Anne and Danny were waiting, and looking decidedly unhappily, as I appeared.
Ahmed did not appear.
I walked forward and quickly kissed Anne and put my right hand on Danny’s right shoulder, and squeezed briefly.
Then I turned and asked the agents, “Where is Ahmed?”
One of them answered. “Not sure.” None of them had any more to add, and they all looked nervous.
Probably for the best, I would have been asking him about what he told me.
He did warn me that I wouldn’t know what he meant.
“Let’s try again. What is Ahmed?”
One of the agents spoke up. “Not sure. I didn’t even realize the bio-scanners weren’t picking him up until right before we moved towards the house. Might be a tinker’s AI bot or…”
The other agents looked at the one who had spoken, who shut their mouth, abruptly.
Great, more secrets.
The AI idea made sense. He might have been playing with me on the whole magic thing.
An AI is just a really smart toaster, why would it be hard for me to look one in the eye?
Forget the mystery.
Time to do family time!
“Do either of you know the way to our apartment?”
Danny nodded. “We have apps for directions on our phones now. They gave mom a new phone.”
I turned to the five agents who were still present and watching us. “Are we under guard?”
One of them stated simply, “No new residents in the inner teleportation section except when supervised by security or an away team.”
“Understood. Let’s go then Anne, Danny.” I turned around towards them.
Danny nodded and tapped his phone a couple times before leading us out of the room. A short walk and elevator ride later, we were walking into the apartment.
Anne just pointed at a corner of the living room as she latched the lock on the apartment door “Drop your bags in the corner, there. We’ll sort them out in a little while.”
After I carefully dropped the blue backpack and a gym bag, Danny dropped his duffel and the other gym bag, adding to the pile. Anne pulled her wallet and keys out of an outside pocket of the big brown purse, put them in her pants pockets, and put the purse on top of the rest of the bags.
“We can deal with this stuff later.” Anne announced. She poked me in the side. “You, sir, smell like smoke, and have dirt and ash in your hair and all over your body. Obviously, you have forgotten how to take a shower.”
“I, uh, was just in a fight, Anne.”
What the hell?
Anne then turned to our son. “Danny, your turn to prepare a meal.”
Danny looked confused but agreed. “Yes, mom.”
When Anne turned to face me again, I tried to explain “Anne, I’m sorry, but…”
She poked me in the gut, right in the bellybutton with her right index finger, and pointed to one of the apartment doors with her left. “The shower is that way, oh mighty hunter. Through that door, and then through the door on the right beyond it.”
Anne stood there, glaring at me, hands now planted on her hips.
“OK, OK, I’ll go shower. Be back in a couple minutes.” I turned away, raised my arm a bit, and sniffed as I walked towards the indicated door.
Whew. She’s right. I stink
As I closed the door to the bedroom, I heard Anne say “Danny, I need to help teach your father how to take a shower. We’ll be back in about an hour or so.”
“Mom!” he said loudly, coughing a bit, obviously trying to avoid laughing. “Buzz. Buzz. Chirp. Chirp.” Then he started to laugh.
I smiled to myself as I heard the two of them laughing. I finished walking to the bathroom and started the water.
A few moments later, Anne walked in with a trash bag and collected my clothing as I stepped into the shower. She hesitated, looked at my boots and fanny pack, and then shook her head and left them next to the door. I got in the shower and pretended I hadn’t heard what she and Danny had said to one another.
“I’m going to start these in the wash, Zeke. They smell foul. I ordered you some clothes, but they haven’t been delivered yet.”
Starting a wash while I’m in the shower? Thanks Anne.
She flicked on the ventilation fan as she left. About two minutes later, she was back. Two minutes after that, she was in the shower with me, washing my back. Five minutes after that, we were both clean. Then we proceeded to get dirty, before getting clean again. We both needed that.
After we dried off, Anne dressed and went to check on my laundry, returning a couple minutes later with my washed clothes. Shirt, socks, and underwear were dry, the jeans still-slightly-moist, but wearable. Danny had apparently moved them into the dryer, or the apartment had a single-unit washer and dryer combination.
After I had dressed, Anne sat on the edge of the bed next to me, leaning into my right side. “Zeke, how are you, really? You killed a man. You have a supervillain trying to recruit you forcefully. The Enclave seems to be trying to drive a wedge between you and us.” She paused. “Compared to that, Danny and I just moved.”
