Water Fall: Solid Grounding

Six weeks, six days before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 


Amplifier looked tired.

Not that there was anything surprising about that. Our physical conditioning tests aren’t meant to be easy and, unless a person was a physical fitness nut or a member of the armed forces before joining with the Project, there’s a good chance they’re going to find them challenging. So far, the Midwest’s newest recruit was showing pretty good marks on them, nothing out of the common way but enough to qualify for field training, if that’s what she wanted.

What was surprising was that I could see it. Thanks to my unique powers of vision, or lack thereof, the cues I use to judge a person’s mood are almost entirely nonvisual. Sure, you can get a general idea of how a person’s feeling by their posture, but most of the nuance is supposed to be in the face or other such subtle cues, which are totally lost on a person as nearsighted as I usually am.

Playing orientation facilitator, or whatever HR calls the people who train newbies these days, for Amplifier had been an education for me. While I didn’t have much of as standard to judge by I guessed she had what most people would call an open and expressive face, because just about every change of mood registered there. It matched the rest of her personality, from which I guessed hiding her thoughts or moods had never been a necessity in her childhood. I was thinking only child, reasonably wealthy family, but that’s not the kind of thing you talk about with people who’s personal history gets redacted by the U.S. government.

Regardless of how privileged her upbringing had been, it hadn’t kept her from building up enough stamina to complete a one mile run in a weighted vest and belt, designed to simulate the kind of gear we might carry into the field, in just under seven minutes. Not spectacular but enough to show promise, especially since it was the last in a string of exercises for the day. She sprawled out on her back by the track in the gym while I made some sloppily written notes on her evaluation sheet. “You can take off the gear if you want.”

“Thank goodness,” she said, sitting up with a grunt. Then she proceeded to strip the vest off and throw it as far as she could which, considering it weight about twelve pounds, wasn’t as far as you might expect.

I tried not to stare. One thing I never understood when I was younger was why my friends would say a girl was hot. I knew they saw something about her, but I was never sure what. Amp was proving to be an education in that respect, too. Like the fun in getting “hot and sweaty” never made any sense to me before.

“So,” she said, straightening her tank top as I tried not to notice. “What comes next?”

I grabbed onto the chance for innocent conversation. “Actually, nothing. You’re done for the day. For once, there’s not even any paperwork we need you to go over, I think Harriet got all of it from you before we started today.”

“That’s it?” She sounded incredulous. “What, isn’t the exhausting exercise supposed to be the prelude to some kind of crazy basic combat training?”

I laughed at that, not because it sounded preposterous but because I had assumed the same thing when I went through the process. “If my goal was to teach you wushu, yeah. But my sifu would have my head if I tried that, and besides it’s not part of the Project’s curriculum. We have employee safety standards we have to keep to.”

“Ah, right. Those pesky standards.” Amp glanced around, then back at me. “Then again, there’s no one here right now… I know I wouldn’t tell anyone if you wanted to hand out a few free pointers.”

“I dunno…” When I was seven I started studying wushu. My sifu, or teacher, assured my parents it would be a big help in dealing with the weird abilities I had and he was right, which was one of the only reasons I stuck with it for the first few years. The work is hard and the instructors are harder. But when I actually joined Project Sumter I discovered that being too far ahead of the game can actually get you as much trouble as being too far behind. My hand to hand instructors didn’t really like having to deal with me, and I really didn’t want to relearn a bunch of basics that didn’t mesh well with my natural talents. There was tension for a while.

“What, you think I can’t handle it?” Amp asked, breaking into my thoughts.

Everyone knows the answer to that question is always no. So I shrugged and said, “If you want. But take it easy, you really don’t look like you’re used to this kind of thing. Even if you feel fine now, I can bet you won’t later.”

“I hear you.” Amplifier followed me over to the exercise mats. “So where do we start?”

“We start with me reminding you of one very, very important thing.” I turned my body slightly so that the left side faced her. “Project Sumter does not exist to deal with ordinary people. While there are many exceptionally smart or skilled individuals in the world, what falls under our purview are people with abilities that aren’t fully documented or understood, and that allow them to behave in ways that defy sense. Kick me.”

She blinked once. “Excuse me?”

I hadn’t expected to have to say it twice. “Kick me. Any way you want.”

