I couldn’t know if Mirage was gone or not, especially now that she knew her mind powers worked on me when I was in my human form. The only thing I could do to check on my privacy was shift randomly into my alternate form, which was apparently immune to most mental powers. That would be a complete pain in the ass though. It would also have zero impact on anyone with mental powers with a greater range than my anger field.
Piled higher and deeper. The story of my life for the last few months. How in the hell am I going to deal with Gorgon’s ‘request’ for help training his villains?
I was going to do it. There really wasn’t any choice. Gorgon knew who I was. He knew who Anne and Danny were. My business dealt with tangible products, and would be easily interfered with. Every part of my life that mattered could be ruined with minimal effort by Gorgon’s organization.
Would moving again help? I don’t think so.
Moving would either put me into the range of another villain overlord type, or simply a little farther away from Gorgon. Many supers had movement powers, and teleportation was not a big deal. Gorgon would just send a truck with a teleporter pad to wherever I was to make it convenient to get his people to wherever I moved to – whether for training, or to make an example.
I am fucked, fucked, and fucked.
A little eddy of wind hit me, chilling the sweat on my skin, giving me a few chill bumps despite the heat. I caught a whiff of myself, despite having some difficulty breathing through my nose.
I smell bad too. I can fix the smelling bad part, at least.
I struggled with the barn door that had started jamming, opening it after pulling hard on it twice.
Be just my damn luck if the barn is starting to settle on its foundations. Because I could always use more problems.
As I walked into the barn and up the stairs to the converted hayloft, I pulled my shirt off. There was blood on the shirt. Anne would notice and want to know why, and I would tell her. Provided that no rewrites of my mind were implemented by helpful, invisible bearers of bad tidings.
I tossed the shirt into the sink, set the sink stopper, and turned on the cold water. I think it was cold for blood?
It’s a workout shirt. Who cares if there’s a bit of a stain, as long as it’s clean?
I turned off the water.
Anne will care, dummy.
The water was turned back on, and I filled the sink about a quarter full with cold water before tossing the shirt in to soak, adding a teaspoon of stain pretreatment that Anne had given me for grass and grease stains. It said it would work on blood. It also verified that I should use cold water.
After the bloody shirt was soaking, I dried my hands and powered on my computer after verifying the network cable was disconnected.
I apprehensively went to the bathroom to take a look at my nose. It wasn’t visibly out of place, so it hadn’t healed badly, or Mirage hadn’t broken it. I wasn’t sure which. Despite the airflow being partially obstructed now, it didn’t look like the airflow would be obstructed permanently. It was still sore.
It would be nice to figure out how exactly I heal when I shift. Provided that I didn’t have to mutilate myself to do it, of course. Which means that I’ll learn ‘on the job’, I guess.
I looked again at my nose in the mirror, twisting it slightly, despite it still being a bit sore. I could feel that my nose was full of gunk from the healing process, even though the healing process had been accelerated.
I need to stop brooding. My nose is fine. No evidence that my breathing will be a problem.
I walked out of the little bathroom, back out to my computer and activated the encryption software, then turned right back around again, and took my rank self into the bathroom and took a hot shower, using the steamy moisture to help me clear my nose of congealed blood. I spent about as much time cleaning myself off as I did clearing my nasal passages. When I finally stepped out of the shower I no longer smelled, and all concerns about permanent breathing issues were gone.
At least something good has happened today.
I put on a polo shirt and some comfortable khakis, then walked over to the computer and verified the encryption was turned on before connecting the network cable. A short time later I was going through emails again, assisting my support employees to answer strange or difficult questions, and helping my sales employees with questions about availability and practicality of new requests that fell outside our normal offerings.
It was after six PM, so I sent an email to Phil, the head of IT, and advised him that we would be opening a new web based service branch for the convenience of our tinker clients. I spent a little time writing up the email, explaining that I wanted the service to be a barter or trade system to allow logged in customers to peruse what other tinkers were making for trade, and offer their own goods. We would have nothing to do with pricing, and would charge nothing for the service, provided that the tinker had an active account and had made a purchase from us in the last month.
I copied the email to Miss Perfect, our in-house tinker and simply asked her to work with Phil to make sure that the contractors we hired to do the work made something that she would use herself, and to work with him to be sure it was secure.
As expected there was a reply by email from Phil within five minutes, asking if he could call me. I replied with a yes, and a few seconds later my phone rang.
“Mr. Collins, you know she’s eventually going to figure out what you’re doing?” He was barely keeping himself from laughing.
