"Contracts and Bargains"
The Italian terraces sloped away
down the sides of the garden,
festooned with flowers and herbs
along their length, the edges draped
with prostrate rosemary and mother-of-thyme.
The Puppetmaster sat in one white wooden chair,
comfortable in a t-shirt with a faded image of Zeus,
his bony old legs sticking out from his shorts.
He looked like a stranded stork and didn't care.
Dr. Infanta sat across the table from him,
idly kicking feet clad in sturdy brown sandals.
Her dress was the color of terracotta, its bodice
stamped in geometric designs of turquoise
and yellow and white like a Roman mosaic.
A turquoise ribbon tied back her long brown hair.
"So, this problem of ours," she said. "I don't suppose
it's one that could be solved by assassination?"
"I doubt it, tempting as that may be,"
the Puppetmaster replied. "Of course
there are people we could kill, but
this isn't a top-down issue; it looks like
a discontiguous conspiracy."
"I hate those," Dr. Infanta said.
"Stopping them is like trying to
weed dandelions before they
go to seed. In a hurricane."
The Puppetmaster chuckled.
"So it is," he agreed. "Did you have
any luck researching the possibility
of bribery, blackmail, or the like?"
"I doubt it would help much," she said.
"Same reason as assassination --
the problem is just too diffuse.
The backlash is turning into
a real pain in the tail."
"Well, frightened people do foolish things,"
he said. "We're playing a long game here,
and we have gained a lot of ground.
Of course the chiacchieroni will push back."
Just then Passeroto arrived, slender
except for his muscular marathon legs,
plainly visible in his shorts and Roman sandals,
narrower shoulders hidden under a voluminous shirt
printed with a picture of ancient ruins.
He set down a platter of snacks piled with soppressata,
olives, cheese, and grapes inside a wall of crackers.
Next came the drinks, the Puppetmaster's chinotto and
Dr. Infanta's Sicilian lollipop garnished with an orange slice,
each served with a fingertip tucked discreetly over the rim
to sign that it was safe: either from the server's own hands
or made by another trusted source under his supervision.
"Angioletta, have you met my little Sparrow?"
the Puppetmaster said, nodding at Passeroto.
"He just turned eighteen and came right to service --
my newest button man, and quite a treasure."
"Auguri," said Dr. Infanta, her healing gift
fluttering past them both, just enough of a touch
to reassure herself of their health.
Passeroto startled, and the Puppetmaster
reached out with his own power
to soothe the jangled nerves. The boy
was still young and self-conscious,
not yet used to serving in concert
with such potent and varied abilities.
Dr. Infanta let him slip back into the shadows
without making an issue of it.
"Have you heard about the bullying,
or just the more 'sophisticated'
discrimination in workplaces?"
she asked the Puppetmaster.
"Both," he replied, voice turning grim.
"I have teams out addressing some bullies,
and others for the older bigots -- the real issue
is what happens when they work together
and prevent anyone else from solving
the problem. In some places they're running
young soups out of house and home,
not just one at a time, but in clusters."
"Bullies grow up to be bigots," said Dr. Infanta,
who had been a little girl for seven centuries
and surely seen it all before. "What of the heroes?"
The Puppetmaster clucked his tongue.
"They try, some of them, but they're too tied up
in laws and proprieties," he said. "It does not help
that they tend to work alone or in small groups --
the Vanguardian has the most minions,
but he treats them like garbage."
"Hmm," Dr. Infanta said thoughtfully,
toying with the end of her hair ribbon.
"There was this one rebellion,
part of the labor movement --
before your time, it started in 1903 --
the Women's Trade Union League.
They lobbied for a minimum wage,
shorter hours, and a ban on child labor
which is where I came into the picture."
"I'm listening," the Puppetmaster said.
He sipped his drink, the bittersweet orange
flavor of the chinotto suiting his mood.
"We need to find some way of evening the odds."
"The chiacchieroni are playing
divide and conquer," she said.
"What if we focus on unifying people?"
"Ahh," said the Puppetmaster.
"I've seen some reports about the rise
of unions in an attempt to fight back
against abusive bosses and discrimination."
"If we do it right, we can bring in
some of our earlier ideas," Dr. Infanta said.
"No killing, probably, but a well-placed fistfight
can ruin a reputation. No outright bribery,
but funds funneled into the right hands
to mount an effective opposition.
A tweak here, a nudge there ..."
"Trip them with their own shoelaces,"
the Puppetmaster mused. "Naturally,
I'm never averse to a little poaching on the side."
He'd gotten so many loyal followers
just by treating them decently.
Dr. Infanta lifted the candied slice of blood orange
from her glass and nibbled at its matchstick ginger stem.
"I don't have that many followers well-versed
in unionizing anymore," she said to him,
"but we're quite current on anti-bullying."
"Leave the unionizing to me," he said.
Organized labor and organized crime
had old connections through people
who were tired of putting up with this shit --
or more precisely, crime was what you got
if you didn't dispense justice in the first place.
Koroleva might be enticed to join the fun;
she never had cared much for capitalism,
even if she treated her followers as pawns.
Shigeru Fukui had no personal interest
in unions, running Lucky Frog on keiretsu,
but he could always be counted on
to undermine the competition.
NORM was the biggest purveyor of
'suppression therapy' to remove superpowers,
and they had thousands of employees.
H8 was against just about everything
but secretly relied on sweatshop labor,
a fascinating point of vulnerability.
The Vanguardian could doubtless
use a lesson in manners, hero or no.
