Disco Wolf pressed me, aggressive, but not an attack. There was no longer any smile. “What sort of bet would you like to make that you would hope to lose?”
Ali looked at me, then at Disco Wolf. “Be very careful, and remember our contract, Zeke.”
I looked at Ali, briefly, wondering if he should he have mentioned the contract out loud. I remembered our discussion earlier that Octagon and others could not detect. Was he using mental shenanigans on me in human form? After a second of thought, I realized I had been in Strangest form before, if he was using mental powers then, it wasn’t on me.
Disco Wolf was starting to look a bit impatient, and cut his eyes at Ali, while at the same time speaking to me. “Make your faceplate transparent, Strangest, so I can see your face.”
I made the appropriate request and the suit modified the electrical charges passing through the facial armor, changing the inner surface from opaque to transparent. “OK, Disco Wolf. This better?”
While the suit was adjusting the charge on the faceplate, Ali had crossed his arms and planted his feet, and stared right at Disco Wolf.
Disco wolf briefly glanced at me and nodded, then looked intently back at Ali.
There was clearly more being said there than I was hearing. They were probably having a whole discussion on a level I couldn’t detect, using magical abilities of some sort.
Stick with what you know.
When I started talking again, both of them snapped their heads to me. Ali’s was not as dramatic, but both of them were clearly in a state of intense concentration, directed at each other, and me as well. “The way I see it, Disco Wolf, you’ve got two reputations. One is the world’s most successful thief specializing in physical items. The other is that you don’t lose a bet.” I looked at him to see if he would give me a sign if I was on track.
Disco Wolf nodded, but said nothing.
Not very helpful.
Disco Wolf grinned at me, tongue falling out briefly before he licked his nose and continued simply staring intently at my face. “Go on.”
“From what I overheard earlier, and the fact that you showed up here today, I think you might want to reform.” I paused. “Forty years of success at the very top of your field of thievery with no failure is really hard to leave behind though, so you are going to leverage your gambling against your thievery. You want to change, but you need help. Somehow though, I don’t think you would be welcome in a twelve step program outside of a prison.”
My suit and its automatically deployed remotes were picking up a lot more remotes close by, and several others approaching rapidly from far away with strong energy signatures.
The news teams and at least a few tinkers are homing in to find out what this is all about.
Then I noticed someone wearing a cat-themed suit watching from a vantage point on top of one of the bunkers. The suit put a name, Lynx, over her head when it determined what I was looking at. When I turned my head to look for more watchers, the suit AI was good enough to understand what I was doing and pointed out several supers with known enhanced senses or apparent equipment for remote sensing that were watching discretely from outside the killing grounds. Medica took a couple more steps and stopped after finding a relatively clean spot of dirt to stand in. She then crossed her arms, patiently waiting her turn, but clearly listening intently.
“So, what’s your bet?” Disco Wolf replied.
“I bet that your reputation as a thief is more important to you than your reputation that you never lose a bet.” I paused. “But that’s not really a wager that you can agree to, is it?”
Disco Wolf shook his head, deliberately. “No, that’s not a wager. Clean it up, try it again. Don’t be too vague, and make it a challenge, not a statement.”
I guessed right then.
It seemed obvious, but supers can be weird sometimes. Especially the solo types.
“I bet that you will not be able to stop stealing things.”
Probably too strict.
Disco Wolf winced. “It’s not just villains that steal things. Can I at least be allowed to steal things if I am asked to do so by someone you trust?” He paused. “I can’t agree to that bet, yet.”
I almost felt sorry for him, his addiction to thievery was pretty clear based on his history. He did have a point though. Heroes did sometimes work covertly, even stealing from villains. Thinking about it for a moment, I realized I knew exactly the right person for the job. “I bet that you will not be able to stop stealing things that you do not have Cupcake’s permission to steal.”
Disco Wolf stared at me, immobile except for his tongue, which snaked out and licked his nose. “Cupcake. Octagon’s wife. I expected you to suggest your own wife.”
Keep Anne out of this.
“Yes, Cupcake. She’s a Rainbow Hero. She almost never fights anyone, but she’s highly visible and her whereabouts are normally pretty easy to track. She proved today that she knows who you are. There aren’t many people that would doubt her integrity. She’s damn near killed herself half a dozen times feeding people at disaster sites.”
