Arc 1, Bittersweet 6

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I walked over to the truck and sat on the tailgate, which caused the truck suspension to squeak a bit.  There weren’t many clouds, and we were far enough from the city that the stars were clearly visible.  I let myself lay back in the bed of the truck, crossing my arms behind my head.  The suspension complained a little more in its language of squeaks.

I just laid there, watching the stars for a minute or two before I was reminded of the reality of the great outdoors in Georgia during early summer.  I slapped at the first couple mosquitos as they made themselves known with high pitched whining noises, but eventually sat back up and hopped off the bed of the truck.

If all the answers were easy, it would be a boring world.

With a loud rattle, I opened the main barn door wide, and drove the truck onto the concrete pad, being careful to straddle the working trench with the tires of the truck.  I wouldn’t be working under the truck today, so I simply made sure the cover over the trench was properly sealed so I wouldn’t fall into it.

I closed the main door with another loud rattle and picked up a pole from the corner of the shop.  I used the pole to drag the bug zapper along the wire supporting it, bringing it directly over the truck.  Then I flipped the switch to turn on the work lights and the bug zapper.

I wouldn’t mind terribly if the world were a lot more boring right now.

The ‘zap’ sound of exploding mosquitos amused me as I collected a flashlight and stuck it in my pocket.

I really hope this is something I can fix.  I’d really like to accomplish something today.

I opened the door of the truck and folded the driver’s side seat over, then pulled the whole seat out of the truck.  I started carrying the whole seat to the back of the truck and nearly knocked myself on my ass when the seatbelt, still running through the guide on the seat, ran out of slack and almost jerked the seat out of my hands.

Pay attention, Zeke.

Holding the awkwardly-large seat clumsily with my left arm, I used my right hand to pull the seatbelt through the gap in the seatbelt guide, leaving the seat disconnected from the truck completely.

I don’t even want to imagine how absurd seat removal must be for cars with heating pads, speakers in the headrests, massagers, or lumbar supports adjusted by compressed air.  Or all of them at once.

I flipped the seat so it was bottom-side up and sat the seat-part on the tailgate.  I stared at where the four seat mounts should have been.  They were all sheared off.  I had been hoping the bolts were sheared, instead.

Well, so much for it being easy to fix.  Still be doable, at least for a patch job that will last until I can get a new seat frame from a junkyard.

I walked to the cab of the truck, and pulled out the flashlight to inspect the bolts and bolt mounts, carefully checking the mounting surfaces for weld breaks.  Nothing looked out of place, the frame of the seat itself had apparently absorbed all the damage.  Good.

I considered what I needed to do and collected a white grease pencil, a few deep well sockets and a socket wrench with a short extension.  Then I found a big piece of cardboard left over from buying new appliances for the house, and cut a square out of it.

An hour and fifteen minutes later, the last weld was complete, and I had only caught the seat on fire twice, with minimal damage done.  The truck would smell like burnt fabric for I didn’t know how long, but I wasn’t worried about that right now.  I turned off the welder and looked at my watch, again, just to be sure I wasn’t going to get an angry phone call from Anne.  Ten-fifty.  Safe.

I disconnected the bolts from the cab of the truck where they were mounted to the floor, brought all four of them to the back of the truck, and put one bolt through each newly-welded leg, tightening the nut on each bolt until they were firmly locked in place.  At first, the warped legs and the bolts passing through them were nowhere near to a match for the bolt pattern on the cardboard, but that rapidly changed as I placed a piece of conduit over each exposed bolt, one at a time, and used it to give me the leverage required to bend the leg of the seat easily.  In fifteen more minutes, I had matched the bolt pattern of the cab of the truck to the bolt pattern of the chair using the cardboard template.  It wouldn’t be a perfect match, but it didn’t need to be.

I checked my welds to make sure they hadn’t cracked.  Only one had, and it had only cracked a little.  I wasn’t worried about it.

Thirty minutes later, I was sitting in my truck, adjusting the seat position.

One problem solved, at least temporarily.  I can keep my man card another day, I guess.

I chuckled briefly as I started to clean up the shop, putting tools and equipment back where they belonged.

