Thunder Clap: Era’s End

Helix

The door behind me swung closed. As soon as it latched I leaned back and blew out a long breath.

“You okay?” Sanders asked from where he stood by the observation window.

“Being okay implies I have something like normal to judge by.” I walked over to the window and stared out at Circuit, who was back to staring at the table top like the mysteries of the universe were written in the wood grain of it’s surface. “I’m not sure we’ve ever had anything like that. He was right about that much, even if what it drove him to was completely crazy.”

“He wouldn’t have been nearly as dangerous if he wasn’t right about a lot of things,” Sanders said, staring at Circuit with me.

I glanced past Sanders. Darryl was sitting at the far end of the window, leaning heavily on his cane and, like the two of us, contemplating the man in the other room.  I nudged Sanders lightly and tipped my head in Darryl’s direction. Had he said anything? Moved at all? Did we need to get him an ambulance? Or would Circuit need a security escort out of the interrogation room?

Sanders shook his head twice, a negative response on all counts.

“I can hear you two, you know,” Darryl said, not looking away from the window.

“We didn’t say anything!” Sanders protested.

“I hear you thinking.” Darryl snorted and finally tore his attention away from Circuit. “Since when were you two so good at reading each other, anyway?”

“Since we became middle management?” I offered.

That got a chuckle from him. “You certainly don’t act like middle management, Helix.”

“They never sent me to any classes for it. Maybe that’s why.” I searched his face for some sign of what he was thinking but Darryl had been in the field before I got out of middle school. People say I’m good at reading people and maybe so but Darryl was even better at hiding his feelings. “How are you doing?”

“Breathing.” Darryl laughed a weak, shaky laugh and turned back to the window again. “I’m not sure I’ve done anything more than that in the last three years or so. Not sure that’s going to change any time soon. If it’s saving I need then I didn’t find it here.”

Sanders put a hand on Darryl’s shoulder with a light, comforting touch. “Sometimes all you can do is keep breathing, if that’s what it takes to survive.”

“Survive?” Darryl shook his head and pushed up out of his chair. “Some days surviving feels like it just takes me further away from Mona.”

Sanders and I watched Darryl slowly make his way out of the observation room, his steps shuffling along to the rhythm of his cane. When he was gone Sanders asked, “Do you think we should keep an eye on him 24/7? Or just during the evenings.”

“Round the clock,” I said without hesitation.

“You want first shift?”

“Sure. Grab HiRes and the sisters cold to help out, too. It will look better if his own team handles him during the day.” I looked back through the observation window to the interrogation room. Circuit had left the table and pulled all the way back into one corner of the room. His head was bowed and he may have been resting it in his hands. Maybe he just fell asleep in his chair, but I doubted it.

He’d tried to save us all, in a way. His wife, Elizabeth, from parents who didn’t see a person’s gifts as something to be celebrated. Teresa from a world that had been content to never tell her that her father’s killer was gone simply because keeping the killer’s unusual abilities secret was more expedient. Me, from a system that wouldn’t let me use my greatest gifts to rise in the world. Even people like Sanders, who had spent a huge chunk of their lives laboring in a world no one knew about and that they could never share. It all seemed so noble.

“Do you think he realizes he wasn’t passing it on?”

Sanders shot me a questioning look, clearly not following my non sequitur.

I gestured towards the back corner of the far room. “Circuit wasn’t looking to save us. Maybe that was a side effect, but I don’t think it’s what he wanted.”

A moment passed while Sanders decided whether he wanted to bite or not. “So what did he want?”

“I think he was looking to save a much younger man from a plane crash that took a lot more than working legs from him.” I shook my head sadly. “Too bad he’s still stuck here with the rest of us.”

I turned and headed towards the door. Two steps later Sanders asked, “You going to keep an eye on Darryl?”

“Yeah. I’ll get…” I ran through a quick list of people in the office who could take the second shift from me and stopped as I had a sudden idea. “Actually, can you take first shift?”

Sanders gave me a confused look. “I guess. What are you going to be doing?”

I smiled. “Looking for a way to save someone.”

Izzy

I hadn’t helped set up for church in years but after the week I’d had, with all the power outages, kidnappings, smashing of buildings and incredible debriefings the simple action of setting up rows of chairs was soothing and distracted me from my impending First Media Interview. My ankles were still swollen and uncomfortable after my unpleasant experience with explosives but all in all the activity felt good. Good feelings when my boss snuck up on me and asked, “How are you feeling, Rodriguez?”

After nearly jumping out of my skin – and through the roof, super strength does have some drawbacks – I spun around to find Helix, looking like he was doing his best not to laugh. “Sorry, you startled me.”

“Sorry, not what I was trying to do.” He managed to say it with a straight face although I could tell he was still struggling. “But seriously, how are you? A lot of people, talented or not, who go into field work are ready to move on to something else after a week like the one you had.”

“I don’t know.” I sat down in one of the folding chairs I’d been setting up and sighed. “From what papa told me I knew not to expect anything like normal cop work. Taxmen get assigned to cases that need someone who can play hardball. I guess I didn’t count on getting abducted being part of that.”

Helix straddled a chair in the row in front of me, leaning with his arms folded over the back. “Honestly, I don’t think any cop or government agent who’s just finished training and been issued his sidearm and badge does. But it does happen, every once in a very long time. Being powerful doesn’t mean you’re not in danger and for someone who wasn’t even technically through training I think you handled yourself very well. But that also means if you want to stay in the field I’m going to assign you to cases like this again.”

I nodded. “I get that. It’s just kind of a daunting idea. And now Cheryl wants me to go and talk to the TV reporters. It’s kind of freaky.”

That got a laugh. “You can get used to the job, Izzy, but the media is something else entirely. And so long as you keep handling high profile cases I think they’re going to keep wanting to talk to you. Who knows? Maybe Cheryl will recruit you for the PR department and you can do it all the time.”

“How about I just get through the first time for right now.” I suppressed a shudder at the thought of dealing with cameras every day. Time for a subject change. “What did you want to talk to papa about?”

Helix grimaced. “Politics. That, and I need him on board as the man in charge of Project Sumter’s correctional and rehabilitation programs.”

There was only really one reason I could think of that he’d want to talk to papa about that. He’d talked about it often enough. “You want Mr. Sykes put in a special facility?”

“Actually,” Helix said, sheepish expression showing he thought what he was about to say wouldn’t make sense, “I was thinking of arranging for something more like work release. Partly because I don’t think he’d stay in any jail we could build for long unless he wanted to and I’d rather have him somewhere I can keep an eye on him. And party because it seems like a waste not to give someone so well intentioned a second chance. Either way I’m going to need Samson and Voorman in my camp if the idea is ever going to get off the ground.”

People who’d known him for a while said Helix used to be an idealist, back when he’d started, but I’d never reconciled that with the hard edged man I saw around the office. Looking at him now I could kind of understand what they meant. “Glad to see you’ve forgiven him.”

Helix sat up straight. “I’m sorry, what? Forgiving Circuit for what he’s done is way outside my authority.”

“For everything he’s done, sure. But he’s hurt you in the past and you wouldn’t be helping him now unless you’d forgiven him. God always forgave His people before He saved them.” I shrugged. “How could you help Circuit unless you’d forgiven him?”

Helix looked at me sideways, like I suddenly had two heads with three eyes each. “Your mind goes some strange places.”

I spread my hands. “We’re in a church, Helix. What were you expecting?”

He looked around at the polished wooden floors of the gymnasium. “We’re in the middle of a school, Rodriguez.”

“Come on.” I got up and straightened my chair out. “Papa’s in the office with some of the elders.”

Helix got up and followed me out of the gym. “You never said, but I guess I didn’t ask directly. Are you going to stay in the field?”

“Why’s it so important?”

He thought for a moment, then said, “You’re the first of the new generation, that’s all. Our first talent who came in after Circuit made us public. I’d feel better if I knew we’d done right enough by you that you’d stick around for a while longer.”

I smiled. “You know, Helix, I think you have.”

Fiction Index

Previous Chapter

Thunder Clap: The Interview

The room was sparse, poorly lit and had three distinct features. First, the table in the middle. Second, the chairs, both on one side of the table. Third, the reflective sheet of glass in one wall of the room next to a barely visible door. Opposite the room’s two chairs Matthew Sykes sat in a chair of his own. Not the rather absurd, overbuilt, motorized electric chair that had served as his court of last resort during the struggle for Waltham Towers but rather the simple leather and metal wheelchair that had served as the prop for a masquerade lasting nearly ten years until the sham had somehow turned into the truth.

Whatever thoughts might have been going through the mind of Sykes in that melancholy room had their progress halted when Double Helix pushed into the room, the door behind him swinging closed on well oiled hinges. Practically the only sound in the room as Helix walked over to the table was the sound of him turning the pages of the enormous file he carried. Finally Helix plopped it down on the table with a soft but forceful thud and sat in one of the open chairs. He prodded the file with one finger. “You know, we usually pad these to make them more intimidating? But yours didn’t need any work. Everything in there is an actual document produced during the course of investigating you over the past ten years.”

Sykes glanced at the file then back at Helix. “I’m guessing you wrote at least half of that.”

