Coyote looked at me sternly. “Zeke, let me speak. Stay silent unless you are addressed directly.”
“Yes, Sir.” Coyote had explained a few things. I had been hurt really bad. I was much older than I thought I was. A lot of my memories were gone. I was married. To Anne. If I had to be married to someone, Anne seemed like a pretty good choice. Mom and Pop liked her parents, and Anne wasn’t mean like some of the other girls. I even had a son. A son who was getting ready to go to college. I hadn’t even graduated high school yet, and my son was going to college. That just seemed really weird.
When does school start again?
Will my son help me with my homework?
I looked at my hands and arms. Hairy. Longer fingers than I remembered. I shrugged and started listening to Coyote and Octagon.
As I shrugged, both Coyote and Octagon looked at me briefly, and then they looked at each other again.
Coyote spoke patiently. “Octagon, there was no danger bringing him here. I promise you that. His power is disabled and cannot be activated by either conscious or unconscious triggering.”
Power. Hard to believe I have a power.
Did Anne get a power too? I forgot to ask.
That might be pretty cool, we could fight crime together!
She’s a girl though. I’d have to make sure she stayed safe, or Pops would kill me.
Octagon crossed his arms, ducked his head a little, and then closed his eyes, clearly thinking. A moment later he spoke again. “Coyote, it’s difficult to believe every word you say. While I’ve yet to catch you saying anything untrue or deliberately manipulating anyone on the team during your visits, your simple presence here is disruptive. It’s very hard to ignore all of your decades of thievery.”
Coyote tapped his long cane on the ground. “I am well aware of my own past history and of Whizzard’s dislike for my presence, despite the fact that I pulled him out of a kidnap situation so recently. His paranoia about me stealing his prototypes or research data is understandable. Especially with him being a Tinker.” There was a brief pause as Coyote locked eyes with Octagon. “You, on the other hand, are beginning to get a little annoying.”
Octagon frowned behind his mask. “We have no problems with occasional visits to consult with my wife. That was an agreement she made by herself, and I won’t fight with her about it. I will even say that I approve of it. There’s almost always room for someone to reform. Even though you did that weird bet and scarring thing, I fully recognize the efforts you went through to avoid killing or maiming people. At the same time, I would far rather you videoconference with each other, or something, rather than personal visits.”
Coyote smiled, and a lot of teeth showed. “It pleases me to speak with a mortal who understands how important image is, even if you don’t understand all of its implications for those of us who are not mortal.”
Octagon stiffened. “You claim to be a god. Over the last week, quite a few other supers have done the same. I have spoken to a few people who are involved in magic, and they have verified that you are, in fact, Coyote. The Trickster. What they don’t know is why you all kept it hidden so long, and why some of you are starting to make claims of godhood now.”
Coyote’s tongue fell out of the side of his mouth, hanging there for a couple seconds before he pulled it back in. “Clearly, you are concerned that what I am doing is all a deception or trick of some sort.”
I watched as Octagon nodded. He had locked eyes with Coyote.
Please don’t fight.
Coyote started to talk, paused, stared at Octagon, and then started talking again. “Don’t try to stare me down, Octagon. It won’t work on me. You’re a brave man, and you’ve got a powerful will, but I’m far beyond your weight class when it comes to willpower.”
Octagon looked away. “Fine. You know I don’t trust you, and Whizzard goes nuts anytime you are in the facility, but you came anyway.” Octagon turned to face me. “Why? If you are a god, why didn’t you take care of him somewhere else? Don’t you have some secret lair somewhere or something?”
“Gods need affirmation, Octagon. I do, indeed, have quite a few places where I could have taken Mr. Collins, but there are symbolic reasons why I came here.” Coyote paused before continuing. “For your team, and many hero teams like it, good public image is important. When your image is good, your government and the people around you cooperate with you, making your lives less complex and enabling you to do more with less effort. If your image falters, your government starts to be less cooperative, the people withdraw their support and are less open with you, and it becomes harder for you. Do you disagree with my characterization of image as related to a super hero team?”
Octagon shook his head. “No disagreement. It’s a fair enough simple explanation, and it is part of the reason I have issues with you openly associating with us. The public knowing that you are associating with us is a smudge on our image. Not a big one as long as you behave, but how long do you plan on behaving?”
“I need to build up to answering that, bear with me a moment. Image is important to you. To gods, image is everything. It literally defines us. Native Americans originally defined me as a trickster, and I wasn’t that nice, but I almost always had a lesson to teach, even if I taught the lesson by failing. I spent thousands of years as a teacher of painful lessons, until the Native Americans tribes were decimated time and time again, and their cultures were nearly eliminated. I was an interesting god though, even to those outside the Native American culture. Over the decades, children and young adults were fascinated by me, especially in the United States. I became a little less harsh, a bit sneakier, and a lot more benevolent.”
