Arc 1, Bittersweet 8

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I decided not to talk out loud for the conversation, it would just mess up my breathing anyhow.

If you want to talk with me, you’ll have to run with me.  I have things to do.

“Don’t mind if I do join you.” She commented.  I heard her fall in behind me.  “There’s a pretty good view from back here anyway”

Stop trying to mess with my mind.  You know I’m married, if half of what you say about yourself is true.

“I’m not messing with your mind any more than any other woman who likes what she sees, and isn’t afraid to say it.  Six foot six, two hundred pounds, athletic, clean shaven with a flat top, dark hair, and even the classic middle-aged male greying temple stripes?  I know you get wolf whistles now and then.”  She paused.  “Anne is a lucky woman.”

Leave my wife out of this.  In fact, just leave.  I do not want you hanging around our place like unwanted in-laws.

I looked at my wrist sensor.  Eighty beats per minute, one quarter mile in.  I picked up the pace.

Mirage chuckled.  “You don’t have unwanted in-laws either, you lucky SOB.”  She paused.  “So, you’re mad that we know your secret identity.  Tough.  We didn’t need to use mental powers to get that, you know.  You called the SPA from your own phone.  Blindside was perfectly willing to let you keep your secret identity.  His whole job was to get you home and make sure you attended the SPA meeting today.  The first part of his mission was a partial success since he at least got you out of Atlanta traffic safely.  The second half was apparently unnecessary.  He said you were going to do it anyway, so he didn’t fiddle with any of your mental nuts and bolts.”

Unlike you, or whoever took my memories of the invisible people in the parking lot from me, at the intervention.  Is that all the SPA is for?  Interventions?

“The primary purpose of the SPA is exactly what it claims to be, giving people with superpower related issues a place to talk with one another, but there’s a secondary purpose of performing interventions.  Sometimes with help from the family of the target, sometimes not.”

A chill passed down my spine.  Had Anne and Danny…

“No.  We didn’t need them for this.  The entire purpose was to scare the hell out of you, and that kind of intervention doesn’t typically go over well with family members.”

I’d bet that that scare-type interventions don’t typically go over well with people that don’t appreciate others fucking with their heads.

My jogging companion laughed.  “Nobody likes other people mucking around in their heads, and most people won’t trust mentalists to not mess with their heads.  That’s one reason why most supers with mental powers to modify thoughts tend to work solo as either vigilantes or villains.”  She paused.  “Take-charge, active people tend to hate mental reprogramming more than most though, if they figure it out.  We warned Octagon that you were going to be extremely angry if you figured it out.  At the same time, I can see that the intervention worked, barring there being some incredibly stupid wording in the written agreement for the disruptive powers program that will cause you to reject it.  There have been owners of substantial companies that found themselves in similar situations.  Not often, but it has happened.  Have your lawyers do their thing, it should turn out OK.”

One hundred beats per minute, three quarters of a mile in.  When I was on a straight part of the path around the property without trip hazards, I turned to look back at Mirage.  Her almost-disembodied head seemed to indicate she was more than a foot shorter than me, yet she didn’t appear to be having any difficulty speaking, and didn’t even appear to have broken a sweat.  I sped up to a five minute mile pace.  I needed to push myself a bit, and she seemed to be able to keep up.

So, if you know I’m going to join the disruptive powers program, why are you still here?

“Officially, to make sure you join the disruptive powers program.  Unofficially, to see what you are like.  Your power has some very interesting potential uses.”

Yeah, I can accidentally kill people with other people’s powers.  Not much hero potential there.  Octagon’s right.

“You would certainly have been much happier with Octagon’s powers, or Jumping Jack’s.  You think so much like the classic brick or speedster hero with a code of honor and so much drive to do things.  Unfortunately, you got a shitty power, and it’s going to forever keep you off super teams.  Get over it.  There are other ways to help.  Even the real Dr. Fusion found a way.  He still needs regular therapy decades later to help him cope with grief over what he did, but he still helps.”

He’s a human power plant and waste disposal service.  Sure it’s useful, but I can’t see myself being useful for any sort of community service.

“It’s not common knowledge, but every now and then during invasions from space or other dimensions, Dr. Fusion quietly gets drafted to go help.  Carefully.  There are very few heroes or villains that can work anywhere near him, but when shit gets serious, if there’s a way to bring him in, they will.”

Are you saying that the same might hold true for me?  That I might be some sort of emergency hero to pull out in the right situation, when all hell breaks loose during the next invasion from space or from another dimension or something?

“Why not?  Dr. Fusion can create craters miles wide.  If they can find a use for him, they will find a use for you.”

