Water Fall: Frogs in the Pot

Four Weeks Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Helix

“Mossburger!” I jumped up from my desk and hurried across the floor towards my analyst, who had just stepped in to the office and was headed towards the Records department. A handful of heads looked up from desks scattered around the room but for the most part this had gotten to be commonplace and I was ignored. Well, Mossburger looked like he wanted to bolt so it’s not like he was ignoring me but it’s not like we were attracting an audience either. “Where are those-”

Pritchard held up his hands to try and hold me off. That never works but he keeps trying. “Look, Helix, I know you’re still waiting on my analysis of the drug cartel-Morocco connection but until Forensics finishes cracking that shell company in Malta there’s not much we can do.”

“Then what am I supposed to do?” I threw my hands in the air. “This is supposed to be my case and I’ve been locked out of it just because my grandmother supposedly betrayed the Lost Cause! Every lead we’ve developed so far leads south of the Mason-Dixie line.”

“Of course they do, Helix,” Mossburger said with a sigh. “Circuit set it up that way on purpose, to try and keep you away from his organization, remember?”

I rubbed my hand over my face. “You know, some days I really hate that man. Tell me we have something. Anything.”

“Well…” His voice trailed off and he glanced down at the folders he was holding. “It’s not directly related.”

“What’s not directly related?”

Mossburger sighed and handed me one of the files, which was had the codename “Grappler” and a talent indexing number on it. We number talents as we find them, with the very first being my great-great-grandfather, Corporal Sumter. Codenames are an easy way to refer to them but not easy to keep track of in databases, particularly since they get reassigned on a semiregular basis – there are over four thousand talents on record after all, and many of them never do anything of note with their abilities. Code names, on the other hand, are a limited resource so there’s some recycling that goes on.

But Analysis does like to try and be poetic when handing them out, and Grappler didn’t sound like their style. From the indexing number it looked like Grappler was a recent find, too. I flipped the folder and glanced at it. “How does this tie back to the weapons dealers again? Another associate of theirs?”

“No. Remember last month, when Circuit broke into our old facility and installed a back door into our computer network?”

“Yeah.” I snorted. “That was a mess. Gutsy, unexpected and surprisingly effective. Typical work for him. Did we ever track down what all he did while he was in our systems?”

Mossburger waved the folder he was holding at the one I was looking at. “I think Forensics is still working on it, but they’re sure these two files were part of it. He created them and appended them to his file as known associates. Presumably that’s why there’s so little information on them.”

I studied the file with a great deal more interest and discovered that he was right. All of the biographical information was blank – not redacted, which was to be expected, but entirely blank. If the Records department had returned an entirely blank file to Analysis after the discovery of a new talent I think Cheryl would have personally hunted down whoever was responsible and locked them into the vault for the rest of their life. Other than noting that Grappler was a wall walker, a person who could tweak friction in bizarre ways, and that he or she was a known associate of Circuit, there was nothing in the file.

I closed it and handed it back to Mossburger. “And the other one?”

“For a talent called Heavy Water, a water worker. Analysis thinks he’s the one that came with Circuit the night of the raid. Massif was sure there was a water worker with them, and how many can there be in one group, right?” He took the file and shrugged. “We’re not sure why Circuit wanted them entered into our files under those names but I thought it might be worthwhile to check into old cases involving Circuit and see if I could find evidence of their involvement we might have missed because we were so focused on looking for the work of a fuse box.”

“Right.” I cracked my knuckles. “Well, that’s something, I guess. Did you want a hand?”

“Actually, there was-”

“Helix!” Jack was waving to me from his desk. “Someone calling for you or the boss. You gonna take it or you want I should track down Teresa?”

I sighed. “Nevermind, Mossburger. Let me know if you can turn anything up, though.” He nodded, looking a little relieved, and I headed back towards my desk. “I’ll take it, Jack. Who am I talking to? State police? FBI? Senator’s aide?”

“I don’t think he’s any of the above,” Jack said, handing me his phone rather than bothering to transfer the call to mine. “He said his name was Sykes.”

——–

“Glad to see you again.” Matthew Sykes greeted us from his wheelchair as the secretary ushered us in to the conference room. “I apologize for the poor accommodations, I’m afraid our office here isn’t very large.”

It’s true that it wasn’t a very spacious room, around fifteen feet square, and there weren’t any personal touches to it. But it had a table and chairs, and as far as I’ve always been concerned that’s all you need. It’s not like anyone would want to spend much time in one. I took a seat in one of the two chairs closest to the door and Teresa took the other, putting us directly across from our host. “If you think this is a poor accommodation, Mr. Sykes, you’ve never been to a meeting in a government office.”

He chuckled a little even though my joke was pretty flat. “I have to admit, Mr. Sykes,” I continued, “I’m not quite sure why you’re here. I don’t suppose you’ve spent the last two weeks here in town?”

“No, not at all,” he said, drumming his fingers lightly on the table top. “I’ve been back to Springfield and out at a few other places where we’re – but that’s not important. No, I’m afraid I’ve come back here specifically to speak with you.”

“Then I hope that the trip will prove worth your time,” Teresa said, leaning forward in polite interest. “But I’m afraid I’m just as confused about the nature of your call.”

