An Incident in a Family Diner

The eggs were dry and rubbery and the coffee was closer to water than an aromatic beverage. He wasn’t sure whether the blacked squares on his plate were supposed to be toast or some kind of scouring pad to clean the tabletop with before he put his elbows on it. But it was still a sight better than what he had been getting before they grudgingly let him go.

After a couple of months the folks called Project Sumter had finally given up fighting in the courts and allowed those people arrested while the organization didn’t technically exist and not yet tried in one of it’s shadow courts to go free. That mostly meant those who had been arrested as part of their operations intended to find Open Circuit, of which he had been one. So while the food in that shabby little diner wasn’t everything he could have hoped for it was still more than enough to satisfy him, at least for the moment.

Still, it was time to think about priorities. A safecracker of his talents, both mechanical and electrical, had been able to make a good living before the world knew fuse boxes existed. Doing a little accounting work by day was just a way to make a little on the side. Now, it might be time to start thinking about a new line of work. No one had ever been able to pin anything on him before because he’d been careful never to do anything big enough to draw the scrutiny of people like the Project but now that talents were out in the open it might be a different story. Perhaps if he went to work for the other side of things. Businesses would need security consultants to deal with all the new wrinkles talents could put in their security.

He was in the process of spreading the thin, unappetizing contents of a butter packet onto his scouring pad toast when two unfamiliar men sat themselves on the other side of the booth without bothering to ask permission. He glanced up and looked around, wondering if the small diner had really gotten so crowded that there was nowhere else to sit. As he suspected, it hadn’t.

The two men were a study in contrasts. One was skinny, white and dressed like a typical cubicle slave. Starched white shirt, tie, cheap dress slacks, habitual frown. The other wore blue jeans and a worn red shirt with grease as an accessory, his hair and complexion hinted at the kind of messy ancestry that made census workers throw a fit when it was time to put down an ethnicity. They looked like they’d walked straight out of a stereotype handbook.

He put his toast down slowly, eating forgotten. He’d worked with conmen in the past and even the worst had been better than these two. Maybe Project Sumter wasn’t done with him after all. “Can I help you two?”

They exchanged a look, then slid into the booth one after the other. “I’m Doug Wallace,” the mutt said, sliding into the seat last, the office drone already getting comfortable and pulling a strange coil of wire out of his coat pocket. “This is Greg Davis. We’ve spent a lot of time looking for you.”

Davis set the coil of wire down in front of him and it seemed to pull at him. He reached out to take it but Davis pulled it back with two fingers. “Careful,” the office drone said, his voice smug. “This isn’t quite ready for you to handle yet. But you can tell it’s special, right?”

He pulled his hands back and resisted the urge to sit on them, just to keep them under control. “What is it?”

“There’s no technical name for it, but it’s basically a special kind of electromagnet.” Davis tapped the metal rod, about as thick as a man’s thumb, that ran down the center of the wire coil. “When it’s properly attuned to the bioelectrical field of a category of persons like yourself, fuse boxes we call them, it allows that person to use their unique talent over a distance, rather than just by touch.”

He blinked once. “That’s not possible.”

“But you can feel it right now,” Wallace said. “We can tell by the way you’re looking at it. Even though it’s not attuned to you yet, it’s charged and close enough to your frequency that you can feel it even if you can’t use it.”

Wallace was right and everyone at the table knew it. Under the scrutiny of these two men, who’s cardboard cutout personas were apparently just a front for the even more confusing people beneath, he didn’t see any reason in denying it. He licked his lips and said, “Sure. I can see that. I don’t suppose I should ask how you know I’m a fuse box to begin with?”

“Does it matter?” Davis asked, holding the magnet up between them as if letting him see it from all angles. “Ask what you’re really wondering.”

He touched one finger to the coil of wire then jerked back in surprise. The electric potential inside actually seemed to grate on him like nothing he’d ever experienced before. “How can I get one I can use?”

“It’s fairly complicated, actually,” Davis said. “Calibrating one properly can require as many as a dozen MRIs, several weeks of troubleshooting. Once one is properly configured more can be made fairly easily, but getting that first template measured and tested can cost upwards of a hundred grand. On top of that, you’d need-”

“They’re not available to the general public,” Wallace summarized, he friend glaring at being cut off. “It’d take months and thousands of dollars of medal work to get you set up for one. Why, are you interested?”

He stared at the small coil of wire and let the possibilities roll over him. “With something like that you could control pretty much any electric motor, possibly any microchip, in a city block.”

“Not quite that large an area, not with one of these,” Davis replied, tucking the electromagnet back into his pocket. “But you wouldn’t be limited to touch anymore.”

“Nothing will be safe,” he said in amazement. “You could crack practically any modern lock in seconds with the right training. Shut down electronic surveillance, hit computerized records to cover your tracks-”

“All been done already,” Wallace said with a shrug. “You’ve heard of Open Circuit, right?”

“Sure.” He scowled. “Apparently I was working  for him before I got arrested. Not exactly something that appeals to a person, not knowing you’re working for a terrorist.”

“Come now,” Davis said with a condescending smile, “if you had access to technology like ours would you really want to advertise your existence?”

His expression turned thoughtful. “No, I suppose not.” Then his eyes sharpened and he was back in the present. “What do you  two want with me then? I’ll tell you up front, after my last experience working for Open Circuit I’m not exactly eager for another.”

“Makes sense to me,” Wallace said. “But this won’t be like your last. This time you’re not going to be one of the rank and file. This time you get to be one of the inner circle.”

He raised an eyebrow. “And why should I believe that?”

“We need a fuse box to make these gadgets worth something,” Davis replied. “You were the easiest to find and the most likely to agree, but you don’t have to work with us.”

“You’re not doing a good job making your case.”

Davis leaned forward and steepled his fingers. “What if I told you we were building a network of devices such as the one I just showed which would allow a fuse box to control all the electricity in a city?”

There was a moment of silence as the three men stared at each other over the tabletop. Finally he asked, “And what would I do with such a thing, Mr. Davis?”

Davis answered with an unnerving smile. “Anything you want.”

Water Fall – Fin

Fiction Index
Previous Chapter

Water Fall: Ebbing Tide

One Week, One Day After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation

Helix

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?”

——–

Circuit

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.”

“Sir?”

“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.”

“Of course.”

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.”

“Yes?”

“Let’s go home.”

——–

Helix

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.”

Fiction Index
Previous Chapter
Next Chapter

Water Fall: Swept Away

One Week, One Day After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit

To say that Hangman was struck speechless wouldn’t be exactly true, but she did sputter helplessly for a second before snarling, “Dad wants me to come home? Did you come all the way here just to tell me that? Because I thought pastors weren’t supposed to lie.”

“No one’s supposed to lie.” He rested a hand on the railing of the catwalk and eased himself down to the floor, sitting cross-legged and looking very out of place, like a Cub Scout leader had decided to burn holes in his clothes with a six thousand volt current then strap on body armor before campfire. “I have a daughter – three, actually – and I know how I would act if one was missing and I wanted her home. Not eating, sleeping badly, losing focus constantly at work – your father has been acting exactly that way. I wouldn’t have come out of retirement if I didn’t think he was sincere when he asked me to. Especially not with all the hassle my wife has given me over it.”

She snorted. “Mom put him up to it. He wouldn’t have asked you on his own. You think I’ll just waltz out of here with you? Do you think it will be that simple?”

“Not after what I heard you saying a minute ago,” he said with a shrug. “But I know a lot about falling in with a bad crowd and I know it’s not the end, Elizabeth.”

“Forget it.” She put a hand on a pistol I hadn’t noticed on her hip. “I’m not going back. You didn’t really expect to come in here and rescue the screaming girl, did you? Because it’s not going to happen.”

Samson sighed. “You know, when all that time went past and there was no demands… I’d wondered. What you might be doing.”

“What do you care?” Hangman demanded.

His expression hardened, ever so slightly. “Calm down, you. I’ve been the angry kid, too. You think no one understands or should try to understand, least of all your parents.” He spread his hands. “But before I work for the government I serve a carpenter from Nazareth who was sent to turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. I know homes aren’t perfect. I have three daughters and I’ve never been the father to them that I should be. I’m here talking to you instead of picking up one from a chess tournament. But things can be better. Won’t you try? For yourself, if for no one else? You’ll regret it if you never do.”

“I said-”

I put my hand on Hangman’s shoulder. “Don’t answer. Not yet.” She turned to look up at me, the thunder still raging behind her eyes. “He’s right. You will regret. Take time to think it over. Whichever of us is left standing, we’ll let you go home. No strings on my part, I promise. He’ll probably make you testify against me-”

“That’ll probably be a must.”

“-but you can go home. Think about it.” I gave her a slight push towards Simeon who took her by the elbow and started down the catwalk towards the exit. To keep Rodriguez’ attention on me I said, “That fine by you, Samson?”

He sighed. “I suppose so. Of course, you could just surrender and save us all this trouble. There might even be lenience in it for you.”

“No thank you.” I holstered my gun and switched on my maglev harness and charged the capacitors in my vest. Without another word I pitched backwards over the railing of the catwalk and dropped. There was enough damage done to the storage facility to reduce its capacity but the total storage down there was still more than enough for some clever tricks. With the magnets in my working rig active it was child’s play to jump current around and create just about anything I could want. I fell about two feet before catching myself magnetically and throwing myself towards the far wall.

Samson was back on his feet before I was half way across the bunker, leaping effortlessly from one section of the catwalk to another in long, flat jumps. But he couldn’t turn in midair and I swerved towards the bunker entrance as soon as he started one of those jumps, getting all the way to the door before he clattered to the catwalk again.

It wasn’t a light door, it actually had more in common with an old style bank vault entrance than a traditional fire door. It took a few seconds to cycle the locking mechanism and get through it. That put me in the small kill box just outside, a four foot long pair of concrete walls that would funnel any would-be intruders trying to reach the door into a lethal field of fire. Assuming they didn’t just tear through the back wall with their bare hands.

Plan A had been to fly up and out from the entrance then arm the land mines there, solving my problem as soon as Rodriguez tried to come out after me. Unfortunately, almost as soon as I was through the door and started it cycling closed again he was there, smashing his fist until he got a good enough grip to crumple the door to one side like wet cardboard. I got four feet off the ground before he had me by the ankles and dragged me back down.

I hit him in the chest with my taser, drawing out a grunt of pain and he spasmed, twisting shoving me back through the door and into the bunker. I flew a dozen feet before I got control of my flight path again. Time for Plan B. Instead of turning around I sped up and headed towards the hole Samson had made in the back of the building.

After extensive practice there are some things you learn to do by rote. In my case, early in my career disarming, arming and detonating explosives remotely using nothing but my talent and a specially rigged transmitter the size of a nickel was one of them. Like I told Hangman, there are some things that are just requirements of the job. Being able to cover your tracks effectively is one of them, and for operations on the scale of Chainfall the most effective way to cover your tracks is carefully applied explosives. As far as I knew the guards were still in the building and covering the fees that came with their deaths on the job would be more expensive than I liked, but the circumstances demanded that I accept the loss. The moment I heard the sound of Samson clattering across the catwalks after me I started the arming sequence.

There wasn’t quite time to get through the wall and out of the bunker before the small explosive packages went off. Fortunately these weren’t the Hollywood masses of raw pyrotechnics that you see in movies but rather shaped, directed explosions strategically built into the framework of the building that removed enough support it collapsed under it’s own weight. I still nearly got crushed by debris as I shot out the hole.

I got clear and pushed upwards, scanning the dust and rubble for signs of life. My earpiece chimed and Simeon asked, “Are you all right, sir?”

“For the moment,” I answered. A large chunk of rubble sloughed to one side and Rodriguez stepped out from under it, one of the guards slung under his arm. The idea that he might be unkillable nagged at the back of my head but it wasn’t very productive so I quashed it down. “Keep going, Simeon. Get everyone out of the command bunker that we can spare, it’s time to start evacuating. And keep Hangman with you!  Rodriguez is probably going to be looking for her as much as me and I want her out of trouble.”

