The driver was starting up the van while we strapped in, Sanders and Herrera keeping a running chatter going over the radio, tracking the new intruder and speculating on whether he was the Enchanter, when I felt the change. It was a sort of prickly feeling at the back of the neck, followed by the kind of vertigo most people will only get from roller coasters. I sat bolt upright and wiped muffin crumbs and frosting off my hands and onto my pants, then clipped my headset, dangling on my shoulder by the wire that attached it to the transmitter on my belt, back over my ear and chimed in. “This is Helix. A heat sink just went active. I repeat, we have an active heat sink, and it’s not me.” I took a second to confirm the general impression I’d gotten when the sink had opened up. “Temperature is draining towards your side of the building, Sanders.”
“Acknowledged. Do you have an idea of this guy’s reach or floor yet?”
“I’ve only seen him once before. Give me a second.” This was pretty tricky stuff Sanders wanted, in part because he was asking me to translate stuff that people like me will judge instinctively into the more concrete measurements of modern science.
Pretty much every heat sink I’d ever known, from my grandmother down to the four I’d met through research programs, agreed that using the talent looks, or feels, a lot like a holding a drain open. Just push the lever down and heat drains into your hand. But Dr. Barnaby Higgs, who teaches at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in his free time and headed up most of those research programs, says the more appropriate analogy for what actually happens is what he calls the wet dishrag model. According to this model, the world is just a giant rag and heat is like water. When I create a heat sink it’s like I’m wringing all the heat out of the space around me and leaving a little puddle of high temperature somewhere next to me.
According to this model, how hot a heat sink we can make isn’t governed by how much heat we can ‘hold’. Instead, it’s dependent on how much water there is in the rag and how hard we can wring it out, or how hot the world around us is out and how cool we can make it. Dr. Higgs assures me this makes more sense than the drain analogy, and that there’s even solid mathematical models to back it up. Since the secrecy of his work makes peer review impossible I tend to take him with a grain of salt, but since they have to justify all the money they spend on his research the Project still uses his model when discussing heat sinks.
Except you can’t talk about wringing out dishrags over the radio in official government law enforcement operations, it’s embarrassing. So the term ‘reach’ is used to refer to how large an area a heat sink can alter the temperature of, and the term ‘floor’ to refer to how cold we can make it get in that area. Knowing these factors tells us important things like how much wind sheer surveillance helicopters can expect or how quickly a person can melt through several inches of concrete.
After several years of practice I’ve learned to judge ambient temperature to within five degrees and it was easy to see that the Enchanter had wrung just about as much heat as he could from the world around him by the way his heat sink trembled as I brushed my senses over it. I turned my senses outward and searched for the edge of the Enchanter’s heat sink, where the headlong rush of heat down the drain turned into the sedate meandering of normal convection.
After a moment of ballpark estimates I said, “I think we’re looking at a reach of two to three blocks and a floor somewhere around fifty degrees.”
“And with this the Enchanter beat out the guy with a quarter mile reach and bottoms out at the freezing point?”
“Power isn’t control, Sanders, and going heat sink vs heat sink has more in common with juggling than wrestling.” The van lurched around the corner of the school building and started to pick up speed.
The guy at the monitors sat up straight and looked back at us, straining against his seat belt. “He’s climbing up the side of the building, heading towards the roof. Looks like he’s using that same trick Helix did when he chased the Chameleon up the side of the-”
“Yes, we remember that one, thanks,” I said, probably a little sharper than I should have. Amplifier gave me a look like she wanted to ask, but knew it was probably a waste of time. “Herrera. Let me go up after the Enchanter, the outside of the building is damaged already and I can make better time that way than you can going up the stairs.”
“Dunno if that’s a good call,” Jack put in, leaning forward to give me a disapproving look. “We work in teams for a reason.”
“Good reasons,” I said quickly. “But all signs point to the Enchanter working alone. And he can’t hurt me with nothing but heat.”
Herrera gave me a sharp glance. “I thought there were limits to a heat sink’s ability to control the temperature of their personal space.”
“There are,” I said. “But for me, it’s hard to hit that limit without a blast furnace handy. I’m the stronger heat sink, so I doubt he’ll pose a threat on that front. And he’d have to be an idiot to carry a gun to an arson, so he’s not going to be armed.”
