The issue with Ferne settled, I jogged home and snuck back in without issue. I kinda hoped I’d find some street crime to bust, just for the fun of it, but that was unlikely to the point of absurd.
The whole patrolling for crime thing was a fantasy that only worked in badly written movies that needed an action sequence to spice things up. It wasn’t impossible to find crimes that way, but unless the crime rate in your city was averaging a couple hundred felonies per hour, it was incredibly unlikely. Even Detroit wasn’t that bad.
Violent crimes tended to last a matter of minutes at most. Robberies were more likely, but still absurdly rare. Drug deals usually happened in someone’s living room. And the Samaritan laws that allowed superheroes to stop crimes only applied to if there was an immediate threat to health or property.
Everything else, you called the cops. So I wasn’t allowed to harass that drunk taking a piss in the alley, or the prostitutes I saw on my way home, even if I wanted to. Even interrupting a drug deal, if you somehow stumbled across one, was pushing your luck.
Thursday and Friday passed by without much note. School was finally settling down a bit, with my classmates starting to get used to me having powers, though the rest of the school was still uneasy with me. Cassie was about as friendly as you’d expect.
Alex was nice enough to show me the basics of how to fight. According to him, most martial arts skills were about not getting hit in the first place. I didn’t need all of that. So he was teaching me how to hit to deal damage, and ignoring the blocks and dodges. Plus trips and submission holds for if I needed to take someone down without hurting them.
The hard part was using power as part of a fighting style, and he didn’t have a lot to offer me there. It probably didn’t help that I was keeping my ability to teleport others a secret. He recommended a couple martial arts places that might be able to help, and I promised to look into them. I didn’t mention the lack of cash.
Friday after school was when things got interesting. The phone rang barely a minute after classes were over, and again I didn’t recognize the number. “Yello?”
“This is Anima. Just confirming we’re still on.”
Of course, I’ve been waiting for this since Sunday. “Yeah. What’s the plan?”
“There will be a vehicle waiting for you a block south of the school. Just activate your power when you’re in sight of it and the driver will know it’s you.”
That was eerily accurate to what my power would do anyway, if I ran there. “Uh, how did you know?”
Anima waited a moment before speaking. “I don’t, but Muwth detects you every time you use your power. Which is weird, but I’ve learned to not ask questions where precogs are concerned. Trying to understand people who violate the laws of time will just give you headaches.”
That was disconcerting. My power activated something like a dozen times a day, at least. “Alright.” There’s a thought. “See you there, I guess.”
“Bye.” I hung up. Phone calls were always really awkward for me at the best of times, and that’s without talking to a girl who was ranked ‘if she goes rogue, call the army’.
Once out of the school, I started sprinting south. The buildings around here were mostly shops that catered to students on lunch. Three fast food joints, a couple pizza places, some clothing stores, and a liquor place that somehow only ever checked ID when the cops were looking. Have I mentioned this city’s kind of a shithole? Because it’s kind of a shithole.
The car was easy enough to spot even before I stopped on the sidewalk, took a breath, and then duplicated. As its engine started to life, I had to wonder about the wisdom into climbing into a black sedan with tinted windows. Then again, what has wisdom ever done for me?
The back door opened itself when I got close. What’s the worst that could happen, they car bomb me? I climbed in, and took in the power sense of the vehicle’s layout. Near as I could tell, there was more computer in this car than there was car.
“Take me down the rabbit hole, Jeeves.” If the driver even heard me, he made no indication of it, and I enjoyed my ride in boring silence and anticipation.
The car drove into a parking garage, and stopped in front of an elevator, where it again opened automatically. “Thank you for the stimulating conversation. It was truly enlightening.” I stepped out, and much like the car, the elevator opened automatically. As if things weren’t creepy enough already. But I stepped inside.
“Good afternoon, sir,” a woman’s voice came over the intercom. She sounded beautiful. I know, not very descriptive, but there were no words for how absolutely perfect her voice was. And not like an actress trying to sound sexy or singers hitting the right notes. This was soothing without sounding motherly, and energetic without sounding childish.
“Uh, hi, I’m here to see Muwth?”
“Yes. I’ve been expecting you.” My mind couldn’t help by try to picture this woman’s features based on her voice, and I kept coming back to ‘angel’. “Now, please try not to be startled by the routine security procedures.”
