Arc 1, Bittersweet 7

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“Are you threatening to destroy the whole town?” asked the man who was blocking my path.  His expression rapidly changed from concerned and a bit annoyed to angry.  He quickly crossed his arms in front of him and grabbed my wrists with an extremely tight grip.  Enough pressure that I felt bones shift, very uncomfortable, but just short of painful.  He then pulled my hands off his biceps, being careful not to break my arms.

What? Fuck.  The guy doesn’t know who I am?  Crap.

The woman behind me spoke, stuttering, almost in a whisper.  “Obstacle.  M.m.move, or let him m.m.move you.”

“I don’t understand, Karen, he just threatened thousands of people?”

I didn’t say anything, I just looked over my left shoulder towards where the woman’s voice was coming from.  Her face was white as a ghost.

She knows who I am.

“ me, OB, let him go. Please.  Now.  I’ll explain after.”  She was calming down a bit.

She looked at me, bit her lip, and walked out towards the meeting, holding her hands up.  Several of the costumed people were standing up and looking towards me at the door.

She looked over her shoulder at us.  “Now, OB, please.  Trust me.”

“OK sis.” Obstacle released me, and stepped aside, commenting as he did so.  “I don’t like you.”

I ignored him and slammed out the door, running for my truck.  Not all supers were smart.

I fumbled with my keys and dropped them as I approached the truck.  When I stood back up after leaning over to pick them up, I cracked my head on the bottom of the extended mirror, hard, and shifted into my alternate self.

I tried to shift back, and couldn’t.  There were four conscious human minds in my range.  Three of them were between me and the building I had just left, about fifty feet from me, and twenty feet in the air.  One in the bed of my truck.  Then they were gone.  I heard two ‘pop’ noises, and felt a gust of air push me towards the truck.

Think later.  Get away now.

I shifted back.  My head was sore, and I was jittery, but not panicked.  Shifting back and forth healed most wounds, and deadened emotion, but didn’t erase either.  My keys were still in my hand.  Obstacle was standing on the sidewalk, arms spread wide, gripping the handles of both doors.  I could see several costumed persons looking through the glass.  Fortunately none of them had been in range when I shifted.

My mouth got dry and I started to get worried again, no telling who those invisible people had been or where they went.

Don’t worry about things you can’t control.  Get out of town.  Now.

I drove the reverse of the last couple miles of my trip to the meeting by memory, before pulling off the road and setting up the smartphone as a navigator again, to guide me home, avoiding interstates.

I pulled back onto the road again, and drove home, the sound of the truck’s engine and the tires on the road helping to calm me down.

When I got home, I parked the truck, went straight to the barn, turned on my computer, and while it started to boot, I went and took a quick two minute shower to get the sweat off.  I threw on a set of jogging clothes, and grabbed a notepad.

I searched for the disruptive powers program organization, and found it.  I examined the rules, regulations, and how things were supposed to work.  Then I searched around the internet for complaints about them.  Any organization that restricts the activities of people is going to generate complaints.  I found none.  Not one single complaint.  On the other hand, there were very few people praising their treatment either.  Nobody likes prison, even if it’s self-imposed.

I was definitely going to drop the secret identity, and start living the life of a hermit, so it really didn’t matter if I kept my secrecy at this point.  I sent the disruptive powers program an email explaining that I had tried to attend an SPA meeting, and it had turned out very badly, explaining that I was Strangest, and what might have happened if Dr. Fusion had been near me when I shifted.

If part of what they did was make sure people with disruptive powers that would interact poorly did not meet, by tracking them with those bands, I was all for it.  Absolutely nothing good could possibly come of me meeting Dr. Fusion and my power going active.

And today, I shall practice my understatement skills!

I snorted at the brief moment of bad humor.  It wasn’t a sure thing yet that I wanted to actually join their program, but I would like to see whatever legally binding documents I might need to sign, and a list of all the requirements.  Specifically in regards to my personal property and business ownership.

Then I made a phone call.

“Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe.  This is Alex, how may I assist?”

“Alex, this is Zeke.  Is Ted available for a few minutes billable time on the phone?”

