A rush of garbled voices on the other end of the line met my announcement. I heard the unmistakeable sound of someone putting his hand over a handset and they became completely unintelligible, but I didn’t really need to hear much of what they were saying to guess the content. It probably boiled down to everyone asking, “How did we manage to miss that?”
“Helix.” I said, in a normal tone. The babble continued, so I raised my voice a bit and repeated myself. I had to repeat the process twice more until the voices quieted down.
A moment later, Helix’s voice came through clearly, saying, “What do you get out of doing our job, Circuit?”
“A lot of things, Helix,” I said, trying, and mostly failing, not to grin at his confusion. Even if he wasn’t there to see it, a sloppy habit is a sloppy habit. “The three most significant benefits are these. I keep the public blissfully ignorant of talents, a situation that benefits me just as much as you. I keep the Enchanter from gathering other people to his cause. And I do a little something to convince you that I’m not the villain you think I am.”
“Not a villain?” Helix scoffed, which is something you don’t hear much any more. “Not a villain? Have you forgotten what happened in Morocco already?”
“Do not-” I slammed the heel of my hand down on the console in frustration. I knew that was going to come up sooner or latter, but somehow it still managed to surprise and irritate me. Heavy Water was staring at me from the next chair over and I waved him back to checking his gear, then turned the motion into a general shaking to get the tingling out of my fingers.
Helix remained silent through the whole process, whether startled by my outburst or stewing as he waited for a real response I couldn’t tell. After a second or two, with my temper mostly under control, I said, with diction as careful and clear as I could make it, “Do not blame me for Morocco. What happened there was in total disregard of my express orders. Yes, the funding came from me but it was not properly used.”
Still irritated, I got up and paced to the back of the van, a journey of about two steps, then back to my seat, and repeated the process, nearly making myself dizzy as I went on. “Morocco was a mistake and I will not repeat it. But I saw what it was and I closed it down. I did, not you. Just like I did with Lethal Injection and like I’m doing right now, with the Enchanter.”
“All you managed to do in those cases was make bigger messes for us to clean up.”
“I stopped what was wrong, Helix. I don’t think even you will argue with that. The fact that my organization does not have the resources yours does in terms of containment and cover up does not change the fact that something needed to be done.”
There was a long pause and I leaned against the back doors of the van, trying to give my simmering annoyance a chance to cool by wondering what Helix was doing. Massaging his temples? Rubbing his forehead? Throwing paperclips at the other members of his team?
Unfortunately, I kept coming back to the little issue of his being completely correct. A couple of years ago I had tried farming money raising activities out to certain elements in Africa. Unfortunately, I hadn’t ever seen any return on that investment and I’d found my name and organizational weight being thrown around ways I never even dreamed of.
I shut that operation down. Permanently. Apparently Helix got stuck cleaning up afterward. I should have expected that, really, because who else would they send?
“I apologize for the inconvenience I’ve caused, Helix, but I do admire your capacity to deal with it. That’s one of the reasons I’m offering you my help this time.”
“Help?” Helix’s voice rose to a shout. “Is that what you call it? Circuit, I don’t care if you were outside of US jurisdiction, you still provided the funding, the training and the organization to let those people do what they did. That makes you responsible for what they did. The fact that you’re sorry about it doesn’t mean you’re not scum.”
“Scum?” My voice dropped down until it was barely a murmur. Heavy glanced up with a worried look and began shutting off the equipment at the work stations, which was probably a smart move.
“Do you know the difference between the two of us and people like the Enchanter, my late, unlamented associates in Morocco or even the Senator who runs your Project?”
Helix matched my icy quiet with an equally dry tone. “Enlighten me.”
“We do something, you and I. By any objective standard, the bandying about of words that passes for modern politics is as superfluous to society as the brutality of a dozen street thugs in the Third World. Enchanter and anarchists like him see the politicians and the thugs and they think they’re the problem, when they’re actually a symptom. The Enchanter wants to burn down modern society and replace it with the basest barbarism because they think that will make them free. What they don’t realize is that all it will do is make the politicians and the thugs swap places. But you and I, we know the real problem, and we’re doing something about it.”
“I have a newsflash for you, Circuit. If you think the problem is that there’s too many thugs out there sucking air, then we definitely aren’t dealing with the same problem. In fact, I’m not sure we’re even in the same zip code.”
Even though I was leaning against the back door of the van, far from most of the electrical wires in the vehicle, I could still feel the current moving through them, balancing potentials. There was a beauty and elegance to the simplistic focus of electrons moving through wires that I have always loved. It’s a trait Helix shares with electricity and, I think, one of the reasons why I’ve never taken his constant interference in my work personally. He can’t not do his job any more than negative charges can seek the positive.
