Heat Wave: Signal Static


The biggest problem with trying to keep up surveillance on a building also being watched by a group of people who would dearly like to throw you in jail is that you must observe without being observed. That sounds simple in principle. With the right gear, which I certainly had access to, you can watch a building in close-to-real-time from the other side of the continent. So it was a simple matter to position my own surveillance team a few blocks further away from P.H.S. 44 than the Project’s teams and make sure they stayed out of the way during shift change.

The problem was, I also wanted to be in a position to respond to any signs of the Enchanter’s appearing on the scene. If I stayed with my surveillance team then by the time I could react to any situation developing the Project would already all over the scene and I’d have to somehow get through the inevitable cordon Project Sumter’s agents would have put in place.

The Project is inept and wasteful in a surprising number of ways, but there’s one thing you can say for them: They know how to keep the public out of situations under their purview. It’s pure survival for secret government agencies.

There were any number of ways I could have dealt with a running the Project’s secrecy gauntlet, ranging from the direct frontal assault to a couple of promising but still highly experimental forms of transportation. In particular, Davis has ideas for a creative maglev harness that I think has a lot of potential. But, since you don’t survive eight years in the dangerous business of dangerous villain armed with exceptional abilities without some small dose of self preservation, I’d finally settled on a more practical and elegant solution that was all the better for being unexpected.

I hid inside the building. Thus I ensured I was the first on the scene and avoided being cordoned out in one fell swoop.

Now it was more complicated and difficult than I make it sound, and it was also very uncomfortable and tedious. There was a lot of careful electronic manipulation and old-fashioned skullduggery involved. It was a great exercise in the kind of stealth and intrusion skills that I don’t use as often as I should, what with my having Heavy Water around to rely on. And, of course, it all went beautifully and I was never noticed in spite of all that was being done to ready the school for classes the next week. I could say more about it but I’d rather not bore anyone.

Suffice it to say that my injured hand and shoulder got both rest and exercise, enough to feel reasonably healed and useful by the end of my stay, and I got to know the school building very, very well. The building got a few new little additions that made my life easier as well. Things weren’t the best they could be, but only because hygiene can’t always be a top priority in my line of work. One of the things most people don’t think about when considering a career in supervillainy.

Actually, the worst part was the boredom. During the day I mostly confined myself to the basement of the building, a labyrinth of storage rooms, furnace equipment and half-forgotten junk. I passed some time working by mobile device, but there limits to what I could do down there. I managed to catch a little sleep, but maintenance workers were in the area enough that it wasn’t very restful. At nights I prowled the school building and prepared for the Enchanter’s arrival. Heavy and Grappler took turns phoning in status updates.

By Thursday I was getting restless. I was still sure that I was in the only logical location for the Enchanter’s next arson, but I was beginning to worry about moving things from Location Ten to the Chainfall site. Davis was a great engineer but only an average project manager, and for the duration of the Enchanter’s mischief Simeon was in town and thus away from the site. Regardless of who got the Enchanter, I suspected that my activities for the last few weeks were moving me up Sumter’s priority list, and that meant Chainfall, my next move in the ten year plan to deal with them, had to be ready before they figured out what I was up to. And I had scheduled my face to face meeting with Hangman for late the following week. It would be nice to finish with the Enchanter before then.

The handful of specialized subsystems I’d brought with me when I snuck into the school the second time were all in place by that point. And I know what you’re thinking, why not just install the surveillance package with everything else? The short answer is, because my surveillance systems went into the public areas of the building and for the most part, the rest did not. It was better to have a cover in place beforehand than try to improvise something if I was discovered sneaking around in tactical gear in the middle of the night. Even with everything in place, preparation always pays, so that evening I went out to check on things. After all, there was always a chance that something had been discovered or just moved out of place during the day’s activity.

First I called all three elevators in the building down to the basement. I was fortunate that the building had been renovated after accessibility regulations made elevators mandatory in multistory government buildings. Not because I needed them but because they were access points. I’d spliced into the power supply cables in each elevator so that I could draw power for my equipment directly from the building, instead of draining the far more limited supply in my vest and newly finished battery belt. When combined with a clunky but serviceable pair of electromagnetic boots it also became possible for me to climb up or down the elevator shaft, offering a way to move between floors that most people wouldn’t immediately notice and wasn’t covered by any of the observation equipment that came with the building or that Project Sumter had installed.

Once I was sure those were still in place and functional, the next step was to check that the splices I’d slipped into the Project’s surveillance equipment were still in place, so that I could replace live footage with canned recordings of empty hallways should the need arise. With that done I was left with the options of going down to the cafeteria and finding something to eat or braving the lingering heat on the rooftop long enough to check on the large electromagnets I’d left there, part of my countermeasure for prolematic heat sinks.

Since the route I’d taken around the school that evening left me near the offices I decided to cut through to the back access ladder and hit the roof first.

Offices might be a bit of a generous term for the schools administrative area. That part of the building was nestled into one corner of the top floor. The principle had his own office, since rank has its privileges, but most of the rest of the teachers just had cubicles along a narrow hallway, with Barry the secretary’s desk standing sentinel at one end and the other leading into a small back area with a kitchenette and a maintenance closet. Two hallways lead into the area and both opened into the small reception area where Barry normally lurks, so getting from the hall I was in to the hall I wanted should have been a simple matter of opening a door and turning a corner.

Instead, when I stepped into the office I found a man piling packages onto Barry’s desk. For a second we just stared at each other, two men with no business being in the building, each trying to figure out who the other was and what to do about it. I recovered first and snatched my pistol out of its holster, backpedaling a step just in case he decided to make an ill-advised grab for the weapon. In my line of work it’s widely understood that in close quarters guns belong to whoever wants them most, and while my instincts told me that pastor Rodriguez was retired from the street life that didn’t mean his instincts were entirely gone.

And hard as it was to believe, it was the pastor again. He had a huge sack with small boxes spilling out of it in one hand and a pile of greeting card envelopes sat on the desk near at hand. I wasn’t sure how he had made it past my surveillance and gotten into the building, but there he was and no point denying it. I had no idea what to do with him.

I was grateful that I had decided to go with a loose mask to cover the bottom half of my face, which, along with the fedora that was a standard part of my operating gear, removed just about any chance of being identified as the electrician from earlier in the week. That could have gotten awkward. “You know, if you’re the arsonist everyone’s been gossiping about recently I have to say you’ve come undersupplied,” Rodriguez said.

“Funny,” I said on reflex. “I was just thinking most arsonists don’t bring greeting cards for their victims to the scene of the crime. They don’t usually last long enough to be an efficient use of resources.”

“I don’t know about you but I came in through the front door,” Rodriguez said with a huff. “If you want to call the police and see which of us can give a better explanation for our being here that’s fine with me.”

That was a solid comeback but it only worked out if we were on even footing, and I suspected that the pastor was not the kind of man to carry a gun anymore. “A counter offer. How about you put that bag on the ground and have a seat behind that desk for the moment, and no one has to the ER tonight,” I said. With a sigh Rodriguez did as I asked. “Keep you hands on the desk, please.”

So far, my Hispanic friend had given no indication of recognizing me and was fairly compliant, both of which were good. I took a moment to check my phone and found that I had missed a call, probably blocked by the elevator shaft I was in a few minutes ago. I slipped the phone back into it’s belt pocket and used a twitch of talent to activate my Bluetooth headset and call Grappler back. She picked up almost immediately.

The first thing she said was, “You didn’t pick up.”

