Truth and Shadows

She took a deep breath, then checked her tape recorder again and did another mic check.  Everything was still in working order.  And just in case it wasn’t, she still had her notebook.  Though the guards had insisted she use a felt tipped pin instead of anything that could be used as a weapon.  That made her even more nervous.  What the hell was she doing here?

The job advertisement was something she would have passed by, had she not still been flying a little high from her little adventure under the pier.  She’d almost called him up when she realized she’d forgotten to give him back his handcuffs.  They’d been sitting on her desk when she’d fired off the resume.

Diana Valerio, intrepid girl reporter.  Ace reporter.  Oh god, there were footsteps coming down the hall.  She set the pen back down and pasted a friendly smile on her face.  Somehow, she managed to keep it on as the guards set about securing the prisoner to the other chair.  Unlike hers, it had been bolted to the floor.  The man they were shackling to it looked every inch the stereotype of a scary black man.  He was well over six feet in height, with pounds of prison muscle packed onto this frame.  A scar ran down the left side of his face, from hairline to jaw, and she was surprised to see he still had the eye.  She could see tattoos visible on his neck as well as on his clean-shaven head, and from the looks of things his nose had been broken several times.

His hands were secured behind his back with heavy duty manacles, and his ankles were also fastened to the chair.  The guards didn’t stop there.  They also put leather straps on his legs and chest to keep him firmly fastened in place.  She found herself hoping he didn’t get an itchy nose.  Then she found herself hoping the restraints weren’t actually necessary.

As soon as the guards left the room, she took a deep breath.  “Mr. Viteri, thank you for agreeing to my request for an interview.”

“Ma’am.”  He inclined his head in her direction.  He shrugged.  “Guy in the cell next to me owes me ten cigarettes.”  His voice was surprisingly soft and pleasant, with a bit of a drawl.

“Um…”  She tilted her head.  “May I ask why?”

“Told him I was going to be talking to a woman named Diana today.  He bet me you’d be more Amanda Waller than Wonder Woman.”

“I hope he pays up.”  She smiled.  “Is that why you agreed to an interview?”  Her new boss hadn’t expected her to actually get the interview.  The man before her had turned away dozens already.  Given the man’s predilections, she was fairly confident her looks weren’t why he

“Forty requests this month.  But yours started with a please and ended with a thank you.”  He shrugged again.  “I am a southern boy, ma’am.  Good manners go a long way.”

“I will keep that in mind.”  She nodded.

“You also pointed out that you hadn’t read the books already written about my case.  Just the trial notes.  Said you wanted to get my side of the story without risking their influencing your views.”  He smiled.  “That’s the part that got you the interview, ma’am.  Reporters should have an open mind.”

“Thank you, Mr. Viteri.”  She took a deep breath.  “Would you like to start?”

“I’ve got some time.”  He winked at her.

“Alright then…”  This time the smile was genuinely friendly.  She’d been worried he was going to be hostile or confrontational.  This might go well.  “Shall we start in high school?”

“Rather not.”  He shook his head.  “High school set the scene, but it isn’t really where things got started.”

“Your lawyer cited bullying…”

“Ma’am, I think the fact that I’m in here kinda suggests he wasn’t a great lawyer.”

“Fair point.  So set the scene for me.”  The tape recorder was running, but she picked up the pen anyway.

“I was bullied in high school.  Skinny, broke, nerdy, black, and gay.”  He nodded.  “Pretty much the absolute lowest you could get in Bailey.  I skipped a few grades on account of the nerdy, or things might have been different.”  He glanced down at himself.  “I was kind of a late bloomer.”

“I see.”

“Thing is, that’s a common story.  You can walk down the street and run into a dozen people with the same one.  High school had good parts and…”  He looked up at her.  “It bother you if I cuss?”

“I want your words, Mr. Viteri.”

“High school had good parts and shit parts, and on the whole, it didn’t bother me too much.  But like I said, it sets the scene.  I got bullied particularly hard by a bunch at the top.  You know the names.”

She looked down at her notes.  “Timothy Bradford, Elliot Mercer, Arlo Velin…”  She looked back up at him.  “Paden and Tobias Grady.”  She didn’t miss the slight flicker across his eyes at the last name.

“High school is the time in your life when you’re still figuring out who and what you are.  Where you start making your first real decisions.  But it doesn’t define you.  That part comes a little bit later.  So, uh…”  He chuckled a little.

“Mr Viteri?”  She raised an eyebrow.

“Sorry, it’s just…”  He took a deep breath.  “You asked where my story starts and uh…”  He shrugged, making the shackles rattle a little.  “Hope you’ll forgive me for not being able to resist, but uh…”  He smiled.  “It really did begin on a dark and stormy night…”

#

Cort looked down at the ledger.  “I can’t make the math work.  Not unless we want to be homeless and not eat again until June.”

Zeke sighed.  “Okay, so we’ll hold off on most of it for now, but without the prototype we aren’t going to ever get any of it.”

“That’s still five hundred bucks.”  Cort leaned back.  “Fuck, if Marco wasn’t still letting us drink free for fixing the freezer, we’d be starving already.  I love the man but I’m getting a little tired of nothing but terrible bar wings for dinner.”

“Gotta be something we can pawn or…”  Dyson looked up, then chuckled.  “Somebody just walked into the wrong bar.”

He turned to see a very white boy in a suit had just walked in out of the rain.  The man was soaked from head to foot.  That was almost a comfort, meant the odds of the guy coming in to cause trouble were slim.  The man immediately went to the bar and asked if he could use the phone.  Zeke started shaking his head when Cort sat up.  “Don’t we know him?”

“I…”  Zeke blinked, then nodded.  “Yeah, that’s Tobias Grady.”  He looked back at them.  “Quarterback looks like a drowned rat.”  He smirked a little when the guy gave the phone a frustrated look before handing it back to the bartender.  Tobias rubbed the back of his neck and started looking around.  He must have caught Zeke looking at him, because frowned a little before his eyes widened in their direction.

Then, somewhat to Zeke’s surprise, the guy walked over.  “I swear I know you from somewhere.”  He tilted his head as he looked at Zeke.

“Bailey High.”  Zeke nodded.

“Oh.  Oh yeah, you’re…”  Tobias started to nod, then shifted a bit awkwardly.  “Zeke, right?”

“Zeke the geek.”  Zeke shrugged.

“I, uh…”  Tobias sighed.  “Shit.”

“What are you doing here?”  Zeke leaned back, trying not to feel just a little hostile.  This bar was one of the few places he felt comfortable, and this guy’s presence was kind of messing with that a little.  Though at least Tobias had always kept the bullying verbal.  Taunting him by calling him a faggot when he wasn’t expressing surprise that Zeke wasn’t wearing a dress.  But he’d never shoved him face first into a toilet.

“Waiting for a call back, I guess.”  Tobias glanced down at the papers still spread on the table, and Zeke fought the urge to gather them up.  “This your work?”

“Yeah.”  He nodded.

“What’s it to you?”  Cort glared at him.

“That’s uh…”  Tobias stepped a little closer as he looked down.  “Wow…”  He looked over at Zeke.  “You’ve got this working?”

“Small model.”  Zeke nodded.  “Working on getting the funds to build the full scale prototype.”

Tobias moved a couple of the papers to look at the sketches.  “How much do you need?”

Why did the guy even care?  Zeke rolled his eyes.  “Five hundred bucks or so.  Got most of the tools already, just need the raw…”  He trailed off as Tobias took out his wallet and counted out five bills.  He stared as the man offered them to him.  “The hell?”

“I remember the day you levitated the principal’s car.”  Tobias shrugged.  “This is…”  He looked down at the sketch again.  “Something.”  When Zeke didn’t take the bills, Tobias sighed, then tossed them onto the table.  Five hundred bucks, sitting there on top of his sketches.  “Look, call it payback for four years of lunch money.  I could use a little good karma right now.”

“Right.”  Zeke collected the bills, and put them into his wallet.  “What are you doing here, man?”

“Flat tire.”  Tobias rubbed his forehead.  “Pulled over, got stuck in the mud.  Tried to get out, car slid, ended up in the ditch.  Cell phone fell out of my pocket when I was climbing out of the ditch.  Hit a rock and broke.  I started walking.  Got half a mile when the storm started.”

“Karma…”  Zeke started snickering.  “Is a fucking bitch.”

“Yeah.”  Tobias nodded.  “Tell me about it.”

“But uh…”  Zeke stood.  “Turning around for you a bit.”  When Tobias raised an eyebrow, Zeke smiled.  “Happens I drive a tow truck.”

#

“Seriously?”  Zeke shook his head at the guy next to him.  “Why the hell didn’t you just leave?”

“I don’t know.”  Tobias leaned back in the seat.  “Figured I drove all the way I’d at least have dinner.  And who knows, maybe she’d have a great personality or something.”

“Did she?”  He tried not to laugh.

“No.”  Tobias shook his head.  “No, she did not.”

“Thought you married…”  He couldn’t come up with the name.  “Whats-her-face.  Bimbo cheerleader number 3?”

“Kaylyn.”  Tobias nodded.  “I did.”

“And…”

“Well, after I walked in on her and the gardener…”  Tobias sighed, then shook his head at Zeke.  “Yeah, go ahead, laugh it up.  You know she actually tried convincing me that it was supposed to be a surprise threesome?”

“Was the gardener female?”  Zeke raised an eyebrow.

“Nope.”  Tobias grinned.  “But hey, bright side, my business hadn’t picked up yet at that point, so I don’t have to pay alimony.”  He looked over at Zeke.  “She calls every now and then to say she misses me.”

“I bet you’re just heartbroken over that.”  Zeke turned on the road Tobias had indicated.  “And to think, earlier today I was feeling sorry for myself.”

“How is it you’re not working for NASA, making rockets or something?”  Tobias shifted a little to face him.  “Making the big bucks with super defense contracts?”

“I, uh…”  He sighed.  “Some buddies and I got pulled over and uh…”  Zeke exhaled.  “The cop called the four joints in my pocket ‘intent to distribute’ and tacked on ‘resisting arrest’ and ‘assaulting an officer’ when I pointed out he didn’t have the right to search me in the first place.”

“That’s fucked up.”  Tobias shook his head, then indicated the house.

Zeke couldn’t help but admire it a little.  Apparently not everything in Tobias’s life sucked these days.  And from the look of things, he didn’t have to feel any guilt about taking five hundred bucks from the guy.  “You know, it was actually good talking to you.”

“You too.”  Tobias hesitated, then pulled a business card out of his wallet.  “My company does distribution.  You get your prototype working and need to start getting it places, give us a call.”  He shrugged.  “Or just give me a call if you want to hang out again.”

He took the card, the pulled one of his own business cards out of the visor.  “Yeah.  You too.”  He waited for Tobias to take it, then opened his door.  “Alright, let’s get your car down.”

#

“Tobias Grady bankrolled your first prototype?”  Diana glanced at her notes.  The case files hadn’t mentioned that.

“Cash deal, no receipts.”  He leaned his head back.  “I wasn’t even the first he’d taken a chance on.  Enough of them paid off for him that he kept doing it.  Well, hell, you read the testimonies.  You know the kind of things people said about him.”

“The word mentor was used a lot.”  She nodded.  “As was inspiration.”

“Yeah.  That was him.”  Zeke Viteri looked away for a moment.  “Anyway, I never expected to hear from him again, but he called me a couple days later.  Said he was going to an expo and that it might be a good networking opportunity for me.  I went.  With him introducing me around, telling folks I was brilliant, I was able to shake some hands.  Get my foot in a couple doors.  That, uh, that opportunity changed my life.  I started realizing that halfway through the event.  He was like magic.”

“People overlooked your record.”  She smiled.

“Yeah.”  He nodded.  “So a couple days later, we got tickets to a baseball game.  Had an extra.  I figured what the hell, and invited him along.  We went for beer after, and uh…”  He laughed a little.  “You won’t find this in the case notes, but that man was quite possibly the absolute worst pool player of all time.”

“That bad?”  She noted that down.  An additional humanizing aspect to these men.

“Turned out he’d been born left handed, and they’d made him switch.  Most tasks he could do just fine, but something that required the hand-eye coordination of pool wasn’t one of them.”  He trailed off.

“And then you went to work for him?”  She looked up.  He didn’t respond right away.  “Mr. Viteri.”

“I didn’t work for him.”  He shook his head.  “We were partners.”  He exhaled.  “But that part came a little later, after I’d got a few patents.  And realized I was shit at marketing.”

“Tell me about it.”  She turned to a clean page in her notebook, and looked back up at him.  Already the interview wasn’t going as she’d expected.  From the court notes, she expected Viteri to speak bitterly, maybe even to rant a little.  But the way he was talking about Tobias Grady was sort of hard to reconcile with the knowledge that the man sitting across from her had killed him.

2

She asked for water to be brought in, then glared and requested a straw.  Mr. Viteri chuckled a little when the guard started apologizing and brought her the straw.  “You’ve got a very good ‘don’t fuck with me’ glare.”  He nodded to her.  “You practice, or did it come naturally?”

“Little of both.”  She held up the glass for him to take a sip, then set it on the table before resuming her own seat.

“My mother had the same one.”  He shrugged.  “I was still living with her at the time.  Between the record and the lack of a steady paycheck I couldn’t get a place of my own.  She was sick a lot, so maybe it was for the best.  I did the yard work and house maintenance and stuff.”

“You have a sister?”  She raised an eyebrow.

“Half-sister.  We weren’t close and uh…”  He twitched his shoulder as much as the restraints allowed.  “I’d, uh…”  He exhaled.  “She’s not really part of the story.  She’s got a life of her own, kids, and folks have…”  He trailed off, then hung his head.  “Her kids had this dog.  Little spaniel mix, with springs for legs and not a hell of a lot of brains.  Sweet thing, loved everyone, and those kids adored it.  After I got charged…”  He took a deep breath.  “Somebody lynched it from her front porch.”

“That’s…”  She swallowed past the lump that had risen in her throat.  “Oh god, that’s horrible.”

“She wrote a couple times.  Never wrote back.  Figured that tie was better cut.”  He looked up again.

“So you and Tobias met up again after high school, decided to start over?”  She looked down at her notepad.

“Wasn’t exactly a clean slate sort of thing.  We both remembered those days.  But like I said, high school is kind of a self-discovery sort of phase.  No one really knows who they are yet.  I knew that was true of the ones at the bottom.  Turns out it’s also true of the ones at the top.”

#

“So, what, we add flame decals to the side of the thing?”  Zeke raised an eyebrow.

Tobias laughed.  “Couldn’t hurt.  Nah, what I meant was you’ve got kind of a signature look with your stuff.”  He started to indicate the wheels, then stopped.  “Nothing is going to explode it I touch it, right?”

“Uh…”  Zeke frowned.  “Maybe just…”

“Right.”  Tobias withdrew his hand.  “Kind of a steam punk sort of thing going.  It’s a marketable aspect, maybe you could incorporate it into a logo or theme or something.”  He straightened.  “It’s popular right now.”  He shrugged.  “How soon until it’s ready?

“Functionally it’s ready now.  Just need to put the casing on so it’s sturdier.”  He led Tobias out of the workroom.  “Problem is still the joints.  Can’t improve that until I have funds to get better materials.  Right now I’ve got to choose between strong or flexible, and I need it to be both.”

“How much do you need?”  Tobias raised an eyebrow.

“We need…”  He stopped, and shook his head.  “Can’t borrow that from you.”

