Arc 1, Bittersweet 11

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‘Wow’ was the limit of my vocabulary for several seconds as I stared at my surroundings.  The architecture of the place was either figuratively or literally unreal; I couldn’t be sure of which, yet.  The second teleporter had sent us to a large, flat, open space with a great many obvious guards around the perimeter, but around that, it was like the building was made of organic glass.

As I gawked at the transparent walls and floors around us, with figures moving around like ants in a transparent anthill, Anne stepped up next to me and took my hand into hers.

She whispered into my ear.  “Glad I didn’t wear a skirt.”

I froze motionless for a moment and my eyes crossed as I tried to process the apparent non-sequitur, until Anne tugged my hand downward.  I looked down at our hands, and saw more layers of hallways and rooms with people moving around under our feet.  Lots of people.

I could only see through three or four layers of whatever the material was, before the figures walking around became distorted and vague due to light scattering.

Danny was slowly spinning in place, looking up, down, and away, taking everything in, a slight frown on his face.  I heard him mutter to himself.  “Crazy.  Glass can’t support itself like this.”

I wasn’t an engineer, and neither was he, but I agreed with him.  It couldn’t be glass.

Anne looked at Mindblade.  “Mentalists living in glass houses.  Really?”  The skepticism in her voice was clearly audible to me, and Danny turned to face her as well, probably detecting the same thing.

Mindblade just chuckled.  “Anne, if it weren’t for the fact that I get to see the idea form in people’s minds, giving it a sense of newness each time, that line from new people to the enclave would be very old.”

Danny hopped slightly, with a frown on his face, and Mindblade turned to him next.  “Yes, you feel lighter.  The gravity on this planet is roughly ninety percent of Earth’s gravity.”

Anne, Danny, and I just stared at one another at that as we digested the meaning of that.  Supposedly, we were no longer on Earth.

All things being equal, that’s no bad thing, compared to the situation we just left.  Even with lots of things being unequal, it could be fine.

“Let’s move to a little more private place so we can talk more freely.” Mindblade said, as he walked, following a rust red line on the floor.  An escort fell in beside us.  They were not armed, as far as I could see, but they moved confidently.  They were all very pale skinned and finely featured, with slight points on their ears.

Are they human, or is this other planet populated by nonhumans?

“A little of both, Zeke.” Mindblade commented.  “They share a common ancestry with humans from hundreds of thousands of years ago, based on our respective genetics.  They are, however, adapted to living in a very iron poor environment, and we are adapted to living in a very iron rich environment.”

Anne and Danny were now looking at our escorts.  I heard Danny mutter something about elves, then he apparently realized he was talking aloud, and he turned beet red.  Three members of our escort whose faces I could see, smiled, in a not-unfriendly way.

They seem to have a sense of humor, at least.

“No, Danny, not elves, but they get a great deal of amusement from people calling them that.  They aren’t that much different from us.  We can even have children with one another, though it’s hard to manage naturally, and genetic screening is absolutely required.  Crossing the iron uptake mechanisms is almost always deadly, even before birth.”

Some ancient high school biology crossed my mind.  “Selective mineral uptake mechanisms, like salt in fish?  Salt water fish have mechanisms to remove salt from their bodies, and fresh water fish have mechanisms to retain salt.  Except for humans and elves, it’s iron?”

“Bingo, Zeke.  That means every human who lives here must take iron supplements, and any elf that visits Earth must be extremely cautious about exposure to iron in the environment, and in food.  Exposure to iron will make them a little stronger with more endurance at first, but prolonged high levels of iron in their bodies causes their kidneys and liver to fail, rapidly.”

It was a little too much to take in all at once.  I stopped talking and just started following, holding Anne’s right hand in my left, and letting Danny walk ahead, between me and Mindblade.

It’s all so beautiful, and not entirely in a flowery way.  The beauty of a seashell, the lines of a racehorse.  Everything just seems to fit together.

It took a couple minutes, but we eventually left the large building we had entered via teleportation.  The rust red line ended at the entrance to the building.  As we were walking along the open pathway away from the building, I heard the unmistakable sounds of a fight between supers.  I couldn’t understand the language of the shouts, but the sounds of urban destruction were clear.  There was at least one brick-type down there tearing up real estate, and I saw flashes of light that indicated some sort of highly energetic weapon or natural ability.

