Out of Water – Chapter Four

Lauren and Herrigan had gotten half way out the door of the Third Ward offices when Lieutenant Holly Newcastle, Australian Army, caught up with them.

Herrigan managed to suppress a disgusted sound. Not because he disliked the Lieutenant or had really wanted to go somewhere alone with one of the Australians but because the young woman – more of a girl in his mind – kind of creeped him out. In spite of a month plus of reminding himself that a lot of the ideas trenchmen had about the surface were based on hyperbole and out of date information there were some things he hadn’t gotten past. An intense dislike of professional armies was one of them.

Oscar had pointed out the irony of that coming from someone who was a Deputy Justice and a militia officer and so, technically, in the same line of work. But in Herrigan’s mind fighting wasn’t his job, it was something he did to keep his job. In theory, fighting was Newcastle’s job.

“Lauren?” Holly poked her head past Lauren’s shoulder, a quizzical look on her face. “Are you going somewhere? Ambassador Sudbury doesn’t want any of us wandering alone.”

She sounded more like a schoolmarm than a soldier to Herrigan’s admittedly untrained ear. Lauren didn’t seem to mind because she smiled back and said, “Herrigan just thought we should take a break and grab some refreshments. We’ll be back in a little while.”

“Forty five minutes, tops.” Herrigan put in.

“What kind of refreshments?” Holly asked, clearly skeptical.

“Well.” Lauren gave him a questioning look and said, “If there’s any kind of civilization left down here hard liquor will at least be on the menu.”

“Guaranteed.”

Holly clasped her hands together and said, “Take me with you! If I have to listen to one more word about the complexities of getting all your stupid Chiefs in one place and I’m sober, someone’s going to get shot.”

“Wait.” Herrigan’s brow furrowed. “Who gave you your gun back?”

“My sidearm hasn’t been returned yet. That’s another thing that bugs me.”

It wasn’t going to get fixed any time soon, that he was pretty sure of. But mentioning the fact probably wasn’t going to be helpful so Herrigan ignored the issue of arming her for the moment and considered her request. Ultimately, he didn’t see what it could hurt. “Well,” he said, “you’re probably not getting your gun back until you’re sober again but I’m not one to take booze from someone who has to deal with the Chiefs. Let’s go.”

——–

The sign said that the bar’s name was Orpheus. Holly gave Herrigan a skeptical look. “Orpheus?”

“Third Ward’s very own roving bar,” He said with a grin.

It was Lauren’s turn to look skeptical. “Does it move places?”

“It did in the past.” Herrigan waved at the circular hub room they stood in, ringed with what she guessed were store fronts and other public buildings. “This plaza only opened a couple of years ago. Before that, Orpheus was located one floor up. Whenever the Ward built a layer down into the Trench then the owner would buy up a business plot there and move shop. Orpheus is always as close to the underworld as it can get.”

Holly snorted. “Figures. Randal mentioned that one of the other Chief Executives was named Dante and from Inferno Ward. Are all the naming conventions down here so cheerful?”

“Most of ’em. It fits a place like this, don’t you think? Besides, Inferno Ward is where the Geothermal plant is, so it fits.” Herrigan stepped forward to open the door for them, then turned back and said, “By the way, until we can officially announce that we have Australian visitors to the public you might want to save those kind of questions for when we’re alone.”

Lauren took a quick glance around. Fortunately the plaza was fairly empty at the moment and she didn’t think anyone had overheard. “Good point. Lead the way, oh native guide.”

They pushed through the doors of the bar and in to the dimly lit interior. So far she’d mostly experienced the inside of a salvage sub and the docks and stairwells of the colony itself but even that small sampling had been kind of alien.  But pubs were apparently a universal constant. Orpheus was just a big room with booths, tables and a bar along the side wall. There were a few new wrinkles. Alcatraz itself wasn’t as humid as Erin’s Dream had been but humidity was still higher than she was used to and the near ubiquitous Spanish lace dangled from a number of supports throughout the room.

The people there were about what she’d come to expect from the trenchmen, dozens of men with close cropped or shaved heads, women with bobbed hair, all dressed in brightly colored jackets of various lengths. Between the unusual colors the people wore and the plant life trenchmen scattered everywhere the room felt a bit like a tropical rainforest that had somehow gotten lost and wandered down to the bottom of the ocean.

Herrigan led them to the side of the room, towards the bar. They’d gotten most of the way there when a loud, clearly inebriated voice called, “Hey, Harry! Over here!”

Towards the back of the room an arm clad in bright blue was waving lazily. Lauren vaguely recognized some of the people at the table as faces of the crew they’d come in with, although she probably couldn’t have put names to faces. Herrigan muttered something under his breath and said, “Be right back. I need a word with them.”

Lauren and Holly shared an amused glance as Herrigan hustled away, leaving them by the bar. Almost at the same moment a tall, gangly fellow stepped over to them and asked, “What’ll it be, ladies? Any preferences? Or did Cartwright promise you a drink from his stash?”

“Harry said he’d let us sample some of the best drinks in the Ward,” Lauren said, hoping to avoid ordering anything by name.

“The stash it is,” the barkeep replied. He pulled out a fairly normal looking glass bottle and set it on the counter, followed by three shot glasses. “You’re welcome to sit here at the bar until he gets back to you, or his favorite table’s open if you’d like some privacy.”

“Thanks,” Holly said as she took the bottle and headed towards the table he’d pointed out. As they got away from the bar she dropped her voice and asked, “How often do you think he brings ladies here for privacy? That sounded like a pretty practiced spiel to me.”

Lauren shrugged and made a noncommittal noise as she looked the bottle over. The label announced the drink was Selkie, which she’d never heard of, and it was mostly full. As soon as they got to Herrigan’s table, a booth near the back corner of the room, they poured half a glass in each glass and studied the result.

