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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Water Fall: Still Waters

The Day After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit

“This is not an exclusive interview, you understand,” I said, settling into the chair across from Terrance Martin.

“Exclusive?” Martin laughed bitterly as he shook his head and plunked his phone down between us hard enough to make me wonder if he’d need a new one. Then he slid his own chair a bit close to the table and adjusted his bulk so it sat more comfortably. “I’ve never heard of anyone blackmailing a reporter into interviewing him. Why should any other part of the interview be normal?”

“An excellent attitude to take, Mr. Martin.” I took my hat off and set it on the table beside me in an effort to be polite, although the scarf that hid my face would have to stay. Beside me Heavy Water took a chair of his own. We’d both dressed down a bit for this meeting, he went with a simple hoodie and jeans, with the hood up and a turtleneck with the neck unrolled and pulled up to hide most of his face. In addition to my scarf, I was wearing a beige overcoat and knee high waterproof boots that would conceal everything I was wearing underneath.

“I don’t know who you people are, but you look ridiculous,” he added, sitting back in his chair and glancing around the echoing lobby of the Circle Centre. There weren’t a lot of people there, by shopping mall standards, but there were still enough to create a lot of background noise. “But not as ridiculous as meeting here. I’m going to have a hard time hearing you on the recording.”

“I’m sure this interview will be memorable enough that you won’t need to consult your notes too closely.” I smiled, even though he couldn’t see it. “We’re making history, after all.”

“I’m a sports writer,” he said skeptically. “The only history I write happens on the playing field.”

“I’m well aware of your specialty,” I said with a smile. “But we did choose you for a reason and, trust me, once word of other events comes out your editor will want a part of this.”

Martin gave Heavy a skeptical look. “This guy okay?”

If he’d been expecting some kind of ethnic sympathy from Heavy he was in for a disappointment. Any shared experiences they had as African Americans were more than overwritten by hidden talent, criminal background and blood relation to a serial killer. Heavy just grunted and said, “You’d be surprised. We have something to show you.”

With that much preamble and no more, Heavy picked up Martin’s cup of coffee, popped the lid off and reached in. A second later he quickly dumped a shiny, viscous blob of steaming coffee out on the table where it trembled a bit like the world’s most bitter tasting blob of jelly. Martin jerked back with a yelp, perhaps to avoid getting scalded, then leaned back in for a closer look.

Heavy let the coffee sit there for a moment then reached out and flicked the blob with a single finger, returning the liquid to normal viscosity. It burst almost like a bubble sending coffee rushing out in all directions and causing the reporter to jerk back again, cursing this time. I grabbed some napkins and casually dropped them on the brown mess on the table, then said, “Pretty little trick, don’t you think?”

The reporter glared at Heavy. “What did you do?”

“I altered the viscosity of your coffee until it was closer to glue than caffeine,” Heavy said with a shrug. “Then I put it back to normal. Splash.”

“You…” Martin’s face scrunched up, probably reviewing high school physics that he hadn’t had to use in decades. “How is that possible?”

“Modern science tells us what’s happening, but not the mechanism by which it is accomplished. Another example.” I held my hand out palm up over the table. With a flex of my fingers I sent electricity arcing through my fingers like it was a miniature Jacob’s Ladder. It was a modification, or actually the original incarnation of, my taser rig. It wasn’t really much more than a parlor trick but in this case that was exactly what I wanted. “What you are seeing is called an unusual talent.”

He switched his attention from the sparks crawling down my hand back to me. “Seriously?”

“That’s the official term.” I snapped the current off and closed my hand. “We chose to talk to you, in part, because you’re used to seeing people with exceptional abilities.”

“Whoa. Hold up.” Martin leaned back and put his hands between us like he was trying to push me away. “There’s a huge difference between being a good athlete and having…” He gestured at my hand. “Some kind of superpowers.”

“Not a superpower,” I said quickly. “An unusual talent. We can do one thing you can’t. We’re not comic book characters. We’re real people, just like you.”

Our interviewer gave us a skeptical look. “Who hide your faces and blackmail people like you’re cut-rate villains.”

“Look, we can go back and for over this all day our you can listen to his point,” Heavy said, leaning forward just enough to make it clear he wasn’t making a request. “This isn’t about us having a couple of sweet tricks up our sleeves, it’s about equality.”

“Really?” He still looked and sounded skeptical. “How so? Your friend looks pretty well off to me.”

“Money isn’t the central issue.” I drummed my fingers on the tabletop for a second. Heavy had jumped ahead in our script but, given the direction things had been going, that was actually a good choice. Best to stick with him and catch the rest later. “Have you ever heard of people like us before? I mean outside of Greek myth or movies something like that.”

“No…” Martin said slowly. “But there are good reasons for you people to stay hidden, right?”

“Such as?”

“Well, wouldn’t you be worried about getting outed?”

“Worried about what?” I asked, keeping my tone casual. “Persecution by others? Do you realize how difficult it is for us to stay hidden?”

The reporter’s brow furrowed. “I don’t follow.”

“Think about it.” I rested an elbow on the table, careful to avoid the mess Heavy had made, and leaned in, lowering my voice and prompting Martin to match my posture to hear better. “Life isn’t like fiction. We don’t magically develop our talents in adolescence. It’s much less like athletic ability and much more like perfect pitch in that respect. Ninety nine percent of the time there’s no way to keep family members or close friends from knowing. Then there’s the shrewd folks who notice their friends always have something weird happening around them. And that doesn’t even begin to take into account the cops who have one to many strange things happen to them, the conspiracy theorists who are in the right place at the right time-”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Martin waved his had to cut me off. “Exactly how many people know about you talented folks?”

“The official government estimates, made during the 2000 Census, are that about 1 in 25 people are either talented themselves, or know someone who is. Don’t ask how they reached that conclusion, the math is kind of complicated.”

“Right. I don’t care anyways.” He shook his head. “What I want to know is, how do you guys even stay secret?”

“Ah. Well.” I leaned back in my chair and stared at the ceiling. That wasn’t in the script, but it was a good question. “It’s actually a combination of two things. Most fiction would have you believe that people pass off anything they see and don’t understand as hallucinations or something similar, they simply won’t believe anything that doesn’t fit with their way of looking at the world.”

“I notice that you don’t seem worried about that,” Martin said.

