Pay the Piper – Chapter Three

Previous Chapter

As fate and the courts would have it, we wound up going to see TsunLao before visiting the drone manufacturer. Almost as soon as I was back at the hotel, Mixer got in touch with me and confirmed that yes, the FBI had asked to put me on retainer and other than the court date I had coming up my schedule was clear so he’d agreed provisionally. I went ahead and told him to finalize the retainer then start looking in to moving that court date as well; given the scope of what we were dealing with I really didn’t want to wander away from things for three days if I didn’t have to.

The next morning I woke up to knock at the door – the Gifted don’t like using phones if we can help it, they create all kinds of interference – which proved to be someone from the front desk telling me Natalie would be coming to pick me up in half an hour. Since a warrant for a psychometric interrogation takes much less time to file for, and receive, than a raid on a small industrial facility we’d gotten the okay on visiting TsunLao and were still waiting to find out if they’d okay the manufacturer raid.

I got downstairs late, still in the process of dragging on my jacket and gloves, to find Natalie standing impatiently near the entrance to the lobby. Most of the people coming in or going out were giving her a discreet but clear bubble of space, confirming my impression that she broadcast quite loudly. It’s not that the Gifted find that unpleasant but we also don’t want to be rude and eavesdrop. She gave me a once over as I presented myself, looking a bit less bright and chipper this morning. I wondered if she hadn’t gotten all the coffee she’d hoped for.

“Didn’t you wear that yesterday?” She asked.

“That was the Navy blue suit. This is the Royal blue.” I tugged my jacket absently. To tell the truth, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference using just my eyes either. “Same manufacturer, though. You can’t get good quality linen clothes from very many places these days.”

She studied my clothes skeptically for a minute. “If you say so. Does it really have to be linen?”

“It’s the only fabric that can completely shed the impressions left by machine assembly, so if I don’t want to hear industrial sewing machines all the time, yes. I make good money but I can’t have my entire wardrobe hand sewn.”

There’s a lot of little things to get used to, dealing with psychometrics. The lower functioning ones are mistaken for mentally ill or damaged people, hearing voices that haven’t spoken in years or centuries, and even those of us who can make it day to day are usually more than a bit out of sorts. But, aside from a reasonable dose of curiosity, Natalie seemed to be taking to things pretty well. She hadn’t forgotten to open any doors – wasn’t that a bit of a role reversal – and the faint smell of ozone as she opened the car door testified to the fact that she’d remembered to decontaminate the passenger cabin that morning. I’d known her less than twenty four hours and, if not for the really strong mental projection she gave off, I was tempted to give her perfect marks as a handler already.

However, there was still one major aspect of the job that I needed to go over with her and that was an actual interview.

You see, there’s a lot of techniques to a good interview and many of them rely on two people working in tandem to pull off. Trained officers and agents spend a lot of time working out their strategies before they go into an interview or interrogation. The problem is, the whole point of my joining an interview is to pull on whatever threads a line of questioning turns up. My job is reactive, an interrogation is proactive. To help meld those two together, there’s a whole laundry list of hand signals, verbal cues and even props like my gloves that I can use to prompt my handler as to changes we need to make in strategy. It’s as much art as science and learning the flow of it is not something you can do just by memorizing the Psychometric Procedures manual.

But knowing the procedures does help, so I spent most of the trip over there quizzing Natalie on various signals and what they meant. She did pretty well for someone who’d never used them in a practical situation but I still walked up the steps to Lao’s home studio with a sense of trepidation. Not because of anything she’d done, but because I hate doing interviews.

Hackers believe information should be free. Anarchists believe that borders and nations are immoral. The first time you have to try and break into the mind of a total stranger you’ll immediately realize that secrets and walls are a vitally important part of what makes it possible for two humans – any two – to live on the same planet without killing each other. You don’t want to understand or empathize with the person next to you right now. Really, you don’t. You can do it if you build up a strong relationship with them, if you value them beyond the abstract idea of humanity as a valuable thing. But try it with a total stranger and you will fail.

I’ve always liked TsunLao, valued his ideas about culture and government as well thought out positions, argued with conviction, even if they were occasionally utterly worthless. That was about to end because I was about to get a look at what he was like beneath all that.

By the time he answered the door I was already deep into interrogation mode, as it was important to establish a baseline as quickly as possible so I could more easily spot deviations from it. Most of Natalie’s charming her way into the house went right past me – I could tell it was happening but really didn’t catch any of the words. I was more interested in the patterns.

With her overactive emotional projections, Natalie painted a very clear picture of someone trying to do her job professionally and fairly. It took a little work but I managed to tune that out and catch the less distinct but equally clear sense of curiosity and amusement coming from Lao. That was the general attitude he gave off over the screen and it was nice to see it was genuine, but that wasn’t where I was going to stop today. Forensic mode was a measure of intent in the past, interrogation mode was a measure of intent and attitude in the present. Like most people, Lao started off in a fairly scattered state, his conscious and subconscious mind chewing on a lot of different things at once. It’s hard to tell what all the different threads going through a person’s mind are since, like actual threads, they’re quite tangled. But the nice thing about the letters FBI are how wonderfully they clear away distractions.

Like most people would, as soon as he saw Natalie’s ID, Lao became very focused and very suspicious. The tinge of curiosity remained, but for the most part he settled into a healthy skepticism of us. However, unlike with many people, there was no surprise.

Generally that’s suspicious but there are times when it’s totally normal. Like when someone you owe a lot of money dies suspiciously. Or when a company you’ve publicly feuded with suddenly gets attacked. It made judging Lao’s reaction more difficult.

Natalie had gained access to Lao’s home by the time I had finished my preliminary assessment and we were walking down a hallway into what I recognized as his primary recording studio when I came back up enough to follow the conversation. By which point Lao had wisely stopped talking so I got to take a look around the studio without having to split my concentration. It looked pretty much like what you saw on camera, a simple but comfortable chair next to a small end table with a tablet on it, a sofa at a 90 degree angle to the chair, the seating arranged around a coffee table, a shelf of small artifacts and art pieces with a Chinese theme to them along the wall behind. Outside the part of the room the camera would normally see things were much the same. Comfortable carpet, a few more display pieces, including a large plate with bamboo painted on it, and a messy but contained pile of camera, mics, wire and sundry electronics that doubtlessly all tied into the tablet for recording.

As Lao looked around the room I caught his attention resting on his collection of art and antiques. He was proud of them and… there was a pattern. I narrowed my eyes, assessing the stuff and trying to determine what tied it together. But I’m not as knowledgeable of Chinese history as my grandfather might have liked, so I couldn’t parse it.

Then Lao was settling into his chair and his attitude shifted, becoming more confident and assured. This was where he did business, he was confident and in control. Or so he thought.

