Five Days After the Michigan Avenue
There were many problems that resulted from the revelation that talents walked among us. Believe it or not, Project Sumter had very detailed contingency plans in place detailing possible fallout from public knowledge of talented individuals. These scenarios cover pretty much everything from witch hunts and pogroms aiming to wipe out talents to individual talents who set themselves up as the leaders of cults.
Absolutely none of these scenarios mentioned the necessity of field agents taking part in press conferences.
I feel that this was a major oversight, because anyone who put an ounce of thought into it would have immediately banned me from getting within a hundred feet of any member of the press. In fact, I have no idea why that memo didn’t go out as soon as I pulled my stunt to rescue Teresa from the reporter mob. And yet two days after I did that I found myself staring glassily at a wall of microphones and ravenous, soul-sucking journalists. It was less than ideal for my peace of mind, and not just because I was wondering what had gotten into Voorman.
And while we’re on that subject, let me just say I found how easily he adjusted to the press a little disgusting. He gave the opening statement, a quick five minute summary of Circuit’s case and where we currently stood with it, using nothing but a couple of note cards and without showing any sign that he was nervous. This from a person who, a week ago, I would have told you was defined by his nerves. I’d say he looked totally in control of the situation except, as soon as he opened the floor to questions things went south.
If you’ve never seen the press all over a new story, it’s kind of like watching flies swarming over a dead raccoon on the side of the road. It’s obsessive, repulsive and relentless. The basic shape of things was like this: Voorman was at the center at the podium and to his left were the three Senior Special Agents we had that had been involved in the case since the beginning; my current boss, Teresa Herrera, my former boss, Bob Sanders, and Massif’s boss, Harriet Verger. These four were chosen for their extensive field experience, their familiarity with the case and the fact that, with two men, two women, one Hispanic, one African American and ages ranging from mid twenties to late fifties, they made a wonderful picture of the diversity and inclusiveness of Project Sumter. I would have preferred to face the press backed by my highly experienced tactical team, but they were all middle aged white males and hadn’t been invited.
Of course, the ethnically balanced, open and fair shtick may have been to counterbalance the fact that Amplifier, Massif and I were all white as they come. Only Samson broke the mold. Sure, that’s because the Midwest is a bit more homogenous than other parts of the country but that doesn’t play in front of the press and the fact that I don’t care for that kind of posturing much doesn’t change the fact that perceptions matter. The four of us were lined up by height, with Samson closest to the middle and the rest of us in descending order moving away from Voorman. We weren’t supposed to be there to talk, that was Voorman’s job, but we had been introduced to the public by our code names and our status as talented people made clear.
Unfortunately, as soon as Voorman finished outlining, in general terms, the extent of our current investigation into Circuit’s activities and what kind information we were hoping to get from the public the press was free to ask questions. The first question came from a reporter from the local broadcast news, a shortish Asian American woman with black hair pulled into a bun. “Agent Voorman, is there any indication of what this Open Circuit’s motivation in his crimes might be?”
“At the moment it seems to be purely self-interest, based on the pattern of his crimes,” Voorman said. “His public statements have suggested he wants to be seen as some kind of freedom fighter but so far most of his crimes consist of grand theft of pretty much every type and criminal trespass. And that’s just the things he’s wanted on five or more counts of. Not the behavior of an altruist.”
A journalist with the ragged haircut and slightly worn clothing of someone who didn’t have to get in front of a TV camera every day raised his hand and asked, “There’s a lot of people with what you call talents coming forward all over the country and saying they’d like to use them in a productive fashion. In interviews they’ve said that’s something you’ve forbidden, by and large. Are there plans to change that policy in the future?”
Voorman glanced at Sanders, who cleared his throat and said, “There’s been a lot of talk about that at the management level over the past few days, discussions I’ve been a part of.” I felt my eyebrows raise a bit at that. I had wondered where my old boss had gotten off to, since I hadn’t seen him with his new talent much recently. “Some talents do receive licenses for specific kinds of work already. State and Federal governments are debating how those programs might be expanded but our involvement in that is going to be strictly advisory from this point forward. Politicians will have to sort it and put it before the voters.”
A different, younger looking reporter near the back shouted, “What about superheroes?”
“That would-” Voorman began, but stopped short when Samson stepped to the edge of the raised platform we were standing on, picked up an empty metal microphone stand from off the floor and held it up for the audience to examine.
Then he bent it into a rough circle using his bare hands. The room went deathly quiet as Samson carefully set the bent pole on the stage and said, “My talent is one of the most powerful we know of in direct confrontations. If you want to see something really interesting we can go to a junkyard later and I’ll throw some cars. But the fact is, even I rely on equipment, backup and information from Project Sumter to do my job. I can’t take a bullet safely without a bulletproof vest, for example. I still only have two eyes and they only see in front of me, so I need someone to watch my back. Vigilantes have none of that support and are more likely to get themselves and other people hurt than solve any problems.”
