I have relied on these little nanomachines for a long time. I probably owe them more than anything for my success. I’ve taken a lot of punishment I couldn’t fight through otherwise. Right now, it’s looking like a clear advantage for flesh after the loss of my robot armor, but that’s a hasty decision. It had nanites with it, and that’s given me the chance to turn that loss into a victory. That’s the second key to my success, I guess. You keep fighting long enough, losses turn to victory.
The nanites in Top Knot’s system were ordered to collect what they could to multiply and maintain communication with me. That didn’t go anywhere until she slept and they could head outside her body to scavenge for material. Even the weirdest human diet doesn’t provide what nanomachines need to reproduce and build a transdimensional transceiver under orders from a sour transgender outside of Transylvania.
But I was watching. Waiting. The whole shebang rerouted when they found out their base had been cratered. Whatever had been keeping them there, they left. Maybe it was the base itself. Maybe this whole thing was just about that base and that gold they had coming to them. The fact they left told me two things. First, it led me to another base. They didn’t go back to Paradise City. Instead, they rerouted to Whiting Field, and from there to a National Guard base in Virginia.
The second thing this showed me is whoever the person is under the armor, they aren’t me. Not even some version of me from another Earth. Not some offshoot who got quantum jiggled into landing on a different one than I did after that first D-Bomb went off. He never went back and finished it with Gavel. Never even tried.
Anyway, I was watching some breaking news on Friday. Interesting stuff. The Honky Tonk Hero was having a showdown with Elvis, who had taken back his enchanted guitar. Despite Elvis’s age and gut when he reappeared from the space between dimensions, the power of the guitar had rejuvenated him somewhat. He wore a gold jumpsuit with orange fringe and designs while standing on an exposed beam on a skyscraper under construction. “One note, and the music dies. Full cessation, wham, bam, thank you ma’am. Then, there will be only the King.” Elvis strummed on the strings, the winds around them whirling, making it hard to hear anything but the sound of the mystic musical instrument.
Honky Tonk Hero stood nearby. He wore a jumpsuit of his own, blue and yellow, with the famous pompadour of Elvi everywhere. Elvi’s the plural of Elvis, by the way. Octopus, octopi, Elvis, Elvi. Honky Tonk had no such weapon in-hand, only a shiny platinum microphone. But when he spoke into it, the cameras picked it up perfectly. “You’ve let the power and fame get to your heads. You’re high on celebrity and all manner of pills, old man. I- I looked up to you. I loved you. You inspired devotees around the world, but you’re not our hero doing this. You have to recognize when you’ve got to let the power go and make way for the next generation, or else there won’t be a next generation. What King of Rock N’ Roll would destroy music so that nobody who comes after could surpass him? That’s not nobility. That’s craven pursuit of power for its own sake. I want to believe you’re better than that!”
The reporter edged into the camera’s view. “God help me, Mark, if you cut to a commercial about reverse mortgages right now, I’ll gut you with my heels.”
“Son, when you’ve grown as old as I am, and your legacy is bought and sold so often, you learn the one thing in life you can count on is your own power,” Elvis said. Then hit a power cord that buffeted Honky Tonk Hero with hurricane-strength winds, threatening to throw the younger hero off the building. Honky Tonk, in the middle of this gale, hit a high note that cut into the storm and gave him some room to breathe. Then the King got him again and the support under Honky Tonk strained and shook. And in the middle of all this, I had to wonder what the fuck Honky Tonk was using to keep his hair up. That’s industrial strength hair gel right there.
“To be human, is to know you can count on them that come before and after, and your friends who support you now,” another voice said. The winds died down some as more people assembled. A wizened old Black man in suspenders and a button-down shirt dispersed the winds with his banjo. A middle-aged, hefty Black woman rose with her own circular platform surrounding her, catching Honky Tonk as he fell. It looked like a spotlight centered on the singer and creating a thin yellow circle for others to stand on. A wide circle, given the motley crew with her. Perhaps it was the power of that microphone, or the musical abilities at play, that let the camera overhear, “Once again, a Black woman’s got to do the lifting.”
On the platform, a young woman with a ukulele tended to the downed hero while others stepped forward, adding their voices to the harmony opposing Elvis. A punk with a bass, a flautist, a trombone player. Even some 80s throwback with a lounge suit and a keytar. They were a mess. It should have sounded like chaos. Instead, they calmed the storms and, under the leadership of the old man with the banjo, a wave struck Elvis. He raised his guitar to block it, the mystical instrument seeming to suck in the light. Then an explosion of light blinded everyone. When it faded away, only the guitar was left with broken strings. The old man stepped forward and grabbed the diminished and plain-seeming instrument. Honky Tonk Hero stepped forward and the old man held the guitar out for him. Honky Tonk took it, looked it over, then reached up and removed the pompadour wig off his head. Which raises even more questions for me after earlier events. The hero tossed both the wig and the guitar off the side of the building under construction.
The banjo player stepped back and disappeared into the air. Others of the harmonious group went their own way, like the punk running off at super speed or the trumpeter growing a pair of wings and flying off. Honky Tonk put his arm around the ukulele player and raised the microphone in his hand, holding it out in front of him as he flew with her. The others went their own way on the platform moved by the curvy singer.
“Holy shit,” the reporter said as the camera panned back down to her. Behind her sat a pair of non-plussed good ol’ boys sitting on the tailgate of their Chevy, shaking their hands and downing bottles of what looked like whiskey or maybe rye.
Then, the broadcast was interrupted by an announcement by the President. It’s like he got annoyed someone was taking all the attention and he decided to make a speech that would be talked about for a long time. It started with a bunch of normal, unassuming platitudes. He ran down a list of various world-threatening events of the past few years. I was a major part of most of them. There was a bit of a theme in that most of what he talked about centered on supers. Baseline human terrorism was reframed as being people in masks as well. Was a bit annoyed to see he brought up the aliens who invaded and the supers who were brainwashed into helping them without noting the ones who helped stop the invasions. Then, he got to the key part of the address, the real reason behind it all.
“In light of these extraordinary events, these extraordinary threats, and the inability of Congress our and institutions to deal with them through ordinary means, I hereby order all agencies of the Executive Branch of the Federal Government to revoke or treat as revoked the United States citizenship of every masked villain or vigilante and every human who exhibits superpowers. All super technology, including some of the self-declared heroes, is to be seized. We are making a push to remove drugs that are the product of super science as well. To those who have no powers, or those good-hearted men and women with training who sought to do the police’s job for them, I say to you now that you can stop. If you have no powers, take off your mask and put away your cape and walk away. No harm will come to you. But if you continue past today, you will be treated, along with every superhuman within the United States, as a non-citizen with all the rights that classification entails. It will be a hard road to root out these dangerous individuals of mass destruction in our midst, but we have the loyal men and women of ICE and other government agencies to do the job for us. I am also asking Congress to undergo testing for superpowers and subject my successor and his vice president to this testing before they take office.”
And there it is. The naked grab for power. He didn’t even take questions. Instead, the nearest reporters got plasma rifles pointed at them courtesy of Icers while someone in power armor stepped forward declaring that all members of the White House Press Corps would be subject to powers testing starting today.
Which is another shitty level on this. I’m not aware of any particular test for superpowers. I know people can be tricked into showing their powers if you catch them off guard or stress them enough. Some folks can’t hide it, like the ones with weird eyes and skin, or the various animal-people. Which I guess makes this authoritarian move all the more brilliant in its own way. Who says if someone has powers and is subject to whatever the government wants to do to them? A test done by the government with no oversight or clue how it works, if it works. Could just be some guy holds up an unplugged supermarket scanner and declares someone a super to be arrested because the President didn’t like them.
The President didn’t even make it off-stage when my double appeared and put a fist through the gut of the President. He’s not me, but he pulled a spine out of a stomach hole in the way I like to. It looked to all the world like Psycho Gecko had proven the President’s wisdom. The press shouted in fear while ICE opened fire on Fake Gecko. The Fake disappeared and the room descended into pandemonium. People fell and got trampled. I think I saw plasma bolts firing into the crowd.
The announcement was made a short time later that the President had died and been replaced by his milquetoast Vice President, who resolved to carry out on the dead President’s fight as long as it took, even another four years if the incoming administration proved to be supers.
Top Knot hadn’t gone with them to that event, but the base where she was at, I was able to listen in when they brought in part of the Washington National Guard detail. Among them was the dead President, healthy, laughing, and completely unharmed. He tossed an old holodisc of mine to the Fake Gecko who caught it. Then the dead President said, “I hear my retirement package didn’t make it. Let’s go find a new one in all the quote-unquote rioting that’s about to happen. What do you say?”
I say some folks got awfully cocky that I’m not around anymore before they stole my likeness to enact a fascist takeover, but I’m more than happy to help them retire. And with the way my machines are transforming Top Knot’s body, it won’t be long before they find out I never left.
“I deserve to go after these bozos. They killed my friends,” Gavel demanded when I was headed out of the casino.
He wore a costume that was two different shades of purple, with an oversized metal gauntlet on his right hand, carrying a huge hammer with him. Warhammers don’t have to be as oversized as people think, but this one’s head was the size of a cinderblock, with a handle as thick as someone’s forearm. Gavel’s hands couldn’t wrap around it, but the large gauntlet he had on could. He had a buckler shield on his left forearm as a nod to defense, but he still looked like he hadn’t had much sleep.
“And I’ll kill them. You’ll just have to make peace with that being the only justice you’re capable of.”
“I-!” he started to yell, raising his hammer overhead to swing down on me. My nanites surrounded his neck with three jagged shards of metal before he could even let gravity drop the hammer.
I turned my back on him and walked out of the casino, past O-sec. Gavel sheepishly lowered his hammer.
“They were ICE inside. We fought with them, but they held us off maybe five minutes. Then, more ICE were on us. We were in the middle of nowhere. They came up on four-wheelers and jetpacks.”
That’s what he’d said when Ouroboros and I paid him off. They were off in rural Alabama, between Mobile and Paradise City. Five minutes into the heist and Icers were on the scene. They were able to get away with armored truck they were using. Makes sense to me, sure. ATVs aren’t the fastest thing around and most people really don’t want to try and keep up with a speeding truck on the land equivalent of a jet ski. The main problem with jetpacks is their lack of range. So ICE was close and that seemed to be their shipment of gold, not Mobile’s. I did a little bit of cross-checking with satellites and nearby roads.
The guys jumped the gold shipment at what was just about the halfway point to Mobile. Usually a pretty solid strategy, they just happened to do so right near some weird compound that seems to be right where the ICE agents would have come from if they traveled through the woods to reach the road. Gavel and his friends just got unlucky. And look at that, a string of helipads. For a agency tasked with handling immigration, that’s a hell of a lot of firepower to have in rural Alabama.
If it was up to me, I’d have handed over the info to the Exemplars, but Ouroboros made a good point. “Think of all the gold in it for us,” he said. Which was somewhat persuasive, but the thing that really gained my sympathy was him saying, “Besides, they attacked and killed three villains. Our community has the right to avenge itself upon them before you call in the heroes.”
I told him to be ready to go for whenever I’m dealing with the fake. And so, after leaving the casino, I spent days with my robot armor pretending to be Gavel doing a shitty job laying low in Paradise City. Ouroboros even put out the word through some of his guys about how Gavel had been expelled for causing so much destruction to the casino. The young villain instead got comped one of bunker rooms under the casino
I was a couple days into it when I got a call from Ouroboros himself. “We have contact. My men saw ICE performing recon on the Pea Ridge safehouse. Head there and they’ll know where to send your double.”
“Weird that they’re looking there,” I mentioned.
“Heh. I was curious how it got out that the villains were staying at the casino. I told men I thought I could trust. This time, I told them I was secretly hosting him at a safehouse, but I told each one a different address.”
“Looks like whoever was told about the Pea Ridge house is about to take a long swim in the Gulf of Mexico. Some surprisingly strong currents out there,” I noted.
“He swore on his life he was loyal to me. I’ll collect this one myself. You worry about your well-dressed friend.”
The armor pulled up outside the Pea Ridge safehouse, in a neighborhood behind a movie theater. Depending on the city, it can be cheaper to rent a place to lay low, even if it’s just paying to use someone’s garage or back room. This area, the real estate’s so cheap Ouroboros can buy multiple neighborhoods for employees or to subsidize housing for the poor. That last one helps him look good and distracts from when he buys random homes that only ever seem to get used when someone needs to lie lower than the casino can manage.
