Wait a second. She’s banging on my walls. She left her lab?
Asking her if it was important was pretty stupid then. The last time she left her lab was during a dimensional invasion two years ago. The rift had opened about two miles from her lab. It took me fifteen minutes to convince her to leave then, even though I could hear the explosions clearly through the phone. She had been very fortunate that building security had followed procedure and had a van ready to move her at any sign of significant danger. Four security guards received hefty bonuses that Christmas.
I’m still a little drunk.
I touched my nose. Only a little bit numb.
Should be OK if I’m careful.
I turned on the shower, briefly, washing the used beer down the drain, then pressed the button on the cleaning solution sprayer under the shower nozzle before closing and adjusting the curtain.
After washing my hands, I gulped down a glass of water with a couple more aspirin. Then I threw on a running outfit. I needed to think. When I was done talking with Miss Perfect, I’d run, and think.
I considered the impression I was about to make, then decided it wasn’t important. I had a right to a private life too, to at least some degree, and she had entered it by coming here.
I opened the person-sized door leading out of the barn, by kicking it carefully after I turned the handle. It popped open.
Need to fix that. Or maybe not. It makes noise when opened.
I stopped and stared. “Miss Perfect?”
The blindingly reflective silver hard suit turned around to face me from about ten feet away. Dozens of small pieces of machinery slowly orbited the light-looking armor, partially obstructing my view of it, but it was clear that the armor was more of a utility rack than any sort of serious protection. At the same time, it was clear that not everything attached was a tool. I saw at least two pistols, one a standard-looking slug-thrower, and another was an energy pistol of common design, a very dumbed down tinker-tech model that normal people could maintain.
Can’t see the face.
I could tell she was looking at me extremely closely by her body language. She did not raise her faceplate or make it transparent, or whatever. I could not see her face as she spoke. “Good morning, Mr. Collins.”
“This must be very important, Miss Perfect. The last time I remember you leaving your lab was…”
She interrupted. “Shining Ones invasion, October sixteenth, 2011. I remember. I lost three promising experiments that day.”
She said nothing else. Staring at me. Obviously tense.
“What brought you here, MP?”
“I tried to call you yesterday about the Tinker Market idea. I was unable to reach you. It was not very late in the day, so I called your wife’s phone. A male voice answered. It wasn’t you. They recognized my voice and called me by name. My first name. My birth name. It was not a video line.”
Well, this is starting to make a whole lot more sense. I think.
“I’m not going to even try to lie to you, MP, but I might not tell you everything. Not at first.”
“I’ve already figured out a lot. I think. Can I start, and you fill me in where I’m wrong?”
Watching her think is always interesting.
“I’d appreciate being able to see your face, MP. You know how I am about talking to people.”
She paused maybe a second, then swiped her left hand over the featureless silver surface of the armor over her face. A brief moment later, the armor became transparent.
Or maybe it’s merely transmitting an image.
She noticed my frown. “You don’t trust the image. Understandable. You wouldn’t be able to trust the real face either, not really.”
She reached out, touched a couple of the floating machines, and oriented them towards me. “You’re also a little drunk, and show signs of exhaustion. But you are wearing jogging clothes, so you are planning on exercising despite that after we speak. Or you want me to think that.”
“If you want to run with me, you can. Or we can talk then I’ll run. Up to you.”
“I’d rather not, thank you. I prefer a more controlled environment for my exercise. Using my own body to power low-energy experimental equipment and recharge batteries is very satisfying, and useful. It also keeps me in shape, of course.”
She exercises? I always thought she just forgot to eat. I’ve never seen her eat.
“To each their own. Go ahead with your take on what brought you here then.”
“OK. A couple months ago, you became more security conscious, more withdrawn, fewer personal meetings, and a lot more videoconferencing. You moved out here with no clear reason. It was clear you were isolating yourself. A lot of us thought you might be preparing to sell the company.”
I shook my head. “No, but go on.”
“It didn’t take long for me to figure out you were the new super named Strangest. Between your height, your build, your hair, and your body quirks, I figured out who you were in just a few seconds after I saw a video of you in that silly canvas mask. After your second public appearance.” She paused. “Where is Danny?”
It took me a couple seconds to decide that it really was not surprising that Miss Perfect figured it out, once she decided to take note of changes in my behavior. Her eye for detail and her ability to tinker up measurement devices was the reason I hired her, after all.
“MP, why are you pushing into my private life? If you know who I am, you’ve seen enough to know that my personal life is completely ramshackle right now. Why are you here?”
“I told you, I called Anne’s phone. Someone else picked up. Do you know who has your wife’s phone?” There was aggression in her voice, and belligerence in her body language.
Holy shit. She thinks she’s here to save Anne? Maybe from me?
“Yes. I do. I also know that the person who has Anne’s phone does not have Anne. He did have her and Danny both, for a while, but returned them to me as part of a discussion we had.”
“She’s not here. Where is she?”
“Do you know about the Enclave?”
“Yes. I do. Is she being protected by the Enclave? Yes or no.” She reached up and touched another of her orbiting devices, orienting it on me.
Is that a weapon?