Octagon squinted. “Are you saying that the interest of children somehow molded you? They didn’t even need to be worshippers of your religion?”
“The interest of everyone. Gods feed on attention. Prayer is direct attention and very potent, but fear, respect, love, or even curiosity go a long way too. Children love stories about gods, children become adults, and adults tell stories to children. Generation after generation. I was rarely worshipped, but I was interesting. I was seen differently by a different culture. Slowly, I changed. Of all the Native American gods, I’m the strongest now.” Coyote stared at Octagon for just a moment. Octagon looked to the side, flexed his shoulders a little, and turned his gaze back to Coyote.
Coyote’s tongue came out if the side of his mouth for just a second, and then he started talking again. “When I started my career as Disco Wolf, it was to test a theory and enjoy myself. I was correct about my theory, and enjoyed myself immensely to start with. Even though mortals didn’t know I was a god, their attention fed me and made me powerful. That meant that I didn’t need to say I was a god, but I was still able to gain power and sustenance. Several other gods saw me doing this and followed suit.”
Octagon looked thoughtful for a second, and scratched the side of his cheek with two fingers. “That’s a strange twist on a secret identity.”
“Depends on how you look at it. In both of our cases, Octagon and Disco Wolf are masks to avoid drawing attention to our real selves. In your case, the real self was human, in mine, it was a god.” Coyote seemed to be waiting for something. After Octagon nodded, Coyote continued. “Back to the lesson. The public attention quickly made me as powerful as I had ever been as an object of worship, but it had a down side. I was having more and more difficulty resisting being violent and destructive. My activities were having an undesired effect on me, attracting the wrong sorts of negative attention from the public. Every time someone was hurt in a heist, even if it wasn’t serious, I was hammered with negativity. Every time there was significant property damage, the same. I had to go into semi-retirement and choose my targets very carefully, or else public negativity might have eventually redefined me into a dark god. That’s an extremely difficult hole to dig oneself out of. Being a trickster is one thing, being a dark god is completely different.”
“So this whole thing with the bet with Strangest.” Octagon looked at me for a moment. “It’s another effort to game the system and try to become a different sort of god?”
“Exactly.” Coyote drew his cane behind himself and started pacing. “There’s no way I’ll ever be a passive god, like the Abrahamic gods. I can’t imagine myself being a god of farming, literature, knowledge, hunting or battle. One of the groups who provided me with the greatest energy during the last few decades were college students interested in role playing games, and they led me to a discovery and an idea. Everyone knows that people love a hero. Humans especially love a hero that rescues people rather than just beating up villains. You save a man’s possessions, and he’ll thank you and that’s a nice little image and power boost. You save a man himself, or his loved ones? That man becomes a powerful battery for you. He’ll sing your praises to everyone who will listen and his personal devotion to you will be intense. You can hardly do wrong in his eyes. It’s not worship, exactly, because they know you exist, but its close enough. Reverence is a closer word.”
Octagon was nodding. “You feed off this somehow, and you are what you eat.”
“Yes. Attention defines me. Every time I rescue a hostage or a kidnap victim. Every time I rescue someone from a burning building or a sinking ship, I am typically revered as a rescuer by the one I save, and frequently by their relatives as well. This defines me and empowers me. Every rescue makes me more of a benevolent god of rescue and less of a murky-morality god of tricks and thievery. It changes everything about me.”
Octagon turned and looked at me. “How does this explain Strangest then? Once his mind is set right, is he going to be any net gain for you?” He paused. “Ah. His wife. His son, and parents, if they are still alive. Even if he doesn’t have visceral memories of the event, he’ll still know who helped.”
I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t think what. Coyote had also told me not to talk unless talked to. Pops told me there were times when the best thing to do was just watch and listen. I bounced on my heels a bit.
That’s just so weird.
I tried to imagine myself with a wife and a son, and I just couldn’t.
I wonder if they made a mistake and I’m not the person I thought I was.
Wouldn’t I remember my own family?
A strong urge to run hit me at that moment. Not to run away, but just to run. To feel the wind in my hair. There was no room to run here in the jackoozie room though, even after we had put away the table and chair, and cleaned it up.
Stop staring at me, Octagon.
I stared back at him for a second. He shook his head, and then turned back to Coyote.
Coyote braced his long cane in front of him, and put both hands on it. “It’s not that mercenary any more. A couple weeks ago, it was. I was rescuing people and I didn’t really care, but I needed to do it, and I knew I did. My bet with Mr. Collins here helped me stay on the straight and narrow for the first few days as I became extremely active again, with oh so many opportunities for mischief.”
“I see, I think.”
