Six weeks, Five days before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation
We never did go to Condition One.
By all rights the fact that Circuit had killed Mona should have brought the full resources of Project Sumter to bear on the task of finding him and locking him in a fully insulated, nonmagnetic cell lit by candles. At least, such was my first instinct, and probably that of every other field agent we had.
But the reality is never so clear cut. There was just too much going in the nation and the world to take all of our resources and throw them at a single problem. That didn’t mean finding Circuit wasn’t a priority. And for the Midwest Branch, the place where things had gone bad, it was priority one. We didn’t pull every talent we had off their assignments and send them after Circuit. For example, Pastor Manuel Rodriguez, also known as Agent Samson, was looking for Senator Dawson’s daughter, a case we believed was related, but officially had nothing to do with Circuit.
But the other fourteen talents working out of the Midwest office were all called in and given a summary of Circuit’s recent activities, his know goals including those he stated when he contacted us directly a few weeks ago and those we’ve inferred from his activities, and all leads pertaining to his whereabouts, which was a very short list. Then we were all given assignments and sent back out.
Teresa and I, and Massif and Verger, pretty much kept doing the things we’d already been working on. We’d juggled this case back and forth for a few weeks already and the meeting would probably have been a complete waste of time for us if we hadn’t been the ones doing most of the presenting. Everyone else got assigned lower priority legwork to spend time on between other duties.With that thrilling morning out of the way I headed back to my desk to grab some lunch and start putting together a priority list for the various real estate dealers and developers we needed to interview.
Trouble was waiting for me.
It came in the form of two tall, cool blondes who were sitting on my desk and chatting animatedly. Their backs were to me as I approached across the floor so I slapped the presentation notes I was carrying down on my desk to get their attention. They turned inwards and glared back at me, asking in unison, “Yes?”
I ignored their eerily similar faces and said, “Hello, Frostburn. Hello, Coldsnap. Get off my desk.”
The twins looked at each other and shared a secretive smile. Frostburn, the older of the two, said, “He never changes, does he?”
“Every once and a while he gets another gray hair,” Coldsnap said. They looked back at me. “Hello, Helix.”
I crossed my arms and glared at them, which was not as easy as it had been when I was taller than they were. “You two aren’t even cleared to be in here. Thought you’d have headed home after the funeral.”
The girls finally got off my desk and faced me, their matching charcoal slacks and professional blouses making them look a good deal like actual members of the office staff, much like Cheryl O’Hara, our acting Records chief. I could also see that they had guest passes clipped on, like we give out to Senators and their staff on the rare occasions when they come for a visit. Coldsnap folded her arms across her chest, Frostburn rested her palms on the edge of my desk.
I’d known these girls for nearly a decade, ever since I talked Darryl into getting them placed with my grandparents after we rescued them from some sort of demented, Neo-Nazi breeding program. They were digging their heels in, getting ready for an argument. A part of me really, really wished they’d waited until after I got lunch. I slipped into my chair and did my best not to tap my fingers impatiently. “Okay, I get it. This is a big deal. What’s going on? I’m still trying to convince people you’re a trustworthy-”
“It’s not about a job,” Frostburn said, shaking her head.
“We’ve got a job now,” Coldsnap added, running it along just behind her sister’s sentence so it felt like they were talking as a unit, rather than separate people. “And not one in fashion retail, anymore.”
“I thought you liked that job,” I said, raising my eyebrows. It hadn’t really challenged them, but at least they knew the trends and didn’t find it boring. They’d wanted to do more, but their history created even more difficulties with the Oversight Committee than mine did. “Never mind. If it’s not about a job, why are you here?”
“Darryl,” Frostburn said, tilting her chin up and triggering a rapid fire cascaded of talk I knew all to well.
Coldsnap picked up the train of thought immediately. “He needs to do something, anything to keep his mind occupied.”
“There’s only one case of any importance right now, and we both know it,” Frostburn added. “The guy who killed his wife.”
