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59.1 - Four Pots on the Stove (Alycia's Tale)

What went wrong? Clearly, the planning had been inadequate. I'd tried to anticipate the contingencies, the potential problems -- but matters had spiraled out of hand far too quickly. The failures had cascaded until it was a total loss. In the end, I just decided to let it all burn. "This is really burned on," Summer comments from the sink. She is paying the wages of my sin -- since I cooked, she cleans. "Baked potatoes are a crafty opponent," I comment. I'm doing some homework (soooo ready for end of year), pondering an improvement to my body armor that compromises 2.3% of protection at two key points for an extra 10% mobility there, and considering what went wrong with the "loaded potatoes" that I'd attempted. (Summer is being particularly kind in all of this, given that she doesn't have to eat. I do, so "eating my own dog food," as the Americans so charmingly euphemize it, is my own penance.) I'm particularly irked because I splurged some hard-earned stipend on packets of free-range bison chili from Whole Foods. No cheap, unsustainable, ersatz meat Hormel for me (enough of that in my past). My phone beeps. A snippet of the Williams' Imperial March . AEGIS is opening a channel. Proximity alert on the HHL tower, only skeletally manned. It's one of your teammates. Concord. I'll head that way. Are you done with your homework? I roll my eyes. Sometimes Parker is worse than an actual mother would be. If only "sending me to my room" didn't have such dire overtones with her. Yes. Also my bed made, cat fed, rubbish taken out.  Just be careful. "Who was that?" Summer asks. "AEGIS." Since it was directly to me, I could assert opsec, but -- why? "Adam -- Concord -- is sitting on top of the HHL building. They want me to check it out." Summer looks concerned. "I imagine he has a lot to think about. Please be gentle." I shrug, too casually. "Maybe --" I've resolved to be a friend. Be a friend. "You want to ... come with? I'm still ... kind of pissed at him. I'm not sure I can do 'gentle.'" She gives that smile. Dammit. "I'm sure you'll do fine. And I can fly really fast -- text me if you need me." I nod, and go to suit up. The bike will, I know through experience, ride straight up the side of a building. That's not indicated at the moment. Adam is Adam -- I think -- but even if he is, he's also an immensely powerful individual. Like "change reality" kind of powerful. (Change reality? Change memory of reality? Whichever, powerful. Too powerful.)  Roaring up in front of him on my bike seems like a good way to elicit a bad reaction, intentional or not. Besides, I have an AEGIS toy I want to play with. And some power structure noses to tweak, even if covertly. The HHL tower -- the upper team floorspace, at least -- has been largely on caretaker standby for -- well for months now, since it turned out that they'd been complicit in another mind-control fiasco. While some of the team still pops in, as a team they are even more just notional than the Menagerie seems to be sometimes.  As such, it's unlikely that anyone is there to let me up the rooftop, even if they'd be inclined. (I wonder for a fleeting moment if Tatanka is around -- I keep meaning to contact him, but ...) Enter the AEGIS toy. I draw some attention, being in costume, as I stroll through the lobby of the building. It's past business hours, of course, but presumably there are still folk in the office space floors below the HHL levels. The security guard watches me warily behind his kiosk to the side: wood paneling, marble countertop, with an internal structure of angled steel with an ablative ceramic coating that would hold off an anti-tank shell, at least. What? I once looked at the files. Know thy enemy. I don't even pay the guard any overt attention, but walk to the direct lift, with the HHL logo embossed on the doors, and let the panel beside it read my card. The elevator door opens smoothly and I step inside. Even during business hours, the lift should deposit me at the HHL entry hall. Instead, it takes me directly to the machine room at the top level, quickly enough that the medley of super-hero movie music on the overhead speakers never has a chance to annoy me. AEGIS would probably prefer I not use this particular trick. Each time it's more likely to be detected or recorded, then the HHL sends a nasty email to AEGIS and everyone gets all shouty. Screw that. I'm not walking up fifty flights of stairs, let alone scaling the building on my own. The exit door to the rooftop opens with creak. Poor security. I mean, creaking doors have their security advantages, but it's indicative that the details aren't being paid attention to, that the rooftop is not adequately monitored except by its limited camera coverage. In my case, I don't try to stop the creaking. I want Adam to know I'm coming. Can I sneak up on Adam? Maybe. His powers are prodigious, but he's not omniscient. On the other hand, if he simply set up reality around him to alert him to anyone coming, I have no idea how to protect against that or even detect it.  