Thunder Clap: A Brief Cooldown

Helix

The city streets were oddly empty, even for the time of night. It was well after midnight when Samson and I set out from the venue and struck across town. I’d been expecting less traffic, given the power outage and the hour of the night, and we did pass a another car going the opposite direction every thirty seconds or so, but for the size of the city that struck me as far too few.

I thought about mentioning it to Samson but he was staring out the window. I could tell he was still a little hot under the collar – figuratively, not literally – but I wasn’t sure how to broach the topic. Even after working together for nearly two years, I didn’t know the man well. Samson worked with rehabilitating talents guilty of minor offenses. I leaned more towards catching the ones with delusions of grandeur with a small helping of policy advising on the side.

That didn’t mean I didn’t know what his problem was.

“Izzy is as ready for field work as anyone ever is, Samson,” was what I finally settled on saying as we turned onto the highway and I became less concerned with watching side streets. Given how quiet it was I glanced away from the road long enough to try and read the other man but he was still staring out the window. “Massif is there and he’s got almost as much field experience as I do. She’s gotten way more practical training than any of us ever did, since she can do it out in the open and crosstrain with the police. She’ll be-”

“Helix,when you have kids of your own, you’re going to be very embarrassed about this conversation.”

I gave him a confused look but he was still staring out at the streets. “Is this the voice of experience talking?”

Samson gave a rueful laugh and finally turned away from the window. “It sure is. The tactical chief I had the year before I retired was worried about his son joining the police and I told him that he’d probably be safer there than working with us.”

“Were you right?” I asked, aware that the odds pretty much went the other way.

“His son has been shot at twice and probably stared down a dozen knives but he’s only been hospitalized for bruises and cuts from fistfights, so he’s been blessed more than most.” Samson shrugged. “I guess men with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility shouldn’t be surprised when our children follow in our footsteps.”

“Grandpa Wake would say you can’t ever have too much responsibility so long as it’s used in the right way.”

There was a short, comfortable silence in the car, then Samson asked, “Why did your grandpa retire, Helix? I always wondered, back when I joined. It would have been nice to have him there in person to learn from for a while, not just the first few days.”

I glanced at him in surprise. “You met Grandpa?”

He nodded. “Back when I was a troublemaker, not a peacemaker, Project Sumter brought me in and the Sergeant was there to keep an eye on me until Michael was confident I wouldn’t cause any further problems. He was a frightening man, in his own way.”

“What, did he lose his temper and break something?”

“Age makes a difference for us, Helix. It’s not like we’re actually limited by this.” He slapped a hand to his forty inch waist. There was a slight shockwave, he had enough of a gut for that, but I knew that most of it was muscle. There was a theory around that taxmen actually stored their borrowed entropy in muscle and that was why they could pack it on so easily compared to most. Samson laughed and added, “I met this one ex-K-”

He stopped abruptly and shook his head. “Never mind. What I’m trying to say is, these days cellphones, cars and light bulbs alone put out more power than a taxman could hope to use in a lifetime. There wasn’t as much technology when I was a stupid kid but there was more than enough that I could throw a bus at the agents who came to pick me up. Imagine my surprise when I met a man who I was sure could throw that same bus into orbit.”

“Orbit?” I looked away from the road longer than was strictly safe. We didn’t crash only because there wasn’t much on the road to crash into.

“You didn’t realize?” Samson asked, honestly curious.

“What he could or could not do with public transportation wasn’t something Grandpa talked about a lot,” I said dryly. “He didn’t say much to me about what he thought he could do, just what he’d done.” A shrug. “He never said why he left Project Sumter but I always felt he and Grandma didn’t like staying there when it had no clear goal. I’m sure he would have come back had war ever broken out with the Soviet Union but the idea of just sitting on standby didn’t sit well with him. Grandpa Wake’s a man of action, even if all that action boils down to is working on the tractor.”

“That’s not surprising, I suppose,” Samson said, leaning back in his seat a bit and letting his eyes droop most of the way closed. “I left for much the same reason. Project Sumter was doing too much cracking down and not enough reaching out. Many young talents just needed help controlling themselves and awareness of the dangers. Instead we tried to scare them into not doing anything at all.”

“The Cold War wasn’t healthy for anyone. We started researching some really freaky things back then. When I’d been with the Project three years I was cleared to read up on the Harvest research.” I cracked my knuckles absently against the steering wheel, watching for the exit we wanted. “Grandma would have thrown a fit if she’d known what they’d done with her ideas.”

“Her ideas?” When I didn’t answer, he needled me a little more. “I never heard of any line of research codenamed Harvest. What did it have to do with your grandmother?”

I shrugged. “During the war she came up with the idea of creating a large scale mild low pressure zone to influence the weather and make it easier for the bomber streams to fly on ’round the clock bombing missions. That’s why her codename is Clear Skies.”

Samson nodded. “I’d heard stories about that.”

“Harvest was research into doing the opposite. I think the name was chosen since it was kinder than the alternative.”

There was a moment of silence, then I heard a sharp intake of breath. “You mean reap. As in reaping the whirlwind. They wanted to make bad weather instead of good weather?”

“Bingo.”

“Why?”

Another shrug. “Making storm systems on demand would be a great way to interfere with spy satellites, slow the progress of armies in the field, even cause artificial droughts and famines if you really felt mean. The ultimate goal was to make artificial tornadoes, although they never even built a theoretical model for that.”

Samson sat up straight again at the mention of tornadoes. “How much of the rest can we do?”

“None of it.” I said it with real satisfaction. I wouldn’t stop being a heat sink for anything but I didn’t like the idea that someone could make a desert just because they hated the rain and chased it off whenever it came near. “Even the most basic weather manipulating formulas they came up with never worked in practice. Too many variables, or something. Research was stopped almost forty years ago, although there are one or two people out there who periodically suggest starting it again.”

“I suppose you could use that kind of ability to end droughts as easily as cause them,” Samson mused. “Or pull hurricanes into landfall in the least damaging place possible.”

“I’m not saying there aren’t good uses for the idea,” I said quickly. “I just don’t think the Project Sumter I used to work for was prepared to use the ideas in good ways. I hate to admit it but some of what Circuit’s forced us to do has been for the better. Any transparency at all would have been an improvement and he sure forced a lot of it on us. But his methods are a- What’s that?”

Coming around a curve in the highway I could see at least half a dozen vehicles stopped in odd positions across the highway. Almost as soon as I saw them the steering wheel went stiff and unresponsive under my hands and I stopped talking to focus on keeping the vehicle under control. The dashboard was dark and the engine wasn’t running. Samson jerked forward in his seat, scanning in all directions in case there was a surprise waiting for us somewhere out there, and asked, “What happened? EMP?”

“I think so.” The car kept going under the influence of momentum but I stepped on the brakes and aimed for the side of the road. “Looks like Circuit’s been working on cutting off the highways as a way to get around.”

“It certainly explains why we’ve seen so few cars out,” Samson agreed.

“On the bright side that means he wasn’t deliberately targeting us this time, probably just hitting every car that comes past. No doubt using satellites to spot them, although I wonder how the EMP is being delivered.”

Once I got the car mostly out of the road I put it in park, we climbed out and Samson picked up the car and moved it so that there was no chance of some other out of control driver crashing into it. I could see a few people who had been milling about the other stalled cars gawking at us but ignored them. Not having to keep a low profile all the time was nice in more ways than one.

With the car out of the way Samson dusted off his hands and said, “Are you really sure you want to do this?”

