Not only was AL seemingly happy to fetch items out of the bag, he seemed happy to put them back in again. As Octagon started to collect his hoard, he looked at AL who was sitting there twitching his tail, and asked “Please help me pick up the pile, AL?”.
The four-legged, tawny-furred artificial intelligence meowed happily and proceeded to jump back and forth across the pile of random items laying on the intersection of grass and dirt directly behind second base. Time after time, after jumping into the raked dirt of the infield and grabbing one, sometimes two small items in his mouth, AL jumped back in front of Octagon and hopped into the bag. He only remained inside moments before reappearing, to repeat the process again. He really wasn’t that much help picking stuff up; Octagon was doing much more work. Nonetheless, despite being a machine intelligence that couldn’t speak, AL gave a clear impression of being happy to help.
It was unnerving to watch so much stuff being fit into such a small container. At the same time, it was something I would hopefully get the opportunity to experiment with, soon. Maybe very soon if Whizzard kept a couple of the bags handy as spares or trade goods.
“What would happen if you put one spacefold bag inside another, Octagon, did Whizzard ever warn you about that?” I asked, remembering popular literature’s treatment of folded space bags like this in the past, before they were real.
Octagon paused, thinking a moment. “Whizzard said that would be a bad idea. If you had too much mass in the inner bag, you might create a singularity inside the outer bag that would destroy everything inside the outer bag, and then degrade within a couple seconds. The outer bag would be undamaged. It would have to be a lot of mass in the inner bag.”
I nodded. The plan was to carry the bag on my human body. It would allow me to carry changes of clothes, tools, etc. while I wasn’t Strangest. It would allow me to collect items like the monoblade as well, when the opportunity arose. I couldn’t use it like Octagon did, but I could certainly find uses for it.
I shaded my eyes with my hand and looked at the sun; it was barely above the artificial horizon of the stadium’s seating. If there was a late afternoon game, it would probably be starting soon. If it were a night game, we had a while. Regardless of when the game was going to start, I was sure the groundskeepers would want to finish their work before dark. Octagon’s pile was nearly gone. AL was pushing a bowling ball towards Octagon with his head.
“Octagon, can you give me a ride to a parking garage, so I can get moving home faster?” I had won the bet and wasn’t bound to stay out of Atlanta, but he had made some good points. I would do my best to avoid going to the city, or any other population center, if possible.
“Yes, but please go straight home, and drive carefully.” He looked at me, obviously thinking about saying more, but choosing not to. He picked up the last few random items from the pile. “AL please help me find anything that might be lost in the grass or the dirt here.”
AL ran a spiral search pattern, at a fast trot, head held low, looking more like a bloodhound for a moment then like a cat. He crossed from dirt to grass and back as he trotted, expanded his spiral. When he reached a distance of about fifteen feet from Octagon, he yowled, a bit upset sounding, and turned to face Octagon, the tip of his tail twitching like clockwork.
“Thanks AL, back into the bag, please.” He opened the mouth of the bag and AL jumped inside with a prodigious, accurate leap.
As AL’s body disappeared into the bag, I realized I would have to ask Whizzard if he could run some tests. If I were wearing a spacefold bag and my body went wherever it was that my body went, what would happen to the bag? I’d rather not risk destroying my real body if the bag turned into a tiny black hole or something when the bag went wherever my body did.
What little I knew about tinkers led me to believe that Whizzard would be thrilled to have me transform, under controlled circumstances, while carrying some sensors and recording devices on my body. I might even be able to score a cat if it gave him any useful insights. I wouldn’t keep the cat in my bag though, I would let it roam free at the house, and act as a guard of sorts to warn me of people approaching so they wouldn’t startle me. Some of my son’s friends had paid him a surprise visit the other day. I had heard their vehicle in the driveway, and they hadn’t approached the converted barn that I now lived in, going straight to the main house. No harm done, but unexpected visitors could easily spell trouble.
