Thunder Clap: Smash Up

Izzy

Amp leaned one shoulder against the side of the alley, eyes closed in concentration. Her head swiveled slowly back and forth as she listened to things only she could hear. I shifted impatiently as we waited, I’d grown up in the city and never seen the streets so dark before. An empty building looks a little sinister lit by streetlights as you walk by it but, in near total darkness, crouched by a looming wall and wondering what it was Amp was hearing, the city itself seemed alive and malevolent.

Maybe it was just because I knew there was more to listen for than I was used to but I found myself focusing on the soft, inconsistent breeze that blew down the alley, almost like the hissing of breath. A sudden metallic popping sound echoed down the alley. All of us except Amp jumped.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Probably a trash can or something, cooling down from the heat of the day,” Clark answered.

“Or something’s rummaging around in it,” Al suggested. “Anything yet, Amp?”

She didn’t answer so I took the opportunity to ask Al about something that had been bothering me for the last few minutes. “Didn’t she say the acoustics in the city aren’t right for this kind of thing?”

“I can’t here clearly over long distances,” she said, annoyed. “The streets are like canyons, they make echoes that muddle words up. But I can hear across one street fine. Now shut up, all of you.”

We did as instructed. There were a few seconds while Amp just listened, then finally she said, “There’s three cameras on the front of the building, one stationary at the main entrance, two at the corners with a five second interval panning from one side to the other. And I think there’s someone inside the building, although the noise is coming from the top floor.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem, utility rooms are always on the first floor when they’re not in the basement so they’re easier to hook up to the grid,” Clark said.

“Except they could see us coming across the street and, if it is some kind of guard posted by Circuit or whatever sick mind knocked the power out, they might have reinforcements they could call in.” Al tapped Amp on the shoulder and, once he had her attention, motioned for us to move further back into the alley. “Clark, how likely is it that Circuit would bother to guard these locations?”

“Honestly? Not terribly.” He was quiet a second and I caught flickers of movement that may have been him counting things on his fingers. “He has to have at least forty or fifty of these things in town, maybe a little more, maybe a lot. It’s hard to say, since we don’t have a clear picture what the radius of effect on his EMP weapons is, or, for that matter, whether that’s even a primary part of his strategy. Remember, Helix didn’t know how he’d taken out the thugs he found. If he has armed response teams ‘protecting the city’ like he’s said his goal is then he’s fielding a lot of personnel already and they’ll have a hard time also guarding these installations.”

“And if he’s not dealing with looters using hired guns he’s not protecting his toys with them either,” Amp finished. “Nasty situation.”

Actually, from the way they described it the solution seemed pretty obvious to me. “Why don’t I just throw you all onto the roof here, then across the street to the roof of the store? Whoever’s down there probably isn’t expecting us to come in from the air and-”

“Okay, wait.” Amp cut me off with an emphatic wave of the hand. “Maybe you and Massif can survive that but Clark and I are squishy, remember? Regular people and most talents cannot survive a direct shotgun blast.”

“Neither can I,” I said patiently. “The way this goes down is, I toss Massif up to the roof, he breaks his fall and catches the two of you when I toss you up.”

There was a grunt of comprehension of Clark. “Vector shifts can transfer momentum from one object to another. If Massif does catch us he can literally break our fall by moving the momentum from us to the building at his feet. The key being his actually catching us. Have the two of you actually practiced this before?”

“It’s not actually been a priority so far,” Massif said, “since she was theoretically a couple of months away from testing for field work. It’s not that complicated a maneuver if the precision is there but, no offense, Izzy, based on the way you tossed that planter at Lincoln’s place the fine control isn’t there yet. Plus there’s the added complication of doing it in the dark. If we were just trying to get up on a roof I might say try it but going across the street? I’d rather not. Other suggestions?”

“Actually, I think that idea can work,” Clark said, “And it does have the plus side of giving us an angle of attack Circuit might not be expecting. Although I can’t remember if there was a rooftop entrance or not…”

“We’re not tearing out a skylight just so we can get in the building,” Al said. There was a moment of quiet, I think he was waiting to see if anyone else had ideas, then he sighed and said, “Okay, I was hoping someone else might have a better idea but I guess not. I did come with a plan, it’s just a little risky. Lincoln’s family knows the owner of this shop – I think they know every small business and franchise owner in the state – and they use the same security provider. He has a master key for most of their security doors.”

“Why?” Amp asked.

Al laughed. “If I knew that there’s a real chance someone would be in jail and we wouldn’t have them now.”

My eyes widened a little. “What, is he a part of the Triad or something?”

“So here’s what we’re going to do.” Al handed a huge ring of keys to me, ignoring my question, and said, “Izzy, you take these, Clark, you’re with me, Amp-”

“Don’t tell me. I’m the communications relay.”

“And long range artillery,” Clark added quickly.

Al didn’t let the byplay slow him down too much. “Speaking of weaponry, Clark, you’ll need to leave the tire iron here.”

“You’re still carrying that?”

“Like I said, Izzy, I don’t have-”

“Tire iron. On the ground please.” Al waited until the soft ting of metal told him Clark had done as told. “If there are no other interruptions? Good. This is what we do…”

——–

So my plan wasn’t really all that far off from what we wound up doing. I did wind up jumping from rooftop to rooftop, which I’d never done before and is not nearly as cool as you think it is. Okay, it’s pretty cool when you can see where you’re going and don’t have to worry about where you’re going to land or if there’s anything there to trip over or if you’re going to smash your face into something on landing. But trying to sick a landing in the middle of the night, during a power outage, after jumping over a street that looks more like a river of ink is not fun.

