Arc 3, Balance 16

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I hadn’t wanted to send Anne back to the Enclave apartment, but, unfortunately, there weren’t any viable choices otherwise. The Enclave had been very clear to Anne that my trips to the apartment should be brief, and I should never sleep there.

Lots of good reasons for that.

Stubbing my toe might cause the residents from dozens of apartments to attack me.  Utter chaos in what should be a safe building.

We hadn’t talked about it, but I suspected that the conversations Anne had had with Enclave representatives about my limited visitation had been more heated than Anne had told me, but I had to admit that the Enclave was right.  Anne was a little biased in that argument.

I’m surprised they let me in at all.

I had asked Ali to check and see if they were being mentally coerced, and he said no. He did tell me there had been suggestions implanted that they follow Enclave rules and obey Enclave leaders, but they were suggestions, not compulsions.  If they tried to disobey rules or leaders, the suggestions would give them a bit of guilt and trigger them to reconsider their decisions to disobey rules or leadership.  If they were able to maintain doubts or disobedience despite reconsideration, there was another suggestion buried a little deeper that they make arrangements to take their concerns directly to an Enclave open meeting of voting members.  That secondary suggestion would be extremely difficult to resist.

My first instinct had been to tell Ali to remove the suggestions.  Anne and Danny would probably do exactly what the suggestions wanted anyway, but Ali had advised that I should not have him remove the suggestions.  His reasoning was that it was virtually certain the Enclave would check on the suggestions now and then, to be sure they were still present. Removing them would almost certainly put my family on a tighter security requirement, or make me completely unwelcome in the facility.

It’s still mind-fuckery. On my family.

I clenched my jaw, but forced myself to think of why they did it. I didn’t have all the details, but Gorgon had apparently created quite a mess when he had broken ranks with the Enclave years ago.  I could easily see the institutional attraction of a little more security at the cost of a little freedom.

That’s a damn slippery slope.

And I have to say that at this point, I’m in agreement with it.

I shoved aside the well-worn track of irritation. Every time I thought about spending time with Danny or Anne, the irritation with the Enclave surfaced.  Every time I had to leave Danny and Anne there, and come back here, alone, the irritation grew.

As I managed to push those thoughts away, others crowded forward, demanding attention.

Anne was right that permanently harming or killing me, physically, was hard, maybe impossible. Even though I wasn’t foolish enough to voice the concern to Anne, I was honest enough with myself to recognize that magic could kill me.  I had wondered several times if I had come close to dying next to Trainwreck when the Jotunn shaman had attacked us with whatever had forced Trainwreck back into his human body.

The body isn’t what I’m worried about though.

I would potentially live a very long time. How long that might be, I had no idea.  Various beings had hinted that I might even live forever unless killed by some magical being’s direct action.  My family wouldn’t live more than a normal lifespan.  If Danny had children, they would only live a few more years than he would, even in a perfect world.  Even practitioners seemed to only live for lifetimes measured in centuries, or thousands of years at best.  If I could live forever, I would end up like Jinn and Jiniri, over time.  Tired and bored.  They could sleep centuries, and might peacefully just drift off into nothingness.

I don’t think that will be an option for me.

How long will my sanity last like that?

When I go, it probably won’t be pleasant.

It was hard to not think about mortality when I was considering my plans. I still needed to ask for one more bit of help from Valsom’s crew.  I hoped what I was asking for would be possible.  I spoke out loud. “If a Svartalve could please examine this request and tell me if it is possible, and if possible, how long it would take to implement.”

I finished writing down my request and set the paper aside, putting Danny’s clay car paperweight on it, leaned back in my chair, and, as I expected, Ali spoke.

“That’s a dangerous thing you’re asking for, Zeke. It might force someone to escalate in response once they realize what you’ve done.”

“I recognize that, Ali. I think it’s necessary though.  Once I start what I’m planning, there’s a very good chance that people will not want to hear what I have to say, and try to stop me from saying it.”