“I’m more worried about you two than I am for myself. The Enclave was supposed to be keeping you safe, but they seem more interested in driving wedges between us.” I paused. “It bothers me some that I killed a man, but I’m going to have to let my subconscious sort that one out. I don’t think it’s going to cause me a lot of problems. I watched Arson eat a human arm while he talked about children as portable meals. I think he understood, even then, that he was trapped, and was hoping I would somehow free him if he could make me ill or angry, or somehow disrupt the area effect of the power.”
Anne shuddered “How horrible. We hear about insane or inhuman supers that kill people for terrible reasons, but rarely ever see them. Is that what they are going to use you for, policing mad supers, killing or capturing them?
“With my powers, that seems likely, Anne, but I’m not entirely sure.” I paused. “If I knew what a ‘soul well’ was, maybe I would have had a better idea what people might plan for me.” I took a deep breath. “That’s what Ahmed told me after you all left, that I am a ‘soul well’ when I am in my shadow form.”
“What is that?” Anne asked, after a pause to think.
“The only reason Ahmed told me was because he knew I would not understand. He even told me that. I probably shouldn’t have asked him to tell me anyway. Now it’s just going to eat at me, knowing what I am, but not knowing what it means to be what I am.” I leaned back against Anne a bit, careful not to put too much weight on her. She wasn’t frail by any means, and she exercised, but I was always careful. We were both getting older, and things just didn’t heal as fast as they used to.
For her. I regenerate when I change.
Will I age? I’m keeping my grey hair, so I’m not getting younger.
Not now. No more problems on my plate.
“What about Gorgon and his villains and goons?” Anne asked after I had been silent a minute.
“Under control for now. My biggest concern right now is making sure you two are safe.”
Now I’m lying to my wife. Under control. Right.
Her worrying too much won’t fix anything.
“The Enclave is certainly making that confusing right now. I hope they speak to us soon, and start giving us straight answers.”
“Anne, if they force you to make a choice between me and Danny, choose Danny.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean, Zeke?” Anne pulled away from me.
Not sure if that reaction makes me happy or sad.
“I don’t know how much effort they might put into splitting us up. If they use magic, or play with our minds with telepaths, we might have no way to prevent it. I can’t see any reason for them to split up you and Danny though. If they do split us up, you can rest assured that I will fight it like we both did today, but if this is just the start, it’s going to get terrible. We might not be able to stop it, even if they don’t use powers or magic, but we can make it really hard for them.”
“In that case, we leave the Enclave, use our money, and build a new house every few months, and move around?”
“I’m not sure if I would be able to make the choice to put you two intentionally into danger so that I could have you near me, even if we put a lot of money into secrecy and security. Danny’s too young to lock up in a box anyway, he’d go insane. You wouldn’t be happy about it either, I know.”
Anne stared at me, tapping her front teeth past slightly open lips with her right index finger. “I’m trying to understand where you are coming from, Zeke, but I’m not there yet. I’m not sure I can get there without your perspective.”
“Hopefully, it will not be a decision that you will need to make, Anne, I just wanted to make sure that you knew you had my blessing if it seemed like you needed to break off from me to protect Danny.”
“He’s a young man now, Zeke, he won’t be in the house much longer. Recent events might slow him down a bit, but it won’t be long now before he’s flown the coop. When that happens, they won’t be able to pry you away from me.”
“Speaking of our boy growing up, can you tell me a little more about Miss Perfect’s project?” I poked her in the ribs with my right index finger.
Anne turned a bright shade of pink. “I had no idea you would approve, and Danny was going to do it anyway. They really seem to care about each other deeply, and he understands her quirks.”
“I thought so. If she hadn’t come to the house in light combat armor looking for you two this morning, you might still have some convincing to do, and I might be angry.” I paused. “I was upset. I still am, a little, but I did talk down about her now and then at the house, didn’t I? I knew Danny didn’t like it, but thought it was just him being overly politically correct.”
“You were a little indelicate at the house, at times, when she did something that irked you – especially when it upset your management team.” She paused. “You’re OK with the two of them in a serious relationship, even though she’s five years older?”
“What? Five years? I couldn’t care less about five years. My biggest concern would have been that there wouldn’t be a real emotional connection there, from her end. Tinkers are notorious for mental issues, and Miss Perfect can be very self-centered and volatile at times, though thankfully almost never violent.” I paused. “I would have been afraid for Danny.”
“But you aren’t now?” Anne poked me in the ribs.
I smiled. “I won’t say that. However, you seem to approve, and it’s hard to imagine that there isn’t real emotion there when she came to our house, despite the agoraphobia, dressed to fight, like a knightess in shining armor.”
“A knightess?” Anne poked me in the head.
