“I’ve got this, Mirage, I expected the question after our discussion earlier.” Octagon waited for a sign of acknowledgement from Mirage, who was clearly thinking deep thoughts.
The question wasn’t for you, Octagon.
I thought about interrupting and insisting on getting an answer from Mirage, but decided not to make waves.
Mirage finally nodded, and Octagon started to talk.
“I know you have been told that villains sometimes help defend against E-class threats.”
E-class? E-class? Ah, E for Earth, threats that endanger the whole of Earth. Right. I remember that.
“I was told that, yes.” I paused. “Don’t tell me that you just keep open lines of communications to leaders of the villain community at all times?”
“Not all of them, no. We do keep open channels to the ones that understand that civilization is worth keeping around. There are different sorts of villains like there are different sorts of heroes.” He paused. “Going back to those gaming terms, Gorgon and other villains like him who build large organizations are what you might call either neutral evil or lawful evil. Most of the biggest villains are more neutral than lawful. There are exceptions, but Gorgon isn’t one of them, he’s not lawful by any stretch.”
“So, he’s a sociopath.”
“Yes, but he’s a builder. He wants power for himself. He is greedy and recognizes that he can’t create wealth, and must take it from others. He’s not lazy. In many ways you might consider him to be like some of the more notorious robber barons from the late nineteenth century.”
I don’t think so. A lot of robber barons improved the world, if you look back at their accomplishments.
I had been called a robber baron by some people competing with me, and when that happened, I read up on the term.
“Are you saying that he’s a net positive in the world, no matter how disagreeable he might be?”
Octagon paused, looking at me, obviously thinking about what he wanted to say next. “Not a net positive. I will not go that far. However his presence stabilizes the villain community within his area of control. Mirage and I spoke about this earlier. We think you can understand the concept of necessary evil.”
Definitely not as much of a white hat as your public persona leads people to believe.
“I might not be able to read minds, Strangest, but I can read body language, and despite your size and shape, I recognize that body language.” He pointed his finger straight into the video pickup. “Gorgon is a builder, and very coldly logical. He will not kill unless it’s in his best interest to do so, which is very rarely. When it does happen, it’s normally other villains who are a real threat to him or his organization that he kills. If you ever get an opportunity to see his statue garden, and you probably will if you work with the Enclave, you will find a statue collection of some of the most atrocious villains who have ever worked in the Atlanta area. The real sickos and the independent actors with no morals and no self-control. Gorgon polices the villains in and around Atlanta far more brutally and effectively than even the Enclave is willing to do. Villains step outside the line, they get stoned.”
“OK, let me see if I understand this. Rainbow heroes are the face of the super community. All sunshine and puppies. Public relations with the normal people. You operate in the open, with conspicuous morality and goodness. You do your best to stay away from the grey area issues.” I paused to wait for a reaction.
Octagon opened his mouth, obviously planning to take exception.
Mirage quickly said “Yes.”, and smirked.
Octagon frowned, thought a second, and eventually said “More or less, yes. It varies by country and region.”
“The Enclave is a bunch of supers with mental powers, mental issues, or disruptive and/or extremely problematic powers. They mean well, in general, but they work from the shadows, and have no problems building a dark reputation if that’s what it takes. Some members walk a fine line between hero and villain.”
Mirage looked a little irritated this time, but said nothing as Octagon nodded and said “Not exactly, but a good working definition.”
“OK, got that. Now, the remainder of the organized supers are organized supervillains. The villain leaders who are builder mentalities, and have an appreciation of civilization as a whole are cultivated and protected to some degree as a necessary evil because they are willing to kill off other, irredeemable supervillains in job lots if required to protect the interests of civilization. They probably make pretty good places to have the media point cameras during alien and extra-dimensional attacks, so that people won’t see the heroes being bloody-handed.” I looked between the two of them and they both appeared a little uncomfortable, not looking directly at the monitors.
Mirage spoke first “Ah, I’ll just say that’s mostly right.”
