Water Fall: Breaking the Levy

Three Days After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit

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

There were no donuts involved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah. I see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Water Fall: Live Wires

Six Weeks, Three Days Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation

Circuit

My life would have been a lot easier if the soldiers had decided to do something stereotypical and stupid, like using their rifles. However, real soldiers get warned about things like ricochets and so they came after me with knives instead of shooting up the inside of an armored tin can so I was forced to deal with them without the benefit of stupidity.

On the bright side, a magnetic can was an environment that I was practically born to work in.

There was a light in the center of the vehicle, just behind the soldiers who were coming at me, but a cursory examination, which was all I had time for, revealed no other places I could hijack current from the APC’s battery. I had exactly two seconds to figure out how I wanted to get to it. There wasn’t time for anything fancy and the fact that we were still in a moving vehicle cut down on my options, too. So I kept it simple and fired up the magnetic boots and vambraces again, using them to grab onto the side of the vehicle and throw myself towards the ceiling.

Unfortunately I couldn’t get both arms in good contact with the ceiling and I wound up swinging sloppily from one arm. But it was enough of a surprise to the guards that none of them managed to get their knives around and stick me before I crashed into the one on the right and sent us both to the floor. I was getting quite used to seeing the floor of the APC and it wasn’t exactly an experience I recommend. At least the guards weren’t wearing body armor, which made it a lost easier to drop an elbow into the soldier’s gut before shoving him under his companion’s feet and scrambling back and to my feet.

The other two guards stumbled just enough to give me time to get up without interference. In the process I grabbed a small device from my belt, a miniaturized version of the lightening funnel I’d used against Helix just a couple of weeks ago. The principle was simple. Using a precisely balanced set of magnetic fields I could change the balance of magnetic potentials over a much greater range than any other fusebox I’d heard of before. While the one I was holding wasn’t nearly strong enough to arc lightning out of storm clouds it was more than enough to let me hijack the APC’s electrical systems and arc them through people and into the floor of what was essentially a large metal box.

I reached up to the light fixture and switched it on. A second later there was a sizzle of ozone, a quiet pop and the other two guards dropped to the floor. Just to be sure they wouldn’t be any more trouble I gave all three a quick kick to the head, fairly certain that would keep them quiet. Then I switched the lightening funnel back off and I slipped it back into my belt. With my other hand I smashed the light fixture, throwing the compartment into darkness and siphoning much of the vehicle’s battery charge into my harness.

That gave me more than three quarter’s charge, enough to risk switching the maglev harness back on and feeling around. Unfortunately the weird, slippery feeling that I’d felt just before it went screwy was still there, which meant I couldn’t count on it for an escape if I needed one. Since there was no point wasting charge I switched the harness back off and cranked the volume of my headset back to conversational levels. “Hangman, something’s gone wrong with the maglev rig.”

“I tried to tell you earlier,” Hangman yelled in my ear. “You’re too low!”

“Stop yelling!” I yelled. “I turned you back up. What do you mean I’m too low?”

“The highway’s dipped too low,” Hangman said, her voice back at a manageable volume. “There’s only one maglev relay that’s low enough down for you to push on. That means-”

“Yes, I follow the theory, thank you.” Getting aloft using maglev relies on making a three point triangle. Magnets can only push directly away from each other, so if there aren’t two of them to balance your maglev array against you just wind up sliding along the path of least resistance – which usually means bouncing awkwardly along the ground getting lots of fun new bruises. But this was even worse, instead of pushing myself up with the relays they were now positioned so that I was a between two of them, and the weird slippery feeling from before was the repelling force of the maglev relays pushing against each other – and me. Until I could get some more altitude I was grounded.

“Okay back there, Donner?” That question came from the APC’s driver, who was looking back over his shoulder. I realized that draining the vehicle’s batter had also fried something important and the vehicle was stopped, probably totally inoperable. When he realized I wasn’t one of his buddies his expression changed from concern to hostility. “What the-”

I grabbed the first handy thing, which happened to be a shoulder bag sitting on one of the benches, and swung it around into the driver’s face. He went down, the rest of his sentence lost in the whump of the bag making contact. It sounded like there was something fairly weighty in there but I didn’t have time to wonder about what it might be.

Now apparently a man mysteriously landing on top of a vehicle in your convoy is not a valid reason for the Army to circle the wagons but one of said vehicles stopping unexpectedly is, because that’s exactly what the rest of the convoy proceeded to do. It didn’t take quite as long as fully subduing the driver so I had a few seconds to get the lay of the land. “What are they talking about, Hangman?”

“Why your APC is stopping. Why they’re not getting any response over the satlink. What they’re going to do when they find out who’s responsible for sending things so far south. Not very pleasant talk, that last bit.” There was some kind of strange background noise mixed in with Hangman’s voice. “I don’t suppose you could have your driver call them off?”

I finished dragging the soldier in question out of his chair and laying him none-to-gently on the floor. “I’m afraid he’s a bit indisposed.”

“I figured.”

“Hangman, are you moving?” I straightened up and looked out the front window of the APC. The lights of the rest of the convoy were getting close, blocking off the highway. Absently, I wondered how soon we could expect to start backing up traffic. I was actually rather surprised there weren’t a few civilian cars out there already. “I’m not ready for extraction yet.”

“No, you’re not. You’re in the middle of what you’re new friends would call a Charlie Foxtrot, when they’re in polite company, and it’s time we changed plans.” There was a squealing sound that sounded a lot like tires spinning on pavement, then, “I can be there in two minutes.”

“That’s-”

“You can’t solo this one, Circuit,” she insisted. “You don’t have time to keep those soldiers jumping and grab the goods. All eyes are going to be on you, so I’ll make the grab.”

“They’re going to see you coming.”

“You’re in the middle of a highway. It may be 2 AM local time but you’re still going to be ankle deep in cars in just a few minutes.”

“Corporal Donner,” a voice called from outside the APC. “I want all your men out of there now!”

“Fine. We’ll do it your way, but keep your head down and don’t get hurt. You have the lot number we’re looking for?”

“‘Course.”

“Good.” I grabbed the step that swung down from the APC’s topside hatch. “And Hangman? We’re going to talk about this after we’re done here.”

“Of that I had no doubt.”

I vaulted myself up and clambered onto the top of APC. Since the silhouette of a man in a fedora and suit is much different from that of a soldier, even when he’s not in full battle dress, I got a lot of attention quickly.

“Up top!” One of the soldiers shouted.

That was my cue to leave. With a quick mental command I switched the maglev harness back on then bent my knees, ignoring the popping noise because I wasn’t that old, and jumped. Then I pushed as hard as I could against the closest maglev relay, sending myself slipping sideways across the highway and into the grass in the median. Of course, since I started a good ten or twelve feet off the pavement and the median was much lower than that, my meeting with the ground was fairly abrupt. Even with padded body armor and my best fall breaking techniques I was pretty winded but the scattered gunfire from the highway told me I really need to get moving. I’d probably just surprised the soldiers into shooting just then but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t be making very deliberate attempts to punch me full of holes in the near future.

So I pushed up and scrambled along the side of the road in a crouch. The only light was coming from the vehicles in the convoy and any other cars that had come along and gotten stuck behind them. In the wild crisscross of high beams it couldn’t be easy to see anything out in the dark. Unless one of them had infrared goggles or something, and wouldn’t that be just my luck?

Fortunately the arrival of civilian vehicles gave whoever was in charge of the convoy something to think about besides finding the guy in the hat and beating him until he admitted to being a terrorist. There was a lot of yelling going on up there but I did my best to ignore it. Hangman might think she could get ahold of the package we were there to pick up by herself but she apparently didn’t know how big it was – one way or another I was going to have to be there to help out. Might as well start looking for the thing myself.

My luck held as I scuttled along the pavement and over to the nearest truck, no one spotted me even though it felt like the whole world could hear my feet scraping on the pavement.

Magnetic boots are not exactly built for stealth.

Any hope of getting in and out without being observed was now long gone, so I felt no regret at slicing through the canvas and into the bed of the truck. I clambered in, produced a small penlight from my belt and took a quick look around. Thankfully the box I was looking for was fairly large, at least four feet long, and the boxes in the truck weren’t large enough for that. I wasn’t sure what all I was looking at but I was pretty sure it wasn’t what I was after.

The next truck in line was similarly devoid of my objective but I hit pay dirt in the third. The box was strapped to the truck bed and the rest of the vehicle was empty. I couldn’t see the whole identification number on the box but I really didn’t need to. If this wasn’t what I was after I would eat my hat. I was about to climb into the truck bed when I heard boots coming around the side of the truck. I slipped down the side of the vehicle and moved as quickly as I could, although it still wasn’t all that quiet.

The soldier came around the side of the truck before I could get up to the corner; so unfortunately he had enough time to shout “Hey!” before I could slap him with the taser. Then it was up into the truck bed. I threw my suit jacket off then fumbled the maglev harness off and looped it over the four corners of the box and switched it on. Voices were yelling outside the truck as I slashed the box free of the truck bed and sheathed my knife.

“Hangman,” I whispered. “Are you here yet?”

“Out of the van, sneaking along the side of the highway.” Her answering whisper was almost lost in the background noise of a idling cars.