Holly turned her glass slowly in one hand, then carefully sniffed at the beverage and pulled a face. “It’s… I don’t know.”

The liquid sloshed in the glass but didn’t cling like wine or brandy would. Lauren didn’t smell much from it either, beyond a vague hint of the sea that could easily have come from the room around her. “It’s green.”

“Yeah.” Holly nodded. “Green.”

“It’s Selkie. Distilled seaweed and other flavors.” Herrigan slid into the booth on the other side and scooped up the third glass, downing its contents in a single gulp. With a grimace he set the shot glass down and refilled it, then looked at the ladies. “Not going to try?”

Apparently unable to back down from the challenge, Holly downed her glass with equal speed, then nearly fumbled it onto the floor as she half-choked swallowing. Curious, Lauren took a much more restrained sip of her own drink. It didn’t burn like some well aged whiskies she’d had but it tasted a lot more like grass than she cared to think about. “Must be an acquired taste.”

“I think all booze is, to be fair.” Herrigan downed a second glass but didn’t refill it. “We brewed with what we could spare, back in the day.”

Holly wiped her eyes and swallowed hard, then smoothed the front of her shirt and exhaled sharply. “It’s certainly unique.”

Herrigan smirked. “Suits its makers.”

She bristled at that and pulled herself up a bit in her chair. “Mr. Cartwright, could I ask you a question?”

He shrugged. “Sure, why not? I’m probably not going to give you the best answer, but if you wanted that I’m sure you’d have asked Sam or Randal.”

For a moment Holly paused to gather her thoughts, perking Lauren’s interest. The lieutenant wasn’t an airhead but she didn’t give the impression of a deep thinker, either, and Lauren couldn’t figure out what in the last few minutes could have prompted such a serious attitude from her. Finally Holly looked Herrigan in the eye and said, “Why -”

And all the lights in the bar went dark.

Out of Water: Chapter Three

“Seriously, Sam?” Herrigan flopped down in one of the chairs in his cousin’s office and started to put his feet up on the desk.

Sam caught one ankle on his way around the desk and shoved Herrigan’s feet back towards the floor. “What’s the matter, Harry?”

Herrigan threw a glance at the doorway, which by longstanding Trench tradition had no door in the spirit of not dealing behind closed doors, in the direction of Randal’s office just down the hall. “Kind of feel like there might be better things to be doing with our time. Like maybe keeping an eye on the first ever foreign delegation to our colony?”

“That’s just it. This isn’t a colony, it’s a prison.” Sam’s legs claimed the space where Herrigan’s had been headed a second ago. “Think about it. How to run this place internally has been a point of contention since the inmates started running the asylum. We can’t take ourselves seriously enough to run a coherent government, how can we expect Australia to take us any more seriously knowing that?”

“If they can’t take us seriously that’s the Aussie’s problem, not ours.” Herrigan kept his voice pitched so hopefully he couldn’t be heard down the hall. More than a dozen years on subs had taught him to control his voice in a controlled space so he was sure he couldn’t be overheard normally but he still wasn’t sure what to expect of the delegation. The crew’s consensus from time spent in New Darwin was that the surface was ten to twenty years ahead in terms of miniaturized infotech, he was willing to bet the delegation had listening and recording devices the trenchmen hadn’t even spotted yet. “Anyways, so far as I know the whole colony doesn’t have to negotiate with them. Just one Ward. Preferably ours.”

Sam raised his eyes towards the ceiling in silent supplication. Herrigan wasn’t sure if it was for patience or his quick and accidental death. Or maybe the patience to wait for the accident. “Did it ever occur to you that they could just blow us up instead?”

“They wouldn’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.” Herrigan favored his cousin with a dangerously toothy grin. “Sam, did you ever realize that Erin McClain was an Alcatraz native?”

“Yes…” Sam waved for him to get to the point.

Herrigan leaned forward, his grin dissolving into impatience. “Sam. Have you forgotten that twenty years ago we still used scrap metal to shore up barely functional underwater mines that only met our building needs on a good day? Without Erin McClain we wouldn’t be able to grow ceramics out of seawater. Or if we could they probably wouldn’t be up to resisting pressure at this depth.”

“I get it, Harry, everyone’s heard of Erin McClain. She’s a celebrity down here, saved us from-” The pieces clicked into place with an almost audible snap. “Australia doesn’t know how to make magnetically aligned ceramics.”

“To be precise, no surface nation knows how to make magnetically aligned ceramics.” Sam leaned back in his chair like a cat that got the cream. “McClain building techniques are ten times as strong and four times as cheap as concrete equivalents, and a lot lighter to boot. Even if McClain Tech chooses to build stuff here and ship it to the surface instead of selling the tech to firms on the surface they’ll make a mint, new construction on the surface will get a lot cheaper and no one will want their supplies to the new wonder bricks cut off.”

“McClain ceramics don’t come in bricks. You know that, right?”

“My point is, if we show them what we have to offer reasonable people will see that cooperation is a better way to get it than violence.” Herrigan jerked a thumb in the direction of Harold’s office and the delegation. “As far as we can tell, they’re reasonable people.”

Sam laughed. “Reasonable people don’t round up the folks who disagree with them and toss them on the bottom of the ocean.”

“The good old U.S. of A. did that, not Australia, and they don’t even exist anymore. Place is broken into two countries now and they’re too busy with each other to bother with us.” Herrigan climbed to his feet and started towards the door, pausing to look over his shoulder. “Relax, Sam. Oscar and I hashed this over a lot and the crew put it to a vote, if we didn’t have confidence in this we would have left them on the surface.”

