I couldn’t help but stare at Disco Wolf.
He’s offering to help me?
“Ah, no insult intended Disco Wolf, but doing favors for strangers isn’t exactly a well-documented part of your history.”
He tilted his head at me slightly. “Perhaps I have decided it’s time for a change in my life? Maybe I would like to start doing things because other people need them done, rather than simply because I want to do them? It’s not unheard of for supers who didn’t go too far down the path of senseless violence and death to rehabilitate themselves.”
He had a point. If I remembered right, Jumping Jack started out as a thief, with a specialty of stealing shipments from armored cars during transit.
He maybe did that for maybe a year before he got caught.
That wasn’t a good comparison. Disco Wolf was highly active for two decades and occasionally active for two decades more. He had a life habit. Forty years or more of serial grand theft. Never apprehended.
At the same time, he never killed anyone either. Despite ample opportunity. He was even recorded from time to time helping bystanders avoid injury when other supers tried to stop or capture him.
All of this is from two minutes on SuperWiki.
Grains of Salt, Zeke. Huge grains of salt.
Still, he did come here, today. That has to mean something.
Disco Wolf had moved a few feet closer to me, to roughly my arm’s length. By the time he reached that position, the canine grin had disappeared. He was looking at my face.
Is my expression readable?
Probably. He’s demonstrated highly enhanced senses.
As I looked at him, I smiled, then put on my negotiating face. “I’m not used to having to guard my expression in this form. I’m considering what you’ve said, and I’m not sure what to think of it.”
The canine grin came back, and he licked his nose. “I could tell. I was surprised that you didn’t think I was referring to helping you remove those machines that dug into you before you healed around them.”
Good point. Why didn’t I think that?
I had already removed four of the assault balls and tied bits of my skin around them to keep them inert. If Octagon was right and the media was recording me, that footage might cause a stir. There weren’t many supers that could do self-surgery. There were fewer that cut pieces of themselves off to use as tools. It just hadn’t occurred to me that someone would want to help me cut out stuff stuck inside me. Doctors would only want to kill me in Strangest form, not help me.
“I’ve got that under control, it didn’t seem like you would offer to help me with something if it was clear I wasn’t having any obvious problems. Let me think about what you said while I take care of these last two.” I clumsily managed to cut another deep gash over one of the remaining two machines inside me, and then reached my hand in to grab the thing and tear it out. Then I cut another strip of skin off my leg and tied it around the device.
“That’s not painful?” Disco Wolf asked, watching as I started to cut another deep gash in myself to remove the last assault ball.
“Eh, no. Physical damage doesn’t cause me pain. I can tell it’s happening, but there’s no real discomfort associated with it. It took me a while to realize that what pain I thought I was feeling was just my brain telling me what it imagined I should be feeling. Even then it was never bad.”
Energy is a different matter.
“That seems rather handy.” Disco Wolf looked at me but didn’t say anything else.
He’s waiting for me to dig out the last gizmo.
I finished making the slash in my torso and ripped out the last assault ball, wrapping it in another piece of skin cut from my left leg. Looking at the pile of six devices, I spoke to AL, or rather through AL’s radio to talk to Octagon. “Octagon, I have six sample assault balls, the ones that dug into me during the initial assault. Do you have a stasis box in your bag that will hold half a dozen golf balls with some room to spare? They might have survived Faraday’s assault since they were deactivated by touching my insides.”
“One second, Strangest, I’ll see if anyone wants more samples.” A few seconds later he replied. “Sure, there are a couple tinkers that would like more samples that might be in good condition. Apparently these things have some interesting bits. I’m bringing AL back to get a stasis box from storage. I’ll send your partner over with the box shortly.”
AL loped off towards the group of supers and Ali congregated a few feet from the bugman soldier. It was clear based on body language that Octagon and one of the other flying supers were grilling Ali. It was also clear that Ali was working as the hands for the other heroes more interested in the soldier than Ali. Badger was just Badger. Clearly annoyed to be there, but apparently doing what he was asked. I watched the heavy shell of what looked like a combination of iron and repurposed scrap metal shift and modify itself a little around the soldier as one of Octagon’s group spoke and gestured.
Was I ready to deal with Disco Wolf? If he was offering to help me with… something, then there would almost certainly be the expectation that I would return the favor with… something.
I turned to Disco Wolf as Octagon opened his storage bag, and AL jumped into it.
You still owe me a bag, Octagon.
“Disco Wolf, you’ve spent the last forty years as a super thief, quite possibly the most successful thief in history. Some of the things you have done have been pretty amazing, even by the standards of supers.”
“Yes, I am the most successful thief in human history, if you limit it to thievery involving physical items. To be honest, that gets boring, being the best, and being so good that nobody else comes close. Every few months I go out to make sure I’ve still got what it takes, and show the world I’m still the top, but I’m not even taking commissions anymore. I’ve been selling what I steal and donating the money to organizations that do infrastructure development in third world countries.” He looked at me, clearly expecting a response.
Is he expecting me to believe he’s become Robin Hood?