People that probably can kill me, if they want to.

Why in the hell am I doing this?

Not doing it would guilt trip me forever.

Ali edged around so I could see him. He knew I didn’t like him talking to me from behind my back.  All of a sudden, he slapped his hand on the sheet of paper.  I felt something inside me changing, but was able to prevent the actual change from happening.

I stared at Ali, a bit angry.  “Not funny, Ali.”

There was a furious-sounding hiss from very close to me.

Ali turned his head towards a section of what looked to me to be an empty space in the floor.

“I apologize for interfering, but I have Zeke’s safety in mind here. He’s stubborn enough that you’re probably going to be able to see this in a few seconds, but I want to make sure he understands what this modification might mean, before I let you see his request.”

There was no further noise that I could detect, and after Ali looked at the spot in the floor where the Svartalve was apparently standing for another second, he turned back to me.

Time to see if this last piece of the puzzle fits like I think it does, if he’ll answer in a way that gives me the information I need.

“Ali, I have a semi-personal question for you, if you don’t mind.”

Ali’s eyes narrowed. “You’re fishing again, all this is related to whatever it is you’re planning.”

It wasn’t a question. I didn’t pretend he was wrong. “Sure is.  No offense intended, but it seems to me that other than a rather amazing memory, and lots of experience to draw from, most magical beings or even gods aren’t that much smarter than humans.  Magical beings also have some different senses that make it possible to simply detect things that a human would normally have to intuit from less obvious clues.  Would that be a fair assessment of Jinn, Jiniri, Elementals, Gods, other magical beings, and maybe even Svartalves?”

Ali stood there, staring at me, holding his hand over the note I had written for the Svartalves. “You are drawing this conclusion because I have not yet been able to intuit what your plans are?”

I nodded. “That, amongst other things.  Remember, Ali, one more day.”

Please keep your promise.

“Seeing what you’ve written here, I’m not sure you’re going to survive what you are planning tomorrow.” Ali paused a moment. “You aren’t sure either.  That was part of the reason for your date with Anne last night, wasn’t it?”

“Don’t go there, Ali. Don’t even think about trying to use Anne against me.  You don’t know what I’m planning, and that would seriously piss me off and endanger our ability to work together.  I would like to think that if Anne knew what I know, she would agree with what I’m doing.”

Ali wasn’t having any of it, and stared me in the eyes. “If you get yourself killed tomorrow because you think you know what you’re doing, but don’t – which is extremely likely – then I’ll have no chance to work together with you.  Why should I not go get Anne right now, tell her what I know, and let her work you over for a bit until you tell us what you’re planning?”

I couldn’t help but twitch at the thought, which, based on the quirk of his lips, Ali clearly recognized as a point in his favor.

That would probably work too.

He won’t do it though.

“I think I know you well enough by now to guess that you would far rather solve the puzzle on your own, as opposed to getting outside help. What I’m planning doesn’t endanger you.  It endangers a path to accelerated development that you certainly would like to have access to, but I’m presenting you with a puzzle.  You are clearly captivated by the puzzle.”

“There’s something else you might not be considering, Zeke.” Ali said, quietly.

“Ali, there are certainly many things I’m not considering. What are you referring to?”

“Maybe I believe you to be a friend, not just a meal ticket. Perhaps my concern about your life isn’t just me being interested in myself.  I’ve enjoyed most of my experiences with you.  You’ve taught me things.  Watching you take actions which seem to have a high likelihood of leading to your death might be just as painful for me in as it would be for you to watch a friend do something that you know will kill them.  Oh, say, like watching a family member die of lung cancer because they wouldn’t stop smoking.  Despite, or perhaps even because of, your risk-taking and stubbornness, I like you.  As you said, magical beings aren’t that much smarter than humans.”

Fuck. That was a blow below the belt.

I couldn’t stop the images of Uncle Oswald with dozens of tubes in him for the last week of his life in the hospital.  My father’s older brother refused to stop smoking, even after he beat lung cancer the first time.  The second time, he lost.