Beneath them lay countless others
who could be targeted as they came up.
Suddenly Dr. Infanta giggled.
"Oh, you have to see this," she said.
"It would be my pleasure," he said,
reaching out with his power to pick up
the image that she pushed at him --
she'd gotten a glimpse of one possible future,
in which a stunned Vanguardian stared dumbly
at the contract presented to him by his minions.
"Wall-to-wall," Dr. Infanta snickered,
"a bargain at twice the price!"
The Puppetmaster curled the tips of his fingers
and in moments Passeroto appeared at his side,
quivering with eagerness. "Fetch me Facanapa,"
he told the boy. "I have an assignment for her."
* * *
Passeroto (Custanti Poma) -- He has light olive skin, brown eyes, and curly black hair. His ears stick out a little. At eighteen, his shoulders and arms are still narrow, but his legs have already filled out thick and sturdy. He comes from one of the core families of the Marionettes in Sicily.
Passeroto is the Puppetmaster's newest button man. His nickname comes from being quick, clever, and attentive like a sparrow watching for an opportunity to dart in and snatch food.
Qualities: Good (+2) Button Man, Good (+2) Diffident, Good (+2) Marathon Runner, Good (+2) Memory, Good (+2) Trustworthy
Poor (-2) Self-Conscious
Powers: Average (0) Empathy
The Vanguardian (Dietrich Ostermann) -- He has fair skin, brown eyes, and short brown hair. His voice is loud and deep. He's starting to get a little paunchy in middle age. Dietrich has a string of marriages, all of which ended in divorce after a few years, each with one or two children. None of those family fragments get along with each other.
The Vanguardian is one of those poorly adjusted touch-dominant people who makes everyone think, "What an asshole." As a boss he is professionally demanding and verbally abusive. Despite his obnoxious behavior, however, he provides his employees with the best equipment. The Vanguardian excels at tracking down secret labs belonging to supervillains, or other zetetic problems, and putting an end to them. He prefers infiltration and hacking to physical violence, so his casualty count is famously low. His predictions about developments in new technology, and how that could affect society, are accurate more often than not.
Origin: His superpowers grew in gradually.
Uniform: Business suit in the office, lab wear in the science department.
Qualities: Master (+6) Organized, Expert (+4) Investigator, Good (+2) Dexterity, Good (+2) Generous with Equipment, Good (+2) Stamina
Poor (-2) Boss from Hell
Powers: Good (+2) Minions, Good (+2) Super-Gizmology.
The Avant-Garde have nine named managers and hundreds of nameless workers. The managers typically have an Average superpower, Expert Manager, Good Zetetics, and another Good quality; plus Poor (-2) Disgruntled Employee. Each has a super-gizmotronic computer tablet and sunglasses, plus one other personalized super-gizmo.
Motivation: Make people stop playing with the goddamn matches before they burn the goddamn building down.
* * *
Sicily uses terraces to make gardens on steep slopes. See a closeup and longshot of terrace gardens with their vertically stacked beds.
A classic conspiracy involves people agreeing in advance to commit a crime together. I coined the phrase "discontiguous conspiracy" to describe cases like discrimination where it is not necessary to make an explicit agreement between individuals, because they are all working out of the same playbook which tells them what to do. For instance, a jury of white bigots is likely to acquit a white person who murders a black person -- and in Terramagne, the same kind of cohesive response can impact soups.
Chiacchierone: chatterbox. The -i ending in the poem above is the Sicilian plural. This is the Sicilian equivalent of "fork," referring to bigots prejudiced against superpowers. You can see how an organization that prizes integrity and discretion would frown on loose lips -- and in Italy, outing soups is a serious problem. It's actually #8 on the list of top ten soup-friendly countries, but there's still social friction for people with superpowers.
Italian snack platters typically contain an assortment of meat, cheese, fruit, etc. Soppressata is a dry cured salami.
Chinotto is a bittersweet orange soda particular to Italy.
A Sicilian lollipop is based on the classic Shirley Temple, and named after "The Good Ship Lollipop." It uses blood oranges, a favorite fruit in Sicily. You can buy or make blood orange syrup, which has a distinctive red-orange color. Candied blood orange slices and ginger matchsticks are used as garnishes; in this case, a ginger matchstick stem stuck through the center of a candied orange slice to resemble an umbrella. Most people won't eat raw ginger root, and children's drinks are usually served with just the orange slice, which distinguishes a Sicilian lollipop from the similar-looking but more pinkish Shirley Temple with a cherry. Let's say Dr. Infanta has a nonstandard pain tolerance. These beverages are related to the Italian soda or French soda; a Sicilian soda is characterized by using syrup made from genuine fruit.
Angioletta (Italian: Little Angel) is Dr. Infanta's nickname among the Marionettes, which has gotten out into wider Italian use.
Auguri -- congratulations in Sicilian.
Bullying may happen at school or at work. You can take steps to stop bullying. Discrimination is another workplace issue; know how to deal with employment discrimination. Soup gains in recent years are building up a backlash.
The Chessmaster and the Minion Master are two character tropes, who may control their minions in various ways. The vast majority of people with the Minions power are supervillains; heroes rarely develop this way.
U.S. labor history includes the Women's Trade Union League. Unions have pros and cons, but in general, workers do better with them than without them because a majority of employers try to exploit workers. The link between organized labor and organized crime is real, much as I point out here: because the mob supplies services such as protection and moneylending which people turn to when the conventional systems reject them.