Sam let him get all the way to the door before he said, “That won’t hold up for long, Harry.”

The other man paused in the doorway and turned back. “Beg pardon?”

“That’s a really good song and dance routine you just ran now.” Sam mimed applause. “It might even fly with most people. But try it with a Chief, especially one from another Ward, and they’ll know you’re blowing smoke. That’s an issue but not the biggest one. You went up, Harry. We don’t have many laws down here, compared to the societies that we left behind at least. But not contacting the surface until the Chief Executives say it’s okay? That’s a big one. Someone’s going to call you on it, Herrigan. Not me, probably not Randal. But sooner or later, someone will. Be ready.”

——-

Lauren stepped out of the Chief Executive’s office feeling more than a little exhausted. On top of a new place and a new culture there were a bunch of new security and secrecy protocols in place. Randal wasn’t sure what people would make of outsiders suddenly showing up in their very insular community so he wanted to take things slow. Ambassador Sudbury was okay with that, and Lauren thought she probably would be too. But before she decided she just wanted a break from it all.

Once upon a time she’d thought there was a lot of fuss in being assistant harbormaster.  Now she was sure it wasn’t anything compared to being a diplomat.

She headed aimlessly down the hall out into the reception area for the office suite where Randal and the other leaders of Third Ward had their offices. To her surprise, she found Herrigan leaning against the receptionist’s desk, staring pensively into the distance. “So that’s where you got to.”

Herrigan glanced up. “Yeah, I’m still here. Sam just had a few things he wanted to has out with me.”

She leaned on the desk space beside him, glad that the secretary had been called into Randal’s office so they wouldn’t be interfering with her job. “Randal did mention you were a ‘Deputy Justice’ and would be our escort in town.”

He pinched the brightly colored fabric of his jacket sleeve. “I wear the yellow for a reason, it’s true. But before any of that gets started I need a drink.” He shot her a grin. “Want to come along and absorb some local culture?”

“Sure.” She answered his grin with one of her own. “Sounds like a great way to kick things off.”

Out of Water: Chapter Two

I forgot to mention last week – for those interested in reading about the previous adventures of Erin’s Dream and her crew you can find them here: 

Emergency Surface

Code Red – Part One

Code Red – Part Two

Now on with the story!


Herrigan drummed his fingers on his console, hoping his nerves didn’t show. Of course, the Aussie group probably didn’t know him, or docking procedures, well enough to tell how much nerves was typical for the situation but he couldn’t help but feel very transparent at the moment. But not telling the Australians about the Trench’s buried communications network had been his idea. So had assigning Tank to go out in a salvage sub to connect and disconnect Erin’s Dream from the network during the approach run instead of doing it himself like usual. That didn’t mean he liked the results.

Part of it was the usual feeling of worry over having his dive crews out when he wasn’t with them. Tank was a good salvage driver but he wasn’t the best pilot on the boat. But with Herrigan on the bridge to create an illusion of normalcy and Drip, the boat’s other top Waldo driver, out of commission until he could get a solid psychiatric evaluation Tank was the best qualified for the job on board. Mostly, he just missed seeing the city as they came in.

Third Ward clung to the side of the Trench, well below the early construction that had been put up when Alcatraz was still officially a penal colony but not quite as deep as the geothermal plant Second Ward had built to serve as the colony’s primary power source as it grew larger. On approach in a Waldo salvage sub you could see almost the entire colony glowing softly in the dark, like a jewel half-buried in the ocean’s shifting sediments. It was beautiful and a little wistful and, for Herrigan, the sight was synonymous with homecoming. As much as he loved Eddie, her bridge wasn’t even on the outer hull and she wasn’t equipped with external cameras so that would be one sight he would miss out on this time.

On the other hand, he did get to hear Ambassador Sudbury negotiating with the Chief Executive as they made the half-hour trip down the trench, through the perimeter minefields and into Alcatraz home waters.

Alcatraz may have originally been populated by hardline political groups but that didn’t mean that the colony had fostered political niceties and the clash between Sudbury, who’d struck Herrigan as deliberately obtuse when they’d first met, and Holman, who had the typical blunt spoken nature of most Alcatraz executives, had been… informative. The two were still on the line, hammering out the details of how and when Sudbury would meet with Third Ward’s Operations staff.

Lauren had been doing her best to eavesdrop on the conversation but, since the ambassador was wearing Oscar’s headset, there wasn’t any way for her to hear both sides. Finally she’d given up and left Sudbury and Hathoway debating details by the captain’s station and moved the few feet back to his console. Gwen looked up long enough to give her a friendly nod but kept her attention on her screens.

“I don’t get it,” Lauren said, her attention still mostly on the ambassador. “How can you run a colony as complex as and experimental as this without a central governing body?”

“We got one. Sudbury’s talking to the head of it right now.” He leaned back in his chair as much as it would allow, which wasn’t very much. Eddie wasn’t built with comfort first in mind. “Thing is he wants to talk to all the Chiefs. That’s gonna take time. They don’t like talking to each other much. Getting all of them to agree to talk to a total stranger is going to be worse than herding cats.”

“Do you even have cats?”

“My niece has a cat plushie. I bought it for her fifth birthday.”

Lauren gave him a patronizing smile. “You must have been uncle of the year.”

“Don’t knock plushies. They’re good for lots of uncle points down here.” Herrigan spared a quick glance for his board and then went back to the conversation at hand. “Thing is, Alcatraz isn’t really a nation, per se. It’s more like a county with a bunch of small, bickering cities scattered around in it and no county council to mediate.”

“That’s the part I don’t get. How could you be around for so long and not put some sort of council in place?”

