Mr. Transport could smell honeysuckle through the rough cloth surrounding his face. He felt the sunshine beating down upon the black fabric, causing a light film of sweat to simmer on his skin. An insect landed lightly on his right hand, delicately straddling the steel cuff encircling his wrist. It was, by far, one of the nicest places he had been detained in the past month. From the tranquil way Mr. Numbers was breathing alongside him, it could be inferred the shorter man echoed the sentiment.
The black bag draped across Mr. Transport’s face was peeled back suddenly, blinding him as the sunlight thrust into his eyes. After some moments of blinking, Mr. Transport gained the ability to make out shapes, and soon recognized that he and Mr. Numbers were in a garden etched in his memory for its vastness and beauty. The man sitting across the stone table from them was recognizable as well, though not for such aesthetic reasons.
“Care for something to drink?” Mr. Adair offered as he sipped his own cocktail. Today he wore a blue cotton shirt with white pants, and no shoes. He was at home and relaxing, not dressing to impress. Given the day’s temperature, Mr. Transport wished he were similarly adorned, rather than entombed in his own standard wool suit.
A large man with tattoos on his face undid the cuffs shackling both him and Mr. Numbers. Mr. Transport exchanged a quick glance with his partner, but there wasn’t much to communicate beyond the obvious. They’d spent the last several weeks being grilled and interrogated on their perceived failing from last spring. This, whatever it might be, was a welcome change.
“Gin,” Mr. Transport said unabashedly. He certainly wasn’t on duty, and he had no idea when an offer like this might come again.
“Water for me,” Mr. Numbers piped up. Mr. Adair handed them glasses, pausing only to alter the liquid in Mr. Transport’s, and then sat back in his chair.
“You two,” Mr. Adair said calmly, “have done quite an impressive job of pissing everyone off.”
Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport merely sipped their drinks in response.
“Sincerely, it is quite amazing in its own right. Your immediate employers believe you incompetent at best, traitors at worst. Lander is also howling for your blood since you let three students slip away, but their protests are dulled by their own failings in the incident. You’ve angered nearly every person even remotely associated with you.”
“Nearly every person?” Mr. Transport asked.
Charles Adair looked away from them, redirecting his gaze to the impressive mansion that lay behind them. “As I have mentioned before, not only do I own a sizable portion of the corporation that employs you, but I also possess an arsenal of contacts with quite a bit of influence of their own. That is why you are here today, gentlemen. It took some doing, but I have wrangled myself the position of sole judge regarding your fates.”
Mr. Transport drank his gin a bit more enthusiastically, determined to see the bottom of the glass if it would be his last.
“On one hand, you two allowed my daughter, either through action or stupidity, to escape in a truly idiotic attempt to rescue her friend. The fact that she isn’t dead or being held somewhere could be taken as testament to a kind divine plan. On the other hand, Alice has returned from Lander with happiness in her eyes and a measure of pluck that is reminiscent of her mother. She has flourished there, and it is you two that I have to thank for putting her in the program.”
It seemed Mr. Adair was going to skirt over the fact that he had strong-armed them into that decision, a skirting neither of the captive men was inclined to bring to his attention.
“So, after considerable thought, I have reached a verdict regarding you two,” Mr. Adair said. “I am willing to overlook the lapse in judgment you showed and reinstate you in your post as guardians. However, I offer you this only on one condition.”
“Name it,” Mr. Numbers said.
“To quell Lander’s lack of confidence in you, a gesture of goodwill must be made. I happen to know they are seeking to replace the coaches who... let us say, creatively resigned. There is one man I know they are particularly hoping to take over George’s role, yet have had no luck in even locating, let alone convincing.”
“With Mrs. Tracking, I’m sure we can lend a hand,” Mr. Transport offered.
Mr. Adair reached under the table and produced a manila folder. He slid it across the table where it stopped at Mr. Transport’s fingertips.
“Finding him has been handled. It’s the convincing I think you two can lend aid in. If you can talk him into taking the position, even if only for a year, you will be able to reclaim your former posts.”
Mr. Numbers took the folder and flipped it open, reviewing its contents. “And if we can’t?”
“Then you no longer have any additional help to offer,” Mr. Adair said.
