Heat Wave: Fresh Fire

Helix

Everyone thinks you walk through a wall by making yourself some kind of fog and seeping through the cracks. Or some such nonsense. In other words, you get less dense than what you want to go through. In reality, the talents we refer to as matter shifts work the exact opposite way: You make what you want to go through loose density while upping your own. Then you walk through it like it was fog, which causes a lot of field agents to call them fog banks, and return the wall to normal.

Doing this with load-bearing walls is not recommended.

Because a matter shift relies primarily on making things less dense the first thing Project Sumter did when it started keeping records on talents was check to see if there was anything they couldn’t walk through. As it turns out, they’re unable to walk through anything denser than lead.

So, when Project Sumter moved into our current office building they installed a lead lined holding cell in the basement, on the off chance that we’d wind up hanging on to matter shift at some point. As far as I know, Gearshift is our first.

Of course, I know all of this through the family grapevine. I’ve never officially be cleared to see file on the matter shift talent in general, or the files of any specific matter shifts in Project history. And if I hadn’t there was almost no chance Herrera had. As we rode down the elevator I flipped through Gearshift’s file. It was no real surprise when I found that no information on the talent had been included in the file.

I glanced up at Herrera. “Did you get anything on this guy’s talent in your file?”

She shook her head. “No. All I know is that it’s a single digit.” She grimaced. “Since they’re numbered in the order they were discovered that doesn’t really tell us much either. But we apparently need Voorman’s clearance to get a rundown on what he can do. How they figure that is beyond me.”

I was saved from a response when the elevator door opened with a cheerful ding and we stepped out into a short, dark gray hallway of lovely concrete. There were a couple of doors on each side, which we didn’t want, and a door at the end, which we did. “Look at it this way,” I said as we walked toward it. “You’re already cleared for one single digit talent. They probably just want to avoid concentrating too much information in one person.”

“You’re probably right,” Herrera said thoughtfully. “But it would be nice to know what this guy can do. In case there’s trouble.”

“That’s what I’m here for, right?” I reached to open the door. “A talent to handle the problems, an oversight agent to ask the ques-”

My brilliant recitation of what I thought to be the ideal interrogation style, perfected after years of work with Bob Sanders, got cut off mid sentence when the doorknob yanked out of my hand the door swung inward to reveal pretty much the last person I had expected to see.

Herrera made a surprised sound behind me and I could feel my jaw hanging open. The first thing I did when I collected myself was snap it closed. Then I backed up a step and said, “Pastor Rodriguez. What brings you here?”

The big Hispanic man smiled at me and said, “I heard you were holding a young man that is part of our youth outreach program for something. He contacted me with his phone call.”

My eyebrows were going up in spite of my best attempts to keep a straight face. “And they just let you come down here?”

“I authorized it.”

I leaned to one side in an attempt to see around Rodriguez, who obligingly stepped back and to the side so I could see Voorman standing just behind him. I glanced back at Herrera, to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, but she apparently saw him too. Rodriguez stepped forward again and extended his hand, saying, “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. I’m Pastor Manuel Rodriguez, from Diversy Street Church.”

“Senior Agent Teresa Herrera,” she replied, giving his hand a quick shake. “Pleased to meet you, Father.”

I suppressed a smile at the pastor’s expense but he took the mistake with good grace. Since he was now out of the doorway and occupying a large chunk of the hallway I figured it was a good time to edge around him and into the observation room. Unlike most rooms of its type, there was no one way glass built into the wall. That would be a point of egress for a fog bank.

Instead there was a bank of monitors attached to a number of cameras inside the room, along with a couple of guards to keep an eye on things. I didn’t recognize either of them but I nodded hello to be friendly while scanning the monitors to see Gearshift lacing his shoes back up while sitting at the table in the room. “Will you be observing Herrera and I as we debrief, sir?”

“Actually,” Voorman said, “he’s been taken care of and we’re releasing him into Pastor Rodriguez’s custody.”

The surprises just kept coming. Project rules say that talent has to be interrogated by both a talent and their oversight officer. Voorman was the only person I saw with the authority to debrief a new talent, and he isn’t anyone’s oversight officer, that’s not a Special Liaison’s job. If Gearshift had been debriefed by Voorman it mean there had been no one else in the room at all. That’s just plain stupid.

Apparently Herrera realized that too, because she said, “Sir, isn’t it unwise to conduct an interview without someone else in the room?”

