Heat Wave: Pressure Cooker

Helix

I awoke in a familiar way, flat on my back, sore all over and staring up at a featureless ceiling. Now I’ve spent my share of time in a hospital. Pretty much everyone in the Project has, with the exception of Mona, who I don’t think has ever gotten an injury worse than a paper cut. But the fact of the matter is, it’s a dangerous job and we get hurt a lot doing it. On average I’ve probably spent a month out of each year I’ve been with the Project laid up with some sort of injury.

The problem was I couldn’t remember doing anything recently that would get me stuck in one.

What had I been doing yesterday? Hadn’t gotten drunk, hadn’t been in a car chase, hadn’t knocked a military helicopter out of the sky by creating the mother of all updrafts. In fact, other than getting a phone call from Circuit, yesterday was pretty tame.

Right. Phone call from Circuit. I sat up with a groan, awareness slowly filtering back through my groggy mind. With it came the smell of sawdust, which you don’t usually get in hospitals, and the feeling of rough wood under the seat of my pants, definitely nonstandard. It was starting to look a lot more like I’d fallen asleep in my workshop than gotten stuck in the hospital again.

I hefted myself off the half finished tabletop I’d fallen asleep on and tossed the chair cushion I’d used as a pillow back onto the chair it originally came from. According to my watch it was a little after nine in the morning, which meant I’d only been asleep for about four hours. I was frankly surprised I’d been able to get that much rest, as half finished furniture doesn’t make for a comfortable night, but then again, I had been pretty tired. After all, when I’d gotten there the night before that tabletop hadn’t existed yet.

As I smoothed my clothes down I discovered they were covered in small clumps of glue and sawdust. I grimaced, wishing I’d thought to change out of my work clothes before I came. It occurred to me for the hundredth time that it might be a good idea to start keeping a spare set of casual clothes in the workshop. At least this time I had managed not to ruin another pair of pants.

My workbench was fairly typical, consisting of a sturdy board with a number of cups full of nails, screws, pencils and other sundries, slots for larger tools, hooks along the sides for things like clamps and planes, and a pegboard along the back for most of the precision tools. The larger tools, like the circular saw, had their own tables in other places around the workshop. Before staggering over to my makeshift bed and passing out the night before I’d left a couple of newly shaped table legs lying there, intending to sand them down into something usable whenever I next got the chance. I was examining one of them, to determine if I wanted to try the belt sander on it or just finish it by hand, when someone knocked at the door.

Now, you’re not exactly supposed to turn a U-Store It rental space into a carpentry shop, but the manager knows me and is willing to turn a blind eye. It’s still not something I try to just tell anyone about, and most of the people who do know about it know that I go there when I want to be alone and unwind. Getting visitors there is pretty unusual.

So I took the table leg with me when I went to answer the door. Because you never can tell.

The door swung inwards and I kept myself a half step behind it as I opened it, the table leg held behind my leg. I’ve been in the business long enough not to drop my guard just because the person on the other side of the door was blond, female and even shorter than I am. It took a minute for my still groggy brain to work past the half dozen piercings, which she hadn’t had in the first time we met, and the radically different wardrobe.

My eyes narrowed slightly, as much from suspicion as a reaction to the bright sunlight outside. “Amplifier?”

She gave me a slight smile. “Who were you expecting? The President?”

“No.” I leaned my table leg up against the wall as I stepped out of the doorway, letting her in. “We haven’t gotten a visit from one of those since VE Day.”

Instead of her original Biker Girl ensemble Amplifier had shown up in a tightly fighting T-shirt that advertised some band I’d never heard of and a worn pair of cut-off jeans that ended just above her calf. She wore a thin string of chain links, clipped together with a small carabiner clip, in place of a belt. Her piercings were all plain studs. It was a different look, but then again, she was in a band and I hear that’s a job for unusual people.

Even more surprising was her friend, who swept in behind Amplifier just as I was about to close the door. She looked like she’d been attacked by a thrift store, wearing a slightly large pair of cargo shorts and an equally baggy button up shirt on top. A wild mass of curly hair sprouted from underneath a worn, battered San Diego baseball cap. Something clicked in the back of my brain, which had finally resigned itself to being awake and started working again.

“Herrera?” I asked, closing and locking the door behind her.

“Who else?” She asked, turning and giving me a mischievous look from under the cap’s brim. “Didn’t Sanders mention we were stopping by last night?”

“Yeah, he said something about it.” I just hadn’t expected her to be able to find this place. “I just wasn’t expecting you to…” Show up looking like a bum didn’t seem like the right way to finish that sentence. “Show up so early.”

“I have classes from noon until late in the day,” Amplifier said, poking through some of the lumber I kept along the wall. “What do you do in this place?”

“I make furniture,” I replied, waving absently at the half dozen pieces I had in various stages of completion scattered throughout the space. “What does it look like?”

“A place where people make furniture,” She said with a shrug. “It just doesn’t seem very agentish, you know?”

“Neither does rock band singer,” I said, scooping up the table leg and heading back to the work bench to get some sandpaper. “But here we are.”

