I really don’t want to talk about this.
Not in front of Danny.
I need to give Anne something, or it might cause issues.
Especially since the Enclave seems to be trying to put a wedge between us.
“I was almost done with my conversation with Miss Perfect when the belt started beeping.” I flicked the silver metal belt holding up my jeans with an index finger.
“I am not going to go into detail here. I’ll save that for another time.” I paused.
Anne’s eyes had moved towards Ahmed before she nodded. “I understand, Zeke.”
“After I teleported, I found myself in a burning building. A children’s camp or orphanage of some sort, I think. A very big one. I was no more effective than a normal man in helping evacuate the trapped children. That was apparently not why I was there.”
“They teleported you into a burning building with trapped kids, with your power?” Danny blurted out while staring at me, and then he turned to Ahmed, but said nothing.
Ahmed did not speak; he simply rested his hands lightly on his cane and nodded.
“I wasn’t there to help deal with the children, Danny. I was there to deal with the super who caused the fire.” I paused, considering how to phrase the next part. “His name was Arson, in Korean.”
Danny’s eyes got big, as he fumbled for his smartphone.
I was a bit startled at his reaction, and looked at Anne. She was apparently caught a little off guard by Danny’s response as well. We just looked each other in the eyes, and, at almost the same moment gave each other a slight shake of the head.
I looked at Danny as he fumbled with his smartphone’s screen. Like me, his fingers were too big for onscreen buttons unless he used a magnifier system to make the buttons bigger.
I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a bigger secret Danny’s keeping.
I looked at Anne. She was also nonplussed.
If so, I don’t think Anne knows it.
“Danny, ah, is your sudden interest in the smartphone relevant to what I was saying?”
“Yes, dad, I know that name. He’s new, and a nasty piece of work. I read about him a couple days ago. I remember some of the details but…”
“Was.” I said. With an emphasis, before continuing. “He was a fire-based energy projector. Very high energy focused beams and protective shields. Capable of extremely rapid movement in bursts, and sustained flight. I think he had some sort of danger sense, because he never once touched me.”
Anne gripped my hand hard. “Was? Did he die?”
I squeezed Anne’s hand back, being careful not to squeeze too hard. She winced a bit, but said nothing.
“Apparently not only was he an arsonist as his name implied, he was also a serial killer and a cannibal. The Bull, the Korean super onsite with Enclave connections who had requested aid, indicated Arson had killed several supers, and an unknown number of normal humans. I witnessed him consuming a human arm later, The Bull’s.”
Even the Enclave agents around us were staring at me now. Except Ahmed, who was clearly listening, but not looking directly at me.
I felt like I was about to be judged. “He bragged about his diet, told me about his reasoning for it, and clearly indicated that children were his preferred food. So when I finally rendered him unconscious, I killed him.”
Danny grimaced and looked away from me.
Anne looked up at me. “They used you as an assassin?”
Danny looked at Anne, me, and then at Ahmed, but said nothing.
I shook my head slowly. “I’m not entirely certain that they intended me to kill, but I was certainly sent there to deal with Arson. No Enclave members or agents appeared to be present to assist, and I wasn’t going to leave a serial killer cannibal super around to potentially recover his wits and escape.”
I turned to Ahmed. “So I killed him. Was that why I was sent?”
Ahmed nodded. “Yes. Arson was extremely capable, and you are correct about his danger sense. We attempted to communicate with him, and even offered him non-human meat, but his appetite for human flesh was not limited to physical desires.” He paused. “We sent a highly experienced vigilante, Whiplash, against him, who was killed. We didn’t know about Arson’s danger sense at that point. That was two weeks ago, the last time we got a fix on Arson’s location.”
“So you sent me, knowing that I might be able to bypass his danger sense in a way, with my anger field.” I nodded. “This matches up with what I expected. I don’t like that I went into that scenario blind, but I can understand why I would have been right for the job, if the job was to eliminate him. His danger sense warned him against touching me, but didn’t allow him to flee from my field.”
Ahmed nodded, still looking over my shoulder, not directly at me.
“I won’t pretend I’m happy about being sent to kill, without being told that is the intent, but that’s not what has me angry right now.”