“If she refuses?” Disco Wolf stared at me.
How does he talk without moving his mouth?
Practitioner. Magic weirdness. Ventriloquism. Whatever.
“I don’t think she will refuse. She’s active and benevolent, even if her powers don’t let her fight. If she will not accept, then we can discuss this again.”
Medica cleared her throat, before starting to speak. “You could just, ah, ask her? I work with Cupcake frequently at disaster sites, and have her phone number. Chances are very good that some newsperson is showing her this live conversation as we speak.” Medica touched her stomach, then pulled a smartphone out from a pocket there, glancing at the screen. “No need for me to call her. She’s calling me. No surprise. I can see three news drones, which means there are probably a lot more.”
Medica answered her phone. “Hello, Cupcake.” A brief pause. “Yes, they are still talking about it now, live.” She paused. “OK, I’ll put you on speakerphone now.”
Cupcake’s voice came out strongly over the phone. “Strangest, I really do not appreciate you volunteering me for something like this without consulting me first.”
“If you won’t do it, can you suggest someone else we can use as a control for Disco Wolf?” I asked.
There was a pause. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it, Strangest. Count me in. Like you said, I try to support the hero community of supers, and I do know Disco Wolf’s history. Both what he has done and what he hasn’t done. I can’t say I’m confident that he will be able to live up to the bet, but I’m willing to help him try, if this will help him. How long is this bet going to last? I want the option of passing the responsibility to another if I can’t do it. I’ll put my choice in my living will if this deal goes through.”
“Until either Disco Wolf or I pass away, I think. I’m pretty sure that we don’t want to put a time limit on being good?”
Disco Wolf shook his head. “I can’t win against you that way. If there’s no way to win, it’s not a bet.”
Without thinking, I said, “Is it really about winning?” I would have taken that back if I could.
“Isn’t that what you were just telling me about myself?” That canine grin.
I couldn’t help but grin back, but composed myself quickly. “True. Five years then.” I paused. “Automatic renewal of the bet after five years if I lose. I’ll put up with a few visible scars if that’s the price to pay to help keep you on the straight and narrow, Disco Wolf, especially if you use your skills and powers to benefit others.”
He’s what, seventy now?
Will shifting and regenerating interfere with the scarring?
Ali spoke up. “Strangest, be sure that he scars your human form, if he wins.”
Is it even possible to scar the soul well?
Wait. Letting him try would be letting him touch the soul well.
Was that the plan?
I looked at Ali, then at Disco Wolf, who was staring at Ali with a very intent glare. As he noticed my attention, he turned his head back to face me, and commented. “OK, put it all together now. Let’s see what you’ve come up with.”
“I bet that at some time in the next five years, you will not be able to resist stealing something significant that you do not have Cupcake’s permission to steal.” I paused. “Cupcake can choose a replacement if she doesn’t want to act as your control any longer, and subsequent people in Cupcake’s role can choose replacements in the same way. If I lose the bet, the forehead scar will be placed on my human body, and the bet timer will start on a new five-year bet with the same rules.”
By his hesitant body language, mostly his ears folding back and a bit of a squint, I could tell Disco Wolf was clearly not happy with everything, but after a moment started speaking. “Never done a bet so formally, so publicly. Normally it’s just two people, me and someone trying to stop me or challenge me.” He paused and looked at Ali, then back at me. “It’s not exactly what I wanted, but walking away right now would hurt in a lot of ways, and make it a lot harder to change. I agree to the terms, even if they aren’t the terms I would have preferred.”
He’s used to taking what he wants, not negotiating.
I shrugged. “That’s usually what happens in any sort of real world agreement that doesn’t involve threats. Neither side gets everything they want.” I paused. “That rule seems to work most of the time for people who bargain in good faith. If you do win the bet, it’ll be worth a red ‘l’ for ‘loser’ on my forehead, even if I’d rather not be marked that way.”
Disco Wolf leaned forward slightly, looked me in the eye through the suit’s clear faceplate, and nodded. “True, but I rarely wager when I might lose. This wager puts me in a position that I have to lose, in order to win. You, on the other hand, are going to win in a way, even if you lose.” He paused. “I can accept that though, because your win isn’t against me, and my loss will be self-inflicted.”
