Afterwords

Salvation is an integral part of comic books.

Saving the girl, saving your friends, saving a world or a galaxy or a universe – at some point all of these things became all in a day’s work. It’d be psychotic if it wasn’t so darn entertaining.

Something about the human condition has made us fall in love with the idea of saviors. We look for them, try to be them, a religion about a Savior has seriously influenced the political and social landscape of the last two thousand years in the West and yet, with trillions of lifetimes, billions of words and thousands of years spent on the problem humanity is still incredibly bad at the whole saving people thing.

Humanity is rife with contradictions and among our greatest is the fact that our propensity for evil tends to be greatest when we are trying our hardest to help others. C. S. Lewis said, “Of all tyrannies, the tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

When I first sat down to write Open Circuit nearly eight years ago it was with a very simple idea in mind. I wanted to create a character so repulsed by the world around him that the only way he could see to make it better would be to burn it to the ground and regrow it in his own image. A totalitarian, yes, but one with our best interests at heart. Imagine my surprise when almost every word he spoke boiled out of a festering discontent deep within my own heart. I was unsettled, to say the least.

Yes, I’ve waited all this time, until the very end of these three books, to make a confession to you, the readers who have come all this way with me: The character I am most like in all of Project Sumter is probably Matthew Sykes.

We’re both kind of reclusive, grumpy and given to thinking too much. We feel underappreciated and we worry that we’ll soon be too old to do any good for anyone. We’re frequently told we’re smart but things don’t work out for us so often it feels more like a consolation than a real advantage. And sometimes, if given the opportunity, I would climb in that wheelchair and conquer Chicago just the same as Circuit would.

Except the first thing I would do is put a coffee shop in at that reflective coffee bean thingy in Millenium Park because seriously not having one there is some kind of gross oversight. Then we would get to work restoring the lakefront. But I digress.

The one cardinal difference between me and the character I had created was that I have a savior – His name is Jesus Christ – and this helps me deal with all the things that Circuit can’t. So, long before I put the first word to paper, I knew that Circuit had to face up to his shortcomings at some point. And when he faced them he would have to be saved from them because that’s what real heroes do. They save people, no matter who they are. From there it was just a matter of working out who would do it and how.

The answers to those whos and hows I have already shared with you. I hope you’ve enjoyed them.

From a story that grew out of discontent and general grouchiness, political weirdness and a desire to do something different came something that was very simple and basic but that was none the less very difficult to achieve and satisfying to complete. The Sumter trilogy was by no means a perfect story in concept or execution but I’ve written it pretty much as I set out to and that’s something, a starting point at the very least.

Next week… well, come back next week and I’ll lay out my plans for the summer. Until then.

Thunder Clap: Era’s End

Helix

The door behind me swung closed. As soon as it latched I leaned back and blew out a long breath.

“You okay?” Sanders asked from where he stood by the observation window.

“Being okay implies I have something like normal to judge by.” I walked over to the window and stared out at Circuit, who was back to staring at the table top like the mysteries of the universe were written in the wood grain of it’s surface. “I’m not sure we’ve ever had anything like that. He was right about that much, even if what it drove him to was completely crazy.”

“He wouldn’t have been nearly as dangerous if he wasn’t right about a lot of things,” Sanders said, staring at Circuit with me.

I glanced past Sanders. Darryl was sitting at the far end of the window, leaning heavily on his cane and, like the two of us, contemplating the man in the other room.  I nudged Sanders lightly and tipped my head in Darryl’s direction. Had he said anything? Moved at all? Did we need to get him an ambulance? Or would Circuit need a security escort out of the interrogation room?

Sanders shook his head twice, a negative response on all counts.

“I can hear you two, you know,” Darryl said, not looking away from the window.

“We didn’t say anything!” Sanders protested.

“I hear you thinking.” Darryl snorted and finally tore his attention away from Circuit. “Since when were you two so good at reading each other, anyway?”

“Since we became middle management?” I offered.

That got a chuckle from him. “You certainly don’t act like middle management, Helix.”

“They never sent me to any classes for it. Maybe that’s why.” I searched his face for some sign of what he was thinking but Darryl had been in the field before I got out of middle school. People say I’m good at reading people and maybe so but Darryl was even better at hiding his feelings. “How are you doing?”

“Breathing.” Darryl laughed a weak, shaky laugh and turned back to the window again. “I’m not sure I’ve done anything more than that in the last three years or so. Not sure that’s going to change any time soon. If it’s saving I need then I didn’t find it here.”

Sanders put a hand on Darryl’s shoulder with a light, comforting touch. “Sometimes all you can do is keep breathing, if that’s what it takes to survive.”

“Survive?” Darryl shook his head and pushed up out of his chair. “Some days surviving feels like it just takes me further away from Mona.”

Sanders and I watched Darryl slowly make his way out of the observation room, his steps shuffling along to the rhythm of his cane. When he was gone Sanders asked, “Do you think we should keep an eye on him 24/7? Or just during the evenings.”

“Round the clock,” I said without hesitation.

“You want first shift?”

“Sure. Grab HiRes and the sisters cold to help out, too. It will look better if his own team handles him during the day.” I looked back through the observation window to the interrogation room. Circuit had left the table and pulled all the way back into one corner of the room. His head was bowed and he may have been resting it in his hands. Maybe he just fell asleep in his chair, but I doubted it.

He’d tried to save us all, in a way. His wife, Elizabeth, from parents who didn’t see a person’s gifts as something to be celebrated. Teresa from a world that had been content to never tell her that her father’s killer was gone simply because keeping the killer’s unusual abilities secret was more expedient. Me, from a system that wouldn’t let me use my greatest gifts to rise in the world. Even people like Sanders, who had spent a huge chunk of their lives laboring in a world no one knew about and that they could never share. It all seemed so noble.

“Do you think he realizes he wasn’t passing it on?”

Sanders shot me a questioning look, clearly not following my non sequitur.

I gestured towards the back corner of the far room. “Circuit wasn’t looking to save us. Maybe that was a side effect, but I don’t think it’s what he wanted.”

A moment passed while Sanders decided whether he wanted to bite or not. “So what did he want?”

“I think he was looking to save a much younger man from a plane crash that took a lot more than working legs from him.” I shook my head sadly. “Too bad he’s still stuck here with the rest of us.”

