Heat Wave: Stray Embers


“We need a new plan,” Herrera said. “Kesselman, see if you can get ahold of that SWAT team and coordinate with them, take the new factors into account. Helix, how do you want to handle these people?”

“Click my red shoes together and hope they go away?” I suggested. “Honestly, I have no idea. We don’t usually catch amateurs in the act.”

“Forgive me if I sound like an amateur myself,” Mosburger said, “but what kind of an amateur are we talking about right now?”

“Amateur crime fighters, Mossman,” Jack said. “Typically, but not always, talents who have gotten it into their heads that they’re the heroes in some comic book somewhere, and set out to right the wrongs of the world.”

“And boy have they ever found a whopper,” I said. “Of all the criminal organizations they could pick to poke at, they go after Open Circuit. Why me?”

“The innate perversity of the universe tends towards maximum.” Mosburger fitted his helmet on over his head, making him look a lot like an academic masquerading as a soldier. “Doesn’t the Project have a protocol for dealing with talents like this? You seem to have everything else.”

“We do,” Jack said, passing earpieces to Bergstrum and Herrera as soon as Lanier, out tech guy, had them checked out. “It’s pretty simple, really. Step one is determine if they’re in our records or not. Unfortunately, you can’t do that from a heat signature.”

“And since it’s a procedure that can require two or three hours of explanation per talent it’s hardly suited to the present circumstances,” I added. I fitted an earpiece on myself then strapped my own helmet on. “I’d like to propose a different approach for the time being.”

“Go ahead,” Herrera said.

“We throw them all in jail and forget we ever saw them.”

“Try again,” she suggested.

I frowned, because that was the only practical idea I had a the moment. “We go home and let them get fried by Circuit’s booby traps?”

“Or not.”

“We could always just send them back to the office and tank ’em until we’re done here,” I said, more thinking out loud at this point. “We don’t normally initiate new talents there but these aren’t normal circumstances.”

“How do we hold them when we don’t know what their talents can do?” Mosburger asked.

Jack threw an arm around his shoulders. “Well, Mossman, the idea is that you figure it out before we send them off.”

Mosburger seemed to shrink into his armor, making it even more comical looking. All he said was, “Oh.”

“Relax,” Jack said with a laugh. “We’ve all got plenty of field experience, too. You’ll be fine.”

It was true, outside of Mosburger and Herrera we had a minimum of four years experience in field work a piece. Just to be on the safe side, though, I crossed my fingers.


It took another ten minutes for the SWAT team to arrive and get set up. In that time the three people in the warehouse wandered out of my range on one side of Circuit’s sealed room and came back on the other. Apparently, they were doing the same thing we had been, except with a closer view. That reinforced the idea that they were amateurs, but didn’t tell us much else.

Since there were potential civilian complications wandering around in the warehouse we decided the best approach was not the usual door-buster routine most people associate with SWAT operations. Instead, there was some more low-key reconnaissance, which would theoretically be followed by the door-buster routine. Among other things, they discovered that the main employee entrance was unlocked and standing open.

“That settles it,” I said. “Circuit’s not here anymore, and those aren’t his people. He’s not one to let things get that lax.”

“Which does beg the question who these people are and how they got in here,” Jack said, leaning against the side of one of the SWAT vans and eavesdropping on their radio chatter.

“I was wondering if we’d ever get a chance to go in there ourselves,” Mosburger replied, wiping sweat from his face with, of all things, a black bandana that looked way to gangster for a retired engineer.

“They wouldn’t have let us come out here if they weren’t planning to take us in with them,” I said. “Besides, if one of the people in there is a talent, they’ll need us.”

“And if they aren’t?” Mosburger asked.

“Then we book them for criminal trespassing and give them a stern warning about the dangers of vigilantism,” one of the SWAT members said as he stepped out of the van. “I’m more worried about if they are. This is our first time working with Wizard Central, and what I want to know is if we’re even going to matter in this operation.”

I exchanged a glance with Jack. This was the first time I’d heard the term Wizard Central, but it was pretty clear that was local slang for Project Sumter. Looked like there were some misconceptions to straighten out. Thankfully, Jack was on the ball.

“Look, Lieutenant,” he said, “I know that you’ve probably seen a lot of movies or TV shows or some such crap that has a half a dozen near-invincible supermen doing huge, crazy, world-saving stuff on a regular basis. But that’s not the way talents actually work.”