I said “Yes.”
“Are they protecting her from you, or your enemies?”
“My enemies. I think.”
“You think? Explain.”
“I haven’t gotten enough clear answers. I’m as sure as I can be with what I know that the Enclave is protecting Anne and Danny, but I’m not sure who they think they are really protecting them from. Octagon and the Enclave tell me they are protecting them from others, but the voice you heard claims the Enclave is protecting them from me.”
I’d really rather not discuss this with her. She’s barely more than a stranger.
But I need her help. Badly.
“Have you gotten what you wanted out of me yet?”
“Your body metrics tell me you’re telling the truth. Five seconds please.” She paused five seconds, making humming noises. “Enclave records indicate the same. OK.”
“You have access to Enclave records?”
This could be very useful.
“I have very low tier access. Enough to verify what you have just said.”
“You are an Enclave member then?”
“No, I was an Enclave ward, and have consulted for them from time to time. I still have family within the Enclave. These things give me very low tier access. I would normally not have access to specific information about your case, just names and entry dates, but it seems as if more information related to you and your family was specifically marked for me to have access to, because I have a relationship with your family.”
“I still have no access at all. I will have to ask permission to see Anne and Danny.”
“For now. Yes. It’s always that way for the more powerful disruptive types.” She sounded distant.
Pieces of information started falling into place. She called my wife’s phone and reached Gorgon, and said he knew her by her real first name, apparently based on her voice. I didn’t even know her real name. She was a ward of the Enclave. She has family there still. She apparently has some knowledge of disruptive powers, enough to make blanket statements about them.
“I’m guessing then, that you recognized the voice you heard on my wife’s phone?”
Her attention snapped to me and she tensed.
“OK, I see things just got more complex.”
She relaxed a little bit and took a step back.
Why? Why? Why? What did I do to deserve this?
After clearing her throat, she commented. “Yes. Apparently he’s been doing more than attacking you. What I said and what he told you was apparently enough for you to make the connection.”
“He’s trying to force me to join him, yes. Supposedly so I can help him train his people. There have been a few pieces of personal information thrown back and forth in the discussion. One of them was that he…”
She interrupted me. “Stop. I don’t want to hear it.”
There was an uncomfortable silence.
“Not your fault, sir.” She paused. “When you speak to Gorgon again, you tell him that Jane says she wants nothing from him, but if he insists on giving me something, he can leave your company alone. I like it just the way it is. I’ll fight him if he tries to take it. You can tell him that too.”
I looked at her light armor with all the attached devices and orbiting gizmos. It looked cool, but I’d seen Gorgon fight. I’d never seen Miss Perfect fight. Very few supers could stand up to Gorgon alone. His gaze slowly drained strength and would eventually turn you to stone after you were too weak to move. He was very tough, never seemed to get tired, and was almost always able to stay up and fighting long enough to slow down almost anyone to near immobility, and then it was as over as Gorgon wanted it to be.
Gorgon’s sight effect would wear off if he didn’t completely turn you to stone, but it was slow to dissipate. If he chose to spend the time to turn you completely to stone, it was apparently permanent. I think I was immune as Strangest, but I was so slow in shadow form, I might have not noticed the difference in the thirty or so seconds we had fought before he made the mistake of touching me.
“I, umm, have seen him fight. He’s a pretty tough customer, MP. If he wants my company, it might be safer for you to let him take it.”
This is one of the times when actually being able to work side-by-side with other supers would be nice.
“Not physically. Electronically. Gorgon’s way outside my weight class in a real fight. I know that. I’d be hard pressed to take a retired fourth-tier super with fighting powers in this suit.”
“You came out here to confront me in it anyway, not knowing what I might do?”
“It’s a mobile lab. I needed it here when I spoke to you.”
I nodded, finally understanding the suit a little better. She was using the sensors on me to tell if I was telling the truth. Probably some combination of the orbiting things.
“I’ve never seen you in a suit before.”
“After the last time you chased me out of my lab, I decided I needed to be able to keep my projects under observation if I left the lab.” She sounded a bit petulant.
I didn’t chase you out of your lab, I saved your life. That lab was flattened ten minutes after you left by some sort of artillery.
I just stared at her for a moment, trying to wrap my mind around her last statement. She had complained to me about my evacuating her out of the old lab before, that was old news. What had me confused was that she had built the armor so she could carry lab experiments with her into the field?
“Why does everyone look at me like that when I tell them that? My mother and brother looked the exact same way!” She crossed her arms and obviously was glaring at me.
“People usually wear armor suits to protect their bodies, not their experiments. Even tinkers.”
“Some tinkers are just lazy. No dedication to their work. Too busy complaining.” She actually raised her nose a little bit when she said it, like a caricature of an upper-crust noble. There was zero humor in her body language or voice that I could pick out. She quickly continued. “I’m not carrying any lab experiments with me. I’m just able to interact with them remotely, through virtual reality links to another suit in my lab.”
Must not laugh at the tinker. Think serious thoughts.
