“Have you ever tried to return something you bought online, Octagon?”
“If you are buying Christmas gifts in May, you won’t be able to return them in December, no matter where you buy them.” Another of those damn ‘are you stupid’ looks.
Then it hit me that he was right. “Oh.” I almost slapped myself in the head before realizing I was still holding the monoblade handle.
I aborted the slap-to-head motion and redirected my right hand to offer the monoblade hilt to Octagon, carefully held sideways. “Here, I don’t want this. It was Majestic Mind’s. Warning, it’s a monoblade, in case you didn’t see it used.”
“I saw it.” He carefully accepted the blade, examined it, removed the battery, and then called out, “I need a detective please. Evidence collection.”
A nearby officer looked at us and walked over quickly, unsealing a thin package and pulling a pair of thin, clear plastic gloves out of it. They looked a lot like the gloves the lunch ladies in the cafeteria wore when serving food, twenty years ago. “Detective Jones here, what have ya got, Octagon?”
“Jones, this blade was Majestic Mind’s. He gave it to Jumping Jack, to attack Strangest with. It needs to go into secure evidence storage until we can get Whizzard to look at it.”
Detective Jones walked off, holding the two pieces in his plastic-gloved hands like they were snakes, yelling “Where are the secure storage boxes!” with just the slightest sound of panic in his voice.
Oh, right, Majestic Mind’s tinkering specialty was chemicals, as in bombs, glue, drugs, etc. “Ah, you don’t think Majestic Mind would be foolish enough to put nerve gas or something in the blade, would he?”
“I have it on good authority that Gorgon personally took a hand in making sure Majestic Mind knew that the first deadly airborne chemical would lead to a new addition to Gorgon’s statue collection.” Octagon paused, looking directly at me. “Sometimes I wish I could enforce rules like that.”
“Fine, damnit, I’ll leave town and try not to come back. I’ve never liked online shopping, but I’ll get used to it, I guess.” I paused. “You realize that I do have family, and a secret identity? I’m not going to be able to stay out of town forever, keep a secret identity, and keep a family. Family will pull me into the city for things I can’t possibly avoid, like hospital visits.”
Octagon looked around for a moment, and called out “Who is the ranking officer here right now?”
A somewhat tubby middle-aged officer with salt and pepper hair in a receding hairline with muttonchops poked his head around the side of an ambulance a few yards away, and said loudly, “That’d be me, Mr. O. What you need?”
Octagon smiled. “Lucky, you folks got it under control? Can we leave?”
“If he’s leaving with you, I’ll be happy for you to both be gone, no offense, Mr. O.” The officer nodded his head at me.
“OK, Lucky.” Octagon turned to me. “Look, we really need to talk. There are some things you just aren’t getting about what’s happened to you, and you need to start thinking about them.”
“Here’s not good enough?” I replied a bit warmly, irritated.
“I’d rather talk someplace where we aren’t near other people. One second.” He pulled out his phone and called a number. “Heyas, Cupcake, can you check the stadium schedule of events and see if there is an activity today within the next few hours?” A pause. “Yes, I need a place to talk to Strangest.” Another pause, this time longer, about fifteen seconds. “OK, we’ll head that way, thanks honey.” He hung up his phone.
“What’s this about the stadium, Octagon?” I doubted Octagon, of all people, would be setting a trap for me. He was pretty square.
As square as an octagon can be, I guess. I chuckled internally.
“If nothing’s going on there today, we can stand in the middle of the field. That way, I say something that startles you, there won’t be another incident.”
“Fine, is the offer of a ride still open?” Might as well avoid walking, if possible. He could fly high enough up that I wouldn’t need to be so vigilant about people around me.
“Definitely yes, Lucky over there wants you gone from here as much as I do. The last thing we need is me, thirty cops, and twenty EMT’s attacking you, as well as whomever wakes up from your last debacle.” He lowered his voice a bit. “I saw Jumping Jack and Majestic Mind using electricity against you. I could tell it hurt you, a lot, though it didn’t seem to do any permanent harm.” He looked up at the power lines, still talking softly, but with a very serious look in his eyes. “I could mess up a lot of people, and would probably end up killing some.” He set his jaw and was obviously waiting for me to respond.