“I made up a word, sue me. Dame just doesn’t have the same feel, and it feels weird calling a woman a knight.”
“OK, forgiven, Zeke.”
“Likewise, Anne. I think you were right to keep it from me. I can’t imagine what my reaction might have been if I didn’t have this morning’s events to consider. Let’s go talk to Danny. Please let me start the conversation about Miss Perfect though. I want to wait until he’s drinking something.”
Anne laughed. “You sit across the table from him then.”
“But he’ll suspect something!”
“Too bad. You are the one wanting to ambush him when he’s drinking.”
“When did it start, by the way? How long ago?”
Anne counted on her fingers, thinking, and then answered. “They met about four years ago. She was trying to finish her GED and needed help with history. Danny had already finished the history courses she was having trouble with, and the school put them together, but because of his age and the fact she acted young for her age, it was supervised by me. That was my rule. They were obviously attracted to each other even back then, but they behaved.” She paused. “When Danny was sixteen, I started dropping Danny off at her lab, and going shopping or watching a movie instead of watching them. He was starting to borrow your truck at that point, and I wouldn’t be able to stop him without exposing their relationship to you. I did make a real firm point with both of them the first day I left him, that there better not be a pregnancy, and left them a bunch of different things to play with to prevent that from happening. You should have seen their faces.” Anne laughed.
I joined her in laughing, imagining the scene. “I’ve never seen her face, only the mask, but I can imagine! She blushed hard enough a couple times that I could see the blush on the little bit of visible skin under her eyes, and that was with us talking about much tamer topics.” I paused a few seconds to think. “OK, I think I understand now. Four years? Two since you started letting them do whatever, and they are still together? If I had doubts before, I now have none. Doesn’t mean it’ll work, but it means I’ll stay out of the way, or even help if asked.”
Anne nodded. “Time to go talk to Danny?”
I grinned. “And eat. I ate a lot, just a few hours ago, but I was completely empty before that, I could use another meal now.”
“We still have a bunch of cold cuts left from last night.” Anne said as we stood up.
“Last night. Wow, Anne. That seems like a year ago to me.”
I put on my boots and set the fanny pack on the tile near the entry door. It hadn’t been washed. I would wash it in the sink in the barn when I got home.
As we left the bedroom, talking about things that we might need to get on the next trip to the house, Danny walked out of his room and into the kitchen. As we arrived in the little dining room, he opened the oven, pulled out some cold cut sandwiches that had been kept warm there, and used a spatula to move them from the broiler pan onto a plate. Twenty half-sandwiches in total, each with a substantial amount of meats and cheeses. They smelled heavenly. There was a cup of orange juice by each place setting, no choice for drinks. Danny probably didn’t trust the water yet. We’d need to get the water tested and get a filter system if it wasn’t too bad.
“Smells great, Danny.” I said as I picked up my cup and took a drink of orange juice.
Danny looked at me oddly, since I had picked up the cup where Anne would normally sit. I usually sat between the two of them. Then he shrugged. “They’re cold cut sandwiches, heated. Even easier than pancakes.” He carried the plate of cold cuts over to the table and set it on the napkins there.
Anne laughed a little, and sat in the seat that would normally be mine.
Danny and I sat as well, and we all started eating. None of us was talking much. I was too hungry to talk until I finished off four of the half sandwiches. Then I picked up one more, and started to nibble at it, holding it one handed.
Drinking tends to be something close to contagious, especially if you are eating hot or dry foods. The sandwiches were both hot enough you had to eat them slowly, and dry from being in the oven.
It didn’t take long for Danny and Anne to both be drinking at the same time.
“Danny, when Jane comes over for dinner, you realize you’re cooking, right?”
Danny and Anne’s eyes both bugged open as they stared at me. Danny managed to get his hand over his mouth before spraying OJ on it. Anne only dribbled a little bit onto her chin, quickly collected with a napkin, before she swallowed the OJ that had just been looking for a way to escape. They both coughed a few times then Anne swatted me lightly on the head.
“Bad husband, bad!” Anne exclaimed. “I was not supposed to be caught in the crossfire!”
Danny was starting to look a little upset.
“Danny. Wait. Your mother and I have talked. I know enough now that I’m not going to stand in your way. I know how long you to have been seeing each other. I know how hard it is to get her out of her lab, and she came out looking for trouble when she thought you were in danger, and I got to talk to her a bit outside work. Before this morning, I probably would have fought you on this, but after this morning, you have my blessings.”
Danny looked at Anne, who nodded at him, and then looked back at me. “Thanks Dad. I’m sorry I kept it hidden. You never seemed to like her much.”