“I’ll ask.  Can I place you on hold for two minutes, Zeke?

“Of course.”

A couple minutes later, Alex picked up the phone.  “Zeke, Ted responded to my message and indicated he would be available in another few minutes.  He’s wrapping up a meeting now.  Can you wait, or would you like to call back?  Also, if you’re in town, Ted wanted me to ask if you would like to meet for lunch instead of a phone call.”

“I’ll wait, Alex.  I’m not in town.”

“OK, Zeke, I’ll let Ted know.  Can I place you back on hold until he can take your call?”

“Yes.  Thank You.”

He doesn’t sound uncomfortable calling me Zeke anymore. Good.

I knew it drove Alex crazy to call me by my first name, but I had insisted on it.  If I, personally, paid someone’s paycheck, or if they were not yet an adult and not related to me by blood, I expected to be called Mr. Collins, or sir.  In fact, I was a bit of a stickler for formality if I was legitimately in a position of authority.  Otherwise, I insisted on Zeke.  I had no wish to develop big head syndrome.

Ted did not have a similar policy, but Alex was his brother.  Alex was independently wealthy due to some fantastically lucky investment decisions, and worked for his brother just to stave off boredom.  They had tried to convince me that their law firm was paid by my company, so I should let them be formal, but I disagreed.  In the little things, the customer is almost always right, so they just dropped it.

Alex came back on the line.  “Zeke, are you there?”

“Yes, Alex.”

“I will transfer you to him now.  Have a good day, sir.”

He always ends with some sort of honorific, just to tease me, I think.

The phone made a couple clicking noises and Ted spoke.  “Hello, Zeke.  Tell me what you need.”

“Ted.  You got a pen and paper handy?  You may want to write this down.”

Stupid question.  Ted is a pen thief.  He probably has half a dozen of my company pens in the ‘coffee cup’ his five year old daughter Samantha made for him last year.  It won’t hold coffee, but it will hold pens.

“Ready here.  Go on.” Ted replied.

“First, I am probably going to be signing a contract soon that is going to restrict my personal freedoms.”

“Wait.  What?  I’ll need more than that.”

“I understand.  This is not frivolous, but I have to work up to it, almost like a joke.  If I gave you the reasons first, you might be distracted too much to concentrate on the rest.”

Don’t fight me on this, Ted.

“Umm, fine.  It’s your nickel.”

“I am going to need your people to make sure that the restrictions I will be placing myself under do not prevent me from controlling my business, or interacting with my family, if they want to interact with me.”

He immediately responded.  “Easy enough, provided the agreement isn’t some ten thousand page monstrosity written in a dead language on stone tablets.”

I laughed.  “I haven’t seen it yet, but I doubt it will be that bad.”

“OK, this phone call is no longer billable, Zeke.  Are you going to be a contestant on some sort of reality TV show?”

“Have you ever heard of the disruptive powers program for supers with powers that just can’t fit in?”

A long pause.  Ted was not dumb.

“Oh.  Hell.  I’m sorry, Zeke.  Is that why you aren’t videoconferencing?  Is that why you moved?”

“It is why I moved, it’s not why I’m not videoconferencing.  I’m dressed to go running, not to talk business.”

Ted digested this a moment.  “So you will still be able to videoconference and exert control?  Your power does not cause mental issues that might prevent you from controlling the company?”

“Those things would be covered under normal law, Ted, I’m not worried about normal law too much.  I just want to be sure I’m not signing my possessions over to someone else, or making it simple for them to be stripped from me.  I worked too hard to build that company to give it away or let it be stolen.”

“We’ll look at it.  I might have to bring in other lawyers who deal with super humans though, depending on how it’s written.”  His voice trailed off as he finished the sentence, already thinking.

“That’s fine, Ted.  Let me know each time you hit a five thousand dollar increment.  I’ll escrow ten thousand now to cover your expenses, and we’ll refill the escrow on receipt of confirmed billing, as normal.”

“I’ll need a copy of that contract before I start, of course.” Ted reminded me.

“You will get it after I do.  If it’s blatantly trying to rip me off, you may never see it.”