Why couldn’t I have gotten a tinker or telekinetic power instead?  I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands.  I’m not bad at it either, even doing rush jobs.  Give me time, and I’m actually very good, for someone without a super power based on manipulation of mechanical objects or tinkering.

My father had mentioned a couple times while I was growing up that there was a word you could use to describe a person who constantly dwelled on bad things that happened in the past.  That word was ‘loser’.  I shook my head.  I was not going down that path.

It didn’t take long to clean everything up.  I left the bug zapper on, since it was still occasionally making ‘zap’ noises as it created more dead bugs.  After a quick glance around the garage to be sure I hadn’t missed anything, I walked upstairs.

I washed my hands in the sink with some pumice soap, and then dried them off.  The rest of me wasn’t too dirty.

I turned on my computer, and collected the bag off the bathroom door, de-boxing the toothpaste and deodorant before putting them away.  The old containers of each were nearly gone, but I wouldn’t waste them by tossing them out with a portion unused.  I took the empty bag and boxes and dropped them in the trash can next to the refrigerator.

Then I opened the fridge and picked up one of the beers, opening it with a magnetized bottle opener that I grabbed off the door.

I walked over to my computer and activated the encryption software with a password, then connected the network cable to the router.  After I was able to go to a couple news sites on the browser, I closed the browser and opened email.  Ignoring everything that wasn’t marked important, I rapidly scanned through the eight remaining emails and responded to each.  Three answers to product-related questions posed by customers that my employees couldn’t answer.  Five requests for specific information from the sales team so they could properly answer questions from potential future customers.

No escalated complaints today, thankfully.  I hadn’t expected any, since there hadn’t been a phone call, but it was good to know for sure.  Tinkers could be extremely picky about minutiae one second, but oblivious the next.  Last week one had complained loudly that the electrostatic bags we used for the circuit board we had shipped to him had changed.  He was a regular customer of ours, so I found out what the specifications needed to be for the electrostatic bags, and offered to sell him just the bags.  I couldn’t guarantee exactly what the manufacturer would ship with the circuit boards in the future, but I could have bags made to the required specifications.  That’s when I found out that he was not even using the circuit boards.  He had been buying the boards just so he could get the bags.

Maybe it’s not so bad that I didn’t get a tinker power after all.

Can’t knock the customers too badly though, they paid the bills.  I had made a living over the last ten years and grown a substantial following of tinker customers by providing them with exactly what they wanted.  Our quality control on the materials we resold was ridiculous as compared to quality controls of any major retailer.  I had even hired a tinker that specialized in measurement instruments, and paid her well to design machines that we could use to verify that the products we stocked were exactly what we advertised, and our advertisements typically used measurements to six significant digits.

I took my first quick swallow of beer.

Oh, that hit the spot.

I took a long pull at the bottle.

Even tinkers that didn’t need such precision bought from us because they trusted us.  Lord help you if you ship a tinker something off-spec.  They would complain until your ears fell off.  I had been a manager of a normal big-box hardware store in Atlanta and had to deal with four regular tinker customers who were constantly coming into the store and returning things they had bought because it wasn’t exactly what they needed.  They tended to spend a lot in the store.  Almost every day.

When I asked each of them, individually, what sort of a markup they would pay over the big-box store’s prices for guaranteed quality on hardware and materials, the numbers I got back were uniformly eyebrow-raising.  I started my own business, Exactitude, three months later, selling wire only, specially manufactured for me, and then slowly moved into other products.  Ten years later, Exactitude was a dominant provider of raw materials for tinkers in the US, South America, Canada, Mexico, and most of Europe.

I took another pull at the bottle of beer as I closed down my email.  I activated the speakers and started up an internet radio station with my custom channel based on my likes and dislikes.

I had direct email addresses and even phone numbers for several tinkers, but there was absolutely zero possibility I was going to reach out to any of them if I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, or how I was going to fix a problem they had posed to me directly.  Most of them wouldn’t reach out to me directly.  I hired good people, who could solve nearly every problem without my help.  I couldn’t afford to hire like a big-box store.  They were paid a bonus for every problem they solved without my intervention, but fined if they failed to bring a problem to me when it was clear they didn’t understand it.

