Thunder Clap: The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was my parents.”

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

“My adoptive parents,” Sykes clarified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And damn the consequences?” Helix asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“The Project -”

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

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

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

“And you wanted to try anyway.”

“Oh, I had a plan.”

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

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

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

“It’s a great way to die.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thunder Clap: Down and Down

Izzy

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

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

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

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

Helix

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

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

“Down, Circuit,” I snapped. “Now.”

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

I didn’t dignify that with a response.

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

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

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

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

Pun intended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A sensible attitude,” Circuit said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Liquid nitrogen?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thunder Clap: Ups and Downs

Helix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she threw him up the elevator shaft.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong with the stairs?”

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

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

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

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

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Thunder Clap: Putting the Foot Down

Izzy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Long story.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lightning funnels?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Stillwater is here?” Helix asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Index

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Thunder Clap: Jacob’s Ladder

Izzy

I crashed down on the fortieth floor, the elevator door twisted around me in a shape halfway between a cocoon and a surf board. Prying myself out took a few seconds but I’d had a little practice over the last twenty floors. Sykes, or Circuit or whatever you wanted to call him, floated in the elevator shaft behind me, a concerned look on his face. “Are you alright? I know you’re tough, at least if you’re anything like your father, but that kind of hit over and over again can’t be good for you.”

I gave my T-shirt a quick tug to straighten it and said, “Smashing into stuff is easy. We can push out against impact for a couple of seconds to absorb the blow, kind of like flexing a muscle against a hit. But you can’t hold that forever so it’s less useful when you have a lot of stuff smashing into you.”

“So that’s why you don’t just walk through bullets like that Aluchinskii guy. Too hard to bounce bullets for a long time, better not to try it at all.” For a moment Sykes looked interested in that line of thought but concern quickly took back over. “You’re sure you’re okay? I’ve met your father and I have a hard time believing he just let you smash into walls at high speed so you’d grow up tough.”

A tilt of the head let me work the last kinks out of my neck, I did my best to do it in a way that wouldn’t let him realize how tired I actually was. He was partly right, I hadn’t had a whole lot of practice shrugging off heavy hits but I had done it some as part of my field training. Unfortunately I hadn’t slept much in the last forty eight hours and that was starting to get to me. Fine control, never my strong suit, wasn’t much of a loss but stamina was another one of those things that was slipping away from me and I was getting tired. Tired enough that I was starting to feel the hits, even when I was braced for them.

But Circuit was still a public menace, even if Sykes might seem like an okay guy, and I wasn’t about to let him know how wiped out I was. “I’m touched by your concern but it’s a little weird coming from the guy who created the plan to leave the city with no power in the middle of the summer. Or did the thousands of deaths by heat and starvation not bother you?”

His expression flipped to offended superiority almost instantly. “There were contingencies in place for that. I had resources in place to deal with those issues. Keep casualties to a minimum.”

“Don’t see a whole lot of that right now.”

Sykes sighed. “Davis wasn’t privy to the full details of my plan, his primary area of responsibility was the tower. And quite frankly, I think that was the only part he cared about. It was just a chance to build newer, better systems and see what they did. It’s what he loves to do and that makes him good at his job. It would be nice if he cared about what the consequences of his actions were, too.”

I gave him a skeptical look. “And this makes the two of you different how?”

He opened his mouth to answer, stopped, shook his head and rapped his knuckles against the arm of his floating chair, sending it upward. “Forget it. We’ve still only halfway to the top. If you can keep going then keep up. If not I’ll go by myself. I want to be there when Helix arrives.”

His wheelchair was almost entirely out of sight by the time he was done speaking. There wasn’t much else I could do except jump back into the elevator shaft behind him.

We were moving in five floor chunks, it took Circuit about ten seconds to ascend that floor and I let him check for traps then get clear before jumping up into the shaft, off of the far wall and back through another elevator door five stories up. The process was uncomfortable but pretty boring, all things considered. We made it up another twenty floors in silence, aside from Circuit occasionally muttering under his breath as he scouted out the shaft. I was waiting for Circuit to clear the jump to the sixty-fifth floor when he let out a triumphant, “Aha!”

