Arc 1, Bittersweet 10

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“Zeke, what can we do?”

I don’t know enough.  I don’t know the rules in the super’s game of life.

“I’m lost too, Anne.  I have ideas, but I can’t act on most of them without endangering you two.  I’m doing all I can.”

Even better, I’m not really sure how secret my plans are, with Mirage around.

“Zeke, I’m sorry I fought you so hard on the separation thing.  I just didn’t see how it would help.”  She snuffled a bit and hugged me harder, briefly, then unwrapped her left arm from me and put it behind Danny’s chest, giving him a hug too.  “I was so proud of you Danny.  You helped keep me thinking straight.”

“You were right, Anne.  Separation wouldn’t have helped.  Gorgon has known who I am for a while.  He would have just collected you again, and brought you back to me, just like he did today.”

“Gorgon called you, on a phone?” Danny broke in, apparently startled by the thought of a supervillain using such a mundane method to communicate.

“Not exactly.  I called your mother’s phone, and Gorgon picked up.”

“Oh.” Danny looked stunned, then angry.

“One second we were driving into Atlanta, the next, we were in the driveway.  It’s late.  Is it the same day?”  Anne was starting to get her bearings.

“Same day, yes, around seven PM.”

Anne sniffed the air.  “Judging from the smell, I suspect that we all leaked a bit in that scenario.  How about we get cleaned up and meet back in the kitchen in a half hour or so?”

Danny and Anne both broke away from the embrace with a little embarrassment.  Anne heading into the master bath, and Danny headed towards his side of the house to his bathroom.  I said nothing as I stood up with them, and walked to the kitchen, where I poured myself a glass of water and grabbed an apple.

I hadn’t leaked, but then again, I had taken care of bathroom related issues before and after the ‘run’ with Mirage earlier, and hadn’t re-hydrated yet.  Anne and Danny had been put in stasis or something, then released from stasis and the shock of the transition, along with everything else happening at the time, no big surprise if they had lost some muscle control.

Terrify my wife and son badly enough that they lose control of their bowels, Gorgon?  Don’t think you won’t pay for that.

It could have been worse.  They were unharmed, physically.  Despite my rage at Gorgon, my shoulders slumped.  The exact same thing which would prevent me from protecting Gorgon’s people from long ranged vigilantes would prevent me from protecting my family effectively, if Gorgon decided to hurt them to ensure my compliance.

I was starting to get worked up again.  I grabbed the notepad, and scribbled.  “Outside on driveway, away from house.  Might be shifted.  Yell before looking for me, if you don’t see me.”  Then I dropped the whole notepad on the table with the pen and quickly walked out the front of the house

If possible, it would be better for Anne and Danny to discuss things in the house, in a place of perceived safety, but that didn’t seem to be an option today.

Not a whole lot of options today.  I’m being led by the nose towards goals other people have for me.  Both sides are using my family against me.

I had to admit that Octagon was trying to use my love for my family against me in some sort of mental judo, while Gorgon was more than happy to threaten Anne and Danny directly to get what he wanted.  I knew which of those two methods I preferred, no matter how angry Octagon had made me.

Why couldn’t I have just listened to Octagon?

If I had really listened to him the first time he had told me to stop trying to be a hero, and stay away from people, would I be in this situation now?

  1. Spilt milk.  I need to stop trying to analyze my past stupid mistakes like I can prevent them.  I need to look forward for ways to rectify past stupid decisions, without making too many new stupid mistakes.

I was getting worked up again.  I looked back at the house.  Anne and Danny were not visible yet.  I shifted.

Another human mental presence, followed by a pop and the presence was gone.  Mirage’s ability to read minds must be very short ranged if she keeps having to get that close.  If this invisible monitoring thing kept up much longer, I was going to become paranoid.

It’s almost like the videos for that ‘ninjas everywhere’ internet meme Danny showed me a few months ago, except a lot less funny.

I heard a brief, bass laugh coming from the tree line.

