to do me a favor.”

There was another silence as I thought about that. Hangman seemed inclined to let me stew. Finally I said, “I won’t do you an unnamed favor. I’m a sensible man; I don’t deal in any of that unspecified debt hanging over your head stuff. If you don’t know what you want then just ask for money. It’s almost as good.”

“No,” Hangman said, and there was a stutter from the speaker that could have been a laugh before the computer mashed it into an emotionless noise. “I know exactly what I want. If we make this trade, I keep you out of jail and you tell me exactly what it is you’re trying to do.”

“What, you mean you don’t know already?” I said, letting surprise fill my voice.

“I specialize in acquiring facts, but I don’t always have the expertise to understand what they mean.” I heard a loud clicking noise over the phone that I couldn’t quite place. Apparently Hangman’s voice modification software hadn’t been programmed to filter out whatever it was.

Strangely enough, Hangman’s voice got louder as if he was trying to be heard over it. Was he near train tracks? Or was this deliberate disinformation to keep me guessing? It was hard to tell just how subtle he really was, particularly when he did things like bluntly asking what I was doing.

“At the moment, I’m working on creating a highly advanced microstorage device for-”

“Not what I’m asking, Circuit. You’ve been quietly moving around North America for the last ten years, building resources and making connections, but other than that you’ve not done anything of note. Sure, you’ve stolen enough money to keep afloat and build whatever it is you build, but you’re remarkably quiet for a person with talent operating outside of sanctioned channels. What is it you’re aiming for?”

“Who says I’m aiming for anything?” I said innocuously. “I’m just in it for the money.”

“Then you’d be competition for me, not a customer,” Hangman said. There was another of the odd, stuttering noises. “No, if money is what you wanted you’d be retired already. I want to know what you’re really after.”

“Why should I explain myself to you?” I said. “You’ve already mentioned I could be arrested. Avoiding that now is as easy as going to ground. I don’t need to hear the rest.”

“Not even if Double Helix is involved?”

I froze for just a moment. That shouldn’t have been enough to tell Hangman anything, but I heard the eerie sound of modified laughter again and Hangman said, “Does he bother you that much?”

“Not enough to make me want to explain myself to you.” I said sourly.

“Okay,” Hangman said, and I swear it managed to sound placating even after whatever computer mangling the sound went through. “I’ll add a little more carrot. We can meet in person and you can tell me all about your plans.”

Now that was valuable. So far as I knew, Hangman never met anyone in person. It would give us each something over the other, to keep the tables balanced. “That’s fair,” I said, curiosity about Hangman getting the better of common sense for just a moment. “But not now. The meeting comes in a month or so.”

“Assuming you’re not in jail?”

“Yes, assuming that,” I conceded. My hands had fallen idle and I set them back to work. “Now tell me about why I’m in such danger of being arrested.”

“Have you heard of Senator Brahms Dawson?”

“The name is familiar,” I said. “From Montana, isn’t he?”

“Wisconsin.” A brief pause that could have been anything from pulling a file to taking a drink. “Dawson and Special Liaison Michael Voorman have been quietly struggling over the direction of Project Sumter for the last six years.”

“I didn’t know they had a Senate committee,” I said. “I did know that Dawson is a big advocate for genetic research. I could see how that would make him unpopular with most of the talents in the Project.”

“He’s proposed a tracking system for known talents along with mandatory DNA analysis,” Hangman said.

“Which means most of Voorman’s talents probably side with him over the Senator,” I said. “What does this have to do with getting me arrested?”

“Double Helix is the embodiment of what the Senator wants from talents,” Hangman said.

“Right,” I said, accepting that I was just going to have to listen to Hangman’s whole explanation before we got to the relevant point. Hopefully no one was planning on arresting me right that second. “What is it about Helix that the Senator wants? He’s very good at what he does, but he’s never struck me as politically minded.”

“He’s not really. Mostly, I think the Senator is attracted to the hereditary nature of his involvement with the Project,” Hangman replied.

“Hereditary?” That was the first I’d heard of it.

“Do you know where the Project gets its name?”