“What?” I asked, craning my neck so I could see up the shaft.

“Traps, right on schedule. Looks like no one thought to add extra traps to the setup but at least someone thought of changing them from the kind of thing I could easily disarm with my talents.” The sound of latches being undone echoed down the shaft. “Which is not the same as saying it’s not easy to disarm.”

Circuit’s chair tilted at a weird angle so he could lean over and work in an access panel. The chair was surprisingly stable all things considered. “This may sound like a weird question but is that magic chair of yours gonna have enough juice to last for the duration? You’ve been using it an awful lot. Shoving your impersonator’s guys around by their maglev harnesses, levitating through elevator shafts and who knows what else. I mean, the thing’s only got so much juice to run on, right?”

“Smart question. Yes, it’s got a finite charge but I built it to run independently for a long time.” He paused what he was doing long enough to slap the side of the chair, rattling something in the side of the frame. “It can be charged off a wall socket but that takes time. I want to get to the top before Helix does.”

I snorted. “You’re pretty confident he’s gonna be here.”

“He may be your boss but I’ve known him for a long time, my dear. Almost half your life.” He slammed the panel he was working in closed. “I have a very high opinion of him, odd as that may sound.”

“So I’ve heard. You two are something of a legend around the offices.” Circuit moved to the other side of the shaft and opened another panel there. “Can I ask you something, since we have a breather?”

“Speak for yourself.”

“Why the chair?” He stopped what he was doing long enough to give me a look that suggested his opinion of my intelligence was dropping. “I mean, you could walk just fine in every encounter you had with Helix up to and including that showdown at the hydroelectric plant you built. Why does the chair exist at all?”

“I designed it back when I was still in the business, plotting to rule the world and all that. Faking a weakness is a fundamental rule of evil overlording and the plane crash when I was younger gave me a perfect excuse to feign being lame.” He paused to shove a screwdriver into his mouth and proceeded to mumble around it. “I didn’t actually build it until I retired.”

“So you waited?” My neck was getting a crick in it so I stopped trying to watch him and settled on staring at the wall on the far side of the shaft. In the dim light of the elevator shaft Circuit and his chair cast weird shadows, like the deformed shadow puppet of a king. “Why bother if you were getting out of the business?”

I jumped a bit when Circuit suddenly dropped back into view, his expression grim. “I’ll tell you a secret, Agent Rodriguez. I’m not a good person.”

“When do we hear the secret part?”

He smiled just a bit. “The secret is, I always planned on rolling over and dying when the time came to pay for my sins. Your father was a priest, you would understand that, wouldn’t you?”

There wasn’t a sign of malice or mockery in his face that I could make out. “If that’s true, then what changed?”

He shrugged. “I’m still not a good person, Rodriguez. But no one else should have to pay for my mistakes. My reckoning day is coming but now I’ve got people to look out for. Just because I got out of the game doesn’t mean I’m naïve. I’ve always known Sumter would catch up to me one of these days. And I never imagined that the people I worked with were playing straight with me either. Insurance is my way of life, now as much as when I played the villain, and the chair was a kind of insurance. A way to influence events if it ever came to that.”

I studied his face for signs that he was playing some sort of angle but couldn’t find any. “So we’re at their perimeter, right? What’s our next move?”

“The perimeter presents several-”

A quick chop of the hand cut him off. “Listen, I’ve heard that a million times from Al and Helix. Whenever they say there’s several things that can happen they always have one that they’re planning on happening or one that they’ve settled on doing already. So just tell me what the most likely thing is and we’ll all save some time.”

Circuit stared at me in surprise for a moment, then laughed. “You know, they do that because they haven’t actually worked out what they’re expecting for themselves, right? It’s just a way to buy time.”