I turned and headed towards the door. Two steps later Sanders asked, “You going to keep an eye on Darryl?”

“Yeah. I’ll get…” I ran through a quick list of people in the office who could take the second shift from me and stopped as I had a sudden idea. “Actually, can you take first shift?”

Sanders gave me a confused look. “I guess. What are you going to be doing?”

I smiled. “Looking for a way to save someone.”

Izzy

I hadn’t helped set up for church in years but after the week I’d had, with all the power outages, kidnappings, smashing of buildings and incredible debriefings the simple action of setting up rows of chairs was soothing and distracted me from my impending First Media Interview. My ankles were still swollen and uncomfortable after my unpleasant experience with explosives but all in all the activity felt good. Good feelings when my boss snuck up on me and asked, “How are you feeling, Rodriguez?”

After nearly jumping out of my skin – and through the roof, super strength does have some drawbacks – I spun around to find Helix, looking like he was doing his best not to laugh. “Sorry, you startled me.”

“Sorry, not what I was trying to do.” He managed to say it with a straight face although I could tell he was still struggling. “But seriously, how are you? A lot of people, talented or not, who go into field work are ready to move on to something else after a week like the one you had.”

“I don’t know.” I sat down in one of the folding chairs I’d been setting up and sighed. “From what papa told me I knew not to expect anything like normal cop work. Taxmen get assigned to cases that need someone who can play hardball. I guess I didn’t count on getting abducted being part of that.”

Helix straddled a chair in the row in front of me, leaning with his arms folded over the back. “Honestly, I don’t think any cop or government agent who’s just finished training and been issued his sidearm and badge does. But it does happen, every once in a very long time. Being powerful doesn’t mean you’re not in danger and for someone who wasn’t even technically through training I think you handled yourself very well. But that also means if you want to stay in the field I’m going to assign you to cases like this again.”

I nodded. “I get that. It’s just kind of a daunting idea. And now Cheryl wants me to go and talk to the TV reporters. It’s kind of freaky.”

That got a laugh. “You can get used to the job, Izzy, but the media is something else entirely. And so long as you keep handling high profile cases I think they’re going to keep wanting to talk to you. Who knows? Maybe Cheryl will recruit you for the PR department and you can do it all the time.”

“How about I just get through the first time for right now.” I suppressed a shudder at the thought of dealing with cameras every day. Time for a subject change. “What did you want to talk to papa about?”

Helix grimaced. “Politics. That, and I need him on board as the man in charge of Project Sumter’s correctional and rehabilitation programs.”

There was only really one reason I could think of that he’d want to talk to papa about that. He’d talked about it often enough. “You want Mr. Sykes put in a special facility?”

“Actually,” Helix said, sheepish expression showing he thought what he was about to say wouldn’t make sense, “I was thinking of arranging for something more like work release. Partly because I don’t think he’d stay in any jail we could build for long unless he wanted to and I’d rather have him somewhere I can keep an eye on him. And party because it seems like a waste not to give someone so well intentioned a second chance. Either way I’m going to need Samson and Voorman in my camp if the idea is ever going to get off the ground.”

People who’d known him for a while said Helix used to be an idealist, back when he’d started, but I’d never reconciled that with the hard edged man I saw around the office. Looking at him now I could kind of understand what they meant. “Glad to see you’ve forgiven him.”

Helix sat up straight. “I’m sorry, what? Forgiving Circuit for what he’s done is way outside my authority.”

“For everything he’s done, sure. But he’s hurt you in the past and you wouldn’t be helping him now unless you’d forgiven him. God always forgave His people before He saved them.” I shrugged. “How could you help Circuit unless you’d forgiven him?”

Helix looked at me sideways, like I suddenly had two heads with three eyes each. “Your mind goes some strange places.”

I spread my hands. “We’re in a church, Helix. What were you expecting?”

He looked around at the polished wooden floors of the gymnasium. “We’re in the middle of a school, Rodriguez.”

“Come on.” I got up and straightened my chair out. “Papa’s in the office with some of the elders.”

Helix got up and followed me out of the gym. “You never said, but I guess I didn’t ask directly. Are you going to stay in the field?”

“Why’s it so important?”

He thought for a moment, then said, “You’re the first of the new generation, that’s all. Our first talent who came in after Circuit made us public. I’d feel better if I knew we’d done right enough by you that you’d stick around for a while longer.”

I smiled. “You know, Helix, I think you have.”

Fiction Index

Previous Chapter

Thunder Clap: Putting the Foot Down

Izzy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Long story.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lightning funnels?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Stillwater is here?” Helix asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Index

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Thunder Clap: Jacob’s Ladder

Izzy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Speak for yourself.”

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

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

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

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

“When do we hear the secret part?”

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

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

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

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

“The perimeter presents several-”

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Index

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

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.”

Fiction Index

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

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?”

Fiction Index

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Thunder Clap: Hot Foot

Helix

We were up to our elbows in status updates, police reports, 9-1-1 transcripts and dispatcher traffic, trying to put together a coherent picture of what had been happening in the city for the last eight to ten hours, when one of our dispatchers came in and tapped me on the shoulder.

“Is this important?” I demanded. There were at least a dozen things that I needed to be doing at the moment and if he was about to hand me another one it had better be worth it.

“We just heard from Agent Massif and his team in the city center.” The dispatcher – I couldn’t remember his name – kept his voice so low I barely made out what he was saying.

I huddled in closer and matched his tone. “What happened?”

“Agents Clark Movsessian and Isabella Rodriguez disappeared about fifteen minutes ago. Agent Massif said they found something like tear gas canisters in the area they were headed to when they were last seen.”

So yes, it was important. If we hadn’t already been at our highest state of alert that would have put us there. “Right. Listen, do you know Agent Samson? Miguel Rodriguez?”

His eyes got a little wider. “Yeah. I’ve seen him before.”

“Go find him. He was up here a couple of minutes ago but I think he went somewhere with Senator Voorman. Check Samson’s office first, if he’s not there go door to door until you find him. And when you do.” I tapped myself in the chest. “Come get me. No sidetracking, don’t tell him what happened. Got it?”

He nodded quickly and hurried off. I turned back to my reports, reminding myself that I was younger than Izzy the first time I went out in the field. She had training and more power than a freight train. The biggest problem would be convincing her dad not to tear down the city looking for her.