“Never needed one. After the U.S. abandoned Ellis platform and left us to our own devices the districts – which is what we had before separate Wards were built – were release valves for all the differing viewpoints that had been jammed into one place. People gravitated to the district they were most comfortable in and didn’t want anyone telling them they had to do work with the other districts if they didn’t want to. So no one ever tried to get them to work together.” Herrigan paused for a moment as his status board lit up to let him know Tank was safely back on board. He cleared the message and glanced over at the ambassador, who was now talking about something with Oscar. Tank had to have disconnected Erin’s Dream from the network before he docked so apparently plans were now in place. Hopefully Oscar would clue him in on what they were before they happened.

“So basically Alcatraz has no central government because you’re a bunch of stubborn crooks?” Lauren asked.

Herrigan just shrugged. “And isolated from the outside world something fierce, but yeah, basically.”

“Why do you people even worry about protecting this place again?”

He grinned. “Give us a second to get docked and you can see for yourself.”

——–

Lauren followed Harry and the rest of the bridge crew back through the ship’s living section and into what the trenchmen called “the launching dock.” Really it was just a large hold where the six miniature submarines the crew used to cut up salvage sat when they weren’t in use. The massive hydraulic lifts that dropped the subs into sea locks for launching loomed almost all the way up to the catwalks they walked on, giving the room a dreamlike quality, almost like a forest of iron. As they moved towards the exit hatch Lauren caught a whiff of sea brine, which didn’t make any sense because the subs hadn’t been launched since before Erin’s Dream made port in New Darwin.

Of course the whole ship was as humid as a rain forest so it could have been her imagination. Either way, thoughts about humidity and strange smells left her entirely when she climbed out onto Eddie’s top side and got her first look at the port.

Erin’s Dream was a cramped, damp, gray place, built for pure functionality. Not an inch of space was wasted and the only decoration in sight was the garishly bright colors of the jackets the crew wore. Oscar had warned the group that the rest of Alcatraz wasn’t built like the sub but Lauren hadn’t been prepared for just how different it would be. After all the time aboard the dull, claustrophobic ship her brain had a hard time focusing on any one thing so it locked on to the first thing that got its attention. The docks were green.

Or rather, she realized as they clanked across the gangplank to the dock, the piers were built out of some kind of clear plexiglass that allowed light from the ceiling far above to filter down into the gently waving mass of seaweed in the water below. The docks appeared to be much the same except fernlike plants rose up in mounds about chest high, probably contained in planters of some kind and laid out to create lines of traffic. Every so often a lamp pole rose up out of the ferns, the pole and the cross piece near the top covered in a hardy green moss that hung like Spanish lace. Trenchmen moved up and down the docks everywhere, their brightly colored clothes giving the entire place a tropical air.

“Remarkable,” Sudbury said, sounding just as amazed at the docks as Lauren felt. “Are all your docks like this?”

“Docks and most of the other common areas. Now in First Ward,” Oscar gestured vaguely at the ceiling in what Lauren guessed was the general direction of the ward in question, “they used to mandate this kind of stuff everywhere. Most places still have it, although industrial zones cleared it out real quick once they could.”

Hathoway snorted. “I’ve never heard of a place that liked gardening so much they made green thumbs a legal requirement.”

“They just liked breathing,” Herrigan said, sounding a little testy. “Population was outstripping mechanical oxygen supply at the time so we bred an organic supply.”

And just like that the wonder of the situation was gone. Lauren shook herself to get her mind back in the game and said, “Sorry, Harry. We’re just impressed, is all. We’ll try and keep gawking down but you have to admit that we’re kind of fish out of water, here.”

“No. You’re not.” He said it very decisively.

Oscar jumped in as Herrigan seemed to have said his piece. “It’s probably for the best if you don’t use any idioms about water down here. They probably all mean something different than what you’re used to. Let’s get up to the lockmaster’s and you can meet the Chiefs.”

The Australians dutifully followed their native guides, Lauren wondering the whole way what other unexpected landmines they might stumble over on their way.

Out of Water: Chapter One

The hull of Erin’s Dream groaned as the tired salvage sub sank down below the edge of the Marianas Trench. Lauren Cochran watched as the ship’s salvage commander, Herrigan Cartwright, wiped the condensation off the shoulder of his bright yellow jacket and threw it on the floor. It was a practiced, unconscious movement, one she’d realized was something between a dismissal and a curse. Barely two feet to his right the ship’s XO, Gwen Bolton, mimicked the gesture. Apparently the ship’s crew didn’t like the noise any better than she did. Lauren knew Erin’s Dream had suffered a hull breach before making port in New Darwin but the repairs had all been cleared by safety inspectors before it headed out to sea again.

Of course none of those inspectors had been told its final destination was a half forgotten prison colony built near the bottom of the deepest chasm in the world.

With eight people crammed into a space that couldn’t be more than twelve by twelve, plus the control consoles and station chairs, the bridge was cramped and tense. Given the distant attitude the crew had shown them so far she wasn’t sure why the small Australian delegation had been invited to watch the ship make port at Stalag, the Third Ward of a prison colony turned self governing state calling itself Alcatraz. For that matter, she wasn’t entirely sure why she had been sent with the delegation at all. She was an assistant harbormaster, not a diplomat. Her only qualification was the amount of time she’d spent around the crew since they got into port and even on that count she was sure Ambassador Sudbury had her beat. He’d spent a lot of time with the ship’s owners during the weeks it was laid up for repairs.

“All engines stopped,” the XO announced. “How’s her back, Graham?”

“Hull looks fine,” Gwen’s brother replied from the ops station, “but give her a second to get her feet under her. It’s been a while since Eddie was this deep.”

Herrigan pulled a headset out from under his console and put it on. “I’ll call in and let the lockmaster know we’re coming.”

