Heat Wave: System Shutdown

Circuit

According to my research, a diggle is a small, yellowish, subterranean birdlike creature that burrows around using it’s rubbery nasal appendage. Ornithologists consider it to be among the worst minions ever. Of course, like most words in the English language, diggle has multiple meanings. However, of all the available options, I was pretty sure this was the one I wanted. Comic book authors and small villages in England are not usually turned into plush toys, after all.

I’m not sure if there was some kind of meaning in Hangman choosing to bring a stuffed diggle toy to our meeting as his signal for how I should recognize him. It was set a couple of days before the end of my disastrous operation at H.S. 44 so choosing the world’s worst minion probably wasn’t some kind of commentary on how badly that had gone. That left the possibilities that it was a comment on my abilities in general, my organization or some kind of inside joke.

With Hangman I’ve never been quite sure where the games end and the real business begins.

So it was that, four days after making myself one of the most wanted men in America, I found myself strolling through Millennium Park, looking for a drill-nosed plushie. The life of a professional supervillian is not always satisfying but it is guaranteed to be bizarre.

As you might expect, Millennium Park was conceived of by the city fathers around the beginning of the millennium, on the assumption that the people of the city might like to see some small part of the exorbitant taxes and fees that came with dwelling in its limits devoted to the construction of giant, reflective, stainless steel coffee bean sculptures. It is but one example of why one of the first things I intend do when I establish my new order is to have all city planners rounded up and exiled to a small island off the New England coast. The handful of people who haven’t starved in five years may prove useful.

Since another one of the park’s many features are large waterfalls with TV screens behind them that display eight to ten foot tall images of nearby people taken by hidden cameras, I elected to confine myself to the outdoor amphitheater and many walking paths, and avoid that area altogether. Hangman also comes from a profession that tries to avoid the public eye so I wasn’t really expecting to find him there.

And I was right. In fact, I spotted the stuffed animal I was looking for sitting next to a small, artificial stream that ran down one side of the gardens. It was perched next to a young woman, in her early or mid twenties I guessed, sitting on a board walk and dangling her feet in the water. The diggle was standing sentinel over a pair of flip-flops and the woman was wearing a red tank top and Capris. A messenger bag sat open beside her, revealing a couple of notebooks of the spiral bound variety and a lot of the random detritus that accumulates in student’s pockets and carryalls. She didn’t look much like an electronic information broker who’s services were in demand the world over.

That was my first clue I had the right person, and there weren’t simply two people with a strange preference in plush toys in the park that day. The second was her hair. As I got closer I could see that, rather than being cut in a short bob as it had first appeared, her pale brown hair was actually tied into a loose pony tail and pulled over one shoulder. Rather than an elastic hairband, she’d used a piece of string tied in a hangman’s noose.

I’d managed to get close to her without drawing her attention but as soon as my shadow fell over her shoulder she glanced up. I rested both hands on the silver topped cane I’d brought with me, the upside down power symbol engraved at the base of the handle serving to confirm my own identity, and gave her a more critical look. There was a quick intelligence in those eyes and a slightly pinched cast to her mouth, but otherwise a pleasant face. It seemed vaguely familiar, like I’d met her somewhere but hadn’t bothered to try and remember her name. She seemed to be regarding me with the same evaluating gaze.

Finally, I indicated the boardwalk next to her with the end of my cane and said, “Is this seat taken?”

“Not until you arrived,” she said. “But we don’t have to talk here, Circuit.”

“No, this is fine. I don’t want to look like I’m propositioning someone in broad daylight.” She giggled lightly, whether at the popping sound my knees made as I knelt down or the idea of me propositioning someone, I wasn’t sure. Absently I rubbed at one knee through a pinstripe pant leg and said, “I do feel overdressed, but there’s nothing I can do about that now.”

“You’re very dignified, but not exactly dressed for dangling your feet in the water,” she admitted. Her voice was surprisingly deep, I suspected that if she wanted to she could make herself heard from the other side of the park.

I smoothed my dress shirt down and got settled. The boardwalk was just far enough below the ground level of the rest of the park that I could rest my feet on it comfortably. “I wouldn’t want to, either way. I’m afraid I have a number of rather nasty blisters from my last few days activity and they’re best kept out of sight.”

“Vain, are we?” She grinned and playfully kicked a little water at me, prompting me to heft my cane up and lay it to one side where her diggle could keep an eye on it.

“Let’s not get the electronics wet, shall we?” I said, ignoring her dig. “There’s a small fortune in lithium-ion batteries in that, and I’d hate to have to replace one before it’s even seen use.”

“I apologize.” She pulled her feet up and tucked them under her, clambering up to sit beside me on the cement embankment. “Now, I believe you have an agreement to uphold. I want to know exactly what it is you plan to do with all the materials you’ve been gathering for the last eight months, and-”

“Actually, Hangman, what I’m here to do is resolve a problem.” I folded my arms over my chest and gave her my best frown, which oddly enough prompted her to smile. “You have become increasingly… involved in my activities over the last few months, to the point where you have come to have a more up to date knowledge of my activities and their consequences than anyone other than myself. Sometimes, it seems you even know more than me. A person of your intelligence surely realizes that makes you potentially very inconvenient.”

“Oh, of course I do, Circuit.” Hangman crossed one leg over the other, folded her hands and rested them on her knees. “I also realize that you give me enough credit to know you’re smart enough and ruthless enough to assume that the easiest way to deal with that inconvenience would be to kill me here and have done with it, so you mention this only to hear what steps I’ve taken to stay alive.”

I inclined my head in acknowledgement and she went on. “So I’ve arranged for files implicating you in my disappearance will be placed in the hands of my father by the end of the day today, unless I take steps to prevent it. I’ll not say much more than that, but you do see how that’s a problem for you, yes?”

“Your father?” I hesitated for just a second, and then I knew why she looked familiar. “Elizabeth Dawson.”

“A man of your capabilities can easily evade a small organization like Project Sumter, even if they were at Condition One, which, by the by, they are not. But if they’re not the only one’s looking for you then things get more complicated. As soon as you’re implicated in a mundane crime like kidnapping, one which you talent played no part in, the people looking for you will increase exponentially.” She began listing points on her fingers. “My father employs a private security firm that will want to find me as quickly as possible, if only to avoid bad PR. The FBI will be under a lot of pressure to find me, since I’m the daughter of a US Senator. Local and state police agencies all across the country will take up the case and there will be tips phoned in to hotlines from all over the country. The law of large numbers says that sooner or later someone is going to catch you.”

It took a great deal of willpower but I managed to resist the urge to grit my teeth. She was undoubtedly right in her assessment. If Hangman was telling the truth about having ways to inform Senator Dawson of what she’d been doing, and I had no reason to doubt her, then killing her would be the worst thing I could do. Even if I left at that moment without even bothering to try and threaten her into silence, I’d be better off than otherwise. Then at least she’d have to explain herself to her father and the Project, diverting manpower from chasing me, and it was unlikely that very many normal law enforcement agencies would bother to try find me afterwards.

“Very well played, Miss Dawson,” I said, gritting my teeth. “Now, tell me, other than keeping my reputation as a trustworthy business partner, what reasons do I have for explaining myself to you? Or, at the very least, for being honest about it.”

“Because you need me.” She held up a finger to forestall my coming objection. “Not merely because you don’t want me running free. If nothing else, the possibility that you’re responsible for my disappearance has to have occurred to someone by now, and that possibility makes direct action against you less appealing that it might be otherwise. The human shield factor, if you will. At the same time, Project Sumter will be under tremendous pressure to divert resources from searching for you to look for me.”

“Until they can prove that the two things are one and the same.” I shook my head. “No, I don’t see as that really offers me any tremendous advantages, Hangman.”

She gave an exasperated huff. “I wasn’t finished, Circuit. I also offer you something no one else you currently employ does.”

“You know, Hangman, I did do my own information gathering once upon a time. And there are other brokers out there, admittedly less well connected but also less meddlesome.” I did my best to match her nonchalant posture but it was a front. I liked this conversation less and less by the minute. Hangman had this planned out far too well. “What exactly can you offer me that my other employees do not?”

She smiled, at once charming and deeply disturbing. “Conviction.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Hangman leaned forward and dropped her voice dropped to a conspiratorial tone. “Ten years ago, my place as a digital information broker was filled by a hacker and cracker known as Hard Scrabble. In addition to selling information, Hard Scrabble was well known to the metahuman community, what Project Sumter would call ‘talented individuals’. If you noticed that you had unusual gifts and asked the right questions in the right places you’d be pointed to him and he’d do his best to figure out which talent you had and what was known about it.”

She paused for a moment, waiting to see if I had anything to add, but I just motioned for her to continue. “Hard Scrabble was around for about two and a half years before he was contacted by a water worker on the west coast. His brother and sister-in-law had just gone through some sort of falling out, possibly the trigger event that turned a normal African-American delivery driver into a serial killer called Lethal Injection-”

“He was always a sadist,” I interjected. “The worst ones are always the best at hiding it.”

“Well, either way Hard Scrabble didn’t like him much. Didn’t like him enough to enlist his brother and track him half way across the West Coast, inland and eventually to Phoenix, Arizona, where he cracked the Sky Harbor airport control systems and shut it down to prevent Lethal Injection from flying out of the city.” She straightened up and folded her arms over her chest. “And that’s when Hard Scrabble disappeared and Project Sumter started investigating a talent codenamed Open Circuit.”

For a moment my mind wandered far and away. I don’t think about those days much anymore. Sometimes I wonder why that is. “Things were simpler then. Fewer wireless connections, different security protocols, less need to go places in person.” I forcibly turned my attention back to the present. “I was young and foolish.”

Hangman laugh softly. “Having met you in person, I’d guess you were still older then than I am now.”

“So I was.” I plucked her plush toy off of the grass and gave it a once over. “At the very least, I had given up stuffed toys.”

“But never developed a fashion sense.”

I arched an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?”

She laughed again. “No one wears fedoras anymore unless they’re interested in the dodge bonus.”

“That statement is so nonsensical I’m going to pretend you didn’t say it,” I said, handing her the stuffed animal. “Scrabble didn’t refer to the board game, you know.”

“I guessed as much.” She set the diggle in her lap and rested one hand on its stomach. “But the reference had to be oblique or someone might make the association before I was ready.”

“Ready?”

She absently began kneading the plush in one hand. “Before Hard Scrabble disappeared entirely, and Open Circuit became the only identity you used, you left a message in some of your old venues.”

“The world has been lying to us for over a hundred years.” I said, recalling the message, more of a brief note than a manifesto, like I had written it yesterday. “It says we are all the same, and pounds us into it’s mold with a thousand merciless hammers. The nature of our education, entertainment, work and government all serve to make us like one another. But we are not. And the longer we pretend we are, the more tragedy there will be. We must change.”

“Brahms Dawson lives to be the opposite of everything you are.” She dropped her gaze down to her bare feet and idly dipped her toes into the water, as if that could wash away the guilt and revulsion she was obviously feeling. “When I was in junior high I had the opportunity to take advanced mathematics and basic computer programming. He wouldn’t let me. Said advanced course work sent the wrong message, arbitrarily made some people winners and others losers just because they were born with a knack for something.”

“So you learned on your own.” I nodded to myself. The idea sounded surprising to me, but I knew enough very smart people who had reasoned themselves into believing equally surprising things. For Hangman, junior high would have probably been about ten years ago, the same time I was starting to build my own reputation. “How long did that go on?”

A choked laugh. “Oh, until about three days ago. I was very, very good at it. Got my undergraduate degree in journalism. Haven’t touched a computer science course in all my life.”

“And are doubtless a better programmer for it.”