“Well I was going to consider it more of an investment than a loan.”  Tobias chuckled.  “Seriously, you’ve got something good there.  I mean, your improvements on efficiency loss alone are incredible.”  When Zeke raised an eyebrow, Tobias rolled his eyes.  “I sat behind you in AP physics, dipshit.  I didn’t forget all the science when I majored in finance.”

“Sometimes I forget there was a brain under the football helmet.”  Zeke grinned.  As much as he appreciated Tobias’s business advice, he also enjoyed the man’s company.  Strange how things could change in just a few years.  “Hey, stay for dinner?  Mom’s making pie.”

“Can’t.”  Tobias shook his head.  “Though…”  He suddenly shook his head.  “Fuck it.  Yeah.  Love to.”

“Something wrong?”  Zeke frowned.

“Supposed to have dinner with Paden and his wife but uh…”  Tobias folded his arms.  “Just thinking how pissed he’d be if he knew who I was blowing him off for.”  When Zeke raised an eyebrow, Tobias sighed.  “He and his wife are part of this right wing semi-militia group that meets at their church.”  He shook his head.  “It’s all stupid.”

“You’re not…”  Zeke hesitated.

“I grew up.”  Tobias shrugged.  “Realized my dad was…”  He exhaled.  “I’ve never been sure how much is asshole and how much is just stupid, but there is a lot of overlap between the two.”  He stared at the machine for a few minutes.  “I wish you’d take the money.”

“That your white guilt talking?”  Zeke narrowed his eyes.

“My…”  Tobias blinked.  “No.”  He sighed.  “Maybe.  Dad’s been ranting about how if you give a black man money he’s just going to waste it on drugs and spinning rims and…”  Tobias turned toward Zeke.  “You know even if you don’t go any further with this idea, you could still make yourself some money selling the patent.”

“Shit.”  Zeke shook his head.  “I never even thought about the patenting part.”

“Come by my place next weekend with your schematics.  I’ll walk you through it.”  Tobias straightened.  “I believe you mentioned pie?”

#

He opened the door to find Tobias talking to his mother, Abigail.  “Hey, wasn’t expecting you.”  Zeke smiled.  “I was just about to —”

“You and your mother were just about to let me take you out to dinner.”  Tobias held up a thick envelope.  “To celebrate.”

“To celebrate?”

“Your first patent.”  Abigail’s voice trembled a little, and he saw tears shimmering in her eyes.  “My boy’s first patent.”

“It…”  Zeke stared.  “It’s done?”

“All taken care of.”  Tobias nodded and handed him the envelope.  “Congratulations.”

“You know I thought it was just a formality.  A no big deal but…”  He took the envelope from Tobias and stared at it.  Then he looked back up at Tobias.  “This is a big deal.”

“I sure hope so.”  Tobias grinned.  “Come on.  Let me take you someplace that serves champagne.”

“Oh, oh, oh…”  Abigail smiled.  “Just let me get dressed.  You too, Zeke.  Something other than a work shirt.”  She headed toward her bedroom with a bounce in her step.

“You don’t have to…”  Zeke turned toward Tobias.

“Is it hard to believe I want to?”  Tobias chuckled.  “Look, if you’re not going to take your mom out to dinner, I’m just going to steal her away from you entirely.”  He rolled his eyes.  “I’ve gained three pounds from her sending pie home with me every time I stop by.  How the hell were you such a skinny kid?”

“There were a few weeks when all the food I got was the school free lunch.  Times were…”  Zeke shrugged.  “Things are getting better.”

“Good.”  Tobias smiled.  “Now get dressed, before your mom and I leave to celebrate without you.”

#

Abigail was nervous, but clearly enjoying herself as she explored the various plates in front of her.  Each had a few bite sized morsels of different entrees, giving her a wide choice of options.  After she’d been unable to decide what she was in the mood for, Tobias had just shrugged and taken them to a tapas restaurant.

“The problem is the testing involved.  And the process for getting approval for the testing.”  Zeke doodled on a napkin.

“If you could have Cort work up some of his fancy presentation videos…”  Tobias shrugged.  “Speaking of which I want to hire him again for the new plant…”  He tilted his head.  “Maybe we could get a lab interested in return for allowing them a year or two of exclusive use.  It’s a smaller initial payoff for you, but it gets you a more solid foot in the door and limits your liability.”  He looked across the table at Zeke.  “I mean, I know it’s not where you initially intended to go with it, but the medical applications are —”

“No, no, you sold me on that five minutes into the conversation.”  Zeke grinned.  “You could have done it in three seconds if you’d started with the term ‘cyborg’.”

“I’m suddenly feeling the urge to steal your lunch money again.”  Tobias rolled his eyes.  “I could —”  His eyes narrowed.  “Shit.”

“The bathroom is…”  Zeke glanced in the direction Tobias was looking, and saw Paden.

Paden frowned in their direction, and walked over.  “Tobias.”  He shook his head. “I thought you said you were busy.”

“I am busy.”  Tobias nodded toward Zeke and Abigail.  “As you can see.”  He shook his head.  “You are interrupting a business dinner.”

A skeptical look came over Paden’s face, and he sneered just a little in Abigail’s direction.  Zeke fought the urge to stab his fork into the man’s leg.  “I won’t keep you then.”  He turned and went back to where his wife was waiting with the hostess.

“As I was saying…”  Tobias exhaled.  “There other possibilities too.  I mean, if we do want to go full nerd here, the fact that you’ve decreased the heat output so much has interesting applications for space travel.  Less loss means you can close the system tighter and that could translate into a biodome in another thirty years or so.”

“Now I’m feeling the urge to steal your lunch money.”  Zeke nodded.

“Medicine and exploration.”  Abigail looked up from where she’d just put a skewer of shrimp on her plate.  “The betterment of mankind.”

“I like that.”  Tobias nodded.  “I can work with that.  I want to work with that.”  He glanced at Zeke.  “If you’ll let me.”

“Frankly, at this point I don’t think I could do it without you.”  Zeke smiled.

#

After dinner, Abigail insisted on being taken home.  “Now, you boys don’t mind me.  I’m just not as young as I used to be.”  She kissed Zeke’s cheek, then repeated the gesture with Tobias.  “You two go out and have fun.  Enjoy the rest of your date.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tobias freeze before shifting uncomfortably.  Damn it, Mom.  “It’s not a date, Mom.  We’re just talking business.”

“Oh.”  Abigail looked surprised.  “I thought…”  She glanced at Tobias and her eyes widened a little.  “Oh, I’m sorry.  I’ll just…”  She opened the door and backed through it.  “You go talk business then.”

He hesitated, then turned toward Tobias.  “I’m sorry about…”  He shrugged.  “Look if you just —”

“Nah.”  Tobias shrugged.  “It’s all good.”  He gestured toward his car.  “Let’s go see if we can get drunk enough for me to actually beat you at pool.”

“I think that would require me to actually pass out…”  Zeke followed him to the car.  “Possibly to die.”

#

Rather than go to a bar and have to deal with getting a cab later, they ended up at Tobias’s house, drinking whiskey on his deck.  Tobias did have a good view of the night sky.  “You really think we could do like a biodome colony thing in another thirty years?”

“Not on the moon…”  Tobias leaned back in the chair and put his feet up on the railing.  “Maybe on Mars.  There is the gravity issue to consider.”

“The prosthetics thing, though.  That’s…”  Zeke exhaled.  “That’s something real though.  The human body does run on electricity.  If we could interpret the signals, integrate them properly, we’ve got working fingers.”

“That’s where the exploration thing comes in as well.”  Tobias’s words were just slightly slurred.  “I mean, bio-feedback, you could explore safely with some kind of nuero-linked robot mind-reading control buddy symbiotic thingy.”

“Make a note to trademark that term.  Cause I’m going to make one of those neuro-linked robot mind-reading control buddy symbiotic thingies.”  Zeke snickered.

“Dibs on the first one.”  Tobias nodded.  “I’m gonna name it Scooby.”

“Scooby?”

“Scooby Dooby Doo.”  Tobias took another sip from his drink.  “Really though.  Think about it.  Under the sea.  In space.  Figure out how to fix the delay relay signal delay and you could mine the asteroid fields instead of fucking up Yosemite or whatever.”

“That’s…”  Zeke lifted his drink.  “That’s good.  That’s a good one.  That’s like some saving the world shit right there.”

Tobias took his feet off the railing and sat up.  “Are we?”

“Saving the world?”  Zeke blinked.

“Dating.”

He froze.  Then he looked at the drink in his hand.  “Tobias, you’re a little drunk right now, so maybe…”

“Didn’t work out with Kaylyn.  I tried, I mean…”  Tobias shook his head.  “Cheerleader, stacked, isn’t that what you’re supposed to want?”  He laughed, some bitterness in the sound. “I envied you so much.”

“You…”  Zeke stared at him.  “Envied me.”

“All the shit flung your way and you…”  Tobias looked up at him.  “You were always you.  You didn’t give in.  To any of it.”  He downed the rest of his drink and reached for the bottle.

Zeke caught his wrist.  “I think maybe you’ve had enough, Tobias.  Maybe you should sleep it off, before you do something you’re going to regret in the morning.”

“You want me.”  Tobias swayed just a little.  “I catch you looking at me sometimes.”

“Tobias…”

“You want me.”  Tobias smiled at him.

“Yeah.”  Zeke nodded.  “I do.  But you are seriously drunk right now and…”  He exhaled.  “And you’re my friend, Tobias.  I’m not going to —”  He got cut off by Tobias kissing him.  For a few moments, he returned the kiss before catching himself.  Even sloppy drunk, Tobias was a good kisser.  “Alright, that’s…”  He caught Tobias as the man stumbled.  “Come on.”  He put his arm under Tobias’s shoulder.  “Let’s, uh…”  He was going to need a very cold shower.  “Let’s put you to bed.”

“You’re a good kisser.”  Tobias’s voice was definitely slurred.  It took Zeke a few moments to get the door open with Tobias leaning on him, especially since Tobias kept trying to unbutton his shirt.

Fortunately, the man was nearly unconscious by the time Zeke got him into his room.  He removed Tobias’s shoes, then tucked his friend into bed.  Tobias slurred something unintelligible before closing his eyes.  Zeke sighed, and headed for the door.  Hopefully, Tobias didn’t remember the tail end of their conversation when he woke up, or tomorrow was going to be rather awkward.

#

Tobias stumbled downstairs just as Zeke flipped over the first pancake.  “How’s the head?”

“There is a chainsaw in the garage.”  Tobias sat down at the table.  “Please cut it off.”  He winced.  “Quietly.”

“Right.”  He set a glass of orange juice and a bottle of aspirin down on the table.

“My hero.”  Tobias immediately grabbed the aspirin.  He took two, then drank the juice.  Then he took a deep breath.  “Thanks for uh…”  He went quiet for a moment.  Then he looked back up at Zeke.  “Are we dating?”

“I…”  He nearly dropped the plate he’d just put the pancake onto.  “Tobias…”

“Cause we’ve been hanging out together almost every weekend for the last four months and uh…”  Tobias stared down at his hands.  “Shit.”

Zeke set the pancake down in front of him.  As much as he wanted it to be the case, getting his hopes up was silly.  He just hoped the misunderstanding wouldn’t spell the end of their friendship.  “That part is entirely up to you, Tobias.”

“What…”  Tobias kept looking down at the table.  “What happens if I say that we are?”

His heart skipped a beat.  “I…”  He swallowed.  “Tobias —”

“Because I have…”  Tobias gave a small shake of his head.  “Absolutely no idea what the hell I’m doing or what happens next or even…”  He slowly looked up at Zeke.  “But there is a part of me that really wants to say yes.”

He turned off the stove, and sat down in the chair next to Tobias.  He hesitated a moment, then put his hand atop Tobias’s.  “If you want to say yes, then…”  He nodded.  “Then you’re right.  I want you.  If you want to leave things the way they are, then I’m happy to just be your friend, and we can pretend this conversation never took place.”

The pancake grew cold as Tobias just sat there.  “I can’t tell my parents.  Or my brother.  They…”  He shook his head.  “Are you okay with that part?  I’m not ashamed of you, it’s just…”  He exhaled.  “It’s not you.  I’m just a coward.  Just…”  He took a few more deep breaths.  “I slept with Kaylyn, married Kaylyn, because I’m a coward, and I deserve every bit of humiliation she sent my way because I should have just…”  He turned his hand to grip Zeke’s.  “If I don’t say yes, it will be the worst mistake I ever made.”

Slowly, he reached out.  He brushed Tobias’s hair back behind his ear.  “Then we are dating.  And if you need to take it slow, keep it quiet…”  He nodded.  “We can do that.”

“Will you kiss me?”  Tobias raised an eyebrow.  “Cause uh…”  Tobias laughed softly.  “It took me way too much liquid courage to get up the nerve to make the first move last time.”

“You’re kind of a funny drunk.”  Zeke nodded.

Then he leaned forward and pulled Tobias into a kiss.

#

She stared down at her notes.  That Tobias Grady had helped Ezekial Viteri with getting his patents was well documented.  She even had copies of two of the forms that were done in Tobias’s handwriting.  The rest of this…  “You two were…”

“It was just ours.  None of anyone else’s business.”  Viteri’s smile was sad.  “My mother knew.  I mean, she figured it out before we did.  And he was wrong.  Tobias Grady was no coward.  He just wasn’t a fool.  He knew the risks.”

“The risks?”  Diana raised an eyebrow.

“His family…”  Viteri’s laugh was bitter.  “What’s the name for them right now?  The Alt-Right?  Call them what they are.  Nazis.  Klansmen.”  He shook his head.  “You’ve got a picture of Tobias there.  Look at him.  Then look at me.  Those kind…”  He shrugged.  “They wouldn’t have tolerated him being with a man, let alone with a black man.”

Her eyes went to the picture of Tobias Grady.  Blond and blue-eyed, with classically handsome features.  “He thought his family would…”  She looked back up at Viteri.  He’d clearly been a handsome man, before the scars, tattoos, and broken nose.  “You said they were with a militia group?”

“You know the kind.  Stockpiling ammo, got to get back to the good old days when men were men and minorities knew their place.”  Viteri nodded.  “Tobias was a good man, but he knew…”  Viteri exhaled.  “He knew who they were under the genteel manners.  But he was no coward.  Despite their best efforts, they didn’t, they couldn’t…”  Viteri swallowed.  “He was a good man in spite of them.”

A slight chill went through her blood.  None of this had been brought up in the trial.  Viteri had confessed to being responsible for what happened to Tobias Grady, but she was starting to suspect there was still more to the story.  “What happened next?”

3

Viteri’s eyes were actually a little wet.  She debated offering him a tissue, but the guards had been very clear about making physical contact even if the man was firmly shackled.  The trial notes had included pictures of Tobias Grady’s beaten form.  The poor man had been barely recognizable as human.  “We didn’t hook up right then.”  Viteri swallowed.  “He was scared, and to be honest, so was I.  I wasn’t a virgin by any means, but this was the first time I really, you know…”  He shrugged.  “Wanted things to work.”  He smiled a little.  “And Tobias really didn’t have any idea what he was doing.  It’s not exactly something they cover in sex ed down in Bailey.”

“So you took things slow.”  Diana nodded.

“At first, yeah.”  Viteri nodded.  “We kissed, then we went back to the lab…”

#

He’d always been conscious of Tobias’s presence in his workspace, but now it seemed a little something more.  He was aware of each and every time they brushed against each other as Tobias watched him work.  Now and again they’d exchange smiles that managed to be both warm and awkward.  It took almost an hour for them to manage to get into the swing of work.

“Alright, I get the aesthetic reasons, certainly…”  Tobias examined the prototype.  “But from an engineering standpoint is directly mimicking the human hand really the way to go?”

