Arc 3, Balance 3

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I rapidly ran down the apartment stairs, shaking the stairway as my feet struck rapidly with far more force than normal.

Careful, ankles!

If I break something, I’ll shift.

As I realized I was talking to myself, and answering, I slowed down a bit, but was still moving too fast when I hit the small door leading outside. It, of course, was jammed shut.  I, of course, had forgotten, again, that it was jammed shut.

I managed to turn my head reflexively to keep from flattening my nose against the jammed door as my full body weight at a fast walking pace smashed into it. As my right cheek and chest hit the door with significant momentum, my right hand and arm was trapped against my stomach.

The door opened from the force of impact, but my body was already rebounding from it. I stood there in the open doorway, breathing heavily, right hand still gripping the doorknob.

That’s going to leave a bruise.

Why didn’t I shift?

As I checked myself out, I realized that even though I had hit the door, hard, I hadn’t done myself any damage because I had hit it mostly with my chest. I still would have normally expected to shift due to the mental shock of the impact.

Doesn’t matter.

Need to do something.

Run.

I let go of the door handle, and stared at the door.

No, I’m fixing this damn door before it kills me.

I started to examine the doorframe, looking for the scrape marks that would indicate where the door was jamming against its frame. It didn’t take long for me to determine where the problem was.  Written on the inner surfaces of the top inner hinge was a bold message in black marker ink.  As the door opened, if you looked at the hinge, the message was clearly visible.  ‘Remove shim to remove jam.’

Mirage, or Mindblade? Maybe even Cog?  Danny playing a joke? Did it matter?  Had anyone mentioned having done this to my door?  I couldn’t remember.

Probably Mirage or Mindblade, to help them contain and monitor me.

I clenched my fists and counted to ten. I could see the edge of a shim, visible under the hinge plate against the frame of the door.

I babbled a string of mild curses, poorly enunciated under my breath, as I stalked towards my toolbox where I stored common tools. I found and grabbed a large Philips head screwdriver, wheeling back towards the door with the screwdriver held like a shank.

I swung the door all the way open, using far more strength than necessary. It banged against the front of the barn, and I put my foot against the door to keep it from hitting me as it rebounded back.  I slightly loosened the hinge plate, pulled the offending shim out from behind the plate, and then tightened the screws back down and opened and closed the door three times.  It was still barely touching the frame as it closed, a tiny bit of drag.

Was it like this before?

Doesn’t matter. Good enough.

I put the screwdriver back in its place, and found my box of shims. The box had been left open, which meant it hadn’t been me who last opened it.  Danny knew how I was about my tools and materials, so that probably ruled him out.  The open box was a bit of evidence he wouldn’t have left if he was trying to play a joke on me.  I measured the thickness of the shim and put it back in the appropriate compartment of the box of shims.

Considering when the jamming started, it was almost certainly either Mirage or Mindblade.

Stop obsessing, it’s fixed.

Fixed.

For a brief moment, I luxuriated in the sensation of having accomplishing something, without finding or creating more problems.

I wish I could fix everything this easily.

“Zeke, can you come upstairs?” Ali asked as he looked down the stairs from the half open apartment door. “I think I’ve gotten everything settled.  I have a Svartalve circle leader who would like to speak with you.”

I looked at my hands. A bit of dirt, which I could clean up quickly with some cleaning lotion and a shop rag.  “I’ll be up in a minute after I clean my hands, Ali.”

I looked up at Ali in time to see him nod and close the door as he backed into the apartment.

I walked over to the hand cleaner dispenser, pressed the lever at the bottom, and then rubbed the cleaning goo rigorously over my hands before using a shop rag to wipe most of the grime and goo off. I then walked upstairs, hoping that Ali had fixed more problems than he caused.

As I opened the door and walked into the apartment, I asked “Talk to me Ali. What’s happening?”

