The Middleman was semiconscious with pain by the time he heard their pickup vehicle coming. He roused himself; the new kid's reactions could tell him a lot. "There's our ride."
The ex-SEAL heard it too. He shook his head. "There's nowhere to put a chopper down here except in the highway. Anyway, that one's miles away."
"Bet you half a dollar?" The Middleman sat upright.
It looked like a helicopter, all right, its chassis just big enough to fit in their tiny clearing. Sounded like one, to a casual observer who wasn't used to the earth-shattering noise they made in real life instead of on television. Even that half-hearted noise faded out in the last few yards of descent. The body of the 'chopper' landed, apparently weightless, beside the two men. The much larger circle of whirling blades, which looked solid and real, passed through the trees without a quiver.
The Middleman watched the kid watching it, fitting a flood of new ideas into his world view. I wonder how I looked to The Old Man my first day. I should have asked when I had the chance. He shut his grief down; they were busy.
"Right." The kid drew the word out thoughtfully. "Anything else I should know?"
"You'll still be learning the day you retire." A stab of guilt; 'expendable' was an understatement for the career path the Middleman was luring this kid into. "I know I still am. But you meet interesting people." He gestured just as the side door of the chopper came open.
His robot support staff hadn't dressed for the occasion. She wore a mu-mu in an explosion of primary colors and house slippers with pink flowers on them. "You look like hammer-pounded crap," she snarled at the Middleman. "Smashed the leg again, huh? When are you gonna let me whack it off and build you something useful?"
"It's not bad. Maybe a couple of pins knocked loose." He didn't want to hash this out again, or not in front of the kid. "This is Ida. Don't worry, you get used to her."
Ida's sneer assigned the new arrival last place in a centuries-long list of trainees who hadn't impressed her. Which was partly a front. She'd gone over his dossier as thoroughly as the Middleman himself, leading up to this, but hazing the rookies was a legitimate part of her job. "Huh. Where'd you find him, nickel beer night at Chippendale's?"
The kid let that go by. The Middleman provisionally awarded him another point. "Ida, this is Clarence..."
The younger man interrupted. "You said you people don't use your names."
"This ain't the Foreign Legion, dimples," Ida snarled. "He's just the Middleman. You haven't earned squat from me. And just so you know, taking a swing at the chain of command doesn't win brownie points." That taunt hit harder; his mouth set in a hard line. Ida kept the pressure on. "You'll be Clarence and like it until you deserve something else. Don't think you can slide by on having big muscles, either. He's done things half dead that you'll be lucky to match after a couple of years training."
That might be too much hazing; the Middleman started to intervene. But the kid let go of his tension all at once. His voice dropped into complete frankness, no emotional defenses. "I saw. Why do you think I'm here?"
The old battle-bot was speechless, for once. The Middleman turned enough to hide a smile. This is going to be good. He tried not to read too much into the heart-wringing vote of confidence. "The green box strapped to the wall is the first aid kit," he said. "Give me a hand getting in."
The kid barely spoke on the three-hour 'helicopter' ride. The Middleman dozed most of the way, dulled by a combination of pain and painkillers. Every time he glanced at the opposite jump seat the kid was wide awake, looking around with mild interest as if on a bus ride. That under-reaction couldn't possibly be real, but the Middleman had no idea what was hiding behind it. No question he's got potential. Damned if I know what he'll do with it.
"Home sweet headquarters." Ida had bullied the Middleman into a powered wheelchair, his bad leg elevated. He gestured expansively with the hand not on the controls. "Ten levels, hundreds of rooms, more than half of it underground. We keep a few pieces of bigger gear elsewhere, like the submarine and the fighter jet."
"Hunh." The kid might possibly not believe that part. "Who do you work for?"
"Aliens," the Middleman said cheerfully. "Helping us through a tricky stage in our development without breaking the Prime Directive. Or time travelers from the future. Sometimes about 2 a.m. God looks like an awfully good bet. Your guess is as good as mine. I've never met them. Ida passes on orders, runs the home base for me. And for the Old Man before me, and his Middleman before him … all the way back."