“You mean you don’t know what you’re planning on doing?”

“One can’t always know what to expect until you’re on the scene.” He shrugged. “I think we’ll continue with the direct approach for now. We need to get to the seventy-fifth floor.”

He shot back up through the shaft and I got ready to wreck another elevator door.

Fiction Index

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Thunder Clap: Planning in Motion

Izzy

There’s a lot of lessons I learned from my tactical instructors, a lot I learned from Al Massif and the other people at the Sumter offices. Not to mention from my papa’s stories. But if I ever get my own rookie to teach there’s one thing I’ll be sure to tell them that I figured out all on my own. If you ever get in a staredown with a supervillain, the kind of thing where they want one thing and you want pretty much the exact opposite, here’s how it’s going to end.

Someone with no sense of courtesy is going to break in and ruin it for you.

There were at least two different ways I could have broken the stalemate with Circuit, both involved breaking something on top of the stalemate, either Circuit’s chair or his arms. Problem was I didn’t know enough about how either one worked to make sure they were actually down for the count. And I wasn’t sure I really wanted to.

The arrival of four guys with pup assault weapons crashing through the elevator door meant I didn’t have to think about why that might be too much.

Lucky for me no matter how much training you get there’s no way you’re ready for action the second you smash into the ground like that. Which goes double if the maglev system that dropped you in place suddenly reverses and tries to slam you into the ceiling. The prickling, sparking sensation in my scalp and running up my arms told me it was probably Circuit, fighting his double for control of the systems hidden in the tower.

But whatever the deal with the maglev was it didn’t reach far enough into the hallway to get a full grip on the four of them or something because, instead of yanking them up and smashing them into the ceiling it just sort of flipped them up a few feet like the mother of all wedgies before they landed on a heap on the floor. Four guys with rifles wasn’t the nastiest thing I’d trained against but with Circuit in the hall there were more things to consider.

I gathered up Circuit, chair and all, and jumped down the hallway, struggling to keep balance with the unfamiliar weight in hand. As soon as we arrived at a corner I ducked around it, set Circuit aside and grabbed the first heavy object that came to hand, which proved to be the door to a conference room, and slung it down the hallway, scattering the thugs, and ducked back behind cover.

Circuit laughed and applauded. “Nicely done. Truce?”

“Is there any upper limit to your chutzpa?” I shook my head in amusement. I hadn’t met anyone who acted like him under stress, not even the fieldwork master Jack Howell was so blasé. Yes, he was oddly cheerful and positive under fire but he didn’t seem carefree. “Fine, alliance of convenience and all that. What exactly can that thing do to help out?”

“This?” He patted the side of his wheelchair. “It’s a maglev relay similar to the ones in the building but programmed differently. It lets me control the other maglev systems in the building remotely, along with a lot of the-”

A spray of bullets alerted us to company on the way and I hunkered down by the wall, Sykes’ chair whirring a few feet further down the hall and away from the corner. “Later. We need to get these guys off our back. Any ideas?”

“How much of this tower got rigged when you remodeled?” I asked.

“Just the top ten floors or so, plus a few bits at other places, like the tap on the fiber optic network downstairs.”

“Great.” I grabbed the chair and hefted it again. “Where’s the nearest elevator shaft you can move through?”

“I can’t carry two people with this chair. The batteries just won’t cut it.” He gave me an apologetic look. “Not that I’m saying you’re-”

“Forget it.” I shook my head, amazed that that was what he was thinking about. “I can get where we’re going just fine on my own. Just tell me, is there something up top I can smash to shut down this deathtrap or do we have to run around ripping the axels off all their vehicles?”

“There’s something on the upper floors, yes.” Circuit grabbed the handles of his chair until his knuckles turned white. “And you want to take the first right, then the second left. The hall will corner and take us to the next closest elevator.”

I took off at what amounted to a jog, trying not to slam Circuit’s miracle chair into anything that might break it. “What are we expecting to find up there?”