Provided that my power works on aliens or extra-dimensional beings.  How often do things like that really happen though?

“About once a month or so.  But usually you won’t hear about them, aliens are normally engaged well away from Earth, and dimensional battles usually seem deceptively small to regular people because invasion rifts between dimensions are terribly expensive energy-wise, so there are typically very few of them.  That makes them seem regional in scope, rather than planet-threatening.”

Heroes defend Earth from other dimensions or space assaults on an average of once per month?  That’s unbelievable.

“It’s not only believable, it’s true.  Sometimes villains help too, but neither the rainbow heroes nor the villains tend to say much about that.  They both have reputations to uphold.  The villains prefer most people to be terrified of them because it makes robberies and other crimes easier, and the rainbow heroes would rather not admit to ever working with villains.”

I was a mile and a half in.  Heart beat one fifty.  I hit another flat straightaway and looked back at Mirage.  She still hadn’t even broken a sweat.  Her voice was not strained at all.  Obviously she had enhanced endurance as well as mental powers.  Even Danny would be sweating and exerting himself a bit at this pace, and he was almost able to break the four minute mile barrier.

I could go a little faster, but five minute miles were a strong enough pace to push myself for a good workout.  On broken terrain, like the path Danny and I had worn down around the edge of the property, it wasn’t safe to go fast enough that we had to concentrate too much on pushing ourselves because it would leave less attention for things like tree roots.  If we wanted to run faster, we ran by the roads on the shoulder.  If I was going to be restricted to areas not near the road, I would have to have a more flat path set up inside the property.  I put that on my list of things to do.

I have to say that the idea of being able to help out every now and then has its appeal.

“Strangest, you have not even begun to scratch the top of the super-powered world yet.  You don’t have any idea how useful your power could be, if you use it right.”

What do you mean?

“Do you know how hard it is for some people to innovate with their powers?  To push their limits?  To get the most out of their abilities?”

Can’t they just, well, exercise them?  Think about different ways to use them?  Practice?

“Hahaha, funny you.  How many normal people in the world do you see every day that are severely overweight, but don’t have any obvious health issue that would prevent them from working out a bit, and losing some, most, or even all that extra weight?”

“Lots, but how does that have anything to do with supers?”

“Supers are just like normal people, for the most part.  They don’t push their powers except when they are in a real fight.  They let themselves get out of shape.  They find a few tricks that work, and stick with them.  That even goes for us mentalists and tinkers, the ‘smart ones.'”

I finished the second mile.  Heart beat one sixty.  Breathing was a bit strained but I felt good.  One more mile, see if I could hold this pace.  Mirage was right behind me and still not even sweating.  Damn.  She was in excellent condition or had a significant stamina related power.

I don’t get it.  How does the laziness of other supers have anything to do with me?

“What happens to people when they are exposed to you, Strangest?”

They try as hard as they can to kill me.  Wait.  I think I get it.

“Yes, I see that you do.”

Are you seriously suggesting that I be some sort of exercise coach for supers?

“Why not?  Your power forces them to try their hardest to kill you.  Every session, they would give one hundred percent.  I’ve felt your power.  It will work.”

And every time they fight me, they get smarter about how they fight me, they know what won’t work and will try different things, maybe even help them develop new tactics and different ways to use their powers.

“You got it.  You could even train entire teams.  I saw the footage of Majestic Mind and Jumping Jack working together to try to take you down.  Those two despise one another, but were coordinating against you.  Being able to coordinate in a fight and know what the other teammates can do, and what they are likely to do, and what the side-effects of their all-out power usage will be is a huge advantage for teams.”

Wow, I could actually help heroes and be useful then.  Help teams learn how to work together.  That’s brilliant, thank you.

“Not my idea, actually.  I got an email and was asked to pass the message on to you.”

Oh, whose idea was it?  I’d like to thank them.  Being useful as a trainer on top of occasionally being called out when the shit hits the fan is about the best idea I’ve heard in a long time.

“Gorgon’s idea.”

Gorgon?

“That’s what I said.”

As in the guy with the collection of once-alive people in a statue garden?

“Yes, that Gorgon.  The head villain in the Atlanta area.  He’s a greedy bastard with no morals worth talking about, but not stupid.  He’s smarter than Octagon, truth be told.  His biggest problem right now is that Octagon’s heroes fight as a team better than his villains do.”

He wants me to help train villains to work together.  This can’t be a good idea.

“He was very clear and straightforward.  He already knew who you were before Octagon’s team did, the clues he dropped in the email to me proved that after I found out who you were.”