“Well, it’s not going to be fun for either of us from what I understand.” I started limbering up my legs a bit as I spoke. “But if we don’t do it then we’ve kind of defeated the point of your coming along with me, instead of staying with the others at the convert venue.”

He sighed and carefully lowered himself down onto one knee, wincing slightly in the process. “You’d better climb up, then.”

A few seconds later I was up on his back and we left the gawkers and Circuit’s impromptu roadblock far behind.

——–

Izzy

“So do we just sit here and keep an eye on things or do we wait for Helix to give new marching orders?” Jane and I were out on the street with Clark, watching the last of the audience from the evening’s abbreviated concert go trickling out the doors.

“Right now Circuit – or whoever – knows where we are,” Clark said, absently twirling the tire iron that Jane had recently brought in around by the socket. “Staying here doesn’t gain us anything, not even doubt about what we might be doing. This was a well publicized concert. Odds are good we’re under surveillance by Circuit already.”

“Creepy,” I muttered.

“I know, right?” Jane sighed. “So we’re just amusing Mr. Voyeur if we hang around here.”

“That’s a great way to put it.” Meaning it wasn’t.

“Sorry, Izzy, I call it like it is.” Jane folded her arms and proceeded to lavish a death glare on the surrounding skyline. “We need to get out there and figure out to undo whatever he did.”

“It would be easiest to just go to his tower and drag him out for a good spanking,” I said. “If your house is covered in webs the fastest way to deal with it is to kill the spider.”

Clark slung his tire iron over one shoulder and shook his head. “Not to brag but I’ve done field work for a year or so now and, in my experience, the oldschool field agents got where they are because they showed a good deal of caution. We may need to go after Circuit and shut down his operation but we’re supposed to do that while trying to minimize the impact he has on the general populace. And minimizing impact means we need to know what impact Circuit is trying to make and how he’s making it.”

“Yeah?” Jane planted hands on hips and gave him a skeptical look. “Speaking of the General Public, I thought we weren’t supposed to be waving tire irons in the air around them?”

“Is that so?” He made a show of looking around the street, which was now pretty much empty. “It’s a good thing they can’t see me, then, isn’t it?”

Jane was obviously winding up for some kind of retort, she would keep going like this all night if we let her, so I stepped in and said, “Well, Massif is in charge of our half of the show so why don’t we go and see what he wants to do now? Maybe he and Lincoln have thought of a good place we can move to, so at least we’ll be out from under Circuit’s eyes.”

“I still think he ought to give me the tire iron back,” Jane sulked.

“Clark doesn’t have a sidearm with him or any kind of talent,” I said, trying to be reasonable. “I think we can stray from what’s normally advisable a little bit.”

“I’m glad one of them sees reason,” Clark said under his breath.

“I heard that!” Jane snapped.

I managed to get the two of them out of the street and back inside without incident. Almost as soon as we were back in the lobby Amp’s disembodied voice said, “Good timing. Get backstage, Massif is rounding up the team.”

Once Jane and I got over near heart attacks – I’ll never get used to the way she does that – I asked, “What’s he planning on?”

“Well the idea is that he’ll tell us the details once we’re all there so neither of us goes hoarse with all the talking.” The sarcasm came through loud and clear, Amp’s got one of the most expressive voices I’ve ever heard. But that just made it easier to hear the contained excitement behind the sarcasm too. “From the sounds of it, though, we’re going to go out and beat Circuit like he’s a redheaded step-child.”

“Alright!” Jane punched a fist in the air and gave Clark a triumphant look. “That sounds like my kind of plan!”

Clark nodded resignedly. “It sounds like someone’s in for a world of hurt. Let’s just hope it’s not us.”

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Water Fall: Running Deep

Two Days After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation

Helix

It’s not something I normally go on too much about, but my boss is incredibly hot. And I don’t mean that in the sense that I would normally mean it – she’s attractive, not a great deal warmer than the environment around her. She’s got classic high cheekbones, a deft hand with makeup and a figure that could launch the siege of a large building, if not a small city. I mention this because, when I got back to the office late the next morning, it was surrounded by reporters.

I don’t think I have to say that this isn’t business as normal.

Getting out of my car I could hear them all talking and shouting at someone. I glanced over at Jack, who was climbing out of his truck a dozen parking spots away, and tilted my head. We hadn’t coordinated our arrival but that was the only thing about our entering the building that went uncoordinated. With a series of quick hand signals, half out of the book and half from a long history of working together, and Jack set off to trail blaze while I hung back to support if anything went wrong. Jack always trail blazes in crowds, in part because he’s so much bigger and more intimidating but also because he has this odd idea that I’ll take the term trailblazing too literally for anyone’s good.

So as I trailed along about twenty feet behind Jack I got a great view of him coming around the side of the building towards the doors. The moment when he spotted the crowd was truly priceless. His expression went from suspicion, since anything out of the ordinary is suspicious, to surprise, when he realized we were surrounded by reporters, to profound embarrassment, since being noticed by the public is the opposite of what we are technically supposed to do.

Someone had posted a pair of armed guards outside, which explained why the reporters were outside, and keeping a good ten feet away from the doors instead of swarming over the reception area just inside. I thought I recognized one of them as the leader of Al Massif’s tactical team. Jack peered over the crowed, clearly weighing the odds of getting through the press of press cleanly, spotted the guards and decided to make a go of it.

Not that any of the reporters paid much attention to Jack. Teresa had arrived at some earlier time and they were all clustered around her since, as I’ve said already, she’s pretty much the most eye catching thing around. Don’t ever let anyone convince you that doesn’t make a difference in how the news gets told. I decided that, given the situation, sticking closely to the normal routine of following Jack and clearing out anyone who tailed him wasn’t going to be needed and I should probably back up Teresa instead.

One thing that you have to develop in this line of work is your ability to be rude. Dealing with members of the public is a lot easier when you can keep them at arm’s length and reporters won’t take you seriously unless you spend the first five minutes trying to brush them off. Teresa comes from a background in Homeland Security so I’m sure she’d had Basic Rudeness 101 but in the few months I’ve worked with her I’ve noticed she really doesn’t rely on it much. While this probably ingratiates her to the regular people we meet, and it’s probably something we were all going to use more in the future, at the moment courtesy was just getting her mobbed by reporters who didn’t know it was time to back off.

Among the few upsides of being unusually short is the ability to sneak up on people, especially when they’re focused on someone taller than you. I got a satisfying jump out of most of the reporters when I stepped into their midst, took Teresa by the elbow and said, “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen.” Rudeness is different from being unprofessional, after all. “Agent Herrera and I are needed inside.” I steered her towards the door and, since there is an element of fair trade in these kinds of things, kept talking as I walked. “We’re not currently cleared to say much, as I’m sure you’ve already learned. There will probably be a statement released by the Senate’s Oversight Committee on Talented Individuals within the next day or two. Contact the office of Senator Brahms Dawson, of Wisconsin, if you want more details.”

The best part about talking to reporters is they all shut up while you’re doing it, so my statement bought just enough silence to hear a repressed snort of laughter from Teresa when I set the press on Dawson’s office. It was definitely the kind of game two people could play and, as the talented field agent with seniority in the Midwest, I suspected that I’d be in for reciprocal treatment, but in the mean time I was enjoying the mental picture of Brahms Dawson being ambushed by reporters demanding a statement at every turn.

