Arc 3, Balance 13

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As I stepped out of the shower, I realized that I hadn’t spoken to Anne for at least two days.

She’ll be worried sick.

I looked at the drone with the recorded data, sitting next to the sink.

I paused as I brushed my teeth. Letting Anne and Danny see the video would give me an idea how others would react to its contents.  I still hadn’t seen the edited version.

Who am I fooling?

I know it’s going to scare Anne, badly.

I considered not releasing the video, or asking Ali to edit me out of it.

No. No need to play games like that.

Anne’s not stupid. She knows that if I’m not calling her, I’m busy.

That brought me up short.  Some bad memories of our relationship before I got my priorities straight between family and Exactitude bubbled up.

I promised that I would stop burying myself in work, four years ago.

This is the same, just a different work.

Is it?

I sat there, staring at the mirror, both hands on the edge of the counter next to the sink and my toothbrush sticking out of my mouth for several seconds, before I realized what I was doing.

How long has it been since I shaved?

Staring at myself isn’t going to fix anything.

I shook my head and spit out the toothpaste foam in my mouth, gargled with a bit of mouthwash, and then turned the hot water on and reached for the shaving cream.

I need to spend some time with the family.

Or at least with Anne, if Danny is off with Miss Perfect.

It struck me, again, how bad of a situation Anne was in. Danny’s attention was turning towards Miss Perfect, and I had been burying myself in my ‘work’, like I had promised I would stop doing.  I couldn’t even spend as much time with her as a normal super could spend with their spouse, because of my powers.

I really need to make more time for family.

I looked at my hands, at the razor I held. Anne had given me the fancy tinker-made self-sharpening shaving razor three years ago.  I had never seen another like it.  I had always suspected that Miss Perfect helped her get it, but never asked.

I spent a couple minutes intermittently shaving and planning, thinking about options. It was a little after ten in the morning, so there were a few hours to arrange things.  I finished the last bits of shaving and made sure I hadn’t missed anything, splashed on a bit of aftershave, and took care of the rest of a typical morning’s bathroom needs before picking up the drone from the counter and walking to the computer desk.

As I sat down, I noticed two stacks of paper next to the keyboard, one much thicker than the other. Both were held in place by paperweights.  One of the paperweights I recognized from years ago, and it shouldn’t have been there.  I picked up the small crudely-painted clay racecar shape that Danny had made for me in early grade school.

The Svartalves really have outdone themselves fixing things.

I didn’t even know we still had this.

I carefully turned the car around in my hands, not really looking at it, just remembering it, and thinking.

Anne must have stored it away somewhere.

I remember the day Danny gave it to me.

Memories of that Father’s Day scrolled through my mind for a few seconds before I shook my head.

This was the first thing Danny ever made for me. The second thing he made with his own hands for us.  Anne got a coffee bowl before I got the car.

I grinned. Danny hadn’t been able to make a cup with a handle, so he made a bowl.  Anne used it for years before she put it into a little glass-doored display cabinet that ended up collecting a lot of Danny’s gifts.

I also remember the day he broke the car.

I carefully lifted the car closer to my eyes, looking for damage. I clearly remembered Danny knocking the little clay car off my desk years, ago by accident.  He had been highly upset and picked up the car pieces, declaring he would fix it.  He had then immediately gone to Anne and I heard him ask her for help.  I had never seen it again.  I hadn’t wanted to hurt Danny by asking about it.  He clearly wasn’t going to be able to fix it neatly at nine years old, though I would have been happy with a crudely-glued-together fix.

I wonder how many other random, broken things in the house the Svartalves might have fixed. Anne had a few antiques that were decorative, and hadn’t worked in decades, a couple were well over a hundred years old.  An old pedal-powered sewing machine, the dry-wash basin with the broken inner shelf.  The chip on the back edge of one of the marble-top end tables.  The little porcelain dolls with yellowed fabric dresses and cracked faces that Anne’s great-grandmother had played with as a child at the turn of the last century.

A lot of that is probably at the Enclave apartment by now.  I know Anne marked her most sentimental items.