“Yes , sir. Where will you be?”

“I’m going to meet Heavy. Take care.”

I suited actions to words, taking a zig-zagging path through the trees at a slower pace for the first minute or so, to avoid being spotted by Rodriguez. I had just popped back up over the tree line, intending to speed back to the crossroads where we’d been planning to greet the rest of Sumter’s agents, when Heavy called me.

“Boss, they’re at the dam! Guards there say the water’s freezing and it’s so cold they’re starting to change color. They’re bugging out, say they’re not equipped to fight frostbite.”

Once again I came to a sudden stop and started in a new direction. I hadn’t thought of the two women who froze the streets during our escape from the city. If they could freeze the whole river they could cut off more than half our power generating capacity. With the reserves out that would just leave the low headwaters turbines, not enough to power the full maglev relay network, much less charge empion grenades or allow the construction of CPC superconductors. “We have to keep the dam, Heavy. Get everyone there you can.”

“On my way, boss.”

The dam was farther than anything else in the compound, it took almost seven minutes to fly there, pushing the relays to their limits, and I could feel the available potential behind the network starting to drop off as I got close.

The dam was a surreal sight. The river wasn’t just frozen behind the dam, water had actually frozen as it fell from the sluice gates. A pillar of steam rose up from the surface of the ice maybe a hundred feet behind the dam. There were two people standing near the steam cloud, mostly obscured except for the long, blonde hair whipping in the unnatural winds of the altered weather they’d created. I stretched out to try and grab the building charges that wind had to be creating, to funnel the lighting down against them like I had with Helix outside the Diversy Street school building, but I didn’t have a full strength lightning funnel built into my current set of gear, they were too bulky to be practical and too heavy for  the maglev harness besides. I couldn’t extend my reach that far and, even if I could, there was no guarantee I could make the proper changes in potential without a funnel to back me up. The work is at once strenuous and delicate, I designed lighting funnels to do the heavy lifting and leave the detail work to me. I’d never attempted to channel lighting from a storm without one.

The only option left was the SIG. I dropped some altitude and drew my sidearm, fighting to stay steady in the winds that had kicked up. I mentally cursed Helix and all the other heat sinks and cold spikes in the world for their effects on the weather and did my best to get a couple of steady shots at them.

Heavy was yelling in my ear, “We’re here boss! Want us to just sweep up over the top?”

I glanced over to try and spot exactly where they were and yes, I could see Heavy and Grappler leading half a dozen other people towards one side of the dam. I was about to reply, something about tossing a grenade down the steaming hole in the ice I believe, when the world behind them seemed to bend and an incredibly intense, strobing light blinded me. With a confused yelp I threw my hands up in front of my face and, given all there was to think about, just for a second, I lost my concentration.

Suddenly I was falling, the magnetic fields that kept me aloft slipping out of proper balance and sending me careening wildly in all directions, but mostly down. Frantic, blinded and with no sense of direction I rubbed my eyes and blinked furiously, dropping my pistol in the process. My vision cleared enough to realize I was about to smash into the ground and I pushed out with my maglev harness, breaking my fall some but still landing badly. I gasped for a moment, fighting a new wave of stars in my vision and trying to get my wind back. The whole process took maybe five seconds.

I’d just pushed myself up to my knees when I heard a sound like a tectonic plate shifting. I didn’t have to be able to see to know the dam was breaking. Getting the focus and strength to push upwards again cost me a split second and it was just a split second too long. I’d just gotten clear of the ground, gone up maybe five feet, when a chunk of concrete clipped me in the leg and I tumbled into a torrent of icy water…

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Water Fall: Storm Surge

One Week, One Day After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit

It took a little more than five minutes for me to get from the command bunker to my destination, although that was at least in part because I had to go up, over the tree line, and come back down again to locate exactly where the crossroads I wanted was. Finding a trail was easy enough, making sure I had the right portion of the trail was trickier. Flying below the treeline at thirty miles an hour was definitely not an option and positioning technology is a double edged sword – I could risk revealing my position to Project Sumter if they were waiting for me to ping a GPS satellite. I could still tell where the maglev relays around the park were positioned and that gave me a general idea of where I was, otherwise the trip could have taken three times as long.

I’d just started sifting through the trees, looking for a good ambush spot, when my earpiece dinged to life with Simeon on the other end of the line. “I think we have a problem, sir.”

“Bigger than planning a very personal lesson on death from above for Project Sumter?” I asked, trying to keep my voice down in case the wave makers on the other side could pinpoint my location just from that.

“Yes, sir, quite possibly.” There was a loud, indistinct noise on the other end, then the distinctive popping sound of small arms fire. “Agent Samson was with Project Sumter’s team.”

“Yes, I know,” I said, rapping my knuckles on a nearby tree with impatience. “What’s all that noise? You aren’t out with a patrol, are you? You’re-”

“I’m in the power reserve bunker, as you instructed.”

“Then what-”

“The noise is Agent Samson.” Cutting me off twice in a row was a sure sign Simeon was upset. “He’s infiltrated the bunker and is in the process of destroying our reserves.”

I slammed my fist into the tree and kicked the maglev back into high gear, shooting up and across the trees at top speed. “How did he get in? If nothing else you could have armed the antipersonnel mines at the entrance.”

“He used the back door.”

“That bunker doesn’t have another entrance!”

“He’s renovated.” Another indistinct noise, followed by the sound of a large, center core power transformer being dropped. Or, in this case, probably thrown. “Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, he is renovating.”

“It’s not renovation if you don’t put all the pieces back together into something new and beneficial, Simeon.” I swooped in towards the bunker. By pressing the maglev array to its limit I managed to make it back to the power reserve in barely two minutes, helped by the fact that it was closer to my starting point than the command bunker and the fact that I’d burned out a relay to do it – if I couldn’t save the power reserve then I wouldn’t be able to fly and fire empion grenades at the same time and, of the two, I needed aerial denial more. Frying a few relays was acceptable losses. “I’m at the front door. I notice it’s not locked.”

“We’re a little bit busy in here, sir.”

The power reserve is basically a big, rough concrete bunker wired to allow a couple of hundred high capacity industrial batteries to charge in a protected environment. Most of the important bits are down below ground level, the entrance basically lets out onto a catwalk that overlooks the batteries – and yes, catwalks are a theme in villain design and I’m no exception. They’re cheaper than building a real floor and villainy is pretty much always on a budget.

About half the catwalk was torn up, mangled and twisted until it looked more like a pretzel than a walkway. Parts of it may have been missing entirely. One of the guards was actually wrapped up in part of the mess. At the far side of the bunker I could see a ragged hole where something roughly the size of a man had torn or smashed its way through a foot of reinforced concrete. My stomach turned over once and I swallowed. I’d known Rodriguez – Samson – was absurdly strong but it looked like I’d still drastically underestimated him.

Simeon was waving to me from the control room, the sounds of sporadic gunfire and tens of thousands of dollars in electrical equipment being torn apart came up from below. I slid to a stop on the catwalk just outside the door, crouching with Simeon in the frame to avoid the bulk of the dangerous stuff flying around outside. “How do things look?”

He shook his head regretfully. “Not good. I’ve already lost touch with two of our six guards and the engineer on the control panel bolted. We’ve lost about a quarter of our reserves and the remainder is dwindling fast. I’m still not sure how he’s avoiding being electrocuted with all the wiring he’s handling but the voltage doesn’t seem to be slowing him down at all.”

“That’s disappointing and extremely odd.” I slipped my SIG out of it’s holster and checked the magazine, deliberately not analyzing what immunity to electricity might tell me about Samson’s talent. I still had no idea how it functioned other than allowing him to perform absurd feats of strength. “We’ll have to deal with him in a little more direct fashion. He took cover when I shot at him at Diversy, and again when Grappler tried the same thing at the library. Bullets must hurt him.”

“They guards are trying that but not getting very far,” Simeon said, tugging absently at the lapels of his suit jacket. Even in the middle of a dingy concrete bunker he was dressed impeccably and, in a bizarre kind of denial of his circumstances, he’d refused body armor or a weapon. That was one reason I’d asked him to stay in the most out of the way bunker, so he’d be out of the line of fire. Not my greatest success, I’ll admit.

“Are the stairs still intact?” I asked, peering through the wreckage that was the catwalk.

“Sir, with all due respect, it may be best to pull back. There’s no way to be sure bullets will actually harm him and staying here just puts you in his reach.”

“I’m not letting him wreck this place ahead of schedule, Simeon.” I gave him my best disapproving look. “It could take months or years to track down the components to finish the Thunderclap array on the black market if we don’t finish fabricating the raw materials here.”

He held up a hand and, grudgingly, I waited to hear his piece. “I understand all that. You are intent on this and I’ve long since come to accept that. But if your set on getting yourself killed I don’t see why you’d object to blowing up a building or two along the way.”

There was a clatter from behind Simeon and Hangman rolled into the control room doorway on an office chair. “Wait, what?”

I glared at Simeon. “Why is she here?”

“The engineer bolted and she has the technical know-how to keep the systems running even when someone’s ripping the guts out of them.” Simeon shrugged. “It was a logical personnel allocation.”

What he wasn’t asking was why I had a problem with something that should be so obvious. Of course someone with Hangman’s computer background would be experienced in keeping an electrical system up and running. The only reason not to want her there was because of the danger. It wasn’t like me to ignore the obvious like that and Simeon didn’t have to say it out loud for me to know he was thinking it was purely for personal reasons.

“Hey, guys,” Hangman said, interrupting my thoughts, “can we get back to the part of this conversation where we’re sitting in a building with a bomb in it?”

“Technically there’s more than one bomb and they’re not that big. Blowing up your base is an essential part of supervillainy.” I ignored the look Hangman was giving me. “Simeon I’m not losing this round. It’s mine to win, we just need to stick it out a little longer and-”

“We don’t have a little longer, sir.” In an uncharacteristically familiar gesture he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “This is your last chance to make a clean break. I’ve never understood why you wanted to become a martyr, but-”

“Yeah,” Hangman broke in, pulling Simeon back as she crowded into the doorway with us. “Care to explain that part? What is he talking about, Circuit?”

I sighed and rubbed my forehead for a minute, wondering when it was I started feeling so old. “Hangman, how much of the plan – the long-term, gambit within gambit, let’s rule the world Plan – do you think you’ve figured out?”

She kept giving me the look and I stared at her until she sighed, accepting that this was a part of how things were going to go. “Well, first you use Thunderclap to take over a city’s electronics. Then you rule it with an iron fist while driving down crime rates and using your public persona’s influence to help bring the economy into line and establish functioning social services. Then you…” Hangman hesitated for a minute, clearly to the part of the plan she hadn’t quite figured yet. “Expand, I guess. Some people will come to you willingly and others can be bullied. At some point there will probably be a direct challenge or five, but-”

“But it will never get that far. Hangman, listen to me.” I reach out as if to put a hand on her shoulder or brush the stray hair from her face. She blinked, a little uncertain, and in that moment I had her by the lapels of the jacket and pulled her close in a way that no one would mistake for affection. “You are stupidly naive and it infuriates me, because I was just like you once. So here’s the truth, unvarnished. Tyrants crumble. Alexander the Great. Julius Cesar. King John Lackland. Napoleon. Adolph Hitler. Nothing they build endured. They don’t usher in new eras, they ripped down the old ones. It was always someone who came after then who did the work of rebuilding, all they were good for was the act of destruction. All.”

Simeon grabbed me by the wrists and broke us apart. “Sir-”

“This is a contest, Hangman,” I snarled, pushing myself to my feet using the doorway as a prop. I was mad and I didn’t know why. I’d spent the last seven years piecing together these ideas and the plans that would make them real, but talking about it always seemed to make me angry. It was perhaps the one thing I’d never stopped to examine. “I tear down their lies, their projects, their secrets, until someone comes and stops me. This is where I get the ability to do whatever I want and use it to find all the liars, the cheats and the bullies out there and grind them into dust so when they finally come and finish me off there’s no more trash out there to clutter up the new order. Because sooner or later that was going to be someone like me. Maybe Lethal Injection. Maybe the Enchanter. But me – I am going to do it right. I will make them hurt like they never have before, but it will be to make them better. And when I am done and buried, they’ll be able to rebuild without any of the old crimes weighing them down.”