To her credit, Amplifier resisted the urge to hit below the belt. Instead she just picked up one leg and jammed her foot as hard as she could into my side, hitting me just above where the kidneys are. I could see the blow coming, a dull white point of focused motion, then it connected and Amp fell over backward. I quickly moved over and reached down to help her up but she waved me off, scrambling to her feet with a grunt.

“Okay,” I said, getting back to my feet as well. “What happened?”

“Shouldn’t that be my line?” Amp asked, indignant. “I have no idea!”

“Start thinking about it,” I said, brushing lightly at a make-believe bit of dust on her shoulder. With my other hand I tapped my jaw. “Now punch me.”

She gave me a look I couldn’t quite read, but from the way she punched me, getting a good windup and putting all her weight behind it, she was probably pretty mad. Either way it was a really good punch and when it connected she nearly knocked herself over again, this time spinning to one side and yanking the shoulder my hand was on away. She kept her feet only by hopping to one side a few feet and flailing her arms for balance.

“How did you do that?” She demanded.

“Tell me what you think I did and I’ll tell you if I did it or not.”

Now Amp couldn’t keep the disbelief out of her tone. “That’s stupid.”

“No.” I folded one arm behind my back and pointed one finger upward, mimicking a pose I’d seen my sifu use countless times before, I think because it was one of the few body language cues I could pick up on at first. “This is the most important part of defending yourself against other talents. There are sixty two different kinds of talents in the Project records. Some of them are very similar to each other, and learning to tell them apart is the difference between using an effective countermeasure and getting caught flat footed. Worse, if you confront an unfamiliar talent you’re going to have to be able to accurately describe it to someone else if you want to get more information on it. Learning to pay attention to the smallest details, even when the big picture makes no sense, is the most important skill a Sumter field agent can have. Now, tell me what you think I did.”

“It felt like you punched me,” she said, rubbing her shoulder. “Even though you didn’t wind up. Or move at all. It felt like you punched me in the shoulder at the same time I hit you.”

I nodded. “Not bad. That’s almost exactly what happened, and anyone familiar with vector shifts would guess that was my talent as soon as you described it. And they’d be right.”

“Vector shifts?”

“Right. It’s the ability to perceive momentum in the objects around you, and move it from one solid object you’re touching to another.” A skeptical silence met that explanation so tried a different approach. “Have you ever played pool?”

“Sure.” A shrug. “I’m not any good at it, but…”

“Have you ever seen a setup where two pool balls are touching, and a player hits one with the cue ball so that the ball it’s touching moves but the ball that was struck stays in place?” I demonstrated with my hands, holding one in place while the other illustrated the cue ball striking and the third ball flying off.

“Yeah, I’ve seen that.”

“I work on the same principle. I take momentum from one solid object.” I gestured towards her feet. “And transfer it into another.” I tapped the mat we were standing on with one foot.

Amplifier just stared at me for a minute. “You’re serious.”

“You’ve just seen me do it twice.”

“But…” She looked around in confusion, as if she expected to find a hidden camera somewhere. “Wouldn’t that mean you’re pretty much invincible?”

“Not exactly. None of us talents are, although some come closer than others.” I took a closer look at her. While they hadn’t been big hits, she had just been knocked around a bit and that after an hour or two of pretty strenuous exercise. She wasn’t fidgeting around as much as she usually did and she looked kind of deflated. So I started for the edge of the mat, talking over my shoulder. “Now it’s time for lesson number two. Most people with talents spend a lot of time thinking about how they can use them, but not a lot thinking about what kind of countermeasures people could take against them. It’s something you need to start thinking about, if you haven’t already. Based on what I’ve told you, what do you think is the best way to deal with a vector shift?”

There was a moment’s quiet as Amp thought the question over, trailing along behind me. She didn’t say anything at all until she’d gone and collected the vest she tossed aside earlier and slung it over one arm. “I guess, from the sound of things, the most straightforward thing to do would be to keep your feet off the ground. Or on something fragile, like maybe a wood floor.”

“It’s very hard to get a vector shift in the air if he doesn’t want to be there,” I said. “But you’re on the right track with the idea of bad footing. Gravel isn’t great for me, either.”

“Right, but that’s not exactly something I can count on.” She tilted her head to one side and studied me. “You said you can move momentum from one solid object to another. What would happen if I sprayed you with a fire hose?”