“That’s OK, Zeke, that’s what consulting fees are for.  I won’t cry a bit if you force me to make a bit of money and not have to do any work for it.”

I chuckled to myself.  “Thanks, Ted, I needed a laugh.”

“So, speaking as a friend, ah…”

“What powers did I get that make me disruptive?”

“Exactly.  You mind talking about it?”

“I’ll be losing the secret identity soon anyway, but please keep this to yourself, both as my friend and as my contract lawyer.”

“Done, and done.  Until you announce it publicly, it will not come from these lips.  However, please note that the phone is unsecure.”

“I’m not terribly worried about it.  I would just prefer the option of breaking the news myself.  If someone’s being dickish enough to tap my phone lines, or yours, and chooses to try to make problems for me with my secret identity, they don’t understand me very well.  That being said, my other self is Strangest.”

“Strangest?  As compared to what?  Oh.  Wait.  Big shadow body with a power that works like a bug zapper on humans. Except it doesn’t kill people?”

Works like a bug zapper?  Well, yes, I suppose it does.

“That’s me.  If it was fully controllable, I might be able to find a team and have a secret identity and all those other things.  Unfortunately, it seems to be triggered by significant pain or an adrenaline rush.”  I intentionally failed to mention that I could also turn it on at will.  I’d rather avoid that becoming known.  It had already gotten me out of one situation that had felt a lot like a hostage scenario, no matter how polite Blindside had been.

“I see.  I’ll want to talk to you more about the powers themselves at some point.  We might actually need to, if the contract uses power classifications to activate clauses.”  He paused.  “Also willing to be an ear off the clock if need be.  You don’t live that far away.”

“I will take you up on that after everything calms down a bit, just be sure to call first.”

We’ll also need to discuss Samantha.  Last time I saw her, she was at the stage where she loved playing hide and seek, which has the potential to trigger me if she startles me.  But that can wait.

“Fair Enough.  I’ll touch base with you in a couple weeks then.  How are Anne and Danny dealing with the move?”

“Anne doesn’t mind it much.  She would prefer to speak to her friends face-to-face, but video conferencing works for day-to-day, and we aren’t too far from the city for her to visit regularly.  Her web design business is practically unaffected.  Danny is having a harder time of it, but he was about to transition from high school to college anyway.  His running has significantly improved since we moved out here and he could run all he wanted.  He’s snapped a couple times at us when he was irritated at being separated from his friends, but he knows he’s not a kid anymore.  He knows that after high school everything was going to change for him anyhow.  He had a reasonably calm breakup with his last girlfriend not too long before we moved.  He’s not happy, but he’s not unhappy either.  He’ll be perfectly fine when he gets to college, I think.”

“Do they know?”

Do they know? Oh, About my powers.

“Umm, yes.  My last birthday party was a double party.  After the big friends and family party Anne threw like she does every year, Anne and Danny did a little surprise party at the house.  Let’s say that everyone was surprised.”

“Oof, I can imagine that was rough.  How are they dealing with it?”

“Better than me, I think.  Either they don’t really understand how dangerous I am, or they don’t care.”

“I’ll stop digging here, Zeke, but can I make a suggestion?”

“You can always make suggestions, Ted, advice and suggestions are two of the best things friends do for each other.”

“Listen to Anne.  No offense, but she’s smarter than you.”

“I know.  She points this out to me on a somewhat regular basis, mostly by just carefully leading me to decisions she wants me to make without me even realizing I’m being guided.”

“I have an appointment in fifteen minutes I need to review files for, Zeke, is there any other business related discussion?”

“Nope, take care of business, Ted.  I’ll put the funds in the escrow account.  Thanks for listening, and for the advice.”

“Not a problem, Zeke.  If you need an ear, call me.  You know how to reach me if everything turns to shit.”

“Thanks Ted, for everything.”

I hung up; the world felt like it was a little better place to be.  Amazing what a little friendship can do.  I looked at my notepad with its notes about the disruptive powers program.  Why did it still feel as if a noose was slowly tightening around my neck?

Before I forgot, I set up the escrow.  I decided to provide funds from my own personal account.  I might be able to call this a business expense, but I’d need to talk to the company accountant first.  If so, I’d reimburse myself.

