Arc 1, Bittersweet 14

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I stumbled, nearly triggering the change, as I carefully considered all the implications of Mirage’s statement.

Are Danny and Anne going to be held as guarantees of my good behavior?

“No, Zeke.  They will not.” She said as she slowed, stopped, and then turned to face me.

Fred and Sarah were edging away from me, and Mirage noticed.

“Fred, Sarah, staying close to Zeke is safer, unless you are very physically frail.  That way you get knocked out immediately when he expands.  It’s like being hit by an airbag, according to Blindside.”

Fred and Sarah looked at me with concern, but stopped edging away.

Mirage nodded at us, obviously intending to comfort the other two, and then continued talking to me.  “Your family can choose to leave at any time, as you can.  You can even withdraw from the disruptive powers program if you wish, but you will soon start to be treated as a villain if you do not adhere to the rules of the disruptive powers program, even if you are not a member.”

With all the mind-fucking going on here, leaving might be a good idea.

“I want to punch you again, Zeke, just to be sure you know what I’m thinking.”  Mirage stared at me, her eyes flashing and her posture definitely indicating that she was angry.  “Your family has not been touched by mental powers, other than being allowed to view the imaginary world that Fiction’s power enabled you to generate.  We needed them to see what you would do, so we could monitor them to see if you were behaving as they expected you to.  We listened to them, there was no alteration.”

I’ll never know if that’s true or not.

“If someone with the ability to alter minds wanted you to believe something, and was willing to make changes in your mind to enforce it…”

What?  Mindblade tried this argument.  Are all mentalists logically deficient?

Mirage’s mouth snapped shut, and she just stared at me, her eyes glittering.  Her right hand balled up, slowly relaxing after a couple seconds.

I was bordering on shifting as I leaned towards her, but didn’t push myself too close into her personal space.  “You could mold the minds of people around you, sure.  You could also simply choose not to, because having a bunch of people hanging around you that always agree with you and do what you say would be pretty damn obvious now, wouldn’t it?”

“We need to get downstairs so you can shift and we can talk, Zeke.  Any concerns you have with me messing with your mind should be resolved, for the duration of that conversation, anyway.”  Mirage abruptly turned around and walked away quickly.

Escalating more right now would have no purpose, she’s right.

“Sorry.” I apologized to Fred and Sarah, who were both looking quite nervous.  They both nodded to me, and Fred gave a little bit of a grin.

As we all started following Mirage again, Fred commented “It’s not often that someone shuts Mirage down in an argument.”

Sarah chuckled.  “I suspect that she’s fishing around, looking for someone who will stand up to her, since Whiplash left.”

I stopped walking.  Thinking furiously, trying to make sense of what these two were saying, from an organizational point of view.

Mirage commented from ahead of us.  “Stop.  He’s on edge now, don’t add more complexity.  Zeke, you are not being considered for an Enclave leadership role.  You will never trust us enough for that, I don’t think.  I do value people who will stand up to me aggressively, and the possibility of a consulting role is very possible, especially if you don’t trust me.”  She paused.  “For now, let’s get downstairs.”

I stared briefly at Mirage.  I didn’t think distrust had ever factored favorably in any business or personal decision I had ever made.  I raised both my hands to my temples and worked my thumbs against the sides of my forehead, pressing hard.  Then I continued following Mirage again, taking long strides to catch up with Sarah and Fred, who had kept walking.

Mirage stopped by the big cargo elevator a few seconds later, and pressed the down button.  We all simply stayed silent.  I can’t say I got much thinking done in the elevator.  I was too flustered and irritated, and my thoughts wouldn’t settle.

I took control of my breathing and steadied it, counting breaths.  By the time the elevator stopped, I had calmed a bit.

Like settling into a long run on flat ground.

Mirage didn’t step closer to me or even look at me, she merely gestured with an open-handed sweep of her arm for us all to leave the elevator, and we did.  The garage was almost exactly as I remembered it.  Some of the vehicles had been moved around, but not many.

Mirage pointed towards one end of the cavern. “You’re over there, Zeke.  Below the hanging lights.  We’re on the opposite side by the mechanic’s station.  Please wait for us to be visible in the videoconference before you shift, so we will be outside your range.”

I nodded to her and walked over towards my side of the cavern, looking around at the vehicles.  I wondered if these vehicles were personal vehicles or vehicles that were used by the organization itself.  I saw torn upholstery, fast food wrappers and empty soda containers in a lot of the vehicles.  Almost all the vehicles had Georgia license tags.

Doesn’t matter.  Distraction might help defuse stress but it’s time to start concentrating again.