Mindblade was irritated.  “Zeke, try not to change.  That fight has nothing to do with us.  Half of our escort will stay behind us as a rearguard to try to guide the fight away from us if it moves in our direction.  We’re going to start jogging.”  He looked at Anne.

She answered his unasked question.  “I’m no running fool like these two, but I’m in shape.”

Anne and I unclasped hands and I gently guided her in front of me with my left hand so I could keep both her and Danny in view as we ran.  We started off at a jog a little faster than an airborne shuffle, around eight minutes per mile.  Anne could keep this pace for a very long time, but Mindblade apparently really wasn’t that concerned about us getting mixed up in the fight between supers, and didn’t push the pace.  I was grateful for the slow pace because my riding boots had no cushion to speak of in the soles.

My footsteps sounded like a shod horse on a paved road, running on whatever the roadbed was made of.  Enamel?  Mother-of-pearl?  Porcelain?  It was opaque and very hard, mostly white with streaks of rainbow reflection, stained with dirt and dust.  It had wear and tear though, I saw some nicks and cracks here and there.  In other words, it was just like any other well-maintained road I knew, except that it was a weird color of reflective off-white.

Why am I gawking at the road and not watching what’s around me?  Idiot!  Watch for threats!

We left the sounds of fighting behind us, and in a couple miles entered another large building.  This new building was much like the last, in broad strokes, but I noticed a couple things immediately.  Firstly, there was only one other building nearby, and secondly, there were rugs and tapestries everywhere inside the building we entered.  My shins were killing me after the run in riding boots, so the rugs were welcome.

Shortly after entering the building, we stopped at what was clearly some sort of reception desk, and Mindblade spoke with one of the three people there.  That person spoke into a device on the desk, and nodded.  Mindblade waved us forward, past him.  Our escort did not follow.  Mindblade bowed to them, and they returned his bow, then left as a group, jogging back the way we had come.  I noted for the first time as they ran away, that they were barefoot.

“Let me show you to your apartment.”  He pressed his palm against a hand-shaped opaque imprint on the wall between tapestries, and said “Apartment C-forty-four.”

A thin line of light appeared, leading out the bottom of the hand-shaped imprint on the wall, and crossing the floor.  We followed it.

“You seem rather confident that we’ll be staying.” I commented.

Mindblade just tapped his head and said nothing for a moment, before responding.  “None of you have had a negative mental reaction yet.  Sure, some anxiety, discomfort, stress, but no panic or phobic reactions yet.  We have had people choose to leave after being shown to this place, but very few people leave when their families are under the threats your family is under.  This place is sanctuary.”

“Despite the fact that there are supers here, who fight like supers do at home?” I asked.

He grimaced a bit at that.  “We try to avoid exposing people to that reality immediately, but we don’t hide it.  You would have been made aware of it in the educational material.”

We arrived at the end of the light-line.  Mindblade tapped his finger on the palm plate by the door, then pressed his hand against it, and spoke towards the palm plate.  “Assignment of quarters for three.  Married couple with adult son.  Eldest male will assign first, then his wife, then their son.”

He turned to me.  “OK, Zeke, put your hand on the palm plate, match the bottom of your palm to the bottom of the palm on the image, and if your fingers don’t fit, just press the palm and fingers flat and let the ends of your fingers extend over the end of the hand-image.  Then say your first and last name.  It will prick you, for a skin sample, and use a laser to check your iron levels through the skin, but will not draw blood.”

I put my hand on the palm image, and my fingers did extend a bit past the ends of the fingers in the image.  I pressed firmly against the plate and said “Zeke Collins.” There was a little nip at the base of my palm.

“Zeke Collins, adult male, ownership acknowledged.  Iron content of blood high normal.”

Anne and Danny performed the same routine.  Danny’s hands were very nearly as large as mine now, I noticed.  Last time we had compared, was nearly a year ago.  I wondered if he was done growing yet.  I hadn’t stopped until I was twenty.  He might be taller than me by the time he stopped if he spurted again like I had, at nineteen.  I hoped he didn’t, I was at the top end of healthy normal height, if he got much taller than me, spinal and joint issues would start to get a lot more likely.