“No?” The cop pointed at me. “Didn’t I hear something about him melting a hole in the wall a couple of minutes ago? You telling me that was just hyperbole?”

“No, that’s a practical option,” I said. “But in our line of work that makes me something called the glass cannon.”

“The what?”

“A rule of thumb that actually relates back to wizards, Lieutenant,” Mosburger said. “It basically refers to something powerful and dangerous, but fragile. Based on what I’ve read, most talents have greater awareness than the regular person. Some of them, like Double Helix here, have a lot of potential to cause damage. I’ve yet to see or hear of one that couldn’t be stopped by the kind of equipment you people are carrying.”

“Honest truth, that,” Jack added, patting his own handgun. “If it weren’t the case I’d be carrying something a lot bigger than this.”

That seemed to satisfy the cop, who went back to sorting out the other officers on his team. I got the impression he was the one in charge, particularly since he seemed to be the one coordinating with Herrera. A couple of minutes later we were broken up, two of us to two SWAT officers, and got ready to go in.

Herrera and I wound up at the unlocked employee door, closest to the people inside. Jack and Mosburger were going in through a side door, Bergstrum and Kesselman the back. There were other teams for the loading dock and the fire exits, but there weren’t enough of our people to go with every SWAT group.

There were a few minutes of confusion when we went in, the kind of shock and awe entrance that looks impressive for the sole purpose of looking impressive and keeping unhardened civilians from doing anything stupid. It’s heady stuff when you’re there but really boring to talk about because it’s basically all shouting and noise, at least when everything goes well.

Fortunately, this was not one of the cases where something went wrong, probably because Circuit is too smart to deliberately antagonize the law when he could just ignore us and do whatever he wants. There were no booby traps on any of the entrances, in fact the only thing in the warehouse was the massive concrete block that held Circuit’s vacuum insulated chamber.

And three sheepish looking civilians who looked like they couldn’t even be out of college yet.

I groaned inwardly. It’s not that I was never that young, idealistic and obnoxious, because I was. There’s reports filed away somewhere in the Records department that can prove it. But it’s a far cry from knowing you have a past to having to deal with it a second time, from the other side.

I do have to give those three credit for being more sensible than most. The smaller two of them were wearing body armor, not high grade stuff, the kind you might see a serious motorcyclist wearing to protect against a bad fall. It didn’t protect the lower body but it would get the job done against anything short of close range gunfire, at least for a little while. They also hadn’t made any attempt to add a logo or brightly colored patterns to their clothes. Other than the body armor, they looked just like people off the street.

They lost points for letting one of their number run around with no armor. Also, only one of them was wearing a helmet. Two of them were men, one thin and one big and blocky, no surprises there, and the other was a petite young blond woman who was arguing with the Lieutenant and her skinny friend at turns. I instantly labeled them Skinny, Charlie and Biker Girl.

“All right, folks,” I said, using my best authoritative cop’s voice, “at this point we should probably mention that you have the right to remain silent!” That instantly got me everyone’s attention. “There’s a whole bunch of other rights that you’ll be advised of shortly, but that’s the one we really want you to exercise right now.”

“You can’t arrest us without telling us why,” Skinny said.

“I think criminal trespass is pretty clear cut at this point,” Herrera said. “We can probably add obstruction of justice to the list if you don’t cooperate.”

Which I’m ninety-nine percent sure is untrue, but most people, myself included, don’t know what obstruction of justice actually means, so you can throw it around all you like until it’s time to go to court. Or at least until the attorneys show up.

“Look, we’re not trying to make any trouble,” Charlie said, “We’re on your side, but-“

“If you’re on my side, Charlie,” I said, “you’ll go with the nice folks from SWAT and let us do out job.”

“Charlie?” He asked, raising an eyebrow.

“As in Charlie Brown,” I said. “You’re not the only blockhead here but-“

Herrera elbowed me gently and said, “I’m sure you folks have questions, but I think they’re better answered back at the office.”

“What office is that?” Biker Girl asked. “I don’t see a badge on you two.”

I reached for my ID automatically, flipping it open at the same time Herrera displayed hers. I noticed Skinny glancing back and forth between the two and followed his line of sight in the corner of my eye. Apparently he had been thrown because my ID was issued by the FBI and hers was from the HSA. I made a mental note that we should probably do something about that.

