Water Fall: Dark Desks

Seven Weeks, One Day before the Michigan Avenue Proclomation


I exist in a perpetual haze.

It’s not drug induced or anything and I’m not exactly what you would call absent minded, but I was born with the ability to see and, to a limited extent manipulate, movement. And I mean all movement. For example, the air is in motion. Everyone knows that, but I can see it. Problem is, I have trouble seeing anything behind the air that’s moving.

Other people live with transparent air, unless they happen to be smokers or something, but I’ve never been able to see through more than ten feet of the stuff, and even then most of the details are different in ways that are hard to explain. It’s almost like being in a different world. I can’t drive, reading for more than ten or fifteen minutes gives me a headache and I have a hard time telling people apart.

I’m saying all this so you’ll understand that the day I walked in to the office and realized I could see my desk on the other side of the floor, it bothered me. It was something unusual, and for a person who’s job is half cops and robbers and half spy versus spy unusual is bad. There are thirty-six steps from the door to my row of desks, and my desk is the third down; I knew that for certain because it’s the kind of thing I have to commit to memory as soon as I move to a new office. I also knew it was way outside of what I’m normally able to see with any kind of clarity.

I’d seen that kind of thing before, usually on the shooting range when I let people shoot at me – don’t ask. Bullets create that kind of clarity of vectors when they streak towards their target, which makes it easy for me to pick out where they’re coming from.  Which probably meant that my desk was at the center of some kind of constant force, pushing outward. Kind of like a constant wind or a sustained explosion, although what either one of those would be doing at my desk is anybody’s guess. And again, this would not be business as usual.

The upside to all my visual impairments is that I can be virtually indestructible under the right circumstances, which the Project Sumter dossier on vector shifts describes as, “any time the subject has their feet on the ground.” I actually come with training in how to walk so as to maximize my contact with the ground, if you’ll believe it. So I started towards my desk, planting my feet with deliberate care and keeping as alert as possible for any sign of trouble.

Trouble was waiting for me, sitting there with her boots up on my desk and earbuds in, eyes closed and paying no attention to her surroundings at all. She was petite, dressed in beaten up gray cargo pants that might have once been some other color, wearing a formfitting blue tank top and absently tapping her fingers on her stomach in time to some unheard song. The air around her seemed to shimmer and pulse slightly. I stared at the girl, and at the time I didn’t think she could be older than sixteen, trying to figure out how she had gotten into the office and to my desk. We have pretty good security, it took one of the most dangerous criminal minds in the nation seven or eight years to find and break into our offices and that was only because he tricked us into helping him out.

Now I’d swear, with the music on and all, there was no way she should have been able to hear me coming. My wushu sifu put me through a whole series of exercises to stifle the sound my footsteps that are really effective, even with heavy Western shoes on, but almost as soon as I got up to the desk the girl opened her eyes and pointed at my desk. I followed the pointing finger to a reddish blob which I guessed was a folder left there by my supervisor.

Harriet’s worked with me for the last year and a half and she’s developed some systems that help us get around my vision problems. One is the color-priority system. A red folder means I need to read it right away, helping important stuff to stand out from the mess of other papers that wind up scattered around the office. Since Trouble looked like she was content to wait until I’d read whatever was in it before talking to me I picked it up and flipped it open.

Trouble’s photo had been clipped to the top, smiling back at me with a sardonic grin. According to the file, her codename was Amplifier. Under that were places for a lot of personal information that had been redacted, although I did learn she was four years older than I had thought, followed by the codeword for her unusual talent and a brief description. Project Sumter uses the word talent to refer to pretty much any kind of unusual, innate ability to manipulate the forces of nature, usually in a way modern science can’t explain. Unusual was a pretty apt word, in this case, because in four years with the Project, I’d never heard of a wave maker. The file said I could expect her to manipulate the volume and frequency of sound waves, both consciously and subconsciously, so as to maximize acoustics and achieve other effects. That would explain why I could see her clearly, save for that pulsing effect. Sound is air in motion, too, and if Amplifier controlled the sound around her it probably had a steadying effect on the air itself.

The file said she also had unusually sharp hearing, which might explain how she heard me walking up.

I quickly squinted through the next couple of pages, which was basically a brief summary of what Amplifier had been up to since the Project discovered her. The last page was a summary of said discovery. A quick glance at the signature on the bottom confirmed that yes, like the majority of talents in the Midwest in the last five years, Special Agent Double Helix had found her. I flipped the folder closed, mostly satisfied, and waved to get her attention.

Amplifier sat up and took her ear phones out then raised an eyebrow. “I can hear you if you talk, you know. My dad never used to believe that but I would think you guys would get it.”

“Welcome  to Project Sumter,” I said, ignoring what sounded a lot like a conversational land mine. “I guess you’ve been here for a few weeks but they keep me running far and wide most days so it’s no surprise we’ve never met.”

She smiled slightly and shrugged. “If you say so. I’m guessing you’re Aluchinskii Massif?”

“That’s me,” I said, sliding into my chair. I thought sitting down might get us on eye level and make things more comfortable but I was surprised to find I was still a good four or five inches taller than she was. So I leaned back in my chair some to get as close to level as possible, keeping care to leave one foot on the floor, and made the best of it. “It’s pronounced like ‘massive’ by the way. The ‘f’ makes a ‘v’ sound.”