The kid's eyes shifted to Ida. "Who do you work for?"
Ida snorted. "Yeah. Like I've never heard that question before. Maybe it's an intelligence test. Keep guessing, bright eyes."
His look went back to the Middleman. "You risk your life and you don't even know why?"
"Who," the Middleman corrected. "I know why. You got a taste of that tonight. That werewolf would have killed again, created other werewolves … what's more, destroyed mankind's comfortable sense that our species knows what it's doing and can handle its own destiny. We stopped all that harm, when no one else could have. Our motto is 'fighting evil so you don't have to.' That about sums it up."
"A secret weirdness-fighting society has a motto?"
"A secret motto," the Middleman conceded. The younger man rolled his eyes.
The Middleman turned his wheelchair toward HEYDAR, meaning to start off with a quick tour of the main control room. The leg-elevating section of the chair whacked against the corner of Ida's desk; he turned white. "Sickbay," Ida ordered. "You're so set on keeping that leg, you have to baby it. I say we give Junior some money for a hotel and toss him out. Maybe he'll keep right on going."
The Middleman shifted more upright in his seat, clamped down on the pain that came in response. The kid was watching him. "You look beat," the Middleman said, almost in a normal tone. "She's right, you need rest. There are several bedrooms two levels up." He nodded toward the stairs. "You can have any room that's unlocked." He glanced at Ida. She grumbled and flipped several switches on a console.
The kid looked down at the Middleman's leg, understood him enough to hide his pity. "Do you need any help?"
"Tomorrow," the Middleman said. "Right now, get settled in."
Clarence Peter Conrad, Junior (no, not junior any more), ex-SEAL, ex-son, current … whatever this was. Werewolf hunter? He felt dizzy in a way that had nothing to do with the 'helicopter' ride. As this Middleman-guy had said, he found bedrooms upstairs. He picked a smaller one the shape of a shoe box, with a single bed and a sink in one corner. It was actually smaller than the by-the-week motel near the pool hall, although much cleaner. I certainly managed to get good and lost this time.
His curiosity about the job, the guy, the whole weirdly altered world, was ebbing as the exertion caught up with him. Clarence wondered if curiosity was enough to keep him going. That hadn't been too far off the target, something to live for or something to die from.
His bad luck that after eight years as a SEAL, he'd come out pretty close to indestructible. A gun would solve his problems, but he couldn't – yet – face mishandling one. He didn't have many other options. With his training, he was too likely to survive anything involving long falls or deep water. So the pool-shark thing was the best he'd figured out for freezing his life in place for a while. Money wasn't a problem. He didn't need much; a bed, a shower, some way to keep his mind off things.
He'd kind of been hoping that the weird guy with the limp was a serial killer or some other freak. Either his problems would be over, or a full-stakes fight would give him something else to think about. Maybe a life-or-death situation would clarify which alternative he wanted. When this Middleman had turned out – apparently – crazy but harmless, Clarence was so infuriated he really would have made the poor guy walk back to town.
Except he'd been wrong in every detail. The crippled ex-cop wasn't crazy or harmless. He'd misread the entire world just as badly. The dangers in life weren't endless variations on human beings; other things were out there. Maybe he could still take action, do something that had value. For his country, for people in danger.
He still didn't know the guy's name; he apparently didn't have one. I'm just the Middleman. That was tempting, on a profound level. Do a job, be a job, with no past and no separate future... he fell asleep thinking about it.
Ida lifted the Middleman onto a padded table and sliced the pants off his damaged leg. She frowned, turned her attention to his bitten arm. The bandage over the werewolf bite was wet again. "You can't toss yourself around like this and get away with it." She cut through the gauze, started picking silver bullets out of the wound with forceps. "You've got to take it easy."