I wonder what the reaction would be if I revealed that Exactitude is run by Strangest?  I’ll have to do that if I take up this disruptive power rural living arrangement.

I finished the rest of the first beer and two more while attempting not to brood, listening to some good rock from the 1970’s and 1980’s.  I zoned out a couple times, and let it happen, hoping for some sort of a solution to one of my problems to come to mind.  No such luck.

Not being a regular drinker, with three high gravity beers under my belt over two hours, I had a strong buzz.  I hit the shower to get cleaned up the rest of the way, drank a big glass of water to avoid the morning hangover, and then changed the music channel to classical and laid down to sleep, not bothering with an alarm.

I woke up the next morning at around eight, feeling pretty good, and called the SPA number that Octagon had given me.  There was a redirect option on my smartphone which let me view the website for the South Atlanta chapter while I was waiting for someone to pick up the phone.

“Super Powers Anonymous, this is Cherie. How can I help?” A cheery female voice chirped over the phone.

I smiled.  She sounded like a bundle of energy. “I would like to know when your next meeting is, and what I should expect there.”

“Oh, this would be for someone with super powers, or someone with a super powered loved one?”

“Someone with super powers.”

“Is this for a normal meeting, or an intervention?  We have to ask this, just in case.  Some people don’t understand that the meetings are only for supers who understand they have a problem.”

“A normal meeting.” I clarified.

“OK, we have meetings every other day, in different facilities.  You found our website?”

“I am browsing it now.”

“That’s the South Atlanta SPA, right?”  Cherie asked.

“Yes ma’am.”  I smiled again.  Her happiness was infectious.  I wondered if it was a super power of some sort.  Verbal happiness generation?  I scribbled her name on my notepad, and would have a talent team investigate her to see if she might make a good addition to Exactitude’s frontline phone team.  I would pay well for someone with a phone presence this good, if she didn’t have severe issues that would make her unsuitable, like a drug problem or something.

“Do you have any more questions sir?”

“No, thank you, and have a great day Cherie.”

“You’re welcome, sir.  Have a great day!”

I sent my computer the smartphone’s current browsing address, and the computer brought up the South Atlanta SPA website.  There was a meeting today, at two PM, and it was only twenty miles away.  I saved the address in my smartphone.

By this time it was getting close to nine AM, so I checked to be sure encryption was still running and logged into the email client again.

No emergencies.  Good.  I sent an email to the talent team that we were currently contracting to for new employees, and asked them to look into Cherie with the SPA as a potential front line phone person, and provided them with the South Atlanta SPA number.

Then I realized that there were few reasons why I might have been calling the SPA, and the talent team might spread rumors.

Too late to think about that now.  I’ll just have to hope their professionalism might prevent the juicy gossip from going viral.

Then I realized that I had called the SPA from my public phone, and had not ID blocked it.

Even better.  Two communications flubs in thirty minutes.  Starting the day off right.

I nuked a frozen biscuit and ate it, then threw on a reflective T-shirt, some baggy shorts, and running shoes.  The two mile run, a couple laps around the property, was relaxing.  Eight minute miles, I wasn’t going to push myself after drinking a bit the night before.

I returned to the barn and showered, then sat down and looked at routine emails from the day before, quickly sorting through them.  I double-checked my schedule for any meetings that I hadn’t been advised of, such a thing happening was very rare, but it had happened before.  After the prior day’s emails were sorted, another hour had passed.  I turned off my computer, and disconnected the network cable.

After that, I put on faded blue jeans and a white T-shirt, then a grey short sleeve button-up shirt and a green baseball cap.  I didn’t tuck in the shirt.  I wasn’t dressing to impress.

There was a brief moment of self-criticism as I picked up the fanny pack.  I had to special order the things now.  Nobody wanted to wear them, and I had no idea why.  If I didn’t either have a briefcase or a fanny pack, I’d be lost.  I checked to be sure I didn’t have any high draw apps running in the background that would kill my phone battery, then put the phone and mask in the fanny pack and walked out of the apartment.

