As I glared at the Enclave agents who had apparently been expecting me to carry a severed head into the facility, Anne and Danny looked at me, and then briefly glanced at one another.
Anne sniffed the air, looked at the people around us, and turned to a thin man with a middle-eastern appearance, heavy features, and a jutting jaw. He was nearly as tall as me, and was carrying a cane, despite not appearing to be overly old. “Ahmed, my husband might occasionally greet unexpected guests while sweaty from exercise or dirty from working on my honey-do list, but it’s been fifteen years since he’s left the house dirty to go meet anyone, even for something as simple as picking Danny up after practice.” She paused. “And here he is, looking upset, smelling like smoke, and covered with soot and dust.” She waved at me, while facing Ahmed. “Explain. Now.”
Thank you, Anne.
If Anne hadn’t jumped in, I certainly wouldn’t have been so polite. I felt as if my family had been attacked. Not physically, but at the level of fundamental trust, the root of family. Anne didn’t know exactly what had happened, but it was clear that she hadn’t expected me to arrive after a fight.
Ahmed looked at me, up and down, before turning to Anne and speaking carefully. “Mrs. Collins, I do not know exactly what has happened here. I brought you here for you to meet your husband, in preparation for returning all three of you to your old home. The intent being to allow you to collect small, easily carried items and mark larger items you want us to have moved here, to your new home.”
Like Anne isn’t going to pick out the word ‘exactly’ in that statement.
Anne squinted a little, stepped away from him a step so she wouldn’t have to look up with her neck bent, and turned to face him directly before folding her arms across her chest and getting ready for a verbal sparring match. She spoke to me without facing me. “Yes, or no, Zeke, they pulled you off somewhere to fight?”
“Yes.” I answered.
Anne nodded. “Ahmed, were you aware that Zeke had been put into a situation that might result in him having to fight?”
Ahmed thought a moment before replying. “Yes. Simply sending him back to your home almost guarantees he’s going to have to fight. The Atlanta area supervillain leader, Gorgon, has expressed an interest in collecting Zeke into his organization. Zeke will either have to comply, or deal with that situation in some other way.”
Anne turned her head to me. “How much of that is accurate, Zeke?”
“All of it, Anne. I was in two fights since I left you last night. Gorgon is trying to force me into his organization. The first fight was last night, and came from Gorgon. The second was this morning, and I was sent there by the Enclave’s tracking band.” I flicked the metallic-segmented belt holding up my sooty jeans. “I don’t need to tell you that he’s still trying to dodge your question, in regards to the second fight, but I’ll mention it, so Ahmed will recognize that neither you nor I are strangers to verbal wordplay.”
Anne relaxed a little. “Let me tell you a story, Ahmed. Once upon a time, there was a couple in their very early thirties, with a young son. The husband had been working as a big-box hardware store manager for three years, and had been moved to a very high volume store because he had developed a fine sense of recognizing when either employees or customers were lying. This talent greatly reduced employee theft rates and the rate of fraud perpetrated against his stores.”
Ahmed started to speak. “Mrs. Collins…”
Anne ignored him and continued speaking, talking over him. “During this time of rapid advancement, the husband and wife made enemies of many much-better educated people who felt that the husband’s advancement was undeserved. Some of them were friends of other managers who had been displaced by the up-and-coming manager from larger, more prestigious stores. The husband and wife became a verbal target in many social situations, and learned to recognize the signs and phrases smart people use to try to lie while still appearing to tell the truth. Even before either of us knew what the word equivocation meant, we could recognize it. For the husband, it was natural, but became better honed. For the wife, it was learned.”
Ahmed sighed and planted his staff a few inches in front of his feet, put both hands on it, and obviously rested a significant part of his body weight in the staff, based on the movement of his shoulders.
Bad knees? Or boredom?
Nobody answered my question, so either nobody was reading my mind or they didn’t feel like telling me they were. I’d choose the latter in this situation.
Anne’s eyes darted from Ahmed’s hands on his staff to his face, and her eyes narrowed again.
These people really do not know anything about us, do they?
“To make a long story short,” Anne continued, “after the husband and wife started their own business and started gathering wealth, it got worse, not better. They had no formal education beyond two-year technical college degrees. When attending charity events or political fundraisers, they were quite regularly talked down to by people a whole lot better at equivocation than middle management had ever been at the big box hardware store chain. They got fed up with being talked down to, and took quite a few college courses to rectify their lack of education.”
“Are you nodding because you actually understand, or are you nodding because you want me to be done as soon as possible?” Anne challenged.
“I understand. This is not the time or place to have this conversation about larger things, and I am not one of the people that needs to be involved in that discussion. Those individuals who make plans for the organization will be made aware that our storybook couple is not as naive as might be wished by the powers that be.” Ahmed paused. “Quite refreshing, really, if you don’t mind me being frank. There are too many gullible people in the world.”