I’d have to be careful about asking Whizzard for a cat though, and might have to let him subject me to a bunch of tests. From what Octagon said, the bags took months to make, and something like the cat was probably a similar investment of time and effort by another tinker, if it had been a bag-for-cat trade that got Octagon his, err, cataloging device. I chuckled when I realized the pun.
Octagon attached the bag to his belt. I wondered what the belt was made of to support that much weight and be no bigger than a typical ribbon belt. While he was fiddling with connectors between the bag and belt, he turned to face the outfield wall, where the maintenance equipment door was still standing open.
The maintenance workers were standing there as a group, watching us, with the exception of Arnold, who was sitting on an upside-down orange five-gallon bucket. Arnold, at that moment, was shading his eyes with his right hand, looking at the watch on his left wrist. His cigar was bobbing up and down in his mouth as he muttered something I couldn’t hear.
When he finally finished fiddling with the bag and the belt, Octagon waved his right hand over his head to get the groundskeepers’ attention, which didn’t take long. They were all watching us anyway. He pointed to me with one hand, himself with the other, and then swept both hands in an arc. When his arms stopped moving, he was pointing up into the sky with both hands. The maintenance guys waved back, except Arnold, who stood up, unhooked a clipboard from the back side of the door that his bucket-seat was holding open, and started pointing his fingers at people and marking things on the clipboard.
“Octagon’s Taxi, where do you need to go?” Octagon said, with a chuckle.
“Corner of Main and Peachtree.” I said, with a bit of a smile.
“Which Peachtree?” He glared at me briefly before realizing he had stepped into a joke.
I laughed and told him the actual address of the parking garage, which wasn’t on one of Atlanta’s seventeen roads with Peachtree in the name, many of which crossed Main street.
“I think I could get to like you, if I weren’t forced to try to kill you every time you activated your powers.” Octagon said, shaking his head.
The feeling was mutual, really, even though he was a bit pushy. I suspected that trying to run a super hero group, and be a leader in combat tended to develop pushiness, aggressiveness, and patience too. He had certainly demonstrated some of each of those traits today. Not everyone was a brilliant, effortless leader.
Octagon and I repeated the flying performance from earlier. He put his gloves and ring back in the bag, just in case I lost control while we were flying. He wanted to be unconscious immediately, if that happened.
Flying wasn’t so wonderful when you were being suspended from your arms. I wouldn’t miss it, even though the view was interesting. We crossed town again, heading towards the parking garage where my truck was located.
Octagon spoke while we were flying. “If you do choose to take part in the disruptive powers program, you might want to consider wearing something that the locals will be able to identify you by, from a distance.”
Having a conversation while three hundred feet in the air wasn’t pleasant, since hanging from my arms made it harder to breathe and talk, but hopefully we’d be parting ways shortly. I wanted to get home and look into this program and the SPA group. I simply said, “I’ll definitely think about that.”
I would, too. I had already thought about it, while trying to figure out how to make myself useful as a hero. Obviously I couldn’t be in my alternate form anywhere near any hypothetical teammates, so I’d have to have a costume to wear when I was near people.
The city streamed by underneath us as my thoughts wandered, mostly green spaces, factories, abandoned buildings, and construction areas underneath us, as Octagon was trying to avoid flying near where lots of people would be on the ground. Just in case. I wondered how many villain and vigilante bases we were flying over. My mouth twitched in an almost-smile at the thought.
I had considered the vigilante thing. Heroes tended to work as groups, vigilantes tended to work alone, or in pairs. Being a vigilante had its attractions, but the morality was a lot more in the grey, and I didn’t really want to go there. I hadn’t written it off completely, but I doubted it would happen. I made jokes about Octagon being square, but my mental mindset had four right-angled corners separated by same-length lines myself. We started to descend, to the top of a parking garage.
The landmarks were not where I was expecting to see them, since I was approaching them from the air, but as we started to descend, I looked around, and recognized that we were in the right place. We landed on the top floor of the garage shortly after that.
Octagon opened his bag, asked AL to retrieve his ring and gloves, which AL did, popping his head out of the bag three times in quick succession, first with the ring, then with each glove. Octagon put them back on as AL provided them, rubbing AL’s head and thanking him after each action. He looked at me a bit nervously.