"The red balls keep coming. I've got to answer them. Anyway, I have help now. He's going to be brilliant, Ida. SEAL training is as good as anything we have, in many ways; I can take him to the field right away. And you saw his IQ, the book work is going to go fast. Get Sensei Ping on the phone tomorrow. We'll catch cases as they come in, split half physical training and half archive time on the quiet days..."
"Ray." He looked up. Ida hadn't used his name since the previous Middleman disappeared. "He's straight. All the way, no gray areas."
"I read the same dossier you did." When Ida still stared at him, "Dammit. After all we've been through, are you saying I'd compromise the safety of Earth for a date?"
"No. You'll play this by the book if it kills you," Ida said. "I'm saying … it will. It kills all of you; you're only human." As Ida was not. "At some point I'm going to be stuck with the pretty boy in charge. Can he do the job?"
"He can. I think he wants to." The SEAL had said, you have something worth taking risks for … I used to. "He has the hunger. He has the skills."
"That's only a starting point," Ida said.
"We all start somewhere. Give him a chance."
Ida snorted and turned her attention back to the Middleman's wounds. "I catch you moping about his beautiful butt, I'm going to slap you in the head."
"Yes, ma'am," the Middleman agreed.
The Middleman's apprentice woke with a start; someone was in the room. He sat up, hands in a guard position. "Yeah, like I'm impressed," Ida's voice grated over him. "Not into that, either; cover your shame."
He looked down. He'd slept naked; the thin sheet didn't hide much. He brought one knee up. "What do you want?"
Ida snorted. "Nothin' you've got. Brought you some stuff." She put several loaded hangars onto a closet rod in a bare alcove at one end of the room, laid folded clothes on the foot of the bed. "Get decent and get downstairs. Nobody cares if you've got your beauty sleep." She looked around the room. "You didn't try to grab the penthouse suite, I'll give you that," Ida said grudgingly. "Sure you can cope without a couple of full-length mirrors?"
I don't care what I look like. A few people had assumed otherwise, in the past, but not as persistently as this Ida person. "It's fine." He swung his legs over the side of the bed.
As he'd hoped, she backed up. "Seen enough, thanks." Ida left.
New underwear, his size. Black cotton socks. Black slacks. A white dress shirt, just slightly loose in the chest; maybe they'd gotten his sizes somehow from service records. The shirt was rigged for cufflinks. The links themselves were shield shapes, engraved with a large M and a tiny Latin motto he couldn't puzzle out. The metal was exactly the same dull silver as the band of the watch the Middleman had given him last night.
A gray-olive jacket of some heavy fabric that wasn't wool. It felt strangely slippery under his fingers; he suspected fireproofing. Black tie. A tie tack had the same M logo as the cufflinks; he left it off. Black leather shoes, suitable for a cop walking a beat in the 1950's.
The effect was vaguely like a cross between World War II uniform and a state trooper. The style was distinctive, but the drab colors seemed to blend into the walls. Good. He took the jacket off again and shaved with a razor that had come with the clothes. The outfit wasn't anything he'd call normal, but it was tidy and comfortable. He noticed another new item in the room, a wooden crate about two feet high; Ida must have brought it in before he'd woken up. The lid was already loose. Jeans, t-shirts, a denim jacket, work boots … all the scant minimum of things he'd left behind in the motel on the east coast. Everything else had been given away or thrown away or passively left behind when he'd left the Navy. I must really have been planning to die after all. It seemed so trivial now.
He fished into the crate and brought out one item, his father's military bugle. The brass was showing through the silver plate at the mouthpiece. He wondered idly what had happened to everything else, back at the house he still thought of as home, after his father died. He hadn't gone back; he couldn't. Not unless he broke his word, and risked prison, and frightened all the people who used to know him. I want to be a man who keeps his word. That had been the core of being a SEAL, to him. I want...
He set the bugle gently on the bedside table. Carried the rest of the crate outside and abandoned it in the hallway.