Heat Wave: System Shutdown

Circuit

According to my research, a diggle is a small, yellowish, subterranean birdlike creature that burrows around using it’s rubbery nasal appendage. Ornithologists consider it to be among the worst minions ever. Of course, like most words in the English language, diggle has multiple meanings. However, of all the available options, I was pretty sure this was the one I wanted. Comic book authors and small villages in England are not usually turned into plush toys, after all.

I’m not sure if there was some kind of meaning in Hangman choosing to bring a stuffed diggle toy to our meeting as his signal for how I should recognize him. It was set a couple of days before the end of my disastrous operation at H.S. 44 so choosing the world’s worst minion probably wasn’t some kind of commentary on how badly that had gone. That left the possibilities that it was a comment on my abilities in general, my organization or some kind of inside joke.

With Hangman I’ve never been quite sure where the games end and the real business begins.

So it was that, four days after making myself one of the most wanted men in America, I found myself strolling through Millennium Park, looking for a drill-nosed plushie. The life of a professional supervillian is not always satisfying but it is guaranteed to be bizarre.

As you might expect, Millennium Park was conceived of by the city fathers around the beginning of the millennium, on the assumption that the people of the city might like to see some small part of the exorbitant taxes and fees that came with dwelling in its limits devoted to the construction of giant, reflective, stainless steel coffee bean sculptures. It is but one example of why one of the first things I intend do when I establish my new order is to have all city planners rounded up and exiled to a small island off the New England coast. The handful of people who haven’t starved in five years may prove useful.

Since another one of the park’s many features are large waterfalls with TV screens behind them that display eight to ten foot tall images of nearby people taken by hidden cameras, I elected to confine myself to the outdoor amphitheater and many walking paths, and avoid that area altogether. Hangman also comes from a profession that tries to avoid the public eye so I wasn’t really expecting to find him there.

And I was right. In fact, I spotted the stuffed animal I was looking for sitting next to a small, artificial stream that ran down one side of the gardens. It was perched next to a young woman, in her early or mid twenties I guessed, sitting on a board walk and dangling her feet in the water. The diggle was standing sentinel over a pair of flip-flops and the woman was wearing a red tank top and Capris. A messenger bag sat open beside her, revealing a couple of notebooks of the spiral bound variety and a lot of the random detritus that accumulates in student’s pockets and carryalls. She didn’t look much like an electronic information broker who’s services were in demand the world over.

That was my first clue I had the right person, and there weren’t simply two people with a strange preference in plush toys in the park that day. The second was her hair. As I got closer I could see that, rather than being cut in a short bob as it had first appeared, her pale brown hair was actually tied into a loose pony tail and pulled over one shoulder. Rather than an elastic hairband, she’d used a piece of string tied in a hangman’s noose.

I’d managed to get close to her without drawing her attention but as soon as my shadow fell over her shoulder she glanced up. I rested both hands on the silver topped cane I’d brought with me, the upside down power symbol engraved at the base of the handle serving to confirm my own identity, and gave her a more critical look. There was a quick intelligence in those eyes and a slightly pinched cast to her mouth, but otherwise a pleasant face. It seemed vaguely familiar, like I’d met her somewhere but hadn’t bothered to try and remember her name. She seemed to be regarding me with the same evaluating gaze.

Finally, I indicated the boardwalk next to her with the end of my cane and said, “Is this seat taken?”

“Not until you arrived,” she said. “But we don’t have to talk here, Circuit.”

“No, this is fine. I don’t want to look like I’m propositioning someone in broad daylight.” She giggled lightly, whether at the popping sound my knees made as I knelt down or the idea of me propositioning someone, I wasn’t sure. Absently I rubbed at one knee through a pinstripe pant leg and said, “I do feel overdressed, but there’s nothing I can do about that now.”

“You’re very dignified, but not exactly dressed for dangling your feet in the water,” she admitted. Her voice was surprisingly deep, I suspected that if she wanted to she could make herself heard from the other side of the park.

I smoothed my dress shirt down and got settled. The boardwalk was just far enough below the ground level of the rest of the park that I could rest my feet on it comfortably. “I wouldn’t want to, either way. I’m afraid I have a number of rather nasty blisters from my last few days activity and they’re best kept out of sight.”

“Vain, are we?” She grinned and playfully kicked a little water at me, prompting me to heft my cane up and lay it to one side where her diggle could keep an eye on it.

“Let’s not get the electronics wet, shall we?” I said, ignoring her dig. “There’s a small fortune in lithium-ion batteries in that, and I’d hate to have to replace one before it’s even seen use.”

“I apologize.” She pulled her feet up and tucked them under her, clambering up to sit beside me on the cement embankment. “Now, I believe you have an agreement to uphold. I want to know exactly what it is you plan to do with all the materials you’ve been gathering for the last eight months, and-”

“Actually, Hangman, what I’m here to do is resolve a problem.” I folded my arms over my chest and gave her my best frown, which oddly enough prompted her to smile. “You have become increasingly… involved in my activities over the last few months, to the point where you have come to have a more up to date knowledge of my activities and their consequences than anyone other than myself. Sometimes, it seems you even know more than me. A person of your intelligence surely realizes that makes you potentially very inconvenient.”