I really hate cosmic-level powers. Not because they're so tough, but because they are so unpredictable, it's impossible to make reasonable plans. So. Open. Straightforward. Trustworthy. (Could a sniper bullet, say from half a klick away, that building right there , take out an unprepared, unhinged Adam? Don't even think that, dammit. ) I walk across the hard white rocks atop the building, my booted feet making loud, crunching noises. Again, open. Straightfoward. Trustworthy. Adam is lying on the rooftop, on the rocks. He faintly glows, visibly clear beyond the brilliance of the HHL logo overhead. I stop ten feet away. After a moment with no response, I say, "Hey, Adam." "Hey, Alycia." He doesn't even open his eyes. "Did they send you?" He doesn't specify which "they," but I was sent, so ... "Yes." Honesty. I know it's going to go horribly wrong, but I'm making an effort. He nods. He looks sad. "So, what are you doing?" "Lying here. Watching a satellite go by. Thinking I really screwed everything up." You're not wrong. But that's not helpful. "You tried to fix things. I know the temptations of doing that. Good intentions. I understand your wanting to protect your family. I understand about the threat you were feeling from the Concordance. If I'd been been in your situation ... I don't know that I would have done any differently. So ... in a way, maybe we both screwed up." I wouldn't have messed with everyone that way.  Right? Probably? "No," he says, shaking his head. " You didn't have cosmic powers just thrust upon you. I screwed things up." "Adam, I think anyone with cosmic powers given to them is going to have problems, so don't take it as a personal flaw. 'Absolute' power and all of that." I take a deep inhale ... ... And in my mind's eye, I see Jason in the Sepiaverse, me standing beside him, as he destroys the hyper-genius of his father and mine. I see the AltFuture!Jason, striking down Leo -- and our willingness to do the same to him. I see my father ordering men to their death, sometimes for grand reasons and sometimes for petty ones.  My voice is rough. "I've known people who wielded tremendous power, all my life. A lot of them have done it with the best of intentions. And even when they've done some immediate good, it's still so easy to abuse, to do the wrong things, to make a mistake. Humans aren't meant for that." He looks at me. His eyes are deep and dark. "Do you still think I'm human?" I meet his gaze. "Yes. When you were describing what happened to you, when you did all this, I felt your feelings. I felt it and saw it through your ideas -- and all the instincts you had there -- to protect your family, to get rid of the pressure on you -- that's all very human." I snort. "I mean, I don't know if you can walk around in space --" "I can." I blink. "Okay. That's really cool. But that doesn't make you not human." The connection between this conversation and ones I've had with Summer (and kin) does not escape me. "However your biology works, or however your power protects your biology, it has nothing to do with being human."  I've dragged the conversation afield. I'm trying my best to make Adam feel better, de-stress, de-distress -- but I realize I'm getting into an argument with him instead.  Like I told Summer, I'm still angry.  I also suddenly realize that ... when I first met Adam, when I first encountered the Menagerie as a whole, I would have answered the question he just posed very differently. I might well have said he wasn't human any more, if he'd left so many physical worries behind -- just as I would have found the question regarding Summer (Pneuma) similarly laughable. Is that growth? Or rank sentimentality? I have reasons for changing my mind about the Newmans -- but hardly empirical evidence I could submit to a science journal. On the other hand, truth doesn't depend on peer review. I'm still pissed at Adam, which isn't helping me be supportive and help him off the rooftop. I know he's inclined to listen to me -- and I'm trying to frame this as best I can, even thinking of my conversations with Summer -- -- but I'm doing it all wrong, dammit, trying to make him realize that all humans are flawed and can't handle power, which probably isn't helping him feel better. I can see in his eyes, in his face, in his body language that I'm losing him. Or worse. One of my hands starts to drift for my mobile. The other, pointedly, doesn't move toward one of my weapons. Nor do I charge up the gloves. Yet. He stands up. By which I mean he goes from prone to upright in a smooth motion, without need of getting his feet under him first. I -- work very hard to not step back. I don't want to show fear, both out of pride and out of not wanting to provoke a reaction. "So ... you don't think cosmic powers are good for a person? For a kid? You want it?!" Something is in his hand. It's ... hard to look at. But I know what it is. The Keynome. "But I gotta warn you," he says -- angry himself at the moment -- "it comes with strings. It winds up eventually with Dr Infinity." Oh, shit. "It belongs to her. It powers all her stuff. "And that's what we are here to protect," says three voices in unison. We look up, and the three agents of the Concordance stand in the air above us. "Aw, c'mon!" Adam mutters, as the Keynome blips back into him. Me? I'm blind-texting 911 to Summer. Again, oh, shit. I won't go into detail about their conversation. Suffice it to say that the Concordance agents are a bit snotty about having had their minds affected (or, more accurately, their Concordance shards put to sleep). While I cannot specifically blame them for being irked (I'm not that great a hypocrite), my priorities are abruptly changed: the Keynome must not be taken by them, and Adam has to be protected. Yes, I know. Crazy talk.  