“You’ve made a difference, Circuit,” Hangman said, slowly reaching out to take my hand. I jerked back instinctively and she hesitated, looking hurt. “Simeon is right. You’ve shown the world Project Sumter’s lies. You have almost everything you need to build the Thunderclap array. You can step back for a while, take stock, come up with a new plan. You don’t have to-”

“Do you know what a thunderbird is?” I asked.

“What does that-”

“Do you know what it is?”

“No.” She shook her head sadly. “I don’t.”

Simeon gently laid a hand on her shoulder and said, “It’s a creature of wrath, Miss Dawson. A thunderbird’s wrath is unchecked and uncontrollable. Come. We need to go.”

I shook myself back to reality and realized I’d set my gun on the ground at some point during the exchange. I quickly scooped it back up, saying, “We can still contain this, Simeon. We’re nowhere near the endgame yet. I said it this morning – we’re winning this round.”

“Sir, I know you haven’t been paying the best attention so I’ll just tell you.” He nodded towards the edge of the catwalk. “No one’s fired a shot down there for the last ninety seconds. Now you might be able to outmatch Agent Samson with your superior maneuverability and one pistol but I doubt Hangman or I could add much to you side of the equation. And I seriously doubt you or Samson want us here.”

The worst part was, he was right. There hadn’t been gunfire for the last minute or so and I should have noticed and sent them away a long time ago. I sighed and tried to let the tension ease out of me. “You’re right. Go. I’ll see what can be done about Rodriguez.”

They’d gone a few steps down towards the door when the massive bulk of Manuel Rodriguez, full time preacher and part time government strong man, vaulted up from the ground floor and onto the wall above the catwalk, stopping himself on all fours like a human fly, except he immediately slid down and landed lightly on the catwalk. How a man his size managed to land lightly I’ll never understand.

“Actually,” he said, dusting off his pants and bulletproof vest, “before you’re on your way there is one thing that needs to be said.”

I tensed and eased the safety off my sidearm. “And what would that be, Agent Samson?”

He didn’t answer me, not directly. Instead he looked at Hangman and said, “Elizabeth Dawson. I have a message for you from your father. He wants you to come home.”

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Water Fall: Raging Rapids

One Week, One Day After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Massif

The first time Double Helix made history he turned a couple of thousand square feet of Death Valley, Nevada to molten glass. That was during a routine set of exercise conducted when he first joined the Project. They were trying to establish a baseline for his talent. By the metrics we use he’s the strongest heat sink on record, weighing in as nearly twice as powerful as the next strongest we know of.

When he set out to show Circuit how making history was really done I got a little nervous. The man just doesn’t know the meaning of half measures.

But then, we were already making history. For the first time since the Civil War we had talents moving in teams that didn’t include oversight officers. Both Helix and Amp’s teams were pure talent. And as soon as we were away from the clearing around the chopper Samson leapt in front of the group and took off alone at a pace way beyond anything a normal human could hope to match. All the field oversight and tactical people who weren’t guarding our helicopter were in my group. In some respects I’d actually gotten the shorter end of the stick.

The guy I knew the least about was HiRes, he was supposedly invisible but I could still see him moving as clearly as I could see anything in a windy forest full of swaying trees – which isn’t that clearly, in case you were wondering. Jack and Dominic both insisted they didn’t know where he was and I was still going along with that, at least for the time being. Along with Mr. Not-So-Invisible and those two tactical leaders I had the rest of Helix’s tactical team and Agents Herrera and Sanders, giving me the Project’s foremost experts on Circuit’s history and tactics. Templeton had been forced to remain at the chopper with the other two members of my support team but Hush or Amplifier could forward his thoughts to us if we needed them.

I was sure Dom and Jack were reliable, they’d been in the Project longer than I had and I knew their records before they joined up. The rest, well, the biggest positive I knew of was that they worked with Helix. That means lots of field experience, most of it with situations teetering on the edge of disaster. But smooth running, uneventful operations? Those were a lot rarer in Helix’s casefiles. It made me a little nervous.

Of course, they’d all survived those situations, which had to mean something, right?

“You okay?” Dominic asked me, his eyes scanning back and forth as we lead our group forward. He was trailing just a half step behind me and to my left as we pushed through the thin undergrowth of southern Indiana river country.

“Circuit’s people have seen what I can do,” I said, a non sequitur that would make sense to him, if not the other people with us. A huge part, and I do mean vital, of what makes my talent effective is the fact that it comes as a surprise to people who have never encountered it before. Bullets, punches, getting hit by cars, none of it is particularly dangerous to me so long as I can keep my footing. Getting set on fire, breathing sleep gas, getting cut with a good sharp knife or just having a fire hose pointed at me, those are things that affect me just like everyone else. Most of the time I manage to wrap up tactical situations before anyone thinks of that kind of thing but this time I was walking into round three with a bunch of people who had not only seen me before but were used to the idea of talents existing and thinking of work arounds for that fact. It was making me a little nervous.

And when you put all those little cases of nerves together you got a great big helping of insecurity. I didn’t like the way things were shaping up at all and the loose dirt and random woodland detritus making the ground under my feet that much more unpredictable was just icing on the cake.

With the satellite intelligence we’d managed to gather and the cooperative efforts of a dozen of our best analysts we’d figured out which one of the three bunkers Circuit had built was likely to hold his headquarters. The general idea of my part of the operation was to cut through the woods and hit the bunker, try to take out the center of operations in case Helix or Samson’s end of things didn’t succeed or just serving as a distraction to help them on their way. It hadn’t escaped our notice that we were essentially playing Circuit’s game of parallel gambits against him but, in this case Analysis was fairly sure Circuit didn’t have the people to counter our separate moves even if he recognized our game.

According to Dom’s GPS we were most of the way to the bunker we wanted when we stopped to get our bearings at the intersection of two trails. We were almost at the end of the part of the park open to the public, most everything south of us was supposed to be undeveloped woodland. Dominic wanted to be absolutely sure of where we were before we left behind all usable landmarks, just in case Circuit decided keeping his communications grid up wasn’t worth letting us keep ours.

Dom had just confirmed that we were where he thought we were when the stern, stolid voice of Hush said, “I hear something in your area.”

After nearly a month of working with Amplifier this kind of thing didn’t bother me nearly as much as it would have before. Even Dom didn’t react much, just starting a little then asking, “Are you sure it’s not just an animal or something?”

“Trust me, animals don’t make nearly as much noise as people do, not when they’re in their native habitat.” It was hard to tell for sure but Hush sounded a little condescending as he said it, as if the inability to be quiet was a great failing on our part. “Samson has already gone inside his target and Helix’s group is nowhere near your location.”

“Got it, Hush,” I said. “We’ll deal with it. That’s what we’re here for.”

There was a moment of quiet, then, “Templeton says be careful. I’ll be listening.”

That rather creepy statement was Hush’s way of signing off. I turned to Dom and said, “Let’s take care of business.”

The National Guard had, with much reluctance, agreed to give us gear that matched our surroundings a little bit better than what Project Sumter kept on hand. Most of our work was done in the places where talents are likely to get noticed – in large towns or cities. There’s probably plenty of talented people out in the countryside, but they don’t get noticed nearly as often so we don’t know about them. So our guys, with the exception of Kesselman who was still pretty out of practice, aren’t trained for tactical situations out in the wilds. In case you were wondering, this was the National Guard’s biggest argument for why they should have handled Circuit rather than us.

I have to admit, watching our agents fan out along the side of the path in a rather clumsy fashion, I kind of saw where they were coming from. Still, it was our case and we had the experience. It was time to prove we were the best people for the job.

As soon as Dominic signaled that everyone was in position I walked out into the center of the crossroads, planted my feet, clasped my hands across my back and said, “May I have your attention, please. I am Special Agent Aluchinskii Massif of Project Sumter. This is a raid to apprehend the known terrorist and traitor calling himself Open Circuit, wanted in connection with the recent attack on Michigan Avenue, the death of an agent of the Federal Government and numerous other charges. If you surrender now and offer to testify you will be shown leniency during prosecution.”

There as a moment’s pause then I heard Hush, sounding about as amused as I’d ever heard him, saying, “They think you’re high and they’re daring each other to shoot you.”

Reports suggested Circuit had both hardened mercenaries and more run of the mill criminals working for him. I was guessing these were the latter. Just to make sure all the bases were covered I said, “If you resort to force we will respond in kind.”

Then they really did shoot me.

It was a pretty good shot, hit me just below the left collar bone and bounced off the vest I was wearing. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered with the bulky thing but footing was bad enough out in amongst nature that I didn’t want to be caught without one if I lost my footing. This time it wasn’t necessary as the bullet came to a total stop as soon as it touched me, all it’s forward momentum bleeding into the ground at my feet. I sighed and started forward at my usual deliberate pace.

One genius, who probably thought he was some kind of stone cold killer, came up out of the trees on the far side of the road, carefully squeezing off shots from his semiautomatic as he walked towards me. No doubt he though that since I was playing it cool and doing the impressive slow walking thing he had to do the same or loose face. Of course, he didn’t realize I was kind of bulletproof and he wasn’t. Not until one of his shots caught me square in the cheek and tumbled off without leaving anything worse than a light red mark, and that because the bullet was hot and not because of the force of the shot.

That was enough for him to realize he was tangling with something he didn’t understand but by then it was too late. He was close enough for me to reach out and grab his outstretched gun hand, twist his arm until the joints locked, then pull him off balance and straight into my knee. He doubled over and dropped to the ground, I kept hold of his arm only long enough to pull the gun from it before I let him go. Disassembling a pistol only takes a few seconds if you know what you’re doing and as long as you keep the gun barrel the rest of the pieces are useless but you have no chance of hurting yourself with a misfire or later giving up a weapon to your enemy. By the time that was done the other members of my hapless victim’s group were cursing loudly and had started shooting at me for real. I went to pay them a little visit.

I managed to drop another one with a quick grab and elbow combo, then grabbed a third by his leg, flipped him onto his back and wrenched his ankle until it made unhealthy sounds. That looked to be half of the little group out of commission but by that point they’d figured out that, just like a mummy in a bad horror movie, I couldn’t move much faster than a very deliberate walk and all they had to do was hustle a little bit faster than me stay out of reach. On the other hand, their bullets weren’t really doing much besides make me angry.

Of course all that attention on me kept them from noticing Jack’s group slipping around behind them and cutting them off. It was three on three and I meant to pitch in – not that I doubted Jack’s team but you can never be too certain in these kinds of situations. Problem was when I went to take the next step towards them I found my feet were stuck to the ground. I flashed back to the robbery at the Allen County Library at the same moment a hand landed on the back of my collar.

I twisted and hooked arms with my assailant, keeping her from throwing me to the ground. I couldn’t move my feet but that was less of a problem for someone with my training than it might have been for others. I dropped my hips and twisted, aiming to bring Grappler forward enough to hip check her to the ground. But somewhere in the process the arm I was holding became very slippery and I lost my grip. I heard, rather than saw, her staggering back a few steps. Then I heard someone yelling, “Grappler! Get back to the dam!”

At the same time I saw Dom and Teresa, who had flanked my other side to try and catch the guards in a pincer, moving up through the brush and exchanging gunfire with a new group somewhere in the distance. Grappler turned and bolted, her trail of movement quickly getting lost in the brush. I looked down at my feet, still stuck to the ground by the abused laws of friction, and tried to pull them free. After a couple of minutes effort Dominic joined me and said, “If you give it about fifteen minutes it should wear off.”

“I don’t know if we have that kind of time,” I said.