“Ah, well, it’s something of an unusual case,” Voorman answered. “The young man’s family was anxious about him. Since Pastor Rodriguez was here already I conducted the interview with Agent Shelob’s assistance and authorized his release.”

I frowned. Shelob was an antenna, much like Broadband. Technically she wasn’t even a member of the Project, when we’d found here she running a private security firm, using her ability to hear and project most kinds of electromagnetic waves to monitor and control a host of custom built security equipment. She basically still did that, except she got paid more to do it for us. Between her senses, cameras and other equipment she can keep an “eye” on most of the building simultaneously from her desk in the lobby.

But if Voorman had gotten into trouble with Gearshift she would have been too far away to help quickly. There were the guards, of course, but I honestly doubt they could have stopped a matter shift determined to cause trouble. They may not be able to pass through a lead barrier, but I was never really clear on whether bullets hurt them a whole lot, either. Gearshift’s lack of body armor was one of the things that had tipped me off to him.

Not that I was bringing any of that up with Pastor Rodriguez in the room.

I slipped a hand around Herrera’s elbow and carefully pulled her back just a half step. I rocked forward onto my toes to get a few inches more height and muttered, “Not now,” into her ear, then said in a more conversational tone to the room at large, “Then I’ll let you get on with the paperwork.”

“Thank you, Helix,” Voorman said with a relieved nod. For once he looked me in the eye as he said it. Then he and Rodriguez hustled out of the room, leaving me with a very upset superior agent.

At least we were back to business as usual.

“Voorman can break with protocol on occasion. He’s the man in charge, making that kind of judgement call is part of his job.” We were back in Herrera’s office and I was leaning against her desk and watching her pace. “We’re just grunts, you and I. You less than me, but still it’s not our place to pry if there was something he wanted to handle himself.”

She stopped and gave me a level look, one I had a hard time interpreting. She leaned back against the half-empty shelves that lined the wall of her office and folded her arms across her chest, apparently taking her time in choosing her next words. The disembodied voice of Bob Sanders echoed in my head, telling me I could learn a thing or two from her. I tried to ignore him.

“Helix, I know I’m the new person here, and in spite of our relative positions in the Project you’re better informed and more experienced than I am.” Herrera tipped her head slightly to on side, as if taking my measure. “You have to know that the interrogation protocols are in place for a reason, and what those reasons are. And I’m willing to bet you don’t question why Voorman did what he did because you already know his reasons for ignoring them.”

“You get hired by the HSA because of that kind of insight?” It was a knee-jerk comeback and I knew it.

Apparently Herrera realized it too, because she ignored me and went on. “I’ve been around enough to know I’m not going to get anything from you if I pry, that’s the way of office politics. It’s frustrating, and I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to deal with it here, but it’s not like I didn’t have to play that game before. I don’t care about all that. What I care about is closing this case. So what I want to know is, will whatever game is being played here matter when it’s time to deal with Open Circuit?”

“We just call him Circuit,” I said. It wasn’t an answer, but I had to think about the question and I’ve found irritating people and then ignoring them to be a good way to find the time. Herrera didn’t rise to the bait but she seemed content to give me time. It was kind of spooky how well she had my patterns down after only a few days. Maybe that was the real reason the HSA had hired her.

I jerked my thoughts back to the issue at hand. Even after fifteen minutes to work on the problem I was pretty sure my original read on Voorman’s motives for handling Gearshift the way he did was correct. He was trying to limit how much Senator Dawson knew about the Project and our talents. It was part of his job to keep the Project’s secrets, and what Dawson would do with those secrets is something of a mystery.

On the other hand, I was growing less and less convinced that Dawson had placed Herrera here as some sort of spy. I wasn’t sure why she was here, other than that the HSA needs qualified liaisons as much as anyone else, but I was pretty sure she wasn’t a direct participant in any scheme of the Senator’s. In fact, I was beginning to have the sneaking suspicion she might be using the Senator, and not the other way around.

Voorman was harder to read. He had moved up to a senior position before I joined up and he hadn’t worked with any of the family, either. Outside of the formal chewing out sessions that typically followed my destroying something valuable in the field I didn’t interact with him much and his strange, withdrawn attitude kept me from getting much from him then. I could guess why Voorman had shut Herrera out of debriefing Gearshift. But would he deliberately withhold information to undermine someone who was just associated with the Senator? Or was he too good an agent to let politics get in the way of work?