I went into the house as Gavel and turned invisible once I passed into a hall where they couldn’t see in from the outside. I waited for anything to happen while going through the motions, like turning on a bedroom and bathroom light, and starting to run a shower.
A text from Ouroboros alerted me: “They’re bringing in a few vans. They really want Gavel gone. We’re ready to move on base on contact.”
I’d have smiled if I wasn’t inhabiting the body of a robotic suit of power armor. The head didn’t have eyes, a nose, or a mouth, just the suggestion of them.
“Contact,” Ouroboros said. It was a minute later the bathroom door swung open and that fake fucking Gecko walked in. He walked up to the shower curtain and pulled it aside. Seeing nothing in there, he stepped back. His reflection in the mirror turned toward him and shrugged. Fake Gecko smashed the mirror with his fist, returning it to normal.
I fell on him from above, cracking the tile floor beneath him. Looking down him, though, I pondered what I’d learned in recent days and recent years. “You know you don’t have to fight for these dipshits, right? Let them spill the blood themselves. You can step back from it. Maybe be a better person than I am.”
An invisible force pulled me through the wall and out onto the front lawn. Out there were a squad of those henchmen in the orange and grey, along with another costumed group.
“I detect no mental activity. I don’t think it’s alive,” said a woman with a top knot hairdo in a green and black robe.
A mechanical orb the size of a beach ball floated up next to her, unfolding a set of small arms with saws, blades, and an arc welder from underneath where a human face stared out. “I call dibs on the pieces!”
I jumped up to meet another shape heading right for me, a man with a war club. I caught the club and kicked him in the chest. He flew back and unfurled a pair of bat wings from behind him. Next came a woman in Venus’s costume, but not her power armor. I just stared at her after the punch. “Another fake.”
“Real, just from one planet over,” she said. Sounded like my Venus, who now went by Medusa. Even grunted like my Medusa when I smacked her away with the club that then flew out of my hand to meet the diving bat guy. I went to punch him, but top knot’s head glowed and suddenly my arm wouldn’t move forward. I took a club to the gut, but the armor didn’t have anything important there. The bat guy landed and turned for another strike. My nanite armor rose up off my back and formed into a humanoid form of its own, then ran for him. He raised the club to strike when the nanites turned into a liquid flow that went through him, leaving a hole eaten in through his chest and reforming on the other side.
“What is this thing?!” yelled one of the henchmen.
“Death. And hell follows after,” the armor said. I charged Top Knot with the liquid metal self. The pressure on my arm failed as she mashed the nanites down and encased them into a spherical shape. That let my swap back into the armor and toss a flash bang into her eyes. She dropped the nanites then, but they didn’t even land before the orb lit them up with a flamethrower. I think it got all of them.
I tossed a regular old grenade his way and cloaked. Venus cartwheeled and kicked it back toward where I’d thrown it from, but I had run to the kneeling bat guy. Went to grab his club away from him, but he looked up, the hole in his chest closing. Regeneration’s a really unfair power when people other than myself have it. He pulled me in close and wrapped me in a bear hug, calling out, “Here!”
Behind me materialized Fake Gecko, with a glowing fist that punched through my helmet. They all stared at the space where it was, then the robot armor’s joints reversed themselves. I grabbed the Fake by the leg and elbowed Bat Guy in the face. I tossed my double into the air, where he went invisible, sure, but I just swapped vision modes. I settled in, charging up my own armor’s gauntlet for a punch. Even Bat Guy still being wrapped around me wasn’t enough to keep me from adjusting to get underneath Fake Gecko.
He stopped in midair, fifteen feet up. Top Knot’s head was glowing again. I pulled free of Bat Guy’s grasp and kicked him backwards, throwing up a line of dust. The orb tried to shock me, giving me a boost of charge that I used on the next person rushing me. Fake Venus’s chest, mushed and goopy, sprayed over the ground behind her. She gasped, squeaked, dropping some gadget she held in her hand. She still sounded like my Medusa. I grabbed her by the neck and slid her mask off.
She looked like my Medusa, too. I faded into invisibility, wanting to take a moment to examine her face despite the whole situation. I dropped her when my right arm wrenched right. My left leg went left. Top Knot held me in midair telekinetically by the two opposing limbs. Bat Guy walked up, checking on the dead Alternate Venus The orb flew in, spraying some foam onto the robot armor. Without my cameras, it was difficult to see or project, but I knew I looked like a poofy mushroom person. Like a headless Gozar the Gozarian. “Easy, Zotz, this thing’s a work of art!”
“I don’t care, Lister, we’re destroying it,” Fake Gecko said, uncloaking.
“Nooooo,” the orb guy wailed.
“Give me a clear line of sight,” Top Knot said. “I’m tearing this thing apart.”
I went for a grenade with my free left hand. Fake Gecko pulled it free and tossed it to the orb, who caught it in tiny robot arms hanging out of the bottom of his orb. I checked around for anything else to use and didn’t see a lot of options after they burned the nanite cape.
Well, almost all of it. There was a tiny bit of it that I realized I could direct. Considering distance and personal dislike, I directed a droplet of it toward Top Knot. The metal on the robot armor’s body strained. I kicked the bat guy away and reversed my joints again, punching Fake Gecko in the throat. He knelt, gasping I went for my belt again, setting off a flashbang. She didn’t drop me. Instead, all four limbs were now being pulled in different directions. Things started to come undone. Screws, bolts; it was nuts. It was like every separate piece of the robot armor telekinetically disassembled itself, leaving behind a power core that was beginning to go unstable.
“Wait! We must be careful with this!” Orb said. It swung in close, opening a black cube with those tiny arms and snatching up a power core that now refused to respond to any signals whatsoever.
“Is that going to work?” Bat Guy asked. Then he looked to Fake Gecko and knelt to check on him.
I had sources in the area, still. The nanites couldn’t hear or see any of that in the same way. They were almost useless at that point, I figured, until I got a different idea that could save face for me. Because I could have just struck the whole spot with a missile, sure. I had plenty of bombs. But now, after I dared give Fake Gecko a chance and had to watch someone I still actually care about die, they were rood enough to tear one of my bodies apart. And they’re trying to do a bunch of sneaky shit.
The nanite droplet slipped onto the robed, top knotted woman’s shoe and began looking for a nice, subtle opening. A cut, a sore, something like that.
But I figured I’d give Ouroboros a heads-up. “Turns out Fake Gecko has a team. I’m going to find out where the next hole they hide in is and kill them there. Sorry about the bathroom wall.”
After a few minutes, Ouroboros got back to me. “Most people die when their heads get torn off.”
“Most people aren’t me.” And the only other me isn’t getting a second chance twice.
Then it was up out of my comfy long-distance chair to vacuum and cook dinner, like a supervillain homemaker does in between murders.
Wow. Hell of a past few days. Way to go, 2021. You’re doing terrific.
Since the last update, a group of right-wing fanatics tried to overthrow the government of the United States and I had nothing to do with any of it. The Capitol Police just let them on through. It was the Exemplars who showed up and stopped people from taking hostages and setting off bombs. So now the President, that same lackluster appointee who came out after all the recent soft civil war shenanigans, has to sit there and enjoy his political black eye. He hates the Exemplars and Medusa, but now they saved Congress while he refused to call in the National Guard and, some suggest, might have had a hand in the insurrection itself. Now he’s being investigated, the chief of the Capitol Police has been forced to resign, and the Exemplars are pardoned in every way but a signed piece of paper. The President would have to do that himself.
But none of that concerns me. They don’t pay me to be a hero. I’m just keeping an eye out for Fake Gecko. It’s my time to relax and unwind. Take it easy. Use a small underground factory to churn out power armor for fake superpowered clone bodies and roboticization.
And a couple of heat rays so I could lay out and sun myself. I know it’s the middle of winter, but that’s what heat rays are for. I laid there in the catgirl body, enjoying the heat and sun while purring. And then something with a reverberating voice said, “That’s hot.”
I opened my eyes and blinked as a ghostly Mix N’Max, my super chemist friend, floated in the air nearby. I grabbed an icecube out of my drink and tossed it at him. He looked down at it, then back up at me. “Don’t worry, it’s me.”
“You got some sort of projector nearby? It’s crap quality, bud,” I said, looking around. I eyed the streetlight. Some people had been working on it last month and part of me wants to be paranoid someone’s watching me. Other parts of me know that the shrunken Sheriff’s department and the neighbor’s teen boy were more subtle setting up their cameras.
“No, you’re seeing me now because of hallucinogens,” Max explained to me.
I eyed my drink. “Damn, the Irish know their whisky.”
“No, I took the hallucinogens,” Max gestured to himself. “They’re really strong.”
Must be if they’re able to make other people see things. “What you been up to, dude?”
“The usual, but did you know you have an imposter?”
I pulled myself up to a sitting position, my paws rubbing over the strips of rubber of the lawn lounger under me. “Yeah, I’m looking for him. I’d love to give him some firsthand experience in what the real deal’s like.”
Max shrugged. “Well, he’s causing trouble.”
“What happened and where is he?” I asked, fur standing up all poofy. I tried to relax and comb it back down with the claws that popped out on my hands.
“I’ve been spending time near Paradise City. A few of us more senior villains invested in a gang of newbs who wanted to rob a Federal gold transfer they found out about. They got away, but they said it was guarded by a bunch of ICE. Then, your double and his henchmen showed up in Paradise City and started hunting down the newbs.”
Huh. I hadn’t sent some robot armor there, both out of professional courtesy and just not expecting the Fake would have the gall to show up there. Ouroboros, the villain who runs that town, would probably tolerate me showing up unexpectedly even if he knew I was me but it would be better to inform him if I stationed a robot there. What he lacks in superpowers, he makes up for with power and respect in the community. I’ll have to redirect the one from Miami northward.
“Federal gold transfer’s not a bad haul,” I mused. “Adds to the hypothesis I have that this fake is working for the President as a deniable hired goon. ICE is a new connection. Wonder why they’re even bothering to go after the newbs.”
Max shrugged. “They say they didn’t get anything. Maybe they did and it’s enough the Feds think it’s worth more to get it back. They’re staying at the main casino in Paradise City, so we’ll find out if they start gambling with money they owe us. More important, he’s got enough security to keep out the imposter. The Feds aren’t the only ones upgrading. But that complicates things if you want to sneak in.”
Oh, I have ideas. Got robots hollowing out a whole cavern for me underneath my store and building transdimensional communications devices. Ideas aplenty, just not so many of them ready to be put into action. “You think he’d be understanding if I come clean about still being alive?”
Max waggled his hand. “Annoyed, but understanding. You’ve been thought dead before. You might suggest helping him win the pool on when you’ll return to ease the revelation.”
“I’ll think about it,” I told my friend. I raised a drink, “You want something to wet your whistle?”
He shook his head and held up a hand to stop me, “No, I shouldn’t under the effects of these shrooms. I think I’ll go visit some other planes until these wear off. If anyone asks, they can find me at the Mountains of Madness.”
“Cool, see you around,” I said, reaching out for a fist bump. My fist went through his, but it’s the thought that counts.
“Bye now,” he said, waving as he faded away. Ah, Max. Hell of a supervillain. Could have made billions selling dick pills if he wanted, but he chose to do his own thing.
Most people aren’t aware just how big Florida is, so it took a little more than eight hours to roll into Paradise City in a stolen car with my robot armor. I need a better nickname for these things, but I’m no longer feeling Dudebot. They aren’t really robots, which is a term I’m beginning to dislike. I hear it’s starting to filter into my home Earth as a slur toward my people. Maybe Corpses and Caskets for the two different sorts of bodies I inhabit. Sounds like a neat tabletop game as well.
I decided to run it by Medusa via text. “What do you think about Corpses and Caskets?”
“Dark. Hey, u in Cali?” she asked.
“Trying to intercept Fake Gecko. Diverted to save some of your Master Academy kids,” I sent back.
“Makes sense. U talk 2 them?”
“No. Saw that the camp was an Academy replacement and saved them from attacking an army base instead of catching the fake at the other.”
She called me up, “Hey, let’s just speak then.”
“Ok,” I said while my Casket passed by central Florida orange stops. They have these stations you can stop at to get free orange juice samples while they try to sell oranges and other stuff. Best OJ you’ll ever have, but I just now realized this sounds like I’m making it up to mock the state.