There were at least twenty or thirty reporters out front of the office that morning and, being fairly short and content free, what I had to say didn’t get us all the way in the doors. Teresa knew better than to contradict me in front of the public so she waited until the barrage of follow-up questions was cut off by the door sliding closed behind us before she asked, “Are you sure that was something you should be saying?”

“It was factual and nothing they wouldn’t know in another day or so. It also keeps them from paying too much attention to us so we might be able to move with a little more freedom, if they’re camped out front with satellite vans and cameras it’s just one more way for Circuit to try and spy on us.” Another thought occurred to me. “And in a way, it’s a good chance for the Senator.”

Teresa glanced down at me as she started up the stairs to the second floor. “In what way?”

“Think about it,” I said, gesturing back at the press that crowded around outside. “They’re going to be all over this story. In fact, they already are. When they hear about the kind of information manipulation we’ve actively engaged in over the past fifty years they’ll skip straight past asking questions and go straight to demanding blood. The one shot the Committee has at saving their skins is if they can say their piece before anyone else.”

“Haven’t seen today’s paper yet, have you?” She asked, pulling a pile of newssheet out from under one arm.

Since it was the kind of question you can answer by doing something I decided not to say anything and just take the copy of the Tribune she was offering. The front page was dedicated to the attack on Michigan Avenue. In addition to a factual account of what went on and a man on the street interview with store managers and owners talking about what the economic impact of the attack might be there was a short article below the fold. Written by the paper’s sports writer, it claimed to be an interview with the man who masterminded the attack. I only had to read a few paragraphs to decide that it wasn’t someone trying to grab credit. Only Circuit could sound so self-satisfied, even in print.

I handed the newspaper back to Teresa. “Okay, so he’s a step ahead of us there, too. At least it’s just the local paper.”

“You talking about Circuit’s latest publicity stunt?” Cheryl was coming down the hall from the other direction, a stack of printer paper in one hand. “Because it’s not just the Tribune.”

I groaned. “Please tell me you’re joking.”

“Nope.” She waved the papers she was holding back and forth. “There’s three different articles that we know of so far. These are printouts from the Indianapolis Star and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. All your getmen are cleared to see them, along with oversight agents and anyone else you think needs to look them over.”

I gave her a blank stare.

“Right.” She sighed. “I guess information security isn’t such a big deal this time, is it?”

Teresa gently took the printouts from her. “The game’s changed, Cheryl. We’re all still working out the rules.”

“Yeah, well…” She threw her hands up. “In the mean time, I have to make sure we write down everything that happens on the way. So try and snag this guy before the paperwork backlog gets too severe, okay?”

“Will do,” I said over my shoulder, pushing through the door and onto the floor.

Our offices have never been the bustling, frantic command center you tend to see shown on TV. For one thing, we’ve never had the budget for that kind of staff. For another, we’re always short on field agents so they tend to wind up out in the field, instead of in the office most of the time. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it does mean that the floor is usually a lot of empty desks with one or two people filling out paperwork scattered about. Today there were no desks because the floor map was in use, but practically every available place to stand that didn’t put you on top of some part of the continental U.S. was occupied by qualified field agents.

“Busy day,” Teresa observed.

“Kind of surprising,” I said, trying to find Jack without resorting to standing on tiptoes. “The last time we went to Condition One we got out new assignments in the field.”

“Michael sent out notice that everyone should report here last night, while we were in the field.” I glanced up. Agent Samson, the only other guy in the room even close to Jack’s size, had somehow managed to sneak up on me in the crowd. He glanced at the printouts Teresa was holding and raised an eyebrow. “Good news, I hope?”

“We could use some, but this isn’t it,” I said, plucking the printouts from Teresa’s hand and passing them up to Samson. “What do you make of that?”

He made a rumbling noise in the back of his throat as he skimmed the printouts for a second, then sighed. “I saw the article in the Tribune this morning. I’m surprised he managed to reach this far in one day, but otherwise there’s nothing that surprising here.”

“What surprises me is that you’re here.” I folded my arms and gave him an appraising look. “Shouldn’t you still be on the disappearance of Dawson’s daughter?”

“We’re at Condition One,” Samson pointed out. “Why wouldn’t I be working this case?”

“Because you’re not a certified field agent anymore?” I suggested. “You’re not up on current procedure, you don’t have a tactical support team and, since we’re going to need Voorman here to handle PR as much as possible he’s not going to be able to be in the field with you full time anymore, so you don’t really have oversight, either.”

“Bob Sanders has been studying up on what I can do,” Samson said, matching my posture if not quite the level of hostility. “He actually served as oversight for me during the Michigan Avenue cleanup. Taxmen have traditionally moved without conventional tactical support, which I’m sure you know, and a lot of existing procedure is now a moot point. Helix, I’ve gotten the impression you don’t care much for me since you realized I was a talent. Part of it is probably because I didn’t slap Circuit down when I had a chance.”

I glanced down and away. “I don’t blame you for Mona’s death any more than I blame anyone who was there that night except Circuit. But you’ve been gone for over ten years just so you could preach in a run down school building. We could have used your help.”

“Yes, I figured it might be something like that.” Samson fidgeted for a moment, the sighed. “Look, Helix, when I joined Project Sumter there weren’t nearly as many problems on the scale of Open Circuit or even the Breeders that you found Coldsnap and Frostburn with. Most of my work consisted of showing up when we interacted with foreign talents to make it clear we had muscle or convincing talented people to lie about what they were, or else. I worked with the Project for six years and only had one case even close to the scale of what you’ve dealt with in the past.”

“So work on the problems with the system!” I threw my hands in the air. “I didn’t like the lying any more than you did, but I’ve been working to change things, at least when I had the time.”

He nodded approvingly. “I know. Even when I wasn’t active, Voorman passed on the occasional word about the kinds of reforms you’ve been stumping for. I’m particularly glad you managed to convince Project Sumter to share proven self control methods with the parents of younger children with dangerous talents. But,” he said, holding up a finger, “that’s something only you could have done. Between your grandparents and all those tricky cases you handled, you had a level of credibility and influence a former gangbanger who was once accused of manslaughter could ever hope to have.”

Next to me, Teresa made a surprised sound. “A gang? You?”

“MS-13,” he confirmed with a nod. “God prepares each man for his work. My history with them, and my experience here at Project Sumter, made me well equipped to deal with teens struggling with gangs, drugs or unusual abilities, or all three at once. But I couldn’t really help them find peace here. Project Sumter prioritizes the public over the individual. And Heaven knows the public needs it. But individual people need something, too, and the people of God exist to bring it to them. For a long time serving as a pastor was the best way to use my all my talents and experiences to do that.”

Ever since I could remember I’d thought of Project Sumter as the best existing method for dealing with the problems talented people presented in a democratic society. Hearing Samson say there was a better way to deal with things didn’t make me feel any better about him but I could grudgingly admit I saw his point. I wasn’t going to just then without prompting, but I could have if I’d been pressed. But I was getting uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation and we were starting to get a lot of attention from the other agents in the crowed around us, so instead I pushed us back to the original topic. “So you’re not on the Daswson case anymore?”

“Has anyone ever really considered them different cases?” Teresa asked.

“Not anyone on my team,” Samson replied. “Movsesian is at least eighty percent sure that her disappearance is related to Circuit and the only other possibility he considers likely is that she’s hiding out over a disagreement with her family.”

“She’s never gotten on that well with her dad,” Teresa said, “but I don’t think she’d drop out of sight for more than a month just because they were arguing about something.”

