I wasn’t sure what I was feeling. Anger, relief, frustration. I’d just been handed an eviction notice from the company I built with my blood, sweat and tears. Contingent on my eighteen-year-old son and Gorgon’s twenty-three-year-old daughter forming a permanent relationship. How in the hell was I going to ensure Danny and Jane stayed together? I knew nothing about their relationship other than that Jane cared deeply enough about Danny to put on armor and come looking for him when there might have been some very dangerous villain supers involved.
I didn’t really know how much Danny cared about Jane. I had to trust Anne’s read entirely on that, which was something I should be able to do, but no matter how much more I wanted to trust Anne’s take, I still had my own doubts. Anne wouldn’t have been giving them birth control and looking the other way if she thought there was anything unhealthy going on.
I took a deep breath. The business was really nothing more than a way to provide for the family, right?
Great. Now I’m arguing with myself.
At least I know I’m right.
Laughing at myself out loud and pretending not to notice the minor note of hysteria in my own voice, I stood up, went to the fridge, and pulled out one of the beers. I stared at the colorful label with its fancy claims of excellence, popped the cap, and tipped the bottle up, taking a mouthful and holding it in my mouth briefly, thinking, before swallowing.
Family had always been more important than business for me, though the first few years of the startup of Exactitude hadn’t seemed that way, at times. Certainly from Anne and Danny’s point of view it must have seemed as if the business was more important to me, I was certain. There had been… disagreements, and some of them had been very loud. In the most recent several years though, I was confident that I had made it clear by word and action that Anne and Danny were more important than business.
How can I just drop this on Danny?
He’s simply not ready.
Anne could help him with the people side of things. She’s helped me with them fairly regularly.
I pulled the pad of paper on my desk closer, tearing off the top page with my doodles and comments about biometric security that I had generated while phrasing my email to Ben to ask him about enhancing security. Miss Perfect would certainly also get involved, but not yet. Not until Ben had a chance to review what he could find.
With a wince, I remembered the last time I had tried to give Miss Perfect a big-picture problem to solve. It had taken me an hour to fend off all the questions and narrow down the scope of her thinking to a useful place. She had possibly been more upset at me for asking a question like that than I had been at her response.
The most painful part of the whole situation was that the soul well, now somehow a part of me, was forcing me to abandon everything that shaped my life outside of my direct relationship with my family, and even that family relationship was strained.
Standing back and looking at it from an outside perspective; I could not allow myself to be the figurehead of Exactitude. Other executives of legitimate businesses that supplied Exactitude with goods and services would fear spending any time in the presence of a known killer, regardless of how justified the killings might be. Especially if I ended up killing people regularly. I would always have to act through intermediaries or impersonally via phone or email, and that was a recipe for disaster in the business world. Palms pressed together sealed deals before contracts were ever written. Politicians would have a field day with me if I didn’t give them what they wanted at every turn.
Either that or I’d have to start bringing them to the table with sticks rather than carrots.
Fuck Gorgon. Damn him to hell. Danny and Jane aside, he was clearly correct about most of his beliefs in regards to Exactitude and what would happen if I tried to maintain control. The company might not completely collapse if I didn’t leave it, but it would certainly crumble to a shadow of its former self. Even without Gorgon pushing to help things fall apart if I tried to hold things together.
Deal with the devil.
Everyone expected me to fight, but I knew it was a losing battle. I might be able to gain at least some breathing room and advantages if I did the unexpected. I started acting before I could second guess myself. I tried not to think that this was exactly what Gorgon probably wanted me to do. I tried to ignore the feeling that I was being herded by someone smarter than me.
I called Ted and spoke to him for a while about the mechanics of a board of directors and how to arrange for shifting of control from me to the board and then to Danny. While Ted and I were hashing out a basic framework that I could present to my corporate legal team, Ben responded to my email about IT security and biometrics with several ideas he had already been thinking about. I replied by email, asking him to work with Miss Perfect to see what might work best with the least expense and a high projected effectiveness. He had been way ahead of me on the need for biometrics, working behind the scenes tracking development in the field. There weren’t any clear success stories yet, but some were promising.
Ben needs to be on Danny’s board. He’s never let me down.
I picked up my phone, hesitated while staring at the screen, and then dialed a number I really didn’t want to dial, to say something I really didn’t want to say.
Jane’s masked face popped up on the video call. “Hello, Mr. Collins!”
“Hello, Miss Perfect. I have two important things to talk about. Since we’re not on a secure line and I don’t trust my environment here to be secure, I’m not going to say what they are, but we’ve discussed them.”
I could see her brow furrow slightly under her mask. “OK. I think I know one of the things you are referring to. Your special project is finished, and I can send it to you by drone if you like.”
My shock was apparently evident to her.