Actually, I don’t think there’s any senior agent who can separate politics from work, it’s part of the nature of the job. One of the few reasons to be grateful that I’m ineligible for management.

In the end I just shrugged and said, “To be honest, I don’t know. Undermining any Project operation being run out of our office doesn’t make any sense for someone in Voorman’s position, so I’m guessing he’ll give us everything Gearshift said about his chasing Circuit. I doubt there was much there that we couldn’t guess from what we’ve already gotten from Amplifier and Mr. Movsesian. But information on his talent… well, we’re not likely to get much of that.”

“Because it’s dangerous,” Herrera said.

I grimaced. “Basically, yeah.” I braced my hands on the desktop and shoved myself up onto it, resting my feet on one of the guest chairs, then leaned forward with my elbows on my knees. That left me on eye level with her, and I noticed for the first time that her eyes were the kind of color some people like giving fancy names like cedar or hazel or something.

Obviously, I’m not one of the people that does that.

“Listen, Herrera, this is nothing personal-”

“Can I guess what it might  be?” She asked, cutting me off mid question. I shrugged. That was apparently all the permission she needed to continue. “I think there’s some sort of a power play going on between Mr. Voorman and Senator Dawson. It’s also pretty obvious you and a few other people around here think I’m a part of whatever the Senator is up to, whether I realize it or not.”

I opened my mouth to deny that, then realized that I’d just be insulting her intelligence and closed it again. Herrera graciously ignored my aborted interruption and kept talking. “What I know is that my job is to find talents that are guilty of crime, arrest them and bring them to justice. I’ve also read enough of your file to know that you will do pretty much anything you have to, within the law, to do the same. You’re not afraid of hurting you’re career, you’re already as far up the totem pole as you can get, so I’d be tempted to say you should be above this, but it sounds like you’ve got your own issues with the Senator.”

“Not bad,” I said, resting my arms on my knees and knitting my fingers together. “You’ve pretty much covered all the bases, proving you’re intelligent enough to realize the truth of what I’m about to tell you, idealistic enough to accept it and most importantly, not naive enough to tell me it’s not necessary. There are some talents that are so dangerous their abilities must be kept secret from as many people as possible. Even if some of those people are the good guys.”

“Really?” Herrera spread her hands. “Because I didn’t see any evidence of something that dangerous being used today.”

“It’s not that simple,” I said, sliding off of the desk and starting to pace. “I’ll admit, if Gearshift is what I think he is, until a couple of months ago I wouldn’t have thought anything of him either. But, as you undoubtedly know already, the Project has a number of programs underway devoted to researching and better understanding how talents function and what they are capable of.”

“With little success understanding the function part,” Herrera said, nodding. “I’ve read about them. You go to the Rose-Hulman Institute a couple of times a year, as I recall.”

“And while the eggheads there aren’t supposed to talk about other talents’ capabilities with their subjects, sometimes things slip out. Some of them are real geeks, they have rankings and who would win debates all the time. And they want opinions from the horse’s mouth.” I waved it off. “It’s stupid, but sometimes they come up with their best ideas doing it, so no one says anything. And some of their best ideas are really scary, Herrera. This is not the kind of thing you want to write down, much less tell other people about.”

“And you think Gearshift is that dangerous?”

“After what Voorman did today? I’m sure of it. Let the people who are actually cleared to deal with that mess handle his case.” I scooped up my copies of the folders on Amplifier and Gearshift and changed the subject. “I don’t know if you’ve met Cheryl down in Records yet, but she can make your life very hard if she wants and she likes her paperwork turned in on time. You should get on your after action report, try to get it too her by the end of the day. Get her your summary of Amplifier’s debriefing, too, and she’ll be your friend for life. Or whatever passes for friendship from Cheryl.”

“Thanks for the advice.” Herrera clearly wasn’t distracted by my subject change, but she seemed content to let me go. For now.

So really, I should have gone. But when I was halfway out the door I remembered and glanced back over my shoulder. “Did you want us to do any follow-up work on the note from Circuit’s warehouse? The Enchanter, or whatever it was?”

“Oh, that?” She briefly looked embarrassed. “I need to double check something first. I’m not even sure I’m remembering right. I’ll bring it in tomorrow, if it’s even relevant.”

Figuring that discretion was the better part of valor I just shrugged and got out of there while the getting was good.

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