I really should stop listening when people tell me something is worth a shot. And by people, I mean Jane. She has this idea that just because I’ve never used my ability to smash anything for kicks I’m repressed. I don’t understand why she seems to think smashing things is going to be such a productive route to solving so many problems.
But let me back up here. We went to visit Al’s friend, Lincoln He, who is the nephew of Al’s wushu instructor, as a part of our patrol. That meant going into the outskirts of Chinatown.
Now I have nothing against Chinatown or the He family but I swear it has the highest concentration of shops per city block anywhere in the U.S. They come in individual stores, strip malls and quaint little plazas with fancy Oriental gates, and in every other possible arrangement you can think of short of actual shopping malls. A surprising number of these storekeepers live on top of or behind their shops but most of the newer shopping centers have done away with that old time convention.
Lincoln He doesn’t live in one of those newer shopping centers.
He lives on a little plaza with oriental looking storefronts facing in on a nice courtyard with waist high red pots and planters holding live plants and bushes, a worn wooden railing marking a walkway around the outside and, at least at the time we arrived, a half a dozen people poking through the stores with crowbars. That last part was not a typical feature of the shopping center, which I guessed from the way Al reacted when he saw them.
We had six people with weapons, mostly crowbars or baseball bats with one tire iron mixed in to switch things up a bit. They were all male, which wasn’t really surprising, and they were in the process of trying to pry through one of those folding metal security doors at the front of a shop when we walked into the courtyard. Other than a little vandalism that ruined perfectly good trees I didn’t see an signs of long term harm done yet.
“Hey!” Al called, reaching into his back pocket for his ID, “Put down you weapons and step away from the door.”
“Who’s that?” I heard one of the thugs ask his friends. The general consensus was that they didn’t know and they didn’t care. In their defense, the three of us were all dressed in T-shirts and jeans or, in Jane’s case, cargo pants so we didn’t exactly look intimidating.
At least, until thug number one stepped up to give Al a shove and wound up coming to an almost comical dead stop as Al diverted the force of the push into the ground at his feet. Thug one started to back off a step, maybe to bring his baseball bat into play, but Al turned the move into a takedown, rolling his opponent back while tripping him with one foot and letting him slam flat on his back with an added shove’s worth of momentum.
Things turned hectic after that.
For the first few seconds of the fight my contributions consisted of taking one of the other would-be looters and turning his crowbar into a set of impromptu handcuffs. That took the fight out of him and gave me enough time to get my bearings – a lot happens in a fight in just a few seconds but, at the same time, if I’d accidentally broken the man’s wrists while tying him up because I wasn’t paying attention I’d have been in all kinds of trouble with Al. Not to mention Helix.
Stunned boy was back on his feet but leaning on his bat for the moment. Al was going three on one with most of the remaining thugs while Jane was holding the tire iron and gleefully stomping on her opponent’s toes to keep him off balance. Since none of the thugs were using bladed weapons, which could actually hurt Al since cutting and whacking apparently aren’t the same thing from a physics standpoint, I grabbed Jane’s dance partner by the belt and dropped low, using leverage to swing him around into an underhanded toss into thug one, who was still disoriented and went back down flailing and shouting under his partner in crime.
At that point it should have just been mopping up except it turned out our friends had friends. Friends with guns.
Another three guys, each with some kind of handgun, chose that moment to come running into the plaza, shouting in an attempt to figure out what was wrong and clearly demonstrating why one of the first things you learn to do in just about any kind of tactical training program is communicate clearly. I had no idea what they were actually saying but guns are a problem for just about everyone. Even Al couldn’t move around freely under steady gunfire.
Jane saw them too and came up with a solution first. She pointed to one of the large planters, about eight feet long and two wide, and said, “Stack and shove!”
“Can you tank the recoil?” I asked.
“It’s worth a shot!”