I thought for a moment as I tried on the vest, making sure the fit was right and nothing was poking me. “I was under the impression it was named that because the first government sanctioned talent operated during the Civil War.”

“Correct,” Hangman said. The rest sounded suspiciously like a lecture long rehearsed. “The very first talent in Project records is known as Corporal Sumter.”

I frowned. The first three talents in Project records are somewhat infamous among talents outside the Project, mainly because it seems like none of us know what their talents were. There’s been rampant speculation, but I’d never even heard of someone knowing their codenames before. My estimation of Hangman’s talents went up another notch.

Not that he had stopped talking while I was busy being surprised. “The Corporal went up against a total of three different Confederate talents over the course of the War Between the States, most of them more than once.”

“Such as Sherman’s Bane and the Bushwhacker?” I asked, anxious to shorten this lecture somehow. I dislike long phone calls. While I don’t think Hangman would try and track me, he had to know I’d be leaving this location as soon as our conversation was done as a guard against arrest if nothing else. There’s always the possibility someone else is out there looking.

“Those are two of them,” Hangman admitted. “Sherman’s Bane is particularly relevant to this discussion.”

“Because he’s the first heat sink in Project records?” I asked. This line of thought was starting to make sense.

“Not only that,” Hangman assured me. “I understand that, if you go six or seven generations back, he’s also in Helix’s family tree.”

I whistled. “Hereditary talent and a Senator with an interest in genetic research.”

It’s not unheard of for talents to run in families, but by the same token it’s not a given, either. While no one’s ever isolated a gene for any talent that I’ve heard of, the accepted wisdom is that they’re recessive, meaning they show up only when both parents have the trait somewhere in the family history, and even then only rarely. I could see how a politician with a passion for genetics could see finding proof for that theory as a worthy goal.

“Senator Dawson is also an aggressive humanist,” Hangman continued. “He doesn’t like the idea of a select breed of specially talented people rising up into a new oligarchy.”

“Meaning what?” I asked.

“Meaning he’s used his position on Project Sumter’s oversight committee to try a number of things,” Hangman answered. “He’s tried to shut it down, to force it to register all talented individuals-”

“That doesn’t mesh well with the Project’s insistence on keeping talents a secret,” I said.

“He’s against that too. His latest idea is to basically boils down to locating talents and then trying to switch of the genes that give them their abilities so future generations will be stock humans.”

“Which is fascinating, I’m sure,” I said, running my hands down the front of my vest and searching it for anything out of place and pleased not to find it. “How does this result in my impending imprisonment?”

“Dawson needs to gain standing with the Project,” Hangman replied. Once again I found myself projecting smug satisfaction into his expressionless voice and forced myself to stop, so I could evaluate his next statements without prejudice. “To do that he’s been grooming an oversight agent who will be starting with the Project tomorrow, and whose sole duty will be to find and arrest you.”

“Thus proving that this agent, most likely with some help of the Senator’s, is able to do something Project Sumter hasn’t been able to accomplish for nearly ten years,” I said, nodding as I saw the logic.

“I have solid information that suggests the Senator is aware of several of your safe houses, and will be moving against them in the next week.”

“And what makes you think I can’t deal with this on my own?”

“Oh, I know you could,” Hangman said. Now I knew he was being smug. He never wastes time on empty phrases like that unless he’s gloating. I know, I’ve lost to him in Scrabble many times before. “What might put you off your game is learning that the agent’s name is Teresa Herrera.”

I froze. It was just for a moment, but that name took me back eight years, to the heady days when I was just a rookie talent, an unknown with no file at all in Project Sumter’s archives. “Herrera? You’re sure about that?”

“Yes. She’ll be oversight for Double Helix until she learns the ropes.” There was another pause, then a distorted noise that could have once been a sigh. “You have history with both of them. You can’t beat him, you can’t get away from her. I thought you’d like to know. So you could take measures.”

Slowly I dragged myself back to the present, found myself nodding to a hard used workbench with a disposable phone sitting on it. A useless gesture to an empty room. I frowned, for once feeling like I should just take a week off and sleep for a while. But the life I’ve chosen doesn’t allow for that kind of thing.