It was a good impression to cultivate for this kind of interview, it made him more likely to be careless. Lao motioned us to the sofa and we seated ourselves, Natalie putting her phone on the coffee table as she did so. “We’ll be recording this conversation for our records.”

“Of course,” Lao said, then waved a hand towards his own equipment. “Would you like me to do it? You’d get better sound quality, though I don’t know as that matters to you.”

Cheeky.

“It doesn’t,” Natalie said. “Would you mind stating your full name, for the record?”

“Charles Henry Wu.”

“Your profession, Mr. Wu?”

“People pay me money to make a spectacle of myself, arguing politics. So a journalist, I suppose.”

Natalie switched her tactics, trying to establish a more casual relationship with Lao. “You go by the handle TsunLao in your professional circles?”

He actually laughed at that. “If you want to call them that.”

Matching his amusement, Natalie leaned forward a bit and dropped the professional tone she’d been using in favor of something more warm and inviting. “You must place high value on your Chinese roots.”

“I’m ethnically Kekistani.”

You just can’t go anywhere with a shitposter who gets into his rhythm and Natalie clearly had no idea what he was talking about so it was time for me to try and redirect the conversation. And we needed to do something, anything, to put Lao on the back foot. We wanted him to talk about the things he’d rather not and that meant keeping him slightly uncomfortable. Fortunately, there’s a very simple way for me to do that.

“Mr. Wu – do you go by Mr. Wu or Lao?”

“Whichever you prefer,” Lao replied, settling a bit and wondering where I was headed.

“Lao, before we go any further I’m required by law to inform you that I’m a psychometer of the third rank, working with the FBI as a consultant, with the ability to read a great deal about a person’s mental state just by being in the room with them.” Lao had started off amused at my declaration but was sliding quickly towards horrified disbelief. Probably thought a complete nutjob had somehow tagged along with the FBI this morning. “For example, I will know if you’re lying to us.”

He blinked and suddenly his amused watchfulness was back. “Bullshit. Is this some kind of new interrogation technique? Lie transparently and see how someone reacts?”

That was a typical response, and also a genuine one. Lao hadn’t met a psychometer before and he didn’t think he’d met one now. There was an easy way around that. “I can actually glean a greater deal of information by touch. Perhaps you’d like a demonstration?”

“What? Are you going to take my hand and tell me about my mood?” Lao shook his head. “Palm reading is a mix of mind games and pulse reading. You really expect it to work in the age of the Internet? Anyone can watch a how to video and be an expert on it in a few hours.”

I just got up from the couch and walked over to his recording equipment. “Nice set up here. You store your files in this rig or offsite?”

“I keep them there, and back up offsite once a month…”

That was actually a pretty strong data storage program for someone in his line of work. Most of them counted on the cloud to keep their files safe. I looked through the gear for a minute until I found the main tower and then touched it. “Hm. Two terabyte solid state drive. Decent amount of storage there, probably cost you a fortune. Less than a hundred gigabytes of free space remaining. Must be close to time for a backup.”

Lao had gone quiet and the amusement was gone, replaced with a surface watchfulness under girded with a frantic grinding of gears. The wheels were turning indeed. He reached out and picked up his tablet, working the touchscreen for a moment or two. “That’s very interesting. Did you guess based on industry standards and a general knowledge of my publishing schedule?”

“No, although I’ve wondered why your videos on the second Tuesday of every month went up an hour later than the rest.” I pushed a little deeper into the drive. “Search for files created on the twenty eighth of last month, then sort by file size. The first file in the list will be, “A Live Stream with RickySez (RAW)”. You’ve been slumming, Lao.”

He looked at the tablet a moment longer before setting it aside. “Yes, that’s why I ultimately didn’t do anything with the footage. Why are you telling me this? Aren’t people with paranormal abilities supposed to try and keep them secret from the government or something?”

“That would be tricky, considering that two FBI directors, a head of the CIA and President Grover Cleveland were all psychometrics of varying degrees.” I walked back over to the couch and sat down. “And I know you’re too savvy to ever mention it in public. You’d be relegated to conspiracy theorist and paranormal nutjob in a heartbeat. A.J. Jackson does good work from that corner of the Internet but he’s also got a pretty effective monopoly on it.”

“True enough.” Lao leaned back in his chair, the gears still spinning. “Well, you have my attention. What’s brought a third rank psychometric all the way out here to interview me.”

That was my cue to punt.

Natalie received and ran it back for the next question, clearing her throat and asking, “Where were you yesterday, between the hours of eight and ten AM?”

Lao snorted once, then looked from Natalie to me and back again. “Well that’s simple. I was here, recording the first half of my next video. You can check the files yourself, if you want. Was that all?”

A Peaceful Hour

Sam slid into the seat with a weary noise. “What makes you think I can predict the future, Sharon?”

“This.” She plopped the pile of paperwork in front of him. Idly, Sam wondered if they ever replaced paper in the future. Might be worth looking into that. “Changes to the patent application process that came into the office bright and early this morning, due to go into effect next month.”

He stared at the paperwork stupidly, his pain and exhaustion fogged brain still able to suggest one pretty good reason Sharon might suddenly think he could predict the future. “And?”

“And they make the patent application you gave us 100% correct. I’s dotted, T’s crossed.” Sharon folded her hands on the table in front of her. “Problem is, no one outside the patent office should have seen these changes until this morning. You submitted your application to us two weeks ago. How do you think that happened?”

“It wasn’t time travel.”

She shook her head in irritation. “Mr. King, this kind of insider business move is highly illegal. I don’t know how you heard of the changes ahead of time but if you think-”

“I didn’t.” Sam pulled his left glove off and drummed the artificial fingers under it once on the table. The middle and ring fingers spasmed erratically for a half second then fell back into place. “Like you said, I predicted the future. The changes were already in place then.” There was a moment of silence as Sharon stared intently at the hand. “The hand is exhibit B. That’s how lawyers say it, right? Or is that just a TV thing?”

Sharon ignored his banal question and asked, “Did you have that yesterday?”

“Yes, but it wasn’t attached to me.”

“Why is it attached to you now?”

“Well.” Sam ran it over once in his mind. “I guess it started with the lottery numbers…”

——–

“Damn, TC, you went through that like a thunderbolt!” Slim knelt down and ran his fingers along the edge of the sheet metal Teddy had just flown through, examining the almost cartoonishly round hole, complete with ragged edges jutting out, that he’d left behind. “Wasn’t expecting you to hit it so low to the ground, though.”

“Wanted to see if being as tough as I am protected my clothes along with the rest of me.” Teddy pulled on his shirt, which was full of rips and tears all up and down the front. “Which it apparently doesn’t.”

