Thunder Clap: The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was my parents.”

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

“My adoptive parents,” Sykes clarified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And damn the consequences?” Helix asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“The Project -”

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

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

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

“And you wanted to try anyway.”

“Oh, I had a plan.”

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

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

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

“It’s a great way to die.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thunder Clap: Down and Down

Izzy

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

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

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

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

Helix

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

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

“Down, Circuit,” I snapped. “Now.”

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

I didn’t dignify that with a response.

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

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

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

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

Pun intended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A sensible attitude,” Circuit said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Liquid nitrogen?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thunder Clap: Ups and Downs

Helix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she threw him up the elevator shaft.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong with the stairs?”

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

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

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

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

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Thunder Clap: Putting the Foot Down

Izzy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Long story.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lightning funnels?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Stillwater is here?” Helix asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thunder Clap: The Icarus Run

(Sorry for the late post. I forgot to schedule things out ahead of time last week… January was a rough month.)

Helix

According to Elizabeth Sykes, Waltham Towers was supposed to have three layers of defenses. The first were the EMP weapons we’d already encountered throughout the city in building after building Keller Realty had worked on in the past five years. Elizabeth called these empion stations and there were literally hundreds of them scattered through  the city. Massif and later Samson had spent a good chunk of the early morning clearing a path to Waltham Towers through the empion stations so that was taken care of.

Beyond that, there were roadblocks set up around the building itself. These mainly consisted of large water barrels stacked one on top of the other, blocking the road and doubling as a kind of emergency water supply for those in the tower. When Circuit had planned the scenario he’d also intended them to be a crowd control option for his viscosity manipulating henchman Heavy Water, who could drain the barrels to lay down a half-inch deep layer of gluelike water and neutralize most of what Project Sumter had to throw at him, save people like Samson or myself. Elizabeth thought it most likely that this was the layer of defense most likely to be left out of the scenario, both because he’d had no part in designing it and, since Heavy Water had gone into retirement at the same time Circuit did, there probably wasn’t anyone to work the carpet of adhesion angle of the roadblock. As it turned out, she was right on that count.

The third layer of defenses was the real problem. “It’s a deathtrap. A deathtrap with your name written all over it.”

This was also the third time I’d heard this basic line of thought. “I know, I know.” I leaned back against the side of the van that brought me and my team out from the office. l’d met Darry out there, where I’d explained the strategy we’d worked out. “I heard this from Jack and Teresa when we were back at the office and Sanders was all to happy to repeat it on the ride over. Can we assume that I’ve already met every objection you can think of and skip to the part where you agree and give Coldsnap and Frostburn the go ahead?”

“No.” Darryl glared at me from over the top of his cane, I’d found him seated on a bench on the sidewalk, watching the Sumter tactical teams as the rolled in and started setting up two blocks out from the Towers. He’d been happy to see me when I got there but it hadn’t lasted long. “When I left the building you were getting ready to question Elizabeth Sykes like the sane, if impulsive, agent I worked with years ago. In a little less than three hours you seem to have gone crazy. You don’t actually believe Circuit’s working against implementing a plan he spent ten years of his life building, do you?”

“He’s a control freak, so yeah, if he felt it was being implemented in a way he didn’t like I could definitely see Circuit doing just that.” I folded my arms over my chest and stared at him for a moment, hoping he’d cave and agree but Darryl’s always been more patient than me. “I’m going up the tower, Darryl.”

He scooped up the pile of blueprints I’d given him to look over and waved them at me. “Did you look this over at all? The entire inside of that tower is rigged with Circuit’s lighting funnel gizmos, he could fry you just about anywhere on the top twenty floors. Even if we cut the power from the building he’s got generators to keep it going.”

“But only on the inside.” I tapped my foot on the pavement. “The concrete in the building is nonconductive and he didn’t mount funnels to hit the outside walls of the building, he wasn’t planning on our taking this approach.”

“Oh, you mean he wasn’t planning on you committing suicide?” Darryl snorted. “Color me surprised. Samson should do this. He’s best equipped, best trained, and his daughter being in that building somewhere gives him more in the game.”

“Best trained? Darryl, he hasn’t done serious, full-time field work in years.”

He stamped his cane in frustration. “You know what I mean. Taxmen are trained to do a lot of solo work, you’ve always worked with a team. Now you want to try a plan that requires you to ditch them?”

“Not ditch them, just get a little bit ahead.” I held up my hand because we both knew that was pure semantics. Sixty to seventy floors up was effectively the same as working alone. “Samson can’t jump that kind of distance without a specially constructed surface to jump from. If he tried to do it here the ground would give under him and he’d completely miss the jump. At least I can break my own fall, he can’t. It has to be me, Darryl.”