She smiled wearily under the mask. “You said you wanted it to be like the one I demonstrated. That made it easy. I didn’t give it any of the features I knew you wouldn’t be able to understand, but it’s like mine in all the ways that should matter to you. I’ve sent the documentation to your corporate private document storage, and USB storage in each crate has duplicates.”
Things I wouldn’t understand?
I bristled a little, irritated at Miss Perfect’s cavalier assumption that I wouldn’t be able to understand something, but then realized that I was talking to a tinker, and took a step back from my irritation. Social ineptitude. She couldn’t help it. She was also probably right.
I’m on edge. Calm.
After clearing my throat, I spoke. “Thank you, Miss Perfect. I would very much like you to send it by drone. I have no idea how you made the arrangements so fast, but I am hugely grateful.”
“When a tinker knows exactly when needs to be done, and we’re given time to do it, we’re really fast. Especially the good ones, like me. Was that one of the things you wanted to talk about, Mr. Collins?”
“Yes, MP, it was. The other is a matter of personal information that we discussed the other day.” I paused, considering my wording. “An accident happened, which was my fault. One of the two people we talked about yesterday learned about what we discussed, and I promised to keep secret. I’ve known this person longer than my son has been alive. They promised they would keep the secret. At the same time, there are way too many loose ends right now for me to feel safe about our secret not finding its way to the other person we discussed. Especially with the other people involved that neither of us wants to deal with. You need to tell that other person we spoke about before someone else does.”
Miss Perfect’s face was briefly alarmed as I started to speak, then clearly angry. Angry at me. I’d seen that expression way too many times on too many faces while doing business to be fooled by a mask.
“I’m sorry, Miss Perfect…”
She hung up without saying anything.
Can’t do anything else.
I’ll just make things worse.
One side of me wanted to be a fly on the wall to know what was happening, but I had to stay out of the kids’ life as much as possible, provided they weren’t actively trying to hurt each other, or making terrible mistakes.
If I hadn’t told her, it might have been a catastrophe. Telling her might still have been a catastrophe. Telling her at least allowed me to be able to say, truthfully, that I had owned up to my failure.
Sometimes doing nothing is the safest thing to do. I finished my beer in a few large swallows, and tossed the empty bottle. Where would I store the suit?
“Ali? Can I ask you a couple questions and maybe ask a favor?”
Ali spoke as he circled around from behind me, making me jump. “You can ask.” He said cautiously.
“You said you had simpler rooms that you used for your personal space as you were pretending to be a human boy, right?”
“I do.” He replied. A slight furrow on his forehead.
“It seemed to be pretty trivial for you to create a door to that room. Was it as easy as it seemed?”
“Sure. It’s just reassigning a loci…” He looked at me and frowned. “Yes. It’s a matter of a second or two as long as I’m not in a warded area.”
“You overheard my call with Miss Perfect?”
“Indeed. She’s rather unhappy with you right now. Ask your question, Zeke. You don’t have to do it step by step. If you ask a question and I’m confused, I will ask you to clarify.”
I shook my head. “Sorry. One second.”
Ach. Schooled in brevity by a kid.
I spent a few moments considering my wording. “I am about to receive a suit that’s worth millions of dollars, and I don’t have a place to store it. I do not want to wear it all the time, obviously. Can I borrow one of your small, plain rooms to store it when I’m not wearing it?”
Ali smiled. “Yes.” He raised a finger, in an admonition. “Just remember that there will be a few places, like the Grey Lodge council chambers earlier today, where I either should not or would not be able to access the room.”
“How often do you think there would be unexpected problems accessing the room?”
“Almost never, unless we are attacked unexpectedly.”
That reminded me of what had been happening before I fell asleep. “Did you put wards on me and my family as Anne and Danny were discussing with you?”
“I did for them. I could not for you. I do not know enough about how the magic connecting you to the soul well works. I have requested my father’s assistance, but he is busy.” He looked irritated and apologetic. “I have once again erred. Overconfidence. Can you accept the use of the room, whenever I can provide access to it, as payment for my temporary inability to provide you with the wards I promised?”
He didn’t mention the problem with putting wards on me until I brought up the wards.
It seemed as if I was getting the short end of this deal, but I wasn’t playing hardball with someone who might be my partner for decades. Not over something that wasn’t critically important. Protection for Danny and Anne were critically important, and he had lived up to the deal for them. I had powers to protect myself, and those powers had done a damn fine job so far, even against entire teams of supers.
“I think you’re getting the better end of the deal here, Ali, but yes, I agree. You will consult with your father in regards to putting wards on me. After you figure out how to put wards on me, when it is convenient to both of us, we can renegotiate the room arrangement?”
