"Care for a cup of tea, vicar?"
Alex grimaced. "You know, that joke is just as funny now as the first fifty times you told it."
The old man smiled and snapped his yellowed teeth forward as though taking a bite from the air. "Old jokes are the best, Alex. You always know when you're supposed to laugh. So, do you want the tea?"
"Nope, just tea, and it's herbal, caffeine-free tea at that. Doctor made me give up caffeine after I had the pacemaker installed. Welcome to my own little corner of hell."
"What about decaf coffee?" Alex asked.
"I may be in hell, but I haven't sunk THAT low. I've got herbal peppermint, herbal spice, herbal chammomile, herbal oolong, herbal orange pekoe and Jim Beam."
"Jim Beam? Sam, the doctor made you give up caffeine, but he lets you drink whiskey?"
"No," the old man said, "he wanted me to give that up, too. I did, mostly."
"I'll take the oolong, with the wiskey on the side."
"One finger or two?"
"Just a splash, enough to drown the taste of the tea."
The flame hissed under the tea kettle, the mugs and highball glasses clinked as Sam set the table. He pulled a bottle from the cabinet under the sink, poured out an ounce or so for Alex and a much more generous glass for himself. With a grunt and a sigh, he eased into one of the wooden chairs. After raising his highball glass and nodding in a silent toast, Sam sipped at his whiskey. Alex did the same, thinking back on the old days when Sam would have taken care of a drink like that in a single mouthful, then followed it with a great many more before the evening was through. Witness the price of fast living, Alex thought.
"Thinkin' up a sermon, Alex?" said Sam. "You got that 'there but for the grace of God go I' look on your face."
Alex looked down into his whiskey and smiled. Some superpowers fade, some don't. "Something like that, Sam."
The kettle gave a sputtering whistle that grew in volume. Sam made to get up, but Alex beat him to it. After pouring the water into the mugs and returning the kettle to the stove, Alex sat down and nursed his whiskey.
"OK, Alex, we've got our tea, we've got our whiskey and I don't have any muffins. Let's have it. What's going on?"
Alex pushed the teabag around for a moment, then set his spoon aside to sip the whiskey again. "I've got a problem, Sam."
"Obviously. It must be something of significance for you to come all the way out here to see me. The fact that you're all tounge-tied tells me it's something to do with your personal life, not anything to do with your shop or anything having to do with the Grammarian."
Involuntarily, Alex shifted his eyes around the room, as though there were spies in the corner.
Sam snorted. "Nobody's listening in on us, Alex, you know that. It's staggeringly unlikely that anyone would give a rat's patoot about Sam Rainman or his infrequent guests. As for the Silver Cypher," Sam knocked back his whiskey, "he's been dead a long time. So let's have it. Who is she? Wait, no, don't tell me, let's see how badly the old skills have atrophied." Sam leaned forward and scrutinized Alex's face with narrowed eyes behind his thick bifocals. Alex, fully aware of how this game was played, made his face completely neutral.
"She must be smart or you wouldn't have looked twice at her, no matter how worth looking at she is. However," Sam said, "she still must be pretty good looking, for all that. You may be a super-brained superhero, but you're still a man. Not only that, but she must find you fascinating, or at least interesting, or you wouldn't be wasting your time on her."
Alex's face betrayed nothing, at least, not intentionally.
"Ah," the old man continued, "so it's not that she's interested in you, but in something you have. Your money? No, you'd never fall for a golddigger, and you're too smart to let on how much you really have. Your exciting hobby? Not just no, but hell no. You never told anyone your secret identity voluntarily. You're not the trusting type. So if she doesn't want your money and she's not a hero hound, what is it? Your technology? If she doesn't know you're the Grammarian, then... aha!" His voice was triumphant. "She wants some of that grammartech you developed. But if it's not the hero angle, why would she want it? Why would she want it?" As he mused, the old man's hand reached for the bottle.
"Sam, stick to the tea."
As though he'd been stung, Sam jerked, but in the way a strong man would respond: slightly.
"Fine. She can't be an entrpreneur looking to make a buck. You'd never let it go for that. There must be some kind of altruism involved. If not to make money, then what? A non-profit? A government group? Is it for research? Right, that's it. She's a scientist of some kind, and she sees an application for your tech, some way to make the world a better place." Sam smiled and snapped his fingers. "She's a professor at Lexicon City University, probably an engineer of some kind, she's got a thing for advanced tech in general, superhero technology in particular, she's got dark hair, green eyes and you're about to fall for it and hand it over. Am I right?"