I guess Mirage has passed the torch, and left, or is getting some sleep or something.  Or maybe she turns into a man at night.  Whatever.

I shifted back, and was a lot calmer, despite knowing there was probably more than one invisible somebody around the house now.  Danny and Anne walked out the front door, looking around.

“I’m out here, and I’ve calmed down some.  Had to get out of the house to shift, sorry.”

“It’s OK, Zeke.” Anne replied.

No it’s not, I can see how nervous you are, by how often and quickly you are moving your head in response to whatever you are hearing and seeing.  Danny too.

Anne and Danny cautiously came out to join me in the driveway.

“I’m really sorry about all of this you two, I’ve put you at risk, because I didn’t think.  I acted without properly considering the consequences, and now we’re all trapped.”

“The heroes can’t help?” Danny asked.

“If they can, they certainly haven’t offered it.  All they seemed to want me to do is sit on the sidelines.  Which I now wish I had done after the first time I was asked.”  I couldn’t help but sound a bit bitter about that.

“You tried Zeke.  We talked about it.  You didn’t want to be a hero after you figured out what your power did to everybody.  You understood you couldn’t be a part of a team.”

I didn’t properly insulate myself from conflict, despite having the financial means to do so.  I knew in my head that Octagon and the other heroes that told me to stay away were right, but I couldn’t leave well enough alone, thinly veiling my thrill-seeking with stupid excuses.  The only time I reacted properly to my own threat was when I thought I was in the same building with Dr. Fusion.

“I didn’t learn fast enough to keep you two out of harm’s way, I’m sorry.  Now I, we, have to figure out how to deal with where my mistakes left us.”

Someone knocked on the door of the house five times, loudly.  We all turned to face it.  Danny pulled a pistol from behind his back and rapidly chambered a round as he turned.

Anne and I both stared at him, then at each other.  He was oblivious to us, pistol raised, pointing at the front door in a braced stance, his side to the door, slowly adjusting his position to block line of sight from the door to his mother.  The pistol was shaking a bit, but his face was deadly serious.

Damn, son.

I didn’t even know he had a small-of-the-back holster.  I would need to make sure he got a concealed carry permit, and understood he couldn’t carry it at school.  I would also need to find out when and how he got it.  Anne seemed as surprised as I was.

Danny suddenly went to a rest position with the pistol, and the bass voice from earlier spoke.  “I can’t see what model pistol that is clearly enough to supply the muscle memory to make you put the safety on and clear the chamber.  I can keep you from using it though, Danny.”  A pause.  “Nice reaction speed for a normal, by the way, despite your lack of real training.”

I’d already been through this.  I could see Danny starting to panic a bit as his actions were no longer his own.  I put my hand on his shoulder.  “Go ahead and clear the chamber and re-holster, Danny.  Octagon apparently put some guards on me or something.  This is the second one I’ve run into today.”

“That didn’t do us a lot of good earlier, did it?”  Danny growled as he engaged the pistol’s safety, dropped the clip, put the clip in his mouth, and caught the unfired bullet flying out of the chamber after he worked the pistol’s action.  Then he fed the unfired bullet back into the clip, tapped the clip on his knee, and put it back in the pistol before putting the pistol back in the holster behind his back.

I watched him doing all of this with some respect, and concern.  He had never told me he was getting any sort of weapons training.

A man dressed in a black body suit with the hilts of two swords sticking up at angles over his shoulders stepped out of the shadows next to my truck, with his hands held wide, away from his sides, clearly in an attempt to show us he wasn’t carrying a weapon.  “No, Danny, we were not much use earlier.  We were not sent here to protect you and your mother, we were asked to come here, by Octagon, to try to keep your father contained on your family’s property here until he started wearing a tracking band as part of the disruptive powers program.”

Danny said nothing, but frowned.  I squeezed his shoulder.

Anne spoke next.  “Why are you showing yourself to Danny and me?”  She paused a moment.  “If your job is only to prevent Zeke from leaving the property, we would never need to know you were there, unless Zeke chose to tell us.  If you allowed him to tell us.”