——–

Izzy

I woke up groggy, head throbbing and dry-mouthed. And sore all over, it felt like I’d been rolled down a couple of flights of stairs while I was out. Sitting up wasn’t hard although it made me very woozy. I was in a featureless room that had probably been an office of some sort before all the furniture was cleared out. There were still visible marks in the carpet where a desk and chairs had been in recent past. Someone had drilled a hole in the wall and a chain came out of it.

I traced the chain and realized, in a weird, detached kind of a way, that it ended at my ankles, which were held together by a set of manacles with a bar between them. The chain attached to the bar through a heavy ring. I lay back down on my back and gave a sharp kick, snapping the bar in half easily.

My ears popped, there was a vague sense of the air being thick and heavy all of a sudden, there was a sharp bang I more felt than heard and searing pain ignited at my feet for just a second before I passed back out again.

——–

Helix

“She’s what?” Samson was talking to me but his whole body was winding up like a spring, getting ready to tear straight through the wall and anything else that might come between him and his daughter.

“Not with Massif anymore,” I said, as if that thin layer of obfuscation made it better. “Now calm down, Rodriguez. It’s not guaranteed that Circuit grabbed her or anything. She could just be running down a lead with Clark. You know, underground or somewhere else where they might not have noticed that communications or power were back.”

Samson’s mind, which had obviously been drifting from the conversation at hand out through the city streets towards wherever Izzy had wandered to, snapped back to me. For the first time since I’d met him I saw what Manuel Rodriguez looked like when he was really, truly angry. I understand that side of him used to show itself a lot more frequently back in the day and I felt a brief twinge of pity for the people who had to deal with him back then.

Both the crooks and his boss.

“You don’t honestly expect me to believe they’re just poking around in the sewers do you?” He snapped.

“No. I expect you to keep your mind on a realistic assessment of the situation. Isabella is a field agent dealing with Open Circuit and there are rules about how that game is played.” I ticked points on my fingers. “She’s more useful alive than dead and Circuit’s not above using hostages so he’ll prefer her alive. She represents law and order, something Circuit claims to value as well so he can’t do much to her without harming the image he’s trying to establish. And she can crush a car with her bare hands, so there’s only so much Circuit can do to keep her restrained outside of using Movsessian as leverage against her. In all likelihood he’s just loaded them onto a truck and shipped them towards the city limits so they present the fewest complications.”

“Assuming it is Circuit,” Samson said darkly. “Even you’re not sure it is.”

“Assuming that, yes.” I sighed. “Look, I’m not saying you can’t go out there. I just want you to understand that you need to do it by the book. Contact Massif, meet up with his team and work out from her last known location until you find a promising lead and report back. Don’t go tearing through the city hunting down thugs and juggling them like bowling pins until they tell you what you want to know.”

“I only did that once.”

I grabbed his shoulder and pulled him down to my level, which was a fair distance, and dropped my voice to a whisper. “Look, I’m not going to claim to understand your feelings because I don’t. But if you go off half-cocked and do something stupid, here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to let you tear apart the city in whatever way your personal demons tell you is best, because there’s no one here who could stop you. Then, when you find your daughter and she’s fine, because I still have every confidence that she will come out just fine, I’ll arrest you. And then I’ll throw you in a jail cell for twenty to life. Do we understand each other?”

Samson gave me a hard look, then nodded slowly. “Yes. And thank you, Helix.”

“Good. Now stop wasting our time, get out of this building and do something useful.” As he started to straighten up I grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back down and added, “Something useful, Samson.”

“I get it.” No sooner was it said than he was gone, out of the office and down the hall in the blink of an eye.

Voorman gave me an assessing look from where he sat in Samson’s desk chair. He’d watched without saying anything since I’d informed Samson of what had happened. “That was a very generous approach to the situation, Helix. I’m not sure I would have handled it that way.”

“I lied, you know. I do kind of understand how he feels.”

Voorman tilted his head in a curious fashion. “How so?”

“I want to get out of here and do something useful, too.” I left Voorman to think about that as I headed back to my office to see if maybe, just maybe, there was something productive to be done there.

——–

Izzy

“That was stupid, Davis. Incredibly stupid.”

People arguing. Great way to wake up. My ankles felt like they were on fire and things were numb from there down. I tore my eyes open and looked around. Same room, except for the scorched, pitted floor on the other side of the room.

“What did you want me to do? We’re out of spare hands and I wasn’t expecting her to just rip right out and try and tear this place apart.”

My ankles had been dressed with some thick gauze pads and I wasn’t sure what else. Bare toes stuck out beneath them – and I was really glad for that – but I couldn’t feel them. Whether anesthetic was involved or it was a result of nerve damage I couldn’t tell.

“Listen, Davis, that girl can’t even drink legally yet. She’s going to be spooked and edgy. And you’ve seen the profiles we hacked out of the Project – she can smash us both to a bloody pulp. What were you going to do if the manacles were faulty or something?”

I was sitting with my back propped in a corner, hands in a similar manacle set to what had been on my ankles before right down to the wire running into the wall. I did notice that it was a new hole in a different place. Unfortunately I wasn’t sure if that was significant.

“That would have been your fault, since you built-”

“You would have been dead, Davis, since you weren’t watching her like you were supposed to so there would have been nobody to put her back under if she got out!”

The voices were coming through the door to the room I was in. I cleared my throat once and they went quiet, which I took as an invitation. “Hello? If you’re done yelling at each other can I have a turn?”

There was a moment of total quiet then the door to the room swung open and two men came in. On my left was a squarish man, not more than five foot five but nearly that wide, with a heavy jaw and a five o’clock shadow. The other guy wasn’t much taller but he looked totally normal except for eyes that never quite seemed to focused on anything. When the square man spoke his voice told me he was Davis.

“Looks like you’ve come around.” He squatted down, an operation that didn’t really seem to make him much shorter since what height he had was in his torso, and pointed at my feet. “You’re lucky you still have those, you know. The shaped charge in those cuffs should have been enough to take your feet off. I’m not sure why it didn’t but we upped the charge in the cuffs you’re wearing now and your wrists aren’t quite so thick so maybe they’ll work this time, hm?”