“You need a tighter fitting shirt,” Slim suggested. “Maybe something in the UnderArmor category.”

Teddy made a noncommittal sound, keeping his own lack of confidence in skin tight clothing to himself. Maybe less his confidence in the clothing itself and more his lack of confidence in him, wearing said clothing. A diet might be in order. “So I can fly, I’m tough and I’m strong. That’s really basic stuff, right?”

Slim shrugged. “Way I see it, you can take a bullet or ten and answer with a rock going twice as fast. Why complain?”

“Point.”

“Question is, what do you want to do with it now?”

“Me?” He gave Slim a look.

Slim started. “Well, yeah. I mean, I ain’t giving you orders anymore. I’m not stupid. The way I see it, you can do pretty much anything you want now.”

Teddy walked over to the large passenger van he’d lifted, figuratively and literally, as a test of strength earlier. He rocked back and for on it’s suspension with a light touch, rolling over possibilities in his head. “Tell me something, Slim.”

“Yeah?”

“How much do you think an armored car weighs?”

——–

“You had a file on me?” Sharon asked.

“It made sense, don’t you think? Anyways it’s all public domain stuff, forward facing social media and the like.” Sam shrugged, poking at circuits in his prosthetic, trying to track down where that spasm was coming from. “Of course you had to undergo some serious vetting when you joined the DA’s office five years from now.”

“I’m going to be a district attorney?” Sharon shook her head. “Don’t tell me, I know. Not necessarily, especially now that I’ve read this. Causality and all that.”

That got her a surprised glance. “Not a word I was expecting to hear from you.”

“Why? Because I didn’t post nerd memes to my public pages?” Sharon favored him with a wry smile. “You know a lot, especially with your temporal relay gizmo going, but clearly you’re not omniscient.”

“Meaning?”

“You have to have some kind of science background in order to practice as a patent lawyer. My undergraduate degree was in computer engineering.” She went back to the relay’s screen and kept poking around. “Futurenews. I’m guessing that’s how you got me yesterday’s headlines.”

“Yep.” Sam went back to his arm. It would be nice if he could use two hands to work on it but then, he’d preferred not to have lost the original in the first place. Or be chased by the Homicidal School Girl in the first place. Definitely that. “Why did you switch?”

She looked down for a moment, looking profoundly embarrassed. “Promise not to tell?”

“Of course.”

“Too many of the people I met in school had a problem with abstractions.”

The arm twitched frantically as his other hand slipped and sparks flew. Sam quickly tamped down on the problem and then looked back at Sharon. “I’m sorry?”

“It was all math and tolerances and highest returned value and-” She paused to gather her thoughts. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind those ideas and they’re really important in making things safe and functional. But I’m not sure I could work a full time job where those were the only things we thought about.”

“So you study the law and wind up working with the same set of people as a patent lawyer.” Sam shook his head at the irony.

“Hey, I have a shot at the DA’s office.”

“In ten years you’re only an ADA,” Sam pointed out.

“Five, since I get hired five years from now.” She went back to perusing the future news listings. “Do you use this for anything other than staying alive?”

“I object to the idea that my staying alive is somehow a bad use of my brilliance.” Sharon shot him a sour look. “But yes, I have found the time to look into a few other things that bothered me. Look at the ‘Changing Humanity’ filter.”

She pulled up the right option and started looking through it. “Wow.”

“Yeah. Wow.”

Sharon was quickly swiping through various news stories. “Flying guy. Crazy strong guy-”

“Dense, actually. He’s capable of quintupling his mass without causing damage to himself. Makes his bones more dense than lead, but he still moves as if he were a person of his normal mass. Except for jumping.” Sam reached over Sharon’s shoulder and hit a few commands, scanning forward two years. “There was a teleporter there, too, but let’s ignore him for a second. Things get scary around this point.”

A news story with a video loop of a woman who’s eyes seemed to fire beams of scorching energy that melted through a concrete wall.

“Laser vision,” Sharon murmured.

“Not exactly,” Sam said. “But destructive to say the least. This is when things start getting bad.”

“How bad.” She glanced up from the screen. “Are we talking human rights disaster here?”

“Pogroms, at least.” He sighed and sat down on the desk beside the relay. “Lynchings, if you will. Changing humanity will be cast as an opponent of everything from white supremacy to civil rights and through it all the government sits on their hands too afraid of a human rights disaster, as you put it, to seriously consider the problem.”

Sharon had pushed to the end of the available futurenews reports and found a mob surrounding and beating a man who was trying to defend himself with a pair of cables that moved with a mind of their own. Since it was an official news clip it cut away before anything gruesome but from the look on Sharon’s face it had been enough. “What… what are you planning?”

“Well, whatever happens we need to set up some kind of long term system, a legal system, for dealing with the changes that are coming.”

“We?” She gave him a skeptical look.

“Come on. Do you think I dug as deeply into your future just because I thought you were hot?” He shrugged. “I need someone who understands the law to help me come up with a long term solution.”

“Just because I’m hot.” She shook her head. “Nevermind. How do you plan to get anyone to listen to your long term solution.”

“Mostly by catching the world’s first major superhuman crime ring.”

——–

“Not good, TC,” Slim said, looking over the cash. “This was an ATM delivery truck.”

“So?”

“So what if the money is marked? They could have the bill numbers or something, and we get nabbed when we try and spend it.” Slim shook his head and grabbed the edge of the door, careful to ignore the sharp protruding edges where Teddy had smashed through it. “Risky.”

“Do they track that kind of stuff?”

“Dunno.” He rubbed his chin. “I know a guy who used to handle incoming product. He works as a rinser. We might be able to clean some of this, but we’re going to loose a lot of the value in the process. In the future it’s probably better to hit stuff outside of big stores, WalMart and whatnot.”

Teddy just grabbed two of the boxes and slung them over his shoulders. “Whatever. We’ve got enough to get some real wheels and keep us fed. We’ll get more next time. How long will it take to clean the money?”

“We can get an advance on some of it, I think. What do we need wheels for when you can fly?”

“I can only carry so much.” He braced himself and gave the armored car a hard kick, sending it rolling down into a ditch where it would be harder to find. “Meet me back at the old warehouse. Not the one we were using when the boys went up against you, the one when you brought me in. And let people know we’re looking for more hands.”

Slim scowled, no doubt unhappy at more hands drawing from the pot. “What for?”

“We need people to help us case marks. We do it ourselves someone’s gonna get wise.” He rose a few feet into the air, then stopped and lowered himself back down to eye level. “And one other thing. Don’t call me TC. I never like it.”

“Sure.” Slim gave a noncommittal shrug. “I mean, we justed used it because it had your name in it, but it didn’t, know what I mean? Got another name you like? Just wanna go by Teddy?”