Watching Herrera come to a decision was actually pretty impressive. Her face remained totally impassive but I could almost see the various factors being weighed behind her eyes. Risk to me if I went, risk the Enchanter would get away if I tackled him without back-up, risk he would get away if we all went the slow route, risk the building could get burned down in any of the above situations. But once everything was considered she arrived at her decision instantly. “Okay. Go on up.”
She nodded, but I caught a flicker of concern behind her usual composed façade. She thought it was the right choice, but that didn’t mean she liked it.
The van screeched to a halt outside the school building. Herrera gave a quick glance around the van, making sure everyone was ready to go, then yelled, “Everybody out!” Then, as a quick aside to Amplifier, “Except for you. Sorry, but you’ll need to stay here.”
“I get it, Teresa. Still a civilian.” Then, much to my surprise, she turned and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “Good luck.”
Being a master of witty dialog, I managed to get past my surprise and say, “Right.”
Then I piled out of the van along with everyone else, training dictating my movements as my brain kept working on figuring out what just happened. As my shoes slapped the pavement I finally managed to get my train of thought back onto the Enchanter. Who was on the roof. Of the school.
Jack thumped to the ground just behind me and gave me a light slap on the back, which was still enough to send me staggering a step or two given given the weight difference and how I wasn’t exactly paying attention.
“What was that?” He asked quietly.
“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head to clear the last distractions from it. “And neither do you.”
“Duly noted.” Jack chuckled and gave me a shove towards the wall. “Get up there. We’ll be up the stairs ASAP.”
The van had stopped by a side door that, if I remembered correctly, would let the rest of the team directly into the gymnasium. The Enchanter’s point of ascent was about a hundred feet further down the building, but still much closer than the stairs were inside – Jack would have to lead the team through several hallways just to get to the main roof access. Fortunately, this was one of the parts of the building we had most anticipated the Enchanter targeting, and so we’d studied it the most. There wasn’t much chance of Jack getting lost on his way to the stairs.
What we hadn’t planned for was a rooftop scenario. The most vulnerable part of the school building was the chemistry labs, which were still outfitted with that wonderfully safe set up where natural gas is pumped in to provide unlimited use of the burners. The labs were on the first floor, right next to the gymnasium, so we had anticipated the Enchanter entering through the basement or just burning through the wall to gain entrance. Starting on the roof, with two floors of storage, offices and classrooms between himself and the gas lines, didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.
Still, when you’re chasing a criminal you can’t putter around trying to figure out why he’s going where he’s going. It’s best to keep your eyes and ears open and try not to run into trouble before you get your man.
So I pounded along the side of the building, draining my own share of heat from the surrounding air, taking advantage of that extra reach and lower floor Sanders had been ribbing me about a minute ago, and started melting my way up the side of the building the tune of the tortured creaking of strained concrete. It was cold enough that I could see my breath and the first rumblings of thunder signaled that rain was on its way. That’s a natural and expected side effect of what I do, but it was also the same as sending up flares telling the Enchanter that I was coming – there was no way I was going to be able to catch him by surprise.
As I hauled myself up the side of the building I took note of a few quick facts. The Enchanter was bigger than I was, from the distance between his handholds I guessed at least six inches taller than me, and something he’d been wearing, like the drawstring of a hoodie or an untied shoelace, had gotten caught in the molten concrete and stuck there when it cooled again, leaving the scorched ends dangling in the rising wind. It suggested that the Enchanter might be a bit careless. Even so, I never would have guessed just how careless.
Almost as soon as I stuck my head over the side of the roof I heard a popping sound, barely audible above the growing wind created by the clashing pressure and temperature zones the Enchanter and I were making. In spite of the noise I could still identify the sound instantly and was grateful for the wind, because the Enchanter was apparently one of those rare idiots who actually would bring a gun along to an arson. Cursing, I scrambled up over the edge of the roof and bolted to one side, doing my best to avoid bullets.
As I dashed across the roof I made a mental note to plan my next gun battle someplace with more cover. Preferably the kind that comes from snipers.