I managed to make the landing in spite of not being able to see anything although I did wind up having to use the break fall technique Al’s always praising as the basis of superpowered hand to hand combat. Apparently we spend a lot more of our time getting thrown around than we do blocking or throwing punches. Still, I was over on the roof of the bookstore with no problems other than a few scratches and a racing heart.

At a glance I couldn’t see any security cameras along the back side of the store. It was a short drop from up there to ground below. Now under normal circumstances there would have been plenty of light to see by and unlock the back door of the building with. There was a carriage light above the door and a street lamp in the small parking area behind me. But with the city still out of power I was reduced to pulling out my cell phone and using the dim glow from it’s screen to help me figure out what I was doing as I fumbled to unlock the door.

The building had a fairly standard security setup. The door was a standard lock and deadbolt assembly, but once you were past that you had to enter a security code into a control panel near the door or alarms of some kind went off. Except, of course, that there was no electricity for any of that stuff to run on and a bookstore does not exactly have the budget for a backup generator like the concert venue did.

It was kind of scary how dependent on electricity I was finding life in the city to be. As I let myself into the back of the shop I started to wonder how safe my mother and two little sisters were at home. No one had a clear idea how far the outage extended but from the sound of things most of the city was in the affected area and we certainly didn’t live out in the suburbs.

Worries about family were quickly squashed by the sound of pounding on the front door of the shop. That would be Al and Clark, providing a distraction for me by walking brazenly up to the door and knocking. I let the door swing closed behind me and stumbled through the back of the store. The checkout counter was to my right, stacks of books ran off to my left and in front was a shapeless gloom that the glow from my phone didn’t illuminate far enough to show anything.

According to Clark and Lincoln’s fuzzy memories of the building layout the utility room was behind the counter. I crept quickly up to the counter and, rather than look for a way behind it, just climbed over. There was a door in the corner behind it although it was locked and the key I had didn’t open it. I was fumbling through the keyring, hoping one of them might unlock the door, when Al pounded on the door again and a deep voice like James Earl Jones boomed out saying, “This is the police! Open up!”

I hadn’t known Amp could do that with her voice.

To my surprise we actually got an answer. A couple of gunshots cracked from the second floor and I heard a surprised yelp from out front. Without thinking I dropped the keys, threw my arms over my head and jumped.

Breaking through the floor or a wall is no more fun than jumping over a street. Mostly it’s just a sudden, sharp pain in your forearms. Even concentrating on pushing up and out like papa taught me to the pain of impact was pretty harsh. Almost as bad was the knowledge that somewhere back at the regional office stacks of paperwork was spontaneously printing and collating itself for the inevitable after action, property damage and expense reports. Worse was realizing that I had again overshot the mark and smashing into the roof of the building – from the inside this time – after going clear through the second story in spite of the fact that crashing through the floor really slowed me down.

Fortunately I’d put a bit of an angle into my jump so, although the impact stunned me a bit, I didn’t fall straight back down to the ground floor but instead landed in a heap on the second floor. Winded, I staggered to my feet, absently brushing debris off of my arms and shoulders as I tried to get my bearings.

Up on the second floor was most of the café part of the establishment so sight lines were a lot better. Also, there was just enough light filtering in the windows that I could actually see vague shapes like tables, chairs and a man leaning against an open window frame. I couldn’t see his face but from his posture it looked like he’s just turned around in surprise. “Drop the gun,” I croaked, my voice not really big on the talking thing at the moment. “And put your hands in the air.”

After a second’s hesitation the silhouette bent down and I heard a soft thunk, then it straightened back up with it’s hands over it’s head.

“Muey impressive,” Amp said, her normal voice drifting in through the window. “Massif says good work, bring the shooter downstairs and let us in. Might as well figure out who this guy is while we look for EMP weapons.”

“Right,” I said.

“Right what?” A nervous sounding male voice asked. Apparently Amp had directed her voice so only I could hear it.

“Never mind. Come with me, sir, and we’ll go for a little walk. We need to have a little talk with some nice people.”

For some reason, that idea didn’t seem to appeal to him much.

——–

As it turned out the store’s owner had stayed behind to lock up and guard the shop against looters once the power had gone out. I’m not sure why he thought that was necessary, bookstores aren’t exactly the kinds of places that get looted in survival situations. Maybe he’d just never seen The Day After Tomorrow. Not that I blame him.

Anyway, he hadn’t hit anything other than ground and Al managed to get him calmed down and assured him that we weren’t interested in dragging him off to jail, mainly since he was still under the impression we were local police when we were actually Federal agents. Saying you’re the police when you’re not, even if you are still technically law enforcers, is the kind of thing papa used to do but is now against the rules so we didn’t want him realizing we’d lied to him and possibly spreading word about it.

He was even nice enough to unlock his utility room for us and let us rummage around in it. After about fifteen minutes of rummaging around by the light of a small flashlight the owner had produced, stubbing toes and clunking heads, Clark finally found a metal box in the drab olive color power companies seem to favor tucked in a corner underneath the water hookups. It was locked but Al gave me the okay to break the latch and open it up.

Clark took one glance inside and whispered, “Jackpot.”

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Original Art: Hydroelectric

Been playing around with the pen and ink again! This time around I employ the artist’s right to tinker with things to make a better picture – the astute viewer will note that the picture below is not remotely like anything that happens in Water Fall, although it’s meant to encapsulate the raid on Chainfall in a single image.

Hydroelectric0001

Circuit at top left. From left to right along the bottom we have Frostburn, Helix, Coldsnap, Samson and Massif.

I played around some more with the water and I’m more satisfied with it than I was when I did last time it came up. I still feel the white/black/gray balance is a bit off here and the “trees” in the top right don’t look quite right. Bob Ross made it look so easy…

But art is never perfect and that goes for the visuals as well as the written word.