“And no one in her family remembers anything that could have made her that upset.” The big man shrugged his shoulders eloquently. “We’re not left with many possibilities beyond Circuit’s involvement. It’s surprising that he hasn’t tried to use Elizabeth Dawson as leverage yet, but that day may be coming in the near future. I don’t agree with Senator Dawson any more than you do, Helix, but he doesn’t deserve to have his daughter held over his head like that. And helping families who have lost track of difficult or estranged children is one of the things I do best.”

“But Circuit is way beyond anything you’ve dealt with before,” Teresa said, a note of understanding entering into her voice. “So you’re continuing to work the case on the Project’s terms.”

“And who knows?” Samson said. “Perhaps I first came to the Project in preparation for such a time as this. I just wish we knew more about how Circuit abducted her and what her current situation might be. The girl disappeared so flawlessly he might as well have made an elephant disappear right before our eyes.”

I blinked once. “Misdirection.”

“I’m sorry?” Teresa gave me a blank look, which was echoed by Samson.

“Circuit loves misdirection. Every job he’s pulled, whatever we thought his objective was turned out to be misdirection to keep us away from what he really wanted.” I turned to stare out across the map of the country, my gaze drawn to the Midwest where almost constant status updates were being projected onto the floor.

Samson moved to follow my line of sight, as if that might give him a clue what I was talking about. “Are you saying he abducted a senator’s daughter to keep us distracted?”

“I’m saying…” I pulled my eyes away from the map and looked over at Teresa. “Why would he announce he’s planning to take over the country?”

“Well, he needed publicity to help him gather-” Teresa broke off and stared at me blankly for a moment. “Are you saying taking over the country is a smoke screen for something else?”

“What could he possibly want?” Samson asked, incredulous. “World domination? Please don’t tell me people actually think that way.”

“No.” I looked back out at the map, Samson’s words of a moment ago ringing in my mind. For such a time as this. Because in the age of electronic security, the Internet and cell phones, was there ever a better time for a man with the ability to sense and alter electricity to make his mark? “He doesn’t want to rule the world. He wants to save it.”

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Heat Wave: Firebreak

Helix

I woke up in the back of an ambulance feeling like I’d just lost an epic, two hour Vale Tudo match with Bruce Lee. Or, at least, I was sore all over and I was pretty sure I’d been whacked by something the size of a freight liner. At the moment we weren’t moving and there wasn’t anyone in the back with me, so I obviously wasn’t in very bad shape. Sitting up was a chore but it didn’t really hurt as such. All I could feel a deeply seated ache in what felt like every joint of my body.

Once I was sitting up the next step was standing, which was more of the same except with the added fun of guessing whether my legs would hold up under my weight. They didn’t on the first two tries but the third time worked it’s usual magic and I managed to totter to the back of the ambulance and let myself down to the pavement.

The EMTs had parked about a block from the school, well beyond the point where the pavement had been ruined. There was a swarm of official looking vehicles scattered around, along with reporters, photographers, cameramen and members of the general public standing in an unruly fashion just beyond the police cordon. I couldn’t see anyone I recognized but I could hear Herrera’s voice around the front of the vehicle.

As I shuffled around the side of the vehicle I realized I wasn’t wearing shoes. That was a mixed bag. Shoes are generally uncomfortable cesspools of deadly fungus, but I was too tired  to pick my feet all the way up off the ground and the asphalt was prickly. Herrera was talking to a man who looked like an EMT but as soon as she spotted me coming along the side of the vehicle she broke off and turned to face me.

“Where are my shoes?” I demanded before she could say anything.

“They got stuck in the pavement when you melted it back into tar.” Herrera turned and waved back down the road towards the school building, where the blacktop rippled like a pond in a light wind. “Looks like they ripped right off your feet. Mossman thinks that’s why you were grounded enough to get struck by lighting.”

“I’d bet you twenty bucks that’s got nothing to do with it,” I snapped. “Where’s the Enchanter?”

“In custody. Voorman showed up with a couple of cold spikes on loan from somewhere to keep him from causing trouble until a properly cooled and insulated holding facility could be made available.” She waved back in the general direction of the school building. “Most of the rest of our people are scouring the building. We’ve already found a lot of surveillance equipment that we didn’t place there.”

“I’ll bet.” I sucked in a deep breath and asked, “Where’s Mona?”

A flicker of grief passed over Herrera’s face. Barely noticeable on most people. For her, a dangerous crack in the walls of professional calm and control she projected. “She’s dead, Helix. They couldn’t revive her.”

I slammed my fist on the side of the ambulance once. Some part of that made my legs buckle and I wound up sitting on the ground, leaning against the side of the vehicle. The Herrera and the EMT clustered around, peering down with concern. “Sir, you’ve taken quite a beating tonight,” the EMT said. “You need to take it easy. We’d like to keep you overnight for observation.”

“We were just about to send you off when you woke up,” Herrera added.

“That’s okay,” I said. “I know the magic words.” They exchanged a mystified glance. “I refuse treatment.”

She made an exasperated noise and shook her head. “Helix, you can play a macho man if you want but as your supervisor I can take you off this case until you’re cleared by a doctor. If they want to keep you overnight, they’re going to do it one way or another.”

“Herrera, you don’t need me to tell you how big of a mess this is. Just look at the street down there,” I tilted my head back towards the school, “and you’ll know. An up and coming agent like you can’t afford to be taking half measures right now, you need every hand you can get on this.”

She broke eye contact for just a second, a quick flick of the eyes down and to the side, but it was enough to warn me. “Then maybe we’ll have to take it slow on this one, Helix. There’s enough gone wrong here today, I’m not going to have you running around a major incident scene with a burn mark the size of a dinner plate in the back of your jacket. It’s not just the doctor’s orders, it’ll draw too much attention.”

That wasn’t the response I’d been expecting. An ambitious young talent overseer doesn’t sideline their star player unless a case is really moving slow. Whether things are falling in place or degenerating into a mess, we’re kept in the game. Usually, it takes interference from above or life threatening injuries to keep us off a case we’ve been assigned. Teresa Herrera was the epitome of an ambitious young talent overseer, to the point where I was considering having her picture put into the Project handbook’s entry on the subject.

She was spooked. Scared, even, and probably coping with a lot grief on top of it. Mona hadn’t been on her team, she was still a part of Sanders’ team. But as dangerous as the job is, you never expect to loose someone. I didn’t know if Herrera was just shaken by a death on the job or if she was afraid of letting me hare off and get hurt, shorting her a team member and making her look bad. Most likely it was a combination of the two. But whatever it was, she was making the wrong call. I waved a hand up at the EMT. “You. We’re about to discuss some classified stuff. Come back in about fifteen minutes and we’ll let you know what you’re doing.”

The EMT snorted. “Look, I know you’re from Wizard Central and all, but you’re still mortal. Don’t get a big head, listen to your boss.”

He was belligerent but he also left like I asked, so I wasn’t going to complain. The job does that to some people and they’re entitled. I gave Herrera a meaningful look and patted the ground next to me. “Have a seat. No sense looming up there, those interrogation techniques they teach you in training aren’t quite as effective when the other guy knows what you’re up to. That goes double if he’s used to everyone looming over him all the time regardless.”

She sighed and smoothed down the front of her pants before taking a seat on the ground, legs crossed Indian style. “Okay, I’ll bite. What exactly is so important that you can’t spare twenty-four hours for observation in a decent hospital?”