If it had been almost any other situation I would have been annoyed by the demanding tone in her voice, but on a job like this pretty much any deviation from the expected was an emergency. “I was in a part of the building with no signal,” I said, carefully choosing words that wouldn’t hint at exactly where I’d been in case Rodriguez hearing it made a difference. “I apologize.”

“There’s someone in the building with you,” Grappler said, wisely choosing to stick to business rather than lecturing me for not calling back sooner.

“I just  found him.” Rodriguez raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything. “He’s not our man. Stay on the lookout for new arrivals. I’ll be here, keeping an eye on our new friend, so you should be able to reach me without difficulty.”

“Fine. Be careful, Circuit. I never will understand why it’s always gotta be you doing these things, but keep in mind that as long as you’re sticking your neck out like that all our jobs are on the line.” The line went dead.

I grunted and turned my full attention to the big man at the desk. “Now. This is more than a little inconvenient. What, pray tell, should I be doing with you?”

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Author’s Obligations: Enrichment

The author has many duties and responsibilities – things you must keep in mind if you really wants to be considered an author. Your audience. Your story. And beyond that, the ways your story and your audience interact.

Every story should touch the reader in some way. Determining the exact whys and hows of that is part of your job as the writer, but there are some things that it’s worthwhile to keep in mind. One of these is the idea that your story should enrich the reader.

Now before we get into this, let me be clear. Some people are going to hear that and think that what I’m saying is that stories need to be family entertainment, that anything that wouldn’t have been made in the era of black and white film is outside the bounds of good story telling. While many of my favorite movies are in black and white and I’ve nothing against family entertainment as a rule, that’s not at all what I’m saying.

Sometimes, the author needs to wander into unsavory territory if he’s going to tell a good story. This post by Brian Bixby says that stories do not always need to be uplifting. I agree with this statement. Uplifting and enriching are not the same things.

Enrichment does not mean that the person always walks away feeling good. Enrichment does not mean we always look at what is easy, or nice or likable. Being a better person is not directly proportionate to how good we feel. Stories like Animal Farm, 1984 or Brave New World are very dark and unpleasant. You hardly walk away from them feeling great about yourself. They take a hard, honest look at what people are like and what they could be doing, should we let it come to pass. And when we finish with them, we can take what we’ve learned and make ourselves better with it.

Or not, there’s always that option, too.

The point is, the author must at least offer something enrich the reader, even if the reader doesn’t want it, or else he’s just wasted the reader’s time. If a story is nothing but words on a page, read and then forgotten, the author has taken his audience’s time and left them with nothing. That’s not writing, that’s theft.

Of course, not every story has to be as challenging as Animal Farm. Humor, suspense and slice-of-life all bring something to the table, be it large or small, that give the reader something. A joke to share with friends. A tricky situation to ponder and sharpen one’s mind on. A story to share and bond over.

It’s tempting to look at the big, heavy stories and think, “I want to write something like that.” But not every story is suited to carrying such heavy stuff. Read and practice and you’ll learn to gauge how deep and heavy a story is (but that’s undoubtedly a whole ‘nother post entirely.) Practice with little stories. Write out jokes. Retell favorite moments from books in your own words. Do it over and over again.

Most of all, write with purpose. At some point in your story process, ask yourself, “When people walk away from this, what do they take with them? Is it worth the reading?”

Then, write it out until it is.

Cool Things: The Beams Are Creaking

In keeping with tradition, I come with news of the season’s fourth and final all for One Productions play, The Beams Are Creaking.

First, a quick disclaimer: I’m not in this production. So if that’s been keeping you away please consider coming to this show!

Wait, you want to know what the show is about? Well, to put it simply it’s about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who lived in the first half of the twentieth century. He opposed the Nazi party and their takeover of the German churches and worked with Abwehr (a German Intelligence organization) as a part of the many attempts on the life of Adolf Hitler during the Second World War.

The Beams Are Creaking is a play about a hard time, when choosing to live well was not easy. Then again, living right is never easy and there’s much we can learn from people who have given their all in pursuing that end. Hopefully this production will have lessons for us all.

Shows are May 3rd – 5th and 10th – 13th, and will be at the Main branch of the Allen County Public Library. Ticket information can be found on afO’s blog.

Heat Wave: Simmer Until Done


“Stop blowing bubbles in your coffee, Helix.”

“It’s an aromatic beverage,” I mumbled. “If you can’t smell it half the fun is gone.”

“Coffee stirrers are not straws.” Amplifier leaned back against the wall of the van and sighed. “I’m not sure what I was expecting when you asked me out but it certainly wasn’t this.”

Bergstrum made a choking noise and quickly set down his own coffee. Jack gave me an amused nudge. “Asked out?”

“I asked her if she wanted to get out of the office tonight and see what we’d been up to.” I shrugged. “Any and all possible misconceptions arising from that are not my fault.”

“You’re a surprisingly devious person, Helix,” Herrera said as she flipped her cards over to show a hand with three tens and took the pot for the hand of poker they were playing, using a box as a table.

I frowned. “You’re obviously a card sharp, so I’d say it takes one to know one.”

“You’re just mad because you’ve been cleaned out already,” Kesselman muttered, anteing up for the next round.

You’re all holding up the game,” Bergstrum said, motioning impatiently for the cards to be dealt.

“And you’re all done seeing how long we can start sentences with the same word,” Jack added, shuffling the cards with his trademark methodical slowness.

“I kind of expected you to be a bit better at reading bluffs, Amp,” Kesselman said as he examined his cards. “Doesn’t super hearing help out any?”

“You’d be surprised the things it does and doesn’t help with.” Amplifier rocked forward again to toss in her ante and take her cards. “For starters, everyone sounds different when they lie, so if you don’t know someone fairly well it’s easy to miss their tells. I’m sure there’s some kind of common threads, but I haven’t needed to be a walking lie detector in the past so I really don’t have the experience to tell you what they are.”

Jack finished dealing the cards and asked, “Bets?”

I tuned the poker game out and went back to my reading, absently blowing bubbles in my coffee until Amplifier got annoyed enough to quietly kick me in the shins, an absent minded kind of point and counterpoint that would repeat itself several times in the next half hour. It would have been funny, except she was wearing the kind of heavy boots you could find at army surplus stores along with a jean skirt and yet another obscure band T-shirt. I wound up wishing I had put on full riot gear instead of just a vest for that day’s stakeout.

That, or just not suggested we invite Amplifier along as an observer.

While I was regretting having her along at the moment, it’s important that people thinking of joining the Project understand that very little of what we do is anything other than incredibly boring. The easiest way to do that is simply to sit them down in the middle of the most boring thing you can think of at let them feel what it’s like. Normally I’d have invited Amplifier along to a meeting with one of the Analysis department’s forensic accountants, but steakouts are in a special class all their own. Judging by her attitude at the moment she actually coping fairly well. She played poker, chatted and generally tried to keep people’s mind off the boredom without being overly distracting.

I was sorely tempted to give her some paperwork to see how she handled that, but she wasn’t cleared for anything I was going over at the moment. Still, all in all I was slowly warming up to the idea of recruiting Amplifier into the Project.

“What are you staring at?” Amplifier asked. I stifled the instinctive jerk, took a second to figure out that  I had been watching Amplifier intently for the last few seconds, or maybe minutes, and apparently it was starting to creep her out.

From the heat in my face I could tell I was blushing, but Jack saved me from answering. “You want to watch out, Amp. I know that look, it means he’s trying to figure out how he can put you to work. He always gets like that before he decides he’s going to rope someone into the Project. Ask Al Massif what it’s like to be sponsored by Helix – it’s different for everyone but it’s always trouble.”