Water Fall: Raging Rapids

One Week, One Day After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Massif

The first time Double Helix made history he turned a couple of thousand square feet of Death Valley, Nevada to molten glass. That was during a routine set of exercise conducted when he first joined the Project. They were trying to establish a baseline for his talent. By the metrics we use he’s the strongest heat sink on record, weighing in as nearly twice as powerful as the next strongest we know of.

When he set out to show Circuit how making history was really done I got a little nervous. The man just doesn’t know the meaning of half measures.

But then, we were already making history. For the first time since the Civil War we had talents moving in teams that didn’t include oversight officers. Both Helix and Amp’s teams were pure talent. And as soon as we were away from the clearing around the chopper Samson leapt in front of the group and took off alone at a pace way beyond anything a normal human could hope to match. All the field oversight and tactical people who weren’t guarding our helicopter were in my group. In some respects I’d actually gotten the shorter end of the stick.

The guy I knew the least about was HiRes, he was supposedly invisible but I could still see him moving as clearly as I could see anything in a windy forest full of swaying trees – which isn’t that clearly, in case you were wondering. Jack and Dominic both insisted they didn’t know where he was and I was still going along with that, at least for the time being. Along with Mr. Not-So-Invisible and those two tactical leaders I had the rest of Helix’s tactical team and Agents Herrera and Sanders, giving me the Project’s foremost experts on Circuit’s history and tactics. Templeton had been forced to remain at the chopper with the other two members of my support team but Hush or Amplifier could forward his thoughts to us if we needed them.

I was sure Dom and Jack were reliable, they’d been in the Project longer than I had and I knew their records before they joined up. The rest, well, the biggest positive I knew of was that they worked with Helix. That means lots of field experience, most of it with situations teetering on the edge of disaster. But smooth running, uneventful operations? Those were a lot rarer in Helix’s casefiles. It made me a little nervous.

Of course, they’d all survived those situations, which had to mean something, right?

“You okay?” Dominic asked me, his eyes scanning back and forth as we lead our group forward. He was trailing just a half step behind me and to my left as we pushed through the thin undergrowth of southern Indiana river country.

“Circuit’s people have seen what I can do,” I said, a non sequitur that would make sense to him, if not the other people with us. A huge part, and I do mean vital, of what makes my talent effective is the fact that it comes as a surprise to people who have never encountered it before. Bullets, punches, getting hit by cars, none of it is particularly dangerous to me so long as I can keep my footing. Getting set on fire, breathing sleep gas, getting cut with a good sharp knife or just having a fire hose pointed at me, those are things that affect me just like everyone else. Most of the time I manage to wrap up tactical situations before anyone thinks of that kind of thing but this time I was walking into round three with a bunch of people who had not only seen me before but were used to the idea of talents existing and thinking of work arounds for that fact. It was making me a little nervous.

And when you put all those little cases of nerves together you got a great big helping of insecurity. I didn’t like the way things were shaping up at all and the loose dirt and random woodland detritus making the ground under my feet that much more unpredictable was just icing on the cake.

With the satellite intelligence we’d managed to gather and the cooperative efforts of a dozen of our best analysts we’d figured out which one of the three bunkers Circuit had built was likely to hold his headquarters. The general idea of my part of the operation was to cut through the woods and hit the bunker, try to take out the center of operations in case Helix or Samson’s end of things didn’t succeed or just serving as a distraction to help them on their way. It hadn’t escaped our notice that we were essentially playing Circuit’s game of parallel gambits against him but, in this case Analysis was fairly sure Circuit didn’t have the people to counter our separate moves even if he recognized our game.

According to Dom’s GPS we were most of the way to the bunker we wanted when we stopped to get our bearings at the intersection of two trails. We were almost at the end of the part of the park open to the public, most everything south of us was supposed to be undeveloped woodland. Dominic wanted to be absolutely sure of where we were before we left behind all usable landmarks, just in case Circuit decided keeping his communications grid up wasn’t worth letting us keep ours.

Dom had just confirmed that we were where he thought we were when the stern, stolid voice of Hush said, “I hear something in your area.”

After nearly a month of working with Amplifier this kind of thing didn’t bother me nearly as much as it would have before. Even Dom didn’t react much, just starting a little then asking, “Are you sure it’s not just an animal or something?”

“Trust me, animals don’t make nearly as much noise as people do, not when they’re in their native habitat.” It was hard to tell for sure but Hush sounded a little condescending as he said it, as if the inability to be quiet was a great failing on our part. “Samson has already gone inside his target and Helix’s group is nowhere near your location.”

“Got it, Hush,” I said. “We’ll deal with it. That’s what we’re here for.”

There was a moment of quiet, then, “Templeton says be careful. I’ll be listening.”

That rather creepy statement was Hush’s way of signing off. I turned to Dom and said, “Let’s take care of business.”

The National Guard had, with much reluctance, agreed to give us gear that matched our surroundings a little bit better than what Project Sumter kept on hand. Most of our work was done in the places where talents are likely to get noticed – in large towns or cities. There’s probably plenty of talented people out in the countryside, but they don’t get noticed nearly as often so we don’t know about them. So our guys, with the exception of Kesselman who was still pretty out of practice, aren’t trained for tactical situations out in the wilds. In case you were wondering, this was the National Guard’s biggest argument for why they should have handled Circuit rather than us.

I have to admit, watching our agents fan out along the side of the path in a rather clumsy fashion, I kind of saw where they were coming from. Still, it was our case and we had the experience. It was time to prove we were the best people for the job.

As soon as Dominic signaled that everyone was in position I walked out into the center of the crossroads, planted my feet, clasped my hands across my back and said, “May I have your attention, please. I am Special Agent Aluchinskii Massif of Project Sumter. This is a raid to apprehend the known terrorist and traitor calling himself Open Circuit, wanted in connection with the recent attack on Michigan Avenue, the death of an agent of the Federal Government and numerous other charges. If you surrender now and offer to testify you will be shown leniency during prosecution.”