I thought about the meeting.  Fleeing was embarrassing in a way, but I really wasn’t worried too much about it.  The other option of hanging around and hoping my power didn’t interact with Dr. Fusion was a whole lot less attractive.  I had no idea how I had managed to get out of the building without shifting.  Especially after Obstacle had restrained me.

Shifting at the truck had been bad luck, but at least nobody was in my range then.

Something felt off, like I had forgotten something important.  Like a missing tooth, I couldn’t stop prodding at my memories of that meeting.  I put it on the mental back burner.  It would come back to me, or it wouldn’t.  It was time to run some more.

As I walked back down the stairs from the apartment, I looked at the bug zapper and smiled.

That really was a good description of my power.

I had to kick the person-sized door into the barn to open it.  With a thump, it was freed from whatever was binding it.

Great.  Something else to fix.

That could come later, after a couple miles.  For now, I needed a little run to relax after earlier, before it started getting dark.

I looked over towards my truck.  Anne’s station wagon wasn’t there.  It was a little after four PM, so no worries yet, they might have been stuck in traffic.

The grass is getting tall.  I need to cut it again.  Maybe tomorrow.

As my eye passed over the yard, evaluating the grass height, I noticed a few small sections of the grass near the barn were slowly but actively standing back up after it had been pressed down.  Just as if someone had stepped on it a few seconds earlier.

Dammit, I knew this was going to happen.

I shifted.  There was a human mind less than ten feet from me, but I couldn’t see them.  Just like the four from earlier in the day.

What four?  Wait.  I just went over those memories a few minutes ago, and didn’t remember invisible people…  Fuck.  I get it.

The human mind disappeared.  I heard the pop, and felt the air move a bit.  All around where the mental presence had been, the grass bent inwards, and then away, waving.

Someone was teleporting invisible people away from me when they got caught in my power’s area of effect, and I was hearing the pop of air collapsing into the vacuum left behind.

I shifted back into my human form and yelled, loudly.  “Turn off the fucking invisibility and come talk to me.”

This must be the first time they have played with my memories – at least significant ones.  The four invisible people from earlier were a bit important and there’s no way in hell I would have forgotten them.  Looks like when I shift into my alternate form, it repairs damage done to my memories.  Or maybe it simply combines my memories every time I shift, so I remember the experiences of my shadow self again, even if they have been removed from my normal body’s brain?

I was not going to tell them that I had restored my memories of earlier when I shifted.  If they tried to mindfuck me again, I’d remember it the next time I shifted.

They must not be able to mess with my mind in shadow form.

“Show yourself.  I’m tired of this shit, and want some answers.” I yelled again.

I heard a loud sigh and what sounded like a woman’s voice.  “He has his memories from earlier back, apparently restored when he became Strangest, and I can’t touch his mind in that form.  I tried.  He caught me and the teleporter triggered to get me out of range.  I’m going to have to talk to him now, or everything is going to go to hell.  He’s extremely angry.  I’ll call back with a report in an hour. Out.”

A woman’s face appeared a few feet in front of me, and the silvery shape of a body became somewhat visible, appropriately positioned to be the body belonging to the face.  She had an abnormally square jaw for a woman and very bright green eyes.  Her nose had been broken at least once.  She was definitely not beautiful, but she was striking, and not unattractive.

“Do I know you?” I asked.

“I’m Mirage, Strangest.”  She paused.  “Good to meet you?”

Mirage, Mirage, Mirage, a Texas-based vigilante?  I think?  Definitely a vigilante, I’ve heard of her.  Not sure about the Texas part.  What the hell is it with vigilante mindbenders being used against me recently?

“Yes, I’m a Texas vigilante.  No, I’m not going to stay out of your head, but I’m not going to waste my time trying to change any memories in there with mental powers.  Why vigilante ‘mindbenders’?  Rainbow hero types don’t much like hiding in shadows, generally.  They really don’t like messing with grey area stuff either.  You are a businessman, a fairly successful one.  Consider what I’m doing right now to be contract work.  There’s an ugly problem that needs to be solved.  That’s you.”  She paused to let that sink in.  “It’s not something you would hire a full time employee to do, and none of your full time employees have the skills to do it right.”