I grunted and smoothed the papers I was reading out flat as a way to buy time.  “It’s not that big a deal.”

“If things are like this all the time a complicated job interview might be the most exciting part of the gig,” Amplifier said with a laugh.

“It could be worse. If you went with Agent Massif today, like Gearshift did, you’d have to spend all day in a van watching a school without the benefit of the human air conditioner over there.” Bergstrum nodded at me, in case there was doubt about who he was talking about.

“There are upsides,” Herrera said while dealing out a new hand. “For one thing, all talents get to visit Charleston, where the national Project headquarters is. You can even tour the historic Fort, if you want.”

“Really?” Amplifier pursed her lips. “Not that’s a real plus for me, although Charleston might be nice.” She glanced over at me. “What did you think of it?”

“I don’t go into the South,” I said. “The Shenandoahs don’t like me much.”

“How can an entire mountain range not like you?”

I ignored the question by looking back at my reading. I could hear Mona whispering in the back of my mind that, yes, telling he to mind her own business was rude, but I wasn’t really improving on that any by ignoring her. Which was true, but hey at least I was getting imaginary advice from someone other than Sanders now. My only other reaction to that thought was to grab one of the blueberry muffins Mona had sent along with us and start eating it.

There was an awkward pause then Jack said, “Play your cards, Amp. Trying to wrap your head around some things won’t do you any good now.”

Actually, I hoped she would never get caught up in any of my private little feuds, but since the reports we’d gotten suggested that Circuit had accessed her file as part of his general ransacking of our network perhaps it was already too late for that. In fact, what I was reading was a summary of the files Circuit had accessed via his backdoor in the few days it had been in place. Considering he was limited to a 3G cellular connection to send instructions and get data out, it was impressive how much he’d managed to do in such a short time.

A lot of it was straightforward stuff dealing with the Enchanter’s case, and I noticed Analysis had officially renamed the Firestarter to help make things less confusing, it looked like Circuit had grabbed all of our reports dating back to the point we were first sure we were dealing with a heat sink arsonist and not just an average nutcase. But on top of that he had poked around some in Massif’s record for the same time period and dug out as much as he could on my activities in the period between our brush in Morocco and the present.

He’d also done a few surprising things. He’d left hints as to where he expected the Enchanter to show up again by running a couple of data sifting jobs on our computers instead of his own, and as a result we knew that ol’ High School 44, where we were staked out, served every address the Enchanter had attacked. Mossburger had already concluded that a school was the next likely target, but it was nice to have the legwork determining which school taken care of for us.

Just to make sure all our bases were covered, while I watched this location with another team, Massif took his own team and another group to a nearby middle school and kept an eye on that. The first arson site wasn’t in that school zone, so it was considered a less likely target, but it never hurts to be thorough. Of course, with four talents, their oversight agents and their tactical teams all committed here in the city we were stretched a little thin, and it was a good thing there wasn’t another potential site to cover. Assuming we were right about the Enchanter’s next crime.

On top of poking his fingers into our open investigations there were apparently plenty of other little signs of Circuit’s break-in running around. There’d been a file full of messages addressed directly to me, each with a timestamp in the title, and instructions to read the one closest to the time his transmitter had been discovered. They ranged from congratulations on finding the device so fast to admonitions to work a little harder.

I’d wound up somewhere in the middle and gotten the message, “As expected. But good enough isn’t good enough for me, Helix. Try for above average next time.”

The techs were still finding traces of unauthorized access in the system, apparently Circuit had been busy with a bunch of other, less blatant activities as well as his obvious ones, mostly poking around in sensitive files relating to cataloging and researching talents. That information was still coming in and every so often the printer that was part of the van’s monitoring set-up would spit out a new printout and the techie currently manning the station would hand it to me. I’d gotten the privilege of looking it all over by virtue of being the most senior agent present, since Mona and Sanders were in the other van, watching the other side of the school.

I’d just been handed yet another set of papers when our techie sat bolt upright. “Someone’s approaching the building.”

Despite the fact that I was closest to the monitors and he was all the way on the other side of the poker game, and he only had the width of a full sized van to fit his considerable bulk through, Jack still managed to get past me and loom over the tech’s shoulder before I could get there. The man can move, and I’m not entirely ready to say it’s not some kind of talent unique to him.

“What are we looking at?” Jack asked, leaning down and crowding the tech through sheer bulk. “That guy, with the packages?”

“That’s the one.”

I edged around Jack for a better view. “Why is it, whenever we see that guy he’s carrying something?” He asked.

“Is that Rodriguez?” I shook my head in amazement. “What is he even doing here?”

“Michael told me that his church meets here,” Herrera said, crowding in behind us. “Classes start next week. Maybe he’s bringing something for the teachers?”

“People still do that?” Amplifier asked from somewhere in the back of the van.

“Apparently,” I muttered, feeling Jack’s question slowly turn over in the back of my mind. Always carrying something indeed. And there was the full U-Haul truck. And furniture at Mossburger’s that came from Rodriguez’ church. Very interesting. But the church pastor would have to wait, he wasn’t why I was here.

I scooted back and sat in my spot on the floor and tried to focus on something else. The latest pile of paperwork I’d been handed turned out not to be related to Circuit after all. It was from the Watch, the department who monitors the media and other sources for talents. The cover sheet said, “Notice: Legal Activity Involving Family of Project Personnel.”

There is some evidence that talents run in families, yours truly being a prime example, so the Watch runs searches that check names in news stories and police reports against databases of Project personnel. That way, we’d know if we needed to step if a talent’s cousin or younger sibling suddenly developed a talent under less than ideal conditions. Ideal conditions being under no stress and preferably away from people who didn’t already know about the existence of talented people, so that pretty much never happens.

After a few minutes reading I realized that this wasn’t a case of some talent’s kid brother getting in trouble with newly awakened abilities. With a sinking feeling in my stomach I realized it was probably going to be several times worse. Elizabeth Dawson’s mother had just reported her missing.

“Sanders’ observation team reports there’s someone approaching the building on their side.”

I groaned, folded up the paper and shoved it in my pocket, wondering if things could get any worse.

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Genrely Speaking: Steampunk

So it occurred to me in the middle of the string of steampunk spotlights I did over the last month that I never took the time to define what steampunk is. And for that matter, I throw around a lot of genre names without really saying what I think they are. This is significant, since genres, like most other non-scientific classifications schemes (and even some scientific classification schemes) are a bit vague and their definitions tend to vary from person to person.

A genre, for those who aren’t that familiar with the term, is a category of a work of fiction based on its style, form or content (according to Merriam-Websters.)

So, what are some hallmarks of the style, form and content of the steampunk genre?

1. A setting in the Victorian era, or a fictional world that mostly conforms to the social, political and economic realities of that era. In either case, an exception is made in the matter of technology. The works of H.G. Wells or Jules Verne are often used as an example. The British empire is an almost omnipresent force in steampunk novels, and very few things can replace it. It often serves as the driving force in science, exploration and economy, not to mention serving as an excellent source of political intrigue and social commentary. If Britain is not used as the setting or it’s foundation, expect to find the American West or some other frontier setting. Otherwise, you might be looking at a different genre. This idea is usually summarized with the question, “What if the future came early?”

2. An emphasis on science, progress and the resulting social and sometimes military conflict that these forces bring about. One of the biggest themes in steampunk is science. With all the change and turmoil during the Industrial Revolution, it often looked like science would swallow up everything that people had known before and leave behind a world of steam, gears and barely human creatures to oversee them (today this is known as the technological singularity and people are expecting to actually replace humanity, rather than diminish them). The benefits and drawbacks of technology will often be debated.