But there’s a rhythm and pattern that even the simplest of computers brings to that single-minded electronic drive. It’s hypnotic, at times, and soothing at others. And it has a simple lesson to teach the attentive. “The key is control.
“In olden times, people had self control. The States never could have united if their leaders didn’t realize that giving up a few of their prerogatives to form mutually binding agreements would result in greater power, a power needed to gain any meaningful freedom from Britain. Back then, in a way, each man was a tyrant in and of himself, ruling his life with an iron fist so that the excesses that would prevent him from living meaningfully would be controlled.”
“So, what? Are you calling yourself a founding father?”
“Hardly.” I was distantly aware that Helix was trying to make fun of me, but I refused to rise to the bait. For one thing, it would do a lot to undermine my point. “The world you and I live in is nothing like theirs. People don’t learn to control themselves anymore, and they don’t believe in building anything. Instead of useful work we get empty protest, noble ideas are replaced with vapid “dialog” and self restraint is belittled while anarchy and indulgence are the height of culture. All the while the handful of people who do anything meaningful are expected to carry the burden of providing for everyone else.”
Helix grunted. “You’re not wrong. But I think a man of your abilities who really wanted to fix those problems would do more good as a teacher than as a… whatever you are.”
“Oh, but I am a teacher,” I said, feeling the electricity in the van begin to pulse in time with my words. “People today expect someone to look after them. They’re not even qualified to eat without a half a dozen rules to help them make the right choices. Well, we live in the information age, where power is in the hands of the one who can master the circuit just as much as the one who masters the gun or the dollar. Who better to run the show than a man even the government recognizes as a master of circuitry?”
“What are you saying, Circuit?” Helix’s voice had gone just as cold and low as my own. “That you’re the new Messiah? A one man army, come to set the world aright? Lots of other people have tried that, none of them have succeeded.”
I snorted and the surge of current shorted out the van’s dome light. “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s true that, to a certain degree, it will take a single man with a clear vision and immense power to create and enforce the new rules. But I need other people, just like anyone. I have some allies. I need more. You, and most of Project Sumter, are cut from the right stuff. You can keep secrets and know the importance of law and order. And, whether you like to admit it or not, the slipshod way you go about trying to find and educate talents right now is not going to be enough in the very near future. You can’t keep a lid on talents forever, but once the genie’s out of the bottle the government will never be able to deal with the backlash. You need me.”
“So we should put you in charge?” Helix actually sounded a little thoughtful at that, and I felt a spark of optimism. If he was taking the dangers I foresaw seriously, then implementing a solution in time to save society from total disintegration might not be a pipe dream. “Sorry, Circuit, but no dice. I’ve seen what your problem solving looks like. We don’t need more of that.”
“Let me prove it to you. Share your files on the Enchanter with me and I’ll run him to the ground. I have connections that won’t talk to you, and ways of gathering evidence shortsighted courts might not approve of.”
“How simple can I say this?” Helix bit each word out. “No. We will catch the Firestarter ourselves. And if you come anywhere close to this investigation, I will personally cuff you and throw you into a hole so deep you’ll forget what daylight looks like.”
“Fine.” I felt something in the van’s power locks short out under the force of my reply. “But the change is coming, Helix. It’s necessary and unavoidable. The people of America no longer know enough about governing themselves to ever hope to govern anything else. Once the society collapses it will be a new dark age unless someone does something to stop it. Someone willing to grind common sense back into them no matter how little they want it, who’s willing and able to force them to fight for their independence again. What it amounts to is, if they can’t or won’t rule themselves then they will bow to me.”
The stray charge that had built up in the wires near me as I spoke burst free and flooded the van for a brief second. My headset gave a brief click and then died. I absently pulled it off and threw it to the floor. “Heavy!”
“Van’s locked down, boss,” he called from the front seat. “Grappler got most of it sequestered before you started raving.”
“It’s not raving, Heavy, it’s telling people the truth. They frequently look very similar.” I pulled the disposable phone I’d been using from one pocket, checked to make sure the same pulse that fried my headset also fried it’s memory, then tossed it on the floor. “It seems like Project Sumter is unwilling to cooperate with us.”
Heavy raised one eyebrow. “Meaning?”
“Meaning, we have to do this the hard way.”
He rubbed his hands eagerly. “Boss, that’s just what we’ve been waiting to hear.”