In other words “It wasn’t me; I was just following orders.”
Probably the best we’ll get for now.
Anne gave him a wary glance, before nodding acceptance. “The discussion needs to happen soon. No more than a few days from now, please. Right now, remaining with the Enclave seems to be the best choice for Danny and me. That might stop being the case if your organization continues to demonstrate dishonesty.” She looked at me. “I’m not sure exactly what was meant to happen here, but I bet Zeke does, and he’s going to tell me.”
“I will let people who I report to know your desires.” Ahmed promised, before continuing. “Mr. and Mrs. Collins, can we move forward with our little expedition to retrieve your items from your old residence? I would also like to hear what Mr. Collins believes was intended. Based on your reactions to one another, and the fairy tale, I strongly suspect that certain plans were implemented… poorly, based on assumptions that many who were consulted thought were… inappropriate.” There was a flicker of a smile.
Anne walked up to me and gave me a strong hug and a kiss, ignoring the soot and dust, despite the bright yellow blouse she wore over her jeans. She smelled like roses and was wearing a frameless blue backpack that I didn’t recognize, and carrying a large, sturdy brown purse. Danny was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt that had seen better days. On his back there was an army-style duffel bag, worn by its back-straps. He carried two large, empty gym bags in his left hand.
I gave Anne my whole attention during the kiss. When she broke away, she asked, quietly “You OK?”
“I’m a lot better now.” I said. Which was true, but just as we had been discussing with Ahmed, it wasn’t the whole truth, and we both knew it. After our kiss, she had a little soot on her nose, and a lot on her yellow blouse, arms, and hands. I wiped the soot off her nose as she stared at me, and asked “How have you and Danny been, dirty girl?”
“We’re still trying to come to grips with the changes. It seems as if those changes are a lot less stressful for us than what is being forced on you.” She looked into my eyes as I looked back. A moment later, I pulled her close again, just holding her to me for a few seconds before relaxing. She then slowly pulled away from me.
You are my rock, Anne.
As she pulled away from me, she looked at her arms and blouse. “We’re a matching set now, I suppose.”
I grinned at Anne, looked up to see where Danny was, and couldn’t help but smile again when I realized what he had done. Anne had been between Ahmed and him before Anne stepped up to me. When she moved forward, crossing the yellow line to embrace me, he had moved sideways to stand next to Ahmed. Anne would not be able to stand next to Ahmed again, unless she walked around both Danny and Ahmed to stand on Ahmed’s other side, away from Danny.
Danny saw my smile, and so did Anne. Danny just shrugged a little and pretended to look innocent. Anne turned around to look at what I had been smiling at. After a half second, she shook her head and walked back to where Danny had been standing before he moved next to Ahmed.
I walked up and gave Danny a hug too, letting him stay in his blocking position. He returned it clumsily, with only his right arm. If he had used the left arm too, he probably would have hit Ahmed with the bags in his left hand.
I grabbed his shoulders with both of my hands, firmly, and looked him in the eyes, then I released my right hand from his left shoulder and slowly knocked my fist against his chin. No words were necessary. He just grinned back at me and ignored the soot. Or maybe he didn’t notice it. Danny had always been very good about putting on clean clothes, but not so good about realizing when he got dirty.
Danny had made a fairly strong statement here, and there was no need for me to diminish it, so I decided not to ask him to move over and let me take his place. I didn’t get any sense of threat from Ahmed, other than the simple fact that he was a representative of the Enclave. The Enclave itself felt more weirdly complex and loaded with politics I didn’t understand than threatening, for now.
As I stepped back from Danny, Ahmed cleared his throat and said, “Well done, young man.”
Danny ignored him. When I looked at Ahmed, he was smiling an amused half-smile, apparently not offended at all by what Danny had done.
Probably an honest reaction, especially if he was raised in the Middle East, or had traditional family.
I wondered if Danny thought Ahmed had been hitting on Anne. Not that it would get Ahmed anywhere. I looked from Danny to Ahmed again to see if there was any sign of anger in Danny, but I didn’t see anything. He was apparently just being proactively protective rather than acting on anything he had actually seen that bothered him.
Anne was far from oblivious to what was going on. “If you three are finished marking manly territory, let’s be off.” Danny blushed a little and I gave Anne my best ‘innocent’ look. Two of the six Enclave people in the room with us laughed out loud, they both sounded like young women. The other three and Ahmed, all male, just smiled a little.
“Is the portal set to take us to the house?” I asked.
Ahmed replied. “The portal will be keyed to your band for ten minutes after you enter, unless the destination point is manually cleared.”
“Do I need to walk away from where I teleport in, so the next person can arrive there?”
“No. Teleportation tinkers figured out how to prevent matter interpenetration decades ago. So many safety protocols are built into the designs these days that the safety systems are normally bulkier and more complex than the actual teleportation systems in any given device. Interpenetration by accident is only fiction these days.”