“So you saw some of what went on there?” Medusa asked.
I sighed, thinking of that delicious orange juice I couldn’t partake in. “Just the tail end, when the fake escaped and something exploded. Saw the bunny person and someone dressed like a wizard.”
“Yeah, ok,” she said. “And you’re still hunting that other Gecko, right?”
“That camp wasn’t just a replacement for the Master Academy that Omega destroyed while possessing you. I worked out an arrangement with the Academy. We were housing some refugees from other Earths there. Someone tried an experiment with stolen tech from Ricca and accidentally brought a town from another Earth to this one, along with doubles of some heroes and villains.”
I growled. “Were any of those doubles me?”
“The folks I talked to think I’m an evil version of their Venus, so they don’t like to talk to me, but they haven’t said so. I thought you better know, though.”
I took a deep breath, then let it out. “Ok, thanks for letting me know. Still on for dinner Tuesday?”
“You got it,” she said.
Despite those intellectual and moral complications, I thought I was all set to deal with Fake Gecko. That assessment changed when the Casket rolled that stolen car up to the front of the unnamed building Ouroboros’s casino operated out of. Everyone knew it what it was and who owned it, so you’d have to be desperate actually do something about it. You’d need military-grade weapons to stand a chance.
The taller portion of the building that housed the guest rooms was smoking. It looked like a war had taken place there. Holes gaped in it and every single window seemed to be missing. The casino’s security, or O-sec, were waiting in the parking lot, which was still packed.
They had five guys waiting when I stepped out of the car, one of them lowering a tablet while the others held shotguns at a very tense ease. As in, they weren’t pointed at me, but they were ready to point. Things were thicc, too. Looked like the barrel could be used to milk a stallion. Lower tech than I’d think of from Ouroboros. But, and this might sound odd for a guy who runs things out of a casino, he’s always loved reliability more than flashiness.
“Excuse me… entity,” the man with the tablet addressed me. He and his buddies were suits, but tailored and with vests underneath that disguised bulletproof plates. “Screenings are a security precaution. We’re afraid our guest accommodations are unavailable at this time. Are you here to gamble or for other business?”
“I see that, yeah. I’m here for business. A friend of mine made an investment that went sour and seems to have led to an uncomfortable situation. They reached out to me as a fixer.”
The man’s tablet beeped. He glanced down at it, then looked to me. “Who did you speak with, if I may ask?”
“Mix N’Max,” I answered. No use volunteering more than I needed to.
The tablet beeped again. Ah, someone’s listening. The guy in charge turned to one of the others in his squad. “Take over for me, boss needs me to escort this fixer to a meeting.” He turned back to me. “You’ve interested someone.”
“Good, I try to be interesting.” My costume could be more interesting in this case. The armor resembled my own, as if it fit a feminine form. This wasn’t something where it had big metal boobs sticking out, but it still had some. While usually I can get away with that due to advanced plating and padding, this time there’s no bones to break or boob to injure. And trust me, those bad girls are sensitive to impact.
I felt the signal weaken as I entered the bustling house of chance. That would be the thick building materials that make it unreliable to rely on the internet for cheating. All around me were the lights and the mess of noises that tickled that excitement button in the human mind. No matter where you were on the casino floor, you could hear the machines egging you on while dark carpet hid stains in between nightly cleanings. The power of transdimensional communications devices compelled the Casket (is it working as a term? I’m not sure yet) to follow my guide to a room on the side with a few guards stationed outside the door. “What’s all that ruckus with the guest rooms about anyway? Anything I need to know?” I asked the guy leading me.
“I can’t say,” he said. He pressed something on the tablet as he approached and the door before us swung open. “Please, through here.”
He didn’t follow me in. He left me alone, in a small conference room where Ouroboros sat. He stood up when he saw me, smiling through the open part of his mask that resembled the mouth of a snake. His costume looked like a rough, black close-fitting material and a pair of curved bone knives stuck through his belt. “Well, hello. It has been awhile, if you’re who I think you are.”
“I dunno, the person you’re thinking of is probably dead,” I said, wondering if he’d actually figured me out or if this was some weird wordplay.
“Well, your craftsmanship resembles a dearly departed friend of Mix N’Max whose rest I don’t wish to disturb. So, what psychopomp are you?” Yeah, he knows who I am.
“Just a Psychopomp,” I said. “What gave it away?”
He pointed to my chest. “You use a unique power source, but not unique enough. You’re here for your double, right?”
I nodded. “Yeah, that’s the kind of thing that can drag me out of my grave and back into action.”
“He’s been here,” Ouroboros said. He nodded upward with his chin. “He’s got your audacity, and your cloaking technology. He tried to sneak in. We detected him, ran him off. He called in a trio of cloaking gunships. Shot up my guest rooms while he escaped into the city.”
“After those new villains, I take it? Did he get them?” I asked.
Ouroboros held up a finger. “All but the one who was passed out drunk in the club.”
“Good. We can find out what this is all about and we have some bait to dangle for him,” I told the other villain. “We need a place other than here to lure them to.”
Ouroboros crossed his arms. “He’s hungover and he just lost his friends. Maybe let’s take it easy on the kid right now.”
I shrugged. “If he tells us what we want to know, sure. Might be he doesn’t need to be there in person if he’s proven himself valuable in other ways.”
“Retired, but still vicious,” Ouroboros noted.
“Not as retired as you’d think, but if you want, we can make this an easier transaction. I’ll just pay him to talk and lay low for a few days. You’d be surprised how long people will stay inside somewhere if you offer money.”
Ouroboros cleared his throat, then pretended to look toward the door back out to the casino floor. I made a show of following his gaze, then turned back and shrugged. “Or maybe you wouldn’t.”
I was a little curious to hear what the internet was saying about this fake Gecko. It’s not the first time a fake has popped up. This one keeps showing up to hit targets like protests or stealing the money from a bail fund. Not the sort of things I’d do nowadays, but definitely the kind of stuff that’s in my past back when I was a dog on a government leash.
The civilian internet was a mess, as usual. Some of the right-wing conspiracy sites simultaneously believed I was an agent of the evil Deep State and a patriot fighting a global pedophile cabal. Which reminds me, it’s been a bit since I punched a bishop. But since there wasn’t any porn, there wasn’t much reason for me to pay attention to that part of the internet. I was once again seeking the validation of my peers in the villain community
Top post, they were selling porn. I thought maybe stolen celebrity selfies and sex videos. Instead, someone’s claiming a team of villains broke into a vault in Fort Knox and found the United States Secret Stash. The Porn of the United States. There’s some very tasteful Jackie O on Marilyn Monroe in there, they claim. Sounds a little bit ghoulish to me, but then these are the same people who claim to have Benjamin Franklin’s old nude engravings of French women. Thomas Jefferson’s personal library became the Library of Congress. Ben Franklin’s got shoved under the bed and jacked off to.
VillaiNet is much like the regular internet. People were selling dick pills that fell off the back of a trucks or haunted Native American artifacts and jewelry. I thought that one might be a bit insensitive, but it’s a Native American villain selling them. Anyway, I wasn’t the main topic of consideration, which is biased against me and my ego. They had a little bit there about the “Return of Gecko?” Most of the other villains don’t buy that it’s me. Wish I could say it’s because of my actions, but the most popular evidence against the fake being me was the fake’s throwback armor. They don’t even know just how far beyond simple armor I’ve gone.
I decided to distribute some more robotic armors. Spare bodies require more maintenance. You have to wake them up, move them around so they don’t get bed sores, make sure they eat and shit, all that. The robot armors, formerly known as Dudebots, lack versatility but also lack the capacity to die if you neglect them for a few weeks. Think Super Roombas versus brainless cat my mind inhabits from time to time. Er, quite a bit of the time. Those people who stole the secret porn stash better stay away from those videos of me as a catgirl dancing to the musical Cats.
I’ve been tracking the fake and trying to plant robotic armors in major cities that the fake has appeared in or might appear in. Los Angeles, Empyreal City, and Washington D.C. Were top of the queue. The one on the way to L.A. Didn’t get there before the Fake put in appearance there.
Fake Gecko attacked some old summer camp outside of town, which seemed like a fun game to me. I always favored the victim density of cities. That’s just one of many advantages cities offer to rural locations, but I still enjoy the idea of stalking people at a summer camp and murdering them one by one.
The report came in from locals, but it took awhile to reach a threshold that anyone directed the info to the Federal level. I can’t pay attention to every Johnny Law out there, and I can’t see what I’m not looking at. Spread myself too thin and it hurts my head. Only so much mind to go around. And never enough where I need it. Cameras nearby showed Fake Gecko running out of a cabin and diving into a helicopter that rose and cloaked.
Of all the bits of my technology to trickle down, the American military has cloak capacity. That was my first thought. Then the cabin exploded and gave me something new to think about. The cabin exploded in a brilliant red light. An adult man in casual clothes ran up, raising his hands toward the light, containing it to the perimeter of the cabin’s remains. A young girl joined him and made a similar gesture that reduced forced the light into a smaller space, above some device. Then another group ran up, including a person in a bunny mask and a figure in a flowing robe. The robed person conjured up a staff and did some theatrical gestures. Then light they held back was directed upward, disappearing into fireworks.
Zooming back some, I saw there were a few other campers, some who didn’t look like baseline humans. Extra limbs, flying, either some weird clothes or weird bulk.
I became interested in the target and found it going back to an LLC that sounded boring but was the same as a business that maintained the Master Academy campuses. These were displaced supers from the destruction of the Master Academy’s original campus that was, uh, my fault. Kinda. I was possessed by a godlike extradimensional being at the time. Casualties were inevitable. Flying around, carving up a campus full of young supers learning to control their powers and make responsible decisions… it could happen to anyone.
Yeah… so… I didn’t quite bring it up with Medusa right away because of that. If anything, it really made me wonder just how much Medusa had a thing for bad girls.
Judging my ex aside, I’m going to wake up to an entire factory full of chickens home to roost. Anyway, that bunny mask reminded me of another alternate Earth I’d been to, one that didn’t have me in it. Maybe this was this Earth’s version.
With all that, the robot armor I sent was just not close enough in time to do anything
Not enough eyes, not enough mind, not close enough. For all my power, I am still beholden to physics. No, not just physics. Geography!
I knew where the nearest military bases were, though. Geography, bitches. And physics, since I knew whatever system they were using to cloak an entire helicopter would be eating into their primitive power systems. Once again, it strained the mind to keep an eye on the nearest two I felt it could reach in time while also sweeping the airspace between them. I just couldn’t brain enough. It was mentally exhausting. Closed my eyes for a minute and then exciting things happened.
The base I had left off staring at was the absolute closest to the camp. The guards were scrambling to alert everyone and man defenses because of a group of kids and teens out front using their powers. You know how it is, presenting their powers to look intimidating, throwing a car or two, maybe freezing a gate and then smashing it open. The army rode deep, with some bigass guns. The kids tried charging the base and the guns opened up.
A big guy tried to take some of the hits, but he tried to cover his face and ended up kneeling after a pretty tough hit to his groin. Another kid ended up gutshot. Others hid behind one of the cars the big guy had shoved around to look strong.
Meanwhile, at the other base, a familiar helicopter materialized overhead and landed. My robot armor was minutes a couple of minutes from either one, depending on how I adjusted its trajectory. If Fake Gecko got away, he’d kill more than some small group of kids. If he was getting away. For all I know he thought he was in the clear and had no reason to flee.
Damn Medusa and everyone else who had a hand in giving me a conscience, thinking about the choice I made. I didn’t want to.
I watched as a group of soldiers approached, moving into positions, one with grenade launcher. Covering fire kept the heads of the young heroes down. The big guy, meanwhile, had folded his body around the wounded kid, shaking as a grenade rolled to a stop next to him and blew up. It shredded his clothes and left his skin red and raw.
Then the explosion overhead drew the soldiers’ attention. The being falling out of the sky was grey and yellow, slowed only by glittering liquid-metal wings. The wings pulled in as it closed to the ground and knocked the grenade launcher out of his hands. A shriek ripped through the soldiers’ radios as the armor stood up, paralyzing all of them and flopping them against the ground. A similar paralyzing scream struck the other base, where Fake Gecko was, but didn’t stop the Fake or hardly anyone else.
Back in the armor, I ran for the kids. “Bigness, get up.”