I found my workstation sitting on top of a van.  I was tall enough in human form to see the screen where the others would appear.  I followed the power cables, and found what looked like a hydrogen fuel cell power unit.  The charge monitor on the device’s LED indicated a substantial charge, and an estimated time to discharge of all hydrogen was six hours.

This conversation better not last that long.

I walked back over to the van and looked up a bit at the monitor.  The others were settling in, so I backed away from the van a few feet, looked around to make sure I wasn’t going to smack my head or body on anything, and shifted.

Nobody in range, good.

I immediately felt calmer and more relaxed after shifting, which was a relief.  I took a deep breath, stepped toward the van, and reached out with one arm to start carefully rearranging the equipment so I could see it better.

Wait a second.

Before I had touched anything on top of the van, I noticed that whoever had set up the arrangement had considered my size in Strangest form.  The flat bed of the tow truck next to the van was at a very good height for me to use as a seat.  At ten feet tall, with arms long enough that my knuckles dragged on the ground while standing upright, I could easily sit on the bed of the tow truck and reach across and make adjustments to the position of the videoconferencing equipment on top of the van.  It wasn’t an executive desk, but it would work.

How many rain forests would have to die to make an executive desk big enough to fit this body?

I chuckled at the thought, though it really wasn’t that funny.  I didn’t have an executive desk anywhere, just simple working desks.  In fact, my desk in the loft apartment was just a well-sanded flat door laying across two filing cabinets, with cabling run through the doorknob hole.  I did have a really expensive chair though.  I would have never bought it for myself; it had been a gift from Danny (with Anne’s guidance, I was sure) last year for Father’s Day.

“Can you hear us, Zeke?”

Serious discussion time.

“Loud and clear, Mirage.”

I looked at the monitors.  There were four.  Sarah, Fred, and Mirage occupied three.

I doubt the fourth monitor is to allow me to watch myself.

“Who are we waiting on, in the fourth monitor?”  I asked.

“That’s me.” Octagon said as he sat down in front of the camera providing signal to the fourth monitor.

I was not surprised.  This had all the feeling of being a meeting to air grievances, and Octagon had been involved with a lot of what had happened in the last day.

“You can hear me OK as well?”  He asked.

“Yes, Octagon, I can hear you.”  I replied.

Sarah, Fred, and Mirage all indicated they could hear Octagon as well.

“OK then.  I hope you don’t mind if I eat while all this is going on.  I just got back from dragging a cruise ship two hundred miles to shore, I’m starving.”

The last time I had seen Octagon, he had been a bit tubby, bordering on fat, even.  This time, even though I could only see his head and shoulders, he was obviously carrying almost no body fat.

Crazy metabolism.

“No problem with me, as long as I can understand when you talk, I’ll overlook table manners.”

“Thanks.  Need to rebuild my energy stores.” He said as he pulled a platter in front of him that had a pile of glistening reddish brown chicken wings on it that must have been a foot tall and nearly two feet in diameter.  I couldn’t help but stare.  I couldn’t even imagine how many chicken wings that was.  Hundreds, at least.

He picked one wing up, sniffed it, smiled, and then swallowed it.  The whole thing, just popped it in his mouth and swallowed.  I could hear the sound of cracking chicken bones as his Adam’s apple worked up and down.

I could feel my mouth drop open a bit, and closed it while trying not to stare obviously.

“You’ve never seen a brick eat, have you, Zeke?” Octagon asked as he grinned at me.

“No.  No, I haven’t.”

“It’s actually one of the hardest things about being a brick with a secret identity.  I can eat jawbreakers like popcorn, and I don’t even notice even the biggest bones in meat, unless I can see them.  I don’t eat out in the civilian identity.  Too many opportunities to bring attention to myself.”  He swallowed a dozen wings in quick succession, like another person might swallow a handful of grapes, one at a time.

“I’m going to have a hard time concentrating with you eating, I’m afraid.”

“Heh heh heh,” Octagon chuckled, “That was the intended effect, Strangest, to make you either laugh, or be amazed.  I wanted to break the ice in what I hoped was an unexpected way to help the meeting start with a bit less suspicious and irritation.  I hope you don’t mind.”  He grinned.  “I really am extremely hungry right now, that’s the honest truth.  I was just killing two birds with one stone.”

It worked.

I smiled a little.  “It worked.  I don’t mind.  Thank you.  At the same time, can you please go to audio only mode while you eat?  It’s a bit too distracting, and will interfere with my ability to concentrate.”

“I can.”  He licked his fingers and reached towards the pickup, and his video turned off.