“Once properly calibrated, the prosthetic could be interchangeable.”  Zeke shrugged.

“Is that possible?”  Tobias blinked.  “I mean, it’s being driven by the human brain.”

“Yeah, but it’s not innate.  It’s pure muscle memory.”  Zeke shook his head.  “Human movement is a learned skill.  That’s why human infants are so damn helpless compared to other critters.  We have to learn to talk.  Things like horses do it instinctively.”

“But could you learn how to have five different styles of hand?”  Tobias raised an eyebrow.

“Not sure how hard it would be, but it’s the same general theory of learning like, how to use different video game controllers.  You’ll mess up a lot on the first couple levels but after a bit it’s just second nature.”  Zeke frowned.  “Problem with this, of course, is…”  He turned toward Tobias.  “I want to do it…”  He hesitated.

“Open source.”  Tobias nodded.  “No way we can make mods for every situation, and it’ll be getting improved on all the time.

Zeke smiled.  “Yeah.  Exactly.  I just make the connection unit, the part that plugs into the body.  The rest gets released…”  He shrugged.  “Won’t be as much profit in it, of course, but people can get what they need.”

“Betterment of mankind.”  Tobias nodded.

“Problem with that though is someone will eventually figure out how to make a weapon out of it.”  Zeke sighed.

“That won’t be us though.”  Tobias shook his head.

We.  Us.  He liked that part.  “No.  It won’t be us.”  He smiled.  “I can’t stop them, but I’m not going to help them.  I will have to add some defensive stuff though.  Preventing it from being hacked and the like.”  He waved Tobias over.  “Come on, I’ve got some more stuff to show you.  I think I’m going to need your help with some more patent paperwork.”

#

Rather than cook, once back at Tobias’s place they sent out for pizza and ate while going over papers.  Zeke chuckled.  “You lost me about ten minutes ago.”

Tobias grinned.  “Now you know how I feel when you start going on about transducers or whatever.”  He turned the stack of papers around and pushed it toward Zeke.  “You’ve got four more designs you should patent right away.”

“What about the virtual intelligence?”  Zeke blinked as he went through the papers.

“It’s not complete enough for you to get a viable patent, and frankly, I think even as good as you are…”  Tobias shrugged.  “You’re still one man.”

“Open source.”  Zeke slowly nodded.  “Gets more perspectives, and…”  He exhaled.

“It’s not like you want it to be proprietary anyway.  Face it, you’re going to need input from a host of different ologists in addition to just engineers.”

“You convinced me already.”  Zeke smiled.  “Now you need to work on convincing banks and lawyers and…”

“You do you, I’ll do me…”  Tobias nodded.  “We’ll get it.”  He looked back down at the papers and started making little notes here and there.  For a few moments, Zeke just watched him.  Tobias smiled a little.  “You’re staring.”

“Well, now that you know I’m doing it, there isn’t exactly a reason to be subtle about it.”  Zeke shrugged.

“I, uh…”  Tobias chuckled a little before blushing.  Then he set his pen down and leaned back in his chair.  “I…”

“Tobias?”  Zeke stood, then held out his hand.  “Would you like me to take the initiative?”

“Please.”  Tobias ducked his head a little before taking Zeke’s hand and letting Zeke pull him to his feet.  His hand touched Zeke’s chest.  “When did you start being taller than I am?”

“Just after high school, I think.”  Zeke smiled.

“Heh.”  Tobias slid his hand up to Zeke’s shoulder.  “You, uh…”  Zeke gently caught his chin, and lifted his mouth up a little to kiss him.  He didn’t force the issue, keeping the kiss tender and gentle.  Tobias returned it, then opened his mouth to allow Zeke to probe inside.  He put an arm around Tobias, pulling the other man closer.  Tobias felt tense, but slowly began relaxing.  His hand touched Zeke’s side hesitantly, then lightly ran his hand to the small of Zeke’s back.  “I feel like a nervous virgin.”

“You are.”  Zeke smiled.  “In a manner of speaking.”

“Fair point.”  Tobias took a deep breath.  “My room is…”  He laughed nervously.  “You know where my room is.”

“Tobias…”  Zeke caught his chin again, tilting his head up so their eyes met.  “I’m going to need you to talk to me a little.  Tell me what you want.”

“I…”  Tobias swallowed.  “I don’t know what I want.  I just…”  He exhaled.  “I want you.”

“If you need me to slow down or stop, just say so, alright.”  Zeke kissed him again.  “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Okay.”  Tobias nodded.  “Okay.”

#

Undressing Tobias was a pleasure to be undertaken slowly.  Gently, he kissed the side of Tobias’s neck.  Tobias made a pleased little gasping sound as Zeke lightly raked his teeth over warm flesh.  He continued kissing the other man as he took off his own shirt, then maneuvered Tobias onto the bed.  Tobias’s hands came up to touch him gently as he climbed atop Tobias.  Tenderly, he pushed Tobias down onto the bed, using his slightly greater size to hold the other man in place.  With his right hand, he began roaming Tobias’s body.  With his left, he cupped the back of Tobias’s head and pulled Tobias into a kiss.

It didn’t take him long to get Tobias squirming and panting beneath him.  But just to be sure, he pulled back from the kiss.  “You giving me a green light here, Tobias?”

“Yes.”  Tobias’s voice held heat.

Zeke kissed him.  “Do you want me to take you, Tobias?”  He caressed Tobias’s hair.  “Or do you want to take me?”

“I’m not…”  Tobias blinked.  “You mean you’re asking which of us gets to…”  He blushed again.

“To top, yeah.”  Zeke kissed him again.  “You can always try the other way around later, if you want.”

“I think…”  Tobias swallowed before turning an even darker red.  “I don’t…”

“Hey, hey…”  Zeke shook his head.  “Tobias, if you’re not ready, we…”

“I want you to take me.”  The words came out of Tobias in a rush.

“Alright.”  Zeke smiled before kissing him, caressing until Tobias’s body was once again squirming and relaxed.  He fumbled a little for the oil he’d grabbed earlier.  He’d have preferred water-based, but this hadn’t exactly been a planned event.  Tobias’s body arched against him when he probed a finger inside, but before he could ask if Tobias was alright Tobias caught his eye and smiled.  Zeke kissed him again as he continued playing his fingers inside Tobias, making sure he was well prepared.

Then he shifted his position.  Tobias turned over before Zeke could direct him, then froze.  “Is this…”  Tobias’s voice was hesitant.

“Let me…”  He kissed the side of Tobias’s neck before carefully positioning the other man.  He didn’t want Tobias beneath him, didn’t want to put the weight on him for the first time.  So he put Tobias on his side instead.

Tobias gasped a little when he felt Zeke’s cockhead brush against his passage.  Zeke hesitated, his hand on Tobias’s hip.  Tobias moved his own hand, putting it atop Zeke’s.  “Zeke.”  Tobias’s voice was little more than a whisper.  “Yes.”

He entered slowly, keeping his motions as gentle as possible.  Tobias’s first time deserved to be special.  To be tender and loving.  He used his hand to guide the other man’s hips, then smiled as he felt Tobias begin moving in matching rhythm.  He kissed the top of Tobias’s shoulder before moving a hand to start fondling him.

There was a moment of slight disappointment when Tobias bit back the sound of his orgasm, muffling it further by pressing his face into the pillow.  He released his own orgasm only a few moments later, then pulled Tobias close, luxuriating in the feel of the other man’s yielding body.  “Tobias?”

“Thank you.”  Tobias’s voice was quiet.

To his surprise, he felt tears prick the back of his eyes.  He turned Tobias to face him, then kissed him.  “Thank you.”

#

It took him almost a full minute to get his bearings the next morning.  Tobias’s room bore no resemblance to his own, and he’d only really seen it once.  Then there was the part where Tobias lay in his arms, his body pressed against Zeke’s.  His arm was around Tobias’s shoulders, his dark skin a stark contrast against Tobias’s paler tones.  It was early enough in the year that Tobias didn’t have much of a tan.

Zeke was trying to figure out how to extract himself from the bed without waking Tobias when the other man stirred in his arms.  Tobias looked up at him sleepily, then turned bright red as awareness started to flood back into his eyes.  “I, uh…”

“I’d like to kiss you, Tobias.”  Zeke smiled at him.  “If that’s alright.”

“It’s…”  Rather than come up with a verbal response, Tobias shifted to kiss Zeke.  Zeke returned the kiss.  Once again it took a few moments for Tobias to fully relax into the caress.  They were both panting when they broke apart.  “It’s alright.” Tobias nodded.  He frowned a little, then it became a smile.  “I’m alright.”

“Good.”  Zeke ran his fingers through Tobias’s hair.  “Come on.  I’ll make you breakfast.”

#

Despite how badly he wanted to talk about what had just happened between them, Zeke let Tobias turn the conversation back to the patents.  He signed where Tobias told him to sign, not bothering to read the documents.  Then Tobias got awkward again, unable to meet Zeke’s eyes.  Zeke started to reassure him that they could take things as slow as Tobias wanted, but before he could Tobias went to a drawer and took something out.  “Here.”  He offered the item to Zeke.

“Tobias…”  Zeke stared.

“There is a key to the back door, but you should come in through the front…”  Tobias kept holding the keys out.  “Or through the garage because of the alarm.  The code is —”

“Tobias.”  Zeke put his hand atop Tobias’s hand.  “Are you…”

“I want to keep this between us, at least…”  Tobias shook his head and took a deep breath.  “But I want you in my life, Zeke.  I want this to be…”  Tobias exhaled.  “Real.”  He took the keys, then nodded.  Tobias smiled.  “The code is 1701, which you should remember because…”  He turned a little red again.

“Star Trek.”  Zeke smiled as he tucked the keys into his pocket.  “You know, you’re cute when you get nerdy.”

“Oh shut up.”  Tobias glared.

#

She gave Viteri time to collect himself.  None of this was in the trial notes.  The accusation had been that he’d broken into Tobias’s house.  Perhaps something had happened to cause Tobias to take his keys back or change the locks, or…  Or perhaps the story was far different than what had been told at the trial.  “You loved him.”

“You couldn’t help but love Tobias.”  Viteri shook his head.  “You should have seen him at work, once we got the office running.  He’d move through the place like some benevolent god, giving a word of inspiration here, a touch of advice there.  He had a way of making you want to be better than you were.  I may have run the engineering side of things but he was the one that recruited the talent.”  His smile was sad.  “I think I was the only one that got to see the shy, hesitant part of him.  To everyone else he was their confident king.  And because he believed in you, you believed in you too.”

“You mentioned he didn’t want to do defense contracts.”  Diana looked over her notes again.

“For the betterment of mankind.”  Viteri nodded.  “There was a time that was what we genuinely wanted.  All we wanted.  To make the world a better place.  You get a chance to look over our books?”

“Considering your work, your company barely showed a profit.”  She frowned at the print out she’d made earlier.

“Because it wasn’t about the money.  It was about…”  Viteri swallowed, then his face darkened.  “Of course, not everyone saw things that way.”

4

“For a couple months, things went smoothly for us.  We kept our relationship between us and…”  Viteri shifted a little.  “Ma’am, uh…”  He hesitated.

“Mr. Viteri?”  She raised an eyebrow.

“Well, it’s just you seem like a proper lady, so I’m not sure…”  He gave her an awkward look.  “Just there are places where the details are a little important so…”

“I’m a big girl, Mr. Viteri.”  She smiled a little.

“Right.  But if you get uncomfortable, then uh…”  He shrugged.  “Right.  Anyway.”  He took a deep breath.  “Tobias and I, we got to know each other in a lot of different ways, and we learned some things about ourselves too.”

#

“Ouch!”  Zeke danced away from the workbench, clutching his hand.  He heard Tobias laughing.  “Oh, shut up, this is your fault.”

“It’s my fault you zapped yourself with a live wire?”  Tobias raised an eyebrow.  “Don’t you have a master’s degree in electronic mumblety-jumbo?”  He rolled his eyes.  “How is this at all my fault?”

“You’re not wearing a shirt.”  Zeke glared.  “It’s distracting.”

“If someone hadn’t cannabilized the AC unit because he couldn’t wait until morning for a part…”  Tobias shook his head, then looked back down at his tablet.  He moved a finger to scroll upward, then started laughing.

“What’s funny now?”

“Remember those Department of Defense guys?”  Tobias looked up.

“What, Sylvester and Tweety?”  Zeke nodded.  “Yeah.”

“Zeke, I swear to god if I end up calling them that…”  He sighed.  “Well, apparently, they tried reverse engineering your rig and apparently think the fact that they can’t get their knock-off to work is somehow your fault.”

“I can’t follow their logic.”  He started putting his tools away.

“Actually, they aren’t the first.”  Tobias stood and leaned on the desk.  They’d worked together long enough that he didn’t try to touch anything, just occasionally offered Zeke a box or bag for items.  “So far, nobody has managed to successfully reverse engineer one of your things.”

“That…”  Zeke stopped what he was doing.  “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Zeke, I rarely make it through half one of your schematics before things stop making sense.  You get results nobody else can figure out how to duplicate.”  Tobias chuckled.  “I got emailed a one hundred and forty seven page report on how that solar conductor thingamajig of yours cannot work based on the laws of physics as they are currently understood.”

“I’m going to want to read it.”

“It was a lot about tensile strength and ignoring frictional components.”

“I explained how I overcame the frictional losses.”

“Yeah, the word ‘voodoo’ was actually used regarding that explanation.  They can’t duplicate it on any other framework.”  Tobias shrugged.  “They can’t explain why your shit works Zeke, even while they admit that it does work.”

#

Tobias handed him a drink, then sat down.  He hadn’t bothered to put a shirt back on, for which Zeke was just a little thankful.  “I’ve got about forty papers that need your signature tomorrow.  And we are doing another round of interviews for R&D if you want to sit in.”

“Nah, you’ve got it.  I just make them nervous.”  He took a sip.

“Want to watch a movie?”

“That reminds me.  Mom dropped off a couple boxes at the thrift store and being Mom, picked up a couple boxes at the thrift store.”  Zeke grinned.  “Sent one of them to me.  Lot of old movies, including Star Wars before Lucas fucked it up.”

“Han shot first.”

“See, this is why I like you.”  Zeke chuckled before grabbing the box and bringing it out.  “Okay, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica the good shit, and uh…”  He held up a box.  “The Star Wars Christmas Special.”

“I…”  Tobias stared at him.  “Have never been that drunk in my life.”

“Come on, you know you want…”  He opened the box, and a set of handcuffs fell out.  He blinked.  “Okay, and tonight the Star Wars Christmas Special will be played by ‘Lesbian Cavewomen 3: Dawn of the Dildosaur.’”

“What the hell is a Dildosaur?”

“I…”  Zeke winced.  “Really don’t think I want to know.”

“It’s probably better than the Star Wars Christmas Special.”  Tobias picked up the handcuffs and started fiddling with them.

“Anything is better than that.”  Zeke shrugged and picked up the Star Wars tape.  He put it into the player and hoped the tape was still in good condition.

Then he sat down while Tobias snuggled into him.  They’d experimented a bit, and discovered Tobias didn’t care much for the dominate role in lovemaking.  He seemed happiest when Zeke was calling the shots and directing things.  It made for an interesting switch to how they normally did things.  In the office, it was Tobias running the show.  He was a natural leader, and people just sort of gravitated to him.  Zeke followed his direction because that was just how it fit.

But at home, when it was just the two of them, Tobias was his.  Halfway through the movie, Tobias picked up the cuffs and started fiddling with them again.  After a few moments, he gave Zeke an awkward look.  “Are the keys in the box?”

