Getting out of the Saab is difficult this morning. I unfold myself from the driver’s seat and slowly stand in the nearly empty parking garage at my office. It’s late Sunday morning, almost time for my meeting with one of the most powerful beings to ever walk the face of the earth, who I kneed in the balls last night. I’m beginning to think that wasn’t a smart move.
I wince at the scorpion sting of pain between my shoulder blades that starts every time I move my head or breathe or blink. It feels like I pinched a muscle in my neck, too, and I think one of those walls Ted tossed me through last night screwed my hip up big time.
I take the elevator up to nine, where Dr. Quark told me to meet him. I’m not sure where exactly he thinks we’re meeting, because Ted and I have pretty much demolished the QuantumWorks annex. There’s nobody on nine, everything is cool and quiet. I limp into a bathroom for a safety pee and a damage assessment.
In the mirror: Split lip. Swollen left ear. Blood shot eye. Scratches on neck and cheek. Other than that I look good in my black Egyptian cotton shirt. Even when I’m beat to hell I’m still fine.
I shoot myself a little thumbs up and grin at my reflection.
“You look fabulous,” I tell myself, but I sound as terrified as I really am.
What the hell was I thinking, going for a crotch shot on Dr. Quark? I mean, the manipulative bastard deserved it, but that still doesn’t mean it was a good idea. He could kill me in a thousand ways.
I must be an idiot, walking in there like this…
“No,” I say, firmly. “No, you are going to go in there and kick some ass.”
That’s right. I am. Who do these guys think they are, fucking with me like this? Jerking me around?
“That’s right! They don’t know with whom they are fucking.”
I have every right to be pissed! It doesn’t matter who these guys are, they can’t screw with me like that. I’m not out of my league. I’m the Velvet Fucking Marauder!
“Major league!” I say, then louder: “Major league!”
I’m going to suck up all this doubt and uncertainty and shit and I’m going to go in there with my “A” game.
“A-Game!” I yell at the mirror, pumping my fists in the air. It hurts, but I’m on a Tony Robbins roll here.
There is no fear. No fear here!
Fear is the mind-killer!
Fucking right! You’re the Terminator, Connor! Unstoppable!
“TERMINATOR!!!” I scream, stabbing my fingers at the mirror.
“Game ON! Game ON!”
Connor Mackenzie Machine: zero defects!
“ZERO DEFECTS, BABY!”
The toilet in the stall behind me flushes. I freeze.
I feel my stomach drop and my face get hot as a big, dark-haired guy steps out of the stall, buckling up his belt. He looks at me. Good looking cat, wearing a black turtleneck and grey wool slacks. He looks like Antonio Sabato, Jr. And just because I know who Antonio Sabato, Jr. is, it doesn’t make me gay.
The guy steps up next to me and starts washing his hands. “How you doing?” he says in a deep voice.
“Good, good,” I say, and begin washing my hands as well, trying to be cool.
He dries his hands on some paper towels, then nods on his way out. “Good luck with that meeting.”
God, I’m such an ass. I lean against the sink for a minute, letting my face regain its normal hue. That was mildly humiliating. I wait for a few minutes, then collect myself and limp out towards the QuantumWorks annex, which I’m kind of looking forward to seeing destroyed in the light of day.
To my surprise, there is a completely intact set of stained oak doors at the entrance to the annex, right where a gaping hole should be. Mike the security guard nods and buzzes me in. I walk through exact replicas of the doors I knocked down not twelve hours ago –
-- and into an immaculate, totally un-destroyed QuantumWorks annex. Instead of snapped beams and crumbling drywall, the main corridor is the same tasteful mix of greys and pastels that I left on Friday, without the slightest hint of the mini-apocalypse that raged through here recently. As a matter of fact, the place smells like it’s been freshly vacuumed and has a new coat of paint.
The only thing that is different are the plants. The groping, stinging, vomit-inducing alien plants are gone, replaced by tasteful grasses and miniature palms. They’re exotic and expensive-looking plants, but they’re definitely of this earth.
A little dazed, I walk down the hallway towards the board room, eyeing the plants warily. They don’t attack. I pass by a wall that I know Ted and I crashed through – it looks as good as new. Paint isn’t even wet. This is Dr. Quark’s work; Surgeon of Reality stuff.
I reach the board room doors and hesitate before I touch the handle.
My heart is beating fast.
My armpits feel hot.
I take a deep breath – game on – and open the door.
They’re waiting for me inside, four of them. Impassive, owlish (owly?)Aaron Clarke sits behind a cup of coffee and scone, fixing me with an inscrutable look as I enter. Ted slumps in a chair at the big boardroom table, looking sullen and bruised. It makes me feel warm inside to see that his face looks as bad as mine. Dr. Quark, in his GQ John Quentin persona, looks up from a small buffet table and smiles politely at me. He’s wearing a smart black cableknit sweater that’s too early for the season. If he doesn’t banish me to a prison dimension, I’ll have to ask him where he got it.
And the fourth person? Antonio Sabato, Jr., from the restroom, of course. He sits off in a corner, reading a magazine and drinking bottled water.