“Because it’s just not true. People want there to be fantastic abilities, that’s why there’s a million stories about people who have them – well, that and the fact we’re real and there’s at least a cultural memory of our existence.” I glanced down at the reporter and gave him the hardest look I could manage. It’s actually quite good even when you can only see half my face, I know because I practice with a mirror from time to time. “People keep the secret out of fear.”

“Fear of what?” Martin asked incredulously. “You have crazy superpowers, what’s there to be afraid of?”

“Don’t get it wrong,” Heavy said. “We can mess with a couple of laws of nature, sure, but that doesn’t mean we’re invincible. I’ve been laid up for months after getting shot. Maybe there’s one or two guys who can bounce bullets out there but, as far as I know, that’s all they can do. There’s plenty to be afraid of.”

I drummed my fingers to grab and keep Martin’s attention. “What you don’t seem to understand is, most of us don’t know just how common talented people are. So even if one of us should see some sign that another person might have a talent of their own we keep quiet. And if your son could juggle electricity and you met another man who you saw doing the same, would you approach him? What would you say when he asked you how you realized what he could do? What if he saw your son as some kind of rival?”

“I get the picture.” He gave us a meaningful look. “Not everyone with your talents is a nice person.”

“Funny, coming from you. But it’s much worse than that.” I leaned forward again and said in a softer tone, “The government doesn’t want people to know about us.  That’s the other thing that keeps us secret. We can’t use our talents for our own profit, in fact we’re not supposed to use them at all unless we’re employed by the government. We’re hounded when we do, and we can even go to jail. They’re careful to keep it all neat and kosher looking, but the real purpose is to make sure we never become known to the general public.”

Martin frowned. “I’m guessing they don’t want to cause a panic or riots or hate crimes or something like that?”

“That’s the idea,” Heavy said. “But tell me, has that ever worked? In this country or anywhere else?”

I picked up the line of thought smoothly, glad to be back to something resembling our script. “A fundamental part of our identity is being repressed right now. Significant contributions we could be making with our unique abilities are being prevented, or kept strictly in the hands of the government, supposedly for our own safety. But who does it really benefit? Project Sumter, the government’s organization for controlling talents, has the monopoly on talents who are well educated on what they can do and how they can do it safely. They use it to conduct surveillance and enforce laws in ways no one else can match.”

“One out of ten of known talents dies in accidents resulting because they don’t understand what they can do,” Heavy added. “By keeping that information to themselves The Man makes himself partly responsible for those deaths.”

Martin’s eyes widened slightly, then his skeptical expression was back in force. “Okay, that does sound bad. But any numbers you produce to support that are going to be a case of your word versus the government’s. And what do you think running a story in a newspaper is going to do about it? The Indianapolis Star isn’t even a big paper.”

“It wouldn’t be that big a help, if that’s all we did,” I said with a shrug. “You’ve seen the kind of long term differences movements that were all protest and no plan have made. Fortunately, we have something of a little more substance. We’ve already proclaimed our intention not to suffer second class citizenship in silence any longer. Now we’re beginning to act. What we need is to reach out to likeminded people, get in touch with them. A little activist journalism could go a long way in that regard.”

Marin nodded. “I could see that. Okay, what do you want to say to our readers about your intentions?”

“For now, just that we want equality, no different than anyone else in America. We’re willing to do what we need to in order to get it. You can call me Open Circuit, that was given to me by the government but it’s a name I’m not afraid to use as I stand up to them. I’m the nominal leader of our movement right now. There will be further demonstrations of what we can do with our unique talents and how we can use them to address our national problems in the coming weeks. In the mean time, we need other talents to come out of hiding and normal people to start demanding answers from the government.”

“What about this Project Sumter that you say manages your people?”

“Very hush hush,” I said, spreading my hands. “I don’t know all that much about it, other than that it is a government agency and it answers to a Senate committee chaired by Senator Brahms Dawson of Wisconsin.”

A grin broke out on Martin’s face. “Oh, really?”

“Someone to talk to when you start fact checking,” I said, letting a smile creep into my voice.

“That it is.” He reached out to pick up his phone then hesitated. “Anything else you’d like to add?”

“Not right now.” I raised an eyebrow. “Do you think your editor will want to run the story?”

“He might be persuaded,” Martin said, picking up his phone and tapping at the screen for a moment. He hesitated as he started to put it a way and gave me a nervous look. “Does it make a difference about that other thing?”

I placed a USB stick on the table between us. “This is the only existing copy of the security camera footage. It’s all yours. No repercussions even if your editor doesn’t run the story. But I don’t think that will be his decision.”

“You’re probably right,” Martin said, scooping up the stick and tucking it away. “If you want another interview just call me. I’m pretty sure we can work something out easier next time.”

“A pleasure,” I said. But Martin was already hurrying off, dialing frantically on his phone.

——–

“Was that really the only copy of the camera film?” Heavy asked, tossing his hoodie onto the bathroom sink and rolling down his shirt collar.

“It was,” I said, winding my scarf up carefully and setting it next to my coat and hat. In half an hour some enterprising soul would be pawning them or perhaps just adding them to their personal wardrobe. They no longer served any purpose for the two of us. “It was a hit and run, Heavy. Martin was well past the statute of limitations on those and, even if he wasn’t, it was a drug dealer he killed.”

“A sixteen year old drug dealer,” Heavy pointed out.

“Granted. But the chances of his being prosecuted would be small, particularly based on footage from a low quality, unmanned security camera on a warehouse that just happens to be owned by a wanted fugitive.” I unhooked the Jacob’s Ladder glove I was wearing and tucked it into the pocket of a light windbreaker I’d stuffed into the pocket of my long coat, then rolled down the sleeve of my shirt.

Heavy wasn’t planning on wearing a jacket. Between his beat-up turtleneck and my ratty flannel shirt and windbreaker we now looked like a couple of worn out blue collar workers getting off of third shift and heading home for the day. Except instead of looking tired, Heavy looked mad. “It’s not right. Kids like him get out there, slinging drugs on corners because they got nothing else.”

“I know it, Heavy.” I shrugged into the windbreaker and left the front open. “Society owed that boy something better and what it gave him was the front bumper of Terrance Martin’s car. And he didn’t even have the guts to stay there until someone could come and take the kid’s body away. Trust me, just because the world’s forgotten that kid doesn’t mean I have. We can’t afford to discredit him right now, but once Martin’s usefulness is over we’ll be in a position to do something about that.”