Anne and Danny again looked at me, a little oddly.
“I decapitated Arson and was going to return the head to the Enclave, like some medieval knight bringing proof of capital punishment to his lord. I intended on using the head as a centerpiece of a discussion with Enclave people about being more open with me.” I watched Ahmed for a reaction. “At the last minute, realizing that I had no idea what might be waiting for me on the other side of the portal, I discarded the head. Based on the reactions of a couple of the agents here when I entered, it was expected that I would be carrying the head, or perhaps some other ‘trophy’ of the fight. I suspect I was under surveillance at the site, during the fight.”
Ahmed simply nodded.
Anne looked at me before turning to Ahmed. “You set Danny and me up to meet Zeke carrying a severed head, when we expected him to be meeting us for a trip to collect personal belongings from our home?”
“That was what I was tasked to do, yes.” Ahmed stated. “It was not what I would have done, but I am not always allowed to do things as I would choose.”
Anne and Danny both stared at Ahmed. Danny was clenching his right fist and I could feel Anne tensing.
I need to defuse this situation.
“Thank you for being honest, Ahmed. Your explanation seems a lot like a ‘Just Following Orders’ excuse, but I don’t know how strict of an authority you are acting under.”
If the Enclave expects me to follow orders like that, there’s going to be a problem.
“It is a ‘Just Following Orders’ excuse, as you say. I am bound more tightly to my orders than you should ever expect to be.” He paused. “Zeke and Anne, your expressions tell me that this is a concern of yours. You need not worry about being controlled as I am. The individuals who misjudged you and your family won’t be able to hold you as tightly as they would like, and that is much less tightly than I am controlled.” Ahmed gave a small, tight smile.
Danny spoke up. “Why are you controlled so tightly? Why should we not expect to be treated the same way?”
Good call, Danny. Beat me to it.
“I am not allowed to discuss details with you. I am allowed to say that you will get more answers soon, but none from me.” He grinned, showing teeth. “Not directly.”
I looked at the other Enclave agents around me as I saw two of them moving slowly away from Ahmed. They were looking at Ahmed as if they just realized who he was.
I narrowed my eyes. “You’re a super?”
“That is a question that I certainly am not allowed to answer, as much as it might please me to do so.” Ahmed replied. “I have heard your story, Zeke, and will be reporting it. Thank you. There is still the matter of collecting your easily carried belongings with high financial or sentimental value, and marking those that cannot be carried. Please restrict your time here to one hour, as the devices carried by these agents have a powered activity envelope of only two hours, and we’ve already used a few minutes of that time. Additional visits can be arranged in the future if needed.”
Anne gripped my hand hard. “I’m not exactly sure what game the people who gave you your orders are playing, Ahmed, but I do not like it, and will require answers soon.”
I nodded. “Being bent over a barrel is not exactly my favorite position, Ahmed.” With a little more emphasis, I continued. “If I’m being bent over a barrel and am also expected to watch as someone tries to tear apart my family, I’m not going to stay passive long.”
Ahmed looked me in the eye this time. It was difficult to hold his eyes, but I did. “I understand this. Others will have a better appreciation of this after I deliver my report. I have been allowed to say, Mr. Collins, that you remind many of the Enclave decision makers of Gorgon, and his stated interest in you has them very nervous. Please remember this as you consider how you have been treated.” He paused. “There is nothing more to be gained from this conversation, though you are welcome to speak to one another about it as you collect and mark items.”
I remind them of Gorgon?
That explains some of the treatment, I guess.
“Will I be able to speak to my husband and son in private soon, Ahmed?” Anne asked, pointedly.
“I do not have that answer, Mrs. Collins.” He shrugged.
I lightly squeezed Anne’s hand and caught Danny’s eye. “C’mon guys, let’s collect things. Talk time later. As you can see, Gorgon doesn’t mind sending people to me, and if he teleports people here, we might get very little warning.” I paused. “We need to talk, soon, but not now.”
Danny just stared at me a couple seconds, and then at Anne, who was clearly thinking hard. Anne nodded, and Danny visibly relaxed.
I need to spend more time with Danny.
The three of us and Ahmed walked to the house. All of my important valuables were in the house safe, and most of my sentimental items were also in the main house.
