Thunder Clap: Burning Questions

Helix

The room was total blackness but the one bright spot, so to speak, was that Sumter had an agent on the scene who didn’t need the electricity on to make herself heard. Almost as soon as the lights went out Amp was saying, “Sorry about that, people. Some kind of glitch, probably. Give us a few seconds and I’m sure the backup generator will kick in.”

The last word was barely out of her mouth when sure enough dim emergency lights flicked on around the hall and you could see your hand in front of your face again. I’m sure there were exit signs and the like on the same loop that had been on the whole time but when you’re only five foot three and in a crowd it can be hard to tell these things.

People in the crowd were milling and muttering – really, talking pretty loudly since it was a rock concert and eardrums were probably numb by now – but I’d spotted something during the two or three seconds of blackout that bothered me. The hair on the back of my neck was starting to prickle with that weird kind of sixth sense that I never believed in until I started doing law enforcement work. The feeling that there was something out in the world that was very, very wrong and was about to drop in my lap. “Samson!”

I looked around but there was a lot of noise and no sign of the strong man at the moment so I doubted he’d heard me. Teresa gave me a curious look and tried to say something over the crowd noise, gave up, then pointed off to my right. I glanced over and saw Isabella Rodriguez about ten feet over, watching the crowd around her a little nervously. Massif and Cheryl were there, too. Between the dark, the noise and the general confusion I figured it was faster to push our way over to them and set out to do so. In the end it still took almost two minutes of shoving and grunting to make it over to them.

“Crazy night, Helix,” Massif said, adjusting his position slightly. He was keeping his back to the stage at the moment, blocking the ladies from most of the press of the crowd. We were pretty far back so there wasn’t that much of a crowd, not like the front, and there was only one of him so I had might doubts about how effective he was being, but I didn’t see any reason to say anything about it.

So instead I said, “Crazy’s a good word for it. Izzy, I need to know if you can handle something for me.”

“Me?” Izzy’s voice came out as a squeak, which was funny since she was the second biggest person there. Not that she’s overweight or anything but, just like her dad, she’s got a broad build and really looks like she could be an Olympic athlete of some sort, provided the Olympics didn’t pass the ban on talents they had been discussing when I last heard. In terms of weight she’s probably just a little over average for her nearly six foot height, and that just because taxmen like her pack on a lot of muscle mass, even if it has nothing to do with how their ability works.

“You. I just need to know if you think you’re capable of something. See that catwalk?” I pointed up about two stories over our head where the lighting rig for the venue was. “I want to know if you think you can jump up there and run to the windows, take a look outside.”

Cheryl waved her had to get my attention over the crowd noise. “Sorry if I’m just the out of the loop office assistant here,” she said once I nodded at her. “But couldn’t we just go outside?”

“Not doing that is the point of the exercise,” I confirmed, turning my attention back to Izzy. “Can you make the jump? More importantly, can you stick the landing if you go up there? You might survive landing on someone if you fell but I don’t think they would.”

“No, that would probably be bad,” she agreed. “But I think I could make it. Want to give me some idea what I’m looking for out there?”

“I want to know if the whole block is out of power or if it’s just us. And keep your head down, we may be under surveillance. Amp?”

There was a moment of silence as I waited for our wave maker to answer and our little group spent most of it staring at me like I’d grown a new head. Finally, Teresa said, “Which are you expecting to find?”

“Either one’s bad,” I said, “but looking out the windows when the power was out I didn’t see any ambient light. That’s not good. This is one of the biggest cities in America. The streets never get that dark. Amp?”

“Just a second Helix.” Amp’s voice was being thrown, via another useful application of her talent, from where she stood on the side of the stage, standing with the rest of her band and some of the stage crew. “Staff might want me to make an announcement.”

“Wait.” I held up a hand to stall Massif and Izzy, who were starting to look over the scaffolding for a good landing point. After all that time working covertly, and with virtual superpowers to boot, I tended to overlook obvious solutions. “Amp, does the staff know what caused the power outage?”

“Checking.” I rocked back and forth on my feet as I impatiently waited for the answer. “Okay, the stage manager says they looked out the loading dock and at least this street is down, from the looks of things possibly the entire block.”

I nodded even though there was no way Amp could pick me out of the crowd. “Tell him we’d like to keep the people in here for a while, if that’s okay with them, then find Samson and have him meet us back stage. Bring Movsessian and Gearshift with you.”

Massif shot me a look and motioned toward the stage entrance, asking if he should start towards it. I nodded and the big man started half walking, half swimming through the crowd with slow and deliberate steps and gentle sweeping motions of his arms. The rest of us fell in behind him, taking advantage of the trail he’d broken as best we could.