“No. What did you say earlier? When I was trying stuff out?”

“Uh…” Slim thought for a minute. “You hit like a thunderbolt?”

“Yeah. But not thunderbolt. Thunderclap.” He grinned. “My name, but not.”

“Okay.” Slim grinned back. “See ya later, Thunderclap.”

The Antisocial Network – Chapter Five

By the time they got to the safe house, which turned out to be a semi-decrepit apartment block just inside the Chicago city limits, Eric had settled on his strategy for the moment. He started asking more questions. With his eyes roving about for trouble – although realistically the whole neighborhood promised it – he climbed out of the car. The state of the building didn’t say good things about anyone who lived there long term.

“Nothing to be nervous about here,” Hugo said, catching Eric’s looking about as he climbed out of the car. “This place is safer than it looks.”

On the other side of the vehicle Tails slammed the passenger door shut and paused for a moment. Her distinctive, pigtailed meme broke away from her and drifted off around the corner of the building. Its legs didn’t move, instead it just drifted along the ground much like the ghosts Eric first thought of them as.

“What are you doing?” He asked, watching as another meme drifted around the corner where Tails’ had just disappeared.

Her eyes opened and she gave him an appraising look. “Checking the perimeter. Nice catch, most teeps less than a day old wouldn’t notice something like that.”

“Thanks?” Eric followed the two of them through the doors into the building, winding up in a small antechamber that looked just as decrepit as the rest of the building. As Hugo fished for keys Eric asked, “Speaking of noticing, how did you guys find me, anyways? Is there a teepdar or something?”

“Please never say that word again,” Tails said with a venomous look.

“Tails is very protective of our little group of telepaths. Doesn’t like things that would give us a bad image.” Hugo unlocked the door and pushed it open, leading Eric out of the rundown entrance and into a hallway that looked like it would be more at home in a hospital or modern office building. The floors were tile, the walls a bland beige and the doors heavy metal industrial monstrosities. Hugo ignored the hallway and instead led them into a stairwell and started up. “Anyway, we don’t exactly find new teeps. You guys kind of tell us where you are.”

“What?”

Tails laughed. “The first thing a newborn does is cry, right? New telepaths are the same – you haven’t got a concept of inside-your-head voice and outside-your-head voice. Most of us shout a lot when we become teeps and that clues the Network in to where they are when we aren’t the ones who wake them up. Of course we can only hear you over short distances, kind of like the Feds.”

Eric stopped halfway up the flight of stairs. “Not the ones that wake them up? What’s that supposed to mean?”

Hugo stopped at the top of the stairs, giving him an odd look. “Telepathy is an innate human ability but it takes another telepath to wake someone’s telepathic abilities up. The active teep synchronizes thought patterns with the sleeper and pushes their dormant telepathic abilities into an active state.”

“Do they have to be close by?”

“In the same room, generally,” Tails replied. “Like the government telepath with you.”

“I didn’t run into Rachada until after I started noticing memes, though. That means I was telepathic before I met her, right?”

Hugo’s face went blank and instead of answering he waved them out of the stairwell and into another hallway, one with the same basic layout as the hall before but carpeted, and into the farthest of the three rooms along the building’s south side. It looked like your average studio apartment, nicer than the one Eric was living in at the moment, with a bed and couch on one side. No sign of a TV but Eric guessed you had to give something up for a place that nice.

Hugo sat down on the couch and waved for the other two to sit down. Eric made himself comfortable on the bed and Tails hesitated for a moment before perching on one arm of the couch. “What was the first meme you saw, Eric?”

“Uh… I’d guess it was something I saw this morning? I thought it was a dream.” Eric quickly sketched out the strange, faceless figure in a tux and hat leaking steam.

When he was finished Hugo grunted disgust and Tails muttered, “Vent. He hasn’t let it go.”

Eric waited a moment then, when no explanation was forthcoming, asked, “Who’s Vent? What hasn’t he let go? And most importantly, should I be worried?”

Hugo heaved a sigh. “Vent is something of a troublemaker. Not intentionally, you understand, he just has a tendency to meddle with things that are less than safe.”

“Before you panic, you’re probably not in any danger right now,” Tails put in. Somehow Eric felt less than reassured.

“There’s a dark side to memes that you probably haven’t seen yet,” Hugo said, ignoring Tails. “Are you familiar with the origin of the term?”

“Not really.”

Hugo waved it off. “It’s not really important. They were postulated as the mental equivalent to genes in the evolutionary journey of the collective unconsciousness. Or something like that. Regardless of their origins that’s kind of how they function.”

“My meme looks like this, right?” Tails pointed to an empty patch of floor next to the sofa that was suddenly occupied by her pigtailed meme, this time sans hammer. “It’s a pretty refined meme and you’ve seen some of the things it can do. Nerve hammering can be used to knock people out. Then there’s more refined things, like nervejacking, which will let you exert a certain amount of control over people. That’s how we got the driver of your van to pull over before we pulled you out.”

“Okay, I’m with you so far.” Eric frowned, looking at Tails’ innocuous looking meme with new respect. It was a little uncomfortable to think that anyone could exert that kind of control over other people. On the other hand, Rachada had resisted Tail’s nerve hammer so maybe telepaths were more resistant to other teeps. “Why can’t you use your meme to wake a telepath?”

“Because memes are somewhere between a personal projection and a chunk of the collective unconsciousness,” Tails said. “I’ve basically taken an idea that exists in the back of everyone’s mind and used it as a vehicle to broadcast my personal thoughts. But letting that chunk of the collective unconsciousness synchronize with your brain, like you’d have to do to awaken a teep, can cause issues. The biggest is that the person who’s exposed can wind up becoming unstable.”

“Unstable how?”

“It depends. Anything from paranoia to psychosis to lapsing into a semi-catatonic state.” Eric thought of Rachada and how she had mentioned his “condition” and wondered if she’d been referring to something like this. Tails waited a moment, perhaps expecting another question from Eric, but then kept going. “What’s almost worse is the meme becomes pretty much impossible to control and runs rampant, inflicting itself on any telepath it stumbles across. We’re not sure why they suddenly become independent because normally a meme takes a lot of effort to project. It’s kind of like insanity turned into a virus. We call them brainworms.”

Hugo took up the train of thought. “The saving grace is, right now, there aren’t many telepaths to be infected by brainworms and people who aren’t teeps seem to be safe from them. Like most diseases, without a host brainworms quickly go extinct.”

“That is a good thing,” Eric admitted, “but it doesn’t explain who Vent is or what that has to do with me.”

“Vent was an old associate who wanted to make a study of brainworms,” Tails said. “We worked together for a bit trying to understand memetic telepathy. But he was convinced brainworms could be used constructively. His first area of study was going to be whether you could make a brainworm to wake telepaths, get rid of the need to have someone there in person.”