“Yes, well…” Sykes studied his hands for a minute. That slow, sleepy attitude that had stood out to me when we first me was still there, but where before it had seemed like general good humor now it felt different. More like being watched by a sleepy cat that wasn’t sure if you were a problem yet. “You know, one of the ways we businessmen survive is by talking to each other. Even when it isn’t strictly proper for us to do so.”

I nodded. “What you’re trying to say is that Roger Keller told you why we were visiting him the day we met.”

“And with good reason,” he was quick to add. “You see, I’m an investor in several of the properties you were asking him about. He thought I should know, in case there was anything I thought I should bring to your attention.”

“And it took you two weeks to think of something?” I folded my arms over my chest and leaned back in my chair. “That’s quite a delayed reaction, Mr. Sykes.”

“Only because there wasn’t anything I could think of until the news broke yesterday.” He reached into the inside pocket on his jacket and pulled out a rumpled envelope. “Do you remember those serial arsons that took place a month or so back?”

Teresa and I exchanged a glance. That could only mean the Enchanter case, but I could tell by her expression that she didn’t have any more idea how Sykes had connected our inquiries into Circuit’s real estate to then Enchanter than I did. It had been highly classified stuff – still was, as far as I knew. “We were briefly involved in that case, as a matter of fact,” Teresa said noncommittally. “Why do you ask?”

He slid the envelope across the table and sat back in his wheelchair. “I’m not sure if you would have heard, then, but at least a few places hit received a letter before the arsonist struck.”

With a sneaking suspicion of what I would find, I picked up the envelope and looked inside. Sure enough, there was a typed letter inside that said, “There is no king in America. Death to pretenders.” It was signed by the Enchanter.

I handed the letter to Teresa and asked, “When did you get this?”

“I’m not entirely sure. My secretary is actually the one who handled the letter initially, believe it or not we get all kinds of cryptic or outright threatening letters. It comes with being a successful business.” Sykes shrugged carelessly, he seemed a lot less tense now that he’d handed the letter over and we weren’t yelling at him. He looked less like a watchful cat and more like a man who found life amusing at best and boring most of the time. But as he explained he did seem to grow a little more animated. And why not? Everyone enjoys talking about themselves a bit.

“We keep a file where a lot of the minor stuff goes, while the dangerous stuff like death threats we turn in to the police. That,” he waved at the letter, “went into the file. If you leave me an e-mail address or similar way to contact you I can see that the details get to you.”

“And this was sent to one of the properties you and Mr. Keller are investing in?” Teresa asked, slipping the letter back into its envelope and setting it on the table.

“That’s right. And I’ve contacted Roger about it as well. He’s checking to see if they received anything similar.” Sykes rubbed a hand over his face, for just a moment looking less like a sleepy philosopher and more like a tired, middle-aged man. “He didn’t say why you were looking into the properties, but from the sounds of it the arsons weren’t the reason. I suppose this wasn’t as useful as I’d hoped.”

“No-” I started, but Teresa touched me on the arm.

“I’m sorry,” she said, getting to her feet. “Could I consult with my colleague outside for just a moment?”

Sykes laughed, his expression closer to what I assumed was normal for him. “Sure. Take your time.”

The hallway outside was fairly quiet, the only noise was the bustle of the telecom company’s phone operators a good twenty feet away. Once the door was closed behind us I asked, “What is it? The Enchanter is under wraps now, I tend to think Sykes is right – there isn’t much here that’s useful to us.”

“Except the Enchanter got a lot his information from someone who worked with the underground talent community,” Teresa said, ticking points on her fingers. “That person went by the name Hangman and only worked over the Internet. At some point, Hangman warned the Enchanter that Circuit was on to him and probably going to take steps to stop his arson spree. Later, Massif’s investigation into Hangman dead-ended when it turned out no one had heard from him in a month or two.”

“You think the Enchanter isn’t the only one who got on Circuit’s bad side?”

She nodded. “It’s certainly possible. If nothing else, it might justify putting more resources into finding this Hangman person.”

“True.” I shrugged. “But one letter to one of the owners of a piece of property Circuit might have been interested in isn’t much of a connection.”

“Fair enough.” With that, Teresa stepped back into the conference room and picked up the envelope with the letter in it. “We appreciate your telling us about this, Mr. Sykes. It may lead to a new development in the case. We’ll be sure to contact Mr. Keller and ask him if he or any of his clients might have received similar letters. I trust we can take this with us?”

“Of course.” Sykes grinned again, looking pleased like a child that had just won a footrace. “I’ll be sure to let Roger know. I’m sure he’ll lend a hand – we’re always glad to help out. It’s almost a requirement for people like us, but I’m sure you’d understand that, Agent Herrera.”

——–

Circuit

“Long day?”

I glanced at my watch. It was nearly midnight. “I’ve only been awake fifteen hours, Hangman. It doesn’t start being a long day until we roll over thirty. I appreciate your concern but there’s far too much to do today to be wait until tomorrow.”

“Technically speaking it’s tomorrow already,” Hangman pointed out, but not in an argumentative tone.

“You’ve been poking around in East Coast servers too much lately,” I said. “We’re on Central Time here.”

“Of course. It will be tomorrow soon.”

I smiled slightly to myself and said, “Go ahead and ping the servers. I want to get this set up as soon as possible.”