3. Social change. The Victorian era also saw the beginning of the labor movement and women’s rights. These themes are almost always worked into steampunk stories. And, of course, the British Empire offers a wealth of opportunities to examine the effects of empire. In some cases these things are integral to the story, in some cases they merely signify the era and in some cases these causes are actually advanced further than their historical benchmarks, to go with the theme of progress come early.

Are there drawbacks to this genre? Sure, all genres have their pros and cons. Many people think of the Victorian era as a time of great scientific progress, and it’s true that a lot of people were running around and writing down the things they saw and a lot of very useful machines were invented, but it’s also true that many of the ideas espoused in the Victorian era were flat out wrong. (Ether, to give just one example.) Yet steampunk rarely looks at what the Victorians got wrong.

Sometimes that can be retconned by taking more modern ideas and handing them to scientists who are beginning to uncover them, but that papers over the fact that science was hardly the simplistic, straightforward undertaking so many people, even today, depict it as. There were a lot of widely accepted “scientific” ideas that were flat out wrong, “theories” with no experimental support that were accepted just because they sounded right an fit the mood. Quacks exploited people with pseudoscientific medicines or treatments. Steampunk rarely tackles that particular dark side of science – it’s just not as sexy as Jekyll and Hyde or Frankenstein’s monster.

One thing that authors will probably find very appealing about steampunk is that literacy rates were fairly high in some parts of the world. The written word, we think, was valued. But if you look at the kind of writing that was being done… well, it wasn’t always that great. There was a kind of story called the penny dreadful, so named because they only cost a penny. And, as the name implies, they weren’t exactly great reading.

In short, while most people recognize that the Victorian era had its flaws, steampunk tends to idealize certain parts of it that were, in reality… less than ideal, just like all the other parts.

What are the strengths of steampunk? Steampunk is a very romantic genre. Exploration and greater understanding are incredibly powerful and captivating ideas, and steampunk puts these things at the front and center, giving the reader immediate and visceral buy-in.

Steampunk is also a great home for a large number of fun archetypes. The gentleman adventurer or scientist, or his distaff counterparts, the plucky heiress with something to prove (be it her scientific prowess, her adventuring acumen or just her general equality with men), the airship pirate, the mad scientist – the list goes on and on. It’s a lot of fun for writers and makes it a lot easier for readers to connect quickly with the characters.

Finally, there’s a great appeal to returning to what many view as a great era of history and throwing our own hurdles at them, asking ourselves how would these people have handled the problem? When that’s done right we have fiction at it’s best.

I’ve shared several steampunk tales I love, but to be honest I wouldn’t mind hearing about one or two more. Any recommendations?

A Day in the Life of an Indiana Meteorologist


  • Wake up.
  • Check the radar reports.
  • Pencil “cold – mostly sunny” into draft of morning weather report.
  • Start the coffee.
  • Put miniature potted cactus out on back porch, so it can get some sun.
  • Breakfast.
  • Rescue potted cactus from unexpected rain shower. Too much water can make them swell up and burst!
  • Don heavy jacket, strap on galoshes and collect umbrella.
  • Drive to TV station.
  • Place dry galoshes and umbrella in locker.
  • Call Giuseppe Garfagnini, from the Parks and Recreation office, about that segment on fun things to do in warm weather. Suggest changing to a cold weather activity.
  • Give morning weather report – mostly cloudy, cold, small chance of rain.
  • Enjoy sunny weather on drive to local park.
  • Leave jacket in the car. It’s too warm for it.
  • Text wife, ask her to put the cactus back out on the back porch.
  • Roll up sleeves for segment with Giuseppe. Sweat through taping of segment.
  • Run back to car to grab spare umbrella to ward off sudden cloudburst. Let Giuseppe use it to get back to his car. There’s one in the locker at work.
  • Text wife, ask her to bring the cactus back in.
  • Receive reply from wife.
  • Remind her that the cactus cost twenty bucks, and you’d hate to see it wasted because of a little rain.
  • Receive reply from wife.
  • Remind her not to use that kind of language once the kids are home from school.
  • Drive back to TV station.
  • Lunch.
  • Check weather radar.
  • Give evening weather report – clear skies and cooling temperatures.
  • Drive home.
  • Receive phone call from wife, who says car battery died while picking kids up from school.
  • Point out that you just replaced that thing.
  • Say that yes, that doesn’t get the car started and you’ll be there soon.
  • Check radar reports.
  • Put cactus back out on the back porch, because some sun late in the evening is better than no sun at all.
  • Drive to local elementary school.
  • Spend fifteen minutes diagnosing problem with wife’s car.
  • Conclude that the car battery is dead.
  • Ignore “I told you so” look from wife by cleverly pointing out that the skies are clouding up and it looks like rain.
  • Discover that Giuseppe still has your spare umbrella.
  • Realize your usual umbrella and galoshes are still in the locker at work because you hadn’t needed them when you left.
  • Enjoy unseasonal thunderstorm complete with torrential rainfall.
  • Prepare to jump wife’s car in half inch of standing water.
  • Remember that prayer is an important part of a long and fulfilling life.
  • Jump start wife’s car.
  • Drive home, wet and cold.
  • Discover there is no warm dinner waiting for you because no one was there to cook it.
  • Eat cold cut sandwiches in gloomy silence.
  • See that clouds are breaking up!
  • Step out onto back porch and enjoy glorious sunset.
  • Bury miniature cactus.
  • Go to bed – tomorrow is another day!

Any semblance to people living or dead is strictly coincidental. Any semblance to real events is credited entirely due to the nature of Indiana weather.

Heat Wave: System Check


Here’s how to ruin a school system: Start by insisting that you want higher standards, and that to do this you want the best teachers possible. Then, hand over the task of finding and training good teachers to a panel of experts, let them organize and create a group of teachers devoted to increasing influence of teachers in the educational process. Allow them to extort money from all of the teachers in the system, which they can then turn around and “invest” into the political system, preferably in support of you, so you can help them “improve” the schools. Then, place more money and privileges in the hands of your cronies.

Allow this feedback loop to repeat until you enjoy total dominance of the political situation. Like all cogs in a machine, the schools that serve as your foundation of power will eventually wear down to nothing, the teachers will be instruments focused on ensuring your continued dominance and their continued easy life, and anyone who cares enough about the schools as schools to attempt reform will be jeered and persecuted until they quit assuming they are not outright fired.

The end result of this process is P.H.S. 44. It was originally an elementary school but was remodeled about twenty years ago and now serves as a high school. The facilities are old, the staff live in the suburbs with no idea what their students face day to day and no one really thinks much about the students who attend it. Certainly not their parents, either busy working two jobs apiece to make ends meet or looking to live off the dole for as long as possible. Assuming they aren’t stoned all the time.

Yet, grim a place as it is, the school is still the only shelter most of those kids have against an equally unfortunate neighborhood. Gangs, drugs and violent crime may seem like mundane problems to someone who can force electricity to do his bidding, but the fact is mundane problems can kill you just as well as exotic ones. And they’re more likely to do it, since there are more of them.

So, in short, if the Enchanter wanted to create a generation of instant orphans he couldn’t do much worse than burning their high school to the ground. They might even praise him for it.

But if the Enchanter could exploit the slipshod nature of the inner city schools to his own ends, so could I. In my case, starting with two magic words.

“No charge?” The secretary, or receptionist, or whatever politically correct thing he was, looked up from the papers I’d handed him.

“That’s right. It’s a factory recall for light sockets.” I tapped the small picture of the part in question, up in the top right hand corner of the page he was holding. “A bad batch of wiring makes them prone to sparking and starting fires. We’re going around and checking all the local schools to see if anything needs replaced.”