Mindblade was just looking at me with a bemused look on his face.

Got kids, Mindblade?

His expression stiffened a bit, and he shook his head.

I then realized he had already mentioned family issues, I hoped I hadn’t stirred up any memories of personal tragedies.

He shook his head a bit and smiled at me, then placed his hand on the hand image and said, “Assignment complete.”  Then he turned to us.  “For access, just press the access pad with your open hand, and say ‘open.’  It will stay open until closed from the inside, unless you change its behavior, which can be done from the main console.  Delayed opening and door chimes can be implemented as well.”

Why is he showing me this?  I can’t live here.  It’s risky for me to be in this building at all.

“There are a few apartments in the other building as well, Zeke.  You will have one of them for your own use.  We don’t expect you to get excited about anything during your visit, so shifting should not be a problem.”

I placed my hand on the access plate, and said “open.”

The door opened, sliding into the wall, a transparency inside a transparency.  It was a bit weird looking.

“What is the building made of?” Danny asked

“Glass, transparent aluminum, acrylics, various plastics, and all of that supported by field effects.” Mindblade commented.

We all walked into the apartment, which was sparsely furnished in a utilitarian fashion.  Unlike the hallway, the floors here had no rugs, so we were able to look straight down into the apartment below us.  Danny had walked in first, but stopped suddenly, obviously startled, after he entered the living area, looking down and to his right.

“You OK Danny?”  I asked, as I stepped up beside him.  As I followed his gaze, I saw a dark-skinned, small breasted, well-toned young woman wearing only a tiny pair of black shorts, looking up at Danny and waving a little almost-shy wave, which he returned.  After I appeared at Danny’s shoulder from around the corner, becoming clearly visible, she stood up and walked into the room next to her that was apparently a bedroom on her floor, like it was on ours.

Anne only saw a chocolate colored bare back and skimpy black shorts going through a doorway covered with posters into another room below when she joined us.  She looked at me, then Danny and commented, “Mindblade, I want carpet.  Soon.  I’m afraid Danny might hurt himself otherwise, and my husband might suffer a great many explainable bruises.”

Mindblade was obviously highly amused by the situation, but didn’t say anything as I leaned over and kissed my wife briefly.  “I didn’t see anything I wanted.  Danny, however, might need to be chained to something heavy for a few weeks.”

Danny was shaking his head and recovering as the young woman returned from the other room with a sheer, loose green top on, walking back to her seat in the sun, and picking up the book she had apparently been reading as we entered the apartment above her.  She waved at us as she sat down and started reading again.

“Looks like she might be a runner, son.”  I poked him in the shoulder, and he blushed.

“Carpet.  Mindblade.  How soon?”  Anne said, looking at Danny.

“We can bring up some basic throw rugs in a couple hours, but you will have to put them in place.  Carpet is generally not done, but if you really want it, it can be.”

Anne was doing mental calculations in her head.  I saw her eyes dart down towards the young lady in the apartment below and back at Danny.  She smirked a bit.  “Throw rugs will be fine.”

There was a chime at the door, then a voice.  “Hello!  I was advised that we have new residents in this apartment.  My name is Sandra, and I’m a new resident guide.  May I enter?”

I pressed my palm on access plate on the wall next to the door inside the apartment, and said “open.”

The door opened, and a short, slightly overweight bundle of energy with long, curly reddish brown hair and freckles bounced into the room, rapidly looked at the four of us, and walked to Anne, holding out her hand. “Hello, and welcome to the enclave.  There’s lots of things to learn, but most of it’s not much different than what you are used to.  You speak English, Spanish, French, or something else?  Sometimes they get the languages wrong.”

Anne took it all in stride.  “English is fine, Sandra, I’m Anne, this is my husband Zeke,” she pointed to me “and my son Danny,” then she pointed to Danny.

“I’m glad to meet you two!”  She reached out her left arm a bit behind her and thumped Mindblade in the forehead with her left index finger without seeming to look at him.  “Heyas, Mindblade!”

Mindblade rolled his eyes as she dropped her arm and put all of her attention back on us.  “I know you will love it here, but I’m guessing at least one of you is powered, and will probably need to wander off with Mindblade for shop talk.”  She was looking at Danny, expectantly.