I glared at him with the confidence born of pain and sleep deprivation. “You’re lucky you stopped where you did. I really just need to touch you to do the pulping thing.” To my satisfaction my toes wiggled when I told them to, coming withing a few inches of his closer leg.

Normal guy grabbed Davis by the collar and proceeded to do some weird kind of maneuver where he crouched down while also pulling Davis to his feet. “I’ll play good cop.”

“That’s a laugh,” Davis said as he backed away a step.

“Listen,” normal guy said, ignoring his partner. “I didn’t want you getting hurt and I’m sorry it happened. My friend here was supposed to keep an eye on you and warn you about that when you woke up.”

“I was getting a cup of coffee,” Davis grumbled. “We’ve been up all night.”

“Join the club,” I said, wiggling back into the corner just a bit to try and get away from them, trying to cover for it by straightening up a bit. “Maybe next time you guys can cook up a master plan that doesn’t involve drinking a gallon of coffee. It’s healthier for you.”

“Look, miss, I just need you to know we’re not planning to hurt you in any way.” He pointed at the manacles. “Those are just insurance to make sure you hold still. There’s a current running through them tied to the detonator. Don’t break the chain or the manacles and it won’t blow your hands off. We’re hoping to trade you for some concessions from Project Sumter soon, so-”

“You haven’t met my boss, have you?”

He grimaced in a way that told me he’d at least heard of Helix’s legendary obstinacy. “So just sit tight, okay? I’m sorry about your feet.”

“Look, if you guys think it’s going to be that simple you’ve got a new thing coming.” I wracked my brains for something more to say, there’s a whole course on negotiating in all circumstances but I was having a hard time remembering anything from it. In fact, I was pretty sure nothing I’d said so far matched what that class had taught.

“Come on, good cop.” Davis grabbed the other guy and hauled him to his feet. “The big guy is going to be waiting for us. Let’s see if we can actually scare up a guard now and get back to him.”

The two of them left before I could say anything else and I didn’t want to leave them with some stupid parting line so I held my tongue. Once they were gone I slumped back into the corner and let my head thump lightly against the wall, trying to figure out what my next move should be. As I sat there a soft thump from the other side of the wall interrupted my thoughts.

I was about to write it off as something being moved in the next room over when Clark’s voice, very muffled, came through the thin drywall. “Izzy? Is that you?”

Fiction Index
Previous Chapter
Next Chapter

Thunder Clap: Break it to Pieces

Izzy

It only took two minutes of watching over Clark’s shoulder for him to stop what he was doing, look up from the box containing Circuit’s amazing EMP superweapon and say, “You’re not helping.”

“Sorry.” I came around the table, sat down on in a chair and put my bottle of water down on the floor. The table in Lincoln He’s kitchenette was scattered with pieces of casing from the gizmo we’d found in the bookstore. It had taken a while to get back to the concert venue on foot, consult with the stage manager and Lincoln, and finally decide to move most of our people out of the venue and to Lincoln’s apartment via a rather roundabout route. Cheryl was staying there to direct new Sumter resources that might come to join us but otherwise we were all crammed into Lincoln’s small one bedroom apartment.

Soft sounds of snoring came from the cramped living room just outside the low wall dividing it from the eating area. Massif, Gearshift and Lincoln had bedded down out there after practically forcing Teresa and Amplifier to take a nap in the bedroom. Chivalry wasn’t dead out there but it was having to work awfully hard to express itself.

Clark had started disassembling the box almost as soon as we’d gotten settled again, pulling out small canisters, a clear plastic or plexiglass box half the size of my head containing coils of wire I guessed was an electromagnet and parts that did who knew what, with no sign of nodding off. I wasn’t sure where he had gotten the tools from, my guess was they were Lincoln’s since he worked in IT when he wasn’t moonlighting as Massif’s man on the street or whatever ti was they did together. Clark moved with confidence, unlike most of us had when we finally dragged ourselves into the apartments, his hands rock steady and working fast. Other than his brief moment of annoyance when I started kibitzing I don’t think he’d stopped working on the thing since he’d walked in the apartment door and sat down at the table.

“Aren’t you tired?” I asked. Given how quickly the rest of the crew had hit the sack I’d have expected him to do the same.

“This is the middle of the day for me. I’m working third shift at headquarters right now so I’m always awake this time of night.” He went back to tinkering with something in the box. A long, thin black hose connected it to the electromagnet container. “What about you? Training is done during the day and you weren’t a field agent until tonight so I’d assume that’s most of what you did.”

“Believe it or not, not getting tired is one of the perks of being a taxman.” I poked at the hose. “What’s this for? There’s no wires connecting it to the magnet itself, just the box, so it’s not a power cable.”

Clark looked at me strangely and said, “No, the power hookup is on the bottom. I think this,” he tapped the thing he was working on in the box, “pumped some kind of coolant to keep the thing at an even temperature. Those,” he pointed at the canisters he’d already taken out, “look like a six or eight month supply. You don’t sleep at all?”

“Well, I don’t get physically tired.” I tapped the side of my head. “This still needs time to unwind, do all the subconscious things the brain does when you’re asleep. But if I need to I can skip a night or two here and there without major problems. Slightly slower reflexes, some fine motor control lost.”

“Not that that’s a huge loss,” Clark muttered, finally detaching the pump and pulling it out of the box to look at more closely.

“Not that big a loss,” I admitted. “I generally make a point to hit the sack before short temper and annoyance become an issue.”

Clark opened his mouth for a moment, hesitated like he was thinking better of it, and finally settled on saying, “I’ll keep that in mind.”

I waved it off. “Just finishing my thought, nothing against you. I spent most of my life trying to find the lowest possible setting for my talent. I still don’t really have an idea what the upper end of it looks like.” That was enough of that. Time for a subtle subject change. “Why does that thing need coolant? Does firing off the EMP cause it to overheat or something?”

“Best guess? It’s only an EMP part of the time. The rest of the time it just creates a low level magnetic field.” Clark pointed at the coil of wire with a small screwdriver. “Even if it operated at a very low strength that would show up on the electricity bill. Unless that’s a superconducting wire. The resistance on those is so low they practically need no power at all to keep running. So they probably did it to keep the owner from noticing that there was something in his building eating through electricity like there’s no tomorrow.”

“What you just said told me nothing about why it needs to be cold.”