What part is wrong?
“The ‘wrong’ part is what I need to know here, if the purpose is to help me understand. If the purpose here is to keep me in the dark about the fundamentals of how supers interact behind the scenes, I’m not going to be pleased.”
Somebody better answer me, and make sense.
Octagon cleared his throat. “The description of the villain communities as necessary evils is accurate enough, even if it’s painful to talk about. We allow them to exist, as long as they are not too damaging to the community, because they regulate the villain community. Much like groups of organized human criminals like the Italian Mafia have been known to do from time to time.” He paused. “There are supers who actually gain sustenance of body, mind, or power from killing or even consuming people. There are supers who have absolutely no qualms at all about genocidal plans or indiscriminate mass killing. Villain leaders typically use those unsalvageable individuals as ways to test or train their own people, and it’s covered in the media as random acts of the chaotic supervillain community.”
I took a second to think before replying. “You were actually in consultation with Gorgon on how to handle me? Villains are, to some level, deputized to be bloody-handed enforcers?”
“Yes.” Octagon stared at me defiantly. “Like aggressive chemotherapy.”
With disruptive supers like me as the cancers, if we don’t toe the line. I see.
“So how close did I come to being listed as fair game to the villain community?”
Octagon shook his head and looked me in the eye through the video. “Not very. Not after the last time we spoke, Strangest. It was clear that you were more stubborn than chaotic. We can usually fix stubborn, and the Enclave is very good at being able to tell if you really are stable, mentally.”
You certainly got my attention with the Dr. Fusion thing.
Mirage spoke up again. “It’s a heavy drain on our mentalist community, and a stress on the Enclave community as a whole for the more powerful mentalists to converge and work together to assess a new super who might become a disruptive element, rather than just having disruptive powers. Mentalists don’t tend to work together with each other very well either.” Mirage paused. “I’ll be glad to go back to Texas and get away from all the people here. The Enclave tolerates those of us who can read and modify the thoughts of others, but that only goes so far, for so long.”
I noticed that Sarah and Fred both looked to their sides, possibly at each other? Then they both turned to me, and nodded.
Choreographed, or a reaction to a self-evident truth?
Sarah coughed into her fist, and said, “Lodges.”
Octagon laughed. “Indeed. Magical lodges are one other class of organized supers that you probably need to be peripherally aware of. They generally do not act openly, either the dark or the light lodges, and the grey lodges pretty much act only to balance the dark and light lodges. They have been around for centuries, long before other super types were organized at all. That longevity is not just institutional; some of the individuals are centuries old too. They might seem like normal humans, but the older ones have resources of power and knowledge at their disposal that they have been collecting for a very long time.”
Wizards and magic? Magic is real? Great. More crap to keep track of.
Mirage picked up where Octagon left off. “Before the super community of non-magical types developed into something like a self-governing system, all three lodge types would engage E-class threats.”
I see. I think.
“So you modeled the non-magical super community after how the magical lodge system?” I asked.
Fred and Sarah both nodded. Mirage and Octagon paused a moment before nodding themselves.
Mirage added “We, specifically, did not. We aren’t old enough. Others before us certainly did. It’s documented in our records.”
I stared at Fred and Sarah. “Is there something being said here that’s not going to be said blatantly?”
Fred and Sarah both raised an index finger to their lips, in a gesture for me to be quiet. “Nope. Nothing’s being said here.” This was said at exactly the same time, in one voice.
I looked at Mirage. “Why don’t you people just come out and say that grey lodges work closely with the Enclave?”
Mirage thought for a moment. “Partly because it’s not really true. It’s a good idea not to get involved with the lodges at all, if you can avoid it. The oldest of their members claim to be more than a thousand years old. If you think dealing with mentalists is annoying, try dealing with the magical crowd. If prepared, most magical types can be immune to mental powers, or duplicate them. Or both.” She paused. “The oldest ones can do things on an energy level comparable to Dr. Fusion if you give them a week to think about it, or if they have spent a week or so at some point in the last thousand years thinking about it.” Mirage looked at me meaningfully.