Okay it’s time for a quick explanation of how my talent works. Papa and I are taxmen, a name that was coined because we supposedly levy a tax on entropy. In a nutshell everything you do takes energy and most of that energy is wasted as entropy. When a taxman like me is around we take a small portion of that energy and store it for later use. The name is genderally pejorative because it was coined in the late 1920s.
Now that idea sounds really simple in principle because it is. Dr. Higgins, one of the guys Project Sumter has been been working with to build a better picture of how talents work, has this huge mathematic equation that lets you figure out exactly how much energy we steal in a given situation but we never use it. You see, we can sense that waste.
Don’t ask how I can sense an abstract law of physics at work. I spent an hour trying to explain it to Dr. Higgins and we both wound up confused. That’s how it usually works when somebody tries to explain their talent to someone who doesn’t share it.
What’s important here is that we know when entropy is happening, we feel it as it makes us stronger and we know how much power we have from it to use. What we don’t do is project it like it’s some kind of mystical energy or a forcefield or something. We exploit loopholes in physics, we don’t break them. I can punch a car and fling it across a parking lot but only if I can somehow brace myself against that equal and opposite reaction people like to talk about in Einstein voices. Otherwise the car just rocks on its suspension and I fly back into whatever’s behind me.
This is a big part of the reason why Massif is my combat instructor. Wushu is a martial art that’s largely about positioning the self to best direct force and he has taught me more ways to effectively use my talent in the last year than papa learned in nearly ten years working for the Project. What he hadn’t let me do is apply any of that knowledge. I don’t have a feel for my strength yet, as he puts it. and so he’d been leery about my trying anything he’d taught me on someone who was less than moderately indestructible.
But Jane is part of a moderately indestructible group of people and working together as much as we had in the past year we’d discovered that her ability to trap incoming force let her brace me when I really needed to move something.
The planter was way to heavy for me to do anything but maybe pick it up and throw it. Problem was that would keep me stuck in one place long enough I was likely to get shot in the process. So instead Jane and I lined up one side of the planter, Jane bracing me as I gave the planter a hard shove. Since she’s a vector trap, Jane was able to take all that equal and opposite reaction and store it for later use. I got a really solid shove on the planter and it went towards the guys with guns like I wanted.
Unfortunately, as Al says, I don’t know my own strength. I’d never done something like that before.
I way overshot the mark. Instead of sliding the planter along the ground and clipping the newcomers with it; the thing rolled over once and flipped up a good fifteen feet in the air, scattering dirt and plants across the courtyard in a bizarre reversal of rain. The three new guys threw their hands over their heads as the cloud of dirt and plants fell on them, one was taken out by a small bush landing on his head the other two dropped their guns as they wiped furiously at their eyes and spat dirt from their mouths. The planter crashed to the ground behind them and rolled straight over the decorative gate, sending it careening into the street beyond in splinters.
Behind me, Jane stumbled and fell back on the ground, the pavement beneath her shattering as she lost her grip on the forces she’d just absorbed and it went careening through the ground as she landed. Clearly she hadn’t been as ready to handle the recoil as she’d thought.
The two thugs left fighting with Al saw all that and decided that dropping their weapons like they’d been told was the better part of valor. As for our unarmed combat instructor, he let the thug he’d been grappling with out of the hold he’d been in and shoved him away with a sigh. Then he folded his arm behind his back and surveyed the scene, trying to look harsh but a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
That was when we heard Lincoln yelling from across the courtyard, “What are you kids doing on my lawn?”
We’d just about reached the halfway point of our look around town when we spotted the bodies.
I confess to having the stupid thought, about two minutes before we stumbled on them, that we were going to have a really simple time of it. Everything had been going so well.
Gearshift looked like a natural for field work – he paid attention, he pointed out anything he thought looked odd right down to the unmarked white van we passed a few blocks from the concert venue – which Teresa photographed with her phone in case we needed to run the plates – and he kept his mouth shut the rest of the time. I remembered him as a headstrong, stubborn kind of a guy from our first meeting a couple of years back but I guess field training had steadied him some.