Clark shrugged. “Most superconductors only superconduct when they’re cold. It’s complicated and I don’t really have the physics or electronics background to understand it, I just know it’s so. If they are using the superconductor to keep the electric bill down they need to keep it cool all the time.”

“Great.” I flopped back in my chair. “Does knowing this actually help us in any way?”

“Not really. I mean, if we’d known about it six months ago we might have started running down leads on where Circuit might have gotten all this stuff. It’s liquid nitrogen cooled and this,” Clark tapped on the box holding the electromagnet, “is actually two layers deep and I’d guess there’s a near vacuum environment between the layers. Circuit’s done that with his gadgets before as a countermeasure against Helix but there’s got to be so many of them out there that they were built by a third party. And it’s probably a custom job, that’s not an every day piece of equipment. I can’t think of a single practical application for it outside of messing with heat sinks.”

“You’re dodging the question.” I waved my had at the mess of junk scattered on the table in front of us. “Circuit’s shut down the city using these things. There’s got to be some way to counter it.”

“Actually, he hasn’t.” He waved his hand at the stuff on the table. “Magnet, capacitors sufficient to keep it firing, coolant to keep it superconducting, simple hookup to a fiber optic network fast enough to let the thing react nearly real time. But nothing here lets him disrupt the power grid. That must have happened at the regional level. Knocking these things out will probably let vehicles through again, it’s probably hooked up to the surveillance system so it will probably blind them. But we’re not getting power or cellphones back, not by taking these out.”

After everything that had happened so far it was weird that hearing that was what made me the most disappointed. I rested my head on top of the magnet case and exhaled deeply. The sound of Clark poking around with the coolant pump went on for another ten seconds or so then he stopped. “Don’t you have to wave your hands in the air before you lay on hands?”

“I’m not praying, I’m being frustrated.”

“Frustrated?” Clark sounded like he wasn’t sure if he should laugh or not. “I didn’t think frustration was a part of your religion.”

I picked up my head enough to look him in they eye. “My religion doesn’t have things that are a part or aren’t a part. It just has help for people with problems. Right now my biggest problem was that we just got shot at, smashed a guys floor and got a box full of highly suspicious junk. And all that work was for nothing. This doesn’t frustrate you?”

“Well,” Clark heaved a sigh and pulled the pump out of the box. “There is one bright side.”

“What’s that?”

He tipped the pump on one side and tapped the power hookup. “Give me fifteen minutes and I’m sure I can jurryrig this into something we can plug into the outlet. Then we can run it long enough for Amp to see if it has a frequency that will break it. Almost all motors do, they shake in a specific way when they’re on and if we can amplify that enough with a sympathetic frequency and break it like an egg.”

“Sounds good.” I carefully pushed myself up to my feet and started towards the back room. “Let’s get to it.”

He put a hand on my arm as I went by. “Better wait. You might be able to go forever but Amp needs her sleep. I’ll wake her in a few hours – if you don’t do it right her yelling at you about it will be that last thing you hear.”

Fiction Index
Previous Chapter
Next Chapter

Thunder Clap: Simple Problems are the Hardest

There was a brief period before they arrived when Sykes could see the sun grow from a dim glow through the windows at the back of the van to a bright, almost painful light. Like Stillwater, Sykes napped off and on through the course of the drive so he still wasn’t sure how long it took but by the time they arrived the sun was high overhead. At that point the two of them were taken out of the back of the van and into a building.

He’d never been a fan of the monolithic construction that made up so much of modern cities. Except for his time in the group home he’d always lived on the outskirts of cities, able to enjoy the nearby conveniences of a large metropolitan area without having to sacrifice green grass in the yard or open skylines. But big buildings had always struck him as ridiculous things, too large to be used practically or safely disposed of when they inevitably aged and needed to be replaced. Naturally he wound up stuck in the basement of one, in a cramped room with no light, to spend even more time waiting.

This time at least he wasn’t entirely alone.

Although the room was small – not quite a coffin but very close to a mausoleum – Stillwater was positioned somewhere nearby and his voice would come echoing down through the ceiling from time to time, asking how he was doing or just making small talk. Which wasn’t so say Sykes didn’t spend a lot of time thinking. Or dreaming.

After snapping awake at an unexpected sound for the fourth or fifth time since he’d been left in the dark Stillwater asked, “Are you alright down there?”

Sykes grunted, resettling himself in his chair as he got his bearings again. “Just feeling my age.”

There was a period of silence before Stillwater answered, laughter still tinging his voice. “If you’re looking for sympathy you’re in the wrong place, son.”

“Not really.” Sykes smiled to himself, that probably had sounded very stupid to someone who had served in the Second World war. “Brain’s just moving slow right now. Spoke without thinking. Any chance I’ll actually get to do something soon?”

“They’re working on the hook-ups right now. I could check in with them if you want?”

“No.” Sykes shook his head from long conditioning although he was still technically alone. “It’s not that important. If you can stand the waiting I can.”

“That’s the spirit. Don’t let your elders show you up. It’s embarrassing.” Stillwater’s tone turned from cheery to inquisitive. “I’ve been wondering for a while. The guy in charge said you’re supposed to hack the network. Can you really do that?”

“Yes and no.” Sykes tapped the laptop he’d been given, waiting for whatever the others were doing to to connect it to the building’s LAN to be finished. “This system I’ve got here doesn’t have the processing power to go head to head with much of anything a dedicated hacker has – and the guy you’re after is definitely a dedicated hacker. But our network has backdoors for maintenance work that let us bypass the machines hooked into the network and shutdown parts of the system at any time.”

“Or all of the system at once?”

“We never thought we’d have to do that. The whole network shouldn’t need maintenance at once.” Sykes rubbed his thumb absently along the side of the laptop. Sykes Telecom was a big company these days and a lot of its infrastructure was state of the art. Switching a large portion of it off would require more than just activating a few backdoors. That could get him into the system but it was very unlikely he could actually run a standard shutdown on any one part of the network before the people at the center of things caught what he was doing and countered the move.

“Well, if you cut the problem off at the head then that should be the end of it,” Stillwater said, oblivious to Sykes’ line of thought. “Shutting down the building would cut him off from the rest of his machines, right?”