I figured I knew what he was thinking. “I’m going to drive straight home, Octagon, I promise.”
“I know.” He took a step back from me, raised his right hand like he was going to wave, and then clenched his fist.
Blackness for what felt like just an instant.
A strangely deep voice, echoing slightly in my mind woke me. “His mind is fully normal in this form, I can let him interact with the world however he wants, but still keep his emotions from spiking, which should keep him from transforming.”
I was still standing where I had been. Octagon was also standing where he had been. Another costumed person was standing a couple feet from Octagon, and from me, facing the both of us. Black suit, with black highlights. I guess the highlights were navy blue. I squinted. I could barely tell the colors apart. What was the point?
Then I realized I should probably be angry. This new guy was doing some sort of mind control on me.
“Octagon, what was this all about?” I asked. “Ambushing me is not exactly something I’m going to be very happy with you about, after whatever this dark dork is doing to my mind wears off.”
Octagon looked at the other super, and then back at me. “Blindside agreed to get you out of Atlanta safely.” He paused. “You wouldn’t leave your vehicle, and I certainly wasn’t going to willingly fight you, again. That left me with two extremely bad choices. Either I let you drive home in our oh-so-lovely Atlanta traffic, or I find a way to get you and your vehicle home safely.”
I thought about that. Calmly, clearly. “I can understand that, I suppose. Right now. I understand that you are flatlining my emotional reactions though, right…” It took me a moment to remember his name. “Blindside?” I remembered the name now. A local Atlanta vigilante. One I actually approved of. He had almost single-handedly ended the child porn market in Atlanta. His tactics were both disturbing and appropriate.
He responded “The longer I repress your emotions, the worse the snap-back will be, so let’s get moving. Where is your vehicle? I’ll drive.” I could tell by his voice, despite the strange echo, that he was young.
“Can you drive a stick?” I asked, half-expecting the answer.
He turned, faced Octagon. “No.”
Octagon smiled. “Strangest, please drive home. Try not to get in a wreck. If you do, or if you almost do, hopefully Blindside will be able to keep you from reacting emotionally. Blindside, I owe you a favor, I know. Don’t drive him all the way home. Find a parking lot or dirt road somewhere, with more than a hundred feet between him and anything else, and let him go, from as far away as you can. His range is about a hundred foot radius. Call me when you’re done and I’ll come pick you up.”
“I’m going to try to be calm and understand this from your point of view when I’m allowed to have emotions again, Octagon, but I am pretty certain I’m going to be rather unhappy.” It was weird having no emotions. Speaking felt different, like there was something missing.
Octagon turned away from Blindside to face me directly. “Look. If you can’t figure out why I did this, you aren’t as smart as I think you are. If you end up not being able to forgive me for asking Blindside to get you out of town safely, I’ll live with that. Some of the other outcomes are a hell of a lot worse than you being annoyed with me.”
I turned and walked down the oil-stained concrete ramp to the floor below the top floor of the garage. Blindside followed me, saying nothing. He didn’t seem to be controlling my actions, just my emotions.
Would I be able to tell?
I pressed the grimy, scratched elevator call button and an elevator car wheezed to a stop and opened in front of us a few moments later. We entered the dingy enclosure, and I pressed the button for the bottom floor.
Blindside seemed perfectly content to say nothing, and I certainly didn’t want to engage in small talk. Not being angry or upset, was not the same as being carefree. I did not like my emotions being held hostage.
At the same time, I could understand why Octagon had done what he had done.
Was this actually me thinking, or was someone planting things in my head?
I looked sidewise at Blindside.
“I am not playing with your mind, or even monitoring what you are thinking, other than blocking your emotions.”
“That would explain how you knew what I was thinking?”
He didn’t look at me as he responded. “I can feel the emotions that I am blocking for you. You were just highly suspicious, and you looked sideways at me. It doesn’t take a detective to figure that out.”