“Two weeks ago, my reaction to finding Mr. Collins where he was would have been significantly different. The being he fought with and killed, somehow, was one of few that I would have called a friend. Mr. Collins would not be here right now, if I had found him two weeks ago. That being said, the changes in my attitudes and reactions to others have slowed dramatically, but there are still aspects of darkness within me. There always will be. Part of what I do, breaking into places and getting people out, is closely associated with thievery, and everyone’s opinion of me matters. The relief and reverence of the ones I save are balanced to some degree by the anger of those whose plans I thwart. I have a decades-long history of thievery, and many people in the world won’t believe I’m reformed. Their negativity impacts me as well.”
“So, you are an Amalgam of what humans think of you, weighted by how strongly they believe.” Octagon looked thoughtful. “If I’m understanding right, the trick here is that you ha…” Octagon’s eyes got big, and he abruptly turned his head to face Coyote. “Social media. That’s what you’ve been doing with social media.”
“Like I told you two, if you need to reach me about a rescue, Hashtag CoyoteRescue. Social media goes both ways.” Coyote bowed a shallow formal bow with sweeping arms. “I fear that’s all the lesson time I have for today. Mr. Collins and I have places to be. I’m rather confident that there’s a very worried wife and son waiting for me to bring him along.”
Coyote turned to me. “You ready to run, Zeke?”
Run, oh yes. Definitely.
“Yes Sir. Ready when you are. Oh, wait.” I turned to face Octagon. “Goodbye Mr. Octagon, please say goodbye to your wife for me as well. Mrs. Cupcake makes awesome cheeseburgers.”
Octagon just stared at me for a second then smiled. The smile seemed real, though his staring at me before that felt weird. “Thank you, Zeke, I’ll tell her you said goodbye, and pass on your compliment.”
Coyote tapped his cane twice on the floor, and I looked towards him. “Sorry, Sir. I’m ready now.”
Can’t wait to run, but these clothes aren’t good to run in.
“Sir, sorry to be a bother, but should I be running in church clothes?” Slacks and fancy boots, with a long sleeve button-up shirt. “Mom would have me cut my own switch if she caught me running in clothes this nice.”
“You’ll be fine, Zeke. I can fix them for you before you meet your family, if you tear anything. Remember, I made them, I can fix them. You’re just borrowing them until you can get your own.”
“As long as you’re sure.” I hopped from foot to foot to try to get a feel for the boots. Running in boots would be weird. “Can we run now?”
“Yes. Try and keep pace with me now, match your paces to mine. Don’t watch my feet, watch my legs. My feet move differently from yours, but my upper legs don’t. If you can time your footsteps to the sound of my footsteps that works just as well.”
“I think I understand, Sir. You want us to run like Army guys run in the movies, when they all run in a line?”
“That’s it, exactly, Zeke. We’ll start with a walk, and pick up the pace from there.” Coyote walked out of the jackoozie room, and I stepped at the same time he did. We walked past Octagon, who seemed to be smiling for no reason I could figure out.
After we left the apartment and entered the hallway, Coyote started to walk faster. I could hear his claws clicking on the ground as he ran, it was easier to time my steps to his that way. By the time we got to another door, next to the outside of a building. We were running really fast, and I thought we were going to break the door, but even though we were going so fast, Coyote opened the door and it didn’t break as we passed it.
As we ran across the yard, and under a couple trees on the way to the road, Coyote spoke to me. “If you want to run with me, Zeke, you have to concentrate on running. You can look at other things, but you have to pay attention to the pace I set, and match it. If you can’t do that, I’ll have to carry you. That wouldn’t be any fun, would it?”
“Yes Sir, I mean no Sir. I mean…” I couldn’t figure out how to say it while I was concentrating on matching my pace to Coyote’s.
“I understand, Zeke, don’t worry about it. Just keep running. I think it’s time we go a little faster, don’t you?”
We were running on a road through the city, around cars like they were standing still. But they weren’t. I could see them moving slowly. I could see people starting to turn their heads to look at us. Everything was slow. Except traffic lights. I watched one change from red to green. It was just as fast as a normal traffic light.
“Sir, why are the traffic lights still so fast to change colors when everything else is slow?” I carefully kept pace with Coyote, matching my pace to the clicks of his claws.
Coyote didn’t answer for a second, and then simply said “We’ll talk about that later.” Then he twisted right a little bit. “Stay close, don’t touch any people or things. I need to help this guy real quick.” He pointed towards the side of the road, at an intersection a couple blocks ahead.