As we made our way slowly through the crowd Teresa leaned down distractingly close and asked, “So why was that important to know? And why did you want the people kept here?”

“Just… precautions.”

“Right.” She was quiet for a second but didn’t back away. “You know, these concerts are not exactly unpublicized. If someone wanted to cause Project Sumter trouble this would be a really easy way to do it. I’m kind of surprised they don’t have more security.”

“We didn’t want to paint a target on it.” I started to shrug, then stopped when I nearly clipped her in the jaw. “Besides, so far no one’s broken any of the old rules from before we were outed. Why start now?”

“Because criminals are always breaking rules, so what’s one more? Because maybe they just hadn’t found the right time to?” She hesitated a moment, as if afraid to give voice to what we both knew we were thinking. “Because no one’s heard from Open Circuit in two years and as far as anyone knows he still hates our guts.”

“Hate is probably the wrong word for it. I’m not sure what it is Circuit feels about us. Contempt, maybe. But otherwise, yes, all those reasons had occurred to me.” The old rules were all common sense stuff, at least for anyone who actually knew how the game was played. The glass cannon rule, for example, basically meant that since almost all talents are just as easy to kill as most people, but many of our abilities can be used to kill someone fairly easily so if we set our minds to it we could kill ourselves off pretty quickly. So by unspoken agreement talents had avoided killing each other, or anyone else, with our abilities directly.

Another rule was, much like agents in the Cold War, we didn’t attack each other when we were “off the job” at home or just out on the town. In part that was to help maintain secrecy but also it was just another way to try and avoid a bloodbath. But, for someone like Circuit who ultimately aimed for governmental overthrow, that particular motivation might not have as much force.

When he had set out to make the world at large aware of our existence by going on a spree of increasingly violent robberies across the Midwest, ending in a secretly constructed bunker hidden in a state park where he’d been doing something we’d never quite figured out. Where before he’d scrupulously followed all the unwritten rules during those couple of months he and the surprisingly well equipped criminal organization following him had pulled no punches and left more than a few people maimed or dead. Why should the other rules have any more hold on him?

We’d smashed his center of operations for his last gambit but he’d escaped and evaded all attempts at detection. It was more than time for him to show up again and the fact that he’d been gone so long had me more than a little spooked.

And I was not only the agent who had spent the most time working to apprehend Circuit. I was also the leader of the taskforce that was technically supposed to be working at bringing him in, making me a natural target for him for a number of reasons personal and professional. But we’d had no leads on that front in almost six months and no useful leads in over a year. A part of me had thought he might be gone for good.

One could dream, anyways.

“Do you think this could be him?” Teresa asked.

“Honestly don’t know. But I don’t believe in coincidence and we are right here in the middle of the problem.” I glanced back at her. “What do you think?”

“I was hoping you had a clear idea,” she admitted. “He’s been almost half your career.”

There really wasn’t anything more to say after that.

Amplifier started making another announcement just as we got to the stage door. By the time we’d wrestled our way the last few feet and gotten backstage she was almost done and had rejoined the band and what I presumed to be the stage manager off in the wings by the loading dock. Everyone but Samson was backstage by that point, giving me a roster of myself, Teresa, Massif, Amplifier, Movsessian and eventually Samson to work with in terms of trained field agents plus Gearshift, Izzy and Cheryl as people who knew a fair bit about the job but didn’t have certification. And then there was Jane Hammer, technically a criminal on probation and something of a wild card.

“Okay, here’s the way I see things,” I said, gathering my little circle of agents around me like a football coach. “The power’s out in at least part of the city and it’s not because of weather. Temperature outside is even so we’re not going to have much wind or rain. That leaves some kind of glitch at the level of regional knocking out power to the grid or a deliberate attack on the power system. The first is kind of bad, the second is terrible. Anyone have anything to add?”

Movsessian, the good little junior field analyst that he is, immediately jumped in. “The first thing I thought of when the power failed is bad weather so I tried to pull up my weather app but my phone has no signal. Neither does any other phone we could scare up back stage.”

I frowned and pulled my own cellphone out. It wasn’t a smart phone but it worked fine under most circumstances. But this wasn’t one of them. Just like everyone else’s, my phone was searching for service. I pushed the phone back into my pocket, that sinking feeling I’d had for the last ten minutes suddenly getting much worse. “Useful information. Of course that could just mean the outage is a lot more widespread than I’d thought, and the towers have lost power too…”

“Isn’t there usually a backup power supply for things like that?” Cheryl asked.