“I was never going to be anything else. Certainly nothing he could be proud of. He’ll manage without me. I found him a replacement, a daughter who’s everything he expects. I’m a little worried about my mother, but she’s always been defined by what’s best for him. I’m done with that life.” She lifted her head and looked me in the eye. “You were right, Circuit. We must change. I can see that- I’ve lived that need, and I want it done. How many people working with you can say that?”

It was true. Simeon was incredibly competent and farsighted, but for all that I enjoyed his company he was still an employee. It was doubtful he would try and continue my work if I suddenly dropped dead. Heavy Water and Grappler had lived through Lethal Injection’s rampage and written it off as a part of life, like a drug addiction or a gang war. They had some sort of strange affection for me, but they rarely thought farther than the end of the next day. Changing society wasn’t even on their radar. Davis and the other engineers were just a means to an end, with little knowledge of what the end of all their work was going to be, much less why I wanted done.

For all the Enchanters and Double Helixes in my life sometimes it felt like my greatest enemy was the enormity of what needed to be done, and how alone I felt in trying to do it.

She was right. I needed someone who shared my conviction. And maybe Hangman was that person. “So,” she said. “Do we talk about how you intend to change things? Or was all that for show?”

“In fact, the next part is all show.” I collected my cane, clambered to my feet and held out my hand to her. “So it will make things a lot easier if I just give you a sneak preview. But first, you’re going to need a change of clothes. Something people who know you won’t recognize.”

Hangman picked up her bag and let me help her to her feet, slipping her sandals on in the same motion. Then she patted the side of her bag. “I bought two sets of clothes with cash from a Salvation Army store four blocks away. I just need a place to change and then I’ll be set to change the world.”

I smiled and offered her my arm, which she took, and led her out of the park. “You know, you almost make it sound like you plan to charge off and be a hero.”

“That’s not how you see it?”

“Heroes generally come from the other side of things,” I said. “If they’re allowed to, that is. And I rather think people like your father wouldn’t much care for one of those working with him.” Unless we gave him no choice. But I left that part out.

“Well, that’s true. Still, that really only leaves us the option of being villains.”

“Supervillains,” I said. “That first part is important. It’s why we get all the nice equipment, loosely defined working hours and ambitious pay scale.”

She gave me an amused glance. “Medical?”

“Only if you’re well connected, which fortunately I am. Trust me, the longer you do this, the more you’ll be convinced. Pretty much all the perks are on our side of the equation.” She laughed and began trying to worm some hint of where we were going out of me. I was glad for the change of subject.

It was surprising, really. Until she pointed it out to me, I’d never felt the need for someone who shared my views. I had never even thought there might be such a person and I was gratified that one had taken the time to find me and throw in. But at the same time I worried. Hangman was ready to take on the world now, young and foolish like I had once been. It was at once charming and disheartening. I couldn’t find it in myself to tell her then, although maybe I should have. For all the perks we supervillains have, there’s one we never get.

For us, there is no happy ending.

Heat Wave – Fin

Previous Chapter
Fiction Index
Advertisements

Heat Wave: Firebreak

Helix

I woke up in the back of an ambulance feeling like I’d just lost an epic, two hour Vale Tudo match with Bruce Lee. Or, at least, I was sore all over and I was pretty sure I’d been whacked by something the size of a freight liner. At the moment we weren’t moving and there wasn’t anyone in the back with me, so I obviously wasn’t in very bad shape. Sitting up was a chore but it didn’t really hurt as such. All I could feel a deeply seated ache in what felt like every joint of my body.

Once I was sitting up the next step was standing, which was more of the same except with the added fun of guessing whether my legs would hold up under my weight. They didn’t on the first two tries but the third time worked it’s usual magic and I managed to totter to the back of the ambulance and let myself down to the pavement.

The EMTs had parked about a block from the school, well beyond the point where the pavement had been ruined. There was a swarm of official looking vehicles scattered around, along with reporters, photographers, cameramen and members of the general public standing in an unruly fashion just beyond the police cordon. I couldn’t see anyone I recognized but I could hear Herrera’s voice around the front of the vehicle.

As I shuffled around the side of the vehicle I realized I wasn’t wearing shoes. That was a mixed bag. Shoes are generally uncomfortable cesspools of deadly fungus, but I was too tired  to pick my feet all the way up off the ground and the asphalt was prickly. Herrera was talking to a man who looked like an EMT but as soon as she spotted me coming along the side of the vehicle she broke off and turned to face me.

“Where are my shoes?” I demanded before she could say anything.

“They got stuck in the pavement when you melted it back into tar.” Herrera turned and waved back down the road towards the school building, where the blacktop rippled like a pond in a light wind. “Looks like they ripped right off your feet. Mossman thinks that’s why you were grounded enough to get struck by lighting.”

“I’d bet you twenty bucks that’s got nothing to do with it,” I snapped. “Where’s the Enchanter?”

“In custody. Voorman showed up with a couple of cold spikes on loan from somewhere to keep him from causing trouble until a properly cooled and insulated holding facility could be made available.” She waved back in the general direction of the school building. “Most of the rest of our people are scouring the building. We’ve already found a lot of surveillance equipment that we didn’t place there.”

“I’ll bet.” I sucked in a deep breath and asked, “Where’s Mona?”

A flicker of grief passed over Herrera’s face. Barely noticeable on most people. For her, a dangerous crack in the walls of professional calm and control she projected. “She’s dead, Helix. They couldn’t revive her.”

I slammed my fist on the side of the ambulance once. Some part of that made my legs buckle and I wound up sitting on the ground, leaning against the side of the vehicle. The Herrera and the EMT clustered around, peering down with concern. “Sir, you’ve taken quite a beating tonight,” the EMT said. “You need to take it easy. We’d like to keep you overnight for observation.”

“We were just about to send you off when you woke up,” Herrera added.

“That’s okay,” I said. “I know the magic words.” They exchanged a mystified glance. “I refuse treatment.”

She made an exasperated noise and shook her head. “Helix, you can play a macho man if you want but as your supervisor I can take you off this case until you’re cleared by a doctor. If they want to keep you overnight, they’re going to do it one way or another.”

“Herrera, you don’t need me to tell you how big of a mess this is. Just look at the street down there,” I tilted my head back towards the school, “and you’ll know. An up and coming agent like you can’t afford to be taking half measures right now, you need every hand you can get on this.”

She broke eye contact for just a second, a quick flick of the eyes down and to the side, but it was enough to warn me. “Then maybe we’ll have to take it slow on this one, Helix. There’s enough gone wrong here today, I’m not going to have you running around a major incident scene with a burn mark the size of a dinner plate in the back of your jacket. It’s not just the doctor’s orders, it’ll draw too much attention.”

That wasn’t the response I’d been expecting. An ambitious young talent overseer doesn’t sideline their star player unless a case is really moving slow. Whether things are falling in place or degenerating into a mess, we’re kept in the game. Usually, it takes interference from above or life threatening injuries to keep us off a case we’ve been assigned. Teresa Herrera was the epitome of an ambitious young talent overseer, to the point where I was considering having her picture put into the Project handbook’s entry on the subject.

She was spooked. Scared, even, and probably coping with a lot grief on top of it. Mona hadn’t been on her team, she was still a part of Sanders’ team. But as dangerous as the job is, you never expect to loose someone. I didn’t know if Herrera was just shaken by a death on the job or if she was afraid of letting me hare off and get hurt, shorting her a team member and making her look bad. Most likely it was a combination of the two. But whatever it was, she was making the wrong call. I waved a hand up at the EMT. “You. We’re about to discuss some classified stuff. Come back in about fifteen minutes and we’ll let you know what you’re doing.”

The EMT snorted. “Look, I know you’re from Wizard Central and all, but you’re still mortal. Don’t get a big head, listen to your boss.”

He was belligerent but he also left like I asked, so I wasn’t going to complain. The job does that to some people and they’re entitled. I gave Herrera a meaningful look and patted the ground next to me. “Have a seat. No sense looming up there, those interrogation techniques they teach you in training aren’t quite as effective when the other guy knows what you’re up to. That goes double if he’s used to everyone looming over him all the time regardless.”

She sighed and smoothed down the front of her pants before taking a seat on the ground, legs crossed Indian style. “Okay, I’ll bite. What exactly is so important that you can’t spare twenty-four hours for observation in a decent hospital?”

“Answer mine and I’ll answer yours. Why the sudden loss of enthusiasm? If I could pick ten people,” I held up my fingers and gave them a quick wiggle to make sure she was with me, “I’ve worked with over the years who I would expect to act cautiously under these circumstances you wouldn’t even make the short list.”

“Yeah. I guess I kind of give that impression, don’t I.” She absently tried to smooth away some of the wrinkles her bulletproof vest had left in her shirt. “Do you know why I wanted to join Project Sumter?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Truth, justice and the American way?”

“Ha. Not quite.” She brought her legs together, pulled them up and laced her hands over her knees. “Just truth, really. For a long time…” She trailed off and just stared at her hands for a moment. “My father was murdered and I was never told why. Not until I met the Dawsons and Brahms looked into a few things.”

“And found out your father was one of Lethal Injection’s victims.”

She jerked her head up and met my eyes. “You knew?”

In that moment I could see a scared young girl who had had her life ripped out from under her and still wasn’t quite sure what she was going to do with it nearly a decade after the fact. I silently cursed Michael Voorman, Robert Sanders, Senator Brahms Dawson and every single other politically minded leech I knew. They’d gotten me mixed up in their manipulative way of thinking when I should have stuck with my specialty. I could tell from minute one that Herrera had ghosts, and if I’d thought about it then it would be obvious that they were they key to her involvement with the Project, not some crazy scheme of the Senator’s.

Not that there wasn’t a scheme, but all signs pointed away from Herrera being involved. We should have had this conversation a week ago, and under better circumstances. I tried to give a reassuring smile, although I’m sure it fell flat, and said, “We have some of the best files in the world. And I was on that case, just like the rest of the Project from back then.”

“Right.” She looked back at her hands, drawing back into the shell of calm all those emotions hid behind. “We knew it would come out sooner or later. But Brahms thought I could establish enough of a track record to let me stay even if my background would normally be considered enough of a bias against talents to keep me out of field work.”

“Hence the aggressive pursuit of a high profile criminal talent for your first case.”

“Right again.”

“Huh.” I drummed my fingers against my leg. “But the Senator must have already known that the Lethal Injection case was closed. He probably even knew the outcome. Why the need to join the Project yourself?”

She shrugged. “For a long time I had no idea what really happened. And somehow that made it worse. I didn’t even hear that there was a suspect, much less that they’d caught him.”

“He actually died resisting arrest,” I put in quietly.

“I know, he ran across a busy street and was hit by a truck.” That wasn’t exactly what happened but I let it pass. “But for the longest time I didn’t know. And it hurt. I didn’t complain, I was ridiculously lucky in all the ways people helped me get my life together after that and it didn’t seem right. But I didn’t know.”

“Until the Senator told you.”

“It was freeing. You have no idea what it was like to finally know.” A small, rueful smile worked its way across her lips. “I wanted to join the Project because I thought people deserved to have that. That if I was a part of the organization that had left me in the dark all those years I could make sure it didn’t happen on my watch.”

I frowned and clenched up my stomach. I don’t like saying these things, but sometimes they need to be said. “Do you think Darryl Templeton doesn’t deserve the truth?”

The tinge of sadness came back into her voice. “He already knows all about talents. He has the connections to keep on top of the case as it develops. What more truth is there to tell?”

“Just this: When a man does an evil thing, he will be punished. Seeing justice prevail is more than our job. It’s truth, too.”

For a moment she was shocked out of her funk and managed to laugh weakly. “Helix, things aren’t that simple.”

I smiled back. “Sometimes they are.”

