Thunder Clap: Hot Beats

Helix

This is how a typical disaster starts at the Project Sumter offices. First, I get back in town from another trip to DC. While checking my e-mail it becomes clear that it’s been a slow week and it might be a good time to try and catch up on some of that business that’s been on the back burner as I run around the Midwest region supervising stuff and consulting with the Senate Committee on new regulations for talented people in the workplace. So I decide I’m going to try and ask Teresa out. Again.

Cue disaster.

My pal Jack Howell, once my tactical team leader and good natured butt of a lot of rhyming jokes, leaned into my office doorway and rapped on the doorframe. “The Senior Talent in today?”

“I hate that title and can’t believe they made it official,” I said, reminding Jack that I would continue to ignore him until he called me something sensible.

“It could be worse,” Jack said, ignoring my hint. “You could be the Talent Agent. Or the Senior Talent Agent.”

I kept reading my e-mail. It’s amazing how much builds up in just three or four days.

Finally Jack sighed and said, “Sanders has something he wants you to handle, Helix.”

“Is it a good something or a bad something?” I asked, selecting a batch of files and hitting delete. “With Sanders I never know what to expect.”

“Amp’s band is doing one of those PR concerts again tonight, Sanders wants you to go and put a face on it.”

“Amp’s got a face already and most people think it’s better than mine.” Ever since we’d officially gone public a couple of years ago the Project had been scrambling to put what the relations experts called a “positive face” on us. Being a secretive government branch with minimal accountability to the public at large usually being considered a strike against you. Amplifier’s garage band, a group we had initially wanted her to pull out of, had proven really useful in that regard and she was starting to grow a really enthusiastic fanbase. I wasn’t really sure why they kept sending other agents to her events when there were already two talents in the group and everyone there was more interested in them than us. “Still, if that’s what he wants maybe Al Massif would-”

“He’s already going,” Jack said with a grin. “Taking Cheryl, from what I understand, but it sounds like that’s a lot closer to being a date than official business.”

I drummed my fingers on my desk for a moment, trying to think up a new dodge. To buy time I said, “Are those two officially dating now? Or is he still holding out for a yes from Amp?”

“I keep my mind off that kind of thing, Helix. Nothing good comes of meddling.” He waved a pair of tickets at me. “All I know is Sanders wants somebody with more than three years experience at that concert as the public face and that means you, Massif or Broadband. Further meaning either you have to talk a near-septuagenarian into going to a rock concert, make Massif change his plans or go yourself.”

I massaged my temples. “Jack, remind me again why I hated never being promoted beyond Special Agent?”

“You hated the low pay, lack of benefits and being ignored whenever you had a good idea.”

“What exactly have I got now that I didn’t then?”

“Good benefits.”

“Right.” I sat back in my chair and held out my hand for the tickets. “Does that make you my sidekick for the evening?”

“Not me, boss,” Jack said, holding his hands up in a ‘no way’ gesture. “I got plans with the better half. But you know…”

He trailed of and I waited for him to finish. Except he was clearly waiting for me to prompt him and enjoying every minute. So I did. “No, I don’t know. Enlighten me.”

“Well, I hear Herrera doesn’t have any plans for the evening.”

“Oh?” I stared at the tickets for a moment, then back and Jack. “Exactly ow many people were involved in this little conspiracy of yours, Agent Howell?”

Jack did his best innocent look, which is surprisingly good for someone who spends a lot of his time looking like a blonde grizzly bear. “Not sure what you mean, Helix. Concert’s in two hours so if you want a hot date rather than the alternative you better get moving!”

He ducked out the door and hurried away before I could say anything else. With little else to do I picked up my phone and started dialing.

——–

Izzy

One of the weirdest things about having most of your social circle be people you work with is, when someone who technically outranks you invites you to go somewhere, you’re never sure if it’s a suggestion or an order. While Teresa Herrera is more like the older sister I don’t have – by virtue of being the oldest – the fact that she’s worked with my father and might also kinda sorta be dating my boss makes the chain of command less than entirely clear.

Of course, papa seemed to think it was a good idea and he’s the expert on that part of the business, so Jane and I agreed to go along.

Another weird part of my social circle is the superpowers. My papa is half strongman, half preacher, so it’s no wonder Project Sumter called him Samson back in the day when real names were something that happened to other people. My friend Jane is some kind of ex-supervillain, or as dad would insist we call her, a reformed talent. Personally, I think she’s just filled out a little bit since dad took her on as part of Project Sumter’s new parole system last year. She may be a year older than me but she sure doesn’t have sense, if you know what I mean.

Case in point. Ever since papa introduced them, Jane and Amp have been best buddies. Sure, Amplifier has a cool job and a nice apartment but she’s always seemed kind of aimless to me. Still, that’s probably part of the appeal, Jane doesn’t like people getting too close and Amp’s certainly not the clingy type. So what I’m trying to say is, Jane’s a good person for hanging out with but I’m not sure I would’ve relied on her in a pinch.