What puzzled me more than the fact that they had found the car, and fixed it, was that they had brought it to my desk and put it where I couldn’t possibly miss it.  They clearly somehow understood it was more than just a paperweight.  If all they wanted was a paperweight, they could have far more easily just brought a rock out of the driveway or an old socket out of a toolbox.  There was a reason for the perfectly-repaired clay racecar to be on my desk.

Why?  Bribe, promise… bait?

I had a sneaky suspicion that my tools that had seen better days, were now in perfect repair.

I could get used to this.

Another thought struck me, seconds later.

How many others have gotten used to this, during the course of the Svartalves’ history after the geas was forced on their race?

I carefully set the car down on my desk next to the keyboard, and picked up the stack of papers it had been holding in place, it was the shorter stack. The top page had a hand-written phrase.  “Improvements possible with existing commercial human technology.”  I scanned through the pages.  The report was entirely written by hand, in ink, with no apparent mistakes.  It was easy to navigate, and there was almost nothing ambiguous about it.  The little bits and pieces that I didn’t fully understand felt right.  I wasn’t an IT guy, but I had been working fairly close to cutting edge technology for so long that a lot of it had seeped in by association.  People like Anne, Dan with IT, and Ben at the datacenter, and Miss Perfect, of course.  Trying to keep up with modern gadgets so I could get Danny gifts he would appreciate had played a large part in my continuing technology education as well.

I turned my attention back to the report.  The Svartalves had broken the report down by metrics several ways. I looked through the choices and turned to the page for “Greatest performance improvement per dollar spent at average standard pricing.”

The upgrades listed were only a few hundred dollars, and the improvement would, indeed, be substantial. I picked up a pen out of the pen-holder and wrote “Do this”, then tossed the rest of the report in the trash, setting the remaining sheet to the side, and putting the clay racecar on it.

I paused, then reached out and wrote another comment, without moving the car. “Don’t take anything without paying for it.  Tell me if you need funds.  That goes for anything you do for me.”

I hope that doesn’t insult them, somehow.

The other stack was much thicker, with a familiar quartz stone paperweight on top of it. The quartz paperweight belonged on this desk.  The title sheet read “Improvements possible beyond existing commercial human technology.”

I hesitated. Did I really want to be tempted?

Yes.  I’m damn well at least going to peek.

I started looking through the table of contents, seeing things like “quantum processors”, “elemental infused”, and “artificial intelligence”

OK.  I’ve been tempted.  Enough.

Don’t need a computer that’s smarter than I am.

I, reluctantly, tossed the entire second report into the trash. It took two tries to force myself to let go of the thick stack of paper.  I stared at the trash can for at least ten seconds, before finally dragging my eyes away.  So much potential in those sheets of paper, but I could easily imagine my personal computer as some sort of “gateway drug” to increased reliance on Svartalve advanced technology.  Always wanting more.

The first taste is always free.

The armor is already a first taste.

I hesitated, looking back at the trash can.

The armor is important.

Is it?  Really?

Shaking my head, I made sure the Ethernet cable was disconnected before starting the computer.

Seventy-five million years of slavery.

Granted, humans have only been around for a tiny fraction of that time.

I can’t believe they don’t hate us.

An unwelcome thought struck me.

Or maybe they do.

A couple minutes later, my computer had finished booting and all the security measures had been enabled. I cabled the drone to the machine and watched the footage.  Loki was now an indistinguishable shadowy image, and some of his dialog had changed.  Most of the rest was as I remembered it.  At the end, Trainwreck called out to someone, without naming them, rather than to Jaxr.  I was visible in a few frames, mostly trying to avoid being stepped on.  Not always successfully.  I viewed the video again, stopping and starting at the three points where Trainwreck stepped on me.

Definitely doesn’t do much for my dignity.

This isn’t for me though.

Ali never appeared in the camera, except at the very beginning when he was clearly being held immobile by the shadowy figure.

I connected the Ethernet cable to the router, opened a browser and did some searching for information about Trainwreck that was new in the last two days, throwing my own codename in as well. There were a few press reports.  Mirrormaid and Chicken Little had apparently gone straight to the authorities with some sort of pardon or amnesty arrangement that Trainwreck had arranged for them, which had all sorts of parole agreements and legal requirements associated with it.  There was quite a bit of controversy about that, especially coming from the financial industry representatives who were understandably extremely irritated that the two wouldn’t see a severe punishment for their past misdeeds.