“You’re gonna use him and loose him, huh?”

I sighed. “That’s the world we live in, Heavy.”

“At least you’re trying for the right thing.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and slumped his shoulders, starting to look more like the exhausted, overworked manual laborers we were supposed to be. “I guess you can’t let it get to you.”

“And yet it still does,” I muttered under my breath, heading towards the restroom door. “But one day we’ll change that. One day very soon…”

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Water Fall: Outpouring

Four Hours After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation

Massif

Helix finally showed his face again about twenty minutes later, coming in at the head of a procession that included Agents Herrera and Mossburger, Cheryl O’Hara and, to my astonishment, Lincoln He. Helix ignored me, yelling, “Darryl! Voorman! We need to talk!”

Hush and HiRes peeled away and went over to join their boss in the following discussion. As they did Dominic gave a strangled yelp.

“What’s wrong?” I demanded, setting my feet a little more firmly on instinct.

“You can’t see that?” He demanded, then apparently realized how silly a question that was. “They disappeared!”

“That’s normal procedure,” Coldsnap said.

“One of HiRes’ handier tricks,” Frostburn added. “Thanks to Hush they can’t be overheard and HiRes makes sure they can’t be seen or have their lips read.”

I squinted in the general direction they’d gone a moment before. The amorphous blobs of movement that indicated people shifting on their feet or passing documents back and forth were still there, although I didn’t see anything solid looking at the center of the calm zones Helix and Hush created. Weird.

I decided to keep the fact that whatever HiRes was doing wasn’t entirely effective against my talent to myself. “I’m not sure that’s really necessary,” I told Frostburn, “considering Voorman basically told us what Helix was up to half an hour ago.”

“But procedure is procedure,” she answered. “Sometimes it’s an end unto itself.”

I knew all about that but before I could explain how little I thought of it Lincoln tapped me on the shoulder. “I found Hangman,” he said, handing me a very dated looking laptop. “But I don’t know how helpful to your investigation that’s going to be.”

“Sound ominous,” I said, taking the laptop and squinting at the screen. “What am I looking at?”

“A video file uploaded by Hangman a few hours ago.” Lincoln pointed at a line of pure gibberish at the bottom of the screen, half capital letters and half random symbols or punctuation. “It looks like he scheduled this to go live about half an hour after they hit Michigan Avenue.”

I glanced at him. “How do you know about that? It shouldn’t be in the press yet and you’ve been in the Records department for the last month.”

“Just a couple of days, really,” he said absently, poking the laptop’s touchpad. “And I know about Michigan Avenue and that that’s the correlation because your friend Helix mentioned it when Cheryl showed it to him.”

The screen refreshed and the video file started playing automatically. I could make out a man dressed in a fedora, scarf and suit on the screen. He was probably talking but the volume on the computer’s speaker was turned down so low I couldn’t make anything out. “There’s a lot of junk there about overthrowing the current system and creating a more equitable arrangement for everyone,” Lincoln said, still tinkering with the laptop’s controls, “but the really interesting part is this here, at the bottom. The guy talking here-”

“That’s Circuit,” I said, still trying to process what I was seeing. “Hangman’s working with Circuit. He’s not been captured or killed by him.”

“That’s the read Helix and his analyst got, too,” Lincoln said, using that even tone people like to use when they’re explaining to someone who’s particularly slow.

“But why?” I asked, a little confused. “Circuit is already an information warfare specialist.”

“Because he’s trying to broaden his reach,” Mossman said, looking over my other shoulder with Auburn in tow. “That video is basically a recruitment speech. But prospective recruits need a way to contact him, right? That’s what this is all about.” He pointed at the same lines of text Lincoln had earlier. “These lines of code alter slightly each time the page is refreshed, depending on how many page views the video has and the local time of the terminal that’s loading the video. There’s probably more but that’s all we’ve gotten so far. We’re hoping it’s a code that tells people how to contact him.”

“Has the added benefit of screening the intelligence of prospective applicants, too,” Lincoln added.

Auburn plucked absently at her lip for a moment, then refreshed the page again. “Page views with a specific ISP,” she said, pointing at a specific part of the code. “See?”

“I didn’t think of that,” Lincoln said. “How many routers in this building?”

I handed him the laptop. “I’m not sure, but I do know this is way over my head. You people work on this, I’m going to find Bob Sanders.”

Mossburger glanced up at me. “Why?”

“Because he’s got the best contacts with the FBI in this office, and it sounds like we’re going to need them in the near future. Let me know if you find out something concrete.”

——–

Helix

“And those are the Senator’s terms,” I said, finishing my pitch to Darryl.

He nodded. “I suppose that’s the best I could have hoped for, at least for now.” I saw a fraction of the stress that had turned my one-time friend into an old man before his time bleed away. “I appreciate this, Helix.” I glanced meaningfully to my right, where Teresa was doing her best to look inconspicuous. Darryl caught my drift immediately. “And thank you, Agent Herrera. I doubt Senator Dawson would have run late to a meeting if it was just Helix calling.”

“It pays to be connected, sometimes,” she said with the hint of a smile. “Although, really, I think the Secret Service could have arranged for some of his time easily enough.”

“And really, Darryl,” I said, quirking an eyebrow. “You’re a bodyguard now?”

“The exact function of our team is… fluid at the moment.” He laughed softly. “They’ve never tried to used talented individuals as part of their approach to what they do. The Secret Service covers a lot of bases and not all talents work well in all their capacities. Just finding and recruiting the right people has been a challenge. And we’re creating an operational doctrine from the ground up.”

“But still involved in finding criminals,” Teresa noted.

The brief flicker of humor vanished. “Only Circuit, and only because he claims he’s aiming to overthrow the country. Attacks on the person of the President, the Judiciary or the Mint could all accomplish those aims.”

“Even so, when it comes to unusual talents, oversight is Sumter’s job,” I said.

“Oversight indeed,” he replied grimly.

I winced. “You know how it is, Darryl. We’ll get him, and if you want a piece of that it has to be with us.”

Darryl nodded. “Honestly, I never wanted it any other way.”

“For now, work with Mossman and the other analysts,” Teresa said, nodding back to the small huddle that had formed around Lincoln He and his laptop. “Try and get some idea of where to look for Circuit next.”