“More or less.” Helix folded his hands on top of the file and stared hard at Sykes.

The silence stretched out, neither man seeming particularly uncomfortable with it. Helix looked the other man over repeatedly, as if looking for something and repeatedly failing to find it. Sykes was more interested in the file, studying the bulging manila folder as if he could see through it and read the information within.

Finally after a good two or three minutes Sykes looked Helix in the eye and asked, “Should you really be doing this alone?”

“No.” Helix leaned back in his chair, the back resting against the wall. “But then, should you really have spent a decade running roughshod over the US?”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Helix laughed, real amusement in his voice. Sykes frowned. “It wasn’t that funny.”

“Sorry. Irony is a personal thing, probably no one else on the planet that would laugh at that.” Helix tilted forward again, still smirking. “Tell you what. This isn’t on record, although there are some people out there,” he jerked a thumb towards the glass, “who would like some answers. And I’d like them, too.”

Sykes’ head jerked momentarily towards the one way mirror, then back to Helix. “Elizabeth is here?”

“Just the psychologist we’re thinking of assigning you in prison,” Helix replied. “So level with us, Circuit. What possesses a man to try and overthrow the government single handedly? You never struck me as the ideological type. Was it glory?”

“It was my parents.”

“The Sykes? Or your biological parents. The…” Helix flipped the folder open and started looking through it.

“My adoptive parents,” Sykes clarified.

Helix twitched the file closed again. “Go on.”

“It’s hard to explain what it’s like.” Sykes looked down at the table for a moment, absently dragging his thumb back and forth along the armrest of his chair. “The system isn’t a place for kids. Foster homes… you never feel like anyone really wants you there and hiding the fact that you can touch the TV to feel that it’s practically alive doesn’t help things. When Daniel and Martha came and took me out of that place I was more grateful than I’d ever been in my life.”

Helix tossed the file aside, braced his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “And that drove you to try and rule the world?”

The shadow of a smile brushed across Sykes’ face. “When I asked him why he wanted to adopt a kid Daniel told me that he’d been pretty successful and he wanted to pay it forward. Since he and Martha couldn’t have kids they decided to find one to share with. Then he told me that sooner or later I’d probably want to do the same, and when the time came I’d know how I wanted to do it.”

“This still doesn’t sound like the foundation for megalomania.”

“I took them flying because Martha really wanted to try it. There was a cloud… probably a small rainstorm brewing. I’d been through clouds before but there was more charge that time than there’d ever been before. It…” Sykes waved his hands ambiguously. “That was the first time I realized I could be a living lightning rod.”

Helix sat back in his chair, a little thunderstruck himself. “That’s why your plane crashed and there was no records of what happened. The lightning fried the black box.”

“When I was in recovery after the crash and the surgeries I started poking around the Internet, finding places where the underground talent community compared notes. I learned some of the things I could do.” Sykes pulled his gaze up from the table, long buried fury smoldering in his eyes. “And I learned that there were people – there was a whole branch of the government – that knew about people like me. That could have warned me of the risks I was running. But they didn’t because they were too scared.”

Sykes pulled himself up and looked Helix right in the eye. “That was when I knew how I was going to pay it forward.”

Helix nodded slowly. “You were going to take over and change things.”

“No.” Sykes’ composure crumpled and he slipped down to stare at the table top again. His voice faded to a whisper. “I wanted to save them.”

Confusion flitted over Helix’s face but his expression quickly shifted to neutral again. “I don’t follow.”

“Daniel and Martha saved me from the foster system, from feeling like I was just a face in the crowd. They showed me that people had survived the kind of indifference that’s endemic to systems before.” Sykes threw his hands out as if to encompass the whole building and the organization that had built it. “Sumter was a system, Helix. It didn’t explain, it didn’t protect. It just demanded people do as it wanted and damned the consequences. There were three other fuse boxes in the state that could have explained the dangers of flying a plane to me, to say nothing of all the experienced field agents who had probably seen dozens of those kinds of accidents before. What was the statistic before Project Sumter went public? One in five talents died in accidents caused by their own talents?”

“One in eight.” Helix looked away for the first time since he’d come into the room. “One in five was a guess Analysis made to account for accidents that were never tied back to the talents of those involved.”

Sykes slammed his hands down on the table. “Too many! It was going to end!”

“And damn the consequences?” Helix asked.

“There were things I should not have done. But Helix, there’s something you have to understand.” Arms straining, Sykes pulled himself forward and pushed himself into something like a standing position. “Everyone wants someone to save them.”

Helix looked up at Sykes then nodded at the other man’s chair. “Sit down, Circuit. You’ll hurt yourself.”

Sykes glared down at the shorter man but Helix ignored it with the ease of long practice. “Tell me you didn’t feel isolated, Helix. How many times did you accidentally start a fire with your talents? How often did you worry about hurting someone when you touched them before your grandmother taught you how to control a heat sink.”

“Careful who you bring into this,” Helix said, his voice soft but full of menace.

Finally Sykes did slump back into his chair with a disgusted snort. “I have an IQ just shy of 130, I ran track in high school, people thought I was decent looking. But I couldn’t see a way out of foster care on my own. Don’t you understand, Helix? Sometimes you need other people to help.”

“The Project -”

“Not only wasn’t the help people needed, it was actively getting in the way.” Sykes sighed and looked down at his hands. “So I decided to get rid of it.”

“And set yourself up in its place?” Helix folded his arms across his chest. “Not exactly inspiring confidence.”

“Someone was going to do it sooner or later.” Sykes shrugged. “Frankly I’m surprised no one ever tried to play the supervillain before. Ruling a country seems like a simple business from the outside, though I’m sure it’s much harder once you actually have to do it.”

“And you wanted to try anyway.”

“Oh, I had a plan.”

“How surprising.” Helix didn’t sound like he thought it was, really. “What kind of genius plan was it?”

“You.” Sykes chuckled at Helix’s blank look. “Or someone like you. Come on, you don’t think I really could have taken over the country just because I had some breakthrough transportation and electronic warfare technology, did you? I knew that sooner or later someone would put together a way to stop me but by the time they did Project Sumter would no longer stand in the way of talented people. It would be the first step towards letting them be all they could.”

“You were going to save people by getting thrown in jail?” Helix shook his head. “That is a really stupid way to live.”

“It’s a great way to die.”

Silence ruled the room for another minute, much less comfortable this time.

“I paid off the doctor who declared me disabled after the accident,” Sykes said when he grew too uncomfortable. “But once the grand plan started to take shape I had to get rid of him. I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve blackmailed, I’m sure a lot of security directors at banks have lost their jobs because of me. Parts of my organization haven’t always… proceeded as I’d have liked.”

Helix snorted. “You mean like this last week? Or how about in Morocco?”

“Two very big examples.” Sykes rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. “Then there was Templeton. Not even a deliberate decision there. I just made a stupid mistake. But it was Elizabeth that made me see it.”

“Please don’t tell me this is the power of love at work.”

A cynical smile crossed Sykes’ face. “In a way. It wasn’t until I saw her toss away everything I thought I was going to be giving people – family, support, a place to belong – that I started to realize.” He gripped the armrests on his chair and took a deep breath. “I wasn’t saving anyone. Michigan Avenue was well intended and it even succeeded – far beyond what I was expecting. But everything before and after that… it was me trying to justify what had happened in the past. And I decided that it was time for all of that to go away. So I did. Until this week, when I realized my bad decisions weren’t quite as gone as I thought. But we’re finished with that now, too, so I suppose I really am done now.”

Sykes lapsed into silence again. After waiting to see if anything more was forthcoming Helix picked up the file on the table and stood in a single well practiced motion. “I suppose we’ll have to see about that.”

A few minutes later the door swung shut behind him and Sykes was alone with his thoughts once again.

Fiction Index

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Thunder Clap: Brawl

Izzy

Circuit kicked things off with a literal bang, electricity arcing with a teeth rattling crack from his chair to his hands, then from his hands to the plasma cloud in front of Helix. Things got weird – if the guy throwing lighting wasn’t weird enough – when the plasma ball bent and stretched from an orb to a weird, wavering teardrop shape that pushed towards the middle of the room before throwing lightning bolts at the two nearest guards and sending them tumbling to the ground. That seemed like an excellent time to gently tip a desk over on top of them so I did.

Hopefully it was too heavy for them to move, I’m not very good at judging things like that. To be on the safe side I got a desk for each of them.

The man on the throne swooped through the hole in the side of the building, his hoverchair – or whatever you wanted to call it – humming loud enough to be heard over the chaos and the plasma cloud bent back towards Helix. Whatever was going on there it was probably magnetic and headache inducing, by which I mean any attempt to explain it would probably fry the brains of most people, so I didn’t worry about it too much and just kept an eye on the to make sure I didn’t get fried by it as it went spastic.

Helix apparently had no such worries because he walked through the plasma with no visible harm. As he did so he clapped his hands over his ears and dropped his mouth open, giving me just enough of a warning what was coming that I could do the same and confusing most everyone else in the room to no end. The plasma abruptly shimmered out of existence, the heat that kept it burning quickly dispersing in the surrounding atmosphere as Helix stopped holding it in one place. The result was a loud bang exactly like you would expect from a bolt of lighting, since the part of lighting that you see is composed of superheated plasma doing the exact same thing.