“Thank you, Hangman,” I said, wondering how long I’d been silent. “That is very useful to me. I think I need to make a slight change in direction for the next week or two.”

“How so?”

“You wanted to know what this was all about, right?” I shrugged. “Consider this a down payment: For what I’m planning to work, I’ll need the men and women of Project Sumter on my side.”

“Well, most of them don’t like Senator Dawson much,” Hangman said. “But I don’t know how you’ll be able to use that to overcome the twenty or thirty felony counts in your file.”

“Easy,” I said, peeling off my vest and rolling up my sleeves in preparation for some serious work. “I can’t have people burning my city down any more than they can.”

I turned away from the bench and moved down the wall to a large map of the city. I pull the letter that was pinned next to it down and looked it over once. “What can you tell me about the Firestarter case, Hangman?”

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Fiction Index


What’s the hardest part about writing for me? If you guessed “voice”, you probably stopped to read the title of this post! Voice is a weird art form, it involves picking and choosing the right words and patterns for your writing, in order to reflect your character.

Now for a person who uses third person omniscient narrative, that really only matters in dialog. You can describe events however you wish, developing a fly on the wall style or what have you, all while showing your writing abilities to their best advantage. You will have a narrative voice, but it will be all your own, and you don’t have to share headspace with anyone else while you’re writing it.

On the other hand, if you write from the first person perspective everything you write has to be filtered through your character, his or her likes, dislikes, personality, vocabulary and moods.

I normally write in the third person, so Heat Wave is something of a deviation from the norm for me. Part of the reason I avoid the first person is my difficulty with voice.

While I do like to tell stories, I often feel that there is one way to tell that story and then refine that method until the story runs like a well oiled machine. Yes, I stand in the shower and tell myself the same story over and over again, so that when it comes time to tell it for real I’ll be able to rattle it off just right, with solid delivery and no pausing. I can be obsessive like that.

While compulsive editing and revising is a good thing for a writer, in my case it has also made me very set in my patterns and habits. Differentiating voice is not always easy for me.

Of course, Heat Wave is told in two voices. As you can probably imagine, developing and maintaining distinct, individual voices for Helix and Circuit was and is challenging, and I’m not really sure they’re as distinct as I would like. While each character has a very concrete list of does and don’ts that dictate what kind of vocabulary, phraseology and tone they should strike, neither one is particularly close to my usual narrative voice. Maintaining their individual quirks and patterns is a constant challenge and requires both vigilance and careful editing.

If you’ve been reading for a while it should come as no surprise that I consider back story to be a big part of understanding voice. A person’s vocabulary and word usage is determined, in no small part, by their family and friends, the people they’ve listened to all their life, combined with their level of education and opinions of others. Their tone is an outgrowth of their personality and circumstances. Generally, once you have these two things down working out voice is just a matter refining, the catch is to keep the voice in mind.

People may look at you weird, but tell yourself stories in the tones and patterns of your characters. Don’t start with anything complicated, like trying to retell part of your novel in a new character’s voice. Just babble about the events of the day, or a funny commercial you saw on TV (assuming you watch TV) or even what you’re seeing at the moment. Then enjoy the weird looks and improved feel for voice!

Oh, and if you have the time, enjoy watching me try to keep Helix and Circuit straight. You wouldn’t think it, but it can be very difficult at times…

Uncool Thing: Daylight Savings Time

Time for a little twist on things: let’s talk about Daylight Savings Time (summer time for you folks across the pond.) I loath Daylight Savings Time.

I’m sure there are at least one or two reasons to think about adopting DST. I’m told it somehow saves us energy, though given how much of our society runs ’round the clock now I find that hard to believe. Still, I’ll grant that the people who collect this data are probably right, George Barna I am not.

But that’s the only really relevant reason for it I’ve heard, for the most part people just want Daylight Savings Time because it gives them “more” daylight in the evening. For this, we change our clocks twice a year, wind up with ruined sleep cycles and stagger around like zombies for two weeks.

Maybe it’s a racket by the coffee growers. There have got to be at least a few people who go out and get themselves addicted while trying to shake off the blahs that come with having your sleep schedule kicked around by a full hour twice a year. Even if only a couple of hundred thousand people make extra trips to Starbucks twice a year it’s probably a noticeable bump in income. But maybe not.

