Be confident as you stride towards your ultimate destiny.
Everything started with mushrooms. Velvet pioppinis, to be exact. Pat had never even heard of those before, but apparently they were actually a thing, rather than the off-color joke they sounded like.
Personally, Pat had always kinda felt that a mushroom was a mushroom was a mushroom. Well… obviously not when you were wondering whether to dry and smoke it, or to simmer it in a nice cognac sauce. But when it came to mushrooms on pizza, the choice was pretty binary: take ‘em or leave ‘em. Right? But no. To judge by the contents of the mushroom drawer in Nicholas Andersen’s (aka Silver Paladin’s) industrial-sized stasis fresher, mushrooms were a science unto themselves. There were clamshell mushrooms. Truffles. Maitakes. Shiitakes. King oysters. Chanterelles and portobellos and —
The mansion’s AI pinged at him again. “Mr. Andersen has requested a pizza with velvet pioppini mushrooms, chorizo, parma ham, smoked duck, and an extra portion of aged gouda cheese. Delivery is to take place fifteen minutes after the order. We are at six point four minutes. Please confirm.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m on it. Keep your virtual shirt on. And by the way, dude, Andersen has no taste. Way too much meat, seriously.”
The AI ignored him, which was not surprising because it couldn’t hear him. It continued to fill the room with the soft throbbing sound that signaled an urgent task awaited doing, and someone had better get on it double-quick. For all that it was quiet, the throbbing was pretty annoying, and also managed to convey an astounding level of judgment.
Pat supposed he couldn’t blame the mansion’s virtual manager for being a judgy wanker. What could you expect from a being when the closest thing it had to a parent liked to dress up in quantum armor and fly about being all self-righteous and heroic? That kind of thing was bound to scar a person. (Virtual entity. Whatever.)
Aha — score! Velvet pioppini mushrooms. Pat fished the neatly labeled box from the farthest corner of the fresher drawer, set his prize on the counter with a triumphant flourish, and sauntered over to the AI interface at the end of the kitchen island. Hitting the ‘confirm order’ button shut the thing up at long last.
Another minute later, he’d cajoled the AI into putting €linore’s new album back on. The mansion had a wicked sound system, even down here in the night kitchen, and with a properly cool soundtrack, work was a snap. Pat bopped rhythmically around the kitchen as he snagged one of the prepared pizza dough rounds from the stasis fresher and spread it with the chef’s special sauce. “Do it right, go all night, bi di bip bip di bip bip!” He executed a neat turn as he sprinkled on way too much cheese and danced around the central kitchen island while carefully distributing the assembled toppings. “Turn up the sound! It all comes round!”
Pop it all into the hot stone pizza oven for a quick bake, just long enough for Pat to do a dance-through of the next song on the playlist. Slide the pizza into the box…
Yeah. Billionaire, genius scientist and famous superhero Nicholas Andersen liked to have his middle-of-the-night in-house pizza served in cheap cardboard take-out boxes. Whatever; Pat didn’t judge. He figured that when you had as much money as three major governments, you got to do pretty much whatever you wanted. Besides, pizza boxes were pretty cool. You could throw the crusts and any weird icky bits on the lid, and when you were done you just closed it all up again and let the leftovers congeal in peace. Convenient. Billionaire superhero geniuses were just normal guys in the end, right?
Except, of course, that billionaire superhero geniuses had a personal five-star chef to prep all the ingredients for their midnight pizza experience, the stasis field to keep everything nice and fresh… and the night manager to prepare the pizza according to the ten-page instruction manual, which detailed exactly how it was to be assembled, baked and cut in order to conform to said billionaire’s personal preferences.
Pat added a careful sprinkle of fresh herbs to the perfectly cut pizza before boxing it up and arranging it in the dumbwaiter. A bowl of lemon water and several snowy linen napkins, silver cutlery, a long-stemmed glass, and a bottle of red wine that probably cost more than several years’ worth of Pat’s salary — and it was done.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s another beautiful pizza goal for Patrick West! He shoots, he scores!”