Once again, my wife proves she’s smarter than me.

“Other than to prevent your husband from letting his midlife crisis control his decisions?  That’s not enough?”

Midlife crisis, really?  I think that’s just you trying to get back at me for the ninja joke earlier, Mr. Ninja, or whatever your name is.

“Touché, Strangest.”  He chuckled.  “I believe ‘Mr. Ninja’ has been taken.  I’m Mindblade”

No clue who this guy is.  Must be new.

Anne and Danny looked confused.

“He’s reading my mind.  Probably yours too.”  I supplied.  Anne and Danny just glanced at me, then stared at Mindblade.

“Mostly just his, but yes, I’m watching all three of you.”  A short pause.  “No, Strangest, I’m not new.  I just don’t like being obvious.”

“You talked to another one of these people earlier today, Zeke?”

“Yes, Anne.  I’ll tell you about that discussion later, if you want.”

“Mindblade, you need to work on your subtlety a bit, because it’s pretty obvious that you’re here to recruit my husband, somehow.”

Danny was moving his head a bit side to side as he tried to track three conversations at once while never taking his eyes off Mindblade’s hands.

I tried to follow Anne’s logic.  A group of vigilante mentalists with invisibility powers, given orders from Octagon to prevent me from leaving my property.  That required no face to face chats, and now, two vigilante mentalists in the space of a day have spoken to me, the second one actually engaging both me and my family.  Mirage poked around in my head quite a bit during our chat, no doubt.

It fits.  Not perfectly, but it fits.  I wonder, am I being asked, or ‘convinced’ to join?

Mindblade sighed, loudly.  “First, Zeke, not orders.  Requests.  We don’t work for Octagon.  The relationship is a lot muddier than that.  Second, there is a term for mentalists that alter people’s actual thinking processes with no good reason.  That term is ‘villain.’  Vigilantes like Mirage will bend that definition, sometimes creatively, but mentalist vigilantes will not force you to take actions that you would not consider taking normally.  I, personally, do not even have the ability to modify your thoughts.  I can force your body to take actions that I have the muscle memory to imprint on you, and I can tell what you are thinking, but I cannot alter your thoughts.”

I spoke out loud so Anne and Danny could hear.  “I can’t know this, nor can I expect my thoughts to be fully my own when I’m being confronted by a mentalist.”

“The very fact that you are having that thought indicates that I can’t make you believe me, doesn’t it?”  He was actually almost whining a bit.  I could hear it in his voice.  The tone of his voice almost made me want to believe him, far more than what he had actually said.

Anne spoke before I did.  “It proves no such thing, but you making that statement does indicate that you are playing a deep game of deception, you think we’re stupid, or you don’t understand logic very well.”

Apparently, not all mentalists are smart.

He didn’t say a word, he just stared at me.

Anne looked at me, then at Mindblade, as we locked gazes.

“Sorry.” I said out loud.  And I really was.

“Anne, I insulted him with a stray thought, and needed to apologize.”

“Apology accepted, Zeke.  Can I take a few steps back in the conversation?”

“Sure, go ahead.”  The conversation had certainly gone in directions that were pretty useless, so why not?

“The rainbow heroes, they have a difficult time dealing with grey area justice because they are constantly in the public eye, and the public doesn’t like people to die.  Rainbow heroes are expected to deal with clear dangers to people, like alien and cross-dimensional invasions, bank robberies, giant robots and monsters spawned from out of control experiments.  Even something as simple as a gunman on the street.  Clearly a problem for a hero.”

Danny started to ask a question, but Mindblade raised his hand abruptly.  “I’m not done yet, Danny.  I’m about to answer your question.  If the rainbow heroes start killing people in anything short of dire emergencies, like wars, it gets bad for them.  Unfortunately, not everything is black and white.  Terrorism, the drug trade, human trafficking, genetic engineering or magical experiments gone wrong.  Smaller scale problems that require killing someone or something are mostly out of bounds to rainbow heroes.  Most of them tend to have a code against killing anyway.  Pansies.  Villains and villain groups sometimes use techniques to commit crimes that pretty much make it impossible for rainbow heroes to engage them.”