Amplifier and Jane Hammer are a funny picture and I’m surprised the tabloids haven’t spent more time chasing them when they go out to parties. One’s tall, lanky and thin, the other is short, blonde and cute. They make quite the pair. That night they agreed to meet up early at the concert venue and spent half their time back stage tormenting the roadies and the other half checking on the equipment. I don’t know anything about sound stuff so I couldn’t tell which was which but I’m pretty sure they only had the speakers rearranged because they like watching the guys on the stage crew move them around. Like the name implies Amplifier has the ability to boost sound and make herself heard under just about any kind of circumstances and part of her gimmick is that she sings without a mic. As far as I know she didn’t usually take an interest in the stage setup. And Jane was definitely flirting with one of the crew in-between whispering with Amp.

For my part, I was hanging out with papa by the stage door. “I’m still not clear on how this all is good publicity for Project Sumter.”

“Basically, we show we’re here and doing things the community likes.” Papa shrugged. “I know it doesn’t sound exciting but it’s the foundation of any outreach.”

“I guess. Why did you want to be here?”

He gave me a knowing smile. “Because I knew Jane would want to go and it was better to invite myself along than leave you to running around on your own. Did you not want to come?”

It was my turn to shrug. “Amp’s brand of music isn’t my thing. Jane was going and I thought maybe I’d tag along – just didn’t think it was your reason, too.”

“Don’t all kids your age listen to punk?”

I laughed. “Sure, because you have to on the bus at the very least. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it. I mean sure, it’s got a beat but you can’t really dance to it.

“That’s basically my problem with it, too.”

I jumped and spun around. “Sifu! Hi.”

This brings the weirdness of my life full circle. My hand to hand combat instructor – and how many college freshman can say they have one of those – had just popped up beside me. Built like GI Joe, born in the Polish part of town, trained in Chinese martial arts since the age of six and semi indestructible, Aluchinskii Massif is quite possibly the quintessential American superhero. On top of all that he’s polite, considerate, thoughtful and tonight he was accompanied by a busty redhead. Most of my time around him has involved getting swept off my feet in a very literal sense.

He is apologetic about it, though.

“Hello, Isabella,” he said with a smile. Then he nodded to papa and said, “Samson.”

And there’s the problem in a nutshell. To me, Al Massif may be very nearly perfect but to him, I’m just part of the job. If papa’s ever noticed that byplay he’s never said anything; then again he’s not dense either. But just like he usually did he held out his hand for a quick shake and said, “Hello, Massif. You look well. What brings you out here tonight?”

“To be honest, I’m really not sure.” He glanced at the woman with him. “Cheryl and Jack have some kind of bet going with Sanders and I’m apparently helping them win it.”

“Technically Jack made the bet,” Cheryl said. “I’m just conspiring with him.”

“That’s a lot of work for a bet,” papa said, waggling his eyebrows. “What are the stakes?”

“He didn’t say what they were, actually.” Cheryl shrugged. “Or what they were betting about. I’m not sure I want to know what those two are up to, to be honest.”

“Um.” The other three turned to look at me.

Al shifted a hand behind his back, as if he was using it to push his already upright posture even straighter. Jane calls this “the sifu pose” and says he does it whenever he’s trying to decide whether to be professional or not. Like when he’s putting us through a drill and is doing his best not to bawl us out for bad form. Except this time he just asked, “Um what?”

The correct answer was that Jack and Sanders had a standing bet over whether Helix would ask Teresa out before the end of the year but, once again, this is not exactly the kind of thing you can just up and say about somebody who is kind-of sort-of your boss.

And if you’re wondering how I can be unclear who my boss is, exactly, then you’ve obviously never worked in a government office that’s undergone a recent structural overhaul. I think, technically, Helix is the supervisor for all fifty or so field trained talents in the Midwest and the other dozen that are going through training, myself included, and that’s enough for me to want to stay as far away from poking my nose in his personal life as possible. The man’s scary when he’s mad.

So I played Obvious Excuse Number One and said, “I think I’d better check on Jane before she gets herself kicked out for hassling the staff.”

“If you see Helix tell him I want a quick word with him sometime tonight,” papa said. “No hurry, though.”

“Right.” So the real reason he came with us was work, probably something related to the parolees he’s in charge of. Not surprising, that kind of job doesn’t exactly keep regular hours. I headed off to try and find Jane and hoped I hadn’t made myself look like too much of a dork.

Amp and Jane weren’t back stage anymore so I figured they’d probably headed around to the bar out on the floor. Jane’s two years older than me, Amp’s three, and both can drink legally, so I wasn’t really worried about that. Neither one tends to get drunk and being at the bar put distance between them and the stage crew, so that was a plus. I never actually got to the bar, though, because as I went out into the hall I caught sight of Teresa and Helix coming in the main entrance.