The big guy looked around and raised a hand to hit me. I slid underneath and to the wounded girl. I lifted her up, the nanomachines wrapping around her wound. “Easy. This is going to hurt doing it this way, but you don’t want to be here when these guys wake up.”
“Let go of her!” her protector yelled.
The others were all peeking from behind their cover. Someone stood up with a ball of frost in hand. The girl in my arms screamed, but I let her loose and set her free now that her wound was closed. The large fellow chasing me went for a clothesline at the back of my head. I disappeared and he stumbled to a stop when all he hit was air. He looked funny when I lifted him up overhead and tossed him in the back of somebody’s civilian truck parked near the entrance.
“Go!” I said as I reappeared, waving them to the truck.
Behind me, someone pulled himself into a prone shooting position. I turned and got him right in the face with a blinding grenade. I formed the nanites into a horn on my head with the laser mechanism inside. I probably should have just melted the tires, but I blasted the engines of every humvee I could see like a majestic laser unicorn of destruction. Note to self: start a band named “Majestic Laser Unicorn of Destruction.”
The kids finally got the hint while I was doing this. Big fella climbed down out of the truck and gathered up with the rest of them. Then one of them stretched an arm out fantastically long and wrapped it around my waist. I stopped firing my laser when I got tugged off my feet and toward their little circle that shot out of there. We raced out of there. It was less voluntary in my case, being dragged through the air behind the group.
We stopped at a fast food place off the interstate. Or I stopped. I turned to see what was up and they were gone with a Road Runner-esque puff of smoke drifting through the air behind them. A note drifted through the air in messy writing. “Thanks for patching me up, but we don’t know you.”
Well, ok. I cloaked and checked out the other base, the one where all the choppers, cars, APCs, and hummers were fleeing from. Better yet, they had their radios turned off or something, because that paralytic scream did nothing!
Congratulations, you little shitbirds, you cost me a chance to kill the Fake. Eat shit and live.
I was minding my own business this time. Everything was nice and quiet at my house and my shop. My brother and his girlfriend left to their dimension to go fight whatever it is Justice Rangers are fighting nowadays. My daughter was trying to stay up too late to play games with her friends and I kept catching her and sending her to bed. Some people were spending Christmas money on gadgets and prosthetics. I didn’t even have as many check-ups by law enforcement after the town voted to curtail the local sheriffs, and supposedly the mayor and town council were looking into attracting more high-end mental health professionals to the place. A bunch of them could actually see the point of having better mental health infrastructure when dealing with superhumans. I think they realized I’m not longer the town crazy, just a town crazy.
No, I was minding my own business, texting back and forth with Max and Medusa about different things. I figured, after recent lessons, I’d reopen channels of communication with Medusa. I’d also realized I wasn’t being too good a friend to Max, so wanted to keep an eye on him. It was good timing; he was about to hit a chemical company’s storage facility for some supplies. Meanwhile, Medusa was tracking down a conspiracy of walking enemas who were going around trying to sabotage the vaccination efforts. I’m sure she had more things going down with the Exemplars, but that’s the one she told me about.
But I figure most people are probably way too tired of hearing about drama between me and Medusa. The relationship may have gotten exciting when we were fucking, but it was way easier to sell to people when we were punching each other. And we didn’t do that at the same time we were fucking. Much. There was this one time with some choking- nevermind. I didn’t end up enjoying it. Live, learn, and get laid.
That’s where I was at when Medusa decided to call me up instead. “Hey, this is going to sound weird, but you’re not working for the government any, are you?”
“Uh, no. I’m assumed dead and not taking contracts right now,” I told her. I didn’t even try to hid what I was saying from a group of kids who were looking at a collection of swords I had on the wall. I’m a big fan of scaring annoying children. It’s a character-building exercise.
“Some of my people got arrested. We have an informant who tells us the President has been pushing to find some way to execute my people before he’s out of office. Legally, it’s impossible. They haven’t even been put on trial yet. But now, we’re hearing he’s hiring the best assassin on Earth to deal with them extrajudicially.”
“Aww, and you naturally thought of me, that’s sweet. But no, no one’s approached me about that kind of work. I get the occasional email to some old contact addresses I set up, but nobody with my number has come calling. Not even the Holy Inquisition, and they’ve got a lot of witnesses they’d want disappeared nowadays.”
“What?” Medusa asked.
“Relax, I’d be more likely to kill the pedo priests than the victims. Almost makes me wish I’d stayed Pope…”
“You’ve got to tell me the story behind that once, but we’re getting off-track,” she said, swinging us back to the point of her call. “Actually, nevermind. I think I need to find someone for a jailbreak.”
“Where are they at?” I asked. “I’m good at getting people out of jail. I practically have my own J.D.”
“No, jail destruction. It’s a much less well-known degree. But I can stop by on my way home from work and break them all out. It’d be easier if you could let me borrow a Flyer, though. I’ve got something here, but it only seats four, maybe five at the max.” Old Mrs. Johnson got her Chevy Impala back with the flight modifications removed. She wasn’t happy it took so long to get her car back to her. I, however, am happy it yielded so much useful data. Still, my current model of flying car, built out of spare parts both new and from wrecked cars, isn’t quite up to the high standards set by the Psycho Flyers I designed.
“Be careful. Cops and the military are gearing up. Higher calibers, plasma, laser weapons, along with new body armors and gadgets. They’re adopting tech from your world and others. The jail you’ll be breaking into is run by federal marshals.”
“Oh yeah? What jail am I hitting?”
“It’s called the Colonel Clink, in Kentucky. One of the last things the Turtle ever pushed through before you took care of him. He held up relief money and other legislation for months, but he had time to create a Federal-controlled jail. Get this, they even put Arpaio in charge.”
I could hear the loathing in her voice and matched it with my own. “The guy who bragged about building a concentration camp gets put in charge of a jail that holds supers? I’m surprised you didn’t come to me about wrecking this place sooner.”
“I know this won’t matter much, but try to keep the casualties to a minimum. Some people are just doing a job,” Medusa insisted.
“Right, sure, don’t hurt the people who are just following orders. We’ll see. Now, about that Psycho Flyer?”
Which isn’t what stopped to pick me up. “What the hell is this?”
The Exemplars had parked something in my shop’s year workyard that looked related to my design, but slicked back and a little larger.
“What the hell is this?” I asked, armored hands on my armored hips.
“Flyer 2.0,” said one of the Exemplar pilots. Looked like he was in updated armor as well. “The old design had flaws. The Riccans updated it and made improvements. This one’s a good eight percent faster and more efficient. Guns are in different positions. Handles better than the original. I’m Peterson, co-pilot. Marks is the pilot. We here you’re going to help us pick up some friends?”
“That I will,” I told him and walked up. I brought an armored duffel with me. I had a few party favors in there, gadgets to give me some versatility. I’m the unexpected nobody truly expects, but even I can be surprised.
They were right about how well it handled. Harumph, I say! Actually, what I said was that I still obviously have plenty to learn. Was a bit more cozy inside, I think. My original design was meant to have spare space. A supervillain’s flying machine must have room for hostages, stolen goods, or superweapons. That’s just basic stuff. This one even changed up the rapid entry/exit portal and made it a bigger, rectangular trapdoor with multiple cables hanging overhead someone can latch onto.
We made good time to Kentucky’s Clink, but as we paused overhead, the pilot called me from up front. “Psycho Gecko, odd question… you didn’t bring friends along, did you?”
“No!” I called up, not sure how well the intercoms worked here.
“You’re going in hot, then. The place is already under attack and we’re hearing chatter from below that it’s Psycho Gecko and a gang of henchmen.”
Someone’s trading on my name. And the conspiratorially-minded part of myself is pretty sure it’s related to the President wanting the Exemplars dead before he leaves office. I headed back to the trapdoor and hit the controls, tossing myself out into the whirly, windy sky. With the Flyer’s cloaking systems still active, it looked like I fell out of nowhere, just a form-fitting advanced power armor parachuting with a pair of liquid-metal wings. Someone figured out I was there was I got close. The guard towers were a bit occupied by orange and grey-clad henchmen in body armor with some chunky rifles. I saw a few of the minions point to one tower that had a guard barricaded in it. They raised their chunky rifles and barraged it with shot after shot of projectiles that cracked sonic booms and the metal of the tower alike. The tower collapsed in on itself.
I collapsed onto one, my nanomachine cloak covering the five of us for a few moments. By the time it settled, that was four henchmen down and me examining one of their rifles. It used a batter to power an electromagnet that flung an iron slug at supersonic speeds. A railgun, or Gauss rifle. I’ve played around with the technology before, but I have reservations about working too closely with powerful electromagnets. Even ones strong enough to nudge another rifle away if it got too closer.
A few other henchmen noticed me, I saw. Another group of four who had been focused on firing into the crumbling side of the jail facility. They raised their rifles. I raised my nanomachine cloak to hide where I was. They fired at my last location, well below where I was then. I tossed one of the rifles up and swung another at it like a batter playing baseball, the magnets helping power a swing that sent a rifle flying hard enough to embed itself in one of my assailants’ chests. I flew at another from a few feet up and grabbed him.
One of his colleagues opened fire. I seemingly ducked behind the man I’d captured, avoiding shots until the henchmen shot into his friend and splattered him into red good. He approached, looking for me, and that’s when I dropped my own cloak, did a split, and uppercutted him in the sphincter. I arose as a human puppeteer. I left him on my fist as I jumped at the terrified final henchmen before me and bitchslapped a motherfucker with another motherfucker. I left those last two piled on top of each other while I headed deeper into the facility toward a group of Exemplar homing beacons embedded in the prisoners.
This was one area where the President’s special attention made my job easier. A normal facility would have spread prisoners out, maybe sent them to different places. Concentrating them all in one place was bad for any other reason than killing them all off. I launched myself onto the roof, “accidentally” tearing off sections of roof and any walls underneath with the nanomachines that I used to help push myself along. Sure would be a shame if lots of people escaped custody. Some were already making their way out through walls wrecked by the “Gecko” attack.
“Marks, Peterson, go down on me,” I ordered.
“Sluttiest jailbreak ever,” Marks responded, bringing the Flyer down low to meet me just above me and following along. I slid to a halt above the beacons and formed an atomic-thick blade to carve my way through the roof. One good thing about the place being run by a fascist dipshit is I didn’t have to go through an insulation area to land in the middle of the cell.
“I looked around at the startled bunch all in one penned-in holding area. I heard screams further off. A guard outside the pen turned and raised a bulky pistol. He fired six shots rapid, and he’d have put a serious dent into armor plates. This armor was more about absorbing the blow and pissing me off as it drove the breath out of my body. I’d be feeling that bruising in the morning.
“See? That didn’t do shit. You’ll want to work on your cardio now,” I said. The guard took the hint and ran for it. I looked around to the others. “Go up on me if you want to live.” Right then, the Flyer dropped cables from its trapdoor.
The Exemplars got busy climbing up while I kept an eye out. I tried the fence, got shocked a little bit, and tried to connect to the prison network. Huh, it was a closed network with no outside access, like a wired LAN.
But just before I left that LAN party on the last remaining cable, I got a glimpse of the ultimate party pooper. Some stupid fucker wearing some old mark whatever armor of mine. Enough of my old stuff is in custody to help someone make reproductions. And note to self: see a less hostile doctor back on my world of origin about homo machina mental degradation.
I cocked my head to the side seeing this imposter, who also cocked their head to the side. Exit cable in one hand, I raised the middle finger on the other. “First, who are you really?” I raised my index finger. “Second, how badly do you want to die?”
“I’m-” the fake Gecko started to say, but the cable reeled me back up to meet the rest of the team before I could hear the rest.
“All accounted for and aboard. We’re done here, aren’t we?” Marks asked back over the intercom.
I closed the trapdoor. “Yep. Confirmed. All that. We’re done here.” No need to risk the mission over a personal grudge. I’m the best at what I do, and sometimes that means personal sacrifices.
And there’s no sacrifice quite so personal as ripping out the heart of someone pretending to be me.
There aren’t too many years quite like 2020. Good. After all we had to go through this year, this big asteroid showed up. Can’t say I was surprised that a shitload of heroes and villains got off their holiday-padded asses to fly up there and blow the shit out of it someway or another. They got a lot of power, just not much killer instinct unless you interrupt their holidays and celebrations over the year end. I don’t blame ’em one bit.