The bug zapper made a loud ‘zap’ as I walked down the stairs.  I thought about leaving it on, but there was no real need, since nobody would be in the barn for hours.  I turned the bug zapper off, opened the barn door, pulled the truck out of the barn, and then closed up the barn behind me and made sure all the lights were off.  I pulled the truck around to its normal parking space and parked it.  Anne’s station wagon was gone.  She might have been taking Danny somewhere, or shopping.  There would probably be a note.

I knocked on the door anyways, five times slowly, paused, unlocked the door, and then entered.  Habits that prevent one’s family from becoming homicidal maniacs are good.

There was a note on the table, as expected.

“Zeke, I’m taking Danny to Atlanta so he can put his hands on some tablet PC’s and accessories, so he can make a final choice on what he wants for school. – XOXO Anne”

Danny had been complaining that he couldn’t make up his mind what he wanted, because he couldn’t tell from looking at them which of the devices and accessories would be a better fit for his hands.  Danny had my build, even in his hands and fingers.  Big palms and long fingers.  We could both pick up a basketball with one hand fairly easily.  Some smaller computing devices were simply too annoying for us to put up with, even the compact keyboards that were supposed to let people with bigger hands type were not sufficient.  Standard desktop keyboards could be a pain in some cases, even.

Holographic touch keyboards for tablet PC’s were not too far off.  According to rumor, they would be of adjustable size.  Danny and I couldn’t wait.

A big bowl of cereal was poured and covered with milk, and an apple grabbed.  After finishing the cereal, I wrote Anne a note.

“Anne, I’m attending an SPA meeting at 1400 hours.  Should be back by 1700 hours.  Hope Danny found a tablet machine that he can work with.  We still need to talk. – XOXO Zeke”

Cereal bowl and spoon having been washed, I made sure I hadn’t left a mess anywhere and walked out the door, locking it behind me.  As I walked down the steps off the front porch, I dropped the apple from my hand, bouncing it off my bicep and catching it back in my hand a couple times.

I laid the apple on the passenger seat and started the truck, turning on the AC and radio, listening for the traffic report.  I pulled out my phone, pulled its charging leash from the console, and plugged it into the cigarette lighter.  Then I connected the charging leash and turned the phone volume all the way up as I activated the mapping system and entered the saved address for the meeting.  I configured the machine to avoid interstate highways.  It complained at me that I would be more than doubling my travel time, and I pressed the confirm button.  It calculated an ETA of fifty-six minutes.

I made the trip without incident, stopping at a gas station to fuel the truck, toss the apple core, and buy a newspaper.  By the time I got there, if I didn’t hit any traffic, I’d be nearly two hours early, but I’d rather be early than late and this was a bit important.

The meeting place was apparently an old grocery store, one of many such stores put out of business by Wall to Wall Superstores.  I parked the truck in the middle of the parking lot, put on my mask, and walked up to the door of the facility.  At this point I was pretty sure I was going to enter the disruptive powers program, so I wasn’t too concerned about my secret identity, but I didn’t want to flaunt who I was either.

There were already people present, which was something of a surprise to me.  The floor was cleared of all the old shelving units and other grocery store related fixtures, but the air conditioner was working.  The bathrooms were in pretty decent shape too, I discovered, when nature called.  Most people who were already here were apparently staff or organizers or something, as they were doing equipment tests, and carrying stuff in from a van parked in front of the building.

There were two early birds like me, both of them wearing full costumes that I didn’t recognize.  One in blue with grey stylized lightning bolts, and the other in forest green with brown highlights.  They were fiddling with smartphones, and stared at me briefly when I sat at the far corner of the grocery store and opened my newspaper.  I smiled at them briefly, and they quickly looked back at their smartphones.

Yes, some people still read newspapers.

I could smell the faint smell of old fish.  Looking around, seeing the power cables dropping out of the ceiling and the bolt holes marking display units, as well as the butcher’s window, I was apparently sitting next to what had once been the meat and seafood section.