I’d totally misjudged her simple motives just because I expected things to be more complex. But too often the simple solution is undervalued. I should have known better. Simplicity is my specialty. “So. Why don’t I want to spend a night in the hospital for observation? For starters, the smell alone will make me more sick than I am now. Also, there are other factor. Are we at Condition One?”

“Not at the moment, no.” She rubbed a hand over her eyes. “Agent Sanders was pushing for Voorman to declare it, conditional to approval by the Committee, but Brahms- Senator Dawson- didn’t like that idea. He’s on his way back to Washington now, probably doing everything he can to herd the full Senate Committee together in time to vote on the issue by the end of the day.”

I glanced at my watch and found that the screen was dead. Since I had just been struck by lightning, maybe that wasn’t surprising. “What day is it?”

“The day after you passed out,” she said, checking her smart phone for a moment. “It’s around two in the morning.”

“And still we manage to attract a crowd,” I muttered, giving the people clustered around the police cordon the hairy eyeball.

“Human nature.” She glanced down at her feet. “The Senator didn’t think that Agent Templeton’s death was the direct result of Open Circuit’s talent. He said he wasn’t going to vote for Condition One, and he didn’t think the Committee would vote that way either.”

I sighed and leaned my head back against the ambulance. Herrera had stopped speaking so casually about the rest of the team. Another casualty’s of the night’s chaos? “I guess that’s not surprising. If we went to Condition One Circuit would be our first and only priority. Senator Dawson has his reasons to ensure we have attention left over for other cases.”

“Oh?” She looked back up at me. “Like what?”

“You haven’t heard?”

Herrera pursed her lips. “Obviously not.”

Wordlessly I fished the printout we’d gotten about Elizabeth Dawson’s missing person’s report from my pocket and handed it over to her. While she looked it over I said, “Honestly, I can’t blame him. If we were to focus our entire attention on the immediate search for Circuit we wouldn’t be able to look at this at all, and I have a hunch they’re connected somehow.”

“Based on what?” Herrera asked incredulously, looking at me over the top of the paper. “And why didn’t you mention this before?”

“We got it just before we left. And it’s not based on anything except long experience with the general perversity of Circuit’s planning.” I shrugged. “He’s always got at least two irons in the fire and maybe more. Every plan has both a good outcome and serves as a distraction for something else. I don’t know how, but the Enchanter was a problem in a long game that we barely know the rules of. The Senator’s daughter is another piece of the puzzle. If I follow Circuit and we put our best agent on her disappearance, we’re bound to meet in the middle.”

I slapped my hands onto the pavement and pushed myself back to my feet. To my amazement, my legs agreed to hold me up and I stayed upright. “So. Both you and Senator Dawson have a good reason not to pull me off this case, even for a few days of observation. Am I right?”

Herrera bounced up from the ground on the balls of her feet looking annoyed. I think it’s the first time I ever saw that expression on her face. “You’re playing this one awfully cold, Helix.”

“A good friend of mine just died tonight. I’m not cold, I’m numb. Shock, grief, rage, sympathy, all that comes later.” I folded my arms over my chest. “Tonight, I make sure we’re set to find Circuit and bury him in a hole so deep he’ll forget what sunlight looks like.”

“Right.” Herrera matched my pose and upped me a scowl. “And what if the Senator and I think our best agent to find Elizabeth is you, and not Al Massif?”

“You choose the right person for a job. You’re right that it’s not Massif. But it’s not me, either.” I turned and started picking a careful, prickly path across the paving, keeping my eyes out for the two people I knew had to be around somewhere. “Do you know what a taxman is, Herrera?

“Annoying people who reduce the amount of money you make?”

“Right idea.” I paused and rubbed the bottom of one foot on the opposite pant leg, wincing slightly. “But for Project Sumter it refers to the very first talent on record. The ability to take a small amount of the energy from every action that takes place nearby and store it for later use.”

Herrera goggled at me. “What?”

“Now Corporal Sumter, he was strong enough to lift a cannon- that’s what got him noticed in the first place. But he didn’t live in a world with electricity or gas powered motors or even the population density of today.” I gave Herrera a crooked grin. “Think about it. There are people in the world who get a little bit stronger every time you start your car. Or go for a jog. Or even when you take a phone call.”

“That’s absurd.”

“Aren’t we all?” I shrugged and started towards the school again. “I suppose taxmen do get tired sooner or later, if they burn too much of that reserve and there’s not enough going on around them to top off the tank. But that doesn’t happen very often.”

“So what?” Her tone was turning patient, like she was humoring me. Since she was walking around with a barefoot guy with a hole burnt in his jacket, maybe she was. “Even if it’s the most powerful talent on record-“

“I’m thinking that’s probably the lightning bolts.”

“-does it matter if we don’t know of any?”

I finally spotted what I was looking for. “But we do. Well, I know three, but you know one of them, too.”

“What?”

“My grandfather is Sergeant Wake, one of the founding talents from the Second World War. My uncle got his talents from that side of the family.” I wove around a couple of Project vehicles and headed towards a smashed up metal desk that was sitting in the middle of the street for some reason. “You’d know that if you ever got to the addendum in my file.”

“We’ve been busy,” she pointed out. “And your file is huge.”

“Busy is my middle name. Anyways, taxman number three I only met a few days ago.” I came to a stop just behind Voorman, who was standing in a small group of people clustered around a twisted van door. “If you count Corporal Sumter as part of the Project, there were two taxmen I know of who have been on our rolls. The Corporal himself, obviously, and his grandson, the Sergeant – my uncle has health issues so he’s stayed out of this line of work. Both of them made a major impact on the way we deal with talents now, helped create rules for dealing with talents fairly and propelled a number of people who worked with them to later success. A person paired with a taxman could easily make regional management, for example.”

“I don’t follow.” She said, peering over Voorman’s shoulder for a better look at the wreckage.

“Neither did I. That’s why we’re in field work, not Analysis. The getmen make these associations instantly, it’s part of why they’re so scary.”

Voorman turned to stare at us. “Is there a reason you’re discussing this, Helix? I don’t think Agent Herrera is cleared for anything from the taxmen file.”

“Not at the moment, no, but I’m sure that can be arranged. I assume we’ll be reactivating Mr. Rodriguez soon-”

“What?” Herrera demanded.

“-and it would be convenient if we could compare notes without having to try and keep each other in the dark about our capabilities. Especially since, after today, most of them are out in the open anyway.”

“I haven’t heard anything about pastor Rodriguez ever working for us, much less being reactivated,” Voorman said.

“I call bull-”

Herrera gave me a sharp poke in the side and whispered, “Professionalism,” in my ear.

“Not good enough, Voorman,” I said instead, watching as the man in question made his way through the group towards us. I had kind of expected Rodriguez to look a bit annoyed at being discussed the way we were but he just looked vaguely amused. “If you want us to believe that you should have warned him to keep a lower profile when we were around. No admitting to single-handedly filling a truck with furniture, for example. Certainly no dropping by headquarters to help you interview persons of interest.”

“To be fair,” Rodriguez said, “I do known Gearshift from my work with the city youth. I didn’t know about his talent, though.” Voorman started to say something but Rodriguez cut him off. “It’s alright, Michael. You did warn me Helix had a knack for finding out talents, keeping my secrets after that was my responsibility.” Rodriguez turned his attention to me and narrowed his eyes. For the first time I caught a glimpse of a hard man behind his normally placid exterior. “I have to confess, though, I’m not quite sure why you seem to think I would want to come back to Project Sumter. As you’ve probably already guessed, I’m retired at this point.”

I snorted. “Come on, Rodriguez. We both know it doesn’t work like that. Project work is a lot like a military commission. Even when you’re retired, you’er still technically held in reserve. Regardless, I think you’ll want to come back.”

“Helix, I joined the Project because I needed to do something meaningful with my life after I wasted a good chunk of it.” Rodriguez ran a hand over his hair, an action that looked like a nervous habit. “I left it because I realized that, while it’s a good thing, it isn’t always the best thing. I do more good on the streets, doing things God’s way, than I ever could in the Project.”

I reached over and plucked the paper from Herrera’s hand and held it up in two fingers. “I’m not an expert on God, pastor. But I know a couple of things. First, the Christ your religion takes its name from came to seek and save the lost. Second, he said to love your neighbor as yourself.” I pushed the paper towards him and said, “There’s a man who’s daughter is lost, Mr. Rodriguez. Now you yourself told me you were a father, you’ve been on the streets as a cop, a helping hand and from the sounds of it a troublemaker and you have the training and clearances to pursue this case legally.”

I glanced at the twisted car door sitting in the road. “And you can tear through sheet metal like it’s paper. Why would any god give someone all that and not expect them to help find this girl?”

Rodriguez slowly reached out and took the paper, unfolded it and looked it over. I didn’t wait for an answer because I didn’t need one. “I’ll see you in the office on Monday.” I turned to find Herrera, looking equal parts shocked and mildly disgusted. “Let’s go, I need to find some shoes and have a look at that building. I want to know how Circuit’s throwing thunderbolts around before he gets another chance to fry me.”

“Is there nothing sacred to you, Helix?” She asked, once we were a fair distance away.

“Same thing as for you, I suppose,” I said, pausing to look at the bottoms of my feet again. They were starting to look very tender, but nothing was bleeding. Definitely needed shoes.

“What? The truth?”

“Exactly.” I brushed the dirt off them again and said, “Most people spend all their lives looking for the truth. But when they find some, they just sit on it. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but if you don’t share truth it’s not really worth much.” I tipped my head in Rodriguez’ direction. “He knows that or he wouldn’t be a preacher. But sometimes you need someone to help you prioritize, or things can get out of whack. He’s seeing the full picture, now, he’ll be on message soon enough.”

She laugh softly. “You’re crazy, Helix. I don’t know whether it’s charming or terrifying.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Both, of course.”

“Of course.” A shake of the head. “So, what message is the preacher on board with?”

“I told you.” I spread my hands. “Evil deeds are punished. And while you’re at it, children shouldn’t be taken from their parents. And I need some shoes.”

She laughed again. “All right. Then let’s get you some shoes. Then all we’ll need is some truth and justice and we’ll be all set.”

“You know, Teresa, I had my doubts about you,” I said, starting back towards the ambulance. “But I think you’re going to work out just fine.”

Fiction Index
Previous Chapter

Heat Wave: Firestorm

Circuit

Echoes from the gunshots were still ringing in the elevator shaft as the Enchanter crumpled to the ground. One problem solved. Helix sprinted forward, but even though he was problem number two on my list of things to deal with, I wasn’t ready for him just yet. His turn wouldn’t come until Chainfall was finished.

As an officer of the law Helix had an obligation to check on the Enchanter before anything else, just one of many difficulties that he has to deal with which I do not. So, while he was doing a middling impression of the Good Samaritan I lowered the strength on my magnets just enough to let me slide down the elevator shaft. In a couple of seconds, maybe less, my feet touched the top of the elevator and I switched the magnets off entirely.

From the top of the elevator it was a simple matter to open the emergency hatch and drop down into the car, trailing the wires that still connected me to the building’s electrical grid. I knew that Project Sumter had established some sort of surveillance setup when they began watching the school building and the school itself probably had some cameras as part of the security. That would make it easier than I would like for them to figure out what part of the building I was moving through and how they might intercept me as I left.

So before I disconnected from the grid I charged up my capacitors for an EMP. With four separate magnets pulsing at once from the right position in the building I figured that I could knock out all the cameras that could see me as I made my exit. I took the half second the capacitors needed to charge to compose a text message to Grappler, telling her to start the van and come pick me up at the appropriate place, then disconnected the electrical hook-up and stepped out of the elevator.