Ali smiled, and held out his hand, and I shook it. “Yes, Zeke. I agree to that. Pretty well worded, that.”
The next hour was sweaty and annoying, as fourteen crates arrived in an armored drone the size of a small panel van, escorted by two live, armed security agents. The armor wasn’t just armor; it was armor and all the equipment required to maintain the armor. The expense of the suit now made a lot more sense.
I stood, kneading the small of my back with both fists after closing the vehicle doors of the barn. “They weren’t happy that we took so long unloading the drone, were they?”
Ali just smirked. “I offered to make them help us.”
I waved a hand in his direction in a mock slap. “Stop that. You had to know I wouldn’t agree. Though it was tempting after they were dickish about proof of ID for the delivery.” After a second, I relented. “Admittedly, they were security, and it was an expensive cargo. However irritating they were about it, they were doing their job in the way I would want them to do it if I were their boss. A little more politeness wouldn’t have hurt though.”
Ali laughed. “It was funny when one of them finally recognized you. I overheard her telling him who you were.”
Ah, things make more sense now.
“I’d rather not have to be frightening to be treated politely. But that explains their attitude shift before they left.”
Ali chuckled. “They weren’t really scared. Nervous, but not scared. The man wanted your autograph. The woman told him he’d lose his job if he asked for a signature on anything but the delivery document.”
“How much of that did you get from rummaging around in their heads, Ali?”
Ali looked up to me with a bit of a serious look on his face as he answered. “It’s really none of your business how I get my information, Zeke. I have contractual responsibilities to your safety and well-being that are a lot like those guards had to this cargo. That being said, I know you don’t like mental eavesdropping, so I do it as little as possible in order to respect your desires. They are not allowed to carry electronic data devices on the job, only dedicated voice-activated communications gear and a couple pieces of emergency communication equipment. They had to talk to one another to communicate, and my hearing is very, very good when I want it to be.”
Open mouth, insert foot.
I rubbed my temples with both palms. “Sorry, Ali, the last three days have been exhausting. I apologize for questioning you.”
“Forgiven, Zeke.” He smiled. “That’ll cost you a bowl of ice cream.”
“A small enough price to pay, I suppose.” I reached over to rub his head with my hand, and he easily dodged me.
“I’ve been avoiding that for hundreds of years, Zeke. You’ll have to be sneakier than that to mess up my hair.”
The sound of the drone and its guards departing quickly reduced to nothing as I stared at the pile of crates on the concrete pad in the middle of the barn’s workshop floor.
Ali gestured, and I turned in the direction of the gesture, watching in amazement as a door apparently grew out of the wall of the barn, right next to the person-sized door that I usually used for access. It looked just like the door next to it.
“Amazing. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing that.” I commented.
Ali raised an eyebrow at me, then shook his head, and went to open the new door. “You go get my bowl of ice cream. I’ll move the crates into the room in exchange for you preparing and delivering the ice cream we agreed on. The plain vanilla please, not the stuff with peanut butter and chocolate chips in it that Anne likes. Three scoops. Don’t skimp.”
I paused a moment, taken off guard. He knew what flavor ice cream we keep in the house? “How did you know? Nevermind. Vanilla it is.”
I tried to walk out the barn’s person-sized door and nearly hit my nose as it failed to open. I shook my head as I kicked the bottom of the door to help open it, and walked to the house.
Really need to fix that door.
Not a priority.
As I walked away from the barn towards the house, crossing the torn up turf where I had unknowingly jogged in place for Mirage just the other day, I heard Ali talking out loud, and then the sound of several kicks against a door.
I smiled. Apparently the doors were exactly alike, or nearly so. Probably some magical reason I’d never understand for that.
Will Ali fix the door if it bothers him?
A couple minutes later I returned with three large scoops of vanilla ice cream in a bowl for Ali. I had also collected an apple and some beef jerky for myself. The door was still sticky and required some careful balancing of food in one hand and arm as I forced it to open. The crates were missing from the main barn floor, and the new door was nowhere to be found.
So much for hopes of a magically fixed door.
“Looks like mission accomplished?” I asked.
Ali nodded. “I put the door upstairs after I moved the crates through. You really need to fix this door. It’s terrible. I wasn’t strong enough to open it physically.” He looked at me accusingly.
“It’s on the list of things to do, but close to the bottom.” I handed him his ice cream and walked upstairs with my apple and beef jerky. “Getting the armor into useable condition is far higher on the list. I want to be able to do things without always needing to become a black hole of hate.”
Ali was silent as we entered the apartment at the top of the stairs. I pulled out my desk chair and ate the beef jerky while Ali leaned against a wall, eating ice cream.