“Look on the bright side,” he replied. “At least she didn’t manage to lay you out flat on the ground.”

“I’m not sure we can afford to keep going,” Teresa added. “We’ve got six suspects in custody here. We can’t watch them and safely follow another squad of that size with the number of people we have on hand.”

“They said they were headed towards the dam,” I said.

She shifted and put her hands on her hips, a thoughtful pose for her. Then she shook her head and said, “Helix can look after himself.”

I just grunted and started investigating how big a patch of ground around me had been transformed to work like flypaper, thinking I might just take my shoes off and jump clear of the affected area. I’d determined that it was only a couple of feet wide and had just reached for my shoelaces when there was an impossibly loud cracking noise, followed by a sound like the waves on a distant beach. I glanced up, even though there was nothing to see. “Hush? Amp? What just happened?”

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Water Fall: Cauldron Boiling

One Week, One Day After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation

Circuit

Hangman jerked up from her computer and yelled, “Circuit! They’re in the park!”

I slammed the updates SImeon had given me along with my morning coffee onto the table in the ops room and hurried over to her station. “Where? How did they get in?”

“They’re in the northeast quadrant, Heavy’s zone. I’m not sure how it got there without our seeing it but it looks like they brought a helicopter in.” She spun her monitor so I could see.

Sure enough there was a chopper, it’s blades spinning slowly, with a small group of a dozen or so people in a loose grouping around it. I spotted the distinctive stocky shape of Pastor Rodriguez, or Samson as they’d called him at the press conference, and nearby the leaner but equally tall man they’d called Aluchinskii Massif. He was exchanging words with a much shorter man who I guessed to be Double Helix. A few seconds later the two broke apart and the group separated into three distinct units. Helix left with two blonde women in tow, heading towards the southwest, Massif and Samson left with the bulk of the remain agents heading due south and the last two split the difference and went down the center.

“This isn’t good. I’d bet anything those two are wave makers.” I drummed my fingers impatiently on the desk. “Probably serving to relay messages between the two groups. They won’t even have communications we can knock out with the Empion grenades.” With a wave I caught the attention of one of the techs over at the maglev controls. “Switch over from the Empion launcher settings to manned flight. Then have Heavy meet me at crossroads seven.”

“Wait.” Hangman grabbed my arm as I was about to start towards the door. “Crossroads seven is between us and the big group, but Helix is headed almost straight for the dam and you’ll be nowhere near him. What if he’s trying to knock out our power supply?”

“He can’t,” I said with a grin. “Not right now. That’s the beauty of fall, Hangman. Heat sinks don’t create heat, they only rearrange what’s already there. They basically suck all the heat in an area into one central point – their heat sink. But they can only take so much heat out of the environment, once it gets cold enough they can’t pull the energy to them. For Helix, that point is roughly the freezing point of water.”

Hangman gave me a blank look for a moment, then pulled up the weather on her computer. “It’s thirty-five degrees outside.”

“Just warm enough he can effect changes, but not nearly enough to let him burn through concrete. He certainly won’t be breaking the dam with it.” I shrugged. “And even if he could, he’d have to be standing right in front of it. The water might evaporate before it could sweep him out of the way, but there’s no way he could do the same with the dam itself, even if it was the middle of summer. The rubble would crush him in an instant. Whatever he’s doing, it’s most likely a feint to cover for Sumter’s other group.”

“I see.” She toggled back to the screen displaying the drone footage. The intruders were now keeping under as much cover as possible, trying to avoid being spotted, so only glimpses of them could be made out through the brush. Hangman sighed and looked back up at me. “Stay in touch, I’ll let you know if they change directions. And be careful.”

“Careful?” I started backing towards the door, my hands spread in a helpless gesture. “If I wanted to do that, I’d have chosen a different line of work!”

Then I turned and ran out into the hallway. About twenty feet down there was a four way junction. Going straight would take you out of the bunker entirely, while turning in either direction the hall dead-ended about fifteen feet further on in a small closet containing an unusually large and strong maglev relay. I flipped my harness on with at thought at the same time I hit a switch on the wall. A two inch think steel door slid open and I flung myself up and out into the sky.

——–

Helix

“Explain to me exactly why it is you’re running off into the woods with a pair of gorgeous women?” Amplifier’s voice whispered in my ear.

“Not that,” I said, perhaps a bit too quickly.

“What?” Amplifier asked, her voice all innocence.

“Did you say something?” Frostburn asked at the same time.

I clamped down on an annoyed growl before it got too far. “Talking to Amp.”

“Got it,” the twins chorused.

My focus drifted back to an imaginary point just to my left, where I imagined Amplifier standing, even though she was probably several thousand feet away by that point, up in a tree with Hush. “Moving the three of us in a group is an integral part of this plan.”

“And I get that for the twins, since they’ve been together so long and they’ve got some secret to working together that makes them super scary.” Amp’s tone was back to frank, less playful. “But I don’t get why you’re running with them, and not the group that’s going after Circuit.”

“Because this time, we’re bringing overwhelming force. This time, there’s not going to be a clever backup plan and he’s not getting away with most of his resources intact. This time we’re hitting him with everything we’ve got.”

“And some things the National Guard’s got,” she added. “But-”

“Look, Amplifier, the dam has got to go. In order to do that safely, all three of us have to be involved. It’s as simple as that.” I turned my attention to the GPS tracker I was holding in one hand. Thankfully, Circuit either hadn’t noticed us or decided it was more important to keep his own ground level tech working than countering whatever advantages we got from the gear we’d brought along. “One mile to go, ladies,” I told the twins. “Start shifting the balance, if you would.”

Of the infinitely large number of things that comics get wrong in their depictions of super powers is the tendency to characterize people who create cold as using “cold energy” to reduce the temperature in an area is the one that annoys me the most. Perhaps that’s a very personal bias of mine, but I know for a fact that cold isn’t energy. Something that’s cold lacks energy, it’s so high up in a region’s thermal map that energy can’t pool deep enough to cover it. When cold spikes make an area cold all they’re really doing is pushing up on temperature so that the heat flows out of a region. Or, to use the simplified analogy, if heat sinks pile heat in to a specific place cold spikes throw it out of a specific place.

And when they brush the heat out it has to go somewhere.

Coldsnap and Frostburn started pushing as soon as I asked them to and all around us the air temperature plummeted as the shape of the temperature shifted. Before the excess heat could drain away into the surroundings I pressed down and captured it in a heat sink of my own. The twins weren’t making things very cold – we didn’t want to wipe out a huge swath of the park, after all – but the temperature did quickly drop down to about zero Fahrenheit. As we pushed on through the park it began to rain, then snow and our progress slowed. Since we hadn’t been moving that quickly due to the brush it took us another twenty minutes to push through the last mile to the dam.

I whispered a few words to Amp so she’d know we arrived then the twins really went to town. Circuit had built a large but kind of crude dam across the river in a natural depression there creating a natural lake that was at least four hundred feet wide and easily half a mile long. Mossburger, who was an electrical systems engineer before he joined Project Sumter, estimated that it was producing at least half the power for Circuit’s compound, possibly more. The Chain o’ Rivers park had a lot of places where a hydroelectric dam could have been built but this was the one that required the least set-up time and materials. But, by the same token, it was also the easiest to access.

The equipment that had come in and built the dam had left broken paths of foliage from the back access roads out to the construction site and those rutted roads were still easily found, if we had wanted to use them, but as it so happened we didn’t. Analysis wasn’t sure how many men Circuit had guarding his compound but odds were some of them had been detailed to watch the dam itself, as the hydroelectric production of the base was easily one of it’s most important features. So instead of approaching the dam from downriver we emerged from the woods along the shores of the newly created lake a few hundred feet upriver of the dam.

By this point I was holding a two foot wide ball of superheated air hot enough to glow with a dull red light and we were surrounded by plants that glistened with frost. Coldsnap was about sixty feet away to my left, her sister and equal distance to my right, so that I stood just outside the Venn diagram created by their overlapping cold spikes, soaking up the heat that was bleeding away from them greedily. With no trees or brush to get in the way the wind created by the unnatural differences in temperature kicked into high gear.

Then the girls decided to make it really cold.

They stepped out onto the lake, flash-freezing it from the surface all the way to the bottom. The heat rolling away from them, which had been just a trickle before, became a flood and it was suddenly all I could do to contain it. The twins, in the mean time, headed across the lake towards the dam at a quick walk, moving with total confidence on the ice. Since they’d declined the cleats I’d offered them when we were prepping for the mission I could only assume it was based on long experience. I didn’t have any such practice so I’d gone with the footgear.

Once Frostburn was within fifty feet of the dam it was my turn. I started out on the ice after them. The heat sink in my hands, now occupying a space bigger than I was, flash-melted the water under by feet and by the time I’d gone twenty feet I’d sunk into the ice so far the surface was over my head. I heard a gun shot or two but I hoped the winds would keep the shooter from hitting anything important and focused on crossing the two hundred slippery, uneven feet to the dam as quickly as possible.

I had almost melted down to the river bed when I got there. I could feel the cold spikes the twins were creating fading back towards the shoreline and quickly disappearing, so they were probably all right. But all of a sudden I was holding a six foot ball of plasma while surrounded by hundreds of cubic feet of frozen water and facing a twenty foot concrete wall. The only way out of this would be applied thermodynamics.

Hot things expand, cold things shrink. That’s basic physics. It’s what creates wind, for example. If you take an object and heat it, it will expand and push aside the things around it. When the intense heat I was holding came in contact with the dam the concrete began to groan. After a moment there was a bang and a crack ran through the dam like a bolt of lightning. I took a step back, letting some of the heat around me loose to flow back into my surroundings. Behind me, with no unnatural influence keeping it frozen, the lake began to thaw…

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Water Fall: Hydroelectric

Six Days After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit 

I’d just turned in after another day of waiting for the shoe to drop when Wallace banged on my door. The two days after taking out a drone with an Empion grenade had been difficult, with most of us slowly getting more and more tense as we looked for signs that Project Sumter, or whichever government organization had sent that drone, was getting ready to pay us a visit. In the mean time, I’d spent a lively afternoon tramping through the underbrush and trying to track down the Empion grenade we’d used to disable the drone on it’s way over the park.

In theory, the grenades were supposed to launch off the maglev relays, shut off all extraneous systems and trip an EMP. Then, with internal circuits shielded by a bit of pirated military tech, they’d switch back on, link up with the nearest maglev relay and swing back to the holding area. Unfortunately, the switch back on part wasn’t working exactly as intended. I’d spent part of the previous evening and most of that day arguing about why it might not be working with Davis. When I wasn’t doing that, I was arguing with Heavy or Grappler over how to best set our handful of perimeter guards. Most were mercenaries with some field experience and I wanted to leave them to their own devices, but Heavy felt they’d get out of hand if we let them have too much autonomy. Worse, a few squads were gangbangers and other petty thugs Heavy had scraped together and who weren’t thrilled with taking orders from anyone, but were willing to listen to someone with enough street cred to command their respect. Eventually we compromised on Heavy leading the crooks and the mercenaries working on their own. 

When I finally got to bed I was hoping for a solid five hours sleep before something else went wrong. It was not to be. 

I yanked the door open just as Wallace was raising his hand to knock again. He blinked at me looking more than a little surprised, perhaps not used to seeing me without a shirt on. Then he rallied and said, “The eyes we’ve had on the Sumter headquarters say they dispatched a helicopter around two o’clock this afternoon. Hangman’s trying to hack in and get their flight plan, but no idea where they were headed yet.” 

“They’re probably not coming directly here,” I said, drumming my fingers on the doorframe. “This location is in the middle of a jurisdictional nightmare, they can’t have cut the red tape in a day and a half, even if all five senators on the Talented Individuals Committee rally to the cause.” 

“Well, you said to tell you as soon as they made a move, and now you’ve been told,” Wallace said with a smile. “I’m going to hit the sack.” 

“You’re awful cheerful about this,” I said dryly. 