My anger field didn’t make people stupid. It didn’t erase memories. It made people want to kill me. They wanted to kill me more than they wanted to do anything else. As long as I didn’t contradict what they knew (or thought they knew) about me, they could also be suggestible in their rage, which sometimes let me trick them.
“Yea, I get it. No need to risk setting the stage for you to flambé the emergency responders while you all try to figure out how to kill me.”
He relaxed a bit. “Thanks. One second, I need to find a flight harness. If you change in midair, I want the chance to throw you away from people.”
I shook my head. “You aren’t thinking right. If you are carrying me on a harness, you will almost certainly throw me at your headquarters, because that’s where you would expect the most backup to be available. Better to just drop me in some random place.”
He stopped digging around in the spacefold sack attached to his belt. “Right. I’ll try to fly over parks and low population areas.” He turned away from me as he removed his gloves, and from the movements of his shoulders, he removed a third item from his hands as well. Probably a ring. No surprise, he and Cupcake were known to be married supers.
“Why do you wear the ring?” I asked as he turned around. When he looked at me funny, I realized how that might sound, so I started over. “Gloves get damaged. If the ring is identifiable, why wear it? You and Cupcake are married, but you keep secret identities. You are married in your secret identities too, right? Presumably with the same set of rings?”
He looked at my hand, with the wedding band there, for all to see. Mine was a simple titanium band. “Same reason you wear yours, probably. I don’t have enhanced vision, either as a power or a gizmo, and I can see blemishes and wear patterns on your ring that would probably identify it to someone willing to do enough surveillance. It’s not like your canvas mask is much of a costume.”
“Good Point.” I removed my ring and putting it in my pocket with a frown and a sigh.
Great, something else to remember.
“Also, remember, I’m tougher than gold. The ring would be damaged and fall apart before it harmed me if it got caught on something in a fight. It’s just a band like yours, and I’ve gone through a bunch of them. I have another for the secret identity.” He looked at me. “You ready?”
“Sure.” Octagon made a hell of a lot of sense about the little stuff. I wish I could trust him on bigger issues.
He hovered over me, holding his two arms down towards me. I reached up, we clasped wrists, and then he lifted me into the air. If he tried to drop me, I would just transform and bounce a few times. Anyone near me would attack and probably be rendered unconscious, quickly. This would allow me to change back to human again.
We didn’t talk as Octagon carried me over parks, factories, and various other low population areas on the way to the stadium. There were some groundskeepers on the fields, cutting grass, spreading fertilizer, and raking the infield dirt. There was going to be a game tonight, apparently. I wondered, briefly, who the Braves would be playing.
Octagon dropped me off on second base. “Be right back.”
I watched as Octagon flew over and spoke to an older fellow who carried no tools, but was chewing on an unlit cigar as he walked from place to place. After a moment, the older man waved at the rest of the workers, who were watching him talk to Octagon, and then waved his hand towards a propped-open door to the maintenance areas behind the outfield wall. The others started pushing their mowers and broadcast spreaders towards the exit. The older guy stuck two fingers in his mouth, the other hand on his throat, whistled, emphatically pointed at the door again, and started slowly jogging that way himself, barely more than a walk.
I was trying to figure out why he hadn’t just told them to go back to the maintenance areas by shouting, when Octagon settled on the ground next to me, watching me watch the groundskeepers. “Arnold can’t speak without a voice device because of the tracheotomy for throat cancer a few years back. It doesn’t have enough power for him to yell through it, but he can still whistle if he covers the hole in his throat.”
I nodded. That made sense. It was amazing how many people Octagon knew. He was pretty perceptive about me too, for that matter, though it might have been obvious what I was thinking about.
“That reminds me. You called that officer ‘Lucky’, but I saw his name tag, and here were at least fifteen letters there ending in ‘ski’. There any history to that?”
“You’re asking questions like you want to get to know the town.” He frowned. “It’s no secret though. It’s his haircut. He’s had the bald head and mutton chops since he joined the police force straight out of the Army. He hated having to shave for the Army and vowed to never shave his chops. A couple of the guys on the force noticed that when they looked at him from the right angle, his hairline from chop to chop and around the bald spot looked like an upside-down horseshoe, so they called him ‘Lucky.'” He paused. “Enough social trivia, we really need to talk.”