“Well get back in the van,” I hissed. “I found the package and we’re ready to go, but the van needs to be running, with you leaning on the brakes, in order for this to work.”

“Wha-”

“The van has a relay built in, Hangman.” My voice was rising and I took a moment to throttle it back down to a whisper. “It comes on when the motor is running. I need the van running but stationary if I’m going to maglev this piece of junk out of the truck bed and into the van.”

Hangman cursed and I heard quiet scrabbling noises over the headset. Then one of the convoy guards poked his head through the canvas truck cover and I got distracted.

Option one was to shoot him, but if you don’t want to be killing a cop before you’re ready to deal with all the cops in the county then you really don’t want to be killing a soldier unless you’re ready to deal with, at a minimum, whole infantry divisions. Option two was to close the distance and go with the tasers in my gloves. But I didn’t have the element of surprise this time so my chances of coming out of that in good condition were much, much smaller and I needed to stay near the harness to make it work anyways. So I went with option three and slipped out one of the two magnesium flares I kept on my belt, closed my eyes and lit it with a snap of the wrist.

I’d packed them with the idea that Hangman might have to move the van and the come find me later. The flares were to make the finding part easier. Well, she’d moved the van but we were close enough that finding me shouldn’t pose any problem, and it would be a shame to let a perfectly good flare go to waste. From the pained noise the soldier made when his night adjusted eyes were blinded by the brilliant glare, it had definitely been put to good use.

The flare wasn’t much use now so I threw it down and grabbed hold of the box and nudged the maglev harness to life. For a few nerve-wracking seconds there was no sign of the van’s maglev relay, then it sprang to life. There wasn’t anything to do but hope that Hangman had already set the brake, flip polarity on the harness and push it to life.

With polarities reversed the harness was no longer repelled by the maglev relay, but rather attracted towards it. Although the combined weight of the package and myself was nearly three times what the harness had been carrying before; I figured I could afford to turn the power up since the battery only had to get us a few hundred feet to the van. So I pushed as hard as I could and spared a little attention to make sure nothing important shorted out from the extra current load. And I did my best to hang on, twenty miles an hour is pretty fast when all you have to hang on to is an improvised set of straps on a large wooden box.

Of course, the van wasn’t parked directly behind the truck so I actually wound up sliding across the truck bed and into the canvas on the side – not the side I’d cut through on my way in, either. But as soon as I got my knife free and started cutting the force of the box pushing against the canvas tore things the rest of the way and the box and I went flipping over the side of the truck. For a moment I thought the box would land on top of me and that would be the end of it, but we wound up rotating just enough that the edge of the box caught on the pavement and it flipped one more time, sliding across the pavement with me on the top and not the bottom, accompanied by the surprised profanity of half a dozen soldiers.

For the second time in five minutes surprise was on my side, none of the guards managed to react in time to make a grab for me or the box and then I was beyond them and skidding through the cars that had come up on the stopped convoy and gotten stuck there. There were only ten or so civilian vehicles there and the soldiers had thankfully been in the process of clearing them off the highway, otherwise my trip could have come to an abrupt end against some hapless family’s Toyota, doing no good for them or me. Then the van loomed up, the back doors already open, and I flipped the polarity of the harness back around, letting up on the pressure on the maglev system some, so that the magnets repelled again and acted as brakes. The box slowed, tilting precariously up on one side. I hopped off and, at the last second, killed the maglev harness entirely and put my shoulder behind the box and pushed it. That, along with the last of the momentum from our mad rush out of the truck, was enough for it tip over into the back of the van. I gave it a good, hard push and got it the rest of the way into the van, then jumped up and swung the doors closed behind me. Not a moment too soon, either, as the guards were already starting to take shots at us.

But with the doors closed and all the armor in the vehicle’s chassis between us and them they weren’t really a threat anymore. I clambered over the box and into the front seat, saying, “Drive!”

Hangman wordlessly floored the gas and we took off down the highway against traffic. The vehicles I take with me on jobs are hardly stock vans, however, and between four wheel drive and upgraded suspension crossing a grass maridian like you find on the typical divided highway is no big deal. We were driving with traffic soon enough.

I noticed as I was settling in that the front windshield had taken a bullet, leaving a small impact crater in the bullet resistant glass. It wasn’t until Hangman fished the spent round out of her lap and tossed it in the back with shaking hands that I realized it was on the inside and not the outside.

I studied her carefully. She was pale, but seemed to be in possession of her faculties. “Are you alright?”

“Sure.” She spared a glance away from the road. “When were you going to tell me the package was so big we had to lift it by maglev?”

“When it became relevant,” I said testily.

“We have a bit of a drive before we can switch to a less conspicuous vehicle,” she said, matching my tone. “Maybe we can talk about that.”

“No.” I stood up and climbed into the back. “We’re going to keep all our attention on the road so that no one can sneak up on us. But believe me, we will talk about that, and a number of other things, once we’re out of the field.”

The promise followed us all the way back to base. A part of me would have almost prefered another disaster to deal with instead.

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Water Fall: High Voltage

Six Weeks, Four Days before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation

Circuit

“The obsession some people have with human flight mystifies me.”

“Circuit.” Hangman’s voice came distant and a little scratchy over the modified Bluetooth headset I was wearing. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of heights.”

“Try something for me. Ask ten people at random what superpower they’d want to have and at least half of them will tell you flight.” I looked down the side of the stone outcropping I was standing on and down into a shallow gorge carved by a creek that only existed during rainstorms. “I think people assume it’s freeing to be able to fly. Do you think it ever occurs to them that flight is little more than a constant, life or death battle against gravity? One wrong move and you’re just a mark on the pavement.”

“Much like the rest of life.”

“True. And to be fair, they never think of life in those terms, either. Yet more proof that the average American suffers some kind of brain damage at some point in their life, a troubling trend that I’ll assign someone to study as soon as I’ve achieved unquestioned authority.” I ignored the muffled snort from Hangman and backed up from the edge of the ridge a few steps. “Regardless, I suppose we have no choice this time around. Are all the connections ready to go?”

There was a moment of silence, then, “Everything looks green. Tell me, how were you planning to test all this by yourself?”

“I was actually planning to bring Davis along. This whole system is his baby and he’s been dying to find a practical testing ground for it.” I glanced towards the east, where the van Hangman was in had been parked. She couldn’t see me from there, of course, but some instincts are hard to suppress. “But since you volunteered I kept him at the Chainfall site. He’s not happy about it, but it’s a more efficient use of personnel.”

“You keep mentioning the Chainfall site…”

“Yes, I do.” I left it at that. “Review. How long do we have set aside for this test?”

“Twenty minutes, maximum, so that no one will notice the current drain.” There was a moment’s pause. “Twelve would be optimum, allowing for the most possible testing with the least chance of detection.”

“Excellent.” I took a deep breath and readied myself for the jump. “Activate the maglev system, please.”

“Maglev is active.”

As Hangman said it I felt the harness I wore tighten slightly and it suddenly felt like I was about forty pounds lighter. I pushed slightly against the electromagnets in my harness and the power cranked up. My feet bobbed off the ground a half inch and I grimaced. “We have buoyancy. How do things look?”

“Eighty percent green,” Hangman replied. “Some circuits in the yellow, two leaning towards orange. At what point am I supposed to become worried, again?”

“Let me know when we’re in the orange, and where,” I replied. “Red means we’re borderline failing, and I want to avoid those spots until I can overhaul it.”

“We’re orange at relays 12 and 27. You’re good everywhere else.”

I quickly ran through where the bad connections were in my head and plotted out a route that would avoid them. Then I grit my teeth and dashed towards the ridge. There was a moment of primal fear as I went over the edge and pushed out along the magnetic fields covering the ground below, forcing more power into the electromagnets we’d spent the last few days installing. As the power increased my own harness produced fields of the same polarity. The opposing fields pushed me back upwards and over the ground at a fast run.

It was a lot like what a rubber ball must feel like when it’s thrown along the floor. I grunted in discomfort.

“Something wrong?” Hangman now sounded like she was trying not to laugh.

“Are you watching this somehow?”

“External camera with a telephoto lens,” she said in amusement. “Very graceful, Circuit.”

“Thank you,” I said, trying and failing to keep discomfort out of my voice. “I’m sure this gets easier with practice.”

“I’m sure.”

And it did, although only slowly. I estimated that I’d only be able to get through two thirds of the relays I’d set out before we needed to shut down, even pushing the system as hard as I could I wasn’t getting much above fifteen miles an hour. Davis had assured me that I would get at least thirty, but prototypes are just prototypes. There was time to make tweaks if I could find any that were practical while we were still in the field.

After about five minutes of fiddling I was confident enough to start talking again. “Anything new I need to know about?”

“A few more yellow connections,” Hangman said. Her amusement was gone and she was all business again. “Nothing beyond that.”

I swept over the highway, twenty feet below, keeping an eye out for headlights. Reports of a flying man over the interstate probably wouldn’t be considered credible, but it’s best to be cautious. “I’ve been thinking about what you said.”

A brief pause. “Which part of it?”

“Organization.” I tweaked the potentials a bit and dropped down to below tree level, slowing my speed and practicing fine control. Not pancaking into a tree trunk was great for my concentration. It just wasn’t focused on the subject at hand.  “Never planned to have you on hand, been trying to work you in.”

