Heat Wave: Smoke Signals

Helix

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?”

——-

Circuit

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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3 responses to “Heat Wave: Smoke Signals

  1. Even if I have nt read the ealier chapters, for some reason, I still find it interesting what’s going on. * from someone who has read all of Robert Ludlum’s and Tom Clancy’s novels. *

    • Well I’m glad to hear that the story is accessible even to those coming into it in the middle. At the beginning I was worried that new readers might find having a dozen or more chapters to read up on an intimidating barrier to entry.

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