“Hey, now,” I said, trying to stop them before they built up a head of steam. “You’re not supposed to-”
“Besides, Darryl probably isn’t going to want to work anything else,” Coldsnap said, running right over me. I should have known better than to try and interrupt them – if I’d known them as well as I do now when they got their codenames I’d have pushed to lump them together as Avalanche. “He wants to get Circuit.”
“Ask him to be on your team,” Frostburn finished. “He needs it.”
I looked at the two of them for a moment, trying to figure out their angle. They’d known Darryl just as long as they’d known me but we’d both been careful not to talk too much about our work when we’d seen them, which admittedly wasn’t that often in the last few years. For that matter, even my grandparents, Sergeant Wake and Clear Skies, had shown a little more care in what they told them after the mess my joining the Project had turned into.
So how had they known about Circuit? “You two got a job.” I swiveled in my chair a little as I thought it over, looking at each one out of the corner of my eye. “Who gave you a job?”
They exchanged a guilty glance I’d seen a hundred times before.
“Does it matter?” Coldsnap asked, pouting a little.
“Yes.” I wasn’t buying, even if Coldsnap was really good at selling it.
Frostburn sighed. “You’re not cleared to know that.”
“I’m not cleared to know that.” I stared at first one, then the other until they broke eye contact. “Me. I have clearance up to Top Secret. There are something like a hundred and fifty codewords I’m cleared to pull from Records – including yours – and I’m not cleared to know who your employer is?”
They flinched and Coldsnap nodded. I realized my voice had risen and pulled it down to a more normal level. “Well, after seventy five years dealing talents ourselves I suppose we’re overdue for another government agency sticking it’s fingers in the pie.”
Coldsnap goggled at me. “You missed the fact that my sister had a crush on you for three years but you figured that out five minutes?”
Frostburn’s pale skin lit up like a flare and she slapped her sister’s arm so hard heads turned. “You were not-”
“And now they’re going to try and poach Darryl off of us by offering him a job where he can chase Open Circuit.” I opted to steer well clear of that other can of worms Coldsnap had just opened. “I’m guessing you’re coming here to tell me about this is not part of the recruiting plan?”
“No,” Frostburn mumbled, no longer making eye contact.
“We’re here to prove our group has a different perspective on how to deal with talented problems,” Coldsnap said, rubbing her arm. “To Darryl, not any of your agents. We’re not poaching actual talents. We kind of need experienced supervisors more than talents right now, and Darryl certainly qualifies. But honestly, Frostburn and I would rather Darryl stay here where someone like you, with a level head-” I heard a muffled laugh from the direction of Massif’s desk but we all ignored it, “-and plenty of experience, was with him rather than our team, which is new and… untested.”
“Makes sense.” I sighed and shoved my chair back from the desk, crashing into Bergstrum’s a second later. Sometimes there’s not as much room as I’d like out on the floor. “That was a good thought, girls. I appreciate knowing what you’ve just told me.”
Coldsnap perked up a bit. “Then you’ll do-”
“No.” Shocked them both for the second time in ten minutes, a personal best. “It’s not my decision, it’s Project policy. It’s good sense. And it’s for the best. I’m not pushing against this one. If some other branch of the Government wants to give him a job I’ll do what I can to keep him here. We certainly wouldn’t be the same without him. But that’s all I can do, girls. Sorry.”
A final look passed between them, another one I recognized well. They’d decided to give up on it. “If that’s the way you feel, Helix.” Frostburn put a hand on her sister’s shoulder and pulled her away. “But if you have to mention that there’s a new game in town…”
“I’ve been keeping secrets longer than you two have been alive. Don’t tell me how to do my job.” I spread my hands. “No one asks how I learn these things anymore, anyways.”
The door to the room swung open and an unfamiliar man with dark brown hair and the mother of all scowls on his face came in, a talent known as Lightning Cage following just a step behind. I smiled a little and said, “Tell Grandma and Grandpa hello for me when you get home.”