“Lockmaster?” Sudbury asked.

Captain Duffy leaned back from his work station to give the ambassador his full attention. “He’s somewhere between a harbor master and an engineer in charge of keeping the sea locks in working order so subs can get in and out of the Ward.”

“Did you rename everything in your society?” The grumpy man asking was the Sergeant in charge of the small Australian army detachment – really just two people – sent along to keep Lauren and the Ambassador safe. Most people seemed content to attribute his generally surly attitude to the fact that he felt dangerously understaffed for his responsibilities.

“We didn’t rename anything. We just didn’t feel any need to borrow from existing surface societies when inventing entirely new things.” Herrigan was the one exception to the spirit of good will Lauren had noticed, perhaps because he was kind of the opposite of Sergeant Hathoway. Both men had spent a fair portion of the trip watching each other suspiciously and not talking much. He was friendly enough with the rest of the delegation but something about Hathoway seemed to rub him the wrong way.

“What happened to calling in?” Gwen muttered.

Ambassador Sudbury stepped in to break up the tension. “I thought your subs maintained radio silence as a way to stay hidden.”

“Once we’re in the trench we have relays that let us talk to Alcatraz without risk of detection,” the captain said. “Without real time contact we’d have a hard time navigating the hazards between us and home.”

Lauren suppressed a shudder. “What kind of hazards do you have down this deep? Predators?”

Gwen laughed at that. “Nothing big enough to hurt Eddie, even with the bad shape she’s in. There isn’t enough for something that big to eat, assuming we weren’t past it’s crush depth. We have smaller fish, crustaceans and jellyfish running around but nothing like monster sharks or kraken or stuff like that. Most of the dangerous stuff comes from us.”

“What kind of trash do you leave laying around down here?” Lauren asked. “I thought Alcatraz sent out salvage subs because it couldn’t afford to leave stuff lying around.”

“It’s not trash,” Herrigan said. “It’s other things.”

Before Hathoway could ask what he meant Herrigan keyed his headset and said, “Hello, Alcatraz control. This is the Erin’s Dream, requesting an approach lane and permission to dock from Third Ward’s lockmaster.”

——–

“I told you your cousin would be fine.” Randal hopped down stairs two at a time trying to keep up with Sam as his friend clattered down towards the lock levels at full tilt.

“I wasn’t worried about him. Herrigan’s tough as nails. But Aunt Martha practically went gray this month and the family’s been hopping trying to keep her spirits up. He shouldn’t be worrying his mother like that.” Sam shot Randal a look over his shoulder. “This is personal business, Chief. Don’t you have other things to be doing? Like getting a campaign in order?”

Randal chuffed a laugh out in between deep breaths, trying not to show how much the pace was taking out of him. “I’ve spent four and a half years of my life as the Third Ward chief executive, that’s long enough thank you. Not sure why I wanted to be a politician in a colony full of stubborn political prisoners, it’s worse than wrangling cats.”

“You’ve never seen a cat before. We don’t have them here. How would you know?” Sam was sounding a bit winded himself, although at nearly ten years Randal’s senior he had a decent excuse.

“I’ll concede the point if you’ll quit trying to talk me into running for office again.” After six flights of stairs, going down or not, both men were glad to reach the door that let them in to the control room that overlooked the main sealock control center. Half a dozen faces swivled to look at the two with curious expressions. Randal grinned. “Quarterly inspection, folks. We’re here to make sure you’re parking the boats right.”

The lockmaster grunted and went back to his console. “Interested in one boat in particular, I’ll bet.” He waved absently towards one of the other technicians. “I think Frank’s on the line with Erin’s Dream right now.”

As the two men approached Frank’s station he hit a key on his control screen that switched his audio from his headset to speakers. “-coming in for final approach and requesting docking instructions.”

Herrigan’s voice came over the speaker and Randal saw Sam smile out of the corner of his eye. In spite of what he said Randal knew the Cartwrights were a close family and had been worried as Harry’s ship got more and more overdue. “Eddie’s two months overdue, Cartwright,” Frank said, pulling up the current docking assignments on his screen. “Her usual berth’s taken. Get your ship in sooner if you want her resting easy, I’ll have to see what I can scrounge for you. Guess you got a full hold of scrap after all that time out there, at least.”

There line was quiet for nearly a minute, long enough for Sam and Randal to exchange curious looks, before Herrigan’s voice came back. “Some scrap, control. Also, perishables.”

The sealock controller sat back in his seat and scratches at his head. “Perishables? Did you find an intact medical shipment or something?”

“No. It’s foodstuffs. Mostly vegetables. A few head of livestock. And four passengers.”

Sam leaned forward and cleared the docking assignments from Frank’s screen, leaving him looking at the sonar profile for Erin’s Dream, as if that would give him some kind of insight into what was going on. “Where did he pick up that kind of stuff?”

Frank’s thoughts must have been running along the same line because he said, “How did any of that stuff survive salvage depth? It’s well past crush depth for any of it.”

“We picked it up in Australia. Long story. Look, the four passengers are a diplomatic envoy from Canberra and they want taken to our leaders or something. Have the lockmaster call the Chief Executive up and let him know what’s going on then find us somewhere to park and order a repair crew. Eddie needs her hull looked at.”

Frank switched off his headset and gave Randal a questioning look. Randal looked around and realized that everyone else in the room was mirroring it. A huge mess had just landed in his lap. There weren’t rules for receiving diplomats, no one had ever really anticipated it being a necessity. He wasn’t even sure the other Chiefs would be able to agree on a way to deal with foreign negotiations, they had a hard enough time agreeing amongst themselves. And given that everyone in the room had just heard that contact with the surface had been reestablished keeping that little fact under wraps was now a pipe dream. For a moment Randal stood stock still, trying to juggle variables and figure out what they should do next.