Leaving the building from the roof was exit route six. The best entrance routes for the Project to use to reach the roof made two of the three stairways poor choices for my exit and for some reason it looked like this elevator had been moved, so I couldn’t necessarily count on empty elevator shafts as easy routes through the building anymore. I’d have to take the third set of stairs and exit the building through the service door on the west side of the building, which unfortunately would pass right under the windows in the block of offices where I’d left the church pastor a few minutes ago. But unless he was looking out the windows at the exact moment I left the building and someone was in a position to hear him yelling it wasn’t likely anyone would know I was out on the street in time to do anything before Grappler met me and we made good our exit.

So as soon as I was out of the elevator I sent the message to Grappler, telling her to pick me up on Diversy Street and do it fast. Then I took off down the halls of the school, headed towards the west stairway. About half way there, I was planning to set off the EMP and wipe the cameras on that side of the building.

I’d forgotten that some of the classrooms in the school let out into hallways on both sides. I certainly hadn’t expected to find anyone from the Project on the second floor, with their excellent response time I was certain they’d all be up on the roof with Helix, trying to sort out what was going on for at least another thirty seconds or so.

So when a woman in a crisp, professional suit that screamed government agent burst out of one of the classrooms, apparently using it as a short cut across the building, I was caught by surprise. From the brief glance I got of her face, she was too. We both tried to stop but it was clear a collision was inevitable. With an unthinking twitch of talent I switched my vest rig over to it’s taser mode and threw my hands up to block her.

It was a split second decision that didn’t take into account anything but the immediate situation. I only remembered that I’d prepped for an EMP as we slammed into each other, one of my hands grabbing her on the shoulder the other snatching her by the opposite wrist. There wasn’t time to try and keep the circuit from closing, the capacitors vented their stored potential in a heartbeat dumping far more current into her than is even remotely safe.

The woman made a muffled sound, barely even a groan, and crumpled to the ground. There was no time to check her. With a twinge of regret, I continued my headlong rush towards the stairs.

Helix

The gunshots took me completely by surprise and I still wasn’t sure what was happening when the person in the elevator dropped out of sight accompanied by the sound of the soles of boots being dragged along metal.

Without realizing it I’d run over to the Enchanter and flipped him on his back. He looked woozy but was still breathing. I was in the process of cuffing him when Jack and the rest of my team burst onto the roof. Jack was by my side instantly, yelling, “Why did you shut off your radio?”

On a scale of one to enraged Jack was hovering around seriously pissed. “There was a lot of noise coming that wouldn’t have done you any good,” I snapped, letting the Enchanter fall back down to the ground. “He’s been shot but he was wearing a vest so I think he’ll make it.”

“A vest?” Jack prodded the Enchanter’s chest with a couple of fingers, prompting him to groan.

“May be the only smart thing he’s done all night.”

“Who shot him?” Jack asked, glancing at the other three, who were giving the roof a careful look over.

“There was someone in the elevator shaft,” I said, quickly double checking my count. Yes, there were only three people on the roof. “Where’s Mossburger?”

“On the second floor,” Jack said. “He did say he noticed something off about the elevators but I didn’t catch what. He and Mona were going to reposition them in the building.”

A bad feeling settled in my gut and started playing hackie with my kidneys. It was a couple of steps over to the elevator shaft. I shouted, “FBI, put your hands in the air!” Then I peered over the edge of the doorframe. There wasn’t anything there but the emergency trapdoor in the top of the elevator car, sitting open. I glanced at Kesselman and waved him over. “Secure this waste of space,” I gestured at the Enchanter, then looked back at Jack. “I think we need to be downstairs.”

“Circuit?” Jack raised an eyebrow.

“Who else?” I called over my shoulder as I practically dove down the steps.

Two floors of steps isn’t a lot but after my climb and brief rooftop brawl I wasn’t at my freshest and by the time I reached the second floor my legs felt a little wobbly. The elevator door was closed when I stepped out into the hallway, but that was no surprise. There hadn’t been anyone visible in the car when I looked down and it’s not like there’s a whole lot of hiding places in a place like that. Circuit had already flown the coop.

Jack burst into the hallway a few seconds after I did, saying, “Herrera’s got the people on the ground moving to secure the building, but the local cops aren’t here yet and we’re short staffed. Surveillance people are watching the cameras but nothin yet.”

I ground my teeth for a moment and said, “Split up. You head that way,” I pointed off to the right, “I’ll take this way. If there’s no sign of him we head down to the first floor, we flush him, fine but don’t get too close.”

“No kidding,” Jack muttered. “Turn your headset back on.”

“Yes, dad.”

Once I was plugged back into the radio channel we parted ways, moving cautiously down the halls. That part of the second floor basically consisted of three long rows of classrooms, with the elevator at one end. From the elevator, the hall wrapped u-shaped around the middle row of classrooms, and if I recalled the blueprints right, those classrooms exited into the hallways on either side. If Circuit was trying to dodge us the fact that he could move freely from one hallway to the other was horribly inconvenient, but I didn’t expect he was planning on staying on this floor. On the other hand, if I needed Jack’s support he could just cut through a classroom and be right there.

Provided the classrooms were unlocked. I cursed and wished I had thought to check on that little detail at some point over the last few days. The halls were dark, and as I rounded the corner from the elevator and started down the long hall, with classroom doors on either side I planned to carefully check each door, to make sure there were no nasty surprises waiting for me. That idea went out the window when I saw a crumpled heap lying in the middle of the hallway.

I sucked in a breath and headed straight towards it, keeping an eye out to my sides as best I could moving at a fast walk. When I got there I realized it was Mona. I thumbed my radio and said, “Agent down, I repeat, agent down.” I quickly gave my position as I reached down and felt for a pulse. And froze, for just a second. “She doesn’t have a pulse. We need an EMT up here, now.”

At some point I’d gone from a normal speaking tone to yelling. “He’s up on the roof with the Enchanter,” Sanders said, “I’m sending him down now.”

Jack slid around the corner and came to a stop on the floor beside me. We quickly but gently flipped her onto her back and he started CPR. There was a surreal quality to it, just sitting there and watching. With startling clarity I saw Jack’s shoulders pumped up and down, I heard every creak and snap Mona’s ribs made under his weight. I felt grit from the floor between my fingers and the lingering hot spots where Mona’s suit was charred on her shoulder and arm. I was even aware of the subtle heat differences that marked people moving about on the stairs and on the roof, even moving across the street outside.

Across the street and away from the building, moving fast.

There weren’t any visible injuries on Mona’s body besides the burn marks, but somehow her heart had stopped. Like she had taken a large electrical shock. And I knew from who, and where he was.

I scrambled to my feet and crossed to the classroom that bordered on the street…

Circuit

There are some things you learn to recognize from experience, like the expression of exasperated patience you will see from many so-called civil servants. There are others that you’ve never encountered before but instantly recognize, like the sound of your nose breaking under a lucky punch. Then there are some things that you only recognize because you’ve wondered, over and over again in the back of your mind, exactly what they might be like. Here is a sound that falls into the third category:

Glass breaking, the roar of an overlarge blowtorch, the sound of a giant taking a deep breath and a funnel cloud reaching to touch the earth, all at once.

That was the sound that had been playing in the back of my mind, ever since my unfortunate brush with the agent back in the school building. As I hurriedly climbed over the low chain-link fence around the outside of the school property I thought I might have gotten away without hearing it at all. But it finally came as I dashed through the faltering rain, across Diversy Street towards the street corner where Grappler would pick me up.

I knew even before I looked back that Helix was coming for me. That’s how this game is played, after all – I do something he disapproves of, then run when he chases me. He’d just never gotten that close before.

There was a moment as I spun to look back at the building when the air itself seemed  to be pulling me back towards the building and Helix. I knew it was just the heat moving. In a way, heat itself is motion and when Helix had melted the window between himself and the outside the building no longer insulated the world around it from Helix’s heat sink. All the heat rushed towards it at once, dragging everything nearby in that direction at the same time.

But the mad rush slowed almost immediately as the available heat bled away, leaving ice forming on the ground and sleet replacing the rain. I felt my jaw drop open. I’d read that Helix was one of the most powerful heat sinks on record but I’d never really heard anything to suggest exactly what it meant.

Apparently, it meant he could wrap summer up into a ball, hold it in one hand and let winter fall from the skies.

For a second he just stared at me from the high ground, ignoring the hail, the wind and the last few shards of falling glass, letting the metal window frame and concrete wall slowly melt and drip down the building. Then he climbed up onto the window sill and jumped. I expected him to fall the two stories like a lead balloon but instead he pushed the intense heat in his hands down below his body, catching himself in the updraft and breaking his fall.

He landed lightly, incinerating the grass and hedges within two feet in the process, sending a rain of ashes floating upward in a bizarre counterpoint to the sleet falling all around him, and started forward. It wasn’t exactly a run but he wasn’t moving slowly either, and the way he melted the fence into slag without breaking stride told me his usual reluctance to cause property damage was on hiatus. He left footprints in the in the blacktop crossing the street.

I backpedaled a dozen steps, glancing over my shoulder to see if Grappler had arrived. She hadn’t. On the other hand, Helix hadn’t caught up with me until I was outside, and that gave me a decided advantage.

With a thought I sent a text from my phone, activating the heat sink countermeasures on the roof. A pair of powerful electromagnets kicked on, creating a large enough of a field to encompass a couple of city blocks and give me the reach to touch the bottom of the clouds overhead with my talent. The roiling masses of hot and cold air that heat sinks make work just like normal storm clouds, they cause wind, shed rain and, most importantly, they create some of the largest concentrations of static electricity in the world.

Helix may be one of the most powerful heat sinks in existence. He had definitely blown my expectations of his capabilities out of the water. But even if he had just done the best impression of human flight I’d ever seen, even if the earth under his feet was melting away and he held enough plasma in his hands to pass as an avenging angel, I still held the trump card.

Because if fire has always been the sword of the angels, then so is thunder the hammer of the gods.

I gave a Helix a touch of the hat, tugging it down over my eyes in the process, then traced a connection from him up to the clouds above based purely on the electric potentials involved. Then, with a snap of the fingers I closed the circuit.

Even with my eyes closed and and the hat brim shielding them the flash was still blinding. The thunderclap was worse, probably rattling windows in buildings several blocks away. Immediately after the lightning strike I felt the heat come rushing back, a moment of painful warmth followed by a more normal, if less humid, summer evening’s temperature. An eerie silence fell, or possibly I had managed to temporarily deafen myself. I pushed my hat back to its normal position and blinked the stars out of my eyes.

Helix had been knocked about a dozen feet sideways and lay sprawled on the ground. He was out of action but I could make out the gentle rise and fall of his chest that suggested he was still alive. For a second I wavered where I stood. A few minutes ago I had deliberately avoided confronting him on the roof because I felt, as I have always felt, that people with his character and training will be necessary to bring about the world I intend to create. Even if I never convinced him to see things my way he could still play a very valuable part in the events to come.

But not if I got caught before things could be set in motion. That chance run-in on the second floor had just changed the game. From the outside Helix probably looks like something of a loose cannon, the way he approaches and corrects problems in the most direct way possible can cause people a lot of worry. It’s also startlingly efficient. I’ve never known his methods to cross the line into overkill, they’ve always been just enough to stop me in my tracks.

I knew that if he’d gone on a rampage it could only be because I’d killed that woman. And that meant problems. Project Sumter would go to condition one. Every person in the country who knew about talents and had any kind of official standing would be out for my head. I could probably evade that kind of man hunt. But not if it was led by a man who had already had eight years to perfect the art of frustrating my plans. Regretfully, I drew my SIG and glanced around to make sure the coast was still clear.

It saved my life.