“It would depend on whether I saw it coming or not. But you’d probably knock me over. There’s been rumors of vector shifts that can work with liquids and gasses for years, but I’ve never met one. They’re very chaotic and hard to manipulate, if that makes any sense.” I collected my clipboard from the bench where I’d left it and gave her another look. “What made you think of it? So far as I know it’s never actually been tried before.”

She smiled. “I have the same problem in reverse. I can affect sound through air, but not liquids or solids. It moves too fast, if that makes any sense.”

Which it didn’t, but then turnabout is fair play. “Not bad. Out of the box thinking is a must if you’re going to be in the Project. Now seriously, you look like crap. Knock off for the day, take a shower and come back tomorrow.”

“Right.” She ran a hand over her face. “Will do. Should I look for you, or Helix?”

“Harriet, probably. Helix has… a meeting to get ready for. It’s actually something we’re all going to be in, but Harriet knows the most about the training process. She’s been through it more times than just about anyone else in this branch.”

“Right.” She wavered there on her feet for a second so I gave her a gentle push towards the locker room. To my surprise she jerked away and snapped, “Don’t push me around.”

“Sorry.” I held my hands up in front of my chest and backed away. “No offense meant.”

She nodded once, looking a little lost, and headed away. I watched her go, a little curious about what was going on there. But like I said, they’re good at finding stuff for me to do, too. I had just finished a quick check of the gym to make sure everything was cleared away when my boss popped her head in and yelled, “Massif!”

“Over here,” I said, waving the clipboard for her attention.

She trotted over, her voice grim. “Are you done with Amplifier’s physical tests yet?”

“Just sent her home, Harriet.” I held out the clipboard for her inspection.

“Better than normal.” She was referring to my handwriting, which is usually not that good. I didn’t think it would be great, even with the strange clearing effect Amplifier had on my vision, but it was nice to know at least some of it was because of my poor sight. “She did okay, too.”

“Not bad, I agree.”

Harriet tapped me in the chest with the clipboard. “We need to get down to Evidence. Agent Samson has something he wants to show us.”

I racked my brains for a second. “Agent Samson? Like the guy from the Bible? Supposedly ripped a city’s gates down with his bare hands? I don’t think we’ve met. Is there even someone named that in our section?”

“Not for a long while,” Harriet said. “Come on, kid. You’re about to meet a living legend.”

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Water Fall: Dark Desks

Seven Weeks, One Day before the Michigan Avenue Proclomation


I exist in a perpetual haze.

It’s not drug induced or anything and I’m not exactly what you would call absent minded, but I was born with the ability to see and, to a limited extent manipulate, movement. And I mean all movement. For example, the air is in motion. Everyone knows that, but I can see it. Problem is, I have trouble seeing anything behind the air that’s moving.

Other people live with transparent air, unless they happen to be smokers or something, but I’ve never been able to see through more than ten feet of the stuff, and even then most of the details are different in ways that are hard to explain. It’s almost like being in a different world. I can’t drive, reading for more than ten or fifteen minutes gives me a headache and I have a hard time telling people apart.

I’m saying all this so you’ll understand that the day I walked in to the office and realized I could see my desk on the other side of the floor, it bothered me. It was something unusual, and for a person who’s job is half cops and robbers and half spy versus spy unusual is bad. There are thirty-six steps from the door to my row of desks, and my desk is the third down; I knew that for certain because it’s the kind of thing I have to commit to memory as soon as I move to a new office. I also knew it was way outside of what I’m normally able to see with any kind of clarity.

I’d seen that kind of thing before, usually on the shooting range when I let people shoot at me – don’t ask. Bullets create that kind of clarity of vectors when they streak towards their target, which makes it easy for me to pick out where they’re coming from.  Which probably meant that my desk was at the center of some kind of constant force, pushing outward. Kind of like a constant wind or a sustained explosion, although what either one of those would be doing at my desk is anybody’s guess. And again, this would not be business as usual.

The upside to all my visual impairments is that I can be virtually indestructible under the right circumstances, which the Project Sumter dossier on vector shifts describes as, “any time the subject has their feet on the ground.” I actually come with training in how to walk so as to maximize my contact with the ground, if you’ll believe it. So I started towards my desk, planting my feet with deliberate care and keeping as alert as possible for any sign of trouble.