“Other than running some checks on the last turbine in the concrete dam, I haven’t had much to do today.” He shrugged. “Lots less stress than the rest of you. Good night, Circuit.” 

I watched him head off down the dreary hallway and turned back to flip the lights on and reached for my shirt. Wallace was a very phlegmatic man and took just about everything in stride but it wouldn’t do to run around the installation shirtless and start everyone talking. And I certainly wasn’t getting much sleep with Helix on the way. Might as well get a little work done. 

——– 

Helix 

The biggest sticking point was what we would use to enter the park. Kesselman was a certified helicopter pilot and more than familiar with the EC-155s the Project used on those rare occasions we needed to be airlifted into a situation. We used that to get out to our meeting with the National Guard and we wanted to go in using it too. The Guard, on the other hand, wanted to go in using a Black Hawk, which meant we’d have to rely on them for pilots. That, in turn, would give them the leverage to insist we take Guardsmen along as tactical support, instead of our usual teams. 

Even though there wasn’t enough room on a chopper for me, Massif, Samson, Amplifier, along with our assorted oversight agents and support teams plus Darryl and his team, I would still prefer that the tactical support we did bring had experience dealing with talents on both sides of the equation. To my surprise it was HiRes, the rookie from Darryl’s team, who gave us the leverage we needed to make the Guard go along with our plan. 

We’d been in and out of meetings and teleconferences with various military honchos the whole of the previous evening and we’d pretty much figured that we’d have to wait on Washington to break the stalemate. Voorman and the team oversight agents were in yet another meeting and the rest of us were sitting in the situation room, in case our knowledge of the enemy’s talents was needed, and HiRes’ head was surrounded by the faint rainbow effect I’d come to realize meant he was using his talent to somehow see things that were far away and, on occasion, around corners. My best guess was that he was bending light somehow, which was cool and creepy at the same time. It was also something I’d never heard of before, and I had to fight the urge to pry into what he could do with it. Not knowing that kind of thing was a novel experience after twenty years of working with talents. 

For most of the morning HiRes had been glancing around a lot, like he wasn’t used to all the hustle and bustle, but now he’d settled down and was just leaning back with his eyes half lidded, watching over the shoulder of various drone operators when he wasn’t skimming classified messages as the cryptologists decoded them. 

Forstburn and Coldsnap had been keeping up a constant string of chatter the whole time, deflecting attention from him by virtue of being cheerful and pretty, and I’d been eavesdropping between fielding the occasional question about Circuit’s methods. The status quo had held for nearly half an hour before HiRes quietly murmured, “They’re using drones.” 

“They told us they were sending in another wave of drones over the park at this morning’s briefing,” I said just as softly. “Nothing new there.” 

“Circuit’s people,” he said. “They have a couple of those high altitude surveillance drones that double as a sat uplink. They think that’s how he’s spotting and shooting down our drones as they come in.” 

“Well that’s a pain.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “It sounds more and more like we’ll have to go in on foot. Jack will be thrilled. He can finally give that lecture on jungle warfare he’s been saving all this time.” 

“Assuming they don’t just give the job to the Guard,” Frostburn said. 

“Because they’re better suited for that kind of operation,” her sister added. 

“Drones are good.” HiRes’ eyes snapped fully open again and he sat up straight. “That means they’re spotting us visually and not by radar. I can make a chopper invisible but I can’t screw with radar waves.” 

“An invisible chopper.” I said, feeling my eyebrows creep towards my hairline. “That sounds too good to be true. What can go wrong here?” 

“It’s a two way street,” Coldsnap said. “When HiRes does his magic no one can see you but you can’t see anything, either. You have to rely on other senses, or leave a hole you can see out of.” 

“Your pilot should be able to fly us by instruments.” He waved his hand downwards. “And I can work it so we can see, and be seen, from the ground but not the sky. It’s all in where you choose to make the bends.” 

“I’ll assume that makes sense somehow.” I drummed my fingers on my knee. He was definitely bending light. Interesting. “Other potential disasters? Things the Guard might say to try and keep us from using this route?” 

“The public parts of the park have a PA system,” Frostburn said. “It wouldn’t be that hard to rewire it so it could listen, too. It’d be a cheap way to monitor those parts of the park and make sure we weren’t slipping through the underbrush. There might be listening stations all over the place by now. What if they hear us coming?” 

I laughed. “Don’t you have the silent man on your team?” 

“There’s a limit to how loud a sound can get before he can’t squash it anymore.” She tilted her head to one side, meaning she’d just thought of something. “Unless…” 

“Unless we have two wave makers working on it.” I pointed at HiRes. “Find Amplifier and Hush, get them together and see if it’s possible. I have a phone call to make.” 

I left the three of them to run errands and started looking for a quiet corner of the base, already scrolling through my contacts list for the number of a certain Senator who had just as much at stake in this case as I did. 

——– 

Circuit 

Wallace and Davis came to me late the next morning, neither one looking particularly well rested. I gave Wallace a rueful look and said, “I thought you were under no stress?” 

“I had an idea after talking to you last night,” he said with a shrug. “I wanted to see how practical it was so I checked with Davis. We were up most of the night getting the numbers crunched and some rough plans put together.” 

I suppressed a yawn and took a gulp of my coffee. “What kind of an idea are we talking about?” 

“One that will get us out of here by three tomorrow afternoon.” Davis handed me a sheaf of papers covered in sketches and notes. “Your plans call for us to make all our superconducting material and shape it into electromagnets here at Chainfall. But, with a few adjustments, we can turn CPC wire into magnets at Deepwoods, meaning can focus the hydroelectric capacity of here at Chainfall on manufacturing the superconductors. That cuts the time we have to stay here almost in half.” 

I glanced up from the plans he’d handed me. “Deepwoods?” 

“That’s what Hangman’s been calling the place up in Wisconson,” Wallace said. 

“I see.” I went back to the papers and said, “This looks feasible. Make the changes here as soon as possible. Davis, I want you to take all the completed materials we have at the end of the day and return to the northern installation and begin prepping it according to these spects.” 

“Just me?” He asked. 

“I need Wallace here to help me finish checking over the second hydroelectric turbine in the permanent dam.” I set the plans aside and stood up from my desk. “We’ve had drone overflights most of the morning and I was busy shooting them down. Once we get that second turbine working we’ll have enough electricity to keep a blanket of Empion mines airborne for half an hour, more than long enough to knock down anything that can come to us through the air. That means Sumter, or whoever winds up coming after us here, will have to come by ground.” 

“And by the time they can cut through the paperwork to do that we’ll be long gone,” Davis said with a smile. 

“Good work, boys,” I said with a smile. “As long as we keep the hydroelectric turbines intact I think it’s safe to say we’ve won this round.” 

“You make it sound like you expect to loose one of these days,” Davis said with a laugh. 

Wallace and I laughed too, but in the back of my mind the Thunderbird gambit gnawed on my conscience. Davis was uncomfortably close to the truth for once. Hopefully he, or worse Wallace or Hangman, wouldn’t see through to the endgame until it was time. 

But first there was Thunderclap. And before that, we’d have to keep the hydroelectric generators going for the next twenty-four hours. Simple enough, right? 

——– 

Helix 

A week and a day after the event the press had started calling the Michigan Avenue Proclamation we were flying low over the marshy forest that held Circuit’s latest supervillain’s lair. The Guard wasn’t happy about it, but the ability to put an invisible helicopter in the middle of the opposition’s base had tipped the turf war in our favor and we were going in to sort things out. 

As for flying invisible, it was really weird. If you looked up there was nothing visible but a nauseating pulse of twisted light over the chopper while the Indiana countryside continued to roll by undisturbed below us. On top of that, the combined efforts of Amplifier and Hush were suppressing most of the noise we were making, so the helicopter’s engines were making no more noise than the typical house fan. This also meant that if you wanted to say anything to anyone you had to yell at the top of your lungs, and even then our wave makers were pretty upset about it. 

But thankfully we made it safely to the landing zone in the northern part of the park, about two miles away from what our drone reconnaissance suggested was the center of Circuit’s clandestine instillation. It wasn’t really anything more than a small, level clearing well removed from the public areas of the park and all of Circuit’s territory that we could identify. It was really quite impressive the way he’d managed to smuggle enough materials and labor into the park to build three hardened bunkers and one smallish dam. There was probably an inside man in the DNR or something, Analysis and Records were going to spend months working out how it might have been done, but in the mean time it meant that we had a lot of work to do. 

Grandpa Wake used to tell stories about jumping huge distances, like the time he vaulted off a three story building onto a Panzer Mk. IV to bend the main gun out of shape. I’ll admit that I had a sneaking suspicion those stories were hyperbole, at least until Samson jumped twenty feet from the chopper to the ground and proceeded to secure our landing zone like nothing unusual had happened. Kesselman put us down without incident and the rest of us piled out in a less spectacular fashion. 

I glanced around and suppressed a slight shudder. The group included Teresa and the rest of our team, Massif and Screeton, Amplifier, Sanders, Darryl and his team and Sampson. In all, there were eight talents present, twice as many as I had ever seen in one place outside of a briefing room. “All right people,” I said, rubbing my hands together. “You all have your assignments. Circuit’s had his chance to make history. Let’s show him how to do it right.” 

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Water Fall: Flood Waters

Five Days After the Michigan Avenue 

Helix 

There were many problems that resulted from the revelation that talents walked among us. Believe it or not, Project Sumter had very detailed contingency plans in place detailing possible fallout from public knowledge of talented individuals. These scenarios cover pretty much everything from witch hunts and pogroms aiming to wipe out talents to individual talents who set themselves up as the leaders of cults. 

Absolutely none of these scenarios mentioned the necessity of field agents taking part in press conferences. 

I feel that this was a major oversight, because anyone who put an ounce of thought into it would have immediately banned me from getting within a hundred feet of any member of the press. In fact, I have no idea why that memo didn’t go out as soon as I pulled my stunt to rescue Teresa from the reporter mob. And yet two days after I did that I found myself staring glassily at a wall of microphones and ravenous, soul-sucking journalists. It was less than ideal for my peace of mind, and not just because I was wondering what had gotten into Voorman. 

And while we’re on that subject, let me just say I found how easily he adjusted to the press a little disgusting. He gave the opening statement, a quick five minute summary of Circuit’s case and where we currently stood with it, using nothing but a couple of note cards and without showing any sign that he was nervous. This from a person who, a week ago, I would have told you was defined by his nerves. I’d say he looked totally in control of the situation except, as soon as he opened the floor to questions things went south. 

If you’ve never seen the press all over a new story, it’s kind of like watching flies swarming over a dead raccoon on the side of the road. It’s obsessive, repulsive and relentless. The basic shape of things was like this: Voorman was at the center at the podium and to his left were the three Senior Special Agents we had that had been involved in the case since the beginning; my current boss, Teresa Herrera, my former boss, Bob Sanders, and Massif’s boss, Harriet Verger. These four were chosen for their extensive field experience, their familiarity with the case and the fact that, with two men, two women, one Hispanic, one African American and ages ranging from mid twenties to late fifties, they made a wonderful picture of the diversity and inclusiveness of Project Sumter. I would have preferred to face the press backed by my highly experienced tactical team, but they were all middle aged white males and hadn’t been invited. 

Of course, the ethnically balanced, open and fair shtick may have been to counterbalance the fact that Amplifier, Massif and I were all white as they come. Only Samson broke the mold. Sure, that’s because the Midwest is a bit more homogenous than other parts of the country but that doesn’t play in front of the press and the fact that I don’t care for that kind of posturing much doesn’t change the fact that perceptions matter. The four of us were lined up by height, with Samson closest to the middle and the rest of us in descending order moving away from Voorman. We weren’t supposed to be there to talk, that was Voorman’s job, but we had been introduced to the public by our code names and our status as talented people made clear. 