A decade ago my home state of Indiana sided with the eminently sensible folks in Arizona and didn’t bother with DST. Unfortunately, then we elected our current Governor, Mitch Daniels, who pushed through a bill to adopt it. His reasoning was that, by falling into lockstep with the rest of the nation we made it easier for local businesses to work across state lines because out of state businesses wouldn’t have to try and remember what time it was in Indiana anymore. I suppose that’s well and good, but it doesn’t do much to explain why the whole country needs to be on Daylight Savings Time.

If you’ve ever seen the movie National Treasure you know that Riley Poole mentions DST first being proposed by Benjamin Franklin. Surely such a wise man had a good reason for proposing such a radical change to the way time was kept, right? Well, no, if you actually look into it he was satirizing the French and what he viewed as a bad habit of sleeping in while the sun was up. He also proposed taxing candles (which allowed people to stay up later) and window shutters (which helped people sleep when the sun was shining.) But if all people wanted was a life clock set by the sun they don’t need to go around screwing with the clocks twice a year. Just learn to get up earlier and never get out of the habit.

I’ve become convinced that the only real reason that the US bothers with DST anymore is because somewhere, in some insignificant little federal office, there’s a bureaucrat of no real consequence who’s only pleasure in life is drawing up the DST time change schedules every year and cackling about how he has the power to control time! Then he files his paperwork, sure that his tiny little moment of egotistical power will be backed by the full might of the Federal Government and moves on until next year, sure that no one will ever be the wiser to his clever little mind games.

Well, guess what, DST guy? I’m on to you. One day, you’ll get yours. Tell your friends at Starbucks that I won’t be joining them this year, either.

Heat Wave: Feed the Flames


To most people it probably seems strange that I could be relieved of duty one day and, not twenty four hours later, walk back into the office to take on a new position. It’s not really a surprise if you think about it, though. There are over four hundred living talents on record in the continental U.S., yet the Project employs only eighty-eight of them.

With those eighty-eight talents the Project must keep a vigilant eye out for criminals who are aided by talent, try to find new talents as they crop up and warn them to try and keep a low profile, and remain ever vigilant against the possibility that foreign powers will use talents as spies, or worse, soldiers. As you can imagine, we’re pretty busy. Unless we’ve done something that seriously threatens the public interest, Project Sumter can’t afford to remove us from duty for more than a week or so and that’s more like a slap on the wrist than a real disciplinary measure.

Sure, coming back in less than a day was unusual, but these are strange times even without Senator Dawson in the picture.

When I walked into the office the next day I didn’t head up to the floor where Sanders and the rest of our team usually meets. For one thing, I wasn’t really a part of his team anymore, which was both freeing and uncomfortable. I’ve worked with Sanders since I started with the Project, and there’s a certain amount of familiarity to him no matter how much I think he’s a shallow jerk. Also, if the Senator was involved in getting someone appointed to the Project I had no doubt he’d be there to log some face time with the “regular Joes” who worked with us talents and we don’t receive VIPs upstairs.

But most importantly, the phone call I got told me to go to one of the ground floor visitor’s meeting room.

If I hadn’t been sure that Brahms Dawson would come to see his pasty off on her first day of work before I got to the office all doubts would have been removed as soon as I stepped in the door. The ground floor reception area was crawling with people who had the unmistakable look of private security agents. To the man on the street telling the difference between a private security firm and a member of the FBI might seem challenging. After all, we both wear dark colored suits to work every day, unless we’re undercover, right?

Here’s the secret: Private security can afford nicer suits than we can.

Unlike the reception areas on the other floors, our ground floor entrance sees the occasional guest from the general public, and as such has things like chairs, potted plants and receptionists who know how to smile in order to make people feel more at ease. It’s a nice contrast to, say, Records, where there’s no seating and Cheryl will scowl at you until get out of her foyer and get back to work.

The only concession to the secure nature of the building in the public entrance is Shelob’s desk, where our unusual building security chief can usually be found. Except that morning Shelob wasn’t there, replaced with one of the many security suits that mobbed the area. I had to go right past him to get to the conference room and I hadn’t even gotten to the desk when he spoke up.