“Answer mine and I’ll answer yours. Why the sudden loss of enthusiasm? If I could pick ten people,” I held up my fingers and gave them a quick wiggle to make sure she was with me, “I’ve worked with over the years who I would expect to act cautiously under these circumstances you wouldn’t even make the short list.”

“Yeah. I guess I kind of give that impression, don’t I.” She absently tried to smooth away some of the wrinkles her bulletproof vest had left in her shirt. “Do you know why I wanted to join Project Sumter?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Truth, justice and the American way?”

“Ha. Not quite.” She brought her legs together, pulled them up and laced her hands over her knees. “Just truth, really. For a long time…” She trailed off and just stared at her hands for a moment. “My father was murdered and I was never told why. Not until I met the Dawsons and Brahms looked into a few things.”

“And found out your father was one of Lethal Injection’s victims.”

She jerked her head up and met my eyes. “You knew?”

In that moment I could see a scared young girl who had had her life ripped out from under her and still wasn’t quite sure what she was going to do with it nearly a decade after the fact. I silently cursed Michael Voorman, Robert Sanders, Senator Brahms Dawson and every single other politically minded leech I knew. They’d gotten me mixed up in their manipulative way of thinking when I should have stuck with my specialty. I could tell from minute one that Herrera had ghosts, and if I’d thought about it then it would be obvious that they were they key to her involvement with the Project, not some crazy scheme of the Senator’s.

Not that there wasn’t a scheme, but all signs pointed away from Herrera being involved. We should have had this conversation a week ago, and under better circumstances. I tried to give a reassuring smile, although I’m sure it fell flat, and said, “We have some of the best files in the world. And I was on that case, just like the rest of the Project from back then.”

“Right.” She looked back at her hands, drawing back into the shell of calm all those emotions hid behind. “We knew it would come out sooner or later. But Brahms thought I could establish enough of a track record to let me stay even if my background would normally be considered enough of a bias against talents to keep me out of field work.”

“Hence the aggressive pursuit of a high profile criminal talent for your first case.”

“Right again.”

“Huh.” I drummed my fingers against my leg. “But the Senator must have already known that the Lethal Injection case was closed. He probably even knew the outcome. Why the need to join the Project yourself?”

She shrugged. “For a long time I had no idea what really happened. And somehow that made it worse. I didn’t even hear that there was a suspect, much less that they’d caught him.”

“He actually died resisting arrest,” I put in quietly.

“I know, he ran across a busy street and was hit by a truck.” That wasn’t exactly what happened but I let it pass. “But for the longest time I didn’t know. And it hurt. I didn’t complain, I was ridiculously lucky in all the ways people helped me get my life together after that and it didn’t seem right. But I didn’t know.”

“Until the Senator told you.”

“It was freeing. You have no idea what it was like to finally know.” A small, rueful smile worked its way across her lips. “I wanted to join the Project because I thought people deserved to have that. That if I was a part of the organization that had left me in the dark all those years I could make sure it didn’t happen on my watch.”

I frowned and clenched up my stomach. I don’t like saying these things, but sometimes they need to be said. “Do you think Darryl Templeton doesn’t deserve the truth?”

The tinge of sadness came back into her voice. “He already knows all about talents. He has the connections to keep on top of the case as it develops. What more truth is there to tell?”

“Just this: When a man does an evil thing, he will be punished. Seeing justice prevail is more than our job. It’s truth, too.”

For a moment she was shocked out of her funk and managed to laugh weakly. “Helix, things aren’t that simple.”

I smiled back. “Sometimes they are.”

I’d totally misjudged her simple motives just because I expected things to be more complex. But too often the simple solution is undervalued. I should have known better. Simplicity is my specialty. “So. Why don’t I want to spend a night in the hospital for observation? For starters, the smell alone will make me more sick than I am now. Also, there are other factor. Are we at Condition One?”

“Not at the moment, no.” She rubbed a hand over her eyes. “Agent Sanders was pushing for Voorman to declare it, conditional to approval by the Committee, but Brahms- Senator Dawson- didn’t like that idea. He’s on his way back to Washington now, probably doing everything he can to herd the full Senate Committee together in time to vote on the issue by the end of the day.”

I glanced at my watch and found that the screen was dead. Since I had just been struck by lightning, maybe that wasn’t surprising. “What day is it?”

“The day after you passed out,” she said, checking her smart phone for a moment. “It’s around two in the morning.”

“And still we manage to attract a crowd,” I muttered, giving the people clustered around the police cordon the hairy eyeball.

“Human nature.” She glanced down at her feet. “The Senator didn’t think that Agent Templeton’s death was the direct result of Open Circuit’s talent. He said he wasn’t going to vote for Condition One, and he didn’t think the Committee would vote that way either.”

I sighed and leaned my head back against the ambulance. Herrera had stopped speaking so casually about the rest of the team. Another casualty’s of the night’s chaos? “I guess that’s not surprising. If we went to Condition One Circuit would be our first and only priority. Senator Dawson has his reasons to ensure we have attention left over for other cases.”

“Oh?” She looked back up at me. “Like what?”

“You haven’t heard?”

Herrera pursed her lips. “Obviously not.”

Wordlessly I fished the printout we’d gotten about Elizabeth Dawson’s missing person’s report from my pocket and handed it over to her. While she looked it over I said, “Honestly, I can’t blame him. If we were to focus our entire attention on the immediate search for Circuit we wouldn’t be able to look at this at all, and I have a hunch they’re connected somehow.”

“Based on what?” Herrera asked incredulously, looking at me over the top of the paper. “And why didn’t you mention this before?”

“We got it just before we left. And it’s not based on anything except long experience with the general perversity of Circuit’s planning.” I shrugged. “He’s always got at least two irons in the fire and maybe more. Every plan has both a good outcome and serves as a distraction for something else. I don’t know how, but the Enchanter was a problem in a long game that we barely know the rules of. The Senator’s daughter is another piece of the puzzle. If I follow Circuit and we put our best agent on her disappearance, we’re bound to meet in the middle.”

I slapped my hands onto the pavement and pushed myself back to my feet. To my amazement, my legs agreed to hold me up and I stayed upright. “So. Both you and Senator Dawson have a good reason not to pull me off this case, even for a few days of observation. Am I right?”

Herrera bounced up from the ground on the balls of her feet looking annoyed. I think it’s the first time I ever saw that expression on her face. “You’re playing this one awfully cold, Helix.”

“A good friend of mine just died tonight. I’m not cold, I’m numb. Shock, grief, rage, sympathy, all that comes later.” I folded my arms over my chest. “Tonight, I make sure we’re set to find Circuit and bury him in a hole so deep he’ll forget what sunlight looks like.”

“Right.” Herrera matched my pose and upped me a scowl. “And what if the Senator and I think our best agent to find Elizabeth is you, and not Al Massif?”

“You choose the right person for a job. You’re right that it’s not Massif. But it’s not me, either.” I turned and started picking a careful, prickly path across the paving, keeping my eyes out for the two people I knew had to be around somewhere. “Do you know what a taxman is, Herrera?

“Annoying people who reduce the amount of money you make?”

“Right idea.” I paused and rubbed the bottom of one foot on the opposite pant leg, wincing slightly. “But for Project Sumter it refers to the very first talent on record. The ability to take a small amount of the energy from every action that takes place nearby and store it for later use.”

Herrera goggled at me. “What?”