“We understand,” Mr. Numbers said, snapping the folder shut. “We’ll do it.”
“Of course you will,” Mr. Adair confirmed. “Now finish your drinks and get to it, boys. The clock is ticking.”
* * *
The elves clustered together, their ravaged ranks quickly dividing into scouts, lookouts, and defenders as their leader wracked his head for a plan. Elster Highrange, known as Elmer in the world outside, pushed a hand past the pasted-on ear and through his disheveled hair. He couldn’t believe the way they’d swept through his troops, executing traps like they were five moves ahead and striking with such inhuman precision. When he’d taken over this role, Elmer had been told his predecessor had been a master of strategy, but he’d never really believed it. That was why he’d refused to yield his role as leader when the man had returned for the summer. That was why he’d been unfazed when the man took up the mantle as leader of the orcs. And that, in truth, was why he was losing so badly today. That... and the demon.
“Did you see it take out the battalion of five?” His troops were whispering and he didn’t blame them. Practicality aside, a monster like what they had seen certainly deserved to be spoken of in hushed tones.
“I saw it take down the Cloudrage brothers. Those two were unstoppable, and it had them soaked in paint before they could finish drawing.”
Elster tightened the grip on his own blade. His “blade” was in fact a foam bat that had been soaked in a slow-drying blue paint. The spongy exterior was ridged, as were all his soldiers’ weapons, so a blow struck was easily identified and impossible to deny. The orcs wielded a different pattern and red paint, the same color splattered the tucked limbs of some of his men. Of they that remained, two were missing arms and one was on his knees, both legs taken in a scuffle with the demon.
“What was he like, Zithriel?” They asked him this again and again, but Zithriel had always only the same answer.
“All I saw was a flash of silver and all I heard was the whistle of his swords. After that I was down.”
It was curious that the demon had left him alive. In his telling of the story, Zithriel had once remembered to include the fact that he dropped his own sword in surprise. Elster had wondered, ever so briefly, if perhaps this specter of death lacked the ruthlessness to attack an unarmed man. He’d curtailed those thoughts almost immediately. No one who cut such a swath of carnage could hold to high ideals.
“Men,” Elster said firmly, trying to regain the confidence and subservience of his troops. “How fare we on all points?”
“Clear from the north.”
“Clear from the east.”
“Clear from the south”
“Not clear from the west.”
Elster blinked. That hadn’t been Armthimarge’s voice. He glanced over to see his loyal lookout lying on the ground, red paint coating the fallen elf’s neck where his throat had been “slit”. The attacker must have been fast: Armthimarge hadn’t even called out a warning. As Elster’s eye took in the man who had slain Armthimarge, that fact made more sense. He stood short for an orc, and though the war paint obscured his face, he seemed to wear a curiously placid expression. He wielded a blade in each hand, dripping flecks of red slowly pooling on the ground at his feet. A shock of silver hair and a set of blue eyes that would have looked more at home on an elf decorated his head, and as he stepped forward Elster had no doubt who this warrior was.
“The demon,” Elster whispered. The next time he spoke, it was with fury, hope, and desperation all rolled together like a burrito of command. “Attack!”
His men rushed their target; they still held enough respect for their leader to obey orders. Besides, there were fifteen of them left and only one of him. No matter how good this beast was, not even he could take all of them.
The demon twirled his blades once, then stepped forward to meet the first attacker. Yllsigard struck furiously, coming in overhead with all his might to power through the demon’s guard and take at least a limb. He swung true, but the demon slid around him like spilled mercury, taking Yllsigard at the base of his neck before he could recover from his missed blow. Rartical and Phiong came at the demon together, flanking him to split his attention. Their gambit proved futile, however: the demon simply pushed to Phiong’s side and dispatched him, then turned his attention on the remaining warrior.
Elster began backing away. The sum force of his remaining men were currently being sliced through; he needed an escape plan in the unlikely event this madman managed to hack his way to the last.
A wet, squishy sound splashed in his ear as a blade took his right arm, the one currently gripped around his weapon.
“Your first mistake was underestimating me,” said a voice from behind Elster.
Another blow cleaved away his left arm, before it even had a chance to reach for his lost hilt.