The Concordance folk -- particularly the red one -- want to lord over Adam their superior experience, their clarity of vision, their excellence of wisdom in  knowing what to do. Even after filtering out tribal loyalties to a fellow Menagerie member, I am not only unconvinced for their superiority in any way, but I'm looking for a way to pierce their bubble in a painful fashion. Priorities, though. Protecting the Keynome and Adam. Avoiding a cosmic-powered shootout in downtown Halcyon (again). I review what I know about the defense systems of the HHL building, and realize that things could get very messy before this is over if automated weaponry comes into play on top of everything else. It could make the hospital fiasco look trivial. Of course, for all their pretense to cool logic and ineffable wisdom, they're clearly torqued that Adam turned them into "friends" during his meddling. I feel a small twinge of guilt -- would I have done any better, given the temptation? -- and of compassion for the three aliens, but only small twinges. I maintain my silence, the better to land either a cutting witticism or sudden attack. Against beings at this power level, I might get only one of those, and that only once before I have to start ducking and dodging. The conversation begins to shift a bit. They assert that the Concordance never takes on local power sources, particularly Keynomes. And, it seems, Earth is overly-rich in such artifacts. Adam admits it was a bad decision, but at the time -- against the Vyortovian invasion -- he had little choice, and his shard had given him permission. "There are reasons these rules are in place. It is not done for Many Good Reasons." That's why they've popped up all of a sudden -- to rectify the situation. Yes, heaven forbid we mere humans figure out a solution. "If you hadn't come in here all hot and heavy, we were working on a resolution." Adam adds, "I was going to give to one of my teammates to keep it safe. Because it has to be kept safe." Oh, shit. That's what he was starting to do before they showed up. He's going to offer me the Keynome. That is such a bad decision. But are there any better? Adam can't keep it. He's demonstrated that and -- I mean, I like the kid, but he's a kid. The political situation in this tottering world power nation-state demonstrates the dangers of handing massive power to the emotionally immature or stunted. Adam's showing amazing insight and willpower in giving it up now, but that probably doesn't qualify him to hold onto it further. And, if not him -- who else? Whom could I trust with that power? Among the many paradoxes in the Christian religion -- a faith that has been latched onto by potentates and despots for the better part of two millennia -- is a dramatic core tale about the perils of power. The religion's founder pursues a vision quest in the wasteland where, after fasting and other self-deprivations, he is tempted by an adversarial spirit to alleviate his hunger, to prove his favor from his deity, and, finally, to attain power over all the Earth at the mere cost of bowing down in turn to the adversarial spirit.  In this last is a brilliant metaphor. "Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me." The apocalyptic prophet rejects the spirit, saying that he must instead follow his own beliefs and moral code. The passage has a variety of interpretations, but it always struck me as a remarkable insight into the turning aside of power, that such can only be taken knowing one's inner evil can corrupt its usage, and so it is evil in itself.  Yes, I know -- why might I come up with such an interpretation? Imagine that. (If you will, I've also been struck by the passage in Lord of the Rings -- written by a devout Catholic -- where the already-powerful Queen of the Elves is offered the ultimate power crafted by an ancient evil foe, and foresees how she can right every wrong and, in so doing, become a still greater monster, despairingly beautiful and worshipped by all. She rejects it, even knowing the power's ultimate destruction will mean her own overthrow. It's a lovely passage, surpassing even Peter Jackson's ham-handed treatment of it in the cinematic version to remain deeply moving.) Adam wants to give me the Keynome. What could I do with it? What couldn't I do with it? And all I'd have to do is put aside every principle I hold about power corrupting, ignore every splash of blood and cut of the torturer's knife to know where such a path must lead, to either an indulgence of every vicious animal passion and whimsical vice humanity knows, or a rejection of humanity itself. Could I withstand that temptation better than the others? Charlotte? The woman who, otherworld, destroyed herself and who knows how many others becoming Empress of the Ghosts, even for a worthy cause? Hardly. Harry -- I don't know what's going on with him these days. Jason -- I've seen what power can do to him (and how I indulged in the same fashion beside him). Leo --  -- maybe Leo. Or, if not Leo ... Summer?  