“Now Corporal Sumter, he was strong enough to lift a cannon- that’s what got him noticed in the first place. But he didn’t live in a world with electricity or gas powered motors or even the population density of today.” I gave Herrera a crooked grin. “Think about it. There are people in the world who get a little bit stronger every time you start your car. Or go for a jog. Or even when you take a phone call.”

“That’s absurd.”

“Aren’t we all?” I shrugged and started towards the school again. “I suppose taxmen do get tired sooner or later, if they burn too much of that reserve and there’s not enough going on around them to top off the tank. But that doesn’t happen very often.”

“So what?” Her tone was turning patient, like she was humoring me. Since she was walking around with a barefoot guy with a hole burnt in his jacket, maybe she was. “Even if it’s the most powerful talent on record-“

“I’m thinking that’s probably the lightning bolts.”

“-does it matter if we don’t know of any?”

I finally spotted what I was looking for. “But we do. Well, I know three, but you know one of them, too.”

“What?”

“My grandfather is Sergeant Wake, one of the founding talents from the Second World War. My uncle got his talents from that side of the family.” I wove around a couple of Project vehicles and headed towards a smashed up metal desk that was sitting in the middle of the street for some reason. “You’d know that if you ever got to the addendum in my file.”

“We’ve been busy,” she pointed out. “And your file is huge.”

“Busy is my middle name. Anyways, taxman number three I only met a few days ago.” I came to a stop just behind Voorman, who was standing in a small group of people clustered around a twisted van door. “If you count Corporal Sumter as part of the Project, there were two taxmen I know of who have been on our rolls. The Corporal himself, obviously, and his grandson, the Sergeant – my uncle has health issues so he’s stayed out of this line of work. Both of them made a major impact on the way we deal with talents now, helped create rules for dealing with talents fairly and propelled a number of people who worked with them to later success. A person paired with a taxman could easily make regional management, for example.”

“I don’t follow.” She said, peering over Voorman’s shoulder for a better look at the wreckage.

“Neither did I. That’s why we’re in field work, not Analysis. The getmen make these associations instantly, it’s part of why they’re so scary.”

Voorman turned to stare at us. “Is there a reason you’re discussing this, Helix? I don’t think Agent Herrera is cleared for anything from the taxmen file.”

“Not at the moment, no, but I’m sure that can be arranged. I assume we’ll be reactivating Mr. Rodriguez soon-”

“What?” Herrera demanded.

“-and it would be convenient if we could compare notes without having to try and keep each other in the dark about our capabilities. Especially since, after today, most of them are out in the open anyway.”

“I haven’t heard anything about pastor Rodriguez ever working for us, much less being reactivated,” Voorman said.

“I call bull-”

Herrera gave me a sharp poke in the side and whispered, “Professionalism,” in my ear.

“Not good enough, Voorman,” I said instead, watching as the man in question made his way through the group towards us. I had kind of expected Rodriguez to look a bit annoyed at being discussed the way we were but he just looked vaguely amused. “If you want us to believe that you should have warned him to keep a lower profile when we were around. No admitting to single-handedly filling a truck with furniture, for example. Certainly no dropping by headquarters to help you interview persons of interest.”

“To be fair,” Rodriguez said, “I do known Gearshift from my work with the city youth. I didn’t know about his talent, though.” Voorman started to say something but Rodriguez cut him off. “It’s alright, Michael. You did warn me Helix had a knack for finding out talents, keeping my secrets after that was my responsibility.” Rodriguez turned his attention to me and narrowed his eyes. For the first time I caught a glimpse of a hard man behind his normally placid exterior. “I have to confess, though, I’m not quite sure why you seem to think I would want to come back to Project Sumter. As you’ve probably already guessed, I’m retired at this point.”

I snorted. “Come on, Rodriguez. We both know it doesn’t work like that. Project work is a lot like a military commission. Even when you’re retired, you’er still technically held in reserve. Regardless, I think you’ll want to come back.”

“Helix, I joined the Project because I needed to do something meaningful with my life after I wasted a good chunk of it.” Rodriguez ran a hand over his hair, an action that looked like a nervous habit. “I left it because I realized that, while it’s a good thing, it isn’t always the best thing. I do more good on the streets, doing things God’s way, than I ever could in the Project.”

I reached over and plucked the paper from Herrera’s hand and held it up in two fingers. “I’m not an expert on God, pastor. But I know a couple of things. First, the Christ your religion takes its name from came to seek and save the lost. Second, he said to love your neighbor as yourself.” I pushed the paper towards him and said, “There’s a man who’s daughter is lost, Mr. Rodriguez. Now you yourself told me you were a father, you’ve been on the streets as a cop, a helping hand and from the sounds of it a troublemaker and you have the training and clearances to pursue this case legally.”

I glanced at the twisted car door sitting in the road. “And you can tear through sheet metal like it’s paper. Why would any god give someone all that and not expect them to help find this girl?”

Rodriguez slowly reached out and took the paper, unfolded it and looked it over. I didn’t wait for an answer because I didn’t need one. “I’ll see you in the office on Monday.” I turned to find Herrera, looking equal parts shocked and mildly disgusted. “Let’s go, I need to find some shoes and have a look at that building. I want to know how Circuit’s throwing thunderbolts around before he gets another chance to fry me.”

“Is there nothing sacred to you, Helix?” She asked, once we were a fair distance away.

“Same thing as for you, I suppose,” I said, pausing to look at the bottoms of my feet again. They were starting to look very tender, but nothing was bleeding. Definitely needed shoes.

“What? The truth?”

“Exactly.” I brushed the dirt off them again and said, “Most people spend all their lives looking for the truth. But when they find some, they just sit on it. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but if you don’t share truth it’s not really worth much.” I tipped my head in Rodriguez’ direction. “He knows that or he wouldn’t be a preacher. But sometimes you need someone to help you prioritize, or things can get out of whack. He’s seeing the full picture, now, he’ll be on message soon enough.”

She laugh softly. “You’re crazy, Helix. I don’t know whether it’s charming or terrifying.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Both, of course.”

“Of course.” A shake of the head. “So, what message is the preacher on board with?”

“I told you.” I spread my hands. “Evil deeds are punished. And while you’re at it, children shouldn’t be taken from their parents. And I need some shoes.”

She laughed again. “All right. Then let’s get you some shoes. Then all we’ll need is some truth and justice and we’ll be all set.”

“You know, Teresa, I had my doubts about you,” I said, starting back towards the ambulance. “But I think you’re going to work out just fine.”

Fiction Index
Previous Chapter

Heat Wave: Firestorm

Circuit

Echoes from the gunshots were still ringing in the elevator shaft as the Enchanter crumpled to the ground. One problem solved. Helix sprinted forward, but even though he was problem number two on my list of things to deal with, I wasn’t ready for him just yet. His turn wouldn’t come until Chainfall was finished.

As an officer of the law Helix had an obligation to check on the Enchanter before anything else, just one of many difficulties that he has to deal with which I do not. So, while he was doing a middling impression of the Good Samaritan I lowered the strength on my magnets just enough to let me slide down the elevator shaft. In a couple of seconds, maybe less, my feet touched the top of the elevator and I switched the magnets off entirely.

From the top of the elevator it was a simple matter to open the emergency hatch and drop down into the car, trailing the wires that still connected me to the building’s electrical grid. I knew that Project Sumter had established some sort of surveillance setup when they began watching the school building and the school itself probably had some cameras as part of the security. That would make it easier than I would like for them to figure out what part of the building I was moving through and how they might intercept me as I left.