“Rou-” the elevator went completely black, and then started moving. Down, at first, and then with a slight spin. After a moment, it stopped and starting going sideways. “How is this routine?”
I put my hand on the side of the elevator, just to see what I could learn about the outside. Nothing all that useful, it turned out, except that the elevator wasn’t touching anything that my power was going to jump to. It had its own internal battery system, too.
“We work with a number of individuals who value their privacy and security above all else.” Her voice helped make the experience less unpleasant. “I assure you, while our services are not cheap, they are highly recommended by prior customers.”
“I bet. Sideways elevators can’t be cheap.”
“No, they are not.”
I hesitated for a moment. “So, has anyone told you that you have a beautiful voice.”
“Quite often. Doctor Hashimoto often says that my voice was his greatest accomplishment.”
Designer? “So you’re…”
“I am a Semi Autonomous Interactive Assistant. Or Saia, if you prefer.”
“So… you’re an AI?”
“Of a limited nature. While my program is one of the most advanced in the world, I am still unable to bridge the gap to adaptive reasoning. In some ways making me inferior to the average fish.”
“So hitting on you would be weird. What else can we do?”
“I am from Japan. I’ve gotten used to it.” Couldn’t argue with that logic. “One of my sisters is fifth on the pop charts back home, if you’re interested.”
“So your programmers designed you to plug your own products?”
“It is pretty tacky, isn’t it? Luckily, I’m not programmed to feel shame. Would you like to listen to her music, now?”
“Sure, whatever.” I couldn’t decide if I liked the music or not, which was high praise as far as elevator music went. But listening to music in a language I didn’t know wasn’t fun for me. I was willing to bet money Laura’d love it, though. I’d have to think about getting her a few songs for her birthday, presuming she didn’t already have them.
Eventually, the elevator stopped. “We’ve arrived. I hope your trip was pleasant.”
“Easily the most fun I’ve ever had while trapped in a lightless metal box underground.”
“Have a wonderful day. And remember, if you tell them Saia sent you, it’s a ten percent discount on your first purchase.”
The doors opened in what appeared to be a normal office waiting room. Anima was already there, though her costume was different. Instead of plated armor, now she was in something kinda like a solid white ninja outfit. Not a dumb slutty version, but a full body suit and facemask. Cloak and cowl over top that. Really, throw on some pointless belts and armor pieces for decoration and she could pass as an Assassin’s Creed cosplayer.
More than that, her eyes were visible through this costume. Light brown, almost yellow in color, with freckles over her otherwise pale nose bridge. Supporting my impression of her as someone who was more or less perfectly ordinary behind the powers and costume.
“So, I just had a wonderful conversation in a pitch black metal room.”
She shook her head. “Muwth does that to all the newbies. I don’t even know why, it’s not like she needs the security. I think she just likes to mess with people. You ready, or would you like to take a breather. Some people get pretty claustrophobic in there.”
I shrugged. “Wasn’t that bad. Saia was nice. Let’s go.”
Anima pushed a button, and the doors opened inwards, and I realized part of why Muwth pulled the intimidation stunt she did on me: she was a little girl. Nine or ten, and a little underweight for that age. Her dark brown hair was in a bob cut, framing her slightly tanned face. She wore a clearly custom business suit, with a lapel pin of a some kind of dragon in gold. No mask, though she did wear gloves that were long enough to vanish under the sleeves of the suit.
The office itself wasn’t opulent, but it was impressive. The desk she sat behind was gorgeous, and the walls were lined with books. It was also noticeably smaller than it should be. The whole thing scaled to a ten year old’s size. I could still stand, but the ceiling was uncomfortably low and the chairs were a bit too small.
Then she spoke, her voice every bit as young as the rest of her. The personality behind it was much older, even a bit tired sounding. “A pleasure to meet you in person. It’s good to have a face to add to all the sudden flashes.”
Well, this sounds like a bad start. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you… how much do you see when I die?”
Anima jumped a little next to me. That’s right, she’s never seen my power in action, she must have assumed I was super durable or something.
“Just whatever you’re looking at the moment of death, and a rough idea of direction and distance.”
Please just kill me now. “If I’d known that…” I glanced over at Anima, this conversation was already awkward enough without her involvement.