Naturally, the first thing he asked was, “Think they brought any cats with that livestock?”

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: Brawl

Izzy

Circuit kicked things off with a literal bang, electricity arcing with a teeth rattling crack from his chair to his hands, then from his hands to the plasma cloud in front of Helix. Things got weird – if the guy throwing lighting wasn’t weird enough – when the plasma ball bent and stretched from an orb to a weird, wavering teardrop shape that pushed towards the middle of the room before throwing lightning bolts at the two nearest guards and sending them tumbling to the ground. That seemed like an excellent time to gently tip a desk over on top of them so I did.

Hopefully it was too heavy for them to move, I’m not very good at judging things like that. To be on the safe side I got a desk for each of them.

The man on the throne swooped through the hole in the side of the building, his hoverchair – or whatever you wanted to call it – humming loud enough to be heard over the chaos and the plasma cloud bent back towards Helix. Whatever was going on there it was probably magnetic and headache inducing, by which I mean any attempt to explain it would probably fry the brains of most people, so I didn’t worry about it too much and just kept an eye on the to make sure I didn’t get fried by it as it went spastic.

Helix apparently had no such worries because he walked through the plasma with no visible harm. As he did so he clapped his hands over his ears and dropped his mouth open, giving me just enough of a warning what was coming that I could do the same and confusing most everyone else in the room to no end. The plasma abruptly shimmered out of existence, the heat that kept it burning quickly dispersing in the surrounding atmosphere as Helix stopped holding it in one place. The result was a loud bang exactly like you would expect from a bolt of lighting, since the part of lighting that you see is composed of superheated plasma doing the exact same thing.

The noise was loud enough that I could feel it in my sternum and even with my ears covered and my mouth open to relieve pressure it still felt like the noise came from a whip cracking at the side of my head. I managed to get my bearings with a quick shake to clear my head and Helix didn’t seemed bothered by the noise any more than I was but by the time my head was clear the guards in the room were still woozily looking about or had hands on the side of their heads. Circuit didn’t seem to notice at all, or at least he didn’t do anything about the noise for all I knew he’d put earplugs in while I was busy smashing walls, but whatever the explanation Davis apparently shared it because he didn’t seem bothered either. His partner with the fancy hoverthrone was probably protected by the fact that he was still at the far end of the room and probably too far to suffer more than minor tinnitus from Helix’s improvised flashbang.

In spite of being the closest to ground zero Helix showed the least signs of being affected out of anyone there, he’d already put one guard into an arm lock and levered him to the floor by the time my ears stopped ringing enough for my eyes to focus again. But even with most of the players temporarily stunned we were still outnumbered and Davis was surprisingly fast for a man of his size, and he jumped Helix with a lack a finesse more than made up for with enthusiasm.

Desks were getting pretty scarce on my side of the room for some reason so I took matters into my own hands by the expedient of trying to grab Davis. Before I could add one more to the three person pile-up Hoverthrone sideswiped me and I spun once, rolled twice and wound up against the wall with a throbbing pain in my side where I’d been hit. Yes I could have stopped him with one hand if I’d seen him coming but that’s the real trick and I hadn’t managed it. I got to my feet and swiped my hand through the wall, fumbling for a second before I managed to grab a two-by-four and yanked it out of the wall in a shower of drywall dust. I realized as I was hefting it to throw that yanking it out of the wall hand left the ends jagged and potentially fatal if I threw it at Davis, who wasn’t in body armor, so I switched and flung it at the Hoverthrone, catching it low, near the base in fact, and tumbling it end over end. The rider fell entirely out of the chair, proving that Circuit’s roller coaster style restraints were a wise choice, and without direction the throne itself just kept spinning for a moment before falling to the ground like an abandoned puppet.

Circuit’s head snapped around, the throne’s deactivation apparently distracting him from beating a guard’s head against the armrest of his wheelchair. Pushing the guard aside Circuit kicked his chair into motion, it’s motor whirring frantically as he rolled towards the tangle of equipment at the center of the room. He only got halfway there before Davis looked up from the frantic wrestling match he was tangled in and yelled, “Stop him!”

A second later Davis went back down as Helix kicked him in the teeth.

Circuit’s doppelganger – evil twin just doesn’t sound right – scrambled to his feet and made a twitching motion in the direction of the only guard left standing, a woman who still looked a little dazed, and she went flying towards Circuit. She suddenly slowed a few feet away and Circuit managed to grab her and deflect her over the top of his chair but it was proof enough that the guards were still wearing maglev harnesses and fake Circuit still had some measure of control over them.

And fake Circuit himself was wearing a harness too, as he proved when a second later he jerked up and over the debris we’d left all over the place, flying straight towards Circuit with a frustrated scream. Circuit matched flying with flying, his chair whirring back away from his imposter for a split second before it cleared the floor itself and went straight up towards the ceiling. For some reason the wheelchair flipped over mid-air and wound up with its wheels pressed against the ceiling as Circuit looked down on his double disapprovingly.

Fake Circuit had his arms outstretched and I wondered for a split second whether Circuit’s chair had flipped because of interference from his rival, then one of the chair’s wheels spun and it pivoted 180 degrees around the other wheel putting Circuit right above his clone. Then chair and rider dropped like a stone, Circuit’s arms outstretched to catch his double, and both men crashed to the floor with the chair on top of them.

Davis and Helix were still grappling with each other but the guard Helix had been tangling with at first had squirmed free and started over to dig his boss out. I headed that off at the pass, crossing over to him with three quick steps, looping one hand around his head as I slid a knee behind his. Flipping him to the ground was as easy as flicking water off of my fingers and I took his carbine and twisted its barrel into a knot as an afterthought. What I really wanted was the Hoverthrone.