What’s to stop me from just keeping his villain trainees unconscious and calling Octagon to pick them up after a ‘training session?’

“Do I really need to answer that for you?  He knows who you are.”

Anne, Danny.

“Exactly.”

I’m fucked.

“Exactly.”

How did Gorgon know my secret identity?

“I have no idea.  He’s a master villain.  He has people all over the damn place.  You’ve been in a few fights, a couple of which interfered with his operations from what I’ve heard.  After the first couple, he probably just had someone follow you home.  Octagon normally wouldn’t do that unless someone died.”

How does anyone keep a secret identity?

“Most people can’t, not if someone with resources wants to figure out who they are.  There are some power sets that make it easier to keep a secret identity, but secret identities are pretty much a joke, in general.”

At two and a half miles, I was having a hard time maintaining a five minute mile pace.  Heartbeat was crawling up to one sixty-five, if I hit my personal heart rate ceiling for exercise, one seventy, my alarm would go off, loudly, and I’d have to slow my pace.

You are calming my emotions and keeping me from transforming again?

“Can’t slip anything past you, can I?”

Are all people that can read minds smartasses?

Mirage started laughing for a few seconds at that, but when she stopped, she answered. “For the most part, yes.  The ones that aren’t, either have no humor at all, or are scary deviants.  All those stupid thoughts in your head that never make it out because you repress them?  We see them.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell what thoughts are mainstream thoughts that you will act on, and which are fantasies that you will not act on.  We see the bad side of everyone.”

Note to self.  When arranging to speak with mentalists, choose public beaches during college breaks, in warm weather whenever possible.

She stopped chuckling.  “Hundreds of almost-naked, randy college age young men and women in various states of drug or alcohol intoxication.  You bastard.  That would be cruel and unusual punishment indeed.  Let’s get back on track here though.  One thing about keeping you from growing too excited, in order to prevent you from triggering your change by adrenal reaction is that it weakens your focus, and allows you to wander away from what’s important.”

Like Gorgon, and the fact that he’s going to threaten my family if I don’t help him train his villains to fight as a team, and improve their individual fitness and power versatility.  How is Octagon going to react to that?  I don’t think I’m going to have to worry about him threatening my family, am I?  If I am a public super, I’m not going to be able to hide easily.  I am not a poor person by any means, but the kinds of expenses to build secure facilities large enough to train entire teams in is something that governments struggle to manage to pay for.

“Gorgon specifically mentioned that he doesn’t care if you train the heroes too.  He thinks his teams will gain more benefit from working with you than heroes will, and he’s probably right.”

So, I got these crappy powers that won’t let me be a hero.  I am finally told that there are a few ‘Chicken Little’ type scenarios, possibly as often as once per month, where I’ll probably be called on to help, but at the same time maybe I can be useful training people.  Then, I’m advised that I’m now going to be blackmailed into being a trainer for super villains.

“Exactly.  He wants your answer by tomorrow at the latest.”

He wants my answer by tomorrow.  Give it to him today.  I’ll do it.  It’s not like I have much choice.  I’m bent over the barrel here.  As long as he recognizes that I’m not going to be able protect his people from being ambushed by heroes after or during training.  My power is not exactly designed for long distance combat.  A vigilante with a sniper rifle could kill a lot of unconscious villains.  I couldn’t even protect them with my body, most bullets just pass through me in that form.

“I’ll let him know.”

I glanced at my heart rate monitor.  I had slowed down while talking, down to a six minute mile pace, and my heartbeat was down to one forty.  I looked behind me again.  Mirage was easily keeping up with me, not even sweating.  I had about five hundred yards left to get back to the barn.  I picked up the pace again.

How often do you work for Gorgon?

I felt something strike me in the nose, hard, and I shifted.  I heard a loud pop, and as I was falling, my left arm was sucked towards where Mirage’s teleportation device had created a brief vacuum when my power activated, triggering it to teleport her away.

Mirage had apparently punched me in the nose hard enough to knock me off balance.  I hit the ground in my inhuman form and my arm bounced off the barn’s vehicle door with a loud thump.  The barn?  How did I get back to the barn?  I was five hundred yards away from the barn, the last I remembered before being punched.  Did she punch me five hundred yards?

I shifted back to normal form, and stood up, wiping the blood off my nose, which was mostly healed up.  I hoped she hadn’t broken my nose, or it might have healed broken.

I heard a voice, nearby, but Mirage had chosen to remain invisible.  “I could have simply not told you, and Gorgon would have taken a more direct route to convincing you.  People might have been hurt that way, people you care about.  That’s why I did what I did.  Not because I work for Gorgon.”