Unfortunately, as soon as Voorman finished outlining, in general terms, the extent of our current investigation into Circuit’s activities and what kind information we were hoping to get from the public the press was free to ask questions. The first question came from a reporter from the local broadcast news, a shortish Asian American woman with black hair pulled into a bun. “Agent Voorman, is there any indication of what this Open Circuit’s motivation in his crimes might be?” 

“At the moment it seems to be purely self-interest, based on the pattern of his crimes,” Voorman said. “His public statements have suggested he wants to be seen as some kind of freedom fighter but so far most of his crimes consist of grand theft of pretty much every type and criminal trespass. And that’s just the things he’s wanted on five or more counts of. Not the behavior of an altruist.” 

A journalist with the ragged haircut and slightly worn clothing of someone who didn’t have to get in front of a TV camera every day raised his hand and asked, “There’s a lot of people with what you call talents coming forward all over the country and saying they’d like to use them in a productive fashion. In interviews they’ve said that’s something you’ve forbidden, by and large. Are there plans to change that policy in the future?” 

Voorman glanced at Sanders, who cleared his throat and said, “There’s been a lot of talk about that at the management level over the past few days, discussions I’ve been a part of.” I felt my eyebrows raise a bit at that. I had wondered where my old boss had gotten off to, since I hadn’t seen him with his new talent much recently. “Some talents do receive licenses for specific kinds of work already. State and Federal governments are debating how those programs might be expanded but our involvement in that is going to be strictly advisory from this point forward. Politicians will have to sort it and put it before the voters.” 

A different, younger looking reporter near the back shouted, “What about superheroes?” 

“That would-” Voorman began, but stopped short when Samson stepped to the edge of the raised platform we were standing on, picked up an empty metal microphone stand from off the floor and held it up for the audience to examine. 

Then he bent it into a rough circle using his bare hands. The room went deathly quiet as Samson carefully set the bent pole on the stage and said, “My talent is one of the most powerful we know of in direct confrontations. If you want to see something really interesting we can go to a junkyard later and I’ll throw some cars. But the fact is, even I rely on equipment, backup and information from Project Sumter to do my job. I can’t take a bullet safely without a bulletproof vest, for example. I still only have two eyes and they only see in front of me, so I need someone to watch my back. Vigilantes have none of that support and are more likely to get themselves and other people hurt than solve any problems.” 

“On top of that,” Verger added, piping up from the other side of Voorman, “the legal system itself doesn’t deal with them well. Evidence gained through vigilantes is rarely if ever admissible in court, and if they did take the stand we’d usually have to turn around and arrest them for trespassing or assault and battery. Vigilantism remains something the law highly discourages, and we are a law enforcement agency, no matter what else people choose to call us.” 

“Don’t you think constantly dismissing the potential contributions talented people make out of hand is part of the problem here?” The anchorwoman who had asked the first question demanded. 

“We’re not dismissing them out of hand,” Voorman said. “There are a lot of issues to be explored-“ 

“And that’s a process your agency has been actively suppressing for almost seventy years,” she said, too fired up to notice her breath gathering in front of her in an icy cloud. “Why do you call Open Circuit a run of the mill crook when he’s obviously been confronted with such widespread systemic injustice his entire life?” 

“Because he’s a liar, a thief and a killer.” Both Voorman and Sanders short me warning looks but I ignored them. I’d been prepared for a lot of strange sounding questions from the press but I honestly hadn’t expected them to be sympathetic to Circuit. “Project Sumter has asked talents to keep what they can do a secret as much for their own safety as out of a desire to keep the public in ignorance.” 

I stepped forward and picked up the stand Samson had left there and let it rest in my palm for a moment, until the heat gathered there melted through it and the two pieces tumbled to the ground. A flick of the fingers sent the last drops of molten metal sizzling onto the ground and I looked the reporter in the eye. She’d paled visibly. “On the face of it, what we can do is more than a little scary, don’t you think? Even fifty years ago, this kind of thing could have caused riots. Maybe times have changed and we can be out in the open safely. We’ll see. But it wouldn’t be the first time the government has erred on the side of caution and gotten it wrong. That doesn’t justify robbing people of their livelihoods, threatening their safety, or leaving their families in mourning. Circuit’s done all that, and the only reason for a person to act like that is pure selfishness.” 

Behind me Voorman cleared his throat. “I think that will be all the questions for now.” 

——– 

“You are not doing that again,” Voorman said, his tone closer to exasperation than anger. 

“Thank goodness,” I said, wiping sweat off my forehead with my sleeve. I didn’t let the air around me change in temperature but nerves still had me dripping. “I hate press conferences.” 

“You’ve never done one before,” Sanders pointed out. 

“But I’ve seen plenty on TV,” I replied. “And I hated all of them.” 

“Helix,” Teresa said, visibly struggling to be patient. “It’s going to be very important that the press not paint us like a loose cannon or some other kind of threat to the public interest.” 

“Because the press never smears people it doesn’t like regardless of facts,” I said, favoring her with a mock-naïve expression. 

“I’m not disagreeing with you,” Voorman said, regaining some of his patience. “But it would really help if we didn’t feed them sound bites to use against us.” 

“Hey big guy!” Jack waved to me from the other side of the floor, standing with Darryl by the computer that was keeping the situation map up to date. “Get a load of this.” 

When your tactical leader says get somewhere you get, and when you’ve known Jack as long as I have that goes double. Teresa, Voorman and Samson went along with me and, due to longer legs, Teresa and Samson got there first. I snorted in disgust and Voorman spared me a sympathetic glance. Then we were at the desk and the moment of short men solidarity was over. 

“What have we got?” Teresa asked. 

Lincoln Wu looked up from the computer station, which he appeared to be in charge of. Apparently he had gotten some new clearances, a lot had been going on in the office in the last week or so and I was keeping up with less than half of it. “The National Guard in Indiana sent us this about two hours ago. Records is working overtime and the Watch has been pulled in, too, since censoring the news is less of a thing now, but we’re still having a hard time keeping up with all the tips and reports coming in so it got lost in the slush pile somewhere.” 

He pulled up a new window and hammered a few shortcut keys, flicking through menus at a near-epileptic pace. A couple of seconds later we were looking at grainy image of a densely forested area. 

“This is the Chain o’ Rivers State Park in southern Indiana. It’s a hiking and camping kind of a place and, until last year you could even go canoeing through the rivers.” Jack grabbed a sheet of paper that had a map, presumably of the park, printed on it and handed it to me as he went on. “The problem is there’s no one route, they can be like a maze at some points and people have gotten lost before, sometimes for a day or more. It was decided to add some markers and close off certain parts of the river, to help keep people safe. The canoeing was closed while the work was being done.” 

Darryl picked up the story at that point. “Last week a cop who was there on vacation spotted some really heavy equipment being trucked through some of the maintenance roads. Concrete mixers, a small backhoe, not the stuff you expect to see in a State Park. Being outside of his jurisdiction and not wanting trouble, he called it in to the DNR. They sent in a couple of agents to look into it.” 

“No one’s heard from them in three days. Things get a little murkier after that but the Guard got involved at some point,” Jack said, gesturing back to the computer screen. “So they asked for some satellite images and this is what they found.” 

I leaned in for a closer look. “Okay, I’ll bite. What did they find?” 

“These,” Lincoln said, zooming in on the lower right corner of the image. Now I could make out a strange boxy thing nestled in under the branches of a large tree on the bank of the river. A dark line ran out into the water. 

“Is that a tree branch?” Voorman asked. 

“We think it’s some kind of makeshift dam,” Darryl replied. “You remember what that girl Amplifier was tracking when we first ran into her?” 

“A stolen prototype for a hydroelectric generator,” Teresa said. “One that would function even with very shallow water at high efficiency. Stolen by Circuit.” 

“And look.” Lincoln hit another shortcut key, cycling quickly through at least a dozen other images. “They’ve found at least fifteen of them scattered through the park. There might be more, better hidden. Then there’s this.” 

The last image was of an honest to goodness concrete dam. Jack tapped a knuckle against it. “That looks to have been built sometime in the last month, probably finished about the time our cop was visiting the park. It’s caused a lot of flooding but so far nothing in the public areas. The Guard didn’t want more people going in and not coming back out so they decided to send a drone to investigate.” 

“I’ll be the FAA was thrilled with that,” I muttered. 

“Not sure they’ve found out,” Jack replied. “Show them the footage.” 

Lincoln cued up a video that gave us a bird’s eye view of the area around the park. As in, it actually dipped and swooped like a bird, it was pretty nauseating actually. I have no idea how the people who operate drones put up with it. The footage went on for about ten seconds before suddenly cutting out to static, then the words SIGNAL LOST came up on a black background. Samson grunted in surprise. “What happened?” 

“Show them the satellite footage,” Darryl said mildly. 

“Right.” Lincoln sounded a bit sheepish but did as he was told without further comment. 

This time the satellite was focused on the drone so the terrain around it was pretty much a blur. But then the miniature aircraft came to a sudden stop and started to fall. Lincoln froze the frame before it went far and zoomed in. A gray blob was shooting through the bottom half of the frame, obviously moving pretty fast. 

“There was a big blast of static at the time the drone’s signal was lost. It could be explained any number of ways, but smart money says this,” Darryl pointed at the blur, “is some kind of EMP device launched from the ground and set of to fry our machines.” 

“Definitely Circuit,” I said. “I don’t know what he’s doing all the way out there but I don’t care so long as we can shut him down and drag him in.” 

Teresa glanced at me, then over at Darryl. “What does the National Guard think of all this?” 

“They were thinking it was a terrorist plot to take over a Park and poison the water supply. There’s a squadron of A-10 Warthogs based in Fort Wayne that they were planning to mobilize as part of an operation to storm the park and round up anyone present. Then the news about talents went public and local field offices started circulating information on Circuit’s case and they came to us.” 

“So when do we go in?” Teresa asked. 

“Actually, they just want us to send an advisor. They still plan to run their op, they just want someone from the Project to ‘look for unanticipated complications’ and suggest adjustments.” Jack’s tone of voice told me he thought that wasn’t going to be enough. By several orders of magnitude. 

I felt my own eyes narrowing at the thought of just handing this job over to a bunch of soldiers and sitting in an office while other people dragged Circuit out of his watery little hideyhole. I glanced from Darryl to Voorman. “What do you gentlemen say we go and explain to the Guard the errors of their ways?” 

Darryl rubbed his hands together and picked up his cane. “I’ll go get my team.” 

I glanced at Voorman and Samson. “That’s the Secret Service spoken for.” 

Samson shrugged. “Who knows that our position is not for such a time as this?” 

That got a grin from me. “Okay, Mordecai, get your bags packed, time’s a wasting!” 

“Wait.” Lincoln gave me a confused look. “I thought his codename was Samson.” 

Samson laughed. “At least he didn’t call me Sam. Or Esther.” 

“Then I’ll do it, Sam.” Voorman gave his partner and I a grim look. “You two need to calm down. We can’t take this op from them by force and we don’t have the standing to demand they turn it over to us. The National Guard isn’t going to give up on running their own plan unless we can bring them a better one, and they’re not going to let us execute our plan unless we give them a good reason why they’re not qualified to carry out that plan themselves.” 

“Fair points,” Teresa said with a smile. “But we have the world’s foremost expert on Open Circuit to draw on so that should be easy to do.” 

I frowned. “Darryl did work a lot of the early cases with me, but he had moved to Analysis chief before most of the really heavy stuff happened. This is Amber’s first time working a Circuit case, and Mossburger and Mov-“ 

“Big guy,” Jack interrupted. “She’s talking about you. Not the getmen.” 

“Oh.” I stared blankly at him, then Teresa. “Me?” 

“Yes,” she said slowly. “You. In eight years you’ve worked twelve cases involving Circuit, out of seventeen attributed to him in one way or another. And that doesn’t include whatever it was the CIA asked you to do in Morocco a couple years back. No one knows him like you.” 

I swallowed once, hard. “I guess not.” 

Jack grinned. “Then I guess you’d better get to work putting together a plan for us.” 