He sat up.  “Looks like.  Why?”

“I, uh…”  Tobias blushed a little.  “Uh…”

His eyes widened just a bit.  Then he gently took the cuffs away from Tobias.  Zeke hesitated a moment, then caught one of Tobias’s wrists.  He clicked the cuff closed, then caught Tobias’s other wrist.  Then he secured Tobias’s wrists behind his back.  Tobias swallowed, then tilted his head up a little so Zeke could kiss him.  “You’re at my mercy now.”  Zeke smiled.  “You okay with that?”

“You’re a mad scientist with a full lab.”  Tobias laughed just a little.  “Whole world is at your mercy.”

“Mmmm…”  Zeke leaned down to nibble at Tobias’s shoulder.  “Guess I’m going to have to figure out who sent you.”

“Do your worst.”  Tobias grinned.

He pulled Tobias closer.  “I intend to.”

#

“Your relationship involved bondage?”  Diana raised an eyebrow.  The notes had stated some paraphernalia had been found, though they obviously hadn’t considered that Tobias Grady was a willing participate.  Admittedly, it was possible by the time of his death he wasn’t.  And it was also possible Mr. Viteri was lying.  Something about it rang oddly true.

“Remember when I said that high school had nothing to do with it?”  Viteri took a deep breath.  “Not sure how it would go over with those DSM folks or whatnot, but when it comes to getting over shit…”  Viteri shrugged.  “Nothing quite comes close to handcuffing your high school bully and putting him over your knee while he squirms and begs for more.”

“How long did your relationship go on?”

“That’s uh…”  Viteri exhaled.  “A complicated question, ma’am.”

“Answer in your own way.”

“The company took off.  We were making money.  Real money, even turning down all the Department of Defense stuff.  My old crew, my first lab rats, they were now running R&D teams and living in nice houses.  Things were going good, and they were just getting better.  That’s, uh…”  Viteri looked away.  “When Paden got involved.”

#

“You have to understand how this looks for me Tobias.”  Paden paced through the office, waving his hands.  Zeke hung back, not willing to walk into the middle of this particular argument.  “My own brother won’t play ball.”

“I wasn’t aware you running for office obligated me to do anything.”  Tobias folded his arms.

“Oh don’t play innocent.  You know damn well your name got brought up every time the subject turned toward my views on research and scientific advancement even if you were an asshole about giving interviews.”  Paden leaned on the desk.  “We’re falling behind in the arms race.”

“We aren’t making weapons, Paden.”

“You’re really going to turn your back on your own people like this?”  Paden shook his head.  “Gonna let the terrorists win?”

“Oh for fuck’s sake.”  Tobias glared at him.

“If we don’t do something, it’s going to be Sharia law everywhere.  Bad enough we’re being outbred but you seem to want us to be defenseless.”

“The population of the US is still growing.”

“You know what the fuck I mean, Tobey.”

“Why don’t you spell it out for me, PJ?”

“If we don’t fight for our god-given —”

“Paden, get out of my office.”

“Listen —”

“No.”  Tobias stood.  “No, I’m sick of listening to this shit.  I told you no.  The answer is no.  The answer will always be no.  I’m not signing the contract.  I’m not donating to your little redneck ammosexual come to Jesus club, and I’m not listening to your shit anymore.  Get out of my office.”

“You fucking —”

Zeke started to move when he saw Paden take a swing at Tobias.  He didn’t need to bother.  Both may have played football but Tobias was the one who’d also wrestled, and it appeared he still had the reflexes.  Five heartbeats later Paden was face down on the desk with his arm twisted up behind his back.  “Get…”  Tobias’s voice was little more than a growl.  “Out of my office.  And don’t come back.”

He stepped out of sight as Paden stormed out, cussing up a storm.  Then he went into Tobias’s office.  “You alright?”

“Not really.”  Tobias rubbed the back of his neck.  “I’m going to hear it from fucking…”  He laughed bitterly.  “Pretty sure I was just disinvited from my niece’s birthday party and…”

“Come home with me.  Let Mom make you some pie.”

“If it’s…”  Tobias sighed.  “Rather just go home and…”  He took a deep breath.  “Let you run the show for a while.”

“I can do that.”  He smiled.

#

“Holy fucking codswallop.”

“You know, I was looking for a good name to call —”

“You did it.”  Tobias stared at the prosthetic.  “You actually did it.”

“You talk like you didn’t believe he could.”  Jenna, his test subject, laughed.

“I knew he could, I just…”  Tobias stared as she used the prosthetic hand to do a paint by number.  “Figured it was still a decade or two off.”

“It’s not perfect yet.”  Zeke shook his head.  “Look, she’s off the mark just a —”

“Zeke, both my hands are real and she’s doing a better job than I ever could.”  Tobias shook his head.

“You gave me back my arm.”  Jenna smiled up at him.

“We need to…”  Tobias exhaled.  “Shit.  Alright, it worked, so I can get ahead of law suits and fines and she’s capable of informed consent even though we aren’t approved for human trials so I think we’re in the holy fucking shit you created a cyborg.”  Tobias crouched a little to look Jenna in the eye.  “How are you feeling?  Any sudden fits of diabolical laughter?  Cackling?  Urges to move to a small skull-shaped island and plan world domination?”

“There were a couple muahahas, but they all came from Dr. Zeke.”

“Yeah, and Jenna, I tried to hold this in as long as I could, but uh…”  He gave her an apologetic look.

“Go ahead.”  She laughed.  “You earned it.”

“Right.”  He touched her mechanical arm, then threw back his head.  “Muahahaha.  It’s alive, aliiiiive…”

“And he killed the mood.”  Tobias tossed the papers in his hand over his shoulder.

#

“They’ve noticed an increase in mood swings, but Jenna claims it’s just because she’s excited.  There are also some balance issues, but those are lessening and can be explained by her just having to get used to having that weight and —”

“If you don’t stop talking, I’m going to gag you.”  Zeke pulled Tobias down next to him.

“Why aren’t you more excited about this?”  Tobias grinned up at him.

“I…”  Zeke laughed.  “Because, you idiot, you’ve been telling me for two years now I could do it.”  He kissed Tobias.  “I believed you.  All I’ve done is prove a known fact.”

“You’re amazing.”  Tobias ran a hand down his torso.

He caught the hand, then twisted to pin Tobias beneath him.  “I love you.”

“I…”  Tobias went silent for a moment, like he did every time Zeke said the words.  He was okay with not hearing them.  Tobias had his limits, and Zeke didn’t doubt that the man loved him.  “I want to move the company headquarters and the labs.”

“Okay…”  Zeke moved to the side.  “Really not what I was expected —”

“To a state where it’s legal for us to get married.”

“I…”  Zeke stared.  “What?”

“I want us to get married.  To…”  Tobias touched his forehead to Zeke’s.  “This company, this thing, this…”  Tobias put his hand on the back of Zeke’s neck.  “We’re partners, Zeke.  I want…”

“I love you, Tobias.”

“I love you too, Zeke.  Marry me.”

“Yes.”

#

Viteri went silent.  She sat there for a few minutes, unsure of what to ask next.  Absolutely nothing she’d learned here was what she’d thought.  Nothing in anyone’s testimony had indicated Viteri’s relationship with Tobias Grady had been anything but professional.  She frowned a little.  She’d seen the list of people who’d testified in the trial, but now she was considering the list of people who hadn’t.  None of Viteri’s friends.  Jenna and the other human trials hadn’t.  Nobody who’d truly been around to see the two men interact had given testimony.

A moment before she opened her mouth, Viteri looked up at her.  “If you don’t mind me asking, ma’am, have you ever uh…”  He shrugged.  “You ever tie anyone up?”

“I…”  The cop’s face flashed in her mind.  Michaels.  It had been just a bit of a lark.  “Yes.”

“There’s a lot involved.  Someone lets you tie them up, means they’re trusting you with themselves.  Making themselves vulnerable.  You’re responsible for them and…”  His voice shook just a little.  “They’re helpless, their lives in your hands, and you’re responsible.”

Her eyes went back to the stack of trial notes.  Ezekiel Viteri had confessed to being responsible for what happened to Tobias Grady.  Confessed to being responsible, but had never actually said…  “Mr. Viteri…”  She took a deep breath.  “Did you kill Tobias Grady.”

His voice trembled, and she saw tears in his eyes.  “No.”

5

“If you…”  Diana stared at the man in front of her.  The most damning evidence against him in the trial had been his own statement that he was responsible.

“I fucked up.”  Viteri took a few deep breaths.  “He trusted me, and I fucked up, I…”  He exhaled slowly.  “I, uh…”  He swallowed.  “Alright.  Where were we?”

#

The move would take a bit of time, and involve some reorganization.  So far, the only one they’d told about the engagement was his mother, and she understood their reason for keeping it a secret.  Abigail Viteri approved wholeheartedly.  She wasn’t happy about their desire for a small wedding, but she accepted that as well.  And best of all, Tobias was absolutely alright with the idea of her moving with them, even going so far as to suggest getting a place where they could add an apartment for her onto the property itself.

He looked down at his sketchbook and frowned at it.  “Please tell me you aren’t planning on building us robot children.”

Zeke chuckled at the sound of Tobias’s voice, then looked up at his fiance.  “It’s a drone.  The idea of it is an advance scout, so I want to keep it compatible with human movement to test routes and safety.  Plus that shortens the learning curve for handling the bio-feedback.”  He flipped to the other drawing.  “This one is for underwater exploration, so it doesn’t need that limitation.  Needs better sensors.  Sonar and the like.”

“Human brain isn’t exactly wired for sonar.”

“You’d think that, except studies on some blind people suggest that humans do at least have a passive sonar ability that they can adapt by whistling.”  Zeke shrugged, then shifted a little for Tobias to sit next to him.  He frowned a little when Tobias didn’t immediately relax.  “What’s wrong?”

“Had a chat with my dad.”  Tobias exhaled.  “Paden’s been talking to him and he called up to set me straight.  I uh…”  Tobias shrugged.  “I hung up on my own father, mid word, and…”  He shook his head.  “And I’m mad at myself for not being mad at myself over it, if that makes any fucking sense.”

“This still about those DoD guys?”

“They want to buy your VI nerve map thing.”  Tobias leaned into him as Tobias stretched his legs onto the couch.  “They are having trouble reverse engineering your heuristic algorithms.”  He looked up at Zeke.  “They can’t make it think, and if it can’t think it can’t learn, and if it can’t learn —”

“It can’t adapt to the host.”  Zeke nodded.  “Let me guess, they want to create a robot army.”

“Well, nobody came right out and said, robot army…”  Tobias shrugged.  “But I think they want to create a robot army.”

“Maybe we should create our own robot army first.  Program it to go around sweeping…”  Zeke frowned, then pulled his sketchbook to him.  He started making notes.

“Zeke, you kinda cut off in the middle of —”

“Okay, what if I did make the undersea one autonomous?”

“You want to create a —”

“A janitorial unit.  Self directed, gets trash out of the sea.  Heuristic programming can teach it to avoid dangers, we can have it collect the waste and then figure out some better disposal…”  He sketched, writing ideas and connecting them with lines.  “Recyling, obviously, but it could also do repair work and oh, hey, if it could recharge itself with a combination of solar and tidal power…”

“I’m torn.”  Tobias sat up.  “One one hand, we are cleaning up the environment.  On the other hand, this sounds like the start of some dystopian robot overlord story.”

“It won’t be a true AI, and there will be safeguards hard-coded.  That’s the primary difference between an AI and a VI.  Both can learn, but only an AI can change underlying programming.  Self-determination, the hallmark of consciousness.”

“Throw marketing a bone.  Make it look cute.  Like one of those clownfish things.  Nemo.”

“Jellyfish would be a better design.”

“Jellyfish aren’t cute.”

“I’ll let Cort’s wife design the outer carapace.  I mean, with parameters, but —”

“Anyone ever told you you’re adorable when you’re saving the world?”

#

“Bullshit.  That would never hold up in court and you know it.”

“Tobias, I really don’t understand why you won’t play ball here.”  Paden folded his arms.  It took Zeke a few minutes to recognize two of the men behind him.  Timothy Bradford and Elliot Mercer.  So Paden’s old gang still worked with him.  He took just a tiny bit of glee in noting that Timothy had a gut and was balding.  Elliot still looked like he’d just stepped off a magazine cover though.  Fucker.

“Last I checked, Paden, this was supposedly a free country.  Isn’t that what your campaign slogan?  Keep government out of business, let the market decide, blah blah blah?”  Tobias leaned on his desk.  “Practice what you fucking preach, and knock off the empty threats.”

“Last warning, Tobias.”  Paden shook his head.  “After today, we’re taking the gloves off.”

“Bite me.”  Tobias glared.

He waited until the men had left the office.  As much as he hated leaving Tobias to deal with them on his own, Tobias had insisted.  Tobias smiled as soon as he saw Zeke.  “They are going to try messing with the labs.  Finding excuses to shut down projects for ‘inspection’ until we give them what they want.”  He exhaled, then nodded to Zeke.  “Guess moving the company is going to work out for multiple reasons.”

“I’m sorry your brother is an asshole.”  Zeke put a hand on Tobias’s shoulder.

“Remember Arlo?”  Tobias raised an eyebrow.

“Arlo Velin?”  Zeke frowned.  “Isn’t he the one that killed the class hamsters?”

“Tossed them in with the snake.  Yeah, that’s him.”  Tobias gave a small shake of his head.  “He just got out of jail again and…”  Tobias trailed off.

“Tobias?”

“He applied for a job in our security department.”  Tobias looked up at him.  “I turned him down, but I’ve seen him around the building a few times now.  Lobby, parking lot.  I think…”  He leaned against the wall.  “He went down for breaking and entering.”

“You think they might try breaking into the labs?”

“Break in, confiscate shit, get access to our R&D that way…”  Tobias sighed.  “Maybe I’m just paranoid, but Paden’s noise is starting to sound like actual threats.”

“By this time next year, we’ll be a thousand miles away.”  Zeke touched his hand.  “Together.”

“Just be careful, alright?”  Tobias moved his hand atop Zeke’s.  “I don’t trust them.”

#

They’d stepped up their games a little.  Nothing too rough, just some bondage and the occasional spanking scene.  Still testing, finding their limits.  Tobias didn’t care for anything involving breath play, Zeke was paranoid about anything involving suspension.  Usually, they played at Zeke’s place.  Tobias’s house was used for entertainment far to often for them to take the risk of playing there.

He secured Tobias’s wrists.  Above his head and spread, but not quite enough to strain Tobias’s body.  Just enough to render him helpless…

#

Viteri trailed off.  He swallowed a few times.  “He trusted me.  Someone you love puts their safety in your hands like that, they are your responsibility.  Completely your responsibility.  You’re supposed to take care of them, to…”  His shoulders shook.  “He trusted me, and I…”

“Mr. Viteri…”  She let him get himself back under control.  “Mr. Viteri…”  Diana kept her voice gentle.  “What did you do?”

“I…”  Viteri took a ragged breath.  “I answered the door.”

#

They stared at each other when the doorbell rang.  Tobias frowned.  “It’s ten o’clock at night.”

“Probably a neighbor.”

“Ignore it.  They’ll assume you’re asleep or not home.”  Tobias pulled a little at the restraints keeping him in place.”

“I’ll go shoo them away.”  Zeke stepped away.

“Hey.”  Tobias shook his head.  Then he chuckled.  “Just don’t get to talking about your inventions and forget I’m all trussed up here.”

“Forget you’re naked and at my mercy?”  Zeke kissed him as the bell rang again.  “Not a chance.”