Pat high-fived the AI interface, and then high-fived it again with his other hand because he’d missed the ‘delivery ready’ button the first time around. The AI paused the music in order to ping acknowledgment, proceeding to purr contentedly as the dumbwaiter’s steel doors whizzed shut. Another instant, and the contents were whisked off to their destination.
Unsurprisingly, the AI neglected to start up €linore again. Pat took this as a passive-aggressive comment on his taste. Whatever — Pat wanted to study now, anyway.
He quickly typed up the pizza event and sent the account off to the mansion’s database. Then, he tidied up and settled down at the small table in the corner, kicking up his feet comfortably. The huge chromium coffee machine was just within reach, if he tipped back the chair. He’d perfected this maneuver his first two nights and now hardly even thought about it, balancing on two legs of the chair like a pro while he stretched back to mash the button with his cup, quickly swerving to catch the resulting stream of coffee.
Right, then. Back to the drawing board. Or rather, the books; he wasn’t at the drawing board stage yet, though he’d already put his name on the waiting list for Urban Design Studio I next semester. It was History and Theory of for now, though. Which, no problem there. Pat dug that stuff, especially environmental theory, which was wicked cool.
He’d just sunk his mental teeth into a particularly recalcitrant article on environmental management (the author appeared to think he could score points by wrapping up simple concepts in impenetrable phrasing) when the AI chimed another demand at him.
“Direct unclassified request by principal, location private laboratory. Recording available. Please press 1 to play and 2 to repeat playback.” Was it Pat, or did the AI’s pleasantly bland voice sound a bit perkier than usual? Maybe it got bored during the night shift, when there was nothing much to do but cater to Andersen’s predictable midnight pizza cravings.
It might well have just been Pat, though, because: Cool, his first unclassified request! So far, the most exciting thing that had happened on one of his shifts was Andersen’s unprecedented request for mousse au chocolat. This job was a front-row seat to the wild nights of the obscenely wealthy, seriously.
“So, send up a guy,” said the recording. The sound quality was crystal clear, the voice unmistakable, even if Pat had so far only heard it on TV. He replayed the message twice, but there was no more information to be had. Andersen wanted to talk to someone in person. Maybe he had some kind of dire pioppini emergency he could only adequately convey face to face.
The official manual How to Take Care of the Rich and Famous went on about this kind of thing in three hundred pages of tiny print. Not that Pat had read it, of course, but Suze (officially Assistant House Manager Susan Wainwright, aka “AHM Wainwright or Ma’am to you, Mr. West”) had held a stern speech about it, too. Plus there’d been that one-week training seminar which had basically boiled down to ‘get it done, stat, and be pretty, neat, and preferably invisible while you do it’. Rule Number One was, simply: Whatever Andersen wants, make it happen.
Incidentally, Rule Number Two also applied: Don’t question. (In extreme cases of lack of information, phrase your inquiry in a way that makes it clear you are at fault for failing to read the rich guy’s mind.)
Pat wasn’t sorry to get a break from this weirdo author’s convoluted sentence structure, that was for sure. His brain had gotten all knotted up trying to follow the man’s train of thought. Plus, Pat would get to see the lab, and come on, who wouldn’t want to see Silver Paladin’s lab? Pat was only human.
“On an uninhabited planet that can sustain human life, with only the tools they could fashion themselves from whatever raw materials they found at their disposal,” said the guy in the faded Ghost Matter (Ghost Matter? really?) sweatshirt. “Given an equal number of opponents and an inescapable necessity of conflict. Who would win — astronauts or cavemen?”
Pat had to laugh, the question was that dumb. “What, are you shitting me? Cavemen, dude. That’s a total no-brainer.”
Andersen looked different than he did on TV. Granted, he was usually on TV in the Silver Paladin get-up, all skin-tight quantum armor, mirrored visor, and glowing force fields. But Pat had seen him give interviews as himself, too, and somehow he’d assumed the dude was… whatever, he didn’t even know. Andersen wasn’t short or anything (in fact, he was probably half a head taller than Pat, which made him pretty damn tall by anyone’s standards). Young for a rich scientist-type dude; maybe a handful of years older than Pat, but not ancient. He looked pretty built, too, as befitted one of the world’s foremost superheroes. His shoulders even strained the sweatshirt a little.