“Thanks, Octagon.”  I was feeling a bit more stable immediately.  Watching Octagon eat was just… unnerving.  Imagining what was happening to the food inside him was distracting.

Food shouldn’t do that.

“You should watch him eat a watermelon when he wants to show off.  Or one of those giant pumpkins, if he’s feeling really hammy.”  Mirage said with a chuckle.

Octagon’s voice came out of the monitor with the blacked out videoconference window.  “Hush, now you’ve gone and spoiled it.”

Do I even want to imagine that?  Do I have any choice but to imagine it, now that it’s been stuck in my head?

For a few seconds I could not help but imagine how a brick would eat a two hundred pound pumpkin if they wanted to be funny about it.

Stop.  This way leads to distraction and uncontrollable laughter.

Mirage laughed briefly, before her expression became serious.  “OK.  Answers.  I know some questions that you will definitely want answers to.  We’ll start there.”

I mentally jerked my way out of contemplating the eating foibles of bricks.  “I’m listening.  I don’t have any way to take notes, so I might ask you to repeat prior statements from time to time if things get complex.”

“Understood.” Mirage stopped smiling.  “The first thing to understand is how the super community actually works.”

I nodded, and she continued.

“Superhero groups like the Atlanta team Octagon runs are generally filled with rainbow hero types.  You have some history of gaming, so you might consider them to be mostly lawful good, with some neutral good mixed in.  Every now and then, a chaotic good individual might pop up in visible superhero groups, but they tend to get dropped from the rosters pretty quickly after a few public opinion disasters.”  She paused, and looked at me.

Like a professional athlete who behaves poorly off the field.

I nodded.

She continued.  “Rainbow superhero teams are what the rest of the hero community counts on to keep the general public accepting of heroes in general.  They are the face of the hero community.  The Enclave is the body though.  A lot of us fall into the rainbow hero mentality and morality, but have powers that just don’t work with others.  Mental powers for example.  Very few heroes with mental powers can work closely with others for long.  It’s a bit of a curse, sometimes, but it can be a blessing, too, since we’re usually not at the top of the list that every governor and mayor keeps handy.”  Mirage grinned.

Octagon’s voice delivered an amused-sounding response. “It’s always an interesting conversation when the governor calls me and asks me to help deal with a villain with mental powers.”

I nodded.  “Yes.  That makes sense.  Octagon and others like him and his team are conspicuously visible.”

“Bingo.” Octagon muttered from his darkened video screen.  There was a sound of plates sliding across a hard surface.  “Ooh.  You haven’t cooked shepherd’s pie in forever, Cupcake, this smells delicious.”

I had a mental image of Octagon with a serving spoon, eating directly out of a full size casserole dish.  Or maybe a Dutch oven.

“The Enclave contains most of the balance of benevolent superheroes.  This includes most sane vigilantes and disruptive power types that don’t go the solo villain route.  There are tens of thousands of us in hundreds of cells around the world.  We generally work solo or in small groups, but our families are generally settled in extremely well-defended areas.  The families of rainbow heroes who don’t have secret identities normally live amongst the Enclave families.”

“OK, this all holds together for the most part.  What about people like Dr. Fusion?”

And me.

“He’s an outlier.  We obviously cannot let him live near people either.  The facility he uses to generate power and destroy nuclear wastes is a full mile underground.  He lives there, and very rarely ever leaves.  He rarely wants to.  Every now and then we ask him to help, and he usually does.  He helped with a very tough kaiju a couple months ago, and one of the alien invasions last year.  I can’t remember which.”  Mirage paused.  “Was that the K’varru, or the Druooron, Octagon?”

“Not sure.  Whichever had the moon-sized ship that was able to self-repair?” Octagon said, sounding unsure.

Fred spoke up.  “It was the K’varru.”

“Thanks Fred.”  Mirage said, absently.

“You want to use me in some ways like you use Dr. Fusion then?” I asked.

“Exactly.  When one of our people has a problem they don’t think they can handle, and it seems like something compatible with your powers, we bring you to active status, get you to where you need to be, and let you do your thing.  We’ll need to test you in a few controlled scenarios to see the limits of your power though.”

“Fair enough.  I suppose that’s the closest thing to being a hero that I’ll be able to do.” I muttered

Octagon spoke up.  “I can’t think of many other people I’d like guarding dimensional rifts, Strangest.  You are practically designed for blockading rifts if whatever on the other side attacking us is affected by your power.”

Mirage waited a moment then added her own comment.  “Teleporting you onto alien spaceships so your power reaches through the hull, would cause people or aliens inside to suit up and come outside their ship to fight you.  We could use that to get access to ships with armor resistant to most powers.  A lot of aliens have amazing stasis-reinforced armor on their starships.”