Of course a fog bank like him could easily kill himself if he did something stupid like trying to walk through the load bearing wall of a building and causing it to fall on himself. It was a sobering revelation and news to most of the living ones we found.
There weren’t even that many people out on the streets. Most of the city seemed to have settled in to wait out the power outage. It wasn’t that we didn’t see people, there were a fair number out on the porches or decks of the houses we passed, but they didn’t seem interested in going anywhere.
But several blocks on the houses gave way to an apartment building and beyond that a small strip mall. There was a drug store, a grocery, a hole in the wall restaurant and an electronics store advertising cheap smartphones. There were nine people lined up under the big window of the electronics shop, all seated with their back to the building, heads propped up on their knees and with hands seemingly at their sides. The store window behind them was broken.
One of the best parts of weird experiences is that, even when your job is dealing with them, they’re still new and exciting every time.
This is also one of the worst parts about them.
A glance at Teresa confirmed she was thinking along the same lines as I was. Gearshift just waited for me to give him a signal. After a moment’s thought I didn’t see anything for it but to wave them forward.
We spread out a bit so we’d have room to move if we needed to and Teresa produced a sidearm from a holster at the small of her back, hidden under her loose fitting shirt. Gearshift looked a bit surprised to see it but he shouldn’t have. I’d come to realize that her battered, thrift store purchased T-shirt and cargo shorts, both of which looked like they came out of the men’s section, were just another expression of a deep seated pragmatism that came from a childhood spent living at or near the poverty line. That pragmatism didn’t let her spend more than a few dollars on clothes unless she had to and it didn’t let her walk around the city with herself or her friends unprotected.
In this case, though, we didn’t really need much protecting. There was some stray glass on the ground but the eight men and one woman we found weren’t really that much of a threat. They were all unconscious with their hands handcuffed behind their backs. A couple of crowbars and a baseball bat lying on the ground or leaning against the broken windowsill gave a pretty clear picture of why those people had come there.
I gave one of the sleeping men a poke with my toe, just to see what would happen. He didn’t even groan. I had to lean in close enough to hear him breathing before I was sure he was alive. A glance through what was left of the window confirmed that there wasn’t anyone on that side of it and it didn’t look like anything had been taken. Teresa stood on the other end of the line of people, giving her a better view of the interior of the shop through the window. “It doesn’t look like there’s anyone there,” she reported after a moment. “What do you think happened?”
“Looks like vigilantes,” Gearshift said with contempt I found ironic, given that’s what he’d been when we first met. He trotted up to the wall, his feet sending tiny ripples through the sidewalk as his density increased to the point where matter around him was nearly a liquid in comparison. He gave me a look and jerked his head at the wall. Did I want him to go through it and get a better look inside?
I was about to make my answer when the TV in the store window switched on and said, “I’m very flattered to hear that you think so, Agent Gearshift.”
Teresa snapped her gun up and trained it on the TV while Gearshift just jerked back from the wall like it had burned him. I held still. There was no way the man on the screen was anywhere near close enough for my moving to matter, one way or another. Either we were already in a trap or we weren’t.
The TV showed a slightly grainy view of a man sitting in a leather desk chair in front of a row of floor to ceiling windows that gave a stunning view of the city. Most of the visible skyline was dark but I could make out the lights of civilization out in the suburbs and the more remote patches of the Lake Michigan shoreline. The man in the chair concealed his face with a fedora pulled low over a long scarf, wound around his face like a mask. He was dressed in a pinstripe vest and pants, a plain white dress shirt and a mess of wires and reinforced electronic gear that spilled off his belt and vambraces onto the chair he was seated in and most of the visible floor around him.
A closer look at the TV let me spot a small camera attached to one of the corners and pointed at us. I narrowed my eyes and addressed it, not the screen. “Hello, Circuit.”
“Double Helix.” The man leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his stomach. “It has been far to long. Welcome to my city.”Fiction Index Previous Chapter Next Chapter