It sat on its side where it had fallen, looking fairly inoffensive covered in dust with a two-by-four sticking out of the bottom, not like the monument to self-importance it had probably been intended as. But then, self-important stuff rarely comes off looking as grand as it’s intended. I picked the thing up, stepped over to the pit it was obviously intended to fit in somehow and smashed the two things together. They didn’t fit together nicely so I tried it again. And again. And a few more times, for good measure. Once the whole mess was reduced to a sparking mess of wires, cracked casings and loose microchips I tossed the wrecked throne aside and looked around.

None of the guards seemed to be interested in fighting anymore. Circuit had somehow righted his wheelchair and was rubbing at his shoulder with a pained look on his face, his double was still crumpled on the floor and might not have been breathing. And Helix was cuffing Davis, who had a nasty looking nosebleed and what would probably turn out to be two black eyes. I heaved a sigh and dusted my hands off. “There, that’s over with.”

Helix gave me an approving look before turning to look at Circuit. His expression quickly turned dark. “No. We’re not done yet. Not by a long shot.”

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Thunder Clap: Knock Down

Izzy

Helix and I crashed into the room below, which looked like a really swank office before we left it full dust and rubble. I kicked the massive hardwood desk in the center of the room up to form a makeshift ramp that Circuit could use to half roll half slide his chair down to us. Helix and I caught him by the wheels of his chair. As we set his chair back on its wheels. As we did Helix said, “Another floor down, Izzy.”

“You sure?” I asked.

He grinned. “Circuit may have built this place to counter me but I’m betting his lackey-”

“Davis,” Circuit put in.

“I doubt Davis,” Helix continued, “could have kept things Circuit-proof and me-proof. Another floor down.”

There wasn’t much more of an explanation forthcoming so I smashed my was through another floor, trying not to calculate the damages we were going to have to pay out when this was over. Project Sumter might have nearly bottomless pockets thanks to Federal funding but we do have to get our budget approved every year just like everyone else. People who put too much strain on that budget can loose their jobs. Of course, I was a rookie and Helix was the season agent so hopefully that meant he knew what he was doing.

The next corner down was a large cubicle farm and I had to clear a landing place before Helix could jump down. To save time I just went back up and brought Circuit back down with me, chair and all. For good measure I went up again and dragged the desk over to the hole and tipped it onto the hole, slipping down under it as it fell, so anyone trying to follow would have to waste time moving it. The whole process took maybe thirty seconds but I came back to find Circuit and Helix arguing again.

“No, it’s not a matter of trust,” Circuit was saying. “But I’m not charging through the building at random just because you remember a skyline and think you know where we can see it at.”

“Not what I was saying,” Helix said, smiling for some reason. “I don’t know the city well enough to guess what part of it was looking at from just the skyline, that’s what I have people like Mossburger and Movsessian for. But I do know you, and I know you tend to be really stingy with what you tell people.”

“Information control is at the heart of supervillainy, Helix.” Circuit’s tone was the closest I think he’ll ever get to saying, “Duh!”

“Sure, if you say so.” Helix didn’t sound like he was paying much attention. “But I’m guessing you never mentioned to Davis that I could sense heat, as well as manipulate it.”

Understanding dawned on Circuit’s face. “He didn’t insulate the new control throne he created for his pet fusebox. It must be leaking more heat than a server farm with all the power it would take to keep things running.”

“So what’s the plan?” I asked, glancing nervously around the big open space. Helix wasn’t tall enough to be seen over the cubicle walls, and I’d appreciate if he never finds out I said that, while Circuit was always sitting down so that left me feeling like the only groundhog looking out of it’s hole while the hawks were circling. It’s not a fun feeling, let me tell you.

Helix, oblivious to how exposed I was feeling at the moment, pointed across the cubicles and said, “Run that way until you run out of building and you’ll find the place Circuit’s lookalike is hanging out.”

“I hope you don’t want me to actually run out of the building,” I said, “because I’ve had enough of that for one day.” His expression told me he didn’t know what I mean and I didn’t feel like relating my last near-skydiving experience just then. “Never mind. I just run in a straight line? Through the walls and everything?”

“Yes.” Helix scowled. “They’re expecting us to play it by the rules. I’m not really in a mood to give it to them. We go straight to them, we tie them up, we take them to jail. No questions asked. Problems?”

I shook my head and Circuit just grunted. Somehow Helix had wrangled himself back to being in charge, something I had a feeling he was used to doing. Still, I wasn’t going to argue. I’d had to take a basic architecture class or two last year, to help me figure out what not to break, so I knew there weren’t likely to be load bearing walls along the perimeter of a building this size, so going straight forward wasn’t likely to cause structural problems and that was really the only possible reason I could think of not to do what Helix was suggesting. After all that Davis and his cronies had put me through it was time for some payback.

So I turned in the direction Helix pointed in and I went forward. Not as fast as I could, I didn’t want to get too far ahead of Circuit or my boss. Papa always says your can’t be too close, after all. But bursting through walls is kind of a thrill and by the time I was through the second one I was putting on some speed, dashing past or jumping over a barely seen mess of office furniture, computer equipment and fake looking potted plants. At one point I broke out into a hallway again for half a second and I guessed I was at the halfway point of the building. For lack of a better way to keep track I started counting the walls we went through as a way to keep track of how much building was left. I was expecting to burst a dozen before we found the throne Helix was looking for.