“Oh, of course I do, Circuit.” Hangman crossed one leg over the other, folded her hands and rested them on her knees. “I also realize that you give me enough credit to know you’re smart enough and ruthless enough to assume that the easiest way to deal with that inconvenience would be to kill me here and have done with it, so you mention this only to hear what steps I’ve taken to stay alive.”

I inclined my head in acknowledgement and she went on. “So I’ve arranged for files implicating you in my disappearance will be placed in the hands of my father by the end of the day today, unless I take steps to prevent it. I’ll not say much more than that, but you do see how that’s a problem for you, yes?”

“Your father?” I hesitated for just a second, and then I knew why she looked familiar. “Elizabeth Dawson.”

“A man of your capabilities can easily evade a small organization like Project Sumter, even if they were at Condition One, which, by the by, they are not. But if they’re not the only one’s looking for you then things get more complicated. As soon as you’re implicated in a mundane crime like kidnapping, one which you talent played no part in, the people looking for you will increase exponentially.” She began listing points on her fingers. “My father employs a private security firm that will want to find me as quickly as possible, if only to avoid bad PR. The FBI will be under a lot of pressure to find me, since I’m the daughter of a US Senator. Local and state police agencies all across the country will take up the case and there will be tips phoned in to hotlines from all over the country. The law of large numbers says that sooner or later someone is going to catch you.”

It took a great deal of willpower but I managed to resist the urge to grit my teeth. She was undoubtedly right in her assessment. If Hangman was telling the truth about having ways to inform Senator Dawson of what she’d been doing, and I had no reason to doubt her, then killing her would be the worst thing I could do. Even if I left at that moment without even bothering to try and threaten her into silence, I’d be better off than otherwise. Then at least she’d have to explain herself to her father and the Project, diverting manpower from chasing me, and it was unlikely that very many normal law enforcement agencies would bother to try find me afterwards.

“Very well played, Miss Dawson,” I said, gritting my teeth. “Now, tell me, other than keeping my reputation as a trustworthy business partner, what reasons do I have for explaining myself to you? Or, at the very least, for being honest about it.”

“Because you need me.” She held up a finger to forestall my coming objection. “Not merely because you don’t want me running free. If nothing else, the possibility that you’re responsible for my disappearance has to have occurred to someone by now, and that possibility makes direct action against you less appealing that it might be otherwise. The human shield factor, if you will. At the same time, Project Sumter will be under tremendous pressure to divert resources from searching for you to look for me.”

“Until they can prove that the two things are one and the same.” I shook my head. “No, I don’t see as that really offers me any tremendous advantages, Hangman.”

She gave an exasperated huff. “I wasn’t finished, Circuit. I also offer you something no one else you currently employ does.”

“You know, Hangman, I did do my own information gathering once upon a time. And there are other brokers out there, admittedly less well connected but also less meddlesome.” I did my best to match her nonchalant posture but it was a front. I liked this conversation less and less by the minute. Hangman had this planned out far too well. “What exactly can you offer me that my other employees do not?”

She smiled, at once charming and deeply disturbing. “Conviction.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Hangman leaned forward and dropped her voice dropped to a conspiratorial tone. “Ten years ago, my place as a digital information broker was filled by a hacker and cracker known as Hard Scrabble. In addition to selling information, Hard Scrabble was well known to the metahuman community, what Project Sumter would call ‘talented individuals’. If you noticed that you had unusual gifts and asked the right questions in the right places you’d be pointed to him and he’d do his best to figure out which talent you had and what was known about it.”

She paused for a moment, waiting to see if I had anything to add, but I just motioned for her to continue. “Hard Scrabble was around for about two and a half years before he was contacted by a water worker on the west coast. His brother and sister-in-law had just gone through some sort of falling out, possibly the trigger event that turned a normal African-American delivery driver into a serial killer called Lethal Injection-”

“He was always a sadist,” I interjected. “The worst ones are always the best at hiding it.”

“Well, either way Hard Scrabble didn’t like him much. Didn’t like him enough to enlist his brother and track him half way across the West Coast, inland and eventually to Phoenix, Arizona, where he cracked the Sky Harbor airport control systems and shut it down to prevent Lethal Injection from flying out of the city.” She straightened up and folded her arms over her chest. “And that’s when Hard Scrabble disappeared and Project Sumter started investigating a talent codenamed Open Circuit.”

For a moment my mind wandered far and away. I don’t think about those days much anymore. Sometimes I wonder why that is. “Things were simpler then. Fewer wireless connections, different security protocols, less need to go places in person.” I forcibly turned my attention back to the present. “I was young and foolish.”

Hangman laugh softly. “Having met you in person, I’d guess you were still older then than I am now.”