“That?” She laughed. “Well, of course you wouldn’t have counted on that. I didn’t know about it until a few months ago.”

I threw my hands up and slammed into the side of a birch tree, bending it out of my way with a grunt. Once I was clear and my ears stopped ringing I said, “No?”

“I’d thought about it for a while,” she said. “But I didn’t work out a way to make it happen until a few months ago. And even then, I wasn’t sure it would work. There were a lot of variables. We’re approaching the nine minute mark.”

“Noted.” Trying to maneuver through the trees was feeling more and more like a fools errand so I eliminated permutations of my plan that called on approaching under cover of the forest and pushed my way back above the treetops. “Let’s return to the original subject.”

“Organization,” Hangman said without hesitation.

“Specifically your place in mine,” I said, angling my way back towards the ridge I’d come from by a different route. “My first instinct would be to observe you for a time to see exactly what your strengths are.”

“Except you’ve employed me as an informant for two years, so you should know that very well,” she said. “That means the next logical step would be to give me tasks of increasing sensitivity in an effort to gauge how trustworthy I am.”

“Irrelevant. You already know enough that your trustworthiness is academic.” I bobbed back and forth in an attempt to get a better handle on precision maneuvering but the system still felt very sluggish and the harness dug into uncomfortable places so I gave up on it. Some tweaking was still needed apparently. “You’re here now and I have to deal with you. That’s at least half the reason you’re here in the first place.”

“Friends close and enemies closer?”

“And the unknown closest of all,” I added, powering down my harness and coming to a stop on the top of the ridge. “Power down the system and meet me at relay 27. You might as well learn how to strip down and overhaul these things, in case we need it tomorrow.”

“On my way.”

——–

“Okay, we’re close now. Are you going to get to the point now, or do I have to sit in your lap or something?”

I gave Hangman an irate glare over the connection board we were currently up to our elbows in. “Are you paying any attention to the theory here?”

She gave an exasperated huff. “Yes. Magnetic fields, when they overlap it creates something like an electric circuit which you manipulate to create a maglev effect all quite genius.”

“Also not my invention,” I felt compelled to point out. “This was cooked up by my head engineer-”

“Maximillian Davis, yes.” Hangman crinkled her nose. “What kind of name is Maximillian, anyways? Were his parents touched in the head?”

“Possibly. As I’ve never met them I couldn’t say for sure.” I stopped rummaging around in the innards of the maglev point and leaned on the edge of the machine, which was basically a waist high reinforced plastic box. “Okay, I’ve obviously managed to bore you. Or, at the very least, chosen to focus on the less interesting but more important details.”

Hangman mimicked my pose and smiled slightly. “They’re usually about the same thing.”

“Then let’s talk about you for a minute.”

“That is one of the subjects I find most interesting.” She leaned closer until we were practically nose to nose and whispered, “What do you want to know?”

I felt almost cross-eyed looking at her so I straightened up, putting a little space back between us, and spread my hands. “I plan on expanding my organization soon. And not just a small expansion, either. I’m looking at a large scale adjustment in personnel and scope of operations. I can’t take the same amount of time and care in vetting new additions to my roster as I have in the past.”

Hangman straightened with an annoyed look on her face. “So you want me to come up with some kind of mass background check system for you?”

“Why?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. “Do you have a problem with that? Feel it’s beneath your skills?”

“No!” She struggled for a moment with whatever was bothering her, then sighed. “Okay, fine. I’ll get started on a rough protocol tonight straight off. When do you want to see a final draft?”

“By the time we get back from this little job.” She looked a bit taken aback by that so I said, “You were the one who pointed out we’re in the big leagues now. We’re facing Project Sumter, a branch of the U.S. Federal Government. There’s a lot of ground to make up if we’re going to compete.”

“And you plan to do this through strength of numbers?” She shook her head. “I have to confess, Circuit, I am a little surprised. And disappointed.”

“The numbers are necessary, but not the key,” I said in a soothing tone. “Another key aspect of this gambit is information security, so I’m afraid I can’t say much more than that.”

She shrugged and leaned back over the open top of the maglev relay. “I have to admit, I knew it wasn’t all glamour and high adventure but this isn’t exactly what I expected.”

I laughed. “The mundanely of large scale data mining doesn’t appeal to you?”

“No. Well, yes, but not what I was talking about, exactly.” She looked back up from the connections we’d been testing for the last ten minutes. “It’s just… you do so much of your own legwork. Carting these gizmos around, positioning them yourself, leeching electricity off obscure public grids…”

“It’s more like a shoestring budget, basement office operation, isn’t it?” I asked ruefully.

She wrinkled her nose. “Not exactly what I was going to say, but…”

“You’re not wrong.” I went back to testing my share of the connections. “But when you joined up you told me I needed you because you were a true believer, not someone like Simeon or Heavy, who are just in it because they want a paycheck and maybe, possibly think I’m an alright guy, too. Well, if you really think this is worthwhile the shabby beginnings won’t bother you that much. So are you going to do this or not?”

Hangman sighed. “Right. One crazy gizmo, fully functional, coming up.”

“Maybe that’s part of your problem,” I said with the hint of a smile. “This isn’t just any crazy gizmo. It’s both a lever, and a place to stand.” The smile grew until it was all teeth and malice. “And with them, we shake the world.”

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Water Fall: Three Way Switch

Seven Weeks, One Day before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation

Circuit

Picture this tableau. There is a man, well dressed and handsome, standing in the center of a group of people in the middle of a vicious argument.

To his left, Heavy Water tries to restrain an African American woman almost as tall as he is with one hand while still keeping a hold on the large box slung under his arm with the other. He is having little success in keeping the woman from pushing past him, more in keeping ahold of the container. For her part, Grappler is more interested in yelling at the younger woman, who is safely seated on the other side of the table the rest are standing around, than messing with Heavy. Elizabeth Dawson, daughter of a U.S. Senator but better known to us as a hacker who goes by Hangman, leans back in her chair and fiddles with a tablet.

Who is this man, and how does he come to be so calm when in the presence of these very dangerous, experienced criminals?

His name is Simeon Delacroix, and on those increasingly rare occasions where I stray into my public identity he is my office manager. When I function as a criminal mastermind he serves much the same purpose but without a title, as “office manager” does not inspire quite the same degree of respect from the hard types he sometimes deals with. In addition to doing all the things a normal office manager is expected to accomplish, Simeon is also expected to keep all of my employees from engaging in criminal acts against each other.

At this particular moment, Simeon is wishing he was on vacation. His job is full time and very demanding. His pay, while generous, is not exceptional and the other benefits are impressive but rarely used. For example, he has not had a true day off outside a few holidays for three years. Perhaps he is resenting the employer that puts such incredible demands on his time. Perhaps he is merely daydreaming about taking an attractive lady strolling along the beach.

Well, to tell the truth I’m not sure if he was thinking about a vacation or not. I do know that when I walked into the middle of the scene, still rubbing the remnants of my disguise makeup off my face, he was paying almost no attention to the argument going on. Of course, since I could hear Heavy and Grappler shouting before I even got in the room, it was no surprise. In fact, those two argue all the time, so Simeon and I have gotten used to tuning it out. I had just given Hangman credit for enough sense not to join in herself. But apparently she had.

“-has no right to tell me how to run a job,” Grappler was saying.

“Easy,” Heavy said, trying to get her to sit down. He threw Simeon a pleading glance, but he was busy with the book he had in his hands. Then Heavy caught sight of me and said, “Hey, boss.”

I knew a cue when I heard it, even if I had absolutely no idea what was going on. “We don’t look as ready for immediate action as I usually like to see things when I plan for immediate action.” I placed a hand on Grappler’s shoulder and she backed off a bit, then I glanced over at Hangman, then finally at my office manager, who’s failure to diffuse the situation was truly mystifying. Simeon usually breaks out in hives whenever anyone’s speaking in a voice louder than a whisper, I make light of his distraction now but at the time I was seriously worried because he didn’t pick up on Heavy’s cue, or mine, and picking up on cues is part of his job. “Mr. Delacroix?”

“I’m sorry?” He flipped the book closed and looked up. “I didn’t hear you come in, sir.”

“I noticed.” I waved my hand around at the table. “It doesn’t look like we’re doing much here.”

“Well, sir, that’s something of a point of contention at the moment.” He hefted the book he was holding. “Ms. Dawson has provided me with a very unusual document. After consulting it I decided it would be best if we waited to show it to you before we went our various ways.”

“Really.” I took the book from Simeon, then glanced over at Hangman. I wasn’t sure what I found more amusing, the obvious relief Simeon showed at finally finding someone who was as comfortable being referred to by her real name as by an assumed working name or that Hangman had zeroed in on him as the weak point of the group on their first meeting. Or that she had apparently thought this far in advance and had something prepared with which to prove herself to the rest of the group, which was what I assumed was going on.

I looked down at the book, which was a largish ledger like you might still find for keeping accounts in some office supply stores, and flipped it open. As I did, Hangman said, “You’ll find the part starting on page sixty three particularly interesting.”