“Rainbow heroes?”

She smirked.  “That’s what the vigilante community calls the heroes that don’t understand that sometimes killing people is the answer.”

Hmm, perhaps a different topic is in order.  I don’t think mental powers can kill me but I’d rather not find out.

“How much of what you say is tailored to information out of my head.”  I asked, trying to get the conversation moving in another direction.

“All of it.  I can be very convincing, even without rearranging your thoughts with my powers.”

I bet.

“Let me guess, Octagon brought you from Texas to babysit me because Blindside didn’t have invisibility powers?”

“Yes.  At least until you really understand how dangerous you can be, and stop wandering around like you aren’t a bunch of dead people waiting to happen.”

“I’m working on that.”

“You’re lollygagging. Work harder.”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever been told to put more effort into doing less.”

She smiled at that.  “First time for everything.”  She paused a moment, apparently staring at something over my shoulder for a second before meeting my eyes again.  “I watched you react to Dr. Fusion today.  I was one of the ones that made sure your emotions stayed under control.”  She paused.  “You get it.  You do understand how dangerous your power can be.  I understand that.  But you’re also driven to do things.  You’re headstrong.  You don’t like limits.  You’re an active person.  You own a successful company.”  She shook her head.  “You see us as trying to put you in a box and feel that it’s an attack on you.  You know, and I know you know, that we’re really trying to protect others from you.”

“You guys actually let me get close to Dr. Fusion?  How can scaring me be worth that sort of risk?”

She looked at me with a sour expression.  “Hell no, that wasn’t Dr. Fusion.  None of the people in that room had super powers worth talking about except you, Obstacle, his sister Maestra, and a few other supers with the ability to be invisible and help control your emotions.”  She paused, considering.  “Every single person there knew exactly what was happening, except you.”

“The invisible people in the parking lot?”

“I was in your truck, three others were hovering, keeping you within their active range.  We didn’t expect you to trigger by harming yourself, but we were prepared if you did, with teleportation devices set to detect aggressive mental patterns.”

I thought about it for a moment before turning my back on her and starting the run her presence had interrupted.  I already knew the answer, but I asked the question anyway.  “So the SPA meeting today was a planned intervention?”

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    • farmerbob1

      They were trying to scare him badly, and make him think he had narrowly avoided blowing a town off the map. Things were going perfectly according to plan until he smacked his head on the mirror and shifted.

      Augh, I’m trying not to do this.

        • farmerbob1

          I’m looking at that now 🙂

          And have decided that I will address it in the next chapter. The revelation that it was an intervention is going to spark a discussion that I don’t want to break up, or make too redundant by going over it twice. I also have ideas about other things to do with the discussion, because I do plan on letting Zeke do things rather than constantly being beaten down.

  1. AvidFan

    I would find it amusing if it turns out his power isn’t to make people want to kill him, but is instead and aoe emotion inducing field that he can control which emotion they feel towards him and by how much, and that the onl reason it’s set to “aggressive/kill” is because when he first changed, he was thinking that someone was trying to kill him, which set the field, and because of that he now always thinks that people want to kill him when he’s transformed, thus making it so they DO want to kill him.
    Then the whole intervention will have been pointless. He would also be one of the most powerful people on the planet. (Although he kinda already is, depending on what powers the people in his range have.)
    Also, if he learnt to control it, he would be extremely useful to any hero or villain team. He could easily distract villains while the heroes get ready to arrest them, or take them out himself.

  2. thomas

    Interesting that Zeke equates self-imposed exile with prison but that might be true if he is not allowed any contact. If he does go into the program Octagon suggested, it sounds like he might be setting mental boundaries to ensure failure. On the other hand, Octagon’s actions might ensure failure too.

    Thanks for changing the internal dialog format. Succinct is better than loquacious and comes closer to real internal dialog.