Sorry about that.

“No, you aren’t.  You still think I might work for him.”

Goddamn telepaths.  Can’t even tell white lies.  Fine, I’m not sorry about that, but I will thank you for at least giving me some warning about how much more fucked up my life is going to get in the near future.

“That’s a real thank you, and I appreciate it.” Mirage said.  “I would like for you to be sure to remember to ask Gorgon how far you can go to discipline his people.  Try to be sure to have Anne and Danny away from your place when the villains are incoming for training.  There’s no need to tempt them.  Some of them are sickos.”

Why do you need a gizmo to teleport yourself when you could teleport me almost five hundred yards?

“Haha.  Look at the ground, about ten feet straight out from the door.”

The grass was torn up pretty badly in the place Mirage directed me to.  I looked around, and no footprints were visible leading away from that spot.

I never left the barn did I?  That’s why you were able to keep up, because I never moved.

“You moved, a lot, but it was all running in place.  I wasn’t going to try to stop you from getting exercise if you wanted it.  I also needed to make sure I could alter your perceptions in human shape and have it stick.  Since you didn’t immediately recognize that you hadn’t left the barn after shifting to shadow form, I know that your shadow form doesn’t automatically reverse all mental reprogramming, just mental reprogramming that tries to counter things witnessed when you are in shadow form.”

Great.  You can mess with my mind at any time when I’m in normal human shape.  Thanks for the confidence booster.  Leave, please.  I need to figure out how to deal with this blackmail arrangement you brought me from Gorgon.  Preferably before my family gets home.

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14 comments

  1. storytreader

    Does Strangest know how much lingering effect there is to his power?

    Meaning, one obvious problem with the “train people by making them hate you” idea is that he’s banking on his other form being functionally indestructible. That may be true, but we’ve seen that at least electricity can cause him pain. I’m thinking he’d need to be careful therefor to a.) not agree to train any energy projectors and b.) make sure that the drive to kill him doesn’t extend to people coming into the training with devices designed in the off-time to kill him.

    Based on past experience, it seems like he could be pretty confident that his power wouldn’t encourage people to go after him in his normal state, or target his family. Working with classic “villains” though, he’s going to be bruising a lot of egos, so its semi-inevitable I would imagine. Unless he simply takes out any of the ones who display that kind of aggression (which carries its own problems).

  2. thomas

    I’m not sure blackmail accurately describes Z’s situation without an actual threat. Z’s sentiments about his power might reflect Oliver Hardy‘s line: “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”

    You’re doing great building hopelessness into his life.

    Errata
    • Aliens
    Capitalization unnecessary
    • Five minute miles was a good pace
    Suggest: A five minute mile was a good pace
    • You got it.
    Quotes missing on this paragraph, maybe others too. I was paying attention.
    • He’s a greedy bastard with no fixed morals, not stupid.
    Missing but

      • Cultist

        Or that’s exactly what you and Gorgon want us to think! My money is still on her being a double agent for Gorgon with very good training as an actress in order to stay in character, and I bet she is just one of many whom the hero world doesn’t even suspect due to mental reprograming not allowing them the opportunity.

  3. AlsoSprachOdin

    Seems so far like one of those stories with the protagonist just surrounded by raging assholes. I can’t take another one of those, not after Tales of MU back about a decade ago now. I’m getting off here, thanks for the ride so far.

    • farmerbob1

      At this point in the story, Zeke is indeed surrounded by people who are not being very nice. They can’t be. Not yet. He’s too much of an unknown with too weird of a power set. Things do get better for Zeke than you are seeing right now, but I won’t spoiler it any more for you, just in case you do choose to continue reading.

    • Isa Lumitus

      You might not ever read this, ASO, but I understand exactly what you mean. And I mean that both about the general sentiment, and where this story feels like it’s going.

      Too many assholes somehow managing to work together enough to be a viable plot just stresses my willing suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t help that I generally can’t identify with the main character of those stories. If the author manages to make me hate a villain, I’ll usually also hate the protagonist for putting up with the Hate Sink.

      For me, it’s best summed up by the dark elves. Given how busy they are killing each other, I honestly cannot understand how they haven’t gone extinct or descended into stone-age barbarism. And given how rarely they don’t backstab their allies, I can’t understand how anyone with an IQ over room temperature thinks working with them is a smart idea.

      • farmerbob1

        There’s a reason for all the asshattery. Zeke is very stubborn, competent in his old life, and ‘knows’ what works for him. He’s slow to change. People are taking off the kid gloves in dealing with him, and because of his powers, they are very limited in how they can do so. As mentioned above, I won’t spoiler.

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