“He left us a couple of months ago and we’d hoped he’d given up on the idea for the time being. It’d be safer for everyone involved.” Hugo leaned forward on the sofa. “But now there’s you and I think we can safely say that not only has he not given up, he’s actually succeeded.”

A Doyen in the Hand

(Sorry this post is so late, and very long. More about this in the notes at the end.)

They say you never forget your first love. For Dmitri, he’d first seen his when he was eight and had gone to Court for the very first time. For one reason or another his minder had decided to bring him through the Terra Front, rather than by portal. Honestly, he couldn’t remember the reason and it really wasn’t important. Because the very first time he set foot through the shallowing and found himself in the pillared concourse, the six sides of the building each an arcade looking over the vista of another world, the high ceiling peaking in half twilight above his head and glimmering not with stars but the faint light of magic and order and all other thoughts had left his head.

With the Throneworlds extending on one side of every Front and five other worlds of the empire on each of the remaining sides it felt like you could literally set out from the center of one Front and go anywhere the human mind could conceive of in a matter of a moment’s walk. Even after months among the wealth and riches of the Court he’d still found his mind drifting back to that first moment stepping into the Fourth Front. Now he was in a different place but feeling the same thing.

Here was a scene big enough that even a man at the beginning of adulthood reverted to childhood wonder whenever he saw it.

There were plenty of reasons to stay there, in the center of what seemed like unbridled possibilities, whenever he had to return to the Throneworlds. Mons didn’t need his input to do his share of the work and the immense power of his title made people uncomfortable. And there was no way to spend more than five minutes on the Throneworlds without someone wondering where you were. Officials had to answer such questions truthfully, which inevitably led to questions and all kinds of attention and… well, it was better to stay there. The Terra Fronts weren’t used for much anymore, with the convenience and economy of portals having removed much of their commercial and military utility. Really, their only practical use was  their original purpose.

And Terra Eternal hadn’t invaded anywhere in nearly a century.

So they served as a sort of private means of transport from world to world for high level officials, of which Dmitir was one of the very highest. It was one of the few privileges he had that he truly enjoyed. At least, most of the time.

“Doyen Dmitri Dostoyevsky. May all your paths run smooth and peacefully.”

Suppressing a grimace, Dmitri turned to face the man who administered this particular Front. “Palatinus Alvin y-Santos. I greet you on behalf of myself and my brothers, and my father and his brothers.”

The two men bowed slightly to each other, hands spread at waist height with palms facing each other, as was proper in court circles. The only similar thing between the two was their insincere smiles. Skinny, save for a surprisingly plump gut, bald and constantly a little sweaty looking, Alvin y-Santos had always struck Dmitri as something of a grotesque. But maybe that was just because Alvin also had the vaguely predatory air he’d always hated about people at court – like a scavenger waiting to snag an easy meal once something died.

Dmitri absently smoothed his own hair back and out of his eyes, as if to be on the lookout for trouble, as he said, “To what do I owe the honor of this visit, y-Santos?”

“Why, I’ve just come to bid you welcome here, as you are always, my doyen,” Alvin answered, his smile stretching further across his face.

“Thank you,” Dmitri said, dry as dirt. “Your courtesy is always the highlight of my visit.”

Alvin made a show of glancing around. “I see that the Blade of ben-Gideon is not with you today. Is it time for a new Blade already?”

“I’m sure we’ll have at least one or two more assignments together before his year is up,” Dmitri said. Honestly, he wasn’t looking forward to having a new team of three assigned to him but it was one of the few parts of his job that he had no control over. “Indeed?” Alvin asked, oblivious to the other man’s thoughts. “I had heard that his replacements had already been selected.”

That brought all of Dmitri’s attention to the matter at hand. “And how is that? No one outside of those offered the position should know the members of a Doyen’s Blade.”

“And undoubtedly it is so,” Alvin said with a smile less forced and less pleasant than normal. Dmitri didn’t miss the implication. Someone Alvin knew had been offered the job.

“Then it is well,” Dmitri answered, even though it wasn’t. Someone had been talking when they shouldn’t have. “No doubt you will find some productive use for the good fortune you have found.”

“I was wondering if might ask you for a favor…” And there it was.

Alvin y-Santos was an infamous politicker and every time Dmitri had met him he’d asked for some small thing or another. As a rule Dmitri hadn’t agreed to any of it, thinking that it was better not to give any ground to the scheming man, but he had come to dread the requests. Doyen only served for ten years and after all the power and authority was gone, one thing that was supposed to keep them from running rampant was the reality of having to deal with some of the powerful people you’d angered in your position over the years.

Of course, this meant people like Alvin were always trying to curry favors from the local doyen in exchange for help and shelter down the road. Which brought them right back to the matter at hand. “No favors, y-Santos. You should know me well enough by this point.”

“It is nothing of importance,” Alvin was quick to say. “I just hoped you could convey my greetings to the new administrator of the Eighth Front. She has only come to it in the last week or two and, being a busy man, I haven’t had time to go myself.”

Dmitri stared at the other man for a long, uncomprehending moment, then said, “Y-Santos, you run the Seventh Front. It’s a five minute walk from the Eighth.”

“Regardless,” Alvin began, “I haven’t had the time-”

“Unfortunately we’re not going to the Eighth Front any time soon,” Mons said, coming down the concourse from the Throneworlds side of the Front. He was moving quickly, doubtless aware that Dmitri wanted Alvin far away as fast as possible, but his normally authoritative three-fold voice was muffled by the mask he wore. Most Souls of One wore them to hide their identical faces, something Dmitri found more unsettling than the sight of three – or even five or six – identical people moving in perfect synchronization, but Dmitri had encouraged Mons to stop wearing it over the last year, with some success. Now it was back and he wasn’t sure why.

“In point of fact,” Mons continued, his voice dropping to more normal conversation levels as he got closer to them, “we’re going to the Second Front next, and we may be there for some time. You’d best deliver your greetings yourself.”

“The Second Front?” Dmitri and Alvin asked, for once in sync on something.

“Indeed.” Even with his face hidden Dmitri could tell Mons was smiling. “We’re going off the beaten path for a while. A suitably grand task for our last outing together, don’t you think?”

——–

“Doyen Arianna Kahlenbeck?”

Terra Eternal’s only current female doyen paused in the middle of her latest case summary, surprised to find there was someone in the vacant office she’d borrowed. As was her want she hadn’t really told anyone she was commandeering it, just sort of set up camp there for the duration of her stay on world, so anyone finding it in the first place was a sizable achievement. And this fellow, well, his just getting into the building must have taken a lot of effort.