“If you say so.” From my place in the server room it was easy to get a feel for the constantly shifting electrical potential of my outpost. Hangman’s laptop may have been two rooms away in my office but, thanks to the top of the line network that ran through the building I was able to feel the constant, subtle shifts of her typing, the computer’s processors whirring away. As she set up her next hacking maneuver her voice was fed through the intercom, so we could follow what the other was doing. “I’m still not sure why you want to do it this way, instead of just turning the information over to third party reporters like we did with the letter from the Enchanter. It would be safer that way.”

“There’s more to this game than safety, Hangman. They need to know someone other than the usual suspects is behind this. It has to be distinct from the other news from the beginning.” I shifted the balance of my own talent to the handful of routers that actually led to the outside world. “Ping the server.”

“The query is away.”

In less time than it took her to say it a data packet pulsed out of our network, through a barely discernible path to a newscaster’s servers hundreds of miles away. Getting information from that distance was as much art as science, like a spider reading vibrations coming along it’s web. But most firewalls are not subtle things and the denial of access that blocked Hangman’s probe was easy to spot.

“Again,” I said, shifting potentials again to lock down the the code that would deny access. Ninety seconds later, Hangman had convinced the firewall that her presence in the system was legitimate and I no longer had to hold my foot in the door. It had happened three times as fast as using an automated program to accomplish the same work. There certainly were upsides to having someone like Hangman around to make my load lighter.

Since this was the last intrusion we had planned I disconnected from the servers, stripping off the Velcro wristbands that held the electrodes in place against my skin and closing up the specialized router I used for these intrusions. While I can do this kind of work just by touching a keyboard, Davis had put this system together to increase my sensitivity by a considerable amount and I’ll confess I’ve grown fond of it. For my first joint cyber-espionage endeavor with Hangman I thought it prudent to have every advantage and, although we hadn’t needed it, caution pays. Especially in my line of work.

I let myself out of the server room, locked it and joined Hangman in my office. “Progress?”

“All over but the waiting.” She didn’t look up from her computer screen as I glanced over her shoulder. It looked like the software that would let us manipulate the major news network’s content, at least for a short period of time, hadn’t encountered any hangups on instillation so far.

I nodded with satisfaction and dropped into the seat behind my desk, swiveling in it so I could look out into the undisturbed Wisconsin forest outside. “Soon enough we’ll be ready to move out of here. Chainfall’s coming up soon.”

“Are you going to miss it?” Hangman got up and moved around to the side of the desk, looking out into the dark with me. “For all your technological focus you’re surprisingly fond of places like this. The Chainfall site isn’t that different. You even told Grappler to be easy on the Stillwater facilities.”

“That company was owned by a former Project agent, you know.” I leaned back a little in my chair. “In the old days, Project Sumter did more harm than good. They just haven’t reevaluated themselves in the last fifty years. That’s their real failing. People like Chief Stillwater, he was in the Navy during the Second World War, they’ve earned a little respect. They were a force for good, in their time.”

Hangman’s hands slipped over the back of my chair and began massaging my shoulders lightly. “And now it’s your time, I suppose?”

Simeon’s warning came back to me then. The possibility that Hangman had come to me interested in more than a chance to show her skills. That she might have some sort of a romantic interest, childish or otherwise.

That one way or another, she’d have to face the reality of Thunderbird.

I got up from the chair, letting her hands fall away as I stood. “Now it’s time for sleep, I think.”

“Even after just fifteen hours awake?” She asked in a teasing tone.

I gave her an arch look over one shoulder. “An old man needs his rest.”

“Old?” She smiled. It wasn’t a smirk, like she so often used when joking with Simeon or Heavy, nor an attempt to ingratiate herself, like I had seen in pictures I turned up when trying to gather information on her, like she used when dealing with Davis or one of the other men in the installation that seemed to gather around her when she wasn’t locked away with her laptop running some kind of data analysis. There was something genuine there, not a front or a tool for dealing with people. I just wasn’t sure what it was. “The future shouldn’t be calling itself old, Circuit.”

“No?” I put a hand on her shoulder and gently maneuvered her towards the office door, being careful to stay behind her every step of the way. For some reason I was suddenly ashamed to look her in the face. “Well, a word of advice. We’ll all need all the rest we can get in the next few days. Big things are coming.”

Hangman laughed. “Whatever you say. Good night, Circuit.”

“Good night, Elizabeth.”

I don’t think I realized then I’d called her by name. Didn’t notice her staring after me with that strange smile as I walked away. All I really knew was that, for the first time since I’d become Open Circuit, I was on the run from something and I had no plan how to deal with it.

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It’s That Time Again!

Yes, once again it’s Christmas. Here in this Yuletide season those of us who keep to the Western calendar generally stop to celebrate holidays and spend time with family, and I am no exception. Thus there will sadly be no updates this week. But we’ll return next week to pick up the action with Circuit, Helix and the rest, talk a bit about the New Year and generally eat up your time once again! Until then, enjoy your holidays.

Nate Chen

I Am Not Making This Up

The title for this post is one of Dave Barry’s favorite phrases, one he trots out whenever he’s found something so bizarre, so ridiculous, it seems like there’s no way it could actually be a part of the world we live in. Except, of course, that it is. And really, for a humor columnist, what could be better than that? Why spend all his time and energy making up halfway funny stuff when Barry could let us find stuff twice as funny for him? By the end of his syndicated column’s run he actually had people all over the nation who would scour newspapers, flip through ads and watch news broadcasts just to find new absurdities to send to him.