So before I disconnected from the grid I charged up my capacitors for an EMP. With four separate magnets pulsing at once from the right position in the building I figured that I could knock out all the cameras that could see me as I made my exit. I took the half second the capacitors needed to charge to compose a text message to Grappler, telling her to start the van and come pick me up at the appropriate place, then disconnected the electrical hook-up and stepped out of the elevator.

Leaving the building from the roof was exit route six. The best entrance routes for the Project to use to reach the roof made two of the three stairways poor choices for my exit and for some reason it looked like this elevator had been moved, so I couldn’t necessarily count on empty elevator shafts as easy routes through the building anymore. I’d have to take the third set of stairs and exit the building through the service door on the west side of the building, which unfortunately would pass right under the windows in the block of offices where I’d left the church pastor a few minutes ago. But unless he was looking out the windows at the exact moment I left the building and someone was in a position to hear him yelling it wasn’t likely anyone would know I was out on the street in time to do anything before Grappler met me and we made good our exit.

So as soon as I was out of the elevator I sent the message to Grappler, telling her to pick me up on Diversy Street and do it fast. Then I took off down the halls of the school, headed towards the west stairway. About half way there, I was planning to set off the EMP and wipe the cameras on that side of the building.

I’d forgotten that some of the classrooms in the school let out into hallways on both sides. I certainly hadn’t expected to find anyone from the Project on the second floor, with their excellent response time I was certain they’d all be up on the roof with Helix, trying to sort out what was going on for at least another thirty seconds or so.

So when a woman in a crisp, professional suit that screamed government agent burst out of one of the classrooms, apparently using it as a short cut across the building, I was caught by surprise. From the brief glance I got of her face, she was too. We both tried to stop but it was clear a collision was inevitable. With an unthinking twitch of talent I switched my vest rig over to it’s taser mode and threw my hands up to block her.

It was a split second decision that didn’t take into account anything but the immediate situation. I only remembered that I’d prepped for an EMP as we slammed into each other, one of my hands grabbing her on the shoulder the other snatching her by the opposite wrist. There wasn’t time to try and keep the circuit from closing, the capacitors vented their stored potential in a heartbeat dumping far more current into her than is even remotely safe.

The woman made a muffled sound, barely even a groan, and crumpled to the ground. There was no time to check her. With a twinge of regret, I continued my headlong rush towards the stairs.

Helix

The gunshots took me completely by surprise and I still wasn’t sure what was happening when the person in the elevator dropped out of sight accompanied by the sound of the soles of boots being dragged along metal.

Without realizing it I’d run over to the Enchanter and flipped him on his back. He looked woozy but was still breathing. I was in the process of cuffing him when Jack and the rest of my team burst onto the roof. Jack was by my side instantly, yelling, “Why did you shut off your radio?”

On a scale of one to enraged Jack was hovering around seriously pissed. “There was a lot of noise coming that wouldn’t have done you any good,” I snapped, letting the Enchanter fall back down to the ground. “He’s been shot but he was wearing a vest so I think he’ll make it.”

“A vest?” Jack prodded the Enchanter’s chest with a couple of fingers, prompting him to groan.

“May be the only smart thing he’s done all night.”

“Who shot him?” Jack asked, glancing at the other three, who were giving the roof a careful look over.

“There was someone in the elevator shaft,” I said, quickly double checking my count. Yes, there were only three people on the roof. “Where’s Mossburger?”

“On the second floor,” Jack said. “He did say he noticed something off about the elevators but I didn’t catch what. He and Mona were going to reposition them in the building.”

A bad feeling settled in my gut and started playing hackie with my kidneys. It was a couple of steps over to the elevator shaft. I shouted, “FBI, put your hands in the air!” Then I peered over the edge of the doorframe. There wasn’t anything there but the emergency trapdoor in the top of the elevator car, sitting open. I glanced at Kesselman and waved him over. “Secure this waste of space,” I gestured at the Enchanter, then looked back at Jack. “I think we need to be downstairs.”

“Circuit?” Jack raised an eyebrow.

“Who else?” I called over my shoulder as I practically dove down the steps.

Two floors of steps isn’t a lot but after my climb and brief rooftop brawl I wasn’t at my freshest and by the time I reached the second floor my legs felt a little wobbly. The elevator door was closed when I stepped out into the hallway, but that was no surprise. There hadn’t been anyone visible in the car when I looked down and it’s not like there’s a whole lot of hiding places in a place like that. Circuit had already flown the coop.

Jack burst into the hallway a few seconds after I did, saying, “Herrera’s got the people on the ground moving to secure the building, but the local cops aren’t here yet and we’re short staffed. Surveillance people are watching the cameras but nothin yet.”

I ground my teeth for a moment and said, “Split up. You head that way,” I pointed off to the right, “I’ll take this way. If there’s no sign of him we head down to the first floor, we flush him, fine but don’t get too close.”

“No kidding,” Jack muttered. “Turn your headset back on.”

“Yes, dad.”

Once I was plugged back into the radio channel we parted ways, moving cautiously down the halls. That part of the second floor basically consisted of three long rows of classrooms, with the elevator at one end. From the elevator, the hall wrapped u-shaped around the middle row of classrooms, and if I recalled the blueprints right, those classrooms exited into the hallways on either side. If Circuit was trying to dodge us the fact that he could move freely from one hallway to the other was horribly inconvenient, but I didn’t expect he was planning on staying on this floor. On the other hand, if I needed Jack’s support he could just cut through a classroom and be right there.

Provided the classrooms were unlocked. I cursed and wished I had thought to check on that little detail at some point over the last few days. The halls were dark, and as I rounded the corner from the elevator and started down the long hall, with classroom doors on either side I planned to carefully check each door, to make sure there were no nasty surprises waiting for me. That idea went out the window when I saw a crumpled heap lying in the middle of the hallway.

I sucked in a breath and headed straight towards it, keeping an eye out to my sides as best I could moving at a fast walk. When I got there I realized it was Mona. I thumbed my radio and said, “Agent down, I repeat, agent down.” I quickly gave my position as I reached down and felt for a pulse. And froze, for just a second. “She doesn’t have a pulse. We need an EMT up here, now.”

At some point I’d gone from a normal speaking tone to yelling. “He’s up on the roof with the Enchanter,” Sanders said, “I’m sending him down now.”

Jack slid around the corner and came to a stop on the floor beside me. We quickly but gently flipped her onto her back and he started CPR. There was a surreal quality to it, just sitting there and watching. With startling clarity I saw Jack’s shoulders pumped up and down, I heard every creak and snap Mona’s ribs made under his weight. I felt grit from the floor between my fingers and the lingering hot spots where Mona’s suit was charred on her shoulder and arm. I was even aware of the subtle heat differences that marked people moving about on the stairs and on the roof, even moving across the street outside.

Across the street and away from the building, moving fast.

There weren’t any visible injuries on Mona’s body besides the burn marks, but somehow her heart had stopped. Like she had taken a large electrical shock. And I knew from who, and where he was.

I scrambled to my feet and crossed to the classroom that bordered on the street…

Circuit

There are some things you learn to recognize from experience, like the expression of exasperated patience you will see from many so-called civil servants. There are others that you’ve never encountered before but instantly recognize, like the sound of your nose breaking under a lucky punch. Then there are some things that you only recognize because you’ve wondered, over and over again in the back of your mind, exactly what they might be like. Here is a sound that falls into the third category:

Glass breaking, the roar of an overlarge blowtorch, the sound of a giant taking a deep breath and a funnel cloud reaching to touch the earth, all at once.