Trouble was waiting for me, sitting there with her boots up on my desk and earbuds in, eyes closed and paying no attention to her surroundings at all. She was petite, dressed in beaten up gray cargo pants that might have once been some other color, wearing a formfitting blue tank top and absently tapping her fingers on her stomach in time to some unheard song. The air around her seemed to shimmer and pulse slightly. I stared at the girl, and at the time I didn’t think she could be older than sixteen, trying to figure out how she had gotten into the office and to my desk. We have pretty good security, it took one of the most dangerous criminal minds in the nation seven or eight years to find and break into our offices and that was only because he tricked us into helping him out.

Now I’d swear, with the music on and all, there was no way she should have been able to hear me coming. My wushu sifu put me through a whole series of exercises to stifle the sound my footsteps that are really effective, even with heavy Western shoes on, but almost as soon as I got up to the desk the girl opened her eyes and pointed at my desk. I followed the pointing finger to a reddish blob which I guessed was a folder left there by my supervisor.

Harriet’s worked with me for the last year and a half and she’s developed some systems that help us get around my vision problems. One is the color-priority system. A red folder means I need to read it right away, helping important stuff to stand out from the mess of other papers that wind up scattered around the office. Since Trouble looked like she was content to wait until I’d read whatever was in it before talking to me I picked it up and flipped it open.

Trouble’s photo had been clipped to the top, smiling back at me with a sardonic grin. According to the file, her codename was Amplifier. Under that were places for a lot of personal information that had been redacted, although I did learn she was four years older than I had thought, followed by the codeword for her unusual talent and a brief description. Project Sumter uses the word talent to refer to pretty much any kind of unusual, innate ability to manipulate the forces of nature, usually in a way modern science can’t explain. Unusual was a pretty apt word, in this case, because in four years with the Project, I’d never heard of a wave maker. The file said I could expect her to manipulate the volume and frequency of sound waves, both consciously and subconsciously, so as to maximize acoustics and achieve other effects. That would explain why I could see her clearly, save for that pulsing effect. Sound is air in motion, too, and if Amplifier controlled the sound around her it probably had a steadying effect on the air itself.

The file said she also had unusually sharp hearing, which might explain how she heard me walking up.

I quickly squinted through the next couple of pages, which was basically a brief summary of what Amplifier had been up to since the Project discovered her. The last page was a summary of said discovery. A quick glance at the signature on the bottom confirmed that yes, like the majority of talents in the Midwest in the last five years, Special Agent Double Helix had found her. I flipped the folder closed, mostly satisfied, and waved to get her attention.

Amplifier sat up and took her ear phones out then raised an eyebrow. “I can hear you if you talk, you know. My dad never used to believe that but I would think you guys would get it.”

“Welcome  to Project Sumter,” I said, ignoring what sounded a lot like a conversational land mine. “I guess you’ve been here for a few weeks but they keep me running far and wide most days so it’s no surprise we’ve never met.”

She smiled slightly and shrugged. “If you say so. I’m guessing you’re Aluchinskii Massif?”

“That’s me,” I said, sliding into my chair. I thought sitting down might get us on eye level and make things more comfortable but I was surprised to find I was still a good four or five inches taller than she was. So I leaned back in my chair some to get as close to level as possible, keeping care to leave one foot on the floor, and made the best of it. “It’s pronounced like ‘massive’ by the way. The ‘f’ makes a ‘v’ sound.”

 “Is that something you have to say a lot?”

I shrugged. “Not really. Most people just call me Al or Massif. It’s never a problem unless people see it in writing.”

“Right. Teresa texted me and told me you and your boss would be filling in for her team. I guess they’re busy today.”

“That’s right.” I briefly sifted a hand through the stack of stuff in my inbox and then gave up looking for what I wanted. “I think Harriet’s going to be out of the office, at least for the morning, so you may just be stuck with me for the moment. I’m guessing you’re applying for a position, based on what I’ve seen, but I’m not exactly sure where in the process you are. Have you gone along on an active field case?”

“Yeah. Something out on Diversy Street, that turned out real weird. We watched a school building for about five hours then there was a big ruckus and Teresa wound up sending me home without even making me sign anything.” She scrunched her nose up, showing an opinion on the Project and its love of documents that I found vaguely nostalgic. Most agents were like that for a year or two before they resigned themselves to their fate. “Anyway, I don’t think it technically counts.”

“No,” I said, doing my best not to wince. The Diversy Street incident had been a mess. and it probably wouldn’t have counted under any circumstances. “Even if it had, you were in the field with Double Helix. He’s notoriously tough as senior talent, he probably wouldn’t have signed off on your first field run anyway. It took me four tries to pass.”