I scrolled through that, looking for what they had said about the encounter with Loki. Their account matched what was in my video.  Elsewhere, Lyrebird, and several other supers and government representatives commented on the scenario.  They all agreed that Trainwreck had been looking to go out with a bang, doing something heroic.

Bioboffin, in a recorded statement sent down from the Moon, explained one of the things that had puzzled me about Trainwreck’s self-destructive fixation. “Every time he transformed, his power grew slightly, but the metabolic cost increased.  The last time he shifted, four months ago, it cost him nearly three hundred kilos of mass.  I could have helped him keep growing larger, to be better able to afford the metabolic cost, but he was simply getting too big, and he absolutely refused to consider biomedical implants, not knowing how they would interfere with his power.  The last time I was present when he weighed himself, he was four hundred twenty kilos.  In another year, he wouldn’t be able to walk if he still wanted to use his power.  As it was, in the last year, whenever he activated his power, it nearly killed him.”  The image of the recorded man was clearly crying, tears streaming out from under the mask, his voice finally broke. “Full steam ahead, mate, wherever you are.”

Everyone is assuming he’s dead.

I was barely mentioned at all, except that I had been present in the restaurant, and neither of us were found in the wreckage.

Apparently, his parents were deceased. I didn’t need to be worried about that.  He had had a secret identity, but his brother was upset, not knowing how he died, so he came out and begged anyone who knew more, to speak up, providing an email address and phone number.

This all just seems too… wholesome to have been put in place by Loki.

I froze the video, stared at my phone a few seconds, and then looked up the country code for Australia, +61, and wrote down the complete number and email address.

I’m not just going to send an email for something like this.

I thought about it for a minute. Bioboffin had it right, I couldn’t think of any better.

I created a new TheTube account, and uploaded the video in the highest possible resolution that they would accept, and viewed it. It looked good, even at full screen.

After making sure everything was in order, I created an email and dialed Trainwreck’s brother, it was answered on the second ring.

“Hello, this is Albert.”

“Hello, Albert, my name is Zeke. I got your email and phone number on the news.  Are you able to receive email and watch a video?”

There was a pause. “If this is another prank, please just hang up.  I’ve been Rick Rolled twice already.”

I could only stare at the phone in shock for a second.

How could someone do that?

Fucking internet trolls.

Even if the song is sort of appropriate, if you look at it the right way.

“It’s not a prank. I’m sending the login information now for the private account where I’ve deposited video of your brother’s last fight.  That account belongs to you.  The video belongs to you.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Zeke, but the media calls me ‘Strangest’.”

“Strangest. The heroes said you were there.  Did you…”  He choked up.

“I witnessed it. Nothing more.”  I clicked send on the email.  “Check your email.”

There was a pause, and I heard typing.

“Can you. Can you stay on the line while I watch it?”

I swallowed. “Yea, Albert, I can do that.” Then I sniffled a bit.

Hesitantly, he spoke. “I’m logging into the account now.”  His voice was raw.  “I’m starting the video now. He didn’t die horribly, did he?”

“No, he…”

Albert’s voice cracked. “No.  Don’t say anything else.  Just let me watch.”

I stayed silent. Albert muttered to himself and was clearly shocked by some of the video.  Knowing roughly what he was seeing, I was able to tell by his barely audible comments what parts he was watching.

At the end, he was muttering “no, no, no”, and then shouted “Yes!” before he went silent again. A few seconds later, he said, subdued.  “Shit.  Chris.” Then he was silent.  A few seconds later there were some sobs and more silence; the intermittent anguished sounds and silence alternated for about a minute.

I sniffled a few times myself, and had to rub my eyes a couple times.

“Strangest, why was he burning at the end, even though he was on the ice? Who was the woman that rode up on the horse, in armor?”

They left it in the video, I decided I would tell the truth as well as I could without using Jaxr and Loki’s name. “Your brother made a couple deals and asked a favor before he died.  That was…”  I couldn’t say Hildr’s name.  “…the woman was someone who was taking him to his final reward.  He earned it in that fight.”

Interesting that I was allowed to mention an afterlife, but not Hildr.

There was a long silence. “Thank you, Strangest.  No, you said your name was Zeke, right?”