Since I didn’t want to forget to pass on papa’s message before I forgot I cut through the growing crowd and met the two of them about two thirds of the way.

Teresa looked glad to see me there and, after a brief scowl, so did Helix. I had a hunch I knew what that was about but again, not about to pry. Then Teresa pinned me down with questions about life – school, testing for my field qualifications, family, stuff like that – and before I knew it the show was starting.

A Broken Sword show isn’t a whole lot different than any other, so if you’ve been to see a band in your life you know what happened. There were warm up acts, words from management, breaks to hit the restrooms and the occasional grabby drunk that event security dealt with quickly and quietly. It’s hard to keep track of everyone in crowds like that and I found and lost track of my papa, Jane, Teresa and Helix and Al and Cheryl a couple of times each. And that was all before Amp and crew took the stage.

The thing about Broken Sword, what I think is why Sumter likes to use them to generate good press, is that they’ve been together since before talents came out and they’ve functioned as a group the whole time. On top of Amp one of the guitarists, codename Gearshift, is a talent and has worked with the Project on and off. There’s apparently some kind of special certifications he needs to finish with before he can get full field licensing – something to do with his talent and architecture – and he’s taking his time getting through college while he works on them. Beyond those two out of the five being talents, Clark Movsessian on the drums moonlights as an analyst for the Project.

All in all, it’s a great PR to show that we’ve had groups working together both in and out of the field to make art, or at least something like it, and protecting the citizenry from evil. Or something. At least I’m sure it’s a nice contrast to the way most people usually see shadowy government organizations and helps play down the fact that, until two years ago, what half the band did was not only unheralded but was actually illegal to talk about.

So Amp was doing her Hello Midwest bit, introducing the band and doing trick with the crowd noise like making it swell to stadium levels or pushing it down to whispers, stuff that’s pretty cool to experience and, I’m told, very hard to actually do. Whether or not that’s true, the audience usually loves it and tonight was no exception. Amp was leading into the band’s first song of the night when the lights and most of the sound suddenly died and the hall disappeared in total darkness. I didn’t know it but it was the start of a very, very long day.

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Water Fall: Cold Greetings

Six weeks, Five days before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation

Helix

We never did go to Condition One.

By all rights the fact that Circuit had killed Mona should have brought the full resources of Project Sumter to bear on the task of finding him and locking him in a fully insulated, nonmagnetic cell lit by candles. At least, such was my first instinct, and probably that of every other field agent we had.

But the reality is never so clear cut. There was just too much going in the nation and the world to take all of our resources and throw them at a single problem. That didn’t mean finding Circuit wasn’t a priority. And for the Midwest Branch, the place where things had gone bad, it was priority one. We didn’t pull every talent we had off their assignments and send them after Circuit. For example, Pastor Manuel Rodriguez, also known as Agent Samson, was looking for Senator Dawson’s daughter, a case we believed was related, but officially had nothing to do with Circuit.

But the other fourteen talents working out of the Midwest office were all called in and given a summary of Circuit’s recent activities, his know goals including those he stated when he contacted us directly a few weeks ago and those we’ve inferred from his activities, and all leads pertaining to his whereabouts, which was a very short list. Then we were all given assignments and sent back out.

Teresa and I, and Massif and Verger, pretty much kept doing the things we’d already been working on. We’d juggled this case back and forth for a few weeks already and the meeting would probably have been a complete waste of time for us if we hadn’t been the ones doing most of the presenting. Everyone else got assigned lower priority legwork to spend time on between other duties.With that thrilling morning out of the way I headed back to my desk to grab some lunch and start putting together a priority list for the various real estate dealers and developers we needed to interview.

Trouble was waiting for me.

It came in the form of two tall, cool blondes who were sitting on my desk and chatting animatedly. Their backs were to me as I approached across the floor so I slapped the presentation notes I was carrying down on my desk to get their attention. They turned inwards and glared back at me, asking in unison, “Yes?”

I ignored their eerily similar faces and said, “Hello, Frostburn. Hello, Coldsnap. Get off my desk.”

The twins looked at each other and shared a secretive smile. Frostburn, the older of the two, said, “He never changes, does he?”

“Every once and a while he gets another gray hair,” Coldsnap said. They looked back at me. “Hello, Helix.”

I crossed my arms and glared at them, which was not as easy as it had been when I was taller than they were. “You two aren’t even cleared to be in here. Thought you’d have headed home after the funeral.”

The girls finally got off my desk and faced me, their matching charcoal slacks and professional blouses making them look a good deal like actual members of the office staff, much like Cheryl O’Hara, our acting Records chief. I could also see that they had guest passes clipped on, like we give out to Senators and their staff on the rare occasions when they come for a visit. Coldsnap folded her arms across her chest, Frostburn rested her palms on the edge of my desk.