At that moment, I realized that this scenario really was what Disco Wolf meant when he was asking if he could help me. I commanded the suit to disconnect my right gauntlet, pulled it off with my left hand, and then stuck out my right hand to shake. Disco Wolf reached out to grip my hand with his own right hand, carefully avoiding cutting me with fingertip claws that looked more like shark’s teeth sticking out from under human fingernails than canine claws.
As we shook, Disco Wolf staggered a bit. “Oof, intense. I need to go. Cupcake, I’ll send you a few ways to reach out to me.”
Intense? Strange choice of words.
Medica’s eyes narrowed, briefly, clearly concerned, as Disco Wolf staggered. I supported his weight without needing much help from the suit. After a moment, she relaxed, frowning but saying nothing.
Ability to heal at a distance. Right.
Cupcake’s voice came out of Medica’s phone. “OK, Disco Wolf. I’ll get with a few people and try to come up with ideas on how to use your abilities.” There was a brief pause. “Medica, after you get a chance to talk to Strangest and his new partner, call me.”
Disco Wolf and I disengaged our handshake. He seemed steady on his feet after the brief moment of weakness. One moment he was there, the next he wasn’t. The suit was able to track the path he took to leave the area, but I couldn’t.
Ali looked a bit shaken, but not angry.
Ali’s reactions through this entire Disco Wolf thing have been strange.
Ali and I were both looking towards the last place where Disco Wolf had been in our line of sight..
“That was… Peculiar.” I said, watching Ali’s reaction.
Ali looked up at me. “Yes. Yes it was. We need to talk about this later, because I know you’re going to figure it out.”
Medica looked at the two of us. “You don’t talk like the average Sponge Bill fan, Ali.”
Ali and I were both startled by her speaking, and turned to face her.
“I’m not eight. I just look like it.” Ali blurted out.
“You look like it to my eyes, and to my power, Ali.”
“Things aren’t always what they appear. If I were actually eight, do you think I could be mentally functional in the middle of this slaughterhouse?”
Medica looked around her and grimaced, then turned back to Ali and pinned him with a stare. “I have worked with child soldiers in third world countries, Ali. I’ve seen remarkably cold-blooded pre-teens. Your point about this being a slaughterhouse is a good point though. Would either of you mind terribly if we were to go somewhere besides this place to talk?”
“Not at all.” I said, as I re-attached the gauntlet to my right arm armor.
Ali made a gesture, and a carpet appeared, about two feet off the ground, floating in the air. “Step aboard, and be seated, Medica. There’s no need for you to walk across this mess.”
A flying carpet. Really.
I looked at Ali, and he gave me a brief, impish grin.
Medica walked up to the carpet, and poked at the surface, testing it as if it were a hotel bed of uncertain quality. “You didn’t use this before, Ali.” She turned and looked at Ali’s hair and face, and her eyes narrowed. She was clearly making connections between the name, the carpet, but the red hair and pale freckled complexion was throwing off the stereotypical image of a Jinn.
Ali shook his head. “No, I’ve seen carnage before. At least these bodies aren’t human. As I said, I’m not eight. I didn’t need the carpet. I think you do. You were clearly having issues walking across this,” Ali paused and waved his right hand in a brief arc, “when you were coming to speak to us.”
Medica looked at me, clearly wanting me to explain what was going on.
I looked from Medica to Ali, then back. “He’s not eight, even though he acts like it from time to time. I’m not going to try to explain, because it’s not my place to do so. He’s more than capable of doing it himself.” I shrugged. “I’ll be honest and say I don’t understand it well enough to explain, even if it were my place to do so.”
Medica looked at me, clearly unhappy with my answer.
I shrugged. “I’m not his guardian, Medica. He doesn’t need one. He might seem to be a human boy, but remember that he can operate within my anger field. He also put that bug soldier together again, and has levitation and access to pockets in space. You’ve seen all these things yourself.”
“And the selective invisibility too. That’s still not a very good answer, Strangest.” Medica stated, firmly.
“If you keep treating Ali as a child and ignoring him to speak to me, you’re going to get to see Ali’s temper, Medica. He’s not a dependent of mine. Not by any stretch of the imagination. He’s not a sidekick, he’s my partner. Talk to him.”