“Now listen-”

“Quiet please,” I said, cutting off Grappler before she could get a full head of steam. Hangman had repeatedly exceeded my expectations before demanding, quite forcefully, to join our ranks. This is not the usual method for joining my inner circle. I was particularly interested in what it was she would bring to the table, and at the same time a little wary of someone who was shaping up to be a bit of a loose cannon. At the same time, Grappler is a very good burglar, a reasonable accountant and very decorative, but she’s not a great judge of character. For example, she married a serial killer. I was not interested in hearing whatever problem she had with Hangman, it would probably just give me a headache and I wanted my full attention to be on sorting out how best to incorporate Hangman into my inner circle without compromising the very tight schedule I was running.

The entries were dated, and it only took a page or two for me to recognize the pattern to the dates. This was a record of all my major crimes for the past six years, nearly three quarters of my career. I looked up long enough to give Hangman a skeptical look. “You can’t have been following me this long. You were what, sixteen when this starts?”

“Seventeen,” she corrected me. “And about a third of what’s in there was reconstructed after the fact.”

“I see.” Looking over a complete history of my activities was not exactly a pleasant endeavor. I’ve had my share of miserable failures, and like so many people do I made the bulk of them at the beginning of my career. To make matters worse, most of the entries were followed by a brief analysis of what went wrong with the operation in question. I also felt I had been incredibly petty in my early days. A large part of that had been deliberate. I knew I would need operating capitol and I preferred to keep legal my activities totally separate from my illegal ones, so funding one lifestyle with the other was out.

In short, I had needed cash and with Heavy’s connections finding simple, profitable employment for my talent had been easy. But it had also been beneath me and seeing it written out in ink didn’t make me feel any better about it.

That only lasted about a year, and thankfully, while Hangman was an expert hacker and information gatherer she was not omniscient and her information from that far back was spotty. By page sixty three I had moved out of establishing basic infrastructure and into the important crimes. It was my second major move against the U.S. Government, my first made with the current long term plan in mind, and it also marked a turning point in my relationship with Project Sumter and their foremost agent.

The plan had been simplicity itself: Try to steal an Apache helicopter using a very elaborate hacking program and remote control device that only functioned because of the way my innate ability to manipulate electrical circuits interacted with magnetism while, at the same time, Heavy, Grappler and a handful of others stole a set of improved armor plating intended to upgrade Army vehicles in Iraq. The helicopter theft would provide a distraction more than significant enough for Heavy’s team to break in and escape and, in the event that I could actually get away with the vehicle, the Apache would make a nice addition to my motor pool. Perhaps as an interesting paperweight.

In practice, helicopters are difficult to fly, a fact I proved by nearly smashing my stolen Apache four times in the space of three minutes, difficult to maintain and not particularly subtle. It’s not as if you can repaint an attack helicopter as a delivery vehicle, after all. But given the base we were stealing from and the level of competence the Air Force in the region could be expected to show, I honestly didn’t expect the chopper to stay in the air more than ten minutes. I overestimated by about seven, but I also hadn’t been counting on Special Agent Double Helix being able to create an updraft so powerful it could toss a helicopter like a stray leaf. I hadn’t even known heat sinks existed at the time. But Hangman had managed to gather all these details together and reached a surprising conclusion.

“You think we could have kept the helicopter intact.”

I didn’t say it as a question and Hangman knew better than to take it as one. “You failed to utilize your greatest strengths in that job. And that’s not the clever distraction or the ability to manipulate electrical circuits with your talent. It’s your skill in information warfare. Why did that base even have working radar when your job went down? You were aware of the existence of Project Sumter by that point. Why didn’t you tap the Army’s communications and watch for their arrival?”

I shrugged. “Perhaps because keeping the helicopter was not a priority of mine?”

“Fair enough.” She leaned forward and gave me an amused smirk. “But that’s been a consistent failing in your operations ever since. For some reason you seem to want to establish your criminal self and your hacker self as separate. That’s a weakness, Circuit, and I don’t know why you have it but you need to deal with it. But as bad as that is, it pales in comparison to your phobia of Helix.”

“Now hold on!” I had expected an interruption soon, if for no other reason than Grappler’s having a hard time holding her peace for very long, but I hadn’t expected one from Heavy. He’s usually pretty quiet at strategy meetings. For once he looked downright angry instead. “You’re obviously pretty smart, since you got the boss listening to you, and he has been for a while. But you’ve never seen what it’s like to have that guy in your face. He turns up everywhere!”

“That’s not his doing,” Hangman said, waving the objection off. “Project Sumter has a whole department devoted to analyzing your activities and sending the right man to thwart them. I suspect they keep sending Double Helix because his ability to sense and manipulate heat gives him an extra way to locate the strange electronics you keep cooking up and get rid of them.”

“The man can burn paper just by standing nearby when he’s pissed,” Heavy said, thumping his box on the table for emphasis. “I mean, did you even get near Diversy Street after the punch-up there? You could smell the asphalt melting for miles! I don’t think he’d even die if you lit him up with a flamethrower.”

“He does need to breath,” I put in. “I’m sure the smoke would get to him eventually.”

“Look, I know that Helix is like a boogieman for you guys. I’ve seen a lot of the stats, even if I’ve never personally been there to see him ruin something. But I don’t suppose any of you could tell me the background and qualifications of the three man support team that’s been with him for the last five and a half years? Or what any of the other Midwest Sumter talents are capable of? Did you even know the name of the woman you killed last week before you went to her funeral?” Hangman shook her head. “Thanks to that, you need to know all that and more.

“Before, there was one Project agent and his team looking for you between other major cases. One team, and you thought it was bad enough that you built dedicated countermeasures for him into practically every plan you’ve cooked up in the last six years. There are fourteen operational teams assigned to the Project’s Midwest district. Do you even know the codenames for the talents in them? And there are seventy-nine talents employed by the Project nationwide.”

“We’ve had our hands full with one,” Grappler snarled. “Why would we want to pick a fight with all the rest?”

“Like it or not, you’ve got one,” Hangman snapped back. “They’ll throw everything they can at you, for no other reason than you killed one of their own. If you aren’t ready to play with the big leagues then it’s time for us to dig a hole, crawl in and pull it in after.”

I could tell that this conversation was going to be a lengthy one, and since Hangman was still seated I decided to join her and took one of the empty chairs. Setting the book to one side, I laced my fingers together and said, “There’s a lot to what you’re saying. Let’s concede that not everything I’ve done has gone as well as I’ve hoped. What does? But you don’t sound like you want to pack up and go home – in fact, as I understand it you no longer have one to go back to.”

Hangman laughed bitterly at that, which I thought more than a little sad. Why a politician wouldn’t encourage talents like those Senator Dawson’s daughter obviously had was beyond me, but his loss was my gain. Since she didn’t seem about to add anything else, I went on. “You obviously think there’s something you can add to the equation overcome most of these problems. Care to share it?”

The look on her face suggested she’d like nothing better. She reached out and thumped one hand on the book. “This is basically it. But I’ll summarize, because these are busy times, and it’s a long book.”

“Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t look as bad as some of Davis’ engineering reports,” I said lightly.

“There’s one major difference between you and Project Sumter. Know what it is?”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “I would think ideology.”

“Personnel management,” she corrected. “Although ideology is a big factor in that.”

“Explain.”

“Project Sumter talents don’t work alone. They work in groups, with highly trained support personnel to assist them in using their talent to it’s maximum. They have analysts who are on the scene with them, sorting out clues and picking up on things they might be missing. And they have oversight agents, to keep them from making rash decisions and keep them on task. You have… well, you. You think that should be enough, because you want to prove talents don’t need normal people looking over their shoulder half the time. Problem is, you can’t beat a well coordinated group working alone.”

Hangman shrugged helplessly. “About half the problems you face in the field could be overcome if you just had people to help you with the higher thought functions, rather than relying on the abilities of these two,” she waved at Heavy and Grappler, “to think on their feet. They’re not bad at it, but with you taking point in the field most of the time and no one to coordinate between you and them things spiral out of your ability to control more often than not.”

“Granted.” I felt no shame in admitting to it, I had puzzled over the issue many times in the past with Simeon. “But, at least for the next month or two, Simeon needs to maintain my public face and there’s no one else I trust enough to do such a job. We don’t have the resources of Project Sumter, we can’t simply pour over the HR files from a dozen government agents and ask for the ones we want. Of course, I’m sure there’s more too it than that, but the basic principle remains. How would you propose to solve this little problem?”

“She wants to do it,” Grappler put in. “Apparently she thinks she’s qualified to tell everyone what’s best now that she’s in.”

Grappler hadn’t really approved of the idea of adding another person to the inner circle at all. I wasn’t about to try and explain my reasoning to her, of all people, so I’d just tabled the matter and went about my business. Sooner or later that was going to become an issue, but I didn’t have the time to deal with it right that minute. Which made things even worse, because Hangman’s idea had merit. I hadn’t reckoned on having her as a resource at my disposal when I formulated the current version of the Chainfall plan two years ago. I shot a glance at Simeon. “How soon do you have to be back in the city?”

“Three days,” he said, his thoughtful expression suggesting he was already tracking with my line of thought. “But I could stretch it to four, if we’re willing to take a hit to public sector earnings in the third quarter. I’ll have to miss a few meetings. And you need to be back within six, don’t forget that.”