“So, you are trying to recruit my husband as a vigilante.  Despite your apparent disagreement about methods, there is some sort of tacit agreement between your organization and Octagon, the Atlanta Heroes leader that you would be allowed to try to recruit him while you watch him for a few days.”

Mindblade nodded at her, while looking at me.

“You are aware that Gorgon has already extorted me, correct?”

“I listened in on your phone conversation, yes.  You didn’t seem to be a willing participant by any means.  Mirage and Blindside both indicated that you didn’t seem to have a code against killing, but you weren’t some sort of psychopath that would kill indiscriminately.  Your actions in the fights you have been recorded in indicate that you lean rather heavily towards the rainbow hero side of things when it comes to protecting people, but your approval of Blindside’s methods indicates you can deal with killing, even though we aren’t so sure you will be able to manage it yourself.”

Do I say this out loud, or not?  Out loud, I think.

“This isn’t about me any longer, this is about my family.  It’s no big secret that most vigilantes lose at least some of their ‘marbles’ due to family tragedy of some sort.  I’m very much opposed to such methods of learning, if you get my meaning?”  I paused, waiting for an answer.

“Yes.  I understand.  I’ve left a few marbles behind myself.”

Sorry if I brought up bad memories, but vigilantes seem to have a disproportionate number of family tragedies, and I really want to avoid that..

He responded, his voice cracking a bit.  “I said, I understand.”

“Do you people have an organization?  Specifically, some way to protect the families of members?  Joining your ‘side’ as opposed to staying under Gorgon’s thumb pretty much means I’m potentially putting Anne and Danny here in harm’s way, even more than they are now.”

“We do.”  This was stated flatly, matter of fact.  It seemed as if he was having some issues organizing his thoughts.  If I triggered some sort of flashback for him, with my mentioning family before, that might be bad.  I moved to place myself between Danny, Anne, and Mindblade.

That sounded confident.  Then again, it would sound confident, to me, if he wanted.  He says he can’t adjust my thoughts, just read them.  I don’t know that.

“Is it something better than a rat hole where they will be little more than prisoners?  Will there be ways that they can live an interesting life that they can enjoy?  Will I be able to visit them?”

“Yes, yes, and yes.  My family lives there.  The ones I have left.  They miss their prior lives, and prior friends, but they aren’t alone.  They have new friends, they have been able to use their education and experience in the enclave.  They aren’t living in a prison or hellhole.”

“The enclave, you say?” Anne looked at him.

Mindblade looked at her sharply, then relaxed.  “You are close, Anne, in a way.  I have been given permission to show you three the enclave, but it’s going to be brutally cold for a few seconds.”  He turned to me.  “The shock of the first transition is certain to make you shift into Strangest, Zeke.  The way to the second transition is very clearly marked, but you need to shift back to human form before you cross, or it will cause chaos, and a lot of people will certainly get hurt.”

I looked at Anne first.

She nodded, hesitating a bit.  “Zeke, I know it’s taking a lot on faith, but really, look at what we’re standing in right now?  It’s only a matter of time before you get into an argument with Gorgon about something.”  Her eyes cut left towards Danny.

Danny was chewing his lip when I looked at him.  “Will I be able to run in the open?” He asked Mindblade.  “Outdoor running has helped me so much recently.”

“Yes, Danny, and there is an internet, and plenty of girls there around your age – who aren’t married.  There are also some less important things, like universities and jobs.”

Anne and I both smiled at that, as Danny’s face turned red.  He noticed us smiling and turned even redder.  “Sure.  But what about the rest of the family?  My grandparents and other relatives will be targets too, won’t they?”