Barry’s desk was hurtling towards me, gracefully flipping itself end over end, side smashed from its impact with the window, drawers hanging open and dropping office supplies along behind it. The sight was so absurd I froze for a split second and nearly got my head taken off. I just barely managed to duck out of the way, cutting it so close my hat was snatched off my head by one of the dangling drawers.

The desk crashed to the ground ten feet away, slid a few more feet in a shower of sparks and came to a stop. Grappler’s van careened around the corner just beyond it, fishtailing badly on the ice. Helix forgotten, I sprinted towards it, sparing a glance back towards the school building as I ran.

I spotted a human shape leap out of a shattered window on the third floor covering far more distance in that one jump than was humanly possible, crashing to the ground in the middle of the street a few hundred feet away. In front of me, the van’s back door sprang open and Heavy Water leaned out, grabbed my left arm and hauled me into the still coasting van, yelling, “Go, go, go!”

There was a mad scramble as I got my feet under me and Heavy slammed the door closed behind me. We both grabbed for handholds to keep upright as the van picked up speed. Heavy wasn’t able to grab one before something hit the van and a large, desk-shaped dent appeared in one corner of the back, sending the vehicle fishtailing again.

Heavy cursed and tumbled to the ground, I clung to a crash bar in the van’s ceiling for dear life. I could hear Grappler in the front seat, muttering, “Come on baby, pick it up.”

The van surged forward at the same time a hand slammed into the van, from the side opposite where the desk hit us, tearing up from the back corner of the floor and closing on the hinge that held the door in place. The van rocked forward a bit, kicking off it’s rear wheels, then the engine clunked into high gear at the same instant I hit the door release, flinging the them open again. I should say door, the damage from the desk hitting us kept one side from opening and the other, now attached to the van by nothing but it’s top hinge, simply tore off. I pointed my SIG out the gaping hole it left and emptied the clip.

Since the armor plating was one of the van’s many nonstandard accessories there was little chance I would hurt the man who’d hit us, who was still holding our back door across his body like a shield. But it did keep him from following us. Heart pounding, I pulled the trigger until the slide locked back.

By then we were careening around a corner and, by some measure, safely away. The last thing I saw before High School 44 was out of sight was pastor Manuel Rodriguez tossing my van’s rear door away and turning back to check on Helix.

Heavy scrambled to his feet and wiped sweat from his face, spitting curses. “What the hell was that, Circuit?”

“The van stands out too much now,” I said absently, still trying to process what had just happened. “We need a new vehicle.”

“Circuit.” Heavy grabbed my shoulder and pulled me away from the back of the van, then spun me to look him in the eye. “What. Was. That.”

“I don’t know.” I shook my head mournfully. “A problem. Beyond that, I don’t know.”

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter
Fiction Index

Heat Wave: Fire and Rain

Helix

The driver was starting up the van while we strapped in, Sanders and Herrera keeping a running chatter going over the radio, tracking the new intruder and speculating on whether he was the Enchanter, when I felt the change. It was a sort of prickly feeling at the back of the neck, followed by the kind of vertigo most people will only get from roller coasters. I sat bolt upright and wiped muffin crumbs and frosting off my hands and onto my pants, then clipped my headset, dangling on my shoulder by the wire that attached it to the transmitter on my belt, back over my ear and chimed in. “This is Helix. A heat sink just went active. I repeat, we have an active heat sink, and it’s not me.” I took a second to confirm the general impression I’d gotten when the sink had opened up. “Temperature is draining towards your side of the building, Sanders.”

“Acknowledged. Do you have an idea of this guy’s reach or floor yet?”

“I’ve only seen him once before. Give me a second.” This was pretty tricky stuff Sanders wanted, in part because he was asking me to translate stuff that people like me will judge instinctively into the more concrete measurements of modern science.

Pretty much every heat sink I’d ever known, from my grandmother down to the four I’d met through research programs, agreed that using the talent looks, or feels, a lot like a holding a drain open. Just push the lever down and heat drains into your hand. But Dr. Barnaby Higgs, who teaches at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in his free time and headed up most of those research programs, says the more appropriate analogy for what actually happens is what he calls the wet dishrag model. According to this model, the world is just a giant rag and heat is like water. When I create a heat sink it’s like I’m wringing all the heat out of the space around me and leaving a little puddle of high temperature somewhere next to me.

According to this model, how hot a heat sink we can make isn’t governed by how much heat we can ‘hold’. Instead, it’s dependent on how much water there is in the rag and how hard we can wring it out, or how hot the world around us is out and how cool we can make it. Dr. Higgs assures me this makes more sense than the drain analogy, and that there’s even solid mathematical models to back it up. Since the secrecy of his work makes peer review impossible I tend to take him with a grain of salt, but since they have to justify all the money they spend on his research the Project still uses his model when discussing heat sinks.

Except you can’t talk about wringing out dishrags over the radio in official government law enforcement operations, it’s embarrassing. So the term ‘reach’ is used to refer to how large an area a heat sink can alter the temperature of, and the term ‘floor’ to refer to how cold we can make it get in that area. Knowing these factors tells us important things like how much wind sheer surveillance helicopters can expect or how quickly a person can melt through several inches of concrete.

After several years of practice I’ve learned to judge ambient temperature to within five degrees and it was easy to see that the Enchanter had wrung just about as much heat as he could from the world around him by the way his heat sink trembled as I brushed my senses over it. I turned my senses outward and searched for the edge of the Enchanter’s heat sink, where the headlong rush of heat down the drain turned into the sedate meandering of normal convection.

After a moment of ballpark estimates I said, “I think we’re looking at a reach of two to three blocks and a floor somewhere around fifty degrees.”

“And with this the Enchanter beat out the guy with a quarter mile reach and bottoms out at the freezing point?”

“Power isn’t control, Sanders, and going heat sink vs heat sink has more in common with juggling than wrestling.” The van lurched around the corner of the school building and started to pick up speed.

The guy at the monitors sat up straight and looked back at us, straining against his seat belt. “He’s climbing up the side of the building, heading towards the roof. Looks like he’s using that same trick Helix did when he chased the Chameleon up the side of the-”

“Yes, we remember that one, thanks,” I said, probably a little sharper than I should have. Amplifier gave me a look like she wanted to ask, but knew it was probably a waste of time. “Herrera. Let me go up after the Enchanter, the outside of the building is damaged already and I can make better time that way than you can going up the stairs.”

“Dunno if that’s a good call,” Jack put in, leaning forward to give me a disapproving look. “We work in teams for a reason.”

“Good reasons,” I said quickly. “But all signs point to the Enchanter working alone. And he can’t hurt me with nothing but heat.”

Herrera gave me a sharp glance. “I thought there were limits to a heat sink’s ability to control the temperature of their personal space.”

“There are,” I said. “But for me, it’s hard to hit that limit without a blast furnace handy. I’m the stronger heat sink, so I doubt he’ll pose a threat on that front. And he’d have to be an idiot to carry a gun to an arson, so he’s not going to be armed.”

Watching Herrera come to a decision was actually pretty impressive. Her face remained totally impassive but I could almost see the various factors being weighed behind her eyes. Risk to me if I went, risk the Enchanter would get away if I tackled him without back-up, risk he would get away if we all went the slow route, risk the building could get burned down in any of the above situations. But once everything was considered she arrived at her decision instantly. “Okay. Go on up.”

“Thanks, boss.”

She nodded, but I caught a flicker of concern behind her usual composed façade. She thought it was the right choice, but that didn’t mean she liked it.

The van screeched to a halt outside the school building. Herrera gave a quick glance around the van, making sure everyone was ready to go, then yelled, “Everybody out!” Then, as a quick aside to Amplifier, “Except for you. Sorry, but you’ll need to stay here.”

“I get it, Teresa. Still a civilian.” Then, much to my surprise, she turned and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “Good luck.”

Being a master of witty dialog, I managed to get past my surprise and say, “Right.”

Then I piled out of the van along with everyone else, training dictating my movements as my brain kept working on figuring out what just happened. As my shoes slapped the pavement I finally managed to get my train of thought back onto the Enchanter. Who was on the roof. Of the school.

Jack thumped to the ground just behind me and gave me a light slap on the back, which was still enough to send me staggering a step or two given given the weight difference and how I wasn’t exactly paying attention.

“What was that?” He asked quietly.

“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head to clear the last distractions from it. “And neither do you.”

“Duly noted.” Jack chuckled and gave me a shove towards the wall. “Get up there. We’ll be up the stairs ASAP.”

The van had stopped by a side door that, if I remembered correctly, would let the rest of the team directly into the gymnasium. The Enchanter’s point of ascent was about a hundred feet further down the building, but still much closer than the stairs were inside – Jack would have to lead the team through several hallways just to get to the main roof access. Fortunately, this was one of the parts of the building we had most anticipated the Enchanter targeting, and so we’d studied it the most. There wasn’t much chance of Jack getting lost on his way to the stairs.

What we hadn’t planned for was a rooftop scenario. The most vulnerable part of the school building was the chemistry labs, which were still outfitted with that wonderfully safe set up where natural gas is pumped in to provide unlimited use of the burners. The labs were on the first floor, right next to the gymnasium, so we had anticipated the Enchanter entering through the basement or just burning through the wall to gain entrance. Starting on the roof, with two floors of storage, offices and classrooms between himself and the gas lines, didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.

Still, when you’re chasing a criminal you can’t putter around trying to figure out why he’s going where he’s going. It’s best to keep your eyes and ears open and try not to run into trouble before you get your man.

So I pounded along the side of the building, draining my own share of heat from the surrounding air, taking advantage of that extra reach and lower floor Sanders had been ribbing me about a minute ago, and started melting my way up the side of the building the tune of the tortured creaking of strained concrete. It was cold enough that I could see my breath and the first rumblings of thunder signaled that rain was on its way. That’s a natural and expected side effect of what I do, but it was also the same as sending up flares telling the Enchanter that I was coming – there was no way I was going to be able to catch him by surprise.

As I hauled myself up the side of the building I took note of a few quick facts. The Enchanter was bigger than I was, from the distance between his handholds I guessed at least six inches taller than me, and something he’d been wearing, like the drawstring of a hoodie or an untied shoelace, had gotten caught in the molten concrete and stuck there when it cooled again, leaving the scorched ends dangling in the rising wind. It suggested that the Enchanter might be a bit careless. Even so, I never would have guessed just how careless.

Almost as soon as I stuck my head over the side of the roof I heard a popping sound, barely audible above the growing wind created by the clashing pressure and temperature zones the Enchanter and I were making. In spite of the noise I could still identify the sound instantly and was grateful for the wind, because the Enchanter was apparently one of those rare idiots who actually would bring a gun along to an arson. Cursing, I scrambled up over the edge of the roof and bolted to one side, doing my best to avoid bullets.

As I dashed across the roof I made a mental note to plan my next gun battle someplace with more cover. Preferably the kind that comes from snipers.

The roof of the school building was mostly flat, with a handful of those mysterious, cone-topped pipes stick up here and there, a couple of large, gray boxes with fans that I assumed had something to do with heating and cooling the building and the lights that ringed the perimeter of the roof. There were two entrances, a trap door that came up from a large maintenance closet half way across the building and the large service elevator, which was used to haul up any large pieces of equipment that might be needed for the heating/cooling plants, located about twenty feet beyond the Enchanter. Since safety regulations don’t let them put in an elevator without a stairway beside it I knew that was where I could expect Jack and the rest of my team from.

But I estimated they were at least a good sixty seconds away, possibly closer to two minutes, and that’s a long time to be stuck on a roof with a gun wielding arsonist. So I took cover behind the nearest box of heating equipment, which was almost as tall as I was, allowing the heat I was holding to trail out behind me as I ran. The zone of superheated air clashed with the nearly freezing world around it and made the wind even worse. A marksman with a decent rifle could probably have hit me through it, but doing it with a handgun was pretty much out of the question, even if you were a world class shooter, which I suspected the Enchanter was not. So I managed to get behind the squat metal structure without getting shot, although from the sound of things it wasn’t for want of trying on his part.