They nodded gratefully and started across the room to meet up with Cage and his sourfaced companion. They probably weren’t going home, but that was the kind of thing I was going to have to pretend I didn’t know, at least for a little bit.
“Friends of yours?” Massif asked, sliding his chair down a couple of desks to come to a rest behind Teresa’s.
“Old friends of the family,” I said.
He nodded. “Your talent?”
“Something similar.” The twins were cold spikes. While I pushed down and created places where heat could pool, spikes push upwards and heat flows out of the area, creating incredibly cold temperatures. Project Sumter had originally considered them separate abilities but it had been proven that people could do both. Most just had a natural inclination to one or the other. I knew that Massif could see some sign of what I did with his unusual vision, it made sense that he’d see something from Frostburn and Coldsnap, too.
He grunted and looked after the twins as they left. “Trying to get them a job?”
“Why, you interested in them?” I asked, drumming my fingers absently. “Professionally or personally? Neither one has had a date since Grandpa tore the tires straight off-”
“Neither one,” Massif said quickly. “Just curious if that was why I’ve still got your last trainee.”
“Oh.” Come to think of it, Amplifier had been assigned to Massif, hadn’t she? “How’s that going?”
He shrugged. “She’s a handful. But in a lot of ways it’s better than field work, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. I’m taking her out to meet with some people in the community tomorrow.”
“Well, if you need any advice with her field stress test…”
“I’m not a natural sadist like you,” Massif said. “But I’ll figure something out. The Watch is trolling for good incidents for me. What about you? They’re enough like you I assume you’ve got a fabulous idea for their stress test already picked out.”
I glanced over to where the twins were chatting with Cage and whoever the dour looking fellow was with him. They really were a lot different from when we’d first found them in a house with the corpse of a man they’d accidentally turned into an ice sculpture. Even if they could be cleared to work with the Project, they’d probably be required to undergo a “real” stress test to measure how much they’d changed. Frankly, that didn’t seem fair. “They’ve had all the testing they need for one lifetime.”
“They pass or fail?” Massif asked.
I shrugged. “Depends on who you ask.”
I was still thinking about Helix and his strange friends the next day when Harriet and I picked up Amplifier and headed out towards Chinatown. The field stress test is something of a rite of passage and Helix is famous for being tough on the people he runs through it. Of the eleven talents who’ve had the unique pleasure of entering the Project with Helix as their sponsor, ten had to undergo the stress test more than once. Four had to go through it three or more times.
I got it the second time around and frankly I have no idea how anyone finds the courage for a third try.
But it looked like I was going to be sponsoring talent for Amplifier through all the really tricky portions of her application to Project Sumter and that meant, among other things, representing her to the Senate Oversight Committee, vetting her first oversight agent and putting her through a field stress test of my own design, with the decision over whether she passed or failed ultimately falling to me. Helix had been really dodgy about whether he planned to take back over and do the rest the day before, so I was guessing it was all on me. I’d done it once before, but I’ll admit that Amplifier brought a whole different dynamic to things.
“So you actually know a kung fu master?” She asked, doing her best to lean forward and make eye contact from the back seat.
“Not gung fu,” I said. “Wushu. Gung fu is like excellence, or a level of accomplishment. That’s why the old, badly translated movies would give you phrases like, ‘You don’t have enough gung fu.’ They were literally saying, ‘You’re not accomplished enough to take me on.'”
“Whatever.” She shook her head in frustration. “You know a wushu master, then.”
“Giancarlo He-sifu, to be exact,” I said. “He spotted me when I was eight and realized I had a talent. It took him a while to convince my parents studying wushu would help me with the problems that talent gave me, but I wound up learning from him eventually.”
“Giancarlo He?” I could hear disbelief in every syllable. “What kind of a code name is that?”
“It’s not,” Harriet said, whipping the car through traffic with dizzying speed. Even if the Project said she was getting too old for field work I don’t think most drivers in town would agree with them. “To the best of our knowledge, Giancarlo He is not a talent. He can just recognize them when he sees them.”
