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.

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Thunder Clap: Planning in Motion

Izzy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——–

Helix

“I don’t trust her.”

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You saying we should just wait?”

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

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

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

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Thunder Clap: Grinding Out Some Answers

Helix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——–

Izzy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds really familiar.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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?”

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