That was the sound that had been playing in the back of my mind, ever since my unfortunate brush with the agent back in the school building. As I hurriedly climbed over the low chain-link fence around the outside of the school property I thought I might have gotten away without hearing it at all. But it finally came as I dashed through the faltering rain, across Diversy Street towards the street corner where Grappler would pick me up.

I knew even before I looked back that Helix was coming for me. That’s how this game is played, after all – I do something he disapproves of, then run when he chases me. He’d just never gotten that close before.

There was a moment as I spun to look back at the building when the air itself seemed  to be pulling me back towards the building and Helix. I knew it was just the heat moving. In a way, heat itself is motion and when Helix had melted the window between himself and the outside the building no longer insulated the world around it from Helix’s heat sink. All the heat rushed towards it at once, dragging everything nearby in that direction at the same time.

But the mad rush slowed almost immediately as the available heat bled away, leaving ice forming on the ground and sleet replacing the rain. I felt my jaw drop open. I’d read that Helix was one of the most powerful heat sinks on record but I’d never really heard anything to suggest exactly what it meant.

Apparently, it meant he could wrap summer up into a ball, hold it in one hand and let winter fall from the skies.

For a second he just stared at me from the high ground, ignoring the hail, the wind and the last few shards of falling glass, letting the metal window frame and concrete wall slowly melt and drip down the building. Then he climbed up onto the window sill and jumped. I expected him to fall the two stories like a lead balloon but instead he pushed the intense heat in his hands down below his body, catching himself in the updraft and breaking his fall.

He landed lightly, incinerating the grass and hedges within two feet in the process, sending a rain of ashes floating upward in a bizarre counterpoint to the sleet falling all around him, and started forward. It wasn’t exactly a run but he wasn’t moving slowly either, and the way he melted the fence into slag without breaking stride told me his usual reluctance to cause property damage was on hiatus. He left footprints in the in the blacktop crossing the street.

I backpedaled a dozen steps, glancing over my shoulder to see if Grappler had arrived. She hadn’t. On the other hand, Helix hadn’t caught up with me until I was outside, and that gave me a decided advantage.

With a thought I sent a text from my phone, activating the heat sink countermeasures on the roof. A pair of powerful electromagnets kicked on, creating a large enough of a field to encompass a couple of city blocks and give me the reach to touch the bottom of the clouds overhead with my talent. The roiling masses of hot and cold air that heat sinks make work just like normal storm clouds, they cause wind, shed rain and, most importantly, they create some of the largest concentrations of static electricity in the world.

Helix may be one of the most powerful heat sinks in existence. He had definitely blown my expectations of his capabilities out of the water. But even if he had just done the best impression of human flight I’d ever seen, even if the earth under his feet was melting away and he held enough plasma in his hands to pass as an avenging angel, I still held the trump card.

Because if fire has always been the sword of the angels, then so is thunder the hammer of the gods.

I gave a Helix a touch of the hat, tugging it down over my eyes in the process, then traced a connection from him up to the clouds above based purely on the electric potentials involved. Then, with a snap of the fingers I closed the circuit.

Even with my eyes closed and and the hat brim shielding them the flash was still blinding. The thunderclap was worse, probably rattling windows in buildings several blocks away. Immediately after the lightning strike I felt the heat come rushing back, a moment of painful warmth followed by a more normal, if less humid, summer evening’s temperature. An eerie silence fell, or possibly I had managed to temporarily deafen myself. I pushed my hat back to its normal position and blinked the stars out of my eyes.

Helix had been knocked about a dozen feet sideways and lay sprawled on the ground. He was out of action but I could make out the gentle rise and fall of his chest that suggested he was still alive. For a second I wavered where I stood. A few minutes ago I had deliberately avoided confronting him on the roof because I felt, as I have always felt, that people with his character and training will be necessary to bring about the world I intend to create. Even if I never convinced him to see things my way he could still play a very valuable part in the events to come.

But not if I got caught before things could be set in motion. That chance run-in on the second floor had just changed the game. From the outside Helix probably looks like something of a loose cannon, the way he approaches and corrects problems in the most direct way possible can cause people a lot of worry. It’s also startlingly efficient. I’ve never known his methods to cross the line into overkill, they’ve always been just enough to stop me in my tracks.

I knew that if he’d gone on a rampage it could only be because I’d killed that woman. And that meant problems. Project Sumter would go to condition one. Every person in the country who knew about talents and had any kind of official standing would be out for my head. I could probably evade that kind of man hunt. But not if it was led by a man who had already had eight years to perfect the art of frustrating my plans. Regretfully, I drew my SIG and glanced around to make sure the coast was still clear.

It saved my life.

Barry’s desk was hurtling towards me, gracefully flipping itself end over end, side smashed from its impact with the window, drawers hanging open and dropping office supplies along behind it. The sight was so absurd I froze for a split second and nearly got my head taken off. I just barely managed to duck out of the way, cutting it so close my hat was snatched off my head by one of the dangling drawers.

The desk crashed to the ground ten feet away, slid a few more feet in a shower of sparks and came to a stop. Grappler’s van careened around the corner just beyond it, fishtailing badly on the ice. Helix forgotten, I sprinted towards it, sparing a glance back towards the school building as I ran.

I spotted a human shape leap out of a shattered window on the third floor covering far more distance in that one jump than was humanly possible, crashing to the ground in the middle of the street a few hundred feet away. In front of me, the van’s back door sprang open and Heavy Water leaned out, grabbed my left arm and hauled me into the still coasting van, yelling, “Go, go, go!”

There was a mad scramble as I got my feet under me and Heavy slammed the door closed behind me. We both grabbed for handholds to keep upright as the van picked up speed. Heavy wasn’t able to grab one before something hit the van and a large, desk-shaped dent appeared in one corner of the back, sending the vehicle fishtailing again.

Heavy cursed and tumbled to the ground, I clung to a crash bar in the van’s ceiling for dear life. I could hear Grappler in the front seat, muttering, “Come on baby, pick it up.”

The van surged forward at the same time a hand slammed into the van, from the side opposite where the desk hit us, tearing up from the back corner of the floor and closing on the hinge that held the door in place. The van rocked forward a bit, kicking off it’s rear wheels, then the engine clunked into high gear at the same instant I hit the door release, flinging the them open again. I should say door, the damage from the desk hitting us kept one side from opening and the other, now attached to the van by nothing but it’s top hinge, simply tore off. I pointed my SIG out the gaping hole it left and emptied the clip.

Since the armor plating was one of the van’s many nonstandard accessories there was little chance I would hurt the man who’d hit us, who was still holding our back door across his body like a shield. But it did keep him from following us. Heart pounding, I pulled the trigger until the slide locked back.

By then we were careening around a corner and, by some measure, safely away. The last thing I saw before High School 44 was out of sight was pastor Manuel Rodriguez tossing my van’s rear door away and turning back to check on Helix.

Heavy scrambled to his feet and wiped sweat from his face, spitting curses. “What the hell was that, Circuit?”

“The van stands out too much now,” I said absently, still trying to process what had just happened. “We need a new vehicle.”

“Circuit.” Heavy grabbed my shoulder and pulled me away from the back of the van, then spun me to look him in the eye. “What. Was. That.”

“I don’t know.” I shook my head mournfully. “A problem. Beyond that, I don’t know.”

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