Staying away from lodges seems to be a very good idea.
“So, ah, how do I manage to stay away from lodge members with that much power? If they are hidden that well, it’s going to be impossible for me to identify them. Even if I stay away from others most of the time, I’ll be around others at least every now and then when I’m called upon to act.”
Fred spoke. “The most powerful lodge members will avoid those with disruptive powers easily, unless they choose to confront you. Magical protections around the most potent magical individuals are very proactive about keeping them out of harm’s way. That’s one reason they live so long.” He paused. “At least, that’s what I’ve heard.”
I wonder if all magicians are this bad at keeping secrets.
Sarah was looking at me, and commented, leaning forward a bit. “Knowledge is valuable. Don’t expect us to give it to you without working for it, and you don’t have the talent.” She leaned back, and spoke to the group. “He knows enough about the lodges.”
“Any other groups I need to be aware of? Exiles from the galactic community living among us, refugees from other dimensions. Faeries?”
Octagon laughed. “Yes, a little of each, but they are small communities. Faeries are just dimension hoppers from one specific dimension that the magical types seem to prefer working with. Every now and then you might run across them. Sometimes they even have powers, but that’s extremely rare.”
My brain is done here. I need time to assimilate all this.
“Is there anything else that we need to jam into my head tonight? If not, I would really like the opportunity to think all this over.”
Fred spoke up, in a cheery voice. “Oh, one last thing. It’s clear to the magically talented that there’s an element of natural darkness magic inherent in your power, which you have zero control over, and no way to learn to control it. Magic related to darkness is not always evil, but it frequently is. It would probably be a good idea to monitor yourself very closely if anyone ever dies within the range of your power, especially if you kill them.”
Magic doom and gloom shit on top of the rest?
“Thanks, Fred, what’s a little Sword of Damocles between complete strangers?”
“Don’t mention it.” Fred replied, with a smile.
I don’t know if he’s an ass, or if that’s British humor.
I just stared at Fred for a second, and he started to laugh a little.
“Mirage, you said I would be going home tonight. Unless there’s something else you need to tell me, can someone get me back to the apartment so I can say goodbye to my wife, go home, and try to get some sleep?”
Glad I bought that beer, I’ll need more of it tonight, I think.
“Yes. Please shift back to human, and I’ll take you back.” Mirage stated as she stood up.
I found Anne lying on the couch, asleep, when Mirage escorted me to the apartment. I went to the bedroom and brought out a light blanket smelling faintly of jasmine, and covered her. She snuggled into the blanket a bit, but didn’t wake.
She seemed restful, so I let her sleep. With her experiences today, there would probably be plenty of nightmares. I wasn’t going to take good sleep from her. Supposedly, I would be able to see them regularly.
If that wasn’t the case, it would have to be a problem for later. I had enough problems right then, and if they meant us harm, there were plenty of opportunities where we could have been harmed.
I considered grabbing some of the bread and cold cuts, but there was food at the house, and I didn’t want to open the fridge and make noise that might wake Anne.
I did find a note pad and paper on the table, with a simple sentence. “Good or Bad? xoxo Anne”
I simply wrote “Not bad. See you soon. xoxo Zeke”
Definitely not good, but I don’t need to tell her that.
I quietly made my way out of the apartment. Without any comment, Mirage handed me the key she had let me in with, and I locked the door behind me. I did not ask her if I could keep the key. I simply put it on my key ring, and then followed her, wordlessly, as she led me back to a different elevator, and we took it down, definitely going underground. Again.
“Will I be passing through the cold place again?” I asked Mirage as we passed through several armored doors. The hallway was festooned with weapons and sensors.
I decided to try to get some answers to mentally asked questions. I was feeling a bit paranoid, and certainly didn’t trust Mirage fully, but she was the best answer source I had right now.