The noise was loud enough that I could feel it in my sternum and even with my ears covered and my mouth open to relieve pressure it still felt like the noise came from a whip cracking at the side of my head. I managed to get my bearings with a quick shake to clear my head and Helix didn’t seemed bothered by the noise any more than I was but by the time my head was clear the guards in the room were still woozily looking about or had hands on the side of their heads. Circuit didn’t seem to notice at all, or at least he didn’t do anything about the noise for all I knew he’d put earplugs in while I was busy smashing walls, but whatever the explanation Davis apparently shared it because he didn’t seem bothered either. His partner with the fancy hoverthrone was probably protected by the fact that he was still at the far end of the room and probably too far to suffer more than minor tinnitus from Helix’s improvised flashbang.

In spite of being the closest to ground zero Helix showed the least signs of being affected out of anyone there, he’d already put one guard into an arm lock and levered him to the floor by the time my ears stopped ringing enough for my eyes to focus again. But even with most of the players temporarily stunned we were still outnumbered and Davis was surprisingly fast for a man of his size, and he jumped Helix with a lack a finesse more than made up for with enthusiasm.

Desks were getting pretty scarce on my side of the room for some reason so I took matters into my own hands by the expedient of trying to grab Davis. Before I could add one more to the three person pile-up Hoverthrone sideswiped me and I spun once, rolled twice and wound up against the wall with a throbbing pain in my side where I’d been hit. Yes I could have stopped him with one hand if I’d seen him coming but that’s the real trick and I hadn’t managed it. I got to my feet and swiped my hand through the wall, fumbling for a second before I managed to grab a two-by-four and yanked it out of the wall in a shower of drywall dust. I realized as I was hefting it to throw that yanking it out of the wall hand left the ends jagged and potentially fatal if I threw it at Davis, who wasn’t in body armor, so I switched and flung it at the Hoverthrone, catching it low, near the base in fact, and tumbling it end over end. The rider fell entirely out of the chair, proving that Circuit’s roller coaster style restraints were a wise choice, and without direction the throne itself just kept spinning for a moment before falling to the ground like an abandoned puppet.

Circuit’s head snapped around, the throne’s deactivation apparently distracting him from beating a guard’s head against the armrest of his wheelchair. Pushing the guard aside Circuit kicked his chair into motion, it’s motor whirring frantically as he rolled towards the tangle of equipment at the center of the room. He only got halfway there before Davis looked up from the frantic wrestling match he was tangled in and yelled, “Stop him!”

A second later Davis went back down as Helix kicked him in the teeth.

Circuit’s doppelganger – evil twin just doesn’t sound right – scrambled to his feet and made a twitching motion in the direction of the only guard left standing, a woman who still looked a little dazed, and she went flying towards Circuit. She suddenly slowed a few feet away and Circuit managed to grab her and deflect her over the top of his chair but it was proof enough that the guards were still wearing maglev harnesses and fake Circuit still had some measure of control over them.

And fake Circuit himself was wearing a harness too, as he proved when a second later he jerked up and over the debris we’d left all over the place, flying straight towards Circuit with a frustrated scream. Circuit matched flying with flying, his chair whirring back away from his imposter for a split second before it cleared the floor itself and went straight up towards the ceiling. For some reason the wheelchair flipped over mid-air and wound up with its wheels pressed against the ceiling as Circuit looked down on his double disapprovingly.

Fake Circuit had his arms outstretched and I wondered for a split second whether Circuit’s chair had flipped because of interference from his rival, then one of the chair’s wheels spun and it pivoted 180 degrees around the other wheel putting Circuit right above his clone. Then chair and rider dropped like a stone, Circuit’s arms outstretched to catch his double, and both men crashed to the floor with the chair on top of them.

Davis and Helix were still grappling with each other but the guard Helix had been tangling with at first had squirmed free and started over to dig his boss out. I headed that off at the pass, crossing over to him with three quick steps, looping one hand around his head as I slid a knee behind his. Flipping him to the ground was as easy as flicking water off of my fingers and I took his carbine and twisted its barrel into a knot as an afterthought. What I really wanted was the Hoverthrone.

It sat on its side where it had fallen, looking fairly inoffensive covered in dust with a two-by-four sticking out of the bottom, not like the monument to self-importance it had probably been intended as. But then, self-important stuff rarely comes off looking as grand as it’s intended. I picked the thing up, stepped over to the pit it was obviously intended to fit in somehow and smashed the two things together. They didn’t fit together nicely so I tried it again. And again. And a few more times, for good measure. Once the whole mess was reduced to a sparking mess of wires, cracked casings and loose microchips I tossed the wrecked throne aside and looked around.

None of the guards seemed to be interested in fighting anymore. Circuit had somehow righted his wheelchair and was rubbing at his shoulder with a pained look on his face, his double was still crumpled on the floor and might not have been breathing. And Helix was cuffing Davis, who had a nasty looking nosebleed and what would probably turn out to be two black eyes. I heaved a sigh and dusted my hands off. “There, that’s over with.”

Helix gave me an approving look before turning to look at Circuit. His expression quickly turned dark. “No. We’re not done yet. Not by a long shot.”

Fiction Index

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Thunder Clap: Drag Out

Izzy

If you ignore the guy hanging outside, probably supported by maglev if the rest of the tower that Circuit built was any indication, the room looked pretty straightforward. There were half a dozen guards of a type I was getting pretty familiar with – burly looking men and women with compact, carbine weapons – in a room that took up a forty foot by fifty foot chunk of building space with office furniture scattered generously all over the place like an Ikea shipment had blown up in the middle of the room.

And I mean “blown up” in a pretty literal sense. There was a black depression something like a crater in the middle of the room that had a rat’s nest of cables and junk hooked into it. Davis was standing by that when he ordered his goons to start shooting and I ran out of time to look around. The door was off to my right and I jumped that way – I didn’t want to duck back through the new entrance I’d made in the wall because Circuit and Helix were, in theory, coming along behind me. That left the door in the wall to my right as the logical place to go.

I ducked behind a row of desks as the first handful of bullets came my way, slipping my fingers under one of them and flipping it towards my antagonists as I went. Throwing the desk far enough to block off the incoming guards without crushing any of them was probably beyond what I was capable of but papa likes to say when there’s no way to do it without hurting anything, property damage is always better than people damage. So I just heaved that desk, and the one next to it, through the ceiling entirely and the thugs scattered under the rain of debris. For good measure I yanked the door off its hinges as I got to it, intending to send it into the cascading debris as well, but I got distracted by the squad of four additional guards who were hustling into the room to see what all the noise was about.

The first man gave a surprised yell but was fast enough to get his gun up and around before I could get the door out of the way and give myself room to move. I settled for the tried and true approach of just flinging it into the nearest wall, where it stuck about halfway through, and pushed up against my opponent’s gun arm, keeping him from pointing his weapon at me just by standing next to him. I got one hand on the SMG’s carrying strap and changed the thing it carried from the weapon to the weapon’s owner, twisting my hand once to draw the strap tight around his chest and then using it to lever him up over one shoulder. The woman behind him looked like she wanted to surrender which was too bad, I would have liked to have had the time to play nice but it just wasn’t there. I flung the guy I was carrying into her and sent the two of them clattering down with the third guy in line beneath them.

The fourth guy got points for trying something different since he came at me with a knife, one of those big, serrated things you see in tactical gear. Al has said many times in practice that a well trained knife user in hand to hand combat is a real threat, even to vector shifts like him. There’s no talent that makes you immune to getting cut, or if there is we don’t know it yet. This guy’s problem was that he wasn’t a very good knife fighter, holding the weapon like an icepick and trying to grab me with his free hand so he could drag me into a grapple.

I just grabbed that free hand and gave it a yank, using what Al calls the “dislocation twist”, twisting and yanking so as to pull the arm out of socket and leave it’s owner in extreme pain. It was one of the first moves Massif taught me and he’d made me practice it until my eyes crossed from exhaustion. I don’t have confidence in pulling many moves without hurting someone but that one is the exception. Thug number four went down screaming.

That part I wasn’t used to.

All of that took about six seconds and left me with four down but not out opponents in front of me plus six or seven more behind me, depending on whether Davis wanted in on the action, and the guy on the maglev throne who was still something of a wildcard. Everyone agreed that he was the stand in for Circuit but how big a part he was supposed to play in this mess, whether Davis was in charge, partners with him or what, wasn’t something anyone had really addressed at all. That turned out to be a bit of an oversight.

I was in the process of making sure the weapons I’d taken from my prisoners were useless, which for me consists of stomping on them until they’re mangled junk, when the outside wall blew out and a bolt of lightning hit me from one side. For most people that would be a real problem, since electrocution is bad, but this is one of those areas where being a taxman kind of lets you cheat. See, electrical energy still involves entropy which means I still take a cut of it and I can push back against it using the entropy reserves I’ve built up. Not even the brainiacs like Doctor Higgins have figured out how that works, in case you were wondering. But it does, and it’s enough that tasers and similar weapons aren’t much good against me and even lightning just kind of slows me down. Although it still really hurts.