The secretary didn’t look like a very bright individual but he apparently paid enough attention to what was going on around him to figure out when things broke with routine because he gave me a hard look and said, “You’re not with the usual contractor, are you?”

“Hoffman Electronics was hired as a subcontractor on this job. If you want to know more than that, you’d have to talk to my boss yourself. Or your usual contractor  whichever you prefer. All I know is there are a lot of schools to cover, so if we weren’t here it’d be much less likely to the job’s finished before classes start next week.”

“Wouldn’t that be just perfect,” the man muttered, suggesting he found it the opposite. “Well, whatever. Are you going to need access to the whole building?”

I pretended to shuffle through my papers for a minute, making it look like I wasn’t sure. “Well, it looks like I’ll only need to check the larger rooms like the gymnasium and the cafeteria. Luckily the building got passed over in the last wave of remodeling, otherwise I’d probably have to check every light in all the hallways. Oh, and I’ll have to go on the roof, unless you can tell me the make of the light fixtures you have up there.”

He grimaced. “I didn’t even know we had lights on our roof.”

“It’s a safety requirement, I believe.” I flipped the papers flat onto my clipboard and smiled slightly. “Are there some keys I could borrow?”

The secretary apparently took my tone to be condescending because he looked a bit offended. “We only got one set, and they’re out already. But…”

He got up and walked around his desk and past me to lean out the door. “Hey, Izzy!”

There was a moment’s wait and I used the opportunity to work my way to one side, so I could see around my belligerent companion and down the hallway. Much to my surprise a young Hispanic woman stepped out of one of the classrooms down the hall from the offices we were in and waved. “Still here, Barry. What’s up?”

Barry waved her down the hall. Her shoulders slumped in resignation and she made the trudge over to us with the kind of resigned shuffle you only see in teens who have agreed to do something they’d really rather not, which was my first clue that I’d overestimated her age. The simple tank top, battered, undecorated jeans and grubby bandanna over her hair were more what you’d expect from a middle aged cleaning lady but her posture, attitude and wary-in-the-face-of-authority expression were pure teenager.

She was solidly built, perhaps a little squat, probably an athlete of some sort but with the kind of prominent cheekbones and fine features that her peers would kill for. The look Barry gave her as she walked over was somewhere between an impending sexual harassment lawsuit and a prelude to statutory charges, depending on how old Izzy actually was. Her reluctance to step over to the office was suddenly much clearer.

Many people in entrenched institutions can come to feel that they are entitled, not just to their position in that institution, but to the people they are in charge of. This can frequently lead to their overstepping themselves in very nasty ways. People will protest that this kind of thing is rare, but that’s small comfort to those who are taken advantage of.

I shoved those thoughts, and one or two bad memories that went along with them, to one side. The problem with personal experience is that you, personally, are a very small sample size. Many, if not the majority, of the things you’ll experience in your life are abnormal and thus a bad measuring stick for judging new things. I knew that Barry was more than likely a normal man in a normal job who had never developed the self-control necessary not to leer at any attractive woman he saw.

I also knew that the surveillance systems I was about to install around the school didn’t have to be removed immediately.

Secure in the knowledge that I could Big Brother the school’s secretary and, if need be, ruin his life so completely his grandchildren would feel it, I dismissed the matter from my mind. Arriving at that decision took no longer than it did for Izzy to walk the length of the hall and give Barry one of those pointed looks girls of her age are so very good at. Barry just jerked a thumb at me, his expression back to bored and apathetic. “This guy’s here to work on the lights. You and your dad will have to share the keys with him.”

With that helpful introduction out of the way, he turned around and went back to his desk. The girl rolled her eyes behind his back and waved for me to follow her out of the offices. In the back of my mind I wondered if there really was only one set of keys or if this was some sort of bizarre revenge for interrupting Barry’s work day. But there was nothing I could do about it either way so I obligingly trailed along a few paces behind, trying to get a feel for the building with my eyes while feeling out the girl with a few questions. “So, do you work here?”

She laughed and shook her head. “I could, couldn’t I? But not me, the system doesn’t really like hiring people who are under the age of eighteen.” Well, there was one question answered. “My papa is pastor of Diversy Street Evangelical, we rent the auditorium on Sunday to hold services. We volunteer to help clean the building, especially during the summers.”

I raised my eyebrows. “So this is your summer vacation?”

“No, that was last month. This is just filling time until classes start.” She shrugged. “There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.”

“True enough.” It did raise another interesting question, though. If there was a large group of these people here it could create difficulties. I was wearing a disguise, courtesy of the many talents of Simeon Delacroix, that involved a slight change to the shape of my nose, general darkening of my skin tone and wig of coarse black hair that made me look very different. But if I was seen by enough people it could still be a problem. “So how does this cleaning thing work? Do a bunch of you just swarm over the building on Saturdays?”

“During the school year, that’s what we usually do. But during the summer we’re a bit more relaxed. Like today, it’s just me, the middle sister,” she paused just long enough to wave to a similar looking girl around the age of twelve pushing a mop along a classroom further down the hall from where she started out, “and my papa. We’re mostly mopping the classroom floors.”

She led me into a classroom at the far end of the hall where a large man was unstacking desks and arranging them in rows. The faint smell of floor cleaner filled the air. “Hey papa, this guy needs to borrow the keys!”

The man placed a desk at the end of a remarkably neat row and straightened up. A good look was all I needed to be sure of one thing- the girl was in no danger from the school secretary. Barry would have to be an idiot to attract to attract this man’s wrath, and while Barry struck me as lazy he didn’t seem stupid.

The father was a huge man, not quite as tall as Heavy but just as, well, heavy. He was wearing a simple, sweat stained, red short sleeved shirt that let me see tattoos winding up his arms, the kind of markings that put one in mind of street gangs, and he had the weary look of a man who had been there and seen that. The hard look he gave me as he walked over warned me that, pastor or no, he hadn’t lost his street smarts. Or maybe that was just because I was standing near his daughter. I resisted the urge to inch away from her, it probably wouldn’t have helped matters.

The man held out his hand and I shook it, hoping I’d come back with all fingers. To my surprise, while he had a firm grip is wasn’t the kind of knuckle mashing vise you might expect from a man his size. “I’m pastor Manuel Rodriguez, I see you’ve met my daughter Isabel. You’re here to work on the building?”

“Not just yet,” I said. “I’m actually here to do an assessment, see how much needs to be done, the real work will probably be handled tomorrow or the day after.” I went on to give the whole song and dance about faulty lights and fire hazards again.

By the time I was done, Rodriguez was nodding thoughtfully. After another moment’s contemplation he said, “Well, I think we’ve got all the rooms we’ll need access to today unlocked already.” He fished a set of keys out of his pocket and handed them to me. “Take them for now, we’ll come find you when it’s time for us to lock up.”

I took the keys with a grateful smile, although I wasn’t really happy with the idea of someone walking in on me in the middle of my work, a little apprehension to keep you on your toes is never a bad thing. I’d just have to deal with it. “Sounds like a fair deal. Thanks, Mr. Rodriguez.”

The pastor smiled, and this time it reached his eyes. Maybe he wouldn’t be a problem after all.


Of course, what I really wanted was to establish surveillance on the school building, and with the help of a very small earpiece and Grappler, back in the van, I was able to set up a couple of dozen tiny cameras throughout the building, inside and out. It took most of the day, but I got finished about an hour after Rodriguez and his daughters locked up their rooms and left. If the school secretary ever thought it strange that no one followed up the work order I was supposedly carrying out, it didn’t come up in the time we watched the school.