“Probably, Phil, but you know how she is about any sort of tools or measurement instruments. There is absolutely nobody that I would rather have designing web pages that other tinkers will be using. She always gets a nice bonus too, when you ‘surprise’ me by telling me that Miss Perfect and your team worked together to do the job in house. The same applies for you and your team as well, for having to put up with her when she’s being needy in the middle of a project.”
Hire the right people. Treat them with respect. Pay them well.
“Yes sir, we thank you. I’ll warn the distribution, receiving, and warehousing teams that they need to be careful asking her for help over the next few days, since she’s going to be grumpy and preoccupied. Under the radar, of course. I’ll give her all the IT support I can when she calls me in a little while – after she notices your email.” He paused a moment. “Think I’ll have Dave and Cindy bring one of the spare servers online and order a new spare, if that’s OK, sir?”
Why can’t life work this smoothly?
“Send me an informal requisition by email for a new spare server, as a reply to the email from a few minutes ago, and I’ll authorize it with a reply to you. Follow it up in the morning by forwarding the informal request reply from me, attached to a formal requisition to my office tomorrow when you are in the office. Let me know if there are any problems from my office about the requisition. Other than that, you know the drill, Phil. If anything comes up that will stress your department resources, let me know. Overtime is authorized for the hourly people until Miss Perfect and your team have something that is functional and secure.”
“This is outside our normal business footprint, Mr. Collins. Is this the beginning of more expansion that my team should be preparing for?”
“No, Phil, I was recently made aware that there is a substantial underground trade network that tinkers use to trade their goods. I want to facilitate the inter-tinker market, because the more active that market is, the more raw materials we will sell. It may also draw in new customers.”
There we go, a perfectly acceptable capitalist reason.
“Do you want it to be part of the Exactitude web presence, or separate? What should we call it?”
“Part of our own site. We have a reputation that will immediately lend the new page some credibility. Call it Tinker Market because that’s what it is and most tinkers are very literal minded. We will not advertise this anywhere except on the Exactitude site, and low key at that. I still don’t really understand how tinkers respond to advertising. Word of mouth seems to work best, so we’ll pull down all ads after we get a seed group into the new service, and see what happens.”
“We could just ask Miss Perfect to spread the word, sir? After the site is up and running, of course.”
How do other people run companies with poorly paid, uncreative incompetents? Thank you, Phil.
“Bingo, Phil, do that. No advertisement at all if she agrees. We’ll advertise later if things don’t start moving.”
“It’ll get done, sir.”
“Thanks Phil, I want you to email me directly if there are any issues, and if anything critical comes up, call. Do you have any more questions right now?”
“Then you have a good evening, Phil.” I hung up after giving Phil a second to think and begin to say something if he did come up with another question.
I shut down my email and checked the time. It was nearly six PM. Anne and Danny should have been back long ago. I turned off my computer and disconnected the network cable.
Maybe I missed them and they left again while I was away at the SPA meeting? Or intervention, or whatever the hell it had been.
I pulled on my old boots and headed downstairs. Some people seemed to think riding boots and slacks didn’t go together. They could bite me. My dress boots cost more than most shoes, and looked better. I liked a good pair of comfortable boots.
Anne’s car wasn’t next to my truck, so I hadn’t missed them arriving while I was in the shower.
I knocked loudly five times on the door, waited a couple seconds, unlocked the door, and entered, smiling a bit to myself as I followed the house rule.
If I don’t follow the rules, how can I expect others to?
I walked into the house to the kitchen table, and my note was on top of the earlier note from Anne. They had not arrived and left again, unless there had been some sort of emergency, otherwise there would have been a new note. I checked the floor in the living room and kitchen, just in case, even removing the grill at the bottom of the fridge to make sure the note hadn’t fallen to the floor and gone underneath the fridge. Nothing.
Anne and I didn’t call each other trivially, but the situation was no longer trivial. I called her phone. On the third ring it picked up.
A deep male voice answered the phone “Hello honey.”
What the fuck?
I looked at my phone and verified I was connected to the right phone.
The deep male voice spoke again, with undertones of amusement. “Yes, this is Anne’s phone. I believe I am speaking to Zeke?”
Well, so much for her phone simply being lost if they know who I am.
“This is Zeke. Who are you?”
“Why Zeke, it’s your new boss. I got the email about your agreement a short while ago. We needed to talk, but I don’t like reaching out to underlings directly, so I made arrangements so that you would call me.”
Anne’s phone. Anne and Danny. Oh shit.
I was more stunned than anything else, but knew that wouldn’t last long. I ran out the front door, trying to get outside before I shifted. I set the phone on the top of the cab of my truck and shifted, it was going to happen anyway, I might as well be in control of it.
I felt a human mind on the driveway, about fifty feet from me, then heard the now familiar pop of air collapsing into a human-sized vacuum, and the human mind disappeared.