Octagon laughed.  “They always seem so surprised though, when we tear the weapons off badly-designed super-armored ships and go in that way.”

Seems strange to hear Octagon so cheerfully talking about killing aliens, or making it possible for others to kill them if he doesn’t do it himself.

I was expecting some sort of response to my thought from Mirage before I realized I was out of her range.  My range was about a hundred feet; I was pretty sure Mirage’s mind reading range was less than that.

“So Danny and Anne will live with the families of other Enclave members and heroes.  Will I have any say as to where they are, and how they are housed?  My family isn’t spoiled, but we live comfortably, and Danny is a running fool, even more than I am.  I’m not one of the super-rich, but I’m no stranger to money, and I wouldn’t insist that improvements to facilities be only for the use of my family.”

“Danny will have running company if he wants it.  A lot of our people run.  They are mostly normal human runners too.  We don’t have many speedsters or bricks in the Enclave.  They are usually pretty good about keeping secret identities.”  That was Fred.

That probably won’t help Danny much with his running, unless they have some enhanced metabolism.

Sarah spoke.  “Anne does web design, we know.  There’s definitely work along those lines, as well as other types of coding and computer support.  She won’t get bored either.  In fact, I have been looking for more people to add to our logistics intranet systems.  I’ve reviewed her interface work and it’s a fair match for the rest of my intranet development team.”

Fred’s turn was next.  He watched me carefully as he spoke.  “We also wouldn’t mind putting you on the board of a few of our commercial interests.  We get a lot of government and insurance company funding, but we have a lot of commercial interests too.  Care and feeding of around two hundred thousand people worldwide is expensive.  Especially the few we have that eat like Octagon there.”

This isn’t just a group of supers.  This is a community, and an organized one at that, it seems.

“This all sounds good, but I still have questions for you.” I said, carefully.

“Feel free to ask them.” Mirage countered.

For the next half hour or so, I asked questions about various aspects of how the Enclave worked, including what passed for its governing body.  They did have a few tinkers, and I’d arrange for discounts for them, provided they didn’t resell.  It really did feel as if I was being welcomed, despite the way I had been treated to start.

It also helped that Octagon was there.  Despite our recent squabble, I respected him, and had a very difficult time thinking he’d sit there and let Mirage and the Enclave endanger my family or keep me from them.

When all the easy questions were answered, I pulled out the one I had been saving.  Octagon had finally finished eating and turned on his screen.

Good, I want to see his reaction to this as well.

“Mirage, when we first met, you mentioned that you had received an email from Gorgon.  Explain that, please.”

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6 comments

  1. thomas

    Nice and calm discussion. Very well portrayed. Does Octagon have empathic powers or is just empathic to those he encounters?

    Errata
    • slowed, then stopped and turned to face me
    slowed, stopped, and then turned to face me
    • other two, then continued
    missing and here and elsewhere
    • so we are all verifiably
    all is redundant as we is inclusive
    • I took a deep breath and stepped forward the van again and reached out with one arm to start carefully rearranging the equipment on top of the van, when I realized what someone had done.
    Structure:
    1. I took a deep breath, stepped forward to the van again, and reached out with one arm to start carefully rearranging the equipment on top of the van when I realized what someone had done.
    2. I took a deep breath, stepped towards the van again, and reached out with one arm to start carefully rearranging the equipment on top of the van when I realized what someone had done.
    • monitors camera, and microphones
    unnecessary comma
    • That was actually intentional, to start with anyway, to make you either laugh or be amazed, or something other than suspicious and irritated.
    Suggest: That was actually intentional, to start with anyway; to make you either laugh, be amazed, or at least something other than suspicious and irritated.
    • designed for it, if whatever on the other
    • a hundred feet, hers was a lot less than that.
    semicolon instead of comma

    • farmerbob1

      I was very tired when I wrote this, and distracted. As I was going through and modifying bits based on your errata, I found a lot of places that needed improvements. Quite a lot changed, there is even some brand new content, but the tone and shape of the chapter has not been altered.

      Octagon is an experienced team leader who has worked with lots of super-newbies before. He’s a pure flying brick, no mental powers.

      • thomas

        you’ve described several supers as flying brick but I don’t know what this means. did I miss something?

        I’ll read the chapter again when I get home tonight.

  2. underwhelmingforce

    Not much drama, but a few good answers. Looking forward to the answer to that last question.

    The sentence starting “I just got back from dragging…” is too complex, and provides too much context. You could probably clarify that a bit.

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