“I remember.” I thought for a moment, drumming my fingers absently on top of the book. “Then let’s do this. Hangman will have a trial run as control agent-”

“What?” Grappler shouted.

“-for me,” I said, as if nothing had happened. “Simeon, you’ll go up north with Heavy and Grappler on their little run. Hangman and I will go west, and get ahold of our objective there. We’ll compare notes, see whether adding a control operative had any benefits at all and go from there.”

“You sure, boss?” Heavy gave our newest addition a skeptical look, then glanced back at me. “That’s an awful lot riding on one job.”

By which he meant I was the only one who knew what all the puzzle pieces in the grand plan were. At least, that’s what he assumed. I was quickly coming to question such ideas now that Hangman was more than a shadowy presence on the far side of an Internet connection. What’s more, I was the only one who was really committed to the idea of picking a fight with the government, the only one who felt that it was time to end the hiding, the lying and the endless belittling of our talents. But a glance at Hangman reminded me that once again, that might not be entirely true. I could tell by the look on her face that she wanted in. And I was not at all opposed to giving her a shot. “I think we’ll be fine, Heavy. But your concern is appreciated.”

“If you say so.”

That was Heavy-speak for extreme skepticism. “If nothing else, there’s no way that Simeon could go out west with me and get back in time for his other obligations. Hangman has to come with me or the timing won’t work. And as has already been noted, I’m used to having many things in the air.” Heavy looked about as serious as he ever got, which is more serious than most people would give him credit for, but he nodded to show he understood. I could, and would, watch my own back. “Good. Now, get going. We’re running behind as it is. Hangman? Grab anything you can’t do without for the next week and meet me in the garage in ten minutes.”

Instead, she met me at the door, the shoulder bag she’d brought with her when we first met in person a few days ago slung over one shoulder. “Ready when you are, boss.”

I gave her a quick once over. After a brief stint as a wannabe streetwalker she was once again dressed like a pert and perky college student, Her straight brown hair pulled into a ponytail over one shoulder, her face, while attractive, now all over missing persons files going out nation wide. At least her ability to gather information and extrapolate on it still appeared to be working full force. “Then come along. And don’t call me boss, only Heavy does that and only because I can’t make him stop. Do you know what we’re doing next?”

Hangman shook her head. “All I’ve managed to gather is that you’re buying up real estate and 3D printing equipment. So far the connection between the two eludes me.”

“Ah.” I allowed myself a small smirk, it was nice to know I could keep a few secrets. “Well, in that case you’re in luck. This is actually an excellent test case, since in many ways it duplicates your own example a few minutes ago.”

Her face scrunched up in confusion. “I beg your pardon?”

“We’re going to rob from GI Joe, Hangman. The Army itself.”

“Of course.” Hangman laughed. “It’s just like you to get someone shot at by the end of their first week on the job.”

“Relax.” I waved the thought off. “If everything goes well they won’t even get the safeties of their weapons.”

I really shouldn’t have said that, but it was done before the thought occurred. And really, what was the worst that could happen?

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Heat Wave: System Shutdown

Circuit

According to my research, a diggle is a small, yellowish, subterranean birdlike creature that burrows around using it’s rubbery nasal appendage. Ornithologists consider it to be among the worst minions ever. Of course, like most words in the English language, diggle has multiple meanings. However, of all the available options, I was pretty sure this was the one I wanted. Comic book authors and small villages in England are not usually turned into plush toys, after all.

I’m not sure if there was some kind of meaning in Hangman choosing to bring a stuffed diggle toy to our meeting as his signal for how I should recognize him. It was set a couple of days before the end of my disastrous operation at H.S. 44 so choosing the world’s worst minion probably wasn’t some kind of commentary on how badly that had gone. That left the possibilities that it was a comment on my abilities in general, my organization or some kind of inside joke.

With Hangman I’ve never been quite sure where the games end and the real business begins.

So it was that, four days after making myself one of the most wanted men in America, I found myself strolling through Millennium Park, looking for a drill-nosed plushie. The life of a professional supervillian is not always satisfying but it is guaranteed to be bizarre.

As you might expect, Millennium Park was conceived of by the city fathers around the beginning of the millennium, on the assumption that the people of the city might like to see some small part of the exorbitant taxes and fees that came with dwelling in its limits devoted to the construction of giant, reflective, stainless steel coffee bean sculptures. It is but one example of why one of the first things I intend do when I establish my new order is to have all city planners rounded up and exiled to a small island off the New England coast. The handful of people who haven’t starved in five years may prove useful.

Since another one of the park’s many features are large waterfalls with TV screens behind them that display eight to ten foot tall images of nearby people taken by hidden cameras, I elected to confine myself to the outdoor amphitheater and many walking paths, and avoid that area altogether. Hangman also comes from a profession that tries to avoid the public eye so I wasn’t really expecting to find him there.

And I was right. In fact, I spotted the stuffed animal I was looking for sitting next to a small, artificial stream that ran down one side of the gardens. It was perched next to a young woman, in her early or mid twenties I guessed, sitting on a board walk and dangling her feet in the water. The diggle was standing sentinel over a pair of flip-flops and the woman was wearing a red tank top and Capris. A messenger bag sat open beside her, revealing a couple of notebooks of the spiral bound variety and a lot of the random detritus that accumulates in student’s pockets and carryalls. She didn’t look much like an electronic information broker who’s services were in demand the world over.

That was my first clue I had the right person, and there weren’t simply two people with a strange preference in plush toys in the park that day. The second was her hair. As I got closer I could see that, rather than being cut in a short bob as it had first appeared, her pale brown hair was actually tied into a loose pony tail and pulled over one shoulder. Rather than an elastic hairband, she’d used a piece of string tied in a hangman’s noose.

I’d managed to get close to her without drawing her attention but as soon as my shadow fell over her shoulder she glanced up. I rested both hands on the silver topped cane I’d brought with me, the upside down power symbol engraved at the base of the handle serving to confirm my own identity, and gave her a more critical look. There was a quick intelligence in those eyes and a slightly pinched cast to her mouth, but otherwise a pleasant face. It seemed vaguely familiar, like I’d met her somewhere but hadn’t bothered to try and remember her name. She seemed to be regarding me with the same evaluating gaze.

Finally, I indicated the boardwalk next to her with the end of my cane and said, “Is this seat taken?”

“Not until you arrived,” she said. “But we don’t have to talk here, Circuit.”

“No, this is fine. I don’t want to look like I’m propositioning someone in broad daylight.” She giggled lightly, whether at the popping sound my knees made as I knelt down or the idea of me propositioning someone, I wasn’t sure. Absently I rubbed at one knee through a pinstripe pant leg and said, “I do feel overdressed, but there’s nothing I can do about that now.”

“You’re very dignified, but not exactly dressed for dangling your feet in the water,” she admitted. Her voice was surprisingly deep, I suspected that if she wanted to she could make herself heard from the other side of the park.

I smoothed my dress shirt down and got settled. The boardwalk was just far enough below the ground level of the rest of the park that I could rest my feet on it comfortably. “I wouldn’t want to, either way. I’m afraid I have a number of rather nasty blisters from my last few days activity and they’re best kept out of sight.”

“Vain, are we?” She grinned and playfully kicked a little water at me, prompting me to heft my cane up and lay it to one side where her diggle could keep an eye on it.

“Let’s not get the electronics wet, shall we?” I said, ignoring her dig. “There’s a small fortune in lithium-ion batteries in that, and I’d hate to have to replace one before it’s even seen use.”

“I apologize.” She pulled her feet up and tucked them under her, clambering up to sit beside me on the cement embankment. “Now, I believe you have an agreement to uphold. I want to know exactly what it is you plan to do with all the materials you’ve been gathering for the last eight months, and-”

“Actually, Hangman, what I’m here to do is resolve a problem.” I folded my arms over my chest and gave her my best frown, which oddly enough prompted her to smile. “You have become increasingly… involved in my activities over the last few months, to the point where you have come to have a more up to date knowledge of my activities and their consequences than anyone other than myself. Sometimes, it seems you even know more than me. A person of your intelligence surely realizes that makes you potentially very inconvenient.”

“Oh, of course I do, Circuit.” Hangman crossed one leg over the other, folded her hands and rested them on her knees. “I also realize that you give me enough credit to know you’re smart enough and ruthless enough to assume that the easiest way to deal with that inconvenience would be to kill me here and have done with it, so you mention this only to hear what steps I’ve taken to stay alive.”

I inclined my head in acknowledgement and she went on. “So I’ve arranged for files implicating you in my disappearance will be placed in the hands of my father by the end of the day today, unless I take steps to prevent it. I’ll not say much more than that, but you do see how that’s a problem for you, yes?”

“Your father?” I hesitated for just a second, and then I knew why she looked familiar. “Elizabeth Dawson.”

“A man of your capabilities can easily evade a small organization like Project Sumter, even if they were at Condition One, which, by the by, they are not. But if they’re not the only one’s looking for you then things get more complicated. As soon as you’re implicated in a mundane crime like kidnapping, one which you talent played no part in, the people looking for you will increase exponentially.” She began listing points on her fingers. “My father employs a private security firm that will want to find me as quickly as possible, if only to avoid bad PR. The FBI will be under a lot of pressure to find me, since I’m the daughter of a US Senator. Local and state police agencies all across the country will take up the case and there will be tips phoned in to hotlines from all over the country. The law of large numbers says that sooner or later someone is going to catch you.”