“Gladly.” Darryl started over towards the small group, cane tapping along the floor.

Voorman, who had been uncharacteristically quiet and still for the duration of the conversation, gave us a weak smile and said, “Not bad work, you two. You just got back in town today, am I right?”

I glanced at my watch. “Technically speaking, yesterday. But yes, that’s right.”

“In that case, go to home, both of you. Get some rest, I’ll be in touch with you, Agent Herrera, and let you know what the schedule is. I think there’s going to wind up being briefings every four hours, but a lot will depend on what the head office decides. Not your problem right now. I’ll be in touch.” He turned and wandered back out onto the floor, studying the updated status reports along the southeast coast.

Teresa watched him for a moment, then said, “Go on home. I’ll call you and let you know what the plan is as soon as I hear it.”

I glanced at Voorman, who was talking to Lincoln and hadn’t heard, then back again only to find Teresa had already left. I figured she wasn’t planning on heading home soon so I decided to follow her and, sure enough, she headed to her office and picked up a stack of reports. I leaned against the door frame and asked, “Are you okay?”

She glanced up, looking a little surprised to see me. “I’m sorry?”

“Look, I know the Senator has been a big help to you over the years, and you know there’s no love lost between the two of us. So,” I held up a hand. “Don’t take this the wrong way. But if I’d been through what you have, and I heard him say what he just said, I’d be upset.”

“I don’t think that’s any of your business, Helix,” she said, slowly setting the report aside.

“Teresa, when you know a Senator you don’t get much privacy.” I took one of the empty chairs in front of her desk, turned it around and straddled it. “Look, this isn’t a great time for this conversation, but I don’t think there’s ever going to be one and we need your A game here. The Senator just said there’s no free rides just because someone’s grieving and you can’t tell me your father’s death didn’t have anything to do with your decision to go into law enforcement, or to join Project Sumter.”

She glanced down and away. “Of course they did.”

“Of course.” It was an answer that said absolutely nothing that I didn’t already know. Looks like I’d have to push a little harder. “You said you know a lot about survivor’s guilt.”

“So?” A defiant expression this time, looking me right in the eye.

Step lightly, Double Helix, I thought. Now is not the time to make her mad. “So, I’m self-aware enough to understand where my guilt comes from. People like Darryl and I, it’s our job to find and stop people like Circuit. We shouldn’t have lost Mona at that school on Diversy, there’s probably a dozen things we could have done to prevent it.” I took a deep breath, reminding myself to stay on task. “Yes, I feel guilty about it. But what do you have to feel guilty about?”

Teresa’s eyes narrowed. “Helix, when was the last time you legitimately felt like you were in danger?”

“When Grandpa Wake got so made he accidentally ripped a tire off the tractor with his bare hands,” I answered promptly, smiling slightly at the memory. “I was twelve and had just gone joyriding…” I let the thought trail off. Teresa was looking at me with that blank, I-don’t-get-it kind of expression people get when I talk about my mom’s parents.

“Okay,” she said slowly. “Let me ask a different question. Was there ever a time when you didn’t feel like your talent was enough to keep you safe?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Once, when I got stranded in a freak snowstorm in Montana. There wasn’t enough ambient heat in the atmosphere to use in a meaningful way.”

Teresa nodded and leaned back in her chair. “I remember reading about that. You were still new at the time, yes?”

“Yeah. I didn’t have a solid migration schedule set up for the winter, since I couldn’t go to the Southern region and the West Coast already had two active heat sinks at the time.” I matched her relaxed posture and asked, “Is that important?”

“How did it make you feel?”

I hadn’t expected this to be my therapy session, but I figured it would be worthwhile to play along. “It wasn’t the greatest feeling, that’s for sure. But nothing happened in the end. I was really just there to interview a newly discovered talent, there wasn’t anything sinister about it.”

“But for a little while you had an idea of what the life of a normal woman is like.” She gripped the arms of her chair tightly, her gaze somewhere far away. “Empowering women is a major concern for so many people today because we’re typically physically less capable than men. Worse, we’re often singled out as the targets of people like Lethal Injection.”

There was a whole world of preconceptions there but I had a feeling they didn’t have anything to do with what Teresa was really trying to say. “Except Lethal Injection didn’t kill you, he killed your father.”

“The police say he got there just after I left for school and it might have been a kidnapping attempt gone wrong.” She shuddered slightly. “His other two cases looked much the same, from what I’ve read.”

“You think your father died instead of you.” That sure explained a lot. Teresa had never struck me as the vengeful type. Of course, Darryl never had either, but even he was showing some signs of hopefully regaining perspective with time. It had been years since Teresa’s father died and she knew that his killer was dead. Batman style revenge-on-all-criminals makes for a decent comic but there are few people in real life who have the kind of emotional stamina to carry a grudge that long, the Man From Gettysburg being a notable example.

And he was probably mentally disturbed beforehand.

But guilt? That was something that never really went away. I reached across the desk and gently took Teresa by the hands, pulled her forward so her forearms were resting on the desk and put my hands over hers. By doing so I engaged multiple senses at once, ensuring that her entire attention was on me, a technique for better engaging emotionally distraught people that we learn early in our field training. I sternly told myself that better communication was the only reason I was doing it.

“Teresa, I don’t think I’ve ever met a father worth his salt who would have been upset to die in place of his children. But that’s not what happened.” Teresa hesitated as I added the last bit and I took it as an opportunity to push on. “Lethal Injection killed more than just the three people who made the news. We think he was responsible for seven or eight murders. All middle aged men, two of them who didn’t have any daughters at all.”

Her brow furrowed slightly. “Then why… Serial killers always have a specific kind of victim they target. Why middle aged men?”

I could think of several possible answers to that, all sarcastic and probably not that useful under the circumstances. “They were all single fathers, Teresa. Most of them lost their wives or partners to an accident or some kind of illness, although I think in one case she just walked out. But they all decided to keep their kids and raise them themselves, rather than turning them over to relatives. That was the only similarity we found among them. Ethnicity, place of origin, economic background, education, there were no commonalities in those factors. You loved your dad, I take it?”

 “Yes.” Immediate and firm. “He wasn’t always as… involved as mom was before the accident, but he was always there. Even when he was still hurting from her death he took time for me.”