I dropped the conversation as we walked up to my truck. A little rusty around the edges, but the mechanical parts were well-maintained. No stupid electric locks or windows to drive me insane and make auto electrical repair shops rich. It did have a central computer, but I could live what that. Blindside definitely wasn’t impressed as I unlocked the passenger side for him before walking around to the driver’s side to let myself in.
He looked inside the truck carefully, before getting in.
I said nothing as I unlocked my side and got in. I buckled up, looked over at him, and tapped my seat belt, making sure he saw me. He looked at me then slowly found his seat belt and buckled in. The engine started smoothly. I turned on the air conditioner to cool down the cab as the radio started playing the traffic report. It was strange to not hear Captain Herb’s voice on the traffic report after so many years.
Blindside looked at me, then looked at the radio. Ah, he was probably confused about why I was being a little emotional about a radio report about traffic. “Captain Herb did the Atlanta traffic report for this station for a long, long time, Blindside. I didn’t know him personally, but it’s still a bit sad that he’s passed.”
Must be a vigilante thing to not talk much. Or maybe he just didn’t like to talk.
According to the traffic report, my route out of the city was wreck-free, and moving well, so I left the garage, paying the machine at the exit, and soon I and my mostly silent ‘guest’ were on the highway.
As expected, there were no problems on the way out of Atlanta. I did not drive directly home, I pulled a map out from under the console divider between us, and told Blindside that I was looking for a way to drive home that would mostly avoid people, which was completely true. I used the map to figure out what looked like the least populated path towards home, and started the drive.
Eventually, we were on a long, dirt road in the middle of nowhere, with a farm on one side, and a forest on the other. I rolled down the driver’s side window and stuck my arm out, letting in the smell of pine and cow shit. Two smells I had become very familiar with again since moving back to rural Georgia a few weeks ago.
Blindside was irritated at the smell. I looked at him, knowing that he would be feeling my satisfaction at his irritation, and hoping that he would write off any other emotions he was sensing to my irritating assault on his nose. When started to look towards me, I shrugged. “I bet cows don’t much care for the smell of hot asphalt either.” I could see a little grin try to form beneath his mask.
For as far as I could see in both directions along the two lane road, there were no cars. At least a few hundred yards in either direction, I popped the truck out of gear, and activated my power.
My alternate shape filled up the inside of my truck like a giant airbag, instantly pressing up against Blindside and flattening his torso against the passenger side seat, pressing against him hard enough to touch his eyes or eyelids, his only exposed skin, with my shadow skin. I was blind because my head was crushed into the headliner, flattened against my chest, but I still felt it when he went unconscious. My left arm, which had been out the window when I shifted, was forced backward by wind resistance so my fingers were dragging against the pavement somewhere around where the back tires of the truck were.
I was apparently pressing the gas, the brakes, and the clutch all at once. I had heard gears grinding briefly. Before I pushed the clutch down, I had apparently forced the transmission into fifth gear, since the truck didn’t jerk and buck before I hit the clutch.
I couldn’t drive at all like this, and panicked a bit. I had been hoping to be able to stop, force my body out of the truck, and then stay in the alternate shape for a minute or two at least, while watching both ways for oncoming cars, but that couldn’t happen. I’d just have to be faster than I had planned.
I changed back, grabbed the wheel with both hands, one each at ten and two o’clock, hit the clutch quickly, and pressed the brake strongly. The brake was a mistake. The truck had gone off the road onto the shoulder, and when I hit the brakes, it started sliding across the thick mat of pine needles. I panicked some more but some vestige of inner sanity took control and allowed my driving training from years back take over. I took my foot off the brake, steered into the motion of the truck like I was recovering from hydroplaning, and it worked, putting me back in control with a little fishtail as I pulled back onto the road, breathing a sigh of relief, but still feeling panicked, angry, amused, and everything else, all at once. Blindside’s power had turned off when he went unconscious, and all the emotions he had prevented me from feeling were hitting me all at once.