“Because you’re the best choice or because you want your own piece of Circuit?” Darryl pushed to his feet and limped over, crowding me like a man who expected to have his say even if he had to beat it into me with his own two fists. “I know you, Helix. This guy has been a thorn in your flesh practically since day one and you’ve never been one to let go of things like that. But that kind of attitude gets people hurt. That’s why you lobbied to have me pulled out of the hunt for Circuit, remember?”

Getting angry is my thing, not Darryl’s. Even after Mona died he’d only really lost his temper once, Darryl was more the type to slowly burry his feelings and now was no exception. I’d known him to long not to notice the edge of unease under his hostility. He wasn’t mad at me – well, maybe a little – but getting mad was a good way of hiding what he was really feeling. “What do you want me to do, Darryl? There’s two agents missing, one of them has a father who is able and willing to tear that whole building apart brick by brick to find her, and going in is the best way to make sure they’re safe. If we wait for the man who started this mess, whether it’s Circuit or his engineer, to come out and show themselves odds are they’re going to make some kind of messy getaway attempt or at least have caused more problems for the city. And we’re talking about a guy who orchestrated a hacking attack that shut down five major cities across the nation. We need to go in now.”

“You’re being reckless, Helix. Reckless is how people get killed!”

How his wife got killed. “Darryl…”

“Do not patronize me,” he snapped. “You think I’m being irrational? Name one other person who’s contributed as much as you have to the future of talented people.”

“Corporal Sumter,” I answered without hesitation. “And Sergeant Wake. Chief Stillwater and Saint Elmo, for that matter. Even Rodriguez has been doing just as much as me, the last few years. Don’t pretend like I’m irreplaceable.”

Darry snorted and stalked off a few steps, stewing. That wouldn’t really help his mood any and I really needed his help. Maybe it was time to change the subject. “Did I ever tell you why I joined Project Sumter?”

“Because it was the family business?”

“Sort of.” I tipped my head back and stared up at the clear morning sky. It was midmorning and the buildings were catching the sun. “Mostly, I wanted to be a part of something as big as what those guys were.”

He laughed quietly. I couldn’t tell if it was meant as bitter, ironic or just tired. “You wanted to be a hero.”

“No.” I pushed away from the van and stepped over beside him, resting a hand on his shoulder. “One thing I learned from my grandfather’s stories. A hero is judged by what he gives, not what he has or what he does. I never signed up to die, and I don’t think I’m going to today. But if that’s what it takes, then that’s what I’ll do. I’m afraid of dying, sure. But what I do is worth more than fear.”

When Darryl didn’t say anything in response I gave his shoulder a squeeze and said, “And I think it’s more important than pain, too.”

Finally he sighed and pulled out his phone. “Get going, Helix. I’ll make the call.”

——–

Heat rises. That’s physics and, more importantly, not the part of physics that a heat sink messes with. I’m a heat sink and that means heat is my bread and butter, my modus operandi, the one thing I know better than a third grade kid arguing Superman versus Batman. I’m good with it is what I’m saying.

The Plan, my great method for getting into the building without having to run the gauntlet of inside defenses, boils down to this: Superheat a lot of air, creating an updraft. The hotter the air, the faster it would move and the bigger the updraft. Spread out a heat sink far enough, make it hot enough, and the updraft would push me up the side of the building. I figured I’d have to run along the side of the building, since even I’m not that strong of a heat sink, but sixty or seventy floors with a tail wind couldn’t be that hard.

The catch was, on my own, I couldn’t even create enough of an updraft to coast upward on. I’d actually done exercises to test that. I could use one to break a fall, and had in the past, but go up a building? Not likely.

If Frostburn and Coldsnap helped me it was a different matter. The two were identical twin cold spikes, people who dumped heat out of the environment just like I sunk it in – long story short, them helping me was the difference between one man holding a bucket to catch rainwater and that same man catching rain in his bucket while two other people are emptying their own buckets into his. It’s not quite the same as tripling the heat at my disposal, but it’s close.

With the two of them posted at either end of the block, Waltham Towers was at the center of one of the most unnatural weather phenomena the city had ever seen. The street began to ice over at either end as the two ladies spiked as hard as they could. The heat that was frantically fleeing the touch of their power poured around them and into my hands until the air just in front and above me was shimmering like it was over the world’s biggest black top parking lot. After twenty seconds or so, it started to glow.

The windows in the building were shaking under the unnatural onslaught of wind and, since I weighed all of a hundred and thirty pounds, I was nearly taken off my feet. That meant it was time to get a running start and dash up the side of the building.

As it turned out I wound up more skipping than running. Sticking to the side of the building was tricky but the vortex swirled in a clockwise pattern and I stayed near the building for the most part. Not that I really wanted to be there all the time. One thing I hadn’t anticipated was the windows of the building, well below the freezing point of water thanks to the twins efforts, swelling in their frames until they burst. I wound up ascending the building in a cloud of plasma and half melted glass, looking for all the world like I was chasing the sun on some kind of mad flight, except I’d forgotten my wax wings.