The roof of the school building was mostly flat, with a handful of those mysterious, cone-topped pipes stick up here and there, a couple of large, gray boxes with fans that I assumed had something to do with heating and cooling the building and the lights that ringed the perimeter of the roof. There were two entrances, a trap door that came up from a large maintenance closet half way across the building and the large service elevator, which was used to haul up any large pieces of equipment that might be needed for the heating/cooling plants, located about twenty feet beyond the Enchanter. Since safety regulations don’t let them put in an elevator without a stairway beside it I knew that was where I could expect Jack and the rest of my team from.
But I estimated they were at least a good sixty seconds away, possibly closer to two minutes, and that’s a long time to be stuck on a roof with a gun wielding arsonist. So I took cover behind the nearest box of heating equipment, which was almost as tall as I was, allowing the heat I was holding to trail out behind me as I ran. The zone of superheated air clashed with the nearly freezing world around it and made the wind even worse. A marksman with a decent rifle could probably have hit me through it, but doing it with a handgun was pretty much out of the question, even if you were a world class shooter, which I suspected the Enchanter was not. So I managed to get behind the squat metal structure without getting shot, although from the sound of things it wasn’t for want of trying on his part.
In my frantic trip across the roof I managed to notice two things. First, the Enchanter fired eight shots total. I wasn’t sure what kind of gun he was using but that’s getting close to the limit for most pistols. Second, it looked like he was kneeling on the roof, in the process of carving a huge circle, maybe about ten feet wide, out of the concrete. About an eighth of the circle was already cut, noxious black smoke coiling out as the insulation in the roof burned. For a second, I wasn’t quite sure what he was doing.
And then I got it. The chemistry labs might be the simplest part of the school to set on fire from the point of view of a normal arsonist, but the Enchanter wasn’t a normal arsonist. He was a heat sink who was playing arsonist to show off – his careful choice of targets and letters to the police and Circuit pointed to that. He didn’t want to set the building on fire in a mundane fashion, he was playing up his talent for all the world to see. Rather than just set the most flammable part of the building on fire, he was going to drop a flaming portion of the ceiling onto the wooden gym floor.
I risked a peek around the corner of the box. The Enchanter was about a quarter of the way done with his cut. It wasn’t going fast by any means and I was sure that my showing up and bleeding off some of his heat wasn’t helping any. But it still looked like he would be done before the rest of my team got up onto the roof. If we were going to actually prevent a major fire, I’d have to do something right away.
But with the Enchanter armed and the both of us being heat sinks the first thing I would have to do is find some way to get closer to him before I could do much. I was wearing a bulletproof vest and the wind and rain would help me a lot more than they would him, but even going up against a gun that was half empty those were long odds. I racked my brains, trying to think up some way to get closer to the Enchanter without getting shot.
The problem with talents is they’re really not as versatile as comics and movies would suggest. I could have created a wall of super-heated air but some part of it has to be connected to me and the larger the wall the less hot it is. Even if I could make a wall large enough to shield my whole body and hot enough to melt bullets I’d still get splattered with fast moving grains of lead once they passed through, which might even be more dangerous than just taking a bullet to the vest. By the same token, the fact that I can’t let a heat sink out of contact with my hands means I can heat air into plasma under the right circumstances, but I can’t throw it at anyone.
But there are a lot of things that rely on heat that most people don’t think of as being driven by heat. Standing in the middle of a fierce but highly local thunderstorm, it wasn’t very hard for me to think of one. I pushed my heat sink to the limits, letting the heat pour in from all directions and settle into a flat, pulsing disk between my hands. By the time I was done I was holding a glowing disk of plasma half again as big around as I was tall, but only a few millimeters wide, over my head.
I slipped one hand free of keeping the disk in shape just long enough to switch off my headset, then worked my way over to the edge of my metal box again. There was no way to keep the Enchanter from noticing all the extra heat pouring towards my location but that was fine. I wanted him to be watching. In a single motion I stepped out from behind the air plant and dropped into a crouch, then flipped the disk of plasma towards the Enchanter like I was tossing the world’s biggest pizza. As soon as I let go of the heat sink I ducked my head down and shoved my fingers into my ears.
The result was closer to a thunderclap than a flash-bang and, even though I knew what was coming and had time to cover my ears, they were still set ringing. When I looked up the Enchanter was swaying, probably only upright because he hadn’t been standing in the first place. His heat sink was slipping away and his gun hand was clamped to his head.