“OK, let’s talk.” I crossed my arms and got prepared for a lecture. If it got too bad, I’d leave.
“You have what is known as a disruptive power, and it’s one of the worst I’ve heard of. You have heard about disruptive powers before?”
“Yes, a set of powers that create chaos or confusion, and interfere with teamwork.” I answered. “I most certainly fall in that category.”
“Your power might be usable, in some situations, if it was fully voluntary – but it’s not fully voluntary. If you are injured, or startled, you change. No superhero team in a populated area will ever want anything to do with you. No villains will either, not unless they wanted to use you as bait or something.” He looked up to see my reaction to that.
I shook my head. “No interest in going dark side, despite the appearance of my other self.”
Octagon was apparently satisfied with what he saw in my face. He continued. “Civilians are scared shitless about getting involved in fights between supers, and whenever you pop up, they get dragged into it. People remember what they did when they fight you; it scares the hell out of them.” He paused, looking at me. “Nobody’s died yet, somehow, despite the seven fights that you have been in, all of which drew civilians in. That can’t last forever. You understand that, right? You understand how weak and frail normal people, and even some supers can be? You need to stay away from people, try to figure out how to control your power better.”
I had thought about that, quite a bit. “Am I supposed to go live in Antarctica or something? Escape from humanity? What about my family?”
Octagon gave me a strange look that seemed like a cross between sadness and impatience. A face-palm, but without the palm. “You obviously haven’t done your homework on disruptive powers. You need to.” He stopped a second. “You, especially, need to. People who have disruptive powers which they cannot fully control typically can’t keep secret identities, and rarely maintain ties to their families. Not unless the trigger they cannot control is something easily avoidable.”
I looked away, turning my back on him. “Yeah, I know. I’ve done more homework than you think.”
Octagon stalked around in front of me, and he was pissed. He put his face right up to mine and hissed, “If you know how likely it is that you’re going to hurt your family, why the hell haven’t you divorced and moved away from them?”
“For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” I quoted. “You have heard that phrase before, I assume?”
Octagon reacted like I had slapped him, and stepped back.
I wasn’t very happy with his psychological manipulation bullshit either.
We stared at each other for a moment, until he raised his right hand, palm towards me. “Sorry, that was inexcusable.”
“Forgiven, but it’ll take a couple years for me to forget it, provided we don’t keep fighting.” I replied, pausing briefly to make a point, before continuing. “You seem to think I know nothing. I’m not quite that ignorant. I’ve spent a lot of nights trying to figure out how these damn powers are going to screw with my life. I’ve done a lot of research.”
“But you don’t shop online.”
“I will now. I haven’t found all the answers yet, have you?” I challenged him right back.
“Does your wife know? Do your kids know?” Octagon was back to grilling me again. I decided not to make a fuss over it. He seemed to care for the welfare of my family. I could deal with that. For a while.
I sighed as I remembered the surprise birthday party that had been a surprise for everyone. “Yes, they know. We’re living in different buildings now, and only interact under controlled circumstances.”
I was prepared to cut him off if he asked for details. There were probably not too many people that had bought ten acres with two houses on it in the last few months. He realized he was probably treading on thin ice pressing me too much with questions about my personal life, and stepped back a step.
“Have you read about disruptive powers deeply enough to know that there are organizations out there that will pay you a good living wage to live in rural areas, and stay away from people? To qualify, you have to have a public identity and wear a tracker band.”
“Let me guess. Funded by the insurance companies?” I asked, suspiciously.
“Partly, yes. Partly by the states and federal government too. Do you blame them? Supers are all scary to insurance companies and governments. Supers like you are even more scary and dangerous to them. Hell, supers like you are scary to ME. I tried to beat you to death with Gorgon’s unconscious body when you interfered in a fight between us. He’s damn tough but it still almost killed him before I lost it and came after you with my bare hands and teeth.” He paused, looked down at his hands briefly, clenching his fists; he was obviously imagining or remembering something very painful. “What if I picked up someone else who wasn’t quite so tough? What if they volunteered to be used as a weapon against you? I know now that a physical bludgeon is mostly useless against you, except to move you around, and probably wouldn’t agree to use most people as bludgeons, because it would be useless. What if Faraday or one of the other electrical supers showed up and offered to be a living melee weapon I could use against you?”
