The next morning, an hour or so after my daily run, I was at my computer in the barn apartment going over some of Exactitude’s restructuring documents. Most of them were preliminary documents involving selection of the board of directors. Credit checks, background checks, genetic screening.
Huge pain in the ass.
A few people had complained that I was being absurdly intense with my prescreening requirements, but I had calmed most of that discontent by mentioning that I happened to know that at least one supervillain had moles within the company. I made it clear that I might not be able to find the mole or moles, but I was going to do my best to make sure none of them got on the board of directors that would be overseeing Danny while he finished school. There was some grumbling, but no real problems with compliance after that.
As it turned out, two days before the invasion, at the cost of a large banana split, I had sweet talked Ali into divining who the moles within my company were. Both of them were assistant department heads who had been hired years ago. Neither of them were making any effort to get themselves onto the board. Neither of them really had any justification to try. They were both highly enough placed that there would be few secrets kept from them, but not highly enough placed to be in a policy making position. They were in a position to influence department heads though.
I hope I’ve made the right choice.
I chose to take no action against them. Ali indicated that all they were doing was passing information to their handlers, and very little of it was critical, mostly company financial health information. I had hadn’t yet decided exactly how to do it, but I would bring them to the attention of Danny and his board of directors after the board was finalized and I wasn’t running things.
Danny had not been very enthusiastic about the timing. I had called a family meeting and discussed it with him and Anne three days ago. I leaned back in my chair and kneaded my fingers on my forehead while pressing my thumbs into the pressure points between the eyebrow and the ear, as I remembered the end of that discussion.
“Yes, Dad, I’ll do it. We’ve always been pretty clear that I would get a solid education to prepare for running the business.” Danny paused, glaring at me. “The taking over the business part was supposed to happen after I was either unable to compete professionally as a runner, or incapable of continuing to compete professionally as a runner.”
“You won’t be running the business until you can prove that you can run it, son. You will be required to attend board meetings, you will be required to do internships. You will be required to maintain grades. You aren’t ready, and we both know it.”
“Why advance the timetable? If I’m not ready, why are you stepping down?”
“I could say it’s because a lot of my time is now devoted to being Strangest, but that’s only a third of the answer. There’s also the fact that I’m now classed as a vigilante because I killed Arson, in a clearly premeditated manner, without a court order for execution. There’s another part though. Have you had any important discussions with Jane in the last day or so, Danny?”
“No, we’re going to be watching a couple movies tonight though. What does Jane have to do with this?”
I took a deep breath. The smell of cinnamon and vanilla tickled my nose. Anne was making the apartment more and more into a home. “I suspect the next time you speak to her face to face, you’ll be told something important, and that should help you to start filling in the gaps.”
“What?” Danny looked at me, angry. “Why are you hiding something from me that’s important enough to influence a decision to change the ownership of the company?”
“It won’t be staying a secret from you for long, but Jane should be the one to tell you. I won’t let you stay ignorant of it though. If she doesn’t tell you soon, I will tell you, because that’s what I told Jane I would do.”
Danny quickly stood up from his chair and walked towards his room. I said nothing about how rudely he had just left the discussion with his mother and me. When he was most of the way to the door he stopped, turned, and faced Anne. “Do you know what he’s not telling me, Mom?”
Anne nodded. “I do, and I agree with your father. What we know, Jane needs to tell you.”
Danny got a hurt look on his face, and threw up his left palm while turning to walk towards his room, shaking his head and muttering words that I was glad I couldn’t understand from across the room.
Anne continued to talk. “We kept your relationship with Jane away from your father’s eyes for years, Danny. We had good reasons for it. Your father has even admitted that it might have been for the best. Can you trust me again?”
I slowly nodded at that, for Anne’s benefit, since Danny had stopped at the door to his room, not turning to face us but definitely listening, thinking.
I barely kept myself from snapping a command for Danny to turn and face his mother when she was speaking to him. A second later, he did turn and face us. He looked at me, locked eyes with me, and I knew I was glaring at him. I closed my eyes and counted to three then turned my head and looked at Anne.
Anne stared at Danny, not with the same anger I knew I had been projecting, but it still pinned him. “What we know is not our place to tell you. It’s something personal, and we’re not getting between you and Jane on this one, unless she fails to live up to the agreement that you would be told, by the time she said she would tell you. If it makes you feel any better, I’m confident that what Jane needs to tell you is something you two can probably deal with. You’re both adults. Jane will probably think it’s a bigger issue than it is.”
