"And with proper investment," I tell the room, "we have an opportunity to truly change the world." The room, environmentally, is hot. The lights on the stage are part of that. The camel-hair sports coat over the black (nanobot) t-shirt is another part of that. I could coalesce the bots into a belt or girdle or something and wear a real tee -- and probably still be hot, and a lot less bullet-proof, and nobody (for values of nobody = me ) wants that. Even if I'm "retired." There's polite applause from around the room. I'd hoped for something a bit more -- rollicking. Empowering. Enthusiastic. "Any questions?" I say, echoing the final slide of the monster display -- a stylized signpost with arms reading "Question" and "Answer" and Isweartogod I will never let the Communications Group hand me slides without preview again. "Great presentation, Jason," Bill says from the audience, taking point. As, of course, he would (and, if Forbes rating is any measure, should). "But given the various ways that society is failing any number of needy groups, why do you think that your 'young supers' program is more deserving of funding than, say, AIDS research, or malaria prevention programs, or providing water to underserved third world nations?" It's a softball questions. I know it. The other audience members know it. But it's still important, because it deserves an answer. "Accountants deal in either/or, Bill," I tell him (and, more importantly, everyone else in the room). "Their focus is on porfolios. On carefully calculated balances. On income and outgo." I step away from the podium, which is freaking hard. The podium is an anchor. A shield. A sign of authority. Stepping away from it is like diving into the ocean -- uncontrolled, unchecked, dangerous. But that's a symbolic necessity. I got the briefing about that. "If we approach the problems of the world from a perspective of scarcity, of zero-sum, we will always take the careful, cautious, inadequate path," I tell them. "If we approach them from a perspective of prosperity, of and, not or, then everything becomes an investment, not judged solely by opportunity costs, but on its own merits." "Pretty words," comes a voice from audience left, rear. I know that voice, too. "But bankrupting ourselves for every media-attractive cause is not only a disservice to the people who have entrusted us with their money, but to the critical issues facing society today." Dionysus Rook. Younger brother of Rosa (who's too tied up in that robot debacle to attend), but no less interested in countering me at any cost, on general principles. If I said the sky was blue, he'd invoke the sad situation of blue-yellow color-blind people, just to make me look bad. "I don't imagine anyone here is considering bankrupting themselves," I retort, drawing a general chuckle. Jesus. This is harder than a final exam from Dad. And that particular thought doesn't lead anywhere I want to go. "But presenting things as a false dichotomy doesn't reflect reality, either." I take a few more steps forward. "You know me. You know about me. You know my reputation." "Argument from authority?" drawls a voice from audience right. "Which is only invalid, Warren," I reply, "to the extent that the authority is being cited outside their sphere of expertise. But I've been a member of a young supers group, people. And I've met with members of others. These are powerful individuals, who really want to make a positive difference in the world." "Punching people out?" asks Melinda, alongside Bill -- though it's not a softball question. "Sometime there are threats that require 'punching out,'" I retort. "Ask the city fathers of Carthage. Or Warsaw. Or Kuwait City. Or Halabja. Or, hell, Halcyon City." I spread my arms. "But teen supers are not just about punching. Again, my own anecdata, but I know a guy who's made quantum leaps in robotics and understanding of human psychology. I know a woman whose talents and activities in dimensional and transchronal travel are of potentially huge value to modern physics. I know people who push the boundaries of humanity and terrestrialism, who understand the sociology of metahumans, who --" think think thin k "-- can provide insights into hypergenius megalomania." I shrug, for effect. "These are people of extraordinary ability and potential. For good and for ill. Can we afford to see them founder in Halcyon? In Chicago? In Paris? In Cairo? In Mumbai? In Tehran? In Beijing? In Pyongyang?" "I dunno," comes Rook's voice. "Do those cities have hospitals that can be demolished?" I guess I look confused (probably because I am), because after a moment, Rook says, "Here, let me." He hacks from his mobile into the display on the wall behind me. Temple Metro back home pops up in the middle of a Fox (of course) newsfeed. The images cut back back and forth, apparently collected from cell phones, but there are three figures floating outside the hospital a dozen stories up -- looking a lot like Concord. Then Concord flies out of a hole in the side of the building, then someone chucks something out of the hole and it explodes and then it's all force fields and blasts and broken glass and screaming civilians and beam weapons and people flying into and out of the building and the building actually shimmering for a moment -- Rook freezes the image. "So these are the sorts you want us to give our money to?" he asks rhetorically. I hear some muttered conversations in the audience. "Well, sure, they aren't quite as easily managed and controlled as, say, an army of robots," I shoot back, drawing more chuckles. It's probably just as well I can't see Rook's expression with the stage lights in my eyes. "But people with these powers aren't going away. And too many of them don't have corporate sponsorships, or aren't part of a mentorship program by a supers group like the HHL or the Squad. They need help -- financially, materially -- to fight the good fight, and to