I took a second to gather thoughts. “When I first hired her she had only recently become a tinker. As a person, she was a nice girl, a bit too outspoken and with a tendency to argue more than she should, but not bad. Then her agoraphobia got much worse, and she locked herself in her lab. After that, her reactions with others started getting a lot more troublesome too. I am surprised she ever agreed to meet you in the first place. I’ve never disliked her; she’s just incredibly disruptive at times, which makes a lot of work for me.”
Danny smirked. “I can agree with that last bit. She can certainly be a handful. The first few visits were hard. Really hard. She needed help with the history, but she was painfully hard to help. She was cute, friendly, and really peculiar. Mom didn’t even tell me how old she was until a year after I met her. It just never came up.” Danny looked at me across the table and held my eyes. He did not do that to me much. I met his gaze for a few seconds, and then looked away. I wasn’t turning this into a staring contest. He was showing me he was serious, not challenging me.
“I imagine it was quite an adventure, but it sounds like it was worth it in the end.” I replied with a grin.
No, no sexual innuendo there. Not at all.
Anne stared at me. She didn’t miss it, though Danny seemed to.
I turned a little to face Anne more directly and winked with the eye closer to her. My nose kept Danny from seeing me wink.
“It’s definitely different, but we’ve been working together on her agoraphobia with good success. Her OCD is almost impossible to control, like most tinkers, but with a little time and effort, I have been able to help her change her OCD focus if she starts obsessing over something counterproductive. She knows when her OCD is pushing her to act in unproductive ways, and I help her fix it. It’s been hard for her recently, with me so far away. I was going to move in with her while I attended school.”
What does she do for him, other than sex?
It bothered me that Danny seemed to be attaching himself to her as a facilitator or assistant, more than being a partner with her. I wasn’t going to grill Danny, and I had a good feeling about Jane from our meeting that morning. She had certainly come out hard-charging to defend him, and I damn sure couldn’t say anything bad about that.
I scratched my head. The relationship had to be quirky – a tinker was involved. I reminded myself that I was not going to get in the way unless I saw something very bad. They were both good kids, it would work, or it wouldn’t.
I need to say this though.
“Has she told you who her father is?” I asked.
“No, dad, she doesn’t like talking about her father.”
“I know why that is, and you need to let her know that it can’t be a secret from you any longer. I will not tell you who he is, unless she doesn’t. The same goes for Anne. It is important that you both know, but it’s her secret to tell, up until the point where it endangers my family, and then I’m going to tell you both. I’ll give her two days.”
Anne spluttered. “What? How does her father endanger our family?”
Danny squinted, obviously angry, but let his mother take the lead, just listening.
“I can’t answer that without telling you who he is. It’s her secret for two days, and then I’ll tell you. She might be mad, but let her be mad at me. If I read her right, she’ll tell you, but be ready to comfort her. Like you said, Danny, she doesn’t like talking about him.
I pulled out my smartphone and looked at it. Zero signal. “Are they getting you two some secure email communications? Seems like they are blocking unsecure cell communications, which is probably a good thing.”
Danny and Anne both nodded as Danny spoke. “We took some biometric readings earlier today for personal encryption, retina and fingerprints. They said it would be ready before five PM today.”
“Jane has family inside the Enclave. I don’t know where. A mother and brother that she speaks to, at least every now and then, so we can probably talk to them and…” I stopped speaking as I heard a beep.
I killed a man for you maybe three hours ago, and I’m already getting shoulder-tapped again?
I sighed. “Sounds like they have more work for me.”
“Already?” Anne was clearly angry.
“I’m functional right now. A bit rocky, but I’m able to think mostly clearly. The shadow body doesn’t get tired if it ends up being a long fight. Maybe the others that do this are worn down.”
Anne gave me a skeptical look but said nothing. I agreed with the silent ‘bullshit’ that she didn’t say.
I realized that my fanny pack with the teleport grenade and tools was by the entry door. I went to retrieve it. “One second, need my pack before I port.”
With a loud scraping of chairs while my back was turned, Danny and Anne were both standing by the time I picked up the belt and walked back to the little dining area by the kitchen. I gave them both a quick hug as the belt started to beep rapidly.
I managed to clip the fanny pack around my waist before everything went black, briefly. When vision returned a moment later, I found myself at one end of a very well lit chamber, next to a microphone, and could see at least thirty or so people at the other end of the room.
I looked at the microphone in front of me, and then at the people at the other end of the chamber.
Really? You people called me here on about thirty seconds notice for a meeting?