He looked back at her, obviously confused for a moment, then shook his head minutely and raised his right hand a bit, pointing at me, while saying quietly, “not me.”

Sandra turned to face me.  “Oh, late bloomer?  That’s different.  Middle age power development is pretty rare, unless you made a career change to nuclear waste handler or toxic spill cleanup specialist?

I can’t tell if she’s being serious or not.  Never play poker with this woman.

“Ah nothing like that.  One day, something startled me, and *bam* my power activated.”  I shrugged.

Mindblade broke in.  “Zeke I need to drag you off for a while, like Sandra said.  I’ll bring you back in a couple hours.  I’m sure you have lots of questions for us.”

Yes, I do.

“Back in a while, you two.”  I hugged Anne and rubbed noses with her, before a brief kiss.

Then I let go of Anne, pulled Danny into a hug too, and spoke into his ear on the other side from Anne.  I wasn’t trying to keep Anne from hearing, but not wanting to be blatant about it either.  “Do not even consider sex here until you know the rules.  Look all you want, flirt too, if you like, but do not touch.  Please.  Deadly serious.”  I pulled out of the hug, and held his shoulders with my hands, and looked him in the eyes.

Danny looked right back at me and nodded, seriously.  “I get it, Dad.”

I grinned at him and stepped back, turning towards Mindblade, who was already outside the entry door.  I followed after him, and the door hissed shut, almost silently.

Walking at Mindblade’s left side, a half step behind him, I matched his pace, and said simply.  “Elves.  My family is taking sanctuary with elves.  Elves who have pointy ears, walk barefoot even when doing guard duty, they live in glass houses, and have difficulty dealing with iron.  They seem to have technology to transport themselves to Earth at will, using a dimensional portal, which is hugely expensive power-wise.  Yet the elves don’t use that travelling ability to simply trade for dietary iron supplements.  I’ve never heard of them before.  Why is my bullshit meter spinning out of control right now?”

Mindblade started chuckling.  “Every time someone tries to come to grips with the reality here, it’s hilarious.  Most can’t even put together a good argument though, so you get bonus points.  They aren’t elves.  They are us, on a slightly different evolutionary path.  They are also incredibly set in their ways, socially.  The portal isn’t a dimensional rift, it’s a very long range teleporter.  Many light years transfer range, but still a teleporter within our own dimension.”

I thought about it.  “Why aren’t they trading with us for iron?”

“They don’t need to, or want to.  They can simply take all the iron they need from an asteroid belt in their own solar system if they want.  In fact, they do.”  He paused.  “You haven’t mentioned it, but they don’t live much longer than us either.  A few more decades on average.”

Hmm. “I don’t get it then.”

Why do they let our families hide here?  They have to get something from it.  Don’t they?  If they were a society driven by altruism, I have seen many potential technologies used on a large scale that might be very useful on Earth.  Wait.  Glass houses.  Open society. Telepathic?  Do they feel some sort of kinship with mentalists?

We left the apartment building and moved towards the other nearby building, which had a clear shell like the other buildings, but was very green on the inside from a distance.

“Congratulations, you’re mostly right.  Their race is slightly empathic across their entire population.  It’s one reason they rarely have wars, though they do fight, and say they have warred for resources in the past.  We also believe they are hoping to establish a passive breeding program for human mentalists by bringing our families together.  None of them have ever admitted that, but they offer all the genetic services you could ask for to help the enclave women have healthy children, and there is no objection to interbreeding, if a human and an elf are attracted to one another.”

Eugenics?  That can lead to some really dark places.  I’m not saying that out loud.

“Might as well say it if you think it.  If the elves are running some sort of long term breeding program, they are doing so organically, not with strict controls.  These people think very long term.  They haven’t had a war in fifty thousand years.

They say.  We certainly can’t know that.

We walked into the building, which was obviously a hydroponics center.  The smell of ripe crops of many different types made my stomach growl as we followed a path towards the center of the building.

“You have a point.  They never lost the technology that our common ancestors had.”

That’s not really provable either.  We don’t know what our common ancestors could do.

“Skepticism is a good thing, but the gift of a safe place for our families is a benefit strong enough to give them a lot of leeway.”