Danny nodded before starting to ask another question.
Anne quickly broke in. “Nope. No more hints. You don’t have enough information to guess, and that’s the way it’s going to stay until Jane tells you, or until a couple days from now if she hasn’t told you.”
Danny raised his right hand, pointing the index finger up like he was trying to make a point, while he simultaneously opened his mouth.
Anne interrupted him again before he could get the first syllable out. “Danny, stop. Trust me when I say it’s important that we not tell you unless we are forced to, by Jane failing to tell you.”
Danny stared at us, panning his head slightly as he looked from one of us to the other. “Fine. I still have no idea how something this personal to Jane has an impact on the ownership of the company, but I’ll see if I can figure it out after Jane tells me what you aren’t telling me.”
He walked into his room and closed the door loudly. Not quite slamming it.
Anne turned to me. “That could have gone a lot worse. I’m not sure you should have used this to push Danny to get the information out of Jane though. It would have been better if she told him without him expecting something.”
I knew that Danny was likely listening to the door, and pointed at the door, silently.
Anne nodded, and smiled.
“Anne, I’m not sure she would have told him. She really didn’t give the impression that she wanted anyone to know.” I paused, and shrugged. “She can be hard to read when she’s being logical and rational, but she’s an open book when she’s being emotional. I’m not letting those two take that secret into a more serious relationship than what they have now, if that’s where they are headed.”
Anne turned to me, gave me a thumbs up, and spoke for our probable audience. “I agree, Zeke, that’s not going to change the fact that Danny will have to be careful about how he brings up the topic with her. I hope he realizes that.”
Danny had told Anne the next day that Jane and he had talked about Jane’s father being Gorgon. Danny, whether he had been listening at the door or not, had apparently not dropped the ball when Jane told him, since he spent the night, and was rather cheerful the next day according to Anne.
After some discussion yesterday, Danny was now on the same page with me and Anne in terms of why I had to step down from leading Exactitude, and why it was happening now. He didn’t like it, but he understood it. At the same time, he realized that he would have time to grow into it, and he would always have me as an independent consultant to help him understand the decisions the board was making. I would, of course, also coach him on how to try to convince the board do things differently if he did not agree with what they were doing.
Losing the company like this feels like someone is cutting off one of my legs. Slowly.
I kneaded my head with fingers and thumbs for a few more seconds before dropping my hands back down to the keyboard and mouse to select the next email.
One moment I was calmly choosing my next email, the next, there was a thunderclap and I was literally bounced out of my chair, bookshelves and the computer desk fell on top of me. Of course, I shifted. However, there was nobody in range.
Was that a bomb?
“Ali, are you here?” I called out, laying on my back, with my body’s long arms and legs tangled and pinched between pieces of furniture.
“Sure am, Zeke.”
“What was that?”
“We have an annoyed visitor. It’s for me.” A second later. “He’s activating ten teleportation beacons now.”
“Ali, who are they? Villains? Is it Gorgon’s people here for another training go-around?” Then it registered what he had said. “How do you know it’s for you?”
A hugely loud voice bellowed out. “Strangest! Come out here and talk to me! Right. Now.” It was Octagon. The walls shook as he bellowed. It was almost too loud to hear properly, there was so much power in his voice. I heard windows crack.
I didn’t have time to get into the suit either, not from Octagon’s tone. Not like it would make a difference. He’d just pull the suit off me like a banana peel if I tried to resist him in it without shifting. It was a light suit, barely rated for combat.
I needed to shift back into human form. Approaching Octagon as Strangest would certainly be considered a threat, and I’d rather not have someone with Octagon’s destructive power attacking me on my own personal property. But I needed the furniture off me first, or it might hurt me and make me shift again after I shifted to human form.
I tried, but couldn’t get leverage against the bookcases and computer desk that had fallen on me. “Ali, can you pull this furniture off me so I can shift back to human before they get impatient?”
“Sure, Zeke.” The furniture righted itself, and I shifted myself to human. As I shifted, I could have sworn I saw, in the corner of my eye, a cat looking in the window over the bed.
AL. Octagon said he used AL for recon.
The books, computer monitor, and lots of wires and cables connected to various computer peripherals were still laying on top of me, but they didn’t have enough mass or sharp corners to hurt me as I shifted to human shape. I pushed them off me rapidly as I stood up.