“We got similar statements from just about everyone child we talked to during the course of the investigation,” I said, grimacing at the memory. Even years afterwards I still felt a twinge of anger at a man who would single out a child’s last living parent and kill them. “They all had kids. They were all trying to do their best by them. We never got Lethal Injection for questioning, since he died resisting arrest, but we’re pretty sure that’s why he targeted them. There weren’t any other similarities.”

Teresa stared at me, her expression a mix of wonder and disgust. “That’s horrible.”

“More importantly.” I looked her directly in the eye for a moment and spoke each word slowly. “It means your father died because he chose to do the right thing. It wasn’t your fault. The only one to blame is a madman, and he’s dead.” I let go of her hands and leaned back, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. “I don’t know what Circuit wants to do, I don’t think he chose to kill Mona, it probably wasn’t intentional at all. But she was trying to do the right thing and now she’s dead. Darryl deserves the right to look Circuit in the eye and demand justice as much as you and all the other children of Lethal Injection’s victims.”

Teresa nodded. “And to do that we all need to pull our weight.”

“That’s right.” I gave a rueful smile. “Can you guess what step one of that is?”

“Getting some rest,” she said, matching my smile and raising a tired laugh. “I can take a hint, Helix.”

“Glad to hear it,” I said, dragging myself up off of my chair. “But I’m not hinting, I’m dragging. Come on.”

I took her by the arm and hauled her out of her chair. She went along with a groan but let me push her out of the office and into the hallway. She made it out of the building under her own power, smiling and occasionally shaking her head and chuckling under her breath. Outside the sky was dark, the streets were bathed in shadows from the street lamps and Circuit cast his own shadow over the future. But I could tell that, for Teresa Herrera, the darkness that had driven her to Project Sumter was finally starting to break.

It was a start. But the real work was yet to come.

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Water Fall: Waters Rising

Three Hours After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Massif

I don’t know where Helix managed to find our old Analysis chief, or why he agreed to bring Templeton back to the office, or what he hoped to achieve by dropping Templeton and his five man team of unfamiliar talents into Voorman’s lap. I’m not even sure when he disappeared during the resulting argument or where he went. All I really know is that I would have liked to go with him.

With all our desks moved to the side of the room to uncover the map there wasn’t a whole lot I could do at the moment, other than join Auburn and Dominic over northern Florida and try to stay out of the way. In theory, all field agents were supposed to be out in the field while we were at Condition One but, with few leads on where Circuit had gone to ground and a brewing PR nightmare as news sources started to realize that something fundamental had changed in the world around them, that was less of a practical option than normal. A lot of things that used to be secrets were coming to light and it was going to be a media circus as people tried to figure out what all that meant. We field agents, who had so far mostly been trained in the opposite of public relations, were keeping a low profile until a solid party line could be worked out. So I watched developments come in from the other offices and get marked on the map and I kept an eye on Templeton’s team.

They were a pretty strange group, all things considered. Based on what I could gather, the five of them were all talented, there was nothing in the way of tactical support or analysis, although Templeton was well qualified to do the latter. From my own experiences with other talents I had a pretty good idea what most of them could do. For starters there were the blonde sisters that had stopped by to talk to Helix about the time Agent Templeton resigned. Coldsnap and Frostburn were identical twins that shared the cold spike talent, able to force heat to leave an area just like Helix was able to force it to gather in one place. The man in dreadlocks who’d been taken to the infirmary on arrival to have some stray buckshot looked at was clearly a vector trap, with that same kind of pent up, flickering potential as Jane Hammer. The grim, quiet man who went with him read a lot like a wave maker. Not only did the air around him move with the strange calm pulsing I saw around Amplifier, ever since he got back from taking his partner to the infirmary and gone to stand by his boss and Voorman we’d stopped hearing what they were saying, even though they were clearly yelling at times.

You don’t even need an introductory fieldwork course to figure that kind of thing out.

The only mystery was the third man in the group, who was on the shortish side and didn’t seem to fit well with the rest of them. He was pacing across the floor like you might expect an analyst to do while studying it, except he wasn’t actually looking at anything there. I also wasn’t seeing any telltales of talents at work, although that doesn’t really mean anything two thirds of the time. I’d heard him called HiRes and that sounded like a codename, not a real name. Maybe he was just the new guy on the team.

My attention was dragged back to more immediate matters when Auburn stepped in front of me, shuffling papers and occasionally dropping them on the floor as she went. “…moving across the Georgia border and into South Carolina. Contained.” She crumpled up another sheet of paper and tossed it down in the general area she was talking about and took another couple of steps north. “Possible movement of arms and ammunition from Virginia into Ohio. Closing in.” That paper went to the bottom of the stack and she paused to chew on her thumb nail. “Holes.”

That kind of nonsense is pretty much par for the course with her but sometimes you can get useful information with prompting so I asked, “What kind of holes?”

“Places he’s not moving things,” she answered. “Northern Indiana and southern Michigan.”

“Maybe he just doesn’t have anything to move in those areas?” Dominic said.

“That doesn’t add up,” a new voice said. I glanced over at HiRes, who was waving his hand around at parts of the map that were too far away for me to see at all. “It’s fair to assume we’re finding less than ten percent of all of the stuff Circuit’s moving, and he’s been moving small cells of material and personnel for the last two days all across the country. But your getman’s right, there’s no sign of materiel moving through the Michiana area. With the volume of stuff he’s moving we should find something moving in that area.”

I didn’t know this guy from Adam but Auburn was nodding vigorously. “It stops moving there.”

“How do we know that Circuit just isn’t moving anything through that area?” I asked. “It’s pretty close to our offices here. Maybe he’s just routing around us. You,” I nodded to HiRes, “might not know this but Circuit has this thing about avoiding Helix unless he’s uber prepared for it.”

“I’ve heard from the Chief,” he said, presumably referring to Templeton. “But between our resources and Project Sumter they’ve intercepted at least eight shipments or groups of people in the Midwest that we can tie back to the drugs and arms networks you found Circuit working with last month. Two of them were en route to Peoria, another was headed towards Indianapolis. That’s not exactly going around this place. There ought to be something in the Michiana region. Unless, of course, they’re going to ground there, suggesting that’s the staging area for Circuit’s next operation.”