Of course this high energy attack came from the man on the throne, who’s seat could apparently hover anywhere outside the building. If this was a part of Circuit’s original modifications for the building he’d never mentioned it and he seemed like the type who wouldn’t forget to mention details like the opposition having total, unrestricted mobility around the outside of the building. The hall I was in looked right out of the side of the tower, giving what would normally be a breathtaking view of the skyline but right now just let me see the tall, black throne and the man who was seated on it. He had his hands up with all ten fingers pointed at me, as I watched he clenched them into fists and flicked his fingers towards me again, giving me another fun experience with electricity.

The hallway was about forty feet long and offered no cover. Plus there was no way to know if there were any other hostiles lurking behind the doors so that left me with the options of going clear to the end of the hall and finding out what was there or doubling back the way I’d come. Since the whole point of coming here was to break whatever device Davis and his partner were using to control the building, and that was either in the throne or behind me, I did the sensible thing and doubled back into the room full of armed men.

Okay, it’s sensible from a certain point of view.

As I climbed over the four downed guards in the hall the air suddenly took on an almost breathless quality and suddenly it was like I was standing in a wind tunnel with increasingly cold air rushing by me and into the room beyond. So it was no surprise to come through the doorway and find that Helix had made it into the room, an orb of burning plasma pushing in front of him and Circuit a few steps behind, his wheelchair easily navigating the smooth path Helix had literally trailblazed for him. If the mess I’d made of the room when I smashed through thirty seconds ago wasn’t bad enough it looked like things were about to get really ugly indeed.

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Thunder Clap: Knock Down

Izzy

Helix and I crashed into the room below, which looked like a really swank office before we left it full dust and rubble. I kicked the massive hardwood desk in the center of the room up to form a makeshift ramp that Circuit could use to half roll half slide his chair down to us. Helix and I caught him by the wheels of his chair. As we set his chair back on its wheels. As we did Helix said, “Another floor down, Izzy.”

“You sure?” I asked.

He grinned. “Circuit may have built this place to counter me but I’m betting his lackey-”

“Davis,” Circuit put in.

“I doubt Davis,” Helix continued, “could have kept things Circuit-proof and me-proof. Another floor down.”

There wasn’t much more of an explanation forthcoming so I smashed my was through another floor, trying not to calculate the damages we were going to have to pay out when this was over. Project Sumter might have nearly bottomless pockets thanks to Federal funding but we do have to get our budget approved every year just like everyone else. People who put too much strain on that budget can loose their jobs. Of course, I was a rookie and Helix was the season agent so hopefully that meant he knew what he was doing.

The next corner down was a large cubicle farm and I had to clear a landing place before Helix could jump down. To save time I just went back up and brought Circuit back down with me, chair and all. For good measure I went up again and dragged the desk over to the hole and tipped it onto the hole, slipping down under it as it fell, so anyone trying to follow would have to waste time moving it. The whole process took maybe thirty seconds but I came back to find Circuit and Helix arguing again.

“No, it’s not a matter of trust,” Circuit was saying. “But I’m not charging through the building at random just because you remember a skyline and think you know where we can see it at.”

“Not what I was saying,” Helix said, smiling for some reason. “I don’t know the city well enough to guess what part of it was looking at from just the skyline, that’s what I have people like Mossburger and Movsessian for. But I do know you, and I know you tend to be really stingy with what you tell people.”

“Information control is at the heart of supervillainy, Helix.” Circuit’s tone was the closest I think he’ll ever get to saying, “Duh!”

“Sure, if you say so.” Helix didn’t sound like he was paying much attention. “But I’m guessing you never mentioned to Davis that I could sense heat, as well as manipulate it.”

Understanding dawned on Circuit’s face. “He didn’t insulate the new control throne he created for his pet fusebox. It must be leaking more heat than a server farm with all the power it would take to keep things running.”

“So what’s the plan?” I asked, glancing nervously around the big open space. Helix wasn’t tall enough to be seen over the cubicle walls, and I’d appreciate if he never finds out I said that, while Circuit was always sitting down so that left me feeling like the only groundhog looking out of it’s hole while the hawks were circling. It’s not a fun feeling, let me tell you.

Helix, oblivious to how exposed I was feeling at the moment, pointed across the cubicles and said, “Run that way until you run out of building and you’ll find the place Circuit’s lookalike is hanging out.”

“I hope you don’t want me to actually run out of the building,” I said, “because I’ve had enough of that for one day.” His expression told me he didn’t know what I mean and I didn’t feel like relating my last near-skydiving experience just then. “Never mind. I just run in a straight line? Through the walls and everything?”

“Yes.” Helix scowled. “They’re expecting us to play it by the rules. I’m not really in a mood to give it to them. We go straight to them, we tie them up, we take them to jail. No questions asked. Problems?”

I shook my head and Circuit just grunted. Somehow Helix had wrangled himself back to being in charge, something I had a feeling he was used to doing. Still, I wasn’t going to argue. I’d had to take a basic architecture class or two last year, to help me figure out what not to break, so I knew there weren’t likely to be load bearing walls along the perimeter of a building this size, so going straight forward wasn’t likely to cause structural problems and that was really the only possible reason I could think of not to do what Helix was suggesting. After all that Davis and his cronies had put me through it was time for some payback.

So I turned in the direction Helix pointed in and I went forward. Not as fast as I could, I didn’t want to get too far ahead of Circuit or my boss. Papa always says your can’t be too close, after all. But bursting through walls is kind of a thrill and by the time I was through the second one I was putting on some speed, dashing past or jumping over a barely seen mess of office furniture, computer equipment and fake looking potted plants. At one point I broke out into a hallway again for half a second and I guessed I was at the halfway point of the building. For lack of a better way to keep track I started counting the walls we went through as a way to keep track of how much building was left. I was expecting to burst a dozen before we found the throne Helix was looking for.

In point of fact there were only ten. The last room was really big and, from the looks of the carpet, most of the stuff that had been in it had been dragged outside to make room for the nest of cables and computer equipment that sat in a semicircle around some kind of socket or mounting in the middle of the room. I spotted at least a dozen people in my quick glance around the room, only about half of them looked to be armed in the heavy-duty way of the guards we’d run across so far. It looked like we’d finally found some of the technical types who had to be keeping all this mess running. In the minus column, all the people in the room who did look like guards had apparently figured out what direction we were coming from and turned to face the wall I’d made an entrance through. They weren’t all looking directly at me but most of them had their weapons pointed in the right general direction.

And it turned out Helix was right, we did have to literally run out of building to get Circuit’s lookalike. A hole had been cut in the outside wall sometime during the night – because there was no way that exit was up to building code – and hovering outside it, some seventy-five floors above the ground, was a black throne to do any evil overlord justice. The guy sitting in it was pretty much a carbon copy of all the photos I’d seen of Circuit at the height of his career, stylish suit, scarf wrapped around his face, he had to be sweating to death in the August heat. Maybe Helix had been able to locate him so easily just because they’d put this hole in the building.

Of course, he shattered the illusion almost immediately by pointing at me and yelling, in a voice with none of Circuit’s sense of dignity, “Kill her!”

Which was my cue to scramble for cover.

 

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Thunder Clap: Down and Down

Izzy

For most people a hallway with a bunch of guys holding a bunch of guns at one end would be a death trap. For me, there’s no such thing as a manmade wall I can’t break down.

Half the elevator door had come in with me when I broke it down and a quick flick of my foot kicked it down the hall, making Davis and his men duck as I jumped to the left and smashed through the wall. I only heard a spattering of gunfire behind me but I will admit that I wasn’t really listening for it because I had more pressing things on my mind. See, I hadn’t really been paying that much attention to what part of the building we were in and I’d also once again underestimated my jump distance. Neither one of those was bad in and of itself.

When you bust through a wall, straight through the room on the other side and halfway through the windows on the outside of the building? Then it’s more of a problem.

Hanging seventy-plus floors above the city streets with by one hand, fingers scraped raw by the process of burying them two knuckles deep into the concrete wall, was not my ideal outcome for evasive maneuvers. In my defense, it was a really stupid place to put an outside wall. Moving carefully I pulled myself back up and into the building, hoping the concrete I’d grabbed hold of wouldn’t decide to crumble in the middle of the process.

Helix

One of the first things you develop in our line of work is an instinct to run the wrong way when trouble’s brewing. So my first reaction when the shooting started was to try and get down to the shattered doorway and see what was going on. Since I was in an uncomfortable climber’s harness with more voltage than I was comfortable thinking about running through it under the total control of my sometimes-archnemesis I didn’t really get anywhere. I gave Circuit an irritated look and said, “Down.”

“Just a minute,” he muttered, fiddling with something in his chair. It was probably another one of the many miracle gadgets he liked to have at his beck and call but I wasn’t sure how it would help us if Izzy got shot before we got there and I really didn’t care. I just kicked the heat sink up to maximum and let the elevator shaft drop towards freezing at a dizzying rate as the air around me shimmered it’s way towards a plasma state.