Ali had been standing there, just staring at the two of us as we talked, and as Medica and I looked back at him, he stood very straight and proper, and bowed just the slightest amount to both of us. “Thank you, Zeke. Medica, I understand that it is hard for you to discount what you see with your eyes and detect with your powers. I would like for us to discuss this elsewhere though, where we can all be more comfortable.”
Medica looked at me.
I shook my head briefly in confusion, and looked at Ali.
Ali furrowed his brow briefly, while looking at Medica.
Finally, after the two of them stared at one another for a few seconds, Medica said “OK” then turned and sat on the edge of the carpet, pushing herself back towards the center of the carpet, clearly preparing to lift her feet onto the flat surface.
“Ahem.” Ali was holding what appeared to be small plastic bags. “Please let me cover your feet and lower legs. I don’t mind walking through this stuff, but I’d rather not have to clean it out of a three hundred and eleven year old carpet.”
“Oh. Certainly.” Medica allowed Ali to cover her feet and lower legs with the plastic bags.
I couldn’t help but stare at Ali, confused. Why not just clean her feet and legs?
Ali looked up at me, and spoke into my head. “No I’m not reading your mind, but I know what you’re thinking. I’m not cleaning her feet. That has meaning. I’d let her put these bug guts on my carpet before I cleaned her feet.”
I just nodded, briefly.
After a few moments, Medica was safely balanced on the carpet. “Let’s go to where the kitchen was. Even if there are no seats, there should be a cleared area.”
Ali nodded, and levitated himself off the ground a couple feet, then gestured at his legs and feet, making hand motions like he was holding a paint brush. All the bug guts and dirt dropped off his shoes and pants. He did not even look at Medica when cleaning himself off, but Medica certainly was the intended recipient of a message. It was clear by her frown that she understood that there was a message there, but I wasn’t sure she understood it. For that matter, I didn’t really understand it either.
I just walked beside the carpet, letting Ali lead and keeping my mouth shut. This was Ali’s problem to solve and I wasn’t sticking my foot into it. I started doing internet searches on foot washing rituals. Most of them were related to the Abrahamic God in one of his forms. I could definitely see where a magical being might object to some of the clear intent of the foot washing rituals. The older the foot-washing rituals were, the greater the social stigma seemed to be.
By the time we walked a couple minutes to the cleared area that had been the field kitchen, Medica had been fiddling with her smartphone for a while. I had one of my stealthed sensor platforms watch what she was doing, and was highly annoyed when I saw she was using some sort of government imaging system to compare pictures of Ali from news footage against various international databases of lost children. She had also done some searching on the symbolism of cleaning feet and come up with the same thing I had. Ali was definitely not a servant to either me or Medica.
Perception becomes reality.
Ali wouldn’t even want to begin to appear to be a servant. Would Medica’s belief that Ali was a child somehow impact him directly, making him act more childish?
I looked at Ali as we stopped. He seemed much more relaxed.
After finding an area with several seat-height pieces of concrete, Medica made a phone call, and requested a hazmat team meet us, then spoke to the three of us. “I’m not sure if the stuff on Zeke and I is dangerous, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
Ali spoke from his cross-legged seat on a nearby piece of concrete in a decisive, calm tone. “The body chemistry of the bugmen is no more harmful than garden pesticides. You wouldn’t want to eat it but it won’t harm humans without significant exposure or ingestion. It will degrade into substances that Earth micro-organisms can process. The body chemistry isn’t that different from some insects on Earth with copper-based blood.” He paused. “I wouldn’t have allowed any of the substance away from the kill zone if there was a danger to the ecosystem from small quantities of bugman bodily fluids.”
Medica narrowed his eyes at Ali. “You constantly express more abilities that don’t appear to have a common theme.”
“Medica, there is a common theme, but when I tell you what it is, you’re either not going to believe me, or it’s going to scare you.”
“Try me. What is the common theme?”
“I manipulate reality.”
Medica froze, unmoving except for her breathing for several seconds. “What limits?” There was a bit of a quaver in her voice.
I started a SuperWiki search on reality manipulation powers. There were only a few dozen entries. One of them, coincidentally, was Disco Wolf, but he was only mentioned because he seemed to be able to move without generating the telltale wake of wind of most speedsters. Most of the rest of the entries were supers who seemed to have a unique facet to their powers which tinkers couldn’t explain. The remaining few entries where supers powers had actually been based on reality manipulation were very chilling reading indeed. None of them had been villains. They hadn’t been sane enough to be villains that after their powers developed. They were disasters. Disruptive powers taken so far that they couldn’t be allowed to live.