“Yeah.” I’d never been in a position where I had to put a plan together before. But as soon as Jack said it I realized it was Circuit we were going after all the pieces just slid into place. “Actually, scratch that. We’ve got a plan. I just need to get Darryl back and make sure he’s on board…”

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Water Fall: Breaking the Levy

Three Days After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit

After all the prep, the pursuit and the press, I’d finally achieved a lifelong dream: Exposing the existence of unusual talents to the world at large. Naturally, once we’d shaken off pursuit I decided to repair to my evil villain’s lair and plot my next diabolical move. Also, since the place had been under construction for nearly a year and I hadn’t visited in three weeks, there were a lot of things to check up on. Being a conscientious evil mastermind I immediately set out to bring myself up to date in a fashion most likely to be unpleasant for all involved. Which is to say, I scheduled a meeting.

There were no donuts involved.

And, since it was my meeting, I dispensed with an agenda and skipped straight to the questions. “Status of the maglev relays?”

Davis waved his hand over the northern section of the map of the Chainfall site we were gathered around. “The last quadrant has the system fully installed and connected, but the reserves aren’t charged yet. You can only expect fifteen to twenty minutes of use right now. We won’t have the full hour and a half of reserves until tomorrow afternoon.”

I nodded. “That’s acceptable. What about the Empion grenades and their launchers?”

“They’re all up and running,” Wallace said, rapping his knuckles on the table and sending pens and pencils jumping. “You have full coverage of the base and we’ve done a couple of test detonations. We don’t know how well they handle, since the maglev system works best in your hands, but the basic principles are sound.”

“That leads us to the ground situation.” I glanced at Heavy and Grappler. “How prepared are we?”

Heavy laughed. “You know us, boss. We got flypaper and glue out everywhere you want it and a couple of places you didn’t think of. But the guys you got here? They ain’t pros. Not like the Army, not like the cops. When the hammer comes down, they’re only gonna buy you so much time.”

“Not to worry,” I said with a half smile. “Chainfall isn’t a permanent site, it’s just a temporary production facility.”

“Which raises the question,” Davis said, “of what, exactly, you need that would require you invest almost fifteen million dollars of time, effort and material in building this site.”

“Only fifteen million?” Hangman asked, glancing at Davis.

“You save a lot when you don’t need permits, zoning adjustments, board of health and safety inspections and the architect does the work free of charge,” Wallace said.

“The answer,” I said, a bit louder than the byplay going on, “is this.”

I took a small stretch of bronze colored wire out of a box that sat on one side of the table and set it on top of the map. It was about the thickness of the wide rice noodles you find in Chinese cooking, coiled into the rough shape of an electromagnet. For a moment the rest studied it, as if there was some great significance hidden in its coils. Which there was, although I could tell from their expressions they didn’t know what it was.

Finally Wallace said, “We’re making copper wire?”

“Not copper,” I said. “Cuprate-perovskite ceramic wire.”

Davis made a sound somewhere between a whimper and a squeal of glee and snatched the coil up to inspect it more closely. “A high temperature superconductor. And you made this here?”

“For a quarter the cost buying it on the open market, to say nothing of the cost of buying it through the black market. Assuming there was even enough of the stuff in the world to meet our needs.” I folded my arms over my chest and turned my smile up to full strength. “Worth those fifteen millions to you, Davis?”

Hangman waved her hand a bit to catch our attention then asked, “Excuse me if I scroll back a bit, but, what’s so special about this cupping ceramics?”

“It’s cuprate-perovskite ceramic, and when-”

Letting Davis try and explain would take all day so I jumped in and intercepted before he could work up too much of a head of steam. “Let’s just call them CPCs and say the short answer is, they can function as superconductors without having to be frozen all the way down to near absolute zero.”

Her eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Room temperature superconductors?”

“Liquid nitrogen baths are still required,” I said. “The phrase ‘high temperature’ is extremely relative in this case.”

“Ah. I see.”

“But if we’re going to finalize the Thunderclap array,” I continued, “Davis is going to require a great deal of CPC electromagnetic coils. We’ve known that for more than five years, thus the necessity of adding the Chainfall operation to our long term strategy.”

“The what?” Heavy asked, sounding a little confused.

I glanced at my senior engineer, who was still studying the coil with something approaching reverence. “Mr. Davis? Would you care to explain the purpose behind that invaluable piece of wire you’re holding?”

“I would be delighted,” he said, slowly lifting the coil up until it was at his eye level and rotating it for the whole table to see. A few of the other hands in the ops room glanced over from their monitors to see what there was to see but, for the most part, the people Simeon had found to staff Chainfall were maintaining a professional interesting in their equipment. Just as well. Davis, oblivious to the interest or apathy of his surroundings, went on. “A superconductor has a number of unique properties but, from the moment I was hired, Circuit and I have only been interested in the way they can hold current for a near infinite length of time.”

“You mean it’s like a battery that never runs out?” Grappler asked, sounding interested in the conversation for the first time.

“More like a flashlight that doesn’t actually use any electricity,” Davis said. “It took a year of research to determine the best way to exploit that. It all ultimately hinges on the fact that electricity and magnetism are the same thing.”

“Right,” Heavy said, nodding. “Even I get that much. With a the maghand the boss can reach out and flip switches or mess with power lines he’s not touching. Why’s the superconductingness of the magnet make a difference?”

“Because the nature of a superconductor is such that a fusebox like Circuit can tweak the resistance just enough to get slightly different shapes of magnetic fields.” Davis quickly but gently set the electromagnet coil back down on the table while continuing to talk and motion with his other hand. “Before you ask, that means one electromagnet, cooled to superconductivity and attached to the right computer equipment, can do triple duty, serving as a ‘maghand’, as you call it, a maglev relay and a lightning funnel all at once. Put enough of them in a city and a fusebox at the center and you know what you get?”

“Anything you want,” I said. “This is the age of information, and CPC superconductors are the secret to exploiting it. Hijacking any security system, manipulating traffic flow, shorting out substations and using the resulting current both offensively and defensively via the lighting funnel effect, it’s all possible once we have the tech in place. And that’s just scratching the surface.”

“Which is swell and all,” Hangman said, “but kind of raises the question, where are you going to install this Thunderclap array? I know you have property holdings all over the nation but a magnet that size isn’t going to cover a whole city block. Will it?”

“One of the bright sides of using superconductors is that they use so little current to keep running, so even a small coil like this will make a bigger magnetic field than you might think.” I picked up the wire and tucked it back into it’s box. “But that was just a test product. The real things will be several times bigger and should cover at least a half a dozen city blocks.”

“Again,” Hangman countered, “You don’t have the real estate to make that practical. What are you going to do with all-”

“Hangman, my dear, you underestimate Simeon’s ability to play the great game.” I pulled two sheets of paper, folded into thirds, from my jacket’s inner pocket and slid them across the table to Wallace. “Three years ago I left the country in order to set up a financial network in southern Europe and northern Africa. The incredible mineral resources of Africa, in particular, were of interest to me as a place to acquire the raw material to build the Thunderclap array, but Germany and Spain both served as conduits to funnel money back through dummy corporations and silent partners, some of whom aren’t even aware of what they’re investing in. When you run it all together we have more than enough access to turn not one but three cities into test sites for Thunderclap.”

“Always good to have options,” Wallace said, picking up the papers and flipping them open. “But I assume you already have your heart set on one?”

I nodded in confirmation. “The others serve to distract Project Sumter and, as you say, provide us with fallback sites if the first implementation doesn’t go well.”

As he read the first sheet of paper Wallace’s eyebrows rose until the practically touched his hairline, which takes some doing when it’s receded that far. “You’re setting this up in your own back yard?”

“Talented people exist in the public eye now,” I said, holding up half a dozen newspapers from across the country with front page stories on the subject. After my initial interview revealing our existence it sounded like most publications had more than one person in their local community volunteering to give an interview of their own, complete with demonstrations and, in one case, a fanciful costume to protect their identity and cause unfortunate misconceptions. All in all, it was about as expected. “Sooner or later, and I suspect it will be sooner, Project Sumter is going to put itself forward and try and assert control. But they’ll lack credibility and trust from the public, most secretive government branches do. After they flail about for a while, we can step in and pick up the pieces. And what better place to do it than right under the nose of one of their biggest offices? Plus, the fact that we’re operating in the same city we chose to reveal ourselves in will emphasize that we’re confident and in control.”

Glances passed back and forth around the table, and I saw one or two skeptical expressions warming to cautious enthusiasm. Heavy actually laughed and said, “Ballsy, boss. I like it.”

I offered a slight bow from the waist, then said, “Any other questions?”

And of course Davis had one. “How long?”

“Before we’re ready to use the array? Maybe a year. Six months if all goes smoothly.”

“Not what I was asking.” He leaned forward and gave me a hard look. “I just remembered that the method we devised for manufacturing cupra – excuse me, CPC materials involved the direct involvement of a fusebox. You were supposed to hire three for the occasion.”

Grappler saw where this was going quickly. “But one of them got arrested in that arms sting that went down while the rest of us were out around the country. So now we got two.” She glanced at me. “Unless you’re filling in?”

Wallace shook his head. “Not a good idea. A lot of our defenses only work at top efficiency if there’s a fusebox at the controls. For example, the maglev system can only throw an Empion grenade straight up, if we want to actually get a target in range of it’s pulse we’re going to have to be able to move it horizontally as well as vertically, and for that we need Circuit. And it’s less likely to work if he’s exhausted after spending a bunch of time fabricating electromagnets.”

Davis scowled. “I said in the past that making too much of your stuff dependent on your talent-”

“Relax, people,” I said, making a hushing gesture. “We’ll just have to make some concessions to the timetable. I had originally hoped to have things done in five or six days with our three other fuseboxes working around the clock. As it is, we’re probably looking at a week to ten days. Hangman? How long until we’re likely to be spotted?”

She spared me an arch glance, then turned her attention back to her laptop. “The next satellite overflight will be in one hour and sixteen minutes. I don’t know how many passes it will take for them to actually notice that dam you’re building outside, but I’m guessing it won’t be that many. The whole country’s probably on alert at this point.”

“Every second counts,” I said, running numbers in my head. “Wallace, that means you should be able to grab the first batch of finished CPC coils and head back to the city with them before anyone is paying attention. Use the Chinatown safehouse and start building the array based on the blueprints I gave you. There’s a list of preliminary locations to install them at as well. See Simeon before you leave, he’ll provide you with documentation on what kinds of cover stories to use.”

“Just as a helpful reminder, I did live in town for several years,” Wallace said. “There’s a chance someone’s going to know who I am. Might raise questions.”

“An acceptable risk, at this point. Anyone have a point they’d like to raise, now is the time.” I glanced around the table but no one looked like they had anything to add. “In that case, get settled and stay sharp. It all comes down to how the other side reacts now.”

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Water Fall: Running Deep

Two Days After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation

Helix

It’s not something I normally go on too much about, but my boss is incredibly hot. And I don’t mean that in the sense that I would normally mean it – she’s attractive, not a great deal warmer than the environment around her. She’s got classic high cheekbones, a deft hand with makeup and a figure that could launch the siege of a large building, if not a small city. I mention this because, when I got back to the office late the next morning, it was surrounded by reporters.

I don’t think I have to say that this isn’t business as normal.

Getting out of my car I could hear them all talking and shouting at someone. I glanced over at Jack, who was climbing out of his truck a dozen parking spots away, and tilted my head. We hadn’t coordinated our arrival but that was the only thing about our entering the building that went uncoordinated. With a series of quick hand signals, half out of the book and half from a long history of working together, and Jack set off to trail blaze while I hung back to support if anything went wrong. Jack always trail blazes in crowds, in part because he’s so much bigger and more intimidating but also because he has this odd idea that I’ll take the term trailblazing too literally for anyone’s good.

So as I trailed along about twenty feet behind Jack I got a great view of him coming around the side of the building towards the doors. The moment when he spotted the crowd was truly priceless. His expression went from suspicion, since anything out of the ordinary is suspicious, to surprise, when he realized we were surrounded by reporters, to profound embarrassment, since being noticed by the public is the opposite of what we are technically supposed to do.