“What?” Amplifier held her hands up in a horrible imitation of a wushu stance. “Because he has mystic training?”
“That’s entirely possible,” Harriet said with a shrug. “Look at Chinese myths and culture. Superhuman people have been a part of their lore since before the Roman Empire was pulling itself up by the Greeks. Of course there’s going to be more awareness of talents built into their culture, not all those legends can pure fairy tale. And talents like Al’s both lend themselves to martial arts and require unique work arounds for people who want to survive fighting them. Wushu is a combat sport now, but it comes from a long and fairly mystical fighting tradition where talented individuals would be viewed as natural born prodigies and respected, not freaks to be feared. So of course wushu masters can spot talents.”
“That’s not to say there aren’t talents in the He family,” I added. “In fact, I think there’s a couple. But talents are weird – even the most common ones can skip whole generations sometimes. There’s nothing solid proving they’re actually genetic, and not dependent on some sort of weird environmental factor.”
“The evidence is split,” Harriet said. “Helix gets his code name because he comes from a long running family of talents. But the talent on his grandfather’s side only turned up ever other generation, while his grandmother’s side sometimes produced two or three talents a generation. When they married, their kids had no talents, then Helix popped up with his maternal grandmother’s ability. No sign of talent on the father’s side of the family. At the same time, we’ve found a pair of identical twins with the exact same talent, right down to how well they can use it. It’s strange.”
“Maybe the twins just encountered something weird at the same time?” Amplifier asked.
“No.” Harriet shook her head. “These twins were weird. A talented pedigree, just like Helix, and they were kept separate until their talents became clear at the age of six. A lot of questionable stuff went on there, but it’s a powerful argument for talents from genetics. I think it would settle things in most people’s minds if it weren’t for all the contrary cases.”
I glanced at Harriet but she was just a blur, like usual. I was wondering if that thought had been prompted by the twins who visited Helix yesterday, and if they were the same pair. But it didn’t seem like the best time to ask. “Anyway. The point is, you can’t just look at someone’s parents and guess if they’re a talent, any more than you can guess if they’re good at math.”
“It’s a clue but not confirmation,” Amp said.
“Exactly.” Harriet parked the car and we piled out. “There’s a lot of rules in the Project that protect talents, almost as many as there are to protect other people from them. One of the ones for the protection of talents says we can’t investigate people who we think have talents, only public incidents where we think a talent was used.”
“That sounds fair,” Amp replied.
“So if you really don’t want the Project to open a file on you all you have to do is avoid using your talent in public,” I said, leading the way into a small import shop and absently smoothing my shirt as I crossed the threshold, just like I’d been doing since I’d been eight. “But people like He-sifu will still find you, whether because of their training or family or whatever. And some of them act as a support network, helping curious people get answers about their talents without endangering themselves or others, getting new talents up to speed on the rules and generally keeping us all in touch with each other.”
“Little groups like the ones you started in are common enough,” Harriet said. “But knowing Mr. He and the people he can introduce you to will help you a lot more in the long run, if you plan to do this job for any length of time.”
Amplifier smiled, becoming insufferably cute. “I’ll just have to turn on the charm, then.”
“You’ll have an easier time of it than me,” I muttered.
“Is that one of my ungrateful students?” The voice came, rich and strong, from the stairs at the back of the store. The old, wooden planks creaked as Sifu made his way down them, saying, “It’s high time you came to see me again. It’s the least you could do, since you will never be bothered to pass on my teachings.”
I heaved a sigh and bowed properly from the waist. “Hello, Sifu.”
Sifu came to a stop at the bottom of the stairs. Although he only came up to my collarbone now he still felt like he towered over the whole room. Every movement screamed control and dignity, and his physique made him look much younger than his fifty years. Even with my shortsightedness I still felt like I could see him as clear as day, standing with one arm behind his back and his other hand poised to lecture. “Well. Little Mountain. You have come with more questions I suppose. Not to ask me for students, so you can finally do your duty to your sifu?”