Or that’s what Sanders said when he showed me the video he took with his phone afterwards.

Thankfully the trip up took less than a minute, although I’d have sworn it was much longer at the time, and as I passed the large conference room window I’d been told to aim for I kicked my feet towards the side of the building, getting decent purchase and convulsing my whole body, heat sink and all, into the side of the tower. One quick, messy trip through molten glass and softening concrete later and I was inside Waltham Towers. I took a few deep breaths to slow my heartbeat and promised myself whoever was behind this had better be ready for me because at the moment I was not a happy customer…

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Thunder Clap: Planning in Motion

Izzy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——–

Helix

“I don’t trust her.”

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You saying we should just wait?”

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

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

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

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Thunder Clap: Grinding Out Some Answers

Helix

I had to send Teresa out of the room. It wasn’t fun for any of us but she’d been a close friend of Elizabeth Dawson before her disappearance and essentially a protégé of former Senator Brahms Dawson. There was no way she could approach this impartially and she knew it, even if she didn’t want to admit it at first. I think the argument about it would have taken longer if Sanders hadn’t come down to check in on the interview and found out what was going on. He pulled rank and Teresa finally caved.

Which left Jack and I to interview a woman who had been missing for almost two years and was last seen with my archenemy.

We took a moment to get settled into our chairs and I opened with the obvious question. “Matthew Sykes is Open Circuit. Yes or no.”

“Yes.” Elizabeth nodded but didn’t add anything after that. On closer examination she really did look like she was under stress, she’d always been a bit of a cute girl in the pictures I’d seen, bright eyes and an open expression, but the woman here now looked tired, mouth drawn and creases around her eyes.

“How is that possible?” Jack asked. “Your husband has been a cripple ever since his plane crash.”

“Which was four months before Circuit tampered in the Lethal Injection case. Kind of serendipitous.” She gave a wan smile. “Not that he lost his adoptive parents, but he did need a few surgeries to get full use of his legs back. I’m given to understand it’s not that hard to find a doctor and therapist willing to lie about how successful their treatments have been for the right price. It let him put on a false front. There’s actually a rule for supervillains out there, you know. Fake a weakness other than your real weakness.”

“How very like him.” I rubbed at my forehead, feeling like an idiot. “And we were even in the same room during the Michigan Avenue fiasco. He never needed that stupid chair.”

“Not until you broke the Chainfall dam. He got caught downstream and…” Elizabeth trailed off but my imagination provided some unpleasant pictures. I didn’t feel bad about it, exactly, but it was strange to know that I’d come so close to ending things with Circuit and never even known it.

“So he’s wheelchair bound for real now,” I said, to cover the weird feeling that gave me. “I’m assuming that’s why he dropped out of sight for so long. What brought him back?”

Elizabeth Sykes’ expression changed from strained to bitter. “Someone stole his life’s work.”

——–

Izzy

It was hard to tell who was more surprised at Mr. Sykes – Clark, Stillwater and I or the guy who’d just come out of the elevator. The one person who didn’t look surprised was the guy with the exterminator’s tank, who calmly stepped up beside Mr. Sykes’ wheelchair, pumped the hose he was holding like it was a shotgun and blasted the flunkies of the fake Circuit with some kind of dark, black gunk.

From the way the two men staggered and clawed at it the liquid was obviously really sticky at both men wound up plastered to the side of the hall. Fake Circuit jumped back into the elevator shaft and wavered there for a moment before shooting upwards. And then Sykes – or Circuit, or whatever -went after him.

I felt like I’d already seen enough crazy in the last thirty seconds to last a lifetime but the sight of Sykes’ wheelchair tipping over the edge was apparently what it took to spur me into action because I was pushing past exterminator and into the elevator doorway. Even as my brain was focused on getting there as fast as possible my eyes were telling me Sykes wasn’t falling he was floating. He stayed there just long enough to drop something over the side of his wheelchair before shooting up after the other guy. Clark was yelling at me to stop and Sykes’ partner grabbed me by the sleeve to try and pull me back but I was looking up the shaft and I could make out the silhouettes of both men still going up the shaft above me. I bent my knees and jumped.

In all honesty, there’s no limit to how far I can jump if I have good footing. It’s just that eventually, if you want to jump so far, there’s no footing good enough. But the basements of a skyscraper are tough, overengineered to the point of absurdity. A ten floor jump was no problem at all. As an added bonus, the flashbang Sykes had dropped on his way up went off as I was about halfway through my jump, the split second of illumination enough to blind anyone looking at it but, since it was below me and I was looking up, provided me with a fairly clear picture of where everything above me was.

I snagged the back of Sykes’ weird wheelchair and kicked off the side of the shaft, smashing through the doors and half of a wall as we tumbled out onto the seventh floor.