The lodges existed before supers?
I wonder if magic created super powers.
“They won’t say, but probably yes.”
At least that’s one puzzle piece that makes some sense.
“Don’t count on it being right. But I agree it makes sense.”
Why not use magic to reinforce secret identities for our loved ones?
“If you want to sacrifice your own attachment to them, and theirs to you, completely, it can be done, I’ve been told. All involved must agree. There’s a cost for everything in magic.”
You mean no memories of each other? Our entire relationship erased and something else put in its place?
“That’s how it was explained to me, when I asked.”
That’s a really steep price.
“Yes, it is. I was told that it is almost never done, and when it is done, it’s almost always due to some great internally inflicted family tragedy.”
I can imagine.
“Forget magic as a solution. Seriously. It’s too expensive to use except in the worst case scenarios.”
Like Dr. Fusion?
Mirage stopped talking, and walked the last ten feet in the current hallway. She stopped and entered a code on another security pad before pressed her hand on a plate next to the pad, as she had done four times before.
“Yes, like Dr. Fusion. He is only able to function because he was magically disassociated from his family. He knows he killed them all, but he doesn’t remember them. His very few remaining blood relatives were not close enough to figure into the magic needed to keep him sane.”
I said nothing, considering. I could not give up the memories of my family. Not as things stood right now. Not with what I thought I knew.
“Stop thinking about it. If things get bad enough that you need a solution that drastic, you probably won’t be sane enough to think about it as a solution.”
Better to think about a couple beers and hope I can sleep.
“Exactly. When you are out of my hands, I’m certainly going to go to my own place and do exactly what you are going to do. Except for me, it’ll be a bottle of Pinot Noir. You, sir, have been a massive headache, in more ways than ten.”
I thought about it. From their point of view, I suppose I was. “Hopefully things will normalize.”
“They will, to some degree. You are mentally stable, and so are most of us. The ones who aren’t stable are rarely ever called upon, and have dampers in their tracking bands.”
She mentioned the dampers as she was handed me a band off a shelf.
“Put that on your forearm, please.”
“Does this have a damper in it?” I wasn’t sure if that was a good idea, if so.
“Damper won’t work on you, since your whole body gets swapped to somewhere else due to a magical effect, and the damper can’t deal with it. I had you wearing a band with a damper before I punched you.”
“I had you wearing a band in your human form before I punched you in the face and made you trigger. You bypassed the damper. You never saw the damper in your Strangest form, and when you returned to normal body shape, I had you remove it and return it to me.”
Goddamn mindfuckery. But I can see why she did it.
She winced. “Exactly. If it had worked, we could have let you live with Anne and Danny in the Enclave. Since it doesn’t work, we’re going to give you one with an always-on damper field. You might be able to use it one day to disable the powers of another person. To do that, you will have to put it on their body.”
“Can I get two of them, or can it be configured as a belt, or something? Like that one over there?” I pointed at one of the belt-looking gizmos hanging on a peg on the wall. “This band isn’t terribly heavy, but its heavy enough it’s going to significantly impact my running balance.”
Mirage mumbled something and started playing with buttons on the band. It turned into something that looked like a loincloth.
I… don’t think I can wear that.
“Sure you could. You’d look damn good in it too.” Mirage winked at me.
If you are being seriously flirty, don’t.
Mirage just grinned. I got the feeling it wasn’t seriously flirting.
But how can you know… Stop. Stop. Don’t go there.
Mirage’s grin disappeared. She stopped playing with the buttons and handed the loincloth-looking-band-thing to me. “You can figure it out. You’re a smart one.”
“It’s OK, I’m used to it by now. It’s certainly not just you.” She paused, briefly. “It’s just a bit harder with you, because when you are in Strangest form, you have no fear of my mental powers, making you one of very few people I can talk to in a ‘normal’ fashion.” Her voice contained a wistfulness during the first sentence, which gave way to a rougher, harder voice as she continued. “In your human form, I understand the fear; you’re just like everyone else.” She was silent a moment. “Go through the black surface like you did before.” She said as she pointed to the far side of the room, where there was a black archway behind a transparent door mounted in a transparent wall.
