Time passed. Clarence added new languages and new skills to his repertoire. Sensei Ping went home to his secret monastery. More cases happened. Clarence helped the Middleman take a mystic fire opal ring from a collector in Toronto to a US government agency that was only slightly less mysterious. Visited a hidden fortress of solitude in the wilds of the Antarctic. Fired his new gun for the first time, for real, preventing a duel to the death between two supernatural beings in Seattle. Every mission brought him fresh confidence. By the time he walked into the control room one morning and found another Grillonian 'teenager' on the video screens, he felt like an old pro.

The Middleman was telling the Grillonian off in Galactic, an artificial language engineered to be comprehensible across as many species boundaries as possible. Clarence's eidetic memory noted that his boss was repeating, almost word for word, the riot act he'd read to the last Grillonian practical jokers. Nothing had changed but Clarence; this time he understood Galactic.

By my office I am a Galactic citizen of the first rank – the only one of my species, the Middleman was saying. This planet is MINE. Its goods, its lands, its thinking chattels are my property – and I do not consent to your interference. Stay away from what I own, or face my wrath. You know I have the power to blot your ship out of space … do not test my patience.

Every syllable rang with truth. Clarence thought about the weapons he'd seen himself, the defenses of HQ, the casual mention of a sun-powered laser. The alien on the big screen was reacting, stammering out an apology, but Clarence was too frozen by his own reaction to notice. Power. Ultimate power, by the standards of his backward planet. Even in the most incompetent hands, enough power to grant a Middleman's every whim without fear of consequences. Adeptly handled, enough to conquer the world with an ease Hitler or Genghis Khan could have never dreamed of.

Power without accountability or limits, dropped into one human being's hands. And they meant to make it his hands. When he'd created a horror with no more power than owning a used car.

The alien was trying to get out of the conversation with some scrap of dignity intact. The Middleman was letting him, royal condescension in every syllable. Some movement or sound got his attention; he glanced back. "Hi, kid," he said in English. "Just getting the damn neighbor kids off our lawn. Is there anything … what? You're white as a sheet."

He felt it. Clarence took a step back. "No. There's no way. This is wrong." He turned and fled.

The control room doors, steps, hallway passed like a blur. The front office. Ida was in his path, saying something; he dodged around her. Outside. The blessed normality of a city street, sidewalk, cars. That normality was an illusion, but it steadied him. He picked a direction and left the HQ building behind.

The Middleman's voice rose behind him, shouting his real name. Clarence glanced back at the figure in the HQ doorway, kept going. The Middleman could save or destroy the world any time he wanted. But he couldn't catch up to Clarence on foot.

They could find him, of course. The watch. Maybe other tracers, implanted in almost any item of his uniform, that he hadn't been told about. He wanted to strip naked on the spot. But that would leave watch, gun, who knew what other gadgets unattended for the first innocent bystander to pick up.

Part of him wanted the job, with an intensity and hunger he hadn't felt since he lost the SEALs. A hunger he couldn't trust. He knew he was competent as a Middleman's apprentice, knew how much his boss needed the able-bodied help. He could accomplish some real good, while he was the assistant. But this job led inexorably to the role of Middleman itself, and that was too much to expect. He was the last person on Earth who ought to hold that power. He'd been a fool.

The broken toes had healed; his long, steady strides opened up the distance between him and his almost-home. The physical effort calmed him. He'd resign, that was all. They couldn't force him to stay. Better, he'd tell them why. They'd be anxious to get rid of him, once they understood. It crossed his mind that the Middleman, as an ex-cop, might want to deal out some belated justice for the crime he'd escaped all those years ago. That was all right, too. Anything was better than the false position of having respect he didn't deserve.

[*]

He walked himself tired, and in his physical condition that took hours. Walked through shopping districts, residential streets, picked a path around highway on-ramps never meant for pedestrians. The sun was halfway down the sky before he was ready to move toward something, instead of away. He broke out of the cycle of his own thoughts and looked around. He'd reached the edge of a city park. Trees, a small play area in the distance, a gleaming blue pond. He sat down on the nearest park bench and just breathed.

There were ducks. Sailing across the pond without a ripple, waddling along the ground. They gathered at his feet and quacked demands. There was a gumball-style vending machine with duck food; he turned out his pockets for change. The ducks liked him, at least as long as the food pellets held out.