"You're just guessing about the eyes and the hair, but you're right in all the essentials. You've still got it, Sam."
Sam's smile vanished. "Don't patronize me, Alex. Back in the old days I would have had all of that out of you in three seconds based solely on how you stirred your tea. After a minute I could have told you her middle name, her favorite brand of shampoo and how many times you'd met her for coffee." He sighed. "It's hell to get old, pal. Avoid it if you can."
"I'm not sure I prefer the alternative."
"What, you wouldn't choose going out in a blaze of glory instead of sitting on the shelf, drying up like an apple core somebody forgot to throw away?"
Alex stirred his tea. "When a hero dies in a firefight, it means the bad guy won." He didn't look up, just kept stirring.
Sam squinted at him. After a moment, his look of intense concentration broke into a wry smile as the old man finished his analysis and came to some private conclusion. "Here," he said, sliding the bottle toward Alex, "you need this more than I do. Damned heroes, you're all alike. A bunch of fools, every one of you."
The bottle was half-full. Alex studied the label for a moment, then set it down, unopened. "Alright, Sam. That's my problem. There are a lot of potential applications of the grammartech, but they way she's proposing it doesn't look like it can be weaponized."
"Anything can be weaponized, Alex, you of all people should know that."
Alex grimaced. "Yes, I know. I've been considering this for days, ever since she first asked to learn more about it. We're not talking about the equipment or mental augmentor applications I developed for my, ah... for the..."
"For the Grammarian?"
"I wish you wouldn't be so indiscreet about it."
"Just because this isn't your secret lab doesn't mean it isn't safe, you know." Sam waved his teaspoon around the kitchen. "Aside from the fact that I have 'security through obscurity' by living out in the boonies, I turned on the cognitive suppression field projector you gave me a couple of years ago. Nobody can eavesdrop on us, physically, electronically or otherwise. I think you're just looking for a way to keep beating around the bush instead of telling me what she wants to do with the grammartech."
It took a little more than an hour for Alex to explain the technical details of Kate Hunter's research. After Sam had all the background information, he sat for a while, musing.
"And can I assume that you've been applying your considerable intellect to thinking of ways she could put this to an evil purpose?" Sam asked.
"Evil seems a bit strong, but, yes, I have. I don't see any misapplication that's at all credible."
"How likely is it that you're blinding by your swooning love for this Dr. Hunter?"
Alex flushed. "I don't think that's at all likely, but I recognized that if my judgement were, in fact, compromised, then I'd be the last person to realize it. Hence, my trip to see you." He poured another whiskey for himself and another small one for his friend and mentor. "Look, Sam, we both know what my capabilites are. I can analyze a thousand angles on something and do in a week what would take most people a year. And we both know that the same analysis would take you less than a minute, and you'd come up with a better answer than I would. So, I'm asking you to consider whether there's any serious reason to be concerned about letting her use the grammartech in her research."
"What? What do you mean, no? You won't help me?"
"No, I mean there's no reason to be concerned. You said you weren't going to give her any of the brain-linking hardware, right? The equipment that lets you use the language processing centers of your brain to augment and control your energy beam projectors?"
"That's right, I won't even tell her about that end of things. As far as she's concerned, this is an artificial intelligence based system, computers only."
"In that case, you have no reason to worry. Computers are a dead end and they always will be. It takes the human brain to enact the fine control of the grammartech that raises it up to superpower class technology. And even then, unless you've got an IQ higher than 170, using it that way makes you dumber than a box of dead flies. Just look at your friend the Avant Guardian."
"Don't remind me. Every time he does something strenuous in that armor of his, it's like his brain is being pulled in three directions at once. The stronger he gets, the stupider." Alex shook his head. "If only I'd had a chance to get back the prototype from that engineering subcontractor before Waters bought it out of bankruptcy. That's how Professor Verbosity got his version of the grammatech hardware, I'm certain of it. Thank God neither of them has been able to reverse engineer any of it."
"Well, just so long as your lady friend doesn't try to hook up your software to a brain scanner, you should be OK." Sam looked at him. "Of course, don't give her any crazy ideas, will you?"
Alex raised his whiskey glass in a toast. "Never."
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