As we got closer, I could see that there was a big, heavyset guy who looked like he was falling in super slow motion, right in front of a parked truck. As I looked at the truck though, I realized it wasn’t parked. It was really slow too, but the falling guy and the truck were going to hit each other. As we ran up to the guy, Coyote reached out both hands. One hand grabbed the guy by the collar of his windbreaker and picked him up so his feet were a few inches off the ground, the other hand grabbed the little black box out of the air. It looked like the guy had been trying to catch the box.
It was pretty funny to watch. The guy kept moving really slowly, like he didn’t realize Coyote had picked him up. Coyote looked at the little black box and did something with his fingers, than looked directly at the phone. “Safety tip. Texting while walking next to traffic is a bad idea.” He licked his nose, and then continued. “If I hadn’t been passing by, you would be having a very bad day right now.”
Coyote carefully placed the little black box in the man’s jacket pocket, before turning the man to the side, and putting him down on the sidewalk, so he was facing away from the road, and there wasn’t anyone right next to him. Everyone around us seemed to be very slowly turning their heads to watch us, including the guy Coyote had picked up.
“OK, that was fun. Ready to go faster, Zeke?”
Faster? We were already so fast people couldn’t even turn their heads fast enough to watch us.
“Yes Sir! I’m ready for faster!”
“I thought you might be, Zeke.” Everything stopped moving completely, and then things started to get a little blurry. I had a hard time matching Coyote’s footsteps, and then it got easier.
“That’s about as fast as the two of us can go together, Zeke. Are you having fun?”
“Yes Sir, this is great! Thank you so much. I know you’re helping me with your power, but it still feels like I’m running, and this is awesome fast.”
“There’s no need to thank me, Zeke. I’m not sure exactly how, yet, but you did something big a while ago. Something you don’t remember very well, and that nobody else saw directly.”
“What did I do, Sir? Will I need to apologize to someone?” I couldn’t help but be worried. I didn’t remember doing very much at all recently, other than chores and schoolwork. Well, and throwing a rotten egg into the cab of old man Halloway’s truck because he had shot one of Doug’s dogs. Pops had already whipped me on the legs with a switch for that though, and I couldn’t imagine him whipping me for it again. I squared my shoulders. It had been worth it, and if I got whipped again, it would be worth it again.
“Maybe. Probably. But its complex, and you won’t have to worry about it until we take care of a few more things. Just enjoy the run. Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon?”
“No Sir, not that I can remember, but there seems to be a whole lot I can’t remember. Didn’t you say we had to meet Anne and, err, my son? That just seems so weird. Do we have time? The Grand Canyon is nowhere near where I live. I don’t think. Do I still live in Georgia?”
“So many questions.” Coyote continued to run, his long cane in his right hand, and me on his left side. “Match my pace, Zeke, we can take a few minutes time to go see something that every child should see, if they can.”
We were running alongside a highway now, still super-fast. Every now and then I would see a car’s turn signal blink. It was amazing that the lights still turned off and on so fast, even though everything else was so slow! It was even cooler than that though. The lights didn’t instantly turn on and off like I had always thought they did, they rapidly got brighter or dimmer as they turned on and off.
That’s pretty cool.
“Here we are.” Coyote turned off the highway and followed a smaller road for a second or two.
As we came to the end of the road to a parking lot, Coyote made a hand gesture at me, and we both slowed down. I saw a little piece of paper blow across the parking lot.
Coyote didn’t look at me as he walked out towards a railing that protruded out a little bit over the huge hole in the ground. “I come here sometimes, Zeke, to remind myself how small I am, and how old the world is. I used to come here to try to understand a friend, a friend who made even this place seem young. I never did understand him.” He waved his hand at me, beckoning me to come closer.
That sounded weird, but Coyote did have a dog’s head, and claws, and funny legs. His eyes were yellow too. Maybe he just saw things really differently. “I don’t understand how the Grand Canyon can remind you of a person, Sir, or how someone can seem older than this place. I learned in school how it took millions of years for the river to cut the canyon out of the rock.”
Coyote nodded at me. “It is hard to understand. You’ll understand a bit better, later, if we can get your mind back on track. After we take a couple minutes here, we’ll go to meet your family.”
We should be doing that now, I think. My family is important!
Even if I don’t remember them?
There was a chuckle. “I saw that, Zeke. Yes, you are right that we’re avoiding an important obligation. Sometimes though, one needs to be irresponsible and self-indulgent, even gods.”
I looked down, and across the canyon. It was huge, deep, and incredible. I just stood and stared for a couple minutes, and I felt tiny. Coyote did the same, staring across the canyon without moving or speaking. Eventually I had seen it enough. I was quiet a couple more minutes, since Coyote wasn’t talking or moving, but after a while I had to say something. “This really is an awesome gift, Sir, I’ll remember it forever.”
Coyote shook his head a little, and his tongue rolled out the side of his mouth as he turned to face me. “Maybe you will.”