Anne entered first, knocking slowly twice before she looked at me with a grin.
I grinned back.
As she opened the inner door and stepped in, she stopped. “Zeke, why is there a wheelbarrow in my hallway by the kitchen?”
I knew I was going to catch some grief over that.
“I brought some items to Miss Perfect, who was not prepared to walk to the barn. They were a little too bulky and heavy for me to carry easily. I was teleported away before I could get it back to the barn.” Hopefully, that would be a good enough reason.
Anne thought about it for a couple seconds as Danny looked at me, grinning.
“I’ll let you live this time. Please take it out of the house, mighty hunter.” Anne’s voice carried a definite sense of forced humor.
I responded with a little forced humor myself. “Yes, domestic goddess, your will be done.”
Danny’s grin faded a little as he picked up the forced nature of our banter.
Ahmed stood at the bottom of the steps leading up to the covered porch, in a relaxed pose, once again leaning on his cane. “I will remain outdoors unless invited to enter your home. Just so you understand, please do not believe this gives you privacy to discuss matters without me overhearing. I do not wish you to assume incorrectly that I am offering you privacy.”
That’s a bit creepy.
He won’t say he’s a super, but he just…
“Thank you for being honest, Ahmed.”
Sarah and Fred said there were magic users associated with the Enclave. I was wondering if there was and truth to the stories about magic users and magic creatures crossing the thresholds of homes.
Better safe than sorry.
After a moment considering my words, I spoke again. “Ahmed, if you intend no harm to myself or my family, and would feel comfortable inside my home, you may enter our home.”
Ahmed looked at me sharply and smiled wide, but there were no teeth. “You learn quickly. I mean you and yours no harm of any sort, but I would feel no comfort in your home. I will remain outdoors under those terms. Thank you for your offer.”
I thought so.
Anne was standing inside the glass door looking back at me, and Danny standing next to the door, about to enter. They were both now staring at Ahmed and me, Danny more at Ahmed, and Anne more at me. I could imagine things clicking into place in their minds. They hadn’t been at the meeting with Fred and Sarah, but they had both read plenty of fantasy fiction.
“I don’t know either, you two, but apparently there is something to the stories about magical thresholds. Ahmed here is obviously something other than baseline human, and the way he words things made me think of some of what I’ve read over the years in fiction about magic.”
Ahmed spoke. “Much like science fiction, fantasy fiction has its grains of truths. Usually very small ones, but in some cases, very large grains.” He smiled. “That is all I will say about that, for now.”
Danny simply asked, in a slightly shocked tone. “Magic is real, not just some tinker trick?”
“That was what I was told. Apparently sufficiently advanced science can be indistinguishable from magic, but magic can also hide itself to some degree in a world of sufficiently advanced science – as long as those who use it are careful.”
Anne interrupted me, apparently recognizing that I was about to talk too much. “Zeke, we can talk later. Get the wheelbarrow out of the house then join me at the safe, please. I’ll let you carry the safe’s contents in the backpack.”
Ahmed just smiled and stood completely immobile, lightly braced on his cane. He looked like a photograph; he was so still.
Now he’s creeping me out.
Or am I imagining it?
When I looked again, I saw Ahmed breathe, and his smile relaxed into an expression of calm.
Too much weird shit in too little time.
I turned away from Ahmed, and Anne, Danny, and I started to move again. Danny helped me get the wheelbarrow outside, and I left it on the porch, which was fine by Anne. We collected jewelry, keepsakes, trophies, photo albums, and various other small items that were not easily replaced.
Even though I was not going to be living with them, I made sure that a lot of my personally important items went with them, especially ones that also had sentimental value for Anne or Danny as well as me. Now that I knew magic was real, it seemed to be prudent for me to send my family away with items that held some connection between us.
Pulling magical bullshit out of my ass and hoping it will work.
Anne and I had marriage photos, baby, child, and young adult photos of Danny, and many other things, but children being children, there were not many things which Danny and I both had a strong connection to, but I found a couple. The first-place trophy for the Father and Son Run that Danny and I had won last year, and Danny’s Eagle Scout ceremony photos. We both had strong, recent, fond memories of those two events.