I’d known these girls for nearly a decade, ever since I talked Darryl into getting them placed with my grandparents after we rescued them from some sort of demented, Neo-Nazi breeding program. They were digging their heels in, getting ready for an argument. A part of me really, really wished they’d waited until after I got lunch. I slipped into my chair and did my best not to tap my fingers impatiently. “Okay, I get it. This is a big deal. What’s going on? I’m still trying to convince people you’re a trustworthy-”

“It’s not about a job,” Frostburn said, shaking her head.

“We’ve got a job now,” Coldsnap added, running it along just behind her sister’s sentence so it felt like they were talking as a unit, rather than separate people. “And not one in fashion retail, anymore.”

“I thought you liked that job,” I said, raising my eyebrows. It hadn’t really challenged them, but at least they knew the trends and didn’t find it boring. They’d wanted to do more, but their history created even more difficulties with the Oversight Committee than mine did. “Never mind. If it’s not about a job, why are you here?”

“Darryl,” Frostburn said, tilting her chin up and triggering a rapid fire cascaded of talk I knew all to well.

Coldsnap picked up the train of thought immediately. “He needs to do something, anything to keep his mind occupied.”

“There’s only one case of any importance right now, and we both know it,” Frostburn added. “The guy who killed his wife.”

“Hey, now,” I said, trying to stop them before they built up a head of steam. “You’re not supposed to-”

“Besides, Darryl probably isn’t going to want to work anything else,” Coldsnap said, running right over me. I should have known better than to try and interrupt them – if I’d known them as well as I do now when they got their codenames I’d have pushed to lump them together as Avalanche. “He wants to get Circuit.”

“Ask him to be on your team,” Frostburn finished. “He needs it.”

I looked at the two of them for a moment, trying to figure out their angle. They’d known Darryl just as long as they’d known me but we’d both been careful not to talk too much about our work when we’d seen them, which admittedly wasn’t that often in  the last few years. For that matter, even my grandparents, Sergeant Wake and Clear Skies, had shown a little more care in what they told them after the mess my joining the Project had turned into.

So how had they known about Circuit? “You two got a job.” I swiveled in my chair a little as I thought it over, looking at each one out of the corner of my eye. “Who gave you a job?”

They exchanged a guilty glance I’d seen a hundred times before.

“Does it matter?” Coldsnap asked, pouting a little.

“Yes.” I wasn’t buying, even if Coldsnap was really good at selling it.

Frostburn sighed. “You’re not cleared to know that.”

“I’m not cleared to know that.” I stared at first one, then the other until they broke eye contact. “Me. I have clearance up to Top Secret. There are something like a hundred and fifty codewords I’m cleared to pull from Records – including yours – and I’m not cleared to know who your employer is?”

They flinched and Coldsnap nodded. I realized my voice had risen and pulled it down to a more normal level. “Well, after seventy five years dealing talents ourselves I suppose we’re overdue for another government agency sticking it’s fingers in the pie.”

Coldsnap goggled at me. “You missed the fact that my sister had a crush on you for three years but you figured that out five minutes?”

Frostburn’s pale skin lit up like a flare and she slapped her sister’s arm so hard heads turned. “You were not-”

“And now they’re going to try and poach Darryl off of us by offering him a job where he can chase Open Circuit.” I opted to steer well clear of that other can of worms Coldsnap had just opened. “I’m guessing you’re coming here to tell me about this is not part of the recruiting plan?”

“No,” Frostburn mumbled, no longer making eye contact.

“We’re here to prove our group has a different perspective on how to deal with talented problems,” Coldsnap said, rubbing her arm. “To Darryl, not any of your agents. We’re not poaching actual talents. We kind of need experienced supervisors more than talents right now, and Darryl certainly qualifies. But honestly, Frostburn and I would rather Darryl stay here where someone like you, with a level head-” I heard a muffled laugh from the direction of Massif’s desk but we all ignored it, “-and plenty of experience, was with him rather than our team, which is new and… untested.”

“Makes sense.” I sighed and shoved my chair back from the desk, crashing into Bergstrum’s a second later. Sometimes there’s not as much room as I’d like out on the floor. “That was a good thought, girls. I appreciate knowing what you’ve just told me.”

Coldsnap perked up a bit. “Then you’ll do-”

“No.” Shocked them both for the second time in ten minutes, a personal best. “It’s not my decision, it’s Project policy. It’s good sense. And it’s for the best. I’m not pushing against this one. If some other branch of the Government wants to give him a job I’ll do what I can to keep him here. We certainly wouldn’t be the same without him. But that’s all I can do, girls. Sorry.”

A final look passed between them, another one I recognized well. They’d decided to give up on it. “If that’s the way you feel, Helix.” Frostburn put a hand on her sister’s shoulder and pulled her away. “But if you have to mention that there’s a new game in town…”

“I’ve been keeping secrets longer than you two have been alive. Don’t tell me how to do my job.” I spread my hands. “No one asks how I learn these things anymore, anyways.”