Circuit sighed. “I don’t know, honestly. A lot of the resources I had in place for this phase of the plan aren’t in place anymore and I doubt Davis knows where to get more. That was never his part of the business. It’s going to depend on who he found to be his coconspirators and what they’re prioritizing. But knowing Davis, he’s likely to think he can handle it so I’m hoping it won’t be too unreasonable. Perhaps two dozen men and forty lethal deathtraps. Maybe a few new surprises.”

He sounded unconcerned. For some reason I was having a hard time feeling as relaxed…

——–

Helix

“I don’t trust her.”

“Get in line.” I thumped the maps and blueprints Elizabeth Dawson had spent the last forty-five minutes marking up. It was all stuff we’d had already – floorplans for Waltham Tower and maps of the downtown area around it – but she’d marked all the places Circuit had planned defenses for. Assuming nothing had been changed by the people she claimed had stolen Circuit’s plans and she wasn’t lying to us, we were in a position to charge in there and do some serious damage. “Even if she is lying to us or has some kind of ulterior motive we can’t afford to ignore the opportunity this represents.”

“Ever notice how the black hats get you to do what they want by playing on your better nature? I hate opportunities we can’t afford to pass up.” Jack thumped his head down on the table and sighed. “Fine. We’re kicking Circuit’s old henchpeople out of Waltham Towers. Wanna tell me something?”

“Sure.”

Jack hauled himself back into a sitting position and gave me a skeptical look. “Let’s assume, for absolutely no reason at all, that we go there and shut down whatever is actually going down over and we find ourselves with everyone we want in jail actually in jail – Circuit, whoever’s running things out there, Elizabeth Sykes, whoever else is involved. What do we do with them all?”

My eyes narrowed into a glare almost involuntarily. “Once they’re in jail what more can we want?”

“To keep Circuit there.” Jack leaned back in his chair and watched me with a hard eye. “Don’t tell me that you don’t suspect this is some kind of ploy by Circuit to clear his own name and set up a new scheme. This is the worst act of domestic terrorism pretty much ever and it was done by a talented person. If Circuit helps us stop this we’re gonna have all kinds of problems. For example.”

He started listing things on his fingers. “We’re going to be under huge pressure to make it clear the majority of talents are trustworthy and that means someone’s going to try and cast Circuit in a good light. In the mean time the government is going to try and make it look like they’re not incompetent to the public at large. And the public is going to be clamoring for some kind of steps to be take to prevent a repeat.”

“And it’s only a matter of time before someone gets the bright idea of pardoning Circuit and offering him a job, I know, I know.” Maps and blueprints went into different piles as we sorted them by team assignments and I mulled over the idea for the thousandth time since Mrs. Sykes had shown up and been so suspiciously helpful. “I think I’m the only guy who’s ever had to read comic books as part of his basic training. I’m pretty sure that kind of gambit has been done at least twice, which oddly enough makes this the only time I’ve seen comic books used as an example of what to do hereabouts.”

“Other teenagers would have been jealous of you, not ragging on the reading material,” Jack pointed out. “And just because a plan’s been done before, even in fiction, doesn’t mean it won’t work again. In fact I think it kind of goes the other way. Plans that succeed are proven, not suspect.”

“So what are you gonna do about it?” Jack sighed and shook his head. “This really should be out of our pay grade but he is kind of your archnemesis. You feel responsible for him if nothing else. If you’re ever going to get ahead of him now seems like the time.”

I handed him the stuff he’d need to brief his team and said, “You know the one thing I learned from all those comics?” Jack shook his head. “You can’t save someone who doesn’t want it. And you can’t tell what someone wants until you see how they act. If we’re the good guys we can get ahead of people because we don’t know where they’re at until we see what they do.”

“You saying we should just wait?”

“No.” I sighed. “We do what we can based on what we know and see what happens. It’s the seeing what happens part that’s hard to pull off most of the time. But more importantly, the whole question is academic if we can’t pull one thing off.”