When I finished my beef jerky, and Ali was about half done with his ice cream, he spoke quietly. “You are now attached peripherally to the magical world. In some ways, perception can become reality. Calling your alternate self a black hole of hate could lead to bad places. It would be best if you used factual or personal names to describe that form, like ‘soul well’ or ‘alternate self’ or even the name ‘Strangest’ that you were given.” He paused. “You can’t see the way things work in the magical world. You can’t even have anyone explain the rules and interactions in a way that can make sense to you. But they are there, and they make a difference, especially to someone who might be extremely long-lived. Some of the important ones, you must learn by rote. Perception shaping reality is one. Especially in regards to self.”
An adult statement, and thought out in advance. I considered his statements for a moment, trying to give them serious consideration. I didn’t understand it, but it seemed to be advise offered in good faith. “I’ll try to remember that, Ali. Please remind me again, if it happens too often. From the way you said it, it seems important, even if I can’t understand why.” I paused. “At least magically I don’t understand. It makes some sense from a psychological point of view. Self-image and all that.”
Note to self: glass is half full.
Ali nodded and smiled a bit, then concentrated on the ice cream that was left. I finished my apple.
When we were both done eating, I asked him “Do I need to make sure you eat healthy food?”
Ali laughed. “No. I can balance everything out in this body as required. Food isn’t even needed, but it’s expected, so I eat.”
“Ah, and it doesn’t matter what you eat?”
“Well, no, but I prefer to eat things that have lots of sugars and fats. Part of the seeming. My seeming is indistinguishable from a human body except by magical means, it’s connected to me in ways that let me know what it wants. I can ignore hunger, and repair the body magically as it tries to starve, but if I don’t eat, it could expose me as being something not human.”
I nodded, smiling. “Noted. Food preferences of a child. Hot dogs, cheeseburgers, steak fries, ice cream, cookies and candy.”
Ali grinned back at me. “Indeed. Bacon and grilled cheese sandwiches too.”
I stood up. My back felt a bit better, but still ached some. “Well, we’ve had our little break and chat. Time to start putting together the suit and its support equipment, if I can manage it.”
I hope I can handle this.
I held out my hand and Ali handed me his bowl. I dropped my apple core and empty jerky wrapper in the trash and rinsed Ali’s bowl and spoon, leaving them in the sink for the time being.
I turned to the two doors where there used to be one, trying to determine which was the new door, based on its position. “The door to the room won’t move an existing door, right, it will form next to another door, without moving the original door? That would seem to be the easiest way to make a change?”
“Yes, Zeke. Affinity and… Never mind. Yes.”
I chuckled at Ali as he knuckled his forehead. “Working with a magical dunce is trying, isn’t it?”
Ali looked up at me with an impish grin that would have had me looking for buckets of water suspended over doors if it had been Danny looking at me like that, at Ali’s apparent age. “Both trying, and refreshing, honestly. Please excuse my moments of consternation. They should become rarer over time.”
“Sure, no problem, Ali. Believe me, I understand to some degree. It’s amazing how few people who run businesses understand how to run a business and be both stern and fair to employees. Hearing some of the ideas out there on best practices has always made me want to do exactly what you just did. I once got in a little trouble at a Better Business Bureau meeting when I face-palmed loudly during a meeting when a human resources person from a failing company was saying ridiculous things about how to maintain corporate discipline. You understand magic. I understand business.”
We smiled at each other as I reached for the door that hadn’t been there before. As I opened the door, my jaw dropped. The room was about fifteen feet by twelve feet, which was unremarkable. What was remarkable was that the floor was covered with structures built from shipping crate remnants as well as mechanical and electronic components strewn throughout the room in something that looked like a cross between a house of cards and a spider’s web. Thousands, if not tens of thousands of parts scattered everywhere.
This isn’t random.
What the fuck did Ali do?
“Ali? Can you explain this?”
Ali had been walking towards the door from the hinge side, and looked at me with puzzlement as I asked him the question. He walked around me and the door and turned his head to get a look inside.
Ali’s eyes opened in surprise, then he narrowed his eyes, then sniffed. “Shit. Svartalves. They usually aren’t this aggressive or incautious. Stay outside the door please. They have clearly organized everything, and I can’t tell at first glance what it will do. I hope they just took everything apart to see how it was put together. If they turned it into a project, I’ll have to haggle with them. If they turned it into a trap, I might have to fight them. Imagine magical tinkers.”
Magic and Tinkers weren’t enough.
I needed them both combined.
I stared at several million dollars of equipment that had apparently been rendered down into the simplest possible components, then sorted, connected, and organized in ways that made no sense to me. My expression and voice probably weren’t pleasant as I turned away from the door. “Ali, I’m going out for a run to cool off. Please do what you can to salvage my gear and equipment. Please let me know if you need to start hurting them to make them fix things. I might want to watch.”