One Week, One Day After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation
I realized about the moment that the first crack ran through the dam that I had a problem.
You see, if the world is like a sheet and heat is like a bunch of marbles on top of that sheet, then what I do is basically like pushing down on the sheet and letting all the marbles roll into one place. By the same token, cold spikes like the twins are basically pushing up and letting all the marbles roll away. My problem was, the laws of physics say there’s people at the corners of the sheet, gently pulling on them until the wrinkles and bulges are gone and all the marbles are evenly spread out.
When Frostburn, Coldsnap and I had been working together when we had created wrinkles in the sheet that let me break the dam and on my own, even with my impressive stats, I couldn’t keep the sheet from smoothing out under the relentless pull of physics. In other words, I was loosing my hold on the heat I’d gathered.
That wouldn’t have been a problem, except for the little part where I was surrounded by a ten foot deep river that had been frozen but was now melting fast.
The water was already up to my knees and the heat was getting away from me. Already my ball of plasma had shrunk down to just a couple of feet across and I was leaking heat fast. Temperatures were still high enough that most of the water within a foot or two was boiling away before it got to me but I was in real danger of cooling to the point where that stopped happening before I got out of the river. The air above me was returning to normal temperatures quickly and that left the ice around me greedily soaking up all the heat I’d brought down with me. And I’d been gathering heat for at least half a mile, maybe closer to a mile of the hike to the dam. I wasn’t sure how hot I’d burned but there was probably enough heat to melt all the ice the twins had created and then some.
The dam was on it’s way down. It was time I got out of the way.
I turned and started slogging my way towards the side of the river, mud sucking at my feet every step of the way. With all the steam boiling up and the constant hissing and shushing of steam and water all around me I lost track of where I was going. For a panicked moment the only direction I was sure of was up, since that was the direction the steam was going, but the deafening crack of the dam finally caving under the force of the melt water rushing up against it helped me get my bearings again.
The stream wasn’t that wide originally but there, up by the dam, it was almost a hundred and fifty feet from one side to the other and, even though I started in the middle, between the mud, the confusion and the steep incline of the river bed it was the longest seventy five feet of my life. I almost made it, too.
Unfortunately, with the dam broken, the water levels were falling and all sorts of debris had been caught up in it. A tree branch about an inch thick got sucked up somewhere upstream and, since tree branches don’t evaporate, made it through to whack me on the shoulder. I spun and lost my footing, falling to the ground. The cold ground sucked the heat out of my sink even faster than the water and even as I scrambled to my feet again the temperature around me dropped below the boiling point of water and the river closed in around me. There was a heavy thud next to me as I flailed for something, anything, to grab onto, then I wound up getting swept off my feet.
And just like that I was flying a hundred, maybe two hundred feet off the ground, with a beautiful view of the river, stretched out below me like a sidewalk viewed from a second story window, all kinds of crap rushing away down stream as the crux of Circuit’s instillation went to its final fate somewhere far down river. It took me a moment to realize Samson had dropped in and yanked me out just before the flood could claim me.
I could think of only one thing to say to express my gratitude. “Samson, a man in your position should know that God never meant for men to fly!”
“That’s questionable theology, Helix,” he said. “But regardless we’re not flying. I’m jumping. You’re just along for the ride. Now clench your teeth or you’ll bite your tongue.”
That last bit was all the warning I got before we landed hard enough we probably registered on seismic sensors somewhere. I staggered dizzily away from Samson and shook my head to clear it. “I’ve changed my mind, preacher man. I’m glad you came along on this trip.”
To my surprise he just shook his head sadly. “I’m not sure I made any difference, Helix. Except there’s a few of Circuit’s men who might have wound up as collateral damage because of our tussle.”
“What?” I turned back to glare at him. “You didn’t catch Circuit? Or find Dawson’s daughter?”
“It’s complicated.” He gave an eloquent shrug. “The electricity’s out all over the instillation now. The Guard should be dragging in the serious manpower soon. If they’re still here, we’ll find them.”
I wrung a little water out of my jacket and shook more out of my hair, then said, “Then let’s go find them, shall we?”
I woke up glued to a table, with Simeon looking down at me in concern. He was already reacting as I was getting my bearings. “He’s awake.”
He was speaking in the general direction of my feet. A second later Heavy loomed into view from that direction and Hangman leaned into view from the opposite side as Simeon. The lighting, vague sense of motion and cramped quarters told me I was in one of our vans, not one of the armored vehicles but a simpler cargo hauler that had a table stashed in the back end.