There as a moment’s pause then I heard Hush, sounding about as amused as I’d ever heard him, saying, “They think you’re high and they’re daring each other to shoot you.”

Reports suggested Circuit had both hardened mercenaries and more run of the mill criminals working for him. I was guessing these were the latter. Just to make sure all the bases were covered I said, “If you resort to force we will respond in kind.”

Then they really did shoot me.

It was a pretty good shot, hit me just below the left collar bone and bounced off the vest I was wearing. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered with the bulky thing but footing was bad enough out in amongst nature that I didn’t want to be caught without one if I lost my footing. This time it wasn’t necessary as the bullet came to a total stop as soon as it touched me, all it’s forward momentum bleeding into the ground at my feet. I sighed and started forward at my usual deliberate pace.

One genius, who probably thought he was some kind of stone cold killer, came up out of the trees on the far side of the road, carefully squeezing off shots from his semiautomatic as he walked towards me. No doubt he though that since I was playing it cool and doing the impressive slow walking thing he had to do the same or loose face. Of course, he didn’t realize I was kind of bulletproof and he wasn’t. Not until one of his shots caught me square in the cheek and tumbled off without leaving anything worse than a light red mark, and that because the bullet was hot and not because of the force of the shot.

That was enough for him to realize he was tangling with something he didn’t understand but by then it was too late. He was close enough for me to reach out and grab his outstretched gun hand, twist his arm until the joints locked, then pull him off balance and straight into my knee. He doubled over and dropped to the ground, I kept hold of his arm only long enough to pull the gun from it before I let him go. Disassembling a pistol only takes a few seconds if you know what you’re doing and as long as you keep the gun barrel the rest of the pieces are useless but you have no chance of hurting yourself with a misfire or later giving up a weapon to your enemy. By the time that was done the other members of my hapless victim’s group were cursing loudly and had started shooting at me for real. I went to pay them a little visit.

I managed to drop another one with a quick grab and elbow combo, then grabbed a third by his leg, flipped him onto his back and wrenched his ankle until it made unhealthy sounds. That looked to be half of the little group out of commission but by that point they’d figured out that, just like a mummy in a bad horror movie, I couldn’t move much faster than a very deliberate walk and all they had to do was hustle a little bit faster than me stay out of reach. On the other hand, their bullets weren’t really doing much besides make me angry.

Of course all that attention on me kept them from noticing Jack’s group slipping around behind them and cutting them off. It was three on three and I meant to pitch in – not that I doubted Jack’s team but you can never be too certain in these kinds of situations. Problem was when I went to take the next step towards them I found my feet were stuck to the ground. I flashed back to the robbery at the Allen County Library at the same moment a hand landed on the back of my collar.

I twisted and hooked arms with my assailant, keeping her from throwing me to the ground. I couldn’t move my feet but that was less of a problem for someone with my training than it might have been for others. I dropped my hips and twisted, aiming to bring Grappler forward enough to hip check her to the ground. But somewhere in the process the arm I was holding became very slippery and I lost my grip. I heard, rather than saw, her staggering back a few steps. Then I heard someone yelling, “Grappler! Get back to the dam!”

At the same time I saw Dom and Teresa, who had flanked my other side to try and catch the guards in a pincer, moving up through the brush and exchanging gunfire with a new group somewhere in the distance. Grappler turned and bolted, her trail of movement quickly getting lost in the brush. I looked down at my feet, still stuck to the ground by the abused laws of friction, and tried to pull them free. After a couple of minutes effort Dominic joined me and said, “If you give it about fifteen minutes it should wear off.”

“I don’t know if we have that kind of time,” I said.

“Look on the bright side,” he replied. “At least she didn’t manage to lay you out flat on the ground.”

“I’m not sure we can afford to keep going,” Teresa added. “We’ve got six suspects in custody here. We can’t watch them and safely follow another squad of that size with the number of people we have on hand.”

“They said they were headed towards the dam,” I said.

She shifted and put her hands on her hips, a thoughtful pose for her. Then she shook her head and said, “Helix can look after himself.”

I just grunted and started investigating how big a patch of ground around me had been transformed to work like flypaper, thinking I might just take my shoes off and jump clear of the affected area. I’d determined that it was only a couple of feet wide and had just reached for my shoelaces when there was an impossibly loud cracking noise, followed by a sound like the waves on a distant beach. I glanced up, even though there was nothing to see. “Hush? Amp? What just happened?”

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Water Fall: Outpouring

Four Hours After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation

Massif

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

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

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

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

“That’s normal procedure,” Coldsnap said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mossburger glanced up at me. “Why?”

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

——–

Helix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oversight indeed,” he replied grimly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did it make you feel?”

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

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

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

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

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

And he was probably mentally disturbed beforehand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Water Fall: Waters Rising

Three Hours After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Massif

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh…” HiRes paused for a moment.

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

“Meaning?” The twins asked in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——–

Helix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Water Fall: Cracks in the Dam

Seven Hours Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Helix

I threw my go bag down on my desk and slumped into my chair. It felt like it had been well over a year since I’d visited my desk, although it was really more like two and a half weeks, but by some miracle it had been kept clear of paperwork. Of course, I had a small book’s worth of handwritten notes in my bag that would have to be typed up and turned into something Cheryl could file. I wasn’t really looking forward to that, since it all basically boiled down to, “We talked to a lot of people who say they haven’t seen Circuit ever, or, if they’ll admit to that, not in the last six months to a year.”