“Down, Circuit,” I snapped. “Now.”

His chair made a sharp popping noise and he experimentally gave the wheels a spin. From the looks of things he’d disconnected them from the chair motors. “Okay, get ready.”

I didn’t dignify that with a response.

There wasn’t any more warning than that before we dropped down at a slight angle and landed in the hallway. Half a dozen armed men were clustered around a Izzy sized hole in the wall, some staring out it at something I didn’t have the angle to see, one guy was pointing his weapon at a chunk of concrete the size of my head that was buried in the wall directly opposite the hole. Not his smartest move but if Izzy had put it there I could understand his surprise.

Almost as soon as I hit the hallway the drywall caught like kindling. The whoosh of fire catching alerted the thugs and they spun away from the wall and brought their weapons around and I charged forward, crunching my heat sink down from a ten foot wide aura around me to a condensed ball about a foot across balanced between my two hands. I was really focused on moving fast because in a hallway like this I couldn’t expect much wind to build up to jostle their aim or knock their bullets of course, not that I could really count on that most of the time, and even if there was a slight breeze it would flow straight down the hall and wind up knocking things in my general direction anyway.

What I didn’t know is that when you superheat air, or anything really, to the plasma state it becomes electrically conductive and I was trailing it all the way back to the elevator door.

And while I didn’t know plasma was conductive, Circuit did. Imagine my surprise when the three closest thugs jerked upright as a lighting bolt leapt from my plasma ball to their weapons, into their bodies and out through their feet. I wasn’t as surprised as they were, but it was still a bit of a shock.

Pun intended.

I jumped over Circuit’s victims as the three guys behind them backpedaled, whipping the plasma ball around almost like a yo-yo and melting the barrel and part of the stock of his weapon into slag. The last two turned and dashed down the hallway towards parts unknown only to wind up nearly getting buried under rubble as Izzy broke back into the hallway just ahead of them. Before they could recover enough to react at all she spun on one foot and planted the back of a hand in each of their chests and flicked them up against the wall like a normal person might flick water from their hands.

They slumped against the floor and their weapons slipped from their hands. Izzy quickly mangled the guns into something useless and tossed them aside, taking a moment to straighten out her oddly windblown hair as she asked, “What now?”

“Zip ties, my dear.” Circuit pulled a handful of them from yet another part of his chair. I was starting to think he had everything from kitchen sinks to Jimmy Hoffa in there. “Tie them up and leave them for later.”

She looked at them skeptically. “Uh, I’ve never actually used one of those before.”

I let go of my heat sink and took the zip ties from Circuit then handed half of them to her. “I’ll show you how it’s done. People like using these because they’re simple to use, not tricky.”

We got the six of them tied up and out of the middle of the hall so Circuit could maneuver through in no time at all. As she pushed the last of the goons aside Izzy asked, “Where’s Davis? The stocky guy.”

“I didn’t see him here,” Circuit replied.

“Is it important?” I asked, impatient to just get a move on.

“Probably not,” Izzy admitted. “He just creeps me out. I’d rather have him tied up than on the run from us.”

“A sensible attitude,” Circuit said.

I grunted impatience. “Let’s get a move on.”

“This way.” Circuit led us down the hall and around a few corners until we came to a large corner room that looked a lot like a security center. Circuit immediately wheeled himself over to the consoles on the outside wall, scanning them for his switchboard or whatever it was he was looking for.

I was more bothered by what wasn’t in the room. “Where’s the chair?”

“The what?” Circuit asked absently, moving quickly around the perimeter as he looked for whatever it was he expected to find.

“The guy posing as you sent me a video chat last night. He was sitting in this big chair hooked up to who knows what and had the skyline behind him, like he was playing the overlord. For that matter…” I stepped into the center of the room and slowly pivoted so I could look out each of the windows in turn. “This isn’t the skyline that was behind him when he called.”

“Maybe that was just another red herring?” Izzy suggested.

I looked over at Circuit to see what he thought. To my surprise he had doubled over in his chair and gotten a death grip on the edge of one of the consoles. As I watched he tried to straighten up only to convulse once and double over again. I sprang across the room asking, “What’s wrong?”

“It’s magnetic resonance, Double Helix.” The voice came from the two way radio set by one of the consoles. I didn’t recognize it but from the way Izzy started I was guessing it was Davis. “Project Sumter never did the level of research we did concerning the way a fuse box could perceive and manipulate magnetic fields. Certainly not enough to realize the level of discomfort  something like a simple MRI could cause them. See, while Circuit was spending all his time figuring out how to proof this place against you, I was working out how to turn it on him. Now it’s the end of you both. Simple, don’t you think?”

A trio of canisters, about the size of a fire extinguisher, thudded into the room hissing and surrounded by a cloud of fog. Izzy made a rather undignified “eep” noise and jumped away from them a few feet. I could already tell how incredibly cold the space around the was getting but I thought I’d ask just to be sure.

“Liquid nitrogen?”

“Yes,” Circuit croaked, not bothering to look up. “We used it to cool the superconductors in the empion instillations. Why not save some for you?”

Izzy watched as a fourth canister clanked into the room, ice quickly forming on most of the surfaces around them. “I don’t suppose you can gather up enough heat to get us through that?”

“No. And even if I could they’ve probably got a lot more than that out in the hall. Far more than I could ever hope to boil off.” I shook my head. “They did do a good job of trapping Circuit and I. I guess that leaves you, doesn’t it?”

She swallowed once and nodded. “Circuit, we still need to find the switchboard. Where would it be if not here? Do we need to go up or down?”

“Not. Sure.” It came out through clenched teeth.

I looked back at the windows. Thought about the city skyline. Then smiled. “I know. Take us down.”

“Right.” Izzy gathered herself up and, as a fifth canister of liquid nitrogen clanked into the room spreading icy death a little closer towards us, she stamped down as hard as she could and shattered the floor beneath our feet.

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Thunder Clap: Melting And Entering

Izzy

“You know, whichever one of your minions thought that this would be a good way to get around is going to be put in for extra jail time. You know that, right?”

“What’s your problem with it, Helix? The lack of control or being suspended over seventy floors of empty space with no safety net?”

“Not so much the lack of control as who’s in control.”

If it was still working I would have been recording Helix and Circuit’s bickering on my phone. There was a strong resemblance to couples I’d known in high school right before they broke up and I knew no one from the Project would believe me if I told them about it without evidence. It was weird to say the least.

I grabbed the edge of the elevator shaft and leaned out to catch a glimpse of the two of them hovering several floors up. “I don’t mean to bug you two but are you going to clear the shaft any time soon?”

“Just a moment, Rodriguez.” Circuit held his hands out towards the side of the elevator shaft and there was a sharp popping noise and a flash of light.

“What was that?” Helix asked.

“Quick shock intended to knock out a specific set of countermeasures,” Circuit answered.

“Well why didn’t you just do that before?” I asked, annoyed at the thought of all the time he’d wasted checking for and disarming traps the old fashioned way while we were on our way up the tower earlier.

“I was conserving power in case we had to search a large portion of the top floors one at a time,” he said. “Good work on that interrogation, by the way. I doubt we’d have had time to get any useful information out of those three we caught using any of the other interrogation techniques we had available to us.”

I felt a quick surge of satisfaction that only lasted as long as it took me to remember who was paying the compliment. “So is it safe to go through the door now?”

“No. I never forgot that there were more talents at Sumter’s disposal than just Helix, even if he was the one I expected to see the most.” He reached for the tool compartment on his chair. “There’s a mechanical lock – no electronics at all – on the doors to the floors where command stations might be set up. It was included in the plans in case Project Sumter ever found a fuse box capable of countering my safeguards. You could probably break through it if you had good footing, Agent Rodriguez, but I’d rather not run the risk that you find you can’t in the middle of one of your spectacular jumps.”

I winced at the mental image of my hitting the door and sliding off like a Looney Toons character. “Yeah, there’s limits to how far even a taxman can fall and survive.”

Helix kicked his heels against the far side of the elevator shaft and shot over to the door. His hands seemed to freeze to the door and the metal started to warp. I realized that my hair was standing on end and it was suddenly very cool in the shaft. “Anything I should know about this lock of yours before I melt it?” He asked. “Is it an exotic compound that becomes a toxic aerosol when it melts?”

“Nothing so exotic,” Circuit said dryly. “What’s your hurry?”

By now Helix was up to his elbows in melting door. It was kind of unsettling to see. “Circuit, you take your time before you do anything, am I right? Every scheme of yours is carefully thought out a dozen steps ahead and with contingencies every step along the way.”

“That’s a fair assessment.”

“Well it seems to me that you’ve never really developed an appreciation for the time crunch involved in real law enforcement work. You always take the fastest way because that means you have the best chance of catching the bad guy before he gets away, no matter what obstacles he’s come up with to slow you down.” There was a loud clunk and Helix pulled his hands out of the door, drops of glowing red metal scattering from his hands as he shook them off. “Door’s ready. Let’s go.”