Have genetic markers in children been compared to their parents, on Earth, with Earth technology?

“Many times.  They aren’t using genetic counseling and repairs of problems to sneak bits of strange genetic material into our kids.”

I’m having a hard time making it all add up.  Maybe it’s just their version of rich brat’s guilt?  They feel sorry for us just because they feel as if they were born into a better position?

“That’s one of the strongest hypothesis we have, actually.  Good Call.  I think you’re going to fit right in.  They also have a lot of supers with mental powers.  A far greater percentage than what we have on Earth.  Here, nearly a third of supers are mentalists, unlike Earth where maybe one in twenty is a mentalist, and almost a third of supers are bricks or speedsters.  Their overall super population per capita is a lot higher than ours on Earth too, though the range of power potency is much the same.”

If so many of the ‘elves’ were telepathic, it wouldn’t matter if I tried to keep my part of the conversation mental.  I couldn’t imagine I would add anything to what hundreds of people had been thinking about for years.  My questions were mainly to help ground myself and figure out where I stood and what I imagined to be important.  “These are all numbers that have been verified, how?  I’ve never heard of a power that gives someone the ability to know the truth, in the absence of evidence.  How many other planets are they on?  How large is their population?”

We stopped at what seemed to be the center of the building.  There was an access pad on a pedestal.  Mindblade placed his hand on it.  “Assignment of access to outer facilities, tier one.  Adult male human super with alternate form capability.  Alternate form is not human, and will not have entry access, but will not activate internal security measures if the alternate form is activated within the facility.”

Mindblade took his hand off the access pad and I reached out with my hand and placed it on the pedestal, matching my hand to the hand image as best I could.

“Zeke Collins, otherwise known as Strangest.”  I wondered if it was smart enough to understand that.

The pad responded.  “Zeke Collins, adult male, access acknowledged.  Iron content of blood high normal.  Empowered alternate form will not have entry access until cleared and a sample taken by an access pad.”

“Should we organize a way to let me shift and identify myself to the access pad, as Strangest?”

“No, don’t worry about it for now.  People are waiting on us.  Wait for me to enter, then the door will close, and you can enter.  The security system gets cranky if more than one person tries to enter using one palm press.”  He put his palm on the access pad, and said “open.”

With a whine, the floor opened.  It was not transparent, I realized.

Mindblade walked down a wide stairwell, artificially lit by strip lighting in the walls.  After he was well away from the opening in the floor, it slid closed.

I put my hand on the access pad and said “open.”  The trap door floor gaped for me as well, and I walked downwards on the stairs, taking two at a time while carefully watching my head because the ceiling was uncomfortably low, somewhere around seven feet.

I heard the opening slide shut again, and it was a little darker, but still well lit.  After a few dozen steps down, the stairway became a hallway, with many branchings.

“We’ll get you one of the isolated apartments, for your own use, after the meeting.  We’re running a couple minutes late.”

“OK.”

I wasn’t aware we were on a schedule.

“It’s my fault, and they will know it.  They already do, actually.  Don’t be concerned for your first impression.”

I nodded.  What else was I going to do?  I was lost here, in several ways.

We eventually stopped in front of double doors that were standing open.  There was a large open space beyond the doors, with a great many people seated in a single ring around a podium.  Each seat had a console in front of it, and most seats were occupied with an individual examining data on the console in front of them.

“We will walk to the center.  I will introduce you, and then go to my seat.  You will be asked questions, and you should answer them all with your voice, as a lot of us cannot read minds.  There won’t be many questions.  They will be very emotional questions, typically.  Do not lie.”

“They know that if they push me too hard, I might trigger?  My power will cover this whole room from the center.”

“They know.” Mindblade reassured me.

“OK, I’m getting grilled then.  I’m ready.”  I started preparing myself mentally for a verbal fight as we walked forward to the center podium.  I looked around and saw at least a hundred costumes, some of them I recognized from the news, even though I didn’t know their names.  I recognized Mirage, and Blindside, and nodded to them.  They did not respond, either positively, or negatively.

Formal meeting.  OK.