That would be a useful, simple job; feeding ducks. No worry, just the reward at the end of the day of seeing innocent living creatures happy. No responsibility.

But he'd tried a life without responsibility, playing pool for money on the southeast coast where the Middleman had found him. It had driven him to sign an organ donor card. Not because that was the right thing to do, but because he'd given up on being useful any other way.

He needed a purpose in his life. He needed this purpose. And he couldn't, mustn't, have it.

A shadow fell over him. Clarence looked up, saw the Middleman standing beside him. "Hiya, kid." The older man was braced on two forearm crutches. "Mind if I take a load off?"

Clarence made room on the bench. The other man levered himself down, let out a long breath as the weight came off his feet. "About that marathon. You win," the Middleman said.

"I didn't think you'd run after me." More guilt.

"You'd have to be pretty damn charitable to call that running." Silence. "Want to talk about it?"

"You never said you were training me to rule the world."

"And wouldn't that job stink on ice." The Middleman shifted to a more comfortable position. "Not ruling, no. Not as anything but a legal fiction, so we're empowered to negotiate with alien races. Stopping wars, feeding the hungry, talking some sense into the crazier parts of the planet … we've got nowhere near enough power for that. We're lucky we can keep the place from destroying itself or being destroyed, one day at a time."

"We have enough power to impose ourselves on the world by force, though," Clarence persisted. "No one else could stop us."

"True enough. The Organization Too Secret To Know works only through you and me," the Middleman said. "Ida's programmed to obey anybody in my job, if push comes to shove. Sensei Ping … would probably think it was about damn time. When I say he's old-fashioned, I'm talking about the paleolithic age."

"Power without responsibility."

"Great power always carries great responsibility, as Spiderman's Uncle Ben would say." Clarence didn't respond to the humorous tone. "But yes. I know what you're saying. The accountability for this job is only in what we bring to it ourselves."

Clarence stared out across the pond. "August 1992," he said. "I'd graduated from high school, didn't have any plans for college. I worked at an oil-change place, drank up whatever money I made. My father was worried, but nothing he said could make me change my ways. My girlfriend, Melanie..." A long pause. "I told myself that I loved her, that she was the reason I was staying in town another year until she graduated. It was nothing but pride. Having a pretty blond girlfriend, having her love me. I didn't love her enough to care how she really felt. The closer we got to her senior year, the more we argued. I had a mean temper. I could always win those arguments... I thought I was winning. I was actually killing everything she'd ever felt for me. One night … it wasn't a different argument, it was just the last one. She broke up with me, and I knew it was for good. I stormed off, she went home, I went drinking..."

He couldn't make himself look up. "About four in the morning I crashed my car into her family's house. They were all home; someone could have been killed. The police came, fire trucks, ambulance. They were treating it as an accident at first. Some EMT's were checking me over. I looked up and saw Melanie coming out of the wreckage … she wasn't actually injured, but it was all in her face. I looked in her eyes and I saw a monster. Me."

The Middleman was just watching him, watching and listening. He felt a stab of the old rage at not being understood. "That's not just her opinion. That's what was. When I did it, I wanted to hurt her. More than I cared about anything else, even myself. Nothing I said or did afterward could change what I'd done. Been." He shook his head. "They didn't even punish me. Everybody in town loved Dad too much … they threw me out of town, but they let me go."

"Losing contact with everything and everyone you knew doesn't strike you as a punishment?" the Middleman said softly.
"There wasn't anything on my record," Clarence said. "I was able to join the Navy, clean … able to get into the SEALs. They'd never have had me otherwise. And you." He looked at the other man at last. "I didn't exactly lie to you, not in words, but I let that lie stand. The Middleman has to be trustworthy, above all. I let you think I qualified." He closed his eyes and waited.

"Melanie Bauer went off to Northwestern in fall of 1992," the Middleman said. "History major, minor in teaching. The year she graduated she married a fellow student, David Farmer, and helped him work his way through dental school. Two daughters, one three years old and one fourteen months. She's fine. All of them are fine."

Clarence looked up wildly. "You knew."

"You think a small-town coverup could hold against HEYDAR? Kid, you still have a lot to learn."

"If you knew, then what am I doing here?"