The door to the room swung open and an unfamiliar man with dark brown hair and the mother of all scowls on his face came in, a talent known as Lightning Cage following just a step behind. I smiled a little and said, “Tell Grandma and Grandpa hello for me when you get home.”

They nodded gratefully and started across the room to meet up with Cage and his sourfaced companion. They probably weren’t going home, but that was the kind of thing I was going to have to pretend I didn’t know, at least for a little bit.

“Friends of yours?” Massif asked, sliding his chair down a couple of desks to come to a rest behind Teresa’s.

“Old friends of the family,” I said.

He nodded. “Your talent?”

“Something similar.” The twins were cold spikes. While I pushed down and created places where heat could pool, spikes push upwards and heat flows out of the area, creating incredibly cold temperatures. Project Sumter had originally considered them separate abilities but it had been proven that people could do both. Most just had a natural inclination to one or the other. I knew that Massif could see some sign of what I did with his unusual vision, it made sense that he’d see something from Frostburn and Coldsnap, too.

He grunted and looked after the twins as they left. “Trying to get them a job?”

“Why, you interested in them?” I asked, drumming my fingers absently. “Professionally or personally? Neither one has had a date since Grandpa tore the tires straight off-”

“Neither one,” Massif said quickly. “Just curious if that was why I’ve still got your last trainee.”

“Oh.” Come to think of it, Amplifier had been assigned to Massif, hadn’t she? “How’s that going?”

He shrugged. “She’s a handful. But in a lot of ways it’s better than field work, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. I’m taking her out to meet with some people in the community tomorrow.”

“Well, if you need any advice with her field stress test…”

“I’m not a natural sadist like you,” Massif said. “But I’ll figure something out. The Watch is trolling for good incidents for me. What about you? They’re enough like you I assume you’ve got a fabulous idea for their stress test already picked out.”

I glanced over to where the twins were chatting with Cage and whoever the dour looking fellow was with him. They really were a lot different from when we’d first found them in a house with the corpse of a man they’d accidentally turned into an ice sculpture. Even if they could be cleared to work with the Project, they’d probably be required to undergo a “real” stress test to measure how much they’d changed. Frankly, that didn’t seem fair. “They’ve had all the testing they need for one lifetime.”

“They pass or fail?” Massif asked.

I shrugged. “Depends on who you ask.”

——–

Massif

I was still thinking about Helix and his strange friends the next day when Harriet and I picked up Amplifier and headed out towards Chinatown. The field stress test is something of a rite of passage and Helix is famous for being tough on the people he runs through it. Of the eleven talents who’ve had the unique pleasure of entering the Project with Helix as their sponsor, ten had to undergo the stress test more than once. Four had to go through it three or more times.

I got it the second time around and frankly I have no idea how anyone finds the courage for a third try.

But it looked like I was going to be sponsoring talent for Amplifier through all the really tricky portions of her application to Project Sumter and that meant, among other things, representing her to the Senate Oversight Committee, vetting her first oversight agent and putting her through a field stress test of my own design, with the decision over whether she passed or failed ultimately falling to me. Helix had been really dodgy about whether he planned to take back over and do the rest the day before, so I was guessing it was all on me. I’d done it once before, but I’ll admit that Amplifier brought a whole different dynamic to things.

“So you actually know a kung fu master?” She asked, doing her best to lean forward and make eye contact from the back seat.

“Not gung fu,” I said. “Wushu. Gung fu is like excellence, or a level of accomplishment. That’s why the old, badly translated movies would give you phrases like, ‘You don’t have enough gung fu.’ They were literally saying, ‘You’re not accomplished enough to take me on.'”

“Whatever.” She shook her head in frustration. “You know a wushu master, then.”

“Giancarlo He-sifu, to be exact,” I said. “He spotted me when I was eight and realized I had a talent. It took him a while to convince my parents studying wushu would help me with the problems that talent gave me, but I wound up learning from him eventually.”

“Giancarlo He?” I could hear disbelief in every syllable. “What kind of a code name is that?”

“It’s not,” Harriet said, whipping the car through traffic with dizzying speed. Even if the Project said she was getting too old for field work I don’t think most drivers in town would agree with them. “To the best of our knowledge, Giancarlo He is not a talent. He can just recognize them when he sees them.”

“What?” Amplifier held her hands up in a horrible imitation of a wushu stance. “Because he has mystic training?”

“That’s entirely possible,” Harriet said with a shrug. “Look at Chinese myths and culture. Superhuman people have been a part of their lore since before the Roman Empire was pulling itself up by the Greeks. Of course there’s going to be more awareness of talents built into their culture, not all those legends can pure fairy tale. And talents like Al’s both lend themselves to martial arts and require unique work arounds for people who want to survive fighting them. Wushu is a combat sport now, but it comes from a long and fairly mystical fighting tradition where talented individuals would be viewed as natural born prodigies and respected, not freaks to be feared. So of course wushu masters can spot talents.”