“Sir, you can’t go back there,” the suit said. He got up from the computer terminal he’s been sitting at. From where I was standing I could see that, regardless of whether this guy had booted Shelob during the Senator’s visit, they’d seen fit to leave to leave her feeds from the outside security cameras untouched, so at least they had some good sense.

I held up my ID, which should have been enough to get me inside this or any other building connected to the FBI or Project Sumter. “I’m cleared for this area.”

“Yes, sir, I can see that,” the bodyguard said. “But right now the main conference room is being used by Senator Dawson and Mr. Voorman, and the Senator does not want to be disturbed.”

Now all the conference rooms in our building are pretty much the same size, and I was tempted to point out that only the enormous ego of a US Senator could instantly transform one into the “main” conference room, but in the end I figured I was best served by letting it be. If Dawson and Voorman were hashing something out it was probably best that I leave well enough alone. Voorman may not be my favorite person to work with, but he’s better at making sure the Project and its Talents are looked after than anyone I know.

I shrugged and said, “Okay, if that’s the way he wants it. Does he know you’re watching that?”

The man started slightly and turned back to his computer in surprise, one of his camera feeds had changed to a documentary on the life and habits of wild donkeys. I left the guard to work out how that might have happened and walked back into the foyer. The one person who didn’t look like he belonged to a high class rent-a-cop service appeared to be in his late fifties, was dressed in a long sleeved shirt in spite of the heat, and sat on one of the benches with a briefcase and a cane by his side.

I walked over and sat down next to him. “How are you, Broadband?”

“Well enough, Helix.” Broadband’s face twiched, followed by the sound of muted cursing from the man at the desk. “Just here to file some reports with Cheryl.”

“What’s the hold up?”

“The elevator is currently undergoing a security check that would be compromised by the presence of unauthorized personnel.” Broadband grimaced and rubbed one knee. “I guess I’m stuck here until they free it up.”

I grunted. “If the Senator’s still on the ground floor, what do they care about the elevator for?”

Another twitch of the muscles on Broadband’s face. “I don’t know, son. I don’t know.”

“Funny,” I said. “I met a man the other day who didn’t want to be my dad. Now you’re volunteering.”

Broadband laughed. “Takes all kinds, son. Let an old man talk, you might learn something. Why the other day, while I was in Cincinnati with the boys…”

He kept rambling and I let him. Harmless talk is one of the things that makes him so go at what he does, I’m told, and it never hurts to let people keep in practice. His face kept twitching, the senator’s guards kept cursing, and I just enjoyed the show.

After about ten minutes of that Voorman finally put in an appearance, walking out of the conference hallway while mopping his forehead with a handkerchief. He glanced around the room and spotted me then motioned me over. “They’re ready for you. I won’t ask you to be nice, but don’t deliberately try to piss off the Senator, please?”

I put my hand over my heart. “I promise not to tap the window, stick my fingers in the cage, feed it, or otherwise excite the politician.”

“That’s the idea,” Voorman said, giving me a light slap on the shoulder and headed towards the elevators without a backward glance. The suit started to get up to say something to Voorman but then I heard Broadband cough and the computer screen went crazy. I just shook my head and headed back to the conference room, if our counterintelligence specialist managed to slip Voorman past the security goons I was sure I’d get the play by play from Shelob later.

I had been expecting to be the first person on Herrera’s ops team to show up. After all, there hadn’t been anyone else out there with me, and getting places early is one of my specialties.

So I was surprised to find Pritchard Mosburger in the conference room when I got there. I looked around in surprise, wondering if perhaps I had the wrong room, then glanced back at him. “What are you doing here?”

“I was called here by Mr. Voorman,” Mosburger said. He hunched his shoulders defensively. “He said this would be a simple starting assignment. Apparently I’m up to field training already. It was a sudden thing, I’ve been here since six, filling out all the paperwork for HR. Then Mr. Voorman comes up and says am I ready for an assignment? So I said sure, and here I am.” Mosburger relaxed a little and offered a weak smile. “Two days on the job and I’m already a field analyst. Must be doing pretty good.”