Dominic raised a hand like he was in school. “Question. How are you familiar with what we have and have not intercepted?”

Frostburn and Coldsnap had drawn closer and quietly inserted themselves into the loose group that had formed over the Midwest section of the floor. “He’s probably been reading reports as they come in and are handed off to the people keeping the floor updated.”

I blinked and gave the twin – I wasn’t sure which one it was – a look. The floor wasn’t anything fancy, just a large map that was a good thirtyish feet one way by fortysome the other, but we had overhead projectors that displayed the status of the five regional and most of the important branch offices on the relevant sections of the floor, along with the case file numbers to pull for more detailed information. But those projectors were controlled from a computer that was located in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. “How is he reading them from here?”

“It’s what he does,” one of the twins said.

Her sister added, “That, and he has ninja skills.”

“Darryl says he could even just take a desk job and do analysis-”

“-but that’d be boring and we need HiRes in the field-”

“-and he doesn’t mind so here we are.”

Dominic was stared at the sisters as their sentence bounced back and forth. I couldn’t see the expression on his face clearly but if it wasn’t total confusion then I’d convert to Protestantism. HiRes just sighed, apparently more used to this kind of thing already, and said, “I had a little intelligence and espionage training before I joined up and-”

“You’re a ninja?” Dominic asked incredulously. “I thought you were Korean.”

“I’m half-Japanese,” HiRes said, snapping in irritation. “And yes, back in the days of Sengoku some of my ancestors used their talents to make a living as onmitsu, which is the proper term.”

For some reason, at that moment, HiRes sounded just like sifu explaining the difference between wushu and gugn fu – or Shaolin – for the thousandth time. I decided to go for a subject change. “Alright, so we got guns and criminals with guns moving into the Midwest. Is there anything specific we can act on using just that information?”

“Uh…” HiRes paused for a moment.

“No,” Auburn said, to the point as usual. “Making his own stuff. Just general supplies.”

“Meaning?” The twins asked in unison.

“Circuit makes all his mission critical equipment himself or using very trusted associates he has a long-standing relationship with,” I said, able to translate less because I was fluent in Auburn and had more because of an ever-growing understanding of Circuit’s style thanks to a few months on this case plus a long association with Helix. “So it sounds like all we really know is Circuit is staging a small army of crooks in the area.”

“We could learn more if we cooperated with local law enforcement and did a general dragnet through gangs and other known criminal elements in the region,” HiRes said, pacing in a wide circle that probably represented the borders of the activity free zone he’d mentioned earlier. “But that’s going to require permission to work openly and in the public eye.”

“And we’re going to do just that,” Templeton said, prompting Frostburn and Coldsnap to jump.

“Don’t do that, Hush,” one of the twins said, turning to look at the wave maker who’d come over with his boss. The two men, along with Voorman, had come up behind the twins without making any noise – presumably thanks to the guy with the most apt codename I’ve ever heard.

“You should have felt our body heat even if you couldn’t hear us,” Hush said. “You need to pay more attention.”

“More importantly, Templeton,” I said, folding my arms over my chest, “you can’t operate openly. The Senatorial Oversight Committee on Talented Individuals doesn’t just have jurisdiction over Project Sumter. All federal agencies are governed by the Talented Incident Response Procedures. TIRP dictates we maintain secrecy and until we can get that changed you’d do best to stick to it. Especially if you plan on working with Project Sumter and not independently.”

“We’re going to try to contact the Committee secretary to call a meeting on that subject,” Voorman said. I was kind of surprised to hear that from him since I’d always thought he was a staunch supporter of those rules.

And I could think of one other person who might not like the idea much. He was practically synonymous with the Sumter orthodoxy. “I don’t know if you’ll be able to sell Helix on that.” I rubbed my chin as a new thought occurred. “And without a senior talent on your side I’m sure you’re not getting the Committee to back the idea.”

“The Secret Service doesn’t answer to the Committee,” Templeton said immediately.

Voorman gave him a sideways look, then said, “Whether that remains true or not, there’s a good chance the Committee will approve the idea by tomorrow morning. Helix is already working on it.”

——–

Helix

“I’ll agree to this one condition, Helix.” I couldn’t see Senator Dawson’s face but the voice that came from the speakerphone sounded incredibly tired. It was almost midnight already and he was about to walk into an emergency meeting of the Oversight Committee. I wasn’t sure if the whole Committee would be present, given the circumstances, but there certainly wasn’t any way they could start before their chairman arrived so I knew that he would be willing to wait as long as necessary for me to agree to his terms.

I glanced at Teresa, who just shrugged to indicate she had no more idea what kind of conditions might be attached to the Senator’s agreement than I did. “Go ahead, Senator.”

“You’re not to let Templeton’s team operate alone.” A pause for emphasis. “Under no circumstances, Helix.”

“This is Project Sumter’s turf, Senator,” I said. “Why should I-”

“Helix I’ve spent my whole life ensure that the system is fair.” Dawson’s voice rose slightly, growing heated and a little bitter. “No one should get unfair advantages. You should have to earn your status. You can’t get it because your parents bought your way around the system, you can’t get it because you have a knack that smoothed the way for you. And you shouldn’t get a pass just because your life has had little tragedy in it.”

“Brahms!” Teresa jerked back like Circuit had just tased her. The shock was probably just as bad.

I put a hand on her arm. “I hear you, Senator. I even get that that seems fair to you.”

“Good.” A deep breath, then he went on in a more businesslike tone. “I’ve read about the Man from Gettysburg, Helix. I know what can happen when a man goes out for personal vengeance.”

“And you know that story’s more than just history for me, Senator. My family lived it.” I glared at the phone wondering why hearing the exact same things I’d thought over and over from Dawson was irritating me so much. If it weren’t for the fact that he was dealing with his own tragedies I probably would have yelled at him too. “I resisted pressure to let Darryl – Mr. Templeton – work on this case for just those reasons. But I don’t think we can afford to ignore the Secret Service’s offer at this point.”

“You’re right. There’s no way to keep this out of the news. There’s already rumors about this circulating through the Hill. I got a call from our counterparts in Ottawa just half an hour ago, wanting to know what’s going on. They’re in touch with London already and we’ll probably be hearing from them within the hour. I’m going to propose to the Committee your office be allowed to make contact with the public on these issues and be given broad leeway to work with conventional law enforcement. That should cover collaborating with the Secret Service as well as most others.” His voice hardened again. “But make sure Templeton understands that being in the public eye works both ways. If he oversteps he will be called on to explain himself to this Committee, if not the Senate at large.”