When we were both at the podium in the center, Mindblade introduced me. “I present to you, Zeke Collins, Otherwise known as Strangest.”  Then he simply walked towards an empty seat.  I was a bit startled at the brevity of my introduction, but instead of trying to plug the silence with my mouth, I simply gave a half-bow in the direction I was facing, to half the circle in that direction, then turned around and gave another half-bow in the opposite direction.

I don’t know the rules here.

If they had questions, they would need to ask them.  It felt a lot like a meeting with a venture capitalist.  I’d been shot down by four of them before getting one to work with me for Exactitude.

The first question came from behind me.  “What is your greatest achievement?”

That one was easy.  I turned in the direction of the speaker.  “Raising my son, Danny.”

“Why not your business success, or your marriage?”  Another question from behind me, I turned to face that direction.

Good question.  I took a moment to think about my words.  “I define my business.  It cannot be anything other than what I make it.  I define half of my marriage.  It is a shared achievement.  I do not define Danny.  At best, especially after he became a teenager, Anne and I could only guide him.  The fact that we made choices throughout Danny’s life that led him to where he is right now means we did well, in my opinion.”

That’s enough, or I’ll start bragging.

Again from behind me.  “Why did it take you seven public fights and an intervention before you finally understood how dangerous you were, and were willing to restrict your movements?”

Ouch.  Painful question.

I turned towards the direction of the speaker.  “I… Pride.  Stubbornness.  I don’t really understand it.  Some level of entitlement too, I’m sure.  I had powers, and felt they needed to be used.  A somewhat irrational belief in my ability to control myself and prevent shifting.  A lack of understanding about how deadly running into the wrong super with my power might be, like Dr. Fusion.  If I had to break it down to the simplest reason, I would say overconfidence.”

Enough whining.  I fucked up.  I’ve owned it.  I’ll keep owning it, but I’ve answered the question.  At least nobody has died.

It seemed as if people were asking questions from behind me, so I slowly turned, scanning the circle, so that anyone who had a question could ask me.

“Who deserves to die?”

I parsed the question in my head a couple times, not certain I understood the intent of it.  Confident, but not certain.  “Should I interpret that question to mean ‘Who does not deserve to live?’ ”

“Yes.”

This I had thought about, when hearing about the activities of vigilantes and psychopaths, both super and normal.  The morality of the death sentence.  “Those who gain enjoyment from actively, intentionally maiming or killing the weak and powerless.  Not petty harm, because we all have a touch of darkness, and might commit a minor cruelty now and again.  Enjoyment, not a sense of duty, or revenge.  Darker emotions accompanying darker deeds should be expected, and may be treatable.  Lighter emotions like happiness or enjoyment experienced as a result of torture or killing?  I cannot imagine an excuse for it other than if the one committing the killing or maiming is completely unaware of their own actions.  My experience in such things is limited though.  Perhaps some drugs might cause such symptoms, or treatable mental conditions.”

“Isn’t that just a long way of saying you don’t know?” Another voice behind me.

Yes, because the world isn’t black and white.  Without knowing specifics, condemning anyone’s actions is stupid.  Though some cases are a lot clearer than others.

“I suppose so, but this interview seems to be trying to get a sense of how I think.  Oversimplification of a problem means you don’t really understand why it’s a problem.”  I continued to turn, to allow anyone the chance to ask me questions.

“Could you kill a person?  Up close, when they are looking at you, knowing you are about to kill them?”

“The short answer is yes.  The long answer depends on what they are doing, and who is at risk.”

What kind of question is that?  If you push anyone hard enough, they will kill.

“Are you trying to fit in with us, paint yourself as a darker, more unforgiving person because you know that some of us have killed?”

Am I?

“I don’t think so.  I’ve thought about death and killing before, many times.  I’ve been a husband and father for nearly twenty years now.  I had many dark moments where I considered how far I could go to protect my family.  I suspect that if I ever had to go to some of those darkest places, I would have a hard time coming back.”

I slowly rotated, continuing to give the people around me the opportunity to ask questions directed at my back.

“Do you have any questions for us?”

“Yes.  Several.”

“Ask them.”

“It seems as if this is a community of mentalists and the families of mentalists.  I am no mentalist, though my power does affect the mind.  You appear to be considering me for membership.  Why?”