Lucky, too. I’m not saying I couldn’t blow up an asteroid if given a little time to prepare, but everything I have ready right now is more for dealing with fleshies. Asteroids don’t care about knockout gas, laughing gas, or ass gas. That last one’s an experiment in stink-based warfare, meant as an area denial weapon by smelling bad enough to force people to get out or start hacking. I could have managed a D-Bomb before it hit us, but I’m working with a lot less infrastructure nowadays. If I keep expanding my basement lair any further, I’ll owe the neighbors rent.
Anyway, the asteroid couldn’t handle the power of however many pissed-off superheroes were ready for a break. We were all hanging out in the living room, watching the wall monitor showing supers around the world handling debris from the asteroid. Some pieces were small enough not to worry about, but I guess there were a few that people thought could wreck orbital infrastructure.
“Wow,” Davilo said. “This world’s potential is astounding.”
“We’re not as far ahead technologically, but we’ve got some things going for us,” Leah said, smiling at Davilo, then turning to glance at me.
I noticed and figured I’d contribute to the conversation, “Just glad I never crossed the threshold that gets me splatted by the power of a thousand suns.” One sun would do it, though. Like that time a super whose powers would have let him consume the world couldn’t do much once I teleported him into the heart of our local star.
“Thank Medusa for that,” Leah said.
“That a deity over here?” Davilo asked.
I shook my head. “Lots of the supers like to use the names of mythological figures, but the original myth has her as an inhuman being who turned anyone who looked at her to stone. This one is one of the few who can keep up with me in a fight, and my ex.”
“I’m not gonna lie, that surprised the hell out of me,” Leah said. “But she was also your biggest cheerleader for so long. I don’t think she wants to give up on anyone, but there’s something special about you to her. Too bad it didn’t work out.”
“Yeah, well, there’s way more interesting stuff going on than my love life. Like asteroids,” I said, steering things back away form that conversation.
That only lasted a little while before my Reindeer alarm went off. I set an alarm in the house to keep me updated on how long to go before my monthly visitor arrived. Two hours at the time. I assured my guests it was nothing, then told some of my helper robots to check the Iron Deer while I pulled out Reindeer’s armor and went over it for a last check.
“That’s some new armor,” Leah said, eyeing it curiously.
“Ok, so you know how about a year ago a bunch of people were turned into animal-human hybrids, and then afterward a bunch of people became, like, lycanthropes and felinthropes and whatever other -thropes you want to call them?” Or in my case, a misanthrope.
“Oh my god, you’re a werewolf?!” Leah asked, excited.
Davilo turned to me finally to see what the commotion was about. “Werewolf?”
“Nowhere,” I answered. I held up the helmet and poked some fingers through the antler holes. “I’m a weredeer. A werereindeer. She’s called ‘Reindeer’ and she’s a hero, unlike me.”
“Aww, that’s so great,” Leah said. I fought off the urge to full-body shiver. She doesn’t have the same hang-ups and associations I do with heroes, despite her own history with one. Medusa got to her in time.
“Well, it’s complicated for me, knowing every month that I’m going to transform and potentially attack my own friends and other people I least wish harm upon. On the other hand, she’s smart, reasonable, and has the affection of the people.” And if she took over, everyone I know except maybe Mix N’Max would prefer her to me. Just letting y’all know, I’m insecure about that.
I finished getting them up to speed and made the final flight checks remotely. It wasn’t a full-sized flyer, but I was able to put together a smaller replacement using more car parts and some of the experience of converting Mrs. Johnson’s Impala into a flying sleigh.
Five minutes before moonrise, I went ahead and took my body downstairs for the big change. These kinds of transformations tend to be unpleasant to look at. I skipped over to the Iron Deer armor, turned its eyes temporarily, and waited until all the snapping and fleshy squishing sounds stopped.
“You done?” I asked, cutting my eyes back on.
Reindeer arose with a yawn. “Yeah, sure. Hey, do you have any normal clothes that would fit me?”
“You know you can’t really blend, right?” I wanted to get the question out of the way before this turned into some sort of comical misunderstanding. Reindeer can’t exactly do undercover work outside of a forest.
“I thought I’d take the night of superheroism. I don’t get a lot of time to hang out, and our brother’s in town. You haven’t been catching up with Leah, either,” she said.
If I had lungs, I’d have sighed. “I’ll see what I can find.”
I tromped upstairs in the mobile power armor and pointed back down with a thumb for the benefit of Davilo and Leah. “Looks like she just wants to hang tonight. I’m gonna grab some clothes.”
“You’re a robot now?” Leah asked.
“I transmit my brain signals to certain transceivers and control them like my own body. For some reason, it lets me stay conscious whenever the change happens,” I explained at increasing volume as I headed back deeper into the house. Qiang was in her room, listening to loud music and playing games with her friends. And I found out that I had a few outfits stretchy enough to fit Reindeer’s larger frame. At last, my love of faux-leather pants that show off the ass comes in handy.
“And we’ll see if this top fits,” I said, tossing one to Reindeer that I thought might handle her. That dream was dashed when she tore the top while pulling it on over her head.
“Good news,” I said, grabbing a pair of heavy duty scissors. “Looks like you’ll be wearing a crop top tonight.”
So they all went out. I let them drag me along, but did my best to just stay out of things. The locals and heroes all seem to love Reindeer, so I let them all enjoy their time. Then the bar went quiet and someone turned up the TV for breaking news. Police were doing a big manhunt for someone running around Milwaukee leaving big fleshy mounds of tentacles clinging to stuff. Some of the bar patrons left then to fly over to help or speed or whatever. This little super enclave, Radium, is way far out from everywhere, so the only way anyone was assisting the cops was if they could get there fast.
“I can teleport us if you want to go,” Davilo offered to Leah and Reindeer.
“That’d be awesome, bro,” Reindeer said.
“Four person super team for the evening? Sounds great,” Leah added, but without the sarcasm I’d have used.
“You want to come?” Reindeer asked.
I didn’t, but as both the only supervillain in the bunch and the only sober person, I figured someone had to be there that could help the person they’re looking for escape. Like a designated escape driver. I shrugged and followed them outside where Reindeer and Leah stood with their arms out on Davilo. “Come on, I’ll teleport you,” he insisted. So I reached out and put a metal hand on his head.
Justice Ranger teleportation reminds me a bit of cross-dimensional travel, but whatever thing we’re looking at isn’t alternate universes. In minutes, we flew from a pretty dim area to collection of many more lights of all different colors packed into a tighter space. We landed in the middle of the street, with a car coming right for Reindeer. I jumped for her, taking the hit and falling right back against her as it just barely got its hooves on the ground. The back of the armor opened up and ensconced Reindeer, who lifted up the front of the car enough to redirect its energy away from herself, then set it back down at a little different angle.
“You ok?” our companions asked.
“Didn’t even touch me,” Reindeer said.
“And Gecko?” Davilo followed-up.
With a background accompaniment of drums and guitar, I added some distortion to my voice as I declared, “I am Iron Deer,” before dropping toning it all down to answer, “And I’m fine. The damage was superficial.”
“So you’re like a suit of armor Reindeer can wear, with a voice that helps out,” Leah noted. “That’s cool.”
“Let’s split up though,” Reindeer said, hitting the release. “This isn’t a horror movie; more bodies means more chance of finding him.”
While she slid out of me, I did a quick search and found the area everyone was searching was to our east. “Thataway,” I said. “A man, Caucasian, in tan and brown clothing. Unarmed, but superpowered. Seen carrying a small bag, contents unknown. I’m going to jump in and say I don’t like helping the cops with their job, especially after this year.”
Reindeer set her hand on my shoulder. “All the more reason we should find the guy first instead of them. We can’t trust them to do right by this person, but we can trust ourselves.”
Davilo did his morphing sequence while I was looking at Reindeer trying to come up with a snarky and pessimistic reply. I turned to see a teal-colored Justice Ranger standing there with some new team symbol hanging diagonally over a breastplate with a pair of attached shoulder pads.
“I’m not dressed for superheroing as much. Can I go with Iron Deer?” Leah asked.
And that, finally, is what led to Reindeer, Iron Deer, and the Teal Justice Ranger jumping around the streets of Milwaukee looking for someone the cops were after. And I spent that time teasing Leah.
“After all that time having a crush on me, you finally got inside me,” I said.
“Oh god!” she laughed from inside. I was trying to check things out from atop a building while spying on police scanners. Some of them mentioned Davilo and me, but none spotted Reindeer yet. Damn, and her costume was still at home because we were out drinking.
“Keep an eye out for Reindeer, too.” I tried heading to the nearest mass of tentacles this super had spawned. The police had left up some tape to try and keep people out of its reach while they were busy dealing with all the others. There were a few gawkers at the mess. It was like someone stuck the bottom of an octopus to the side of a building, but gave it way more tentacles and none of those little suction cups on them. They were different sizes, too. When I got there, they were mostly slow and inactive, with only the biggest ones raising themselves toward the closest rubberneckers.
I skipped around toward the rear of it and headed toward it from the roof. The tentacles got nice and wild before I could get too close so I doubled back and broke into the building, a clothing store, to head for the wall that way. “Why are you so focused on these tentacles?” Leah asked.
“Trying to see if one of these that gets loose might try to crawl back to the person who made it,” I explained. “It happens sometimes.”
Well, one trashed side wall later, I pulled a squirming smaller tentacle into the store and tossed it back toward the front of the store before it could latch on. “Fly free, little tentacle! Or tendril! Or cephalopod, maybe? I need more words for these things.”
It didn’t fly free. Instead, it squirmed and writhed and pulled itself toward me. I ended up grabbing an incendiary device and activating it, letting it grab hold, then booting it out onto the street where it exploded into flames.
“That’s why we don’t play with creepy, slimy tentacles,” Leah said.
“Oh, is that why?”
Suddenly, I got an unknown number texting me. “It’s Reindeer. I found him. Home in on this number and find a way to distract the cops.”
“Will do!” I said. I at least took the time to leave the building before rocketing into the air with Leah’s fun screams reverberating through my metal body. I pinpointed the phone pretty quickly, just past the edge of the search cordon. Then I heard someone call in that they think they spotted him. I gave it a few seconds afterwards, then did my best with audio distortion to mimic the voice. “False alarm. Cancel that.”
“That’s all it takes to fool them?” Leah sounded like she could hardly believe it.
“I swear it’s getting easier to fool people.” As I approached, I saw a couple cars of cops with guns trained on a building. I loaded up some stink gas rounds into a grenade launcher. I popped one through the open door of one of the cars and the other onto the street near the cops. They looked up, then began to cover their noses, running to get clear. One of them tried for his car, the one with more stink gas. He abandoned it to catch up to the other ones running away, with me dropping more stink grenades to keep chasing them away.
I sealed up the helmet fully so my passenger wouldn’t get a noseful when I skipped to a landing and jogged into the building. Reindeer was kneeling in front of a man who had a few smaller, thicker tentacles piercing his jacket. Looked like the kind of thing they leave veterans with, especially those dog tags.
Reindeer held up her hand. “Wait there, Iron Deer. Just wait.” She turned to the guy. “That’s a friend. We’re all friends here. No one here is going to hurt you.” She turned back to me. “He’s having a PTSD episode. He was in the pharmacy trying to get medication when things went bad.”
I sat down then, well away. “Don’t worry. With me around, you’re as safe as can be.” Inside me, I heard Leah muttering to herself.
“Why?” croaked the man. “I’m a villain now, aren’t I?”
“You’re a victim,” Reindeer assured him. “And heroes save victims.”
“Davilo’s on the way,” Leah said. “We’ll get you out of here, someplace safe.”
“Where’s safe for someone like me?” the veteran asked.
Reindeer smiled. “Let me tell you about a unique little town called Radium.”
Just breaking in here to say that since this is the last update before New Years, I hope everyone’s 2021 is better. Well, everyone with a few particular exceptions.
Happy New Years, y’all.
Of all things, it was the conversation with my daughter that did more to mess with my head last time than any Miser villain on a hidden island off New Hampshire. Makes me wonder if I’m doing all this for any real reason, or if I’m coming up with an excuse to go on wacky adventures this time of year. Like, what is the big deal if Miser does some bullshit? He’s probably just that old guy secretly alive and hooked up to a computer somewhere, trying to be an evil old asshole while shoved into a hyperbaric tube or something. A wildfire? Put it out and be done. Stealing vaccine? They’ll get more, but I could have solved this whole pandemic if I had forced some nanotech on people. I guess the soup was a dick move, but it got fixed. There are other people who can fix things.