He wasn’t wearing the steel blue of the architects, nor the bronze of the cartographers or the white of the channelers. In fact, he wore a weathered brown coat, pleated pants of a lighter shade of the same color and a white garment that looked almost like a robe in place of a shirt. He had long, sandy hair and thin, sensitive looking hands that were reaching into his coat to pull out a small brown envelope. He looked nothing if not out of place.

“I’m Doyen Kahlenbeck,” Arianna said, setting her pen aside and leaning back in her chair. If this fellow wanted to eschew ceremony she’d go along with him, at least to a certain extent. “Who are you?”

“You’re handling the Venger Bar-Luzon case, correct?” The man asked, ignoring her question.

Arianna decided to continue the trend and parried that question with yet another. “Who?”

The man froze for a second, envelope not quite free from in his jacket, a comically quizzical look frozen on his face. “You’re not looking for Venger Bar-Luzon?”

Arianna leaned forward. “I wasn’t before. Should I be?”

“Just to be sure…” He glanced around the room once. “This is Terra Rasa, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Arianna said slowly, waiting for some sign that all this was going somewhere.

But the man just shoved his envelope back into his coat and fished around for a second before pulling out a long scroll that he partially unrolled and looked over, muttering, “I’m not sure this scenario was covered…”

Patience now exhausted, Arianna got to her feet and braced her hands on the borrowed desk. “Look here, you, I don’t know what your game is but you’re wasting my time and I don’t appreciate it.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, his attention still on the scroll he was reading over. “I was told you handle most problems that creep up here on Terra Rasa but I guess they handed this one off to one of the other doyen. Not sure which one, though. At least there’s only four others to deal with.”

The cavalier way of ignoring her was so out of place she couldn’t really do much besides blink in surprise. Which was exactly how long it took the man to vanish from the room.

Arianna looked around the room once, a weird and very uncomfortable feeling working its way down the back of her spine. She went to the door and yanked it open, startling the members of her Blade as they kept watch in the hallway. She glanced at Lambert, the regulus, and said, “Did you see anyone come in here recently?”

“No, my doyen,” he answered immediately. “Did you need someone specific?”

“Nevermind.” She thought it over for a minute. “Do you know the name Venger Bar-Luzen?”

“No, my doyen. Does it have anything to do with the trade dispute we’re working on?”

She thought it over for a moment. “I really don’t know. But I’d love it if you found out.”

Lambert nodded immediately. “Of course, my doyen.”

——–

“Terra Rasa is the perfect place for Bar-Luzon to hide if you ask me,” Dmitri said, absently cutting his meat into manageable chunks while keeping an eye out on the dining hall around them. He didn’t like staying in a public house but there hadn’t been room for four people in the local channeler barracks and he didn’t want to divide his forces on this job.

“I really don’t follow your logic on this one, my doyen,” Mons said, talking with only one voice so the other two could eat.

For a brief second Dmitri envied his friend. The local food was unusual but tasty and Mons had gone all out, getting three different meals to experience. But that wasn’t why they were there. “It’s a good hiding spot because it’s the first Terra we found with not native population. Everyone here is an immigrant, so while there’s something like a local culture it’s not a very strong one yet and outsiders won’t stand out as much. By the same token, it’s been settled long enough for there to be a few large cities to blend into. He could be anywhere.”

“Do you want me to send to the local architects and see if the local patrols have heard anything?” Mons asked. “Try and recruit some honest to goodness lawmen?”

“I’m not sure.” Dmitri stared down at the chunks of tangy meat and green vegetables on his plate, trying to work out how he should approach the problem. “Leading a manhunt isn’t what they prepare you for, you know. We’re supposed to hammer out jurisdictional conflicts or settle internal disputes, not find rogue agents.”

Mons just grunted and continued to eat. For a while that was all either men did.

Finally, Dmitri said, “Did you know him?”

“Venger Bar-Luzon?” The question was such a transparent play for time that Dmitri ignored it and just waited for Mons to answer. Which he did, eventually. “Even if we weren’t from different generations there’s a lot of differences in how you train Souls of One dependent on how many you have. Groups of three, five and six all go through different programs.”

“And a group of twelve probably requires a custom built curriculum.”

Mons laughed, almost spraying soup all over the table. “A Hex of One is bad enough. But doubling that to a Parliament? Surely you’re joking.”

“We grew up together,” Dmitri said softly, poking at his food and surprised to find he had little appetite. “Mons, I’ll tell you a secret. I know you Souls of One aren’t really one person, no matter how much you project that idea or even believe it yourselves. I can tell you apart.”

He jabbed at the Mons all the way to his left. “Like you. Whenever just one of you talks, you’re the one who does it. You can switch up your gear as much as you like, you can even fool people who have known you casually for a long time. But I see through you. You’re more like closely knit brothers who have been taught to coordinate telepathically than a single person.”

Mons fidgeted for a second before asking, “Is this all going somewhere?”

“I was just wondering if maybe we got this job because of you. Could you do what he did?”

Mons just stared off in three different directions for a moment, none of his pairs of eyes really focused on anything. Finally he said, “I don’t think any one of us could run off and abandon the others, no. In fact, I met a Hand of One once. It only had four in it.”

Dmitri suppressed a snort. “A Hand is five people, Mons. By definition.”

“But a Soul of One is a person who has been born the same on multiple worlds,” Mons pointed out, his attention back in the present. “If one of them dies you cannot simply send out for a replacement. No such person exists.”

Dmitri paused mid chew, the implications of that beginning to dawn on him. “What happened to that Hand, Mons?”

“It ceased to exist. When one of them died they ceased to be a whole person, Dmitri. It happened a lot in the early days, when Souls of One were a new thing that no one really understood. These days it happens less, in part because they warn us of the danger and try to prepare us to work around it.” Mon shook his head. “But to just cut out four fifths of your mind and walk away from it? I can’t imagine a sane person who would do that.”

Dmitri drummed his fingers on the table top for a minute, figuring that out. “So you think we’re looking for a madman?”

“I think it’s certainly a possibility.”

“Well. At least it’s a place to start.” After that the rest of the meal passed in silence. But it wasn’t the comfortable sort.

——–

The viewing crystal gave only a fair idea of what a person looked like, on par with a poor quality photocapture but without even a third dimension to give it depth. Still, Arianna could tell enough of the expression of the man on the other end to know he was telling the truth. That wasn’t a good thing, though.

“You’re telling me you have no idea where the Hand of Venger Bar-Luzon is?”

“No, my doyen,” the man said, an undercurrent of panic in his voice suggesting he knew how bad this situation was. “Uh… one of him went missing a month and a half ago. We haven’t been able to locate him anywhere on Terra Indissolute. We’ve started looking for him elsewhere but… there have been difficulties. We even filed a request with the Office of the Doyen two weeks back. The rest of the Hand went into seclusion until he returned. When you first contacted us we summoned him but… he wasn’t there.”