Are you satisfied, Mirage?
I leaned forward over the phone on the cab of the truck. The connection was still good.
“Zeke, sounds like you moved outside. Probably a good idea based on what I know of your powers. I suspect your voice will be a little different when you speak to me again, which should be within two seconds.”
I spoke, quickly. “I agreed to help you train your people. If something bad has happened to my family, there won’t be much reason for me to continue agreeing with you.”
“Oh, Zeke. I was hoping for a little more common sense. Experience is the best teacher though, so let’s not wallow in the depths of your ignorance. I’m not here to trade threats, I’m here to make arrangements. I have been collecting information on you and recognize a fellow executive.” A pause. “My organization is a little less, ah, legal than yours is, but based on what I have been able to put together on you since I found out who you were a couple weeks ago, we both understand that our competent underlings operate best when they are allowed free reign to a significant degree.”
What the hell am I supposed to say to that?
“Go on.” I replied, wanting him to get to the point.
“Zeke, I also understand that you and I both require a little more formality from our employees than what you just used with me. Please rephrase your last statement accordingly.”
I swallowed. “Yes, sir.”
“Ah, much better, Zeke. Now, on to the terms of your employment.”
“We won’t be discussing anything unless I know Anne and Danny are safe.”
“You forgot something, Zeke.”
“We won’t be discussing anything unless I know Anne and Danny are safe. Sir.”
“Ah yes, the first part of the benefits package. Living family. They will arrive in thirty seconds or less at your location. The pilot is not an organic mind. I don’t know if you will affect them or not in your Strangest form. I would suggest that you change back to your human form, unless you want to risk your wife and son being delivered to you at a rather unsafe velocity.”
I heard a loud thump noise overhead, accompanied a moment later by a slight shockwave. I quickly shifted to human shape as I looked up, to see the bottom of a car, rapidly descending towards where Anne normally parked. Above the car, there was a substantially larger mechanical object, which was apparently carrying the car with some sort of field effect.
It looked like Anne and Danny, in Anne’s car, but they were unmoving. When the car was a few inches off the ground, the color of the field supporting the station wagon changed. All of a sudden the tires started rotating, the engine started making noise, and Anne and Danny started moving. I could tell by her body language that Anne was hitting the brakes as she grabbed the wheel at ten and two. Danny pulled his legs back towards his chair and put his palms on his forehead, so his legs and forearms would protect his vitals from the airbag and anything coming through the windshield. Since the car wasn’t actually moving, the tires stopped almost immediately, and the craft carrying the car set it down, carefully.
Anne and Danny both looked around and saw the house and me. They both relaxed a little, but stayed in the car, apparently shocked too badly to move immediately. I could certainly understand.
The craft that had delivered them to me, accelerated upwards at a phenomenal speed, almost like as if it had been shot out of a mortar. It didn’t break the speed of sound, but it pulled a plume of dust off the driveway into the air after it.
Anne looked at me, and I simply put my right index finger over my mouth, and pointed to the house with my left. I moved my right hand from my mouth to the phone and held it up, then sat the phone on the cab of the truck again.
Anne turned to Danny, who had also been watching me. She said something short, then he nodded. They both quietly got out of the car and ran into the house.
“I have been advised that the delivery was successful, Zeke.”
“It was successful… Sir.”
“Zeke, Zeke. I understand that there are very few people in your life that you call sir. I have the same mindset myself, so I will overlook your difficulty in the short term, but if we’re going to have a… healthy… relationship, you will have to begin to address me appropriately without such obvious difficulty.”
Fuck you, Gorgon. We do not share a mindset.
“Better. Now, the next thing we need to discuss is the particulars about your duties. You raised a concern with the messenger that was very perceptive. You cannot protect your students from being attacked at long range after you have rendered them unconscious. This means that we will have to be creative with how and where your training exercises will be performed. Fortunately, my organization has substantial teleportation capabilities at our disposal, and I am not stupid.”
There was a pause.
Is he fishing for a brown nosing or something?
“Do you have any idea how refreshing it is to have a new employee that isn’t trying to bury his nose in my ass, Zeke?”
I had to laugh a bit. “I’m afraid not. If I detect that sort of attitude in a perspective employee, I don’t hire them.”
Don’t forget the ‘sir’.
“I, unfortunately, have a rather smaller pool of potential, well-qualified employees than you do, Zeke. One makes do, however, or one fails. I’m hoping that with you helping to train them, my people might become much more effective.”
I saw movement in the house. Anne and Danny had both moved into my view in the formal dining room window, each with a shotgun, held down, but ready in both hands. They looked at me. Anne saw me look at her, and pointed to herself and Danny. I pointed to each of them in turn, then mimed breaking down the shotguns, removing ammo, and putting them on a shelf.