“That’s not to say there aren’t talents in the He family,” I added. “In fact, I think there’s a couple. But talents are weird – even the most common ones can skip whole generations sometimes. There’s nothing solid proving they’re actually genetic, and not dependent on some sort of weird environmental factor.”

“The evidence is split,” Harriet said. “Helix gets his code name because he comes from a long running family of talents. But the talent on his grandfather’s side only turned up ever other generation, while his grandmother’s side sometimes produced two or three talents a generation. When they married, their kids had no talents, then Helix popped up with his maternal grandmother’s ability. No sign of talent on the father’s side of the family. At the same time, we’ve found a pair of identical twins with the exact same talent, right down to how well they can use it. It’s strange.”

“Maybe the twins just encountered something weird at the same time?” Amplifier asked.

“No.” Harriet shook her head. “These twins were weird. A talented pedigree, just like Helix, and they were kept separate until their talents became clear at the age of six. A lot of questionable stuff went on there, but it’s a powerful argument for talents from genetics. I think it would settle things in most people’s minds if it weren’t for all the contrary cases.”

I glanced at Harriet but she was just a blur, like usual. I was wondering if that thought had been prompted by the twins who visited Helix yesterday, and if they were the same pair. But it didn’t seem like the best time to ask. “Anyway. The point is, you can’t just look at someone’s parents and guess if they’re a talent, any more than you can guess if they’re good at math.”

“It’s a clue but not confirmation,” Amp said.

“Exactly.” Harriet parked the car and we piled out. “There’s a lot of rules in the Project that protect talents, almost as many as there are to protect other people from them. One of the ones for the protection of talents says we can’t investigate people who we think have talents, only public incidents where we think a talent was used.”

“That sounds fair,” Amp replied.

“So if you really don’t want the Project to open a file on you all you have to do is avoid using your talent in public,” I said, leading the way into a small import shop and absently smoothing my shirt as I crossed the threshold, just like I’d been doing since I’d been eight. “But people like He-sifu will still find you, whether because of their training or family or whatever. And some of them act as a support network, helping curious people get answers about their talents without endangering themselves or others, getting new talents up to speed on the rules and generally keeping us all in touch with each other.”

“Little groups like the ones you started in are common enough,” Harriet said. “But knowing Mr. He and the people he can introduce you to will help you a lot more in the long run, if you plan to do this job for any length of time.”

Amplifier smiled, becoming insufferably cute. “I’ll just have to turn on the charm, then.”

“You’ll have an easier time of it than me,” I muttered.

“What’s that?”

“Is that one of my ungrateful students?” The voice came, rich and strong, from the stairs at the back of the store. The old, wooden planks creaked as Sifu made his way down them, saying, “It’s high time you came to see me again. It’s the least you could do, since you will never be bothered to pass on my teachings.”

I heaved a sigh and bowed properly from the waist. “Hello, Sifu.”

Sifu came to a stop at the bottom of the stairs. Although he only came up to my collarbone now he still felt like he towered over the whole room. Every movement screamed control and dignity, and his physique made him look much younger than his fifty years. Even with my shortsightedness I still felt like I could see him as clear as day, standing with one arm behind his back and his other hand poised to lecture. “Well. Little Mountain. You have come with more questions I suppose. Not to ask me for students, so you can finally do your duty to your sifu?”

“Just questions, Sifu.”

He studied me for a moment and then turned and started back up the stairs. “Come along then. Let me make the world clearer for you again, Little Mountain.”

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Water Fall: Solid Grounding

Six weeks, six days before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Massif

Amplifier looked tired.

Not that there was anything surprising about that. Our physical conditioning tests aren’t meant to be easy and, unless a person was a physical fitness nut or a member of the armed forces before joining with the Project, there’s a good chance they’re going to find them challenging. So far, the Midwest’s newest recruit was showing pretty good marks on them, nothing out of the common way but enough to qualify for field training, if that’s what she wanted.

What was surprising was that I could see it. Thanks to my unique powers of vision, or lack thereof, the cues I use to judge a person’s mood are almost entirely nonvisual. Sure, you can get a general idea of how a person’s feeling by their posture, but most of the nuance is supposed to be in the face or other such subtle cues, which are totally lost on a person as nearsighted as I usually am.

Playing orientation facilitator, or whatever HR calls the people who train newbies these days, for Amplifier had been an education for me. While I didn’t have much of as standard to judge by I guessed she had what most people would call an open and expressive face, because just about every change of mood registered there. It matched the rest of her personality, from which I guessed hiding her thoughts or moods had never been a necessity in her childhood. I was thinking only child, reasonably wealthy family, but that’s not the kind of thing you talk about with people who’s personal history gets redacted by the U.S. government.