By accident. I bet interpenetration makes a damn good weapon if a teleportation tinker doesn’t mind killing.
I’d never heard of anyone using an interpenetration gun before, but my business was built around supplying tinkers with simple parts manufactured to exacting standards. What they did with those parts was not my business. Exactitude had never attempted to control who I sold to other than disallowing sales to tinkers in prison, or on parole for violent criminal activity.
I stepped through the portal, onto my driveway with a puff of dust as I displaced the air and settled my weight onto the ground. Three Enclave agents quickly followed, creating their own little dust clouds in the gravel. They each immediately released several of what looked like dragonflies into the air, each dragonfly hovered briefly before zipping off in a different direction than the others.
“Perimeter security sensors?” I asked one of them.
The agent nodded. “Yes, sir.”
A few seconds later, Anne and Danny appeared, followed by Ahmed and the last two agents.
Ahmed asked “All clear?” and the first three agents, who were now fiddling with tablet PC’s nodded and commented “Yes, sir.” To Ahmed, almost in unison.
The last two agents had apparently put on shiny little conical hats and started carrying something small in each hand before they teleported over. I turned to them and looked closer, but could not tell what they were wearing or carrying.
Ahmed saw me looking at the two agents with shiny hats. “At any sign of violence, those two each carry two dead-man switches, one in each fist, that will trigger teleportation devices that all of us, except you, are wearing. They also have hats made by Tin Foil, which protect them from mental control to some degree. The hats are also keyed into the teleportation system and will trigger teleportation if they detect either agent is mind-controlled in any way, suffers mental trauma, go unconscious, or if they die.”
I want to meet this tinker named Tin Foil.
I couldn’t decide if I wanted to meet Tin Foil more due to his name, which indicated a certain amount of humor, or to arrange for a few hats for myself and my family.
I hope his hats don’t all look like that.
Does it matter what they look like?
I looked again at the silver hats the two agents were wearing. Featureless, reflective conical party hats.
Yes. I’d wear it anyway.
I bet Tin Foil makes his hats look stupid on purpose. I really want to meet him. I think.
I thought about it for a minute. “The Enclave is starting to feel more and more like a large public corporation with a severely dysfunctional self-chosen board of directors. There seem to be quite a few good, competent people in the rank and file though.”
Ahmed just nodded to me instead of saying anything.
I started ignoring the others as we walked towards the house. “Anne, Danny, here’s what’s happened to me in the last half-day since I saw you last.”
“You were attacked by someone with a giant metal rolling pin?” Anne interrupted, staring at Badger’s club laying on the driveway a little closer to the house than we were.
“It does look a little like a rolling pin, doesn’t it?” I replied. I shook my head a bit, remembering how easily Badger had carried the thing around. “Badger, one of Gorgon’s supervillains, a brick with digging powers, made it and used it to fight me, so he didn’t have to touch me.”
“Badger’s not a brick. He’s a savage. Bricks tend to be invulnerable to most casual damage. Savages normally regenerate or mitigate damage somehow. Badger regenerates.” Danny said, before realizing he was interrupting. “Sorry, dad.”
Good to know, I guess.
After a moment to try to fix the definition in my mind, I continued. “No problem, you probably know more about supers than I do. I was never very much interested in them, until I became one.”
“I started paying attention and reading up on them a lot more when you got powers, yes.” Danny replied. “But I’m interrupting. Sorry, Dad.”
You had more than just me to make you pay attention to supers, but that’s for later.
“Well, Badger was being coached by Cog; Gorgon was trying to force him to break habits and learn to use his powers better. It worked. Badger apparently uses his geokinesis to dig more than he uses his body strength. He can also detect the presence of at least some materials in the ground he can’t see. When we started fighting, he tried to use his claws, which didn’t work well. At the end of the fight, he figured out a new way to use his power, and used weapons he created by pulling iron out of the ground, which worked a lot better against me.”
Anne stopped, and looked at the huge axe-sword thing lying flat on the grass nearby. It wasn’t as easily seen as the club. “I see.” She looked back at me, with a worried look.
I shrugged. “It wasn’t pretty, but physical damage doesn’t cause much pain to my shadow body.”
Anne nodded. She had seen news recordings of some of the fights where I’d absorbed absurd amounts of physical damage, frequently being bashed and smashed like a certain cartoon coyote we had both grown up watching on Saturday mornings. I could still understand that it made her uncomfortable to see a bladed weapon that big and know that I had fought the person carrying it.
“It took me about five hours to wrap that fight up, take out Cog and his remote suit, and all the agents around the property. Then Gorgon sent a moving van to pick them up, and I let them go.”
Danny looked at me funny, but Anne beat him to it. “They attacked you, and you just let them go?”