“Pass?” Amplifier tilted her head. “I thought the point was just to make sure we got a good idea of what field work was like. I didn’t realize it was a test.”

“Well…” Technically, it wasn’t. And we weren’t supposed to explain what it was. “Let’s just say there’s more to it than just showing up and looking pretty.”

“Well obviously,” she said with a grin. “You passed.”

“Thanks.” Nothing like a kind compliment to get your day off to a good start. “I can’t really arrange for another trip into the field right now, both because my supervisor is out of the office right now and because I’m kind of in-between assignments myself.” I picked the folder back up and squinted at it some more. “It doesn’t look like we have a complete record of your capabilities. The basic function of most of the known talents is well documented, but between personal discoveries and home made gadgets to help things along, new talents tend to broaden our understanding of talent almost as much as the scientists we employ.”

“I guess that makes sense,” she said. “Do I get to see a list of what you guys know already, or what?”

I tossed the folder back on the table and shrugged. “I don’t think that’s the way it works. The Records department took a complete statement from me, then sent it on to the right parties, who called me in for questions on anything they found interesting. I’m pretty sure it still works that way. Makes it easier to process the results and keeps you from leaving out something you might think is unimportant, but it keeps smart guys from having to come up here every time we find someone new.”

Amplifier hopped to her feet and said, “I guess I should get over to Records, then. I can follow directions,” she added as I stood up also. “It’s not like I need an escort.”

“Relax,” I said, shushing her with my hands. “You actually do. I’m not sure how you got in the building this morning, but you’re not an official member of the Project yet, so you actually shouldn’t have been let in. If nothing else you need someone to go along and keep security off your back. Plus, it’s policy not to let talents who aren’t working for us be interviewed in any way, shape or form without a talented agent along with them. It’s kind of like having your lawyer along.”

“Oh.” She relented and let me lead her across the offices and towards the elevator that would take us up to the large, locked room where our interim Records department was being kept. “Why didn’t Helix ever mention that to me? He was always along for stuff before, but he never said why. You would think that would be kind of important for me to know.”

“Helix is our senior talent in this branch. Unlike most people, he does his job with almost no consideration for possible personal or political complications from doing it, so most people tend to stay out of his way and play nice. Unless they’re really high up the totem pole, he can cause them more grief than it’s really worth. He was probably counting on that reputation to keep you out of trouble.” I called the elevator and then gave her what I hope was a reassuring smile. “I’m going explain things or they’ll waste a bunch of time trying to track him down before they interview you.”

“You just called him a ‘senior talent’ again.” She folded her arms over her chest. “That’s something else he never mentioned.”

“Well, that’s because it’s not really, technically his job description.” I waved a hand absently. “You won’t find it on an org chart or anything. It just means he’s the talent in this branch with the most time in the field. It gives him a little more clout with management and proves he’s worth our respect, too. Most field agents last three to five years before they quit or have to be reassigned to other duties. Helix has been out there for eight, and that’s impressive in it’s own right. Senior talents know more about the way the job works and what kind of things to expect than anyone else, so the regional management, people we call Special Liaisons, tend to keep them near the regional office, held in reserve for major problems that require a heavy hitter. In the mean time, they do a lot of paperwork and other light duties.”

“Gee, thanks,” Amplifier said, looking a little miffed.

“Actually, training new talent is one of the major things that will get a senior talent called out of the office. We’re rare enough, and turnover is high enough, that recruiting and training new hands is one of our top priorities.” The elevator dinged and we stepped out into the Records office reception area, which was basically an over-glorified security foyer.

“So tell me something, Massif Man,” Amplifier asked. “If that’s true, what kind of disaster is going on that pulled him out of the office today? And why did you get left behind?”

“Just Al is fine, really,” I said.

“Right, and you can call me Amp like Jack and the rest of Helix’s team does.” She waited for me to say something and, when she got impatient, leaned against the elevator door and said, “So?”

Since it was clear she wasn’t going to move until she got an answer I caved. “Like I said, turnover in field work is high. He’s out of the office today because he’s attending a funeral.”

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Original Art: Amplifier

I decided to be lazy* this week and post another page from my sketch book. This week’s subject: Amplifier, in her typical civilian dress (as opposed to her Biker Girl persona.)


*for values of lazy that include doing things that are actually more time consuming than what I would usually be doing in this spot.