In general, tinkers were strongly OCD, detail oriented, meticulous, and un-social, but not typically antisocial – they just didn’t quite connect to other people. Tinkers also frequently had additional psychological effects with the near-obligatory strong OCD. Megalomania, depression, schizophrenia, major phobias, ADD, ADHD, ODD were just a few more common examples. Their tinkering abilities tended to complement their mental issues to some degree. Miss Perfect was agoraphobic, and her focus on detection and measurement devices matched her well.
“Ah, MP, I don’t know a whole lot about how other tinkers work, but I’ve seen lots of stories about them working themselves almost to death.”
“Don’t lecture me about how hard other tinkers work, Mr. Collins. I’m the one with experience on that topic here.” She waved her index finger back and forth at me, her voice tone sounded like a grade school teacher explaining to third graders that they shouldn’t wrestle next to the aquarium with the class’s pet fish.
Don’t argue with her. Take three deep breaths. Do not laugh.
“Sorry, MP, you’re right, you probably do know more about other tinkers than I do.”
“Definitely, not probably.” It wasn’t even a combative statement, it was a simple correction. She might have even been right. I had spoken with other CEO’s about how they dealt with powered employees before hiring her. Tinkers had very bad reputations for being extremely hard to work with as part of a for-profit organization. She had been a lot less of a problem than I had expected her to be when I hired her.
“So, ah, would you like to go inside?” I was at a loss how she was acting this casual when she was outside in the open in daylight to begin with. Her lab was a cramped mess, except immediately around whatever experiments she was working on. She was normally a nervous wreck in any open room bigger than a few hundred square feet. It was even worse if there were a lot of people around.
I had literally seen her go into a panic attack and leave a conference room when employees collapsed a temporary dividing wall that had allowed two small conferences to take place in the same divided room. The room suddenly was twice as large, and she ran. I found her in a storage closet with the help of hotel staff. From that point on, I was extremely careful about what conferences Miss Perfect attended, and what control we would have over the environment that we attended in.
“Yes.” She said, in a small voice. “Now that you have reminded me that I’m outside. Please.”
Is this what it feels like to kick a puppy?
I held out my arm for her to hold onto, and she grabbed it. It hurt. A lot. I almost shifted.
A puppy wearing light combat armor. Ouch.
I gritted my teeth and tried to remain calm. “Relax, MP, your armor is very strong. If you hurt me more than you are hurting me now, I’m going to automatically shift. Restrict your armor to normal human strength please.”
She relaxed her grip on my arm. “Sorry. Virtual reality let me pretend I was back in my lab talking to you, working on experiments. Sort of fooling myself. Worked better than I thought.”
OK, that explains a lot.
“Sorry I popped the virtual reality bubble for you, MP.”
“It was a good experiment. More successful than I thought it would be.”
As we walked under the porch, the death grip on my arm relaxed a bit, and after I let us into the foyer, she let go, and cautiously opened her armor’s face panel. All the orbiting gizmos started orbiting above her head. None of them bounced into the outer glass door or the internal door.
“Thank you, Mr. Collins.” She whispered. Her amber eyes were the only thing I could see of her face, past the brilliant white mask. The hint of a button nose and full lips, high cheekbones and a narrow chin. I had never seen her without the mask, but the shape of her face was a strong indication that she would be rather cute. Not beautiful, most likely, but cute. It was also possible that she was covered with terrible tattoos or scars. The mask wasn’t sheer or tight enough to indicate the ridges of scars.
“No problem.” I said, looking away from her. “Do you want some water? I’m not sure what else might be in the fridge.”
“Is the water distilled?” She asked.
“No, charcoal filtered. The ice is also made from charcoal filtered water.”
She had followed me into the kitchen, and sat down in Anne’s seat. “OK, that’s fine.” She said in a slightly disappointed tone.
“I’ve had the well tested, MP, it was good water before filtering.”
She just nodded as I handed her the glass and then made one for myself. Her hand shook a little as she took the glass.
We sat in silence for a while, letting her calm down a bit.
“I’m sorry I came out and bothered you Mr. Collins.”
I couldn’t help it. I laughed at her, loudly.
Her whole torso jerked backwards, slightly, her face contorting a bit as she started to push her chair back a little to stand.
I put my hand on her arm, keeping her at the table. “Stop. Let me explain. Sit.”
She slowly relaxed in her seat, looking at me warily.
I forced myself to stop laughing. “I am very sorry to have laughed, MP, but I want you to see what I have seen. One of my employees tries to call me about a big new project, and escalates to my wife when she can’t reach me, discovering that there’s been some sort of supervillain involvement in my family life. This employee knows that I am a super, and that I am very powerful, but has not told anyone else.” I paused, looking at her face. No reaction.
I doubt she told anyone.
I continued. “So this employee, who happens to be a noncombatant tinker with a little problem with wide open spaces, puts on a power suit with a virtual reality system in it to help her pretend she’s in a controlled environment back in her lab, straps on a whole bunch of tools and gizmos, and comes out to find out if my family needs help, apparently ready to fight if need be.”
She looked at me, obviously angry. “And that’s funny?”
I grinned at her. “No, not at all. What’s funny is that this wonderful employee just tried to apologize to me for being willing to try to rescue my family.”