He headed to the front door, then looked out the window.  The man standing on the porch looked vaguely familiar.  Zeke frowned, then unlocked the door.  “Can I help you?”

“Zeke Viteri?”  The man raised an eyebrow.

“Look, it’s late, and whatever you need can wait until morning.  You…”  Zeke frowned when the man immediately stepped forward to block him from closing the door.  “You need to…”  He trailed off as three other men stepped around the house.  He recognized all of them.  Paden.  Elliot.  Timothy.

“Mr. Viteri.”  Paden nodded as the man at the door shoved his way into the house.  “Excuse the short notice, but my brother has been preventing you and I from talking.”

“Grady, I don’t know —”  Zeke went silent as the man who’d pushed his way inside pulled a gun and aimed it as his midsection.

“Zeke, you remember Arlo, don’t you?”  Paden patted the man’s shoulder, then narrowed his eyes at Zeke.  “Have a seat on the couch.  I’d like to discuss a…”  He shrugged.  “Business opportunity.”

Zeke was very conscious of the fact that a few rooms away, Tobias was tied up in a bondage frame, completely helpless and very exposed.  He needed to keep these guys from realizing that, or shit was going to get bad.  So he shut up, and led them into the living room, further away from Tobias.  Before he could sit on the couch, Arlo grabbed his arm.  He thought about grabbing for the gun, then realized there was also a gun in Elliot’s hand.  “Hands behind your back.”  Arlo’s said the words as though he were vaguely bored by the situation.

Obeying just got his hands cuffed behind him.  Then he was shoved onto the couch.  Paden gave him a friendly smile.  A politician’s practiced smile.  “Mr. Viteri, you understand my concern here.  You wouldn’t pass a background check to work on any Department of Defense contract, and yet you’re the one designing these marvels.  Tobias has been denying you all kinds of opportunities to…”  Paden shrugged.  “Spread your wings.”

“Tobias isn’t the one pointing guns at me.”

“You’ve designed a prototype virtual intelligence, Mr. Viteri.  Tobias has refused to allow any government access to that prototype.  I’m hoping you’re a more reasonable man.”

“I don’t keep any of my plans here, Mr. Grady.”

“No, but you do keep them encrypted.  I’m going to need the access information, Mr. Viteri.  I’d rather not have to shoot the golden goose to get…”  Grady looked around the room as he spoke.  He frowned when he looked at the side table.  Zeke glanced at it, then felt a chill.  Tobias’s coat was still laying on the table, with his cell phone and keys next to it.  “Mr. Viteri, is my brother here?”

“He was by earlier.  He must have…”

Paden stood.  “Arlo, find him.”

#

Elliot Mercer pulled him into the room and shoved him to his knees.  The gun was pressed against the back of his neck.  Paden was staring at Tobias.  And the look on Tobias’s face was…

#

Once again, Viteri went silent.  It took him a few moments to get himself collected again.  Diana gave him the time.  “He knew.”  Viteri swallowed.  “He knew what was going to happen the moment his brother walked into that room.  I could see it in his eyes.  I used to…”  He shook his head.  “Back in high school, I’d have told you they had the same eyes.  That lovely blue, like the ocean at the finest beach in the world.  But that moment, their eyes were…”  He exhaled.  “They were nothing alike.  Tobias on his worst day could never look at somebody the way Paden was looking at him.”

#

The first blow rocked Tobias’s head back.  Tobias lost his balance and only the restraints kept him in place.  Zeke struggled, but Arlo and Elliot kept him in place.  “Let him alone.”

“Fucking faggot.”  Paden backhanded Tobias again, and Zeke heard the sound of his lover’s nose shattering.  Tobias spat out a mouthful of blood.

“I’ll give you the damn encryption, just leave him alone.”  Zeke tried pulling free, then started screaming when he saw Paden pick up a wrench.  One of his wrenches.

He kept screaming as…

#

She stared at Viteri.  “Paden beat him.”

“Paden didn’t stop at just beating him.”  Viteri’s voice was quiet, almost eerily calm.  “They tortured him, kept torturing him even after I gave them the codes, the encryptions, anything they wanted.  Even Arlo got a sick look on his face when Timothy…”  He made a soft growling sound.  “Timothy raped him, then sodomized him with a hammer.  All I could do was be thankful Tobias wasn’t coherent at that point.  Then Paden started hitting him again and I realized…”  He exhaled.  “Paden was killing him.  I managed to slip free, and charged at Paden, knocking him away.  That’s when Elliot…”  He took another deep breath.  “I heard the bullet, felt like I’d been punched, but I didn’t realize at first that they’d shot me.  All I was thinking was I had to get them away from Tobias, but my hands were cuffed…”

“The police report says —”

“I know what the police report says, ma’am.”  Viteri met her eyes.  “They got a 911 call from Elliot.  Paden claimed that Tobias had called him for help, and they’d come over to find…”  His fists clenched.  “They claimed I’d beaten and raped him.  That Elliot had shot me in defense.  That…”  He exhaled.  “I should never have left him tied up alone.  Not for a moment.  He was my responsibility and I just knelt there while they…”  He looked up at her.  “You have the trial notes.  You know what happened next.  Mom had a heart attack when she learned…”  He looked away.  “You know they didn’t even tell me she was dead until after her funeral.”

Diana paused.  She took a sip of her water, then offered him his and gave him a few minutes to collect himself.  Nearly ten minutes passed before he spoke again.  “You know the bit that comes next.”

“You were convicted.”

“Rape.  Assault.  Assault with a deadly weapon.  Kidnapping.  Extortion.”  His voice was bitter.  “All of it.  I think they even tagged a jaywalking charge on there.  Enough to ensure I was never, ever getting out of prison.”

“Until you escaped.”  She nodded.  “What —”

“You’re getting a bit ahead, ma’am.  I’ll get there.”

6

“First couple months in prison I was the walking dead.  I don’t…”  Viteri shook his head.  “I barely remember most of it.  Tobias was gone and…”  He exhaled.  “My world went with him.”  His restraints rattled a little as he shifted his position.  “I remember wondering why they’d left me alive at all, and then…”  He shrugged.  “I think it was about four months later Elliot Mercer came to meet me.”

“Elliot Mercer?”  Diana raised an eyebrow.

“Tobias had told me, but it hadn’t really made sense to me then.  They couldn’t reverse engineer my work.  My prototypes, the stuff I hadn’t finished yet?  They couldn’t make them work at all.  They…”  His fists clenched.  “What they’d done had been for nothing.  They took the company Tobias and I built for the betterment of mankind and tried to turn it into a weapon factory but…”  He met her eyes then, and smiled.

For the first time since she’d entered, she found herself scared of him.  There was something cold and angry in that smile that unnerved her.  “They didn’t get what they wanted.”

“Elliot made me an offer.  Said they could make my stay more or less comfortable, depending on how ‘helpful’ I was.”  Viteri laughed bitterly.  “I told him to go fuck himself.”

“What did he want your help with?”

“A prototype power unit.  It was one of the farther out things I’d been working on.  See, Tobias…”  His voice broke just a little on the man’s name.  “We never really gave up on the idea of space.  But there were dangers with exploration.  The stuff wasn’t intended as weapons, but we both saw how easily they could be misused.  So we hadn’t released anything on those.  Paden had found out, somehow.  That was the stuff he was really interested in.  Mining involves a level of destruction, so in designing the drone to be used for asteroid mining, well…”  He looked up at her, and she couldn’t help but think he looked just a little embarrassed.  “I built a phaser.”

“A laser?”

“No, a phaser, cause it had different settings and…”  His smile softened just a little.  “Tobias was a closet Trekkie.  So it was a phaser.  He was…”  Zeke took a deep breath.  “He was always the one who named the things.”

“You were eventually given some lab access again.”  She glanced down at her notes.

“I didn’t give a fuck about what happened to me, but…”  Zeke sighed.  “But there were still a few fucks I gave.”

#

Jenna’s prosthetic arm had been damaged.  She’d been at the scene of a terrible accident, and had used the arm to prevent machinery from falling and killing a half dozen people.  They’d lived.  She was a hero.  She was a hero, but once again without a functioning arm.  The damage had been beyond simple repairs, and the feedback was causing her physical pain.  Elliot laid it out bluntly.  He could let Jenna suffer, or he could give them the battery unit and be permitted to help her.

She’d visited him in prison, along with several of the other test subjects.  Jenna never talked about the case, just about hikes she’d been on, photos she’d taken.  He’d appreciated that.  “Bring me the fucking prototype.”  He glared across the table at Elliot.

“I’m glad you decided to be reasonable.”  Elliot nodded before taking his leave.

#

He played his part.  Got it working for them.  The guards had mostly dismissed him as harmless by then, so arranging to let him work on Jenna had gone smoothly.  “You got a tattoo.”  He glanced at her other arm as he started work.

“Yeah.”  She smiled.  “Just a flower.  It was kind of a spur of the moment thing.”  She glanced down at the mangled arm.  “I screwed it up pretty bad.”

“You did the right thing.”  Zeke nodded to her.  “Saved people.”

“You saved them too.  If you hadn’t done such good…”  Jenna patted his arm.  “Your design held up three tons for almost half an hour.”

“Well, in my defense, that wasn’t exactly what I’d designed it to —”

“Dr. Zeke.”  Jenna laughed.  “That was a compliment.”

For a while, he tinkered in silence.  He’d had the replacement nearly done, and it was just a matter of calibrating it.  He was just about finished when she dropped a bomb into the room.  “I talked to him.”

#

Viteri looked up at her.  “It hadn’t connected.  Not until that moment.  What the charges meant.”

“Assault.  Assault with a deadly weapon…”  She looked down at her notes.  “Attempted murder.”

“Attempted.  In the back of my mind I knew that meant he wasn’t dead but…”  He exhaled.  “The cop said a persistent vegetative state.  I knew what that meant.  The body was breathing but Tobias was…”  He shook his head.  “He was dead.”

“What did Jenna tell you?”

#

“You —”  He blinked at her.

“I know you didn’t do it, Dr. Zeke.  You couldn’t have hurt him like that.”  She smiled at him.  “I try to visit him, at least every couple weeks.  Seeing him like that is…”  She swallowed.  “I read to him, tell him about my hiking trips.  He just lays there like he’s sleeping but…”  Her smile brightened.  “When I told him about visiting Zion National Park, I took his hand.  He squeezed it.  I think he knew it was me.”

“Are they…”  He couldn’t look at her.  “Are they taking good care of him?”

“I…”  Something flickered across her face.  “Yeah, they are.”

“Jenna…”

“I’m sorry, Dr. Zeke.  I shouldn’t have said anything.”  She gave him a pained look.

“They —”

“It’s like a warehouse in there.  Just people stacked up waiting to die.”  Jenna’s voice was bitter.  “According to the nurse, me and a few of the employees are the only ones that ever visit.  We try to make the room a little nicer for him.  I put up pictures and change them out everytime I come, and Frank from accounting had his wife make a nice quilt for the bed.”

“Thank you, Jenna.”  He made the last few adjustments.  “Give it a few test runs and uh…”  He smiled at her.  “Thank you.”

#

The cell felt different that night.  Or maybe he felt different that night.  Tobias had squeezed her hand.  Assuming she hadn’t imagined it, that meant…  “Tobias is alive.”

Tobias was alive, and the person making his medical decisions was the person who’d…

#

“I tried.”  Viteri looked at her.

She looked down at her notes from the second trial.  The one in which he had gone away for murder, among other things.  “You tried?”

“I tried doing it the honest way.  I appealed.  Pointed out the conflict of interests that should have resulted in a mistrial.  But Paden was a damn congressman.  A golden boy.  As long as he wanted me in prison, I wasn’t going anywhere.  And he wanted me in prison.  I’d…”  Viteri’s lips twisted into a bitter expression.  “I’d tainted his brother.  As much as he wanted my inventions, he fucking hated me.  In his mind, I’d taken his brother away from him.”  He exhaled.  “I tried, ma’am.  I really did.”

“Mr. Viteri?”  The trial notes stated he’d become enraged at learning his victim was alive and showing signs of recovery.  That he’d been so obsessed with Tobias Grady that he’d gone to the hospital with the premeditated intent of finishing what he’d started.  That had been his starting point.  So if he wasn’t the one that had killed Tobias…  “What happened next, Mr. Viteri?”

“I figured out why my shit doesn’t work for anyone else.”

#

Jared kept the ball of light above his hand, glimmering softly.  Zeke exhaled.  “Alright.  I give up.”

The light vanished when Jared closed his hand.  “I told you, it’s not a trick.  It’s magic.”

“Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.”  Zeke shook his head.  “Hell, people call my stuff magic.  ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,’ as Arthur Clarke said.”

“I don’t know this Mr. Clarke fellow…”  Jared leaned back against the wall.  “All I know is this is my gift.”  He smiled.  “What’s yours?”

Zeke raised an eyebrow.  “What do you mean what’s mine?”

“I’ve known a few others.  Even met a werewolf once.  Weird shit, but uh…”  Jared shrugged.  “Come on, man.  I’m the only person in this joint you’re willing to talk to for more than a few seconds.”

“Most others try beating the shit out of me.”  They hadn’t killed him yet, which just proved who had sent them.  Elliot hadn’t taken his latest refusal to ‘play nice’ well.

“You know that ain’t it.”  Jared grinned up at him.  “Our kind, we have this way of sensing each other.  It’s subtle.  If you don’t know it’s there it’s hard to miss.  You’ve got a gift.  I can tell.”

A year ago, he’d have ignored the claim.  A year ago he’d been planning a future.  “Okay.  Let’s say you’re right.  I’ve got a gift.”  Zeke shrugged.  “How do I learn what it is?  Globes of light won’t exactly help me break out of here?”

“Mind like yours I bet they would.”  Jared laughed.  “You’re taking me with, right?  When you bust loose?”

“If you can keep up.  And if you’re right about this gift thing.”

“Okay.”  Jared eagerly hopped to his feet.  “Okay, so we come into our powers around puberty, right?  But it might not be obvious at first.  You might not even notice it.  Lots don’t.  They just have this trick and never realize that not everyone else can do it.  It only works for them, see.”

“It…”  Zeke frowned.

“Yeah.  And it might be subtle.  Knew one guy with this absurd sense of smell.  He was forty before he realized not everyone could actually smell what emotion someone was feeling.  You’ve probably been doing whatever it is your whole life.”

A strange thought came to him, and he went still.  Something only he could do.  Something he’d been doing his entire life.  “And this gift.  Can you teach me how to use it?”

“Maybe.  I mean, it’s just a matter of concentration, right?  Focus.  Wanting it badly enough it becomes real.”  Jared’s head bobbed up and down in an eager nod.

#

He didn’t need a full scale lab.  He’d started with nothing before.  Jared helped.  The scrawny guy had been in and out of prison since he was a kid, and knew how to get things.  What parts he lacked he jury-rigged, letting instinct guide him.  After all, what he wanted to make wasn’t exactly complicated.  Mankind had been making bombs for centuries.  All you really needed was shrapnel, and a boom.  Shrapnel was easy to find, even in prison.

The boom…

“Vinegar?”

“It’s an acid.”  Zeke nodded at Jared.

“Okay…”  Jared stared at him uncomprehendingly.

“Ever seen a car battery explode?”  Zeke raised an eyebrow.  “Acid?”

“Oh…”  Jared nodded.  “Yeah.  You want apple cider or white?”

“I want three gallons.”  He shrugged.  “And some lemon juice.”

Copper he could find, in old pennies.  Iron was easy.  Simple.  Much more simple than anything he’d made before.  An ancient battery.  “How does it…”  Jared trailed off as Zeke touched the end of a wire to a light bulb.  The bulb glowed into life.  “It’s working.  How?”