I couldn’t hide behind the newspaper.  If I did, someone might sneak up on me and startle me, setting off my power, which would be very not-good.  More people arrived, and by the time the meeting was supposed to start, about fifteen supers in costume were present.  I had no clue at all who these people were, which made me very nervous.  I alternated between reading my newspaper and looking for costumes I knew.  A couple of the latecomers wore bulky wrist bands or ankle bands, and had no costumes.  The organizers spoke to them as they arrived, and they were placed in various spots around the facility where places had been prepared for them.  Each of them apparently had their own setup to help them control their powers.  A sunlamp over one seat.  Headphones, a mask, and a keyboard connected to a box on the ground for another.  A curtain in a ‘U’ shape facing the small raised stage for the third band wearer.

Nobody gave me a problem about where I chose to sit.  Most of them seemed to know each other.  None of them knew me, of course, but very few of them stared, and the ones that did weren’t obnoxious about it.

At two PM, the meeting started.  One of the folks without costumes and no wrist or ankle band stepped up onto the small stage.

“Testing, testing.”  He looked at me.

I gave him a thumbs up.  I was the farthest from the stage.

I folded up my paper and stuck it under my leg and gave the meeting my attention.  I had lots of experience with meetings.  This one looked like it was going to be minimally professional, but at the same time I might learn something.

All of us had quieted when the test was started, expecting the meeting to start, so instead of being drowned out in the low mumble of people talking to one another, I heard the little commotion at the door and I saw someone in a flame red and canary yellow costume enter the facility.  He wore no mask, a fit-looking man with a wild shock of pure white hair, somewhere between fifty and seventy I’d guess, based on what I could see from where I sat.  No icon on his uniform, but the round yellow spot in the middle of the red field seemed extremely familiar.  On his wrist, he was wearing a band like the three with no costumes.

One of the organizers was supporting the right side of the man with the bright suit and white hair as he walked up to the stage, limping fairly heavily.

Another of the organizers brought a tall stool and set it behind the cheap podium and the limping old man sat in it, nodding his head in thanks to the young lady who had helped walk him to the stage.

I knew that costume from somewhere.

The older man leaned forward and spoke towards the microphone, which picked up his voice reasonably well even though he wasn’t close to it.  “Sorry for the delay folks, even the best of us take a tumble now and then, and not all of us have durability powers.  I’ll heal myself when I get back to the plant.”  There were a few chuckles and mumbles from the crowd.

The young male organizer who had done the microphone test spoke into the microphone as he moved the whole podium closer to where the older man sat.  “That’s OK, Dr. Fusion, we appreciate you taking time away from the plant to come visit us.”

How did I not know who that was?  Dr. Fusion.  One of the most deadly supers on the planet.  Everyone knows that costume!

Somehow, I wasn’t panicking.  All I knew was that I needed to get out.  There was no way in hell I was getting anywhere near that man.  The first time he activated his power, he had obliterated a town of ten thousand in Indiana somewhere, including almost all of his family.  A six foot deep crater with a radius of two miles.

And right now, he’s almost inside my active power radius, if I were to change. No. Just No.

I abruptly stood, and tried to remain calm, having remarkable success, despite my whole body breaking out in a cold sweat.  I left the paper on the chair, and rapidly walked towards the building entrance.

“Sir, I can see that you fear me.  Please do not.  I have complete control over my power.”  Dr. Fusion was talking to me.  I couldn’t think about that.

JUST GET OUT

I made it to the front of the building, and two of the organizers were there.  They both turned to me but did not get between me and the exit.  The young lady that had helped Dr. Fusion walk to the stage approached, looking concerned.  Nothing mattered except getting out.  I jogged towards the door.

“Are you ill?  One of the attendees has a minor healing power that might be of assistance, if you don’t mind being green and growing a few leaves for a couple days.”

“Not sick.  That’s Dr. Fusion.”  Another twenty feet to the doors.  I was hyperventilating.  Why was I so mentally calm?  Maybe it is one of the others?  Someone that absorbs emotions, but not all the physiological effects?

I mostly-gently pushed past the woman who was acting as if she wanted to help hold me up.  I don’t think I left a bruise.

Do I look that bad?  Probably.  If the physiological impacts of the emotions I should be feeling are visible, I probably look like I’m having a stroke.

The male organizer closest to the door tried to calm me as I got closer to the door.  “You don’t need to worry about him, his only uncontrolled reaction was when he developed his powers, fifty-something years ago.”

Just stay out of my way.