“Possibly. Unless he’s got a fallback location set up somewhere else he can tap into our network. Smart hackers have backups and anyone who got this far is definitely smart. You were right the first time. The whole system has to go.” Sykes opened the computer and started booting it up. Now that he was talking about the problem he realized he was going to need a few tools to tinker with the network that didn’t come built in to the maintenance programs running on the servers. Best to have them on hand when he went in, rather than improvising them on the fly. “It’s not impossible to shut the whole system down once piece at a time but, again, that takes time. The longer we spend on this the more time our friend upstairs has to figure out what we’re doing and counter it by backhacking us. Or just paying us a personal visit.”

For the first time Sykes actually heard a sound other than talking from Stillwater, a gentled humming sound. There wasn’t a clear tune so Sykes assumed the other man was just thinking to himself. Finally Stillwater said, “We sure don’t want the man himself showing up. I don’t know much about Open Circuit myself but all I’ve heard suggests he’s very much a loose cannon. We can deal with him, but not when he’s got a whole city’s worth of gizmos at his fingertips. Can you shut everything down from here without pulling him down on us?”

“It’s going to be bad for the bottom line but yeah, I think I can pull it off.” Sykes checked through the software loaded on the laptop, finding most of what he would need fairly quickly. He’d just have to improvise the rest. “If you don’t mind my asking, Stillwater, why did you come along if you can’t deal with that guy yourself? I’m not complaining about your being here but it strikes me as a little weird. And I get that you want to do your part and all that but what, exactly, is your part? You’re not what I was expecting.”

“Yeah, most people expect big, good looking guys like that Aluchisnkii guy.” Stillwater chuckled. “Wave makers like me usually work as communications or stealth people when we work with the Project. I did a lot with sonar research for the Navy, too, in my day although different people do most of that now. I think that’s why that fancy guy in charge picked me out for this little project – I can’t be taken out by that EMP stuff. Plus my file isn’t classified any more. It’s not exactly public knowledge but a lot of other government branches know about me than used to and whoever planned this operation knew they’d need an actual Project agent to make a legal arrest so that’s clearly what they’re aiming for. ”

Sykes hesitated mid keystroke, resulting in his having to delete a lot of meaningless repeated letters. “You mean you don’t even know what branch of the government brought you on here?”

“Well I suspect the Secret Service, since the man leading their talent countermeasures group is… it’s a long story. But there was a very small window of opportunity to join this operation and frankly I jumped at the chance. Hold on.” Stillwater was quiet for almost two minutes. “Alright, they’ve got a splice into the building network set up. Someone should be down with you in a few minutes.”

Sykes typed faster.

Even moving at an increased speed he had just started compiling his new code when his favorite person of the group, the man who’d taken him from his house less than ten hours ago, arrived with coil of network cable under one arm. Sykes held out his hand for it wordlessly.

The big man handed it over and said, “It’s all on you now. Work your magic.”

And work he did.

Fiction Index
Previous Chapter
Next Chapter

Thunder Clap: Sifting the Ashes

Helix

“Okay, thanks.” I thumbed off the wifi phone my calls were being forwarded to and slammed it down on the table in irritation. With the exception of HiRes, a Secret Service agent who’d come in from Washington with Voorman and who jumped a little at the sudden noise, no one batted an eye.

Sanders, who had been tinkering with his tablet and updating the floor as he waited for my phone call to finish, looked up and asked, “Didn’t go well?”

“We found out why there was no answer at Keller’s house.” I paced back out onto the huge map that made up most of the floor of the room we were in. Once upon a time it had been the bullpen for field agents, now it was reserved for national emergencies. “The place has been broken into, signs of a struggle but no one home.”

“Mr. Keller and his whole family is missing?” Voorman asked.

“Thankfully, no. Roger Keller is divorced and his daughter lives with his ex.” I shrugged. “No one in the house but him. There’s a housekeeper but she doesn’t live there. The team that went to check the place talked to her. He was there just before 6 PM last night, so he must have been grabbed some time after that.”

Sanders looked slowly across the map of the country and shook his head. “This was really well coordinated. If it wasn’t such a nasty move I’d be impressed.”

Following Sanders’ line of thought wasn’t very difficult, it was laid out on the map at our feet and highlighted in red. We weren’t the only city without power. A total of five cities, one in each administrative branch of Project Sumter, had suffered a massive power outage at 10:22 PM the night before. Atlanta was dark in the South, Boston on the East Coast, Portland in the North West and San Francisco on the West Coast. With the exception of Frisco all of the cities effected tied back to Project history in some way, although Portland was the only other city with a regional office in it.

The always-perceptive Analysis department had pointed out that October 22nd was the date of our raid on Circuit’s bunker nearly two years before, making it likely  the time 10:22 was intentional. No-one had bothered to suggest otherwise.

Project Sumter was at Condition One but pretty much every local, state and national government agency that touched on national defense in some way was scrambling to respond as well. In some cases the response basically boiled down to getting all their ducks in a row while they waited for the other shoe to drop but even that was better than getting caught flat footed. The real hang-up was that, until Samson and I had gotten out of the blackout zone with news that Circuit, or someone who looked a lot like him, was styling himself newly crowned dictator of the city there was no indication that this particular disaster was in our sphere of influence.

Sure, Sanders had seen a major series of power outages and immediately jumped to the conclusion that Circuit was involved and Voorman had flown out in part because he’d wanted to know for sure one way or the other – and he was a Senator for Illinois so being on the scene rather than going to one of the other attack sites just made sense – but the vast weight of the Federal Government was still getting used to the idea of talented people existing. It wasn’t used to crediting national emergencies to them yet.

Okay, hopefully as a nation we never get used to crediting national disasters to any one person or group. But Circuit’s made that an empty hope for some of us as individuals.

And that was the meeting we’d just gone through in a nutshell. The news about the other cities that had been hit was a surprise but the steps being taken to mobilize the National Guard and field other resources was about what I’d expected. In turn, nothing I’d said had really surprised anyone who was familiar with Circuit’s history.

“Has anyone else claimed responsibility for this yet?” I asked, staring moodily at the five large red dots that indicated areas of operations around the five effected cities.

“Not that we know of,” Voorman answered. “Plenty of finger pointing but so far no one’s stood up and said they did it.”