And they didn’t even get paid!

Why do I mention this? After all, the primary focus of this blog is fiction, am I right? (Of course I am.) Well, for a moment or two I’m going to wander into the territory of nonfiction. See, while I write fiction for this blog my degree is actually in Journalism, a field that actively blends nonfiction and fiction.

Okay, I kid, I kid. To all those newspaper editors around the country who are about to denounce me from your pages, I ask that you resist the urge. In spite of some high profile cases, there are still such things as journalistic standards and fact checking. It is a form of nonfiction writing, just as humor columns, editorials and technical writing are. In this post, we’re going to look over three things nonfiction needs to do well in order to succeed and how being a good nonfiction writer can help your fiction writing succeed as well. The things that nonfiction needs to work are facts, structure by importance and a clear evolution of ideas. These things are present in all forms of nonfiction writing and, if you manage to write them well in nonfiction applying them your fiction will benefit you as well.

The first thing nonfiction needs in abundance is facts. This is kind of a “duh” thing, but if you’re making up what you’re writing about it’s fiction. You can only be writing nonfiction if you start with facts. Gathering facts and organizing them is where a nonfiction writer starts. So if you’re writing fiction, guess what you need?

Facts! Not facts in the same sense as a nonfiction writer, of course, but facts about your story. I’m not just talking about outlining here, I get that some writers don’t find that to be helpful. But you need to have facts about your story – where is it taking place, who is at the center, what are they doing when it starts, when it ends, what makes them qualified to tackle the problems the story will throw at them? The list goes on and on and on. What’s more, the kinds of questions often vary from genre to genre. A sci-fi tale will need more information about places, new technologies and societal changes than a romantic comedy.

The second thing nonfiction does is structure it’s information by importance, particularly in journalism. Rather than starting you at the beginning and working through to the end, most nonfiction starts with a premise and explains why it is relevant to the reader, then begins with the foundation of it’s argument and works it’s way through to the conclusions. Fiction is the same – not every story should begin at the beginning. Every story should begin at the part most likely to grab the reader’s interest. The ‘beginning’ of the story may not be revealed to the reader until they are part way into the story because it reveals too much about the plot, or it’s just not interesting enough. It’s important to start your story where it will interest your readers – not at the beginning.

Finally, nonfiction has to clearly work from it’s premise to its conclusion, that’s the whole reason nonfiction gets read. Fiction needs to be just as clear. Even in stories like Pulp Fiction, where the timeline is convoluted, there’s clear purpose and drive to the story and the audience can follow what’s going on all the way to the conclusion, even if the exact order of events doesn’t make complete sense to every member of the audience. Fiction is more than a series of unrelated events, no matter how clearly those events are told. If they don’t tie together into a cohesive whole with a purpose in mind they’re not good fiction. Reading (or writing) well written nonfiction gives one a good sense of how to tie fiction together in a similar way.

In short, don’t underestimate nonfiction as a resource for the fiction writer. Reading works of history and journalism in particular of great value to you as you seek to hone your craft. You could do worse than seeking them out actively.

Cool Things: It Happened One Night

Classic film time once again. It Happened One Night doesn’t contain that many names recognizable to casual black and white fans but it does hold one claim to fame that only two other movies can make – it won all five of the “big” Academy Awards – best film, director, actor, actress and screenplay. It’s also had a subtle effect on popular culture, not to the extent of say, Casablanca, but still a marked one. Ever seen a woman stop a vehicle just by showing some leg? That’s a homage to It Happened One Night.

This story is essentially about a rich young woman, Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) who marries someone her father does not approve of. When Mr. Andrews (Walter Connolly) tries to annul the marriage she runs away, catching a bus and running into the down-on-his-luck reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable). Unfortunately, the sheltered Ellie doesn’t have the resources or know how to meet up with her husband so she agrees to take Peter’s help in avoiding her father, who has offered a hefty reward for her discovery.  What ensues is a strange cross between a caper film, a romantic comedy and out and out screwball humor. By the time the story is over Peter and Ellie will have fallen in love, had a falling out and learned a little more about themselves. All in all, not bad for a love story from Hollyweird, right?

So what sets It Happened One Night above the rest? Was it really worth all those Awards?

For starters, Colbert and Gable really do provide a great performance. The chemistry between the two is great and serves to drive the story when the laughs aren’t coming. But there’s not that many points where the laughs don’t come. The script is incredibly tightly written, keeping the audience moving from bus to motel to roadside like a drill sergeant, alternating between showing us how well Ellie and Peter work together and how little they appreciate one another. This is undoubtedly for the best, if scrutinized too closely the whole story would most likely fall apart and yet, once it’s finished, we can’t help but admire the finished product for what it is.

But the greatest strength of the script is in it’s careful use of characterization. It’s very easy for a writer to give into the temptation of spelling out too much. But when Peter finally comes to confront Ellie’s father, when he’s offered a reward for all he’s done and all Peter can do is rant about a woman who he thinks has played with him and left him in the cold, we see far more about how much Peter loves Ellie than any poem or soliloquy could tell us.