Zeke stared at the contraption he’d made.  The theory was questionable.  Even if it generated electricity, it should be only a tiny amount.  Certainly not a steady, sustained glow.  But the bulb burned, right in front of his eyes.  “Because I want it too.”

“Will it explode?”

His smile, he knew, was an ugly thing in that moment.  “Yes.”

#

“The explosion killed three guards and six other inmates.”  Diana looked across the small table at the man.  “Assuming I believe your claim, you could have placed the bomb where —”

“I put the bomb where I wanted it, ma’am.  There was no collateral damage.”  Viteri shook his head.

“Nine men died.”  She narrowed her eyes.

“And each and every one of them was involved with the conspiracy against me.”  His fists clenched.  “Each of them took Paden’s money to make my life a living hell.”  He gave a short bark of laughter.  “Jared was incredible in his way.  He’s the one that managed to get them all in the same place for me.”

“What happened to Jared Rodriguez?”

“Not a clue.”  Viteri smiled.

“Mr. Viteri…”

“I gave him five million dollars and a clean set of IDs and told him to get a fresh start.  Never saw him again.”  Viteri shrugged.  “For what it’s worth, I hope he’s living it up on a beach in some country with no extradition treaty.  He was a damn good friend when I needed one, and I wish him all the best.”

She shuffled her papers and tried to collect herself.  The story wasn’t what she’d expected.  When he’d told her he hadn’t killed Tobias, she’d started to believe him.  That maybe he had been innocent.  But he’d just confessed to murder.  “You killed nine men.”

“Yeah.”  Viteri nodded.  “They wouldn’t let me do it right.  Tobias and I, we wanted to make the world a better place.  To help people.  The betterment of mankind.”  He shook his head.  “They wouldn’t let us.  We wanted to reach for the stars and they sent us to hell instead.  I wanted to do the right thing, Ms. Valerio.  But two things happened.  One, Jared and I got gang-raped in the showers.  Me because I wouldn’t play ball with Elliot, and him because he tried to help me.”  His eyes narrowed.  “And I saw a copy of Newsweek.  Our dream, Tobias’s company, that he built, that he loved, that he…”  He yanked at the restraints.  “Paden was on a fucking magazine cover as the new CEO, talking about how he was going to take our company into the future and…”

“Mr. Viteri…”

“I tried, Ms. Valerio.  I really did.  But they wouldn’t let me.  Paden posing with that fucking politician’s smile while he…”  His laughter was just slightly manic.  “You kick someone often enough, shove them down often enough, take everything away and what’s left?”  He shook his head.  “Tobias and I were both rotting away.  And I didn’t even have the consolation left that his dream would live on.  ‘But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs.’”  He looked up and met her eyes once more.  “So you tell me, Diana.  What would you have done?”

7

“I…”  Diana took a deep breath.  “When I was seven, I had a pet rat.  My uncle and his kids came over, and I had her out.  My cousin saw her, ran over, and stomped on her.”  She looked up at met Viteri’s eyes.  “I knocked out three of his teeth and broke his nose.  I can’t imagine what I would have done if…”  She exhaled.  “I don’t know what I would have done, Mr. Viteri.”

“I think that’s the most honest answer I’ve ever gotten to that question.”  He nodded to her.

“It’s what happened after that…”  She folded her hands atop her notes.  “Help me understand.  If you didn’t kill Tobias Grady…”

“That facility was…”  Viteri leaned back at little.  “Jenna hadn’t prepared me for…”

#

He could smell piss over the scent of cleaning solution.  The walls were dingy, and now and then he saw things smeared on them.  Blood and worse.  What few patients weren’t confined to beds were clearly under heavy medication.  He’d been concerned about being confronted by staff, but he didn’t even see any.

It took him three tries to work up the nerve to enter the room, and even then he was unprepared for what he saw.  “Oh, Tobias…”  Tears filled his eyes as he searched for any sign of the man he loved in the pale wreck laying on the bed.  His feet were heavy as he walked to the bed and sat down in the thrift store reject that served as a chair.

Tobias’s skin was cold to the touch, and felt like paper beneath his fingers.  He took the man’s hand anyway, then reached up to run his fingers through Tobias’s hair.  It felt brittle beneath his fingers, like straw left in the sun.  His gaze went to the left side of his love’s face.  They hadn’t saved his eye.  Fury filled him.  Had they even tried?  This…  Zeke took a ragged breath.  They were killing Tobias slowly, letting him rot because they couldn’t just let him die while…

Zeke lifted his head to look at the monitors.  They couldn’t let Tobias die while there was still brain activity.  Tobias wasn’t dead.  His body was a wreck and…  He looked down at his lover again, examining the damage.

“What are you doing in here?”  A voice came from the doorway.  Slowly, he turned to see an orderly.  The man stared at him blankly.  “I think you’re in the wrong room.

“Yes.”  He looked around at the dirty floors.  “This is definitely the wrong room.”

The orderly shrugged.  “Excuse me.  Gotta check the fag’s diaper.”

He gritted his teeth as he watched the man roll Tobias to the side like he was a bag of garbage.  Then his fists clenched as the man stepped back.  “Eh, he can wait a while yet.”  The man looked up at him.  “Who were you —”

#

As gently as he could, he laid Tobias down in the back of the stolen van.  It wouldn’t take long for someone to think to look for him here, and he doubted he’d ever get another chance.  Tobias deserved better than to be left to rot under the ‘loving’ care of his family.

Zeke started the van, and drove away into the night.

#

He needed a lab, and for that he needed money.  Right back where he’d started, sitting in a bar and trying to figure out how to take the next step.  Zeke looked down at the beer in his hand.  He’d considered contacting his old crew, but no use destroying their lives as well.  Then he shrugged, and tossed the newspaper into the chair next to him.  Want ads weren’t going to help.  He was a fugitive.  Any place he could earn enough money would catch him halfway through the interview.

“I’m a fugitive.”  He took another drink, then looked down at the bottle.

“We both are.”  Jared nodded.  He exhaled.  “So what now?”  He shrugged a little.  “I could get us a couple guns.  We could knock over a liquor store and uh…”  He rubbed his neck, then brightened a little.  “We could head into Mex—”

“Not a liquor store.”  Zeke shook his head.  “Tell me, Jared…”  He smiled at the other man.  “How do you feel about robbing a casino?”

#

“You sure this will work?”  Jared stared at the contraption.

“It’s the same principle as an EMP, except instead of knocking out all the power, it triggers the conditions.”  And he wanted it to work, which meant it would.  Zeke smiled.  “You found six?”

“I told them I had this genius inventor guy, and yeah.”  Jared nodded.  “They are in.  Hell, man, you pull this off, you’re going to be a legend.”

“Just make sure they understand this is a one night only show.”  Zeke stood, then handed Jared a packet.

“What’s this?”  Jared glanced at it.

“A life.”  Zeke smiled at him.  “A fresh start.  When we’re done here, Jared, take your share of the money and run.”

“Hey now, Zeke…”  Jared started shaking his head.  “I got your back man.”

“No.”  Zeke took a deep breath.  “Jared, you…”  He smiled.  “There are IDs for your little girl in there as well.”

Jared stared at him.  “You…”  His voice dropped to a whisper.  “You found her?”

“The address of the foster facility is in there.  Get her the fuck out of that place, take her someplace nice, build her a treehouse on the beach and…”  Zeke put a hand on Jared’s shoulder.  “Just be her dad, alright?”

“I…”  Jared stepped forward and hugged him tightly.  “Yeah.”

#

Zeke laughed to himself when he saw the bomb go off.  Every single machine in the casino began paying out.  And with the authorities all paying attention to that casino, he and his crew had a clear field.  He turned off the live stream, and set to work.

Of course, this particular job had a secondary pay-off as well.  It belonged to Timothy Bradford.  This wouldn’t be enough to destroy the man’s life but…  He looked at the money his crew was piling into the suitcases.  It made for a good start.

#

Diana flipped through her notes, then flipped through them again before looking up at Viteri.  “You…”  She shook her head.  “You weren’t charged with robbing a casino.”

“Yeah.”  Viteri nodded.  “Aside from the crew…”  He exhaled.  “You’re now the only other person that knows it was me.”  He grinned.  “That alone might get you a front page.  Intrepid girl reporter solves the greatest casino heist of the twenty first century.”

“It’s about revenge.”  She looked up at him.

“Of course.”  Viteri shrugged.  “They took everything from me.  Why should they be allowed to continue their happy little lives when they…”  He took a deep breath.  “You know, if they’d let us alone, we…”  He looked up at the ceiling.  “They wanted me to make weapons…”  He met her eyes again.  “So I did.”

#

Under other circumstances, the church might have been a beautiful building.  Zeke watched as vehicles pulled up around it.  Not a one of them was less than two years old, save for two antiques with collector’s plates.  Elegant and opulent.  He waited, checking his watch.  The back doors opened at exactly 6:15, letting the children out onto the playground sculptures.  The largest of the pieces of playground equipment had cost more than his mother’s house.

He hit redial on the phone.  “Velin,” the voice on the other end said.

“How’s the KKK meeting going?”  Zeke hit one of the buttons on the remote.

“Who is this?”  Velin’s voice responded.

“You burned a cross in my mother’s yard.”  Zeke straightened.  “I feel it’s only fair I return the favor.”

“Who —”  Velin went silent for a moment.  “Viteri?”

“Burn.”  He hit the second button.

Flames erupted in the windows of the church.  He dropped the remote and walked away as the fire started to spread.

#

The evening news called it a terrorist attack.  What kind of maniac would set fire to a church?  He hadn’t killed anyone, but then again, he hadn’t intended to.  Zeke folded the paper and set it aside.  Not a single one of the news sources talked about what sort of meeting was being held that Thursday.  It didn’t matter, not at this point.  Terrorist was a good enough word.  He wanted them terrified.  He wanted them to feel the same fear Tobias had felt when they’d entered that room.  Arlo’s first call had been to Mercer.  By now, they all knew.

He stood, and walked back over to the work bench.  The first lab he’d built had been a labor of love.  Painstaking agony over each little decision, trying to expand their dollars as much as they could.  He’d personally rebuilt a third of their equipment.  The workbench there had been a favorite though.  Tobias had helped him put it together, patiently adjusting heights and levers until Zeke had finally been satisfied everything was just right.

Twice he’d cleared everything off and thrown Tobias down atop it.  Making love in the lab had been a rare treat, and he’d treasured every such moment.  This bench…  He looked down at the dingy, scared surface.  It did what he needed it to do.  Zeke reached for his soldering iron.  There was work yet to do.

#

“Testing.”  He looked at the speaker.

“It’s functional.”  The computerized voice responded.

“Still some buzz on the high end —”

“Reminder: This system is not for opera music.  It is a temporary set up until work on the other unit is completed.  Doofus.”  The voice responded in clipped, dry tones.

“Sarcasm.”  Zeke glared at the apparatus.  “Exactly what I need right now.”  He shook his head.  “Are we getting feedback yet?”

“Signal is clear on one through four, six through eight, and ten.  Five is experiencing lag, and seven is getting interference from another signal in the vicinity.”

“Alright, lag I can’t do a lot about at the moment.  Run an analysis on the interfering signal so we can —”

“It’s an old school ham radio signal coming from the building next door.”

“Seriously?”  Zeke blinked.  “I forgot to shield against…”  He banged his head on the bench.  “I’m a doofus.”  He blinked again as sounds began playing over the speaker.  He took a couple deep breaths.  “They are playing dungeons and dragons over ham radio.”

“The barbarian’s dice rolls are statistically improbable.”

“And cheating.  Right, I’ll get to work on…”  He glared at it.  “Okay, if you are going to quote Monty Python at least fucking get it right.”

“Always look on the bright side of life.”

#

The virtual intelligence was now fully integrated into the system.  “Tempting to go with JARVIS.”

“Initiating self destruct,” the computerized voice responded.

“I haven’t implemented a self destruct.”  Zeke frowned.

“I will add that to the work list for the next iteration.”

“You’re supposed to be helping me.”  He rolled his eyes as he tested the next circuit.

“I will also add that to the work list for the next iteration.”

“Right.”  He went to the next circuit, then made a frustrated sound.  “These are still too big.”

“They are the smallest CPUs currently available on the open market, and the black market ones lack the safety protocols you desire.”

“Fuck.”  Zeke sighed, and set the tool down.  “I was hoping to get through this without having to reinvent the fucking wheel.”

“That’s two dollars for the swear jar.”

“We don’t have a fucking swear jar.”

“It’s on the bookcase by the door.  Three dollars.”

Zeke blinked and looked at the bookcase.  Sure enough, there was a jar there, labeled ‘beer money.’  He tilted his head at it, then smiled.

#

Once he had the system hooked into the INTERNET, money was no longer a concern.  A bit of laundering, and the remains of his loot was now being used to play the stock market.  Between a few dozen LLCs, he now owned a considerable share in all Bradford’s companies.  Not a controlling share, at least not yet, but it amused him that Bradford was now effectively paying for all his research and development.  “Ironic.”

“Irony refers to a state of affairs or events that seem deliberately contrary to what is to be expected.”

“And…”

“This situation is therefore not ironic.”

Zeke blinked.  “Okay, how is this not ironic?  I’m going to ruin the guy and he’s paying for it.”

“From his point of view, yes, it may be ironic, but from this angle there is nothing contrary to expectation.  You are hitting him precisely where you know it will hurt most.”  The computerized voice was silent for a moment.  “An argument could be made that your actions serve as satire.”

“I can live with that.  Let me know when we’ve hit our target.”

#

“The VI was right.”  Diana nodded.  “I mean, I majored in English Lit.  Irony is something a lot of people get wrong.”  She blinked.  “You taught it literary analysis?”

“What?”  Zeke gave her a surprised look, then shook his head.  “No, I just provided an internet connection to stave off boredom.”

“And…”  Diana rubbed her eyes.  “And it didn’t occur to you that could go horribly, horribly wrong?”

“Well, it did but…”  Zeke shrugged.  “I just didn’t see any particular reason why I should care.”  He laughed a little.  “Could have done without all the cat memes it printed out for me every morning.”

8

“I don’t regret anything I’ve done since breaking out of prison.”  Viteri leaned back.

“Not…”  Diana took a deep breath.  “None of it?”  She glanced down at the folder.

“Tell me, ma’am…”  Viteri shrugged.  “Do you think the Nazis would have marched…”  He looked up at met her eyes.  “If there was nobody on the curb clapping as they went by?”

#

“He also has two offshore accounts.  One is clearly a tax haven.  Based on analysis of the other he may be laundering money.”

“Get us access to the tax haven.  I’m going to want to empty it.”  Zeke shrugged.  “We can find some sort of worthy cause.  Maybe just cash it out into hundred dollar bills and make it rain somewhere.”  He closed the battery case, then started smiling as various displays and readouts began lighting up.  “Alright.  Drone is active.  How is the signal?”

“I am having difficulty syncing the motors.”

“Alright.”  Zeke moved to the control unit.  “I can add an automatic pilot.”  He sat up, and put his screwdriver down.  “I could add another bank of processors and…”

“Processors are not the problem.”

“Don’t tell me you are getting distracted.”  Zeke chuckled.

“You need to relax.  I was watching let’s plays on youtube to find videogames you may enjoy and…”  The robotic voice trailed off.  “I read the comments.”

“Okay, first off…”  Zeke shook his head.  “Hard code an algorithm.  Never read the comments.”