“Yes. Partly because I do not know how safe you two truly are, and partly because Gorgon has been telling me a lot of things about the Enclave that make a whole lot more sense than some of the things the Enclave has been telling me.” Anne’s eyes got a bit big. Danny just closed his eyes a second and shook his head, and then looked away.
Has Jane told him, or was that just him being confused?
I turned to Ahmed, “I want you to report that, by the way. When the leader of a supervillain organization seems to be more of a straight-shooter than representatives of a group that is more or less supposed to be devoted to opposing villains, well, that’s not good.”
Ahmed looked me in the eye and nodded. “This possibility was considered. Gorgon was one of us once. It wasn’t meant to be. He was also resistant to mental powers, and retained a great deal of knowledge of our organization when he left to pursue villainy. This forced us to make many changes, quickly. He has enough knowledge of how the Enclave used to work that he can probably paint a very unflattering picture of us if he so chooses. Some of it will certainly have grounding in truth, making it hard to pick out his deceptions.”
“The antics and explanations I have seen from the Enclave support a great deal of what he’s been telling me, just to let you know. I would like to think that the Enclave would like to address this quickly, after you report to your leadership about today’s little excursion.”
Anne was listening to every word, and not looking very happy, either with me or Ahmed. Danny was just staring at me.
Do they doubt me?
I guess I’m giving them reasons for concern.
“Just to be certain I make this clear to everyone. There is no chance I’m going to cooperate actively with Gorgon. Period. His record speaks more loudly than his words, even if his words are making a lot more sense than I wish they did.” I paused. “I might beat up his people now and then if he keeps sending them to me, but I’ll start letting the heroes or police collect them.”
I paused and turned to Ahmed. “I’ll clarify that. I will start turning over Gorgon’s villains to heroes and the police. I will continue doing so only for as long as I feel confident that the Enclave is on my side, protecting my family. If that changes, I’ll start returning the villains to Gorgon again.”
Ahmed stared at me for just a moment, then nodded.
Anne caught my eyes, I met hers, and held a gaze together for a few seconds, and then she nodded. Danny had been watching Anne and me, and after she nodded, he visibly relaxed, but was still a bit nervous looking.
“OK, so you returned the villains and goons to Gorgon. What next?”
“It was dawn by the time I got myself into bed, and three hours later, I had another visitor. Miss Perfect.”
Anne stumbled for no apparent reason, and I grabbed her elbow. Danny just spurted out “She left her lab?”
Ahmed had an intense expression on his face.
He knows who her father is. Guaranteed.
Maybe he missed Anne and Danny’s reactions?
“Apparently, Exactitude’s young, agoraphobic house tinker was very worried when she tried to call your phone, after she tried to reach my phone unsuccessfully to talk about a new project. A man’s voice answered, and it wasn’t me.”
“Who has my phone?” Anne asked.
“Gorgon does.” I replied.
“Oh.” Anne replied. “Did he threaten her?”
“No, but apparently she recognized his voice, and came to our house after agonizing in her lab for a while.” I paused. “Miss Perfect being the social train wreck that she is, we had a rather difficult time communicating effectively.”
Anne and Danny were both looking nervous at this point, which made me grin. When I grinned, they both relaxed, but only a little.
Anne doesn’t go behind my back much, and this was pretty big. I don’t mind making her sweat a bit for it. Even if I’m beginning to suspect that she might have been right to hide it from me.
“I hope everything turned out OK. When she found out we were safe, did she go back to her lab?” Anne asked.
“Yes, we managed to work things out. We’re well on track with the project that I wanted her to start working on, and we discussed another little project of hers that came up. I had a problem with her personal project at first, because of the team members she wanted, and the fact that it had been in development under the radar for years. After thinking about it, I realized that, based on the results she showed me, my initial reactions to her personal project were unfounded. So I gave her the go-ahead for both projects. Her personal project is rather fascinating; I’ll have to talk to you two some other time about it.”
Danny had a stoic look on his face – a look that might be confused with worry if you didn’t know him. I knew that look. The last time I had seen it was when he had run over a fire hydrant while trying to parallel park my truck about eight months ago. He hadn’t hurt anyone, so he knew the punishment was going to come only from Anne and me, but he knew he wasn’t going to like it either. We decided to take driving privileges from him for a month. He just handed his copy of the key over, said he was sorry, and went to check the condition of his bicycle.
I need him to calm down.
“Relax, Danny, she’s fine. We talked, and she went back to her lab. No harm done.”
He relaxed a bit and nodded, but was obviously still deep in thought.
Ahmed was looking at us, obviously a little confused by the dichotomy of what was being said, and what our reactions were, but I didn’t think he put it together.
He might though.
Anne took my hand and squeezed it gently. “So what about the second fight today, and your take on what the Enclave was intending to happen in the portal chamber? I’ll remind you to tell me about Miss Perfect’s other project later.”
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