Ali turned away from where he had apparently been talking to someone I couldn’t see. “Valsom here would like to apologize for his team disassembling your equipment and causing you distress.”

More invisible people. Great.

“I’d prefer to be able to see the people I’m talking to.” I said as I walked towards the sink. My hands weren’t clean, they just didn’t have hinge grease on them anymore.  Shop goo was definitely not something I wanted to stay on my hands even in trace amounts.

I could somehow feel anger coming from Ali’s direction, and turned towards the threat, only to see Ali waving his arms and exclaiming “I told you he’s a non-practitioner.” Ali paused.  “He knows nothing and I have not had the opportunity to teach him much at all!”

I felt the anger fade. “Ali, please explain what just happened while I wash my hands.”  I turned on the water and washed my hands as Ali started to explain.

I had never felt anyone else’s anger before. It was distinctly strange-feeling.  The initial heat of the anger had been a spike, instant to develop.  Whoever generated that anger was quick to embrace it.  On the plus side, even though I had felt it viscerally, the other person’s anger hadn’t triggered a shift in me.

After a moment muttering words I couldn’t register, Ali continued. “Svartalves are cursed.  If a human manages to see them, they lose a great deal of power, painfully.  You just casually asked Valsom to allow you to give him the human equivalent of a severe, crippling flogging.  Even seeing a photo of them will cause them to lose almost every bit of their magic and cripple them.”

More to remember. Great.

I turned towards the spot in the floor by the entrance to the room where the armor was stored. Based on Ali’s positioning, that was where I suspected Valsom was standing.  “I apologize for my unintended insult, Valsom.  As Ali says, I am mostly ignorant of magical lore.  Until recently I had no association with magic or magical beings.”  I thought about the statement and added a bit. “That I know of.”

A high pitched voice spoke. “Fairly said.  The words match the world to high nines.”

I was briefly startled by Valsom using the engineering phrase ‘high nines.’ Engineering talk from a magical being?  Then I remembered what Ali had said.

Magical tinkers.

I could feel the scrutiny of something, and Ali appeared to get a little tense. “No, you can’t experiment with the connections between him and the magical construct.”

Another pause before Ali spoke again. I was apparently only hearing half of the conversation.  “I don’t care if it’s interesting, do not touch.  You can look at it all you want, but if you touch it, I’ll be forced to attack you.  The only reason I’m not attacking you now is that your kind don’t have the capacity to withdraw energy from the soul well.  Your connection to mortality is too weak to…”

The argument sounded important, but it also sounded like something Ali was not worried about enforcing with or without an agreement.

“Ali, I’m sorry to interrupt. Your discussion appears to be important, but I can’t participate meaningfully in a discussion about limiting the activities of a being that I can’t detect.  I would, however, like to learn what happened to the suit and equipment that was in your room, and learn about the nature of the agreement concerning that equipment.”

Ali stared at me a moment with an irritated expression, then nodded. I could feel someone else, probably Valsom, staring at me.  I had a brief flash of insight.  All those times when I felt as if people were watching me when nobody was around?  I now suspected that I had been watched, but by something I could not see.

Great. I just had to realize that.

Hello, paranoia.

Valsom’s voice broke the uncomfortable silence. “I made an error when I authorized my team to disassemble your devices.  None of the devices had any sort of strong aura of ownership to indicate they belonged to anyone who cared about them.  They were placed in a pocket dimension we knew to have been created by a young Jinn.  That same Jinn carried the parts into the room.  That Jinn owed us several pieces of human electronics from an agreement years ago.”

Pieces fell together in my head. “You thought that Ali was repaying a debt.”

There was a brief feeling of irritation. Apparently Valsom didn’t appreciate being interrupted.

Manners, Zeke.

Valsom’s voice replied, sharply, with a little coldness. “Exactly.”  There was a pause.  “I must apologize now.  I forgot your ignorance.  I and my kind have very little tolerance for interruptions.”

I nodded in the direction of the voice. “Understood.  Apology accepted.  I apologize for interrupting.”