“Your second mistake was backing away when your men charged. A true leader does just that. He leads.”
One final blow took Elster’s legs, and he kneeled as was mandatory with the loss of those limbs.
“And your biggest mistake was forgetting that while a team may possess a valuable asset, that warrior alone does not make up its entire force.”
The voice spoke louder now, declaring its orders to Elster’s men.
“Your leader has had all his limbs sundered. You are completely surrounded. Throw down your weapons now and surrender, or face the inevitable.”
The elves looked around nervously, realizing that orcs were materializing out of the forest and that they were now vastly outnumbered. They glanced over and saw Elster on his knees, paint dripping from all four appendages. They set their blue paint-soaked bats on the ground and put up their hands.
“Your compliance is appreciated, and will be met with mercy,” said the voice, its source strolling around Elster’s left and at last entering his field of vision. He was a hefty orc, yet he moved with a strange confidence on this uneven terrain. He surveyed the domain well, eyes alert, taking in every detail. Only after he was certain that each elf was both unarmed and guarded did his vision leave the battlefield to regard his opponent general.
Elster looked up into the eyes of the man who had beaten him soundly and indisputably. He swallowed his pride, thought of his men, and spoke with as much grace as his throat would physically allow.
“Well met and well played, Growlthberz. You are victorious.”
“I am indeed,” said the orc. “But the game is over now, Elmer. You can just call me Hershel.”
Elmer nodded and slowly climbed to his feet. One thing was certain: whatever his name might be, Elmer would certainly be yielding to this man’s leadership come next summer.
* * *
The man was dressed in an all white suit, with his light hair trimmed short and his nails perfectly manicured. His whole outfit, like everything he deigned to wear, had been custom made just for him. He saw no qualms with such excessive funds being channeled toward wardrobe. After all, he had the means now, and he’d lived the life of self-denial for plenty long enough.
He checked his gold watch briefly, gauging how long he should stay before making his exit. His client was clearly satisfied, there was no denying that. She’d stripped nude in front of the mirror as soon as the procedure was done, not even a fleeting thought given to modesty. Mrs. Hadingsworth was still examining herself even after several minutes, scouring every inch of her now-taut flesh for signs that something had been missed. She would find none. The man clothed in white was exceptional at his job. For what people paid, he had better be.
Eventually Mrs. Hadingsworth collected herself, threw on a nightgown that was now far too big for her lithe and youthful form, and joyously shook his hand in thanks. He accepted her gratitude, but only because he had already accepted her sizable sum of money, and made his departure. Mrs. Hadingsworth had a landing strip on her property, so the man had left his private plane there rather than deal with an airport. It was as he ventured across a well-maintained garden that a tall man wearing square spectacles stepped out from behind a rose bush. The man in the white suite was hardly surprised: the bespectacled man had been trying to reach him for some time now and he was not known for his tendency toward giving up.
“Zero,” he greeted.
“It’s just Blaine these days,” said the other man, adjusting his glasses. “Dean Blaine, if I’m at work.”
“What are you going by now?” Blaine asked.
“The same as before. I do have something of a reputation associated with that name after all.”
“So it’s still Hallow, then,” Blaine said.
“Indeed.” Hallow stepped to the side of Blaine and began walking toward his plane once more. He knew this wouldn’t deter Blaine, but it would force him to get to the point.
“No small talk?” Blaine asked, turning and briskly catching up.
“I have a schedule to keep. Please cut to the quick of it; you’ve been seeking me for weeks now. Don’t waste the opportunity.”
“Very well. I want to offer you a job.”
“I decline,” Hallow said immediately.
“Don’t you even want to hear the details?”
“No, I can safely assume it has something to do with two of your teachers going rogue back in spring. You want me to fill one of their positions, and I have no interest in doing so.”
“You have a lot to offer,” Blaine pointed out. “No healer has ever been capable of doing the things you can.”
“Which is why I make a tremendous amount of money doing it for the wealthy,” Hallow pointed out. “So much, in fact, that there is no possible way Lander could offer me comparable compensation. I doubt you could even afford what I’d normally charge for this meeting.”
“I suppose I should thank you for speaking with me pro bono then.”