“Oh.” I had thought about those things, but I had been thinking about them as they would affect me, not how they would affect others.
“Oh? Is that it?” He was getting angry again.
I glared back at him. “Am I allowed to think to myself here? I don’t have to clear all my thoughts with you, do I? I promise there’s a lot more than ‘Oh.’ Going through my head right now. Shut up and let me think a minute, please.”
Octagon was clearly not happy to be told to shut up, but didn’t make a fuss over it. “Fine. I need to find my ring in this damn bag again anyway.” He pulled the bag off his belt and started groping around inside the bag, eventually pulling out a couple gloves, but no ring.
Was it selfish to want some freedoms for myself, if it put others at risk?
Octagon turned his bag upside down and started shaking it. All kinds of things started falling out.
Was it selfish for others to want restrictions on me, to give themselves more safety?
Was that a cat? He kept a cat in the bag? For what, jokes? Was that even humane?
Was there a common ground between my desires and other people’s?
The cat recovered gracefully from being dumped on the ground, and sat on it’s haunches, its tail twitching regularly. I stared for a moment, and then shifted my gaze to Octagon.
Octagon happened to look my way and noticed me looking back and forth between the cat and him. He must have read extreme confusion in my facial expression, since he answered the question I hadn’t figured out how to ask yet. “It’s not a live cat, it’s mechanical, an AI. I call him AL. Whizzard traded one of his bags for the cat. I think Marionette made it, the cat that is.” He nodded at AL. “I’m not very good at moving quietly or unobtrusively, but AL is really sneaky when he wants to be. He’s very handy for recon, especially in tight places.”
I shook my head and turned around, facing away from him, so I wouldn’t be distracted.
Octagon’s low-key muttered cursing continued while I was trying to think. AL seemed to answer each curse with meows that sounded strangely confused. The sounds of who knows how much junk falling out of the bag continued. I wanted one of those bags.
“Does Whizzard sell those bags?” I asked.
“No, he usually trades them to other tinkers for things the team needs. They take months for him to make.” Octagon replied, sounding a bit distracted. Then he paused, and the sounds of junk falling out of the bag stopped. “You done thinking?”
“Yes. Tell me how to get in touch with the people that handle this disruptive power rural living arrangement. I won’t commit to it here, but I will listen to what they have to say.”
Actually I had pretty much decided that I was going to do it. As much as he had pissed me off, he made some good points. I could say I wanted my freedom, but was I willing to trade other people’s safety for it? My selfishness was potentially a lot more expensive than theirs. I didn’t want to let him know he had won the argument though.
He sighed. “Not what I hoped, but better than I feared. One minute. Help me find my rolodex. I saw it fall out a while ago.”
I couldn’t help but stare as I turned around to help. There was a huge pile of random junk lying around Octagon, literally up to his knees. “How big is that thing on the inside?”
AL stood up and started pawing at the pile.
“No clue. I’ve never run out of space. The weight adds up though. Whizzard tried to explain it once, but that obviously didn’t work.”
The weight still counted? How many hundreds of pounds of stuff had he already dropped out of the bag? That made it a little less handy for someone like me, I guess.
I chuckled. “I can imagine.” A tinker trying to explain something they made with their specialty to a non-tinker, or even a tinker that didn’t specialize in related fields? That would have been a waste of time; Whizzard had probably been drunk, concussed, or something like that at the time.
Al carefully gripped the edge of a raincoat with his teeth, tugged a few times, and pulled it off the pile. Where the raincoat had been, there was a rolodex, three roller-skates, tied together, and a grappling hook visible. I wanted to ask Octagon what a flying brick type hero needed a grappling hook for, but looking at the size of the pile and what was in it, I realized that I wouldn’t get a coherent answer unless he told me the truth. The truth being as unlikely as his problem was obvious. He was a hoarder. Three roller-skates tied together as a unit? Not. Asking.