Circuit grunted, I couldn’t tell if he was impressed or just amused, and the two of them moved up the shaft. I gathered my feet under me and made the jump, taking an extra split second to adjust my trajectory as I came in contact with the far wall. I’d gotten the timing and angle for a ten story jump down cold but we’d made our way up the stairs, with me carrying Circuit’s chair, until we got to the seventy-fifth floor, so I was only looking at a three story jump this time and I wanted the timing to be right.

Fortunately there were no problems on that front.

Unfortunately, after I crashed into the hallway beyond the elevator door I found myself staring at six armed men in a line across the far end of the hall with the squarish looking man, who Circuit kept calling Davis, standing behind them. He smiled when he saw me. “Well, it’s our escapee come back to us. Now would be a good time to think about surrendering again.”

“I didn’t surrender last time,” I said, cautiously getting to my feet. “I believe you gassed me.”

The smile quickly changed to something much darker. “Then why don’t we see if we can get you to surrender this time, shall we?”

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Thunder Clap: Ups and Downs

Helix

The worst part was, it was a really good plan.

Both Circuit and I made a few adjustments but for the most part Izzy planned our general strategy in a very solid and flexible way. I guess I should have been proud of her, since she was a junior agent from my branch, but I hadn’t really had any direct influence on her training or really worked with her directly outside of occasionally being on hand when Jack or Teresa were running her through something. So mostly I alternated between feeling awkward at how little I was contributing and frustrated because Circuit was right there and I couldn’t do anything about him.

So for the most part, it was business as usual.

The worst part was finding out that Circuit didn’t know exactly where the master switchboard that gave Davis and his cronies control of the tower was. “I thought you cooked up this plan, Circuit,” I griped. “How can you possibly not know where the nexus of your plan is?”

“Contingencies, Helix, contingencies are all. There’s at least a dozen reasons the placement of the switchboard might need to change.” Circuit jabbed a finger at me. “You finding me or discovering a draft of my plans. Problems with the contractors who did the construction. Further renovations to the building. Other circumstances. There’s eight different places across six floors it might have been installed.”

“What’s the most likely one?” Izzy asked, prompting the hint of a smile from Circuit for some reason. Then she held up a hand and said, “No, wait. I have a better idea.”

Circuit and I exchanged a glance. He raised an eyebrow and said, “Such as?”

She went out into the hall where we’d trussed up the three thugs the two of them had been brawling with when I got there, using all but one of the sets of cuffs I’d brought with me.

For anyone else four sets would be excessive but for Circuit, it pays to be prepared.

I followed not far behind with Circuit’s chair struggling to keep up over the rough terrain. Yeah, that was another thing taking a lot of getting used to. Circuit was supposed to be a specter who loomed over my career with the promise of constant danger. He wasn’t supposed to be fumbling around in a wheelchair, laughing at my people as we unraveled everything he’d ever worked for. Normally, I’d think it was some sort of sham but with the wheelchair there, constantly reminding me of what he couldn’t do, it was hard to doubt any of the rest.

It didn’t help that the situation wasn’t leaving a whole lot of time for thought. I found Izzy in the hallway, ripping open the front of the hoodie on one of the three thugs they’d taken down. Underneath the baggy shirt was a complicated and bulky harness. She hefted him in one hand so we could look at him and asked, “Sykes, can you levitate this guy like you did the ones down in the basement?”

“It’s not levitation, per se…” He trailed off and thought for a second. “Well, I suppose the name is short for magnetic levitation. So yes, provided he’s near a relay. Which we’re not right now.”

“As long as it didn’t get broken earlier,” she said, hefting her thug up in the air and starting towards the elevator shaft.

I gave Circuit a curious look. He started to shrug but stopped with one shoulder lifted in a comical way. A smile slowly spread over his face, like oil over water, and he started his chair towards the elevator shaft saying, “I think I’m going to enjoy this.”

And that wasn’t worrying at all. It didn’t take Izzy long to get to the elevator shaft, she was hopping over debris like rubble strewn battlefields were where she’d grown up. Actually, considering where her dad’s church was located that might be a real possibility. For some reason the doors to the shaft were lying bent and twisted on the floor when we got there. I had no doubt how it had happened and I was more concerned about why we were there than why Izzy had wrecked the door earlier.

She shook the man she was holding gently, mixing in a smack or two, until his eyes opened and got halfway focused. Then she asked, “Where is your boss at?”

It’s amazing how belligerence focuses a person’s attention. The thug went from bleary eyed and lost to focused and angry almost instantly. He also pressed his lips together firmly and refused to say anything. After about three seconds of that Izzy got a grip on the door frame, hefted him up one handed and shot a glance back at Circuit, who gave a slight nod.

Then she threw him up the elevator shaft.

From the sound of the screaming he went up a good three or four stories before gravity took over and he came back down. This is known as juggling answers and it’s actually an accepted interrogation tactic for taxmen, the catch is you’re supposed to practice it a lot before you actually apply it in the field because if you miss the catch, or even just don’t make the catch quite right, you can wind up with a splatter mark and not an intelligence source. That’s why I’d been kind of leery when Izzy headed towards the elevator shaft. It was the only place in the building with enough room for Izzy to perform the juggling part of the trick but so far as I knew she’d never actually practiced it before. I was worried she was going to drop him.

In point of fact, she didn’t bother to catch him.

He went by so fast I almost missed it, even with the building’s power restored elevator shafts are dark places and by the time I realized what happened he was long since gone back the other way, his scream dopplering out behind him even as he found all knew levels of hysteria to vocalize. I stared at Izzy blankly for a second, she’d never struck me as the stone cold killer type, but almost as soon as the idea of saying something occurred to me there was a clicking noise from Circuit’s chair and the scream cut off. I glanced from him to the shaft and back. “You caught him with the maglev harness?”

“I did indeed.” He leaned back in his chair with a self-satisfied smirk. “Let’s see if he’s in a mood to be more forthcoming now, shall we?”

The guy was whimpering as he came into view over the edge, grabbing desperately for the floor before Izzy scooped him up by the back of the harness and shook him like a ragdoll. I felt a little sorry for him, a little, not that he was getting the crap scared out of him but I had been shaken like that once or twice in my life and my stomach twinged in sympathy. Izzy gave him an unforgiving look and said, “Want to point me towards your boss now?”

“You don’t understand,” he said between gasps.

“If I had a nickel for every time I heard that…”

“Agent Rodriguez,” Circuit said. “Please do keep in mind that if you handle him roughly and his harness breaks I can’t catch him in the maglev system.”

“Good point.” She adjusted her grip so that she had the man by the front of his harness and started to lean out into the elevator shaft again. “Let’s make it a little more unpredictable, shall we?”

“Wait, wait!” The thug kicked at the floor frantically in an effort to stay in place. The struggle got him nowhere but Izzy did wait like he asked.

“They’re on the seventy-eighth floor,” he said, calming down a bit when it became clear he wasn’t about go airborne again. “I don’t know what room they’re using but we checked in with a fat guy at the southeast meeting room.”

“I know the place,” Circuit said. “Sounds like Davis is there. Give him here, Rodriguez.”

Izzy handed the man to Circuit with a quizzical look but Circuit just shocked him back into unconsciousness. Between that, getting thrown around an elevator shaft and whatever beating he’d taken before I’d gotten there I suspected he was going to be in a lot of pain when he woke up again. “Right,” I said. “What floor are we on now? And how are we going to get that chair up to the seventy-eighth floor?”

“We’re six floors beneath where we need to be,” Circuit said. “And I was planning to just float my way there. The chair is maglev equipped and Izzy can jump the distance. How are you planning to get up there?”

“What’s wrong with the stairs?”

Circuit raised an eyebrow. “You mean, besides the fact that they’re very slow and the most heavily trapped part of the building? We can do better than that.”

I planted my hands on my hips. “Yeah? What you got in mind?”

“Hm…” Izzy was holding the unconscious thug up by his harness like she was studying an outfit at a shopping mall. She glanced at me, then back at him. “I don’t think he’s quite your size. Maybe one of the others.”

I looked from her to Circuit, who was nodding thoughtfully, and put up my hands. “Oh, no. I am not putting one of those on.”

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Thunder Clap: Putting the Foot Down

Izzy

They caught up to us on the seventy-fifth floor.

Partly that was because, after almost ten minutes of grueling ascent, we’d finally left the elevator shaft and started searching for what Sykes called the master switchboard. “It’s not all talent,” he’d explained as we left the shaft behind us. “There’s a certain amount of smoke and mirrors that goes into making a deathtrap like this work.”

“Can’t say that I’m terribly surprised,” I said, carefully picking my way behind him as his chair, wishing the motors in it weren’t quite so loud. It was probably my imagination but the empty cubicle farm we were passing through seemed to echo with the noise and it was hard not to see thugs with assault weapons in the shadows of each of the cramped compartments as we passed by them. “I can’t image you packed all that hardware into that thing you’re sitting on.”

He snorted. “It would be twice the size and have none of it’s current functionality.”

“Yeah, I’ll take your word for it.” I jumped slightly at what looked like a face peering out from beside the utilitarian desk to my left but it turned out to be a large photograph of an attractive thirtyish man tacked to the wall of the cubicle.  “Want to tell me what we’re looking for? In case we get separated or something.”