The day after I finished setting up my surveillance and settled in to watch, Project Sumter arrived and set up. I had expected them, although the device I had planted in their network to leech off their files had been found and deactivated the day before, while I was out playing electrician, so I had no notice they were coming. Still, it wasn’t surprising. I have only a partial understanding of how they work, but what I’ve seen tells me that, at the very least their superior manpower makes cracking cases as easy for them as it is for me.

Also, I had deliberately left some electronic footprints to point them here, and to a few other possible target schools nearby. I didn’t have the resources to cover everything, and it’s always nice to have a backup plan. Heavy and Grappler both pointed out to me that a backup plan that want’s to take the lot of us and throw us in jail is not exactly an optimal choice, but then, that’s life, isn’t it?

By the end of the day on Tuesday everyone but the Enchanter was gathered around the school. There was nothing left but the waiting.

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A Road Map (Six Months Forward, Six Months Back pt. 2)

So as of the beginning of April, Heat Wave has been running for six months. Last week I mentioned some of the complications that fact is already causing me, some of the decisions that I’ll have to make sooner or later, and asked for some feedback in how you might like me to handle them.

This week let’s look forward past the end of Heat Wave. I’m not 100% sure, of this writing, when that will be, but I suspect it will be sometime in May or early June. What comes after Heat Wave?

Well, for starters I have the seed of a second Project Sumter novel in the works. Circuit and Helix haven’t really been working at cross-purposes in Heat Wave, they just don’t like each other very much (mutual respect aside). Also, Heat Wave is going to leave some major plot threads hanging that I don’t want to leave unresolved for too long. However, seven or eight months of one story is a long time. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it and I know I’ve enjoyed writing it, but I also have a lot of other ideas percolating on the back burner and I’d like to share them with you.

So, for a month or two after Heat Wave is finished I intend to post several short stories on Monday, instead of novel chapters. Some of these short stories may be too long for a single week (leaning more towards 6,000-8,000 words instead of the usual 2,000-4,000 words I aim for in the usual novel “chapter) and I’ll probably wind up splitting those into two weeks of content. I’m not sure exactly how many of these there will be, but I promise not to spend more than two months on them.

At least one, possibly two or three of these stories will be set in Project Sumter’s world and will explore what some of the characters are doing in the time after Heat Wave or the early chapters of the next book. A new character or two may make a first appearance in these stories as well. The others short stories, however many there winds up being, will be stories with new characters set in new worlds. Hopefully you’ll find those stories, characters and worlds just as interesting as Project Sumter has been for you. Unless you found that to be boring so far. In which case, nothing personal but why are you still here?

Why spend two months dividing my message? Why introduce a whole bunch of new concepts before going back to the tried and true?

Well, for one thing, I want to tell these stories. The drive to write is one of the most important aspects of a writer’s life and I’d be stupid not to go where it takes me. Another is, while I have plenty ideas for short stories, ideas suited to full length novels are a little more sparse on the ground – and not all of them are Sumter stories. In fact, a minority of them are.

I want to keep telling stories long after I run out of ideas for Circuit, Helix and their merry bands. I hope you’ll come along for the ride, and to do that there’s nothing better than whetting people’s interests ahead of time.

At the same time, I do want you to stick around and see how the second book turns out. So, after finishing with the short stories I’ll take one week to do a brief introduction, as I did with Heat Wave, and we’ll start with Water Fall sometime in late July or early August. It’s been six months of hard work, but I’ve enjoyed it. I hope you have, too.

Cool Things: Clockwork Century

Our last episode of Steampunk Month (a spontaneously generated phenomenon now coming soon to headspace near you) is dedicated to Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series of novels. Like all steampunk novels, Priest’s story is set in a world with rather Victorian sensibilities and retro-futuristic technology. Like Whitechapel Gods, last week’s steampunk offering, the Clockwork Century takes place in a world that is pretty much like our own.

Unlike, Whitechapel Gods, the Clockwork Century focuses on events in North America. In the 1890s of this strange, parallel world the American Civil War (or War Between the States, or What Have You) continues to rage off and on through a series of armistices, truces and perpetual ill-will. Like all good sci-fi/fantasy authors, Priest doesn’t spend a whole lot of time trying to explain where the South is getting manpower from, or how a mostly agrarian economy managed to match an industrial powerhouse longer than a handful of years. I mean look, the British allied with the South, supplies, mercenaries, time to develop new technologies, Progress! Huzzah!

Not that the dynamics of a rapidly industrializing society at war are really what Clockwork Century is about. No, most of the action in the fist five novels or so (give or take the road trip aspects of Clementine and Dreadnaught and the jaunt to New Orleans in Ganymede) is centered on the west coast. Sure, the stories range far and wide, but everything actually hinges on the abandoned city of Seattle, in the territory of Washington (which, with the war still on back in the states, hasn’t had much luck in getting admitted to the Union.) There, way on the northern end of the West Coast, the aftereffects of Dr. Leviticus Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine are shaping up to redefine life as we know it. In a strange, subtle, very weird kind of way. You see, while I love a good steampunk story the Clockwork Century has one thing I really hate.


Or, if you’re a resident of Seattle or the surrounding area, rotters. Rotters is the name for people exposed to a strange gas that started leaking out of the ground after Dr. Blue’s test drive of the Boneshaker, who died and who haven’t quite stopped walking around yet. For reasons unknown, they bite people. Okay, honestly they bite people because that’s what zombies do, but if you think about it that only makes sense when we’re dealing with corpses animated by a malevolent force bent on killing, maiming and terrifying people. Rotters are not those kinds of zombies (that we know of.)

So normally I wouldn’t recommend a zombie story to you, just like I wouldn’t normally recommend Lovecraftian fiction to you. The Clockwork Century stands apart, however, because it gives its zombie narratives context and handles its characters with style.

The blight gas that creates rotters is the focus of much scrutiny to the scientists of the Clockwork Century. Deranged people with little sense and less restraint, known as chemists to most of the world, have discovered a way to distill blight gas into an addictive drug and are selling it for pleasure or as an alternative painkiller. It also turns you into a zombie if you take enough of it but, like all addictive drugs, that goes without saying. There is the interesting little problem of these particular zombies being able to reproduce by biting people.

And the fact that that makes no sense does not bug me. At all. >_<

BUT. By constraining the rotters to Seattle and a few other places where blight gas (or it’s distilled form) has been around more than is healthy Priest manages to avoid many of the annoying cliches of the zombie genre. There are still people in this world. Civilization carries on. In fact the old city of Seattle has sealed tunnels full of people (and empty of blight gas and rotters) working quietly to figure out what they’re going to do about their private little end of the world.

And the people in the North, the South, and the independent Republic of Texas (which apparently scrounged up enough good sense not to get involved in the war in this time line)? Well, they carry on, too. They just have to dodge the occasional zombie outbreak while they’re doing it. While an argument could be made that the Clockwork Century does not have the transportation infrastructure or population density to make a zombie apocalypse the danger it is to a modern world, I would tell people arguing such a thing to read at least up to Dreadnaught before making that judgement.

And now I’m going to stop talking about the zombie part of this series, because, while zombies are just a horrible train wreck of crap that has been foisted onto fiction to the detriment of us all, and while Priest does a halfway decent job managing not to make her zombies much more than set pieces and keeping the action focused elsewhere, the real charm of this series is not in the zombies or even the steampunkness, it’s in the way Priest handles the world as a whole.