In point of fact there were only ten. The last room was really big and, from the looks of the carpet, most of the stuff that had been in it had been dragged outside to make room for the nest of cables and computer equipment that sat in a semicircle around some kind of socket or mounting in the middle of the room. I spotted at least a dozen people in my quick glance around the room, only about half of them looked to be armed in the heavy-duty way of the guards we’d run across so far. It looked like we’d finally found some of the technical types who had to be keeping all this mess running. In the minus column, all the people in the room who did look like guards had apparently figured out what direction we were coming from and turned to face the wall I’d made an entrance through. They weren’t all looking directly at me but most of them had their weapons pointed in the right general direction.

And it turned out Helix was right, we did have to literally run out of building to get Circuit’s lookalike. A hole had been cut in the outside wall sometime during the night – because there was no way that exit was up to building code – and hovering outside it, some seventy-five floors above the ground, was a black throne to do any evil overlord justice. The guy sitting in it was pretty much a carbon copy of all the photos I’d seen of Circuit at the height of his career, stylish suit, scarf wrapped around his face, he had to be sweating to death in the August heat. Maybe Helix had been able to locate him so easily just because they’d put this hole in the building.

Of course, he shattered the illusion almost immediately by pointing at me and yelling, in a voice with none of Circuit’s sense of dignity, “Kill her!”

Which was my cue to scramble for cover.

 

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Thunder Clap: Down and Down

Izzy

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

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

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

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

Helix

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

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

“Down, Circuit,” I snapped. “Now.”

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

I didn’t dignify that with a response.

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

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

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

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

Pun intended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A sensible attitude,” Circuit said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Liquid nitrogen?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thunder Clap: Melting And Entering

Izzy

“You know, whichever one of your minions thought that this would be a good way to get around is going to be put in for extra jail time. You know that, right?”

“What’s your problem with it, Helix? The lack of control or being suspended over seventy floors of empty space with no safety net?”

“Not so much the lack of control as who’s in control.”

If it was still working I would have been recording Helix and Circuit’s bickering on my phone. There was a strong resemblance to couples I’d known in high school right before they broke up and I knew no one from the Project would believe me if I told them about it without evidence. It was weird to say the least.

I grabbed the edge of the elevator shaft and leaned out to catch a glimpse of the two of them hovering several floors up. “I don’t mean to bug you two but are you going to clear the shaft any time soon?”

“Just a moment, Rodriguez.” Circuit held his hands out towards the side of the elevator shaft and there was a sharp popping noise and a flash of light.

“What was that?” Helix asked.

“Quick shock intended to knock out a specific set of countermeasures,” Circuit answered.

“Well why didn’t you just do that before?” I asked, annoyed at the thought of all the time he’d wasted checking for and disarming traps the old fashioned way while we were on our way up the tower earlier.

“I was conserving power in case we had to search a large portion of the top floors one at a time,” he said. “Good work on that interrogation, by the way. I doubt we’d have had time to get any useful information out of those three we caught using any of the other interrogation techniques we had available to us.”

I felt a quick surge of satisfaction that only lasted as long as it took me to remember who was paying the compliment. “So is it safe to go through the door now?”

“No. I never forgot that there were more talents at Sumter’s disposal than just Helix, even if he was the one I expected to see the most.” He reached for the tool compartment on his chair. “There’s a mechanical lock – no electronics at all – on the doors to the floors where command stations might be set up. It was included in the plans in case Project Sumter ever found a fuse box capable of countering my safeguards. You could probably break through it if you had good footing, Agent Rodriguez, but I’d rather not run the risk that you find you can’t in the middle of one of your spectacular jumps.”

I winced at the mental image of my hitting the door and sliding off like a Looney Toons character. “Yeah, there’s limits to how far even a taxman can fall and survive.”

Helix kicked his heels against the far side of the elevator shaft and shot over to the door. His hands seemed to freeze to the door and the metal started to warp. I realized that my hair was standing on end and it was suddenly very cool in the shaft. “Anything I should know about this lock of yours before I melt it?” He asked. “Is it an exotic compound that becomes a toxic aerosol when it melts?”

“Nothing so exotic,” Circuit said dryly. “What’s your hurry?”

By now Helix was up to his elbows in melting door. It was kind of unsettling to see. “Circuit, you take your time before you do anything, am I right? Every scheme of yours is carefully thought out a dozen steps ahead and with contingencies every step along the way.”

“That’s a fair assessment.”

“Well it seems to me that you’ve never really developed an appreciation for the time crunch involved in real law enforcement work. You always take the fastest way because that means you have the best chance of catching the bad guy before he gets away, no matter what obstacles he’s come up with to slow you down.” There was a loud clunk and Helix pulled his hands out of the door, drops of glowing red metal scattering from his hands as he shook them off. “Door’s ready. Let’s go.”

Circuit grunted, I couldn’t tell if he was impressed or just amused, and the two of them moved up the shaft. I gathered my feet under me and made the jump, taking an extra split second to adjust my trajectory as I came in contact with the far wall. I’d gotten the timing and angle for a ten story jump down cold but we’d made our way up the stairs, with me carrying Circuit’s chair, until we got to the seventy-fifth floor, so I was only looking at a three story jump this time and I wanted the timing to be right.

Fortunately there were no problems on that front.

Unfortunately, after I crashed into the hallway beyond the elevator door I found myself staring at six armed men in a line across the far end of the hall with the squarish looking man, who Circuit kept calling Davis, standing behind them. He smiled when he saw me. “Well, it’s our escapee come back to us. Now would be a good time to think about surrendering again.”

“I didn’t surrender last time,” I said, cautiously getting to my feet. “I believe you gassed me.”

The smile quickly changed to something much darker. “Then why don’t we see if we can get you to surrender this time, shall we?”

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Thunder Clap: Putting the Foot Down

Izzy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Long story.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lightning funnels?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Stillwater is here?” Helix asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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