It was just, he looked so normal. Right down to the half-annoyed, half-startled look he was wearing right now, and the way he was eyeing Pat as though he wasn’t certain whether or not he’d heard right. Pat got that look a lot, so he recognized it right away, even on a face he’d previously only seen in ‘public speech’ mode.
“Hey, come on.” Pat rolled his eyes. “It was a dumb question. Cavemen weren’t any less intelligent than astronauts are. Homo sapiens sapiens, man. There’s no diff, if you’re talking evolution. But if you’re talking skills and knowledge, whoa. That’s where the cavemen shine. They’re used to working with low-tech tools they make themselves, right? And they know how to survive in that kind of environment and make it work for them. Meanwhile, astronauts are used to flying around in technical constructs getting all their food in stasis bags, literally relying on fancy-schmancy tech even for breathing.”
“Fancy-schmancy,” Andersen said, slowly.
Which was when the backdrop of equipment in the hangar-like laboratory came into sudden, sharp focus in Pat’s mind.
Ooops. In the cavemen v. astronauts scenario, there wasn’t much question which side of the divide Silver Paladin — with his force fields and stasis shields, power lances and other high-tech gizmos — would be on.
Pat could feel his face heating under Andersen’s stare. The dude had really dark eyes, and he could stare like nobody’s business. Like he was going to set you on fire with the power of sheer derision or something.
But come on. If he couldn’t handle the truth, he shouldn’t have asked, should he? So Pat shook off the brief touch of embarrassment, shrugged lightly, and grinned. “Totally no contest, man. Astronaut shish kebab.” His grin broadened, acquiring teeth. “Astronaut goulash.”
“Well, what’s your answer, Mr. Techman?” Pat made a big deal of looking around the lab, which — okay, wow. Pat wasn’t a physicist or chemist or anything, but this set-up was enough to make even him drool a little, deep down in that part of him that was still the kid who’d wanted to become a mad scientist, before his sisters had gotten their hands on his chemistry set and used up all the good stuff. “Let me take a shot in the dark here. In your world of total delusion, the astronauts win?”
Seriously, this place was awesome. Daylight-bright and white and silver and crammed with more mysterious devices in various stages of assembly than Pat had seen in any real-life mad scientist’s lab, ever. He wasn’t an expert, but he was pretty sure that was an electron microscope over in the far corner. Not to mention the place was huge, with high ceilings giving it an almost cathedral air. The two far walls were completely mocked up with screens pretending to be windows opening on a blasted alien moonscape.
No wonder Andersen spent pretty much all his spare time here. Pat wouldn’t want to leave, either. The parties you could have in here — and imagine connecting a GameBox to those screens. It’d be like you were right inside the Dungeon of Doom, or drifting through time and space in the Vortex of Ahrd, or prancing in the middle of the Magical Unicorn Herd. (Not that Pat played Dream Prancer Unicorn, of course. Just, as a kid he’d had to practice to make sure his sisters didn’t beat him too often and get smug. Basic sibling rules. And now he had to keep his skills fresh, because that’s what you should do with skills — keep them fresh.)
Pat was pretty sure he’d been gawking for too long. When he looked back to Andersen, the dude was smirking, a self-satisfied little lift to his mouth that destroyed any remaining hint of resemblance he might have had to the heroically square-jawed Silver Paladin persona.
“Yeah, sure,” Pat said, answering the unspoken boast. Andersen might not have said it aloud, but Pat wasn’t deaf; he’d heard it loud and clear. “Very impressive and all. If you had this stuff along, you’d grind those cavemen into a fine powder. Big deal, dude, because without it? Not even goulash. Chowder, with crunchy little science croutons on top.”
A short beat of silence followed this pronouncement. There was a distinct judgmental cast to the narrowing of Andersen’s eyes. Pat probably shouldn’t have grinned, at least not quite as broadly as he did, but he couldn’t help it. Total debating slam-dunk.
“You’re blond,” Andersen said abruptly. “Also, you’re short.”