Ali, I hope you know what you are doing.
“I can’t answer that clearly, because you don’t have the terms to understand it. It depends on a lot of variables. With enough planning time, I could be very dangerous if I chose to be.
“You seem a little too sane to be a reality manipulator. Reality manipulators tend to have extremely fluid appearances as well”
“I’m not human.” Ali shrugged at me as he saw me staring at him.
“Zeke, it was either hide, or be as open as possible. When you brought me out into the open, there was no longer a hide option.”
Medica looked at the two of us. “Would you allow a mentalist to scan your mind to verify what you are saying?”
“No, because I wouldn’t want to hurt them by allowing them to touch my mind without filters.”
“What about you, Strangest?” Medica asked.
“I’d rather not. One of the abilities Ali has is the ability to modify thoughts and memories. He can demonstrate this. Trying to use my thoughts to verify what he’s saying in light of that is a bit useless I’d think.”
Things obviously started to click in Medica’s head, perhaps with some help from Ali. “The carpet. The name, the powers. You’ve associated yourself with legends of Jinn, because they were magical beings with the ability to shape reality.”
“Guilty as charged, Medica.” Ali answered offhandedly. “Considering what I can do, it seemed reasonable to attach myself to those legends. I’m not the only one to do so, lots of supers have names with religious or supernatural roots. In fact the name Jinn has been used by three supers in the last few decades.”
“Granted. Most of them were humans though. Are you a registered extraterrestrial?”
“No. Do I need to be?”
Medica looked uncomfortable. “I don’t think its enforced law, but it’s a common courtesy for aliens, especially aliens who are actively engaging with humans, to be registered.”
“I’ll consider it.” Ali answered in a solemn tone.
The hazmat crew arrived, and after a brief discussion with us, cleaned my armor and provided Medica with new pants and shoes, which she changed into inside the van that had brought their team to us.
“Zeke, we need to go.” Ali spoke. “Medica, I am not unwilling to speak to you again, but please realize that I am not what I appear to be.”
Medica stared at the two of us, clearly disagreeing and wanting to speak to us more, but she agreed anyway. “OK, I’ll be in touch. Ali, please realize that as a reality manipulator you are going to be watched extremely closely. We still haven’t discussed why you are here, and that’s going to be something a lot of people will want answers to.”
Ali sighed. “No, Medica, I’m not. I’ll certainly be watched when I choose to allow myself to be, but that will be the limit of it. Nobody will watch me closely, and if I find people trying, I will make them forget what they are watching for. Don’t try to spy on me. I won’t hurt anyone, but if some organization tries hard enough to spy on me, I’ll start having fun with the spies.”
Threats. Tame threats, but still threats.
There’s the eight-year-old method-acting, poking its head up at a bad time.
I sighed. “Ali. Let’s go. All three of us know they will test you after what you’ve just said, even if Medica agrees with you that they shouldn’t. There are at least a dozen drones around still listening to our conversation.”
Medica looked at me. “I hope you have as much control over this situation as you act like you have.”
I laughed out loud. “Far from it, but I understand a little more about it than you, Medica, for what it’s worth.”
Ali created one of his travel doors in the side of one of the nearby bunkers, next to it’s existing door, and we used that door to enter one of Ali’s unused rooms. This one appeared to be crude poured concrete walls and floor, with a tin roof overhead. After closing the door and dismissing it, Ali concentrated a moment, and another door opened. We exited into the barn apartment.
Ali dismissed the door we had just entered the apartment from, and reformed a new door on the same section of wall, which opened into the svartalves’ lab. The svartalves helped me remove the armor and then went about doing whatever invisible magical tinkers do.
As we left the lab, Ali spoke. “OK, Zeke. Time for me to do my job. I can already feel the impatience of several beings that we’re contractually linked to. I need to start distributing the soul energy now. I’ve already checked out the area. No people around.”
I shifted. “Ali, we need to talk about your super identity, I think. At the same time, we really need to talk about something else first. A lot of things started falling into place after Disco Wolf left us and I was mostly idle, letting you and Medica talk.”