When did Ali learn about Uncle Oswald?

There was a hiss. It sounded annoyed.

Ali turned to the sound of the hiss. “Do you argue that Zeke wouldn’t be as capable as us, if he had our lifespan, memory, experiences, senses, and natural abilities?  He’s been developing his mind for less time than I spent in gestation.”

There was a long hiss, followed by a pause, before a high pitched voice started to speak. “Perhapsss… Nearly sssso.  He’sss certainly smarter than most non-Svartalves I have met.” came the response.  The English enunciation was very strange and sibilant at the beginning of the statement, but clarified by the end.

Ali grinned. “That’s quite a compliment from a Svartalve, Zeke, and he managed to insult me while he did it too.  Svartalves really don’t like being wrong.  This one’s young though.  Younger than me.  He’ll learn that he doesn’t know everything, eventually.”

I raised my hand, towards the space between Ali and the Svartalve. “Don’t start a fight, please, Ali.”

Ali turned back to me. “As a friend, will you tell me what you are planning?”

Dammit, Ali.

“I can’t. Sorry.  You will understand tomorrow, I hope.”

Ali looked angry.

I raised both hands to shoulder level, palms out, fingers straightened, and looked him straight in the eyes. “Please, Ali.  I won’t lie.  I consider you to be a friend as well.  If you feel the same, please understand that I have reasons for keeping this to myself.”  I lowered my hands again.

Ali stared at me for a second, sighed, closed his eyes, and then took his hand off the paper. “It’s far more likely that you are going to get yourself killed because you were ignorant of something important.”  He turned away from me.

I took a deep breath, blew it out slowly, and then took another breath and started speaking. “I don’t think so, Ali, at least in this case.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think that’s likely.”

Still looking away from me, Ali looked up at the ceiling. “It’s a very uncommon person who can believe with any real conviction that they might be wrong about something they believe, Zeke.  Those people are almost always self-doubters and you are certainly not a self-doubter.”

I didn’t have any more arguments that wouldn’t give him clues that might allow him to figure out what I was planning.

“Thank you for caring, Ali. That really does mean something to me.”

“I know. I can see that much.  I can also see that, somehow, this conversation has deepened your conviction that you are right in whatever the hell it is you are planning.”

I couldn’t help but poke him about his nature. “Fun, isn’t it?  For you.”

He turned back to me with a serious face. “Other than the fact that you’re putting your life on the line, yes, I won’t deny it.  Even if you get yourself killed tomorrow, you’ve given me some fine memories.”

“It appears that your answer has been provided, Zeke.” Ali pointed at a new sheet of paper on my desk, under Danny’s clay car.  I hadn’t even noticed it arriving.

“Modification of armor to implement option for severe pain generation upon mental intrusion is trivial. Modification of armor to implement option for severe pain generation on failure or unexpected modification of any suit function is trivial.  Implementation of enhanced cryptographic operating system and firmware security is trivial.  Implementation of combined requests possible within three hours.  Proceed Yes or No?”

I picked up a pen from the cup of writing implements on my desk, and wrote “Yes”

I spoke out loud. “I have answered.”  After speaking, I looked away, intentionally, for several seconds.  When I looked back, the paper was gone.

Ali spoke nonchalantly. “It just occurred to me that part of your plan must require my ignorance.  It’s not just that you are keeping it secret, is it?”

I winced.

That could lead him in directions I don’t want him going.

Ali nodded before disappearing.

I stared at where Ali had been standing, hoping he wouldn’t figure it out.

I still had a lot of work to do before tomorrow. My will needed to be updated.  Same for my living will.  There were letters to write, that would be delivered if I were to die.  I would want to put on the armor after the modifications were completed, and make sure I understood how to turn the new features on and off.

I turned to my computer, and began working, connecting to my electronic document repository, updating various documents and providing biometric verification. It was slow going.  After a few minutes, despite myself, I couldn’t help but smile as I realized that for once in my adult life, I was hoping that everything I was doing was a waste of time.