“Of course. We’re old friends after all,” Hallow said, choosing to skim past the barb hidden in the comment. “Listen, Blaine, I understand your position, sincerely I do. You’ve had two people you trusted betray you, not to mention word has leaked out about you harboring Powereds in your program, so you need to fill those empty roles with people you know you can count on. Since I fit both that qualification and possess world renown, I would be an excellent candidate to take on the task. Unfortunately, I have no interest in teaching, or in taking a pay cut. I hope you can understand.”
“I can, though I’m disappointed.”
“Chin up, old friend. There are others from our Class of Legends who you can still try.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Blaine acknowledged. The truth was that of the few that remained active, most had turned Blaine down already. Ionics was happily married and raising her third child. Bullrush was a successful coach in the Super Athletics Association, his football team having won four championships in the last decade. “I’ll let you get to your flight, sorry for the delay.”
“Not at all,” Hallow assured him. “It’s always nice to chat with a classmate. One day when my life slows down a bit we should get together and catch up.”
“Of course,” Blaine agreed, knowing full well Hallow wouldn’t be slowing down anytime soon. Not with his particular talent so vastly in demand.
Blaine pressed his fingers to his temples as his comrade continued walking through the garden, never sparing a glance back at the man he called friend. Blaine had known it was a long shot going in, but that gave him little comfort. He’d exhausted nearly all other available options, leaving him with only one that he considered an even longer shot. Still, he had to try.
* * *
Nicholas tapped the felt gently, a subtle gesture that conveyed all he needed it to. While he was normally one who spent his time wiling and beguiling at the poker table, today Nicholas was taking it easy and just playing some blackjack. He wouldn’t keep his winnings, of course: money won from the house just came out of the family pot, which was another reason he preferred trouncing tourists. Still, there was something relaxing about letting go of the need for guile and subterfuge while taking in its place the pleasure of tracking a myriad of numbers.
He leaned back in his chair as a seven of hearts was laid onto his stack, placing his total at twenty. The dealer was showing eight, so Nicholas made the easy call and decided to stay. He wore grey slacks and a black button-down, and a gold tie hung loosely around his neck. Nicholas worked hard to convey an image of disheveled elegance.
Every now and then Nicholas felt the urge to adjust the sunglasses he was no longer wearing. He’d get a new pair soon; even if his dorm mates knew the reason he wore them, they still provided excellent camouflage from the rest of the students. Aside from which, they were a rather ingrained portion of the Nick character, and Nicholas was loathe to put him through major modification mid-performance. For Nicholas had indeed elected to continue his career at Lander for another year, even with his big secret leaked to the world. There was so much to learn, and so little of it from the classrooms. Besides, his dorm mates had proven loyal beyond the degree of rationality in the events of last spring. That meant he could count on them to help him get by, despite his comparative lack of ability.
Those four were trusting, dedicated, and strong. They would make excellent pawns, possibly ones so good he would be able to play his charade all the way to the end. He just had to go slow, and take things one move at a time.
The dealer flipped his face-down card to reveal a jack, leaving him unable to hit on the eighteen he now held. Nick and two other players at the table raked in their winnings. Nick methodically set out a two hundred dollar bet for the next hand. By his count, the deck was about to get very hot. One of the waitresses stopped by, dropping off a new gin on the rocks for him. Nicholas gave her an acknowledging glance then turned back to the game. She was new here; he’d remember to get to know her better later in the evening. After all of his pressing business was attended to, of course.
One move at a time indeed.
* * *
This man wore all white too, but his was not a designer suit custom tailored to his frame. It was a jumpsuit, one with a number stitched on the front and a series of tracking devices woven throughout it. The regular prisoners still wore orange to be easily spotted, but those like him were decked out in white. Some said it was in recognition of what they once were, or what they could have been. The official reason was that it was a safety measure to allow the guard to immediately distinguish between his kind and the regular inmates. Not that this man was given much time to socialize with the others.
The man had dark hair, cut short, and a small soul patch above his chin. He’d briefly considered growing the full goatee to match his incarcerated persona, however he’d decided that would be fringing on the terrain of melodrama.