Regardless of how privileged her upbringing had been, it hadn’t kept her from building up enough stamina to complete a one mile run in a weighted vest and belt, designed to simulate the kind of gear we might carry into the field, in just under seven minutes. Not spectacular but enough to show promise, especially since it was the last in a string of exercises for the day. She sprawled out on her back by the track in the gym while I made some sloppily written notes on her evaluation sheet. “You can take off the gear if you want.”

“Thank goodness,” she said, sitting up with a grunt. Then she proceeded to strip the vest off and throw it as far as she could which, considering it weight about twelve pounds, wasn’t as far as you might expect.

I tried not to stare. One thing I never understood when I was younger was why my friends would say a girl was hot. I knew they saw something about her, but I was never sure what. Amp was proving to be an education in that respect, too. Like the fun in getting “hot and sweaty” never made any sense to me before.

“So,” she said, straightening her tank top as I tried not to notice. “What comes next?”

I grabbed onto the chance for innocent conversation. “Actually, nothing. You’re done for the day. For once, there’s not even any paperwork we need you to go over, I think Harriet got all of it from you before we started today.”

“That’s it?” She sounded incredulous. “What, isn’t the exhausting exercise supposed to be the prelude to some kind of crazy basic combat training?”

I laughed at that, not because it sounded preposterous but because I had assumed the same thing when I went through the process. “If my goal was to teach you wushu, yeah. But my sifu would have my head if I tried that, and besides it’s not part of the Project’s curriculum. We have employee safety standards we have to keep to.”

“Ah, right. Those pesky standards.” Amp glanced around, then back at me. “Then again, there’s no one here right now… I know I wouldn’t tell anyone if you wanted to hand out a few free pointers.”

“I dunno…” When I was seven I started studying wushu. My sifu, or teacher, assured my parents it would be a big help in dealing with the weird abilities I had and he was right, which was one of the only reasons I stuck with it for the first few years. The work is hard and the instructors are harder. But when I actually joined Project Sumter I discovered that being too far ahead of the game can actually get you as much trouble as being too far behind. My hand to hand instructors didn’t really like having to deal with me, and I really didn’t want to relearn a bunch of basics that didn’t mesh well with my natural talents. There was tension for a while.

“What, you think I can’t handle it?” Amp asked, breaking into my thoughts.

Everyone knows the answer to that question is always no. So I shrugged and said, “If you want. But take it easy, you really don’t look like you’re used to this kind of thing. Even if you feel fine now, I can bet you won’t later.”

“I hear you.” Amplifier followed me over to the exercise mats. “So where do we start?”

“We start with me reminding you of one very, very important thing.” I turned my body slightly so that the left side faced her. “Project Sumter does not exist to deal with ordinary people. While there are many exceptionally smart or skilled individuals in the world, what falls under our purview are people with abilities that aren’t fully documented or understood, and that allow them to behave in ways that defy sense. Kick me.”

She blinked once. “Excuse me?”

I hadn’t expected to have to say it twice. “Kick me. Any way you want.”

To her credit, Amplifier resisted the urge to hit below the belt. Instead she just picked up one leg and jammed her foot as hard as she could into my side, hitting me just above where the kidneys are. I could see the blow coming, a dull white point of focused motion, then it connected and Amp fell over backward. I quickly moved over and reached down to help her up but she waved me off, scrambling to her feet with a grunt.

“Okay,” I said, getting back to my feet as well. “What happened?”

“Shouldn’t that be my line?” Amp asked, indignant. “I have no idea!”

“Start thinking about it,” I said, brushing lightly at a make-believe bit of dust on her shoulder. With my other hand I tapped my jaw. “Now punch me.”

She gave me a look I couldn’t quite read, but from the way she punched me, getting a good windup and putting all her weight behind it, she was probably pretty mad. Either way it was a really good punch and when it connected she nearly knocked herself over again, this time spinning to one side and yanking the shoulder my hand was on away. She kept her feet only by hopping to one side a few feet and flailing her arms for balance.

“How did you do that?” She demanded.

“Tell me what you think I did and I’ll tell you if I did it or not.”

Now Amp couldn’t keep the disbelief out of her tone. “That’s stupid.”

“No.” I folded one arm behind my back and pointed one finger upward, mimicking a pose I’d seen my sifu use countless times before, I think because it was one of the few body language cues I could pick up on at first. “This is the most important part of defending yourself against other talents. There are sixty two different kinds of talents in the Project records. Some of them are very similar to each other, and learning to tell them apart is the difference between using an effective countermeasure and getting caught flat footed. Worse, if you confront an unfamiliar talent you’re going to have to be able to accurately describe it to someone else if you want to get more information on it. Learning to pay attention to the smallest details, even when the big picture makes no sense, is the most important skill a Sumter field agent can have. Now, tell me what you think I did.”