Valsom replied in turn. “Accepted.  Thank you.”

It was difficult to reconcile such a high pitched voice with a command presence, but Valsom had both. Somehow.

“Ali told me that he thought he had arranged a settlement. Can we discuss that?”  I asked, trying to bring the conversation back to something concrete.

“Before you insulted me, my team was going to simply reassemble your suit and its associated equipment, and then leave it alone in Ali’s pocket dimension. Now, however…”  I could feel someone watching me closely.

I wanted to say ‘I didn’t know.‘  Somehow, despite the words from earlier, I doubted that would matter a great deal.  I had also apologized for interrupting already, so I kept my mouth shut and waited to see what Valsom would say next.

There was a short, high pitched grunt that gave the impression of satisfaction, and Valsom continued. “Since you insulted me, even threatened me with harm, despite your ignorance, I will claim a boon from you.”

Ali looked concerned. “Valsom, Zeke doesn’t know enough to be offering boons.  I need to insist that you…”

“Jinn child, I have dealt with humans before, even, rarely, with those lacking the gift. My kind don’t live as long as yours do, but I’m still older than you.”  This time I heard what Valsom said to Ali.  I briefly wondered which of them had kept me from hearing Valsom’s part of their conversation before.

Ali stared at where Valsom was apparently standing. “If your requested boon is hurtful to my ward, you will regret the harm done.”

My ward?

It was clear that I needed to speak more to Ali about our relationship.

I could feel some of that anger again, but not directed at me.

“Stop being petulant, Valsom, I’m contracted to protect Zeke. If you offer him harm, I’m bound to act.  The greater the harm, the greater my leeway to act.”

Valsom’s voice again. “Jinn child, your concern for your ward does you credit, but he can’t touch magic directly.  A requested boon will not bind him strictly.  He has the feel of one who keeps promises, and his offered insult was minor considering the circumstances.”

Ali turned to me. “Be careful what you agree to.”

Warning me about negotiations?

I raised an eyebrow at Ali, and he laughed. “Fine, I’ll consult if you ask for help Zeke.”

There was a high pitched “Harrumph” and then Valsom started speaking. “We have already reassembled the armor and equipment, as we agreed after Ali explained that it was not his.  We even fixed a couple minor flaws as a minor penance for the distress we caused you.”  He paused.  “Then you insulted me.  Unintentionally, but the thought of being made visible to a human is not a pleasant thing to consider.  Ali’s comment about flogging is roughly accurate.”  He paused.  “The boon that I ask of you is that we be allowed to maintain your armor, and perhaps improve on it from time to time.”

What?

I spoke haltingly, trying to make sense of the request as I spoke. “Wait.  You want… to be able to maintain and improve my armor…  You would consider this as a boon from myself to you?”

“You understand correctly.” Valsom answered.

I turned away from the space in front of Ali to face Ali directly. “Ali, am I missing something here?”

Ali chuckled and shook his head. “They are Svartalves, Zeke, they live to work.  While it might seem to you that what Valsom is requesting is more valuable as a benefit to you than it would be to him, I assure you that it’s not.  They are strongly limited in their access to human technology.  The same techniques that humans use to protect their industry from gremlins also keeps Svartalves from having easy access to that same human technology.  They are limited, almost exclusively, to collecting unmonitored, lost items that no human has a strong attachment to any longer.”

Techniques that protect industry from gremlins?

Interesting. Later.

I shook my head. Things weren’t adding up.  “Why not just make things from scratch themselves?”

Valsom spoke up with some definite heat in his squeaky voice. “The gods took that right from us ages ago.  We must not create technology of our own without the permission of a god.  That permission is rarely given.”

Some bitterness there.

“I am sorry to have touched a sore point, Valsom.”

“Apology accepted. Please do not mention it around me again.”

“Why were you concerned about the boon, Ali? This boon seems like a benefit to both myself and Valsom.”