Jack tilted his head to one side. “And that is?”

“We need to catch everyone and keep ahold of them. Now let’s get too it.”

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Morocco

“You see bodies that have been shot in the head every day?” Agent Sandusky asked.

Special Agent Double Helix grunted a negative, examining the man who had been left dead in the back alleys of Casablanca. There was a rather large, gruesome hole in his primary thinking organ but otherwise he didn’t look too out of place for a large Moroccan city – Westernized clothing over Mediterranean features that could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty. If not for the blood and the head wound no one would have looked at him twice.

“I ask because most people are at least a little put off by this kind of injury,” Sandusky said, his attention more on Helix than the body the two were standing by. “And I was under the impression that you people didn’t deal with crime much directly.”

“More than twenty percent of our case load is accidental deaths,” Helix replied,  carefully lifting the corpse enough to see if there was anything underneath it. “Poking at accident victims to determine if what happened to them was caused by an unusual ability or not and then covering it up if it was. I had this one guy who got himself crushed under a house when he tried to walk through the loadbearing section of a wall. That was gruesome. Why do your people think this particular murder has anything to do with Circuit?”

Sandusky finally knelt down by Circuit but his attention was still more on the other living man than the dead one. “Not much, really. We were kind of hoping you might be able to tie the two together for us.”

Helix grimaced but didn’t look up, instead beginning to rifle through the dead man’s pockets. “Agent Sandusky, I know there are a lot of stories about the CIA and the way they operate and I’m sure that 99% of them aren’t true. The same goes for us – for example, real supervillains don’t give their employees easily recognizable calling cards. I’m guessing you know this already, so you have to have some reason for dragging us out to stare at this particular corpse.”

“We got an anonymous tip saying that this one was probably related to our case.”

Now Helix did look up. “How many different cases does the CIA have open here?” A half second pause, then, “And do you even call them cases?”

“We generally call them ‘files’ and we have three open in Morocco right now, two that involve Casablanca.” Sandusky shrugged, his southern drawl becoming a little more pronounced with annoyance. “This got sent to me because our other case is a single person who’s under 24-hour surveillance. Also, this guy is a known arms dealer and we’re trying to crack an ironmonger’s ring that in Morocco somewhere.”

“Well, telling us to drop by and have a look at his handywork is consistent with Circuit’s style so I can’t fault you there. Just keep in mind that he has his own reasons for wanting us out here.”  Helix pulled out a wallet and a set of keys and a wallet from the man’s inner jacket pocket. “Can your boys can track down where this guy came from using this?”

“It might take a little while, but sure.” Sandusky took the offered items and stood back up, heading towards the mouth of the alley where additional CIA agents waited.

“Hey, Sandusky.” Once the other man looked back over his shoulder Helix asked, “What do we do with him?”

“Leave it to the locals.” Sandusky said, unconcerned. “They’ll round up the usual suspects.”

Helix nodded, left the body on the ground and followed.

——–

As it turned out the key unlocked the door to an apartment belonging to the dead man. Of course, even with the door unlocked the body in the hallway made getting it open difficult. And with Helix, Sandusky and the three other agents on Sandusky’s team all crammed into the hallway with the new corpse it was kind of crowded. They still managed to get the door shut again. No point alarming the neighbors, after all.

“Looks like a couple of pistol shots to the chest when he opened the door,” Sandusky said. With the body flat on it’s back and a pair of powder burns plain as day on his chest the comment was a lot like stating the obvious.

“Bad friends.” Helix shook his head and got to his feet. The apartment was a simple two room plus bath affair, with all three rooms opening up off of the short hallway where the body lay. It only took a quick inspection to determine which was the bathroom, which the bedroom and which served as everything else.

There was a spare metal desk with a fancy looking wooden chair in front of it in the bedroom and Helix was about to start ransacking the desk when Sandusky tapped him on the shoulder. “Not to keep harping on this but you do know this Circuit fellow a lot better than anyone else. Do either of these kills look like his kind of a job?”