That was probably to be expected, Circuit had to have been planning his most recent job for some time and for something of this size it’s no surprise that he avoided using any contacts we already knew about. It’s entirely possible that he’d even set up an entire network just to carry out this one job. That would be the kind of ridiculous groundwork I’ve come to expect from him.

Jack deposited his bag on the ground next to his desk, which was right beside mine, and gave me a critical look. “You should go home and get some sleep, Helix. You look like you’ve been awake for the past month.”

“How do you know I haven’t?” I gave him a critical look. I had no doubt I looked pretty rough, I sure felt like I’d run the whole way from Evansville back to the regional office. But never let it be said that Agent Jack Howell let a little road trip get him down, he still looked like he always did: like he was too big to quite get his suit to sit right. Today that was enough to make him look fresher and more alert than anyone else on the team, even the normally unflappable Teresa.

And he wasn’t about to pass up the chance to rub it in. “Because, unlike some of us, you look like you’ve been sleeping on park benches, not beds.”

“Some of the places we’ve stayed, that might be what those beds started life as.” I rubbed my eyes blearily, seriously tempted to do as Jack suggested. After two weeks on the road, no one was feeling their best. But I’d seen Teresa headed off towards her office a moment ago and I was willing to bet she wasn’t planning to leave any time soon. Bergstrum and Kesselman were at their desks just behind us and Mossburger had headed back towards Records. Now was not the time to be lying down on the job.

I glanced at the time and shrugged. “It’s barely after noon. I can put in a few hours before knocking off.”

“Suit yourself.”

Jack started unpacking his bag and I did the same. In about ten minutes I had all the stuff that was supposed to go back in my desk put away and my notes in a pile on one corner of the desk. With a sigh I picked them up and started sorting them into chronological order…

——–

Five Hours Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Massif

Lincoln claimed he was getting closer to finding Hangman, who he insisted was not as inactive as people had originally thought. Apparently he’d spent the last two weeks dragging Records personnel off of whatever assignments they’d been given and running them through archives and computer code from all over the Internet to help him find traces of Hangman’s activity. It had become almost an obsession for him.

I knew this partly because, when I’d gotten back into town two days ago I’d checked in with sifu to see if Lincoln had found anything. Sifu told me the family practically hadn’t seen him since the week before. Now, outside of wushu training, I hadn’t really gotten to know Lincoln much and I couldn’t tell if that kind of behavior was typical. But sifu didn’t seem to find it that surprising so I didn’t worry myself. If there was anything worth reporting I figured I would hear about it.

The other way I knew it was because, as soon as she heard I was back, Cheryl asked me to drop by so she could complain.

“Look, Agent Massif, I know that he’s working on an assignment that’s important to the Project but he can’t keep diverting our resources like this.” She leaned back in her chair, drumming her fingers on the empty desk. We’d moved into the vacant Records supervisor’s office since Cheryl wanted privacy for this conversation. There was only the one chair in the room at the moment so I was standing. Looming over Cheryl like that should have given me the upper hand in the conversation but it really didn’t feel that way. “In fact, in the last two days I don’t think he’s called for a single file from the archives. Put him out on the floor or turn him over to Analysis but get him out of our hair.”

“No.” I folded my arms over my chest and did my best to give her a hard look without anything more than a vague idea of where her eyes were. “Lincoln’s probably familiar with a lot of the big picture, our structure and a general idea of what some talents do, he’s still not cleared for the specifics of our open cases. He doesn’t even know about Circuit, just that Hangman is a person of interest in an open case. There’s too much classified information he could overhear in Analysis or on the floor. You Records people don’t discuss what you file; you just keep it in order. I think it’s the best place to keep him and Harriet agrees with me.”

“He’s in the way,” Cheryl said, sitting up and dropping her voice. “We don’t discuss active cases as much as you field agents or Analysis do but we still have to watch our step when he’s around.”

“Look, I know you’re busy but my team has been busy suppressing rumors related to the Emancipation Proclamation theft for the last four days, and before that we were all over the state of Indiana trying to find traces of Circuit.” I spread my hands helplessly. “We just don’t have the people to keep an eye on him right now and he’s part of an active investigation. If it’s becoming a problem, take it up with Voorman or apply for field work and take over that angle of the investigation yourself.”

I turned and headed towards the door because I really felt I didn’t have time to argue any more. Helix was supposed to be getting back sometime that afternoon and I wanted to see if he had anything new we could follow up on. Lying to the media and the victims of crime is a part of our job but it’s never sat well with me. My priest tells me I’m forgiven when I go to confession but it doesn’t do much for the guilt. And I have to wonder what the lies do to the people we tell them to. At the very least, in the case of Agent Herrera, I heard they created long term issues. As I reached for the doorknob I found myself almost envying Cheryl her dilemma-free Records work.

Then she said, “I transferred here in the oversight program, you know. Made it halfway through the training course before I got sidelined. Some sort of autoimmune problem led to a dethatched retina. There was a surgery and a long recovery time.” I heard the chair she sat in push back from the desk, caught a glimpse of movement as she stood and approached me, resolving into a solid shape as she got closer. What I could make out of her face suggested she was mad. Really mad. “I’m legally blind without corrective eyewear, get something like 20/80 vision with it. And I have permanent gaps in my vision. It’s enough to keep me out of the field. But don’t ever think I’m just here to babysit your files and extraneous personnel. I could do deskwork for any hidebound bureaucracy on the planet, I stay here because I know how important Project Sumter is. Let me do my job and I’ll let you do yours.”

The bitterness in her tone was strong enough I caught myself cringing, just a bit, and straightened back up. “I’ll talk to Lincoln.”

“Good.” Cheryl pushed past me and out of the office, leaving me feeling a little disoriented and very ashamed.