 “Is that something you have to say a lot?”

I shrugged. “Not really. Most people just call me Al or Massif. It’s never a problem unless people see it in writing.”

“Right. Teresa texted me and told me you and your boss would be filling in for her team. I guess they’re busy today.”

“That’s right.” I briefly sifted a hand through the stack of stuff in my inbox and then gave up looking for what I wanted. “I think Harriet’s going to be out of the office, at least for the morning, so you may just be stuck with me for the moment. I’m guessing you’re applying for a position, based on what I’ve seen, but I’m not exactly sure where in the process you are. Have you gone along on an active field case?”

“Yeah. Something out on Diversy Street, that turned out real weird. We watched a school building for about five hours then there was a big ruckus and Teresa wound up sending me home without even making me sign anything.” She scrunched her nose up, showing an opinion on the Project and its love of documents that I found vaguely nostalgic. Most agents were like that for a year or two before they resigned themselves to their fate. “Anyway, I don’t think it technically counts.”

“No,” I said, doing my best not to wince. The Diversy Street incident had been a mess. and it probably wouldn’t have counted under any circumstances. “Even if it had, you were in the field with Double Helix. He’s notoriously tough as senior talent, he probably wouldn’t have signed off on your first field run anyway. It took me four tries to pass.”

“Pass?” Amplifier tilted her head. “I thought the point was just to make sure we got a good idea of what field work was like. I didn’t realize it was a test.”

“Well…” Technically, it wasn’t. And we weren’t supposed to explain what it was. “Let’s just say there’s more to it than just showing up and looking pretty.”

“Well obviously,” she said with a grin. “You passed.”

“Thanks.” Nothing like a kind compliment to get your day off to a good start. “I can’t really arrange for another trip into the field right now, both because my supervisor is out of the office right now and because I’m kind of in-between assignments myself.” I picked the folder back up and squinted at it some more. “It doesn’t look like we have a complete record of your capabilities. The basic function of most of the known talents is well documented, but between personal discoveries and home made gadgets to help things along, new talents tend to broaden our understanding of talent almost as much as the scientists we employ.”

“I guess that makes sense,” she said. “Do I get to see a list of what you guys know already, or what?”

I tossed the folder back on the table and shrugged. “I don’t think that’s the way it works. The Records department took a complete statement from me, then sent it on to the right parties, who called me in for questions on anything they found interesting. I’m pretty sure it still works that way. Makes it easier to process the results and keeps you from leaving out something you might think is unimportant, but it keeps smart guys from having to come up here every time we find someone new.”

Amplifier hopped to her feet and said, “I guess I should get over to Records, then. I can follow directions,” she added as I stood up also. “It’s not like I need an escort.”

“Relax,” I said, shushing her with my hands. “You actually do. I’m not sure how you got in the building this morning, but you’re not an official member of the Project yet, so you actually shouldn’t have been let in. If nothing else you need someone to go along and keep security off your back. Plus, it’s policy not to let talents who aren’t working for us be interviewed in any way, shape or form without a talented agent along with them. It’s kind of like having your lawyer along.”

“Oh.” She relented and let me lead her across the offices and towards the elevator that would take us up to the large, locked room where our interim Records department was being kept. “Why didn’t Helix ever mention that to me? He was always along for stuff before, but he never said why. You would think that would be kind of important for me to know.”

“Helix is our senior talent in this branch. Unlike most people, he does his job with almost no consideration for possible personal or political complications from doing it, so most people tend to stay out of his way and play nice. Unless they’re really high up the totem pole, he can cause them more grief than it’s really worth. He was probably counting on that reputation to keep you out of trouble.” I called the elevator and then gave her what I hope was a reassuring smile. “I’m going explain things or they’ll waste a bunch of time trying to track him down before they interview you.”

“You just called him a ‘senior talent’ again.” She folded her arms over her chest. “That’s something else he never mentioned.”

“Well, that’s because it’s not really, technically his job description.” I waved a hand absently. “You won’t find it on an org chart or anything. It just means he’s the talent in this branch with the most time in the field. It gives him a little more clout with management and proves he’s worth our respect, too. Most field agents last three to five years before they quit or have to be reassigned to other duties. Helix has been out there for eight, and that’s impressive in it’s own right. Senior talents know more about the way the job works and what kind of things to expect than anyone else, so the regional management, people we call Special Liaisons, tend to keep them near the regional office, held in reserve for major problems that require a heavy hitter. In the mean time, they do a lot of paperwork and other light duties.”

“Gee, thanks,” Amplifier said, looking a little miffed.

“Actually, training new talent is one of the major things that will get a senior talent called out of the office. We’re rare enough, and turnover is high enough, that recruiting and training new hands is one of our top priorities.” The elevator dinged and we stepped out into the Records office reception area, which was basically an over-glorified security foyer.

“So tell me something, Massif Man,” Amplifier asked. “If that’s true, what kind of disaster is going on that pulled him out of the office today? And why did you get left behind?”

“Just Al is fine, really,” I said.

“Right, and you can call me Amp like Jack and the rest of Helix’s team does.” She waited for me to say something and, when she got impatient, leaned against the elevator door and said, “So?”

Since it was clear she wasn’t going to move until she got an answer I caved. “Like I said, turnover in field work is high. He’s out of the office today because he’s attending a funeral.”

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