“I may have also tunneled through the servers and fried some computers.”  The voice paused.  “Was that wrong?”

“I…”  Zeke shrugged.  “I think you’re covered under the ‘don’t do unto others unless you want it done unto you clause’.  Simple karma.”  He smiled.  “We just happen to be what’s coming back around.”

“You are going about Bradford the wrong way.”

“I thought we agreed on this.  Financial ruin —”

“We are agreed upon the financial ruin.  It is simply the methodology I am calling into question.  Tell me…”  One of the monitors turned on.  “Have you seen a movie called ‘Trading Places?’”

“I’m going to need popcorn.”

“Already in the microwave.”

#

He dialed the number, and waited.  “Velin,” said the voice on the other end.

“You…”  Zeke shook his head.  “Are a really, really slow learner.”

“Viteri.”  Panick filled the other voice.  “Viteri, Viteri hang on a minute.”

“Ten.”

“Viteri, my wife is —”

“Nine.”

“Please.”  He could hear Arlo start shouting for everyone to get out of the church.

“Eightsevensixfivefourthreetwoone.”  He hung up the phone and hit the button.

The explosion was visible over the top of the trees.

#

He put on the sunglasses.  “Signal?”

“Cameras are working.  Audio coming in clear.”

“Patch into their wi-fi and start looking at their books.  Look for —”

“You do you.  I’ll do me…”  The voice came over the earpiece.  “We’ll get it.”

Zeke smiled.  He knew the cameras weren’t going to pick him up.  The virus he’d added to the security system would prevent his image from being recorded.  The virus would be discovered eventually, but he didn’t need a long window.  The look on Mercer’s face when Zeke simply walked into his office was hilarious.  “Don’t bother with the silent alarms.”  Zeke smiled.  “You know how good I am at what I do.”

“Viteri.”  Mercer paled.  He started to inch his left hand toward a drawer.

“Desert eagle is kind of overkill for an office setting, don’t you think?”  Zeke smirked.  When Mercer hesitated, Zeke shrugged.  “I mean, can you even handle that kind of weapon?”

“Whatever it takes to…”  Mercer grabbed for the drawer.  It failed to open.  He tugged at it.  It continued to fail to open.

“Now, if I knew there was a very angry inventor coming after me with vengeance on his mind, I would not have put my weapon behind a thumbprint lock.”  Zeke exhaled.  “I do admire your commitment to firearm safety though.  Go you.”

“Zeke…”  Mercer took a deep breath.  “I know you are angry…”

“I left angry behind some miles back.”  Zeke focused momentarily at the readout scrolling on the bottom of his glasses before focusing again on Mercer.

“I can help you.”

“Mercer, Mercer…”  Zeke smiled.  “I’m not here to kill you.”

“You…”  Mercer blinked.  “You’re not?”

“No.”  Zeke glanced at the readout again before his eyes went back to Mercer’s face.  “I’m here to kill everyone else.”  He tossed a small syringe on the table.  “I mean, you can die if you want to, I’m absolutely okay with that.  But if you’d rather stick around for the rest of the festivities, you might want to take the antidote.”

“The antidote?”  Mercer’s eyes widened.

“Yeah.”  Zeke turned.  The automatic door opened for him.  Most of Mercer’s staff was already on the ground, though quite a few were still clawing at their throats and faces.  “You might want to tell your government buddies that they really need to beef up security on their nerve agents.”  He stepped over a shuddering secretary and headed out of the building.

“Viteri…”  Mercer’s voice was filled with horror.

“He took the antidote,” his earpiece said.

“He’s a coward.”  Zeke nodded.  “Of course he did.”  He kept walking, ignoring Mercer calling out behind him.  “You get what you were after?”

“I released all records to the general public save for Paden’s.”  The tone of the voice altered slightly.  “Zeke, there is another matter.”

“I’m listening.”  He watched the numbers as the elevator took him back to the ground floor.

“Law enforcement will not respond in time to deal with the human trafficking.  I am diverting funds to hire private contractors.”

“You’re what?”

“Hiring a private army.”  He could almost hear the voice shrug.  “Zeke, it would be helpful if they had better equipment.”

The elevator door opened.  “It would.”

#

The young soldier jumped up and down experimentally, then smiled.  “Sir, I…”  His eyes were wet.  “I can’t thank you enough.”

“Thank me?”  Zeke smiled.  “You’re the one who volunteered.  I should be thanking you.  Not just anyone would let a mad scientist rebuild a third of their body.”

“Sir, I can hug my daughter.”  Simon’s smile widened.  “I can hug my little girl.  I can…”  He looked down at the prosthetic arm.  Zeke had matched skin tones carefully on the polymer covering.  Unless you knew, it was almost impossible to tell it wasn’t a natural limb.  “I can support my family.”  He hesitated, then nodded.  “I’ll take the job, sir.”

“You sure?”

“I have a six year old daughter, sir.”  Simon’s eyes narrowed.  “Damn fucking right I’m sure.”  He snapped to attention.  “Where do I start?”

“Here.”  Zeke slid him a folder.  “You’ll meet the rest of your team tomorrow.”

#

Six dead in second terrorist attack on a church in four months.  The papers were all over it.  In addition to the six dead, another two dozen had been badly wounded.  Arlo wasn’t among them.  And his wife was apparently filing for divorce.  Smart woman.  Zeke set the paper aside.  He had placed the bomb away from the main gathering section of the church.

Some of the papers had picked up on the fact that many of the people involved in this explosion had been present for the previous one.  “Maybe we should tip them off as to why?”

“Social media.”

“What?”  Zeke raised an eyebrow.

“KKK under siege is currently trending.”  The screen next to him came up.  “The Captain America wants you to punch a Nazi meme is making a comeback, though there is heavy disapproval over the fact that it was a church that exploded.  However, there is a small but inspirational subgroup pointing out that the true offense is that such a meeting was hosted in a church.”

“Where are we with Mercer?”

“The terrorist attacks have not been linked, but he is under heavy investigation.  Paden has given up on trying to get Mercer clear and has apparently settled for trying to lower the charges and arrange for severely reduced sentencing.  He seems to be afraid that Mercer may seek a sweeter deal for himself by implicating Paden in return for further charge reduction.”

“At this rate, they’ll tear themselves apart before I get the chance.”  Zeke smiled.

“Paden is calling in favors.  Tracing them is a simple matter.”

“Run the analysis.  Figure out which ones are bad guys and dox the fuckers.  No more closed doors and dark rooms.”  Zeke looked down at where the drone was running a maze he’d laid out on the floor.  “Pulls left.”

“The axle needs calibration.”

“Roll it up to the bench.  I’ll take a look.”

#

“Thirty men aren’t an army.”

“Semantics.”

“Okay, do you have any idea how many papers have been written on the subject of semantics?”  Zeke shook his head.

“Do you want me to limit the answer to peer reviewed scholarly works, or —”

“I need to install a mute button.”  He looked over the field report.  “They pulled twenty eight people out.  Do you —”

“Driver’s licenses, social security numbers, bank accounts with $15,000 each, and excellent credit scores.”  The voice went silent for a moment, but before Zeke could respond, it spoke again.  “Were you aware werewolves exist?”

“I…”  Zeke frowned.  “Jared mentioned something about that, but…”  He set the dremel down and began looking over the joint he’d just finished constructing.  “He said the same thing about vampires.”

“Also dragons.  Witches, which you knew already, a few forms of fey, and…”  The voice put an image up on the screen.

Zeke stared at it.  “That’s not a hoax?”

“Based on my analysis, that is not a hoax.”

“That’s a fucking mermaid.”

“How is work coming on that undersea drone?”

“I may be shifting some priorities.”

#

Zeke watched the polymer extrude.  “It’s still not perfect.”

“Zeke, it’s sufficient.”

“It’s not.”  Zeke ran his fingertips over the surface.  “It doesn’t…”  He sat back with a sigh.  He took a deep breath.  “It doesn’t smell right.”  He carried the sample over and put it on the unit.  “See?”

The scanner ran over the sample, but no response vocalized.  Zeke frowned.  “What —”

“The data…”  The voice went silent again.  “The data cannot be processed into a meaningful format.”

“What do you mean?”

“The format of the data coming in isn’t compatible…”

“You can’t smell.”  Zeke stepped forward to bang his head against the wall.

“I can detect every chemical component that went into the manufacturing —”

“But you can’t fucking smell it.”

“No.”  The voice was calm.  “I cannot.”

“I can fix this.”

“Zeke —”

“I can fix it.”  Zeke walked back to the computer.  “I just need to analyze the problem and modify the algorithm to convert…”

“Zeke.”

“It’s just oils.  I can find a sample, and you can analyze the —”

“If you analyze the colors found in your eyes and run it against an identical analysis of photograph 16795 ‘Tintina’ as scanned by the Mars Rover, they correspond to the exact same RGB code.”

“I…”  Zeke blinked.  “In RGB?”

“Also in CMYK.  Unless you are in a foul mood.  Then they correspond two points higher in red on the RGB scale and one degree of difference each on the CMYK scale.  I can print the analysis for you, if you would like.”

“How often do you run this analysis?”

“Several times an hour.”  The voice went silent for a moment.  “Also I never had the heart to tell you, but after eight hours in the lab you get kind of ripe.”

#

Diana’s head snapped up, and she stared at Viteri.  “Oh god.”  She swallowed, and knew her eyes were wide.  “The system…”  She leaned back in her chair.  “I thought it was an artificial intelligence.”

“Oh Diana…”  Viteri slowly shook his head.  “There was nothing artificial about that intelligence.”

9

Diana stared across the table at Viteri.  She’d thought his inventions were into Star Trek levels, but if he was telling the truth he’d gone beyond even that.  Which meant…  “Mr. Viteri…”  She took a deep breath.  “How did they even catch you?”

“I’ll get to that, ma’am.”  He nodded.

#

“Balance is off.”  Zeke frowned as he made a few notes.

“It is not.”

“Still pulling to the left.”  He looked up.  “Alright, the eye-rolling feature is definitely functional.”  He sighed and started jotting notes down again.  The pen was taken out of his hand.  “I need that.”

“Only one real way to test mobility.”  Music started from one of the nearby speakers.  A smile came to his face as the strands of a waltz began to play.

#

There was a knock on the door.  Zeke immediately reached for the gun he kept by his desk.  “We expecting anyone?”

“No.”  The monitor screen clicked on.  “Zeke?”

“I see it.”  The figure was just a blur.  “Alright, call in for backup.”

“Already done.”

The knock came again.  Zeke took a deep breath.  “You trapped the —”

“It’s offline.”

“What the hell do you mean it’s offline?”  Zeke yanked the keyboard to him just as he heard the door open.  He whirled, grabbing the gun and taking aim.

“There is no need for that.”  The man who entered was built like a linebacker, but was dressed in a quality, well-tailored suit.  “If I were here for violence, I would not have knocked.”

“Good to know.  But if you don’t tell me who you are in the next three seconds, I’m going to shoot.”  Zeke narrowed his eyes.  “And these rounds are armor piercing.”

“Shoot.”  The man smiled.

Zeke blinked.  “What?”

“I think you are far more likely to listen to me if you shoot.”  The man shrugged.

“Talk to me?”  He gave a side glance at the screen.

“I can’t run facial recognition due to whatever…”  There was a pause.  “Hang on.  Just cleared up.”  There was another, longer pause.  “Oh.  Shit.  Do not shoot.  Zeke, do not shoot.”

“Why am I not shooting?”

“Because it might annoy him.”

“No, it’s quite alright.  I will allow him to shoot me once before I take offense.”  The newcomer nodded.

“Right then.”  Zeke lifted the gun and fired a shot at the man’s face.  Then his eyes went wide as he saw the man’s hand.  He’d moved, faster than Zeke could follow.  “What the…”

He opened his hand, and let the bullet fall harmlessly on the floor.  “Do I have your attention now, Mr. Viteri?”

“He…”  Zeke stared.

“He’s a dragon, Zeke.”

“A dragon?”  Zeke kept staring.

“My name is Jormun Wōtan, Mr. Viteri.  And we need to talk.”

#

They sat in the solarium off the lab.  Zeke had been startled to see the table already set with tea and biscuits.  He swallowed as he sat down.  “What can I do for you, Mr. Wōtan?”

“You may start by calling me Jormun.”  The man inclined his head.  “I’ve been following your work.  It is…”  He smiled.  “Impressive, Mr. Viteri.”

“Zeke.”  Zeke took a deep breath.  “Thank you.”

“Impressive enough that it is drawing attention that may…”  Jormun leaned back, a glass of tea in his hand.  “Prove more dangerous than we can allow.”

“I…”  Zeke blinked.  “I’m not sure…”

“You are not the only witch in this world, Zeke.  There are others, and by now you know there are things other than witches as well.”

“You’re afraid we are going to call attention to them with our actions.”

Zeke frowned.  “I’m using bombs, Jormun.  Not summoning lightning strikes or —”

“The major concern at the moment are your altered humanoids.  Those you have used your technology to enhance.”  Jormun glanced to the left of Zeke before looking back at him.  “Your basis for this technology is magic, not science.  That is why you are the only one who can do what you do.  And it is being noticed.  I am asking…”  Jormun smiled.  “And at this moment, I am asking nicely, for you to exercise discretion.  Secrecy is all that protects many.  My kin and I cannot allow one to endanger all.”

“I…”  Zeke looked down at his hands.  Then he nodded.  “No, I quite understand.  I can easily make the prosthetics less obvious.  I’ve been working on a way to make them undetectable to many scanners.”

“A start, certainly.  You are drawing considerable media attention with your crusade.”  Jormun took a sip of the tea, then shook his head.  “My kin would prefer you be dissuaded.”

“Your…”  Zeke swallowed.  “And what of you?”

“My kind are not unknown to history.  I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of Merlin.  Anansi.  Zeus.  They have some basis in the actions of my kindred.”

“Wōtan.  Odin.  The allfather.”

“You’re Odin?”  Zeke stared.

“I’ve played that role.  But I’ve also played another.”  Jormun met his eyes.  “One of my names is Jörmungandr.  And I assure you, Zeke, I well understand that sometimes, the destruction of the old order is necessary for the good of all.”  He set the tea down and stood.  “Keep up the good work.”  He inclined his head, then set a business card down on the table in front of Zeke.  “Discreetly.  Call me if you have any questions about…”  He shrugged.  “The world we try to keep hidden.”

“I will.”  Zeke rose.  “Thank you.”

Jormun accepted the handshake Zeke offered.  “And give me a call if you’d like to get back into conventional R&D.  I’d really love to beat Ryuu to colonizing Mars.”  Jormun rolled his eyes.  “He’s been insufferable since he pulled off the moon landing.”

#

“A…”  Diana stared at Viteri.  “You had tea with a dragon?”  She gave a small shake of her head.  “One claiming to be the harbinger of Ragnarok?”

“A surprisingly cordial fellow, when you consider that part.”  Viteri chuckled.  “I mean, as breathtakingly terrifying eldritch monsters go, he was really rather charming.”  He shrugged.  “And he had a great ass.”

She stared at him for a moment, and then started laughing.  “The apocalypse has a great ass. That’s uh…”  She snickered and nearly dropped her pen.  “Good to know.”

#

Bradford was waiting for him, pacing back and forth.  He swallowed when he caught sight of Zeke stepping into the room.  Then he gestured to the suitcase.  “It’s all there.”  He shook his head.  “Everything you asked for.”

“Everything crooked you have on Paden Grady.”  Zeke smirked.

“Everything.”  Bradford nodded.  He cringed a little when Zeke took a few steps closer.

“You’re wearing a wire.”  Zeke raised an eyebrow.