I guess that’s why I decided to handle the Miser thing without a lot of fuss. No sleigh, no Qiang, no gimmicks. No answering when the half-brother I recently found out I had keeps calling because he hears this is a big holiday and family time and he wants to find out what Christmas is. No real risk to my own body. Just a rocket to blow open the roof of that island, which caused enough damage to the outside of the metal disguised as rocks that water began leaking in a little, every wave adding more water to the cascade.
I landed on the edge of it long enough for the nanomachines to reform from wings with jet turbines to a multitude of spindly limbs, once again sending Davilo to voicemail. Cameras took in the environment and projectors imposed that image on my armor and on the extra limbs. They reached out and dug into the metal, helping me half-climb, half-controlled fall into the darkness below. 50 ft. down, the secret base expanded out into a cavernous room, and the fall was less controlled. Had less distance to cover, though.
It was one giant room I landed in. On one side of me were various lit tubes of goo, some with bodies in them. Elsewhere was an assembly line. In another section looked to be a giant monitor and computer system. There were two things near where I was landing. The first was a massive statue or monument that was three rectangular pillars that twisted and began to intertwine like a triple helix. And right near where I landed stood the Cold Miser on guard with his cold gun, water all over the place. I’d have given away my location with a huge splash, but I landed with eight smaller ones and Cold Miser didn’t pick them out among the water streaming down. I made sure my extra legs landed me behind him, then they stabbed backward through his body and spread him apart. He landed in quivering chunks while the nanotech addition to my armor grabbed his cold gun and reformed around it. More lovely technology to study and steal.
A voice out of nowhere spoke up. “Who are you? I expected a visit from Jolly Saint Nick.”
“No saints here,” I said, looking around and checking my 360 display. “And not that jolly right now.”
“I can feel it,” the voice said again. A bit of movement near the monument drew my attention. I didn’t see anything until the voice started again and I noticed a faint glow work its way up the lines of the monument. “Your misery and self-loathing. You are a fine entree.”
“Really gross, Westmoreland. That’s who you are, right? They shoved your wrinkly old ass in a tube somewhere with nutrient goo?” I asked, checking the monument for more to it.
Where the glow was light before, they lit up noticeably when the voice laughed. The lights of the monument concentrated near the base, then drifted upward to the tips high above. I checked the bodies in the grow tubes, too. I figured the guy would want to keep me talking while he spawned a small clown army to throw against me in a last-ditch attempt to take me out or fend me off while he escapes.
“You have no conception of what I am now. How little you matter to me. I have escaped the reach of death.”
I decided to test something. I wrapped a nanite tendril around all three and let them eat through the material. I’d say an eight on the Mohs scale, maybe. Not concrete, but not the toughest thing for those little machines to tear apart bit by bit and send toppling to the cavern floor. When the voice next spoke, the lights only went so far as the stumps. “That was immature and pointless. I have built dozens of these avatars. So long as they exist, so long misery persists in the world, I will never die. Never!”
I tried drilling down. “I am surprised you’re not spawning your clones,” I commented.
“They are no match for you, but no concern. You can’t kill me. You can only momentarily annoy me, Santa pretender. Yes, you have the same taste, masking it with anger now instead of false happiness.”
There was nothing below, no wires or other connections. I already knew there were no wireless connections down here. Either the old man was somehow inhabiting a bunch of pillars too small for anyone to exist inside in one piece, or he figured out a way to trick me on this one. “You know, this is a neat trick. Mind if I ask more about it?”
I took the risk of decloaking, exposing myself in case an attempt on me led to Westmoreland. Nothing really was activating. I pulled out some explosive charges I brought to bring the house down. I packed a bit too much for the size of the cavern.
And Westmoreland was good enough to indulge me. “You’ve guessed my identity. I was born Geoffrey Westmoreland. I lost my family young and promised myself I would fight death at every turn. It would take me kicking and screaming. I would find a way to live forever. I failed so many times: cryogenics, hyperbarics, zombification, reanimation, and cloning. Nothing worked to my satisfaction until I discovered an text, written in the 70s by a mad programmer and architect. He theorized ways to attune to human emotion with structures and materials and harness the energies, ways to separate the mind from its requisite structure in the brain. What he began, I perfected. I discovered that the strongest of the emotions was that of misery. And misery, in 2020, is available in abundance. I transferred my consciousness earlier this year. My death was declared, but my undying life began. You weakened me, but even you can’t kill me.”
“Question,” I said, finishing setting the last charge. To y’all, it’s just one paragraph. To me, it was a whole speech. He even piped in music. Eleanor Rigby, I believe. “You said zombification AND reanimation. Can you clarify the distinction?”
“Astute. Zombification leaves the body dead, but mobile. Unfortunately, maintaining the same mobility level requires special preparation for the body and regular maintenance. Reanimation is restoring the body to actual life, but the procedure often goes wrong. Getting the proportion of the reagent wrong causes insanity or even bodily mutation. It was too risky.”
“And then with cloning, you have the telomere issue.” Telomeres are these parts of chromosomes that shorten a little each time they replicate, eventually leading to most of the effects of aging in humans. It leads to premature aging in clones, but not in the way where you pump out a full-grown clone in minutes. That sort of rapid-aging is the other big issue with practical cloning. Most people don’t want to wait 15 or 16 years for their clone army to develop.
“Exactly! Yes, you get it. The market on most of these methods fell out when that insipid Psycho Gecko brought his nanomachines. Now, everyone wants to use them as a panacea instead of focusing on the possibilities of the flesh. But I have surpassed flesh, and now-”
I jumped into the air, forming wings to lift myself far enough up to reach the tunnel out. I got out of there, well away from his voice, and detonated the charges. Behind me, I saw a plume of flame shoot up from the hole my missile had created earlier. Then the island fully collapsed in on itself and the sea began to fill in Miser’s secret lair.
Maybe he was bluffing about not being stopped that way. Maybe he wasn’t. I guess I can’t know that at the moment. Maybe this is some sort of metaphor for the never-ending struggle I create by refusing to confront my problems and seeking out violent distractions.
At least, that kind of thinking was heavy in my mind when Qiang and I skipped the theatrics that night. I laid my head down to sleep, then was immediately annoyed by lights coming on. I opened my eyes to find myself laying on a small, comfortable bed in a resort area. I saw some of those Luau-style tiki masks, but then I saw that was a person with streaked, brown skin wearing a mask. My view of him and my explanation of what was going on happened when Santa Claus laid down on another table on that side, clad only in a towel.
“You’ve been through the wringer. Still feel like taking my place?” Santa asked.
I started to get up, but slender hands pushed me back down. And I realized I was also only wearing a towel. I looked back behind me and saw blue-skinned alien woman with black hair. Like the tiki guy, she was getting the oil ready. I shrugged and stayed laying down, then addressed Santa. “It wasn’t about taking your place. It was about… I don’t know… the holidays mean so much to me. Even though I only really know that one made up by Coca-Cola. I hear there’s a pretty nifty Universalist variation on it that seems to have its heart in the right place.”
I thought he had an extreme reaction, but Santa was groaning from the beginnings of a massage. I did the same when the woman behind me dug her hands into my back and went to town on my muscles. We laid like that, groans of pleasure interspersed with the noise of a babbling brook playing too clearly to be real.
After a few minutes of this, Santa spoke again. “Where’s Dropo with my drink? I swear, he’s the laziest man on Mars.”
“Is there like a password to get in here, or some kind of teleporter?” I asked.
Santa ignored the question. “You learned a little something about yourself, didn’t you?”
“Maybe,” I said, thinking of my own feelings and problems hidden by throwing myself into a situation that I always claim to hate. And making a weird connection in my mind to this other being who fed off sadness and depression to become something more than human.
“I know how I came across earlier, but I’d like to show my thanks for maintaining my position for me. I want to offer you a chance to stay with me.”
“Uh, what?” I asked. I mean, maybe if he meant underneath this hotty alien with the body, but living in a frozen wasteland with no one but an old couple and a bunch of pent-up reindeer for company doesn’t exactly appeal to me. Ew, I wonder if he means to use my wereform as a breeder.
“You’ve seen many others who reside in Winter. They live forever. I offer you freedom from mundane problems, and an opportunity to live forever. I could use another companion who shows your level of devotion. You wouldn’t have to put up with annoying faily.” I’m reminded of how sinister Santa can be. It’s like he read my mind and was trying to make a point. An emotional vampire, taking advantage of others’ emotions to live forever.
“You’re getting’ creepy, oldtimer. Damn, where is that asshole with the drinks, I could use one now, with you laying on all the implied lessons. No distracting myself from my problems, no running away from them, that sort of thing?” I waited for his answer, reveling in the fingers working their way into my shoulders.
His laugh was full of mirth. “You got it. Do you know why you don’t like heroes?”
“They’re humorless assholes who are often as bad as anyone they fight but have better PR because they serve the same system that murders Black people with impunity,” I answered.
“Yes… in the old stories, many heroes have flaws. Guan Yu his temper, Achilles his pride, Beowulf his desire to be a hero and have sex with a gold-clad Angelina Jolie.”
“That bad CGI movie hardly counts as an old story, but I don’t think wanting to fuck Angelina Jolie counts as a flaw.”
“It does if you say it near Mrs. Claus. These stories were often a way to teach lessons to people, and one lesson was that heroes can be great men and women and still have flaws that will destroy them. A person should not be one of those heroes. They should be better. They should even be forgiven for those they failed to save.”
I barely let him finish that bit before snapping. “You got a point here?”
“I’m sorry for upsetting you. I didn’t mean it. I was leading in to the idea of removing your were. I can remove that problem for you. It’s really the least I could do,” he offered.
And I nearly fell for it. This guy literally was just talking about not taking an easy way out of dealing with my problems, then offers an easy way out of a problem of mine. Or maybe not a problem. Just… something I have to deal with. A part of me, apparently. “No.”
He didn’t audibly laugh this time, but I saw him smile, so I followed it up with. “If she’s up for it, I might take a happy ending from this masseuse.”
“Just so you know, she’s actually a parasitic intelligent worm that infests and controls the bodies of non-sapient bipeds on her home planet.”
I looked up for confirmation and the mouth of my masseuse had split open to reveal the thin and segmented form of a creature that looked like a small snake with a head made up of wriggling tentacles. “No,” I said. “Wait, do you do butt stuff? No, nevermind, no. That’s too much of a stretch for me.”
I turned stared down through the hole in the table. A tiny voice close to my ear said, “That is the appeal of butt stuff, no?”
“Keep it classy until midnight,” Santa said. “Then, we do shots of Irish whisky, American whiskey, and Canadian rye whiskey.”
Well, no butt stuff happened. I didn’t become another member of Santa’s menagerie and end up some trapped, immortal thing. Neither did I let him enslave some part of myself I’m admittedly at a loss to deal with. Passed two tests there, I suppose. Can’t help but wonder how much of this whole thing was a test. Got a fruity drink served in a cup made out of the shell of an alien insectoid and a massage that was very nearly sex on its own. Woke up sore the next morning, on account of how rough the massage got, and remembered I’d made it to Christmas.
And my brother and his girlfriend, my former ward Leah, had arrived at some point and were sleeping on the couch. Santa was serious about not running.
Davilo and Leah looked up at me with a smile, even as they and Qiang watched unusual news reports about a conventional-looking Santa flying around in the Impala I’d been using as a sleigh.
Crap. Santa jacked my ride.
I practiced Santa’s powers of stealth. The Jolly Old Elf is known for being able to land a sleigh on a house without causing much of a clatter, squeezing down a chimney, and dropping off a bunch of presents with no one home being the wiser. My methods differ a bit, relying more on illusion and deception, but allowances have to be made for the fact I’m not a personification of the collective unconscious ideas and beliefs around a season.
The Eidolon office was in Connecticut, which is a bit odd with so many people preferring flyover country or California’s Silicon Valley. Then again, the whole thing seemed to be an odd duck. The files I have on their past work had lots of expunged stuff. The people who made Agent Orange didn’t even want any files leftover of their involvement with these guys.
“Hi, Camilla Saturnium of Maximum News. Max News, the most truth, 24/7,” I introduced myself, doing my best to maintain a bit of crazy eyes. I’d gone blonde, blue-eyed, and mildly off-kilter in appearance. My cover was simple, reporter for a xenophobic, jingoistic news organization with no regards for the facts so long as the protection of white Americans was involved.