It took a great deal of willpower but I managed to resist the urge to grit my teeth. She was undoubtedly right in her assessment. If Hangman was telling the truth about having ways to inform Senator Dawson of what she’d been doing, and I had no reason to doubt her, then killing her would be the worst thing I could do. Even if I left at that moment without even bothering to try and threaten her into silence, I’d be better off than otherwise. Then at least she’d have to explain herself to her father and the Project, diverting manpower from chasing me, and it was unlikely that very many normal law enforcement agencies would bother to try find me afterwards.

“Very well played, Miss Dawson,” I said, gritting my teeth. “Now, tell me, other than keeping my reputation as a trustworthy business partner, what reasons do I have for explaining myself to you? Or, at the very least, for being honest about it.”

“Because you need me.” She held up a finger to forestall my coming objection. “Not merely because you don’t want me running free. If nothing else, the possibility that you’re responsible for my disappearance has to have occurred to someone by now, and that possibility makes direct action against you less appealing that it might be otherwise. The human shield factor, if you will. At the same time, Project Sumter will be under tremendous pressure to divert resources from searching for you to look for me.”

“Until they can prove that the two things are one and the same.” I shook my head. “No, I don’t see as that really offers me any tremendous advantages, Hangman.”

She gave an exasperated huff. “I wasn’t finished, Circuit. I also offer you something no one else you currently employ does.”

“You know, Hangman, I did do my own information gathering once upon a time. And there are other brokers out there, admittedly less well connected but also less meddlesome.” I did my best to match her nonchalant posture but it was a front. I liked this conversation less and less by the minute. Hangman had this planned out far too well. “What exactly can you offer me that my other employees do not?”

She smiled, at once charming and deeply disturbing. “Conviction.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Hangman leaned forward and dropped her voice dropped to a conspiratorial tone. “Ten years ago, my place as a digital information broker was filled by a hacker and cracker known as Hard Scrabble. In addition to selling information, Hard Scrabble was well known to the metahuman community, what Project Sumter would call ‘talented individuals’. If you noticed that you had unusual gifts and asked the right questions in the right places you’d be pointed to him and he’d do his best to figure out which talent you had and what was known about it.”

She paused for a moment, waiting to see if I had anything to add, but I just motioned for her to continue. “Hard Scrabble was around for about two and a half years before he was contacted by a water worker on the west coast. His brother and sister-in-law had just gone through some sort of falling out, possibly the trigger event that turned a normal African-American delivery driver into a serial killer called Lethal Injection-”

“He was always a sadist,” I interjected. “The worst ones are always the best at hiding it.”

“Well, either way Hard Scrabble didn’t like him much. Didn’t like him enough to enlist his brother and track him half way across the West Coast, inland and eventually to Phoenix, Arizona, where he cracked the Sky Harbor airport control systems and shut it down to prevent Lethal Injection from flying out of the city.” She straightened up and folded her arms over her chest. “And that’s when Hard Scrabble disappeared and Project Sumter started investigating a talent codenamed Open Circuit.”

For a moment my mind wandered far and away. I don’t think about those days much anymore. Sometimes I wonder why that is. “Things were simpler then. Fewer wireless connections, different security protocols, less need to go places in person.” I forcibly turned my attention back to the present. “I was young and foolish.”

Hangman laugh softly. “Having met you in person, I’d guess you were still older then than I am now.”

“So I was.” I plucked her plush toy off of the grass and gave it a once over. “At the very least, I had given up stuffed toys.”

“But never developed a fashion sense.”

I arched an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?”

She laughed again. “No one wears fedoras anymore unless they’re interested in the dodge bonus.”

“That statement is so nonsensical I’m going to pretend you didn’t say it,” I said, handing her the stuffed animal. “Scrabble didn’t refer to the board game, you know.”

“I guessed as much.” She set the diggle in her lap and rested one hand on its stomach. “But the reference had to be oblique or someone might make the association before I was ready.”

“Ready?”

She absently began kneading the plush in one hand. “Before Hard Scrabble disappeared entirely, and Open Circuit became the only identity you used, you left a message in some of your old venues.”

“The world has been lying to us for over a hundred years.” I said, recalling the message, more of a brief note than a manifesto, like I had written it yesterday. “It says we are all the same, and pounds us into it’s mold with a thousand merciless hammers. The nature of our education, entertainment, work and government all serve to make us like one another. But we are not. And the longer we pretend we are, the more tragedy there will be. We must change.”

“Brahms Dawson lives to be the opposite of everything you are.” She dropped her gaze down to her bare feet and idly dipped her toes into the water, as if that could wash away the guilt and revulsion she was obviously feeling. “When I was in junior high I had the opportunity to take advanced mathematics and basic computer programming. He wouldn’t let me. Said advanced course work sent the wrong message, arbitrarily made some people winners and others losers just because they were born with a knack for something.”

“So you learned on your own.” I nodded to myself. The idea sounded surprising to me, but I knew enough very smart people who had reasoned themselves into believing equally surprising things. For Hangman, junior high would have probably been about ten years ago, the same time I was starting to build my own reputation. “How long did that go on?”

A choked laugh. “Oh, until about three days ago. I was very, very good at it. Got my undergraduate degree in journalism. Haven’t touched a computer science course in all my life.”

“And are doubtless a better programmer for it.”

“I was never going to be anything else. Certainly nothing he could be proud of. He’ll manage without me. I found him a replacement, a daughter who’s everything he expects. I’m a little worried about my mother, but she’s always been defined by what’s best for him. I’m done with that life.” She lifted her head and looked me in the eye. “You were right, Circuit. We must change. I can see that- I’ve lived that need, and I want it done. How many people working with you can say that?”

It was true. Simeon was incredibly competent and farsighted, but for all that I enjoyed his company he was still an employee. It was doubtful he would try and continue my work if I suddenly dropped dead. Heavy Water and Grappler had lived through Lethal Injection’s rampage and written it off as a part of life, like a drug addiction or a gang war. They had some sort of strange affection for me, but they rarely thought farther than the end of the next day. Changing society wasn’t even on their radar. Davis and the other engineers were just a means to an end, with little knowledge of what the end of all their work was going to be, much less why I wanted done.

For all the Enchanters and Double Helixes in my life sometimes it felt like my greatest enemy was the enormity of what needed to be done, and how alone I felt in trying to do it.

She was right. I needed someone who shared my conviction. And maybe Hangman was that person. “So,” she said. “Do we talk about how you intend to change things? Or was all that for show?”

“In fact, the next part is all show.” I collected my cane, clambered to my feet and held out my hand to her. “So it will make things a lot easier if I just give you a sneak preview. But first, you’re going to need a change of clothes. Something people who know you won’t recognize.”

Hangman picked up her bag and let me help her to her feet, slipping her sandals on in the same motion. Then she patted the side of her bag. “I bought two sets of clothes with cash from a Salvation Army store four blocks away. I just need a place to change and then I’ll be set to change the world.”

I smiled and offered her my arm, which she took, and led her out of the park. “You know, you almost make it sound like you plan to charge off and be a hero.”

“That’s not how you see it?”

“Heroes generally come from the other side of things,” I said. “If they’re allowed to, that is. And I rather think people like your father wouldn’t much care for one of those working with him.” Unless we gave him no choice. But I left that part out.

“Well, that’s true. Still, that really only leaves us the option of being villains.”

“Supervillains,” I said. “That first part is important. It’s why we get all the nice equipment, loosely defined working hours and ambitious pay scale.”

She gave me an amused glance. “Medical?”

“Only if you’re well connected, which fortunately I am. Trust me, the longer you do this, the more you’ll be convinced. Pretty much all the perks are on our side of the equation.” She laughed and began trying to worm some hint of where we were going out of me. I was glad for the change of subject.

It was surprising, really. Until she pointed it out to me, I’d never felt the need for someone who shared my views. I had never even thought there might be such a person and I was gratified that one had taken the time to find me and throw in. But at the same time I worried. Hangman was ready to take on the world now, young and foolish like I had once been. It was at once charming and disheartening. I couldn’t find it in myself to tell her then, although maybe I should have. For all the perks we supervillains have, there’s one we never get.

For us, there is no happy ending.

Heat Wave – Fin

Previous Chapter
Fiction Index

Heat Wave: Charging Up

Circuit

I was rebuilding an electromagnet from scratch when the phone call came.

I try not to mix phone calls and electrical work as a rule, but I had just switched to a new phone, and the only one who had the number so far was Hangman, and not because I’d given it to him but because he always seems to have my number. I frowned and set aside the magnet and moved to the other side of the workbench where I had left my jacket, fished my phone out and answered.

Now like I said before, usually, when Hangman calls, he, or she, sends me a fax as a signal, but today I got to speak the man himself. Or, at least, I got to talk to a computer generated, flat and expressionless voice. That kind of theater is a little overdramatic for my tastes, but I’ll admit that it serves to keep some of the mystery surrounding the Internet’s biggest information dealer intact.