In my frantic trip across the roof I managed to notice two things. First, the Enchanter fired eight shots total. I wasn’t sure what kind of gun he was using but that’s getting close to the limit for most pistols. Second, it looked like he was kneeling on the roof, in the process of carving a huge circle, maybe about ten feet wide, out of the concrete. About an eighth of the circle was already cut, noxious black smoke coiling out as the insulation in the roof burned. For a second, I wasn’t quite sure what he was doing.

And then I got it. The chemistry labs might be the simplest part of the school to set on fire from the point of view of a normal arsonist, but the Enchanter wasn’t a normal arsonist. He was a heat sink who was playing arsonist to show off – his careful choice of targets and letters to the police and Circuit pointed to that. He didn’t want to set the building on fire in a mundane fashion, he was playing up his talent for all the world to see. Rather than just set the most flammable part of the building on fire, he was going to drop a flaming portion of the ceiling onto the wooden gym floor.

I risked a peek around the corner of the box. The Enchanter was about a quarter of the way done with his cut. It wasn’t going fast by any means and I was sure that my showing up and bleeding off some of his heat wasn’t helping any. But it still looked like he would be done before the rest of my team got up onto the roof. If we were going to actually prevent a major fire, I’d have to do something right away.

But with the Enchanter armed and the both of us being heat sinks the first thing I would have to do is find some way to get closer to him before I could do much. I was wearing a bulletproof vest and the wind and rain would help me a lot more than they would him, but even going up against a gun that was half empty those were long odds. I racked my brains, trying to think up some way to get closer to the Enchanter without getting shot.

The problem with talents is they’re really not as versatile as comics and movies would suggest. I could have created a wall of super-heated air but some part of it has to be connected to me and the larger the wall the less hot it is. Even if I could make a wall large enough to shield my whole body and hot enough to melt bullets I’d still get splattered with fast moving grains of lead once they passed through, which might even be more dangerous than just taking a bullet to the vest. By the same token, the fact that I can’t let a heat sink out of contact with my hands means I can heat air into plasma under the right circumstances, but I can’t throw it at anyone.

But there are a lot of things that rely on heat that most people don’t think of as being driven by heat. Standing in the middle of a fierce but highly local thunderstorm, it wasn’t very hard for me to think of one. I pushed my heat sink to the limits, letting the heat pour in from all directions and settle into a flat, pulsing disk between my hands. By the time I was done I was holding a glowing disk of plasma half again as big around as I was tall, but only a few millimeters wide, over my head.

I slipped one hand free of keeping the disk in shape just long enough to switch off my headset, then worked my way over to the edge of my metal box again. There was no way to keep the Enchanter from noticing all the extra heat pouring towards my location but that was fine. I wanted him to be watching. In a single motion I stepped out from behind the air plant and dropped into a crouch, then flipped the disk of plasma towards the Enchanter like I was tossing the world’s biggest pizza. As soon as I let go of the heat sink I ducked my head down and shoved my fingers into my ears.

The result was closer to a thunderclap than a flash-bang and, even though I knew what was coming and had time to cover my ears, they were still set ringing. When I looked up the Enchanter was swaying, probably only upright because he hadn’t been standing in the first place. His heat sink was slipping away and his gun hand was clamped to his head.

I jumped up out of my crouch and sprinted across the twenty or so feet between us in my best time. I don’t think either of us could hear much at the moment so I didn’t bother trying to be quiet but I did come at him from one side, grabbing his gun arm and giving it an expert twist. The weapon clattered out of his hand and I gave it a quick kick to put it out of play for the moment.

Unfortunately that distracted me just long enough for the Enchanter to throw his weight to the side and come down on top of me. Now I’m in pretty good shape and Kesselman, an ex-Airborne soldier, makes sure we can all handle ourselves if things get up close and personal, but the Enchanter had at six or seven inches and at least fifty pounds on me, and I wasn’t in a position to try supporting all that right that moment, so we both wound up taking a tumble onto the roof.

In the mad scramble that followed I managed to grab hold of one of the Enchanter’s legs and tried to wrench it into one of those crazy, debilitating joint locks that Kesselman is so fond of, but before I could get the right leverage one of the Enchanter’s arms smashed me on the side of the head and I lost my grip. He took the opportunity to leap to his feet while I spun back with the hit and came up in a crouch.

At this point he made his second unbelievably reckless move for the night. He stepped in and aimed a kick at my stomach. Nothing fancy, like you might expect from someone with some kind of training, just picked up his foot and stuck it forward with all his weight behind it, like he was planning to walk all over my stomach and keep going. It might have worked, too, if we’d been closer together or he hadn’t still been off balance. As it was, I managed to slip by the kick and slam one elbow down on his thigh.

As his weight came down on it the Enchanter staggered, his arms flailing, and I took the opportunity to grab one and fire another punch into the soft spot just below the arm pit. He gasped and threw a hay maker at my stomach. My vest took a little bit of the impact but stopping punches is not what it’s designed to do. And like I said before, the Enchanter was bigger than me by a fair margin. He didn’t lay me out flat, but I did loose my grip on him a second time, staggering back a step and getting my foot wedged in the groove he’d cut into the roof.

I pulled it free with a curse but lost a few precious seconds doing it and this time the Enchanter wasn’t foolhardy enough to stick around for more. While I was working free he turned and staggered towards the door to the stairs, winded and woozy but still going at a decent clip. I followed him as soon as my foot was free but wasn’t terribly worried that he would get away at that point. The rest of my team would be on the stairs already. Even if he saw them coming up and escaped onto one of the upper floors, there were only so many places he could go.

As I started after the Enchanter again I noticed something weird. The service elevator door was opening, which made no sense. You never take the elevator into a potentially volatile situation, it’s like a fish jumping straight into a barrel, my team should be coming from the stairs. The Enchanter was clearly just as surprised, he actually hesitated for a few seconds before continuing towards the stairs.

Even stranger than the elevator doors opening was the fact that there was no elevator behind them.

And the fact that, even though there was no elevator, there was still a person inside, one hand stretched towards the Enchanter…

——–

Circuit

Sometimes I wonder why Grappler keeps chiding me for doing my own legwork. It helps keep me young. On the other hand, when I find myself climbing up an elevator shaft, secured by nothing but a quartet of electromagnets strapped around my arms and built into my boots, sometimes I do wonder if I really am getting to be too old for that kind of thing. What seems so simple in theory is often much more tiring in practice.

As I reached the top of the elevator shaft I checked my connection to the building power supply for the dozenth time. I’d had to pull it up, hand over hand, from where it rested on top of the elevator down in the basement and I was pretty sure it had taken some knocks on the side of the shaft as I pulled it up. It was a sturdy piece of equipment and I wasn’t too worried but it would be embarrassing if it slipped out of its socket or shorted out in the middle of something and I wound up with no charge left to power any of my gadgets or keep me from falling to my death in this elevator shaft.

Worse, about half way up the shaft someone had called the elevators to the second floor. I wasn’t sure what had caused that, but it was going to make getting back out of the building much more challenging.

But I managed to make it to the top of the elevator shaft without significant mishap. Once there I drew my SIG, stretched out with my talent and triggered the elevator door. What I saw was really more than I could have reasonably hoped for.

A man, about five foot ten, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans in spite of the heat and jogging with a slight limp was headed towards me – or more likely, towards the stairway door just beyond my position. About ten feet behind him, just barely visible at the far side of the elevator door, a shorter man in dark colored body armor was starting in pursuit.

It didn’t take a genius to know that I was looking at the Enchanter and Double Helix. The two most problematic people in my life at the moment.

First things first.

The most effective way to deal with a problem like the Enchanter is simple. Target the center of mass and fire two shots in rapid succession. So that is what I did.

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter
Fiction Index

Heat Wave: Blown Fuses

Circuit

Rodriguez raised his eyebrows. “I have to admit, if you’re the independent justice seeking type you really aren’t doing a good job of representing yourself. You come off as very… hard edged.”

I laughed. “I thought you knew. We live in a world where one man’s justice is another man’s robbery. Justice is dead and we’re sitting on it’s gravestone. You’ll find that the world doesn’t know or care about justice.”

“You may find that kind of attitude fails to pay out.” He leaned back in his chair as far as he could while still keeping his hands on the desk. “Justice isn’t such a small thing as to fit in a person’s pocket, to be taken out whenever you need to check if something is right or wrong. It’s not a personal thing. It exists everywhere and is always the same. Justice measures us, not the other way around.”

“You know, I could almost like you under other circumstances.” I fished around in a belt pocket and pulled out a zip-tie, which I tossed on the desk. Then I stretched out a leg and tapped my foot against the exposed metal leg at one corner of the desk. “Why don’t you do us both a favor and make yourself good and secure.”

“Fine.” Rodriguez took the tie without protest and proceeded to firmly secure his wrist to the desk leg. While he worked on that I slipped around to the other side of the desk and checked the drawers. They were locked, as I suspected they might be, Barry apparently not wanting anyone to filch his office supplies while he was out. As I said, lazy not stupid. Bad as I felt about tying the pastor up, I didn’t want him letting himself out with a pair of scissors or something. The same line of thought led me to the wall to unplug Barry’s desk phone.

I straightened up and turned back to the desk to discover Rodriguez had pulled a small Bible out of his pocket and set it on the desk and was in the process of choosing a pen from the cup on the desk. He saw me staring at him, admittedly a little shocked at his incredible aplomb, and asked, “I don’t suppose you have any paper I could borrow? I haven’t worked much on this week’s sermon yet, and since I seem to have some time on my hands…”

“There really is more to you than meets the eye,” I said, shaking my head. “How did you even get in when the building was locked?”

“I borrowed a key from the groundskeeper. Someone from the church staff does this every year, so he’s used to the routine. Although this is something of a break from the normal.” Rodriguez shrugged. “I could say there’s more to you than meets the eye as well, but I suppose that goes without saying when a person is in disguise.”

That earned him a chuckle and I ducked into the first cubicle down the line and fished around for something to write on. As I did so, Rodriguez’ voice came drifting over the flimsy walls. “I have to wonder, if you’re not an arsonist and you’re not a vigilante of some sort, what are you?”

“Just a man here to advance his own goals.” I found a spiral bound notebook in the bottom drawer of the desk, which apparently belonged to someone less cautious than Barry was. I took it with me back out to the secretary’s desk. “I’m here to deal with a hindrance and once I’m done I’ll be gone. The fact that the hindrance happens to be a wanted arsonist is pure happenstance.”

“You sound suspiciously like a man trying to convince himself,” Rodriguez said, giving me an assessing gaze. “Are you here because of some kind of attachment to the building? Maybe a teacher you had growing up? Does one of your children attend here? In that case-”

“You are astoundingly naïve,” I said, slapping the notebook down on the desk and suppressing a wince as my shoulder twinged in protest. I leaned forward a bit and let Rodriguez get a good look at my eyes. What he saw there made him deflate a bit. “Try to understand that I see nothing here worth saving.

“Have you looked around this place lately, my friend?” I swept my arm through the air to indicate the entirety of the school. “It’s one of two things. A relic, a hopelessly outdated idea based on theories of education that haven’t held up, or it’s a blatant power grab by people who don’t loose a single moment’s sleep what their manipulations cost the next generation. To some people it’s one thing, to some the other, but neither one is good.”