“As a rule of thumb, yes,” Movsessian replied. “And cell networks are very decentralized, so it would be a lot harder to knock out a whole chunk of it than for the power grid.”

“Or this could just be a local outage cause by secondary complications from the power outage,” Teresa said. “But I think we’re straying from the point.”

“Right. Well and good.” I held up my hands and tried to get them to refocus. “What’s our biggest problem right now?”

“Looters,” Samson said, joining our circle. “Somebody, somewhere is going to see this as a chance to get free stuff off of stores with no power and bad security.”

I nodded. “My concern exactly. So we’re going to go out, we’re going to stomp on some ruffians right proper and scout out around here for a couple of city blocks, learn what we can about the situation and head back here. Any of you know this neighborhood well?”

“I grew up a few blocks from here,” Massif said immediately. “Also, Lincoln He lives six blocks away. He knows every building on ever street within a mile of his family place. Could be useful.”

“Okay. Samson, Massif and I will each head up a team. We go out, we look around, we deal with any looting we find in the most controlled way possible.” Teresa made a sound a halfway between laugh and choke. I ignored it. “Massif goes and gets Lincoln so we have another person who knows the territory well on hand. We come back here and compare notes. Amp, with no phones-”

“I can’t play relay across more than a city block, Helix,” she said, shaking her head. “The buildings and the concrete ruin the acoustics. It’s just not going to work. Sorry.”

“Then we go without, I guess.” I didn’t like being out of touch but there was only so much we could do with the situation and I really needed a better feel for the situation than we could get by staying at the venue, especially with no cellphones to work with. “Our teams are Samson with Amplifier and Movsessian, Massif with Jane and Izzy and I’ll go with Teresa and Gearshift. Cheryl, hold the fort and, in the off chance any kind of cops or Project agents show up identify yourself and try to keep them here. If you can’t at least tell them we’re coming back here and try to get all the information you can out of them, what’s going on, what the scale of the problem is, what the responders are doing about it. Questions?”

There were none. “Then let’s get to it. Be back here in no more than ninety minutes, preferably an hour.”

——-

There weren’t any questions but that’s not the same thing as there being no objections. I knew there was at least one of those and I also knew that Samson was enough of a pro not to protest my team assignments in front of the others. He came and found me as we broke up after a cramped, uncomfortable few minutes around Movsessian’s phone, which apparently still had access to maps even if it didn’t have service, plotting out what ground each of our small teams would cover.

“I know what you want to say,” I said, ignoring the instinct to cower in front of the much, much larger man. Not for the first time I wondered how our old regional manager, known at the time as the Senior Special Liaison, had dealt with Samson all those years considering he was an even shorter man than I was. With a good eight inches and at least ninety pounds on me, Samson could loom like a hurricane over Florida. But grandpa had been just as unusually strong and a touch taller to boot. Besides, Samson was far more level headed than most lawmen you worked with in my line of work, myself included. He was only physically intimidating and I’d gotten over that long ago. “You don’t like the way the teams are set up and you want to go with your daughter.”

“That’s right,” Samson said. It looked like there was more trying to force it’s way out but he managed to wait and hear what I had to say, which I appreciated.

“No.” He was starting to loose the war against whatever he wanted to say so I hurried on. “First, I need an experienced field agent to lead each of these teams. Al is the Training Agent for both Jane and Izzy. He knows their capabilities best, they’ve worked with him most. And besides it’s bad form for me to assign them to someone else when he’s right there. I don’t have enough people to work with here to cut anyone else loose for his team. Not to say anything about how having your daughter on your team could impair your judgement and endanger you, her, whoever else would be on your team and the civilians around you.”

Samson worked his jaw around slowly and then rubbed his hand across his mouth, unconsciously mussing up then smoothing out his neatly trimmed moustache. “I just want my daughter to be safe.”

“I understand.” Actually, I didn’t but we at the Project have worked very hard to develop better people skills since we became a publicly acknowledged arm of the government and sometimes that means faking empathy. “But if I could ask, why did you let her sign up for field work when her actually doing it makes you so nervous?”

“I didn’t want her to but when they work together she and her mother can be quite persuasive.”

I put a hand on his arm. His shoulder might have been more comforting but I’m sure the image of me on my tiptoes would have been counter productive. “Look, Al Massif is the best there is when it comes to keeping people safe. You just look after yourself, okay? There’s always a chance this is just a colossal screw-up by the utilities people.”

Samson gave me a biting look. “Helix, men of faith believe because of their faith bears fruit in their lives, not because someone spins them fairy tales.”

“Well, it was worth a shot…”

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