“Ali, tell me why they are here. Make it quick, please.” I took a few steps over to the door, opened it, and started walking down the stairs.
Ali followed. “I told Medica I wouldn’t let them spy on me. I’m sure that bit was recorded with all the rest.”
“You also said you would start having fun with the spies.” I slowed down as I walked up to the small door leading out of the barn, and opened it, hitting it with my hip so it would open despite the jam. I nearly fell flat on my face, pinwheeling my arms for balance as the door flew open far easier than I had been expecting. I had forgotten I fixed the door the other day while I was distracted by my conversation with Ali.
“Ack!” was not what most people yelled when meeting nearly a dozen angry supers.
At least I didn’t fall on my face like the first time in the suit.
“Tell me you didn’t hurt them, Ali.”
“Not physically. In fact they are probably enjoying themselves.”
I don’t have time to get the whole story out of him.
I looked around to see where Octagon and the others were. They were next to the edge of the clearing where the house and barn were, by the driveway, each a few paces from the next, in a line. Octagon was in the center position, standing advanced in front of the rest of the line. About two hundred feet from the barn and me. It looked like the entire Atlanta team that Octagon led, with four others in matching costumes that looked more like government field agents than independent supers.
“Stop there, Strangest.” Octagon commanded, in a voice much less loud than before. He made a motion, and one of the people with him released two very large drones out of a package at their feet. Each device was the size of a dinner plate. One quickly moved so it hovered in front of Octagon, a bit to his right of our mutual line of sight.
I tensed as the other drone zipped up to me, and shot a glance to my left to see Ali’s reaction. He seemed relaxed, so I didn’t shift. The drone suspended itself in front of me, a bit to the right, so I could see Octagon.
The drone was a videoconferencing monitor. Octagon’s face appeared on my drone. “Strangest, can you hear me?”
I nodded. “I can. Ali thinks he knows why you are here.”
Octagon simply stared at me for a moment, and then held up a hand sized piece of paper, which read. “Got tired of spying on Ali. Went on a three hour tour. Back soon.”
“Give me a second, Octagon. I had nothing to do with this.”
Octagon just glared for a couple seconds. After that momentary glare, he nodded.
I turned to Ali. “So they spied on you. You told them that you were a nonhuman reality manipulator. Do you really think they wouldn’t try to at least test you, watch you?”
Ali frowned at me. “You’re not helping, Zeke.” He made a crooked finger motion at the drone next to me, which vibrated like it was resisting for a moment before it moved to position itself in front of Ali.
“Zeke was completely unaware of the monitoring people were trying to perform on me, and had nothing to do with me collecting them. They are unharmed. I was expecting visitors to come as a result of their disappearance.” He paused. “And here you are, in force.” He grinned.
I backed up a little bit so I could more clearly see Octagon’s face in the drone Ali had moved. I winced. Octagon was definitely unhappy.
“Where are they, Ali.” He growled. “If you have hurt Whizzard, or any of the rest, we will find a way to deal with you.”
Ali pursed his lips a moment, thoughtfully. “You do not know how tempting it is to just make you do what I want. I can see that you expect me to try to do just that. Whoever put up those mental mirroring defenses was not bad. Give them my compliments.” He paused. “But you want your people back. I suppose they have been my guests long enough.”
Octagon turned towards me and started to speak. “Strangest” but he only got the first word out.
Ali’s eyes flashed and his voice carried an edge as he abruptly broke in. “Octagon, your conversation is with me. Not Strangest.” He paused a very brief moment. “I may look like a kid, but I’m over four hundred years old as you measure time. You will address me if you want to deal with this situation cleanly and quickly. All you need to do is nod to tell me you understand.”
Octagon set his jaw, but nodded.
Ali nodded back. “Thank you. Whizzard and all the others I collected, attempted to spy on me. I know this, because I could feel their attention on me. I can tell when I am being watched. I can tell where the watchers are. It takes some effort if they are very distant, watching me through devices, but I need to draw the line here. I expect privacy. Not perfect privacy. That’s nearly impossible to achieve, but there’s a huge difference between systematic monitoring and occasionally poking a nose in to see what someone is up to.”
Octagon unclenched his jaw. His voice was hoarse with emotion. “Kidnapping isn’t going to get you privacy. I hope, for your sake, that none of them are injured.”
“They are not. Do any of the others you brought with you want to say anything before I release the spies back to you?”