I glanced at Teresa again, mouthing, “Can he do that?”

She spread her hands then tapped her watch. She didn’t know if he could now, but he probably could soon.

Aloud I said, “I’ll pass the message on.”

“Thank you. And Helix…” There was a long pause.

I rubbed my forehead and sighed, to exhausted to tackle another emotional minefield. Teresa recognized that and picked up the ball. “We haven’t heard anything about Elizabeth. I’m sorry, Brahms.”

The silence on his end of the line stretched a little longer, then Dawson said, “I’ll send word as soon as the Committee reaches a decision.”

The line went dead and I sat back in my chair, feeling drained. I had expected him to be more upset but, in its own way, his hanging up on us was almost as bad. “Can it get any worse?”

“Stop asking for trouble,” Teresa said, switching off the speakerphone. “We have enough on our plate already.”

As if on cue, Cheryl poked her head into the office. “Have you two seen Massif? That Lincoln guy he’s saddled me with found something and won’t shut up about it.”

I dropped my head on the desk, groaning in exasperation. Teresa laughed and pulled me to my feet. “Too late, I guess. Come on, Cheryl. We’ll take a look at it and see if it’s important.”

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Water Fall: Sprouting Leaks

20 Minutes After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit

“Everybody pile in!” Heavy slung himself into the driver’s seat of the van with a manic glee that he only really demonstrated when he was getting away from a job that had gotten his blood moving.

I climbed into the back next to Hangman, who was already ensconced at one of the consoles and bringing her laptop out of sleep mode. “Satellite coverage is back, Circuit. They’ve been back for almost ten minutes, actually, but I figured that wouldn’t matter while we were on the subway.”

“Let’s hope you’re right.” Grappler gave Heavy a meaningful look and he sighed and moved over to the passenger seat. She slid into the driver’s seat and glanced back at us. “We’re leaving.”

“Wait.” I reached over Hangman’s shoulder and twitched the console itself to life, pulling up the traffic monitoring program. “Take route four.”

“Clear traffic?”

“Heavy traffic,” I corrected. “But not too heavy.”

Grappler sighed. “If you say so.”

There was no use going over the theory again. I’d told Grappler before that a route with more traffic would get less scrutiny and would let us go farther without detection so long as no one was actively tracking us. If we were the only full-sized white van on a road there was a chance someone might get suspicious. That might sound ludicrous to a normal person but I’ve seen the kinds of things Sumter analysts come up with – and the higher ups act on. Sometimes I wonder if they use a dartboard as part of their analysis procedures. Part of it might be familiarity with the target, I’m sure Helix’s team has a handbook on recognizing my operations at this point, but some of it has got to be simple brilliance. I don’t believe in luck.

As with all brilliance that doesn’t answer to me, I find it very annoying.

Even worse, in this case my caution was all for nothing. Taking a route with moderate traffic was only a valid tactic if we hadn’t been noticed and it turned out that we had.

They let us get out onto the highway before showing their hand. In Grappler’s defense, our being tracked was not the fault of poor driving or spotting on her part. I’m pretty sure the man who came after us had been maneuvering along the rooftops before dropping down a few stories to land on the barrier running alongside the overpass we’d taken. That’s right, he wasn’t tailing us in a vehicle. He was on foot.

The man was good, landing right beside us and balancing on top of the concrete barrier like it was as wide as a sidewalk and not just a few inches across. He was covering at least twenty feet a stride and ran with the easy, energy saving gait of a marathon runner. Hangman spotted him first and yelped, which attracted everyone else’s attention. I’d never been in a car chase where the one doing the chasing was on foot but there is a first time for everything.

Ever the practical one, Grappler asked, “Who is that?”

“Sumter agent, I would assume,” I said thoughtfully. “Don’t ask me how he found us.”

“He’s got style,” Heavy said, admiring the man’s dreadlocks with an appraising air.

The agent looked like an African-American man who had actually come from that continent himself, he was all wiry muscle with a hard, angular face and the remorseful expression of someone who had seen to much. The starched shirt, slacks and tie didn’t look quite right on him, like he wasn’t used to dressing that way, and I suspected he’d started the day with a jacket that he’d shed when things got serious. From the way he looked at us, he wasn’t any happier being there than I was to see him. I wondered for a moment if this was his first assignment.

“We gonna try and ditch him?” Grappler asked.

“I’m not sure I see how,” I said. “Unless you can think of a way to run him off the road when he’s on top of a traffic obstacle.”

Heavy looked back at me. “Hand me the serious firepower?”

“I thought you were hoping to recruit some Sumter agents as the core for your new law enforcement agencies,” Hangman said, looking at me. “That’ll be harder if you shoot them first.”

The agent outside suddenly made a leap across all four lanes of traffic to land on the barriers between our lanes and traffic going the other way. Several cars swerved, two hit each other, and traffic began to slow down. I muttered a curse. “They’re not trying to hide anymore. The rules have changed.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Grappler asked, incredulous.

“Of course.” I kicked the weapons locker open and passed an automatic shotgun up to Heavy. “But I didn’t think Sumter would realize what was going on so fast. Take him down. We have to survive this encounter before we can worry about anything else.”

“Right you are.” Heavy took the weapon and ran a quick check on it.

The agent outside had jumped the highway a couple more times and most of the cars around us were slowing to a stop. Some people were taking pictures or video with phones. We were driving alone now and stood out despite my best efforts. With that done dreadlocks hopped the center barrier to the others side. A moment later the whole thing jumped a few feet forward and then swung out across two of the lanes in front of us.

Grappler swerved, cursing, and took us towards the off ramp.

“No!” I yelled, realizing what was going on. “They’re herding us!”

“Then we’ll have to be herded,” Grappler growled, wrestling with the steering wheel in an effort to keep us from driving off the ramp. “I couldn’t get back into the outbound lanes without tipping this top-heavy piece of crap.”

As we spun down the ramp, brakes squealing and tires smoking, Heavy took the safety off his weapon, rolled down his window and leaned out, a manic grin on his face. “I got this, boss!”