“On top of that,” Verger added, piping up from the other side of Voorman, “the legal system itself doesn’t deal with them well. Evidence gained through vigilantes is rarely if ever admissible in court, and if they did take the stand we’d usually have to turn around and arrest them for trespassing or assault and battery. Vigilantism remains something the law highly discourages, and we are a law enforcement agency, no matter what else people choose to call us.”
“Don’t you think constantly dismissing the potential contributions talented people make out of hand is part of the problem here?” The anchorwoman who had asked the first question demanded.
“We’re not dismissing them out of hand,” Voorman said. “There are a lot of issues to be explored-“
“And that’s a process your agency has been actively suppressing for almost seventy years,” she said, too fired up to notice her breath gathering in front of her in an icy cloud. “Why do you call Open Circuit a run of the mill crook when he’s obviously been confronted with such widespread systemic injustice his entire life?”
“Because he’s a liar, a thief and a killer.” Both Voorman and Sanders short me warning looks but I ignored them. I’d been prepared for a lot of strange sounding questions from the press but I honestly hadn’t expected them to be sympathetic to Circuit. “Project Sumter has asked talents to keep what they can do a secret as much for their own safety as out of a desire to keep the public in ignorance.”
I stepped forward and picked up the stand Samson had left there and let it rest in my palm for a moment, until the heat gathered there melted through it and the two pieces tumbled to the ground. A flick of the fingers sent the last drops of molten metal sizzling onto the ground and I looked the reporter in the eye. She’d paled visibly. “On the face of it, what we can do is more than a little scary, don’t you think? Even fifty years ago, this kind of thing could have caused riots. Maybe times have changed and we can be out in the open safely. We’ll see. But it wouldn’t be the first time the government has erred on the side of caution and gotten it wrong. That doesn’t justify robbing people of their livelihoods, threatening their safety, or leaving their families in mourning. Circuit’s done all that, and the only reason for a person to act like that is pure selfishness.”
Behind me Voorman cleared his throat. “I think that will be all the questions for now.”
“You are not doing that again,” Voorman said, his tone closer to exasperation than anger.
“Thank goodness,” I said, wiping sweat off my forehead with my sleeve. I didn’t let the air around me change in temperature but nerves still had me dripping. “I hate press conferences.”
“You’ve never done one before,” Sanders pointed out.
“But I’ve seen plenty on TV,” I replied. “And I hated all of them.”
“Helix,” Teresa said, visibly struggling to be patient. “It’s going to be very important that the press not paint us like a loose cannon or some other kind of threat to the public interest.”
“Because the press never smears people it doesn’t like regardless of facts,” I said, favoring her with a mock-naïve expression.
“I’m not disagreeing with you,” Voorman said, regaining some of his patience. “But it would really help if we didn’t feed them sound bites to use against us.”
“Hey big guy!” Jack waved to me from the other side of the floor, standing with Darryl by the computer that was keeping the situation map up to date. “Get a load of this.”
When your tactical leader says get somewhere you get, and when you’ve known Jack as long as I have that goes double. Teresa, Voorman and Samson went along with me and, due to longer legs, Teresa and Samson got there first. I snorted in disgust and Voorman spared me a sympathetic glance. Then we were at the desk and the moment of short men solidarity was over.
“What have we got?” Teresa asked.
Lincoln Wu looked up from the computer station, which he appeared to be in charge of. Apparently he had gotten some new clearances, a lot had been going on in the office in the last week or so and I was keeping up with less than half of it. “The National Guard in Indiana sent us this about two hours ago. Records is working overtime and the Watch has been pulled in, too, since censoring the news is less of a thing now, but we’re still having a hard time keeping up with all the tips and reports coming in so it got lost in the slush pile somewhere.”
He pulled up a new window and hammered a few shortcut keys, flicking through menus at a near-epileptic pace. A couple of seconds later we were looking at grainy image of a densely forested area.
“This is the Chain o’ Rivers State Park in southern Indiana. It’s a hiking and camping kind of a place and, until last year you could even go canoeing through the rivers.” Jack grabbed a sheet of paper that had a map, presumably of the park, printed on it and handed it to me as he went on. “The problem is there’s no one route, they can be like a maze at some points and people have gotten lost before, sometimes for a day or more. It was decided to add some markers and close off certain parts of the river, to help keep people safe. The canoeing was closed while the work was being done.”
Darryl picked up the story at that point. “Last week a cop who was there on vacation spotted some really heavy equipment being trucked through some of the maintenance roads. Concrete mixers, a small backhoe, not the stuff you expect to see in a State Park. Being outside of his jurisdiction and not wanting trouble, he called it in to the DNR. They sent in a couple of agents to look into it.”
“No one’s heard from them in three days. Things get a little murkier after that but the Guard got involved at some point,” Jack said, gesturing back to the computer screen. “So they asked for some satellite images and this is what they found.”
I leaned in for a closer look. “Okay, I’ll bite. What did they find?”
“These,” Lincoln said, zooming in on the lower right corner of the image. Now I could make out a strange boxy thing nestled in under the branches of a large tree on the bank of the river. A dark line ran out into the water.