“Whizzard was not spying on you, he wanted to see how your door portals worked. Dimensional space is his specialty.” Octagon said quickly.
“He was monitoring me with drones, so he could get readings on doorways when they are created. That’s still a violation of my privacy.”
“But” Octagon started.
“Stop.” Ali said. Octagon’s jaw snapped shut. His eyes squinted, and the muscles in his chest and shoulders started to tighten visibly.
Aw shit. Not here at the house, again.
I moved a little closer to the video pickup. “Stop it you two. Ali, please get the spies out from wherever you have them stashed. Octagon, don’t start a fight you can’t win. You’re going to get everything you want here except an apology.” I paused. “Ali did ask for privacy. If he produces the people he abducted, and they are unharmed, can we just back off the aggression a few steps?”
Octagon just stared at the screen for several moments, eyes darting back and forth between Ali and me. “Yes.”
Ali turned, and gestured at the wall next to the small door of the barn. A duplicate door appeared next to the original, appearing fuzzy at first, but snapping into sharp focus in about a second.
Ali said, “I’ll be back in three minutes.” then opened the door and stepped through.
Octagon turned his eyes to me. “What were you thinking when you partnered with him? FourD gave herself a nosebleed forcing herself to tell me something about what would happen here, and even then she was very vague.”
FourD is a practitioner?
“Octagon, like most other supers, I had no choice about getting my powers, and I got handed a really shitty power set. I had no choice about this partnership either. I accept it though, because we do complement one another and, normally, we get along.”
“Are you saying it’s a forced arrangement?” Octagon was looking at me skeptically.
“Yes, but it’s an arrangement I accept, because even though it was forced on me, it’s better than the alternatives I was given.”
He narrowed his eyes at me. “Is this something I should take up with the Enclave council?”
“It might be a good idea for you to speak to them about it, but you won’t be surprising them. Not all of them, anyway.”
“I see.” Octagon looked at me, scratching his jaw thoughtfully. “They did say that your power had magical elements. The Grey Lodge took action in a binding manner?”
“I think you understand enough to try to get answers from people who know what’s going on, because I certainly don’t.”
“Yea, they are very closed-mouthed about magic. I’ve seen a good bit of it in action, but very rarely get any explanation of what was actually done. If the Grey Lodge is involved with partnering you with Ali, I’m a little more comfortable with it. They typically seek to maintain balance. I’ll be asking some questions to get what answers I can.”
“I wouldn’t mind talking again about it, Octagon, but I’m not sure you’re going to get even as much as I did, and I barely understand any of it.”
I realized that none of the other people standing in a line behind Octagon had done or said anything the entire time they had been here, except the one guy who unloaded the drones. At least nothing that I had been able to see. They were pretty far away. Were they real? Ali said there were ten beacons. Did real people come through? At least one had to be real enough to activate the videoconferencing drones.
It might matter someday.
I can’t assume my power will work on everyone.
Disco Wolf could act with free will in my anger field.
Disco Wolf is Coyote. A god.
After thinking about Coyote, I had to ask. “Has Disco Wolf touched base with Cupcake yet, Octagon?”
“Yes, he did. It was a really strange question he asked. He asked for Cupcake’s permission to steal hostages and kidnap victims back from people who took hostages and kidnapped people.” Octagon shook his head slowly. “Cupcake and I talked about it, and it seemed like a pretty clearly good thing.” He paused. “Cupcake responded to him and told him that if he can steal hostages and kidnap victims away from their captors, and return them to a place where they would be safe, he’s welcome to do it. We gave him a list of known kidnap victims and hostage situations and encouraged him not to kill anyone, but I don’t think that was really necessary, he’s never been a killer.”
“Interesting.” I commented, trying to think where Coyote would go with this if he were redefining himself.
Octagon’s eyes tracked to the bottom right of his screen, then back up to me. “It’s been a few seconds more than three minutes. I wonder where Ali is?” Octagon grinned.
Ali had kidnapped people and stuck them somewhere. Coyote had apparently turned his attention to hostages and kidnap victims. Had Coyote found Ali’s stash of kidnapped spies?
The door Ali had created opened, and the end of a white cane appeared.