I kept jogging towards the doors, not trusting myself to say anything.  He stepped in front of the doors.  “You came here to try to learn to deal with your powers, right?  That man has over fifty years of dealing with an almost unusable, extremely deadly power.  He is an excellent speaker.”

They don’t know what I am; they don’t know how close to dying this entire town is.

I stopped in front of him, and grabbed his arms, to move him aside.  He didn’t move.  Some sort of power.  “Move.  My name is Strangest, and if I transform too close to Dr. Fusion, this entire town dies.”

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14 comments

  1. underwhelmingforce

    That ending was awesome. Really, really great. The beginning of the chapter though… I honestly don’t care that much about truck chair repair and just skimmed that section after the first few paragraphs of it.

    • farmerbob1

      Several hundred words of truck repair went away. I did get a little carried away with that. I think what is left should be short enough. I can’t really think of a way to make it much shorter while doing the character development that I was wanting out of that section.

      • The Aimless Passerby

        I’m only reading this now, so I’m unaware of the changes, but actually really liked the narration of the beginning scene. Maybe not the particular details of the repair, but Zeke’s idle commentary on it and way you set up the transitions was super nice. Felt like watching a video or a movie, where the man silently does some manual work and goes about his daily home tasks and chores.

  2. AvidFan

    I’m sad now. Very sad. After three or four days I’ve finally finished Symbiote and caught up to this. And it’s on a really nice cliff hanger. X.X You’re stories are awesome btw.

    The truck repair was interesting, but I don’t think you should go into so much detail about things that are so tangential to the plot.

    • farmerbob1

      That’s two for two responses not liking the truck repairs being so long. When I reread it and tried to do so from the reader’s point of view rather than the author, I could see it as being annoying. Shortened it, a lot, let me know how it feels now.

  3. syphax1

    Alright, I like this. For the first few chapters, I was kind of annoyed because I had no idea what was going on, and the only character I really knew about was super polygon man and had no context for the main character, but now I’m getting into it.

    Any perhaps Strangest should have avoided large groups of people with powers, like a super power support group. Perhaps. Such is the glory of hindsight.

  4. Stahel

    Wow, now I Can’t wait for the next update! I’m imagining the NOT-HELPING!-guys face in the next chapter.
    Keep it up!

  5. thomas

    Nice cliffhanger but the mental clamming power dude over did it. I was calm until I rea d the last sentence.

    Errata
    • mosquitos
    another word like potato: mosquitoes
    • out of place, the frame of the
    • They don’t know what I am, they don’t know
    semicolon instead of comma
    • numbered paragraph
    • Three responses were answers to questions posed by customers, five responses were requests for specific information so I could properly answer questions from potential customers.
    Sentence structure needs help
    • and lay down to sleep
    Past tense: and laid down to sleep
    • smartphone
    Smartphone® is a registered trademark used for Retail Store Services Featuring Telephones, Wireless Hand Held Devices For Access To Global Computer Networks, Pagers, and Related Accessories and Equipment and owned by Dinesh, Pinakin. Full trade mark registration details, registered images and more information below. http://business.zibb.com/trademark/smartphone/30496165
    • “Super Powers Anonymous, this is Cherie, How can I help?
    “Super Powers Anonymous, this is Cherie. How can I help?
    • I cheery female voice
    A cheery female voice
    • Bowl
    Capitalization not needed
    • anklebands
    ankle bands

    • farmerbob1

      Smartphone trademark:
      Status:Abandoned because the applicant failed to respond or filed a late response to an Office action. To view all documents in this file, click on the Trademark Document Retrieval link at the top of this page.

      You had me worried. I thought some random guy in Virginia owned rights to every smartphone in the world 😛

    • farmerbob1

      I’ve never seen mosquitos spelled with an e, I was rather shocked to see that spelling exists. Both are good spellings though. Do they spell it that way in England? The whole armor, color thing?

      Various other fixes, Thanks!!

      • thomas

        Thanks. I did not see the trademark abandonment notice. Originally, I thought Android owned the trademark based on past PR. No, with an e is correct for USA spelling. One of the other English speaking countries might leave it out. I try not to use their spelling or grammar but a few words creep in once in a while.

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