I leaned down over the preacher and his books. “The only thing they teach here is complacency. Day after day the necessity of some system, any system is pounded into them and the teachers are there every step of the way to punish them if they’re the least bit different from their horrid little ideas of young people should be.” I jabbed a finger at his chest. “You’ve seen it, I’m sure. A quiet person is branded antisocial or depressed, an active person becomes ADHD, the best and brightest are pushed and pushed by their coaches or advanced coursework until they break, and on and on until the whole population is drugged into an exhausted stupor and fed whatever agenda their indoctrinater wants pushed. And when they leave they’re so dependent on the people telling them what to do they’re fit for nothing but corporate machines. Or worse, to be druggists and indoctrination agents themselves. This isn’t a place for youth. It’s a place for convicts.”

From Rodriguez’ uncomfortable expression, especially when I mentioned pushy coaches, I could tell that he knew what I was talking about. For a fleeting moment I wondered if he would agree to some sort of an arrangement that would let me stay in the building until the Enchanter was dealt with. Then he said, “That does happen, and much more than I like to admit. But that’s not the only system at work in these walls. Many people need these places, and we offer them a hope that reaches beyond the school walls.”

I sprang up from the desk in frustration. “Unbelievable. You’re supposed to be a righteous man, but you don’t even understand the first thing about righteousness, do you? You’re just as cowed by the glory of the establishment as everyone else.” I paced a few steps away then spun and jabbed my finger at the preacher in accusation. “Whatever happened to ‘teach your children my commands’? What about ‘make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to work with your hands’?”

“You know the Bible,” he said, apparently a bit surprised by that. “But-”

“Of course I do,” I said, cutting him off with my gun hand. “And I know that it says ‘thou shalt not covet’. Not one of the rules they like to preach about, is it? Because that’s all they teach here. Be jealous. Want what everyone else has, but don’t worry, that’s the sacred virtue of fairness. And then they’re upset when people like me, who have had to work their entire lives to make a meaningful impact, don’t hand over what we’ve made meekly and quietly.”

The big man spread his hands in an infuriating ‘so what’ gesture. “Perhaps God has something even greater in mind for the meek.”

“Yes,” I said, dripping scorn. “Inherit the earth. We’ll see about that. Meanwhile, their priests stand behind their desks and preach the gospel of justice for the envious to thousands of children a year. This building cranks out more and more drones that will answer to the beck and call of their overlords so that their own jealousy can be assuaged. And you have the temerity to worship here. If you really followed this,” I banged one hand onto his Bible, “you’d be doing more than taking what scraps you can get after the future generation has been put through the meat grinder.”

“I know that not everything the schools do in the name of education is right, but no one can expect that.” Rodriguez offered a helpless shrug. “Do you really expect them to get it right for everyone?”

“I don’t. But a system is only useful when it benefits a majority, a large majority, of the people who go through it.” Once again I waved my hand to indicate the school, not as a building but as a calloused edifice to confinement and boredom. “This is fit for nothing more than ruination.”

“You can’t judge the whole world by just what you’ve experienced-”

“I know that!” I whirled and smashed my left hand into the flimsy cubicle wall behind me, ignoring the spike of pain that shot through my not quite healed fingers. The wall teetered for a moment but didn’t quite topple over. “I’ve done the research, I know what I’ve seen and I’ve watched the same thing happen too many times. Don’t preach to me, holy man. I’ve heard the gosple already, but there was nothing good about what was preached to me.” I turned back and glared at him over my mask. “I’ve seen it. And I’m going to end it – starting with the Enchanter. And I won’t stop until what we do for ourselves is a virtue again, and not a sign of disease.”

If there was one thing that has to be said, it’s that Rodriguez didn’t even blink. I was armed, masked and admittedly had wandered more than a little into monologuing territory while he was unarmed and tied to a desk. His refusal to so much as flinch was both impressive and annoying. Worse than his calm was the tinge of sadness underlying it. “You can’t fix it by playing the strongman. Say you do muscle your Enchanter out of the picture. Maybe you even make things a little better for a little while.” His free hand drifted over to rest on the Bible. “But unless you have something better to teach them, something to give them hope, you’ll just be another strong man in a long line.”

“As I said. We’ll see about that. I might have a surprise for you, down the line.” There might have been more to say after that, but before I could work it a tone in my ear warned me I had another incoming call. “Quite for a moment. Go ahead, Grappler.”

“Someone new on the south side of the building, Circuit. The Project looks like it’s starting to move in.”

“Understood. Start up the van and hold on standby until I-”

“Son of a-” Grappler’s voice faded into the background for a second and I heard a confused gabble of voices and a string of curses. “He’s climbing up the wall. I thought he was a heat sink, not a wall walker.”

“He’s cutting handholds into the wall,” I said, fishing around in my belt and pulling the connection for the elevator hookup free. “Not changing friction like you would. Get in position for retrieval on my signal. I’ll be on the roof.”

“Warming up the engine now.”

I hung up and headed back towards the door I’d originally entered through. The only elevator that went all the way up to the roof was that way. “Sorry to interrupt,” Rodriguez said as I got to the door. “But if there’s a chance of the building burning down do you think you could find it in your heart to let me loose?” He wiggled his zip-tied wrist for emphasis.

“There will be no burning today,” I said. “But there might be some shooting and definitely a lot of armed men running around. If you really want out, I’m sure you could drag that desk into a cubicle that has a pair of scissors handy. But if you want my advice, you’ll just shove it in front of the door and wait things out. You’ll be fine.”

I stepped out of the office, closed the door so Rodriguez couldn’t see where I was going and bolted down the hall. Although it didn’t register at the time, there was the the sound of something heavy bumping in the wall behind me as I sprinted away. But that would come later. For the moment, I had bigger problems to deal with.

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter
Fiction Index

Heat Wave: Signal Static

Circuit

The biggest problem with trying to keep up surveillance on a building also being watched by a group of people who would dearly like to throw you in jail is that you must observe without being observed. That sounds simple in principle. With the right gear, which I certainly had access to, you can watch a building in close-to-real-time from the other side of the continent. So it was a simple matter to position my own surveillance team a few blocks further away from P.H.S. 44 than the Project’s teams and make sure they stayed out of the way during shift change.

The problem was, I also wanted to be in a position to respond to any signs of the Enchanter’s appearing on the scene. If I stayed with my surveillance team then by the time I could react to any situation developing the Project would already all over the scene and I’d have to somehow get through the inevitable cordon Project Sumter’s agents would have put in place.

The Project is inept and wasteful in a surprising number of ways, but there’s one thing you can say for them: They know how to keep the public out of situations under their purview. It’s pure survival for secret government agencies.

There were any number of ways I could have dealt with a running the Project’s secrecy gauntlet, ranging from the direct frontal assault to a couple of promising but still highly experimental forms of transportation. In particular, Davis has ideas for a creative maglev harness that I think has a lot of potential. But, since you don’t survive eight years in the dangerous business of dangerous villain armed with exceptional abilities without some small dose of self preservation, I’d finally settled on a more practical and elegant solution that was all the better for being unexpected.

I hid inside the building. Thus I ensured I was the first on the scene and avoided being cordoned out in one fell swoop.

Now it was more complicated and difficult than I make it sound, and it was also very uncomfortable and tedious. There was a lot of careful electronic manipulation and old-fashioned skullduggery involved. It was a great exercise in the kind of stealth and intrusion skills that I don’t use as often as I should, what with my having Heavy Water around to rely on. And, of course, it all went beautifully and I was never noticed in spite of all that was being done to ready the school for classes the next week. I could say more about it but I’d rather not bore anyone.

Suffice it to say that my injured hand and shoulder got both rest and exercise, enough to feel reasonably healed and useful by the end of my stay, and I got to know the school building very, very well. The building got a few new little additions that made my life easier as well. Things weren’t the best they could be, but only because hygiene can’t always be a top priority in my line of work. One of the things most people don’t think about when considering a career in supervillainy.

Actually, the worst part was the boredom. During the day I mostly confined myself to the basement of the building, a labyrinth of storage rooms, furnace equipment and half-forgotten junk. I passed some time working by mobile device, but there limits to what I could do down there. I managed to catch a little sleep, but maintenance workers were in the area enough that it wasn’t very restful. At nights I prowled the school building and prepared for the Enchanter’s arrival. Heavy and Grappler took turns phoning in status updates.

By Thursday I was getting restless. I was still sure that I was in the only logical location for the Enchanter’s next arson, but I was beginning to worry about moving things from Location Ten to the Chainfall site. Davis was a great engineer but only an average project manager, and for the duration of the Enchanter’s mischief Simeon was in town and thus away from the site. Regardless of who got the Enchanter, I suspected that my activities for the last few weeks were moving me up Sumter’s priority list, and that meant Chainfall, my next move in the ten year plan to deal with them, had to be ready before they figured out what I was up to. And I had scheduled my face to face meeting with Hangman for late the following week. It would be nice to finish with the Enchanter before then.

The handful of specialized subsystems I’d brought with me when I snuck into the school the second time were all in place by that point. And I know what you’re thinking, why not just install the surveillance package with everything else? The short answer is, because my surveillance systems went into the public areas of the building and for the most part, the rest did not. It was better to have a cover in place beforehand than try to improvise something if I was discovered sneaking around in tactical gear in the middle of the night. Even with everything in place, preparation always pays, so that evening I went out to check on things. After all, there was always a chance that something had been discovered or just moved out of place during the day’s activity.

First I called all three elevators in the building down to the basement. I was fortunate that the building had been renovated after accessibility regulations made elevators mandatory in multistory government buildings. Not because I needed them but because they were access points. I’d spliced into the power supply cables in each elevator so that I could draw power for my equipment directly from the building, instead of draining the far more limited supply in my vest and newly finished battery belt. When combined with a clunky but serviceable pair of electromagnetic boots it also became possible for me to climb up or down the elevator shaft, offering a way to move between floors that most people wouldn’t immediately notice and wasn’t covered by any of the observation equipment that came with the building or that Project Sumter had installed.

Once I was sure those were still in place and functional, the next step was to check that the splices I’d slipped into the Project’s surveillance equipment were still in place, so that I could replace live footage with canned recordings of empty hallways should the need arise. With that done I was left with the options of going down to the cafeteria and finding something to eat or braving the lingering heat on the rooftop long enough to check on the large electromagnets I’d left there, part of my countermeasure for prolematic heat sinks.

Since the route I’d taken around the school that evening left me near the offices I decided to cut through to the back access ladder and hit the roof first.

Offices might be a bit of a generous term for the schools administrative area. That part of the building was nestled into one corner of the top floor. The principle had his own office, since rank has its privileges, but most of the rest of the teachers just had cubicles along a narrow hallway, with Barry the secretary’s desk standing sentinel at one end and the other leading into a small back area with a kitchenette and a maintenance closet. Two hallways lead into the area and both opened into the small reception area where Barry normally lurks, so getting from the hall I was in to the hall I wanted should have been a simple matter of opening a door and turning a corner.

Instead, when I stepped into the office I found a man piling packages onto Barry’s desk. For a second we just stared at each other, two men with no business being in the building, each trying to figure out who the other was and what to do about it. I recovered first and snatched my pistol out of its holster, backpedaling a step just in case he decided to make an ill-advised grab for the weapon. In my line of work it’s widely understood that in close quarters guns belong to whoever wants them most, and while my instincts told me that pastor Rodriguez was retired from the street life that didn’t mean his instincts were entirely gone.

And hard as it was to believe, it was the pastor again. He had a huge sack with small boxes spilling out of it in one hand and a pile of greeting card envelopes sat on the desk near at hand. I wasn’t sure how he had made it past my surveillance and gotten into the building, but there he was and no point denying it. I had no idea what to do with him.