I jumped up out of my crouch and sprinted across the twenty or so feet between us in my best time. I don’t think either of us could hear much at the moment so I didn’t bother trying to be quiet but I did come at him from one side, grabbing his gun arm and giving it an expert twist. The weapon clattered out of his hand and I gave it a quick kick to put it out of play for the moment.
Unfortunately that distracted me just long enough for the Enchanter to throw his weight to the side and come down on top of me. Now I’m in pretty good shape and Kesselman, an ex-Airborne soldier, makes sure we can all handle ourselves if things get up close and personal, but the Enchanter had at six or seven inches and at least fifty pounds on me, and I wasn’t in a position to try supporting all that right that moment, so we both wound up taking a tumble onto the roof.
In the mad scramble that followed I managed to grab hold of one of the Enchanter’s legs and tried to wrench it into one of those crazy, debilitating joint locks that Kesselman is so fond of, but before I could get the right leverage one of the Enchanter’s arms smashed me on the side of the head and I lost my grip. He took the opportunity to leap to his feet while I spun back with the hit and came up in a crouch.
At this point he made his second unbelievably reckless move for the night. He stepped in and aimed a kick at my stomach. Nothing fancy, like you might expect from someone with some kind of training, just picked up his foot and stuck it forward with all his weight behind it, like he was planning to walk all over my stomach and keep going. It might have worked, too, if we’d been closer together or he hadn’t still been off balance. As it was, I managed to slip by the kick and slam one elbow down on his thigh.
As his weight came down on it the Enchanter staggered, his arms flailing, and I took the opportunity to grab one and fire another punch into the soft spot just below the arm pit. He gasped and threw a hay maker at my stomach. My vest took a little bit of the impact but stopping punches is not what it’s designed to do. And like I said before, the Enchanter was bigger than me by a fair margin. He didn’t lay me out flat, but I did loose my grip on him a second time, staggering back a step and getting my foot wedged in the groove he’d cut into the roof.
I pulled it free with a curse but lost a few precious seconds doing it and this time the Enchanter wasn’t foolhardy enough to stick around for more. While I was working free he turned and staggered towards the door to the stairs, winded and woozy but still going at a decent clip. I followed him as soon as my foot was free but wasn’t terribly worried that he would get away at that point. The rest of my team would be on the stairs already. Even if he saw them coming up and escaped onto one of the upper floors, there were only so many places he could go.
As I started after the Enchanter again I noticed something weird. The service elevator door was opening, which made no sense. You never take the elevator into a potentially volatile situation, it’s like a fish jumping straight into a barrel, my team should be coming from the stairs. The Enchanter was clearly just as surprised, he actually hesitated for a few seconds before continuing towards the stairs.
Even stranger than the elevator doors opening was the fact that there was no elevator behind them.
And the fact that, even though there was no elevator, there was still a person inside, one hand stretched towards the Enchanter…
Sometimes I wonder why Grappler keeps chiding me for doing my own legwork. It helps keep me young. On the other hand, when I find myself climbing up an elevator shaft, secured by nothing but a quartet of electromagnets strapped around my arms and built into my boots, sometimes I do wonder if I really am getting to be too old for that kind of thing. What seems so simple in theory is often much more tiring in practice.
As I reached the top of the elevator shaft I checked my connection to the building power supply for the dozenth time. I’d had to pull it up, hand over hand, from where it rested on top of the elevator down in the basement and I was pretty sure it had taken some knocks on the side of the shaft as I pulled it up. It was a sturdy piece of equipment and I wasn’t too worried but it would be embarrassing if it slipped out of its socket or shorted out in the middle of something and I wound up with no charge left to power any of my gadgets or keep me from falling to my death in this elevator shaft.
Worse, about half way up the shaft someone had called the elevators to the second floor. I wasn’t sure what had caused that, but it was going to make getting back out of the building much more challenging.
But I managed to make it to the top of the elevator shaft without significant mishap. Once there I drew my SIG, stretched out with my talent and triggered the elevator door. What I saw was really more than I could have reasonably hoped for.
A man, about five foot ten, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans in spite of the heat and jogging with a slight limp was headed towards me – or more likely, towards the stairway door just beyond my position. About ten feet behind him, just barely visible at the far side of the elevator door, a shorter man in dark colored body armor was starting in pursuit.
It didn’t take a genius to know that I was looking at the Enchanter and Double Helix. The two most problematic people in my life at the moment.
First things first.