Watch It Happened One Night and it’s easy to see how it could have won all five of the Big Academy Awards. The piece itself may be fluff, but it’s such well written, well acted and well directed fluff that you can’t help but loving it for what it is. Whether you love movies, storytelling in general or just a good romantic comedy, I assure you that you won’t be disappointed with what you find.

Water Fall: Shaking Earth

Five Weeks, One Day Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Massif

Jane Hammer certainly lived up to her name. I can process all kinds of movement but, even though I’d been warned, I wasn’t ready for just how fast she moved. It took her all of two seconds from the time she hit the ground to run a loop around me and get to the van, which rolled onto its side to the tune of screaming metal. I cursed and turned to start back towards her but I needn’t have bothered.

She came back my way even faster than she’d left and when we collided the force was more than the ground under my feet could safely handle. The parking lot was fairly worn down concrete and under that there was only gravel fill, I know because a great deal of it sprayed in the air when a chunk of paving about five feet around pulled loose and tilted up, sliding a few feet to the right in the process. It had taken the force of Jane’s hit but ruined my footing in the process.

At least I had known what to expect and managed to keep my balance. Jane, who had used a fairly straightforward shoulder slam that probably would have smashed a normal man’s ribs into kindling, hadn’t expected me to stay standing or for her to wind up stopped, much less for the ground to move under her feet. She slipped and went down on all fours.

Even though I knew it wouldn’t work training prompted me to try and kick her closer hand out from under her. The force from the kick vanished as soon as we made contact and her appearance changed subtly. According to Voorman, vector traps don’t move force, they store it and can release it later, although the amount of force they’re holding drains away over time. So I’d basically just handed her a free kick. She retaliated by punching me in the thigh and letting the extra force spring back out at the same time, which hurt about as much as the evil eye she was giving me as she swung.

Trading punches was going to go nowhere fast, neither one of us could really hurt the other that way. So I grabbed her wrist and shoulder before she could recover from her punch, pulling her off balanced and into a hip throw that dropped her to the ground. When we stayed in direct contact the whole time her talent was basically useless, while mine still ensured that I never lost my footing. I’m not sure why that is but that’s the kind of thing we leave to the scientists. While wushu doesn’t have a whole lot of wrestling in it, it does still include some basic throws and pins to go with all its other moves. Against a complete amateur, which Jane obviously was, that’s more than enough.

Or so the theory went. But I hadn’t even gotten her fully locked into a pin when she started kicking her feet against the ground. To my amazement her appearance started to warp slightly, like it had when she’d absorbed my kick, and even glimmer around the edges. Somehow kicking against the ground was letting her build up force. By the third kick I realized what was going on and shifted to try and pin her feet as well. After fumbling for a couple of seconds I only managed to get one of them.

Jane’s next kick after that hit the ground with enough force to rock the loose pavement we were on. The next after that actually shoved it a half a foot sideways. This was getting bad. If she managed to knock us airborne all my advantages would vanish – in fact, she’d be way ahead of me, since vector traps don’t need their feet on the ground to be quasi-invulnerable.

So I let go, timing it so it happened a split second before her next kick. With nothing to push against Jane wound up flipping herself over and skidding along the ground a good ten feet. I winced. Even if she didn’t feel the impact with the pavement she’d still get scrapes and limbs would still get yanked out of socket. For all that, she still got to her feet before I could get to her. I might have the advantage in durability, since Voorman said traps could only absorb one vector at a time and had to use it before they could grab another, while I could shunt hits into the ground all day. But Jane had far more mobility than I could ever hope for. At least I did have time to get off the broken pavement before Jane came back for more.

In fact, she backed up several steps, moving with a weird rocking motion of the feet and storing up a little more force with each step she took. Now that I had a clear look at it I remembered something Voorman had said about the principle of action producing equal and opposite reaction and Jane’s talent, but I hadn’t really understood it. Looking at it now, it seemed that every time her foot hit the ground she absorbed the impact and released it on her next step, making each step gradually a bit stronger than the last. I wondered absently if that took training or if it was instinctive.

Jane wasn’t distracted by such things. She was focused on taking me down and I was more than happy to let her try. Even with just a few seconds to study her it was clear to me that she had never had any kind of formal hand to hand combat training. All she was doing was building up a head of steam and slamming into her target with all the force she’d accumulated. And the fact is, that would probably be enough for eighty to ninety percent of the people she would fight.

But wushu isn’t just fighting hand to hand, it’s reading the flow and pattern of movement, anticipating it and countering it. While Jane’s movements were bigger and more powerful than anything I’ve seen from something that didn’t have a six cylinder engine in it they were actually very simple and easy to analyze. And while they might be too fast for an untalented man with my level of discipline to follow I could see her coming in ways she probably wasn’t expecting. The files suggested vector shifts and vector traps perceive the world a lot differently, so she probably didn’t realize that the way she manipulated momentum caused her to light up like a Christmas tree.

To my eye the average person is surrounded a dull red haze that gets lost in the gray static of ambient motion once they’re more than twenty feet away from me. A running person may work their way up to yellow and be visible thirty feet away – forty if they’re really fast. But Jane burned white hot and I could probably spot what she was doing from the other end of a football field.