“Here we are,” Herrera confirmed, tipping a mostly finished chair up on one side and examining the bottom. “Amplifier wanted to hear more about the life, and I suggested she talk to you, since you’re the senior-most talent on active duty in this branch.”

“And I have to do whatever you tell me?”

“And that.”

“Makes sense. Okay, ladies, pull up some chairs. Can I offer you something to drink? I keep some soda and bottled water around here.”

“Water would be great,” Amplifier said. “It’s a scorcher out there and it’s not a whole lot better in here.”

“Sorry, air conditioning isn’t a real priority in places like these.” I fished around in a cooler next to my workbench until I came up with a couple of bottles of water, which I held in one hand and tapped with the knuckles of the other until they started beading with condensation. Satisfied that they were cool enough, I handed one to Amplifier and offered the other to Herrera, who shook her head. I shrugged and kept it for myself.

There were a few chairs in usable condition scattered about, Herrera already had one and it only took a second for Amplifier to grab another. I settled onto the stool I kept at the work bench and took a quick drink of water to clear the cottony feeling out of my mouth. That done, there really wasn’t much to do except dive right in. “Care to guess why I’m a closet carpenter, Amplifier?”

“Um… it’s a hobby?”

“Yes and no.” I set aside the water bottle and began sanding the rough edges off the table leg, letting the rhythm of the work take over my hands as I tried to figure out what way to take the conversation. I’ve done this kind of thing a lot over the years, but that doesn’t mean it’s gotten easy. Usually I have more time to get familiar with the backgrounds of the people I’ll be talking to and to work out where I’m going. “My dad was a carpenter and I’ve helped him since I was six. It’s not exactly what I’d call a hobby, just something I’ve always done. It’s also my retirement plan.”

She blinked. “You what?”

“Retirement plan.” I held the table leg up and examined it for a moment. “Handmade furniture is a small market, but it pays well. I do alright with my salary and housing stipend, but the fact is I’m working an entry level position and, odd as it may sound, there’s little room for advancement for talents in the Project.”

“Wait, what?” Amplifier leaned back slightly and narrowed her eyes. “Entry level? Teresa just said you were the senior-most agent.”

“Welcome to the wonderful world of Lincoln’s Rule.” I went back to work on the table leg. “It’s the first and biggest issue with working in the Project.”

“Lincoln’s Rule?” Amplifier straightened again. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Unfortunately, no.” I paused to brush some sawdust off of the table leg. “As you might guess from the name, Project Sumter began, in a much more limited capacity, during the Civil War. President Lincoln heard about a man at West Point who had superhuman abilities and wanted to find ways to use him in the war effort. But he already had grave misgivings about the South’s ideology and, in particular, their glorification of planters as a kind of American nobility.”

“Wait, when was this?” Amplifier crossed her arms. “I thought the Civil War was started to preserve the Union, and slaveholders only came into it when slavery proved the more palatable justification.”

I shrugged. “You know your history, although really, giving a nation as ornery and stubborn as ours any one motivation for anything is probably stupid. But regardless, Lincoln was just like any other man, he changed with time, and no time changes men like war time. More importantly, Lincoln knew the importance of symbols. The country gentleman was a symbol of the South. Lincoln wanted his army to be an army of the people. He didn’t want a super soldier becoming a war hero, he wanted average men to fill that role.”

Amplifier frowned and pulled her legs up into the chair, which was big enough she could easily sit in it Indian style without discomfort. “So what happened to the guy from West Point?”

“He was taken out of West Point, made an enlisted man and put under the command of an officer President Lincoln trusted. He served throughout the war and did good things, then retired and went home. Not a bad deal, all told, except it’s been the pattern the government defaults to when employing talents ever since. We can have a little bit of authority, serve as an NCO, for example, but we can’t be part of operational decision making, so an officer’s commission is right out. And we still operate with dedicated leash holders.” I nodded at Herrera, who looked a bit hurt.

“Not there’s no good reason for that policy,” I continued. “As you’ve probably heard, with great power comes great responsibility. I know that I’ve needed an oversight agent to real me in on more than one occasion, and the more destructive your talent can be the more important they become. But, unless you want to dedicate yourself to research full time there’s a limit to how far you can go.”

“So you’re planning to make up what you loose in salary through furniture making?” Amplifier looked around at the workshop again, then smiled slightly. “I guess that works out well.”

“Most people don’t stay with the Project for more than five or six years before moving on to something else, though.” I examined the table leg for a moment and set it aside, satisfied with it for the moment. “Having a fallback plan is one of those nagging little realities that most people don’t think of when they’re busy thinking about playing superhero.”

“On the flip side,” Herrera said, “we’re always looking for agents, which means that even if you choose not to join the Project now, there might be a future in it for you.”

“True enough. I know one guy who didn’t join up until he was fifty five, and he’s done a lot of good work for some of our branches over the years.” I dusted my hands off and rested them on my knees. “And that brings me to point number two that you should think about.”