“Yes, Albert, my name is Zeke. And you’re welcome.”  I swallowed and sniffed. “Excuse me.  Little bit of a sniffle there, I’m sure you understand.”

“Yeah.” He snuffled too “I think I do. I really appreciate this.  I know this is real.  I can feel it.  Chris was always larger than life, and not just because of the giantism.  That was something Bioboffin did so he could use his power, you know?”

“No, I didn’t know the giantism wasn’t natural. I’ll agree that he was larger than life, though, a hero.”

“Yeah.” More silence.  “You said the account with the video was mine?”

“I did. It’s yours.  Change the password.  I have a copy of the video myself still, but I won’t distribute it to the public if this channel stays private.”

I heard typing.

“You can share the video if you want, Zeke. I just changed the password and made it public.  I don’t think Chris would ever forgive me if I didn’t let people see this.  He told me months ago that he was looking to go out with a bang, and wanted to give people something to remember him by.”  He was silent again, then croaked out.  “This qualifies, I think.  I don’t even know what those giants were that he was fighting, but they certainly didn’t act like they were very nice.”

I think people would have remembered you, even without the last battle, Trainwreck.

I heard a raucous “CAW” over the phone, and Albert almost screamed “Shit!” There was a loud clatter.  “Sorry.  Dropped my phone.  That’s a big bird.  Never had a raven on my windowsill before.  It’s just standing there, looking at me.  Shoo. Get off my window, bird.”

“You can call me or email me if you want to talk again, Albert, but I’ll warn you that I get a little bit busy from time to time.”

“Doing the whole super thing, I imagine so. I might call you, Zeke, but I doubt it.  I wouldn’t feel comfortable.  I appreciate the video, but I have family I can turn to for the emotional stuff.”

“Fair enough, Albert.”

“Thanks again, mate.”

“No worries, Albert.”

He chuckled weakly and hung up the phone.

I sat in my seat and watched the video again, this time from its public link.

I’m not sure it’s possible for him to be larger than life.

I grinned and sniffled. I had only talked to Trainwreck and watched him fight for a few minutes before he died, and it felt like I’d lost a piece of myself.  I couldn’t even imagine what his team must be feeling right now.  It almost made me feel bad that I had imagined him as some sort of loser basement-dweller with no social life when he was first described by Elsewhere and Lyrebird.

By the time I had finished watching the video, the hit count was up to over a thousand, with fifty comments, only half a dozen from trolls. I just refreshed the page a few times and marveled as the numbers started to skyrocket, and the trolls started to get clubbed down by people with respectful things to say.

I looked up to the title of the video, which Albert had apparently chosen to leave as it was.

Full Steam Ahead, Mate.

“CAW” I damn near fell out of my seat as the bird in the window screamed its call.

At least I didn’t shift.

The bird wasn’t watching me, it was watching the computer screen.

“CAW” This time a little less loud, and it stopped watching my computer monitor and turned to fix its gaze on me with both beady eyes.

“That’s a damn big crow.” I muttered to myself. “Shoo. Nothing in here for you.”  I waved my arms at it.

The damn thing bounced it’s head and ruffled it’s wings, clearly laughing at me in some birdlike fashion, and then threw itself off my window sill and flew off.

It hit me, all of a sudden. Albert had had the same thing happen to him, but he had said the bird was a raven.  The bird in my window looked a lot like a really big crow but ravens were large black birds too – bigger than crows if I remembered right.

Two ravens. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that maybe Loki wasn’t the only one sticking his finger in and stirring the pot here.

That might explain why the edits of memories weren’t darker.

How long was the raven watching me?

Did it see me talking with Valsom?

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17 comments

  1. Michael

    Why would Zeke throw away the entire beyond-human improvment suite? There have got to be things in there that don’t use AIs. He didn’t even scan it to check if he wasn’t dropping the chance for a battery that feeds off ambient magic or a targeting system that circumvents minor illusions, both of which may be beyond human tech? That seems really, really negligent for someone as attentive and careful as he is.

    • farmerbob1

      I clearly need to take some time tomorrow AM after work to look at that section again and make it clearer. This chapter was thrown out with no second pass reading, raw first draft.

      Zeke doesn’t like what has been done to the Svartalves, but he’s not foolish enough to think that they are harmless.