The subtleties of Federal IDs were lost on Biker Girl, or she saw all badge carriers as the same, because she just crossed her arms and said, “Is this where we disappear with the black suits and are never seen again?”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at the totally unnecessary melodrama. It would be unprofessional. I was saved from having to answer when the Lieutenant leaned in and said, “Agent Herrera, do you want us to try and breach the door?”

He jerked a thumb back at Circuit’s concrete box. I’d been so focused on trying to get these civilians out from under foot I hadn’t noticed the entrance was no more than twenty feet away. It was actually a pretty simple thing that reminded me of the door to a walk-in fridge. I walked over to the door, running my hands along the concrete as I moved. A couple of feet away from the door my fingers passed over a ripple in the concrete and I paused. If I looked carefully I could see that there was a raised circle of concrete about two feet wide in the wall. It wasn’t very big. I doubt I’d have noticed it if I hadn’t been touching the wall, but it was there. It looked almost like someone had dropped a rock into a pool of water, then transferred the last ripple onto the concrete before it hardened.

“Something wrong, Helix?” Herrera asked, from just a half a foot behind me.

“Not really,” I said, moving on. “I just remembered a story my grandfather used to tell me.”

The door was well insulated but I could tell that the insides were still really cold. “Not sure blowing it off the hinges is a good idea, Lieutenant,” I said. “I don’t know what Circuit was pumping through to cool this rig, but I’d bet good money exposing it to air can’t be healthy.”

“There’s nothing in the door,” Biker Girl said. “If there was anything being pumped through before it’s gone now.”

I turned and quickly crossed back over to her as the Lieutenant asked, “How would you know?”

She gave the poor cop that classic “like duh” look that only women can pull off. It tilted her head at just the right angle for me to pick out a series of four piercings in her ear. They were hard to spot because the rings or studs she normally wore in them had been removed. I frowned and pitched my voice to a whisper even I couldn’t really hear, then said, “Don’t talk about your hearing.”

Biker Girl gave me a surprised glance, but said, “Nevermind.”

The Lieutenant glanced from me to her, then back again. Clearly he knew something had happened, but he seemed to get that we wouldn’t talk about it out here in public.

“She’s right, though,” Mosburger said. I jumped and swung back to face the door. Mosburger and a couple of SWAT people had jimmied open a metal box that looked kind of like the ones you see over underground power lines. He gestured down at it. “This has hook-ups that you might expect for something like a dishwasher, but could easily run a small pump system. But there’s nothing here now, which means they probably drained the coolant out and removed the pumping system when they left.”

I sighed. “Which means they probably had a lot of notice.”

“Wouldn’t take more than an hour, Helix,” Mosburger said.

“But it’s not the kind of thing you’d prioritize while clearing out,” Herrera said. “You’d probably save it until last.”

“We’ll, we’re hear anyways,” the Lieutenant said. “We might as well go in.”

“Helix, how did you get through last time you visited one of these place?” Herrera asked.

“The way I usually get through just about anything,” I said. “The melty way. Which means letting SWAT take the door off its hinges this time has the benefit of novelty.”

“Do you think the door will still be trapped, if it was ever trapped at all?”

“Not his style,” I said. “He doesn’t go out of his way to cause difficulties for us. He just wishes we’d show him the same courtesy.”

“Then we’ll go through in a minute,” the Lieutenant said. “What about these three?”

Herrera shot a glance at Mosburger, who shrugged. I said, “Those are our case, not yours. Bergstrum and Kesselman can take them back to the offices, I don’t think we’ll need them here. And Bergstrum.” I grabbed his elbow as they came up to take custody of the three musketeers. “Put Charlie there down in the L2 tank.”

Bergstrum grunted his acknowledgement and a minute later we were back to having a civilian free work environment. I felt some of the tension between my shoulders relax immediately. As the SWAT boys started setting up to get into Circuit’s little bunker Herrera leaned in and asked in a low voice, “We have a holding room in the basement?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Normally you’d be shown it during the orientation tour, but I don’t think you’ve had time for that yet.”

She gave me a funny look but didn’t have time to ask about it before the Lieutenant came back and said, “We’re ready.”

“All right,” Herrera said. “Let’s see what Circuit left us.”

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