"Because we looked at your whole life, not just one night." The Middleman laid a hand on Clarence's arm. "You did qualify for the SEALs, mentally as well as physically. That's real power too. Power of life and death … you know as well as I do how that power can be abused. But not by you. You played by the book, until you hit something the book didn't cover. Obey an illegal order and let your men die, or save them and wreck your career. When that happened, you didn't let the rules stop you doing what was right. Most of all, you didn't let the consequences to yourself stop you."

"It's not enough."

"The fact that you think so is why we trust you. Kid, a man who's never failed has never tried anything difficult," the Middleman said. "You failed. And then you learned, and then you succeeded. You know you have a capacity for evil. If you didn't know … that would be a man I couldn't trust in the hot seat. You're the man you've chosen to be. And I like your choices. That's all anyone can ask of you."

Clarence breathed out. A new life, this life, seemed to open before him without deceit or dishonor. He wanted that redemption like he wanted oxygen. More. "If you still want me, I'm here."

"Then I'll say it again." The Middleman shook his apprentice's hand. "Welcome to the team."

[*]

Epilog

Two Years Later

Underground HQ of the Legion of Evil Overlords

One Point Five Seconds After a Laser Blast

Once, in another war, he would have yelled for a medic. Here and now it was only the two of them. Clarence's hands worked by themselves, stripping open bandages from the first-aid kit on his belt. They soaked scarlet instantly. A thumb on a pressure point was no more use. The Middleman was conscious, though glassy-eyed with shock. "Benny," he said distinctly.

The apprentice kept trying. "Clarence." The jacket was too heavy, but he tore his shirt for more material.

"I know you're Clarence. For another minute or two, anyway."

Impossible to misunderstand him. "Don't say that."

"Don't bullshit me, kid; I've got no time. Benny said, at the end, that it didn't hurt. He … exaggerated. Trying to make it easier on me. But I can take this; the leg was worse. It's your time now. The important thing is, don't be afraid. What was in the past can't touch you. You're so much more than that now." Breath. "You're going to shine."

"I'm not ready."

"You're miles past ready. I wish I could see you in action. Maybe I will; O2STK may give special privileges. Do the job, kid. Be what you were meant to be." Another breath, harder-won, with an agonizing pause before the next.

Both their shirts were a blood-soaked mess, useless. Clarence just held him. His partner's body was chilling, shivering weakly. "I'm sorry I couldn't be what you needed," Clarence said.

"You are. Good partner, good friend. Never sell that short. Trust Ida. Trust Ida, and don't try to do it all alone. You're going to need a student. Don't leave it too long."

"I'm not ready for that, either. I barely know the job myself."

"You'll be good. Nothing came easy for you. You'll understand if parts are hard for the next guy. Or girl." He coughed; went stiff with pain in Clarence's arms. "Do it now. The oath. I want to hear you say it."

"By earth, air, fire and water." The ancient words flowed out of him. "By the gods I worship, and the spirits of those gone before who shared this oath. I swear to hold the safety of the human race above all other causes. I stand in the middle, between humankind and all that would harm it. Nor will I use the tools and forces given me for any other purpose. Neither fortune nor favor, safety nor honor, king nor country; not life itself, my own or another's, shall I hold above this oath. To this I hold; by this may I be judged."

The older man relaxed. Smiled a little; his mouth was stained with blood. "There. You're the Middleman now. I couldn't be prouder if you were my own son. It's been an honor to serve with you." A ragged breath. "Sir."

"Please don't call me that. Sir." Clarence – the Middleman – protested, and knew it for a waste of time. Whether it was some real magic or only in his own mind, the oath had changed him. Was still changing him. It was firm ground underfoot, a shield at his back, fire in his veins. He had one place in the world, one purpose; nothing would be allowed to conflict with that any more. He was safe from fear, from temptation, from his own baser impulses.

From everything but grief. The man in his arms had gone completely limp. "Sir. Ray." No answer. He drew him in, solemnly kissed his forehead. He hoped that the … that Ray knew it, somehow.

The Middleman lowered his predecessor gently to the ground. The other man's gunbelt was too small for him, but he took the more powerful energy gun. "I'll be back soon." He owed Ray a decent burial. But first, he had a mission to complete.

He was alone, outgunned, without any possible help. But for the first time since he'd lost the SEALs, he was completely at one with himself. He had a job. He had a purpose. Everything else was trivial. The Middleman stood up and went to work.