“Oh?” His voice managed to sound condescending and skeptical even though he kept his eyes forward and scanning the room instead of turning to let me see his face. “How do you know I’m not going to send you after some random piece of equipment to get you out of my hair? Or make you smash something that will benefit me?”

I shrugged, then said, “How am I supposed to tell the difference anyway? From the sounds of it there’s only two experts on this kind of tech in the world. They’re both in this building and I can’t really expect the other one to help me so that leaves me with you. My options are you telling me what to smash and letting you disable it yourself. I just want to have both of the available.”

“More thinking ahead than I’d credit to someone your age.” He held his hands up about as far apart as his chest. I noticed his chair kept moving even though his hands weren’t on the controls anymore. “We’re looking for something about this big, looks a lot like a mixing board. Which is exactly what it was before we repurposed it.”

I wasn’t sure what a mixing board was but before I could ask him we came to the end of the large cubicle farm we’d been moving through and to a hallway that led to office space. Sykes kept rolling towards the opening but I held back, figuring this was another good place for a boobytrap of some kind. In a way I was right because almost as soon as I stopped three guys – well, technically two men and a woman – burst out of the first door on either side of the hallway.

Time slowed down for a second and I saw Circuit’s chair jerk backwards, pivoting to the left so fast it actually rose up on one wheel. The thugs were dressed in shapeless gray and black clothes and had some kind of bullpup assault weapons. Jack’s voice in the back of my mind chided me for not being able to identify them. He was mostly drowned out by dad’s voice reminding me that when I’m in serious trouble there’s nothing wrong with grabbing the heaviest thing at hand and throwing it.

Sheet metal desks aren’t that heavy all by themselves but once you fill them with paperwork and files and pens and stuff it all adds up and the cubicles had a lot of them.

The thugs fell back, one stopping to spray a few bullets out the door at us, and unfortunately the first desk I threw caught the edge of the hall doorway and crashed to the ground, blocking it. One of the guards braced his gun barrel on top of it then jerked upright and collapsed when Circuit arced an actual bolt of lightning from a photocopier ten feet away over to his chair and from there into the metal desk. One of the remaining guards kept up covering fire while the other collected the fallen man and started dragging him back into the offices.

Circuit was straining to see around the corner without tipping his chair over or exposing too much of his profile but he still managed to see what was going on. “Don’t let them get back into the offices! If we loose sight of them they’ll be able to maneuver and regain the initiative.”

I hefted another desk and got a grip on the narrow end of it. “Stand clear, Sykes. Or, whatever it is you do.”

“Funny.” He didn’t sound amused but he got out of the way.

Smashing two desks down the hallway left some serious marks on the floor and walls and I struggled to maintain my footing on the uneven carpeting as I pushed the office furniture down the hall like a prize winning linebacker. It was a lot noisier than I expected, with the desks banging together, bullets bouncing off or punching through the sides, a couple of meaty thuds as I caught up to and ran over the thugs and what sounded like an entire stained glass cathedral shattering at once. The source of the last noise eluded me but I didn’t have much time to think about it.

The last guard had been smart and, instead of trying to out run the desks down the straight away she’d actually jumped on top of them. The whole mess had been moving pretty fast and she wound up tumbling over onto the floor next to me but she kept hold of her weapon and most of her wits. I made a snatch for the rifle but she made no attempt to hold onto it beyond squeezing down the trigger and spraying bullets all over the place. That made just wrenching the thing away from her kind of dangerous so I just kept the barrel pointed away from us while I broke the weapon’s sling and body checked her away from it.

In the time it took me to do that she’d pulled a knife from somewhere on her person and managed to open a shallow gash on my arm. I flipped her rifle around, switched on the safety and threw it at her, spinning stock over barrel. It caught her in the shoulder, spinning her back a half step and practically dumping her into Circuit’s lap. He grabbed her just long enough to give her a nasty shock before tossing her aside. “Not bad, young lady. Not bad at all. What was that noise?”

I blinked and looked around, wondering if he’d gone a little crazy. “Which noise? There were a lot of them.”

“The glass -” He paused, looking up at something behind me.

I spun and followed his line of sight, expecting more guards to be coming. Instead, the ceiling was glowing cherry red. “Better back up, Agent Rodriguez.”

I shared the sentiment so I did as Circuit suggested. About five seconds later the ceiling just sort of melted and my boss fell through. He was surrounded by an aura of shimmering heat and it looked like he was holding a chunk of the sun in each hand. I backed up a little more, leaning against the sudden wind. Almost as soon as the hole in the ceiling opened up all the air in the hall decided it was time to head out through it.

As fast as it’d started the wind died down and the hallway seemed to get warmer. At the same time the glow around Helix died and he was just a normal guy of below average stature. “Izzy?” He dusted his hands off, and I noticed something like concrete pebbles scattering on the floor around him. “I heard gunshots. Are you okay?”

“Fine.” I looked up at the ceiling then back at him. “How did you get up there?”

“Long story.”

“Better save it for later, Helix.” Circuit’s chair whirred up behind me, maneuvering to avoid the torn up carpet. “We need to find the master switchboard and shut it down before Davis gathers all his men into the building and flushes us out.”

Helix’s head snapped around and his expression cleared kind of like the sky right before a big storm rolls in. “Circuit.”

“Be mad later, Helix. For once in your life, believe that I am here to help.” He parked his chair and grabbed the armrests like he was bracing himself. Which he probably was. “I’ve always been here to help, we just never agreed on the method before.”

“And we do now?” Helix asked the question in a calm tone but I felt a chill in the air, one that faded as he stalked past me and came back twice as cold as soon as he was past.

“This has to stop.” Circuit said each word slowly and clearly. “We will stop it, you and I. And then Project Sumter will take me in, I promise you. I’ve never lied to you before, Helix. I’ve no reason to start now.”

“Not even to get out of a mess you’ve caused?” Helix growled.

“This was not how things were supposed to go, Helix! This was not-”

Helix grabbed Circuit and yanked him half way up out of his wheelchair. “Listen, your wife may claim this you didn’t okay this and maybe I even believe it, but when you boil it down this is your fault. Your plan, your paid psychos, your idiot ambitions. Just because someone picked up where you left off doesn’t mean you’re not culpable for giving him everything he needed to cause this mess. I don’t care how you want to play this, we’re going to do it my way. And that means you-”

“Better idea, how about we do it my way?” Both men stopped mid argument and looked at me. Helix looked even scarier than the stories always make him out to be – and that’s no mean trick – but Sykes quickly went from surprise to outright laughing.

“Helix, whatever you’re paying her it’s not nearly enough. Is she fast tracked to senior agent yet?”

“Not funny, Circuit.” He shoved Sykes back into his wheelchair and said, “Tell me something, Rodriguez. Why would I want to listen to a field agent with little to no experience that just got captured by hostile forces?”

“Because he,” I pointed accusingly at Sykes, “planned this whole thing. Whether or not he did it recently or wanted things to happen this way isn’t the point, what matters is that whenever Circuit planned something your were the first thing in his mind. This place is built to stop you from getting in.” I looked at Sykes. “Am I wrong?”

He straightened out the front of his suit and shook his head. “Accurate enough. Only the lightning funnels are really meant to prevent Helix from using his talents fully – or to punish him if he does – but I anticipated that would be enough.”

“Lightning funnels?” I asked.

“They can trigger lightning strikes when there’s atmospheric disturbances like a storm,” Helix said. “Except we’re inside, Circuit. Even the unnatural weather heat sinks make when they’re active won’t cause a storm in here.”

“The building draws enough current of the grid to do the job,” Circuit said.

“If these funnel things are the only Helix specific defense in the building, what else is there?” I asked.

“The stairwells and elevator shafts can be collapsed, if need be, and the surveillance systems can all be run from the master switchboard or,” he patted his chair, “with this, if we park it in the right place and if there’s not a stronger fuse box at the switchboard – which there isn’t. Whoever’s running the system for Davis is passable, and keeping him locked out of the system is taxing and prevents me from using any of the systems myself, but the other side is locked out as long as I’m here and conscious.”

I pursed my lips for a moment, thinking. “Stillwater? Can you still hear us?”

“Stillwater is here?” Helix asked.

“I was wondering if you’d forgotten me.” The old man’s disembodied voice said from over by the door. “I’m still picking up your echoes but it’s not as clear as I’d like. Fill me in?”

“In a sec. That water worker, Heavy Water, is he still with you?””

“Yep. We’ve moved another floor down to play keep away but right now it doesn’t look like anyone’s looking for us.”

“Okay.” I took a deep breath and looked both men in the eye. “I have an idea.”

Helix snorted. “I’m still not seeing why we should listen to you.”

“Circuit planned for you. When his underlings stole the plan they adjusted it for him.”

Circuit smiled a wicked little smile. “But no one’s planned for her.”

Helix looked like he’d just taken a bite out of something rotten. “Okay, fine. What’s your idea?”

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Thunder Clap: The Icarus Run

(Sorry for the late post. I forgot to schedule things out ahead of time last week… January was a rough month.)