An older fellow with a poofy head of hair in a white button down and brown trousers, greeted me and accepted my offered handshake. “Ted Zackinski,” he introduced himself as. “VP in charge of communications.” I caught the legerdemain of him sneaking some hand sanitizer afterward, but I think I had him disarmed. Disarmed as far as my ability to think and understand, at least. In laughing off the plague, I showed him that I was the sort of person who will let people I’m happy with tell me anything I want.
“We wanted to highlight the tireless efforts of American corporations to keep us safe from the chi coms and other forces who would strike down our proud country,” I said, restraining myself from putting my hand over my heart. There’s convincing, and then there’s parody. One of the dangers of this cover is not being sure where the line is. And one of the reasons I maintain homicidal impulses is that I never end up going far enough. I decided to throw a little more in. I shook my head and gestured to the air. “So proud. One nation under God, amen.”
“I would be happy to tell you about our history as a company. Is there anything you wanted to focus on?” he asked.
“I wanted to know more about the great men behind it and the things they set out to do,” I said. “A source of mine said we’d be delighted to hear about the work of a Geoffrey Westmoreland.”
The man smiled. “You have good sources. Mr. Westmoreland was the founder of Eidolon Solutions.” He moved aside to show me a photo on the wall. Looked nothing like the faceless clone. This guy had eyes, a mouth, a nose, even a full head of hair into old age. “He created this company to build a legacy. Legacy is our watchword here, and even now the company remains his legacy even as he has passed on.”
“Passed on?” I asked. See, this is why I let on I was the sort of person to believe lies about the pandemic.
“Oh yes, Mr. Westmoreland was visionary, but he died earlier this year. He lived a long life, longer than most thanks to our research here, but it was his time,” he turned to glance at the portrait of the old man. “In some ways, it feels like he’s still watching over us.”
Ok, I know what kind of world I live in. I even checked for hidden eyes in that painting, or maybe the picture moving and stalking me across multiple room. Nothing yet. Yet.
Unfortunately, things were pretty vague after that. They didn’t go into more detail about what, if anything, these guys had to do, just that it had to do with biological research to keep soldiers alive in hostile situations. So I think this had something to do with super soldier research, and I guess that could have something to do with clones. But most of what I was doing here was trying to hunt down the guy whose DNA was used for the Miser’s flamethrower-wielding minion.
I even pursued the possibility of disgruntled employees near the end, as the neverending cavalcade of vagueness concluded. “So, I bet a company like yours has the occasional employee who tries to take you down.”
“This is an odd line of questioning,” the man said, adjusting his shirt cuffs.
I put on a show of looking around, then leaned in and whispered, “Just between you and me, our source in the Forestry Service said that something strange was found in the recent fires. This body without a face. They found an Eidolon logo. I’m here to get ahead of the story and help you. If you can help me find who might have made this faceless thing or leaked the info, I can help.”
While I revealed all this, I watched the man’s expression. His eyes glazed over lightly as he went elsewhere mentally, making connections. He got… twitchy. His movements gained a frantic edge to them. You know, it’s the little things that can clue you in to drug abuse. “I’m sorry. Thank you for bringing to this our attention. Can I have your card for later?”
I had some fake business cards thrown together because I go the extra mile. That’s what separates me from the amateur villains. Y’all think it’s easy to be a master criminal? The research alone… I’ve seen shit that would melt some faces. That’s one of my favorite things about chemistry, actually.
Ted, the guy who I’d been talking to, had me seen out by an associate with a bit more muscle on him. I got the feeling he was secret security in case I tried to show investigative instincts. I let them lead me out, made a show of leaving, and flew in a camouflage camera drone to keep an eye on the place. I’d have infiltrated the place, but I settled on a camera footage and wiretaps while I saw to my Santa-ly duties.
Miser’s important to deal with, but more than that, I have to keep up the masquerade. No one must ever realize Santa is on vacation with Martians.
And that’s why I stopped over in some other parts of the world, including handing out some presents in Norway. Usually, there’s Norway you’d get me that far away from a surveillance target, but I had some very special presents for them over there. I flew over the country, did my usual “ho ho ho”ing, and stopped off in Trondheim. A crowd of Norwegians soon appeared, and I started giving out gifts, starting with the batons.
“What is this?” asked one man after I handed him a baton.
“Baseball bats. Very special baseball bats,” I answered, before handing over some more, uh, sporting equipment. Sporting equipment borrowed from the L.A.P.D. They have more weapons and ammo than they know what to do with, so I figured I’d dispose of some of it and give people presents in one jolly occasion.
Even if that led to another Norwegian stopping and sniffing as he received his box of ammo, then asking with a smile, “What is in your pipe, Santa?” I brought one along to help sell the illusion, but I didn’t have anything in there. It might have been some odd Norwegian attempt at humor, or he could smell some of the other presents I brought. Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg have been good this year.
They got more agreeable when I started passing out candy and cookies. Lots of edibles in the L.A.P.D. Evidence lock-up, and the Norwegians were hungry. They were having a good time that night. My night took a turn when I got an alert from the camera drone. The Eidolon building was under attack.
I glanced out through the cameras of the drone. It was after dark, and a bunch of the staff were leaving. A blue light struck, fast as lightning, and someone fell over, their body flash-freezing, skin breaking in places, before falling over and shattering. Much of the staff reacted with panic, scrambling for their lives. The blue flash struck again and again. I adjusted the camera angle to watch an armored humanoid in a jetpack hovering over the scene, using a handheld weapon that flashed blue to cause the freezing effect. Every time it did, it left a swirl of frost in the air near the icy assailant.
This Cold Miser landed, smashing down through the remains of one of the employees with heavy duty metal boots. Ted, my guide from earlier, approached, waving his hands. “This is unnecessary! We haven’t said a thing. I can personally vouch for the loyalty of every one of these men. Do you know how hard this is going to be to cover up? You even killed Rachel from HR. That means I have to interview replacements myself.”
Cold Miser didn’t say anything to him in response. Flash! Ted fell over, the arms frozen in mid-gesticulation cracking off when he hit the ground. Then Ice Miser aimed his freezing gadget at the building itself. It took 15 minutes of continuous freezing to turn the building into a crumpling icy mess.
I was too far away in Norway to have stopped it. I could have activated a spare body back at home, but I doubt I’d have reached Eidolon Solutions in time to even stop the building from being destroyed. But that misses an important part of the equation… I don’t give a damn what happens to Eidolon Solutions. Defense contractors are a dime a dozen, and this proved that Ted, who maybe was a bit more important than his VP title had implied, had something to do with the guy I was in this to stop. But stopping the Ice Miser wouldn’t stop Miser himself. Or themselves. I don’t entirely know what I’m dealing with, even now.
So I set that drone to “tailing” mode and arranged a high-atmosphere surveillance drone flight to keep a better eye on the Cold Miser. Once he finished freezing the building, he flew off. My electric eyes followed him to the coast of New Hampshire. It looked like a remote and rocky little island, but the top opened up and the Cold Miser descended under it.
While I oversaw a bunch of Norwegians pigging out on pot fruitcake, a quick check of the old files I have on Eidolon made mention of cryogenic fast-freezing research by them while attached to NASA. Freeze some astronauts, send them on a journey that takes a few hundred years, and thaw them out when they reach the destination. The freezing part worked very well. Not very safely, as the Eidolon staff found out, but efficiently. That would have been from just before Eidolon worked with the Coast Guard on a project whose name alone survived: Ward. Maybe I’ll learn more about it when my infiltrator robot crabs finish going over the wreckage of their building and plugging into any surviving computer systems.
Ted was a helpful guide after all.
And that’s probably where this would end, except Qiang snuggled up to me on the flight back. “Why are you doing this, mama?”
“The Santa stuff?” I asked. She nodded, so I responded, “Guess it needs to be done, to make sure Christmas and all these holiday things survive.”
“I like Christmas, too. You think it’ll go away if we don’t do this?” she sounded worried there.
“It’s ok if you don’t want to do it. It’s just nice, you know. Some people are jerks about it, but it seems like it’s one of the few times of year people mostly try to be good. Some people can really use that this time of year, too,” I mused to her.
“Yeah, like how you get before you go away and do stuff,” she said. “I liked my uncle, but then you said you had to do all this and he should stay away.”
“He may not agree with everything we’re up to,” I said. They’re a complication, and I’m busy.
There’s a line of thinking in Superhero Studies that every hero will create his own nemesis. They’ll fail to save a certain person or capture someone important to another. Maybe their powers trigger someone else gaining superpowers who takes a darker path. It’s not all that solid. For one thing, the only reason I chose Venus as my nemesis was because she could hold her own against me in a fight and probably some harmful psychological baggage.
Another big hole in the theory is that I’m not a superhero, but this Miser person is going out of his way to try and counter my holiday cheerfest. This year’s been so absolutely fucked, even the personification of joy in the middle of the cold and darkness doesn’t want to do his job. That’s where I come in: too stupid to know better, too stubborn to give up. And this time, I’m using my powers for goodness sake.
It started with Miser stealing the first shipment of vaccines for the pandemic. Then, someone started poisoning soup kitchens, and the Miser took public credit. I think that one didn’t work quite like he meant it to. So many people are in bad circumstances this year, there’s no getting rid of the demand for food. Between the need to replace soup kitchen food, pandemic shortages, and survivalist stockpiling, we were seeing an unbelievable soup shortage. I decided to do my part.
I caught an incoming soup flight. They were moving it by cargo plane, under guard. Never know when the survivalists would go for it, especially with how few of them know you can boil some neckbones for broth. I snuck up on the cargo plane, lights off. I waited until I got close to show off the improvements made to the sleigh. The deer now pretended to run through the sky, but it was the device at the head of them that I was most proud of. That deer had a skull-sized orb for a nose that housed a heat ray. Not a laser, nor an x-ray, but a heat ray. The difference is that the red-glowing nose didn’t cause as much of a lightshow when it superheated the metal of the mechanism at the base of the door. With a snap, the cargo door fell open, throwing someone out into the cold night sky.
There were a few armed guards standing around pallets of plastic-wrapped soup cans. Battle helmets, body armor, and repeating plasma rifles. Somebody paid a premium for protection. I hit the lights on the sleigh. The red, green, white, and blue bright lights were enough to throw off their night vision for the moment. I used the opening to drop the windshield long enough to jump up and run along the hood and deer. I jumped into the open door, hitting the remote to seal up the sleigh with my daughter inside. She can pout all she wants, but plasma rifles aren’t children’s toys. More reason these clowns shouldn’t have them.
I rushed up to one of the guards and grabbed his rifle, directing it upward. He fired hot plasma into the top of the fuselage while I swept the leg. Then, with the other foot, I swept the crotch. He slid a few feet but his gun stayed with me. I threw it at another guard, catching him in the face with the receiver. He aimed high while I slid low, headbutting his crotch and jingling his bells. I jumped to my feet, lifting that guy over head and throwing him overhead onto his back. The last guy caught me in the side, giving me the smell of roasted pork inside my armor. I projected holograms of the ghosts of Christmas past, present, future, and that Marley guy. He fired wildly and lost track of me coming at it him from the side and clocking him upside the jaw, putting him down like he was Glass Joe.
With them down, I could better hear the ruckus from forward in the plane. Folks were waking up to something going wrong. At least half the plane was blocked off, probably with more guards ready at a moment’s notice. I’d given them the moment, and they’d noticed. Send in the drones!
The windows of the sleigh opened again. From out of a large red bag in the backseat flew a half-dozen drones, pushing against the wind with the help of rocket thrusters, my daughter racing after all of them. The drones settled on top of the nearest pallets. I began strapping the nearest one to its drone. A curtain moved out of the way up ahead. I set a nutcracker down on one of them. The nutcracker raised its little toy rifle and fired at the nearest movement from that direction, causing the approaching guards to duck for cover briefly. That only held them off for a second before the nutcracker was blasted into flaming bits, but by then, I’d finished that pallet of soup.
I had other tricks up my ample sleeves. I flung a star tree topper off into the plane that caused a lightshow of fireworks inside the thing. That gave me time to secure another couple of pallets and move to help Qiang with the one she was working on. “Get back to the sleigh, dear. It’s almost time to get out of here.”