“Apologies, sir. A little nonverbal communication with the family to let them know there is no immediate danger.”
“That’s fine, Zeke. Back to our discussion though. My impression, based on your actions in the field, is that you have a rainbow hero mindset. I’m afraid that won’t help you advance in the ranks of my organization, but we can make concessions for you, in order to keep you productive. The first concession is that training areas will be chosen where there are no ‘innocents’ around, and some of my unpowered minions will patrol the perimeter of training areas to attempt to keep people out. I can’t guarantee that no innocents will ever get involved in the training events, but a significant effort will be made to prevent it. Is this acceptable?”
Do I have a choice?
“Next is the matter of threats and discipline. I will offer you the right to discipline any of my people who make threats against your family, or you can allow me to discipline them. I will tell every trainee I send to you that your alter ego and everything related to it is completely off limits for revenge or threats. However, I know my people, and no matter what I say, at least in the beginning, there will almost certainly be some threats made. Are you prepared to be suitably brutal to crush such dissention for me, or should I be prepared to do it for myself?”
“If I understand this right, you are offering me the right to enforce your rules. I do not believe this would be a good idea, but I would like to reserve the right to…”
“One way, or the other. I enforce discipline, or you do, Zeke. There is no grey area here. I don’t have a lot of nice employees.”
“I’ll have to leave that to you then, sir.”
I am NOT going to be enforcing your rules and becoming some sort of lieutenant.
“To be honest, I strongly doubted you would accept the offer to discipline my people yourself, but if you ever wish to begin doing so, feel free to ask.” He waited for my response.
“I am a very stern disciplinarian. Please remember that any threat to your family is a direct threat to my authority, and feel free to mention this to the trainees.”
“You’re getting much better at that, Zeke.”
Fuck you too.
“Thank you, sir.”
He laughed, a deep belly laugh. “Zeke, if you help my people learn, and don’t usurp my authority or disrespect me, I can be a very benevolent employer. There will always be a club behind my back, but I have a whole lot of employees who work for me that never have to worry about bad things happening to them or their families. The loyal ones.”
“I understand, sir.”
In other words, I am fucked, but my family is mostly safe from his people for as long as I let myself stay fucked. At least he doesn’t seem interested in Exactitude. Yet. I’ll need to carefully review every employee hired in the last several months.
“In that case, you will call me again in four days at this phone number, at six PM Eastern time, so we can discuss in more detail after I plan this out with my other subordinates. Do you have any questions?”
Forcing me to call you on my wife’s cellphone so you can drive home our relationship? Shithead.
“I will call you in four days, six PM, Eastern time, at my wife’s old cellphone number. No questions, sir.”
Gorgon hung up.
I felt as if I deflated, exhausted, barely able to stand and make myself move as I picked up the phone off the cab of my truck. I noticed Anne’s car was still running, the doors open, making dinging noises for seatbelts and open doors. I hadn’t even heard any of those noises when speaking to Gorgon. I moved to her car, leaned into the driver’s side and turned off the ignition, removed the keys, and closed her door. I walked over to the passenger side and did the same for Danny’s door. Then I walked into the house.
I realized after I opened the door that I hadn’t knocked, so I knocked on the wall as I walked down the hall to the kitchen. When I was halfway to the kitchen, I remembered that I hadn’t closed the front door, so I walked back to the door, and pulled it closed, then locked it, and walked back to the kitchen again. Nobody was there.
“All clear, Anne, Danny. Come out.” I yelled, loudly.
I heard clunking and scrambling noises coming from the master bedroom area, and walked that way, tapping on the wall and reciting the ABC’s as I walked, so I wouldn’t get shot.
When I walked into the master bedroom, Anne and Danny had pushed the mattress off the top of the oversized bathtub, and set their shotguns and pistols on the tile. Anne had started unloading them and passing them carefully to Danny, who double-checked them and set them to the side on the counter.
As soon as she unloaded the last firearm and handed it to Danny, she bolted to me and hit me with a flying hug like a linebacker. I had to grab the bathroom door frame to keep from falling flat on my ass.
We fell to our knees, hugging each other. No words were needed. Danny finished checking the last weapon handed to him, set it on the counter, and then looked at Anne and me hugging each other. He looked lost for a moment, obviously trying to figure out if he was expected to be a strong, independent young man, or a child to be comforted. I was proud as hell of him, and worried sick for his future.
I lifted my right hand from Anne’s back and crooked my finger to Danny, clearly telling him to come to me. That broke his indecision, and he joined us in the kneeling hug, helping me comfort his mother while I wrapped them both in the only protection I could offer.