“Wow, rude much?” Rich people really did think they were an entirely different species, didn’t they. “For your information, I’m 1.78, which is considerably above average. You, on the other hand, are freakishly tall. But good call on the hair. Stellar observational skills there. I can tell the tales of your intellectual prowess aren’t exaggerated at all.”
Andersen gave a disgusted snort, like he was being the bigger man or something. “Never mind, it’s fine. What’s your name?”
The inept way Andersen was leading the conversation was actually pretty amusing. Obviously the dude didn’t get out much, at least not when he wasn’t dressed all in silver and wrapped in glittery force fields. Gallivanting around smashing things didn’t give you much of a chance to hone your social skills, looked like. “Pat. Pat West. Actually Patrick West, but I like Pat, you know? Everyone calls me Pat. Most of the time I don’t even feel like people are talking to me when they call me —”
“Pat,” Andersen said, in exactly the same kind of flat tone he might have used for shut up. “My name is Nicholas.”
“Yeah, I know. Nick.”
That netted him another ‘if I was pyrokinetic I would set you on fire with my mind, and if you bug me some more I will spontaneously evolve to become pyrokinetic by sheer force of will’ stare. “Nicholas.”
No nicknames, huh. Pat might (or might not) have rolled his eyes the tiniest bit. He suspected he needed a bit more practice at the ‘serving humbly and invisibly’ part of this job, but in his defense, Andersen — Nicholas — was making it pretty difficult to take him seriously. Pat’s parents had taught him better than to take superheroes seriously anyway, and right now, wearing that vaguely confused, vaguely pissy expression, the man looked constipated more than anything. It was neither a very imposing nor a very heroic look.
Of course, Pat supposed superheroes got constipated just like everyone else. It just wasn’t the kind of thing you usually associated with them. Unlike awesome powers and booming voices and bulging muscles, and being all one-dimensional, judgy and prone to blasting first and asking questions later.
Anyway. Pat rallied and tried a pleasant smile, gathering himself into an agreeable nod. “Sure thing, bro.” Clearly Andersen — Nicholas, whatever — was never going to get to the point if left to his own devices, so Pat would have to step in and help him along. “So, Nicholas. What can I do for you?”
Apparently, the answer to that was ‘stand right there while I take off my sweatshirt, my t-shirt and then my jeans, and in case you were wondering, yes I do work out a lot, thank you for noticing’.
“Uhm,” said Pat. The bulging muscles stereotype clearly existed for a reason, although ‘bulging’ was kinda the wrong word. Pat would have chosen ‘perfectly sculpted’. You know, if anyone had asked.
“Well?” said Nicholas.
Which — was that him asking? It certainly looked like the guy was expecting a comment of some kind, considering he was standing there in his boxers, staring at Pat as though Pat was the one behaving like a confirmed nutcase.
‘Perfectly sculpted’ jumped to the tip of Pat’s tongue. He bit it back just in time. No need to give Silver Paladin’s civilian alter ego a swelled head. Gorgeous broad shoulders and ridiculously lickable abdominal muscles notwithstanding.
Pat hmmed thoughtfully, trying hard to look unimpressed, as though people suddenly threw off their clothes around him all the time. “Not bad, I guess. Congratulations on the abs. Nice home gym and personal trainer.”
Honestly, Pat hated to admit it on principle, but the man seriously deserved to be congratulated for — well, his everything, basically. For all his faults, he sure wasn’t hard on the eyes. Pat couldn’t be blamed if his attention caught a little on the subtle trail of hair beginning just beneath Nicholas’s navel, leading the eye down over his perfectly flat stomach to where his boxers obscured the view. Or the vague outline visible beneath his underwear’s soft fabric. Or the long, lean line of his legs. Or…
When Pat managed to drag his gaze up to the man’s face again, Nicholas was rolling his eyes. Seriously? Dude, spontaneously undress in front of a guy and even crazy rich superheroes had to expect a little ogling.
Still, in a way, Pat’s familiarity with that particular expression — caught halfway between complete exasperation and reluctant amusement — was almost comforting. Familiar and comforting, in fact, in exactly the way the next words out of the man’s mouth were not. “Are you going to have sex with me or what?”
“Yes,” said Pat’s mouth, completely without intervention from higher brain functions.