“What happened?” I asked, my voice barely above a whisper.
“You got caught up in the dam breaking up,” Simeon told me, his tone and expression carefully neutral. “You’d probably be dead if Heavy hadn’t already been down river when you fell. He managed to get to the riverbank before the dam broke and changed most of the water to… well-”
“Pudding.” Heavy said flatly. “I caught you in a fist full of pudding, and you’re damn lucky I did, Circuit. It was a real chore getting through it all and dragging you out while keeping things syrupy enough that we didn’t get swept up in the water or junk coming with it. I left things that way to keep you from jostling and getting hurt.”
Which explained why it felt like I’d been dipped in rubber cement and laid out on the table. It took more effort than it should have to focus on Heavy’s face. His expression was hard and I’d never heard him call me Circuit in private before. “I owe you, Heavy.”
“No.” He folded his arms over his chest. “No more owing. You and I are even, Circuit. We’re done. I’m not planning to follow you down in a blaze of glory. This was my job, I plan to get paid. You were always good for that, so no complaints. And you did help with-” his mouth twisted slightly “-family problems. So we’re even. But I’m ducking out.”
Laughing hurt ever muscle in my body. “You chose a good time, looks like.”
“Actually,” Simeon said, expression still placid, “we started evacuation in time to transport the vast bulk of Chainfall’s product north to our installation there.”
I felt Hangman squeezing my hand. “You can still put something together. The Thunderclap array-”
“Hangman.” She leaned in closer, perhaps to hear better. Maybe just to be closer. “You should go home.”
Her eyes misted over and she shook her head. “I am home, Circuit. Nothing I did before I came here felt as meaningful.” A weak laugh. “Maybe helping suicidal men to their doom is all I’m good for.”
In that moment I was certain that was the most horrible thing I’d ever heard. And I have heard and said some truly horrible things. I closed my eyes and took stock of my situation. Sumter had won. It wasn’t that they’d taken the Chainfall site. That had always been part of the plan. But they should have walked into piles of smoking rubble, with no clues to work on. A PR disaster, painting them as slow, ineffectual and unable to cope with the challenges of a new age.
But instead they’d beaten me.
No, Helix had beaten me. I’d always hoped he would. Over the years I’d come to depend on him, in the back of my mind, the small part that thought about what the world would look like after the Thunderbird Gambit was over and I was gone, I always hoped he’d be the one at the forefront, piecing things back together. And it looked like he would be, just far earlier than planned.
Helix had pushed hard enough, read deep enough and gone far enough that Sumter was in position to catch us down the final straightaway. The game was over. That just left the clean-up.
I turned from Hangman to my office manager. “Simeon.”
“Heavy Water has left our employ. Take appropriate measures.” An alarmed expression crossed Heavy’s face, but Simeon just nodded. “And while you’re at it, inform Grappler, Wallace and Davis that they’re fired. Set them up with appropriate severance packages as well.”
Heavy pushed Simeon to one side, almost tossing him to the floor given the unstable footing of the van. “Wait a minute, what-”
“Relax, Heavy.” I took a deep, painful breath and wondered how many bones I had left intact. I really didn’t need him roughing me up any more. “You five were never meant to stay in the plan until the end. There were always measures in place to make sure you were provided for. Offshore accounts. New identities. If you want them.”
He searched my face for a moment, then nodded slowly. “I don’t understand what you’re trying to do. But I think you’re telling the truth.”
“I always meant to explain it better…” The ceiling looked back down at me, offering no insights no matter how I searched. The sound of the pavement rolling by beneath the wheels was all we heard. “Elizabeth.”
“Let’s go home.”
Three weeks of talents in the public eye and I’d been in twice as many press conferences. It just didn’t add up.
I dragged my tie off and slumped down into a chair. We were finally, finally back in the office. Cleaning up Circuit’s hydroelectric experiments had taken an unbelievable amount of time, particularly as the National Guard had decided that making the arrangements all fell on us, since we’d led the raid. Project Sumter lacked the contacts to set up that kind of clean up quickly – we’d never had to do it before – so things had probably taken longer than they should have.
Worse, the Governor of Indiana and several state and national Senators, including Brahms Dawson, had come to pay a visit to the site. For some reason Samson and I wound up leading a lot of these VIPs around and a few of those that showed up later on had arranged to have the wolves in press clothing be there as well.