Ali grinned at me. “We had a bet how long it would take you to piece it all together and figure out who he was.”
“Ali, it seemed like there was a lot more serious of a conversation going on than just a friendly bet, from the looks you two were giving one another. Did you make an enemy?”
“No. Not an enemy. That would be extremely unlikely to happen unless I tried to make it happen, and my father would be extremely unpleased with me if I made that one into my enemy. I did have to make certain that he wasn’t going to act against you in a way that would allow potential violation of the contract.”
“Was that what he was trying to do? Somehow violate the contract?” I asked.
“Not at all. I thought it might be, even up until the end when you two shook hands. That’s when I realized that he didn’t want to steal anything, not even power from the soul well. He was after something bigger.”
Ali touched my arm, and I could feel a strange sensation of draining.
“Bigger? Bigger than the power to create a new god?”
“Yes. Gods are defined by humans, and their behavior is generally based on what humans think they will do. Coyote is a trickster god, and is a lot freer of action and deed than most other gods. He also has few followers who actually understand him well, so he has wriggle room. He was always a complex god.”
I tried to remember what I had read about Coyote when I had been in grade school. “I see. He’s expected to be a thief, a gambler, and a teacher of hard lessons, but still have honor in his own way, if I remember right.”
Ali considered for a moment, then looked up at me. “That’s a fairly common theme in the Native American worship of Coyote. I suspect that shortly after receiving his share of power collected today, Disco Wolf is almost certainly going to proclaim that he really is a god, Coyote, like a few of the Greek, Roman, and Norse gods have done.
“What makes Coyote different from them then?”
Ali just stared at me for a moment.
I noticed him staring. “Stop that, Ali. We both should know by now that I don’t know even a small fraction of what most practitioners would know.”
“Sorry, Zeke.” Ali looked away from me for a moment, clearly in deep thought. “Most of the gods of those three pantheons aren’t expected to do much more than eat, drink, fight, fuck, and tell stories about their eating, drinking, fighting, and fucking. That’s an oversimplification, but Coyote’s nothing like them. Most of the other earthbound gods are going to take the power you collect and I deliver to them, and squander it. Loki and Athena might have plans to do other than spend the power frivolously, but Loki will probably use it for some scheme against Thor or Odin, and Athena will probably protect herself and those she cares about from the predations of the other Greek and Roman gods.”
“You don’t think Coyote will do something similar?”
“No. Coyote is known for scheming on a grand scale; it is part of his nature to be devious and try to break rules. I’m pretty sure he plans on using the power from the soul well and combine it with the power of both mainstream and social media to become a dominant god, rather than one of the weakest gods.”
“I’m going to guess that Coyote would consider it to be bad form for us to mention these educated guesses of yours to other people?”
Ali touched my arm, and I felt a strange sensation flowing down my arm, drawing from my entire body, together with a brief lightheadedness. “You can’t really tell with Coyote. He might even expect us to tell other people about it, and have plans to somehow take advantage of that, but it would probably be best for the two of us if we just keep quiet about it. My father is a being that most of the gods would not want to anger, but I’m a small fry compared to most of the gods still capable of walking the Earth. My relationship with my father can only be counted on so far to protect me.”
The draining sensation stopped. Ali stepped back, a strange look on his face. “That’s. A lot of energy.” He held one hand over his mouth and carefully burped. “Hrm. Better.” He looked at me, then reached out and touched my arm again. “A bit less than half remaining.” He removed his hand from my arm and put both hands around his stomach, looking uncomfortable.
“Do I need to lecture you about eating too much and making yourself ill, young man?”
Ali pointed his index finger at me and then shook it back and forth, clearly scolding me but he was grinning a bit. After taking a deep breath and letting it out, he said “OK. I’m off to make some deliveries. Be back in a few seconds. Please change to human form until I return.
“Sure, Ali.” I changed to human form, and Ali disappeared.
In the few seconds before Ali appeared again to drain the rest of the power and carry it off, I couldn’t help but wonder if Coyote really could use human media and the power from the soul well to redefine himself by changing how people thought about him.
Perception becomes reality. Ali has driven that into my skull enough.
Media influences perception. That’s what marketing, advertising and propaganda are all about.
I shivered as a thought struck me.
Does that mean media might influence reality?