When I talked about keeping the story in mind I mentioned Priest as a great example of juggling characters. Truly, the way she does it is a wonder. I can’t say too much about it, as the nature of some characters are spoilers, but suffice it to say that just because a character walks off the screen in one book and isn’t seen again in that title doesn’t mean they’re gone. In fact, minor characters frequently go on to sprout entire books of their own. Case in point: Book 5, The Inexplicables. Or, to give an even better example, the many trials and tribulations of Jeremiah Swakhammer. (Yes, he’s as awesome as the name implies.)

The sense you get is that the world itself is alive and growing, with a lot of small, mundane things happening off the screen that stack up and surprise us when the narrative takes us back to people we haven’t seen in a while. Sure, some of the things that are alive and growing their ranks are actually, technically undead but hey, that’s just the price you pay.

All in all, the Clockwork Century series is well titled. It doesn’t rest on the back of a character, it doesn’t focus on a particular conflict. It’s much more an adventure through a wild, unpredictable frontier. An Old West you’ve never seen before. A war that’s not in any history book. And yes, possibly the end of the world in slow, shambling motion. If you love world building or character driven fiction, it’s probably worth your time to check out.

A short story entitled Tanglefoot, set after Boneshaker, the first novel in the series, but containing no spoilers for that book or any other stories in the Clockwork Century, is available for free by following this link.

Heat Wave: Smoke Signals


Now I know a little bit about electronics, what with all the time I’ve spent chasing Circuit over the past eight years, but that only goes up to a certain point. What I was looking at was totally beyond me, a mess of circuit boards, routing cables, dedicated processors and who knows what else that only made sense to people with years of study or experience in tinkering. I resisted the urge to poke at it mindlessly just to see if it would shoot off sparks or something.

“Tell me, Shelob,” I said, watching the pieces slowly disassembled before my eyes, “why are you tearing the building’s surveillance cameras apart?”

Watching our building security chief work is an education in and of itself. You wouldn’t think a thirty year old woman only a few inches taller than me, with mousy brown hair in a sloppy bun and librarian glasses would be an expert on electronic surveillance, but then you don’t expect superpowered men in suits, either. Deceptive appearances is one of our favorite ways of staying out of sight.

But what is really impressive is Shelob’s concentration. She barely spared enough brainpower to speak, mumbling along in a monotone as she continued to run strange, arcane diagnostics on her gear. “Got a problem with the audio/visual broadcast formatting in one of the cameras on the south side of the building. Not transmitting right.”

Normally, if something like that is broken, we let maintenance take care of it. But our cameras are a special breed. Typical cameras don’t broadcast at all, and if they did it certainly wouldn’t be in a format an antenna like Shelob could understand. People had worked on the problem before, but no one had come up with a solution that did anything other that give talents headaches until Shelob had a breakthrough in her junior year of college and started her own private security firm. A few years after that the Project had discovered her but failed to recruit her as an actual agent. Instead, she worked for us as a civilian contractor.

That has it’s pluses and minuses. On the plus side, she can dress down, makes a lot more than me in a year and gets guaranteed holidays. On the minus side, whenever anything breaks she’s pretty much the only person working here who knows how to fix it.

Shelob’s new security station was located on the top floor of the building, down the hall from the offices allocated for the important people and right next to the staff cafeteria, which shows that our management has it’s priorities straight. Stay near the food and the security officers and you’ll come out okay, especially since you keep your guards well fed. There were still stacks of chairs waiting to be set up in the cafeteria sitting in the hall so I snagged one and flipped it around, sitting with my legs straddling the back of the chair and watched her work.

“Shouldn’t you be on break or something?” She asked as I settled in.

“Oh, I am,” I said, resting my arms on the back of the chair. “But, the cafeteria and break rooms aren’t set up yet and there’s no way I’m staying at my desk. It’s like a war zone down there. What’s wrong with your cameras? Something jostled during the move?”

“Not the move,” Shelob mumbled, sticking some sort of a cable in her mouth to hold it while she typed on her laptop. “I’m guessing Broadband was in recently.”

I frowned. “Yeah, last week. How could that mess up your cameras?”

“Same talent, different senses.” Shelob paused for a moment, then grunted, pulled the cable out of her mouth and started reassembling the camera again. Her hands worked on autopilot and her attention returned from wherever it goes when she’s working on her gizmos. Her expression became more animated and there was actual, well, expression there. “See, it’s like this. In the old days Broadband would have been called an oracle, not an antenna. He hears transmissions and is best suited to things like intercepting cellphone signals or jamming shortwave radio. Me, I’d be called a visionary, because I see transmissions and can mimic a lot of line-of-sight communications like IR transmitters. I can do a lot of the jamming type stuff, too, but audio transmissions don’t make any sense to me.”

Situations like this are what the smile-and-nod routine were invented for. I didn’t understand half of that, but it probably wasn’t important at the moment. There was one thing that I was pretty sure of. “You and Broadband were lumped into the same category of talent because you can both serve as radio transmitters, but that ignores a lot of the nuance. Not the first time it’s happened.”

In fact, putting cold spikes and heat sinks aside, I could think of two other cases of two or more talents being combined under a new, broader definition in the time I’d been with the Project. The problem with that is, as Shelob pointed out to me, we loose a lot of the fine details that sometimes make all the difference. The result is that a lot of the field agents still use the old terminology while Records and most of the higher ups expect reports to use the newer names. And thus, the Federal Bureaucracy continues to produce confusion at a stunning pace. “Still, I don’t follow how that messes up your cameras.”

She pointed the cable at me like it was some kind of weapon. “It’s your stupid rules.”

“Sorry, we have a lot of those,” I said apologetically. “Any one in particular?”

“The one that says any piece of Project equipment modified by a talent for greater compatibility with their ability must be equally usable by any other Project personnel with the same talent.” Shelob snorted in disgust. “It’s probably a good idea for some talents. But it took four months for us to find a way to let Broadband tap into my CCTV rigs audio feeds. Time we both could have spent better on other things. And if he forgets to switch things back when he’s done it feels like I’m having epileptic fits – there’s stray signals all over the place! I wish he’d just stick to eavesdropping on cellphones.”

I suddenly had a very, very bad feeling. “This thing, when you switch up the cameras so Broadband can hear them. It looks a lot like a cellphone signal to you?”

“It’s complicated.” She thought about it for a minute, then shrugged. “Audio and visual information have different formatting, radically different if you want it to make sense to us. A lot of the specialty in my gear is in the coding. But yeah, when you switch the cameras over to their oracle settings it looks a lot like a cellphone signal.”

“So, why aren’t you simply going around and switching off all the cameras one at a time? When the camera that’s glitching is turned off you should stop seeing the weird signal, right?”

“If it was happening all the time, sure.” Shelob shook her head. “If only my life was so simple. The problem’s intermittent, I only see the stray signal every couple of hours.”

The bad feeling got even worse. I tipped my chair forward and leaned part way across Shelob’s desk. “Shelob, where’s the new evidence room?” The sudden change of subject threw her off for a second and she stared blankly. “Evidence room, Shelob. You should have a building plan around here somewhere, right?”

“Oh. Uh, yeah.” She fumbled through her desk for a second until she came up with a slim binder. As she flipped through it she said, “I know we put it in the basement again. It looks like you hang a right out the main elevator, take the second hall on the left and there you are.”

“On the south side of the building?”

Shelob checked the map again. “Yeah.”

“Great. Come on.” I jumped up out of my chair and started for the stairs.

“Where are we going?” Shelob asked, ducking out from behind her desk grabbing her now-repaired camera in one hand.

Hopefully I was wrong. But if I was right… “We’re going to fix your malfunction.”