I wasn’t sure if that was in the Project’s favor or not. They say all press is good press but then, most of them have never met me. But in half a dozen press conferences I’d managed to get bye without giving myself a terminal case of foot in mouth and, better yet, I hadn’t been fired. On the down side, at least twenty-odd reporters now had my code name and office phone number. The voice mail light on my desk phone was blinking wildly and I didn’t want to check it just yet.
Samson, my comrade in press conferences, sat down on the edge of my desk, the creaky metal frame groaning in protest. “Not too bad out there, Helix. At least you didn’t melt part of the audio equipment this time.”
“I got charged for that, you know,” I said, tossing my tie into a drawer haphazardly and slamming it shut. “Do you know how much those cost?”
“More than I care to imagine.”
I folded my arms on my desk and lay my head down on them. “How do you do it, Rodriguez? They’re so annoying.”
“I’m not any better, really,” he said, picking up a newspaper from my desk and scanning it.
I raised my head to look at him. “Don’t you do this on a regular basis? Talk in front of people.”
“Maybe not any more.” He seemed to be looking at the paper more for something to do than out of a real interest. “The eldership of my church isn’t sure what to make of a pastor who’s never been entirely honest with them. To tell the truth, I’m not sure I blame them.”
“Not your fault. Your work with talents over the years, in and out of the Project, was super hush-hush. Not even I knew about it.”
He sighed. “It’s not an quality suited to a leader in the church of Christ. He never lied about what he was, even when it would have saved him a lot of trouble.”
“I suppose.” I’d gone to church as a child but that wasn’t enough for me to want to argue theology with a priest, no matter how many tattoos he had. Time for a subject change. “Anything interesting in the news?”
“Special Agents Dunn and Rodriguez meet with Governor at Terrorist Base,” he read, then turned the paper so I could see the picture on the front page. I was shaking hands with the governor, looking a little nervous, while Samson loomed in the background.
“I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to using real names with the public. Or maybe ever.”
“I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to the idea of someone who can melt through concrete being named Alan.”
I sat up straight. “What’s wrong with my name? It’s better than all the Hoffman identities they used to give me just because they shared initials with Double Helix.”
A smile tugged at the edge of his lips. “Helix just seems to suit you so much better. Sometimes I think you were born an agent.”
That was a disturbing thought. Much of who I was and the identity I’d built did revolve around Project Sumter, a government branch that was about to undergo a lot of changes. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
Samson chose not to comment on my silence, just kept browsing the front page. When he got below the fold he said, “It looks like some members of the Wisconsin state government are looking into whether they can recall Senator Dawson. They seem to feel his committee is guilty of a breach of public trust.”
“That’s a bit hasty. It hasn’t even been a month yet.” I leaned back in my chair and popped my knuckles absently. “There really should be a lot more investigating before we jump to the tar and feathers. Just my opinion, really, but still.”
He folded the paper down and looked at me over the top of it. “You know, I always thought you didn’t like him.”
“I don’t. But the devil you know, and all that.” I shrugged. “He probably wouldn’t stay in charge of the Committee after the next election cycle. But it would be nice to have a little longer to get ready for the change.”
Samson matched my shrug and tossed the paper back onto my desk and stood. “If you think of anything I can do to help let me know. I have the feeling you and I are about to have a good fifteen minutes of fame. We might as well try and parlay them into something useful.”
He started off towards his own desk, technically an empty desk he’d been using since he came back on active duty, and I nodded absently to acknowledge his offer. It was pure reflex, we weren’t really paying attention to each other anymore. I picked up the paper and stared at it absently as my thoughts went through their paces.
For eight years Circuit had been on my mind. Some times he claimed a bigger part than others but he’d been a constant. I seriously doubted he was gone for good. But it would probably be a year at the least before he was ready for anything big. It might be a good time to start thinking about other matters. A picture in the paper caught my eye.
While we’d been busy with clean up, other members of our office had been dealing with issues elsewhere. Teresa had been given onsite command and Voorman and Sanders had packed up and flown to Washington. Apparently they’d had a photo op with the president. We weren’t the only ones getting a lot of press.
And they say that there’s no such thing as bad press.
“Hey, Samson. What if we switched devils we knew?”
Rodriguez looked up from whatever paperwork he was working on. “I don’t follow.”
I held up the paper and pointed to the picture, which he had to have seen earlier. “What do you think about Senator Michael Voorman?”
He laughed and shook his head. Then he gave me a hard look. “Are you serious?”
“He has the experience. He has the exposure.”
“But does he want to do it?”
I grinned. “It’s a new day, Samson. Anything is possible.”