“Zeke, Valsom could have asked for a lot of different things. I did not know what he would ask for, and I can’t read his mind like I can most humans.”

I grunted. “Hm.” After a moment of consideration “Improvements to my armor would be discussed with me before you implement them?”

“Of course.” Valsom agreed, with a touch of humor in his voice that I didn’t miss.

“Will I be able to veto improvements I don’t like?” I asked, following up.

“No.” The high-pitched voice was a little cold this time.  He didn’t like me seeing through his little loophole, I guess.

“Even if the suit fails, I still have my powers, I suppose.” I paused, picking my words carefully before continuing.  “If the changes you make cause me to not be comfortable using the current suit of armor, I guess I can just trade it to someone else and get a new suit.  I think that would terminate our agreement, right?”

Fold or call, Valsom.

Ali grinned at me, and gave me a thumbs up.

Valsom replied. “Fine.  If we make changes you don’t like, you can ask us to revert them.  You have to try them first though.  A suit problem certainly won’t kill you if I can see the connections between you and the soul well properly.”

I hate faceless negotiating.

Workaholic magical tinkers to perform free maintenance and potential improvements on the armor? I wouldn’t have to slave over the armor or spend days reading through manuals to figure out proper maintenance to keep it working?  If they made a change I didn’t like, they would change it back?  I thought back to Valsom’s wording.  I could ask them to revert changes.

“If I ask you to revert changes, you will revert changes?”

“This is a boon I am asking of you, not a boon you are asking of me.” Valsom’s voice answered with irritation.

I smiled in the direction of his voice. “We both know that we will both benefit from the arrangement you are requesting in your boon.  I’m the one who will be in that suit, and it is my suit.  I would be more than happy to allow you to assist me in maintaining and even improving the suit, but I will have a real say in the direction of its development.”

I heard something barely audible that sounded like “Uppity human,” followed by a louder “If you ask us to revert changes we have made, we will revert the changes.”

“As soon as you can.” I pressed.

“Yes. Yes.  Do you agree?” Valsom sounded annoyed.

Tinker. Definitely feels like a tinker.

One of the more grounded ones.

I looked at Ali, who nodded.

I closed my eyes and tried to put an agreement together in my head before speaking. “With Ali as my witness, I give you, Valsom, and your team the right to maintain and improve my armor with my oversight.  My oversight will include the right to require reversion of function changes as soon as possible if I have tested them and do not agree with the changes.  If, at any time, I become dissatisfied with the work being performed on the armor, I reserve the right to transfer ownership of the armor from myself to another, ending our agreement.  Do you accept this boon with its restrictions?”

Valsom made irritated noises but finally spoke. “Agreed.  I accept the boon offered and its restrictions.”  A moment later I barely heard.  “Uppity humans.  Restrictions on a boon.”

I smiled.

Ali laughed. “I told you he’d bargain well, Valsom, if you tried to bargain with him.”

“You helped him, child. Still, it’s a bargain my team will enjoy living up to, even with its warts.”

“Can I try on the suit now, Valsom?” I asked. “You can call me Zeke if you wish.”

Ali gave me a sharp look at that, then sighed. “Zeke, don’t offer your name to magical beings like that.  It can be dangerous.  Almost all magical beings with human level intelligence have a sense of intent that allows us to know when you are speaking to us, and when we speak to you, you will also understand you are being addressed without need for personal names.  Personal names are not required.  I can’t explain it to you any better than that.”

“You already told him my name.  I don’t get it.”

“There’s a difference between knowing your name, and being offered your name.  I cannot offer your name to anyone.  I can tell it, but not offer it.”

Ownership rules of some sort, I guess?

“What if I don’t know they are magical beings?”

“Then it doesn’t count. Perception controls the link…”  Ali paused and his forehead creased.  “Nevermind.  Just try not to give any parts of your real name to anyone you know is a magical being unless absolutely necessary.”