I didn’t know that when I answered the phone, though, I was expecting the usual electronic mess. So I just pushed the call button and waited.

After a moment, I heard the voice drifting up from the speaker saying, “Pick up the phone, Circuit.”

I raised an eyebrow and put the phone on speaker and took it back to my work area. Since magnets can scramble electronics I put what I had been working on away and pulled out a set of microbatteries to keep my hands busy while I was talking. “This is unusual. To what do I owe the honor?”

“Just calling because I wanted to ensure my newest cash cow doesn’t get arrested before he really starts spending money.”

“Arrested? Me?” I finished working the batteries into a sequence and picked up the vest I planned to set them it. While it was designed as tactical load-bearing gear, it looked like part of a three piece suit. Appearance is as important as ideals, after all. “What makes you think I’ll be arrested in the near future? Or at all?”

“Call it a hunch,” Hangman replied.

“I take it that having this hunch explained to me will cost money,” I said, amused. Perhaps it’s a side effect of my talent, but working with electronics always puts me in good humor.

There was a long pause from the phone, and for a moment I thought I’d lost the signal. Then Hangman said, “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you’re a cynic, given your line of work.”

“My dear man,” I said, taking a pair of needle nosed pliers in one hand and the vest in another, “cynicism is an entry requirement. Don’t confuse that with callousness or some other lack of feeling.”

“So you’re not worried about it? Then I can-”

“I am always concerned about the possibility of arrest,” I said, interrupting. While it might seem rude I was glad of the opportunity to do so, as I noticed that there didn’t seem to be any lag time between my interruption and when Hangman stopped speaking. I kept talking as I thought about that. “What I’ve learned to do is be philosophical about it. You’ll learn to do the same.”

“Is that a fact?”

Hangman didn’t dispute my status as the older, more experienced of us. Another little tidbit to file away. “So tell me, how much will an explanation of your little hunch cost me?”

“This time, perhaps more than you’re willing to pay.”

I stopped my hands’ continuous busywork at that, raising one eyebrow in curiosity even though Hangman couldn’t see it. “What exactly is that supposed to mean?”

“It means I want you to do me a favor.”

There was another silence as I thought about that. Hangman seemed inclined to let me stew. Finally I said, “I won’t do you an unnamed favor. I’m a sensible man; I don’t deal in any of that unspecified debt hanging over your head stuff. If you don’t know what you want then just ask for money. It’s almost as good.”

“No,” Hangman said, and there was a stutter from the speaker that could have been a laugh before the computer mashed it into an emotionless noise. “I know exactly what I want. If we make this trade, I keep you out of jail and you tell me exactly what it is you’re trying to do.”

“What, you mean you don’t know already?” I said, letting surprise fill my voice.

“I specialize in acquiring facts, but I don’t always have the expertise to understand what they mean.” I heard a loud clicking noise over the phone that I couldn’t quite place. Apparently Hangman’s voice modification software hadn’t been programmed to filter out whatever it was.

Strangely enough, Hangman’s voice got louder as if he was trying to be heard over it. Was he near train tracks? Or was this deliberate disinformation to keep me guessing? It was hard to tell just how subtle he really was, particularly when he did things like bluntly asking what I was doing.

“At the moment, I’m working on creating a highly advanced microstorage device for-”

“Not what I’m asking, Circuit. You’ve been quietly moving around North America for the last ten years, building resources and making connections, but other than that you’ve not done anything of note. Sure, you’ve stolen enough money to keep afloat and build whatever it is you build, but you’re remarkably quiet for a person with talent operating outside of sanctioned channels. What is it you’re aiming for?”

“Who says I’m aiming for anything?” I said innocuously. “I’m just in it for the money.”

“Then you’d be competition for me, not a customer,” Hangman said. There was another of the odd, stuttering noises. “No, if money is what you wanted you’d be retired already. I want to know what you’re really after.”

“Why should I explain myself to you?” I said. “You’ve already mentioned I could be arrested. Avoiding that now is as easy as going to ground. I don’t need to hear the rest.”

“Not even if Double Helix is involved?”

I froze for just a moment. That shouldn’t have been enough to tell Hangman anything, but I heard the eerie sound of modified laughter again and Hangman said, “Does he bother you that much?”

“Not enough to make me want to explain myself to you.” I said sourly.

“Okay,” Hangman said, and I swear it managed to sound placating even after whatever computer mangling the sound went through. “I’ll add a little more carrot. We can meet in person and you can tell me all about your plans.”

Now that was valuable. So far as I knew, Hangman never met anyone in person. It would give us each something over the other, to keep the tables balanced. “That’s fair,” I said, curiosity about Hangman getting the better of common sense for just a moment. “But not now. The meeting comes in a month or so.”

“Assuming you’re not in jail?”

“Yes, assuming that,” I conceded. My hands had fallen idle and I set them back to work. “Now tell me about why I’m in such danger of being arrested.”

“Have you heard of Senator Brahms Dawson?”

“The name is familiar,” I said. “From Montana, isn’t he?”

“Wisconsin.” A brief pause that could have been anything from pulling a file to taking a drink. “Dawson and Special Liaison Michael Voorman have been quietly struggling over the direction of Project Sumter for the last six years.”

“I didn’t know they had a Senate committee,” I said. “I did know that Dawson is a big advocate for genetic research. I could see how that would make him unpopular with most of the talents in the Project.”

“He’s proposed a tracking system for known talents along with mandatory DNA analysis,” Hangman said.

“Which means most of Voorman’s talents probably side with him over the Senator,” I said. “What does this have to do with getting me arrested?”

“Double Helix is the embodiment of what the Senator wants from talents,” Hangman said.

“Right,” I said, accepting that I was just going to have to listen to Hangman’s whole explanation before we got to the relevant point. Hopefully no one was planning on arresting me right that second. “What is it about Helix that the Senator wants? He’s very good at what he does, but he’s never struck me as politically minded.”

“He’s not really. Mostly, I think the Senator is attracted to the hereditary nature of his involvement with the Project,” Hangman replied.

“Hereditary?” That was the first I’d heard of it.

“Do you know where the Project gets its name?”

I thought for a moment as I tried on the vest, making sure the fit was right and nothing was poking me. “I was under the impression it was named that because the first government sanctioned talent operated during the Civil War.”

“Correct,” Hangman said. The rest sounded suspiciously like a lecture long rehearsed. “The very first talent in Project records is known as Corporal Sumter.”

I frowned. The first three talents in Project records are somewhat infamous among talents outside the Project, mainly because it seems like none of us know what their talents were. There’s been rampant speculation, but I’d never even heard of someone knowing their codenames before. My estimation of Hangman’s talents went up another notch.

Not that he had stopped talking while I was busy being surprised. “The Corporal went up against a total of three different Confederate talents over the course of the War Between the States, most of them more than once.”

“Such as Sherman’s Bane and the Bushwhacker?” I asked, anxious to shorten this lecture somehow. I dislike long phone calls. While I don’t think Hangman would try and track me, he had to know I’d be leaving this location as soon as our conversation was done as a guard against arrest if nothing else. There’s always the possibility someone else is out there looking.

“Those are two of them,” Hangman admitted. “Sherman’s Bane is particularly relevant to this discussion.”

“Because he’s the first heat sink in Project records?” I asked. This line of thought was starting to make sense.

“Not only that,” Hangman assured me. “I understand that, if you go six or seven generations back, he’s also in Helix’s family tree.”

I whistled. “Hereditary talent and a Senator with an interest in genetic research.”

It’s not unheard of for talents to run in families, but by the same token it’s not a given, either. While no one’s ever isolated a gene for any talent that I’ve heard of, the accepted wisdom is that they’re recessive, meaning they show up only when both parents have the trait somewhere in the family history, and even then only rarely. I could see how a politician with a passion for genetics could see finding proof for that theory as a worthy goal.

“Senator Dawson is also an aggressive humanist,” Hangman continued. “He doesn’t like the idea of a select breed of specially talented people rising up into a new oligarchy.”

“Meaning what?” I asked.

“Meaning he’s used his position on Project Sumter’s oversight committee to try a number of things,” Hangman answered. “He’s tried to shut it down, to force it to register all talented individuals-”

“That doesn’t mesh well with the Project’s insistence on keeping talents a secret,” I said.

“He’s against that too. His latest idea is to basically boils down to locating talents and then trying to switch of the genes that give them their abilities so future generations will be stock humans.”

“Which is fascinating, I’m sure,” I said, running my hands down the front of my vest and searching it for anything out of place and pleased not to find it. “How does this result in my impending imprisonment?”

“Dawson needs to gain standing with the Project,” Hangman replied. Once again I found myself projecting smug satisfaction into his expressionless voice and forced myself to stop, so I could evaluate his next statements without prejudice. “To do that he’s been grooming an oversight agent who will be starting with the Project tomorrow, and whose sole duty will be to find and arrest you.”

“Thus proving that this agent, most likely with some help of the Senator’s, is able to do something Project Sumter hasn’t been able to accomplish for nearly ten years,” I said, nodding as I saw the logic.

“I have solid information that suggests the Senator is aware of several of your safe houses, and will be moving against them in the next week.”

“And what makes you think I can’t deal with this on my own?”