“It depends on how you look at it,” I muttered, leaning on the back of one of the chairs. It seemed a safe guess now that Dawson and Voorman had been arguing about who our field analyst would be. Analysts fit for the field are almost as rare as talents, and in just as high demand. I was willing to bet the only other qualified person available was Mona Templeton. The senator knew her already; I was willing to bet he’d rather have a total rookie who didn’t like Voorman yet than an actual field ready agent who did.

“Where is the Senator?”

“Agents Mosburger and Herrera were waiting in the other conference room.” Senator Brahms Dawson walked in as he spoke, looking as immaculate as always. I took a minute to reckon it up. With his steel gray hair shellacked into a perfect side part that wouldn’t move in the wind, his tailored brown suit pressed to razor sharpness and his fit figure showing the signs of daily exercise, I estimated that, in order to get here early enough to argue about field analysts with Voorman he must have gotten up some time around three this morning. Momma taught me to be a stickler for punctuality, but even I don’t start getting ready that early.

“Taking a moment to make sure Agent Herrera didn’t want to back out?” I asked.

“Why not ask her yourself?” Senator Dawson favored me with a sardonic half smile as he stood by the chair at the head of the table. His question made me realize that he wasn’t alone. Tunnel vision is one of my biggest problems in tactical situations, and the Senator must qualify because I’m sure there’s no way I would have missed Agent Herrera otherwise.

She was standing a half step behind the Senator and let me just say, as an expert on the subject, that she was smoking hot. She had high cheekboness and a strong, sharp nose and she was tall. I’d guess she was about five-foot ten, although an inch or two of that might have been heels, I didn’t want to bend over and check, but more than her height or looks she had the kind of presence that attracted attention, part practiced poise, part natural charisma. I recognized that kind of thing from Sanders and, for that matter, the Senator.

In another ten years I suspected Dawson might not want to be in the same room with her. He’d be overshadowed, and that’s the kind of thing politicians can’t stand. “Special Agent Herrera.” I stepped away from the chair and held out my hand. “Special Agent Double Helix. No offense. This is a strange job and not everyone wants to be here.”

She favored me with what looked like a genuine smile and gave my hand a firm, friendly shake. No trembling, no jerking the hand back as soon as I let go. Surprisingly normal. “No offense taken, Double Helix. And please, call me Teresa. I knew what I was getting into when I volunteered for this position; I hope you’ll find I’m ready for it.”

I glanced at the two inch folder she was holding under her other arm. It looked a lot like she’s already had a chance to do a little reading on me, so maybe she did have some idea what she was in for. “Let’s hope you’re up for the challenge, then. And if we’re being informal, you can call me Helix like everyone else. Less of a mouthful.” I looked around at the room, then back at Senator Dawson. “All we’re missing is the tactical team. Who do we have? More handpicked rookies?”

“Actually,” Herrera said, “I’ve asked that your previous tactical support team be transferred over with you. I’d hate to have you be the only experienced agent on the team, and I’m told your talent can be difficult to work with.”

“‘Doesn’t play well with others’ often appeared on my report cards,” I said dryly. However, I was also relieved. It had taken Jack and the others a while to get used to some of the difficulties heat sinking can pose, I hadn’t really been looking forward to the idea of breaking in a new team. “Are they coming?”

“Agent Sanders apparently told them they could come in a bit late today” Dawson said, a hint of disappointment tingeing the statement, as if he’d been looking forward to seeing a bunch of guys who’s major hobby was adjusting gunsights. “Apparently most of them were here late last night, in some sort of strategy meeting.”

I shrugged. “Then I assume this is all of us?”

“Correct, Helix,” Herrera said, stepping away from the table and closing the door to the meeting room. To my surprise, Senator Dawson slipped into a chair as Herrera moved to the head of the table. I had assumed that the Senator would take the lead in this meeting.

Agent Herrera handed me a normal looking manila folder marked with Open Circuit’s talent ID number. I glanced up at her as she handed a thicker folder, probably a copy of Circuit’s file on top of whatever I got, to Mosburger and cleared my throat. Herrera looked back at me and said, “Yes?”