His cell was composed of rocket-proof plastic walls that afforded no privacy. After some lobbying he’d been successful in gaining a curtain around his toilet area; however, even when sitting it only came up to his shoulders as far as coverage. The most impressive feats of engineered captivity in the cell couldn’t even be seen. The air ducts that ran overhead filtered through a series of pressurized chambers before they brought fresh oxygen to his cell, and another set of them drained off the old air. This allowed for the whole system to be shut down at a moment’s notice should its inhabitant opt to go gallivanting. A similar system was used for the toilet and for the one entrance to the cell.
On this particular day, a rare event occurred. The entrance swung open to reveal a tall man wearing spectacles, one the prisoner knew all-too well.
“Zero,” said the inmate. “This is a pleasant surprise.”
“Just Blaine these days. I left that name behind several years ago.”
“I know what you mean. These days I just go by 48935.”
Blaine clucked his tongue. “I’m afraid that’s no good. We’re far too good of friends for such a dismissive title. How about Sean?”
“No one has used that one for a long time. Okay, Zero, call me Sean.”
“I told you it was Blaine.”
“I told you it was 48935. Besides, for such a ‘good friend’ this is the first time you’ve visited me in here. You know, since you arrested me.”
Blaine walked slowly over to the bed and sat down on the atrociously thin mattress. “Can you blame me? Or any of us? You went from an honored Hero to a common thief.”
“To be fair, there is nothing common about me or what I stole.”
“A fair point. Nuclear secrets, famous works of art, closely guarded industrial patents. You had quite a run,” Blaine admitted.
“Until Zero caught up to me,” Sean pointed out.
“Until I caught up to you. You were a thief, Sean, and I was still a Hero. You had to know the way things were going to end.”
“A man can always hope. That is a right that not even prison can take away.”
“If you sincerely believe that then you should be thankful for where you ended up. I’ve seen prisons that most certainly do have the ability to take away a man’s hope,” Blaine told him.
Sean spread his hands. “So consider me thankful. Let’s celebrate the occasion by getting to the point.”
Blaine hesitated. This next part was delicate, not only in what he needed to say, but in how much he could safely let out while their conversation was being monitored.
“I know you think I wasn’t listening, that night when I dragged you in. I was, and I’ve had a lot of time to dig into it since then. I’m not saying I believe your reason for all the stealing, but let’s just say I’m not as skeptical as I once was,” Blaine said.
“Wonderful; that and a cigarette will get me a cup of coffee in here,” Sean spat back.
Blaine reached into his suit jacket and produced a few folded pieces of paper. He unfurled them and kept them in his hands for the moment.
“I know you haven’t been privy to the grapevine of our world in here, so I’m assuming you haven’t heard the news,” Blaine said. “Five of my students from last year were subjects of an experimental procedure. One that gave them enough control to be reclassified from Powereds to Supers.”
Sean’s whole body stiffened, but his voice remained calm.
“You don’t say.”
“I do say. Their secret came out at the end of the year, yet they have elected to return despite the less than welcoming sentiment echoed by their fellow students.”
“Sucks to be them.”
“Yes. It sucks even more because two of my employees, teachers no less, decided to kidnap a pair of them at last year’s end. Though the students were safely recovered, that leaves us in the position of having two spots to fill. One has been conditionally handled, however I’m still in the market for the services of an experienced Super who I can trust.”
Sean laughed at this, visibly and freely. “A job? You’re here to offer me a job? And how would that work exactly? Are you going to keep me by your side twenty-four hours a day so I can’t slip away? Or better yet, maybe you’ll build me my own cage out there so the students can learn from me while I’m pinned up like a side show.”
Blaine shook his head. “No cages, no monitoring. You’d have to live on campus, of course, but you’d be free to roam the town as you like for your off time. You have five years left of your sentence. You can spend them here, or in my employ.”
“You’ll never be able to sell that to the higher ups,” Sean protested.
“I already have. Despite what you may think, since our time apart I’ve garnered quite a few friends of station who trust my judgment. If I say you won’t run, they’ll believe me.”
“Let’s come back to that point then. Trust. You need someone you can trust. But you and I aren’t exactly close friends anymore. Even assuming I’m not still bitter enough to try and attack you, how do you know I won’t run at the first chance I get?”