become the next generation of heroes." A shrug. "That's why I've started the Francis Bacon Grant Program, seeding it with my own money." "Why Francis Bacon?" asks Bloomberg. He's over near Rook. I grin at the a question I'm not only prepared for, but will enjoy, since the name was my idea. I start ticking off the points on my fingers. "First, Francis Bacon was a cool guy -- father of the scientific method, philosopher, advisor to Queen Elizabeth. Two, bacon is cool, too, plus it's a pun about money. Which leads to three: Bacon said, 'Money is like muck, not good except it be spread.'" I smile more. Gotcha. "We've all got plenty of muck -- I want to spread some of it where it will do good." I heard someone say something about "muckity-mucks" in the back of the hall. "So you want us all to pitch in to pay off your little super-hero buddies?" Rook asks. He sounds irritated. "I'm offering you the opportunity to do so," I reply, forcing a smile. "The program is going ahead with Quill money, regardless. It could reach further with your help, of course, but this is something I believe in and want to support." I start pacing, which I know is a sign of nervousness, but it seems like a better idea than locking my knees and passing out. "There will be a grant proposal process, but I don't want it to be too complex -- thorough enough to triage the groups most in need, but remembering that a lot of these people have homework to do instead of filling in forms." (General chuckles.) "The grants will be small, targeted -- this isn't a free ride, but a way for groups of teen heroes to get access to specific resources that are needed." I force myself to stop, and I hold up my hands. "I'll be happy to go over the particular processes and guidelines we're looking at with anyone who's actually interested in being a part of this. My purpose in speaking here on this wasn't to sell people --" Well, not primarily that. "-- but to share something the Quill Foundation is doing." And show you need to take us seriously again. "Thanks -- I'll see you folk at the reception in a few." * * * Beautiful people (or, at least, very rich and well-dressed people) mix and mingle in the conference center ballroom. Workers in black slacks and white shirts bring around trays of over-complicated hors d'oeuvres , or trays of drinks. I'm nursing a Coke, which is about as much excitement as it sounds, and looking at a large chrome abstract sculpture that the wall identifies as "Signature #18" by someone I've never heard of. "So you're going to accelerate the Quill Foundation's slide into insolvency. Good to know," Dionysus Rook says, approaching me from behind. I really try not to jump, or whirl, or blast him in the face, but my nanobot shirt ripples a bit as I turn. "And here I thought we were prospective partners, in negotiations to collaborate on that property in Halcyon," I tell him. I really don't want to get into an argument at this point, and even if I have no huge desire to let Rook anywhere near that property, it should be a useful diversion. "Oh, I can tell Big Sister that she should just bide her time -- with this kind of silliness, she can just wait until you can't afford to obstruct us." Fine, want to play it that way? "Seems to me Rook Industries has some financial problems of its own," I tell him. He's "young" for this crowd -- in his late 20s -- but there's still an aura of adulthood about him that I envy a bit, even if I'll be 18 in only a few ofcourseIhavethetimedowntothesecondinmyhead months. "Maybe you should be spending time focusing on your own house and not on how things are going with the Foundation." He waves the comment away with a casual gesture that doesn't quite mirror the expression on his face. "That will all blow over. Lawyers, PR, government contracts and contacts -- we'll write off a bunch of contracts, come up with an alternative technology ... heck, maybe offer to employ some veterans to deal with security for those customers, lots of good publicity there ... and it will all blow over. But meantime --" He has a tumbler of something amber in his hand, and he extends the index finger of that hand toward me. "Meantime." He punches the syllables with his finger. "Those friends of yours are going to be doing stuff that gets people hurt . Or worse. And the more money you throw at more at kiddie metafreaks, the more people are going to get hurt. Or worse. And sooner or later, someone's going to sue your ass off, and I'll be first in line at the liquidation sale." He smiles, teeth bright and straight and even. "Just so you heard it here first." I feel the nanobots rippling, and tamp them down. I'm glad I have this stupid sports coat, though. I should say something. I know I should. I have to say something. Even if nobody else hears. He needs to hear it, the smug bastard. But I can't figure out the words. This is not my element -- I shouldn't have come here, dammit. And now -- I catch myself, but still don't have an answer. What would Dad say? Fluster and bluster and outrage and probably go home and invent something. What would Rusty say? He'd blow out Rook's kneecap with a kick right there , catch the drink in mid-air, then put his cigarette out in it. The moment is stretching, and I can see Rook starting to laugh at my paralysis. Harry would hem and haw and run across town and back to get some chips to make friends. Adam would get all wide-eyed and serious and scared-looking. Charlotte would put on airs and successfully sashay away as though she couldn't be bothered. Leo would get serious and self-righteous. Alycia would -- Alycia would -- I smile back at him. Smirk. Sardonic. An I-know-something-you-don't smile. A yeah-keep-thinking-tha t smile. A oh-this-is-going-to-turn-out-well smile. A he's-doing-exactly-what-I-wanted smile. Rook's face freezes, confused at the change of gears. I toast him with my Coke, give a slight nod, then turn and walk away. He doesn't follow. Huh.