“This kind of violence isn’t consistent with Circuit, period,” Helix answered. “I can count on my ten fingers the number of bullets we’ve seen him fire before. When he has he’s been a decent shot, but really it’s not how he’s solved problems in the past.”

“My boys think the one we found in the street was taken down by a rifle, not a pistol.”

“Not his style at all.” Helix frowned as he thought it over. “Look, everything we’ve seen in the past suggests that he favors stealth and well laid plans over flash or brawn. His ability to circumvent most conventional forms of electronic surveillance along with a surprisingly good knowledge of modern security measures kind of circumvents the need for most direct confrontations so we’ve never really gotten a good read on how he might go about killing someone off. If anything, I’d say the number of bodies we’ve encountered along the way is the biggest sign I’ve seen that we’re not dealing with Circuit.”

Sandusky made an unhappy sound in the back of his throat. “That’s something, I guess. Not useful, but something. Let me know if you find anything better in there.”

With that, Sandusky left him to search the desk and, with nothing better to do, Helix pulled open the drawers and got to work. Most of it was junk, the kind of random restaurant fliers and newspapers you might expect. One drawer was locked and Helix hollered for someone with lockpicks. Melting the latch was an option but not one he wanted to use if the desk’s former owner happened to have left a loaded handgun in there. To say nothing of some of the other things he’d found in desks over the years.

One of the other CIA people poked his head through the door with a cheery, “You yelled?”

“Got a lock I need picked.” He gestured at the drawer in question.

“Sure thing, Supes,” he said with a grin, moving towards the desk. The guy was a younger looking fellow, probably not too long out of whatever training school he’d come from, and he seemed to think working with a genuine superpowered person was cool. Helix was sure the feeling would fade with time. And probably not a whole lot of it at that.

Helix got up and moved out of his way, thinking he might search the bed, when Sandusky poked his head back in the room. “What’s up?”

“I just needed the locksmith,” Helix said in annoyance. “Not the whole team. At least not yet.”

“Well let us know if you find anything.”

Helix was looking over his shoulder to make a retort when he saw it. In fact, he’d probably seen it when he first came into the room and just dismissed it. There was a folding chair peeking out from behind the door.

“Wait.” Sandusky stopped, halfway turned around in the doorframe.

Helix swapped places with the other agent again but instead of opening the desk drawer he grabbed the wooden chair and tossed it on the bed so he could look at the bottom of the seat. There was an envelope taped there with “Double Helix” written on it in a neat hand. Helix sighed. “Okay, Agent Sandusky, I’m now pretty sure Circuit is behind this in some way, shape or form.”

Sandusky came back into the room and studied the chair for a minute. “Okay, I’ll bite. How did you know there was a note there?”

“Like I said, because Circuit is involved.” Helix waved his hand at the chair. “I make furniture as… a hobby, I guess?”

“Strange hobby.”

“And I sell it through a dealer who lists it on the Internet. Somehow Circuit found this out and bought a couple of sets of chairs. We find them in hideaways he’s set up all over the country.” Helix shrugged. “I think it’s some kind of mockery, although really I appreciate the extra cash. Just try not to think about where it comes from.”

“Wait, that’s one of your chairs?”

“No, the style’s all wrong and I doubt he’d pay to ship one to Africa just to poke fun at me. But it’s where I’d put my maker’s mark if I had built it so it’s where I’d check if I wanted to be sure it wasn’t one I’d made and forgotten about or something. So it’s a part of the chair I’d be sure to look at.” Helix reached out to take the envelope but Sandusky grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him back.

“Hold on.” Sandusky nodded at the envelope. “If that’s been left there for us to find we should make sure there’s no nasty surprises in it.” He turned and looked back towards the main room of the apartment. “Ramone!”

Helix furrowed his brow in confusion. “What’s he going to do? Sniff it for bombs?”