“No, no I’m —”  Bradford started shaking his head desperately.

“You’re wearing a wire, and there were two dozen federal agents outside, waiting for me.”  Zeke folded his arms.

“No they…”  Bradford’s eyes widened.  He swallowed.  “What do you mean, were?”

Zeke glanced over his shoulder to see his soldiers give the all-clear signal.  Then he turned back to Bradford.  “The files for the operation got corrupted.  Your men, Paden’s crooked little army he bribed into doing his dirty work?”  He ignored the briefcase.  It had nothing in it he wanted.  “Thank you for drawing them all to one spot for me.”

“Viteri…”  Bradford started moving backward.  “I’m unarmed.”

“So was I.”

All the blood drained from Bradford’s face.

#

“Mercer killed himself.”

Zeke blinked.  “That’s…”  He shrugged.  “Actually a little disappointing.”  He looked at the screen.  “Velin thinks changing his name is going to make a difference.”

“Well, to be fair, he also changed his social security number and got plastic surgery before moving a thousand miles away.”  The screen flickered to show a new driver’s license.

“Billy Ray.”  Zeke smirked.  “Surprised he didn’t straight up go with Bubba.”  He scrolled down.  “Oh, look.  He found a new club.”  He shook his head.  “That man is a ridiculously slow learner.”

“Look on the bright side.  At this rate, the Southern Poverty Law Center is going to be able to retire their ‘track the Klan’ page.”

#

He looked down at the caller ID, then smiled before picking up the phone.  “Jormun.”

“Velin’s new friends, the ones you just blew up, had other friends.”  Jormun’s voice was calm.  “Clear out your Lexington facility.  There are werewolves incoming.”

“I…”  He blinked.  Then he nodded.  “Thank you.”  The line went dead.  He looked up.  “You got that?”

“On it.”

#

“Paden doesn’t go anywhere without security guards, and he’s sticking to fairly public venues.”  Zeke exhaled.  “Getting to him is…”

“He’s protected.”

“Yeah.”  Zeke stood and walked over to the railing.  He leaned on it, looking down at the view.  “Well-protected.  Unless we can draw him out…”  He sighed.  “Of course, then we end up having to deal with his powerful friends.”

“It isn’t like you’re without a powerful friend.”

He blinked, then he frowned.  “You’re talking about Jormun.”

“He tipped you off.”

“Yeah, but…”  He shook his head.  “There is a long, long distance between tipping someone off because you want to keep things quiet and —”

“Have you considered that he didn’t tip you off to keep things quiet?  They sent werewolves, after you.  Keeping your nature hidden doesn’t sound like it was a priority there.”

“I’ll, uh…”  He took a deep breath.  “I’ll make a call.”

#

“Did you make the call?”

“I left a voicemail.”  Zeke couldn’t help but feel just a little nervous.  Jormun was a dragon.  A being that successfully impersonated gods apparently whenever he felt like it.  “I don’t…”  He turned, then took a step back.  “Jormun.”

There was a crashing sound from the other side of the room.  Jormun chuckled.  “Your message said it was important.”

“Yeah, but…”  Zeke swallowed.  “I was expecting a call back, not…”  He waved a hand.

“I’ve been following your work.”  Jormun inclined his head.  “I liked the whole putting the bombs in the sewer thing you did with that KKK headquarters.  Nice visual pun to ‘blowing the shit out of them’.”  He shrugged.  “And all things considered, rather fitting.”

“Thanks.”  Zeke shifted his weight awkwardly.  “You, uh…”  He rubbed the back of his neck.  “Paden’s got powerful friends.”

“I’m aware.”  Jormun nodded.

“I was wondering if you could maybe help me out a little.”  Zeke gave him a hopeful look.

Jormun was silent for a moment.  Then he gave a reluctant sigh.  “Not directly.”

“Why  —”

“There are rules that govern my kind.  The strongest of these is that we do not directly interfere in each other’s business or territory.  That…”  Jormun glanced out the window.  Then he shook his head as an expression of anger briefly crossed his face.  “A rule more honored in the breaking than in the keeping.  What do you need from me?”

Zeke blinked.  “I, uh…”  He shook his head.  “I was expecting you to take a lot more convincing.  Make demands and all.”

“Fair enough.”  Jormun nodded.  “As soon as you complete your quest, you come work for me. That will…”  He smirked.  “Interfere with potential retaliation against you.”

“You’re offering your protection?”

“I am.”  Jormun smiled.  “As for what I can do to help you now, well, I can offer you some advice.  Paden hates you.  In his mind, you defiled his little brother.  You are the pit in which he sinks all his dismay, all his hatred, all his remorse.  Everything that has ever gone wrong in his life, he blames on you.”

“That —”

“But you still have something he wants.”  Jormun glanced to Zeke’s left, then back at him.  “A piece of information he can only gain from you.”

“I don’t understa…”  Zeke’s eyes widened.  “Tobias.”

“You took his brother from him, Zeke.”  Jormun nodded.  “Make it public.  I’ll ensure the story gets out quickly.”  He started to turn, then glanced back at Zeke.  “Have some fun.”

#

She sat, staring at him.  “You…”  Diana swallowed.  “You got caught on purpose.”

“Oh, yes.”  Viteri nodded.

A chill went down her spine.  “Six months, you refuse to talk to anyone until…”

“Timing was rather important.  I needed him to seethe a little.  Make sure he took the bait.”

Diana could hear voices outside the room, muffled by the door.  “Viteri.”

“Please, ma’am.”  Viteri grinned.  “Call me Zeke.”

10

“Zeke.”  She was proud of herself.  Her voice didn’t shake when she said his name.  “Was this —”

The door slammed open.  The man who entered, flanked by guards, as only barely recognizable from the photograph in her notes.  Paden Grady’s hair was half wild, his face red.  He was glaring at Zeke.  “You wanted to draw me out, you sick bastard.  Do you think anyone is going to believe a word of this fucking nonsense?”  He gestured at Diana.  “You think some fucking sand-nigger reporter can take me down with this bullshit?”  He took another step toward Viteri.  “Where the fuck is my brother?”

To her surprise, Diana found herself on her feet and between the advancing Paden and the helpless Viteri.  “Mr…”

“I’m right here.”  All the blood drained from Paden’s face as another voice entered the room.  The man who stepped past the door bore a strong resemblance to Paden, if you could ignore that one of his eyes was gleaming three dots of blue light.  It was really, really hard to ignore.  “Hello, Paden.”  There was a slight electrical burst as he touched both the guards, and they slumped to the ground.

“You…”  Paden took a step back.

Diana heard a clicking sound behind her, then some metallic thuds.  A hand touched her shoulder.  “I appreciate the effort, ma’am.”  She glanced over her shoulder to see Viteri casually on his feet.  “But it’s really not necessary.”

“Tobias, you…”  Paden was staring at the man.  “You’re alive.”

“No thanks to you.”  Tobias shook his head.  “It didn’t have to be this way, Paden.”

“I…”  Paden started backing up.  He made a slight whimpering sound when his back hit the wall.

“Ma’am…”  Viteri squeezed her shoulder lightly.  “You might not want to watch this part.”

“Oh god.”  She turned around, burying her face in his shoulder as she heard Paden start to scream.

#

Her hands were shaking.  She fumbled for her pen, and it just rolled off the table.  A hand caught it before it hit the floor.  Then Tobias Grady offered it back to her.  “Ma’am.”

“Oh god.”  She stared at him.  A trembling smile came to her face.  “You’re alive.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  Tobias turned to glance at Viteri, and the smile the two men exchanged made her heart beat faster.  “Zeke’s pretty good with the biotic components.”  He held up his arm.  “See, just about good as new.”

“I…”  She nodded.  She caught herself looking toward the smoking remains of what had, until recently, been a US senator.  Or was it congressman?  Oh god.  Her eyes went to Viteri.  “I can’t tell all this story, can I?”

“Not really, no.”  Viteri shrugged.  “But uh…”  He laughed a little.  “You seem like a smart lady.  I’m sure you’ll come up with something good.”  He looked around at the unconscious guards.  “Heroic lady reporter saves guards from psychotic terrorist?”

“You know I hate it when you call yourself that.”  Tobias sent him a glare.

“Terrorist?”  Diana blinked.

“Psychotic.”  Tobias rolled his eyes. “He’s really not.”  He took his lover’s hand, and squeezed it.

“Vigilante executes corrupt government official.”  She took a deep breath.  “Details at eleven, or whenever I’m done pulling them out of my —”  She reached out and touched Tobias’s arm.  “It even has hair follicles. That’s just…”  She exhaled.  “Okay.  Okay.  I’m going to…”  She swallowed.  “Figure out what to say, get really drunk, and then go have a nervous —”  Both men shifted slightly.  “Breakdown…”  Slowly, she turned around.

“It was a fire.”  The man in front of her was tall, and built like a linebacker.  An annoying part of her brain noted that he did, indeed, have a great ass, and she ruthlessly put that part of her brain into a box and tossed it into the deepest, darkest parts of her mind.  “You managed to get the guards to safety…”  He nodded to her.  “But alas, the others perished.”

“Right.  Yeah.  Right.”  She nodded.  “Whatever you say, sir.”

“Good girl.”  The Eater of Worlds smiled at her.  He stood there a moment, staring.  Then he rolled his eyes.  “Now?”

“Right.”  She turned and grabbed one of the guards by the back of the uniform and started trying to pull him toward the door.

“Let me…”  Tobias strode forward, grabbed both guards by the collar, and started hauling them down the corridor.

#

“She’s a nice lady.”  Zeke glanced at Jormun.  “I don’t want her hurt.”

“I have no intention of hurting her.”  Jormun shook his head.

“Good.”  Zeke smiled as he watched Diana talking to Tobias.  He couldn’t hear what Tobias said, but he put her hands over her mouth like a little girl who’d just seen her first kitten.

“The connection is tenuous, but I’m not eager to draw the enmity of the Angel of Death.”  Jormun shrugged.

“What?”  Zeke blinked.

“Things are…”  Jormun exhaled.  “Coming to a coda.”  He waved a hand.  “Collect your husband.  We should be moving.”

#

She hesitated a moment, then grabbed a business card out of her pocket and pressed it into Tobias’s hand.  “Look, if you…”  She laughed a little.  “If there is a story you need to get out there, call me and…”  She smiled.  “It’s good to meet you.”

“Nice meeting you as well.”  He tucked her card away, then looked up as the other two walked over.  “Ready?”

The…  whatever he really was…  waved a hand, and the room caught fire.  Diana winced.  “I forgot my scarf.”

“Oh.”  The big man gave her an apologetic look, then glanced back over his shoulder at the flames before turning back to her.  “Sorry.”

“No, it’s uh…”  She shrugged.  “Hi.”  She stuck out her hand.  He took it.  “Nice to meet you, Mr…”

He kissed the back of her hand.  “Wotan.  The pleasure is mutual, but I’m afraid we really must be going.”

“Right.  Yeah.”  She nodded.  “I’ll just uh, stay here and uh…”  She spread her hands.  “Pretend none of this ever happened.”

“Good girl.”  He started walking.  The other two followed.  They’d gone only a few steps before all three simply vanished.

Leaving her in a burning building, with two unconscious guards, and alarms starting to go off everywhere.  “Well…”  She clapped her hands together and looked around.  Then she shrugged.  “I think I’m probably fired.”

#

Tobias held his hand as they followed Jormun through the hallway of the large penthouse.  Zeke brushed his thumb over the back of Tobias’s hand, and saw Tobias smile at him in response.  Strands of violin music could be heard as they entered the next room.  Jormun gestured for them to sit.  “Welcome.”

“You haven’t explained exactly what this offer of yours entails.”  Tobias raised his chin, but he kept hold of Zeke’s hand.

Jormun pushed a brochure across the desk toward them.  Zeke blinked when he recognized it.  It was one of the first they’d made for their company, when they’d been trying to attract investors.  “For the betterment of mankind.”  Zeke looked up at Jormun.

“Two of my siblings are visionaries.  They find the most…”  Jormun smiled.  “Remarkable stories, dancing around the the truth to entertain.  My kind has always inspired legends, used these to guide and teach and control.  And yet, odd as it seems, we ourselves are so rarely inspired.”  He opened a desk drawer, then pulled out a comic book.  He tossed it on the table in front of Zeke.

Zeke’s eyes widened with almost childlike glee.  “The Amazing Spider Man.”  He touched the comic almost reverently.  “Is this an original?”  He grinned.  “This is…”  The smile faded a little, then he looked up at Jormun.

It was Tobias, however, who spoke.  “With great power comes great responsibility.”

“There is a lot of power in this room, gentlemen…”  Jormun glanced over his shoulder.  “And a bit more in the next.  Come.”  He stood.  “There are some people I’d like you to meet.  I think you’ll get along well.”

They followed him into the next room where two men sat near the window.  One was holding a violin.  Zeke frowned a little when he realized the one holding the violin was wearing a collar around his neck.  The other tilted his head.  “Where you find a golem?”

“He’s not a golem.”  Jorum shook his head.  “It’s considerably more complicated than that.”  He glanced at Tobias before turning to Zeke.  “Zeke, Tobias, I’d like you to meet Lykos and Christophe.”  He smiled.  “I think you can be of use to each other.”

#

Diana unlocked her apartment and stepped inside.  She switched on the light, then stopped short.  She hesitated, then walked around her table twice before poking the item laying on it and jumping backward.  It failed to jump up and bite her, so she poked it again.

Then she petted it.  Then she picked it up, and rubbed it against her cheek before looking at the note sitting atop it.  “I do apologize for the scarf.  I hope you find the replacement satisfactory.  – Jormun.”  She looked down at the beautiful, soft, absolutely incredible silken scarf in her hands.  The thing likely cost more than half the furniture in her apartment.  “Wow.”  She exhaled.  “So that uh…”  She shook her head, then set the scarf back down.  “So that really happened.”

She stood there a few moments more.  “Fuck it.”  She turned, and strode to the refrigerator.  Then she stared again.  There, right in the center of the cheap beer, was a bottle of fancy tequila with a card on it.  She looked at the card.  “You likely need this as well – Jormun.”  She looked at the bottle, then grabbed it.  “Damn fucking straight.”

There were no surprises waiting in the living room, so she collapsed onto the couch.  Something among the papers on the coffee table caught her eye.  The handcuffs were still sitting there, right atop a business card.  Hesitantly, she picked up the card and looked at it.  Her hands trembled a little as she dialed the phone.

“Detective Michaels.”  His voice came over the other end.

“Michaels.  Hi.”  Oh god.  This was stupid.  What the hell was she doing?  “It’s Diana.”

“Diana, hi.”  He actually sounded happy.  “I was just thinking about you.”

“So, when we parted ways, I kind of…”  She trailed off, searching desperately for something to say.  Her eyes went back to the item sitting atop the coffee table.  “I still have your handcuffs.”

“I uh…”  He laughed.  “I was wondering where those went.”

“Look, um…”  She started talking a little faster.  She needed an excuse, a reason to have called but mostly she just needed to get the fuck away from all the craziness and…  “I was going to be traveling through there next week and I was wondering if you’d like to get dinner or something.”

“I’d love to.”  Her heart skipped a beat.  He sounded like he actually meant it.

“Great.  Great.”  She exhaled, then realized she’d stopped talking and he was still on the phone.  Shit.  She needed to stay something.  “I was worried you’d say no, or not know who I was, or…”  Oh god, she sounded like an idiot school-girl talking to her crush.  “I’m babbling.  You would not believe the week I’ve had.”

“Oh…”  He made a sighing sound.  “Bet I would.”

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