She nodded and ran back to where the sleigh was pulling up onto the ramp. She took the driver’s seat, of course. I remote-piloted it back out, leaving me with the pallets. “Ok,” I told her over the car radio. “Now hit the song!”
I began pushing some of the pallets, mindful of guards on approach. They’d figured out they had my back and that it was too much of a risk of hitting the soup they were guarding to fire. I sighed, though, when the BTS music hit instead of the song I actually told my daughter to play for this awesome music. That k-pop’s everywhere these days.
I turned and gave the guards a pair of middle fingers before activating the parachutes installed in the drones on the last two pallets. They fell out of the plane and I hopped out after them. My daughter interfered with that, too. Rather than a cool night sky dive, she caught me a few feet below the plane in the backseat of the Impala.
“You’re never getting your license if you keep this up!” I told her. She just giggled. See, this is why the real Santa never adopted an orphan then used superscience to alter her DNA so she was biologically related to him. Among other reasons, I’m sure.
The soup got where it needed to go. Some places had the time, money, and resources to rebuild their soup stocks, and stock stocks, from nothing. The Exemplars are running some soup kitchens and homeless shelters like that. Others needed a little help. We all do, sometimes. And this time, they got special deliveries from Santa Gecko.
But wait, there’s more. The Miser’s not just messing with people’s food. I awoke late one day after a night of flying around being awesome to find out California had another wildfire. At this point, I didn’t think the state had anything left that could catch on fire, but news choppers all spotted the word “Miser” spelled out in flames at the beginning of the mess.
This looked like a job for… Santa Woman.
Now, I didn’t know a whole lot about summoning water and snow from nowhere, but I know a guy who does. The supervillain Ouroboros doesn’t have the most impressive powers, but what he does have is a system that works. He gives his domain stability. Competence is a power all its own. One reason he has it so easy is the presence of weather control buoys he’s commissioned off the Gulf Coast. They’re able to keep hurricanes from wrecking Paradise City with its tourist industry and casinos.
I stole a couple. I was only going to take one, but then I remembered this was California, where “on fire” is part of the usual forecast most of the year. Hefted one up into the backseat of the sleigh and carried the other below, then set about reprogramming them on the way over to Cali.
I think news reporters were just fucking breaking down at this point. Militia shooters, murderous cops, pandemic, wildfires… and even more. Hell, an ICE agent interrupted the broadcast to ask her for her papers. I think it was just enough for her. She hit that wall where she couldn’t handle it emotionally.
“The dream’s over, Hernandez,” the ICE agent said. And then a pile of snow fell on top of the ICE agent and turned him into a snowman. She looked up to see my Chevy Impala lowrider sleigh zipping through the sky accompanied by the jingling of bells and the song “Feliz Navidad.”
Then she and her cameraman started running to escape the Icer.
I pulled up to better control the weather. These buoys worked better the closer to the epicenter of the weather they were meant to affect. That works perfectly fine in the waters of the Gulf, stopping hurricanes. Here, that meant pulling up way into the sky and watching as air cooled into hail and snowflakes. I swept in, bringing the cold with me. Which was plenty bad in its own way for California, but not as bad as yet another fucking wildfire. Most wildlife had already fled the fire, so they didn’t have to worry about getting caught in the snow that drifted down and buried the flames. I ended up creating a fog of sorts from where the cold precipitation hit the burnt-over ground and raging fires.
But, slowly and surely, the fires that were started so out of control were halted, until the only place left was a section of the woods in Northern California where a man roamed with a flamethrower, randomly setting things alight. I brought the sleigh down low and hopped out, my armor turning me invisible. He looked up at the sleigh and tried in vain to catch it with a gout of flame. The flame died when I snuck up behind him and pulled the gas lines out.
“That was easy. Time to catch some holiday spirit, Miser. Right upside your head.” I pulled the man’s helmet off and saw a faceless, pulsing, humanoid… thing. I bopped it over the head with the helmet just to be sure and knock it the fuck out. Thing was a little gross. A quick check with the medical nanites showed it was human… some half-formed clone with fucked-up telomeres that wouldn’t survive long anyway. This Heat Miser was just a minion that the real Miser didn’t care if it took the fall.
But it still gave me a clue. Not a lot of places in on this world can pull something like this off, and I got a match on the DNA. I still have plenty of outdated government files, like ones for contractor security clearance. These belonged to a fellow named Geoffrey Westmoreland, head of a little-known corporate subsidiary called Eidolon Solutions that gets passed around all the time. Some esoteric thing where people try to kill goats by staring at them and use sound to unlock wormholes. No wonder everyone regrets their investment and sells it.
Looks like they’re going on my naughty list, and its time to give them a lump.
As good as it was to be the Santa in the news inspiring some holiday spirit, I needed to do more than fly around fighting pirates. There were other aspects of the season. The one I most liked was visiting punishment on those deserving of it. I get the feeling the Spirit of the Season might feel the same way, seeing as he ends up with so many different helpers who do the same thing. I’ve fought a few, and there’s even a giant Yule Cat that hunts down people who don’t get new Christmas clothes. Last time I pinged the whereabouts of that one was some weird campground that the satellites didn’t want to look at for very long, though.
I think another reason Santa has so many helpers is so they can do the stuff that seems wicked while he comes out looking great. I’m juggling all this myself, so I figured I’d get a little bit more established before I jump into that bit.
That’s why… dammit… I kidnapped a Santa Claus, threw him in a bag. It was just one of the store Santas, though. He was taking a break, sneezing, so I thought no one would mind if I tied him up and took over for a bit. Even gave him a nanite injection to fight off what ails him in case he was spreading the plague. The kids and parents alike were a bit surprised to see a power-armor Santa, but my daughter’s presence reassured a lot of people. Some might have even figured out it was the same Chevy-driving Santa who fought the sky pirates. Either way, the store’s elves didn’t want to resist when I told the nearest one to bring me the children. She just plastered on a smile and ushered some up for me.
“Ho, ho, ho, what do you want, little person?” I asked.
It was a pretty mundane list and I didn’t take special note of it once I checked out his mother’s financials. But there were a few I took note of. One was a little boy who whispered that he wanted to be warm this Christmas so his mom wouldn’t cry.
So we’re going to skip forward a tiny bit here while I describe how I made this one happen. See, once I found out who this family was, it was pretty simple to figure out who handles the utilities to their place. Near as I can tell, they’re in a bit of a hardship and sometimes it comes down to food or electricity. So I checked around for the guy who reads the meters there. He was out in the neighborhood, making it real easy on me.
One moment, he’s walking along, chewing on a sandwich. The next, he hears the jingling of bells and looks up. We roped him with a string of garland, then I handed him over to Qiang. “Hold tight, otherwise this is going to be messy,” I told her. That might sound mean, but her armor could easily handle it. With him dangling and letting loose a small stream of yellow rain, I took us up, up, up. “Hey there, fella… we want to have a talk about shutting off people’s power.”
“Ah! Ah! Ah!”
It was a bit of a one-sided conversation like that until he calmed down enough to say, “Whatever you want, please let me go!”
I leaned over the side, causing him to panic a bit more when the car shifted. “Calm down, easy now, you’ll give yourself a heart attack. It’s dangerous to put that much stress on your body. Now, are you sure everyone on your route’s going to have power? I’d hate to let you go and turn out it slipped your mind.”
“I’ll do it, until it gets me fired. M-m-my boss could notice at any time and override me!” Tsk, tsk. The dangers of working within the system. I went ahead and lowered us back to the ground, where the man hugged himself and almost kissed the street before remembering it’s a public street.
“I’ll pay that boss of yours a visit then,” I told him, hopping out of the sleigh and walking over to untie the garland. “Got a card?”
With shaking hands, the man took out his wallet. I, in the spirit of joy and merriment, didn’t take it. Just the card. No one said being Santa was easy.
I looked up this manager listed on the card to see what I could see. I didn’t want to just dangle everyone. It doesn’t have as personal of a touch. Like the manager. His Facebook profile had so many mountain-climbing photos. See, it wouldn’t be as effective to dangle him from up high. It’ll get what I want, but there’s a better way to deal with it. Like that sweet car of his. I caught him as he was leaving the house. He stopped upon seeing me there, Power Armor Santa blocking his driveway.
“Who are you supposed to be?” he asked
“The weather outside is frightful!” I called out to him. “But the fire is so delightful.”
“What fire? What’s wrong with you?” he asked, then held up his laptop case when he saw me pull out a Molotov cocktail with the rag on top lit. I tossed it right onto his shiny car, lighting it aflame.
“That’s my car you fucking nutbag!” the guy yelled. He turned and pulled his door open to run inside, but ran into Qiang holding a length of garland. She tackled him and began tying him up. I had to remind her about the pole.
“Pole?” the manager asked with a shaky voice.
“Relax, it’s not what you’re thinking,” I told him. Instead, I lifted him up on the end of a pole and dangled him over the burning car. “Nice and toasty?”
“Why are you doing this?!” he cried.
“As warm as you feel right now, there are a lot of folks who don’t get to feel that way. I want you to stop turning off the power for non-payment and restore power to anyone else you’ve turned it off for.”
“How do your chestnuts feel? They roasting alright?” I laughed at his brief show of defiance. “You’ve done your squirming and posturing.” I dipped him lower, giving him more of a blast of heat.
“Fine, fine! But my boss is going to wonder what’s going on. He can fire me at any time!” I rolled my eyes under the helmet. “Yeah, and what’s his name?”
See, this is the problem with systemic problems, you have to shakedown so many people. That, and the rules being so harsh gives the people enforcing them some sly discretion to do a favor for those they like and enforce the rules as harshly as possible to those they don’t. So I tossed that pole aside and headed out into the rural areas. I know, seems like a weird place if you’ve got money. Well, the next boss up had this ranch out there where he paid people to raise horses for him. I decided to go old school on this one and make him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
That morning, the boss woke up to find a horse’s head in his bed and my voice going, “Morning, sweetheart.”
The boss awoke and tried to sit up, staring with bulging eyes at the horse’s head. Attached was a perturbed horse that didn’t like being held down under the sheets, and me. “Careful, don’t want to startle it. It could break free of the sheets.” The horse snorted.
The man tried to slide free of the sheets but found they were stapled down all the way around him. I slid up close to his side of the bed and pushed him back down. “No, don’t go just yet. Not before we’ve had our negotiations.”
“Negotiations? Let me go. Help!”
“I’m Santa this year, and I’m here to find out if you’re naughty or nice. Naughty means I let the horse up and you get to deal with that unbroken thing prancing about while you’re down there. You know, that sounds kinda dangerous. Huh. Anyway, I’m here to talk to you about electricity. I want it, you got it.”
“This is about a late bill?!” the man asked, getting unsightly spittle on his sheets.
I shook my head. “No, no, no, I’m here for other people. Every single person who relies on your company for power, in fact. It’s a cold winter. Turn on the power for everyone and keep it on.”
“Fuck you!” the man yelled. I reached over and tore a staple up to give the horse a bit more room to pull away. It wouldn’t take many for the beast to get loose.
“I can just as easily negotiate with your successor. They should be happy to work with me after I got them the pay raise bumping you off.”
“You’re going to break in here, threaten me, and just take me at my word I’d do what you say?” the man asked, edging his chin away from the horse as if that mattered.
I shrugged. “Santa, remember? I see you when you’re sleeping, I know when you’re awake. I know if you’ve been bad or good, so be good, for goodness sake. The police can’t stop me. A chimney can’t stop me. The fuckin’ Burgermeister can’t stop me, pal. You back out of this, you’ll get a load of coal shoved down your throat and lit on fire.”
“Fine… you win,” the man said. I pulled out a reinforced candy cane and used it to tug some of the staples out around his shoulders, just enough for him to wiggle free up top. I waved bye to him as he ran to the door, unlocked it, and ran for his life.
I kept an eye on him though. I don’t take this stuff on trust alone, so he saved his life when his company announced a region-wide freeze on freezing people, and would restore power to everyone they cover who had lapsed.
It was announced as an act of holiday goodwill. That boss got chewed out a bit, but he held onto his job. Sold off his horse ranch, though. Naturally, I did a flyover when the news reported on it, playing that one song about the fire being so delightful.
And then someone hijacked the first U.S. shipment of the vaccine for the plague. The trucks pulled up to the warehouses to grab the batches, the doors opened, and there was nothing there but a bunch of tied up guards. That, and a brown card, partially blackened from fire, that said, “Happy nothing from Miser.”