“Don’t question Ramone!” Sandusky and the other agent said in unison.

“All right!” Helix leaned back against the desk and settled in to wait for Ramone to do whatever it was he did. “And I thought I was from the weird government office…”

 ——–

It took a lot more than a quick check by the bomb sniffing human to move on to the next step. The envelope proved to contain a satellite photo of a small house out a ways in the desert, along with a note that just listed latitude and longitude. But before they could move on to investigating that the rest of the apartment had to be turned over and put back and the crime scene called in to the local authorities. No new and exciting leads turned up so the next few hours were spent frantically trying to figure out who owned the building and what might be waiting for them there.

Turned out the building was owned by a known gun runner and that meant just about anything could be out there.

So they went in prepped for anything. Helix didn’t know what a bunch of CIA agents who were supposed to be operating under the radar were doing with the rough equivalent of a full set of SWAT gear in their basement but under the circumstances he wasn’t going to complain. Of course, they didn’t have a vest in his size. No one ever did and all his custom ordered ones were back in the states. So he wound up going on the raid without body armor.

Not that anyone wound up needing it.

The house was empty, save for the dead. Sandusky walked through the largest of its for rooms, staring at the carnage in unvarnished horror. “This is incredible.”

“That’s one word for it,” Helix said, moving over to the outside wall and examining the hand shaped burn mark near the power outlet there. “We passed a generator on the way in here, right? I’m betting it’s right on the other side of this wall. Circuit stood here and pulled current straight out of the generator and threw it at those two guys.”

Sandusky lightly prodded one with the toe of his shoe, staring at the large round burn that went through the front of his shirt and part of his chest. “I’m amazed he got enough voltage to do that.”

“Electricity kills based on amperage, not voltage. And fuseboxes can boost both with their talent, within limits.” Helix followed a second burn mark, long and thin, along the wall to the third corpse. “Looks like this guy was leaning on the wall here and Circuit just upped the current enough to jump the wire and into him.”

“And the forth guy, over by the door?” Sandusky gestured back at the last man in the room, who had clearly been shot and not electrocuted. “He was shot from inside. Did Circuit have another man with him?”

“Possible, but my guess is Circuit did that himself, too. Arms dealers aren’t the trusting type, I’m not sure they’d have let Circuit into their building if he had anyone else with him. Circuit does have a few known associates but I think he just shot that guy while frying the others with the generator. You can have someone go check on it but he probably overheated it in the process. My guess is it’s junk.” Helix turned away from the bodies and started towards the house’s small kitchen. ” Which reminds me. I should probably demolish this building before we leave, the evidence of a fusebox at work is pretty clear and Project Sumter doesn’t like leaving that kind of thing laying around, even when we’re technically off our turf.”

“Suit yourself. You’ve got some autonomy on this run, just let us check the house over before you do… whatever it is you’re planning to do.”

“Sure. Do we know how many people were in this ring? Are they all accounted for yet?”

“Still two missing, but our electronic surveillance team reports that there’s now a price on their heads, as of five hours ago.” Sandusky shook his head and followed Helix. “Odds are they weren’t here when all this went down. Especially since I’d say these bodies are a little over a day old, based on the smell and beginnings of decay. Why put a bounty on them if you killed them eighteen hours ago?”

“So these are the last of them.”

“That we know of,” Sandusky added.

“Right.” Helix shook his head as he poked through the kitchen, which looked like any typical kitchen might. “I don’t get this, Sandusky. It looks almost like a purge, but I can’t figure out why Circuit would care. He’s never purged his organization back in the states, at least that we can tell.”

“Maybe the greater distance resulted in them getting more out of hand.” Sandusky leaned in the doorway to the kitchen. “Maybe they spread into arms dealing from some other line of business?”