“Actually,” Sanders waved a print out he’d been handed as the meeting wrapped up. “A video just went out to major video distribution sites on the internet shortly after you landed, Senator. We’ve got a group of talents claiming they’re looking to establish an independent nation and saying their responsible. Analysis is still looking into whether this video is real or was just made using some kind of special effects as a prank but it’s probably best to act as if it was real. I’m expecting calls to start coming in from Washington about it any minute now.”

“Any ties back into Circuit’s preexisting organization?” I asked.

Sanders glanced around, some of the other people who had been in the meeting were still around but not the two he was looking for. “You’d have to ask Mossburger or Cheryl’s assistant, wherever they got off to. Analysis and Records will have to sort that out, although I’ve no idea how long it would take to turn anything up.”

“We’re behind again,” I muttered. “Something big is going down and we don’t have the pieces to figure out the big picture. We need to take a proactive move, break up his processes, and still be getting a better picture of what’s going on.”

“The National Guard is mobilizing,” Voorman said. “Elements of several units should be here by late morning. That might give us enough time and manpower to begin searching for and deactivating the EMP weapons that have been keeping people out of the city. We’re not sure if that will end the communications blackout or not.”

“It would help if we had a better idea where these things might be hidden.” Sanders ran a hand over his closely shaven scalp, droplets of perspiration in the cool air hinting at how stressed he was feeling though otherwise his relaxed attitude gave no hint that he might be nervous. “Not being able to get ahold of Keller was a bad break.”

“I’ll try and get a warrant to look at his company’s records put together and find a judge who will sign off on it. If we can get into the offices and pull the files early enough we might not even loose any time.” Something nagged at the back of my mind. “And Keller had an investment partner sometimes. Name was Cynic or something…”

“Cynic is something you are, Helix.” Voorman pointed out.

“Whatever. I’ll check the file, we may want to bring him in and see what he knows.” I pressed my palms into my eyes and yawned hard enough that my jaw cracked. “And then I’m going to grab a nap.”

“Are you going to want to go back into the city?” Sanders asked as I started towards my office. “I can arrange for a tactical team to go back in with you, if you want.”

I thought about it for a second. Deep down I knew I wanted to be out there, back in the field and hunting for Circuit. But my new job description needed to be filled and the only other person I could think of who I would trust with it was Massif, who was already out in the field. Swapping places with him now would just be counterproductive. “No. Not at the moment. But if you can get Cheryl and Teresa out of there and put a few more field agents and trained tactical people in the field it would be a good move. Field analysts, too. Movsessian is the only one out there right now.”

“Will do.”

I picked up my temporary phone off the side table and headed towards my office.

——–

The name was Sykes and he was actually at home when I called. I made arrangements to have him brought in to the Springfield office and then to interview him by video call. The warrant paperwork I turned over to the Administration office assistant and then I pulled out the collapsible cot I kept in my office and settled in for a couple of hours of sleep.

I got about forty minutes.

The frantic buzzing and beeping of my phone woke me suddenly and I banged my hand into the wall as I reached towards my dresser. Which reminded me that my dresser was in my apartment and I was in my office. Groggily I rolled over to my other side and dragged my hand across my desk, sending a bunch of paperwork, pencils and other junk falling to the ground along with the phone. I fished it off of the floor and answered it.

A few minutes later it got slammed down for the second time that day, and since we hadn’t even hit sunrise yet it probably wouldn’t be working by sunset. A string of profanity drifted up from the phone, protesting my nearly deafening the tactical team leader on the other end.

So I switched it off, pushed up off the cot and pocketed the phone, doing some swearing of my own. It only took me a few minutes to call Pritchard Mossburger, our head analyst, and ask for the files we’d built on Keller and Sykes during the Enchanter investigation then head out to find Jack and tell him to add Matthew Sykes to our list of people we needed to watch out for since he, too, had disappeared from his house in the time it took our pickup team to arrive. In all I was back in my office in about ten minutes. To my surprise, Mossburger was already there with files in hand.

For a moment I considered whether I could club him with one of the office chairs and get another hour or two’s worth of sleep before having to deal with this but gave up on the idea. A guy my size doesn’t have the leverage to swing one of those things fast enough to knock someone out.

Mossburger apparently took my silent staring as surprise rather than considering violence because he shrugged and said, “You mentioned the Waltham Towers connection during the meeting so I went ahead pulled Keller’s file. Sykes’ was right in there with it and I seemed to remember the two were connected so I pulled it at the same time.”

He handed me the two manila folders with a flourish. They weren’t particularly thick or impressive considering that they’d been a part of one of our most important ongoing investigations for nearly two years but, at the same time, the Keller Realty angle hadn’t been considered a high priority line of investigation at the time so it hadn’t gone that far. But in my groggy state getting anything out of them was out of the question. “Give me a summary?”

Mossburger grabbed a large cup of coffee off of my desk and swallowed some of it before answering. “Roger Keller is a bit of an enigma. Adopted at the age of eleven, brought up to run his adopted parents real estate and development firm. Went to Stanford, took over the business, did okay with it. Married when he was twenty six, divorced eight years later. No obvious connections to crime, ties to local politics and the governor mainly through campaign contributions. Keller Realty is a large firm in local realty but other than the Waltham Towers deal there hasn’t been anything high profile. That list of properties we found during the Enchanter case is really the only thing that makes them of any interest at all.”

“That sounds exactly like what we knew when we formed the task force to find Circuit after he disappeared.” I kneaded my knuckles into my eyes, feeling exhaustion that wasn’t entirely due to lack of sleep. “We haven’t gotten anything new since then?”

“We’ve been keeping an eye on the properties they’ve handled since then but there’s not patterns we can use to connect them with the ones on Circuit’s lists.”

“Right. I need some coffee. Tell me about Matthew Sykes on the way.” I got up from my desk and headed towards the kitchenette, Mossburger trailing along behind.

“Sykes is actually more interesting than Keller. He was also adopted, in fact he and Keller seem to have lived in the same group home for a while which is how they know each other.” Mossburger was lagging a few steps behind since he had brought the file with him and was looking through it as a reference. “Sykes Telecom was originally a local phone company that dabbled in a lot of other communications possibilities but really hit it’s stride in the ’90s when they became an ISP. The Sykes the elder started the transformation from phone line internet delivery to fiber optics shortly before he died, something Matthew continued with.”