I wondered if I had briefly seen the transparent wall and door when I first came in, before they knocked me out. If so, was it possible that seeing it had helped seed the whole ‘space elves living in glass houses’ idea I had come up with when Fiction used his power on me?
Mirage raised her hands to her ears, and cupped her ears with her palms while pointing her index fingers straight up. “Maybe.”
We both laughed.
Mirage started talking again after a few seconds. “One last thing. You will probably want to reset the destination coordinates to somewhere other than the middle of your driveway. To do that, stand where you want to be teleported to, and press the following buttons. Red. Red. Blue. Green.”
“Is there an instruction manual for this thing?”
Mirage just stared at me a second then grinned. “Yes, there is. It will cost you one man-card. Asking for an instruction manual is strictly against man-rules.”
“You’ll have to ask Anne if you can have it. I gave my man-card to her years ago, shortly after Danny was born. She lets me have it every now and then on the weekends.”
We both laughed again.
She’s not so bad if I can avoid thinking about her being in my head.
She just sighed, and dug in a drawer, muttering the names of various languages until she pulled out a pamphlet, leafed through it counting pages, and handed it to me.
“You have to wear it when you want to teleport with it. It’s a security restricted belt for now. You can leave here and go to the programmed destination. You can also request teleportation back, but because it’s restricted, you cannot activate it yourself to return here; someone here will have to activate the teleportation.” She paused a moment, long enough for me to start asking questions, but I didn’t need to. “Unlike the gate you and your family used before, when activated to collect you, the band will simply drop you into the cold room, it will beep three times in rapid succession before you teleport.” She paused once more. “If you are going to be called to fight, the belt will beep slowly for thirty seconds or so, and then beep ten times rapidly before you teleport.”
“Is all that in the pamphlet?” I asked, holding it up.
“Yes, it is. Go ahead now, get sloshed and don’t forget the water and aspirin before bed.” Mirage crossed her arms and watched me as I put on the loincloth, over my slacks.
This is a fashion statement you don’t see every day. Business Savage?
Mirage shook her head and opened the transparent door by entering more codes and another hand press. The place where she placed her hand looked just like one of the elf access pads from the Fiction dream. I definitely collected some ideas from this room, before I was knocked out.
“Just walk through?”
“While wearing a band, yes, it will send you to your home location. That band was programmed for your driveway. If there’s something there, you will appear in the closest place that can contain the volume of your body.”
“I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the experience, Mirage, but thank you. Please thank the others who worked with you to help make my family safer, and help me understand the super community a little better.”
“You’re welcome. Now, git, there’s beer waitin’ for you, wine waitin’ for me, and we both have a sore need of somethin’ to help us sleep.” The Texas accent came through loud and clear.
“Roger that.” I said as I stuffed the now-folded pamphlet into my pocket, and reached out my arm to touch the black surface.
One second, I was in the room with clear walls with Mirage, the next, I was looking at a ring of dust appearing in the gravel at my feet, illuminated by the external lights from the house.
Anne and Danny were about as safe as I could imagine them being right now, but my access to them was limited.
Talk about bittersweet.
I heard a voice. “Incoming teleportation signature. Single human.” The voice sounded modulated, not a natural human voice.
“Smells like target. Think. You sure truck is target smell, Cog?” A very deep voice, difficult to understand and almost inaudible, more a low pitched rumbling in the air than a voice. I had to replay the sounds in my mind three times and still wasn’t sure I got the words right.
The mechanical voice wheezed something that sounded like a sigh, and responded a bit sharply. “The truck has been registered to the target for nineteen years, Badger. It’s his scent.”
“OK, Boss was mad last time I got wrong target. Is kill target, right? Or only bone breaking?”