“No, he’s dealt in guns and drugs back home. He only robs banks or other large financial institutions but he’s got no problem dealing general violence or escape.” Helix drummed his fingers on the countertop. “Our analysts say he likes crimes he can see as victimless. Banks are insured. Drug users can be said to opt into their habits and essentially destroy themselves. Guns bought illegally are almost always used to kill other criminals.”

“That’s not as true here,” Sandusky said. “There’s all kinds of civilians caught up in the tribal fighting in Africa. To say nothing of the terrorist groups.”

“Maybe that’s it,” Helix replied. giving up on finding anything meaningful in the kitchen. “He doesn’t seem like the type to care for terrorists. He’s the kind of crook that thrives on picking the fat from a well functioning society. If their activities destabilized his home he might stop them. Even violently.”

“Well, it’s an angle we could look at, anyway,” Sandusky said, heading back into the main room. “Although there’s so many ways that could go and so little in the way of aboveboard bookkeeping done here that we may never know for sure. With all this taken care of, to an extent, do you think Circuit is likely to stick around or-”

“Boss?” Ramone and one of the other agents stepped into the main room, a shovel dangling limply in Ramone’s hand. Both were unusually pale and grim looking. “We found something out back you might want to see.”

——–

Sandusky helped pull Helix back into the jeep and slam the door closed. The wind was starting to die down and the temperature in the desert had already returned to normal but there was still plenty of sand and air whipping by at ghastly speeds. The house was gone. In it’s place was a serene expanse of glass nearly two hundred feet from one side to the other. A tendril of glass stretched from the larger patch out towards the CIA’s vehicles, quickly petering out into small individual patches that shrunk down to a size eight shoe before disappearing entirely. Although Sandusky saw it as just as much evidence for superhumans at work as the house itself Helix assured him the glass would either break up in the wind or be buried by the sand within a couple of days. Still.

“Was that really necessary?” Sandusky asked as Helix beat loose sand out of his clothes and hair.

“It’s how I demolish things.”

“I see.” Sandusky glanced in the back seat, where even his previously-enthusiastic lock expert was leaning slightly away from Helix, making no effort to hide newfound nerves. “It’s a pretty tomb, anyway.”

“Prettier than some of them deserve.” Helix yanked his tie off and cleaned some more sand out from under his collar.  “How did that happen, Sandusky?”

“I don’t know! I’m not God, Helix, I can’t answer all your questions.” The CIA man shook his head. “Look, you think Circuit’s out of the country now, right?”

“He’s always had a hasty exit lined up in the past.”

“Then he’s not a part of our case anymore. You’ve cleaned up the evidence of your super secret talented people and the arms ring we were trying to shut down is now shut down.” Sandusky shrugged philosophically, gesturing back to the former house where six small stones sat in a neat line just beyond the glass. “That is not our problem.”

Helix snapped bolt upright in his seat. “Not our problem? Sandusky-”

“Stop,” Sandusky hissed, jabbing Helix in the chest. “You sit back and listen for a second. I get that you’re not a novice and you’ve got plenty of experience in your field. But your department has never been geopolitics. This doesn’t impact homeland security so it’s out of our purview.”

“What about the security of their homes?” Helix demanded.

“Again, not God.” Sandusky started the vehicle and yanked the gearshift into the drive position with more force than was strictly necessary. “Families starve or parents neglect all the time. That’s why there’s child soldiers and… places like this. I can’t stop it all and its not my job to do it. It’s not yours, either. I appreciate what you’ve done out here, but your share is done. There’s nothing more you can do about it.”

There was a long silence as they drove back to Casablanca, Helix staring out at the desert and brooding. Finally Sandusky sighed and said, “What’s bothering you?”

Helix finally turned away from the window and said, “He did something about it.”

“He also caused it in the first place. Cleaning up your own messes makes you normal, not a saint.” Sandusky shrugged. “Try and figure it out if you must but my advice is don’t let it drive you crazy. You yourself said he’s an opportunist feeding off the fat of society. What are the odds you’ll have to deal with Circuit playing the good guy again?”

Fiction Index