The more force Jane put behind her movements the easier they were to track and anticipate. I almost felt guilty at how easy it was to toss her back to the ground when she came around for another hit. This time instead of letting her go flying I kept ahold of her and bled her momentum out into the ground. I also made it a point to grab her by the leg and wrestler her into a lock that would break it if she tried to power her way out again. “Give it up, Jane!”

“What?” There was a note of confusion in her voice and I belatedly remembered that, unless Project Sumter had actually had her in custody at some point she wouldn’t know what her codename was.

“Never mind.” I sighed in exasperation. At least her friends had stopped shooting at me once she came into the picture. “Are you going to give or not?”

In response she started drumming her hands on the ground. “If you try and move you’re just going to break your leg. Believe me, you won’t be breaking mine.”

She exhaled deeply, a lot like sifu would when “centering the chi”, and there was a confusing flurry of motion. She kicked against my leg lock and I held steady, not moving, but she managed to press herself down into the pavement with enough force to crack it again. For a split second I lost my footing and couldn’t keep her in the join lock; then suddenly Jane was free and bouncing a good ten feet in the air. She didn’t land on her feet but I don’t think that really bothered her much.

And this time she didn’t come back around for another pass, this time she just kept running away. I swore and then yelled, as loud as I could, “Amplifier! Jane’s running for the alley on the east side of the building!”

A second later I heard Amp’s voice, at normal levels, saying, “We’ve got it.”

I suppressed a shudder. If she was still where she started the operation she was a block and a half away, coordinating communications for-

The fast retreating point of light that Jane made as she retreated into the distance suddenly vanished in a weird pulsing of the air. I’m not sure normal people could have spotted it but I sure could.

“What happened?” I demanded.

“Just hit her with a little noise, one of the things I picked up in the past few weeks” Amp replied, still throwing her voice. I knew that she’d been having occasional meetings with another wave maker, who’s codename hadn’t been shared with me, to help them understand how she did her little ventriloquist trick over long distances. Apparently she’d picked up a few new tricks in the process.

“Is she still going to be a problem?”

“Don’t think so.” There was a pause, then, “Yeah, Dominic says they’re spraying her down with some of that riot foam stuff now. Voorman said that would be enough to hold her.”

“Good.” I turned back to the building, dusting myself off as I went. “Let’s see if I’m needed inside.”

——–

As it turned out, I wasn’t. Helix’s team had come through the front door and locked down the concessions part of the office as soon as the shooting started and the rest of the building had been cleared by the state police by the time I could actually get to it and get inside. After about five minutes of fast and furious work the raid was all over but the clean-up and analysis. This after nearly a weak of intensive planning.

My life in a nutshell.

All the work paid off, though, as the police got plenty of charges to press against the arms dealers and we got – well, we didn’t get the van in pristine condition since Jane had it hard enough to completely roll it once, but the body of the vehicle was mostly intact and hopefully analysis could get something out of it. On top of that, no one got seriously hurt other than the officer who was in the van when Jane rolled it. Even he got away with nothing more than a few sprains and a broken leg. Not bad given all the shooting that went on.

After asking around a bit I managed to track down Helix and our analyst team in what appeared to be the office of the accountant in charge of the operation. As with most criminal operations focusing on making money, most of the relevant evidence was probably going to be found there.

The small room was pretty cramped since Helix was there with Agent Herrera, his field analyst, who I’d heard being called Mossman, my field analyst, Auburn Reinke, and a youngish kid who I didn’t recognize but assumed to be Samson’s field analyst.

I’d passed a vending machine in the hallway, presumably one of the cover company’s offerings, and it appeared that Auburn had bought some popcorn out of it, which she was now trying to convince Helix to pop for her.

“It’s important,” she was saying, “to have something that crunches when you’re doing mathmatical analysis.”

“Then you should have bought some potato chips.” Helix put his hands on his hips, an action that would be totally lost on someone like Auburn, who suffered from Asperger’s syndrome and couldn’t process body language much better than I could read facial expressions. “I’m not a microwave.”

“Potato chips are only for decoding messages.” Auburn’s tone suggested that everyone should know that.

“Just pop the popcorn,” I said, sidling up behind the skinny kid, who was shuffling papers back and forth with Mossman so that they made weird patterns. “She’ll never get off your back if you don’t.”

Helix sighed and took the bag of popcorn. Then he pushed past his supervisor and out the door. I glanced at Herrera. “Where’s he going?”

“I think there’s a microwave in the lounge a couple of doors back,” she said with a hint of amusement in her voice. “I don’t know as he can regulate temperatures enough to pop a bag of popcorn without burning through the bag.”

“Auburn, did you look over the records here already?” I asked.

“She glanced at them,” the skinny kid started to say, “but-”

“Yeah, I’ve seen them.” Auburn sat down in the room’s only chair and slouched there. She didn’t understand body language or facial expressions and she didn’t use them, which actually made it easier for me to understand her, since I’ve always been bad at seeing them. “They get guns from drugs and sell them back to drug people. Waste of money for the druggers, but makes these guys money. The van was already theirs.”