I thought back to my meeting with Sykes a couple of years ago. He hadn’t seemed that old. “When did Sykes’ father die?”

“About ten years ago. That’s the really interesting thing.” Mossburger handed me a photo of a small airplane, one wing broken and the fuselage a bit crumpled up, sitting in the middle of a field. I handed it back and quirked my eyebrows to ask what it meant. “Matthew Sykes wanted to learn to fly and his adoptive parents indulged him. After he got his license he took his parents on a celebratory flight and something went wrong with the plane. The crash killed both parents and left Sykes a cripple.”

I stopped in the middle of pouring my coffee. “Any signs of foul play?”

“None that they could find. Sykes blamed an instrument outage followed by the engine cutting out and the black box backed him up on that. The telemetry just goes weird about a minute before the crash although the intact stuff worked again when they tested it afterwards.” Mossburger shrugged and closed the folder back up. “Ever since he’s become an almost total recluse, doesn’t really go anywhere but to his office, his house and his charities. And he never flies anymore. He was actually scheduled to be in Dallas this week for a charity drive but his wife went instead for some reason.”

Something about that sounded off but I wasn’t sure what so I asked, “Did she fly?”

“Yes. She doesn’t seem to share her husband’s dislike for it.”

Finally my brain reminded me of the fact I was looking for. “Wait. Sykes was married?”

“Not at the time of our preliminary investigation. The wedding was last June. We don’t know anything about the wife and she came into the picture late so we assumed she wasn’t a factor.”

“No, I guess by the time she entered the picture things would have been in motion for years.” I sipped my coffee for a moment and then sighed. “None of that really sounds that useful. I don’t understand why Circuit would want to abduct them…”

Mossburger held up a finger for me to wait, then dug through Sykes’ file again, finally pulling out a sheet of paper. “This is our best bet. It’s a list of places that were completely rewired with a fiber optic local network as part of their renovation by Keller Realty. Sykes Telecom did the work on each and every one of these places. Waltham Towers is on the list and we’re operating under the assumption that Circuit was trying to find places where his network of gadgets would run with optimal efficiency. Possibly there’s some kind of back door in their work that Circuit is taking advantage of and he doesn’t want them telling us about it. It’s not much to go on but it’s something.”

“I guess.” I sighed again, then a third time because the situation seemed to warrant it. For some reason this prompted Mossburger to smile. The law of conservation of a good mood required that I scowl to keep the total amusement in the room equal. “What?”

Mossburger sat down on top of the kitchenette’s small table, ignoring the chairs available, and wound up just above my eye level. “Do you ever wish you could just sink a bunch of heat, turn into a walking funeral pyre and walk through problems? No matter how well prepared he is there’s no way Circuit could stop you if you did something like that. I’ve seen the stats on the kinds of updrafts and storm winds you create when you really get hot, it’s unlikely you could get shot with anything short of light artillery, it’s like you’re standing at the center of a small tornado. Sure, there’s the whole throwing lightning bolts thing Circuit can do but when we finally reproduced it in the labs our fuse boxes all needed a good idea of where their target was to hit it and if you made a big enough of a storm he’d never know for sure where you were in it.”

I hefted myself up and sat on the counter, putting us level, and stared at my coffee for a minute. He did have a point. Although people like Samson or my grandfather seemed incredibly powerful and unstoppable it was heat sinks like me or wave makers like Amp that Project Sumter really worried about going rogue. The potential for widespread mayhem in the short period of time before we could be stopped was really a lot higher for those of us that could effect large areas or over a distance than taxmen, who were at least limited to destroying things they could touch.

And then there were matter shifts like Gearshift, who could make things more or less dense just by pushing on them a little. They’re the kind of people we still haven’t told the public everything about. One matter shift with enough enriched uranium and a death wish could do what no terror organization has ever accomplished before.

“Let me ask you a question first, Pritchard.” I looked up from my coffee and gave him a hard stare. “When we first met you came up with conspiracy theories for fun. When was the last time you did that?”

He held my gaze for a second or two then looked down at the folder in his hands. After a moment he shrugged and said, “Not since I agreed to start working here, I guess. When Mona Templeton died… well, I didn’t know her all that well but…” He looked for the right words, couldn’t find them and so ended with another shrug.

I knew the feeling. “When I was a kid, yeah I wanted to go white hot, walk through everything that got in my way and bring justice to the world. It’s still really, really tempting. And I’m not gonna lie, I have tried it once or twice. But sooner or later you’ve got to face the consequences of your fantasies. They effect real people in real ways and not always for the better. If I didn’t let that fact change the way I acted I’d be exactly like Circuit. There’s a real chance large parts of the city wouldn’t even be there anymore.”

Mossburger didn’t look up but he did nod his understanding. I hopped off the counter and clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, Mossman, we’ve got work to do. Why don’t you call up Jack and have him get someone on watching Sykes’ wife, if he doesn’t have someone doing it already. Tell him I want to talk to her as soon as she can get here. She flies here, not back to Springfield.”

“I can do that,” he said, standing up as well. “But what are you going to be doing?”

“You reminded me of someone I need to talk to.”

I left him with that useful bit of information and scoured the building until I found Voorman and Samson in Samson’s office. I wasn’t sure if they were discussing the case or just catching up and I didn’t really care because I really wanted to talk to Voorman’s bodyguard, HiRes, who was in the hallway outside. He gave me a brief nod in acknowledgement when I arrived.

“Call your boss,” I said.

He tilted his head to one side. “Any particular reason?”

“Because outside of possibly me Darryl is the biggest expert on Circuit in the nation. And he’s hands down the person who hates Circuit the most. Last time, after the Michigan Avenue Proclamation, Circuit got away from us when we might have caught him if we coordinated.”

HiRes glowered at me. “You were dead set against Director Templeton working on that case, Helix.”

I spread my hands. “That was my mistake. And it would be a shame to repeat it. Now are you going to call him at whatever place he’s at here in town or do I have to call Washington, plow through a forest of red tape to get in touch with him and possibly miss out on a chance to do things right?”

HiRes held his glower a few seconds longer as he thought it over, then nodded slowly. “I’ll talk to him about it.”

“Good.” I turned and headed back towards my own desk and the subpoena paperwork that would sooner or later be needing my signature. “I’ll be in my office so he can call me there if he’s interested. Just tell him to make up his mind fast.”