“Is that a tree branch?” Voorman asked.
“We think it’s some kind of makeshift dam,” Darryl replied. “You remember what that girl Amplifier was tracking when we first ran into her?”
“A stolen prototype for a hydroelectric generator,” Teresa said. “One that would function even with very shallow water at high efficiency. Stolen by Circuit.”
“And look.” Lincoln hit another shortcut key, cycling quickly through at least a dozen other images. “They’ve found at least fifteen of them scattered through the park. There might be more, better hidden. Then there’s this.”
The last image was of an honest to goodness concrete dam. Jack tapped a knuckle against it. “That looks to have been built sometime in the last month, probably finished about the time our cop was visiting the park. It’s caused a lot of flooding but so far nothing in the public areas. The Guard didn’t want more people going in and not coming back out so they decided to send a drone to investigate.”
“I’ll be the FAA was thrilled with that,” I muttered.
“Not sure they’ve found out,” Jack replied. “Show them the footage.”
Lincoln cued up a video that gave us a bird’s eye view of the area around the park. As in, it actually dipped and swooped like a bird, it was pretty nauseating actually. I have no idea how the people who operate drones put up with it. The footage went on for about ten seconds before suddenly cutting out to static, then the words SIGNAL LOST came up on a black background. Samson grunted in surprise. “What happened?”
“Show them the satellite footage,” Darryl said mildly.
“Right.” Lincoln sounded a bit sheepish but did as he was told without further comment.
This time the satellite was focused on the drone so the terrain around it was pretty much a blur. But then the miniature aircraft came to a sudden stop and started to fall. Lincoln froze the frame before it went far and zoomed in. A gray blob was shooting through the bottom half of the frame, obviously moving pretty fast.
“There was a big blast of static at the time the drone’s signal was lost. It could be explained any number of ways, but smart money says this,” Darryl pointed at the blur, “is some kind of EMP device launched from the ground and set of to fry our machines.”
“Definitely Circuit,” I said. “I don’t know what he’s doing all the way out there but I don’t care so long as we can shut him down and drag him in.”
Teresa glanced at me, then over at Darryl. “What does the National Guard think of all this?”
“They were thinking it was a terrorist plot to take over a Park and poison the water supply. There’s a squadron of A-10 Warthogs based in Fort Wayne that they were planning to mobilize as part of an operation to storm the park and round up anyone present. Then the news about talents went public and local field offices started circulating information on Circuit’s case and they came to us.”
“So when do we go in?” Teresa asked.
“Actually, they just want us to send an advisor. They still plan to run their op, they just want someone from the Project to ‘look for unanticipated complications’ and suggest adjustments.” Jack’s tone of voice told me he thought that wasn’t going to be enough. By several orders of magnitude.
I felt my own eyes narrowing at the thought of just handing this job over to a bunch of soldiers and sitting in an office while other people dragged Circuit out of his watery little hideyhole. I glanced from Darryl to Voorman. “What do you gentlemen say we go and explain to the Guard the errors of their ways?”
Darryl rubbed his hands together and picked up his cane. “I’ll go get my team.”
I glanced at Voorman and Samson. “That’s the Secret Service spoken for.”
Samson shrugged. “Who knows that our position is not for such a time as this?”
That got a grin from me. “Okay, Mordecai, get your bags packed, time’s a wasting!”
“Wait.” Lincoln gave me a confused look. “I thought his codename was Samson.”
Samson laughed. “At least he didn’t call me Sam. Or Esther.”
“Then I’ll do it, Sam.” Voorman gave his partner and I a grim look. “You two need to calm down. We can’t take this op from them by force and we don’t have the standing to demand they turn it over to us. The National Guard isn’t going to give up on running their own plan unless we can bring them a better one, and they’re not going to let us execute our plan unless we give them a good reason why they’re not qualified to carry out that plan themselves.”
“Fair points,” Teresa said with a smile. “But we have the world’s foremost expert on Open Circuit to draw on so that should be easy to do.”
I frowned. “Darryl did work a lot of the early cases with me, but he had moved to Analysis chief before most of the really heavy stuff happened. This is Amber’s first time working a Circuit case, and Mossburger and Mov-“
“Big guy,” Jack interrupted. “She’s talking about you. Not the getmen.”
“Oh.” I stared blankly at him, then Teresa. “Me?”
“Yes,” she said slowly. “You. In eight years you’ve worked twelve cases involving Circuit, out of seventeen attributed to him in one way or another. And that doesn’t include whatever it was the CIA asked you to do in Morocco a couple years back. No one knows him like you.”
I swallowed once, hard. “I guess not.”
Jack grinned. “Then I guess you’d better get to work putting together a plan for us.”
“Yeah.” I’d never been in a position where I had to put a plan together before. But as soon as Jack said it I realized it was Circuit we were going after all the pieces just slid into place. “Actually, scratch that. We’ve got a plan. I just need to get Darryl back and make sure he’s on board…”Fiction Index Previous Chapter Next Chapter