“Health insurance?”

“No, that’s number three though, so keep ahold of that thought. Number two is, while the Project is at the beck and call off all the agencies of the Federal Government, for the most part we do law enforcement work. There’s a lot of running down paper trails, some stakeouts and the occasional bust like the one we found you during. But it’s mostly pretty boring, especially for the first two or three years. That’s time you’re not doing something you might be better at. Now you, you’re part of a band right? Singer?”

She bit her lower lip. “Yeah, that’s right. But anyone can do that, Clark and one of the other girls write all the music and lyrics. It’s not like I’m vital to the band.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” I said, leaning back against my workbench. “After all, your talent gives perfect pitch, right? And you probably never miss a note unless you want to.”

For the first time since I’d met her, Amplifier broke eye contact with me and looked down at the ground. “Sure, but that’s not… it’s like cheating, right? I get an edge, so it’s not the same.”

“Nonsense.” I smacked my hand against the work bench for emphasis, startling her back into paying attention. “The fact that you have control over wave frequencies and strength is no more cheating that just being born with perfect pitch. How off key a note can you make sound right?”

“Uh… maybe a quarter step?” She didn’t seem entirely certain that was the answer I was looking for, but that was okay because I had no idea what it meant.

“So you still have to work at getting in the right ballpark?”

“Sure.” She shrugged. “I guess it’s not all getting the right notes. There’s tempo and feeling, too. And if I’m using all my concentration on keeping myself in tune that won’t come out right, never mind how tiring it would be.”

“And you’re good at all of it, I’ll bet. And you enjoy it, or you wouldn’t be in a band.”

“Or studying music and recording in school. So what?”

“So, the Project doesn’t need agents with high visibility. It’s the other way around, actually. These,” I waved to the tools on my workbench, “don’t really care what age I am, or when the last time I used them was, so long as I still know what I’m doing. But age and appearance are a big deal for musicians, especially women, and any musician that disappears for a time is bound to be mostly forgotten.”

I held my hands out like the balances on a scale. “So you can shoot for a musical career now, but you may not be ready for the demands of the job afterwards. On the other hand, entering the Project now almost guarantees giving up all the progress you’ve made towards that career goes away, and it’s not a given you’ll get it back.”

“So you’re saying that people should never have to give something up to help others?” Amplifier asked skeptically.

“Just that they should really think about the costs, so there’s no second thoughts later,” I said. “Which brings us to point number three.”

“Health care.”

“Partly. Doing this job hurts, sure, you get knocked around a lot doing it. But Project Sumter appreciates that, and the fact that we have small salaries, and compensates for it accordingly. More than that you’re expected to do a fair bit of knocking about yourself. Did Herrera mention what kind of roles are generally assigned to a wave maker like you?”

“Not exactly.” Amplifier glanced at Herrera, who nodded. It looked like one thing Amplifier had gotten was the need try and share as little about her talent as possible. “She did mention that we’re above average when it comes to potential for collateral damage, so I might not get sent on as many field operations as other agents.”

“True, to an extent,” I said with a nod. “I’m a high collateral damage causer myself, but as time goes on you can expect that your supervisors and the Senior Liaisons will figure out ways to use your talents efficiently. What I don’t think you realize is what kinds of situations you might be asked to deal with.”

Amplifier crossed her arms and dropped her feet back towards the floor. When she realized they wouldn’t quite reach she frowned and braced them on the crosspiece between the chair legs instead. “What kind of things are we talking about?”

“High potential for collateral damage translates into really big hammer.” I hefted a heavy wooden mallet from my workbench for example. “Which means you’ll get situations where hammers are called for. For example, one potential use for your talent is to shatter large objects. Ever wanted to be a one woman demolition team? Because you could probably shake apart most concrete buildings with the right harmonics and enough power.”

She gave me a skeptical look. “How often would that even be necessary?”

“You might be surprised.” I set the hammer back in its place. “The point is, you’re probably going to be doing things that have a high risk of getting someone hurt. This isn’t comic books, this is real life. As you’ve probably already noticed, most talents don’t come with built in indestructibility to help keep you alive. And just because we’re trying to be the good guys doesn’t mean no one will ever get hurt long term by something we do. If you’re not prepared to have one or two people go deaf because of your powers, at the very least, then you’re probably not ready for this job.”

“That seems…”

“Harsh?”

Amplifier jerked back a bit from my challenging tone. “Self-righteous.”

“People get hurt one way or another every day, Amplifier. Our job is to try and keep that to a minimum. And that’s hurdle number four.” I leaned forward like I could press the spirit right out of her through presence alone. “This job tells you to keep the peace and you have incredible abilities to do it with. It also requires that you lie to most everyone you meet and keep them in the dark about what really happens in the world around them. It demands that you make decisions for the greater good without the input or okay from the people who you’re supposed to be helping. Do it for two years and you’ll either become a megalomaniacal ass or curse yourself because you think you are one. If you’re the first they lock you up, if you’re the second they do anything to keep you from leaving. So the real question is, are you ready for it?”

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