    • Numbered paragraph
    • attend a SPA meeting
    more often than not, an is used with acronyms, although I think you used the correct form
    • getting tall, I’d
    • new, I’d need
    semicolon instead of comma
    • for a second, then meeting
    missing and

    • farmerbob1

      Fixed ’em all.
      I’d love to know what in the heck is causing those numbered paragraphs, because they do not exist in the Word documents I copy and paste to WordPress. I use a custom style that expressly forbids auto formatting of any type. I have even started checking formatting around where the numbered paragraphs occur in WordPress, just to be certain. It’s not coming from anything I’m doing. I might have to poke the WordPress people and ask them how to completely disable all auto-formatting from their end, because it looks as if that’s what is happening here.

      The rule for acronym a/an usage that I learned was that it’s based on whether it sounds like a vowel starts the word or acronym, not what the first letter is. Sort of like ‘a horse’ or ‘an honor.’ So, you were correct, SPA did need ‘an’ but PSA would use ‘a’.

  3. thomas

    Over the last two or three weeks, wildbow has commented several times he is having formatting issues too. I suspect you are right the numbered paragraphs are a WordPress issue but if no one tell you they can see something weird in the story you might never know. Now that we know it is most likely a WordPress issue, I will not include it in the errata.

    I learned a similar rule for acronyms but wondered if it had changed. Most of the tine, I see people use ‘an’ by default rather than abide by the rule. I’m okay with breaking rules left and right but I prefer to do it for a reason like story flow or it fits a character’s personality. Thanks for confirming this.

  4. Drachomen

    The only complaint I have so far is with the law firm name. Dewey, Cheathem, and Howe is an old joke, and as such is very jarring. Suspension of disbelief is strained in a superhero genre or comic book format, but you tend to keep things realistic enough. Grocery shopping, mechanic work, etc help keep a fantastical premise grounded. The ridiculous law firm name destroys that. If you want a little whimsy to it, could I suggest Allen, Kent, and Wayne? Not so jarring, since they are realistic surnames. Less a bad joke and more a nod to traditional comic book superheroes.

    • farmerbob1

      True. I might look at something more subtle if I ever rewrite this for e-book publication. As you read farther into the story, you will see me hop around in genres a bit, amongst other issues. I’ve learned a lot about writing since then, and learn more every week.

      There are enough structural issues that it’s very possible that I won’t ever put this in an E-book, but I do plan on using the universe for future super-power themed stories. If those stories turn out to be popular, I might turn this story into two stories.

  5. Isa Lumitus

    … Are they F***ing stupid?
    1) Tell person he’s dangerous, and try to get him to take appropriate steps.
    2) Watch as he reaches out in the direction intended, showing clear intent to change.
    3) Set up a ruse to try to convince him of something he’s already starting to believe?
    4) Add tension by having your actors behave in unlikely ways? I mean, honestly, that thing with Obstacle is only believable if SPA is a truly amateurish organization.

    What exactly were they trying to achieve here? Octagon pointed Zeke in a direction, and the very next day he starts taking the reccomended steps. Why would they need to do this cloak and dagger BS? Either they’re Too Dumb to Live, or they have a dishonest goal. And if they are being dishonest, they aren’t very competent at hiding it.

    • farmerbob1

      Zeke just tried to go shopping in Atlanta. He might be starting to realize how disruptive and dangerous he can be, but it’s not sinking in fast enough. I think this should be clearer in a couple chapters. I know I discuss the scene in-story later, can’t remember exactly when.

      • Isa Lumitus

        Being careful not to spoiler new readers, some of this got explained next chapter.

        Even with one chapter’s worth of hindsight, the actions here feel a bit forced. Forced in the sense that the antagonists are not acting very smart, because they need to be evil enough that we won’t like them.

  6. Anskier

    Lot of very stupid people in this chapter.

    If I was him I wouldn’t listen to a thing these trash say. He doesn’t need to sign anything away to live in a rural area. He has enough resources to live there himself without signing his life away for no reason and these people are scum and not worth listening to in any case.

    I’d be very very disappointed if he grabs the idiot ball and accepts their offer.

    • farmerbob1

      I hope that the future chapters addressed your concerns. I’d do it differently if I were to rewrite it now, but I’m not planning a rewrite soon. My writing time has been enormously reduced in the last couple years.

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