“You filed a request with the office?” That interested her. Maybe she was talking to the wrong people. “Thank you for your time, Palatinus.”

“Of course, my-” She tapped the top of the crystal and it went dark and silent before he could finish. Tracking down who Bar-Luzon was had been the work of three days and Arianna had a feeling she didn’t have a lot of time left for niceties. Too many people had no idea what was going on, herself included. It made her nervous…

——–

The file clerks Dmitri had met generally fell into one of two categories: Those eager to impress you and move on to a better job or those who loved their files and thought of others pawing through them as some kind of sacrilege. The local law architect clerk fell into the later category. Clerk – Dmitri thought of it as his name and didn’t think the man would mind – had insisted on an entire orientation tour, a not-so-brief overview of the filing system and a lecture on the importance of not misplacing valuable files.

After all that Clerk had finally accepted his request to search the records personally only when Dmitri hinted that he was willing and able to demote the other man all the way down to dustman if things didn’t hurry along. Hopefully Mons was fairing better finding a patrol squad who could put them in contact with the local snitches and rumor mongers.

“These are the vagrancy files and associated records,” Clerk said, stopping by a rather large scroll rack. “Most recent files on the top, older files towards the bottom. You can read them at that table over there.”

“Thank you,” Dmitri said, dismissing him with a gesture. “You’ve been most helpful.”

Oblivious to the sarcasm in Dmitri’s voice, Clerk nodded and headed back towards his desk at the front of the room. Dmitri started pawing through the files. Anything older than a couple of weeks wasn’t of interest to him so most of what he needed was on the top shelf. He collected a handful of the older ones and headed to the table.

Vagrancy reports were not exciting reading but it was important and he managed to plow through five or six of them in the next hour. He was deep into his seventh file, a much more interesting tale of a homeless man who seemed to know the back alleys much better than the local patrols and never quite got caught when they went to grab him, when a voice asked him, “Doyen Dostoyevsky? On the Bar-Luzon case?”

“That’s me,” Dmitri said, attention still mostly on the scroll he was reading.

“Fourth time’s the charm,” the voice said. A hand placed a brown envelope on the table next to him.

“Thank you.” He looked up to see who had brought the message but there was no one there.

——–

“…And that’s why we chose to give the matter to Doyen Dostoyevsky.”

Arianna rubbed her hands together absently, studying the older man in the viewing crystal for any clue what he thought of all this. As usual, his expression gave away nothing. “Well that does sound like a mess, Director Rand. But looking at the description and photocaptures you’ve provided Bar-Luzon isn’t the man who visited me last week. Do you have any idea who he was?”

“No.” Director Rand was the man who picked and chose what problems warranted the attention of the Doyen and which would simply have to languish in bureaucratic limbo until someone found a good solution to them. As a former doyen himself, Rand understood the stakes and frustrations of the job, and he did his best to keep the doyen abreast of situations that might be relevant to their jobs. The years of hard work showed on his face, never more so than when he was frustrated like he was just then. “I do know that at least one other doyen has run into someone matching that description. Doyen Tan reported meeting a similar man asking the same question two days ago. I think it’s time I tried talking to the others.”

“Lovely. Best of luck with that.” Doyen had a lot of autonomy in their jobs. They weren’t required to check in with their central office until they finished an assignment. That made keeping track of them hard and Arianna didn’t envy Rand the task of trying to find the other two. Of course, Dostoyevsky was apparently somewhere on Terra Rasa. But that was still a whole world to search. “I’ll tell you what, Director Rand, why don’t I see if I can help you find Doyen Dostoyevsky while you try and track down the other two?”

“I would appreciate that, Doyen Kahlenbeck.”

——–

The address was a small building, well appointed, located on the far eastern side of Petrograd, near the river. It looked more like a former bakery than a hideout. What was certain was that Dmitri would probably not have found it even had he searched the architect files for months. The only way he could have begun to suspect Venger Bar-Luzon was there was the note he had gotten. That in itself was suspicious.

Mons was setting up a cordon outside the building with a hand’s worth of the local architects, all that they’d been able to gather on short notice, while Dmitri headed in to confirm whether this was, in fact, the hiding place of a runaway Soul of One or just some bizarre joke.

In complete defiance of his expectations Dmitri had his answer almost as soon as he stepped through the door.

Venger Bar-Luzon was sitting at a table in the middle of the large room that took up much of the ground floor. A counter, probably for merchandise back when the building was still a shop, ran along the left wall and a bunch of other tables and chairs were stacked on the right. Venger stood up at the table and offered a formal bow. “I greet you, my doyen. I am Venger Bar-Luzon. May all your paths run smooth and peacefully.”

As his greeting implied, Venger wore the bronze robes of a cartographer, a specialist in Locke’s methods of travelling across worlds and the horizon. That was a problem in itself. Travelling worlds required huge amounts of magic and cartographer robes were mostly just cleverly disguised wells of magic reserves. With the right matrices to channel it through even an untrained combatant could be dangerous. Dmitri decided to play it safe until he had a better idea what Venger’s game was. So he fell back on formality. “I am Dmitri Dostoyevsky, Doyen of Terra Eternal. I greet you on behalf of myself and my brothers and my father and his brothers.”

Venger’s eyes widened ever so slightly. “I wasn’t aware that the Throneworlds had appointed a seventh son of a seventh son as doyen.”

Dmitri laughed in response, a short, sharp bark of pure surprise. “Of all the times for that greeting to be recognized it would be now. Only one in a hundred people even know what that means. I’m impressed, Bar-Luzon.”

“And I’m in trouble.” Venger slammed his hand down on the table, a spell matrix that Dmitri hadn’t been able to see from his angle suddenly lit up at the same time Venger yelled, “Abort! Siphon to dexter!”

The next ninety seconds went by in a blur. Dmitri snapped to his left, which was Venger’s right, just in time to see three heads popping up over the lip of the counter. Three pairs of hands were already setting a syphon, a powerful magic draining matrix, with the opening of the V shape pointed towards him. It was more than enough to drain the average magic supply of a person down to nothing in a minute but then, Dmitri was no average person so that wasn’t what bothered him. He didn’t have time to work out what was bothering him because he was too busy lunging towards the table, hands scything counter to Venger’s matrix, activating the most logical countermatrix he was carrying. That was his biggest mistake, in hindsight.

Just because Venger wore the robes of a cartographer didn’t mean he didn’t know anything about combat. Dmitri had just walked into a trap and it sprang out from under the tables and chairs along the right hand wall in the form of six young girls who caught him in a flexible glassweb matrix, a spell that bent like spiderweb when you pressed against it and, if you weren’t careful, would tear you to ribbons with its scything slivers of magic.