“Ah, there it is, Thanks AL!” Octagon said as he picked up the Rolodex, unlatched its cover, quickly flipped through it, and grabbed a blank card from the roll. Then he slowly looked through the rolodex, found what he was looking for, pulled a pen from a magnetic holder inside the cover, and wrote down a name and number.
AL meowed and rubbed against Octagon’s leg. Someone had made a damn realistic cat AI when they made AL
“A rolodex? Seriously? This coming from the guy that was giving me problems about not shopping online?”
“My Rolodex won’t kill anyone. Well, not unless I throw it at them.” He looked at me like he was expecting an argument as he handed me the card. ‘SPA – 404 44SUPER’ was written on it. “The disruptive power rural living folks require that you attend a twelve step program before they will consider you for the program. SPA is ‘Super Powers Anonymous.’ They are pretty good at helping people cope with powers and their consequences. The number is for the Atlanta group. They do not meet in town. If you attend, you won’t be the only disruptive power there.”
I looked down at AL who had stopped rubbing on Octagon’s legs. The AI cat sat down, facing Octagon, uncannily still, except that tail twitching back and forth at its tip like a metronome.
“Why did you call him AL?” I asked. “Isn’t it confusing when you think about him as an AI, with the capital ‘I’ and lowercase ‘l’ looking almost the same? I’m sure that it drives you nuts every time you write up some after action report where AL was used.”
“Doesn’t bother me that much, writing it.” He paused, and grinned a conspiratorial smile. “Whizzard left him on my desk a couple months ago with a note that said “I got a cat for you, he’s an AI. He will fit in your bag, and will probably be very useful.”
I almost face-palmed right in front of him, but managed to resist the urge.
He grinned at me. “I did misread it to begin with, but I only call him AL to drive Whizzard crazy. It works on other people too, I see. Every time he sees the cat, he looks pained.”
I pondered the pile of stuff. I turned my head a bit towards the cat, scratching the stubble on my chin.
“How long have you had the bag, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Hmm, about a year.”
I couldn’t help but smile. AL stood, turned to face me, and sat again, his tail tip still twitching like a metronome.
“Whizzard is a wee bit OCD, like most tinkers, right?”
“You could say that, if you wanted to practice telling jokes.”
“Bet I can help you find your ring within a few seconds.”
“Do you have a detection power too?”
“No way then, there’s still literally over a ton of stuff in here, none of it bigger than the bag’s opening.” He said, hefting the bag experimentally with his left hand.
“Bet me a bag like yours, a new one from Whizzard? I don’t want to take yours.” With my luck, he stored already-set bear traps in there, just in case.
“Against what?” He replied cautiously.
“I’ll never enter Atlanta city limits unless forced to under duress, or if whomever is leading the Atlanta team at the time asks me to.”
Octagon shook the bag a bit, up and down, obviously getting an idea of it’s weight, and then looked at me, frowning slightly in concentration. “If you help me find the ring in less than two minutes, I get you one of Whizzard’s bags. If you fail to help me find the ring in less than two minutes, you promise to stay out of Atlanta unless forced to enter, or if asked by the Atlanta team?”
I nodded. “That’s good enough. Shake on it?”
He shook my hand.
I turned to AL and said “AL, help Octagon find his ring.”
Al just twitched his tail faster, made an upset sounding yowling noise, and then turned away from me to face Octagon.
I turned to Octagon. “You probably have to ask him.”
“AL, help me find my ring.”
AL reached up with one paw, slapping the black bag hanging from Octagon’s hand. Octagon got the hint, and held the mouth of the bag open. AL jumped inside, and less than ten seconds later jumped back out again, head high, carrying a golden band in his mouth, which he gave to Octagon.
“Wow, Thanks AL!”
AL meowed happily and rubbed on Octagon’s legs again.
Octagon, turned to me, his face was a strange combination of happy and worried. “Thank you for that, I think. Whizzard is probably going to be upset with me for asking him to make a bag I lost in a bet.”
I smiled a bit at his reaction, standing there in a pile of several hundred pounds of… urban detritus. “I don’t think he’ll be as upset as you think, if you tell him about the bet.”