That’s just great.
“Good morning,” I say to the room, neutrally. What else am I going to say?
“Good morning, Mr. Mackenzie,” Dr. Quark says, waving at the table. “Care for something to eat?”
I walk over to the buffet table, nodding to Aaron Clarke. Ted gets the stink eye. I nod to Antonio Sabato, Jr., who looks vaguely amused at my discomfort.
“Oh, Connor, this is Mr. Black. He’s a business associate of mine.” Dr. Quark turns to Antonio. “Mr. Black, meet Connor Mackenzie.”
“We’ve met,” he says dryly.
I grab a couple of croissants and some juice. “What line of work are you in, Mr. Black?” I ask, trying to recover some initiative.
I’ll bet. I sit down at one end of the table with my food. “Well, let’s get this party started, then.”
Dr. Quark takes a seat. “I imagine you have some questions.”
“I can assure you that I will answer any question I can truthfully, Mr. Mackenzie, but I can’t promise you’re going to like the answers. And I can appreciate how you would be angry about our deception – I would be, too, if I were in your position – but I want to be clear with you. I won’t tolerate any outbursts or violence today. We’re going to have a civilized meeting where we will discuss matters peacefully. And if you try to knee me in the groin again I will genetically castrate you. Are we clear?”
“Clear,” I say, crossing my legs. I don’t know what genetic castration is, but it doesn’t sound good. I can feel my face burning. I resist the urge to apologize – he should be the one apologizing.
Aaron Clarke pipes up. “Yes, speaking as the only one in the room without the benefit of parahuman abilities, I’d appreciate if we kept the groin kicking and whatnot to a minimum.”
“Wait a minute, you don’t have parahuman abilities?” I ask.
Clarke shakes his head. “Well, I have degrees from Harvard, Yale, and M.I.T..”
“I thought you were some retired golden age hero or something.”
“Sorry,” Clarke says. “I’m a lawyer.”
Dr. Quark reasserts control. “Well, you have questions, Mr. Mackenzie.”
“Right,” I say. “How did you fix this place so quickly?”
Dr. Quark says, “I reverted the cellular matrix of the damaged area to a previously saved state. It’s sort of like using a computer back-up disk, but on a subatomic level. Unfortunately, it only works with non-living matter, so everyone’s plants and goldfish died.”
“What was the story with those crazy plants in the hallway?”
“Just some plants I picked up on my travels. The Royal Court on Shang Seven uses them as guards in their palaces.” Quark’s features darken a little. “Pity they were destroyed.”
Quark shoots Ted Bradbury an irritated look. Ted sort of shrugs and keeps glaring at me. I ignore him.
“Okay, so the QuantumWorks project?”
“What about it?” Quark says.
“I just want to make sure I understand what’s going on. Are we in danger of having that black hole thing in there bust loose and swallow the world and shit?”
“Currently the situation is under control,” Quark says carefully.
“How encouraging,” I say. “So just to be sure I understand: The QuantumWorks search engine was going to use this transdimensional technology that you developed, and something went wrong, and now you have an unstable breach between dimensions in that big chamber back there.”
“More or less,” Quark says.
“And you’ve got Hydrangea and Buddhist monks stabilizing the breach, but it’s still kind of dicey.”
“Yes,” Quark says.
“What the fuck were you thinking?” I say.
Dr. Quark’s jaw tightens. “Frankly, Mr. Mackenzie, I don’t think you could grasp my reasoning or thought processes regarding issues like this. I have a more… holistic perspective.”
“Well why don’t you explain it to me like I’m a child?” I snap, ripping a big chunk of croissant off with my teeth.
“Very well,” he says with a somewhat forced smile. “Three years ago I purchased a controlling share of stock in The Company and brought Ted and Aaron on board. We began the QuantumWorks project using proprietary technology that I had developed.”
“Illegal proprietary technology,” I added.
“Don’t interrupt, please. Multidimensional technology is restrictively regulated by Congress. It’s understandable after the incident in Pittsburgh, but that was a terrorist act perpetrated by a dangerously ignorant man – the QuantumWorks project is for the benefit of the human species and will usher in a new age of clean, efficient energy and information management.”
“You’re off to a great start,” I say.
He ignores my comment. “And at the risk of sounding immodest, I’m operating beyond terrestrial law,” Quark says. Attorney Aaron Clarke shifts uncomfortably in his chair. “I have tread the cosmos, transcended the limitations of space and time. I watched a universe being born and have seen vast empires fall. I survived a lifetime of torture in a place you would call Hell and brought an entire species back from extinction. I was the court advisor of gods. I healed a sun and assassinated a planet. I studied with the creator of worlds. I held Alexander’s hand as he succumbed to fever. I have slain dragons that eat stars, and have led armies in battle. I have a thousand lifetimes of experience and knowledge – I have read the secrets of the universe, Mr. Mackenzie. Now I want to share that knowledge with my own people, help mankind reach their best destiny. Do you really think I’m going to let some fickle, arbitrary law stop me?”
There’s silence in the room.