A voice I recognized spoke, Mirage.  “You misunderstand, because you have had a handpicked group of our members riding herd on you, at Octagon’s request.  We aren’t all mentalists.  Even the mentalists here don’t all have the same powers.  In order to try to keep you contained without you knowing it, we needed invisibility, mind reading, and the ability to force your body to do what we want.  Three of us had the ability to alter your thoughts.  All of us had to carry teleportation devices keyed to carry us away from you when your powers affected our minds.  We all use devices to open the portal to the waypoint, the frigid place you passed through on the way here.”

“So what do you share in common?” I asked.

“In your own words, a lot of us have ‘lost marbles’ due to tragedy.  We share a lot of darkness between us.”

I winced.

Open mouth, insert foot.

A chuckle came from several members around the circle.

Mirage continued, “A large number of us are mentalists, and most mentalists have difficulty finding teams.  Your reactions to myself, Blindside, and Mindblade should clearly explain why.  Even the families of mentalists have difficulty dealing with us, regularly.  Mainly trust issues.”

I nodded, but said nothing.  She wasn’t done.

“Many of our non-mentalists have powers that are not conducive to teamwork, though few have disruptive powers anywhere near the scale of your difficulty.  Those with environmental effects, like Glitz and Glimmer can easily stun or annoy their own teammates with their lightshows.  Horror has a power opposite yours in some ways, but it’s more resistible.  Teammates typically don’t like being afraid for no reason.  Stinkbug’s power, well, I don’t need to elaborate.”

The Island of Misfit Toys.

Mirage laughed.  “That’s not a terrible description, though there are quite a few of us who could serve on super teams, if they wanted to.  Some people simply prefer to work alone.  Some were brought here when their families were threatened, like yours.  There are some sons and daughters of active members who are also active.  We’re a motley crew.”

There was some mumbling and confusion but I heard the sounds of very rapid typing.  Apparently my surface thoughts were being typed out for review by those who could not read minds.  There were chuckles and grumpy sounding noises both as people apparently were allowed to read what had recently gone through my head.

“If your organization is that diverse, what would I be able to do for you?”

“You have several things to offer us, if you fit in.”  She grinned.  “You have all your marbles, or at least, you haven’t lost many of them.  You have experience directly running a multinational company, which clearly demonstrates organizational leadership.  You are middle-aged and have life experience as a normal.  You have a power that makes you immune to all the mental abilities that we have tried against you, when you are shifted.”

“So, you want me as an institutional consultant and some sort of life advisor?”

“In part, yes.” Mirage nodded.

I can do those things.

I thought about it, looking for potential problems, but it didn’t take long.  I knew I could help them as a consultant, even if it was no more than working in committee with people at or above my abilities.  I could certainly help some of them as a life advisor, though probably not as many as they hoped – I simply didn’t have the same experience of pain as many of these people would.

Anne would probably be a lot better of a life advisor than I would, but I can’t speak for her in this.

“I would be happy to serve to the best of my ability in those roles.  It seems to be a small price for what my family is being offered.”

“That’s not it, entirely.” Mirage started to say.

Ah, now comes the real price.  My business?  Money?  Restrictions?  I probably won’t like this next part.

I steeled myself to not display emotion as Mirage started to speak again.

“One thing that we vigilantes have issues with from time to time is versatility.  We typically depend on precision attacks, stealth, sensory degradation, and evasion in fights.  Clever enemies can figure out ways to counter our abilities by protecting their senses and designing defenses that make us more vulnerable to counterattack.  Machine intelligences and automated systems are typically immune to mental and many sensory disruptions.”  She paused.  “You don’t have issues with that sort of thing in a fight.  Your problem when you get in a fight as Strangest is that your allies and normal people get close to you, and interfere.  Everyone you are exposed to tries to work together against you.  We can greatly reduce or prevent that.”

Am I being invited to join some sort of vigilante super team?

“You want to form a super team of vigilantes with me as a part of it?  I’m flattered but, ah, I’m seeing problems pop up that we’ve already discussed.  Trust issues, interference between team members, etc.”

“No, no, we wouldn’t change the way we would operate most of the time.  We would bring you in, as necessary.”

I don’t get it, am I a dunce here?  Wait.