There it was, a big, ugly card with a lot of stuff sticking out of it nestled in among the various other cards, cables and mysterious little metal boxes that live on the inside of a computer. It could have been just about anything, as far as most people are concerned, but the fat little antenna that stuck out of one side confirmed my suspicions as to what it was. The guy in charge of the evidence room, who I didn’t recognize and who’s ID badge was sticking out of one pocket, making it impossible to just glance and get his name, scratched his head and said, “You know, I don’t think that’s supposed to be there.”

“I know it’s not,” I said, setting aside the piece of the computer case and turning to poke through the evidence boxes that were stacked along the walls, waiting to be sorted and stored. I found what I was looking for on the bottom of the stack, naturally. “Give me a hand with this.”

Shelob obligingly came over and helped me shift things around until I could get the box out and open it up. “This is the stuff from our raid on Circuit’s warehouse.” I fished out a flat metal box a little bigger than the strange gizmo in the computer. It had been cracked in half lengthwise along an invisible seam and the parts left in the evidence box. “This is what we thought was a cellphone signal booster, a ‘lucky find’ Circuit left behind in his hurry to leave. Forensics was going to strip down and analyze for us, hopefully sometime this quarter.”

“Oh.” Shelob glanced back over at the computer. “Except it wasn’t a lucky find, it was left there deliberately, so we’d bring it back here. And he installed it into our network when he raided the building.”

“And it’s probably been phoning out packages of data for him ever since,” I said, tossing the metal pieces back into the evidence box. “More than that, I’ll bet it’s how he located us in the first place.”

That got a wince from Shelob. “Meaning this location is probably compromised, too. We need to let Mike know, and I should probably get back to the security center.”

It took me a moment to realize that “Mike” meant Michael Voorman. I’d never heard anyone call him that before. In my confusion I almost let Shelob out the door before I could say, “Wait. I need you to find Agent Massif before you go.”

She skidded to a stop, one hand on the doorframe. “Which one is he? I don’t see all of you often enough to keep the names straight.”

“You know, the one who look like a blond version of Superman?”

“Oh, him?” Shelob let her eyes drift half closed for a second, blinking every few seconds. It was a little unsettling, but I knew it was just part of the gift. Evidence Guy didn’t seem to be taking it quite as well, but that’s the drawback of a desk job. When the office becomes the field, a lack of real world experience can hurt. After about twenty seconds of blinking, Shelob opened her eyes again and said, “He’s on the firing range.”

I shook my head. “If they’re pranking newbies by ‘accidentally’ shooting at him again I’m gonna have somebody’s hide.”

“Does it really matter if they can’t hurt him?” Shelob asked.

“Everyone makes mistakes.” I shooed her out the door. “You better get back to your desk before being AWOL becomes yours.”

She made a motion which I guess was supposed to be a salute but looked more like an attempt to shoo off flies and said, “Yes, sir!”

“And you.” I swiveled and to look at Evidence Guy. “Get Forensics on the phone, do whatever you have to do to drag them down here and look at that thing. I want to know how it works and what Circuit’s been doing with it, and I want to know by the end of the day, yesterday.”

He raised his eyebrows in disbelief. “And why am I doing this, again?”

His tone implied that I was the field agent, I should be taking care of this, but I was not in the mood. “Because it’s in your evidence room, and you boys are the ones who didn’t notice Circuit had stuck it there after his little visit.”

The look I got for that told me I’d made an enemy, and foresaw trouble of some sort arising from the evidence room somewhere down the line, but he picked up the phone and dialed Forensics, and at the moment that was all that mattered to me. The only thing I regretted was not asking Shelob where the firing range was before she left. I headed out the door to go find it.

Harriet Verger was a seasoned agent with twenty-two years of field experience. Each and every one of those years was on display for all to see in wrinkles that scratched at the corners of her eyes and streaks of dirty gray slashing through her black hair. She’s Aluchinskii Massif’s supervisor and she was with him on the firing range when I got there, probably because I’m not the only one who doesn’t think it’s funny to give people a heart attack as a way of proving that bullets don’t normally work on him. Over the years I’ve worked with her several times, both with Massif and before, and we have a decent working relationship.

While it’s not really kosher for a Senior Special Agent to hand out orders to someone who’s not on their team, Verger has strongly suggested things to me more than once and I’ve found that listening to those suggestions is usually a good idea. In fact, given that she was eligible and, in my opinion, more qualified, I’ve never been able to figure out why she didn’t get Voorman’s job when the post came open. My guess is politics or a burning desire to remain on the frontline, or some combination of both.

Of course, strong suggestions work both ways and Agent Verger got to hear a number of them as I hustled her and Al up to the large room where Herrera and the rest of my team were clustered around the desks. When we came through the door I was just finishing up.

“It’s also possible that the activities of talents involved in this case have been compromised.” I absently scanned the room as I spoke, but really there wasn’t any need to bother. My entire team was clumped up around Mosburger’s desk and there was a lot of chattering and hand waving going on. From the looks of things, I’d missed something while I was on break.

“I think Massif and I can adjust our activities to take that into account,” Verger said, thoughtfully worrying at the cuff of her sleeve. “We’ll have to be extra sneaky, since this is Circuit we’re talking about and I’ve read some of his file. But he’s only met Al the once, and I doubt he has a good read on what he can do yet.”

“You’re probably right,” I said, dragging my attention back to the matter at hand. “I’m sure you and Massif can work something out. I’m more worried about a pair of new talents we met this week. The names are Gearshift and Amplifier. I wouldn’t put it past Circuit to try something with them in an attempt to distract us. Or worse, pressure them into joining his organization somehow.”

“That would be a problem,” Massif said, absently rubbing the side of his face. “He already has at least one other talent working for him, I’d hate for him to get his hands on another.”

“Where do we find these people?” Verger asked.

“Not sure, but if I can get to my desk I can get that info from the files.”

I started threading my through the desks but I barely got ten feet before Jack looked up and waved to me. “Helix! Get over here. Mossman thinks he’s figured out where the Enchanter will go next.”

Suddenly I was by Mosburger’s desk with no really idea how I’d gotten there. Jack and Kesselman moved aside and let me into the circle. I realized Verger was still a step behind me when she spoke over my shoulder. “I don’t suppose I could leave Massif here to listen in?”

“You can both stay, if you want,” Herrera said from the far end of the desk. “This is as much a part of your case as ours.”

“I’d love to, but I’ve got a favor to do for Helix. A sort of quid pro quo. Are those files out on your desk?”

That last was to me but it took a minute for me to realize it. Then I fumbled my keys out of my pocket and handed them back to her, saying, “No, in the second drawer. Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.” From the sound of her voice she was already walking away.

I leaned forward to look at the stuff scattered on Mosburger’s desk. “Okay. Where is he?”



The institutional fire door slammed shut behind me, leaving me in a gloomy atrium. Narrow hallways, floored with cracked, yellowing tile stretched away on either side. A display case held sad relics of the past behind fogged panes of glass. Bolted to the front of the was a brass plaque that said “Public High School #44” in engraved letters.

To the left, a sign on the wall told me the office was to my left. I felt myself smirking ever so slightly. If this was really where the Enchanter wanted to make his biggest statement to date, then so be it. But it wouldn’t be the statement he was expecting.

I rolled my shoulder experimentally, working the muscle to loosen it and wincing in the process. After being in a sling for a few days it was good to have the use of the arm back, but things were definitely not back to normal. My left hand was still a little stiff, but in better shape than my shoulder. But all in all, for what was in store today, it should be more than enough. I turned to the left and headed to the office. There was work to do.

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