    • farmerbob1

      I’ve edited the section where Zeke’s contemplating the paperweight racecar and the advanced technology for his computer. Please let me know if his motivations seem a bit clearer.

      • Michael

        Yeah, that’s much better – motivations come across less “I’m gonna toss this on the off-chance the Friendly AI theory has a loophole right here” and more “I’m seeing a slippery slope with no clear bottom here, so thanks for the offer, but I’ll skip the skis”.

  2. ereshkigala

    It’s not only that they’re not harmless. It’s also the “baby with loaded gun” situation. The svartalves’ original race destroyed themselves by handling magic-technology hybrids beyond their ability to control. Zeke doesn’t have nearly the level of understanding of such things than the Trondoon did, and has an insignificant fraction of their experience. Not messing with things beyond mortal understanding is a good safety precaution.

    Also, outright dropping a temptation potentially beyond your ability to control is also a good safety precaution

  3. Bart

    “I had never seen [the clay racecar] again.”
    I read that and wasn’t sure what was going on, since it was obviously sitting there. I thought Anne or Danny or someone had dropped off some piles of papers and grabbed whatever was near to hold the stacks down. Then in the next paragraph, “I wonder how many other random, broken things in the house the Svartalves might have fixed.” Oh, I get it now. I think a mention of the Svartalves fixing random broken stuff should come first.

    Something like, “I saw blah, blah, the Svartalves were obviously fixing every random broken thing that they could find. Memories… yadda, yadda.”

    Regarding who else the Svartalves work for, great point. Any high-magical people are going to be aware of the Svartalves and undoubtedly using their services. And it’s going to be those high-magic people that would have to agree to changing the racial geas on the Svartalves. It’s often hard for people to agree to give up their “slaves”. Oh, and that means that other people might have access to “higher than human standard” technology. Could the Svartalves basically make someone a God, or at least powerful enough to fight a God and win?

    • farmerbob1

      Having the car be noticed first, before Zeke recognized that he had received more than he bargained for, was very intentional. I did go through and touch up some of the car section with a couple more lines of internal dialog and modifications to how things were described, but the order in which the realizations occur is important. He doesn’t recognize that the Svartalves are fixing literally everything, until he thinks about the repaired little clay paperweight car for a few seconds.

      As for what Svartalves can do, they could do a lot. I haven’t even really decided on how much, but they are a force to be reckoned with even with the geas holding back their ability to handle and improve technology. I don’t plan on this turning into a slave freedom story or a rebellion story though. Zeke has something else in mind, and it’s not going to be long before he starts passing messages and talking to people about it, so readers will start getting pieces of it soon.

      Troodon made the soul wells before they created the Svartalves. The Svartalves are more magically potent now than their Troodon ancestors ever were, and they have seventy-five million years of history to back that up.

  4. ereshkigala

    Any sentient race, even puny humans, could make someone a god in this story. Worship and sacrifice is how gods were created in the first place, when the various races venerated their heroes, great leaders and ancestors. The Trodoon did that knowingly of the empowerment process but not desiring to actually have gods at all, while the humans wanted gods and created them probably unknowingly. And if the worship of maybe a couple million guys could make Loki a lesser god, whereas the worship of several dozen million guys made Zeus at least an intermediate god, imagine what the worship of a billion people could do.

    Hmm. I wonder how big would be the smallest machine that could keep a sentient being’s brain perpetually alive and into a virtual sensory environment where said sentient being worshipped a certain god. Say, a 2-3 feet cube for a human brain? Now, about eight billion such brains-in-a-jar would be a cube a mile across. A structure the size of Everest would hold about a trillion.

    So, have the gods seen The Matrix yet?

    • farmerbob1

      I hadn’t considered this. Now it’s sticking in my brain. It doesn’t fit with what I have planned to actually happen, but it might fit as someone’s foiled plan. Yes, I actually have a plan, unlike normal! For the rest of this arc anyway. 🙂

      • Michael

        Can Keeanu Reeves actually be an intelligence freed from one of these facilities, and the Matrix was actually semi-autobiographical? Please?

  5. murph

    “I promised that that would stop burying myself in work, four years ago”.
    should be
    “I promised that I would stop burying myself in work, four years ago”.

    Love the story=)

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