Blaine reached over and grasped the inmate’s forearm. Their eyes met, Blaine’s burning with intensity like phosphorous.
“Because I trusted you enough to check out your reason for stealing. And, while I haven’t found proof, I also haven’t found anything to contradict your claim.”
Sean pulled back his arm and broke away.
“How does that stop me from running?”
“Because these five students are not some mystical batch using a resource that only existed once. They are a trial run, to test for long term side effects. In six more years, if they are still healthy and functioning, the procedure can be approved and used on other Powereds. Even then, the number of applicants they initially accept will likely be very small. Getting someone into that program will require a lot of influence. Now tell me, who do you think has a better chance of opening that door for someone: a recently released thief, or a rehabilitated and respected professor of the Hero Certification Program?”
“You spin a pretty story, Zero. One problem: that’s a lot of ifs. If it works. If they get clearance to accept more people. If I can earn favor with the right people. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very tempting. You’re just trusting a lot to faith,” Sean said.
“I’m aware,” Blaine acknowledged. “However there is one part I left out. Whether the program expands or not, there is one very concrete opportunity for you to do good.” Blaine held out the papers he’d been clutching. Sean tentatively took them in his spindly fingers and began to read. It wasn’t until he flipped to page three that his body language softened visibly.
“It is,” Blaine confirmed.
“My god, have I been in here that long? Last time I saw her she didn’t even come up to my hip.”
“A lot can change in fourteen years,” Blaine said.
“I suppose you’re right,” Sean acknowledged. “So this was your ace in the hole.”
“No; I knew you would have eventually come for the other reason. No matter how slim the chances were, you would have taken them regardless. That’s the kind of man you are. This was just to help the decision along. I’m on something of a time crunch,” Blaine explained.
“Well played, Zero,” Sean said. “I suppose you’ve got yourself a new professor.”
“In that case, you will refer to me as Dean Blaine at work and Blaine in our off hours. This is a different world than our old one, and I don’t need to muddle the two.”
“Agreed, but on one condition,” Sean stipulated.
“You let me keep the picture,” Sean said, gently waving the papers where a file photo was inked onto the third page.
“Deal,” Dean Blaine agreed. “I suggest you prepare yourself. You’ll be leaving this place in the morning.”
“I’ll have the maid pack my things,” Professor Sean Pendleton replied.
Dean Blaine stepped out of the room, and Professor Pendleton plopped down on the still-awful mattress where 48935 had sat mere moments before. He gazed at the poorly-pixilated image and was carried off, out of his cell, to a glimpse of the happier life he’d once had. In his wondrous drifting, a single phrase escaped his mouth.
“I can’t believe how much you look like her.”
* * *
There was a whoosh of air and a jerk as they began moving forward.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Mary asked.
“You’ll be fine. Yeesh, when did you become such a chicken?” Alice replied.
“It isn’t a matter of reason; it’s a matter of fear. I’ve spent most of my life on the ground among nature.”
“You did fine on the mountain,” Alice pointed out.
“There was ample earth beneath me.”
“What about when I flew with you?”
“That’s different,” Mary said. “I trust you more than I trust a team of poorly-paid workers commanded to slapdash wooden planks together in the hot summer sun. Besides, I was a little preoccupied at the time.”
A loud, rhythmic series of clicks began echoing from underneath them.
“Come on, try to enjoy it. This place was your idea anyway,” Alice said.
“It was this or another day touring the shops. I chose the lesser of two evils. Plus, I like riding the teacups.”
“We’ll go on them again after this,” Alice offered. “I just can’t believe I never knew you had this phobia.”
“It isn’t a phobia.”
“Didn’t you just say it was a fear not rooted in reason?”
“Yes I... but it... shut up.”
Alice laughed as the wind began to pull at her hair, their crest nearing its apex.
“Sorry, I just never get to see you flustered. All this time and it turns out roller-coasters are your hidden weakness.”
“At least one of us is enjoying this,” Mary said, her grip tightening on the metal bar pressed against her lap.
“I have a feeling we both will be by the time it’s over,” Alice said. “And besides, I told you if you rode it with me I’d go a whole week without bringing you along shopping. So don’t act like all the sacrifice is on your end.”