“We’re going after Open Circuit?”

She gave me a surprised look, perhaps because I’d recognized the ID number without having to look it up, but gamely said, “That’s right.”

“Huh.” I glanced down at the folder again and felt a powerful urge to incinerate it. Unfortunately, I had a feeling that might be misunderstood in the present company. I folded my arms firmly across my chest in an attempt to suppress that urge, the leaned back in my chair to give Herrera a second, closer examination.

She was still well put together, no getting around that. But now that I was paying more attention, I realized that she also looked fairly young, maybe even a few years younger than me. I put her somewhere around twenty five, tops. Young, and possibly naive. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but as a rule of thumb Project Sumter does not encourage its talents to develop any kind of antagonistic relationship with persons of interest.”

Mosburger paused his perusal of the folder to stare at me. “What’s that?”

“I believe Helix is trying to say that he doesn’t have an archrival, no matter how much it seems like it,” the Senator said with a wry smile. “But he has the most experience working against Open Circuit, which is one of the reasons he’s on this team.”

I wasn’t sure if he was saying it was one of the reasons Voorman had pushed for me to be on this team, or if he’d decided my presence was an acceptable risk to whatever Herrera’s goals were because of it. I just shrugged. “I want to make sure we’re not struggling under the unfortunate stereotypes perpetuated by comic books and movies. Project Sumter does not like emotions interfering with its operations.”

Herrera leaned forward slightly, looking a touch worried. “And yours could?”

“There was an operation a while back.” I felt my face twisting into an uncomfortable grimace and tried to squash it. “It was for the CIA, so I can’t talk about it unless you’re cleared for that.” Herrera shook her head. “But it’s definitely compromised my emotional distance. I’d prefer not to run the risk of another face to face encounter.”

“What kind of risk?” Mosburger asked. “I heard a little bit more about your talent yesterday, and this guy,” he waved at Circuit’s file, “doesn’t sound nearly as dangerous as you.”

“I’m not worried about him hurting me,” I said. I shoved my way up out of the chair and stood. “But last time I came pretty close to roasting him. I’d rather not have a repeat performance.”

“But you have no problem destroying property at random,” Dawson said dryly.

“Hey, that helicopter had it coming,” I said, trying to lighten things up.

“That helicopter was government property,” the Senator replied.

“Which had its control systems overridden by Circuit, making it a material threat to the surrounding area.” I shrugged. “Sure, melting it cost money but not as much as letting a fully equipped Apache off the reservation would.”

“Helix does have a history of collateral damage,” Herrera said, holding out his hands to calm us down. “But he’s almost caught Circuit twice, and his talents do offer him certain strategic advantages against Circuit’s. Hopefully that will offset the risks involved in his working on this case. Particularly because this time we’re fairly certain that we already know where to find Circuit.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Do we, now?”

“We’re going to be acting on some information the HSA acquired recently.” Herrera opened her own folder and set it on the table in front of her. “You’ll see that we’ve traced several strange transactions through a series of shell companies to this location in the city.”

Mosburger was looking at his own folder again. “Concrete and steel, nothing special there. Lightning rods and outboard motors. That is strange. Wireless routers and fishing tackle?” He glanced up. “What kind of places sells both those things?”

“It was an Amazon.com order that we intercepted through other means,” Herrera said, handing out a photograph of an inconspicuous looking warehouse. “All these materials, and a few other things, have wound up here in the last two weeks. We’re fairly certain, based on the kinds of materials purchased, the location and the kind of financial shell games used to get them there, that this is Circuit’s work.”

An inconspicuous warehouse on the east side of the city is harder to find than many people think. Which is to say, they’re rare, which actually makes them stand out more. I wasn’t actually sure why Circuit would have chosen such a place for storage, and thinking about it too much sounded like one of those “but if he knows we know then…” headaches waiting to happen. So instead I said, “He won’t be there.”

Herrera’s confident smile slipped just a bit. I expected to see resentment or maybe outright anger at being contradicted behind it. She struck me as an ambitious career woman, maybe someone planning to piggyback on the Senator’s political standing. I figured raining on her parade might crack her pleasant exterior and show what was within, and I was right.