Dmitri managed to pull back from the glassweb before it cut him. His own spell, a simple bulwark matrix intended to slam Venger into the wall behind him and halt his mischief, wouldn’t do much of anything against a glassweb, except maybe get cut to pieces. So he changed tactics and, not even bothering to recapture the magic he’d put into building his bulwark already, set his own syphon.

How effective a spell matrix is was depended on a lot of factors. How well magic meshed with the material the matrix was made out of, how much energy was pumped into it and whether or not the magic energy would burn out the materials the matrix was built out of. There was more to it than that, but those were the essentials.

Most spell matrices were built out of metal, since it was easy to mold into the necessary shapes and readily available. But the human body was a kind of spell matrix itself, containing many of the basic shapes and patterns that magic clung to. Most people were a less effective matrix for magic than metal.

But then, most people were not the seventh son of a seventh son.

Most people could not rip apart a glassweb matrix just by forming a syphon with one hand, much less syphon down the transparent wall of energy a bulwark consisted of, even if it was half formed. Dmitri managed all that and had the presence of mind to pull out his core tap with his free hand, cranking it all the way open and releasing the full force of its magic on the room. The glowing rectangle and triangles glyph that represented the Eternal Throne snapped into existence above it and raw magic flooded the room, snapping against the magic sails in Dmitri’s and Venger’s clothes, energizing a half a dozen spell matrices that had been hidden around the room and probably blowing out ever other spell matrix in the neighborhood that wasn’t combat rated.

Three things happened at once. First, Dmitri realized what had bothered him a moment before. Both the ambush from behind the counter and the one from in the tables had been executed by children. And not just any children, but children with identical features moving with a familiar kind of eerie synchronization. They were moving as two different Souls of One, not nine separate people.

Second, with a strobe of light and a gut-wrenching twist the full Hand of Venger Bar-Luzon teleported into the room. Already they were preparing an escape spell. It was a canny move, since doyen relied on the Throneworlds for transport – one of the few checks on their power was a prohibition against carrying teleportation or horizon crossing matrices.

Third, one of the six girls bit him on the wrist and he dropped his core tap. Then another kicked it across the room towards Venger. Unfortunately for her it a loose board in the floor and skittered towards the tables along the wall rather than to Venger himself.

For a second Dmitri stood paralyzed. Venger’s matrix already encompassed most of the room, with four of the six girls and the three boys already caught in its turns. But the girl who had bitten him was scrambling after the core tap and Dmitri couldn’t run the risk that she’d grab it and the whole group would still get away. Rather than break Venger’s teleportation matrix he dropped a bulwark in front of the girl and dove past her, coming up with the core tap just as the teleportation matrix finished and the whole group vanished.

——–

Arianna looked up at the younger man. She’d never been very good with ages but she was guessing Doyen Dostoyevsky couldn’t be more than twenty – and she seriously doubted he was that. It showed in a lot of ways but the biggest was how much trouble he was having hiding his dejection. He’d let Bar-Luzon get away and caused some serious damage to the neighborhood in the process. Now, to top it off, he was apologizing to the doyen who’s territory he was intruding on. She could tell how much each and every one of those facts ate at him.

It would have been cute if the situation wasn’t so serious.

“I’m starting to think that this was a trap of some sort,” Dmitri was saying. “I think he meant to lure you to that empty shop with his note then steal your core tap.”

“That would fit with his pattern in the last few weeks,” Arianna admitted. “He’s kidnapped at least two Souls of One in training, from what you saw, but when the folks on Indissolute went looking for him they found at least six trainee Souls missing. Three blades, a hand and two hexes.”

Dmitri whistled. “That’s a lot of potential, right there. Even if its not fully trained. Add in a core tap as a power source and you could cause some real damage. We should try and-”

“No.” That came from both Lambert and Dmitri’s Blade of One.

“This is no longer the kind of thing that falls under the Doyen’s purview,” Lambert continued. “Theft of strategic resources and everything else that goes with it is squarely the responsibility of the channelers and the Throne of Vesuvius. We’ll file a report with them and let them handle it.”

Dmitri gave Arianna a sympathetic look. “New blade?”

“We’ve been together a month,” she confirmed.

“I sympathize. Mons is swapping out after this job.” He glanced at his blade. “But first, I really think following Bar-Luzon is a part of my mandate. Just because I didn’t catch him here on Terra Rasa doesn’t mean I shouldn’t follow him.”

“But following him gives him another chance to steal your core tap,” the blade replied. “And this time he’ll be prepared to deal with someone of your abilities. No. We’re done here. Regulus Lambert is correct. Leave this to the Vesuvians. It’s time to report back to the Director.”

Arianna smiled inwardly. All doyen had to be a little bit idealistic to do what they did. But as time wore on it was easy to loose the enthusiasm one started off with. Hopefully Dmitri wouldn’t loose his. “You’ve got a good blade right now, Doyen Dostoyevsky. Listen to him, even if it’s for the last time.”

Dmitri sighed and nodded. “I suppose I should.”

“Do you know who your replacement is?” She asked.

“I don’t.”

“I do,” Mons said, then hurried through the rest before he could be cut off. “At least who the blade’s regulus is, since you’re not getting a Blade of One again. You should know too, so you can start thinking of how to deal with him. His name is Oscar y-Santos.”

Once again with comical straightforwardness Dmitri’s expression morphed from annoyance at Mons, to shock, to resigned acceptance. “Of course it is. That’s just the perfect end to the perfect day, isn’t it?”

Fiction Index

(Okay, so this post is really late. A few weeks ago I was on vacation and ever since I’ve gotten back I’ve been helping out as a replacement in a theater production with some friends. Between going to rehearsals and frantically memorizing my lines, most all of my free time has been shot and I haven’t been able to write much. I’m lagging behind where I want to be and I don’t want to rush things.

I delayed this post because this story marks a turning point in the development of Dmitri’s character, as well as the things that are going on in this fiction setting as a whole and I wanted to do it right. I think I mostly succeeded in that. Next week we go back to Project Sumter for another short story. After that I had originally planned to plunge straight into Thunder Clap, the third and final book in the story arc I’ve been working on.

The thing is, I’ve not done some of the outlining I wanted to do and I’m planning a vacation with family the weekend of August 11th. So the new plan is to take a week between “Moroccan Heat”, next week’s short story and Thunder Clap, so that I can try and get my feet under me again. It’s my hope that all other content on the blog will go forward as planned, so the 11th will be the only blank spot in the calendar. Life is a mess and plans, they will be achanging. Thanks for your understanding.

Nate)

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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