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  1. farmerbob1

    NaNoWriMo word count: roughly 28,800

    Short chapter. When I hit where this chapter ended, it just felt like a strong ending point.
    Starting the next chapter immediately, should have it done in 12 hours or less, maybe a lot less if things flow well.

  2. Michael

    I’m really beginning to wonder what’s up with Zeke – severe pain generation? It sounds like his plot is going to require a genuine pain reaction from him every time someone tries to mind-probe him – that could be a significant weakness, even in ideal circumstances.

    • Ray

      My read of it is that he wants to get kicked to his Strangest form whenever someone tries to mess with his head or armor.
      In fact, since it also activates if the suit fails in any way, it makes him pretty much un-killable while he wears the suit.
      They can still pick up the suit and throw him off into space, stick him in a pocket dimension, or any number of other containment options, they just can’t force him to change his mind.
      I suppose they could still use sensory deprivation or other indirect conditioning methods to try to change his mind, but this prevents any ‘quick fix’ changes with no discussion about his plan.

      • Michael

        Just a quibble – given that he’s experienced in delegation on technical matters like this, I’d expect Zeke to give a statement of intent – “Alter my suit so that any attempt to bypass its security or harm me beyond the suit’s current capacity to protect me triggers my transformation into Strangest form” rather than the specific list of alterations he gives

        • Bart

          They’d have to have some sort of precognitive power. What about a power that bypasses the suit’s current capacity to protect him, in a beneficial way now but in a detrimental way later? How would they know? With super powerful magical people, I’m sure there are ways to slip something in like that.

          Although, anyone who’s been keeping any sort of tabs on him for the last while already has a way to put him out of commission forever — just get Badger to chop him up again, then use a robot to pick up all the individual pieces in separate batches of concrete then dump each block of cured concrete into multiple different oceans of the world, so I don’t really see what he’s trying to do here.

        • farmerbob1

          I’ll be addressing this in Balance 18, at least a little. Part of it is just Zeke doing his best to keep people out of his head when he’s not in the soul well body. Part of it was an effort to protect his plan from Ahmed simply digging around and taking it all at once rather than the measured, careful discussion Zeke was hoping to have with him. That second part didn’t work so well.

  3. thomas

    Interesting. I just realized Z wants the soul well modified. You did a good job of hiding that from us or maybe I have worse than obtuse.

    Btw, sometimes I read this on my phone. Do you know why the TOC for Android does not get updated correctly? Right now, the TOC stops at 13.

    • Bart

      If he (or someone) removes the soul well, then he’ll eliminate many of his current problems. He’d be able to live freely with Anne and his son. He’d be able to take back up the reins of his company. He’ll also open himself to new problems. Gorgon knows Zeke now, Gorgon likes his managerial style, and Gorgon will want Zeke to work for him. Zeke and his family may not be able to all live in the Enclave — they might be able to through Miss Perfect (soon to be Mrs. Perfect?), but then he’ll have mind restrictions placed on him (probably along with some that’ll make him forget that bit of conditioning) and he’s not going to want to go for that.

      If can get the Svartalves to modify the soul well so that it won’t trigger when he’s surprised, just when he wants it to or on a codeword or whatever, then that opens up a ginormous ball of worms. Namely, if the Svartalves can modify something like that, then they probably know enough to make something like that. Someone could order the Svartalves to make a new soul well, attach it to that person, or some object, then rush through the universe(s) killing everything they could find and siphoning off the power for themselves. Instant path to super godhood. Remember the creation of the soul wells? That’s probably how all the Troodons died so quickly. I’d suspect that part of the geas is a prevention of soul well creation. Still, though, you could find something, get it close enough to be called a soul well, perhaps by binding a single soul yourself, which I’m sure some necromancer could do, then get the Svartalves to modify it to an automatic soul well like Zeke has. Either way, modification is a direct link to creation.

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