——–

One Hour, Fifteen Minutes Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit

I tugged the scarf around my neck, accepted my long jacket from Simeon and slung it over one arm. The small garage on the city outskirts we were staging from wasn’t particularly cold, compared to outside, and I was already feeling a bit warm. The heavy pillar containing the Emancipation Proclamation had just been loaded onto the main van and strapped down. I touched my fingers onto the electrical contacts in the palms of my hands and ran a quick final check on the wiring in my gear. It wasn’t too late to cancel if things weren’t just right but it turned out I didn’t need to worry. Everything checked out.

Time to call it. “Heavy?”

“Everything looks good, boss,” he said, poking his head out of the back of the van and patting the Proclamation affectionately. “You want to make ’em let your people go? I think maybe they’ll hear you with this.”

“Grappler?”

She took off her signature long vest, folded it and handed it to Simeon, who slung it under one arm without comment. Then she slung her SMG and said, “I’m ready, so is crowd control.”

I nodded at her weapon. “Make sure the CC teams know we’re not actually planning to hurt anyone unless we absolutely have to.”

“Hurting regular people means they’re less likely to help us later.” She shrugged. “I get it. But you know how it is.”

Another nod, because I did know, and it was back to addressing the room at large. “Wallace?”

A van’s hood closed with a bang and Wallace leaned on top of it, wiping greasy hands. “Everything’s hooked up and running to Davis’ specs. I dunno if it’s gonna work as advertised but that’s not my department.”

“No it’s not. You and Simeon beat feet to Chainfall and see if there’s anything you can do there. Hangman?”

“No one’s ever done anything exactly like this before,” she said, tapping the bulkier than normal laptop she had an equally oversized shoulder bag. “But I should be able to kill satalite coverage of the city for fifteen minutes. We’ve got no more than that.”

“That’s still five more than we were expecting.” I rubbed my hands together and looked over the crowd of people we’d pulled together for this, the bang that signaled the opening of Operation Chainfall, the prelude to Thunderclap and the beginning of the end. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s showtime.”

——–

Helix

“Hey.”

I snapped awake and nearly slid out of my chair. Lying face down on your desk is not a comfortable way to sleep so I’d apparently decided to drift off leaning back in my chair instead. When Teresa woke me I’d slid so low I would have jerked myself straight onto the floor if I hadn’t grabbed onto the edge of my desk first. I took a moment to get myself in a better sitting position, ignoring Jack’s snickering and the papers I’d dropped on the floor, and said, “Something up?”

She smiled slightly and tossed another stack of papers onto my desk. “Latest write-ups on the efforts to keep the Proclamation theft quiet.”

“By which you mean the use of talents in that robbery quiet,” I said, picking up the stack and looking it over blearily. “The robbery itself was in the news for almost a week, I think they know about it in sub-Saharan Africa already.”

“Maybe.” She shrugged. “So far none of the major news agencies have mentioned women walking on walls or men jumping off balconies without getting hurt.”

“Sounds like there’s a ‘but’ in there.”

Teresa smiled. “In this case the key word is ‘major’. Several local news sources have hinted at strange goings on, to say nothing about the tabloids.”

“Did we feed any of the tabloids the real story to help discredit it?”

“Better than that.” I glanced over the top of the papers in curiosity. “We broke the details up into two stories and sold them to different rags. Now if the real story comes out it will look like someone just took them and ran them together to try and make things more sensational.”

I tossed the report on my desk in disgust. “This is still threatening to get away from us. Sooner or later someone’s going to be able to put out real, solid proof and we’re going to wind up looking like fools. We’ll wish we’d thought about our own credibility then.”

She sighed, picked up the report and put it on top of my go bag. “For now, just make sure your familiar with the story so you can stick with it in the field.”

“I guess I’ll have to.” I picked up the papers again and opened my bag, looking for a free spot to put them.

I’d just decided I could squeeze them under the laundry and next to my shaving kit when I heard Voorman yelling. That’s about as common as snow in June around these parts. My head snapped up and I saw him come rushing into the room, Samson trailing behind him like a thundercloud, yelling, “Clear the floor. We are now at Condition One, clear the floor!”

Clear the floor is one of those phrases that has it’s own unique meaning in Project Sumter. In fact, we drill on clearing the floor once a month, at least when we’re actually in the office. I was turning my chair upside down and shoving it on top of my desk before Voorman was finished talking. Desks started sliding towards the edges of the room within fifteen seconds. Mine was near the center of the room and I never got a chance to move it myself, Voorman said something to Teresa, who had stopped on her way back to her office to see what was going on, and she came and pulled me aside.

The first thing I said was, “What happened?”

“I’m not sure but Voorman wants you on it.”

There’s a giant map of the US built into the floor of the room, which is why the euphamism for that palce is “the floor” and not something else, but there’s not enough room in most buildings for a map of that scale to be left clear all the time so it doubles as the field team’s staging room. Voorman was pacing along one wall, waiting for the carpet over the map to be rolled back, when we got through the chaos and over to where he was.

“Open Circuit just hit Michigan Avenue,” he said without preamble. “A couple of city blocks were knocked out by EMP, he gave a speech while flying-”

“Flying?!” Teresa and I demanded in unison.

“Flying! Don’t ask me how.” Voorman shook his head in exasperation. “We heard through the police switchboard once they got a clear picture of what happened.”

“When was this?” Teresa asked.

“Minutes ago, less than ten, I believe. They were very excited about it.” Voorman gave no sign of amusement at that colossal understatement. “There were hundreds of people there.”

I thought about what I’d just been reading. “How are we planning to keep this quiet?”

“I don’t think we can. The fallout from this could break the Project. Only chance we have of weathering this is to grab Circuit before he can make things worse.” Voorman gave me a surprisingly steady look for a man who was usually a big ball of nervous energy.. “I think we all know you’re the best person for that job. Find Massif, take Samson and get it done.”