I was grateful that I had decided to go with a loose mask to cover the bottom half of my face, which, along with the fedora that was a standard part of my operating gear, removed just about any chance of being identified as the electrician from earlier in the week. That could have gotten awkward. “You know, if you’re the arsonist everyone’s been gossiping about recently I have to say you’ve come undersupplied,” Rodriguez said.

“Funny,” I said on reflex. “I was just thinking most arsonists don’t bring greeting cards for their victims to the scene of the crime. They don’t usually last long enough to be an efficient use of resources.”

“I don’t know about you but I came in through the front door,” Rodriguez said with a huff. “If you want to call the police and see which of us can give a better explanation for our being here that’s fine with me.”

That was a solid comeback but it only worked out if we were on even footing, and I suspected that the pastor was not the kind of man to carry a gun anymore. “A counter offer. How about you put that bag on the ground and have a seat behind that desk for the moment, and no one has to the ER tonight,” I said. With a sigh Rodriguez did as I asked. “Keep you hands on the desk, please.”

So far, my Hispanic friend had given no indication of recognizing me and was fairly compliant, both of which were good. I took a moment to check my phone and found that I had missed a call, probably blocked by the elevator shaft I was in a few minutes ago. I slipped the phone back into it’s belt pocket and used a twitch of talent to activate my Bluetooth headset and call Grappler back. She picked up almost immediately.

The first thing she said was, “You didn’t pick up.”

If it had been almost any other situation I would have been annoyed by the demanding tone in her voice, but on a job like this pretty much any deviation from the expected was an emergency. “I was in a part of the building with no signal,” I said, carefully choosing words that wouldn’t hint at exactly where I’d been in case Rodriguez hearing it made a difference. “I apologize.”

“There’s someone in the building with you,” Grappler said, wisely choosing to stick to business rather than lecturing me for not calling back sooner.

“I just  found him.” Rodriguez raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything. “He’s not our man. Stay on the lookout for new arrivals. I’ll be here, keeping an eye on our new friend, so you should be able to reach me without difficulty.”

“Fine. Be careful, Circuit. I never will understand why it’s always gotta be you doing these things, but keep in mind that as long as you’re sticking your neck out like that all our jobs are on the line.” The line went dead.

I grunted and turned my full attention to the big man at the desk. “Now. This is more than a little inconvenient. What, pray tell, should I be doing with you?”

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter
Fiction Index

Heat Wave: Simmer Until Done

Helix

“Stop blowing bubbles in your coffee, Helix.”

“It’s an aromatic beverage,” I mumbled. “If you can’t smell it half the fun is gone.”

“Coffee stirrers are not straws.” Amplifier leaned back against the wall of the van and sighed. “I’m not sure what I was expecting when you asked me out but it certainly wasn’t this.”

Bergstrum made a choking noise and quickly set down his own coffee. Jack gave me an amused nudge. “Asked out?”

“I asked her if she wanted to get out of the office tonight and see what we’d been up to.” I shrugged. “Any and all possible misconceptions arising from that are not my fault.”

“You’re a surprisingly devious person, Helix,” Herrera said as she flipped her cards over to show a hand with three tens and took the pot for the hand of poker they were playing, using a box as a table.

I frowned. “You’re obviously a card sharp, so I’d say it takes one to know one.”

“You’re just mad because you’ve been cleaned out already,” Kesselman muttered, anteing up for the next round.

You’re all holding up the game,” Bergstrum said, motioning impatiently for the cards to be dealt.

“And you’re all done seeing how long we can start sentences with the same word,” Jack added, shuffling the cards with his trademark methodical slowness.

“I kind of expected you to be a bit better at reading bluffs, Amp,” Kesselman said as he examined his cards. “Doesn’t super hearing help out any?”

“You’d be surprised the things it does and doesn’t help with.” Amplifier rocked forward again to toss in her ante and take her cards. “For starters, everyone sounds different when they lie, so if you don’t know someone fairly well it’s easy to miss their tells. I’m sure there’s some kind of common threads, but I haven’t needed to be a walking lie detector in the past so I really don’t have the experience to tell you what they are.”

Jack finished dealing the cards and asked, “Bets?”

I tuned the poker game out and went back to my reading, absently blowing bubbles in my coffee until Amplifier got annoyed enough to quietly kick me in the shins, an absent minded kind of point and counterpoint that would repeat itself several times in the next half hour. It would have been funny, except she was wearing the kind of heavy boots you could find at army surplus stores along with a jean skirt and yet another obscure band T-shirt. I wound up wishing I had put on full riot gear instead of just a vest for that day’s stakeout.

That, or just not suggested we invite Amplifier along as an observer.

While I was regretting having her along at the moment, it’s important that people thinking of joining the Project understand that very little of what we do is anything other than incredibly boring. The easiest way to do that is simply to sit them down in the middle of the most boring thing you can think of at let them feel what it’s like. Normally I’d have invited Amplifier along to a meeting with one of the Analysis department’s forensic accountants, but steakouts are in a special class all their own. Judging by her attitude at the moment she actually coping fairly well. She played poker, chatted and generally tried to keep people’s mind off the boredom without being overly distracting.

I was sorely tempted to give her some paperwork to see how she handled that, but she wasn’t cleared for anything I was going over at the moment. Still, all in all I was slowly warming up to the idea of recruiting Amplifier into the Project.

“What are you staring at?” Amplifier asked. I stifled the instinctive jerk, took a second to figure out that  I had been watching Amplifier intently for the last few seconds, or maybe minutes, and apparently it was starting to creep her out.

From the heat in my face I could tell I was blushing, but Jack saved me from answering. “You want to watch out, Amp. I know that look, it means he’s trying to figure out how he can put you to work. He always gets like that before he decides he’s going to rope someone into the Project. Ask Al Massif what it’s like to be sponsored by Helix – it’s different for everyone but it’s always trouble.”

I grunted and smoothed the papers I was reading out flat as a way to buy time.  “It’s not that big a deal.”

“If things are like this all the time a complicated job interview might be the most exciting part of the gig,” Amplifier said with a laugh.

“It could be worse. If you went with Agent Massif today, like Gearshift did, you’d have to spend all day in a van watching a school without the benefit of the human air conditioner over there.” Bergstrum nodded at me, in case there was doubt about who he was talking about.

“There are upsides,” Herrera said while dealing out a new hand. “For one thing, all talents get to visit Charleston, where the national Project headquarters is. You can even tour the historic Fort, if you want.”

“Really?” Amplifier pursed her lips. “Not that’s a real plus for me, although Charleston might be nice.” She glanced over at me. “What did you think of it?”

“I don’t go into the South,” I said. “The Shenandoahs don’t like me much.”

“How can an entire mountain range not like you?”

I ignored the question by looking back at my reading. I could hear Mona whispering in the back of my mind that, yes, telling he to mind her own business was rude, but I wasn’t really improving on that any by ignoring her. Which was true, but hey at least I was getting imaginary advice from someone other than Sanders now. My only other reaction to that thought was to grab one of the blueberry muffins Mona had sent along with us and start eating it.

There was an awkward pause then Jack said, “Play your cards, Amp. Trying to wrap your head around some things won’t do you any good now.”

Actually, I hoped she would never get caught up in any of my private little feuds, but since the reports we’d gotten suggested that Circuit had accessed her file as part of his general ransacking of our network perhaps it was already too late for that. In fact, what I was reading was a summary of the files Circuit had accessed via his backdoor in the few days it had been in place. Considering he was limited to a 3G cellular connection to send instructions and get data out, it was impressive how much he’d managed to do in such a short time.

A lot of it was straightforward stuff dealing with the Enchanter’s case, and I noticed Analysis had officially renamed the Firestarter to help make things less confusing, it looked like Circuit had grabbed all of our reports dating back to the point we were first sure we were dealing with a heat sink arsonist and not just an average nutcase. But on top of that he had poked around some in Massif’s record for the same time period and dug out as much as he could on my activities in the period between our brush in Morocco and the present.

He’d also done a few surprising things. He’d left hints as to where he expected the Enchanter to show up again by running a couple of data sifting jobs on our computers instead of his own, and as a result we knew that ol’ High School 44, where we were staked out, served every address the Enchanter had attacked. Mossburger had already concluded that a school was the next likely target, but it was nice to have the legwork determining which school taken care of for us.

Just to make sure all our bases were covered, while I watched this location with another team, Massif took his own team and another group to a nearby middle school and kept an eye on that. The first arson site wasn’t in that school zone, so it was considered a less likely target, but it never hurts to be thorough. Of course, with four talents, their oversight agents and their tactical teams all committed here in the city we were stretched a little thin, and it was a good thing there wasn’t another potential site to cover. Assuming we were right about the Enchanter’s next crime.

On top of poking his fingers into our open investigations there were apparently plenty of other little signs of Circuit’s break-in running around. There’d been a file full of messages addressed directly to me, each with a timestamp in the title, and instructions to read the one closest to the time his transmitter had been discovered. They ranged from congratulations on finding the device so fast to admonitions to work a little harder.

I’d wound up somewhere in the middle and gotten the message, “As expected. But good enough isn’t good enough for me, Helix. Try for above average next time.”

The techs were still finding traces of unauthorized access in the system, apparently Circuit had been busy with a bunch of other, less blatant activities as well as his obvious ones, mostly poking around in sensitive files relating to cataloging and researching talents. That information was still coming in and every so often the printer that was part of the van’s monitoring set-up would spit out a new printout and the techie currently manning the station would hand it to me. I’d gotten the privilege of looking it all over by virtue of being the most senior agent present, since Mona and Sanders were in the other van, watching the other side of the school.

I’d just been handed yet another set of papers when our techie sat bolt upright. “Someone’s approaching the building.”

Despite the fact that I was closest to the monitors and he was all the way on the other side of the poker game, and he only had the width of a full sized van to fit his considerable bulk through, Jack still managed to get past me and loom over the tech’s shoulder before I could get there. The man can move, and I’m not entirely ready to say it’s not some kind of talent unique to him.

“What are we looking at?” Jack asked, leaning down and crowding the tech through sheer bulk. “That guy, with the packages?”

“That’s the one.”

I edged around Jack for a better view. “Why is it, whenever we see that guy he’s carrying something?” He asked.

“Is that Rodriguez?” I shook my head in amazement. “What is he even doing here?”

“Michael told me that his church meets here,” Herrera said, crowding in behind us. “Classes start next week. Maybe he’s bringing something for the teachers?”

“People still do that?” Amplifier asked from somewhere in the back of the van.

“Apparently,” I muttered, feeling Jack’s question slowly turn over in the back of my mind. Always carrying something indeed. And there was the full U-Haul truck. And furniture at Mossburger’s that came from Rodriguez’ church. Very interesting. But the church pastor would have to wait, he wasn’t why I was here.

I scooted back and sat in my spot on the floor and tried to focus on something else. The latest pile of paperwork I’d been handed turned out not to be related to Circuit after all. It was from the Watch, the department who monitors the media and other sources for talents. The cover sheet said, “Notice: Legal Activity Involving Family of Project Personnel.”

There is some evidence that talents run in families, yours truly being a prime example, so the Watch runs searches that check names in news stories and police reports against databases of Project personnel. That way, we’d know if we needed to step if a talent’s cousin or younger sibling suddenly developed a talent under less than ideal conditions. Ideal conditions being under no stress and preferably away from people who didn’t already know about the existence of talented people, so that pretty much never happens.

After a few minutes reading I realized that this wasn’t a case of some talent’s kid brother getting in trouble with newly awakened abilities. With a sinking feeling in my stomach I realized it was probably going to be several times worse. Elizabeth Dawson’s mother had just reported her missing.

“Sanders’ observation team reports there’s someone approaching the building on their side.”

I groaned, folded up the paper and shoved it in my pocket, wondering if things could get any worse.

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter
Fiction Index