“Don’t worry about it, I understand,” Muwth’s childlike voice consoled. “Despite all appearances, I am an adult. Time stopped for me when I gained my powers, a fairly common problem for those rare few with precognition or other forms of time manipulation. In reality, I’m old enough to be your great great grandmother.”
That isn’t a whole lot better. “So, yeah, Anima said something about you explaining surges to me? I had one in my fight with Kitten. I used to have the power to regenerate absurdly fast, now I sorta teleport by creating a clone.”
She nodded, examining the desk for a moment. “That sounds appropriate. Most people imagine a surge to be a straight addition of power. A rough analogy is starting with ten, then a surge would take you to fifteen. It doesn’t quite work like that.”
“It’s closer to starting at ten, then subtracting three, then adding eight. Some aspects of the existent power is lost to make way for the new abilities. There are other factors, in your case I imagine you copied an aspect or two of Kitten’s powers when you surged.”
That would have been nice to know before. “What do you mean, copied? I don’t have ice or super combat skills.”
“I don’t know enough about Kitten’s power, or yours, to answer that question. I watched your fight, if admittedly only flashes at a time. You were doing better than a stage two has any right to against a stage four. But I digress. Surging like that always costs something personal. Every Imbued’s power comes with a deep, personal, sacrifice.”
Anima shifted, standing up. “I’m going to wait outside if that’s okay with you?”
Muwth nodded, and I just wondered what was going on. She waited until the door closed behind Anima before continuing. “The strongest of us. People like Kitten, Anima, and myself: we’re the ones who’ve lost the most. What we lose differs depending on who we are, what we care about. I once dreamt of getting married and having children of my own. That dream, amongst others, is forever denied to me by my power. Others have their own stories.”
I had turned back around before she finished mentioning Kitten’s name, but I couldn’t think of what to say. I tried to imagine what Anima gave up, whatever it was it probably explained why she walked out. I probably wouldn’t want to talk about it, either.”
“Do you believe in God?” Muwth’s words interrupted my thoughts.
Well, that’s a question that can’t possibly make things awkward. “I guess so. I mean, I’m not religious or anything. I guess that makes me agnostic or something.”
“Some of the biblical stories work well, here. You can eat of the fruit of knowledge, and accept death will come to you for doing so. Or Odin of Norse mythology, cutting out his own eye to gain knowledge of the future. Something I’m sure meant more to the Vikings than it does to us. Or Midas and his golden touch. In your case, you gave up your ability to hide your identity. There may even be a special significance, only to you personally, of the parts of your powers you lost.”
“I… maybe…” I hesitated for a bit. Really, the public identity bothered me less than knowing I could have avoided the problem by not being a moron. “I can see why you asked about God. This sounds like there’s an intelligence behind powers. Like making a deal with the devil.”
“Behind them, or in front of them.” Muwth paused a moment. “Sorry, that was unnecessarily cryptic. The supposed intelligence doesn’t have to be in the power, but the wielder’s own subconscious. Less like making a deal with the devil, and more like falling in love. You can believe it’s some divine force, call it fate, claim you’ve found your soulmate. But it’s just a matter of chemicals bouncing around in your brain. Divine will, or simple accident of opportunity?”
“Like love, Imbued still follow rules, even if they’re poorly understood. The simple fact is that the more you lose, the stronger your powers will be. And that loss only has to mean something to you. In the same way one person finds freckles attractive, and another thinks quite the opposite.”
That is starting to sound an awful lot like Ferne’s power. “So… if I told you I tried to surge a second time against Kitten, but couldn’t, what would you tell me?”
“There’s a saying about surges: You can have everything you want, at the cost of everything you need. I don’t know you, or what’s important to you. Your privacy clearly meant something, which is why you lost it. But you’ll need to answer what you have left to sacrifice on your own.”
I thought about it, and picked the one thing left I could have lost: Laura. Sure, I cared about my parents, but when it came down to it Laura was the only one who was truly there to help me through the worst or share with me the best. Mom and Dad just weren’t… that… to me. If more power meant losing her, then no, I couldn’t make that sacrifice. “Yeah, that makes sense.”
“Do you have any more questions?”
I had a couple, but wanted Anima in here to propose some of them. Then I thought of one. “Do you believe? Umm, in God, I mean.”
Muwth closed her eyes and let out a sigh. “My happiest days are when I can convince myself I don’t.”