There was a moment of silence as the room processed that. While I’m sure Helix and Samson had competent analysts, Auburn was an honest to goodness getman, in the same mold as the original. The Man From Gettysburg had been a single-minded, relentless genius who set out to destroy both sides of a conflict that killed all three of his sons. He nearly killed both Corporal Sumter and Shenandoah more than once and stopping him eventually required the assistance of Fog of War, who supposedly brought a plan crafted by Robert E. Lee himself. Even then the original getman only got caught and hung because he was over seventy. He claimed to have thought of a way out of the trap set for him but lacked the strength to carry it out.

And Auburn? She may have suffered from a weird way of looking at the world, and had an even harder time making herself understood, but she also had a photographic memory and incredible reasoning skills. Sometimes I wonder if she’s not as dangerous as the original getman simply because she hasn’t, or can’t, experience the same kind of traumas as he did.

To avoid thinking about such cheery subjects I asked, “If you had all that figured out, why did you want popcorn?”

“Wanted to double check.”

Of course. Self esteem was not one of her strong points.

“I see,” the skinny kid said. “There’s no record of purchase for the van anywhere in the last month of records. But I don’t know why that makes her say they already had the van…”

“Because all this stuff came up ‘with drugs’, which means from Mexico,” Helix’s analyst replied, the papers in his hands ignored as he stared off into space. “It had to come up through Texas and the south. This place is part of a network based in the south – remember, the write-up on the two talents here came from our southern offices.”

“Yeah, I remember,” the kid said. “What’s significant about that?”

For once, I was following the analyst’s logic. “It’s significant because Circuit always works in such a way as to minimize Helix’s impact on his operations. The South’s Senior Special Liaison hates him, won’t let him operate in his jurisdiction. If Circuit wanted to set up a money-making operation, or just start assembling material for that overthrow of the government he’s supposedly plotting, what better place to do it than the one part of the country his archrival isn’t allowed to work in?”

“Oh…” The sound of the light dawning for the kid. “So when he winds up with a van he can’t or doesn’t want to repair instead of abandoning it he arranges to sell it through a satellite operation.”

I frowned at that. When the kid put it that way, the whole theory suddenly sounded wrong. “Didn’t Voorman or Samson say something about Circuit having enough armor plating to manufacture replacement parts? Why wouldn’t he want to repair the van?”

“Because he didn’t just build one van.” Helix tossed Auburn the popped back of popcorn as he walked back into the room, “He’s got several. There’s this whole story behind it, it’s got to do with auto plant closings in Detroit and one of the most absurd cons I’ve ever heard of, but we’re pretty sure he’s got half a dozen of the things, maybe as many as ten. For that guy, anything worth doing is worth doing on a grand scale. He may not have gotten his hands on enough plating to build all of them and have resources left over for spare parts.”

“You’re sure about that?” The kid asked.

“Reasonably. That’s the conclusion Mona came to. You can ask her-” Helix caught himself and sighed, running a hand over his face. “Never mind. There’s a write up about it somewhere, I’m sure. It was never proved, but it was as likely as not. That’s how we knew what VINs we should look for when checking out the van here.”

“What’s important,” Herrera said, putting a comforting hand on Helix’s shoulder, “is that we have a potential lead into Circuit’s organization on a scale we’ve never had before. I want all this sorted and boxed and back at the offices by this time tomorrow. The more people we have looking at this, the better.”

Helix nudged the skinny kid with his elbow. “Movsesian, I want you and Darryl to sit down and-”

“He resigned,” Auburn said. Helix stared at her silently and for once she took the cue and went on. “The day after you left for Omaha he handed in his resignation and left town. I haven’t heard where he went. Agent Philmore is interim head of Analysis, Clark could talk to him-”

“He’s never worked any of Circuit’s cases,” Helix snapped. There was no doubt he was pissed. Not at the kid, Movsesian, or Auburn but still angry above and beyond his grumpy norm. “Try Lightning Cage’s old field analyst, Williams. Go over all the accounting stuff here, see if it matches what he’s done in the past and if you can trace it back to any of his past operations. I’ll give you the name of a contact in the CIA, tell them to see if they can get it back to Morocco. This time we’re blowing the lid off his whole damn network.”

I reached out to give Helix’s shoulder a squeeze, thought better of it, and settled for saying, “Take it easy, big guy. He’s finally made a serious mistake. We’ve never caught anyone from his organization in a position to talk to us before, never caught any talents that worked for him. Definitely never found this much evidence in one place before. It’s only a matter of time before we get him.”

“Assuming that this organization is actually part of Circuit’s. That’s not proven yet,” Mossman said.

“Duly noted.” Helix sighed and cracked his knuckles, then slumped against the wall and shook his head. “I almost hope it’s not. Circuit wouldn’t be this careless if he didn’t have something big in the works. It’s a race now. If we win, we catch him.”

“And what happens if he wins?” Herrera asked.

“I don’t know,” Helix said. “But it’ll keep me awake at night. That’s for sure.”

Fiction Index
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Naming Right

Names are tricky business. The name of your story tells prospective readers a lot about it. By the same token, the way you name the characters in that story says many things about them. How you choose character names is at once complicated and simple.

Now some people might say that the name you get when you’re born doesn’t really say a whole lot about you, so why should fictional characters be named any differently?

The answer, of course, is because they are fictional characters. Fiction does aim to replicate real life to an extent, but it also aims to tell a story that evokes an emotional response from its readers. One of the biggest ways fiction connects with its readers is through its characters, and that means every aspect of the character must be chosen to maximize the reader’s reactions. That includes how the characters are named.