“What if I know them and think they are non-magical beings, and give them my name, if I give them my name later, after I find out they are magical, is that bad, even though they already knew my name from when I didn’t know they were magical?”

“Yes.” Valsom and Ali both answered at the same time.

I thought a moment. “Does the same rule apply to magical beings offering me their names?”

“Yes, Zeke, but Ali and Valsom are not our real names. They are pseudonyms.”

Brain. Hurts.

“About the suit. Can I try it on?”

Valsom answered. “Sure.  Have you read the manual?”

“Um, no. I’m pretty good with machines though.”

I heard at least half a dozen tiny high pitched voices starting to laugh from the direction of the door as Valsom commented, “Cmon, Ali, this will be fun.”

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13 comments

    • farmerbob1

      I agree that there has been too much talking and not enough action recently. It’s a tendency of mine to write verbal conflict more than action conflict. This is about as irritating to me as it is to some of you, perhaps. One of the things that it’s hard to learn is story pacing.

      So let’s start blowing things up next chapter, shall we?

    • Hydrargentium

      I’m not. I like that negotiation is a running theme in this story. Over time, the telling will have to be sure not to repeat itself too much, because the reader will have become used to all the basics of the negotiating (just like you don’t need to fully describe Zeke’s powers ever time he uses them). I find the negotiating theme refreshing, very much so because it occurs so infrequently in modern tales.

      Hg

  1. thomas

    Valsom seems like a good addition to the story. I hope he ads lots of unpredictability to Zs life.

    • to help them contain monitor and me.
    I think you meant: to help them contain and monitor me.

    • farmerbob1

      Indeed, I did. Fixed.
      As for Valsom, I don’t think we’ll see him much, but I’m sure we’ll see the results of his activities every now and then 🙂

      I’m trying to get an idea of how often Zeke’s going to emulate the “Greatest American Hero” in his suit, and whose fault it will be when he does…

      • Drachomen

        I loved Greatest American Hero, and an occasional oops would be interesting.
        On the negotiation thing that Michael and Hg were talking about, I really like it. It isn’t often you see a super of any kind trained in true compromise and diplomacy. Most are like Gorgon, coming from a position of power so high above the others that compromise is completely unheard of. Zeke has enough power that he could use strong-arm diplomacy, and the fact that he negotiates instead is a point to his character. I look forward to him setting up a contract between Earth and an elder god.

  2. ereshkigala

    Smartest thing Zeke could do would be to offer a (secret) division of his company where Svartalves can tinker with human tinker tech. Just how many boons would the Svartalves owe him if he thus helps them sidestep the gods’ ban?

    Of course, some uncool guys like Odin or Zeus might have some words to say on the matter.

      • Michael

        What about some legal loopholes in the definition of “create”? What if, say, the svartalves were to break down a conveniently ridiculous Rube Goldberg machine designed to do nothing and created using round numbers of scaling mechanical parts (mechanical purism?), then reassemble some of the remains into something that simply does nothing more efficiently, and, purely as a side effect, does something useful?

        • ereshkigala

          When you discuss legal stuff with Zeus, his answer is usually a thunderbolt.

          I mean, he’s the Chaotic Neutral king of the gods. And if the gods forced the Svartalves into such a negative bargain in the first place, it’s they who’re going to interpret the bargain to their favor. The most powerful party usually dictates terms anyway – look at our hero’s interaction with Gorgon. The only reason the magic folk usually follow certain rules is because a third party more powerful than them (the force of magic itself) dictates those rules to the two parties. Sufficiently powerful individuals could simply break deals – it’s just more entertaining to play by them. After four billion years there isn’t much you haven’t seen or done anymore.

  3. Jesp

    Typo:
    “gremlins also keeps smartalves”
    While true they are smart, I think that should be a “v”. 🙂

    I like the bargaining as well, but smack-downs have their own appeal. ^_^

    Thanks for another great installment!

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