Someone had posted a pair of armed guards outside, which explained why the reporters were outside, and keeping a good ten feet away from the doors instead of swarming over the reception area just inside. I thought I recognized one of them as the leader of Al Massif’s tactical team. Jack peered over the crowed, clearly weighing the odds of getting through the press of press cleanly, spotted the guards and decided to make a go of it.

Not that any of the reporters paid much attention to Jack. Teresa had arrived at some earlier time and they were all clustered around her since, as I’ve said already, she’s pretty much the most eye catching thing around. Don’t ever let anyone convince you that doesn’t make a difference in how the news gets told. I decided that, given the situation, sticking closely to the normal routine of following Jack and clearing out anyone who tailed him wasn’t going to be needed and I should probably back up Teresa instead.

One thing that you have to develop in this line of work is your ability to be rude. Dealing with members of the public is a lot easier when you can keep them at arm’s length and reporters won’t take you seriously unless you spend the first five minutes trying to brush them off. Teresa comes from a background in Homeland Security so I’m sure she’d had Basic Rudeness 101 but in the few months I’ve worked with her I’ve noticed she really doesn’t rely on it much. While this probably ingratiates her to the regular people we meet, and it’s probably something we were all going to use more in the future, at the moment courtesy was just getting her mobbed by reporters who didn’t know it was time to back off.

Among the few upsides of being unusually short is the ability to sneak up on people, especially when they’re focused on someone taller than you. I got a satisfying jump out of most of the reporters when I stepped into their midst, took Teresa by the elbow and said, “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen.” Rudeness is different from being unprofessional, after all. “Agent Herrera and I are needed inside.” I steered her towards the door and, since there is an element of fair trade in these kinds of things, kept talking as I walked. “We’re not currently cleared to say much, as I’m sure you’ve already learned. There will probably be a statement released by the Senate’s Oversight Committee on Talented Individuals within the next day or two. Contact the office of Senator Brahms Dawson, of Wisconsin, if you want more details.”

The best part about talking to reporters is they all shut up while you’re doing it, so my statement bought just enough silence to hear a repressed snort of laughter from Teresa when I set the press on Dawson’s office. It was definitely the kind of game two people could play and, as the talented field agent with seniority in the Midwest, I suspected that I’d be in for reciprocal treatment, but in the mean time I was enjoying the mental picture of Brahms Dawson being ambushed by reporters demanding a statement at every turn.

There were at least twenty or thirty reporters out front of the office that morning and, being fairly short and content free, what I had to say didn’t get us all the way in the doors. Teresa knew better than to contradict me in front of the public so she waited until the barrage of follow-up questions was cut off by the door sliding closed behind us before she asked, “Are you sure that was something you should be saying?”

“It was factual and nothing they wouldn’t know in another day or so. It also keeps them from paying too much attention to us so we might be able to move with a little more freedom, if they’re camped out front with satellite vans and cameras it’s just one more way for Circuit to try and spy on us.” Another thought occurred to me. “And in a way, it’s a good chance for the Senator.”

Teresa glanced down at me as she started up the stairs to the second floor. “In what way?”

“Think about it,” I said, gesturing back at the press that crowded around outside. “They’re going to be all over this story. In fact, they already are. When they hear about the kind of information manipulation we’ve actively engaged in over the past fifty years they’ll skip straight past asking questions and go straight to demanding blood. The one shot the Committee has at saving their skins is if they can say their piece before anyone else.”

“Haven’t seen today’s paper yet, have you?” She asked, pulling a pile of newssheet out from under one arm.

Since it was the kind of question you can answer by doing something I decided not to say anything and just take the copy of the Tribune she was offering. The front page was dedicated to the attack on Michigan Avenue. In addition to a factual account of what went on and a man on the street interview with store managers and owners talking about what the economic impact of the attack might be there was a short article below the fold. Written by the paper’s sports writer, it claimed to be an interview with the man who masterminded the attack. I only had to read a few paragraphs to decide that it wasn’t someone trying to grab credit. Only Circuit could sound so self-satisfied, even in print.

I handed the newspaper back to Teresa. “Okay, so he’s a step ahead of us there, too. At least it’s just the local paper.”

“You talking about Circuit’s latest publicity stunt?” Cheryl was coming down the hall from the other direction, a stack of printer paper in one hand. “Because it’s not just the Tribune.”

I groaned. “Please tell me you’re joking.”

“Nope.” She waved the papers she was holding back and forth. “There’s three different articles that we know of so far. These are printouts from the Indianapolis Star and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. All your getmen are cleared to see them, along with oversight agents and anyone else you think needs to look them over.”

I gave her a blank stare.

“Right.” She sighed. “I guess information security isn’t such a big deal this time, is it?”

Teresa gently took the printouts from her. “The game’s changed, Cheryl. We’re all still working out the rules.”

“Yeah, well…” She threw her hands up. “In the mean time, I have to make sure we write down everything that happens on the way. So try and snag this guy before the paperwork backlog gets too severe, okay?”

“Will do,” I said over my shoulder, pushing through the door and onto the floor.

Our offices have never been the bustling, frantic command center you tend to see shown on TV. For one thing, we’ve never had the budget for that kind of staff. For another, we’re always short on field agents so they tend to wind up out in the field, instead of in the office most of the time. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it does mean that the floor is usually a lot of empty desks with one or two people filling out paperwork scattered about. Today there were no desks because the floor map was in use, but practically every available place to stand that didn’t put you on top of some part of the continental U.S. was occupied by qualified field agents.

“Busy day,” Teresa observed.

“Kind of surprising,” I said, trying to find Jack without resorting to standing on tiptoes. “The last time we went to Condition One we got out new assignments in the field.”

“Michael sent out notice that everyone should report here last night, while we were in the field.” I glanced up. Agent Samson, the only other guy in the room even close to Jack’s size, had somehow managed to sneak up on me in the crowd. He glanced at the printouts Teresa was holding and raised an eyebrow. “Good news, I hope?”

“We could use some, but this isn’t it,” I said, plucking the printouts from Teresa’s hand and passing them up to Samson. “What do you make of that?”

He made a rumbling noise in the back of his throat as he skimmed the printouts for a second, then sighed. “I saw the article in the Tribune this morning. I’m surprised he managed to reach this far in one day, but otherwise there’s nothing that surprising here.”

“What surprises me is that you’re here.” I folded my arms and gave him an appraising look. “Shouldn’t you still be on the disappearance of Dawson’s daughter?”

“We’re at Condition One,” Samson pointed out. “Why wouldn’t I be working this case?”

“Because you’re not a certified field agent anymore?” I suggested. “You’re not up on current procedure, you don’t have a tactical support team and, since we’re going to need Voorman here to handle PR as much as possible he’s not going to be able to be in the field with you full time anymore, so you don’t really have oversight, either.”

“Bob Sanders has been studying up on what I can do,” Samson said, matching my posture if not quite the level of hostility. “He actually served as oversight for me during the Michigan Avenue cleanup. Taxmen have traditionally moved without conventional tactical support, which I’m sure you know, and a lot of existing procedure is now a moot point. Helix, I’ve gotten the impression you don’t care much for me since you realized I was a talent. Part of it is probably because I didn’t slap Circuit down when I had a chance.”

I glanced down and away. “I don’t blame you for Mona’s death any more than I blame anyone who was there that night except Circuit. But you’ve been gone for over ten years just so you could preach in a run down school building. We could have used your help.”

“Yes, I figured it might be something like that.” Samson fidgeted for a moment, the sighed. “Look, Helix, when I joined Project Sumter there weren’t nearly as many problems on the scale of Open Circuit or even the Breeders that you found Coldsnap and Frostburn with. Most of my work consisted of showing up when we interacted with foreign talents to make it clear we had muscle or convincing talented people to lie about what they were, or else. I worked with the Project for six years and only had one case even close to the scale of what you’ve dealt with in the past.”

“So work on the problems with the system!” I threw my hands in the air. “I didn’t like the lying any more than you did, but I’ve been working to change things, at least when I had the time.”

He nodded approvingly. “I know. Even when I wasn’t active, Voorman passed on the occasional word about the kinds of reforms you’ve been stumping for. I’m particularly glad you managed to convince Project Sumter to share proven self control methods with the parents of younger children with dangerous talents. But,” he said, holding up a finger, “that’s something only you could have done. Between your grandparents and all those tricky cases you handled, you had a level of credibility and influence a former gangbanger who was once accused of manslaughter could ever hope to have.”

Next to me, Teresa made a surprised sound. “A gang? You?”

“MS-13,” he confirmed with a nod. “God prepares each man for his work. My history with them, and my experience here at Project Sumter, made me well equipped to deal with teens struggling with gangs, drugs or unusual abilities, or all three at once. But I couldn’t really help them find peace here. Project Sumter prioritizes the public over the individual. And Heaven knows the public needs it. But individual people need something, too, and the people of God exist to bring it to them. For a long time serving as a pastor was the best way to use my all my talents and experiences to do that.”

Ever since I could remember I’d thought of Project Sumter as the best existing method for dealing with the problems talented people presented in a democratic society. Hearing Samson say there was a better way to deal with things didn’t make me feel any better about him but I could grudgingly admit I saw his point. I wasn’t going to just then without prompting, but I could have if I’d been pressed. But I was getting uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation and we were starting to get a lot of attention from the other agents in the crowed around us, so instead I pushed us back to the original topic. “So you’re not on the Daswson case anymore?”

“Has anyone ever really considered them different cases?” Teresa asked.

“Not anyone on my team,” Samson replied. “Movsesian is at least eighty percent sure that her disappearance is related to Circuit and the only other possibility he considers likely is that she’s hiding out over a disagreement with her family.”

“She’s never gotten on that well with her dad,” Teresa said, “but I don’t think she’d drop out of sight for more than a month just because they were arguing about something.”

“And no one in her family remembers anything that could have made her that upset.” The big man shrugged his shoulders eloquently. “We’re not left with many possibilities beyond Circuit’s involvement. It’s surprising that he hasn’t tried to use Elizabeth Dawson as leverage yet, but that day may be coming in the near future. I don’t agree with Senator Dawson any more than you do, Helix, but he doesn’t deserve to have his daughter held over his head like that. And helping families who have lost track of difficult or estranged children is one of the things I do best.”

“But Circuit is way beyond anything you’ve dealt with before,” Teresa said, a note of understanding entering into her voice. “So you’re continuing to work the case on the Project’s terms.”

“And who knows?” Samson said. “Perhaps I first came to the Project in preparation for such a time as this. I just wish we knew more about how Circuit abducted her and what her current situation might be. The girl disappeared so flawlessly he might as well have made an elephant disappear right before our eyes.”

I blinked once. “Misdirection.”

“I’m sorry?” Teresa gave me a blank look, which was echoed by Samson.

“Circuit loves misdirection. Every job he’s pulled, whatever we thought his objective was turned out to be misdirection to keep us away from what he really wanted.” I turned to stare out across the map of the country, my gaze drawn to the Midwest where almost constant status updates were being projected onto the floor.

Samson moved to follow my line of sight, as if that might give him a clue what I was talking about. “Are you saying he abducted a senator’s daughter to keep us distracted?”

“I’m saying…” I pulled my eyes away from the map and looked over at Teresa. “Why would he announce he’s planning to take over the country?”

“Well, he needed publicity to help him gather-” Teresa broke off and stared at me blankly for a moment. “Are you saying taking over the country is a smoke screen for something else?”

“What could he possibly want?” Samson asked, incredulous. “World domination? Please don’t tell me people actually think that way.”

“No.” I looked back out at the map, Samson’s words of a moment ago ringing in my mind. For such a time as this. Because in the age of electronic security, the Internet and cell phones, was there ever a better time for a man with the ability to sense and alter electricity to make his mark? “He doesn’t want to rule the world. He wants to save it.”

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