So what kind of things should you think about when naming characters?

First, you have to like the relationship between the character and the name. This is not exactly the same thing as liking the name you give your character, although that certainly helps. It’s entirely possible you will want to create a character who’s name is a loathsome thing because the character is not that nice (or they are nice and you want to create some irony, more on this later.) What you have to do is love what your character’s name is saying about your character.

So the next thing to do is find a name that actually says something about the character you are naming. For example, in the Project Sumter stories Teresa Herrera is a young Hispanic woman who acts as a calming, more positive foil to Helix’s sometimes cynical and always temperamental personality. Naming her after a famous, nearly sainted member of the Catholic church does a couple of things. First, the Hispanic community and Catholicism are closely linked, so it speaks to her culture. Second, it emphasizes her approach to life and highlights the contrast between her and Helix. The inverse of this would have been to give her a name that contrasted starkly with the idea of compassion and empathy, such as Ayn (for Ayn Rand.) Such a name would have been weird and highly ironic given her personality.

Be careful playing around with ironic naming, though. A character’s name is what the reader is going to see every time your character comes into the story. If the character is a big enough part of the story their name may come up so often that their name ceases to be ironic and starts putting the character at odds with itself, destroying the impact rather than enhancing it.

One way to get around this problem is nicknames or titles, ways of being identified that the character has earned through previous actions or that they have been assigned by people who know who they are. Of course, the talented people in Project Sumter’s files are a perfect example of this. Double Helix’s codename comes from his long line of ancestors who worked with the Project – the double helix being the shape of DNA and thus heredity. Likewise, the incredible stability vector shifts have results in their being named after mountain ranges, beginning with Shenandoah and continuing up through Aluchinskii Massif. Nicknames let a character have an ironic or just plain meaningless given name but still be known to the reader and other characters in a more appropriate fashion.

Finally, it sometimes helps to build the identity of your setting if you respect certain naming conventions. For example, the patronymic is an old, reliable way of coming up with last names in European cultures, so choosing to use it extensively is a good way to give a sense of cultural continuity in a story. Likewise, Project Sumter codenames tend to be abstract, chosen more to be cryptic than to be impressive, since it’s a secret government organization. This helps set a Sumter talent apart from the average superhero. Loose naming conventions like this will help build the identity of the story through the names of it’s leading characters.

Of course any story, regardless of length, benefits from having someone named Sam in it.

Seriously.

There’s more to naming characters than just flipping through a book of baby names or hitting up a few websites. Everything from saying the name out loud so you can hear it’s cadence and tone to considering how important a character is, and thus how awesome his name should be, goes into the process. It’s important that you like the name, that it be fairly easy to remember and that it make a good impression on your readers. But more than that, for a fiction writer, the name is powerful and has to be chosen with care. May you find the process a little easier with these things in mind.

Cool Things: Wearing the Cape

Superheroes are a uniquely American thing, one of the few cultural phenomenon that definitely started here. It should come as no surprise to us that they’ve slowly leaked out of comic books and into TV and movies, and the national consciousness. And now they’re starting to stake a claim in the realm of written fiction.

While few superhero novels can claim the august status of literary works they do offer the superhero archetypes an opportunity to be explored with more time and depth than any other medium. Austin Grossman took an early stab at this when he wrote Soon I Will Be Invincible and others have since followed in his footsteps.

Marion G. Harmon’s Wearing the Cape is an interesting addition to this small but growing genre of fiction.

It focuses on Hope Corrigan, who becomes the superhero Astra after nearly getting crushed by a falling bridge. Like all origin stories, Wearing the Cape shares a few of the problems Astra has with her identity, secrecy and changed living arrangements. But for the most part the story is focused on Hope’s sense of responsibility, her problematic relationship with her new powers and identity as Astra and her odd relationship with a person who calls himself the Teatime Anarchist and can somehow travel through time.

It’s that last bit that makes things really interesting, if you were wondering.

Wearing the Cape does more than just tackle the basic issues of identity and responsibility that most superhero stories focus on. It also pokes a little into the structure of superheroes and society and how people might react to having superpowered individuals around for over a decade. Also interesting is Harmon’s decision to give all superheroes the same basic source for their abilities – a strange, unexplained occurrence a decade ago that left the world without power for a few seconds and the latent potential for superpowers in its wake. Since “The Event” people exposed to life threatening situations have a chance of awakening superpowers.

Life in the world of the Cape is interesting. Capes (which is to say, superheroes) have to deal with supervillain gangs, drunk and disorderly supers, legal woes and more. One of the most interesting ideas are origin chasers, people who willingly undergo life threatening circumstances such as stepping off a building or in front of a truck in order to awaken superpowers. This does not always end well.

But at the core of Wearing the Cape is a story about actions and consequences. As soon as Hope puts on Astra’s cape she’s in a different world, and how she deals with the heroes and villains she meets is as important as what powers she uses in dealing with them. Harmon does an excellent job weaving Hope’s actions and their consequences into a story that is fun and exciting.

While superhero stories are not everyone’s cup of tea, Wearing the Cape is definitely an accessible and enjoyable one. I recommend it, particularly if you’re interested in writing in the genre yourself.