I felt like some sort of emotional kaleidoscope. I rapidly pulled the truck off the road and stopped. I removed the keys from the ignition, jogged around to the passenger side, unlocked Blindside’s door, opened his door, put my keys in my pocket, looked both ways along the road, and then shifted again when I saw no vehicles from either direction. I carefully reached in and touched Blindside’s eyelids with my pinkie finger. I needed to keep him out, or he’d take me out again, and hold me a lot tighter next time, I was sure. He might even be able to affect me in my alternate form. I didn’t want to find that out, at least not right now.
I shifted back to human shape, released his seatbelt, and pulled him out of the truck. Then I grabbed his wrists and quickly pulled him into the pine forest, leaning him against a tree, and then checking to make sure I wasn’t sitting him on top of, or even close to, a fire ant nest. That could be the death of him if he were allergic, even a small nest. I checked his pulse, strong, his eyes reacted properly to light changes. He was breathing regularly too, but from the smell, he’d eaten something with way too much garlic recently.
Need to write a note and apologize. Quickly.
I looked both ways along the road. Nobody was coming. I ran back to the truck and opened the console compartment, pulling out a pencil and notepad that I used for directions.
I scribbled a quick message.
Then I glanced both ways again, no cars. I dropped the pencil and paper next to him, shifted, touched his eyelid again with my fingertip to refresh the touch effect, and shifted back. Then I picked up the pencil and pad, tore off the note, folded it a couple times, and poked it into the right side (from my perspective) hole in his mask around his eye, pushing it back along the inside of the mask, roughly where the left side arm of a pair of glasses would go (from his perspective.) I left about an inch sticking out of his mask slightly, folded away from his eye. There was no possible way he could miss that. His peripheral vision would instantly pick it up when he woke, in about five minutes.
I ran back to the truck, tossed the pencil and pad in the passenger side floorboard, closed the passenger side door, ran around, and pulled my keys out of my pocket while jumping in. As I hit the clutch and gas to start the truck, I closed the driver side door.
As soon as the engine started, I put the truck in gear and got it back on the road, rapidly gearing up. I didn’t know what sort of movement powers or range Blindside had. I had no idea how he and Octagon had arranged to meet to ambush me when Octagon had only known for a few minutes where I was parked.
After I was in fifth gear and moving at sixty miles per hour, I turned off the talk radio station and listened carefully to the truck. No odd noises. Good. I sniffed the air and didn’t smell smoke or ozone. Better. I adjusted the thermostat in the air system and turned on the heater for about thirty seconds. No sweet smell. Seemed like the engine wasn’t going to immediately fail, anyway.
I closed the window, turned the air system back to cold, and turned the radio back on so I could stop smelling cow shit, stop sweating, and try to concentrate on something other than trying to panic about every possible thing going wrong. Coming off Blindside’s power was really irritating, and I wanted to be calm before I got home.
I was sitting too far back though, so I tried to pull the seat forward a bit. The whole seat moved, including the adjustment lever.
Shifting into the alternate form had jammed me between the steering wheel and the seat, breaking the seat off the floor. I grumbled. Hopefully the bolts just sheared. I could fix that with a drill, machine oil, easy-outs, and some new bolts.
I couldn’t calm down quickly. Not all of it was the after-effect of Blindside’s emotion suppression. He had controlled my emotions so I could not accidentally shift, but I would be damned if I let a mind controller anywhere near my family if I could help it. I had been told the plan was to just get me out of town far enough to no longer be a danger to the city, well, we had already accomplished that.
Blindside woke with a start, mentally flailing with his power, looking for a target in reflex before he realized there was no sentient mind in range. Strangest had gotten the drop on him, somehow. All he remembered was a giant black sponge crushing him against his seat after a joke about cows not liking how asphalt smelled.
“Never been in a fight with someone who didn’t want to kill me, or who wasn’t pants-pissing scared of me. I should have monitored him at a deeper level.” He muttered.
Something moved to his left; he snapped his head left.
“Who’s there?” He noticed that what he had seen out of the corner of his eye was still in the corner of his eye. He patted around his eye socket, carefully, before pulling out the note.
“Sorry. Hope no bad feelings. You seem OK. Appreciate what you do. Couldn’t let you ‘adjust’ me & family, if Oct asked you to. Owe you one. Strangest.”