He fired twice, although I couldn’t see how effective his shots were, and then leaned back in, a frown on his face. “I think I got him. But he’d slowed down a bunch already, maybe he’s just getting tired.”

“Probably something to do with how his talent works,” I said. “Unfortunately, I’m not sure what that might be. Hangman?”

“Never heard of anything like it,” she said. “Shouldn’t we be more worried about the other shoe dropping?”

Grappler brought us off the exit ramp at a speed not conductive to safety, ran a red light and threw us up onto a sidewalk to dodge slower moving traffic. I mentally crossed salvaging this vehicle off of the priority list as it was becoming less and less likely. Aloud I said, “Excellent point. Anyone have any guesses?”

“Put you window up, Heavy, it’s cold out there,” Grappler muttered, her eyes glued to the road.

Heavy started to oblige when Hangman said, “Oh dear.”

“What?” Heavy and I asked in unison.

She ignored us in favor of poking her laptop for a moment. “It’s getting colder outside, Circuit. And only a few blocks ahead of us.”

I felt a sinking feeling in my gut as I came to the same conclusion she’d no doubt reached – there was a heat sink up ahead. “Where’s the hot spot?”

She frowned for a moment as she studied the screen, then gave me a panicked look. “I don’t see one, Circuit. How’s that possible?”

It meant a cold spike, but I didn’t have time to explain how the two were actually opposite uses of the same ability. “It means we have a chance. I don’t think Helix could spike over such a large area.” I thumped the back of Grappler’s chair, causing her to serve us back into traffic. “Can we-”

“You trying to kill us?”

“No,” I said, scanning ahead to try and pick out the cold spike up ahead. “Can we get into one of the side streets in the next few blocks?”

A quick sweep of traffic and positioning. “No.”

“Can you drive us across icy pavement at this speed?”

“That all you need?” It was her turn to grin manically. “Child’s play.”

Somehow we’d managed to slow from highway speeds to a more sedate forty miles an hour without wrecking our vehicle or anyone else’s. Apparently working under the logic that they wouldn’t expect it Grappler decided that now was a good time to speed up again and floored the accelerator.

Then the voice of Morgan Freeman thundered over the street, screaming, “Break!” loud enough to break windows, shake buildings and, most importantly, shatter concrete that had been frozen far colder than could have ever happened in nature. Making us spin out on a frozen road had never been the idea, it had simply been to ready the pavement. Grappler swore like a sailor, throwing the van into a hard swerve, much harder than would have been possible if she hadn’t been tweaking the friction between tires and road to ensure that we didn’t spin out or roll, but even that wouldn’t be enough to keep us from hitting the rubble of the ruined sidewalk and probably going to an untimely end.

But when it comes to getaways, Grappler is the best and I never really should have doubted her skills. Wall walkers can alter friction on a surface in either direction and, as far as she was concerned, the van was a single surface. And Sumter’s agents had made a critical error – they’d only frozen and shattered the road, not the sidewalks.

Grappler hopped the van back up on the curb and expertly slid it along the side of the apartment building there, keeping friction along the van’s surface so low that there was little drag to speak of. We bounced along the sidewalk while loosing little in the way of momentum and avoiding the worst of the rubble.

She gave a surprised yelp when a pair of people seemed to appear out of nowhere and jump clear of the van as we rushed down the sidewalk then we were past the patch of shattered concrete and careening down the street and around a corner. I let go of the death grip I had on my seat and looked at Hangman’s computer. “New plan, which safe house is closest?”

“We could go up to Chinatown,” she said, smoothing her hair down absently, “But Logan’s Square has better traffic heading out of the city this time of day.”

“Chinatown’s got a clean car, though,” Heavy pointed out, locking the safety on his shotgun but not putting it away yet. “We’d have to keep the van or boost new wheels if we go to the Square.”

“Chinatown it is then.” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Let’s hope there’s no more surprises.”

——–

Helix

I hung up my phone and glanced at Jack. “Samson says they’ve found another batch of clothing that looks like it probably came from some of the people on the Avenue tonight.”

“Where at?” He asked, giving a critical look at the mouth of the alley we were standing by.

“Subway bathroom trashcan.” I sighed. “They’re checking security cameras now but they’re so far behind the curve…”

“We’re probably not catching them tonight.” Jack shrugged. “At least we’ve got the Emancipation Proclamation back.”

“Yes.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “So nice of Circuit to leave it there for us. I’d thank him, except it’ll be a PR nightmare once the press gets hold of it. ‘Shadow agency unable to retrieve stolen historical artifact before thief decides to return it to them.'”

“I noticed that you pretty much made the decision to use talents in public on your own,” Jack said, giving me an unreadable look. “Voorman didn’t okay that.”

“Circuit already outed that for us,” I said irritably. “If we kept trying to deny the existence of talented individuals now we’d just wind up loosing credibility. What are they going to do, fire me and cut their chances of catching Circuit even more?”

Jack started down the alley in front of me, saying, “In that case we need to get some kind of break that will convince Voorman and the Committee we can actually catch him. Let’s hope that Auburn and Mossman were right and there is the logical place for Circuit to leave his escape vehicle.”

“Oh, they were right. Too bad you didn’t get here sooner.” A hunched figure detached itself from the alley wall and came towards us slowly, cane clacking on the pavement. Jack stiffened a bit then relaxed when he realized he knew the voice.

I fought the urge to put my face in my hands. Or yell. Or just turn and start walking until I found a sane part of the world to settle down in and forget all about Project Sumter, Open Circuit and dead friends. Instead I took a deep breath and said, “Hello, Darryl. What brings you here?”

“What do you think, Helix?” Darryl fixed me with a burning glare. “I’m doing the same thing you are – trying to catch Open Circuit. My team almost had him a little while ago, probably could have trapped him if we had a couple more talents and better cooperation with the locals. Care to take my help on your case now?”

“If I don’t will you go away?”

He snorted. “Just until we both get within grabbing distance of Circuit again.”

Now I did rub my hand over my face. Every bone in my body told me to tell him no. Or have him arrested. That was also really tempting. But odds were he was working for some governmental body that did have jurisdiction here. So I gave the only answer I could make that wouldn’t make things worse.

“Get your people together and come on back to the office. We’ll talk it over with Voorman.”

Darryl raised an eyebrow. “And?”

I shook my head but forced myself to say it. “And this time I’ll be in your corner.”

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