I wasn’t sure if I was relieved or more upset when I saw it wasn’t Disco Wolf, but rather Ahmed emerging, hauling Ali by one ear, speaking as he emerged. “That’s my island. When I said you could use it, I meant you could use it. You and your siblings. Family. I did not intend for you and your sister and several of your sister’s bored friends to turn the place into a luxury prison. You nearly broke the minds of four of your prisoners when they realized there were no stars there. Coyote asked for and received my blessing to remove them from my island. I suspect he would have taken them anyway, if I had refused. After he took them to their homes, I spent no small amount of effort adjusting their minds so they thought they had been teleported to some island in the Caribbean, and rescued by Disco Wolf from there. You will not use my island in such a way again.”
“Ow. Ow. Ow. Yes, Sir.”
Ahmed released his grip on Ali’s ear. “They don’t have to think you are an adult for you to do your job. You don’t have to kidnap them to maintain your privacy. I understand that it’s extremely hard for you to act as an adult after hundreds of years of acting like a child, but from now on, I want you to consult Zeke before acting directly on humans with more than words, unless you are protecting him contractually. When you stop acting like a child, I will stop treating you as one.” Ahmed stared down at Ali. “Do you understand?”
Ahmed looked up at Octagon, concentrated for a minute, and smiled. He waved his hand and all the other figures standing in a line behind Octagon disappeared, except one, who changed shape dramatically into a very spindly looking humanoid robot far too thin to have even an infant-sized person inside it. “I see that you pulled in a whole bunch of favors to make this happen, Octagon. Tell Asafel that the kidnap victims have been returned and this should not occur again. After you tell him this, your memory of this event will be adjusted, as usual.” He peered intently in Octagon’s direction again. “Six layers of mental mirroring. Impressive that he could do that without damaging your mind.”
Octagon clearly looked both satisfied and worried at the same time. Whoever this Asafel person was, I wondered if he had mentioned the possibility of brain damage to Octagon before they had concocted this plan, whatever it was.
“Ali, Asafel clearly has a very high regard for your abilities, and I will require you to thank him for his compliment. How many mirrors did you detect?”
“I will thank him, Sir. I saw two. There were six?” Ali seemed both irritated and interested at the same time, looking at Octagon. “I see the third now. Maybe the fourth. That’s incredible work.”
“Yes. Asafel is an artist. I wouldn’t have tried more than four. Maybe five if I had a several hours uninterrupted time to concentrate on it.” Ahmed turned to me. “Octagon and a lot of other highly experienced supers that you call “Rainbow Heroes” have a great deal of experience dealing with magic. Most of them are not practitioners, but they have agreed to have filters put in place by the White Lodge, that make them want to speak to certain people when they see something exceedingly strange. We do the same with a lot of the Enclave’s longstanding, highly experienced supers. Ali tripped that filter in at least five different supers after the battle. Two of them were Enclave supers.”
I thought about it briefly. “So after this is over, and the mess has been straightened out, the affected parties get a mental rewrite, the triggers are reset, and everyone goes on with their lives with the understanding that magic exists, but no memories of exactly how they have been affected by it?”
“That’s about it.” Ahmed made a shooing motion with his hand and Octagon and the robot next to him started to fade. “Give my regards to Asafel.”
Octagon waved once, a quick motion, before he faded out of view. Clearly waving to Ahmed, not me or Ali.
Realizing that Ahmed might choose to adjust my mind now that Octagon was gone, I shifted.
Ahmed looked up at me, sadly. “I could have prevented your change, you know.” He paused. “Fate has certainly given you one of the shortest straws there is for a mortal to pull when it comes to the powers and abilities granted by the aftermath of the experiments performed by the lodges, centuries ago. I made comments the last time we were together that might have made you believe I thought you to be merely an interesting phenomena to be studied. While I do find the soul well melding to be absolutely fascinating, I recognize the sentient attached to it as well.”
I looked down at Ahmed and Ali. “I’ve had enough of people messing with my mind, Ahmed. Octagon might not be able to keep people from adjusting his mind. He might even trust this Asafel enough to let him make the changes. Then again, he might have been programmed to allow himself to be edited. I don’t have to allow it. Not if you were truthful about your inability to adjust my mind.”
Ahmed simply looked up at me, thoughtfully for a moment. He then walked back to the door leading to his island. As he reached the door and put his hand on the doorknob, he turned back to me. “I can understand the fact that you wish to protect your mind. At the same time, I am fairly certain that your insistence on keeping knowledge that you have collected but cannot fully comprehend will cause you a great deal of pain in the long run.”