I hate guessing how things work. I better get some answers soon.
By the time we finished the first pass through the house, half an hour had passed. We chatted with each other for a couple minutes in the kitchen, drinking iced tea and trying to remind each other of things we might have overlooked with sentimental value. We specifically avoided talking about Ahmed or the Enclave. A couple more small items were collected, and a few more RFID tags were stuck to furniture and notes. Anne’s formal tableware was not marked individually, but rather with a note attached to an RFID tag on the cabinet door. Not many other pieces of furniture were selected, as most of it was well-built and comfortable, but utilitarian and easily replaced.
We walked out of the house about forty-five minutes after entering, and Ahmed was still apparently standing right where we had left him.
“You have finished collecting and marking items that need to be collected and marked?” Ahmed asked, as all three of us appeared, with our mostly-full bags.
“Yes,” Anne answered, “can we go back to the apartment and unload these items?”
“Mr. Collins, you need nothing from the apartment in the barn?”
“No, everything there can stay there.” I responded.
All nine of us walked out to the driveway, away from the house.
“Is anyone not ready?” One of the agents wearing a shiny cone hat asked.
When there was no response, he spoke again. “OK, remember cold room procedures. On three. One. Two. Three.”
They all held their breaths except the speaker, and then all five agents, Anne, and Danny disappeared. Ahmed and I remained.
What the fuck?
I turned to Ahmed and demanded an answer. “Why am I still here?”
“I was tasked with examining you in your alternate form as well, and that cannot be done with the others nearby, without a great deal of chaos and potential injuries. It is critically important that I do so since you have killed while in that form.”
I looked him directly in the eyes, which was weirdly uncomfortable, so I shifted my gaze to his ear. “You won’t be very much interested in studying me if you are within my range, you realize this?”
What is up with his eyes?
Ahmed simply smiled. “There is so much that you do not know, and it is not my place to resolve your ignorance. Others may do that if they see fit. I need to examine you in your alternate form, please. It will only take a moment, and then you can activate your belt to join your family.” He paused. “The longer you argue and delay, the longer they wait and grow upset.”
I’m getting tired of this shit.
I almost hope you won’t be unaffected as you say you will be.
“OK.” I stepped two steps back to give myself room, and shifted.
Ahmed did not react to my anger field at all.
“As I thought.” He muttered. “But not exactly.” After a moment, he asked. “May I touch you? I should not go unconscious, but if I do, please shift back, and I should recover almost immediately.”
At that point I realized I was not able to feel his presence of his mind, so I asked him “Why can’t I feel your mind?”
He looked at me, with hand outstretched, speaking before touching me. “I do not know, exactly. I am unaffected by what you call your anger field. The rest of your powers are related to that power, and should either not affect me at all or will affect me in a reduced capacity if I see the connections right.”
“There’s that pesky word, ‘exactly,’ again.”
Ahmed smiled at me, and casually reached his hand out in front of him and touched the middle of my forearm with the palm of his hand, at about his chest level. “Indeed. It is such a handy word to use when you are forbidden from answering questions, don’t you think?”
He didn’t fall over.
What the hell is this guy?
Something magical. He probably won’t say.
“What are you?” I asked.
“That is a question I cannot answer at this time.” Ahmed responded, calmly, with a smile.
I tried fishing for information in a different way. “So there are intelligences out there that are not affected by my power. I’m not sure if I should be happy or worried about this.”
“I cannot offer advice on that matter either. However, my tests and observations are complete. Please return to your human form and activate your belt for mission complete recall.” Ahmed stated as he stepped back from me.
I shifted back into my human shape, and pressed green, green, green, green on the belt, and it started to beep slowly.
“You can’t tell me what you are. Can you tell me what I am when I shift?” I asked.
“If I were to follow the spirit of the commands laid upon me, no. However, in this case, you will never truly understand the answer without information from others. I can tell you and it will just be words that others must explain.” He paused. “Are you certain you want an answer that will not be of much use to you?”
Why not? I know a lot of things I don’t understand.
“Please, tell me.” I replied as the slow beeps stopped, and the fast beeps started.
So he told me.
My last response before holding my breath was unanswered, of course. “What in the hell is a soul well?”