I did understand, in a way, what he was saying. Exactitude was head and shoulders above the rest of the retailer community serving tinkers, and it had gotten there because of me. My efforts, my vision. “I understand what it means to be the best, though I did it a bit more legitimately, and I did it by building the best team, rather than all by myself.”
He shrugged; the canine grin appeared momentarily, tongue hanging out the left side of his elongated jaw. “The solo super thief is something of a thing of the past these days. To put it in perspective with your limited experience, Gorgon, and those like him in other regions, don’t like solo grand theft thieves. There really isn’t a community of people who can even challenge my status. People with the potential and the mindset normally get coopted into organized groups of villains, and typically avoid the more lucrative independent jobs for fear of angering their villain bosses.”
“Maybe I’m being dense here. How does helping me have anything to do with your future, Disco Wolf?”
Ali was walking my way, carrying a box about as big as a shoe box. He was not looking at me. He was looking at Disco Wolf, and he was clearly very unhappy.
Disco Wolf turned slightly, following my gaze as he saw my eyes shift, and then addressed Ali. “Ah, there’s the young partner now. Octagon and crew give you a hard time?”
“Yes. It’s understandable though. I look like an eight year old boy.” He looked at me. “I didn’t play mind games with them other than the invisibility thing earlier. We’re going to have to address it with Octagon before long, or he’ll escalate.”
“Why does he care, really?” I asked.
Ali looked at Disco Wolf, then back at me, clearly calculating. “He says it’s because he’s worried about me. I looked at his surface thoughts and could see that’s at least partly true, but he’ll push hard on it because it was him that convinced the rest of the leaders to bring you in today as part of the defense.”
Ali, why did you say that out loud? Don’t answer that.
“Ah, I see. He’s worried the media might think he knew about you. Octagon would have then, by association, invited a kid onto the battlefield. Rainbow Hero politics.” Octagon would defend his hero image vigorously. Allowing supers to bring kid sidekicks into warzones was not something that would go over well for his public image, if the media chose to pursue it. Almost all super power activation seemed to be linked to bodily aging processes. The number of active child supers was absurdly small, but they did exist, and they were watched very carefully by practically everyone.
We will need to defuse this before it festers. Today, if possible.
“Zeke, don’t do any deals with Disco Wolf without talking to me first. Please.” He paused. “Cupcake had the right of it. If you bet against him, you will almost certainly lose, no matter what the bet.”
Disco Wolf’s expression hardened a bit. “Son, don’t interfere between two adults. Strangest here is a grown man, and he knows enough about me that he can probably deal fairly with me even if I wanted to invent a contest with him.”
I was surprised that Ali didn’t have a smart comment, so I spoke up. “Disco Wolf, not everything here is what it appears to be. Ali is older than he looks, and when he concentrates, he’s very adult, and very capable. We work as a team. Don’t try to split us up, or I’ll walk away from whatever it is that you’re trying to accomplish here.”
Disco Wolf looked at me, then at Ali, thoughtfully.
Ali, for his part simply stared at Disco Wolf, nodding once, curtly, but saying nothing.
Is Disco Wolf a practitioner?
“Disco Wolf, I’m wondering if you’re more than just a super?”
Ali and Disco Wolf turned their heads to face me simultaneously. Ali spoke first. “I’m sending this thought mentally Zeke, privately. There are cameras and recorders all over the place.” Ali spoke out loud. “Disco Wolf won’t appreciate us discussing what makes him successful in public. We can talk about that later.” Ali then resumed mental contact. “Yes, Disco Wolf is more than just a super. He has access to magic, and the potential to touch the soul well, and withdraw from it.”
Disco Wolf agreed with Ali. “I would appreciate not discussing the particulars of my abilities publicly.”
I started putting the pieces together. He was a practitioner and a super. No wonder he’d never been caught. Superhuman speed and magic had to be damn powerful together.
He’s not afraid of Ali, or he’s hiding his fear extremely well.
Disco Wolf’s lack of apparent fear indicated he probably had no wards to warn him of danger, or they were disabled. If he did have danger wards, they were not interfering with him strongly enough to be visible to me. I also considered that he might just have a poker face from hell, and actually be frightened out of his mind, but hiding it better than I ever could.
I also had to consider that he might be from the Black Lodge, a patsy, one of the ones that never got taught about danger wards. That didn’t hold together well though. Forty years, or more, was a long time to be a sleeper. It was a long time to assume someone wouldn’t figure out that they hadn’t been taught about danger wards.
The soul well can make people into gods though. That’s a huge prize.
I had to consider that danger wards acted on future data. Practitioners might have clearer ways to see the future, perhaps the soul well’s appearance had been predicted for decades in advance?
As I thought about it more, if Disco Wolf was a practitioner, and had no danger ward, Ali would have put one on him. We had agreed on that. That would have created a reaction in Disco Wolf, if he hadn’t had an active ward before.
Something isn’t adding up here.
I don’t have the knowledge to understand what’s wrong.
“I don’t think we can continue this discussion here, Disco Wolf.”
“Oh, but we have to, Strangest. Part of the reason I chose to talk to you here is because it’s public. I want this on the media record.”
Ali and I just stared. Ali shook his head, looked at the box he was carrying, then at Octagon, who was staring at us. AL was loping back towards us, doubtlessly coming to relay a request through the radio for us to stop dawdling.