“It felt like you punched me,” she said, rubbing her shoulder. “Even though you didn’t wind up. Or move at all. It felt like you punched me in the shoulder at the same time I hit you.”

I nodded. “Not bad. That’s almost exactly what happened, and anyone familiar with vector shifts would guess that was my talent as soon as you described it. And they’d be right.”

“Vector shifts?”

“Right. It’s the ability to perceive momentum in the objects around you, and move it from one solid object you’re touching to another.” A skeptical silence met that explanation so tried a different approach. “Have you ever played pool?”

“Sure.” A shrug. “I’m not any good at it, but…”

“Have you ever seen a setup where two pool balls are touching, and a player hits one with the cue ball so that the ball it’s touching moves but the ball that was struck stays in place?” I demonstrated with my hands, holding one in place while the other illustrated the cue ball striking and the third ball flying off.

“Yeah, I’ve seen that.”

“I work on the same principle. I take momentum from one solid object.” I gestured towards her feet. “And transfer it into another.” I tapped the mat we were standing on with one foot.

Amplifier just stared at me for a minute. “You’re serious.”

“You’ve just seen me do it twice.”

“But…” She looked around in confusion, as if she expected to find a hidden camera somewhere. “Wouldn’t that mean you’re pretty much invincible?”

“Not exactly. None of us talents are, although some come closer than others.” I took a closer look at her. While they hadn’t been big hits, she had just been knocked around a bit and that after an hour or two of pretty strenuous exercise. She wasn’t fidgeting around as much as she usually did and she looked kind of deflated. So I started for the edge of the mat, talking over my shoulder. “Now it’s time for lesson number two. Most people with talents spend a lot of time thinking about how they can use them, but not a lot thinking about what kind of countermeasures people could take against them. It’s something you need to start thinking about, if you haven’t already. Based on what I’ve told you, what do you think is the best way to deal with a vector shift?”

There was a moment’s quiet as Amp thought the question over, trailing along behind me. She didn’t say anything at all until she’d gone and collected the vest she tossed aside earlier and slung it over one arm. “I guess, from the sound of things, the most straightforward thing to do would be to keep your feet off the ground. Or on something fragile, like maybe a wood floor.”

“It’s very hard to get a vector shift in the air if he doesn’t want to be there,” I said. “But you’re on the right track with the idea of bad footing. Gravel isn’t great for me, either.”

“Right, but that’s not exactly something I can count on.” She tilted her head to one side and studied me. “You said you can move momentum from one solid object to another. What would happen if I sprayed you with a fire hose?”

“It would depend on whether I saw it coming or not. But you’d probably knock me over. There’s been rumors of vector shifts that can work with liquids and gasses for years, but I’ve never met one. They’re very chaotic and hard to manipulate, if that makes any sense.” I collected my clipboard from the bench where I’d left it and gave her another look. “What made you think of it? So far as I know it’s never actually been tried before.”

She smiled. “I have the same problem in reverse. I can affect sound through air, but not liquids or solids. It moves too fast, if that makes any sense.”

Which it didn’t, but then turnabout is fair play. “Not bad. Out of the box thinking is a must if you’re going to be in the Project. Now seriously, you look like crap. Knock off for the day, take a shower and come back tomorrow.”

“Right.” She ran a hand over her face. “Will do. Should I look for you, or Helix?”

“Harriet, probably. Helix has… a meeting to get ready for. It’s actually something we’re all going to be in, but Harriet knows the most about the training process. She’s been through it more times than just about anyone else in this branch.”

“Right.” She wavered there on her feet for a second so I gave her a gentle push towards the locker room. To my surprise she jerked away and snapped, “Don’t push me around.”

“Sorry.” I held my hands up in front of my chest and backed away. “No offense meant.”

She nodded once, looking a little lost, and headed away. I watched her go, a little curious about what was going on there. But like I said, they’re good at finding stuff for me to do, too. I had just finished a quick check of the gym to make sure everything was cleared away when my boss popped her head in and yelled, “Massif!”

“Over here,” I said, waving the clipboard for her attention.

She trotted over, her voice grim. “Are you done with Amplifier’s physical tests yet?”

“Just sent her home, Harriet.” I held out the clipboard for her inspection.

“Better than normal.” She was referring to my handwriting, which is usually not that good. I didn’t think it would be great, even with the strange clearing effect Amplifier had on my vision, but it was nice to know at least some of it was because of my poor sight. “She did okay, too.”

“Not bad, I agree.”

Harriet tapped me in the chest with the clipboard. “We need to get down to Evidence. Agent Samson has something he wants to show us.”

I racked my brains for a second. “Agent Samson? Like the guy from the Bible? Supposedly ripped a city’s gates down with his bare hands? I don’t think we’ve met. Is there even someone named that in our section?”

“Not for a long while,” Harriet said. “Come on, kid. You’re about to meet a living legend.”

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