“Fine, fine. How much longer are we going to climb up, anyway?”
As the words crossed her lips their car began tilting forward, revealing a lush landscape along with a winding road of wood and steel.
“Off-handedly, I’d say not long,” Alice quipped before they plunged forward, all communication lost in the chaos of joyous screams.
* * *
The man lounging on the beach’s white sands was wholly unremarkable. Yes, his broad shoulders and strong frame hinted he might have once been a man of some physical prowess, but the streaks of ivory salting his once dark hair assured any observer that this man was well past that stage and into the one that involved daytime television and ranting at today’s youth. He wore a garish Hawaiian t-shirt despite the fact that he was in Tahiti, a pair of shorts, and no shoes. He owned a pair of flip flops for when he ventured into town, but with his home only a few paces away from the water, he rarely found the need to don them. He sipped a homemade margarita and watched the waves roll in as he kept a lazy eye trained on the book he was reading. As lax as he seemed, he was not startled one iota when a pair of suited men appeared a few feet away from him.
“Boys,” he said by way of greeting.
“Hello,” Mr. Transport replied. “How are things Mr. V-”
“Carl. I’m retired now, so it’s just Carl.”
“Of course. Carl,” Mr. Numbers said. “This is a lovely estate.” Mr. Numbers surveyed the houses behind him, all of them at least three-story and perfectly maintained, as was their landscaping.
“Say what you will about our company, they do have an excellent retirement plan,” Carl noted. He stuck a small scrap of paper in his book and set it down. He suspected this might take a while and he didn’t want to lose his place.
“I look forward to it,” Mr. Transport said, gazing at the pristine waters delicately moistening the sugary sand beneath his feet.
“I did too. And I’m enjoying it now. Which begs the question, what brings you two around? I’d welcome you for a visit, but I somehow doubt the policy on vacation time has become so generous.”
“Sadly, no. You see, we are here to offer you an impressive opportunity, one that would only be fitting for one with your years of tactical and-”
“None of that, Numbers. Just spit it out,” Carl cut him off.
“Fine. You’ve been offered a teaching role in the Lander University Hero Certification Program,” Mr. Numbers said succinctly.
“Thanks but no thanks. I’m already retired and set. Why would I need to take another job?”
“You don’t,” Mr. Transport agreed. “But we sort of need you to.”
Carl gave a more scrutinizing glance to his guests. Despite their professional appearance, they looked haggard. Not just the gaunt look of ones overworked: it was that of ones who had been truly put through a wringer of shit and were scarcely holding it together. Carl had seen that look before. He’d almost worn it himself a time or two. The company had an excellent retirement package, but surviving long enough to get it was sometimes akin to walking a minefield whilst blind and drunk.
“You boys messed up.”
The duo nodded.
“Not terrible,” Mr. Transport replied.
“But bad enough,” Mr. Numbers tacked on.
Carl sighed and took another sip of his margarita. He really did love it out here. The ocean would still be around when he came back. It looked like the same couldn’t necessarily be said for Numbers and Transport.
“What kind of time frame are we talking about here?”
“You can accept as little as a year to fulfill our purposes,” Mr. Numbers informed him. “Though once we give you a full briefing, you may opt to stay longer.”
“Why is that?”
“Let us simply say that things have gotten very unboring on the Lander campus these days,” Mr. Numbers replied.
“That a fact? All right then, boys; for you I’ll come spend a year.” Carl stood from his sand-coated chair and dusted himself off lightly. “That said, since school likely doesn’t start for a few weeks, how about you two come inside? We can have a couple of drinks, and you can tell me just what is so interesting out in California.”
“I’m not sure we’re permitted time to relax and drink,” Mr. Numbers said.
“Nonsense. I haven’t signed any paperwork yet, and I refuse to do a favor for mere co-workers. I will only do one for friends. So, if anyone asks, you can honestly tell them this was a necessary step in my recruitment,” Carl said.
“Touché,” Mr. Numbers said.
“Now then, Transport, let us get you behind the bar. I’ve never had a Mai Tai that can compare with yours.”
“It would be my pleasure, sir,” Mr. Transport replied.