“So I was.” I plucked her plush toy off of the grass and gave it a once over. “At the very least, I had given up stuffed toys.”

“But never developed a fashion sense.”

I arched an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?”

She laughed again. “No one wears fedoras anymore unless they’re interested in the dodge bonus.”

“That statement is so nonsensical I’m going to pretend you didn’t say it,” I said, handing her the stuffed animal. “Scrabble didn’t refer to the board game, you know.”

“I guessed as much.” She set the diggle in her lap and rested one hand on its stomach. “But the reference had to be oblique or someone might make the association before I was ready.”

“Ready?”

She absently began kneading the plush in one hand. “Before Hard Scrabble disappeared entirely, and Open Circuit became the only identity you used, you left a message in some of your old venues.”

“The world has been lying to us for over a hundred years.” I said, recalling the message, more of a brief note than a manifesto, like I had written it yesterday. “It says we are all the same, and pounds us into it’s mold with a thousand merciless hammers. The nature of our education, entertainment, work and government all serve to make us like one another. But we are not. And the longer we pretend we are, the more tragedy there will be. We must change.”

“Brahms Dawson lives to be the opposite of everything you are.” She dropped her gaze down to her bare feet and idly dipped her toes into the water, as if that could wash away the guilt and revulsion she was obviously feeling. “When I was in junior high I had the opportunity to take advanced mathematics and basic computer programming. He wouldn’t let me. Said advanced course work sent the wrong message, arbitrarily made some people winners and others losers just because they were born with a knack for something.”

“So you learned on your own.” I nodded to myself. The idea sounded surprising to me, but I knew enough very smart people who had reasoned themselves into believing equally surprising things. For Hangman, junior high would have probably been about ten years ago, the same time I was starting to build my own reputation. “How long did that go on?”

A choked laugh. “Oh, until about three days ago. I was very, very good at it. Got my undergraduate degree in journalism. Haven’t touched a computer science course in all my life.”

“And are doubtless a better programmer for it.”

“I was never going to be anything else. Certainly nothing he could be proud of. He’ll manage without me. I found him a replacement, a daughter who’s everything he expects. I’m a little worried about my mother, but she’s always been defined by what’s best for him. I’m done with that life.” She lifted her head and looked me in the eye. “You were right, Circuit. We must change. I can see that- I’ve lived that need, and I want it done. How many people working with you can say that?”

It was true. Simeon was incredibly competent and farsighted, but for all that I enjoyed his company he was still an employee. It was doubtful he would try and continue my work if I suddenly dropped dead. Heavy Water and Grappler had lived through Lethal Injection’s rampage and written it off as a part of life, like a drug addiction or a gang war. They had some sort of strange affection for me, but they rarely thought farther than the end of the next day. Changing society wasn’t even on their radar. Davis and the other engineers were just a means to an end, with little knowledge of what the end of all their work was going to be, much less why I wanted done.

For all the Enchanters and Double Helixes in my life sometimes it felt like my greatest enemy was the enormity of what needed to be done, and how alone I felt in trying to do it.

She was right. I needed someone who shared my conviction. And maybe Hangman was that person. “So,” she said. “Do we talk about how you intend to change things? Or was all that for show?”

“In fact, the next part is all show.” I collected my cane, clambered to my feet and held out my hand to her. “So it will make things a lot easier if I just give you a sneak preview. But first, you’re going to need a change of clothes. Something people who know you won’t recognize.”

Hangman picked up her bag and let me help her to her feet, slipping her sandals on in the same motion. Then she patted the side of her bag. “I bought two sets of clothes with cash from a Salvation Army store four blocks away. I just need a place to change and then I’ll be set to change the world.”

I smiled and offered her my arm, which she took, and led her out of the park. “You know, you almost make it sound like you plan to charge off and be a hero.”

“That’s not how you see it?”

“Heroes generally come from the other side of things,” I said. “If they’re allowed to, that is. And I rather think people like your father wouldn’t much care for one of those working with him.” Unless we gave him no choice. But I left that part out.

“Well, that’s true. Still, that really only leaves us the option of being villains.”

“Supervillains,” I said. “That first part is important. It’s why we get all the nice equipment, loosely defined working hours and ambitious pay scale.”

She gave me an amused glance. “Medical?”

“Only if you’re well connected, which fortunately I am. Trust me, the longer you do this, the more you’ll be convinced. Pretty much all the perks are on our side of the equation.” She laughed and began trying to worm some hint of where we were going out of me. I was glad for the change of subject.

It was surprising, really. Until she pointed it out to me, I’d never felt the need for someone who shared my views. I had never even thought there might be such a person and I was gratified that one had taken the time to find me and throw in. But at the same time I worried. Hangman was ready to take on the world now, young and foolish like I had once been. It was at once charming and disheartening. I couldn’t find it in myself to tell her then, although maybe I should have. For all the perks we supervillains have, there’s one we never get.

For us, there is no happy ending.

Heat Wave – Fin

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