“There’s no limit to how many relatives and friends one can invite, but they must all come willingly, and they must all understand that if they don’t stay, their memories of time there will be erased.”

“That’s a problem with me, you understand?  If I shift over there, you can’t get rid of those memories.”

“We hope that you will not shift over there when we show you around, but we are fairly confident you will join us.  Gorgon’s got you over a barrel, you seem to be a reasonable fit for our organization, and the enclave really is very nice.”

“Let’s see the place, then.” I stated.

Anne and Danny nodded.

Mindblade held his hand out to Danny.  “Hand me the pistol, Danny.  You aren’t allowed to go armed as a visitor.  After you learn the enclave rules and train to use weapons with a live instructor rather than internet videos, you can own weapons.”

Danny looked at Anne, and she nodded, so he handed over his pistol.

I smiled at Anne, and she smiled back with a little shrug.  Danny knew who was more on the ball here.

Mindblade checked the safety on Danny’s pistol, then put it into a large pocket on the side of his leg. “OK, I will go first.  Count to five and if I do not return, follow.  Danny and Anne, first, then fifteen seconds later, Zeke, you follow.  The air is breathable and the pressure is fine, but it’s cold as hell.  If you absolutely must breathe, do so through your nose, or you might do damage to your lungs.  If you try to breathe through your mouth, I will control you and breathe for you, Anne, Danny.  I cannot do the same for Zeke without staying inside his power’s range.”

Teleporter would get him out of range of me though, not sure why he’s worried.

“The last thing I want to do is be teleported to a random location two hundred fifty feet away from where we are going first, Zeke.  My teleporter will be turned off for this trip.  If you enter too soon, and shift, you will have to get us out of the chamber after you make us unconscious, or we will freeze to death in less than two minutes in these clothes, without protective breathing equipment.”

“I don’t really understand, but I don’t need to, do I?”  I asked.

Mindblade looked at me.  “If you choose to join us and your family chooses to stay, more of it will be explained to all of you, but not everything.  I’m a full member, active service, and I don’t know everything.  Is everyone ready?”

Anne, Danny, and I looked at each other and nodded.

Mindblade pulled a shiny, featureless mirrored ball out of a pocket.  “Touch the sphere.  When I activate it, an access arch will be created.  It will be active for thirty seconds maximum duration.  One blink of the red LED per second.”

We all touched the sphere, then Mindblade nodded.  He set the sphere on the ground, and pulled a stylus from another pocket and tapped the sphere.  It rapidly changed from a small metal sphere into a very thin metal gateway, with a red LED at the top of the arch.  The surface inside the arch was featureless, pitch black.  Mindblade was through the arch before the first blink faded.  Danny and Anne both took a couple deep breaths, then on the fourth blink took a deep breath one more time.  Danny walked through first, then Anne immediately after.

I started counting blinks.  At ten blinks I started breathing deeply.  At fourteen blinks, I took a deep breath, and on the fifteenth blink I stepped straight from an eighty degree Georgia early summer into what must have been winter in Antarctica.  My breath blew out of my body in a gasp as I shifted.

It wasn’t so cold to my Strangest form.  Chilly, but not bad.  I didn’t see any other living beings in the large room, but there were bold yellow lines on either side of green arrows clearly pointing towards another black arch like the one I had just entered.  I followed the lines, stopping by the black arch, and carefully breathed all the air out of my lungs.  I wasn’t sure if my shadow body lungs actually did anything, considering some of the gasses I’d been exposed to, but I didn’t need air that cold inside my body after shifting.

I shifted into human form and stepped forward, barely avoiding sucking in a huge breath of air as a response to the shocking cold, and then I was through, standing next to Anne, Danny, and Mindblade.

I looked around.  Wow.

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5 comments

  1. storytreader

    Interesting chapter. Depending on how deep ones paranoia well goes, this could be either a reasonable countermove against Gorgon or something much worse.

    As a note: when I got the email for this chapter it showed up with a link back to the Symbiote website (and a 404 error).

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