“Oh, I know you could,” Hangman said. Now I knew he was being smug. He never wastes time on empty phrases like that unless he’s gloating. I know, I’ve lost to him in Scrabble many times before. “What might put you off your game is learning that the agent’s name is Teresa Herrera.”

I froze. It was just for a moment, but that name took me back eight years, to the heady days when I was just a rookie talent, an unknown with no file at all in Project Sumter’s archives. “Herrera? You’re sure about that?”

“Yes. She’ll be oversight for Double Helix until she learns the ropes.” There was another pause, then a distorted noise that could have once been a sigh. “You have history with both of them. You can’t beat him, you can’t get away from her. I thought you’d like to know. So you could take measures.”

Slowly I dragged myself back to the present, found myself nodding to a hard used workbench with a disposable phone sitting on it. A useless gesture to an empty room. I frowned, for once feeling like I should just take a week off and sleep for a while. But the life I’ve chosen doesn’t allow for that kind of thing.

“Thank you, Hangman,” I said, wondering how long I’d been silent. “That is very useful to me. I think I need to make a slight change in direction for the next week or two.”

“How so?”

“You wanted to know what this was all about, right?” I shrugged. “Consider this a down payment: For what I’m planning to work, I’ll need the men and women of Project Sumter on my side.”

“Well, most of them don’t like Senator Dawson much,” Hangman said. “But I don’t know how you’ll be able to use that to overcome the twenty or thirty felony counts in your file.”

“Easy,” I said, peeling off my vest and rolling up my sleeves in preparation for some serious work. “I can’t have people burning my city down any more than they can.”

I turned away from the bench and moved down the wall to a large map of the city. I pull the letter that was pinned next to it down and looked it over once. “What can you tell me about the Firestarter case, Hangman?”

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter
Fiction Index

Heat Wave: Shooting Sparks

Circuit

I returned to my base of operations with the three telltales of a successful bank robbery in tow. The first, of course, was a large amount of untraceable cash. The second, a completely intact business suit. The third, the irrepressible smirk of a man who has taken what is his and has no intention of apologizing for it. To say that I was incredibly satisfied with the day’s work would be understating the matter.

I’m not going to describe the bank robbery, those details are on a need to know basis, and no one who’s not me really needs to know, but it was truly the kind of work a man could take pride in. I had been looking forward to taking a day or two off at my headquarters, catching up on some coding that needed to be done before my next major move and getting some hard earned rest from the constant paranoia that must accompany a man of my profession who is temporarily cooperating with others. While I didn’t really expect things to go exactly according to plan, I wasn’t expecting them to stray too far, either.

I was not expecting my phone to ring.

A man in my position cannot be free with his personal information, so my giving out the number is a rare occurrence, having it ring, even more so. I pulled out the cheap, disposable, prepaid cell phone I was using at the moment and wondered if it was time to get another. It didn’t have any built in Big Brother tracking features, but it didn’t have Caller ID either so I couldn’t tell who was on the line. After a moment of thought, feeling a touch adventurous, I decided to answer. So I lifted it to my ear while punching the “call” button and said, “Hello?”

“Eiyeiyeiyeiwaaaaaaazogahzogahzogah,” said my phone.

“Augh!” I said. Someone was trying to send my phone a fax. No matter how many times I hear that sound I will never be able to bear it without cringing. I can code computers by touch but not by voice.

It’s unusual to be getting a fax in this day and age, but it wasn’t an accident. In fact, given how few people knew my phone number and how few fax machines still exist, the odds of my getting a fax accidentally are probably larger than the Cubs winning the World Series next year.

As a man of reason I found it more likely that this was not an accident and rather one of many prearranged signals from one of my more reliable contacts.

I hung up the phone and left my briefcase by the door and picked my way through the debris of a half a dozen tinkering projects that were scattered about my underground apartment. I paused long enough to take stock, making sure the computer system I actually wanted was unboxed and ready to run. I had moved in only four days ago, and my usual set-up wasn’t entirely unpacked.

However villainy, such as it is, runs on information, and in the information age that means a computer. The computer I use for contacting the network of informants, brokers and snitches that I maintain is physically isolated from all of my others, and it is always one of the last packed and first unpacked, because sometimes being out of touch can be fatal. So it was out and waiting for me on the desk in back of what was, theoretically, my living room.

Booting a state of the art computer and getting onto the Internet is the work of but a moment, and I confess that a person with my talent doesn’t even have to touch the keyboard in order to make it happen. But in this case, I did. I’m not normally terribly paranoid when dealing with my informants, because if they were really smart enough to get around my safeguards they’d be using their information themselves, not selling it to me.

But this one was a special case, and I wasn’t about to start taking chances with him now.

An unsecured Internet game room dedicated to wordplay may seem like a strange place to start a highly criminal transaction, but that was exactly where I was headed. Ever since I’d first heard of Hangman a year ago he’d made it a practice to meet up with clients on a small social networking game site in the room for the game from which he took his name. As a rare service to customers with extensive lines of credit, he sometimes contacts us when he has information he thinks we’d particularly want to know.

Hangman was already there when I logged in, but that was no surprise. He had prepared a simple puzzle, only six letters. I smiled and typed in the solution, “Sumter.”

There was a flicker and I wasn’t in an internet game room anymore. There were no graphics, just plain, uncolored text. A box presented itself, asking for my user name and password. By the Hangman’s decree, all his customers used the code names given to their files at federal agencies, unless they didn’t have one yet, in which case I assume he gave them one.

This meant I had to log in as “Open Circuit”, not a name I am fond of but, until I can convince Project Sumter to change my file, it’s what I’m stuck with. As soon as I was logged in Hangman typed, “Congratulations on your latest exploit, Circuit.”

“What exploit would that be?” I asked. Playing coy is part of how the game works.

“A little matter of a bank in Detroit suffering an unauthorized withdrawal.” There was no way for plain text to convey emotion effectively but Hangman never struck me as the type to be smug knowing something he shouldn’t. Rather, he struck me as the type to enjoy being in on the joke. “Not why I contacted you.”

“I imagine not. Perhaps it has more to do with your wanting to make back some of that credit you owe me?”

“Pursuit of knowledge is its own reward.” I wasn’t sure if that was meant to sound sanctimonious or sarcastic. Fortunately, Hangman followed it with, “The information you feed me from the Sumter data files is worth more than just money to me.”

I nodded to myself, a tell I wouldn’t have allowed in person. Hangman was a mystery, other than the fact that he sold information to anyone who was buying, I literally knew nothing about him. But I had theories, and it was always nice to have hints to support or disprove them with. This was another hint that Hangman was indeed one of those who just wanted to know. Figuring out whether it was his real personality showing or just part of a persona he adopted was half the fun.

“Unfortunately,” I typed, “I don’t have anything new from the Project archives to share right now.”

Normally I did have a set of dedicated on-site and off-site computers that worked on various hacking attacks on known elements of Project Sumter, the US Government’s talent management bureau. Even with the recent changes to their information security policies there was always something to glean about them, and I frequently sold what I found to Hangman. However, the computers set aside for that task were still packed.

“Not a problem. I actually have some information about Sumter that might interest you. It’s about your favorite FBI agent.”

“I don’t have one of those. They’re all equally bothersome to me.”

One thing that Project Sumter and I have in common is that we hate the stereotypical depictions of what most people would call superpowers. There’s a lot of reasons for that, and which one is yours usually varies depending on whether you’re the government or a self-employed talent. But in spite of that, no matter where I go or what I do in the Western Hemisphere, there’s one particular governmental talent that always seems to turn up.

Thus, while I wouldn’t consider Special Agent Double Helix my archrival, he is the single most aggravating thing I’ve ever experienced. Hangman has somehow figured this out and brings it up from time to time, usually to help in extracting money from me.

“How much?” I added.

From the length of time it took Hangman to reply it was clear he had been halfway to finishing a snide reply when I asked, forcing him to delete it and start over.

“500. It’ll hit the news soon enough, but I thought you’d want to know, since it’s Helix.”

If it was going to be in the news on its own it must have been a big deal. Still, it’s not like Project Sumter was going to be mentioned on the news, their involvement would be buried behind several layers of innuendo and subtext. I’d have had to do some digging to know for sure Helix was involved. And Hangman’s right. Whether by deliberate design on the part of Helix, the US Government or some higher power, whenever I try to do anything significant Helix shows up. He even followed me to Morocco once.

Best to know what he’s been doing. “A done deal, Hangman. Take the credit from my account.”

“Pleasure doing business with you.” There was a few minutes pause, probably Hangman digging up the records for tidbit of information I’d just bought and sending them. Patience is a virtue, even for villains, and I spent the time unpacking more boxes. A sound from my computer told me Hangman had sent another message.

“Special Agent Double Helix burnt down an apartment building this afternoon, and it was a pretty big one. He’s been removed from active duty pending review of what happened, which could very well take a full month. Initial confirmation in the documents I just sent you.”

I read the message in disbelief, then read it again. Here I am, hard at work, robbing banks and spending cash to keep the economy turning, and what is the FBI doing? Sending Helix to burn down buildings. And then getting him laid off. This was better than I could ever hope for.

“Hangman, I’m breaking out the credit cards,” I typed. “I need you to find me some things. A lot of things, actually. Stand by for the list.”

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