Oh, such a temptation. Bright, sunny, positive, life-affirming Summer, who seeks the best of humanity -- no, of each individual human. She should be ideal. But would it destroy her? Drive her mad with all the things she couldn't do with it? Or, more likely, tempt her to create a paradise for every person, as Adam tried to do himself, not realizing how much that would in turn harm her and her values until it was too late? Would I take this myself to avoid the destruction of someone else? Or is that just a cheap excuse to take the power for myself for all the wrong, self-serving reasons? Or am I not thinking sufficiently outside the box? Is there another way to protect the Keynome? This consideration has taken but a few seconds, but I've unforgivingly missed a few moments of the conversation, at the cusp of a potentially world-shattering moment.  Adam's asserting that Doctor Infinity's tools use the Keynomes, which the Concordance agents reject given that the Keynomes establish reality, while Infinity transcends it. Which, to my mind, might explain why Infinity uses such tools -- or, conversely, how Infinity transcends reality in the first place, just as a tower rising above the ground can only be built on foundations sunk into it. They end up debating among themselves whether the unprecedented number of Keynomes on Earth are responsible for Infniity focusing on this world or not, ignoring Adam's increasing agitation. I don't. But I'm grateful to see Summer slip onto the scene. I give her a brief glance. She can't see my smile behind my mask, but she smiles and nods anyway. Of course. They ignore her just as they've ignore me, which is a mistake. Her firepower is prodigious. Her diplomatic skill likewise.  Adam has touched three of Earth's Keynomes. Who knew? (Who might have known and been instructed to forget?) The Blue agent takes over the conversation. They seem to be the "good cop" vs the Red's "bad cop." A Concordance agent on this world would be unable to avoid interactions with the Keynomes, given their density here and involvement with Infinity. Thus, they ought not blame Adam (How generous!) , but, now that everyone knows, they need to return stability by un-combining those power, in order to protect the world. Adam agrees.  Everyone is looking at each other, waiting for the next move. My mobile rings, a rapid arpeggio of notes that tells me it's Harry. Everyone is now looking at me. Then Summer's phone rings. Something jazzy with lots of trumpets and percussion and guitar . We look at each other. I really need to get a mobile setup built into my mask. The normal Menagerie comms do, but the cellular service still comes to the handset.  "Yes?" I answer. "Hey, it's Harry." "Yes?" I say a bit more urgently. "There's some weird stuff going on at the Twilight Grove. Charlotte is here. Come quick." Weird stuff involving the Grove and Charlotte can't be good. On the other hand, I can't imagine it's more important than this. "I'll be there as soon as the universe doesn't end here." I hang up. "No, I don't think we need any Q-bots, everything's fine here, but thanks!" Summer says, ringing off. I arch an eyebrow at her. She shrugs. I turn back to the others, who are still looking at us. The Concordance agents' expressions are unreadable. "Harry," I say to Adam. "Trouble at the Twilight Grove. Charlotte's involved." Adam nods. "You want to go see Charlotte?" I force my voice to be as steady, supportive, as I can. "No, want to see this through." I'm here for you, Adam.  He smiles. "I want to go see Charlotte." I nod back to him. Perfect. Break up this koffee klatch, get Adam somewhere we can talk with him in private, deal with this internally. "Good," I say. And, at last, it's the moment I've been waiting for.. The burning bon mot. The dismissive note to the pompous, pushy, powerful Concordance. The snark, complete with finger-guns. I've been waiting for the opportunity since they showed up. Well, it's been a laugh a minute. I guess we'll be on our way. Human-slash-Menagerie business. Don't let the doors hit your ass on the way out. We'll let you know how it goes. You have a number we can reach you when it becomes important? Ta-ta for now. I open my mouth -- Summer says, "Do you guys want to come, too?" My mouth shuts with a click of teeth. Dammit, Summer ...
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I worked for months on how to play a hot-blooded action hero character who was still a pillar of moral behavior. I'd occasionally wonder how I did. "Maybe Leo", from the person who thought it, tells me I succeeded. :) And thankfully Summer will never face that temptation. I know what she'd try to do, at least.