“So, if one of you had a problem, a heavily defended position with robots or whatever, you clear civilians away and bring me in.  I make a lot of noise, attract and defeat anyone I can while creating chaos that you can use to reach your target or goals?”

“Exactly.  We would like to use you as a ‘heavy.’ ” Mirage said with a grin.

Prior Chapter      Next Chapter

11 comments

  1. syphax1

    The line of dialogue after ‘It’s risky for me to be in this building at all.’ is missing it’s quotation marks.

    That being said, I did not expect this. Any of it. Not even remotely. I like it. Well done, sir.

  2. casualPhilosoph

    individual counselor? don’t see it sorry: If he counsels while shifted he would need distance anyway, so unless there are many powers transfered via videophone whats the great advantage compared to a regular guy counseling?Also trust and sympathy are important for counseling, while he is certainly an impressive personality it should not be so easy to just win people over. Hmm my advise: avoid the same problem from symbiote, don’t let thinks fit to clean or perfectly or people act to rational.(Though I know,get its often hard to imagine other peoples irrationality, from our modern educated standpoint)

    • farmerbob1

      Most mentalists have pretty strange family lives, but the ones that do have families, especially unpowered families, might want help every now and then, trying to figure out how normal people deal with problems. A middle aged guy in great shape, with a happy marriage, a solidly decent young adult son, and a successful multinational company is someone who will certainly get asked questions by people trying to keep their own families together. Even if it’s not an official position.

  3. underwhelmingforce

    His dialog when answering questions does not fit his established personality. It is formal, and way too insightful into his personal failings. It seems, to be blunt, scripted. Very heavily.

    Also, this seems like way too easy a solution, and he didn’t even have to do anything to reach it. He had Gorgon threatening him, plus Octagon and Blindside’s thing, making an awesome moral dilemma, and suddenly space elves literally (literally) from nowhere, problem solved, family safe, everybody go home. It feels like you had a whole plot line building and then decided NOPE it’s ALIENS again! No awesome moral conflict and secret building plan to take down Gorgon from inside his own organization, instead we get hivemind space elves and a colony of Blade expys.

    Ugh, too tired for coherent critique. Feel free to do your own thing, but do avoid the Dues Ex Machina. Let the characters work it out on their own sometimes.

    • farmerbob1

      Zeke can be formal at need. I have to admit that one of the people I was thinking of when I came up with the character was Sam Walton. I will look at the wording though, and make sure that I’m not getting too formal.

      Without going into any detail, you’re either going to hate me, or love me next chapter, I think.

      • Mian

        Da hell? (yes, censoring language. still swearing).
        Sam Walton? Zeke seems… really really different from that showman.
        Maybe you’ve had more experience than I have?

        • farmerbob1

          Sam Walton, as in the guy who built Wal-Mart
          I never met the man personally, and I’m sure there’s some urban legend involved, but…

          He drove an old pickup truck and would regularly pop into stores completely unannounced.
          While on these visits, after introducing himself to people, he would occasionally get his hands dirty and help bag merchandise. A billionaire. Bagging at the end of a checkout line. Without cameras around.
          He lived in a small house when he was literally the richest man in America.
          He ate in the company lunchroom, again, when he was one of the richest men in America.

          I’m sure he had warts. Everyone does. I’ll say that I based Zeke off the urban legend and biographical information that has been documented about the man, if that makes it better. If we were even talking about the same Sam Walton.

    • farmerbob1

      I went through and made quite a few tweaks to the interview at the end of this chapter, adding a few internal comments to break up the formality a bit, and adjusting the structure of quite a few sentences to make them a little less stilted, I think.

  4. Cultist

    Huh, the first major plot twist. It’s a good one, but I feel that another will be needed later to balance things out. Don’t ask me why I think this. It’s just something I can’t quite explain like this new development satisfies something while creating an entirely new need, and that new need is another unexpected twist that somehow brings closure to multiple story elements.

  5. Ephemerality

    They have a race wide empathy thing? Couldn’t that be very problematic considering his powers? Why is no one bringing this up, shouldn’t they do some sort of test in case this could be a problem? I doubt much more could go worse than an entire planet full of technologically advanced elves some with super powers trying to kill him…

    Great story so far, btw!

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