In spite of the insanity of the situation I felt a satisfied smile creep across my face. “It would be a genuine pleasure.”

Fiction Index
The Michigan Avenue Proclamation
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Water Fall: Seismic Shock

Two Weeks, Five Days Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Massif

There wasn’t much to see at the reception, at least not from our point of view. Sure, there were a lot of interesting looking displays of pictures, letters and other junk that probably had historical significance or near significance of one kind or another. But I couldn’t imagine that stealing it would get Circuit anything worthwhile. Helix seemed to think there was something symbolic at work but I just couldn’t think what kind of symbolic statement you could make with original copies of political cartoons from a hundred and fifty years ago. He had some idea what Circuit might be after but no one had thought to pass it down to us and, since the event had come to light only hours before it started, there hadn’t been time for a conventional briefing.

That pretty much left us to wander around and try to guess exactly what Helix thought Circuit might have been out to steal.

Unfortunately I’ve never been as good at reading people as Helix, who I swear is some kind of a savant, or even some of the more experienced field agents like Harriet or Bob Sanders. And symbolism is almost always a visual thing, so that’s not really my forte either. Which pretty much left me moving through the crowd at random and hoping I’d catch something of significance. This is known as the ‘get lucky’ school of policing and it’s not generally of much use in real life, although many fictional detectives do quiet well with it. Still, when it’s the only game in town you go with what you’ve got.

The book room wasn’t that crowded. Once you entered the door closest to the elevator there were bookshelves to the left, a table almost directly in front of you and a freestanding bookcase in the middle of the room on the right. I was following the wall around the outside of the room, finding these things out, when I discovered a second set of doors, closed and locked, in the middle of the back wall. I stared at it, trying to find a sign or something that would tell me what it was.

I was still looking when Samson stopped beside me and asked, “Did you find something?”

“I dunno,” I said, doing my best not to look directly at him. “Can you see anything that tells us what’s in here?”

There was a moment’s quiet, then, “No. It doesn’t look like it’s labeled. Maybe an equipment closet?”

“Could be.” I shrugged and jiggled the handle again, as if that would make the door magically spring open. “I guess we could ask the librarian.”

A short pause, then Samson said, “I think I see him over by the Emancipation Proclamation.”

I turned to give him a blank stare. “The what?”

That’s when the fire alarm went off and the shooting started.

——–

Circuit

In the age of electronic surveillance the person most adept at manipulating computers has a distinct edge. While it’s not an inherent part of the fuse box talent, if you’re very, very good at pattern recognition and you practice a lot you can manipulate and even program computers, to a certain extent. But the ability to do that assumes a lot, like familiarity with the computer systems you’re going to be working with, or a lot of time to feel your way by trial and error.

At that particular moment, in the library’s security room, I had neither. And keeping up a running dialog with Hangman kept me from concentrating like I normally would. “What did she say?”

“Just that she could watch her own back and that she didn’t need a couple of wannabe master th-” Hangman caught herself before saying thieves but it was a near thing. From this I gathered she was still in an occupied part of the library. “Sticking their nose into her business.”

“She may think differently when that monster priest from Sumter comes after her.” And Rodriguez hadn’t left the area around the rare book room. He was big enough to pick out easily on the security camera, browsing casually through displays. Worse, I was pretty sure I saw the immovable wall man Hangman said was called Aluchinskii Massif. We still had no idea what his talent was.

I couldn’t program the local network by touch but I could “type” much faster than a person who was constrained by an actual keyboard. It took a second to find a part of the keyboard conductive enough to let me trip the keys – I actually wound up ripping out the Enter key and working through the exposed contact – but once that was done I was off, working rapidly through menus and shortcut commands to asses my options and the building’s state of lockdown.

As it turns out, libraries are not built with lockdown in mind. We still had plenty of options.

“That means she’s still going to make a try for the objective,” I said in resignation.  “I need you to find some place where you won’t draw attention and feed her the new plan. And Heavy has new work orders, too…”

——–

Massif

As always, hindsight is twenty-twenty – even for someone like me. It later turned out that the Lincoln Foundation either owned or had borrowed a printed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, from the original print run, signed by Lincoln himself, and put it on display.

Their means of securing it consisted of encasing the document in a Plexiglas sandwich-board about two inches thick and a foot square. This was, in turn, chained to a plastic easel so it was more or less at chest height. It was way too bulky to be moved easily and there was no way it could be concealed.

When the fire alarm went off Applewood and the security guard spooked. Since the rare book room fire system put out fires by sealing airtight and flooding the room with chemicals that sucked oxygen out of the room – a method that’s better for the books than spraying water all over the place – they had good reason. The guard started trying to hustle people out the doors while Applewood went and hit a button on the wall that would prevent the doors from sealing. Samson and I were still trying to figure out what had happened when we heard the gunshots.

That was the thief, who we later guessed was Grappler, shooting through the chain with a .45 so she could remove the Emancipation Proclamation.

To say it got our attention would be an understatement. Unfortunately it panicked everyone else in the room even more. Whether or not they knew that they faced immanent suffocation – and since not even I knew that at the time I’m betting most of them didn’t – guns are still pretty scary to the average person.

Most of the not-so-average people I know, too.

We were in no danger of getting knocked over but getting through the crowd without hurting anyone was another matter entirely. I actually saw Samson rise up on his toes, almost like a ballet dancer, the potential forces he kept in check seeming to draw deeper into him, away from fragile civilians. Then I saw Grappler running down the hallway outside.

I couldn’t make it out but they tell me she just stuck the Plexiglas holding the Proclamation on her back. Literally stuck it there, although there’s nothing sticky about Plexiglas. This is a big part of the reason why we assumed she was Grappler, while her talent is called wall walking it’s really just control the friction of a surface.