We lay there, coughing and wheezing amid the dust and rubble for a second or two, then Sykes asked, “Can I ask you something?”

“What?” I asked after spitting out another lungful of drywall.

“Why do you never get hurt smashing through things but then wear body armor when you deploy to the field?” His head peeked up over the armrest of his chair to glance at me. “Well, current circumstances excepted.”

I hauled myself to my feet and set his chair upright. The restraints on his chair made sure he didn’t fall out, which explained what they were for. At least, sort of. I wasn’t sure if he expected to flip upside down while whizzing through elevator shafts or what. Maybe they were there in case he came to a sudden stop. “I have a better question. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

His expression hardened. “Long story short, there were some guys who used to work for me and when I retired they apparently decided there was no need to shut down my projects just because I was gone.”

“But-”

“Look.” He took my arm in a surprisingly firm grip. “Agent Rodriguez. I’ll confess to being an unrepentant villain. My goal was always to take over this city and make an example of it. By and large, I did not care who got hurt in the process and a lot of people did, in fact, get hurt and there’s a reckoning for that fast approaching. Stillwater’s taking me in as soon as this is over – although I’m not sure he realized it was me he was taking in. But right now there’s three people that need finding and taking down before they slip out of here and cause more trouble.”

I gently pried his fingers off of my arm. “And why should I believe you?”

He smirked in a way that made it hard for me to decide whether I wanted to punch him or just get out of his way. “Because I’ve never lied about what I wanted before and I’m certainly not about to start for a nineteen year old girl on her first field mission. Should you really be so far away from your tactical team?”

“I don’t have a tactical team. I got gassed and slapped in exploding leg irons by some thug who looks like he’s never met a snack machine he didn’t buy out.” I settled on folding my arms over my chest and positioning myself so I could watch both Sykes and the elevator shaft. “What about you? Were you planning on taking all these guys by yourself?”

“Well, I have made arrangements to have reinforcements show up in due time. Your arrival moved my plans up.” He scowled. “I hadn’t realized you got here without a full team. We may have made our move too early.”

I laughed. “You don’t really do the whole talking things over with other people very much, do you?”

His expression turned rueful. “I’ll confess that’s not really a big part of scheming evil. That’s why I had to give scheming up when I got married.”

“That sounds really familiar.”

“You have no tactical support at all? Not even Agent Movsessian?”

“Clark’s specialty is field analysis. He’s not useless in the field but he’s definitely not James Bond, either.” I hesitated as the sound of something bouncing down the elevator shaft echoed eerily in the hallway. “Maybe we should move somewhere else?”

“No. That,” he pointed at the open door a few feet away, “is one of only four maglev equipped elevator shafts in the building. I don’t know who Davis found to take my place at the heart of Thunderbird but if we’re going to match their maneuverability we need to control at least one of them.”

“We’re not matching them.” I reached down and took hold of one of his wheelchair’s armrests. “Listen, I may not have a whole lot of field experience but I do know one thing. When you wind up stuck without your team in the middle of a bad situation you look to break off and regroup as soon as possible. You don’t stake out territory and throw down with the other guys. You said you have reinforcements coming.”

Sykes gave me a smirk. “Trying to decide whether that’s a good thing or not?”

“If you’re really planning to turn yourself in to Stillwater then they’ve got to be people he wouldn’t have a problem with. So I probably wouldn’t mind them either.” I didn’t mention I was also thinking of what Al had occasionally called the Helix Factor, Circuit’s tendency to assume and plan for Helix’s interference in his operations. It wouldn’t surprise me if Circuit had somehow tipped Helix to what was about to go down and was just waiting for him to show up. What Sykes – or Circuit or whatever – was planning to do after that was what was really bothering me. “So how about this. We’ll sit tight here and knock out anyone who tries to come down this way. But otherwise, we wait until Project Sumter catches up with us here. That shouldn’t take too long.”

“If you want to wait, that’s your decision. But I’m not in custody yet and I’m not turning myself in to you.” He nodded towards the elevator. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a great deal of work still to do.”

I grabbed the other armrest on his chair and braced myself, looming over him with my most threatening look. “Stay put, Mr. Sykes.”

He laughed. He actually laughed. I’d just grabbed him out of the air and smashed him through a door and he laughed at me. “I’m sorry, Agent Rodriguez. It’s not personal. I don’t doubt your capacity for harm. But your father once tore half a reinforced bunker apart around me. He’s much better at intimidating people than you.” Circuit leaned back in his chair and let himself smile. My scalp tingled and I couldn’t tell if he was generating static somehow or if it was pure nerves. “For that matter, Helix once turned one of my facilities in Arizona into a six inch deep glass covered hole in the ground. There wasn’t even wreckage to recover. Do you really think a girl who can’t even legally drink yet is going to keep me from doing what I want?”

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