As Ali saw AL running towards us, he muttered a few grumpy words, touched the box, and it levitated itself and shot off to Octagon at the pace of a sprinting man. By the time AL arrived at our location a few seconds later, Octagon was grabbing the box out of the air and handing it to one of the supers in the group, who looked at it, tapped his helmet a couple times, then looked at Ali in confusion.
I picked up the strips of skin off the ground and fitted them into place on my legs. “Octagon, when I shift to human, the soldier is probably going to try to kill itself. Is your team ready to try and stop that?” I was watching him as I listened to his voice on the radio.
Octagon’s voice came across the radio. “We hope so. Afterimage has a headache, but thinks he’s found and disabled the mental structures used to initiate innate biological suicide. Suitcraft and Badger have removed the armor. Medica wants to talk to your partner about what he did and how, later. She could tell that her power was working on the alien, but it was barely active. Not consistent with major injuries.”
I couldn’t resist teasing Ali a bit. “You’re a popular guy today, Ali, everyone wants to talk to you.”
While I was teasing Ali, Octagon paused and I could see him looking at the rest, apparently talking, before turning back to me. “We’re ready. Please disable your power.”
I tried to switch back to human form, and couldn’t. Not until I walked a few more feet away from the bugman soldier. After I had switched back to my human body, my suit started to reboot automatically.
Octagon spoke through the radio taped onto AL a few seconds later. “Strangest, Disco Wolf, thank you.” There was a clear pause, but Octagon continued clearly reluctantly, “Ali, thank you too, even if I have a problem with you being here, it’s clear you saved this soldier based on video of his wounds as he crawled to Strangest.” Another pause. “We’ve got to get this prisoner somewhere safer. Normally there aren’t follow up attacks in the short term, but these fellows were very aggressive, they killed several hundred bystanders, a company of soldiers, and three supers in Columbia when containment failed before backup arrived. There was no attempt on their part to take prisoners. We need to know more about them, ASAP. We also need to discuss Ali, soonest, after I’ve delivered the prisoner.” Another pause. “AL, return, please.”
AL had already turned and was running back to Octagon. “Understood, Octagon. You know where I live. I guess I speak for us all when I say you’re welcome.”
Ali and Disco Wolf both said “Yes.”
Amazingly, Octagon didn’t say anything else. He picked up a large iron box, and flew off at what must have been nearly two hundred miles per hour, leaving Medica, Afterimage, Suitcraft, and Badger behind. Badger wasted no time and immediately jogged off. Suitcraft picked up a footlocker-sized container with one hand, and then walked a few feet and picked up a rifle-spear with the other, then he simply blipped out of existence.
Teleporter. Tinkers have it so easy.
Except for the mental health issues.
Afterimage started adjusting one of the surfaces of his costume, and a few seconds later he also disappeared. The suit had fully rebooted by the time the teleportation occurred, and identified the device used as an Enclave teleporter, by its energy signature.
Medica started walking across the battlefield in our direction, clearly intending to talk to us, or maybe just Ali.
“I think I understand what you might be asking me for here, Disco Wolf. I’m not sure exactly why you approached me about it, but I think I know what you want.”
Ali looked very nervously at me.
Disco Wolf licked his nose; then his tongue fell out the left side of his jaw as his mouth gaped a little. “Do tell.”
“You made a bit of a spectacle of yourself by proving you could ignore my power, and I made a bit of a spectacle of myself being used as bait to stop a dimensional invasion. Now the two spectacles are talking to one another. How many news teams have spy-eyes floating around in pickup range of our conversation as we speak?”
Disco Wolf did a full circle, his ears flicking at speeds even my suit could barely register, His eyes, when I could see them, were moving and refocusing at absurd speeds too. After a single turn, Disco Wolf commented. “Twenty-three remotes in range to be recording us. Can’t say who they belong to, but I recognize the make and model of eighteen of them being standard news drones.”
My suit was only picking up twenty-one remotes nearby and was only able to ID ten of them by manufacturer. I wasn’t sure if he was exaggerating a bit, or if he did have better senses than my suit.
Does it matter?
I decided it wouldn’t hurt to flatter his prowess a bit. After all, he had clearly spotted my drone, and it was a lot harder to see than most news drones. I shook my head. “I don’t see that many, but I’m not surprised. My suit just lets me be a lightweight hero without using my main power, it’s not a high-end suit.”
Medica was about halfway to us, carefully stepping through the piles of shattered armor, impact craters, and dismembered bugman carcasses. She was clearly unhappy walking through the battlefield nastiness, even from more than fifty feet away. Her body language was screaming even if she was saying nothing out loud that the suit could pick up, other than occasional sub-vocalized sounds of disgust.
Ali was watching both me and Disco Wolf, and he was very tense.
Disco Wolf glanced at Ali, licked his nose, and his tongue popped right back out the slightly-open mouth again in that canine grin. “So, what is it that I want, Strangest?” Disco Wolf challenged me, crisply, but not in an unfriendly tone.
“I think you want me to make a high profile public bet with you that I will hope to lose.”