What I could see was Dominic moving to block her as she went down the hall. And Grappler going up the wall, running as effortlessly over the windows to the room we were in as she had on the ground below.

No matter how much we’re trained to expect this things, the human mind will never be quite prepared for that kind of weirdness and Dom hesitated a vital second before changing his stance. It was enough time for Grappler to hop off the wall and onto his chest, knocking him flat. Somewhere along the way she added an absurd friction coefficient to his bulletproof vest, effectively locking him in place until he could squirm out of a couple layers of clothes.

Harriet wasn’t in a position to block Grappler at all and the area was too crowded to risk shooting at her. As a result, Grappler made it over the edge of the balcony and down into the lobby below without anyone else in a position to stop her. Samson and I reached the balcony just in time to see her bolt through a pair of doors on the left hand side.

With no one on the floor below to get in the way Agent Samson decided the best way to keep up was to vault over the railing and freefall to the ground. I’m not sure what kind of trick he pulled to land without hurting himself but it wasn’t a stunt I could duplicate. I had to keep one hand on the wall as I fell, transferring the impact on landing from my feet to the wall and cracking the wooden panelling badly.

Samson literally covered the entire distance from his landing spot to the doors Grappler had gone through in a single step, despite it being a good twenty feet. He crashed through the door at the end only to yank himself back to the tune of more gunfire. Sure, he was wearing a vest but he wasn’t stupid.

Stupid was my department and I was glad to have the work. It took me a little longer to get to the door but the gunfire continued the whole time, keeping Samson from going through the door. Grappler must have been carrying more than one weapon. Samson let me through the door as soon as I got there. I found Grappler at the other end of a long hallway that sloped gently downwards, then pulled a sharp left hand turn. As soon as she realized her bullets weren’t hurting me Grappler bolted off around the corner.

I expected a repeat performance as I rounded the corner after her. What I found was a couple of steps up and a midsized room beyond. It turned out that this was where the library’s freight elevator let out. The hallway went straight through the room and farther into the building. Grappler was already out of the loading area into the hall beyond, ducking through a door. But I only got a glimpse of her around the huge, rattily dressed African American man who was in the middle of pouring a bucket of water onto the floor.

He glanced up at me just long enough for me to notice he had a scarf pulled around his face then swept his hand across the wet floor and bolted down the hall towards the door Grappler had taken. Naturally I went after him.

Unnaturally, I found myself stuck to the floor. Instead of being slippery, which I’d been ready for, the water on the floor was as thick and sticky as glue. When my foot refused to pull free I staggered, catching myself on the wall just in time to avoid getting my entire right side caught in the mess. I reached down for my shoelaces, intending to go barefoot and try and find a way around, when to my surprise Samson vaulted up on my back and from there across the room. Anyone else would have been squashed flat but I guess Samson was counting on my ability to stand up under pretty much anything to keep me on my feet.

And he wasn’t wrong but it would have been nice to be consulted first.

It only took Samson a second to get down the rest of the hall and through the door the other two had taken. Almost as soon as he was through it I heard a series of muffled whumps that sounded an awful lot like muffled explosions, followed by a lot of very loud crashing…

——–

Circuit

As soon as I confirmed that Grappler and Heavy had made it up the stairwell and Rodriguez had been blinded by the ink grenades Heavy had dropped for him I fried the security switchboard with an EMP and made myself scarce, taking a different set of back stairs up to the first floor to meet Hangman. We were evacuated outside the library with all the other library patrons and staff. To avoid drawing attention we milled around in confusion with the rest of the crowd for a little while, during which time Heavy called and let me know that Wallace had picked the two of them up on time and they’d gotten away clean.

Five minutes later we returned to the car Hangman had arrived in and left. It was a closer call than I would have liked, but we’d gotten what we came for and more people than even Sumter could silence had seen what we did and, more importantly, how we did it.

All in all, not a bad day’s work.

——–

Helix

Our van pulled up to chaos. A couple of ambulances were still parked around the library and a fire truck was just leaving when we arrived. I leapt down from the back of our van and waded into the confused crowd of library staff, EMTs, police and Project agents, trying to find someone who looked like they knew what was going on.

I found Amplifier sitting in the back of an ambulance, wrapped in a blanket and holding a bottle of water. She gave me a weak smile and said, “Hi, Helix.”

Leaning against the side of the same ambulance, scrubbing his face with a towel, was the familiar bulk of Manuel Rodriguez. He looked like he’d been attacked by a flock of angry fountain pens. I realized that the person sitting in the door of a police cruiser just down the street was Al Massif. For some reason he had, as the poem says, one shoe off and one shoe on.

For a second I just stared around at the disaster in awe. I felt my shoulders slump and, although I thought I already knew the answer, I asked, “What happened here?”

Amplifier glanced away. I don’t think Rodriguez heard me over his efforts to scrub his face clean, Al looked over like he was seeing me for the first time, which he probably was. No one gave me an answer until Teresa walked over, face grim. “Circuit got away with a copy of-”

“All this,” I said, waving expansively at the bedlam around us. “And he got away?”

Teresa sighed. “Unless you have any ideas about where he might have gone?”

I grit my teeth and did my best to choke down my irritation. “Well, the last time he worked in Indiana he used contacts in South Bend, Winchester and Evansville.” I hauled out my phone and started looking up contact numbers.

“What are you doing?” Amplifier asked.

I glanced up at her. “Working my case. Are you going to be okay, kid?”

“Sure.” She managed to squeeze out another lackluster smile.

“Great. Then let’s leave the cleanup to the locals and run down some of these people, see if they can give us any leads before the trail goes cold…”

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