Helix

According to Elizabeth Sykes, Waltham Towers was supposed to have three layers of defenses. The first were the EMP weapons we’d already encountered throughout the city in building after building Keller Realty had worked on in the past five years. Elizabeth called these empion stations and there were literally hundreds of them scattered through  the city. Massif and later Samson had spent a good chunk of the early morning clearing a path to Waltham Towers through the empion stations so that was taken care of.

Beyond that, there were roadblocks set up around the building itself. These mainly consisted of large water barrels stacked one on top of the other, blocking the road and doubling as a kind of emergency water supply for those in the tower. When Circuit had planned the scenario he’d also intended them to be a crowd control option for his viscosity manipulating henchman Heavy Water, who could drain the barrels to lay down a half-inch deep layer of gluelike water and neutralize most of what Project Sumter had to throw at him, save people like Samson or myself. Elizabeth thought it most likely that this was the layer of defense most likely to be left out of the scenario, both because he’d had no part in designing it and, since Heavy Water had gone into retirement at the same time Circuit did, there probably wasn’t anyone to work the carpet of adhesion angle of the roadblock. As it turned out, she was right on that count.

The third layer of defenses was the real problem. “It’s a deathtrap. A deathtrap with your name written all over it.”

This was also the third time I’d heard this basic line of thought. “I know, I know.” I leaned back against the side of the van that brought me and my team out from the office. l’d met Darry out there, where I’d explained the strategy we’d worked out. “I heard this from Jack and Teresa when we were back at the office and Sanders was all to happy to repeat it on the ride over. Can we assume that I’ve already met every objection you can think of and skip to the part where you agree and give Coldsnap and Frostburn the go ahead?”

“No.” Darryl glared at me from over the top of his cane, I’d found him seated on a bench on the sidewalk, watching the Sumter tactical teams as the rolled in and started setting up two blocks out from the Towers. He’d been happy to see me when I got there but it hadn’t lasted long. “When I left the building you were getting ready to question Elizabeth Sykes like the sane, if impulsive, agent I worked with years ago. In a little less than three hours you seem to have gone crazy. You don’t actually believe Circuit’s working against implementing a plan he spent ten years of his life building, do you?”

“He’s a control freak, so yeah, if he felt it was being implemented in a way he didn’t like I could definitely see Circuit doing just that.” I folded my arms over my chest and stared at him for a moment, hoping he’d cave and agree but Darryl’s always been more patient than me. “I’m going up the tower, Darryl.”

He scooped up the pile of blueprints I’d given him to look over and waved them at me. “Did you look this over at all? The entire inside of that tower is rigged with Circuit’s lighting funnel gizmos, he could fry you just about anywhere on the top twenty floors. Even if we cut the power from the building he’s got generators to keep it going.”

“But only on the inside.” I tapped my foot on the pavement. “The concrete in the building is nonconductive and he didn’t mount funnels to hit the outside walls of the building, he wasn’t planning on our taking this approach.”

“Oh, you mean he wasn’t planning on you committing suicide?” Darryl snorted. “Color me surprised. Samson should do this. He’s best equipped, best trained, and his daughter being in that building somewhere gives him more in the game.”

“Best trained? Darryl, he hasn’t done serious, full-time field work in years.”

He stamped his cane in frustration. “You know what I mean. Taxmen are trained to do a lot of solo work, you’ve always worked with a team. Now you want to try a plan that requires you to ditch them?”

“Not ditch them, just get a little bit ahead.” I held up my hand because we both knew that was pure semantics. Sixty to seventy floors up was effectively the same as working alone. “Samson can’t jump that kind of distance without a specially constructed surface to jump from. If he tried to do it here the ground would give under him and he’d completely miss the jump. At least I can break my own fall, he can’t. It has to be me, Darryl.”

“Because you’re the best choice or because you want your own piece of Circuit?” Darryl pushed to his feet and limped over, crowding me like a man who expected to have his say even if he had to beat it into me with his own two fists. “I know you, Helix. This guy has been a thorn in your flesh practically since day one and you’ve never been one to let go of things like that. But that kind of attitude gets people hurt. That’s why you lobbied to have me pulled out of the hunt for Circuit, remember?”

Getting angry is my thing, not Darryl’s. Even after Mona died he’d only really lost his temper once, Darryl was more the type to slowly burry his feelings and now was no exception. I’d known him to long not to notice the edge of unease under his hostility. He wasn’t mad at me – well, maybe a little – but getting mad was a good way of hiding what he was really feeling. “What do you want me to do, Darryl? There’s two agents missing, one of them has a father who is able and willing to tear that whole building apart brick by brick to find her, and going in is the best way to make sure they’re safe. If we wait for the man who started this mess, whether it’s Circuit or his engineer, to come out and show themselves odds are they’re going to make some kind of messy getaway attempt or at least have caused more problems for the city. And we’re talking about a guy who orchestrated a hacking attack that shut down five major cities across the nation. We need to go in now.”

“You’re being reckless, Helix. Reckless is how people get killed!”

How his wife got killed. “Darryl…”

“Do not patronize me,” he snapped. “You think I’m being irrational? Name one other person who’s contributed as much as you have to the future of talented people.”

“Corporal Sumter,” I answered without hesitation. “And Sergeant Wake. Chief Stillwater and Saint Elmo, for that matter. Even Rodriguez has been doing just as much as me, the last few years. Don’t pretend like I’m irreplaceable.”

Darry snorted and stalked off a few steps, stewing. That wouldn’t really help his mood any and I really needed his help. Maybe it was time to change the subject. “Did I ever tell you why I joined Project Sumter?”

“Because it was the family business?”

“Sort of.” I tipped my head back and stared up at the clear morning sky. It was midmorning and the buildings were catching the sun. “Mostly, I wanted to be a part of something as big as what those guys were.”

He laughed quietly. I couldn’t tell if it was meant as bitter, ironic or just tired. “You wanted to be a hero.”

“No.” I pushed away from the van and stepped over beside him, resting a hand on his shoulder. “One thing I learned from my grandfather’s stories. A hero is judged by what he gives, not what he has or what he does. I never signed up to die, and I don’t think I’m going to today. But if that’s what it takes, then that’s what I’ll do. I’m afraid of dying, sure. But what I do is worth more than fear.”

When Darryl didn’t say anything in response I gave his shoulder a squeeze and said, “And I think it’s more important than pain, too.”

Finally he sighed and pulled out his phone. “Get going, Helix. I’ll make the call.”

——–

Heat rises. That’s physics and, more importantly, not the part of physics that a heat sink messes with. I’m a heat sink and that means heat is my bread and butter, my modus operandi, the one thing I know better than a third grade kid arguing Superman versus Batman. I’m good with it is what I’m saying.

The Plan, my great method for getting into the building without having to run the gauntlet of inside defenses, boils down to this: Superheat a lot of air, creating an updraft. The hotter the air, the faster it would move and the bigger the updraft. Spread out a heat sink far enough, make it hot enough, and the updraft would push me up the side of the building. I figured I’d have to run along the side of the building, since even I’m not that strong of a heat sink, but sixty or seventy floors with a tail wind couldn’t be that hard.

The catch was, on my own, I couldn’t even create enough of an updraft to coast upward on. I’d actually done exercises to test that. I could use one to break a fall, and had in the past, but go up a building? Not likely.

If Frostburn and Coldsnap helped me it was a different matter. The two were identical twin cold spikes, people who dumped heat out of the environment just like I sunk it in – long story short, them helping me was the difference between one man holding a bucket to catch rainwater and that same man catching rain in his bucket while two other people are emptying their own buckets into his. It’s not quite the same as tripling the heat at my disposal, but it’s close.

With the two of them posted at either end of the block, Waltham Towers was at the center of one of the most unnatural weather phenomena the city had ever seen. The street began to ice over at either end as the two ladies spiked as hard as they could. The heat that was frantically fleeing the touch of their power poured around them and into my hands until the air just in front and above me was shimmering like it was over the world’s biggest black top parking lot. After twenty seconds or so, it started to glow.

The windows in the building were shaking under the unnatural onslaught of wind and, since I weighed all of a hundred and thirty pounds, I was nearly taken off my feet. That meant it was time to get a running start and dash up the side of the building.

As it turned out I wound up more skipping than running. Sticking to the side of the building was tricky but the vortex swirled in a clockwise pattern and I stayed near the building for the most part. Not that I really wanted to be there all the time. One thing I hadn’t anticipated was the windows of the building, well below the freezing point of water thanks to the twins efforts, swelling in their frames until they burst. I wound up ascending the building in a cloud of plasma and half melted glass, looking for all the world like I was chasing the sun on some kind of mad flight, except I’d forgotten my wax wings.

Or that’s what Sanders said when he showed me the video he took with his phone afterwards.

Thankfully the trip up took less than a minute, although I’d have sworn it was much longer at the time, and as I passed the large conference room window I’d been told to aim for I kicked my feet towards the side of the building, getting decent purchase and convulsing my whole body, heat sink and all, into the side of the tower. One quick, messy trip through molten glass and softening concrete later and I was inside Waltham Towers. I took a few deep breaths to slow my heartbeat and promised myself whoever was behind this had better be ready for me because at the moment I was not a happy customer…

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