I just hadn’t been expecting to see uncertainty under all that poise. I knew that look. It reminded me of someone who had to do a presentation in Public Speaking 101 and got asked the one question they didn’t have an answer for. It was one of the reasons my highest educational letters are GED.

“It’s not a bad idea, I just don’t want you to get your hopes up,” I said quickly. “Circuit’s downright uncanny at dodging things. There are plenty of signs that he leads a large organization, but we’ve never caught any of them in a raid. In fact, I think we’ve only caught two of them in all, and that was by accident. Putting all this together is impressive, don’t get me wrong, but it could just be something meant to distract us. That kind of wheels in wheels is his thing.”

Herrera nodded, her moment of uncertainty gone. “You’re right. But our records show that his latest shipment of goods hasn’t actually arrived yet. He clearly thought this location was secure as recently as a week ago. Even if he has heard about this already hopefully he won’t have had time to get away clean. And if it’s just a decoy, at least we’ll know that he’s getting desperate. I can’t think of any other reason for such an elaborate ruse. But I do appreciate your input, as the Senator said, it’s one of the reasons I asked for you on this team.”

She had asked for me. Yet another strange thing to add to the growing list of oddities in Agent Herrera’s stay here at the Project. “Well,” I said, “I guess I should also mention that he’s very fond of booby traps…”

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Fiction Index

Writing History, Pt 2

Last week I went kinda gung ho and, by the end of the week, I was kinda worried about my posts being overlong. So when last week’s Friday post started to edge up over the fifteen hundred word mark, I decided to break it in two. If you didn’t read last week’s post, here it is.

Okay, so what does all that have to do with writing fiction? Well, one thing that annoys me about modern world building is how it has a horrible tendency to only present the past from one or two points of view. Usually, there’s a prevailing point of view and an underground, occult (secretive) or subversive point of view. In Marxist terms, a thesis and an antithesis. Usually, the main character uses these two viewpoints to figure out what really happened and uses this new point of view (a synthesis!) to figure out the correct course of action.

Authors have been using this very straightforward literary device to help characters resolve conflict and bring an end to stories for years, and making millions of dollars in the mean time. (Eat your heart out, Marx.)

In addition to being a simple way to assemble your plot, this makes thing easier on your reader as well. After all, having to keep track of too many perspectives can clutter your plot and confuse your reader. It really isn’t the best way to engage and keep a large audience.

The thing is, this approach is also overly simplistic and unrealistic, and the best authors take great pains to avoid it.

Look at Isaac Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation. It shows us the young Hari Seldon searching for the history of the Galactic Empire. What he finds instead, more or less, is a history of robots. Some people say they were helpers, some traitors, some think they were never even real, or if they were they obviously weren’t important, because they didn’t survive to the modern day, did they? Piecing it all together is central to understanding the story. Not every story needs to delve so deeply into its history, but if you’re going to make your own you need to at least hint at that level of complexity if verisimilitude is something you value (it doesn’t have to be, of course).

History falls into many chunks: Documents like newspapers, government paperwork and diaries generally form the backbone of history. Rumors, myths and other forms of oral history can be very hard to verify but give a definite picture of what people were thinking and talking about. Cultural context gives us a lens with which to see both documents and rumors through. Outside viewpoints must be balanced against each other as well as the experiences of the people who were there.

As Helix winds through Project Sumter he primarily leaves his mark in documents- paperwork is bureaucracy’s stock in trade and agents of the Project can easily generate a book’s worth of it during a busy week. Circuit, on the other hand, is not in the greatest position to leave incriminating paperwork behind. He leaves a trail in rumors and speculation which is rarely centralized outside of tight-lipped people like Hangman. The marks they leave on their culture, and what people think of them is what makes the story tick.

And even with all that, it’s not the whole picture. I’ve been looking into their history for years, and I don’t think I’ll ever have all of it. That’s the nature of writing history, whether it’s fiction or real. So the next time you take a trip to the halls of antiquity, keep an eye out for all those little hints. Grab them from anywhere you can, and do your best to make sense of them, but don’t ever fall for the trap of thinking you have the whole picture. Because then the story would be over.

And where does that leave us?